And now for something completely different...
It was one of these boisterous April storms, with howling wind and furiously rustling branches. The old house was croaking and moaning, and the din from the roof, pounded heavily with the steady rain, was deafening. It therefore took Maria quite a while to hear the angry ringing of the widow’s bell; when she did finally catch it, she sprang to her feet in alarm. She hastily hid the box she had just pulled out of the chest in the drawing room; a pointless act, driven more by her sense of guilt than by the necessity to protect her secret. After all, Maria and the old lady were now the only people living in the large house.
She hurriedly washed her hands clean. The bell rang again, and she thought she heard the old lady shout something, too. She hurried up the steep stairs, careful not to miss a step in the darkness. At the door she took a deep, steadying breath. Just as she opened the door, the widow rang again.
She was posed in her usual half-sitting position, a book opened at her lap. She stopped ringing and slammed the bell onto the chest of drawers. It gave a loud THUD and a last wimpy jingle.
“What’s the meaning of this?!” bellowed the widow. Her voice was even hoarser than usual, and her shriveled face was red with fury.
“You called, ma’am?” said Maria, lowering her eyes.
“Damn right I called! I’ve been calling for hours, you impudent girl! I could have died here, I could have been caught in a fire, I could have drowned in this blasted rain, I could have…” a coughing fit stopped the stream of possible fatalities. The whole thing was a wild exaggeration, of course: Maria had replaced her reading candle less than an hour ago. The candle was still almost 10 inches tall.
Maria knew better than to point out this fact. Proving the widow wrong was one of the many sure ways of getting punished. There was also no point explaining why she couldn’t hear the bell. Whatever the situation, Maria had learned that the best tactic was always to keep her head down - and endure.
“I’m sorry ma’am”, she said.
“I’m sorry ma’am”, repeated the widow, quite grotesquely. “You will be sorry indeed before I’m done with you! Fell asleep, didn’t you? Didn’t you?!”
“A likely story!” roared the widow. “I should have kicked YOU out instead of that other thief of a girl. You think being lazy is better than stealing? You think I’m paying you to be asleep, you ungrateful brat?”
The “thief of a girl” was Maria’s younger sister, Betty. Her crime was that instead of throwing away a half-empty bottle of the widow’s wine, she gave it to a delivery boy she had a silly crush on. How the widow found out about the whole thing was a mystery, but the grim outcome was that poor Betty was promptly sacked. The two weeks that had passed since then had been a nightmare for both sisters: Betty had so far been unable to find work and was coming to the brink of starvation, while Maria had to keep the large house - more than a handful even for the two of them - all by herself. She had been doing her best, working more than 15 hours a day; but she knew it wasn’t sustainable. She was so tired these days, she actually DID sometimes fall asleep while working.
Horrifed, Maria realized she had been dozing off. “Yes, yes ma’am – right away, ma’am”, she stammered. What was she asked to do? She had no idea. She stood there for a moment, considering her next move.