Author of Spectral Snow, The Shaggy Man of Oz, "A Murder in Oz," etc.
Originally published in Dark Music and Other Spectral Tales, 1947.
I had taken care of Alicia for all six years of her short life. Her mother had died at childbirth and her father, Will Raynor, had hired me as nurse and governess for the child. That was back in 1910 in a small town in the middle west where Will Raynor was a moderately well-to-do business man.
I was in my middle-thirties then and already resigned to spinsterhood and a life of nursing. Shy, retiring and never even remotely a beauty, I had endured a lonely girlhood, emerging into middle-age with an abiding love of my work and a deep sense of peace that was and has been a blessing, and, I suppose my consolation for the denial of marriage and children of my own. Now that I am an old woman and look back on my life, I certainly see no reason to count my years of service wasted, nor can I truthfully say that I have not enjoyed the quiet of spirit that has been mine and the joy I have experienced in serving others and being rewarded with their gratitude and friendship over many long years.
But this is not my story. Lives like mine are all too common in small towns, and too uncommon in large cities where the patterns of people and life change too rapidly for anything like peace or serenity to exist.
This is the story of laughing, blue-eyed, golden-haired Alicia Raynor and tow-headed, brown-eyed Tommy Ramsey who lived next door. In every possible way I was a mother to little Alicia, and she loved me, I am proud to say, as she might have loved her own sweet mother, whom I saw die. From that moment on, until her own death six short years later, Alicia was mine. Tommy had been born just a week before Alicia, and I remember that his mother had been grief stricken when told o£ Mrs. Raynor’s death. The two had been neighbors and good friends since girl-hood. They had planned many things they would do together with their children. They had agreed, half seri-ously, half facetiously that Mrs. Ramsey would have a boy and Mrs. Raynor would have a girl, and the children should grow up together. Well, at least part of their plan worked out, although poor Mrs. Raynor died without knowing whether her baby was a little girl or boy. After Mrs. Raynor’s death, I became quite friendly with Mrs. Ramsey, and as it was more than ever her wish that Alicia and Tommy should be comrades from baby days on, I was only too glad to agree.
So that was how it was that from the time the children were able to toddle they were together constantly. When Alicia was not in her nursery or playing about the house, I knew I could find her next door at the Ramseys’. Mrs. Ramsey enjoyed a like assurance concerning her Tommy. The children were wonderful together. I never once knew them to quarrel. I know many parents will scoff at that statement, but I insist it is true. Alicia and Tommy had no childish quarrels. It was as though they had been born to be together. Their toys were common property. Indeed, I do not think they looked upon their possessions as individually such. Perhaps they even regarded themselves as one. That would have been entirely natural since they had been together almost constantly from their earliest days. Often have I speculated on what their lives would have been like had they grown up and wedded. Surely such a marriage would have been one of those made in heaven.
The first five years of my life with Mr. Raynor and the children were as happy and uneventful as I have known, giving no hint of the sorrow that was to follow so soon. It was Alicia’s fifth birthday that really marked the begin-ning of the end. For it was on this occasion that Mr. Raynor gave her the Doll House.
I recall that day perfectly. It was early in March, grey, raw and blustery. Alicia and Tommy were playing in the nursery, and Mr. Raynor had come home early from his office. We climbed the stair, he carrying the well-wrapped Doll House. The nursery was lighted by a chandelier in which glowed four old fashioned electric light bulbs with shimmering carbon filaments and sharp tips like tears dripping from their rounded surfaces.
Both children were immediately fascinated by the package and flew to the aid of Mr. Raynor in removing the wrappers. When they saw the beautiful Doll House they went into ecstasies of delight.
“Our house!” they crowed in unison. “Now we have a house of our very own!”
