Dark in the Chrysalis
By Alice Morrey Bailey
Synopsis: Edith Ashe, a widow, 47, is unable for various reasons to live with any of her four sons. After hearing her daughter-in-law Annette complain to her son, Kit, Edith takes a job as companion to an elderly woman, Mrs. Lewis, whose son, Cory, is away on a business trip. Discouraged by the responsibility of a big, ugly, and old-fashioned house, the crippled, despondent old woman, and the unhappy housekeeper, Amanda, Edith decides to quit, when Linnie Lewis, Cory’s daughter, comes home from Boston, where she has been studying voice, to be married. Linnie seems happy and carefree, but Edith hears her crying in the night, and goes to her.
Edith listened in consternation to Linnie sobbing across the hall. it would be better, she told herself, and much more tactful, just to ignore it. No doubt Linnie would be herself in the morning. She turned over to shut out the sound, but there was a heart-tearing quality in the girl’s weeping, a despair Edith would not have thought possible to the joyous girl. She slid into her robe and slippers and crossed the hall.
“Linnie,” she said softly, tapping on the girl’s door.
There was an instant cessation of sound, and a strangled, “Yes?”
“May I come in?”
“Why, certainly,” said Linnie, after a moment’s hesitation.
In the soft light form the window the girl’s throat and shoulders were outlined. Her face was a pale, tragic oval, her eyes and mouth velvet dark.
“I heard you crying,” Edith said.
“I know. I thought everybody was asleep, and no one would hear my histrionics.” Linnie’s voice was gay, a gallant tilt to her head, but her breath caught in an involuntary, childish sob.
“Would it help to talk about it?”
“It wouldn’t do any good,” Linnie began dully. “Any more than crying – oh, Aunt Edith!”
Suddenly Edith was sitting on the side of Linnie’s bed and the girl was in her arms.
“There, there,” she soothed. “Cry it out.”
“It’s this house – and my wedding in June,” Linnie said in a tumble of words between jerky sobs. “This horrible horror of a house, and that ugly furniture. All my life I’ve wanted a beautiful wedding reception in my own home!”
“I don’t blame you one bit,” said Edith. “I noticed it immediately when I came in.”
“See!” said Linnie, seeming to take comfort in the agreement. “Wouldn’t any person of taste and distinction feel the same – coming into our house?”
“I’m afraid so,” admitted Edith.
“Paul’s mother is a woman of taste and distinction,” sobbed Linnie in a fresh burst of tears.
I ought to have more tact, thought Edith – to convince the girl it isn’t really as bad as she thinks, but the truth of it was she felt quite as violent about the ugliness as Linnie did, and had been longing to say so. “That’s why you don’t have your friends in,” she divined.
“Exactly,” said Linnie. “I couldn’t bear it. They all have beautiful homes – oh, I don’t mean they are all wealthy. it isn’t the money, Aunt Edith, it is the ghastly taste. Daddy makes lots of money, but where the house is concerned he has a spot, blind, deaf, and dumb. He just isn’t interested in it – or in me.”
“Now, Linnie, that’s not true. He spoke to me about you.”
“He did?” Linnie was eager. “What did Daddy say?”
“He said you were being married in June and that he regretted very much having to be absent at this time.”
“Just like dictation. Just like his letters to me.”
“He said something else,” said Edith, striving to remember. “I’ll think of it.”
“I thought I could work on him, and get things ready – do something to the house, I don’t know what – have a witch-burning for the grizzly furniture and swing on the ropy drapes. I got the carpeting last summer, and I didn’t dare ask for more. Two thousand dollars, Aunt Edith, for the carpeting alone. Of course, there was the stairway and the upper hall, besides the music room.”
“I wondered how that beautiful floor came to be.”
“I chose it all by myself,” said Linnie, pride in her voice. “I was scared to death. I don’t know the first thing about interior decoration.”
“It is perfect,” Edith told her. She was thinking how nice it would be if her furniture were here instead of in Kit’s extra room. Kit could have his dark room, and Linnie would be happy, but no – it would create a situation. Mr. Lewis wouldn’t like such presumption, and, after all, Edith was, to put it baldly, only a servant.
“I feel better now, even if nothing is really different,” Linnie said. “I don’t remember my mother, but I need her so very badly sometimes. And just now I need her worse than ever before. I couldn’t bear it without you, Aunt Edith.”
“I never had a daughter,” said Edith, clinching her teeth against sudden tears. “I always wanted one, and I think I should have wanted her to be just like you.”
“No one,” said Linnie, “positively no one has ever said a nicer thing to me. I’ll go to sleep like a baby on that.” She burrowed into the pillow and Edith tucked her in.
