Wait For Me
I have never been quite sure how it happened that I ended up with Mildred Truelove Stapleton's diaries. I remember having a long, distracted conversation with Mr. Lucent, after our return from the Stapleton house, about how we should "divvy up our loot," as he persisted in phrasing it. And it made sense that I should have the sad collection of children's books, just as he rightly and properly took the poet's working manuscripts and correspondence. But when I try to remember why he did not also take her diaries, I rack my brains to no avail. My suspicion is that we were both too unnerved to know what we were doing.
Somehow, though, the box of diaries ended up in the corner of my office, along with the complete set of Lefevre first editions with the extra plates hand-colored by the author; Muriel Wilderhith's six-volume biography of her uncle--Sir Cuthbert Wilderhith: A Life Spent Dreaming--inscribed by Miss Wilderhith to Samuel Mather Parrington; and a herd of rather battered file-boxes in which reposed the entire, explicit, and scandalous correspondence between the poet Gillian Mowbray Thorne and Dorothea, Viscountess Sainver, including the notorious account of the even more notorious funeral of Judge Lemarys.
Although I fully intended to examine the Stapleton diaries, catalogue them, and send them into the stacks which housed the rest of the Parrington's collection of diaries, a sudden spate of acquisitions in the Department of Rare Books, and certain affairs of my own, left me with neither time nor energy to spare. And since the box of Stapleton diaries looked very much like the boxes containing the Thorne-Sainver correspondence, giving it the protective coloration of an Arctic fox against snow, and since I had developed a slight aversion to Mildred Truelove Stapleton after the unpleasant things which had happened in her house, I am afraid I would have entirely forgotten about the diaries if it had not been for a small and unsettling coincidence.
It was one of the nights when my insomnia was particularly abysmal, and rather than drift comfortlessly from room to room of my apartment, I had come down to the Parrington in hopes of removing at least a few of the papers, books, and other assorted objects which stood between me and the surface of my desk.
I had dealt with a job lot of routine paperwork, cleared up a thorny question of provenance and dating which had entangled three of the junior archivists, and was peacefully sorting through a miscellany of bound pamphlets which Mr. Sullivan had bought for five cents in a thrift shop, "just in case it turned out to be interesting." Mr. Sullivan was young, but eager, and he had a good eye. These seemed to be mostly seventeenth century English religious tracts and printed sermons, none of them already among the museum's collection. I was noting the usual fiery denunciations of the atheistical, the disobedient, and those swollen with the sin of unrighteous pride--for the pamphlets were all staunchly Laudian, itself an interesting characteristic--when my eye was caught by a marginal gloss, "Of Spirits and mirrours."
Instantly, and with a force like being hit by a bolt of lightning, I remembered Miss Stapleton, lying on the floor of that bedroom saying, The girl in the mirror. The girl with no eyes.
Mechanically, my eyes moved to the text before my protesting brain could articulate the objection that I did not want to know anything about Caroline beliefs concerning ghosts and mirrors. It was already too late.
As the Eyes are the Mirrours of the soul, so it is that Spirits have none, for their soules being departed it is but a husk that remaineth, like mindless Ecchoe in the pagan tale. And yet it is not true that Spirits are frighted by mirrours or that they do shun them. They appeare to the living in mirrours, and in a forme of their own chusing, so that one who was a wicked Sinner in life may appear a fair young man and thus cosen the Unwary. Truly, as Pride is the snare of the devil, so again do mirrours perform the Behests of the Ungodly and provide a Conduit for the devil to afflict Man and lead him from the path of Belief.
And then the author, like a hound abandoning a false scent, was off and running again, baying the necessity of obeying king, church, and priest, and the troubling matter of ghosts and mirrors was left behind.
Except that for me it had awakened those memories: that small, stifling room on the third floor of the Stapleton house, the dust, the brooding vanity, those battered books ... and the sound of Miss Stapleton's screams.
Mr. Lucent and I, the senior archivists of the Department of Rare Books, had been sent to the Stapleton house to take possession of the bequest which Mildred Truelove Stapleton, the eminent poet, had left to the Samuel Mather Parrington Museum upon her death the previous winter. There had been a good deal of dissent and contention among Mrs. Stapleton's four adult children about every clause of her will, and thus Dr. Starkweather had felt it better not to take any chances with the Museum's new property, namely Mildred Truelove Stapleton's library and papers.
The process of transferral had taken several days and had been, on that Thursday, almost complete. All that remained were what Miss Amelia Stapleton, the eldest of the four children, referred to as "Mother's junk," being the poet's diaries, her working manuscripts, and that portion of her library which in her last, frail years she had insisted on keeping in her bedroom.
Miss Stapleton was a tall, bony spinster with an unfortunate predilection for ruffles, floral prints, and soft colors suited to schoolgirls. Her voice was high, childlike, and yet unforgivingly hard; it had become clear on the first day that she considered Mr. Lucent and myself personally to blame for the "desecration" of her mother's belongings. We had both developed the habit of avoiding her, and so my heart had sunk when I rang the bell on that last morning and was answered by her shrill demand to know who I was and what I wanted.
But she had let me in, and even agreed to conduct me to the spare room in which the last oddments were kept. I climbed the stairs in her wake, one set, then a second. Two doors down the third floor hallway, she stopped and said, "This, Mr. Booth, is the haunted room."
"The, er, what?" I said.
"Oh, that's what we call it. My mother insisted it was haunted and never used it. I don't believe in ghosts. We've been using it for storage, and Mother's junk is in there. I will warn you to wedge the door. It locks itself if you're not careful."
"Oh," I said. "Thank you."
The room revealed when Miss Stapleton opened the door did not look haunted. It was dusty and cluttered; clearly no one had lived in this room for many years. The appurtenances of a girl's bedroom were bundled into one corner: a lace-swagged canopy for the disassembled four-poster, a vanity with a dried and withered posy still stuck in the frame, attesting, like the pale flowered wallpaper, to the life this room had once contained. In another corner, following Miss Stapleton's pointing finger, I found the last of what was to become the Mildred Truelove Stapleton Collection.
