CW: Sensitive themes relating to pregnancy/children
I never thought I’d leave Hartfield Manor, but the train is moving now, and there is no going back. Everything I hold dear is stowed beneath my seat or in a bundle on my lap; I took only what I needed to start over. I shall miss the staff and little Peter and the twins, but they’ll all forget me soon enough. Once they’ve hired a new nursery maid, I’ll become a distant memory. Lord Thorne will probably fabricate a tale to besmirch my good name—something about how I was a fraud or a danger to his children, but they will grow up someday and see what true dysfunction lies behind those stone walls, and they won’t begrudge my leaving. They’ll understand then.
It wasn’t always this way.
Years ago, when I first arrived at Hartfield Manor, with little more than a carpet bag and letter of reference from the academy, I was enamored with its grandness, the beautiful gardens, and the air of importance I felt the moment I stepped inside. My personal quarters, adjacent to the nursery, were spacious with tall, East-facing windows, and I couldn’t have been more pleased. I was soon introduced to my new charges, the young twins, misses Katherine and Margaret. They were so small then, hardly speaking, and wary of my presence. I gifted each of them a peppermint candy, which they swiftly consumed, and we became fast friends.
My mistress, Lady Thorne, was a bright, amiable woman and I liked her immediately. Shortly after I was taken on, she disclosed to me that she was again with child and felt quite ill most days, but when she was not too indisposed, she’d come to the garden and sit beside me as we watched the girls play in the grass. They’d bring us wilted flowers in their sticky hands, and Lady Thorne would pretend they were bouquets fit for a queen, tucking them into her hair or dress. The girls would gaze wide-eyed at their mother and cover her cheeks in kisses, as adoring of her charm and beauty as the rest of us were.
Those were my most cherished days at Hartfield Manor. Mr. Thorne traveled often and for long stints of time, so whenever he returned, the house behaved like it was a holiday and put together a grand spread for dinner. Lady Thorne especially anticipated her husband’s return, giving special attention to her attire and toilette on those nights. Adorned in gems and shimmering satin, she looked every bit a duchess, even being heavy with child. On her way down to dinner, she always stopped by the nursery to kiss the girls goodnight. Katherine and Margaret would beg for their mother for a song, and she always obliged, her voice high and clear, luring them into slumber. Her perfume lingered in the air as the children drifted off.
As the time came and Lady Thorne gave birth to their third child, a son they named Peter, the spirit shifted in the house. Peter was an inconsolable infant, his face always screwed up in the most displeased pout. But Lady Thorne was delighted with him and determined to meet his needs and nurse him herself, ignoring Lord Thorne’s insistence on the impropriety of it, but, regardless, little Peter would not take to her, and she grew increasingly rattled by his cries and disturbed by her own exhaustion. His constant wailing unsettled everyone. A seasoned wet nurse was finally dispatched, and the house resumed a modicum of normalcy.
Peter cried more than he smiled but was mollified by the outdoors, and so I spent many hours pushing him in his pram until the arches of my feet ached. On warm days, the girls and I would walk to the pond, where frogs and ducks and all manner of creatures buzzed and scuttled. I’d let the twins strip off their shoes and dip their toes in the water. They’d rip the seeds from cattails and toss them into the wind, where the breeze would blow them right back into their hair. It was wonderful entertainment. When Peter began to fuss, I’d take him out and bounce him on my hip. He’d reach for the ribbons in my hat or cover my cheeks in sloppy kisses. Sometimes I’d turn and see Lady Thorne watching us from the window, her pale hands pressed against the glass.
Before Peter was half a year old, Lady Thorne announced she was expecting again. Everyone was surprised, though she wore an easy smile when she shared the news. The time passed slowly, with Lady Thorne remaining in her rooms more as the months progressed. When she did come to the nursery to visit the children and read them books or play silly games, they would all fight for a spot on her lap, wiggling their way into her arms and struggling to find room against her growing belly. She’d smooth the girls’ hair and tickle Peter under his chubby chin, then all too soon she’d bid them goodbye and shuffle back to her room, too tired for much else. On the rare occasion both Lord and Lady Thorne came to the nursery together, it was a most special treat for the children, and for me, as I was temporarily reprieved from my duties while they enjoyed the intimate family time.
Lord and Lady Thorne were an amicable couple. I never witnessed a dispute or disagreement between them until I happened upon them one early morning, rushing through the foyer as I was just leaving. A footman was carrying Lord Thorne’s cases outside to a waiting coach as Lady Thorne trailed behind, begging her husband to postpone the matter of business that was calling him away. Worry lines creased her forehead as she spoke in rushed whispers. She told him she’d been feeling unusual and didn’t want to be left alone in her state, but he kissed her cheek and assured her he would be swift and efficient, then took his leave. From my shadowed alcove, I heard her heavy footsteps up the staircase, down the hall, and into her room where she slammed the door shut. Then a sound, like ceramic shattering against wood, rang through the halls and I darted away before I became the next target.
