My Lady's Tea
IT was the end of a long, hard day’s work in the bookstore on Cornhill. A shipment had come in from England — twenty cases, all to be sorted, marked, catalogued, and set upon the shelves in the fine-binding sections. Well, it had been done; Adams had just finished; the Don Quixote with the Lalauze plates rested beside Strang’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It was long after closing time; he had a right to be tired.
He turned out the lights, sat down at his desk behind the waist-high partition, and pulled out an enormous dropstem briar pipe. He filled the bowl leisurely and selected a match from the jar behind the red ink. Adams prided himself on his taste in pipes. He bought them as a dandy might buy a necktie. They must suit the curve of his jaw, the slope of his forehead, his mop of hair. Being of a sensitive nature, he cultivated an attitude of coarseness: this pipe did him justice; it brought his teeth end to end and settled itself comfortably to one side, giving his lips a downward smirk, which he liked to describe as a leer.
The only light came through the windows from the arc lamp in the street. It was cool in the dusty air, soothing. He struck the match on the base of the telephone and watched the sulphur fizz bluely, break into yellow flame. Anyone looking through the front window at that moment could have seen hand and pipe and lips draw together in one practised movement, could have seen Adams’s pale face magnified by the flare, with queer arched shadows over the brows, the pipe rim reddening, and the smoke bursting round the stem like tulip leaves. The eyes glistened maliciously. Had the observer been superstitious, he might have left his penknife in the door to keep an elf from coming forth. Nothing would have delighted Adams more than to find such a knife. Like anyone who has lived much by himself, he believed in elves; to have been mistaken for one would have set him smiling to himself for the rest of the week. And he might very well have been so mistaken, with his big pale face and hands tied on to his small body like a makeshift of nature, and the black sparkle to his blue eyes.
No one, however, did look in. Adams was left to the quiet of the shop. After six o’clock Cornhill goes magically to sleep. Few people have any reason to walk down the curved sidewalk from Scollay Square; and pedestrians at the lower end go up Washington Street to avoid the steepness of the hill. Not even a taxi driver will send his car scuttling over the cobbles. There is no sound but the reminiscence of rumbling wagon wheels.
Adams was lonely and bored. An assistant bookseller’s job, even when one is left more or less in charge of the shop, is not always engrossing. The hours are long, and shop routine kills most of them before they can become interesting. Moreover, Adams’s friends were out of town for the Easter weekend. He might have stolen a day off himself if he had not had to look over a library next day with a view to purchasing it for the store. Even that would be dull work, as the library was catalogued and the price already determined on. All he had to do was to check up on the more important items. An hour’s work, at most — and a week-end spoiled by it.
He wondered how he was going to get out to the house. It was a mile outside of the town. There would be a ride in a train, and New England locals were insufferable.
The clock over the safe struck eight. Someone knocked on the door. Adams got up, leaving his pipe on the desk.
A thickset man in the clothes of a truck driver came in. He had a round red face, bright blue eyes, and red hair which glinted under the arc lamp when he took off his cap.
‘Evening,’ he said, affably, disguising the word in a cloud of rank blue smoke. He held a blackened clay pipe between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. ‘Sorry if I’m late, Mr. Adams.’
‘That’s all right,’ said Adams. ‘I’m glad to sit still for a while. Here you are, Corrigan. Better count it.’
‘That’s all right, sir. What’s a matter of business between friends?’
Adams sat down and took up his pipe. Diligent puffs set it glowing again. The truckman let out a deep breath and sucked at his clay, which had a habit of purring, much like a cat, way down in the bottom of it.
‘I’ve got to look over a library out beyond Concord,’ Adams said, after a while. ‘It’s the Livingstone house. Do you know the best way to get to it from the station?’
‘Ye can walk, or ye can take a cab, sir.’
‘ It will have to be walking, I guess.’
‘Or,’ went on Corrigan, ‘ye can come along of me. I’m goin’ past it tomorrow.’
‘In me truck. I can get ye here at noon, and leave ye by the door by two, or a little after, perhaps. Would that suit ye?’
‘And what’s more, I can fetch ye back, about six.’
‘The Mack will make it rough sitting on the roads this time o’ year,’ said Corrigan, ‘but ye won’t mind that, sir?’
‘Not a bit.’
It was a warm day; the slush in the street ran freely, with tinkling suggestions of meadow brooks. A hot sun clung to the plate glass of the bookstore and made a halo of warmth about the poets on the window shelf. The carters, going down to market, sweated as they swore friendly Italian oaths at their teams and scattered curses on the heads of slipping pedestrians. They left a breath of greenery and garlic in their wake. Assuredly it was spring.
A little before noon, the Americana man came down from his grubby nest on the second floor and escorted the cashier through the door. They went home on the same trolley. They had been worn so thoroughly into their respective grooves of matrimony that one would have taken them for man and wife. Adams winced slightly as he wondered if he would become an Americana man. The position calls for an unflinching optimist, and Americana men are invariably unlucky in love, or fathers of large families which they cannot quite support.
Adams finished his sandwich lunch, inspected his tobacco pouch, replenished his supply of matches, brought his gloves out of the drawer in which they had lain for a week, and settled himself to wait.
Corrigan had been a genie bearing good fortune. There was the wizard’s ring of patness in his invitation. The day, the conveyance, and the man himself fitted Adams’s mood to make a flower out of his shattered week-end. He forgot to feel lonely and bored.
The ticking of the clock over the safe became wand taps on the shell of time. There was a tingle of beneficent magic in the air; and a cat, creature of good submerged in evil, paced the cellar cloisters unseen.
The noon hush, which had been settling on Cornhill in little jerks of silence, at last asserted itself in the blast of a siren. The wail mastered the last echoing footfall of the last pedestrian on the block; it combed the store front for fugitive sounds and obliterated them; and when it died it left a heritage of complete stillness. It heralded the Event.
Adams heard a roar in the direction of Scollay Square; something was thundering on the cobbles. The hands of the clock had frozen into a single finger. He put on his hat and coat and gloves, and locked the door behind him just as the sea-monster nose of a fiveton Mack truck snorted to a standstill by the curb; and Corrigan, the god of the machine, blooming in red cheeks and fresh blue shirt, white flour-sack cap, and a brown coat to hide his overalls straps, made a hunch on the seat for more room, called ‘Good morning’ lustily, released the brakes; and before Adams realized he was aboard, the monster under him had shuddered, roared, and left Cornhill to its absolute hush.
A trip of some miles in a five-ton truck, to one who has never had the experience, is a thrilling adventure. The touring car, the limousine, the elusive roadster, are mere contrivances. There is a touch of the afrite, convenient when controlled, in the taxicab; and it is a bold race who drive them. But the truck is the amicable dragon, the serviceable demon, the mistreated but benevolent Lung-Wong of the modern Western world; and the man who controls him is a priest, a diplomat, an animal trainer, a surgeon, and a philosopher.
Corrigan epitomized the tribe as he moved his feet over the pedals to bring a thundering processional from the bowels of the beast beneath him. His necromancer’s touch transformed fifteen miles an hour into the flight of gods. Fleet-wheeled cars avoided his truck’s deified advance; trolleys halted submissively to let the flapping tailboard cut in ahead of them on their bigoted rails. Jaywalkers lost their sang-froid in a welter of ignominious retreat. Traffic policemen, statuesque, imposing, revealed themselves as common clay. The three Fates passed the thread of life from hand to hand on the bumper.
Adams alone lost his sense of the stupendous in watching the serene smile with which Corrigan piloted the truck out of Boston, out of Cambridge, until it went rumbling down the first stretch of country road toward Concord.
Snow still clung here and there under trees and between boulders; the grass smelled rottenly of incipient growth; the sun burned red in the heavy sky. The day was warm and soothing, and soft to the touch. It seemed as if the spring had laid itself open before their wheels. Adams could hear the throb of it in the little wayside brooks when Corrigan threw out the clutch to let the truck coast down a hill, in the swish of the tires on the wet road, in the tempo of the relaxed motor.
The road was strangely deserted; and the truck went on with an even droning, so steadily that you could hear smaller sounds through it. Overhead, not long after one o’clock, a line of geese rippled northward; but, for all Adams could see, not one of them looked down. And then Adams realized that the drone of the engine was a very small sound, so small no one could hear it, and that the truck in this loneliness was invisible; and that he was not going to a house beyond Concord, Massachusetts, merely to look at a library of books — he was not going anywhere, for in these days one cannot move without someone to look on. The truck was transforming him from one sphere of life to another; and the turning of the wheels and the rumble of the motor were no more than reminiscences of earth. So he turned to Corrigan, who had pulled in his head from spitting through the cab window with an air of having plumbed infinity; and instead of shouting, as he had been doing, Adams asked in a perfectly normal voice, ‘How far did you say we had to go?’
As he had expected, Corrigan heard him distinctly. He puffed out three words disguised as three rings round the stem of his clay pipe.
