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Carnegie’s Maid: A Novel: Chapter 17


August 8, 1864

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

I needed space from the undercurrents of Fairfield after the scene in the library. Instead of retiring to Mrs. Stewart’s sitting room to tend to my darning, where I risked her prickly presence, I snuck past Hilda cleaning the glass chandeliers in the dining room and out the servants’ door off the kitchen. Thankfully, Mr. Ford was in the cellar gathering a basket of vegetables for the evening’s supper, or I wouldn’t have dared. His eyes were kindly but watchful, and I cared too much about his opinion of me to have him catch me in a lie or defend me in one, especially after suffering through a torrent of untruths from the elder Mr. Carnegie.

Once outside, I leaned against the back wall of the Carnegies’ home and inhaled. Did I dare to duck out farther from Mrs. Carnegie’s reach? And even longer? I didn’t want to jeopardize my position—my family was depending on me now more than ever—but the backyard of the Carnegie mansion wasn’t far enough. Not today.

Skirting the perimeter of the Fairfield property, I walked down Reynolds Street, toward the little row of shops that formed the center of Homewood. I could defend my presence on the main thoroughfare as running a necessary errand for Mrs. Carnegie, but I’d have no excuse once I deviated from it. Glancing behind me to be certain no familiar face followed me, I veered off Reynolds Street into the neighborhood park, an outdoor space that was part sculpted gardens and part farmland.

An abundance of trees greeted me once I stepped through the park gates. Sour cherry and apples trees competed with maples, lindens, and elms for my attention. Bordering the trees were flowers in nearly every hue. Cows and goats inhabited a fallow field in the distance beyond the park’s manicured lawns, and the noises of the animals reminded me of home. Would I ever see Galway again? What sort of life would I have there if I returned, especially now that Lord Martyn was whittling away the farm? But what sort of life would I have here if I stayed in service to the Carnegies? I felt mournful and adrift.

Farther down the winding gravel path sat a bench, and I gravitated toward it. Peering around the park to make sure there were no witnesses to my lazy moment, I finally sat down. A shaft of sunlight emerged from behind the cloud cover, and I closed my eyes, allowing my posture to slacken as I turned these questions around and around in my mind.

Footsteps registered in the distance, but I paid them no mind until they grew closer. By the time I was about to turn, a man sat down on the park bench next to me. It was the elder Mr. Carnegie. I straightened my bearing, ready to stand, when he motioned for me to remain sitting.

“I see you’ve discovered my favorite hiding spot, Miss Kelley.” His manner was affable, as if the scene in the library had never transpired.

“I apologize if I have intruded upon it, s-sir,” I stammered, trying to decide whether I should defend my presence here or fall upon my sword. Once again, Mr. Carnegie had caught me in a place I shouldn’t be, and I couldn’t keep relying on his discretion. Especially now that I saw the lengths he would go to accomplish his ends.

“I won’t tell if you won’t, Miss Kelley.”

“I’m not certain I understand your meaning, sir.”

“Pardon me for being bold, but I think we are both hiding from the same person. My mother.”

I sat up straighter. Had Mrs. Carnegie spied me leaving the house and sent her son out here to test me? I may have been brash in sneaking away instead of tending to my chores, but I wasn’t foolish enough to fall into the trap of maligning her, if that was their game. “It is my pleasure to serve your mother, sir. I am thankful for my position, and I would never want her to think I was hiding from her.”

Mr. Carnegie looked hurt at my response. “I thought we’d reached an accord, Miss Kelley—that in this confusing world we inhabit, we shared a certain honesty.”

Honesty? That was a rich remark in light of the stratagems I had just witnessed. While I sensed a certain shared kinship with Mr. Carnegie based on the few encounters we’d had outside Fairfield, he was hardly a banner-carrier of truth, and I’d been anything but fully candid with him. In fact, I’d buried my actual identity and refashioned myself entirely into a different Clara Kelley than the one I’d been born. The only honesty he’d received was the frankness of certain opinions and emotions, not the truthfulness of biography. In any event, honesty at this moment would mean confessing that I was running not only from his mother, but also from the dishonest machinations to which he’d just subjected his family. The way in which he’d just bamboozled his mother, brother, and close friend astounded me.

I was too wary of him to respond.

He said, “I’m sorry you had to witness that unfortunate exchange with my brother. And see that side of my mother and me for that matter. If you understood more about our history, perhaps you wouldn’t judge us—Mother especially—so harshly.”

“I don’t judge your family harshly, sir,” I interjected, although my opinion of Mr. Carnegie was the one under duress at that moment.

“I cannot imagine this afternoon’s conversation left anything but bitterness in your mouth. Will you give me leave to explain?”

I nodded. “Of course, sir. Though you have no obligation to do so.”

