The Blaylocks had received an invitation from Mrs. Gibson for a Thanksgiving dinner at her home. This guaranteed two things: that the Blaylock’s employees were granted an evening off to celebrate the holiday however they wished, and that the Blaylock family was in for a most interesting meal.
Mrs. Putnam and Miss Blush had excitedly set to thinking up a menu for a dinner exclusively for the household staff, rifling through recipes and choosing their favorites instead of Mr. and Mrs. Blaylock’s. Victoria and Lena were asked if they preferred anything, and the only items they requested were a sufficient array of desserts. Victoria was satisfied that she wasn’t the only one in possession of a voracious sweet tooth: Lena demanded candied nuts, a blancmange, and “lots of chocolate,” and Victoria wanted pies—apple, pumpkin, and pecan.
“My word,” exclaimed Mrs. Putnam. “I can tell you now that we don’t have the budget to accommodate all these sweets. We’ll make a few.”
Maggie and Mrs. Blaylock busied themselves with working on their auction items, as the event had been officially marked for the twenty-fifth of the month. Maggie was stitching a portrait of the president with the date of his inauguration, March 4, 1897. Maggie herself was fairly indifferent to the man, but she knew that the piece would garner the enthusiasm of the more patriotic members of the assembly. She copied his likeness from a newspaper print. Mr. McKinley possessed a startingly austere face, which Maggie aimed to soften a bit with her colored thread interpretation. She didn’t know what he looked like outside of the confines of monochrome, so in her stitches she gifted him dark grey hair and blue eyes.
“It’s very nice, Maggie,” Mama commented one evening, glancing up from the pair of socks she was knitting—her eleventh pair so far. The two of them had developed a nightly routine of working together in the drawing room, Maggie on one sofa and Mrs. Blaylock on the other, the fireplace warming the room between them. They scarcely spoke, but Maggie was pleased with the arrangement; there was no animosity or tension, simply the content and comfort of busy minds and fingers.
“They’re so proud about sewing little objects for the less fortunate,” grumbled Lena to Victoria as they did the dinner dishes. “If they really cared about anyone they claimed to help, they’d meet those kids themselves and spend some time actually making a difference in their lives.” She tossed a gravy boat into the mound of soapy water in the sink, where it sunk with a pathetic gurgle.
“I think, this time, their efforts actually will make a difference,” said Victoria. “I know those kids. They’ll love the warm clothing that Mrs. B is making, and the donation money will mean more food, renovations to the orphanage—maybe even a few new beds and blankets.”
“Oh yes, I forgot—you’re a former ‘Second Chance’ child,” taunted Lena. “Good for you.” A handful of silverware went diving into the dishwater. Specks of suds flew at Victoria’s face.
“Why are you so upset?” Victoria asked, genuinely curious. “Do you usually get this flustered over the Ladies’ Club auction?”
“I don’t usually have anyone to vent to about it. Mrs. Putnam doesn’t give a fig about what Mrs. B or Maggie does, just as long as she gets to stay out of it.”
“Well, I disagree with your view. But you can still vent to me, I don’t mind.”
“How kind,” deadpanned Lena. “I just hope you realize that none of the women in that little club—except maybe Maggie, I’ll give her that—care about the poor little orphans in far-away Philadelphia. They like throwing a party and inviting all their obnoxious friends to outbid each other so they can show off how much more money they have than anyone else in the room.”
Despite Lena’s cynicism, Victoria was proud that an entire fundraising event was going to be held in support of a cause that mattered so personally to her. And besides the fuss surrounding the auction, Victoria wished to savor the small stretch of time that lie dormant before Thanksgiving launched a barrage of frenzy towards Christmastime.
She continued her walks several days a week down to county clerk’s though she no longer needed to deliver any letters of her own, which felt unrelentingly odd as if she knew she was forgetting she needed to do something but couldn’t recall what it was. She remained certain in her choice to end her communication with Simon, but her initial distress had faded into a strange sort of sadness that she couldn’t quite put a name to. These were the sort of things that she thought about on her little journeys, as she kicked up dead leaves stuck to the pavement and kept her head down hoping that no one would approach her.
Maggie, too, had been taking regular walks. Every afternoon she lured Algernon into a little stroll. She had grown concerned about his expanding belly, and she was determined to exercise the pudge away. Though Mama chastised her about the supposed predators lurking around each block, Maggie footed further each day, exploring parts of her hometown with brand new eyes in the brisk Autumn air. Algernon returned home panting and well-exercised, and Maggie was satisfied with her little independence.
