For one moment our lives met, our souls touched.
June 19th, 1873
It was two weeks before my eighteenth birthday when I first discovered Lea’s presence on my father’s farm.
I was reclining on a chaise lounge in the Evenson's parlor when the question emerged from Claudia Prosser’s upturned mouth. “Elina, is it true that your father’s housing Lea Trowsdale on your property?”
I poised the teacup near my lips, both startled and perplexed by her sudden inquiry. “Lea Trowsdale? I haven’t a clue as to who that is.” My gaze shifted around the low-lit, slightly stuffy parlor, taking in the four other girls that crowded the space. Their faces mirrored Claudia’s, eyes twinkling with excitement and just a twinge of gossip.
“I’m afraid I do not have any news to give you all,” I stated. Do I ever?
A few girls slumped forward, frowns supplanting their smirks, as if I burdened them with my lack of scandal. Yet a few others, Claudia included, edged forward, only egged on.
“You haven’t a single clue?” Claudia challenged, arcing a perfectly plucked brow. Her eyes met mine over the edge of my teacup. She glanced away first.
“Well,” she folded her hands in her lap with a tart smile. “Perhaps you are as stodgy as you seem.”
It was all I could do not to chuckle. I held my emotions intact, letting only a slight smile grace my lips. “You’re quite correct, Claudia,” I began. “After all, you’re the one that spends your afternoons tasting teas and entertaining guests with a piano.”
I watched as Claudia swallowed down the embarrassment; watched as she grimaced as if it tasted vile. She batted at her round face with a teal colored fan. She glanced around to the ladies seated nearby almost assuring them that she wasn’t at all perturbed by my reports—and she had a polished grin to prove it.
“Dearest Elina, why are you so brazen?” She waited a few moments before she addressed her throng of comrades. “Does anyone know why Elina is so vexed?” The delight in her tone made me cringe; almost. I couldn’t afford to show my annoyance.
She let the room fall into hushed gasps and snickers before she stirred the crowd into a higher frenzy. “The girl with the most logical answer shall be invited to my next gala!” She paused for a moment, then set her gaze on a girl with apricot-colored locks. “Do you know, Marietta?”
The girl shrugged with defeat. “I’m afraid not.”
I pursed my lips. She’s baiting them, like they’re fish.
It wasn’t a farfetched comparison. A rather rotund brunette spoke up from the corner. “Claudia! I have an idea!” She waggled her hand in the air, her mouth opening and closing between giggles, akin to a flounder taking in too much oxygen.
“Ah, Laurel Evenson,” Claudia replied. “Do tell.”
I sensed how she faltered around the girl’s name; hardly anyone noticed her, which was unfortunate, since we were occupying her parlor. I crossed my arms and turned to face her. “Yes, do tell us, Laurel Evenson.” I’m so excited to hear the wonderful scraps of hearsay buzzing around my name!
“Is it because of the engagement with Daniel?” she burst forth.
Silence overtook the room.
All carefree emotions quickly vacated my soul. I fidgeted where I sat. “Daniel is not going to propose to me.”
Claudia narrowed her gaze, yet another smirk donning her lips. “Don’t be too quick to dismiss his feelings, Elina. I know true love when I see it.”
“She’s not the only one, Elina,” Laurel stated. “I’ve noticed it too. We’ve all noticed it. I’ve never witnessed a man so lovestruck. Just think of the way he looks at you!”
“You’re all insane,” I mumbled, yet gave no further argument. In the silence I dropped my eyes from Claudia’s flock, looking toward my left hand. An imaginative engagement ring burned on my finger, just as aflame as my cheeks.
Whispered gossip slowly trickled back into the parlor, surmounting into rowdy laughs and chortles. I pried my gaze away from the imaginary and wretched object that held my life in a vice, careful not to let more of my emotions visible. “Am I truly that funny?”
The smile on Claudia’s lips trembled as she turned to me, eyeing me as if I were a bug she found skittering on the posh carpets. “Oh, no, Elina. We were just laughing at how eager you are to pass up opportunity.” She angled herself further into the velvet cushions. “How many men have proposed to you now? Four?”
“Five!” Laurel corrected, a little too enthusiastic.
I considered crumpling up the fan I now clenched in my hands and chucking it at her head.
