Read Leeway Cottage Online

Authors: Beth Gutcheon

Leeway Cottage

L
EEWAY
C
OTTAGE

Beth Gutcheon

For Frank Kelley, magister optimus

Contents

T
he funeral is over. The ashes, in matching urns, are
on the mantelpiece. There is no way to know whose last will or testament is in force, so they have decided to close the house as always, and leave it for the winter. Next summer, when the flood tides of memories and mourning currently swamping them have receded, they will be better able to cope.

They have decided that each of them will take home one thing from Leeway for the winter, for comfort. They are going through the house somberly, saying their goodbyes in their different ways, each looking for one object that will keep the dead alive and close a little longer.

In the back of a closet in the upstairs hall, Eleanor opens an ancient garment bag and finds a shapeless and tarnished handful of ribbons and tulle. She gives a shriek.

Monica and Jimmy emerge from back bedrooms. “What
is
that?”

“It's The Dress!”

“She
kept
it all these years?”

The three of them stare at it, the debutante dress of legend. It is more of a rag than the couture dream they had imagined. Eleanor puts it back on the hanger and zips it back up in its bag, where it will wait, ready to be called as evidence in a yet-to-be-settled case of outrage in which all the principal parties are now dead.

Although none of them has said so, what each of them most wants to take home is the houseguest book.

Monica finds it.

“I've decided,” she calls from the dining room.

Eleanor comes in from the big living room where she has been scanning the bookshelves, and sees her sister holding the very thing she was looking for.

“Finders keepers,” says Monica.

“Where was it?”

Jimmy is coming down the stairs.

“In there,” says Monica, pointing to an antique tavern table their parents used as a sideboard. “In the drawer.”

Jimmy walks in holding a framed picture of their father and mother sitting in the stern of
The Rolling Stone.
They are at anchor in some island cove, Burnt Coat, or Pretty Marsh. The sunset flares gold on the water behind them, and they are tanned and happy, holding cocktails and wearing sunglasses and smiles. Jimmy has been about to announce this as his choice when he sees the guest book in Monica's hand.

“I was looking for that!” he says.

“It turns out we all were,” says Eleanor.

“Where was it?”

The sisters point to the tavern table.

“I say ‘finders keepers,'” says Monica.

“Unless one of us owns the table.” Their mother has employed her sunset years in wandering around the house promising things to people, often the same thing two or three times, and applying stickers delivering her orders from beyond the grave.

Eleanor kneels down to peer under the table. She pulls her head out and reaches for the glasses on a cord around her neck. She pokes her head under again and reads, “‘Property of James Brant Moss.'” She stands up and looks at her sister, and they both say, “Oh, surprise.”

M
ore than one person in the hundred-odd years
since it was built has wished that the walls of Leeway Cottage could talk.

 

The house sits on the crest of a hill overlooking Great Spruce Bay in Dundee, Maine, where once Homer Carleton grazed his sheep, and before that his father, Horace, went broke trying to dam a stream and develop a waterworks. There are still rusting cables and huge blocks of dressed granite to be found at the stream or in the woods, to the delight of the summer children who arrived after the Carletons sold up and moved inland.

Before the Carletons, generations of Abenaki Indians made their winter camp in the lee of this hill, and left an important kitchen midden at the foot of the meadow. This was found and dug out in the 1920s by a local enthusiast, to the despair of scientists who came after him. (Gladdy and Tommy McClintock and Annabee Brant loved watching the Enthusiast fiddling away with his brushes and little diggers all one summer when they were children. They often pitched in with trowels and garden spades in the evening, after the man had gone back to the village for supper.) Archeologists who arrived in later decades hoped to learn the structure of the Indian shelters and their social arrangements: ephemeral truths of how lives were lived, conveyed less by the objects themselves (of which the museum at Orono already had plenty) than by their placement in their surroundings when found. Too late: what was left of the midden at Leeway Cottage was a large pit turned into an underground clubhouse by the McClintock children, and a shoe box left to the household by the happy amateur, full of useless arrowheads, shells, and bone fragments, and ever after stored under the pantry sink.

Though it has not yet been discovered, there is also a sizable cemetery under the brow of the hill, made some nine thousand years ago by an earlier people who buried their dead with red ochre. There was most likely also faith and ceremony; there may have been dancing, keening, antiphonal singing, for all we know. Of all their motion and sound and feeling about their dead, only a color remains. They had left the area so long before the Abenakis arrived that no one now can say who they were, or where they came from, or why they disappeared.

