When she was sent to Sister Agnes’ office that afternoon, Victoria had been certain it was because of the mess she’d made at breakfast. She had her tale of the events committed to memory: she’d barely gotten any sleep the night before, because around nine Annie had begun crying over an earache, and then Billy had escaped from the boys’ room, and she’d had to chase him down the hall where he’d contorted himself inside a bookshelf and she’d had to tug him out. Then, when she’d finally settled into her bed, the moon was shining much too brightly and no matter how hard she tried to fall asleep she just couldn’t, though she was so tired her eyes burned. Therefore, she’d spent the entire night with her eyes shut tight, tossing in a state of half-consciousness until Sister Elizabeth had roused her by ringing a brass bell directly beside Victoria’s ear (which she was wont to do when Victoria didn’t wake on time).
She’d trudged to the breakfast table, slunk into an empty chair, and the milk jug was passed her way. Clumsy with drowsiness, she’d knocked it down like a ninepin and it went running all the way down the table. The smaller children shrieked and laughed; the older ones groaned in annoyance. She promised to clean it up herself—and she did—but not before Sister Prudence gave her a good scolding in front of everybody, because, according to her, Victoria was “much too old to be causing such juvenile accidents.”
“That’s unfair,” Victoria had protested. “Someone’s age hardly has to do with spilling things. I’m tired, and when people are tired, they cause accidents.”
This rebuttal hadn’t sat well with Sister Prudence. Before Victoria had a moment to regret not biting her tongue, the woman had begun a tirade against Victoria’s so-called insolence.
Presently, in the spotlight of sun pooling in from the window and with the statue of the Blessed Mother on the desk tilted toward her, Victoria squirmed. “I barely got any sleep last night, because…Annie and Billy were—”
“Victoria,” Sister Agnes interjected, gently. “Please. I know about what happened at the table, and this isn’t about that.”
“Oh. Why am I here then?”
Sister Agnes gave her a small smile. “I’m glad you asked. I want to let you know that there’s been a job opening nearby that I believe you might be well-suited for.”
“Oh.” Victoria slackened. Though relieved to receive this news instead of a reprimand or criticism of her earlier behavior, she wasn’t entirely consoled, considering that she’d been employed twice previously, and neither experience had proved advantageous.
Two years prior, it had been a tutoring job in which she was driven to a stately home in the heart of Philadelphia twice a week to assist a young girl named Sally Worthing in grammar, spelling, and reading. Sally, however, was more interested in whining than practicing her adverbs, and had a tiny dog that constantly nibbled at Victoria’s shoes under the table. The dog wasn’t the only one fond of nipping; Sally’s mother enjoyed interrupting Victoria’s lessons to make suggestions on how to properly interact with her daughter (“You needn’t be so harsh, Victoria, she’s simply a little sleepy,” “Tell Sally to sit up straighter, Victoria; I don’t like to see her slouched over the table like her father after too many drinks”).
Victoria taught Sally until her school’s term ended in Spring and was never asked to return—although that Christmas she did receive a card from Mrs. Worthing which read, “Thank you for your service. It’s a relief, at least, to know that Sally won’t end up a bluestocking.”
Last year, Victoria had been hired as a full-time nanny for the Nolan family of New York state. Theirs was a large home, brown brick and ancestral. The two children, aged six and eight, were as dull and somber as the pastoral scene on the wall of their underused playroom. The days stretched on at the Nolan’s, each one clouded over with chores performed in isolation and one-sided conversations with the members of the household, mostly Mrs. Nolan (who had an awful habit of turning all conversations into discussions of her various ailments) and the housekeeper, whose favorite word was, “fine.” Nearly five months into her stay, Victoria, in desperation, penned a letter to Sister Agnes, begging to return. She left the Nolan estate two weeks later, the Nolan children hardly teary-eyed over her exit, and her own spirits a little lighter.
Consequently, Victoria remained firmly at Our Lady of Second Chances Foundling Hospital, a lingering ex-foundling herself, grown up with nowhere to go.
“Please don’t tell me it’s a governess job,” cried Victoria. “I would absolutely hate to be a governess.”
Sister Agnes’ left eye twitched. “No, Victoria, it’s not a governess job. You’ve been reading those British novels again. It’s a maid-of-all-work position. I see that look—before you get upset, the employers had a special note that the position would also be a sort of…lady’s maid to their daughter, who’s around your age.”
“A lady’s maid?” Victoria’s mind reeled. It sounded old-fashioned—and intriguing.
“Don’t go getting any ideas, Victoria.” Sister Agnes lifted a finger. “The Blaylocks—that’s the name of the family—will still need you to be a willing hand around the house, as they’ve recently lost a member of their staff—that is to say, she had to be…let go.”
“Let go? What did she do?”
“Well, I don’t know, Victoria,” sighed Sister Agnes, shaking her head. “And it’s not your business to know, either. Now, I recommend you apply sooner than later.” She slid a paper across the desk to Victoria. “You’ll need to write to Mrs. Beatrice Putnam—she’s the household manager. I’m going to write to her myself to put in a good word for you.”
Victoria leaned over the desk to read the address scrawled on the paper. She’d been imagining someplace magnificent, but the paper said Cape May, New Jersey.
“New Jersey? Oh, no.”
“Now, Victoria, that’s not fair.” Sister Agnes frowned. “New Jersey is a perfectly fine place.”
“For some people, maybe.”
“Cape May is a very beautiful town,” Sister Agnes insisted.
“Have you ever been there?”
“No,” admitted Sister Agnes. “But it’s by the ocean, and I hear the houses are very pretty. You might like it.”
New Jersey wasn’t ideal, Victoria thought. But the beach sounded nice.
The foundling children were all very excited for Victoria’s big departure, probably more so than Victoria herself; and every one of them had questions, most of which Victoria couldn’t answer.
“What does the house look like, Victoria?”
“I don’t know, Abigail, I’ve never been there. I’ll write you a letter when I see it.”
“How many people live there? Are there many children?”
“No children at all, actually.”
“Is New Jersey terribly far away? How far away is it? Will you have to take a boat?”
“It’s not very far, I—”
“Are you ever coming back?”
“I’m sure she’ll come back for a visit someday,” announced Sister Therese. “Now hush, all of you, and let the poor girl alone to finish her packing.”
The Blaylock’s housekeeper Mrs. Putnam had promptly responded to Victoria and Sister Agnes’ letters, and with an encouraging message: Victoria was to come to the Blaylock residence as soon as she could for an interview with Mr. and Mrs. Blaylock, and she should bring a valise too; because if she was a good fit—and Mrs. Putnam mentioned that she was the “most suitable candidate, by far”—Victoria was to take up her position immediately.
Victoria didn’t have a great number of items to pack. Her possessions were plain and few: her clothing all folded neatly into a small valise; her toiletries and sentimental items—a Bible and a pocket book of modern poetry—nestled inside of a carpetbag with room to spare. Her only other belonging was a little stuffed dog that she’d received as a child from a visitor to the foundling hospital. Victoria had named him Milton after the poet of whom, at eight years old, she’d never read a single word but had always admired his portrait on the cover of his collected works that sat on the bookshelf in the front hall. With his matted felt fur and faded ribbon collar from which hung a long-dead bell, Milton had been a constant in Victoria’s life up until now, even accompanying her to the Nolan’s—but she felt now that she had finally outgrown him.
