The Shifting Fog | Chapter 15 of 50 - Part: 1 of 8

Author: Kate Morton | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 106306 Views | Add a Review

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It is mild this morning, a foretaste of spring, and I am sitting on the iron seat in the garden, beneath the elm. It’s good for me to get a bit of fresh air (so says Sylvia), thus here I sit, playing peek-a-boo with the shy winter sun, my cheeks as cold and slack as a pair of peaches left too long in the fridge.

I have been thinking about the day I started at Riverton. I can see it clearly. The intervening years concertina and it is June 1914. I am fourteen again: naïve, gauche, terrified, following Myra up flight after flight of scrubbed elm stairs. Her skirt swishes efficiently with every step, each swish an indictment of my own inexperience. I am struggling behind, my suitcase handle cutting my fingers. I lose sight of Myra as she turns to begin up yet another flight, rely on the swishing to lead the way …

When Myra reached the very top she proceeded down a dark corridor with low ceilings, stopping finally, with a neat click of the heels, at a small door. She turned and frowned as I hobbled toward her, her pinched gaze as black as her hair.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ she said, clipped English unable to disguise her Irish vowels. ‘I didn’t know you were slow. Mrs Townsend never said anything about it, I’m sure.’

‘I’m not slow. It’s my suitcase. It’s heavy.’

‘Well,’ she said. ‘I’ve never seen such a fuss. I don’t know what kind of housemaid you’re going to make if you can’t carry a suitcase of clothing without lagging. You’d better hope Mr Hamilton don’t see you dragging the carpet sweeper around like a sack of flour.’

She pushed open the door. The room was small and spare, and it smelled, unaccountably, like potatoes. But one half of it—an iron bed, chest of drawers and chair—was to be mine.

‘There now. That’s your side,’ she said, nodding toward the far edge of the bed. ‘I’m this side and I’d thank you not to touch anything.’ She walked her fingers along the top of her chest of drawers, past a crucifix, a Bible and a hairbrush. ‘Sticky fingers will not be abided here. Now get your things unpacked, get into uniform and come downstairs so you can start your duties. No dawdling, mind, and for heaven’s sake, no leaving the servants’ hall. Luncheon’s at midday today on account of the Master’s grandchildren arriving, and we’re already behind with the rooms. Last thing I need is to have to go looking for you. You’re not a dawdler, I hope.’

‘No, Myra,’ I said, still smarting at the implication I might be a thief.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘we’ll see about that.’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t know. I tell them I need a new girl and what do they send me? No experience, no references and, by the looks of you, a dawdler.’

‘I’m not—’

‘Pish,’ she said, stamping a narrow foot. ‘Mrs Townsend says your mother was quick and able, and that the apple don’t fall far from the tree. All’s I can say is you’d better hope it’s so. The mistress won’t put up with dawdling from the likes of you and neither will I.’ And with a final, disapproving toss of her head, she turned heel and left me alone in the tiny dim room at the top of the house. Swish … Swish … Swish …

I held my breath, listening.

Finally, alone with the sighing of the house, I tiptoed to the door and eased it shut, turning to take in my new home.

There was not much to see. I ran my hand over the foot of the bed, ducking my head where the ceiling slanted against the roof line. Across the end of the mattress was a grey blanket, one of its corners patched by a competent hand. A small, framed picture, the only hint of decoration in the room, hung on the wall: a primitive hunting scene, an impaled deer, blood leaking from its pierced flank. I looked away quickly from the dying animal.

Carefully, silently, I sat down, wary of wrinkling the smooth under-sheet. The bedsprings creaked in response and I jumped, chastened, my cheeks flooding with colour.

A narrow window cast a shaft of dusty light into the room. I climbed up to kneel on the chair and peered outside.

The room was at the back of the house and very high. I could see all the way past the rose garden, over the trellises and to the south fountain. Beyond, I knew, lay the lake, and on the other side, the village and the cottage in which I had spent my first fourteen years. I pictured Mother, sitting by the kitchen window where the light was best, her back curled over the clothing she darned.

I wondered how she was managing alone. Mother had been worse lately. I’d heard her of a night, groaning in her bed as the bones of her back seized beneath her skin. Some mornings her fingers were so stiff I’d had to run them under warm water and rub them between my own before she could as much as pluck a roll of thread from her sewing basket. Mrs Rodgers from the village had agreed to stop in daily, and the ragman passed by twice a week, but still, she’d be alone an awful lot. There was little chance she’d keep up the darning without me. What would she do for money? My meagre salary would help but surely I’d have been better to stay with her?

And yet it was she who had insisted I apply for the position. She’d refused to hear the arguments I made against the idea. Only shook her head and minded me that she knew best. She’d heard they were looking for a girl and was certain I’d be just what they were after. Not a word as to how she knew. Typical of Mother and her secrets.

‘It’s not far,’ she said. ‘You can come home and help me on your days off.’

My face must have betrayed my qualms, for she reached out to touch my cheek. An unfamiliar gesture and one I wasn’t expecting. The surprise of her rough hands, her needle-pricked fingertips, made me flinch. ‘There, there, girl. You knew time would come and you’d have to find yourself a position. It’s for the best: a good opportunity. You’ll see. There’s not many places will take a girl so young. Lord Ashbury and Lady Violet, they’re not bad people. And Mr Hamilton might seem strict, but he’s nothing if not fair. Mrs Townsend, too. Work hard, do as you’re told, and you’ll find no trouble.’ She squeezed my cheek hard then, fingers quivering. ‘And Gracie? Don’t you go forgetting your place. There’s too many young girls get themselves into trouble that way.’

I had promised to do as she said, and the following Saturday trudged up the hill to the grand manor house, dressed in my Sunday clothes, to be interviewed by Lady Violet.

It was a small and quiet household, she told me, just her husband, Lord Ashbury, who was busy most of the time with his business and clubs, and herself. Their two sons, Major James and Mr Frederick, were both grown up and lived in their own homes with their families, though they visited at times and I was sure to see them if I worked well and was kept on. With only the two of them living at Riverton they did without a housekeeper, she said, leaving the running of the household in Mr Hamilton’s capable hands, with Mrs Townsend, the cook, in charge of the kitchen accounts. If the two of them were pleased with me, then that was recommendation enough to keep me on.

She had paused then and looked at me closely, in a way that made me feel trapped, like a mouse inside a glass jar. I had become instantly conscious of the edge of my hem, scarred with repeated attempts to match its length to my growing height, the small patch on my stockings that rubbed against my shoes and was becoming thin, my too-long neck and too-large ears.

Then she had blinked and smiled: a tight smile that turned her eyes into icy crescents. ‘Well, you look clean, and Mr Hamilton tells me you can stitch.’ She had stood up as I nodded, and moved away from me toward the writing desk, trailing her hand lightly along the top of the chaise. ‘How is your mother?’ she had asked, without turning. ‘Did you know she used to be in service here too?’ To which I had told her I did know and that Mother was well, thank you for asking, and I remembered to call her ma’am.

I must have said the right thing, because it was just after that she offered me fifteen pound a year to start next day and rang the bell for Myra to show me out.


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it's very good good luck
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