The view from Mrs. Manstey’s window was not a striking one, but to her at least it was full of interest and beauty. Mrs. Manstey occupied the back room on the third floor of a New York boarding-house, in a street where the ash-barrels lingered late on the sidewalk and the gaps in the pavement would have staggered a Quintus Curtius. She was the widow of a clerk in a large wholesale house, and his death had left her alone, for her only daughter had married in California, and could not afford the long journey to New York to see her mother. Mrs. Manstey, perhaps, might have joined her daughter in the West, but they had now been so many years apart that they had ceased to feel any need of each other’s society, and their intercourse had long been limited to the exchange of a few perfunctory letters, written with indifference by the daughter, and with difficulty by Mrs. Manstey, whose right hand was growing stiff with gout. Even had she felt a stronger desire for her daughter’s companionship, Mrs. Manstey’s increasing infirmity, which caused her to dread the three flights of stairs between her room and the street, would have given her pause on the eve of undertaking so long a journey; and without perhaps, formulating these reasons she had long since accepted as a matter of course her solitary life in New York.
Edith Wharton is best known for her novels (hasn’t everybody read Ethan Frome?), though she wrote plenty of short stories, too. In this one, Wharton conjures up a wealth of pathos from one woman’s dependency on her view.
The copy here is from The Early Short Fiction of Edith Wharton, Part 1, which is available at Project Gutenberg.
She was, indeed, not quite lonely, for a few friends still toiled up now and then to her room; but their visits grew rare as the years went by. Mrs. Manstey had never been a sociable woman, and during her husband’s lifetime his companionship had been all-sufficient to her. For many years she had cherished a desire to live in the country, to have a hen-house and a garden; but this longing had faded with age, leaving only in the breast of the uncommunicative old woman a vague tenderness for plants and animals. It was, perhaps, this tenderness which made her cling so fervently to her view from her window, a view in which the most optimistic eye would at first have failed to discover anything admirable.
Mrs. Manstey, from her coign of vantage (a slightly projecting bow-window where she nursed an ivy and a succession of unwholesome-looking bulbs), looked out first upon the yard of her own dwelling, of which, however, she could get but a restricted glimpse. Still, her gaze took in the topmost boughs of the ailanthus below her window, and she knew how early each year the clump of dicentra strung its bending stalk with hearts of pink.
But of greater interest were the yards beyond. Being for the most part attached to boarding-houses they were in a state of chronic untidiness and fluttering, on certain days of the week, with miscellaneous garments and frayed table-cloths. In spite of this Mrs. Manstey found much to admire in the long vista which she commanded. Some of the yards were, indeed, but stony wastes, with grass in the cracks of the pavement and no shade in spring save that afforded by the intermittent leafage of the clothes-lines. These yards Mrs. Manstey disapproved of, but the others, the green ones, she loved. She had grown used to their disorder; the broken barrels, the empty bottles and paths unswept no longer annoyed her; hers was the happy faculty of dwelling on the pleasanter side of the prospect before her.
In the very next enclosure did not a magnolia open its hard white flowers against the watery blue of April? And was there not, a little way down the line, a fence foamed over every May be lilac waves of wistaria? Farther still, a horse-chestnut lifted its candelabra of buff and pink blossoms above broad fans of foliage; while in the opposite yard June was sweet with the breath of a neglected syringa, which persisted in growing in spite of the countless obstacles opposed to its welfare.
But if nature occupied the front rank in Mrs. Manstey’s view, there was much of a more personal character to interest her in the aspect of the houses and their inmates. She deeply disapproved of the mustard-colored curtains which had lately been hung in the doctor’s window opposite; but she glowed with pleasure when the house farther down had its old bricks washed with a coat of paint. The occupants of the houses did not often show themselves at the back windows, but the servants were always in sight. Noisy slatterns, Mrs. Manstey pronounced the greater number; she knew their ways and hated them. But to the quiet cook in the newly painted house, whose mistress bullied her, and who secretly fed the stray cats at nightfall, Mrs. Manstey’s warmest sympathies were given. On one occasion her feelings were racked by the neglect of a housemaid, who for two days forgot to feed the parrot committed to her care. On the third day, Mrs. Manstey, in spite of her gouty hand, had just penned a letter, beginning: “Madam, it is now three days since your parrot has been fed,” when the forgetful maid appeared at the window with a cup of seed in her hand.
