This is a new and improved version of my story 'Masked'.
In this chapter, Charlotte returns home from town and tells her family about getting a job at Kerraston Manor.
The world around me was white. Bright spots of it swirled around my head and flew into my face, burning and stinging all visible flesh until I was sure that my skin would be an unpleasant shade of pink. I struggled to move the basket I carried from both hands to just one, stiff and cold as they were, in order to pull my scarf closer around my face to shield me from the onslaught.
It always was a long, slow walk from the town to my small cottage on the outskirts, and my feet grew clumsy. I tripped over a rock cleverly disguised as a pile of snow, which sent me sprawling to the ground. I picked up my things as quickly as I good, hoping that they wouldn’t be ruined, and carried on my way, flustered and annoyed. As if my heavy skirt wasn’t enough, now all of my clothes were wet and difficult to move in. And I certainly wasn’t looking forward to trying to clean it later.
I did like the beauty of the clean colours of winter. The white snow, the bare grey trees, the sky the colour of the palest blue, tinged with grey. If it wasn’t snowing, that is, making the sky dense with dark clouds. In this season nature sleeps while human life carries on as if nothing has changed.
Against the skyline of sparse trees and smoke from chimneys, I could see the looming fortress that was Kerraston Manor. It was a very old house, currently inhabited by very secretive residents. There were rumours that they were of noble German stock, however no-one had seen them for fifteen years. That was about to change.
The sky grew darker and the wind grew wilder, until I finally reached my home. As soon as I got to the door, it was opened for me and I was ushered in quickly. The basket was taken from my hands and the snow was brushed off me as I stood on the matt. I shivered as my outer layers were removed and I stood in my soaked dress.
“Take off your dress and come sit by the fire, Charlotte.” My mother said to me, in her native French, as she usually spoke. I complied, slowly with my stiff hands until I was wearing only my chemise and corset. “Thérèse, unlace your sister’s corset a little.” My little sister, who had been flitting about putting everything in its rightful place, did as our mother asked, although she had trouble with her small, weak fingers.
“It’s so hard!” She exclaimed. I sighed a deep breath as the laces finally gave way, and Mother tutted.
“I honestly don’t understand why you wear that thing so tightly.” Mother said. Thérèse handed me a blanket, and I sat down with it wrapped around my trembling frame.
“It is the point of them, Mother.” I replied.
“I didn’t raise you to be so vain. The silhouette of the small waist may look pleasant to some, but to me it just looks like you can’t breathe.”
“I can breathe perfectly well. And we have to keep up to date with fashion; we are dressmakers, after all.” She sighed, shaking her head at me. Thérèse hugged me and whispered in my ear.
“I think it looks lovely on you.”
“Thank you, Tess.” I whispered back.
“Are they dreadfully painful?” She said a little louder.
“At first, but you do get used to it. And please speak English, Thérèse. You were born here, yet you sound like a foreigner. Whatever will the neighbours think?” I said to her, and pinched her cheeks playfully.
“I don’t care about the neighbours, but I am sure that my future husband will find me wonderfully exotic.” She replied dramatically.
“Husband!” My mother exclaimed, now speaking in English so as not to tempt Thérèse to speak otherwise. “What do you want a husband for? You’re just a baby!”
“Maman, I’m thirteen years old!”
“And you’ll always be the baby.” I told her. “And anyway, you can’t marry until I have.”
“But then I’ll never marry!” Mother and I laughed, and I lightly cuffed Thérèse around the head.
“Cheeky!” I stretched my legs then stood up to retrieve my robe and put it on, as I was now dry. Thérèse watched me with expectant eyes, waiting patiently for me to show her what I had managed to buy in town. I grinned, deliberately taking my time to tease her, but eventually pulled the cover from the basket. I took out each item slowly, showing it first to Mother, then to Thérèse. First there was the staples; sugar, tea, flour, vegetables. Then I took out the good baker’s bread and jar of honey that I had bought as a treat, and Thérèse’s eyes widened in excitement.
“Oh, Charlotte, how lovely.” My mother said. “Thérèse, why don’t you cut some slices for us for our supper?” As my sister worked, Mother beckoned me over. “No meat again?” She whispered. I shook my head.
“But I did manage to find this. I thought I’d use some of it for a new coat for Thérèse.” I said, and showed her the thick dark pink wool fabric in the basket.
“What a lovely colour. And she’ll show us off, too…” She said thoughtfully. I understood what she meant; business was slow at the moment with our main source of income, dressmaking and tailoring. There wasn’t much spare money around, and so the townspeople just made do with what they had. The most we had been asked to do was alterations to previously made garments, and that didn’t earn much. So we needed to create a renewed interest in fashion, as the money that I made from helping around the town, as and when it was needed, wasn’t enough for us. I put the basket to one side, hoping that my sister wouldn’t get nosey and look inside. Then Thérèse handed us all a plate, and we ate our supper quietly. I looked around and judged when would be a good time to tell my news.
“I won’t be able to walk you to school tomorrow, Tess.” I told her.
“Thérèse, your sister has asked you to speak English.” My mother interjected.
“Sorry, Maman.” They then both looked at me expectantly. I sighed, and then told them.
“I’ve managed to find somewhat permanent employment.”
“What is it?”
“It’s rude to interrupt.” My mother scalded my sister, then waited for me to continue. I hand her a piece of paper and she studied it as I spoke.
“I saw it on the noticeboard by the church. It calls for a French speaking companion for someone who lives at Kerraston. As you can see it pays well, and I live there during the week and can come home at week-ends.” I waited for a response, but received none. “Maman, what do you think?”
“I think that I should not like my daughter to leave home.” She said quietly.
“We need the money. No matter how hard the work, I have to do it.”
“It upsets me that you have to.” Mother sighed, then handed the paper back to me.
“You’re leaving? When?” Thérèse asked, unable to hide the emotion in her voice. I opened my arms to hug her, and she ran to embrace me tightly.
“I am to report to the manor as soon as possible, so I will go tomorrow.” I switched to French to comfort her.
“So soon? Are you to leave me so soon?”
“I must, little sister. I need to look after you and Maman. And don’t worry; I’ll be back at the week-ends.”
“Girls, you should go to bed.” Mother said.
“Yes, Maman.” Thérèse and I said in unison. We then went up the ladder to our tiny room (which was really only a bed on a few planks of wood, above Mother’s head). We got into our nightdresses and, freezing, snuggled together under the covers.
“Promise to tell me about everything that happens there?”
“I wonder who lives there? Do you think you’ll be waiting on a princess or fine lady?”
“I don’t know. Goodnight, Tess.”
“Goodnight, Charlotte.” Thérèse murmured before we fell asleep.
The next morning Thérèse was even more unhappy. From the moment she woke she decided that she wasn’t going to make this easy on me, by being grumpy and unco-operative. Mother, on the other hand, was doing all that she could for me.
“I had been saving a few dresses for your trousseau, but I suppose you should have them now if you are going to the manor. You’ll want to look your best.” She told me, holding folded dresses of dark green bombazine, navy blue velvet and burnt orange wool with brown stripes. These with my normal grey and brown winter dresses made for a very large wardrobe.
“I didn’t know you…”
“Of course you didn’t know. Secrets are kept that way for a reason.” She then packed all of my things into the large carpet bag that she had made to transport her things from her family home to her marital one.
“Thank you, Maman!” I said, in shock. I didn’t need to look at them to know that they would be well made and beautiful. My mother was a true artist with fabric and although I had worked hard over the years, and was quite good, my work would never compare to hers.
She smiled and shook her head, then came to me and placed her hands on my face.
“My darling daughter. My Charlotte, my firstborn. There is no need to thank me. As your mother it is my duty and my pleasure.” Mother kissed me on the forehead, then sighed. “I just didn’t think that you would leave like this.” She turned away, but not before I saw her tears.
“Maman! Why are you crying?”
“I have failed you, Charlotte. I have failed you, and your father failed you.”
“No you haven’t! It is not your fault that times have been hard, and Father dying is no-one’s fault! It is fate, destiny; God’s will. There is a reason for everything that happens in this life, and so I must go.”
“I wish I had your faith. Instead I have only a mother’s broken heart.” I hugged her tightly, then ushered the silent Thérèse to join us. I had never been away from home before, so this was hard on us all, and we needed that moment as a family before we could think of letting go of the past.
We finally parted, and my mother and sister worked together to get me dressed, then braided my hair and put it in a high bun, leaving some curls to frame my face. I looked at myself in the mirror, taking it all in. The green dress was fashionable and beautiful, but demure, and complimented the dark eyes and hair that both Thérèse and I had inherited from our Russian father.
“You look like a beautiful, cultured lady.” Thérèse told me, grinning at our reflection.
“Are you sure I look respectable enough? I’m just a common country girl, how will I ever impress them?”
“Perfectly reputable. And if you don’t get a husband out of this, I don’t know how you will.” My mother said, only half joking.
“Maman! I don’t want a husband! I want to be… respected. Even if I am only a woman.”
“Well you certainly should be. You’re smart, caring and wonderful. A perfect companion for any well-to-do lady. And anyway; noble blood flows through your veins, too. Never forget that.” Mother kissed me on the cheek, then turned to Thérèse. “I’ll take you to school today, but tomorrow onwards you’ll have to go on your own. We should go now.” My sister instantly pulled an unhappy face, and I bent to kiss her on the cheek.
“I’ll be back Friday, Tess. Be good; I’ll be checking your schoolwork when I come home!” I sighed at the look on her face. “Give me a smile!” Thérèse half-heartedly lifted the corners of her mouth, and I laughed and lightly tapped the back of her skirt, which made her stick her tongue out at me.
“Very lady-like.” Mother said, shaking her head exasperated at the two of us. "Come on, you don’t want to be late.” We all put on our various outer garments, wrapped up warm. I eye Thérèse’s fraying coat, too small for her now, and can’t wait to start working on a new one for her. Then we leave the house, and wave at each other as they go in one direction towards the town, and I go in another direction, away from it. Finally, the distance is so great between us that I can no longer see them. And I know that I will see them again soon, but I still walk with trepidation, and with a heavy heart I move towards this new chapter in my life.