Eager rustling woke Victoria before the sun had fully risen. Across the room, Lena was shuffling through her drawers and stuffing clothing into a travel bag at her feet.
“Are you leaving?” Victoria mumbled. Ideas of what Lena might have said or done to have warranted such a sudden departure jumbled through her head.
“Just for a few weeks,” replied Lena cheerfully.
“Oh. Where are you going?”
“On vacation. I go with the Blaylocks every year—at least, every year since I’ve worked here, so four times—you know, upkeep of the vacation home and all that. They leave every July. I’ve been with them to Atlantic City a couple of times, and last summer we went to England.”
“I haven’t heard anyone mention anything about a vacation.”
Lena paused folding a shirtwaist to glare at Victoria. “Well, why would you be told anything? Mrs. B will be letting me know soon about this year’s trip, believe me. Or don’t, I don’t really care. You’ll find out either way.”
That she did. After breakfast was ended and the table cleared away, Mrs. Blaylock summoned Victoria to the drawing room. Victoria entered obediently, though slightly terrified, as she’d never been asked into Mrs. Blaylock’s domain alone, let alone so early in the day.
Mrs. Blaylock sat at her little writing desk, though it didn’t appear that she was working on anything. She ushered Victoria to the chaise beside it.
“Sit, Victoria. You’re not about to be reprimanded, so don’t act so strange.”
Victoria lowered herself onto the red cushion of the chaise. To her disappointment, it was not nearly as plush as it appeared.
“Our family is about to leave for our vacation home in Atlantic City.”
Victoria nodded as if she understood that it was perfectly reasonable to vacation at an oceanside resort when one lived mere blocks away from one of the premier shores on the Atlantic coast.
Her face must have betrayed her outward agreement, because Mrs. Blaylock then clarified, “We’ll be vacationing with my husband’s brother and his wife and children from England. They prefer Atlantic City because they find it more of an…authentic American resort. Besides, it’s the height of the season when the summertime travelers parade through our streets and beaches, so it’s always nice to steal away to a place where we aren’t so much of a spectacle. Atlantic City, you’ll see, is a much more—well, it’s a bit less restrained than here.”
“Ah,” said Victoria.
“Anyway, I would like to offer an invitation for you to come along with us. I think it will be good for Margaret. A failed courtship is a very tender subject, you know, and she’s been blue. Also, her cousins can be a bit cruel—only playfully so, but still. I believe having you around would help lift Margaret’s spirits.”
Mrs. Blaylock stared at Victoria eagerly, eyes shining.
“I would love to go, of course,” Victoria answered.
“Oh, fantastic!” Mrs. Blaylock clapped. “We leave Sunday morning, so be sure to launder anything that you want to wear—oh, and ask Margaret if she has any old bathing outfits that you can use; you’re a bit tinier than her, aren’t you? No matter, I’ll have it adjusted for you.”
When the workday was over, Victoria retreated to her room and found Lena sulkily unpacking her bag.
“What’s going on?” Victoria asked, cautiously.
Lena whipped around. “Are you stupid? Mr. and Mrs. B want you to go with them, which means that, obviously, I am not.”
“I’m sure you are,” said Lena, icily. She crumpled the skirt in her hand and tossed it into an open drawer.
Maggie was a great deal happier than Lena was about the news.
“Oh, Victoria! Aren’t you excited?” squealed Maggie. “We’ll have a grand time. Of course, you’ll have to do your work—but you’ll still have plenty of spare time to wade with us and stroll the boardwalk and all the usual things.”
Victoria had many questions, but as to not overwhelm herself or Maggie, she only asked one. “Your mother mentioned something about an old bathing outfit?”
“Oh, yes. I probably have an old one. I got a brand-new one for this year, of course.” Maggie rushed to her armoire and rifled through the bottom drawer, coming up a moment later brandishing what looked like a short, dark dress with white trim along the sleeves and collar. “Here.” Maggie pulled out another item, a matching pair of ruffle-bottomed britches. “You wear this underneath the top part, of course.”
Victoria accepted the garments and walked to Maggie’s full-length mirror, draping the articles of clothing over her body as Maggie nodded approvingly. That evening, when she tried them on and flaunted them before Mrs. Blaylock, she felt so ridiculous that she could scarcely allow herself to imagine wearing it out amongst the public.
Mrs. Blaylock frowned. “Hm. The bloomers are a bit long, aren’t they?”
“They’re falling down a little,” confessed Victoria.
