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a haunting

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Morris stops knocking after a few minutes, and the house is quiet. It’s such a big house, Catherine finds herself thinking for the first time as she lies in bed and waits for sleep to take her, and so quiet. It is a comforting thought. She falls asleep to the half-formed thought that it is the house that will protect her.

She spends much of the next few days indoors. She does not open the blinds the next day, too afraid that she might look out at the world and see Morris still waiting outside. The day after, though, she convinces herself that by now he is truly gone and opens the blinds to watch the people and carriages go by. It is delightful how they can come into her view and then pass out of her sight and mean nothing at all to her. She walks around the house and takes in all the little details that she had never bothered to notice before. There is dust on some of the piano keys that has been missed in the last cleaning. Catherine wipes it clean impatiently and thinks that she must tell the help to be more thorough. This piano has not been played in months; not since Morris sat on its bench and played her a love song.

Perhaps, she thinks, it is time to consider selling the old thing.

Catherine packs up her last finished embroidery and wonders what could be done with the materials she has left. She certainly never wants to see them again. Perhaps if she packs the materials away, the echo of her father’s cruel praise of her straight stitches will go away too.

There are so many things that could amuse a woman of means. Catherine thinks that she only needs to find one where her ghosts cannot haunt her.

 

It takes a week for her aunt to bring a man calling. She tries so hard to be clever about it, acting as if it were all by chance that this man has arrived at the home; Aunt Lavinia has been treading carefully around Catherine of late. The man’s name is Richard, he is a cousin of a friend of Lavinia’s and newly arrived in the city, and perhaps he is quite kind. But he seems to be far too interested in getting to know Catherine, and the reception that Catherine gives him is a cold one. He does not come calling again.

Catherine quietly thinks she might be content never to see another man again, but it is quite impossible to convince Aunt Lavinia of this fact. She brings a second man calling, under the pretense that he is the son of a dear former patient of Catherine’s father, and how he would very much like to see the family of the man who did so much good for his own family. This man speaks pleasantly to Catherine, but she sees how his hands brush over the fine cushions and his eyes devour the large windows. She can do little more than to bring herself to smile and answer his questions politely but curtly. He also does not return to call again.

The last suitor that Aunt Lavinia brings that month is a surgeon as well, a man who says he studied under her father. Catherine tries not to make it too obvious when the words cause her to give a sharp intake of breath. She invites him into the parlor, and he talks about what it was like to first meet her father and what he was like. It is only a few minutes before she begs off, saying that she is very sorry but she is suddenly feeling a bit faint. It is not an affectation: she has to lie in bed for several minutes before she feels better. Aunt Lavinia comes up not longer after to say that the man has left and to ask about her health.

“I am doing better now,” she says, “But I think I would prefer not to see such a man again.”

Aunt Lavinia does not bring any men to the house after that.

 

A month passes. Life continues outside the walls of the house. Catherine can see it from her windows. The weather is starting to get cold, and soon winter will come. Catherine has always heard that New York looks romantic in the winter. She does not believe it. She hears that Morris has gone back to California. It is difficult to admit, but knowing that makes it easier to step outside, and soon she is going on longer and longer walks. At first, Catherine contents herself with merely admiring the bustle of the city; she feels little desire to participate. But one day she walks into a department store and sees some of the new dresses they have. They’re lovely, satin things and they remind her for all the world of Paris. She coos over them with the department store attendant, but eventually she reminds herself that these days she has little use for such frivolity.

That evening, Lavinia mentions a ball that she will be attending in a few days. “It feels like I have not been dancing in ages,” she says, with a wistful sigh, but hastens to add, “I understand, however, that you might not be so kindly disposed to balls these days.”

“I would like to go,” Catherine’s mouth moves all on its own. She isn’t really thinking at all when she speaks, at least not of anything except that lovely dress she saw in the morning. But there is a small silence, during which Catherine has plenty of time to remember the last ball she attended. Hindsight gives the memory a horrible tinge.

Lavinia must suspect that Catherine is likely to change her mind, because before Catherine can say another word to correct her mistake, Lavinia says, “Oh, but that is wonderful! We must get new dresses, it has been so long since we went to the store.”

