My Days with Millicent author Gilmore Tamny played with her band, Weather Weapon, last night, and will play other dates in the Cambridge, MA area and beyond. More info here!
And now, onto Millicent!
Heat Wave at Helvstead. Ramona Discovers the Secret That Millicent Has on Molly. Summer. Author Signals Much of the Inner Changes Percolating Within Ramona Through Nature, Hopefully Not in Clumsy Manner. Ramona Learns to Drive. Miss Carruthers Comes Into Sharp Focus as both Unrecognized Artist and Cautionary Tale.
It was cool and wet that summer; the fair days standing out like jewels against the perpetual rain. After a time, everything became damp to the touch: the curtains, the sofa, even the writing paper had a faint but unmistakable sodden quality to it. The smell of cool wet earth and loam was in the air, not unpleasant exactly, but odd to catch in the morning room. I’d purchased a few light frocks at a jumble sale at St. Anne’s, but the days stayed so chill I had to wear a pullover most days.
But then, as if to make up for the previous months, the last several weeks of August boiled over, and even draughty old Helvstead couldn’t stay cool. The headlines blared, One of the Worst Heat Waves Seen in Century and Elderly Warned: Stay Indoors! Letters to the editor were filled with old campaigners who claimed they hadn’t seen the like since they had left Calcutta. I thought of the escaped peacock alleged to be living in the woods at Helvstead; perhaps the only creature in the county that would be finding this weather pleasant.
The heat seemed to leave the countryside dumb, stunned; I heard little of the usual singing or rustlings in the bushes under the window. My flower arrangements drooped, the rose petals falling heavily to the floor, the day-lilies wilted outside the window like ices on sticks left out too long. Tony grumbled that everything was growing at a manic pace, only to rot on the damp ground, conditions under which the voles flourished. Storm clouds gathered in glowering knots on the horizon, but often came to nothing and the atmosphere bore down, dull and heavy, making me feel stupid. Several of these gatherings did come to spectacular fruition, usually in the night, and lightening struck the giant oak that stood in the field slashing it into three blackened pieces. I was sad to see this; I’d come to love its twisted outlines. Tony would be busy till winter making off with the wood.
I had never liked the heat, even as a girl. Rather than turning ruddy like most people, I grew a waxy pale, as the temperature rose; Millicent pointed out I looked rather like death’s head, and she wasn’t far wrong. Sweat trickled down my neck at the smallest effort, writing a letter or searching for a dropped teaspoon, and I used innumerable hairpins to keep my hair atop my head.
Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep I prowled the house, feeling the night perforated by the flutter of curtains in a useless breeze. In that half-wakeful state, it seemed odd that night transpired both outside and inside; and even odder to think of the window as a meeting point where they mingled. I often felt I was gliding as I made my way through the darkness; I wondered more than once if I didn’t look like Lady Macbeth. I liked coming into the pitch dark rooms unexpectedly, feeling I had caught them unaware somehow, in their truest state. I might pause on the windowsill or the sofa for a fag, aware I was a glowing dot in the darkness, only to awaken in the early hours, and careful not to disturb the silence that had gathered, head back to my room.
One night Millicent came home early from a party to find me wilted on the divan, too hot to sleep. The light was on; I wanted to turn it off but was too enervated. The ice in the ice bucket had long ago melted to an unpleasant temperature.
“Come on then,” Millicent had said. “Let’s go for a drive. It’ll cool you off. Or at least this stagnant air will be moving. No, no, no need to change. Come on then.”
We climbed into our convertible, the roused engine drowning out the chorus of insects but only barely. We drove down the lane and I closed my eyes and closing out every sensation but the lulling the movement of the car. Millicent had switched on the wireless, and a crooner filtered out, singing of paradise.
“What do you have on Molly?” I asked, the words emerging before I had chance to decide whether if best to say them. Millicent turned down the radio and looked at me as if I were daft. I hadn’t spoken with insistence, but I suppose it had been something of a non-sequitur.
