The year turned with little fanfare. Victoria settled back into her routines at Our Lady, not quite sure if she should imagine herself there indefinitely or if she shouldn’t allow herself to become too comfortable. She threw herself into lending a hand wherever and whenever she could, in doing the laundry and mopping the floors and to breaking up squabbles between the testier children and consoling the teary-eyed ones.
“Miss Victoria,” sniffled Clara, one of these distraught souls, as she sat on Victoria’s lap and sobbed about not having any green dresses to wear (last week, Clara had whimpered over a vase of lilies, a gift from a visiting priest, that had to be tossed out after they’d wilted; Victoria had had to explain to her the gruesome truth that even flowers had to die). “Are you going to be a Sister?”
At first, Victoria thought the girl was implying her becoming a sibling, and she was going to admit that she had no earthly way of knowing, but then it struck her that she’d meant if Victoria were discerning a vocation to enter the convent.
“No, no,” said Victoria. “I don’t think I would be very good at it. I, uh, don’t think God planned for me to be a Sister.”
“Well, I’m too loud, for one thing. And just like you, I like to wear green—and purple, and pink, and all sorts of different colors, and it’s not appropriate for Sisters to dress like that.”
Clara nodded, her tears subsiding. “I never have seen a Sister in green.”
As arbitrary as it seemed at the time, the implication fixed itself to Victoria’s brain: she didn’t have any sort of vocation, if she ever did; and if some divine hand had guided her to the Blaylocks, it had since lifted its palm from her back and left her stumbling directionless.
Sister Agnes addressed Victoria’s distress over a shared pot of weak tea. They sat in her office, the afternoon light prying in from the tiny window, the statue of the Blessed Mother on Sister Agnes’ desk watching over them with outstretched palms.
“Did you know, Victoria,” said Sister Agnes, “that Saint Alphonsus was a lawyer for eight years before he joined the priesthood?”
Victoria had never heard of this particular saint until that moment. “No, I didn’t.”
“Yes. And look at him now, canonized and everything. I’m not saying you have a future in beautification—as I think you’re well aware—but sometimes we don’t truly know ourselves or what’s best for us until we’ve tried a few other things first. And sometimes, I believe, even though we find true joy and purpose in one thing for a period of time, it doesn’t always last, and maybe it’s not supposed to.”
“Did…did the Blaylocks tell you what happened?” asked Victoria. “Why I was, um, terminated?”
“If you’re asking me if they told me all the lurid details, no. And I didn’t ask, either. Truthfully, it’s not my right to know. Do you feel guilty about what happened?”
“Did you commit a grave sin or break a law?”
“Not really, no,” sighed Victoria, but then she gave it a moment’s further examination and grew indignant. “No—no. I did neither of those things.”
“Then you may live with a clear conscience and know you have nothing to feel ashamed of.”
Victoria felt her eyes prick with tears and forced herself to drain the rest of her cup with a steady gaze at the hideous floral pattern on the teapot so she wouldn’t fall into a deep rumination of the events at Christmas. When it seemed that she’d kept the thoughts at bay, she once again acknowledged Sister Agnes. “Thank you.”
Sister Agnes smiled. “You are welcome, my dear Victoria. And it’s okay to cry if you need to.”
“Okay,” said Victoria, and then she did.
On the second to last Wednesday of the month, as everyone settled at the table for breakfast, still shaking off slumber, Sister Elizabeth made an announcement.
“I’d like to make a special intention this morning,” she said, “for the soul of the recently departed Queen Victoria of England, who passed last night. May God grant her peace.”
“Amen,” declared Sister Agnes.
“Amen,” echoed the rest of them.
Of course, the rest of the meal was spent discussing the newly deceased monarch, a topic which the children explored with shocked fascination.
“Does this mean England is over?” asked one of the younger boys.
“No, stupid!” retorted the boy next to him. “It means there will be a king next. They switch between queens and kings, I think.”
“Edward,” snapped Sister Prudence. “Apologize to Charlie—and to God.”
“At least now she’ll be with her Albert,” sighed Victoria.
“Who’s ‘her Albert?’” asked Louise.
