There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Wind in the Rose-Bush and Other Stories of the Supernatural (1903) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

     "You won't try to sleep in that room again, Sophia?" 

     "No," said Sophia; "and I am going to sell this house."

"The Southwest Chamber"

*     *     *

The Wind in the Rose-Bush and Other Stories of the Supernatural (1903)

by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

The protagonists in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's (1852–1930) stories face, among other Job-like trials, the unacknowledged consequences of a narrow set of petty bourgeois New England values. 

In many ways the families in Wilkins Freeman's stories remind me of similar families in Hollywood movies about the turn of the century: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Meet Me in St. Louis (1943), Life With Father (1947), Cheaper by the Dozen (1950). Those are the homes I imagine for families like those in "The Vacant Lot," "The Southwest Chamber," and "The Shadows on the Wall."

Several generations and their domestic help live together, even when they probably should not.

As S. T. Joshi notes in his book Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction (2012), Wilkins Freeman found in the ghost story "a vivid vehicle for underscoring her focus on the intricacies of domestic relationships—virtually her sole concern in all her writing, but one so complex that it was capable of infinite variation...."

"The Wind in the Rose-Bush" (1902) is a heartbreaker of lasting impact. Its battle of wits between Rebecca Flint and Mrs. Dent is of unmatched emotional intensity. Rebecca has come to Ford Village to collect her niece, who has been living with the Dents for several years. Mrs. Dent is a silent, tricky liar, thwarting Rebecca's search at every turn.

"The Shadows on the Wall" (1903) is a domestic tragedy bred of middle class narrowness. A successful brother, Henry, resents his unsuccessful brother moving back to the family home. The broke brother dies speedily of sudden-onset gastric trouble. The three sisters must contend with the chaos, seeking ways to accommodate. 

     "You had better stay where you are," said Caroline with guarded sharpness.

     "I am going to see," repeated Mrs. Brigham firmly.

     Then she folded her skirts so tightly that her bulk with its swelling curves was revealed in a black silk sheath, and she went with a slow toddle across the hall to the study door. She stood there, her eye at the crack.

     In the south room Rebecca stopped sewing and sat watching with dilated eyes. Caroline sewed steadily. What Mrs. Brigham, standing at the crack in the study door, saw was this:

     Henry Glynn, evidently reasoning that the source of the strange shadow must be between the table on which the lamp stood and the wall, was making systematic passes and thrusts all over and through the intervening space with an old sword which had belonged to his father. Not an inch was left unpierced. He seemed to have divided the space into mathematical sections. He brandished the sword with a sort of cold fury and calculation; the blade gave out flashes of light, the shadow remained unmoved. Mrs. Brigham, watching, felt herself cold with horror.

     Finally Henry ceased and stood with the sword in hand and raised as if to strike, surveying the shadow on the wall threateningly. Mrs. Brigham toddled back across the hall and shut the south room door behind her before she related what she had seen.

     "He looked like a demon!" she said again. "Have you got any of that old wine in the house, Caroline? I don't feel as if I could stand much more."

"Luella Miller" (1902) is a parasitic woman who drains the physical strength of everyone she inveigles to care for her. Unto death. And beyond. I think we all know at least one Luella Miller; if we don't, we're probably the Luella.

     "The way Lily Miller used to talk about Luella was enough to make you mad and enough to make you cry," said Lydia Anderson. "I've been in there sometimes toward the last when she was too feeble to cook and carried her some blanc-mange or custard—somethin' I thought she might relish, and she'd thank me, and when I asked her how she was, say she felt better than she did yesterday, and asked me if I didn't think she looked better, dreadful pitiful, and say poor Luella had an awful time takin' care of her and doin' the work—she wa'n't strong enough to do anythin'—when all the time Luella wa'n't liftin' her finger and poor Lily didn't get any care except what the neighbours gave her, and Luella eat up everythin' that was carried in for Lily. I had it real straight that she did. Luella used to just sit and cry and do nothin'. She did act real fond of Lily, and she pined away considerable, too. There was those that thought she'd go into a decline herself. But after Lily died, her Aunt Abby Mixter came, and then Luella picked up and grew as fat and rosy as ever. But poor Aunt Abby begun to droop just the way Lily had, and I guess somebody wrote to her married daughter, Mrs. Sam Abbot, who lived in Barre, for she wrote her mother that she must leave right away and come and make her a visit, but Aunt Abby wouldn't go...."

Wilkins Freeman does an excellent job leveraging the strengths of the short story in "Luella Miller," telescoping lifetimes of tragedy into a few pages.

"The Southwest Chamber" (1903) is more modest in compass than some other stories in The Wind in the Rose-Bush. Still, the family romance it depicts has an appalling power.

