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It was still another woman's house. Nothing in the house had changed; nothing perhaps could change. Alice with her beauty, her grace, her unerring taste for beauty might have put a spell upon the house and everything within it.
The room itself, a library, beautiful, gracious, was so completely a product of Alice's skill and taste that it suggested her almost as provocatively and as tantalizingly as did her wide bedroom upstairs, with its windows overlooking the Sound, and the scent of lilac sachet. Myra had entered the room one day, not knowing it was Alice's, seeking a loosened and banging shutter, and everything was as if its former occupant were expected any day, any minute. The perfume bottles glittered, the light pink cover was folded neatly on the satin-covered chaise longue; a bit of frothy lace was caught in one of the doors to the mirrored dress closets, the scent of lilac was everywhere, summoning up the lovely image of Alice so poignantly that Myra felt she might speak. She had gone quickly away.
No one, Myra had thought, ever entered that room; but obviously she was wrong; obviously someone entered and aired and dusted it regularly.
The door to Richard's room, adjoining, was closed and bolted. And there was a tacit agreement, Myra knew, that Alice's room was a guest room; actually house guests were now rare.
The library with its wide French windows opening upon the terrace, with its fireplace and old rugs and old books, had been a favorite room of Alice's. She had selected the mellow dull blue of the paneling between bookshelves, the bowl for the yellow daffodils, the ruby-red cushions of the chair in which Myra sat. Near Myra against the wall stood a tall secretary, its old mahogany glowing; behind a glass section of the doors a Capo di Monte cupid, which Alice's hands had placed in exactly that position, looked smugly and blandly at Myra. As if he knew a secret.
As indeed, in a very horrible way, he did know a secret. An ugly little question caught at Myra. What would he say if he could speak?
The fire crackled. The little French clock on the mantel ticked in as lively and sprightly a way as if time had no importance. As if this were not in all probability the last time that Myra would sit in that room, waiting for Richard. It was, of course, too early to expect him. So much the better, for it gave her time to rehearse again the reasons she was going to give for her decision.
And so much the better because for the last time she could sit there in the ruby-red chair, intensely aware of the room, of its beauty and warmth and—which, as a matter of fact, was rather odd—of its present tranquillity. She would remember it all, later; she looked around again striving to impress every detail upon her memory and yet knowing that there was nothing she could ever forget.
It was going to be very difficult to tell Miss Cornelia. It was going to be difficult to tell Richard.
She got up and went to the tall yellow daffodils and rearranged them needlessly with nervous fingers. And glanced again at the little gold French clock; the small, gaily enameled pendulum glittered within its glass walls as it moved quickly back and forth, marking the seconds, marking the moments, inevitably and finally.
Four o'clock. Richard could not possibly arrive before five, even if he happened to come out early from town.
A daffodil fell and she bent to pick it up. As she did so there was a sound of voices from the terrace. The door was open and Myra straightened, the yellow daffodil in her hand, in time to see Miss Cornelia's wheel chair come into view, then Miss Cornelia, limping defiantly beside it, with her thin, veined old hand upon the back of it to steady herself, and then Barton, pushing the chair. Myra went quickly to meet the small cavalcade and hold the door wider for its entrance. "She would walk, Miss Myra," said Barton, puffing slightly. "I couldn't do anything with her ladyship. She walked all the way from the garden."
"It's an easy walk," said Miss Cornelia and slid her hand through Myra's arm. Her bright eyes sparkled; she crooked a rather mischievous eyebrow, still slim and dark in spite of her snow-white hair, toward the elderly butler. "As we get older, Barton, we should eat less starch."
Barton had got his breath. Ignoring the reflection cast on his very substantial figure, he said patiently, "Do you wish me to help you upstairs now, Madam?"
"No, thank you. I'll stay down for a bit. You can put the wheel chair away, Barton. You and Mr. Richard can carry me up later."
"Very well, Madam." He glanced at the clock, cast a rather fishy but efficient eye around the room as if mentally checking on the orderliness of its details, gave his extremely well-filled waistcoat a tug downward and addressed himself again to the wheel chair.
"That one," said Miss Cornelia, steering Myra toward Richard's deep arm chair before the fire. "Thank you, my dear." Her small old hand relaxed as Myra helped her down into the chair and she looked up and sighed.
Miss Cornelia—who had been Lady Carmichael for fifty of her seventy years and, except for occasional slips which Barton permitted himself, was yet, in that house, called Miss Cornelia—was still an attractive and distinguished-looking woman. She was small and slight and a little, stooped with age; but her snow-white hair was beautifully done, her wrinkled skin still soft and fragrant looking, her delicate veined hands had slender fingernails, defiantly varnished in scarlet. Her dark-gray eyes were bright and vivacious and altogether too observant at times. She had been a beauty and there was still an occasional coquettishness about her which suggested her age and generation, but she had actually a civilized and tolerant turn of mind, active and vigorous common sense, and a great fund of generosity and loyalty. She wore now a beige tweed skirt and jacket, shabby, since it had outlived the war, but faultlessly tailored, a white silk blouse knotted at her throat, pearls in her ears, sapphires on her hands and an expression of exasperation.
