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Carnegie’s Maid: A Novel: Chapter 27


December 26, 1865

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

“The Carnegies are really making their mark on you, Clara,” Maeve called across the single room that served as the entire first floor of their tiny Rebecca Street home. She was washing the potatoes and carrots I’d brought with me for our belated holiday meal in the water she kept on low boil over the hearth. None of the Slab Town houses had running water, and the well water used by the local families smelled foul without extensive boiling.

“Why do you say that, Maeve? Is it the fancy cut of meat?” I yelled back, a necessity given the noise of the five children and the loud grinding of the mill that served as their backyard. Knowing where I was headed for the single holiday day I’d been granted by the Carnegies for the Christmas season, Mr. Ford wished me a “Happy Christmas” as I walked toward the servants’ door to catch my train and slipped a wrapped joint of roast beef inside the basket in which I carried some vegetables and a loaf of bread.

Hands full of scrubbed potatoes and carrots, Maeve marched over to the kitchen table and laid them out for me and her eldest daughter, the almost seven-year-old Mary, to peel.

“No,” she said with a laugh. “Although I do appreciate the beef. I can’t say that I’ve ever tasted such a fine cut before, and I cannot wait until Patrick sees it when he comes home from the foundry.”

Patrick’s employer was not as generous as the Carnegies. He worked not only Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas, which was traditionally a holiday, but also worked Christmas Day too. The mill had a backlog of contracts, making a day off—even Christmas—unfathomable for its employees.

“Then what do you mean that the ‘Carnegies have made their mark on me’?” I asked her, scrubbing furiously at the grime covering the kitchen table once Maeve turned her back toward the hearth. While I could not bear to allow the clean potatoes and carrots to touch the black-smut-covered table surface a second longer, I also couldn’t bear to embarrass Maeve by washing the table in her line of sight. I never wanted her to think I judged her or her home and found them wanting.

“It’s your speech, Clara. You sound so posh. Like some fancy Dubliner instead of a farm girl from Galway,” she said with a glance at me. Slender after the birth of her fifth child, who had displaced the fourth one from her hip, Maeve still had the same dark circles under her eyes. If anything, the circles had gotten blacker from the exhaustion of another child. “You even carry yourself like one of them Carnegies.”

I’d grown so accustomed to acting the part of Clara Kelley, lady’s maid, that I’d almost forgotten how to behave as the real Clara Kelley. “I hadn’t realized. I’m sorry.”

“No need for apologies, Clara. It’s just an observation. Funny, really. Anyway, Patrick tells me that you and your sisters were always a bit different. Your father educated you to think like men, he says.”

Maeve’s words took me aback. Not that she meant any offense; no, that wasn’t her intention at all. Maeve was a plain speaker, and she was just repeating the generally held perception of my family. It seemed that I’d been an outsider for longer than I’d realized.

“We might have to bring out the farm girl again if we’re ever to get you a husband,” she said with a laugh.

A husband? I stopped scouring the table, praying to Mary that Maeve and Patrick hadn’t planned any matchmaking for the evening. But Maeve’s eyes were elsewhere. She was busy juggling the baby on her hip and tending to the beef sizzling over the fire. Perhaps she was simply joking.

The front door slammed, sending a shudder throughout the rickety house. Patrick kneeled on the floor so that Mary, Anthony, and John could fly into his arms. As he allowed his children to crawl all over him, Maeve smiled, not seeming to notice or mind that each child’s face came away smeared with the filth of the foundry that had seeped into every pore of Patrick’s body. Even though he’d washed in the communal neighborhood well before entering his home.

I was relieved that Patrick arrived home alone. After Maeve’s remark, I had half expected a fellow foundry worker in tow. I wasn’t looking for a potential mate in Slab Town, although I could never say that to Maeve and Patrick.

Patrick stood up, the children clinging to him like flowering jasmine on a vine. He hugged me, leaving a dark smudge on the white cuffs of my servant’s gown. “You’ve been too scarce, Clara.”

“I’ve come when I can. You know how stingy employers are with holidays,” I answered with reference to his own overworked situation.

“True enough. We’ve had to celebrate the season in fits and starts around here.” He sniffed the air. “What’s that I smell?”

“Clara’s brought us a joint of roast beef for our holiday meal,” Maeve said.

Patrick whooped. “I’ll have nothing but fine compliments for the Carnegies today, even if they have been withholding you from us.”

I did not correct Patrick’s belief about the Carnegies’ largesse. “They might be stingy with free time but not worldly goods,” I echoed Patrick.

