Read an Excerpt
By Thomas Tryon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1974 Thomas Tryon
All rights reserved.
The wind sang old songs, as the tale went, and like the wind we too sang; sang "Good Night, Lady" at her doorway on Christmas Eve, but she would not come out. Why, I asked myself, why? Oh Lady, come out, we love you—I love you. Still, she would not. I couldn't understand then; no one could. I do now.
In small towns is there always a Lady Harleigh? I only know there was in ours. She lived in the handsomest house on the Green, a plaque by her front door identifying it as the "Josiah Webster House, Built 1702." A stranger inquiring who lived there would assuredly have been told there were three occupants only; that is, Lady herself, and her servants, the Griffins. But of course there were four, because the shade of Lady's dead husband also dwelt there.
No one but the mistress of the house was aware of Edward Harleigh's ghost, but so real was her apprehension, so evident her distress, that even I in time would glance up at a second-story window, almost expecting to see a half- realized presence brooding behind the curtain. But, of course, there were no ghosts in the house on the Green; only in Lady's heart.
During most of my boyhood I strove to know the heart of Adelaide Harleigh, to unravel the enigma that lingered in the corners of her mouth as her smile faded. For if she was everything to everybody, if she most often seemed joyful and content, her joy appeared to me something of a disguise. Still, she was Lady, ever Lady, and it is not of ghosts I write, but of love, for though I was only a boy of eight when I first knew her, and she well past forty, I came to love her, as she did me. She loved another also, if in a more comprehensible but less orthodox way; but I, unaware, had in those early years no cause for jealousy, because of all the children I was her favorite. It is not easy to learn much about love, but one thing I discovered, that Lady Harleigh taught me: it is not whom we love that is important, but only that we love.
The events I describe mainly concern a period of some fifteen years, from the early thirties until the end of the Second World War. Lady's house was opposite ours, on the west side of the Green, and we were in and out of it at all times and seasons during the years we were growing up. The Green was that locally renowned plot of New England earth that in Colonial times had been the village common, where our Pilgrim ancestors once skirmished with the Pequot Indians and where the Revolutionary militia shouldered squirrel rifles against the Redcoats of the tyrant George III. In my youth the Green was populated not only with strollers and game-players and children and dogs, but with the ancient elms that were the pride of Connecticut, one of them being the largest in America. Visitors would go out of their way to drive by and take pictures of it, and of Lady's house, and if they could, the automobile that went with the house, a custom-built Minerva landaulet—the talk of Pequot Landing.
I have a vivid picture in my mind of how the heavy doors of the carriage house would be swung open, and out would roll this peerless marvel. We would stand around in the driveway where the Negro houseman would observe us solemnly as he flicked a turkey duster along the gleaming hood, one guarded eye watching for Mrs. Harleigh's rippling reflection in the curve of a gleaming fender when she would come out of the house.
His darkly lustrous face freshly shaved, aromatic with bay rum and a generous dusting of talc, Jesse Griffin presented a spruce and natty figure, liveried in brass-buttoned gray, with a black-visored cap and puttees that had at least four buckles on each; but with nothing so much as a smile on his face when he handed his passenger up into the car and bore her off, as though he didn't know he was Mrs. Edward Harleigh's chauffeur and driving the only Minerva east of New York City.
Unlike its owner, the car was old-fashioned but, like her, it was sleek and shining and wonderful to behold, and we rejoiced in its magnificence. Gray within and without, it had coffin-tufted upholstery, with little silver-and-glass vases on the uprights behind the chauffeur's panel, and over the rear compartment a top which lay back for riding in fine weather.
And there would be our neighbor, Mrs. Harleigh, seated easily and gracefully against the soft upholstery, masses of flowers in her arms to take to the cemetery. I was sure that a word my sister, Ag, was always using must have been invented for her: exquisite. She looked almost regal, always smiling, yet with sad dark places around her eyes; always with a warm nod that made you feel important—which is to say, happy (sometimes calling out to admire your Colonel Tim McCoy badge); always with a smart hat and spotted veil tilted over her brow, her suavely gloved fingers describing friendly feathery motions through the air, as though a bunch of knockabout kids were the delight of her life; always calling "Hel-lo" in that musical voice.
What impressed me most about Mrs. Harleigh in those days was her laughter, gay, light, utterly feminine, like her step. (Her movement was only slightly affected by a bad fall she had suffered some years earlier, and the injuries she sustained left her with the slightest limp, which she never took notice of; nor did we.) She appeared to enjoy life more than most, for all that she lacked a husband, and that people talked about her under their breath and behind church programs on Sunday. They said it was to cover the fact of her tragedy (Mrs. Sparrow said Lady Harleigh was "pure Pagliacci"), a scrim of laughter behind which she hid her broken heart. Mrs. Sparrow, our next-door neighbor, spoke with such authority you were compelled to believe her, but Mrs. Harleigh's laugh was so real, so sincere, it rang with such "Ladylike" sparkle, you felt it came from the depths of her being.
