Uptown Chicago Resources

Lavender and Old Lace (1902)

by Myrtle Reed

Marguerite Snow.

In the 1921 silent film version of Lavender and Old Lace Miss Ainslie was played by Marguerite Snow, shown here on the cover of a piece of vintage sheet music.

Chapter Two: The Attic

The maid sat in the kitchen, wondering why Miss Thorne did not come down. It was almost seven o’clock, and Miss Hathaway’s breakfast hour was half past six. Hepsey did not frame the thought, but she had a vague impression that the guest was lazy.

Yet she was grateful for the new interest which had come into her monotonous life. Affairs moved like clockwork at Miss Hathaway’s—breakfast at half past six, dinner at one, and supper at half past five. Each day was also set apart by its regular duties, from the washing on Monday to the baking on Saturday.

Now it was possible that there might be a change. Miss Thorne seemed fully capable of setting the house topsy-turvy—and Miss Hathaway’s last injunction had been: “Now, Hepsey, you mind Miss Thorne. If I hear that you don’t, you’ll lose your place.”

The young woman who slumbered peacefully upstairs, while the rest of the world was awake, had, from the beginning, aroused admiration in Hepsey’s breast. It was a reluctant, rebellious feeling, mingled with an indefinite fear, but it was admiration none the less.

During the greater part of a wondering, wakeful night, the excited Hepsey had seen Miss Thorne as plainly as when she first entered the house. The tall, straight, graceful figure was familiar by this time, and the subdued silken rustle of her skirts was a wonted sound. Ruth’s face, naturally mobile, had been schooled into a certain reserve, but her deep, dark eyes were eloquent, and always would be. Hepsey wondered at the opaque whiteness of her skin and the baffling arrangement of her hair. The young women of the village had rosy cheeks, but Miss Thorne’s face was colourless, except for her lips.

It was very strange, Hepsey thought, for Miss Hathaway to sail before her niece came, if, indeed, Miss Thorne was her niece. There was a mystery in the house on the hilltop, which she had tried in vain to fathom. Foreign letters came frequently, no two of them from the same person, and the lamp in the attic window had burned steadily every night for five years. Otherwise, everything was explainable and sane.

Still, Miss Thorne did not seem even remotely related to her aunt, and Hepsey had her doubts. Moreover, the guest had an uncanny gift which amounted to second sight. How did she know that all of Hepsey’s books had yellow covers? Miss Hathaway could not have told her in the letter, for the mistress was not awire of her maid’s literary tendencies.

It was half past seven, but no sound came from upstairs. She replenished the fire and resumed meditation. Whatever Miss Thorne might prove to be, she was decidedly interesting. It was pleasant to watch her, to feel the subtle refinement of all her belongings, and to wonder what was going to happen next. Perhaps Miss Thorne would take her back to the city, as her maid, when Miss Hathaway came home, for, in the books, such things frequently happened. Would she go? Hepsey was trying to decide, when there was a light, rapid step on the stairs, a moment’s hesitation in the hall, and Miss Thorne came into the dining-room.

“Good morning, Hepsey,” she said, cheerily; “am I late?”

“Yes’m. It’s goin’ on eight, and Miss Hathaway allers has breakfast at half past six."

“How ghastly,” Ruth thought. “I should have told you,” she said, “I will have mine at eight.”

“Yes’m,” replied Hepsey, apparently unmoved. “What time do you want dinner?”

“At six o’clock—luncheon at half past one.”

Hepsey was puzzled, but in a few moments she understood that dinner was to be served at night and supper at midday. Breakfast had already been moved forward an hour and a half, and stranger things might happen at any minute.

Ruth had several other reforms in mind, but deemed it best to wait. After breakfast, she remembered the lamp in the window and went up to put it out.

It was still burning when she reached it, though the oil was almost gone, and, placing it by the stairway, that she might not forget to have it filled, she determined to explore the attic to her heart’s content.

The sunlight streamed through the east window and searched the farthest corners of the room. The floor was bare and worn, but carefully swept, and the things that were stored there were huddled together far back under the eaves, as if to make room for others.

It was not idle curiosity, but delicate sentiment, that made Ruth eager to open the trunks and dresser drawers, and to turn over the contents of the boxes that were piled together and covered with dust. The interest of the lower part of the house paled in comparison with the first real attic she had ever been in.

After all, why not? Miss Hathaway was her aunt—her mother’s only sister—and the house was in her care. There was no earthly reason why she should not amuse herself in her own way. Ruth’s instincts were against it, but Reason triumphed.

The bunches of dried herbs, hanging from the rafters and swaying back and forth in ghostly fashion, gave out a wholesome fragrance, and when she opened trunks whose lids creaked on their rusty hinges, dried rosemary, lavender, and sweet clover filled the room with that long-stored sweetness which is the gracious handmaiden of Memory.

Miss Hathaway was a thrifty soul, but she never stored discarded clothing that might be of use to any one, and so Ruth found no moth-eaten garments of bygone pattern, but only things which seemed to be kept for the sake of their tender associations.

