A little bit of darkness to brighten your day
Tales of slaughtered children, an insane murderess, and ghostly cries in the night are kept alive by the older citizens of the small English town of Brandeston, but Nora Taylor is starting to suspect that the haunting truth of Edgewood’s past might be more disturbing than any local ghost story.
My story, “Edgewood,” is a ghost story, a work of speculative fiction about two women from different times bound together by parallel tragedies and the heavy burden of guilt.
I’ve been chewing it over in my head for nearly a decade, if not more, and 5 years ago, I put it down and hadn’t picked it back up since. It’s time. I’m restructuring, changing some elements, and putting it through a complete overhaul. Rewriting one character completely, and just trimming the fat, so to speak. It was, when first complete, at over 104,000 words; I’ve already cut 10,000 of them. I’d like to get it down to somewhere around 80,000 words.
An anguished howl claws its way up her throat but the agony chokes her and she is silent, motionless, too exhausted even to cry. She feels as though an abyss has opened in her chest, an empty pit where her heart used to be. She has become hollow. There is nothing left for her and there is nothing left of her.
She dozes for a while, flitting in and out of consciousness. Though she can't be sure sleep truly finds her, when she opens her eyes again she senses that some of her strength has returned.
The aching void in her chest has been filled with resolve, with a sense of purpose. Cradling the bundle in her left arm, she raises her right hand and gropes until she feels the fibers of the coarse rope scrape against her wrist. She closes her fist around it and hefts herself upward.
Her injured ankle is throbbing again but she barely registers the pain. Putting as much weight on it as she is able, she rises shakily. On the ground below is a slick puddle of blood and fluids and when she takes a step forward, the same reddish liquid drips from the hem of her saturated skirt. Lifting the coils of rope from where they hang on the wall, she drapes them over her forearm before venturing from the comparative warmth of the stable.
The only concession she makes to the icy air is to clasp the precious bundle more tightly against her. Step after unwavering step she plods forward, using the remaining few lights emanating from the manor's windows as a focal point, heedless to the grating of the bones in her ankle. The gash has re-opened and she feels a warm, sticky trickle of blood that oozes each time she puts weight on the wounded leg, but she pays it no mind.
She knows what she needs to do.
July 26, 1993
Nora raised her eyes just in time to frantically jerk the steering wheel to the right, veering the car sharply from the collision course she'd been on with a tree. Tires screeching, she swerved into the opposing lane, then pulled onto the raised bank where she slammed on the parking brake.
Once her blood pressure had dropped to normal, she returned her now-undivided attention to the letter, hoping to spot some clue or detail she had missed amongst her mother's rambling. She carefully re-read each word on the unlikely chance that she might find some overlooked hint, a small phrase that would reveal her destination's whereabouts.
June 15, 1993
I know I just sent you a postcard from London last week, but something exciting has happened!
I would call, of course, but as you've insisted on holing yourself up in that secluded house in the woods with no phone service, I thought that would be rather difficult. Really, Nora, if you would just
Your father and I were touring Suffolk when we spotted the most breathtaking manor house—I could see the rooftops towering over the trees and I begged your father to take me for a closer look. Well, darling, it's just the most beautiful house you've ever seen! We were taking pictures when an elderly man came around the side and introduced himself. We asked whether they gave paid tours, and he explained that it wasn’t a museum, that it was privately owned and he and his wife have been looking to sell for some time now.
Darling, I know this is all very sudden, but we went back to the hotel and discussed things—you know your father has been so restless and unhappy since he took early retirement from the firm, and he misses England. We've been looking for a new project and Daddy called in some connections he had and, well... SURPRISE! We bought a house! And I use the term “house” in the loosest of terms. It’s a mansion, dearest! Huge!
I won't bore you with the details right now, but it really is perfect. It’s less than a half hour drive to Ipswich and there are so many quaint little towns along the way that we should be able to do quite well turning it into a Bed & Breakfast, giving historical tours, that sort of thing. It'll be a good deal of work to convert it but you know how I love this type of thing. We've already looked into hiring people to begin the renovations and repairs.
Which brings me to my main point, Nora, your father and I were hoping you'd consider coming to England. There's no getting out of our trip unless we're willing to forfeit all the money we paid, but we need someone to oversee the start of the work, be on site to sort details, etc. Mr. Whittle seemed quite eager to get everything settled as quickly as possible, so we delayed some things long enough to sign the documents.
Mostly, darling, your father and I both think it would be good for you to get a fresh start after everything that's happened. Of course, the arrangement wouldn't have to be permanent if you don't want—you could come over for just the few months or however long it takes to get the B&B underway—think of it as a vacation! But you know that, if you'd like, you're always welcome to come live with us and start over.
The number for the hotel where we're staying is 0800 094 4497 and we'll be there a few more days. Please call, and we'll figure everything out.
When she'd received the letter, Nora had taken a few days to think it over. Her first instinct was to decline, but while her father had been born in England, Nora had never even been out of the US. She also supposed her mother might have a point: after everything she'd been through, her life needed a major overhaul. Her current situation was a far cry from the life she'd envisioned for herself: friendless, single, and clinically depressed at twenty-seven. Yet here she was, completely alone and so despondent that she’d "holed up in the woods."