She went back to her room, thoroughly wrung with pity for the motherless girl, but she could not sleep for thinking tumbled thoughts of the girl and her dilemma, the hideous furniture, and her mother hunger. Edith turned and tossed until she was thoroughly miserable.
So long had she been wrapped in the cocoon of her own tragedy and misery that her thoughts and emotions had all turned inward. To think, even momentarily, of the problems of others, as she had been forced to do in the last few days, was painful, had made her ill. Mr. Lewis’ vaguely worded concern about his daughter’s coming wedding, his mother’s wish for death, even Amanda’s dissatisfaction, had made inroads on her concern, but this was different. Linnie’s weeping had done something to her, had split the shell around her and left her tremblingly exposed to the needs about her, to her own painful self-condemnation.
She wasn’t a human being any more, she chided herself, that she couldn’t have offered the girl the things she had that might help – her linen and dishes, and the beautiful furniture. She wasn’t even sure that the excuse she had offered herself was true – that her impulse was irregular, would find disfavor with Mr. Lewis. Was it not more true that she wanted not to be involved in Linnie’s difficulty?
She punched her pillow, dived into it and tried to sleep, but it was no use. Suddenly she sat up in bed with the remembrance of what Linnie’s father had said. “Feel free to take the initiative in anything that needs doing.”
“I’m not a mere servant,” she said, sitting up.
Mr. Lewis thought of her as the widow of Marvin Ashe – a prominent doctor. “Aunt Edith” she was to Linnie, had been from the first. Mrs. Lewis had adopted her immediately – “She’ll do, Cory.” Even Amanda respected her as a person of authority. Only she herself had, by her reluctance to assume the responsibility, by her evasion of the needs of the house and its people, relegated herself to the servile post.
What do I want, she asked herself angrily, to go back and live with Kit and Annette, to survive only on self-pity?
“No! Never!” she said aloud. Once again she got into her robe and slippers and crossed the hall to Linnie’s room. There could be no waiting until morning. The cold light of dawn, the pressure of the day’s duties might eras this impulse.
“Linnie, wake up. Wake up, darling. I just remembered what it was your father said.”
“What was it?” queried Linnie sleepily.
“He said I was to use my initiative.”
“Initiative! Initiative!” repeated the girl, struggling up from the depths of slumber.
“Can’t you see? It’s all that furniture of mine, packed away in my son’s extra room – and he wants it for a darkroom anyway.”
“No, the room, and it’s Queen Anne and Duncan Phyfe, and there are dishes and linen. You can have it for your wedding reception.”
“Queen Anne! Duncan Phyfe!” cried Linnie, thoroughly wide awake now.
“There’s plenty of modern over-stuffed with slipcovers for comfort, and tables and lamps and the writing desk. You must wait until you see my needle point.”
“Oh, Aunt Edith, pinch me! I know I’m dreaming – but no! I couldn’t use your furniture. I just couldn’t!”
“You can, and you shall. Kit will be glad to be rid of it. Use it as a favor. I get so lonesome for it.”
“I want to go downstairs,” chirped Mrs. Lewis when Edith told her about it at breakfast. “I’ve not stirred out of this room for weeks. I thought I’d just stay here until I died, and I didn’t care how soon that would be, but I don’t want to miss this.”
“When do we start?” asked Linnie, coming in. “I can hardly wait.”
“As soon as I get your grandmother taken care of,” Edith said. “We’ll look at it this afternoon while she has her nap and see what is best to do.”
“Nonsense,” said Mrs. Lewis. “Get me my wheel chair. Among the three of you, I should think you could get me down there.”
The job seemed colossal to them when they looked at it from the living room, Mrs. Lewis in her wheel chair, Linnie and Edith with their hair swathed in dusters for protection. Even Amanda came in from the kitchen, her dish towel in hand, to hear the plan.
“It needs so much more than furniture, Aunt Edith,” wailed Linnie. “I don’t know what besides the draperies. What about the woodwork? I always wanted a white staircase.”
“Paint,” said Edith. “And the right kind of paper would do it – with the draperies, of course. Venetian blinds, glass curtains, and some bright draperies would bring out the beauty of those windows. The fireplace should stay as it is, clean and polish it, of course. That heavenly walnut matches my furniture.”
“That’s just what I think,” chirped Mrs. Lewis. Her eyes were lively with interest. Not wanting to die this morning, Edith observed with satisfaction.
“But paper! It will cost money, won’t it? I have forty-five dollars,” Mrs. Lewis offered.
“That would help, but not enough.” Edith was thoughtful. “Paperhangers are worth their weight in gold. And painters.”
“There’s the checking account Cory left,” contributed Mrs. Lewis. “It was to run the house, though.”
“We won’t touch that,” said Linnie quickly. “I think we had better forget the whole business.” She sat dejectedly on the stair.