“Well, we certainly can’t have that.” Mrs. Blaylock got to plucking and fussing at the material, pulling it and pinning it to her satisfaction. “I’ll send this off to Mrs. Chambers right away to have it ready for Sunday. Go along, Victoria, and when you’ve changed, leave them on my desk, if you please.”
Mrs. Putnam’s opinion on Victoria leaving was surprisingly gleeful. “If you behave yourself, Victoria, you just might have a fine time. You seem like the sort suited for travel. Mind you, where you’re going isn’t terribly far away, but sometimes a little trip now and then, no matter how near, can be of great benefit to the mind and body.”
“You speak with such conviction, Mrs. Putnam,” Victoria said. “Did you travel a lot when you were young?”
“Heavens, no. It’s much too much trouble. But you’re well-drawn to trouble, so you shouldn’t mind it at all.”
On the way to Atlantic City, a baby cried somewhere a few rows down. A subtle, unpleasant musk permeated the muggy summer air. The train’s wooden seats were too firm to relax upon and the Blaylocks, whether out of courtesy or custom, hardly spoke during its entirety. Victoria busied herself by staring out the dusty window and sneakily reading Mr. Blaylock’s newspaper backward from across her seat.
From the station, they took a carriage to the Blaylock’s vacation home on Pennsylvania Avenue. Victoria tried her best to not seem too eager but was distracted and excited by all the bustle outside; she hadn’t been in the heart of a busy city like this since she’d left Philadelphia. Here, they passed families and couples and groups of children meandering the streets, dressed in their bright summer clothes, emerging from shops with candies and packages, their chatter and laughter and shrieks mingling.
The vacation home was significantly smaller than the Cape May home but had no lack of charm. Victoria thought the humble cottage looked like it had materialized out of a sketch from a children’s novel. Standing outside on the lawn awaiting them was the other Blaylock family, who waved cordially as the carriage came to a lurching stop.
Maggie’s cousins were an attractive bunch, almost difficult to look directly at with their golden buttons and jewelry gleaming in the sun’s rays. There were hasty introductions: John, Mr. Blaylock’s brother, handsome in a comfortingly avuncular manner; Emma his wife, resplendent with natural curls; Bertram, the oldest son, aged twenty-four; Miriam, the middle child, seventeen and quite serious; and Clarence, twelve, who looked as if he had something up his sleeve which he was desperately trying to not let escape, his other hand clasped tightly around the wrist while something small wriggled within.
“And this is Victoria.” Mrs. Blaylock gestured toward Victoria, who dipped into an unsought curtsy. “She’ll be joining us to help with the home.”
“It’s a shame Luna couldn’t come.” John shook his head.
“Luna? Oh, you mean Lena. Yes, well, Victoria is here instead. I’m sure you’ll find you’ll like her.”
“She seems like a perfectly charming young woman,” smiled Emma.
“No!” shouted Clarence. The object of mystery had sprung loose: a tiny finch rocketed around his sibling’s heads. Victoria laughed, which garnered an uncomfortable sidelong glance from Maggie. Bertram struggled to contain his own amusement.
“Confound it, Clarence, why must you always start an unruly scene?” growled John, straightening his hat.
“Do not encourage his antics, Bertram!” chastised Miriam. “He’s far too old to behave like this.”
Bertram, still smiling, shrugged at Victoria, his amber eyes shining. His waves of golden hair, tousled by the wind, framed his boyish face. Victoria couldn’t help but smile back.
“Come on, let’s get our stuff up to our room.” Maggie nudged Victoria, who dutifully followed Maggie into the house. They lugged their belongings up a steep set of stairs just to the left of the door, all the way up to the second floor. Maggie led Victoria down the short hall. Pausing before the last door, she twisted the brass knob with a free hand and swung it wide open for Victoria to enter.
“It’s a little snug,” said Maggie, apologetically, but Victoria adored it instantly: the space was twice as large as her and Lena’s room back home, and the beds twice as wide. The walls and matching curtains were a delicate blue, a colorful relief from the unrelenting whiteness of the Blaylock home’s interior. An impressive wardrobe sat against a wall and a vanity against the other, and a blue china wash basin set replete with delicately folded towels and fresh cakes of soap stood on a tiny cabinet between the beds. Victoria felt awash in luxury.
After Victoria had dropped her things in the bedroom, she rushed back downstairs to meet the other Blaylock’s servant Beulah, who was tucked away in the kitchen preparing an early dinner and mightily irritated that Victoria hadn’t been there thus far to assist her.
