Image from Victoriana Magazine, "How to Have a Victorian Ball."
Chapter 2: The Ball
From All Hallows Eve: A Saint Maggie Short Story
Eli brought the buggy to a halt in front of the Norton Arms Hotel. They were met by a liveried footman, who took the reins as soon as the horses came to a halt. “Whose carriage may I say this is?” the man asked.
“Smith,” Eli replied as he clambered inelegantly out of the driver’s seat. He was about the gimp his way around to the other side in order help his wife down, but second footman got there first and was offering Maggie a hand.
Eli heaved a sigh of resignation and turned to the carriage. “Liddy?”
Lydia emerged and, taking her stepfather’s hand, stepped into the crisp night air. Not waiting for Eli, Frankie leapt out right behind her and landed on her feet with a thump.
“That’s not how you make an entrance,” Lydia whispered.
“Why should a man help me do anything?” Frankie whispered back. “It’s demeaning.”
“Girls,” Eli said.
“It’s polite,” Lydia countered
“It’s stupid,” Frankie shot back.
Eli rolled his eyes and this time said loudly and firmly, “Girls!”
When the two looked in his direction, he indicated the steps leading up to the hotel’s wide veranda. “Shall we?”
Next, he took his wife’s arm and proceeded up the stairs behind his stepdaughters, all the while muttering, “I think we need to do a better job instructing Frances how to behave in polite company.”
Maggie chuckled softly.
They walked through front doors held open by yet another set of footmen.
“What’s so funny?” Eli wanted to know.
“It’s just that Frankie reminds me of myself when I was her age. A bit of a know-it-all. Independent. Stubborn.”
“Make that pig-headed,” Eli grumbled.
“Now, now. Don’t be rude, my love. Look at how beautifully they’ve decorated the reception room!”
Indeed, the area was bedecked with pumpkins, gourds, and apples arranged artistically on round tables scattered here and there. The room, lit by oil lamps, gave everything a warm golden patina.
The Smith family followed a procession of well-dressed people to the end of the large reception area and in through a door marked “Grand Ballroom.”
Near the entrance was a cloakroom. Eli took off his overcoat, gathered up the women’s wraps, and went off to store their things. While he was gone, Maggie and her girls surveyed their surroundings. Here all was lit by a combination of oil lamps and candlelight. An orchestra, complete with a strings section, was playing soothing music at one end of the room. At the other end was a buffet table and clusters of chairs at small tables. People wearing their best chatted amiably with one another.
“Oh…” Frankie breathed. “I’ve never seen the like!”
Maggie smiled lovingly at her second-born daughter. “You should have experienced this a few years ago.”
“I don’t mind, Mama. I mean, we never were… like these people.” Frankie thought a moment. “I still don’t think we are. We just have money now.”
Taking Frankie’s hand, Maggie whispered, “That’s right. Don’t change, Frances. Ever.” The two shared a conspiratorial smile.
Eli returned to them, stuffing a chip with a number etched in it that would identify their outer wear in the cloak room. “Well! What next, ladies?”
“I don’t know.” Maggie craned her neck. “Oh! I see Abigail and Sam! Let’s go visit with them.”
The evening promised to pass enjoyably. After all, there was music, food, dancing, and hobnobbing with friends. And of course there was Josiah Norton, who as the evening’s host was in his glory. At one point, he decided to approach the table where the Smiths were having a bite to eat from the buffet.
“Good evening,” he said to the gathered family.
“Good evening,” they responded, and politely stood up.
“Are you enjoying yourselves?”
“Oh, yes,” Maggie replied. “This is a delightful occasion. Thank you for your kind invitation.”
“I’m glad you all are having a good time.” Josiah turned to Eli. “With your permission, Mr. Smith, I was wondering if I might have the next dance with your wife?”
Eli maintained a composed visage as he said to his on-and-off-again opponent, “If she consents, then I’ll permit.”
Maggie smiled at her husband. Then she said to Josiah. “Thank you, Mr. Norton. I would like that very much.”
He offered his arm to her and led her to the dance floor just as the orchestra struck up a waltz. As the two began to spin around with the other couples, Josiah commented, “This land was once yours, was it not, Mrs. Smith?”
“Yes, sir. I had my boarding house here. And Mr. Smith had his print shop in an outbuilding.”
