The Velvet ChokerbySelena_Kitt©
They told her it was a huge old house, standing at the very apex of two dead end roads which met in a "v" at the front door, and that's where she found herself, pulling at a dulled oversize brass knocker after looking for but finding no doorbell. The agency had given her all the specifics, but it was the other girls, the ones who'd refused this assignment, who told her the rest.
Staring up at the house now, she decided there was nothing remarkable about it, except for its size. This much house, this many rooms, and he wants only one girl!? She frowned at the door.
"Hello, I'm Lydia." She held out her hand and smiled at the man who appeared, the rheumy blue of his eyes sunk deep into his skull, making dark shadows underneath.
"Good." It came out "goot," and she recognized the accent immediately. Hugo Kauffman was German, a neighbor to her native Austria, and she warmed to him immediately, in spite of the fact he ignored her outstretched hand as he waved her in.
"You are the fourth girl they have sent over in as many months." His voice continued to surprise her with its strong, resonant tone as he led her through the house. She was already estimating how much time it would take to clean and she strained her neck to peer into each open door as they passed.
"This is a very large house," she remarked as his gnarled hand gripped the banister and he started up a wide spiral staircase. He moved swiftly for a man of his age, showing little hesitation in his gait.
"I have a small staff of servants." He didn't look back at her as they climbed. "A woman who cooks my meals and cleans the living areas, bathrooms and such. I have a driver and a small crew who comes in once a month to do a deeper cleaning."
Lydia's expression twisted, puzzled, as they neared the top of the stairs, where Mr. Kauffman stopped and turned toward her. He waited for her to make the last step up, so they were standing face to face. His eyes moved over her, taking in the navy pants and a pink shirt with the company logo embroidered over her right breast.
"I am a bit old-fashioned," he warned, his eyes lingering on her tennis shoes. "I would require you wear a uniform. There are several in the servants' quarters. I'm sure you could find something to fit you."
She shrugged. "That's fine." It didn't matter to her what she wore to clean, as long as she got paid. "But I'm confused...if you already have someone to clean—?"
"Yes." He nodded, turning to the right. "This way."
She gasped as the door swung open, revealing an enormous room whose floor to ceiling windows glowed golden in the early morning light. The heavy rose-colored curtains were drawn aside, the sun streaming brightly on the blush-colored settee, the cherry wood writing desk, and the candelabra wall sconces on either side of a fireplace as high as she stood tall. The chandelier swinging from the ceiling threw prisms over the walls, and she noticed the wallpaper looked as shiny as satin and had a longing to touch it.
"This is the room you will need to clean." He moved forward and made a sweeping motion with his hand. She turned to her right and saw the tall four poster bed and for the first time realized this was a bedroom. "Once a day, dusting all the surfaces and vacuuming; changing the linens once a week; the heavy work, curtains and windows, once a month."
She nodded, listening, as she moved into the room, trying to take it all in at once. The portrait over the mantle was of a nude woman, her hair curling in honey-colored tendrils over her full breasts. Lydia glanced at the settee and realized it was the very same one.
"But your staff—?" She looked toward the bed again, its four posters draped with material.
"They will not come in here." He watched her move past the bed, her fingers touching the wood, heading for the tall pedestal in the corner.
Lydia's eyes were drawn to the dark cherry wood box on top. There was nothing unusual or ornate about it—in fact, it was so plain it seemed out of place amidst the lavish decoration of the room. It was just a large rectangular box, the wood shined up so brightly she could see her reflection in the top as she peered over to inspect it.
"You must not open it." His voice startled her and she whirled to see him standing directly behind her. "In any case, it is locked. But I do require it be polished. Daily."
"I can see that," she breathed, her heart still pounding. She frowned at the smooth surface of the box, not seeing a keyhole or latch—she couldn't even see the seam where it opened.
"Whose room is this?" she asked, unable to help herself. The woman in the portrait watched them both as he led her away from the box on the pedestal.
"It is the boudoir," he said simply, waving her toward the door. "Do you believe you can fulfill the duties I've outlined, Lydia?"
"Yes," she agreed, watching as he closed the door behind them. "I'm sure I can."
His eyes did another sweep of her outfit and he gave her a brief nod. "Very well. Let's find Mrs. Bauer and get you out of those clothes."
