a do-it-yourself MiSTing
John came frequently to the house to receive the commands of Melissa’s aunt, and brought such things as they wanted. Her aunt also sometimes went home with him, leaving the keys of the house with Melissa, but locking the gate and taking the key of that with her. She generally returned before sunset.
Meredith: Mmm, first it’s “I want you, John”, and now this . . .
David: John’s wife isn’t very bright, is she?
Lucy: She’s from the non-bright social class. They say “La me!” instead of “Merciful heavens!”
Linda: Obviously not one of the Elect.
When Melissa was so far recovered as to walk out, she found that the house was situated on an eminence, about one hundred yards from the Sound. The yard was large and extensive. Within the enclosure was a spacious garden, now overrun with brambles and weeds. A few medinical and—
David: I didn’t just say that, did I.
Hugh and Meredith [1804 and 1811 texts]: Medical.
Linda [1836 text]: Medicinal.
odoriferous herbs were scattered here and there, and a few solitary flowers overtopped the tangling briars below; but there was plenty of fruit on the shrubbery and trees. The outbuildings were generally in a ruinous situation.
Linda: A ruinous condition.
The cemetery was the most perfect, as it was built of hewn stone and marble, and had best withstood the ravages of time. The rooms in the house were mostly empty and decaying: the main building was firm and strong, as was also the extended wall which enclosed the whole. She found that although her aunt, when they first arrived, had led her through several upper rooms to the chamber they inhabited,
Hugh: The chamber she inhabited.
yet there was from thence a direct passage to the hall.
Linda: This architectural detail will be of crucial significance to later plot developments.
Lucy: Or at least it would be, if Mitchell didn’t promptly forget all about it.
The prospect was not disagreeable.
Meredith: Well, thank God for that; heaven forbid she be held captive in a barren desert somewhere.
West, all was wilderness, from which a brook wound along—
Hugh: From a brook which wound along.
David: Does the wilderness emerge from the brook, or the brook from the wilderness?
a little distance from the garden wall. North, were the uneven grounds she had crossed when she came there, bounded by distant groves and hills. East, beautiful meadows and fields,
Lucy: Honestly, Mitchell, you’re not writing a text-adventure game.
To the WEST you see a brook.
You can’t do that here.
Linda: The old maid didn’t pack Melissa’s swimsuit, so escaping by water is obviously out of the question.
arrayed in flowery green, sloped to the salt marshes or sandy banks of the Sound, or ended in the long white beaches which extended far into the sea. South, was the Sound of Long Island.
Hugh: The Sound and Long Island.
David: I guess it depends on visibility.
Melissa passed much of her time in tracing the ruins of this antiquated place, in viewing the white sails as they passed up and down the Sound, and in listening to the songs of the thousand various birds which frequented the garden and the forest. She could have been contented here to have buried her afflictions,
Hugh: Buried all her afflictions.
and for ever to retire from the world, could Alonzo but have resided within those walls. “What will he think has become of me,” she would say, while the disconsolate tear glittered in her eye.
Hugh: The disconsolate tear of reflection.
Her aunt had frequently urged her to yield to her father’s injunctions, regain her liberty, and marry Beauman; and she every day became more solicitous and impertinent.
Hugh: Importunate, you illiterates.
A subject so hateful to Melissa sometimes provoked her to tears; at others her keen resentment.
Meredith [reaching for magnifying glass]: Our soulmate from the past has an editorial comment.
Her keen and just resentment . . . Yeah, that about covers it.
She therefore, when the weather was fair, passed much of her time in the garden and adjoining walks, wishing to be as much out of her aunt’s company as possible.
One day John came there early in the morning, and Melissa’s aunt went home with him. The day passed away, but she did not return. Melissa sat up until a late hour, expecting her;
Meredith: A late hour in the night.
David and Linda [in unison]: Of the night.
Hugh: For heaven’s sake, don’t quibble so. The important thing is that Melissa is alone.
Meredith: So’s John. He sent his wife and kids to spend the night with her mother so he could enjoy a nice long visit with the old maid.
she then went to the gate, and found it was fast locked, returned, locked and bolted the doors of the house, went to bed and slept as soundly as she had done since her residence in the old mansion.
Linda: Later in the night, when her aunt returned, Melissa put the blanket over her head and pretended not to hear her pounding at the house door.
