I sat in my room looking out the window, watching the new snow cover the Christmas snow that had fallen just the day before, gazing at the servants’ quarters, so small that it almost blended in with the rest of the scenery, snow continuing to pile on top of it. The snowflakes danced around in the air like my thoughts floated through my mind. I thought of what would be happening if I wasn’t being punished: we would all be out together, going off in a carriage to London, where my mother and siblings were already were, to enjoy the winter festivities...but I soon thought of what—or rather, whom—I was being punished for. I realized that no matter how much fun we were having, she would have to stay here, cleaning, cooking, shoveling away the snow in the front pathway and freezing to death, who knows? I made up my mind that I was glad we weren’t in London.
Mother and Father had told me when I was young that punishment is always for a good reason. Knocking over Mother’s vase from China, playing tricks on my brothers and sisters, I can understand, but this was completely different. I had only given our servant Annie a Christmas present: a simple silver bracelet I had bought in town. This is something I had been doing for years now; Annie had always been a kind friend to me, and once I was old enough to understand that she was poor and had almost nothing to call her own, I began giving her a present every Christmas, without anyone else knowing. This year, however, Father found out. I knew he would be furiously angry with me, knowing what he thinks of Annie, remembering how he gives me dirty glances every time he sees me stopping to talk with her in the hall…
Suddenly I heard my father’s voice: “Come here, Ellie,” he said in a simple but foreboding tone from the first floor.
My heart raced. I knew before that I would have to face my father, but the realization hadn’t truly hit me until now. Innumerous questions crossed my mind as I slowly rose off the bed. What would I say? What could I do? All at once I realized something that stopped my pulse: Father had threatened more than once to get rid of Annie...now an irreversible mistake had been made; I hoped to God he wouldn’t follow through with those menacing remarks.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t keep him waiting; his anger would only grow. I opened my door and walked calmly down the stairs as light and silent as a fairy tiptoeing through the woods. Nearing my father, I saw him sitting looking into the fire. On the outside I was quiet and dared not look up, but inside my head my emotions seemed to be fighting each other, saying things to me that I had never before imagined; it is a wonder how much one’s mind changes when under such pressure.
Like never before, Fear and Pride were for a moment the loudest voices in my head: “Tell him it’s all her fault!” they chimed in unison. “Just don’t get punished any further! You know what will happen! It’s not your problem; it’s hers!”
Love and Care couldn’t make up their minds: “You love your father, don’t you? You don’t want to see him angry. But then again, you care about her too, and you could never bear to see her get sent out on the streets.”
Meanwhile, Instinct, arguing with the other feelings, told me to just run away and forget everyone and everything. With all of this confusion I couldn’t hear my own real train of thought.
But suddenly from the back of my mind there came the voice of Justice. It stood in front of all the others and silenced them, saying simply, “Do what is fair.” and I made up my mind. I was now standing before my father, ready to face the worst. He turned to face me.
“Do you know why I called you here?” he asked. As frightening as he was at times, somehow he always started out calm.
I replied, “Yes.”
“Can you tell me what you have done wrong?”
At this moment, my frenzied mind couldn’t manage to form a sentence. I simply stared into the distance for a moment. But once again Justice took control. I took a deep breath, steadied my trembling body, and replied, truthfully, “No.”
“No? Why, I believe you mean ‘Yes’”.
“I mean ‘No.’”
“I’ll give you a hint,” he said as his temper rose. “It has to do with Annie.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong to Annie, father.”
“On the contrary, you have indeed. Or rather, your treatment of Annie has wronged our family.” He stood up and began to shout, his face suddenly red. “Eleanor, you are young, and know nothing of the world!” he said. “You do not understand the common order of human beings. There are those to whom we show the most respect and there are those who must respect us! Our family is the most highly regarded for miles upon miles, to the ends of the forests and the sea. And if you think for a moment that I would accept the kind of treatment you give a mere servant, to think of what would be thought of me to let my daughter behave in such a way—”
He stopped short. I remained still before him, without shedding a single tear.