“At least she’ll probably accept this one,” butted in a meek girl with straw-colored locks. “I find that remarkable.”
I couldn’t tell if she was insulting me, praising me, or both. I fought to plaster a smile on my face. “Daniel is a fine gentleman,” I lied. “I won’t pass up the opportunity to marry him.” The lines I had rehearsed with Mother countless times felt dull and forced in my head. And they were.
A few girls nodded their assent.
“See how happy she looks?” piped in the girl from before. “How could she possibly be lying? She wants to marry him, you can tell it by the way she blushes.”
Claudia shrugged her shoulders, her curly bronze locks bouncing slightly. “You never know what someone might be thinking,” she replied. Her eyes found mine once more. “Some lies are never disclosed.”
Aha. Couldn’t say that about your fling with Richard Haynes, can we? You practically retold all of your wild nights to me at your last ball. I bit my tongue, straightening up.
“Shall we return to the original subject?” Laurel asked. “You’re boring me with your talk about marriage and hidden lies…”
“That’s because you’re nearly as tame as Elina,” snickered a girl next to her, brown locks piled atop her head in an elegant bun.
Laurel laughed, almost as if she was in agreeance. I felt a twinge of empathy.
“I do not know if I could pull that off…” she admitted with a smile.
The empathy was demolished.
“But, really,” Marietta pressed on. “Who is this mysterious ‘Lea’? I’m sure I’m not the only one besides Elina that does not know who she is.”
Claudia shrugged her small, elegant shoulders once more. “All I know is that she’s a black woman. Not a servant, per say. But, rather…” She pursed her lips, at a loss for the correct word.
“Houseguest?” Laurel suggested.
Claudia shook her head, sighing softly.“Not quite.”
I plucked at my fan, arching a brow. “Why are you all so curious, anyhow? You’re acting as if it’s the one scrap of gossip you’ve managed to get out of me all year.”
“Because it is!” Claudia whined.
A knock sounded at the door, much to my relief. One of the Evenson’s maids popped her head in, waiting for the room to settle into silence before she began. “So sorry for interrupting,” she stated with a meek tone. She glanced to Laurel, straightening her posture. A golden lock fell free from her white cap. “Is Miss Elina in your company?”
I am saved! I straightened up, eager to leave Claudia’s over-zealous and over-curious horde.
Laurel nodded, gesturing with a pudgy finger in my direction. “Right there.”
The maid folded her hands over her starch apron, eyes downcast as she turned to face me. “Daniel Marrs is here to see you.”
I am doomed.
I hesitated, tenting my fingers together and propping my chin atop them. “Whatever for?”
“He didn’t say, Miss,” the maid stated. “Only that he wanted to give you something.”
Claudia smirked at this. “Perhaps it is another piece of jewelry?”
“You’re so lucky, Elina. I wish I was given jewels,” Laurel put forth.
I ignored their comments and rose from the seat, stalking forward in what I hoped appeared to be confident strides. I turned to the Evenson’s maid. “Show me to him, please.”
I tried to swallow down the acrid taste in my mouth as we neared the Evenson’s magnificent front doors. The entryway was magnificent. In fact, the whole Evenson house was, one of two reasons as to why Claudia arranged most of her tea parties there. The other was that Claudia felt envious of Laurel Evenson. Slightly.
The doors swung open, pulling me from my thoughts. I placed my hands in front, squeezing so hard my nails pinched into my palms.
“Right down the steps, Miss,” said the maid. She closed the doors silently, slipping back into the fantasy-like house, leaving me loitering on the marble steps.
His voice grated against my ears. I forced the urge to curl my lips; I smiled thinly. “Hello, Daniel.”
His copper locks appeared like tendrils of flames in the afternoon light. His face was pale, nearly blanched all of color; it always was. He took my hands, swiveling me around so that he could surmount a step above me. Daniel was very touchy about his height.
The grin on his ashen face grew. “I have something to give you.”
My smile wavered as I tilted my head up to view him. “I’ve heard.”
“I hope your friends haven’t spoiled the news too much,” he began. He fished a tiny box from his pants pocket.
“Do you know what’s in this box, Elina?” He asked.
Unimaginable horrors. “Ah….” I bit my lip, then forced a smile. “No, Daniel. Enlighten me.”
