Millcreek Hundred, 1827
I climbed the stairs as quietly as I could, stepping over the third from the bottom to avoid the squeak. I held my knife ready in case Mistress was awake and I had to move fast.
As soon as I saw her I knew something was wrong.
Mistress lay on her back, eyes closed. She was quite dead. Her skin was cool but not cold. Her hand, when I lifted it to find a pulse, flopped back onto the counterpane. She had been dead only a short time.
I pulled back the bed clothes and found bruises around her neck. Someone has strangled her and then straightened the bed clothes to hide any struggle.
My first thought was that poor Mistress had been sent to her maker; then I realized that was why I was there myself.
I slipped my now useless knife into my pocket and left the room.
To my knowledge Mistress and I were the only people in the house. That was why I had chosen it as the perfect time to kill her.
The final indignity had come early yesterday afternoon when I packed my belonging and left the farm.
She had smiled at me, wished me well and handed me the letter I was to give to my next employer. I was not supposed to open it, but I did.
December 23, 1827
Ella is conscientious but slow witted. It takes her a great deal of time to grasp the simplest situation.Once she finally learns a chore she performsit with moderate skill. She reads poorly and does simple sums. How was I to give such a letter to anyone considering taking me on? It was bad enough that she had sent me packing for no reason two days before Christmas, but this letter would be better used to warm my hands than to convince an employer to hire me.
I had kept Master’s account books for the last five years and I knew a few things about where his money went. Mistress had been extravagant and impulsive. She liked silk and fine china. Her kitchen held more exotic spices than any of the ships docked in Newport. She was adept at explaining away these expenses. The dress was cut down from an old one, the china bought from a neighbor.
I was so angry when I read the letter that I vowed to come back Christmas afternoon when Master always visits his mother. I knew the other servants would disappear as soon as the phaeton with the flashy chestnut headed for the turnpike.
I had intended to do the deed and leave the way I had come, through the snowy woods along the creek.
I didn’t think I was in any position to cry out against the person who had done my job for me.
Angry as I was, I had decided when I picked up the knife that no one would die for my sin. If someone were falsely accused, I would come forward with my story. If I were discovered, I would face my punishment with grace.
I was curious to know who might have done it. I sat down on the top step to think.
I heard the back door creek open. Someone was coming across the court yard from the kitchen.
I stood up and snatched my spare handkerchief from my pocket.
Lucy came up the stairs with a porcelain tea pot and bone china cup on a tray.
“What are you doing here?” she asked when she saw me.
“I left my kerchief.” I held it in front of her face. “And you?”
“Mistress will want her tea when she wakes.”
“No chance of that,” I pointed to the still form on the bed. “Someone strangled her.”
She looked at me as though she thought I had done it. I held up my hands in protest, hands that were too small to have made the marks on Mistress’ neck. “Let’s go back to the kitchen, drink the tea ourselves, and figure out what to do next.”
She handed me the tray and touched Mistress’ cheek, perhaps to make sure she was really dead. I would have expected her to be more upset, but she looked relieved. She opened the window and poured the tea into the herb garden below.
“I don’t think we would have enjoyed the tea,” she said once we were settled in the kitchen. “It might not have killed her but it would have made her wish she were dead.”
“That’s three of us,” I said. While she brewed another pot of tea, I showed her the knife in my pocket.
“If you didn’t do it who do you think did?” she asked.
“It was someone with large hands, most likely a man. Joshua may have done it. He hated us calling him her pet. He did it as a Christmas gift to the rest of us.”
Lucy chuckled. “Many’s the time he sat in this very kitchen and told me how much he abhored her.”
“But Joshua is always so quiet. I thought he liked going out with her all the time. If he didn’t like it, how come he didn’t tell us?”
“I think I am the only one he told. He would come back and sit in this kitchen and list all the stupid things she had done, how he had to fetch and carry for her. If something went wrong, it was always his fault. Though how he could have been at fault if a merchant charged her more than she was willing to pay, I’m sure I don’t know.”
We were silent for a few moments as we sipped the tea. “Maybe the Master himself did it and has gone to tell his mother.”
I thought about her suggestion for a bit. “Or Carl, because she sold his favorite horse. He had begun to pay Master a bit from his wages. She said there was no record, and she refused to give him back the money. I myself made the note each time he gave Master the money, but the horse was gone.”
“Do you think she let you go because you kept the books and knew too much about her?”
"I reckon so.”
“Maybe it was Jenny,” she said. “Mistress made sure Joseph Dixon would never call on her again. Jenny has big strong hands.”
We were silent again as we finished the tea and set the fine china cups in the dishpan to be washed later.
“What should we do?” she asked at length.
“Summon the master.”
The tall case clock in the front hall was striking ten when we finally heard the clop clop of shod hooves in the lane. Lucy hid in the kitchen with the excuse that Master would want to eat something since he was called back so suddenly. I took him up the stairs to the chamber and pulled back the bed clothes so he could see the bruises on Mistress’ neck.
“Send Lucy for the parson. Can you wash her and dress her for burial? Something fine with a high neck.”
“Yes, if you wish me to.”
“This, then, will be her final lie, that she died naturally in her sleep.”