Mrs. Blaylock wasted not a day before putting up her Christmas decorations. The affair took the efforts of everyone in the household, including Maggie and Mr. Blaylock. In three hours’ time, they’d lugged the boxes of décor out of storage, unpacked them all (and packed in the non-holiday decorations), strung red and green banners above the front door (which still awaited a fresh wreath, courtesy of the handiwork of Mrs. Max, who gifted them to the Ladies’ Club members each year), tied golden bows to the porch railings and every banister, and cluttered the entire interior of the home with Mrs. Blaylock’s extensive collection of plaster woodland animals, ceramic angels, and wooden figurines—including an unintentionally terrifying wooden Nativity set with beady-eyed donkeys and scowling wise men eagerly awaiting the arrival of Christmas morning for their baby Jesus to be nestled into the little bed of antique straw.
All that remained was the Blaylock’s renowned Christmas tree, a centerpiece that was custom-ordered every year from the Pine Barrens. The space in the foyer where it was to be placed was cleared, the furniture moved and the floor scrubbed clean.
The festivity surrounding Victoria at every turn reminded her constantly that she needed to acquire gifts for Maggie and Lena. Of course, she knew didn’t need to, but she certainly wanted to. At Our Lady of Second Chances, she and the children would exchange paltry presents—perhaps an orange saved from a dessert, or an old trinket regifted—but she’d never had a proper income through which to purchase a gift of her choice for someone she considered a peer.
One of her walks brought her back to Witt’s End. This time, the small shop was bursting with customers, mostly ladies pondering the pens inside the glass cabinets and perusing the assortment of inks (“HOLIDAY SPECIAL—FIVE FOR THE PRICE OF FOUR. GIFT WRAP AVAILABLE FOR A PENNY MORE” read a little paper on a shelf). Victoria edged her way inside, careful not to disturb any of the other shoppers, who fortunately appeared too consumed in their own impertinent decision-making that they didn’t notice her at all.
Victoria squeezed in between two girls standing by the display of packaged stationery paper and, knowing she had a limited time to make a decent choice, she picked through her options. She settled on paper in a hue of dusty rose for Maggie and, on second thought, grabbed another box for Lena, then shuffled her way to the line of four people bunched at the counter.
After twenty minutes of staring just above the head of the nearest person, thinking over what she was going to say to the clerk, Victoria stepped to the counter with her intended purchases. No spark of recognition passed in the man’s face; she was simply another young woman come to do her Christmas shopping.
“Is this all for you today, miss?”
“No, I’d like to have these monogrammed, please.”
“Very good. And what are we monogramming?”
“A letter ‘M.’ And maybe something else to go with it…”
“Hm… ‘M.’ Magpies, mountains, mushrooms…” he paused. Seeing that none of these seemed quite right, he turned and sorted through more of the etching options. “No, maybe we won’t go for a matching adornment. Who’s this for, might I ask?”
“And does your friend favor a type of flower? Or is there a family crest?”
Victoria was acutely aware of the line forming behind her. One woman made an especially audible sigh that sent a jolt of panic through Victoria.
“Magnolias—can you do magnolias?” Victoria blurted. Perhaps it was the flower suggestion, and the way the start of the word matched Maggie’s name. The clerk nodded in surprise and handed Victoria’s papers to another employee who started the monogramming process. After suffering through the huffing and stares bored in the back of her head from those behind her as she awaited the monogramming of Maggie’s gift, Victoria uttered a quick thanks to the clerk and scurried out and on towards home.
She saw, while still all the way down the street as she approached the Blaylock’s house, that the Blaylock’s Christmas tree was being carted in. A carriage toting a large wooden bed was hitched just outside, and a trio of men was hoisting the enormous evergreen up the front steps. Victoria paused to observe them.
One of the hired men caught her staring and mumbled something to the others. He then waved angrily at her. “Get outta here, we’re trying to work!”
“I live here,” Victoria called.
The man’s face scrunched in disbelief. “You live here, huh?”
“I work here,” Victoria clarified.
One of the others with his back to Victoria momentarily glanced over his shoulder. It was Lena’s ice delivery man, Victoria realized. He recognized her just as quickly as she did, in a flash of shock and unease.
“Yeah, she does work here,” he said to the others.
Victoria flounced up the steps and scooted past the annoyed laborers, getting snagged in the branches on her way through. She took this as an opportunity to acknowledge Lena’s old interest. “Congratulations on the new job, by the way.”
“Thanks,” he mumbled, his eyes refusing to meet hers.
Victoria tugged herself the rest of the way through, the pine needles scratching her clothes and tangling in her hair. Fortunately, she managed to keep Maggie’s gift scot-free by raising it above her head.
“Victoria!” shouted Mrs. Putnam, rushing into the foyer. She stopped with a sigh and crossed her arms. “My dear, why in the world do you look like that?”
“I got caught in the Christmas tree.”
“Caught in the—why in heavens name wouldn’t you just go through the back door?”
“I thought I’d be able to sneak my way in. I’m sorry.”
“No use being sorry when the damage’s been done. Come along, I need you to help Lena with the laundry. You were gone for a century at least.”
“I need to run this to my room first.” Victoria lifted the package from Witt’s End.
Mrs. Putnam recoiled. “What is it?”
“It’s a Christmas present for Maggie.”
“I suppose it’s none of my business to tell you how to spend your wages, Victoria, but judging by that fancy wrapping it appears you’ve spent a pretty penny, and it’s certainly not customary for those in our station to indulge their superiors in such a way.”
“This is not a gift for my superior, it’s a gift for my friend.”
“Can you continue your conversation in a different room?” Grunted one of the tree bearers.
“Our apologies,” Mrs. Putnam blurted.
She pulled Victoria away, then swatted her. “Go, put away your ridiculous gift. I’ll expect you back down here in twenty minutes to help trim the tree. God help me if you find a more scenic route on the way down.”
Decorating the tree was an arduous task. Great lengths of tinsel were wrapped around the entire thing; it took Lena, Victoria, and Mrs. Putnam combined to set the sparkling ribbon just right so it wouldn’t unravel or fall limp on its own. Next, the four large hatboxes stuffed with the family’s ornaments were unpacked and hung painstakingly from all angles of the enormous fir. Lena didn’t trust Victoria to use the ladder, so Lena climbed up and down, retrieving the glass figurines and colored baubles to display in the tree’s highest places. Lastly came the freshly made items—oranges spiked with cloves, which perfumed the air with a sweet spiciness, and little gingerbread people and peppermint sticks, of which Victoria ate several.
