Headmaster Percy Blackburn took his spectacles off and polished them with a cotton handkerchief. He repeated this habit often, which signaled to the girls of the Chiller’s School for Young Women he was agitated, upset over a perceived transgression from one of his charges. Euphemia Wood, his assistant, would immediately fetch him a glass of absinthe in response. It was a habit that repeated itself often.
Master Blackburn delighted in disciplining the girls; these girls were orphaned or unwanted and had nowhere else to go, a fact he reminded them often. No other males entered the building except for Simeon or his brother Anton who brought firewood and other sundries. Blackburn knew this and took advantage of the girls’ misfortune and isolation. He kept a belt hanging on a hook near the dining hall and another by the second-story dormitory to remind them what would happen if any of them were to step out of line. Underneath each hook were strings of old iron keys, each different in sizes and shapes. Norah, with her dark hair and fiery eyes, had seen the belts used and keys removed before but knew better than to ask questions.
In the first week Norah attended the school, she made friends with Zadie, an affable girl with the bluest eyes and long blond hair. They sat together at meals and completed chores together, scrubbing floors, cleaning dishes, washing and hanging laundry. Laundry afforded them the only time they could enjoy fresh air outside the stifling building. Chiller’s House sat on a generous piece of property beside a large lake. Laughing while they worked, time passed more gently. Zadie told Norah, “I will always take care of you. You are my only true friend here.”
Norah replied, “And I will look after you.”
While hanging sheets one morning, Master Blackburn barked Zadie’s name which made her jump and tip the basket of freshly washed sheets into the dirt and grass. The scowl on Master Blackburn’s face made Norah fearful for her friend, and she quickly gathered the sheets together to rinse them again as Zadie made her way quickly up the hill toward the largest brownstone in the darker side of Stepney.
Norah rinsed the laundry using water from the well at the edge of the property near the lake. She pinned the sheets on the lines and finished the rest of her assigned laundry as she waited for her friend to come back. The dinner bell rang, and still no sign of Zadie. Norah sat at the table across from Pearl and Lillian, scanning the room, the doorways, looking for sign of her friend. Pearl asked Norah, “Zadie?”
Norah shook her head. “I do not know where she is. She was called by Master Blackburn just before noon. I have not seen her since,” was her reply.
Pearl exchanged glances with Lillian. “Most likely Zadie will not return.” As Pearl finished her sentence, Mrs. Wood came around to the girls to dish out a gray-green soup for them. Pearl smiled and said, “Thank you, Mrs. Wood.” She nudged Norah under the table to do the same.
“Thank you, Mrs. Wood,” Norah repeated. She looked down at the soup and though she was famished, her appetite had diminished. Norah picked up her spoon and took a hesitant mouthful. The awful taste lingered in her mouth like a dead mouse. “What will happen to Zadie?” She felt pity and sadness emanating from the girls. “Will she be all right? Will we see her again?”
Lillian answered. “We do not know what happens, but when a girl is called into Master Blackburn’s study, she does not return. He hasn't been the same since his wife left him.”
"He was married?" Norah felt ill. She excused herself from the table and walked up to the second floor where the dorm rooms lined the long hallway. She walked slowly toward the end, past her room, and looked out through the large window. Peering through the glass she thought about Zadie. A blurry light in the distance seemed to move onto the water, as if there were a dock near that side of the lake. The laundry lines were on the other side of the building, and the front of the house faced away from the lake. She knew little of this part of the property.
That was three months ago, and Zadie never returned. Sometimes the girls had a quiet word with Simeon or Anton if they were alone. Simeon was quite tall for his age and muscular from chopping firewood and manual labor. Anton, the older brother, was did well in school and hoped to become a schoolmaster. Conversations with the girls were infrequent as the they were not allowed to speak to anyone outside the orphanage.
The girls knew full well Blackburn did not treat women with respect; he commanded them to do his bidding, and they in turn understood the consequences if they did not. Mrs. Wood, of course, was allowed much more freedom as his illicit consort and was a cruel mistress to the girls. It was she who often fabricated stories of misbehavior that resulted in severe punishment being doled out. It was Norah’s turn to become Mrs. Wood’s target.
“Norah! Why are these sheets still dirty?” Mrs. Wood held up a sheet for further scrutiny. “It seems you spend more time gabbing instead of doing your chores properly,” she spit out at Norah. “Master Blackburn must know about your lack of attention to your chores.” She turned abruptly and left the girl alone.
Norah was petrified. She quickly finished putting the laundry away when Master Blackburn appeared with Mrs. Wood. The girls looked at Norah. “Norah,” Master Blackburn barked, “into my study now.” Pearl pulled Estelle into view, and they all watched Norah leave the dorm, their hearts heavy knowing their friend would not return.
