It was on an afternoon in May of 1844 that the letter came from Dragonwyck.
One of the Mead boys had seen it lying in the Horseneck post office, and had thoughtfully carried it with him three miles up the Stanwich road to deliver it at the Wells farmhouse.
When the letter came, Miranda was, most regrettably, doing not one of the tasks which should have occupied the hour from two to three.
She was not in the springhouse churning butter, she was not weeding the vegetable patch, nor even keeping more than half an absent-minded eye on Charity, the baby, who had kicked off her blanket and was chewing on a blade of sweet meadow grass, delighted with her freedom.
Miranda had hidden behind the stone wall in the quiet little family burying-ground on the north side of the apple orchard as far from the house as possible. It was her favorite retreat. The seven tombstones which marked graves of her father’s family were no more than seven peaceful friends. Even the tiny stone in the corner beneath the giant elm had no tragic significance though it was marked, “Daniel Wells, son of Ephraim and Abigail Wells, who departed this life April 7th, 1836, aged one year,” and covered the body of her baby brother. Miranda had been ten during little Danny’s short life, and he was now nothing but a gently poignant memory.
Miranda was curled up against the wall, her pink calico skirts bunched carelessly above her knees in uncharacteristic abandon. A green measuring worm inched himself unchecked across the smooth bodice of her dress. The May breeze, fragrant with appleblossoms and clover from the adjacent pasture, blew her loosened hair into her eyes. She pushed the strand back impatiently with one hand while the other clutched her book, as Miranda devoured the fascinating pages of “The Beautiful Adulteress.”
So compelling were the beautiful adulteress’s adventures, that even when Miranda’s sunbonnet slipped off and hot sunshine fell through the elm trees onto her skin, she did not pause to replace the bonnet. And yet the transparent whiteness of that skin was the envy of her friends and part product of many a tedious treatment with buttermilk and cucumber poultices.
“The Beautiful Adulteress” had been lent by Phoebe Mead, and it must be finished by nightfall so that Phoebe could return it to Deborah Wilson, who had purloined it from her brother’s saddlebag.
Despite Miranda’s eighteen years and elegant education at Philander Button’s Greenwich Academy, despite avid perusal of this and similar books, she had not the vaguest notion of the horrifying behavior that resulted in one’s becoming an adulteress. But that point was immaterial.
It was the glorious palpitating romance that mattered. The melancholy heroes, the languishing heroines, the clanking ghosts, dismal castles and supernatural lights; all entrancingly punctuated at intervals by a tender, a rapturous—but in any case a guilty—kiss.
Her mother’s first call went unheard. It was not until the cry “Ranny—” changed to a louder and sharper “Miranda-a-a! Where in tunket are you?” that the girl jumped. She shoved the book between two stones in the wall, and called hastily, “Coming, Ma!”
She brushed bits of grass and drifted appleblossom off her dress and apron, straightened the black mesh net which confined her masses of soft curling hair during the work day, hair that in the sunlight shone nearly as golden as the buttercups in the pasture behind her.
Then she picked up Charity.
“Oh, shame, lambkin, you’re wet again,” she said reproachfully.
The baby at once set up an anguished yell; even at a year she resented criticism.
Miranda laughed and kissed the soft neck. “Never mind, pet. Sister isn’t really cross.” But she sighed, rapidly checking the chores which must be done before dusk.
There was a big batch of the baby’s never-ending diapers to be washed and sunned, the butter to be churned, and, worst of all, a fowl to be slaughtered, plucked, and drawn for the Sabbath dinner tomorrow. Miranda loathed this particular task above all others. The sight of blood sickened her. And whereas her brothers and sister found the antics of the staggering, decapitated chicken funny, Miranda always felt a little spasm of nausea. Equally unpleasant was the later necessity for plunging one’s hand into the chicken’s slimy entrails.
She usually spent quite ten minutes scrubbing her slender white fingers afterward. A process which Ephraim, her father, viewed with disapproval when he caught her at it.
“Quite die finicking young lady, aren’t we, Ranny!” he growled, frowning at her beneath his bushy eyebrows. “The Lord has mercifully provided us with food, and He has no patience with those who think themselves too fine to prepare it.”
Ephraim always knew what the Lord was thinking or feeling quite as well as the Reverend Coe did.