Afterward, the three of them stood before the elaborately costumed tree in pride.
“Tall and well-dressed,” sighed Lena. “Just how I prefer my men.”
Mrs. Putnam rolled her eyes and flicked a dismissive hand.
The following day, Victoria helped Mrs. Blaylock finalize her own Christmas shopping list and spent the afternoon addressing and stamping hundreds of Christmas card envelopes. She feared that her own, slightly clumsy handwriting was astonishingly inferior to Mrs. Blaylock’s perfectly trained, elegant script, but Mrs. Blaylock didn’t take any notice.
Victoria wondered, as she brushed glue on a stamp, pressed it to the envelope, and held it down to dry, how well acquainted anyone in the family actually was with the Murrays of Dearborn, Michigan, or Mrs. Joseph of Portmeirion, Wales, or Mr. Steeplechase of Sylva, North Carolina. It seemed incredulous that they were in touch with so many people scattered so far away. Victoria didn’t think she’d ever met anyone outside of her little pocket of Pennsylvania or the Cape.
“I’m ordering Mr. Blaylock a new wool coat for Christmas,” confided Mrs. Blaylock as they finished the last of the cards. “I’m having it shipped to Taylor’s on Washington Street. It should be here by Wednesday. Do you think you can go pick it up for me?”
“Of course,” said Victoria.
Victoria also found herself beholden to Mr. Blaylock’s Christmas surprise for his wife and Maggie.
“I’m going to replace all that old furniture in the drawing room,” he told Victoria proudly.
“Oh, okay,” Victoria said, a little puzzled; she thought the furniture in the drawing room looked perfectly fine.
“The curtains as well. What do you think?”
Victoria thought she didn’t know the first thing about fashionable curtains. Besides cleaning them occasionally, she hardly paid mind to them. “I think Mrs. Blaylock will love it, sir.”
“I do, too. I’ll need you and Lena to assist with the moving of the furniture. It shouldn’t be difficult between the three of us.”
“Yes, of course,” Victoria said.
Mrs. Putnam and Miss Blush also never seemed to exhaust themselves of requests. Miss Blush asked Victoria to count the inventory in the pantry one afternoon where, in the quiet darkness, Victoria accidentally fell asleep while counting the potatoes. She awoke with a jolt when Mrs. Putnam barged in to check on her progress.
“I’m almost done,” Victoria called, her voice still choked with drowsiness.
Mrs. Putnam marched closer. “What is the matter with you? The rest of us are putting in our best efforts while you’re here wiling away precious time taking naps. How you haven’t been terminated for your nonsense by now eludes me. Now get to it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Victoria replied, still dazed, as Mrs. Putnam stomped out and shut the pantry door. Victoria hurried through the rest of the items on her list motivated by the fear of another intruder.
As a child, Maggie used to watch the calendar eagerly, counting down the days to Christmas morning when, undoubtedly, a beautiful mountain of packages from the mysterious Santa Claus awaited her beneath the tree. Gradually that type of anticipatory magic had faded away, and in its place was a sort of comfort, ushered in by gaudy but familiar decorations and the promise of a multitude of festivities.
Unexpectedly, Maggie had gotten a letter from Kathleen. Stealing up to her room, Maggie ripped open the envelope and curled onto her window seat, an embroidery hoop with a work-in-progress at her feet ready to jump back into afterward.
That sure was some night we all had at your place, huh? I’m mighty glad I got to stop over and see you and some of the girls.
Anyway, I’ll be home in Jersey soon for the holidays. By the time you get this letter, probably I’ll be home already. Let’s go for a skate. I’m dying for something fun—exams were especially hard this year. I swear they make them worse each year on purpose.
Either way, I’ll see you at your folks’ party on the 27th.
It was a surprising and kind gesture that made Maggie think she wasn’t as friendless as she assumed, after all. Winnie hadn’t written to her once since she’d been married and, only just fully realizing how awful that was, Maggie felt a pang of anger toward the person she would have just one year ago considered her closest confidante.
She picked up her hoop and punched her needle through the cloth, seething with every stitch.
There was a soft rapping at her door. Gently it swung open, and Mama stepped in with one of her nervous little smiles that meant a serious conversation was on its way.
“Yes?” Maggie asked apprehensively.
“May I come in?”
Mama was already halfway inside the room, her figure inclining forward by the second.
“You’re already here,” responded Maggie.
Mama’s smile flickered, and she stepped further toward Maggie.
“Maggie, please look at me. I want to ask you something.”
Maggie pushed aside her annoyance and looked up.
“Thank you. As you know, our Christmas party is drawing close—”
“Mama, I’m not the Ladies’ Club. You can talk to me normally.”
“I’m sorry. I just wanted to ask you if you would be comfortable with me inviting the Aldridges to the party. I don’t like how we parted ways, and I think it would be a nice gesture.”
“That’s more than fine, Mama. You know that Simon and I didn’t part with resentment, you and his parents did.”
Mama sighed and folded her arms. “Really, Maggie, I can’t stand your attitude. You should be grateful that I had the consideration to ask you at all.”
“I appreciate your consideration,” Maggie stated in a decidedly unappreciative tone.
Mama craned her neck over Maggie’s work. “What is it you’re working on now?”
Maggie attempted to pull her embroidery hoop out of sight, but Mama caught it quick as a wink and tugged it, along with Maggie’s arm, closer to her face.
“‘No birds in cages.’ What on earth do you mean by that?”
“It’s just a little line I thought of Mama. It’s appealing to me.”
The hoop was dropped.
“You give too much of your enthusiasm to silly playwrights and…political agitators and…God knows what else, Maggie.”
“Well, I think it’s interesting and others might find it interesting, too. I’ve been thinking—maybe I could even sell these.”
Maggie shocked her own self with her blurted suggestion. Perhaps she’d thought of the idea once in passing, but never had she thought seriously of it—until she saw the wide-eyed confusion on Mama’s face, which suddenly sparked a desire to think up a sales initiative out of spite.
