The Lady In The Basement

By Matthew Pearl

Arriving for her first day at the college, Ellen Swallow was ushered through the back entrance of the building down into the basement.

“Now, dear, this will be yours,” Mrs. Stinson said, unlocking the heavy door to a laboratory chamber. “A bit dismal, dear, I know. But I might urge patience. If you ever feel lonesome, just call on me at my desk, Miss Swallow.”

“This shall be… mine?” Ellen asked, hiding a smile as she looked around the chamber.

“Dismal indeed!” the older woman repeated. “But perhaps with some flowers by the window, and maybe some color added on these shelves… well, I am certain it will do nicely.”

Dimly lit by three gas fixtures, the room was long but narrow with a floor of brick. It had two furnaces, a demonstration table, bins, shelves and a sink. All that, hers. There could be nothing dismal at all here in Ellen’s eyes. She did not need flowers when she had a sand-bath for melting and fusing metals. How glorious!

For the first few weeks at the Institute of Technology, Ellen Swallow saw mainly boots. Through the half-window in the basement laboratory boots trampled the fields beyond. Boots hurried in and out of classrooms as she kept her face downcast when crossing through the corridors. Most of all, she saw her own boots, manly and worn, the sides shredded and uneven from hiking through rugged terrain, the edges whitened from long excursions in and around water.

Mrs. Stinson’s offer to her to come visit her desk was a tempting and kind one that Ellen would never consider seriously. Margaret Stinson was the chemical assistant given charge of the supplies and instruments and the only other woman in the building. But Ellen was the lone female student, and to run and cling onto the hem of another woman’s dress would make her seem weaker than the men assumed she was.

In fact, she hardly saw Mrs. Stinson after that first day. The only people she spoke to were the janitor, Darwin Fogg, and her professors, who would arrive at her laboratory at appointed times for her private lessons. She sometimes asked questions about the courses that she was not allowed to attend with the rest of the freshmen. She asked only to add to her scientific knowledge. Not that she wanted to be crammed in with those loud, ungainly boys. She was proud of her solitude and knew it would strengthen her scholarship and her character in the end. It always had.

She’d carry around the letter she had received the previous year from President Rogers admitting her to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, still only a few years removed from its founding. “I will say now that you will have any and all advantages that the Institute has to offer without charge of any kind,” it read. “I congratulate you and every earnest woman upon the result.” The first weeks, she would read this letter whenever she felt in need of a respite from her studies. Then she would put the letter away and return immediately to work, her weariness banished.

One day, she made the mistake of leaving her belongings aside for a few minutes while retrieving a piece of equipment from a supply closet on the first floor. When she returned downstairs, she found the letter of admission gone. The next day, she was doing a lesson with President Rogers in her laboratory when he noticed first. A piece of paper had been slipped under the door. It was the letter of admission returned, but now with a handwritten amendment. In the letter Rogers had mentioned that the degree Ellen would pursue was an A.B. with the class of 1871, but this was now crossed out and the letters A.O.M. scrawled over it in bright red ink of an unknown hand.

“I cannot fathom it,” Rogers said after studying the desecration.

Ellen had to take a moment before answering to master her anger and embarrassment. Her eyes came close to showing the depth of her misery at this moment, but she willed them dry and her voice steady. “I believe it is meant to stand for ‘an old maid,’ President Rogers.”

“I shall write you a new letter, straightaway,” Rogers said. Somehow, he knew how important the paper had remained to her.

“Thank you, President Rogers. But it is this piece of paper that invited me to my new and glorious life here, and I would cherish it even if it were entirely painted over in red ink and every word illegible.”

“Miss Swallow, you have my word that the faculty shall make a full and thorough search for the perpetrator. I hope you shall tell me without delay if there are any other instances of such harassment.”

Ellen did not reply to this. She was grateful for the sentiment, but knew any such investigation would be fruitless and was glad for it. She believed women as much as men had to stand on their own two feet. If there was justice to be done, she would not pass that burden to this man who had done so much for her already. She would be the one to do it even as the Lord smite his enemies in the Bible: swiftly and without blinking.

The next afternoon, a group of young men streamed out into the fields behind the Institute building, kicking a ball from man to man as they formed teams. It was a crisp, dry day in Boston with the first shedding of leaves light on the air. Their burst of lively and jovial tones was a tribute to their hours of hard work in the classrooms and laboratories.

“Pardon my interrupting, gentlemen.”

One by one they fell silent and turned their heads toward the speaker, who was standing on the rear doorstep, hands folded tightly behind her back. Ellen was a vision in long black dress, hair pinned tightly behind her head under a large, dark brown bonnet.

“Thank you for your attention,” she continued to her fellow freshmen. “I shall just take a moment. My name is Ellen Swallow, as many of you probably know, and I perform my studies in the basement. Someone among you saw fit to violate the sanctity of my private belongings, and I wish to deliver a brief message to that person, and to any like-minded. My patience is greater than you know, but I caution you not to test it. I promise you will not like how that tale ends.”

Ellen nodded firmly, walked inside and descended again into the basement.

Part Two

The taunts continued. Not only had Ellen’s warning been ignored but so had a memorandum from President Rogers that reminded the student body of the rules for discipline, without mentioning her in particular. One morning, Ellen arrived to unlock her laboratory but stopped short in the corridor as she removed her key. There, hanging from the beam as though in effigy, was a housemaid’s apron. The next week, she arrived to find her door nailed shut. A few days later, there was a rattling at her door while she was sitting inside at her demonstration table. She lifted her head but being in the middle of a delicate experiment, she did not move or even flinch. She had devised a new locking mechanism for the door and did not doubt the intruder would be sufficiently hindered. Still, the development was worrisome. Slipping a piece of paper under the door or leaving an object in the corridor was one thing. Trying to enter her laboratory was something else.

Ever since the theft of her letter, she had begun designing a burglar alarm she intended to be the most effective ever invented. However, she estimated it would take several more months to complete the engineering and construction of the thing, and for now had installed only a primitive version of it in her laboratory. But she had something better in mind.

One Saturday, a few hours after classes ended, Ellen was sitting in a dark corner of her laboratory, poised at the edge of a stool. When the door began to rattle, she knew that this time it would give way and prayed her latest invention would work. The door opened after only a slight effort on the part of the unseen intruder. Then a figure stepped quietly in and waved a candle around until finding the location of her demonstration table. The figure then crept to the table and raised a hammer.

A trap-door opened beneath the man’s feet and his whole body dropped. Another set of leaves fell from both sides, forming a restraint around the neck of the captive.

“Help! Someone help me!”

“We’re the only ones in the building, Mr. Jones,” Ellen said, turning up the lamps in the chamber. “Today being Saturday, and classes having ended for the day, nobody else will be coming until Monday.”

Jones had a face that seemed much too small and pinched for his very round head. His hair was silky and each strand sought a different direction. He looked two or three years younger than his nineteen years. He struggled and strained against the trap.

“You let me out of here at once, you witch!” he cried. “You let me out or…”

“Yes?” asked Ellen when he could not contrive any reasonable threat. “You needn’t bother trying to free yourself, Mr. Jones. The weight of your body is keeping the trap doors closed around your neck.”

Jones was trying to peer down at the device. “A false floor! You built a false floor in order to trap me!”

“Yes,” said Ellen, standing over her quarry.

“How… how did you do this?”

“I presume you mean how it was that I cut the aperture in my trap doors to fit around your neck with exactitude. I thank you for noticing my work, Mr. Jones. I confess it was rather simple. Your laboratory wrapper is left hanging in the closet each evening. You are a man of habit and like to leave it on the same peg. Mrs. Stinson tailors each wrapper to fit each student exactly. I took my measurement from that.”

“You are cracked in the head! Let me out!” cried Jones.

“No.”

“Deranged woman! I know you’ll let me up!”

“Oh? Why is that?”

“You are the weaker sex. No matter what show you may put on, you know you are obliged to obey me, sooner or later,” Jones said, though his voice cracked with a frightened squeal on his last three words.

