A barrage of rainstorms welcomed them at the turn of the month, and they didn’t clear for a week. Mrs. Blaylock waited impatiently for days—pacing in front of the windows, twisting her sleeves, as if the precipitation would ease upon witnessing her anxiety—for the weather to turn so she could announce the date for her annual garden party. It was all she could speak about for nearly a week.
The rest of the household, however, had a more pressing matter to attend to: a new cook had finally been hired, which meant, for the staff, the adjustment to a new personality in the kitchen and, for the family, an unfamiliar assortment of meals.
Her name was Miss Elizabeth Blush. She’d been head of the kitchen staff at a Newark women’s hotel and, according to Mrs. Blaylock, had been seeking a more private workplace. On her first day at the Blaylock’s, after a short and unsmiling introduction to Mrs. Putnam, Lena, and Victoria (“My name is Miss Blush. I prefer to be called Miss Blush. You don’t need to know my first name, so don’t ask what it is”), she went straight to work, only speaking when asking indirect, sometimes aimless questions aloud to the room about what kind of soap was used to clean the dishes or where the carving knives were or how often the silver was polished.
Miss Blush also insisted on preparing what she called “elegant” dinners, mostly of the French variety. Lena and Victoria were wholly uneducated in such cuisine, which upset and distressed Miss Blush. Most times, vexed by their ignorance, Miss Blush proceeded to eschew any advances of aid on their part, and the solo undertaking often resulted in less-than-ideal results. When the soufflé she’d made for Saturday night had deflated, she’d cursed and slammed the dish on the countertop with such vigor that it cracked.
On the first clear day of May, when the warmth wasn’t just a façade set by the bright sun, Mrs. Blaylock gleefully hunkered down at her desk and wrote out her invitations.
Maggie and Victoria were in Maggie’s bathroom that afternoon, dying Maggie’s hair from a tonic recommended by Mrs. Bassett. It had been special ordered months ago and had only just arrived the previous morning all the way from St. Augustine, Florida. They unpacked the little wooden crate it had arrived in, and Maggie excavated the mysterious bottle from the packing of straw: it was the size and shape of a standard medicine bottle, embellished with a label that declared NELSON’S FINEST HAIR TONIC; FOR THE TINTING OF HAIR. ALL NATURAL INGREDIENTS DERIVED FROM U.S.A. Maggie was loath to try it, but Mama had spent what she declared an “inordinate amount of money” on the product, so it was obligatory.
“Hm,” said Victoria, taking the bottle form Maggie. It was heavier than she’d expected it to be. “How do we use it?”
Maggie dug her hand back into the straw. “There must be an instruction manual here somewhere…aha!” She tugged out a crumpled sheet of paper. “It says that first we have to dampen my hair. Then we rub in the tonic starting from the scalp all the way down to the ends, making sure to get all sides. Then it’s left in for three hours and rinsed out.”
Victoria plucked the paper and read it over with a fair amount of nodding. They moved to the sink, where Victoria helped Maggie run water through her thick locks.
“What’s this party your mom is having?” asked Victoria.
Maggie rung out her hair into the porcelain basin. “Oh, the garden party. It’s just an outdoor dinner where a large amount of the guests are my parents’ friends who move back here for the summer. And the dinner isn’t even a real one, it’s just a lot of small foods served on trays.”
Victoria popped open the tonic bottle. It made a hiss, and a vinegary smell engulfed the air.
“Ugh.” Victoria turned her head away and sneezed. Maggie stared at the tonic, dread tickling her stomach, but she sat on the chair she’d set by the sink and awaited the process. Victoria turned the bottle over and tapped it over her palm; its viscous contents pooled onto her skin.
“So, that’s it?” Victoria asked. “Seems a little underwhelming. The party, I mean.” She grabbed a portion of Maggie’s hair, massaged in the tonic, and went back for more.
“Oh, and we always have a lawn tennis tournament,” Maggie gushed to Victoria, “which I am always eager to win, but never do. Maybe this year I will finally be triumphant.”
“Do you practice?” asked Victoria, slapping more tonic on Maggie’s head.
Maggie scrunched up her face. “You don’t practice lawn tennis. Victoria. It’s not like that. It’s just for fun.”
“Well, what’s it like, then?” Victoria asked.
“The way we play it, teams of two compete against each other. Winnie and I used to pair together, but this year—well, you know.” A little frown set upon her face, and she shrugged. A glop of tonic dropped to the floor. “The game works like this: every player has a racquet, and there’s a ball, and the goal is to keep the ball out of one’s side of the net. When one team lands the ball three times on the other side, they win that match. The competition goes on until the last two couples compete in a final match.”
Victoria had managed to get half the bottle into Maggie’s hair. She stepped back to consider the coverage. “Sounds simple enough.”
“It is. But we take it pretty seriously.”
“But I thought you said it was ‘just for fun.’”
“What I meant is that it’s the most vigorous form of exercise most of Mama’s friends get all year—and not just the ones participating, either; some of them that cheer and shout from the sidelines exert themselves just as much as the players themselves. It’s one of the only socially appropriate times of the season for Mama and Dad’s friends to shout and mock others in public and pretend it’s all just in good fun. Except for Mrs. Dryer, who is very serious in her opposition to women playing sports and will definitely complain about the whole thing at least once.” She paused, a little breathless, and then added, “you know, practicing doesn’t sound so ridiculous, after all.”
“Great!” Victoria beamed. The tonic was depleted, except for a stubborn coating at the very bottom of the glass. She set the bottle it on the counter. “Let’s start today. I think it sounds like fun.” She took a moment to study her hands, which were uncomfortably stiff and stained a terrible dark brown.
“You have work to do,” Maggie said, standing. “And I have to sit with this for a while. But tonight, after dinner—before it gets too dark—we can go outside. And see if you can ask Lena to dig out the rackets and all that. She knows where they’re kept.”
Mrs. Gibson’s book sat on the desk in Victoria’s room. Every night before she went to sleep and every morning when she awoke, she stared at it. Several times now she’d snuck over to Mrs. Gibson’s backyard to survey the area, Timothy Knave in hand, intending to hop over to the front and give it back to its owner but each time getting caught up in thinking over how she’d fix everything, and then it would grow dark, and she’d think about how Mrs. Gibson had probably gone to bed, and she’d run back to the Blaylock’s.
Though at first the weeds and dead trees and the overall overgrown-ness of it all seemed daunting, Victoria found that if she compartmentalized the whole place in her mind piece by piece, it wasn’t all that terrible. She’d even discovered some rosebushes near the back of the house, their tiny blooms timidly peeking out from beneath mounds of dead leaves and straggled dead branches.
In between her chores, Victoria had taken to jotting down notes and observations on the margins of a page of newspaper she’d plucked from the trash bin. She kept it folded inside her apron pocket alongside a pencil and though convenient, it hadn’t been spared from collateral damage from kitchen duties or Lena’s prying gaze.
