The House at Pritchard Place (Excerpt)

The Rocking Chair

It was different when they shared a room. Things didn’t seem to happen quite as much when she had her sister asleep not far away. But as it was, at thirteen, Cassandra Ashford felt that she was too old to share close quarters with her younger sister Elise, who then was only ten. At the time, it didn’t really bother Elise. In many ways, she was a pragmatist, and the idea of spreading her treasures more decoratively throughout the square footage of the room did appeal to her. And it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that once Cassie vacated, Elise might finally be able to convince her mother to buy her a rocking chair. In the past, she’d made the request more than once, and it had fallen with a resounding thud on deaf ears. After all, it was a rather bizarre request for a little girl. “Wouldn’t you rather a nice dollhouse?” Or in Elise’s case they’d even offered her a train set. She did have a bit of a tomboy aspect to her personality. But no, she was set on a rocking chair. So, her lovely mother had smiled a bit and in a placating tone informed her that there simply wasn’t enough space in the girls’ bedroom.

Well, now that Cassie was moving out into the former sewing room across the hall that argument wouldn’t hold water anymore. And Mrs. Lavender would so enjoy a rocking chair. Of course, Elise knew that wasn’t her real name, but she seemed quite complacent in allowing Elise to call her that. In truth, they hadn’t really been on any sort of speaking terms until about a year ago. Elise was quite young when they first moved into the house at Pritchard Place, just three. And as long as she could remember, she would catch glimpses of the old woman with the ivory colored cane and long lavender shawl lurking around the house. For a time, Elise just assumed she lived there with them. Then, on her fifth birthday, she mentioned Mrs. Lavender and realized quite disturbingly that everyone thought she’d made her up. The lady that she saw often with the long crocheted lavender shawl, everyone thought Elise had dreamed up. And then, it became the running joke in the house: “Did you see Mrs. Lavender today Elise?” or “Did Mrs. Lavender help you pick out your school clothes?” Her father had deemed the old woman to be her imaginary friend, and everyone else followed suit. Except of course Cassie, Cassie believed her, although Elise didn’t confide much in her. It wasn’t her way. So, she simply stopped mentioning her, but Mrs. Lavender didn’t go away.

Sometimes she’d wake up at night and find the old lady softly patting her hand. Elise knew very well that the old woman was sad. She could feel it, although with determination she blocked that aspect out. After all, there was only so much a young girl could handle. She had her own worries growing up and all. And then, after a very long time, Mrs. Lavender started talking to her, sort of mumbles at first as though she was talking to herself. Seems she’d lost some children in that very house, three to be exact — scarlet fever or was it yellow fever? Elise couldn’t be sure, and then the lady had died herself. Although now, she was rather confused and kept looking for her kids. It was a bit much for a nine-year-old to take on. But Elise, being an exceptionally smart girl, tried her best. She tried to coax Mrs. Lavender to move on, to go into the light, so that she could be reunited with her lost children. But as deaf as her parents’ ears seemed to be concerning some things, it was nothing compared to this woman. She simply would ignore Elise completely and start mumbling her antiquated lullabies. It was at that point that Elise learned what she deemed one of the more important lessons in life: “Nothing before its time,” or more succinctly, “Everything has a time.” At any rate, Mrs. Lavender wasn’t going to budge until she was good and ready. But it was a fact that the elderly lady did always seem to be looking around for a good place to sit. She seemed to think if she could just rock in her “rocking chair” and sing her lullabies, maybe her lost children would find their way back to her. Elise very much doubted that things would turn out the way the old woman hoped, but she could try to make her more comfortable.

Thus, the rocking chair. Tenth birthday: “What would you like for your birthday Elise?”

“A rocking chair.”

Wrinkled nose, her mother had a lovely little sharp nose that she tended to wrinkle when she was displeased. “Wouldn’t you rather some toys, dolls, or well more trains?”

Eleventh birthday: “What would you like for your birthday Elise?”

“A rocking chair.”

Wrinkled nose, plus the frown, not at all a good sign. “How about a new bicycle, a pink one?”

“Purple, I can’t stand pink.”

Twelfth birthday, “What would you like for your birthday Elise?”

“A rocking chair.”

More wrinkling and frowning, “Now wouldn’t you—”

“No, nothing but the rocking chair! That’s all I want!”


“Don’t you want me happy? It’s my birthday,” feigned hysterics, which truly chafed against the grain of her somewhat pragmatic and at times stoic nature. After all, if she wasn’t a tad detached how could she deal with, well, all she seemed to constantly have to deal with.

“Now, don’t cry Elise.”

She wasn’t really crying, just pretending to. Having a time working up any semblance of fake tears, although she did manage to put her index finger in one eye, and it was tearing up and hurting more than a bit. She dearly hoped Mrs. Lavender would appreciate the lengths she was going to for her. “I just,” sob, sob, “want,” gurgle snort, “a rocking chair, nothing else.”

Her mother was still frowning but did put her arms around her. After all, she wasn’t a block of ice. And that birthday Elise got a lovely white rocker for her room and little else. And truth be told, she’d had her eye on a lovely model train kit to add to her collection. But Mrs. Lavender did seem pleased, although she grumbled a bit about the chair not being the best fit for her. But Elise would find her quite often rocking in the chair and murmuring her lullabies to her lost children. Then when Elise was fourteen, Mrs. Lavender stopped visiting her and stopped rocking in the chair. Elise had a feeling that the time had arrived, and her children might have just showed up to lead her where she needed to go. She was happy for her but would miss her more than she liked to admit. It had been a comfort having her around, particularly reassuring to have an ally, when she had begun seeing everything else.

“And no one has seen him.”

“Really? No one at all?”

“Well, I don’t know if no one. But no one I know. I asked Adele, you know, Adele Caswell. She lives directly across the street from the old Warrick house, and she said she hasn’t seen the new owner. But he has two rather over-sized German shepherds patrolling the yard.”

“Hmm but isn’t Adele Caswell out quite a bit. She owns—”

“Yes, yes, The Flower Stop on the corner of Zimpel and Joliet St., poor dear works all the time. She lost two of her best employees. Young people back to college for the fall couldn’t even wait until she replaced them. Young people these days. No sense of responsibility.”

She nodded, delicately sipping her hot cup of peppermint tea so that it didn’t scorch her lips. “So, Adele being out so much may have just missed Mr.—mmm what did you say his name was again Martha?”

The elderly lady wrinkled her nose a bit, trying to recall. And in that moment Elise was again struck at her resemblance to her late mother, at least when she was vexed. “Oh dear, what was it again? Peculiar name, McCaully? No that wasn’t it. McMurty? No, no he’s the fellow that writes westerns.”

Elise smiled softly, “Did you say Mcginvale?”

Martha’s features became quite animated. “That’s it Elise, Mcginvale, John, no no, Joseph maybe. Mcginvale, what does that make him Irish or something Elise?”

“Hard to say Martha,” she commented. She heard a rumble over their heads and noted that some dark menacing looking clouds had rolled in directly over Martha Densford’s lovely white, wooden lattice patio cover. No doubt it would cut short their Saturday morning tea and gab session that had become somewhat of a routine for she and Elise. Martha lived in a lovely cream-colored house right on the corner of Freret and Cambronne St. that oddly enough had a huge cobble stoned patio right out in the front yard, surrounded by a white picket fence. Martha was Elise’s senior by about thirty-five years, but Elise did enjoy spending time with the elderly white-haired lady, who had quite a grasp on the history of New Orleans. Unfortunately, these days, she only seemed interested in gossiping about the residents of this several block area of streets near the Riverbend area where they lived.

“Well, I find it odd that no one has seen the man.” Elise smiled. Martha was eccentric in her way, actually in many ways, and tended to hang onto an idea once she got her fingernails into it.

Elise glanced up again in response to the low rumbling overhead. She supposed she should warn Martha and cut this têteàtêteshort, but on a level she had to admit that she was interested. The Warrick house, quite a huge sprawling sort of place, was a curiosity to her. She’d never actually stepped foot into it. The residents, and as far as she’d known there had always been one sort of Warrick there or another, had been a bit on the reclusive side. Although the Warrick family, who owned it recently, cousins of the original Warricks, had built a lovely little tree house up in one of the great oaks on the property. And there had been children, and they’d waved and smiled at Elise as she strolled down the street on one of her late afternoon walks. But the place itself, undeniably, had a strange vibe, not bad exactly, but surely complicated.

“I’m surprised the place passed out of family hands,” Elise commented almost to herself. “So, you say he doesn’t have a family.”

Martha nodded, “Yes, that’s what, now who told me that? Oh yes, Cora, Cora Moran. You know lovely girl just a bit younger than you Elise lives up on Dublin St. but was out walking with her two girls, twins you know. I think they’re about ten now. Well, I was sitting here, just about a week ago, and she stopped, and we got to talking. She said he isn’t married, and has to be middle aged, maybe late forties, maybe fifties, but a nice-looking man. Apparently, he was moving in, and she welcomed him to the neighborhood. She said he was pleasant but didn’t seem to want to spend a lot of time talking.”

Elise sipped her tea to stop from commenting about the “no one has seen him” supposition. “You have to admit that’s a large house for one person.”

Martha’s eyes narrowed a bit. “That is exactly what I was thinking Elise. What exactly is he going to do rattling around that huge place all alone? I guess those big dogs could keep him company, giant German shepherds. Did I tell you that?”

Elise smiled and nodded, feeling the slightest spray of a rain shower beginning to fall from overhead.

Copyright © 1991 by Evelyn Klebert