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If you have come for a long stay, you must arrive at Grange House by water. The House sits at the farthest edge of the harbor from Middle Haven town, the last habitation before the harbor gives way to the open sea, and though a road runs between the town and Grange House, it is narrow and rockyentirely unsuitable for the conveyance of large families with luggage. Rather, you must take the night steamer from Boston, which deposits you at the Grange House pier before teatime.
I like to stand in the prow of that boat, steaming farther and farther north and east, and be the first to feel the air sharpen and cool, leaving the damp heat of Boston, the shipyards at Portsmouth, and voyaging into the clear silence born in the chill air of Maine. And though I watch for it, I am never prepared for the first sight of Grange House on its point, though I know the approach, and early learned to read where the slick black shale ledges of the shoreline turn to the white granite boulders marking the entrance to Middle Haven's harbor.
If you have arrived this way, most likely you are what the native people like to call a rusticator, a city dweller come for the cooler air of the north. From the pier, the steamer's side appears lined with such visitors as she draws near, and the captain brings her along at a smart clip. Then he gives the engineer two bells and a jingle and guides her right in. You can see the mate now, waiting with the forward spring line in his hand before he tosses that hawser neatly over the piling just as the bow nudges alongside. He holds it, straining, and she's inagainst the pier with hardly ajar. You are arrived into a mayhem of unloading, the wharf dipping below the weight of trunks and summer guests. There you stand, surrounded by the men's cries and the groaning creak of the steamer's lines straining against the pier; and then you turn and look up the lawn to the House, set high and away, atop its granite foundation.
In such a way, I came again to Grange House in July of 1896, this place at once familiar and always strange. Long ago, my father had invested in the Grange quarry, but then the place itself took hold. When the quarryman's mansion turned hotel to a few select city families, he fixed the habit of returning every year, though Mama protested, bemoaning the distinct lack of variety in a landscape of spruce and pine. Nonetheless, the enormous old house suited the high pitch of my nerves that summer. At seventeen, I was as eager to know the world as it seemed eager to shroud itself from me, and fretful at what I thought were my bonds, I had begun to wear my white dresses like flags, a slim Crusoe signaling for the distant triangle of sails to break the flat line of what appeared to me but an endless, dulled sea.
As I followed behind my father and mother, I looked up at the top of the House to see if I might spy a figure there watching our advance up the lawn from the windows of her attic room. I never thought of Grange House without that figure standing in it. That afternoon, I did not see her, but, hoping she still looked for my return, I held my gloved hand up in a small salute.
"Maisie," Mama called from the top stair of the verandah.
"I am here," I replied, dropping my hand down to my side, but she had already swung round to follow my father across the threshold into the House, not lingering to take in the view. I cast one last glance upward, and then, gathering my skirts, took the remainder of the lawn with quick feet.
My parents were stopped just inside, next to Mrs. French, the long, wide front hallway stretching past them, with its several doors to the public rooms swung open and the hubbub of teatime voices issuing into the air. It was ever so, year after year: here in the front hall the mix of salt air and cut bayberry, the branches stuffed into matching copper pots upon the table, the silvery green leaves waxy as ever against the paper roses upon the wall. It was only I who seemed to change, a knife cut in the vergeless surface of the place, my arrival cleaving one summer from the next. And that afternoon in July, I remember thinking I was like the Prince returning to the Sleeping Beauty's castle. Let the story begin, I thought impatiently, now that I am herethough what I meant by that, I had not the slightest idea.
"Well, well, my dear!" the housekeeper cried out on seeing me upon the threshold, and she beamed the compliment over to Mama, who smiled absently, pulling off her gloves.
"Are we to have our usual rooms, Mrs. French? I am quite in need of a little rest."
"Yes, of course. Please, Mrs. Thomas, to follow me."
"Welcome, Thomases," a quiet voice spoke from the doorway just behind Papa. We all three turned round, to see the cook of Grange House standing silently there, her arms crossed over her bosom. Mama gave only the briefest of nods before turning to follow Mrs. French, who waited at the bottom of the stairs.