“Sorry,” mumbled Victoria as she got to tying her apron.
Beulah grunted and paused her furious vegetable chopping to glare at Victoria. The steam rising all around her from the boiling pots on the stove and her flushed countenance made her all the more frightening to behold. “Why you tyin’ your apron like that, hm?”
Victoria finished knotting her apron strings in the front, swung it around, and flung the necktie over her head. “I don’t know.”
Beulah grimaced. “Well, never mind. Get to work—start slicing them potatoes for the salad.”
In less than an hour’s time, Victoria and Beulah had prepared a satisfactory, simple meal for the families. Everyone appeared to be in good cheer as they were served, except for Miriam, who pushed her food around her plate while complaining about its saltiness. After dinner, Victoria retreated to the little balcony on the third floor with her own ration of food as she watched the sun melt into the horizon.
After she’d finished eating, Victoria carried her dirty plate downstairs in the dark. The rest of the household had already begun to settle into their bedtime routines, weary from traveling. No sooner had she begun to rinse her dish when Beulah spoke, “I saw ‘im makin’ eyes at you.”
“Oh!” Victoria startled, the plate nearly slipping from her hand. Beulah had seemingly popped out from the blackness, her dark eyes shining.
“You scare easy.” Beulah chuckled. She fished an object from her pocket and struck a match. A small plume of grey smoke emitted into the air.
Victoria’s eyes stung. “Is that a cigar?”
“Yeah,” grumbled Beulah, puffing at it vigorously, then sputtering. “And don’t you tell no one, neither. It’ll be our little secret, eh?”
Victoria marched to open the window a sliver. When she turned, Beulah had sidled up beside her.
“Did you hear wha’ I said earlier?”
“About someone making eyes at me? Yes.”
Beulah nodded. “You know who I’m talkin’ about. Haven’t decided if you’re stupid or not yet, but best to keep your guard up. That boy’s been known to make trouble, understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Victoria replied in a very earnest way, hoping it would satisfy her unexpected interrogator. The woman nodded slowly, cigar hanging from her lips, probably thinking herself a wise old matron.
Tired and desperate to escape Beulah’s unwarranted counsel, Victoria crept upstairs. A figure moving down the dark hall stopped Victoria in her tracks. She continued towards her room door cautiously, but whomever it was didn’t seem to see her coming. They collided, and a hand gripped Victoria’s arm.
“Victoria?” it was Bertram; as Victoria’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw him grinning down upon her.
“Uh, yeah. Sorry. I thought you saw me.”
“No, no—it was completely my fault.”
His grasp lingered.
“I’m just heading to bed, now,” Victoria said.
“Yes, of course.” Finally, he released her. She was relieved, but also slightly elated that he’d wanted to touch her for so long.
“Good night,” she whispered, not meaning to.
“You as well.” He brushed past her as they parted ways.
Victoria thought, as she pulled herself into bed, that this was the sort of incident that Lena referred to when she referenced all those magazine stories she read. Though Victoria wasn’t certain, she imagined that an unforeseen encounter with a handsome young man in a dark hallway was a plausible plotline. She ran over the course of events in her mind so that she might write them to Lena in a letter tomorrow.
“Beulah said the weirdest thing to me tonight,” Victoria said aloud in the darkness, hoping that Maggie was still somewhat awake.
“She’s always given me the creeps,” Maggie commented.
Victoria relayed her interaction with Beulah to Maggie and for a little while, Maggie was quiet, which didn’t console Victoria at all.
“Bertram can be a bit of a rake,” said Maggie, finally. “Just ignore him and you’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” Victoria said. It wasn’t quite the answer she’d been hoping for.
“Anyway, good night,” said Maggie.
“Goodnight,” repeated Victoria. She turned and stared out at the silver-tinted, inky night.
Dressing in the dark so she wouldn’t wake Maggie, Victoria listened to the unmistakable rainfall from outside. When she arrived in the kitchen, Beulah was lighting the oven fire and tsk-tsking about the lamentable weather.
“The lot of them’s gonna be mighty disappointed today,” she sighed. “Looks like we’ll be stuck inside with them for a bit. Though I’ll be inside when I can anyways, mind you.”
“You don’t go outside at all while you’re here?” Victoria questioned, confused.
Beulah waved at Victoria’s comment. “Can’t stand the heat. My constitution’s not built for all tha’ sunshine. The last time I went out to the beach, I got burned somethin’ awful and was fit to be laid up for a week.” She glared out of the tiny kitchen window. “Don’t much enjoy the rain, neither.”