His smile grew even more; I was afraid it would snap in two. “Something that shall make our lives so much grander.” He lowered to one knee, just as my heart slowed.
He opened the dreadful velvet box, revealing the contents inside. A silver ring glinted up at me, inlaid with pearl. “Elina,” he said. “Will you make me the happiest man alive? Will you accept my proposal of marriage?”
Fear prickled my skin, spiraling up my back, tensing my shoulders. Around me, the world spun. The future rolled out in front of my eyes: an incorrigible nightmare. Daniel was the imperfect image of a husband, with sallow cheeks and a whine that never left his tone. Every moment he ever held me close flashed before my mind. I remembered with shocking clarity the feeling of his wet, sweaty palms. The feeling I had after he kissed me in Claudia’s back garden, during her summer ball last year. It was unnatural, sloppy, and vulgar.
How could I live like this, with a boor for the rest of my days?
Daniel cleared his throat, knocking me out of my ghastly memories. I stumbled for the correct words, eyeing the box he still had propped open. I tried to push my disgusted emotions aside, glancing back to the man. “Daniel…,” I began.
His sand colored brows inched up his forehead in anticipation. His slightly yellow teeth peeked through his smile. “Yes…?”
The afternoon sunlight shifted through the trees, blotting out Daniel’s face, nearly shadowing his haggard form. I felt a slight surge of confidence. Not seeing his face would make rejection so much easier.
Yet, something paused me, held my tongue. Don’t you dare deny him! my mind hissed. Think of Mother; think of the money! It was true; Daniel was extremely affluent. Mother had never let me forget. Since the moment she had first realized Daniel’s interest for me she had instructed me to hold on tight, to accept marriage, and do so willingly. But with a smile, of course.
Yet it was so strenuous to smile.
“Are you alright, Elina?” Once again, Daniel roped me back to reality. His smile had faded a tad; his eyebrows were knotted together. “You seem hesitant.”
“Oh, no,” I lied, forcing yet another ‘delighted’ smile on my lips. “I wasn’t. I was just...thinking of our lovely future together.”
Seemingly pleased with himself, he smiled again. “Wonderful. Now, your answer, please? I’ve just been dying to hear it.”
My response rolled off my tongue quite easier than I would have expected; I held back the cringe. “Yes, Daniel. I will marry you.”
Daniel’s hands trembled as he slid the ring onto my finger. I quickly tucked my hands behind my back, not eager to look at the foul object.
I was about to excuse myself dash inside when a smattering of delighted squeals erupted from behind me.
I spun around, breath catching as Laurel, Claudia, and the others spilled through the Evenson’s grand doors.
“She said yes, did she not?” Claudia inquired, a sly smile lining her lips.
“Of course,” Daniel replied. He reached over and squeezed my hand; it took the remaining strength I had within myself to not to recoil.
“Oh, you must let us see the ring, then!” Claudia gushed. She darted forward; the others followed, surging toward me in a perfumed tide.
I extended a hand and the girls gasped in response.
Marietta put her hands gently to her chest as she studied me. “Aren’t you ecstatic, Elina? You’ve just entered the best moment of your life! It will be like a wonderful dream!” Her eyes widened with joy at the thought.
I nodded and smiled, yet inside, I knew better. I was not entering the best moment in my life, and it certainly wasn’t some wonderful dream.
I was entering a nightmare.
June 15th, 1873
I stood at the outskirts of the Edgeworth property, trying to bridle my emotions. I was about to start my new life, or so that was what my mother had told me. Yet as I took in the gargantuan size of the mansion, I couldn’t tell if my life was out to a good start.
Doubt crept into my mind. No matter how hard I tried to swat it away, it came back, buzzing about my head, nipping at my skin. It had followed me as soon as the first rays of daylight awoke me this morning. Today is supposed to be full of changes, Lea. What if the changes aren’t good?
I steeled myself with a shake of the head. No, no. This change has to be good, it must be. Anything other than the Anderson household is good. I fought back a cringe at the thought of the owner, the widowed mother of five, with her harsh hands and even harsher tongue.
How wonderful I felt to be liberated of her.
“If you are not one of the Edgeworth’s servants, I am afraid you’ll have to leave, Miss.”
I jumped, my wandering mind halting at the sound of the voice.