“I saw some beautiful ones today,” Catherine supplies quickly. Perhaps it would not be such a terrible thing to go to the ball. Just so long as she thinks about the nice dress, and nothing else, she can almost convince herself of this.

The day of the ball arrives, Catherine and her aunt have lovely outfits, and Catherine tries to focus on this as she takes a seat. No one tries to dance with her, and that is alright. She would have just dissuaded them anyway. Lavinia looks for a moment like she is considering trying to arrange a match for Catherine, but one look is enough to discourage her, and she starts to dance with an older man that Catherine does not recognize.

Catherine sits alone for a few minutes before a man’s voice says, “Oh, what a beautiful dress you’re wearing.”

It takes a moment to realize the compliment is aimed at her. She turns around and see a tall man with curly brown hair looking inquisitively at her dress. He gives her a polite smile. She tenses, but relaxes slightly when she sees that he looks genuinely interested in the dress.

“Oh yes,” she said, “It reminded me so much of the gowns I saw while I was in Paris.”

His eyes light up. “You’ve been to Paris? I was planning on going in a few months, please I’d like to hear what you thought. Do you mind if I take a seat?”

She gives the seat up happily and they spend the next few minutes talking about the city. He’s a good listener, and asks her not just about Paris but about her whole trip to Europe. It was such a good time she had, she can’t help but think, even if there are so many bad memories that go along with it.

Catherine only starts to wonder at herself for talking so much with a strange man when he leaves to grab them both a drink, but he returns quickly and they get to talking again. He introduces himself as a Mr. Robert Gunderson. He says that he is a trader, that he’s been in New York for a few months now, but has not generally had the opportunity to go out socializing so far. The conversation with him goes so well that when he says, “Oh, I’ve been so rude, asking you all these questions just to satisfy my curiosity that I’ve quite forgotten – do you want to dance?” Catherine actually agrees.

She’s on her feet and the dancing is pleasant before Catherine catches the eye of her aunt. Lavinia is smiling so widely at her that for a moment Catherine forgets she’s actually had a pleasant night and begins to frown. But it’s only a temporary thing, because at the moment Robert makes a joke and Catherine starts laughing and by the time she’s stopped she has already forgotten about Aunt Lavinia.

It’s a nice evening. When it’s over, Robert talks to her and asks whether he might see her again. She tells him that she would like that. But then she goes to the carriage and sees how Aunt Lavinia is smiling.

“So, who was that nice gentleman you were speaking with?” she asks. Catherine feels the heat rising in her cheeks and wills herself not to blush.

“A nice man, that is all,” she answers. She tries to keep her voice cold. Lavinia’s smile is conspiratorial, welcoming. Catherine’s mouth sets in a hard line. “That is all.”

Robert comes to call later that week. Catherine tells the maid to tell him that she is not at home. She listens in the foyer and listens to the conversation as Robert receives the news. She tells herself that what she is feeling is not regret.

Surely, someone who has been taught so well in the arts of being heartless as she has been would not feel regret.

Catherine goes out walking again. She does not want to go back to that department store, because even the thought of the dresses and their wonderful patterns calls up the interested spark in Robert’s eyes. She goes walking instead in a different direction, and runs into the man who taught her the harp so long ago.

“Mr. Rougini!” she nods, and it takes a moment for the man to recognize her.

“Oh, Catherine,” he says, positively beaming , “It’s been so long! Have you found another tutor for the harp?”

“No,” Catherine laughs. “I have not played at all. I do not have the ear or the talent for it.”

The man laughs. “I suppose that might be true,” he says, “but there are a great deal many people whom that does not discourage at all. After all,” he continues, “a deficit in natural skill may be made up for with practice, but there is nothing that can make up long for a deficit in practice. How can you be so sure that you would be bad at it, if you do not try a little bit more?”

“My father seemed quite disinterested in the possibility of me continuing,” Catherine says. She has become so good at talking about her father in public. Her insides twist, but she gives no sign. She merely continues to smile faintly.

“I hear your father had passed,” Mr. Rougini says, and Catherine nods. “My condolences. May he rest in peace. But, as he is resting, I cannot help but think: he will not hear you play the harp. So why worry too much about his opinion on the topic?”

“I suppose he will not,” Catherine admits. “But it seems so strange to me –.” She cannot think
of how she meant to complete the sentence.

