Dark in the Chrysalis
By Alice Morrey Bailey
Synopsis: Edith Ashe, a widow, forty-seven, living with her son Kit, overhears his wife Annette complain that she cannot stand the self-pity of her mother-in-law another day. Edith has three more sons but none with whom she can live, no money, and no income. In answer to an advertisement she obtains the position as companion to an elderly woman.
The house at 1218 Walnut Street was of dark stone, formidable and faintly reminiscent of an ancient castle from the semi-turret rising at one end of the flagstone terrace. Ivy, black with sapless age and the soot of winter, spread bony fingers toward the steeply slanted roof. Great windows stared coldly out on the patches of ragged snow that had survived the winds of march.
Edith Ashe’s hands were icy with nervousness and her heart fluttered in her throat as the cab drew up in front of the wrought iron gate. Only the fact that she had come this far and could think of no graceful means of retreating kept her from instructing the driver to take her back to the shelter and modern comfort of Kit’s home.
The cab driver carried her bag up the steps, received his pay, and was gone. Edith remained terribly alone before the plate-glass door, dreading the moment when it should open, longing to take her bag even now, and leave. There was no sound through the thick walls, but suddenly the door swung open. Edith half expected to see a maid, austerely starched and stiffly capped, but the woman who opened the door was dressed in a percale print house dress, with an ample apron, and her hair still up in curlers.
“Come right in,” she said. “I’ll call Mr. Lewis. He’s upstairs packing – has to be away on that nine o’clock train. He don’t drive his car on these long trips. Land, but I’m glad you got here before he left. His mother hasn’t had a companion for a week and I’ve had my hands full trying to run the house and take care of her, too. The last one she had up and left in the night.”
Edith sat gingerly on the leather davenport while the woman climbed the stairs and bustled out of sight. She was aware of a feeling of acute discomfort in the large room. Part of it was her resistance against being here at all, waiting like a menial to see if she would do, and part of it was from the ugliness in the room. Not the room itself, Edith admitted grudgingly. The lines and space were good, with a stair curving gracefully up from one end, in the other a fireplace that was a dream in old tile and fine, polished wood.
Chandeliers gleamed with a million cut glass prisms of light, and on one side of the fireplace, in the alcove made by the semi-turret, there was a grand piano, a really good one Edith knew by the make. Good carpeting, in a brocaded pattern in soft tones, stretched from wall to wall and up the stairs.
But the whole effect was ruined by the furniture, great square pieces from an era of discomfort and ugliness, neither smartly modern as Annette’s was, nor tastefully period, as Edith’s own furniture which was stored away.
She closed her eyes, trying to imagine her furniture in this room, but could see only the hideous, battleship gray that someone had painted the walls and woodwork, and the lank draperies that were obviously not meant to pull across the magnificent plate glass of the windows.
She was puzzling over the dual personality of this room when Mr. Lewis came down the stairs. He moved swiftly and came toward Edith with his hand outstretched. It seemed natural for her to shake hands with him. He took a chair opposite and began to talk, not hurriedly, but efficiently, and with the authority of a man who is used to relegating services.
“I am so glad you came,” he began. “I hope you will like my mother. She is a dear person, but aged and slow. Of course you will help and entertain her, but you will have considerable free time as she sleeps much, especially in the afternoon. Your salary will be thirty-five dollars a week. She will make out your check – and any others for medicine and supplies you feel necessary. Is that satisfactory?”
“Yes, entirely,” said Edith icily. She was prickling with indignation at being so neatly dispatched – as if she were a business matter, evaluated, labeled, and properly filed. Yet he had not asked for her references, nor led her into revealing conversation.
“There is another matter,” he went on, hesitating. “My daughter Linnie will be home from Boston where she has been studying music – voice, during the winter. She is to be married in June. I regret having to be away at this time, but it is necessary that I make a tour of a chain of stores that I own. It will take me a month or six weeks, and it will be difficult to get in touch with me, in case –”
“If I can do anything to help her –” began Edith politely, seeing him flounder for words.
