Authors: Mary Downing Hahn
Bewildered, I peered up at the coachman through the rain. “Where is the house, sir?”
Gesturing with his whip, he pointed to an ornate iron gate topped with fancy curlicues. “Follow the drive till you come to the house,” he said. “It's one or two mile, I reckon. A big old place with chimneys. Pity there's no one to meet you.”
With that, he handed me the small wooden box that held all my belongings. “Be sure and latch the gate behind you,” he said. “They won't like it left open.”
Before I could say another word, he cracked his whip. In seconds, the coach vanished into the rain.
With a sigh, I lowered my head and pushed open the heavy gate, then latched it behind me. The rain came down harder. The wind sent volleys of leaves flying against my face, as sharp edged as small knives.
Frightened by the creaking and groaning of tree limbs over my head, I walked faster, almost losing my shoes in the mud. They were thin soled, meant for city streets, not country lanes. I supposed I was meant for city streets as well, for I did not like the vast sky above me. The endless fields and the distant hills made me feel as if I were the only living person in this desolate place.
I was tempted to turn around and walk back to the road. Perhaps another coach would come along, warm and crowded with passengers, and take me back to London's familiar streets.
But I kept going, fearing Miss Medleycoate would not accept me. Had she not been happy to see me leave? I did not want to end my days begging in the street.
Finally, ankle deep in mud and soaked by the rain, I came to the top of a hill. Below me was a gloomy stone house, grim and unwelcoming, its windows dark and lifeless. Except for a dense grove of fir trees, the gardens and lawn were brown and bare.
A writer like Miss Emily BrontÃ« would have been entranced by its Gothic appearance, but I hung back again, suddenly apprehensive of what might await me behind those towering walls.
It was the rising wind and icy rain that drove me forward. Exhausted and cold, I made my way carefully downhill to the house. In the shelter of a stone arch, I lifted an iron ring and let it thud against the door. Shivering in my wet coat and sodden shoes, I waited for someone to come.
Just as I was about to knock again, I heard footsteps approaching. The door slowly opened. A tall, thin woman dressed in black looked down at me. Her face was pale and narrow, her eyes were set deep under her brows, and her gray hair was pulled tightly into a bun at the back of her head. With a gasp, she pressed one bony hand to her heart. “It cannot be,” she whispered. “It cannot be.”
Fearing she was about to faint, I took her cold hand. “I-I'm Florence Crutchfield,” I stammered. “From London. I believe you're expecting me.”
She snatched her hand away and looked at me more closely. “For a moment I mistook you for someone else,” she murmured, her voice still weak. “But now I see you bear no resemblance to her. None at all.”
Without inviting me in, the woman said, “We were told you'd arrive tomorrow.”
“I beg your pardon, but Miss Medleycoate said I was to come today.” Panic made my heart beat faster. “She said I was to come today,” I repeated. “
At that moment, an old gentleman appeared in the shadowy hallway. The very opposite of the woman, he was short and round, and his cheeks were rosy with good humor. In one hand he held a pipe and in the other a thick book. “Come in,” he said to me, “come in. You're wet and cold.”
To the woman he said, “This poor child must be our great-niece Florence. Why have you allowed her to stand on the doorstep, shivering like a half-drowned kitten?”
“You know my feelings about her coming here.” Without another word, she turned stiffly and vanished into the house's gloomy interior.
Puzzled by my aunt's unfriendly manner, I followed my uncle down the hall. What had I done to cause Aunt to dislike me almost on sight?
“As you must have guessed,” my uncle said, “I'm your Great-Uncle Thomas, and that was my sister, your Great-Aunt Eugenie. I apologize for her brusqueness. I'm sure she didn't mean to be rude. She, er, she .Â .Â .”
Uncle paused as if searching for the right words to describe his sister. “Well,” he went on, “once she becomes accustomed to you, she'll be friendlier. Yes, yes, you'll see. She just has to get used to you.”
I didn't dare ask how long it would take Aunt to get used to me. Or how long it would take
to get used to
Indeed, I felt I had escaped Miss Medleycoate only to encounter her double. Which was neither what I'd hoped for nor what I'd expected.
