Mrs. Blaylock was a devoted member of a local women’s group, The Cape May Lad- -ies’ Stitching, Crafting, and Charity Club—usually referred to as The Ladies’ Club, though sometimes just The Club, but only when distinguished men were around—which met the first Tuesday of each month at the home of one of the members, alternating according to a well-kept schedule. Over tea and coffee and whatever array of tiny foodstuffs the hostess provided, the ladies trifled with their sewing projects, pondered charity missions and, most importantly, discussed the personal lives of everyone they knew. That was how the ladies of Cape May came to discuss the situation of Margaret Blaylock being unmarried—and unengaged.
It was an open secret of Mrs. Blaylock’s that her only child, beautiful and well-bred, was romantically unattached (and never had been, as far as anyone was concerned). It wasn’t something that Mrs. Blaylock aired out, and while listening to her friends boast about the auspicious matches their progeny had made, she retained a congratulatory manner on account of their good news while remaining silent about her own daughter’s status. No one had ever enquired about Margaret, so she had never indulged.
Mrs. Blaylock’s unspoken distress was ferreted out at The Ladies’ Club’s first meeting of the year. That gathering had occurred at the home of Mrs. Bassett, decidedly the most outspoken of the group, a plump and mostly pleasant woman of about forty-five (none of the ladies had ever divulged their exact ages, so one had to make an educated guess) who had two grown sons in the armed forces and a husband who was a retired military man himself. The Bassetts were very proud of this, which was difficult to forget, for every wall in the parlor in which they sat was adorned in military memorabilia, the centerpiece being a stylish portrait of Colonel Bassett frowning importantly down upon the ladies from the wall across the sofas where they convened.
“My Timothy’s just telegrammed with the most glorious news,” Mrs. Bassett announced, as she tugged a stitch taut. “He’s proposed to Sarah, the girl he’s been courting since last March—she accepted him, of course.”
A wave of congratulations followed. Mrs. Bassett nodded heartily, then lifted her head to Mrs. Blaylock, her brows crossed. “And what about your Margaret, Gwendolyn? Has she received interest from suitors lately?”
“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Max interjected. She and her husband ran the Max Hotel, so she was always keen to know the intimacies of strangers and expected to know those of her friends. “You never seem to mention her.”
While the rest of the ladies sipped their drinks and took delicate bites of sandwich, Mrs. Blaylock sat in discomforted silence.
“Um, no, Margaret hasn’t any suitors as of late,” Mrs. Blaylock finally answered.
“If a young woman isn’t at least engaged to be married by the time she’s, say, twenty-five, her prospects are very bleak, indeed,” Mrs. Bassett sighed, shaking her head. “I’m not trying to be harsh; I’m only concerned.”
Miss Sprightly—the lone, resigned spinster in the group—nodded in agreement. Miss Sprightly was, in fact, Mrs. Bassett’s sister-in-law. Her own mother had been a faithful member of The Ladies’ Club until she’d passed the year previous, and subsequently Miss Sprightly had moved into the Bassett’s attic room. It was rumored that in her thirties she’d carried on a romance with a Navy man associated with Mr. Bassett but that it had ended tragically. The full truth of the matter would never surface, having sunk along with the ship that had plummeted Miss Sprightly’s flame to an untimely death.
“And by the time she’s past her mid-twenties,” Mrs. Bassett continued, “she’ll be overlooked for younger, more eligible counterparts. There are, of course, men who disregard these sorts of things, but they are the exception.”
“Oh, that’s stuff and nonsense,” tutted Mrs. Kilmeade. (Her husband was a harbor pilot, and once a sworn bachelor; they had married later in their lives, and she loved to recount the drama of their drawn-out romance.)
“Perhaps you make some fair points,” Mrs. Blaylock admitted.
“There must be someone who is favorable for Margaret,” Mrs. Knotts offered. Her third daughter had been married last Spring and now lived in New England (either Connecticut or Massachusetts; one could never recall). “I’m sure we can think of someone—why, probably even right now. Can’t we, Rachel?”
Mrs. Bassett nodded. Her eyes widened. “You know, I think that Aldridge boy, Simon, is still eligible.”
Everyone fell silent for a few moments, out of respect. The Aldridges had lost their eldest son long ago, when Simon was barely seven, to an unexpected illness. The boy had been on the cusp of young adulthood, bright and promising, so it had been a great disappointment.
