The house had four bathrooms, and a falcon in the garden, two adjoining kitchens, and closets three feet high. But it was that bizarre garden party that climaxedEILEEN JOHNSTON BASSING May 14 1955
The house had four bathrooms, and a falcon in the garden, two adjoining kitchens, and closets three feet high. But it was that bizarre garden party that climaxedEILEEN JOHNSTON BASSING May 14 1955
I USED TO PASS THE HOUSE twice a day, every morning when I drove Jamie to kindergarten and every noon when I brought him home to lunch. As I cruised slowly past it, I drove with my left hand and bent down to see it more clearly. Each time I saw it, I wanted it more.
One Monday morning the drapes were gone from the windows and a large carton of household goods stood on the curb. When I came back at noon, a man was already nailing up a FOR RENT sign.
Within four days we moved in. There were many strange things about the house; for example there were four bathrooms, one of which could be entered only from outdoors in the back garden. We thought at first it was for gardeners and workmen. But then we saw it had not only a stall shower but a bathtub as well. There were two kitchens, one adjoining the other, two bedrooms and no dining room. One bathroom, which opened off the living room, had a short high tub with a box in front of it to serve as a step. This, I was to discover, made a perfect tub for the baby, Brian, and became his.
When I found my husband standing in the first kitchen, he was staring thoughtfully at the solid maple floor. I went past him, assuming that he had probably gotten into a glassy-eyed reverie about something at the college that had nothing to do with me. When I came through the room a second time, he stopped me.
“This,” he said mildly, “is a very curious house.”
“Yes,” I said.
“There are three chimneys on the roof,” he said, “but only two fireplaces.”
“All right,” I said. “Every chimney in the world doesn’t have to have a fireplace, does it?”
“There are no pipes leading into the best bathroom next to the children’s room. No water goes in there.”
“Well,” I said. “We have three other bathrooms.”
He blinked. “This water heater isn’t hooked up to anything. The one in the other kitchen heats all the water for the house.”
I said, “Joe, are you just going to stand there and find fault with the place, or are you going to help me get settled?”
He rubbed his ear. “Why, I’m not finding fault,” he said in a surprised way. He started out of the room and paused. “The closet in our bedroom is really only a cupboard. Do you know it’s not quite three feet high?”
“Then we’ll put the children’s clothes in our closet and our clothes in the children’s closet,” I said. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing. It’s fine.” He smiled. “As long as they don’t grow too fast.”
The man came from the gas company and he and Joe spent several hours trying to find the gas meter. The regular man for the neighborhood was on his vacation and would not return for two weeks. Joe and the replacement crawled around among the innumerable pipes under the house without success. Finally they decided we’d have to do without gas until the regular man returned. So that we could cook on the electric plate, Joe began to follow wires to find where the light could be turned on.
The light meter proved to be in the landlady’s house, across the garden from ours. We telephoned the real-estate agent who obligingly brought the key and opened the door for us. Then he hurried away to another appointment, leaving us to lock up after ourselves.
I took advantage of the chance to look into the living room. The house was beautiful and much like ours. The doors were fine-paneled and there were lots of hand-wrought nails and polished brass. I stood in the lovely big-beamed room and admired the priceless colonial antiques and the beautiful shutters.
Joe said from the doorway, “What’s the name of the woman who owns this property?”
“Miss Pickering,” I told him, quoting the real-estate agent. “She’s a sea captain’s daughter from Massachusetts.”
“Come and see this,” he said.
Like ours, this house had two kitchens. One, the very small one, had only one door which opened on the garden. It was necessary then to go outside to enter or leave this room.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” I said. “Look at that handmade spice cabinet! It must be very old. Did you notice the Sheratons and Hepplewhites in the living room?”
Joe said, “Try to open the oven door.”
I did. As I lowered the door of the stove I had to back out into the garden. The kitchen was very small.
“What about it?” I said, getting pretty defensive. “All you see are the peculiar things. I never knew you were so conventional.”
