Etta watched from the second story, dusty, gray window as the carriage pulled up to the front of her home. She wiped at the layer of filth, which allowed her to see what she most feared. Her stomach clenched in knots as a gentleman stepped out into the fog and light mist of rain. He placed the black hat atop his head, shielding himself from the moisture.
Henrietta wanted to hide. She had not seen her Uncle Jack since she had been a little girl, no older than five. At the time, he had scared her; his putrid breath and leering stare. He had even made a joke about her betrothal, something she hadn’t wanted to think about as a child, let alone now, fifteen years later.
Her mother had passed away in childbirth, and her father had perished just last week, leaving everything, including his only daughter, to a brother he had not kept in touch with in well over a decade.
She had no desire to leave her residence but she herself had no money, the dowry being tied up with her Uncle Jack, which meant it would be her time to leave soon—and leave everything she knew behind.
Her travel satchel sat on the mattress in her bedroom, next to where her single trunk stood full and ready. Henrietta had packed by herself at the news of her departure, all servants already having been discharged. Would she be given adequate accommodations when she reached her uncle’s home? Or would he lock her in a cellar, the way he did in her paranoid nightmares?
Etta had always had an overactive imagination, or so she had been told. Stories flowed freely from her lips, embellishments easy to make as she envisioned a unique world and fascinating tales of witches and sorcery. Her amused father had insisted the stories remain between them, that even so much as a hint of her wild narratives could cause her to find herself in an unfortunate situation. At the very least, he had told her, it was quite improper for a lady to have such thoughts. She had been cautious, of course, trusting very few people and having even less friends over the years as her father grew ill and she spent her later years caring for him.
At twenty, she was of an age to marry, but her prospects lacked in bounty—in fact, they were lacking altogether. If she were to be honest, Etta found pleasure in being free. The responsibility of such a commitment, a contract between two people and the exchange of a dowry for her hand, felt wickedly absurd. However, it was not as though she could voice such a sentiment to anyone.
Fear crept inside her. Etta’s hands shook with nerves as her uncle stepped inside the house. She could hear his footfall through the floorboards down below.
“Henrietta!” he called, his deep voice echoing off the walls. He stood in the foyer, making no attempt to wander any further inside.
With caution, she edged out of her room and stood at the top of the stairs, staring down the banister to the ground floor at Uncle Jack. He had not changed much since she had last seen him, except perhaps he had grown a little older, his dark black hair now showing wisps of gray. He was taller than her father, yet her uncle’s posture gave him the appearance of being hunched forward, along with his protruding potbelly. As she continued to stare at him, she realized he looked nothing like his brother, except for the slightly hooked nose, a trait that all men in the family had acquired.
“Please, sir, I prefer to be called Etta,” she said. “My trunk is up here.”
“You will answer to what I call you, Henrietta. Bring your belongings downstairs. The road is wet, and we do not wish to ride at night.”
She knew what he really meant—that if she did not make haste, he’d be forced to stay at the house for the evening and, for whatever reason, he was not going to do that.
“Yes, of course.” Etta stepped into her bedroom and lifted one end of the trunk by the thick leather handle, dragging it across the red and yellow rug and over the wooden floor and down the stairs, listening to it smack each stair on its descent down. She prayed it would not leave scratches on the perfectly sanded floorboards. The grain was as beautiful as it had been the day it was constructed, or so she imagined. The house had many years to it, as her father had moved in long before she had been born.
Jack cleared his throat, perhaps expecting Henrietta to lift the trunk and carry it properly, an impossibility, of course. If the trunk had not weighed close to what she herself did, she would have found it easier to transport down the stairs.
“You are bringing all that?” he asked, staring at her as if she had gone insane. He shook his head. “Come, Henrietta. We have not got all day.” He stepped outside and left the front door open.
The moment weighed heavily on her; leaving behind the only home she’d ever known. The hinges to the door had rusted, an oversight she’d had when tending to the house and her ailing father. She’d heard the constant squeak and groan of the rusted metal whenever she let the doctors in to visit, but as quickly as the sound reminded her, the thought would be forgotten at her father’s groans and coughs.
In the earlier years of his sickness, she’d been keeping up with the chores, making sure the house looked beautiful for him. More recently, her focus had been set entirely on her father. She had no regrets, except that she didn’t have more time to spend with him.
Etta glanced over her shoulder, already missing the warmth and smells of her home terribly, but the house was no longer the same without her father. Even in his last dying moments, she’d kept the place up as best she could, lighting candles and sprinkling cinnamon into the flames to ward off the stench of death. The house needed a fresh coat of paint and a few shingles had come loose, but there were worse places to live. The memories seeped into her with every glance at the walls, the paintings a reminder of her father’s talent. She wanted to take one with her, but she could not carry it as well as her trunk. Would Jack sell the paintings and the house? Would the treasures of her past be scattered amongst the townsfolk for a few shillings?
Following her uncle outside, she used all her strength to lift the trunk just a smidge from the ground, awkwardly trying to keep her travel satchel balanced over her shoulder, hoping to prevent it from falling to the soft soil. Etta hated December weather, with the cool temperatures forcing her to keep her cloak pulled tight around her body. Her hands grew red and numb as she struggled toward the carriage.
Uncle Jack waited beside the coach, finally snapping at the driver to assist Etta with her belongings, then reaching out to aid her inside. She stumbled forward, grabbing a seat across from him. To her, he felt like a stranger, even though they were bound by blood. Her father and Jack had not seen one another in years. She did not know the exact reason why they’d had a falling out and her father, even on his deathbed, had not uttered the words to tell her what her fate would be.
