The clouded late winter sun filled the kitchen as Victoria and Lena scrubbed away at the sink full of breakfast dishes. Dishes were Victoria’s least favorite chore; frankly, it disgusted her, and in her eagerness to finish, she slung and sloshed pans and utensils and glasses through the soapy water and then rinsed them all so carelessly that she invariably made a sopping mess of her clothing and the floor by the time she was done.
“March is a useless month,” said Victoria to Lena as she mopped up the water she’d spilled. “It’s too cold to feel like Spring, but then it always seems like an unnecessary extension of winter. We should get rid of it.”
“Yes, but if we got rid of March, April would just be the new March,” Lena replied with a smirk, leaning across the counter.
“Oh, you don’t get it,” Victoria sighed.
“Margaret will be home shortly,” called Mrs. Putnam as she rushed into the kitchen, “So make sure you set a kettle to boil for tea.”
She strolled over to the drying rack, squinted over the dishes, and gave a satisfied sniff over their cleanliness.
“Maggie prefers coffee,” Victoria said.
“Miss Edwards does not like coffee,” Mrs. Putnam said, swinging around. “Therefore, we will be serving tea.”
Winnie and Maggie had been in the city all weekend with Mrs. Edwards and Winnie’s cousin Pearl, shopping for Winnie’s trousseau. They were arriving at the Blaylock home that afternoon for an intimate wedding shower, where Maggie and Winnie’s friend Ruth-Ann was also expected to make an appearance.
“Why not just make both?” Victoria proposed.
Mrs. Putnam shook her head. “You always seem to want to complicate matters. Dry those dishes once you’re through with...whatever you’re doing.” She began to march away but spun around. “And don’t forget to plate those popovers that were made last night.”
“Mm,” acknowledged Lena.
After the sound of Mrs. Putnam’s footsteps faded down the hall, Lena pushed herself off the counter with a sigh, glanced at the clock, said, “The ice man will be here soon,” and swiftly exited. Victoria didn’t bother to comment that the ice truck wasn’t expected for another thirty minutes, because she was quite pleased to have some time alone, though it meant that the bulk of the preparation for Maggie and her guests fell on her efforts alone.
Victoria was interested to meet Winnie Edwards. Winnie was the only friend that Maggie ever mentioned (which made Victoria believe that Maggie didn’t have many friends at all). Because Winnie was the only familiar person Maggie ever spoke of, she spoke of her a great deal—and complained about her almost as much: the way Winnie dressed (garishly), how she spoke (monotonously), and what her politics were (hereditary republicanism).
“Winnie is so apathetic,” Maggie said once. “Sometimes I just want to grab her by the shoulders and shake a little sense into her.” She’d smiled about it, but Victoria didn’t think it was very funny.
Regarding Winnie’s impending marriage, Maggie was ambivalent; she’d read to Victoria the congratulatory letter she’d written for Winnie but admitted that she didn’t particularly like Winnie’s intended, having only met him twice and declaring him “underwhelming.” The wedding, however, was a very big deal, and one that warranted many months of downtown shopping and afternoon teas. Victoria herself had never known anyone to be married, so naturally, she was interested in the entire process. It seemed to her to be complicated and dramatic, which was very exciting.
Lena swept back into the kitchen, dazed and flushed. She slipped her apron over her neck and sauntered to the main counter, where she eyed Victoria’s arrangement of popovers and finger cakes.
“That looks decent,” she sighed, knotting her apron.
The groan of the front door sounded, followed by Maggie and Winnie’s cheerful chatter and Mrs. Putnam’s welcome. The dog whined to be let inside to say hello.
“Shouldn’t we let it inside?” asked Victoria.
“No. Never bother with the family’s dog, cat—any animals. It’s best to leave them completely alone, especially when there are guests over. Personally, I don’t see the point in keeping them, anyhow. They need constant attention, and they smell.”
“There’s a cat?”
Lena shrugged. “Sometimes. Mr. B is partial to them, but Mrs. B won’t tolerate a cat inside the house, so it practically lives outdoors—so if you see it, carry it outdoors immediately. No one has seen it for months. But like all cats, it’s good at sneaking into places where it shouldn’t be—including the oven coals. I swear, if Cook finds that thing in the kitchen one more time, she’ll roast it and put it into a pie for supper.”
“And what a fine pie it will be,” Mrs. Putnam marched into the kitchen, resolute as ever.
“Victoria, take the tea tray into the drawing room.”
