"i'm afraid you'll have to peel your potatoes a little faster than that in my kitchen, miss."
"your kitchen? soon enough it will be mine."
"what was that? what did you say? did you hear what she said, mrs o'hara?"
"no, i did not." mrs o'hara looked at over at catherine, who was slowly and deliberately peeling a small potato with her nose in the air. "but it was nothing very respectful, i'm sure."
"i said," catherine repeated, " and i will say it again, louder this time, that i mean to be mistress of malvern, and that everything in it , including this kitchen and its denizens, will be mine."
mrs jackson and mrs o'hara both laughed.
"how long has it been, mrs o'hara, since we listened to such nonsense?
"oh, let me see, it must be all of three weeks at least. what was her name, the big redheaded one?"
"of course, how could i have forgotten?" neither mrs jackson nor mrs o'hara missed a beat in their potato peeling as they talked.
"sadie meant to be mistress of malvern too," mrs jackson said to catherine. when catherine paused in her peeling to consider her answer, mrs jackson grabbed her wrist and put her hand with the knife against the potato in her other hand. "don't you want to know what happened to her?"
"not particularly." catherine languidly peeled the potato. "i don't see what it has to do with me."
"we put her on the high road to liverpool," said mrs o'hara. "she may be on it yet."
"bully for her."
mrs jackson and mrs o'hara laughed some more.
"she has quite the vocabulary, did you notice?" mrs jackson said. "did you hear what she referred to us as?"
"no, i must have missed it."
"she called us denizens."
"oh my. where did you learn a word like that. miss? from some drunken preacher walking the high road?'
catherine flushed. "i don't walk the high road, madam." she replied evenly. "and i don't associate with either drunks or preachers."
the two older women looked at each other. " i can believe that last part, at any rate," said mrs o'hara. "about not associating with preachers."
"well," mrs jackson observed judiciously, "there are some who don't hold with preachers, but nonetheless read their scripture. no doubt miss here belongs to that congregation."
catherine ignored this and peeled her potato a little more vigorously.
"do you belong to that congregation, miss?" mrs jackson persisted.
catherine put her nose a little higher in the air, causing her to miss her potato completely with the next swipe of her knife.
the two old women roared with laughter at this. "can't even peel a potato, and yet she has the wherewithal to disrespect her elders," observed mrs o'hara.
"where do they get them these days?" mrs jackson responded. "pretty soon the potatoes will be lying in the fields, because there won't be anybody who knows how to peel them. then starvation will overtake the land , and the last days will be upon us."
"i do believe you are right, mrs jackson. it is a pity, a great pity that circumstances will cause such a paradigm to prevail."
"yes, indeed." mrs jackson looked at catherine. "nothing to say for yourself, miss? here, you missed a spot on that potato. it might facilitate matters greatly if you looked at it while you were peeling it."
"don't cut it in half!" mrs o'hara cried. "you are supposed to be peeling it!"
"what's all this racket?"
catherine and the two older women looked up. the real mistress of malvern was standing in front of them.
"how is a person to nap in the afternoon with you lot cackling like a load of drunken geese?"
"we are sorry, madam." mrs jackson replied. she looked up at the ceiling of the kitchen. "we didn't realize the floors were so thin."
"what are you, an architect? who gave you leave to answer me back in that insolent manner, eh?" the mistress picked a big wooden spoon off the table and whacked mrs jackson across the head with it.
then she turned to catherine. "and who is this?"
"the new kitchen maid, madam, hired just last evening" mrs jackson replied. she flinched as the mistress raised the spoon again.
"hired in the evening? what was she doing, walking the high road? what sort of tramp gets hired in the evening? what time of day is that do be doing any hiring?"
"it was just a manner of speaking, madam," mrs jackson said, "i hired her around four o'clock. the sun was still high in the sky on a summer day."
"then don't speak in a manner, you moron, speak plainly!" mrs jackson got another whack on the head with the spoon.
"and this one!" the mistress turned back to catherine. "what did i tell you before about hiring any kind of help? she is entirely too good looking. i don't want my kitchen looking a chorus line. get rid of her."
"i wouldn't thought she was that good looking, madam." mrs jackson rubbed her head. "with that patch on her eye and all."
"men find that sort of thing romantic."
"i wouldn't know, madam. i'm a respectable bible-reading woman, and a cook. i'm not a bawdyhouse keeper."
the mistress raised the spoon again, half heartedly, then lowered it and sat down in a chair at the big table. her passion seemed spent. "just get rid of her."
"but where am i to go?" catherine asked.
"go? back to the high road, you baggage. where do the ducks go, when the pond dries up?"
"she was useless anyway," mrs o'hara told the mistress. "quite useless. why, do you know what the little wretch was telling us just before you showed up."
"no. i have no interest in what she was saying, or what any of you were saying. or what anybody in the world thinks, ever, ever, ever!" she shouted, then put her head down on the kitchen table and began to sob. "oh, oh, i am so unhappy. so, so miserably unhappy!" she pounded the table weakly.
mrs jackson and mrs o'hara looked at each other. mrs jackson rubbed her head again, then looked at catherine.
"go upstairs and get aurelie, madam's maid."
"no, the lord mayor of london. who else am i looking at?"
catherine didn't need to be told again, and scurried away.
here was an opportunity, before she had to hit the highway again.
she might have a chance to steal something.
and she might - meet the master of malvern!