It was on a dark, windy March evening, when even the clouds scudding over the sky seemed in a hurry, that Anne skimmed up the triple flight of broad, shallow steps flanked by stone urns and stonier lions, that led to the massive front door of Tomgallon House. Usually, when she had passed it after dark it was somber and grim, with a dim twinkle of light in one or two windows. But now it blazed forth brilliantly, even the wings on either side being lighted up, as if Miss Minerva were entertaining the whole town. Such an illumination in her honor rather overcame Anne. She almost wished she had put on her cream gauze.
Nevertheless she looked very charming in her green voile and perhaps Miss Minerva, meeting her in the hall, thought so, for her face and voice were very cordial. Miss Minerva herself was regal in black velvet, a diamond comb in the heavy coils of her iron-gray hair and a massive cameo brooch surrounded by a braid of some departed Tomgallon's hair. The whole costume was a little outmoded, but Miss Minerva wore it with such a grand air that it seemed as timeless as royalty's.
"Welcome to Tomgallon House, my dear," she said, giving Anne a bony hand, likewise well sprinkled with diamonds. "I am very glad to have you here as my guest."
"I am … "
"Tomgallon House was always the resort of beauty and youth in the old days. We used to have a great many parties and entertained all the visiting celebrities," said Miss Minerva, leading Anne to the big staircase over a carpet of faded red velvet. "But all is changed now. I entertain very little.
I am the last of the Tomgallons. Perhaps it is as well. Our family, my dear, are _under a curse."_
Miss Minerva infused such a gruesome tinge of mystery and horror into her tones that Anne almost shivered. The Curse of the Tomgallons! What a title for a story!
"This is the stair down which my Great-grandfather Tomgallon fell and broke his neck the night of his house-warming given to celebrate the completion of his new home. This house was consecrated by human blood. He fell _there …_ "
Miss Minerva pointed a long white finger so dramatically at a tiger-skin rug in the hall that Anne could almost see the departed Tomgallon dying on it. She really did not know what to say, so said inanely, "Oh!"
Miss Minerva ushered her along a hall, hung with portraits and photographs of faded loveliness, with the famous stained-glass window at its end, into a large, high-ceilinged, very stately guest-room. The high walnut bed, with its huge headboard, was covered with so gorgeous a silken quilt that Anne felt it was a desecration to lay her coat and hat on it.
"You have very beautiful hair, my dear," said Miss Minerva admiringly. "I always liked red hair. My Aunt Lydia had it … she was the only red-haired Tomgallon. One night when she was brushing it in the north room it caught fire from her candle and she ran shrieking down the hall wrapped in flames. All part of the Curse, my dear … all part of the Curse."
"Was she … "
"No, she wasn't burned to death, but she lost all her beauty. She was very handsome and vain. She never went out of the house from that night to the day of her death and she left directions that her coffin was to be shut so that no one might see her scarred face. Won't you sit down to remove your rubbers, my dear? This is a very comfortable chair. My sister died in it from a stroke.
She was a widow and came back home to live after her husband's death. Her little girl was scalded in our kitchen with a pot of boiling water. Wasn't that a tragic way for a child to die?"
"Oh, how … "
"But at least we knew _how_ it died. My half-aunt Eliza … at least, she would have been my half-aunt if she had lived … just _disappeared_ when she was six years old. Nobody ever knew what became of her."
"But surely … "
_"Every_ search was made but nothing was ever discovered. It was said that her mother … my step-grandmother … had been very cruel to an orphan niece of my grandfather's who was being brought up here. She locked it up in the closet at the head of the stairs, one hot summer day, for punishment and when she went to let it out she found it … _dead._ Some people thought it was a judgment on her when her own child vanished. But I think it was just Our Curse."
"Who put … ?"
"What a high instep you have, my dear! My instep used to be admired too. It was said a stream of water could run under it … the test of an aristocrat."
Miss Minerva modestly poked a slipper from under her velvet skirt and revealed what was undoubtedly a very handsome foot.
"It certainly … "
"Would you like to see over the house, my dear, before we have supper? It used to be the Pride of Summerside. I suppose everything is very old-fashioned now, but perhaps there are a few things of interest. That sword hanging by the head of the stairs belonged to my great-great-grandfather who was an officer in the British Army and received a grant of land in Prince Edward Island for his services. He never lived in this house, but my great-great-grandmother did for a few weeks. She did not long survive her son's tragic death."
Miss Minerva marched Anne ruthlessly over the whole huge house, full of great square rooms … ballroom, conservatory, billiard-room, three drawing-rooms, breakfast-room, no end of bedrooms and an enormous attic. They were all splendid and dismal.
"Those were my Uncle Ronald and my Uncle Reuben," said Miss Minerva, indicating two worthies who seemed to be scowling at each other from the opposite sides of a fireplace. "They were twins and they hated each other bitterly from birth. The house rang with their quarrels. It darkened their mother's whole life. And during their final quarrel in this very room, while a thunderstorm was going on, Reuben was killed by a flash of lightning. Ronald never got over it. He was a _haunted man_ from that day. His wife," Miss Minerva added reminiscently, "swallowed her wedding-ring."
"What an ex … "
"Ronald thought it was very careless and wouldn't have anything done. A prompt emetic might have … but it was never heard of again. It spoiled her life. She always felt so _un_ married without a wedding-ring."
"What a beautiful … "
"Oh, yes, that was my Aunt Emilia … not my aunt really, of course. Just the wife of Uncle Alexander. She was noted for her spiritual look, but she poisoned her husband with a stew of mushrooms … toadstools really. We always pretended it was an accident, because a murder is such a messy thing to have in a family, but we all knew the truth. Of course she married him against her will. She was a gay young thing and he was far too old for her. December and May, my dear. Still, that did not really justify toadstools. She went into a decline soon afterwards. They are buried together in Charlottetown … all the Tomgallons bury in Charlottetown. This was my Aunt Louise. She drank laudanum.
The doctor pumped it out and saved her, but we all felt we could never trust her again. It was really rather a relief when she died respectably of pneumonia. Of course, some of us didn't blame her much. You see, my dear, her husband had spanked her."
"Spanked … "
"Exactly. There are really some things no gentleman should do, my dear, and one of them is spank his wife. Knock her down … possibly … but spank her, never! I would like," said Miss Minerva, very majestically, "to see the man who would dare to spank _me."_
Anne felt she would like to see him also. She realized that there are limits to the imagination after all. By no stretch of hers could she imagine a husband spanking Miss Minerva Tomgallon.
"This is the ballroom. Of course it is never used now. But there have been any number of balls here. The Tomgallon balls were famous. People came from all over the Island to them. That chandelier cost my father five hundred dollars.
My Great-aunt Patience dropped dead while dancing here one night … right there in that corner. She had fretted a great deal over a man who had disappointed her. I cannot imagine any girl breaking her heart over a man. Men," said Miss Minerva, staring at a photograph of her father … a person with bristling side- whiskers and a hawk-like nose … "have always seemed to me such _trivial_ creatures."