Authors: Mary Downing Hahn
Almost tripping over my own feet, I ran downstairs as if I were being chased.
Y THE TIME
dining room, my heart had slowed to its normal speed. I told myself sternly that no one had been watching me. No one had laughed. I'd been a silly child scared of my own shadow.
Uncle rose from his seat at the table and greeted me warmly. “It will be just the two of us tonight,” he said. “Eugenie is indisposed and will not join us.”
“Oh, dear, I'm sorry to hear that,” I said as graciously as I could. “I hope it's not my fault.”
“No, indeed,” Uncle assured me. “It's merely a spot of dyspepsia. Nervous stomach, Dr. Fielding says. She's high strung, you know. Nervy.”
I nodded sympathetically, but even though I knew it was uncharitable, I hoped Aunt's condition would cause her to miss many meals.
The two of us sat across from each other at the end of a long table covered with a spotless white cloth and set with fine china, crystal, and silver. A blazing candelabra illuminated the table, but the rest of the room lay deep in shadow.
I'd never eaten in such surroundings, and I was suddenly nervous about my manners. Which fork to use first? Which spoon? There were so many utensils to choose from.
Nellie brought our meal. Giving me her usual quick, curious look, she served us each a plate of roast chicken, potatoes, and carrots. With a nod to Uncle, she left the room.
Watching my uncle closely, I chose the same utensils he did and tried my best to demonstrate I knew proper etiquette.
While we ate, Uncle told me about Crutchfield Hall. “It was built in the early 1700s by my great-grandfather, not so old or so big as some country houses, but more than ample for our needs at the present.”
He paused to eat a forkful of potatoes and then went on. “Not many servants now either. Mrs. Dawson does the cooking, and Samuel Spratt tends the grounds. Nellie is the maidâa jack-of-all-trades, you could call her. Once a week Mrs. Barnes comes in from the village to do the heavy cleaning. We used to have a larger staff, but we get along fine without them.”
As Uncle helped himself to more chicken, I summoned the courage to ask what I really wanted to know. “When will I meet James?”
“I can't really say. Your aunt doesn't think he's well enough for you to visit him. It would tire him, she claims.” While he spoke, Uncle rolled his silver napkin holder back and forth on the tablecloth.
“What sort of illness does he have?” I asked. “Will he always be an invalid?”
Uncle shook his head. “Dr. Fielding is as puzzled as I am. It's as if the boy wants to be sick. He told me once that it suits him to lie in bed all day.”
“How sad.” I wished I could think of something else to say, but I couldn't imagine why any child would prefer sickness to health. I hated staying in bed. I detested fevers and aches and pains and upset stomachs. I abhorred coughing and sneezing and blowing my nose.
“Yes, it is indeed sad.” Without looking at me, Uncle continued to roll his napkin holder back and forth, as if it were a little wheel engaged in an important task. “After his sister's death, the boy went into a long decline. Sometimes I think he blames himself .Â .Â .” Unable to go on, he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose.
Embarrassed by his obvious distress, I lowered my head. Despite my earlier promise to myself, I'd asked the wrong questions, upset my uncle, and had no idea what to say to make amends.
For the rest of our meal, we ate quietly. Uncle did not mention James again, nor did he speak of Sophia.
After supper, we sat by the sitting room fire and read. Uncle's book was thick and heavy. I made out the name Thomas Carlyle on the spine. I'd never read him, but I had a feeling his writings might be a bit tedious.
Hoping to find something more interesting, I searched the shelves until I found
I'd read it three times already, but I was happy to be reunited with my old friend Pip, especially here, so far from my playmates at the orphanage.
When the clock struck nine, I said good night to Uncle and went up to bed. I did not linger at the top of the steps but went quickly to my room and closed the door firmly.
Used to sleeping in a roomful of girls, I lay alone in the dark and tried to accustom myself to the silence. No one breathed or sighed or sniffled. No one turned and tossed. No one coughed. No one sobbed into her pillow.
I watched the coals smolder in the grate. Little blue flames flickered here and there but did not cast much light. The wind rose and made an eerie sound at the window. Drafts of cold air stirred the curtains and crept under my covers.
Unable to sleep, I gave up and went to my window. The wind had swept away the rain, and a full moon floated high in the sky, dodging clouds. How vast and empty the land was. Fields and hills, turned silver and black by the moon's light, rolled away into the hills beyond. Beautiful as it was, the solitude frightened me. I longed for lighted windows and chimneys, for voices and the clippety-clop of horses in the street.
Pressing my face against the glass, I turned from the fields and stared down at a terrace directly below me. In the moon's fitful light, I saw something move in the shadowsâa child, I thought, but I couldn't be sure. For a better look, I opened the casement and leaned out. As I did so, a cloud covered the moon and threw the terrace into darkness.
When the moon emerged, I saw a cat mincing daintily along the garden wall. Not a child. Just a cat out for a ramble in the dark.
Too cold to stay at the window, I closed the casement and returned to bed.
I woke to a room full of sunshine. Nellie knelt by the hearth, feeding coal to the fire.
Nellie glanced over her shoulder and caught me staring at her. “Beg pardon, miss,” she murmured. “I didn't mean to wake ye.”
“The sun woke me,” I told her, “not you.”
She nodded and began gathering her thingsâa coal scuttle, a scrub brush, and a pail of water.
“You needn't rush off,” I said. “Stay awhile.”
