There is an old saying: “Misery loves company.” It’s referring to the fact that people who are upset tend to enjoy dragging others down to wallow in their misery with them, but when I was a child I always assumed it meant you wanted company when you were miserable. That was simple enough, I thought.
Well, whether you simply don’t want to be alone, or want to make others miserable, the main complication to this saying is that, frankly speaking, company typically doesn’t want misery. I should know. When my parents died, suddenly and unexpectedly, none of my relatives exactly jumped at the chance to take me in.
Sure, they said they were very sorry, they would love to have me, blah blah blah, but when it came down to it they had plenty of excuses not to take me. The grandparents were in unstable health, my big sister had just had a baby and I would be a distraction (as if I couldn’t help take care of a baby?), and my uncles and aunts had a plethora of perfectly valid justifications.
So for a while I was passed from aunt to aunt and uncle to uncle, never staying with any family for more than a few days before I was passed on to the next household.
I didn’t really mind, exactly, but it was annoying packing my clothes every few days and I would have liked stability while I tried to conceive of this great change that had taken place in my life. I was never terribly close to my mum and dad, but they were my parents all the same, and I loved them even if they were always busy. Mum may not have had time to spend with me, but she somehow always managed to get me ready in time for school and to write a note for my lunch bag.
Anyway, I was too busy being passed between the relatives to sit down and have a good cry about it, or to figure out what was going to happen next, and when I started to make a fifth cycle among the aunts, there was a general consensus that I must be gotten rid of. Not that anyone phrased it that way, of course. “Suitable arrangements must be made” and “A place must be found for the poor girl,” and of course “We’re very sorry we can’t take her but ____.”
They were tearing their hair trying to figure out what to do with me until The Letter came. The Letter was written in a beautiful curly calligraphy and came from my distant cousin Nicolai. Nicolai La Croix, to be specific, who lived in a huge mansion in France somewhere and was said to be comfortably rich. He had heard that I had been orphaned, and, remembering me and my parents from a family reunion many years earlier, offered condolences. More importantly, he offered a home. At that point I was so glad that somebody wanted me, I didn’t care that I didn’t remember him. I wouldn’t have cared if he lived in a shack in Czechoslovakia and drank pickle juice for breakfast. My extended family was of the same view.
It was with a lightening heart that I packed my meager belongings (some black clothes appropriate for mourning, my entire library of books, and a plimsoll that had once belonged to a boy I had a crush on) and prepared to board a boat to France and my new life. My aunt Henrietta agreed to accompany me at least across the English Channel, which I thought was awfully nice of her, considering her husband had come down with the grippe. (This appeared to be a terrible disease- it took hold of him in fits whenever it was their turn to take me in, and whenever one of his neighbors asked him for a favor.)
We were just about to set off when we received a telegraph. Nicolai had disappeared, and the household was very sorry but they were in such a muddle trying to find him they just couldn’t take on another responsibility, but they had a contribution of 25£ that they hoped I could find some use for. I’m sure I could have found a good use for twenty-five pounds, but I didn’t get to find out because my grandparents took it “to take care of it” and I never saw it again. I didn’t really mind about the money. I was too busy being disappointed.
So I was passed around between the now-grumbling relatives for a few more months, and as summer was coming to a close, boarding school was discussed. It was then I got desperate. I knew boarding school couldn’t be as horrible as it was always portrayed in stories, but the idea of staying at a school in a dormitory full of strangers was repulsive to me. I always like to have someone I know to cling to until I get comfortable with my surroundings, and I had been counting on at least leeching on to cousin Nicolai, since he was a relative and therefore couldn’t disown me.
What a stroke of luck when the second letter came! This one was written in a different hand than The Letter, and explained politely and briefly that Mr. Nicolai had been found, and though the management of the household had been passed somewhat out of his hands, they were still willing to take me in if I still needed a home. I folded it with reverence and placed it in the lining of my trunk next to The Letter, which still smelled faintly of perfume and sealing wax.
Aunt Henrietta complained temporarily about the inconvenience of a second trip, but on the whole was so glad to be rid of me she offered to accompany me again. So I tidied my trunk (at this point I was moving around so much I never bothered to pack and unpack it anymore) and dashed off a letter of confirmation and gratitude, which was posted very enthusiastically by my uncle Garber. (This was the one with the grippe. The joy of the news apparently affected him so much he was made temporarily well, or at least well enough to dash off to the post office without even changing out of his dressing gown.)
It was a little unflattering to see everyone so overjoyed at my departure, but I told myself they were just glad for me and was able to wave with actual affection at the (very small) gathering that was seeing me off from the pier. Aunt Henrietta took seasick the instant the ferry left the dock, and disappeared below deck throughout the entire journey. I, however, hung over the side staring enthusiastically ahead until I saw the coast of France. We had set off right after breakfast and by afternoon we were in France.
There Aunt escorted me to the train station, made sure I had my ticket, and set off back to England. I found my platform with little difficulty and even wheedled a porter into taking my trunk without a tip. Then the train started off for Auvergne.