“Just some poetry I’ve been dabbling with,” Victoria explained one afternoon after adding color-theme? to her list of ideas to bring to Mrs. Gibson. She and Lena had been sorting laundry when the idea struck her, and she’d felt Lena’s stare as she’d whipped out the paper and wrote the memo against the wall.
Lena snorted. “If anyone could manage to be inspired to write poetry in the middle of doing laundry, I guess it would be you.”
Victoria shrugged, but inwardly was quite proud that Lena had said it. “Oh, by the way—do you think you could get the lawn tennis supplies out of storage for me tonight?”
Lena blinked. “For tonight? What’s going on tonight?”
“Maggie wants to practice her tennis skills. You know, for the little competition at Mrs. Blaylock’s party,” Victoria said. She paused, then added, “and I’m going to help her.”
“I wasn’t aware that you were so talented at lawn tennis.”
“You learn a great variety of things while growing up in an orphanage. They really want you to be well-rounded.”
(Victoria had never in her life played any variety of tennis and hadn’t known lawn tennis existed until Maggie had broached the subject.)
Lena crossed her arms. “I suppose I can do it if that’s what Maggie wants. Though I can’t imagine Mrs. B would like to see you playing out in the yard.”
“It’s a beautiful day, she’d be a dullard to mind my enjoying it when my work is done.”
And mind it she did not. It gave Mrs. Blaylock great joy, in fact, to see Maggie excited about something, even if that something was an activity which involved perspiration. At Victoria’s suggestion she’d clapped her hands together, but then grew serious and dropped her voice. “I do hope Margaret finally wins a game this year. It’s awfully embarrassing when her peers consistently outdo her. And some good, hearty exercise will do her well—she spends a disproportionate amount of her time sulking over books and needlework.”
Victoria couldn’t help but think to herself that it was Mrs. Blaylock herself who encouraged Maggie’s “sulking” activities, but she nodded fervently and thanked Mrs. Blaylock for her understanding.
Though the sun still lingered in the horizon by the time Maggie and Victoria managed to escape to the backyard, the air had turned considerably cooler. Both held back shivers as they examined the items that Lena had unearthed from the storage shed: two rather worn racquets and a wooden basket full of dirtied tennis balls amongst castoff golf balls and a few baseballs with loose stitching. Maggie let Algernon loose; he bounded onto the grass and then settled in a sunny spot several feet away.
As Victoria gathered some of the tennis balls, she noticed Maggie staring at her hands, which remained tinted a dull red from the hair dye.
“I nearly gave myself burns scrubbing them with soap and hot water,” confessed Victoria. She’d managed to lighten the dye on her skin, but most of it still lingered, tattooed on her fingertips, and stuck underneath her nails. Maggie’s hair looked alright, though it turned out much darker than she’d expected it would have. “Your hair looks nice, though.”
“Thanks,” Maggie mumbled. She took one of the racquets from the grass and twisted it in her hands. “Actually—no, it doesn’t. It’s awful. It’s so dark that it doesn’t even match my eyebrows anymore. I hope that it washes out soon enough—but from the looks of your skin, I don’t exactly have high hopes.”
Victoria sympathized with Maggie’s frustrations, but they hadn’t come outside to discuss hair care. She grabbed a tennis ball and waved it above her head. “Okay. I’m going to throw it at you.”
Maggie nodded and took several steps back. She looked to Victoria with determination, straightened her shoulders and raised her racquet.
Victoria raised her chin along with the ball. “Ready?”
Maggie nodded. Victoria tossed the ball.
Maggie swung her racquet quickly and clumsily. The ball struck her collarbone and with a shriek she stumbled across the grass.
“Well,” Victoria said, “I think I know what your problem is. You’re terrible at this.”
Maggie drooped a little. “I know.”
“It’s not a lost cause,” Victoria asserted. “Let’s try again.”
Both assumed their respective positions. Victoria gave Maggie a signaling nod, and then threw the ball. Again, Maggie blundered, then sighed pitifully.
“Maggie,” Victoria said. “You’re not keeping your eye on the ball. Your focus keeps drifting. It’s like you’re forgetting to have to hit it.”
Maggie nodded. Victoria felt a swell of confidence; she almost felt like she knew what she was talking about, which was very thrilling. But it made a difference—Maggie’s racquet made contact with the ball this time, and though the effect was underwhelming, it was a joyful moment.
And so they practiced all week the same way. Maggie began to look forward to the little lessons; it felt nice to work towards something on her volition. Plus, it was good fun.
Victoria took her role as coach seriously.
“If you really want to win, you’re going to need to show a little more passion. You’re hitting the ball, sure,” she advised, “but there’re no fire behind it.”
“What do you mean?” Maggie dropped the racquet to her side.
“Try this,” Victoria said. “When you strike the ball, imagine you have a target. Do you have one in mind?”
“Well—yes, I suppose I could think of somebody,” Maggie replied. The idea was amusing; her mind first flashed to Sophronia, but then crept to Mrs. Bassett. Maggie laughed at the thought of a wayward tennis ball knocking a fine hat off Mrs. Bassett’s finely coiffed hair.
“Don’t tell me who it is though, just focus your energy on them,” Victoria said.
“You don’t know who they are, anyway,” Maggie said.
“I’d probably be able to guess.”
“Okay. Just throw it.”
Victoria did as she was commanded. When Maggie hit the ball this time, she did so with such force that it went whizzing toward Victoria’s head and she just barely dodged it.
“Impressive!” came a shout from afar. Algernon began yapping.
Victoria, squinting in the direction of the house, saw Simon first, as he lumbered towards them, hands shoved in his pockets. Suddenly, she felt embarrassed. Maggie turned with a smile and shouted hello, waving her racquet while Victoria stood dumbly.
“So,” Simon said, as he finally reached a distance where he no longer needed to shout. “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like we’re doing?” snipped Victoria, flustered by the interruption. Simon flinched. In her peripheral, Victoria saw Maggie peer at her confusedly. Immediately she regretted saying anything at all, and averted her gaze to Maggie’s shoes, slick with dew and garnished in grass.
“We’re practicing for the garden party tournament,” Maggie jumped in. “I’m determined to win.”
“Ah.” Simon nodded. “Yes, so I’ve heard. Well, at least you have an adequate partner this year.”
Simon’s smile faltered. “Uh, me.”
“Oh! Oh, yes!” Maggie exclaimed, bursting into a short peal of laughter, during which she balanced a hand atop Simon’s shoulder. He jumped at her touch but didn’t try to remove it. Sensing that perhaps she’d let her palm rest too long, Maggie quickly retracted it.
“So, what are you doing here, anyway?” Maggie asked.
Simon crooked his neck, and his hands went back into his pockets. “We’re just in town, that’s all.”
A momentary lapse in conversation proceeded, during which all three of them pretended to notice something interesting in Mrs. Blaylock’s orderly yard.
Maggie nudged her racquet at Simon. “Want to practice?”
A smile lit his face. “Sure.”
