After her mother departed upstairs with a basin of hot soapy water and a towel, Ursula felt for the key in her pocket.
There it was, cold and hard. She clasped her hand around it, feeling the metal warm gradually at her touch. She knew it was the cellar key as she had observed – not spied on, of course not, no polite person would spy on another; observing, however, was a gentlewomanly thing to do, her mother had told her so – she had observed the widow use it many times. Now, Ursula only had to hope for some time to herself before the widow needed to retrieve another bottle or two of brandy.
The best window of time, Ursula knew, would be the two hours or so she was expected to go to the Catholic school for Latin and prayer lessons. Ursula wondered, again, why her Protestant father allowed her to spend time in the home camp of the opposition, learning their prayers. Perhaps her mother had interceded, or perhaps her father did not know about it, or he did not care. On balance, the latter was most likely, Ursula considered. She felt no bitterness at this; girls were not the concern of their fathers until they achieved marrying age. She hoped her father was spending his time finding a congregation of his own, and learning not to drink, although this morning did not bode well for either outcome.
If her mother was busy cleaning up after her father, and her father busy sleeping off his latest “spell,” then that left only the widow as a possible obstacle to her expedition to the secret cellar. Ursula could easily convince her mother that there was a school holiday, and the widow had sent her off on errands, if her mother even missed her. But if the widow needed her cellar key, Ursula would be caught red-handed.
As if called by a spirit, the widow swept into the kitchen at the moment Ursula pondered how to elude her. “Good morning, ma’am,” Ursula curtsied, the key suddenly weighing about a hundred pounds in her pocket.
“Oh, are you here?” The widow appeared distracted. “Well, that’s good. I have to go out for an hour or so. Cook will be in to start breakfast. Will you let her know that your father will not be down? No sense preparing a breakfast he won’t eat.” Ursula wondered if there would be an accommodation for the missed meal on their bill; somehow, she thought not. “I’ll be back before luncheon.” And with that, the widow picked up her key ring, attached it to her sash, and bustled back out of the kitchen.
The trickster universe had handed Ursula her chance. The coast was clear, the key still in her pocket, and no responsible adults would care where she was for at least an hour. She turned on her heel and headed for the cellar door.