Lili flinched as the frozen wind slammed the old, wooden windows open wider, throwing them further back than their hinges should have allowed. The panes of glass rattled in their loose frames and for a horrifying second, she wondered if they would shatter.
She was sure, however, that her nerves were much closer to breaking point than the windows were.
Regardless, Mrs Appleby would find a way to blame her for it, if it did. That was another thing that she was sure of.
Lili sighed. The latch on the window was broken, so she had to keep a pile of whatever she could find to jam the windows closed. Most times it was her own books.
Not that it did much good. The books would end up on the floor, wet and weathered. Still, better her books than a potted plant.
As the wind howled, she rummaged through her belongings and dragged out a long strip of fabric. It had once been a scarf, navy blue and noble, but she hadn’t the heart to use it for its intended use.
She wrapped the fabric around the handles, once, then twice, then three times for good measure and tied it with a knot.
The windows barely moved with the next gust of wind and Lili stepped back in satisfaction. At least that had been dealt with, for now.
She rubbed her hands together to chase away the cold. The layers of her dress kept her mostly warm and her boots warmed her feet, but she had nothing for her hands. She didn’t own gloves and her room didn’t have a fireplace.
She glanced over her shoulder at the doorknob of her bedroom, and the frail lock below it. Every time she grabbed the handle, it rattled in the door frame. It was hardly any defence against an intruder, but it would be enough to calm her nerves for now.
However, to even make a move towards barring her door would be to give in to paranoia.
Mrs Adelaide Appleby had seemed nice enough at first, despite her pinched face and narrowed hawkish eyes. But, that had been the first day, when Lili was still moving her possessions into Mitchell Estate, and could still turn back and decline her position as a maid.
Mrs Appleby had waited until the ink was dry on the parchment, the door had been locked, and her suitcase opened before she let her mask slip. She was much colder than Lili had initially thought and that alone should have been telling.
Inside the dark, musty bedroom she had been given, Lili had asked the older woman by the doorway, all her burning questions. To Lili’s surprise, the other woman had chosen to ignore Lili and stepped into the room.
She kicked Lili’s open suitcase aside with her boot as she made her way over to the large window that sat over a giant wooden desk, in the corner of the room. She pushed at the windows. They had been warped and swelled with years of neglect. They struggled to disobey her, but Mrs Appleby ignored their protests and threw them open with surprising strength. A bitter breeze rushed in and Lili shivered as goosebumps raised on her skin.
Mrs Appleby had stood in silence, a spindly silhouette framed by the window, as she took in the dull grey grounds below. She turned abruptly and had answered each question Lili had asked her, carefully and concisely.
With a surge of bravery, Lili had asked a few more that came to her.
A pattern had begun to emerge. Mrs Appleby would ignore Lili if she posed a question that was, to her mind, inane and pointless with an obvious answer, but give valid questions curt answers.
Should Lili report back after every task, or continue until she had finished? Should she wait for an inspection of her work before she moved on? Was there a curfew? There had been in other places that Lili had worked. And there had been so many places.
Those questions had seemed especially important to Lili, so soon after Mrs Appleby had shown her distaste for the disorderly.
She had then left Lili to find her own way around the imposing mansion, for the first time as a resident.
She followed the hallway from the doorway of her room, treading softly on the worn carpeted floor. She made sure to memorise the rooms, doorways and staircases so that she wouldn’t need to provoke Mrs Appleby to anger with pointless questions.
She would explore surreptitiously, and no one would be any the wiser. Nothing was required of her for the rest of that evening. Her work would begin the next day.
The shadows left behind by the diminishing sun were inked across the long halls, collecting in the corners as she walked, but Lili continued walking slowly.
She had drifted through the long, carpeted corridors, for more than half an hour, stopping at every marvel the house had to offer.
The only sounds in the hallways were the soft padding of her footsteps on the heavily carpeted floor and the old groans of the house as it struggled against the wind.
