by Claude Chabot
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“Did you say a full month in the country?”
“Naturally, Steven. Your leg won’t heal any quicker whether in the city, suburb, or a hamlet in Vermont. And where would you rather be in August? Gasping for a breath of air in your pied à terre in the Village with the smells and the noise, or staring at the landscaping in that benighted suburban graveyard where you were raised? Outside of Princeton, isn’t it? All horsey and proper?”
Dawson disapproved of what he called “a young man of my station” living in a flat on MacDougal Street, although being a self-made man who married into an “old family” he also made fun of my background. But I couldn’t fault him for trying to be funny. Or, for that matter, trying to be helpful. He did trust me well enough to handle his caseload when he was laid low with a nasty case of pneumonia. Now he wanted to return the favor, and I couldn’t walk easily, that was for certain. There wasn’t much good trying to get things done when I simply couldn’t do them.
“Even if it is only a minor fracture, and you can hide your cast beneath your suit, you’ll have the office in an uproar, thumping up and down the hallways with those crutches of yours,” he slyly added.
“The hallways, as you well know, are well carpeted. You’ll never know that I’m around. And my cast is very hospitable. Everyone’s signed it. And look,” I said, pulling my trouser leg up, “Patty’s drawn a little caricature of you. Just for the fun of it.”
“Just above my ankle.”
He bent forward to examine it. “My, my,” he exclaimed, “is my nose really that big?”
He paused and gave me a serious look, lowering his head and peeking over the top of his glasses, “Now really, my boy. The war’s over and it’s time for a little fun. You haven’t had much in your life I gather? Just out of law school and then two years of service at the North African front trading quips with Rommel. Then back here to make your mark in our little firm. Mind you, it’s a good place, a good place for you. I see your name up with the partners in, say, ten years. So why not relax, shake the war’s dust from your soul. Take the month, I heartily endorse the plan. I’ll clear it with the partners. Maybe you’ll meet a girl...some rosy-cheeked cow maiden you can dazzle with your urbane urban ways.”
He was playing the role of mentor with a parental relish. Dawson paused again and stared out the open window at the Hudson and mopped his brow. The piers at Vesey Street were thick with freighters, and the humid air hung misty over the oily, ebbing river. Dawson’s paneled office, though thronged with antique maps, thick settees, and oriental carpets, was inviting, but even the rapid flailing of the ceiling fans did little to relieve the effects of the relentless heat of late July.
I casually remarked, “I can't easily get to the corner with this leg, I don’t know how I’ll get to Vermont.”
“We'll have my car drop you at Pennsylvania. It’s but a few hours by train to Burlington, and a twenty-minute ride by taxi amongst the cow flops and the dairy farms to The Gables. Then when you’re up there, the gardener can run you around wherever you need to go. I was up there just last spring. The place is a bit dusty, but I can call beforehand and have the house opened for you. It was my wife’s family place you know. Called “The Gables,” because, well, it has so very many of them. Marvelous view of the mountains, and the air,” he murmured looking a bit lost, “the air will be sweet with newly mown hay,” and raising his hand in mock exultation, dropped back in his chair, closing his eyes.
I think old Dawson paused, not thinking so much of the air and the aroma of cut fodder but imagining Rita Hayworth atop a newly mown haystack.
Then he abruptly opened his eyes and continued, “Of course, I’ll have to give the cook a ring. We had to find a new one,” he stopped for a few moments, took off his glasses, rubbed his temples, then went on, “and I can never remember her name. I’ll have to ask Emma to ring her. We don’t want to send you up there and have you starve to death, do we? I’ll have Patty make all the other arrangements. Mind you, the place is five miles or so from the main road, and there’s no electricity, except for the kitchen. Had it completely modernized back in ’36. But Emma wanted to keep that old New England feeling, so we didn’t electrify the whole house. No telephone either I’m afraid. I must say we’ve got to remedy that soon.”
He stopped talking, suddenly sat up in his chair and looked straight at me, “Come to think of it, maybe it’s not such a grand idea. I’m offering it to you as it is sight unseen but perhaps you’ll feel…isolated. With your leg in that condition,” he frowned, his jowly face and thick lips compressing into leathery concern, “perhaps it really is not such a good idea…”
“Nonsense,” I retaliated immediately, “there’s nothing I like better than an old homestead ‘far from the madding crowd,’ and the twentieth century’s prying telephones and lurid electric lights. To say nothing of leaving New York behind in August. Besides, I can move around tolerably well and have been known to make a sandwich or boil an egg in distress. I take The Gables sight unseen!”
