A New Broom

A period piece about domestic staff at a large mansion

By Hilary Wilmington

The two hazel bushes which grew in a corner of the walled garden on the Ligurin estate had flourished undisturbed for some time now. Too long, according to the head gardener, who grumbled that the nuts they yielded were hardly worth harvesting and they were not being put to that other use they were kept for. Only the other day, one of the kitchen maids had trampled straight across the onion beds on her way to give him a message that more carrots were wanted. When he’d got angry about it, she’d given him a lot of cheek and trampled back the same way. Though he’d complained bitterly, nothing was done about it.

The fact was the housekeeper, who had always been a benign soul, had grown positively lax lately. She was not an old woman but she seemed to be ageing prematurely. It didn’t help that her hearing was failing too. The task of supervising the work of the forty-three indoor female servants in her charge had become too much for her. More and more problems were coming to the attention of Madame Ligurin, who eventually decided the housekeeper should have a dignified semi-retirement as official nanny to the young grandchildren when they visited.

The news came as an unpleasant surprise to the servants, but it was nothing compared to the shock of what came next. Instead of promoting the under-housekeeper, a youngish woman named Magda, to take her place, a progression regarded as being almost a natural right, Madame Ligurin obtained her new housekeeper from a neighbouring estate. This woman, an unsmiling disciplinarian, set about establishing her authority at once. On her very first day she threatened to thrash one of the parlour maids for losing her frilly cap. The poor girl managed to borrow a cap from one of the other parlour maids, who was off duty. On returning to the housekeeper, the girl was told she had taken nearly ten minutes and she could count herself lucky that, just this once, she would be shown leniency. Other girls who had also mislaid their caps, the wearing of which had not been enforced of late, scrabbled frantically around retrieving them from stray corners and stuffed in the back of drawers. That evening, at dinner, Madame Ligurin remarked pointedly how nice it was to be waited on by maids who were properly turned out.

A week or so later there was a much more dramatic occurrence. Magda, deeply resentful at her lack of promotion, had been doing everything she could to make life difficult for her new superior. One day, the housekeeper expressed her dissatisfaction with the polishing of the silverware, a task that she had asked the under-housekeeper to oversee the day before.

“I found smudges on two milk jugs,” the housekeeper said. “I want the whole lot done again.”

“Why should all of it be done again when you have only found two jugs that are not good enough? Or would an explanation be too much to expect?” As soon as she’d said it, Magda wondered whether, with her sarcastic second question, she might have gone too far. When she realised their exchange had been overheard by two maids nearby, she knew that she had.

“We need to continue this conversation elsewhere,” said the housekeeper. “Come with me please.”

Preserving as much dignity as she could, Magda followed the housekeeper past the two maids, through the kitchen, out into the courtyard and round behind the back of the kitchen store. It was secluded enough but not the place Magda herself would have chosen to conduct a private conversation. She was recovering her nerve. She knew she was in the wrong but she was determined not to back down to this woman, who she had quickly grown to hate.

“Is this where I get my explanation?” She asked defiantly.

“Wait here,” the housekeeper said, ignoring her question.

“Why?  How long am I supposed to wait for?”

“As long as it takes me to cut a switch,” replied the housekeeper, making for the heavy door which led into the high-walled garden. Then she looked back. “While I’m gone, you can be getting undressed.”

Magda was looking at her in disbelief.  “No!”

“Yes!”

“I am the under-housekeeper. I am not a mere kitchen maid. I demand to see Madame Ligurin!”

“Very well. We will see her together.”

The interview with Madame Ligurin did not go well for the under-housekeeper.  She was told she should either go straight to the kitchen courtyard to await punishment or lose her position and be transferred to other duties. It was not much of a choice and was not intended to be. The stings from a freshly-cut switch would blaze and fade and the red marks on her skin would soon disappear, but the shame would last and that is what would destroy her authority over the other servants. The news of the exchange between the two was already buzzing around the household and it wouldn’t be long before everyone had the full story. Walls have ears. Clearly, the housekeeper wanted rid of her and Madame Ligurin had agreed. Perhaps they had even planned in advance that something like this should happen.