Louise was a little girl in whom Victoria saw a bit of herself. She hadn’t been amongst the group that had bombarded Victoria with questions—she’d waited until everyone else had gone away, and then asked, very seriously, “Will you be back ever, Victoria?”
Victoria gathered Louise aside and then presented her with Milton.
“Yes, but I don’t know when,” Victoria told her. She brandished the toy in her open palms. “I’m moving up in the world, Lou. And as much as I love him, I think Milton needs to stay behind. This place is practically all he’s known. Do you think you can keep him company for me?”
Louise’s eyes shone as she accepted Victoria’s offering, and she hugged the little dog to her chest. “Yes, I can.”
“Good. I knew you were the one,” Victoria declared with a nod of approval.
In the morning, Sister Elizabeth woke Victoria—blessedly not with a bell, but with a harsh, whispered warning that if Victoria didn’t get up now, she’d miss her train.
Still not quite awake, Victoria boarded the South Jersey Railroad. The Sisters who had traveled to the station with her bid her their goodbyes and well-wishes, handkerchiefs waving and rosaries dangling. Victoria didn’t feel as sad as she thought she’d be, nor did she feel excited or anxious. A surprising calm washed over her mind; she was finally on her own.
She was asleep before the engines rumbled to life.
A pleading voice, followed by a gentle shake of her shoulders, stirred Victoria. She blinked up to an attendant who gripped her bags in one hand. He glanced around to the empty cabin and then resumed his wide-eyed stare.
“You’re in the Cape, Miss.”
“Ah, yes, thank you,” said Victoria, standing a little too quickly; she teetered, caught her balance on the wall, then set herself upright again.
“Are you…alright, Miss?”
“Oh yes, now I am, thank you,” Victoria declared. “I’m just where I need to be.”
The attendant didn’t seem to know what to think of that. He simply nodded and led her out to the tiny platform, where she accepted her luggage with a final thanks and then wandered to the front of the depot, where she began her wait. Mrs. Putnam had said in her letter that the driver would arrive at the station around ten o’clock; Victoria had stolen a look at the clock inside the station, and it had been nine forty-eight then.
“Would you like to sit down, Miss?” implored a man sitting on a bench behind her.
Victoria turned and smiled. “No, thank you. I was just sitting for hours. I’d prefer to stand.”
But the truth was that her legs were shaking, partly from the cold but mostly from a sudden, encompassing nervousness. She regretted turning down the offer of the bench but now felt too proud to rescind it. She waited, trembling, for what might have been ten or fifteen minutes until she heard a terrible rumbling sound and spotted a funny little machine prowling towards her.
It came to a sputtering standstill at the curb, and the driver leaned over and shouted,“Are you Miss Victoria?”
“Yes!” Victoria exclaimed, stepping toward the vehicle.
The driver hopped out, tugged Victoria’s bag from her grip, and opened the door. She thanked him as she slid inside; the door was promptly shut and latched, her bags were tossed with a thump into the tiny storage in the back, and off they went.
She wondered, as they rambled down the street, where the beach was. She had a fleeting panic that Sister Agnes had lied to her about the ocean to convince her to take the job.
“Excuse me,” Victoria called to the driver, “do you know where the beach is?”
He didn’t give any indication that he’d heard her.
Resigned, Victoria studied the passing scenery. She had never seen so much color in her life: the houses looked like cakes, with artificial icing and lace-like piping drizzled round the edges and corners. She hadn’t had an idea of what Cape May was going to look like, but she hadn’t thought it would look like this.
“I feel like I could eat one of these,” Victoria shouted jokingly, leaning forward in her seat this time. “Like Hansel and Gretel with the witches’ house!”
“Huh?” The driver yelled back, glimpsing for a moment over his shoulder. “Hansingretel? Where’s that?”
“Never mind!” responded Victoria, dropping back into her seat.
She made it a private game to guess which one of the magnificent houses was the Blaylock home. With every single pause—an avoidance of a bump in the road, a glitch in the automobile’s mysterious machinery—Victoria eagerly eyed all the houses in their vicinity and imagined which one would be the best to live in. Every time she got her hopes up and the engine jerked to life again, she consoled herself with finding affinity with another. At last, they came to a complete stop (after the vehicle lurched forward a few times in quick succession and the driver gave an accompanying curse for each one).
Victoria pushed herself as close to the vehicle’s tiny window as she could to drink in her surroundings. The Blaylock residence was pale pink, trimmed in white, and turreted. Two flags of equal size fluttered above the front door: American stars and stripes, and a Union Jack. Next door on one side was a blue house with tiers of balconies, and on the other, a house of grey that seemed to Victoria to be abandoned with its dirty windows, peeling paint, and a yard cluttered with overgrown grass and weeds; it was a shocking presence in a neighborhood seemingly teeming with life.
The driver said nothing as he hopped down from his perch and went straight to retrieving her bag—which seemed to have gotten stuck, as the entire apparatus jostled and teetered with the redistribution of weight. Meanwhile, Victoria was eager to escape the cramped little container she was in, though her door was latched shut.
Figuring it couldn’t be that difficult, Victoria wriggled her way to the front seat, which she managed almost without a hitch, except for a few dreadful moments when her left leg got snagged. She’d fortunately contorted her body into a proper upright position by the time the driver stepped to the side of the vehicle to see what in the world was going on inside.
“I, uh”—Victoria was a bit breathless—"you forgot to let me out.”
The driver blinked a few times, as if he was still attempting to understand what had just occurred. “Sorry.”
“It’s alright. I guess I’m just a little impatient.”
“Sure,” said the driver and, with Victoria’s bag in tow, he turned and marched toward the Blaylock home. Victoria bustled after him.
Following a few short raps on the front door, it opened to a neat brunette woman with a perfectly courteous smile. “Welcome, Victoria. I’m so glad you arrived on time.”
Victoria didn’t know what to say, so she made an agreeable sound while nodding her head.
“Thank you, Henry. I’ll take her bag,” the woman said, and she accepted Victoria’s baggage with both arms, a look of surprise sweeping her expression at the lightness of it.
Henry tipped his hat and ran off to his automobile. The woman ushered Victoria inside as the ugly growling of the engine began.
The foyer in which they stood was bright and clean, with a black-and-white tiled floor and a lofty ceiling from which hung a gilt chandelier. To their right, a twisting staircase; a petite divan rested against the wall beside it, alongside a marble-topped table and glass lamp. Framed under glass on another wall was a print in muted color of a boy standing defiantly atop a waterfall, a pair of binoculars clasped to his face and an arm akimbo, VALIANCE A BOY’S ADVENTURE MAGAZINE declared above his head.
