I was not the first girl she saw, nor the second, and as to why she chose me, I know that now: it was because she did not like me. She sat like a magistrate on the horse hair sofa, examining me for failings.
“Stop staring,” she snapped. “You’d think I was a world’s wonder.”
I looked away, thinking my own thoughts. She couldn’t stop me from doing that. She had a sweep of thick brown hair tucked up into a bun, and she wore a somber black wool dress. Her hands were soft: lady’s hands. Her face was anything but soft. It looked cold and hard and pale, like stone. Like a newly placed tombstone.
“I mustn’t take a half-wit, though,” she said reluctantly, as if she would like to do it. She seemed to consider idiocy the greatest point in my favor.
“Oh, our Tabby’s no half-wit,” countered Ma Hutton. “She just has that look. You did say you wanted to see an ugly one, miss.”
I stared at the braided rag rug, thinking about the black dress. She was in mourning. For whom? She was a handsome woman and might once have been beautiful.
“Tabby’s the best knitter in the school,” Ma Hutton was proclaiming. “She can turn out a sock in a day. And handy! She’s stronger than she looks, and she sews a pretty buttonhole, miss.”
“No scars,” interrupted the woman. “You can swear to that, you said. This is of the utmost importance. I cannot bear deformity.”
“She hasn’t a scar that I recollect,” Ma Hutton said slowly, beginning to fidget with her hands. She was wanting to knit, I knew. She hated to put down her knitting. “Tabby hasn’t worked in the fields, have you, child? She’s done light work.”
“No broken bones? I must be positive on this point.”
Ma Hutton signed for me to speak.
“I’ve broken naught, miss,” I answered, meeting the woman’s gaze as a token I was telling the truth. She winced, and her eyes glittered. When a dog looked like that, people knew to leave it alone.
“No relations, you said,” she reminded Ma Hutton, turning away from me.
“None, miss,” Ma Hutton assured her. “Tabby doesn’t even know where she’s from.”
Before a kindly soul had brought me to Ma Hutton’s knitting school, I had grown up in the kitchens of big houses, polishing boots and running errands. I had been told that my surname was Aykroyd, although I knew no one else who had it. Most likely it had been my mother’s name. I could dimly recall a face when I thought of mother, although the face was so young and frightened that it confused me. The one thing I held as a certainty had been dinned into my ears by angry cooks and house keepers. I had no father at all, quite a failing in a little child.
“She’ll do,” said the woman. “Tell her to fetch her things.”
I hadn’t much to take from the room I shared with eight other girls, except an old greatcoat someone had given me out of charity and the pattens, or wooden clogs, which we wore outside in the mud. Then I went to the room where Ma’s students sat knitting and bade them good-bye.
One of the girls who had been passed over came to whisper with me in the doorway. “She’s been here before, that woman,” she said. “She took Izzy with her last time.”
I said, “I don’t remember a girl named Izzy.”
“It was years ago, when I was new here. Izzy must be grown now, and run away with a soldier most likely, and miss needs a new girl to beat with her hairbrush. I got a shivery feeling when she talked to me. Didn’t you? I wouldn’t be you for a thousand pounds.”
I returned to the parlor. Money had changed hands while I was gone, a substantial sum by the look of things because Ma Hutton’s typical good humor had blossomed into rapture. She went so far as to wax sentimental over me, though I had never been a favorite, and bade me keep my knitting needles and my ball of worsted in its little rag pocket as a parting gift from the school. “And wrap up warm,” she counseled, pulling the greatcoat around me. “I don’t doubt you’ll have a long journey.” But where we were going, I hadn’t the heart to ask, and no one bothered to say.
We were in April then, but the spring had been cold, and the day was misty, as dark at noon as it had been at dawn. The houses across the street looked gray and insubstantial, shadows rather than stone.
The woman in black pushed me towards an open cart waiting in the lane. Its driver had taken the precaution of bringing a lighted lantern with him, and he swung down from the seat and held up the light to view me. “What have you brought us?” he boomed. “Why, it’s a quaint little body, to be sure!”
It isn’t that I’m so bad to look at, for my nose is straight and I have all my teeth, but my eyelashes are sparse and pale, and my eyes are no particular color. Add to that my stature, which is very small, and you’ll find folks who call me a quaint body yet.
