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Carnegie’s Maid: A Novel: Chapter 5


November 11, 1863

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The dreary day gave way to sunlight as the carriage left the city. After Mrs. Seeley and I made our way past tall office buildings arched toward the sky and around mills spewing black clouds into the air and black water into the river, I realized that the day wasn’t dismal at all but was actually bright and clear. The poison of the city had obscured the sun.

The farther we went, the more bucolic and green the scenery became. I hadn’t expected farms and homes and rolling hills—not unlike home—to abut the city. The carriage ride became more unsteady as the cobblestone pavers disappeared, but I clung to my seat with the most ladylike posture I could muster, determined not to raise another eyebrow on Mrs. Seeley’s stony face.

The carriage stopped in front of an enclave of miniature castles. Well, not quite miniature, but more human sized. Castles designed not for a medieval siege but for life. A privileged life, that was.

As we stepped out of the carriage in an area that Mrs. Seeley called Homewood, I realized that the corsets to which I was accustomed were loose enough to allow for house chores and farm work. The corsets required of me now were very tight, requiring me to sashay when I walked. I realized that the distinctive coy flounce with which most upper-class women moved was less artifice than necessity.

I followed Mrs. Seeley’s lead toward a gabled mansion with so many turrets I lost count at six. As we approached the ornate oak main door, with the name “Fairfield” scripted on a brass plate, I started toward the steps. Before I could place my foot on a single one, Mrs. Seeley yanked my arm. “What do you think you’re doing? You’re a servant, not a guest.”

Instead, we rounded the house, past a laundry line with flapping sheets that was hidden between a carriage house and the main home. There, we found a simple pine door upon which Mrs. Seeley knocked. The door was opened by a young girl, younger than me, who was wiping her hands on a stained apron.

“Yes?” she asked with a blank face.

“We are here for an appointment with Mrs. Carnegie.”

The girl said nothing, but the blank look changed to one of confusion. I gathered that few callers for Mrs. Carnegie arrived at the servants’ door.

“Can you please let the butler know that Mrs. Seeley is here for her appointment?” Mrs. Seeley said, less a request than a command.

“Mrs. Seeley, you said?” The girl’s eyes went wide. Even servants as low-ranking as this girl knew of Mrs. Seeley, it seemed.

“Yes,” Mrs. Seeley answered, her voice irritable. “What is your name?”

“Hilda, ma’am.”

“Please fetch your butler, girl.”

The girl nodded and moved back to allow our entrance. We stepped into a back hallway onto a diamond-shape-tiled floor of tan and white that peered directly into the scullery. From the state of the scullery, I saw that we had interrupted Hilda at the hard work of peeling a mountain of potatoes. But for the waiting grandeur of the rest of the house, I could have been home. And I could have been the girl.

“Please wait in the kitchen, ma’am. I’ll fetch the butler.” She gestured for us to walk down a short hallway.

Following her gesture, Mrs. Seeley and I turned left into a vast, white-tiled kitchen. There, next to a black cast-iron stove so large, Mum could have fit an entire cow into it, was an equally enormous man stirring something in a huge copper pot underneath a massive metal hood. The smell emanating from the pot was intoxicating—a savory mix of stewed meat, onions, and herbs, I guessed—and it reminded me that a long time had passed since I’d had a proper meal.

The man looked up at the sound of our footsteps, and I stared into the darkest face and eyes I’d ever seen. He was the first man of color I’d ever encountered. This was who the Americans were fighting their Civil War over.

“Afternoon, Mrs. Seeley.” He greeted us with a smile in his voice. “You are back again, I see.”

“Good afternoon, Mr. Ford. I hope to have more success on this visit.”

“Do you think you’ve finally brought a winner for the mistress?” His voice rumbled low and steady. The tone was almost soothing.

“I do indeed. Although I don’t think the blame for my earlier failures lay with the girls I brought over. While I don’t like to speak ill of others, your mistress has high standards.”

“I’m all too familiar with those high standards,” he said with a chuckle. “Tell me about this girl here.”

They began talking about me as if I weren’t there. Talking about the other Clara Kelley, in truth, not really me. I listened hard, absorbing the history of the other Clara Kelley. Born in Dublin, but of English heritage, Clara hailed from a family of fallen tradespeople. Well-educated for a girl, particularly in the ways of the home, Clara had been slated for a life as the wife of a prosperous shopkeeper until the family’s fortune turned. Without a dowry, a life as a lady’s maid became Clara’s life instead, and as the positions evaporated in post-famine Ireland, she sailed for fresh opportunities in America.