“Lena?” the woman beckoned, and a slim woman—thirty-something, from Victoria’s estimate—dressed in servant’s attire ran in from somewhere down the hall. “Take this to your room, please.”
Lena received Victoria’s belongings wordlessly, flashing a quick but thorough once-over at Victoria before flying up the spiraling stairs.
“I’m Mrs. Blaylock, by the way.” Victoria’s host smiled again in her genteel way. “Come along with me; my husband is waiting for us in the drawing room.”
The drawing room was immediately to the left, behind a sliding divider. It was a homey space: two sofas facing each other before a crackling fireplace, a large bookshelf, rolltop desk, and a tall window at the very end with curtains half-drawn. The presumed Mr. Blaylock was seated on one of the sofas, where Mrs. Blaylock joined him presently; following her cue, Victoria wandered to the other.
On the low table between them lay fanned several copies of VALIANCE, each with a different illustration, but all featuring some version of a boy in the midst of some grand, adventurous scene.
“I’m in publishing. That’s my magazine.” Mr. Blaylock beamed. Victoria was a bit taken aback by his English accent. “Are you familiar with it?”
"At Our Lady of Second Chances we didn’t have many books or things published after the eighties,” said Victoria, with utmost seriousness.
“Ah. Well, it’s just your typical magazine—stories and outdoor tips and the like. Our circulation is highest in the East Coast, but we have subscribers nationally—and, well, I won’t bore you with more details.”
“Oh, I don’t mind at all,” Victoria enthused. “I’ve never met anyone in publishing before, and it sounds like an awfully interesting way to make a living.”
Mr. Blaylock chuckled. Victoria shrank back a little in the cushion.
“He travels to the city twice a week to go to the main offices,” chimed in Mrs. Blaylock. “The city being New York, of course.”
“Of course,” blurted Victoria.
“Anyway,” sighed Mrs. Blaylock. “Let’s discuss your employment. I’m sure you’re aware of the position as it was advertised, but I’d like to clarify some things. You’ll be taking on the role of a maid-of-all-work, like Lena. You’ll be doing work all around the house, including helping in the kitchen. But we’d also like you to pay special attention to our daughter. She spends far too much time alone, you understand, and we believe she’ll benefit from having a…youthful presence around the house.”
Victoria nodded. “You want me to be her friend.”
“Heavens, no,” Mrs. Blaylock quipped, narrowing her eyes at Victoria. “That’s not it, no; we just need you to assist her, is all.”
“Oh, okay. I understand,” said Victoria, though she didn’t, really.
“Victoria,” Mr. Blaylock spoke, suddenly serious. His accent, Victoria thought, seemed to give anything he said a higher sense of importance. She sat up attentively. “I expect you will follow all of the household rules dutifully, yes?”
“Yes, sir,” answered Victoria.
"Good,” Mr. Blaylock said, seemingly satisfied enough.
Mrs. Blaylock stood. “Come with me, Victoria. I’d like to give you a little overview of the house.”
Victoria scurried after Mrs. Blaylock—who peered over her shoulder, once, to check if Victoria hadn’t stayed—through the foyer and down a short hall where, on the far end, beside a wall telephone and corresponding table was a brown door, partly open.
“This is the kitchen,” announced Mrs. Blaylock as they approached and, as if cued, a woman marched to the door and swung it wide. The two of them walked into the neat kitchen, with its large wooden table in the center, surrounded by the most appliances Victoria had ever seen collected in one space. The woman who had opened the door for them shut it just as rapidly and then turned to face Mrs. Blaylock. She was a rather stout older woman with a stern face. She had on a stainless starched apron over a worn (but impeccably clean) blue striped housedress, which she brushed her hands down upon as if it bore minuscule remnants of dirt to be rid of.
“Victoria, this is Mrs. Putnam. She’s the housekeeper.”
Mrs. Putnam scrutinized Victoria with narrowed eyes. She stepped to Victoria, craning her neck to get a better view. Victoria was small, and Mrs. Putnam was barely any taller.
“You will report to her every morning for your daily tasks,” Mrs. Blaylock continued.
Without warning, Mrs. Putnam lurched forward and pinched both of Victoria’s cheeks, tugging them with such force that it pulled Victoria to her toes.
“My goodness!” Victoria yelped and stumbled away, having bitten back some stronger declarations. She caressed her sore face. “What did you do that for?”
“It was very unnecessary, Beatrice,” mumbled Mrs. Blaylock.
“A little color in the face,” Mrs. Putnam said with triumph, lifting her chin. She spoke in an English accent much like Mr. Blaylock’s, but brusquer. “She is far too pale. A maid never wants to appear sickly for work, and a sick maid is of no use at all.”
“I’m not sick,” insisted Victoria, but no one acknowledged her.
“Where is Cook?” asked Mrs. Blaylock, walking further into the room and inspecting the cupboards as if a full-grown person might be hiding inside.
“She’s in the pantry, gathering some things for dinner.” Mrs. Putnam nodded to the right where, from behind a door there was a muffled shout and some rustling, and a woman emerged, her hair mussed, her face red, and her arms full of potatoes. She stomped to the table and relinquished the vegetables to the countertop, where they tumbled in all directions. One rolled onto the floor, but she didn’t attempt to retrieve it.
“Ah, Cook,” Mrs. Blaylock said. “I’d like you to meet Victoria, the new hired girl.”
The woman called Cook blinked at Victoria.
"Her name is Cook? That’s funny,” said Victoria. “That’d be like if my name was ‘orphan.’”
“Her name isn’t actually ‘Cook,’” spat Mrs. Putnam. “That’s just what we’ve always called her.”
Cook sighed through her nose and crossed her arms. Victoria felt pity for this odd woman; perhaps she didn’t speak English very well or was a mute.
“Can she speak?” asked Victoria in a low voice.
Cook’s face blossomed a deeper shade of red. “Of course I can speak, you little twit.”
She then turned, opened a drawer quite violently, withdrew a paring knife, and began to peel the potatoes with such vigor and efficiency that the skins flew at great heights.
“Oh, dear,” said Mrs. Blaylock. “I’m sure Victoria didn’t mean any offense.”
“Mmph,” said Cook.
“We’ll move on, then,” said Mrs. Blaylock. “Sorry for the disturbance.”
She and Victoria fled the kitchen without another word. They traveled back through the foyer and towards the grand staircase. On their way up, Mrs. Blaylock paused abruptly and ticked a finger at a framed photograph on the wall of a young woman with bright eyes and a cheeky smile.
“My daughter, Margaret—she insists on being called ‘Maggie,’” sighed Mrs. Blaylock. “Think of it—tarnishing a perfectly fine name like Margaret and wishing to be called a pet name fit for a horse.”
They stood there, Mrs. Blaylock two steps ahead, studying her daughter’s portrait wearily for a few moments before Mrs. Blaylock turned and started the rest of the way up.
They arrived at the first door on the left of the upstairs landing, which Mrs. Blaylock promptly opened and walked into, beckoning Victoria to follow. “This is Margaret’s room. Don’t worry about interrupting anything, she’s out to lunch with a friend.”