I understood immediately why the poet had not left her books and papers to her children. The papers were at least in boxes, although they looked as if they had merely been dumped in by the armful; the books, including her diaries, had been thrown into the corner, a careless heap like a child's discarded playthings. It seemed horrible to me that a poet's children could take out their anger at their mother on her innocent and helpless books.
"That's funny," said Miss Stapleton. "We didn't leave them like that." But there was no outrage, or even concern, in her voice, and I felt no compulsion to believe her.
I said, "When my colleague gets here, could you ... that is, I would be grateful if you would show him up." Mr. Lucent, dilatory as always, was now nearly an hour late.
"Of course," said Miss Stapleton without warmth. "Don't forget about the door." And she left.
I wedged the door firmly open and settled in to work.
Cataloguing the books took very little time; there were only twenty-three of them. Oddly, for a woman whose tastes in literature, as represented by the rest of her library, were both catholic and sophisticated, the books Mildred Truelove Stapleton had clung to in her last years were all cheap popular editions of children's books: the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare, Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim's Progress, Marigold's Prayers for the Young, Gulliver's Travels, collections of fairy tales and poems. All of them were inscribed on the flyleaf Georgiana Beatrice Truelove in a schoolgirl's copperplate. Clearly, from the printing dates of the books, Mrs. Stapleton's sister, but why had Mildred ended up with Georgiana's books? I made a note to give these books to Mr. Forsythe, who was embroiled in a massive and quixotic study of children's books of the previous century, and moved on to the manuscripts and diaries which were properly Mr. Lucent's domain, except that Mr. Lucent was not here.
Aside from being thick with dust, the room was unpleasantly stuffy even with the door open; I was aware of sweat trickling down my collar and dampening my shirt. A cursory glance was enough to show that the situation pertaining among the manuscripts, diaries, and correspondence was vastly more complicated than that among the books. I groaned in spirit, loosened my tie slightly, and stood up, knowing that if I did not stretch at least occasionally, my joints would stiffen and I would have to be helped to my feet--and once I got involved in the labyrinth of Mrs. Stapleton's papers, I would very likely forget to move at all.
I paced back and forth in the narrow aisle of clear space, which brought me face to face with the old vanity at the end of each circuit. After the third or fourth time, I realized that I was avoiding my reflection and stopped, puzzled. It is true that I am homely and do not care to spend hours admiring myself in all convenient reflective surfaces, but I am not the Elephant Man or the Hunchback of Nôtre Dame, to shun my reflection as abhorrent and monstrous.
I looked at the mirror. It was dusty, of course, and the glass was old and wavery. It was not a noticeably nice vanity--not a good example of any school of furniture and a little spindly for my taste--but it was not loathsome, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with the mirror ... except that there was. There was something about the way the room was reflected which set my teeth on edge. I realized I was staring at my reflection and had to make a conscious effort to look away from the mirror, as if I were pulling a piece of iron away from a magnet.
Do try to control your imagination, Mr. Booth, said the voice of one of my prep-school teachers, long dead, in my mind. I shook myself away from contemplation of the vanity, sat down again, and addressed myself to the task of creating order among Mrs. Stapleton's papers.
I began by sorting into categories: correspondence, manuscripts, diaries (which were at least easily identifiable by virtue of being in bound volumes). I was working on the chronology of the letters when Mr. Lucent waltzed in.
"You're late," I said without looking up.
"Yes, I know. So sorry. I was just on the way out the door when--"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Don't bother. I'm not interested in your excuses."
"Are you all right, Mr. Booth? You don't--" Then his voice sharpened. "What are you doing?"
"Your job," I said, securing together, with a paper-clip from my vest pocket, the three pages of a letter from the novelist Clemence Bradstreet.
"You have no right."
I stood up to face him. "I had no assurance that you would make an appearance today, and if you recall, we promised the Stapleton heirs not to take more than a week. What else was I supposed to do?"
Mr. Lucent had gone beet-red with indignation. "Let me remind you, Mr. Booth, that you are not my superior and you have no right to tell me how to do my job."
"Someone ought to."
"Well, it's not going to be you, you pinch-faced stick!"
A voice said mildly from the doorway, "Excuse me."
Mr. Lucent and I whipped around like stags at bay, and the oppressive, resentful anger in the room shattered into sticky fragments like a dropped egg.
It was Martin Stapleton, Mildred Truelove Stapleton's principal heir and only son. He was a quiet, decisive man, far gentler and more thoughtful than his sisters. "Is anything wrong?"
Mr. Lucent and I looked at each other. "No," Mr. Lucent said doubtfully. "We were just ..." And then he trailed off, clearly no more certain of what had just happened than I was.
I made a desperate effort to pull myself together. "It's the, er, the heat. Can we do something for you, Mr. Stapleton?"
"Shoe's on the other foot. I was just looking in to see if there was anything you needed."
"No, thank you," I said.
"We're quite all right," chimed in Mr. Lucent.
"Although," I said because I did not want Mr. Stapleton to think we were getting rid of him in order to continue our quarrel in peace, "there was one thing ... I noticed, I was wondering, er ... that is, can you tell me who Georgiana Truelove was?"
"Mother's younger sister. She died when they were girls. Why?"
"Oh, these books," I said and waved at them. "They were hers."
"Ah," he said. "So was this room. Mother disliked it very deeply, and I am not sure I care for it myself. In any event, if you need anything, just let one of us know. We should be around most of the day."
Mr. Lucent and I stared at each other in dismal, appalled silence.
Finally, I said, "I'm sorry. I didn't--"
"No, honestly, I don't know what got into me. You're far more qualified than I am any day of the week."
"Mr. Lucent, please, don't say that. I oughtn't to have ..."
"Well, anyway, I'm sorry I called you a pinch-faced stick." Then, with a gesture of putting the past behind him, he said briskly, "Now tell me how far you've gotten."
