Authors: Mary Downing Hahn
The cold air came closer, circled me once or twice, and then backed away. “How can I harm you? I have no substance. No strength.”
With a whisper of silk, the dress I'd dropped slid across the floor toward me as if blown by the wind. I jumped back when it touched my shoes.
“Take it,” Sophia whispered. “You need a new dress. That drab rag is dreadful. It's the sort of thing a pauper orphan would wear to scrub the floor.”
I looked at the silk dress, fearful of it yet wanting it.
“If Aunt loved you as she loved me, she'd lavish expensive gowns on you as she did me.” Sophia sighed. “Judging by what I've seen, I'm certain she doesn't even like you. Indeed, I believe she despises you.”
Head down, I gazed at the dress. I couldn't argue with the truth.
“She hates you because you're not me,” Sophia added.
I remained silent.
“Aunt gave me everything in that trunk,” Sophia said. “After I died, I watched her pack my dresses and dolls as if she thought I'd come back for them someday.” She laughed. “Poor old Aunt. She wept as if her heart were broken.”
As Sophia spoke, Clara Annette floated across the attic and dropped softly into my arms. Without intending to, I hugged the doll. She was too beautiful to leave in the attic.
“I can't take your things,” I whispered, holding the doll even tighter.
“Of course you can,” Sophia said. “I want you to have them as a token of our friendship. Besides, I have no need for dresses or dolls now.”
“Aunt will not want me to have them.”
“Tut,” Sophia said with a laugh. “Aunt needn't know.”
I stared into the shadows and tried to see her. But no matter how hard I looked, I saw nothing. “Please, Sophia,” I begged. “Please let me see you.”
“Someday.” With that promise, a cold breeze whirled away, taking Sophia with it.
Scooping up the dress and the doll, I ran down the attic steps, mindless now of how much noise I made. Behind me, the door to the attic slammed shut.
In my room, safe behind my own door, I dropped the dress on my bed. With Clara Annette in my arms, I warmed myself in front of the fire. Why had I accepted Sophia's gifts? I didn't want the belongings of a dead girl. Yet I'd been unable to refuse them. Because they were beautiful, I supposed. Because I'd never owned anything like them. Because I was afraid of angering Sophia.
A soft rap on my door startled me. Clutching the doll even tighter, I cried, “Who's there?”
“It's Nellie, miss, come to tidy your room.” The door opened a crack and Nellie peered in. Never was I so happy to see her ordinary freckled face.
Nellie stared at the dress on the bed and the doll in my arms. “Oh, miss,” she whispered, entering the room, “they be ever so pretty. Did your uncle give you them?” As she spoke, she touched the silk gently.
I shook my head. It was then that Nellie noticed my state. “Why, miss, what be wrong?”
“No one gave them to me. I found them in the attic.”
“Ye went to the attic?” The sympathy on Nellie's face changed to shock. “Nobody goes there. The floor be rotten. Even a body small as me could fall through.”
From the corner behind me I heard a soft sound. The rustling of a dress maybe. A sigh, a laugh so low, I wasn't sure I really heard it. Sophia was there, watching me, assessing me, scorning me, scorning Nellie.
Despite myself, I was beginning to feel cross. “Do you always do what people tell you to do, Nellie? Don't you have any curiosity?”
“I knows my place, miss,” Nellie said in an annoyingly humble voice.
I was horrified to find myself wanting to slap her face or pull her hair. It was what Sophia would have done.
“I know it ain't right for me to tell ye what to do, but don't go up there again,” Nellie begged. “And don't keep them pretty things. They ain't yers.”
While Nellie talked, Sophia whispered, “Don't listen to her. She's an ignorant servant. Keep the doll, keep the dress. She's jealous because I gave them to you instead of to her.”
“No,” I heard myself say to Nellie, “it's not right for a stupid girl like you to tell
what to do. Go back to the kitchen where you belong. I'm tired of your foolish chatter.”
“Oh, miss.” Nellie gave me a horrified look and ran from my room.
As soon as she was gone, I wanted to call her back. What was wrong with me? I'd never spoken to anyone like that, and I was ashamed of myself. I'd been cruel, thoughtlessly and needlessly cruel.
At the same time, I was aware of Sophia watching me from the shadows. Had she put those words into my mouth? Was it she who made me speak so cruelly to poor little Nellie?
I knew that Sophia would scorn me if I ran after Nellie. No one apologized to a servant. It simply wasn't done.
So I stayed where I was and stroked Clara Annette's dark ringlets. “Such a pretty doll,” I whispered. “Do you miss your old owner?”
“Of course she misses me,” Sophia said. “Everybody misses me. I was the favoriteâuntil James came along and ruined everything.”
On noiseless feet, a shadowy shape crept toward me. The closer it came, the colder I was. It was as if winter had taken a form and entered my warm room.
At first, Sophia was no more distinct than a figure glimpsed through fog or mist, but as she came nearer, her wavering outline slowly solidified. She wore a stained white silk dress, and her dainty slippers were muddy. What was left of her dark hair was dull and sparse. Her face was narrow and pale, her skin stretched tightly over her skull. Dark shadows ringed her eyes. Her teeth were brown. She smelled of earth and mold.
In abhorrence, I closed my eyes and tried to tell her to leave, but my mouth shook so badly, I couldn't speak. Never had I seen such a dreadful sight.
“Look at me,” Sophia said.
Unwillingly, I opened my eyes. “What do you want with me?” I whispered.
“I'm so cold and so lonely.” Sophia nestled into the rocking chair beside me, as weightless as a puff of cold air. “I need a friend, and so do you. We could be like sisters, sharing secrets.”
I studied her white face, her stained teeth, her unruly hair, her dull eyes. “I don't want to be your friend. Or your sister. I won't, I can't.” To my shame, I began to cry.
Sophia gave me a narrow-lipped smile, just the sort I'd expect to see on my aunt's face. “I tell you, you
be my friend, whether you wish to be or not. I always get my way. It's useless to fight me.”
With that, she slipped out of the chair and disappeared as quickly as she'd come. For a moment the coal fire flared up; then it died down to embers.
In shock, I gazed at the place where Sophia had first materialized. She'd stood right there beside the bed. She'd squeezed into the chair beside me, close enough for me to smell her. She'd spoken to me.
Uncle said the dead did not return. He was wrong.
Unable to stop shaking, I stared at Clara Annette's china face. Sophia's doll, I reminded myself. Not mine.
Filled with revulsion, I threw the doll across the room. Her head hit the edge of the mantel and she landed on the floor. Like a child fatally injured in a bad fall, she sprawled on her back, arms flung out, head broken.
Stricken to see such a pretty thing ruined, I picked her up and hid her in the back of a drawer full of extra linens. It wouldn't do for Aunt to see her gift to Sophia so badly treated.
Not daring to leave the dress on the bed, I scooped it up and stuffed it into the wardrobe, behind my best dress and my coat.
Once dress and doll were hidden, I ran downstairs. I did not want to remain alone in my room for fear Sophia might return.
UNT HAD NOT
come back from their trip to town, so I joined Mrs. Dawson in the kitchen. To my relief, Nellie wasn't there. After speaking to her so rudely, I couldn't face her.
“You look poorly,” Mrs. Dawson said. “Are you coming down with something?”
I shook my head. “I'm just tired.”
“Drink your tea. It should perk you up.”
I poured milk into my cup, added sugar, and filled it with tea. Steam rose around my face, comforting me. I breathed in the sweet smell of Earl Grey, my favorite blend, rich with bergamot.
Mrs. Dawson sliced bread and passed it over to me, along with a serving of shepherd's pie. Its mashed-potato crust was baked golden, and the vegetables and beef inside filled the kitchen with an aroma that made me hungry in spite of myself.
Mrs. Dawson watched me eat. “You may not be ailing,” she said, “but something's eating at you.”