“Oh, yes!” Mrs. Max gushed. “Such a handsome young man. A bit…withdrawn, but I’m sure that doesn’t matter.”
Margaret was a bit withdrawn herself, though Mrs. Blaylock didn’t mention it.
She did, however, warm quickly to the prospect of Simon Aldridge. An acquaintance would never do for Maggie, she knew: the girl was practically predisposed to disliking them. But one couldn’t really call Simon an acquaintance—as children, he, Margaret, and Winnie Edwards had been summer playmates, traversing the beaches and tramping through the woods when they’d been at their own liberties.
“In fact,” Mrs. Blaylock said, “Margaret used to be quite close companions with Simon when they were children. Alan and his father used to be friendly.”
“A friendly past!” exclaimed Mrs. Knotts. “See, it’s wonderful.”
Mrs. Bassett set down her sewing and looked at Mrs. Blaylock very intently. “If you feel that Margaret would benefit from some advice, I do run a young women’s counseling service and I would be glad to give her a short session for free—the next time you host a meeting, maybe?”
It was Mrs. Blaylock’s turn to host The Ladies’ Club in February.
Not twenty minutes after the ladies had arrived and settled into their routine, equipped with coffees and Mrs. Putnam’s icebox cake, Mrs. Bassett was practically begging Mrs. Blaylock for details on the dinner they’d had with the Aldridges. The others tittered in agreement.
“Oh, it went fine,” was all Mrs. Blaylock divulged.
“Fine? That’s all?” questioned Mrs. Spencer. She glanced up from the floral pattern she had been commissioned to add to a dishcloth. (Mrs. Spencer was always being commissioned for something or another.)
“It was the first time in years that Margaret and Simon had any real interaction, so naturally they were a bit reserved.”
Mrs. Knotts waved her hand. “I wouldn’t worry too much about that; the shyness will go away soon. When’s the next time she’s going to see him?”
“Well, I don’t know; I suppose that’s up to the Aldridges.”
“Before we forget, now seems like an opportune time for me to have that talk with Margaret,” Mrs. Bassett suggested.
Mrs. Blaylock called for Lena to fetch Maggie.
Maggie entered the drawing room tentatively, clearly puzzled; she had never been summoned to a Ladies’ Club gathering before. “Yes, Mama?” she asked.
“Margaret, dear, this is Mrs. Bassett,” Mama said, gesturing to the woman who sat beside her.
"Hello,” Maggie said, lamely. “Nice to meet you.”
“You as well,” Mrs. Bassett smiled, eyes crinkling up at the corners. She stood. “Do you mind if we move into the foyer to talk for a little while?”
Maggie knew then that she was about to be accosted with some unsolicited advice. “Of course.”
“Wonderful!” Mrs. Bassett answered far too enthusiastically.
She and Maggie meandered from the parlor and into the foyer, where they both silently took a seat on the divan against the staircase, which Maggie desperately wanted to run up. The fronds from the large potted plant on Maggie’s side bristled her face, but she ignored the discomfort.
Mrs. Bassett’s eyes roved Maggie up and down discriminately. “How old are you, dear?”
Mrs. Bassett tutted and leaned in close to Maggie. Her cologne smelled expired. “Your mother wanted me to talk to you for this very reason. You see, I have quite some experience in aiding young women like yourself who have become…misled. Your mother is concerned about your direction.”
“I’m sorry—my direction?”
“Yes. She is concerned that you are not quite serious about your future.”
“It is important that you think seriously of these things while you’re young. I know you don’t want to hear it, but all young women should.” She shifted, sighed, and then hovered a hand over her abdomen. “Your womb ages just as you do. You see, your…womanly anatomy has probably already begun to grow weak from disuse, and the longer you put it off, it will just get worse. I know you don’t want that.”
Mrs. Bassett tilted her head at Maggie. “You know, you really are a beautiful young woman. May I make one suggestion?” She didn’t await an answer. “Your hair has an awkward reddish tone. Now usually, I recommend a girl either go lighter or darker with her hair, and for you, it would do better to be a little darker. I know a darkening agent that will work just fine—I can’t recall the name of it at the moment, but when I remember I’ll write the name down for your mother to purchase. Raven hair is very stylish nowadays for girls of your complexion.”
