By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2010.
This page contains the first two chapters of The House of Dead Maids, a prequel to Wuthering Heights.
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 horsehair 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 housekeepers. 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 housekeeper 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 housekeeper 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 farmhouse 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.
I woke from a heavy sleep to the sound of a person shaking down the ashes at the hearth, but when I opened my eyes, I saw only the dense shade of a little cloth room. A moment later, a woman pushed back heavy green folds beside me, and light streamed in and lit up twinkling motes of dust. I was in a curtained bed so large that I could stretch out both arms and not reach its sides, and so high that I had to climb down a wooden stepladder drawn up beside it. I might have hurt myself tumbling over the edge.
"Whose room is this?" I ventured to inquire, awed at my surroundings.
"Chamber for the young maid," muttered my companion. "Come to the hearth. You've got to be measured."
She took a string from around her neck and held it at my collarbone while she bent to check its length to the floor, marking the intervals on it with a chunk of coal. She had a broad, dumpy figure and freckled arms with dimples at the wrists, sparse grizzled hair, gray eyes that studied the world with sour disinterest, and a seamed mouth cinched up tightly like a miser's purse.
"Where is the other girl?" I asked, turning around so she could find the span of my shoulders.
"We got no other girls," she said. "Just the old maid and you."
The morning light shone through a small window set with uneven diamond panes of blue and amber glass, throwing a harlequin pattern onto the wooden floor and brown gritstone walls. In the corner towered a great oak clothes press decorated with puffing faces and roaring animal heads. By the bed, a little table held an earthenware pitcher and washbowl, and next to me at the hearth stood an upright chair, with my garments laid across it to dry. A very old mirror hung by the door. Fashioned into its beadwork frame were fanciful scenes of fighting birds, but the glass was so smoky and streaked that it returned little by way of a reflection.
"I heard the other girl in my sleep," I said. "I heard her get up and wash. See, the other pillow's dented." And I pointed at the bed.
The woman didn't stop to look. She worked her pursed mouth into a frown until she looked like a pug dog. "We got no other girls," she said stubbornly. "Just a few silly village lasses, and they won't come in at this season."
She lapsed into silence, and I held up my arms so that she could measure my waist. When she was finished, she checked her marks, grunted, and straightened up. "Name's Mrs. Sexton," she told me. "I keep the house. Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, the master's coming back with a child for you to look after. Till they arrive, you can do as you like." She wrapped the measuring string around her neck and turned to quit the chamber.
"A child!" I said, surprised. "A little one? I'm to be nursemaid?"
"I don't know his age," she muttered. "When you want food, come to the kitchen." And with that, she was gone.
After washing and dressing, I ventured out to find the kitchen, a harder task than it would seem. I went down the dark passage outside the bedchamber and found a little back staircase, but it led into a part of the house that wasn't used. I wandered there for some time from room to room, trying locked doors.
If I liked, I could look ahead in my tale and declare that the house felt sinister, but all I knew at the time was that I didn't like it. It was large and labyrinthine, and, owing to its harsh setting, very poorly lit. The wind was its most active visitor, prowling about ceaselessly, rattling the casements and sobbing in the chimneys; thus, the stone walls were strong and thick, and the windows small and few. Fortunate was that chamber which held a double casement of clear lights. Most held, as mine did, a few small panes of amber or brown glass. The corridors might as well have been passages in a crypt, for they had no windows at all.
I could believe that the house had no maids, as dirty as the chambers were. A froth of dust covered their surfaces. The furniture was muffled in canvas sheets, looking more like some pale shrubbery sprouting in the corner than a chair or table fashioned for the use of men. Many rooms were bare of ornament save a few grotesque old paintings and the omnipresent covering of grime.
In the end, I rediscovered my narrow stair and went back up, took another turning, came upon a second little stair, and found the kitchen at last. A clean place it was, too, I was happy to see, with a big bare wooden table and a great roaring fire. Mrs. Sexton was settled before the glowing hearth on a bench, her mending basket beside her and a clay pipe clamped between her teeth. Not another creature was there to enjoy the glorious warmth except the poor plucked fowls who lay next to the stew pot.
She served me oatcakes and butter in silence, but her portions were generous, and my feelings towards her mellowed.
"Where is Miss Winter?" I asked as I ate.
"You mean the old maid, don't you," she muttered. "She's in bed. No telling if Her Majesty means to get up this fine day."
The kitchen was blessed with two large windows through which I could see a bit of vegetable garden, a rock wall, and some ragged bushes bowing low before the wind. Behind these rose a steep green slope, with shadow and sun sweeping across it as unseen clouds hurried by.
"Shall I take her a tray then?" I asked as I rose from the table.
"If the old maid wants food, she can come here for it, same as you," said Mrs. Sexton. "She's naught to you, and she's not your friend. Don't be doing her favors." And she turned away from my questions, leaving me more confused than before.