Still, Nora had concluded she wasn't ready for such an immense change. She had only recently reached the point where she was able to get herself dressed in the morning without bursting into tears.
Intending to call and inform her mother of her refusal, she had rummaged around the cabin gathering all the loose change she could find, going so far as to uproot couch cushions, raid the car, and empty her purse to retrieve any hidden coins. Once she had amassed a handful of quarters, dimes, and nickels, she'd traipsed into town to the one payphone there. Entering the graffiti-strewn phone booth, she eyed the various musings scribbled on the walls, wondering offhandedly whether "Jenny & Zack" were still "2gether 4evr" before lifting the receiver.
The long distance charges were exorbitant and she had gone through the entire handful of change by the time she'd hung up. By the end of the call, her mother had somehow managed to talk her into coming to England. On the walk back to the cabin, mulling over the conversation, Nora wasn't sure exactly how her mother had managed to change her mind.
She had insisted that Nora's help was essential. She and Nora's father had only been able to postpone their trip for the time it took to get the sale documentation in order. Although Nora's parents were considerably wealthy, they had already invested a rather large sum of money into the down payment on the manor and legal fees, so they were eager to get the work underway and have the house converted into something revenue-producing as soon as possible. The fact that her father had recently retired as partner of a very substantial law firm with international connections had helped to speed along the legal proceedings, but Nora's presence would be necessary to oversee the start of the restoration process.
She had returned to the cabin exhausted by the whole affair. She knew her mother worried about her but all she had wanted was to be left alone with her grief. As she'd surveyed the interior of her current abode, though, she'd had to admit that she wasn't entirely unexcited to be leaving. The happy memories of childhood summers spent in the family's cottage had not been enough to overshadow her recent trauma and despite her hopes, it had lost any sense of security it may once have held. It had become a place to hide from the world, a place where Nora had spent the better part of a year struggling to convince herself that it was worth the effort to even get out of bed.
Over the next few days, Nora had made the necessary arrangements, and to her surprise, the preparation and the overseas flight itself had been relatively uneventful. The complications had started after her plane had landed at Ipswich Airport when the man at the rental car facility had been unable to give her detailed directions of any kind. He had, however, been all too happy to charge what she considered an excessive fee for an obviously used road map. Strike one.
Certain she'd been swindled, she had left the office and proceeded to the lot, where she'd climbed into what she'd assumed to be the driver's seat of the rental car, only to find the steering wheel situated on the opposite side. Strike two.
Unfamiliar with both the foreign vehicle and the driving practices, Nora had had made so many U-turns on the expedition from Ipswich to Suffolk that she’d lost count, and had already gotten lost twice along the way. An hour and a half past her estimated arrival time, she at last found herself in the general area where this manor house—this "Edgewood Hall"—was supposedly located, but when she was still unable to find the turn-off and had almost driven into a tree in the process, she felt her remaining reserves of patience quickly draining.
Re-reading the letter had done absolutely no good. Staving the urge to ball the thing up in frustration, she turned her attention to the map, tracing her finger over the vast maze of vein-like interconnecting streets, roads, lanes, highways, alleys, and avenues. She re-checked the note she had hurriedly scratched on the back of a receipt as her mother had rattled off directions over the pay phone's static-y connection. According to her hastily scribbled words, Nora was attempting to locate a turn-off from Framlingham Road. However, she had been unable to even find "Framlingham Road" in the first place, despite the fact that, from what little she could decipher from the map, she should have reached it at least five miles ago.
Eyeing the route under her fingertip, she grumbled angrily under her breath, "Who the hell buys an English manor house on a whim?"
I think, she admitted, it might be time for a break.
She climbed out of the car and stretched, grimacing at the stiffness in her neck. Though cool, the air was noticeably thick with moisture, the fog so heavy that already her bare arms felt damp and clammy. All about her was so silent that Nora marveled at the marked lack of insect noise and birdsong, concluding that the fog must have dampened the ambient sound.
Reclining against the car, she gazed at the branches overhead, barely visible through the opaque mist, and made a deal with herself: Another fifteen minutes of searching and then you can head back into town and check into a hotel.
Almost as soon as she had formed the thought, a breeze rose and began whisking away the dense fog. Lost in her thoughts of a comfortable hotel, imagining the Jacuzzi room—did they have Jacuzzis in hotel rooms in Europe?—she would splurge on using her parents’ credit card, minutes passed before she realized that the shapes above the treeline she’d been distractedly staring at appeared, upon closer inspection, to be tower rooftops. A huge house set back from the road. Hadn't her mother's letter mentioned something along those lines?
Nora hurriedly crawled into the car and restarted the engine, driving slowly back the way she’d just come. Her eyes raked the side of the road the for any sign of the turn-off she must have missed in the fog.
After less than a minute, she spied a pair of wrought iron gates standing open about fifteen feet back from the road. In front, set in a stone pillar, was a large bronze plaque proclaiming "Edgewood Hall, 1809." With a sigh of relief, she steered through the massive gates and started up the tree-lined drive.