Madame Ligurin was determined to restore order to her disordered household and the new housekeeper was her chosen means, so she had undertaken to back her up in whatever measures she wished to take. Magda was a very capable and intelligent woman and Madame Ligurin had been grooming her to take over as housekeeper eventually. However, she regarded Magda as being still too young to undertake the position yet, especially in the present circumstances. If she was wrong, so be it. She still had to follow through from her original decision. Madame Ligurin might be described as a ruthless mistress but she was not a cruel one and she did feel guilty about what had happened. The problem was that any duties that Magda was assigned to within the household would leave her still under the authority of the new housekeeper. However, everything outside the household, on the estate at large, was the province of her husband.

She informed him of the situation and asked: “Could she perhaps be put in charge of the milking?”

“Really not needed,” answered her husband.

“So who is in charge of all the milkmaids at the moment?”

“Well, no-one in particular.”

This was dangerous territory for Ligurin. He supervised the work of the milkmaids himself and was quite happy to do so. He found the hours he spent in the milking barn most congenial.

“Magda used to be a milkmaid herself, didn’t she?”

“Yes. Some years ago.”

Ligurin had fond memories of Magda. She had been a cut above the others in all sorts of ways. He was becoming a bit uncomfortable with the direction the discussion was taking.

“I’m sure all those milkmaids need someone to supervise them. A woman, that is. And I’m sure Magda would be very suitable. It would give you more time to spend on other things. Of course, she’s in her late twenties now, which you might consider too old for milking,” added Madame Ligurin with heavy irony.

She knew how much her husband favoured younger milkmaids. The usual pattern was for him to have them married off by the time they were twenty. Magda had stayed longer than most. Her husband had unfortunately died within a year of her marriage, which was why she had gone over to the house as a servant.

Ligurin was alarmed. Continuing the argument could lead to issues which he very much wished to avoid, so he gave in, with bad grace. Madame Ligurin derived some bitter satisfaction from the thought that not only had she solved her problem with the under-housekeeper but in doing so she had quite possibly inconvenienced her husband’s frolics in the milking barn.

The rest of the servants had managed among themselves to piece together a remarkably accurate and detailed account of all that had gone on. In the excitement, further rumours were now flying around. The one which caused the most stir, and also much resentment, was that the under-housekeeper’s replacement would also be from outside, probably from the same estate that the housekeeper herself had come from. This proved to be without foundation however. Madame Ligurin called all the servants together to announce the position would be left vacant for the time being and she would await a recommendation from the housekeeper in due course. This was designed to ensure that the more senior servants would be vying with each other to demonstrate their loyalty to their new superior rather than seeking to undermine her, and in this it was entirely successful.

For the next week or two, the whole household seemed to run on oiled wheels. The housekeeper’s authority was respected, her orders obeyed promptly and the maids worked conscientiously. Such harmony could not last indefinitely, however. The new housekeeper had not really been tested. Although her manner was daunting, to be sure, the maids could not help wondering if her bark was worse than her bite. So far, she had threatened two thrashings, neither of which had been carried out. Also, though the servants had been initially impressed by the dismissal of their under-housekeeper, as things had turned out her fate did not sound too awful. Reports suggested that she was quite happy in her new position.

One day, the housekeeper told Olga, one of the kitchen maids, to take a message to the huntsman about game that would be needed for the weekend visitors.

“I’ll go with her,” offered Katya.

“No you won’t,” she was told crisply.

But when the housekeeper had gone, Katya whispered: “I’ll come anyway. We’ll only be away half an hour. She’ll never notice.”

They might have got away with it if they had only delivered the message and returned promptly. But when the cook looked for Olga an hour and a half later, she was nowhere to be found.

“And where is Katya?” She demanded, looking around.

Her questions were answered by silence and exchanges of looks. The cook, who fancied her chances of being the next under-housekeeper, hurried straight off to inform the housekeeper.

The two girls were eventually tracked down to the stables, where they were busy flirting with the stable-hands. They were marched unceremoniously back to the kitchen and the housekeeper was duly informed. She wasted no time.

“Katya, go out into the yard,” she said, as soon as she entered the kitchen. “The rest of you, get on with your work.”

With that, she followed Katya out, closing the door behind her. The rest of them did get on with their work but in complete silence, hoping to catch any sounds that might reach them through the closed door. Among them, a frightened Olga stood at a sink, pretending to scrub away at a stewpot.

The housekeeper followed Katya into the yard and picked up a switch which she’d left in readiness on the scullery window-sill. Katya, with her eyes fixed steadfastly ahead, hadn’t seen this and when she turned and saw the switch in the housekeeper’s hand it seemed as though it must have got there by magic. She was conducted past the heavy door leading into the walled garden and round to the back of the store.