“I’m not,” he said.
In our own house we discovered other eccentricities. The bedroom fireplace wouldn’t draw and I rearranged all the furniture and put the head of the bed under the mantel. Joe found that the third chimney came down in the wall of the huge linen closet and that there was a preserve pantry next to that, with a heavy storm door closing it off from the rest of the house. Every room was, reasonlessly we found, on a different level.
“I admit that the house is weird,” I said. “But where else could we find a place with a peaked ceiling and a chestnut floor in the living room for eighty-five dollars a month? And near the college? Or a house with one bedroom and one kitchen floored in solid maple, or with three usable bathrooms, or with a garden an acre in size with at least a hundred trees on it?”
“Nowhere,” Joe said promptly.
Next day a man clumped into the yard and began pruning bushes. His manner was proprietary, but I went out to investigate anyway.
“Are you the gardener?” I said.
He said his name was Armitage and that he was not the gardener; he was the landscape artist. Propitiatingly I told him he was quite right; the property was beautifully landscaped.
“Wait till Miss Pickering gets here,” he said dourly. “She’ll give me hell for the falcon.”
“The what?” I said, feeling the century drop away from me.
Armitage pointed to the far branch of a tall evergreen. I saw a large black hawk looking down at us. “I’m supposed to kill it,” Armitage said, “before she comes hack.”
Brian came struggling up the uneven flagstone walk with a flower in his hand.
“Who’s he?” Armitage said.
“That’s my baby,” I said. Brian was smiling at him fearlessly. “I have an older boy too.”
He grunted. “Miss Pickering know you got children living here?” he said, When I said no, I didn’t think so, he gave a snort of disapproval. “Don’t take to them,” he said.
I told Joe about this when he came home from his three o’clock class. “Well, that’s too bad,” he said. “I hate to give up the kids but I guess a house like this is worth just about any sacrifice.” He grinned at me. “Maybe the hawk will have carted Brian off by then.”
“Falcon,” I said.
WHEN WE had been in the house a month, Miss Pickering came home to the house next door. I did not meet her immediately but I saw a lot of her. She was an elderly spinster with thin greying hair which she drew tightly to a lemon-sized knot at the nape of her neck. She wore horn-rimmed glasses and flapping black coats and she was always in a hurry.
Coincident with her arrival there appeared a slow-moving Negro maid, two men in overalls and Armitage. To these Miss Pickering shouted directions all day long in a high falsetto voice which I soon realized could be the result only of deafness. The maid and the men strolled about the grounds ignoring her wants as often as possible, joking among themselves in high good humor and carrying things in and out of the house only when Miss Pickering stomped along beside them in her high black shoes.
The third morning after her arrival when I went sleepily to the front door to get the milk, I found a covered dish and a note waiting beside the milk bottles. I brought them in. On the dish were four collapsed popovers. I set them down on the desk in the first kitchen and ignored the baby’s pestering while I read the note.
“Dear Neighbor,” it said. "I haven’t been over to meet you because it is difficult for me to meet people. I do not hear well. I know you love the house because you’ve taken such wonderful care of it and I'm happy that you have it. I didn’t know you had children, however, or I wouldn’t have had it rented to you. Children trample the garden and frighten the quail more than the falcon does. I love the quail in the early morning. Have you seen them? Here are some popovers for the children’s breakfast and please don’t let them play in the garden. One day I’ll call on you. Yrs, Emily Pickering.”
I tore that note up and said nothing about it to Joe. I said instead that I had begun to feel that doing the washing was too much for me, even with a Bendix, and that henceforth I’d like to send it out. I hadn’t been feeling too well lately, I added, which was true enough. Joe insisted that it would be wiser to hire a maid to help with the other work as well as the washing, but I said I did not want a stranger in the house. Reluctantly, he agreed.
From that day on, there was a note under the door every morning. Sometimes the note suggested no changes in my life at all, but most often, timidly couched among the innocent non sequiturs, there was a little helpful criticism.
I met Miss Pickering one morning when I had gone out about seven o’clock for a walk in the garden! She came up from the back cliff, clambering ungracefully over the top and racing through the trees in her nightgown like an elderly nymph. The nightgown was long, white and full. In her arms she carried a spray of flowers.
“Oh, there you are!” she shouted tunelessly as though she’d been looking for me. She rushed over to me, tripping over the hose, and pushed a gaunt hand under my eyes. I shook hands with her. “I’ve been up since five,” she cried. “So much to do, to do, before Mabel gets here. Mabel Hildebrandt Gage . . . my great friend. Do you know her?”
I said no. “Of course you know her . . . the famous lady attorney on the Prohibition ticket?” Still I shook my head. “You know her. My great friend. I call her Portia. Aren’t you well?”
“Fine,” I shouted through my headache.
“Do you like the doors in the house? My father . . . Captain Pickering . . . brought them from Massachusetts in his ship. They’re very old. You won’t scratch them. No, I know you won’t. I planned the house myself, you know. Went out there one day with a piece of string and planned it all. Silly old architects make such work of simple tasks. Is it true you have a kitten? The maid says you have a kitten.”
I screamed, “Yes. A Persian.”
“Beautiful,” she cried. “I love Persians. I hate to ask you to give it up. Cats frighten quail. Did you see them this morning? I was watering at five thirty when they ran through the garden, right over there. Kitten has to go.” She waggled a bony finger under my nose. “And so must I. So much, so much to do ... ”
I waved good-by and started back to my house. When I was at my door, she called me again.
“Kitten must go,” she screeched and I saw the maid behind her, smiling. I shrugged and went inside.
I had decided to keep the kitten.
From that moment on, things moved at a swifter pace. In her frenzy of preparation for Mabel’s coming, Miss Pickering left no unkind word unturned. “Isn’t it wonderful,” one morning’s note said, “the way the ginger is blooming so richly? I’m going to send my maid over every morning to sweep your screen porch first thing. Mabel Hildebrandt Gage will be able to see it from her bedroom when she awakens in the morning and I know she couldn’t hear to see anything unswept. She loves the sight of polished wood. You must come and see my fiddle spoons one day. Yrs, Emily Pickering.”
Every morning at five, Miss Pickering watered the garden, beginning just outside the French doors of our bedroom. Several mornings while we lay awake listening to the noise of the hose and Miss Pickering’s joyful shouts, water squirted through the window. Miss Pickering then screamed an apology into our silent, hostile room and rushed off to hose some other part of the garden. Armitage arrived at six and they held a conference (at top volume, of course) about the day’s work, a ritual religiously followed by his taking pot shots at the falcon, and just as religiously missing it. When, hollow-eyed, I dragged myself out of bed, I would find a note beside the morning’s milk.
The children were not happy. It was not Miss Pickering’s fault of course that Jamie had found the only child of his age in the neighborhood to play with and that he turned out to be what he was. But it was her fault since she complained about the noise they made playing in the vacant lot (and how she heard it was a question that tormented me) that Jamie left Brian at home alone and went off to play every day in the other boy’s yard. His friend was a little psychopath named Victor Van Reed Morris, whose chief occupation and delight was the capture of goldfish.
I was not particularly happy either, for I was now under a doctor’s care. He said that what was wrong with me might necessitate surgery but that first we would try the effects of a rigid diet. Once or twice I had to send for him late at night and on these occasions Miss Pickering saw the doctor’s car.
“I was so disturbed,” her next I morning’s note said, “to see the doctor calling last night. I do hope this morning finds you well. The Mexican lilies (lirios, I think they call them) beside the pool are showing BUDS! If you are well enough, you must walk out to see them. Incidentally, I noticed that last night there were two liquor bottles in your weekly can box, one wine and one whisky. Do you think that perhaps drinking harms you? Why don’t you give it up and see if there’s any improvement in your condition? And if you don’t, I wonder if you’d please hire a little man with a cart to take them away. After all, Mabel Hildebrandt Gage did run on the Prohibition ticket and people passing the house might think the bottles in the can box were hers. Best wishes, Emily Pickering.”
