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The Four-Story Mistake is the second installment of Enright's Melendy Quartet, an engaging and warm series about the close-knit Melendy family and their surprising adventures.
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The Four-Story Mistake
By Elizabeth Enright
MacmillanCopyright © 1970 Nicholas W. Gillham, Robert Gillham II, and Oliver Gillham
All rights reserved.
The Last Time and the First
"Well, thank goodness there aren't going to be any more children here anyway!" said Randy crossly. She spoke crossly because she was sad and she preferred sounding cross to sounding sorrowful, even though there was no one in the room except herself. Nobody and nothing, for that matter: her words had the particular ringing echo that is heard only in entirely empty rooms.
Almost all her life Randy had shared this room with her older sister, Mona, and today they were going to go away and leave it. Forever. She looked carefully around because it is important to see clearly when one looks at something for the last time. How strange it seemed with all the furniture gone: smaller, somehow. In the long window the scarred shade hung crookedly as it always had; for hundreds and hundreds of nights its gentle flapping had been the last sound she heard before she slept. Good-bye, shade, thought Randy sentimentally. Above the place where her bed had been some of her own drawings remained because she had impulsively stuck them to the wallpaper with glue when she couldn't find the thumbtacks. Cuffy had given her a good scolding for that, all right! Good-bye, pictures, thought Randy. She didn't mind leaving the pictures so much; she could make thousands of better ones any time she felt like it. She looked at the darker rectangles on the paper where other pictures had hung, and the stain on the baseboard where Mona had spilled the iodine that time.
Randy sighed a loud, echoing sigh. Downstairs in Rush's room she could hear the voices of Rush and Mona, and a lot of scraping and thumping and banging as they tried to get a suitcase closed. "Doggone thing acts like it hates me!" she heard Rush complain bitterly.
"Be reasonable," said Mona in her most maddening voice. "You can't expect anything to absorb seven times its own capacity. Why don't you take something out?"
"I suppose I could carry the Ninth Symphony, and the B Minor Concerto, and the roller skates myself. They don't seem to give much."
Randy sighed again and went out of the room for the last time. The last time: she'd been saying that to herself all day. She had paid a farewell visit to every single room in the house from the Office, which had been the Melendy children's playroom, to the furnace room in the basement. All of them looked bare and cold and friendless.
That morning the moving men had swarmed through the place, rolling up carpets, packing barrels, lumbering up and down the stairs with couches and chests of drawers on their backs like mammoth snails. Everything about the moving men was huge: their big striped aprons, their swelling necks and biceps, and their voices. Especially their voices; they had bawled at each other like giants shouting from mountaintops: "GIVE US A HAND WITH THE PIANNA, AL," or "CAREFUL OF THAT CORNER, JOE, DON'T KNOCK THEM CASTERS OFF." But now they had gone, and all the furniture with them; swallowed up in two vans the size of two Noah's arks; and the house was an echoing shell, bereft and desolate.
Soon the painters and plasterers and carpenters would come into the house. They would patch up the ceiling, bolster up the sagging staircase, paint, and polish and mend till every sign of the Melendys was gone: the iodine stain on the baseboard, Randy's pictures, plasticene marks on the Office ceiling, the height -measuring marks of each Melendy child on the upstairs bathroom door, and all the dozens of other souvenirs left by four busy children in a home. The new people who had bought the house were old: a doctor and his wife. They were rich, too. How quiet the place would be under its new pelt of thick carpet. Old feet would go slowly up and down the stairs, doors would never slam, meals would be served on time by noiseless servants.
"Poor house," said Randy. For a minute she almost hated Father for selling their nice home without a word and buying a new one in the country that nobody but he and Cuffy had even seen.
"Randy!" bellowed Rush from downstairs. "Come sit on my suitcase with Mona and me. The darn thing won't close!"
Randy went down the stairs slowly, her hand trailing on the banister. Good-bye, stairs, she was thinking. Good-bye, banister: Fat Oliver won't be here anymore to go sliding down you with his breeches whistling and his shoes rattling against the spokes. I bet that old doctor and his old wife never slid down a banister in their lives.
