On my way to and from the office and unceasingly throughout the day, I thought of Catherine Bellefey.
I had been trying to take my mind from her since June, but my dream had roused not unfrequented memories of her beauty, her vivaciousness, and the light that seemed to always surround her.
As I walked, in the late afternoon, from the STS stop through the changing atmosphere of autumn, I recalled my spring walks with Miss Bellefey.
On those walks the sun had cast a warm light that differed from the light I savored now. Its brightness had borne a feeling of renewal and freshness, whereas the light now was tinged with a glory that would soon give way to winter.
On those walks we had strolled through verdant newness, seeming to catch flowers and leaves as they unfurled.
Now, through the enchantment of fading sunlight filtered between orange and yellow leaves, I recalled Miss Bellefey’s radiant smile; the light, musical sound of her laugh; the joy in her eyes whenever I took her arm; and how together we had watched spring unfold.
My reverie led me not to the carriage house of Mr. Griffin, but to the house on the lake. I had forgotten where I was going and sauntered toward my own abode. Had rain not begun to fall as I strolled up the street toward the house, I might have plodded on to Mr. Griffin’s, but the dampness was chill and I was in need of rest.
My feelings, as I approached the house, were not of dread at its mysterious events and personages, but of joy and relief, for again, the lawn had been trimmed, the trees had been tamed, the path had been repaired, and the house stood like a beacon, radiating beauty and a soothing feeling of home. Smoke piped from the chimney, and so I was not surprised when Mrs. Jameson opened the door.
“Good evening, sir. Welcome to the house on the lake, sir.”
Mrs. Jameson looked quite the same as she had the afternoon before. Her benevolent features were again illuminated by candlelight, and she wore the same old-fashioned dress and crisp apron as she had on our previous encounter. Indeed, it was as if no time had passed, and as if she had never left the house, for her manner suggested that her sole aim was to provide comfort to the present inhabitant of the manor. She was the picture of domesticity.
“Thank you, Mrs. Jameson. I’m quite relieved to see you!” I said, for as she stood before me, I had to chortle at myself for almost believing Lumble’s morning joke. Of course there was a housekeeper! And the kind woman would answer the questions I had not had the chance to ask of Lumble!
“I did not know where to find you last night or this morning, Mrs. Jameson,” I continued. “I trust you are well?”
“There is a fire upstairs, sir, and I have laid a hot supper for you in the sitting room, sir. Upstairs on the north wing, sir.”
She handed me the candle. She made no comment on her own state of being.
“Well… thank you, Mrs. Jameson,” I said. “How nice that once again you and Mr. Lumble saw to the maintenance of the house and the grounds. Mr. Lumble said nothing this morning of his plans for repairs, which seems to me not unusual, for Mr. Lumble is not a man of many words, is he?”
Mrs. Jameson regarded me with a remarkably blank expression.
“But, as I say,” I continued, “everything looks quite cheerful, and I thank you for your efforts, Mrs. Jameson, in ensuring that the house is well maintained.”
“Indeed, sir,” Mrs. Jameson replied, “the house has looked the same for a hundred years.”
Mrs. Jameson seemed to repeat her words in the same manner in which she had likely duplicated her domestic chores for many decades. She was a creature of habit, I believed, and gave little thought to the repetition of her activities or her speech. She took quiet pride, I presumed, in being a custodian of history, in ensuring that the house remained in the state of glory she (and I) imagined it possessed when it was built, and in what she seemed to consider quite natural: The fact that she kept the house tidy was akin to the fact that the sun rose every morning over the glittering lake.
I thought it best to retreat from the subject with the same reticence she took toward the matter. I vowed not to press on with excessive or unwelcome gratitude, and so I merely replied: “Indeed, Mrs. Jameson. I have no doubt.”
The kindly matron closed and locked the door.
I was about to mount the first stair, for Mrs. Jameson’s manner was somewhat curt, but I was determined to tap elucidation—if I could.
“Mrs. Jameson?” I inquired.
As she turned to answer, I looked into her eyes, which were the gray-blue of a silty pond. Her skin was very pale, and wrinkled as a purse, but her face, clearly once handsome, remained so, owing to well-formed cheekbones that were made prominent by the way her hair was arranged beneath her lace cap.
“I… I was locked in the bay room last night, and I called for you, Mrs. Jameson, but you did not answer.”
Mrs. Jameson’s hand fluttered to her heart.
“I beg your pardon, sir—I have made up a sitting room—”
“I was locked in the bay room, I say, Mrs. Jameson. During the storm. When the rain ceased, the door opened unaccountably, and I came down here to find the front door ajar. I was quite perturbed… I looked for you in all the rooms of the house, but, as you know, I did not find you.”
“I am sorry, sir. I might mention that I do not reside here, sir. I have laid a fire—”
“I understand. I guessed as much. But the door had been left ajar by someone. Does anyone else reside here, Mrs. Jameson? The maid? The cook?”
“I’m afraid you are quite alone, sir. But I have prepared a sitting room upstairs on the north wing, sir. There is a hot supper awaiting you upstairs, sir.”
Quite alone, I thought, for I could focus only on the words that alluded to the matter of the doors. I was not concerned with supper.
Quite alone. So it was not possible, as my friend Edmund Mix, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, had suggested, that the woman I had seen at my bedside was a servant who passed through a corridor unknown to me. I had conceded that that was a possibility—nay, I had conceded that it was likely, for alternate possibilities had not crossed Mundy’s mind—but I was not surprised to discover that it was not the case. Indeed, the woman in white had seemed to appear and recede by more mysterious means.
Presently Emma came bounding down the stairs and greeted me warmly. Mrs. Jameson did not acknowledge the dog, who sniffed in her direction and whimpered.
“I see,” I pursued. “But what person left the door ajar, Mrs. Jameson? Was it the woman I saw in my room—the woman in white?”
Mrs. Jameson’s eyes were full blue moons.
“I beg your pardon, sir—please excuse me, sir—I must attend to an important matter.”
The good woman fluttered toward the parlor on the opposite side of the hall.
“Mrs. Jameson?” I inquired.
Her skirt grazed my boot as she stopped in place to regard me with anxiety in her countenance.
“Pray please tell me, Mrs. Jameson—who is the woman dressed in white whom I saw—and who then disappeared—in my room?”
Mrs. Jameson did not blink.
Neither did I.
I held her gaze.
“No… person, I daresay, sir,” she said at last. “Forgive me, sir, but you are the only one here, sir.”
There was a firmness to her tone that suggested that she believed that the more forcefully she uttered her conviction, the truer it would be. I feared that my perseverance was causing her distress, but I pressed on—
“Surely, Mrs. Jameson, you stand before me. Surely you could have—”
“I am not here, sir—”
“I beg your pardon?”
“In the evenings, sir. I am not here at such times. Nor in the mornings, sir.”
“I see. You come only in the afternoons. You must have left shortly after I retired to the sitting room yesterday. Did you then perhaps leave the front door open when you left just, I presume, as I fell asleep?”
“I beg your pardon, sir; I do not pass through the front door.”
“Indeed,” I conceded again, this time at the realization that I had embarrassed the good woman. She likely came and went through one of the side doors. “But can you offer me any theory as to why I came downstairs last night to find the front door wide open?”
“I’m sorry, sir, I cannot, sir. You are the only one here, sir.”
I had bent down to pet Emma. When I looked up, Mrs. Jameson was drifting into the parlor toward the candle that burned on the mantle.
Like Lumble, and, indeed, like myself, she did not seem to be excessively skilled in the art of conversation. Mr. Griffin had not inhabited the house in forty years, he had said; it would likely take time for Mrs. Jameson to become accustomed to me; I vowed to inquire further—but more gently—about the doors and the woman on the morrow.
Regardless of Mrs. Jameson’s reserved and apprehensive manner, the banister, I noticed, as I mounted the stairs, was free of dust, and I trusted that Mrs. Jameson was, at the very least, gifted in ensuring that the house was, as she had put it the afternoon before, well kempt.
From the gallery I called a thank-you and good-night, hoping that the reticent woman would acknowledge my gratitude and discern in my tone an appreciation for her patience with my inquisition. But, as on the afternoon before, she did not respond.
I deemed it possible that her hearing suffered as a result of her age.
And despite the woman’s diffidence—and indeed despite the mounting mysteriousness of my situation—I breathed in the contentment that I had anticipated feeling every evening at the sight of such exceptional woodwork and beautiful craftsmanship.
In the sitting room I found the Admiral nestled on the chair before the fire. He rose, his fine green eyes greeting me with their warm glint of pleasure, stretched his back, and jumped first to my feet, then to my lap as I assumed the chair. Emma curled up at my feet and the three of us passed the late afternoon in much the same way as the Admiral and I had passed the afternoon before. The dinner was hot and savory; the fire was warm and pleasant; and the cozy room succeeded once again in enfolding me in a shroud of beauty and comfort.
Again, I fell asleep, and when I woke, a storm was raging outside. Again, the distant sound of banging signaled that the bay room’s windows were beating against one other. But on this occasion, by the light of the candelabra—no mere candle this time—I closed the windows quickly and exited the room before the door could slam shut.
I then crept down the hall toward the room whose door the night before had opened mysteriously. The door was quite shut. Likely Mrs. Jameson had closed it when she had tidied earlier in the afternoon. I deemed it not formidable to open the door. Mrs. Jameson had covered the furniture in cloths. Oddly, the room smelled of dust; there was no scent of jasmine—and no indication of recent occupancy.
I did not give credence to any connection between the strangeness of that room and the riddle of the woman who had appeared at my bedside.
I busied myself instead with preparing for bed, and with reflecting on how I had spent most of the day thinking, in a dreamlike state of mind, of Catherine Bellefey—and, with equal interest, and only a little less passion, of the enigma of the house.
I slept very soundly for perhaps three hours. As I slept, I was peripherally aware of a feeling of unease, but in spite of that strange feeling, and the chill that accompanied it, my sleep was deep, and it was with an alarming suddenness that I awoke to a bone-cold nip and a consciousness that the chamber door, which earlier I had closed, was quite open.
With haste I struck a match and leapt toward the door.
To my surprise, it was firmly shut. But as I turned, I glimpsed the white swish of a figure receding just as the flame touched my fingers and I dropped the match at the sensation. I stood still, entrenched in the feeling of an otherly presence, for several moments, until nature compelled me to breathe–and I felt the presence come closer. I retreated–panicked at the thought of candle and match so far from reach–terrified at the fact that I was undefended by light or weapon–and then I felt my visitor withdraw, and I knew I was alone.
Calmly now, and unobstructed, I glided toward the nightstand and fumbled for a candle. As on the night before, I illuminated every corner of the room. There was nothing to discern but bed, chair, dresser, curtains, a slumbering pup, and a wakeful feline whose eyes revealed that he knew precisely what category of company he had just encountered.
I patted the puss; I fell into the chair; I lit a pipe; I sat and I smoked and I ruminated and I considered.
At last, as the darkness was beginning to recede, I lay down and slumbered, skimming the surface of sleep as thoughts about Mrs. Jameson and the woman in white tumbled in my mind and dissolved into dreams. I woke rather late and had time to sit in the bay room and scribble but a few words before leaving for the office.
The same events recurred on three consecutive evenings.
Every afternoon I approached the perfectly restored house and grounds as rain was beginning to fall; every afternoon I was greeted by Mrs. Jameson, who eluded my questions and compliments and repeated her words, “Indeed, sir, the house has looked the same for a hundred years;” every afternoon I ate a hot supper and then, despite all new efforts to the contrary, promptly fell asleep in the chair.
Every evening I woke to the sound of rain, thunder, and colliding windows; every night I slept soundly for a few hours, only marginally aware of a distant feeling of disquiet; every witching hour I woke suddenly to a feeling and a glimmer of strange company.
And every morning I woke late, scratched a few words for a few minutes, and then departed through a disarrayed yard and travelled to the office, where I relayed the occurrences of the previous night to Edmund, who every day made light of my tales and attributed them to the imaginings of a lonely and jilted young bachelor.
And so on the sixth afternoon, I deemed it a worthy test to alter my routine by taking a detour on my way home to the house on the lake.