Victoria stepped inside. The room was white, and very much so: everything from the walls to the curtains to the duvet to the vanity was brandished in tones of bright, clean white, except for the occasional gilt lining and the chestnut armoire. It almost made Victoria sick to look at.
“Lena will train you on the proper cleaning routines for all of the bedrooms,” Mrs. Blaylock said, strolling to the window seat, where she picked up a hoop of a half-finished embroidery. Lips pursed tightly, she lifted it closely to her eyes, then further away, squinting all the while.
She waved it frustratedly. “Do you know what this means?”
Victoria sidled up to Mrs. Blaylock, skimming the words threaded into the fabric in pastel green, above a bed of unfinished flowers: Amat victoria curam.
“It’s Latin,” declared Victoria, with a decisive nod.
Mrs. Blaylock shot her a look of disbelief.
“I think,” added Victoria.
“Well, what does it say?”
“I don’t know, I don’t read Latin; I just know it when I see it.”
“Hm,” sniffed Mrs. Blaylock, setting the hoop back on the seat cushion as if it were a tainted thing. “Margaret is an educated woman, you know.”
“Indeed,” commented Victoria, thinking that it sounded like an appropriate response.
“Yes. She graduated from the New York Young Women’s College—two years ago, almost. Sometimes I think she likes to think of herself as if she were still a schoolgirl.”
Victoria had never heard of such an institution, but the way Mrs. Blaylock spoke of it, it sounded prestigious—and very particular.
“I’d like to show you your room, now,” said Mrs. Blaylock.
Victoria was led down the far end of the upstairs hall and down a set of steps to a little dark corridor.
Mrs. Blaylock pointed to another descending staircase. “That will lead you downstairs right to the kitchen hallway.” She then gestured to the first of two doors. “That is Mrs. Putnam’s room—and this is yours and Lena’s.”
Mrs. Blaylock pushed open the door. Inside was a modest space with two small beds, Victoria’s bag thrown onto the one on the left. A tiny desk sat against the wall between them, and a dresser on the right.
“I’ll let you get settled,” Mrs. Blaylock said. “Maggie should be home any minute now. I’ll anticipate your presence in the drawing room shortly.”
Mrs. Blaylock then bolted away.
Though the room had a window, it offered little light. Victoria began to unpack her things, familiarizing herself with her new lodgings. On the wall above the desk was a Coca-Cola calendar, and on the wall above her bed was a hideous painting of a lone tree in an autumnal field. She was relieved that her roommate appeared to be neat: Lena’s bed was made, the desktop was organized, and none of her personal items were strewn around. When it came to putting away her clothes inside the dresser however, what Victoria discovered was a bit more catastrophic. Lena’s clothing, underthings, and shoes occupied every drawer in jumbled heaps. Victoria reluctantly pushed aside the things in the middle drawer to make room for her humble belongings.
Lena herself walked in just then. She was tearing into a slice of bread, crumbs tumbling to the floor; she crammed the rest of it into her mouth and wiped her hands on her skirt. Her eyes flicked to the open dresser drawer and her clothes moved to one side.
“Alright. I need to get back to the laundry,” Lena said. She leveled her gaze at Victoria. “Don’t touch my things again.”
The very first thing Maggie noticed about the new hired girl was that she looked younger than Maggie had thought she would be. She’d assumed that Beth’s replacement would be like Beth herself: of an indistinguishable age (older than her mother, but younger than Mrs. Putnam), of a natural maternal disposition despite being childless. The young woman standing before the fireplace dressed in grey with a slight, awkward slouch seemed more like a waif out of a serial than a housemaid.
Maggie had just arrived home after lunch at Winnie’s house, shivering and sleepy, and expecting the dog to come running to her the moment she walked in. It had been a fine lunch—a roast, courtesy of the Edwards’ cook, and genial conversation, courtesy of Winnie and her mother—but the bitter January elements had Maggie longing for a nap by the fire with the family pet curled in her lap.
“Mama!” Maggie had shouted.
Mama entered the foyer from the drawing room. “What is it?”
“Where is Algernon?”
“Out in the back, dear.”
Maggie groaned as she kicked off her shoes. “Mama, I told you not to do that. It’s not good to have him outside so long, all alone like that. Especially in the winter.”
“I didn’t do it, Mrs. Putnam did. You know how he gets into things, and we have someone new in the home. And please don’t leave your boots lying on the floor, it’s disgraceful. I really wish you wouldn’t pad around the house in stockings. Now, come into the drawing room so you can meet the new maid.”
Mama was exceptionally pleased about this new addition to their household.
“Her name is Victoria,” she gushed, as if the new girl couldn’t introduce herself. “Like the queen of England.”
“Oh, I’m just Victoria,” Victoria said, with a jovial wave of a hand. “Of Philadelphia.”
Maggie couldn’t help but smile, as did Dad. Mama twitched uncomfortably.
“I think that’s quite enough,” Dad said. “Victoria, you may be excused. See to Mrs. Putnam, she’ll want to show you to the laundry to help Lena.”
“Yes, sir,” Victoria said, and she ran off.
Maggie wanted to run away as well; instead, she stood and walked modestly out of the room, expecting one of her parents to berate her for leaving so abruptly, but neither one of them objected.
As reluctant as she was to head back out into the chill, Maggie was more determined to bring Algernon inside. She ran to the backyard and whistled; the little white dog, attached by his collar to a rope tied to a wooden peg that Mama insisted on keeping him bound to, came half-trotting, half-limping in her direction (he had acquired a rather serious case of canine arthritis in the last year). Maggie untied him, lifted him into her arms and smuggled him inside, racing through the foyer and up the stairs.
“Margaret—are you bringing the dog into your room?” Mama yelled from the bottom of the stairs. “He’s going to get mud all over your bed!”
“Yes!” shouted Maggie, and she shut the door.
Lena ignored Victoria as they prepared for bed that night, save for a few sidelong glances as she tugged on a thin chemise. Victoria quickly shimmied into her long-sleeved winter nightgown, shivering when her exposed limbs met the cool air. Lena, meanwhile, was in a squabble with her hair; she fiercely pinned and shoved her long tresses into a sleeping cap, after which she flung herself onto her bed.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Lena lunged for a magazine on the little table between their beds and snapped it open.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. I do that sometimes. I guess I find you interesting,”
Lena sat up, slapping the magazine to her chest. “Interesting? What is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing insulting,” Victoria countered. “Personally, I would be flattered if someone called me interesting. I’ve never been called interesting a day in my life.”
“That surprises me.”
Lena returned to her reading and Victoria tried to settle herself in her unfamiliar bed. It was just a tad bigger than her old one at Our Lady of Second Chances and about as tolerable.
“Where are the beaches?” Victoria asked, after a minute debating whether to initiate conversation.
Lena didn’t answer immediately. She turned a page. “Not too far.”