"Take your time, Madam Queen. We're young. We've got all our lives to wait," said Rush as Randy drifted mournfully into the room. His battle with the suitcase had made him cross. Or was it something else? None of them wanted to leave their house. None of them, that is, except seven-year-old Oliver who always greeted the future as a friend and never gave a hang about anything in the past. Oliver had said, "Oh, boy! A house in the country? Can I have a horse and a pig and a swing and a two-wheel bicycle?"
Rush's suitcase stood in the middle of his dismantled room along with another suitcase, two books of music scores, and the dog Isaac's carrier. Its jaws were wide open, disclosing an undigested meal of socks, underwear, field glasses, baseball mitts, sweaters, model airplanes, and books. Mona was kneeling beside it, her fair hair tousled and her cheeks crimson with exertion.
"That suitcase looks as if it were laughing out loud," Randy said.
"Oh, stop being whimsical," snapped Rush. "Come on and sit on it!"
So they all sat down and made their sitting as heavy as they could, and Rush struggled with the clasps which still wouldn't quite close.
"You'll just have to take out something else," sighed Mona.
"No, I won't!" Rush stood up angrily. "I'm not going to be conquered by a third-rate piece of luggage. I'll get Cuffy! Why didn't I think of it before?" and he leaned over the banister and shouted for Cuffy, who was the Melendy housekeeper, nurse, cook, adviser, and dear friend. She was the sort of person who could have been set down in the middle of the Gobi Desert and still contrived to make a homelike atmosphere about her.
"All right. All right," answered her voice from downstairs in the kitchen. "I'm just getting Oliver's face washed. I'll be up in a minute."
Rush came back into the room and stood silent at the window looking down into the street below. Randy and Mona sat side by side on the suitcase and looked at the bare floor. Nobody said anything.
Randy could feel the house around her, and how tall and deep and still it was. She could feel the emptiness of every room like an ache in her bones. Tonight when they were gone there would be nothing left in the house: the old boards would stretch and creak a little, the Office mouse would come out of his hiding place fearlessly, and lights from cars passing in the street would move across the ceilings of deserted rooms.
"I don't want to go away!" Randy burst out rebelliously. "I'll never like any house as much as this one. I don't care if it has a real swimming pool and gold doorknobs!"
"Oh, quit it, Randy." Rush turned from his window. "None of us want to move. But we have to."
Mona put her arm around Randy's shoulders. "I know how you feel," she said. "But maybe we'll like this new place, too."
"I won't," declared Randy, closing her eyes and holding her breath so that the tears would go back where they belonged, and not pour out and disgrace her.
Cuffy came creaking up the stairs and Oliver clumped behind her.
"Now what's the matter?" she asked breathlessly, one hand against her side. "My lands, I'm glad the new house don't have all them stairs."
"But it'll have some stairs won't it, Cuffy? And it'll have a swing, won't it? And a room for me all by myself?" pleaded Oliver, trotting beside her.
"Just sit down on my suitcase will you, Cuff?" said Rush. "It won't shut."
Cuffy had a kind heart, a good temper, an elastic patience, and she weighed closer to two hundred pounds than she cared to admit. When she sat down beside Mona on the suitcase, Randy fell off; there was no room for her. The suitcase gave a sort of leathery groan and closed. Rush sprang forward and snapped the catches as if he were trapping a lion.
"There's two advantages to being stout," Cuffy said. "One, you can shut suitcases with your weight alone and, two, it takes a lot to sweep you off your feet. Here, Rush, Mona, give me a hand and help me up. It takes a lot to get you on your feet, too," she added regretfully. "Oliver! I just washed your face! However did you get it dirty again?"
Oliver looked at her innocently. There was a lopsided beard of dust on his chin, and two dark stripes on his forehead.
"Me? I don't know, Cuffy. I didn't do anything."
