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Jane stopped at the gate, which was half-overgrown with shrubs and vines, and put down her basket. She balanced on one foot and scratched her calf with the toes of the other. She could tell that Mamma hadn't come back yet. The house looked dead, just a lot of wood and stone. It was only when Mamma was home that it looked alive.
She sighed and lifted her basket. It was light enoughberries were getting scarce, and the weather was too dry for mushrooms, except in the deepest part of the woods, where she didn't dare to venture. She had found only a handful of sticks suitable for firewood.
The drive curved around to the wide stone steps leading up to the massive front door. Jane took a shortcut across the brown grass, glad that Mamma wasn't there to see her. Only stable boys tread paths, she always scolded. Once, when Jane was particularly tired, she had reminded Mamma that there weren't stable boys at Halsey Hall anymore. Mamma's look of bewildered hurt and betrayal had stabbed like an icicle at Jane's heart, and she never again mentioned the lack of stable boysor of a proper stableand never again walked across the grass while Mamma was home.
She climbed the uneven steps and leaned her weight into the door, which opened reluctantly. "Maudie?" she called. She heard scuttling to her left, where the North Parlor and the ballroom lay abandoned. She sighed again. Her sister was no doubt hiding a new treasureperhaps some small gift from Hugh or his mother, Hannah Herb-Woman, or a brightly colored stone or snakeskin. Jane waited a few minutes and then opened the door, a little too noisily, so that Maude would have a chance to pretend she had merely wandered into the vacant part of the house for no reason.
Jane crossed the North Parlor and looked through the doorwayempty now of its doorinto the ballroom. Maude seemed small in that vast space, her footsteps echoing as she crossed the scuffed and dusty floor that Jane dimly remembered gleaming, long ago. Now the grand room was a home for bats and mice, whose smelly nests cluttered the corners. The musician's gallery above them was empty save for a few broken chairs where the black-coated cellists and flutists and trumpeters used to make music that moved dancers' feet around the floor.
Maude's shabby dress, so faded that it was impossible to tell its original color, was too tight on her. Her hair hung in lank strands; one of the reasons Mamma had gone to the city was to buy soap so they could wash more often. By the way her sister was studiously avoiding looking into a dark corner behind her, Jane guessed that this was where she had stashed her treasure.
"Mamma still isn't back," Maude said.
"I know." When Mamma went to the little village down the hill she would return the same evening, but several times a year she made the longer trip to the city to barter cheese and eggs for soap and flour and the other things they couldn't grow or make on their own, and she stayed overnight before returning home. But she had never been away this long before.
Ladies do not farm, Mamma always said when they asked why they couldn't grow wheat and barley. If a lady wishes to have a pretty pastime, keeping chickens and making cheese are suitable. She may tend a flower bed, and she may gather berries and nuts. She may embroider and make lace. She may exchange what she does not need with other gentlewomen who have an excess of what they themselves produce. But that is all. We are ladies, and ladies do not do heavy work.
Yes, Mamma, they always answered, and then they would go out to chop wood or shovel out the stable or do their best to repair the chicken coop. Yes, Mamma, as dutifully and politely as if they really were the ladies that Mamma said they were.
Jane and Maude went through the main hall with its magnificent staircase and into the South Parlor, now not only a parlor but their sitting room, kitchen, and dining room, as well. Jane surveyed the room with satisfaction. As soon as Mamma had left, the sisters fell to work, cleaning and straightening, taking rugs outside to beat dirt from them, pulling and shoving the heavy chairs into the sun to bake out the mildew in their cushions. Now, clean curtains hung over sparkling windows, a small stack of firewood lay on the hearth, finally emptied of ash and cinders, and scraps of cloth covered the worn spots on the chairs that they had carefully positioned over the worst holes and stains in the carpet.
When Mamma came back, she wouldn't say how nice everything looked. She always acted as though invisible servants took care of things and never acknowledged that her own daughters, the last of the Halsey line, blistered their hands and reddened their eyes by firelight to keep things decent.
They had watched her disappear down the long drive that summer day, sitting erect on old Saladin, who'd been loaded down with packs full of cheese and butter. It had beenhow long ago? Jane counted on her fingers. Two days to clean the South Parlor, another to muck out the stable, a fourth when Maude hunted herbs while Jane worked on the heap of mending and darning in the work basket, and today. Five days. Jane tried to ignore the wiggle of fear in her belly.
