Kate’s Story, 1914
“ ‘Then, with quaking hand, her ladyship reached for the rusty key hanging on the wall—’ ”
My mother’s voice wafted to us from the doorway. I dropped my book as my lady’s maid, Nellie, leaped to her feet. Rats, I thought. If it wasn’t bad enough that Nellie and I had been caught reading when I should’ve been getting ready, now I’d lost my place in The Hidden History of Castle Claremont. And just when we were finally about to learn Lady Marian’s secret!
“I trust you’re ready for the meeting,” Mother said with a pointed look at my stocking feet.
“Yes, Mother,” I said as Nellie and I reached for my shoes at the same time, cracking our heads together. “Ow! I mean, I’m nearly ready. Just look at my hair. Didn’t Nellie work wonders with it?”
“Very stylish,” Mother said as a smile flickered across her lips. She always tried to be stern when she caught me breaking the rules, but she could never completely stop her smiles.
Nellie curtsied quickly. “Thank you, ma’am. Will there be anything else?”
“No, Nellie. I’ll escort Kate to the garden myself,” Mother replied.
With another curtsy and a nod of her head, Nellie scurried from the room.
Mother fixed her eyes on me. “Kate,” she repeated.
“I know. And I’m sorry. I was ready, really I was. I just had to put my shoes on!” My words tumbled out in a rush. “See, it’s my fault—not Nellie’s. She loves to read but never has time, so when she does my hair, I read aloud so we can both enjoy the story. So you see, she really didn’t do anything wrong—”
“No one is blaming Nellie.”
I stopped talking. Mother slipped her arm through mine as we walked into the hallway.
“Kate, sweetheart, you’re almost twelve years old,” Mother continued. “It’s high time you started acting like a Vandermeer in all that you say and do.”
“I appreciate Nellie’s love of stories. And she is welcome to spend her day off curled up with a book. But you must set an example for her. After all, if you don’t behave as you’re supposed to, how will Nellie and the other servants understand what is expected of them?”
We had almost reached the door. Mother paused and held both my hands. “You’re ready, Kate,” she said. “That’s why your great-grandmother and I have decided that you’ve earned the privilege of attending your first meeting of the Bridgeport Beautification Society today. Sooner than you think, you’ll be taking your place in society beside us. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you how important the next eight days are.”
I grinned at Mother. As if I could forget! In just over a week, my twelfth birthday would arrive at last. I would finally receive the Katherine necklace, a precious family heirloom that had been passed down to every Katherine in my family since my great-grandmother had received it on her twelfth birthday many years ago. Her twin sister, Elizabeth, had received a necklace, too. Each one was shaped like half a golden heart, but that was where the similarities ended. Elizabeth’s
necklace was set with shimmering blue sapphires, while Katherine’s glittered with red rubies—the twins’ favorite colors. The necklaces were as meaningful as they were beautiful, for they were the last gift that the twins’ mother, Lady Mary Chatswood, my great-great-grandmother, had selected for the girls before she died.
I’d heard the stories for years: that Elizabeth and Katherine were inseparable from the moment they were born. And they looked so much alike that their mother was the only one who could truly tell them apart. But only one twin could marry the heir to their English estate and become the next lady of Chatswood Manor. After Elizabeth became engaged to Cousin Maxwell, Great-Grandmother Katherine married my great-grandfather Alfred Vandermeer, and he brought her back to his home in America. Not soon after, my great-grandfather founded Vandermeer Steel, and the Vandermeer fortune grew and grew, what with Vandermeer steel incorporated in nearly every building, bridge, and train track constructed from then until this very day. His success enabled him to make his family home on the cliffs overlooking the ocean even grander. Today, Vandermeer Manor has
seventy-five rooms, four separate wings, five floors, and eight gardens. For many people in our town, it is the largest building they’ve ever seen. But for me, it is home. And my cousin, Beth—great-granddaughter of the original Lady Elizabeth Chatswood—would arrive here in just five days! I was so excited to meet Beth at last that I could hardly think about anything else. We knew each other only through letters, but it was obvious that we had so much in common. Our birthdays were just one month apart, and as the first girls in our generation, we shared the privilege of being named after the original Elizabeth and Katherine. I love my Great-Grandmother Katherine more than words can say, and I am honored to be her namesake. And I knew that Beth felt the same way about her name, even though her great-grandmother Elizabeth had died before Beth was born.
“Make me proud today, Kate,” Mother said to me as Emil, one of the footmen, stepped forward to open the doors to the garden. “Like you always do.”
Instantly, I put on my best, brightest smile. It had seemed so vain to practice it in the mirror, but now I was glad that Mother had insisted. “When all eyes are
on you, you’ll find it hard to smile naturally,” she had told me. And she was right.
