The Woman in the Storm
She was alone and lost.
Fine, grainy snowflakes wet her face and she pulled her hood tighter. Danuta strained anxious eyes but all she could see was a blizzard. Fear invaded her mind and she tried to resist it.
"I've been in danger before," she thought, "and I've always got out of it."
Then again, this was a new kind of threat for her; what exactly could she do?
A bitter gust pulled her hood down and she yanked it back up. Long boots slipped in soft snow, but she raised both arms and avoided falling over. Danuta looked out for a light and sniffed for aromas of smoke, but she detected neither. The cold penetrated her coat and raised goose bumps down her back.
Were those bushes ahead? She pulled up a long skirt and ran towards them, grateful for even meagre shelter. She prepared to duck behind dark leaves, then stopped herself with a jolt. These plants were not shrubs but the tops of coniferous trees. They were growing on a steep, rocky slope and she had nearly fallen down it. Danuta tried to spin round and away from danger, then both feet went from under her. Terror erupted in her mind. Instinctively she threw tense arms out, but what was there to grab?
Someone else's hand seized one of her's and pulled hard. Seconds later she was on solid ground. The newcomer's clothes were plastered with snow and this had camouflaged him in the whiteout. He was younger than her, perhaps in his late teens or early twenties. A lantern sat near his feet, but its light didn't penetrate far. Danuta thanked him in Polish and he smiled back.
"I should've used English since I'm in Britain," she thought, annoyed with herself. "Never mind, he seems to have guessed from the context what I meant."
He picked up the lantern with a gloved hand and gestured for her to follow him. She did so gladly, pulling thick fur down over her hair. Then she wondered why he hadn't called out to warn her of the drop. Perhaps he hadn't spotted her in time; she too was getting covered in white stuff.
They trudged on through driving snow, past a bare tree with a kink in its trunk and two thick branches forming a Y shape. It resembled a dancing giantess with upraised arms. While daylight faded they descended gentle slopes, then saw lights from a big house. Danuta sighed with relief and quickened her pace. Why hadn't she arranged to do this in a city? "Because someone could be watching me there," she silently reminded herself. "They're not as likely to follow me out to the country. She went over everything in her mind, hoping that she had remembered accurately. Would the risk be worth it, or might she be dismissed as a scaremonger? Ruling the largest empire on earth could make the British arrogant.
Danuta turned to her companion and asked "could you show me to the servants' hall?"
He made a gesture with a hand raised to an ear, and she understood why he hadn't spoken. Danuta tensed again, wondering if things had gone wrong. He lead her across pristine snow to a wrought iron gate in a stone wall, then opened said gate and motioned her to go in first. They crossed a long, narrow courtyard, then finally entered what was clearly a servants' hall. No one else was present, but there was food on a long table ready for some celebration. She had been told to come when the staff would be distracted by a party. She felt bad about them having to look for her. Despite her worries, Danuta smiled on seeing light and feeling warmth. As she removed her thick coat, it felt as if an emotional as well as a physical load had fallen. The young man pulled out a chair and Danuta sat on it. Then he made a cup of coffee and gave it to her. She needed refreshments but was impatient to see the master of this house.
The youth took his coat off, revealing a black suit and white shirt. Other servants came in and greeted him with signs, then he shook their hands. Of course, a gardener had passed his apprenticeship. This must be him. As she finished sweet coffee, a second young man greeted her in spoken English.
"Good evening, how are you?"
"I'm getting warm again, thank you. My name is Danuta and I work as a maid for a German diplomat in London."
"That's some way from 'ere."
He sat down beside her, near a large fruit cake.
"I have a sister who works in another household," she lied. "I was no my way to see her when I got lost and your friend... Sorry what's his name?"
"Nathan Bennett, and I'm John Stafford."
"Thank you. He found me and stopped me falling over a cliff. Please thank him for me."
"Yes, 'course I will."
John picked up a blue and white plate and asked "would you like some cake?"
She accepted. Cherries and sultanas were like citrus bullets firing on hungry tastebuds.
"I need to lie down now," she said, "I've got a..." She pointed to her forehead and pulled a face.
"Headache. Sorry I should've realised you'd be needin' a rest. I'll show you to the 'ousekeeper's pantry then."
Soon afterwards, Danuta was sitting in an armchair in that pantry, by a display of plates on a dresser. The housekeeper had given her something to eat, laid a rug over tired legs, then gone to join the party. A maid was going to check on her later, but for now Danuta needed to be alone. She felt nervous about her next move and remembered being shy when very young. Well she couldn't afford to be now. Memories of her father's death flashed for a second. He hadn't been on that Nationalist demonstration, just on his way home when he ran into the police who had quelled it. Before then her family had been apolitical. Back in the housekeeper's room, slow-burning anger against her countrie's oppressors quelled any remaining nerves.
Was she still not talkative enough with other maids? Could she have missed things? Or would asking too many questions look suspicious?
A door opened and the master of the house entered looking hassled. He closed the door very firmly and greeted her as he never would a real maid. His Grace took a seat facing Danuta.
"I'm sorry your journey was frought," he beagn, "but arn't you accustomed to conditions like these? We assumed so when making arrangements."
