“Maggie seems a little happier, don’t you think?” Mrs. Blaylock commented to her husband one evening after dinner. It had been nearly a week since they’d returned home, and everyone had forgotten already what it was like to be away. “I must admit, I was very concerned that her break with Simon was going to crush her—but it seems as if she’s doing just fine.”
“Indeed,” Mr. Blaylock agreed. “I do admit that I miss him coming around, though. He’s a nice kid. I do hope he’s been doing just as well.”
“It does feel odd,” Mrs. Blaylock sighed. “The Aldridges became such regulars.”
As for herself, Maggie had almost entirely put her mind off the Aldridges (or, at least, they were stuffed somewhere in the recesses of her brain alongside the dress code rules from the women’s college and the French she took there) until Victoria brought Simon up in conversation.
“You don’t still write to Simon, do you?” she asked, braiding Maggie’s hair.
“Goodness no, of course not. Why?”
Victoria shrugged. “Just curious.”
Maggie didn’t pursue the topic any further. She was busy thinking about her own curiosities, namely what was going to occupy her time now that Winnie was gone and Simon had been relegated to a stranger. She’d privately come to the decision to join the Ladies’ Club. A membership hadn’t been offered to her, but she thought the idea showed growth and maturity and would impress her mother.
“Mama?” Maggie stepped into the drawing room one evening. Mama looked up from her desk, brows arched in shock.
“Margaret? Is everything all right?”
“Yes. I was wondering if I could ask you something.”
Mama set down her pen. “Well, okay. Let’s sit and talk about it.”
Maggie perched herself obediently on one end of the sofa, where she was joined by her mother, who placed a loving hand atop Maggie’s thigh.
“What is it, sweetheart?”
“Mama, I would like to join the Ladies’ Club.”
“This is a surprise! Whatever made you think of that?”
“Do I need a particular reason?”
“Well, no, I suppose not. I’ll have to ask the other ladies, of course, but they shouldn’t have a problem—well, maybe Mrs. Spencer, but she’s that way about everything. Plus, the tennis tournament is probably still fresh in her mind.”
“That’s hardly fresh, it was months ago.”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter. It’ll take her at least a year before she moves on.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
Neither one of them spoke. The weight of Mama’s hand distracted Maggie.
“Margaret? Look at me.”
Maggie did as she was told. Her mother’s eyes shone with impending tears, and she tilted her head as if it would help her better understand something that Maggie wasn’t saying.
“Are you happy?”
From outside in the hall, someone’s footsteps echoed—Mrs. Putnam’s? Lena’s? Maggie glanced over at the door as if she expected someone. At the corner of her vision, she saw Mama anxiously gnawing her lip.
“Yes, I think so,” Maggie said, turning her attention back.
“I know…I understand things have been hard for you this year. I wish I’d checked in on you after Simon…left.”
“I really do wish we could have stayed friends, Mama. Me and Simon.”
“Simon and I. And I also wish that could have been the case, if the Aldridges weren’t…the way they are.”
Maggie thought she’d finally been on the up and up, but now she felt sad all over again and all at once. Mama, now openly sobbing, didn’t improve the feeling.
“I…I love you…so much. I wish…I knew…how to help you.”
Maggie wrapped her arms around her mother, who returned the embrace shakily. It had been a long time—perhaps years—since they’d been so physically close. Maggie felt her own eyes stinging but screwed them shut and exhaled slowly.
“Is there…anything else you want to tell me, Margaret?” Mama sighed, sniffing, and dabbing at stubborn tears.
“For God’s sake, Mama,” Maggie said, “call me Maggie.”
Every morning, after the first few fleeting moments of clear consciousness, Victoria’s thoughts raced to what she could possibly write to Simon. All she was certain of was that she was stuck.
Simon’s letter read, as she had memorized:
I apologize for never writing back to you. It was a weird time. I hope you understand.
(Also, I enclosed a little packet of strawberry seeds, for Mrs. Gibson’s yard.)