Earlier in the week, as Maggie was returning up the walk of her home with Algernon, she spotted the most unusual thing: a man stepping out from Mrs. Gibson’s house. He looked to be about her father’s age and was dressed in a finely tailored suit. After pausing for a moment on the front doorstep to check his watch, he placed his hat on his head and continued, just as casually, down the sidewalk.
“Who could it be?” Maggie wondered to Victoria. “It was so strange. He didn’t look suspicious at all. At least, I don’t think so.”
“Could she have a…suitor?” suggested Victoria.
Maggie laughed—but then it dawned on her that it wasn’t impossible. Mrs. Gibson had been widowed for several decades and had been complaining more than usual about her constant state of aloneness. She recalled the stranger on her grandmother’s doorstep: well put together and reserved, someone whom Mrs. Gibson could certainly respect.
“Oh, dear Lord,” said Maggie. “That might be it.”
Just two days later, Maggie saw him again. She’d planned her walk with Algernon around the same time as before and, when she came back round to her block, there he was again. This time, she made no hesitation to give him a once-over from afar, of which he took notice. He squinted at her as if she were a sign he was attempting to read, decided it wasn’t what he was looking for, and then took off down the same path he did previously.
Victoria, heading home after one of her solitary deliveries—blinking away crystals of the first snow flurry of the season—made an impulsive turn towards Mrs. Gibson’s house.
Mrs. Gibson let Victoria in mid-knock as if she’d been eagerly anticipating her all along. Victoria walked in wordlessly, nervously clutching the sleeves of her coat. She wanted to comment on how quiet the house seemed without Alexander but reminded herself that it would be a poor decision to remind Mrs. Gibson that she lived by herself.
“Never grow old, Victoria,” Mrs. Gibson said just then, striding into the parlor. She didn’t invite Victoria to follow her, but Victoria did anyway. “It’s dreadful. All of my friends are dead.”
“Oh, dear,” was all Victoria could manage to say, as she scoured the room for a place to sit.
Mrs. Gibson settled into one of the only two places of rest in the room, an upholstered maroon chair. Victoria dropped into the matching one opposite, and Mrs. Gibson’s brows popped up.
“That was Alexander’s favorite spot,” she stated.
For a moment, Victoria pondered if that meant the husband or the fox, but a recollection that Mrs. Gibson had moved in this house already widowed—and a minute observation of the claw marks on the mahogany armrests—settled the question.
“I can stand,” Victoria offered.
“No, that would be stupid.”
A vase of dying lilies sat on the mantel, which was very distracting and tinted the room with just a hint of decay.
“I hope you don’t mind that I dropped by like this,” said Victoria. “I only wanted to say hello.”
“Mm,” said Mrs. Gibson with a slow nod. She stood, plucked something off a nearby shelf, and walked to Victoria with the object extended: a framed photograph. “Have I ever shown you my Alexander?”
She most certainly had not, which was surprising. Before Victoria could tell her so, Mrs. Gibson continued, “He’s extraordinarily handsome, isn’t he?”
The photo was placed into Victoria’s hands. The man staring up at her—or, rather, up into a far-off, unseen distance—was well-dressed and poised, with a neatly trimmed beard and dark eyes that might have been either a rich brown or a deep blue. He wasn’t exactly what Victoria would have considered handsome, but she saw Mrs. Gibson’s adoration and that warmed her heart to him nonetheless.
“Yes, he is,” answered Victoria.
Mrs. Gibson smiled, and then snatched away the photo at once, as if Victoria were to at any moment run away with it in her clutches.
“That’s enough of that,” Mrs. Gibson said resolutely, somber again, even though she was the one who brought her deceased husband to attention. She set the frame delicately back onto its shelf then swiveled toward Victoria.
“Now, what is the matter with you? Do you want something from me?”
Now, the matter of the gentleman visitor came back into Victoria’s focus. She shifted her weight on the chair. “No, of course not.”
A flash of something came upon Mrs. Gibson’s face, which Victoria couldn’t quite decipher—skepticism, confusion, or perhaps relief.
Victoria, hot with anxiety, asked, “Don’t you ever get lonely? Do you ever wish you had a....gentleman caller?”
