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Carnegie’s Maid: A Novel: Chapter 4


November 11, 1863

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Mrs. Seeley stared at me as though she could see beneath the tattered dress I wore, straight through the story I’d started to tell, and deep into the identity of the Clara Kelley I truly was. My false confidence started to slip away. Fear began to replace it, and I knew that if I didn’t right myself and stare straight into Mrs. Seeley’s eyes as the Clara Kelley I pretended to be, this opportunity would be lost. The prize that Mrs. Seeley held, a coveted job, so recently unimaginable but now in my sights, would be gone forever.

Did I dare continue to spin my confection for Mrs. Seeley like a feast-day treat from the market? But what other offering did I have? I could not lose this chance.

I breathed deeply and said, “My deepest apologies, Mrs. Seeley, for arriving at your door in such a deplorable state. I know that I’ve already explained the arduousness of my voyage and its impact on my wardrobe, but I know that is no excuse for my condition. Here of all places.” I gestured around Mrs. Seeley’s sitting room, a place surprisingly immaculate given the blackness of the city in which it lodged.

In the short walk from the carriage to Mrs. Seeley’s establishment, I saw filth the likes of which I’d never imagined. Black clouds billowing in plumes from tall stacks. Buildings turned ashen from sooty air, outlines of posters in white, like ghosts on their walls. Why didn’t anyone tell me that industrialization would look like biblical hell?

I quickly lowered my eyes in an approximation of modesty and shame and awaited her verdict.

Mrs. Seeley didn’t respond, and I daren’t look up. Was she judging the state of my dress—already filthy, blackened further by airborne soot in the few short hours I’d been in Pittsburgh—against the relative poshness of my speech? Was she weighing her reputation as an upscale servants’ registry against the toll she might suffer from taking a gamble on me? From snippets and wisps of overheard—nay, stolen—conversation between Misses Quinn and Coyne during our eight days of travel, I’d learned that my guess was correct. Mrs. Seeley owned the preeminent servants’ registry in town, the place where society ladies wanting specially trained servants—not your run-of-the-mill laundress, mind—would find them for a fee. Mrs. Seeley prided herself on the impeccable written references, called “characters,” and work of her servants. The other Clara Kelley must have had a first-class character, one challenged mightily now by my attire.

Patience was a virtue hard-won for me, but this opportunity rested on my ability to become the person Mrs. Seeley sought. Without breaking my penitent stance or silence, I watched as her gaze traveled from the dirty folds of my dress to my face. We locked eyes. I could see that she doubted me. Doubted my story, my accent, my modesty. But she wanted to believe me. Maybe she needed to.

So she took a chance too.

“Well, we will have to clean you up. To make your appearance match your character. Mrs. Carnegie knows precisely the qualities she seeks in a lady’s maid, and even if you have them in droves, she will never be able to see them beneath that filthy dress. Or your stench.”

My stench? I’d spent so long in these clothes, inhabiting this smell, that I couldn’t sense it anymore. Mrs. Seeley was gambling with my stink as well as my clothes.

“Of course, Mrs. Seeley,” I answered with a grateful curtsy.

“I have a reputation to uphold if I’m to continue placing servants in the finest homes.” She paused, scanning me up and down once again and shaking her head, as if she couldn’t believe that she was actually going to let me walk through a client’s door. “Not to mention that I’ve already invested in you and need to recoup my money. The ride from Philadelphia cost nearly two months of your wages.”

With the sharp staccato of a sigh, she marched past me to a wardrobe on the far wall, past a list posted next to her desk. Girls’ names scribed larger than was necessary were enumerated there, along with a corresponding offense. I could make out “lazy” and “slovenly” several times. It seemed to serve as a warning for the girls who passed through Mrs. Seeley’s doors. I vowed to never be on that list.

Mrs. Seeley pulled a plain, charcoal dress from the wardrobe and walked toward me. The worsted wool gown, adorned with none of the sashes and fanciful sleeves of Misses Quinn’s and Coyne’s frocks, which were perhaps suitable only for the loftier role of tutors, was akin to the serviceable uniform of a servant. She held it next to me, assessing size and fit, and said, as if quoting, “A neat and modest servant should wear nothing too dirty or fine.”

Then, with a quick nod, she pronounced, “It will suffice. I will add its cost to the amount you owe me for the carriage ride and deduct it from your first wages. Assuming the mistress takes you on, of course, which is no sure matter.”

“Yes, Mrs. Seeley.” I curtsied again. Anything to prevent her from rethinking her decision.

“You’ll find water for washing up those stairs to the right. Once you’ve cleaned and changed, bring your awful gown downstairs and put it in the fire.” She picked up a fire iron and stoked the flames dwindling in the fireplace. “Nothing for it now but to burn.”


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