SIX MONTHS. IT HAD ONLY BEEN SIX MONTHS.
Heavy flakes of snow drifted past the black iron bars of the front gate. I watched one flutter and land on the muzzle of one of the enormous bronze lions standing guard. His glassy eyes caught the first light of dawn breaking over the eastern garden wall.
In that moment he seemed alive somehow, watching me with a grimace that displayed his awful teeth. I didn’t recall noticing the statues the first time I’d walked through the gate, but now I stared, transfixed by the guards holding me within my beautiful prison.
On the quiet London street beyond the gate, time brushed past like the flakes of falling snow. I could no longer feel the cold breeze making the snowflakes dance. My whole body felt frozen, frozen in place, frozen in time.
Before I arrived here, I thought I had known frustration.
As it happens, I knew nothing.
A distant conversation rumbled through my memory. “I have an offer of employment for you, Miss Whitlock.” Fateful words from the mouth of my late father’s solicitor. At the time they had brought me hope. I hadn’t imagined they would lead to this.
The solicitor had leaned back in his chair, stretching his too-tight waistcoat until his buttons nearly popped off. “Lord Rathford sent me a letter after hearing of the tragedy. He claims to have been a good friend of your family and has offered you a respectable position under the supervision of his housekeeper, Mrs. Pratt.”
“A housemaid?” My voice had cracked as I’d said it. I had hardly spoken in the weeks after the fire that had claimed the clock shop on Oxford Street. The flames had taken my home and the lives of my parents, leaving my life in ruins.
“You’ll be paid, fed, and clothed, and you’ll have a roof over your head. Seeking respectable employment is your best option, child.” He had tried to pat my hand as if he were placating a little girl who had dropped her favorite poppet in the mud.
Pompous old boar. I was not a child, and he had had no inkling of what he was sentencing me to. Lord Rathford was a stranger to me.
“It’s your only option. I suggest you take it.” His final words to me had felt as immovable as the brass lions at the gate.
That was six months ago. Only six months. It seemed like six lifetimes.
I shook the snow from my starched white apron, then gently lifted out the blackened pocket watch I kept on a chain around my neck. It was all I had left, a broken timepiece I had found next to my father’s charred hand.
It twisted on the chain, tarnished and black against the snow. I knew I should polish it, but every attempt I made felt wrong, as if I were trying to undo the past. I looked back at Lord Rathford’s house.
I had moved into a place where time had stopped altogether.
It was my job to make it certain it never moved again.
As was my habit, I touched the watch to my cheek, feeling the kiss of cold metal, before slipping it back into place behind my bib. Gathering my skirts, I shook off the snow then hurried back to my master’s house. My thin boots and stockings did little to save my feet from the sting of the cold as I stepped lightly down the snow-filled stairwell that led to the servants’ entrance to the kitchens and cellar.
If I didn’t have the fires lit before Agnes, the cook, woke, she’d have my hide. Every day was exactly the same, and I had worked the routine into my bones.
With an effort that would have appalled my delicate mother, I cleaned the kitchen grate, thankful I didn’t have to blacken it with the foul-smelling polish I had to use on all the other grates in the fireplaces throughout the house. I started the fire, set the tea, and prepared the kitchen for breakfast.
As soon as the tea steeped, I carried a pot of it into the sitting room. On the table near the window, a cup rested on its side, the spilled contents drying on the marble top. I cleaned the mess, carefully polishing the cup before setting it on the saucer and filling it only one third with the piping hot tea.
Then I reached over and tipped the cup, carefully spilling the tea on the table, making sure the handle rested to the left as always. Only then could I dust the room no one would ever sit in.
In the upstairs bedroom, I tugged at the freshly laundered linens, pulling them over the soft feather mattress, so much like the one I used to have. How I wished to fall into the bed, let my eyes close, and sleep. Perhaps I could wake from this nightmare.
I smoothed the rich red fabric of the bed cover until the bed was perfect. Every morning I ached and strained to make it neat, then I yanked the cover down, creasing the blankets. With my fists I pounded a deep indent into the pillow and tugged it askew.
Everything in each room of the enormous house had to remain exactly as I had found it the day before. Nothing in the house ever changed. It was my job to make sure of it, and I did my job well.
It was infuriating. At times all I wanted to do was walk along the tables and sideboards with my hand out, knocking everything over until I created such a mess no one could possibly put it right.
But I couldn’t. I didn’t dare. If I lost this job, I would have no home, no food. I’d be out on the streets. So every night, in an intricate exchange, I rotated each candle in the house to ensure that in the morning they’d all seem as if they had never burned.