I believed then that after a while Miss Pickering would adjust to our being in the house and cease sending me notes that received no answers.
One day when Joe came home at four o’clock, Miss Pickering stopped him at our door. She wanted, she explained, to plan a surprise for Mabel Hildebrandt Gage. She would like to take over our two garages and have us use one of hers. Mabel had been given a robin’s-egg-blue Cadillac by a grateful client and it was too large to fit into any one of the four garages. She wanted them to turn our double garage into a wide single one and to have it painted a matching shade of robin’s-egg blue—the matching was to be the surprise. Joe agreed to this, necessarily at the top of his lungs.
Victor Van Reed Morris, attracted no doubt by their lively shouts, and full of a new sense of rebellion since he had only that day been expelled from school, appeared high on the bank and turned the hose full force on Miss Pickering. Jamie’s shouts of laughter could be heard even over Miss Pickering’s shrieks and Brian, who had been playing quietly on the screen porch, sat chuckling with delight and clapping his hands.
It took quite a while for Joe to calm the victim and find her glasses, which had been washed away by the force of the water, and lead her finally, soggy and tearful, to her door. Then he came into the house and, grinning and perfectly dry, mixed himself a tall and hefty drink.
“To Mabel,” he said and closed his eyes and drank.
That night I persuaded Joe of the necessity of our calling on the landlady to see if she were suffering any untoward effects from her dousing. The maid, wise-eyed, let us in and directed us to the back bedroom where Miss Pickering huddled under a patchwork quilt in a four-poster. She regarded us dourly and hoped that since Mabel was due in two days she would not have to greet her with a cold.
“How about a hot toddy?” Joe asked pleasantly. “Hot buttered rum? Something like that?”
“Professor,” she shouted hoarsely, “I don’t drink!” Then she talked about Victor Van Reed Morris for a while and went on smoothly into the question of how much it was going to cost us to have her car repainted. We stared at her blankly. She flung off the covers and, austerely robed in her great nightgown, led the way to her garage where she showed us the long scratch that traveled the entire circumference of her car, made, presumably, by a pin.
“I’ll ask the children if they did it,” Joe said in a controlled way. “If they did, of course we will have to pay for the repainting of your car.”
We came back home and awakened Jamie. He admitted, to our infinite disappointment, his guilt.
“But why?” Joe said to him.
“We don’t like her,” Jamie said.
“Hate her,” Brian said from his crib.
Joe settled down to giving them a long talk and then we reworked the budget to cover the cost of the paint job.
The next day an officer from the juvenile authorities came to the house to ask if I were the mother of a child named Brian? I was. He had come in response to a complaint of vandalism and malicious mischief lodged against Brian by a Miss Pickering. She declared that he had let all the air out of her tires. I introduced him to Brian and when he saw that he was not quite two years old, he apologized for bothering me and tore up the complaint. He was both embarrassed and annoyed.
When he was gone, Brian said, “When you stick a little pin in the valve stem it goes SSSSSSS,” and he beamed with pleasure.
Two men worked all night painting the rebuilt garage. Even the floor was painted robin’s-egg blue and when the Cadillac was finally ensconced in it, it looked lite a nursery housing a monster mechanical child.
That morning, Miss Pickering watered the garden at four thirty and the maid came over and swept our screen porch at five. Two workmen began carrying benches and settles— old and beautiful—onto our porch and arranging them according to Miss Pickering’s top-volume directions.
Her first morning note announced, “I’m having a few ladies from Pasadena in for a lawn party this afternoon to welcome Mabel Hildebrandt Gage and I should like it very much if your screen porch could carry on the colonial motif of the property. Will you please not permit the children and the kitten to scratch these pieces? These are my TREASURES! My father, the Captain, brought them in his ship all the way from Massachusetts. I shall be most grateful if you can manage to take the children away for the afternoon. But of course you may not be well enough to do that. Could I have my maid make you some ginger tea? Father drank a lot of it before he died. Yrs, Emily Pickering.”