"Poland has cold winters," she replied, "but I'm a city girl and I've never been alone in a snowstorm before."
His Grace's expression betrayed surprise, but only for an instant. She guessed that he had thougt everyone in Poland was a peasant and this irked her, but she supressed her feelings.
He said "I told the gardeners your sister was worried and had asked for help in finding you. They're all back safely now. Tell me, is it true what they say about Germany's millitary development. I've read what the papers say about it, of course, but can one believe what they say?"
Danuta told him what she had learned and he sribbled it down. She described aspects of German foriegn policy that were meant to be secret. It was likely that conscription would be brought in and that would create a huge army. Most troubling of all, the German armed forces had industrialised. They would make formidable opponents even for Britain. Again, Danuta explained things that were hidden from the public. Her host was alarmed but also impressed. He held a post in Queen Victoria's army and could appreciate military skill. Her tone showed that she didn't share that appreciation. Her voice wss dark yet smooth, like a good chocolate.
As his mind returned to the housekeeper's room His Grace asked "Danuta, how do you know all this?"
"My master has a writing desk with a hidden compartment, where he keeps secret... sorry, what is it in English?"
"Yes documents. One night I got up and sneaked out of the maids' quarters. I stole the key for this desk and got into the compartment. I read those documents, then put them back exactly as before and put the key back too. My father was a furniture maker," she explained, recalling a roll top, smooth varnish and brass inlay. "He didn't make that desk, but I know something about them."
"I see. That's a dodge to remember."
His Grace leaned forward in the strawberry-coloured armchair. He smiled and tried to clasp her hand. Male eyes smouldered with desire.
Danuta pulled back. She got up and put some space between them.
"Please Your Grace, I thought you were married already."
"I am," he replied, "but I'm tired of my wife. We argued earlier this evening, and we've done it a lot recently. She's sulking in her room now, even though I tried to apologise. She says that she's bored so I suggested helping a charity for orphans, and then another one for wounded soldiers, but she's not satisfied Danuta, she's not.
"Then you came along and I think it doesn't have to be this way. You'd never be so silly over a trivial, you know what real hardship is."
"Then might I suggest you go back to your wife. By the sound of it, she needs you more than I do."
"Very well," His Grace replied in heavy tones. "I can see that you're beyond me. Is there any more business to discuss?"
"No Your Grace, that's all."
His broad shoulders slumped with disappointment. Danuta turned her back on him and looked out through a snow-dappled window.
"I should go; someone will be coming to check on you," he said. "I apologise if I offended you."
He left her staring outside. She heard distant laughter and sat down again. A group of servants entered the dark and snowy courtyard from their hall. Illuminated by light from windows, one man was pushing something down the back of another's neck. Judging by his squirming it was cold, wet or both. John Stafford was inflicting this on Nathan Bennett. They seperated, put up their fists and circled each other, but both were grinning and those around them laughed or smiled. Nathan chased John back indoors and their friends followed.
It wasn't concern for another woman that made her reject His Grace. Danuta's business had made her very cynical and she found it hard to trust people. Sometimes, while lying awake in bed, she would hug a pillow and imagine it was a man, but one she had got to know well. She didn't want to get passed casually from partner to partner.. Resting by the housekeeper's dresser, she contrasted this with her younger self.
"Is that just it?" she wondered. Was Dad's death a harder blow for that shy little girl than for someone with more confidence? Did the shock propel me from one extreme to another?"
Seeing those servants partying had made her wonder what might have been, and also caused a pang of jealousy. She wondered what they were doing in their warm, bright hall.
Nathan swallowed fruity cider and John poured him more. Nathan glanced out of the window and thought of Danuta.
John asked "you know that woman you helped earlier, what nationality is she?"
For some reason he doubted if she was from her master's country. Was it her accent?
Nathan put his drink down on the table and spelt out "I thought German" in fingerspelling. A drunken colleague banged against polished wood, spilling some of the cider.
"Just do this mate," John signed, and he made, in the gaslight, a sign like a German helmet. It needed only one hand.
"It doesn't feel right, representing her so crudely. She looked too intelligent."
He felt guilty about using the helmet sign on other occasions, but not for long as this party was too good to spoil.
John raised his eyebrows. Then the head gardener came up and congratulated Nathan on completing his apprenticeship. Someone else was setting up a magic lantern and people took their seats under a vaulted ceiling. As he joined them, Nathan hoped it wouldn't involve young women being ogled by much older men. John would find that funny, but Nathan thought it was disrespectful to girls. Fortunately this evening's show was about a man asleep and snoring, who accidently swallowed a mouse. The newly-fledged gardener enjoyed that. He had been reading about exotic plants and trees while completing his training, so now his brain was ready for a rest.
Next day the blizzard had passed and wintry sun cast long shadows. Members of staff returned to their duties, even though some still had headaches from last night. Nathan went to work in one of several greenhouses that dotted the estate. John said farewells. He had once ben a footman here, but had recently left to join the fire brigade. While people were distracted by this, Danuta slipped away. She thanked the housekeeper first but avoided a big fuss, explaining that her sister would be worried about her so she must go quickly. She went to the local station and there boarded a train heading south.