Now one might argue that being the third of seven children is hardly good timing at all and that had she arrived in this world as a first born she might have had better chances. But Pansy was above such petty calculations and, at any rate, in a family of yeomen like her own, with barely a yardland1 of their own and burdened with too many children, having been the first born or the last born would have hardly made any difference at all. But Pansy's arrival in this world was such that at the time the lady of the manor was looking for a girl to stay with her as her companion, Pansy was just of the right age the lady desired, and stood out of all the village children as the most suitable for the job.
Now Pansy did have other qualifications that the lady did not fail to point out from the start. First and foremost, she would never be a great beauty, nor tempt the lady's son with her charms when she'd grow older. Second, the sharpness of her mind was only equaled by the sharpness of her nose, which was indeed prodigiously pointy and unusually long for a child, and which would only grow with age as the lady assured her, adding with a sigh that she could only hope the girl's wisdom would grow together with her nose. Third, she had a thirst for knowledge, an eagerness to learn and a hunger for books that made her the very companion the lady desired, one who would read to her tirelessly as her old vision faded and thus entertain her till the end of her days. Which the lady, to her great merit, timed as perfectly as Pansy had timed her birth.
For as long as the lady lived, Pansy stayed with her at the manor, reading as many books as she had freckles on her face. She earned no wages other than bed and board and the few clothes that the lady bought for her every time her ankles started showing below the hemline of her old dress. And so she passed the years of her childhood and her youth, removed from her family and from her village, slowly acquiring a polish of education above her means, until the lady's timely death.
When the funeral was over and Pansy was returned to her family with little more to show for her years of service than the clothes on her back, many said that the lady had died either too early or too late. At the age of eighteen, Pansy had wasted what everyone called "the best years of her life" by the side of the lady's bed, yet she had not served long enough to engage her employer's sympathy and be generously provided for in her will. She had acquired a wealth of knowledge from her reading, it is true, but such wealth could not easily be converted into gold, nor be accepted as dowry by any responsible man. And as her looks had not improved at equal pace with her education, it seemed unlikely that she could get married at all.
Pansy did not care much for such things. The cautionary tales of ruined women that lined the lady's bookshelves had taught her to distrust and disdain men more than anything, and she would have rejected any proposal such a creature would have made, at the risk of being a burden to her parents for the rest of her life. The proposal, however, did not come. What came instead was an opportunity. And here I must add that while Pansy had earned little other than knowledge in the lady's service, she had not lost any of her original qualifications throughout her stay at the manor. So on the day of her arrival to her parents' house, she retained perfectly her long, pointy nose, her wealth of freckles, and her perfect timing. Thus, as she opened the door, her mother's voice greeted her with these fateful words:
"You shall do no such thing!"
These words were not meant for Pansy, whose arrival had so far passed unnoticed, but for her younger sister, Violet, who was decidedly pretty and thus at greater risk of doing things their mother would not approve of, especially where boys were concerned.
"You shall do no such thing, Vy! And from now on we won't even speak of such nonsense in my house!"
"What nonsense?" Pansy asked in lieu of a greeting, for it was clear once the subject were closed in such a way it would not easily be opened again for another half an hour at the very least, and her curiosity was not inclined to wait.
"Your sister," Mrs. Potts answered instantly, "wants to go to town to be a harlot."
"Ma, I only said I wanted to make good money, like Miss Stacey does!" Violet protested.
"Then your Miss Stacey's money comes from indecent dealings," Mrs. Potts replied, "for there is no decent work that would pay fifty pounds a year2. You just go to that establishment she speaks of and sure enough you'll find it chock full of half-naked women parading about in their unmentionables!"
"Well, Miss Stacey works for a modiste, and there'll be customers getting their measurements taken, in their unmentionables as you say, but all ladies of quality who pay good money, Ma."
"There is no decent work that will pay fifty pounds a year," Mrs. Potts said firmly. "Ask your sister if you don't believe me, she's worked for a real life lady."
"No one at the manor made this much," Pansy said, though Violet didn't seem eager to ask, "but the lady spent more than this on her clothes each year, all bought from a certain modiste in the City, so it's certainly possible to make that much money out of making clothes. What I can't imagine is why anyone would want to hire Vy for it."
"That is what I've been telling her!" Mrs. Potts said, raising her eyes piously to the thatched roof to call it as witness to her struggles. "Why would anyone want to hire Vy for honest work? If they'd be willing to hire you, Pansy, we'd know it's for embroidery as they say it is, but Vy?"
"Miss Stacey says she likes the thing I sewed on my Sunday dress," Vy replied reproachfully. "She says it has very delicate stitches."
"I didn't know you did anything to your Sunday dress!" Pansy protested. "I want to see too!"
"Oh, you must see it!" Vy answered, running to the chest where they kept the good clothes. "You're the only one who hasn't."
Moments later she was presenting her dress for inspection, holding it up to show a small design stitched on the left shoulder.
"It's a puppy," she whispered, "but Miss Stacey called it a 'cute bunny' and I couldn't tell her it wasn't one."