As the house came into view, the first thing she noticed was the sheer size of the building looming before her. Constructed of grey stone, the manor faced west and was shaped like an "L" with a tower on the far right toward the back. While not quite a castle, it certainly dwarfed her childhood home, which had itself been sizable with its five bedrooms and four bathrooms.
She parked the car in front of a set of large stone steps and climbed out to survey her new residence. Immediately before the steps, the walk split into a "T" with both paths curving around the sides of the house, while the center walkway continued to the front door. Ivy completely covered the left side of the house and had grown up one of the white-painted, peeling brick chimneys. Though the dense green leaves didn't obscure any of the numerous white-trimmed windows, the widespread vines did look as though they planned to swallow the remainder of the manor in due course.
Lining the center walkway were unkempt, chest-high hedges. As she passed between them, their scraggly branches caught at her sleeves, scratching her arms. She pulled free and continued to the double doors set under a small slate roof supported by stone columns. She had just raised her knuckles to knock when she heard a noise.
An elderly couple rounded the corner. The stooped, white-haired man was carrying a briefcase and nodding inattentively to the ceaseless prattle of the stout woman at his side. The moment they caught sight of her, the woman bustled over to Nora, a welcoming grin splitting her round, rosy-cheeked face.
"Oh, yeh must be Nora! Is tha' short fer 'Eleanor,' dear? Such a nice name! 'Ow lovely t' make yehr acquaintance!"
Without waiting for a response, she reached out and enfolded Nora in a warm hug. The top of the woman's grey head came to just below Nora's nose. Nora instinctively tensed before forcing her muscles to relax, not wanting to be rude.
The woman seemingly hadn’t noticed Nora's discomfort and didn’t falter even momentarily. "I'm Nancy Whittle, but o' course yeh'd prob'ly guessed tha' already! Welcome t' Edgewood Hall! We were worryin' about the fog an' whether or not yeh'd be able t' find th' turnoff, but I see that yeh 'ave. 'Ralph,' I said, 'Ralph, in this fog she'll never find it, she won't!' but I'm glad t' see I was wrong. We're both s' happy tha' sech a nice fam'ly's takin' o'er th' place, and jest when Ralph an' I been sayin' tha' we's both gettin' on in years and wouldn' be able t' care fer it much longer. And jest think—"
Mrs. Whittle halted mid-sentence only because her husband, upon reaching them, laid a firm hand on his wife's shoulder. Nora wondered how long the woman could have continued without pausing for breath had she not been interrupted.
Finally releasing a thankful Nora from her arms, Mrs. Whittle concluded, "This 'ere's Ralph," indicating Mr. Whittle with a nod of her head.
Extending her hand to Mr. Whittle, Nora resisted the urge to shake her head to clear it after Mrs. Whittle's animated greeting. She forced a smile and managed, "Hello. Yes. I'm Nora. My parents purchased this house from you?"
"Pleased t' meet yeh, Nora. I've got ever'thin' right 'ere," Mr. Whittle responded, producing a stack of paperwork from his briefcase. "We were sayin' our goodbyes t' th' grand ol' place while we were waitin' for yeh. Sorry we weren't out front t' greet yeh when y' arrived."
Mr. Whittle started to hand her the pile of documents, then hesitated. "There's a whole mess o' papers 'ere. Yehr parents 'ave already signed everythin' an’ they’ve their copies on ‘em—we'd just agreed to hang about til yeh arrived. Why don't I help yeh into th' house an' give yeh a quick tour?"
Without waiting for a reply, he turned to his wife. "Missus, why don't yeh g' back t' th' 'ouse an' call a cab fer us?"
Mrs. Whittle opened her mouth eagerly but at a stern look from Mr. Whittle, simply nodded an enthusiastic goodbye and trotted briskly in the direction whence they’d come.
Mr. Whittle motioned for Nora to accompany him into the manor, explaining, "Our bags 'as all been sent on ahead t' our daughter's where we'll be stayin'. Soon 'as I get yeh settled, we'll be out o' yehr hair."
He gestured at the retreating figure of his wife. "We live—that is, we used t' live, in a small house on th' outskirts o' th' property, out past th' stables. 'Twas built a lot later 'n th' main house an' it's a lot cheaper t' keep up. This ol' house is beautiful, all righ', an' jest full o' character, 'n all, but we've never been able t' do right by ‘er. By rights, she ought ter be a museum."
He paused to pull out a ring with a number of keys dangling from it. Deftly selecting one, he unlocked the large white doors leading into the house before continuing.
"S' far's I know, after th' original fam'ly vacated th' place, back in th' late eighteen 'undreds er sumfin, th' ol' 'ouse stood empty fer a righ' number a years, an' then it changed hands several times after that. Then, me da' bought this place many a year ago in an auction but 'e was never able to fix 'er up right proper, though 'e did what 'e could. 'E sunk all 'is money into buyin' the place an' startin’ t’ get the wirin’ an’ the plummin’ up t’ date, then couldn't get 'is plans off the ground, see, an' it was too expensive t' live in, so 'e jest closed 'er up and tried to keep her in as best shape as ‘e could. 'E did occasionally sell off a few o' th' antiques 'ere an' there when 'e needed supplemental income, like, but 'e hated doin' it, so most of th’ original furnishin's still 'ere in th' 'ouse.