By the following day the drizzle had mostly cleared, and the Blaylock boys traipsed down the shore. Miriam had sourly declined and coerced Maggie to spend the whole afternoon birdwatching from the back porch, which wasn’t very useful to Maggie, who had neither a pair of binoculars nor any ornithological knowledge.
“A myrtle warbler—only look,” sighed Miriam, her gaze set through the lenses of her gleaming gold binoculars.
“I can’t,” Maggie said. “Why must we do this?”
“Because, Margaret,” Miriam said, jotting down the bird’s name neatly in her open observation notebook. “I am currently indisposed. It should be over in a day or two. Surely you have been indisposed before.”
Maggie rolled her eyes, which Miriam was unaware of due to her current preoccupation. “Yes, Miriam.”
“Good. Now, look—another myrtle warbler. See for yourself this time.” She shoved her binoculars at Maggie, who noticed that they were monogrammed with Miriam’s initials. She raised them to her face.
“Oh, well now it’s gone and flown away. Too bad.” Miriam pried the device away from Maggie’s eyes and went on observing aloud to her solo witness.
As for Victoria and Beulah, they were prepping both the noon luncheon and the evening’s dinner. Beulah was in an especially testy mood, as she sighed and grumbled around the kitchen, accompanying her vocalizations with rattling pans and slamming cupboards.
“Is something wrong?” Victoria asked, a little scared of the answer.
“There almost always is, isn’t there?” was Beulah’s response. “But yes, especially now. We don’t have any more butter. How the hell am I supposed to make do without any butter?”
“Get more,” commented Victoria.
“Oh, aren’t you a smart thing? You go get some, then. Here’s some money.” Beulah lifted her boot and shoved a hand inside, sticking out her tongue as she fumbled around inside of it, and drew out a few coins, which she tossed at Victoria—very sweaty coins, as Victoria discovered when she scrambled for them on the tile.
“Um, where do I get the butter?”
“Fralinger’s Pharmacy, on New York Avenue. Can’t miss it. I expect you’ll be back within the half-hour.”
“What if it’s busy?”
Beulah shook her head. “Go, now.”
“Yes, okay,” mumbled Victoria.
So, she ventured down to the store (only taking one wrong turn, which pleased her). The pharmacy was like no other store she’d ever been in: it was wide open and jam-packed with such a variety of products and people that Victoria felt frozen by indecision for a good few moments after she’d stepped in. With some aid from a kindly man who recognized her cluelessness and helped her navigate the rows of goods, Victoria promptly purchased as many pounds of butter as Beulah’s moist money could purchase; but after she’d done so, she remained behind the counter with ten cents remaining in her possession and an insatiable curiosity for the flagrantly advertised saltwater taffy.
“I’d like some of that,” Victoria nodded to the colorful candy behind the glass counter.
“How much?” asked the cashier, his eyes flicking to the sizable queue lingering behind her.
“However much ten cents can get me,” answered Victoria confidently, but then a wooden display of postcards beside the cash register caught her attention. She plucked one blindly and slid it toward the cashier. “After this, of course.”
She tore open the bag of taffy as she left the shop and eagerly unwrapped one of the pastel confectionaries. She had no idea what green was supposed to taste like, but as she chewed it, she supposed it was apple, which was odd—and it wasn’t the least bit salty, which was both misleading and a relief.
She wanted to finish the taffy before she came back to the house so Beulah wouldn’t know how she’d spent her leftover change. What began as a gleeful exercise in freedom melded into a state of regret in which Victoria was left with sticky fingers and a stomachache, with still two more taffies to go by the time she’d turned the corner of the block that led to the Blaylock cottage. She hastily tore through the waxy covering of the final two and popped them into her mouth—orange and peppermint, a disastrous combination—consuming them as quickly as she could as she bounded up the front porch and let herself inside.
“Christ, you took an eternity!” bellowed Beulah as Victoria tore into the kitchen, her hair frizzed from the heat. Victoria set the butter on the counter. Beulah didn’t say anything but eyed Victoria suspiciously.
She unwrapped the butter, frowning. “It’s gone misshapen and melted in bits. Jesus. That’s the final time I send you on an errand.” Beulah caught Victoria’s smirk. “Now, what’s got you grinnin’ like that for?”
“You just sound like the housekeeper at home, Mrs. Putnam. It sounds like something she would tell me.” Just then, it dawned on Victoria that she actually missed the stern, stubborn woman.
