In an old rickety building on the rock above an old grass-grown square in the city of Polchester live three old ladies. The house was a windy, creaky, rain-bitten place where tthe ladies lived as tenants. One of the tenants, Miss Beringer, has a rather nervous personality but is befriended by a kindly neighbour named Mrs. Amorest. Soon, however, she meets the third tenant, a strange woman who takes an interest in her one treasured possession, an amber figurine. Although it is the morning of Christmas Eve, the mood in the house soon turns ominous, despite Mrs Amorest’s best efforts to foster a festive spirit.
237 pages, with a reading time of ~3.75 hours (59,499 words), and first published in 1924. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2014.
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Quite a number of years ago there was an old rickety building on the rock above Seatown in Polchester, and it was one of a number in an old grass-grown square known as Pontippy Square.
In this house at one time or another lived three old ladies, Mrs. Amorest, Miss May Beringer, and Mrs. Agatha Payne. They were really old ladies, because at the time of these events Mrs. Amorest was seventy-one, Miss Beringer seventy-three, and Mrs. Payne seventy. Mrs. Amorest and Mrs. Payne were wonderfully strong women for their age, but Miss Beringer felt her back a good deal.
It was a windy, creaky, rain-bitten dwelling-place for three old ladies. Mrs. Payne lived in it always; although she had fine health her legs were weak and would suddenly desert her. What she hated above anything else in life was that she should be ludicrous to people, and the thought that one day she might tumble down in Polchester High Street, there in front of everybody, determined her seclusion. She was a proud and severe woman was Mrs. Payne.
Mrs. Amorest and Mrs. Payne had lived in these rooms for some time. Miss Beringer was quite a newcomer–so new a comer in fact that the other two ladies had not as yet seen her. The lodgers on that top floor of the house had the same charwoman, Mrs. Bloxam, and she came in at eight in the morning, cooked the three breakfasts, stayed until ten and tidied the rooms. After ten o’clock the three old ladies were alone on their floor of the house, very nearly alone indeed in the whole building, because the second floor had been a store for furniture but was now deserted, and the ground floor was the offices of a strange religious sect known as the “Fortified Christians.” The only “Fortified Christian” ever seen was a pale dirty young man with a blue chin who sometimes unlocked a grimy door, sat down at a grimier table, and wrote letters. Mrs. Amorest had once met him in the ground-floor passage, and it had been like meeting a ghost.
Mrs. Amorest herself stayed indoors a good deal, because three pair of stairs were a great number for an old lady, however strong she might be.
She looked an old lady of course with her snow-white hair, her charming wrinkled face, and her neat compact little body. She had also eyes as bright as the sea with the sun on it, and a smile both radiant and confiding. But she was like many other English old ladies, I suppose. I suppose so, because she never attracted the least attention in Polchester when she walked about. Nobody said, “Why, there goes a charming old lady!”
She had never known a day’s illness in her life. When she had borne her son, Brand, she had been up and about within a week of his birth. And yet she had none of that aggressive good health that is so customary with physically triumphant people. She never thought about it as indeed she very seldom thought about herself at all.
Another thing that one must tell about Mrs. Amorest is that she was very poor. Very poor indeed, and of course she would not have lived in that draughty uncomfortable room at the top of the old house had it not been so.
She liked comfort and pretty things, and she had been well acquainted with both when her husband had been alive. Her husband, Ambrose Amorest, had been a poet, a poet-dramatist (“Tintagel,” A Drama in Five Acts, Elden Foster, 1880; and “The Slandered Queen,” A Drama in Five Acts, Elden Foster, 1883, were his two best-known plays). For a while things had gone well with them. Amorest had inherited from his father. Then quite suddenly he had died from double pneumonia, and it had been found that he had left nothing at all behind him save manuscripts and debts. A common affair. Every novel dealing with poets tells the same story. Brand, the only child, had at the age of eighteen gone off to seek his fortune in America. For a while things had gone well with him, then silence. It was now three years since Mrs. Amorest had heard from him.
Indeed, the old lady was now very thoroughly alone in the world. Her only relation living was her cousin Francis Bulling, who also lived in Polchester. It was because of him, in the first place, that she had come to Polchester; she thought that it would be like home to be near a relation, the only one she had. But it had not been very much like home. Mrs. Bulling had not liked her; and even after Mrs. Bulling’s death, when Cousin Francis had been a grim old man, sixty-eight years of age, tortured with gout and all alone in his grim old house, he had not wanted to see her.
He was rich, but he had never given her a penny; and then, one day, when she came to see him (she never thought of the money but felt it her duty occasionally to do so), he had laughed and asked her what she would do with twenty thousand pounds a year.