Ellen went back to her work at the demonstration table, arranging an experiment comparing two concentrations of double fluoride of potassium.

Jones gritted his teeth, then gnashed them, and then shouted some more. Ellen did not once look up from her work.

“Very well, just tell me!” he finally exclaimed.

“Tell you?” asked Ellen.

“Tell me what you want!”

“Patience. You know as well as I do that one cannot interrupt delicate chemical arrangements at any time.” When she came to a natural pause, she produced two pieces of paper, bent down on the floor, and put them in front of her captive.

“What are those?”

“These are prepared statements, Mr. Jones. The first is a letter addressed to your classmates renouncing all harassment of me. The second letter is addressed to the faculty confessing your part in that harassment. Sign one and I shall free you at once. It is your choice which to sign.”

“Indeed!” Jones cried, then laughed harshly. “If I sign that confession to the faculty I would be shipped out of the college at once.”

“Then do sign the other one.”

“If I sign that one, I shall be humiliated and ostracized.”

“Then we will have something in common.”

“Witch!”

“Not witch, but which. Think hard, Mr. Jones. It is your choice alone.”

“I cannot sign my name to either of these without ruining myself! The choice you give me is no choice at all.”

“Sometimes, such are the indignities in life.”

She left the two pieces of paper in front of her prisoner, one on each side of his swiveling, sweaty head.

Part Three

“Well, you are out of luck,” he said, trying to sound as if he were the master of the situation, “because I refuse to sign either paper.”

“Very well,” said Ellen.

“My friends will search for me!”

“Will they think of looking here?” When he did not reply and his confident face drooped, she added, “No, I suppose not. I imagine even you were embarrassed by your behavior to tell anyone how much you fancied harassing me. Would they not instead assume you are in a drunken spree?”

He gnashed his teeth again, straining against the planks that locked his neck and shoulders under the false floor. When he stopped struggling, he said sulkily, “You cannot keep me here long.”

“Oh, can’t I?” she asked, amused.

“No. I’ll have to eat.”

“I shall arrange for it.”

“And there is no lavatory. I should like to see a young woman like you persist here in an atmosphere of indecent filth!”

“It should not bother me very much, after having served as a missionary in the Worcester jail. I have provided you with some clean pots underneath the trap door, Mr. Jones, and have cut an aperture into the device so that I can retrieve and replace them frequently without risking your escape.”

He glared at her with venom and began cursing oaths and obscenities.

“Again, Mr. Jones, I shall remind you of my visits inside the jail. You may offend me by your language, true, but you shall utterly fail to shock me.”

His cursing trailed off and was replaced by boisterous and bawdy singing of the rowdiest songs he could think of. In spite of himself, he was not a bad singer at all, though he had frightful little sense of melody. Ellen found herself taking to her tasks around the laboratory with added energy and pluck. She really liked having music, even this music from an imprisoned ruffian, and didn’t mind having some company generally, even from what seemed a disembodied head.

Not that she ever had any difficulty being alone. In fact, most times she preferred it, and she had plenty of chances to exercise the preference. At the boarding house, there were always boarders at breakfast and at supper, but because Ellen was obliged to assist Mrs. Blodgett in the cooking and cleaning as a condition of her reduced rent, she did not usually join the conversations, most of which were too inane for her taste.

At one point, there was a song Jones began that she had more than once heard sailors sing while taking water samples near the harbor. She began to sing along:

“To the savage sea he is wedded groom,

And grief shall your weary life consume,

And widow’d nights and days your doom must be!”

He stopped singing as soon as she began and glared at her sourly.

Soon after, she began to gather her things together and stepped out of her laboratory wrapper and into her plain coat.

“Where are you going? Miss Swallow? You can’t leave me here like this. Nobody will be here until Monday! No! It’s inhumane! Wait!”

“Goodbye,” she said, ignoring his further pleas. She found that by the time she was halfway up the stairs she could no longer hear him.

When she returned two hours later, she lit the lamps and found the head of Jones just where she left him.

“You’ve come back! I knew you would!” he said, almost hysterical. “Yes, I knew it! I knew you were too generous and humane a person to let me die here in the dark!”