Mrs. Blaylock had joined the guests, sitting on the sofa across from Maggie, Winnie, and Pearl beside a woman with a gleaming smile whom Victoria assumed was Winnie’s mother. Mrs. Edwards still donned her coat, a fine adornment of glistening fur. Adorning the rug was a decent collection of branded boxes and handled shopping bags.
Maggie breathed onto her fingers and rubbed them together. She smiled up at Victoria.
“Victoria, thank goodness. Winnie and I are just dying for something warm.”
“It’s very nice to meet you at last, Miss Edwards.” Victoria smiled at Winnie as she set down the tray. “Maggie talks about you all the time.”
Winnie blushed. “Why, thank you. But I’m just Winnie.”
“Yes. Like a horse,” remarked Victoria, which she regretted instantly.
Mrs. Blaylock looked positively scandalized. Pearl snickered.
“Like a horse, dear?” Mrs. Edwards’ smile was straining.
“I only meant to say ‘Winnie’ sounds like ‘whinny’—of course, I don’t mean to say that you look like one—a horse, I mean.” Victoria paused to take a few breaths, feeling the heat of everyone’s stares. “In fact, you look so positively unlike a horse that it’s remarkable.”
(Winnie Edwards did not, in fact, look at all like a horse; the only thing she and an equine held in common was a mane of sleek, golden hair and an inclination for sugar cubes.)
“What did you buy?” Victoria asked.
Once again, shock crossed Mrs. Blaylock’s face.
“Oh, it’s alright, Mama, it’s just an honest question,” Maggie said. “Let’s see…I don’t remember which is which.” She reached for one of the bags, tossed aside the white paper and satin ribbons that tied the bag together like they were last week’s soup bones, and lifted from within a large, frilly piece of ivory-colored fabric.
“Oh. What is it?” Victoria squinted at the object.
“A tablecloth.” Maggie stuffed the item back into its bag. “It’s an early present from myself to Winnie. Of course, it won’t be the only one Winnie will need. But, of course, a woman can never have too many tablecloths.”
Victoria nodded with a smile, pushing back the urge to comment on Maggie’s tedious chatter. There was a knocking at the door and Lena ran into the foyer to answer it.
“Don’t forget about the soaps,” Winnie prompted.
“Oh, yes!” Maggie reached for a second bag at her feet. “The French-milled soap.”
Maggie plucked out a sachet, which contained a perfectly square bar of soap. She inhaled. “Lavender.” She took another from the bag and sniffed that one, too. “Orange…smell this, Victoria.”
The bar was thrust toward Victoria and she hesitantly approached it, the citrus strong in the air. “I didn’t know they made soaps that smelled like fruit.”
Maggie dropped the soap back into the bag and rifled through it. “There’re plenty of others, of course—mint, vanilla, eucalyptus, almond…”
“It sounds like you’ve bought the pantry stock list,” said Victoria.
“Hello, girls!” cried Ruth-Ann, stepping into the room. She paused and surveyed the group.
“Hi, Mrs. Blaylock. Hi, Mrs. Edwards. And hi—?”
“I’m Pearl,” said Pearl. “Winnie’s cousin.”
“And I’m Victoria,” Victoria offered. “Nice to meet you.”
“Oh.” Ruth-Ann eyed Victoria. “Hello. Are you also Winnie’s cousin?”
“No, no,” said Victoria. “I’m—”
“She’s the maid,” finished Pearl.
“Come, Ruth-Ann, sit with us!” called Winnie. “We were just showing Victoria all the things we bought in New York.”
“Wonderful, I’d love to see.” Ruth-Ann perched on the arm of the sofa and loomed over Maggie’s shoulder.
“I was just about to unpack the candles,” said Winnie.
“Oh! And the matching candlesticks,” Maggie chimed in. “They’re silver.”
“Also, there are the cloth napkins,” Mrs. Edwards said. She gestured an arm over the heap of goods. “They should be in one of those bags.”
“And the napkin rings,” added Mrs. Blaylock.
“The rugs!” Winnie gasped, grasping Ruth-Ann by the arm. “I wish you could see the rugs we picked out. They won’t be shipped until May.”
“Don’t forget about the gravy boat,” Pearl said. “It’s blue china.”
“My goodness.” Ruth-Ann’s eyes were wide. “You bought a lot.”
“We got a little carried away.” Winnie shrugged with a smile.
“Yes, well, stocking a new household is no small ordeal.” Mrs. Edwards lifted her chin. “But you haven’t yet shown her the most important item of all.”
Winnie’s face lit up. She spread her hand for Ruth-Ann, whereupon her ring finger gleamed a golden band embellished in opal and diamonds.