But in Mrs. Manstey’s more meditative moods it was the narrowing perspective of far-off yards which pleased her best. She loved, at twilight, when the distant brown-stone spire seemed melting in the fluid yellow of the west, to lose herself in vague memories of a trip to Europe, made years ago, and now reduced in her mind’s eye to a pale phantasmagoria of indistinct steeples and dreamy skies. Perhaps at heart Mrs. Manstey was an artist; at all events she was sensible of many changes of color unnoticed by the average eye, and dear to her as the green of early spring was the black lattice of branches against a cold sulphur sky at the close of a snowy day. She enjoyed, also, the sunny thaws of March, when patches of earth showed through the snow, like ink-spots spreading on a sheet of white blotting-paper; and, better still, the haze of boughs, leafless but swollen, which replaced the clear-cut tracery of winter. She even watched with a certain interest the trail of smoke from a far-off factory chimney, and missed a detail in the landscape when the factory was closed and the smoke disappeared.
Mrs. Manstey, in the long hours which she spent at her window, was not idle. She read a little, and knitted numberless stockings; but the view surrounded and shaped her life as the sea does a lonely island. When her rare callers came it was difficult for her to detach herself from the contemplation of the opposite window-washing, or the scrutiny of certain green points in a neighboring flower-bed which might, or might not, turn into hyacinths, while she feigned an interest in her visitor’s anecdotes about some unknown grandchild. Mrs. Manstey’s real friends were the denizens of the yards, the hyacinths, the magnolia, the green parrot, the maid who fed the cats, the doctor who studied late behind his mustard-colored curtains; and the confidant of her tenderer musings was the church-spire floating in the sunset.
One April day, as she sat in her usual place, with knitting cast aside and eyes fixed on the blue sky mottled with round clouds, a knock at the door announced the entrance of her landlady. Mrs. Manstey did not care for her landlady, but she submitted to her visits with ladylike resignation. To-day, however, it seemed harder than usual to turn from the blue sky and the blossoming magnolia to Mrs. Sampson’s unsuggestive face, and Mrs. Manstey was conscious of a distinct effort as she did so.
“The magnolia is out earlier than usual this year, Mrs. Sampson,” she remarked, yielding to a rare impulse, for she seldom alluded to the absorbing interest of her life. In the first place it was a topic not likely to appeal to her visitors and, besides, she lacked the power of expression and could not have given utterance to her feelings had she wished to.
“The what, Mrs. Manstey?” inquired the landlady, glancing about the room as if to find there the explanation of Mrs. Manstey’s statement.
“The magnolia in the next yard—in Mrs. Black’s yard,” Mrs. Manstey repeated.
“Is it, indeed? I didn’t know there was a magnolia there,” said Mrs. Sampson, carelessly. Mrs. Manstey looked at her; she did not know that there was a magnolia in the next yard!
“By the way,” Mrs. Sampson continued, “speaking of Mrs. Black reminds me that the work on the extension is to begin next week.”
“The what?” it was Mrs. Manstey’s turn to ask.
“The extension,” said Mrs. Sampson, nodding her head in the direction of the ignored magnolia. “You knew, of course, that Mrs. Black was going to build an extension to her house? Yes, ma’am. I hear it is to run right back to the end of the yard. How she can afford to build an extension in these hard times I don’t see; but she always was crazy about building. She used to keep a boarding-house in Seventeenth Street, and she nearly ruined herself then by sticking out bow-windows and what not; I should have thought that would have cured her of building, but I guess it’s a disease, like drink. Anyhow, the work is to begin on Monday.”
Mrs. Manstey had grown pale. She always spoke slowly, so the landlady did not heed the long pause which followed. At last Mrs. Manstey said: “Do you know how high the extension will be?”
