Dark in the Chrysalis
By Alice Morrey Bailey
Synopsis: Edith Ashe, a widow, forty-seven, in pride and desperation, after hearing her daughter-in-law Annette denounce her to her son Kit, takes a job as companion to an aged, crippled woman, Mrs. Lewis, whose son Cory is away on a business trip. Edith has four sons, none of whom she can live with, but has always longed for a daughter. She warms to Cory’s daughter Linnie, who has come home from Boston to prepare for her wedding in June. Edith is jarred from her own self-pity when she hears the girl crying in the night because the big house is so ugly. Edith offers her own much-loved furniture, which has been stored, and together they redecorate the living room and dining room.
Cory, coming home unexpectedly, looks minutely at the beautifully furnished room, says not a word, but goes upstairs apparently angry.
Edith lay awake in alternate anger and mortification for hours after the nightmarish scene with Mr. Lewis at dinner. She dreaded to meet him in the morning, and could think of no graceful way out of the situation. She was tempted to pack silently and be gone in the morning – let him do as he wished about the furniture.
None of them had eaten. Linnie had turned from the stairway with a gesture of helplessness, tears glistening on her long lashes. Edith could offer no comfort; the kind she had offered had only made matters worse. Why hadn’t she known it would offend and anger him? Again, as at Annette’s party, she had missed the whole delicacy of human relationship.
Nevertheless, at breakfast neither Linnie nor her father betrayed by tone or look any remembrance of last night’s episode.
“They’re an old family, Daddy,” Linnie was saying.
“And are these Bostonians coming out here to the wedding? Will they inspect us?”
“They are coming to the wedding – Paul’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Fontaine, and his sister Emily Barnard – and her husband, and Gene Hilyer, Paul’s best man.”
“And I guess we are to put them up.”
“Yes, Daddy. Almost a week.”
A week! Edith was appalled, thinking of the bedrooms upstairs, the old-fashioned bathroom, the archaic kitchen, and the impossible back yard she had glimpsed from the kitchen windows. It was the end of April and the yards around the neighborhood were sprouting new grass, putting forth green leaves, but the Lewis yard was overrun with rank growth, unplanted and untended, rose bushes all run to thorns, and a lone weeping birch. A high rock wall surrounded it and Edith loved rock walls, but this one was broken and crumbling untidily in spots, buried under spiny bushes of no character. The front yard, while planted to lawn, had bare spots and overgrown corners.
The April rains had washed the dark stone of the house, however, and it shone as if waxed. The ivy had lost its lifeless look. Its tender green fingers spread in all directions, and reached to the eaves of the brown, slanted roofs. The beauty of the flagstone terrace could not be spoiled by neglect. The architecture was compact, old-fashioned as it was. Edith guessed it had been conservative in its day. Beauty was beauty from any age of building, and the lines of the house were lovely.
“Mrs. Ashe,” Mr. Lewis broke in on her musings, “may I see you directly after breakfast?”
Edith’s heart plunged. He looked stern, would probably let her go – after indicting her with a few well-chosen words, of course. Her hands and feet were icy as she followed him into the living room. He indicated a chair, and took one himself, facing her. He regarded her gravely for some moments, and she waited, calm now, with rising indignation.
“You have made this room very, very beautiful. I can never tell you how thankful I am that you came to us at this time,” he said.
Edith’s head whirled with dizzy relief. “I – I thought you were angry, Mr. Lewis, at my presumption, and about my – initiative.” How she hated that word.
“Angry? Why should I be angry?”
“Linnie said you never changed anything, and I –”
Mr. Lewis made an impatient gesture with his hand, as if the matter was of my importance. “Give me the bill and I’ll send a check.”
“You didn’t say anything. Linnie and I both thought you were angry.”
“I was overwhelmed. It was seeing a dream – a very old and almost forgotten dream come true. It was pretty vivid, like Linnie’s mother and I had planned it – more than twenty years ago. It was unbelievable. I had to get out of here before I made an utter fool of myself.”
“Oh, I see,” said Edith.
“I had a pretty bad night,” he told her soberly.
“I can imagine,” sympathized Edith.
“It wasn’t just remembering,” he went on. “It was seeing what I had failed to do for Linnie that gave me the worst time. What her home could have been like. I could see her love for this room. She has an instinct of beauty, and I have surrounded the child with ugliness, thinking – well, not thinking at all, only of myself. It was pretty bitter.”
Edith was silent, her judgment of him undergoing a rapid change.