"I inherited 'er when Da' died, and Mrs. Whittle and I, a few years back, an got ‘er all cleaned up an’ repaired in the hopes of convertin' the ol' place into a museum or an inn or summat, like yehr parents are planning, but we never got ‘round t' it. We've kept th' utilities turned off t' save money since we weren't never able to do ennythin' like we'd hoped."
He broke off and nodded solemnly. "It's good somebody's finally gonna treat 'er right. Th' south wing's fallen into a bit more disrepair, like. Mrs. Whittle tried ‘er best t' keep up wif th' housecleanin' an' sech but it gets t' be too much, so mind yeh don't go traipsin' ‘round that wing o' th' 'ouse by yehrself. She works hard, but she's never liked th' ol' place like I do—says it feels haunted er some sech nonsense, silly ol' duck. We're gettin' on in years an' I want t' see 'er happy an' comfortable. We're jest too old t' be livin' s'far away from, well, 'civilization,' yeh know," he finished with a chuckle.
They crossed the threshold and stepped into the entrance hall. Nora drew an appreciative breath. Though the foyer was dark and rather chilly, she could see just how grand of a place it had been and, with some work, could be again. The dark wood floors were scuffed but seemed in good condition and matched the tone of the wood panels on the walls. The grand staircase, the room’s clear focal point, was made of the same dark wood. It climbed to a landing where the stairs split, continuing in opposite directions to the second story of the north and south wings.
A worn burgundy carpet runner started at the door and led all the way up the stairs to the landing, and above her head hung a low, antique chandelier that appeared to have been wired for electricity but looked otherwise authentic. To her left, a set of doors was propped open to reveal a sitting room of some sort. Over the unlit fireplace hung an ornate, gold-framed mirror, and though the room was dim, she could make out some of the details of the intricately carved mantle.
More doors lined the hallway to the left and Nora, eager to explore, was pondering what secret treasures they might contain when she was overcome by such an intense sadness that she had to bite back the sob that rose in her throat seemingly from nowhere. True, she had grown accustomed to being overcome with emotion, but had thought in recent months that she was beyond such outbursts. This feeling, this overwhelming, powerful sense of misery… she recognized it, had almost, in a perverse way, embraced it in the past, had reveled in its rawness, feeling as though she deserved it, but that was before. Here, in this hall, it felt out of place, so sudden and out of proportion to the situation in which she found herself. It didn't make sense. This pain was fresh, raw, as though the wound was new, as though it had all just happened—
Before she could examine it any further, however, Mr. Whittle was speaking again.
"—an’ we've 'ad th' water an' sewer turned back on, but th' phones are out fer a few more days. The 'lectricity's 'sposed t' be turned on t'morrow, but until then, if yeh need, there's some torches an' some candles laid out on th' kitchen table. I s'pose yehr stayin' in a hotel 'til yehr parents come t' join yeh?"
Nora took a moment to process everything Mr. Whittle had just said; his accent was every bit as thick as his wife's, though thankfully he spoke more slowly.
"Well," she hesitated, "Originally, I was planning to find a hotel for a few days but only because I didn't know the house was in livable condition. I don't have any room reservations yet and I would get a lot more work done if I was actually staying here..."
A worried wrinkle appeared in the centre of Mr. Whittle’s forehead but before he could contradict her, Nora went on.
"You say the electricity should be turned on by tomorrow?"
He nodded but still looked uneasy.
She had only one more question. "What about bathrooms?"
"Ah, yes, I was wonderin' if yeh was gonna ask me 'bout tha'; I thought maybe, as dead set on 'authenticity' as yehr mother seemed, yeh'd wanna keep traditional an' use a chamber pot."
He grinned, pleased at his own joke, but when she didn't react in kind he cleared his throat and continued, "We were only able t' afford t' install the one, down 'ere, in what used t' be a larder off th' kitchen. Yehr parents said they were right glad 'bout tha' though, since they want t' be extra careful 'bout maintainin' the original structure o' th' 'ouse, as far's possible."
"But, they'll have to install bathrooms, whether it's an anachronism or not."
"Oh, aye, but they jest said they wanted t' be careful with the look of it, is all. Well, 'ere, follow me, an' I'll take yeh t' th' kitchen."
Mr. Whittle led Nora across the foyer and through a door on the left which opened into a formal dining room. From there, they entered the kitchen, which, to Nora's relief, did have some modern appliances, presumably from the Whittle’s initial hopeful attempts at modernization. The stove did look rather dated, but there was a refrigerator and even, to her surprise, a microwave.
After setting the stack of paperwork on the worn surface of the kitchen table, Mr. Whittle turned to Nora and reached into his pocket, producing the large key ring from earlier.
"Well, m'dear, these're all th' keys t' th' main house, an’ our own house out back. Each o' th' rooms 'as its own lock as well, though they should all be open, at least in the north wing, as I went through meself this weekend. Nancy did air out th' first room at the top o’ the stairs fer yeh, though I told 'er yeh prob'ly wouldn' be stayin' 'ere, but now I 'spose it's a good thing she did.
