Ursula rose daily before dawn to light fires in the various rooms that needed heating. Most were coal fires, so the job was messy. Only the main parlor held a bright and cheerful wood fire. The men from the town would sometimes gather there in the late afternoons, sharing conversation and brandy with the rooming-house owner, an accommodating widow.
Do not read too much into that adjective, “accommodating.” The widow kept her pride. It merely refers to her willingness to overlook the occasional drunken city father, in order to keep her rooming house license and her independence.
The widow was generally kind to Ursula, as long as she carried out her duties on time and quietly. She even allowed the girl to rinse off the coal dust that accumulated on her arms and face from lighting the fires in the cooling water the widow had used for her own sponge bath that morning.
Ursula soon familiarized herself with the layout of the rooming house and the other tenants. In addition to her own family, there was a brace of spinster sisters, a traveling salesman from Montana, and the only lay teacher at the Catholic girls’ school. The teacher had the rooms at the very top of the stairs; the spinsters lived across the hall from Ursula and her parents, and the traveling salesman had a bedsit off the main parlor. The widow herself had a suite at the back of the house with a private entry.
Fascinatingly, the house also had a cellar with an exterior door that was always kept locked. The widow had a set of keys jingling from a sash at her waist at all times. Ursula was certain the key to the secret cellar (as she had taken to calling it to herself) lived there, as the widow visited the cellar regularly, usually before the town’s gentlemen would gather for their afternoon brandy in front of the roaring fire in the parlor.
One day, Ursula vowed, she would sneak those keys away, and discover what the secret cellar held, in addition to casks of brandy. Her imagination, magnified by her status as an only child, had already concocted several possibilities, each more deliciously dangerous than the last.
In the meantime, the girl did her chores on time and quietly, and hoped her father would not drink them out of this home before she had a chance to explore the secret cellar.