“There’s no excuse for it. I had the money. This house – I can see that I wouldn’t think of it because it was painful to go on without her. That place I left dark and secret, and turned my energy into work. Coming into this room last night was like having someone rip away the blinds.”
“It was cruel,” said Edith, sorry.
“It was good,” said Mr. Lewis, “should have been done years ago. I know I can’t make up to Linnie for a whole lifetime, but I would like to make these last weeks into something special. What does she need?”
“It will be a lot of work – and very expensive,” she said.
“Hang the expense! We can hire the work done.”
“Well, it falls into three categories,” said Edith. “Linnie’s trousseau, the yards, and the house. Let me show you.” She led the way upstairs for a tour. In Linnie’s room a magazine was lying open to a girl’s bedroom, done in dainty pastels, with bouffant treatment for the dressing table, spread, and window curtains. Mr. Lewis looked at it, at Linnie’s unattractive room.
“I see,” he said grimly.
“If Linnie will have guests these other rooms should be done, more moderately, of course, but attractively.” She showed him the bathroom, the kitchen, and the back yard.
“I haven’t really looked at them for years. They’re pretty bad. You’ll do it, won’t you?”
“The house. Order anything you want to. I’ll send the workmen. I’ll take care of the yard. I have a few ideas of my own.”
“Linnie and I. She wants the experience for her own house.”
“Fine! Fine!” he beamed. “Edith Ashe, you are the best thing that has happened to us in a long time.”
“Thank you,. Mr. Lewis. Your household has been good for me, too,” Edith told him.
“It isn’t possible,” he exclaimed, looking at her with interest.
“But it is!” insisted Edith. “I was like my furniture, wrapped and stored away – in a state of suspended animation.”
“I don’t believe it,” he scoffed, “anyone as interested in life as you are, as radiant. Yet you are changed. I didn’t think of you as particularly beautiful that first morning. Fine looking, aristocratic, yes, but now you are beautiful.”
“Nonsense,” said Edith, flushing, but his words warmed her long after he had gone.
There was high excitement when she broke the news to the rest of them. They had, of course, been bursting with curiosity to know what the interview was about, especially when Edith and Mr. Lewis trooped through the house.
“Oh, Aunt Edith!” Linnie grabbed her and waltzed her around the table. They all talked at once.
“A new kitchen,” beamed Amanda.
“Isn’t Daddy wonderful? A pretty bedroom! And a trousseau! Come! Come! Come to the fair,” she sang, rushing to the piano to play the accompaniment.
The activity began at once. Before noon workmen had invaded the back yard and were pounding at the back door, wanting to know where the “lady” wanted the woodwork washed, the furniture moved, and the painting done. Edith wasn’t prepared for them, and sent them to the basement to clean the furnace room.
“A good place to begin,” crowed Grandma Lewis. “I never could abide sitting in the parlor, knowing the cellar’s dirty.”
Two men repaired the rock wall in the back, others set to work grubbing and trimming in the back yard. Edith and Linnie hurried to sort out the furniture in the upstairs rooms, rushed to town each afternoon while Grammy slept, to choose wallpaper, curtains, and furnishings, recounting their adventures and decisions to Mrs. Lewis, who was avid for every detail.
Trucks came, bringing mountain soil and fertilizer. Nurseries delivered shrubs which were planted immediately. Workmen planted grass in the finely combed soil, installed a system of sprinkling, and erected trellises.
The women, dizzy with wallpaper, curtains, and furnishings, hardly noticed what went on outside. Linnie and Edith sat up nights, poring over color schemes in advance of morning and the workmen.
Painters and paperhangers stepped aside for plumbers in the upper hall. Tile-setters worked at night, installing a new bathroom and a shower off the kitchen. electricians installed new appliances in the kitchen and wired outlets for the numerous lamps that blossomed all over the house. Carpets were laid from wall to wall in each room, being finished sometimes only minutes before the furniture arrived and was set in place. The clean smell of paper and paint pervaded the house.
Edith dropped to bed and to sleep almost simultaneously, so weary was she, but it was a good weariness, and it brought good sleep, unridden with dreams. She thought ruefully that it would have been more fun to go slowly, but realized that time was an important element. Her whole background had trained her to economy, now she was heady with the cost of things, had lost track long since. She looked with new eyes at Cory, immaculate at dinner as he had gone to his office in the morning. Did he realize how hard he had driven her?
Linnie regaled her father with accounts of the progress, their newest plans, her lovely face radiant with enthusiasm. Edith was content to sit back and let her talk, proud of the girl’s quick grasp of the principles of interior decoration, delighted with the ease with which the terms rolled off her tongue.