Gratefully, I introduced Mr. Lucent to my three unwieldy groupings, and he got to work on the manuscripts while I continued with the correspondence. All the while, as part of my mind mechanically noted dates and authors, I wondered miserably what had happened, why I had been so vicious to Mr. Lucent, who was always courteous and kind--and good at his job, even if unpunctual. Except for my lame spur-of-the-moment explanation to Mr. Stapleton--"the heat"--I had no solution to the puzzle of what had possessed me to say such terrible things. I wondered if this might be the first warning sign of schizophrenia. In the depths of my mortification, that seemed almost more appealing than the idea that there was no reason at all, that I had said those cruel, officious things simply because, somewhere in the depths of my psyche, I wanted to.
With the two of us working, the organizational phase of our endeavor did not take long. Mr. Lucent pulled out his notebook and said diffidently, "If you'd like to ... take a break or something, Mr. Booth ... You've been at work for quite a while. It might do you good to stretch your legs a little."
He wanted to be rid of me; I did not blame him.
"Thank you, Mr. Lucent," I said and got stiffly to my feet. "I appreciate your, er ... that is, thank you."
I went downstairs, intending to go out into the garden, but walked straight into a low-voiced, venomous argument between Mr. Stapleton and his second sister, Mrs. Hilliard.
"Father would have!" Mrs. Hilliard was saying as I came into earshot.
"But this isn't Father's will, and Mother made it per--"
They became aware of my presence before I could retreat and stared at me like two cats.
"I beg your pardon," I said, feeling my face heat.
"Do you need something, Mr. Booth?" said Mr. Stapleton--politely but clearly in exasperation.
"I, er ... that is ... fresh air?"
The look on Mrs. Hilliard's face indicated that she was wondering if the museum had deliberately insulted her mother's memory by sending a mental deficient to take charge of the library. Mr. Stapleton merely stepped aside and politely waved me to the front door.
I felt their eyes on me every step of the way, and the silence in the front hall would have done justice to a mausoleum. They were arguing again before the door had latched behind me.
A great, grimed weight seemed to fall off my shoulders as I crossed the porch, and I felt myself grow lighter and cleaner with every step I took away from the house, as if the air were water washing away the black, sticky residue of that silly, spiteful, pointless quarrel. The gardens were beautiful, benevolently peaceful in the May sunshine, and the light breeze cooled my face, caressed my hands. For a quarter of an hour, I was able not to think about myself.
But then I had to return to the house. It was not, I must make clear, an ugly house: smart white clapboard with green trim, built by Mrs. Stapleton's father on the occasion of his marriage and conscientiously maintained ever since. It was not Otranto or Dracula's castle or some other Gothic splendor. But I dreaded it all the same. The shade of the porch had the chill of deep water, and stepping into the front hall was like stepping into an opium den, except that the noxious miasma of the Stapleton house was not tangible to eyes or nose or lungs.
At this point I caught up with my runaway imagination. First the vanity, now this. I had lost my temper, I told myself; there was no need to blame the house for my shortcomings. I went resolutely up the stairs, determined to shake off my morbid self-absorption and get our task completed.
Mr. Lucent was in the hallway outside the room in which we had been working. He burst into speech at the sight of me, as if he was afraid I would accuse him of shirking: "It's Miss Stapleton. She said she needed to look for something in her mother's armoire, and she wanted privacy for her search."
"Oh," I said. Sure enough, the door was shut, and I could hear movement from within the room. "What do you think she's looking for?"
"No idea," Mr. Lucent said and made a face. He lowered his voice. "I'm not even sure there is anything. I think she just--"
That was when Miss Stapleton screamed.
Mr. Lucent spun round and tried to open the door, but it had locked itself, as Miss Stapleton had warned me it would. Mr. Lucent rattled the knob ferociously, but to no avail. Miss Stapleton screamed again, and we heard a terrible creaking noise; the brutal percussion of a piece of furniture hitting the floor; and the sharp prolonged scatter of glass breaking.
Miss Stapleton was still screaming.
Mr. Lucent and I threw ourselves at the door. It gave way, sending us stumbling into the room, just as Martin Stapleton came racing up the stairs, closely followed by his two married sisters, Mrs. Hilliard and Mrs. Crosby.
"What happened?" he cried. "Was that Amelia--"
And then he came to the doorway and could see for himself.
Amelia Stapleton lay pinned beneath the vanity, which had toppled forward over its own weight in a way I would have been tempted to dismiss as impossible if it had not so clearly happened. She could not have done it herself.
She must have made a last-minute effort to save herself; only one leg was pinned by the vanity's full weight. The mirror frame lay awkwardly across her hips, but was too light to have done any serious damage. She was bleeding from a number of cuts caused by the broken glass that sparkled everywhere underfoot.
She had stopped screaming as the door gave way, but now she was moaning, and not from pain.
Her forearms were crossed over her face, and I could just make out her words: "her eyes ... her eyes ... her eyes ..." over and over again with the shrill monotony of a talking doll.
Mr. Stapleton took control of the situation immediately. He send his youngest sister, Mrs. Crosby, scurrying to telephone for a doctor, and his second sister, Mrs. Hilliard, to fetch water and smelling salts and bandages. Then he looked at Mr. Lucent and me and said, "I don't think we'd better move her, but would you help me lift this damn vanity?"
Between us, Mr. Lucent, Mr. Stapleton, and I succeeded in lifting the vanity and restoring it to its former position. It was not terribly heavy, nor was it (as I had subliminally expected) unpleasant to the touch, but it was astonishingly awkward, and even when we had gotten it upright, it seemed unsteady on its base, rocking back to pinch Mr. Lucent's fingers against the wall, trying to rock forward to fall on Miss Stapleton again.
Mr. Stapleton sighed. "My mother hated this thing, but she would never get rid of it." He knelt down beside his sister, catching her hands and drawing them away from her face, and began talking to her in a low, gentle voice. To avoid looking at Miss Stapleton's dull, glazed eyes, Mr. Lucent and I looked at the vanity. Without the mirror to define its purpose as the appointment of a well-to-do young woman's room, it looked like the altar of some dark and blood-hungry god.
"How do you suppose it happened?" Mr. Lucent whispered to me.