     Amanda moved toward the pan of beans on the table, then she looked at her sister.

     "Did you come up in Aunt Harriet's room while I was there?" she asked weakly.

     She knew while she asked what the answer would be.

     "Up in Aunt Harriet's room? Of course I didn't. I couldn't leave this cake without having it fall. You know that well enough. Why?"

     "Nothing," replied Amanda.

     Suddenly she realized that she could not tell her sister what had happened, for before the utter absurdity of the whole thing her belief in her own reason quailed. She knew what Sophia would say if she told her. She could hear her.

     "Amanda Gill, have you gone stark staring mad?"

     She resolved that she would never tell Sophia. She dropped into a chair and begun shelling the beans with nerveless fingers. Sophia looked at her curiously.

     "Amanda Gill, what on earth ails you?" she asked.

     "Nothing," replied Amanda. She bent her head very low over the green pods.

     "Yes, there is, too! You are as white as a sheet, and your hands are shaking so you can hardly string those beans. I did think you had more sense, Amanda Gill."

     "I don't know what you mean, Sophia."

     "Yes, you do know what I mean, too; you needn't pretend you don't. Why did you ask me if I had been in that room, and why do you act so queer?"

     Amanda hesitated. She had been trained to truth. Then she lied.

     "I wondered if you'd noticed how it had leaked in on the paper over by the bureau, that last rain," said she.

     "What makes you look so pale then?"

     "I don't know. I guess the heat sort of overcame me."

     "I shouldn't think it could have been very hot in that room when it had been shut up so long," said Sophia.

     She was evidently not satisfied, but then the grocer came to the door and the matter dropped.

     For the next hour the two women were very busy. They kept no servant. When they had come into possession of this fine old place by the death of their aunt it had seemed a doubtful blessing. There was not a cent with which to pay for repairs and taxes and insurance, except the twelve hundred dollars which they had obtained from the sale of the little house in which they had been born and lived all their lives. There had been a division in the old Ackley family years before. One of the daughters had married against her mother's wish and had been disinherited. She had married a poor man by the name of Gill, and shared his humble lot in sight of her former home and her sister and mother living in prosperity, until she had borne three daughters; then she died, worn out with overwork and worry.

     The mother and the elder sister had been pitiless to the last. Neither had ever spoken to her since she left her home the night of her marriage. They were hard women.

"The Vacant Lot" (1902) succeeds as both an uncanny masterpiece and a buyer-beware comedy. After generations the Townsend family leave Townsend Centre for Boston, looking for better prospects for their son (education) and daughter (marriage).

The excitement of fresh prospects does not last long. 

     "Oh, father, let's move away; let's sell the house," cried Adrianna in a panic-stricken tone.

     "If you think I'm going to sell a house that I got as cheap as this one because we smell cabbage in a vacant lot, you're mistaken," replied David firmly.

     "It isn't the cabbage alone," said Mrs. Townsend.

     "And a few shadows," added David. "I am tired of such nonsense. I thought you had more sense, Jane."

     "One of the boys at school asked me if we lived in the house next to the vacant lot on Wells Street and whistled when I said 'Yes,'" remarked George.

     "Let him whistle," said Mr. Townsend.

     After a few hours the family, stimulated by Mr. Townsend's calm, common sense, agreed that it was exceedingly foolish to be disturbed by a mysterious odour of cabbage. They even laughed at themselves.

     "I suppose we have got so nervous over those shadows hanging out clothes that we notice every little thing," conceded Mrs. Townsend.

     "You will find out some day that that is no more to be regarded than the cabbage," said her husband.

     "You can't account for that wet sheet hitting my face," said Mrs. Townsend, doubtfully.

     "You imagined it."

     "I FELT it."

     That afternoon things went on as usual in the household until nearly four o'clock. Adrianna went downtown to do some shopping. Mrs. Townsend sat sewing beside the bay window in her room, which was a front one in the third story. George had not got home. Mr. Townsend was writing a letter in the library. Cordelia was busy in the basement; the twilight, which was coming earlier and earlier every night, was beginning to gather, when suddenly there was a loud crash which shook the house from its foundations. Even the dishes on the sideboard rattled, and the glasses rang like bells. The pictures on the walls of Mrs. Townsend's room swung out from the walls. But that was not all: every looking-glass in the house cracked simultaneously—as nearly as they could judge—from top to bottom, then shivered into fragments over the floors. Mrs. Townsend was too frightened to scream. She sat huddled in her chair, gasping for breath, her eyes, rolling from side to side in incredulous terror, turned toward the street. She saw a great black group of people crossing it just in front of the vacant lot. There was something inexpressibly strange and gloomy about this moving group; there was an effect of sweeping, wavings and foldings of sable draperies and gleams of deadly white faces; then they passed. She twisted her head to see, and they disappeared in the vacant lot. Mr. Townsend came hurrying into the room; he was pale, and looked at once angry and alarmed.

     "Did you fall?" he asked inconsequently, as if his wife, who was small, could have produced such a manifestation by a fall.

     "Oh, David, what is it?" whispered Mrs. Townsend.

     "Darned if I know!" said David.

     "Don't swear. It's too awful. Oh, see the looking-glass, David!"

     "I see it. The one over the library mantel is broken, too."

     "Oh, it is a sign of death!"

The Townsend's have done nothing to warrant such nemesis. The price of their new house was too good to pass up; ultimately, they'll have to eat the bargain as they flee back to the sanity and blessed normality of Townsend Centre.

"The Lost Ghost" (1903) is a modest heartbreaker. The milieu of women from different backgrounds  thrown together is compelling and Wilkins Freeman handles it beautifully.

     "And I wouldn't tell it to a soul if you didn't want me to."

     "Well, I'd rather you wouldn't."

     "I won't speak of it even to Mr. Emerson."

     "I'd rather you wouldn't even to him."

     "I won't."

     Mrs. Emerson took up her dress skirt again; Mrs. Meserve hooked up another loop of blue wool. Then she begun:

     "Of course," said she, "I ain't going to say positively that I believe or disbelieve in ghosts, but all I tell you is what I saw. I can't explain it. I don't pretend I can, for I can't. If you can, well and good; I shall be glad, for it will stop tormenting me as it has done and always will otherwise. There hasn't been a day nor a night since it happened that I haven't thought of it, and always I have felt the shivers go down my back when I did."

     "That's an awful feeling," Mrs. Emerson said.

     "Ain't it? Well, it happened before I was married, when I was a girl and lived in East Wilmington. It was the first year I lived there. You know my family all died five years before that. I told you."

     Mrs. Emerson nodded.

     "Well, I went there to teach school, and I went to board with a Mrs. Amelia Dennison and her sister, Mrs. Bird. Abby, her name was—Abby Bird. She was a widow; she had never had any children. She had a little money—Mrs. Dennison didn't have any—and she had come to East Wilmington and bought the house they lived in. It was a real pretty house, though it was very old and run down. It had cost Mrs. Bird a good deal to put it in order. I guess that was the reason they took me to board. I guess they thought it would help along a little. I guess what I paid for my board about kept us all in victuals. Mrs. Bird had enough to live on if they were careful, but she had spent so much fixing up the old house that they must have been a little pinched for awhile.

     "Anyhow, they took me to board, and I thought I was pretty lucky to get in there. I had a nice room, big and sunny and furnished pretty, the paper and paint all new, and everything as neat as wax. Mrs. Dennison was one of the best cooks I ever saw, and I had a little stove in my room, and there was always a nice fire there when I got home from school. I thought I hadn't been in such a nice place since I lost my own home, until I had been there about three weeks.

     "I had been there about three weeks before I found it out, though I guess it had been going on ever since they had been in the house, and that was most four months. They hadn't said anything about it, and I didn't wonder, for there they had just bought the house and been to so much expense and trouble fixing it up.

     "Well, I went there in September. I begun my school the first Monday. I remember it was a real cold fall, there was a frost the middle of September, and I had to put on my winter coat. I remember when I came home that night (let me see, I began school on a Monday, and that was two weeks from the next Thursday), I took off my coat downstairs and laid it on the table in the front entry. It was a real nice coat—heavy black broadcloth trimmed with fur; I had had it the winter before. Mrs. Bird called after me as I went upstairs that I ought not to leave it in the front entry for fear somebody might come in and take it, but I only laughed and called back to her that I wasn't afraid. I never was much afraid of burglars.

     "Well, though it was hardly the middle of September, it was a real cold night. I remember my room faced west, and the sun was getting low, and the sky was a pale yellow and purple, just as you see it sometimes in the winter when there is going to be a cold snap. I rather think that was the night the frost came the first time. I know Mrs. Dennison covered up some flowers she had in the front yard, anyhow. I remember looking out and seeing an old green plaid shawl of hers over the verbena bed. There was a fire in my little wood-stove. Mrs. Bird made it, I know. She was a real motherly sort of woman; she always seemed to be the happiest when she was doing something to make other folks happy and comfortable. Mrs. Dennison told me she had always been so. She said she had coddled her husband within an inch of his life. 'It's lucky Abby never had any children,' she said, 'for she would have spoilt them.'


12 September 2021

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