It was Mrs. Max’s turn to host the Ladies’ Club, which meant that the group was gathered in the pristine lobby of the Max Hotel. The ladies were hyper-aware of their new member, who sat quietly amongst them now, patiently awaiting the right moment to jump into a conversation. (Mrs. Blaylock had brought up Maggie’s name at the August meeting while they’d all picked at Miss Sprightly’s well-crafted cheese tray. Amidst bites of smoked gouda and sharp cheddar, it was unanimously decided that the young Miss Blaylock was welcome. Mrs. Blaylock had also warned the ladies to call her daughter “Maggie,” which caused a bit of kerfuffle, but they agreed to comply.)
The lobby, newly fixed with electric lights that accentuated the gleam in the polished floors, was bright and beautifully furnished with sofas and chairs. However, meeting in a common space had its disadvantages, mostly in the form of the odd noises and interventions from the hotel guests and staff. Amongst the interruptions were the alternating click-clacks of the desk secretary operating the telegraph machine, the low chatter of her taking telephone calls, and the muffled arguing of an oblivious couple nearby.
Though the summer was nearing its end, the hotel was still quite active, and the last lingering vacationers trickled in and out of the room as the ladies threaded their usual discussions between their individual sewing projects. Maggie had half-listened as she embroidered an Emily Brontë quote onto a tea towel.
There was a lull. Finally, Maggie decided to ask a question that she’d been burning to ask before anyone else spoke. “So, what charity have you—we—been supporting lately?”
She had been expecting an enthusiastic response. Her fellow club members, however, didn’t appear to be on quite the same page. They paused their work, and no one answered for about ten seconds, enough time for Maggie to develop a deep and very confusing shame.
“Mar—Maggie,” Mrs. Max intervened, patting Maggie’s arm (which was not at all the act of comfort she meant it to be, as Mrs. Max wasn’t sitting near Maggie and had to stretch her whole self awkwardly to reach her). “This is your first meeting, so we don’t expect you to know all of our little customs. We never discuss where our money goes—until the appropriate time, of course.”
“What Beatrice means to say,” interjected Mrs. Knotts, laying a hand on Maggie’s other arm, “is that we haven’t quite decided yet which charity we’re supporting lately.”
“You’ve gone and confused her,” mumbled Mrs. Kilmeade, a needle jammed between her teeth. “What Sarah means to say is that we do a charity auction every November, and we haven’t yet decided which charity we’re supporting this time.”
“Don’t concern yourself too much with the matter just yet, dearie,” Mrs. Spencer said, peering up from the banner she was sewing. “After all, you do have a history of becoming…over-excited.”
Mama coughed quite enthusiastically and reached for her teacup.
Maggie’s frustration was punctuated by the screams of two children dashing across the floor behind her, their harried mother hurrying after them as quickly as decorum would allow.
Mrs. Max sighed, her cheeks pink. “My apologies, ladies.”
A murmured wave of, “Oh, it’s fine,” followed. Then more focused silence.
Maggie peeked around their little circle. Mama, brows crossed in concentration, was busily working on a baby bonnet to send to Winnie; Mrs. Bassett was monogramming handkerchiefs for her son and his bride-to-be; Miss Sprightly was in the midst of sewing what appeared to be some sort of stuffed toy, the exact creature unidentifiable at the present. Maggie stared down at her own work-in-progress, which presently declared Proud people breed.
In pausing, Maggie looked around the room, which, for the moment, was free of hyperactive children and bickering guests. Suddenly a woman bustled past, head down, the brim of her hat slanted over her face. When she briefly raised her head as she mounted the staircase, Maggie saw that it was Mrs. Edwards. Winnie’s family ordinarily had departed the Cape by now and, furthermore, they’d never needed a reason to frequent any hotels, as they owned a home nearby—yet it was unmistakably her.