Maggie went to retrieve one of the tennis balls she’d launched into a flowerbed, and Simon hurried after her. Victoria dropped her racquet on the grass and walked back toward the house. She heard a burst of laughter and glanced back at Maggie and Simon, who were playfully chasing Algernon. Neither of them said goodbye.
“How was your tennis practice?” asked Lena that night.
Victoria was mindlessly turning pages of the Timothy Knave book, studying the ink and pen illustrations. The one she stared at now depicted a night scene in which Timothy crouched on a tree branch, knife at the ready, above a scene in which his true love Flora was being held hostage by the highwaymen who’d abducted her in the previous installment. In the next sketch, fifty pages afterwards, Timothy and Flora are gloriously reunited, standing face to face, the morning light peeking through the forest. It made Victoria’s throat tighten with a strange sadness.
“Fine. Good,” Victoria replied.
“You’re actually reading that thing again?” Lena scrunched her nose.
“Not really,” sighed Victoria, letting the book shut with a thud.
Lena padded over and stretched herself onto the foot of Victoria’s bed. In the glow of the lamplight Victoria could see her smirk.
“Simon was here today,” Lena said, her voice just above a whisper, as if they were divulging confidentialities.
“Yes, I’m aware,” Victoria replied. She opened the book again and turned slowly through the pages. Lena inched closer.
“Don’t you know why?”
Victoria flipped another page. Lena leapt towards Victoria; in a flash, the book was torn away and dangling above Lena’s head. “There is no way you’re stupid enough to not know what’s going on.”
Victoria glared at Lena. “Fine, I’ll look at you when you’re talking to me. Is that what you want?”
Lena dropped the book to her knees and shook her head. “Oh, dear. You really don’t know.”
Victoria shrugged in submission.
“Simon is going to propose,” Lena said. “I’m not sure when, but probably soon. I’m guessing by next month.”
“What?” Victoria felt as though she had shouted because everything had suddenly become muffled. For a moment, she was confused. It couldn’t be to Maggie; Maggie and Simon weren’t together, not really—Maggie had said it herself.
“Well, why do you look so shocked?” Lena laughed. She turned over onto her stomach.
“It just seems really sudden,” Victoria said, eyeing her book. “I mean, the whole thing happened so fast.”
Lena examined her chipped nails with a frown. “Rich people move fast. They know something good when they see it, and they snatch it up before anyone else can get it.” She looked up at Victoria. “You don’t need to be so glum about it. You’ll stay employed here. Maggie is nice and all, but it’s not like it’ll make much a difference once she’s gone. Look on the bright side—once they have kids, you could always nanny them.”
Lena laughed, and Victoria forced a smile.
“Alright, so maybe you don’t like babies. You could probably apply for some ladies’ maid jobs—I’ll even help you if you want.”
“You know, sometimes I think that you’ve wanted me gone ever since the day I set foot in this house,” Victoria said. Lena recoiled, bolting upright. Victoria felt tears prick at her eyes, but she kept them at bay. “And Maggie’s my friend. I’m sorry that you can’t understand that.”
Lena wordlessly slipped away to her own bed. Victoria knew then that she’d said the wrong thing. “Lena—I’m sorry. Maybe that didn’t quite sound how I wanted it to.”
Lena reached over, turned down the lamp, and settled with her back to Victoria.
“Good night,” Victoria called to no reply.
The café was crowded and musical with the chatter of its patrons and the clatter of their drinkware, which made the prominent stretches of silence between Maggie’s comments and Winnie’s passive responses all the more unbearable. Maggie took a sip of her coffee—then another—to stall as she anticipated Winnie to continue their lackluster conversation. Instead, Winnie pulled her croissant into quarters, flicking the flakes off her fingertips onto her plate.
Yesterday Maggie had joined Winnie and Mrs. Edwards for Winnie’s final wedding gown fitting. The garment had been custom made by one of the finest tailors in the city (“She designed Carrie Astor’s theater gown last year,” Mrs. Edwards had boasted), made of sleek ivory silk with puffed sleeves, a lace collar, and gold thread piping.
“My, it’s breathtaking, isn’t it?” Mrs. Edwards had gasped, eyes wide as she caressed Winnie’s sleeve.
Maggie certainly agreed—it appeared as if, between the tight bodice and snug neckline, Winnie was having difficulty breathing.
“She looks like royalty, doesn’t she?” Mrs. Edwards gleamed at Maggie.
“Yes, like a duchess,” Maggie added, eager to join in the conversation, though she knew and cared very little about royalty. “Or at the very least, a baroness. Whatever the hierarchy is.”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” Winnie sighed. She tugged at the lace that hugged her throat.
Mrs. Edwards swatted Winnie's fingers away. “Don’t do that Winnifred, it’s odd. Let me fetch that seamstress—she’ll want to hem that skirt a bit. Trailing skirts are growing out of fashion, I believe.”
When she swept away to get the aforementioned seamstress, Maggie sat in silence as Winnie examined her likeness in the mirror, her face blanched and her fingers crawling to her throat again. She snapped back to life when her mother returned, the seamstress trailing after her, equipped with pins and smelling so strongly of perfume that Maggie’s eyes watered.
“Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this,” spoke Winnie, finally, “but I’m so tired.”
Winnie shrugged, and lifted a trembling hand away from her plate. “All of this…planning. I didn’t think it would be this taxing. I don’t think I like all the attention. It almost makes me want to cancel everything.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Maggie laid a hand atop Winnie’s. “I think you’re just a little stressed, and I think that’s perfectly normal.”
Winnie looked aside and slipped her hand out from beneath Maggie’s.
“Hubert and I are moving away after we’re married, Maggie,” Winnie confessed. “I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you sooner, but I felt nervous about it and kept putting it off.”
“Well, where are you going?” Maggie’s mind jumped to somewhere unfathomably foreign, like South America—or Canada.
“We’re going South.”
Maggie shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“Not South Jersey,” Winnie huffed. “Like, South Carolina.”
“Why on earth would you move there?”
“There’s a lot of unclaimed land.” Winnie shrugged. “Or something like that. Hubert explained it all to me, and I confess I didn’t quite follow all of it, but I trust him.”
“I don’t understand,” Maggie found herself saying aloud again.
Winnie looked down at her plate again and picked up crumbs with her fingertips. “We’re probably not going to see each other for a long while after the wedding, Maggie. I know this isn’t what you want to hear—oh, God, this is not easy—but our lives are about to become very different. It’s going to be difficult to…what I’m trying to say is, we’re going to have different priorities.”
“Did Hubert tell you to say all this?” Maggie felt a horrible, heavy tug inside her chest.
Winnie flinched. “Excuse me?”
“It just seems like a lot of what you’re saying isn’t really sincere. It seems like you’re being influenced by—I don’t know, your mother, for one.”
Winnie laughed, but it wasn’t warm. “Don’t bring up my mother, please.”
All the colors in the room had grown bright and blurred. Maggie shut her eyes for a few moments, then opened them again to Winnie shaking her head, slowly.