“Sounds like she’s got more sense than you, that’s what,” Beulah grumbled.
That evening, Victoria penned a little note to Lena on the postcard she’d gotten. In her neatest handwriting on the bottom white border, she wrote: Dear Lena, It’s very interesting here. A lot more people than at home. I don’t think the Blaylocks (Maggie’s cousins, I mean) like me very much. Hope things are fine where you are. Victoria.
Lena’s curt response, less than a week following, arrived on a postal of a Cape May hotel: Victoria. I know Atlantic City is interesting because I’ve been there. It’s a shame the Blaylocks don’t like you. Lena.
Victoria had smiled at the annoyance in Lena’s response. As she fell asleep, she thought about making another trip to the pharmacy to pick out a few new postcards—and some more candy.
Maggie tugged at her collar, which was irritatingly high for a casual summer dress. Mama had glared at her more than once but had since given up on silently scolding Maggie out of the habit.
After the first choppy week of their trip, they’d been blessed with beautiful, clear days and had fallen into a comfortable, relaxed routine of beach trips, walks, and drinks on the back porch. Donning their finest summer attire, they’d all decided on an afternoon at the boardwalk. Maggie and her cousins had strolled ahead of their parents, forming two separate groups of conversation—and theirs had, unfortunately, turned to Maggie herself.
“I heard about what happened with your fiancé,” said Bertram, smirking.
“Simon was never my fiancé,” huffed Maggie.
“Mother and Father were talking about it last night. I overheard them,” piped in Miriam. “They were quite shocked about the entire thing.”
Maggie burned with annoyance. “Well, I don’t see what relevance it has to them—or to you, for that matter. And I’d appreciate it if you never mentioned it again.” Maggie marched ahead, cutting through a pair of ladies who paused their conversation to gasp offendedly.
“Maggie, come off it!” shouted Bertram, jogging to her side. “I, for one, find it incredibly interesting. Think of it—a real twentieth-century woman in the family, independent and free!”
He raised his arms to the sky.
“That’s not funny.”
“I’m not trying to take the piss, really.”
“Maggie, look!” Clarence ran to her opposite side and opened his palm to her: a dead butterfly lay curled upon it. “I found ‘im outside this morning. Picked ‘im up before Mother had a chance to see.”
“Clarence, that’s disgusting,” sneered Miriam. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him, messing around with things like that.”
Clarence’s lips trembled.
“Now, don’t you cry,” warned Bertram. “Chin up.”
“I think it’s a beautiful little creature, Clarence,” Maggie interjected. “Even if you did find it in a…less than ideal state.”
Bertram snatched the butterfly from Clarence’s palm, dropped it on the ground, and stomped on it.
They continued walking.
“That was a wicked thing to do, Bertram.” Miriam shook her head. “You always make things more gruesome than they need to be.” She glared at her younger brother. “And you mind washing up before dinner.”
Face flushed, Clarence nervously wiped his now insect-free hand against the side of shirt. Miriam curled her lip in disgust.
In the light of these events, Maggie felt a renewed gratitude that she only had to endure the company of her extended family once a year at most. She let the murmured bickering of her companions drown out in the wash of the jeers and ballyhoo of the boardwalk.
One week tipped into a second. Victoria, though she didn’t believe she’d ever fully adjust to Beulah’s crass and candor, had warmed to it somewhat—though she could hardly say the same about Beulah growing to like her: Victoria was the recipient of just as many of Beulah’s accusatory glares and dismissive grunts as the first day they’d met.
As Maggie spent most of her time with her family or out and about, the only time she and Victoria really had to talk to each other was at nighttime, when they exchanged basic pleasantries. Victoria usually fell asleep quickly, exhausted from her day’s labor. This annoyed Maggie somewhat, who saw Victoria as her only equal companion in the home. It was tiring to spend so much time with Miriam; Maggie’s exhaustion lingered in the aftermath of her cousin’s incessant complaints and seemingly endless discomforts.
“This heat is ungodly,” Miriam had griped just that afternoon as they sat outside during lunch. Miriam made a variation on this statement every day about this time. She’d scrutinized the fruit on her plate and squinted at the ball of melon speared on her fork. “I do wish this cantaloupe was a little firmer—it’s a bit soggy, don’t you agree, Margaret?”
(Miriam insisted on calling her Margaret even though her brothers had been referring to her as Maggie for years. Maggie had politely reminded Miriam of this on the first five days of their vacation, to no avail.)