Apparently no human, from the red ochre people to the Brants and McClintocks, had failed to notice that here was a stirringly beautiful swath of God's creation. In the twentieth century, Leeway Cottage sat in a broad sweep of yellow meadow in summer, filled with wildflowers and crowned with a huge oak that many claimed was the oldest in the state. The house was a big, airy ramshackle cross between a castle and a barn, wide open and welcoming, yet with a breezy austerity, as if it dreamed it were a summer house on some Baltic island off the coast of Sweden. It was built by Ingvar Eggers, sailor and violist in the Ischl Quartet, who first came up the coast in 1882 with Herman Thiele scouting for a cool retreat like the mountain spas of Europe, as a haven for themselves and for fellow musicians escaping the heat of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. The house Eggers had built on the lee shore of the bay for his growing brood of children ever after smelled of fir balsam and pipe smoke and summerhouse books. The main room was vast, filled with dark oak furniture and iron lamps sporting oiled-paper shades made and painted by Mrs. Eggers. It became the site for Sunday-afternoon musical gatherings of friends and colleagues who had settled near each other. When the weather was fine, and the music drifted out the windows along with the floating voile curtains, summer neighbors drew up on the lawn to listen, then ventured up to sit in comfort on the porch, and finally were welcomed inside, officially an audience.

There was a huge fireplace at one end of the hall, made of egg-smooth popple stones gathered from the beaches of certain of the outer islands. The walls of this room held books from floor to ceiling, and the window seats were filled with board games, cards, jacks, Pick-Up Sticks, poker chips, and wooden jigsaw puzzles. There were four or five bedrooms upstairs, and two full bathrooms, with cast-iron tubs on claw-feet and the flushes in separate closets in the European style. A ground-floor wing with three or four more bedrooms set off in a northerly direction beyond the kitchen. Framed on the wall of the downstairs powder room was a letter, dated November 1889, to August Dodge, the local builder. In a confident script it read: “Dear Mr. Dodge, Mrs. Eggers has had another baby. We will need two more bedrooms and a bathroom, to be ready by June 15. Yours sincerely, Ingvar Eggers.” No further instructions had been given or taken, and when the family arrived they found the rooms ready and entirely to their satisfaction.

 

There had been fewer, over the years, who wished that the walls of The Elms could talk.

It was not that the lives lived at The Elms were less interesting than those at Leeway, but they were more formal, more public, and because lived on a scale unsustainable without a large staff, little that happened there had gone unobserved or unreported in the first place.

The Elms was built in 1889 by Mrs. James Brant, a wealthy widow from Cleveland who had been to Newport and to Bar Harbor, and knew what she wanted. This turned out to be a vast stone villa with Tudor pretensions, formal gardens, a carriage house, a boathouse, and a sort of hospital wing for the comfort of her daughter, Louisa, who had “never been right.”

Annabelle Brant had a great deal of money she had not been born to or raised to handle. Her charms were many. She was good at sports and games, physically brave, fairly witty, and could be extremely generous both civically and privately. On her first visit to Dundee, she stayed at The Homestead on Carleton Point, the new boardinghouse, from which the guests took picnics to the top of Butter Hill, went bathing at the small sand beach on the Point (a rarity on these rocky shores), played cards, went to dances, and played some decorous tennis on a grass court built by a leading citizen of the town, Simon Osgood. The next year, Annabelle returned to The Homestead for the whole summer, bringing her children, two nannies, her horses and carriage, and an English coachman who by chance was also called Osgood. She loved the freedom and informality of life in the summer colony. After spending so much of her Cleveland life under the brooding cloud cover that seemed constantly to expire into the sky from Lake Erie, she loved Dundee's succession of brilliant blue and gold summer days. She especially loved the music played all around the village by those artistic people, and by the third year she had bought a beautiful stretch of this heaven just off Carleton Point and set about creating an establishment.

Simon Osgood, who was taking a flier in copper mining up the Kingdom Road in these years and planning a hotel in town for the commerce he hoped would soon be booming there, had stopped in at Gus Dodge's shop the autumn that work on The Elms began. After he studied the plans he asked, “In what sense is this a cottage?” Gus thought about it and said, “I guess because she left out the throne room.”

 

Early in the summer of 1890, when the house was finished, Annabelle Brant gave a party. She invited the carpenters, masons, painters, and plumbers who had worked on The Elms to bring their wives and show off the magnificence they had created. She invited the local gentry insofar as she understood it. The Osgood family was there, of course. Dr. Bliss and the August Dodges came, also Phineas Treworgy and his daughter (that was rather a mistake), Captain and Mrs. Cousins, and Miss Catherine Bowey and her mother. Mrs. Amelia Smith Beedle, a successful novelist of the day who summered on the eastern side of the bay, arrived dressed entirely in lavender, including her parasol and her hose. And Mrs. Brant invited the musicians: Thaddeuzs and Lottie Hanenberger, the Eggerses, Mrs. Mabel Thomas, the Stoeckels, and the entire Ischl Quartet.

The town talked about the party for the rest of the summer. How old Mrs. Bowey, who shared a birthday with Queen Victoria and had a fixation on her, explained to Mrs. Hanenberger that this was a “cottage” because the front door opened directly into the reception hall, with no “foy-ay” (she pronounced it in the French manner), and that the Queen's Cottage in Kew Gardens was exactly the same. How Mr. Simon Osgood invaded the kitchen to see the New Process stove that was said to be so clean and efficient. (He predicted, correctly, that Florence Eaton, who was cooking for Mrs. Brant, would have a good iron woodstove back in there before the summer was over. The New Process was moved to Miss Louisa's wing, where her keeper, Miss Burns, claimed to like it.) How the carpenters' wives were made to admire the elaborate paneling, hand-carved in Florence, Italy, that their husbands had installed in the dining room, and how Mr. Leander Osgood went out to the stable to introduce himself to the English coachman, and see if they were cousins. (The coachman Osgood was scandalized at this and didn't know where to look.)

