Helen flicked the light switch, dousing the amber bulb at Jill’s bedside. “Good night, honey.”
“Are…you sure?” Jill scrunched deeper beneath her blankets, pert nose, bright blue eyes, and tawny bangs peeking above the periwinkle comforter.
“I am, Jill.” Helen stepped over the bedroom’s threshold and inched the door closed.
“I’ll leave the hallway light on if you want.”
She smirked when Jill stiffened, her memories of childhood squeamishness evident.
“No. You don’t have to do that again.”
Helen’s lips faded from their curve at Jill’s deepening soprano. “That’s my girl.”
Jill smiled and with an uncertain sigh, rolled over. Moonlight streamed through the far window’s watery panes and the branches of the barren chestnut outside, tinting her profile in shades of silver.
After a final glance, Helen crept into the hallway but left the door cracked. Jill’s breathing tapered into a gentle rhythm and once certain she slept, Helen padded down the corridor, stepping lightly on the hardwood planks. She winced when the stairs creaked during her descent and held her breath at the base, making sure she had not woken Jill. Up above, the sputter of electricity trickling through the ancient wires and the gusts fingering the roof tiles echoed through the corridors, but none of the noise teased Jill from bed.
“Sleep tight,” whispered Helen.
Turning from the stairs, Helen froze when a young man appeared against the mahogany walls. He scurried in a silent dash toward the kitchen and vanished through the shut door.
Staring at the kitchen’s entrance, Helen waited for him to reappear. The swing door remained unmoving and nothing crept out of the shadows.
“Jill….” she whispered.
Rubbing her eyes, Helen sought to disperse visions of her daughter’s quivering lower lip and the stories of what she’d seen during the day. It’s your imagination, she heard herself reply.
“And now it’s mine.”
With a lengthy exhale, Helen headed toward the kitchen, bent on the familiarity of dirtied dishes left in the sink. She slowed at the door and her hand trembled when she put her palm against the wood.
“You’re being crazy,” she whispered.
Gathering her nerves, Helen pushed the door and stepped inside.
“Put the eggs—”
When she looked up, the spindly woman by the kitchen’s center island stopped short. Tendrils of gray hair wavered around her long face from where they had escaped the bun tucked at the base of her skull but above the ruffled collar of her blouse. Her rolled sleeves disrupted the garment’s silvery stripes and flour seemed to dust her ropey forearms.
“Excuse me, Miss, I didn’t realize it was you.”
Helen’s mouth fell open while the other woman beamed a smile and scrubbed her hands on her apron’s slack.
“Can I get you anything?”
“No thank you,” said Helen, ingrained manners rebounding.
“Have a seat then, Miss.” The woman gestured to a stool nestled by the island, one with a high back and woven seat Helen didn’t remember unpacking, let alone ever owning. “It’d be a pleasure to have your company.”
“Ah….” Helen strode forward and set her hands on the chair’s backrest, half expecting it to dissolve beneath her touch. The wood resisted, however, its worn edges smooth and cool against her skin. “Who…who are you?”
“Forgive me,” said the woman, “I’m forgetting myself with all of this excitement.” She pinched her skirt in both hands and dipped into a brief curtsy. “My name is Molly Jenkins.”
“And you are?”
“I’ve been Matron of the Greenfield Estate since….” Her grin stiffened. “For a long while now.”
“Please sit. I’ll have these done in a few minutes and we can have a proper chat.” She hefted the wooden spoon resting against the rim of the massive clay bowl before her and began stirring. “Jacob?”
“Pour Miss Helen a glass.”
Helen caught her balance on the stool when the same young man she had seen from the stairs crossed the kitchen, placed a basket with eggs onto the counter, and then opened the corner cupboard. Moonlight from the double windows glittered on the shelves decked with unfamiliar crystal and china, silverware and platters. A huge punch bowl occupied a shelf with decanters, each filled with various shades of brown and black.
Selecting the darkest of the lot and a small port glass, Jacob came to the island, and poured to the rim.
“Thank you,” said Helen, as she took the offered glass.
“My pleasure, Miss.”
Jacob ducked his head in a quick bow, the brim of his derby cap shading his nervous smile.
“Make yourself at home, Miss,” said Molly as she began spooning lumps onto a baking tray. “And you,” she said to Jacob, “best get to your chores.”
