Between the warm wood of the small houses that made up a bakery and a barbershop a girl was running as fast as she could. She was the only one around, so it was not the fear of persuiting tormentors that made her hurry. If anyone had been there to see her stumble and cut her skinny knees on the dirty rocks of the alley, they might have felt sorry for her.
As it was she bit back a sob as she pushed herself off the sodden ground and hurried on. She was late. Her mother had asked her to deliver a set of bed sheets that she had sown to a family in the city and she had been so fascinated by the large house and the beautiful gardens surrounding it that she had forgotten that she was also supposed to get back soon enough to deliver a dress to a friend of the family.
The family she had just visited had had a servant in a uniform to open the door and ask her to go around to the kitchen entrance, where a maid had offered her a glass of milk. She had accepted it gratefully, but now the weight of it made her stomach turn, and she was afraid she might throw up in the middle of the street. If she did, her mother might notice the smell on her and get angry with her for accepting food like that.
Her father had been away for several months. He travelled many times during the year and generally spent more time away from home than with his family. She had a feeling that her mother blamed her for this. It was never spoken of, but she couldn't find any other explanation; when her father left, her mother grew more and more displeased with her, to the point that she would punish her for the tiniest mistakes. Today was a particularly bad day.
She had already missed breakfast when she spilled a bucket of water all over the newly cleaned floors, and she had received a few nasty slaps when she had forgotten to close the door on her way out. Her mother was in a horrible mood.
When she reached home she was happy to see that no one had noticed her prolonged absence. She took the dress and ran off again in the knowledge that she would be able to do whatever she wanted with the rest of her day, as long as she came home before the sun went down. The woman who had ordered the dress lived relatively close by, and the girl had been there before. It took her very little time to make the turns towards the outskirts of the city and down the little gravel path that led to her destination. When the door swung open, a stream of air that smelled of fresh bread and flowers engulfed her and made her feel strangely sad.
“Oh, Catherine, so good to see you,” exclaimed a voice behind her. She started and turned only to find herself locked in a pair of large arms. She stiffened slightly and waited for the woman to let go of her, a polite smile stuck on her face.
“Thank you, Mrs. Pegg. You too,” she said, trying to make her voice a bit more enthusiastic than she felt. She offered the dress in her outstretched arms and hoped she wouldn't be asked inside. Usually she enjoyed it when people allowed her to see their homes, but in the case of the Pegg family it just made her feel sad. They knew her too well, understood her situation too well. There was always a hint of pity and regret in their gestures that made her want to flee.
Mrs. Pegg seemed to notice her discomfort, so she just handed her the part of the payment that was never collected before the order had been delivered safely along with a small bread.
“You have the night off today, haven't you,” she asked, and nodded toward the bread with a little smile.
Catherine nodded and smiled a little more genuine. “Thank you Mrs. Pegg,” she said. She began walking back towards the road and pretended not to hear the sad little sigh coming from the older woman's direction. She walked fast, but slower than she had before, torn between her desire to enjoy the feeling of freedom and the desire to reach her goal as soon as possible.
There was a small public park less than half an hour from her house where she cold take a seat on the large rocks that stuck up from the ground as a reminder of the raw, unforgiving stone that the city was founded on. It was far away from the mountains, but still close enough that huge boulders and rocks had to be cleared away before any major expansions could be added onto it.
She liked feeling the rocks on her bare feet. It made her feel like she was more free than she was, as if she could run away and become one with nature any day she so chose. It was an unpleasant trip back to reality whenever she had to return home. She often dreamt of running away and fending for herself somewhere in the wilderness. Despite the fact that she had never had to make a fire or kill a prey animal, she remained certain that it would be easier than her current life.
Mrs. Pegg seemed to know all too well how she spent her few free moments. Catherine did not know what to think of the woman's insight or what seemed to be her caring - if rare - gifts of bread or other small food items. She was always slightly disturbed by her presence but she could not put her finger on anything. This evening in particular was not wasted on many thoughts of Mrs. Pegg, her mother or her unhappiness with existence. She sank into her fantasies of a life far away from it all, imagining herself in a forest, fighting for her life against ferocious beasts and the forces of nature. It comforted her.
When she noticed the darkness it was already so late that she could not tell how long ago the sun had gone down.