“You suggested you had something on Molly.” I said and then registered Millicent’s blankness. “When we were talking about the Darvers. I wondered what you meant.”
Millicent paused, seemed about to make a joke, instead speaking in a level voice that was new between us, stripped of drollery. “Well, I ‘spose I can spill the beans at this late date.”
I struggled to keep the pleasure off my face. It had been a shot at venture; I hadn’t expected anything more than an offhanded rebuke or, at best, one of her hints, so sarcastic as to be nearly elliptical.
“Has Molly told you about her mother?” she asked.
“Not really. Something about her being ill.”
“Ill—very ill indeed. And Molly so busy with the house, and forever enciente with all those heinous children—she couldn’t keep running to Clivebarton to care for her. So Daddy finally agreed she could squirrel her mother in the of the lower quarters of the east wing.”
The air was very soft, very hot as it blew past. How dark it was in the country at night, I thought; the illumination of Millicent’s headlights almost a violence against it.
“What was the illness?” I said.
“Mmm, some gruesome intestinal blight. Foul. Smelled disgusting. Very painful too, I gathered. Nature really is the very devil sometimes—there’s every torment in the rainbow, isn’t there? Several guests, including Vicountess Marlton, thought there was a ghost at Helvstead, hearing the moaning coming up through the pipes in the wee hours. Went on for years. That woman would simply not die.”
“Well, one night I came home unexpectedly—oh, I must have sixteen—and a very lucky outbreak of chicken pox—Ecole de Jeune Fille in Lausanne, if memory serves me right. Mum and Father were away, and I was perfectly obsessed with Nightsparkle, my horse—I’m sure Freud would find lots to chew on there—and was looking forward to doing nothing but ride. But my telegram went astray. I managed to get a lift from the station. Lord, Ramona, if there is ever a more depressing sight on a rainy evening in November than Helvstead, I don’t know what it is.”
“So there I popped in to to find Molly standing quietly, very unlike her usual nightmarishly vital self in hall. I made rather a fuss about not being met at the station and demanded a jam sandwich. She turned to me, and said:” she continued imitating Molly’s voice, but if made a ghastly hollow tone: ‘Mother’s dead.’”
“Goodness,” I said, disconcerted in spite of myself.
“I tell you, I laughed Ramona. I couldn’t help it. Oh, I know, beastly of me, but really, she looked so strange and this pronouncement was so…melodramatic, like a bad actress in a wireless program. Anyway, I wasn’t really sure she meant it, which sounds strange when someone issues such an unequivocal statement. But she said it again. ‘Mother’s dead,’ in that unearthly voice and wandered off. I followed her, no doubt demanding my jam sandwich, as she went below, to the servants quarters, and into a room. God, smelled abominable. And there was Molly’s Mum with a pillow over her face.”
“A pillow over her face?” I repeated blankly.
“Yes. Rather squashed over her face, in fact.”
It took me a moment: “Good heavens—you don’t think—”
“It was the old lady’s hands. In little claws, bunched up one either side of the pillow, as if she’d been trying to push it off..”
“You think—“” I paused. “You think Molly…?”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Well, honestly, can’t you see Molly doing it?” She looked at me and shrugged. “Got fed up, finally. Can’t say I blame her. Wouldn’t be hard, anyway, once you got past the unpleasantness. Her mother must have been very weak.”
“But how did Molly act when she saw you?” I asked.
“Pulled the pillow off and began plumping it up, like she always done with any poor unsuspecting pillow in her way, and put it under her mother’s head, like nothing was at all strange. She seemed to wake up from whatever little trance she was in. She told me to go upstairs and call the doctor. And that was that.”
I hesitated. “Is that why she dislikes you so? Knowing that you—saw all this?”
Millicent laughed. “No—good gracious! You know she thinks me ‘the devil’s spawn,’ congregation praying for me and all that?”
“Well, yes,” I said reluctantly. “But I didn’t know if I should take it very seriously.”
Millicent cocked an eyebrow. “You had similar suspicions, I take it?”