Mrs. Gibson screwed up her face at Victoria. “Are you implying something, Victoria?”
“No, no. I’m not trying to imply anything, I promise. I just thought...”
There was a knocking at the door.
“Yes?” Mrs. Gibson, certainly irritated, was more eager for a response from Victoria than to answer the door.
“Um,” said Victoria. “I’ll get it.”
Mrs. Gibson rolled her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous, Victoria.”
Finally, Mrs. Gibson rushed to the door. She paraded back into the room with Mrs. Blaylock in tow, who paused in surprise upon seeing a guest in the chair.
Victoria stood, and Mrs. Blaylock startled. “Oh, Victoria! How unexpected. Actually, I’m glad you’re here. I have news that you’ll want to hear as well.”
“What is it?” snapped Mrs. Gibson, returning to her seat.
“I got a letter—or, an invitation, really—from the orphanage—”
“Orphanage? What orphanage?” cried Mrs. Gibson. “Gwendolyn, are you adopting a child? At your age, honestly—”
“No,” interrupted Mrs. Blaylock. “No, mother, I am not adopting anyone. The orphanage is Our Lady of Second Chances, where Victoria was raised. My ladies’ club is raising money for them at this year’s auction.”
“Ah, yes, the annual auction.” Mrs. Gibson leaned back in her chair. “Last year you gave money to some lawmen for new shoelaces.”
Mrs. Blaylock’s mouth twitched. “For new boots for the policeman, yes.”
Victoria caught Mrs. Gibson’s eye for a moment, and the woman raised her brows to her with a smile. Victoria stifled a laugh.
“Anyway,” Mrs. Blaylock pressed on, “they want us to visit the orphanage. They want to host the auction event there, and they invited us.”
“That’s wonderful!” exclaimed Victoria.
“Yes, I think so, too.” Mrs. Blaylock smiled. “And I would love to go. But I wanted to tell you, Mother, the weekend they invited us means we’d have to reschedule your dinner.”
Mrs. Gibson’s amused expression turned sour. Victoria and Mrs. Blaylock hardly moved as they waited on a response.
“Why, that’s fine, Gwendolyn,” Mrs. Gibson said, coolly and evenly. “Go spend the holiday with your little orphans.”
They’d expected a bit more of a bite, perhaps a raised tone or a dramatic plea, but that was all. The calm was just as dreadful, Victoria thought.
“Well, all right,” said Mrs. Blaylock, finally. “Thank you for your understanding. Maybe you can give us a new date for a dinner?”
“Of course,” monotoned Mrs. Gibson. “Have a good evening, Gwendolyn.”
Mrs. Blaylock looked at Victoria.
“And to you as well, Victoria,” Mrs. Gibson said. “Now, if you would both be so kind as to leave my home.”
“Okay, sorry,” murmured Victoria. Mrs. Blaylock, with an arm slung around Victoria’s shoulder, was already sweeping her away.
“Did you get a chance to ask anything about a suitor?” Maggie asked Victoria that night.
“I did ask, sort of,” said Victoria. “And she seemed awfully offended.”
Maggie squirmed on the ancient sofa in the Spencer’s parlor, which was squeezed between a piano on one side and a harpsichord on the other. A grandfather clock stood snug in one corner of the room, a whatnot in the opposite corner teemed with porcelain figurines, and between patches of floral wallpaper were innumerable glass-framed banners and flags of Mrs. Spencer’s own creation. All the clashing colors and patterns made Maggie feel a bit sick. The other ladies were bothered as well—not by the décor, but from their invitation to Our Lady of Second Chances; there was a great deal of reservations, particularly from Mrs. Bassett and Mrs. Spencer.
“And who’s going to pay for our train fares all the way to Pennsylvania, hm?” demanded Mrs. Bassett. “I certainly wasn’t planning on making a trip out of state this month, and I’m betting none of you were, either.”
“And what about lodging?” added Mrs. Spencer. “I feel it would be impertinent to impose ourselves on the very place we are offering charity to.”
“Ridiculous,” said Mrs. Kilmeade. “They’re the ones who invited us, surely they have room for us for two nights.”
“Yes, and I think we can all pay our own way just fine,” added Miss Sprightly. “We’re raising money for these children, for goodness sake. Let’s not worry about our own finances for a little two-day trip.”
That seemed to shut up Mrs. Bassett. She cast her eyes down.