“I’m not sure about that plaid room,” she said once, considering prettily the paper she had brought to the table, her pencil poised at her lips. She looked so like a magazine illustration that Cory winked slyly at Edith, composing his face to respectful interest for her upward glance. A young girl in love was one of the world’s masterpieces, Edith decided, a joint enterprise with a partner like Cory, the most challenging.
In less than two weeks the place was completely transformed, its latent beauty dramatized fully. Edith was amazed to see the back yard as informally beautiful as the front yard was formal. The weeping birch was leafed and gracefully swept the new lawn, already thickly emerald, healthy rose shoots climbed the trellises. Small trees and shrubs formed interesting groups in the corners of the lovely rock wall, blossoming pansies hugged their feet. A patio was gaily fitted with lawn furniture; comfortable deck chairs invited enjoyment of the warm May sun. A neighbor’s apple tree leaned a blossom-laden branch over the rear wall. Edith caught her breath.
“Like it?” Cory asked, giving her a sidelong glance.
“I love it,” said Edith. “It’s poetic. I can readily see that Linnie is not the only artist in the family.”
“What’s next on the list?” Cory asked. He had flushed with pleasure at her words, color creeping to the roots of his dark hair, softening his strong features.
“Linnie’s trousseau and wedding dress – bridesmaids’ dresses, announcements, and parties.”
“Dozens of them,” confirmed Edith. “All brides have them. Announcement parties, trousseau teas, and whatnot.”
“It’s a racket,” grinned Cory.
“Well, Linnie wants the whole thing.”
“That’s what I want her to have, Edith, the works.”
Her name slipped off his tongue as easily as if with common usage. Edith Ashe, Mrs. Ashe, he had called her, never just the friendliness of “Edith.”
“Speaking of parties,” he went on, ‘I’d like to have one – a dinner party.”
“A dinner party?”
“Yes, some business friends. They entertain me at their homes. I have always entertained them at hotels. I guess I’d like to put on the dog a little. could it be managed? About next Friday?”
“Of course it could,” Edith assured him warmly.
“Fine! For twelve people. And Edith, will you be the hostess?”
“Why not Linnie?”
“I want Linnie there, of course, but I particularly want you to act as hostess. Will you do it?”
“Why, I guess so. certainly.”
Edith was definitely and warmly thrilled as she went upstairs. Life, which she had thought to be all over for her, was definitely taking a new turn, one filled with excitement and interesting meaning. She dressed carefully, brushing the blue-black hair back in feathers around her face, listening with half attention to Mrs. Lewis reminisce of the old days, of her own marriage to Cory’s father. Cory’s hand, touching hers accidentally as he helped her with his mother’s wheelchair on the stairs, was like an electric shock. She was sure he felt it too, for he gave her a quick, penetrating glance that seemed weighted with unsaid things.
“Daddy, Aunt Edith,” said Linnie at the table, “I didn’t think it was possible for me to be so happy, ever. Everything is perfect for my wedding,. I dreaded for Paul and his people to come, but now I am proud of my home. I can hardly wait. I know it will all be perfect to the last detail.”
“Of course it will, honey. Any wedding would be perfect with you as the bride.”
“I love those medieval lamps on the porch, Daddy, and the house numbers. I didn’t know you had such wonderful taste. Every detail is perfect, thanks to you and Aunt Edith. Every inch of the place has been gone over, even Grammy’s room, except your room. Why didn’t you let us fix it up?”
“I wanted to leave something undone, a psychological reason.”
“Why, Daddy? Please tell me,” coaxed Linnie.
“I don’t see why not,” said Cory, after a little thought. “You should be able to understand. I am going to get married.”
“Married?” said Linnie. A forkful of food halted abruptly halfway to her mouth. She was suddenly pale.
“Yes,” Cory went on, not noticing. “I should like my wife to have at least one room left to decorate, seeing how much fun you girls have had.”
“Who?” said Linnie. “Who is it, Daddy? No! don’t tell me. I think I know.”
“Why, Linnie,” said Cory in concern, for Linnie stood up. “I thought you would understand.”
“No, Daddy. I don’t think I do,” said Linnie in a clear little voice. “It is all right. It is your life. I’ll get used to it. It’s just that I don’t’ think I could ever, ever – if Paul died, love somebody else.”
She fled swiftly toward the stairs, her slim hand to her mouth.
Cory looked miserably down at his plate, Mrs. Lewis watching him apprehensively. Only Edith went on eating with great effort the lumps of tasteless food, with steady, icy fingers, as if nothing had happened, though she longed to follow Linnie, and go to her room.