It was agonizing thinking of what to say in return—or if she should write a reply at all, and in what tone to write it. It was a lonely struggle for Victoria, who did not want to let Maggie know that she was planning on writing to her almost ex-fiancé and who was too afraid to tell anyone else. That left her with no choice but to steal away somewhere private to pen her reply.
That evening, after the dinner dishes had been finished and before she went upstairs to turn down Maggie’s bed, Victoria locked herself in the servants’ quarter bathroom. She’d tucked a single piece of paper and a pencil into her pocket earlier in the day. Now, taking out the paper, she was disappointed to see it had wrinkled considerably (probably due to when she’d accidentally spilled half the teapot on herself when preparing a refreshment for Mr. Blaylock that afternoon). She stood at the sink and smoothed the paper as best she could over the porcelain surface before beginning her note.
Thank you for your explanation, as overdue as it was. Maggie and I miss your visits here.
Thank you for the seeds, that was very kind of you. I will plant them soon.
Perhaps we can continue a written correspondence? If not, I wish you the best.
Upon reading it over, Victoria thought that the opening sentence could possibly be misconstrued as a bit aggressive, but she didn’t have the extra paper to spare, so she folded it carefully and slipped it back into her pocket.
She mailed it the following afternoon, taking along with her the rest of the household’s postage. It was a satisfying little task, walking down to the public mailbox outside the county clerk’s office and dropping all the letters inside. Returning to the Blaylock home, she spotted Mrs. Edwards approaching from across the street. Victoria immediately turned her attention elsewhere, hoping that they could pass each other without recognition—but the woman had already seen her.
“Victoria!” Mrs. Edwards called and bustled to her with a small smile. “How are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine. How’s Winnie?”
“Wonderful. I’m sure Margaret’s already told you that she and Hubert are expecting a child?”
Victoria hadn’t heard any such thing. “Yes. Such great news!”
Mrs. Edwards smiled again, more sincerely this time. “Thank you, Victoria. It was nice seeing you. Have a good day, now.”
Maggie certainly was not anticipating, while calmly preparing for bed that night, to learn that her closest childhood friend was to become a mother. She’d listened, immobilized, as Victoria casually told her about her encounter with Mrs. Edwards. She sat in Maggie’s desk chair as Maggie brushed her hair in bed—though, at the mention of Winnie’s news, the brushing had paused.
“So you didn’t know, either,” Victoria concluded.
“No,” said Maggie, “and it seems a little odd that Mrs. Edwards would imply that I did. The only thing I can think of is that Winnie’s parents wrote an announcement to my parents, which Mama prevented me from reading.”
“Why would she do that?” Victoria turned to the desk and surveyed the area.
“She probably thinks it’ll make me upset all over again about Simon and...well, you know. But thank you for telling me.”
“Are you upset about it?” Victoria recognized the thoughtfulness in Maggie’s expression and knew that a little soliloquy was on its way. She took advantage of Maggie’s preoccupation to carefully open a desk drawer and pilfer a few sheets of stationery paper.
“I’m not jealous of Winnie being a mother if that’s what you mean. But I am a little sad that everything happened the way it did so quickly—or, at least, it certainly seemed that way to me. Regardless, I’ll have to write her to wish her well. Anyway, I’d rather not talk about those things anymore, especially not just before bed. It causes me such terrible insomnia. I’m tired of feeling sad and guilty about things that happened that I wish never had. I’m on the brink of twenty-five, and it seems to me that it’s high time to change my perspective on a few things.”
“Why, is your birthday soon?”
“Yes, Victoria. In five days, as a matter of fact.”
“Do you know, I sort of dislike birthdays,” Victoria admitted. She stood, suddenly feeling jittery. She shook out her legs and crossed her arms.
“Why?” laughed Maggie. “There’s cake and presents, and everyone at least pretends to be happy for you.”
“Well, for one, I never had any of those things—besides people pretending to be happy for me—because, as I will remind you, I grew up in a foundling hospital and overstayed my welcome in between brief employments with different families.”
“Oh,” said Maggie, who had resumed her hair brushing. “I suppose I didn’t consider that.”
“But, regardless, the idea of birthdays tends to depress me,” Victoria sighed, flinging herself upon the floor where she crossed her legs and hunched over with her chin in the palms of her hands. “Just as soon as I get used to being one age, I’ve suddenly become another. Then I feel awkward and unsure, and after some time finally grow into being said age, and another birthday rolls around. It’s very tiring.”
“Well, don’t think about it too hard,” Maggie said, frowning down upon her. She stretched out her arm and dropped her brush on her bedside table. “You’ll make yourself sick.”
The five days to Maggie’s birthday passed with no reply from Simon. Victoria thought bitterly that she’d stolen paper from Maggie for nothing. She went about the morning chores a bit grumpily, something that Mrs. Putnam and Lena noticed but didn’t comment on save for a few sidelong, annoyed glances.
A celebratory breakfast was made for Maggie. The dining room table was decked in the fine lace tablecloth and an enormous vase of fresh poppies was set at Maggie’s place. Victoria and Lena served the family platters of fresh pancakes and strawberries, tiny china pots teeming with whipped cream, and coffees with steamed milk. For the rest of the day, the entire downstairs smelled of powdered sugar and fresh blooms.
Around noon, when Victoria came back inside after taking out the garbage, Maggie ran up to her with a smile.
“Victoria!” Maggie embraced Victoria by the shoulders, giving them a gentle shake. “Get yourself ready—I’m taking you out today.”
“It’s my birthday, and it’s what I want—for you to spend some time with me. I’ve already talked to Mama and Mrs. Putnam. We have the rest of the day to do whatever we want.”
Victoria dashed to her room, where she twisted and pinned her hair up into a semblance of a bun, buttoned on a fresh shirt, and stuffed some rogue money in her pocket. She and Maggie then set off, arms linked, for Washington Street. Maggie had even let Victoria borrow a hat, one in powder blue to match her skirt.
“I know we just got home from a vacation,” Maggie said, “but it feels so nice to get out of the house, doesn’t it?”
Since many of the summer residents had already left the Cape, the row of shops and restaurants was pleasantly crowd-free. Out from Jensen’s Fine Pianos exited a miserable child corralled by his beaming mother. Victoria imagined that the woman was pleased with the thought of her offspring harboring great musical talent. She pondered what it would have been like if she’d once had a guardian that had thought so highly of her. She let Maggie walk ahead and caught the little boy’s gaze; he lifted his head in confusion, but when she smiled, he did, too.
Maggie had walked up to one of the larger storefronts, a building with a sign that declared JIB & JABOTS, SINCE 1885. The smooth windows on either side of the door displayed the most impeccable presentations of modern women’s fashion, starched and fresh.
“I’m picking up an item I ordered,” Maggie said to Victoria as they stepped inside.
“Miss Blaylock.” A woman behind a gleaming wooden counter nodded. “Good afternoon. I have your package right here.”
From the shelf behind her, the sales clerk plucked a brown paper box tied with twine, which she presented to Maggie with a courteous smile. “Will this be going on your family’s account today, Miss Blaylock?”
“Wonderful. Please feel free to browse. If you’re interested in anything, please let me know.” The woman eyed Victoria for a second before taking up a pen and ledger.
“Yes, thank you,” Victoria answered eagerly. She quickly realized that the comment hadn’t been for her and rushed over to a display as if that’s where she’d been heading all along.
Sitting on rows upon rows of shelves throughout the modest space were small busts, each bedecked in the most various and elaborate styles of jabots that Victoria had ever seen; she was standing amidst a veritable jabot library.
“Which one’s your favorite?” asked Maggie.
Victoria shrugged. “I don’t really care for them. I have no reason to wear one, and I don’t anticipate ever needing to. To be honest, they’re a little pointless in my opinion.”
The clerk raised her head from her writing to glare at Victoria.
“But if someone wants a jabot, they should definitely come here to get one,” Victoria nearly shouted.
“Okay, alright—let’s go,” mumbled Maggie, tugging Victoria away.
They left the shop and its disgruntled clerk behind. Victoria squinted into the bright afternoon sun and, turning her head away from the sky, her eyes landed on a most attractive little shop named Witt’s End.
“Let’s go in.” She nudged Maggie, who seemed a bit annoyed at being dragged into a store she hadn’t chosen, but she walked in anyway, which Victoria thought was only fair after Maggie had exposed Victoria to her ridiculous jabot emporium.
The inside of Witt’s End was a bit dim. A woody musk hung in the air. The inventory appeared as expected: an impressive array of paper goods, inks, and pens.
“Hello, ladies; may I assist you?” A bespectacled older man stepped into the lamplight. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”
While Maggie uttered, “No, thank you,” Victoria answered, “Yes, please.”
The man smiled kindly at Victoria. “Of course, miss. What is it you’re interested in?”
“Stationery,” replied Victoria, feeling very mature about it.
“Very good. All our fine paper is over here.” He walked to the corner and gestured to the display. “I’ll be over at the counter if you require any further assistance.”
“Thank you,” said Victoria, already distracted by all the pretty, unblemished paper. She moved closer, drawn to a particular paper of pale green.
Maggie scrunched her nose. “That’s a ghastly color. Do you really like it?”
Victoria picked up a stack of the green paper; a sharp floral tone struck her. “Oh, it’s scented! How interesting.”
“It’s roses,” shouted the shopkeeper. “It’s very popular with lady patrons with beaux.”
“It is a bit much,” admitted Victoria. “But this—” she picked up a sample of cream-colored paper— “is beautiful, isn’t it? Just plain enough, and easy on the eyes.”
“It’s customizable!” called the man again. “Would you be interested in monogramming it with your initials?”
“That sounds magnificent,” replied Victoria.
“Victoria—” Maggie began, but Victoria was already rushing towards the counter.
The man smiled at Victoria. “How many sheets will you be taking today?”
“What is the standard amount?” asked Victoria.
“Will twenty-five to start suffice?”
“That sounds good.”
“And what are the initials I will be monogramming?”
“Just a ‘V,’ please.”
“Ah, ‘V’— so many wonderful connotations...violins and vegetables and venison and vineyards, and vines—vines...now that’s an idea.”
Neither Victoria nor Maggie had any idea what the man was rambling about, and neither asked. They watched in invested silence as he counted twenty-five leaves of paper on the counter behind him and then fumbled about in various drawers for a set of stamps. With calculated efficiency, he stamped each piece of stationery, whistling what vaguely sounded like “My Wild Irish Rose.” He then turned and exhibited an example of his finished handiwork on the counter. At the head of the paper in deep brown ink was a beautifully stylized ‘V’ surrounded on either side by sprigs and curls of vines.
“It’s beautiful,” approved Victoria.
“Wonderful.” He placed the papers neatly into a little brown box. “That’ll be six dollars.”
“Six—six dollars?” Victoria nearly exclaimed, flushing. She stuffed her hand into her pocket, feeling for the two dollars she’d brought along with her.
“Here,” piped Maggie. She produced a ten-dollar bill from her purse.
The man nodded and accepted the payment. “Thank you, miss.”
Both Victoria and Maggie were silent as the man completed the purchase and handed Maggie her change. Once outside, clutching the paper box to her chest, Victoria thanked Maggie, though she was slightly mortified.
“You’re welcome,” replied Maggie.
“Are you upset? I feel awful.”
“Upset? No, not at all. Though a little confused, I must admit. Who are you writing to with all this fancy paper?”
“Oh...anyone,” Victoria blurted.
“What?” laughed Maggie. “Come on.”
“I meant, I thought it would be nice to have something nice to write letters on, for once,” said Victoria. “You know, when I have the occasion to do it. I don’t think I’ve had anything so nice in my life, now that I think about it.”
Victoria hadn’t meant to turn the conversation quite so serious, and she knew she had made Maggie uncomfortable by the subsequent silence that ensued for a good few minutes. At least she’d succeeded in diverting Maggie’s attention away from an incessant curiosity of her mysterious pen pal.
The last person either of them had imagined coming home to, sitting casually in the sitting room, was Mrs. Gibson—but as Maggie and Victoria tramped in, there she was on one of the drawing room sofas with a cup of coffee in hand and a smirk on her face.
Maggie halted under the doorframe, Victoria just beside her.
“Welcome home, girls,” said Mrs. Gibson.
“Hello, Grandmother,” nodded Maggie.
“Happiest of birthdays, Maggie,” Mrs. Gibson said, her voice clipped. “I’ve been informed that, despite everyone’s most fervent admonitions, that is what you prefer to be called. So be it, that is what I will call you henceforth. Although I would prefer something else. Is there something else that I can call you?”
“Uh, no thank you,” Maggie sputtered.
Mrs. Gibson sighed.
“Come and join us, please,” pleaded Mrs. Blaylock. She was standing in front of the fireplace, her hands tucked neatly in front of her body.
Wordlessly, Maggie and Victoria obliged, taking perch on the sofa opposite Mrs. Gibson.
“I did a lot of thinking while you all were away on your little annual summer trip that you never invite me to,” Mrs. Gibson began. Mrs. Blaylock squirmed and wrung her hands. “And I wish to extend an offer.”
“...Of what?” Maggie implored.
“I would like to officially reinstate a relationship with my family,” said Mrs. Gibson, with a decided nod. “I would also like to get my horrible yard fixed for good. This poor girl—” she gesticulated at Victoria, “—has been doing all that work by herself thus far and—miserable thing—has done most of it in vain, because while you were out galivanting it gave itself back to the wilderness again.”
“Drat,” mumbled Victoria.
“This is...a lot to take in,” Maggie said. “I need to process it a little bit.”
“What is there to process? That’s what happens when one doesn’t groom their property consistently—alas, the blame rests on my shoulders.”
“Gwendolyn, what is—?” Mr. Blaylock, passing through the hall, paused just before the entrance of the room when he saw Mrs. Gibson and then silently retreated.
“Robert, come back here!” Shouted Mrs. Gibson.
“Oh, dear God,” Mrs. Blaylock mumbled into a palm.
Mr. Blaylock returned, slightly flushed, and approached Mrs. Gibson warily like a schoolboy scolded.
“Robert, I want to make myself clear: I have never particularly liked you, and I think your line of work is silly. But I do love my daughter—as much as you people might doubt me— and I am tired of shutting myself in my house and out of her life. I am willing to swallow my pride, though it took me a good while to work up the appetite.”
“I—I’m very pleased to hear this, Ida,” said Mr. Blaylock.
“And I wish I did it earlier. I’ve missed out on a lot of my granddaughter’s developing years—and Lord knows she needs my guidance, as she’s spending her leisure time with her servant, and she can’t seem to attract the right man.”
Maggie’s throat ached with the desire to interject, but she saw her mother’s wide, warning eyes and ignored the impulse.
“Anyhow, I do hope to see your faces at my doorstep tomorrow evening, young ladies.” Mrs. Gibson raised one of her thinly arched brows at Maggie and Victoria. “We have a lot to work on.”
“Agreed,” sighed Maggie.
This answer seemed to satisfy her grandmother as Mrs. Gibson, with a small, smug smile, lifted her coffee to her lips, drained the cup, and then stood. “I am leaving you all now. I know how much it pains you. Oh, and Gwendolyn, the jam you gifted me was surprisingly adequate.”
“Thank you,” muttered Mrs. Blaylock.
“You’re welcome, dear.” Mrs. Gibson, head held high, swept out of the Blaylock home.
“Tug harder, Maggie, harder!” Mrs. Gibson clapped her gloved hands at Maggie, who was grappling with a rather enormous root of a weed. “You are incredibly weak, my dear.”
“I’m trying,” seethed Maggie. “Your clapping doesn’t help. It makes me feel pathetic.”
“Nonsense, it improves morale. Victoria?”
“Yes?” Victoria shouted from several yards away, where she was trimming a row of nearly unrecognizable hedges.
“Help Maggie with this stubborn weed, please.”
Victoria ran over at once, dropped to her knees, and aided Maggie in finally uprooting the menace.
“Very good.” Mrs. Gibson nodded. “It’s nearly dark, now. Go home. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes, ma’am,” replied Victoria. Maggie, breathless, nodded.
In the golden light of the August evenings, Maggie and Victoria continued to work for—and, occasionally, with—Mrs. Gibson. When she wasn’t aiding (or criticizing) them, she observed from the shade in a wicker chair, sipping iced tea straight from a small pitcher. When she did decide to lend a hand, it was either to tweak something or inspect it momentarily.
In their labor, Victoria discovered a tiny stone angel hidden underneath a patch of tall grass with a carved dedication to “Emerson, a good cat” (which must have been a remnant from a previous owner, as Mrs. Gibson vehemently denied ever owning a cat—“vile, selfish creatures”), Maggie noticed that some of the dying hedges in the front were actually rosebushes and Mrs. Gibson saw that there was a vine of tomatoes flourishing on one side of the house.
“Hm, I’d forgotten about those,” she commented.
Not once, in the nearly two weeks that Victoria and Maggie worked, did Mrs. Gibson offer either any sort of remittance; every evening, Maggie and Victoria drudged back to the Blaylock home tired, thirsty, and hungry. After their final day of work, however, Mrs. Gibson appeared bearing a tray of drinks, jam, and bread, which she set on the little glass-topped table on her back porch. After the ceremonial final weed was tugged from the earth, Maggie and Victoria joined her, and the three of them ate in silence, staring contentedly at the fruit of their handiwork.
“Are you going to invite anyone over now that it’s done?” asked Victoria, breaking the quiet. “It’s too nice not to show off, don’t you think?”
Mrs. Gibson made a noise like a chuckle with pursed lips. “‘Inviting people over’ is an awful lot of work, and often a bore. No; I am content just to have this for myself.”
“I’m glad we did this,” Maggie commented.
“At my beckoning, of course,” Mrs. Gibson added.
Victoria didn’t add that it had been her idea and initiative that had spurred the entire project in the first place. She thought it better to allow Mrs. Gibson to feel her pride, and Maggie her satisfaction.
“Anyway,” Maggie said, “it’ll be nice to plant some flowers in the Spring, won’t it?”
“If I’m still here.” Mrs. Gibson picked up her glass but only swirled it around in her hand.
Both Victoria and Maggie were too frightened to inquire further into that statement.
Victoria hadn’t told either of them about the seeds that Simon had sent her; they were still contained within the tiny paper packet, which she felt in her pocket now. For some reason, she thought it nicer to keep them a secret.
The following morning, before the Blaylocks had their breakfast, just as the sun made its appearance, Victoria snuck out the kitchen door. She hiked over to Mrs. Gibson’s backyard, grabbed the spade she’d left behind the angel statue, and dug a crevice in the dirt in an isolated spot between what remained of a withering old oak tree and a patch of thistles. There, she tore open the paper pouch and shook the tiny seeds into the soil.
“Please don’t die,” she whispered to them as she pressed them into place and spread a new layer of dirt as if her pleading would encourage them to survive the oncoming autumn.
She patted the upturned grass and headed home to start the kettle.
© 2022 Angeline Walsh
The Reign of Victoria; or the Year That Everything Changed is a work of fiction. Any resemblances to real persons or events is coincidence. Thank you for respecting the original creation of the author by not reproducing or distributing any part of it in any form without permission.