When I think back to my first day at Wynters Way, I don’t see the dark, foreboding stone building blocked from the sun by a copse of ancient trees. I forget how an insidious growth of moss clung to the slate roof, and how the remains of the burned wing forever attracted ravens that screeched at dusk. Instead, I remember standing outside the Crooked Billet Inn, watching spirals of mist coil up off the cobblestones as will o’ the wisps and then disappear. And I remember how, though it was dawn, the sun hovered on the horizon, seeming not to want to come up. Perhaps it was tired from making July such an unusually hot month.
I waited under a Big Belly Oak tree near one side of the inn, watching a boy harness a team of fresh horses to the stage coach I was about to board. Near the stable, my older brother, Thomas, talked to the coach’s driver. I had pleaded with my parents not to come and see me off, but Father insisted that if they weren’t there, my brother would be.
“All set, Jane,” Thomas said. Apparently satisfied that the coachman would watch out for me, he began handing my luggage up to be loaded on top. My soon-to-be fellow passengers—two men and a woman—came out of the inn and stood at a careful distance from me and from each other.
I hugged my brother. “Thomas, please go home now.”
But he set his lips in the stubborn way I knew. “You don’t have to do this,” he said.
“I know I don’t have to, but I want to.”
We stepped out of the way, letting the others board first. As they did, the leather thoroughbraces supporting the carriage’s body protested.
“I need this; I need to find my place.”
“Your place is at home.”
“Don’t spoil this for me, Thomas.”
He sighed and scowled. “Well, remember, you can always come home.”
“I know that.” I took the coachman’s hand. He helped me to a seat across from the woman. “And you remember to write.”
The driver closed the carriage’s door. He hauled himself onto the driver’s box and released the brake lever. A guard with a chronometer stepped out of the way, and I smiled and waved at Thomas as we pulled out of the yard.
No sooner had we done so than I became painfully aware that the vehicle’s springs were old and well-used. While I wiggled to get comfortable, I glanced at my fellow travelers. The two young men sat across from each other, each with newspaper pages that they occasionally traded back and forth. They wore dusty suits and heavy boots, and neither had removed his hat. The middle-aged lady, sitting next to one of the men, smiled and nodded at me. She had on a green straw bonnet with an abundance of ribbons, feathers, and flowers, and neatly darned gloves. Her bright blue eyes twinkled above plump, rosy cheeks. I wondered if she lived near Wynters Way.
No one spoke as the coach jerked and swayed, settling into a rhythm on the dusty, pitted dirt road. Then the woman leaned forward. “I’m Mrs. Flathers.” The hat’s furbelows bounced as she nodded her head. “From Yearsley.” She fixed her gaze expectantly.
“I’m Jane Heath, and I’m going to Yearsley myself, or at least nearby.”
“Tha’ll be the new housekeeper, then, at Wynters Way, I’ll warrant.” She watched my consternation with a slightly cocked head, looking like a robin after a worm. “Silas said you was coming, and you’ve a no-nonsense look about you.”
“I beg your pardon.” I was taken aback. This was my first taste of the common knowledge of village affairs—that incredible knowledge of your having a cold before you’ve sneezed—that small communities seem to possess. But Mrs. Flathers sat back in her seat and pursed her lips, and I realized that I’d refuted her friendly overtures. “I beg your pardon,” I said again. “I wasn’t prepared to be recognized immediately. Please forgive me. I slept poorly last night, and this rocking motion is distressing.” Actually, I wasn’t distressed at all and found the movement somewhat relaxing. However, I leaned forward, fixed her with my own earnest gaze, and saw her thaw.
“We’ve not seen Miss Isabel, nor Mrs. Phyllis neither, since they went to India when Miss Phyllis married that Harrington fellow. Mr. Geoffrey came when the wing burned and left that man, Silas, but ain’t been back since. Will be nice having the house lived in again. Quite lively they was, as young ’ens, with all their comings and goings. Will be nice to have that again, too.”
“I’m not sure how lively things will be,” I said. “I believe Mr. Harrington passed away in India, and Miss Wynters and Mrs. Wynters-Harrington have decided to return home and keep house for Mr. Geoffrey. We’re to be a small establishment, with Mr. Wynters in the army and away most of the time.”
“It’ll be you and Silas, then, and per’aps a boy for the yard and a girl or two for the house.” She nodded as if the size of the staff had been decided. One of the men, who had obviously been listening, folded his sheet of newspaper, leaned back against the faded leather, and closed his eyes. The other looked out the window on the door.
“Please tell me about Silas,” I said.
“Not much is known. The story is he worked with old Mr. Wynters, him that became the captain, until he lost a leg. After that, he paupered around for a while, finding jobs here and there. Met up with Mr. Geoffrey in foreign parts and decided he was ready to settle down. Mr. Geoffrey sent him here when he came after the fire to be the gaffer. Been at Wynters Way ever since.” Her pronouns were scattered around rather recklessly, but I assumed it was Silas who’d lost the leg and was now the gaffer.
She stopped and fanned her face with her hand. “It’s maftin in here.” After a moment, she continued. “Walks on a peg and is seen all over. Don’t know when he sleeps. Raises a garden and has bee hives. Markets what he don’t use himself. The honey’s champion. Right comfortable he is. Don’t know how he’ll take to having things shook up.”
“I can understand that, but he must have known the house would be occupied again.” I rolled my neck to work out some kinks. “How old a gentleman is he?”
“Hard to say; ain’t changed none that I can see, nor slowed down none neither. See him of a night, watching for poachers and what. Are you church or chapel, then?”
I smiled at the abrupt change. This was a trade, her information for mine. “Hull St. Mathews. It’s a very old church in Little Ginnells, where I live—lived.”
She nodded, and I decided to tell her the things I wanted the village to know. “I grew up in Little Ginnells, not far from the Crooked Billet Inn where we caught the coach.”
“It looked to be a lively town.”
I laughed. “And smelly, too, sometimes, from all the butcher shops and fish stalls. It’s a small market town. When I say ‘in Little Ginnells,’ I mean we resided right in the town proper, in a neighborhood called the Rambles. My father has a little book store and a small boy’s school. He mostly teaches merchants’ sons.”
I looked out the carriage window and saw, in my mind’s eye, Father, at the front of the room where he taught, moving calmly from desk to map to chalkboard, patiently trying to pass on a gleaning of his store of knowledge. To emphasize his points, Father would shift books, well-loved and much-fingered, from shelf to desk, back and forth, until at the end of the day they covered every spare surface. I thought about the walls hung with a picture of the queen and maps of her domain and the Union Jack, and of dust particles sliding down the shafts of sunlight that beamed into the room and disappearing onto the carefully combed hair of his students, hair which became more and more rumpled as the day wore on. I remembered the mice in the wainscoting in quiet times, the soft sound of pages being turned, and the muffled cries of hawkers outside. I loved the classroom, with its diagrams and drawings, and its long narrow tables where specimens of nature, fossils, and bones crowded each other, and its wired replica of the universe suspended from the ceiling with a piece of string.
“There now, dearie,” Mrs. Flathers said, seeing that tears threatened. “’Tis but a day’s ride away.”
I nodded, leaned back, and through the carriage’s dusty isinglass windows watched the landscape pass—rolling hills, with the occasional copse of trees, as far as I could see; stone walls dividing fields of grazing sheep; cattle standing in small streams; and enormous horses drowsing wherever they found shade.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen such big horses.”
“Those be draught horses,” Mrs. Flathers said. “There be plenty around Yearsley, that’s for sure and certain.”
“The land looks dry.”
“Been a hot summer.”
“Rain’s coming.” Mrs. Flathers and I both jumped at this remark from one of the dozing men. “The wind’s changed and the leaves are turning up, a sure sign.”
He went back to sleep, and Mrs. Flathers uncovered a small basket she’d tucked under her skirt. She took out a ploughman’s lunch, and the combined smells of cheese and onions filled the coach. Outside, the July sun climbed and beat down. Dust swirled up from the wheels and horses’ hooves, finding its way inside. I leaned against the wall of the carriage and closed my eyes, remembering how I’d come to be in this uncomfortable carriage on the way to a long-empty, half-ruined house.
My mother, contrary to the dictates of the times, had a thriving business. She was an herb woman. The knowledge of herbs, passed from mother to daughter, stretched back through the generations of our family, back to those troubled times when a cow’s breath was believed to cure lung ailments and a dog was used to lick away a sty. A candle-lit workroom, a misshapen shadow seen against the wall late at the night, of such things did people whisper and tell tales. And yet no charges of witchcraft were ever brought against any of my ancestors—a testimonial, perhaps, to the streak of charm that was also passed on from mother to daughter but that, sadly, skipped me in favor of my brother.
One afternoon when, the heat was so oppressive that dogs snapped for no reason if someone walked too near and the smells of decaying vegetables and rotting fowl seemed to fight for dominance, I idled about the area of Father’s bookstore where my mother sold herbs, tinctures, and lotions; it was cooler than our upstairs rooms. Father was at the lending library, and Mother was helping at a birthing. My younger sister and brother, Caroline and Charles, had packed a picnic and gone to the river with their friends. I sat near the open door, watching the foot traffic and fanning myself. I felt neat and businesslike in a new blue dress with white buttons and tatted trim. When voices interrupted my near-somnolence, I looked up with a smile, which became only slightly less welcoming when I saw who spoke.
Ann Ellis and Augusta Turner were good customers and paid promptly for their purchases, but their haughty demeanors hurt my pride. And despite the heat they looked cool, though Miss Turner did have sweat rings under her arms. She wore a lavender day dress with a square neck and sleeves that ended at the elbow. The skirt had a draped bustle. A lavender bow of the same material trimmed her straw hat, and she carried a parasol. She had lovely ash-blonde hair, beautiful skin, and a dainty figure, and somehow she managed to be the most undistinguished young lady I’d ever encountered. I could never put my finger on why, with all her attributes, she cut such a plain figure.
Ann Ellis was just the opposite. The Ellises weren’t as wealthy as the Turners, but she was clever and it made all the difference. That day she wore a Zouave jacket that ended above her waist and under it a yellow cuirass bodice and a cotton skirt with a green drape. The style showed off her small waist, and the colors complemented her rich, gypsy-like coloring. With her slanted eyes and heart-shaped face, Miss Ellis wasn’t conventionally pretty, but most men didn’t seem to notice. Next to the two of them, my blue and white gown suddenly seemed plain. I felt as if I had “serviceable” embroidered on my bodice.
For a time they wandered about picking up and putting down one item after another. Then, while returning a small container of rosewater to the shelf and picking up one of lavender, Miss Ellis turned to her companion. “Did you hear that the Wynters manor is being opened again?”
Miss Turner turned in surprise. “Why, where did you hear that? Wynters Way has been closed for years. After old Captain Wynters died, the family left for the continent.” She set the lavender aside to be purchased and continued, “What a dreadful condition the demesne must be in, not to mention the house.”
“There’s been a caretaker to patrol the grounds, but what’s left of the house has been shut up. I remember how charming it all was, even after their finances went into decline. There was a dignity about the place.”
“Old Mrs. Wynters, the captain’s mother, invited Mother and me to tea there once. She entertained us in a small solarium, and I’ve wanted a room with tall glass windows ever since.” Miss Turner smiled. “It had windows from floor to ceiling. Ivy was allowed to cover parts of some of them. That was when her granddaughter, Phyllis, was a girl and liked to see birds nesting amongst the leaves, but most of the glass was kept clear so the room was full of light. Plants bloomed there even in winter. Mind you, they say the house has been haunted for years. Not that Mrs. Wynters would have known. Towards the end she was hardly able to leave her bed. She died not long after that tea, but she told Mother once that if the legends are true, the ghosts had to be ‘family,’ since the Wynters had lived there for so long. And being family, they wouldn’t hurt her.”
Miss Ellis laughed. “What a dreadful thing to say. Is Captain Wynters’ wife still alive?”
“He was married twice, and both women passed on. The first wife was mother to Geoffrey and Phyllis, and no one seems to know much about the second.”
“Mr. Geoffrey is still unattached, I believe?” Miss Ellis unconsciously smoothed her skirts and straightened her cuffs. She had been out two seasons now, and her prospects were fading.
“Yes, it will be Geoffrey, his sister, and their Aunt Isabel. They’ve taken a parlor at St. Mathews House to interview for a housekeeper. Geoffrey, of course, is with his regiment and will be in and out, but I dare say he’ll be bringing home some interesting friends.”
While I wondered how Miss Turner had become so well-versed in the affairs of the Wynters family, the ladies exchanged looks that spoke of the dearth of attractive, eligible bachelors in Little Ginnells and then turned to me to make their purchases.
They put their selections on the table, and I took their coins, trying to be pleasant. Miss Turner was rather nice, when alone. Miss Ellis was another kettle of fish, holding up her skirts carefully so they wouldn’t brush the floors—holding them up so every passerby could see her ankles, if so inclined—and showing her contempt for many things in many little ways. Not that she was opposed to flirting with Thomas when circumstances allowed. She could mince around and be cloyingly sweet, if it was to her advantage. Clearly, she had her eyes set on “opportunities” at Wynters Way.
After supper, taking a parasol and saying I was going for air, I slipped out and strolled to St. Mathews House. On a nearby post, someone had nailed a sign saying that Miss Isabel Wynters and Mrs. Phyllis Wynters-Harrington would be seeing applicants for the position of housekeeper on Friday week, from 2:00 until 4:30.
A weight I didn’t know I was carrying lifted from my heart. Wynters Way was not so far away as to remove me from my family entirely, but it wasn’t too close either, being a day’s journey by coach (not rail, since it was off the regular railway line). What fun to open those rooms after so many years of closure, to make them not only habitable but attractive.
I found a place to sit and stared unseeingly at the throngs of people crowding the dusty road. My chances of obtaining the position were thin; I had no experience. But I tried to muster persuasive arguments. No, I had never been a housekeeper before, a paid one that is, but then this wasn’t to be a regular establishment where the duties of the housekeeper were clearly defined. Undoubtedly, more would be required. I could cook, sew, clean, read aloud in an interesting way, and write with a good script. I was strong and honest and healthy. I would have to make these attributes plain, since a letter from the Vicar would be my only reference. In a flight of fancy, I saw myself in a dark dress, with keys at my waist, showing visitors into the solarium where pots of flowers bloomed profusely, sun shone through the windows, and chairs clustered graciously for intimate conversations.
Still, if I was offered the position, the decision to leave home would not be an easy one to make. Charlotte’s and my little bedroom would become hers alone, for once I left I could never come back, at least not to live. My essence would be gone, eliminated by the rearranged furniture and her scattered belongings. The crowded dining-room table, Charles clattering lids in the kitchen and getting in everyone’s way, the cheerful banter and good, intelligent conversations all gone, and for what—the opportunity to run away from the embarrassment and pain of spinsterhood, to find some kind of useful life for myself?
Even as I turned these thoughts over in my mind, I knew I’d made my decision. If not this position, then another. An opportunity was bound to present itself. When it did, Fortis fortuna adiuvat—fortune favors the brave.
On the street in front of me a little boy crept up to a lady carrying two baskets of produce and tickled her on the neck. She whirled around, but he was gone. I laughed, and she gave me a dirty look before hurrying on. But I was only partially laughing at her; I was also thinking Father would be proud that I had remembered some of my Latin.
On the day of the interview, I wore a plain dark dress, a no-nonsense hat, and carefully cleaned shoes. I carried the Vicar’s reference letter in a sewing bag. If I had to wait, the handiwork would keep my hands busy and my mind calm. It might also give me the opportunity to display my sewing ability, of which I was proud and had worked hard to perfect. It would please Caroline too, if I fixed the tear in her new apron before Mother could see it and fuss. Somehow I managed to get out of the house before anyone saw me, and as I walked I mustered my arguments again, holding conversations in which I was perfectly poised and in total control, always giving always the right answers. I tried, unsuccessfully, to dampen my soaring hopes. Worthy, prideful work, a change of scenery, an escape from what had become, at best, a loving prison—that was what I sought. My thoughts beat against my brain in the way a trapped fly beats against a window pane.
St. Mathews House, where the interviews were being held, was a former church converted into a guesthouse. I climbed a short flight of stairs and stopped at the registration desk to let my eyes adjust and to ask directions. A man showed me to a small parlor where sun beat through the crown glass set in arched windows. The bright light revealed dust motes in the stiflingly hot room. Perhaps this establishment could use the strong arm of an eager worker, I thought.
Some half-dozen ladies waited, looking as much alike as rooks on a wall in their black dresses and hats. My own navy blue seemed frivolous by comparison. They all carried reticules, bulging, no doubt, with glowing references. One lady knit on an unidentifiable garment. The click of her needles and an occasional cleared throat were the only sounds to be heard. I took the remaining empty seat, threaded my needle, and began to satin-stitch a large brown and yellow butterfly over the rent in Caroline’s apron. The garment was new, and the tear was nasty. Caroline had shed a quart of tears over the thought of her friends seeing her torn apron. It hadn’t been her fault that she’d torn it. How was she to know a nail would be protruding from the exact place where she chose to run around a corner, or was it to scale a wall? How indeed, heedless little sister, who would begin the process of growing up if I was no longer at home.
One by one, the ladies were called to an inner chamber, returning to their chairs after approximately twenty minutes and wiping their perspiring brows. I counted myself lucky not to be the first or second applicant. Who would remember them after number five or six? I was number four, and had completed the butterfly and started a small pink flower on which it could rest when my name was called.
Two ladies and a gentleman awaited my arrival. The ladies sat together on a small loveseat. The gentleman lounged behind them on a wooden chair in front of a window, so the light cast a shadow over his face.
“I’m Isabel Wynters,” said the oldest of the ladies. “This is my niece, Mrs. Phyllis Wynters-Harrington, and my nephew, Geoffrey Wynters.” She nodded toward a chair. “Please sit down.”
Isabel Wynters was perhaps forty, with abundant gray hair that fluffed around her face and softened her features. Her eyes were so brown as to be almost black, her lashes long and lovely. Her skin was clear and beautiful for a woman of her age, with a warm, honey-colored glow to it. She wore second mourning, a pale gray dress with a jet broach pinned to a small lace collar.
“References please,” said the younger of the ladies, and I handed her not only the letter from the Vicar but a statement of my own, describing my regular household duties and those of the schoolroom and the shop.
When folks ask me why I write, I’m afraid I must have a blank look on my face. “It’s in the genes,” I want to say, or “Because I have to.” Maybe only writers understand. My parents loved to talk about their lives growing up in Tacoma, Washington, and they both wrote histories of our family for my brother and me. Until the crash of 2008, when I was let go, I wrote articles on local history for a weekly newspaper. At the same time, I was writing murder mysteries and was lucky enough to find a publisher, but I don’t think I’ll revisit that genre. It’s back to history, which I love, and where I have many (albeit dead) friends. I like them because none of them argues with me.
My submission is from Wynters Way, a novel I started in 1979 and recently decided to finish. I sure didn’t want to waste fifty thousand words. It is the only book I have thus far written that isn’t set in Tacoma. I call Wynters Way a romance and gentle ghost story, which takes place circa 1880. I love research (one reason why I’m a slow writer). The books and recipes, clothes and medical practices, games and holiday traditions mentioned are as accurate to the time as I could make them. So, too, is the practice of keeping a hedgehog in the kitchen to eat bugs at night. They missed that on Downton Abbey, more’s the pity. Many of the place names I used came from lists of no-longer-in-existence towns and rivers in Great Britain. Everything else is fiction.
Karla Stover was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, and graduated from the University of Washington with honors in History. She has been writing for more than twenty years. Her credits include The News Tribune, The Tacoma Reporter, The Tacoma Weekly, and The Puget Sound Business Journal. Nationally, she has published in Ruralite and Birds and Blooms. Internationally, she was a regulator contributor to The European Crown and The Imperial Russian Journal. She writes a monthly column for Country Pleasures magazine. In 2008, she won the Chistell Prize for a short story entitled “One Day at Appomattox.” Weekly, she talks about local history on KLAY AM 1180. She has published the following books: Let’s Go Walk About in Tacoma (2009), Hidden History of Tacoma: Little-Known Tales from the City of Destiny (2012), A Line to Murder (2013), A Feather for a Fan (2014), and Tacoma Curiosities (2016).
Embark, Issue 2, October 2017