At Kraken Moor, you work when Mrs. Cotts tells you to work. There is no set schedule, as you are expected to be available whenever the house needs you to be available. So it was that I reported at 6:45 for my 7 AM start, a decision that was met with a sharp rebuke from the Head of Staff.
“Do you think to impress me by arriving for duty 15 minutes early?” the tall Mrs. Cotts asked with disdain.
“No, ma’am,” I lied.
“Your duties begin at 7 AM, which means I expect you to arrive in my office between 6:55 and 7 AM,” she snapped curtly. Though it was only my second day of employment at the castle, I had already noticed that Mrs. Cotts likes to stand close to you when she spoke, reinforcing her advantage in height. What I could not decide was whether this strategy was effective or not. That her height made her an imposing figure was not to be questioned, but when you stood close to her, you could see that despite her dark hair being pulled tightly back, despite the firmly pressed nature of her all-black shirt and long skirt, there was a genuine softness to her features that could not be denied, though certainly disposition and age had taken their toll. She looked, I thought, like a woman who had once been soft and was now hard. I wondered what could have done such a thing to her. “Wait in the hall and return in,” she pointedly checked the clock on the wall, “in 7 to 12 minutes.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I apologized with a small bow and exited to the hallway.
After the events of the past two nights, I was eager to simply work and have life return to a sense of normalcy. Since deciding to leave my family’s Mississippi plantation, my life has been anything but normal, and I long to create a sense of permanence and bring my nomadic days to an end. Though serving as a chambermaid would be a stark transition from my former life as a spoiled daughter of the South, I had 18 months making my own way in the world to temper the change. There had been times during this transitional period – when I was polishing silver or serving food or once, for a brief week, cleaning horse stalls – that had me wishing for my old life, but then I remembered why I left and how much easier my life was than any of the slaves bought, used, and sold by my father, and I kept pushing forward.
unfotunate unfortunate that there would be no return to anything resembling normalcy on this day. While I waited in the dark-walled hallway outside of Mrs. Cotts’ office, four of the other members of staff joined me in waiting for Mrs. Cotts’ daily instructions. There was one male and three females and they were all a decade older than me if they were a day. I was not included in their conversation, but their hushed tones betrayed a deep sense of nervousness and unease.
Clearly, something is amiss at Kraken Moor.
The five of us entered together and Mrs. Cotts assigned me to work with one of the women: Miss Lotten, who looked nearer to 50 than 30. I was happy with this arrangement, as I had heard that Miss Lotten was a bit of a gossip. I desperately needed to know something about the scream and whether anyone else had strange experiences last night, but Mrs. Cotts assigned us to curtain duty on the third floor, which meant we would spend the day surrounded by the New Year’s Eve guests that had yet to leave.
The guests were a raucous lot, making a serious dent into the Shepherd’s reserve of spirits. Two of the younger men tried to engage me in what they took to be clever banter, and I was glad to have the hovering Mrs. Cotts dampen their advances. Being a woman invites others to inquire about my relationships, but I am happy to be
unnattached unattached and happy that Mrs. Cotts prohibits the staff from engaging in relations with both the Shepherd family as well as any of their guests.
Having seen more of Lord Shepherd the previous night in my dream than was proper, I was not disappointed at his absence throughout the morning. In mid-afternoon, like the arrival of a unwanted relative at the door, Lord Shepherd entered the room full of life and confidence. If he had any knowledge of what I had seen last night (and how could he if it was a dream?!?), he gave no betrayal of this confidence when he snapped his fingers in my direction and asked me to refill his glass of scotch.
When one is a member of staff, you are largely ignored by the guests of the house. It is if you are a ghost, walking unseen among the living until they require something they do not wish to do for themselves. There are advantages to this beyond getting one’s work done, as when I made to pour Lord Shepherd his drink, I overheard two German men arguing with each other whether they were duty bound to remain at Kraken Moor until the English constables arrived.
My mind raced and I did my best to feign ignorance as to which decanter of liquor was required while in the area of the Germans, and my slowness was rewarded when one of them gave a nervous laugh about how he was very much looking forward to seeing how a constable would investigate “what we all saw.”
“I didn’t see it.”
“But you heard it.”
In mid-afternoon, Mrs. Cotts sent word that I was to meet her at the foot of the central staircase. At the second floor landing, I could see that she was talking to an agitated elderly woman dressed in a stately brown, satin dress with off-white front. The moment this woman saw me, she exclaimed, “That’s her! That is her, Mrs. Cotts! I will have her punished at once!”
Punished? I kept my composure as I walked down the staircase (I am a Southern woman, after all), but my mind searched its own contents for any slight I may have given this woman. I could think of nothing as I had never seen her before in my life.
