When the sparkling, well-bred girls tease you for being an orphan, for having a mother who overdosed on laudanum and a father who took his own life, for being a charity case and scrawny and descended from the Romanies, when they shove you in the yard of the boarding school or scald you in the showers, do not cry. Do not let them know they’ve touched you in any way. At night, when they are sleeping, indulge in subtle revenge. Release clicking carrion beetles and cursorial wolf spiders between their sheets. Replace their shampoo with lard. Dunk their toothbrushes in the toilet. They will suspect you. They will accuse you, but if you are careful—if you are smart—they won’t be able to prove a thing. The headmistress will never believe one so meek could plot and carry out such machinations. When she dismisses the charges, do not smile. Learn to conceal your emotions. This ability will serve you well.
Read everything you can get your hands on. Literary masterworks and serial mysteries, romantic novels and sci-fi thrillers, pulp magazines and penny dreadfuls. Become obsessed with gutsy, glamorous heroines—women who buck convention and blaze trails and break hearts. Make top marks in every subject, marks that unfortunately will get you nowhere. You will be no beauty and have no connections or prospects. Upon graduating, you’ll have a choice—take a position caring for an affluent widower’s daughter clear across the country, or join your aunt, who works in the school kitchens, slaving for hundreds of the same girls who’ve made the last nine years of your life miserable. Do not think twice. Take the position.
Anticipate hating the child, but find her to be nothing like the wealthy girls you’ve known. From your first glimpse of her astride a stygian stallion named Mephisto—a horse far too big for an eight-year-old to handle—you’ll become intrigued. Watch her bring the beast in line, digging into its flanks with spurs affixed to her little heels, flogging it with a crop, driving it around a course set up behind the widower’s country estate. Watch her black hair stream, her muscles tense, as she leads Mephisto into one jump after another. “It’s no use telling her to be careful,” her father will say, glancing up from the business section of the Times, sipping scotch. “It’s no use telling Rebecca anything.”
She will possess more wit, nerve, and spirit than any adult you’ve encountered—this child in your charge—and though ten years your junior, she will become your first actual friend. Together you will concoct clandestine games and hold late-night séances and recite famous tragedies and perform original dance routines. She’ll confess deeds, hopes, and fantasies that should scandalize you but won’t. Allow her to bewitch you as she bewitches all who cross her path. Do not consider revealing her secrets to her remote father, who will be terminally away on business, managing to miss every milestone, every equestrian competition and sailboat race. Enjoy the honor of being her co-conspirator. Collect her shed clothing, and when no one is looking, bury your face in each finely crafted article. Inhale her pure ambrosial scent. Buff her pink skin with a washcloth. Brush her dusky hair—one hundred strokes a night. Weather her tumultuous tantrums for the joy of watching the sun break over her once again.
On her insistence, take a husband. The man who runs the stables on the estate. Pretend this situation suits you. Put off performing your wifely duties for as long as possible, and when he finally locks the door and forces himself on you, leave your body. Float away. Watch your little lady sleeping peacefully in her canopied bed. Until he finishes, dream of living with her on a sprawled country estate, in a monumental Tudor-style manor house perched precipitously on sea cliffs. When she asks you about sex, lie. Tell her things you’ve only read in pulp novelettes and penny dreadfuls. “Oh Danny,” she’ll say, her inky eyes glinting, “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to make love!” Two weeks before your tenth wedding anniversary, your husband will be kicked by a spooked horse. Once he dies from his injuries, conceal your relief. Conceal your glee. Start dressing all in black.
At sixteen your lady will start sleeping with stable hands on her father’s estate; men she meets in department stores and at her boating club; her cousin Jack. Help her hide this. Help her juggle her lovers—all of whom are fated to fall for her, to lose their heads. Secret yourself in the shadows of her boudoir or a barn or a boathouse as she forces her opalescent body against a wide assortment of sinewy men—as she attacks them like a starved, carnivorous animal—and feel your heart tighten with a concoction of jealousy, admiration, and love.
Do not be surprised when at twenty-four she announces her engagement to one of the country’s wealthiest bachelors, and do not expect her matrimonial intentions to change her behavior. “I’ll live as I please, Danny,” she’ll say repeatedly until the day before she dies. “The world won’t stop me.” While she and her husband honeymoon in Monte Carlo, it will be up to you to pack her trousseau and travel to the West Country estate on which you’ll spend the next eleven years of your life. The lorry will wind around a tree-lined drive for more than a mile before the dense vegetation recedes and you catch your first glimpse of the house. Do not gasp. Do not cry out. Though you won’t have ever seen Manderley—not even a picture postcard—you’ll recognize from your dreams the decorative half-timbering, the oriel windows, the gabled roof, the abundant chimneys of the Tudor-style manor house perched precipitously on sea cliffs, and you’ll recall something your mother said before she sank forever into the soft bosom of laudanum: “Getting what you wish for, my darling, has its own set of difficulties.”
