Excerpt: A Dance Out of Time


August, 1914 – Ocean Grove, New Jersey

Frances McGinty locked the bedroom door and slipped from her dark servant’s attire into the white cotton dress she’d made for Maura’s party. She studied her reflection in the mirror. Her pale, round face needed little powder, but she added a bit of rouge and lip color to liven it.
She brushed her auburn hair into loose, cascading curls about her shoulders. Her costume glistened in the glow of the candles on the dresser. She snuffed out the candles and left the room.

Her heart pounded in dread of encountering the minister who earlier on did not appear pleased when she announced leaving the house to attend a social with her young friends from back home. In Ireland she’d have celebrated Lughnasadh with them by dancing about bonfires, singing songs, and mixing with the fellas in town. “I’ve a right to me own time,” she muttered.
A series of loud thumps rattled the landing, startling her. However, a loud meow and the sight of fluffy fur whizzing by eased her fear. The family’s Persian cat rushed past with his head high and tail up. He ignored her attempt to pet him. “Go on about yourself, Master Nelson,” she said with a chuckle. “I have more than my dance card filled with young lads.”

Her laughter echoed as she descended to the lower stairs. The minister stood at the bottom. He combed back his black hair and twitched his mustache a moment as his dark eyed gaze roved over her costume, then up to her face.

“Well, you are a sight, Frances,” he said.

A horrid thought crossed her mind. “Do I look silly, Mr. Claythorne? ‘Tis a costume party, and I’m a fairy from the glen, like back home.”

“No, not at all, dear, you look like an angel with those wings.”

“Oh, these? A bit of rags and cloth hangers, ’tis all.”

“Always so humble, Frances, but go on now. You have to make your party.”

As she tried to move past him, he took hold of her hands and kissed her fingertips.
A shiver ran up her arms, and she pulled back. “Please, sir, I am afraid Mrs. Claythorne would not approve, and I think it best I be on my way.” She continued to walk to the entryway, but he followed and touched her elbow.
“Stop a moment, Frances. You forgot a clasp on the dress. Here let me fix it.” Before she could stop him, his fingers made quick work in closing the opened clasp. Then, he leaned close. “We’re alone, and the night is young.”
“And so am I, sir. I must go.” She broke contact, darted to the door, tugged it open, and hurried out into the dark night.

* * *

The clock struck the hour. After ten o’clock! She drew the reins on the horse and maneuvered the cart in front of the large gray house. The festivities at Maura’s, with its dancing and young folk, made Frances forget all else, but as she hitched the pony to the post and walked the few yards up to the wide veranda, she felt inclined to rush off again. The lateness of the hour forbade such wandering or a return to her dear friend’s home. Maura, also a servant girl, would need to be up with the sun, as would she. She prayed to sneak in somehow and not alert the family until she was safe in her own chambers.

Lights twinkled from the candles in the front window and reminded her of back home in the Irish countryside. Light a candle and guide the wanderer. I am a wanderer in this new land, but not for long. The lad she met at the party and danced with most of the evening promised to come courting. Seamus had sweetly talked his way into several reels until she’d barely any breath in her and her feet were now swollen from the lively steps of the dance.

“Frances!” The deep baritone timbre of Mr. Claythorne’s voice greeted her from the front hallway as she crept inside the house.

“Yes, Mr. Claythorne,” she said, her voice trembling as she grasped the banister.

The minister wobbled toward her.

Clearly he’d had too much drink, and there’d be no telling what he might do. She backed away and glanced about for signs of his wife and the children. “Is anything wrong, Mr. Claythorne? Have the children returned with their mother?”

“Oh, they are home. All are asleep.”

“‘Tis good, sir, and with the late hour, I should go upstairs. I have to help with the breakfast. By the looks of it, Mr. Claythorne, you might consider turning in for the night.”
When he scowled, she bit her lower lip. “I mean you must have worked long and hard on the sermon. I am sure you have to be up early in the morn to deliver it.”

“Yes, quite right.” He followed her. “And how was your night? Did any eligible young men sweep you off your feet?”

“No, sir.” She unclipped her wings and tucked them under one arm as her other hand clutched the banister. She remembered the fiery haired Seamus with his bright blue eyes and a smile that lit the room, then turned to the minister’s dark stare. “Good night.”

“Ah, ahem, I see by your blush, Frances, there must have been a dozen fellows to dance with. I do not blame them. Do not run off with any now. The house would not be the same without you.”

How has he the nerve for such babble with his wife and children upstairs?
She turned and started to walk up the stairs but he grabbed her hands.
Surprised, she let go of the banister and stepped down like a fly into a spider’s web. His damned grin held her.

