I know I should probably move on to a different ghost story by Edith Wharton (as she wrote enough of them to be collected in one book), and perhaps I will before the weekend's finished, but I had to see if a second read of "The Lady's Maid's Bell" was equally perplexing the second time around as the first! It has been widely anthologized I believe, but I have a copy of The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton out from the library at the moment, so I'll see if the preface sheds any light on things as well.
First let me set the scene. The story takes place in the dull month of October and is told in first person by a lady's maid called Hartley who is recovering from typhoid fever. She manages to find a new situation through a friend of her old employer. The friend, Mrs. Railton, has a niece who lives in the country as she is in frail health having lost her two children and being much alone. Her husband is often away on business, and when he is there, Hartley is instructed to simply stay out of his way. The niece is nervous and vaporish and no doubt influenced by the quiet and living in a big, gloomy house.
Mrs. Brympton's former maid died several months earlier after having served her mistress for over twenty years, though we never discover the circumstances surrounding her death. Hartley barely steps foot in the house before she sees "a thin woman with a white face, and a dark gown and apron" who gives her the once over, but no one else seems to notice the woman. Across from Hartley's room is an empty room that is meant to be kept locked at all times, but sits open as Hartley makes her way to her new quarters for the first time. The room was Emma Saxon's, Mrs. Brympton's former maid.
A number of things strike Hartley as peculiar when she begins to see how the household works despite getting on well with the other servants and finding her mistress to be a pleasant woman. Mrs. Brympton never uses a bell to call Hartley, rather she calls the housemaid who then sends her to her mistress. There is no nursemaid, which Hartley finds odd. She thought the pale woman in the passage was the nurse. And no one will tell her where the lady's maid's room is. Hartley happens to be occupying the sewing room and not the actual bedroom. And stranger, everyone is mum about why the household is managed in such an unorthodox way.
Mr. Brympton seems very bully-ish. He prefers city life with its excitement to the solitude of the country. Hartley describes him as "a big fair bull-necked man, with a red face and little bad-tempered blue eyes: the kind of man a young simpleton might have thought handsome, and would have been like to pay dear for thinking it".
"After Mrs. Brympton left the table he would sit half the night over the old Brympton port and medeira, and once, as I was leaving my mistress' room rather later than usual, I met him on the stairs in such a state that I turned sick to think of what some ladies have to endure and hold their tongues about."
It's obvious those below-stairs don't like him and when he comes to stay the tone and atmosphere becomes highly charged with fear and unease. It's a little curious how the couple ever ended up together, but perhaps their marriage was arranged and not to Mrs. Brympton's benefit. She seems much better suited for a man of intellectual sensibilities, much like their neighbor Mr. Ranford who's a friend of both Mrs. and Mr. Brympton.
As if there weren't enough oddities about the Brympton household, things become frightening for Hartley. The lady's maid's bell begins ringing deep into the night and Hartley hears bumps and the door opening and closing in the room across the way. 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. I think Emma Saxon is trying to tell Hartley something.
I won't give the ending away, but like my first reading of the story I do think the ending is somewhat opaque. Wharton leaves it up to the reader to decide and sort things out. This time around (and Possible Spoilers here) I think I have an idea of what's going on, though it is my own interpretation of the story so might be well off the mark. I think the ghost Emma Saxon is real and that she is indeed trying to warn Hartley that something terrible is going to happen to her mistress. The connection between them was strong when Emma was alive, and now it continues even in death. Perhaps Mrs. Brympton is being unfaithful with her neighbor Mr. Ranford, a man much more sympathetic than her husband and probably someone easier to love and find comfort in considering Mrs. Brympton's situation. Emma tries to warn them that her husband is aware that something is going on and is trying to catch them out. Now why everyone was acting so strange when Hartley first arrived and why the lady's maid's bell is no longer used (had it been ringing before? had the other servants seen Emma's ghost, but been too afraid understand why she was there?) is something I've not yet figured out. But knowing Edith Wharton I bet the story has something to do with relationships and infidelity! (End of Spoilers).
Rachel read this story earlier this year and had the same initial reaction I did, but I see from the comments on the post, that perhaps my ideas this time around are not too wrong. Has anyone else read this? Any thoughts? As ghost stories go, it isn't one that will have you cowering (or too afraid to pop down to your basement to pull the clean laundry out of the dryer), but Wharton's work is always good, so it's one I highly recommend whether you're a fan of ghost stories or not!