The Quietness

When fifteen-year-old Queenie escapes from the squalid slums of nineteenth-century London, she has no idea about the dangers of the dark world she is about to become embroiled in. Initially thrilled at being taken on as a maid for the seemingly respectable Waters sisters, Queenie comes to realise that something is very wrong with the dozens of strangely silent babies being 'adopted' into the household. Meanwhile, lonely and unloved sixteen-year-old Ellen is delighted when her handsome and charming young cousin Jacob is sent to live with her family. She thinks she has finally found a man to fall in love with and rely on, but when Jacob cruelly betrays her she finds herself once again at the mercy of her cold-hearted father. Soon the girls' lives become irrevocably entwined in this tension-filled drama. THE QUIETNESS is a novel of friendship and trust in the darkest of settings.

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6. Ellen

Mary had finished putting Mother back to bed and was airing the blue guest room and removing dust sheets. I walked past her and along the corridor to Mother’s room. It was dark inside. The curtains were drawn and the air was musty with the sour odour of bird droppings. My eyes adjusted to the light and I saw the small hump of Mother lying in the centre of her bed, the covers drawn up to her chin.

‘Is that you, Mary?’ she whispered. ‘Fetch me my shawl.’ ‘No, Mother, it is me,’ I said. ‘It is Ellen.’
‘What do you want, girl?’ she hissed. ‘Go and get Mary

for me.’
‘I just want to talk to you for a moment,’ I said. ‘Where

is your shawl? I will fetch it for you.’
‘Talk?’ she said. ‘Talk? Can you not see I am indisposed?

Get Mary now.’
‘But Mother, it will only take a moment. I want to ask

you about Aunt Isabella, and . . . and Jacob Grey.’
‘How dare you!’ she spluttered. ‘This has nothing to do

with you. Now leave me in peace.’
‘But I have an aunt I know nothing about! And a cousin!

Why have they never been spoken of before?’

Mother coughed; dry little barks, and she waved me away with her hand.

‘Get me Mary,’ she croaked.

‘But Mother,’ I persisted, ‘I have a right to know about my family!’

‘You,’ she whispered, seemingly exhausted from her coughing, ‘have no right to know anything. Now fetch Mary!’

She closed her eyes and I knew it was of no use to ask again. What was wrong with me that she could not love me? I swallowed hard to hold back my tears and left the room, daring to close the door hard behind me. Mother’s birds started squawking and flapping and I thought that even though they were caged, at least they were loved.

I hurried back to the guest room where Mary was smoothing the counterpane on the newly made-up bed.

‘Mother is asking for you,’ I told her. She turned to go and I put my hand on her arm to stop her. ‘Mary. What can you tell me of my Aunt Isabella and my cousin?’ I felt her stiffen under my touch.

‘I . . . I . . . I don’t truly know, miss,’ she said. ‘I think it best that you don’t ask me.’

‘Do not be silly, Mary, what is there to hide? I will find out soon enough. Jacob Grey will be here in a few days.’

‘I know, miss, but it’s something that’s never spoken of. It is a family matter and I don’t wish to lose my position by talking out of turn.’

‘That would never happen,’ I said. ‘Please, just tell me what you know.’

‘Miss,’ she sighed, ‘all I know is there were words between your father and his sister. Harsh words, and many years ago. Her name has never been spoken since. Now let me get on and don’t you breathe a word.’

I nodded and let go of her arm. She walked briskly out of the room. I watched her go and wondered what I would ever do without her. When all the governesses came and went over the years, the cold, distant women who taught me my letters and how to keep quiet, Mary was my only comfort. She laughed at my attempts to speak French, smuggled pieces of cake to my room and listened to me as I read her passages from my favourite books.

‘You’ll be the most beautiful bride in London one of these days, miss,’ she told me as she brushed my hair at bedtimes.

‘Will my husband be handsome?’ I asked her. ‘And will he be rich?’

‘But of course, miss, he’ll be the most handsome, richest man ever.’

‘And will we have children?’
‘Hoards of ’em,’ she said with a wink.
‘Then you will have to come and live with us, won’t

you? To look after us all.’
‘That I will, miss, that I will,’ she would say.
I looked around the guest room: at the new cake of soap

on the wash stand and the plumped-up pillows on the bed. I hoped the days would pass quickly and that Jacob Grey would arrive safely.

 

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