Chapter 03 – The Warm Welcome

The ground was very slippery and I had to be careful not to fall. The wet pebble ground didn’t make it any easier. I ran as fast as I could round the side of the house toward the front. When I finally got to the front door it felt like the rain had soaked me till the bone. Shivering from the cold rain I stood before the front door. I hesitated. Images of all the possible ways this could end flashed before my eyes. I closed my eyes, took a step forward and pounded with my fist upon the door. An hour or maybe a second later the door opened slowly. A girl with black crafty pinned up hair and a servants dress smiled at me.

‘We’ve been expecting you,’ the girl said still smiling. ‘Come in, come in. You must be cold.’ She took a step back to let me in. Full of confusion I stepped inside. The girl quickly closed the door behind me. The hall which I had just entered was nothing like I had ever seen before. The walls were double the height of normal ones and were decorated with beautiful paintings. Two beautiful marble staircases twisted their ways upwards to a balcony on the second floor.

‘If you please miss,’ the girl said and motioned that she wanted me to follow her. I followed her into a new room. It had a beautiful fire place and I could barely contain myself from jumping in front of it to warm myself. The girl turned to me again. She smiled.

‘If you could please wait here. I’ll be back in a moment.’ she said. I nodded. I looked at her as she left the room. As soon as she closed the door behind her I ran toward the fireplace. I put my hands out in front of me and kept them as close to the fire as I could bare. The warmth slowly seemed to embrace me. As soon as my hands and arms started to feel (alive) again I turned around to warm my back. I pulled up my knees and put my arms around them.

They had been expecting me. Why had they been expecting me? Had word gone out that we had gone missing? That we had escaped? Had news travelled that fast? But then again, we did stay in that shed for some days. Maybe they had sent out riders. Would they really do that for a few stupid orphan girls? Maybe they would. How else could they have been expecting me? What would they do to me? Sent me back? Let me stay until they would come to get me? And then?

My thoughts were interrupted when the door opened again. The girl was back and she brought someone with her. I quickly got up. She had brought an older woman with her. Her face showed many signs of aging, but I could still see that she had been quite pretty back in the day. The lady took a step forward.

‘Good morning miss,’ she said with a warm and welcoming voice. No one had ever called me miss before. ‘My name is Madame Norris. Welcome to House Howard. You are welcome to stay here for as long as you need. Would you like a towel?’ she grabbed a towel from the stack the girl was carrying and reached out to me. ‘Errr… Thanks.’ I said. I took the towel from her and started dapping my hair with it.

‘Could we get you anything else?’ I hesitated. She was so polite. Was it all just a trick? Suddenly I felt my stomach twist. ‘Er, might I er, maybe something to eat and drink? I asked. Madame Norris smiled at me. ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘Sadly, you’ve missed breakfast, but we’ll see what we can do for you.’ She bowed to me. ‘I don’t need much, just some leftovers will be fine.’ I said quickly. Madame Norris smiled again and left the room. ‘Would you like another towel?’ the girl asked. ‘I’m fine, thank you,’ I answered hesitantly. The girl looked over her shoulder to see if the door behind Madame Norris was really shut.

She smiled. ‘So, where are your friends?’ she asked anxiously. ‘Friends?’ I asked. The warm fuzzy feeling that had just been wrapped around my body, left instantly. ‘I don’t…’ i stammered. ‘Or are they you’re sisters?’ the girl went on. ‘I…’ I didn’t know how to react. How did she know? Where they in danger? Could I trust these people? Apparently my thoughts could be read from my face because the girl said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re safe here. You can tell us.’ I bit my lip. ‘You know what, I’ll introduce myself first, I think I’ve forgotten about that before. So sorry about that. My name is…’ But before she could finish her sentence the door behind her opened again and Madame Norris entered the room with a platter filled with deliciously looking snacks and drinks. ‘Here you go,’ she said while she put the platter on the table in front of the fireplace. ‘We will let you enjoy your meal in peace. When you are finished, just ring that bell over there and we will come to pick it up,’ Madame Norris said and she pointed at a little golden bell that was put on the platter. I nodded at her. Madame Norris smiled and made a little bow, the girl did the same, and they left the room again.

The food was delicious. The taste was something I had never experienced before. Half of the time I didn’t even know what it was that I was eating, but I really couldn’t care less. The food we used to get at the orphanage was always old and cold and undercooked. Most of the time the Witch had made way to little, causing most of us to almost feel hungrier afterwards. I ate as much as I could, and then rang the bell softly. Not but a second later Madame Norris and the girl entered the room again. ‘Did you enjoy your meal?’ Madame asked. ‘Yes, very much so, thank you,’ I answered. The girl took the platter from the table and carried it out of the room. ‘Is there anything else we can do for you?’ I hesitated. Even though they had been so very kind to me I still wasn’t quite sure if I could trust them. ‘If you’d like, you could stay the night here,’ she encouraged. ‘It’s free, and you can stay for as long as you need to,’ Madame smiled at me. I looked out of the window. It was still raining. Out there it would be hard to survive. We’d had gone through almost all our food and we had to be careful not to get sick. Staying here and waiting for the rain to go away while strengthening ourselves was probably our best chance. Unless the police came knocking of course. But would they really? And if so, would these nice people really rat us out? I sighed. ‘Yes,’ I decided, ‘yes, I think I would like to stay here for a few nights, if that is okay,’ I felt my head gone red. Madame Norris smiled. The door opened again and the girl had returned. This time she wasn’t carrying anything.