Embrace the elegance, the spaciousness, the unequivocal grandeur of your new home. Prepare for your lady’s arrival by taking the other servants in hand. Ignore their palpable resentment. Tighten the household until it hums. When your lady returns from Monte Carlo and says, “You’ve done a bang-up job, Danny,” swell with pride. Allow yourself to believe that your mother might have been mistaken. That it might be possible to live happily ever after in this house overlooking the sea.
Notice how the husband stares at your lady—as though she is a malevolent specter, a sanguinary monster who eats unsuspecting children—and understand that she has revealed to him her true nature. There is no chance, however, of him giving her away. He won’t risk the scandal; name and reputation mean too much to him. He and your lady are destined to present a portrait of wedded bliss to the world as she renovates Manderley—hosting masked balls and soirees, transforming the house into the most celebrated, most visited home in all of England.
Whenever the bars of her gilded cage close in on your lady, she’s sure to relieve the pressure by tempting fate. She’ll sail alone on tempestuous seas in a yawl named not Millicent for the mother she never knew, nor Minerva for the wise goddess, but for her girlhood stallion Mephisto. To escape, she’ll take frequent trips to London. While she’s away, busy yourself with the running of the household. Try not to worry. Draw her bath as soon as she returns. Kneeling beside the tub, scrub her pink skin as you did when she was a girl. Listen to the details of her trysts – sex with multiple partners, how deeply her cousin Jack can penetrate her with a fist. You’ll often wonder why she shares these things with you. If she needs another in whom to store her many sins. Will she understand that it excites you—listening to her exploits while washing her body? That you lie awake at night in the room connected to hers, listening to the even sound of her breath, envisioning the scenes she’s painted, your fingers fumbling between your thighs?
A decade into her marriage, your lady is bound to grow careless. The stream of men who visit her seaside cottage will upset the husband, but she’ll shrug and say, “What’s it got to do with you?” When he hurls insults at her—when he accuses her of being less than human—shield her with your body. Note how thin she looks, how weary. Tuck her into bed and watch her sleep. Try not to spend every waking moment fretting about your indomitable lady, who will appear—for the first time in her robust life—to be breakable.
One stormy night, she will take the Mephisto out alone, and she will not return. Before the call comes, before the husband drives up the coast to identify a body, you’ll understand that she is gone. Ignore the voices clamoring in your head. Do not plummet into the void your lady once filled. Though your heart will be torn asunder, do not follow your father’s example. No sitting fully clothed in a tepid bath. No straight razor pressed to your wrists. Try not to think of the woman to whom you’ve dedicated your life—the woman who could not stop tempting fate. Never show the husband or the rest of the staff what your lady’s death has drained from you. Keep her things just as they were when she touched them last—the furs and gowns and jewels, the brushes and silk scarves and bottles of perfume and lotion, her china ornaments and Renaissance paintings, her roses. In this manner, preserve her. Sustain her memory. Conjure her ghost.
When the husband cables from Monte Carlo less than a year after her death to announce that he’s married a girl young enough to be his daughter, reach back to your school days. Reacquaint yourself with revenge. The new wife will be a mousy, awkward thing—the complete antithesis of your lady. Decide that you despise her, but when you confront this usurper for the first time, you’ll find that she touches something deep inside you. Her obvious confusion and discomfort are sure to remind you of a lonely orphan at a faraway boarding school. Do not let this sway you. Think always of your lady, and how this pretender is trying to take her place.
Make things as difficult as possible for the would-be replacement. Never miss a chance to point out her inadequacy—to make her look like a fool. Remind her of the superiority of your lady. Present her with evidence that the husband could never love another. When she breaks a china cupid in the Morning Room, make her feel like an ignorant child. Watch her squirm, and try to take pleasure in her discomfort, but you’ll find that you cannot. Despite your undying love for your lady, her proxy will inspire more pity than contempt. Conceal the tender sentiments aroused by the pretender’s inability to hide her thoughts and feelings—by her complete lack of guile. You’re certain to find yourself musing about what might have been if you’d met under different circumstances. If you’d reached simultaneously for the same stream-of-consciousness satire or historical potboiler in a bookstore. If, over coffee in a small café, she’d revealed to you that her parents also died tragically. Pointlessly. If you’d discovered that she, too, had been an outcast. That an even playing field stretched between you.
Begin to question whether your lady ever thought of you as more than a servant—an automaton designed to pick up after her and buoy her constantly with admiration. As more than a repository for the burden of her sins. When you start neglecting the care of her things, it will feel as though the bedrock beneath your life has shifted, turned to sand. Fight to keep your emotions in check. After a slew of sleepless nights, you’ll conclude that in order to remain loyal to your lady, you must rid yourself of the new mistress of Manderley.
Devise a scheme that involves a fancy dress ball. Convince the pretender to wear, unwittingly, the same costume your lady once wore. Count on the fact that the inevitably unfavorable comparisons—the embarrassment and the shame—will be more than the mousy girl can handle. When she confronts you in your lady’s bedroom the day after the ball, you’ll long to put your arms around her. To comfort her. To cover her plain face with kisses. Ignore these impulses. Instead, attempt to talk her into ending her own life. It is the only way you can maintain allegiance to the spirit of your lady. Despite how much it pains you, lead the pretender to the window. Push aside the curtain and throw up the sash. Watch the fog roll in. Say, “What’s the use of staying here? You’re not happy. Your husband doesn’t love you. Why don’t you jump? Why don’t you try?”