“And then of course,” Uncle went on, “we really did expect you to arrive tomorrow. I'd have sent Spratt to meet you if I'd known you'd arrive today. A misunderstanding on someone's part, but, well, what's done is done. I am very happy to see you.”
Uncle led me into a large room lit by flickering firelight and oil lamps. Rain beat against its small windows, and the wind crept through every crack around the glass panes, but I felt cheered by the fire's glow and my uncle's smile.
“Here, let me have a look at you.” Uncle grasped my shoulders and peered into my face. “Goodness, Eugenie, have you noticed how much she favors the Crutchfields? Blue eyes, dark hairâshe could be Sophia's sister.”
My aunt frowned at me from a chair by the hearth. “Don't be absurd. This girl is quite plain. And her hair is a sight.”
Busying myself with my coat buttons, I pretended not to have heard Aunt. I didn't know what Sophia looked like, but I was quite ready to believe she was much prettier than I. Aunt was right. I was plain. And my hair was tangled by the wind and wet with rain and no doubt a sight.
Uncle took my sodden coat and settled me near the fire. “You must be tired and cold,” he said. “You've had a long, muddy walk from the road.” He picked up a bell and rang it.
A girl not much older than I popped into the room as if she'd been waiting by the door. She was so thin, she'd wrapped her apron strings twice around her waist, but the apron still flapped around her like a windless sail.
“Nellie,” my uncle said, “this is Florence, the niece we expected to arrive tomorrow. Please bring tea for us all and something especially nice for Florence. Then build up the fire in her room.”
Darting a quick look in my direction, Nellie nodded. “Yes, sir, I will, sir.”
As she scurried away, Uncle turned back to me. “First of all, permit me to say how sorry I was to learn of your father's and mother's death. To think they died on the same day. So tragic. So unexpected.”
“Sensible people do not go out in boats,” Aunt said, and then, with a quick glance at me, added, “Death is usually unexpected. That is why we must endeavor to live righteously. When we are summoned, we will be ready. As Sophia was, poor child.”
Ignoring his sister, Uncle patted my hand. “We'll do our best to make up for the years you spent with Miss Medleycoate. You'll have a happy life here at Crutchfield Hall, I promise you.”
I did not say it, but the prospect of a happy life with Aunt seemed uncertain at best.
As Uncle drew in his breath to say more, he was interrupted by the arrival of Nellie, who carried a heavy tray. In its center was a steaming teapot, which was surrounded by an array of sliced bread, cheese, and fruit, as well as milk and sugar for the tea and jam for the bread. Somehow she managed to set it down on a low table by the fire without rattling a teacup in its saucer.
I hadn't eaten since breakfast, and my empty stomach mortified me by rumbling at the sight of so much food, more than I'd ever seen at the orphanage. At that establishment, we received one cup of tea served lukewarm and weak, a slice of stale bread, and a dab of jelly.
Nellie's eyes met mine again, but she didn't linger. With a nod, she left the room, her feet scarcely making a sound.
Uncle offered me the bread and jam. “Don't be shy,” he said. “Take as much as you want. Walking in the cold sharpens one's appetite.”
While we ate, I looked around the room. Despite its darkness, I saw it was well furnished with chairs and sofas and shelves of books. Oil paintings covered the walls. Some were portraits of long-ago men and women, their faces grave in the firelight. Others were landscapes of forested hills and grassy meadows. A marble statue of a Greek god stood in the corner behind Aunt's chair, peering over her shoulder as if hoping for a biscuit.
“And now, my dear,” Uncle said, “tell us about yourself. Do you play an instrument? Sing? Draw? What sort of books do you enjoy?”
“I'm sorry to say I don't play a musical instrument,” I told him. “Neither do I sing. Indeed, my talents in music resemble those of Mary Bennet in
“How unfortunate,” Aunt cut in. “Your cousin Sophia played the piano
the violin. She sang like an angel. Such talent she had, such grace.” Her voice trailed away, and she sniffed into her handkerchief.
“You were about to say something more,” Uncle prompted me.
Embarrassed by my inferiority to Sophia, I murmured, “I was just going to say that I draw a little. Not very well, I'm afraid.”