“No, no, I mean how serious she was. Seemed so improbable and so—so—” I ventured about for a word. “Disloyal, I suppose.”
“Oh, she means it all right.”
“But why isn’t she more careful around you? If you know this, you’d think she’d give you a wide berth.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t actually see anything actually happen. This is merely conjecture—slander you might say—although, I doubt I’m wrong. And maybe on some level perhaps she sensed I never thought less of her for it.”
I turned to her, alarmed. “What do you mean?”
“The woman was wretched, Ramona. I wouldn’t let one of the hounds suffer like that for a week, none the less twenty years.”
“Look, I’ll give you it’s not a pretty sort of ending but…and I’m not saying it was done out of, well, mercy—for all I know Molly did it in a fit of pique—she has, as we both know, a vile temper—but perhaps…” She laughed shortly. “Well, there’s always a first. Perhaps it was kindness. Or just practicality.”
“I know, it’s unlikely. To tell you the truth, I wonder if she even knows anymore what she did—think she might have just tucked that little bit of unpleasantness away.”
“Yes,” I said, looking out the window. “I suppose that could happen.”
Millicent turned onto the road that led to Helvstead. “Well, now, we’ve had a bit of wind in our hair. Any cooler?”
I felt the heat, muggy and soft and blanketing even at this late hour. “Not really,” I said.
Millicent laughed. “How unusually frank of you dear.”
I mulled this over, as one imagine, quite a lot the night, and had come downstairs, curious to how I might find Millicent. Would she regret what she’d said? Caution me to keep it to myself? Instead, I found her at the breakfast table, drinking hot tea despite the already creeping heat, smoking and saying something to Lucy which Lucy was having difficulty absorbing. Millicent decided we’d open the windows and doors. I too responded with astonishment carefully scaled back to polite surprise.
Millicent waved this away. “No, what we need is circulating air. Open the windows, Lucy.”
Lucy and I shared a furtive glance; she rather tentatively asked about burglars.
“Oh, burglars,” Millicent said. “We’ve never had a burglar at Helvstead. It’s only the servants that take things. Oh, god, Lucy, don’t look like that, this is not J’ACCUSE.”
“I didn’t think—” Lucy began.
“The worst thing to happen is grotty schoolboys on a lark, or a stray poacher beetling about and even that is nigh near unlikely. And I haven’t seen a tramp in ever so long,” Millicent said.
Actually, I had seen two rather sinister tramps begging outside church last week, but forbore saying so.
“All right, we’ll lock up the silver, and the ‘family jewels’—such as they are—in the cellar, just so you two will stop looking like sheep in agony. Good Christ, you lot, hardly anyone ever comes here, you can’t have failed to notice? I’ll fetch a shotgun from Tony, and I’d be happy to shoot any idiot who tries to get in.” Seeing our faces she stopped and sighed. “Oh all right then, the doors needn’t stay open but those windows jolly well will. Midges is what you should be worried about.”
“If it storms…” Lucy proposed.
“Well then, you’ll close the windows,” Millicent said. “You’re not daft, Lucy.”
Lucy gave a wan smile at the prospect of nights keeping vigil for rain and headed off to attend to the windows.
Millicent and I retired to the sofa. Over the tinkle of ice in our water glasses, the turning page of the newspaper, I could hear the muffled smack of the windows being lifted upstairs, louder then fainter, as Lucy wound her way around the house. In about an hour, the windows were opened and the house seemed, ever so slightly, to be breathing.
Millicent would insist we leave the windows open until the heat broke; and it lent a strange indefinable atmosphere of expectation, but of what, it was hard to say,—a drill, an inspection, a party, an extermination?
A few intruders would appear. One morning I caught sight of a rolling furry flank out of the corner of my eye; I followed it on tiptoe grabbing an umbrella and watched what I decided was a woodchuck pad through the halls to the kitchen and out back door as if it knew where it was going all along. I came into the foyer to find a hedgehog curling itself into a bristling clump next to a brogue; a starling fluttered in circles for a half hour in the library, resisting my and Lucy efforts to remove it and soiling the carpet before finding its way out again. A fawn materialized in the kitchen standing on its hind legs to nibble at the herbs Lucy had tied up to dry and scampered away when she emerged from the pantry.