“My husband still won’t find this prospect very convincing,” muttered Mrs. Spencer. She stirred her coffee rather aggressively, tasted it, and dropped in another sugar cube. “I knew we should have remained local. Philadelphia? What do we know about Philadelphia, ladies? I know it’s a major center of disease, I can tell you that. They’ve had more outbreaks and epidemics than I can recall.” She sipped her coffee again, and apparently still found it distasteful as she set it down on a coaster and then leaned back into the cushion of the sofa.
“Philadelphia was also vital in the formation of this nation,” said Mrs. Max.
Maggie’s attention roved to the photograph of Abraham Lincoln on the wall beside the front door and the red stripes of the American flag that fluttered in the wind through the window.
“Oh, dear, I’ve just realized something,” Mrs. Knotts said. “What about all of our local donators?”
“Should’ve stayed local,” mumbled Mrs. Spencer again.
“I thought about that,” Mama interjected, “and our prospects are much better at the orphanage. Sister Agnes, who wrote to me, already has a guest list of individuals who would attend the event, and the turnout will probably be larger than here.”
“Besides, we can encourage our regular donors to still participate,” Maggie said. “Just because they can’t be there in person doesn’t mean they can’t still give. They can also donate some spare clothing to the children to add to our donations for Christmas.”
And though there were still some doubts, the group came to a collective agreement to travel to Philadelphia and, moreover, almost everyone was delighted.
Victoria was invited to come along with them, which thrilled her immensely.
“How fantastic!” she exclaimed. “Two trips in one year. I can’t believe it. I feel like the luckiest domestic in the United States.”
This made Mrs. Blaylock shift uncomfortably. “And Victoria, Mr. Blaylock will pay for your travel expenses. We know how much you want to help your old home, and we think it’s only fair.”
Victoria felt warm, like she’d just received a hug. And before she could prevent herself, she stepped toward Mrs. Blaylock with open arms. Caught by surprise, Mrs. Blaylock stood stock still for a few moments before she returned the gesture with a little laugh.
After her cool upset, the Blaylocks didn’t expect to hear from Mrs. Gibson for a good week at least; but the woman appeared—with thunderous, frenzied knocks—at their doorstep the very next night, interrupting yet another meal. Mrs. Putnam welcomed her inside with pursed lips and a cautious tone.
“What is that? It’s hideous. Is it new?” Mrs. Gibson entered the dining room in an accusatory declaration.
“Is what new, Ida?” Mr. Blaylock was brave enough to be the first to ask.
“That lamp in the front hall. The one with all those horrible stained-glass pieces.”
“It’s called a Tiffany lamp, Mother,” Mrs. Blaylock said. “They’re becoming very fashionable now.”
Mrs. Gibson recoiled as if she’d been slapped. “I swear to God, the older I get, the worse everyone else’s taste becomes.”
“Did you need assistance with something?” suggested Mr. Blaylock.
“I’m inviting you all to my rescheduled dinner, seeing as those two—” her eyes struck Mrs. Blaylock and Maggie, “—decided to go to Pennsylvania instead.”
“And when are you rescheduling it for?” asked Mrs. Blaylock.
“Tomorrow night,” Mrs. Gibson said, lifting her chin high.
“That’s ridiculous,” Mrs. Blaylock gave an uncomfortable little laugh.
“Last-minute changes always are, aren’t they?” Mrs. Gibson said. “Anyway, I know you’re free, so I’ll see the three of you tomorrow evening at six.” She looked to Mrs. Putnam. “Surely you don’t mind. Tell the cook about the change, will you?”
“Yes, of course,” muttered Mrs. Putnam.
“Good night!” called Mrs. Gibson on her way out.
On her way upstairs after dinner, Maggie noticed that the Tiffany lamp had been turned off.
And so the following night the Blaylocks went to Mrs. Gibson’s for an early Thanksgiving dinner. Mrs. Putnam armed Maggie with an apple pie and a dish of candied yams, Mrs. Blaylock with a bottle of wine.
As they’d expected, Mrs. Gibson’s offerings were scarce and oddly proportioned; the salad consisted of one type of lettuce with a handful of radishes tossed in, the mashed potatoes were unsalted, and the turkey was dry. Maggie ate mindfully, rationing her hunger for the apple pie.
“I’m glad you’re all so quiet right now because I have something I want you all to hear,” announced Mrs. Gibson. She straightened her back against her chair and steepled her thin fingers on the table. “I’ve had a lot of time this year to reflect—on my behavior, on my life, on my future. It occurred to me that I’ve fallen into a rut of sorts, one that I vowed to myself that I’d never get caught in. I’m growing older, and I’ve grown more afraid, more rigid. And that’s not how I want to live my life.” She paused momentarily, her eyes flicking up to the ceiling. The Blaylocks’ gazes followed, but the space was devoid. “I know my Alexander wants this change for me. So, I’ve decided to move back to New York.”
“What?” Mrs. Blaylock blanched.
“Yes, Gwendolyn. I am moving back to the city and no amount of your whining can prevent me. I’ve already arranged everything. I’ve hired a very nice man to assist me in my financials, and he’s visited me a few times now to discuss my options. With his help, I’ve rented an apartment suite in Manhattan. I move in January.”
Bewildered as she was, Maggie was also impressed—and relieved that the strange man sneaking into her grandmother’s house wasn’t some sort of clandestine arrangement.
“Well,” said Mr. Blaylock. “I admit this is a bit of a surprise, but I wish you well.”
“Thank you, Robert,” mumbled Mrs. Gibson. “Now, eat more of that turkey—don’t you like it?”
The Ladies’ Club met early at the train station. Everyone in the group was there, except for Mrs. Spencer. Though no one said as much, Maggie noticed the unusually carefree attitude amongst the women in the absence of their snippy secretary. Even Mrs. Bassett, whom Maggie ordinarily thought overbearing, chattered jovially.
The trip up to Pennsylvania passed in a flurry of talk and last-minute stitching.
Mrs. Blaylock managed to complete another set of socks, and Miss Sprightly finished one more stuffed toy. Victoria didn’t feel so compelled to talk; she found herself much more contemplative—and oddly, nervous—about returning to Our Lady of Second Chances, even if it was just for two days. She felt rather uncomfortably like a puppy being sent back to the shelter after already being rehomed.
Walking up to the orphanage building, it seemed like hardly any time at all had elapsed since January. Sister Agnes, flagged by Sisters Sophia and Cecilia, awaited them with smiles on the front stairs. Sister Agnes approached Victoria with open arms and enveloped her in an embrace while Victoria still clung to her travel bag.
“Welcome back, Victoria,” Sister Agnes said into Victoria’s hair. She pulled back. “We’ve missed you—the children have missed you.” She peered over Victoria to address the rest of the awaiting group. “And, of course, welcome to all the rest of you as well. We are beyond grateful you’ve chosen our institution as the recipient of your efforts. Please, come inside.”
Cheerful introductions abounded. The Ladies’ Club was guided through the humble foyer and upstairs to a guest room furnished with a collection of tiny beds, where they placed their belongings.
“We apologize for the modest accommodations,” said Sister Cecilia. “I’m afraid we don’t have much extra room here.”
“It’s perfectly suitable, thank you,” said Mrs. Blaylock. “No need to apologize.”
Maggie set her things on one of the beds and pressed a palm to the stiff mattress; it barely gave, and the faded quilt was rough. She imagined that the children’s beds couldn’t have been much more comfortable. She thought of the effort she put into her little piece of embroidery; it seemed stupid and meaningless now. She wished that instead she’d put more time into making some donation items for the residents of the orphanage itself.
An early dinner was given. An extra table was pushed alongside the usual one to make enough seats for the Ladies’ Club. The children fidgeted and murmured and giggled anxiously but muffled their excitement under the watchful eyes of the Sisters and their stern announcement that prayers were to begin. No one in the visiting group knew the prayers except for Victoria, who stated the words with the same reverent confidence as the Sisters and their ward.
The meal, a vegetable soup and bread, was plain but warm and, Maggie thought, oddly comforting.
“The children have been anticipating this event all week,” said Sister Sophia with a smile. “They all helped to prepare cookies and pastries for everyone tomorrow—as you can tell, they got very involved.” She gestured to a little girl down the end of the table, who looked up sheepishly, a smattering of flour on her frock.
After the meal was ended, the ladies went off with Sister Agnes for a little tour while Victoria aided with the cleanup. She went about clearing the table and scrubbing its surface with Billy, her old adversary, a testy nine-year-old boy with a penchant for escape.
“Are you staying after they leave?” he lifted a plate from the table and added it to the little stack he’d made.
