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Carnegie’s Maid: A Novel: Chapter 15


May 28, 1864

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

All the elite of Reynolds Street had accepted the hand-delivered invitations to the picnic. With Mrs. Carnegie leading the charge, Fairfield focused on little else in the two weeks that followed. Since I wouldn’t be needed for the service of the meal—Mrs. Stewart, Mr. Holyrod, Hilda, Mary, and the new footman, James, would present the luncheon—I assumed that I’d stay behind, and I relished the thought of a quiet house. But Mrs. Carnegie would hear nothing of it. “You know Mrs. Pitcairn is prone to fainting fits. You will need to come along and bring the chatelaine to revive her with smelling salts if she does.” The heavy chatelaine, with its full complement of instruments to tend ladies’ hair and attire as well as smelling salts should their corsets induce fainting, an occurrence that happened with surprising frequency, had become my constant companion.

The morning of the picnic, a delicious aroma wafted throughout the house. After I finished readying Mrs. Carnegie for the picnic and she ensconced herself in the parlor with the elder Mr. Carnegie to finalize the seating arrangement, I followed the smell into the kitchen. There, I found the center table filled with plates of fried chicken, beef tenderloin with horseradish sauce, deviled eggs of every imaginable variety, marinated asparagus, and peaches and cream sponge cake. My family had never seen a repast so decadent.

Mr. Ford, Mrs. Stewart, Hilda, and Mary raced around the kitchen preparing the baskets into which the food would be placed. Having already sent the other footman ahead to the picnic site with the tables, chairs, and china on the groundskeeper’s cart with precise instructions on how to arrange them, Mr. Holyrod and James paced the kitchen, anxiously waiting for the final food baskets so they could be loaded onto the returning cart.

As I stood by and watched the mad frenzy, I realized that I was without specific instructions for the first time since my arrival at Fairfield. Given that I was free until I boarded the coach with Mrs. Carnegie, which wouldn’t take place until after the staff had already left, I offered my help to Hilda. I knew no one would ask me directly to assist them, her least of all.

Packing the tarragon deviled eggs into the picnic basket, Hilda sniped, “We wouldn’t want you to dirty your dress for the carriage ride, now would we?” The staff would take the groundskeeper’s carriage to the picnic. I alone of all the servants was permitted to ride in the carriage, albeit on the back. More fuel for Hilda’s dislike for me, fodder for her belief that I lorded over her my access to the mistress and her realm.

I backed quietly out of the kitchen, trying to hide the tears that sprung up against my will. I belonged nowhere in this house. Not with the Carnegies. Not with the other servants. Even my own family members who resided in this city felt foreign to me. I was as utterly alone as the first day I landed on the American shore, with only the tether to my own family back home for company.

A rumble shook the sky in the far distance, from the city beyond the pastures. The azure blue of the sky made this sound seem impossible, almost comical. Because a quintessential spring day spread before us, like a brightly iced birthday confection into which the celebrants were about to bite, it seemed that no rain could possibly fall here.

No one else at the picnic seemed to hear the rumble. The conversation continued its gallop around the track with its participants racing to show off their better knowledge. I began to wonder if I’d misheard the sound. I maintained my position standing behind Mrs. Carnegie, chatelaine in hand, ever ready to serve her or any of the ladies at the luncheon.

Would I always live in this nether space of service? Always present but never seen, never engaging, my presence interchangeable with any number of others? I’d overheard Mr. Holyrod lecture the rest of the staff about the dignity of service, but I couldn’t see any dignity in invisibility. Where was the dignity in constantly suppressing your own needs, views, and rights for others?

The picnic table was covered with gleaming silver, etched blue porcelain plates, fine Belgian table linens, and crystal bowls filled with cut peonies, even though the field brimmed with sunflowers. The juxtaposition of the finery against the rustic background seemed incongruous. The Carnegies and their guests seemed to be enjoying nature as if behind glass. As if it the rustle of the wind and the buzzing flies couldn’t penetrate their world.

A rumble sounded again. Louder. And louder again. Until it could not be ignored.

“Do you think that could be thunder?” the ever-nervous Mrs. Pitcairn asked.

Every eye turned to the sky. In the north, the heavens had begun to turn dark. Mrs. Carnegie glanced over at me, a momentary flicker of terror in her eyes. For all her obsessive planning, this possibility had not been anticipated. I found this incredible, given the propensity for Pittsburgh rain.

Ever jovial, Mr. Jones declared, “People, it will pass. Let’s turn our attention back to this excellent pudding. Is it a meringue?”

Crystal glasses clinked and silver clanked on porcelain as the group resumed their picnic as if the storm would disappear simply because they were ignoring it. Mr. Carnegie continued talking pleasantly with Miss Atkinson. The ice that had frozen between them that February day seemed to have thawed. I’d overheard the neighborhood ladies say that Miss Atkinson received her education abroad, but given that her comments focused on gossip and clothing advice to Mr. Carnegie, I saw no evidence of higher learning or depth of thought. And I already knew what he thought of her political views.