Maggie shrugged. “I don’t know. I think it’s fine.”
This answer hadn’t satisfied Miriam. She’d shaken the fruit off her fork, where it slid to her plate with a dull slap.
Victoria didn’t mind her relative isolation as much. Between cooking, tidying the house, and shopping trips with Beulah (she wasn’t permitted to go alone after that first failed excursion), she took walks around the block with books that were dispersed around the house as decorative objects on shelves and tables. She’d finished two already, one on the history of maritime law and another a biography of Benjamin Disraeli. Though they wouldn’t have exactly been her first choices, she felt she was learning a lot while sauntering in the open summer sun.
It was on behalf of Maggie’s imploration that Victoria (and Beulah, as they couldn’t simply ignore the grumpy old maid) tagged along with the Blaylocks for an afternoon at the beach. They all set forth together, lugging an umbrella and a small table, chairs, and a basket full of drinks and food. Beulah looked positively glum in her bathing clothes, but Victoria was giddy.
“I’ve never been this close to the water before!” she exclaimed as they stepped onto the sand, fringed by Maggie and Miriam on either side.
Miriam sneered. “You don’t bathe?”
“I meant the ocean,” rebutted Victoria evenly. She veered toward the waves but was hastily tugged away by Maggie.
“No, Victoria—our side of the beach is over here.”
“Huh?” Victoria looked from the direction she’d been heading, where a variety of beachgoers were frolicking in the sand and water, toward where Maggie was pulling her—a less populated stretch of sand where everyone appeared distinctly less delighted.
“That’s the common side of the beach,” added Miriam resolutely.
“She didn’t know,” said Maggie. “Come on, let’s find a nice spot to settle.”
A shrill blow of a whistle caused the three of them to flinch. A man in a navy blue, beach-appropriate uniform turned his head toward Victoria. “Miss, your bathing costume is unusually short. For the sake of public decency, surely you don’t mind my measuring the length of your clothing to assure appropriate standards.”
“Oh.” Victoria blanched. “Do I have a choice?”
The man frowned. “Miss, I’d appreciate it if you’d follow protocol.”
“All right,” mumbled Victoria.
The man withdrew a tape measure from his pocket, brandishing it with gusto. He pulled it taut and stretched it alongside Victoria’s thigh, measuring the space between the edge of her skirt and the end of her bloomers, and then from the end of her bloomers down the exposed part of her leg to her ankle. Nodding with a sigh, he stood and wrapped the measure hastily back into a neat little roll. “Sorry, miss, but your bathing costume does not meet the beach’s public decency standards.”
“Sir, please,” Maggie interjected, “this is an old suit of mine—it was given to her because she didn’t have one of her own.”
“Who are you?”
“Magg—Margaret Blaylock, sir. My family lives down in the Cape. We’re here on a visit and the girl you’ve just reprimanded is a servant of ours. This is her first time at the beach and she doesn’t know the rules.”
The man scanned Victoria up and down, then squinted his eyes at Maggie. “You seem like a respectable young woman, I suppose. Fine. She’s free to roam the beach however she likes—for now. But I’ll warn you, someone else might not be as understanding as myself.”
“I understand, sir. Thank you.”
“Hm.” He then marched away, tucking the measure into his pocket. Just seconds later, he chased after a child screeching at a group of seagulls. When he blasted his whistle, they scattered.
“That was ridiculous,” sighed Victoria. “I didn’t think people like him actually existed until now.”
“It was very uncomfortable,” said Miriam, hugging herself with a shiver. “I do hate it when strange men approach me.”
“He wasn’t approaching you,” stated Victoria.
“As if that makes any difference,” mumbled Miriam. “You really should have known the rules, anyhow. Any decent place has them, and they’re not difficult. It’s quite chilly out here, isn’t it? Oh, I do wish the sea wasn’t so breezy.”
“An hour ago, you said it was too hot,” Maggie said.
“The weather does change, you know,” snapped Miriam.
“Fine. While you complain about the elements never suiting your tastes, I’m going to wade a little. Are you coming, Victoria?”
Victoria walked with Maggie down to the shore, Miriam trailing reluctantly behind. They found a satisfactory, secluded spot along the wet sand in which to lie. There they sat, contentedly letting the little waves lap over them until they were interrupted by Bertram and Clarence, the latter of which had somehow wrangled a seagull into submission in his arms.
Miriam yelped. “Clarence, put that creature down!”