“Oh, Maggie.” Winnie sighed. Her eyes were wet with tears. She sniffed and blinked them back. “You don’t really understand love. It’s not easy. I care about my future and I’m doing what’s best for me and my family—and my future family. I wouldn’t expect you to understand it.”
Maggie’s mouth tasted sour. She pushed away her coffee—she shouldn’t have drunk so much on an empty stomach. “That’s an awful thing to say, Winnie. I can’t believe you would say something like that.”
Winnie brought her hands to her face. “Oh, oh…I’m so sorry, Maggie. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said it—I shouldn’t have said it like that—I shouldn’t have said anything at all. I’m very stressed. Please forgive me.”
“It’s okay,” Maggie said, but she didn’t really believe it, and she knew Winnie didn’t, either. She felt very pathetic sitting there in the clean café, surrounded by ladies in new hats and servers in their white starched aprons, and with Winnie staring at her with sad eyes. “I think it’s best that I go.”
Winnie nodded in agreement. Maggie stood—knocking over her coffee, which ran down the white tablecloth and towards Winnie—and fumbled through her coin purse, but Winnie quickly pulled fresh bills from her own, which she slapped onto the table. Their little charade caught the attention of two ladies at a neighboring table, who paused their cheerful exchange to give Maggie a thorough ocular admonishment.
“Sorry to ruin your tea, ladies,” Maggie spat, with a smile. “I hope you enjoyed the entertainment.”
“Maggie,” Winnie murmured, slinking into her chair, her face pink.
“What is it?” Maggie asked.
Winnie said nothing.
Mrs. Gibson swung open the door with a scowl.
“Well, it’s certainly been long enough. I thought you’d be a faster reader. My Alexander was a fast reader. He would have finished that book in two days, guaranteed.”
Victoria had finally worked up the nerve to go straight to the front door, but now that she had, she wished she’d kept away indefinitely. “The thing is, ma’am—” she paused, trying to gauge Mrs. Gibson’s face for any sign that this was an offensive title to her; she didn’t see a flicker of disgust, so she continued, “—I’ve already read this one, and I’ve been too busy until now to return it.”
“Ha!” Mrs. Gibson laughed in Victoria’s face. Victoria winced. “That’s a basket of lies. I’ve watched you sneak around my yard nearly every day for the past week like a clueless ninny.”
Victoria cursed inwardly; she truly thought she’d been stealthy. “Okay, yes, I have been doing that—but it’s not a lie that I’ve already read this book. In fact, I did read it in two days because, at the time, I lived in an orphanage, and it was during the winter, and I was quite bored. But that’s beside the point. The point is, Mrs. Gibson, I’d like to fix up your yard if you’d let me. I already have a few ideas on how to begin if you’re interested.”
“Don’t you have a job?”
“Um, yes. I would be doing this in addition to that—the days are longer, now, and I’ll have more light to do yardwork in the evening,” Victoria explained. “I’m sure Mrs. B—uh, Mrs. Blaylock…I mean, your daughter—wouldn’t mind me coming over to help. Actually, Maggie—Margaret—would probably want to help, too.”
Victoria hadn’t told Maggie about her idea quite yet, but she imagined that if Maggie were willing to play sports for fun, she’d be open to pulling a few weeds, too.
All scorn had faded from Mrs. Gibson’s expression. In its place was a strange hardness.
“I’ve never heard of Margaret doing such a thing. She’s never so much as visited me—why would she want to waste her time doing me any favors? You don’t know a thing about my family. If I were you, I would stay where I belong, and mind my own business.”
It was only after Mrs. Gibson had shut the door that Victoria realized she’d never actually returned the book. Carrying Timothy Knave to her chest like a prize she’d never asked for, Victoria headed home.
It was a bit more overcast than was expected or desired, but the air was pleasantly warm, and this pleased Mrs. Blaylock, who had the household staff set up a refreshments table outside. Victoria and Lena had put up the net earlier that morning and had placed a set of racquets and a basket of balls on either side of the grass, and the guests arrived on time—which is to say, twenty minutes late and laden with apologies.
Most of the faces were unfamiliar to Victoria, except for the Aldridges, of course, and Winnie, Mrs. Edwards, and Pearl. (She hadn’t known that Winnie had three younger siblings, two sisters and a brother, all of whom approached her and Lena with a demand for lemonades, then took the drinks without thanks. “Little bastards,” Lena had mumbled in their presence.)
Winnie had brought along Hubert, and looked comfortable by his side, smiling at him as they chatted with their various acquaintances. Hubert was polished and polite; he smiled when he needed to and nodded at the right times in conversation—though for all his apparent charms, Victoria didn’t think him especially handsome or interesting. It didn’t appear as if Maggie did, either. As Victoria poured a lemonade for an overdressed older woman, she glanced up at the three of them standing nearby, engaged in a conversation which called for an absurd amount of short laughter.
“My dear, you’ve missed the glass.”
Victoria jerked the pitcher upright and peered down at the pool of lemonade she’d created on Mrs. Blaylock’s new linen tablecloth. Lena walked by and groaned at the damage.
“I’ll get a new tablecloth,” she mumbled.
Victoria smiled up at the woman. “And I’ll get you a new glass.”
“Hm.” The woman smiled weakly as Victoria procured another refreshment.
Maggie noticed Victoria’s obvious stares from the table several feet away (though she refused to acknowledge them) and it was distracting—but not as distracting as Winnie’s disturbingly apathetic cheerfulness. When Hubert broke apart from Winnie to get them drinks, Winnie stepped toward Maggie with a smile and nudged her playfully.
After the two of them had exchanged momentary smiles and half-hearted waves when the Aldridges had arrived about an hour ago, Maggie hadn’t seen him. She glanced amongst the jumble of people in her vicinity. Eventually, her stare wandered across the yard, where she finally spotted him, leaning over a bed of her mother’s mint, studying a leaf. He plucked it and stuffed it into his jacket pocket.
Winnie shook her head. “He is a bit strange, isn’t he?”
Simon stood, brushing off his hands. His gaze fell upon Maggie and Winnie; he lifted a hand. They waved back.
“He’s not strange. He probably just doesn’t want to talk to anyone right now. To be frank, I really don’t want to, either.”
Winnie frowned. “Are you upset about last week? I’m sorry. I thought you would have forgotten that by now.”
Before Maggie’s allowed her temper to snap something regrettable, along came Hubert with two little frosted crystal glasses, a lemonade for Winnie and a gin for himself. Winnie accepted her drink with a thank you and a smile.
Hubert, a hand on Winnie’s back, steered her aside. “You said you wanted me to meet that family member of Mrs. Blaylock’s—the one in banking?”
“Ah, yes.” Winnie looked up at Maggie and shrugged. “Hubert is awfully interested in the stock market.”
Maggie wanted to inform Winnie that being a banker wasn’t the same as being a stockbroker, but instead she simply nodded.
Hubert nodded his chin at Maggie. “Bye, Maggie. It was nice talking to you!”