"I don't know. It doesn't look like it could."
"She pushed it," Miss Stapleton said, quite clearly.
"Who, Amelia?" said her brother.
"The girl in the mirror. The girl with no eyes. She said, 'Wait for me, Melly,' and the vanity tipped over." Miss Stapleton clutched at her brother's hands, and her tone grew pleading. "How did she know my name? Martin, how did she know my name?"
Mr. Stapleton looked helplessly at us, but we could not answer his sister's question either. We waited in oppressed silence until the doctor arrived.
With Mrs. Hilliard and Mrs. Crosby in anxious attendance, the doctor bore Miss Stapleton off to bed. Mr. Lucent and I assisted Mr. Stapleton in clearing up the broken glass; in return, he assisted us in carrying the boxes of his mother's books and papers down to Mr. Lucent's automobile. We did not want to stay in that room, that house, any more than he wanted our continued presence. Standing by the automobile, Mr. Stapleton assured us that if we found anything to be missing, he would bring it to the museum himself, and we offered awkward wishes for Miss Stapleton's swift recovery.
Suddenly, Mr. Lucent, who was facing the house, cried, "What is that?"
Mr. Stapleton and I turned hastily, but saw nothing.
"What is what?" said Mr. Stapleton.
"Nothing," said Mr. Lucent, although he was frowning. "I thought I saw someone in the window of the ... of that room. But there's no one there."
"I locked the door before I followed you down," said Mr. Stapleton. "But the window's open. You must have seen the curtains moving."
"Yes, of course. I'm sorry," Mr. Lucent said. We exchanged formal, stilted good-byes, and Mr. Stapleton returned to the house. Mr. Lucent and I watched him go.
"Who did you think you saw?" I asked when Mr. Stapleton had disappeared into the house and the door had closed behind him.
"A girl. Fair-haired, wearing a pale blue dress. Very, um, shadowy about the eyes."
"... And do you think it was the curtains?"
Mr. Lucent said nothing for a long moment, struggling with it. Then he said simply, "No."
We returned to the museum in uneasy silence.
I had dumped the diaries in the corner of my office and forgotten about them. But that passage, that cheap superstitious rubbish about ghosts and mirrors, had reawakened the memories and with them an unhappy curiosity. I put the facts in order, oppressed with fatigue and that faint, peculiar, sourceless fear that wells up after midnight when one is entirely alone. Mildred Truelove Stapleton, her children asserted, had hated the vanity and believed the room in which it stood to be haunted. The vanity had almost killed Miss Stapleton, and both she and Mr. Lucent had seen something, something which they both described as a girl. Mildred Truelove Stapleton had had a sister who had died, and whose books she had kept until the end of her own life. My insomnia insisted there was a connection; my rational mind talked unconvincingly about coincidence and suggestibility. I wished, futilely but fiercely, that Mr. Lucent had taken the diaries himself.
I finished with the bound miscellany and looked at my watch. It was quarter past one. If there had been the slightest hope that I could have slept, I would have gone home and gladly. But, despite my fatigue, I was incontrovertibly awake; if I left, I knew I would only sit in my apartment and think about the diaries until I returned. Moreover, by that point in my reasoning, my conscience as an archivist had calculated how long those diaries had been sitting in that corner unheeded, and even in the midst of my dread and indecision, I was appalled.
I cleared off my desk by the simple expedient of adding everything on top of it to one or another of the piles that rendered my office floor all but impassable. I brought the box across to my desk, set it down on the floor, and opened it, taking the diaries out and placing them one by one on the desk. We had never, I remembered, properly inventoried the diaries; Mr. Lucent had only just begun to penetrate past the dates neatly written on their spines when Miss Stapleton had ousted him. That was something I could do--legitimate, purposeful. I got the necessary paraphernalia out of my desk drawer and began.
Mildred Truelove Stapleton had not kept a diary her entire life. The stroke she had suffered at age sixty-five had left her hands too palsied to write. She had continued to dictate poems, to her secretary, to her son, until her second stroke at seventy-three had made even that too taxing. But her diary writing came to an end with her ability to bend her hands to their appointed labor.
There were also long stretches of time (I discovered as I worked) when she had either made no entries or made entries so short that they were clearly token gestures. It would be a good project for one of the younger archivists (I thought and made a note of) to correlate those gaps with her working manuscripts and what else we knew of her life--the births of her children, her periodic separations from her husband and his eventual death--and see what pattern, if any, emerged. They might even get a monograph out of it. But at the moment, I was looking for something else.
Mildred Truelove Stapleton had begun her diary when she was thirteen; that first diary, bound in worn blue calfskin with DIARY stamped on the cover in flaking gilt, was inscribed on its inside cover, Mildred Caroline Truelove, in a tremendously ornamental hand which mercifully did not extend into the diary entries themselves.
She wrote in the diary at first as if she were writing letters to a girl of her own age, recording in a breathless gush details about her family, her friends, her schoolwork. She even explained how her godmother had given her the diary for her thirteenth birthday and exhorted her to write in it every day (carefully underlined in thirteen-year-old Mildred's careful copperplate), which Mildred had promised faithfully to do. Father says that since they know I am a Budding Authoress, he and Mother will look forward to discovering what I feel worthy to be written down. And that, I thought, explains the gush.
That bright, impenetrable surface was maintained for a little less than a year, until (I gathered) both Mildred and her parents had grown rather bored with her diary. There was a hiatus of four months, and when Mildred resumed, it was in a very different mood.
I have read in books (she wrote, almost broodingly) of diaries which people keep and do not show to anyone else. I think I should like this to be that sort of diary. I shall have to hide it from Georgy, because she will read it and tattle, but I know a place she won't think to look.
From that point on, the diary became a more honest and helpful vehicle. Tentatively at first, then with greater confidence, Mildred Truelove began to write about herself without censoring her real opinions. The differences at first were minimal; I could see that the sunny enthusiasm of her first entries had not been hypocrisy or even conscious deceit, simply, through anxiety to please, an exaggeration of those qualities in her which her parents found most acceptable. She wrote sadly about her growing realization that Georgiana was their father's favorite, crossly about her wish that her parents would not insist on reading every play, story, and poem she wrote. As she became more honest with herself, her writing matured, so that one could catch glimpses of what would emerge from its chrysalis as a poet's genius.
Knowing that Georgiana had died young and was thus the prime contender for Miss Stapleton's "girl without eyes," I paid particular attention to Mildred's remarks concerning her sister.
Before her death, Georgiana featured in Mildred's diary mostly as an irritant. She was three years younger than Mildred, blonde and charming and pretty. Their father spoiled her, their mother cosseted her "delicate sensibilities" and took an inventive joy in dressing her which she had never displayed toward Mildred. Georgiana was adept at getting Mildred to do what she wanted, either by pretty pleading, threats to bear tales to their father, or deploying their parents with the cunning of a Machiavel. And her tantrums were the terror of the household. The picture that emerged from Mildred's entries was of a pretty, charming, willful child, who was accustomed to get her own way with the confidence of an empress.
Georgiana died on June ninth of the year she was fourteen and Mildred seventeen (recorded in small, lifeless handwriting: Today my sister Georgiana died). For many months after that, Mildred made no entries in her diary at all, and when she resumed, it was at first without reference to the tragedy. I waded through several weeks' worth of long, chatty entries that reminded me forcibly and sadly of thirteen-year-old Mildred's diamond-plated gush. And then, on May third of the year following Georgiana's death, the entry consisted solely of the sentence: I saw Georgiana again this afternoon.
There were no entries for a week after that, and when she next wrote, on the eleventh, her writing was very even, very calm, and filled with a desperate anguish that echoed chillingly for me with the sonnet sequence she would write when she was in her forties, called Prayers for the Trapped.
I know that I see Georgiana [she wrote]. I am not dreaming, not hallucinating, not indulging in flights of fancy. This morning as I was pinning up my hair, she was standing behind me in the mirror, looking exactly as she did on the day she died, except that now her eyes are nothing more than hollow sockets.
She smiled at me--although it was not her true smile, only the charming fake which served her purpose most of the time--and said, very softly and very clearly, "Wait for me, Milly." When I turned around, there was no one there, as I knew there would not be.
I cannot tell my parents. And I am afraid that anyone else in whom I confided--if they believed me at all--would say it is a judgment, that it proves my guilt in Georgiana's death.
Maybe they would be right.
After reading that entry, I had to leave my office and walk up and down the corridors until the crawling gooseflesh on my arms and back subsided. There was the girl Miss Stapleton had seen, complete--or incomplete--in every detail. Even the same words. And somehow it did not surprise me that the girl who had smiled a fake smile at Mildred Truelove fifty-nine years ago would try to kill Mildred's daughter now. But I still did not know why Georgiana was hostile, nor where Mildred's alleged guilt lay, and in the end it was my infernal curiosity, my overmastering need to resolve conundrums and mysteries into logic and truth, that drove me back to the diaries.
After May eleventh, Mildred's calm, despairing prose recorded a series of encounters with Georgiana in mirrors and incidents of hearing her voice in the hall outside her room--which had been left unchanged since her death--crying, Wait for me, Milly. There was no escalation at first, merely this relentless haunting. On May twenty-ninth, Mildred recorded with grim amusement one of her friends asking her why she avoided her reflection in shop windows. I did not tell her that it was not my reflection I sought to avoid, although she admitted that she had never seen or heard Georgiana outside the Truelove house.
Then on June ninth, the anniversary of Georgiana's death, the haunting burst into bloom like a upas-tree. To please her parents, Mildred had agreed to spend some time alone in Georgiana's room, as if it were a meditation chapel. My distaste grew for the Trueloves père and mère. I could not tell what Mildred's feeling were; she merely recorded their request and her obedience, her attention being focused somewhere else.
She had gone into Georgiana's room and sat down on the bed. The maids dusted and changed the sheets once a week, so the room was, as Mildred put it, dead, but not corrupted, like an Egyptian pharaoh.
I sat there for I suppose ten minutes [she wrote], and I was just wondering if that was enough to please Father when I heard Georgiana, much more loudly than I had ever heard her before, though she said nothing different.
I got up to leave, no longer caring whether I pleased Father or not. If I had thought about what I was doing for even a moment, I swear I would have crawled out of that room on my hands and knees. Standing, as I started toward the door, I passed directly in front of Georgiana's vanity, and my peripheral vision caught her shape in the mirror.
I cannot explain why I turned to face her, except that she was my sister and it was I whom she wanted. I looked in the mirror; she stood just to one side and slightly behind me as she always did, wearing the dress she had died in, her fair hair gleaming, and her eyes an abysm.
"I'm here, Georgy," I said.
I do not know if she heard me; I do not know if she perceives anything of the living present of this house. She said, "Wait for me, Milly," as always, and her face wore its same simpering mask.
It was worse somehow in the vanity mirror--perhaps because it had been Georgy's mirror, and I had seen her living reflection in it so many times. Or perhaps, now that I think about it, it was her mirror in some other sense.
As I stood there, staring, the vanity began to rock.
It had always been unstable, and I still think that was why she fell as she did. But now it was rocking, like the table at one of my mother's horrid séances, and when Georgiana said again, "Wait for me, Milly," it hit me all at once what she meant, what she wanted, and what she was about to do. I ran from the room like a rabbit, kicking the doorstop aside in my panic. I heard the door shut and lock behind me, as it always does now that Georgiana is dead. But I did not hear the vanity crash to the floor, so I shall be spared attempting an explanation to my parents. I locked myself in my own room, where I have cried now for an hour and a half. I had not realized before that she wants me to be dead, too. I will not go in her room again.
Here the writing changed, becoming wobbly, hesitant, fully of blots, although the prose remained as stately and clear as ever. The contrast was worse than a babble of unfinished and unconnected sentences would have been.
Later--I underestimated Georgiana's cunning, as I always did. Or perhaps she simply had a tantrum; she could never bear to be thwarted.
Father has just been in, and I have been accused of every sin in the calendar, right up to the edge of murder. I knew he thought I had as good as pushed Georgiana out that window, because he could not face blaming himself--or her. But I did not understand before that he thinks I would have pushed her if I'd had the chance. Father and I have never been truly amiable, but now I am afraid we are beginning to hate each other.
He had been in Georgiana's room and found it in chaos. Her books had been dragged off the shelves and thrown across the room; her bed had been violently unmade; every bottle and knickknack which had stood on her vanity had been knocked to the floor and broken. He had heard me, he said, run out of the room and slam the door behind me, and since only he, Mother, and I have keys (had, I should say, for he made me give him mine), he knew none of the servants was to blame.
And then he stood and looked at me in that vile way of his, more in sorrow than in anger, a man more sinned against than sinning, and waited for me to explain myself.
There was nothing I could say. He would not believe any protestation of innocence, and the macabre impulse to say, "Georgy did it," as I had said so many times in the past, I luckily recognized as incipient hysteria and did not yield to. In the end, I said only, "I am sorry," which was true, and Father shook his head sadly and left, saying that he would have to discuss with Mother and Rev. Braithwaite what was the best course of action. I am left feeling very much like a Christian martyr awaiting the lions--assuming that the martyrs were angry and guilty and nauseated with fright.
I wonder what he would do to me if I broke my mirror.
After this bleak and frightening entry, there was another, longer hiatus; in fact, that diary volume had been abandoned altogether. When Mildred resumed her diary nearly three years later, it was as a junior at Radcliffe, and her entries concerned themselves with her classwork, her poetry, her circle of friends. She recorded her dreams carefully. But she did not write about her sister or her parents or the house she clearly no longer lived in. Nor did she write about what had happened in the intervening years. I thought that she was laboring to recreate herself, and I, who had never managed to do as much, admired her for it.
I skimmed rapidly through the next several years; it was almost four o'clock, and at six I would have to go home and shower and shave in order to be presentable for the museum staff. Mildred began to publish her poems, graduated from Radcliffe, met and married Vincent Stapleton. She mentioned her mother's death in passing, with no details--although, to be fair, she gave scarcely more space to the birth of her first child, Amelia.
When Amelia was three, and Mildred's second child, Martin, an infant, Mr. Truelove died, leaving Mildred sole heir to his estate. She wrote sardonically that although her father had become more friendly toward her after the birth of his first grandchild, she believed that the will was intended primarily to spite her Uncle John, who had been assuming odiously and loudly for years that the estate would go to his son, Mildred's cousin Frederick Truelove.
The Stapleton family fortunes were at that point fairly rocky, as Vincent Stapleton was proving himself to have no head for finance; thus they were profoundly grateful both for the money and for a house large enough to contain their growing family. Mildred had a long, anxious, conflicted entry about the house, in the course of which it transpired that she now, some ten years after her encounter with Georgiana's ghost, believed--or was trying very hard to believe--that she had suffered a nervous breakdown and that this was somehow vaguely all right, because it was the sort of thing one expected of poets. It was unusually woolly thinking from Mildred, although she ended the entry by saying clearly and firmly, although without antecedents: I shall not put anyone in her room.
They moved into the Truelove house, and it began its long metamorphosis into the Stapleton house. There were no incidents. Mildred remained adamant about not using Georgiana's room, and as I skimmed years of entries about poetry and children and finances, I wondered if Amelia Stapleton had simply had the bad luck to be the first person to look in that mirror since Mildred had fifty-nine years previously.
Martha was born, and then Charlotte; Mildred's poetry began to attract critical attention; she quarreled with Vincent, forgave him, quarreled with him again. Such stupid arguments, she wrote drearily at one point, and I thought of Mr. Lucent and myself arguing in the bedroom, Mr. Stapleton and Mrs. Hilliard arguing in the front hall, the constant bickering and spite we had witnessed all that week between the Stapleton heirs. I had assumed the bad feeling had been caused by the fight over the will, but now I was not so sure.
But there was no mention of Georgiana (as I skimmed more and more rapidly, knowing I would have to leave soon and that if I put the diaries aside now I would never find the nerve to come back to them) until a day in mid-April the year that Amelia was thirteen. Then Mildred wrote, veering abruptly out of a dreamy essay on her garden greeting the dawn:
At breakfast, Amelia was complaining about her little sisters [Martha being at that time eight and Charlotte six]. I wasn't paying a great deal of attention--Amelia is always complaining about something, poor lamb--until she said emphatically that she was tired of waiting for them to finish buttoning their boots, and she wasn't going to wait for them any more, no matter how loudly they screeched down the hall after her.
"But we didn't!" Martha said indignantly, and Charlotte shook her head so vigorously that her curls momentarily resembled the aureole of a dandelion.
"You little liars! I heard you!" And she mimicked viciously, "Wait for me, Melly! Wait for me, Melly!"
I intervened then--much too sharply, I am afraid--and made them talk about something else. I don't think I finished my breakfast, although I may have; I simply have no memory of it. After the children were safely in Miss Underwood's care, I went and stood in the hallway outside that bedroom and listened for a long time, but heard nothing. Maybe Martha was lying; maybe it is just a coincidence. I hope so. But no power on earth could make me open that door.
I stared at that entry for a long cold moment, and then had a sudden moment of insight, almost an epiphany. I knew that if Mildred had ever written frankly about Georgiana, there was only one date worth checking. I flipped ahead to June ninth:
She died of being locked in a room.
That is melodramatic and not strictly accurate, but it is what comes to me when I think of Georgiana's death. There are all sorts of other causes and explanations, but for me, in the end, she died because that door was locked.
It was the day of the annual Episcopalian Youth Circle picnic, as young people from all the parishes in the diocese gathered together to flirt, and to play croquet, and to paddle on the river if they were so inclined. Georgiana had been excited about it for weeks because it meant a whole new crop of boys for her to flirt with. She had been particularly bumptious all morning--"bumptious" was Nanny's word and Nanny had been the only person who could deal with Georgiana when she was like that. Mother murmured ineffectually; Father all but encouraged her. She and I fought like cats and dogs.
But that June 9th she provoked Father at lunch. I can't remember what she said; I have merely this shatteringly clear memory of the expression on her face, that bright, sparkling look she got when she knew she was being naughty and was going to get away with it--because she always got away with it.
Except that time she didn't. She must have said something that Father felt threatened his authority--I wish I could remember what she said, but I just can't. He became towering in his wrath--a pose he was fond of but usually only got to exercise on me--and forbade Georgiana to go to the Youth Circle picnic.
Georgiana was almost never punished or scolded, and she was never forbidden things. She went white with shock, and then she exploded. She pitched the worst tantrum she'd ever pitched, but Father was practically in a tantrum himself, and the upshot of it all was Father locking her in her room "to think about her behavior." By the time I came upstairs to change my dress, she had quit screaming.
As I passed her bedroom door, she said, "Milly?"
"Don't go yet. If you wait an hour, Father will change his mind."
She spoke with absolute confidence, and although I wish I didn't, I still remember how angry it made me. "And let you wiggle out of a richly deserved punishment again?" I said. "I'm not waiting."
As I went into my own room, I could hear her calling after me, "Milly, wait for me! You have to! Milly, please, wait for me!"
She tried again when I went back downstairs to leave, but that time I didn't even answer. I drew on my gloves in the front hall, collected my sunshade, and went out to the pony-trap, feeling a spiteful, self-righteous satisfaction that this time Georgiana would not get what she wanted.
Patrick had clucked the pony into motion when we heard Georgiana shriek, "Wait for me, Milly!"
I turned around and saw her halfway out her window. I think it was something she had done before; she did not seem the least bit awkward, and she even had her petticoats under control. I remember wondering, outraged, what she had been sneaking out of the house to do. We never found out.
Patrick and I were both staring as if we had been turned to stone. I have tried and tried to think of something we could have done, some way I could have saved her. But I know that the only thing I could have done was wait for her when she asked me to. The accident was beyond my power to stop, governed only by the simple brutality of physics. All at once, Georgiana's body tipped outward. I think she must have been balanced on her vanity while she worked her skirts through the aperture, and it simply shifted like a seesaw. She scrabbled for a moment, but it was already too late. She fell.
My poet's brain can't help comparing her to Icarus and Lucifer, both of whom fell because of their pride. But the truth is simply that she fell like a fourteen-year-old girl. She broke her neck and died.
I have never forgiven my father for saying I should have waited as she wanted me to--for admitting, in effect, that she was right and the erection of his wrath would simply have collapsed in another hour. But maybe he was right. Perhaps my resentment of his words is nothing more than spite and selfishness. Maybe that is why Georgiana haunted me. Maybe that is why she is still in the house, why she is now haunting Amelia.
I cannot delude myself any longer. The voice Amelia complains of belongs to neither of her sisters. And I am terribly afraid she mishears it. Georgiana isn't saying, "Wait for me, Melly." She is still, all these years later, saying, "Wait for me, Milly." But she no longer recognizes me as her sister, I suppose because I did not wait for her. I am a grown woman now and Georgiana is still and immutably fourteen, left behind for all eternity.
I have all three keys to Georgiana's room, and I have hidden them where I used to hide my diary from Georgiana. She never found it, although I know she looked, so I feel reasonably confident that if Amelia ever takes it into her head to look, she will not find the keys. She is safe from the vanity.
But Georgiana is not confined to the vanity. I remember her appearing in my bedroom mirror. How am I to answer when Amelia tells me there is a blonde girl with no eyes smiling at her in her mirror?
And then there is this newest development.
I have not slept tonight; I have felt feverishly, painfully alert since dinner this evening, when Amelia demanded indignantly that I make Martha and Charlotte stay out of her room. They denied the allegation, and I feel sure that they are telling the truth, because when I asked Amelia why she thought they had been trespassing, she said, with that withering scorn she has such a gift for: "They left this on my bed," and gave me Georgiana's copy of Robinson Crusoe, which has been on her bookshelf for twenty years, in her room, behind her locked door.
I cannot sacrifice Amelia to Georgiana's haunting persecution. And there are Martha and Charlotte; I cannot wait passively for them to cross Georgiana's personal Rubicon. I think that I should sell the house, but I cannot do it. We cannot afford a new house of the necessary size. And I could never explain to Vincent and the children why I want to leave a house which they all love. And what would I say to the buyers?
I am making excuses. The truth is that Georgiana is my sister, and I bear responsibility for her death. I must protect my daughters from her, but I cannot abandon her. Mirelle Forbes sends her daughters to a boarding school with which she is very pleased. Tomorrow--later this morning--I will ask her for its address. Martin can bear me company; she will not care about him, either.
And maybe if I am very patient, Georgy will speak to me again, and I can tell her I am sorry I did not wait.
I put Mildred Truelove Stapleton's diaries carefully back in their box, carefully put the box back in the corner, and walked home in a daze of sleeplessness and nerves.
I showered, shaved, forced down a piece of dry toast I did not want, and drank two cups of strong tea. Then I walked back to the Parrington, and in the intervals of trying to conduct the museum's business properly, I drafted a letter to Martin Stapleton.
Mr. Stapleton's reply to my letter was prompt and courteous, and two weeks after I stayed up all night with his mother's diaries, we were seated together in the library of the Stapleton house.
He offered me a drink, which I declined, and said, "I'm afraid I don't quite understand your purpose here, Mr. Booth. You said you found something in my mother's diaries?"
"Yes. Er, are you using that room for anything?"
"The room where Amelia ... No. I find that I have inherited my mother's antipathy to it."
"Good. I think it would be simplest ... that is, would you read the marked entry?" I handed him his mother's diary, with the last entry I had read marked by an old index card.
His quizzical expression said that he was humoring me, but he opened the diary and began to read.
After the first few lines, he looked up at me.
"Go on," I said.
He did, frowning, and read the rest of the entry in silence. Then he closed the diary gently and handed it back to me.
"That's very interesting," he said, with only the slightest hint of shrillness in his voice.