“I didn’t know,” said Maggie.
“Sometimes, the most advantageous thing a young woman can do for herself is to emphasize and exaggerate her own natural aspects. I’m sure, with just a little more assistance, you’ll do just fine.”
Smiling, Mrs. Bassett wrapped Maggie in an unexpected embrace, patting her hair the way Maggie encouraged Algernon after a trick. After Maggie was finally released, Mrs. Bassett grinned down on her and flailed a card in her face, which Maggie took, hesitantly. MRS. RACHEL BASSETT, the card read, YOUNG WOMEN’S COUNSELOR AND MATERNITY GUIDE.
“If you have any questions at all, honey, please write to me,” Mrs. Bassett said. “My address is on the back of the card.”
“Okay,” Maggie said. She imagined that night she’d open her bedroom window and release the awful piece of cardboard into the winter wind.
“Very good,” Mrs. Bassett nodded.
Victoria’s first month in the Blaylock household was recommenced with little fanfare, save for Victoria’s moments of mishap. She’d scrubbed the entire dining room floor but forgotten the soap, and she’d let the dog out without hitching him to his post, so he’d wandered away and the entire household had to put their work on pause and run outdoors to search for him. (It turned out he hadn’t gotten very far, as he was quite old and slow; he’d gotten tangled in the knee-high weeds of the backyard next door, and Maggie had rescued him, tearing up a skirt in the process.) She had grown used to the family’s routines by now: their mealtimes, their work schedules, and their evening recreation hours.
The Blaylocks, with all their Protestant enthusiasm and conduct, intended to attend church services every weekend and mostly attended once or twice a month (and obligatorily attended them at every major holiday). Victoria, a Catholic by her upbringing, was never invited to any church service, nor did she inquire about it. She spent those quiet hours when the Blaylocks were gone alone in her room, meditating on God and reading a few pages of the old Bible she’d brought with her. She’d try to clear her thoughts, close her eyes, and then open the book, searching for something within the words that communicated to her in her current state of mind. If she didn’t like what she found the first time, she’d try again. (Usually, the second time worked better.)
“I reckon that’s sacrilegious,” exclaimed Mrs. Putnam when Victoria told her about her prayer time one Sunday afternoon, as they prepared lunch in the kitchen.
“Well, I spent my whole childhood in a Catholic orphanage and the Sisters never said a word about it.”
Lena snickered at Mrs. Putnam. “You’re acting like you’ve set foot in any church once in the last twenty years.”
“Hush,” snipped Mrs. Putnam. “Now you listen. I was raised a proper Christian like any other. I know my scriptures and my hymns and my prayers, and that’s that. I don’t want to hear another word on the subject.”
It was settled, and none of them ever spoke of religious matters again.
It didn’t take long for Victoria to grow attached to the other household staff. Though she suspected Lena didn’t exactly like her, she admired Lena nonetheless, and found her to be a neat and reliable roommate; and though Cook had terrified her initially, Victoria learned that, between chopping vegetables and kneading dough, she appreciated a good banter.
Mrs. Putnam, however, Victoria thought to be overly serious, and she loathed the housekeeper’s near-constant scrutiny. Mrs. Putnam was also intensely private; though she must have been married at one point, no husband was never mentioned, and no ring sat on her stout finger. Only once did she ever hint at such a person, after she’d consumed a glass too many of her hot toddy one Saturday night. Victoria and Lena had roped Cook into playing a round of bridge with them before she left for the evening. Mrs. Putnam had declined to participate herself but sat at the far end of the kitchen table nursing her mug.
“Reminds me of my George,” she sighed. “He adored cards.”
She didn’t elaborate; but it was in those odd, sentimental moments that Victoria loved her the most.
For her own part, though Mrs. Putnam thought Victoria irritating at times, she begrudgingly developed a cordiality for the girl. Seemingly, she was well-liked in the household, despite her numerous shortcomings (even by Lena, though Mrs. Putnam knew Lena would never admit it aloud). Cook laughed at the constant jokes and inane comments Victoria made while working. Mr. and Mrs. Blaylock fairly doted on her as though she were one of their own.
Nevertheless, someone needed to reel her in and keep her in line.
“Victoria!” Mrs. Putnam called from the kitchen.