Winnie bid Maggie goodbye with a smile before she and Hubert mixed into the fray. It was a bit humid, and she was a bit…stickier than she’d have preferred. She lifted a hand up to her hair, checking to make sure the chignon that she and Victoria had tried so desperately to perfect that morning was still intact.
“You think it’s going to rain?” asked a voice just at Maggie’s ear. She flinched, and turned to see Simon, who had materialized beside her.
“My God, Simon, warn someone before you sneak up on them like that,” Maggie said.
“Oh. Sorry to startle you.” Simon shook his head. “I just noticed that you were alone, and I thought I’d say hi.”
“Well, thank you for keeping me company, although you probably should just ‘say hi’ in
a more conventional manner next time.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled, again. Shifting uncomfortably, he averted his gaze, but quickly his eyes rounded as he peered something behind Maggie
“What is it?” Maggie turned and there was Victoria, bearing a grin and two glasses.
“Hello, you two. What happened to Winnie and Hubert?”
“Oh,” Maggie sighed. She’d hoped she wouldn’t have to think about them for a few minutes at least. “I think they went to go talk to the Vanderbuilts or something.”
“The—” Victoria glanced around, then looked back to Maggie, lowering her voice. “The Vanderbilts are here?”
“Oh—no, I see how that could be confusing,” Maggie said. “Not the Vanderbilts. Mama’s second cousin married a Vanderbuilt—it’s spelled differently. Anyway, it tends to be terribly misleading.”
“I bet they don’t correct people who assume otherwise, though,” Simon commented.
“That’s probably a good bet,” Maggie murmured.
“Why is your mom looking at you like that?” Victoria asked.
Simon glanced suspiciously over his shoulder, but Maggie knew Victoria was referring to Mama who, standing front and center in a small circle of ladies just across the way, was tilting her head at her with rapidly blinking eyes.
“She’s trying to communicate something,” Maggie said, tearing her focus back to Victoria. “It’s probably because I didn’t wear my hat. She’s terrified of me catching a tan.”
“Why don’t you ask her what she wants?” Simon suggested.
“Um, no,” Maggie said. “I won’t be doing that. She can come here if she wants to talk to me like an ordinary person.”
“It looks like that’s what she’s doing.”
He was right; Mama was headed over—with Mrs. Bassett at her side.
Victoria grabbed Maggie’s hand and wrapped Maggie's fingers around one of the lemonade glasses, prattling, “Anyway, I wanted to give you this. I put some bourbon in there. Gotta get back to work now,” before dashing away while downing the other one.
For propriety’s sake, Maggie inched closer to Simon.
“Good afternoon, Simon!” Mrs. Blaylock gave him a toothy smile as she strolled to a comfortable distance.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Blaylock.”
Mrs. Bassett’s eyes roved Simon up and down; she gave Maggie what looked to be a look of approval.
“Margaret—you remember Mrs. Bassett?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I’ll take it from here, Gwendolyn, thank you.” Mrs. Bassett stepped to Maggie and roped an arm through Maggie’s. “Do you mind if we walk?”
“Uh, no,” Maggie answered, as if she had a choice.
“Say goodbye to Simon, Margaret,” piped Mama.
“Goodbye, Simon,” Maggie called over her shoulder, as Mrs. Bassett tugged her along.
“Now, Margaret.” Mrs. Bassett placed a hand on Maggie’s arm as they traipsed lazily through the grass. “Have you been thinking at all about what we discussed back in February?”
Maggie recalled it as less of a discussion and more of an unwarranted admonition. “Sure.”
“Hm?” Mrs. Bassett, apparently, didn’t find that response satisfactory.
“I finally tried out that hair tonic you recommended,” Maggie offered. “It took forever to get here, but Victoria—one of our maids—helped me put it in.”
“Ah!” Mrs. Bassett swung Maggie around, and her eager eyeballs darted to Maggie’s scalp. The excitement was short-lived. “Oh, dear. Perhaps I was wrong about the tonic. It doesn’t quite suit your skin tone, does it? And you neglected your eyebrows.”
“They don’t match the hair, I know,” Maggie finished before Mrs. Bassett could add the remark.
“Yes.” Mrs. Bassett drew out the word dismally. “But! Hair is like life—it’s always growing, or something of that nature. So, other than that, what else have you given consideration?”
They resumed their walk.
“I’m not sure what you’re referring to.”
“‘I’m not sure to what you’re referring,’” corrected Mrs. Bassett. “But I’m sure you do. I’ll attempt to be more straightforward this time. Simon is a very nice young man.”
There was a pause. Maggie realized that she was expected to comment. “Yes, he is. I agree.”
“Nice young men don’t come around very often—truly nice young men. Do you understand?”
The glass of lemonade that Victoria had sequestered upon her was dropping rivulets of condensation down her wrist. “Yes, I—”
“There’s an adage about men and women, you know,” sighed Mrs. Bassett. “Perhaps you know it. It involves a department store. It’s really a bit vulgar, but the point is—at your age especially, a good opportunity can go to waste, and it’s not wise to be choosy.”
“Are you saying that Simon is an ‘opportunity’?”
Mrs. Bassett huffed. Maggie suppressed a smile.
“Yes, I guess I am, Margaret. Do you not agree?”
“I suppose I just feel a little uncomfortable referring to another person as an opportunity, is all. What about Simon?”
“What about him, dear?”
“Well, does he see me as an opportunity?”
Mrs. Bassett shook her head and laughed. “Margaret. I—ah! What is that?”
They had neared Algernon, chained to his sad little wooden pike and, in an eager flurry, he’d stormed Mrs. Bassett’s ankles.
“Ah—stop that!” Mrs. Bassett swatted at him with her skirt.
“Mrs. Basset, please don’t,” cried Maggie. “Here, Algernon.”
She bent to the grass and welcomed the animal into her lap.
“Is this deplorable creature yours?” gasped Mrs. Bassett. “Why, he’s filthy.”
“That’s because Mama makes him stay outside all the time,” countered Maggie, ruffling Algernon’s ears. He collapsed onto his back and, moments later, was dozing with short little snores.
Maggie stood. “Sorry about that little diversion, Mrs. Bassett. What were you saying?”
The woman hooked Maggie by the elbow. They turned a corner.
“I should clarify that I do think it’s important for ladies to have their pets,” said Mrs. Bassett. “Though I tend to notice that gentler creatures bode better—perhaps you should invest in a songbird—or a fern. Dogs do tend to be unruly. Now, back to the point—and we really must get to it, because I believe your mother is about to start the tennis tournament any minute now—is that sometimes young ladies aren’t capable of making the soundest decisions without a little guidance.”
Mrs. Bassett crooked her neck and blinked enthusiastically.
“You just implied that I’m not capable of making sound decisions.” Maggie dug her shoes into the grass. Mrs. Bassett attempted to continue forward but was jerked back. Evidently frustrated, she huffed and let Maggie loose.
“No, dear, I did not. I only implied that some young women aren’t capable of making some sound decisions.”
