We Will Make Mischief Together
Frances once had a life of her own, and a future in a world that was throwing off old shackles. That was before she was hauled back home to be chained by convention and family, and the dearest person in the world to her went missing, presumed dead.
Then a battered wooden box arrives, bearing a cryptic message from someone she thought long dead.
“Who sent this, Charles?”
“I cannot say, Madam, it does not appear to bear a return address.” The butler had intercepted the engineer’s apprentice on his dash inside to deliver to me the strange wooden box. However, he had not been quick enough to prevent me knowing about it.
I could only imagine the explosion that would happen later when Charles asserted his dominance over everything that servants did inside the manor’s many walls.
The box was so dirty that a maid had been instructed to put an extra cloth on the table before Charles let the boy put it down. One side bore a burn mark and one corner was splintered, but the wood appeared solid and weathered to an almost iron hardness. I could not tell what type of wood it was, and it did not have the look or smell of any of the trees I knew: certainly not eucalypt or silky oak.
“If you do not know who it was from, Charles,” I said, my impatience suppressed beneath layers of bitterly learned self-discipline but emerging nonetheless as exaggerated enunciation, “can you tell me who delivered it?”
Charles raised an icy eyebrow at the engineer’s apprentice, Alex, which finally broke through layers of social hierarchy and let the one person who had something useful to say, speak. The fact that Alex had the box at all said something, of course. Why would any delivery to me come through the workshop?
“Box came in a crate of spare parts for the engines, Miss,” he said, too brightly and with too much cockiness to risk mollifying Charles’ suppressed wrath. “Bill and me opened ‘er up and there it was, Miss, just like that.”
“Just like that” meant with my full name—Frances Jeanne Ramsden—stamped (stamped, by the Lord!) on what was obviously the top. There was not even an address.
I tried to think. Somebody had put a box meant for me, but not addressed, in a crate bound for my family’s estate. Alex had said “opened ‘er up and there it was”, as though they had discovered it right on top, not buried deep down. So somebody who knew the address could have opened the crate? Or had they been there when the crate was first nailed shut? Regardless, someone had deliberately used that delivery method, not postage—and not delivery by hand. Hidden among engine parts, delivered to the workshop… I felt a tingle of excitement I struggled mightily, in Charles’ presence, to suppress. I could almost smell machine oil again—unless that was Alex. I had not had grease under my fingernails since being unceremoniously hauled back to the family estate by father’s men. Now, the closest I got was the torture of watching my foolish brother Hugh drive engines he neither understood nor understood how to properly use. As if he had ever adjusted a steam regulator, rebuilt an oil pump, or been spanked by a Headmistress for having grease too heavily ground into his skin to wash out!
No: This box had come from someone who understood me, and nobody on this entire estate save dear Bill could lay claim to that. It would be the first message I had received from any of the old crew since I last saw them in person, and it was taking all I had to hide my emotions.
This deduction, however, did little to answer the pressing question: Where had it come from? And why did the box look so old? There was staining and damage to my printed name, so it was not simply an old box grabbed at random two days ago—it had been travelling for a while. And a stamp? That took effort. Far easier to glue on paper or use a paint brush. But paper can come off, by accident or time, and paint does not hold as well as ink. How long had this mysterious object been seeking me out?
Without thinking, I reached out and turned the box around, then lifted it on its edge so I could see underneath. Charles nearly choked.
It did not seem heavy enough to contain anything substantial and I could see nothing else printed or attached to the wood. The only marking was my name on top.
I looked back at the grinning Alex. If he was so eager himself to know what was inside… my eyes dropped to his belt. Sure enough, there was something carried inside his oil-stained trousers, the head nearly lost in the folds of his hand-me-down shirt. It looked like a pry bar.
“Open it, Alex,” I said.
Charles’ chilly expression became an iceberg at my breach of social rules, but I decided I could ignore it today. I had been good all week, I deserved this.
Alex leapt forward, not concealing his eagerness. He had the top of the box off in a minute, the aged wood squealing as long but thin nails were ripped out. Alex used his entire body weight to lever against the teeth of the bar. He only just remembered in time to not drop the lid on the clean tablecloth, and to not dive inside the box himself. He tried to stay as close as he could, almost on tiptoe to peer inside, but a cough from Charles made him deflate and retreat to a less unacceptable distance, still holding the pry bar and the lid between his hands.
The box was filled with straw which, when the lid came off, swelled out and threatened to spill over onto the table. It was old straw, but dry and not rotten. Forgetting for a moment Charles’ judgemental presence, I picked out a piece and rolled it between my fingers. How old was it? If only I had some comparison!
Holding the ruffles of my right sleeve in my left hand, I grabbed a handful of straw and lifted it out of the box as frost threatened to form on Charles’ face.
A huge mass came out together. Underneath the straw, in the middle of the box, well-padded against any rough treatment, was a brown glass bottle well stoppered with wax. For one second, I almost forgot to breathe.
No longer caring about getting my sleeves dirty, I picked up the bottle with my left hand and dropped the straw back where it had been.