From All Hallows Eve: A Saint Maggie Short Story
Chapter 1: The Invitation
Josiah Norton was a rich man and he liked to remind people of that fact as often as he could. For instance, throwing a lavish party always let his lessors know that they were… well, his lessors. Bountiful food, free-flowing beverages, and a talented orchestra able to provide music for every known dance were obvious examples of one’s wealth, power, and status. And Josiah could afford them all.
It was autumn when Josiah suddenly had a magnificent idea: he would throw an All Hallows Eve ball. It would be held at the Norton Arms Hotel and, aside from being an extravagant party, would also showcase the newest and shiniest addition to his empire that until now consisted of factories and mills.
And so Josiah sent out engraved invitations to all the powerful, wealthy, or notable people in the town of Blaineton, New Jersey. These were delivered by hand and a reply requested upon receipt, upon which the messenger would return with a report of who was coming and who was not.
“Huh,” The Blaineton Register’s Editor-in-Chief Eli Smith said upon receiving his invitation. His dark brown eyebrows knit together.
Chester Carson, Eli’s friend and head reporter, happened to be in the office when the impressively liveried messenger was shown in by Andy, the newspaper’s receptionist.
Carson asked, “What is it?” Then he eyed the messenger, who pretended not to see him.
“Um… apparently Norton is having a ball on All Hallows Eve.”
Carson raised one elegant, white eyebrow and stroked his equally elegant, white moustache. “And he wants you there?”
“Ha-ha,” was Eli’s dry response. “Yes. Apparently. he does.”
The messenger cleared his throat. “What is your response, sir?”
“Please tell him that Mrs. Smith, her daughters, and I shall attend, and happily so.”
“Very good, sir.” And after a slight bow, the messenger backed out the door.
Carson waited a moment before saying, “I thought you and Mr. Norton were not on the best of terms.”
“True.” Eli leaned back in his chair and rubbed the dark stubble that had sprouted on his face over the course the day. “But my wife is running for Town Council. Whatever Norton may think of women in politics, he’s no fool. He wants to gather notables around himself, hoping to increase his status. And that includes my Maggie. And also includes me – even though I have been less than kind to him in an editorial or two or three.”
“Why should he care who attends? He’s wealthy. His status is high enough.”
Eli issued a sarcastic harrumph. “He always wants more. That’s his problem. He always needs to be bigger and better than everyone else – the big bug in town.” He grabbed his walking stick and stood up. “I think I’d best go home and warn my wife that she’s going to need a new gown.”
Carson laughed. “Most women would love such an announcement.”
“True,” Eli replied as he limped toward the door. “But not my Maggie.”
“A new gown?” Maggie’s hazel eyes had gone wide. Flustered, she used the back of her hand to brush some stray, auburn hair back from her face. She had been kneading dough and the palms of her hands were covered with flour. “For what?”
“For Josiah Norton’s All Hallows Eve Ball, of course.”
“All Hallows Eve?” She frowned. “Why then?”
Eli shrugged. “Lydia and Frankie are invited, too, by the way. As well as all the other so-called important people in town.”
Maggie shook her head in disbelief. “Such an enormous waste of money. I mean, are we to go to Madame Louisa every time there is a ball in this town?”
“Well, you could always use the one you wore to the winter ball.”
“And I would be excoriated for it, I’m sure.”
With a chuckle, Eli said, “When did you ever care about what people think?”
“Never. But now I am serious about my run for Town Council. One has to think ahead and if I show up in just any old rag …” She faded off. “Oh, bother! Sometimes I think we were better off when we were nobodies!”
Eli laughed outright. “Complicated, isn’t it? And it’s such bunkum.”
“Indeed it is!” Maggie returned to kneading the dough, this time with a vengeance, a clear indication that she had misgivings about her attempt to win a seat on the Town Council.
Her husband’s expression softened. Then he noticed the dusting of flour on his wife’s nose and left cheek. “You know,” he murmured, “you look utterly adorable like that, with flour all over your face.”
She glanced up at him. It was a seductive glance. “Why, thank you, Mr. Smith,” she purred. “Perhaps you can tell me more about how you feel later.”
Grinning, he replied. “I would be delighted to tell you that… later.”
