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January 1855 Willa Noble knew it was bad luck when it was pouring rain on the day of her ever-important job interview at the Dickinson home in Amherst, Massachusetts. When she arrived late, disheveled with her skirts sodden and filthy, she’d lost all hope of being hired for the position. As the housekeeper politely told her they’d be in touch, Willa started toward the door of the stately home only to be called back by the soft but strong voice of Emily Dickinson. What begins as tenuous employment turns to friendship as the reclusive poet takes Willa under her wing.
Tragedy soon strikes and Willa’s beloved brother, Henry, is killed in a tragic accident at the town stables. With no other family and nowhere else to turn, Willa tells Emily about her brother’s death and why she believes it was no accident. Willa is convinced it was murder. Henry had been very secretive of late, only hinting to Willa that he’d found a way to earn money to take care of them both. Viewing it first as a puzzle to piece together, Emily offers to help, only to realize that she and Willa are caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse that reveals corruption in Amherst that is generations deep. Some very high-powered people will stop at nothing to keep their profitable secrets even if that means forever silencing Willa and her new mistress….
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
Icy rain slapped the dirt road, turning it into mud. I did my best to protect my skirts, holding them as high as I dared above my ankles. It wouldn't do to go into my interview covered in mud. I had a feeling that Miss O'Brien would not look kindly on me for that.
A shrill whistle broke into my worried thoughts. "Move aside!" called a man who was driving a wagon loaded down with barrels and crates bound for the market uptown.
As the wagon rolled by at a fast clip, one of its rear wooden wheels fell into a rut in the road and splashed mud onto my side. I stopped in the rain and stared at my soiled skirts and cloak. My head hung low. Was there any purpose in going to the interview now? Miss O'Brien would never hire me to be a maid when I arrived in such a state. How could I claim to be able to clean anything when I was a mess?
I watched as the wagon lumbered down the mud-covered street. The rain fell in earnest then, so much so that I couldn't even see the stately homes that sat on either side of the street or the two-story brick primary school that I attended off and on as a child. I yanked at the hood of my cloak, pulling it farther down over my eyes. I couldn't turn back. It would be far worse to show up late than dirty. I marched ahead in soggy boots.
Through the rain, the great house came into view, and I realized that it was just across the street from my childhood school. It was a two-story white clapboard home that loomed above me. I had never been inside a home so large before. If I got the position, I would be able to live there. Possibly. It seemed to be a very far-off chance now.
With shaky hands, I removed the note I had received from Miss O'Brien. In delicate script, Come to the back door at half past noon. Do not be late. Mr. Dickinson does not abide tardiness. And then she signed her name, Margaret O'Brien.
Rain smeared the ink. I patted it and only managed to transfer the ink onto my hand. Mud-covered skirts and now ink-stained hands.
The worst part was I didn't need to read the letter. I had memorized it. It was only my nerves that made me remove it from my pocket to read it once more. Yet another mistake I made that day. Only I could have made such a mess of things.
There was no one at the front of the house, and the gardens, which stretched far into the backyard, were empty too. No one was silly enough to be out in this cold January rain. Ice slapped my face. The rain was beginning to freeze. It seemed fitting for the state that I was in.
I slipped and skidded on the cobblestone path around the grand home until I came to a plain door painted black with a brass handle and knocker. I swallowed and lifted the knocker.
Tap, tap, tap. It fell against the door. No sound came from inside the house. I waited a moment, wondering if I should knock again. Would knocking again aggravate Miss O'Brien and show that I was not only covered in mud but impatient? I knew she would already be dubious of me due to my appearance.
There was no cover outside the servants' entrance. The rain droned on, soaking me to the skin. I worried about the puddles that I would carry with me into the majestic home. I lifted my hand to knock a second time, and the door opened. My pale hand was suspended in the air. I dropped it to my side.
A thin woman with curly dark hair that was smartly tucked under in a knot on the back of her head stood in the doorway. "Miss Willa Noble?" She had an Irish accent like the men who worked in the warehouse with my brother. Although hers had a much gentler lilt to it than the men at the warehouse.