“Her husband, who died a long time ago,” Victoria told her. “That’s why the queen wore so much black—she never went out of mourning.”
“Ooh,” gushed Louise, as if she had been waiting for that explanation for years.
Clara, quite predictably, had begun weeping wretchedly into her porridge, crying about the “tragedy.” Sister Julie managed to coax Clara away from the table with soft consolation. Clara left the room under Sister Julie’s arm, globs of oatmeal glued to her hair.
“Tragedy,” sniffed Sister Prudence. “What does a seven-year-old child know of that?”
Before the month was out, Victoria heard four words she thought she’d never again hear.
“You have a letter!” cried Sister Agnes, waving a slightly battered cream envelope.
It was just about lunchtime, and prior to this unexpected declaration, Victoria had been reviewing the beatitudes with a small group (she’d been in the midst of the third and found that it was a bit difficult to explain to a bunch of orphan children under the age of ten who kept making jokes about receiving grand inheritances).
Before Victoria pocketed the letter, she glimpsed at the return address: it was from Miss Margaret Blaylock, not of Cape May, New Jersey—but of New York, New York. Much to the chagrin of Sister Cecilia, who was supervising Victoria’s lesson with a heavily demeaning stare, Victoria rushed through the rest of the beatitudes and then rushed off to chapel to read her letter in solitude.
The chapel was in the basement, which gave it an air of seriousness and secrecy, and an enduring chill. The little bit of stained glass on the single window spilled violet, yellow, and red rays over the rows of cushioned wooden benches. Though there hadn’t been a service since Sunday, the musk of incense lingered imperceptibly. There, in the midday quiet, Victoria settled into one of the benches closer to the small altar—near the middle, because it always made her feel safer—and tore open the envelope. Right before her was Maggie’s hand and voice, familiar as ever.
I hope that by now you haven’t forgotten about me—and if you have, I can’t say that I blame you.
Firstly, I’d like to apologize on behalf of my parents. Yes, what you did was a bit of a shock and not exactly socially acceptable, but I don’t think any of it was wrong. In fact, as far Mr. Aldridge is concerned, he was humiliated in the way he deserved. (As far as Simon goes, I won’t say anything at all.)
Though no one would ever admit it, the house was so different and dull without you in it. I actually caught Mrs. Putnam crying one day (completely by accident, I assure you), and when she noticed me, she attempted to compose herself and explained that she’d eaten too many peppers at lunch and was having an allergic reaction, but I have an inkling it was over you.
My parents are in the process of filling your position. They’ve told me they’ve been through several candidates already but none of them seemed to be the “right fit”—apparently, they were too serious or too old or too apathetic.
Now, I’d like to address the obvious: I know you’re wondering why this has been posted from New York, and you’ve read this far eager for an explanation. So here it is.
I’ve moved into an apartment in Manhattan with Mrs. Gibson who, as you may be either pleased or shocked to know, I now call “Grandmother.” We’ve been here for several weeks now and it’s finally starting to feel like “home.” It’s much smaller than my old house but I like it a lot better. I couldn’t take Algernon along—he’s never known any place other than my parent’s house, and his constitution is far too weak for travel. But we adopted a dog, a Jack Russell Terrier whom we christened Alexander III (and yes, this Alexander is a boy).
I know it’s not what you wanted or what you ever anticipated, but I hope your life back at Our Lady isn’t miserable and that you’re (somewhat?) happy.
P.S. I’m sure you’ve heard the news about Queen Victoria. She was on the throne for 64 years—can you imagine a reign that long?? I think I would have gone crazy (and to be honest I think she did, a little).
Victoria had been so excited the first time she read the note that she didn’t fully comprehend everything, so once she got to the postscript, she began it all over again, this time relishing each sentence. She allowed herself to laugh out loud, and every time she did, she glanced up at the stairs to make sure no one was lurking there, prepared to scold her for giggling in the chapel.
She left just in time for a group of Sisters to come down for their afternoon rosary and snuck off into her room. Cross-legged on her bed, scribbling fastidiously atop The Terrible Secret of Lady Euphemia, Victoria wrote her response to Maggie, the world feeling significantly less unfriendly than it did yesterday.
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.