“Do you visit them often? I mean, of course, not during this time of year—”
Lena tossed her magazine onto the table and rolled onto her side, leveling her dark eyes at Victoria. “I’ve lived in the Cape my whole life. My family’s been here for generations—my grandad and my dad were fishermen. They spent most of their lives on that water, on those beaches, but it wasn’t for leisure. People like the Blaylocks? They’re not really locals. They come here and build their ridiculous colored homes and parade around in their tailored dresses, and most of them leave when the weather gets cold.”
“I had no idea. I’m sorry.”
Lena shrugged and rolled out of bed. “There’s nothing to be ‘sorry’ about. It’s just the way it is.” She turned down the lamp. “Good night.”
Victoria thought that she’d struggle to fall asleep in this strange new room with her slightly hostile new roommate only several feet away, but it came without a hitch; she was woken by the sounds of Lena shuffling around the dark room dressing for the day, the lamp casting its orange glow over them both.
“Up,” said Lena. “You’re going to learn about the oven.”
The routine of getting the ovens ready for a full day of cooking, Victoria quickly learned, was tedious and annoying (especially with Cook hanging around, pausing intermittingly to inspect them in glaring silence). One had to rake yesterday’s ashes and rub everything down with blacking—and do it quickly so that the stovetop would be hot enough to cook upon by the time the family awoke expecting their first meal of the day. It was a dirty and smelly undertaking that Victoria loathed performing before she had eaten anything herself.
Directly after the coals were set, Victoria and Lena aided Cook with preparing breakfast, chopping potatoes and vegetables, slicing bacon, and grinding coffee; but while they worked, they talked—or, at least, Mrs. Putnam and Lena did, and Victoria listened. The housekeeper had barged into the kitchen minutes before to make certain that Victoria’s work was going smoothly and had lingered to put a kettle to boil for her morning tea.
It happened that the Blaylocks were expecting some important guests—the Aldridge family from Toms River, Mrs. Putnam said. They were, as she put it, “old family friends.”
“Toms River,” repeated Victoria. “Who’s Tom?”
“No one; it’s just the name of the town,” scoffed Mrs. Putnam. After a moment’s deliberation, she added, “Well, I suppose at one time, it might’ve been someone’s—no, I’m not discussing this. It’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t matter.”
“What will I be doing?” Victoria asked.
“Whatever I—or Mr. and Mrs. Blaylock—tell you to do, without question,” was Mrs. Putnam’s reply.
And what Mrs. Blaylock requested of her, later that afternoon—after Victoria had gone through a whirlwind of instruction from Lena and Mrs. Putnam on various household chores—was that Victoria help Maggie prepare for the evening. What that entailed Victoria didn’t know, and she didn’t ask.
When Victoria walked into her room, Maggie was sprawled on her bay window seat, browsing her old yearbook. She had taken to it whenever nostalgia prompted her, which was quite often lately, with Winnie’s official announcement of engagement and Mama growing more serious about Maggie’s overall lack of prospects.
During their college days, Winnie had entertained brief infatuations fixated on various boys from the Women’s College’s brother schools that she’d met at mixers; she and Maggie had even gone out on a few group dates to the local parks and cafés. None of Maggie’s apathetic romantic attachments had “stuck,” as she liked to say (there had been Fred, whom Maggie thought endearing but whom she had to practically pry words from; and Eddie, who had a penchant for indecent jokes and who’d attempted indiscreetly to kiss her on the sidewalk)—but Winnie had devoted herself to Herbert Guild, a fresh graduate of civil law, who had presented Winnie with a jeweled band of proposal just before his family sailed to Spain for Christmas.
School itself had always been Maggie’s biggest draw: the lessons she imbibed with ease, the tests and quizzes she breezed through in confidence. It had always annoyed her when Winnie and their other school friends turned down her suggestions of outings so they could huddle together in study. Sometimes Maggie had joined them at their table in the library, reading through the college newspaper and taking breaks to peruse the shelves. The programs at the Women’s College were general, designed to create the well-rounded modern woman who was fit to succeed just as well in an office as in the home. Maggie’s focus had been in journalism and secretarial work, to the surprise of no one; all the girls knew Maggie as the daughter of a magazine man, whose publications were a familiar sight in their homes, a favorite of a brother or a cousin. Maggie’s instructors, aware of this, expected excellence from her—and she never gave them anything less.
Flitting between classes, weekend parties in the social hall, and midnight candy-making, Maggie passed through four years, interrupted only by summers back at the Cape, with yachting excursions on Winnie’s family’s boat and day trips to the city. In her senior year, Maggie relished her position as one on the cusp of venturing out into that near new century. That year, she and Winnie had gone around with fellow senior Ruth-Ann and a few underclassmen in a tight-knit group that reveled in note-passing and in-jokes that, in retrospect, Maggie knew were insipidly girlish. Maggie couldn’t recall most of their names now, except for a bright blue-eyed creature named Kathleen to whom she’d promised correspondence but, regrettably, never saw through.
Maggie flipped a page in the little book in her lap and there they all were, smiling up at her from a tiny sepia square. As she studied her own smiling face, her bedroom door swung open, and she jumped with a yelp, clapping the yearbook shut.
“Sorry,” mumbled Victoria, who cautiously closed the door behind her.
“What are you doing?” asked Maggie, setting aside the book.
“I’m here to help you get ready,” Victoria replied. She rocked back and forth, her hands folded in front of her body.
“Oh.” Maggie hopped off the window seat and walked to her armoire. She flung it open, and the dress her mother had selected for the dinner displayed right in front of her. A deep cream with pearl buttons down the front, it wasn’t unattractive by any means, but it wasn’t to Maggie’s taste—she’d much prefer to remain in her blue serge skirt and shirtwaist, put on some powder and a brooch and declare it done.
“It’s very pretty,” Victoria breathed, as Maggie lifted the dress off its hanger.
“Yes, it is,” Maggie agreed. “Though a bit old-fashioned, don’t you think?”
Victoria shrugged as she ran her fingers down the fabric.
“Alright, let’s get this over with.” Maggie shoved the garment at Victoria and shimmied down to her chemise. Victoria turned the dress over in her hands, brows furrowed.
“Is there a problem?”
“Sorry, I just…I’ve never seen this many hooks before—I think there are some buttons too, now that I’m looking at it, which seems a little unnecessary.”
“As I said, it’s too old-fashioned. In my opinion, clothing you can’t put on properly and easily by yourself should be illegal. But it’s the one Mama bought, so it’s the one I’ll wear.”
Securing the dress required effort on Victoria’s part and cooperation on Maggie’s, with Maggie stretching her back as straight as possible, hands on her hips, as Victoria fumbled with the myriad of fastenings. Despite this, it went smoothly until the top three hooks, where it became apparent that the bust of the dress was a bit too narrow to accommodate a proper closure. Victoria pulled and tugged until Maggie groaned and stepped away.
“It’s no use,” Maggie said. “But thanks for trying.”
“You’re welcome,” replied Victoria, lamely.
Maggie rooted through her wardrobe drawers and procured a lace shawl. She tossed it over her shoulders and ran to her vanity, where she fished a golden brooch from a bowl and pinned it over her chest. She turned to Victoria.
