One early morning, Ursula was laying the fire for the large parlor. It was midwinter, and the girl added a log or two to ensure a good blaze. She had grown to like the widow, and as an observant person, Ursula realized her landlady’s fortunes depended in part on keeping the townsmen happy. So, she took pains to ensure the comforts of this room, occasionally giving a table and extra wipe or plumping a pillow, even though these things were not in her job description. They were small gifts to the widow in return for her kindness.
And the use of the library. In this day and time, the education of girls was often left to governesses or nuns. Lacking the former, Ursula spent her late mornings at the Catholic school, learning Latin and prayers. She had faith in neither to offer any sort of usefulness in real life. After lunch, Ursula cleaned the kitchen as quickly and quietly as she could, anticipating what was becoming a routine invitation to join the widow in her library for an hour or two of reading aloud. Ursula had a nice voice, the landlady said, and read slowly enough for her to follow the meaning of the story.
Ursula learned more from the novels she read aloud than she did from the nuns and their Latin. But she never said so out loud. By this time in her life, at about nine years of age, Ursula knew the universe had a trickster spirit in it. If you tempted the trickster by claiming good fortune out loud, you were certain to pay.
This particular morning dawned clear and cold, and the fire was roaring by the time the sun came up. Smiling to herself, Ursula moved to the kitchen to light the stove for breakfast.
And there, on the big wooden table where the cook prepared meals, the early morning light glinted off something metallic.
The widow’s keys. She must have set them down the night before, and forgotten to collect them again. Ursula moved swiftly, removing the cellar key from the ring just in time.
“Darling?” It was her mother’s voice. “Ursula, dear, I need some hot water. Your father came home last night in a bit of a state. He’s not well this morning.”
Ursula knew what “not well” meant. Her father was vomiting into the bed pan upstairs, and her mother was waiting for the spell to pass before wiping up and trying to air the odor of stale alcohol and bile out of their room.
The girl slipped the cellar key into her pocket and put the kettle on the stove for her mother.