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THE HAUNTED PHOTOGRAPH

BY

RUTH McENERY STUART

To the ordinary observer it was just a common photograph of a cheap summer hotel. It hung sumptuously framed in plush, over the Widow Morris’s mantel, the one resplendent note in an otherwise modest home, in a characteristic Queen Anne village.

One had only to see the rapt face of its owner as she sat in her weeds before the picture, which she tearfully pronounced “a strikin’ likeness,” to sympathize with the townsfolk who looked askance at the bereaved woman, even while they bore with her delusion, feeling sure that her sudden sorrow had set her mind agog.

When she had received the picture through the mail, some months before the fire which consumed the hotel a fire through which she had not passed, but out of which she had come a widow she proudly passed it around among the friends waiting with her at the post-office, replying to their questions as they admired it:

“Oh, yes! That’s where he works if you can call it work. He’s the head steward in it. All that row o’ winders where you see the awnin’s down, they’re his an’ them that ain’t down, they’re his, too that is to say, it’s his jurisdiction.

“You see, he’s got the whip hand over the cook an’ the sto’eroom, an’ that key don’t go out o’ his belt unless he knows who’s gettin’ what an’ he’s firm. Morris always was. He’s like the iron law of the Ephesians.”

“What key?”

It was an old lady who held the picture at arm’s length, the more closely to scan it, who asked the question. She asked it partly to know, as neither man nor key appeared in the photograph, and partly to parry the “historic allusion” a disturbing sort of fire for which Mrs. Morris was rather noted and which made some of her most loyal townsfolk a bit shy of her.

“Oh, I ain’t referrin’ to the picture,” she hastened to explain. “I mean the keys thet he always carries in his belt. The reg’lar joke there is to call him ‘St. Peter,’ an’ he takes it in good part, for, he declares, if there is such a thing as a similitude to the kingdom o’ Heaven in a hotel, why, it’s in the providential supply department which, in a manner, hangs to his belt. He always humors a joke ’specially on himself.”

No one will ever know through what painful periods of unrequited longing the Widow Morris had sought solace in this, her only cherished “relic,” after the “half hour of sky-works” which had made her, in her own vernacular, “a lonely, conflagrated widow, with a heart full of ashes,” before the glad moment when it was given her to discern in it an unsuspected and novel value. First had come, as a faint gleam of comfort, the reflection that although her dear lost one was not in evidence in the picture, he had really been inside the building when the photograph was taken, and so, of course, he must be in there yet!

At first she experienced a slight disappointment that her man was not visible, at door or window. But it was only a passing regret. It was really better to feel him surely and broadly within at large in the great house, free to pass at will from one room to another. To have had him fixed, no matter how effectively, would have been a limitation. As it was, she pressed the picture to her bosom as she wondered if, perchance, he would not some day come out of his hiding to meet her.

It was a muffled pleasure and tremulously entertained at first, but the very whimsicality of it was an appeal to her sensitized imagination, and so, when finally the thing did really happen, it is small wonder that it came somewhat as a shock.

It appears that one day, feeling particularly lonely and forlorn, and having no other comfort, she was pressing her tear-stained face against the row of window-shutters in the room without awnings, this being her nearest approach to the alleged occupant’s bosom, when she was suddenly startled by a peculiar swishing sound, as of wind-blown rain, whereupon she lifted her face to perceive that it was indeed raining, and then, glancing back at the photograph, she distinctly saw her husband rushing from one window to another, drawing down the sashes on the side of the house that would have been exposed to the real shower whose music was in her ears.

This was a great discovery, and, naturally enough, it set her weeping, for, she sobbed, it made her feel, for a minute, that she had lost her widowhood and that, after the shower, he’d be coming home.

It might well make any one cry to suddenly lose the pivot upon which his emotions are swung. At any rate, Mrs. Morris cried. She said that she cried all night, first because it seemed so spooky to see him whose remains she had so recently buried on faith, waiving recognition in the debris, dashing about now in so matter-of-fact a way.

And then she wept because, after all, he did not come.

This was the formal beginning of her sense of personal companionship in the picture companionship, yes, of delight in it, for there is even delight in tears in some situations in life. Especially is this true of one whose emotions are her only guides, as seems to have been the case with the Widow Morris.