“What do you think?”
Victoria turned her head. “I think you look like a dowager.”
“Aw, hell. Help me get out of this. Mama’s just going to have a bit of a shock, I guess.”
And so they returned to the frustrating operation that was Mama’s chosen dress. Once it had been tugged off her, Maggie stuffed it back onto a hanger, shoved it back into her wardrobe, and hustled into a light blue ensemble with a petite square neckline, what she deemed a reasonable compromise between the gown and her day clothes.
Maggie skipped to her vanity and dropped into the little plush chair before the mirror. “Everything you’ll need for dressing my hair is right here.”
Victoria approached the vanity and quickly inspected the inventory. Among the various accessories and items set along the dresser were hairpins and brooches in a little porcelain pot; a discarded hair rat; a tin of face powder; a crystal, tangerine bottle of something called Donna Moderna; an overly elaborate hairbrush with an embellished handle and a frame featuring a Shakespearean scene; and a vase full of long-dead flowers. Maggie glimpsed Victoria’s gaze lingering on the perished plants and, flustered, grabbed the vase and set it on the floor.
“I’ve been meaning to get rid of those,” she said and, before Victoria could further comment, loosened her hair—which that morning she’d casually pinned halfway back—letting her mahogany waves fall loose over her shoulders.
Victoria gently lifted the brush from the table. “What do you want me to do?”
Maggie shrugged, then sighed and slumped her shoulders.
With hesitation, Victoria began brushing through Maggie’s hair. It proceeded smoothly for but a minute, until she encountered a snag. Maggie flinched but didn’t say a word. Victoria swallowed back dread and gently attempted to free the brush from Maggie’s hair, but it wouldn’t budge. She gave a sharp tug, which finally parted the instrument from Maggie’s head, but not without a prize within its bristles.
“Ah!” Maggie cried, her hands flying to her scalp. She spun around and glared up at Victoria. “What are you doing?”
“I’m sorry; it just got stuck, that’s all.”
Maggie glanced aside, her face blossoming pink. She turned back to the mirror. “It’s okay. Just hurry, please. Mama will start calling for me soon.”
After that little error, Victoria’s job was simple, even comforting. She found her fingers instinctively parting strands of Maggie’s hair into a French braid. Braiding hair was something Victoria was skilled at, having spent many tiresome evenings braiding the hair of the girls at Our Lady—and having hers braided by them—tying the ropes off with bits of string, or ribbon if they had any.
“How old are you, anyway?” Victoria asked. She winced. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked that. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
“It’s fine. I’m twenty-four. I’ll be twenty-five in October,” Maggie replied with a wistful sigh, as if reminiscing on a faded youth.
"I’m twenty-three,” Victoria said. Maggie’s brows raised. “I know I’m small, but it’s true. Must have something to do with poor nutrition, you know.”
Victoria laughed, but saw that Maggie was frowning at her in the mirror.
“It’s strange having a new maid who’s younger than me. It makes me feel sorry.”
Victoria didn’t know how to respond, but now she felt odd as well.
“It’s done. May I have a ribbon tie, please?”
Maggie pulled open one of the vanity’s drawers, rummaged through, and produced the requested material in blue. Victoria tied the ribbon around the end of Maggie’s hair in a neat little bow.
Maggie turned her head and reached behind her neck to examine Victoria’s work and smiled. “I love it. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Victoria beamed.
Maggie stood, and suddenly her composure wasn’t as cheerful. “You can leave now, Victoria. You’re probably needed downstairs.”
The dining room table was dressed and set for six. Victoria had been asked by Mrs. Putnam to review the table settings, having been given a written list of the items that were required for each seat: a bowl atop a plate, sitting on another plate; a set of the most complex silverware Victoria had ever seen, including two more forks that she wouldn't have ever deemed necessary for one meal; and two separate drinking glasses. In the center of it all were some candlesticks and an urn filled with dried flowers and fake fruits, which Victoria thought looked ghastly but assumed was probably indicative of good taste to some people.
“Victoria?” Mrs. Putnam’s cry echoed from somewhere down the corridor.
“Coming!” Victoria shouted back, fleeing the table and its awful decorations that, before the interruption, she’d considered tweaking.
She ran into the foyer, slipping on the tile that she and Lena had mopped and polished earlier. If not for her managing to grasp the banister railing as she stumbled across the sleek surface, she would have been flat on the floor just in time for Mrs. Putnam and Lena’s appearance in the entrance hall.
“Heavens, child,” Mrs. Putnam said. “Why are you in such a rush?”
“Sorry,” Victoria breathed, pushing herself upright.
“You don’t need to be ‘sorry,’ I just need you to focus. The Aldridges will be here shortly, and when they arrive, I need you to assist Lena with their things.” Her eyes drifted to the gleaming floor. “And small steps, please. Let’s not cause a scene.”
Victoria nodded enthusiastically. Mrs. Putnam seemed dubious, but after a glance between Victoria and Lena, marched away to the kitchen.
Mr. and Mrs. Blaylock appeared downstairs not too long after, in fine attire and apathy, as if they were about to interview another maid, not have dinner with supposed friends. Maggie came bustling down the staircase in her blue dress, her braid bouncing; Mrs. Blaylock blanched at the sight.
“Margaret—what in the world? What happened to the dress I bought?” Mrs. Blaylock’s gaze flicked from her daughter to Victoria.
“It didn’t fit quite right.” Maggie shrugged. “But I like this better, anyway. Don’t you?”
“I don’t understand how it didn’t fit. I had Lena use the same measurements that we took in November for your Christmas dress.” Mrs. Blaylock’s eyes fixed on Maggie’s chest, then dropped down to her hips. She rushed toward Maggie and tugged at the waistline of Maggie’s dress, exuding a frustrated laugh. “You must have gained weight. I’m telling Cook to use less butter for the next few weeks.”
The doorbell sounded.
Lena fetched the door, swinging it wide open and standing at attention while the guests walked in. The hawkish Mrs. Aldridge was first to enter, her severe chin angled upwards.
“This floor is quite slick, is it not?” she mumbled as she shuffled in. Her wispy hair, piled atop her head, wobbled with each step. She paused to plant her fashionable walking stick firmly on the floor, both of her thin hands gripping the rounded top.
“Yes, the maids scrubbed it today,” Mr. Blaylock said. “I daresay they did too good of a job.”
“No such thing,” sniffed Mrs. Aldridge. Victoria approached her to receive the brown fur coat and matching hat. “Ah. You’re a new little creature, aren’t you? I don’t remember seeing you at the party last month.”
“Yes,” was all Victoria said as the woman bestowed her finery upon her.
Victoria hurried Mrs. Aldridge’s items into the hall closet so that she wouldn’t have to face gruff and podgy Mr. Aldridge, who stomped inside shaking snow off his coat and beard like a bear. While Victoria was setting Mrs. Aldridge’s belongings on a hanger, Lena showed up and tossed Mr. Aldridge’s coat, scarf, gloves, and hat inside the closet without a care.