Maggie, Lydia, and Frankie – along with friends Emily Johnson and Rosa Hamilton – paid a visit to Madame Louisa’s dry goods store. Once styles had been decided upon and material and sundries purchased, they began a days-long sewing bee, in which there was a good deal of measuring, cutting, sewing, hemming, chatting, and laughing until finally, they were ready.
On the night of the ball, the women gathered in Maggie’s room and helped one another get dressed, aided by Emily and Rosa.
Red-haired, eighteen-year-old Frankie grimaced as she adjusted her skirts. They hung over a petticoat, a crinoline cage, and a pair of drawers. “Oh, why do we have to wear all this get-up?” she complained.
The young woman had no idea how delightful she looked in her cream-colored gown festooned with green ribbons and bows. Even her hair – curly and thick as it was – had been arranged into a neat bun at the back of her neck and held in place by a decorative hair net.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Frankie felt all trussed up, just like a Christmas goose, provided said goose was going to a ball.
Twenty-two-year old Lydia was sitting in front of the bureau mirror, fussing with her own dark brown locks. She was tall and buxom, and her hair always did what she wanted it to do – something that never ceased to make Frankie jealous. She turned to look at her sister. “You can’t just show up to a ball in everyday wear, Frances. The invitation said dress is formal.”
Frankie irritably flicked a random bow at her waist. “But look at these! They’re so fussy! Why did I let Madame Louisa talk me into this?”
“Because it’s fashionable,” was Lydia’s answer. “It’s the same reason we had to get new crinoline cages. They’re flatter in the front now.” She was a vision, wearing a gown of maroon silk with black bows that flattered her voluptuous figure.
Frankie sniffed. “We’d be better off without these things. Crinolines just get in the way. One wrong move and they’re over your head!”
Maggie and Emily had to work hard to keep the smiles off their faces and had the wisdom to keep their mouths shut.
Frankie’s friend, Rosa, however, frowned. “Don’t complain. I wish I was going.” With a little sniff, she added. “Guess Mr. Norton just forgot to invite people who have a little color to their skin.”
Frankie retorted. “Why don’t you wear my costume and a mask, and I’ll stay home?”
The idea made Rosa laugh. “I think they’d still be able to tell I’m not white.”
At this point, Maggie looped an arm through Rosa’s. “Well, then, why don’t we hold a Christmas ball here and invite people of all colors?”
“And then all the white people would stay home.”
“Not all of them,” Maggie replied with a grin. “Just the disagreeable ones.”
“So what do you think? Shall we try it and see?”
“Are you serious?”
Maggie nodded. “Of course. And we’ll visit Madame Louisa and get a gown for you.”
“Then yes! Let’s do it.” Rosa looked Maggie over. “You know, Madame is good at what she does. That gown is beautiful on you.”
Maggie glanced down at her dress. It was forest green silk, decorated with white roses. Once again, the bodice had been cut low. Madame Louisa insisted that a lowcut gown was still all the rage. “And,” the French woman had added, “since you have such a magnificent bosom, why not display a bit of it?”
Why not? Maggie had thought. Well… there were a number of answers to that. Her husband would not like it if other men flocked to her side. So much exposed skin would be cold this time of year. And, of course, her bosom was only “magnificent” because she was still nursing little Faith, the daughter she had with husband Eli.
Self-conscious, Maggie gave her bodice a little yank to hike it up. “Well! It’s time to go downstairs, ladies.”
“Mm, hm.” Emily stepped in front of her friend, grabbed the bottom of the bodice, and pulled it back into place. “That’s better! Now, you’re ready.” She winked at her friend.
To which, Maggie rolled her eyes.
On that All Hallows Eve, the ancient fireplace in the kitchen’s sitting room held a good blaze. James O’Reilly, whom everyone called Grandpa and who had been a household member ever since Maggie’s boarding house days, was holding court there. He had gathered around him Maggie and Eli’s son Bob, Emily and Nate’s son Natey, and Addie and Mary Brooks, two young girls of color who had been adopted by Emily and Nate.
The old Irishman was telling them stories.
“Aye,” he was saying, “on this night of all nights the veil between the living and the ghosts of the dead is thin. So thin that the dead may pass through and cavort amongst the living.”
The children’s eyes were wide as saucers.
