The Lamp


“As a lamp despised in the mind of him that is at ease.”

It’s curious, the way a line will recall a life episode. That sentence always brings to my mind Miss Mamie Ricketts. I met her in this way. I had been sent to Keyville to recuperate – for the simple reason that the town was so quiet that I could have nothing else to do there. Miss Mamie Ricketts lived in the house next to the one occupied by a friend of mine, Mrs. Whitley.

Keyville is one of several towns scattered along the Scioto Valley in south-central Ohio. It is almost midway between Mainton and Creston and directly on the traction line. That traction line was, I learned, the most determining factor in the matter of Miss Ricketts’ boarding and rooming house.

Miss Mamie Ricketts lived in a square, yellow and white house just beyond the fence from the Whitley’s. From the front it was barricaded behind a spiky, black, iron fence, but from the side, where the front fence joined a rambling board one, it looked more approachable.

I soon learned that Miss Ricketts had been left an orphan at seventeen – alone but for a slow-minded sister. She had in some way held to their home and a poor, shamble-kneed old horse, brilliantly named Romeo Chéf. She had in some way paid for the paving which had recently been put in on High Street. The traction cars running past her door were what had first made her think of keeping a rooming and boarding house. Her patrons, I soon learned, were uncertain – both as to number and to quality. However, when it happened that some one came and then left at once, she generally explained that “she rudged, you know, an’ I cud never stand fer that in Mama’s house that she kep so nice,” or “he was no gentleman, now I tell ye.” Miss Ricketts’ mother was a paragon of beauty, brains, and grace, according to her daughter. Miss Ricketts never mentioned her father – who had been a saloonist in the days of Keyville’s ‘Whisky Switch’ – nor an uncle who still ran a restaurant of uncertain reputation.

In the middle of the summer there were two or three weeks when Miss Ricketts had no one in her house at all. She spent long hours leaning on the fence talking to us. She never showed worry, and yet Mrs. Whitley was certain that she could have nothing laid by for such an emergency.

Then one hot afternoon a man, walking from the railroad station, paused at Miss Ricketts’ gate, read her neat board sign and went in. Miss Ricketts had been leaning on the fence but was inside and at the door in a moment. Having silenced Fritz, an obnoxious barking terrier, she led the man to view her rooms. We saw the blinds go up – even in the big one over the parlor. At that Mrs. Whitley murmured, “He must look prosperous. That’s her most expensive one.”

“Oh, I wish he’d take that one!” I burst out.

“There’s little chance.” Mrs. Whitley murmured again. “She hasn’t rented that one for years.”

In a few minutes the man came out of Miss Ricketts’ gate and passed off in the direction of the station again.

It was but a few seconds later that Miss Ricketts hung her lean length over the fence – in her excitement well-nigh impaling herself on it.

“He took the big room,” she said in an awed, husky voice.

“Oh, Miss Ricketts, I’m so glad!” Mrs. Whitley and I said as one voice. We laughed jerkily. And then Miss Ricketts hurled her second bomb.

“And he wants meals; so I’ll have to go get busy. Oh, an’ Miss’ Whitley, would ye mind callin’ Deckers an’ askin’ fer fifteen cents’ worth o’ nice steak, fer me – please.”

We saw nothing more of Miss Ricketts that day. The next morning four towels were flopping on the Ricketts porch. Mrs. Whitley smiled when she saw them.

“She must have been excited. She gave him four! She usually gives only two – often but one.”

“I expect she was excited, poor thing.” I agreed.

“It’s generally this way in the summer,” Mrs. Whitley explained. “She’s used to it, but I guess this roomer’s a little different.”

Miss Ricketts came to lean on the fence for a few minutes that evening.

“He is one fine gentleman,” she began, “an’ he does ‘preciate things. Now, he spoke o’ the grass, so green, ye know, an’ my steak. I’m goin’ down town some mornin’. Seems like this corner store don’t have much different.” We smiled privately, remembering the weeks when Miss Ricketts had found the corner store “too dear” and “fancy” for her.

We never guessed that that marked Miss Ricketts’ first day of glory.

The next morning we saw her leave for the down-town stores. A rusty old sailor, tilted at a risky angle, gave her a new air of perkiness. Not even the hideous old shirt-waist and dragged out, spotted skirt could entirely detract from that angle!

Later, Millie, the poor, feeble sister, leaned on the fence and widened a speculative grin at me.

“Mamie – she’s down town – ” she loudly whispered, her voice sinking sharply at the end. “To buy – things – ” she added, after a sharp glance behind her.

“Yes,” I agreed. “And I’m so glad she has a roomer and boarder now.”

“Um – ” the old creature grinned. “She – she give him – two pieces – meat – las’ night – ” she grinned again more broadly.

“Well, I expect he was pretty hungry – ” I began.

“Awful hungry,” she frowned darkly at me. “He’s fine gentleman – fine – ” and she ambled off into the yard, mumbling and grinning.

Miss Ricketts talked to us often during the day, but the old fence must have felt singularly lonely during the long summer evenings. She and the roomer, Mr. Pratt, often sat on the porch. On Sunday afternoons he sat with her in the old swing in the back yard. One memorable Sunday they took a ride. On that day Miss Ricketts appeared with her hair fluffed out and coiled in ingenuous, large buns about her head. Mr. Pratt had mentioned the quantity of her hair, she told us.

Then one evening, just after supper, she vaulted the fence and came out and sat on the grass beside me.

“He – he asked me to a show!” she burst out. “Should I?”

“Why – ” I stammered, confused at the sudden appeal for advice.