I nodded. I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out.
"Come in, then."
I stepped over the threshold into a dark hallway. Two sets of stairs went up in either direction from this spot. I imagined one led to where the family lived and the other to where the servants worked.
"Don't stand there and drip," Miss O'Brien said in a voice that was firm but not harsh. "Take off your cloak there." She pointed at the wall. "There's a peg where you can hang it."
I did as I was told. Still, I hadn't spoken a word. I prayed my ability to speak would return before the interview began.
She looked down at my feet. "You can't walk through the house in those muddy boots. I will have to spend days scrubbing the carpets. Wait here."
She left me standing in the entryway and disappeared down the hallway. I dripped on the floorboards. She returned a minute later with a pair of old black shoes in her hands.
"These belonged to the previous maid. She left them when she took a new post. I have been meaning to mail them to her, but I am glad now I have not." She set the shoes in front of me on the floor. "Take those boots off and put these on."
I again did as I was told. The shoes were a size too small and pinched my toes, but I didn't say a word about the discomfort. "Thank you," I murmured.
"Good, you can talk. I was afraid we would have to pantomime this interview. Now, follow me, and I will take you to the room where we can discuss the position. Lift your skirts as we go, so as not to soil anything. Mrs. Dickinson prides herself on a clean home."
I lifted my skirts and followed her up the left staircase. I assumed this was the way that led to where the servants worked. She opened the door at the top of the landing, and I was astonished to see I was wrong. Instead of walking into a servants' hallway, we were in a large sitting room. Everything in the room was so elegant! A fire crackled and snapped in the hearth. The furnishings were fine. A velvet brocade sofa was on one side of the fire, and two matching chairs were on the other. A modest yet sparkling chandelier hung overhead, and a petite desk stood by the window. I didn't think I had ever been in a room this lovely before.
Miss O'Brien perched on one of the two chairs. "I hope it's all right that I ask you to remain standing. Please know it is only to spare the furniture from the state of your clothes."
"You must look such a fright because of the storm outside, so I won't mark you down too much for that. January is such a horrid month. It rains or snows or both almost every day. More weeks of foul weather lie ahead. I suppose that's why summer is so precious to us. The spring is unpredictable and can be ripped away by a whim of the wind." She said this all in her Irish lilt like she was trying to coax me to sleep with a bedtime story.
I nodded again.
"Where are you working now?" Her tone told me that pleasantries were over and she was getting down to business.
"I clean at Mrs. Patten's Boarding House on South Pleasant Street. I have been there for two years," I said, grateful that I had been able to utter the words so clearly.
"Do you not like working at the boardinghouse?" she asked. "Is that why you applied for this position?"
I swallowed. "No, it's fine work. Good work for a girl like me to find, but I saw the advert in the paper for this position. It's an opportunity to move into a new challenge. I believe working for a family that is so vital to the community would be quite an honor."
"You are right in thinking that working for the Dickinson family would be a new challenge. They are an exacting family and hold a very high standard. Mr. Dickinson especially so. He is finishing his term at the United States House of Representatives," she said with pride. "He served his country, the Whig party, and the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts well. It would be your privilege to work for him and his family, if you're granted the position. When he finishes his term he will be here overseeing the renovations of the family home on Main Street. He is in the process of buying it, and renovations will begin as soon as everything is finalized. It is right that the Dickinson family would move back to the home that Mr. Dickinson's father built. They have been away from it far too long."
"The Dickinsons are moving?" I asked.
"Yes," she said in a crisp voice. "It has been Mr. Dickinson's goal to return to the homestead for many years. His father ran into a bit of financial trouble and lost it. He fled to Ohio in disgrace." She looked around with bright red cheeks. "Don't repeat that."
"I won't," I promised. My hands began to shake. I clasped them in front of me and pressed them into my skirts.
"Was the boardinghouse your first position?" Miss O'Brien asked, getting back to the task at hand.
"No, I've been in domestic work for the last eight years."
She frowned. "Eight years. You can't be more than sixteen."
"I am twenty, ma'am. I started work when I was twelve."
"What made you work so young?" She eyed me. "Should you not have been in school? The Dickinsons put great value in education, even in the education of girls such as yourself."
"My mother died, ma'am, and I had to provide for my younger brother and me. I had to go to work. Our mother taught us to work hard, so it was no trouble to take over that role."
"Haven't you got a father?" She narrowed her eyes.
"Not that I know of," I said and pressed my clenched hands deeper into my skirts. My father was not a topic for conversation even if it cost me the position at the Dickinson household. I would not speak of him, ever.
"How much younger is your brother than you?"
"Two years, ma'am," I said. "He's an adult now, too, and works just as much as I do. He works even harder, I should say, because of the physical labor required for man's work."
Miss O'Brien stood up. "I'm interviewing several more girls for this post. I will let you know by mail by the end of the week if we choose you." She looked at my wet, muddy skirts again.
My heart sank. If there were several young ladies applying for this position, what chance did I really have at winning the spot? I was the girl who came to the interview covered in mud and who was too young without the proper experience for the post. Why did I think I was the only one who would have been interested in the ad? As I told Miss O'Brien, the position was a chance to move up—this was true not just for me but for anyone in domestic work. There were many young women in my place that would want to do so.
"Thank you for your time," I said. "Would you like me to let myself out?"
Before Miss O'Brien could answer, a breathy voice said, "There will be no more interviews. Margaret, you have found the right maid."
I turned and a small woman stood in the doorway. She was petite and wore a brown dress that was cinched around her small waist. Her chestnut red hair was pinned back in a fashionable knot and her dark eyes shone with interest, but there was a faraway look about them too. She was a very pretty woman, but there was something birdlike in her movements as she stepped into the room. Her hands fluttered like the tips of wings.
Miss O'Brien jumped to her feet. "Miss Dickinson, can I help you with something?"
"You have helped. You have found our new maid. I'm very grateful to you for that. Mother wants us to keep a clean house, especially when she is in the middle of one of her episodes."
Episodes? What does she mean by this?
Miss Dickinson studied me with an exacting gaze. "She looks like she has a strong back too. It's something that we will need if Father insists on pulling us up and moving us back to the place of my birth." She said this like she wasn't very keen on the idea.
"Very well, Miss Dickinson." Miss O'Brien dipped her chin.
"Thank you, Margaret." The small woman looked me in the eye. "I like someone who would sacrifice herself for her family and duty. That's just the kind of person I want on our staff. I think there have been enough questions. Margaret, please show the young maid to her room and cancel the rest of your interviews for the position."
Miss O'Brien pressed her lips together as if she were unsure. "If you are certain, Miss . . ."
"Very certain. I like her, Margaret. If I like her, Father will agree."
Miss O'Brien nodded. "Please follow me, Miss Noble. I will show you to your room."
I blinked; it was all happening so fast. I glanced back at Miss Dickinson, but she was no longer there. She was gone.
"Do not be surprised that she seemingly disappeared. She comes and goes through the house in silence. She's so small and light she floats from room to room. The only time I do hear her come is when Carlo is with her."
"Carlo?" I asked as I hurried to keep pace with her in my too-tight shoes.
"Don't tell me that you haven't seen Miss Dickinson walking through Amherst with that beast of a dog. He's big and brown and has curls just like a woman. He weighs nearly as much as she does."
"He's a beast?" I asked with a slight tremor in my voice. I wasn't very keen on dogs. The only ones I knew guarded the warehouse where my brother worked and took their position of protecting the property quite seriously.
"I just say that because of his size. He's a kind dog, but we have to mind any paw prints on the carpets. That will be something you will have to contend with as a maid in the house. All paw prints must be removed immediately, if they are from the dog or from Miss Lavinia's cats. Mrs. Dickinson does not abide by them." She continued walking. "You will see Carlo soon enough and understand."