The man who bent over me was long-limbed, with a round face buffeted red by wind and weather. “Pleased to meet you, little maidie,” he said, shaking hands. “My name’s Arnby. You look a right canny lass. How old would you happen to be?”
“I’m eleven, sir. My name’s Tabitha Aykroyd, but people call me Tabby.”
“So many years packed in such a tiny frame! I can tell she’s got us a good one. Now, listen, little maid. If she gives you any cause for grief,” and he nodded towards the woman who stood behind me, “just you come tell me all about it, and I’ll soon set her to rights.”
This alarmed me, as it seemed an impertinence. I didn’t want to start off badly with my new employer. “Please, miss,” I said, turning to the woman, “what am I to call you?”
She made no reply, but pushed past me and scrambled awkwardly onto the seat of the cart. Arnby stood by and laughed to see her do it.
“She’d tell you to call her Miss Winter if she could swallow her pride to speak,” he said. “But call her the old maid, dearie. Everyone else does.”
Our journey took two long, tedious, dreadfully foggy days. The creeping mist swallowed us up and showed neither landmark nor horizon, and often Arnby had to walk ahead and lead the horse by the bridle. It seemed to me that we jolted up and down and went nowhere at all. I tried to knit my sock, but the cart shook so that it made me ill.
“It’s wondrous weather,” declared Arnby once, climbing back onto his seat. “The season’s so late that the ewes have lost lambs, and the planting’s only half done. The old earth’s tired, that’s what, and last year’s storms and floods have vexed her. People don’t think on the earth enough, and that’s what causes the trouble. They plow at her and rip food from her, toss their trash and middens on her, bore mine holes into her, and never a word of thanks do they say.”
“Shut up, old fool,” snapped Miss Winter.
They were like that the whole journey, silent or quarrelling, and I was sorely puzzled how to take it. At first, I had cast Miss Winter in the role of house keeper and Arnby as a servant, but seeing him speak so free, I thought he must be the farm steward and she a maid or cook. Soon I didn’t know what to think, nor what their relation might be. I couldn’t imagine steward and house keeper taking such a frightful journey together, and that just to fetch home a new maid.
The matter must have weighed on my mind, for as I dozed, I dreamt a strange thing. “Just you try it,” I thought I heard Arnby say, and his voice was as soft as silk. “I’ll grab you before you take two steps and smash your skull like pie crust. Why else do you think I brought my staff? We don’t need you, you know. Not the maids.”
I sat up in a great fright at this, sure I’d fallen in with robbers, but the two of them were silent, sitting side by side on the cart bench the same as they always did.
Arnby heard me move and smiled over his shoulder. “The little maidie’s been winking,” he said. “Did you have good dreams? Take care you don’t catch cold.” And he reached back to tuck me up warm in some sacking.
Partway through the second day, we left the horse and cart at a farm house and proceeded in a little open boat. Arnby plied the oars vigorously to make progress upriver. I found that mode of travel more interesting at first, for the fog couldn’t hold to the surface of the water where the current flowed, but tore into streamers or hung above us like a flimsy ceiling. When I looked to the shore, I could make out a few feet of steep bank here and there, or a line of trailing underbrush. Now and then I caught a glimpse of cliff walls.
But it was very gloomy on the river, with cold drops sliding down our hair and wetting our clothes; I soon was damp through and wished the endless bumping about would end. Then the river narrowed to a stream, shallow but fast, and Arnby had hard work to pole along the bottom. The night drew in, and Miss Winter began to fuss and scold, and I curled up in my greatcoat and tried to sleep to get away from them both.
How it ended I barely knew, but I remember the light shining on a small beach of shingle and Arnby carrying me along, while Miss Winter held the lantern before us and looked like nothing but a white face and a pair of hands with her black dress swallowed up in the night. I didn’t want to be held and would have liked to get down, but protesting the point seemed so like their bickering that I did not know how to do it politely, and at the last I felt so tired and unhappy that I did not do it at all.
And that is how I came to my new house, carried in like a wax doll, and a bad business it was then, and a worse business to follow.
Excerpted from The House of Dead Maids by Clare B. Dunkle
Copyright © 2010 by Clare B. Dunkle
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.