I am not a writer who sits down to write and then waits to see what happens, known in “the trade” as a “Pantster,” that is, writing by the seat of one’s pants.
I know how the story will end before I ever write the first chapter.
However, sometimes surprises happen along the way and I welcome those.
One of the most pleasant surprises in Lawson Payne has been the lady who is the housekeeper at Oakley Manor—Ethel Crosby.
In the beginning, she was simply a “tool,” a maid to open the door when Ivy Leigh arrived to speak to the irascible Benson Oakley.
Over the course of the book, Ethel blossomed into a major character, and a multi-layered and charming one at that.
In this scene, Ethel has been asked to deliver a letter to Hettie Oakley at her father Martin York’s funeral. Ethel feels terribly out of place attending a social occasion along with people so far above her, but she agrees to go, because of the love she bears for young Willis Oakley who asked her the favor.
After the service, she tries to find Hettie to deliver the letter. She manages to have a few words with Ava York, wife of the deceased, and Hettie’s mother, while the family is exiting the church and heading for their cars to travel to the cemetery.
[You can find descriptions of both “Oakley Manor” and “Ava York” in earlier posts.]
The door to the hearse closed. The funeral director approached Mrs. York to usher her to her limousine. Ethel stepped back, scanning the throng of family members climbing into the back seats of waiting cars. Hettie was nowhere to be seen. Ethel’s heart sank.
Nothing left to lose, she turned her attention back to the lead car, and shoving through the onlookers, she thrust the letter toward Mrs. York as the funeral director was closing her door.
“Honestly…” said a voice from the car. “Who is that woman?”
The funeral director chided Ethel. “Ma’am, this is not the time.”
Undaunted, Ethel extended her arm through the narrowing space between the door and the car. The funeral director, having admonished her, continued to push on the door, making it clear this breach in etiquette would be not tolerated. Her impertinence would be halted.
“Please, Mrs. York, give this letter to Miss Hettie,” Ethel said, voice breaking.
Ava reached out a black-gloved hand and snagged the wrinkled envelope.
Ethel drew back her arm, the heavy door grazing the edge of her hand as it shut.
Fearing the results of her recklessness, Ethel shivered from cold and strained nerves. She had made a spectacle of herself—not like her. Regaining her dignity, she stood primly at attention while mourners filed quietly to their cars, and turned on their headlights.
Hands folded, she bowed her head, waiting for the hearse to pull away, guiding the bereaved to the cemetery. The crowd milling around her—those who noticed at all—assumed she was mourning. And she was…but not for the deceased.
Ethel was lamenting the state of the family left behind, grieving for Hettie—somewhere behind the darkened windows of one of these cars—once full of hope, overjoyed to be a wife and mother, only to have her arrogant husband break her.
She regretted the barriers men like Martin York and Benson Oakley erected, unwritten rules, firmly established boundaries, lines drawn in the sand, that she, a “humble servant,” as well as Willis, the flawed child, could not cross, walls they would never scale.
She had welcomed Mrs. York to Oakley Manor more times than she could count, said, ‘Good evening,’ taken the lady’s coat, shown her to the formal living room, then announced dinner. Mrs. York had often dined at the table Ethel had set.
The elegant lady had eaten off plates Ethel had touched with her own hands.
How much more familiar could one person be with another?
Yet, in all these years, today was the first time they had actually talked to each other.
The realization struck the maid as unspeakably sad.
The roar of police motorcycles stirred Ethel from her reverie. She looked up in time to see the hearse turn the corner and disappear from sight. Mrs. York’s car, close behind, did the same. She watched the rest of the cars follow.
Not knowing which one held Hettie, Ethel waved shyly at all the sleek black cars provided by the funeral home. Then she felt in her pocket for her bus ticket, and started back to the Greyhound station to begin her journey home.