After seeing him draw the window-sashes and he had drawn them down, ignoring her presence she sat for hours, waiting for the rain to stop. It seemed to have set in for a long spell, for when she finally fell asleep, “from sheer disappointment, ’long towards morning,” it was still raining, but when she awoke the sun shone and all the windows in the picture were up again.

This was a misleading experience, however, for she soon discovered that she could not count upon any line of conduct by the man in the hotel, as the fact that it had one time rained in the photograph at the same time that it rained outside was but a coincidence and she was soon surprised to perceive all quiet along the hotel piazza, not even an awning flapping, while the earth, on her plane, was torn by storms.

On one memorable occasion when her husband had appeared, flapping the window-panes from within with a towel, she had thought for one brief moment that he was beckoning to her, and that she might have to go to him, and she was beginning to experience terror, with shortness of breath and other premonitions of sudden passing, when she discovered that he was merely killing flies, and she flurriedly fanned herself with the asbestos mat which she had seized from the stove beside her, and staggered out to a seat under the mulberries, as she stammered:

“I do declare, Morris’ll be the death of me yet. He’s ’most as much care to me dead as he was alive I made sure made sure he’d come after me!”

Then, feeling her own fidelity challenged, she hastened to add:

“Not that I hadn’t rather go to him than to take any trip in the world, but but I never did fancy that hotel, and since I’ve got used to seein’ him there so constant, I feel sure that’s where we’d put up. My belief is, anyway, that if there’s hereafters for some things, there’s hereafters for all. From what I can gather, I reckon I’m a kind of a cross between a Swedenborgian and a Gates-ajar that, of course, engrafted on to a Methodist. Now, that hotel, when it was consumed by fire, which to it was the same as mortal death, why, it either ascended into Heaven, in smoke, or it fell, in ashes to the other place. If it died worthy, like as not it’s undergoin’ repairs now for a ‘mansion,’ jasper cupalos, an’ but, of course, such as that could be run up in a twinklin’.

“Still, from what I’ve heard, it’s more likely gone down to its deserts. It would seem hard for a hotel with so many awned-off corridors an’ palmed embrasures with teet-a-teet sofas, to live along without sin.”

She stood on her step-ladder, wiping the face of the picture as she spoke, and as she began to back down she discovered the cat under her elbow, glaring at the picture.

“Yes, Kitty! Spit away!” she exclaimed. “Like as not you see even more than I do!”

And as she slipped the ladder back into the closet, she remarked this to herself, strictly:

“If it hadn’t ‘a’ been for poor puss, I’d ‘a’ had a heap more pleasure out o’ this picture than what I have had or will be likely to have again. The way she’s taken on, I’ve almost come to hate it!”

A serpent had entered her poor little Eden even the green-eyed monster constrictor, who, if given full swing, would not spare a bone of her meager comfort.

A neighbor who chanced to come in at the time, unobserved overheard the last remark, and Mrs. Morris, seeing that she was there, continued in an unchanged tone, while she gave her a chair:

“Of course, Mis’ Withers, you can easy guess who I refer to. I mean that combly-featured wench that kep’ the books an’ answered the telephone at the hotel when she found the time from her meddlin’. Somehow, I never thought about her bein’ burned in with Morris till puss give her away. Puss never did like the girl when she was alive, an’ the first time I see her scratch an’ spit at the picture, just the way she used to do whenever she come in sight, why, it just struck me like a clap o thunder out of a clear sky that puss knew who she was a-spittin at an I switched around sudden an glanced up sudden an

“Well, what I seen, I seen! There was that beautied-up typewriter settin’ in the window-sill o’ Morris’s butler’s pantry an’ if she didn’t wink at me malicious, then I don’t know malice when I see it. An’ she used her fingers against her nose, too, most defiant and impolite. So I says to puss I says, ‘Puss,’ I says, ’there’s goin’s on in that hotel, sure as fate. Annabel Bender has got the better o’ me, for once!’ An’, tell the truth, it did spoil the photograph for me for a while, for, of course, after that, if I didn’t see him somewheres on the watch for his faithful spouse, I’d say to myself, ’He’s inside there with that pink-featured hussy!’

“You know, a man’s a man, Mis’ Withers ’specially Morris, an’ with his lawful wife cut off an’ indefinitely divorced by a longevitied family an’ another burned in with him well, his faithfulness is put to a trial by fire, as you might say. So, as I say, it spoiled the picture for me, for a while.

