The House With 46 Chimneys: Excerpt One

Chapter One: Friday the 8th of April 1887

Ruby Simmonds took a last look round the kitchen. She didn’t want to have to face cook’s anger in the morning because she’d forgotten anything important. She especially didn’t want Rose getting into trouble because of something that wasn’t her fault.

Being twins had advantages. It meant you were never lonely and Ruby thought that some of the other girls, especially some of the older ones, were sometimes very lonely. But it did mean that people often saw you as interchangeable. They would sometimes blame one sister for something the other had done.

Rose would be the first up next morning, just as Ruby was the last to bed tonight. She’d be awakened before 6 o’clock by a knock on their door by the junior footman. He was entrusted with the servants’ only alarm clock and had a list of who had to be woken up and when. Rose would then have to come down to clean and light the fires in the range and at the end of the kitchen. After that, she’d fill the coal buckets and make sure everything was ready for the house to start to come to life.

That meant, of course, that Ruby would also be awake early. She shared a narrow bed with Rose. Most of the female servants shared rooms. But Ruby and Rose were just ‘wee slips of girls’, in the housekeeper’s words. As a result, they had the smallest room on the top floor of the rear part of the house and had to sleep in the same bed. At least once Rose was up, Ruby would have the bed to herself and be able to go back to sleep for a while.

Now they had turned 14, Ruby and Rose had asked Mama if they could have a bigger room and separate beds. While the lady’s maid had an important position in the household, Mama still thought she needed to wait for the right moment to raise the subject with the housekeeper. Her word was law as far as the female servants were concerned. So far, the ‘right moment’ seemed not to have arrived.

Satisfied that she’d done everything that was needed, Ruby turned down the wicks in the two oil lamps that were still burning in the kitchen until the light died in each. Now she only had a single candle to light the way back to her room.

Ruby stopped to look out of a window into the courtyard. She’d noticed when outside for a few minutes earlier that there was a full moon in a clear sky. From the window she could see the dark shadows in the courtyard cast by the moonlight but couldn’t see the moon itself. She turned and left the kitchen. As she moved out into it, the kitchen corridor felt cold.

The narrow stone staircase turned back on itself repeatedly as it led all the way up from the basement level of the rear range of the house, where the kitchen was, to the attic. As she climbed, her candle flickered, as if caught in a draught. She paused for a moment, to give it a chance to steady itself. Then she carried on up to the top of the stairs.

Ruby stepped out into the corridor that gave access to most of the female servants’ rooms and then stopped. She’d been cold downstairs but here she suddenly felt chilled to the bone, as if she’d been standing in an icehouse.

The candle flickered, as the flame again seemed to respond to movement in the air that she couldn’t feel. Then it went out. She wasn’t too worried. There was a little moonlight coming in through the window at the far end of the corridor. Enough to find her way back to their room and to Rose.

In the near darkness she became aware of a figure, a girl, hurrying down the corridor towards her. She wasn’t sure how she saw enough detail to know it was Rose. Only the girl seemed a little older and was wearing old-fashioned clothes. Then she realised it wasn’t Rose, for at that moment her sister emerged from their room carrying a candle, beyond the girl. Ruby could see Rose looking towards the two of them. Her sister’s hand was held over her mouth and she had a look of horror on her face.

It all seemed to happen in an instant but Ruby still had time to realise that the girl was very frightened. The figure looked over her shoulder. Not towards Rose, who was still standing in the doorway of their room, but over her other shoulder, as if looking at someone Ruby couldn’t see who was following her.

Then the girl cried out, ‘Somebody please help me!’ and broke into a run.

By now she had reached Ruby, who took a step backwards as the figure passed partly by her and partly, it felt, through her, intensifying the chill she had been feeling into something truly deep and terrifying.

In response, Ruby took another step backwards. She had forgotten she was standing at the top of the stone staircase. The second step she took was enough to cause most of her rear foot to go beyond the edge of the top step. She tumbled down the stairs letting out a single scream as she fell.

When asked later, the other servants with rooms on the corridor said that Ruby’s scream was the first noise they heard, though Rose’s immediately followed it. The plea for help by the figure had been heard only by Ruby and by Rose.

Rose was the first to reach Ruby, who had come to rest some way down the staircase. One look at the angle of her sister’s head was enough for Rose to know that Ruby was dead. Rose refused to leave Ruby’s body until their mother had been fetched from her quarters elsewhere in the house.