* * * *
"This one has lasted longer than the others, at any rate." Ana Bauer went about polishing silver with military precision. She admired her reversed reflection in a spoon before adding it back to the box.
"Not bad to look at, either." Jonas took another bite of his apple and tipped back further in his chair.
Mrs. Bauer sighed, working the edge of a butter knife. "I suppose. He seems to really like this one."
"Don't blame him." Jonas rocked precariously close to the china cabinet.
"Don't you have a car to wash or something?" she snapped, flipping the silver box closed with a thud and frowning at her ample reflection in the cabinet glass as she passed him.
He grinned. "Raining."
"I don't know what he pays you for," she huffed, nudging him on a back-tip with her not-insubstantial hip, forcing him to catch himself. The look of surprise on his face was reward enough and she smiled as she tucked the silver box back into the drawer.
"Don't be like that, Ana." Jonas slid a hand across the soft cotton material stretched over her roomy behind, giving her a quick squeeze. She flushed, waving his hand away, but looked pleased until she turned to see the young girl standing in the doorway.
"Have you finished?" the older woman asked, frowning at the way the blonde's curls escaped her cap, at how what should have been the shapeless black maid's dress seemed to mold to the girl's slender frame, her pristine apron accentuating the curve of her tiny waist.
Lydia nodded, holding up her tub of cleaning supplies. "I did the windows today."
"They needed it," Mrs. Bauer remarked. "Put your things away, then."
The girl moved around them towards the kitchen and paused at the swinging door, glancing over her shoulder. She saw the driver's eyes on her, the way he looked at the hem of her skirt at the slender calves below.
"I was wondering..." Lydia cleared her throat. She knew better than to ask Mrs. Bauer questions, but her curiosity compelled her. "The room...the one off the boudoir. The door is locked. Should I clean in there as well?"
"No." Hugo Kauffman's voice was unmistakable. Since she had been working for him, it seemed no matter where he was in the house, she could hear him when he spoke. This time, he was standing in the door of the dining room, resting his weight on the head of a carved, wooden cane.
"That is Mr. Kauffman's private room," Mrs. Bauer said, her spine straightening.
"Sir." Jonas' chair legs had repositioned themselves against the floor not a moment too soon, and he stood, the apple going behind his back as he clasped his hands there.
"Lydia, would you like a ride home?" Mr. Kauffman offered, giving a nod in Jonas' direction. "It is raining cats and dogs, as my old mutter used to say."
"No, thank you." She glanced toward the tall dining room window where they could see the rain coming down through the sheer white curtains and then over to Jonas, who smiled and inclined his head towards her. "I brought my umbrella. I'm fine to walk."
Mr. Kauffman raised a craggy eyebrow in her direction and then looked back at Jonas. "I have this man in my employ, my dear. You may as well use his services."
"No, really." She edged toward the door, her eyes shifting to Mrs. Bauer, whose frown had never left her face. "I like the rain."
"She likes the rain." Kauffman pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes for a moment as he looked back and forth between his driver and his maid. "Who can argue with that?"
"Thank you, though," Lydia said with a small smile. "It was kind of you to offer."
The girl turned and pushed the door to the kitchen open, eager to be rid of her cleaning supplies and out of the "uniform" required for the job. It usually only took her an hour to do a thorough cleaning of the room, but today, with the windows, it had been two, and she wanted to get home to her books. It was only another month before her citizenship exam.
"Lydia?" Mr. Kauffman's voice stopped her. "Would you mind giving me your opinion on something?"
She suppressed a sigh, turning to look at him. "Yes?"
"Downstairs, in my work room," he said. "It will only take a moment."
"Yes," she agreed, not sure how to say no. "Let me put this away."
With her cleaning supplies stowed in the cabinet until Monday, she pressed her hands nervously down her apron, smoothing the stiff material before she swung the kitchen door open again. Only Mr. Kauffman was standing there now. Mrs. Bauer and the driver had disappeared into one of the vast corners of the house, she imagined.
"Thank you, my dear." He turned, clearly expecting her to follow. She did, walking slightly behind him, down the hallway and to the door that opened underneath the wide staircase. "You are doing me a great service."
"I've never been downstairs," she murmured, holding the hand rail as they descended. The darkness of the stairwell gave way to an open space filled with boxes and various odds and ends making a pathway down the center.