“Your boarding house was not as large as the hotel, I daresay.”
Maggie wondered where Josiah was going. “No. Of course not. I think it would have fit into perhaps one third of this building.”
He nodded and seemed lost in thought for a moment or so, until: “Mrs. Smith, may I be so bold as to ask an odd question?”
“It depends upon how odd, Mr. Norton,” she joked lightly.
He narrowed his eyes in what appeared to be nervousness. “This may sound strange, but did you ever have any unusual occurrences in your boarding house?”
“Unusual occurrences? What do you mean?”
“Well… noises and voices…”
Maggie was confused. “Of course, we had noises and voices, it was a boarding house.”
“No, I don’t mean the normal type of things you would expect in a house full of people. I mean… well… things happening that shouldn’t happen.”
Maggie nearly stopped dancing. “Mr. Norton, would you please be plain?”
He heaved a sigh and swirled her off the dance floor and into a quieter corner. “The past few months my hotel’s guests have reported things. Footsteps when no one was around. Whispers when there was no other speaker. Things being moved on bureaus in plain sight. Persistent knocking at the door. And once in a while, a shadow. Had you ever experienced such things when your boarding house stood here?”
Feeling a bit disoriented by the music, the whirling couples, and the conversation, Maggie said, “Mr. Norton, are you suggesting that your hotel might be haunted?”
“Shh! Not so loud, please.”
“Don’t be concerned. No one can hear us over the music.” She searched her mind. “There were no incidents in my house except…” She hesitated.
“Except what? Tell me, please?”
A slight chill went down the back of her neck. “Well, the night the boarding house burned down, I was awakened by someone knocking on my door. At first, I looked out the window and saw that Eli’s print shop aflame. But the knocking was persistent, so I leapt out of bed, threw open the door, and…”
“And no one was there,” she finished. “Stranger still, Emily, my daughters, and all my boarders reported the same phenomenon.”
“Had there been deaths in your house, Mrs. Smith?”
She smiled gently. “Mr. Norton, it was a house before it was a boarding house. My answer is yes, people died in the building, including when it was a boarding house. Death happens in all homes. But if you want me to guess who or what was knocking on our doors that night, I have no clear answer. I mean, it very well could have been one of God’s angels as well as a ghost.”
Josiah frowned. “I don’t need to tell you how rumors of a haunted hotel will affect my business.”
Maggie nodded. “I have an idea.”
“So, you understand that this is a real problem. Because of that, I have decided to try an experiment. I wonder if you would like to attend, inasmuch as you owned the property before me.”
“A what?” Eli sputtered.
“Shh!” Maggie leaned across the table and whispered, “A séance.”
“Norton invited you to go to a séance? To sit in the dark, holding hands, mind you, while some charlatan pretends to conjure up the dead?”
“Papa,” Lydia said in her calmest, yet most authoritative physician’s voice, “becoming jealous is not the way to handle this situation.”
He turned to her. “That so? Well, pray tell, exactly how am I supposed to behave?”
“Elijah,” now it was Maggie’s turn. “If you do not calm down, we all shall go home immediately.”
He took his cane and stood up. “Fine with me!”
Maggie sat back in her chair. It was clear she had no intention of going anywhere. “Well, before we do that, perhaps you might like to know that Mr. Norton invited us all to attend the séance.”
After a pause, Eli sank back onto his seat at the table. “Tell me more.”
“He says some odd things have been going on at the hotel and is afraid it will become known as having a ghost.”
“A ghost.” Eli laughed. “Norton is afraid of ghosts?” He laughed harder. “And to think I believed he was a rational man!”
“Sometimes the world is irrational.”
“Look, Maggie, you obviously believe in such things because you’ve told me so.”
She took a breath. “I believe such things might exist, but I also believe that it is not wise to invite them in. In truth, I am uncertain I want to attend Mr. Norton’s séance.”
Frankie was disappointed. “But, Mama! I’ve never been to a séance before.”
Eli, meanwhile, was now considering the idea. “You know, it just might make an interesting article for The Register.” He rubbed his chin in thought. “Hmmm… I know the tricks those mediums use. It would be fun to unmask one.” He grabbed his cane once more and struggled to his feet. “Let’s go!”
Maggie and her daughters sat there, stunned.
“Well? Come on!”
Maggie briefly looked heavenward and sighed. Men… she thought.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder