Dark in the Chrysalis
By Alice Morrey Bailey
Synopsis: Edith Ashe, a widow, forty-seven, dependent upon her son Kit, overhears his wife, Annette, complaining of her self-pity. Edith, penniless, cannot live with any of her three other married sons. In desperation, she takes a position as companion to an elderly woman, Mrs. Lewis, whose son Cory is leaving for an extended business trip. The responsibility of an old crippled woman, a large, ugly, badly run house, an unhappy housekeeper, Amanda, combine to convince Edith, who considers herself an ill woman, that she cannot keep the job.
In the morning Edith awoke to the sound of singing. At first it seemed a part of her dreaming, orchestrated by the great chords of her nightmare, an angel song, high and sweet as the wind from some cosmic force. For a moment, opening her eyes to the strange room, she could not remember her whereabouts, but the singing was very real, still angelic and high and richly pure. Not in opera, not in pictures, nor on the air had Edith ever heard a voice to compare with it.
“It’s Linnie! Linnie’s home!” Mrs. Lewis was chirping excitedly from the next room. Below, in the living room there was the crash of chords from the piano in the alcove, and a cessation of the song, followed by a rush of footsteps on the stairs. Before Edith could struggle into a robe and slippers, the girl burst into the room, rushed to her grandmother’s bed and smothered her with kisses.
“Home! Home!” she said ecstatically. “Where’s Dad?”
“He’s gone to take care of his stores,” her grandmother told her. “He will be gone for a month or six weeks.”
Linnie squeezed her eyes tight in disappointment. “My wedding’s in June,” she said. “I need Daddy.”
“It’s your own fault, Linnie. You will never let him know exactly when you are coming.”
“Because it is too much fun to come home like this!” Linnie stood up. “It’s all right, Grammy.” It was not until then that she saw Edith.
“Linnie, this is Edith Ashe,” quavered Mrs. Lewis, “my new companion. Her husband was Dr. Ashe. He brought you, Linnie.”
Linnie’s eyes met Edith’s. They were frank and wide and grave in her oval face. Edith thought she had never seen such a beautiful girl, such a radiant, warm face. The features were chiseled to loveliness, the line of her brow and jaw sweetly turned. Yet there was a quality, indefinable and vague, that hurt Edith. Perhaps it was the gallant way she held her head, her wistful eagerness.
“That makes us practically relatives,” she said, and the smile she gave Edith was the most joyous thing that had happened to Edith in two years. “Aunt Edith.”
“Look, Grammy, look!” said Linnie, turning back to the bed. “Did you ever see anything so beautiful?” She turned her slim hand to show her engagement ring. It was indeed a beautiful ring, a large diamond, flanked by smaller ones, set in yellow gold,.
“Just wait until you see Paul. He is so distinguished and so handsome. The Fontaines are prominent in Boston, but don’t think Paul is fusty. Every girl in Boston wanted him – and he wanted me. Think of it!”
“Where did you meet him, child?”
“He heard me sing. It was out from the school and we were giving a benefit. I wasn’t the soloist. We were only background for a celebrity, but Paul saw me. He came backstage and asked me to supper. Miss Julien wasn’t going to let me go. They are very particular about us. And Paul told her it was all right, I was the girl he was going to marry, and his mother was with him. You should have seen her flutter.”
“He was an impetuous young man, I should say,” remarked Edith.
“He meant it,” said Linnie. “He said it again at supper and has never stopped saying so. His mother was with us and she was horrified. He should have at least asked for my pedigree, she thought. She doesn’t think anyone west of Philadelphia has ancestors.” Linnie’s laughter was infectious. “She is really a dear, though,” said Linnie, sobering. “She gave teas for me and introduced me like I was something special. She was very brave about Paul marrying me, and only hinted once that he could have had a de Peyster. She told her friends that I was a great artist, and my father a prominent chain store man. She wouldn’t say groceries.”
“I don’t like the woman,” said Grammy vindictively. “I don’t like her one bit.”
“Oh, now, I’ve done it,” said Linnie contritely. “You will love her when you see her.”
“No, I won’t,” said Grammy firmly, “anybody that runs my Cory down!”
The house was different with Linnie there. Her swift grace and her singing were everywhere in it. She was unbelievably slim, with delicately turned bones, and her fair hair flew back as she raced to answer the telephone and the doorbell, which were constantly ringing, for she seemed to have myriads of friends and she was in love.
There were long distance calls from the young man in Boston, there were letters, air-mail and special delivery, and flowers to brighten the boxlike furniture of the living room and Linnie’s own bare room.
Edith had indulged in a little sigh of relief that she was home and could assume the responsibilities of the house, but it was soon evident that Linnie wouldn’t. When the sink stopped up Amanda came to Linnie about it, where she was writing one of her voluminous letters at the roll-top horror of a desk.
“Goodness,” said Linnie, looking up in wide-eyed consternation. “I wouldn’t know the first thing to do. Aunt Edith,” she said, for Edith was just passing on the way to the kitchen sink with the luncheon trays, “Amanda says the sink is stopped up. What shall we do?”
“We’ll probably have to call the plumber,” said Edith. “But I’ll look at it first. Mrs. Lewis is asleep.”
After half an hour of dipping, working with detergents and scalding water, and with the use of a plunger, Edith had the sink cleaned and draining swiftly.
“Aunt Edith, you’re wonderful,” enthused Linnie, who had watched the whole operation with interest, asking questions as if she considered Edith an experienced plumber.
“I’ll say,” said the relieved Amanda. “A plumber would have charged a fortune to do that, and then might not have come for weeks.”
And I should have called a plumber, Edith was thinking angrily to herself; she hadn’t done such a menial job for years. Why should she do it now?
“It is wonderful to know how to do things like that,” Linnie said, as starry-eyed as if she had just received a dozen roses. “Paul doesn’t make as much money as Daddy, and I’ll have to learn ways to save it. I’ll bet there are any things you could teach me, Aunt Edith – things about, about running a house that I never dreamed of. Will you teach me? I so much need to know.”
“Why, surely I will, Linnie,” Edith promised, wondering vaguely when any teaching could be sandwiched in between her duties with Mrs. Lewis and Linnie’s own harum-scarum schedule, for Linnie was always on the go.
“They always had housekeepers,” said Mrs. Lewis when Edith told her about it. “Poor Linnie spent her summers here with them and her winters in boarding school, and she never learned the first thing about keeping house. A mother will put herself out to teach a child, but not a housekeeper. I had my hands full during those years. Cory’s father was an invalid for years before he died and then I got this bad leg, and I couldn’t give Cory a hand with the child. We lived in San Francisco, and I only saw the little girl on visits.”
“It’s too bad,” sympathized Edith, thinking with genuine concern that Linnie’s marriage might easily be jeopardized by ignorance and incompetence in the basic housekeeping principles. “I promised to teach her, but the time is so short, and I don’t know just when I could do it.”
“If it wasn’t for me – a useless old woman – you’d have lots of time.”
“If it wasn’t for you,” said Edith, “I wouldn’t be here.”
I mustn’t think of it, she told herself. It’s too bad, but, after all, it isn’t my responsibility, and I can’t do anything about it now. It is a wonder the child grew up as successfully as she did – not a worry in the world,. I don’t think I ever saw a happier, more joyous person.
Linnie was, too. Her lips were always curved to laughter, her eyes always tender with the inner burning of love. Edith was curious about her friends, but somehow they never came there, even though Linnie had been home a whole week.
“That’s sweet of you to think of coming,” Linnie would say over the telephone. “But don’t bother to drive by. I’m on my way to town, I’ll meet you there. We’ll have lunch at Cathy’s, or go to a show, or some other thing.”
She would rise from the telephone and say suddenly, “I’m going out,” although she had said previously that she was going to stay home all day, practice her singing, get her clothes in order, or write letters. Restless as a butterfly, Edith thought, just as beautifully gay, and just as irresponsible.
Thursday Edith had her first check, made out in Mrs. Lewis’ shaky handwriting, an occurrence she had forgotten entirely in connection with her job. It gave her a wonderful feeling, greater than she had thought possible from a mere thirty-five dollars. She began planning immediately what she would do with it, and remembered only then that she had meant to quit the next day after she came.
What I ought to do is put it in the bank, she told herself, against the time when she should go back to live with Kit and Annette. Oh, Kit had been generous, buying her clothes and filling her needs, but she had felt guilty living off his bounty, and had limited herself to absolute necessities. Now she needed a few personal items before she should bank the rest.
“Mrs. Lewis, can you spare me to go down town while you take your afternoon nap?” she asked next morning.
“Why, surely,” Mrs. Lewis replied. “I’ll be fine. Take the whole afternoon and evening if you like. Amanda can bring me my supper and help me to bed. Linnie can read to me.”
“Oh, I won’t need that much time,” said Edith. “I only want to go to the bank and do a little shopping.”
Nevertheless, she ended by taking that much time. First, in her anxiety to secure Mrs. Lewis against any possible need, she missed her bus and arrived at the bank just after they had closed the doors. Walking aimlessly, wondering what next to do, she passed a shoe store. From the window display her eyes singled out a handsome pair of English walkers. They were of black calf, beautifully turned. Edith couldn’t resist trying them on. They fitted her feet as if they had been the last upon which the shoes were made.
“Seventeen-fifty,” the clerk told her in answer to her query. Why, that was half her check, and of course, out of the question. She shook her head, eying them regretfully. The clerk was examining the end of the box. “No,” he said, “they have been marked down to fourteen.”
“I’ll take them,” said Edith, and when she went to pay for them the girl at the desk smiled.
“Stockings to match?” she suggested, running her hand expertly into the leg of a sheer nylon, holding it against her skin for Edith to see.
“Yes,” said Edith. “I’ll need stockings.” She chose a pair that the clerk called Ruby Nectar, and escaped, hugging her purchases. feeling reckless, and remembering the struggle she had with her hair, she decided to go to a beauty salon for a shampoo. Perhaps the operator could give her some pointers on how to manage it, and it had been a long time since she had indulged in such an expense.
“Why don’t you have it cut?” suggested the operator, a young man with large, surprisingly deft hands. “No wonder you can’t handle it. We could make you a coronet with what we cut off, perhaps a cluster of curls. Hair style possibilities, suitable for every occasion, are endless.” He brought out pictures, showed Edith her profile and back view, catching her hair up this way and that, crystallizing her indecision. “It so happens I have a cancellation and could give you a permanent.”
In the end he had his way, and four hours later Edith emerged from the saloon with fifteen dollars less and her hair smartly clipped, waved, and coiffured. It seemed anticlimax to go home now, feeling so chic. Half a block up a theatre marquee blazoned the title of a picture she had long wanted to see, along with the information, “last times today.”
Edith’s self-indulgence met no resistance and she paid for her ticket before calling the Lewis home.
“Amanda, I’m having a spree,” she said. “I’m going to a show. Mrs. Lewis said that you could help her to bed and Linnie could read to her.”
“I’ve already give her her supper,” said Amanda. “Sure, you go on and go to a show, now. You need it, and I’ll be glad to pay you back for helping me with the sink.”
“No pay necessary for that, but I’ll get dinner for you on Sunday.”
“Oh! Would you true?” Amanda cried, pleased. “I wanted awful bad to go to the country to see my daughter. It’s her birthday Sunday, but I couldn’t see how I’d get away. Mr. Lewis promised Id’ have my Sundays off, but I haven’t had them.”
“You shall, from now on,” promised Edith magnanimously.
Never, in a long time, had Edith had such a day of abandoned freedom. Spending her own money had done something definite to her. Something good, she decided. She had pinched and held her emotions until her soul felt small and warped. Now she would not chide herself for unplanned spending. She loved the shoes, and thrilled whenever she thought of them. A suit would come next, and a hat. The praise of the operator about her hair was pleasant to her yet.
“You look twenty years younger, Mrs. Ashe. If you won’t take offense, I would say that you are a woman with glamor and no age.”
“Glamor indeed,” scoffed Edith. Of course, they were paid to flatter the customers, but they didn’t have to sound sincere, and the mirror bore him out. She still felt exhilarated when she went up the Lewis walk at ten-thirty.
“Why, Aunt Edith, you’ve had your hair cut – and you are beautiful, simply stunning.” Linnie had been playing the piano in accompaniment to her singing, love songs of tenderness and passion.
“If your sweetheart could have heard you, my dear,” Edith parried, “he would have listed himself among the world’s greatest beloved.”
“He is,” said Linnie simply. “But don’t turn the subject. What have they done to you? You look as young almost as I do.”
“Nonsense,” said Edith modestly. “I am old enough to be your mother.”
Linnie’s expression crumbled. For a moment Edith thought she was going to cry, but was mistaken. Linnie laughed, heartily, joyously and long.
Edith went to sleep hearing that laughter, vaguely troubled by it. She awoke, perhaps some hours later to quite another sound. across the hall, definitely from Linnie’s room, came the sound of awful, tearing sobs.