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, through the 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 events and personages, but of 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 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 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 am relieved to see you,” I said, for as she stood before me, I had to laugh 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 Lumble!
“I did not know where to find you last night or this morning,” I continued. “I hope 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. How nice that the house and grounds have been repaired again. Lumble said nothing this morning of plans to attend to the mess, which seems to me not unusual, for Lumble is not a person of many words, would you say?”
Mrs. Jameson regarded me with a remarkably blank expression.
“But everything looks cheerful, and I thank you, Mrs. Jameson, for 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 what she seemed to consider natural: The fact that she kept the house tidy was akin to the fact that the sun rose every morning over the 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 unwelcome gratitude, and so I 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 curt, but I was determined to tap elucidation.
“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 was locked in the bay room last night, and I called for you, 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 this door wide open. I was perturbed to say the least. I looked for you, 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 open by someone. Does anyone else reside here, Mrs. Jameson? The maid? The cook?”
“I am 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 was focused only on words that alluded to the state of the house. I was not concerned with sitting rooms or supper.
Quite alone. So it was not possible, as my friend Edmund Mix, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, had insisted, 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 open, 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.”
She drifted toward the drawing room.
“Mrs. Jameson?” I inquired.
Her skirt grazed my boot as she turned to regard me with anxiety in her eyes.
“Please tell me, Mrs. Jameson — who is the woman dressed in white who I saw — and who then disappeared — in my room?”
Mrs. Jameson did not blink.
Neither did I.
I held her gaze.
“Forgive me, sir,” she said at last. “But you are the only one here, sir.”
There was a firmness to her tone that suggested she believed that the more forcefully she uttered her conviction, the truer it would be.
I did not wish my perseverance to cause 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? Then you must have left shortly after I retired to the sitting room. Did you then perhaps leave the front door open when you left?”
“I beg your pardon, sir; I do not pass through the front door.”
“I see,” I said, realizing that 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 door wide open?”
“I am 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 again drifting toward the drawing room.
Like Lumble, 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.
But regardless of her reserve, the banister, I noticed as I mounted the stairs, was free of dust, and I trusted that she 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 she would hear 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 her diffidence — not to mention the waxing enigma of my situation — I breathed in the contentment I had anticipated feeling every evening at the sight of such 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 comfort.
Again, I fell asleep, and when I woke, a storm was raging outside.
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 solitary candle this time — I closed the windows quickly and quit the room before the door could slam shut.
I then repaired to the other chamber whose door had opened unfathomably the night before.
The portal was shut.
I surmised that Mrs. Jameson had closed it when she tidied.
Now I opened it and saw that she had covered the furniture in cloths. There was a smell of soap and vinegar. Any indication of recent occupancy had been expunged.
If there was a connection between that room and the woman who had appeared at my bedside, I could not understand it.
I busied myself with preparing for bed, and with reflecting on how I had spent most of the day thinking, in a longful state of mind, of Catherine Bellefey.
I slept soundly till I awoke with a feeling that my chamber door had been opened.
With haste I struck a match.
To my surprise, the door was shut.
But as I was about to shake out the flame, I glimpsed a white swish receding as the flare touched my fingers and I dropped the match at the sting.
I lay still, feeling the otherly presence, until nature compelled me to breathe — and the presence came closer.
I recoiled — mortally aware that I lacked light and weapon — and then I felt my visitor withdraw, and knew I was alone.
I sprang up 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, 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, floating just below the surface of sleep as thoughts of my furtive guest tumbled in my mind and dissolved into dreams.
I woke late and had time to scribble but a few words before leaving for the office.
The same events recurred on three consecutive evenings.
Every afternoon I approached the restored house as rain was beginning to fall; every afternoon I was greeted by Mrs. Jameson, who eluded my questions and repeated, “Indeed, sir, the house has looked the same for a hundred years.”
Every afternoon I ate a hot early supper and then, despite all new efforts to the contrary, fell asleep in the chair.
Every evening I woke to the sound of rain, thunder, and colliding windows; every night I slept soundly, only marginally aware of a distant feeling of disquiet — until I woke in the witching hour to a glimmer of strange company.
Every morning I woke late, wrote for a few minutes, and then departed through a disarrayed yard for 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 exaggerations 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.