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Carnegie’s Maid: A Novel: Chapter 21


December 12, 1864

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The last guests had taken their leave. The staff had retired for the night, even Mr. Ford, who often worked until the early hours before dawn as sleep didn’t come easily to him. I had finished readying Mrs. Carnegie for bed. To my astonishment, she had muttered not a word about Mrs. Pitcairn or Miss Atkinson. I wondered whether my efforts with Mrs. Pitcairn had absolved me of Miss Atkinson’s accusations, but in truth, I doubted it and knew not where I stood with my mistress.

I closed her door behind me and, exhausted, trudged toward the servants’ back staircase. The floorboards creaked loudly underfoot, but I thought I heard someone say my name amid their noise. Shaking my head, I disregarded the sound as the effect of a long day. But when I heard “Miss Kelley” again, I couldn’t blame it on my tiredness. Turning in the direction of my mistress’s chamber, I realized that the voice came not from her room but from the bottom of the main staircase.

Keeping my step light to prevent my mistress’s wakening, I walked toward the sound. At the base of the stairs stood the elder Mr. Carnegie. “May I have a word, Miss Kelley?”

Even though every instinct told me to decline—begged me to avoid another encounter that could be viewed as compromising by an observer—how could I say no to my master without causing less trouble than saying yes?

Instead of waiting for me as I descended the stairs, he began walking toward the library. I followed him through the dark and empty front hallway to the book-lined room. The library was dark, lit only by the fire crackling in the marble fireplace and the low gaslights above the mantel.

He closed the doors behind us and said, “You’ve had a trying day, Miss Kelley. May I pour you a restorative brandy?”

The comfortable rapport we had established during our park afternoons vanished for me once I stepped over the library threshold and he closed the door behind us. Although we’d met many times alone in the park, I felt a deep discomfort in his sole company in this setting. It seemed more fraught with risk to be alone with him behind the closed doors of the family library in the late hours. “I am fine, Mr. Carnegie.”

“Please, Miss Kelley. Allow me the honor.”

I made no move toward him, but I agreed to the drink. “Yes, sir.”

“Miss Kelley, I thought I told you to stop calling me sir,” he teased as he poured the drinks.

The amber liquid glowed in the crystal facets of the glass. Once my hand clasped around the brandy, he raised his glass in tribute to me. I nodded and tipped the drink to my lips. It tasted like fire and heaven all at once.

“We are in your debt, Miss Kelley. You saved a guest of this house.”

My exhale felt as fiery as that of a dragon. “Nonsense, sir. I mean, Mr. Carnegie. I was only doing my duty to your mother as her lady’s maid.” I hoped the pointed reference to my position might deflect an untoward conversation. The sort of talk he’d begun in the park, a discussion I half wanted to continue and half dreaded, particularly when I thought of my family.

“I think smelling salts were the limit of your duty, not the full breadth of resuscitation. Dr. Morton said that if you hadn’t acted so decisively, Mrs. Pitcairn might never have regained consciousness.”

“I’m just glad she has recovered, Mr. Carnegie.” I drained my glass, thinking I should leave the room as soon as civility allowed. “Thank you for the drink and appreciation. As you mentioned, it’s been a trying day, so I think I shall take my leave now.”

After curtsying my farewell, I passed by him on the way to the door.

His hand touched my arm. “Please don’t go, Miss Kelley. I-I feel that I owe you an explanation. You have been on my mind constantly since that day in the park”

I stopped walking, but I didn’t meet his gaze. I simply waited for him to speak, fearful and hopeful of what words might form on his lips, all the while telling myself that hope could be dangerous for my family. His hand remained on my arm as he spoke.

“Miss Kelley, when we last met in the park, I shared with you the sense of comfort and ease I experience in your presence. I told you about the admiration I feel for you and your intellect. And I confessed my deep feelings for you.” He paused, waiting for my acknowledgment.

“Yes.”

“I know that I spoke bluntly, perhaps too bluntly, but my sentiments were true. I feel something for you, Miss Kelley, that I’ve felt for no other lady. I know our circumstances are unusual, but I’m hoping we might reach a time where they might be less so.” He paused again.