“Oh, how exquisite!” breathed Ruth-Ann. “Hubert has fine taste.”
“Well, of course,” said Mrs. Edwards. “He chose Winnie, didn’t he?”
Victoria felt as if she no longer belonged in the conversation. She slipped away to the kitchen without anyone noticing. Lena and Cook were leaning above a trash bin, peeling potatoes for dinner. Lena lifted her head and smirked before returning to her task.
“What?” asked Victoria, irritated.
Lena shrugged. “Don’t think we don’t notice how you seem to think you’re friends with Maggie. Believe me, you’re not. Mr. and Mrs. B, they’re alright. But Maggie? We don’t owe her anything.”
“Oh, I don’t think she owes me anything,” piped Victoria.
“She’s spoiled, is what she is,” Cook spat, utterly ignoring Victoria’s rebuttal. She carved out a rotten spot in a potato and flung it with a plunk into the bin.
“Are you going to do your job, or what?” Lena tossed a potato at Victoria, who fumbled for it but missed. It rolled pathetically at her feet. “I’m not going to speak about Maggie anymore. Just know I warned you.”
Victoria didn’t feel so much like talking after that. She picked up the potato from the floor and peeled it aggressively in silence—and then another, and another—ignoring the burning stares from Lena and Cook. In a blur, the entire basket of potatoes had been washed and peeled, and Victoria finally glanced up to see her fellow kitchen staff bewildered.
“Well, that was effective,” Cook grumbled to Lena. “You should berate her more often.
I’ve never witnessed her silent for that long. Or saw anyone peel that many potatoes in such a short span of time. Frankly, I’m impressed.”
A bust of George Washington (or, at least, a bust of whom Maggie believed to be George Washington) sat on the top of the bookcase in the Aldridge’s parlor. From her place on the sofa, she was directly under its hollow glare, though she preferred it to the way Mr. Aldridge leered at her whenever she spoke—which, recollecting their last interaction, was as little as possible.
Dinner had ended nearly an hour ago and subsequently the group had relocated to the parlor for drinks served by the Aldridge’s maid Nina, who hadn’t uttered a single syllable all evening. Mr. Aldridge had downed seven gin and tonics (Maggie had counted each one Nina had timidly brought to him); Mama laughed at nearly every banal comment Mrs. Aldridge made; Simon had hardly spoken, nursing an untouched brandy in both hands; and Maggie’s face was extraordinarily itchy.
Her eyes had begun watering halfway through Mr. Aldridge’s second drink during which he was espousing his latest sales numbers and inquiring Mr. Blaylock about his. Maggie attempted to blink away the discomfort, but somehow it only worsened; she clenched her fingers and sipped her wine to distract herself from the urge to rub her eyes.
Maggie’s weepy countenance would have been cause for alarm if Mrs. Aldridge had not launched into another wistful recollection of her dead son.
“Twenty years,” she sighed, her mouth quivering. “Twenty years. I still can’t believe it.”
“Mm,” agreed Mr. Aldridge with a solemn nod.
“I’m so sorry,” offered Mama, laying a hand atop Mrs. Aldridge’s.
“It hasn’t been twenty years,” interjected Simon. “I was nine when he died. That would make it only fifteen.”
Mrs. Aldridge fairly shook. “I remember when my son died. I remember. It has been twenty years.”
“Don’t contradict your mother, Simon,” snapped Mr. Aldridge.
Maggie sniffled and brought a hand to her nose.
“Oh, dear. There’s no need to cry over it.” Mrs. Aldridge shook her head at Maggie. “It was so long ago, now. Do you need a handkerchief?”
Maggie nodded, and Nina was summoned with a freshly laundered handkerchief. Maggie dabbed her nose and eyes; it smelled so strongly of lye that she coughed.
Mrs. Blaylock flinched. “Margaret, what is the matter?”
“It’s fine,” Maggie mumbled, with another sniffle.
“Anyway,” said Mrs. Aldridge. “This time of the year is always difficult because of the anniversary of George’s passing, you understand. It’s so terrible that we will never know what he might have become.”
Maggie peered up at George Washington. She wished she could recall something he'd once said that she could apply to her present predicament.
“Simon had a death in December,” slurred Mr. Aldridge, tilting his glass in Simon’s direction. Some of the glass’s contents sloshed onto his knee. Mrs. Aldridge, pink in the face, pretended not to notice. Maggie’s own face felt red hot; she plucked at her collar. Mama looked at her with crossed brows.