A loud giggle from a quip Mr. Carnegie had made escaped from Miss Atkinson’s normally pursed lips. She held on to his upper arm as if his joke was so raucous, she needed his arm to balance. Their exchange inexplicably irritated me. Was it because I knew Mr. Carnegie was capable of conversation with more gravitas? Was it because I found Miss Atkinson undeserving of his attentions?

The thunder clapped loudly behind the picnickers, and a jagged bolt of lightning struck a nearby copse of trees. As if awaiting that precise cue, the deluge arrived.

Guiding Mrs. Carnegie by the elbow, I tucked her into the carriage before turning my attention to the rest of the ladies. Tittering with nervous laughter, they clung to me in the downpour as I packed six into a carriage meant for four. Mr. Carnegie squeezed the same number of men into the carriage they’d hired specifically for the occasion. Mr. Holyrod and the rest of the staff clutched at forks and saucer plates and whatever else they could grab until the groundskeeper’s cart teetered with service items, furniture, and the bedraggled, wet staff.

The coachmen tried to calm the horses as another lightning bolt struck the ground. They tried to wait for Mr. Carnegie and me to find a place in one of the carriages, but the horses were ready to bolt. And there was no remaining room for us in any event.

As Mr. Carnegie signaled to the coachmen to leave, I heard Mrs. Carnegie yell out the window, “Don’t leave without Andra!”

He called back, “We’ll take cover. Send a carriage back for us!”

As the horses galloped across the meadow, we scanned the countryside for some shelter. The copse of trees that the lightning had recently illuminated looked like the best prospect. Hands over our heads in a futile effort to ward off the worst of the rain, we ran.

The trees’ broad leaves buffeted us from the bulk of the rainstorm, and the semicircular shape of the copse enclosed us in a protective embrace from the mounting winds. Mr. Carnegie took off his jacket and spread it on the ground. He gestured for me to sit upon it.

“I couldn’t, sir.”

“I insist. I cannot let a lady ruin her gown.”

“There’s really no need, sir. It’s a servant’s uniform, not a fine gown. And while I appreciate the compliment, I am not a lady but simply her maid.”

He gestured to his jacket again, leaving me no option other than to sit. Refusal would have been tantamount to refusing an employer’s order, deserving of dismissal or, worse, a place on Mrs. Seeley’s blacklist. Although Mr. Carnegie didn’t seem the sort capable of such actions.

Settling on the damp grass beside me, he said, “You are a lady, Miss Kelley. No other woman of my acquaintance is as graceful in her demeanor or as elegant in her thinking.”

His words shocked me, and I knew they should have offended me. Or made me wary, as I’d grown up with too many stories of the Castle Martyn lords preying on their maids to not be at least a little suspicious. Instead, I found his praise oddly moving. While no one had ever called me a lady before and I secretly reveled in the label, I was more flattered by his compliment to my intelligence. Dad always said that my pride in my wit would lead to my downfall, even though he had fostered that wit himself.

But instead of speaking aloud my thoughts, I said what was expected of me. “You shouldn’t say such things, sir. They are not appropriate.”

The gregarious, confident Mr. Andrew Carnegie blushed. A deep pink that spread across his cheeks like wildfire, contrasting with his coppery hair. “I apologize if I was inappropriate, Miss Kelley. I spoke too candidly, without remembering that you come from a world far more genteel than the rough loomers’ world of Scotland from whence I came. I am still learning how to operate in this rarefied environment, and it hasn’t been easy.”

I felt like he was describing me, not himself. How alike we were.

I tried to explain away my remark. “My cautionary words come not from the divide of our upbringings but from the divide of our current stations. The compliments you gave me are more appropriately bestowed upon the ladies of your circle—someone like Miss Atkinson—than a maid who serves in your home.”

He seemed to consider my words for a long moment, then said, “I understand your concern, Miss Kelley, but the ladies of my acquaintance are all artifice and no depth. Their learning, in particular, has no profundity or feeling. Miss Atkinson in particular.” He paused, and the blush reappeared. “Unlike you.”

We grew quiet, unsure how to act around each another in an environment of disclosure, in a setting outside the stratified world in which we normally operated. I had felt so artificial and unlike myself since my arrival in America, it was a relief to act honestly, no matter how partial my candor was.

“I never thanked you properly for the copy of Aurora Leigh,” I said, keeping my gaze fixed on a blade of grass twirling between my fingers.

“Another inappropriate act,” he said.

I started to apologize for chastising him earlier about the appropriateness of his behavior when I heard him chuckle. Glancing over at him, his face was full of gleeful mischief, and I realized he was teasing me. Shooting him the sort of scolding look I’d give Dad when he was ribbing me, Cecelia, and Eliza, Mr. Carnegie laughed even harder. And I couldn’t stop myself from joining in.

Any vestige of discomfort between us dissolved, and I realized that his sincerity about his struggle opened a door between us. For a moment, I felt like I belonged with him.


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