"I broke that damned hip nearly two years ago, two years in June, exactly," she said. "Shouldn't you think I could walk more easily by now?"
"You are really much better, darling. It takes time."
Miss Cornelia sniffed. "Time," she said rather grimly, "is something I am not well supplied with." She sighed and leaned back and reached in her pocket for a gold cigarette case and an ivory holder. "Cigarette?"
"Not now." Myra went to the table for a match, and returned to hold it for the older woman. Her jeweled hands with their scarlet tips were delicate and sure with the cigarette, her face as still and carved as the ivory holder; she leaned forward a little toward the small flame. "Richard back yet?" she asked, looking up at Myra.
"Well, it's not time, of course. Is Tim coming out this week-end?"
"I don't know. I phoned him yesterday at the office, but the girl said he was out of town for the day."
"Some errand for the firm, I suppose."
"I suppose so. The girl didn't say. I'll try his apartment tonight." Myra reached for an ash tray and put it on the arm of Miss Cornelia's chair, and then went back to the bowl of daffodils. Now, of course, was as good a time as any to tell Aunt Cornelia the thing she must tell her; and Tim's name was an opening. But she procrastinated, dreading it. Slowly and carefully she thrust the thin, tall green stalk of the daffodil she held among the others in the great vase. It was even more difficult than she had anticipated.
Perhaps she wouldn't have said it then; perhaps she would never have said it actually; but while she hesitated, dreading it, summoning her courage to speak, Miss Cornelia herself began it. "Myra, what's wrong?"
The stalk caught on the long, spiky leaf of another. Miss Cornelia added gently, "You're worried about something. I've noticed it for several days. What is it? Tim?"
It is not really easy to lie to anybody; to lie to Miss Cornelia was next to impossible. Myra disengaged the daffodil and turned slowly to face the older woman and still could not find the words she had to speak. Miss Cornelia, smoking and giving her quick bright little glances, said, "Because I really think, my dear, that there's nothing to worry about. Tim has an aptitude for architecture. It's true he's not trained but he learns quickly. He's been rather—well, morose lately, moody. Not like himself exactly. But that's the effect of the war. He'll be all right; you'll see."
The lovely golden cups beside Myra sent up a clean, spicy odor. The fire crackled softly. Miss Cornelia went on quietly, "You've always taken your responsibility to Tim rather heavily, my dear. Simply because he's your younger brother. I was never sure that it was right of me to separate you and Tim, as I did, but it seemed right at the time." She looked into the fire and said rather doubtfully, as if wishing to reassure herself, "Tim had to be in school anyway and I wanted him to go to an American school, not an English school, and it seemed best to take you back to London with me." She sighed again, thoughtfully and wistfully. "I didn't think the war would come as it did and keep us there so long."
The doubt and touch of uncertainty in her manner was to Myra poignantly moving. She cried, refuting it, "Everything you did was right! Neither of us can ever thank you enough. You've been like a mother ..."
"Well," said Miss Cornelia, still looking into the fire thoughtfully but smiling, "say grandmother."
"You sent Tim to school; you took me home with you; you've done everything for me ..."
"No, that's where you are wrong, Myra. You've done everything for me."
It was like Aunt Cornelia. Myra laughed softly. "I was a child! I was sixteen! Tim was eleven! We owe you ..."
"Nonsense," interrupted Miss Cornelia crisply. "If an aging and childless woman can't give herself the pleasure of taking care of the orphaned children of her dearest friend, what pleasure can she have?" She smoked and then sighed again thoughtfully. "I loved your grandmother; I loved your mother and, for all her life, she was a daughter and a dear and loved friend to me. You are very like her, Myra; I've told you that before. So let's have no nonsense about owing me anything. You've done far more for me, my dear, than I have for you. I'm an old woman and with this hip a semi-invalid. I've needed you. Especially since ..." A shadow crossed her face and she said, "... especially during the last two years." She put her ivory cigarette holder to her lips, smoked for a thoughtful moment and said, "We've been through much together. A war and a broken hip and ..." Her eyes did not travel around the room; her jeweled hands were quiet. She might as well have looked—at the terrace doors, the bookshelves, the narrow, important window above them; she might as well have pointed at the rug before the fire. Naturally, by no conceivable leap of the imagination could she have done either. She said quietly, "... and the situation here. But we've weathered it all. Tim is at home and wasn't wounded and has a job. The house in London was blitzed, but it was too big anyway. I don't care. And this house, since we came back last fall, has achieved a—" She hesitated, hunting for words—"a normal, sane everydayness," she said. "A recovery. As if it had been sick, like a person." The shadow returned and fixed itself upon her face.
"I could do little; you have done much to restore that—that normalness of feeling." She said simply, "I think Richard has been thankful to have you here."
Myra dropped the daffodil in her hand and stooped to pick it up. Miss Cornelia said, with an effort of briskness, "So let's have no more talk of gratitude, my dear! From you or Tim."
Myra stood. She said rather desperately, "That's what I'd meant to say. It's—about—about Tim."
Miss Cornelia's voice was suddenly alert and clear. "What do you mean?"
"You've done so much for us, money, everything. So now that Tim has a job ..."
"Are you trying to tell me that you want to leave me?"
"Yes," said Myra, her hands unsteady on the flowers.
There was a long pause. Again the fire crackled softly while the room—Alice's room in Alice's house—listened.
"Stop fooling with those flowers," said Miss Cornelia at last. "You'll have them all on the floor. Look at me, Myra."
Reluctantly, yet relieved, too, because she had said the thing she had to say, Myra turned to meet Miss Cornelia's clear and bright gaze.
"You don't really want to leave me, do you?" she asked after a moment.
"I thought not. I know you, perhaps better than you know yourself. Well ..."
She looked away from Myra. Her fine old face with its sharp, carved ivory lines was silhouetted against the mellow blue walls. Finally, she said very quietly, "I cannot leave Richard to face things alone. That's why I came back here to live. You realized that, of course. You came back with me, into this house. Into ..." Again she made no gesture, gave no glance about her, and might as well have done so. "... into this room. I've been sick and lame. It was you, Myra, who restored its peace. When must you go?"
"Soon, I'm afraid."
Miss Cornelia, staring at the fire, nodded slowly. "I don't know what to say. Age does not necessarily bring wisdom, my dear. Only acceptance. I love you, my dear. If you feel you must go, then you must go."
How much did she know? How much did she guess of the truth?
"Come here, Myra," said Miss Cornelia suddenly and gently.
So Myra went and knelt down before her; she put her head against the old woman's knee. They remained for a moment in silence. The beige wool skirt was warm against Myra's cheek, the fire crackled softly. Cornelia Thorne, Lady Carmichael, had given her everything that had made life a happy and gracious thing, and every moment now that Myra stayed on in that house was a denial of a deep obligation.
How much did Aunt Cornelia know? she thought again. How much did she guess?
Miss Cornelia sighed and put her fingers lightly on Myra's head. "I've lived long enough," she said musingly, "to know that there is never any end to the shift and change of human relationships. There is only one certain factor in any human relationship and that is its continuation. The stubbornness and tenacity of its life. I don't think you understand now what I mean; you will understand. Now then, my dear, we'll not talk any more of this just now. Only ..."
Myra lifted her head and Miss Cornelia's bright eyes were very gentle and tender. She said, "Only remember I love you, my dear. And that I've watched you grow up and that I know you. And I'm very proud of you."
Barton in the doorway cleared his throat. Miss Cornelia, without turning, said, "Yes, what is it, Barton? Is Mr. Richard home?"
"Miss Wilkinson has called, Madam."
"Oh. Well, ask her to come in here."
Barton disappeared. Miss Cornelia gave Myra a gentle little pat, sniffed once and said, with a briskness that did not quite cover emotion, "I've never known Mildred Wilkinson to come at a time when you really wanted her. A statement for which I'd have roundly spanked you at any time when you were younger. Besides, Mildred has been very faithful to us. Loyal in spite of everything. Don't be sad, my dear; there's always a way out. Even if we can't at the moment see it. Now get up and go and fix your flowers. Let's not give Mildred anything to speculate about. She's a lonely, idle and frustrated woman in spite of her money, poor thing. Living alone in that barracks of a place with nothing to think of since her father died except herself and her imaginary ills and her neighbor's affairs. Well, well; get up, my dear."
But as Myra rose she caught her hand and pressed it lightly to her cheek.
Barton's returning footsteps were padding along the hall accompanied by the regular thud of Mildred's sensible country shoes. Myra bent and kissed Miss Cornelia's soft cheek swiftly and went back to the flowers. It would give her, as Aunt Cornelia had known, a moment to steady herself. She hoped Mildred would not stay until Richard came.
Mildred reached the doorway. "Good afternoon, Lady Carmichael."
"Come in, Mildred. How nice of you!"
"I brought you my first lilies of the valley. The moment I saw they had bloomed I thought those are for Lady Carmichael. I gathered them for you myself."
"Oh," said Miss Cornelia. "Thank you."
"I know how terribly difficult it is for you to get outdoors and enjoy the spring. So I brought it to you!"
Excerpted from Another Woman's House by Mignon G. Eberhart. Copyright © 1947 Mignon G. Eberhart. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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