Everyone felt sorry for Adelaide Harleigh. This is not to say they pitied her to her face—Yankees are not given to such signal displays—but she had for years been the object of commiseration and sympathetic if not downright tender looks as she ritually went to the village cemetery to place flowers at the grave of her husband, Edward.
The fact most apparent to all was, of course, her widowhood and her admirable constancy to the memory of her beloved, who had succumbed to influenza in the thirteenth year of their marriage. We understood her sorrow. She felt that her dead husband was her dead, to take care of, to garden for, to reflect upon in her quiet moments, to remember, even to enshrine. But though she mourned him, she was more interested in the living. In so many ways, large and small, she allowed herself "the luxury of doing good," as Oliver Goldsmith says. Perhaps her greatest trait was consideration for others, and her ability to feel for people. She was compassionate, generous, unselfish, and concerned. I never stumbled but she picked me up and kissed the hurt place, never was despondent but she tried to cheer me, never bored but she contrived some diversion; how nice she was, how kind and good.
Why wasn't Lady like our mothers? Why didn't she act like our mothers? Why was she always Lady?
I can still remember the stone marten furs—I believe Edward had given them to her—which lay about her neck so soft and glistening, with a silk tassel caught between the spring of the jaws, and the shiny yellow eyes, so lifelike you had to touch them to realize they were glass. Her hats were stylish, more so perhaps because in those days the women of Pequot Landing wore rather drab millinery, if they bothered with hats at all. And gloves; I used to sit fascinated, observing with what ceremony she would put them on, slipping the material over each finger in turn, with the merest upward shift of the brows as she managed the third left finger where she wore her gold wedding band, and doing up the pearl buttons at the cuff.
Best of all was her coat, sable or mink, I never knew which, but how wonderfully it became her, so fitting to both her person and character, with a rich luxurious smell to it. She liked to pin a bunch of flowers to the collar, violets or sometimes lily of the valley, whose scent, combined with that of her perfume, was like herself irresistible.
See her on Sunday: after entrancing the minister in the vestibule, down the steps she would float, with a few words for Mrs. Sparrow about last week's doings around the Green, a few for our mother (like Mrs. Harleigh, also a widow), another few for Colonel Blatchley, an airy wave for the rest, in an audacious hat, the net pulled up behind in a saucy bow; and Jesse Griffin, changed to his iron-black church suit, would hand her up into the open Minerva and off they would go, she in the back seat, talking into the speaking tube, he in front, listening and nodding, under the elms along Broad Street to the Green where Elthea Griffin would serve luncheon to her mistress and several invited friends.
See her in the evening, off and away to Bushnell Memorial Hall, to hear Lawrence Tibbett in Rigoletto, or to see the Lunts touring in Reunion in Vienna, on Colonel Blatchley's arm, dressed in satin or velvet, wearing diamonds or pearls, an evening cloak or her furs, wafted away like a Royal Personage—not in her elegant Minerva, but in the Colonel's more ordinary Studebaker, while not only Ruthie Sparrow but half the Green had its eyes trained on her, for indeed what else was there to look at or to talk of or to rejoice in? The Green cherished its Lady Harleigh; to know her, people said, was to love her, and this was an absolute fact.
See her next day, the house windows thrown open, sunshine and air and all outdoors being let inside, she changed from velvet to cotton, from evening to house dress, the radio blaring while her daily routine of calisthenics is performed, then barelegged out into the garden to see to her flowers, to pick her cucumbers, to revel in her sprouting potatoes, then to fly back into the kitchen, becoming a whirlwind at stove and oven, always baking something for a poor person or an ill one (remembering, perhaps, her own illness, and how Edward had died), the wooden batter spoon in her hand, and when the baking was done, off would fly the apron and "Jesse, will you bring the auto out?" while she boxed a cake for one family, a pie for another, and down Broad Street would go the Minerva, Jesse beyond the glass in the chauffeur's seat, she in the rear with the pastries, administering her occasions about town through the little cloth- covered speaking tube.
But then, see her—altered. For, with no apparent reason, the gaiety would disappear, her behavior would become odd, she seemed scarcely to know if she saw you, and she seldom saw you, for invariably at these times she would shut herself away upstairs in the big house. Our neighbor Mrs. Sparrow called these periods "retirements" and said that Mrs. Harleigh "wasn't feeling herself." Whatever they represented, these manifestations of her malaise seemed to me unreasoning; but then it was not I, but Lady herself, who was living with a ghost.CHAPTER 2
What was Adelaide Harleigh really like? people sometimes ask. Who can say what anybody is really like? People are like what we see in them or remember of them. For me, she was like no other. The private and personal facts of her unhappy situation were frequently made public (and thus gained local currency) by Mrs. Sparrow. The Sparrows were gray little creatures like the birds themselves, he so innocuous that we seldom took notice of him, while she, on the other hand, was forever ensconced in her bay window observing proceedings around the Green and subsequently broadcasting them at random.
