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Carnegie’s Maid: A Novel: Chapter 38


November 24, 1866

New York, New York

“Do you think the evening was a success, Clara?”

My mistress asked the question I dreaded as I brushed her hair. Each morning, after every concert, opera, or dinner at Delmonico’s, she inquired as to the success of the previous night.

I knew too much to reply honestly. I had spent too many nights sitting in a row at the Academy of Music or the theater or a restaurant, listening to other servants who gossiped about New York society and mocked the Carnegies’ efforts, even when they learned I was their maid. I understood that the Carnegies’ evenings at the periphery of New York society—in the only places where the Knickerbockers appeared publicly—were frowned upon by the denizens who guarded the gates. No matter that Andrew’s fortune may well have exceeded most of these people’s, the Carnegies would never be allowed inside.

So I lied. “Your gown was the loveliest in the entire restaurant, ma’am.”

A guarded smile appeared on her face. “Surely, there were younger ladies with lovelier gowns, Clara?”

“Those gowns are too frivolous for my taste, ma’am. I prefer a dress of impeccable quality, solid craftsmanship, and the highest fashion. In that category, yours stood alone.”

I was rewarded with a half smile. She observed, “The Delmonico’s method of having guests order à la carte instead of table d’hôte takes some getting used to.”

“The mistresses I served in Ireland seemed to prefer the individual choice à la carte allows.” From overheard conversations, I’d learned that à la carte was modeled after European restaurants. I figured this remark would be safe.

“I wonder when we will be included in evenings with some native New Yorkers. Most of our companions have been railroad executives living at the St. Nicholas or staying here on business. Otherwise, Andra and I have been quite alone.” As if she were talking to herself, she said, “It was so much easier in Pittsburgh to meet the right people. We simply moved into the proper neighborhood, and we made friends. Dinners and concerts and games quickly followed.”

What could I say? That this would likely be the status quo in New York City? That no old-moneyed Rhinelander would be inviting them over for tea in their Fourteenth Street brownstone? Was that even the point of this New York City sojourn? When I thought of the serious troubles many faced—inadequate money, food, and housing, troubles that Mrs. Carnegie herself had faced at one time—this pursuit seemed frivolous.

So I said nothing.

“I do want Andra to mingle in the highest society New York has to offer. He deserves it,” she said, running her fingers across her coiffure and staring in the mirror.

I wondered if Andrew wanted the same. If I intended to keep my emotional distance from him and focus on business only, his views on New York society should not matter. That the answer was strangely important to me was telling.

I took a chance later that afternoon. Tired after a long morning of shopping for the perfect winter gloves, Mrs. Carnegie took an earlier rest than usual. As soon as the noises in her bedroom quieted, I darted out of the St. Nicholas onto Broadway. If discovered, I planned on using an errand at the pharmacy as explanation.

Even though the hour was earlier than the usual time I met Andrew, I felt certain he would be there. I knew his schedule well—he and his mother reviewed it in my presence every morning—and his meeting with bankers at Atlantic National Bank had ended an hour ago. For the past several weeks, we’d been mapping out the investors amenable to railroad ventures, identifying the key players in a huge, mystifying market. Disagreements between us had arisen—I believed financing might be better acquired from banks local to the bridge construction, while Andrew thought that securing money from national banks would give the projects greater prestige and subsequent funding—but we always reached an amicable resolution, and I was amazed at the respect he gave to my ideas.

A matter other than business plagued me today. Who was this man upon whom I had placed my family’s future? What values did he truly hold?

Andrew was already sitting on the shady bench we preferred. Smiling as I approached, he stood up to greet me. After we settled, we spoke freely to each other about his latest meeting, unworried that we would be seen by an acquaintance, since we had so few in this city. I felt a certain freedom with him in New York, a freedom I hadn’t felt since I was at home with my family in Galway. Here, in the anonymous bustle of New York, we shared authenticity of spirit and speech, free from prying eyes.

I broached my topic obliquely. “So you are determined to pursue financing through the New York banks?”

“You have raised many excellent objections, but I think backing by the prestigious New York banking community will lend the projects a certain gravitas.” He said this with a puff of his cigar.

“Are you certain that you are committed to this method of investment for this ‘gravitas’ reason only?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not pursuing the New York banks to help secure a place for you and your family in New York society?”

A fiery redness spread across his cheeks, confirming my suspicion. “Why do you ask, Clara?”

“Your mother seems very determined to find some entrée to the elusive Knickerbocker society. I know you like to please her. Perhaps you think a business relationship is the key?”

“The two pursuits are not mutually exclusive,” he answered, his voice guarded.

“Except the one will not guarantee the other.”

“You do not know that.” A certain combative tone entered his voice, the one I’d overheard in the fight with Messrs. Scott and Thomson. His face changed, almost as though a dark mask had slipped over his normally friendly features, obscuring them from view.

I had forgotten my status as servant to his master, one that hadn’t changed despite our unusual relationship and his promises of funds awaiting me. I pulled away from him and said, “My apologies. I have overstepped.”

The dark mask disappeared, and the Andrew to whom I’d grown accustomed reemerged. “Clara, there is no ‘overstepping’ between us. Our relationship is the most honest one in my life, and the honesty makes me treasure it above all else. And if you are telling me that the door to New York society is closed no matter what business arrangements I make with its bankers, then I trust you.”

I explained myself. “Servants speak more openly in the company of other servants and make admissions that their masters never would.”

“You have overheard something?”

“It’s not just what I’ve overheard. It’s what I’ve gleaned from the servants’ comments. These New York City society folk don’t have titles like the aristocracy in Europe, so they have to invent ways to distinguish themselves from the rest of the citizenry. Minute, private ways, almost like a secret society of which only its members know the rules.”

“What sort of secret ways are you talking about?”

“Things that seem insignificant but outsiders would not notice. The length of sleeves. The cut of a dress or a suit. A particular posture. A turn of phrase. All combined with an invitation by the right person to the right dinner party in the right brownstone. They guard these manners and invitations very tightly so that the wrong people do not slip into their world.” I paused, debating whether I should say the next painful words. Should I risk the reaction? His response would tell me much about his true nature.

I breathed deeply and took the plunge. “Andrew, they will likely do business with you but never admit you to their ranks. Commodore Vanderbilt has been trying for years, and he has received constant snubbing for his efforts. And he is the president of the New York and Harlem Railroad, among other things, and he is not a recent immigrant, a fact which can make entrée into society even more challenging. Perhaps you should focus your efforts on Mr. Vanderbilt and his society. An invitation into their ranks might be more achievable.”

His eyes squinted in a familiar expression of concentration and determination. The competitive spirit was building within him. “How does one find out these Knickerbocker ways?”

His question startled and disappointed me. I expected him to be as repulsed by this social barricade as I was, with its rejection of the newly arrived. If high society was what he sought, how could he and I ever have a future together? Even though I’d insisted our relationship focus on business, not feelings, my real emotions for him, along with my private dreams, existed beneath the surface. Give that a former lady’s maid had no place among the higher echelons, I needed to accept our prospects. “You want to know their secrets so you can be part of their world? Why would you want that?”

His eyes widened in surprise at my question. “Why would I let them conquer me?”

I had never heard him speak so bluntly about his ambitions. My voice rose as I said, “These old New York society people maintain that all people are not equal, that they are superior to all other classes. I thought you believed in freedom and opportunity for all people. That view is the antithesis of what these people espouse.”

“I haven’t let poverty or lack of education or cultural differences stop my climb so far.”

“Why would you want to climb to a station populated by people whose views oppose your own? Who, in fact, oppose you? Their very opposition to you is emblematic of their undemocratic views.”

“It is a challenge, Clara.”

“Didn’t you tell me once that you loved the American ethos of equality and the ability to rise above your born station? These are the very rights your ancestors fought for in the Chartist movement and for which my own father fights too, and you have proven how far one can rise when given those rights. Please carve a different path, Andrew.”

He stood up and stared at me. The broad plane of his face hardened as if chiseled from stone, and his eyes turned flinty. “I am not accustomed to having anyone tell me what to do, Clara. Not Scott and Thomson, as you’ve seen. Not my mother. And certainly not you.”


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