“Oh, miss, I can't do no such thing. Miss Crutchfield would be cross, very cross indeed. She thinks I'm too slow as it is.” By now Nellie was on her feet, headed toward the door. She struggled to manage the bucket and the coal scuttle.
I jumped out of bed and grabbed the bucket just before it slipped from her hand. “You poor thing,” I said. “This bucket is much too heavy for you.”
“I can manage, miss.” Nellie held out her hand for the bucket, but I hid it behind my back.
“First you must tell me about James. What's wrong with him? Is he as sick as Aunt says?”
Nellie busied herself sweeping up soot and a few stray chunks of coal. “Well, miss,” she said at last, “there be no doubt Master James is poorly. Ashy white he is, and thin as a bone, fretful as a baby with a bellyache. He sleeps with a light, for the dark scares him. He has fearful bad dreams and wakes up screaming. Dawson don't know what to make of him. It ain't natural, she says, for a boy to carry on like that.”
It was the most I'd ever heard Nellie say. Seemingly worn out from talking, she sat down on the hearth stool.
“What was he like before he got sick?” I asked.
“He were sick when I come to the hall. I only been here a few months.” She held out her hand. “Can I have me bucket now, miss?”
“Where are you going?”
“To Master James's room, miss.”
“Wait.” After handing her the bucket, I flung on my robe, stepped into my slippers, and followed her down the hall.
“Please, miss.” Nellie turned to face me, her eyes filling with tears. “Miss Crutchfield don't allow no one to enter Master James's room without her say-so. She'll have me sacked.”
“I just want to see him,” I said. “He won't even know I'm there.”
Nellie shrugged. “I reckon there be no stopping ye.” She turned back, her thin shoulders bent under the weight of the pail and the coal scuttle, and made her way down the hall and past the stairs. On tiptoe, I followed her.
Nellie stopped in front of a closed door and set down her bucket. As she began to turn the knob, the door suddenly swung open. Aunt stood on the threshold, frowning down at poor Nellie, who dropped her brush in fright.
“How often must I tell you to knock before entering a room?” Aunt said to Nellie. “You don't have the sense you were born withâthat is, if you were born with any sense at all.”
Nellie scurried into James's room before the woman could say any more, and Aunt closed the door.
I made a move to return to my room without being seen, but Aunt spied me. Striding toward me, she grasped my arm. “In proper households, young ladies do not go about in their robes and nightgowns.”
“You're hurting me,” I protested.
Aunt released me so abruptly, I almost lost my balance. “Dress yourself.” With that, she hurried downstairs, her back as straight as a broomstick, her black dress rustling like dry leaves.
Rubbing my arm, I stared at the closed door at the end of the hall. At least I knew where James was.
REAKFAST WAITED AT MY
place. A pot of tea, two slices of toast, a jar of jam, a soft-boiled egg in a cup, and two pieces of bacon. A book lay beside my plateâ
by John Bunyan.
I knew who'd put it there. I also knew that I had no intention of opening it. Once in a desperate search for something to read, I'd tried to interest myself in Pilgrim's journey, but I'd found him an unpleasant hero who'd left his wife and children behind to search for his own salvation. I'd gotten as far as the slough of despond and tossed the book aside, thoroughly bored with both Pilgrim and his progress.
Turning to my meal, I found that my egg was cold, my toast was cold, my tea was cold, and my bacon was more fat than meat. I glanced at the clock ticking solemnly on the sideboard and realized that I was an hour late. Small wonder my food wasn't hot.
After eating what I could, I grabbed my coat and ran outdoors, eager to escape the gloomy house. The wind nipped my cheeks and ears and nose and tangled my hair, but the rain had stopped and the air was fresh and cold. Cloud shadows raced across the fields. Ravens hopped about the terrace and chattered to one another like schoolchildren on holiday.
The cat I'd seen last night was grooming itself in a sunny spot. I did my best to entice it to play, but every time I got within touching distance it would run off again.
I heard someone laugh and wheeled around to see an old man watching me. He wore a tweed jacket, faded corduroy pants patched at the knees, and a red wool scarf knotted round his neck. Despite his bristly beard and pointed nose, he had a kindly look.
“If that don't be a cat fer ye,” he said. “Only lets ye pet him if it suits 'im.”
“Does he have a name?”
“He be called Cat like all the others afore him. No sense us naming 'em. They got their own names, secret from us'n.” He chuckled. “I have a name, though. It be Spratt. Mr. Samuel Spratt. I be gardener, groundskeeper, driver. Whatever Mr. Crutchfield needs me to do, I do.”
By now, Cat was perched several feet away on the head of a statue. Tail twitching, he regarded me with disdain.
“Ye'd be better off with a dog,” Spratt said. “A dog cares about ye. Might even save yer life. Which no cat would do.”
“I've never had a dog,” I said. “Or a cat, for that matter.”
“Master James had a dog name of Nero. A terrier. Good ratters they be, but not Nero. He were spoiled. Wouldn't dirty his little white paws digging up a rat tunnel.”
“What happened to Nero?”
“He were run over by a farm wagon. It near broke Master James's heart. He were right fond of that little dog.” Spratt gazed into the distance. Without looking at me, he said, “It were her fault, ye know. Her throwed a ball right in front of that wagon and Nero gone after it. I swear she done it a-purpose. A spiteful thing, she were.”