It was a snowy Thursday afternoon, and the mail had just been delivered. Mail was a strangely exciting notion to Victoria, who relished in the parcels and envelopes addressed to the members of the Blaylock family as if they were her very own. Mrs. Putnam suspected it might have something to do with her being an orphan (Mrs. Putnam chalked up most of Victoria’s abhorrent behavior to “something to do with her being an orphan”).
“Yes, what is it?” Victoria bellowed as she bounced into the kitchen.
Mrs. Putnam frowned. Despite her constant scolding, Victoria continued to practically shout everything she said (which Mrs. Blaylock had mentioned to her was also probably a consequence of Victoria’s orphanhood, having had a constant lack of attention for over a decade).
“The mail has come in,” Mrs. Putnam said, sorting through the delivery. Victoria flounced to the countertop and began to pick through the letters, helping to sort them into neat piles: one for Mr. Blaylock, one for Mrs. Blaylock, one for Maggie, and one for any household bills, letters addressed to the estate, and personal letters to any of the staff, which were Mrs. Putnam’s responsibility. Once that had been done, if Maggie had any mail, Victoria ran it up to her room. It always made Victoria a bit envious when Maggie got a letter. Victoria herself had never gotten a letter in her life; she thought the idea of receiving one intriguing and romantic.
The piece of mail that Maggie had received that day was not a standard letter, however, but a colored little postcard: a smiling woman, bedecked in a Merry Widow hat, hugging a bouquet of roses to her chest against a cream-colored background with a gilt frame. Above the cheerful face, a gold curlicued calligraphy declared, “I couldn’t mail you flowers but here’s a card, My Valentine.” The prospect of someone receiving an actual Valentine excited Victoria very much, and it required a great deal of restraint to not flip the card over at once and discover who’d sent it.
“You have a card!” Victoria yelled to Maggie’s closed door as she leaped up the staircase.
Maggie’s door cracked open, and she popped her head outside. “Victoria, you don’t have to yell.”
Victoria hopped up the last step and into Maggie’s room, ignoring the jab.
Maggie shut the door and accepted the card from Victoria’s dangling hand. She turned the card over and dropped to the edge of her bed.
“This illustration is horrendous,” Maggie commented, feeling Victoria’s eager stare. She then proceeded to read the message in its entirety, a strange expression befalling her. Once she’d finished, she handed it off to Victoria, who anxiously read the note:
It was really nice to become recquainted with you. I have tickets to see the Cape May Players' performance of "An Ideal Husband" on February the 17th and would be thrilled if you would join me.
“I knew this was going to happen,” groaned Maggie. “Simon and I have officially been endorsed.”
“Are you going to go?” Victoria asked.
“Of course,” Maggie quipped defensively, as if she weren’t just moments ago complaining about the very offer. “It would be impolite of me not to give him a chance. Also, it will be nice to get out of the house for a night.”
But all the while saying this, she had a dreadful feeling. Spending an entire evening in public with Simon Aldridge would certainly be making a statement. Maggie wasn’t sure if making a statement was what she wanted, but doing so would, for the time being, console Mama. (She also acknowledged that it felt nice to be admired, even if that admiration was at least a little bit contrived.)
“It sounds really nice,” Victoria commented. “I’ve never been to the theater. What’s 'An Ideal Husband' about?”
“It’s a comedy,” Maggie answered, as an idea came to mind.
Maggie flew downstairs, dragging Victoria along with her. Mama was at her drawing room desk, as usual, penning correspondence to her many acquaintances; she was a bit confused when Maggie extended the postcard to her, but elated after she scanned the note.
“This is wonderful! You’ll accept, of course?”
Maggie nodded, slowly and seriously.
“Well, what is it? Is something wrong?”
“No, not really. It’s just that—well, I’d prefer not to go alone. I mean, I know we won’t really be alone, but I’d like a chaperone.”
“Hm,” said Mama. “That’s very responsible, I think. You remember what happened with Lucy Broughton.”
Last summer, Lucy Broughton, a daughter of one of Mama’s friends, had gone on an outdoor picnic with a young man and arrived home with an unseemly red stain on her neck, the cause of which her folks rather accusatorily believed was something lascivious. She’d claimed it was just a smudge of jam from the pastries she’d greedily consumed. Either way, she’d caused quite a conniption, and those who believed her story with the jam still looked down upon her for being a little glutton.