Mrs. Wood escorted Norah down a long hall as Master Blackburn followed. In Master Blackburn’s study, the windows were darkened with damask curtains, producing a sense of dreariness. The room smelled vaguely of stale pipe tobacco. His imposing desk rested directly beneath a painting of Master Chiller, his father-in-law whose name adorned the school. In front of the desk was a large chest made of deep cherry wood. The lock on the front of the chest had a key in it. Master Blackburn nodded to Mrs. Wood, and she promptly retreated from the room.
“Are you neglecting your chores?” Master Blackburn pushed Norah down into an empty chair nearest the chest.
Norah replied, “I know not. I have done my best.”
Master Blackburn sat behind his desk, drumming his fingers together. “Chilling’s School for Young Women has had the highest expectations. There is no room for slacking.” He poured absinthe from a French bottle into a small glass, swirling the light green liquid.
“But I-“ Norah protested.
“Silence, you insolent dolt! You will not interrupt. You will not speak unless spoken to.” He took a sip of absinthe then set his drink down. He stood up brusquely. “There are strict rules here. Neglecting laundry could create a problem at inspection time, you see.” He moved to the front of the chest, revealing the empty space inside. “And when problems arise, we take care of them.”
Norah couldn’t evade Master Blackburn’s grasp as he picked her up and dropped her into the chest, slamming it shut. He fastened the lock and turned the key. “This,” he droned, “is how we take care of problems. If you make noise, I will make more girls suffer.”
Norah uselessly pushed at the lid as tears burned the side of her face. The chest grew warm with her panicked breathing, and she closed her eyes to make the darkness go away. She thought of her friends, she thought of Zadie.
Zadie! This is where she must have perished. She called out to her, crying, her hands scratched from the rough wood inside the chest.
A voice beckoned. Hush, Norah. Hush.
Norah stopped moving.
That’s a good girl. I’ve missed you, Norie.
“Zadie?” Norah whispered. Zadie was the only girl who called her Norie. “Is that you? Where are you?”
That is difficult to answer. I do not know where I am, either, but I know I am with you now. In the chest. Norah, Master Blackburn has murdered many of us. You are next. You are also lucky. Silence filled the tiny space.
Norah thought about that. “How am I lucky if I am to die here?”
The voice whispered, "He did not attempt to have his way with you. And I have a plan."
Suppressing the bile in her throat, Norah whispered, “Are you a ghost?”
I am a spirit. I am stuck here for now. Close your eyes.
Although the chest was completely devoid of light, Norah did as Zadie requested.
And my spirit is infused within you. Norah felt a heaviness, a presence as if she were suddenly carrying a weight, a terrible burden. In her mind she heard Zadie’s voice: Reach down with your right hand. Slide it carefully along the side. There is a small key wedged in the wood. Pick it out.
Norah followed the directions that were in now in her head.
You can now pick at the lock from the inside. You are small enough to do this. I was not.
Using her left hand, Norah took the key and pushed it into the back side of the lock; it was oval and flat. She moved the key, and on the side, she discovered a slight opening. She continued jabbing the key into the opening until she heard the key pop out from the outside of the chest.
Good. Now you just push the lever that recedes into the lock. That will open it, the voice said.
Norah pushed the lever and heard a loud click. She pushed the lid open. The light and sudden rush of air overwhelmed her. Holding on to the edge of the chest, she stood up, unsteady and blinded. The voice continued, Close the chest. Hide in the wardrobe over there. Master Blackburn won’t return for a week as he did for me. Simeon will come in to tend the fireplace at night. We can seek his help then.
“We?” Nora asked. “What does that mean?”
That means, the voice echoed in her head, I am not dead yet. My body still breathes but barely. It lies in the basement. The others that did not make it lie at the bottom of the lake.
Norah’s eyes widened as she felt many different emotions flowing through her. Anger finally centered inside her. How many girls have died? Why?
The gentle voice inside her head said money. He does it for the money. He gets paid for forty girls, but many are no longer here. He pockets the difference.
Norah scanned the room and located the cedar wardrobe. She took a string of keys from the side of his desk and hid in the wardrobe, closing the door behind her. She nodded off, exhausted from her exile and memories that didn’t belong to her. Through Zadie’s eyes, she could see the other girls, as young as ten and as old as Zadie, who was sixteen, laughing while completing their chores, which turned out to be their only sin. The image changed, and she could see bones in boxes. A loud noise woke her up; someone else was now in the room.
She peered through the door opening and recognized Simeon. Norah slowly opened the wardrobe and spoke Simeon’s name. Startled, he said, “Begging your pardon, Miss. I did not see you there.”
Norah put aside customary greetings, and quickly ran into Simeon’s arms, all her words rushing out at once. “Master Blackburn put me in that horrid chest and planned to kill me. He’s killed others. She’s in the basement.”
“Hold on, Miss Norah. Shhh, calm down,” he murmured as Norah sobbed. "I'm just here to replace the firewood."
“There’s little time left. We must save Zadie. She’s downstairs.”
At Zadie’s name, Simeon pulled her apart. “But you just said-"
“It’s difficult to explain,” she pleaded. “We must go now!”