Mama let out a short, sharp laugh. “That illustration is just…ghastly.”
“Because it’s not finished yet, Mama.”
“Margaret, please, you’re not an artist.”
“I never said I was.”
Something inside Maggie’s chest constricted. She didn’t have anything else to say and turned away towards the window. With unsteady fingers, she resumed her work. Though she immediately made a mistake and would have to pull the stitch, she continued anyhow, acutely aware of Mama’s stare.
“That’s just wonderful,” Mama scoffed. “Ignore me—how mature.”
Mama stood there for a little while longer, perhaps contemplating another declaration, before she left the room.
The day before Christmas Eve brought an unexpected call from Kathleen. Just after breakfast, Mrs. Putnam notified Maggie that someone was on the telephone for her. A bit hesitant, Maggie retreated to the hall outside the kitchen, where she gently took the receiver and the earpiece from Mrs. Putnam. She had a fleeting thought, just before she lifted the instruments to speak, that it was Winnie, calling from her new home or, perhaps, from her parents’ home for holidays, and her mind rushed with an uncertainty of what she was supposed to say.
“Hello?” said Maggie, at last.
“Maggie!” piped the voice on the other end. “It’s Kathleen. You want to meet me at the pond for a skate?”
“Oh! Yes. Of course. I can be there in half an hour.”
Before anything else, she had to unearth her old ice skates. After she hung up the phone, she went straight to the hall closet to find them. They’d been a Christmas gift from three years past, used twice then discarded amongst a collection of other forgotten belongings.
“What are you doing?” Mama had yelled from the dining room.
“I’m going out!” shouted Maggie, struggling to disentangle the skates from a box, where they were held hostage to one of Mama’s forgotten high-heeled boots. She tugged them free, then set to unknotting them.
“You’re going out? With who?”
Mama clicked into the hall. “Is it a…gentleman friend?”
“God, no. It’s only Kathleen—you know, Kathleen Turner, from the Women’s College.”
“Oh,” Mama replied, apparent disappointment in her voice.
“I need more friends, Mama. You should be happy for me.”
“I am. But…what are you doing?”
“We’re going skating.”
“Oh, please be careful. Are you sure the ice is thick enough?”
“Do you think I have a way of measuring its thickness? I’m going to trust that it is if there are other people there. I’ll let you know if someone falls through.”
Mama gasped. “Maggie!”
Maggie slipped on a coat and shimmed into her winter boots. She pulled a woolen hat tightly over her head and, with her skates dangling from her gloved hand, she made her way to the pond.
It was absolutely mobbed with shrieking children, couples young and old, and bunches of friends. Kathleen arrived as Maggie was lacing up her skates, sitting on the only free bench. It appeared by the way Kathleen was wobbling as she stomped through the snow that she’d walked there in her skates.
“I know, I know,” panted Kathleen as she collapsed onto the edge of the bench. “I’m breaking them in a little more. I haven’t been able to wear these in nearly a year.”
The two of them set onto the ice. Kathleen was decidedly more graceful and fluent in her movements while Maggie stumbled, lagging just behind.
“So,” breathed Maggie, attempting to glide up to Kathleen’s side, “have you decided what you’re going to do when you’re finished with school?”
Kathleen shrugged, stuffed her hands into her pockets, and slid across the ice as casually as if she were walking. “All I know is that I don’t know. I don’t even know if I’d like to even stay here.”
“Where else would you go?” At last, Maggie was on par with Kathleen because Kathleen, now absorbed in a dreamy trance, had slowed her stride.
“Sometimes I think about my choices, and I get really scared that if I choose one path, I’ll have to go that way forever—or, at least, for a very long time.”
Kathleen raised a hand in a flat point, squinting off into an invisible horizon. Maggie paused. A few children, annoyed at the obstacle that Maggie and Kathleen made, braked in their path, and then moved around them.
“Anyway.” Kathleen dropped her arm and shoved her hand back into her pocket and skated on.
“You know, I think I understand what you mean,” said Maggie, sliding next to Kathleen.
“Yes—at least, I think so.”
“I always thought you were really smart,” said Kathleen. “When you got up that debate club, I thought Mrs. Miller was going to burst from anger.”
It was funny just how much about school Maggie had forgotten once she’d left it. She barely recalled this Mrs. Miller and certainly didn’t still harbor any ill will towards her, though she supposed she must have once felt very passionately about their disagreements.
She did, however, remember with fondness, her creation of a Socratic debate club at the college which, though it had attracted but a few members, had been great fun.
“Alas, it was short-lived,” sighed Maggie dramatically.
“Say, why don’t you reach out more often?” Kathleen pivoted and began to skate backward. She pulled her hands from her pockets and stuck them on her hips. “I know you were really close to Winnie. Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, but some of us were a little intimidated by you two, going around so confident with yourselves. It was like you were in your own little two-person club that no one else could join. Ah, geez…I’ve said too much. I’m so sorry…it must have been awful for you to have her move so far away. Are she and her husband—what’s his name? —are they back in town for the holidays?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Maggie. “The truth is, I don’t talk to Winnie anymore. I haven’t talked to her since June. We aren’t friends anymore.”
“Oh.” Kathleen turned back around. “I’m sorry to hear that. I really am, even though I never really did like her much.”
Maggie laughed so loudly that a child skating past flinched at the sudden noise and fumbled.
“And you know, Maggie,” Kathleen began, picking up her stride. “You really shouldn’t invite Sophronia to another event ever again. She’s really an awful bore, and if Simon does end up marrying her, then he is, too.” Kathleen took Maggie by the elbow. “Now, you really need to learn how to skate better. You need to keep your head up—and keep moving.”
Christmas Eve in the Blaylock home was a modest affair. The family had an early dinner of roast turkey and potatoes. A bottle of wine was shared, and afterwards, a fire was lit in the drawing room where they retired.
After Mrs. Blaylock and Maggie went up to bed, Victoria and Lena snuck into the drawing room to help Mr. Blaylock take down the curtains and rid the room of the furniture that was to be replaced. The new set of furniture had arrived a few days earlier, shipped over from Rochester, New York. While Mrs. Blaylock and Maggie had been out to lunch with the Ladies’ Club, Mr. Blaylock, Victoria, Lena, and the men who’d brought the shipment scrambled to get the new sofas and oak coffee table stowed away in the old shed in the backyard.