Miranda assumed that her mother’s summons had to do with the chicken and she walked slowly, shifting the heavy baby from arm to arm and avoiding the barnyard where the destined victim clucked in happy ignorance.
As she walked, she noted absently that the north potato field was deserted and that therefore her father and three brothers must have finished the spraying and moved on ahead of schedule to the great field by Strickland brook. She also noted that the distant blue of the Sound was unusually clear and that she could even see the wooded purplish strip of Long Island on the horizon. That meant rain. But otherwise she saw nothing of the beauty of the rolling Connecticut countryside, the flowering meadows, the rustling wineglass elms and hemlocks greenish-black against the sky. The farm and the sturdy six-room farmhouse were simply home, and she had never been farther than ten miles away from them in her life.
As she entered the dark kitchen, she saw with relief that her mother’s gaunt though still handsome face showed neither annoyance at Miranda’s tardiness, nor even the habitual pucker of admonition with which she urged her children on to the next inevitable chore.
Abigail, who seldom rested from morning till night, was sitting on a reed-bottomed chair and staring at a paper which lay unfolded on the kitchen table.
She looked up as her daughter came in. ‘Here’s a strange thing, Ranny. I don’t know what to make of it. Can’t tell till I’ve talked with your pa.”
Miranda followed her mother’s puzzled gaze to the paper on the table. “Why, it’s a letter, isn’t it!” she cried with lively interest. Not three letters a year came to the Wells farm. “Can I read it?”
“I guess so,” said Abigail. “But change the baby first, then knead down the bread dough while I nurse her. Time’s wasting.”
The girl cast a longing glance at the mysterious letter, but she did as she was told. Abigail flew around the kitchen, cutting bacon with quick, decisive stabs, poking at the embers beneath the oven where the bread would soon be baked. Finally she unbuttoned her bodice, snatched up the hungry baby, and settled on the low nursing chair.
When the dough was set to rise again, Miranda seized the letter. She examined the envelope first. The thick creamy paper was pleasant and unfamiliar as was the bold, rather illegible writing unadorned by the copper-plate flourishes or shaded capitals which she had painstakingly learned at the Academy. The envelope was addressed:
To Mistress Abigail Wells
The Stanwich Road
Horseneck, (or Greenwich)
It was postmarked “Hudson, New York,” which conveyed nothing to Miranda, who had never heard of the place. But as she put down the envelope and picked up the letter a thrill of excitement ran through her. It was an intuitive flash of certainty that this bland piece of paper was of importance to her, and, though this intuition was pleasurable, it also contained a fleeting apprehension. She read eagerly.
Dragonwyck, May 19th, 1844.
My dear Cousin Abigail:
Though we have never met, we are related, as you doubtless know, through our mutual grandmother, Annetje Gaansevant.
My wife and I, having discussed the matter at some length, have decided to invite one of your daughters into our home for an extended visit. We shall naturally be able to offer her many advantages which she could not hope to enjoy in her present station. In return, if she pleases, she may occasionally occupy herself with the teaching of our six-year-old child, Katrine, but she will in all ways be treated as befits my kins-woman.
I have had inquiries made and was gratified to find that you and your husband enjoy the honor and respect of your little community. Be so good as to let me know at your earliest convenience which of your daughters you select, and I will make all suitable arrangements for her journey to Dragonwyck.
Believe me, madam, your sincere friend and cousin.
Nicholas Van Ryn
Miranda read the letter twice before turning in amazement to her mother. “I don’t understand this at all, Ma. Who in the world is Nicholas Van Ryn?”
“He is, I believe, a very grand personage,” answered Abigail with a half-smile. “He is lord of a large manor up on the Hudson River somewhere near Albany.”
“And you’re his cousin?” persisted Miranda, still more astonished.
“It would seem so,” replied Abigail dryly. “I remember my mother telling me of the Van Ryns, though I haven’t thought of them in years. Bring me the Patterson Bible.”
Miranda moved toward the shelf where her father kept his ponderous Bible.
“No, not that one, child,” Abigail stopped her. “That one has no records from my side. I want the Bible I brought with me at my marriage. It’s in the attic next your Grandfather Patterson’s musket and powder horn.”
When Miranda had brought the great gilt-edged volume, they examined the records on the fly leaves between the Old and New Testaments.