There were letters, on whose yellowed pages the words had long since faded, a dogeared primer, and several well worn schoolbooks, each having on its fly-leaf: “Jane Hathaway, Her Book;” scraps of lace, brocade ard rustling taffeta, quilt patterns, needlebooks, and all of the eloquent treasures that a well stored attic can yield.

As she replaced them, singing softly to herself, a folded newspaper slipped to the floor. It was yellow and worn, like the letters, and she unfolded it carefully. It was over thirty years old, and around a paragraph on the last page a faint line still lingered. It was an announcement of the marriage of Charles G. Winfield, captain of the schooner Mary, to Miss Abigail Weatherby.

“Abigail Weatherby,” she said aloud. The name had a sweet, old-fashioned sound. “They must have been Aunt Jane’s friends.” She closed the trunk and pushed it back to its place, under the eaves.

In a distant corner was the old cedar chest, heavily carved. She pulled it out into the light, her cheeks glowing with quiet happiness, and sat down on the floor beside it. It was evidently Miss Hathaway’s treasure box, put away in the attic when spinsterhood was confirmed by the fleeting years.

On top, folded carefully in a sheet, was a gown of white brocade, short-waisted and quaint, trimmed with pearl passementerie. The neck was square, cut modestly low, and filled in with lace of a delicate, frosty pattern—Point d’Alencon. Underneath the gown lay piles of lingerie, all of the finest linen, daintily made by hand. Some of it was trimmed with real lace, some with crocheted edging, and the rest with hemstitched ruffles and feather-stitching.

There was another gown, much worn, of soft blue cashmere, some sea-shells, a necklace of uncut turquoises, the colour changed to green, a prayer-book, a little hymnal, and a bundle of letters, tied with a faded blue ribbon, which she did not touch. There was but one picture—an ambrotype, in an ornate case, of a handsome young man, with that dashing, dare-devil look in his eyes which has ever been attractive to women.

Ruth smiled as she put the treasures away, thinking that, had Fate thrown the dice another way, the young man might have been her esteemed and respected uncle. Then, all at once, it came to her that she had unthinkingly stumbled upon her aunt’s romance.

She was not a woman to pry into others’ secrets, and felt guilty as she fled from the attic, taking the lamp with her. Afterward, as she sat on the narrow piazza, basking in the warm Spring sunshine, she pieced out the love affair of Jane Hathaway’s early girlhood after her own fashion.

She could see it all plainly. Aunt Jane had expected to be married to the dashing young man and had had her trousseau in readiness, when something happened. The folded paper would indicate that he was Charles Winfield, who had married some one else, but whether Aunt Jane had broken her engagement, or the possible Uncle Charles had simply taken a mate without any such formality, was a subject of conjecture.

Still, if the recreant lover had married another, would Aunt Jane have kept her treasure chest and her wedding gown? Ruth knew that she herself would not, but she understood that aunts were in a class by themselves. It was possible that Charles Winfield was an earlier lover, and she had kept the paper without any special motive, or, perhaps, for “auld lang syne.”

Probably the letters would have disclosed the mystery, and the newspaper instinct, on the trail of a “story,” was struggling with her sense of honour, but not for the world, now that she knew, would Ruth have read the yellowed pages, which doubtless held faded roses pressed between them.

The strings of sea-shells, and the larger ones, which could have come only from foreign shores, together with the light in the window, gave her a sudden clew. Aunt Jane was waiting for her lover and the lamp was a signal. If his name was Charles Winfield, the other woman was dead, and if not, the marriage notice was that of a friend or an earlier lover.

The explanation was reasonable, clear, and concise—what woman could ask for more? Yet there was something beyond it which was out of Miss Thorne’s grasp—a tantalising something, which would not be allayed. Then she reflected that the Summer was before tier, and, in reality, now that she was off the paper, she had no business with other people’s affairs.

The sun was hidden by gathering clouds and the air was damp before Ruth missed the bright warmth on the piazza, and began to walk back and forth by way of keeping warm. A gravelled path led to the gate and on either side was a row of lilac bushes, the bare stalks tipped with green. A white picket fence surrounded the yard, except at the back, where the edge of the precipice made it useless. The place was small and well kept, but there were no flower beds except at the front of the house, and there were only two or three trees.

She walked around the vegetable garden at the back of the house, where a portion of her Summer sustenance was planted, and discovered an unused gate at the side, which swung back and forth, idly, without latching. She was looking over the fence and down the steep hillside, when a sharp voice at her elbow made her jump.

“Sech as wants dinner can come in and get it,” announced Hepsey, sourly. “I’ve yelled and yelled till I’ve most bust my throat and I ain’t a-goin' to yell no more.”

She returned to the house, a picture of offended dignity, but carefully left the door ajar for Ruth, who discovered, upon this rude awakening from her reverie, that she was very hungry.

In the afternoon, the chill fog made it impossible to go out, for the wind had risen from the sea and driven the salt mist inland. Miss Hathaway’s library was meagre and uninteresting, Hepsey was busy in the kitchen, and Ruth was frankly bored. Reduced at last to the desperate strait of putting all her belongings in irreproachable order, she found herself, at four o’clock, without occupation. The temptation in the attic wrestled strongly with her, but she would not go.