To conceal her worry, she asked, "Did you find any eggs? I'm starving!"
"Four," Maude said. "We can have two each."
"And I found some wood. Let's make supper now, shall we?"
Soon, the water in the little pot hanging over the hearth was boiling, and Maude gently slipped the brown eggs into it.
Jane sat while her sister tended the fire. Once, supper had meant a roasted duck or the leg of a pig, with vegetables and soft bread, and if they had been good, a sweet afterward. But there were no more cooks in the house, and the kitchen, with its fireplace of a size to roast a whole boar and mixing bowls large enough to bathe a baby in, had long been cold. Jane barely remembered how it had looked with servants bustling about, their cheeks red from the fire, their faces shiny with sweat. Rich smells of roasting meats and yeasty breads and bubbling sauces would intoxicate her. Cook would find something sweet for Jane, always with a second helping to carry back up to Maude, who'd been too little to come down the stairs. Now, the heavy iron spoons and spits and ladles rusted under layers of cobwebs, and the bitter smell of old ashes hung in the damp air.
"Janie?" Maude was standing over her, holding out a bowl with two steaming eggs in it.
It didn't take long to eat their meal. Maude licked her bowl but Jane pretended not to see this lapse in manners; her sister had seemed even hungrier than usual lately, ever since she had starting outgrowing her clothes, seemingly overnight. But neither of them had been getting enough to eat for months, and what little they had was monotonously the same. Maybe Mamma would surprise them with bakery-made sweets when she came back, or a ham, or even something exotic, like grapes or oranges.
Jane left Maude to wash up with almost the last of the soap and went to do the evening milking. When she returned, Maude was squatting at the hearth, poking the fire with a long stick. She looked up as her sister came in, her brows drawn together in worry. "When is Mamma coming home, Janie?"
Jane was about to snap, "How should I know?" but she softened when she saw Maude's lower lip trembling. She forced herself to speak carelessly. "Soon. She must have had business in town."
"What business, Janie?"
Rather than answering, Jane said, "It's still light out. Do you want to go on an explore?" Maude leaped to her feet. "Now?"
The last time they had ventured up the stairs, Jane had stepped on a board that split under her foot, and although she had clutched wildly at the banister, she'd crashed heavily to the stone floor. She had lain there, dazed, for a few moments, and when she'd raised her head, Maude was peering at her, her eyes wide. Jane had forced herself to sit up and brush her dress off calmly. She'd said, "The step above it looks goodlet's see if you can stretch your legs far enough to reach over the hole." They had made it to the second story safely, and Jane had carefully hidden the purple bruise on her hip and her sore shoulder from Mamma after she'd come home.
This time they arrived upstairs without incident, placing their feet carefully at the edges of the steps and holding tight to the banister. They walked hand in hand down the long corridor. When she was very small, Maude used to shrink from the portraits lining the walls. "It's only Great-Great-Grandmamma Esther," Jane would reassure her, speaking of the painting of the stiff-looking little girl clutching an equally stiff-looking kitten. "They say that her mother was descended from the fairy-folk." Or, "only Great-Grandpapa Edwin," of the strong-jawed young man in evening clothes, holding a book and staring down his long nose at his descendants standing in the dust. "He was the one who had our hunting lodge built."
Jane would recite each room's story to her sister, who always listened in solemn silence. "This was Grandmamma's chamber," Jane would say. "She was very particular about her bed and couldn't sleep without three pillows, stuffed with the down of white geese." Through the dim light they would look respectfully at the bed. They knew that if they touched the pillows, still heaped up as though waiting for Grandmamma, their hands would go through the rotten silk cases and they would find the famous goose down full of bugs.
"Her bed curtains were of the finest damask," Jane would continue. "Damask was the only cloth beautiful enough for her taste and still heavy enough to keep out light and sound." The weight of the heavy, dark red cloth had made most of it pull through the shiny curtain ringsbrass, Jane said, although Maude insisted they were goldand it dangled in uneven loops around the dark, deeply carved bedposts.
