Emmaline’s life changed in the moment her needle finished the last golden loop of the embroidered apple on the cuff of a blue watered-silk gown. All she was thinking of was the oatcake, the sweet taste of it flooding her mouth.…
It was February 2 – Candlemas – although the day of festivity was like any other for Emmaline. She had promised Tommy she’d buy oatcakes on her way home from work, a small treat to mark the day of celebration. But long before finishing time, Fanny Shoesmith arrived with her message: “Emmaline! Emmaline, you’re to come quickly.”
Emmaline stood, the dress in her lap falling into a heap on the floor. The scrawny girl panted in the doorway of the sewing room, while a heavyset woman, her arms crossed over her broad chest, stood beside her.
“What is it, Fanny?” Emmaline asked, staring at the girl. “Is it our Tommy? Has something happened?”
“No. ’Tis Cat, Emmy. Your mother’s been hurt bad.” The words came out in gasps as Fanny tried to catch her breath. “I’ve been sent from the mill to fetch you. The overlooker wants your mother out and she can’t walk on her own and she’s calling for you. She won’t let anyone else near her.”
As Emmaline approached the door, the woman gripped Emmaline’s forearm. The movement made the nest of keys hanging from her thick waist jingle cheerily, the sound a sharp contrast to the scowl on her face.
“You get back to work,” she said, gesturing with her chin toward the pool of blue silk on the floor. “You’re not going anywhere. Not until your day’s work is done.”
Emmaline wrenched her arm from the woman’s grasp, sending the keys dancing. She grabbed her shawl from the hook beside the door. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Brill, but I’ve got to go to my mother. You heard. She’s been hurt.”
Mrs. Brill’s heavy eyelids lowered, and she gave a sniff. “How do I know this to be true?”
Fanny bobbed at the woman. Her tongue – gray and slightly furry – darted out to lick her dry lips. There was the beginning of a sore at the corner of her mouth. “Beggin’ your pardon, Missus, but it’s true. I seen it with me own eyes. Terrible, ’tis. Blood everywhere.” There was an unmistakable gleam of excitement in her eyes. “An’ her hand – oh, it’s crushed to near a pulp, so ’tis, as it were caught in the machine. I seen it with me own eyes,” she said again, the word “pulp” coming out louder than necessary. Fanny licked her lips a second time and pressed her own narrow hand to her throat.
As Emmaline brushed past Fanny, color flushed high on Mrs. Brill’s doughy cheeks. “Emmaline,” she called, striding after her. “You come back here. I haven’t given you permission to leave. Emmaline! I’ll tell your aunt!” But Emmaline was gone, running along the dim hall, away from the sewing room.
Mrs. Brill’s lips tightened. She looked down at Fanny, and then gave the girl a sudden thump on the side of the head with her knuckle.
“Ow,” Fanny whined, pulling her head away. “Weren’t my fault, Missus. I were only doing what I were told.”
“Be off with you,” Mrs. Brill said. “Go on back to the mill, you filthy urchin.”
“Yes, Missus,” Fanny answered, and turned and ran in the same direction as Emmaline. Something made her look back. Mrs. Brill stood in the doorway, watching her. “Pursy cow!” she said, making sure her voice was low enough that Mrs. Brill couldn’t hear.
And then Fanny ran on, away from the house, glad to be out in the fresh air. It had been raining earlier, but a weak sun now floated over the factory stacks. The February wind was cold, blowing through her patched dress. She hadn’t had time to grab her shawl when the overlooker had sent her to fetch Emmaline. She inhaled deeply, creating a frosty tingle in her nostrils, then blew a long steaming breath into the wintry air. For this unexpected moment life was good, away from the clattering din of the cotton mill for a brief time. She rubbed her head as she ran, partly to soothe the sharp stinging from Mrs. Brill’s knobbed knuckle, but also to will away the sound of Cat Roke’s quick, high, animal shrieks above the constant thrum of the spinning machines.
Poor Emmaline, Fanny thought. She liked Emmaline, for when she saw the older girl on the street outside the mill waiting for her mother, Emmaline always had time for her. Sometimes she told her wonderful stories from the books she read. No one had ever told Fanny a story before, and usually Fanny envied Emmaline, for not only could she read, she also had a home and family.
But now, for these few moments, and maybe the first time in her short life, Fanny was glad she lived in the mill dormitories, with only herself to fend for, and nothing but shadowy, confusing memories of family. Emmaline had a family, all right, but what a family: a mother who was more trouble than help and a scrawny little brother who couldn’t hear nor speak. And then there was the snobby aunt who allowed her own niece to be treated as little more than a drudge by that awful housekeeper, Mrs. Brill. Even though Emmaline, at fifteen, was two years older than Fanny, she had told Fanny that she was still paid as one of the lowest in the house, when by now she should be receiving wages as an assistant seamstress. And, she had confided to Fanny only the week before, she doubted that this would ever change.
Poor Emmaline, Fanny thought one more time, then slowed to a walk, allowing herself to be lost in the thought that there was someone with more cares than she had.
“Mother! Mother, what’s happened?” Emmaline gasped, rushing into the overlooker’s office, not even bothering to knock: something that might get her mother’s wages docked if the overlooker had a mind to punish her. She glanced at him, seeing anger on his thin sallow face. His oily hair brushed his collar, and he nervously fingered the polished button on his waistcoat.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Search of the Moon King's Daughter by Linda Holeman. Copyright © 2002 by Linda Holeman. Excerpted by permission of Tundra Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.