I shivered at the thought of running into Carlo unprepared. "Who is Miss Lavinia?" I asked.
She looked at me. "What do you know about this family?"
I bit the inside of my lip. "What you have told me and that Mr. Dickinson is an important man for both the town and Amherst College."
She nodded. "They are a family of five. There are Mr. and Mrs. Dickinson, of course, and Emily, Miss Dickinson, is the oldest daughter. She is the one who gave you this position with very little thought." She pursed her lips when she said that. "She has an older brother, Austin, who is away in Cambridge studying at Harvard to be a lawyer, and Miss Lavinia, the younger sister, is your age. The family calls her Vinnie, which between you and me is not a proper name for a young lady."
"And she has cats?" I asked.
"Yes. Several. They always seem to be coming and going. I believe Miss Lavinia has four at the moment. You will find them lounging about the house and garden. They go where they please."
I might have been a bit afraid of dogs, but I very much liked cats. I had always wanted one, but I had never been in a position where I could care for one. Mrs. Patten didn't allow animals in her boardinghouse. I had high hopes that Miss Lavinia and I would get along on that fact.
Miss O'Brien led me back the way we came and down the stairs and up the second staircase. This one led me into the servants' corridor. There were only four doors there. "The staff is small," Miss O'Brien said. "Mr. Dickinson is not one for extravagances. In the house, it is you and me."
I blinked, wondering how the two of us could keep such a grand house.
She opened the second door. "This will be your room."
I followed her inside.
"Does it suit?" she asked.
I looked around at the tidy bed, washbasin, shelves, and even a small desk for writing letters. It was the nicest place I had ever lived. "It will suit just fine. Thank you."
"Good." She nodded. "I suggest that you get yourself cleaned up. You begin tomorrow." She went through the door, pulling it closed behind her, and it shut with finality.
I removed my shoes with a groan and sat on the edge of my bed. It was dark outside, and I had been up and working since before dawn. Although kind in her own stern way, Miss O'Brien put me through my paces on the first day on the job. She had me dust every room in the house top to bottom. She had said, "Spring is right around the corner and our cleaning must start now to welcome warmer days."
The only room I did not dust was Miss Dickinson's. I went to it with my feather duster ready, but when I peered inside she sat at a small writing desk bent at the waist, scribbling on a piece of paper with a kind of concentration I had never before witnessed.
I placed a hand to my back where I felt a dull ache. I wished that I could take a warm bath to soothe it. Even if that had been an option for me, I don't know that I would have had the will to draw the water.
I thought back to my day of dusting. At times while I worked, I caught glimpses of the family. Miss Dickinson and her sister, Miss Lavinia, for the most part. I never spoke to them, just carried on with my dusting. They nodded to me when our eyes met.
I desperately wanted to see the gardens. I loved plants so well, but it was another late January day of gray and rain, so all I saw through the windows was a sheet of water and ice. Snow would be better at this point. At least it wouldn't be as dreary.
I prayed that Henry would have the wherewithal to be inside on a night like tonight. I wished that my brother had a bit more common sense.
Rain continued to hit the small window. Tap, tap, tap. And then it came harder. Tap, Ratata, Tat.
In my exhaustion, I stood up straight. That wasn't rain on the glass.
On shaky legs, I went to the window. A watery face appeared on the other side of the glass. I stifled my scream by covering my mouth with the hem of my apron and biting down hard. I hurried back across the room with my hand on the door handle. I needed to tell Miss O'Brien.
I stole a glance back at the window. The figure waved at me from the other side of the wet windowpane. As much as I wanted to run from the room and hide, I looked at the face, concentrating so that I could make out the features. "Henry?"
I hurried to the window, unlocked it, and pushed it open.
Henry tumbled into the room in a spray of water. I closed the window. "Henry, what on earth are you doing here?"
Henry bounced to his feet like a jack-in-the-box. A puddle spread in the middle of the floor where he had landed. "Look at this place! You're living high on the hog, dear Sister. My, now I can see why you wanted to chuck your job at Mrs. Patten's Boarding House. I would give my left foot to live in a place this nice!"