“It took so long to get ‘im, though.”
“It’s miserable, look at it!”
The seagull made a sound that resembled something like a human sigh.
“Fine.” Clarence freed his grasp on the bird. With an angry cry and a ruffle of its feathers, it dropped to the sand and then launched into the air. Afterward, Clarence and Bertram joined Miriam, Maggie, and Victoria in the sand.
Victoria looked around her, soaking in her surroundings and wishing she could hold onto the feeling, lounging in the warm sun and in the company of friendly faces. The subject of their conversation weaved in and out of familial topics, but Victoria didn’t mind. Amid their chatter, Bertram had inched closer and closer until they were hip to hip, their thighs grazing one another’s; no one seemed to notice except for her, which was perfectly fine and, admittedly, a little thrilling.
Following a light lunch, the families launched into a game of bocce, which Victoria had never played before but quickly became fond of.
“You’re quite good,” Bertram said to her, beaming, after she’d won a game. He took a ball from her hand and tossed it between his own.
As Victoria and Beulah collected the scattered balls and organized them back into their case, Maggie pulled Bertram aside.
“Stop it,” she hissed.
“You know. Victoria. Leave her alone.”
“Ah, but she likes it, cousin. She likes me.”
“She doesn’t. She likes your charm—don’t look at me like that. She likes the admiration because she was starved of it most of her life. I’m not going to watch you exploit that.”
“Oh, so she’s a charity case, is she? Can’t make her own decisions?”
Anger bristled at Maggie, but she quieted it with a sigh. Arrogance was a trait she found repulsive. When she saw it within herself, she grew irritated, and Bertram’s own buzzed around her like a mosquito. Unlike a pest, however, she couldn’t squash it.
“I mean it, Bertram,” she said, finally. “Victoria is a dear friend of mine and the family. Let’s not repeat what happened with Lena last year, hm?”
Bertram squirmed a little but didn’t have anything smart to say.
He and Maggie caught up with the rest of their party, who seemed to have forgotten them in their packing up. During the remainder of the evening, low guilt burned inside of Maggie. She should have been more upfront with Victoria the very first time Victoria had confessed that something had happened between her and Bertram. Maggie had tried to dismiss the memories of last summer, when she spent an entire month practically protecting the rendezvous between Lena and Bertram so that her family would be free of discomfort or embarrassment. Perhaps, she thought, someone else had known, but they too had hidden their knowledge. Regardless, it amounted to nothing: no communication had lingered between her cousin and Lena, and it faded like so many summer romances, so to Maggie, no real harm had been done.
But Victoria was different, somehow. It annoyed Maggie that she worried for Victoria, and she grappled with her approach—if there should be any at all. By nighttime, she’d decided to suspend any admonitions. Victoria seemed unbothered—cheerful, in fact—humming as she dressed for bed and chatting to Maggie about the fun she’d had. If Victoria felt unsafe or apprehensive about anything, Maggie thought, surely, she wouldn’t be in such high spirits. They wished one another goodnight, turned down the lamp, and each settled into their own private reveries.
An elaborate dinner was made for the Blaylocks’ final night in Atlantic City. Victoria and Beulah joined the families, and everyone was jovial, even Miriam. Perhaps because they realized it was the last time they’d all be able to interact with each other personally for quite a while, they were seeing the best in each other. Or maybe, as it was in Maggie’s case, giddy relief. Her aunt had ordered gin and tonics made, so that helped as well.
The premise of parting made Victoria sentimental, and so late that night, while everyone else quietly packed the last of their things and readied for an early morning departure, she slipped away to the little back porch with a book with a torn-off cover she’d found in a kitchen cupboard. She sat on the steps leading down to the flowerbeds, fully intending to read it but distracted by the peaceful stillness of the night. She was alone for quite some time when the door opened slowly. Peering over her shoulder, Victoria saw Bertram walking toward her. Clumsily, she shut the book and held it hostage on her lap with both hands by the time he crept bedside her.
The moonglow cast a beautiful light on the half of Bertram’s face exposed to it. It made Victoria’s heartbeat quicken.
“It’s a shame we didn’t get more acquainted with one another before having to part,” he said.
“Hm.” Victoria nodded.
“You’re quite beautiful, you know.”
Astounded, Victoria sneered at him.
“I’m serious—I’ve met a lot of girls, and most of the beautiful ones are much too aware of their attractiveness to be any sort of interest whatsoever.”
He tilted his head and, gently, tugged a curl that had sprung loose from Victoria’s temple in the heat. He smelled faintly of the ocean air and fresh clothes.