I kept the children busy that day and out of the way. We poked around the kitchen, where Mrs. Findlay patiently showed the girls how to make bread and gave them each a ball of dough and let them knead it into lumpy patties with their clumsy palms. They managed to coat all of us in flour, even little Peter who sat munching a biscuit, watching the activity with busy eyes.
On our way out of the kitchen, we nearly collided with Mr. Conrad, the Butler, who was rather fond of the children, never having had any of his own, and he showed the girls the wall of bells in the servants’ hall, how each one corresponded to different rooms throughout the house. The bells reminded the girls of Christmas, and they sang carols all the way back up the stairs and into the nursery. That night, after I had put the children to sleep and retired to my room, I heard heavy footsteps and the squealing voices of the maids running through the halls, followed by frantic instructions from Mrs. Pellum, the housekeeper, urging them to move quickly and be calm.
When I caught up to her and asked what the matter was, the older woman wrung her hands and urged me to pray, saying that Lady Thorne was unwell, and the doctor was on his way. None of us slept that night, as we could hear her cries echoing off the walls and felt the acute chill of dread they carried. When the night had nearly turned to morning, and the doctor had packed his case and left, Lady Thorne’s maid recounted what had happened, and everyone in the servants’ hall listened in silence. It was a girl, she told us, strange and small, born with tufts of auburn hair but no color in her cheeks, no cry on her lips. The old housekeeper sobbed, and Mr. Conrad’s fists turned white before he turned and shut himself in his office.
We all wore mourning clothes for several weeks, Lord Thorne a few months, and I dressed the girls in gray woolen frocks trimmed in black, but after that night, I never saw Lady Thorne in color again. The winter passed in a long, dreary slur of cold days and cloudy skies.
Whenever he was home, Lord Thorne would stop in to see the children, remarking on how much they’d all grown. He’d bring them trinkets from his travels—miniature sailboats and dolls with marble eyes—and they loved him for it. We saw less of Lady Thorne and rarely the two of them together.
In Spring, when everything was green again, the children and I took a walk to the meadow one afternoon where the girls braided wildflowers into crowns—one for me and one for their mother. We brought hers to her room and she smiled as they placed it on her head, praising their handiwork, but her face did not shine as it used to, and her eyes held a coolness when they flitted to the flowers on my own head.
In Autumn, Lord Thorne announced that it was time for the girls to begin their studies and he employed a governess, a highly recommended Miss Mary Weston. The children and I had waited on the steps to greet her on the day of her arrival, and when she stepped out of the coach in a garish feathered hat, she stared up at the expanse of Hartfield Manor with a cattish smile. She was young, not much older than myself, with sharp, striking features. I extended my hand to her and as she grasped mine, she looked at me down the bridge of her pert nose, and said, “what a pleasure it is to meet you,” dragging out the word pleasure as if it caused her pain. She eyed the girls from head to toe, then reached out and pinched their round cheeks. “I see I shall have to incorporate lessons in self-restraint and the wiles of over-indulgence.” Then she strode past us and into the house.
The girls studied under her stringent tutelage from morning until lunch time, and I relished the quiet hours with little Peter, who’d finally outgrown his troubled infancy. He was a cautious, sensitive boy, easily agitated by his gregarious sisters, but he thrived during our mornings together. We’d hunt for bugs in the garden and he’d watch me closely as I pointed at all the things we saw, giving them a name. Tree. Flower. Bird. When he repeated the words back to me, my heart swelled with affection and pride as if he were my own child, bridging our worlds with his acquisition of language.
As we settled into our new rhythm, Lord Thorne took on various duties which kept him home more, and he developed an interest in the girls’ education, often popping in and standing at the back of room as Miss Weston tutored the girls in writing or arithmetic. Sometimes he’d already be in the study with Miss Weston when I brought the girls in for their morning classes. On one day in particular, we arrived a bit early, accidentally startling Lord Thorne and Miss Weston. The two had jumped apart from each other, flustered by our interruption. Lord Thorne appeared rumpled and disheveled, Miss Weston’s hair mussed and slipping from its pins.
I pretended I saw nothing, but I could not score the image of his wild eyes and heaving chest or her flushed neck from my mind.
