We are taking book requests on our companion website. You can request books here. Make sure, you are following the rules.

Carnegie’s Maid: A Novel: Chapter 31

May 3, 1866

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

“Clara, please help the ladies. This weather has played havoc with their grooming,” Mrs. Carnegie ordered me as a stream of bedraggled whist-playing ladies entered the foyer for an afternoon of tea and games.

A late-spring storm had deluged the area with sideways-whipping rain. In the brief distance they’d stepped from their carriages to the entrance of Fairfield, the Homewood ladies were drenched.

“Ladies, if you will follow me.” I gestured to the main staircase to the second floor, where my mistress kept a luxuriously appointed spare bedroom stocked and ready for this purpose. I began walking upstairs, checking to see if the ladies were in my wake. Behind me, I overheard their lamentations about the weather, through which they had passed only very briefly. I thought about the daily downpours endemic to life in Galway and how very pampered these ladies were.

Mrs. Pitcairn, Mrs. Wilkins, and Mrs. Coleman followed me into the bedroom decorated with apple-green-striped fabric and matching wallpaper. Mrs. Pitcairn leaned back onto the tufted chaise longue to catch her breath after the flight of stairs; she could go no farther in her tight corsets without rest. Mrs. Coleman glanced at herself in the gilded dressing table mirror, adjusting her elaborate coiffure. What she lacked in conversational ability, she made up for in hairstyles. I offered to brush Mrs. Wilkins’s lavender dress free of the raindrops, and soon, all the ladies were requesting this service.

Kneeling in front of the ladies, who were lined up for my ministrations, I listened first to the gripes about the weather by Mrs. Wilkins, who, as the wife of Judge William Wilkins, one of the region’s wealthiest individuals, and as the daughter of George W. Dallas, a former vice president of the United States, was always Mrs. Carnegie’s most respected guest. Once I’d tidied Mrs. Wilkins’s dress, it was Mrs. Coleman’s turn to speak on her only topic. She droned on about the summer wedding plans of her daughter, Lucy, to Tom Carnegie, about which not even the minutest detail escaped her attention, even though it was to be held, in part, at Fairfield. Finally, Mrs. Pitcairn, having calmed her breath with a respite on the chaise longue, took her turn. She complained about the weather, her butler, her florist, the church pastor, her health, and, most vehemently, the challenge of communicating with her married daughter who lived in Philadelphia. The other ladies commiserated with all of Mrs. Pitcairn’s complaints, well-known to all her acquaintances, but particularly her communication difficulties. Telegraph service, they carped, was notoriously spotty. Even the slightest change in the weather, they claimed, could knock down a telegraph pole, causing disruption in transmitting critical messages about important social events. How could a nation as advanced as the United States, they wondered, have such an abominable telegraph system?

I stopped brushing Mrs. Pitcairn’s dress as a thought occurred to me. The Pennsylvania Railroad owned land that stretched across the entire state, and whenever they needed more, they simply bought out the inhabitants, as they had with St. Patrick Catholic church. And they ran their own personal telegraph lines alongside the railroads. What if a business was formed that ran public telegraph lines alongside the railroad lines, with the Pennsylvania Railroad’s permission, of course? There would be greater ability to observe the state of the telegraph lines, as trains were constantly passing by, as well as improved capacity to fix telegraph lines downed or impaired by weather, as the rails provided an easy means to bring workers to the scene immediately. I knew precisely who would be able to secure the permission of the Pennsylvania Railroad and form such a telegraph company.

Mrs. Pitcairn chided me to return to the task at hand. “Clara, I think you’ve missed the left side of my gown.” The state of her cerulean-blue silk gown with dove-gray tassels was paramount.

Resuming the brushing, I smiled to myself. It was incredible how, once I understood the business of this land, insight came in unexpected places.

The smile lingered on my lips as I followed the ladies back downstairs, the ever-present chatelaine in hand. I imagined the expression on Mr. Carnegie’s face when I shared my idea with him later that day.

“Ah, my grandson has arrived,” Mrs. Pitcairn called out.