“But the girl—”
“Is asleep,” said Molly.
“Girl?” Helen tightened her grip on her drink’s stem. “You mean Jill?”
“Yes, Miss,” said Jacob. His smile quirked and his eyes seemed to lose their focus on her face. “I wouldn’t want to scare her again.”
“Scare her.” Helen plopped onto the stool as her knees failed. “You were the one she saw by the gazebo.”
“Yes Miss. It’s where I do my work.”
“It’s where you dawdle,” said Molly.
Chagrinned, Jacob sent his gaze into his hands, now twiddling before him. Charcoal stained his fingertips and smudges disappeared up the sleeves of his canvas jacket.
“It’s where I draw,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to startle her, but I guess she saw me watching her in the garden.” He lifted his chin and his back straightened. “I didn’t mean her any harm, Miss, I just wanted to see her clearly, so I could sketch her later on. When she came inside though, I….”
The wan pallor on his cheeks warmed.
“You ran,” said Molly.
He winced as she slid the dotted tray into the oven.
“I guess I did.” He held up two hands, revealing calloused palms. “But I’m sorry if I bothered her any.”
“She’s fine,” said Helen. “She was just a little confused by what she saw.” She glanced at the glass in her fingers, the port within rippling. “I guess we both are.”
“Well, we’ll give you a chance to settle in and make yourselves at home.” Molly shut the oven and checked the face of a pocket watch pinned to the belt of her apron. “We can be a bit to absorb.”
“Are there more of you?”
“Of course,” said Molly. She tucked away her pocket watch and rested her hands on Jacob’s shoulders. “There’s Mr. Benedict, the butler, who has every Friday off. Mr. Martin, the gardener who this boy helps out from time to time.” She squeezed Jacob’s shoulders until he winced. “And Tulip Grandee who’ll be tending to your linens and the dusting. Oh, and there’s Sir Renning who manages the stables with his boy, Oliver. They usually stay in the carriage house.”
“But we don’t have horses,” said Helen.
“You don’t, but the Estate does.”
“I can introduce you if you like Miss,” said Jacob, squirming beneath Molly’s hold.
“Maybe tomorrow,” said Molly. “I think Miss Helen’s had enough for the moment.”
Jacob’s timid smile returned. “Sorry Miss.”
Molly shoved him at the door. “You should be at those weeds.”
He tipped his cap and then Helen watched him pass through the door, his passage as silent as his footsteps.
“I should be going myself,” said Molly. “Tulip has a tendency to lose herself in the library.”
“Where you’ve put your musical instruments.”
“Oh,” said Helen, recalling the shelves and their dusty tomes. “Will the piano be in your way?”
“Not at all. We had one in their three, no four families ago. The books are on the wall, so the middle is yours to do with as you like.”
“Good to know,” said Helen.
“But I should check in on Tulip before these cookies are done and make sure she moves along.”
Molly plucked an egg timer from the sill by the sink, overlooking where the evening’s dishes, now clean, had been stacked. After turning the dial, she set the globular device beside the dirtied bowl.
“I won’t be long.”
With a silent sway of her skirts, Molly passed through the opposite door, the one leading toward the front hallway and the music room.
Or is it the library? wondered Helen.
The ticking of the egg timer dominated the quiet and Helen stared at the small arrow making its way around the face. She counted down fifteen seconds before drawing the glass to her lips and taking a sip. Oaky port coated her lips and slipped down her throat like a warm bath. Licking her lips, she set the glass down before the urge to chug became overwhelming. She nearly knocked it over, however, when the kitchen door groaned.
Helen peered over her shoulder and blinked at the vibrant blue of her daughter’s bathrobe. “Jill!? What are you doing up?”
“I thought I smelled cookies,” said Jill. She frowned and plodded forward, her robe tight around her budding frame. “Why are you baking in the middle of the night?”
“I’m not,” said Helen.
She swiveled around, following Jill’s stare at the bowl, its spoon, and the ticking timer. Meanwhile, the sweet smell of cinnamon and sugar began wafting from the oven.
“Then who is?”
Helen dragged the timer over, the next seconds speeding by. Setting it between them, she wrapped an arm around Jill’s reedy waist, pulling her close, and felt comforted by the arm Jill slung around her shoulders.
“In about three minutes,” whispered Helen, “we’ll find out.”