“He’s – he’s so nice an’ kind. He says he’s lonesome an’ all alone in the world – just like me. But fer Millie – ” she thoughtfully added.

“Why, Miss Ricketts, I don’t see why you shouldn’t go with him.”

“Oh, I’m that glad.” She interrupted. “You bein’ from Washington an’ all, I knowed you’d know what’d be right. My mama always raised us up so nice an’ now she’s gone; so I hafta be careful. Thank you.” And with that she vaulted back again.

I chuckled to myself – Twenty-five giving advice to Forty. But it had sufficed.

The next day Miss Ricketts came over in a new dress. Mrs. Whitley and I called it new because we had never seen it before. In reality it belonged to a period long past. Miss Ricketts secretly confided to me later that it had belonged to “Mama.” With the hem taken out, the dress satisfied her perfectly. The tight, pinched waist showed to an unpleasant advantage her bony, thin body, and the tight neck seemed to push her head out farther and make even more prominent her elaborately fluffed and coiled head-dress. But Miss Ricketts was happy. Millie shared in this happiness and followed her sister about with dog-like devotion. She even stayed alone during the evening, the three times that Miss Ricketts attended a show. Miss Ricketts’ face began to bloom. Her color was good, and with this new exhilaration it flowered afresh. She brought a bit of powder and so kept her nose of a beautiful, even whiteness.

Meantime, we learned something of Mr. Pratt. He was a city salesman. What he sold, we never learned, as Miss Ricketts always digressed too much to reach that point. He was a rather tall, lean man, with dark hair and strangely bright, green-blue eyes. Mr. Pratt always carried a suitcase – with samples, presumably.

One morning Mr. Pratt did not leave as early as usual. In fact, Miss Ricketts had left for her morning pilgrimage down town before he went through the gate.

It was not until Miss Ricketts appeared at the fence that evening that I realized that something had gone woefully wrong. Her face was pale and bluish and her eyes shone large and unusually dark. Her hair had been pushed back by heedless hands and stood up grotesquely above her broad, white forehead. For a long breath she said not a word. Then they came as slowly as though being forced against a wall of tender flesh.

“He – he left – this morning. Left – a suit – case – nothin’ in it -.”

Startled, but wishing to comfort her, I floundered, “Oh – but Miss Ricketts – more than likely he was called to Toledo or some place. You know – salesmen are called out just for a few days – suddenly – sometimes.”

The effect was almost magical. She straightened, puffed her hair again and her face began to color.

“Well now – ‘course. Why couldn’t I ha’ thought o’ that. My land – it did ‘sprise me so – him jus’ goin’ – Millie not even seein’ him. Well – I must go in. My new dress is kinda ticklish-like.” With a flirt, she turned and hurried into the house.

Mrs. Whitley was very skeptical when I recounted the tale to her.

“I expect he just left. Maybe he was afraid he’d gotten himself entangled a bit. Well – at any rate he’s paid her regularly – I think – but she’ll be hurt. Poor Mamie Ricketts.”

We sat musing for a time. “She should have married and had six children.” I suddenly voiced my thought.

“My view exactly.” Mrs. Whitley smiled. “I’ve thought it so often when she had only poor Millie to give to – and now – ”

“Oh – he must come back – ” I interjected.

But the next day brought no Mr. Pratt returning. Nor did the next. A week passed and Miss Ricketts drooped pitifully.

At last, one afternoon, she sobbingly told us that Mr. Pratt had owed her a week’s room rent when he left. Our disgust for Mr. Pratt was as intense as our sorrow for Miss Ricketts. The days dragged by as spiritlessly as Miss Ricketts dragged herself about the house and yard. Millie petted and cared for her. Millie mumbled all the time and frowned fiercely at passing men. To her all men were guilty and she hated them.

One morning, a month after Mr. Pratt’s departure, Millie picked up a piece of paper weighed down by a large stone. Under it was a five dollar bill. Miss Ricketts’ pleasure knew no bounds. He had not cheated her. He must have been in trouble and had never told her. Happily she talked of him and of the money he had left for her.

“How much was his bill, Miss Ricketts?” Mrs. Whitley asked.

“Why – my land – t’wasn’t not four yet – well now – I hope he’ll come through – an’ stop – ”

I knew then that he would never again appear in Keyville, for I knew that Mrs. Whitley had been the donor of the money. She smiled when I accused her.

“Well, why shouldn’t I save her a heartache or two if I can,” was her reply.

Things went along as before. Early fall brought two roomers and boarders to Miss Ricketts. Whenever she talked with us, however, she mentioned Mr. Pratt. His supposed action had long before taken on the cloak of thoughtful heroism for her.

One evening, however, she dashed over the fence and dropped down beside us. She gazed from one to the other and at last pointed out in the papers what she wanted us to read. Some roomer’s week-old paper it was. A tiny item mentioned a man killed in Toledo. Tall, dark, and blue-eyed he had been, and had carried a brown suit-case. No identifying marks had been found. Miss Ricketts knew that Mr. Pratt had been the man. He had talked of going to Toledo. The rest of the description fitted him perfectly. He had carried a brown suit-case. For an instant, we each longed to show her the folly of such belief and then realized the sublimeness of that folly. We comforted her and put her to bed. Millie cared for her. The next day she was up again. That morning I was startled to see her in ancient, rusty black. Miss Ricketts was in mourning. She had had her few hours of love – even though real to her alone. Her lover was gone and she mourned him.

So – when I think of that sentence I always think of Miss Ricketts – and as the years go on I see less and less discrepancy in my connecting them.