It was such an odd thing to see that it stuck in Maggie’s mind, and on their walk home, before her mother could initiate any meandering conversation, Maggie said, “I believe I saw Mrs. Edwards at the hotel.”
Mama frowned at Maggie. “That can’t be right. The Edwards have gone back to New York.”
“Mama, I know how it sounds, but I’m almost positive it was her,” Maggie continued. “She looked embarrassed, or like she didn’t want to be seen. I hate to suggest it, but maybe the Edwards have…are no longer together. Maybe I can—”
“Margaret, that is enough.” Mama stopped in her tracks and gripped Maggie by the arm, leaning in closely. “If the Edwards are separating—which I don’t think they are—it is shameful to speculate. Especially when we are out of doors, where anyone can hear. My word, Maggie, what has gotten into you?”
“I’m sorry,” Maggie said acidly. “I wasn’t aware that as social protocol the ladies of the Club never discussed the personal lives of others.”
Mama pursed her lips, her eyes darting back and forth. Finally, she said, “it’s different with the Edwards, and you know it. Winnie was your dearest friend. Have some respect.”
“By the way, I know about Winnie being pregnant,” blurted Maggie. “Victoria told me.”
“Ha,” Mama spat. “Did she, now? And how did she find out—was she getting into things she shouldn’t?”
“No, Mama. Mrs. Edwards told Victoria herself when they saw each other on a walk.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I didn’t want you to be upset,” Mama responded. “Everything changed between you two so quickly, and you’re so…dramatic.”
“Not another word, Maggie, please.”
They carried out their journey home, neither one speaking.
Maggie’s suspicions about the Edwards were all but confirmed by an unexpected call from Mrs. Max herself the following evening. Mama swept her visitor into the drawing room in hushed tones, where Victoria served them bread and jam ten minutes later, on Mrs. Putnam’s insistence—and then stuck around the corner to catch the conversation.
“Apparently Mr. and Mrs. Edwards’ relationship has been on the decline for a while, and finally Mrs. Edwards decided to take a step to separate herself from her husband,” Victoria summarized as she helped Maggie wash her hair the next morning. “Mrs. Max feels really bad for her, and Mr. Max even allowed her to stay in one of their hotel rooms at a reduced rate until Mrs. Edwards finds something more secure.”
“She separated herself from him. How deliciously scandalous!” exclaimed Maggie, jerking her head up and sending soapy droplets into Victoria’s eyes.
“I’m not sure I’m so surprised,” Victoria said, wringing out Maggie’s dark waves. “I mean, Mrs. Edwards seems…” Victoria’s mind drifted to Winnie, distraught, in the hall. She looked to Maggie, who awaited Victoria’s explanation in puzzlement. “Never mind. Sorry.”
She wrung out Maggie’s hair, blinking away the sting in her eyes.
“You got another letter,” Lena said to Victoria one afternoon in the kitchen, as she sorted through the day’s mail. She waggled the envelope enticingly at Victoria, who skipped over and plucked it eagerly from Lena’s fingers.
Lena narrowed her gaze. “What’s going on, huh?”
“What? What do you mean?”
“That’s the second letter you’ve gotten this month—with no return address, at that. You never get letters. You don’t write to anybody…unless now you do, and you’re keeping it a secret. Ooh, now that’s interesting. Who is it?”
“That’s none of your business,” Victoria said, tucking the small envelope into her apron pocket. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t ask me questions like that. I never ask you who you’re writing to all the time.”
Lena made a clucking noise and tossed the rest of the mail into a basket.
At her allotted break a few hours later, Victoria went outdoors to open her letter. Her hands feeling oddly numb, she dropped it in the dirt as she tore it open. Shaking particles of soil from the envelope, she withdrew the note, which she read as she paced the grass.
Thank you for your reply. I had to think about your proposition to write for a little while, as I wasn’t sure it would be entirely appropriate to keep in contact with anyone in the Blaylock household. However, I think it would be nice to have someone familiar to write. I hope you and Maggie have been well.
P.S. - I hope you didn’t actually do anything with those seeds yet—strawberries grow best in the late Spring, and if you plant them now, they’ll die.
Victoria folded the letter back into her pocket and ran inside.
During the entirety of a few days, during the mundanity of her chores and the multitude of little interruptions that accompanied them, Victoria composed a letter to Simon in her head. By the time she got down to turning her thoughts tangible, she knew precisely what to write and had no worries about spoiling any of her beautiful new stationery.
Dear Simon: —
I hope you’ve been well since you last wrote. I’m so happy that you want to continue our correspondence. Before you write another, however, I do have one request: address your future letters from Sister Agnes Marietta from the Our Lady of Second Chances Foundling Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I don’t want anyone here to be suspicious about us writing to each other, especially Lena because she can’t keep her nose in her own business. (Sister Agnes is one of the head sisters at the orphanage where I used to live, and she liked me the best of all the other Sisters.) Likewise, I’ll address my letters from someone named George Sanderson, who you can say is an old school friend. If this makes you never want to write to me again, I understand.
Where did you go to school, by the way?
In other news, Maggie joined her mother’s ladies’ group. She went to her first meeting the other evening. She didn’t mention any specifics, she only said that it wasn’t that fun. I can’t imagine that it would be. Honestly, it confuses me a little that Maggie would voluntarily involve herself in that group, so I must assume she has some sort of ulterior motive, though she hasn’t told me what it could be yet.
P.S. – Unfortunately, yes, I did plant the strawberry seeds. I’m so sorry.
Victoria had eagerly taken on the household duty of walking the mail down to the mailbox—or the post office, if necessary, for packages—which gave her the twofold satisfaction of making sure her letters to Simon remained undetected from Lena and Mrs. Putnam and guaranteed a nice little exercise. Walking around the Cape gave her great fulfillment, and she often took much longer journeys than necessary so she could gape at the houses as she strolled past and smile and nod at the local women on the streets as if she were one of them.
Lena enthusiastically supported Victoria’s ongoing position as “mail carrier,” as she despised duties that demanded she leave the comforts of the Blaylock property, where she might be exposed to the unwarranted chatter of the neighbors or passersby; she also insinuated that having to go outside to deliver mail in the winter months was akin to light torture, and not what she had agreed to as a housemaid.
At the start of the second week of the month, Mrs. Putnam went into a panic over the waning warmth (as she declared it, “the rapidly advancing grip of winter”). In a frenzy, the whole house was prepped and stocked and cleaned for the proceeding colder seasons. Of course, the Blaylocks themselves didn’t require many individual changes, except in their wardrobes—and, according to Maggie, the autumn and winter wardrobes were especially important (she’d said the same thing about her spring and summer clothes).
“Just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean I have to dress like a shapeless lump to stay warm,” Maggie elaborated as she and Victoria laid bare her entire armoire, piling every garment atop the bed. “Besides, the best parties always happen in the fall and around Christmas—including ours. I’m glad you’ll be there this year for it—speak of the devil.” Maggie lifted a particular ornate dress.
“What?” asked Victoria.
“This dress—it was the one I wore to our last Christmas party. I’d been so excited to show it off, but I spilled a drink on it…Lena never really could get that stain to go away.” Maggie held it up to the light; it bore a slightly dark patch around the waist. Maggie sighed and turned her head up at the offending garment. “That night was really the last time everything felt sort of normal with Winnie, and with Beth still here—your predecessor, you know. Though I suppose if she’d never been fired, I wouldn’t have ever met you. Oh, well. You might as well take it. You could wear it at this year’s Christmas party.”
“Thanks,” said Victoria, accepting the gift. The cool, velvety weight of it was thrilling.
Maggie cast off a substantial collection of undergarments, skirts, and shirtwaists to Victoria that day as Maggie had been ordered an entirely new set of clothes for the rest of the year, an annual birthday gift from her parents.