As the train chugged along, I sat and looked at my pale arms in the too-short sleeves of my ugly black dress and tried to imagine what book heroine I reminded myself of. I decided on Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden (a sickly, sour-faced orphan with an unpleasant disposition) and settled down to imagine myself journeying to a country house in Yorkshire.
I was met at the train station by a large, sallow-faced man with big hands and dirty clothes. He smelled of turnips and, remembering the perfumed smell of The Letter, I deduced he was not my cousin Nicolai, but some member of household staff. I would have liked to meet Nicolai right away and form an impression of my benefactor, but any greeting was better than none and the man was strong and packed my trunk into the back of his cart with quick deftness.
The ride out into the country was pleasant, and I soaked in the scenery and reveled in the smell of the fresh air. I had received a meager allowance from some relatives before I left (although no sign of the twenty-five pounds) and was hopefully planning a nice shopping spree at some point to buy some clothes that weren’t black (not my best color) and that would fit me. The man driving didn’t try to make conversation, which was fine by me, and there were no city noises to cover the sound of the wind and birds. I decided quickly that I was going to love it there.
It was getting dark as we turned into the lane to the house, and the lights from the windows seemed to welcome me. I jumped enthusiastically out of the cart and grabbed my trunk before the man had even completely checked the horses. He looked slightly taken aback by my eagerness, but didn’t comment and simply drove off towards the stables as a bulky woman took my trunk from me and opened the kitchen door.
I stood in the middle of the kitchen, inhaling the scent of cinnamon rolls and coffee, as the woman handed off my trunk to yet another servant, and bustled around giving orders to some maids. Then she turned to me. “Right. You must be Emma?” She said it as a question. Perhaps her employer had told her to expect a rosy-cheeked girl with glossy black curls, which is what I would have looked like when he saw me many years ago. I don’t look very rosy anymore, and my curls all fell out when I turned ten. She didn’t wait for me to answer, however, so she must have reconciled that mental image with the lanky, sallow fifteen-year-old I am now.
A cinnamon roll was shoved rather unceremoniously into my hands and I was led down a hall into a room, where the maids had somehow managed to unpack my trunk in an astonishingly short amount of time.
The next thing I knew I was sitting by myself on a neatly-made bed, next to a fragrant-smelling lamp with a pleasant, rosy light. I ate my cinnamon roll in a few bites and found my nightgown in a dresser drawer. I had just finished changing when the bedroom door opened. I started and grabbed a dressing gown to cover myself.
It was just a housemaid, a pretty teenage girl with freckles and lots of hair. She grinned at me and handed me a piece of paper. “Here you go. Mrs. Wibberley wrote these rules up for you.” I must have looked apprehensive, because she laughed and patted me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, this isn’t an institution. They’re just some basic house rules you ought to know. The Wibbers is pretty strict about them, though, so look it over before you go exploring the house.”
I looked up at her shyly, my curiosity piqued. “The Wibbers?”
“Mrs. Wibberley is the housekeeper. She greeted you coming in. She’s nice most of the time but if you set off her temper, you’d better run.”
I didn’t intend on setting off anyone’s temper. I’ve always been more of a background dweller. I hoped vaguely that Nicolai would be good-natured.
The girl excused herself and I sat by the lamp and looked over the list. The rules were fairly simple. No sliding on banisters, no pinching food from the pantry, no playing with the collection of antique knives. I permitted myself a chuckle at that one. So far, all restrictions seemed pretty obvious. I turned over the paper and looked at the back. These were a little less logical, but still reasonable. Forbidden to go below the ground-floor level. Perhaps the stairs were rickety? It didn’t really matter-I was sure in an entire mansion I would have no need of lower levels. There were two stories above the one I was in, and spreading grounds outside. I was most likely to break the last rule: No windows open at night. I looked at my window. It was big enough for a burglar to get in, I supposed.
I shrugged to myself and set the list aside. Finding The Letter in a drawer of the bedside table, I lay back in the bed and held it to my face, inhaling the perfumey scent. From his calligraphy and sealing wax, as well as the splendor of his mansion, Cousin Nicolai La Croix seemed to me to be rather posh. I hoped he wasn’t too intimidating.
I tried to imagine what he looked like. I dimly seemed to recollect that he was from my mother’s side of the family. Fair, then. His hair probably curled. I imagined a man with blond curls reaching to his shoulders, looking down at me and smoking an expensive cigar. Just for fun I gave him a curled French mustache and a little pointy beard. Laughing mentally at this ridiculous mental image I reread The Letter.
He had voluntarily offered me both sympathy and a home. He couldn’t be too haughty. I kissed the wax seal for good luck and returned The Letter to the drawer. Then I turned off the lamp and drew the covers up to my chin.
Sleep was a long time coming. The bed was soft and comfortable, and the quilt nice and warm, but the air in the bedroom was stuffy. I tossed and turned for a while, then sat up and threw the covers off.
Looking around as if I expected “the Wibbers” to be looming over my shoulder, I climbed out of the bed and went to the window. It was slightly stiff, and I was showered with dust when it jerked open, but a cool breeze came in and improved the room’s atmosphere immediately.
I fell asleep with a strangely comfortable feeling of mischief at managing to break a rule on my first night there.