16: Matron’s Questions


Image: The Good Lady Ducalyne by Mrs. Elizabeth Braddon, The Strand Magazine, 1896

The woman moved then, her eyes dipping like a bird’s to stare at the pages full of his words. Edmund saw her pupils slowly roll about in their sunken sockets, following the scribbled lines of Edmund’s handwriting. After a long pause she extended a single claw and flipped the page.

Edmund’s heart beat faster. He swallowed his protest as the claw slowly returned to its perch on the handle of the umbrella. She stared for what felt like hours before her eyes shot up to Edmund’s again.

“You wrote this?” She snapped, her voice like brittle twigs. Edmund nodded. Her tone had not made it clear if this was a good or a bad thing. The woman’s mouth twisted further into something like a frown. “How old are you?”

“Eight,” Edmund said.

“And are you neat? Tidy? Can you do what you’re told?”

Mrs. Mapleberry gave a little sigh as she placed her thick hand over her breast in a gesture of matronly pride.

“Oh, Edmund is one of the cleanest Lads–”

“Do be silent, you old watermelon, I’m asking the boy,” the woman snapped like a shot. Mrs. Mapleberry gasped, and fell silent while Edmund thought about the question.

“I don’t have much, so I can’t make a mess,” he said, finally. “I’ve always done what I’ve been asked, but no one has ever asked much of me either.”

“Good,” the woman crackled. “Do you know anything about people? Politics? What’s your opinion on the labor situation in South Dunkin?”

“I don’t know of any labor situation in South Dunkin,” Edmund said, quietly. “I don’t even know where South Dunkin is.”

“It’s to the South,” the woman muttered, icily.

“I don’t pay much attention to politics,” Edmund replied. The woman nodded briskly.

“Good. Do you get into fights at all?” she asked, her teeth seeming to sharpen in the dim light.

“No,” Edmund shifted in his seat, “people don’t pay much attention to me either.”

“But if you got in a fight — if someone wanted to hurt you, what would you do?” she asked, leaning forward almost imperceptibly.

Edmund had seen other children fight before in the orphanage, but he’d never considered being in one himself; the other children had always seemed loathe to touch him. The closest he ever got to a fight was once when a twisting floorboard had tipped a thick older boy into him. The boy had raised his fists at Edmund, who waited, watching the boy with interest, until he dropped his fists and backed away slowly.

“I don’t know,” Edmund answered. “I would either stay and fight or run away and hide. It would depend on how many I’m fighting, and how strong they are.”

“And just how long are you planning on living?” What an odd question, Edmund thought. Parents had never asked him questions like that before. Edmund considered for a moment.

“As long as I can,” he said, finally.

“Good,” the woman nodded, and leaned back in her chair. “Get its things, I’ll take it at once.”


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