Mr and Mrs Chandler Graves. Niles played the names over in his head, practicing them and making sure he had it as correct as the new address. The new address for postage, the new telephone for answering it, and the new cars so that he could tell when either of his employers was arriving home.
He'd have to know what he was doing – he was their new butler, after all. Hired by the housekeeper after their old one had left. Apparently there was no reason given – at least, none that the housekeeper wanted to talk about.
He hadn't heard of his new employers before now, so he couldn't tell if that was a good or bad thing; they seemed to keep much to themselves in society. Perhaps they preferred it that way? The hustle and bustle of New York couldn't always be for everybody.
He hadn't asked any of the servants (his new staff, he supposed – the butler was the ranking servant in a house) what they thought of the place, or of working there, yet, either – not much, at any rate. He wanted to get a feel for it himself, without being influenced by what anybody else thought.
Not that any of the other servants had had much to say when he'd arrived. And the longer he looked around and made himself familiar with the place, just before the bell rang that told him he had to take tea to the mistress of the house, he began to understand why.
The house was quiet, which he supposed wasn't out of the ordinary, considering his new master was apparently off on another (the cook's word) lengthy trip and wouldn't return for a while. But that wasn't the only thing about the place.
It felt... sad in there. The place was permeated with an atmosphere of nearly overwhelming gloom and quiet unfriendliness, and for the life of him, he couldn't put his finger on why.
Well, the unfriendliness could be coming from the people themselves, he supposed. Most of the servants kept themselves to themselves – busy – and he hadn't even yet been introduced to his new master or mistress.
Him bringing her tea would be the first meeting he'd had with either of them, which he found rather improper. Rude, even, especially coming from somebody who was supposed to be a woman of class. It was the duty of the lady of the house to hire all the servants, and yet she hadn't even made herself known to him once!
Did Mrs Graves have such little sense of propriety? He doubted that very much.
But it wasn't as though he could do anything about it. As a butler, it wasn't his place to question the motives of his employers.
No matter how impolite they were.
He quickly gathered the tray from the kitchen, not wanting to keep her waiting. If she was rude enough not to even come and tell him what his duties were to be, or to show him around the house, then she'd probably be rude enough to blame it on him if he was late by even the smallest fraction of time.
He didn't want that to happen. He didn't want to earn himself a reputation as a bad butler right from the start – he needed the work. When he'd first left Britain it had been for mainland Europe, with a rifle on his shoulder and an order to shoot any Nazi he saw between the eyes. But this latest time – the time he was currently occupying – he had come to try and escape the horrors the war had inflicted upon his own country. The economy was in tatters and trying to hold down a job...well, it hadn't been easy when nearly all the money the government could give was being put to rebuilding.
So, he'd gone to America, with what meagre savings he had, and made a few more meagre savings by doing odd jobs in hotels and restaurants, renting rooms in guest houses and from some of the worst landlords he'd ever seen. But, he had done it. And, all the while, he'd dreamt of having somewhere permanent to live and to work.
Now that he had that somewhere, three years after that time and now firmly in 1950, he wasn't intending to lose it.
No matter how much the house was already making him feel uncomfortable...
He moved as swiftly as he could, but he had to steel himself a little before he entered the parlour, carrying the tray in both hands and not saying a word beyond what he knew he had to.
"The tea you ordered, ma'am."
Mrs Graves looked up at him then from over the back of the sofa she was sat on, embroidering, and even from nearly across the room he could see the blue of her eyes set against her pale skin. It helped that her golden hair was swept up away from her face – it made it more open, and easier to see, along with her long nose and strong jawline.
She was completely beautiful, in a way that Niles hadn't been expecting. And she was young – far younger and more innocent to the ways of the world than he had expected her to be, or look. She was the kind of girl his squadron friends had all claimed to have waiting for them at home, while they were busy flirting and trying to dance or head off into the night with the French waitresses who kept bringing them wine at the bars they visited. But she was also a whole class above any of those girls – real or fantasy. She just seemed to breathe elegance and grace, along with a cool, quiet dignity.
It was more than a little surprising (circling the edge of flooring) for him, to be met by the sight of such a woman. Was her husband also that age? Older? He had imagined such a grand house to have had owners who'd lived there and run the place for years...
Well, if they were both young and inexperienced in the ways of running a house, maybe that would explain the rudeness, he thought.
It was hard not to just come out and say it, though. He was...rather outspoken sometimes, for a servant, even if he did say so himself. It made not turning and immediately blurting out that he was the new butler and had yet to be properly introduced or informed of what he was doing...difficult.
"Bring it here," Mrs Graves ordered, a quick and almost impatient tone to her words. "On the coffee table, in front of me."
