Authors: Elizabeth Daly
T MIGHT HAVE
been an empty house. The windows were all shuttered, the columns on either side of the small portico were defaced by scribblings in red chalk and pencil, the white front door needed a coat of paint. Dust, and dead leaves from one of the little trees that struggled for existence along the avenue, had blown against the sill, which was almost flush with the street.
The house seemed to have two front entrances, one above the other; a not uncommon sight even on Park Avenue since the days when all these dwellings had lost their high stoops in the interests of city development. They had been remodeled in various ways, and this house in the quickest, cheapest and easiest wayâby constructing a new front door in place of a basement window, closing up the old storm doors above, and placing an ornamental rail around the old original doorstep; thus simulating a little balcony.
Gamadge, looking up at the dark front windows in the twilight of the December afternoon, guessed that Miss Paxton, temporarily residing there as a sort of honorary agent and caretaker, used back rooms for the sake of quiet. But he reflected, looking up and down the avenue, that this was as quiet a stretch as you could find in New York; far uptown, with private housesâsome of them emptyâon both sides of the way.
This house would soon be really empty too; empty and for sale. Miss Paxton, as described to Gamadge by his wife, wasn't the kind of old lady who would approve of neglect and dinginess, but perhaps she didn't feel like spending the owner's money on outdoor work for the short time she would be living here, and she herself had very little money of her own to spend on anything.
He looked at his watch. Almost five o'clock, time for his call. He wasn't to ring, he remembered; Miss Paxton had said over the telephone that she would leave the front door on the latch for him. She didn't much like stairs, and the daily woman was deaf.
He had protested a little over this arrangement, but she had sensibly asked him who would know that that particular door was going to be on the latch for an hour on that Tuesday afternoon? Did sneak thieves, even in New York, go up and down all day trying door knobs? He had agreed with her that they probably didn't, but he had privately wished that she had somebody with her in the house besides a part-time char.
Miss Julia Paxton, an old friend of his wife's family, was a resident of Tarrytown. Of late years she had come very seldom to New York. She had called up that morning to tell the Gamadges that she was in town closing up a house for some Western relatives, and that she would like very much to see Clara again, and to meet Clara's husband. All her old friends in New York had died or gone away, and she didn't know anybody there but the Gamadges any more. Clara was South, and Gamadge had thought it only decent to pay the call himself.
He opened the door, locked the latch, and shut himself into a dark, bare hallway. There was a closed door to his right, a closed door at the farther end of the passage, and a stairway on his left. This had been the basement once, but money had been spent on it, at least, after the remodeling; the floor was laid in gray mosaic, and the walls handsomely papered in gray and gold.
As he reached the foot of the stairs the part-time woman began to descend them, laden with brushes, mop and pail. She saw Gamadge, peered at him through the gloom, and stood aside for him to pass. A person too deaf to answer doorbells shows no interest in visitorsâthey are not her job. A long-faced, sallow, elderly creature, with wisps of gray hair over her forehead and the hedged-in look of the deaf, she stood as if stooped with the exhaustion of the day's end. Her working dress conformed to the stoop by rising in the back to show a dismal inch of slip or petticoat.
Gamadge said loudly: “Miss Paxton expects me.”
“Miss Paxton expects me.”
“Yes, sir? First floor back.”
Gamadge passed her, getting an aroma of soap and metal polish. Questionable indeed, he thought, would any shape have to be in order to get a challenge from the cleaning woman.
The hall light went on, and a pleasant old voice greeted him from the landing:
“Mr. Gamadge, this
nice of you. I'm sorry I let you come in into the dark, but I never remember how little light there is in a city house.”
Gamadge shook hands with Miss Paxton, who was very trim in a black-and-white print dress. He said: “It was nice of you to call up. Clara will be awfully sorry to miss you, but she and the infant had a touch of flu, and I made her take him South for the cold weather.”
“I haven't seen her for years; such a lovely girl.” She led the way across a hall hung with pictures, into a large back room that had a look of being more formal than its furniture. Its shutters were closed, and a round table between the windows held a shaded lamp; it also held writing materials, books and magazines, Miss Paxton's handbag, her workbag, and a heap of knitting.
“Do sit down and make yourself comfortable.” Miss Paxton indicated a chair opposite her own, beside which was a little table set out with a decanter and glasses. The glasses were sherry glasses; a cake basket held cakes and cookies.
“I want to look at you.” Settled in her chair, she fixed a friendly gaze on him through steel spectacles. Gamadge, returning the gaze, saw an alert wrinkled face, perceptive blue eyes. She saw a thinnish, tallish, green-eyed man of forty who looked amiable.
“Well!” said Miss Paxton. “So this is Clara Dawson's husband. She wrote me that you had a beautiful disposition.”
“So has she. That's why we married each other.”
“People don't marry for such sensible reasons. She didn't tell me much about your little boy.”
“She couldn't; the child's indescribable. Has a thoughtful expression when he looks at you that I don't half like.” Gamadge glanced about him. “You seem very comfortable here, Miss Paxton.”
“I am, very. James Ashburyâthat's the second cousin who now owns the house, you knowâwrote me that I was to treat the place as if it were my own. Well, I sent him all the wine and spirits that were in the cellar, but I took the liberty of using up what was opened and in the sideboard. Do have some sherryâit's very good. Pour a glass for me and for yourself, and help yourself to cake.”
Gamadge did as he was told.
“I hope you don't depend on tea in the afternoon,” said Miss Paxton. “I never did drink it.”
Gamadge, handing her her glass and the cake basket, said that sherry was just what he needed.
When they were both served he asked how long she had been in town.
“I came the week after Thanksgiving, November twenty-eighth. I closed up my little old house in Tarrytown and came down for the winterâit will take me a long time to get this job done. I'm getting rid of all the things James didn't want sent out to him in California, you know. At least I'm going to get rid of them.”
“How lucky he was to persuade you to do such a complicated, tiresome thing.”
“I'm the lucky one.” Miss Paxton sipped sherry. “I've always been very intimate with the family, especially with my cousin Lawson, James' father, who owned the house and died here last Spring. I really know the place, and the things in it. I shall enjoy the work. Such a nice change, too, and a warm, comfortable city house. And I go to the movies; right around the corner, or almost. Oh, I'm having quite a holiday.”
The cleaning woman appeared at the arched entrance from the hall. She was now wearing a large felt hat perched high on her head, and an ulster which had seen better days and was a little short for her. She said: “Excuse me, Miss Paxton, I'm going now. Do you want me to pick up anything for you on my way here tomorrow?”
“No, thank you, Mrs. Keate,” said Miss Paxton, in an amiable shout.
The cleaning woman turned and went across the hall to the stairs.
Gamadge said: “I hope she's here with you all day. I wish she were with you at night, too.”
“Oh dear no; from three to five except Saturdays and Sundays. I was fortunate to get
one. It's very hard to find these part-time persons.”
“So Clara says.”
“I got this one because she used to work for Cousin Lawson. I'm lucky in every way. The furnace man next door attends to my garbage, which doesn't amount to anything, because I go out to little restaurants for lunch and dinner. Breakfast of course is nothing. Really it's quite like Heaven for a change, living in New York.”
“I'm glad you find it so.”
“I shop, I go to the museums. I'm thoroughly enjoying myself. And it's an oil furnace, I can run it. Like magic, after my old thing in Tarrytown.”
“You must come to dinner with me some night soon.”
“How very nice of you. I should love to. At present I'm quite busy on lists and writing to dealers. I got James' things off to him yesterday.”
“Don't you find yourself rather tired of an evening? I should be fit for a week in hospital after one of your days.”
“Of course I don't get tired!” Miss Paxton denied the possibility with vigor. “I suggested doing the work myself. James only asked me to stay here and superintendâhe couldn't come East, he's very busy and he has a delicate wife. Do smoke.”
Gamadge lighted a cigarette.
“The insurance people and the real estate agent recommended appraisers and dealers,” continued Miss Paxton, “and I'm writing to them. I'm very anxious to get good prices for things. James doesn't expect much, and I should like to surprise him. He has the best things, of courseârugs, paintings, furniture. He picked them out from the inventory I sent him.”
“Don't sell the chairs from under yourself.”
“I've got a funny collection of things in here, haven't I?” Miss Paxton looked about her with amusement. “From all over the house. This was the dining room, and there's a splendid pantry behind you there with a little electric stove and an icebox. So convenient. I live in these two roomsâthis and the one just above it, the bedroom that used to be Cousin Lawson's and Cousin Marietta's. I like having only one flight of stairs to climb, as I have at home; and I don't climb that more than I have to. Just a little stiffness.”
“Mr. Ashbury was a very lucky man to find such an agent.”
“I have every reason for obliging that family. I'll tell you why, and you must tell Claraâshe'll be interested, because it's always been well known among my friends that I never had more than enough to be barely comfortable on.” Miss Paxton sat back, glass in hand, and looked at Gamadge with a kind of incredulity. “Cousin Lawson Ashbury left me three thousand a year in his will. I'm to have it for life.”
“That's splendid news, Miss Paxton.”
“He and dear Marietta were friends, aside from being cousins; but he needn't have done it. It's like a fairy tale. Three thousand a year! Why, with what I have of my own, I need never worry at all about getting really old and needing people to take care of me. I'm only seventy-five,” she told him gaily, “I might go on for twenty years. My grandmother did.”
“With all that income you might consider having a regular maid here to live in and wait on you.”
“Henry Gamadge, do you know what that would cost here in New York?”
“Well, yes; I do.”
“I shan't spend my money like that, I assure you! I shall save it for later on, when I might need a practical nurse,” she informed him with some severity. “Do you know what a practical nurse costs?”
“Well, yes. I just thought it might be pleasanter for you not to be all alone at night.”
“I'm alone at night when I'm at home, and I haven't neighbors on all sides of me in the country. No, this is the time to save. And I'm particularly anxious to show James my appreciation, because he and his family were so nice about my having the trust fund. Why, just thinkâat three per cent the capital would be a hundred thousand dollars.”