“An’, to make matters worse, it wasn’t any time before I recollected that Campbellite preacher thet was burned in with them, an’ with that my imagination run riot, an’ I’d think to myself, ’If theyre inclined, they certny have things handy! Then Id ketch myself an say, Wheres your faith in Scripture, Mary Marthy Matthews, named after two Bible women an born daughter to an apostle? Whats the use? Id say, an so, first an last, Id get a sort o alpha an omega comfort out o the passage about no givin in marriage. Still, thered be times, pray as I would, when them three would loom up, him an her an’ the Campbellite preacher. I know his license to marry would run out in time, but for eternity, of course we don’t know. Seem like everything would last forever an’ then again, if I’ve got a widow’s freedom, Morris must be classed as a widower, if he’s anything.

“Then I’d get some relief in thinkin’ about his disposition. Good as he was, Morris was fickle-tasted, not in the long run, but day in an’ day out, an’ even if he’d be taken up with her he’d get a distaste the minute he reelized she’d be there interminable. That’s Morris. Why, didn’t he used to get nervous just seein’ me around, an’ me his own selected? An’ didn’t I use to make some excuse to send him over to Mame Maddern’s ma’s ma’s so’s he’d be harmlessly diverted? She was full o’ talk, and she was ninety-odd an’ asthmatic, but he’d come home from them visits an’ call me his child wife. I’ve had my happy moments!

“You know a man’ll get tired of himself, even, if he’s condemned to it too continual, and think of that blondinetted typewriter for a steady diet to a man like Morris! Imagine her when her hair dye started to give out green streaks in that pompadour! So, knowin’ my man, I’d take courage an’ I’d think, ‘Seein’ me cut off, he’ll soon be wantin’ me more than ever’ an’ so he does. It’s got so now that, glance up at that hotel any time I will, I can generally find him on the lookout, an’ many’s the time I’ve stole in an’ put on a favoryte apron o’ his with blue bows on it, when we’d be alone an’ nobody to remark about me breakin’ my mournin’. Dear me, how full o’ b’oyancy he was a regular boy at thirty-five, when he passed away!”

Was it any wonder that her friends exchanged glances while Mrs. Morris entertained them in so droll a way? Still, as time passed and she not only brightened in the light of her delusion, but proceeded to meet the conditions of her own life by opening a small shop in her home, and when she exhibited a wholesome sense of profit and loss, her neighbors were quite ready to accept her on terms of mental responsibility.

With occupation and a modest success, emotional disturbance was surely giving place to an even calm, when, one day, something happened.

Mrs. Morris sat behind her counter, sorting notions, puss asleep beside her, when she heard the swish of thin silk, with a breath of familiar perfume, and, looking up, whom did she see but the blond lady of her troubled dreams striding bodily up to the counter, smiling as she swished.

At the sight the good woman first rose to her feet, and then as suddenly dropped flopped breathless and white backward and had to be revived, so that for the space of some minutes things happened very fast that is, if we may believe the flurried testimony of the blonde, who, in going over it, two hours later, had more than once to stop for breath.

“Well, say!” she panted. “Did you ever! Such a turn as took her! I hadn’t no more ’n stepped in the door when she succumbed, green as the Ganges, into her own egg-basket an’ it full! An’ she was on the eve o’ floppin’ back into the prunin’ scizzor points up, when I scrambled over the counter, breakin’ my straight-front in two, which she’s welcome to, poor thing! Then I loaned her my smellin’-salts, which she held her breath against until it got to be a case of smell or die, an’ she smelt! Then it was a case of temporary spasms for a minute, the salts spillin’ out over her face, but when the accident evaporated, an’ she opened her eyes, rational, I thought to myself, ’Maybe she don’t know she’s keeled an’ would be humiliated if she did,’ so I acted callous, an’ I says, offhand like, I says, pushin’ her apron around behind her over its vice versa, so’s to cover up the eggs, which I thought had better be broke to her gently, I says, ‘I just called in, Mis’ Morris, to borry your recipe for angel-cake or maybe get you to bake one for us’ (I knew she baked on orders). An’ with that, what does she do but go over again, limp as wet starch, down an’ through every egg in that basket, solid an’ fluid!

“Well, by this time, a man who had seen her at her first worst an’ run for a doctor, he come in with three, an’ whilst they were bowin’ to each other an’ backin’, I giv’ ‘er stimulus an’ d’rectly she turned upon me one rememberable gaze, an’ she says, ‘Doctors,’ says she, ’would you think they’d have the gall to try to get me to cook for ’em? They’ve ordered angel-ca’ An’ with that, over she toppled again, no pulse nor nothin’, same as the dead!”