With a worried look at Aunt, I hesitated. “As for books,” I went on nervously, “I love Mr. Dickens's novels, and also those of Wilkie Collins. I've read all of Jane Austen's books, but my favorite is
Pride and Prejudice,
which I've read five times now. I adore
“Do you read nothing but frivolous novels?” Aunt cut in. “I have read the Bible at least a dozen times, but I have not read
Pride and Prejudice
even once. Nor do I intend to. As for Mr. DickensâI believe him to be most vulgar. Wilkie Collins is beneath contempt. And the BrontÃ« novel is quite the worst of the lot, not fit for a decent young girl to read.”
Her tone of voice and stern face silenced me. I fancied even the clock on the mantel had ceased ticking.
Aunt peered at me over the top of her spectacles. “If the Bible is too difficult for you,” she added, “I recommend
It should prove most instructive. Your cousin Sophia told me it was her favorite book.” Then, without saying farewell or making an excuse for her departure, she left the room.
When the door closed behind her, Uncle sighed. “Your aunt is very set in her ways, I fear,” he said. “You may read what you wish. I for one see nothing wrong with your taste in literature. Dickens is my own personal favorite.
Martin Chuzzlewit, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend
âah, what untold hours of pleasure his books have given me.”
I tried to return his smile, but I feared I'd made a poor beginning with Aunt. “I didn't mean to offend my aunt.”
“Don't worry. She'll come round.” He set his teacup down. “She was very fond of Sophia, you know. Absolutely doted on the girl. Still wears nothing but black.”
“Sophia must have been perfection itself,” I said sadly.
“No one is perfect, my dear. Certainly not Sophia.” He picked up his tea as if to end the conversation.
I sat quietly, sipping my tea and listening to the incessant sound of the wind and the rain. The journey had exhausted me, and I tried without success to stifle a yawn.
Uncle looked at me and smiled. “Perhaps you'd like to rest and refresh yourself before supper.”
“Will James join us?” I asked. “I was hoping he'd be here for tea. I can scarcely wait to meet him.”
Uncle sighed again. “James is quite ill, my dear. He never leaves his room.”
Before I could say another word, Uncle summoned Nellie. “Please show Florence to her room,” he said. “She's tired from her long day of travel.”
Almost too weary to walk, I followed Nellie up a wide flight of stairs to the second floor. She opened a door at the end of a hall and led me into a room almost as large as the dormitory where I'd slept with eleven girls. A coal fire glowed on the hearth, filling the room with warmth.
As Nellie busied herself lighting an oil lamp, I contemplated my new surroundings. A tall four-poster bed wide enough to hold three girls my size. Bookcases, chests, bureaus, a tall wardrobe, all made of dark wood, massive, designed for giants. I felt like Alice after she drank the shrinking potion.
Under a curtained window was a writing table and a chair, a perfect place to read and draw.
Lamp lit, Nellie looked at me shyly. “Supper will be served at seven, miss.”
After the girl left, I took off my wet shoes and stockings and lay for a while on my bed, staring up at the canopy above. Finally, too restless to sleep, I went to the window and pulled the curtains aside. Night had fallen while we'd had tea, and darkness and rain prevented me from seeing anything except a few bare trees close to the house. There were no lights in sight. To one accustomed to the busy streets of London, it was a bleak and lonely view.
Chilled by the draft creeping in around the window frames, I closed the curtains and retreated to the warmth of the fire.
Shortly before seven, I pulled on a pair of dry stockings and forced my feet back into my damp shoes, the only ones I owned. I wished I had a nicer dress, but I was wearing my best, a simple frock meant for church. My only other was the orphanage uniform made of coarse material, and a bit small for me. I did what I could with my hair, a wild mass of dark, curly tangles, and left my room.
At the top of the stairs, I had the strangest sensation that someone was watching me. I looked behind me. The hall was dark, and even though I saw no one, the sensation persisted. A chill raced up and down my spine, and my scalp prickled. “Is someone there?” I whispered fearfully.
I heard a faint sound like muffled laughter.
“Nellie, is that you?”
The laughter faded. The watcher was gone and I was alone.