The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
XXI. Injurious Reports Concerning an Old House
A Rush of wheels and a spatter of hoofs coming up the drive sent Mrs. Dunlop to the sitting-room window. She tried to see out through streaming showers that darkened the panes.
"Isn't that Mrs. Bogardus? Why, it is! Put on your shoes, Chauncey, quick! Help her in 'n' take her horse to the shed. Take an umbrella with you." Chauncey the younger, meekly drying his shoes by the kitchen fire, put them on, not stopping to lace them, and slumped down the porch steps, pursued by his mother's orders. She watched him a moment struggling with a cranky umbrella, and then turned her attention to herself and the room.
Mrs. Bogardus made her calls in the morning, and always plainly on business. She had not seen the inside of Cerissa's parlor for ten years. This was a grievance which Cerissa referred to spasmodically, being seized with it when she was otherwise low in her mind.
"My sakes! Can't I remember my mother telling how her mother used to drive over and spend the afternoon, and bring her sewing and the baby--whichever one was the baby. They called each other Chrissy and Angevine, and now she don't even speak of her own children to us by their first names. It's 'Mrs. Bowen' and 'Mr. Paul;' just as if she was talking to her servants."
"What's that to us? We've got a good home here for as long as we want to stay. She's easy to work for, if you do what she says."
Chauncey respected Mrs. Bogardus's judgment and her straightforward business habits. Other matters he left alone. But Cerissa was ambitious and emotional, and she stayed indoors, doing little things and thinking small thoughts. She resented her commanding neighbor's casual manners. There was something puzzling and difficult to meet in her plainness of speech, which excluded the personal relation. It was like the cut and finish of her clothes--mysterious in their simplicity, and not to be imitated cheaply.
When the two met, Cerissa was immediately reduced to a state of flimsy apology which she made up for by being particularly hot and self-assertive in speaking of the lady afterward.
"There is the parlor, in perfect order," she fretted, as she stood waiting to open the front door; "but of course she wouldn't let me take her in there--that would be too much like visiting."
The next moment she had corrected her facial expression, and was offering smiling condolences to Mrs. Bogardus on the state of her attire.
"It is only my jacket. You might put that somewhere to dry," said the lady curtly. Raindrops sparkled on the wave of thick iron-gray hair that lifted itself, with a slight turn to one side, from her square low brow. Her eyes shone dark against the fresh wind color in her cheeks. She had the straight, hard, ophidian line concealing the eyelid, which gives such a peculiar strength to the direct gaze of a pair of dark eyes. If one suspects the least touch of tenderness, possibly of pain, behind that iron fold, it lends a fascination equal to the strength. There was some excitement in Mrs. Bogardus's manner, but Cerissa did not know her well enough to perceive it. She merely thought her looking handsomer, and, if possible, more formidable than usual.
She sat by the fire, folding her skirts across her knees, and showing the edges of the most discouragingly beautiful petticoats,--a taste perhaps inherited from her wide-hipped Dutch progenitresses. Mrs. Bogardus reveled in costly petticoats, and had an unnecessary number of them.
"How nice it is in here!" she said, looking about her. Cerissa, with the usual apologies, had taken her into the kitchen to dry her skirts. There was a slight taint of steaming shoe leather, left by Chauncey when driven forth. Otherwise the kitchen was perfection,--the family room of an old Dutch farmhouse, built when stone and hardwood lumber were cheap,--thick walls; deep, low window-seats; beams showing on the ceiling; a modern cooking-stove, where Emily Bogardus could remember the wrought brass andirons and iron backlog, for this room had been her father's dining-room. The brick tiled hearth remained, and the color of those century and a half old bricks made a pitiful thing of Cerissa's new oil-cloth. The woodwork had been painted--by Mrs. Bogardus's orders, and much to Cerissa's disgust--a dark kitchen green,--not that she liked the color herself, but it was the artistic demand of the moment,--and the place was filled with a green golden light from the cherry-trees close to the window, which a break in the clouds had suddenly illumined.
"You keep it beautifully," said Mrs. Bogardus, her eyes shedding compliments as she looked around. "I should not dare go in my own kitchen at this time of day. There are no women nowadays who know how to work in the way ladies used to work. If I could have such a housekeeper as you, Cerissa."
Cerissa flushed and bridled. "What would Chauncey do!"
"I don't expect you to be my housekeeper," Mrs. Bogardus smiled. "But I envy Chauncey."
"She has come to ask a favor," thought Cerissa. "I never knew her so pleasant, for nothing. She wants me to do up her fruit, I guess." Cerissa was mistaken. Mrs. Bogardus simply was happy--or almost happy--and deeply stirred over a piece of news which had come to her in that morning's mail.
"I have telephoned Bradley not to send his men over on Monday. My son is bringing his wife home. They may be here all summer. The place belongs to them now. Did Chauncey tell you? Mr. Paul writes that he has some building plans of his own, and he wishes everything left as it is for the present, especially this house. He wants his wife to see it first just as it is."
"Well, to be sure! They've been traveling a long time, haven't they? And how is his health now?"
"Oh, he is very well indeed. You will be glad not to have the trouble of those carpenters, Cerissa? Pulling down old houses is dirty work."
"Oh, dear! I wouldn't mind the dirt. Anything to get rid of that old rat's nest on top of the kitchen chamber. I hate to have such out of the way places on my mind. I can't get around to do every single thing, and it's years--years, Mrs. Bogardus, since I could get a woman to do a half-day's cleaning up there in broad daylight!"
Mrs. Bogardus stared. What was the woman talking about!
"I call it a regular eyesore on the looks of the house besides. And it keeps all the old stories alive."
"Why, of course your father wasn't out of his head--we all know that--when he built that upstairs room and slep' there and locked himself in every night of his life. It was only on one point he was a little warped: the fear of bein' robbed. A natural fear, too,--an old man over eighty livin' in such a lonesome place and known to be well off. But--you'll excuse my repeating the talk--but the story goes now that he re'ly went insane and was confined up there all the last years of his life. And that's why the windows have got bars acrost them. Everybody notices it, and they ask questions. It's real embarrassin', for of course I don't want to discuss the family."
"Who asks questions?" Mrs. Bogardus's eyes were hard to meet when her voice took that tone.
"Why, the city folks out driving. They often drive in the big gate and make the circle through the grounds, and they're always struck when they see that tower bedroom with windows like a prison. They say, 'What's the story about that room, up there?'"
"When people ask you questions about the house, you can say you did not live here in the owner's time and you don't know. That's perfectly simple, isn't it?"
"But I do know! Everybody knows," said Cerissa hotly. "It was the talk of the whole neighborhood when that room was put up; and I remember how scared I used to be when mother sent me over here of an errand."
Mrs. Bogardus rose and shook out her skirts. "Will Chauncey bring my horse when it stops raining? By the way, did you get the furniture down that was in that room, Cerissa?--the old secretary? I am going to have it put in order for Mr. Paul's room. Old furniture is the fashion now, you know."
Cerissa caught her breath nervously. "Mrs. Bogardus--I couldn't do a thing about it! I wanted Chauncey to tell you. All last week I tried to get a woman, or a man, to come and help me clear out that place, but just as soon as they find out what's wanted--'You'll have to get somebody else for that job,' they say."
"What is the matter with them?"
"It's the room, Mrs. Bogardus; if I was you--I'm doing now just as I'd be done by--I would not take Mrs. Paul Bogardus up into that room--not even in broad daylight; not if it was my son's wife, in the third month of her being a wife."
"Well, upon my word!" said Mrs. Bogardus, smiling coldly. "Do you mean to say these women are afraid to go up there?"
"It was old Mary Hornbeck who started the talk. She got what she called her 'warning' up there. And the fact is, she was a corpse within six months from that day. Chauncey and me, we used to hear noises, but old houses are full of noises. We never thought much about it; only, I must say I never had any use for that part of the house. Chauncey keeps his seeds and tools in the lower room, and some of the winter vegetables, and we store the parlor stove in there in summer."
"Well, about this 'warning'?" Mrs. Bogardus interrupted.
"Yes! It was three years ago in May, and I remember it was some such a day as this--showery and broken overhead, and Mary disappointed me; but she came about noon, and said she'd put in half a day anyhow. She got her pail and house-cloths; but she wasn't gone not half an hour when down she come white as a sheet, and her mouth as dry as chalk. She set down all of a shake, and I give her a drink of tea, and she said: 'I wouldn't go up there again, not for a thousand dollars.' She unlocked the door, she said, and stepped inside without thinkin'. Your father's old rocker with the green moreen cushions stood over by the east window, where he used to sit. She heard a creak like a heavy step on the floor, and that empty chair across the room, as far as from here to the window, begun to rock as if somebody had just rose up from them cushions. She watched it till it stopped. Then she took another step, and the step she couldn't see answered her, and the chair begun to rock again."
"Was that all?"
"No, ma'am; that wasn't all. I don't know if you remember an old wall clock with a brass ball on top and brass scrolls down the sides and a painted glass door in front of the pendulum with a picture of a castle and a lake? The paint's been wore off the glass with cleaning, so the pendulum shows plain. That clock has not been wound since we come to live here. I don't believe a hand has touched it since the night he was carried feet foremost out of that room. But Mary said she could count the strokes go tick, tick, tick! She listened till she could have counted fifty, for she was struck dumb, and just as plain as the clock before her face she could see the minute-hand and the pendulum, both of 'em dead still. Now, how do you account for that!
"I told Chauncey about it, and he said it was all foolishness. Do all I could he would go up there himself, that same evening. But he come down again after a while, and he was almost as white as Mary. 'Did you see anything?' I says. 'I saw what Mary said she saw,' says he, 'and I heard what she heard.' But no one can make Chauncey own up that he believes it was anything supernatural. 'There is a reason for everything,' he says. 'The miracles and ghosts of one generation are just school-book learning to the next; and more of a miracle than the miracles themselves.'"
"Chauncey shows his sense," Mrs. Bogardus observed.
"He was real disturbed, though, I could see; and he told me particular not to make any talk about it. I never have opened the subject to a living soul. But when Mary died, within six months, folks repeated what she had been saying about her 'warning.' The 'death watch' she called it. We can't all of us control our feelings about such things, and she was a lonely widow woman."
"Well, do you believe that ticking is going on up there now?" asked Mrs. Bogardus.
Cerissa looked uneasy.
"Is the door locked?"
"I re'ly couldn't say," she confessed.
"Do you mean to say that all you sensible people in this house have avoided that room for three years? And you don't even know if the door is locked?"
"I--I don't use that part for anything, and cleaning is wasted on a place that's never used, and I can't get anybody"--
"I am not criticising your housekeeping. Will you go up there with me now, Cerissa? I want to understand about this."
"What, just now, do you mean? I'm afraid I haven't got the time this morning, Mrs. Bogardus. Dinner's at half-past twelve. It's a quarter to eleven"--
"Very well. You think the door is not locked?"
"If it is, the key must be in the door. Oh, don't go, please, Mrs. Bogardus. Wait till Chauncey conies in"--
"I wish you'd send Chauncey up when he does come in. Ask him to bring a screw-driver." Mrs. Bogardus rose and examined her jacket. It was still damp. She asked for a cape, or some sort of wrap, as her waist was thin, and the rain had chilled the morning air.
For the sake of decency, Cerissa escorted her visitor across the hall passage into the loom-room--a loom-room in name only for upwards of three generations. Becky had devoted it to the rough work of the house, and to certain special uses, such as the care of the butchering products, the making of soft soap and root beer. Here the churning was done, by hand, with a wooden dasher, which spread a circle of white drops, later to become grease-spots. The floor of the loom-room was laid in large brick tiles, more or less loose in their sockets, with an occasional earthy depression marking the grave of a missing tile. Becky's method of cleaning was to sluice it out and scrub it with an old broom. The seepage of generations before her time had thus added their constant quota to the old well's sum of iniquity.
Mrs. Bogardus had not visited this part of the old house for many years. After her father's death she had shrunk from its painful associations. Later she grew indifferent; but as she passed now into the gloomy place--doubly dark with the deep foliage of June on a rainy morning--she was afraid of her own thoughts. Henceforth she was a woman with a diseased consciousness. "What can't be cured must be seared," flashed over her as she set her face to the stairway.
These stairs, leading up into the back attic or "kitchen chamber," being somewhat crowded for space, advanced two steps into the room below. As the stair door opened outward, and the stairs were exceedingly steep and dark, every child of the house, in turn, had suffered a bad fall in consequence; but the arrangement remained in all its natural depravity, for "children must learn."
Little Emmy of the old days had loved to sit upon these steps, a trifle raised above the kitchen traffic, yet cognizant of all that was going on, and ready to descend promptly if she smelled fresh crullers frying, or baked sweet apples steaming hot from the oven. If Becky's foot were heard upon the stairs above, she would jump quick enough; but if the step had a clumping, boyish precipitancy, she sat still and laughed, and planted her back against the door. Often she had teased Adam in this way, keeping him prisoner from his duties, helpless in his good nature either to scold her or push her off. But once he circumvented her, slipping off his shoes and creeping up the stairs again, and making his escape by the roof and the boughs of the old maple. Then it was Emmy who was teased, who sat a foolish half hour on the stairs alone and missed a beautiful ride to the wood lot; but she would not speak to Adam for two days afterward.
Becky's had been the larger of the two bedrooms in the attic, Adam's the smaller--tucked low under the eaves, and entered by crawling around the big chimney that came bulking up to the light like a great tree caught between house walls. The stairs hugged the chimney and made use of its support. Adam would warm his hands upon it coming down on bitter mornings. From force of habit, Emily Bogardus laid her smooth white hand upon the clammy bricks. No tombstone could be colder than that heart of house warmth now.
The roof of the kitchen chamber had been raised a story higher, and the chimney as it went up contracted to quite a modern size. This elevation gave room for the incongruous tower bedroom that had hurt the symmetry of the old house, spoiled its noble sweep of roof, and given rise to so much unpleasant conjecture as to its use. It was this excrescence, the record of those last unloved and unloving years of her father's life, which Mrs. Bogardus would have removed, but was prevented by her son.
"You go back now, Cerissa," she said to the panting woman behind her. "I see the key is in the lock. You may send Chauncey after a while; there is no hurry."
"Oh!" gasped Cerissa. "Do you see that!"
"I thought there was something--something behind that slit."
"There isn't. Step this way. There, can't you see the light?"
Mrs. Bogardus grasped Cerissa by the shoulders and held her firmly in front of a narrow loophole that pierced the partition close beside the door. Light from the room within showed plainly; but it gave an unpleasantly human expression to the entrance, like a furtive eye on the watch.
"He would always be there," Cerissa whispered.
"Your father. If anybody wanted to see him after he shut himself in there for the night, they had to stand to be questioned through that wall-slit before he opened the door. Yes, ma'am! He was on the watch in there the whole time like a thing in a trap."
"Are you afraid to go back alone?" Mrs. Bogardus spoke with chilling irony.
Cerissa backed away in silence, her heart thumping. "She's putting it on," she said to herself. "I never see her turn so pale. Don't tell me she ain't afraid!"
There was a hanging shelf against the chimney on which a bundle of dry herbs had been left to turn into dust. Old Becky might have put them there the autumn before she died; or some successor of hers in the years that were blank to the daughter of the house. As she pushed open the door a sighing draught swept past her and seemed to draw her inward. It shook the sere bundle. Its skeleton leaves, dissolving into motes, flickered an instant athwart the light. They sifted down like ashes on the woman's dark head as she passed in. Her color had faded, but not through fear of ghost clocks. It was the searing process she had to face. And any room where she sat alone with certain memories of her youth was to her a torture chamber.
* * * * *
"She's been up there an awful long time. I wouldn't wonder if she's fainted away."
"What would she faint at? I guess it's pretty cold, though. Give me some more tea; put plenty of milk so I can drink it quick."
Chauncey's matter of fact tone always comforted Cerissa when she was nervous. She did not mind that he jeered or that his words were often rude; no man of her acquaintance could say things nicely to women, or ever tried. A certain amount of roughness passed for household wit. Chauncey put the screw-driver in his pocket, his wife and son watching him with respectful anxiety. He thought rather well of his own courage privately. But the familiar details of the loom-room cheered him on his way, the homely tools of his every-day work were like friendly faces nodding at him. He knocked loudly on the door above, and was answered by Mrs. Bogardus in her natural voice.
"Bosh--every bit of it bosh!" he repeated courageously.
She was seated by the window in the chair with the green cushions. Her face was turned towards the view outside. "What a pity those cherries were not picked before the rain," she observed. "The fruit is bursting ripe; I'm afraid you'll lose the crop."
Chauncey moved forward awkwardly without answering.
"Stop there one moment, will you?" Mrs. Bogardus rose and demonstrated. "You notice those two boards are loose. Now, I put this chair here,"--she laid her hand on the back to still its motion. "Step this way. You see? The chair rocks of itself. So would any chair with a spring board under it. That accounts for that, I think. Now come over here." Chauncey placed himself as she directed in front of the high mantel with the clock above it. She stood at his side and they listened in silence to that sound which Mary Hornbeck, deceased, had deemed a spiritual warning.
"Would you call that a 'ticking'? Is that like any sound an insect could make?" the mistress asked.
"I should call it more like a 'ting,'" said Chauncey. "It comes kind o' muffled like through the chimbly--a person might be mistaken if they was upset in their nerves considerable."
"What old people call the 'death-watch' is supposed to be an insect that lives in the walls of old houses, isn't it? and gives warning with a ticking sound when somebody is going to be called away? Now to me that sounds like a soft blow struck regularly on a piece of hollow iron--say the end of a stove-pipe sticking in the chimney. When I first came up here, there was only a steady murmur of wind and rain. Then the clouds thinned and the sun came out and drops began to fall--distinctly. Your wife says the ticking was heard on a day like this, broken and showery. Now, if you will unscrew that clock, I think you will find there's a stove-pipe hole behind it; and a piece of pipe shoved into the chimney just far enough to catch the drops as they gather and fall."
Chauncey went to work. He sweated in the airless room. The powerful screws blunted the lips of his tool but would not start.
"I guess I'll have to give it up for to-day. The screws are rusted in solid. Want I should pry her out of the woodwork?"
"No, don't do that," said Mrs. Bogardus. "Why should we spoil the panel? This seems a very comfortable room. My son is right. It would be foolish to tear it down. Such a place as this might be very useful if you people would get over your notions about it."
"I never had no notions," Chauncey asserted. "When the women git talkin' they like to make out a good story, and whichever one sees the most and hears the most makes the biggest sensation."
Mrs. Bogardus waited till he had finished without appearing to have heard what he was saying.
"Where is the key to this door?" she laid her hand over a knob to the right of the stairs.
"I guess if there is one it's on the other side. Yes, it's in the key-hole." Chauncey turned the knob and shoved and lifted. The door yielded to his full strength, and he allowed Mrs. Bogardus to precede him. She stepped into a room hardly bigger than a closet with one window, barred like those in the outer room. It was fitted up with toilet conveniences according to the best advices of its day. Over all the neat personal arrangements there was the slur of neglect, a sad squalor which even a king's palace wears with time.
Chauncey tested the plumbing with a noise that was plainly offensive to his companion, but she bore with it--also with his reminiscences gathered from neighborhood gossip. "He wa'n't fond of spending money, but he didn't spare it here: this was his ship cabin when he started on his last voyage. It looked funny--a man with all his land and houses cooped up in a place like this; but he wanted to be independent of the women. He hated to have 'em fussin' around him. He had a woman to come and cook up stuff for him to help himself to; but she wouldn't stay here overnight, nor he wouldn't let her. As for a man in the house,--most men were thieves, he thought, or waiting their chance to be. It was real pitiful the way he made his end."
"Open that window and shut the door when you come out," said Mrs. Bogardus. "I will send some one to help you down with that secretary. Cerissa knows about it. It is to be sent up on the Hill."