“Sorry?” Mr. Blaylock shook his head.
“His dog died,” said Mrs. Aldridge.
“Ah.” Mr. Blaylock leaned back in his chair. “Sorry to hear it. It’s always a tragedy to lose a pet.”
“Of course, Simon had the thing for so long,” Mr. Aldridge said. “It just lived for so long…eight, twelve years.”
“Fourteen,” corrected Simon.
“Really, Simon,” Mrs. Aldridge sniffed. “Must you refute everything?”
Mrs. Aldridge’s face was swimming. Maggie wiped her eyes furiously. Her collar somehow felt closer to her skin than it had just minutes ago. She felt as if she could tear it open just to breathe.
“…red,” she heard Mama say. “Did you hear me? Margaret—please, say something.”
Mrs. Aldridge shrieked and jumped to her feet. “Nina! Nina, get ice, quick!”
Maggie intended to speak, but all that escaped her mouth was a wheeze.
“Of course,” Mr. Aldridge continued speaking, “we didn’t want another dog. They’re sort of…a nuisance. So we just got him a cat.”
“Wait—a cat?” Mr. Blaylock said. “You have a cat?”
Mr. Aldridge shook his glass at the floor. “She’s right over yonder. Finally showed up, looks like.”
The feline in question sauntered past the sofa and over Maggie’s legs.
“Oh, dear.” Mama cradled her face in her hands. “Margaret is terribly allergic.”
Maggie wasn’t entirely sure what was happening, only that something soft had settled over her shoes, and not too long after, there was a shocking coldness at the back of her neck and a pair of arms was lifting her feet from the floor and lying her sideways on the sofa. She closed her eyes then, which felt nice. There was some sort of yowl, and the sound of running, and warm fingers brushing aside the hair on her temple.
The next time she opened her eyes, it took her a few moments for her mind to register the movement of a carriage below her. She blinked. Her parents sat across from her, relief in their faces.
Mama maneuvered to Maggie’s side. “How are you feeling?” Before Maggie had a moment to answer, she said, “You look much better. The swelling has gone down tremendously.”
“Well, from now on, the Aldridges will be visiting us. Unfortunately, we couldn’t convince Simon to get rid of his cat.” Mr. Blaylock smiled. Maggie smiled too, as she turned her head away.
A few mornings later, while braiding Maggie’s hair, Victoria mentioned Winnie’s bridal shower. Maggie hadn’t spoken of the event since it happened, which Victoria thought was a little odd, since Maggie usually had something to say about everything. The fact that Maggie hadn’t yet divulged anything only heightened Victoria’s curiosity, and her inkling that Maggie had been upset.
Maggie flinched, but responded cheerfully, “Oh, it was fine.”
Of course, it hadn’t been. Maggie had waited eagerly all weekend for Winnie to announce that she’d chosen Maggie to be her maid of honor; she had been anticipating the jealousy from Ruth-Ann and Pearl, Mama’s congratulations, and plans for a custom-made dress and matching bouquet. Instead, Mrs. Edwards announced that the role would belong to Pearl, out of necessity—she was family, after all; bridesmaids, she thought, were frivolous, and would surely rob the attention away from Winnie and Hubert. Winnie had nodded in agreement the whole time.
“Hm. Okay. So, are you going to act like that when you get married?” Victoria teased. “All dippy and concerned with things like candlesticks?”
“Winnie is not dippy,” Maggie attested. “She’s just happy about her engagement. Besides, I’m not getting married anytime soon.”
“Aren’t you going to marry Simon Aldridge?”
Maggie blanched. “Heavens, no. Where do you get that idea?”
Victoria paused her braiding. “Isn’t that why you’re courting him?”
“I'm not courting Simon Aldridge.”
“Hm. It seems like it to me.”
Maggie didn’t say much after that.
The following evening after dinner, Maggie retreated to her bedroom, where she sat sulking in her bay window. She attempted to read, and then tried to stitch, but she could barely keep her focus; the temptation to brood over what Victoria said to her last night was much too irresistible.
Maggie was reluctant to admit that she and Simon might indeed be “courting,” though she wasn’t certain why. Simon was nice enough, and he certainly wasn’t unattractive—yet she didn’t quite feel connected to him in the way she thought she should if he was to be her proper suitor. Perhaps, she thought, the responsible decision would be to discontinue all association with the Aldridges immediately or to at least suggest a hiatus.