As she walked, she couldn’t help but pause to stare in awe at the massive oil paintings that lined the walls, sat in gilded frames.
There wasn’t much space in the narrow hallway, but whoever placed them there, didn’t seem to care as long as they were displayed.
Portraits of members of higher society and landscapes that didn’t resemble any place that Lili had ever seen in her travels. Images of distinguished men and women in finery, displaying their wealth and importance and their detailed depictions of lands taunted Lili.
As much as she admired the paintings, it reminded her of how insignificant she was to people like this.
As she continued to walk down the corridor, the hair on the back of her neck rose as she felt the weight of eyes on her.
When she turned around, however, she saw no one at the end of the hall. All of the doors along the corridor were shut and there was nowhere to hide. The house continued to creak with the ever-present wind but Lili listened harder for other noises.
She decided it must simply be her mind making assumptions. A small part of her knew that Mrs Appleby will be watching her closely, but not this closely and not so soon.
Lili turned her mind back to her task. She padded to the end of the hall and found a landing. Next to her was a wooden sideboard. She stopped next to it to look at the ornate figure it displayed.
It was a fox in mid-leap, catching its prey in its mouth, on top of a golden base. Gently, she ran her fingertip along the head of the fox and its jewelled eyes shone in response.
Out of the corner of her eye, a shadow passed behind her at the opposite end of the corridor she had just passed through. The shadow was tall and spindly, disappearing where the hall split off at the end, to the left and the right, passing just behind the wall that led to the left corridor. A slight click of a door confirmed its existence and its departure.
Lili froze at the sound and inhaled shakily. Her initial suspicion that she was being watched had been correct and not simply a product of an overactive imagination in a new environment. The noise had been real enough.
She couldn’t decide if she was relieved at the fact or alarmed that the figure was real. It had been a tangible being and not just a figment of Lili’s imagination.
But that raised more questions. Had the person been watching her or simply passing? If so, why didn’t they introduce themselves?
Had it been Mrs Appleby?
It had to be one of the members of staff for the house. A possibly hostile one, but someone she would meet and work with, eventually.
Or it could simply be Mrs Appleby.
The house groaned again loudly and she heard the rattle of a door loose in its frame.
That must have been the reason for the noise. That and a shadow would make a convincing ghost.
She pushed the incident out of her mind. It wasn’t anything to worry about, not now anyway. She turned to the sideboard she was standing in front of, and with one last look, she continued the way she had been going before the disruption.
After exploring the rest of the floor she was on, Lili returned to the main staircase to the house. She walked downstairs and found the large darkened dining room to her right, behind closed double wooden doors.
Further in the house, pots and pans clattered in the kitchen. Voices chattered animatedly, but Lili ignored them and walked in the opposite direction to the conservatory at the other end of the house. The room was spacious, with the grey light of the sky shining in through the big glass windows that led to the vast expanse of greenery that was the Mitchell gardens.
Intrigued, Lili crossed the room, opened the glass doors and stepped outside. Crows screeched angrily at the damp air, ruffling their feathers in irritation as they sat perched on the stone walls that lined the house. The lawn had been cut, but the trees and the bushes had simply been beaten back to allow for a path. The flowers were brightly coloured but the flowerbeds were wild and tangled with weeds.
It was clear, the house had no recent guests as Lili couldn’t see how Mrs Appleby would have allowed this.
A warning drop of rain fell from the sky and landed on the crown of her head. She slipped back inside through the glass doors and watched as a few more dropped on the concrete pavement. Moments later, the skies opened above and rain poured down like grey ice in sheets, distorting the view of the countryside. In minutes, Lili would have been drenched and frozen if she had stayed outside.
She couldn’t help but think of the sheets of rain as barriers to the rest of the world. They were so isolated, so out of the way, that she could forget everything else outside it existed.
With a little reluctance, she had returned to her room to change and began to organise her belongings.