Mamma's room, with its delicate furniture and dingy wallpaper that had once been bright with rosebuds, was the best. The girls took turns choosing what to look at first. It might be the cupboard where the ball gowns still hung, holes in most of them, the musty odor making Maude sneeze. Jane had once suggested cutting up one of the dresses and re-piecing it to make a dress for herself or her sister; Mamma had been so shocked at the idea of using a silk gown for everyday use that Jane never mentioned it again. Or they might turn to one of the drawers where the delicate undergarments and stockings and handkerchiefs retained something of their satiny sheen, or the heavy jewelry box on the dresser.
Everything of value had been sold long ago, but the glass beads and rings and brooches that Mamma had worn to costume parties still glittered coldly on black velvet. The girls would take them out reverently, holding them up to their chests or ears or fingers, never daring to put them on, asking each other, "How do I look? Which one suits me best?"
Today it was the turn of Papa's bedchamber. Their bare feet did not tap on the stone floor, the way Mamma's shoes used to, and the boom of Papa's boots was hard to remember. Jane pushed open the oaken door, showing the faded carpet and the broken riding crop that Papa had flung down years ago.
Maude took a step inside, then halted. "Why don't we look at one of the guest rooms instead?"
"It's not their turn. We have to do things the right way. We're Halseys." She imitated Mamma's tone, and Maude snickered, and they entered. Papa had sold almost everything, even his guns and the signet ring he had inherited from his own father. Jane had rarely entered the room in the old days, and even now she found it uncomfortable to venture past the door. What drew their eyes in that dim chamber was the portrait of Mamma as a young woman, above the fireplace. The fresh eagerness of her smile, the energy of her step as if the painter had called out to her to come to him, the way her hand clutched her hat with the long sweep of a feather curving up toward her facethese gave her an interest that was deeper than beauty.
"She was happy," Maude said, as she always did. It was a strange thought.
"She was about to marry the handsomest man in the kingdom."
"And welcome him into the oldest family and the finest house in the kingdom."
They fell silent, each wondering if anybodymuch less the handsomest man in the kingdomwould ever want to marry them. Neither thought they looked pretty the way the dainty ladies in the portraits lining the hall, with their pursed lips, pale glossy ringlets, and glowing fair skin, were pretty. They both resembled Mamma, with their dark hair, determined chins, and long hands and feet. But in the portrait, Mamma's hair was smooth and shiny, and her slender fingers elegantly held up the skirt of a gown that gleamed clean and unmended, while their own hair twisted in an unruly fashion around their heads and their work-roughened hands rested on faded dresses that were patched and worn, and that always seemed too small.
Rose had resembled Papa, Mamma said once, surprising them with this rare mention of Jane's twin. Rose had had Papa's big eyes and fine features. But Rose was dead, and baby Robert, too, so Papa's looks had been lost. Lost, along with the gold and jewels and parties whose music and gay laughter Jane vaguely rememberedeverything that had gone away when Papa had gone away.
When word came that he had died, poor and alone in a miserable room in an inn, surrounded by empty bottles, they were surprisednot that he was dead, but that he had so recently been alive, because for a long time he had been dead to them.
Maude said that all she remembered of Papa was a large, noisy presence, strong arms that would lift her up and then a scratchy face rubbing against her cheek and neck until she screamed and he laughed and put her down, all accompanied by a strong smell that she later learned was liquor. Jane remembered a deep voice shouting late in the night and their mother crying, and their father disappearing for days at a time, until that last disappearance when he'd never returned at all. They both knew without ever saying it that they must behave well and do everything Mamma said, so that she would not cry again. Orand the thought was so bitter that Jane tried to push it awayso that she would not leave them like Papa.
Jane led the way back down the corridor, the eyes in the portraits boring holes in her back. She always felt that they would be different on the way backGreat-Grandpapa Edwin would be smiling, or the kitten would have squirmed out of Great-Great-Grandmamma Esther's arms. And as she climbed down the stairs, holding her skirts up with one hand and grasping the rail with the other, she heard the ancestors whispering behind her.
You are a Halsey. You are the last of your line, you and your sis- ter. You have much to live up to. Never disgrace the Halsey name. On and on they whispered as Jane hurried, risking a dangerous tumble, and the voices didn't cease until she stood once more in the South Parlor, surrounded by their own familiar clothes and furniture and cooking things, and Maude made rose hip tea, to help them recover from the climb.