“Well, I’m making one now, and that is to end our conversation.” Maggie finished her drink, the acidity lingering on her tongue. She stumbled as she marched away.
Mrs. Bassett was correct about one thing: Mama, standing in front of the net, shouted that the tournament was starting. Maggie jogged over to where the other competing pairs were gathering. There was Winnie and Hubert, standing demurely side by side; Mr. and Mrs. Kilmeade; and another, younger couple (whom Maggie learned later were actually brother and sister). Mrs. Spencer stood near, counting heads. Just as the remainder of the party settled on either side of the grass to watch, armed with handmade, colored banners to wave on their favorite teams, Simon came running to Maggie’s side.
“Sorry,” he said. “I was just talking to one of your dad’s friends—I think. Anyway, he’s a naturalist. I’d never met a naturalist before—their work is fascinating. Oh, by the way, did you know that you have wild garlic growing over there?”
“What?” Maggie had never heard Simon speak so much at one time. It was astounding.
“Yeah, I know. I was surprised, too. You should tell your new cook about it.”
“We have four pairs in this year’s game,” Mrs. Spencer shouted. The chatter dwindled.
The guests’ banners had been Mrs. Spencer’s creation; she’d also crafted the coveted, enormous blue-ribbon prize that she waved now above her head. “And they are as follows: Anna and Brian Browning; Mr. and Mrs. Sean Kilmeade; Hubert Guild and Winnifred Edward; and, lastly, Simon Aldridge and Margaret Blaylock.” There was a smattering of applause. “Let the tournament commence!”
While they waited for their turn to play, Maggie and Simon joined Victoria on the faded blanket she’d set down on the sidelines. Lena lay sprawled beside Victoria halfway between the blanket and the grass, with a straw hat over her face and one hand on her stomach.
“Is she…okay?” asked Maggie.
“Oh, yeah,” Victoria answered. “She’s just napping.”
Just to make certain, Victoria poked Lena with the stick of her banner. Lena grumbled and curled onto her side, squashing her hat.
The first match, between the Browning siblings and Hubert and Winnie transpired quickly with a swift victory for Hubert and Winnie. Although Maggie wanted desperately to win this year, she rooted for Winnie nonetheless. She was having so much fun watching that she nearly forgot she and Simon were going to have to actually play themselves, so when the competition progressed to a round between her and Simon and the Kilmeades, Maggie suddenly found herself nervous. She stood.
“Woo! Go Maggie!” shouted Victoria, waving her banner.
Simon followed Maggie to their side of the net.
“And Simon!” Victoria added.
Mrs. Spencer declared the start of the game.
The initial few back-and-forths were nothing exciting, and Maggie relied on Simon to volley the ball out of their court. She glanced to Victoria, who jumped to her feet and raised her banner while enthusiastically mouthing something that was impossible to decipher. She spotted Winnie and Hubert standing nearby, Hubert bent over whispering something in Winnie’s ear. Suddenly the triviality of the lawn party game vanished from Maggie’s mind, replaced by a vicious need to be victorious.
“I’ve got it!” Maggie shouted as she leapt to whack away the offending object that had flown in Simon’s direction. Mr. Kilmeade fumbled to return the serve but sorely missed, earning Maggie and Simon their first point and a few satisfying whistles. Simon himself seemed distracted by Victoria and appeared flushed at Maggie’s save.
He shook his head. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Maggie said. “But let’s not talk right now. Focus.”
As if inspired by Maggie’s offhanded criticism, Simon played out the rest of the match enthused and energized. It was finished in less than ten minutes and Maggie and Simon were headed into the last round, in which they would face Hubert and Winnie. Maggie snuck a look over to Mama who, while politely clapping alongside her friends, smiled proudly back at her.
“You are both doing amazing.” Victoria hopped over to Maggie and Simon and clapped a hand on each of their shoulders, giving them a little shake. “I must admit, this is a lot more thrilling than I’d imagined it would be—but I suppose when one has stakes in the game, it tends to be.”
“You have stakes in this game?” Simon’s brows rose.
“Victoria.” Maggie leaned in closer. “Did you make bets?”
“Oh, goodness, no. I only meant that I have two people I’m fond of to cheer for.” She removed one hand from Simon’s shoulder and slapped it onto Maggie’s. “I believe I trained you well, Maggie. I’m very proud. Don’t lose your fire. Remember what I told you…about that mind trick.”
Simon appeared confounded. Maggie nodded furiously.
“Now go get ‘em!” shouted Victoria. She bound back to her blanket.
“Must you be so loud?” screeched a woman sitting in a lawn chair beside her husband. (Victoria wondered if this was the Mrs. Dryer that Maggie had mentioned; she did overhear her mumbling something earlier about the wickedness of women’s athletics.)
“I don’t know. Must you be so rude?” Victoria quipped.
The supposed Mrs. Dryer gasped and stood. “Well, I never…” Grabbing her husband by the elbow, she steered him away.
Lena stirred and wriggled herself onto her elbows. “What’s going on?”
“I just offended that woman by us.”
“No, I mean in the game.”
“Maggie and Simon are about to face Winnie and Hubert.”
“Seriously? That’s amazing. I might actually win that bet.”
“You bet? On what—with who?”
“Oh, Mrs. Putnam and I have a bet every year,” Lena said. “I always say that Maggie’s gonna pull through this year, she always declares it impossible. Of course, we don’t actually bet money. Last year it was an extra thirty minutes of sleep, this time it’s—they’re starting!”
Before this moment, Maggie had felt confident enough; but once she and Simon stood across from Hubert and Winnie, all her surety failed her. Winnie hadn’t so much as made eye contact with her, let alone wished her any sort of luck. She’d simply giggled at something Hubert said to her and then jumped straight into the game.
As they went back and forth in concentrated silence, the oddest thought occurred to Maggie: instead of imagining that she was hitting the ball at Mrs. Bassett’s fashion choices, she simply wanted to hit it right at her old friend. Right now, Mrs. Bassett’s pride and condescension no larger irritated her—it was Winnie, with all her presumptuousness and pomp. When Winnie hit the ball over the net, Maggie leapt to it as quickly as she could, slamming it straight toward the grass on the opposite side with such gusto that it momentarily quieted the crowd.
“One point for Margaret and Simon!” called Mrs. Spencer.
“I didn’t know you were this passionate about sports,” commented Simon, as they settled themselves for the next round.
“I’m not, really,” Maggie replied. “I just care about winning.”
The second round began tentatively; Winnie seemed a little more cautious. Maggie’s movements became like a daydream to her; she felt as if she didn’t even need Simon’s support, keeping her focus on the target and rocketing toward it. In between each serve, she inched closer and closer to the net, which Winnie seemed to interpret as a threat. After Maggie had scored her and Simon a second point, Winnie shrunk back and murmured something to Hubert, who stepped up to the net and screwed up his eyes at Maggie.
“What are you doing?” he shouted at her. She didn’t answer.