It seemed an age until six o’clock. “This won’t do,” she said to herself; “I’ll have to learn how to sew, or crochet, or make tatting. At last, I am to be domesticated. I used to wonder how women had time for the endless fancy work, but I see, now.”

She was accustomed to self analysis and introspection, and began to consider what she could get out of the next six months in the way of gain. Physical strength, certainly, but what else? The prospect was gloomy just then.

“It’s goin’ to rain, Miss Thorne,” said Hepsey, at the door. “Is

all the winders shut?”

“Yes, I think so,” she answered.

“Supper’s ready any time you want it.”

“Very well, I will come now.”

When she sat down in the parlour, after doing scant justice to Hepsey’s cooking, it was with a grim resignation, of the Puritan sort which, supposedly, went with the house. There was but one place in all the world where she would like to be, and she was afraid to trust herself in the attic.

By an elaborate mental process, she convinced herself that the cedar chest and the old trunks did not concern her in the least, and tried to develop a feminine fear of mice, which was not natural to her. She had just placed herself loftily above all mundane things, when Hepsey marched into the room, and placed the attic lamp, newly filled, upon the marble table.

Here was a manifest duty confronting a very superior person and, as she went upstairs, she determined to come back immediately, but when she had put the light in the seaward window, she lingered, under the spell of the room.

The rain beat steadily upon the roof and dripped from the eaves. The light made distorted shadows upon the wall and floor, while the bunches of herbs, hanging from the rafters, swung lightly back and forth when the wind rattled the windows and shook the old house.

The room seemed peopled by the previous generation, that had slept in the massive mahogany bed, rocked in the chairs, with sewing or gossip, and stood before the old dresser on tiptoe, peering eagerly into the mirror which probably had hung above it. It was as if Memory sat at the spinning-wheel, idly twisting the thread, and bringing visions of the years gone by.

A cracked mirror hung against the wall and Ruth saw her reflection dimly, as if she, too, belonged to the ghosts of the attic. She was not vain, but she was satisfied with her eyes and hair, her white skin, impervious to tan or burn, and the shape of her mouth. The saucy little upward tilt at the end of her nose was a great cross to her, however, because it was at variance with the dignified bearing which she chose to maintain. As she looked, she wondered, vaguely, if she, like Aunt Jane, would grow to a loveless old age. It seemed probable, for, at twenty-five, The Prince had not appeared. She had her work and was happy; yet unceasingly, behind those dark eyes, Ruth’s soul kept maidenly match for its mate.

When she turned to go downstairs, a folded newspaper on the floor attracted her attention. It was near one of the trunks which she had opened and must have fallen out. She picked it up, to replace it, but it proved to be another paper dated a year later than the first one. There was no marked paragraph, but she soon discovered the death notice of “Abigail Winfield, nee Weatherby, aged twenty-two.” She put it into the trunk out of which she knew it must have fallen, and stood there, thinking. Those faded letters, hidden under Aunt Jane’s wedding gown, were tempting her with their mute secret as never before. She hesitated, took three steps toward the cedar chest, then fled ingloriously from the field.

Whoever Charles Winfeld was, he was free to love and marry again. Perhaps there had been an estrangement and it was he for whom Aunt Jane was waiting, since sometimes, out of bitterness, the years distil forgiveness. She wondered at the nature which was tender enough to keep the wedding gown and the pathetic little treasures, brave enough to keep the paper, with its evidence of falseness, and great enough to forgive.

Yet, what right had she to suppose Aunt Jane was waiting? Had she gone abroad to seek him and win his recreant heart again? Or was Abigail Weatherby her girlhood friend, who had married unhappily, and then died?

Somewhere in Aunt Jane’s fifty-five years there was a romance, but, after all, it was not her niece’s business. “I’m an imaginative goose,” Ruth said to herself. “I’m asked to keep a light in the window, presumably as an incipient lighthouse, and I’ve found some old clothes and two old papers in the attic—that’s all—and I’ve constructed a tragedy.”

She resolutely put the whole matter aside, as she sat in her room, rocking pensively. Her own lamp had not been filled and was burning dimly, so she put it out and sat in the darkness, listening to the rain.

She had not closed the shutters and did not care to lean out in the storm, and so it was that, when the whistle of the ten o’clock train sounded hoarsely, she saw the little glimmer of light from Miss Ainslie’s window, making a faint circle in the darkness.

Half an hour later, as before, it was taken away. The scent of lavender and sweet clover clung to Miss Hathaway’s linen, and, insensibly soothed, Ruth went to sleep. After hours of dreamless slumber, she thought she heard a voice calling her and telling her not to forget the light. It was so real that she started to her feet, half expecting to find some one standing beside her.

The rain had ceased, and two or three stars, like timid children, were peeping at the world from behind the threatening cloud. It was that mystical moment which no one may place—the turning of night to day. Far down the hill, ghostly, but not forbidding, was Miss Ainslie’s house, the garden around it lying whitely beneath the dews of dawn, and up in the attic window the light still shone, like unfounded hope in a woman’s soul, harking across distant seas of misunderstanding and gloom, with its pitiful “All Hail!”

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