“Ask the cats.”
“That makes no sense,” said Matilda Tillinghast.
“But that’s what it says. Do you see a cat anywhere?” Matilda’s mother started looking around them, at the sidewalks and the brownstone steps, into the alleys between the buildings.
“Mom, give me that.” Matilda took the piece of paper from her and looked at it again. Directions to Beacon Street, right across from the Boston Common, and then to Hecate Lane. And below the directions, a final sentence: “If you can’t find the entrance, ask the cats.”
“It’s supposed to be between these two house, but there’s nothing. Just one building next to another. Tildie, look for a cat.”
“Mom, that’s so stupid. How’s a cat going to help us?”
Mrs. Tillinghast stood up, looked back at Matilda, and said, “You’re going to have a lot to learn at Miss Lavender’s. I wish your father were still with us. I don’t know enough to help you understand, but I do know enough to follow directions, no matter how strange they might seem. So make yourself useful and look for a cat, right now.”
“Did you require some assistance?” It was a black cat, sitting on the steps of a brownstone, where Matilda could have sworn she had not seen one a minute ago.
“Yes, we’re looking for Hecate Lane,” said her mother. It had been such a strange day anyway, arriving in Boston by train after leaving North Carolina last night, sleeping dressed and upright in the train seats, and then taking the subway to the Common, dragging two suitcases with all her clothes, everything she would need for school – she was so tired and irritated at the strangeness of it all – that it took a moment for what had just happened to register. A cat had talked to her mother. And her mother had talked back.
“Follow me,” said the cat. It climbed down off the steps and then led the way to – well, now there was an alley between the buildings, with a wrought-iron gate that had a small plaque on it saying Hecate Lane. The cat slipped through the bars at the bottom. Mrs. Tillinghast opened the gate and said, “Come on, Tildie.”
Matilda looked back at the Common, at the green trees and the statues, at the swank brownstones that lined the streets, at the skyscrapers rising in the distance. This was nothing like Ashton, North Carolina. For the first time that day, she began to feel, not just tired and irritated, but also a little sick.
Dragging one of the suitcases, she followed her mother along the alley between the buildings. Brick pavement between brick walls, until the brick walls ended and then the brick pavement was walled only by hedges, over which she could see a grassy space with tall trees. It was like a small park in the middle of the city, hidden among the buildings. And in the middle, under some of those trees, there was a stone house.
The cat led them up the pavement and to the front door of the stone house. Then it turned and said, “I knew your husband, Mrs. Tillinghast, when he was doing his apprenticeship. He was a good student, although he once accidentally set my tail on fire. I’d like to offer my condolences.”
“Thank you,” said Matilda’s mother. But the cat was already gone.
She knocked on the door while Matilda did her best to get the suitcase she had been dragging up the stairs. The door was opened by a girl with short blond hair, in a green dress. She was by far the prettiest girl Matilda had ever seen. Matilda disliked her already. “Mrs. Tillinghast? We’ve been waiting for you. And this must be Matilda. I’ll show you to your room, and then you have an appointment with Mrs. Moth.”
She could at least have offered us something to drink, thought Matilda as she climbed the stairs, the suitcase banging behind her. But when they reached the room, the girl said, “Lemonade and cookies.” And there they were, lemonade in a pitcher and a plate of cookies, both on a table around which were sitting three girls.
“Hyacinth, which day is laundry day?” asked one of the girls. She had brown hair and was a little plump.
“Have your clothes in the baskets by Thursday, and they’ll come back by Friday. Girls, I’d like you to meet Matilda Tillinghast. Matilda, this is Thea, Emma, and Mouse.”
“Tillinghast?” said the plump girl, whom Hyacinth had introduced as Emma. “I know your aunt. Isn’t your father the one who –”
“Nice to meet you,” said Thea. She had red hair and freckles. “Cookie?”
“Sure,” said Matilda. Mouse held out the plate. One more strange thing on this strange day: Mouse was the palest person Matilda had ever seen, and her hair was as white as snow. Her eyes were a startling light gray.
“We’re supposed to see Mrs. Moth, right?” said her mother. “Bring some cookies with you. We haven’t had time for breakfast,” she explained to Hyacinth.
“Thanks,” said Mathilda, trying not to stare at Mouse. So this was her room. This was going to be her room for the entire school year, with three girls she didn’t know and already didn’t particularly like. Unless of course she decided to run away, which was a distinct possibility. As she followed her mother down the stairs, finally without the weight of the suitcase behind her, she felt sicker than ever.