Niles tried not to make his blink look judgemental, or accusatory. He hoped that it worked, even if he wasn't going to be sorry if it didn't.
No greeting, then. Not even so much as to ask if he was new. Did she know they had a new butler, or was she so used to never looking at servants that she didn't realise?
He didn't know. And as annoyed as it made him right then, he was going to force himself not to care. This was a job, not a place for making friends.
Especially not with pompous, snooty, p-pregnant...?!
He'd come almost to a halt as he was thinking, rounding the sofas to see Mrs Graves in her entirety. And, despite all his talk of politeness, he couldn't help but stare at the roundness of her middle – a definite pregnancy, that not one of the other servants had thought to mention!
How could they possibly have neglected to mention this?! It completely changed how he was supposed to look after the mistress of the house! Did the other servants never see her and not know? Did they not care?! Did they expect him to go in and just work it out for himself? Because at that moment, that was all he could think!
The place felt like a joke already, so he supposed it was darkly appropriate that his mind immediately raised an eyebrow and commented on it being no wonder she seemed snappy already.
That had to be partially true, really. With no butler in the house before now and her husband not around to help, she probably hadn't been as comfortable as she could've been...
That had changed now, though. Perhaps things might start to look up, once she realised that this was the new butler, ready and waiting to help, stood before her...?
"And the part where I mentioned the coffee table?"
His hopes were dashed in an instant, as her clear displeasure at...well, what appeared to be everything, came through and brought him back down to Earth with more than a substantial bump.
It was frustrating that he had no other choice but to obey. Politely, with no arguments or open insults.
Luckily, being in the Army has given him plenty of experience in doing that. Not every officer he came across had been good to him, or his friends. If he could put up with those arseholes while bullets were flying over his head, or there was a tank heading straight in their direction, he could more than put up with a slightly spoiled brat of a mistress in exchange for decent money and a roof over his head.
So, he nodded his head like a small bow.
"Of course, ma'am. My apologies."
He tried to see if she rolled her eyes to no one in particular at his behaviour, but when he leaned over to pour her a cup, the angle made it impossible. He just had to assume that it had happened. Why wouldn't it? He was probably looking much like a bumbling British fool in her eyes, making himself seen and heard too much already and he'd only been in the house five minutes.
If, again, she'd even noticed that he hadn't been there before.
When he finally looked up properly, she was certainly staring at him enough to make Niles think that something was, at last, amiss in her world.
Not that he was going to deter for a moment from his good-little-butler routine. Not until she did something to make it fall away, at any rate.
"You're the new butler," she commented, at long last saying the words that Niles found so prodigal, he'd slaughter a fatted calf upon honour of their being said.
Some recognition, at last! It was almost enough to make him jump up and yell in excitement (or at least gratitude that she hadn't stayed completely silent that whole time), if it hadn't been for the fact that he was more than sure he could be fired if he made the wrong move.
Besides, apart from answer what she'd said, what was there to talk about now? He'd moved his things in, he'd been shown around - what was left for her to do?
"I am indeed, ma'am," he replied, gesturing minutely to the bowl of sugar or the lemon slices he had brought up with the tray. "Will you be wanting milk and sugar or lemon in your tea, ma'am?"
"Milk and sugar should be fine," she said, leaning back in her seat and running a hand over her growing belly. "And then I want you to go back to the kitchen and bring me some eclairs – pronto."
Again, Niles had to remind himself not to snap at his new patron, lest he find himself back on the street and with no prospective job in sight. She was quite possibly one of the most unpleasant employers he'd had to serve – yes, he understood his place as a servant, but he expected some modicum of courtesy from employers.
Still, he had no other option but to grin and bear it. So, through gritted teeth, he forced himself to say a very polite "Of course ma'am."
He didn't know why he bothered, though. She quickly went back to the embroidery project she'd been working on without so much as glancing his way as he went about his business.
Very gently, he poured a splash of milk and a sugar cube into the cup, which he then handed over to his mistress' outstretched hand.
It was while doing this that he noticed a new detail about her that struck him as odd – her clothing. It was mid-June and she was wearing a long-sleeved dress, gloves and a neckerchief! He knew some people were sensitive to cold, but it made no sense for her to be bundled up like she was...
Not when the weather was pleasant enough.
Maybe it was the hormones?
Whatever it was, even as he got up, it still wasn't sitting right with him. Maybe he should've asked her if she was too cold, and offered to bring her something for it? A blanket, or maybe a maid to tend to the fire?
But that didn't feel like it would solve the problem, either.
And as he returned to his stood position, he couldn't help studying it all he could, from the tips of her gloves fingers to the sleeves, the skirt and the neckline of her dress...
That was when he spotted... them, just creeping out from beneath the collar of her dress and barely covered by the neckerchief that looked hastily and clumsily wrapped around her throat. Almost as though it had been done in a fit of painful tears, not carefully or with any thought as to what people would think by seeing such a thing...
