The day had been especially cruel.
Not only did the bitter cold nip at my nose and fingers ‘til I could not feel the tips but Mrs. Foster the housekeeper had denied me hot chocolate.
“You’ll spoil your dinner,” she said and perhaps she was right. All the same, I felt overwhelmed with misery upon entering the house. At least outside I could hear the agonized moaning of the winds. Inside the house there was silence.
Mother had died last winter and I had maintained a bitter hatred against pneumonia ever since. Father allowed himself to be absorbed by business. He often stayed out late, but even when he did come home he normally cooped himself up in his study. And he always left very early.
Private school was a bit of comfort for me. After mother died all the teachers took it upon themselves to see how I was doing quite regularly, especially Mrs. Bentley.
Mrs. Bentley would lean over my desk during study hour, look me in the eye and say “Are you well today, Miss Mason?” To which I would say “Yes, Mrs. Bentley, I am quite well. No pneumonia for me!” And Mrs. Bentley would reply with an emphatic “Good!”
After classes, I would sit in her classroom while she graded and practice my penmanship. The silence of writing reigned supreme. And yet it was not an uneasy silence that dared one haughtily to leave it unbroken. This was a silence of comfort, that at any moment one of us might read aloud a quote or phase filled with philosophy, comfort, or humor. The best were always a mixture of the three.
“So what are you writing now, Miss Mason?” she’d asked earlier that day.
I waited to speak as my pen arched over the page finishing its line.
“What kind of story?”
My eyes fixed themselves upon the page.
“A story about a girl who lost her mother to pneumonia,” I paused. “It’s not very good though.”
“Why not?” Mrs. Bentley asked with arms folded restfully upon her desk, obviously at a stopping point with her grading.
“Because there’s too much of me in this story,” I replied. “I don’t like it. It’s unsafe.”
Mrs. Bentley looked at me quizzically.
“What makes you think writing yourself into your own story makes it bad or unsafe?” She asked.
I shrugged. Words that had flooded my mind up to that moment escaped me.
“We always write ourselves into our own stories,” she answered. “That’s what makes them real.”
I contented myself with her answer and continued writing.
It was that afternoon we received an unfortunate interruption.
Not more than a sentence further in my story and I looked up to see John the coachman at the door. He always drove father.
“Yes, sir?” I replied.
“Your father is waiting in the coach. I’ve been instructed to take you home.”
I nodded and hurriedly gathered my things. A coach ride with father was rare.
“Good day, Mrs. Bentley!” I shouted upon leaving.
She smiled gently over her spectacles.
“Good day, dear child.”
The warmth from school seeped out between the folds of my scarf and coat collar. In my excitement, I’d thrown them on too hastily and immediately felt the cold.
John carried my satchel and assisted my getting in. Breath turned white even inside the darkened carriage. Father steeled himself inside as a man facing his duty against the cold.
“Good day, Father.”
His nearly immobile head dipped quickly.
“Good day, Olivia.”
John set my satchel beside me.
“Thank you, John,” I said.
A smile passed across his face even as father’s dipped in disapproval. A glance passed between them and John closed the carriage door.
I clutched my bag eagerly to keep warm and tucked the thick woolen folds of my dress into the burgundy velvet to protect myself from the residual cold.
“We will be home soon,” Father said. I nodded hopefully even as the cold shook me within.
“Do not speak to the servants that way, Olivia.”
“John is my paid subordinate. I am at liberty to call him by his first name. To you, he is ‘sir’ or ‘Mr. Owens.’ Is that clear?”
My stomach shook within me but it was not from the cold.
My father’s stone cold face turned towards the window and stayed that way all the way home. I hugged my satchel tighter as my breath moistened the open folds of my scarf. What warmth was left seeped out my collar. I dug my fingers into the fine burgundy velvet as the chill cut in against me. Motionless with cold, I watched the people along the street.
The townspeople were bundled up and most were hurrying along their way. Once we left town, I watched as we passed the trees, freshly coated with snow. The few evergreens were the only color that gave me hope for spring.
Soon enough we came to the house. Father exited first, then John helped me out of the carriage. I clung to my satchel for warmth as the frigid air followed us into the entryway. Father methodically removed his coat and hat, then proceeded to his study with single-minded focus. He had served in the military before I was born and the discipline of it had never softened.
It was then that I asked Mrs. Foster for hot chocolate.
“Certainly not. You’ll spoil your dinner.”
That was the final blow. Mrs. Foster returned her busy self to the overwhelmingly important issue of dinner while hot tears began to wet my eyes. I ran past the grandfather clock and up the stairs. Hurrying to my room, I flung my satchel onto my bed and ran to the corner. Squeezing between the wall and my wardrobe, I finally let hot tears stream down my face as the cold within me began to melt. Arms pressed in on both sides, I let myself sob with sorrow in quiet safety.