Mother and I walked down the cobblestone path to the shade garden on the north side of the house. It was edged by massive hydrangea and lilac shrubs, which formed the walls of a perfect outdoor room. Their crisp white flowers were startling against the dark green foliage. A large elm tree provided just enough shade that the ladies didn’t need their parasols. They milled about in summery pastel gowns trimmed with lace, looking for all the world like the saltwater taffy display in Sloane’s Sweets and Confections down by the seashore. Anton, Emil’s cousin and another one of our footmen, offered them tall glasses of icy lemonade. Mr. Taylor, our butler, stood against the gate, overseeing every aspect of the event.
Aunt Katie seemed relieved to see us as we entered the shade garden; it must have been exhausting to entertain the ladies of the Bridgeport Beautification Society by herself. I realized right away that Great-Grandmother Katherine was missing.
“My dear Eleanor,” Aunt Katie said as she embraced Mother.
“Where is she?” Mother asked in a low voice.
“I’m afraid that Grandmother Katherine sends her deepest regrets,” Aunt Katie said with a tight smile. “She had pressing business to attend for the Library Committee.”
Mother nodded brusquely. “And I suppose she required Kathy’s assistance?”
“Of course,” Aunt Katie replied as she and Mother exchanged a knowing look.
Before I could wonder what that look meant about where my great-aunt Kathy and my great-grandmother Katherine really were, Mrs. Randolph, the president of the Bridgeport Beautification Society, bustled over to us. She wore a gown of pale gray silk and an enormous, wide-brimmed hat trimmed with trailing plumes, making her look more like a pigeon than a person. Still, I remembered my best manners and smiled pleasantly.
“How lovely you all look! And how lovely the day!” Mrs. Randolph cooed to my mother and Aunt Katie. “If it’s quite all right with you both, I’d like to call our meeting to order. We’ve so much on the agenda; it will be a wonder if we cover it all!”
“I’m sure you’ll be able to guide us to its conclusion,
Mrs. Randolph,” Mother said sweetly. Then she and Aunt Katie sat at each end of the table, sending a signal to all the other ladies that they should be seated as well.
I slipped into the chair next to Mother with a quick glance over my shoulder. Our cook, Mrs. Hastings, had prepared the most delicious food for the meeting—cucumber sandwiches, berry tarts, madeleine cookies. I couldn’t wait for Emil and Anton to fill my plate.
Mrs. Randolph held up her crystal glass and tapped it lightly with her fork. Ting-ting-ting-ting. “Ladies, as always, I thank you for your tireless commitment to the Bridgeport Beautification Society,” she announced. “Mrs. Whitmore, would you please read the minutes from last week’s meeting?”
As Mrs. Whitmore began to speak, my mind started to wander. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in what she had to say. But I could hardly focus on a discussion of paint colors for the gazebo in Town Square when my cousin Beth was, at this very moment, journeying to the United States! It was still hard to believe that Beth was on her way—especially since her parents had always said that Beth wouldn’t be allowed to travel
all the way to America until she was at least fourteen years old. But the astonishing events surrounding Beth’s twelfth birthday last month had changed their minds. Beth’s beloved lady’s maid, Shannon, was dismissed after Beth’s cousin Gabby’s missing heirloom locket was found in Shannon’s laundry basket. Beth had set out to prove Shannon’s innocence, and because of her determination to discover the truth, Beth figured out what really happened and cleared Shannon’s good name. Beth’s parents were so impressed that they booked her passage to visit her American relatives. And as luck would have it, Beth—wearing the Elizabeth necklace—would be here for my birthday, when I would receive the Katherine necklace!
When Mrs. Whitmore finished reading the minutes, Emil appeared with the dessert cart. My mouth watered at the sight of all the tiny cakes, each one topped with a juicy strawberry.
“Now, our business today deals with applications to march in the Fourth of July parade,” Mrs. Randolph said in a serious voice. “I needn’t remind you all of how important this is. The entire town looks to us to safeguard the proud traditions of the parade. Mrs. Whitmore?”
Mrs. Whitmore rummaged through the papers before her. “First, we have an application from the Rose Appreciation Society. Their statement of purpose is to bring the beauty of roses to Bridgeport, and they propose a float decorated with the finest examples of the flower.”
“Lovely,” Mrs. Randolph said approvingly. “All in favor, say aye.”
“Aye,” chorused the women around the table.
Emil wheeled the dessert cart behind me. With silver tongs, he carefully placed the most beautiful cake on my plate. “For you, Miss Kate,” he whispered.
“Thank you, Emil!” I whispered back.
“Next, we have an application from the Brass Band of Bridgeport,” Mrs. Whitmore read. “They would like to play patriotic music as they march along the parade route.”
