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.

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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

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.

11 Comments:

Anonymous grayshifter said...

Oh, splendid! What a wonderful ball! I'm so glad you danced with Wendy...the poor girl sounds like she needed someone to help her out of her gloom.

6:42 pm  
Blogger Tea & Margaritas in My Garden said...

Glad the ball turned out wonderful, dear Mr. Fielding. And I hope Wendy soon gets her spirits back up.

tea
xo

6:45 pm  
Anonymous Butler said...

Fantastic! Im glad the ball went off without a hitch apart from the tiny grey cloud the looms over Wendy. I do hope you set her on the road towards happiness again! Let me know how it goes!

3:03 pm  
Anonymous an egg said...

Bravo! It was the brave and chivalrous thing to do.

7:45 pm  
Blogger Tess said...

I've just spent a while catching up on your posts since August (sorry for the apparent laziness on my part, but if I'm barely even updating my own blog, you cannot blame me for not reading others', right?) Pushing my guilt aside, I wanted to say I'm glad you've recovered, I'm sorry (for the bishop..) to hear about the mischievious switching of the place cards (but it made me laugh!), and then I got a bit misty when you agreed to dance with Wendy (assuming you DID - you never actually said so!). Thanks again for sharing.

9:56 pm  
Blogger Mr Fielding said...

Hello Tess. It is lovely to hear from you again. You certainly can not be blamed! What a busy time of it you have had. I am a reader of your blog and always find it entertaining.

I have a weeks holiday coming up in October and I intend to spend it in cental Europe; I won't quite reach Slovenia (although your blog does paint a very attractive picture of that nation) but will enjoy the delights of Prague.

Yes I did dance with Wendy. That situation has since solved itself. I shall post soon. My hours are so -not so much flexible as elastic- that it really is tricky to get into a set routine of diary writing.

8:21 am  
Anonymous Tim said...

How wonderful the Servant's Ball sounds. I am SO happy to have found this site. Keep it up Fielding, Old Man!

9:07 am  
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