Mr. Raynor and I simply sat down and enjoyed the scene. It was a remarkably elaborate and exquisitely con-structed Doll House. The roof and the sides lifted up so that each room was available for play. The furnishings of the rooms were marvels in themselves. There were no painted carpets here, but soft, finely woven, tiny rugs and carpets. Chairs and lounges were upholstered. The dining room was complete down to buffet with silver, glass and linen service. The kitchen was filled with delightful minia-tures of all the fixtures and utensils that made up the modern kitchen of that far-away day. The bedrooms were delights of tiny coziness. The beds were furnished with springs, mattresses, sheets, blankets and pillows with slips embroidered with fairy buttercups. There was even a nursery complete with toys that an elf child might have delighted in. These were miniatures of exquisite work-manship. All must have been hand wrought, for the tiny doll carriage, the wee drum, the inch-tall clown, and all the others were delicately and charmingly carved and put together. In one corner of the nursery stood a miniature Noah’s Ark, and in another a Doll House that measured no more than three inches high. I wondered whimsically at the time if that three-inch-high Doll House had a Doll House within it—and so on and on, like the Chinese boxes that fit endlessly into each other.
When the excitement had died down somewhat, Mr. Raynor demonstrated the crowning wonder of this model house done in Lilliputian style. He had left the nursery for a moment to reappear with a package from which he produced four dry cells and a coil of bell wire. He hooked the batteries into circuit and fastened the lead wires to two terminals at the rear of the Doll House. Immediately the structure glowed with lights in every colorful room. The Doll House was electrically lighted! In 1915 that was sheer and utter magic and enchantment. The children were almost awed. Here was a house straight out of fairy-land, and it was all theirs!
Despite Alicia and Tommy’s wonder and joy, it didn’t take them long to discover new miracles in their enchanted house. Each of the tiny lights—which were no more than flashlight bulbs—could be turned on and off by individual switches on the walls and in the lamp bases. The house was as efficiently wired as any fire insurance underwriter would require in a human habitation.
From that moment on the Doll House was the center of Alicia and Tommy’s lives. They were never so happy as when they were playing house. On fine days I insisted as did Tommy’s mother that they play out-of-doors. But in spite of their normal, healthy love of the sunlight and fresh air and the romping games that could be played only on the sunny lawn or the glistening snow, it seemed to me that the children actually welcomed the gloomy days of rain, wind and bitter cold.
That was a happy year for all of us. I was not one whit worried over the children’s preoccupation with their Doll House. Who wouldn’t be fascinated with so marvelous a creation? I was, myself. And as 1916 dawned, I knew that the coming fall would see the children entering grade school—going hand in hand out into the world. I knew the association of other children, school occupations, and the swift unfolding of the world outside their homes would slowly but steadily lessen their interest in the Doll House. I sighed. Soon they would be our babies no longer, but children on the way to growing up.
However, that was not meant to be. It was late in March —a March that was roaring out like a cageful of angry lions—that first Alicia, and only a few days later Tommy, fell ill. It was dread diphtheria. Remember, those were still the days when diphtheria was a ruthless slayer of children. Widespread vaccination, except for smallpox, and inoculation were not yet prevalent in middle western schools. Nor were sanitary conditions anything like they are today. Few small towns possessed adequate water sup-plies. In our home, drinking water came from a well with a pump in the kitchen, while water for other purposes was nothing more than rain water, collected in a cistern. Control by preventive and sanitation measures were still to come, and in those years many an American town knew the terrors of diphtheria epidemics.
Even now I do not like to hark back to those dread two weeks. Alicia and Tommy suffered piteously. We made them as comfortable as possible, and did everything then prescribed to stay the course of the disease. The two houses were quarantined as one, and I divided my time between the two children, although the Ramseys had engaged their own nurse.
The parents were frantic. In such circumstances there is just no means of consolation, particularly when one needs to be consoled oneself. The end came one bleak, cold night in April. Alicia and Tommy stopped breathing at almost the same time. A blackness fell on all our hearts. I won’t, I can’t say that I suffered more than the parents, but I had been almost as close to Tommy as Alicia. I had lost two children.
The next few days we moved about like automatons. We had all been hurt so deeply that the funeral services and then the days following in the dreadfully quiet houses seemed unreal and nightmarish.
There was no reason for me to remain longer with Mr. Raynor. He had a competent housekeeper to look after things. He no longer needed the services of a nurse and governess. But Mr. Raynor asked me to stay on for a few more weeks until he had somewhat recovered from the shock of his loss. He confided in me that he planned to dismiss the housekeeper, sell the house and furnishings, and move to the one good hotel the town boasted. I could understand that very well. He was entirely alone now, and living in that empty house, surrounded by memories, would have been depressing and unhealthful.