For all the polishing and dusting, the baron’s house remained quiet, cold. It had been frozen as deeply and surely as the ice-covered garden still gripped by the cruel hand of the lingering winter.
I descended the stairs feeling the slow burn of my frustration. Soon enough, Mrs. Pratt would order me to polish five dozen sets of silver spoons no one would ever use.
As I reached the bottom of the steps, I nearly tread on a piece of the broken vase that remained shattered at the foot of the stairs.
I let my boot hover over the delicate shard. Oh, I was tempted, so tempted to kick it straight into the sitting room. Or stomp on all the pieces until there was nothing left but dust. Then perhaps I could finally stop dancing around them every time I had to go up or down the stairs.
In the end, disturbing the shards would only cause me grief, and I knew it. I placed my foot to the side and turned away from the vase. The soft chink of the porcelain on the polished wood floor broke the oppressive silence of the house. A curved piece of the broken vase spun slowly, like a ballerina caught in a dream.
Hands shaking, I scrambled to rearrange the pieces as they should be. I was always too careless when flustered, but never had it hindered my efforts as much as this. The edge of a triangular shard sliced into my middle finger and I let the piece fall to the floor. I cringed as it clattered against the wood, but thankfully it didn’t shatter.
My eyes stung as I brought my finger to my mouth.
“Heaven’s mercy, Meg. What happened?” Mrs. Pratt’s voice sounded like a tree limb breaking under a heavy burden of ice.
The housekeeper fell to her knees by the shards, her full skirts billowing around her.
“They moved.” I took a step back to give her a better look. “My skirt brushed them.”
“How could you be so careless?”
I felt the flush of anger heat my face. “It was an accident. Why can’t we just leave them? It’s not as if anyone would notice.”
“He’s watching,” the housekeeper warned, glancing over her shoulder, her pinched expression growing tighter. “You must take care at all times, Meg. He is always watching.”
I’d never met the baron, or even seen him, but the thought of him watching every moment crept through my mind like a rat in the dark.
I struggled to my feet, clenching my bleeding hand in my skirts, then ran down the back stairs into the kitchens. Once inside, I took a deep breath and pulled my mop cap from my head. This was insanity, sheer insanity. I’d had enough of it.
I concentrated on stanching my bleeding finger, but a shifting shadow caught my eye in the flickering light of the cold, empty kitchen. I hoped it wasn’t a rat.
The house was modest in comparison to some of the city palaces in St. James, but with its high-walled garden, courtyard, and carriage house, it used to be a stately gem. Now it was dour and faded.
The enormous labyrinth of kitchens, pantries, cellars, and laundry had once provided every conceivable comfort for the elegant family living above. Now the servants’ world beneath the stairs remained dark and empty except for the main hearth and a single pantry. How humble the kitchen seemed with rosemary hung by the frosted window, racks of unused pots and pans, a dented teakettle, and the itchy tick filled with straw that served as my bed.
Eerie shadows swayed, cast from the hanging pots clinging to the exposed girders. The kitchen was the only room that was allowed to age, clinging to the last vestiges of vibrancy while the rest of the house remained as lifeless as a tomb.
I reached for the broom, keeping a wary eye on the corner. Two luminous green eyes stared back at me, reflecting the fire in the hearth.
I sighed. It was only Old Tom. The distinguished silver tabby emerged from the shadows with the grace of a duke. He lifted his chin in a haughty feline acknowledgment of my existence.
Putting down the broom, I turned my attention back to my sliced finger, grabbing a rag to clean the dried blood.
“Meg!” Agnes the cook flopped a meaty hand onto the door frame and pulled her ample body into the kitchen from the passage that led to the pantry beyond. “Meg, could you be a dear and fetch me one of those icicles hanging near the steps?” she asked.
She moved toward the table with her eyes closed, like a great ox stumbling forward while half asleep.
Gracious, she was hungover again. Yet another thing that never seemed to change in this household. With a heavy groan, she fell onto a stool, then let her head fall back and heaved a dramatic sigh.
I snapped the rag away from my cut as I opened the door to the stairs that led up to the small kitchen garden and the courtyard beyond. A new dusting of snow already softened the trail of footprints leading to the garden pot. I stepped in one to save my foot from the cold. It didn’t take much effort to knock down one of the brittle daggers of ice and gather it in the rag.
“Thank you, dear.” Agnes took the rag then smashed it against the cooking board with all the delicacy of an axe-wielding executioner.
