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Carnegie’s Maid: A Novel: Chapter 26


December 2, 1865

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Mrs. Vandevort held out her teacup for Hilda to refill. The kitchen maid glanced over at me with an unpleasant look visible only to me. It was a familiar expression, one that telegraphed her irritation at having to pour tea when she had piles of work in the kitchen while I was merely standing there doing nothing, chatelaine in hand. If her glowers weren’t so commonplace, I might have sympathized with the inequity in our positions.

“It sounds as if the boys’ recent time in Germany was particularly well spent,” Mrs. Vandevort said to my mistress, Mrs. York, Mrs. Coleman, and her daughter, Lucy. The ladies had gathered around the parlor after dinner for tea and sweets, while the men retired to the library for cigars and port. In the low gaslight, enveloped by the scarlet and golden hues of the parlor walls and furnishings, even the wrinkly Mrs. York appeared softly attractive.

“Indeed. Andra sent us fine accounts of their tour of Dresden. It sounds as if the boys enjoyed their evening at the Semperoper,” Mrs. Carnegie answered.

I flinched at her botched pronunciation of the Dresden opera house. Although I was no student of German, even I knew her delivery was awful.

“Oh, it did sound wonderful,” Mrs. Vandevort concurred, sipping from her teacup.

My mistress placed her cup in its saucer, reached into the generous folds of her black silk gown, and retrieved a letter. I knew this moment would arrive. Due to the frequency of Mr. Carnegie’s letters, she usually had the upper hand in terms of information on the boys’ travel, and she delighted in wielding it.

“May I share with you a snippet from a letter I just received from Andra?”

Mrs. Vandevort could not suppress a sigh, whether of frustration or resignation, I could not tell. “Of course,” she said. “I welcome any news of our sons.”

Mrs. Carnegie cleared her throat and said, “I will skip directly to the most interesting part… Ah, here it is.”

To stand on Mount Vesuvius in the early morning mist, looking down on the once-great city of Pompeii, is to brush against history. The boys and I could almost hear the rumblings of that fatal morning when the eruption began. With the azure ocean on the horizon and the picturesque mountain to our backs, we could envision how the Pompeiian people might have been lulled to complacency even with the first rumble of the volcano. But once we descended from the mount to the city below, we sensed no complacency. Instead, examining the discoveries of the archaeological excavations, we felt the urgency of their ancient plight, almost as though we were reliving that horrific day along with the poor Pompeiian citizens. Because volcanic ash fell from Mount Vesuvius upon the Pompeiians, burying them intact, we can see precisely how the Pompeiians lived and how they died. The House of the Faun with its astonishing mosaics, in particular, provides the most intact, incredible example of the sophistication and erudition of these earlier people. How unexpectedly advanced they were. This visit to Pompeii made us all reflective—history seemed alive and close to us—and the boys were uncharacteristically quiet on the train ride back to Naples. It seems we were all wondering how history would view us.

“A most moving rendering of their visit,” Mrs. Vandevort said.

My mistress sat back in her chair, a self-satisfied, almost smug grin forming on her thin lips. “It is, isn’t it?”

“I only wish I’d brought my latest letter to share with you.” Mrs. Vandevort set her teacup down on the table to reach for a cocoa flummery, one of the pastries laid out by Hilda. “What do you make of this ‘Committee on Matrimony’?”

Mrs. Carnegie stopped chewing her almond cake midbite. “What matrimony committee?” She attempted to sound nonchalant, but I heard the alarm in her tone.

“Do you mean your Andrew hasn’t written to you about it?” Mrs. Vandevort tittered, reveling in her rare superiority of information.

“Of course he has,” she bluffed. “I just can’t recall the details at the moment.”

The word matrimony jolted Mrs. Coleman out of her seeming somnolence, perhaps because of the specter of Miss Coleman’s marriage to the younger Mr. Carnegie. “Please do tell, Mrs. Vandevort. I am certain Lucy and I would be interested in hearing about this committee,” Mrs. Coleman urged, leaning into the conversation.

“It seems that our European travelers have formed themselves into a committee of sorts, making lists of the beauties of Pittsburgh and discussing their qualities as potential brides.” Mrs. Vandevort glanced over at Lucy and said, “No doubt you’d be at the top of the list, my dear, except that you are very nearly a married woman.”

Miss Coleman’s fair skin turned a vivid shade of pink. Even though she’d conducted meetings with a dressmaker to design her bridal gown, she couldn’t stop herself from blushing at the thought of what an actual marriage would bring.

Given that the “Committee on Matrimony” did not involve her own daughter’s marital plans, Mrs. Coleman’s interest faded, and she went back to her usual stillness. The floor returned to Mrs. Carnegie. “It sounds as though young Mr. Vandevort is having a bit of fun with you. I cannot imagine our sons and young Mr. Phipps making lists of eligible brides.”

“Oh no, Mrs. Carnegie, the boys are in earnest. In fact, I understand that at least two of the young men have identified serious prospects.”

For once in her life, my mistress was shocked into silence. And although I had not consciously thought about Mr. Carnegie in the specific context of marriage, I found very unsettling the idea of him marrying one of the Pittsburgh “beauties” I’d seen at various social functions. The exchange he and I shared during his send-off dinner returned to me, and my cheeks burned. My reaction to this talk of Mr. Carnegie paired with someone else made patent my continued affection.

“Although,” Mrs. Vandevort continued, “my son confessed that it is possible that the young ladies they have designated may not be aware of their intentions. And may not agree.”

The ladies laughed, and I watched as my mistress attempted to laugh along with them. The talk turned to the travelers’ next destination, and much to Mrs. Carnegie’s relief, her youngest son strode into the room to call the evening to a close. He had an early morning train to catch, he announced, and he offered his apologies to the group.

As my mistress bid farewell to her guests, I readied her bedchamber for her evening’s ablutions. Uncharacteristically quiet when she entered the room, I removed her dress and undergarments in complete silence. She still did not speak as I rubbed her favorite rosewater cream into her face and hands, brushed her hair two hundred licks, and buffed her nails to a sheen with a chamois. If she did not wish to initiate conversation, it was not my place to do so, and in any event, I knew why she was so quiet. I did not wish to speak of it either. My own mind was muddled with the idea of Mr. Carnegie marrying.

As Mrs. Carnegie stared absently into her mirror, I curtsied and turned to leave. I felt her hand on my arm, holding me fast. “You don’t really think he’ll come home with a bride in mind, do you, Clara?”

I hoped not, but I didn’t know. I knew that wasn’t what she wanted me to say, so instead, I said, “I cannot imagine he has the time or inclination for anyone or anything but his work or his family.”

She met my eye in the mirror. “Truly?”

“Truly.”

“What would I do without you, Clara?”

A year ago, those words would have been the fulfillment of my dream. I had become indispensable. But I had changed.


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