“Lady Coraline, may I present Beatrice Sharper,” Mrs. Cotts said, her eyes blazing with an angry intensity at me, “the newest member of the staff of Kraken Moor.”
“How do you do, ma’am?” I asked as my feet hit the floor.
“You are a harlot and a thief and an agent of Satan!” she exclaimed, taking several shaky steps towards me.
Mrs. Cotts rolled her eyes and stepped in beside Lady Coraline. “I am sure Miss Sharper is none of those things, or I would not have hired her. Perhaps you can tell us exactly what Miss Sharper has done to set you afire?”
Lady Coraline was a very old woman, but while her wrinkled skin and shrunken bones betrayed her, her old blue eyes raged with the vivacity of youth. “She ignored me last night!”
“How do you mean, Coraline?”
The old woman turned and pointed to the front door at the opposite end of the entrance hall. “I stood at that door last night, pounding as hard as I could, and this interloper,” she stuck a hand in my chest, “walked right past without even acknowledging my existence! I want her sent to bed without supper!”
My heart leapt into my throat! I was not walking around last night! And yet I could not deny that I lost 90 minutes of my life during what I thought was a dream! But if I was dreaming, how did my hair become washed? Was the answer something as simple as sleepwalking, or was there more at play? I knew I must venture to Marehaven at my earliest chance and ask Gail if she spent the night with Lord Shepherd!
I did not know what to say to Lady Coraline, but Mrs. Cotts again came to my defense. “Lady, if you were banging on the door, certainly someone must have heard you. The house is quiet at night and noise travels, as you know.”
“Are you accusing me of lying, housekeeper?”
Mrs. Cotts’ face flashed red with anger, but the Head of Staff kept her tongue. “What I am saying, Lady Coraline, is that the staff had to deal with the consequence of your nephew leaving the stable door open last night, and thus it is possible that one one could hear you pounding on the front door. As we have discussed in the past, perhaps if you would ring the entrance bell, you would be heard.” Mrs. Cotts met the old woman’s eyes directly. “Or perhaps, if I may be so bold, if you would arrive at a normal hour, you would be let in and attended to in a manner of a lady befitting your station.”
Lady Coraline raised herself up and somehow managed to look down her nose at the much taller woman. “I see your tongue is as skilled as ever.”
“Ma’am,” I ventured, “it was my first day of employ at Kraken Moor yesterday, and I retired to my quarters just after the night clock struck 11. You have my deepest apologies for not hearing your exhaltations, but I can assure you that after a 12 hour workday, my head was on my pillow soon after locking my door.”
The Lady Coraline wrinkled her nose and studied me as carefully as she did disdainfully. “An American,” she spat. “The standards of this house continue to fall.”
I remain undeterred. “Shall I take your belongings, madam?”
Coraline huffed, and the hint of a small smile emerged on her face. “She has spunk, at least, Mrs. Cotts. I have just the small locker,” she said to me, motioning to a small wooden chest. It was heavy but I managed to
life lift it and carry it to her room on the second floor. The room looked (and smelled) like it hadn’t been altered in decades. The large windows looked out over the rear of the house and before my eyes took in the details of the room or put down the locker, I was standing in front of them, looking out at the ground of Kraken Moor. I had yet to see the back yard and there was an extended flat area of grass, spotted by several water fountains and large trees for shade. What drew my eye, however, was the way the grounds to the left sloped down and then rolled. Built onto that rolling expanse was a maze cut from manicured shrubs. I had never heard – let alone seen – a maze built on ground that was not flat. In time, I knew, I would have to explore it.
Lady Coraline shut the door behind me and I was drawn out of my thoughts. Away from the rest of the house, the old woman’s harsh countenance softened and she looked concerned.
“I saw you last night,” she said, but in a kind rather than accusatory manner. “I saw you and I was not banging on the door to let me in. I was pounding on the door to wake you up!”
I nearly dropped the locker. “I was sleepwalking?” I asked, thinking of the lost ninety minutes.
“My dear,” the old woman said, coming to me and easily (or so it seems now, with the benefit of hindsight) taking the locker and placing it on a nearby table, “what did you do? In your dream, I mean?”
!!!! How did this woman know I was dreaming? My heart pounded, my head spun, my knees grew weak. “I … I do not know what you mean!” I insisted.
Coraline backed away, nodding sadly. “I understand, my dear. When Kraken Moor first took me, I denied it, too. You are wise. Very wise for one so young. I would encourage you to leave, but once the house has tasted you, it will never let you go.”
What madness was this? The deluded ramblings of an old woman? Whatever it was, her words shook me to my Christian core. Not wanting the old woman to see my fear, I turned my back to her–
–and saw, to my absolute horror, the same full-length mirror with the same carved, wooden gargoyles perched atop its corners that I saw in my dream!