"Do you believe it?"
"Amelia is still in a rest home in Vermont. She is in many ways a silly woman, but she has always had nerves of steel and no imagination to speak of. She has not altered her story. So, yes, I am prepared--if not quite willing--to believe that this house is haunted."
"There's an earlier entry ... your mother describes the same thing happening to her except ... that is, she ran out of the room before it, er--"
"Yes. But ... your mother seemed positive that the ghost only noticed girls of a certain age. So it's odd that your sister ..."
"Ah, yes," said Mr. Stapleton with a twisted smile. "Amelia Stapleton, the Girl who Never Grew Up."
"Oh," I said, thinking of Miss Stapleton's hair and clothes and demeanor. "So you think ... ?"
"Amelia never really recovered from being sent away to school--and so suddenly, although now at least I understand why Mother did it. Martha and Charlotte were no trouble--they loved that school--but Amelia ... Amelia seems to have viewed being sent to school as a tragedy comparable to the expulsion from Eden, and she has spent most of her life trying to reinvoke her prelapsarian state. In her own mind, Amelia is a teenage girl. I told you she was a silly woman."
I thought I understood. Amelia Stapleton had frozen herself in a kind of artificial girlhood which apparently resonated with the ghost of Georgiana Truelove. In fact, I saw a dreadful symmetry between the two: both of them unable to grow up, both of them preserved like insects in amber at this point of trauma, where their lives ended--Miss Stapleton's only metaphorically, but Georgiana Truelove's with a most dreadful literality.
"In any event," Mr. Stapleton said, shaking me out of this unsettling reverie, "all that sordid arguing over the will started because Amelia was infuriated that Mother didn't leave her the house. I wonder if Mother guessed."
"Surely she would have ..."
"Said something? Mother was in her right mind up until the end, but after her first stroke, she became increasingly secretive, poor woman, and after her second stroke, it became very difficult for her to talk. But she'd kept that secret so long, I don't think there's a power on earth that could have made her confess it."
I heard an echo of his mother in his speech. "What do you want to do?"
"Refuse entry to all teenage girls," he said promptly.
"Hardly practicable as, er, a long-term solution."
"No," he said and quoted his mother softly, "'What would I tell the buyers?'"
I did not know how to answer him and so remained awkwardly silent.
Mr. Stapleton sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "May I keep this diary a while? I shall have to tell Martha and Charlotte, and I very much fear that they will not accept my unsupported word."
I thought of Mrs. Hilliard and Mr. Stapleton arguing in the front hall. "Yes, of course."
"And I think ... Mr. Booth, will you help me do something?"
"I have been thinking for months that I ought to get rid of that vanity, but I haven't been able to think of anyone who would take it off my hands. But suddenly I find that has ceased to be a consideration. I would not pass this monstrosity on even to my worst enemy. I'll need some help getting it down the stairs."
"It would, er, be my pleasure," I said, and he laughed at my feeble joke.
He took the keys to the bedroom out of his desk drawer--I noticed that like his mother he had collected all three of them--and we went upstairs.
Maybe it was only because now I knew, but I still believe I felt Georgiana in the hallway. That fretful anger, that smoldering resentment--that was what was left of Georgiana Truelove.
"I'm glad you're with me," said Mr. Stapleton, and unlocked the door.
The atmosphere in the room was much worse, stifling with dust and rage. By mutual consent, achieved in a glance, Mr. Stapleton and I did not speak, knowing that if we opened our mouths, it would only be to quarrel.
As I had remembered, the vanity was not terribly heavy, only tremendously awkward. It pinched our fingers and barked our shins. It took us nearly fifteen minutes to get it through the doorway, and we were both bruised and exasperated by the time we managed it. And although I am and admit myself to be clumsy, this time it was not my fault.
We wrestled the vanity down the hall, banging against the walls and rucking up the rug. We stopped a moment at the top of the stairs to catch our breath, then hefted the vanity again and started down.
The first set of stairs posed no particular problem, although the vanity showed a perverse genius for catching its legs in the posts of the bannister. We were about a third of the way down the stairs from the second to first floors, trying to get the vanity around the curve of the staircase, when it simply wallowed out of our hands, slamming me against the wall so hard that I saw stars, and Mr. Stapleton against the bannister hard enough to knock the wind out of him. We watched helplessly as it careened down the stairs, caroming off the bannister and denting the walls, and smashed itself to kindling on the floor of the front hall. I thought how lucky we were that it had not taken either of us with it.
There was a long silence, in which we waited for something to happen and nothing did.
"Flimsy," Mr. Stapleton gasped.
"Yes." I rubbed the back of my head. "I fancy your mother was right about the, er--"
"Yes. I think so, too."
Slowly, like veterans of some obscure and arcane war, we hobbled down the stairs and stood looking at the splintered wreckage of Georgiana Truelove's vanity.
"I shall do as my mother did and keep that room locked."
"I think that would be wise."
"And I shall be very careful of my nieces when they come to visit. Martha and Charlotte will help--they are ... nicer than your exposure to them may have led you to believe."
"I'm glad," I said before I could stop myself, and he laughed ruefully.
"I will talk with them about Amelia. And the family has kept up my grandmother's spiritualist connections. We will work things out."
"I, er ... that is, I'm sure you will."
We stood for a moment; I hoped that the Stapletons would find a way to lay their spoiled, sad, angry ghost to rest.
Then Mr. Stapleton said, "Would you care to help me celebrate, Mr. Booth?"
"Oh, yes, of course. But celebrate what exactly?"
"November fifth," said Mr. Stapleton gravely. "Guy Fawkes Day."
It was November twentieth. I helped him carry the remains of the vanity out of the house, and we stood together and watched it burn. And if he felt the prickling sensation on the back of his neck, as I did, that there was something in the house behind us that did not love us, he did not speak of it, and the silence around us was as thick as the dust in Georgiana's room.
© Sarah Monette 2004 Feel free to link to this story, but please do not reproduce it without permission. "Wait for Me" first appeared in Naked Snake Online in September, 2004.