Ghost stories aren't just all thrills and chills I am coming to discover. At least not in the hands of an author like Edith Wharton. I checked out The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton this week, and not quite sure which story to begin with I started with the first, "The Lady's Maid's Bell". I'm afraid she's left me confused and slightly bewildered. I think I am in need of the library's "short story explicator" about now (one of our reference books). The story can be read online here if anyone would be interested in reading it and sharing your thoughts with me!
What I do know? Alice Hartley, a lady's maid, has recently been in the hospital suffering from typhoid fever. Now recovered, she is still pale and weakened and cannot find a place with any ladies to whom she's applied. They're too afraid to engage her. She's nearly penniless after her illness and when a friend suggests work at a large house in the country she agrees and the next day is on a train to a village on the Hudson.
She is to work as a lady's maid, almost a companion to a youngish lady, Mrs. Brympton. She lives year round in the country being something of an invalid. Hartley is told it is not a cheerful place, the house being rather gloomy, but the country air, the wholesome food and the early hours will be as beneficial to Hartley as they are to her employer. It may be dull there, but she won't be unhappy. Only, she's told to to stay out of the way of the gentleman, though he is rarely there.
Hartley arrives on a dull October day with rain hanging overhead. When the housemaid brings her up to her room she notices that there is a woman, dressed as a maid also, at the top of the stairs and the door across from her room is open. The housemaid doesn't appear to notice her, and she seems annoyed that the door is left open when it is meant to be locked. So here is the first inkling that thing's in the Brympton household aren't what they should be. The room across from Hartley's used to be occupied by the former lady's maid, Emma Saxton, who was beloved by her employer but died. Since her death they've not been able to keep a lady's maid as they all leave after a few days. More inklings of strangeness? Hartley is told that bells are not used in the household. When Mrs. Brympton needs her, another servant will call for her.
Mrs. Brympton is a fair and likable employer. She seems to like her solitude and isolation and spends many hours reading. A neighbor, Mr. Ranford, is one of the few visitors and comes often. He will spend hours reading to her. This doesn't appear unusual, and Mr. Brympton seems to be great friends with Ranford when he's there. When Mr. Brympton is there, however, the rest of the household becomes very uncomfortable and everyone behaves just slightly more cautiously. Mr. Brympton is of a taciturn nature and it's obvious the relationship between him and his wife is tense.
Several things happen to Hartley that make her uneasy about her situation. Late one night the bell rings in her room and she thinks she hears the sound of a woman's footsteps outside of her room. It's a sound she's not heard in the house, so it comes as a surprise and a shock. When she goes to her mistress, Mr. Brympton asks, "How many of you are there, in God's name?" and she's told she's not needed. Mrs. Brympton lies weak and seems to be in a trance like state and tells her she's been dreaming. Later Hartley meets up with a woman she knew in previous household and she tells her that no one lasts there long and she shouldn't even bother unpacking her bags. Hartley also comes across a photograph of Emma Saxton, and this is the woman that she saw on the stairs on her first day, the same woman no one seems willing to talk about.
So you see things are very strange in the Brympton household. I don't want to give away the ending and ruin it for anyone, but my questions all arise from what happens next. I don't believe the ghost in the story is a malevolent one, but her actions and what they mean are opaque to me. Maybe what Hartley sees isn't even real considering she, too, was ill. This reminds me of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, another story that left me with more questions than answers. Although I read Wharton's The Glimpses of the Moon earlier this year, it's been ages since I read any other books by Wharton and I don't remember that her stories were so hard to understand. Maybe she has left the ending open to the reader's own interpretation? I think a second reading of this one might be in order.