“You’re being too kind,” Victoria said. Kind wasn’t, perhaps, the correct word, but at that moment she couldn’t think of anything else.
Bertram smiled. “You’re not used to compliments. It’s alright. Now, tell me the truth, do you like me?”
“Um, well, yes, I do—”
Bertram fairly lunged for her, his arms strongly held on hers, his mouth on her neck. The book slid off Victoria’s lap to their feet. He kicked it away, and as it skittered down another step, he pressed himself closer to her.
“Bertram!” hissed Victoria.
His face overshadowed hers and, for a moment, confusion crossed it before he moved in again. Just as his lips met hers, Victoria jerked herself away. She had thought she had wanted this and wanted it with him, but now that it was happening an odd, sick feeling had pitted itself inside of her. She sprang to her feet and felt as if she might topple over.
Bertram stood languidly, his eyes snapping. “I didn’t realize you were so sensitive.”
“So what if I am?”
The humid summer air had been comforting when she had been alone, but now she just felt sticky and breathless.
Bertram tousled his hair. “You’re cute, but sort of boring. I’m sorry I tried.”
He mumbled goodnight and quietly went back inside. Victoria went to scoop up the poor, coverless book, now scuffed all along the edges.
When Victoria snuck into her and Maggie’s room, Maggie rustled upright from her bed.
“Victoria?” she whispered. Victoria stood there, silent. “What are you doing?”
Victoria dropped onto Maggie’s bed and cried.
After she’d recounted all that had happened, Maggie was livid. “I can never talk to Bertram again. Never. And for you, I’m glad that after we leave tomorrow—well, in a few hours—that you’ll never have to see him again.”
Maggie considered divulging to Victoria about Bertram’s and Lena’s little tryst but figured it wouldn’t do either of them much good. Instead, she let Victoria under the covers and gave her an extra pillow.
“Maggie?” Victoria whispered after a while, when her sobs had dwindled to sporadic sniffles.
“Thank you. I feel better now. I’m not awfully scandalized—though maybe I should be, I don’t know—I’m just sorry for myself that my first romance was so entirely unpleasant.”
“I understand. It’s a terrible shame it all happened under such moonlight, too. In all the stories, that’s usually when the most heartfelt of love declarations are made.”
Victoria wondered which books Maggie was referring to.
“Anyway, one day this won’t matter,” Maggie continued, sleepily. “There’s so much more to experience.”
Victoria felt herself slipping into sleep. “That’s nice to think.”
It is nice, thought Maggie, pleased with herself for having thought it.
In the morning, no one asked why Maggie and Victoria were so groggy—and Bertram so irritable—chalking it up to the usual departure blues. All the goodbyes were brief, and the returning trip was easy, with Maggie and Victoria both nodding off to sleep almost immediately as the train began rolling.
For the first time in her life, Victoria experienced what it was like to “come home.” The Blaylock house as they approached it, jumbling along in the automobile (she knew she hadn’t imagined it; Mr. Blaylock had informed her that it had been sent out for repairs), filled her chest with warmth. The clean airiness of her first breath when stepping inside, with the subtle smell of roasting chicken trailing from the kitchen; the way the dog skittered across the tile floor to greet Maggie with a wide-open grin and playful yelps—and then bounded to her.
“Welcome back, Victoria,” declared Mrs. Putnam with (Victoria was shockingly pleased to see) a smile when Victoria stepped into the kitchen. “You had a nice trip, I assume. Got some sun, too—your nose is burnt. Ah, well. Might have some ointment stored away somewhere for that.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Putnam.”
“You got a letter,” Lena piped from the table. She nodded to a small envelope set apart from the rest of the sturdy pile of mail. “It arrived a few days ago. There’s no return address.”
“Hm.” Victoria ran to pick it up and turned it over—it was simply a neat and trim cream envelope.
“How was the other Blaylock family?” Lena asked, her arms folded tightly across her chest. “Anyone ask where I was?”
“Fine, they were fine,” Victoria murmured.
Lena frowned, her arms dropping to her side.
Ignoring Lena’s obvious disappointment, Victoria escaped to her room with her letter in tow, dropping her baggage on the floor and herself atop her bed. She tore open the letter with one hand while she unlaced her shoes with the other, then rolled onto her back with the stationary free. A tiny paper package fell onto her chest; she set it aside, and her tired eyes skimmed the words on the page until they reached the signature.
© 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.