"Henry, shh. You will wake the housekeeper or the family dog and I will surely be fired for having someone in my room!" I glanced at the door, afraid that Miss O'Brien would throw it open at any second and tell me to leave.
"You worry too much." He pushed his straw-colored hair that was the same color as mine out of his eyes. At the moment, his hair was two shades darker from being wet. He shook his head like a dog, and water hit me in the face.
I held up my hands. "Henry, please."
"I feel like a drowned rat."
"You look like one, too, and that doesn't mean you have to share the rain with me," I said hotly.
He laughed. "Is it true that the mother of the house is insane?"
"Henry, that is unkind."
"Is it unkind if it's true?" His green eyes that were so much like our mother's sparkled in the candlelight. My own eyes were a dull brown.
"Have you seen her?" he asked.
"No, I have only seen the housekeeper and two sisters."
"Spinsters, are they? Could they not find a man who suited them? They probably think they are too good for marriage."
"They are young yet. The youngest sister is my age. Do you think I should be married at twenty?"
"No, not if it was going to be to—"
"Hush!" I cut him off. Henry knew very well that I didn't want to speak of that man.
He lifted his chin. "When I marry I want a wife who will look up to me."
I groaned. My brother with all his confidence thought that everyone should look up to him, even President Pierce and all the learned men in Washington. He thought he was equal to them all.
"Have you seen anyone else?"
I shook my head.
"Not even the father of the house? I heard he's quite severe."
"He's in Washington at present on business," I said. "Now, I am happy to see you, but you must go. I will be in trouble if you are caught in the house. They have a dog. He could sense you are here."
"They won't catch me." He put his hand on his narrow hips. "I'm like a cat with nine lives."
I sighed. "Please, Henry, go. If I lose this position, I can't return to the boardinghouse. Mrs. Patten was angry when I turned in my notice. She won't take me back."
He marched around the room, taking everything in. Had he not been taller than me, I might have been tempted to take him by the ear and force him out the window. However, I hadn't been able to do that since Henry was in long pants.
"You have done well for yourself, Willa. Quite well," he said.
"It's not just for me. The money I make here will help both of us."
"I think of us both too. I have a plan that will make us rich. You will no longer have to clean up after people like the Dickinsons. You will have you very own home."
I suppressed a sigh. This was not the first time that my brother had made such a pronouncement. In the end, nothing good came of it. He spent a night in jail over his last great idea to make money. I would have never been able to get him out if it hadn't been for Matthew Thomas, an old friend of our family who was a police officer. Matthew put in a good word for Henry. Without that, I feared my brother might still be in prison to this day.
"Henry, you know what happened last time. We can't ask Matthew to help you again if you find yourself in trouble. We have indebted ourselves to him too much already."
"You say that because you don't want to fawn over him if I need his assistance." He mimicked a woman swooning.
I folded my arms. "I do not fawn. I have never fawned."
He laughed. "Believe what you must, but Matthew cares for you. You could do worse. Do you want to end up a spinster like the Dickinson girls?"
I had had enough of this. "It's time for you to go." I pushed him lightly toward the window.
"No, not yet. I haven't been able to tell you what I came all this way in the driving rain to say."
I stepped back. "Very well."
"You left your old job and I left mine too," he said with pride.
"You left your job? But the warehouse let you sleep there. Where are you living now?" I squeezed my hands together. "Do you have a place to stay? I won't be paid for another week. I can give you money then to rent a room."
"Don't worry about me, Sister." He jumped onto the only chair in the room. "I always come out on top."
"Henry, shh," I hissed. "You're being far too loud. Someone will come."
He grinned and it showed off the gap in his front teeth. "I came here to tell you the good news, Sister."
"Fine, fine." I watched the doorknob, certain that Miss O'Brien would turn it and come through the door at any moment. "Tell me and then leave. I will see you on Sunday when I have the day off."
- On Sale
- Sep 20, 2022
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Hachette Book Group