"He could stand in the middle of a clinic and get dirt on him," Rush said. "He exerts a magnetic action which attracts soot, dust, egg stain, chalk marks, strawberry jam, and ink."
"Look who's talking!" jeered Mona. "It's only about the last year, Rush, that Cuffy hasn't had to send you back to wash your neck every single time!"
"Hullo, there!" called a voice from downstairs in the kitchen. "Anybody home?"
"Oh, it's Willy," Cuffy said. "Up here, Willy. Please help us with the luggage."
Willy Sloper had been the Melendys' furnace man for as long as any of the children could remember; and now he was coming to the country with them.
"From furnace man to farm hand in one quick change," Willy had said. "Don't know how it's gointa work out. Only livestock I ever handled was dray hosses and alley cats. Only poultry I'm acquainted with is sparras and pigeons. Only garden I ever grew was on a fire escape. Only diggin' I ever done was in the furnace to get the ashes, or on the front stoop to clear the snow. But we'll see —"
"Why, Willy, how grand you look!" said Mona. They all stared at Willy, who was wearing a brown felt hat which he forgot to remove, an overcoat, and long taffy-colored shoes. They had never seen him before except in his old blue jeans, patched sweater, furnace man's shoes, and cap with the ear flaps down. They hardly knew him. He picked up the two suitcases and carried them down to the front hall where the rest of the luggage was waiting in a patient herd. Rush followed with the scores and Isaac's carrier. But where was Isaac? The search for him lasted nearly ten minutes and then he was found shivering miserably under the basement washtub.
"Poor dog, he doesn't want to leave, either," said Randy dolefully.
"Aw, he doesn't care where he goes," said Rush, in his toughest manner. "All he's thinking about is how much he hates his carrier."
Willy Sloper got a taxicab. The luggage was bundled into it and strapped onto it until it looked less like a taxi than a moving van. Randy put on her old brown hat with the elastic that was so tight under the chin she couldn't swallow. Oliver had a last trace of soot removed from his face with a damp handkerchief, and Mona hid behind a door and put some powder on her nose.
"Come, my lambs," said Cuffy. "We haven't much time to spare."
All of them looked back as they went out the door, except Rush and Oliver. Rush because he wouldn't, and Oliver because it simply didn't occur to him. Behind them the front door closed. For the last time, Randy thought again. It had a hollow sound as it closed on all that emptiness.
Somehow they fitted themselves into the taxi, but there was little room for free movement afterward. "My nose itches, Cuffy," Oliver complained. "But I can't get my hand up to scratch it."
As they drove away Randy managed to turn her head and look back. The elastic of her hat bit cruelly into her neck, but she caught a last glimpse of the house. It seemed as if the house looked back at her helplessly with all its empty windows.
The train ride to the country was not very interesting. Rain blurred the glass so that it was hard to see out; Isaac howled and wailed, to the annoyance of the other passengers and the hot embarrassment of Rush; and Oliver got sick from excitement. He sat very still, looking blue around the mouth, and answering questions with short, cautious answers. Randy and Mona sat opposite him and Cuffy, while Rush (with Isaac's carrier on his lap) sat beside Willy Sloper like a man of the world and discussed Major League baseball when he could make himself heard above Isaac.
A diversion was caused by the sudden loud, clear ringing of the alarm clock in Cuffy's suitcase. The suitcase was on the rack overhead under two hatboxes and a raincoat, so they just had to sit and listen until it ran down. The noise caused Isaac to burst into even more ambitious yelps of protest; and the other passengers stared at the Melendys as if they were a family of typhoid carriers.
"Oliver, did you set that clock?" hissed Cuffy.
"I guess maybe I did," admitted Oliver guiltily. He was in the habit of setting the alarms on all the clocks he came in contact with for the sheer simple pleasure he derived from hearing them go off. But this was something he hadn't bargained for. It jarred the stomach -ache right out of him. After that he spent a very happy hour and a half traveling back and forth from the water cooler with paper cups full of water.
