I awoke to a light tapping upon my door. Though my eyes were still closed I could feel the sun pour throughout the room as my lady’s maid tied back the velvet curtains that adorned the windows.
“Good morning, Miss Cordelia,” Estelle quietly spoke. Estelle gracefully placed a breakfast tray above my legs as I lifted myself out of the covers.
Though the fire was burning within its place, and had been since one of the maids had silently lit it an hour before, I felt a rush of cold air as I rose. I quickly pulled my blanket up over myself and reached for my cup of coffee. “It is quite cold this morning, is it not?” I inquired of Estelle. Silence often made me uncomfortable, especially at times when I sat idly as a servant worked next to me. Estelle had busied herself pulling back the curtains belonging to the additional windows in the room. She did this silently and quickly.
“Yes, miss. I apologize that the fire has not warmed the room yet. Shall I speak to NAME concerning lighting the fire earlier in the morning?”
“No, please, not at all. I am sure that the room will be warm within a few moments. I was only expressing my surprise at the exceptionally cold weather for this time of year!” Though I knew that a lady’s maid was meant to simplify the life of a woman, Estelle seemed to frequently make me uncomfortable and confused instead. Rose, the lady’s maid that had left me a month ago to marry, had effortlessly put me at ease. Perhaps, I thought, it was the natural conversation that had often flowed between us.
Estelle seemed overly concerned with respect and rules of etiquette rather than offering her companionship. I hoped that Estelle would soon warm up, as the room was beginning to, as I would enjoy the frequent company of a woman that I often yearned for. My mother’s death three years and some months ago had left me as the mistress of the household and though I did enjoy the company of my father and younger brother, I still often felt a void that could only be filled by a woman’s warmth. It would be especially important, I considered, to have developed a friendship with Estelle, improper as it may be, for the coming winter months, which I hypothesized would be filled with terrible weather based upon the conditions of late.
I watched as Estelle slipped into the bathroom to draw my bath. I heard the water begin to fill the claw foot tub, a sign that I should finish my toast and rise to begin the day. I looked around my bedroom and examined the wallpaper I had chosen to adorn my room a few months before. I had selected it because the blue striped fleur-de-lys felt light, like summer. On this particular day, however, it seemed to do little to brighten the room, or my mood.
The last of the autumn leaves swirled outside of my window, as the wind blew them here and there. The sky looked threatening, as if it was counting the minutes until it could unleash its frozen rain upon the city.
I yearned to stay in bed and underneath my covers for the remainder of the day. Such isolation from the day would prove worrisome to my father, I knew, and I did not wish to trouble him. Father could not easily understand the value of cocooning oneself away from the world for a time. He instead, would assume that I was ill, as that is the only reason that he would ever remain in bed and away from his daily business. Besides, I knew that I must tend to my daily duties.
I drew myself out of bed and shivered as my feet hit the cold mahogany floor. I slipped my feet into my boudoir slippers and headed to the bathroom. The warm water did look inviting. As I slipped out of my night dress and let it drop to the floor, Estelle appeared next to me to take it away and put it in its place for the day. If I could wear my night dress around the house for the day, I would be very pleased. For obvious reasons, that would not be acceptable. So, I would settle for my most comfortable morning dress, a Watteau gown that allowed my corset to be loose and my breath to be deep and steady. I would gladly remain in that gown throughout the day. Based upon the sky it did not look as I would be venturing outdoors.
The warm water relaxed by frigid body as it entered the bath. I submerged myself up to my chin and waited for my blue fingers and toes to thaw. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and imagined a bright spring day in the country. I wished to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin and the sound of a light breeze rustling the new, bright, green leaves. Those days of past would not be reencountered for some time. Knowing this, I opened my eyes and searched for a bar of soap with which to wash myself. Estelle had placed one on the stand next to the tub. I grabbed it and began to scrub my now warm body. It would not due to wait until the water got cold to take this action.
I could hear drawers opening and closing in my bedroom as Estelle gathered my clothing for the day. I hoped that she had taken out my warmest morning dress. Up until this point I had used a lighter weight morning gown. The weather required a change in attire. I had my gray cashmere Watteau in mind. It had a lovely black satin sash and trim. More importantly, it was fully lined with white flannel. I was about to shout to Estelle and enquire about her selection, but I thought better of it. Had she chosen the incorrect gown, she would most likely shower me with apologies that would, without doubt, make me unduly uncomfortable.
Instead I called to her and asked her to bring me the morning newspaper from my breakfast tray. I had neglected to read it while I ate my toast. “Would you mind reading it to me?” I inquired as Estelle entered the bathroom with the requested item, “I would enjoy the company.” Estelle took her seat at a chair next to the tub and unfolded the paper. She began to read and I listened intently. I had always been one to have a great deal of interest in the events of the world. It pleased me to have insight into the important news of the day. Aside from my own personal interest, it seemed to please father to discuss the day’s news with me at breakfast every morning. I was happy to entertain him in this way.