“Back in the old country, we used to leave food out for roving spirits as a sacrifice so they wouldn’t trouble our house.”
“What’s a sacrifice?” little Natey asked.
“Why it’s something we give to a spirit as a gift.”
“What would the dead do if you didn’t leave food?” thirteen-year-old Mary wanted to know.
Grandpa sat back in his chair. “Ah, they would be about any sort of mischief, some of it quite serious. They could put a hex on your crops so they wouldn’t grow. They could even bring illness upon your house.”
“I don’t want any dead people coming in our door tonight,” a worried Bob said. He was seven years old and beginning to understand that the world was not always a safe place. “We should get some food for them and put it by our door, that way they’ll leave us alone.”
Eli was dressed in the same black tailcoat, trousers, and silk silver paisley waistcoat that he had worn to the winter ball (and every bit as uncomfortable as he had been then). When he heard his son expressing concern about spirits, he decided to step into the little circle by the fireplace. “That’s enough, O’Reilly. You’ll give them nightmares.”
“Ah,” the old man grumbled. “You’re no fun. No fun at all.”
At this point, Maggie, Lydia, and Frankie made their entrance into the kitchen.
“Well,” Eli exclaimed, “I can’t believe I’ll be escorting such beautiful women.” He reached out for Maggie’s hand.
Smiling and gloved up to the elbows, she let her husband take her hand and give it a gallant kiss. “Why, thank you, kind sir,” she said.
Frankie heaved a sigh. “I wish Patrick had leave. He could have come along as my escort.”
Lydia responded. “I imagine both he and Philip are busy at Mower General Hospital. I don’t expect the army to give either of them leave until the new year.”
“Never mind, ladies,” Eli replied. “I’ll see that you have a good time tonight. Even if I have to dance with you myself.”
His two stepdaughters smiled affectionately at him. The truth was that Elijah Smith was unable to dance, due to an injury he suffered to his leg some years ago. But the girls knew that, had he been able, he would have been true to his word, and that meant a great deal to them.
“I hope you don’t meet any ghosts of the dead on the way,” Bob said with a little shiver.
“Now, where did you hear a thing like that?” Maggie asked.
“Don’t pretend you don’t know the old stories, Maggie Beatty. Your people came from Scotland.”
“My people,” Maggie said, as she walked to Grandpa, “never spoke of them, if you want to know the truth.” Smiling, she bent and gave the old man a kiss on the cheek. “There’s nothing different about this night than any other night, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Oh, does that mean when you were a lass, you and your friends never tried conjuring up the names of your future husbands?”
Maggie blushed. “Grandpa!”
Frankie’s interest was aroused. “Mama, did you ever do such a thing?”
“Well…” she hedged. “Maybe once.”
Excited, the young woman pressed on. “Did you get a name?”
“Yes! I got two: John and Elijah.”
There was a stunned silence, broken only when Maggie laughed.
Frankie frowned, as she realized that her mother was teasing. “Oh, Mama!”
Lydia took her sister by the arm. “If you’re curious, I’m sure some of the younger ladies will try to do some conjuring later. It usually happens this time of the year among those looking for a beau.”
“Which I’m not,” Frankie corrected. “I intend to be married to Patrick by this time next year.”
Emily, who was standing nearby, spoke up. “Whether you’re looking or not, I hope you don’t partake in any of that. Don’t you do that foolishness. Conjuring just might bring up things you don’t want. Bad things.” She frowned. “I don’t hold by summoning and seances and such. The Bible says not to do them.”
“We’ll be careful, Emily,” Maggie assured her friend, taking her arm and giving it a pat.
The kitchen door abruptly flew open. and Nate Johnson stomped in. “Woof! It’s brisk out there, folks. I put some blankets in the carriage for you.” He turned to Eli. “Are you sure you don’t want me to drive?”
Eli shook his head no. “There’s no need, Nate. Especially since Norton didn’t have the good taste to invite you. Nope, I’ll drive.” He offered Maggie his arm. “Shall we go, my love?”
As the foursome walked toward the door, Bob called, “Look out for ghosts!”
Laughing, Frankie glanced at him over her shoulder. “We’ll be careful, Bobby. Don’t worry.”
 “Bunkum,” slang for “nonsense.”
Coming Soon: Chapter 2: The Ball
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder