Chapter no 12

The Silent Companions

‘Mabel? Mabel, may I come in?’ Elsie pushed the door open.

With the garret sealed up and an empty house, the maids had taken to sleeping in the guest bedrooms of the west wing, on the third storey. They were modest chambers, but pleasant. Blue carpet covered the floor. Small prints hung on the walls, giving it a homely feel. A washstand and a hip bath huddled next to the fire. It was a fine, comfortable place for a girl accustomed to the austerity of a workhouse, better than any maid’s quarters, but Mabel sat rigid in bed with the covers pulled to her chin. Her face was drawn, haunted.


‘Oh it’s you, ma’am!’ she exclaimed. Her pupils shrank back to their usual size. ‘Sorry. I got muddled and I thought you was . . . I’d dozed off.’

‘Pardon me. I did not mean to startle you.’ Elsie perched on a corner of the bed. ‘How are you feeling?’

Mabel grimaced. She ran a hand over her dark, tousled hair. ‘Shook up, ma’am. I don’t mind telling you, it gave me the collywobbles.’

‘I must admit, I felt a little strange myself.’ She looked down. Strange was an understatement. Unravelled, opened up, exposed: they were more accurate words. Fear pushed so much out of a person – she had forgotten that. ‘I think that I will call the physician in. Your cut ankle may have become infected.’

‘Tain’t an infection making me go queer. I saw it.’

‘I do not doubt that you did.’ She paused. A memory flowed back in liquid fire. She saw it again: the red eyes and the parched, gaping lips. ‘My mother, Mabel, had the typhus. Have you heard of it?’

Mabel inclined her head.

‘Poor woman. How she roasted. Once, I felt her head and I thought—’ Her voice caught. ‘I thought she was burning alive. From the inside.’ Mabel’s legs twitched beneath the bedclothes. ‘It was bad enough being so ill in the body. But she was tormented more in the mind, by the things that she saw. I won’t go into detail. The illness painted demons around the room. She saw them clear as day, but they were not there. I sat beside her the whole time. None of it was there. Yet to her it was very, very real.’

‘I ain’t going mad, ma’am. I ain’t got no fever.’

‘No.’ She folded her hands and tried to compose herself. The image of her mother remained burnt on the back of her eyes. ‘But I would like to make quite sure, just in case. Until we are certain, Helen will do your chores and Sarah can assist where necessary.’

‘I can’t sit here doing nothing, ma’am. All alone, thinking of them things.’

Elsie thought for a moment. Mrs Holt’s generosity must be

catching, for the first idea she had was so wildly kind that it took her aback.

Should she give Mabel a chance to become something better than a workhouse girl?

She was still wary of putting Mabel around a young child. But perhaps, if Elsie invested time now, she could improve the maid before the baby arrived. Education – that was what Mr Underwood said, wasn’t it?

She drew in a breath and took the plunge. ‘Well, while you recover, might you like to train in some gentler work? Something less strenuous?’

‘Like what, ma’am?’

It was like moving rusty filings in her mouth, but she managed it: she managed to put on her sweetest smile and say, ‘I am in need of a lady’s maid.’

‘A what, ma’am?’

‘A lady’s maid. Someone to do my hair. Bring my breakfast, draw my bath. Washing and mending will be required too. Tell me, did

you get that mud out of my bombazine dress the day I arrived?’ ‘Yes, ma’am. Mucky as a pigsty, it were.’

She let that pass. ‘Good. It shows you have aptitude. Would you like to train up, Mabel? It will set you in good stead for the future. A girl with skills will not always need to stay at The Bridge.’

Mabel’s eyelashes flicked up and down. ‘Look after all your clothes and fancy things? Your diamond necklace?’


‘A lady’s maid,’ Mabel repeated with wonder. ‘That’s one of them, ain’t it? The fancy sort Helen talks about?’

‘The role is that of an upper servant, yes. Much higher than your current position.’

Mabel grinned, all traces of fright evaporated. ‘All right, then, ma’am. I’ll do it.’

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