“Very well, I like that attitude! Now, I’ll ring for Patty. She’ll fix everything for you my boy – Patty!”, he hollered into the intercom.
I put my work in order, going over with Dawson the details of the estates that I had newly organized, took my pay in cash, and left at 3:30, spared the sultriness of the subway when I was given Dawson’s car for a ride home. The driver waited while I packed and changed, then it was off on a mad dash for the 6:10. We arrived at Pennsylvania Station, and I found a red cap in the dizzying, echoing vastness of that evocation of the Baths of Caracalla, picked up my reservation at the ticket window and then made a red-faced, breathless and hobbling run for the train.
For all the last-minute rush, the cars were quiet for a Friday evening, and I had a row of seats all to myself. As we made our way through upper Manhattan, then Yonkers, and through the Hudson Valley, I thought of the new super-highways that Washington wanted to crisscross the country. Weren’t there enough roads and cars and people, I wondered? Must progress always mean tearing ourselves from the slow, human rhythm of the past?
Far above the city, the sun set over the Connecticut dales whilst I enjoyed a martini or two, very dry, in the dining car, before my steak, salad, and mashed potatoes. I got a little tight and almost forgot my painful leg and loathsome crutches. When I finished my cream pie and a last cup of coffee, I limped back to my seat feeling a bit groggy as the train click-clacked ever closer to Vermont. I enjoyed a cigarette before dozing off and then slipped in and out of sleep, tortured by the occasional painful tingle of my broken left ankle.
When I arrived, there was a cab ready to meet me. We made our way from the quaint downtown of Burlington out into the lush farm countryside. The windows of the car were rolled down and the cool air was heavy with the perfume of grass, earth, and honeysuckle.
We turned onto a dirt road from the state highway. I wondered how the driver made out the almost invisible road, not much larger than a cow path. We traveled uphill through dense woods for a few miles when the driver turned again and, going another two or three, eventually came to a clearing. That was when I first saw The Gables. The rambling building lay as if sleeping, some of its many crenellations visibly outlined in black against the amazingly starry, moonless sky.
The car slowly made its way up to the house jostling my cast as the suspension responded to the deep ruts in the old driveway. We stopped. As the driver helped me out, I saw that the front yard was quite overgrown, my feet sinking deep into the tall grass. The headlights cut twin swaths of light across the derelict lawn and illuminated a section of wooden balustrade of the front porch. Insects churned in the startling motes betrayed by the headlights. Somewhere behind me, I heard a rustling. I felt a surprising sense of relaxation with the cool, sweet air, the isolation and the immense dome of night perforated with pinpricks of diamond light.
I found and unlocked the side door, which fortunately opened into the kitchen where I flipped on its oasis of electric light. I hailed the driver from the bright interior to bring in my bags. The low-ceilinged room was scrubbed and spotless. Someone had been in to clean as there was a mop still standing moist in a bucket of wash water.
The driver nodded courteously when I paid him, and he and his cab disappeared: its twin beams pulled away from the house, hurtled around into the blackness as they bumped and quivered down the old road out of sight. Dawson was to be congratulated when I got back, I told myself. He had made every part of the journey painless.
Stepping back into the house and shutting the door, I tore open a note that lay on the kitchen table simply addressed “guest.” It informed me that tomorrow the garden would be tidied and food brought from town.
The light from the kitchen illuminated part of the small dining room and cast some light to the front of the house. I found a candle on a sideboard in the dining room, and lighting it, proceeded to explore the ancient structure. It was really a charming old place, furnished with antiques and practically reeking of its colonial past. Then I wearily made my way up the narrow staircase (hauling my valise and crutches with me not without difficulty). The steps squeaked alarmingly under my two-hundred-odd pounds of former halfback.
The second floor contained three bedrooms and a commodious bath with all the modern conveniences. I flipped on a switch and happily discovered that the room had electric light. Dawson had forgotten to mention this. Leaving the light on, I extinguished the candle between my fingers.
I hobbled into the master bedroom, set my bag down and threw the huge casement window open. The uneven, bubble-filled panes in the weathered, leaded sash were probably as old as the house itself. In the distance, the blue-black outline of the mountains was silhouetted against the iridescent sky. Cool, moist air crept into the room, and I collapsed into the comfortable nest of the four-poster, tired of carrying my heavy frame around with one leg and crutches. I helplessly fell into a voluptuous sleep.