When they both returned to the foyer, the youngest Aldridge had finally made an appearance, half-hidden behind a ridiculously extravagant bouquet of flowers. Lena marched to shut the door he’d left ajar.
“These are for you,” he managed to say to Mrs. Blaylock as he moved toward her, before he floundered on the floor and pitched forward, spilling the array of roses, baby’s breath, leaves, and berries across the recipient’s bosom. Mrs. Aldridge screeched.
“Oh!” cried Mrs. Blaylock with an overlarge smile as she swiftly gathered as much of the scattered bouquet from her body and clothing as possible, brushing aside the foible with the grace of a well-trained hostess. “They’re lovely. Thank you. Let’s get settled; dinner will be ready shortly.”
Lena dropped to the floor, sweeping up the collateral damage with her hands. The families trailed Mrs. Blaylock to the adjoining room—all except the young Aldridge, who, pink-faced, shakily unbuttoned his coat.
Victoria stepped to him. “I can take that.”
He glanced up with a flinch mid-button, bright eyes blinking. “Oh. Sorry—I didn’t even see you there.”
Lena glanced up, annoyed. His shoe was squared atop a broken stem.
“It’s okay. Here.” Victoria waited patiently until he unfastened the final button and then helped him shuffle off the coat. After a moment’s hesitation and a muttered thanks, he hurried off to the dining room.
Lena stood, shaking her head. She turned down the hall and waved the collected flowers above her head. “Come on, let’s go.”
Victoria hurried along. Lena tugged the coat from her arms and tossed it in the closet.
The kitchen air was stuffy with a soup simmering on the stove and a roast in the oven. Cook was at the counter, red in the face, furiously whisking something in a large bowl. She paused to wipe her brow with her sleeve and snap her fingers at the newcomers.
“You!” she shouted, her gaze flicking between Lena and Victoria. “The soup is ready to go out.”
Mrs. Putnam rushed in and quickly surveyed the room. She sighed, then stepped to the counter to ask Cook a question about wine.
Victoria trailed Lena to the soup pot. A set of blue and white porcelain bowls sat awaiting on the stove countertop, all adorned with floral and pastoral motifs. Lena glanced over her shoulder, then plucked a spoon from a drawer. Glancing to Victorian devilishly, dipped the spoon into the pot and then took a sip. Her brows crossed, and she grimaced. She then pushed the spoon toward Victoria with a nod.
Victoria accepted the spoon and then stared down into the pot. An oily brown liquid shimmered back up at her, and her stomach turned. The fumes rising from inside hinted at something meaty and pungent. In her peripheral, Lena egged her on.
Cook caught Victoria by the wrist. Her calloused fingers squeezed Victoria’s flesh until the spoon clattered to the floor.
“Victoria!” Mrs. Putnam stomped over. She retrieved the utensil from the floor and waved it before Victoria’s face. “What is wrong with you?”
“I—I’m sorry. I was just wondering what it was.”
“You don’t need to know what it is,” Mrs. Putnam said, clearly exasperated.
“It’s my brown soup,” shouted Cook, returning to her whisking.
That didn’t clarify a thing. Victoria rubbed her throbbing wrist and peeked at Lena, whose expression offered nothing but apathy.
“Now, do your job,” Mrs. Putnam snapped. “Both of you.”
In silence, Lena and Victoria carefully filled each bowl—minuscule pieces of what Victoria assumed were meat and vegetables plunking from each spoonful—and arranged them three to a tray. Each lifted a tray and out they went to the dining room.
The families were deep into an inconsequential conversation, which meant that, naturally, they were too focused on appearing enthralled to pay any mind to anyone else and pretended not to notice the arrival of their food. Lena swept directly to Mrs. Blaylock, which prompted Victoria toward Mrs. Aldridge. Victoria set the soup bowl upon the woman’s plate with a little thump, which startled her enough to look up at her server.
Victoria moved on to Mr. Aldridge, who was animatedly regaling the table. About what Victoria couldn’t tell, only that he was very loud and alternated between leaning forward and falling back in his seat, gesticulating wildly, so that it made carrying a soup bowl to his plate a risky prospect. In a window between his fluctuations Victoria went in for the plate, accosted in the last second by an arm flung toward the face, which she just barely dodged; soup went sloshing out of the china and onto her apron front and her hand but, despite the burning, she bit her lip and put down the bowl at last.
Mr. Aldridge glanced up to Victoria, confused, then deferred to Mr. Blaylock. “What kind of servants do you have around here, Alan, sneaking around like that?
A bit concerning, don’t you think?”
“Oh, that’s Victoria; it’s only her first week.”
Victoria paused at the mention of her name, half expecting one of the Aldridges to make another snide comment or demand an introduction, but after a few beats of silence Mr. Aldridge launched back into his discourse.
The young Aldridge was last to receive his bowl. Lena had finished giving the Blaylocks their first course and had subsequently disappeared. Victoria gently set his bowl down and then fled the room, overhearing Mrs. Aldridge murmur, “What an odd girl. She seemed quite dumb.”
Victoria ran into Lena in the butler’s pantry. Lena pulled Victoria inside and swung the door until only a sliver of the dining room remained in their vantage. Most particularly, they had a fantastic perspective of Maggie and the young Aldridge, who sat on the same side of the table—though one couldn’t quite say they sat next to one another, as their chairs were three feet apart at the least.
“Look at them,” whispered Lena, a smirk curling on her lips. “It’s almost painful to watch.”
"Mm,” said Victoria.
“I’ve only seen him over once in my years working for the Blaylocks—years ago, probably for a birthday or something.”
“Simon, you dunce.”
Victoria studied him, back straight against his chair, only bending a little to bring the soup spoon to his lips, eyes roving from speaker to speaker but offering no input himself. His dark hair had been combed aside but a few locks sprung loose over his brow, bouncing into his eyes. He blinked and brushed them away, but they slid back.
“I never thought that Mr. and Mrs. B would be the type to play matchmakers, but I suppose Winnie Edwards’ engagement prompted a sense of urgency.”
“Who’s Winnie Edwards?”
“Maggie’s closest friend. Her only friend, as far I know—but you didn’t hear that from me, I just call it like I see it. So, anyway, Winnie’s been seeing this guy named Hubert for about a year now and apparently, he proposed on New Year’s Day. I wouldn’t marry a man named Hubert if you gave me a million bucks, but that’s just me. Anyway, I think Maggie and Simon look perfectly miserable. Not that it’s any of my business.”
In the whole time Victoria had been listening to Lena’s diatribe, Maggie hadn’t looked at Simon once. In fact, she hadn’t really looked at anything but her bowl and the tabletop.
The kitchen door creaked open, and a rapid shuffling of skirts and shoes indicated the arrival of Mrs. Putnam. Lena and Victoria swiveled to see the housekeeper with her hands on her hips.
“I knew you two were dragging your feet. For shame, Lena—pulling the new girl into your hideous gossip already.” Mrs. Putnam peered at Victoria, shaking her head. “You’ll need not develop any more bad habits, Victoria. It’s best for you to just do as you’re told.”