“That is what I hoped you would say. Mother is not equal to any responsibility. Amanda is willing, and a good worker, though not too happy with our household, I’m afraid. I should like to keep her, but there are some things Linnie might need other help about. You are an intelligent woman, Mrs. Ashe. You will be virtual head of the house in my absence. Feel free to take the initiative in anything you think should be done.”
Edith caught her breath. “I’ll do my best,” she said, flushing at the man’s flattering observation. “How dare you place so much trust in a total stranger?”
He looked at her quizzically. “A stranger?” he said softly. “I have never seen you before, Mrs. Ashe, but I hardly feel that Marvin Ashe’s widow could be much of a stranger to me. He brought my daughter Linnie into the world, was our family doctor for years, and I have always felt that if I had had him instead of the doctor I had, I would not have lost my wife. She died eighteen years ago, when Linnie was two.”
“Oh,” said Edith. “I thought – I wondered – ”
“I regret having to hurry through this interview,” he said. “I think I had better take you up and introduce you to my mother, and then I must be on my way. My cab will be here in five minutes.”
Mrs. Lewis’ eyes were bright with nervousness, and two small, pink spots showed in her withered cheeks when they entered the room. She looked not unlike a small, frightened bird. Edith, still light-headed at the turn of the conversation, was moved to quick compassion. She took the old lady’s hand and gave her a reassuring smile after the amenities were done. She could feel the tension go out of the bony hand.
“It’s all right, Cory,” Mrs. Lewis piped. ‘She’ll do fine. You go now, or you’ll miss your train.”
His going was like release from a dynamo. Edith stood, uncertain how to begin.
“Put your things in that next room,” Mrs. Lewis told her. “And then you can help me with my bath.”
The room was a drab oblong with nondescript furnishings and a worn rug. Edith had no interest in it except as a place to sleep. Mrs. Lewis’ room was crowded with old-fashioned pieces Edith guessed to be remnants of her own housekeeping days. The bathroom adjoining was modern and looked very new.
“Cory built it for me,” explained Mrs. Lewis. “His father passed on a year ago, and I came here to spend the rest of my days. He brought me here from the hospital after I had my accident.”
Certainly only the power of Mr. Lewis’ personality lured her to stay, Edith thought ruefully, because it was already apparent that what Mrs. Lewis really needed was a nurse. She was confined to her room, almost to her bed by age and a “bad leg” – the relic of a broken hip that had failed to knit properly. She could get about the room with crutches with difficulty, and could get to the bathroom, but Edith had practically to lift her in and out of the tub. Her bed must be made while she combed her hair, knotting it on top of her head in a sketchy bun with two or three bone hairpins. The endlessly slow ritual took all morning. At noon Amanda brought two trays of food, instead of one.
“They usually eat with her,” she informed Edith.
Lunch over, the old lady lay back in bed while Edith sat in the Morris chair not knowing whether she should read, leave the room, or just sit. Once Mrs. Lewis opened her eyes, looking directly at Edith as if divining the question in her mind.
“It’s terrible to get old and be a burden, and to be helpless so that you can do nothing – you can’t even die.”
“Oh! You shouldn’t feel that way,” protested Edith, remembering guiltily that she had felt very similarly less than twenty-four hours ago, and with much less reason. “Your son is very fond of you.”
“Yes, I guess he is. Cory’s a good boy, but he’s gone so much and this house is lonesome with nobody in it that cares about a person.”
Edith’s amusement over the mature, fiftyish man, Cory, being a “good boy,” was pricked by this rather direct accusation, because certainly, especially this early in the acquaintanceship, it could not be said that she cared about Mrs. Lewis.
“Mr. Lewis says that your granddaughter is coming home in a few days,” she offered.
The old lady’s face brightened so suddenly that it was like a glimpse into another personality.
“Linnie,” she said, “there’s a good deal I could do for Linnie that would make life worth living, if I wasn’t so old and useless. The living have no time for the dead, though.”
She closed her eyes on this morose statement and her face resumed the lines of patient despair.
Downstairs, the pots and pans were clattering together and the sound carried through the dining room, the living room, and up the stairs. Mrs. Lewis opened her eyes.
“Amanda gets noisy when she is put out at something,” she said, and closed her eyes again. Eventually the clatter stopped below and her old features relaxed in sleep. Edith assured herself that the open mouth and the sunken eyes of the withered old woman were not death itself, and tiptoed out.
Edith had the inveterate homemaker’s interest in rooms and space, and she peered into those along the hall, justifying her curiosity with the remembrance that this was the domain over which Mr. Lewis had made her “virtual head.” Besides Mr. Lewis’ room, which was opposite the stairs and coincided with the turret, and the one, apparently Linnie’s, across the hall from her own, there were two others, piled with books and odds and ends of furniture, uncarpeted and unused. An ample linen closet was cluttered with worn linen and clean rags. Edith itched to clear it out, discard the useless, and stack the good in neat piles.
Everywhere the space was good; no one built houses like this any more, but the room decorations were hopeless, the furnishings grizzly. The bathroom at the end of the hall was a turn-of-the-century antiquarian. Six bedrooms in all, a linen closet, and two baths, Edith tallied, and all of them as dismal as the living room downstairs. Edith closed the doors with a feeling of frustration and distaste.
“Head of the house,” Mr. Lewis had said. Just what, Edith thought indignantly, did he expect of her? Who could tolerate a house so badly run, so hideously undecorative? Just what could he think she could do for his daughter Linnie under the circumstances, besides taking care of his mother?
Edith thought of him, sitting there interviewing her, his linen immaculate, his business suit impeccable, and his speech and manner that of an executive, in the midst of all this wretchedness. Her opinion of Mr. Lewis was very low indeed!
No, Edith would take no responsibility for either the house or Linnie. The whole situation was too completely hopeless, too unified in its impossibility. No doubt Linnie cared as little about it as her father did. Edith would confine her activities to Mrs. Lewis; Amanda could run the house, and the girl could look out for herself. Edith, descending the stairs, noted the old hall tree of brass and oak that adorned the front entrance like a nightmare. She traversed the living room and entered the dining room.
To her amazement, Amanda was emerging from the kitchen in a sea of luggage, her hat and coat on, and an embattled light in her eyes.
“Oh, Amanda! You’re not leaving,” gasped Edith, feeling exactly as if she had been hit in the stomach. “What’s the matter?”
“It’s him!” said Amanda vindictively.
“Mr. Lewis. He’s gone off again without getting anything settled. I told him the furnace needed oil, and now we’re out of fuel, and then there’s the cleaning. I told him in plain words about it. From the looks of them walls they’ve not been done for years. And who’s going to do them? Not me. I’ve never worked where they didn’t have a man to come in and do the walls, come spring. And the yard! This place could be right nice if anybody took an interest in it! Them rooms upstairs give me the willies. I’m not going to stand it.”
Edith thought fast in this emergency, her respect for Amanda taking a turnabout. Mr. Lewis did not want Amanda to go, and neither did Edith. Impossible as her situation was in this household, it loomed worse if Amanda should leave.
“Mr. Lewis was in a great hurry. He told me to take care of such details as he had not already attended to. I think he ordered fuel oil,” guessed Edith, talking smoothly. “Tell me the company and I’ll check.”
As if to vindicate her, an oil delivery truck backed into the driveway and the driver rapped smartly on the back door.
“Fuel oil delivery to this address, lady. Sign for it, please.”
“I guess I was a little hasty,” admitted Amanda when he had filled the tank and gone.
“It is a little early for the walls and garden yet,” said Edith easily, yet not committing herself to a definite promise. “Mr. Lewis would be very disappointed and unhappy to come home and find you gone. He spoke very highly of you to me, said you were very capable and willing, and that he did not want to lose you.”
“Well,” said Amanda, placated, unwilling to admit the pleasure Mr. Lewis’ praise gave her, “I guess I can stay a little while longer.”
In spite of Edith’s assurance in handling the situation, she found herself tremblingly near nervous tears as she went back up the stairs. Tomorrow she would talk to Mrs. Lewis, when they were better acquainted. Kit, Annette, Mr. Lewis – nobody could criticize her if she were too ill to handle the job. Nobody could say she hadn’t tried. Tomorrow, for sure, she would quit this dismal house.