The them in question, much to Niles' horror, were darker patches of skin that spattered against the rest of her a myriad of colours – from purple to blue to black. Bruises.
He felt his stomach drop. Actually, more like plunge, in a way that made him feel desperately ill. Ill to the point where he could physically feel the colour draining from his face.
Bruises – real, actual, deep bruises, all the way around her throat! Like...like there had been a hand around it, not too long ago...
He had to stop himself from letting the shock and the sudden, flash fit of anger get away with him. He might've tried to ask her all of the questions his mind was screaming, even as he started to gape a little bit at the sight.
Who could've done such a thing?! Had it been a threat, or an attempt on Mrs Graves' life?! Why would they do it?! Such an act made no sense whatsoever!
And to choke a pregnant woman had to be one of the most abhorrent things Niles had ever heard of! What kind of an animal – no, a monster – did such a thing?! Whomever had done it had no right to walk among decent, civilised society – not while still calling themselves a person, at any rate! They could take up a lesser position in society; they were already a lowlife, and as such could become a lower life form!
If, of course, the bastard who did it had been found. He couldn't imagine Mr Graves letting some brute attack his wife in such a manner!
He was, however, suddenly brought out of his reverie by his mistress rasping her throat. She was sticking him with an obviously annoyed look – a look of utter impatience and, in Niles' view, more than a little demining.
"What are you looking at, butler?!" she hissed dangerously, eyes narrowing and nostrils flaring.
She knew he'd seen.
And she wasn't happy about it.
"I… I…I was only–"
"I don't care what you were doing!" she barked, slamming her gloved fist against the arm of the sofa. "Go! Now! I don't want you here for a second longer!"
With more than a little fear growing in his heart, Niles did as she said. He dashed from the room as fast as he could without running, not realising until afterwards that he had forgotten to bow and give a polite "ma'am" before leaving.
Part of him didn't care. It didn't want to go back into that; not until it had to, at any rate. Not when his head was reeling from the shock of being shouted at, the horror at the bruising, the annoyance of barely being acknowledged...
The fear that he might have ruined it all, on his very first day, with his very first task...
He couldn't be sure, though. All he could do was resolve to avoid his mistress until it was absolutely necessary. Which, unfortunately, would be the next time she called for him. But after this, that probably wouldn't be for a while.
It might give him some proper time to think. About everything he had just seen, and the way she had reacted to it...
Maybe the other servants would know? He was owed more than a few answers, and as the ranking servant in the house, they had no choice but to tell him what he wanted to know...
He certainly needed answers.
Having seen the dregs of brutal abuse on a young mother was bad enough, but not knowing what had happened to her or why she felt so self-conscious about something that wasn't her fault was probably going to drive him insane.
He hadn't meant to upset her! His reaction had been born out of shock, not morbid curiosity. Still, he supposed he should have been professional about it. Not staring at one's employers was one of the basic lessons at butler academy, and he'd completely disregarded the instructions that had been drilled into his head!
Had his father been alive, Niles was certain he'd have called him a disgrace.
Niles couldn't help but pull a face as he scampered into the kitchens, a tangled mess of questions bouncing inside him and colliding into the many feelings of inadequacy that were sprouting in his mind. If he was to keep this job, he needed answers. He couldn't serve masters he didn't know, and if something awful had happened to the mistress of the house, he should be privy to it.
Who'd hurt her? And why? Was this person locked away? If not, he could only think it made sense for her to be so aloof – anyone would be, after having experienced trauma.
He knew the feeling well.
The war hadn't entirely left him unscarred, and for the longest time, he hadn't felt able to get close to anybody. He had seen too many people hurt, too many boys dying on the ground while they cried for their mothers, too many bodies leaving bombed out towns under sheets in the backs of military trucks...
He'd had to take part in too much of it. So, he'd shut himself off – it was the only way he'd been able to survive the sheer brutality and terror of it all. And he had more than a gut feeling that that was what Mrs Graves was doing as well, even if she didn't know or realise.
She was trying not to get more hurt than she already had been.
He was going to find out exactly why, too, he decided as he marched off towards the servants' dining-slash-communal area. Someone would probably be there, and would know what was going on – if something had happened to the mistress of the house, they'd have to.
They'd know who made their mistress that way, and Niles was determined to know as well. How else would he be able to help her, as best he could?
And he was more than sure that it would give him a better sense of peace about the place. He might relax a bit more, if he knew everything about it. Just like any good butler knew all the secrets of the house he served.
He was in luck – the housekeeper, Margaret, was having a quiet cup of tea to herself at the table when he got there. She'd know what was going on – she was only just below the butler in terms of her station.
