Esther gave me the once over with her dark little eyes before proclaiming, “You’ll do. Follow me.”
She brushed past me and moved to the stairwell at the end of the hall. Like the passageways that allow servants to move from one main room of the house to the other, the stairs led from the ground floor of public rooms to the second floor where the family lived. We emerged into another servants’ hallway and Esther led me to a door on the left. She knocked sharply and opened the door when she heard a voice on the other side call out, “Enter!”
The room was filled with light. Large windows seemed to make up the entirety of one wall, and several skylights dotted the ceiling. Plants and flowers of all kinds sat on tables, hung in planters from the ceiling, and occupied large urns scattered around the room. The air was gently perfumed with their scent as well as something musky that reminded me of when I visited the zoo last summer.
Esther grabbed my wrist as she bent into a deep curtsy, and I followed her example.
“Ah, Esther. You brought her. Let me see.” The voice was refined and spoke in a tone just loud enough for us to hear.
As we stood, I saw a woman standing in front of the wall of windows. I hadn’t noticed her before, which was odd considering she was tall, probably about six feet, with long dark hair that floated around her like a cape. She was dressed in a dark red gown made up of layers of gauzy material. As she stepped toward us, my eyes were drawn to her bare feet. They were delicate, for such a tall woman, and the toenails were painted black.
“Madam Cromwell, this is our new housemaid, Emma Hamilton.”
“Welcome to Cromwell House, Emma.” I couldn’t tell what color her eyes were due to the glare from the windows, but I felt them slide over me, judging me.
“Thank you, Madame,” I managed to squeak out.
“How do you like it here so far? Are you enjoying your duties?”
“Yes, very much.” After Cook’s advice, I wanted to keep my answers short and to the point, but not rude.
Madam Cromwell smiled, and I could see the glint of very white teeth. “Are you getting along with the rest of the staff?”
“Yes, everyone is very kind.” Well, not Esther, but I wasn’t going to say that out loud.
The mistress of the house chuckled, and for an instant I wondered if she could read my mind. “And your family? Are they happy you have found a position here?”
I hesitated. If I told her the truth about my parents, it could make me an easy target for whatever they had planned for me. But if I lied, and if she could read minds… “I haven’t spoken to them in several months, but I see my friend Lori on my days off.”
“I see. You look healthy enough. Are you eating well? Any underlying medical conditions we should be aware of? I know Esther already asked you this during the interview, but I like to hear for myself and help if I can.”
“No, no problems. The food is wonderful, thank you. I’ve only been sick a few times since I was a kid.”
Her tinkling laughter rang through the room. “Darling girl, you are still a kid. At least to me, anyway.” She moved closer to me and reached out to take my hand. Her skin was cold despite the warmth from the evening sun streaming in the windows. “Do not hesitate to ask for anything you need, anything at all. While we do not encourage romantic relationships between our staff, we know it does happen since we are fairly isolated on our hill. If you need birth control or pain medicine, or even a new book to read, please just tell Esther. We want our employees to be happy as long as they are here.”
Madam Cromwell gave my hand a gentle squeeze before moving away. “Do you have any questions for me, Emma?”
“Why do you not eat meat?” I blurted it out before I could stop myself. Beside me, Esther gasped.
“We do not question the ways of the Cromwells!” Esther’s face was furious.
“No, no, that’s quite all right, Esther. She’s new to us.” Madam waved a hand to silence the head housekeeper. “We do not eat meat because all necessary sustenance can be obtained from plants. And plants are easier to keep than animals. We like to be mostly self-sufficient here, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. When humans die, they go back into the earth to feed the plants. It’s the simplest circle of life.”
Humans. She said humans as if she wasn’t one.
“Any other questions?”
“No,” I almost whispered.
“Good. Esther, set up a time for our Emma to meet my husband whenever his schedule allows. I’m sure he will be as enchanted as I am.”
That was clearly a dismissal, and Esther and I both curtsied again before leaving through the servants’ door.
In my room that night while Beth slept, I mulled over the meeting with Madam Cromwell. I tried to remember if I ever heard her first name and couldn’t. I was a little concerned with her use of the word “enchanted.” What did it mean that she was enchanted by me, and what would her husband think? Are these meetings with the heads of household designed to let them decide if they want to eat me or not? I thought of Madam’s explanation of the circle of life and shivered.