Katharina Scheltgen, who was known as Katya, was eighteen
years old when she started work at Schönwald. The
daughter of a maid and a footman who lived in married
servant's quarters in a fashionable villa in Berlin, she had
earned her first wages at the age of twelve working for the
people who employed her parents.
with an outgoing, feisty personality, Katya had been a delight
to her parents as a small child, but as she reached her teens
her forthright manner caused conflict between her and her
mother. What had started as an attempt to pull Katya
"into line" when she was twelve and thirteen years old had
become all out war by the time Katya was fourteen. Her
father's attempts to mediate between his wife and his daughter
brought him into conflict with both of them, so he basically
stayed out of it from then on.
get away from the fighting, Katya sought work in other villas
around Berlin. That was only partially successful.
On the one hand she was away from her mother during her
working week, so there was no sniping and squabbling between
them in that time. On the other hand, when she was
working in a villa close-by her mother expected her to live at
home and walk to work, so they still fought every day.
found work far enough away that she could not live at home,
but since her mother expected her to be home on her half-day
off, and to go to church with her family every Sunday, the
fighting was still constant. Unable to spend any time in
her mother's presence without squabbling with her, Katya
finally looked for work so far away that she could not go home
employment agency Katya had registered with presented her with
an opportunity for work in one of the large estates out in the
country, 50 kilometres from Berlin. Filled with visions
of great balls and hunting parties, Katya instructed the
employment agency to tender her application. The name
itself, "Schönwald," "Beautiful Forest" seemed to hold promise
of a lovely place to live and work.
housekeeper for Schönwald, Minna Müller, interviewed Katya for
the position of assistant maid to the lady's maid.
Trained as a "tweeney," a young woman who runs between the
upstairs and the downstairs, mostly doing cleaning, Katya was
delighted with the opportunity to move up to assistant to a
lady's maid. She couldn't believe her luck when she was
accepted for the position.
family was astonished that she had been accepted for such a
position when she had no training for it. Afraid that
there was something "fishy" about it, and not wanting her to
go so far away, they forbade her to take the job.
Despite their objection, and even though she knew she might
end up estranged from them forever for doing so, Katya
presented herself at the appointed time and place to be picked
up by the Schönwald carriage and driven off to her new life.
visions of luxury and an easy life disintegrated within a day
of her arrival at Schönwald. Trapped inside three
darkened, cramped rooms with a crazy woman who wouldn't eat
and seemed to do little but sleep and complain, and her
long-suffering maid, Katya was constantly hungry. At
first she was too stunned to be miserable, but as the hunger
intensified she thought of little else but finding ways to get
food, and planning her escape.
Katya's new mistress, Hildegard von Goff, was prescribed
various tonics and potions by her doctor. All of the
medications contained preparations of opium, morphine, or
cocaine along with various other ingredients dissolved in
alcohol. To supplement these medications, Hildegard also
had a wide variety of herbal preparations for every little
ache and pain, real or imaginary. The majority of her
potions and tinctures suppressed her appetite, leaving her
unable to eat. The more she was urged to eat, the more
Hildegard abhorred eating, and when she didn't eat, no one
around her could eat.
well as refusing to eat, Hildegard was afraid to leave her
rooms, imagining all sorts of terrifying evils on the other
side of her door. Eating with her husband in the dining
rooms required leaving her rooms, so she refused to do that.
All of her food was brought to her rooms on trays, which she
usually sent away, which left no food available for Katya, or
the woman Katya was supposed to be assisting, Philomele Hübner.
Forbidden to leave Hildegard's rooms without permission, and
never given permission, Katya had no access to the staff
dining room. Forbidden to talk to the few people who did
enter Hildegard's apartment, Katya had no access to the gossip
in the house. The loneliness was almost as hard on a
gregarious personality as the hunger was.
Stitch in Time opens when Katya has been isolated in
Hildegard's rooms for a week, hungry almost all of the time.
She regrets moving so far from her mother, and now appreciates
how well off she was in Berlin in a way she never had before.
Spending every moment that she's not thinking about food
planning how to get back to her mother, Katya paces back
and forth in Hildegard's rooms while Hildegard and Philomele
Prolonged opium use makes eyes sensitive to light, so
Hildegard kept the heavy, dark drapes pulled shut at all
times, so that Katya was in constant dim light as well as
hungry and lonely.
Before she plucks up the nerve to simply walk all the way back
to Berlin, Katya begins to have an attachment to Philomele.
She sees that Philomele's life is thankless and limited.
Not wanting to abandon Philomele, and not wanting to face a
life of unemployment from leaving a job with no reference,
Katya decides to stay a little longer to try to find a way to
return to her mother with her head held high instead of
returning in disgrace.
Inventing a system of keeping the trays in Hildegard's rooms
long enough to be able to secrete food from them so that she
can eat regularly, even if she is eating when Hildegard and
Philomele are asleep, Katya works to find ways to make her new
the Master of Schönwald, Otto von Goff, discovers that
Hildegard is starving her maids, he insists that the maid must
eat even if Hildegard does not. He also has Frau Müller
hire another assistant for Philomele so that there will be
someone with Philomele while Katya has time off. The new
girl, Gurda Ritter, is from the little village of Schönwald
and goes home every evening. However, Otto's plan of
Katya and Gurda alternating meal times in the staff dining
room does not eventuate. Hildegard is filled with
nameless fears of what will happen if people come and go from
her rooms, and won't allow Katya to eat with the staff.
as she longs to go home, Katya keeps on putting off the time
that she'll leave. After a month of seeing what
Philomele goes through she can't bear to abandon her. On
top of that, she is so afraid that if she leaves Schönwald by
just walking out she won't be able to get another decent job.
Trapped in the murky world of Hildegard's opium dreams, it
doesn't occur to Katya that if she told Otto or Minna Müller
that she couldn't take it and wanted to go home, they would
have sympathised with her, given her a good reference, and a
ride back to Berlin.