‘Emma, would you please show our new guest to her room. Guest room one would be fine. After that I would like you to go fetch Ida and Hannah and tell them to get the other two girls from the shed. The poor children must be so cold. Give them the same welcome as our first guest and they can be put in guest room two and three. If there are any problems you can find me in the kitchen,’ I was shocked. How did everyone already know about Lilly and Julia? Maybe it was all just a trick? ‘Good day miss…?’ Madame Norris asked. I hadn’t introduced myself yet, but before I could think of another name to give them I heard my one voice speak ‘Ava,’. Madame s smiled again. ‘Good day miss Ava, and enjoy your stay here at House Howard,’. She bowed and walked out of the door. The girl stayed behind.

The girl, who’s name apparently was Emma, smiled at me. ‘If you’d follow me, please.’ Emma said. I nodded and followed her through the door where I came from. The girl led me back to the magnificent hall where we came through before. ‘Welcome to House Howard. The House was build by Sir Frederic Howard I himself in 1553, though he did not finish it ’till 1560. The House had been in the family ever since. The rooms are decorated only the best and unique furniture in style and age. House Howard counts many rooms, with 25 bedrooms of which are 7 guest rooms and..’ I felt myself started to drift off and found my mind with Lilly and Julia. Would Julia already be up? Were they still waiting for me to come back, to come and fetch them? Or had they already gone? Emma led me up the stairs to the first floor and blabbed on about the House and it’s layout and history. When we got to the second floor I vaguely heard Emma say, ‘… and so that’s when House Howard became a home for poor girls without education or prospects. Now it gives a home and a future for girls from all around the country. Though but few girls are accepted and most girls are chosen by Lady Howard herself. Atlas, that is how I got chosen.’ Emma straightened her back and looked at me proudly.

‘Er, sorry, chosen for what exactly?’ I asked hesitantly. ‘Chosen to get educated of course! Have you been listening at all?’ Emma said and she frowned. ‘You can get educated in three different arts: Artisan, Courtesan or Lady of the house. Each has it own course but some subjects are shared, especially in the first few years. As an artisan you learn how to be pretty, how to seduce and entertain. You are a companion to your Lord or Lady. As a courtesan you learn how to be smart and advise on certain matters. You are your Lords or Ladies right hand in matters of business and partnership. As a lady of the house you learn how to run a house and be head of staff. You are more than just your Lords or Ladies cleaning lady, you are also their most trusted and valued member of the house.’ Emma said proudly.

‘And you learn to be all that here?’ I asked her. ‘Yes, well like I said. You get all kinds of subjects which cover the lot but after a few years you can specialize on what you want.’ Emma explained. ‘And it’s all free?’ ‘It is, but there are only about 2 girl accepted every year and they are mostly chosen by Lady Howard herself. Some parents apply for their girls to be let in but most of the times they’re just picked of the street in a manner of speaking. Though some girls are literally picked of the street. Nina for instance. Ida was taken in when her mother came knocking here for work. She had been freed out of slavery but could’t find any new work. Of course they couldn’t offer her work, but they could take Ida and educate her for a better future. Victoria and Carina have been picked at some sort of grand ball. Isabelle is the daughter of the Lord from the next estate. Rose is a faraway cousin I believe and Hannah… To be honest I don’t know where Hannah came from. She might have told me or I’ve never asked. I can’t recall. Emma frowned.

‘So there are about what 7…’ I said. ‘Eight with me included.’ Emma finished my sentence. A moment of silence fell. I felt Emma look at me so I decided to take this moment to look around me a bit. Even though this was the first floor, everything looked just as beautiful as the ground floor. It was not as spacious at the ground floor, but still. The hallway in which we stood was quite narrow. With a balcony on our right where we could see into the hall of the ground floor. The hallway in which we stood stretched out way further than I had expected. I could see a few doors on the side, but couldn’t quite make up the signs that were hung upon them.

‘This is the first floor,’ Emma said. This is where our guests stay. You are free to go around as you please but we ask you not to go up to the second or third floor. ‘What’s there?’ I asked her curiously. ‘The second floor is the space where the Howard family stays. That is private. The third floor is the floor of the staff and the students. Which is also private.’ answered Emma. I nodded. ‘I will now show you to your room.’ she said, and I heard she had put her tour guide voice back up again. She led me to the end of the hallway to the door on the far right. Guest room 1 was engraved in golden letters into a wooden board hung on the door. ‘Here you are,’ Emma said and she opened the door for me. I stepped inside and held my breath. The most beautiful room I had ever seen looked back at me in all it’s beauty. A double bed with curtains and soft pillows spread across. A small couch and fireplace to sit by, with a stunning wooden engraved table. Another door at the other side of the room also had a small plate hanging up on it. Bathroom it said.

‘I hope everything is in order. If you ever need something you can pull the cord by the bed over there. Please don’t light or put out the fireplace yourself. As you can see you also have your own bathroom you can use to clean yourself up. You can lock your door from the inside, but the staff also has a key if needed. Lunch will be served at 12, so you’ll be picked up again by then. If there is nothing else I can do for you I have to be on my way to alert some of the other staff members so we can welcome your friends.’ Emma said and she smiled. Still overwhelmed by everything that was going on, i smiled back at her, feeling a little out of place. Emma bowed lightly and left the room.

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