"Like I said earlier, yehr parents 'ave already signed all o' th' necessary papers an' unless there's ennythin' else I can do fer yeh, I'll be off an' leave yeh to it. Did yeh need me t' show y' around some more? Help yeh wif yehr luggage?"
Clearly, the man was eager to be off so Nora declined. He looked around and sighed, a wistful expression on his face.
"Take good care of 'er, will yeh? I always regretted tha' we couldn' do right by this place. She's a grand ol' house, even if she does 'ave 'er... erm, quirks. An' don' listen t' all that nonsense they'll be spoutin' off in town. No matter what th' Missus says, I've never had nothin' too strange 'appen t' me. Jest a little oddities now an' again, maybe somethin' t' catch yeh off guard, but it's never ennythin' much. An' I'm sure they're wrong 'bout th' murders..."
Nora started and shot him a quizzical look, but he quickly changed his tone.
"Oh, it's nothin', it's nothin', jest th' jabberin' of an' ol' man. Don't mind me, I'll be off then."
He turned and led the way out of the kitchen. Nora followed a few steps behind, biting her tongue against the barrage of questions she now longed to ask. Murders?
The mini-tour must have taken more time than she'd thought because a cab was already idling out front and Mrs. Whittle stood waiting. She waved a cheery goodbye when she saw Nora, who, still thrown by Mr. Whittle's revelation, could do little more than smile weakly. He joined his wife in the cab and rode off, leaving Nora standing in the entryway, feeling more than a little overwhelmed.
March 24, 1859
Tabitha pulled her shawl more closely about her shoulders. The spring day had dawned considerably colder than she had expected and she ardently wished she had worn her heavy winter cloak, unfashionable and moth-eaten as it was.
Besides, she thought forlornly, fingering the shawl's fraying hem, this old thing isn't in a much better state; I might as well have been warm and worn-looking as cold and worn-looking.
She attempted—unsuccessfully—to distract her anxious thoughts by watching the rapidly passing scenery outside the carriage window. Pangs of loneliness—or perhaps hunger; she had skipped breakfast out of nervousness—shot through her stomach, but she was nevertheless grateful to be the only passenger in the brougham. She'd have been hard-pressed to make polite conversation with a stranger. After spending the past two days alone and away from her last remaining loved one in all the world, however, Tabitha was finally beginning to grow eager for companionship of any sort, and trepidation notwithstanding, was glad her journey was almost at an end.
She returned her gaze to the window, marveling at how different the landscape here was from the sunny little farming town in which she’d been raised. April was drawing near but one might have understandably assumed it was November: the trees were skeletal against the flat grey of the overcast sky and when she had been awakened that morning by the jostling of the brougham, a dense fog had been pressing against the coach windows on all sides. The mist had only cleared within the last hour, driven away by a stiff wind, that, coupled with the barren landscape, was so foreboding and unwelcoming that she felt her stomach clench again.
Oh, Emily, Tabitha shivered, her fingers twisting themselves into knots, How I miss you already. Have I made a terrible mistake?
Although her friend had been sorry to see her go, Emily's mother, Mrs. Amelia Livengood, had wasted no opportunity to vehemently assure both girls that it was very much for the best.
A Livengood cousin, Mrs. Elizabeth Carey, had first written of the sad occurrence at Edgewood Hall merely as an item of gossip, but once the idea had taken hold in both the older women’s minds, there had been no stopping them. Mrs. Livengood had sent back a letter describing Tabitha's pitiable plight as a "nearly penniless, well-educated minister's daughter, orphaned at nineteen," and from that point on, Mrs. Carey had made it her personal charitable crusade to see Tabitha placed in the Thorngood household. She’d spoken to Edgewood's housekeeper, and almost before Tabitha knew what had taken place, her future had been decided for her as Edgewood Hall's new governess over the one remaining son and heir.
Never having traveled more than ten miles from the home in which she had been born, Tabitha had been more than a little hesitant to accept. However, Mrs. Livengood—who regarded herself as a very religious and upstanding woman—had feared she would be expected in the name of Christian charity to offer her daughter's closest friend a surrogate family and was quite pleased to rid herself of that burden. As such, she frequently reminded Tabitha that, having no previous experience and no alternative means of income, the young woman should count herself quite lucky indeed to have been offered a position in such an illustrious household.
The coach suddenly pulled to a halt, jolting Tabitha from her reverie. They must have arrived. Smoothing her skirt, Tabitha took a deep breath and held it as the driver climbed down from his perch and perfunctorily opened the door. She shakily reached for his proffered arm and stepped down on unsteady legs to gaze upon her new home.
Her eyes widened. She had thought the Livengood townhouse large but it now seemed insignificant compared to the grandeur before her. Before she could begin to take it all in, a tall, austere woman in black stepped forward and greeted Tabitha, lips pursed in disapproval. Her hands, sinewy and pale, were clasped at her waist, clutching tightly at one another with restrained force as though holding themselves back from striking out.
Like white spiders, Tabitha thought and shuddered before she could restrain herself.
The woman's voice was cool, emotionless, but as her eyes traveled over Tabitha, from the top her skewed bonnet to the dusty hem of her traveling outfit hovering a few inches too high above scuffed shoes, her look of distaste deepened.