Simeon led Norah down a hidden stairwell down to the damp basement filled with cobwebs, empty barrels of ale, cords of firewood, and piles of refuse. Desperation hung from the walls as no moonlight shone through the dirty windows. Simeon quietly stated what was obvious. “There’s nothing else here, Miss Norah.”
In Norah’s head, Zadie said there’s a room at the north end with bar across it. I’m in there. There’s not much time. Norah said, “Over there. There’s a door. She’s in there.”
They saw the door, and as they rushed in that direction, they heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Mrs. Wood saw the two and urgently shouted, “Percy! Here! Come quickly!”
Simeon lifted the heavy bar across the door. Norah nimbly pulled open the door and gasped. Twenty empty pine boxes were stacked up, with the newest one already locked. The lingering phantasm of despair filled their nostrils in this room of nightmares.
Another set of footsteps neared the bottom of the stairwell. Angered, Simeon faced the two. “What kind of monsters are you? Where are the other girls? How many were there?” Simeon headed toward Master Blackburn and Mrs. Wood as they began to retreat. Simeon picked up a broken barrel and threw it directly overhead at Master Blackburn, knocking him and Mrs. Wood back down to the bottom of the stairs. They did not move after that.
Norah searched the room of death. I’m in the locked box. Find the key. Norah flipped through the string of keys; so many of them. She thought about the other chains of keys throughout the house. She found one with a matching number to the lock and opened the coffin. Zadie, pale and barely breathing, lay there. Close your eyes, Norah, I must leave you in a moment. Norah closed her eyes and felt the pained presence leave her body. It left her breathless for a moment, and she fainted upon the soft dirt. Simeon ran toward Norah on the floor; he picked her up and then noticed Zadie began to move, her eyes fluttering open. “Water,” she whispered hoarsely.
The sound of movement floated from upstairs. “Anton!” Simeon shouted. “Anton! In the basement! Bring water!” He set Norah down outside the room and then lifted Zadie out of her coffin prison and set her next to Norah. Simeon could not fathom what was going on; he just did as his heart directed.
Anton started down the stairs. He gasped as he saw the fatally injured Blackburn and Wood. Anton nimbly descended the stairs, jumped over them, and called out for Simeon. “Simeon! Where are you?”
“Over here. Quickly! The room over here!” Simeon called. Anton was unaware this space existed. “Give me the water!” Simeon pleaded. Anton passed his brother the bottle filled with water. Knowing the girls must be taken up the stairs, Anton saw the need to clear a path. He struggled to drag the bodies of the abusers and set them among the other piles of trash.
“Water,” Zadie continued, “they’re still in the water.” Her eyes closed once more.
Simeon carefully propped Zadie up and gently poured some water into her mouth as he held her chin. She coughed, sputtered, and asked for more. She looked up at Simeon, then at Norah still unconscious. “Norah! Wake up, Norie! I am here now!” Norah weakly smiled at Zadie. The bond of sisterhood and friendship would not be broken.
Simeon helped Norah out first, and enlisted Anton’s aid to take her back to the main room of the house. Simeon lifted and cradled Zadie as if she were a precious doll, carrying her up the stairs next, looking at her lovely face, listening to her breathing, reassuring her along the way, unafraid of fighting Death for these girls.
“Simeon,” Zadie said softly, “The others are in the lake.”
The constabulary were soon investigating the crime scene in the basement as physicians attended the girls. The fact that unused pine boxes were stacked up concerned them even more. They asked Zadie about the other girls. Zadie responded, “There’s a pier at the edge of the lake. In the cover of night, Blackburn and Wood would take the coffin of a dead girl and drop it into the lake.” Zadie looked up at the constable, and softly said, “Sometimes when the lake is low, a corner or two of the coffins becomes visible.”
The next day, the men sought out the remains of the girls with Nora and Zadie. “Here,” Nora said, “this is one set of keys. There are several around the house.” She paused. “I think each key opens a different coffin.” Boats were launched into the murky lake, each one using fishing gear and nets bringing up boxes up bones, each of a girl who committed some minor transgression.
Priests came to consecrate the bodies of the dead girls. The procession of horse-drawn hearses made its way through the small town, mourners along the way tossing rosemary and daisies. They were interred in proper garden cemeteries with weeping marble angels and cherubs looking on. Here lay the girls whose lives were cut short by greed and lust.
The next day the Crown assigned a new headmistress with Anton as an apprentice, and the remaining girls were taken to a new place near Oxford where they would be taken care of and schooled properly. Each remaining girl was given the responsibility of praying and laying flowers for each of the dead girls throughout the year. On a windy October day, one of them was standing by the grave of the youngest victim, laying a spray of white roses. Over the top of the marble headstone she could see something in the lake, bobbing in the wind-churned waves. Several more, in fact, had become untethered from the bottom of the lake.
Mrs. Blackburn picked up where her husband left off.