“That’s the most absurd part of it. The extension is to be built right up to the roof of the main building; now, did you ever?”
Mrs. Manstey paused again. “Won’t it be a great annoyance to you, Mrs. Sampson?” she asked.
“I should say it would. But there’s no help for it; if people have got a mind to build extensions there’s no law to prevent ‘em, that I’m aware of.” Mrs. Manstey, knowing this, was silent. “There is no help for it,” Mrs. Sampson repeated, “but if I am a church member, I wouldn’t be so sorry if it ruined Eliza Black. Well, good-day, Mrs. Manstey; I’m glad to find you so comfortable.”
So comfortable—so comfortable! Left to herself the old woman turned once more to the window. How lovely the view was that day! The blue sky with its round clouds shed a brightness over everything; the ailanthus had put on a tinge of yellow-green, the hyacinths were budding, the magnolia flowers looked more than ever like rosettes carved in alabaster. Soon the wistaria would bloom, then the horse-chestnut; but not for her. Between her eyes and them a barrier of brick and mortar would swiftly rise; presently even the spire would disappear, and all her radiant world be blotted out. Mrs. Manstey sent away untouched the dinner-tray brought to her that evening. She lingered in the window until the windy sunset died in bat-colored dusk; then, going to bed, she lay sleepless all night.
Early the next day she was up and at the window. It was raining, but even through the slanting gray gauze the scene had its charm—and then the rain was so good for the trees. She had noticed the day before that the ailanthus was growing dusty.
“Of course I might move,” said Mrs. Manstey aloud, and turning from the window she looked about her room. She might move, of course; so might she be flayed alive; but she was not likely to survive either operation. The room, though far less important to her happiness than the view, was as much a part of her existence. She had lived in it seventeen years. She knew every stain on the wall-paper, every rent in the carpet; the light fell in a certain way on her engravings, her books had grown shabby on their shelves, her bulbs and ivy were used to their window and knew which way to lean to the sun. “We are all too old to move,” she said.
That afternoon it cleared. Wet and radiant the blue reappeared through torn rags of cloud; the ailanthus sparkled; the earth in the flower-borders looked rich and warm. It was Thursday, and on Monday the building of the extension was to begin.
On Sunday afternoon a card was brought to Mrs. Black, as she was engaged in gathering up the fragments of the boarders’ dinner in the basement. The card, black-edged, bore Mrs. Manstey’s name.
“One of Mrs. Sampson’s boarders; wants to move, I suppose. Well, I can give her a room next year in the extension. Dinah,” said Mrs. Black, “tell the lady I’ll be upstairs in a minute.”
Mrs. Black found Mrs. Manstey standing in the long parlor garnished with statuettes and antimacassars; in that house she could not sit down.
Stooping hurriedly to open the register, which let out a cloud of dust, Mrs. Black advanced on her visitor.
“I’m happy to meet you, Mrs. Manstey; take a seat, please,” the landlady remarked in her prosperous voice, the voice of a woman who can afford to build extensions. There was no help for it; Mrs. Manstey sat down.
“Is there anything I can do for you, ma’am?” Mrs. Black continued. “My house is full at present, but I am going to build an extension, and—”
“It is about the extension that I wish to speak,” said Mrs. Manstey, suddenly. “I am a poor woman, Mrs. Black, and I have never been a happy one. I shall have to talk about myself first to—to make you understand.”
Mrs. Black, astonished but imperturbable, bowed at this parenthesis.
“I never had what I wanted,” Mrs. Manstey continued. “It was always one disappointment after another. For years I wanted to live in the country. I dreamed and dreamed about it; but we never could manage it. There was no sunny window in our house, and so all my plants died. My daughter married years ago and went away—besides, she never cared for the same things. Then my husband died and I was left alone. That was seventeen years ago. I went to live at Mrs. Sampson’s, and I have been there ever since. I have grown a little infirm, as you see, and I don’t get out often; only on fine days, if I am feeling very well. So you can understand my sitting a great deal in my window—the back window on the third floor—”
“Well, Mrs. Manstey,” said Mrs. Black, liberally, “I could give you a back room, I dare say; one of the new rooms in the ex—”
“But I don’t want to move; I can’t move,” said Mrs. Manstey, almost with a scream. “And I came to tell you that if you build that extension I shall have no view from my window—no view! Do you understand?”