Finally when it was beginning to get dark the conductor marched through the car shouting "BRAX-TON. BRAX-ton. Braxton next stop!" And the Melendys went through their usual scramble of getting themselves assembled.
"I see Father! I see Father!" shrieked Oliver ecstatically as the train stopped, and in the next moment they were all hurling themselves upon their highly valued, only parent.
"Where is the house? Where is it?" cried Oliver, looking about him as if he had expected Father to bring it to the station.
"Miles away," said Father. "Right out in the country. In a valley."
In a valley. That sounded promising; Randy took her place in the taxi. It was much bigger than city taxis and she had room to turn comfortably and look out through the rain-spangled window at the streets of the town. The maple trees were yellow but most of the others were still green; set back among leaves she saw the houses, neat and respectable looking, each with its lawn. She saw two boys in slickers, and a wet horse pulling a wagon, and a cat on a front porch, and dozens of beds of soaked chrysanthemums bowing heavily under the rain and wind.
By and by there were no more houses: only green, and trees and telegraph poles rising up, one after the other, and sweeping by in a dignified dance. The road stretched ahead of them blue-grey and shining, like the back of a whale. They traveled along it and traveled along it. Oliver nodded with sleep on Cuffy's lap. Then the taxi slowed, turned in at a wide gate, and bumped along a dirt road. The trees tossed under the wind and leaves flew through the air and clung damply to the windshield.
"This is the beginning of it," Father said, and even Oliver roused himself expectantly. The car went up a hill with woods on each side, and then down again to a valley, and there was the house! It was white and square, with a mansard roof and a cupola on top. It seemed too broad for its height, and the cupola sitting in the middle of the roof looked like a foolish little hat. The children liked the way it looked. Two huge black trees grew beside the house, and lots of other trees, and behind it the woods rose steeply: they glowed with the wild luminous green of a rainy twilight. Randy's heart lifted hopefully in spite of her.
The taxi stopped and Father got out. He stood there in the rain, flourishing his hat, and said, "Welcome to the Four-Story Mistake!"
"The what?" cried everyone; and the taxi driver helped himself to a hearty laugh.
"The Four-Story Mistake," Father repeated.
"But it hasn't got four stories," Mona objected. "Unless you count the little tower on top."
"That's just the point," Father said. "This was built in 1871 by a very rich gentleman named Cassidy who had a wife and fourteen children. They took up a lot of room, as you can imagine, so when he bought this piece of land he commissioned an architect to build him a four-story house. Then he took his family to Europe for the Grand Tour, leaving the house to get itself built in his absence. The Cassidys were gone two years, and when they returned they found only a three-story house awaiting them. Nobody knows whose fault it was. But poor Mr. Cassidy was less rich on his return than he'd been before and he couldn't afford to have the fourth story added; the best he could do was to build that little cupola to try and give the house more height, and they just squeezed into it somehow, and ever since it's been known as the Four-Story Mistake."
"Let's hope it doesn't turn out to be a mistake to live in," said Rush. Then they all wiped their feet on the doormat, because Cuffy reminded them, and went into the house. They sniffed the new smell of it like a pack of young hounds. It smelled of mustiness and fresh paint and wood smoke: rather pleasant, but not yet the smell of home. It looked all right, too, though the furniture hadn't settled down in its new surroundings. Half a dozen chairs clustered together like people after church, the couch was full of books, and on the marble-topped table Father's statue of the goddess Kwan Yin stood serenely beside the typewriter, a large tin of floor-wax, and a pair of tennis shoes.
Excerpted from The Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright. Copyright © 1970 Nicholas W. Gillham, Robert Gillham II, and Oliver Gillham. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I. The Last Time and the First,
II. A View Apiece,
III. Ali-Baba Oliver,
IV. The Back of the Bus,
V. Rock-a-bye Rush,
VI. Clarinda, 1869,
VII. The Show,
VIII. Noël, Noël,
IX. The Light in the Woods,
X. The Caddis House,
XI. Addition and Subtraction,
XII. "Oh, Summer Night!",
About the Author,
The Melendy Quartet,