Lady of Milkweed Manor
- Thursday, January 31, 2008
I am dreadfully sorry for it. I am. I suppose Father's anger is right and just. But it does not feel like it. If only you were here to soften him. To accompany me.
But her mother was dead. So Charlotte walked alone.
* * *
A single knock brought to the door a thin, plain-faced woman a few years Charlotte's senior who quickly led her from the entry hall, through a large dining room, and into a small study with the words, "The matron shall be in directly." And, indeed, not two minutes later, a severe but attractive woman in her forties wearing a dark dress and tightly bound hair walked in, her officious air proclaiming her title. The woman's stern appearance brought Charlotte some disquiet, but when she settled her gaze on Charlotte, there was grim kindness in her expression.
"I am Mrs. Moorling, matron of the Manor Home. May I be of assistance?"
Charlotte arose on shaky legs and pressed a letter from the London solicitor and a bank note into the woman's hand. This was her only reply.
Mrs. Moorling slipped the money into her desk drawer without comment or expression, then glanced briefly at the letter the solicitor had written at her uncle's request. "I see. I'm afraid we haven't a private room available at the moment, but you shall have one as soon as possible. In the meantime, you will need to share."
"Your name is—" the woman scanned the letter—"Miss ... Smith?"
"Yes, Smith. Charlotte Smith."
Mrs. Moorling paused only a moment before continuing, again with no change in her expression, though Charlotte had the distinct impression the woman knew she was lying about her name. "Before I can admit you, there are a few questions I need to ask."
"Is this your first occasion availing yourself upon such an institution?"
"Yes, of course."
"Not 'of course,' Miss Smith. There are many who do not learn from experience. I must tell you that the Manor Home for Unwed Mothers is a place for deserving unmarried women with their first child. Our goal is to rehabilitate our patients for a morally upright life."
Charlotte looked down, feeling the heat of embarrassment snake up her neck and pulse in her ears. She heard the sound of paper rustling and knew the matron was again reading the letter.
"This letter attests to your character and background, though I haven't the time to verify it at the moment."
"Mrs. Moorling. I assure you. I have never been in such a predicament before ... never conceived myself in such a predicament."
Poor choice of words, Charlotte thought grimly.
She forced herself to meet the older woman's eyes. Mrs. Moorling looked directly at her for a moment, then nodded.
"Gibbs will find a place for you to sleep."
* * *
Gibbs, the plain, painfully thin young woman, led her back through the entry hall and to the right, to the street-facing wing of the L-shaped building. Hurrying to keep up, Charlotte followed her through the long corridor to a door midway down its length. Charlotte looked into the dim room—once a portion of a fine drawing room, perhaps—with a high ceiling and broad hearth. The bedchamber held only one narrow bed, the width less than Charlotte's height. A small table with a brass candlestick sat on either side of the bed, and one chair stood against the nearest wall. Three simple wooden chests lined the opposite wall, no doubt used to store the belongings of the room's temporary lodgers.
"You'll be sharing with Mae and Becky. Both slight girls—you're a fortunate one. They must be off visiting in one of the other rooms. They'll be in by and by. We have a water closet below stairs. But there's usually a wait for it. Chamber pots under the bed for late-night emergencies. We know how you lying-in girls get toward the end. You're responsible for emptying your own, at least until your ninth month or so. Our physicians believe activity is healthy. All the girls have duties, long as you're able. You'll get your assignment at breakfast tomorrow. Eight o'clock. Any questions?"
Charlotte's mind was whirling with them, but she only shook her head.
"Good night, then." Gibbs let herself from the room.
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