The second note said, “Wonderful news! I have bribed Victor Van Reed Morris’ maid to take him to the cinema this afternoon. Meanwhile, I have hidden the hose in case, as he so often does, he breaks away from her. Can you please take your children away? I’m afraid for the ladies’ cars. Mabel has told me to tell you that she looks forward to meeting you and it is she who sends you this bottle of grape juice, which, she tells me, is health-giving. She received a whole case of it from a grateful client.”
At ten o’clock two workmen carried several Oriental prayer rugs up into the garden and laid them out over the lush green lawn. They covered it completely with the rugs. At eleven, Miss Pickering (still in her nightgown) supervised the moving of a colonial refectory table to the centre of the rug-covered area. On this table she placed a huge crystal punch bowl. Around the table she grouped fireside chairs, Boston rockers and Hepplewhite side chairs. The garden had the air of a gala outdoor antique store.
For the next hour I kept circling back to the window to watch the increasingly bizarre preparations. A fresh breeze had come up and the multi-colored Japanese lanterns leapt and pulled on their strings. The punch bowl was removed and a fine damask cloth spread over the wonderful wood of the table. Great chunks of ice were sloshed into the bowl and bottle after bottle of fruit juice.
A side table was brought out and Miss Pickering studied it for quite a while. The truth was it was near Victorian and finally the anachronism was too much for her and she had it carried away and a colonial lowboy was brought out to take its place. First a rug was hung across its gleaming curved front lest the sunshine—bright by now, and quite hot—parch the wood. A cloth was placed on the rug and the glasses (Waterford of course) were lined up winking and glittering beside the crystal and cranberry punch cups. The sidewalk was swept and two men scrubbed down the flagstones of the steps and the garden paths.
The maid tapped at my door and asked if I had any pink or blue ribbon.
“Miss Pickering thought you might have some left over from the nursery on account of the children.”
“No,” I said. “I’m sorry. What does she want it for?”
The maid looked hard at the ground. “To hang up in Miss Mabel’s new garage,” she said.
I smiled at her. “It’s going to be quite a party,” I said.
“Yeah.” She turned away. “A regular ball,” she said.
Then the crepe paper was festooned from giant tree to giant tree. Armitage did most of this job until his ladder slipped and he fell and injured his knee. From then on, Miss Pickering scampered up and down the ladder —-still in her flowing nightie, with her sparse hair in curlers — like the mouse up and down the clock. She cheerfully shouted directions at the maid and the two workmen who strolled around languidly, holding the other ends of the paper streamers like indifferent children at school.
The pilot biscuits, still in their boxes, were set on the table and a few bowls of some kind of spread. One of the men was stationed nearby with a large fan to keep the flies away from these goodies. Miss Pickering flew into the house at a quarter to three with an especially penetrating shriek; someone had just told her the time.
She was back in fifteen minutes, taking the pins from her hair and stuffing them into her mouth, directing the men and the maid as to the placing of the Capehart. Then, at the last possible moment, with the thin grey curls hanging around her face like the curls from newly milled lumber, she decided that more rugs were needed to lay across the paths between the two houses. These were brought, laid out and vacuumed where they rested on the bright green grass.
MABEL Hildebrandt Gage drove up to the house and left her new Cadillac parked in the street. Her garage door was open and she looked at it, at the ribbons Miss Pickering had found and hung in the corners and across the top of the open door, and then she slowly came up the steps.
She was hardly what I had expected to see as the boon companion of Miss Pickering. True, the eyes were sharply blue, the aristocratic nose pinched and the hair white; but there was a modish, worldly look about her which seemed to me to be quite the antithesis of the crepe paper and pilot biscuits of our landlady’s world. She spoke softly and distinctly to Miss Pickering, not raising her voice at all, sending her into the house to comb her hair. Then she gave the maid a frosty glare which spurred her into moving faster than she had all day. The guests began to arrive.
Slow long black cars — ancient Pierce-Arrows, still agleam with a generation’s polish, top-heavy Packards and huge Cadillac sedans, ponderous Lincoln limousines and one old Franklin—all crept to a funereal stop in front of the house. Elderly chauffeurs stepped out and lifted caps from snowy heads.
From the back seats, like so many aged birds, the “ladies” were helped and led, faltering and tremulous, up the spotless white steps. Mabel Hildebrandt Gage, erect and smiling, received them all. From inside the house there were occasional wild squawks of alarm, but at last Miss Pickering emerged too, to dart here and there excitedly, pick up a dead leaf and toss it away a moment later—to press a shaking, black-gloved hand and shout a welcome into a faded ear.
The ladies assembled in orderly rows in the chairs in the garden and rested their pointed shoes on the Oriental rugs. The air was filled with the rusting, tissuey sound of their high voices and the soft anonymous drone of the Capehart. The chauffeurs drove slowly away.
Mabel began to pass the boxes of pilot biscuits, moving deftly among them like a visiting nurse, her smart suit and manner giving her the youthful assurance of the successful career woman. The maid slopped in and out of the house and the ladies began to dip their cranberry and crystal cups into the health-giving juices of the punch bowl and the hot sun heat down on their palsied, black-hatted heads.
We’d had no intention of granting Miss Pickering’s request and taking the children away. But as it happened, we had to go out and we did. When we got home after a casual supper with friends, it was well on toward ten o’clock at night. As we came up the stairs we saw that the garden had a look of ruin. The lanterns swung crazily on the night wind and the crepe-paper streamers had torn loose and angled, melancholy and tawdry, among the trees. There were paper napkins like big snowflakes scattered about.
The guests were gone, all but for one, a dignified and tottering elder whom Miss Pickering was leading by the arm into her house. We caught fragments of her falsetto speech ... “ . . . you’ll feel better as soon as you’re in bed . . . nothing at all, really, if you’ll just be calm, Pamela . . . Now there’s a step up here ...”
Next day the maid and Armitage cleared away the souvenirs the ladies had left upon the scene—large black purses, pairs and singles of gloves, and several incredible hats—and all day the white-haired chauffeurs came and went, taking them away. Late in the afternoon I received a note from Miss Pickering.
“Dear Neighbor,” it said, and the ink shook upon the page. “Thank you and your dear husband for taking the children away during our little fete. (Mabel Hildebrandt Gage had to leave the city suddenly on a case, else I know she’d join me in this expression of appreciation.) The garden looked quite pretty, I thought. I was half expecting the quail to join us at any moment. But then, all in the space of a few minutes it seemed, some of the guests fell ill. One dear lady was stricken, first with an inexplicable euphoria and then a rootless melancholy that expressed itself in tears and . . . finally she found it necessary to remain with me for the night. Victor Van Reed Morris poured a full bottle of rubbing alcohol into the punch howl. Doubtless he hoped to murder us all. All the ladies admired the handsome colonial settle on your porch and I do wish to thank you for letting me place it there. Your next rent payment is due on the first of the month and, in view of the depredations of Victor Van Reed Morris, I must ask that you vacate my house that day. I trust that shortly you will find a residence more suited to your needs. Yrs, Emily Pickering.”
I read the note several times. Then I went into the third bathroom and looked in the medicine cabinet for our quart-size bottle of rubbing alcohol. It was gone.
I turned to Brian who was playing in the doorway.
“Victor took it for the party,” he said cheerfully.
I was still convalescing from my illness and far too shaky even to consider the thought of moving. Besides, I had received so many notes from Miss Pickering, packed with suggestions, requests, demands and reproaches, that I did not take this one seriously. I was certain, once she felt better and the memory of Victor Van Reed Morris’ crimes faded from her mind, that she would forget she had ever written it.
And, just as I had assumed, in subsequent daily notes there was no reference to this last request.
ABOUT two weeks later I was well enough to spend the afternoon on the chaise longue on the porch. At sundown, Miss Pickering appeared at the top of the hill in her nightie, her hair wild and wisping. As she scuttled to her house, she waved at. me and screeched a greeting. I smiled and waved too.
Next morning there was a note and a bowl of parsley tea on the doorstep, “Dear Neighbor,” the note said. “It was so nice to see you resting outdoors yesterday. I’m sure fresh air is helpful. Also this tea should be beneficial. It was Father’s favorite before he died. Yesterday morning, Victor Van Reed Morris viciously assassinated every goldfish in the pond and played the hose steadily over the brow of the cliff, forcing me to remain on the hillside until sundown. But of course he will not dare to come onto the property when you have moved and your children are gone. Have you found a suitable house yet? Yrs, Emily Pickering.”
Again I decided to ignore the issue of our moving. I did not really believe that in Miss Pickering’s mind I could be held accountable for the vandalisms of a child who lived in the neighborhood. And because I had learned that her whims were many and her mind flitted from one purpose to another, I believed that now there would be another peaceful hiatus which only Victor Van Reed Morris could disturb.
Every day brought a note from Miss Pickering and each of them was chatty and pleasant in style. In some she made references to the next spring when we would be in the house “to enjoy the blooming of the hollyhocks. Father brought the seeds from Massachusetts long ago and I’ve been saving them.” In others, just as warmly phrased and perhaps accompanied by a glass of homemade cloudy jelly or a new kind of herb tea, there would be, like the thorn on a rose, a postscript asking when we were moving.
I think if she had been consistent I might have considered any one of these formal notice, even though they failed in legality. But just when I was leaning toward the opinion that this time she really did mean it, she wrote that if we didn’t mind, she would like to have our side porch newly screened. “It would be so nice for the children to use as a playroom during the rainy season of the coming winter,” and I agreed and put aside any thought of moving. But the next day's letter was a request that we permit a young man to repaint our house . . . “so it will look attractive for the new tenant.”
In any case, whether we were moving or we were not, we endured multiple inconvenience. Hammers rose and fell on the side porch through the daylight hours. And the young man who came to paint the house turned out to be Armitage’s fifteen-year-old nephew who had never painted anything before, and who, I’m sure, judging by the fruitless hours he spent waving a brush ineffectually at the wood, would never paint anything again. Over all, came the persistent obbligato of Miss Pickering’s soprano shrieks of command.
Finally we decided that there were other things in life more important perhaps than chestnut floors, peaked ceilings and a lovely garden. And although in many ways I was still reluctant to leave so much that I had loved, it was with relief that I began to look for a new place to live.
The day we moved I received my last note. “Dear Neighbor,” it said. I stood on the step reading it while the moving men pushed in and out past me. “I hope that you will be happy in your new house and that you will be soon completely recovered from your illness. You never told me whether the parsley tea helped you or not, but I suspect that it did. It helped Father. Before you go, you must walk out onto the back hillside and see the Cecil Brunners. They are just coming into bloom, late this year. Victor Van Reed Morris picked two of the blossoms before I could stop him. But he won’t be coming over here any more now that you are taking your children away. You are taking the little kitten too, aren’t you? Do write me from time to time and tell me how you are. And do, someday when you can leave your children and the kitten at home, pay me a visit. Yrs, Emily Pickering.”
We drove away from the house and nobody looked back but me. I saw Miss Pickering darting along the path from her house to ours, in her nightgown, just ahead of her cortege—the maid toting mops, brooms and pails, and Armitage carrying a ladder and cans of paint. As we turned the corner I was able to see the steep hillside behind the houses, which Miss Pickering favored most of all her garden, where the Victorian carved benches, the small spraying fountains, the ferns and mosses appeared, beautifully like a scene from another world.
Something moved among the Cecil Brunners and I twisted around and strained to see out the back window of the car. It was Victor Van Reed Morris, intrepid and intent, sturdily pulling himself, bush by bending bush, to the summit.