Afterwards, Lili had met with some of the staff the next day in the servants quarters. Mrs Mary Edwards, the small and happy cook had greeted her cheerfully as soon as she walked in. Her short brown copper hair was barely visible under her hat, clinging to her round face. She was older than Lili, but only by a few years. Her eyes were expressive and Lili could tell that Mary would have trouble telling a lie.
“Hello. You must be the new girl. Liliana Fox, wasn’t it?”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Mrs Edwards, the cook, but you can call me Mary whenever Mrs Appleby isn’t around.” She said pleasantly.
Lili smiled tentatively. “It’s nice to meet you, too. You can just call me Lili.”
“Oh, alright then. Lili it is.” Mary gestured to the man next to her. “This is Richie-Um, Mr Harper. He’s the butler.”
Richie Harper smiled. He was tall and broad. He didn’t say much, but he nodded politely in Lili’s direction. Lili nodded back.
Another woman, younger than Mary, but still older than Lili, walked forward. She waved timidly. “Hello. I’m Sally Douglas. I’m a housemaid, like you. Nice to meet you. We’ll be working together a lot.” She beamed.
Sally Douglas was slightly taller than Lili. Her dark hair was in a large bun at the back of her head. Within minutes of talking to her, she knew that she would be an even worse liar than Mary. If Mary’s eyes revealed her feeling’s then Sally’s face detailed her entire thought process. Every emotion, however brief, was written on her face as soon as she felt it.
“Mrs Appleby is a bit scary, but it’s not so bad here, honest.” Sally chirped. Richie nodded beside her.
“Yes, don’t worry about her,” Mary added. “She’s a grump.”
Lili smiled. She had to admit that she was pleasantly surprised with them. They were nothing like Mrs Appleby. It was a wonder they had lasted this long with her around. Apparently, there were other staff members about, but they didn’t live at the estate and were only required for select jobs. That must have been who Lili has seen, one of the staff.
“Mind you,” Mary had started, “I’m not sure they can afford to keep everyone. Mrs Appleby had been cutting down the time people have to work. Not as rich as they want us to think, apparently. Anyway, she gives the jobs to Rich, if they’re not done. Not fair, that.”
Richie shook his head. “No. But, better to have the job than none at all.”
Sally nodded. “I’m surprised she took you on.” She thought for a moment. “Though, she might just want to palm the work off on both of us for cheaper. Cutting cost where she can.” She added quietly.
Everyone went quiet, as the thought that none of their jobs was safe, hung in the air.
Regardless of the uncertainty of their position, Lili found Mary, Richie and Sally all friendly enough, and from experience, Lili knew that would count for more in the end.
It was only Lili’s third day as a maid when things started to change, and Lili began receiving the brunt of Mrs Appleby’s animosity.
It always seemed as if she sought them out just to torment them in her boredom. Lili and Sally would be in the middle of a task she had just set, when she would show up and loom in a darkened corner of the room they were in. The two mades would try to continue on as if she weren’t there, but before long, she would comment on their sloppiness, or their poor work ethic. She would be considerably harsher on Lili than on than the other staff, scrutinising her publicly and frequently.
“Miss Fox. These corners are not crisp. Do them again. Sloppy work.”
“Miss Fox, this is not how you scrub a floor. Do it properly.”
“Miss Fox, really? I would have thought your dusting would at least be passable.”
Lili had made the bed as Sally had shown her. She had scrubbed the floors as Sally had shown her. She had dusted the way Sally had shown her. Her work was perfect, even Sally had agreed, but Mrs Appleby still found fault in everything she did.
Sally had tried to defend her on multiple occasions, but it only made things worse. Mary, however, would always have words of consolation for Lili and a small cup of tea while Richie would nod silently but sympathetically.
It was now a month later on a stormy Sunday night, and not much had changed at the estate.
Lili stared at the scarf on the handle, struggling to keep the wild wind at bay and out of her room.
It still rained constantly, and she was as much an outsider as she was when she started.
The only change was, she was now afraid.
She was afraid of her isolation.
She was afraid of the house.
And she was afraid for her life.