“Right. Which is why I’d like you to dismiss Victoria for the evening of the seventeenth so she can go with me.”
“It’s a little odd to have such a young chaperone. Why don’t you ask Lena?”
“No, I think Victoria will do,” Maggie insisted.
“I’d be honored,” added Victoria, with gusto.
Mrs. Blaylock sighed. “Well, I suppose I can hardly convince you otherwise. I will give Victoria off for that evening. Now, make sure you right Simon a response as soon as possible so he’s aware of the plan.”
As soon as possible for Maggie meant the next day. She spent the remainder of her evening finishing her latest needlework motto (Ut ameris, amabilis esto) while listening to the latest Dan M. Quinn record on her phonograph and trying to convince herself that she’d made the right decision.
When, on the evening of the seventeenth, Maggie arrived downstairs dressed in a suitable shade of pink and her hair curled, Victoria at her heels, Mama gasped with joy. Victoria stepped aside as Mama rushed to hold Maggie’s face in her hands, her eyes shining.
“You look beautiful, my magpie,” she said.
Maggie couldn’t recall Mama ever once calling her that, but she supposed it was a welcome moniker over Margaret.
A knocking on the door commenced.
Mama released Maggie. “That must be Simon.”
“Uncanny timing,” commented Victoria.
Mama leapt for the door and there stood Simon Aldridge, appearing as jittery as ever. Her eyes roved down to his flowerless hands, and her smile wobbled for a second, but she welcomed Simon inside as graciously as ever. “Good evening, Simon.”
Simon bowed his head slightly in response as he stepped inside, his gaze drifting towards Maggie. “Good evening, Maggie. How are you?”
“I’m well, thank you. This is Victoria, if you remember.”
Victoria lifted a hand in greeting.
“Yes, Victoria. I do remember. You’re dressed very nicely tonight.”
“Thank you. I’m looking forward to the theater.” Victoria smiled. “I’ve never been.”
Simon twitched. “Sorry, what?”
Mama glared at Maggie. “Surely you remember that Maggie mentioned in her response that Victoria will be chaperoning tonight.”
Maggie’s face grew hot. In all her eagerness to write a proper response, she had most definitely omitted Victoria from her thoughts.
Simon twisted a cufflink. “It wouldn’t be a big deal, but I only have two tickets.”
“Oh, dear,” Victoria sighed.
There was an awful pause, in which Maggie felt Mama’s eyes boring into her again. She felt terribly pathetic. With a harried sigh, Mama spoke.
“We apologize for the rashness of our decision.” She turned to Victoria. “Victoria, you may still have the evening off.”
“No,” blurted Simon, bearing his empty, shaking palms.
The three ladies stared at him in surprise.
“It’s, uh…we’ll be fine. With Victoria, I mean. I’ll find a way to get her in.”
“Really?” Victoria said with pleading eyes at the same time Mama asked, “Are you sure?”
“Uh, yes,” replied Simon, sounding less than sure.
They all considered the notion in silence; when no objection was offered, Mama sighed again, this time with an air of relief.
“Well, have a fine evening.” She gave Maggie a quick kiss on the cheek and then ushered everyone outside. “As I expect you will, of course.”
“Of course,” Maggie replied.
“I sure hope so,” Victoria said.
Simon said nothing.
A hackney cab was stalled at the curb, the horses snorting their breath into the winter air. Victoria slowed her pace so that Maggie could fall into step beside Simon. She paused as Simon opened the door to the carriage and assisted Maggie inside. He then moved to get inside himself, one hand swinging the door; Victoria scuffled up, purposefully kicking aside some snow, and he bolted upright, panic crossing his face.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured.
“Oh, it’s alright.” Victoria smiled. “I’ve been neglected in worse ways.”
She’d meant it as a friendly jab, but Simon appeared genuinely distressed. She instantly regretted the quip and ducked into the cab, Simon’s hand brushing against her back. She shuffled close to Maggie, who had squared herself up against the window. Simon fell in beside Victoria, and the instant the door was drawn shut the driver jerked the horses to action.
“Horses are very pretty, but they’re sort of loud, aren’t they?” Victoria said.
“Yeah,” replied Simon.
“Although I rode in a car once and that was louder, I think,” Victoria added. “Though I think I prefer the loudness of horses to the loudness of an engine. Horses have more feeling.”