In fact, her father had not given her any indication that Uncle Jack would be her guardian. It had been the lawyer who arrived that had informed her she now belonged to a relative—along with her dowry and the house. She herself had nothing.
“I am sorry to inform you, Miss Waters, but your father wished for his brother to have the house and to look after his only daughter. His will states that Mr. Jack Waters is the sole heir, and your dowry will be paid to a husband of his choosing.”
“You can’t be serious,” Etta had said, her heart slamming against the walls of her chest. “My father has not spoken to Uncle Jack since I was a child. When was the will drawn up?” Perhaps he had not got around to making the necessary changes.
“That does not matter, Miss Waters.” The lawyer had sighed, shifting his hat slightly atop his bulbaceous head. His eyebrows were thick and met just above the line to his nose. A few wisps of gray hair edged from the gentleman’s nostrils, making him rather unappealing for a man a decade younger than her father. “I know this is troubling for you, as you are of an age to wed, but perhaps this is for the best. You have spent many years caring for your dying father, is that not correct?”
Etta did not agree that it was for the best, but yes, she had stayed at her father’s bedside while he had withered away, the ghost of what eventually killed him dragging him between life and death for years. “Yes, I stayed with him. I was his nurse.” Though she did not know much about being a nurse, she had acquired enough skills to feed him with a spoon and roll him around often to keep him from acquiring bedsores. She had carefully utilized all information provided by the doctor who had visited him twice a week.
“Just as you cared for your father, your uncle will care for you,” the lawyer had said. His no nonsense tone told her that arguing would do little good. “I am sure he will be anxious to find you a suitable husband. Let your uncle take care of you, Miss Waters. It is what your father wanted.”
The ride to her uncle’s estate was cloaked in silence. The clank of the wheels and the horses’ hooves pounding the earth were the only sounds that reached Etta’s ears. She did not know what would become of her when she set foot inside his home. Would he expect her to cook and clean for him? Did he intend to marry her off immediately? She folded her hands together in her lap, anxiously waiting for her uncle to say something—anything. She was met with silence.
“We’re here.” His voice seemed to carry with the wind as she stared out of the carriage window. They were approaching a house larger than her father’s by far. The three story structure sent a shudder down her spine; the way its dark, gray stones loomed high above. It towered over Etta, making her feel incredibly small and unwanted due to its massive size. The lawn extended as far as the eye could see, perfectly manicured, with groundskeepers likely caring for the land. Etta doubted her uncle went outside and pruned the bushes, ever. He didn’t seem the type to get his hands dirty, at least when it came to the soil outside. She certainly couldn’t speak for his character.
“What is your profession, Uncle Jack?” It was a rude question, but she could not fathom how he could afford such a luxurious home and lifestyle.
“I am a businessman,” he said. His answer was short and to the point, offering no hint of what that meant exactly.
Etta sat in silence as the driver pulled the carriage around to the front of the home. Once they’d drawn to a stop, he came around to open the door. He offered his hand, and Etta grabbed it, as well as her satchel.
When her eyes went toward her trunk, he smiled. “Allow me,” he said, taking her trunk up to the door.
The front door swung open wide, and an older woman who could have easily been Uncle Jack’s wife opened the door. “You must be Miss Henrietta,” she said. “Here, I shall have your belongings brought to your room. Remove your cloak and then join us for dinner.”
“Please call me Etta,” she said, correcting the woman who hadn’t given her name. Etta followed her inside the house and slipped out of her cloak, leaving it in the foyer—the house was warm and comfortable enough that she didn’t need it. The house smelled funny, though, like an old man’s sock drawer. The scent tickled her nose in the most unappealing way. She opted to breathe through her mouth and prayed she might soon be able to open a window to let some fresh air into her new home.
Etta’s eyes moved over the bare walls. Not a single painting had been hung up, which was a peculiar sight for a girl who had grown up with a love of art. The candlelight reflected off the walls, revealing a lackluster gray color, most unappealing to the eye. She stared up at the high-vaulted ceilings. The stairwell climbed around the room, and she swallowed nervously. She would surely get lost before the night was over. Already she felt overwhelmed and saddened, missing her father more than she had since the moment he had passed. Unwilling to let her uncle see the despair in her eyes, she bit her bottom lip and sucked in the emotion, pretending to be pleased with the arrangement.
The woman pointed a firm finger upstairs to the driver, even though he seemed to know his way.
Etta stood in the foyer, hungry and praying her stomach wouldn’t rumble and embarrass her. The last meal she’d eaten had been that morning, and had consisted of porridge. Food had been scarce lately, due to the lack of money since her father’s passing. She had nothing, it had all been given to her uncle, which meant she had to trust he would take care of her. She hoped dinner would be soon, given the hour, though she was quite unsure where the dining room was located. Would they serve anything she might find appealing?
Uncle Jack followed her inside, stepping on the mat before he shed his coat and hat. “This way, Henrietta.” He must have sensed her unease. “We shall be having company this evening. Seeing as how you are of legal age to marry, there is someone I would like you to meet; a business associate of mine, Philip Hartley.”
Etta swallowed the lump in her throat. Business associate? Did that mean he was as old as her uncle? She did not dare voice her concerns. Jack had been kind enough to take her in, but it was clear he did not want her to stay for long. It was not as though she desired to be there either. They would have to make do with one another, for now.