Chapter 1 - New World a-Comin’
I can fit everything I own into one regular, old suitcase. Which is good, I guess, because if I had more things, I wouldn’t know what to pack and what to leave. This way, I can concentrate on putting together my life instead of my outfit.
I suppose I should feel lucky I have something to pack in the suitcase and somewhere to go with it, but I don’t. Mostly, I feel nervous about where I’m going and sad about what I’m leaving behind. Not that I’m leaving something really great, it’s just the only thing I know. But at least I’m packed. And at least I fit everything in.
At the sound of the hourly bell, I put down my pen and read the letter I had begun, realizing almost immediately that I could never send it. I crumpled up the paper and tossed it into the trash just as Irene sauntered into the room and plopped down on her bed. She was wearing the yellow silk dress I had mended for her earlier in the week, and her scarf fell on top of her face as she lay down. She blew it out of the way before turning her head to look at me.
“Kit,” she said, lazily, as if the thought had only just occurred to her, “whatever will I do? It won’t be the same without you.”
I didn’t look at her. “Yes, it will,” I said. “And you will do what you have always done, although...” I paused as I looked around the room for anything I might have forgotten, and then glanced over at her, “you’ll have to send your clothes out for mending now.”
She laughed lightly, rolling onto her side and consciously smoothing the skirt of her dress at the mention of sewing. Irene had been my roommate for two years at The Ledyard and Blythe Young Ladies’ Academy in northern Cornwall county, but we had never grown very close. Perhaps the disparities in our financial and familial situations could account for the distance between us, but I always suspected we would not have been good friends even if I had parents and money.
“I could always come visit you,” she said, and then, true to form, “and bring my wardrobe with me.”
She could have been jesting, but I knew she wasn’t. Since I had learned of my forthcoming appointment as housekeeper, Irene had been plying me for information. I think she had a vaguely-formed idea of coming to visit me and being received as a guest by my employer.
“What’s the name of the estate you’re going to work at?” she asked again, although I suspected she remembered.
“Aurelie,” I said, and sat down at the dressing table to pin on my hat.
“And this Mr. West, your employer, is a bachelor?”
I could see her reflection in the mirror, her eyes narrow as she watched me. “I believe so,” I said. “My aunt never said he was married, and he is only a few years older than me.”
“I wonder if he is handsome,” she said, rolling onto her back once more and holding her hands at arms’ length in front of her to examine her freshly painted fingernails. “Although I don’t suppose it matters, so long as he’s rich.”
Irene frequently said she cared about two things in the world--dressing well and marrying well--and anyone could know it. Her transparency astonished me when I first met her, but once I grew accustomed to it, I found it refreshing. She never pretended we were more than roommates, and I knew she put little effort into our friendship because I had no money and no prospects.
In the weeks leading up to my departure, however, we had at least one thing in common; we were both highly curious about my new employer, Mr. West. Her constant barrage of questions was a great deal more attention than I usually received--or cared to receive--from her. But I could satisfy neither her curiosity nor my own.
Technically, Aurelie had been my home for the past several years, but I knew very little of it and nothing of Mr. West. I had never visited and received only occasional news from Aurelie’s housekeeper, my aunt. I was, therefore, left to guess what kind of man he was based solely on her sparse description, and it was not enough to satisfy me or Irene.
When my parents’ death left her as my guardian, she had arranged with her employer to substitute me (eventually) in her place, even though I had no training as a housekeeper. I think he must have assumed that my education would more than prepare me for anything that could possibly suit my new station. But I wondered, dismally, if I could truly endure being a housekeeper for the rest of my life.
Having fastened my hat securely in place, I moved over to my desk to pack a few papers in my traveling bag.
“Will you put a record on, dear?” Irene said.
“Something modern,” she said, meaning jazz. Irene professed to be crazy about jazz in a general way. Under pressure, she would not have been able to name a single musician whose records were piled on the shelf below her gramophone, but for Irene, only the appearance mattered.
I stepped over to the shelf of records, selected one featuring the Duke Ellington orchestra, and placed it on the gramophone. As I turned back to my desk, the first chords of the piano drifted out of the bell, followed by the dizzying sweetness of a trumpet. I hummed the tune quietly to myself and resumed packing.
“What did you tell Mr. Wadsworth?” Irene asked. I looked back at her, but she was still lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling with a delicate smile.
“Nothing,” I said, wishing she had not asked.
“Nothing? Does he know?” Her voice sounded a little less lazy than before.
“That you’re going to be a housekeeper?”
“I doubt it,” I said. “I told him I was leaving school and that I could be reached at Aurelie.”
“And you gave him the address?”
“You wicked thing!” she said, sitting up abruptly and scooting over to the edge of her bed. “You lied to him!”
“I did not lie,” I said. “I simply omitted a few details.”
She laughed again, and I turned away from her.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, with my back toward her so she could not see the redness rising up in my cheeks. “We’re only writing letters. He won’t be coming to visit me, so he will never find out.”
“But if he should...,” she said with more animation than she had shown all day.
I could think of nothing to say. I hated lying, but I felt the humiliation of leaving school under such circumstances (every other girl I knew had left school in order to marry). I had to retain some shred of dignity, even if it meant deceiving Mr. Wadsworth, and I had talked myself into believing that my dishonesty was inconsequential.
“I guess I don’t blame you,” Irene said, her voice sounding falsely sweet. “I know I wouldn’t tell anyone if it was me.”
I had never meant for her to find about Mr. Wadsworth, the young man I had met while abroad the previous summer. We had been writing to one another since our initial encounter, and I took some pleasure in the acquaintance, even if at times it appealed more to my vanity than anything else. I opened my traveling case with my back still turned toward her and dropped in the parcel containing the letters he had written to me, tied together with string.
When I straightened up and looked at Irene, she was still sitting on the edge of the bed, watching me. I waited for her to say something kind, or at least a few words of parting, but she did not. We stared at each other in silence for a few moments until Claire appeared in the doorway to our room.
“Kit?” Claire asked, anxiously. “Are you ready? Miss Blythe says you’re to come down immediately.”
“I’m ready,” I said, and picked up my suitcase. “Goodbye, Irene.”
“Goodbye, Kit,” she purred. “And good luck.”
I followed Claire out the door without looking back.