While the blonde talked she busied herself with her loosely falling locks, which she tried vainly to entrap.

“An’ yet you say she ain’t classed as crazy? I’d say it of her, sure! An’ so old Morris is dead burned in that old hotel! Well, well! Poor old fellow! Dear old place! What times I’ve had!”

She spoke through a mouthful of gilt hairpins and her voice was as an AEolian harp.

“An’ he burned in it an’ she’s a widow yet! Yes, I did hear there’d been a fire, but you never can tell. I thought the chimney might ‘a’ burned out an’ I was in the thick of bein’ engaged to the night clerk at the Singin’ Needles Hotel at Pineville at the time an’ there’s no regular mail there. I thought the story might be exaggerated. Oh no, I didn’t marry the night clerk. I’m a bride now, married to the head steward, same rank as poor old Morris an’ we’re just as happy! I used to pleg Morris about her hair, but Id have to let up on that now. Mines as red again as hers. No, not my hair mine’s hair. It’s as red as a flannen drawer, every bit an’ grain!

“But, say,” she added, presently, “when she gets better, just tell her never mind about that reci-pe. I copied it out of her reci-pe book whilst she was under the weather, an’ dropped a dime in her cash-drawer. I recollect how old Morris used to look forward to her angel-cakes week-ends he’d be goin’ home, an’ you know there’s nothin’ like havin’ ammunition, in marriage, even if you never need it. Mine’s in that frame of mind now that transforms my gingerbread into angel-cake, but the time may come when I’ll have to beat my eggs to a fluff even for angel-cake, so’s not to have it taste like gingerbread to him.

“Oh no, he’s not with me this trip. I just run down for a lark to show my folks my ring an’ things, an’ let ’em see it’s really so. He give me considerable jewelry. His First’s taste run that way, an’ they ain’t no children.

“Yes, this amethyst is the weddin’-ring. I selected that on account of him bein’ a widower. It’s the nearest I’d come to wearin’ second mournin’ for a woman I can’t exactly grieve after. The year not bein’ up is why he stayed home this trip. He didn’t like to be seen traversin’ the same old haunts with Another till it was up. I wouldnt wait because, tell the truth, I was afraid. He aint like a married man with me about money yet, an its liable to seize him any day. He might say that he couldnt afford the trip, or that we couldnt, which would amount to the same thing. I rather liked him bein a little ticklish about goin around with me for a while. Its one thing to do a thing an another to be brazen about it it

But if she dont get better the reversion was to the Widow Morris if she dont get her mind poor thing! theres a fine insane asylum just out of Pineville, an Id like the best in the world to look out for her. It would make an excuse for me to go in. They say they have high old times there. Some days they let the inmates do most any old thing thats harmless. They even give em unpoisonous paints an let em paint each other up. One man insisted he was a barber-pole an ringed himself accordingly, an then another chased him around for a stick of peppermint candy. Think of all that inside a close fence, an a town so dull an news-hungry

“Yes, they say Thursdays is paint days, an’, of course, Fridays, they are scrub days. They pass around turpentine an’ hide the matches. But, of course, Mis’ Morris may get the better of it. ‘Tain’ every woman that can stand widowin’, an’ sometimes them that has got the least out of marriage will seem the most deprived to lose it so they say.”

The blonde was a person of words.

When Mrs. Morris had fully revived and, after a restoring “night’s sleep” had got her bearings, and when she realized clearly that her supposed rival had actually shown up in the flesh, she visibly braced up. Her neighbors understood that it must have been a shock “to be suddenly confronted with any souvenir of the hotel fire” so one had expressed it and the incident soon passed out of the village mind.

It was not long after this incident that the widow confided to a friend that she was coming to depend upon Morris for advice in her business.

“Standing as he does, in that hotel door between two worlds, as you might say why, he sees both ways, and oftentimes he’ll detect an event on the way to happening, an’ if it don’t move too fast, why, I can hustle an’ get the better of things.” It was as if she had a private wire for advance information and she declared herself happy.