Tabitha’s nod of greeting was met with a sniff of disdain.
"So." The word had barely managed to escape the woman’s lips before being clipped by her teeth. Tabitha was certain she was about to be berated or dismissed, sent back whence she’d come like a reconsidered purchase, but instead the tall woman wordlessly motioned the driver to bring the baggage before turning and walking rigidly into the house. Tabitha had little choice but to follow, balling her hands into tight fists at her sides to prevent her fingers' anxious dance.
Immediately upon entering, Tabitha moved to one side and assumed what she hoped was proper posture—shoulders back, chin high—in hope of changing this foreboding woman's clearly inferior opinion of her, but the other merely stood in silence until the driver had deposited Tabitha's few possessions inside the door. Only after he’d departed did she turn to address Tabitha.
"I am the housekeeper, Ms. March. I had thought to introduce you immediately to the young master, but—" she again eyed Tabitha's appearance distastefully, "—I presume that you would like to make yourself more presentable first. I'll show you to your room." Hands clasped in what Tabitha would soon come to recognize as her favorite pose, she started up the richly carpeted stairs without a backwards glance, leaving Tabitha to scurry after.
The young girl hurriedly gathered her things and rushed after the departing housekeeper, resisting the urge to gape at the splendor around her. She caught up at the landing, where they ascended the left flight of stairs toward the north wing.
At the end of the long hallway, Ms. March opened the last door on the right and stepped back to allow Tabitha to pass, watching dispassionately as the young girl struggled past her to drop the heavy bags with a sigh of relief at the foot of the bed.
“This will, obviously, be your room. I'm sure you will find it more than adequate. You may be surprised to find that you’ll be staying here instead of in the room adjoining the nursery in the south wing, but Mr. Thorngood has decided it’s high time for young Master Thomas to grow up and start dealing with his night terrors on his own, so he’s ordered you installed here instead. This does not mean that you won’t be expected to deal with any nighttime disturbances, of course. Mr. Thorngood simply wants Thomas to stop relying on having another person near before he’ll sleep.”
Tabitha had, indeed, been expecting to be lodged near the nursery—her new ward, if she remembered correctly, was still very young—but before she’d even fully registered this information, the housekeeper continued.
“I will give you a few minutes to refresh yourself, at which point, I assume, I’ll introduce you to your charge."
She turned to leave but then stopped. With swift but unsettling stiffness, she swiveled her head toward Tabitha to add coolly, "You'll want to wash your face and change out of your traveling clothes into something more appropriate. The household is, of course, still in mourning; I trust you've suitable attire. I do hope that your other... things... are a trifle more presentable."
With a sniff that was already becoming familiar, she pursed her lips. "Do keep in mind, though, that you shan't need much in the way of fashion in this household. Immodesty and vanity are not only sinful, they’re vulgar and unbecoming. I trust you’ll come to understand that, above all, proper decorum is of the utmost importance."
With this, she turned and marched out of the room, soundly shutting the door behind her.
Tabitha pressed her lips together and blinked wildly, holding back the tears that threatened to spring forth. She struggled against the overwhelming urge to bolt, to run from this house and not stop until she found someone to take her home.
Ahh, the voice in her head reminded, But what home? You have nowhere run.
The miserable realization struck her that she had no alternative but to make the best of her current situation. Composing herself with several deep breaths, she crossed to the bed to sit primly on the edge of the mattress. Her hands fluttered in her lap, fingertips thoughtlessly picking at a loose thread in the fabric of her skirt as she turned her attention to the room around her, this place that was to be her new home.
Papered in a bright pattern of yellow roses and green vines, the walls matched the delicately embroidered counterpane on the bed, which was situated with its headboard against the left wall. In the opposite corner next to the windows, Tabitha was pleased to see a writing desk with several drawers and a little wooden chair. She reflected happily that she would be able to compose letters to Emily here, by candlelight at night, in the privacy of her own room.
On the inside wall next to the door stood a bureau. Tabitha rose to her feet and crossed to study her reflection in the mirror. No wonder Ms. March was so disapproving, she noted with dismay. Her face and hands, along with her wrinkled skirts, were dusty from the carriage-ride, and her unwashed, golden brown curls had escaped from under her bonnet, several limp locks hanging about her pallid face. The shadows beneath her huge, pale blue eyes only served to underscore the weariness that was evident in her drooping features and the way she carried her slight frame. The overall impression she gave was that of a lost, unkempt, and vaguely confused child.
She shook herself into action and set to work tidying her appearance. Removing her bonnet, she poured a basin-full of water from the china pitcher atop the dresser and scrubbed her face and hands, then smoothed her hair as best she could and re-pinned the fallen strands. From the trunk she’d placed at the foot of her bed, she took out her few dresses and laid them on the bed, surveying the selection with a silent word of thanks to Emily. The traveling ensemble that had so appalled Ms. March had been one of Tabitha's own outfits, but most of the other few items of clothing she’d brought were Emily's plainer castoffs from the last few seasons. Though Emily had a fuller figure, with a little tailoring and a few adjustments, Tabitha had been able to alter the dresses to fit her slight frame; hopefully Ms. March would find these higher quality garments more presentable.
