The door was yanked open by what appeared to be the cleaning woman; with a large mop in hand she shielded me from four little dogs that were yipping excitedly as they charged down the hall. She grumbled over her shoulder, “Come on in, quick!” then slammed the front door. Loud music was blaring and I heard a voice from the second floor calling out, “get the dogs for goodness sake, and turn that damn radio down”. A few seconds later, the voice yelled again above all the racket, “tell that young girl I’ll be down shortly, put her in the parlor.” I was ushered through double doors by the mop lady, who promptly shut them with a clank as the iron latch handle slid into place. I could hear the dogs scratching their way up the wooden staircase when the man upstairs whistled, and a vacuum started up in some far off area of the big old farmhouse. There was a sudden hush; I turned and looked into the most extraordinary room, chock full of treasures.
Now I’ve had my years dealing in antiques; ephemera, glass and chinaware, furniture, and I dabbled a little in art, but by no means have any great knowledge on the subject. The work here, however, was unmistakable - Milton Avery, and what must certainly be a Picasso, dominated one wall; John Singer Sargent and Frederic Remington another; over the fireplace were four oils by Homer, and another wall held a photograph of the very lady of the house walking in a garden with Georgia O’Keefe! The multitude of urns, pottery, baskets, sculptures, and Indian artifacts overwhelmed the senses. Such an impressive collection of Primitives and historical memorabilia made the room pulsate with energy. Artwork covered all the wall space from floor to ceiling, and books were piled on every available tabletop.
I sat down on the plumped up Chintz covered sofa among numerous hand-crocheted pillows and just gazed around. I got right back up again as my eyes came to rest on a measuring scale across the large room. It was magnificent, the best one I had ever seen, a great example of a balance scale, or ‘equal arm scale’. Shaped like the letter T, with a thick cross beam, chains are attached to hold brass pans that hang on either side. It was tall, about four feet, and almost that wide, and stood on an old trestle table. All the various size weights were in a line at the front of the scale, secure in little cut out squares at the iron base.
I picked up the one kilogram weight when the lady of the house spoke right in my ear whispering, “it’s haunted”. Startled, I dropped the weight, and looked up to see the massive scale move. My hostess said, “Aha, the scales have tipped in your favor my dear, come sit down now.” She moved around the room turning on small lamps with colored glass shades in lovely designs, surely Tiffany or Bradley & Hubbard lighting. Soon the room was bathed in muted tones of amber, rose, and gold; the setting sun cast long fingers of pink and orange across the floor. The lady was looking out the big bay windows at the lingering light, and said, “I’m scared to be alone, and I just hate the dark.”
Commotion and barking dogs in the hall indicated her husband was ready to leave and she excused herself for a moment, I walked back to the scale. There was the one kilogram weight in its holder; I didn’t pick it up from the floor when the little old lady came sneaking up on me, and the scale was in the even, zero position. I shivered, feeling chilled I moved closer to the fireplace watching out the window as the man of the house, along with the cleaning woman, piled suitcases, crates and the four dogs into a Mercedes wagon and drove away. The house was quiet.
When the lady returned she looked sad and lost, distracted. I asked if she put the weight back, and what she meant when she said something was haunted. She must have seen the fear and hesitancy in my eyes; after all, I was here for a job which would require that I stay at the house with her while her husband was on a business trip for ten days. “Oh bother,” she said, “Don’t mind me it is nothing. The house is almost two hundred years old, and has a voice of its own with things that go bump in the night, creaks and groans, you will get use to them.”
She motioned for me to follow and we went out through the hall, across a vast dining room and into the kitchen. Urgently she began to run through a list of instructions, “You can come each afternoon at dusk and leave at dawn; I don’t need to see you in the morning, but we might cross paths. You will stay in the North wing, the staircase back here goes directly to the guest rooms and bathroom, anything you might need is in the cupboards. Feel free to use the library, or den to watch television, grab what you want from the fridge.”
We climbed a steep, twisting set of stairs to a long, very narrow hallway. “I don’t need any attending to, just knowing you are here in the house is all I want, can’t be alone at night,” she said, as she began opening doors and switching on lights. “I’ll be in my suite at the other end of this hall, which comes out at the staircase to the front door; wander around, you can’t get lost, the rooms and hallways are all interconnected. It is time for the NPR show I listen to each evening, so I’ll retire now, rest well my dear, goodnight.”
I chose a book of poetry from the nightstand next to my bed, and settled into an overstuffed wing back chair near a tiny fireplace in the corner of the enormous room. The wind was rattling something on the house, and the radiators would pop and hiss every so often, it was a cold winter night. Lost in reading, the little fire turned to embers and the room grew cold; I decided to venture to the cavernous kitchen to make tea. I heard a thud, then another and another, each one getting progressively louder, but not any closer. It was coming from downstairs, maybe the parlor. Wrapping myself up in my robe, I stuck my head out the door - nothing, no sound. I crept along the dark hall to the top of the front stairs where I could hear the radio coming from behind a closed door - the lady’s suite - she might be asleep by now, so I did not want to disturb her about the noises. I went down to the parlor, fumbled around to find the lights and discovered that each weight from the scale was on the floor! While putting them all back in their holders, a cat brushed up against my legs and I nearly screamed out loud. “So you are the culprit”, I said as the cat just yawned and winked at me and darted off toward the kitchen.
Tea in hand, I returned to my room, rekindled the fire and resumed my reading. I must have dozed off; something jolted me awake, the thuds of the weights dropping to the floor again! I glanced at the clock on the nightstand and a shiver went up my spine – there was the cat, curled up at the foot of the bed. This time, I wasn’t going back downstairs; I hurriedly shut the door and jumped into bed, the cat climbed under the covers too and started up a purring and kneading ritual. I didn’t sleep, listening, waiting all night, the cat at my side. I wondered how I was going to get through nine more nights in this obviously haunted house.
As I was preparing to leave at dawn’s first light, the little old lady came tottering down the stairs, reaching in her sweater pocket, she held something out to me. “This was in my bed when I got up this morning, can you put it back, please,” she said, very nonchalantly as if this was a daily occurrence. She handed me the one kilogram weight for the balance scale, and with a twinkle in those green Irish eyes, whispered, “See you at dusk, my dear."