I inhaled and said, “I have not treated Annie wrongly. I have only treated her as a friend.” I couldn’t believe I was continuously defying my father in such a way.
“Annie is not our friend; she is our servant!” His temper rose again.
“Father, I only gave Annie a gift. It’s Christmastime, and she always pulls together what money she has to give us something. I only wanted to return the favor. Annie has lived in this house longer than I have, longer than any of the children. She’s always been good to us.”
“She has always been a servant! She was born to work for our family.”
“She’s lived here so long and knows us so well; she’s like family to us.”
“Eleanor!” He grabbed me by the arm. “Anne Smitton is not our friend! She is not our family! She is not like us!”
“Why not?” I asked, defiantly looking him in the eye. “I want you to tell me why.”
“Don’t you dare speak to me that—”
But I kept talking, amazed, not even completely comprehending what was coming out of my mouth. “No. It’s not her fault she was born a servant! How could she decide her own fate before she was born? You and I didn’t decide to be rich; we could have just as well been born poor. All I do is treat Annie like a human being. Just because she’s a servant doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve respect. Think of what you and Mum taught me: ‘Treat thy neighbor as thyself.’”
Without saying anything more, my father slapped me once across the face. I was startled at first, but remained still. Then all was silent. We stared at each other, a grown man and a thirteen-year-old girl, for what could have been a thousand years.
Finally, my father said in a menacing whisper, “Go up to your room. And don’t even think about coming out.”
We didn’t say another word to each other. I turned around and walked slowly up the staircase, eyes straight forward, not looking back. I walked into my room and sat down on the bed. For a moment I was thinking nothing.
For as much of me that still wanted to run away and be done with my father and all the trouble he caused, I knew that that was not an option; how would it fix anything?
Looking out at the window, I noticed that the snow had stopped falling. I watched as the moonlight illuminated the ground and gave rise to the shadows of the trees. I could see the moon in a sky scattered occasionally with clouds. I thought again of Annie and how scared she might be if she found out what had happened.
But suddenly I was reminded of another voice; it was not like the others, crowding their way into my mind, but it was the voice of a friend. I remembered something Annie had said to me while telling me a story when I was younger: “There is no fear that a kind and fair heart cannot face.”
Without another thought, I made my choice; I knew what I must do. No matter what happened, I would face my father, voicing my own opinion, but remembering all the while that although we didn’t always see eye to eye, in my core I cared for him as much as I did anyone else.
I calmly walked out of my room and down the stairs, prepared for the worst but hoping for the best, armed with words of wisdom and understanding. Whatever my father did, I did not care, for I had come to terms with what I believed; the best I could do was to face him with both respect and courage. For once, all the other emotions in my head were in agreement; they knew that this was what I had to do. They all agreed with Justice, saying together, “Do what is fair.”
Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, I again saw my father sitting in the same place he was before, facing the fire, his back to me.
“Father,” I began. “May I speak to you?”
“I thought I had told you not to come out of your room,” was the cold response.
“Father, I know what you think of Annie. I understand that you want our family to be respected. But you see…” I was searching for exactly the right words, when I suddenly found I didn’t have to: out of the corner of my eye I saw Annie at the kitchen door in her plain blue dress. She gave me a look that said she understood everything that had happened. As she walked in, my father turned around. She said nothing.
“Father, if you blame anyone for any of this, blame me; I’m the one who gave her the gift. The only thing Annie has ever done is being a loyal servant and a caring friend. You see that as a fault from your eyes, but look: she has eyes to see as well. She has thoughts and feelings just like you and me.”
Suddenly Annie spoke up: “Yes sir, it’s true,” she said. “But if you’d truly like to send me off I’d just like to give you this, for the family—pardon it being late; it was supposed to be for Christmas but I had to save up enough money.” She produced from her pocket a small painted music box and handed it to my father. He looked at it, perplexed at first, turning it around in his hands.
Then all at once, something in his face changed. It was the first time I had seen him look at Annie with what seemed like a hint of admiration.
We were all silent, and looking out the window once more I could see the clouds rolling away to reveal the stars.