Estelle fluidly read the first page and turned to the next. She paused. I looked up to see what had caused the break. Estelle silently read for a second and then looked up. “I am sorry Miss Cordelia.” She began to read again:
Queer Labor Unions: We wonder what is the real standard of public honesty in the labor unions of Philadelphia. Their Central Union, with 124 affiliated organizations, met on Sunday, withdrew a ticket previously placed in nomination, indorsed the Republican ticket, voted thanks to Senator Penrose for his services to union labor, and started a campaign against the City Party, led by Mayor Weaver. The substance of the argument by which this extraordinary course was sustained was that the Republican organization had favored the union policies, putting only union men on public works in the organized trades, enforcing eight-hour laws in State and Federal legislation. “If we stand by the party, the party will stand by us,” was in effect the sole plea. It is not at all certain that the reform party would not be just as favorable to union policies as the Republicans have been, though in the nature of the case it is not under the control of a few men who could make a bargain with the union leaders. But the avowed basis of the Republicans is the assumption that the unions will forgive and aid rascality in order advance their own selfish interests. That is an atrocious doctrine. The leaders of the Republican machine in Philadelphia have been exposed in cheating the city, in diverting public funds, in debauching public offers, in procuring fraudulent elections, and in corruptly delaying and preventing public improvements needed for the health and security of the people. With the labor leaders all this counts for nothing as long as the guilty men will help the labor unions. Nothing could more tend to undermine the public conscience and bring upon the city evils from which the laboring class must suffer most than such an unprincipled line of conduct as this. And it ought to tend to the weakening of the union themselves.
Estelle paused after finishing the article. “Is something wrong Estelle?”
“No Miss Cordelia,” She gave me a quick smile and was about to go on to read the next article.
“Do you have family in Philadelphia?” It seemed as if she must have some personal interest in the article. Perhaps she had relatives in the city that were involved in the labor union. Perhaps she was worried or offended by what the article had said.
“No, I don’t Miss Cordelia,”
“You surely know someone who is involved in a union then. Is that not why you considered the article so?” Estelle gazed at me for a moment. I guessed that she was deciding if it was alright to share personal information with me. She was gazing fixedly at the marble floor.
“My family, my mother, sisters, and brothers live in New Jersey. They work in your father’s factory,” she looked up at me to gauge my reaction.
“In Paterson? I was not aware of that. Does Mr. Ellwood know?”
“Yes, miss. Mr. Ellwood knows. It was through the factory that I became aware of the opening for a lady’s maid. I previously worked as a house maid in Paterson, for a smaller household. But they fell on hard times. They had to let a few of the servants go. And since I was the newest hire…I was glad to have the opportunity to work as a servant here. I did not want to go back to the factory. I worked there when I was a young girl. I was glad to get out of it.”
“You worked in my father’s factory also. Was it hard work? Are the conditions as bad as the unions say they are in most factories?” Estelle looked hesitant to answer.
“Please, it is alright.” I encouraged her.
“The hours are long Miss Cordelia. The work is physically demanding, and the wage is low. Many of the workers are immigrants. They are happy to find work at all. Factories are better than what they left in their homeland. My mother came to this country from Scotland. She was lucky to find work in a factory in this city. She was even luckier to be able to move to your father’s factory. But still, the work was difficult, and it has taken its toll on her. And my sister…”
“Please continue,” I urged her.
“I had a sister, she would be twelve years old now. She became ill, from too much work. She took a few days to recover, but could spare no more. My father had recently passed away, and my family needed her wages. She returned to work in the factory, but she was too weak. The doctor said she developed pneumonia. There was nothing he could do to correct it. She passed away two years ago,” For a moment I was speechless. I had never encountered one of my father’s employees, much less heard their opinion concerning my father’s business. It was somewhat of a shock. I heard my father complain now and again, usually to one of his business partners, about his workers agitating him by asking for a higher wage, or a shorter day. Ordinarily, a minute or two into a conversation based in business, I took my leave, either mentally or physically. This felt different. This felt real.
“I apologize. I don’t know what to say. I had never much considered the lives of those working in my father’s factory. It seems selfish now, and conceited, to live off of the work of those in my father’s factories, yet never consider their plight.” Estelle looked at me, directly in my eyes, as she never did. I know it was a rule. Never look those you serve directly in the eye. Show respect. But in this instance, I felt as if we both knew that I was not asking for, nor did I deserve Estelle’s respect, “Of course, I read articles in the newspaper concerning working conditions. And I have heard many women speak of their organizations, meant to improve the quality of factory workers’ lives, but for some reason, the entire ordeal seemed far away. Too far off for me to consider, or distress myself with. As if the factory my father owns in New Jersey, is actually across an ocean. I suppose sometimes it takes a direct contact, to open one’s eyes. And I am sorry, I truly am, for a hardship that my father’s factory has placed upon you and your family,” I concluded.
Estelle lowered her eyes. “It is not your fault, Miss Cordelia. But thank you. Thank you for your kind words,” she almost whispered. I looked at my lady’s maid. It occurred to me that perhaps her lack of exchange with me…her hesitation regarding speaking to me was not only respect, but also resentment, dislike, or even hatred. The rules that my father strictly enforced, the rules that most likely permitted me to live the privileged life that I did, caused the death of her sister and the illness of her mother. I felt a new connection to Estelle, and not simply because I knew the feeling of losing a loved one, as she also did….but because she had shared this story with me. And for the first time, I was able to remove myself from my own small, privileged world, and consider others’. Her story had deeply affected me. I could detect a change within myself. I would do something to help. Who better than I? What better cause might I involve myself in? I decided to speak to my father. I would not tell Estelle, as she would object. I looked at Estelle. She was handsome, tall and graceful, her hair swept up underneath her cap. Her green eyes complemented her light brown hair. My gaze lingered upon her eyes. For the first time I noticed their weary look…the look of worry and heartache beyond her years. It felt unfair.
“I am glad that you have confided in me,” I rose out of the bathtub. The water had grown cold. Estelle handed me my dressing gown. I walked into my bedroom to begin the ritual of dressing for breakfast.