“Such tiny little hooves,” Lucy said wonderingly.
That afternoon Lucy appeared in front of me again.
“There’s something down the cellar,” she said. “I think it’s a dog.”
We listened, closely and after a moment I heard a faint panting noise. We crept down the stairs to see one blond furry out-stretched leg. I crept a little closer and saw the snout of an Afghan, then the creature itself, in view. It lay splayed out on its belly to better feel the relative cool of the cellar. One of the Quigson’s renegade Afghans, I presumed.
I hadn’t ever liked dogs particularly; they frightened me and their slobbering, their messes, their fawning unctuousness, rather put one off. But I felt rather sorry for the creature.
“Let it rest,” I said. “Poor thing’s all done in.”
“I’ll bring him a bowl of water,” said Lucy.
“We’ll call the Quigson gardener in a bit.”
I came downstairs for breakfast one morning; only eight and already nearly stifling. My stomach gave a lurch looking at the buffet piled with kippers and eggs. I sat down, unequal to it, and Lucy placed a steaming cup of tea in front of me. Millicent had continued to insist such breakfast be served, out of perversity or imperviousness to the weather, I never knew. The heat certainly never bothered her, and I remembered stories in LIFE and the papers about what an indomitable traveler she have been in Egypt and the far east, while others, including the famous explorer Lord Von Favre, had been prostrated.
“And how was your lecture last night?” Millicent asked, head still in the paper and a plate of steaming coddled eggs. “Wildly edifying?”
Miss Caruthers and I had attended the talk of a Navy captain stranded on an iceberg some years earlier, and even with the horrors of frostbite, cold storage, and cannibalism (if an unexpected behavior to admit to in front of a Ladies’ Guild, no one seemed to think any the less for it), it had been pleasant to hear his descriptions of towers of ice, snow blowing across icy plains, icebergs bobbing in the sea.
“Interesting,” I said.
“Such intellectual pursuits. I’m beginning to think I got you entirely wrong, Ramona—here I pegged you as one of the very pious English ladies but really you’re just you’re a run of the mill bluestocking.”
“Well.” I said. “All right.”
“All right?” Millicent repeated, pulling her paper down, to look at me. “You’re not going soft on me, are you? ‘All right,’ ” she mimicked, perfectly, with my resignation and wan smile.
I sighed and put my teacup down. I hadn’t slept well, my stomach was buckling, and I had an incipient headache.
“Millicent, honestly, if you hadn’t noticed, I’ve always been soft. Frankly, I’d rather have you think I’m an intellectual than a religious prig, although where you got that idea I can’t really imagine. Anyway, you could just as easily be disabused this notion of my being a bluestocking, as there are some fairly amazing gaps in my education, which wasn’t remarkable in any way, never mind my father was a schoolteacher,” I picked my cup up again. “I don’t know very much, Millicent.” I finished. “I never have, you know.”
Millicent considered this.
“I believe that was the most aggressively humble speech I’ve ever heard,” she said. “And not quite the truth, I think. Pass me the sugar, will you?”
I sighed grumpily. “Oh, all right.” I said.
Millicent grinned and ate a large forkful of kippers.
The final few days of August were as beastly as the rest, but as soon as the calendar turned to September, the temperature sank, giving way to some of the most glorious weather I can remember. The outdoors smelled inexpressibly fresh, filled with the scent of warm sun on grass, and lingering bloom in the air, the mornings dawning soft and cool and growing to comfortably heated afternoons with a breeze that lazily shuffled and reshuffled the leaves of the oaks and monkey puzzles. It reminded me of a print in my parent’s house as a child; unremarkable, really, the usual water-color sketch of the English countryside, but in it I found the timeless promise of days in spotless sunshine spent on rambles over green fields, picnics, drifting rowboats.
It was during this miniature epoch of fine weather that, for the first time since I’d been to Helvstead, I was tempted outside. I had begun sugaring my afternoon tea when I noticed the light dancing on its surface; the angle must have shifted just so slightly, newly horizontal. I went over to the window. The sun was soaking everything, the fields unified in singular glowing outline. I retrieved a pullover, slipped into one of the pairs of brogues kept by the north entryway and closed the door behind me.
It was very still. I moved out of the dappled shade towards the field. Only a skeleton of the garden remained, nettles and clover growing on what used to be the paths, and the sole blooms left from the very large flower garden residing on a few stalwart rose bushes, yellow or pink or red blossoms half-brown and crumpled like paper. I sat on a stone bench, watching the sun lower. I thought of my lion from so many years ago. He was still there, and I liked to think of him, walking through this razed neglected garden on large silent paws, his golden eyes implacable, watchful, witnessing everything.
Finally the light was caught in the line of trees behind the property and the grass dimmed. Only the husk of the day was left now, and I shivered, feeling an urge to go in before the gloaming gained hold, to take a little of that spellbound afternoon inside with me. Stealthily putting the brogues in their place I returned to my tea, still faintly warm.
With the arrival of September, the frequency of Miss Caruthers and my lecture-going began to diminish. The Dowager had decided to go abroad again—Rhodesia, Switzerland and the wilds of Alaska—and the preparations kept Miss Caruthers in a constant whirl of erranding. As a result, I found myself mustering the courage to ask Millicent if I might learn how to use the auto in the garage. She was astonished at this timidity (“You don’t know how to drive? I’d no idea! I thought it just another one of your peccadilloes.”) It was established Tony would teach me.
Tony was silent during these lessons, except to give the briefest of instructions. I seemed to take to it quickly; I would never be Millicent, who even Vivien had admired, gunning the engine down a thoroughfare or expertly whipping around corners, but I could feel to my relief a certain competency buoying to the surface. Around and around the driveway we drove in slow circles, first clockwise than counterclockwise (“Do stop it!” shouted Millicent once out the window, a few of her set, to my dismay, behind her, looking with unabashed curiosity, “you’re making us dizzy!”).
Soon enough we headed for the roads and after my first such excursion, I turned to smile at Tony, but was greeted with a carefully blank face.
“Did you give my Lilliput bangers?” he asked in a voice so devoid of feeling and accusation it implied good amount of both. I felt my face flush.
“She was right sick beginning of the summer. Putrid. Glutted herself—looked like eggs and bacon and a good amount of bangers from what she was heaving about my cottage. Usually if she’s just got into a deer or sheep carcass, she’ll be all right in a few days. But no—she were sick for a week.” He turned an accusing stare in my direction. “I had to take her to the Dr. Abley, didn’t I now. She’s got a tender stomach, has since she was puppy—can only eat bone meal and milk.”
“Nearly killed her,” Tony said. “And it cost me five quid.”
“Hmph,” he said. “I can’t do without my best dog, not when there’s voles breeding like fleas and the weasels and deer up to my very eyeballs and no one but myself to manage. I’d like you to see if you can remember that next time you can’t finish your breakfast.” He paused still staring fixedly out the window. “I won’t be telling Lucy on account she’s a good girl and there’s no call to hurt her feelings. But it don’t mean I won’t have my eye out, Miss Bright.”
“Oh, I am sorry. I shan’t ever—”
“Never you mind that, Miss Bright. You’re about to run into the fountain.”
Of course, after this, the idea of any more lessons was unthinkable; fortunately I’d learned the rudimentaries and after a bit more practice around the fountain, I felt ready to go out on my own. I still saw Tony and Lilliput from time to time, of course, about the property, and Lilliput, having such fine associations with my generosity, tended to whine when she saw me.