“I have at least,” she said, “escaped the disgusting curtain-lecture about marrying Beauman.”
The next day her aunt returned. “I was quite concerned about you, child,” said she; “how did you sleep?” “Never better,” she answered, “since I have been here.” “I had forgotten,” said her aunt, “that my rents become due this week.
Lucy: We know the season is autumn, so if we’re still on the English fiscal calendar, we’re talking Michaelmas quarter-day, or September 29.
I was detained until late by some of my tenants; John was out, and I dare not return in the night alone. I must go back to-day. It will take me a week to settle my business. If I am obliged to stay out again I will send one of John’s daughters to sleep with you.”
Meredith: Oh, yuk. They’ve probably got lice.
“You need not give yourself that trouble,” replied Melissa; “I am under no apprehension of staying here alone; nothing can get into or out of these premises.”
Linda [as aunt]: Nice try, kid, but it’s not your safety I’m thinking of.
“Well, thou hast wonderful courage, child,” said her aunt; “but I shall be as frequently here as possible, and as soon as my business is settled, I shall be absent no more.” So saying, she bade Melissa good morning, and set off for her residence at the dwelling of John.
She did not return in two days. The second night of her absence, Melissa was sitting in her chamber reading, when she heard a noise as of several people trampling in the yard below. She arose, cautiously raised the window, and looked out. It was extremely dark; she thought she might have been discovered.
Hugh: Hey! Wake up! It was extremely dark; she could discern nothing. All was still and she thought she might have been deceived.
Her aunt came the next day, and told her she was obliged to go into the country to collect some debts of those to whom she had rented lands: she should be gone a few days, and as soon as she returned should come there. “The keys of the house,” said she, “I shall leave with you. The gate I shall lock, and leave that key with John, who will come here as often as necessary, to assist you, and see if you want any thing.” She then went off, leaving Melissa not dissatisfied with the prospect of her absence.
Melissa amused herself in evenings by reading in the few books her aunt had brought there,
Lucy: Sermons preaching filial obedience, novels depicting the dreadful fates of girls who opposed their parents’ wishes, and etiquette manuals for rich men’s wives.
and in the day time, in walking around the yard and garden, or in traversing the rooms of the antique building. In some, were the remains of ancient furniture, others were entirely empty. Cobwebs and mouldering walls were the principal ornaments left.
One evening as she was about retiring to rest, she thought she heard the same trampling noise in the yard, as on a former occasion. She stepped softly to the window, suddenly raised it, and held out the candle.
Meredith [as Melissa]: Hello! Burglars and housebreakers! I’m up here!
She listened and—
Hugh [exasperated]: The more thrilling it gets, the more you start cutting lines. Pay attention now:
—held out the candle. She fancied she saw the glimpse of two or three dark forms pass swiftly along, but so indistinctly that it was impossible to determine whether they were real, or only shadows produced by objects intervening the light of the candle. She listened and gazed with anxious solicitude, but discovered nothing more. All was still;
Meredith, Linda, David [defiantly]: All was silent.
she shut the window, and in a short time went to bed.
Meredith: Being blessed with the nerves of your average turnip, Melissa instantly put the whole thing out of her mind and calmly went to sleep.
Some time in the night she was suddenly awakened by a sharp sound, apparently near her. She started in a trembling panic, but endeavoured to compose herself with the idea, that something had fallen from the shelves. As she lay musing upon the incident, she heard loud noises in the rooms below, succeeded by an irregular and confused number of voices, and presently after, footsteps ascending the stairs which led to her chamber. She trembled; a cold chilly sweat ran down her face. Directly the doors below opened and shut with a quick and violent motion. And soon after she was convinced that she distinctly heard a whispering in her room. She raised herself up in the bed and cast inquisitive eyes towards her chamber door.
David: Which one? It’s only a couple of pages since they made such a point of there being two ways into the room.
All was darkness—no new object was visible—no sound was heard, and she again lay down.
Linda: Light a candle, Melissa. You’ll see the intruders better.
Her mind was too much agitated and alarmed to sleep. She had evidently heard sounds, footsteps and voices in the house, and whisperings which appeared to be in her room. The yard gate was locked, of which John had the key. She was confident that no person could ascend or get over the wall of the enclosure. But if that were practicable, how was it possible that any human being could enter the house? She had the key of every door, and they were all fast locked, and yet she had heard them furiously open and shut. A thought darted into her mind,—was it not a plan which her aunt had contrived in order to frighten her into a compliance with her wishes? But then how could she enter the house without keys? This might be done with the use of a false key.
