The Pursuit of Lucy Banning
By Olivia Newport
With a smile, Lucy pressed a coin into the hand of the cab driver as he helped her down. Daniel had put her in a carriage to carry her safely home after their tea. The neighborhood was quiet as the carriage pulled away and Lucy surveyed her surroundings. The Pullmans had houseguests, Lucy knew, so she was not surprised to see a couple of extra coachmen tending to carriages under the broad porch at the front door across Eighteenth Street. The brownstone-covered massive home seemed as impenetrable as the Pullman business empire. Lucy had last been inside the Pullman home the previous spring for a dinner party. She'd spent several hours in the opulent dining room and parlor that evening, and more than one dinner guest had referred to the two-hundred-seat theater and the two-lane private bowling alley of the home. Lucy had managed to swallow her wonderings whether the Pullmans were looking for a life in which they never had to leave their fortress. In comparison, the Bannings lived simply, and perhaps even were the "poor neighbors."
Certainly the Fields were not the poor neighbors, nor the Kimballs, whose new home on the corner of Eighteenth and Prairie had been completed only in recent months. Lucy had watched it go up stage by stage, passing by it every day. The neighborhood rumor—no one knew for sure—was that the owner of the Kimball Piano and Organ Company had a Steinway in his parlor. A Kimball piano would have been a cheap insult to the Rembrandts that hung on the walls. Across the street from the Kimballs, the Glessners were the neighborhood rebels. They refused to erect a home that fit into the unspoken code of European design, opting instead for granite stone architecture that embraced a free American spirit. Inside, Mrs. Glessner flagrantly defied the rules for decorating and welcomed the friendly atmosphere of the Arts and Crafts movement with its warm tones and practicality even in exquisite craftsmanship. Flora Banning acquired select pieces from the Arts and Crafts movement, but Mrs. Glessner embraced it full on.
Lucy turned to face the solid oak front door of the Banning mansion two doors down from the Kimballs. With lips together, she inhaled deeply, then opened her mouth and exhaled slowly. The weight in her shoulders eased. She should never have let slip to Daniel that she had met Will Edwards at the university. At least Daniel was not coming to dinner tonight, nor would he be calling for her later. A business dinner would consume his evening. The staff would undoubtedly set a place for him just in case. Over the years they had grown used to Daniel's presence in the Banning house and seemed prepared for his needs regardless of when he turned up.
You can't stand on the sidewalk forever, she told herself. Her family may not have been the richest on the block, nor the most daring, nor the most creative, but they were her family. Dinner would be served promptly at eight o'clock, and Lucy could not appear in gray flannel. She picked up her skirts and climbed the handful of steps that led to the front door and entered the expansive foyer.
Penard, his wrists crossed behind his back, paced in front of a stiff lineup of the household staff. The round dark mahogany pedestal table, anchor of the foyer, separated butler from staff. Taking in the startling scene before her, Lucy instinctively caught herself from letting the door slam.
"As you know well," Penard was saying, "my position as butler of this household makes me accountable for every item within its walls. Mr. Banning is seriously distressed that some items have gone missing from his private study. I have admonished each of you repeatedly not to enter that room without specific permission from me, and I have extended no such permission to any of you. You can understand my concern that some items of sentimental value to Mr. Banning have disappeared."
As if on ominous cue, the seven-foot grandfather clock bonged six times.
Lucy skimmed the expressions of one stricken servant's face after another. As much as she might like to, she could not get involved. Running the household was Penard's purview. Her parents had trusted him for fifteen years. Mrs. Fletcher, the cook, had been with the family for years as well and was above reproach. The other staff tended to rotate every year or two. Lucy so far had found Archie Shepard, the footman and assistant coachman, to take his responsibilities seriously, and Elsie, the ladies' maid she shared with her mother, to be delightfully personable. Bessie, the parlor maid, said no more than she had to but anticipated her tasks and the family's needs with almost befuddling ac- curacy. The kitchen maid, Kate, had left abruptly a couple of weeks earlier, but Lucy assessed her to be simply high-strung, not the sort who had any point to prove by stealing knickknacks. She wondered whom Penard could suspect among this lot.
Lucy's eyes moved to the young woman at the end of the lineup. She must be the new kitchen maid, she thought, and Penard is going to scare her off before she even catches her breath. The woman, who was around Lucy's age, stared at her feet during the entire dressing-down. Holding her satchel closely, Lucy inched away from the door and toward the marble stairs across the foyer.
Penard pivoted and paced in the opposite direction. "I need not remind any of you that you serve in this house at my pleasure. The Bannings give me authority. If I do not recommend you, you do not work here. It's that simple. For the moment, I will refrain from making specific allegations, but be warned that I will be watching carefully. I will know everything that happens in this house."
The new kitchen maid twitched, and her eyes rose momentarily to Penard.
"Charlotte, do you have something you wish to say?" Penard glared at the maid.
"No, sir." The maid's eyes went back to her feet.
"If I discover that you are withholding anything from me, you have my assurance you will regret it."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Penard."
Lucy flinched on the girl's behalf. Clearly she was unnerved. Was it really necessary for Penard to speak to her this way on her first afternoon of employment?