The third Sunday in September, a touch of briskness in the air, I motored over to pick up Miss Caruthers for St. Anne’s and found a maid in a heavy, black, old-fashioned uniform waiting in the center of the driveway with the news that Miss Caruthers had woken late as she had a nasty cold and had been unable to reach me before I left to tell me she wouldn’t be able to make it. I told the housemaid I’d return after services to see if Miss Caruthers might be up to a visitor.
This was as much curiosity as solicitousness. I’d tried, at various intervals, but I found it very difficult to imagine Miss Caruthers’ living situation. I envisioned a mean narrow room at the end of a cramped hallway with scarred wooden floorboards and little heat save a hot water bottle; or sharing some abased circumstances, a dismal attic room with one of the maids. Really, though, I hadn’t the faintest.
So, it was with keen interest after service that I followed the maid through the daunting grandeur of the Bales baronial manor, up the Charles the II staircase a forest of trees must have given their lives for, through a well-carpeted hall to a large wooden door on which the maid knocked briskly, opening for me to enter. I did, blinking, at the sheer grandiosity. The room was built on enormous lines, almost like a ball room, a good forty by fifty feet with a ceiling close to thirty. Pink silk wallpaper of the fashion a hundred and fifty years earlier lined the walls, with carpets to match in fleur de lily designs. Five or six large paintings, and many smaller, several reminiscent of Fragonard—perhaps even one was a Fragonard—hung in elaborate gold frames around the walls. A cluster of pink-upholstered chairs a divan and a sofa with golden legs sat in a corner, next to a painted screen of a coy shepherdess under a luxuriant willow tree. Four chandeliers of incalculable size and complication caught the light coming in from the windows. These windows ran the length of the two walls and afforded views over the estates’ rolling fields and an oxbow and were flanked with gold-tasseled pink curtains that ran from floor to ceiling, swathes of material gathered at the top, crowning the curtains in magisterial blooms.
Miss Caruthers lay propped up in the middle of a vast bed that sat at the end of the room, apologizing volubly. She lay under a silky pink coverlet, wearing an old-fashioned nightdress, her hair unbound around her shoulders, very gold and very red, her nose visibly pink. I resisted, with difficulty, staring at the profusion around me.
I pulled up a chair and handed her the Parish Times from my pocketbook.
“Oh, I thought that we weren’t to take them from the vestry commons—” she stopped, and glanced at me quickly. “Oh! Well. Quite a treat—I’m afraid you have come to know all my weaknesses, haven’t you? It’s the serial format, I find. Gets one so interested. Silly really, and not like real literature. But I have so been wondering what the Vicar is to do now that he’s discovered Mrs. Asherton has stolen the church funds.”
“Well, then, I shan’t tell you what happens,” I said.
On closer examination, I could see the grandiosity of Miss Caruthers’s room had distracted me from the obvious signs of wear. The gold painted furniture was battered and scarred, perhaps even gnawed it in places and I imagined some bored decorative dog doing the damage; the wallpaper was water-stained and turning yellow, rolling off in spots, the carpet threadbare, the curtains frayed and riddled with moth; the coverlet showed its threads and the ribbons that decorated it were a frayed and tattered.
“It was originally the wife of Bentley Bale’s,” Miss Caruthers said following my gaze. “It’s the only room really convenient to the Dowager’s suite.”
“Ah,” I said, carefully blank.
“There was no need to redecorate when it was so grand. Such a treat for me, of course! I’m very lucky.”
We sat for a long moment, absorbing it. Finally, I spoke.
“Ah, it’s—it’s not quite what I might have imagined, Miss Caruthers.”
I turned my eyes from the high peeling ceiling and glanced at her. There was an acute and unexpected pull of amusement between us.
“Oh, is that so? How interesting,” she said, avoiding my eyes, smoothing down the covers. Her voice was perfectly normal, but I too averted my eyes, giving us a moment to swallow our mirth. As I looked down glimpsing a tangle of colored thread by the side of the bedpost.
“Is that you embroidery you’re so keen on?”
She nodded as best she could through a sneeze. “Do excuse me. Yes, something I’ve been working on for ever so long, never really get anywhere of course, but so soothing—”
“Do you mind if I have a look?”