“Get undressed,” the housekeeper said.

As she undressed, Katya noticed a large nail in the wall to her left, just above head height. She hung her clothes on it. It looked new. Perhaps the housekeeper had it hammered in there recently, with this purpose in mind. With all her clothes off, Katya wondered about her wooden clogs. She looked down at them and looked enquiringly at the housekeeper, who gave a curt nod. They were to come off too.

“Face the wall,” the housekeeper ordered.

Katya, now bare from head to toe, turned and faced the blank brickwork.

“Put your hands on your head. No, on top of your head. That’s better. Put your feet close together.”

Katya obeyed these instructions promptly but when the housekeeper said: “Now press your nose to the wall,” she hesitated. It felt like an indignity too far. She stood unmoving for a few moments, thinking she would refuse. Then she changed her mind and obeyed. To do so, she had to move her whole body closer to the wall, which meant that her breasts, as well as her nose, were pressed against it.

The housekeeper drew the smooth, slender switch between her finger and thumb as she cast an appraising eye over Katya’s shapely figure, which was normally disguised under her formless dress.

“Do I have to explain to you why you are getting this?”

“No, ma’am.” Katya’s reply was muffled because her lips brushed against the brickwork as she spoke.

“Good.”

The switch struck five times in rapid succession, after which the housekeeper lowered it and stepped back. Katya’s hands flew behind her, one clutched to each buttock in a desperate attempt to soothe the stinging. Her head came back and, if her eyes had not been screwed tight shut, she would have been looking at the clear blue sky. The listeners in the kitchen heard a mewing cry.

After a moment, the housekeeper said: “I hope you don’t think it’s over. Get back in position.”

Very reluctantly, Katya took her hands away from her bottom and placed them back on her head.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Asked the housekeeper.

Even more reluctantly, Katya put her nose once more to the wall.

The switch descended another five times, equally quickly. These strokes landed lower down than the previous five, one or two even straying onto the tops of her thighs. Katya clutched at the inflicted area and the listeners in the kitchen heard another cry.

After a few moments of respite, the housekeeper said: “You have another five coming. Get ready for them.”

Katya hoped that meant that these would be the last five. She resumed her position, this time pressing her pretty nose against the wall without any prompting.

After delivering the third set of five strokes in similar fashion to the first two, the housekeeper said: “If you disobey me again, I’ll give you more than that.”

Katya was sobbing now. Those last five had criss-crossed all over the red lines made by the previous ten strokes.

“Now get dressed and get back to your work,” the housekeeper told  her.

As she hurriedly pulled on her clothes, trying to bring her sobs under control, Katya saw that the housekeeper was breaking the switch up, bending it first in two and snapping it and then repeating the process until it was in half a dozen short pieces. It was too supple to break cleanly so the pieces remained still attached to each other by thin strands of wood fibre or bark. She tossed the remains onto a rubbish heap in the corner of the yard before starting back towards the kitchen.

Katya couldn’t help feeling indignant. Was Olga not to be punished at all? She knew she had behaved a lot worse than Olga, but she felt that Olga was a bit to blame too, because she had also come back late. In fact it had been Olga’s idea to visit the stables. Then Katya spotted another switch, lying on the scullery window-sill. This might be for Olga, except that it was noticeably longer than the one now lying in bits on the rubbish heap. Surely, Olga would not be punished more severely than her. That wouldn’t be fair.

At that moment, the kitchen door opened and Olga herself emerged, closely followed by the housekeeper. Seeing her friend reminded Katya that Olga was quite large, with a fuller figure than her own. Could that be the reason for the longer switch? As the two friends passed each other, one already punished and the other about to be, they averted their eyes.

When they managed to have a private talk later, Olga told Katya that the shame of being made to press her nose to the wall had been worse even than the stings of the switch. But then she had received only five strokes in all.

The head gardener now had something different to grumble about. There would be nothing left of his hazel bushes at this rate, he said. The housekeeper was deaf to his advice that if she put a switch in water it would remain serviceable for at least a week or two. Instead, she insisted on cutting a new one every time.  Even if she thrashed two or three girls at once, she hardly ever used the same switch on them. But he admitted he would much prefer this to having his onion beds trampled on and getting a load of cheek. He had already planted another bush next to the existing two, in an effort to keep up with demand.

The End

© Hilary Wilmington 2017