"It's a cute puppy," Pansy praised her out loud. "And the needle work is certainly delicate enough. Did Miss Stacey ask you to go work with her?"
"No," Vy confessed. "But she said that's what she does for a living and she said she makes fifty pounds a year and it's easy to do and I want to make fifty pounds a year too!"
"I think you can only make this much money if you think of it as hard work," Pansy answered. "The lady's clothes were covered in embroidery, covered all over. I'm sure there's more work than a few stitches for fifty pounds a year."
"And I think a girl your age should be thinking about marriage, not work," Mrs. Potts said sternly. "Now if this was Pansy, I'd let her try to find a job, a decent job that pays much less than fifty pounds a year. But you, Vy, you can still find a husband, even with no dowry at all!"
Violet did not seem too eager to embrace the domestic career her mother wished for her, and she pouted and sulked for the rest of the day, until Pansy said she'd go to the City herself to see what sorts of jobs could be got and how much they paid and promised that if she found anything good she'd find a place for Violet too.
#It is not wise for a young woman to travel unaccompanied, but Pansy believed, and her family quite agreed, that she possessed neither enough money nor enough beauty to attract any evildoers and that the company of fellow travelers taking the same stagecoach would be enough to guard her against any troubles. Mr. Potts had generously contributed the money needed for her journey, in hopes of having the amount returned to him once his daughter was properly employed. Mrs. Potts had contributed her good advice and recommendations with equal generosity, at the risk of having her daughter miss her coach for having all this wealth of wisdom poured through her ears right before her departure. But let us be assured that Pansy had not lost her gift for perfect timing and she got safely on her stagecoach just in time for its departure. And, owing to the fortunate circumstance of having arrived at the last minute, her luggage was thrown at the very top of the pile on the roof of the coach, while her own person was squeezed into the spot closest to the door, with her nose comfortably stuck out of the window, where it could enjoy the liberty of wide open space and fresh air.
For several miles, she observed the fields and hills in perfect silence, her thoughts drifting with a sense of deep longing to the lady's books, which would have made, each and every one of them, a most delightful traveling companion. She was just about to sigh for the fifth time in memory of volume two of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman when a strange appearance made her breath get stuck in her throat. They were passing by an unnatural hill, which seemed man-made in its overly-regular shape and boasted a moat-like swamp at its feet and the stone walls of a castle at its top. And down that hill, running as fast as her feet would take her, there was a human figure in a black dress.
It was not Pansy who called to the driver to stop. It was the figure in the black dress herself, flailing her arms wildly and proffering a good deal of curses when she reached the road and the coach passed by her, drowning her in the thick cloud of dust raised by the horses' hooves. But as the girl's voice rose after the carriage - for indeed she was a girl and a couple of years younger than Pansy by the looks of her - so did the voices of several young men, all eager to have her take a seat next to them. The driver stopped, the girl haggled for her fare to the next town, paid in tiny silver coins and went to take her seat in between two most solicitous young men.
"I'm so glad I caught you," the girl said, beaming at the two gentlemen. "It's a good thing I ran away when I did, or I would've missed you. Why, when I saw what they wanted me to do, I told them they could keep their fifty pounds a year and wipe the floors with it for all I care! No girl in her right mind would ever want to work for that man!"
"The scoundrel!" one of the gentlemen said, shaking his fist at an imaginary foe.
"How dare he importune such a lovely creature?" said the other.
"Oh, I haven't even seen the master," the girl said quickly. "And it might not have been his idea at all for all I know. But his housekeeper... his housekeeper is an animal! And, imagine, she wanted me to clean the whole castle all by myself. And said it should be easy enough too, for a girl like me. Imagine the nerve of that!"
"So you would have been paid fifty pounds a year to clean a castle?" Pansy asked, suddenly taking an interest in the matter. "And food and a bed on top of that?"
"It was good pay, to be sure," the girl answered, pouting a little. "But it's too much work for just one maid. Why, it would be too much work for ten maids if they could find that many!"
"And it was just work? Nothing unclean or inappropriate?"
"The whole place is unclean, all covered in grime and spiderwebs!" the girl protested.
"But it was honest work, wasn't it? Honest work for fifty pounds a year. My mother was sure there'd be no such thing."
"It was honest work," the girl admitted. "But, oh, so terrible! And that castle would give anyone the creeps, and that housekeeper, she has–"
"Stop the coach!" Pansy shouted over the girl's laments. "I'm getting off right here, and you can keep the rest of my fare and sell my seat to someone else. Just help me get my luggage and you can go."
The driver was not pleased with this second interruption, but took some comfort in not having to dig far into the pile of luggage to get to Pansy's bundle of spare clothes, though it was beyond him what she'd be doing all alone in the middle of nowhere.
Pansy took her bundle from his hands, paid the man a small tip for his troubles, and began trudging back up the road to the castle, thanking her lucky star, just in case there was such a thing, that she'd arrive with perfect timing just when such generous employers would be most pressed to hire a new live-in maid, even one with no qualifications and no letter of recommendation such as herself.