My mistress says you mustn't stare into the fire lest the devil look out at you from the flames. "He'll see into your soul," she says.
My mistress says a great many things about the devil.
But before cockcrow, when my mistress is still abed and I'm sitting on my heels coaxing the embers into life with my breath, I stare into the fire with no fear of the devil. The devil, I think, wakes up when my mistress does.
Before then, the house is quiet and my face is warm with the fire I'm making. I stare into the coals and the new little flames licking blue and yellow around the kindling, and I don't see the devil or the mouth of hell. I see summer and yellow sun, and in the smooth flames curling around the wood, I see clear water flowing through rushes the way it did in the stream when I was a little girl.
I've just long enough for a memory of splashing in the stream with my big sister, Rose, before the rafters tremble with the sound of my mistress stirring above.
Cook limps heavily into the kitchen and casts a baleful eye at the upstairs room. "There'll be weeping today, you mark me," she says, and busies herself with the pots.
It's a big house, this, for my mistress's father was five times Lord Mayor of Lynn and an alderman of the Holy Trinity Guildhall, too. The mistress doesn't let it be forgotten, not by the servants nor by the goodwives of the town, for all that she's a religious woman.
"She'll be wanting you," Cook says.
I lean forward to give the fire one last breath, although it doesn't need it. For one more instant, it's summer and I'm with Rose and the sun is warming my face.
Then I rock back on my heels and stand, letting the cold air settle around me. I heave the bucket of water I've brought in and start up the stairs.
I'm halfway up when the weeping begins.
"Ah, sweet Jesu," my mistress calls out, and then she is crying in earnest, great heaving sobs. "My sweet Lord," she cries.
I hover on the stairs. Up or down?
"Johanna!" My mistress shrieks my name from her room and up I scurry. I've been here long enough to know the consequences if I don't.
I open her door with my foot, swinging the heaving bucket into the room. She's sitting on her bed, her face in her hands, the tears coming fast. The water from my bucket goes into the hand basin with only a river or so spilled out, and then her foul-smelling night bucket is in my hands and I'm on the stairs again.
"Come back, you stupid girl."
I stop. Even when she's full of the passion that Our Lady Mary suffered for her poor son, my mistress notices things. You'd think she'd be blinded by her tears.
"The fire, Johanna."
I set the buckets down and creep into the room again. I had thought to come back for the fire later, when I brush her hair and pin up her headdress--after the weeping has abated. But my mistress likes to be warm and toasty while she shares Our Lady's pain.
The bellows crouch beside the fireplace. I mend the coals with the tongs, then blow them into flames with the bellows. Already, while my mistress was sleeping, I've brought up the coal. Also, I've scoured the bottles and pots left from yesterday. And brought in the water for Cook and for me, lots of water, fetched from the Common Ditch, a long walk through the ooze and muck of the streets in the chill damp of the morning.
My mistress feels such compassion for Our Lord, she cries and cries at the thought of him on his rood. You'd think she could spare some compassion for me. Almost June and still the mornings are cold as midwinter.
She interrupts her weeping to say, "Don't dally before the fire, you wicked girl. The devil creeps into the souls of those who dally."
She should know.
I escape down the stairs to haul the iron pots of water to the fire for washing. Linens today.
When I lived by the river, off in the Fens, after my mother died giving birth to a baby who didn't live to see the sunrise, my sister Rose did the washing. Back then, I really did dally, kicking my heels in the stream, weaving sedges together to make birdcages, trying to catch silvery minnows with my bare hands, fashioning pipes of reeds. I thought I was working, but Rose was doing it all. Now that she's married to a farmer, she knows even more about work.
Dame Margery thinks she's overburdened, what with the Lord's suffering on her shoulders, but she knows nothing of burdens. Cook and I and poor little Cicilly know about burdens. Cicilly has a cough, so Cook and I have conspired to let her sleep longer. Just so she's visible by the time the mistress sweeps downstairs.
Since our household broke up at Michaelmas--Rose going off with her farmer, my father going to harvest the bishop's fields, and me going into service for Dame Margery here in town--Cook has been all the family I have. Cook and Cicilly. Piers, who does the men's labor, treats me too ill to be family. He grabs my braids and sometimes my skirts in a way I don't like at all. Besides, he smells.
But Cook can laugh. She's a sly one, Cook is, when her joints aren't making her limp and groan.
"Come, Johanna," she says. "Here's her morning meal to be taken up. Enough for her and whatever saint is visiting today."
It's when I'm up the stairs, handing her the trencher, that my mistress changes my life again, for the second time in a year.
"God has told me to go on pilgrimage to Rome," Dame Margery says. "I'll need a maidservant. Cicilly's too young; Cook is too old. You'll go with me, Johanna."
My mouth drops open. A pilgrimage to Rome? With my mistress?
"The Lord doesn't hold with idleness. Get on about your duties," she says, her mouth full of bread.
I tear down the stairs as fast as I can.
Excerpted from The Book of the Maidservant by Rebecca Barnhouse. Copyright © 2011 by Rebecca Barnhouse. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, 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.