Wielding a pair of Seiss-Altag binoculars which Mr. Sparrow, an infantry sergeant in the First World War, had brought back from France, Mrs. Sparrow kept a weather eye out for any doings, scandalous or otherwise. In those days the Paramount Newsreel featured itself as "The Eyes and Ears of the World." Because she went Paramount one better, we called Ruthie Sparrow "The Eyes and Ears and Mouth of the World."
On the far side of the Green, open to her vigilant surveillance, was the Harleigh house, and the pertinent details of Edward Harleigh's wooing of Adelaide Strasser, their marriage, and its tragic conclusion were, during the period I write of, continually bandied about by Ruth Sparrow, and in consequence were commonly accepted knowledge throughout the town. I was privy to them because in addition to the sins of lying and stealing, I practiced those of the habitual Peeping Tom and eavesdropper; and, being innately curious about my fellow-man, I relished it all. I would sit on our vine-screened porch entranced to overhear Mrs. Sparrow entertaining callers on her piazza, offering for their edification (and mine) the variously sad or comic histories of the neighborhood.
Hear Ruthie Sparrow:
"Oh, yes, Edward was a regular rake in those days. Folks said that money had spoiled him rotten. When he came back from Yale on holiday, was he ever to home? No, he was with his cronies in the taproom at the River House being sociable with that Elsie Thatcher, who was only too willing to serve those fellows whatever it was they wanted. Edward was a rip! But I like a rip, don't you? It just killed me, how that boy could cut up! But Lord, wasn't he handsome! And fascinating!" Even at my age it was plain that Mrs. Sparrow had been enamored of Edward Harleigh, and believed he could do no wrong.
"But, meeting Adelaide Strasser, didn't he change his tune? Oh, Lady ..." (Here a tender sigh for the maiden Lady Harleigh, who had been Adelaide Strasser, the town's fairest beauty. Which, like many another of Ruthie Sparrow's notions, was not strictly accurate. Lady Harleigh could never have been considered a conventional beauty. Her nose had a bump in it just below the bridge, and several small moles marred the perfection of her features. Still, beauty being in the eye of the beholder, she was to me most beautiful, and I will concede to Mrs. Sparrow the fitness of the term.)
It is true that Edward's was one of the oldest and most esteemed families in Pequot Landing. The Harleigh bastion was over near the Center, where the awful Spragues now lived, and for generations there had always been a male member of the family on the Board of Selectmen or in the local governing hierarchy or among the Congregational deaconry. Not only powerful (old Mr. Harleigh had the whole town in the closed palm of his red and horny hand), these people were rich, their fortune having flowed in a steady stream from the Pequot Plow Company, manufacturers of plowshares and for years the only "smoking" industry around. When this firm was sold, the Harleighs, already speculating in onions during the Spanish-American War, wisely invested their capital in land along the Connecticut River. Through stock manipulations just preceding the Panic of 1907, greater awards accrued. To this long-accumulated wealth Edward was the sole heir, and since his father was already well advanced in years, every matron in Pequot Landing with a marriageable daughter had an eye cocked on the son.
Ruthie on her piazza again:
"Well, once Edward Harleigh saw Adelaide Strasser, there was never no question of his choice. Now, the Strassers had immigrated to this country from Germany back in the nineties. They lived over on Knobb Street, at the wrong end, just where the railroad tracks cross. Mrs. Strasser—her who got so high 'n' mighty later, living up there on the Valley Hill Road—back then she was nothing but a seamstress. Used to do her sewing for better-class ladies, and Edward's mother, being the sort of person she was, you know—awfully, awfully—she just had to have Mrs. Strasser down to cut some dresses. Seen 'em myself, pinning up brocades and bombazine by the yard in the front room; you could look in just by walkin' by the house. Anyways, Anna Strasser was plenty handy with a needle and she put in a good turn, sewing for Mrs. Harleigh.
"But don't think Anna Strasser didn't know what sort of daughter she had over there on Knobb Street, scrubbing the linoleum. So she arranges for Lady to come by the Harleigh house to bring her a pattern she 'forgot,' and it happened Edward was to home, this being over a holiday. He takes her for a sleigh ride, let me tell you, lots of sleigh rides. I seen 'em myself, whizzing around the Green here in that little one-horse sleigh Lady's got over there in her carriage house right now. Poor dear, she's sentimental about such things, like she can't bear to part with them. Can't bear to part with Edward's chifforobe, nor won't let anyone sit in Edward's armchair, nor won't get her hair cut, because Edward liked it long.
Excerpted from Lady by Thomas Tryon. Copyright © 1974 Thomas Tryon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.