She nodded, and I lifted out the edge of the piece, and to my surprise, kept pulling, finding not the pillow cover I imagined, but a panel the length of bedspread, and beyond.
“Miss Caruthers! Whatever is this?” I spread it out as best I could on the covers. “Good gracious!” I said. “What have you done?”
The panel was of a stag’s head lying on the forest floor, an arrow in it’s neck, antlers to scale, with twining ivy, sun dappled on the ground. I turned to her, a little stunned.
“Miss Caruthers you’re making a tapestry. Why, it’s lovely!”
“Oh now, that’s much too grand,” she said, blowing her nose. “It’s just I have such long hours in the evening.”
“However did you find the design?”
“Oh,” she said, “I sketched it myself.”
“Oh, yes. I made some drawings and sketched it out. Not very difficult really.”
“May I see?”
“Oh, you needn’t bother, Miss Bright. It’s a silly little project.”
“I really would like to if you don’t mind.”
“You are too kind, Miss Bright. All right then,” she said pulling out a square notebook from her bedside table.
She turned to a page, and showed me a charcoal drawing of the scene she had embroidered, little notations on the side—she had a distinctive calligraphic hand, years of writing up verse on scraps of paper she told me—with notations for colors and so forth. It was a hunting scene: a stag, pierced by arrows, stood in a dense forest dense. The hunters, a royal person and his yeoman it looked like, watched their handiwork from the ground, behind trees and on horses. There was the beginning of an image of two men creeping behind them through leafy trees with bows and arrows; one appeared to be blowing a horn. Hedgehogs peered round trees in a furtive manner, stout squirrels watched the proceedings looking rather like putti and badgers poked their noses from their dens. The left side was more ornamental, as if to introduce the pastiche, a brocade of lilies, which started at the size of my hand but dwindled to the size of guineas as they dissolved into the action of the piece. On these she had strewn furry bees, menacing wasps and dark curling ivy leaves.
“It’s beautiful, Miss Caruthers. But however did it come about?”
She sighed. “About five years ago, I had this vivid dream—men blowing bugles at dawn, and the most wonderful white stag! Very noble and somehow very wise and then the men came and shot him with arrows, and somehow that was very noble and very wise, too, though I can’t remember why precisely. And suddenly I so wanted to make it into a piece.” She paused her forehead burrowing together and then added with a deprecating laugh. “Well, I had run out of patterns and it seemed fitting for needlepoint somehow, although of course, very silly of me.”
I held it up and marveled again. “This is quite something,” I said.
“Oh, now. Just a little project to while the time away,” she began rolling it up. “Did you attend the lecture—‘Mysteries of the Deep’ I think it was? A Dr. Titenreisiger?”
“I did,” I said, and, with effort, turned my attention away from the fast disappearing panel. “Rather interminable on the whole, I’m afraid.”
Actually, I’d found it interesting; the lecturer being unexpectedly Turkish, handsome and inebriated. I had a suspicion, however, that any enthusiasm might result in being asked to relay facts of the giant squids to the Dowager. I was glad the maid came in, bringing my bouquet of fatigued and, in the context of that immense room, preposterously tiny, white mums.
“Miss Bright, you are spoiling me!”
“Oh, now, a bouquet is not quite the limit of dangerous indulgence.” I added, without thinking: “Now, don’t let the Dowager bully you. You need your rest.”
But this was too seditious a sentiment for Miss Caruthers.
“Oh, yes—quite!” she said brightly, eyes averted, her hands wrestling with handkerchief.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—” I said and stopped. “If there’s anything I can bring you, please do ring.”
“You’re so kind,” Miss Caruthers said.
“Not really,” I said. “Now, perhaps you’ll be able to go to church next week. And I shall drive!”
“How exciting you’ve learned how. Goodbye. And thank you Miss Bright.”
I closed the door behind me, thinking the room was as oppressive as anything of mean quarters I’d had imagined.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com