She tried to get up the moment she noticed him, but he waved the unnecessary formality away. He might've been in charge of her, technically, but he didn't want to waste time with it. Also he didn't exactly feel like he was in charge of anybody, just yet.
If he ever would.
"Please, don't trouble yourself with that," he told her. "I've only been here a little while and I...well, it's not necessary."
Half way out of her seat, Margaret blinked at him.
"Last butler, Mr Johnson, always insisted," she replied, slightly shortly, her Southern drawl making it a little harder to understand at first.
Niles bit back a frown. This wasn't the way he had expected any of this to go. He had had in his mind this image of charging in and just straight out demanding the answer to all his questions. This didn't feel anything like that – it was far more...passive.
He had to force it to come. He had to know the answer; he wasn't sure he could live with the growing sense of worry.
"Well, I'm not Mr Johnson," he told her, trying not to shift uncomfortably on his feet. "I just have some questions that I want answered."
He saw Margaret raise an eyebrow, and took it as a cue that he should ask before she got talking about how Mr Johnson never asked any questions because he knew what he was doing.
Taking a deep breath, he started.
"What is...why does Mrs Graves act...the way she does?"
Niles wasn't expecting a panicked look to follow his words, but as soon as they were out of his mouth, the housekeeper looked like she'd seen the bloody Canterville Ghost! He also wasn't expecting her to run all the way back to the kitchen doors and lock them, almost as if she were afraid of somebody listening into their conversation.
"Madam," he said, running after the maid as she went around the kitchen, closing open windows and doors. "Please, what's wrong?!"
"You shouldn't be askin' those sorts'a questions," Margaret said, briefly stopping her frenzied run around the kitchen to glare at the new butler. "You could get her into trouble, y'know!"
"Trouble?" Niles repeated almost incredulously, not quite understanding what the maid meant. "How on Earth would I get her into trouble? And, by the way, who is her?"
"Mrs Graves, obviously!" snapped Margaret, "If Mr Graves hears you askin' about her, he…"
The housekeeper trailed off with a shudder.
"Just…don't ask questions, and do anythin' she asks – God knows that woman deserves some kindness in her life!"
What? Kindness? What on Earth was that supposed to mean?! Why was she making it sound like Mrs Graves would be in danger if he asked about...well, anything, or did things slightly his way instead of completely her way?
Why was that a kindness, and not an employer and employee each figuring out how the other worked...?
Did...did she even need kindness? She had everything else in life, so why wouldn't she be so lucky as to have basic human decency shown to her as well? Was the maid saying all this so that he would fall into line with the rest of the servants?
But part of that didn't make sense. Surely everybody would've been doing it by now, if that were the case...
She had to be telling the truth, but he was incredulous that someone in Mrs Graves' position was in need of something so basic. So fundamental to the human experience.
Was it an invisible something she was lacking, in a house that was filled to the brim with things? Something that made her feel empty inside, that possessions could not fill?
And the housekeeper had mentioned Mr Graves, too. Was he not the loving, caring and devoted husband that Niles had imagined? Was he...perhaps, cold and distant, never giving affection or warmth, and only buying his wife things to placate and distract her from what she really wanted? Really needed?
Niles could imagine it, if that were the case. Not that it was fully settling right with him as the full answer – something still seemed like it was missing. Like a jigsaw with a piece taken directly out of the centre.
"What are you talking about?" he asked. "What do you mean, she needs kindness? Doesn't she get that already?"
But it didn't appear as though Margaret was willing to give him any answers beyond that. If anything, she looked panicked by his enquiries.
She made a noise in the back of her throat and shuffled a little on her feet, before she finally worked up the courage to say anything at all.
"You have a job here, let that be enough; you don't wanna spoil it with questions you don't need answered," she said, before turning to hurry away. "'Specially when that could get us all in trouble...!"
Before Niles could ask what she meant by that, she opened the door again and practically fled the room, leaving him by himself. Well, by himself but with all these unanswered questions...
He didn't know what to do with any of them, either. Could he take Margaret's apparent "advice" and just leave well enough alone? It didn't seem the right thing to do.
Not if Mrs Graves was hurting in some way that could be prevented, if someone spoke up.
But was that someone him? He was but a servant, after all. And she had dismissed him in anger already for getting too close...
Wandering over to where Margaret had been sat, he seated himself and slumped at the table. He had no more work for that day, as far as he was aware and no one had called him to do anything more. He wasn't sure what he would do, until the time came for him to eat with the others. Today had been difficult enough already, without all of the mysterious questions going around the house like ghosts only he could see.
Well, only he would acknowledge, anyway. That was the problem he wasn't sure if he could fix.
And, if his gut was telling him correctly, Mrs Graves needed it fixed before it was too late.