I awoke sometime later startled into blithering consciousness by the sound of...what? Pots and pans? Somewhat surprised by my strange surroundings, I struggled to force myself awake, remembered where I was, sat up in bed and listened. I was reassured by the simple chirping of crickets. The sounds that had awakened me were gone. I shrugged them off as part of a silly dream. Swinging my body off the bed and steadying myself, I awkwardly tore off my shoes and clothes, staggered out to the bedroom to shut the bathroom light whose glare fell across the room, then went back to pull the bedclothes down, and collapsed into them. I was drowsy and eager to get back to sleep, though I was still a little puzzled by what I had heard. I listened again as I lay there with my eyes closed, but the house maintained a sepulchral stillness.
The raucous chirping of birds awakened me the next morning as much as the cheerful sun flooding the room through the chintz curtains. Emma had such a gracious touch. It was certainly far from my flat and the grubby shades I used for privacy. Rousing myself, I staggered over to the window, stretched, yawned, and rubbing my eyes, brushed aside the curtains to take a look at the day. The house had an even finer view of the valley and mountains than I thought, perched as it was on the gently sloping hillside. The air was sweet with newly mown hay and the morning looked brightly promising. Glancing at my watch I saw it was well past seven o’clock. I planned on getting a lift into town when the supplies arrived to call up some college buddies who still lived near Dartmouth.
My enthusiasm was only dimmed by the realization that there was no food in the house nor anyone to cook for me. But someone would be arriving this morning, I reminded myself, and I could check and see if there was anything edible in the kitchen cabinets. In the meantime, I wanted to scrub up and get into some fresh clothes. In a half-hour, I was bathed (one leg out of the tub), shaved and groomed and in a pair of comfortable old Bermudas, white polo shirt and loafers.
Then I heard the clatter of pots and pans from downstairs which I thought I had imagined the night before. I smelled bacon frying and coffee percolating.
It was probably the person who was supposed to bring the groceries, I thought, although it seemed much too early for anyone to be at the house, or to be here unannounced. I was suddenly uneasy. I quickly gave myself a mental slap on the wrist; thinking like this was absurd and not worthy of me. Standing erect with my full six feet two inches, reassured by the flexed strength of my athletic build, I opened the door, then paused. Yes, the noises were real. I called out, “Who’s there?” surprised at the timidity in my voice. No one answered.
I went downstairs, following the curving “U” of the stairwell without wavering until I reached the bottom. There was a chill dampness in the air. I was suddenly, irrationally, afraid and had the urge to run, anywhere, as fast as I could. My heart beat so spastically I thought it would explode. I again heard the clatter from the kitchen.
“Who’s there!” I demanded, stealing around the corner into the dining room. What I saw riveted my attention as I approached the table. A plate was laid for breakfast with crisp fried bacon, two fried eggs sunny side up, biscuits, and a chunk of country butter. Beside it was a glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee with a tiny creamer. The steam from the coffee undulated lazily under me. I felt silly. Afraid of this fine breakfast?
“Just squeezed that juice myself.”
I started involuntarily, “Are you the cook here?” I asked of the woman who stood in the shadows, leaning against a doorjamb of the kitchen.
A nearby window, overgrown with ivy, cast a faint green light on her. She was a somewhat plump, dark-haired woman of maybe forty years, with pale, smooth skin and startling black eyes which focused somewhere beyond me. She stared as if looking through me. It occurred to me that she might be blind.
“Oh, I’ve cooked many a meal here. Like I said, squeezed that juice myself and made those biscuits. Baking powder biscuits. I just had to make them again. Go on. Try one. They’re still warm. Try one with lots of butter. They’re very light, you can’t use too much butter. Sit down and enjoy your breakfast.”
“Yes, I will,” I said, hesitating. Her voice was soothing, tranquilizing. I started to walk over to her. “I’m a guest of the Reeds. I work for Dawson Reed. Steve Dalton…” I volunteered as I approached within a few feet of her.
“Miss Blackburn, Mr. Dalton. Now enjoy your breakfast.” She quickly turned and retreated into the kitchen. A bit odd, I thought, especially with that fixed stare. It was possible she was blind, but might know the layout of this house so well that she could move around without accident. It would be typical of Dawson to forget to tell me this as well.
I sat down, and forgetting my puzzlement, I did enjoy the breakfast. Everything was prepared perfectly. And the biscuits! Like nothing I had ever tasted, and yet they were simple and homely.
“I could use some more of those biscuits,” I shouted as I finished the last one, sopping up egg yolk. There was no answer.
I got up to take a peek into the kitchen where everything was in order. In fact, the stove was cold, and no pots or pans were out drying. The dishtowel was stiff and dry. Perhaps she had brought the food cooked from elsewhere? That didn’t seem likely. As I walked back to the table, I saw her again, this time facing away from me going toward the front door. I didn’t notice her cross the dining room. She must have left the other side of the kitchen through the pantry, just as I entered it.
“I hope you’ve enjoyed your breakfast Mr. Dalton,” she said softly, her back to me.
“Yes! And those biscuits. I wondered if there were anymore.”
She turned slowly, “I just had to make those biscuits one last time,” she declared in a dreamy way, looking through me with those strange, staring eyes.
My attention wandered to the table, and I noticed that there were more on my plate and a fresh cup of coffee. When I looked up, she was nowhere to be seen.
“Miss Blackburn?” I called, “Miss Blackburn?” I went over to the front door, opened it and looked out. “Miss Blackburn!” I shouted to the hills as I wandered outside through the tall grass. I could see where the car and the driver and my own footsteps had crushed the tall grass the previous night, but there was no sign of Miss Blackburn, her car, nor any indication that she had left this way.
I went back inside to enjoy the rest of my breakfast but felt a little out of sorts. Afterwards, I had a cigarette on the front porch and took some time awkwardly exploring the overgrown front yard. After a long while, an old roadster appeared out of the woods and bounced up the gravel driveway. A woman with hair dyed a violent red clambered out of it.
“Yoo-hoo! Mr. Dalton? It is Mr. Dalton, isn’t it?” she called in an overly friendly, too familiar way, lowering her head and shielding her eyes from the sun. I reluctantly waved to her from the side of the house Her manner and appearance immediately put me off. She tripped across the tall grasses toward me.
“I’ve brought you some groceries. I bet you’re famished for breakfast by now,” she hollered as she came towards me.
“Well, the cook has already fixed me a fine breakfast,” I casually answered as she approached. I was examining the weedy remains of a flowerbed.
Her friendly smile turned to a puzzled frown. “The cook? But Mr. Dalton, I’m Mrs. Childs, the cook and housekeeper. I was up here yesterday and left you that note. There isn’t anyone else besides me and the gardener, and he won’t be up till later.”
“But I’ve told you, I’ve already had breakfast prepared for me by Miss Blackburn.”
Her face now went from a puzzled frown to nervous astonishment. “Is this a joke Mr. Dalton between Mr. Reed and yourself, to make fun of the new housekeeper?” she said indignantly. “Because if it is, it’s a tasteless and cruel one!”
I sputtered out completely baffled and rather annoyed, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I am not making you nor anyone else the butt of a joke. Miss Blackburn was here this morning and prepared breakfast.” As I said this, I had the feeling that there was something terribly wrong.
She crept up to me and I could see the distress in her twitching face and quivering lips, “You aren’t joking are you Mr. Dalton?” She leaned in too close to my face and asked, “Did she make you biscuits?”
“Well, yes!” I said wearily. “What does that have to do with anything!”
She was shaking a little now, and choking on her tears she whispered, “The Reeds were so upset by what happened that they went straight back to New York after the final arrangements.”
I couldn’t understand what was making the woman so upset, “You’re making no sense. What arrangements?”
“On the state highway…they don’t know who caused it…but the truck driver and Miss Blackburn were…”
“Were what?” I impatiently demanded.
“Killed, killed, they were killed! They think the truck went out of control and hit her, but no one is really sure what went wrong. She had gone into town one day last spring to pick up some baking powder. That’s what the grocer told the police afterwards. How peeved she had been that she had to go into town just for that one little thing.”
I watched poor Mrs. Childs as she searched my face for a denial of what I had told her, as I searched hers for the same thing. But remembering the unfocused gaze, I realized that those blank, staring eyes of Miss Blackburn had been the eyes of a corpse. Shuddering, I recalled the distant, dreamy voice and her last words to me, “I just had to make those biscuits one last time.”
Claude Chabot has published five short stories and has produced and directed four radio plays based on his own stories. One of them, an adaptation of his own ghost story, was aired on public radio worldwide. He has also completed a collection of short stories exploring the conflicts and changes his characters experience while traveling, along with several ghost stories and other stories with assorted themes.
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