This was the Clara Kelley I was meant to be. The knowledge made me feel dishonorable in her skin, for as of this moment, I was the only one who knew that the real Clara never finished the journey across the Atlantic.

As their chatter devolved into neighborhood gossip about people I didn’t yet know, I stared around the kitchen, with its chest-high, white-tiled walls topped by butter-yellow-painted panels. Newfangled devices hung on the walls and sat on the tables. A contraption that looked like a whisk attached to some form of crank sat on the butcher’s block in the room’s center, alongside an elaborate miniature scale and several sifters. A device hung on the wall with thirty buttons labeled with names like “parlor” and “blue guest bedroom.”

A shrill buzz sounded from the wall device, and a light flashed above the word parlor. I jumped and, without thinking, cried out, “What in the name of God is that?”

Mrs. Seeley stared at me. “It is just the enunciator. Surely, you have those in Ireland.”

My heart pounding, I gathered my wits, praying to Mary that my accent hadn’t slipped in my outburst. “Sorry, ma’am. None of the other homes in which I worked had that sort of device.”

Mr. Ford said, “I’m not surprised, miss. The master of the house, the elder son of Mrs. Carnegie, always secures the latest inventions for his home, as you can probably see from all these contraptions. Not every house has an enunciator.”

I tried to remember what sort of calling system Castle Martyn used. “Most of the homes I’m familiar with had the more traditional system with bells.”

Mrs. Seeley’s eyes were still narrowed, but she seemed willing to accept my explanation. For now. “Mr. Ford, our appointment with Mrs. Carnegie was set for two o’clock. It is now ten minutes past that time, and I would hate for her to think that we arrived late. You know how she values punctuality. Do you think we might wait in the front hallway so she knows we are here? Even if she isn’t ready to see us?”

“I prepared tea and cakes for Mrs. Carnegie and her guests and had them delivered over an hour ago, so I’m guessing the afternoon calling hour is coming to a close. I don’t see the harm in waiting in the front hall, but you should check with Mr. Holyrod. My domain only extends so far as these kitchen walls.”

A man with a meticulously groomed beard and gray-streaked hair strode into the kitchen. He was dressed in a black suit with knife-edge pressed pants and looked so officious, I assumed he was the gentleman of the house. I curtsied to him, but he continued walking toward Mrs. Seeley as if he could not see me.

“Ah, Mrs. Seeley. You’ve arrived. Mrs. Carnegie is still in the parlor. The guests are gone, but she is speaking with her elder son. You and your candidate may wait in the main entryway for her to finish.”

From his words, I knew he wasn’t the master of the house but the butler, Mr. Holyrod.

Without waiting for our response, he pivoted, leading us from the kitchen through a back hallway with a small sink and wall of hooks into a grand entryway. As the decor grew more elaborate—the molding changing from simple blond pine to intricately carved mahogany and the window glass shifting from clear to stained glass in vivid patterns of cobalt blue, persimmon, and citrine—the air grew colder. It was as if all the warmth of the house abided in the kitchen.

We stood underneath a gleaming crystal chandelier hung from the high ceiling, which was painted with fanciful swirls of gold. Portraits of ladies and gentlemen in gilt frames hung on the red-damask-covered walls. Turkish carpets in carmine and a marble fireplace completed the scene, ensuring that the Carnegies’ guests would wait for their hosts in the utmost comfort. I’d never seen anything like this cocoon of luxury, in which everything was so new, I could almost smell the paint on the walls.

Voices rumbled from a room so red in decor that it smoldered like a fire even from my limited vantage point in the entryway. Mrs. Seeley took note of the noise and moved closer to the room. Loud laughter punctuated the silence in the entryway.

“Ah, Mother,” a man said. His voice had a lilt that I couldn’t quite place. “No one makes me laugh the way you do. The blunt way in which you assess my business colleagues never fails to surprise.”

“Andra, someone must take the frank measure of the men with whom you enter into ventures. After all, it is on behalf of all three Carnegies that you operate. Tom Miller, those Kloman brothers, young Harry Phipps, and that iron business you are thinking of forming together need a proper vetting.” A clock chimed the quarter hour. “Oh dear, look at the time. That overbearing Mrs. Seeley will be here with her latest chattel—another lady’s maid. Let’s hope she doesn’t think she can pass off another lump of coal as a diamond.”

The man laughed again, a good-natured chuckle. “Now, Mother, be kind. It isn’t Mrs. Seeley’s fault that no one can meet your standards.”

She chortled back. “Andra, you think all ducks are swans.”

A bell rang out, and Mr. Holyrod invited us to enter the parlor. As we passed into its ruby opulence, I saw the shadow of a man leaving the room.


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