David: In 1804, the idea of a duplicate set of keys was alien to the American character.
But from whence did the whisperings proceed, which appeared close to her bedside? Possibly it might be conveyed through the key-hole of her chamber door.
Lucy: Singular. Second time this chapter.
These thoughts tended in some degree, to allay her fears;—they were possibilities, at least, however improbable.
As she lay thus musing, a hand, cold as the icy fingers of death, grasped her arm, which lay on the outside of the bed clothes. She screamed convulsively, and sprang up in the bed. Nothing was to be seen—no noise was heard. She had not time to reflect. She flew out of bed, ran to the fire, and lighted a candle.
Linda: Conveniently for the burglars, the fire itself shed no light.
Meredith: It’s one of those new Dark Fires™. The aunt had it installed just last month.
Her heart beat rapidly. She cast timid glances around the room, cautiously searching every corner, and examining the door.
All things were in the same state she had left them when she went to bed. Her door was locked in the same manner;
David: I think we’ll have to face up to it. Mitchell has forgotten that there are two doors.
Meredith: So much for Chekhov’s Door.
no visible being was in the room except herself. She sat down, pondering on these strange events.
Linda: She what? [Reads 1836 text:]
. . . except herself; how then could she account for these events?
Lucy: In 1836, young ladies knew better than to sit down and ponder when there were burglars in the house.
Was it not probable that—
Hugh: Was it not possible.
David: Does the reader really care if the odds are more or less than 50 percent?
she was right in her first conjectures respecting their being the works of her aunt, and effected by her agents and instrumentality? All were possible, except the cold hand which had grasped her arm. Might not this be the effect of a terrified and heated imagination? Or if false keys had been made use of to enter the rooms below, might they not also be used to enter her chamber?
Linda: In case anyone cares, I cut that whole sentence on the grounds of pointlessness and redundancy.
Lucy: There’s a logical flaw in that argument, but I can’t put my finger on it.
But could her room be unlocked, persons enter,
Hugh: A person enter.
Meredith: By 1811, readers were willing to accept the idea of one person sneaking in. It was only if a whole crowd of housebreakers showed up that they’d start getting suspicious.
approach her bed, depart and re-lock the door, while she was awake, without her hearing them?
She knew she could not go to sleep, and she determined not to go to bed again that night. She took up a book, but her spirits had been too much disordered by the past scenes to permit her to read. She looked out of the window. The moon had arisen and cast a pale, imperfect lustre over the landscape. She recollected the opening and shutting of the doors—perhaps they were still open. The thought was alarming.
David: If a perfect stranger could get in, then she might be able to . . . uhm . . . Oh, hurry, Melissa! Lock the doors!
She opened her chamber door,
and with the candle in her hand, cautiously descended the stairs, casting an inquisitive eye in every direction, and stopping frequently to listen.—She advanced to the door; it was locked. She examined the others; they were in the same situation. She turned to go up stairs, when a loud whisper echoed through the hall expressing “Away! Away!”
Lucy: Where’s our OED list? That’s another example of copspeak: “express” introducing direct discourse.
She flew like lightning to her chamber, relocked the door—
David: I take it back. Mitchell didn’t forget about the second entrance; he changed his mind. And now he’s trying to pound his retconned reality into everyone’s head.
and flung herself, almost breathless, into a chair.
Meredith: This is a new interpretation of the word “away” that I have never seen before.
As soon as her scattered senses collected, she concluded that whatever had been in the house—
Hugh: That whoever had been in the house.
Linda: Naah. “Whatever” is scarier.
was there still. She resolved to go out no more until day, which soon began to discolour the east with a fainter blue, then purple streaks, intermingled with a dusky whiteness, ascended in pyramidical columns—
Hugh: In pyramidal columns.
Meredith: In pyramidial columns.
Linda: What’s he describing anyway—some kind of obelisk?
David: I think it’s a headless mushroom cloud. At daybreak, photons move vertically.
to the zenith; these fading slowly away, the eastern horizon became fringed with the golden spangles of early morn. A small spot of ineffable brightness succeeded, and immediately the sun burst over the verge of creation, deluging the world in a flood of unbounded light and glory.