“No,” replied Victoria. “I have a new home now.”
“Yeah, but how do you know you’ll be there forever?” He mindlessly wiped the same spot on the table over and over.
“Well, of course it won’t be forever. But a good while longer, I believe.”
“Sister Agnes says that belief is very serious and that we shouldn’t believe something without good reason.”
“Billy.” Victoria took a spoon from one of the bowls and tapped it against the side of the table. Billy flinched and stared at her in wide-eyed silence. “I’m going to need you to stop talking and start working.”
She walked to him, tugged the rag from his grip, and frantically wiped down the table. Hanging his head, Billy grabbed a pile of dirty dishes and scrambled for the kitchen.
After the dining room had been tidied, Sister Agnes requested Victoria. She swept Victoria into her office, where Victoria fell into her usual seat, a touch of anxiety rising in her throat out of habit.
“Victoria,” Sister Agnes said with a smile, leaning forward on the desk. “I heard that you are doing well in the Blaylock home.”
“I’m very pleased to hear it. Though I’m a little disappointed that you never responded to my letter.”
At this, Victoria was genuinely confused. Sister Agnes took notice.
“Oh. Did you not receive it?”
Victoria recalled the letters stuffed at the back of her dresser drawer. “Uh, no. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, dear. And here we were, thinking you’d grown too important for all of us. Let’s forget about that little misunderstanding—we’re just happy to have you here, even if for a little bit. You look well, Victoria. I’m happy to see you with some color in your cheeks.”
Victoria, who of course didn’t comment that the bloom in her face wasn’t the result of a nutritious diet or even joyfulness but due to her embarrassment, voiced an enthusiastic agreement.
The auction items were displayed in the gathering room for the guests to admire. There was Maggie’s framed presidential portrait, a ladies’ glove and scarf set crafted by Mrs. Blaylock, a small blanket from Mrs. Max, decorative pillows by Mrs. Kilmeade, tea cozies and oven mitts and, hanging high above them all, an overlarge and gaudy rendition of the New Jersey state flag crafted by Mrs. Spencer. As the invitees arrived and scrutinized their prospects, the flag became something of a talking point, though not entirely in a flattering manner; most of them were confused about what it actually was.
The ladies of the Club were relieved and pleased by the substantial turnout, which they came to a consensus was better than if they’d persisted with a local gathering. Alongside many of the orphanages’ patrons, in attendance were couples interested in adoption, owners of nearby businesses, and even an esteemed member of the Philadelphia Medical Association, Dr. Moribund who, earlier in the year, had given the children a series of vaccinations.
The diverse group mingled and enjoyed their complimentary drinks (non-alcoholic ones; the Sisters were adamant that no one was going to get intoxicated and cause a scene, a fact that disappointed Miss Sprightly, who was quite fond of a sloe gin at such events) and pastries served by some of the children, who ran about the room with trays, offering their goods to the tables like tiny stewards. Victoria roved amongst them, aiding the children in their services.
At the ladies’ table, Mrs. Bassett smiled smugly and said, “How unfortunate it is that Frances isn’t here to see this. I think she would have been very proud.”
Miss Sprightly snorted into her punch. “If there’s one thing that woman does not need more of, it’s pride.”
Fortunately, the table laughed, albeit a tad awkwardly.
The official auction proceedings started with the bidding on Maggie’s item. Maggie squirmed, finding herself much more anxious than she’d anticipated at her handiwork being bartered over.
“We have a cross-stitched portrait of President McKinley,” Sister Agnes said, giving the framed face a once-over. “We’ll start the bidding at one dollar.”
The portrait ended up going to an older woman for a donation of six dollars. She teetered up to the front of the room with a wide grin to retrieve her prize, which she cradled in her tiny arms as if someone might attempt to take it from her on her way back to the table. The other items were sold off with the same efficiency until the only one left was Miss Spencer’s flag, which garnered less than enthusiastic interest from the crowd. No one so much as offered a starting bid.
“This is a bit embarrassing for Frances, isn’t it?” whispered Miss Sprightly. “Good thing she isn’t here to see this part.”
Following a continued lag in initiation, Mrs. Spencer’s flag was gradually sold, effectively ending the event. Maggie relaxed in her seat, relieved; she thought the auction dull, though she was pleased for the Sisters that the donations exceeded their expectations. Now the guests broke from their table and wandered the room, which buzzed with new conversation that Maggie wanted no part of. Mama got up to congratulate the Sisters, and some of the other ladies wandered to talk to whom they considered the more elite in the room.