They had been delivered just the night before, and their neat white boxes of varying sizes were stacked on the bedroom floor like freshly iced cakes.
“It feels almost wrong to have to open these up,” Victoria commented, eyes wide as she helped Maggie unpack. “They look so nice just sitting here. I could take a picture. Couldn’t you?” She stared at the brand-new Brownie camera that sat atop Maggie’s vanity, another birthday present sent from a family friend out West, and practically untouched.
“Couldn’t I what?” asked Maggie, pulling a pair of wool stockings from one of the boxes.
“Take a picture.”
“Hm?” Maggie peered over her shoulder and noticed the camera. “Oh, yes! We should, shouldn’t we? Not of any of this, of course. But something more interesting. Who do you think would pose for a quick snapshot?”
“Hm, possibly—but that would mean I’d have to talk to her. I think I’d like to take a few of Algernon.”
“Oh, I know—what about your grandmother?”
“Ha! Now, that would be interesting. I don’t think she has a single likeness of herself outside of her wedding portrait.”
“Have you heard from her lately, by the way?” asked Victoria, suddenly feeling a little concerned. They hadn’t been summoned to Mrs. Gibson’s since the night they’d finished her yard work.
“Perhaps a check-in is in order,” Maggie agreed. “And we’ll bring along the camera, just in case.”
On Friday evening, after Victoria’s post-dinner chores were finished, she and Maggie made the trek to Mrs. Gibson’s. Victoria cradled the Brownie anxiously between both hands, determined to protect it at all costs in case she should take a spill. Seconds following their raps on the door, Mrs. Gibson peeped through the curtains of the side window to see who possessed the audacity to stand on her doorstep. She pulled her head away, drew the curtains taut again, and moments later the door swung open.
Victoria quickly tapped the exposure open and closed before Mrs. Gibson had a chance to protest. She’d hoped, by keeping the camera low against her stomach and aiming it upwards, that the woman wouldn’t notice. Instead, the infinitesimal click of the machine sent Mrs. Gibson glowering down at her, and both Victoria and Maggie fully apprehended the horrific sight before them.
Mrs. Gibson’s uncharacteristically disheveled appearance was arresting: her hair piled messily atop her head, her eyes puffy and wide, her shirt blotted with mysterious stains. Before either of her visitors had the opportunity to comment or offer a sympathetic question, a red-brown creature bolted through the doorway. Mrs. Gibson shouted an expletive, and Victoria leapt to corral the animal in her arms, where it wiggled a bit—knocking the Brownie from her grip—and then surrendered to its capture.
“Oh my…what is happening?” Maggie’s attention ricocheted between the camera clattering to the porch, the animal, and Mrs. Gibson.
“For many months,” started Mrs. Gibson, as if she were beginning an oration, “I contemplated getting a pet. I’ve never had a dog before, and they seem to be agreeable enough companions. I did a little research, reading up on the best kinds, writing to the most reputable breeders…anyway, there was a particular man in Newark who informed me he was selling rare thoroughbreds, and he was selling them at a very reasonable price, so I purchased one. The dog was delivered two days ago, and I didn’t get a good look at him—he had been put in a little wooden crate, you know—until the man left.”
“That is not a dog,” Maggie said. “That is a fox.”
“I am aware of what it is,” growled Mrs. Gibson.
“Why don’t you just…set it free?” suggested Victoria.
Mrs. Gibson recoiled as if she’d been slapped. “I paid for that creature, and I will not let it just roam loose around the Cape—no, I am resigned to take care of this pitiful little being until the end of its natural life. Or mine.”
Maggie, too astounded to say anything, bent to retrieve her camera; despite its sudden fall the sturdy box seemed fine, except for a nick along one side.
“Well, what did you name him?” asked Victoria, twisting herself to get a good look at the creature she encapsulated in her arms. It tilted its head up at her and blinked.