I found myself at liberty once my breakfast was done. Mrs. Sexton steadfastly refused to set me a task. At one of my old houses, the master's return would have meant a troop of twenty maids chattering and laughing and cleaning everything from top to bottom. Here I was the only maid, and yet it seemed I was no maid at all, only a nurse for visiting children. Not for as long as I could recall had I been without employment of some kind, and the prospect of a day of idleness rather daunted me. Not wishing Mrs. Sexton to think me stupid, however, I resolved to return to the bedchamber assigned to me and puzzle out what to do.
Back I went into the dim passageways, a tangle of turnings as twisted as a lover's knot. With my belly full and no employment to hurry me along, I rambled at my leisure. Room let onto room in inconvenient arrangements, and steps ran up or down in the most inexplicable fashion. Some chambers exhibited great extravagance in the form of elaborate stained glass or magnificently painted ceilings, but the entire place seemed to belong to a bygone age.
Here is the answer, I thought: the master has better houses and comes here but seldom. Probably he's close with his money and resists paying wages to maintain such a monstrous old castle. He'll stay locked in with his agents while he's here, turn a blind eye to the dust, and leave as soon as he can. And what will I do then? For surely he'll take his child with him.
Dismayed by these musings, I found myself liking the place less and less. There was little of cheer or comfort about it. Such decoration as I came upon breathed a predatory spirit, dominated by the steel relics of war. Pikes and halberds, chain mail, and crossed arrows adorned the walls. Upon one heavy sideboard clustered a trio of cannonballs in little hollows, and on a chest of drawers sat a cavalier's helmet. Everywhere were hunting trophies in the form of animal skins, or antlers, the weapons of the beast.
To fix my bearings, I looked out the windows whenever the glass would permit a view. To the west, the great green ridge rose up behind the house and loomed over us like a frozen wave, but it gave no shelter, for the house stood on a mound or hill far enough out from it to catch the winds that came tumbling down its slope. To the east, and well below us, I caught glimpses of the silver curves of the stream that had brought me there, and close by its bank, the dark roofs of a small village. North lay stark moorland, rising into blunt, rocky crests and falling into treeless valleys, a desolate place devoid of shelter or human habitation, the haunt of the fox, the plover, and the solitary crow.
No window looked south.
I found when I returned to my bedchamber that someone had been in to tidy it, and the green curtains around the bed were tied back. This hardly seemed like the work of Her Majesty, Miss Winter. Mrs. Sexton must have come in to take care of it, but she had left the work half done. The door to the bottom cabinet of the clothes press was standing open. Next to it on the floor ranged a neat line of small objects. I came close and found that they were feathers.
A board that formed the bottom of the clothes press had been tilted up to reveal a shallow compartment between it and the floor. Within that compartment were a great many objects of charm but little value. One by one, I took the items out and arranged them next to the feathers. There were any number of curious buttons, as well as two striped snail shells and the tiniest bird's egg I could imagine, five foreign coins, a cracked game piece fashioned like a horse's head, and a pebble as round as the moon. Beneath them lay several slips of paper and two small worked samplers. The ink on the pages had faded and the paper darkened until the pen strokes were all but indistinguishable, and the samplers were stiff and brittle with age.
Then I had a surprise. At the back of the compartment lay a sock, an old friend in a crowd of strangers, for it was the style we knitted at Ma Hutton's school. I pictured the girl Izzy, who had come to this house before me, chancing upon this delightful little hoard. I looked at the neat line of feathers. Then I put the objects back into their hiding place, jumped to my feet, and ran downstairs.
I found Mrs. Sexton in the kitchen, chopping carrots for the stew. "A person has been in that room," I told her.
She gave me a sidelong glance. "What room?" she asked, and this silenced me for a few troubled moments. On no account could I bring myself to call it mine.
"That room you put me in," I declared at last. "Somebody has been in. Somebody has been playing!"
I expected her to deny it, and I was prepared with my facts. I knew that none but a child would treasure that little hoard, or treat those feathers with such care. But Mrs. Sexton merely cinched her wrinkled lips tighter around the stem of her pipe.
A clatter of pattens in the hallway just then brought me out of the kitchen at a trot, but by the time I reached the door, the person had gone. I heard the clatter go by again just out of sight around a corner, but another empty corridor was my reward. At length, I followed the sound to a bright, clean passage. I tried a door and found a pleasant parlor there, and Miss Winter glanced up from her book.
"Have you brought tea?" she inquired. A clock on the mantel chimed five, the only clock I had seen in the whole house.
"I was looking for the girl," I confessed. "I thought she came in here. Mrs. Sexton said there isn't a girl, but there is. She's been in the room where I sleep."
"She comes and goes," said Miss Winter. "I'm sure she'll find you when she wants to. Tell that worthless woman in the kitchen I want my tea."
I stood in the doorway for a bit, but she didn't look up or speak again, and I was too cowed to ask questions. Perhaps the other girl is simple, I thought, returning to the kitchen. Perhaps she's not as she should be, and that makes the servants loath to mention her to strangers. It isn't worth a quarrel, after all. And I persuaded Mrs. Sexton to let me take Miss Winter her tea, just for the pleasure of having an occupation.