The curtains arrived courtesy of Mrs. Spencer, whom Mr. Blaylock had paid to fashion. Excitedly, Mrs. Spencer had smuggled her handiwork into the Blaylock home through the side door, where Lena had waited to receive it. Into the pantry the parcel had gone, hidden amongst the herbs and fruit.
Now, they were fastened to the windows, as the final addition to the newly renovated room, the dark crimson fabric complementing the sofas picturesquely in the fire glow.
Early on Christmas morning, before the sun had risen, Victoria and Lena dressed and hurried to the kitchen to help Miss Blush with the Christmas breakfast.
“Merry Christmas, girls,” greeted Mrs. Putnam. “There’s some chocolate on the stove for you.”
Sipping from their mugs, they set the table and put the coffee to boil, toasted the bread, fried the potatoes and the sausages, plated the scones and the butter and the jam, and dished everything in time for the family to wander downstairs.
After the family had enjoyed their repast, Victoria and Lena retreated to their room with a tray of rationed leftovers, where they shared everything in gleeful silence.
“I have something for you, Victoria,” Lena said, launching to her feet. She rifled through her underwear drawer and produced a newspaper-wrapped object, which she shook enthusiastically, standing above Victoria.
“Thanks,” Victoria said, leaping to take the gift. She tore it open without hesitation. Staring up at her was a copy of a novel entitled The Terrible Secret of Lady Euphemia. The titular woman herself graced the gilt-framed cover, her elegant chin held high and turned away from the treacherous gentleman figure lurking in her peripheral.
“I bet you didn’t have that book at the orphanage,” said Lena, licking her lips in satisfaction.
“Certainly not. Thank you. I will relish every page.”
Victoria presented Lena with the box of stationery she’d grabbed at Witt’s End.
“Now you have at least a month’s supply to write to all of your lovers.”
Lena grinned. “That’s very thoughtful of you, Victoria.”
The Blaylocks exchanged their own gifts in the redressed drawing room, which delighted Mrs. Blaylock and surprised Maggie, who hadn’t much to say about the changes. She’d quite liked the old furniture but didn’t say so. The new sofa on which she sat was stiff and smelled like polish.
Mr. Blaylock received his wool coat and a new bay rum scented shaving soap; Mrs. Blaylock a diamond choker and a fashionably plumed hat; and Maggie a new set of needles and multi-colored thread, a box of Swiss chocolates, and rabbit fur-lined leather gloves.
In the time after the morning gift exchange and before dinner, Victoria and Maggie met.
“Merry Christmas, Victoria!” Maggie greeted Victoria with a hug.
“My gift probably isn’t going to be very impressive,” warned Victoria.
Maggie unwrapped Victoria’s package with a smile, and her gaze flitted across the custom monogram. “Oh, Victoria. It’s lovely, truly. Thank you.”
Maggie handed Victoria with her gift: a framed embroidery piece of Maggie’s that stated WHERE THERE IS LOVE THERE IS HOME.
“I know it’s not exactly a big surprise, coming from me,” said Maggie. “But I thought you’d like to have something uplifting to hang on your bedroom wall.”
Victoria thought it was wonderful. She immediately went to put it up, tossing aside the hideous tree painting that had loomed over her for so many months and swiftly replacing it with Maggie’s statement. She took one last stare at the sad, skeletal tree and then shoved it underneath Lena’s bed.
“It’s too bright.” Maggie squinted for effect, taking in the extra lighting in the foyer, which was mimicked throughout the parlor and the drawing room: dozens of candles and extra lamps. “We had the same problem last year.”
“Did we?” said Mama absentmindedly, as she adjusted a ribbon on the banister.
“Maggie’s right, darling,” echoed Mr. Blaylock. “Don’t you remember? It was positively glowing in here.”
“Oh, well,” Mama sighed, obviously resigned in her light pollution. “I like to see the expressions on my friends’ faces un-shadowed.”
Mrs. Putnam, as she did each year, was fretting over the spread on the appetizer table. She directed Lena and Victoria to move this or that to the “right place,” a mysterious location that no one knew but her, and was usually mere inches away from where one of them had initially put it. The crystal punch bowl gleamed with its bright red offering. Plates of finger sandwiches lie enticingly arranged amongst trays of tea cakes and chocolates. Christmas crackers imported from England were set in little rows down the table. Victoria hoped that she’d be able to sneak one for herself and convince Lena to try it with her.
Guests wandered in just after the grandfather clock chimed six, and the home gradually filled with the chatter and cadence of dozens of different conversations.
Maggie hadn’t invited Ruth-Ann, having been put off by her behavior at the bonfire, and was even less inclined to extend an invitation to Sophronia. Kathleen, however, arrived around six-thirty, ruddy-faced but energized. Lena side-eyed her as she took her coat.
“I jogged here,” Kathleen admitted to Maggie, jutting both hands onto her hips. “It was most invigorating. I’m going to get some punch.”
All five of the Kilmeades made an appearance, not too long after: Mrs. and Mrs. Kilmeade, little Liam Kilmeade (who unnervingly resembled a Christmas elf with his green velvet suit, pink cheeks, and freckled face), and Meghan and Erin, dressed in near-matching red dresses and tight rag curls.
“Hello, Maggie,” said Meghan.
“Hello, Maggie,” Erin added.
“It’s nice to see both of you,” Maggie said. Neither of the Kilmeade sisters said anything else. Maggie excused herself with a smile so that if Mama saw her, she couldn’t complain that she had been rude.
“Maggie, come see!” Mama called for her in a tone that might have been more apt for a child or a dog. “Someone’s here for you.”
Annoyed, Maggie turned and headed back into the foyer—and stopped, because right in the doorway, just beyond Mama with her too-eager grin, stood Winnie, next to Hubert.
Maggie walked to them composedly. She didn’t feel like smiling.
“Maggie,” Winnie said with a toothful grin, just as Maggie was close enough. “How are you?”
“We’re happy to be here,” said Hubert, his awkward timing perfectly depriving Maggie of having to think up a bland but appropriate response to Winnie’s question.