"I am a bit of a pack rat, I'm afraid," he explained with a sheepish smile, reaching into his trouser pocket and pulling out a key. "This is a master key. This is the only one. It opens every room in the house."
Lydia watched, curious, as he unlocked a door to their left and swung it wide. The heat wave hit her first and she gasped, blinking and taking a step back.
"Yes, I apologize," he said, waving her in. "I am used to the temperature, I suppose."
Inside the room was a large brick construction that looked to Lydia like a chimney with a small fire burning inside at its base. The room was large, the cinderblock walls giving it an unfinished look, and everywhere she turned there were tall, strange metal machines.
"What is this place?" she asked, her eyes drawn to a table along the wall. "Are those...diamonds?"
"Yes," he agreed, picking a small bag off the table and using something that looked like a spatula to sweep them in with one expert motion. "This is what I do. I make jewelry."
"By hand?" Lydia moved toward the table, unable to help her curiosity. There was a diamond necklace spread out on the surface, the work clearly both intricate and delicate. "I've never seen so many diamonds in one place!"
"Yes," he affirmed, picking up the necklace and tenting it over his fingers. "These have a weight of 21.63 carats."
"It's beautiful." She swallowed, her eyes following the necklace's sparkle in the light of the forge fire. "How...how much would something like this cost?"
"Without the final gem here." He pointed to the large empty pronged setting at the bottom of the necklace. "It is already over a hundred thousand dollars."
Lydia gasped, her hand going to her throat. "What goes here, then?"
"That, my dear, is what I would like your opinion on..." He put the necklace back and spilled the contents of another small gem bag onto the table. "I have a beauty, here, another diamond I could put as the centerpiece, or perhaps either the ruby or the sapphire..."
"The sapphire," Lydia said immediately, her eyes wide as she stared at the display on the table.
"Yes?" He frowned, using thin tongs to pick up the sapphire and put it into place, gently bending the prongs to hold it there. "Perhaps."
"I've never seen anything so beautiful," she said, transfixed on the necklace.
"Would you mind trying it on?" He held it up, his eyes on hers, and saw her swallow.
Her mouth opened with a slight tremble. "I couldn't..."
"Yes, you can," he assured her. "Turn around."
Lydia presented her back to him and he lifted the necklace over her head, his fingers brushing the fine hairs on the back of her neck as he fastened the clasp. The weight of it shocked her, and she couldn't help fingering the sapphire dangling low between her breasts over the black cotton uniform.
"Here." He guided her by the elbow toward the table where a mirror was mounted on the wall. "What do you think?"
"I think it's magnificent," she whispered, her fingers moving over the cool surface of the necklace.
"It matches your eyes," he murmured, meeting them in the mirror. "The sapphire is perfect."
Lydia reached back and unclasped it, laying it gently on the surface of the table. "Thank you for letting me try it on."
"Your opinion is worth more than the necklace," he told her with a nod.
Smiling, she smoothed her apron, shaking her head. "You just wanted an excuse to keep me here until the rain stopped."
He laughed, the sound loud in the basement room, echoing off the walls. "You are magnificent, Lydia."
"No," she said, shaking her head again. "So this is what you do down here all day, then?"
"Puttering now, really." He swept the gems back into the bag as she watched. "Finding ways to spend the time."
"An expensive hobby?"
"Perhaps," he agreed. "I am too old for skiing and too pompous for stamp collecting."
She laughed. "Skiing here in America? There are no berge! Only hügel, all so klein! The skiing in Austria—"
"Yes." He waved her out of the room and locked it behind them. The key went into his trouser pocket. "I skied the Alps when I was young."
"I miss it," she admitted with a sigh.
"Why did you come here to America?"
She smiled, her eyes sad. "Why does anyone come to America? Land of the free, home of the brave..."
"Are you alone here?"
"My mother insisted we come, after my father died," she explained. "But then she got sick..."
Lydia's eyes fell to the floor. "Now she is gone..."
"Ah...so you are alone."
"Still..." he went on, climbing the steep stairs. "A pretty young girl like you must have a suitor or two?"
She flushed, glad for the darkness of the stairwell. "No. I have been too busy with work and school, and now studying for my citizenship exam."