Winnie stood about a foot away now, on the other side of the net. Simon hit the ball out of their court. Winnie skipped closer to the net and slung her arm back in preparation to whack it away, her eyeline steadied on the incoming target, which was sailing precariously close to the edge of Maggie and Simon’s side and Maggie, eager and anxious, brought down her racquet with mighty force—unfortunately, the ball had taken a slightly different route than expected, and Maggie’s instrument instead made direct contact with the side of Winnie’s head.
Horrified cries and a wave of stunned silence ensued as Winnie crumpled to the grass. Hubert threw aside his racquet and bent down to attend to her.
Maggie’s stomach dropped to see Winnie lying there, pathetic. Her chest tightened. She felt her racquet slip from the grip. It fell awkwardly on her toes.
Winnie, with the aid of Hubert, sat up. Her bright blue eyes, welling with tears, piercing Maggie. “What is wrong with you?”
Maggie wished she could, like a dramatic heroine, simply dig her heels into the grass and march away with her chin held high and her spirits contained. Instead, she stood in silence.
A shrill voice shot through the air. Just beyond the Blaylock’s yard came parading Mrs. Gibson with a brass-handled walking stick, dressed in a white tea gown and a scowl.
“Mother!” Mrs. Blaylock rushed over to Mrs. Gibson, her hat nearly flying off her head. The two women stood bunched over one another, hissing in hushed tones, as the party guests diverted into their own small, low-volume conversations.
Hubert pulled Winnie to her feet. Her dress boasted grass stains all around the skirt, and an unattractive red flush lingered on the right side of her face and upper neck.
Mrs. Spencer stepped forward. “In a historic turn of events, the final match has ended early. It is with deliberation that I declare Margaret and Simon disqualified due to excessive and unfair use of force and intimidation. Hubert and Winnifred are this year’s victors.”
There followed a less than enthusiastic round of applause from the distracted crowd.
Miss Spencer pinned the shiny blue ribbon on Winnie’s dress. Winnie stared blankly down upon it.
Mrs. Blaylock hurried to Maggie. “Margaret, your grandmother would like to speak with you.”
“Right now?” said Maggie, lamely.
“Yes, right now!” Mama hissed. She squeezed Maggie by the elbow and led her from the court. “I swear to God, Margaret, do not make any more of a scene than you already have.”
“Let go!” cried Maggie, squirming under her mother’s grip. “I can walk by myself, thank you.”
“Then do it,” Mama growled, letting Maggie loose.
Maggie stepped up to her grandmother who, despite the obvious discontent drawn on her face, smiled, though not warmly.
“Ah, Margaret. That was quite a show you put on just now. Although a little too…forward for my taste.”
Maggie hugged her inner elbow, which was sore from Mama’s hold.
“I do apologize for calling you out like that,” Mrs. Gibson continued, “but I just couldn’t help it. I’d been standing here for the whole game, you see—all alone, because I wasn’t invited”—here, she shot a sidelong glance to Mrs. Blaylock, who hung her head— “and I’m afraid my shock overwhelmed me. You understand, surely, that it was shameful for me to witness my granddaughter behave so poorly in a crowd of her own peers.”
“I’m sorry.” Maggie couldn’t look directly at Mrs. Gibson; her gaze was too sharp. “I don’t really know what I’m supposed to say to you right now.”
“You needn’t say anything more,” Mrs. Gibson said. “It’s your actions which speak for you the most clearly. For example, that maid of yours, Victoria—”
“Oh, goodness!” Mama interrupted. “What has she done now?”
“Oh, no need to be so scandalized, Gwendolyn,” said Mrs. Gibson. “She has been quite kind to me. You see, she offered to fix up my yard. She notices how overgrown and beastly it looks.” Mrs. Gibson shifted her balance on her stick and her face turned dark once more. “It was a blow to realize and accept that that airheaded little servant girl cares more for me than my own family.”
“Victoria is not airheaded,” blurted Maggie. “And she’s not a girl. She’s nearly as old as I am.”
“My dear, you both may be young women to the world, but you are girls in truth—meandering around, thinking of gardens and books, playing games ruthlessly like schoolyard children.”
“Mother, that is enough,” Mama said evenly.
“Hm.” Mrs. Gibson jutted her chin upwards, her gaze sliding between Maggie and Mrs. Blaylock. “I’ll leave you now to attend to the rest of your party—although it does look as if a storm is approaching, doesn’t it?” She turned away then, calling over her shoulder: “Have a good evening!”
Thunder cracked. A rain began, and the party ended.
The rain continued in turns through the next several days. Victoria hardly saw Maggie, as Maggie had holed herself up in her room and only appeared at mealtimes, where she was silent except for one-syllable replies. Mrs. Blaylock thought Maggie was being ridiculous, of course, but she didn’t intrude or ask questions about the sulking. As for Victoria, she had plenty of work to do; rainy spring days were ripe for deep cleaning, Mrs. Putnam informed her, and prepping the household for summertime.
“There is always work to be done,” Mrs. Putnam said. “I could give you a list of fifty tasks that need to get completed, and all off the top of my head.”
And give Victoria a list of tasks she did; the only problem was that Victoria found most of the items on the list uninteresting, and with very little ways to make them not so. Victoria and Lena groveled in silence as they took down the curtains and washed them, scrubbed the windowsills, dusted the ceiling fixtures, and waxed the banisters.
On a morning almost a week in the wake of the party, Victoria awoke and lie in her bed, listening for any sounds of rain, however faint—hopping up and to the window, she was relieved to see a clear sky and an uninhibited sun.
After the Blaylocks had finished their breakfast, Victoria stood over the counter in the kitchen, hastily eating a buttermilk biscuit before the rest of the day’s work was to begin. Mrs. Blaylock walked in.
“My dear Victoria,” she said, shaking her head as she approached, “you don’t need to stand there and wolf down your food like an animal. Why in the world don’t you sit at the table?”
“If I do,” replied Victoria, popping the last bite of her biscuit into her mouth, “I’m afraid I’d get too comfortable. I need to keep a momentum. What do you need?”
“I wanted to ask you if you wouldn’t mind bringing a basket to Mrs. Gibson—you know, like you did on Easter—as a sort of…apology. I think she’d appreciate it.”
Victoria wished to suggest that perhaps, if she were seeking retribution from her mother, that Mrs. Blaylock might go deliver the basket herself. Instead, she asked, “should Maggie come along? I think Mrs. Gibson would love to see her granddaughter.”
Mrs. Blaylock sighed. “Well, yes, I think that should be fine. If you ask her and she isn’t opposed to the idea, then yes, you two may go together.”
As it turned out, Maggie most certainly did not want to go.
“Listen,” Victoria said. “I know you had a bad experience with her the other day, but the truth is that I don’t want to visit her alone. The last time that happened, I think she insulted me the entire time.”
“It’s hard to tell sometimes, because even things that should sound pleasant have a way of coming across harsh, the way she says them.”
