Her first impression of Alane Gylmyn was not promising. He was a tall, thin man with a shock of black hair falling into a white face with two wide, staring eyes—almost comical—and a drooping chin. He looked alarmed to see a pretty young woman standing on his doorstep, looking up at him with a nervous, but obviously determined, face.
“May I see Madam Gylmyn, please?”
“Why, why, yes of course. May, may I get your name please?”
“Alyssum Bourne, from Saltersgate.”
“Saltersgate, you say. You’ve come quite a long way then?”
“Yes, sir, I have. May I hitch my horse?”
“Of course, yes, please let me help you.”
Cecily smiled for the first time in days as the awkward young man took Grane’s reins from her hand and led him away, leaving her to go inside alone.
The house was pleasant, whitewashed, simple. Though this was presumably the home of a “fallen” family, it was far and away more modern than Cecily had ever seen, even in Granton Castle. A small fireplace was set into one corner of the room with a tidy row of ornaments gracing the mantle and a neat little fire burning away inside. The simple chairs, doors, and tables were all immaculate, the rugs on the well-swept floor had been painstakingly straightened, and even the shafts of sunlight shining through spotless windows had the decency to be an impeccable white. This room, and presumably all rooms beyond and above it, was utterly irreproachable, trim, and orderly. Cecily ran her finger along the top of a tiny side table and wondered why this family needed a maid, when she looked up to see that a gray figure had silently appeared in the room.
“Good morning. Are you here to answer for the position?”
Cecily locked her quivering legs and got out the words, “I am here to apply for work as a maid.”
The woman was obviously a close relation to the man who had opened the door, they had both been painted with the same unflinching brush. This person (whom Cecily would soon learn to call Muire) was spare of frame, very pale, and dressed in the most efficient manner possible. She sat down in one of the hard wooden chairs and gestured for Cecily to take a seat. What followed was a battery of questions, delivered in a clipped and decisive manner, that made the cottager girl from Whitcrowe squirm helplessly in her seat.
When the interview ended Cecily remained seated, looking at Muire’s bowed head as the woman scribbled something on a thin sheet of paper, silent as the grave. Finally, she raised her ashy eyes to Cecily’s face and folded the paper, running her fingernail down the fold so that it flattened in a perfect half. “I will have to see what Mother has to say.”
As soon as the words left her mouth a door opened to reveal a dark hallway beyond, and the figure of a bent little woman. This woman was also thin and white, but with the tiniest spark of color in her crinkly cheeks; she walked with the aid of a gnarled stick, but it didn’t seem to inhibit her movement much because she hobbled rapidly over to Cecily as soon as she saw her and leaned in close with her bird-like face. “So this is our new maid, Muire? Quite pretty, isn’t she, I wouldn’t have believed it. Didn’t think God made girls like that nowadays. So pleased to meet you dearie, what did you say your name was?”
“I, I didn’t. It’s Alyssum—”
“Ah, alyssum. That’s the sort of flower you put in rockeries isn’t it? Lovely name dear, our garden used to be bursting with alyssum, that is until Muire pulled it all up and put in those dreadful weedy things.”
Muire Gylmyn looked like a candle wick that’s just been doused with cold water, practically dripping with outraged self-importance and all but glaring at her mother from behind lowered lashes. Cecily felt like congratulating the garrulous old woman.