"Cook." Papa bowed kindly to the woman.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Thomas," she answered, dismissing him as she leaned slightly back against the door frame and turned her gaze upon me. Papa never seemed to mind the cook's inexplicable command of their encounters, and I had by now grown accustomed to this woman's yearly scrutiny. Yet that afternoon, I relished the chance to consider her in turn, and I calmly lifted my eyes to hers and smiled.
For an instant, I thought she shivered.
"Maisie Thomas," she said, swiftly uncrossing her arms, "how you have grown." And without another word, she withdrew.
Never mind, I thought, a bit disconcerted, she is not the important one. For though it was Cook who ran Grange House from belowstairs, and Mrs. French who held public sway in the middle rooms and floors, nonetheless it was the topmost figureshe whom I had watched for on our arrivalwho was the possessing spirit of the place. I dressed quickly for dinner that evening, descending before my parents to station myself at the foot of the stairs and there await the attic inhabitant of Grange House. And long after the other guests had assembled, passing me by with a nod and a greeting, and after Mama and Papa had issued through to join them, it was she whom I now imagined descending the wooden attic stairs from her room at the top of the House to reach the servants' hall upon the third floor, then down the next stairs into the regions of the second floor, where the large rooms of her family's time had been changed to accommodate we summer people come to stay. Then on down the widest stairway, into the bright, hospitable lights of a fashionable hotel shining its face up for the rush and hum of dinner, into the clap and shiver of bodies just cased in new dresses and thin suits, into the soft mayhem of summer eveningswhen our lives might suddenly thrill, and open.
"Miss Grange!" I smiled up.
She caught her breath on seeing me and paused in her descent.
Though there was pleasure in her voice, the deep-sunk blue of her eyes regarded me with a touch of bewilderment. I supposed she saw what my mirror told: My cheeks now held the shape of a woman's face, and beneath the dark brown eyes turned to welcome her lay the secret longings of my untried heart. I had caught Mama watching me furtively, as though she read a hidden chapter in my familiar face, and even Jessiewho had dressed and tended me since I was a girlexploded forth from time to time despite herself, ripping out the seams of my bodices and commenting dryly about "welcome attentions."
"Miss Grange?" I hesitated.
She recovered herself. "How greatly you resemble your father," she replied, and drew her hand beneath my arm so we proceeded together into the hum of the bright gathering.
Miss Grange was something of an enigma for the summer guests. She did not own the hotel, yet she inspired a curious respect. When she did choose to come among us, she was greeted as a visiting dignitary, or even as a monarch long exiled from the proceedings of her own court. It is not to be thought that she was important in any pertinent way. Rather, her magnificence derived from the fact of her lineage. Hers was a family whose roots were among the first to stretch down into American soil. No one knew precisely her connection to the men who had built this House, but it was commonly assumed she was a distant and poor relation who had come here to live after the main branch of the family passed away. Thus, her romance derived from her situation: She was the last Grange remaining. The history of her family preceded her into the very rooms it had built and peopled and vanished from long before the summering plutocrats arrived at the fortunes that brought them here.
And among the younger guests, there were the whispered rumors of buried wealth, the half-uttered suggestions of a lost love, of a secret pact into which she had entered when she came into the House. Once, Papa told me that she had been an authoress, yet surely none of her stories could rival the stew pot simmering at the back of the guests' imaginations. Thus was Miss Grange cast as a living character in the casual entertainment of city folk seeking simplicity under the sharp lines of a Maine sky. Simplicity, that is to say, inmixed with a good country intrigue.
"Here is Miss Grange," I said, drawing her to where my parents conversed, and Mama and Papa turned round. Mama's mouth opened into the vague and generous smile she always gave when her thoughts tended elsewhere, but Papa took Miss Grange's hand in his, visibly startled.
"Butyou are not well?"
Miss Grange stiffened, and, withdrawing her hand gently, she nodded but did not reply.
"Really, Ludlow," Mama interposed. "Forgive him, Miss Grange. You look wonderfully well, as always," and she drew her hand beneath Papa's arm, turning him as the dinner bell sounded. Gallantly, he offered his other arm to Miss Grange, who did not take it but walked at his side into the dining room.
