The Lady’s Maid’s Bell
Edith Wharton, 1905
(1862 – 1936)
“The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” originally appeared in a 1902 issue of Scribner’s Magazine.
The author of novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, and travel books, Edith Wharton achieved both popular and critical acclaim during her lifetime. Born Edith Newbold Jones into the most exclusive New York society, she was educated at home by governesses. At age twenty-three she made a proper society marriage to Edward Wharton, scion of a prominent Boston family. Although she had early displayed writing talent, it had been discouraged, and her career did not get fully underway until she was thirty. Wharton’s marriage was never happy, and after her divorce in 1913 she took up permanent residence in France. A devotee of the ghost story, she claimed that “till I was twenty-seven or eight, I could not sleep in the room with a book containing a ghost-story,” and that “I have frequently had to burn books of this kind, because it frightened me to know that they were downstairs in the library!” Wharton’s ghost stories, among the finest of her time, provide chilling investigations of gender roles and relations. “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” made its debut in Scribner’s Magazine in 1902. It most recently appeared in The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985).
It was the autumn after I had the typhoid. I’d been three months in hospital, and when I came out I looked so weak and tottery that the two or three ladies I applied to were afraid to engage me. Most of my money was gone, and after I’d boarded for two months, hanging about the employment agencies, and answering any advertisement that looked any way respectable, I pretty nearly lost heart, for fretting hadn’t made me fatter, and I didn’t see why my luck should ever turn. It did thoughor I thought so at the time. A Mrs. Railton, a friend of the lady that first brought me out to the States, met me one day and stopped to speak to me: she was one that had always a friendly way with her. She asked me what ailed me to look so white, and when I told her, “Why, Hartley,” says she, “I believe I’ve got the very place for you. Come in tomorrow and we’ll talk about it.”
The next day, when I called, she told me the lady she’d in mind was a niece of hers, a Mrs. Brympton, a youngish lady, but something of an invalid, who lived all the year round at her country-place on the Hudson, owing to not being able to stand the fatigue of town life.
“Now, Hartley,” Mrs. Railton said, in that cheery way that always made me feel things must be going to take a turn for the better; “now understand me, it’s not a cheerful place I’m sending you to. The house is big and gloomy; my niece is nervous, vapourish; her husbandwell, he’s generally away; and the two children are dead. A year ago I would as soon have thought of shutting a rosy active girl like you into a vault, but you’re not particularly brisk yourself just now, are you? and a quiet place, with country air and wholesome food and early hours, ought to be the very thing for you. Don’t mistake me,” she added, for I suppose I looked a trifle downcast; “you may find it dull but you won’t be unhappy. My niece is an angel. Her former maid, who died last spring, had been with her twenty years and worshipped the ground she walked on. She’s a kind mistress to all, and where the mistress is kind, as you know, the servants are generally good-humoured, so you’ll probably get on well enough with the rest of the household. And you’re the very woman I want for my niece: quiet, well-mannered, and educated above your station. You read aloud well, I think? That’s a good thing; my niece likes to be read to. She wants a maid that can be something of a companion: her last was, and I can’t say how she misses her. It’s a lonely life . . . Well, have you decided?”
“Why, ma’am,” I said, “I’m not afraid of solitude.”
“Well, then, go; my niece will take you on my recommendation. I’ll telegraph her at once and you can take the afternoon train. She has no one to wait on her at present, and I don’t want you to lose any time.”
I was ready enough to start, yet something in me hung back; and to gain time I asked, “And the gentleman, ma’am?”
“The gentleman’s almost always away, I tell you,” said Mrs. Railton, quick-like”and when he’s there,” says she suddenly, “you’ve only to keep out of his way.”
I took the afternoon train and got out at D station at about four o’clock. A groom in a dog-cart was waiting, and we drove off at a smart pace.”
Dear Book Lovers and Ardent Readers,
RE: A quick note from the writer’s desk…
Working on my novella The Diary of Xander Tully. It is a frightening tale set in the years before America had become a nation, up in the woods of what is now the border between Michigan and Canada, where French-Canadian settlers have started a fledgling colony led by two old families.
Xander Tulley is a stranger here. His origins are not known to the community. But he is a clever man; he shows the world a practical and rational side; a lover of facts and the path they reveal to truth. But Tulley has other sides. He hails from a foreign land, across the sea. His people are tall, fair of hair and pale of skin. He appears as an artisan printer in the colony of River Raisin, where the villagers have a respect for the past and their heritage (one of the families traces its roots all the way back to a French king).
When Tulley becomes curious about a tale of an odd grouping of stones located in the deep woods that begin about a mile northeast of the village, he is drawn to the site. There is no visible path to the outcropping, and reaching it is difficult unless you know the woods, and the way. The stones circumscribe what appears to be a gash in the earth, an opening some five paces across at its widest. The villagers don‘t appear to know of the spot, its history, or the fact that a grove of trees surrounds the area in almost a perfect circle. They are deciduous trees, “evergreens”—-and they are the only trees in the wood that turn the color of glowing embers when autumn steals the light from summer and creeps toward the winter solstice.
The story of the woods is old. Some things—some geographies, secrets—-some stories—-lay quiet and undisturbed for a reason. Xander Tulley has been dreaming about the burning trees. His preoccupation with learning the history of the Wood leads him to seek out an indiginous tribe that once dwelt near the area, but has since moved higher north. It is in the tribe’s legends, wrapped tight within in an ancient language, that Tulley begins to see a story form in the forgotten shadows of time, one that once breathed life, and should now be left alone.
Xander Tulley reaches a proverbial fork in the road, where he may learn more about himself than he ever cared to know; and where he will be faced with making the hardest decision he will ever have to make.
Stay tuned for more!
The Psychic in Literature
Dorothy Scarborough, PhD
War, that relentless disturber of boundaries and of traditions in a spiritual as well as a material sense, has brought a tremendous revival of interest in the life after death and the possibility of communication between the living and the dead. As France became nearer to millions over here because our soldiers lived there for a few months, as French soil will forever be holy ground because our dead rest there, so the far country of the soul likewise seems nearer because of those young adventurers. The conflict which changed the map of Europe has in the minds of many effaced the boundaries between this world and the world beyond. Winifred Kirkland, in her book, The New Death, discusses the new concept of death, and the change in our standards that it is making. “We are used to speaking of this or that friend’s philosophy of life; the time has now come when every one of us who is to live at peace with his own brain must possess also a philosophy of death.” This New Death, she says, is so far mainly an immense yearning receptivity, an unprecedented humility of brain and of heart toward all implications of survival. She believes that it is an influence which is entering the lives of the people as a whole, not a movement of the intellectuals, nor the result of psychical research propaganda, but arising from the simple, elemental emotions of the soul, from human love and longing for reassurance of continued life.
“If a man die, shall he live again?” has been propounded ever since Job’s agonized inquiry. Now numbers are asking in addition, “Can we have communication with the dead?” Science, long derisive, is sympathetic to the questioning, and while many believe and many doubt, the subject is one that interests more people than ever before. Professor James Hyslop, Secretary of the American Society for Psychical Research, believes that the war has had great influence in arousing new interest in psychical subjects and that tremendous spiritual discoveries may come from it.
Literature, always a little ahead of life, or at least in advance of general thinking, has in the more recent years been acutely conscious of this new influence. Poetry, the drama, the novel, the short story, have given affirmative answer to the question of the soul’s survival after death. No other element has so largely entered into the tissue of recent literature as has the supernatural, which now we meet in all forms in the writings of all lands. And no aspect of the ghostly art is more impressive or more widely used than the introduction of the spirit of the dead seeking to manifest itself to the living. No thoughtful person can fail to be interested in a theme which has so affected literature as has the ghostly, even though he may disbelieve what the Psychical Researchers hold to be established.