She’s not destined to jump, however. At that moment, a cargo ship will run aground on the sea cliffs. When men dive down to investigate the wreckage, they’ll discover a second sunken boat—a yawl with a body inside, a yawl upon whose stern Mephisto will be painted in bold red strokes. Knowing she sailed alone the night she died, you’ll realize the body the husband identified a year earlier couldn’t have been that of your lady. Your lady is still trapped on the seafloor.
When it is revealed that the Mephisto was willfully sunk, a coroner’s inquest will be ordered. A verdict of suicide will be returned, but your lady’s cousin—Jack of the penetrating fist—is sure to challenge this ruling. He’ll claim that your lady was pregnant with his child. That she was murdered by the husband. He’ll bring a police official to Manderley and ask you to lie about your lady.
“She was not in love with you,” you’ll say instead, “or with Mr. de Winter. She was not in love with anyone. She despised men.”
“Didn’t she come through the woods to meet me night after night?” Jack will say. “Didn’t she spend the weekends with me in London?”
“And what if she did? Lovemaking was a game with her, only a game!” Once you start revealing the truth, you’ll find yourself unable to stop. “She did it because it made her laugh. She laughed at you like she did at the rest!”
“Mrs. Danvers,” the police official will say, “can you think of any reason why Mrs. de Winter would have taken her own life?”
Fight to maintain your composure. “No.” Shake your head, clutch at your dress. “No, never.”
But alas, you’re doomed to break down in front of the official and the husband and the pretender—who will stand blinking her kind brown eyes and shaking her head, covering her mouth with one plain hand. You’re fated to weep for your lady and for her replacement and for your parents. To weep for the first time since the age of nine.
When it comes out that your lady wasn’t pregnant—that she was dying of cancer—the husband and the second Mrs. de Winter will be in London. Take advantage of their absence. Infiltrate every corner of Manderley. Wine cellars. Ballrooms. Gloomy attics. Water closets. Solariums. Breakfast nooks and dining halls. The indoor pool. The Morning Room. Wander the grounds and gardens. Stand atop cliffs. As the sun scorches a path to the sea, let the salt-spray coat your skin. Gaze into swirling, turbulent waters. Your lady’s thinness and fatigue weren’t figments of your imagination. Picture her in the seaside cottage, taunting the husband with her false, adulterous pregnancy. Hear her mocking laughter. Envision the husband producing a pistol and shooting her through the heart, just as she intended. See him rolling her in a rug, dragging her to the Mephisto, sailing from the cove, drilling holes in the hull, opening the sea cocks. As you reconstruct the narrative of your lady’s death—as you decipher the riddle, as you solve the crime—feel at once absolved and utterly abandoned. Bereft of the hand that has been pulling your strings. Freed from fate. Discharged from destiny. As though for the first time, it’s up to you to write the next chapter of your life.
Briefly, entertain the notion of staying on at Manderley – tending to the new mistress as you once tended to your lady. Bathing her. Caring for her things. Living at her beck and call. You’ll soon realize, however, that this is impossible. That the husband has only kept you around out of fear. So as not to arouse your suspicions. That the story in which you’ve been a supporting player has reached its resolution. Your services are no longer required. You’ll be asked to leave as soon as the happy couple returns from London.
Reenter the grand house overlooking the sea. Float up the stairs to your lady’s rooms. Touch her things. When you bury your face in them, however, you’re bound to notice they’ve lost her pure, ambrosial scent. Even surrounded by the possessions of the first Mrs. de Winter—even in this shrine to her memory—you’ll be able to picture only the brown eyes of her replacement.
Gather your few possessions. Retrieve a can of kerosene from the storerooms. Lock yourself in. Soak everything— furs, duvet, canopy, dressing table, jewelry boxes. Strike a match. Watch it burn yellow before tossing it onto a Persian rug. Stretch out on your lady’s mattress. Feel flames waltz around you. Her sanctum will swiftly become stygian—an inferno ruled by Beelzebub or Mephisto. Do not act as your lady’s avenging angel. Do not annihilate out of hatred, or for the wanton sake of destruction. Instead, use fire to wipe out past, present, and fated projection. To clear a swath, scorch the earth, burn things back to a tabula rasa. A starting point. For the husband and both the Mrs. de Winters. For a cook at a girl’s boarding school. For a laudanum addict and a suicide. For a scrawny orphan girl, huddled under blankets with a flashlight and a penny dreadful, dreaming of treachery, obsession, and illicit love. Imagining a house perched on sea cliffs. Listening for the stealthy approach of a sparkling, well-bred girl named Rebecca.
Rumpus original art by Zach Swisher.
Excerpted from Tales the Devil Told Me by Jen Fawkes. Copyright © 2021 by Jen Fawkes. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Press 53.