She walked gingerly across the porch, each step setting off a palsied shudder to the boards underfoot. The sudsy water in the pail splashed onto the rotten flooring as she set it next to another pail of vinegar water for the rinse. She hoped to get all the downstairs windows washed before winter set in, but she probably wouldn’t. The windows in front were the easiest. She gave a sigh of resignation and began to scrub at the year’s accumulated grime on the sidelights next to the front door. So much to do. She finished the lights and then tackled the two large windows on either side, scrubbing furiously.
Temporarily exhausted by her efforts, she threw the chamois into the rinse water and stepped off the porch onto the gravel drive where she sat down, legs outstretched. She leaned back on her arms and gazed upward. Above her, the house with its crested peaks on the broad, high front she likened to a great white bird with folded wings. A wounded swan, maybe. Or better, an ugly duckling. The white-painted bricks were worn through in places like scabs, but strangely enough, the old house was still beautiful, even after years of neglect. All the window sills were down to weathered wood, the loose sashes rattling at the slightest breeze. The massive wooden door surround was disintegrating at its base on both sides as if some beast had chewed at them. When she’d first come to Rosehall fifteen years ago the whole house was still in fine shape and bright with new white paint.
Edward had admitted soon after their marriage that the money was running out. “You won’t get all the fine things that Mama got on her entry into this family. Things haven’t gone well, not just for me, but Daddy, too; he got in trouble financially before he died. That’s when it all began.”
She assured him the money wasn’t important. And it wasn’t at the time. She’d lived all her growing up years so poor on the Ridge, she couldn’t contemplate what Edward meant by money running out. It could never be as bad as what she’d come from, that she knew.
But from that time on, Rosehall had merely existed, waiting for the end, living off the remnants of their combined incomes and barely reflecting past glory times amid the social elite of Monroeville, Tennessee. Still, Rosehall counted for something in this town. People took notice of its inhabitants. Becca clung to that. She dumped the buckets of water onto the patchy lawn and then stepped around the gravel drive to the side porch. Two older model cars sat somewhat askew in the drive as if abandoned. Becca marveled to herself, even after all these years, how remote her chances had been of ever living in such a grand old place. Ridge dwellers were a thing apart, never accepted in the town, never even noticed. Marrying Edward had brought her into that magic circle of at least half-acceptance. And she’d done her part to hold the Rosehall together. The work it took! And now more than elbow grease was needed. Love and money, and she only had love to give.
Off she marched to do the kitchen windows and Miss Mitty’s room. And then finally, she’d tackle Charles’s, on the end of the house. She’d do more another day when she found the time. She’d need to start the cookies soon, a special after-school treat for Trey and Jenny.
. David came to Rosehall that day.
She’d just taken out the last batch of spicy oatmeal cookies from the oven when she heard the commotion. She could see down the length of the great hall that a man was at the front door. Miss Mitty was talking to him a mile a minute, her dyed black bob shaking emphatically..
Someone needs rescuing, Becca thought to herself. She had in mind both the stranger and Miss Mitty.
“Can I help, Miss Mitty?” The echo of her voice hung like a bright flag in the high space of the hall as she walked towards them. The man was quite young and attractive in a citified sort of way with smart clothes. He had nice eyes, and in an instant, Becca liked him.
“Hello. I’m David Mueller, the new editor of the Gazette-News and I was hoping--”
Miss Mitty clapped her hands. “He’s come about my clothes, Becca.” She turned back to the stranger. “The Nashville Tennessean came once, oh, I can’t remember when, and wrote a story about them.” Her face puckered briefly. “I wish you had called first. I’d have had them ready to show. So many people want to see them, but I don’t admit just anyone. You know that dress that Scarlett O’Hara wore in the first scene in Gone With The Wind? Well, that was my dress.” The makeup on her old face cracked in a million pieces as she smiled.
“How interesting. I’d like to see them sometime, but I’m here on a different matter.” He gave Becca a desperate look. “Are you the--ah, lady of the house?”