Miss Louisa, who was then twenty, wore a very pretty muslin afternoon dress and sat with Miss Burns in the Great Hall near the tea table. Miss Burns was from Glasgow. Louisa's brother, James, who had just finished his first year at Princeton, had half a dozen friends visiting, including a boy who flirted recklessly with Berthe Hanenberger in the gazebo. It was the beginning of a halcyon summer in the Carleton Point colony. Did the young ladies want to take a canoeing picnic to Beal Island? James Brant drove to Old Town and brought back canoes. Did Miss Hanenberger play tennis? By September she did, and by the next June there were two more grass courts in addition to the one at The Elms, one at Leeway, and one at the Thomas cottage. One of the houseguests at The Elms brought golf clubs, and Mrs. Brant at once ordered a slice of the lawn made into a putting green. The guest didn't know how to use any of the clubs except the putter, but Miss Burns did and soon there was a positive mania for teeing up golf balls on little cones of sand and driving them into the salt pond. By the end of the decade, a man who belonged to the Country Club at Brookline, Massachusetts, had drawn a scheme for a nine-hole course that would just fit on the acres between Mrs. Brant's cottage and the causeway over the salt pond, artfully making water hazards of the deep inlets that reached into the rock shoreline and then withdrew every six hours, like the fluid fingers of a tidal hand. Mrs. Brant organized an association of summer sportsmen and donated the land to this newly formed Dundee Golf Association. By the next season the course was ready for play.

In Dundee, Annabelle Brant had found the perfect theater for the performance she'd been giving in Cleveland to insufficient notice, for her taste. It was just the right size, big enough for the scope she required, but not so big that she was likely to be upstaged or out- classed. A summer had the same magical sheen as a play or ballet, exactly because it was not year-round, like real life; it existed only in a single known and idyllic season each year. In every June arrival, one's first spicy draft of the fir-scented air upon stepping from the Boston packet onto Carleton Point Landing contained the knowledge of September, that what began would end. Because it would end, one was free to be transported, as at a performance or in a shipboard romance. And for the duration of its annual run, Annabelle Brant could take the stage confident that everyone, from her many guests to the rudest mechanical in the village, was taking in every gesture. On the Cleveland stage there were too many other players. And the audience knew too much about her, and she about them, for either to fully enjoy the experience.

The role she had chosen for herself was a mixture of Lady Bountiful and the Queen of Sheba, occasionally (and sometimes jarringly) interrupted by portrayals of the Blessed Virgin in devotions to her sacred child. Although it was her son, James, whom she loved with a passion that was slightly unhinged, these maternal displays usually involved Louisa in the supporting role, a part gentle, stunted Louisa played nearly perfectly. There are worse things that can happen to some mothers than to have a child trapped in childhood, as long as the trap is sprung after continence has been achieved and before the onset of adolescent rebellion, and in Louisa's case it had been. Miss Burns kept Louisa clean and groomed and prevented her doing anything unseemly in public, and Louisa's own gentleness kept the illusion attractive.

While Louisa played the changeless tot, her brother, James, was cast as the love interest in the family drama. The Victorian Age was one that so romanticized the bond between mother and children that this did not appear as grotesque as it might have to another era. Annabelle didn't like a lot of surprises. It seemed natural for her to have all the important roles played by people who were dependent on her, financially or otherwise, and she was a woman of appetites, fun-loving and not yet old. James was a delightful young man, and he was hers; why wouldn't she dote on him? For one thing, James took after her late husband. He was almost handsome, with a square-jawed open face, sleek dark hair, and a ready smile. He was gregarious and full of goodwill; he expected to be loved and approved of and he pretty universally had been. James had a dim understanding that his mother packed some big guns, with which she occasionally mowed down menials who displeased her, but as she had never turned her firepower on him, he didn't concern himself. Instead he thought of her as a delightful eccentric, an attitude that charmed her, as most of his attitudes did. She enjoyed the tacit assumption that he was the love of her life and she was his, for twenty-eight years, right up to the moment he announced he had fallen in love with Berthe Hanenberger.

It was a shock to both their systems. James was a rising young man of business in Cleveland by that time. He'd been a favorite beau to the city's debutantes for a decade, as well as an invaluable escort and bridge-whist partner to his mother. Though he had his own social life, James took dinner with Annabelle several nights a week and every Sunday noon after church. He was available to take his sister for drives out to the Shaker Lakes, and to go to the theater. He joined Annabelle at The Elms for several weeks every summer and filled the house with friends and amusements. Annabelle expected he would marry someday, and she sometimes pictured planning a wedding with the grateful parents of some charming and biddable Cleveland bride. It would be another delightful entertainment, starring herself and her James. There was no room in this scenario for his loving the likes of Berthe Hanenberger.

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