Helen had fallen gravely ill earlier that year. Was it trichinosis? Pancreatic cancer? Whatever it was, it had struck at the very center of her body and put her to bed for weeks. Knowing the family’s stoicism, Helen may well have been in pain for months before it laid her flat. Doctors had conferred and concluded that she could not be cured. They prescribed a regimen to keep her comfortable. Morphine. Regular bleeding. She should put her affairs in order.
But then she began to act in a manner most peculiar.
She stopped lying in bed. Every morning she disappeared into her office upstairs in the laundry house. She would emerge hours later and do strange things, such as drink quarts of water through the day and avoid the meat at dinner. Some days, she ate only walnuts and drank pear cider.
Then, for more than a week, she took baths as hot as she could stand, four times every single day, and the housekeeper privately told Maurits the water was just black after she emerged. Helen refused the leeches, the morphine, everything. This behavior was insane, but-- her health seemed to improve. She would not talk about it. When pressed to say what she did in her office, she shrugged, “Only writing and reading.”
Now Helen takes long walks at dawn and sunset. She appears to be talking to herself and sometimes singing. She has stopped eating with the family altogether. She is much thinner, but does not seem to be weak or frail or in need of anybody’s help. Although she shows affection to the children and to Maurits, and confers daily with the cook and the governess, she appears . . . remote.
That woman is so stubborn, a damn mule, thinks Maurits. He is sure that this change has something to do with the past five years of her confounded scribbling on paper, which began with the Ouija board incident. If only he had not been in the room. They had taken the ferry down to San Francisco to spend a night at the well-appointed home of Franklin K. Lane and his wife, Anne. Franklin was serving as Secretary of the Interior, and Maurits enjoyed discussing land reclamation and conservation with him. His tall, beautiful Helen had gone off with Anne and some of the Lanes’ dinner guests, and Anne had pulled out a Ouija board. Their exclamations and shouts of laughter had drawn Maurits into the room where the group huddled around a table. Helen’s eyes were shining, her cheeks were red. She and Anne had their fingers resting on a planchette that moved rapidly across the board. “This is utter nonsense,” a guest laughed, shaking his head. “We can’t make head nor tail of the stream of letters. Take a gander.”
Maurits read what they had written down. “That’s hardly nonsense,” he said. “That’s Dutch.”
If only he had not recognized the Dutch words. The message he saw could have, in words and tone, come from the very lips of his mother, who had recently died. It was uncanny. He felt a chill. “You must cease this at once,” said the words. “You don’t know who might be coming through. This is not a game. This is a dangerous thing.” The evening concluded shortly thereafter. Maurits wished he had never been in that room. Then, he could have dismissed the whole thing as an incredible fabrication.
While deep inside he feels Helen has the same healthy mind he’s always known and admired, still her social removal makes him wonder if she may be losing her sanity. He can scarcely bear to think of a future in which Helen goes mad. He relies on her for everything—running the house, raising their children, keeping the intricate service of farm, ranch, and orchard running and the eighty hired hands satisfied. What on earth would he do without her?
Then, again, fury replaces his pain. He will not have such disruption in his house. Doesn’t she see that he is running a business? What does she mean, abiding by rules he cannot see or understand? Part of him hopes that the doctor will take her away with him today, this afternoon, at least to restore some form of order.
Grumbling, he paces in the heat, no breeze at the open window. Padded by oriental rugs, the house is deeply quiet except for the grandfather clock ticking slowly in the hall. Across from him, the wide painting by George Innes glistens in the shaded living room. The painting had always been an oasis for Helen amid the flat, tan fields of Sacramento. On the canvas, a wealth of green suggests a forest, a subtle clearing; one fawn drinks from a pond, the other looks up, hearing something far off. Hard to divine.
Maurits no longer sees the painting. * Upstairs in the laundry house, Helen’s desk faces a window overlooking a scrubby bit of lawn and farm equipment. Just yesterday afternoon, while she sat at her desk, the only sound between those bare wooden walls was the soft scratching of her pencil on paper. After making large circles for several minutes, her hand wrote: