I literally just lost my post. Sadness. Sorry you will miss all of my cleverness that I am now too tired to retype. 🙂
So down to brass tacks. My daughter Halie is the best writing coach ever. I want to thank her for all of her help. I have no idea how she got so smart about telling stories, but her advice is honest, real, and spot on. I feel like tonight’s excerpt is so much better because of her feedback.
So tonight’s excerpt actually takes place just before the excerpt I posted for Nanowrimo day 1. Basically, in yesterday’s excerpt, Ella was slowly making her way to the Poe house where she hoped to be hired on. In tonight’s excerpt, its the interview she has with the agent who tells her about the job in the first place.
So without further adieu, here’s excerpt 2.
By Anastasia Betts
Ella sat, waiting for her turn on a very hard, very uncomfortable bench in the furthest corner of an office that could charitably be described as dank. A musty miasma wafted about, invading Ella’s nostrils. The smell reminded her of Aunt Phyllis’ old attic. A ferocious nor-easter had blown in the roof one year —it had rained for days and days. The whole house had flooded but the attic had the worst of it. Aunt Phyllis never did get the damp out of room after that, no matter how she tried. The smell of mold and old wet decay lingered for years in the attic, and even longer in Ella’s memory. She rubbed her nose absentmindedly, feeling an odd, yet familiar tickle. Her nose always itched in the presence of mold.
“This is a nice office,” Ella said brightly. She was nervous, and she always tended to talk more than she should when she was nervous.
“Mm-hmm,” the young man said, not bothering to look up from his ledgers.
“I visited an office once like this, with my father,” she continued. “He had business in town from time to time.” She waited for Mr. Jones’ secretary to reply. He did not.
Ella fidgeted. The clocked ticked away on the mantle on the far wall. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Ella began to count the tick-tocks to keep her mind busy and her mouth closed. One… two…
She was never one to sit still and this was something of a small torture for her. Fifteen. Sixteen.
The furious scraping of the secretary’s pencil added a counterpoint to the tick-tocking. Thirty. Thirty-one.
Ella began to tap a jaunty little rhythm on the wood floor. It was something of a trick to manage the rhythm and the tick-tock counting at the same time. The challenge entertained her and before long she had a bit of a funny percussive ditty going. She smiled to herself and began to hum. Fifty-five. Fifty-six.
The secretary slammed the pencil down hard on his books, and sighed heavily.
Ella stopped counting tick-tocks.
She began examined the small waiting room instead. It only took a minute to decide it was a dark and uninteresting, excepting the smell that reminded her of Aunt Phyllis’ attic, but she’d already thought about that and just thinking about it again wasn’t enough to interest her.
“Excuse me…” she started.
“Be patient,” the secretary behind the desk cut her off mid-sentence. “Mr. Jones is a very busy many and will be with you shortly.”
Ella eyed the secretary with no small amount of annoyance. He was oblivious, his nose still in his books.
“…I was about to say, could I have a glass of water?” Ella said with an edge. She was never very good at masking her feelings, or her thoughts for that matter.
The gentleman frowned in her direction. His frown was not lost on Ella.
Darn it, Ella. Get a hold of yourself.
Ella put on as sweet a smile as she could muster, and added prettily “please?”
The young man softened a bit, stood, and went to retrieve a glass of water from the pitcher at the sideboard. He strode across the room with heavy, purposeful footfalls, and handed the water to Ella, managing to slosh some of it onto her. But as the door to the private office behind him opened, she promptly forgot his rudeness. A short squat man with narrow eyes and a fat handlebar mustache appeared at the threshold. His bald head glistened in the daylight streaming in from the window, and dark damp spots stained his sleeves where his arms joined his body. She was convinced she never saw a man so sweaty in her life, and she had watched her father plow many a field in the height of summer.
“Who’s here?” Mr. Jones hollered, much louder than was seemly.
“Just a girl sent over from the Quaker School in Philadelphia,” the secretary replied
Ella bristled at being referred to as “just a girl,” but managed to hold her peace.
The younger gentleman handed Mr. Jones the card that Ella had provided. It was the card that Headmaster Prior had instructed her to present at Harvey Jones Esquire when she arrived in Trenton. And so she had.
“Ah, yes, yes.” Mr. Jones pushed his spectacles up further on his nose to get a better look at the card. “Sent over by my good friend Charles Prior, very good.” Mr. Jones smiled kindly at Ella and motioned her forward.
“Come in here, and let’s see if we can find you something to do.”
Now that she was no longer his responsibility, the young man returned to his desk and paid Ella no further attention. Ella swished past him and into Mr. Jones office, hoping that her interview would fair better than her time with his secretary had.
“Have a seat here, uh, Miss…”
“Miss Whitby,” Ella provided, “Miss Eleanor Whitby.”
She smoothed her skirts as she sat on the chair provided. Her back erect, her hands folded demurely in her lap, she worked to remember all the lessons in etiquette and propriety she had had at school, and put them to full effect now. Never had a meeting been so important or mattered so much. With her parents gone now, it was up to her to provide for herself and for Alice. The loss was still fresh, and tears threatened. But Ella was growing used to pushing away her grief. She had never imagined that at the tender age of eighteen, so much would be thrust upon her. Its funny how children always seem to think their parents will be around forever, she mused — to love and protect, to care for their children. But those were just the foolish imaginings of a child.