Maggie slipped out of the room entirely and went searching for Victoria.
She didn’t need to look for very long, because the person in question came dashing into the hallway just then, a small child bobbing on her shoulders, two others tumbling along after her like puppies.
Maggie always felt awkward around children. She’d never been inclined towards them, and certainly hadn’t been presented with an abundance of opportunities in which to engage with them. The thought of raising children of her own filled her mind with a blank apathy where she’d always been told some ancient instinct would lie, waiting to be stirred by time and a mysterious and uniquely feminine drive.
Maggie stood back and observed Victoria as she crouched down to the floor and nudged the little girl off her shoulders, whereupon the girl took off running right in Maggie’s direction. The two others, led by Victoria, went chasing after the girl and all four of them, one by one, passed right on by Maggie as if she were a decoration on the wall. Maggie craned her neck at the giant portrait of the clerical man that loomed just beside her. A bronze-plated plaque below it read FR. BOYLAN, 1820—1890.
Maggie startled; Victoria was jogging up to her, grinning.
“What are you doing? I saw you back here a few minutes ago, but I didn’t want to ruin our game. Is the auction over?”
“Yes,” said Maggie. “Everything is sold. It all went smoothly.”
Victoria nodded, her gaze flitting across Maggie’s closed-off stance. “Did you want to play with us? I’m sure the kids would love some extra company.”
Maggie shook her head. “No, thanks. I think I’m going to lie down for a little while.”
“Okay.” Victoria shrugged. “I’ll see you later, then. Probably at dinner, I guess. Bye!”
And off she shot like a billiard ball down the hall, calling to her young companions and disappearing down the pocket of the corner.
Maggie spent the rest of her visit at Our Lady of Second Chances in a shaky haze, barely registering anything that was said to her or anything she did. She retired to bed early after a Thanksgiving dinner she hardly touched, which made her feel awfully ungrateful as it had been prepared and served so thoughtfully by a group of the institution’s supporters; and when Mama awoke her in the dark morning to dress for their early train, she nearly cried.
Halfway home, Maggie fell ill inside their train carriage, then burst into humiliated tears. The ladies cooed over her as if she were an invalid.
“It must have been something she caught from one of the children,” Maggie heard Mrs. Bassett say as Maggie reposed with shut eyes on a train seat of the new compartment they’d been ushered into, where someone had draped their fur coat over her. “You know how orphans carry all sorts of diseases.”
“Nonsense, that place was perfectly clean,” countered Mrs. Max.
They all apparently assumed Maggie was asleep, as she hadn’t spoken in a long while. But she couldn’t sleep for her pounding head and took advantage of her situation to listen to the fussy gossip.
Mama must have left, because someone said, “Gwendolyn is really too careful with her. She has such a delicate composition, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, she must; Gwendolyn mentioned that she’d had an…incident at the Aldridge’s.”
“The poor dear is so helpless.”
“Shhh.” chastised another. “My goodness, you’ll wake her.”
Maggie shifted then, turning her back straight against the bench and letting out what she deemed a dreamy enough sigh. The ladies fell curiously quiet after that.
On the last night in November, Mr. Blaylock approached Maggie with a folded newspaper and an odd look. “There’s something in here you might want to read, Maggie,” he said as he extended it to her.
Maggie took the paper with a thanks and escaped upstairs. Victoria was turning down her bed for the night.
“What’s that?” Victoria asked.
“Just a newspaper,” Maggie sighed, as she dropped into her vanity chair. “My dad just gave it to me in the strangest way—apparently there’s something he thinks I should read. I should hope so.”
Victoria went back to her work, which was interrupted not more than ten seconds later.
“Oh my God.” Maggie’s eyes were wide and watery as they flicked back and forth at the article.
“What is it?” Victoria’s mind reeled. There were only a handful of reasons why Maggie might react the way she did. Either someone like Sophronia had slandered her, or somebody had died. “Did someone die—is it the queen?”
“No, worse,” said Maggie. “Oscar Wilde.”
“The man who wrote that play we saw with Simon.”
Something lurched inside of Victoria’s chest and flooding out were sentiments she thought she’d sequestered. She walked towards Maggie and lowered herself to the floor.