Maggie was quiet for a little bit. She bit her lip and sighed an annoying amount. Victoria stared at her, awaiting any sort of positive response.
“If you are truly dreading going alone then fine, I’ll go with you,” Maggie answered, finally, “but I’m warning you now that if she starts insulting me, I’m leaving right away.”
As it happened, Mrs. Gibson was very irritated to have visitors. She ripped the basket away from Victoria with a mumbled thanks and then the three of them stood staring at each other without anything to say but with no intentions of moving.
“I’m shocked to see Margaret here,” Mrs. Gibson said to Victoria.
“I like to be called Maggie,” Maggie declared.
Mrs. Gibson’s gaze snapped to Maggie, her face scrunched up. “‘Maggie?’ Blech. It sounds like a name for a dairy cow. No, I won’t be calling you that.”
Maggie bit her lip and shook her head.
“I suppose it’s ridiculous to have you two stand out here looking pathetic, so you might as well come inside—but don’t expect me to offer you tea or peanut butter or whatever it is young people eat nowadays.”
Without comment or complaint, Maggie and Victoria followed Mrs. Gibson inside. While Maggie studied her surroundings, Victoria trotted to the woman’s side.
“Mrs. Gibson—before I forget, here’s your book. I forgot to give it back the last time I was here.”
“You certainly did,” hissed Mrs. Gibson. She snatched away the tome. “I would suggest, normally, that you help yourself to another one, but seeing as you are clearly irresponsible with others’ belongings, I will be withholding that privilege from you for the unforeseeable future.”
“Now,” sighed Mrs. Gibson, as they reached the dining room table. “Let’s see what your mother had prepared for me.”
Mrs. Gibson set the basket on the glistening wooden tabletop. First, she pulled out a glass jar which she scrutinized with a suspicious frown. “Jam of some sort, I see. Jam is usually too sweet for my taste, but it’ll do.” She set the jam aside and lifted from the basket a small loaf of bread. She inhaled deeply. “Hm. Seems fresh enough.” The final item in the basket was a tiny, gilded spoon, presumably for the jam. She held it up to the light.
“Ha!” Mrs. Gibson shouted, then paused. She then erupted into genuine laughter, which Maggie and Victoria found extremely unsettling.
“My goodness.” Mrs. Gibson finally ceased her minute of mirth. “I haven’t laughed like that in quite some time. Thank your mother, Margaret, for her gift.”
“I’m sorry,” Maggie ventured, “but I must have missed something. What was so funny?”
“Not only does your mother apparently believe I do not have the proper utensils with which to scoop spreadables out of a jar—”
“I don’t think that’s…” mumbled Maggie, but Mrs. Gibson persisted.
“—but this is not just any spoon. This is a Blaylock family heirloom. Note the ‘B’ embossed in the handle, just here.” She jutted the spoon out for Maggie and Victoria to observe, and indeed there was a curlicued ‘B’ on it.
“Hm,” Maggie said. “I didn’t know we owned these.”
“They were your mother’s wedding gift,” Mrs. Gibson said, “from me.”
“Oh,” said Maggie.
“Then it’s not really an heirloom, is it?” Victoria said.
“It was intended to become one,” snipped Mrs. Gibson. “But now the set is missing a spoon, so it’s basically worthless.”
Victoria was about to suggest that Mrs. Gibson simply return it, but the woman was bent on continuing to express her grievances.
“It was either carelessly given to me, as if it were any other spoon, or it was an intentional retaliation. Honestly, I can’t think of which is worse. This is very insulting to you, Margaret.”
“How so?” asked Maggie.
“You’ll have one less thing to inherit upon your marriage, my dear. Your mother wasn’t thinking of you when she made this decision, that’s for sure.”
Maggie scoffed. “I’m not getting married soon, and I don’t care about silverware.”
Mrs. Gibson fixed her eyes upon Maggie and lifted a trembling hand to her—the one holding the spoon. “You must be joking. Your parents have already made the arrangements with that Aldridge boy, even I know that.”
True to her promise to Victoria, Maggie made her way toward the front door.
“Excuse me, young lady—”
Maggie had already escaped the house, leaving the door wide open in her wake.
“Well, of all the nerve…” Mrs. Gibson marched to the door and shut it with a great passion. She didn’t move for a little while, standing with her back to Victoria. During this time, Victoria interested herself in the wallpaper, certain that by the end of the visit the rose motif would be imprinted on her memory.
“Mrs. Gibson…are you alright?” asked Victoria, finally.
Mrs. Gibson turned and stomped back into the dining room. “You know that I am not. Why would you ask such a stupid question?” She still clutched the spoon, her knuckles white.
“Would you like me to leave now?” Victoria almost wanted to whisper the question. She had a horrible vision of Mrs. Gibson throwing the spoon like a spear in her direction.
“Do you know,” Mrs. Gibson began, “that Margaret is very similar to her mother?”
“Is she?” Victoria didn’t see it.
“Oh, yes.” Mrs. Gibson nodded. “Gwendolyn had an awful temperament.” It was the first time Victoria had heard Mrs. Blaylock’s name; she thought it was beautiful. “She wasn’t raised like that, of course; at least, I didn’t teach her that behavior, but her father—he was older, as you know—he adored her, and enabled all her worst traits. Devastated her when he died. She was thirteen at the time. I think it damaged her.”
Mrs. Gibson paused. Victoria mumbled, “I see.”
“Then she went and married a wretched Englishman.” Mrs. Gibson shook her head and leaned on the table. She seemed to be conjuring up some terrible memory.
Victoria didn’t think Mr. Blaylock was wretched at all.
“Oh, yes,” Victoria encouraged Mrs. Gibson. “Horrible.”
“He was a measly tradesman, and now his business finances are supplemented by the Gibson fortune,” Mrs. Gibson spat. “He was never good enough for Gwendolyn.”
“It can’t matter that much anymore, though, can it?”
“But it does! I never wanted to live here, in this silly seaside town. It’s much too bright, and the winds from the ocean are terrible, and the birds are too loud. Most of the locals are ruffians if they aren’t hoteliers or new rich fools. But after Gwendolyn married, they started vacationing down here, and eventually she decided to leave the family home for good—in New York, neighbors with all the nice, clean families, with something to their names—and I was going to be all alone in that grand estate. Gwendolyn’s husband didn’t want to live there—it was too old, he insisted, too intimidating. So they bought this place right beside theirs to shut me up. Oh, goodness, I do need to sit down.”
And sit down she did, collapsing into a dining room chair with a drooped head, gripping the spoon still, like a child scolded.
“You may leave now,” she grumbled.
“Would you like me to take the spoon back?” Victoria asked, doing her best to make her voice sound cheerful.
“No,” was the firm answer.
“Very well. Have a good day, Mrs. Gibson.” Victoria silently retrieved the empty basket from the table. She paused in the hallway to look back at the poor woman.
“Don’t look at me. Just go,” Mrs. Gibson cried.
“Okay, sorry,” Victoria called, and she ran for the door.
© 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.