Grandson? I had heard nothing of Mrs. Pitcairn’s beloved grandson—about whom she often spoke, to the boredom of my mistress—making an appearance at the tea, intended for adult ladies. Mrs. Carnegie would not be pleased.

With the parade of ladies on the staircase in front of me, I could not see the landing. When Mrs. Pitcairn swooshed down the final step, I saw a young boy, outfitted in a crisp, white sailor suit, his hand locked with a maid’s. From the sour, thin-lipped expression on Mrs. Carnegie’s face when she entered the parlor to greet the refreshed ladies, I saw that my prediction was correct.

“Who do we have here?” my mistress asked, although she knew the precise identity of this child. Mrs. Pitcairn had spoken of her grandson incessantly since her son, Robert, had returned to Pittsburgh after a stint in New York City, although she lamented that they chose Sewickley in which to reside instead of Homewood.

Mrs. Pitcairn chimed in, “My sweet, little Robert Jr., of course. When I learned that he would be in the neighborhood, I insisted that his nanny, Miss Quinn, bring him over for a brief visit. I know you ladies have been aching for a peek at him.” The ladies made a show of swarming around the lad.

Miss Quinn? I hadn’t heard that name since the carriage ride to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia, although I supposed Quinn was a common enough last name. When the ladies scattered, in search of tea and sweets in the parlor, I got a clear glance at a familiar face and an equally familiar dress, wide pagoda sleeves and all.

My stomach lurched at the sight of her, remembering the unkind behavior meted out by Misses Quinn and Coyne on that journey and recalling the state I was in when they first saw me. Could an ill-timed reference to my bedraggled dress and rucksack ruin my status here? I decided that the safest course was to embrace the part of the other Clara Kelley. In truth, wasn’t she who I had become?

“Miss Quinn, it has been a long time. What a pleasure,” I said in my poshest voice, as if greeting an old bosom friend.

“Miss Kelley?” The sight of me, poised and in command, seemed to daze Miss Quinn. She clung to her young charge’s hand like a lifeline.

“Yes, indeed. The same Miss Kelley you first encountered in a carriage in Philadelphia.”

“The Carnegie household has treated you well indeed. You are much transformed, Miss Kelley.” She stared at my composed face, updated coiffure, and perfectly pressed black wool dress.

“I will take that as a compliment, Miss Quinn.”

“That was my intent,” she answered quickly, with a quivering voice. Why was I making her fearful? Did she think I’d exact some sort of retribution for her earlier rudeness? Had I changed that much?

“How have you fared in service? I seem to remember you were assigned to a family in the East End of the city, but I heard Mrs. Pitcairn say you were in from Sewickley. And she mentioned that you were Robert’s nanny. I thought you and Miss Coyne came to this country to serve a tutors.”

“After my first posting, Mrs. Seeley decided I was better suited as a nanny.” She glanced down at Robert Jr.

“That must have smarted.” This small barb slipped out from between my lips before I could reel it back in.

“It did, but I realized that I had to adapt or return home. And there’s little work as a tutor or nanny in Dublin.”

“True enough,” I concurred. She and I had that in common.

She glanced around. “You landed well, Miss Kelley. The other nannies I encounter often talk of your Mr. Carnegie.”

My cheeks felt hot. “Whatever do you mean?” Why was my Mr. Carnegie the subject of conversation among the local domestics? The intensity of my jealousy and possessiveness surprised me. I had thought of my feelings for him as quiet and pensive.

“I hear that Mr. Carnegie is well on his way to becoming a leader in the railroad and iron industries. Some say he will be the richest man in the world one day.”

I smiled at her compliment. “The Carnegie home has indeed been an excellent place to serve.”

“Miss Kelley,” a man’s voice called out, followed by the clip of a well-heeled footstep. The broad grin and bright eyes of Mr. Carnegie lit up the foyer. “Ah, there you are. Will you settle a bet between Tom and me about Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning? You are the expert, after all.”

Miss Quinn looked over in astonishment at the high regard in which my master, the famed Mr. Carnegie, held me. Curtsying in farewell to her, I grinned at him, thinking that Miss Quinn was correct. I had indeed transformed.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


not work with dark mode