“Victoria!” Maggie gasped, turning around in her chair. Her hair swung inches from Victoria’s face, and Victoria had a mind to bat it aside like a cat. “What’s the matter?”
“Uh.” Victoria swallowed. “I think I need to confess something.”
“Well, what is it?” Maggie asked after a moment’s hesitation.
Victoria studied the grains and swirls in the floorboards. One looked remarkably like a rose. “Please don’t get upset with me. I—well, Simon and I—we were writing to each other, for quite a while. Nothing untoward happened, I promise, and, after a little introspection, I stopped answering them. Anyway, Lena discovered it a little while ago. I think it’s fair that you know, too.”
Victoria looked up. Where she expected a glare of resentment from Maggie, there was an air of confusion.
“I don’t...how?” Maggie shook her head. “And why?”
Victoria shrugged and pulled herself into a more comfortable position. “We didn’t want anyone to find out, you know, because of what happened between you two. So, I wrote to him using a false name, and made him promise to address his envelopes with Our Lady of Second Chances.”
“And he did it?”
Maggie was quiet—and then she laughed and continued to do so until she was doubled over her vanity. Victoria, puzzled but amused, joined in her mirth.
“Oh, Victoria.” Maggie lifted her head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help it. It’s all so absurd.”
Victoria had taken the whole ordeal so seriously that she’d never thought to imagine it from someone else’s perspective. It did all seem a little absurd, after all.
“I’m guessing that’s why you were so insistent on getting that monogrammed paper, then.”
Victoria admitted it.
Maggie draped one arm over the back of her chair and gazed down at Victoria in wonderment and pity. “I’m sorry that you thought I’d be upset. I’m not. I only wish you’d confided in me sooner, instead of Lena ferreting you out like you were hiding some terrible secret.”
“I wish I’d told you sooner, too,” sighed Victoria. “But it’s over and done, now. There isn’t much more to say.”
Maggie nodded. They didn’t acknowledge it anymore after that.
Victoria felt as though she’d lied when she said she didn’t have much more to say; she had so much more to say that it itched in her throat like a lingering cough.
What she intended to write to Simon that night burned in her mind through the rest of her evening chores. Lena snipped at her for working so distractedly, but her comments barely registered. When Victoria finally found a slice of time where she found herself alone, the first thing she did was uncover the letters she’d hidden in her drawer. Of the three stashed there, one had distinctly different handwriting, something she felt foolish not to have noticed originally.
Sprawled on the floor by her bed, she tore it open and fished out the note inside, which was emblemed from the desk of Sister Agnes Marietta:
My dear Victoria—
I hope this finds you well. All of us here at Our Lady of Second Chances miss you and pray for you daily.
We haven’t heard from you in a great while, and we assume it’s because you are faring well in the Blaylock residence and that you have finally found a place you can consider a home. But if things don’t work out, or you ever feel unsafe or unsure, please know that we will always welcome you back with open arms. You will always have a place here.
Victoria, who was not usually prone to tears, felt them now stinging hotly in her eyes, blurring the scrawl before her. She tucked away the letter and, pushing aside the other two unopened envelopes, took up a pen and, hunched over the floor with the lamplight wavering like a beacon on the table above her, wrote a final letter to Simon.
She wrote about how poor Oscar Wilde had perished, and how that made her think of that night at the theater, and how even though they’d not known each other for long she’d thought how nice it was to have him in her life. She apologized for never responding to his last letters, and for acting like a dunce that night at Maggie’s party and wished him the best. She assured him that he need not respond, that she understood why. Then she stared at the stationary until she deemed the ink dry enough to fold into an envelope and seal it out of sight forever.
She’d finished all of this before Lena came in for the night. In a hurry Victoria had changed into her nightclothes and hunkered down under her quilt, turning her back to the door so Lena wouldn’t disturb her.
“Good night, Victoria,” Lena spoke softly from across the room. There was a pause, as if Lena was gauging if her roommate was still awake. After determining she wasn’t, Lena sighed, turned down the lamp, and pulled herself into her bed.
The night was cold, and Victoria fared restlessly through it, blundering in and out of sleep, the words she’d read and written flipping through her mind.
To be continued.
© 2022 Angeline Walsh
The Reign of Victoria; or the Year That Everything Changed is a work of fiction. Any resemblances to real persons or events is coincidence. Thank you for respecting the original creation of the author by not reproducing or distributing any part of it in any form without permission.