Maggie didn’t speak the entire trip, but she didn’t need to, anyway—and neither did Simon; Victoria talked on and on, seemingly never expiring of new subjects to comment on. In the space of time that passed between the moment they left Maggie’s street and the moment they arrived at the theatre, Victoria had managed to make talking points out of wheels (what were the ones on this vehicle made of, anyhow?), kid gloves (she’d never worn any and, come to think of it, never knew anyone who had a pair—though Maggie might), gloves for children (what was the point, exactly, when they were always getting into scrapes), lightbulbs (and the carriage’s lack thereof), and, impossibly, the weather.
When at last they came to a stop in front of the small theatre building and departed the cab, Simon looked positively overwhelmed. Maggie felt a little sorry about it. She wondered if he was regretting the night altogether. While she might not have admired Simon that much, she still didn’t want him to think of her as a nuisance.
“Well, what are you going to do about me?” Victoria asked Simon, as the three of them approached the open doors.
Simon started, as if he’d forgotten that there was still a problem to be solved. “Oh. Uh, well, let me see.”
In the lobby a modest, but well-dressed and sociable crowd had gathered. The theatre claimed by the Cape May Players was not a grand city theatre of the kind Victoria had probably conjured up in her mind, Maggie thought. It was a lowly type of place, the building having previously housed a deli, then a bicycle shop; if she focused, Maggie could catch undertones of bologna and oil beneath the distinct perfume of perspiration and powder. Still, the organization had done a decent job with the interior: the wooden floors were scuffed, but clean; the walls were newly papered; the lighting—electric, with the wires exposed on the wall—was sparse, but adequate.
Maggie trailed Simon to a short queue before a uniformed boy checking tickets. When there was one couple ahead of them, Maggie glanced behind her, expecting to see Victoria, but their chaperone had vanished.
“Simon,” she hissed. “Victoria isn’t here anymore.”
“Hm?” He turned around and looked about, confused.
Maggie and Simon snapped their attention to the boy. Wordlessly, Simon produced two tickets. The boy verified them and sent them into the theater with an unenthusiastic thanks.
“Where could she have gone?” Simon wondered, quite hopelessly.
“She’s sort of small, she could be anywhere,” Maggie said as she anxiously scanned the room behind them.
“Excuse me, but there are others waiting,” snapped a woman in line.
“Sorry,” muttered Simon. He grabbed Maggie by the arm and pulled her away with him.
Though Maggie was still confused about having lost Victoria and she most certainly did not appreciate Simon grabbing her, she didn’t want to miss the show. Taking a final glance over her shoulder as Simon led her away, she consoled herself with the fact that there was no possibility that Victoria was still in the lobby, as vacant as it was now (though the large potted plant in the corner remained unchecked).
The theater itself was small, but not cramped. Cushioned benches in neat little rows like a church framed each side of the stage. Maggie and Simon took their seats near the front of the house in utter silence, neither even so much as glancing in the others’ direction. Maggie relaxed a bit when the curtains finally parted and the stage set was revealed. As she settled into her seat, she thought she felt the heel of her shoe nudge something, but she just as quickly forgot about it as the opening scene commenced. Though she’d been to the Metropolitan Opera with the Edwards’ before, and once to the ballet, she’d never been to a play before, and certainly never been to a performance this close to the stage. Every event she’d attended before she’d witnessed from a comfortable box set high above the scene, so they’d had to use lorgnons to follow the show. It had always made her feel high-class and sophisticated. This play, however, was much more enjoyable than any opera or ballet she’d seen from a distance, and when the intermission was announced she’d hardly noticed how much time had passed.
The curtain was drawn, and a low wave of chatter returned to the room.
Simon gently nudged her. “Do you want to head to the lobby? I think they’re giving out coffee.”
“Yes, sure,” she answered.
“Also, we can ask if, you know, anyone’s seen Victoria,” he added.
“Of course,” she replied, as if she’d been thinking the same thing.
She let Simon help her to her feet and followed him out from the narrow aisle, past two ladies who gave them annoyed glares mid-conversation because they had to move their voluminous skirts out of the way, and a woman with a young girl who looked up at Maggie with big amber eyes just like Victoria’s, which sent a pang of guilt through her.