She nodded, stepping aside and motioning for him to enter. She saw him gaze wonderingly around. She could understand that. The room, shabby though it was, was fair sight, if not for all those dingy old portraits of by-gone Thorpes, then for its size.
He tore his eyes from the surroundings and turned to her. “I just moved to town a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been staying at the hotel. I need a place to live, but there doesn’t seem to be a single decent apartment for rent in town. Mr. Robison at the hotel suggested you might have some rooms you could rent me.”
“How many rooms would you be thinking of?” Her eyes went to the doors of the unused library. A little odd for old Robison to recommend Rosehall, but still, a Godsend! She’d have a time convincing the family, even though he seemed nice enough. Not as young as she first thought, possibly more than twenty-six or seven, and clean looking. A professional man, too.
“I’d like two rooms at least.”
“We might could find you a couple of rooms. You’d have to share the bath, but--”
“Becca! Whatever are you discussin’?”
Mama Kate. She poked her head from one of the double parlor doors on the other side of the hall and then shuffled over in her slippers to join them. Behind her, Becca heard the muted voices from a television soap opera. At least she, unlike Mitty, was presentable with her crisply waved white hair and deep blue woolen dress. But when she moved closer, Becca saw her with the eyes of a stranger and noticed the dress was spotted with food stains and tea splashes, a consequence of older woman’s failing eyesight–and her vanity. Her glasses were reserved for reading alone. Becca would have to get that dress away from her and work on it.
“Mama Kate, this is David Mueller, the new editor of Milt’s paper. My mother-in-law, Miz Thorpe. He’s wanting to rent some rooms from us.”
“Oh, I think not, Mr. Mueller. We don’t have roomers at Rosehall.” Her frozen smile and tone of voice were so forbidding that Becca saw him edge toward the door
Becca touched his arm lightly and gave him a look that said, “Wait.” She faced her mother-in-law. “What about Mr. Roscoe, Mama Kate?”
“Oh, that’s different, dear. He’s like one of the family. And, too, he has his own quarters out back.” She inclined her head toward David. “Sorry, Mr. er . . . , no strangers at Rosehall.” She turned and silently glided off in woolly knitted slippers in the direction she had come from. The door closed behind her.
Becca opened the door of the apartment in question and motioned him in. Miss Mitty followed, murmuring something incoherent, but Becca stopped her and said, “Why don’t you fix yourself some tea, darling? The water’s hot, and there’s some fresh baked cookies.”
“Oh, goody!” Miss Mitty pulled her long velvet skirt around to maneuver her exit, then stopped and leaned close to Becca’s face and hoarsely whispered, “We don’t want to make Kate angry, do we, Becca?”
“I’ll take care, Miss Mitty. Go along now while the water’s hot.” She winked at David who smiled uncertainly. Goodness, she thought! He thinks he’s in a crazy place.
“Look, I don’t want to intrude. If this will be a problem . . . .”
“Don’t mind them. I’m mistress here.” She swept past him and went to the center of the room, surveying the lofty space with critical eyes.
The front room had been a library, not used much in recent years. It had a few old padded chairs and near the fireplace a camel back sofa with shredding upholstery. The fireplace, though needing a coat of paint, was a fine one, with paneling and carvings of urns and ribbons that covered the wall from mantel to ceiling. Deep niches on either side housed shelves overflowing with old, damp-swollen volumes in tattered vellum or morocco. Edward kept his personal books in their bedroom. At the front of the room, the broad, deep-silled windows overlooking the porch admitted the weak November sun, brightening patches on the faded floral carpet. How glad Becca was that she’d just cleaned the windows. She saw David Mueller looking at the empty curtain rods.
“The curtains was rotted, so I took them down. I can cover the windows with something.”
“The room is wonderful. I like it a lot. And I can work at that table.” He pointed to a large mahogany table near the window. “Room for typewriter, books.”