“I will do as I’m told, Mrs. Putnam,” said Victoria, “but I do think I have the right to have some fun while doing it.”
Mrs. Putnam narrowed her eyes. “Impossible. Now, go and fetch their dishes. Cook needs you to help slice the beef.”
Of course, Mr. Aldridge had found a way to work in conversation about the lumber business. Any amount of time spent on the subject of wood was too much for Maggie, and it was teeming on forty-five minutes now. She’d quit actively listening long ago and looked to Mr. Aldridge only when it was socially appropriate, to nod or murmur agreement. She recalled how, as a child, she’d been afraid of him, how she dreaded that one day he might publicly reprimand her or grip her arm so tightly that it would leave red marks behind, like the kind Simon used to have.
She found that the only things that had changed about Mr. Aldridge was that his beard was streaked with grey and that he’d grown noticeably fatter. As for herself, she discovered that her old fears had matured into a finely curated disgust. She took a tiny bite of her roast beef piled with horseradish, hoping the sting would perk her up.
Maggie heard Simon’s name spoken.
“He’s getting on just fine,” Mr. Aldridge said. “More than fine, actually. He’s on his way to becoming a veritable manager—he’s very good with the bookkeeping, you know. Soon he’ll be running the whole damn organization. Not bad for thirty-two.”
Mr. Aldridge laughed and slung an arm over the back of his chair.
“I’m twenty-seven,” piped Simon.
Mr. Aldridge’s laugh ceased abruptly with a hacking cough, and he glowered at his son.
Mercifully, Mr. Blaylock shifted the talk to politics.
While Mama and Mrs. Aldridge shifted uncomfortably as they discussed McKinley and Roosevelt, Maggie was rapt. Even Simon, who had been so silent throughout the entire meal that at times Maggie had forgotten he was even present, joined in with the occasional comment.
“I don’t think all labor unions are terrible,” he offered, countering his father’s remark about the groups forming amongst his own employees. Maggie had hoped he would elaborate, but Mr. Aldridge jumped in before Simon could utter another thought.
“Of course you don’t; you don’t have to deal with their demands,” scoffed Mr. Aldridge.
“Once you’re in my position though, you’ll change your tune.” He nodded to Mr. Blaylock. “You have to handle any strikes or anything?”
Mr. Blaylock smiled. “Not as of yet, thankfully.”
“Hm. Writers and illustrators, though—they’re a different sort of breed, huh?”
By the time Victoria and Lena had returned to the dining room to take away their dinner plates and replace them with dishes of mousse, they had progressed to women’s suffrage. Adrenaline cut through Maggie; she was eager to toss in her own two cents but expected admonishment.
“Here’s what I think.” Mr. Aldridge leaned forward with a great sigh, clasping his hands together. “Our voting process has been the same in this country for a while, and it works just fine. Why change anything now?”
“That’s an awful way to view things,” Maggie interjected. “If everyone thought that way, nothing would ever get done.”
“Margaret,” Mama growled.
“No, no.” Mr. Aldridge leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. “Let her go on.”
Just about half an hour ago, Maggie had convinced herself that she was no longer afraid of Mr. Aldridge; but now, with his dark eyes snapping at her and his mouth turned up in a smirk, she felt like a child again. Worse still, she could feel Simon staring at her from the other direction and felt that he was anticipating her to espouse a clever retort, but she could no longer think of anything so adequate.
Mr. Aldridge nodded slowly. “See? You spoke a little too soon.”
“You studied journalism at school, right? So, you’re probably well informed about current affairs.”
Simon had asked Maggie the question, but his gaze was fixed above Maggie’s head, towards his father.
Maggie nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, I did.”
“My dear girl.” Mr. Aldridge was back to leaning forward. He absentmindedly turned his dessert dish round and round on the table. “Learning journalism at a women’s college is not the same as being a journalist. When’s the last time you wrote about ‘current affairs?’”
“Well, I…I haven’t had a reason to—”
Mrs. Blaylock inhaled sharply. “This sort of talk is not appropriate for Margaret. Please, let’s change subjects.”
Mr. Aldridge shrugged, and then launched back into speaking about his lumbering.
Maggie burned with anger, not only toward Mr. Aldridge but toward Mama as well. She felt the familiar tug of hot tears but refused to give into them for want of some degree of composure. The faces at the table turned blurred. She forced down her mousse, spoonful by spoonful, until it was gone and the Aldridges were about to be, too.
It was nearly nine o’clock when the Aldridges finally departed. After Mrs. Putnam, Lena, and Victoria had shared a dinner of their own, Victoria and Lena disposed of the leftovers, finished the dishes, and scrubbed all the countertops.
“Good night, ladies,” Mrs. Putnam dismissed them. “I will see all of you tomorrow morning.”
Once they had left the vicinity, Mrs. Putnam walked to the drawing room. Mr. Blaylock sat in his chair beside the fireplace reviewing magazine articles, papers littering the rug, while Mrs. Blaylock sat at her desk, reviewing the week in her ledger. Neither of them noticed Mrs. Putnam until she drew shut the sliding wooden door.
Mr. Blaylock lowered the typewritten page in his hand and dropped his reading glasses. “Mrs. Putnam.”
Mrs. Blaylock turned her head over her shoulder. “Is everything alright?”
Mrs. Putnam stepped to the center of the room, a reasonable distance between the two of them. “We need to discuss Victoria.”
“What about her?” Mr. Blaylock asked.
“She’s a bit of a handful. A little bit a of mess, I would say, actually…where did you acquire her?”
“Our Lady of Second Chances Foundling Hospital, in Philadelphia,” Mrs. Blaylock answered. “One of the heads of the organization wrote a lovely letter of recommendation.”
Mrs. Putnam blanched. “You don’t mean to say the pitiful thing was living in an orphanage until just recently?”
“Then she’s a child?”
“Heavens, no; we were informed she’s twenty-three, actually.”
“Well then, what was she still doing in a foundling hospital? Hadn’t she found work?”
“Mrs. Putnam,” Mr. Blaylock joined in, “yes, we were told that she’d been employed previously, but that the jobs didn’t pan out.”
“What—do you mean she had been fired?”
“The circumstances were not disclosed to us,” Mrs. Blaylock huffed. “With all due respect, Mrs. Putnam, I’m not sure what the cause for concern is. She’s hardly been here a week. We’re giving her a chance; I encourage you to do the same. Besides, we want someone near to Margaret’s age in the house. It’s not good for a young woman to spend so much time in solitude—haven’t you said as much?”
Mrs. Putnam winced; she’d complained to Lena several times before that, yes, she believed Margaret spent too much time alone in the house, and how she wished the Blaylocks would do something about it. She’d have to have a little chat with Lena about loose lips.
“Well, of all the girls you could have hired.” Mrs. Putnam shook her head. “I suppose I’ll find a way to work with her.”
“Good. We’ve come to an understanding,” said Mr. Blaylock, returning to his reading. “Because we’re expecting to keep her around for a while.”
© 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.