A man appeared before me, squinting in the hazy morning sunlight. Below his balding scalp, his eyes regarded me with suspicion. A seemingly perpetual frown was engraved on his face. His movements were almost as rigid and stiff as the servant uniform he wore, as he neared the wrought iron gate that separated us.
“Oh, pardon me,” I stated hurriedly. “I have come to work for the Edgeworth’s as a new maid.” I left out how I had found out about the new position at the Edgeworth’s; I wasn’t spying practically; I had just been in earshot while polishing silverware. I had overheard bits of conversation floating from the Anderson parlor, how one maid had been thrown from the Edgeworth’s property due to ‘scandalous behavior’, and the Edgeworth’s were seeking a new maid to fill her position. I hadn’t discovered the details of the maid’s departure, other than she had been impregnated somehow. Yet my ticket away from the Anderson’s had arrived, and I was not going to let it dart away.
The man regarded me once more. “Ah, the position. We haven’t had many women come to us for the job. You’re in luck.” The emotion lacked in his face and tone, yet it stirred something in my chest. Enthusiasm? Hope?
The smile on my face didn’t feel as forced. I righted myself. “Wonderful news.”
Silence threaded itself between us before the man spoke. “Who are you?”
“Lea Downing,” I replied, hoping my voice did not warble too much.
The man narrowed his eyes, his dust colored eyebrows arching ever so slightly. “It’s quite early.”
I clasped my hands behind my back, taking stock of how the sun was just starting to climb over the trees in the distance. “I wanted to arrive as as promptly as I could.”
He regarded me with yet another condescending stare. He seemed to be calculating, battling, somewhat, on whether he should escort me inside. Fortunately, luck appeared to have my side. “Right this way then. I will show you to the lead maid, Ms. Renshaw. She will instruct you on your duties. I will fill in the Edgeworth’s as soon as they awake.”
I nodded, stiffening as the the gates groaned on archaic hinges. This is it, Lea. Your new life.
The man walked briskly, the heels of his shoes slapping into the stone pathway that lead to the Edgeworth’s door. I hastened my pace, lifting up the edge of my skirts just so, then I rushed forward to meet his headlong strides. I tried to dismiss the feeling of my heart slamming into my chest. My elation dissipated as anxiety seized the situation. Every step I took was guarded, every breath I took was measured. I could not dare to befoul my chances at a better life; not with a promising future ahead. Not with mother’s promise burning in the back of my mind.
The doors opened and soon our footsteps echoed on marble tile. I kept my head low and focused to the floor, careful not to let my eyes wander, to be lost in the house’s grandeur. I was certain it was a wonderful manor, yet I would have plenty of time to soak in the splendor later. If I didn’t soil my chances.
“Tread softly,” the man murmured to me as we alighted a set of stairs. “You wouldn’t wish to see Mrs. Edgeworth cranky.”
I wasn’t sure if it was the butler’s first show of human emotion, a bad joke, or both, but I was sure the wrath of Mrs. Edgeworth was diminutive in comparison to that of Mrs. Anderson. But I stayed quiet, just in case.
The servant lead me through a series of hallways, up stairwells and across passageways until he paused. I halted next to him, privately trying to catch my breath.
“The maid’s corridors,” he explained. “You shall find the head maid inside there.” He directed my attention to a door at the end of the hallway. And with that he departed, leaving me with no other choice but to stuff down the remaining tendrils of anxiety and open the door.
The woman I presumed to be Ms. Renshaw was short in stature; she wore her bronze hair in a tightly kept bun. She was donned in a servant’s uniform not that different than the one I had worn on the Anderson estate, a simple black dress behind a white apron. Her eyes, an amber shade, followed me as I edged into the small room. She regarded me with a deep-set frown, shifting the wrinkles embedded on her weathered face.
I put forth a smile I hoped was cheerful. “Hello, I’m Lea Downing—”
“I will have no friendly relations with you; alliances are a distraction in this household,” the woman snapped. “And remove that smile from your face, servants do not put forth emotion.”
I blinked, stunned, yet did as instructed, letting my lips form a straight line.
“Why are you here?”
“To assume the former maid’s position.” I fought back a flinch as the stout woman stepped toward me, beady eyes narrowed. I felt like some experiment splayed out on a surgeon’s table.
“And where did you come from?”