It was soon after this that Lady Thorne called for me, and we took tea together in her sitting room. She was silent as I prattled on about the children, how equally mischievous and marvelous they each were. She left her tea untouched and with a faraway stare, finally informed me she was expecting another child. I was unable to conceal my shock and nearly spilled my tea on the settee. I took her hand and assured her it would be a wonderful child, vibrant and smart just like its brother and sisters. She nodded, picking at the edge of a napkin, and dismissed me.
As Lady Thorne’s waistline grew with her condition, so did Lord Thorne’s boldness in his pursuit of Miss Weston. I was utterly convinced of their transgressions, and heartbroken for my mistress, who passed the days in a queer state of despondence. One afternoon, I invited her to join the children and I for a picnic, in hopes of coaxing her into the fresh air and lifting her spirits. The girls had been practicing a song for her, so Lady Thorne, still in her black mourning clothes, sat on a blanket as Katherine and Margaret took each other’s hands and began to sing a tune of a young bird finding its wings and flying away.
Little Peter stood clapping along, trying to mimic the words as they sang. Lady Thorne smiled and held her arms out to him, but he turned away from her and dove against my chest. Her face fell and her lips stiffened. As the song ended, the girls embraced their mother and settled beside her. Lady Thorne reached for Peter again, pulling him onto her lap, but he wailed and thrashed his arms about, cutting her across the lip with a jagged fingernail. She gasped, then reared back and struck him on the cheek, leaving a hot handprint on his pale skin.
Then she shot up, sending a plate of grapes rolling into the grass. “This is your doing!” She stabbed the air with a finger. “You’ve poisoned my own children against me.” She spun on her heels and returned to the house in a flurry of black petticoats.
Peter cried against my shoulder until he fell asleep.
I avoided my mistress after that day and for many days after, but I was unable to avoid the ever-present Lord Thorne and Miss Weston. I was an accomplice, my silence only aiding in their illicit trysts, and it was robbing me of all peace. One afternoon, when Lord Thorne was away from the house, I came upon Miss Weston alone in the halls and approached her.
“You must stop this business with Thorne,” I whispered. “Our mistress doesn’t deserve this.”
She raised a dark eyebrow and stepped closer. “Master Thorne says what his wife deserves is the mad house.”
I nearly choked. “Lord Thorne would never. I refuse to believe that.”
“Believe what you want,” she leaned in and ran a finger down the side of my cheek. “I’m only telling you what the master himself told me this morning, in his bedchamber.”
Heat flooded my face. “You will lose your position, Mary. You’re playing a dangerous game.”
“Me? My position is perfectly secure, but you, my dear, are quite replaceable. I’m sure there are hundreds of poor country girls like you that would crowd the gate to fill your position.” She turned her back to me and began to walk away. “Now, run along, back to those pudgy little children.”
And I did run—straight to Lady Thorne’s door and into her chambers without so much as a knock, but inside the dark room, Lady Thorne lay asleep, undisturbed by my boisterous entrance. The mere sight of her evoked every memory of that terrible afternoon—her frightening outburst, her accusations against me, her handprint against Peter’s face—and I fled back into the hallway, where I saw Miss Weston standing in the shadows, watching me.
By month’s end, Lady Thorne’s birth pangs began, and the doctor was sent for. After a long, anxious night, we all sighed with relief when we heard the news: the child was born—a healthy baby girl with auburn hair and rosy cheeks. When I went in to visit Lady Thorne that morning and meet my newest ward, I found the babe had already been handed off to the wet nurse.
I knelt by Lady Thorne’s side. “Congratulations, Ma’am, I hear she’s a fine child. What is her name?” But she did not answer me. “Shall I bring her to you then, once she’s been fed?”
Her voice was muffled against her pillow. “I don’t care what you do with her, just keep her away from me.” She turned and said nothing else.
I left and found the babe already swaddled and sleeping in her bassinet in the nursery. I caressed the infant’s downy cheeks, her tiny nose, and when she opened those guileless eyes, a strange rush of affection swept over me, and I couldn’t tear myself away from her.
Shortly after baby Victoria was born, as she was eventually named, Lord Thorne called me into his study and informed me, with little ado, that my services at Hartfield Manor were no longer necessary. I was given generous severance, train fare, and one day to gather my belongings.
My heart broke when I bid farewell to Mr. Conrad, and Mrs. Pellum, and the servants, and then again three times over as I bid the children goodnight for the last time. I slipped from the house early the next morning, before anyone was awake, and caught the earliest train into the city.
That was several hours ago. Now, the train is finally lurching to a stop as it pulls into the station. Passengers stretch and reach for their bags. An elderly woman turns around and cranes her neck, staring at the bundle in my arms as we disembark.
“Was that wee little one here the whole time? He was such a quiet little fellow.”
I smile and clutch baby Victoria tighter against my chest. “It’s a girl.”