So I remained, and that was how I chanced to experience the strangest happening of my entire life. It was nearly midnight one dreary Monday. It had been raining all day and the drops continued to beat a melancholy tapping on the roof. It was so quiet that I could hear the rain gutter-ing into the spouting outside my window. Mr. Raynor had retired several hours before, and the housekeeper had been in her room since early evening. I, alone, was awake.
I could not sleep, and had been reading. My extremely unfortunate choice of reading matter had been Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” I am not a literary person, so I could not have known beforehand that the story was a great horror classic about a little girl and little boy who died. I had selected the book at random from Mr. Raynor’s library, and once I started reading it, I could not put it aside.
My little bed clock was ticking busily, and the hands had almost met at 12, when I finished the story with its tremendous ending. Realization of the meaning of the book swept over me like a cold tide of terror. I sat per-fectly still, thinking. The house was utterly quiet. There was only the ticking of my clock, and the sound of the chill rain in the black night outside. I felt suddenly cold, and rose to put a shawl about my shoulders.
It was then that the light attracted my attention. A door of my room opened into the nursery. Flowing from under this door, I thought I detected a faint light. Since the children had gone, neither Mr. Raynor nor I had entered the nursery. Our grief was still too fresh for that. But I was perfectly sure that no lights had been left on in the nursery. There was no alternative. I must investigate. I slowly opened the door and looked in. The faint light came from the Doll House.
There were lights in two of its downstairs rooms. Could Mr. Raynor have been there earlier in the evening and left the lights on? That must be the explanation, I assured myself. And then I stared in amazement. The light in one of the rooms—the living room—winked out! An instant later the light in the other room—the kitchen —vanished. The nursery was lighted only by a narrow path of faint luminance that flowed from my room. The Doll House was in complete shadow. I was trembling with cold now, and it wasn’t the kind of cold a shawl could dis-sipate.
Standing there in the shadow, staring at the Doll House, I heard it—unmistakably—the sound of two pairs of tiny feet pattering up a stairway—the stairway in the Doll House. I gasped, and then told myself I must regain con-trol of my nerves. Mice, I had heard, and nothing more— mice. Nevertheless, my hands shook, and I felt sick and weak.
Just as the footsteps on the stairway ceased, a light on the second floor of the Doll House blinked on. It was the light in the Doll House nursery.
Strong as my desire was to flee from the room, I knew what I must do, or never again know peace of mind. My hands shook violently, and I was desperately weak as I reached out to raise the roof of the Doll House so that I might peer into the tiny nursery.
I will state simply, and in as few words as possible what I saw. In the nursery of the Doll House were two tiny children, not more than six inches tall. One was Alicia— the other Tommy. They were natural as life, save that they were so tiny-—so doll-like. Entirely absorbed in each other the mannikins seemed unaware of my presence or of my having raised the roof of the Doll House. The two were standing before the three-inch-high Doll House in the Doll House nursery.
Just before darkness closed in and I fell in a deep faint, I heard perfectly and unquestionably the piping, childish treble of the miniature Alicia as she said to the wee Tommy:
“Let’s play house!”
THE FORGETFUL POET
By Ruth Plumly Thompson
Originally published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, January 16, 1921.
The Puzzle Corner
Why is a pig like a tomato? asks the Forgetful Poet, and I, for one, don’t think it is. But he says there is an answer to this, so see whether you can find it.
The Tom Tom in the band
Rose up and
Bit the poor Trombone.
It wept three treble notes,
And then a dreadful
B Flat groan.
Can you fill in these blanks.
I lost my rubbers yesterday,
I hurried forth without them,
Quite brave and unconcerned and -----
Why should I care ----- -----?
Oh, why? I struck a bit of ice,
I slid—perhaps a yard—
I balanced, tottered dizzily,
Then sat down very -----!
Of course, you all guessed last week’s riddle—a pan of bread is like the sun because it rises.
[Answers next time.]
Copyright © 2017 Eric Shanower and David Maxine. All rights reserved.