"Tut!" He turned at the top of the stairs, holding out a hand as she came up the last few. "A young girl like yourself should be thinking of little else but love..."
"So do you sell this jewelry of yours?" she asked, changing the subject.
"Rarely," he admitted, shrugging. "I like to keep things. I like to look at them."
"It would be nice to have...nice things," she said softly, looking at the fine gold chain around his neck. "You always wear that...?"
He nodded. "A keepsake."
"Mr. Kauffman?" They both looked up as Ana Bauer bustled by. "A package came for you. I put it in your office."
"Thank you, Ana," he said with a nod.
Lydia moved past Mrs. Bauer toward the hall closet to retrieve her coat and umbrella, ignoring the dark look on the woman's face.
"Oh, Lydia," he said, as if he were speaking an afterthought. "The jewelry box in the boudoir needs to be polished."
Mrs. Bauer turned up her nose and sniffed, giving Lydia a smug smile as Mr. Kauffman made his way down the hall toward his office, leaning heavily on his cane.
"I'll do it in on Monday," Lydia promised, but she was sure that neither of them heard her.
She passed his office on the way out, the door open just a crack, and his voice drifted out. "You won't need your umbrella. It's stopped raining."
"Yes." She smiled at the door. "Thank you."
"Don't forget the jewelry box," he reminded as she slipped her coat on.
"I won't," she promised, pulling open the heavy front door, already thinking about the studying she had to do at home and where she was going to throw together for dinner.
* * * *
After months of cleaning the boudoir, Lydia had established a routine. She had been cleaning homes since her mother's death, and it had always been a kind of meditation for her. There was nothing exciting or new about dusting or vacuuming, just a mindless precision, letting her mind float free.
She entered the same semi-trance every day as she made her way methodically around the room, shining the vases and the face of the antique clock on the fireplace, beating and fluffing the pillows on the settee and Edwardian chairs. The chandelier was due to be hand-cleaned soon, but she wouldn't do that today.
She arranged fresh flowers in two vases on the cherry wood tables at the beginning of every week, and while she had to clean the writing desk, the blotter with the stationary laid out on the top were not to be moved—they sat as if someone were coming soon to write a letter with the old-fashioned quill.
Mrs. Bauer and the rest of the staff still refused to go near it and Lydia didn't understand. It was a beautiful room, and although she wouldn't have admitted it, she often liked to pretend it was hers. She had never felt that way about any other place before, including the little room she let. Nothing had ever felt like home here, not like this. She had even once dared to climb into the four poster bed, drawing the sheer curtains around her like a dream.
She didn't ask questions anymore. No one would tell her who the woman in the portrait was, or why the staff refused to enter the room, but Mr. Kauffman paid well, and she'd never experienced anything strange or untoward. Not until she started losing time.
The first time it happened, she was polishing the jewelry box. Lydia had a habit of humming while she worked, songs her mother had sung to her as a child, mostly, and she was admiring her reflection in the dark shine of the wood when she heard the echo.
Frowning, she stopped her humming to listen, but it was gone. She went on, her voice soft, her mouth forming German words, and then she heard it again. It was the same tune, sung as if it were on a slight time-delay, just a little behind her own.
Glancing around the room, she was certain there was no one there, and anyway, the sound seemed to be coming from in front of her—from the jewelry box. She rubbed the dark surface with her cloth, round and round, seeing her own frown reflected back at her. Then she heard it again, only this time, Lydia wasn't singing at all. The soft, gentle hum mirrored her own, and she stood entranced.
It was Mrs. Bauer who found her. She would only knock and call for her, and Lydia liked that the older woman wouldn't enter the room, no matter how long it took her to answer. When Lydia glanced at her watch, she saw it had been an hour since she began cleaning the jewelry box, and she ran for the door, flushed and panting and making excuses to the housekeeper.
She thought she must have dozed off, or just zoned out in her cleaning semi-trance state. She reasoned with herself, reassured herself it was nothing. Until the next time it happened. And the next. She was losing time every day now it seemed, spending longer and longer standing in front of the jewelry box.
In all the time she had spent polishing it, she had never seen how it might open—no seam appeared on the smooth surface—until one day, it did. Lydia rubbed the cloth around the sharp corners, sliding over the slick front from edge to edge, and for the first time, she saw a line in the wood where a seam was meant to be.