Even knowing the children as she did, she was unprepared for the sight that greeted her as she entered the room.
The Master would not be pleased.
Smoke filled the room. It was almost enough to nullify the ghastly odor of the raccoon. Almost. Georgia rubbed her eyes, trying to lessen the sting. “Eudora?”
“Georgia! Oh, thank heavens!”
Georgia lifted her skirts, stepping carefully through the cloud of hickory smoke, lest she step on George and squash the other side of his face. Her stomach twisted at the thought of that milky white eye exploding beneath the weight of her buckled shoe.
“Where are you?” Georgia found her way to the fireplace and opened the chimney damper. She cursed the children silently, blaming Lionel for this latest act of mischief.
“Near the Master’s chair.”
Georgia followed the sound of Eudora’s voice. The smoke was so thick that she didn’t see Eudora or the wingback chair until she stumbled into it, nearly toppling into Eudora’s lap. “Eudora, what happened? Where are the children?”
“The little brutes threw something onto the fire and before I could grab it, the flames took hold and the smoke was so thick I couldn’t see a thing. I was looking for the wash basin to put the fire out.”
Georgia spotted the basin. She tossed its liquid contents onto the lapping flames, extinguishing them. The smoke cleared and Eudora and Georgia both sighed. Now the house not only reeked of death, but the Master’s southwest chamber walls were covered in black soot. Soot on walls was much, much worse than mud on a pinafore.
Georgia, hoping the children hadn’t burned the Master’s private journals, stepped close to the fireplace. A large black pelt, probably from the Master’s own collection of furs, lay atop the charred wood. Had Georgia not been so angry with the children, she would have realized before touching the pelt, that it was the re-animated raccoon. The thing shrieked as Georgia grabbed its tail. She tossed it aside. “Oh, that is it!”
“That is ghastly!” Eudora covered her mouth with the back of her hand and rushed from the room. To fetch another wash basin, Georgia hoped.
Georgia grabbed a linen sack used for laundering and stuffed the raccoon inside. It wriggled somehow still alive. Smoke and the strong scent of burnt hair and flesh seeped from the pores in the fabric. There would be no more addressing the children this afternoon. Georgia saw no point in conversing with the little monsters, as she knew it would do no good. They would simply find more appalling ways to unravel her. Instead, she would focus on her chores which, now with the walls needing to be scrubbed, were going to take every bit of concentration and effort she could muster.
Georgia didn’t know what to do with the raccoon. It seemed cruel to simply toss it out with the kitchen scraps though she was sure the hogs would eat anything, but even crueler to allow it to continue this charade of life. For the time being, she decided to dip the sack in water to cool, and placed it outside the kitchen door on the brick path.
She stood in the doorway a moment, gazing out past the holly bushes. Something moved in the field just beyond. Or had it? She’d never seen them before and had no idea what to look for. She’d never cared to know, as long as they stayed away.
The dark sky made it impossible to estimate the hour. The Master hadn’t returned home so Georgia knew it couldn’t have been later than four o’clock. Many of the strawberry tarts had already been taken, but there were still enough to keep the diners busy until she could rid the house of the smell that George had left behind. It would be hours before she’d have to lay down the next batch.
Eudora promised she’d care for the southwest chamber so long as Georgia tended to the attic and washing the children before diner. Aside from the children, that suited Georgia just fine. There was something about the southwest chamber that didn’t sit well with her. There was always a chill in the room that no hickory wood fire could relieve. The eyes of every painting seemed to watch her. The walls and the wingback chair smelled of the Master’s pipe tobacco long after he’d retired. And then there was the matter of the Master’s private journals. Georgia had more than once wondered what secrets could be revealed with one simple peek between the yellowed pages.
The attic was cleaned in no time at all. One would never have known George ever existed. All that was left to do was burn more sassafras to rid the rest of the house of the smell, and see to the children. Georgia could hear them in the northwest chamber, playing with their toys. She climbed the stairs, drawing deep breaths to steel herself. She wouldn’t scold them about throwing the raccoon in the fire. Not yet. Not until after she’d bathed them. Perhaps not even then.