I did not know how to answer. My feelings required one response while my obligations demanded another.

In the silence, he said, “But I do not want to presume. Might you feel the same way?”

I turned away from the door to face him. Drawing back from him such that his hand slipped away from my arm, I squared my shoulders and rose to my full height, small though that was. “Mr. Carnegie, I do not have the luxury of indulging any feelings I might have. Miss Atkinson saw us together in the park. While she did not mention seeing you at my side, she told your mother tonight that she witnessed me in the park during the middle of the day. An inexcusable act for a diligent lady’s maid.”

I expected a strong reaction from him, but his face retained its composure. “I will handle Mother, Miss Kelley. Please do not allow Miss Atkinson to upset you. If you share my feelings—”

I interrupted him. “Mr. Carnegie, I do not think you understand. I cannot let anything jeopardize my position here. Accusations by a well-established society lady like Miss Atkinson will ruin me not only with your mother but with any lady anywhere. I cannot lose the livelihood upon which not only I depend but my family does as well.”

“Miss Kelley, I cannot believe that a single sighting of you on a daytime stroll through the park would ruin your career forever.”

“A single sighting of me in the park on a daytime stroll with you would certainly ruin me forever, Mr. Carnegie. And I believe that, if pushed, Miss Atkinson would not hesitate to reveal your presence in the park alongside mine, particularly in light of her earlier sighting of us walking along Reynolds Street.”

Concern flickered across his face, but then the resolute expression returned to his eyes. Mr. Carnegie was used to getting precisely what he wanted. “Please allow me to handle this, Miss Kelley. There are many acceptable explanations for our presence together in the park that day. I cannot forgo our afternoons in the park because of Miss Atkinson’s pettiness.” His black eyes glimmered in the low licks of firelight. “Those hours mean too much to me. You mean too much to me.”

The warm brandy had softened me, and I almost agreed. I felt a kinship with Mr. Carnegie unlike any I’d ever known. My afternoons with him were the only moments of authenticity in a world brimming with artifice. Minutes where I could build a pathway to hope. But how could I imperil my family? I reminded myself of the narrow precipice between destitution and sustainability upon which they walked—the sole variable being my wages—and I steeled myself.

“Mr. Carnegie, please allow me to explain my situation. May I be as blunt as you have been with me?”

“Of course, Miss Kelley.”

“Ten years ago, when the famine raged in Ireland and I was still a young girl, my mother handed me a basket of freshly picked beets from our family garden plot to bring over to our neighbors. Like most of the local families aside from mine, the Flanagans had only a tiny garden, too small to have much crop diversity beyond the potatoes hit by the blight. Mother was worried because we hadn’t seen the Flanagans in almost two weeks, and although we could ill afford to part with food, we knew their circumstances were worse than our own. I tromped several acres through the woodland to the Flanagans’ small house on the heath. I knocked and knocked, but no one answered. I’d been taught never to open a neighbor’s door without permission, but I knew the food would be welcome, and I couldn’t risk leaving it outside where someone might steal it. So I pushed open the door.”

Tears filled my eyes. Even though the incident happened over ten years ago, the image burned in my mind. And my spirit.

“What did I find behind that door, Mr. Carnegie? The entire Flanagan family—mother, father, four-year-old son, and an infant daughter at her mother’s bosom—lay dead on the kitchen floor. Hunger had wasted them away to nothing. Their bones poked through the many layers of clothes they wore to stave off the winter cold made worse by their starvation.”

I wiped away the tears trickling down my cheeks. “The potato famine may be gone, but Irish poverty is not, Mr. Carnegie. My family faces it every day. You’ve explained to me how the memory of poverty motivates you and inspires your strong sense of duty to your family. Well, the same memory haunts me and drives my decisions.”

I walked toward the door. Placing my hand upon the handle, I turned and looked back toward him. “So you see, Mr. Carnegie, I cannot entertain any feelings I may or may not have about you. And I cannot continue to endanger my family by meeting with you any longer.”


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