Tabitha remembered, as a young girl, attempting to hide the twinges of jealousy at the extensive wardrobe her friend had taken for granted: light green silks, sky blue taffetas, red velvet frocks. After Ms. March's lecture on vanity, however, she was thankful she had brought only plain, functional clothing more suited to her new life as a governess. She was glad also that they were dark-colored; she should have realized the household would still be in mourning but the thought hadn't occurred to her.
She folded the dark blue cotton and brown muslin dresses and placed them in one of the drawers. She also put away the dark green silk gown, which was decidedly too fancy for everyday wear and which the housekeeper would have found scandalous with its low neckline. She paused over the gray wool dress but it was so heavy. The spring day might be cool but the thought of struggling into the thick, scratchy garment was unappealing. After consideration, she selected the black silk skirt with the white bodice; she was unsure whether Ms. March would find the garment’s shiny, flowing skirt and rows of tiny buttons vain, but it was modest enough with its high neckline and long sleeves and was suitable for a mourning outfit.
After changing, she started to unpack her few remaining belongings, then hesitated.
Best not keep Ms. March waiting any longer than necessary.
For the second time today, Tabitha squared her shoulders and held her chin high in an effort to appear confident and poised, and made her way downstairs to rejoin the housekeeper.
July 26, 1993
What have I gotten myself into? Nora wondered as the Whittle's taxi pulled out of sight. Dazedly, she watched the cloud of dust settling behind the departing vehicle before rousing herself into action.
Retrieving her suitcases, backpack, and purse from the back seat of the car, she lugged her things into the hall where she dropped them unceremoniously inside the door. She grimaced at the muscle twinge in her left shoulder and stretched while gazing around to examine her surroundings in closer detail now that she was unaccompanied.
As magnificent as the mansion was, there was a feeling of sadness here, a pervasive despondency, as though the house itself was mourning. Now, in the quiet, without any distractions, Nora noticed it even more than she had before: a permeating sorrow. It enveloped her, filled her head and crept into her lungs and curled into a ball in the pit of her stomach. It was such a familiar sensation. Closing her eyes, she gave herself over to the feeling...
...then abruptly snapped back to the present, disoriented. How long had she had been standing there, lost in thought? She shook her head, scolding herself for her maudlin sentimentality.
Don’t be melodramatic. It's just that closed up, stale feeling old houses get. Once this place is all fixed up and clean, full of light and air, it’ll feel pleasant; charming, even.
A wave of fatigue washed over her. The hustle of the day had caught up and now she yawned uncontrollably, her jaws stretched so wide for so long that they ached. She supposed she had better get settled for the night before it got any later. She’d started toward the stairs when she noticed how dark the interior of the house had grown, though she thought it only late afternoon.
Recalling Mr. Whittle’s warning that the electricity would be out until at least the following day, she made her way to the kitchen where she remembered seeing flashlights and candles. She lifted one of the hefty flashlights then reconsidered. The candles would probably be more useful until the electricity was turned on; she could leave them burning next to her bed throughout the night. She searched the room for matches, growing flustered before discovering a book of them in one of the drawers.
In her search of the kitchen, she had not spotted any candle holders so she traipsed into the dining room, where she spotted a rather large, elaborate silver candelabra on the sideboard. A little ornate for her purposes, perhaps, but it would do the trick. She took it and retraced her steps to the kitchen to grab the candles, cramming the book of matches into the pocket of her jeans and picking up one of the flashlights for good measure.
Her hands already full when she reached the pile of suitcases, Nora, undaunted, slung the purse and backpack over her shoulder, picked up the smallest case in her right hand, clenched the candles under her left arm and the candle holder under her right, and lit her way using the flashlight held in her left fist. Thus encumbered, she lurched awkwardly up the stairs, ignoring the small voice in her head insisting that making two trips never killed anybody.
Pausing on the landing to catch her breath, she recalled Mr. Whittle's warning to avoid the south wing. She trod a small circle in confusion, unsure which direction was south, before orienting herself and heading left up the second half-flight of stairs to the north wing.
When she reached the second story after what felt like a mountain-climbing expedition, Nora gazed down the shadowed length of the hallway at the row of doors. It was disconcertingly dark. She wished she had made two trips, had come up first to open the door to her room and light the candles before she’d tried to drag everything upstairs all at once. Her fingers starting to grow numb, she dropped her bags in a heap at the top of the stairs.
She approached the nearest door and turned the handle only to find, to her surprise, that it was locked. With a sigh of annoyance, she moved to the next in line and tried that doorknob but it resisted as well. Nora rolled her eyes at the thought of trying key after key, uncertain which ones unlocked which doors, before remembering with irritation Mr. Whittle's assurance that all of the rooms had been left open in anticipation of her arrival. In fact, hadn’t he said his wife had aired out and prepared the first room for her?
She tried to control her exasperation--there must have been some miscommunication somewhere along the line--but when the next room was also locked tight, she balled up her fists in fury and lashed out, kicking the door so hard that she snarled as much in frustration as in pain. Her growls sounding oddly muffled in the close hallway. She continued, trying one door after another, but all the knobs refused to turn and no amount of handle-jiggling, strong-arming, or cursing made any difference.