As soon as the morning had a little advanced, Melissa ventured out. She proceeded with hesitating steps, carefully scrutinizing every object which met her sight. She examined every door; they were all fast. She critically searched every room, closet, &c. above and below. She then took a light and descended into the cellar—here her inquisition was the same.
Lucy: Oh, no fair. The author didn’t tell us there were chained prisoners and implements of torture to go with the Gothic motif.
Thus did she thoroughly and strictly examine and search every part of the house from the garret to the cellar, but could find nothing altered, changed, or removed; no outlet, no signs of there having been any being in the house the evening before, except herself.
She then unlocked the outer door and proceeded to the gate, which she found locked as usual. She next examined the yard, the garden, and all the out houses.
David: A normal person at this juncture would be searching for a ladder.
Nothing could be discovered of any person having been recently there. She next walked around by the wall, the whole circle of the enclosure. She was convinced that the unusual height of the wall rendered it impossible for any one to get over it. It was constructed of several tier of hewed timbers, and both sides of it were as smooth as glass. On the top, long spikes were thickly driven in, sharpened at both ends.
Linda: Pointy sticks! Hurrah!
It was surrounded on the outside by a deep wide moat, which was nearly filled with water. Over this moat was a draw-bridge, on the road leading to the gate, which was drawn up, and John had the key.
The events of the past night, therefore, remained inscrutable. It must be that her aunt was the agent who had managed this extraordinary machinery.
She found John at the house when she returned. “Does madam want any thing to-day?” asked he. “Has my aunt returned?” enquired Melissa. “Not yet,” he replied. “How long has she been gone?” she asked. “Four days,” replied John, after counting his fingers,
Hugh: “One . . . two . . . three . . . Yup. Still got all eleven.”
“and she will not be back under four or five more.” “Has the key of the gate been constantly in your possession?” asked she. “The keys of the gate and draw-bridge,” he replied, “have not been out of my possession for a moment since your aunt has been gone.” “Has any person been to enquire for me or my aunt,” she enquired, “since I have been here?”
David [as John]: There was some guy named Alonzo snooping around, but we buried him under the summer squash.
“No, madam,” said he, “not a single person.”
Melissa knew not what to think; she could not give up the idea of false keys—perhaps her aunt had returned to her father’s.—Perhaps the draw-bridge had been let down, the gate opened, and the house entered by means of false keys. Her father would as soon do this as confine her in this solitary place;
Meredith: It’s a good thing the author started out by saying Melissa didn’t know what to think. I count four ideas there, and not one of them has anything to do with any of the others.
and he would go all lengths to induce her, either by terror, persuasion or threats, to relinquish Alonzo and marry Beauman.
A thought impressed her mind which gave her some consolation. It was possible to secure the premises so that no one could enter even by the aid of false keys. She asked John if he would assist her that day. “In anything you wish, madam,” he replied. She then directed him to go to work. Staples and iron bars were found in different parts of the building, with which he secured the doors and windows, so that they could be opened only on the inside. The gate, which swung in, was secured in the same manner. She then asked John if he was willing to leave the keys of the gate and the draw-bridge with her. “Perhaps I may as well,” said he;
Linda: I mean, it’s not like she’s a prisoner or anything, so there’s no reason not to give her the keys.
“for if you bar the gate and let down the bridge,
David: Doesn’t he mean raise the bridge?
I cannot get in myself until you let me in.” John handed her the keys. “When I come,” said he, “I will halloo, and you must let me in.” This she promised to do, and John departed.*
* Of the place where Melissa was confined, as described in the foregoing pages, scarce a trace now remains. By the events of the revolution, the premises fell into other hands. The mansion, out houses and walls were torn down, the cemetery levelled, the moat filled up; the locusts and elm trees were cut down; all obstructions were removed, and the yard and garden converted into a beautiful meadow. An elegant farm-house is now erected on the place where John’s hut then stood and the neighbourhood is thinly settled.
Meredith: How thoughtful of the author to provide these details. Now every time anyone in coastal Connecticut sets foot on a beautiful meadow, they’ll stop and wonder whether they’re walking across a grave.
The night was
exceedingly dark . . .
That night Melissa let
down the bridge . . .