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Many people in Blaineton, the little New Jersey town where Maggie lives, do not approve of who she likes and lives with. In this part of Chapter 1, we meet Eli Smith, a newspaperman who rents Maggie’s outbuilding and publishes a penny weekly. We learn that he and Maggie are on the verge of courting. We also learn Maggie's boarding house family has a secret, which if discovered, will put them all in hot water.
The boarding house on Second Street was large. Located on Blaineton Square, it had originally been a two-story home built on the standard plan during the federal era – front and back parlor, kitchen and dining room separated by a hallway and stairs. The second floor accommodated four bedrooms.
Then somewhere in the 1840s, an expansion had been built to allow for six more bedrooms, obviously for children and servants. The newer wing was accessible through a door in the kitchen.
Maggie and her girls had occupied the two large downstairs rooms. Emily and her husband Nate were ensconced on the second floor. Maggie provided Emily with free room and board, as well as with a small salary for doing the cooking and helping with other housekeeping chores. Nate ran a carpenter shop in the small community of black residents located on Water Street, but lent a hand when things needed to be repaired. At Maggie’s insistence, Nate and Emily had two of the upstairs rooms, one for sleeping and one for sitting. This housing arrangement was convenient to all, and over the years the Johnson and Blaine families had become close friends.
“When the town finds out the girls have moved upstairs near our room, tongues will be wagging,” Emily warned. “You know how people are.”
“But where else should I put them?” Maggie countered. “I cannot fit both in my room. And their old room in the front is pleasant and quiet – perfect for a clergyman. The move is practical. I don’t care what the town thinks. And if our new pastor doesn’t like you and Nate, well, then he can just leave.”
Personal experience had taught Maggie some hard lessons, the primary one being that people could be amazingly cruel to one another. Clergyman or not, the minister was sure to come with his own set of prejudices, and she was ready.
“At any rate,” she finished, “I won’t stand for bigotry. Not in my house.”
Lydia chuckled, “Oh, now, that would certainly make us the talk of the town if Mr. Madison left our rooming house. We then would have to leave the church!”
“Good!” Frankie chirped. “Church is dull.”
Maggie stared her younger girl down. “Dull or not, it’s good for you.”
“Just like medicine,” she muttered. “Mama, why does medicine have to taste bad to do good? I should like to have a more lively religion. We could go to Emily and Nate’s church!”
“And that would start the town talking, too,” Emily chuckled.
Frankie’s hazel eyes widened. “Or we could just not go, like Mr. Smith!”
On cue, the door to the back porch creaked opened. As if he knew that he was about to become the next topic of conversation, Elijah Smith, the owner and editor of the Blaineton Gazette ambled in.
“Mr. Smith!” Frankie cried. “Tell Mama that it’s not necessary to go to church.”
He laughed, brown eyes sparkling behind his wire-rim glasses. “No, thank you! Your mother and I have had plenty of spirited discussions about that already.”
Maggie flashed a smile at Eli. His suit was rumpled, but he had made the attempt to dress for dinner and that pleased her. He had even taken the time to shave. Unlike many men, he bucked fashion and sported neither beard nor mustache.
Frankie got to her feet and examined his face. “You cut yourself,” she commented, with a critical frown. “On the chin.”
“Let’s see you try shaving with a straight razor, my dear,” he retorted.
“Besides which, you’re being rude again, Frankie.” Maggie turned to Eli. “You look quite nice, Mr. Smith.”
He grinned and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, well, just wanted to get ready for the new minister.”
Frankie rolled her eyes. “Argh! That’s all we ever talk about!”
“Yes, and you’d just better remember your manners when he gets here,” Emily warned.
The girl whirled about. “Of course, I will! I’m not a child.” Once again, she moved to dip a finger into the bowl of frosting.
Quick as lightning, Emily’s hand shot out and gave the girl another smack on the wrist. “If you want this cake, girl, then you’ll keep your fingers out of my icing.”
Eli chuckled. He was used to the family’s feeble attempts to rein in Frankie’s ill-mannered exuberance.