She reached the end of the hallway with only the last door on the right remaining. Assuming it would be locked as well, Nora barely gave the handle a perfunctory try, but to her astonishment and relief, the doorknob turned smoothly, almost effortlessly in her hand. She was so shocked she could have sworn she felt a jolt of electricity when her fingers touched the smooth, cool metal. She jerked her hand back in surprise as the door swung open.
Cautiously, she stepped into the dim room. A bed stood in the center of the wall to her left with a faded embroidered coverlet. A small dresser topped with a mirror was situated against the wall directly inside the door, atop which sat a rose-patterned wash bowl and ewer. At the foot of the bed was a squat trunk, and against the far wall in the corner was a small writing desk, painted white. Besides these few items, the room was empty. The drapes had been pulled back and were letting in what little of the day's light remained. Nora crossed the room to the large paned windows to look out over the vast grounds behind the house.
Directly below, a row of hedges hugged the manor's exterior and a sprawling expanse of grassy lawn sloped away from her. To her left, she could make out the shapes of what looked to be the stable Mr. Whittle had mentioned. Beyond that, set away from the main house, was the little cottage where the Whittles had resided; the cottage clearly had been constructed at a much later date, as the architecture didn't match the style of the manor in the least.
To her right, a row of tall oaks cast long shadows across the lawn. A footpath meandered alongside the trees, curving to the right and eventually ending at what appeared, to Nora's squinting gaze, to be a gazebo situated on the dock of a very large pond, almost a small lake, far in the distance, its waters black and still in the dusk.
The view was stunning, but Nora's exhaustion soon overcame her curiosity. Turning her back to the windows, she plodded to the bed and plopped down gracelessly. The mattress seemed to be in fair condition and Nora wondered offhandedly whether it had been replaced in the recent past or if it was actually very old. It had to be new, surely? Didn’t they used to sleep on straw pallets or something? She had no idea. The thought of sleeping on an ancient mattress gave her something of a chill; she briefly contemplated how many people, long dead, might have slept there over the years, but came to the weary conclusion that she didn't have much choice in the matter. It would take too much time—not to mention energy, which she was sorely lacking at the moment—for her to navigate these unfamiliar roads and find her way to the nearest hotel.
This room seemed tidy enough, even inviting with its curtains pulled back and the bed made up nicely, and gave the impression that it had been readied and left waiting for her arrival. Nora cast her mind back to Mr. Whittle's words, trying to recall which room he’d said his wife had prepared for her, but she was too tired to remember his exact phrasing. Maybe she had simply been confused and he had meant this one. In any case, her limbs were weary and her head was starting to ache; this bedroom would do for the night.
She forced her heavy limbs to move, and rose to trudge back across the room to the doorway. When she reached it, she flicked the light switch without any real hope. Nothing happened, and when she squinted up at the ceiling fixture she realized the action had been pointless in any case, as there were no bulbs in the sockets. With a weary sigh, she dragged herself down the hallway to retrieve the luggage, making a mental note to take a trip to the nearest store and buy light bulbs first thing the following morning.
Returning to the room, luggage in tow, Nora deposited the bags without bothering to unpack. The sun had finished setting in the few short minutes she had been gone and the room was now shrouded in darkness. She set the candelabra on the dresser and arranged all six candles, barely managing to light the last one before the match had burned down to her fingertips.
She carelessly stripped, letting her rumpled clothes lay where they fell. She would even forgo brushing her teeth to avoid the long, lonely walk downstairs to the house's only bathroom. She briefly entertained the thought of getting into bed wearing only her underwear but was deterred by the idea of sleeping practically naked on unfamiliar sheets in a strange house, so she rummaged through her suitcase until she found an old t-shirt and a pair of jogging pants.
Before crawling between the sheets, she opened her purse and fingered the prescription bottle she had brought with her. Momentarily, she toyed with the idea of skipping tonight's dose but even the thought of spending the next eight hours sleepless and alone with her thoughts was enough to send her into a near-panic, so she hurriedly unscrewed the lid. Her only concession to tonight's exhaustion was to select just one pill instead of the two she had fallen into the habit of taking. Carefully placing the bottle on the desk, she popped the pill into her mouth and swallowed it down dry in one practiced motion.
She left the candles burning—if she woke in the middle of the night she would unquestionably want to be able to see her surroundings—and climbed into bed. As she pulled the bedding up around her, she was pleasantly surprised to find the sheets smelled fresh and clean, with none of the mustiness she had been expecting. She supposed she had Mrs. Whittle and her zealous housekeeping to thank.
Despite the unfamiliar surroundings, Nora started to drift off almost immediately but stirred when her stomach rumbled angrily; she hadn't eaten since the in-flight meal. The thought dawned on her then that she hadn't made any arrangements for breakfast or, far worse, her morning coffee. A trip into town was definitely in order first thing tomorrow. She began mentally compiling a shopping list of groceries and other necessary household items but by the time she had reached “toilet paper,” her grogginess won out and Nora fell into a deep slumber.