“We’ll do no such thing,” said Edith firmly, dialing Kit’s number.
“Your furniture? You’re not serious,” said Kit when Edith told him what she wanted. “Mother, don’t you think you’re going a little overboard?”
“Kit, you just do as I say!” Edith demanded, exasperated. “If you don’t, I’ll get somebody else to do it, but I want my furniture.”
The next days clipped off like newspapers from a press. It was a newspaper Linnie waved at Edith the next morning.
“I ran an ad and sold the furniture. Ninety dollars for the whole lot! First thing this morning. They’ll come for it before noon.”
“Linnie, you didn’t!” said Edith, secretly glad. “What will your father say?”
“A good job, I’d say,” applauded Mrs. Lewis. “The place is better empty, and the money will pay for the work.”
At ten a van came and removed the offensive furniture; Edith’s arrived at noon. Linnie rushed from piece to piece as Edith unswathed it, with little cries of delight, but Edith eyed it critically. In spite of the protection, dust had seeped through. She vacuumed and shampooed it according to her own careful formula while Amanda scoured the woodwork with caustic soda. Linnie, perched on a ladder, polished the windows and the chandeliers, and her singing held a new note. Mrs. Lewis wheeled back and forth, chattering like a little brown sparrow, dispensing pithy advice and pungent witticisms. She was gaining strength, Edith noticed.
They chose a creamy off-white paint to match the background of the paper which had a satin self-stripe. The ceiling was lemon yellow, and the fireplace wall was brown. The dining room was done in green and white – a realistic ivy pattern for the far wall, white and green plaid for the rest; the worn rug was removed, the oak floor polished and waxed.
It took the workmen a full week to finish, but when they were through, their paraphernalia cleared out and the room set to rights, Edith’s furniture was set off like jewelry, but the money was gone, and there were, as yet, no window decorations. Linnie had taken the stringy relics down.
She took time out only to answer Paul’s letters, now. All other engagements were cancelled. “I’m terribly busy,” she would say, “and having the best time of my life. I’m planning to have you all in for a trousseau tea soon.”
“Trousseau!” she said once, hanging up the telephone. “As if I had one.”
The very idea, Edith thought. A girl like Linnie, and no trousseau!
“What’s Cory thinking of?” charged Mrs. Lewis. “I’ll give that boy a piece of my mind.”
“I’m going to charge them,” Edith said in sudden anger.
“Charge what?” asked Linnie.
“Venetian blinds, curtains, drapes.”
A little appalled silence greeted this daring announcement.
“I don’t know,” said Linnie doubtfully. “Daddy never charged anything.”
“Go to it! Go to it!” clacked little old Mrs. Lewis. “I’ve not had so much fun since my house burned down.”
At last it was done. The bill for the window treatment was so steep that Edith had vertigo every time she thought about it. “If I have to, I’ll pay it myself,” she said, but the result was elegance itself. The dining room curtains, in an ample criss-cross of white organdy, were cool and crisp, and the living room draperies, in a subdued floral pattern, were so lovely that Linnie pulled the cords that swept them closed and open with sheer delight.
Every prism of the chandeliers was diamond bright, every tile of the fireplace shone, every spindle of the intricately designed mantle glowed. On the tiny, round platforms of it, Edith had placed her rare bits of Dresden that Marvin had bought for her. It was rich against the golden brown wall. They all gazed in awe at their handiwork.
All Edith had to do now was to think, with growing alarm of the reckoning, when Mr. Lewis should come home and learn of her high-handedness, but her worst nightmares were not as bad as the truth, for he came home the next evening, while they were dining in state.
Linnie flew to greet him; he greeted his mother, wheeling after her, with a puzzled look of surprise.
“Mother,” he said, kissing her. He looked weary. “Mrs. Ashe, Amanda.”
“Look at our house, daddy! Isn’t it lovely?” Linnie cried. She flew from piece to piece, the tale of their endeavors tumbling in bright words from her lips. “All of it,” she finished, “is due to Aunt Edith – it’s her furniture. And it’s all paid for except the –”
“I charged the window decorations,” Edith said flatly. “The bill is quite high.”
Cory looked about, at the windows, at the whole room. Then he went from one point to another, examining minutely every detail, his face completely impassive. They were silent, rooted in a kind of fascinated terror.
Once Amanda ventured to say: “I’ll set another place, Mr. Lewis. we were having dinner and there’s plenty –”
“No, thank you, Amanda. I ate on the diner.”
He finished his scrutiny in silence and started toward the stairs without a word, passing his bag where he had dropped it beside the door. Linnie flew after him.
“Daddy! Daddy! I didn’t think you’d care. I sold the furniture for the money. I did so much want a beautiful wedding reception.”
Mr. Lewis answered not a word, but went on up the stairs without a backward glance.