Still, Lucy knew she ought to go upstairs to choose a gown for dinner and let Penard sort out whatever was amiss. Her foot was on the first marble step when her father burst into the foyer.
"Well, Penard, what have you discerned?" Samuel Banning boomed.
Lucy cringed. She knew that intonation well: her father had given up even trying to be polite. Involuntarily, she turned to see how Penard would respond.
"I have taken appropriate action, Mr. Banning," Penard said. "I'm sure we have put an end to things."
Samuel Banning pointed at Charlotte, the new maid. "Who is this? I don't recognize her."
"This is Miss Charlotte Farrow," Penard responded evenly. "We have engaged her services as a kitchen maid. She has just arrived to take up her post."
"Was she here yesterday?" Samuel snapped.
"Only briefly, sir, for an interview."
"Why didn't I meet her?"
"You had not yet come home from the Calumet Club, sir. After I interviewed her and recommended her, Mrs. Banning gave her approval."
"If she was here yesterday, she could have done it," Samuel said. "I want to see her bags."
By now Charlotte was visibly quaking, and Lucy could no longer resist the urge to intervene. "Father, please. I've only just got home, so I'm not sure what is causing such a stir, but I'm certain we can sort it out calmly."
"You wouldn't say that if it were your items going missing. My brass paperweight is gone."
"The one shaped like a gavel?"
"Yes. It's the only brass paperweight I have."
"It's not the first time you thought something was missing, Father," Lucy reminded him. "Remember last spring when you were sure Richard took a book from your library of first editions? You were quite distressed, as I recall. But it turned out you loaned it to Daniel's father. You didn't even recall you'd given it to him until he returned it a few weeks later."
"This is not the same at all," Samuel said. But the wind had gone out of him.
Lucy glanced at Charlotte, who was so pale Lucy thought she might faint.
"Father, let the staff go back to work." She spoke quietly. "I'm sure if we put our minds to it, we can figure out what happened."
"That's what your mother says." Samuel raised rather than lowered his voice. "But if one of her precious pots went missing, she'd sing a different tune."
"I would sing exactly the same tune." Flora Banning appeared in the broad arch that led from the parlor to the foyer. "Penard has a spotless record hiring staff, as you well know. No one he has brought into our employ has ever given you cause to think twice."
"Things change. This new girl—"
"She's only been here a few hours, Samuel."
"She was in the parlor for all of ten minutes and then left directly by the servants' entrance. She was nowhere near your study."
Lucy glanced at the maid, who seemed visibly relieved.
Flora turned to Penard. "You may dismiss the staff, Penard. I'm sure they all have better things to do."
Penard nodded his head almost imperceptibly, and the staff dispersed.
"Samuel, for goodness' sake," Flora said, "it's a paperweight. It's nothing of value."
"That's hardly the point, Flora."
"I'm sure you've just misplaced it. You're not in court. There's no need to put anyone on trial. Stop acting like a foolish old man." Flora's eyes brightened as she looked at her daughter. "Lucy, dear, you're home."
Lucy stepped over to kiss her mother's cheek, one hand behind her back with the satchel.
"Have you been with Daniel in that outfit?" Flora asked.
Lucy sighed. "Yes, Mother. I had no time to come home and change. It's a perfectly good suit."
"It's drab and off the rack. It's a good thing Daniel is as fond of you as he is. I'm surprised he allows you to dress the way you do sometimes."
Lucy's eyes flared but she held her tone. "It's hardly Daniel's decision how I dress for an afternoon at the orphanage, is it?"
"You're going to be his wife soon. Your appearance will reflect on him."
"I promise I'm not going to get married in a gray flannel suit."
"Goodness, I should hope not," Flora said. "Have the two of you settled on a date?"
Lucy let her gaze drift away casually. "Daniel suggested mid-July."
"In the middle of the summer heat! Oh, I don't know, Lucy."
Lucy shrugged. "It's just a suggestion. We haven't decided anything."
"Perhaps I'll have a word with his mother. We don't want to let it become an urgent question."
Lucy smiled. Daniel was of course correct that the mothers would have strong opinions. "The only urgent question I'm facing is what to wear for dinner tonight." She looked from one parent to the other, then took her sulking father's elbow and turned him around. "Why don't the two of you relax in the parlor? Perhaps Mrs. Fletcher can have Bessie bring you some refreshment."
"I'll call for her," Flora said, taking her husband's other arm.
"I had hoped Aunt Violet would be here," Lucy said. "It's Thursday."
"She telephoned this afternoon to say she is otherwise engaged," her mother explained.
"Then I hope she's enjoying herself." Lucy's words masked her disappointment. Aunt Violet, where are you when I need you?
By the time Lucy left her parents in the parlor, Flora was talking about the redecorating that should be done before the wedding. As she turned back toward the stairs, across the foyer Lucy saw movement in the dining room. She paused long enough to see it was the new maid beginning to lay the table for dinner. The girl looked up just long enough to catch Lucy's eye before busying herself with the china.
Something's wrong, Lucy thought, but not what Father thinks.
Bio: Olivia Newport's novels twist through time to discover where faith and passions meet. Her husband and two twenty-something children provide welcome distraction from the people stomping through her head on their way into her books. She chases joy in stunning Colorado at the foot of the Rockies, where daylilies grow as tall as she is.