From Boston Evening Transcript December 22, 1900
Miss Amidon appeared, or rather the smoke which indicated her presence, appeared, on Christmas morning. The old Blake house, or mansion, for it was pretentious enough to be called a mansion, had been vacant for ten years, ever since the death of its last owner, John Blake. The Blake House had an evil name. There had been more deaths in it than in any house in the village, within a given space of time. The head of every family who had lived in the Blake house had died within a short time of coming into possession. In twenty-four hours after John Blake's death his entire family had fled. The widow was quite a young woman, and life was dear to her, and women were said to be no more exempt from the grewsome mortality than men. She had fled with her children and her servants to her father's home in a town some sixteen miles distant, and to the scandal of her neighbors her husband's body had been transported thither for the funeral services, then brought back to Westover for interment. People said openly that they thought it was a terrible thing to drag around a man in such a fashion after he was dead, and yet there was over all of them a sort of sympathetic horror.
Tales were told as to the state in which the Blake house had been left, with unwashed dishes in the sink, flatirons rusting on the stove, with the remnants of a meal on the dining table, with food drying up in the pantry, the beds unmade — everything forsaken — in that panic-stricken exodus. Mrs. Blake had been a nervous, delicate woman; she had seemed to see the death shadow fall athwart her the moment after her husband had breathed his last. She had not waited to pack her wardrobe even, but had fled with a wild impulse of terror with her children in hand, and could never be persuaded to set foot in the house again. Her clothes were said to be still hanging in the closets, but those, of course, could not be seen by the curious minded who flattened their noses against the blank windowpanes from time to time. They knew positively that the flatirons were rusting on the stove; that the untidy dishes were on the table, but some things were undiscovered, as the house was fast locked, and the people of Westover were scrupulously honest, although some of the younger and more lawless had broken, in their eagerness of curiosity, a few panes of glass. The entire Blake family had been in Europe for years, and it was reported that the widow was about to marry for the second time.
The house had been offered for sale, but no purchaser had appeared. It had been vacant ten years, when that Christmas morning the neighbors saw smoke curling out of the chimney. They called one another to look; the windows in the vicinity were filled with staring faces. People lingered before the house. There was even talk of calling out the fire department, or the sheriff. Nobody had been seen entering the Blake house. People surmised that there might be a burglar, or a conflagration.
Then came the agent, who had charge of the property — a middle-aged lawyer of Westover — and declared that the house had been sold to a Miss Amidon. He was not disposed to be incommunicative, but he had little to communicate. The sale had been effected through a real estate agent in the city. He had not seen the purchaser. He knew nothing about her, except that her name was Amidon, and the price which she had paid for the house.
Everybody in the village knew that before sundown; then they knew nothing more. It seemed for a long time as if they never would know anything more — that is, anything of especial interest. Miss Amidon was never seen outside her ill-fated house. It was not certain that she was ever seen at the window. She was said to keep one servant, an old, harsh-faced woman, who was everywhere. The old woman had a keenly intelligent face, but was so silent as to her own affairs, and those of her mistress, as to seem almost dumb. She seldom answered questions, having an ingenious method of parrying them with others. If an inquisitive woman stopped her on the street and inquired concerning the state of Miss Amidon's health, she immediately asked solicitously for her mother or her ailing little boy.
This old woman was known as Eliza: nobody knew her last name. She was a faithful attendant at church. She was a large customer at the village stores. She became acquainted with the people in an amazingly short time, although they discovered so little concerning her or her mistress. She admitted that she had been in her present service over fifty years, and that was all. People watched and listened, and questioned, but to no avail.
As time went on there began to be varying reports about Miss Amidon. One and another had seen her at a window. These reports were of a strangely conflicting nature. Some people declared, and they were for the most part romantic young girls and young men, that she was very young and beautiful, with a face like an angel, looking out of a cloud of golden hair. Others were positive that she was old and austere, and forbidding even to menace, and a few intimated that she had a hideous deformity that her face was like nothing human.
Some particularly fanciful and nervous children became afraid to pass the Blake house. If a shadow crossed a window they ran home screaming to their mothers. And all the time everybody, except a few rationalistic souls who were superior to such superstitions, waited for Miss Amidon to die. The bell never tolled unexpectedly of a morning but the first conclusion was that Miss Amidon had fallen a victim to the ghastly influence of the old Blake house. Nobody dreamed that she would live a year. No other owner had lived so long.
But the months went on, and she still survived. Gradually the house assumed a more prosperous, or a better cared for appearance. Some schoolgirls, peeping in a window, discovered that the dishes were cleared away from the table, that the rooms had been put in dainty order.
The old servant-woman Eliza was herself of a singularly neat appearance. She was small and withered, and clad in old-fashioned garments, which had been kept punctiliously neat. Her old face, plain almost to repulsiveness, had the yellow purity of old ivory. In spite of her state of servitude she had a manner which carried a certain awe and respect to the hearts of the people. But they attributed it to the mysterious glamour of her mistress, Miss Amidon, which was also in some measure over her dependant.
On the eve of the Christmas after the smoke had been seen coming out of the chimney of the Blake house for the first time, everybody in the village had magnificent Christmas presents. The presents were not only rich and abundant, but partook of the marvellous, inasmuch as everybody had just what he wanted. There was in no one instance a mistake. It never once happened that one had what another wanted, but always what he had longed for, perhaps for years. One housewife had a set of china which had been the desire of her heart ever since her marriage. A young girl had a turquoise ring, her sister a piano; a young man, a saddle-horse; a poor man had his house mortgage paid, and felt his full stature for the first time for years. The church debt was cleared; the little village library had a great gift of books. The village doctor, whose circuit was long, over a cold, hilly country, had a close carriage. The children had toys of which they had had dreams, but never hopes.
Everybody in the whole village had something, and nobody had the slightest idea as to who could have sent the gifts, which seemed to imply such a marvellous insight for the needs of the beneficiaries as almost to encourage a renewed belief in Santa Claus. Many children did believe that their presents came from him, and their elders were puzzled.
For some reason, on that Christmas day after the wonderful deluge of gifts, the belief that Miss Amidon was young and very beautiful was strengthened. A number who had passed the Blake house declared positively that she had been distinctly visible at a window — that nothing was ever seen like her angel face. Some even claimed to have heard sweet music from the long-silent piano. They who suspected the mysterious woman to be stricken with some hideous deformity, isolating herself in her shame and humiliation from the eyes of her fellow creatures, had always been in the minority, but before the next Christmas they had weakened in their own belief.
When the Blake house had been occupied by Miss Amidon two years, and the third Christmas was approaching, one could scarcely be found in the whole village who did not believe her to be of marvellous beauty and angelic character, keeping her self apart in this fashion because of some sorrow which unfitted her sensitive heart for contact with the world. People had begun to suspect that their Christmas gifts of the year before had come from her, although they had no good grounds for so doing, except the fact they knew of no one else in their midst who could have given them.
When the next Christmas Eve came, there were the gifts again, even more marvellous than before. All the children had the presents to which their aspirations had grown in a year's time, and it was so with their elders. It was noticeable that the gifts of this year were of a higher order than those of the year before, seeming to imply a higher order of desires in the recipients, for again everybody had his dearest wish realized. The gifts were not merely materially useful, but useful in a higher sense, fitting the needs of the soul as well as the body. The whole village seemed to have gained, as by a species of celestial convulsion, a higher level by their Christmas gifts.
The effect upon an entire community of having their innocent desires gratified was unspeakably elevating. They were not only happier but better, and there was a settled belief that Miss Amidon was young and beautiful. Some of the most carping souls in the place had seen her fair face at the window that day, and believed they had not only heard strains from the piano, but a singing voice of heavenly sweetness.
But on Christmas morning the neighbors saw to their great concern that there was no smoke coming from the chimney of the old Blake house. The woman who lived in the next house sent her little boy over to knock at the kitchen door and inquire of old Eliza if her mistress were ill. The little boy went, carrying an “autoharp” which had been his Christmas gift, and from which he could not bear to be separated for a minute. He played on it as he went, and his little sister ran along with him, clasping her new doll. Then they came back, round-eyed, though the little boy still swept his hand across his autoharp, and his little sister kissed her doll frequently, and reported that nobody had answered their knocks, and that there was not a sound to be heard in the house.
Finally a crowd collected around, and the house indeed seemed full of silence. The doors and windows were fast. Then the agent who had sold the property, and the sheriff declared that it was justifiable to force an entrance and the locksmith was called.
When the people pressed into the old Blake house, which had not been entered by any save the owners for so long, they penetrated all the echoing rooms. These were in spotless order, but very cold. At last they found in a chamber old Eliza lying smiling on the bed, quite dead. The doctor said that she had been dead for hours, and her mouth was fixed in that ineffable smile.
They could not find Miss Amidon anywhere; they never found her. They never fairly knew the true solution of the mystery. The village lawyer held in trust a sum of money and a deed of the old Blake house, whereby it was given to the village for a home for poor children and old people. He declared that old Eliza and Miss Amidon were one; but he was a practical, unimaginative kind of man. There were those who never believed that old Eliza was Miss Amidon, but clung all their lives to their faith in their glimpses of her angel face and golden hair in the window, and there were others still who claimed that they saw not old Eliza, the harsh-faced servant woman, lying dead on Christmas morning, but that other woman who had become real to their grateful imaginations, with her face of a young angel, and that smile of eternal Christmas peace on her lips.