Indeed, a certain ineffable light such as we sometimes see in the eyes of those newly in love came to shine from the face of the widow, who did not hesitate to affirm, looking into space as she said it:

“Takin’ all things into consideration, I can truly say that I have never been so truly and ideely married as since my widowhood.” And she smiled as she added:

“Marriage, the earthly way, is vicissitudinous, for everybody knows that anything is liable to happen to a man at large.”

There had been a time when she lamented that her picture was not “life-sized” as it would seem so much more natural, but she immediately reflected that that hotel would never have gotten into her little house, and that, after all, the main thing was having “him” under her own roof.

As the months passed Mrs. Morris, albeit she seemed serene and of peaceful mind, grew very white and still. Fire is white in its ultimate intensity. The top, spinning its fastest, is said to “sleep” and the dancing dervish is “still.” So, misleading signs sometimes mark the danger-line.

“Under-eating and over-thinking” was what the doctor said while he felt her translucent wrist and prescribed nails in her drinking-water. If he secretly knew that kind nature was gently letting down the bars so that a waiting spirit might easily pass well, he was a doctor, not a minister. His business was with the body, and he ordered repairs.

She was only thirty-seven and “well” when she passed painlessly out of life. It seemed to be simply a case of going.

There were several friends at her bedside the night she went, and to them she turned, feeling the time come:

“I just wanted to give out that the first thing I intend to do when I’m relieved is to call by there for Morris” she lifted her weary eyes to the picture as she spoke “for Morris and I want it understood that it’ll be a vacant house from the minute I depart. So, if there’s any other woman that’s calculatin’ to have any carryin’s-on from them windows why, she’ll be disappointed she or they. The one obnoxious person I thought was in it wasn’t. My imagination was tempted of Satan an I was misled. So it must be sold for just what it is just a photographers photograph. If its a picture with a past, why, everybody knows what that past is, and will respect it. I have tried to conquer myself enough to bequeath it to the young lady I suspicioned, but human nature is frail, an I cant quite do it, although doubtless she would like it as a souvenir. Maybe shed find it a little too souvenirish to suit my wifely taste, and yet if a person is going to die

I suppose I might legate it to her, partly to recompense her for her discretion in leaving that hotel when she did an partly for undue suspicion

“There’s a few debts to be paid, but there’s eggs an’ things that’ll pay them, an’ there’s no need to have the hen settin’ in the window showcase any longer. It was a good advertisement, but I’ve often thought it might be embarrassin’ to her.” She was growing weaker, but she roused herself to amend:

“Better raffle the picture for a dollar a chance an’ let the proceeds go to my funeral an’ I want to be buried in the hotel-fire general grave, commingled with him an’ what’s left over after the debts are paid, I bequeath to her to make amends an if she dont care to come for it, let every widow in town draw for it. But shell come. Most any womanll take any trip, if its paid for But look! she raised her eyes excitedly toward the mantel, Look! Whats that hes wavin? It looks oh yes, it is its our wings two pairs mine a little smaller. I spose itll be the same old story Ill never be able to keep up to keep up with him an Ive been so hap

“Yes, Morris I’m comin’

And she was gone into a peaceful sleep from which she easily passed just before dawn.

When all was well over, the sitting women rose with one accord and went to the mantel, where one even lighted an extra candle more clearly to scan the mysterious picture.

Finally one said:

“You may think I’m queer, but it does look different to me already!”

“So it does,” said another, taking the candle. “Like a house for rent. I declare, it gives me the cold shivers.”

“I’ll pay my dollar gladly, and take a chance for it,” whispered a third, “but I wouldn’t let such a thing as that enter my happy home

“Neither would I!”

“Nor me, neither. I’ve had trouble enough. My husband’s first wife’s portrait has brought me discord enough an’ it was a straight likeness. I don’t want any more pictures to put in the hen-house loft.”

So the feeling ran among the wives.

“Well,” said she who was blowing out the candle, “I’ll draw for it an’ take it if I win it, an’ consider it a sort of inheritance. I never inherited anything but indigestion.”

The last speaker was a maiden lady, and so was she who answered, chuckling:

“That’s what I say! Anything for a change. There’d be some excitement in a picture where a man was liable to show up. It’s more than I’ve got now. I do declare it’s just scandalous the way we’re gigglin’, an’ the poor soul hardly out o’ hearin’. She had a kind heart, Mis’ Morris had, an’ she made herself happy with a mighty slim chance

“Yes, she did and I only wish there’d been a better man waitin’ for her in that hotel.”