“Let’s see about the bedroom,” she murmured almost to herself. He followed her through a narrow doorway into an enclosed porch. The three windows on the outside wall and the glazed top of a door to the back yard were trimmed in short muslin curtains.
“Great! I’ll take it!”
Becca looked at him with amusement and then at the empty room. “I’ll have to fix you up with a bed and dresser.” It was nice he was so eager. He’d be easy to please. Talked funny, though, like a Yankee.
“So you’re Milt’s new editor.”
“I worked on the Butler Eagle, in Pennsylvania, before taking this job.”
She nodded. So that explained his accent. She turned her attention again to the porch that was to be his bedroom. “This here room isn’t vented for the furnace. I can get an extra heater from old Roscoe’s place, though. He never goes upstairs in his cabin anymore.”
She pointed out the back windows to the two story-clapboard shack that had been Roscoe’s home long before Becca had come on the scene. Smoke was rising from its chimney. Opposite was a row of brick structures.
“What’s that row of little brick outbuildings? Looks like one, two . . . about ten in all?”
“Individual stallion barns. Once Rosehall bred horses in a big way. Those buildings are all that’s left.”
“How fascinating! Coming from a city environment, I’ve never been around horse country. What kind of horses were they, if you don’t mind my ignorance.”
She laughed. “No more ignorant than me. Race horses, I was told. Kentucky Derby, that sort of thing. This farm was called a stud, which means they bred a certain line of horses, both for themselves and others for a fee.”
“Too bad that business died out, isn’t it?”
“Like about everything else around here,” she admitted dryly.
He continued to look around through the window. “Is that the back wing? This is really a big old rambling place. It’s lovely.”
“Yep. It’ll fall down one of these days if something isn’t done about it.”
He continued to look out the window and said musingly, “I hope not. It’s a thing of beauty. Something very civilizing went into its construction. I’d hate to see it disappear, swallowed up by the ordinary.”
She gave him a close look. He sounded like a philosopher or poet maybe. He said what she felt. Rosehall meant more to her, too, than just an old house.
“The tub and commode are through here.”
They passed through another inner door into the back hallway. The kitchen door was opposite, and they could see Miss Mitty scooting around the kitchen, shawl and skirt flying. The bathroom was under the stairs and was odd-shaped. There were bottles of perfume and lotions as well as shaving gear.
“Who else uses this bathroom?”
“Miss Mitty and my brother-in-law, Charles Thorpe. They both have rooms in the back wing. The rest of us sleep upstairs and have our own bathroom.”
Becca guided him back through the apartment, thinking aloud about the arrangement of furnishings and other details.
“Do you want your evening meal here? You might get tired of restaurant food, and it wouldn’t cost you as much either. You’d be most welcome.”
He seemed to hesitate, and remembering how frosty Mama Kate had appeared, she added, “My husband is most admiring of anyone who can write. Your company’d be a fair treat for him.” “Well, thanks, yes, that would be a good deal for me.”
They stopped in front of the cold fireplace and settled on the price for meals, including morning kitchen privileges. He could fix his own coffee and toast or cereal. Fine. She thought he could move in this weekend. He grabbed her outstretched hand shook it longer than necessary.
She smiled at him. “Don’t get the idea that anyone here will give you trouble.”
“The family won’t want to admit it, but they’ll soon get used to the extra money. I’ll fix it up with them.”
“I’m sure you will.” He gave her a curious look that made her tuck a stray hair back into her ponytail. She knew she looked a fright. Worn jeans and one of Edward’s shirts with the tails tied around her waist.
They strolled through the hall, and she opened the door for him. The November air was mild as she stepped outside and went with him to his car. Not a very new car, but better than the two that her husband and her brother-in-law owned.
Standing beside his car to say goodbye to her, he lifted his eyes to look over the house. She saw him pause and give an uncertain smile. She saw her husband peering at them through the curtains of the bedroom window. He had his face close to the glass without acknowledging their presence. David Mueller looked at Becca with a raised eyebrow.
She didn’t explain.