Read CHAPTER XV of The Ghost Girl , free online book, by H. De Vere Stacpoole, on ReadCentral.com.

“Miss Pinckney,” said Phyl, as they sat at luncheon that day, “you remember you said yesterday that I was like Juliet Mascarene?”

“So you are,” replied the other, “though the likeness is more noticeable at first sight as far as the face goes ­I’ve got a picture of her I will show you, it’s upstairs in her room, the one next yours on the same piazza ­why do you ask me?”

“I was thinking,” replied Phyl, “that the old woman in the kitchen ­Prue ­may have meant Juliet when she called me Julie, and that it was the likeness that set her mind going.”

“It’s not impossible.  Prue’s like that crazy old clock Selina Pinckney left me in her will.  It’d tell you the day and the hour and the minute and the year and the month and the weather.  A little man came out if it was going to rain and a little woman if it was going to shine.  But if you wanted to know the time, it couldn’t tell you nearer than the hour before last of the day before yesterday, and if you sneezed near it, it’d up and strike a hundred and twenty.  I gave it to Rachel.  She said it was ‘some’ clock, said it was a dandy for striking and the time didn’t matter as the old kitchen clock saw to that.  It’s the same with Prue, the time doesn’t matter, and they look up to her in the kitchen mostly, I expect, because she’s an oddity, same as Selina Pinckney’s clock.  Seems to me anything crazy and useless is reckoned valuable these days, and not only among coloured folk but whites ­Dinah, hasn’t Mr. Richard come in yet?”

“No, Mistress Pinckney,” replied the coloured girl, who had just entered the room, “I haven’t seen no sign of him.”

“Running about without his luncheon,” grumbled the lady, “said he had a deal in cotton on.  I might have guessed it.”  Then when Dinah had left the room and talking half to herself, “There’s nothing Richard seems to think of but business or pleasure.  I’m not saying anything against the boy, he’s as good and better than any of the rest, but like the rest of them his character wants forming round something real.  It wasn’t so in the old days, they were bad enough then and drank a lot more, but they had in them something that made for something better than business or pleasure.  Matt Curry didn’t go out and get killed for business or pleasure, and all the old Pinckneys didn’t fight in the war or fight with one another for business or pleasure.  There’s more in life than fooling with girls or buying cotton or sailing yacht races, but Richard doesn’t seem to see it.  I did think that having a ward to look after would have sobered him a bit and helped to form his character ­well, maybe it will yet.”

“I don’t want to be looked after,” said Phyl flushing up, “and if Mr. Pinckney ­” she stopped.  What she was going to say about Pinckney was not clear in her mind, clouded as it was with anger ­anger at the thought that she was an object to be looked after by her “guardian,” anger at the implication that he was not bothering to look after her, being too much engaged in the business of fooling with girls and buying cotton, and a reasonable anger springing from and embracing the whole world that held his beyond Vernons.

“Yes?” said Miss Pinckney.

“Oh, nothing,” replied the other, trying to laugh and making a failure of the business.  “I was only going to say that Mr. Pinckney must have lots to do instead of wasting his time looking after strangers, and if he hadn’t I don’t want to be looked after.  I don’t want him to bother about me ­I ­I ­” It did not want much more to start her off in a wild fit of weeping about nothing, her mind for some reason or other unknown even to herself was worked up and seething just as on that day at Kilgobbin when the woes of Rafferty had caused her to make such an exhibition of herself in the library.  Anything was possible with Phyl when under the influence of unreasoning emotion like this, anything from flinging a knife at a person to breaking into tears.

Miss Pinckney knew it.  Without understanding in the least the psychological mechanism of Phyl, she knew as a woman and by some electrical influence the state of her mind.

She rose from the table.

“Stranger,” said she, taking the other by the arm, “you call yourself a stranger.  Come along upstairs with me.  I want to show you something.”

Still holding her by the arm, caressingly, she led her off across the hall and up the stairs; on the first floor landing she opened a door; it was the door of the bedroom next to Phyl’s, a room of the same shape and size and with the same view over the garden.

Just as the drawing-room had been kept in its entirety without alteration or touch save the touch of a duster, so had this room, the bedroom of a girl of long ago, a girl who would now have been a woman old and decrepit ­had she lived.

“Here’s the picture you wanted to see,” said Miss Pinckney leading Phyl up to a miniature hanging on the wall near the bed.  “That’s Juliet, and if you don’t see the family likeness, well, then, you must be blind. ­And you calling yourself a stranger!”

Phyl looked.  It was rather a stiff and finicking little portrait; she fancied it was like herself but was not sure, the colour of the hair was almost the same but the way it was dressed made a lot of difference, and she said so.

“Well, they did their hair different then,” replied Miss Pinckney, “and that reminds me, it’s near time you put that tail up.”  She sat down in a rocker by the window and with her hands on her knees contemplated Phyl.  “I’m your only female relative, and Lord knows I’m far enough off, anyhow I’m something with a skirt on it, and brains in its head, and that’s what a girl most wants when she comes to your age.  You’ll be asked to parties and things here and you’ll find that tail in the way; it’s good enough for a schoolgirl, but you aren’t that any longer.  I’ll get Dinah to do your hair, something simple and not too grown-up ­you don’t mind an old woman telling you this ­do you?”

“Indeed I don’t,” said Phyl.  “I don’t care how my hair is done, you can cut it off if you like, but I don’t want to go to parties.”

“Well, maybe you don’t,” said Miss Pinckney, “but, all the same, we’ll get Dinah to look to your hair.  Dinah can do most anything in that way; she’d get twice the wages as a lady’s maid elsewhere and she knows it, but she won’t go.  I’ve told her over and again to be off and better herself, but she won’t go, sticks to me like a mosquito.  Well, this was Juliet’s room just as that’s her picture; she died in that bed and everything is just exactly as she left it.  It was kept so after her death.  You see, it wasn’t like an ordinary person dying, it was the tragedy of the whole thing that stirred folk so, dying of a broken heart for the man she was in love with.  It set all the crazy poets off like that clock of Selina Pinckney’s I was telling you of.  The News and Courier had yards of obituary notice and verses.  It made people forget the war for a couple of days.  There’s all her books on that shelf and the diary the poor thing used to keep.  Open one of the drawers in that chest.”

Phyl did so.  The drawer was packed with clothes neatly folded.  The air became filled with the scent of lavender.

“There are her things, everything she ever had when she died.  It may seem foolish to keep everything like that, foolish and sentimental, and if she’d died of measles or fallen down the stairs and killed herself maybe her old things would have been given away, but dying as she did ­well, somehow, it didn’t seem right for coloured girls to be parading about in her things.  Mrs. Beamis sniffed here just as she sniffed in the drawing-room, and she said, one night, something about sentiment, as if she was referring to chicken cholera.  I knew what she meant.  She meant we were a pack of fools.  Well, she ought to know.  I reckon she ought to be a judge of folly ­the life she leads in Chicago.  Umph! ­Now I’m going to lie down for an hour, and if you take my advice you’ll do the same.  The middle of the day was meant to rest in.  You can get to your room by the window.”

She kissed Phyl and went off.

Phyl, instead of going to her room, took her seat in the rocker and looked around her.  The place held her, something returned to it that had been driven away perhaps by Miss Pinckney’s cheerful and practical presence, the faint odour of lavender still clung to the air, and the silence was unbroken except for a faint stirring of the window curtains now and then to the breeze from outside.  Everything was, indeed, just as it had been left, the toilet tidies and all the quaint contraptions of the ’50’s and ’60’s in their places.  On the wall opposite the bed hung several water colours evidently the work of that immature artist Mary Mascarene, a watch pocket hung above the bed, a thing embroidered with blue roses, enough to disturb the sleep of any aesthete, yet beautiful enough in those old days.  There was only one stain mark in the scrupulous cleanliness and neatness of the place ­a panel by the window, once white painted but now dingy-grey and scored with lines.  Phyl got up and inspected it more closely.  Children’s heights had evidently been measured here.  There was a scale of feet marked in pencil, initials, and dates.  Here was “M.  M.,” probably Mary Mascarene, “2 f inches.  Nineteen months,” and the date “April, 1845,” and again a year later, “M.  f-1/2 inches, May, 1846.”  So she had grown three and a half inches in a year.  “J.  M.” ­Juliet without doubt ­“3 feet, 3 years old, 1845.”  Juliet was evidently the elder ­so it went on right into the early ’60’s, mixed here and there with other initials, amongst which Phyl made out “J.  J.” and “R.  P.,” children maybe staying at the house and measured against the Mascarene children ­children now old men and women, possibly not even that.  It was in the kindly spirit of Vernons not to pass a painter’s brush over these scratchings, records of the height of a child that lingered only in the memory of the old house.

Phyl turned from them to the bookshelf and the books it contained.  “Noble Deeds of American Women,” “Precept on Precept,” “The Dairyman’s Daughter,” and the “New England Primer” ­with a mark against the verses left “by John Rogers to his wife and nine small children, and one at the breast, when he was burned at the stake at Smithfield in 1555.”  There were also books of poetry, Bryant, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Powhatan, a metrical romance in seven cantos by Seba Smith,” and several others.

Phyl did something characteristic.  She gathered every single book into a pile in her arms and sat down on the floor with them to have a feast.  This devourer of books was omnivorous in her tastes, especially if it were a question of sampling, and she had enough critical faculty to enable her to enjoy rubbish.  She lingered over Powhatan and its dedication to the “Young People of the United States” and then passed on to the others till she came to a little black book.  It was Juliet Mascarene’s diary and proclaimed the fact openly on the first page with the statements:  “I am twelve years old to-day and Aunt Susan has given me this book to keep as my diary and not to forget to write each day my evil deeds as well as my good, which I will if I remember them.  She didn’t give me anything else.  I had to-day a Paris doll from Cousin Jane Pinckney who has winking eyes which shut when you lay her on her back and pantalettes with scallops which take off and on and a trunk of clothes with a little key to it.  Father gave me a Bible and I have had other things too numerous for mension.

“Signed Juliet Mascarene.”

with never a date.

Then: 

“I haven’t done any evil deeds, or good ones that I can remember, so I haven’t written in this book for maybe a week.  Mary and I, we went to a party at the Pinckneys to-day at Bures, the Calhoun children and the Rutledges were there and we had Lady Baltimore cake and a good time.  Mary wore her blue organdie and looked very nice and Rupert Pinckney was there, he’s fourteen and wouldn’t talk to the children because they were too small for him, I expect.  He told me he was going to have a pony same as Silas Rhett that threw him in the market place Wednesday last and galloped all the way to Battery before he was stopped, only his was to be a better one with more shy in it, said Silas Rhett ought to be tied on next time.  Then old Mr. Pinckney came in and shewed us a musical snuff-box and we went home, and driving back Mary kicked me on the shin by axident and I pinched her and she didn’t cry till we’d got home, then she began to roar and mother said it was my ungovernable temper, and I said I wished I was dead.

“I shan’t go to any more parties because it’s always like that after them.  Father told me I was to pray for a new heart and not to have any supper but Prue has brought me up a cake of her own making.  So that’s one evil deed to put down ­It’s just like Mary, any one else would have cried right out in the carriage and not bottled it up and kept it up till she got home.

“This is a Friday and Prue says Friday parties are always sure to end in trouble for the devil puts powder in the cakes and the only way to stop him is to turn them three times round when they’re baking and touch them each time with a forked hazel twig.”

Phyl read this passage over twice.  The mention of Prue interested her vastly.  Prue even then had evidently been a favourite of Juliet’s.

She read on hoping to find the name of the coloured woman again, but it did not occur.

The diary, indeed, did not run over more than a year and a half, but scrappy as it was and short in point of time, the character of Juliet shone forth from it, uneasy, impetuous, tormenting and loving.

Many books could not have depicted the people round Vernons so well as this scribbling of a child.  Mary Mascarene, quiet, rather a spoil-sport and something of a tale-teller, dead and gone Pinckneys and Rhetts.  Aunt Susan, Cousin Jane Pinckney, Uncle George who beat his coloured man, Darius, because the said Darius had let him go out with one brass button missing from his blue coat.  Simon Pinckney ­the one whose ghost walked ­and who “fell down in the garden because he had the hiccups,” these and others of their time lived in the little black book given by the miserly Aunt Susan “to keep as my diary and not to forget to write each day my evil deeds as well as my good.”

Towards the end there was another reference to Rupert Pinckney, the tragic lover of the future: 

“Rupert Pinckney was here to-day with his mother to luncheon and we had a palmetto salad and mother said when he was gone he was the most frivulus boy in Charleston, whatever that was, and too much of a dandy, but father said he had stuff in him and Aunt Susan, who was here too, said ’Yes, stuff and nonsense,’ and I said he could ride his pony without tumbling off like Silas Rhett, anyhow.

“Then they went on talking about his people and how they hadn’t as much money as they used to have, and Aunt Susan said that was so, and the worst of it is they’re spending more money than they used to spend, and father said, well, anyhow, that wasn’t a very common complaint with some people and he left the room.  He never stays long in the room with Aunt S.

“I think the Pinckneys are real nice.”

“Mr. Simon Mascarene from Richmond and his wife came to see us to-day and stay for a week.  They drove here in their own carriage with four brown horses and you could not tell which horse was which, they are so alike, they are very fine people and Mr. M. has a red face ­not the same red as Mr. Simon Pinckney’s, but different somehow ­more like an apple, and a high nose which makes him look very grand and fine.”  The same Simon Mascarene, no doubt, that came to the wedding of Charles Pinckney in 1880 as old Simon Mascarene, the one whose flowered carpet bag still lingered in the memory of Miss Pinckney.

“Mrs. M. is very fine too and beautifully dressed and mother gave her a great bouquet of geraniums and garden flowers with a live green caterpillar looping about in the green stuff which nobody saw but me, till it fell on Mrs. M.’s knee and she screamed.  There is to be a big party to-morrow and the Pinckneys are coming and Rupert.”

There the diary ended.

Phyl put it back on the shelf with the books.

She had not the knowledge necessary to visualise the people referred to, those people of another day when Planters kept open house, when slaves were slaves and Bures the home of the old gentleman with the musical snuff-box, but she could visualise Juliet as a child.  The writing in the little book had brought the vision up warm from the past and it seemed almost as though she might suddenly run in from the sunlit piazza that lay beyond the waving window curtains.

There was a bureau in one corner, or rather one of those structures that went by the name of Davenports in the days of our fathers.  Phyl went to it and raised the lid.  She did so without a second thought or any feeling that it was wrong to poke about in a place like this and pry into secrets.  Juliet seemed to belong to her as though she had been a sister, her own likeness to the dead girl was a bond of attraction stronger than a family tie, and Juliet’s mournful love story completed the charm.

The desk contained very little, a seal with a dove on it, some sticks of spangled sealing-wax, a paper knife of coloured wood with a picture of Benjamin Franklin on the handle and some sheets of note-paper with gilt edges.

Phyl noticed that the gilt was still bright.

She took out the paper knife and looked at it, and then held the blade to her lips to feel the smoothness of it, drawing it along so that her lips touched every part of the blade.

Then she put it back, and as she did so a little panel at the back of the desk fell forward disclosing a cache containing a bundle of letters tied round with ribbon.

Phyl started as though a hand had been laid on her arm.  The point of the paper knife must have touched the spring of the panel, but it seemed as though the desk had suddenly opened its hand, closed and clasping those letters for so many years.  For a moment she hesitated to touch them.  Then she thought of all the time they had lain there and a feeling that Juliet wouldn’t mind and that the old bureau had told its secret without being asked, overcame her scruples.  She took the letters and sitting down again on the floor, untied the ribbon.