We ate our own meal in the kitchen, sharing the big wooden table between us. I loitered by the fire until the heat made me sleepy, and when Mrs. Sexton saw me nodding, she took me up to bed. She passed a pan of hot coals between the sheets to warm them and turned the key in the lock as she left.
Late at night, the other girl returned to our chamber and climbed into bed with me. And, oh, how cold she was! The arms that twined around me were icy, and her dress was wringing wet. I grew cold to my bones as I hugged the thin form, attempting to warm it up. Vague fears troubled me, and Miss Winter's stern figure haunted my sleep: nothing but a white face and hands, with her dress swallowed up in the night.
When morning came, my little companion was gone, but not my indignation, and I was quite short with Mrs. Sexton when she pushed back the curtains on the bed.
"The other girl was here last night," I said severely, "and you needn't pretend she wasn't. What a state she was in! She'll catch her death, the way you let her run about in wet things."
Mrs. Sexton only stared at me. Then she heaved a sigh and turned to tend to the fire.
"You needn't lock the door anymore, either," I added. "It didn't keep her out."
"Lock's not for them," muttered Mrs. Sexton. "Lock's for you, to keep you from wandering the house at night and waking me up."
"I can be trusted to stay where I'm put," I answered as I scrambled down the wooden stepstool. "What's that?"
A handsome dress lay on the chair over my old one. The cloth of it was sturdy and new, and if it lacked the layers of petticoats that were the fashion in town, this did nothing to diminish my growing joy, for as I held the dress up, I could see beyond all doubt that it had been made for no one but me.
"The village finished it last night," said Mrs. Sexton, ignoring my pleasure to scrape the ashes.
I smoothed the wide skirts, my bad temper forgotten at the amazing news that a village had worked together to clothe me. The dress was black, as black and perfect as a crow's wing, a miniature copy of Miss Winter's imposing garment. "I can wear this to church today," I said, and that put the capstone on my delight. Never had I so much as dared to dream of poor ugly little Tabby Aykroyd showing off a new dress in church.
"Church?" asked Mrs. Sexton, pausing to eye me askance.
"It's the Lord's Day," I reminded her. "Oh, dear! I need to wash. What time do the house staff leave for service?"
"Wash if you like and go where you like," said Mrs. Sexton. "I stay here." And she picked up her bucket and left the room.
This put me in a predicament. Weekly service was inevitable, inescapable, as firmly fixed in the cycle of existence as the baking of the household loaves of bread. Now I asked myself, did I want to go to church? And the answer was by no means simple. Sometimes a curate had the gift of preaching, but more often than not, service was a contest of endurance to see whether the preacher's voice would give out before I lost the feeling in my dangling toes. The thought that I might choose—that I might go or not as I pleased—awakened in me guilty relief.
I did have a suspicion that the quarrelsome, untruthful behavior of the residents of this house could not be improved by their impiety and that I should seek a different course if I did not wish to become like them. Nonetheless, such is the frailty of human goodness that I soon stifled this counsel with a dozen practical suggestions. Before I had concluded washing, I had decided to remain at home. Already I viewed my absence from divine worship that day with melancholy regret, as though it were a circumstance that had happened long ago instead of an event that had yet to take place.
I blush to own that this regret was quite drowned out by another, and that was the lack of an adequate looking glass. The old one in the beaded frame returned only a suggestion of features. I longed to see my new clothes, and as I stepped into the passage, I was just turning over in my mind where I might have seen a better mirror. When first I caught sight of the small figure in black, I thought it was my reflection.
She stood very still in the dusky passage where the light was poorest. Like me, she wore the black dress that proclaimed her a maid of the house, but whereas mine was new, hers was spoiled by mildew and smears of clay. Thin hair, dripping with muddy water, fell to her shoulders in limp, stringy ropes. This was my companion of the night before—and she was dead.
The dead hold no terrors for me. I have watched by the beds of those who have passed on, comforted by their sorrowless repose. But this little maid was a ghastly thing, all the more horrible because she stood before me. It wasn't the pallid hue of her grimy face that shocked me, or her little gray hands and feet. It was the holes where her eyes should have been, great round sockets of shadow.
The dead girl opened her lips as if she meant to speak. Her mouth was another black pit like the black pits of her eyes. She was nothing but a hollowed-out skin plumped up with shadow. I had the horrible idea that if I were to scratch her, she would split open, and the darkness within her would come pouring out.
I remember that she reached out a hand towards me, and I remember running away. I remember throwing open the door to the kitchen, and Mrs. Sexton's startled curse. I stood for long minutes by the bright, sunlit window, my teeth chattering uncontrollably. The sudden comprehension that this was the icy form I had held through the night sputtered across my nerves and set the room to spinning.
Then Mrs. Sexton brought a glass, and brandy coursed through me like fire. Sense returned, and with it, an overpowering fervor. This had been a judgment upon me. I needed no other sign.
"I'm going to church!" I gasped.
Copyright 2009 by Clare B. Dunkle. Text courtesy of Henry Holt & Co.