Luckily Mr. Rougini supplies the words she was looking for. “It seems so strange to you that he is not there to direct you? Believe me, Catherine, many young ladies such as yourself find themselves in such a bind after their father or husband passes. Obedience is a wonderful virtue, but once someone is gone it is too easy to fall into the trap of being beholden to the memory of someone. If you wish to learn to play the harp, learn now. Do not dwell on whether or not your father would have approved.”

Catherine cannot help but smile. “I think you are right, Mr. Rougini. Perhaps we can do another lesson?”

“Please, don’t think I was just trying to give you advice so that I would have another student,” Mr. Rougini laughs. “But if you would wish to resume lessons, I would be more than happy to teach you again.”

Catherine returns home to find that Lavinia is out. The servants are nowhere to be found. The house is empty. She looks around and appreciates again how big the house is. She looks at the piano, the desk where her father kept his cigars, the cabinet where she locked away her embroidery. Such a big house and somewhere along the lines she let it be filled up with ghosts. But memories cannot hurt her and they make for bad company. She goes to her writing desk and starts a letter to a certain Mr. Robert Gunderson, apologizing for missing him and asking if she might have the pleasure of his company sometime soon.

 

When Robert comes over, Lavinia once again begs off, citing a migraine. Catherine gives her a knowing look and shakes her head slightly, but Robert asks, “Is your aunt going to be alright?”

“She just has these fits,” Catherine responds. “Would you care for a tour of the house?”

Robert is still the dutiful listener she remembers from the ball, asking questions about the history of the house (which Catherine only knows a little about), about her father (whom Catherine does not want to speak much about, and whom he stops asking about). They end up in the foyer.

“It seems a lovely house for just you and your aunt,” he says. “Have you considered moving in with other family?”

“No,” she answers. “I quite like it here.”

“I suppose there are a great deal of memories.”

“Yes,” she says, “and sometimes I think I like it despite that fact.” He laughs, as if she had said something clever. She smiles but tries not to. After all, she thinks, she is not a clever person, why should she enjoy the sound of someone laughing as if she was?

“It has been a while since a man has come to call on me,” she finds herself saying.

He looks genteelly puzzled. “I find that hard to believe. A young woman, of your grace, left all alone?”

“Oh,” she says, “please do not try to be charming. I despite charming men.”

He laughs again and looks contemplative. “Perhaps a wise choice.”

“No,” Catherine shakes her head. Robert’s eyebrows purse, and she explains, “My father left me quite a fortune, and there are men I think who would chase that fortune and not care for me at all.” To Robert’s credit, he nods and does not try to contradict her. She continues, “And I think in response to that – I’ve well, I’ve made myself cruel in response and I’m not sure if I can be anything else.”

“You do not strike me as cruel,” he says, his voice soft.

“No,” she answers, equally softly. “And once I was not.”

A pause, and then Robert says, “Well, I will say, that perhaps you think you have been quite cruel and that I have just not seen it yet, but it seems to me that there is so much else to you. And I am prepared to risk seeing this cruelty you speak of, if that is what it takes to know you better.”

Robert talks about Europe again. He talks about New York, and how he is finding it, and Catherine chimes in to speak about her favorite parts of the city. Conversation has never come naturally to her, but there is something about Robert that puts her at ease.

She is so at ease that when he says he must go, but wonders terribly if he could get a kiss before he leaves, that she says yes to that too. It’s chaste and kind and only after he is gone does Catherine realize how not at all like Morris it is.

Her lessons start not long after that. She is, to put it simply, quite awful at the harp. Mr. Rougini gives a grating smile as she plays.

“I don’t think I have the ear for this,” Catherine finally says.

“That was not the question I was going to ask,” Mr. Rougini says. “Rather – did you like it?”

Catherine had not been expecting that question and she has to think to come up with the answer. There is something oddly relaxing about playing the harp. She nods. “Well, then, you can develop a sense of rhythm and sound later. Just as long as you keep practicing. Unless you are still intent on listening to what your father told you so long ago?”

“No,” Catherine says, “I think you are right, and I will try not to live just by the memory of my father.”

Mr. Rougini smiles, and Catherine shares a shy smile back. She and Robert are supposed to go out ice skating sometime soon; she’s never done that before. Soon the house will be filled with all new memories.