‘About two hours.’
It struck Adams as peculiarly significant that Corrigan had not once spoken of the distance in terms of the common measure. Space, apparently, did not enter into the transactions of the truck.
He was not at all surprised, therefore, when they swung in between two stone gateposts, atop of which two granite roosters stood tiptoe for crowing. The truck slipped between them so nimbly and quickly that Adams was not sure whether he had heard them.
A drive wound steeply up from the front wheels; and the truck puffed gallantly against the grade and tore at the gravel and climbed industriously under great elms, gray with buds, and sombre pines, and past high, massed banks of rhododendron.
Now and then, as they rounded corners, Adams caught glimpses of a formless brick house behind a high, colonial portico. Looking down the hill, he saw that the road along which they had come ran turn for turn beside a hidden brook, so placid in its flowing that he had been unaware of its existence. All at once he realized that the air was very sweet and undisturbed.
They came out on the end of a wide sweep of the drive, beside a garden sleeping in the spring, with arbors all gray and restful.
The truck slid up to the door with becoming silence and halted quiveringly.
‘ Back at six,’ said Corrigan, through a long stream of smoke that melted away against the gray of the garden.
Adams persevered until he found a bell pull in a niche out of sight to the right of the door. He pulled it gently and heard a far-away inner tinkle, which had something of the subdued hush of the garden about it. The house, too, behind its drawn shades, shared in the universal sleep.
No answer came to the bell, but he hesitated to give it a second ring. So he turned his back on it and took his pipe from his pocket. As he did so, the door opened and a sombre voice inquired, ‘You’re the book gentleman, are n’t you, sir?’
Turning, he beheld a middle-aged man, politely inclined in expectation of his reply, who held the door at a noncommittal angle and looked so undressed in his shirt sleeves that Adams at once recognized him for the butler.
‘Yes, I’m Mr. Adams,’ he replied.
‘ Very good,’ said the butler, with an air of impartial affability. ‘If you’ll just step in here, sir, I’ll show you the library.’
He ushered Adams into a high hall with a white-banistered staircase sweeping upward out of each of the far corners. It carried an air of high seriousness and complete formality, which was only partly detracted from by the absence of rugs and the presence of moving-covers on the chairs. Indeed it looked a fitting habitation for the coatless butler. Adams could not determine whether its dishabille marked a coming to life or an ultimate decay. Like the garden, it was hovering in the vague grayness between life and death; and, together with the garden and the butler, it possessed unruffled tranquillity.
As he followed his guide down a series of rooms in the south wing, Adams saw that the entire house shared in this bareness, but that the bareness did not affect the house. The walls, like the garden, had stood too long upon the soil to be disturbed by any change. The linen furniture covers coveted the shadow and absorbed the light, so that the gray atmosphere of life stirring under death, or of death encompassing life, became nebulous, a trembling insubstantiality, by which the composure of the house was enhanced.
Such houses grow out of generations. They cannot be altered. The inhabitants must fit the house as it is, or move away. But while the house remains it is itself. The corners are deep, and capable of darkness; and the walls promise peace. In them light is a treasure which makes things beautiful with its transient touch, and can be courted. The wise die in such houses, and the foolish call them haunted.
A sense of ineffable comfort stole upon Adams, as if at last he were coming home; and he rested his hand on the door jambs as he passed them, to feel the cool, smooth wood against his palm — a touch of accepted friendship.
He was grateful to the butler for showing him into the library without speaking.
When the door had closed behind him, he went forward to the middle of the floor. The room was darker than any he had passed through. From floor to ceiling the walls were lined with books; but there were no tables, no rugs, only a feathery brass chandelier picked out in tenuous lines by the fleeting light of wood burning in the fireplace. The shades in the embrasured windows were drawn, except for one on the south, which looked out on the gray garden, accentuating the shadowed stillness and giving a glimpse of the drive down which all who left the house must pass.
There were two high-backed wing chairs drawn up, one on either side of the hearth.
Adams began on the shelves to his left and went slowly round the room until he had verified the items marked in his catalogue. It did not take him very long, and when he had finished he pocketed the catalogue and looked down at the chairs.
A very small girl, apparently not more than seven, was curled up in a corner of the chair opposite him. She regarded him out of sober gray eyes with an air of friendly thoughtfulness, as if he were someone she had not seen for years beyond her lifetime.
‘Do sit down,’ she said in a voice mature with quiet, ‘and smoke your pipe.’
Adams bowed as he would have to a lady and accepted.
‘What a fine pipe!’ she exclaimed, as he leaned forward to concentrate on lighting it. ‘Dada never let anyone smoke anything but a pipe in here.'
She was dressed completely in black, which gave an evanescent quality to her pale face. She had a clear, low forehead from which her wheat-colored hair was drawn back to a single heavy braid that came forward over her left shoulder and bent on her tucked-up knees. Her lips met equably, with a faint suggestion of color.
‘I’m so glad you came,’ she said, when he was settled comfortably. ‘I thought you would n’t for a while.’
‘I am afraid I was a little late,’ he apologized. ‘ But it was such a heavenly day I could n’t hurry.’
‘If I had such a fine car for riding in as yours, I’d ride in it all day, without telling the chauffeur where I wanted to go, because it would n’t be necessary.’
‘No,’ said Adams. ‘You don’t have to tell him.’
They watched the firelight flowing across the hearth between them. Resting her chin on the heel of her right hand, the little girl stared through her fingers at the fire. Her slight body tensed perceptibly.
‘My name’s Maud,’ she said, after a while; and then she caught her breath and waited.
’I wonder who she thinks I am,’ Adams said to himself. He had n’t a guess, so, rather than disappoint her, he was silent. But Maud was bent on learning his name. She looked up at him shyly — not shyly, either; but she appeared to be embarrassed over an awkward lapse in memory.
‘I don’t remember when I saw you first, do you ? ’
‘I don’t think you ever saw me before.’
‘I must have, somewhere, because you don’t look strange. You did n’t when you came into the room.’
’I can’t remember when,’ said Adams, seriously.
‘At first I thought you might be Mr. Weller, but he always sees me wherever I am, the minute he comes in. And he always has tea in the kitchen; and I had told James to have tea for two people in the library. So you are n’t Mr. Weller.’
‘Impossible,’ said Adams.
‘No, because I expected you to tea.’
‘I’m anything but Sam.’
‘Then I thought you might be Uncle Toby; but he comes so very seldom that when I remembered he had been here last Thursday I knew you were n’t him. He’s older, anyhow.’
‘You must have a lot of visitors.’
‘Yes, they’re very good and come to tea whenever they can. It would be lonely here without them, with just James and Granny.’
‘She used to be my nurse, but now she’s my maid.’
‘Oh,’ said Adams, more at ease. ‘Yes, I should think it might be lonely, then, if you did n’t have so many callers.’
‘You see, James and Granny don’t like these,’ she sent a friendly glance round the shelves. ‘And when I try to read them some, they go to sleep sitting up very stiff in their chairs. I don’t read as well as Dada did.’
‘But how long have you been by yourself?’
‘It’s three months since Dada died. He and I used to have lots of fun here. We’d read after dinner in the Arabian Nights and Boccaccio, though I like to read him best when it’s sunny.’
‘So do I,’ nodded Adams.
‘It’s more like picnicking with him to feel the sun on your back.’
‘Your mother went away long ago?’ suggested Adams.
‘Yes, before I can remember. She came back once, when Dada was dead, but then she was somebody else’s mother. So I have been here instead.’
‘It must have been hard work to take care of the house— such a big one.’
‘Oh no. You see, Mrs. Hopkins did that; and I only had to pour Dada’s coffee in the morning and sit opposite him when we had dinner. Then we’d both come in here and read. Or, if there was company, I ’d come in alone first and look at the Martyrs until they came in to smoke and talk. Dada did not like ladies.
‘He’d sit where you are,’ she went on after a pause. ‘His hair was white, and he smoked a yellow pipe with a long stem, not as nice as yours. He stayed upstairs all day, and wrote things.’
She reached for the bell pull. After a few moments’ silence the butler appeared with the tea. He was coated, now, and lent a tone of solemnity to the proceedings. He took his place beside her chair, and when she put her hand to the kettle he reached across and took the weight in his own hand, like a venerable automaton, following her directions implicitly, and so impersonally that he might never have existed at all. Tea, to the two of them, was evidently a function of such long standing that they performed its graces with the dignity of perfect ease.
As her hands moved over the tray, the child’s body assumed the poise of the experienced hostess.
‘One lump?’ she asked.
‘No lemon or cream?’
‘You see I remembered that,’she smiled, ‘though I did n’t know your name.’
When she had poured her own cup, she dismissed the butler. Adams stretched out his legs to the fire, The fragrance of tea always made him drowsy.
‘I wonder who you are?’ she asked.
‘I’m sure,’ he replied, ‘that you’ve never seen me before. I don’t go out often; and I came here by chance. Indeed, I did not know I was coming to this house until the driver left me at the door. I should n’t know how to get here even now. And when he comes to take me away, I am afraid I shan’t be able to remember the road.'
‘Yes. It is,’ he said.
‘But you know all my friends,’she said, glancing again at the shelves.
‘Yes. You see I live with them. When people get tired of some of them, I find them a new place to stay.’
The child was indignant.
‘They can’t know them as well as I do if they get tired of them! They never have them to tea.’
‘No,’ said Adams. ‘They only ask them to show them to other people.’
‘It’s good of you to find them homes. Will you do that for mine?’
‘ I’m glad. You see, I ’ve got to leave them all. I wanted to take them with me; but my aunt who lives way out West is coming for me to-morrow, and she said there was n’t room for them where she lived. I wanted to take Boccaccio and Uncle Toby with me, anyway; but she said they would not know what to do out there, and that I must forget them, because I was going to be a real girl.’
‘Do you know what that is?’ she asked.
‘I’ve lived with them for so long,’ he said, looking in his turn toward the books, ‘that I must have forgotten.’
‘I wish I did not have to go; but my aunt says it will be better for me; but I don’t think she knows.’
Adams could not speak.
‘That’s why I’m so glad you came. To-morrow it would have been too late; and I was afraid I should have to say good-bye to them by myself.’
She gazed out of the south window at the drive. The afternoon gray was beginning to accumulate the evening shadows, here and there, under the pines.
‘The house will be lonely when there is n’t anybody else to go away.’
‘Yes,’ said Adams, softly.
He tried to picture the room without her odd little tragical figure and her grave gray eyes; and, failing that, he tried to visualize her as her aunt’s finished product. And that also was too much for him. He could not get beyond the fact that on Monday morning, promptly at nine, he would begin selling books again. He would become a bookseller’s assistant ; the books would be brought to the mart for sale, Uncle Toby and the rest, no more than paper and ink and calf and morocco; and she who had poured them all tea would go down the drive to become flesh and blood under the pork-market guidance of her Western relatives. There would be only the house, waiting for the next inhabitant who could fit himself into its drowsy atmosphere. The house and the gray garden. . . .
He knocked out his pipe, for he wanted to leave its ashes on the hearth. The firelight wavered delicately over the tea things. It is only firelight which makes ghosts.
The light in the open window had retreated beyond the glass. It was growing darker and darker. Now and then he could catch a glimmer of gold on the back of a book; but the corners of the room had faded. Only the chandelier, in the breathing glow of the flames, hung over him like Titania’s web.
The black dress of the child had acquired invisibility in the shadow: there were only her pale face and hands, her long braid of wheat-colored hair, and her grave gray eyes.
She was looking at him earnestly.
‘I wish I could remember your name.’
He swallowed convulsively.
‘It was — It is — I have n’t any name — just now.’
‘Perhaps, then, you feel like me. And I don’t want to go. Oh, I don’t! I don’t!’
He was not sure she was crying.
All he heard was the ascending roar of the truck. He could hear the tires clawing at the gravel.
‘I don’t want to go,’ he said.
And then he found himself in the hall. There was no sign of the butler. Only the furniture in its moving-garb, and the bare floor, and his hat, coat, and gloves on the table. He put them on and closed the front door after him.
No sign of the butler. Had he left the child alone?
Suddenly it occurred to him that he had not tasted his tea.
He tried the door, but it was locked.
‘Here I am,’ said Corrigan, unnecessarily, as the truck snorted to a stop. ‘Get aboard.’
Adams stared up at the silent windows.
‘But the butler’s gone.’
‘Yesterday,’ amended Corrigan, putting a smoke ring round the word.
‘The little girl’s all alone.’
‘No, she ain’t. That’s what I brought ye for. She left two days ago, with her aunt, in a limysine as long as me tailboard.’
He exhaled pennons of smoke.
‘Get aboard, sir. It’s three hours to Boston with this load on.’
Reluctantly Adams complied. Corrigan released the brakes and they started coasting, silently, down the drive, past wide terraces of lawn and the gray garden.
‘Look!’ said Corrigan. drawing the clay pipe from his mouth, and the word was like crystal without the smoke.
Adams glanced along the stem and saw, in the middle of the gray garden, the bud of a white crocus, by itself.
They passed down through the gateposts, with the roosters atop, tiptoe for crowing.
‘The creatures!’ said Corrigan, as he juggled the gears into high.