“When we left Dunfermline in 1848, I was twelve and Tom was four, a white-haired child with beautiful, black eyes. We were destitute. My father had been a weaver—he made damask, to be precise, which made him a king among working folk in our town—but the industrial tide had turned against his profession, and he couldn’t adapt. Maybe he didn’t want to adapt, because any new position would have been lower than his high perch. Mother did the best she could to support us by running a sweetshop out of our home during the day and taking in cobbling at night, while my father sat idle in our cottage, staring at his empty loom. It wasn’t enough to keep us boys in food and shoes. My aunt had settled in Pittsburgh, and Mother thought our chances were better here. She scraped together the fare—leaving a trail of debts in Dunfermline that we have since repaid—and we made the journey to the dankest parts of Pittsburgh, where our relatives lived off work in the foundries. Father fared no better once we arrived. In fact, he seemed worse, spending days staring off in the distance, while Mother came to the family’s rescue by taking in work cobbling shoes again. We would not have survived if she had not supported our family. She was our heroine. My father passed away within the year.”

“My condolences, sir,” I said.

“Thank you, Miss Kelley. In truth, it felt as though my father left us long before his actual death. Supporting our family—including Tom—fell to me, although my mother continued bringing in wages as well with her shoemaking in the late-night hours, in addition to all the housework she had to undertake. That’s the way it’s been ever since, even though Tom does help out at my behest at the different companies in which I’ve invested. It doesn’t excuse the dynamic you witnessed today, but hopefully, it gives some context. Mother is determined that we will never experience poverty again. And so am I. I am ever mindful of my duty to them.” He paused, his eyes glazed as if imagining those difficult times.

“That must have been a heavy burden for you.”

He shook off his reverie and met my gaze. “No heavier than that shouldered by many others. And anyway, I was lucky. I got work right away as a bobbin boy in a textile factory, and then I became a clerk for a factory tending steam engines.”

“You’ve risen far from those days, sir.”

“It was that messenger-boy job I told you about on the train that really gave me unique opportunities. I took advantage of every chance it offered, making sure I would never work on a filthy factory floor again.” His lips involuntarily curled at the memory.

“May I ask what opportunities?”

“I quickly worked my way up from messenger boy to telegraph operator at O’Reilly Telegraph. Once in that spot, I made certain I was the quickest and ablest telegraph operator. Not just for your usual raise or promotion, but so that the most important businessmen in Pittsburgh would ask for me when they had a message to deliver or receive.”

“How did you do that?”

“I have already told you about how I memorized the streets, so I was able to hurry along my telegraph delivery no matter the weather. But I always made sure to deliver more than the telegraph. I kept a journal at the telegraph office, where I recorded any interesting business information we received from the telegraphs. I began to piece together an understanding of the Pittsburgh industrial and business community. So along with messages, I would share with the businessmen I met anything I’d heard about their dealings or related businesses. They came to know me, know my intelligence and my work ethic. Soon enough, division superintendent Mr. Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad began requesting me. And after Mr. Scott ordered the construction of a telegraph line along the railroad’s Philadelphia to Pittsburgh tracks for the railroad’s private use—so that he could better juggle eastbound and westbound trains along a single track—he hired me as his personal operator. Within a few months, I became Mr. Scott’s secretary and chief assistant. In that role, I learned everything possible about the railroad business and worked harder than anyone else, proving my indispensability to him.”

Indispensability. The very quality that I wanted Mrs. Carnegie to see in me. Again, how alike Mr. Carnegie and I were in our desires, although I hoped we did not share our ethical boundaries. He seemed not to comprehend the questionable morality in his youthful sharing of others’ personal telegraph information or in his deception of his brother and mother today. As long as he met his objectives and furthered his family’s goals, he viewed his behavior favorably. But how could I claim a higher moral ground when I lied about who I was every single day?

A wide, proud grin spread across the flat plane of his face. He seemed to adore telling me about his climb, a tale undoubtedly too coarse to share with his society friends. Or perhaps too secret. But when he looked into my eyes, he guessed at my thoughts, and the smile quickly disappeared. “I wonder if this all sounds very crass to you. Your background was genteel.”

“You seem to have a misguided notion of the gentility of my upbringing, as we’ve discussed before. I grew up with education aplenty but not much else. And now I must fend for myself, supporting my family at home as best I can. Just like you.” He had no idea how alike we were. And how I envied his ascent.

A different smile reappeared, one much harder to read. “You do understand.”

A rogue thought appeared in my mind, one that wasn’t fully formed and one I suspected would never come to fruition. Especially since I was a woman. But the idea demanded a voice.

Before I could censor myself, before I could think through the implications of my request, I asked, “How did you do it? How did you change your fate?”


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