Mrs. Black thought herself face to face with a lunatic, and she had always heard that lunatics must be humored.
“Dear me, dear me,” she remarked, pushing her chair back a little way, “that is too bad, isn’t it? Why, I never thought of that. To be sure, the extension will interfere with your view, Mrs. Manstey.”
“You do understand?” Mrs. Manstey gasped.
“Of course I do. And I’m real sorry about it, too. But there, don’t you worry, Mrs. Manstey. I guess we can fix that all right.”
Mrs. Manstey rose from her seat, and Mrs. Black slipped toward the door.
“What do you mean by fixing it? Do you mean that I can induce you to change your mind about the extension? Oh, Mrs. Black, listen to me. I have two thousand dollars in the bank and I could manage, I know I could manage, to give you a thousand if—” Mrs. Manstey paused; the tears were rolling down her cheeks.
“There, there, Mrs. Manstey, don’t you worry,” repeated Mrs. Black, soothingly. “I am sure we can settle it. I am sorry that I can’t stay and talk about it any longer, but this is such a busy time of day, with supper to get—”
Her hand was on the door-knob, but with sudden vigor Mrs. Manstey seized her wrist.
“You are not giving me a definite answer. Do you mean to say that you accept my proposition?”
“Why, I’ll think it over, Mrs. Manstey, certainly I will. I wouldn’t annoy you for the world—”
“But the work is to begin to-morrow, I am told,” Mrs. Manstey persisted.
Mrs. Black hesitated. “It shan’t begin, I promise you that; I’ll send word to the builder this very night.” Mrs. Manstey tightened her hold.
“You are not deceiving me, are you?” she said.
“No—no,” stammered Mrs. Black. “How can you think such a thing of me, Mrs. Manstey?”
Slowly Mrs. Manstey’s clutch relaxed, and she passed through the open door. “One thousand dollars,” she repeated, pausing in the hall; then she let herself out of the house and hobbled down the steps, supporting herself on the cast-iron railing.
“My goodness,” exclaimed Mrs. Black, shutting and bolting the hall-door, “I never knew the old woman was crazy! And she looks so quiet and ladylike, too.”
Mrs. Manstey slept well that night, but early the next morning she was awakened by a sound of hammering. She got to her window with what haste she might and, looking out saw that Mrs. Black’s yard was full of workmen. Some were carrying loads of brick from the kitchen to the yard, others beginning to demolish the old-fashioned wooden balcony which adorned each story of Mrs. Black’s house. Mrs. Manstey saw that she had been deceived. At first she thought of confiding her trouble to Mrs. Sampson, but a settled discouragement soon took possession of her and she went back to bed, not caring to see what was going on.
Toward afternoon, however, feeling that she must know the worst, she rose and dressed herself. It was a laborious task, for her hands were stiffer than usual, and the hooks and buttons seemed to evade her.
When she seated herself in the window, she saw that the workmen had removed the upper part of the balcony, and that the bricks had multiplied since morning. One of the men, a coarse fellow with a bloated face, picked a magnolia blossom and, after smelling it, threw it to the ground; the next man, carrying a load of bricks, trod on the flower in passing.
“Look out, Jim,” called one of the men to another who was smoking a pipe, “if you throw matches around near those barrels of paper you’ll have the old tinder-box burning down before you know it.’ And Mrs. Manstey, leaning forward, perceived that there were several barrels of paper and rubbish under the wooden balcony.
At length the work ceased and twilight fell. The sunset was perfect and a roseate light, transfiguring the distant spire, lingered late in the west. When it grew dark Mrs. Manstey drew down the shades and proceeded, in her usual methodical manner, to light her lamp. She always filled and lit it with her own hands, keeping a kettle of kerosene on a zinc-covered shelf in a closet. As the lamp-light filled the room it assumed its usual peaceful aspect. The books and pictures and plants seemed, like their mistress, to settle themselves down for another quiet evening, and Mrs. Manstey, as was her wont, drew up her armchair to the table and began to knit.