“The Anderson household.” I stiffened and tucked my hands behind my back.
Ms. Renshaw pursed her ancient lips, perhaps stretching her prehistoric mind to the limits as she tried to remember the Anderson family. “She lives quite a distance from here, though she is the nearest neighbor of the Edgeworth’s.”
I nodded. “Her house is approximately five miles from the Edgeworth’s property.”
The woman grunted; was she impressed? Were my calculations incorrect? Or did she simply not believe me? Her eyes narrowed ever further; I was afraid they would pop off and clatter to the floorboards. “How old are you?”
“How long did you stay with the Andersons?”
I felt my grip tighten around my wrists. “Ever since I was born.”
“Nearly eighteen years of service?” The tiniest bit of emotion cracked through her tone. “What drove you to seek out another job? Surely, you must have enough money to sustain yourself.”
I bit my tongue to stopper any grim remarks of my servitude. “I was simply paying off my mother’s debt, Ms.”
Ms. Renworth paused. “Are you willing to work hard, Ms. Downing?”
Ms. Renworth studied me, cloaking the room in silence. Ever since I was young, silence was always an indication that something foul was about to occur. Silence was embedded in the hesitation before bad news was broken; before a slap was struck upon skin; before a storm unloaded its thunder.
Yet, this time, silence served in my favor.
“Congratulations, Ms. Downing.” Ms. Renworth’s voice was leached of all enthusiasm, yet her news brought a smile to my lips. “You have passed my little test.”
Ms. Renworth shoved a skirt and plain black dress, akin to what she wore, into my hands. She directed me to a corner, instructed me to change, then lead me out into the hallway.
“You shall start your duties on the third floor and work your way up,” she commented as she lead me down a flight of stairs. “The library needs to be dusted and the hallway floors should be scrubbed. Report to me once you are finished, then the real work will begin.”
I didn’t wish to question her on what the ‘real’ work entailed; strenuous duties, I assumed, but nothing I was a stranger to.
Ms. Renworth’s shoes clacked against the tile as we worked our way throughout the house. I tried to conceal the utter shock I felt; the Anderson house was a shanty compared to the utter size of this mansion.
Halfway down the hallway, a shard of light bled onto the floor. I trailed it back to a partially open door; I could hear a hushed conversation from inside of the room.
Ms. Renworth arched her wiry eyebrows, tsking under her breath as we neared the door, speaking in a quiet tone. “They’re up already? I thought Ms. Edgeworth preferred her beauty sleep.” Her lips pursed yet again. “I suppose I should fetch them their morning tea. Wait here.”
She waddled off down the carpeted hallway, leaving me by myself.
Murmurs of small talk wafted out into the hallway; to my right, a stately grandfather clock ticked away the seconds.
I knew it was against protocol to eavesdrop on the banter of the upper class, yet it was impossible to bridle my curiosity. I peered into the room through the cracked open door, taking a slight step forward, holding my breath.
“I’m quite certain you’ll live a happy life together, Elina,” one woman gushed. I could hardly see her form except for a shadow tossed across the patterned wall. “What more could you ask for?”
I could view a younger woman seated across from her, her dark hair drawn back in a high bun, her fingers woven together in her lap.
A beam of a smile appeared on her lips. Her voice was soft when she replied, “Of course, Mother, what was I thinking?”
“Daniel is the perfect match,” the woman from before replied. “I expect you to accept his proposal.” Her voice was stern; a sense of authority hung about it. Was this Ms. Edgeworth?
The girl nodded, yet made no further form of a reply.
“Did your years at the Anderson’s teach you nothing?”
I jumped at the sudden whisper at my ear and took a jagged step away from the door.
Ms. Renworth stood a foot away, glowering, tea tray clutched between her bony fingers. “Don’t soil your career before you’ve already begun,” she reprimanded.
The room grew quiet, perhaps from Ms. Renworth’s sudden outburst.
I locked my gaze on the floor, instantly feeling a set of eyes darting to me. You dumb girl, you shouldn’t have been spying. Ms. Edgeworth is going to banish you from the house at once! I squared my shoulders and pulled my gaze from the carpeting, expecting to see an irate woman standing before me, a finger pointed at my chest in accusation.
Yet it wasn’t the stern-voiced Ms. Edgeworth that was peering over at me.
It was her daughter.