“You did what?” Margaret’s face was white as she stared at Joseph. She was sturdily built, with the powerful arms of a woman who had been a laundry maid for most of her life, but she looked unsteady now.
“I just took it,” said Joseph, wearing the sheepish expression that always reminded Margaret of her nephew. “The drawing room was empty when I went to clean up that spill last night, so I just took it. Stashed it behind my bed.”
“But why, you pillock?” Margaret hissed, trying to keep her voice down. They were alone in the servants’ quarters, standing in the cramped doorway of Joseph’s tiny bedroom, but the quiet wouldn’t last for long.
“You said we ought to take something extra.” Joseph sounded defensive. “Before Lady Hampton gives us all the sack next week and sells off the house.”
“I was talking about pinching a spoon or two from the silverware – and I was joking!” Margaret ran a hand through her hair in consternation.
“She’s got so many pictures, she’s hardly going to notice one little painting –”
“It’s a Vermeer, you daft bugger. It’s worth a thousand quid. You’ve got to put it back. Now.”
Joseph expelled a breath. “All right, I’ll do it.”
“Wait here. Let me make sure nobody’s upstairs before you take the painting back,” said Margaret. She laid an exasperated hand on his shoulder, then hurried down the hallway. She took the staircase two steps at a time, reaching the top and rounding the corner –
“What, exactly, do you think you’re doing?” Lady Hampton’s voice was as cold and pointed as shards of ice. Margaret froze at the words, realizing too late that she had nearly collided with the lady of the house. Lady Hampton was standing by the davenport in the drawing room, scowling. Behind her, apparently yet unnoticed, was a rectangular Vermeer-shaped space on the far corner of the wall.
“I, uh – I mean,” Margaret stammered.
A meow interrupted the disastrous exchange. Margaret looked down to see Silas, the old orange kitchen cat. He was twining around her ankles hopefully; Margaret had a soft spot for the feline, and she sometimes bought canned meat for him. She picked up Silas. “Just searching for the cat, Ma’am,” she said.
Lady Hampton had recoiled at the sight of the cat, her lip curling in distaste. “Get that creature out of my drawing room,” she said. “You should have disposed of that filthy thing years ago.”
Having turned to go, Margaret paused abruptly. Her arms tightened protectively over the cat. Silas had been a part of the household for almost as long as Margaret – at least fifteen years. He was too old and deaf to be a good mouser anymore, but he was a comforting, affectionate presence. Margaret stroked his fur gently, feeling her own advancing age in the stiffness of her joints. I suppose Lady Hampton will be glad to dispose of me too, she thought, anger uncoiling within her.
She went downstairs again and headed for the kitchens. Cook was rolling out dough for a new batch of scones.
“Has the vegetable man come yet?” Margaret asked.
“Yes,” said Cook. “He’s still out back, unpacking the wagon. Lots of good greens today.”
In a matter of minutes, Margaret had reached Joseph’s room again.
“Is it all clear?” he asked, jumping to his feet.
“No, but it’s all right,” said Margaret. “We’re going to steal the painting.”
Joseph stared at her for a moment. “What?”
“We’re going to steal the painting. I’m coming with you,” said the laundry maid. “Get your coat.”
Margaret went back to her own room. As it turned out, she didn’t have much she couldn’t bear to leave behind. She collected her coat and hat, packing a basket with some items of clothing, a photo of her sister, and a small tin of cat food. She lifted Silas into the basket, tucking him gently underneath a shawl, and then she exited.
Joseph had dragged the stolen painting out from behind his bed, propping it up against the wall. Margaret looked at it. It was a harbour landscape, about half as wide as Joseph’s arm span.
“Well, at least you didn’t try to make off with the grand piano,” she said dryly. “Cover it up with a blanket.”
After Margaret checked the hallway, the two of them struggled out of the room with their ill-gotten package. The painting was just bulky enough to prove difficult. They bundled it down another set of stairs until they reached the door to the back garden. Margaret went up the garden steps first, with Joseph close behind –
Margaret halted. She felt Joseph collide with her shoulder and stagger backwards. She reached her free hand back and grasped a fistful of his coat to steady him, and then she looked up to see Thomson, the butler. Margaret stayed firmly planted in the doorway, shielding the boy from his view.
“Where are you going at this hour of the morning?” the butler asked, noting Margaret’s coat and hat.
“Running errands for Cook,” she said briskly. “I shan’t be long. Have you spoken to Lady Hampton? I heard she was asking for you just now.”
The butler straightened at the words, his eyes lighting up, and he turned and scurried away towards the back of the house. Margaret let out a shaky breath. She turned and carefully pulled Joseph through the doorway.
The morning was still young. The air was cool, the sky silver with clouds. A shilling from Margaret’s purse convinced the vegetable man to give the odd pair and their package a lift into town, and they set off quickly in the wagon.
“Where will we go?” asked Joseph.
“Somewhere far away.”
“What, like Cornwall?”
Margaret laughed. “How would you like to go to Paris?” she asked. “Or maybe Italy?”
“Is it nice there?”
Margaret checked that Silas was still comfortable in his basket, then she turned back to watch the road ahead.
“We’re going to find out,” she said.