He took a hearty – and appreciative – sniff of the kitchen’s many aromas. “Mm. Is that beef stew?”
“Mm, hm,” Emily replied.
“You, Mrs. Johnson, are a genius in the kitchen.”
She smiled. “Thank you. But this is Maggie’s doing. She made that stew.”
“Well, then, I really am looking forward to the meal.”
Maggie felt her cheeks flush.
Eli cleared his throat, and somewhat clumsily added, “You know, you look rather nice, too. In fact, you look most – becoming in green.”
Maggie could almost feel the knowing smile spreading across Emily’s face. Everyone seemed to know what was going on – she and Eli had been behaving as if they were moonstruck for too many months. And yet neither had addressed the issue with the other.
Maggie worked hard to sound casual. “By the way, thank you for offering to fetch the new minister at the station.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. My pleasure.”
Lydia and Frankie watched the exchange with complete amusement, while Maggie desperately wished she could turn a color other than pink. It was all so unbecoming. A woman of nine and thirty should have better control of herself. The trouble was her composure of late had completely disappeared.
“Still,” she managed to say, “you didn’t have to rent the horse and carriage. I could have done it. You must allow me to pay you.”
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t think of it. Anyway, you’re busy with the house. And I’m always happy to help, Mrs. Blaine. You know that. And, well, I had the time.”
Frankie smiled slyly. “Of course, you did, Mr. Smith. These days, when it comes to Mama, you always have more than enough time.”
Eli now looked like a rat caught in an awkward trap.
Fortunately, Emily came to his rescue by raising her spatula and waving it at Frankie. “Scat, you little troublemaker!”
Chortling, Frankie danced out of the kitchen.
The room was suddenly very warm and Maggie’s corset way too tight. “I apologize for her behavior, Mr. Smith.”
“Oh, no,” he stammered. “It’s all right. Frankie’s a young girl. And she’s probably noticed that we’re – um – friends.”
“We’ve all noticed that you and Mama are – um – friends, Mr. Smith,” Lydia teased. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go see to Frankie and make sure she’s civilized for the new minister.”
As the eighteen-year-old left the room, Maggie heaved a sigh. “Again, I’m so sorry.”
“No, no. Nothing to be sorry about.” But Eli was still stammering. “I mean, they’re young, aren’t they? They say things.” He took a breath, noticed Emily’s cake on the table, and eagerly changed the subject. “Oh, hey, is that cake for tonight?”
No one could ever claim that Eli Smith disliked food. He was too portly for that. More friendly-looking than handsome, he had an easy-going manner that hid a deeper side – a seriousness and a passion for justice. But right now, he focused – more than a bit gratefully – on the cake.
Emily glared at him. “Yes. The cake is for tonight. Tonight. Understand?”
“Completely. Just curious.” He glanced toward the hallway, and then lowered his voice. “Have our visitors left?”
“Mm, hm,” Emily replied as her husband Nate, arms loaded with wood for the stove, came in the back door. “We sent them off to the next stop this morning,”
“Two brothers,” Maggie added. “Do you know that one of them had his wife and children sold off? He doesn’t even know where they are. It breaks my heart no matter how many times I hear stories like that. What’s the world coming to?”
Eli sighed. “War, I’m afraid.”
“There’s got to be another way to resolve this.”
“I don’t think there is. The situation is too far gone. It’s been too far gone for years. It’s just a matter of time now. If Mr. Lincoln gets elected, it’s clear that the South will secede. And if the South secedes, there’s going to be a war.”
Nate dusted his hands. “Well, if there’s a war, I’m joining up. If they’ll let me.”
“Think that’s a good idea?” Eli asked. “What if you end up getting taken prisoner? You could lose your freedom.”
“I’d risk it.” His black eyes were fierce. “Those folk down South are my brothers and sisters. My heart won’t let me stay out of this fight.”
Emily quietly kept her eyes on her work. Her hand moved deliberately from the bowl to the cake, methodically spreading the icing in circles, and then going back for more. Maggie also was quiet, turning her attention to the stew.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder