Tales From The Pantry: A Butler's Diary

From the pantry of an historic country house comes the ongoing diary of its butler, Mr Dean Fielding. I shall be giving you a glimpse of the family I serve and of the lives both 'Below Stairs' and 'Above'. I hope you follow my jottings daily.

My Photo
Location: United Kingdom

Have been butler here for over 15 years. Having previously, and unusually for these days, worked my way up from footman to under-butler to my current post. You can now follow me on Twitter via: http://www.twitter.com/butlerfielding

Thursday, September 28, 2006

No Ring For Wendy

Those who believed that I had been exterminated by an irate young farm hand with a pitchfork can rest easy (or can put the champagne away for another day, depending on your opinion of me); I am safe, well, and my body contains no puncture marks. I returned unharmed from Home Farm. A dog did not attack me. I didn't even receive a nasty look from a chicken. My life was not in danger. In short, I am in the pink.

I do confess, however, that fears of impending doom did enter my mind the evening before I was due to stride manfully to Home Farm to have a talk with the breaker of House Maid's hearts.

Fortunately I found a very shamefaced young man full of apology. He invited me into the kitchen, offered me a cup of tea, and we sat at the kitchen table and talked for about an hour. I explained the situation and the drastic measures Wendy was considering taking. He seemed quite alarmed at this. He explained that the relationship was just getting far too 'intense' for him. He did not quite claim that Wendy was picking out curtains for their marital abode, but she did seem to be taking an inordinate amount of interest in jeweller's shop windows. Knowing that Wendy had no thieving tendencies and did not carry a brick around with her in her handbag, he put two and two together and panicked. He promised he would not pester her in any way, but that it was probably better that they remained apart. That seemed fair enough, but I left feeling very sorry for Wendy.

Over a week has now passed and life seems to be returning to normal here at Carstone. Wendy has started to look a little more cheerful and all thoughts of leaving have been banished from her mind, it would seem. Relief is the prevailing feeling in the Servant's Hall.

Friday, September 15, 2006

A Butler Intervenes

Wendy has agreed to stay at Carstone after a last minute change of heart. It was obvious that she did not wish to go. The situation continued to deteriorate in the days after the Servant's Ball. Her spirits remained low (dancing with me will do that to you) and she made plans to return home to her family (near Norwich, I believe), and plot her next career move from there. One evening last week (Wednesday I think) I was enjoying a cup of tea with Mrs Berry in the Housekeeper's Room, and the topic was touched upon. It was decided, I am not sure exactly how, that I would intervene. I can't remember agreeing to do it, but Mrs Berry assured me that I had. I cannot help thinking that Mrs Berry is a fully trained hypnotist. Her powers are a wonder to behold. In any case, I am to head off to Home Farm tomorrow to have a chat with the young man who has broken Wendy's heart.

In the past the young male workers on Home Farm were always looked at with suspicion. I am not sure exactly why farm hands were seen as a continuous threat to the honour and decency of any passing woman. Perhaps it had something to do with haystacks. The Laundry Maids, in particular, were seen to be at risk. The Laundry building was (in fact, still is, but is no longer used for its original purpose) situated close to the farm boundaries, but cunningly it faced away from the farm, and was walled in. The Laundry Maids, it was thus assumed, were safe in their fortress, and could not be gazed at by any old hobbledehoy that tended the fields. The farm hands were thwarted. Innocence and decency reigned supreme. The Housekeeper could rest easy at night.

Housekeepers have always had a keen interest (some say obsession) with separating the Male and Female servants. In the attics of Carstone, through the Green Baize Door, are the servant's bedrooms. The male servants sleep in the one wing, the female in another; in the middle is a huge, leather bound door, which the Housekeeper would lock at night with a most imposing key. It is no longer locked at night. We tend to trust people a little more these days. We are here to work, and I frown at anything that disrupts the smooth running of Carstone House. The personal and professional should be kept in separate and secure boxes. Nevertheless, love does not obey rules set down by butlers or housekeepers. I have even heard it rebel against the wishes of a House Steward.

Attempting to sort out the love affairs of House Maids was certainly not in my original job description. I only hope the Farm Hand doesn't set the dogs loose on me.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Servant's Ball (Summer edition!)

The Servant's Ball was a wonderful event. It always seems to run smoothly. Mrs Berry took it upon herself to organise most of it this time around. I could, in the main, just enjoy the results. There was a very good turn out, which was only to be expected. All house and gardening staff attended, as did the craftsmen, and estate workers. Tradesmen from the local village were also invited, and a few tenant farmers popped in.

A mountainous buffet was set up in the Great Kitchen by Mrs Styles. Just before it all began, I strolled into the said Kitchen to inspect the wonderful array of food provided. Mrs Styles was putting the finishing touches to a dish of something while talking to a man (who I later found out to be a tenant farmer) I did not recognise, who must have arrived early. A small, slightly wizened man, he was bent over, examining a plate of lobster most intently, as if, at any moment, he expected it to leap off the Kitchen Table, and make a dash for the lake. He greeted me with a grunt but seemed satisfied with Mrs Styles' work.

"Wonderful spread." he proclaimed to me, "Probably as good as that lots' upstairs. Except we don't have to stand on ceremony down here! I've no time for all that etiquette nonsense!"

I mumbled something non-commital. I was quite apprehensive about the evening as it was, and did not feel like engaging anybody in a debate about tradition. For all I knew this tenant farmer had bolshevik tendencies and probably had a little picture of Lenin lovingly pinned on the wall of his aga-heated kitchen back in his farmhouse. I had not slept well the night before, (a terrible nightmare involving dancing shoes) and had no stomach for such an argument. I like ceremony. It is an important part of life at Carstone. Perhaps, despite his apparent age, it was his first Servant's Ball, so we have to make allowances for his naivety. Ceremony and etiquette still play a large part in proceedings, thank goodness.

Guests began arriving at 7pm. The Tradesman's Entrance door was kept wide open (Robert, the Hall Boy, welcomed them, and ensured no undesirables or hobbledehoy had slipped through the net) and people filed in at a steady pace. All the House staff, I am proud to say, were impeccably dressed.

The food was wonderful. We all dined heartily. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves - even Wendy at this stage, although, understandably, she was slightly more subdued than she normally is on these occasions. Llywelyn seemed quite drunk by 9pm. Not that an outsider would notice. He never staggers or slurs his words. His face just keeps getting redder and redder and his tales get wilder and wilder. He is very entertaining but never have I seen a man look so flushed. By the end of the night his face resembled Mr Miles' infamous umbrella. I drank very little at this stage of the evening and my conversation could probably be described as dull. I was distracted. I had one important duty to perform before I could fully relax.

At 9.30pm we all congregated in the Servant's Hall. It had been cleared of all furniture and a wooden floor had been placed over the stone to act as a dance floor. A band had set up in one corner. The leader of the band kept checking his watch. He could do nothing until the correct time. Tradition, probably much to the disgust of the tenant farmer, still reigned supreme here. Finally, at the stipulated time, the musicians picked up their instruments and all eyes turned to the staircase at the far end of the Hall. As the band stuck up the first tune of the evening, the Carstone family made their grand entrance: Sir Geoffrey and Lady Carstone, to the strains of 'The Roast Beef of Old England', led their family down the well-trodden staircase into the packed Servant's Hall. They looked a splendid sight. Lady Carstone looked very beautiful, and the light danced off a necklace that I knew to be a very old family heirloom. Mr Copeland once told me that Lady Carstone dislikes that necklace and thinks it far too flashy. She only wears it at certain events, and only then because people would be disappointed if she didn't. Sir Geoffrey, looking for all the world like an amiable King Penguin, spent five minutes beaming at everyone, and then gave a pleasant speech, thanking us all. Mr Thomas and Mr Miles were stood behind their father, looking quite dignified, but a tad too solemn, I thought. Every so often, during his father's speech, Mr Thomas would nod gravely. Mr Miles just looked bored to tears. Miss Gemma looked quite dazzling. Half way through the speech she started giggling about something her mother had whispered to her. Miss Gemma certainly doesn't do solemn. Vivacious, yes. Mischievous, good lord yes. Solemn, no.

It was almost time. I got nervous like I always do. Just how many Servant's Balls must I attend before I cease being nervous at taking the first dance? It is a butler's duty. The Ball needed to be officially opened before the dancing could begin. The first dance is always Sir Geoffrey and Mrs Berry, and myself and Lady Carstone. The music of that familiar old country dance, 'Speed the Plough', that so terrifies me each year, began as I took Lady Carstone by the hand. I always feel that I will step on her foot. I never do, but the fear never goes away. I see it as a great victory if the dance ends without Lady Carstone hopping around the Servant's Hall in agony, while screaming an aristocratic curse on all butlers. I am not the most graceful of dancers. I am always relieved when it is all over.

After the dance I swiftly retired to a corner to partake of a mug of the ancient Carstone ale (another tradition) and left the younger generation to take to the dance floor. The Carstone family stayed for about an hour and then returned from whence they came and left the rest of us to it. Because it was a pleasant evening, the ball spilled out into the gardens, and the whole atmosphere was really rather lovely. Llywelyn was in full flow by midnight. I, however, had heard all his tales many times before, so I left him explaining to Mr Barton, why he thought the Orangery was haunted, as I sought solitude. Barton seemed more anxious that no guests trampled on his flower beds. I settled myself on a bench near the Parterre Garden to simply enjoy the night air alone. It was more nippy than it would have been a few weeks ago, but very peaceful, and the gentle hum of music could still be faintly heard from the House. I was very relaxed, (the terrors of the dance leaving me), and wondering about cabbages and kings when my reverie was disturbed by the sound of my name being called out. Simon sprinted over to me. He asked me if I could follow him back into the Servant's Hall. Mrs Berry wanted a word with me. Thinking something had gone wrong (had the wizened tenant farmer set fire to the place in protest against the ancien regime?) I swiftly followed.

I found Mrs Berry near the fireplace in muted, conspiratorial, discussion with Robert. Huddled around them were several other figures from the household staff. They seemed grave and were plotting something. All that was missing was Guy Fawkes. The night was winding down now but there were still a few couples on the dancefloor. Mrs Berry explained that Wendy had been miserable all evening, and, despite the best efforts of Richard and Simon, the two footmen, Mr Copeland, and most of the Household staff, her gloom remained profound, and she refused all invitations to dance. They were all very worried about her. Wendy was usually the last to leave the dancefloor, but, following Mrs Berry's nod, I could see that the Housekeeper reported accurately; Wendy sat glumly in the corner of the Hall, alone with her thoughts. It all seemed very sad. Quite what I could do about it, however, eluded me. Should I talk to her? No, explained Mrs Berry, I should DANCE with her. I attempted to protest, but Mrs Berry, very firmly told me that although Wendy could easily refuse to dance with anybody else present, she would find it very difficult to reject my invitation, if I proved insistent. She pointed out the respect that the staff had for me. If I spoke, Wendy would listen. I must confess that at this point I felt a rather un-British lump in my throat. Obviously the fumes from the ale were also in the air because my eyes moistened ever so slightly as I looked over at the terribly sad figure of Wendy. She looked as if she hadn't a friend in the world.

With a sigh, I thanked Mrs Berry for her kind words, and left the worried group huddled in their shadowy corner of the Hall. I had one more dance that night.