There were no envelopes.  Each sheet of paper had been carefully folded and sealed with green wax, with the seal leaving the impression of the dove.  There was no address, and they had evidently been tied together in chronological order.  But the handwriting was the handwriting of Juliet Mascarene fully formed now.

The first of these things ran: 

“It wasn’t my fault.  I didn’t create old Mr. Gadney and send him to church to keep us talking in the street like that.  I did not see you.  You couldn’t have passed, and if you did you must have been invisible.  I feel dreadfully wicked writing to you.  Do you know this is a clandestine correspondence and must stop at once?  You mustn’t ever write to me again, nor I mustn’t see you.  Of course I can’t help seeing you in church and on the street ­and I can’t help thinking about you.  They’ll be making me try and stop breathing next.  I don’t care a button for the whole lot of them.  It was all Aunt Susan’s doing, only for her my people would never have quarrelled with yours and I wouldn’t have been so miserable.  I feel sometimes as if I could just take a boat and sail off to somewhere where I would never see any people again.

“It was clever of you to send your letter by P. This goes to you by the same hand.”

There was no signature and no date.

Phyl turned the sheet of paper over to make sure again that there was no address.  As she did so a faint, quaint perfume came to her as though the old-fashioned soul of the letter were released for a moment.  It was vervain, the perfume of long ago, beloved of the Duchesse de Chartres and the ladies of the forties.

She laid the letter down and took up the next.

“It is wicked of you.  My people never would be so mean as to quarrel with your people or look down on them because they have lost money.  Why did you say that ­and you know I said in my last letter that I could not write to you again.  I was shocked when P. pinched my arm as I was passing her on the stairs and handed me your note ­Don’t you ­don’t you ­how shall I say it?  Don’t you think you and I could meet and speak to one another somewhere instead of always writing like this?  Somewhere where no one could see us.  Do you know ­do you know ­do you, ahem!  O dear me ­know that just inside our gate there’s a little arbour.  The tiniest place.  When I was a child I used to play there with Mary at keeping house, there’s a seat just big enough for two and we used to sit there with our dolls.  No one can see the gate from the lower piazza, and the gate doesn’t make any noise opening, for father had it oiled ­it used to squeak a bit from rust, but it doesn’t now and I’ll be there to-morrow night at nine ­in the arbour ­at least I may be there.  I just want to tell you in a way I can’t in a letter that my people aren’t the sort of folk to sneer at any one because they have lost money.

“I am sending this by P.

“The arbour is just back of the big magnolia as you come in, on the left.”

Phyl gave a little laugh.  Then with half-closed eyes she kissed the letter, laid it softly on the floor beside the first and went on to the next.

“Not to-night.  I have to go to the Calhouns.  It is just as well, for I have a dread of people suspecting if we meet too often.  No one sees us meet.  No one knows, and yet I fear them finding out just by instinct.  Father said to me the other day, ’What makes you seem so happy these times?’ If Mary had been alive she would have found out long ago, for I never could keep anything hid from her.  I was nearly saying to him, ’If you want to know why I am so happy go and ask the magnolia tree by the gate.’

“Sometimes I feel as if I were deceiving him and everybody.  I am, and I don’t care ­I don’t care if they knew.  O my darling!  My darling!  My darling!  If the whole world were against you I would love you all the more.  I will love you all my life and I will love you when I am dead.”

Phyl’s eyes grew half blind with tears.

This cry from the Past went to her heart like a knife.  The wind, strengthening for a moment, moved the window curtains, bringing with it the drowsy afternoon sounds of Charleston, sounds that seemed to mock at this voice declaring the deathlessness of its love.  It was impossible to go on reading.  Impossible to expose any more this heart that had ceased to beat.

The meetings in the arbour behind the magnolia tree, the kisses, the words that the leaves and birds alone could hear ­they had all ended in death.

It did not matter now if the garden gate creaked on its hinges, or if watching eyes from the piazza saw the glossy leaves stirring when no wind could shake them ­nothing mattered at all to these people now.

She put all the letters back in the bureau, carefully closing them in the secret drawer.