“How is your master, Mr. Andrew Carnegie? A regular brick, is he?” He asked the question with a snide tone, expecting the worst. As he did from all employers.

Warmth spread across my cheeks as I answered. “He’s not a bad fellow. When he’s around. He is still on that long European trip.”

“You’re blushing, Clara,” Maeve accused me.

“I most certainly am not.” The protest only made my cheeks feel more fiery. “It’s warm in here, Maeve.”

Patrick interjected, “There better be no funny business, Clara. You know how those toffs can be.”

“He’s no toff. He comes from a background like ours.”

“Except he’s Scottish, not Irish. He’s rich now, not poor.” Patrick crossed his arms and stared at me. “And he’s your master, not your equal.”

“It’s not like that. We just have the occasional pleasant conversation. Used to, anyway, before he left.”

“Sounds to me like it’s a good thing he’s gone, Clara. Nothing good can come of a ‘pleasant conversation’ between a master and his housemaid. Not to mention that your father would kill me if I didn’t give you a stern talking-to.”

“Well, consider your duty done. But you’ve wasted your breath for no sensible reason.”

An awkward quiet descended as I busied myself with peeling the potatoes and carrots, little Mary at my side, and Maeve returned to tending the roast beef. Patrick tickled little John, and as his peals of laughter filled the room, the tension broke.

“What do you hear from home, Clara?” Patrick called over to me from the spindly wooden chair he’d pulled close to the hearth.

I froze. Uncertain of how widely known my family’s situation was and keeping in mind how maniacally private Dad was, I lied. “The usual. A rundown of which crops provided the best yield and what they’re laying in the cellars for the winter. Some village gossip about a family squabble over some land.”

Patrick and Maeve glanced at one another.

“Nothing else?” His voice held a peculiar tone.

I stopped peeling and stared over at him. “What else should I be hearing?”

Patrick, usually so fast with a quip, didn’t answer me.

Maeve spoke instead. “She deserves to know.”

He sighed. “The Fenians had planned an uprising simultaneously in New York and Ireland. They were backed by arms smuggled in from the United States and by American soldiers who’d just finished with the Civil War and were willing to fight as mercenaries. English authorities caught wind of it, and now they’re looking for Fenian leaders.” He paused. “Like your father.”

“You’ve got your information wrong, Patrick. Dad’s sympathetic to the Fenians but certainly isn’t active in the movement, let alone a leader. Sure, he dabbled a bit in the years after the famine, because he was furious with England for its unwillingness to help us when we were starving. The Fenian message of equality and freedom for all people made sense at that time, he told me. But that was years ago, although it is true that rumors of past Fenian sympathy were enough to make the Martyns take away some of the family land recently.”

“So you know about the land?”

“I know the Martyns were mistaken.”

“Clara, I think your dad told you that to protect you. According to the letters we’re getting from home, your dad never really gave up his leadership role with the Fenians. The organization just went underground. And now, even though they’ve got no proof, the Martyns are under pressure from the Crown to crack down on your father. More than they have in the past.”

My hands and voice trembled. “What does that mean?”

“It means the Martyns have rescinded your family’s lease. No more tenancy, no more land, I’m afraid.”

“Eliza told me,” I confessed. “But she said nothing of Dad’s current Fenian sympathies. She said the Martyns canceled the lease on the strength of old rumors.”

“It is possible she doesn’t know, Clara.” He paused, shaking his head. “I know the lease rescission is precisely the sort of practice your father hoped to stop with his Fenian plans. He wanted fixity of leases’ tenure and the right for all people to own land, not just lease it. I’m so sorry, Clara. We all are. Your dad is a good man.”

“I feel terrible being so far away from them right now.” While I felt sick with helplessness, I also felt rage surge within me, that Dad would put the family at risk by leading the Fenians in a dangerous revolt and that his risk meant I had to come to America to provide the family extra income because the farm was in jeopardy. How could he have asked for such sacrifice from his daughter? And family? All for a cause that, though worthy, had such little chance of success.

“There’s nothing you could’ve done, Clara,” Patrick said, trying to console me. “In fact, working in America—far away from all the political madness in Ireland—and sending your wages home is the best thing you can do for your family right now. Where are they living?”

“With my mother’s people just outside of Galway City.” I started to cry, out of worry and anger. “Why didn’t they tell me? Why did they fill their letters with lies instead?” Lies about the farm and why it was taken away. Lies about who Dad was.

Maeve put the baby down on a blanket and wrapped her arms around me. “We all tell tales, Clara. Sometimes for ourselves, and sometimes for others.”


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