“I haven’t gotten that far yet.” Mrs. Gibson stepped onto the porch, scooping the animal out of Victoria’s clutches and into her own. “He hasn’t realized yet that he is a pet. He’s too curious, too independent-minded. If I wanted all that, I would have just gotten a cat.” She spat out the word as if it were a slur.
Maggie, wanting to make sure the camera still operated correctly, promptly took a photo of her grandmother with the fox.
“Get that God-awful instrument away from me!” snapped Mrs. Gibson. “What is the matter with you two?”
“It’s just for your memories,” commented Maggie.
“If I wanted to remember this, I would have commissioned a portrait, and neither one of you would be present for it. Anyway, I’m going to have to bid you both goodnight. I must feed this thing it’s dinner.” Her lips curled, and she let out a little cough. “And give it a bath. Again. Goodbye.”
Awestruck, Maggie and Victoria ambled home to the shutting of Mrs. Gibson’s door and a series of muffled shouts.
“That was interesting. Do you really think she’ll keep it?” Victoria wondered aloud.
“I never know for certain what that woman is going to do.” Maggie shook her head.
Evidently, the fox remained three days later; Mama returned home from an evening walk with the dog with a concerning anecdote.
“I do hope your grandmother isn’t unwell,” she told Maggie. “When I passed by her house today, I heard the most awful, odd barking coughs. I knocked on her door, but she didn’t answer.”
“Maybe it’s an early attack of fall allergies,” Maggie offered.
The following night, Maggie and her mother went over. This time, Mrs. Gibson did answer—looking a great deal better than when Maggie had seen her previously.
“Gwendolyn. Maggie.” She nodded to them. “May I help you?”
“We just wanted to make sure you were well, that’s all,” said Mama.
Mrs. Gibson sighed. “I’m quite well, thank you. Come inside and see. Make sure to close the door behind you as quickly as you can so Alexander doesn’t get any ideas.”
“Alexander?” Mama and Maggie stepped inside. Maggie shut the door, her gaze seeking out the animal. “Ideas about what?”
“Running away, of course. Although I will say we’ve become much better acquainted since Maggie saw us last.”
Mama’s eyes flickered momentarily to Maggie, who said nothing.
“Ah, here he is.” Alexander padded into the room. Mrs. Gibson knelt to stroke the animal’s fur.
The fox sat down nicely on the floor and blinked up at the visitors.
Mama made a choking sound. “Mother...what in the world is going on?”
“I have no wish to repeat the happenstance events that led this wretched creature into my home. This is Alexander, and he is my pet.”
“My God. Why on earth would you name it after dad?”
“I figured if I have a man in my life again, he might as well be an Alexander. Unfortunately, upon my closer inspection earlier, it appears that Alexander is actually a woman.” Mrs. Gibson sighed. “But no matter. I suppose I should get used to calling it a ‘she,’ but it’s so difficult to come to terms with.”
“I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it in time,” piped Maggie.
“Maggie, do not encourage this craziness. Mother, we are sending that thing back to wherever it came from.”
“No.” Mrs. Gibson raised her chin. Alexander shuffled closer to her and pawed her skirt. “Alexander is quite affectionate—and attentive. Do you know he—she—follows me wherever I go? And she makes the nicest little bedwarmer. She even snores. Ha. Imagine that.”
“You let that thing on your bed?” Mama covered her face with her hands and shook her head.
“You have no idea what kind of diseases that animal carries.”
“Alexander is very clean, I assure you. And she almost never bites. I see nothing to be alarmed about.”
Alexander yawned, emanating an endearing little screech.
Mama’s expression softened. “She is rather cute.”
As if excited by the compliment, Alexander jumped to her feet and then dashed through the hall, tore around her visitor’s ankles, and then zoomed into the library.
“Well, there she goes again,” sighed Mrs. Gibson. “It’ll be like this for a while now.”
“Well, look who’s got another letter!” Lena gushed.
It was a lax afternoon. The household had been dull all day, with Mr. Blaylock gone to New York for the rest of the week and Mrs. Blaylock still reeling over Mrs. Gibson’s exotic pet. She’d been next door multiple times in several days, assisting her mother with the overbearing animal. Victoria, who had to experience Mrs. Gibson’s escapades vicariously through Mrs. Blaylock’s ramblings to Maggie over meals, was dying for something interesting to happen to her; and when she saw the return address from Our Lady of Second Chances, a bit of her longing was quieted.
“Why do so many people want to write to you all of a sudden?” Lena’s brows crossed as she read the front of the envelope. “‘Our Lady of Second Chances.’ What’s that?”
“My old home,” answered Victoria, taking the letter. “I bet Sister Agnes is reaching out to me—she was my favorite there.”
“You’ve been here for over half a year. Seems a little weird for her to just start writing now.”
Victoria shrugged. “The Sisters are busy ladies, taking care of babies and small children and all that.”
“If the rest of the orphans are anything like you,” Lena said, “I don’t doubt they are.”
Victoria didn’t read the letter until that night, when she and Lena were lying in their beds. Lena was engrossed in the latest installment of a romantic serial novel, so Victoria felt assured that she wouldn’t be interrupted.
Dear Victoria, it read, as usual, it’s not very exciting up here in Toms River. Everyone is talking about winter already, which is irritating. My dad and his colleagues are planning one of their yearly hunting trips. I’ve gone with them a few times now, but I’m not that great at it. The whole prospect to me is kind of—here there was an ink splotch, and Victoria squinted in the dim light, trying to make out what the word was; she was pretty sure it was “boring”.
It is sort of odd for Maggie to join her mother’s club, but maybe she’s trying to make some new friends?
To answer your question about school: I went to Thoreau Business College. You might be assuming it was someplace like Massachusetts, but no, it’s right here in New Jersey. It was nothing remarkable, just another school named after a dead man.
And the postscript: I’ll send you new seeds in the Spring.
In all his visits with his parents, Simon had uttered near to nothing. But in these words, Victoria recognized a person far more fervent.
Dear Simon, Victoria wrote the next day, we are talking about winter over here which, as you know, is incredibly boring, so that’s all I’ll say about that. Mrs. Gibson next door—Maggie’s grandmother, you might remember—accidentally adopted a fox. It was very distressing and controversial for a little while, but now I think everyone’s gotten used to it (except for Mr. Blaylock, who doesn’t return from New York until tomorrow and will be in for some amusement).
Business school sounds drab. I didn’t get to go to college, but if I did, it certainly wouldn’t be at one of them. Do you regret going? Perhaps the confusion over the college’s namesake is due to a simple misidentification. Henry David can’t have been the only person in America with his surname.
Thank you for your offer to send new seeds. I’ll keep you updated on the progress of the ones I planted. Maybe by some miracle, they’ll withstand some frost.
An hour later, into the mailbox it went.
“Thoreau, Thoreau,” Victoria had gone about murmuring about the kitchen the next day.
“Hm?” Mrs. Putnam squinted up at Victoria suspiciously from her ledger. “What was that? Your throat?”
“There nothing wrong with her throat,” piped Lena, her head halfway inside the oven as she scraped out the coals from breakfast. “I can assure you that. She’s been talking up a storm all morning.”
Victoria waved away the comments, embarrassment hot on her cheeks. “No, no. There’s nothing wrong. It’s just a word I like, that’s all.”
Mrs. Putnam sighed. She straightened herself and vigorously wiped her pen. “Victoria, you vex me. I do wish that sometimes you’d say something that made a little sense.”
“Sense,” Victoria repeated, with an enthusiastic nod. “I’ll try to keep that in mind.”
Mrs. Putnam, as per usual, was dubious.
© 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.