That night she could not sleep. The weather had changed and a wild wind was abroad, blotting the stars with close-driven clouds. Mrs. Manstey rose once or twice and looked out of the window; but of the view nothing was discernible save a tardy light or two in the opposite windows. These lights at last went out, and Mrs. Manstey, who had watched for their extinction, began to dress herself. She was in evident haste, for she merely flung a thin dressing-gown over her night-dress and wrapped her head in a scarf; then she opened her closet and cautiously took out the kettle of kerosene. Having slipped a bundle of wooden matches into her pocket she proceeded, with increasing precautions, to unlock her door, and a few moments later she was feeling her way down the dark staircase, led by a glimmer of gas from the lower hall. At length she reached the bottom of the stairs and began the more difficult descent into the utter darkness of the basement. Here, however, she could move more freely, as there was less danger of being overheard; and without much delay she contrived to unlock the iron door leading into the yard. A gust of cold wind smote her as she stepped out and groped shiveringly under the clothes-lines.
That morning at three o’clock an alarm of fire brought the engines to Mrs. Black’s door, and also brought Mrs. Sampson’s startled boarders to their windows. The wooden balcony at the back of Mrs. Black’s house was ablaze, and among those who watched the progress of the flames was Mrs. Manstey, leaning in her thin dressing-gown from the open window.
The fire, however, was soon put out, and the frightened occupants of the house, who had fled in scant attire, reassembled at dawn to find that little mischief had been done beyond the cracking of window panes and smoking of ceilings. In fact, the chief sufferer by the fire was Mrs. Manstey, who was found in the morning gasping with pneumonia, a not unnatural result, as everyone remarked, of her having hung out of an open window at her age in a dressing-gown. It was easy to see that she was very ill, but no one had guessed how grave the doctor’s verdict would be, and the faces gathered that evening about Mrs. Sampson’s table were awestruck and disturbed. Not that any of the boarders knew Mrs. Manstey well; she “kept to herself,” as they said, and seemed to fancy herself too good for them; but then it is always disagreeable to have anyone dying in the house and, as one lady observed to another: “It might just as well have been you or me, my dear.”
But it was only Mrs. Manstey; and she was dying, as she had lived, lonely if not alone. The doctor had sent a trained nurse, and Mrs. Sampson, with muffled step, came in from time to time; but both, to Mrs. Manstey, seemed remote and unsubstantial as the figures in a dream. All day she said nothing; but when she was asked for her daughter’s address she shook her head. At times the nurse noticed that she seemed to be listening attentively for some sound which did not come; then again she dozed.
The next morning at daylight she was very low. The nurse called Mrs. Sampson and as the two bent over the old woman they saw her lips move.
“Lift me up—out of bed,” she whispered.
They raised her in their arms, and with her stiff hand she pointed to the window.
“Oh, the window—she wants to sit in the window. She used to sit there all day,” Mrs. Sampson explained. “It can do her no harm, I suppose?”
“Nothing matters now,” said the nurse.
They carried Mrs. Manstey to the window and placed her in her chair. The dawn was abroad, a jubilant spring dawn; the spire had already caught a golden ray, though the magnolia and horse-chestnut still slumbered in shadow. In Mrs. Black’s yard all was quiet. The charred timbers of the balcony lay where they had fallen. It was evident that since the fire the builders had not returned to their work. The magnolia had unfolded a few more sculptural flowers; the view was undisturbed.
It was hard for Mrs. Manstey to breathe; each moment it grew more difficult. She tried to make them open the window, but they would not understand. If she could have tasted the air, sweet with the penetrating ailanthus savor, it would have eased her; but the view at least was there—the spire was golden now, the heavens had warmed from pearl to blue, day was alight from east to west, even the magnolia had caught the sun.
Mrs. Manstey’s head fell back and smiling she died.
That day the building of the extension was resumed.