It was clear enough. Annetje Gaansevant of Rensselaer County, New York, had in 1779 married Adriaen Van Ryn, patroon of the Van Ryn manor, and borne him a son, Cornelius, who must be the father of Nicholas.
Then after Adriaen Van Ryn’s death, Annetje had married again, a Connecticut Yankee named Patterson, and thereupon produced a great many children, the eldest of whom had been Abigail’s mother.
“So this Nicholas’ grandmother is also my great-grandmother,” cried Miranda at last. “I had no idea I had such fine relations.” She looked down at her tapering hands. She had always privately thought them aristocratic, and it was pleasant to have confirmation.
“You haven’t a scrap of Van Ryn blood,” snorted Abigail, “so you needn’t go puffing like a peacock. The connection is only through the Gaansevants; Dutch farmers they were like ourselves. And it’s just as well, for the Van Ryns are a wild, strange lot with some kind of a skeleton in their closet, for all their money and land and hoity-toity ways.”
“Truly, Ma?” cried Miranda, her hazel eyes sparkling. “How vastly romantic! Do tell me, please.”
Abigail shifted the baby to the other arm. “I don’t know anything to tell. You and your ‘vastly romantic’! You’ve a head stuffed with nonsense now.”
“But you must know something about this Nicholas who writes the letter. I suppose he’s quite an old man; it’s a pity his birth date isn’t in the Bible.”
“Oh, he’s somewhere in middle life, I guess,” said Abigail. “About my age. And I know nothing about him except that he has great estates and a town house in New York, and that four years ago, when Van Buren was President, Nicholas often visited at the White House, for I read about it in a newspaper.”
“Oh, Ma—” breathed Miranda, quite overcome. ‘He must be very grand indeed.” She considered these revelations for a moment, then she burst out, “You haven’t said a word about his letter, the invitation.”
She clasped her hands together in a suddenly childish gesture. “Oh, but wouldn’t I love to go!”
“And if we should send a daughter, which I think unlikely, why should it be you, miss?” asked Abigail. “Why not Tibby, I’d like to know?”
Miranda frowned. Tabitha was sixteen and even now at the Academy finishing her last term. There was no reason why she should not be chosen except that Miranda felt that she could not bear it if she were.
“Tibby wouldn’t want to go,” she said slowly. “She’s not like me. She doesn’t — ” Her voice trailed off. Impossible to explain that Tabitha did not hunger after romance, change, adventure, as Miranda did. That she actually enjoyed cooking and washing and housekeeping, that she asked for nothing better in life than to settle down on the next farm with young Obadiah Brown and likely have a parcel of babies right off. But I’m different. I am, thought Miranda passionately.
Abigail watched her daughter and read some of these thoughts on the downcast face. Though she would never have admitted it, her firstborn girl was closest of all to her heart. She secretly gloried in Miranda’s delicate, small-boned beauty, in her fastidiousness and dainty ways. She thought her remarkably like one of those exquisite creatures in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the same graceful height, small nose, and full, pouting lips.
She pretended not to see when Miranda fussed over her complexion, guarding its pink and whiteness from freckles or sunburn with as much anxious care as might a fashionable New York lady. And she sympathized with the girl’s restlessness and vague youthful dreams. Abigail had had them, too, long ago before she married the estimable Ephraim and life flattened into a monotony of never-ending work and baby-tending.
So,” she said with her normal crispness, “just like that, and with your usual lack of prudent thought, you ‘want to go.’ You don’t consider whether I might be able to spare you, nor do you even seem to think that you might miss us here.”
Miranda looked up, stricken. She rushed across the room and put her arms around her mother’s thin shoulders, resting her cheek on the brown head that was already finely threaded with gray. “Oh, Ma, dear, of course I’d miss you. It’s just that—that it seems so rarely exciting an opportunity.”
Abigail smiled faintly, and Miranda knew that, whether or not she would be allowed to go to Dragonwyck, there would be no real question of Tabitha’s going.
Her mother straightened, buttoned her bodice, and placed the sleeping baby in the cradle. Then she seized the holystone and began scouring the oak drain board. “We’ll say no more about the matter now. Hurry up and kill that old white hen; she’ll be a mite tough, but the others are laying well, and she’ll have to do.” She glanced at the Seth Thomas banjo clock that was her great pride. “We’re shockingly behind with the work. The men will be in from the fields before supper’s near ready.”