But then, she saw so little of anyone nowadays that it seemed foolish to not try to find some enjoyment in the arrangement. She figured she might as well extend some effort. A written correspondence, independent from Mr. Aldridge’s harshness and Mama’s expectant eye, sounded appealing. If she wrote a letter tonight, she could have Mrs. Putnam order it to be mailed out tomorrow morning.
Maggie threw herself at her desk, set down a new piece of stationery, and began:
Thank you for the night out at the theater even though the whole thing with Victoria
(No, that wouldn’t do. He probably wanted to forget that had happened.)
Thank you again for taking me and Victoria out to the theater. Hopefully, we didn't make you feel
“Ugh.” Maggie tore up the paper and began again.
How are things with you?
That seemed good enough.
There was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” Maggie shouted. She spun around to see Victoria step inside, looking a little sheepish. Victoria shut the door and sidled over to the desk.
“I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable yesterday,” Victoria mumbled. “I shouldn’t have assumed anything. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“Oh, Victoria! Of course.” Maggie reached out and gave Victoria’s arm a squeeze.
Victoria’s gaze landed on the desktop. “Are you writing letters to Simon?”
Maggie glanced to her desktop as if she’d forgotten that they were there. “Oh. Yes.”
“Did you mention me?” Victoria asked, springing for the paper. She picked up one of Maggie’s rejects. “My name is on this one, but you crossed it out. That’s not fair.”
Annoyed, Maggie plucked the paper from Victoria. “You shouldn’t pry into other peoples’ correspondence, Victoria.”
“I wasn’t, they were well within my eyesight.”
“Still, it’s rude. What if I read your letters before you sent them?”
“I don’t write letters to anyone.”
“Well, what if I read your journal?”
“I don’t keep one.”
“A diary is just a journal, everyone knows that.”
Maggie sighed. “At any rate, yes, I am writing to Simon. And no, it doesn’t mean a thing, besides that I think he’s nice and I’d like to talk to him if we’re going to continue to see each other.”
“I believe you,” Victoria replied. “I also think Simon is nice.” Suddenly, Victoria’s eyes grew wide. “Maybe I could write to him, too?”
Maggie laughed. “What?”
“I would like to apologize to him,” Victoria explained. “You know, about…my behavior, at the theatre.”
Maggie nodded, slowly.
“Also,” Victoria continued, “I see Lena writing letters all the time, and it’s so aggravating. She knows so many people and it makes me feel stupid. For once I’d like to say that I’m writing to someone she doesn’t know.”
“Well, alright, I guess. You know what? Write your letter and then give it to me; I’ll enclose it in the envelope with my own—so no one asks any questions.”
Victoria nodded fervently. “Yes, okay. Good idea.”
Maggie presented to Victoria a fresh piece of paper and a newly sharpened pencil. “Here, take these, so you don’t have to ask Lena for anything. I have a feeling she wouldn’t be too keen on sharing her own supplies.”
“Oh, thank you!” Victoria said, accepting Maggie’s offerings. “This is so nice. I can’t wait.”
Maggie shook her head. “Well, be careful. I’m running low on stationery, so that’s the only sheet you’re going to get from me at the moment.”
Before she went to bed, Victoria wrote her letter. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d occasioned to physically write anything, so she expected her handwriting would be awkward; however, as soon as she pressed the pencil to the paper, she found that her hand translated her thoughts just fine (give or take a few small errors which she’d had to scribble through). When she’d finished writing, she held the letter up to the lamplight to admire it, smudges, scratches, and all:
Maggie gave me this piece of paper to write to you. I'm going to get straight to the point: I'm sorry for hiding underneath the bench at the theater and possibly ruining your night. I feel awful about it. and I didn't mean to give you such a scare by grabbing your ankle. That must have seemed very indecent of me.
I hope my mistakes don't make you think poorly of Maggie. She's not too bad.
Anyway, maybe you think is strange, me writing to you. I haven't ever had someone to write to, and this seemed a nice way to apologize. I also wanted to show my roommate Lena (she's the other housemaid here) that I'm not so pitiful as I seem. You don't have to write back.
There was a rustling from Lena’s bed. She sat up on her elbows, utterly confounded. “What are you doing?”
“I’m writing a letter, if you must know.”
Lena smirked. “To who?”
“No one you know,” Victoria swiftly replied.
“Oh, is that so?” Lena laughed. “Well, I’m going to bed. Make sure you blow out the lamp after you’re finished with writing to no one I know.”
Lena turned back on her side and was silent again, but Victoria knew Lena was listening intently. Victoria folded up the paper as delicately as she could, blew out the lamp, and curled into her bed with the letter embraced in her palm.
© 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.