Do not upset the children. Surely a scolding would upset them, and so close to the Master’s expected time of arrival. She couldn’t risk it. No. Too many rules had been broken for today. It was entirely possible that the children, having had their fun, tossed the raccoon onto the fire in hopes that it would die. This would’ve helped Georgia, had they not also closed the chimney damper, thus filling the room with black smoke.
“Children?” Georgia pushed open the door, bracing herself for the unthinkable.
“Yes, Miss Gaines?” said Sebastian, grinning. Georgia was taken aback by the sudden change in the boy. His hair, always meticulously straightened, was slightly messed. And he’d loosened his tie since she’d seen him in the attic. The others seemed to be their normal selves; Belle with her filthy pinafore and Lionel taunting her with her dolls.
“Uh, it’s time for washing. Belle, you first.” Georgia gestured toward the wash room at the opposite end of the chamber. She had boiled their bath water earlier that afternoon and was certain it would be cooled enough for them.
“Yes, Miss Gaines.” Belle slipped into the room and Georgia followed. Bathing the children was one of her least favorite chores. Georgia had never been uncomfortable with nudity. She’d begun servitude at a young age and had cared for her elderly grandparents before then. But the children’s bodies were different, and not at all pleasant. The precarious relationship Georgia had with them made the intimate act of bathing even more uncomfortable.
Belle removed her outer layers and turned her back to Georgia, silently demanding she remove the laces of her bodice. Georgia tugged and pulled until the bodice came free and fell to the tiled floor.
“Thank you, Miss Gaines,” said Belle with a curt nod. While Belle’s face, chest and arms were pale white, her back, middle and legs, always covered by her dressings, were yellowish and leathery. As if she’d been burned, or stained by her uncle’s pipe tobacco.
“I’ll be just outside,” Georgia said, returning the nod and closing the door to leave Belle to herself. She glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner, noting the time to be near five o’clock. Odd, but fortunate, that the Master had not yet returned. Eudora was no doubt still scrubbing the southwest chamber. Georgia would have to hurry with the baths so that she could replace the circle of tarts before the last one was devoured.
She drew a deep breath. Unable to detect the scent of rot inside the house, Georgia knew there would be no trouble with the tarts. Without the odor of George’s rotten flesh to draw them closer, the tarts would hold them back as they did every Tuesday, so long as the rules were followed.
“Miss Gaines?” asked Sebastian with the same uncharacteristic grin.
“Just what have you done with George?”
“You needn’t be concerned with the body, Sebastian. I’ve taken care of it.” Georgia grasped her wrist behind her back and leaned against the wash room door. Lionel came to stand beside her. Sebastian stepped in closer.
“It’s not that I’m concerned. It’s just that, well, you see, Lionel and myself, and Belle of course, we can’t exclude her. We were a bit peckish after having our fun with George. I’m afraid we may have eaten all of your strawberry tarts and not saved any for poor George.”
“If you—You what?” Georgia stiffened. The children knew the rules, though they chose not to follow most of them. They had to be pulling tricks on her. Surely they wouldn’t.
“We finished off your pastries.” Sebastian lifted his nose in the air. He drew a breath, pointed teeth slipping out between his lips.
Georgia’s hand flew to her mouth. The smell of decay would draw them in. She had to get to the raccoon before the tarts were gone.
Georgia shoved past the boys and took the stairs two at a time. “Eudora!” she called. She would need help baking more tarts. Eudora’s faint reply drifted down the staircase from the southwest chamber.
As Georgia neared the kitchen, she heard the familiar twump of the outside door slapping the butter churn, and she froze.
Up Next: Part IV by Anne! Tune in on Tuesday for the deliciously creepy conclusion!
*Photo by starrymornings on tumblr