Over the past few weeks, much had happened, and she had learned so much. Much more than she had wanted to learn. She had learned that the beautiful farm that she had grown up on, that had been in her family for at least two generations or more, no longer belonged to her family. She had learned the unhappy fact within days of her parents’ death. There was no money to bury them. She had had to sell everything. All the animals, her favorite milk cow, Ruby the silly goat she had hand reared when her mother rejected her, a modest flock of sheep they had used for a small wool exchange, a whole brood of prime egg laying hens. And still, she was forced to rely upon the charity of friends in order to settle outstanding debts and to provide a final resting spot for her beloved mother and father. They now rested in peace at Christ’s Church Cemetery, just across from the Friends Meeting House on Arch Street. It seemed fitting, she thought. Her family had spent so many days and nights at that Friends Meeting House. Even better, it was very near the Quaker school that her sister, and until this week Ella herself, attended. Which meant that any time, any time at all, Alice and Ella could walk the short distance to spend time at their gravesides. Ella couldn’t have known that the time that she would need to leave Philadelphia, and that such moments of solace would be lost to her.
Her life in Philadelphia was over now. As was her dream of a future residency at the New York’s Infirmary for Women after graduation. Her acceptance had been a conditional one after all, contingent on her graduation from Quaker School with honors. The honors part was easy, as Ella was a meticulous and eager student. But without the necessary funds for tuition, completing her education at Quaker Friends was an impossibility. It had destroyed her to learn that her father had mortgaged everything to pay for her and Alice’s schooling. But it had been an easy thing to sacrifice her last year’s tuition to make Alice’s education possible, or so she kept telling herself. Alice had suffered enough with the loss of their mother and father. She needed the support of her friends and mentors at school. No, Ella thought. I made the right decision. Besides, I haven’t quit my schooling. I’ve just put it on hold for a bit.
“…medicine, is that right?”
Ella snapped back into the present, unable to make sense of Mr. Jones last words. He was waiting expectantly for her to answer. She wracked her brain trying to recall what he had been saying. She could not.
“I must beg your pardon sir, could you please repeat your last question?” She asked politely. Hopefully.
Mr. Jones huffed slightly, “Pay attention girl. You’ll never get through an interview with a prospective employer if you can’t prevent yourself from going all addled-brained.” But his toned softened and he continued, “Listen, I know you’ve been through a lot. Charles sent me a letter that explained your situation somewhat. But I’ve got to know more about what skills you have. Now it says here in the letter that you received top marks in your schooling, and that you planned to continue your education in the field of science or medicine, is that right?”
“Yes sir, that is correct. The top of my class, out of both young ladies and young men. We’re a co-ed school.” She replied, with some amount of pride in her tone.
“That’s well and good, but I don’t rightly have much call for a lady science student. And since you didn’t finish, I can’t send you out as a governess or school teacher, though I suspect you might be better suited and skilled to the prospect than most others I’ve ever placed.”
“Well, I can read and write with some expertise I like to think, I can dissect an animal cleaner than any hospital surgeon; I can separate the parts of a nerve with a scalpel, I can tell you how your heart works, I can diagnose over a hundred different common ailments and prescribe the proper treatment. I can cross breed over a thousand different types of plant species, expertly midwife any farm animal you like and hand rear its young if the mother doesn’t make it or doesn’t take a liking to her babe..”
“Yes, yes, yes… I know that you have tremendous intellect when it comes to science and medicine,”
“But there’s more,” Ella said.
He held up a hand, silencing her.
“Miss Whitby, this would all be well and good but I have absolutely no jobs that require your particular skills or knowledge. Is there anything else? Anything at all? Some hidden talent that you’ve forgotten?”
“Well, I can play piano and sing a little…” she said weakly.
A sinking feeling began to form in her stomach. She had worked so hard, and put in so many hours on her studies. Becoming a physician was all she had ever thought about, for as long as she remembered. Elizabeth Blackwell, Emily Blackwell, Maria Zakrzewska, Eleanor Whitby. Her name was supposed to be up there with the greatest women physicians of all time. She had even forced herself to overcome her revulsion and moral objection to studies that involved live subjects. Blood was a problem, but she had licked it. And now, after all of that work, after the demonstration of incredible intellect and competence, to be told she wasn’t fit to teach children, or to be a ladies companion, or to work in an office, or some or other medical establishment? The ironies of life were astounding, she thought.
She began to feel desperate. This was her one chance, her one opportunity to secure her future. She couldn’t fail.
“Mr. Jones, please listen. I can not — I can not – leave your office without a job or a prospect of one. I will do anything. I’m a hard worker and fast learner. I’m an early riser, and willing to work late in to the evening if that is what the task requires. I’m of sound mind and healthy constitution – I almost never get sick,” she took a breath to continue.
“Now that’s something I can work with,” Mr. Jones interrupted.
She waited anxiously. He reached into his desk, pulled out a slip of paper, and looked intently at it. Then, he looked directly at Ella.
“Miss Whitby, I don’t know if this is the job for you, but its the only one of got that you seem fit for. And, with all you’ve just told me, I’ve reconsidered. Now I have to warn you, the employer is a bit of an eccentric.”
“Yes, he has some peculiar ways of doing things, very private man, likes everything just so.”
“But what is the job?” Ella asked, intrigued.
“Oh the job is nothing so mysterious as its sounds. He’s in need of a house maid.”
Ella’s enthusiasm evaporated a little, but not altogether. She could do that. She was no stranger to cleaning.
“That seems like an easy job to fill,” she mused aloud.
“Yes, one would think so. But it has been strangely difficult to keep people employed at the Poe house,” he reached over the top of his desk to hand her the slip of paper. She took it eagerly and began to read it, still having trouble processing what he was saying.
“The Poe house? As in Edgar Allen?”
“As in George Poe. Edgar’s cousin.”