As they stepped into the now crowded lobby, the coffee thankfully masking the unpleasant amalgamation of aromas from earlier, Maggie’s mind reeled with the reality of the situation and its possibilities: that Victoria had run outside before the first act (why hadn’t they gone outside to check?), or that she might have been abducted—
A slim, smiling, middle-aged woman strode towards them, a cup of coffee cradled in one hand and the other flailed out to the side, which, when she reached a close enough distance, she brought to Simon’s face.
“Hello, my dear,” the woman said, patting the side of his head as if he were a child. “I didn’t expect to see you here tonight.” Her eyes flicked to Maggie. “And with a beautiful young woman.”
A dour-faced man, presumably her husband, shuffled to her side and took a noisy sip from his cup.
“This is Margaret Blaylock,” Simon introduced Maggie.
The woman cocked her head and extended a gloved hand in Maggie’s direction. “How do you do, Miss Blaylock? I’m Martha Pennington.”
Maggie shook the woman’s hand, saying, “I’m well, thank you,” but Martha talked over her, declaring, “I know the Aldridges from Toms River, of course. My husband and I used to live up there. Relocated here for the summer last year and I guess we liked it so much that we stayed.”
“Ah,” said Maggie, with a nod.
“How are you enjoying the play?” the presumed Mr. Pennington asked in an unexpectedly loud tone. “Sorry, it’s damned loud in here.”
“It’s not, you’ve just got hearing difficulties,” Martha said through a smile, slipping an arm through his and giving his elbow a pat.
“Oh, I adore it,” Maggie blurted excitedly. She took a moment to draw herself back. “It’s very fun.”
“Yes, I suppose fun it is,” Martha agreed.
“It’s a bit an odd choice though, wouldn’t you say?” boomed Mr. Pennington.
Martha colored. “Of course, we think it’s a little adventurous to choose this play out of all of the rest.” She leaned in closer to Maggie and Simon, dropping her voice. “Frankly, I think it’s a little anti-American.”
“Why not Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” grumbled Mr. Pennington. “Everyone loves Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
“I hate to change the subject,” interjected Simon, “but have you seen a…a young woman with blonde hair anywhere around here?”
Martha’s mouth twisted. “Pardon me?”
Maggie stepped in. “Sorry—but we’re looking for a lost friend. She’s about my age, a couple of inches shorter, wearing…what was she wearing?”
Simon stared dismally down at the floor.
“This coffee is too damned hot,” shouted Mr. Pennington.
“I’m sorry.” Martha shook her head. “We haven’t seen anyone like that. The intermission is nearly over now, probably. We should all get back to our places.” She tugged her husband along, eyeing Maggie. “Anyway, it was nice to meet you, dear. I wish you both a pleasant evening—and you find your…friend.”
“They were awful,” Maggie said.
Simon smirked. “Yes, well, they’re family friends.”
“‘Family friends.’ What is it about that phrase that annoys me?” Maggie said. She was frustrated about Victoria, and the guests were already making their way back into the theater, and she hadn’t even gotten her complimentary drink because of Martha. “They’re not my friends. Why should I care if some particular member of my family happens to like them?”
Simon laughed; not loudly, and not for very long, but it was the first time Maggie had heard him laugh all night. “An astute observation.”
Back inside the theater, she and Simon side-stepped their way back into their places on their bench and settled in silence as the audience’s clamor wavered to a low murmur.
Something struck the side of Maggie’s shoe. She flinched and pulled her foot aside. The curtain jerked apart; another nudge against her foot and, annoyed, she glanced at Simon.
“What are you doing?” she hissed.
Genuine confusion crossed his face. “What?”
A new act opened. One of the ladies beside them scoffed.
“Are you hitting my shoe?”
“With your shoe.”
Suddenly, something swept aside her skirt. Gasping, Maggie jumped out of her seat. Simon looked up at her in horror. One of the actors on stage flinched, his gaze flicking to the audience before he launched back into his dialogue.
“Sorry,” Maggie whispered. “I just…hold on a moment. I think I just lost a button.”
Bracing herself, Maggie bent down to the floor and peeked underneath the seat and there, lying in the dark, was Victoria.
“Hi,” Victoria whispered.
“What is wrong with you?” Maggie seethed. “Do you know we’ve been looking for you all night?”
Maggie didn’t have the patience for any sort of response from Victoria. She maneuvered herself back into her seat, ignoring the muffled response from below.