Looking Mrs. Dawson in the eye, I said, “Do you believe in ghosts?”
Mrs. Dawson must have heard the fear in my voice. Studying me closely, she said, “Has something frightened you, Florence?”
Surrendering to my need for comfort, I flung my arms around her and pressed my face against her soft body. “Sophia,” I sobbed. “I saw her today. She was hideous, horrible, monstrous.”
Mrs. Dawson rocked me gently. “No, no, Florence. Sophia is dead and gone.”
“But I tell you, I saw her,” I insisted. “She
Mrs. Dawson took me by my shoulders and held me at arm's length. “And I tell you, you dreamed it.” Her eyes implored me to agree with her. “You're lonely here, you want a friend, and you've made yourself believe in Sophia.”
I shook my head. “Surely Aunt has seen herâ”
“No more, no more. I'll hear no more.” Mrs. Dawson's voice quivered as if I was scaring her. “The poor child's soul rests in peace now. Father Browne saw to it. He blessed her proper.”
Making a shooing motion, she said, “Go on now. Find a book to read. Forget the dream. Forget Sophia. Say nothing about her to Nellie or anyone else. You'll only bring grief on yourself.”
Defeated, I gave up and left Mrs. Dawson to her work. As I walked away, I heard laughter in the shadows. A cold finger brushed my cheek. Footsteps pattered behind me. I did not look back. I knew who it was.
At the top of the steps, Sophia appeared beside me, her face tinged blue, her eyes circled with dark smudges like bruises. “Why don't you visit James?” she whispered. “I know you want to.”
I drew back, repulsed by the smell of damp earth that clung to her. “Aunt and Uncle forbid it.”
“I never let others stop
from doing what I want.” Keeping her hand on my arm, she floated into my room as if no more than air, but I could not break away from her.
My wardrobe opened, and Sophia pulled out the blue silk dress. “Wear this. You must be presentable if you are to visit James.”
Even though I knew it was futile to argue, I said, “I am not going to visit James.” But as I spoke, I found myself taking off my own drab brown dress and slipping into the blue silk. The fabric touched my skin, as delicate as butterfly wings.
Sophia picked up my brush and comb and began brushing my hair. When it shone as brown and glossy as hers once did, she tied it back with a blue velvet ribbon. “There,” she said. “You're not nearly as pretty as I am, but I suppose you'll do.”
I wanted to tell her she was not pretty now, but instead I stood silently before the mirror and admired my reflection. Instead of a wretched orphan, I saw a well-dressed girl, the sort I'd admired on the streets of London.
Behind me, I noticed Sophia kept her back to the mirror. “Why don't you stand beside me and look at yourself? Then you can see who's prettierâyou or me.” It was a terrible thing to say, and I was ashamed of myself for speaking the words out loud.
Ignoring my question, Sophia seized my hand and led me away from the mirror and out of my room. As we walked down the hall, the blue silk rustled like autumn leaves. My hair was a soft, sweet weight on my shoulders and neck. I walked lightly, gracefully. I forgot to be afraid, forgot to worry. At last I was going to meet my cousin James.
Sophia stopped in front of James's door. First she pressed her ear to the wood and listened. Then she bent to peek through the keyhole.
Straightening, she favored me with her thin-lipped smile. “He's all alone, sitting in bed, reading. Don't bother to knock. Just walk in and stand quietly until he notices you. He loves surprises.”
“Aren't you coming with me?” I asked.
But I was speaking to empty air. Sophia was gone, leaving an echo of her laughter behind.
For a moment, I hesitated. Perhaps it was unwise to enter without knocking. Suppose I frightened James? What if Sophia was tricking me into doing something I shouldn't? Could I trust her to be truthful?
But I simply could not resist visiting my cousin. Quietly I turned the knob and slowly opened the door. The curtains were closed tightly, and the fire burned low. An oil lamp beside the bed gave enough light for me to see James. Propped up on pillows, he was deeply engrossed in a book.