“Should I track down a hairy dog?” The one that had bitten her had gotten her good. Its name was stale rum, and it wasn’t the first time the beast had unleashed its fury on poor Agnes.
Agnes laughed as she placed the ice-filled rag on her head. “Nay, I’m afraid I ran the poor mongrel off last night.”
“You drank it all?” Heavens, no wonder she was in a state.
“Don’t you fret. A bit of tea will straighten me up.”
I crossed the kitchen and carefully closed the heavy oak door that led to the servants’ stairs. Mrs. Pratt would be in a fearful mood after having to rearrange the shards. I didn’t want Agnes to suffer for it.
“Last night, Pratt had the gall to remind me that I should cook beef stew for this evening’s meal,” Agnes lamented, placing the lump of icy rag on a new part of her forehead. “As if I haven’t made bloody beef stew every Wednesday for nearly eighteen years.”
Eighteen years? Had this started so long ago?
What could have driven the baron to wish this on himself for a good third of a man’s life? Curiosity gnawed at my thoughts.
No one was supposed to talk about it, so I kept silent. Instead I poured the tea, trying not to think about why these strange souls had decided to remain in this madhouse for longer than I’d been alive. No wonder Agnes stewed herself in swill every night. And poor Mr. Tibbs. The butler wandered around the house as if he were a resident spook of the Tower of London. What had happened so long ago?
Agnes shook her head. “Never you mind.”
“I didn’t ask,” I protested.
“You didn’t have to. You had that look about you. This is how the baron wants things, and our purpose in life is to make sure this house is exactly as the baron wants it.” Agnes offered me a withered smile. “Best keep curiosity in your pocket. It killed the cat, you know.”
I stoked the fire, flinching when a log rolled forward, sending out a spray of embers onto the hearth.
“What’s the harm in curiosity?” I asked, though it was more of a thought for myself than a true question. I turned away from the fire and looked up at the cook. “Other than an overabundance of dead cats?”
“Meg.” Agnes flopped the ice over her eyes.
“When was the last time you actually saw the baron?” I persisted.
“Oh, I daresay it’s been close to seven years now.” Agnes leaned back in the chair.
“Seven years? And you never once questioned—”
She sat up, crooking her brow into a deep scowl. “I said, never you mind!”
“This is madness.” I turned my attention back to the fire.
“Aye, the madness of our betters, so we must abide it. Get to your chores. I’ll save you some tea.”
Resigned to the inevitable, I broke off a chunk of stale bread from the remainder of yesterday’s loaf and set to my day. Clean the grates, tend the fires, trim the candles, pull the drapes, dust, dust, dust, polish, polish, polish. On and on it went.
Late in the morning, I found myself in the study. I threw open the shutters and pulled back the heavy velvet drapes, letting cold light into the lifeless room. Large flakes of the early spring storm continued to drift past the swirls of frost on the windows. The remnants of the bleak and mournful winter had laid the world under a blanket of white.
I watched the quiet snowfall, wondering if light and happiness had simply abandoned England. Queen Victoria remained in mourning after the death of Prince Albert. She was no longer the queen I remembered from my childhood. She had been solid, regal. So long as she reigned, all in the world was right and steady. Now she was gone too, hidden away. I didn’t know if she’d ever return. Somehow I felt that even if she did, it wouldn’t be the same.
Time was supposed to heal all wounds, but what was one to do when time stopped? My life had ground to a halt before it had a chance to begin.
There simply was no way out. Only one month shy of sixteen, I could marry, but whom? I had neither the means nor opportunity to leave the house. Even if I did, I was now a housemaid. Whom should I marry? A servant?
I was raised better. Before the fire, I’d been preparing for my introduction into polite society. Now no man of my true class would ever look at me.
All my education, my talents, had fallen to waste. I could read and write German and French thanks to my Swiss mother. I had a talent for the pianoforte and a good mind for numbers, thanks to my father, who seemed to enjoy teaching me the intricate nature of computation. Now my options were few. I couldn’t even find better work. I had no one to recommend me. Since my employer hadn’t shown his face in seven years, I doubted anyone ever would.
Escape was impossible. Where would I go? One day I’d end up silent and dour like Mr. Tibbs, drunk and frustrated like Agnes, or just plain barking mad.
I was of half a mind that Mrs. Pratt maintained her rigid schedule only to keep herself from admitting she was no longer needed. Perhaps the baron had withered and died in one of the upper rooms and Mrs. Pratt was covering up the tragedy to keep her sense of purpose.
Then again, there was no hiding the stark fear in her eyes every time she mentioned our employer.
Her voice slithered through my mind.
He is watching.