That night, several of the other guests had gone to a supper party being held in a neighboring hotel, so the dining room was laid with quite diminished table settings, and our little group joined the two solitary diners already seated at our customary table: Mr. Cuttingthe illustrious and tiresome schoolmaster, whose head gleamed in the gas-light like a polished knob where he sat, starched napkin at the ready, his spoon poised in his hand, awaiting his soupand the large and definitively unaccompanied Mrs. Hunnowell. It would seem, she informed us without prelude, that she was utterly abandoned. Her husband had returned to Boston for the week's business, and where Bartholomew might be, she really couldn't say, her eyes rolling indulgently at the empty chair beside her. I smiled. Year after year, Mrs. Hunnowell did not disappoint, remaining the kind of woman whose conversation consisted mainly of melodramas she concocted, her head tilted upward, as if the endings hovered just above us in the painted heavens of the room.
I took the abandoned chair beside her, knowing full well that Bartholomew, her son, could never be depended upon to be in the ordinary place at the ordinary time. Having penned a series of very successful travel books for those on their grand tour, Mr. Hunnowell proceeded through life, appearing and disappearing very much like the kind of train he advised young men to catchoff schedule and bound for unknown parts. Mama entirely disapproved of his unsettled behaviora man of thirty, after all! Even as I could not dismiss him so entirely, I did find him disquieting. One never knew with him precisely where one stoodor rather, where he stood. For every summer he appeared among us, breezy and refined, playing a wide array of rolesbrave gallant, avid sportsman, irreverent parlor manand then a sometimes Bedouin intensity would flash out amongst the parts, making him unreadable, provokingly so.
"After all," Mr. Cutting's musing broke in, "the day turned out to be fine."
Mama nodded politely at him, and as Mrs. Hunnowell motioned the serving girl forward to begin, I put aside all thoughts of Bart Hunnowell and his character.
Amid the clatter of the serving of the soup, I studied Miss Grange across the table. Though she could not be more than fifty, the winter past seemed to have settled an elderly gray upon her cheeks, and a blue vein pulsed too brightly upon her hand. Papa was right. There was something shifted, for I do not think I imagined the heavy sadness deep down in Miss Grange's eyes, now giving them the kind of deathly beauty of a poem: Pale beyond porch and portal, I repeated to myself, Crowned with calm leaves she stands. She caught my eye upon her and winked. I reddened and looked down. I have been reading too much Swinburne, I thought, and smiled to myself.
"Will you please to just look at that?" Mrs. Hunnowell breathed beside me, and I caught the erstwhile rose hip slip from behind her ear, to fall upon the broad pavilion of her bosom.
I followed her gaze out the side window, where, indeed, a fleet and incomplete tableau had formed of the sort the summer guests most appreciated. Now a man's uncovered head leaned down to whisper into the ear of a young woman. From where we sat, the woman stood too small for us to see more than just the gentle swell of her forehead, though her hand had flown up to rest upon the back of the man's neck.
And then in an instant, they had parted. But just as the young man turned, I caught sight of his face.
"Henry Brown!" I said aloud.
"But who is the girl?" wondered Mrs. Hunnowell, delighted. I did not reply. Yet something of the tilt of her head had called to mind Halcy Ames, I realized a bit wistfully, watching Henry Brown's sturdy back and shoulders advance without haste down the lawn toward his boat, oblivious to the rapt attention we paid his small encounter.
I could not think of Halcy Ames without a twinge of regret, for once upon a time we had been staunch companions, though she was Cook's daughter and I a guest. As a child, she had done light maid's work at Grange House in the mornings, filling each guest room's fireplace with new wood and making fresh the beds upstairs. Younger than I by two years, she was pretty in her waytiny, her hands completing her tasks as efficiently as wood squirrels about their trees, and I grew accustomed to accompanying her as she went about the beds, fetching clean linens and smoothing spreads at her command.