“Did you find it?” Simon asked.
“My button? No,” Maggie said. “But I did find Victoria.”
“Victoria is under our seat.”
Suddenly, with a muffled shout, Simon leapt up. One of the women next to them leaned over. “You two are awfully rude. Do you mind stepping outside?”
“Our apologies, it probably won’t happen again,” Simon consoled their neighbors. He resumed his seat and whispered to Maggie, “She grabbed my ankle.”
“How long has she been hiding there, do you think?”
“The whole night,” was the reply from below.
Maggie kicked her foot backwards, and there was a little yelp. Mortified, she slunk back down to the floor.
“Shut up!” she hissed at Victoria. “The play is going again.”
“I’m sorry—I can’t see anything that’s happening up there. I didn’t know.”
“Can’t you hear—? Oh, never mind. I’ll see you when it’s done.”
Maggie quickly returned to her seat. Simon said nothing. The show went on.
After the play ended, and the cast had bowed to standing ovations, Simon and Maggie remained seated as the rest of the theatergoers trickled out. When it was clear that they were the last ones in the room, Maggie announced to Victoria that she could come out.
Victoria emerged, hair tousled, clothes rumpled, and face flushed, but grinning all the same. The three of them made their exit in quietude.
As they stepped outside, Victoria was the first to speak. “Well, that was a very nice show. I’m glad it was my first.”
“You didn’t see a moment of it,” Maggie said.
“No, but I did listen to it,” Victoria replied, “and I was imagining the whole time what the characters looked like on the stage. I bet the real actors didn’t look half as good as they did inside my head.”
The ride home was mostly silent. It seemed that Victoria, at last, had exhausted herself.
When they arrived at the Blaylock’s, Simon saw Maggie and Victoria to the door. He quickly said goodnight and goodbye to them both, apologizing for “having to run,” to catch his train.
Mama came smiling down the staircase as they walked in. “How was it?”
“Oh, it was very nice,” Maggie said. “Definitely a memorable night.”
“I’m so glad,” Mama said. “Good night, girls. I’ll see you both in the morning.”
Maggie and Victoria chorused goodnight, then Maggie turned to Victoria.
“So, are you going to say anything about why you hid? When you did it?”
“Oh, yeah.” Victoria yawned. “I read the seat numbers on the tickets, and while you and Simon were busy ogling the lobby, I just sneaked past you and blended in with a family of young girls. Bunched myself right in with them and into the theater, no problem. Actually, getting underneath the bench was a little bit of a hassle, because I could tell there were some people staring. But it turns out some people don’t really pay attention much, because I know at least one person saw me go under and never come back up and they didn’t come to check on me or anything. They probably just forgot.”
Maggie winced, her guilt returning. “Yes, but if you were able to do all that, couldn’t you have also just told us? You know, I’m pretty sure Simon was just going to buy another ticket, anyway. I don’t know why you went through all that trouble.”
Victoria shrugged and excused herself to bed. She didn’t want to explain to Maggie that it didn’t matter, anyway—that she was just happy to have been there at all.
One night Victoria asked Lena how her predecessor happened to be terminated. She stated the question casually, in the dark, minutes after the lamplight had been extinguished and Lena’s uneasy tossing stalled.
“You mean Beth?”
Victoria hadn’t known what the woman’s name was. “Sure.”
Lena sighed. “She got caught trying to steal. I think it was a gold chain of Mrs. B’s or something. Anyway, it was stupid of her.”
“Mm-hm,” agreed Victoria. “I would never steal.”
“No, I mean it was stupid of her to get caught.”
“Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t stolen anything from here and I don’t think I ever will. But there are better ways to go about doing things like that. Beth was just getting old, that’s all. To be honest, I also think Mr. and Mrs. B were getting a little tired of her. Her stealing something was just the tipping point.”
“What was she like, though? Did you like her?”
“I liked her alright. Didn’t have much in common with her, but she was here when I got hired four years ago; showed me the ropes and all that. Listen: it doesn’t take much to please Mr. and Mrs. B. They’re all right. But you’re a little…reckless sometimes. You gotta watch it. Okay?”
“Now, go to sleep. I swear, you could talk someone’s ears right off.”
Victoria smiled to herself. Lena might have been annoyed with her talking, but at least she listened.
© 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.