“Is this how they dance?” She went limp as a rag doll as he moved her about. They did one quick waltz and he hummed a tune from “If I Had You” by Irving Berlin.

“Sir, please don’t.” His fetid breath reeked of liquor as he leaned close, making her want to gag.

He continued to push her forward and back and to one side and another as he danced and stumbled about the room. Her pulse pounded and she grew dizzy but she finally pulled free from his clutches. Before she could run off, he struck her with a kiss which angered and sickened her.
She wiped the taste off her mouth and hurried up to her room. A bedroom door slammed elsewhere as she hurled herself onto the bed and cried her way to sleep.

* * *

Before dawn, Frances snuck down the stairs, baggage in hand. Since coming to the Claythorne family, she’d had to dodge the minister’s attempts at flirtations and deal with his wife’s melancholia. I need to leave this intolerable house!

She stifled a sob as she tiptoed by the closed doors where the children slept. I will miss them. Tremors shook her as she passed the rooms of her employer. Evangeline’s door stood ajar but that of the minister’s appeared locked. No one moved but her and the surly cat that’d followed her toward the first floor.
She filled her lungs with the salted air as she stepped onto the street. A crazed thought filled her head as she glanced at the boardwalk and the ocean beyond it. I’ve no place now, maybe it’d be best if I drown myself.

The harsh caws of seagulls brought her back to reality. No! I’ve Seamus and my friends. I am certain to find a place. I cannot leave though without a good-bye to young Henry and Mary, the darling children are innocent. I’ll leave after breakfast.

But she wandered the boardwalk for what felt like an hour, lost in her plans before she returned to the home of the Claythorne family. When she entered the hall, the clock struck eight thirty. A recording of

“He’s a Devil in His Own Hometown” played on the Victrola. The children would have been up earlier as was their custom on a Sunday. Oh no! I’ve missed them, and breakfast, and going to Mass.

“You are late, Frances!” Evangeline boomed from the parlor.

“Yes, ma’am, I am sorry,” she apologized and stepped into the rose-colored room. A golden shade covered a lamp and lit up the needlepoint work held in Evangeline’s lap.
Pain and melancholy shone in the woman’s crazed eyes as she peered up from her handiwork. The loss of her last baby, stillborn, and the doctor’s medication gave her an edge. “And this is a fine hour. You were supposed to help with breakfast and getting them off to church. Where have you been?”

“Out, ma’am. I am so sorry.”

“And Henry, have you seen him?”

“Is he not at the service, ma’am?”

“No, he is not. There is another minister who has been summoned. Oh, this is dreadful!”
Frances remained mute while the woman finished a stitch, broke off a thread, and put the needlepoint to the side.

“To think he is not here, and you were out only to return now.”

“I have not seen Mr. Claythorne, ma’am. Perhaps he went late to the service or he is at the Great Auditorium. They have held meetings before and after service lately.”
Evangeline rose, took the needle off the record, and turned off the Victrola. She pressed her hands together and stared hard at Frances.

“Have you found other employment, Franny? I heard mention of it in the kitchen by the cook. ‘That Frances,’ she said, ‘stays out with the lads now. She is looking to work at one of those fine houses in Asbury.’ Is that true?”

Another reason to leave: gossipy cooks who stirred trouble because they were unhappy too. “No, ma’am. I have not.” As for the lads, she’d no need to tell anyone about Seamus or her grand plans, not yet, not until she had time to bid the children farewell. She’d wait for them. “Will the children return soon?”

“They are out with their grandmamma. She took them to service since Henry did not come back.” Evangeline lifted the garden shears she’d used to cut the threads on her needlepoint, glanced at them a moment, and then kept them by her side as she moved from the parlor.
Frances followed her from the room.

“I saw you two together,” Evangeline stated.

“Who, ma’am?”

“Come, Frances, you are no child. Had I not lost the baby, things would be different. Henry would never stoop to the likes of a common servant girl.”

“I do not know what you are saying.” Frances backed against the gilded frame of Evangeline’s portrait as its subject blocked her from heading toward the entryway. “I have done nothing wrong. Please believe me, ma’am.”

“Then why did I see you in his arms? He danced with you. He kissed you!”
Evangeline swirled as if in imitation of a dance move.

“It is not my fault!” Frances hurried by her to the stairwell. When she found no other recourse, she hurried up the steps in an attempt to escape.
Evangeline pursued her, shears in one hand while the other smacked the banister rail with each slow step she took toward Frances.


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