Then one day, she was tidying my mother's dressing table, straightening the glass bottles and brushes on its marble top, and I was pulling Mama's scarves from her dresser drawer. We were busy talking, standing side by side, looking at each other in the looking glass above the table, resembling nothing so much as sisters that morning, our two small faces animated and dancing as we talkedso we did not hear Mama's hand on the knob, but when she suddenly spoke from behind us, Halcy jumped so, she knocked one of Mama's perfume bottles off the table. It made a terrific noise, shattering into several tiny pieces at our feet.
"Oh! You clumsy girl!" Mama exclaimed. "Just see what you have done!"
I leapt stoutly to Halcy's defense. "But you startled us, Mama."
"A good serving girl, Maisie, must learn to be always on the ready for the entrance of her mistress without event. Fetch a broom, please, Halcy, and clear this away."
Halcy's eyes met mine in the mirror as she passed from the room. I did not understand then her face's shuttered look, but from that day on, she began to call me Miss Thomas, and though I teased her about it, she persisted. This insistence on my formal name hurt me so that gradually I ceased to search her out in the mornings, the divide between us widening to a polite silence.
Papa's elbow jostled against me as he rose from dinner. All about me there was movement and sound, and I winnowed back up into the clutter of life. Papa stood, his hand upon Mama's chair as he listened to Miss Grange recounting the terrible storm that had blown down three of the laurels out front, her combs like smooth shells held against the slick water of her hair. Mama sat poised, I could see, to detail the season's toll on her own garden. I pushed back my chair, suddenly vexed. Around me in the dining room came the same bursts of voice, the hushed movements of the maids as they cleared away the unused silver and the tiny saltcellars before setting out the decanters for the men. Above the mantel, the stilted figures of a couple embraced upon their horses in a forgotten English vale. Everything was just as it always was! I longed for somethinganythingso long as it happened. I sprung out from the slow-moving throng with its discussion of winter, stepping ahead through the low-lit front hall and out, out into the night, onto the piazza, whose white columns glowed against the black sparkle of the harbor under stars. Far down the lawn, some of the men strolled, and their white collars flashed in and out of the dark like fireflies. If they turned to regard the fine old house, I would be indistinguishable, a light shadow of white against the white.
Under this blanketing velvet dark containing its faraway men and cigars, I yearned for color, a bright sweep of red flames to flare into being. It wasn't clarity or vision I wanted, nosay instead that I had come to perceive there was something I lacked. That year, I had begun to read books as though begging entry, leaning to the pages as if pressing my ear to a door. Then it seemed the pages would sing out some strange song and, slight music that it was, I'd feel an answering swell of dim comprehension, though I knew that mine was the echo of the song, not the song itself. Sorrow; Rage; even a high, vaunting Gladnessthese were foreign breezes from countries to which I had never voyaged, so each book became my little craft, each page a sail set out to catch those distant winds upon which Brontë, Pliny, Chapman, Ovid, all, indiscriminate, seemed to play. And I would sit at my window and strain into the dark behind the glass, longing to see through into the heat of my life, into the knowledge that I, too, would possess something at the heart of me to tell; that there was a promise held out for me. For me alone.
"Good night, Miss Maisie Thomas." Miss Grange's soft voice stole around the column, a kind of tired laughter underneath the sound. I felt caught out. I turned to my friend.
"Good night, Miss Grange."
But she had already vanished through the dark doorway, and I could just hear Papa's muffled voice inside, pausing in his conversation to bid her good night as she passed by. In my mind's eye, I followed the tidy figure as she mounted slowly to her room, imagining the light on her table rising, seeing her draw back the curtain to stand at her window. And my eyes refocused with hers, staring out at the white collars pocking the dark lawn. One separated from the crowd with a casual laugh backward over his shoulder. It appeared he had a meeting. My heart throbbed. I strained my eyes into the dark, but the lights from inside the house cast an obscuring perimeter. I stepped around to the corner of the piazza, which ran in front of the now-darkened dining room, and peered out.
There! There was a white dress.
It waited. The collar approached. I could hear the long legs of the man switch through the grasses. The two were meeting in a near corner of one of the fields that stretched by the side of the front lawn. I watched the collar bend, like a star gliding down to the waiting sea. I watched the two white arms rise.