If, when I became enamored of the house, I had considered its appearance of ruin, or if I had guessed at the strange events that would take place during my tenancy, I would not have considered vacating the small room I rented from Mrs. Vane.
If, when I stacked my books and folded my belongings into wooden crates, I had admitted to myself the sense of uneasiness I felt regarding the unusual Lumble and the strange Mr. Griffin, with the latter’s keen insight and his peculiar promise of willing his house to a stranger, I would not have continued packing my effects.
If, when I took possession of the house, I had felt a sense of foreboding at the gray sky that foretold a raging storm, or if I had acknowledged the vague sense of discomfort I felt at the unexpected appearance of a mysterious housekeeper, I would have turned and walked back to the grim boardinghouse of Mrs. Vane.
But so captivated was I by the splendor of the house that my only aim was to inhabit it. I was blinded by beauty to all other things.
Thus dumb with adoration, I made my way with a crate of books and a cat called the Admiral to install myself in my new abode. The sky darkened as I hastened toward the house, and the wind began blowing fiercely over the lake.
When I approached the path I noticed that the rain was beginning to wet a lawn that was distinctly shorter than the unruly one that had fronted the house the day before. It had been manicured, the pathway had been repaired, and the windows had been scrubbed clean. The bracken had been trimmed, the vines had been tamed, and the house conveyed the appearance of order and cheer.
I was in the act of setting on the porch the crate that contained the Admiral and my favorite books, in order to free my hands to reach in my pocket for the key, when the door was opened by an elderly housekeeper. Her kind face glowed in the light of the candle she held in her hand, but the hall was dark and I could see little else within.
“Welcome to the house on the lake, sir,” the kindly woman said.
“Thank you, Mrs. —”
“Jameson. Please come in, sir, and take off your damp coat and shoes. I’ve made a fire, and I have prepared a sitting room and a bedchamber for you upstairs on the north wing. You should find both quite welcoming, sir.”
“I . . . I thank you, Mrs. Jameson,” I stammered, quite taken aback at this unexpected greeting. “I’m afraid I wasn’t aware that Mr. Griffin had provided so well for my arrival. He said only that Lumble would help me get settled.”
The good woman made no comment at this. She merely stepped aside to allow me entrance.
I crossed the threshold and immediately felt the sensation of entering a realm of calm. The house was a sanctuary. It conveyed such a feeling of peace and space that had I been conscious of any former sense of uneasiness, I would have chuckled to myself at my foolishness.
“The sitting room is on the north wing as I mentioned, sir. You will find a warm supper awaiting you at the table.” She handed me the candle she had been holding and closed and bolted the door.
“Thank you very much indeed, Mrs. Jameson. I’m eager to explore the house. I trust that the room with the bay windows will make an excellent writing room.”
“The bay room upstairs, sir?”
“Indeed, Mrs. Jameson.”
“If you please, sir, that room is never used, sir.”
“Hm. Well . . . now it shall be. I anticipate watching the sun rise every morning and writing for an hour or two before traveling to the office.”
“I’m afraid you will find that room unsuitable to any purpose, sir. I beg you to put it out of your mind, sir. I have made up a sitting room—”
“My wishes are firm, Mrs. Jameson. I will make use in the evenings of the rooms you have prepared, and I will write in the bay room, as you call it, in the mornings.”
“I myself cannot enter that room, sir. I shall not enter it.”
“Tell me why, Mrs. Jameson. Did something occur in that room?”
“Something most dreadful, sir. I can’t bear to speak of it.”
“Well I trust that the occurrence is now well in the past. But you must tell me about it sometime.”
The woman looked at me with horror in her pale blue eyes.
It was then that I noticed, though I was no authority on women’s attire, that her manner of dress was strikingly out of fashion. She was, indeed, old-fashioned, and something in her comportment or her apparel made me think of women of her kind who had run households long in the past.
“But, er, pray don’t trouble yourself at present, Mrs. Jameson. No further preparations are necessary; I shall not suffer you to enter the room against your will. I need only a table and a hearth, and I trust that the room is well appointed with both.”
“Indeed it is, sir. As you wish sir. Only I do beg you to reconsider, sir.”
“My mind is made up, Mrs. Jameson. But I thank you for your concern. I’m grateful to you for providing so well for my arrival. Things are indeed tidier than I expected—the wood is polished, the floor sparkles—is there a housemaid as well?”
“The house is always well kempt, despite the master’s absence, sir. Indeed, the house has looked the same for a hundred years.”
The good woman’s capacity for evasion was admirable. It seemed that she alone had scrubbed the floor and polished the woodwork, and felt it beneath herself to take credit for such low work. It was, generally, I believed, a housekeeper’s business to delegate such chores to young and pretty maids. It was her function, if I was not mistaken, to act as liaison between master and lower servants. But it was unlikely that Mr. Griffin employed more than one servant for a house that was virtually abandoned—indeed, it was surprising that he employed even one. I was certain, however, that a groundsman or some other laborer (perhaps Lumble) had repaired the garden.
Thus I turned to question Mrs. Jameson further, to shed some light on my surmises, and to praise her again on her achievements, without directly acknowledging her actions, but she had disappeared from view—to attend to the kitchen or some matter of housekeeping, I presumed.