An unsettled feeling crept across my shoulders and I looked up, noticing a carved wooden angel in the upper corner where the cornices came together. It had glassy black eyes like the lions at the gate. I didn’t know why I stared. It wasn’t as if the statue would start to waltz before my eyes. Its cherubic expression never changed. I needed to know things could change.
I needed it like air.
Letting my gaze fall, I moved toward the ornate clock resting in the center of the large mantel. The early spring sunlight glinted off the crystal face.
Its hands had stopped long ago, and the whole of the house had frozen in time when that pendulum came to rest. I wanted to open the clock, wind it somehow, but I had yet to find the mechanism for bringing it back to life.
Something in my life had to change, but there was only one thing I could call my own. I pressed my hand to my bib, feeling the broken watch push against my heart as I silently left the room.
• • •
That evening I sat at the table drying and stacking dishes, thinking about my broken watch while Agnes lumbered around the kitchen like an arthritic goose. Strands of her dark gray hair peeked out from beneath her worn cap as she set the kitchen right for the evening.
“Did you enjoy the stew?” she asked as she straightened the shelves.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever tasted anything quite like it,” I teased.
Agnes guffawed. “It’s my specialty.”
I smiled. “Do you think the groom would be willing to perform a small task?” I asked. It was time to do something about the watch. Every time I touched it to my cheek, I longed to hear it tick.
A knife clattered on the cooking board. “Good heavens, Margaret. Don’t you dare go near that carriage house. Do you hear me?” The cook’s words boomed in the kitchen, rattling the pots above.
My hand slipped on the dish I was holding. I wasn’t expecting so much vehemence. I only wished to repair my watch. “I have something that’s broken. Doesn’t the groom tend the pots and harnesses?”
“Aye,” Cook said, drawing the word out as if it had some deep importance. “He’s a tinker.” Her eyes widened as her mouth set in a frown. She gave me a serious nod.
“Is he dangerous?” I didn’t know much about tinkers, nothing at all really. Once again my head started spinning with curiosity.
Agnes threw up her hands and grabbed the old jug she kept near the basin. I wondered what was in it this time, but thought better than to ask. She was agitated enough. “He’s a traveler, dear, and a bleedin’ Scot at that.”
I tried to follow but still didn’t see how that should make him some vile creature. “I don’t understand.”
Agnes sighed and rested her elbow against the cooking board. She used her other hand to bat her apron. “You wouldn’t understand, living the way you did.”
Now at that, I took offense. “My father’s shop on Oxford Street was very respectable.”
“Aye, that’s the problem. Tinkers have naught to do with respectable. They’re wanderers, no better than Gypsies. A good girl like you should stay far clear of such associations. Why the good baron decided to take in a mongrel like that, I haven’t a notion. That tinker holds a candle to the Devil, you mark my words.”
The thrill of fear coursed through me. I’d never seen the groom. He lived in the carriage house and hardly ever came into the main house. If he did, he was like a shadow, passing silently before I ever caught full sight of him. In my mind he took on a beastly quality that I found strangely compelling.
“How did he come to work here?” I asked.
Agnes flopped onto a stool and leaned forward.
“The baron found him wandering down a road near Blairgowrie years ago. The whelp was calm as anything, just walking, covered in blood. Several miles down the road they came upon his family’s wagon, ransacked, the horse gone, and his father murdered in a ditch. Lord Rathford took him in and set him in the stables to help poor old John, God rest his sweet soul.” Agnes crossed herself and stared up at the ceiling beams with a wistful look on her crinkled face. Then her eyes turned as sharp as a hawk’s. “He is naught but trouble, mark my words.”
I couldn’t say anything for a moment. All I could think about was a lost and frightened boy wandering down the road alone.
“How old was he?”
“No one knows, exactly, but he was thin as a stick. He couldn’t have been more than six.” Agnes crossed her arms over her bosom and leaned back.
A deep sadness gripped me and didn’t let go. I knew what it was like to feel so alone.
“And he didn’t cry at all?” I had cried. I had cried until I had made myself sick with it. I hadn’t known how I would endure without the sweet patience of my mother or the cheerful wit of my father. I’d cried until I couldn’t cry any more.
Agnes shook her head, the ruffles of her cap swishing against her forehead. “It was unnatural. He couldn’t mourn proper for his own family. He didn’t talk, neither. Thought he was dumb for years. He’s a fair groom, good with horses, but you hear me right, child. He’s not to be trusted. You stay far away from that carriage house.”
I nodded, but it was an empty promise I already knew I wouldn’t keep.