Anna could hear the Victrola playing through the thin glass windows of Dormity House, the tinny waltz filtering out through the window into the snow-covered garden. She was sitting, well bundled in her coat, sweater and three extra petticoats. She had been here half an hour already on the garden bench that you couldn’t see from the house, waiting for Arnie to come and see her. It was bitter tonight, so she had worn the thick scarf and gloves her mother had just knit for her, but even with the scarf bundled up twice over her hair and face, her skin was numb and painful.
Outside of the garden, the street was still and yellow from the glow of the gas lamps. On this side of town, it was nearly as bright as day, with every lamp lit promptly at dusk by a small army of lighters. She could hear the far off roar of an occasional motorcar, but more often the clip-clop sound of horses pulling carriages and wagons as people hurried home.
She wasn’t certain how much more she could stand waiting here, but the thought of seeing Arnie alone again warmed her up. That’s what she would do. She would think of him to keep herself from freezing while she waited. Her pockets were deep enough that she could clasp her hands together through the pockets, under the fabric of her coat. It gave her a little extra warmth, even if their shape under coat made her look fatter. She didn’t care. None of the dancers in the formal dining room could see her, even though she could hear them laughing and stomping in time to the tinny music. She would bet that Gertie was the one who had been asked to turn the handle of the Victrola all night. Gertie never minded it, because she was so happy to be able to listen to music. Anna had hated that chore, her arm feeling like it would fall off before the first song was over. The Dormitys were fond of Brahms and Schubert, not the cheerful ragtime tunes that Anna preferred. She started to softly sing before she realized that someone might hear her. She lowered her voice, humming the ballad to herself. We can hug and we can talk about the weather, we can have a quiet little talk.
The grandfather clock inside the hall chimed nine times before she moved again, her limbs stiff and clumsy. She had imagined Arnie coming around the corner of the house at least half a hundred times, his tall and narrow body in his formal clothes, the stark black of the suit setting off the rich chestnut of his hair and the beautiful green-streaked hazel of his eyes. She loved to see him dressed so fine, with the jacket setting off the broad shoulders that he hadn’t quite grown into yet. She had imagined so many times being able to sit opposite him at the table, dressed up in the pale green velvet dress that his sister wore, a lace choker around her neck. In her fantasy, it was just the two of them, in a house all their own, with a staff that was hers to command. She had been maid to the lady of the house before — she had seen how it was done enough times. She could command and hire and fire with the best of them.
It was a nice dream, she knew, but just a dream.
Her earlier steps had left footprints on the light snow that had dusted the cobblestones of the garden path and she traced the steps she had taken to reach the bench, trying to fit her feet into the footprints she had already made. She wasn’t sure why she cared about this, but the small task gave her a sense of purpose. She looked around first to make sure no one would see her and she knocked at the front door because she knew no one would be minding the servants’ entrance at this time of night, . Within a moment, McGregor opened the door, the pleasant smile on his face turning to a frown once he recognized her.
“What are you doing at the front door, Anna?” he said, looking around into the street behind her.
“No one saw me,” she said, rubbing her hands briskly together. “I made sure of it. But you know that no one’s downstairs tonight, not with the todo. I would have stood there forever.”
McGregor frowned. “You shouldn’t be here. Isn’t it your night off?”
“It is — and I’ll go, but I need to speak with Mr. Arnie.”
“What could you be wanting with Mr. Arnie?”
“Never you mind that, McGregor. Would you just send someone to ask him?”
“It doesn’t seem right, Anna, not with them all at their Christmas party. I wouldn’t like to anger the master.”
“No, it’s not right, Anna. If you’ve some problem, surely you can take it up with one of the ladies, some other time. I’m surprised at you. I thought you had more sense than this.”
So did I, she thought.
“Now why don’t you go home, girl. If you want, I can spare one of the younger boys to walk you home, but you’ll have to go straight there and send him back right away.”
Anna sighed. “No, that’s well enough. I’ll be fine.”
McGregor frowned at her again and closed the door. Anna looked at the dark wood and rubbed her hands briskly, wishing dearly that he had let her inside long enough to at least get some feeling back into her fingertips. She retreated around the house to the garden again, headed back towards her bench, her footsteps carefully placed in her earlier prints, which now looked more like small rectangles than the impressions of feet. She stopped halfway there and stood on her toes to peer into the window of the dining room. The thick curtain had been mostly drawn to keep out the chill of the evening, but there was enough of a slit in between the fabric panels that she could still see. The room was as she had expected it, with the dinner table removed for the dancing and all the chairs pushed back against the walls. The gas lights in their sconces sputtered but provided enough light and she could see Gertie at the Victrola, swinging her arm back and forth to ease out the soreness. The family were all there — the master and the missus, Miss Clara and Arnie. They were surrounded by the usual guests, the cousins and close friends that came to all of their parties. There must have been twenty-five people in the room, but Anna only had eyes for one.
He stood there, a head above everyone else, smiling and laughing and looking down into the face of a young woman that Anna had not seen before. She was beautiful, with a porcelain complexion and the long neck and blue eyes that he had so often said that he admired in her. But Anna could see the difference between herself and the girl so clearly; it was the clothes that she had on, the very latest in the long-waisted fashion, her hair done ornately in careful curls, the way her dress closed with at least twenty buttons down the back. The long silk skirt fell over the tip of Arnie’s shoe because they were standing so close together. Arnie’s hand rested lightly on the girl’s back, where her thin waist flared out into modestly perfect hips.
Anna put one gloved hand over her mouth and the other to her stomach, where the child that she carried did not show. She closed her eyes for a long moment and understood that he would not come, not ever again. She stood like that, until she felt the first cold kiss of snow on her cheeks, then she turned and walked into the bitterness of the night.