“Yes, we’re so pleased that you made it,” Mama continued the pleasantries.
Then Winnie and Maggie were hugging. It was apathetic and Maggie was keenly conscious of Winnie’s state, and when they parted and stepped away from each other Maggie let her gaze rove, just for a mere lingering moment, to Winnie’s midsection: unmistakably, a petite roundness arced from beneath the subdued stripes of her Christmas dress.
“Excuse me—I have to notify the cook about something.” With a final hostess smile, Mama swept off down the hall.
Winnie and Hubert stepped past Maggie as they formally entered the home, Winnie whisking around with a tight smile. She placed a hand on Maggie’s shoulder.
“We’ll catch up tonight, yes? Hubert and I would like to go around and say hello to everyone first.”
“Yes, later, of course,” replied Maggie. Burning in her peripheral was Hubert’s direct, questioning stare; she refused to acknowledge it.
With a sad little nod, Winnie locked an arm inside Hubert’s and off into the party they went.
Mrs. Blaylock had requested a new dessert: hot vanilla custard tarts, to be served with fresh eggnog. Miss Blush had taken this order with much pride and seriousness, and with bated breath awaited Mrs. Blaylock’s go-ahead to begin making the dish so it would be as fresh as possible for the guests. The time came when Mrs. Blaylock entered the kitchen and informed Miss Blush that enough guests had arrived, and they were ready to be served the eggnog as they began the gift exchange. Excitedly, Miss Blush set to creating the custard first, whisking the eggs and sugar in the stove pot with fervor.
Victoria dawdled around the kitchen, feeling quite useless. Their roles for the night had been dictated very clearly: Mrs. Putnam was responsible for setting up the table and assisting Mrs. Blaylock with any additional last-minute decorations, then she was permitted to retire to bed (“Which I will do with utmost enthusiasm, and I will nottolerate any interruptions,” she’d cautioned); Miss Blush was, of course, to remain in the kitchen, and after all the desserts were served, she was allowed to go home for the night; Lena was in charge of hospitality, greeting guests at the door and taking care of the coats and hats and other personal belongings, and attending to any other needs of the party-goers; and Victoria was to stay out of everybody’s way and try to do what she was told. So far, she had been successful.
“Why are you hanging around me like that?” snapped Miss Blush, still minding the custard but giving Victoria a nice glare while she did it.
“I’m not allowed to do anything, remember?”
Miss Blush rolled her eyes. “You want something to do? Fine, you can take the tarts out of the oven when they’re ready. Do you think you can do that?”
“Yes,” mumbled Victoria.
“Victoria!” Lena sprang into the kitchen, hastily shut the door, and reached for Victoria’s arm. “Guess who’s here?”
Confused, Victoria shook her head. “What? Who?”
“It’s your beloved.” Lena bit her lip and shook Victoria’s arm so enthusiastically her shoulder rattled inside its socket.
Miss Blush furrowed her brows. “Her what?”
“I’m also confused,” admitted Victoria.
Victoria colored and Lena, sensing her discomfort, released her hold and stepped away.
“Please don’t call him that,” Victoria said.
“Simon Aldridge?” Miss Blush lowered her voice. Her wide-eyed shock slid from Lena
to Victoria. “What can you mean?”
Suddenly she gasped, and her whisk clattered to the countertop.
“Hang it all, I burned the custard! Now I’ll have to start all over again. Lena, fetch me some more eggs and measure out the sugar—three cups, please. I need to clean up this mess.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Lena, and she gave Victoria an encouraging smirk before turning to the pantry.
With Miss Blush turned toward the sink, Victoria heeled out of the kitchen.
She walked down the hall and into the foyer, a bit thrown off by the crowd, and not quite sure what she was doing or even if she was going anywhere in particular. She received some strange looks from a few of the nearby partygoers, who assessed her momentarily and, acknowledging that she was merely a servant, returned to their affairs.
There was a loud pop from the parlor, followed by a cluster of shouts and laughter and cheers—someone had already started on the crackers. Simon bent to the floor and retrieved an object. Victoria was too far away to see what it was but, smiling, he pocketed it as someone else settled the flimsy red paper crown atop his head. Grinning, he looked up and, after a flicker of confusion, caught Victoria, who immediately pivoted and slinked her way through the foyer, up the stairs, and into the upstairs hallway, where she paused to gather her senses.
Mrs. Blaylock, in all her enthusiasm to supply an abundance of illuminance to the downstairs rooms, had all but neglected the upstairs; the hall remained as dim as it did on any other night but, compared to the flood of light downstairs, seemed darker than ever. Of the two gaslight wall fixtures supplied the space with a feeble glow, one of them kept blinking in and out.
Victoria’s heart gave a jolt. She spun around to see a figure rising to the top stair. There was a muffled little thump, and Simon stumbled up the final step. “Ah—ow. Sorry, it’s just me.”
“Simon, you can’t do that—just show up out of nowhere,” said Victoria. “It’s shocking to the system, I swear.”
Victoria eyed him as he steadied a hand on the wall. “Have you been drinking?”
“No, no. I just—”
Victoria plucked away the silly paper hat that remained stuck to his hair.
“Thanks. It’s really dark up here, isn’t it?”
Victoria swiveled her head around, as if she were just now taking notice of her surroundings while she waited for Simon to say something else first.
“I’m sorry for following you here,” he said, after half an excruciating minute. “If you want me to leave, I can.”
Victoria neither made an affirmation nor demanded him away. Where she’d felt oddly bold minutes before, she now felt as if something inside of her had softened.
“Your last letter—”
“I don’t want to talk about any letters,” interrupted Victoria, louder than she’d intended, but she could hardly help it. “I want to forget all about all of it.”
Victoria sighed. A sickeningly sweet scent rose in the air, making her feel a bit woozy. Simon stood immobilized an arm’s reach away. Victoria stepped forward and reached out—inadvertently grazing his shoulder and arm, which made him flinch—and before he could finish mumbling, “What are you doing?” she caught his jaw in both of her hands and, bracing him steady, lifted onto her toes and pressed her lips to his.