Mrs. Randolph chuckled. “Why, it wouldn’t be a parade without them,” she declared. “All in favor?”
“Aye!” everyone replied.
“This application is from the Library Committee,” Mrs. Whitmore continued. “Their purpose is to support the Bridgeport Lending Library, and they’d like
to dress as characters from great American literature for their float.”
“A clever idea!” Mrs. Randolph said approvingly. “All in favor?”
“Here we have an application from the Suffragette Sisterhood, Bridgeport Chapter,” Mrs. Whitmore said. “Their purpose is to advocate for the women of Bridgeport and all women in the United States to gain the right to vote. They propose a float decorated with—”
“Absolutely not,” Mrs. Randolph interrupted, her voice sounding like ice. “Next.”
I sat straighter in my chair. Now this was unusual. Why was the Suffragette Sisterhood excluded? I waited for one of the members of the Bridgeport Beautification Society to speak.
But no one did.
Mrs. Whitmore slowly reached for another application. There were just seconds left to raise an objection—
“Excuse me, Mrs. Randolph,” I said. My voice sounded small; I hardly recognized it. “Might I ask why?”
Mrs. Randolph blinked at me through her silver-framed spectacles. “Why what, my dear?”
“Why isn’t the Suffragette Sisterhood welcome in the parade?”
“The Suffragette Sisterhood is not welcome in Bridgeport, let alone an honored spot in our Fourth of July parade!” Mrs. Randolph declared. “I shudder to think that anyone might believe that such a group of ragtag women—let’s not mistake them for ladies—would represent us. They are a blight on our town’s good name.”
“How can that be?” I asked. “Surely women deserve the right to vote as much as men do.” This was a topic that had often been discussed at our dinner table—and I knew for a fact that Mother, Aunt Katie, Great-Aunt Kathy, and Great-Grandmother Katherine all agreed with me. As did Father and even my unbearable little brother, Alfie!
Mrs. Randolph made a clucking sound in her throat. “Oh, my dear, you are so very young,” she said with a condescending smile. “How confused you must be! Women don’t need to vote. They need husbands who will make decisions that benefit them both.”
“It seems to me that—” I began.
“My! Look at the time!” Mrs. Randolph exclaimed. “We are behind schedule! Mrs. Whitmore, please inform the suffragettes that we have no room for them in the parade. Now, which application is next?”
We spun around to see Emil, shaking like a leaf, with Anton by his side. Emil’s copper tray trembled on the cobblestones, surrounded by fallen cookies that peeked through the grass.
Mr. Taylor hurried over to them, squinting at the mess through his thick glasses. “What is the meaning of this?” Mr. Taylor demanded. It was clear that our butler’s poor vision prevented him from seeing how upset Emil was.
“Our deepest apologies for the interruption,” Anton said as he knelt to clean the mess. “We beg your pardon.”
As Emil whispered frantically to Anton, Mrs. Randolph frowned at them. “I should like another cup of tea,” she said pointedly.
Neither footman seemed to hear her.
“Emil, what’s wrong?” I asked in concern.
He tried to speak, but shook his head instead.
“The Archduke Ferdinand has been murdered,” Anton replied for his cousin. “Shot and killed in the streets of Sarajevo!”
Everyone at the table gasped.
“This will lead to war,” Emil said quietly. “And my family is still in Europe—who will protect them?” He buried his face in his hands, as if he had lost all hope.
Mr. Taylor cleared his throat loudly, but there was sympathy in his eyes. “Anton, please take Emil inside so that he may compose himself.”
Anton stiffened his shoulders before he bowed. “Of course, Mr. Taylor. Right away,” he replied. Then, without further fuss, Anton and Emil disappeared into the house. Moments later, two more footmen appeared to finish cleaning the mess, while another brought a fresh tray of cookies. It was almost as if the accident had never happened.
“Do you really think it will come to war?” Mrs. Abernathy asked in a trembling voice, and I remembered that her husband served as a captain in the army.
“Now, Marilyn, I thought you had more sense than that.” Mrs. Randolph clucked at her. “I, for one, don’t seek out news of the world from servants.”
“Funny,” Mother said lightly. “If I wanted to know about the state of the world, our employees are among the first people I’d ask.”
“Oh, Eleanor, you’ve always been soft-hearted,” Mrs. Randolph conceded. Then she glanced at me. “Kate! You look as though you’ve seen a ghost! Poor dear. There is really nothing to worry about. Europe is very far away, you know. A war on those distant shores wouldn’t affect us, not in the least.”
I tried to smile. “Yes, Mrs. Randolph,” I replied. “I’m sure you’re right.”
But I wasn’t sure. It would be hard to forget the look on Emil’s face, the fear in his voice, and his quiet warning that this would lead to war.