“The Haunting of Elora Donnelly” (Chapter Three)
As you might imagine, based upon recent discoveries, I had become quite obsessed with Elora Donnelly, though I hadn’t felt her exact presence in some time, the house felt full of emotion, like a type of waiting. She remained fixed in my mind, much like the melody she would soon share and thinking back on it now, there were times that the house did seem to hum with music.
I had emailed a woman I discovered through Ancestory.com named Clara Valdene, the great, great granddaughter of Crawford Valdene, assuming it was the same man Elora had traveled with. Clara had unearthed some extensive research about the Valdene family, and I wanted to ask her a few questions. During the 1920s, Emerson and Liberty Valdene moved from London to New York, where they remained until their death in the 1970s. He was a botanist, and she was a milliner. They ran a millinery in Brooklyn. I explained everything but the haunting to Clara and asked if she could send me any photos that she might have from their life in England.
During this time, my daughter was a fitful sleeper, so I would take long country walks with her in her backpack, ensuring a full afternoon nap and the chance of her not overtiring by bedtime. I wrote while she slept in the evenings, and that time was precious to me. On one of these walks, I met the grandniece of my elderly neighbor, who invited us to tea. I had long admired the house. It was what I consider a true Sussex cottage, complete with hung tiles, sash windows and pink roses over the doorway. I said yes straight away.
Inside the house was sensible chintz and polished mahogany furniture. There was a view of the valley, cakes and tea cups with saucers. I felt like we had walked into Mrs. Maples’ lounge and delighted at the small paintings of flowers in vases the adorned almost every wall. The flowers were of various types, though in each case, one was entirely colorless, meaning it was pure white in petal, stem and leaf. I studied a bunch of sweet peas, the white one drooped like fallen angel wings.
“Not dead,” said Mrs. Stock. I hadn’t noticed her standing so close to me. “Just remembered as a thought, that’s what she used to say. Not that I can recall her personally! I only look two hundred! But that’s what my mother used to tell me. She was just a girl when Mrs. Donnelly painted those pictures.”
I turned to her in shock. “Did you say Mrs. Donnelly?”
“Oh yes, the lady that used to live in your house. She was a great painter.She left them all to my mother because she used to sit with her as a child. Sometimes, she let mother paint the backgrounds. She had no children of her own, you see, funny that she painted portraits mainly, though I keep those in the attic, give me the creeps, they do. I like the flowers best. Jolly, don’t you think?”
I could hardly speak. “Mrs. Stock, do you think I might be able to see the portraits?”
“Sure, I can’t see why not. You can take one if you like, it would be nice to think of it returning to its maker’s home. Izzy can take you this afternoon. Now, how about a cup of tea?”
The self portrait of Elora, titled E. D., was extraordinary. It was painted from the bust up and she was wearing a crimson high neck gown, up the side of her shoulders were rectangular white beads with black intersecting sequins. In the right-hand corner, there was another softer, almost translucent painting of her face looking left, and to the left there was a black glove. Behind her portrait and circling her head like ring of fairies, were eight white flowers. Her hair was deep brown, her skin pale to blue and her eyes were green and, it seemed, very much alive with expression. A small butterfly was clipped behind her ear. I took her home hand hung her on the wall above the piano.
I expected Elora to visit me that evening, and I was not wrong. I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of the piano. I looked at the clock. It was 3:10. Everyone else was still asleep. Each E was played repeatedly until the minute changed. It was a light touch along the keys, as though she didn’t want to wake the house, but needed to speak.
What was she trying to communicate?