It was a moment that would have made Lena proud—Victoria hated that she’d thought it, but it passed through her mind uninvited. Where was Lena, anyway? In the kitchen still, probably—
She felt Simon’s mouth twitch into a smile.
“I wasn’t prepared for that,” he said.
“Neither was I,” admitted Victoria.
A sudden clamor from downstairs made the two of them jump apart. A door burst open, followed by a series of muffled shouts.
“Oh—here.” Simon fumbled in his pocket, took her hand, and pressed a tiny metal object into it, still warm his touch. “It came from the cracker. I thought you might like to have it.”
Her fingers closed around it, and in the dimness, she struggled to make out what seemed like a miniature dog.
“Victoria!” bellowed the unmistakable voice of Miss Blush.
“Oh, no,” groaned Victoria. She trotted down the staircase, staring at her feet so that she might avoid the sudden rush of potential onlookers. She’d barely reached the landing when a rough hand pulled her by the elbow, flying her into the foyer.
As she was tugged mercilessly toward the kitchen at the behest of Miss Blush, Victoria lifted her head and glimpsed a sea of bright, blurry, and absentminded faces in the drawing room who ogled the little drama that had unfolded. Just as she was tossed into the doorway of the kitchen, Mr. and Mrs. Blaylock bustled into the hall, clearly confounded. Lena stepped out and opened her mouth to speak, instantly hushed by the irate cook.
“What in God’s name is going on?” hissed Mr. Blaylock.
“Come see,” snorted Miss Blush.
The kitchen door was shoved open, and they all trod inside, where a disastrous scene awaited them: the oven slung open and smoking, what were once intended to be tarts in various states of deflation and cremation inside and scattered on the floor. Mrs. Blaylock produced a handkerchief into which she released a sequence of coughs.
Miss Blush picked up one of the sad little tarts, pulled Victoria’s arm outright, and slapped it into Victoria’s hand: burnt all around the edges with its center still gooey, it peered up at Victoria mockingly. It seemed to Victoria that it would be useless to put it back where it come from, so reluctantly she clung to it.
“This mess,” seethed Miss Blush, “is because of her.” The cook brandished a trembling finger at Victoria. “I told her to take the tarts out of the oven. She begged me for something to do so I gave her something, and she couldn’t even do that. If I hadn’t smelled the burning sugar back there while pouring Mrs. Spencer’s eggnog, it’s likely we would’ve had a fire on our hands.”
“Did Victoria also…throw tarts onto the floor?” Mr. Blaylock asked, gesturing to the custardy mess at their feet.
Miss Blush’s face took on her namesake. “No. I did that, but only because I was so distraught.”
The kitchen door slammed open again and in walked Mrs. Putnam in her nightgown and robe, her hair in rags. “I should have assumed that trying to get a peaceful night’s sleep in this house was a futile effort. Tell me, what on earth did she do this time?”
“Rest assured, Mrs. Putnam, we’re trying to sort this all out,” Mr. Blaylock said. “Go back to bed.”
“Please, Miss Blush—Mr. and Mrs. Blaylock—it’s not Victoria’s fault,” Lena interjected. “Miss Blush did ask her to mind the oven, but I told Victoria I would do it for her.”
“What do you mean, ‘do it for her?’ What was so important that Victoria couldn’t wait in the kitchen and watch a clock?” demanded Miss Blush.
“And what had you so distracted you couldn’t finish the job for her?”
Lena, seemingly defeated, let her shoulders drop and her chin fall.
“Mr. and Mrs. Blaylock,” said Miss Blush, “I hate to bring up this subject on such an occasion, but it does seem like the right time. Victoria, as charming as she makes herself out to be, is unfit to work. I’ve never met a maid more distractable or complacent, and if all the things I’ve told you before haven’t made you realize it, maybe tonight will.”
This time, no one came to Victoria’s defense. Mrs. Putnam sighed through her nose and pursed her lips shut; Lena wouldn’t even look up at her. Victoria’s chest fell cold. She’d never suspected that Miss Blush had made private complaints about her. She wondered if Lena knew, if she’d been shielding her from the reality—or if she’d even contributed to this supposed list of wrongdoings.
“I’m sorry—I just don’t understand exactly what happened.” Mrs. Blaylock shook her head, her gaze roving to Victoria. “Victoria, was there a reason you couldn’t follow your orders?”
“I didn’t feel well,” blurted Victoria. She knew immediately that it was a poor lie. “So I left.”
“Tell us the truth, Victoria,” sighed Mr. Blaylock.
“Oh.” The faces surrounding her studied her in a blurred conglomeration of confusion, upset, and awe. Victoria shut her eyes, an involuntary reaction, as if she could take a moment’s reprieve from her present predicament. Now she truly did feel ill; her stomach roiled, and her cheeks burned. She brought a hand to her face and, sure enough, it was hot to the touch.
“Come on, Victoria,” murmured Lena.
“I was with Simon,” said Victoria. “That’s why I left. That’s where I was.”
There was an awful silence from everyone except for Mrs. Putnam, who mumbled something that included the word, “idiotic,” under her breath.
“Excuse me?” screeched Mrs. Blaylock.
“Um.” Victoria, feeling dangerously faint, stumbled stepping forward and caught herself on the edge of the counter.
Mrs. Blaylock gasped. “Victoria—are you intoxicated?”
“I’m sorry…I have to get out of this room,” Victoria declared and, for the second time that evening, fled the kitchen in a flurry of avoidance.
Outside, the party was suspiciously hushed; when Victoria escaped into the foyer from the hall, she saw why: the guests had all crowded into the drawing room, heaped onto the new sofas and lounging about with their drinks and their tiny cakes, unmistakably engaged in the soft, low buzz of collective gossip.
Maggie and Kathleen stood a little off to the side, separated from the others by the fireplace and a bookshelf, gazing at Victoria with a wide-eyed sympathy. Mr. and Mrs. Aldridge loomed beside one of the sofas, Mr. Aldridge gripping the edge of it like a good business handshake, Simon shadowed between them.
“Oh, Victoria!” called Winnie, from her perch on the end of a sofa. “Come here, please.”
Though she was repulsed by Maggie’s ex-friend demanding her attention in that infuriating tone reserved for beckoning household staff, Victoria obliged, and as she walked into the bursting room, she was aware of her employers quickly approaching. This seemed to surprise (and delight) the group, who surmised that a terrible scene was about to unravel before them.
“Goodness me,” Mrs. Spencer breathed, fidgeting with the gold chain around her neck, “we were all growing mightily concerned.”
“Was there a fire in the kitchen?” someone shouted, and a wave of empty giggles echoed.
“I just asked Victoria to come in here to ask her what was going on,” said Winnie. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, not at all,” said Mr. Blaylock. “There was a little altercation in the kitchen, that’s all.”
Impulsively, Victoria looked to Simon, his fingers twitching and his foot tapping the rug.
“Do you think I’m an idiot?” seethed Mr. Aldridge, his face flushing redder by the moment. “I know what that stupid servant has been up to. I saw her come down from upstairs where Simon was.”
The room quieted to all but a sneeze and a few rustles of clothing to cover up the discomfort.
“Oh, God,” sighed Mrs. Blaylock, her head dropping down into her hands.
“Nothing happened!” screeched Victoria. She turned to the Blaylocks. “Don’t let him talk about us—about me like that!”
“Victoria,” mumbled Mr. Blaylock. “Please. You’re embarrassing yourself.”
Mr. Aldridge sniffed. “She’s not the only one, Robert. It was a mistake coming here tonight. I should have ignored the invitation.”
“We should have incinerated it,” sneered Mrs. Aldridge, finally jumping into the conversation. “Your family has done nothing but add trouble to Simon’s life.”
“That’s a little dramatic,” piped Maggie.
Mr. Aldridge didn’t give Maggie the satisfaction of even glancing her way, but his round face looked fit to burst. “I have every right to anger when I discover that a hare-brained hussy of a housemaid has been seducing my son.”
Winnie flashed a pitiful frown up at Victoria. Someone else in the vicinity let escape a low whistle.
“No,” a soft voice spoke. Simon, with a little wobble, turned and faced his father. “You’ve said enough, Dad.”
Mr. Aldridge recoiled, almost imperceptibly, then broke into a toothy grin. “Take a seat, Simon.”
“No,” said Simon again.
Victoria noticed, in horror, Mr. Aldridge’s hand swing up as if on instinct then, in an afterthought, drop down to his side, fingers clenched. Instead, he flung his other hand up to Simon’s collar and grabbed hold, rattling Simon like an empty canister.
“I’m not going to be humiliated by my child,” Mr. Aldridge began, low and steady.
Victoria crept into the room—hindered momentarily by the desperate grasp of Mrs. Blaylock behind her, which Victoria shuffled off—and towards Mr. Aldridge, the tart tight in her sweaty palm.
“I don’t know where you learned this behavior,” Mr. Aldridge continued, “but it certainly wasn’t from your mother or me.”
“Hey!” cried Victoria, leaping up and smashing the tart on the back of Mr. Aldridge’s neck.
The onlookers burst into a delightfully satisfactory variation of gasps, sighs, and chuckles. The curdled custard dropped down the back of Mr. Aldridge’s collar and squelched to the floor.
The victim pivoted towards Victoria, his shock fading into fury upon his realization.
“Mr. Aldridge, with all due respect,” said Victoria, “you’re nothing but a bully, and you always have been. I think you ought to know that your son is wonderful, though, and it’s a shame he’s got such a brute for a father.”
Someone in the room dropped their drink and cursed as the crystal shattered on the floor. The lights pulsed behind Victoria’s eyes. Mrs. Aldridge howled into tears. The party had ended.
Victoria was gone before the New Year. No one in the household spoke about the situation to her; not even Lena had a snide remark. Two days of packing and quiet consternation and Victoria was on a train back to Philadelphia.
This train ride wasn’t exciting or interesting like the others she’d been on. She was seated alone on a bench facing a stuffy-looking woman with a plumed hat and a mink stole, the skinned animal’s miniscule glass eyes fixed on Victoria. Instead of gazing out the window or people watching, Victoria tried to sleep but then began crying.
“What is it, dear?” The woman across the way asked, furrowing her brow. Her statement assumed concern, but her tone denoted no sympathy.
“Just a little homesickness,” managed Victoria.
“A girl should never be away from home for very long, that’s what I always say. You young women always think independence is what you want, then you go on your own and then come the tears.”
Victoria nodded so the woman would be satisfied. This seemed to work because she didn’t speak again, and then nodded off to sleep not too long afterwards.
When Victoria finally arrived at Our Lady of Second Chances, no one was standing outside to greet her. In a fatigued haze, she walked up the steps and banged the knocker a few times. There she waited, in the bitter winter air. The wind dried the salt on her cheeks, which she flicked away annoyedly. The clatter of the city was at her back, and she desperately wished to get inside to escape its scrutiny.
The door finally opened, and there was Sister Agnes with a sad smile. “Please, come inside. I’m sorry for making you wait for so long.”
Victoria bustled inside with her bag. The front hall truthfully wasn’t much of a respite, the air nearly as frigid. But upstairs, she consoled herself, a fireplace awaited her.
“Oh, Victoria,” sighed Sister Agnes. “I know you must feel terribly upset. But I do hope you know that you are welcome here, and not a burden.”
Victoria had thought she was finished with her tears, but more arrived. With one arm holding Victoria to her side, Sister Agnes led Victoria up the stairs towards her old room. Tiny footsteps pattered below, accompanied by loud whisperings.
“Do not stare, children, it isn’t right,” scorned Sister Agnes. “And you know how the Lord feels about gossip.”
The chatter trickled to silence.
Sister Agnes left Victoria alone in the room to settle. She began unpacking immediately, the task taking her focus off her woes. Into her old drawer went her clothes. Her shoes she placed next to the dresser, her toiletries she whisked off to the lavatory, and her few personal items—her pencils and pen, stationery and ink, and a few other little things she put on the desk for the time being. The book Lena had given her she intended to hide someplace, perhaps under the bed.
The last item she uncovered was Simon’s little dog, which she sat atop her dresser and turned to face her bed.
Dinner was fine, the same way Victoria always remembered it. Billy caught her eye from down the table and plied her with a smug little smile. It took a great amount of discipline in Victoria to not make a childish face to him in return.
After the evening routines had finished, and the collective nighttime prayers were spoken, the children filed off to bed. Victoria was eager to do the same. The exhaustion of the day hung inside her chest like a lead weight, making her every step feel off-kilter.
“Miss Victoria,” called a small voice. It was Louise, running to her in her nightgown, eyes wide and cheeks flushed.
“What is it, lovely?” Victoria said, forcing herself to smile.
“I brought you Milton. He kept me wonderful company while you were gone, but I thought you might want him tonight. Only for tonight though, okay? Maybe tomorrow night if you really want to.”
Victoria’s heart swelled as she clasped the old stuffed toy, its familiar cloudy glass eyes and frayed ribbon collar felt like a long-awaited reunion.
“Thank you, Louise. I do need Milton’s friendship tonight. It was very kind of you to think of me.”
With a look of glee, Louise took off for her room, Sister Julie on the cusp of a reprimand.
Victoria had dreaded a fitful night of sleep but following a routine of nighttime prayers with the Sisters, she fell asleep without even having to think about it twice.
In the morning, the strangeness of Victoria’s return was largely ignored. No one paid her any special mind. She did receive a few lingering glances, but assumed it was more due to how uncharacteristically quiet and unassuming she was being. The truth was that she didn’t have much to say—and that was a very uncomfortable feeling.
“Another Christmas, another maid gone,” huffed Mama as she folded up a Christmas quilt. “Maybe I should stop hosting parties.”
Mrs. Putnam stood with her arms bearing a neat stack of festive linen. She accepted the latest addition in silence.
“Maggie, please, don’t just stand there, grab something,” Mama urged.
The business of putting away the Christmas decorations was an affair that took days, deconstructed one room at a time. The Christmas tree itself would stay up until the New Year, but after the adornments had been sufficiently admired by the party guests, Mama saw little use for their cluttering the home. They were replaced by the ordinary clutter as quickly as possible.
Maggie, only doing as she was told, lifted a wooden soldier from the coffee table. He wasn’t the only one; a whole battalion of varying sizes and uniforms was lined up. She took two more, wrapped them up in their brown paper cocoons, and placed them into the box where they would hibernate until next year.
Next year, Maggie thought, was apt to be dismal. There was no more Victoria. There would absolutely be no more Simon now. And, it surprisingly pained her, no more Mrs. Gibson.
“Maggie!” Mama shrieked. Maggie jumped at the awful sound. “What in the world is the matter with you? I don’t have time for your daydreaming right now.”
Maggie came to her senses. She realized she still gripped one of the soldiers. Mama, pink in the face, awaited some type of response. Mrs. Putnam looked at Maggie with a pitiful expression. The room, half-stripped of its usual occupants, appeared lifeless and dull. Now that she thought about it, Maggie couldn’t recall the last time she’d really felt at home in the place she once used to see as a sanctuary; what was once a shared space now seemed distant and awkward.
“Mama,” said Maggie.
Both Mama and Mrs. Putnam perked up.
“I don’t want to live here anymore.”
Mrs. Putnam clamped her lips and looked to Mama, who appeared to deflate right before Maggie’s eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I’m sorry,” said Maggie, but it came out like a whisper. Her chest thrummed. She set soldier on the table—hands shaking, it wobbled and nearly toppled its fellow artillerymen, gleaning gasps from Mama and Mrs. Putnam—and ran.
“Where are you going? Maggie!”
Mama was coming after her. Maggie ran to the front door and escaped into the bright Winter morning.
The snow soaked through her shoes and up her stockings and the bitter air stung her face as she trudged on. Mrs. Gibson, as always, equipped with an inconvenient intuition, flung back her curtains to see her granddaughter in her messy desperation: hair wind-blown, legs coated in ice, head down and arms crossed. By the time Maggie had hopped up to the front door, Mrs. Gibson was already there to shove her inside.
“What is the matter with you?” Mrs. Gibson screeched as she shut the door, closing the cold out. “It’s colder than the Atlantic out there and you’re practically in the nude.”
Maggie—who was fully dressed, except for her distressful lack of proper outdoor winter protection—shook her head and attempted to speak, teeth chattering. “My mother...we, uh...”
“Dear Lord, child, go sit by the fire and dethaw a little before you say another word.”
Obediently Maggie pushed a chair closer to the fire, slugged off her shoes and threw herself upon the furniture with her legs jut out to dry.
“Now, go on,” Mrs. Gibson egged, coming to a standstill beside the chair. “What has you flying over here so unpreparedly?”
Maggie let her eyes unfocus on the fireplace; the flames swam in mesmerizing kaleidoscopic multiples. She blinked twice, and took a breath and said, “I want to live with you in New York. Please take me with you.”
Mrs. Gibson didn’t move or say a thing for a little while. Eventually she dropped into the other chair, which was several yards away, and skewed away from Maggie’s. When Maggie heard the unmistakable sound of soft sobbing, she craned her head to catch a glimpse.
Noticing Maggie’s interest, Mrs. Gibson stood, turned the chair around so that it’s back faced the fireplace, sat back down, and resumed her crying.
“Grandmother?” Maggie called. This made the weeping noticeably louder, with a pitiful wail that made Maggie shudder. “Oh, dear. Would you prefer I call you Grandma? Or, um...Gram?”
“No,” cried Mrs. Gibson. “Grandmother suits me fine. The others are horribly gauche.”
Maggie got up and inched over to her grandmother—slipping on the hardwood on the way over—and knelt beside the chair. She glanced up at the woman, whose face was turned aside, one hand over her mouth and the other laid on the armrest.
“I’m utterly ashamed in my lack of decorum, presently,” Grandmother mumbled, her bawling having diminished to a few steady sniffles. “But I admit that something in me simply fell apart at your request. I was so afraid, Maggie, of living alone; it’s been a terrible ordeal for me here, and I began to suspect that it was going to be a terrible ordeal in the city. I didn’t know just how scared I was until now. The thought of not having to be alone didn’t occur to me until just now too, I guess.”
She finally lifted her face. Her eyes gleamed, and she raised a hand to Maggie’s cheek and beheld her, as if for the first time. “You are beautiful, Margaret. And damn it all, you’re clever, too. I’m sorry I never told you that.”
“You just did,” Maggie said.
To be continued.
© 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.