She could see by the moist skin under his eyes that he had been crying. She frowned, not out of pity, exactly. Disappointment, maybe.

“I begin to be numb around my shoulder, Miss Swallow.”

“Come now, no more blubbering. You have plenty of room under that floor to move your arms and legs around. You must be hungry as a church mouse.”

“I am hungry!” he exclaimed. “Indeed!”

“Good. I brought mutton stewed in its own gravy and some peach pie. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve eaten my supper already, Mr. Jones. I prefer to eat alone.”

He made no reply, his jaw lowering almost involuntarily at the sight of the meal being unpacked. Ellen very patiently shoveled in bites of food and held up the glass of milk. The latter she provided not to heighten the childlike circumstance of the captive, but because she thought college students drank altogether too much wine and wanted to be a good influence, if nothing else.

“You favor mutton, I suppose?” Ellen asked.

Jones’ answer was a slurping finish of his portion.

“I suspected you might!” she said with satisfaction.

“Miss Swallow, do you think we might speak again about my release?” he asked, sated by the meal and more subservient than he had been.

“I shall fetch the papers right now, if you are ready,” she said, relieved and intrigued to know which one he was now ready to sign.

“Yes, bring them over, if you please, Miss Swallow. I suppose you must think me rather ungentlemanly toward women for what I’ve done to you.”

Ellen, glad for the lull in coarseness, was careful not to draw out his anger. “Do you think you are, Mr. Jones?”

“Not in the least! I have a little sister, you know, and I’m awful fond of her.”

“Do you? Pray, tell me about her.”

“Well, she is awful beautiful. Yes, the prettiest little thing you’ve ever seen. A face such as the angels must have smiled upon. Not like mine.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, mine is prone to turning red without warning. It is bumpy where I wish it smooth, big where I wish it modest, and brushing and oiling makes my hair only more wild than not doing a thing.”

“Tut, tut, Mr. Jones. Thinking your appearance flawed is as much a vice as thinking it too handsome. You are who God made you. You are in his image, and there is no person better.”

The exchange went no further. There was a knock at the door.

“Miss Swallow, you in there?” a voice came. “I saw the light and wanted to make sure you didn’t leave a candle burning.”

Before Ellen could think how to stop him, Jones was already screaming at the top of his voice. “Help me! You there! Help me!”

“Who’s in there?” came the voice again, now filled with urgency and surprise. “This is your fair warning! Someone best open this door, or I’ll use force!”

Part Four

“Heavens! What’s going on in here?” asked Darwin Fogg, the janitor, when Ellen admitted him into the laboratory. He was staring at the student whose head only was showing, his neck and the rest of his body trapped in the trap door mechanism. “What’s the meaning of this?” He looked from the student, who was cackling with emotional relief, to Ellen and back.

“I’m afraid, Mr. Fogg, that I had no choice in the matter,” Ellen said with a confessional sigh.

“I don’t understand! You did this, Miss Swallow?”

“Yes, yes!” Jones cried. “She did it! She’s a witch and a deranged woman!”

“Mr. Jones found he could not help invading my private laboratory, despite being warned of the consequences. Mr. Fogg, I have been taunted and harassed just enough to lose my patience. You see the result.”

The janitor’s expression turned less shocked and more conflicted.

“If you two are done with your grand pow wow, I would like to be removed from this bear trap. Now!” shouted Jones. “Yes, yes, that’s right!”

Darwin walked over toward the captive. Ellen said nothing more and did nothing to try to stop him. If her attempt to shield herself from her tormentors had to end, she would have to think of something else. The truth was, she felt she may have made the mistake. Freed from his situation without having to accept the consequences of what he had done, she expected Hawthorne Jones would only grow bolder and encourage his cohorts to the do the same. Her very status as a student there would be under grave threat.

“Well?” Jones demanded, spitting all over himself with impatience and fury as Darwin hesitated. “What are you waiting for, you imbecile?”

“Is it true what Miss Swallow has said, Mr. Jones?” asked the janitor, who had stopped short of the prisoner.

“Are you seriously listening to this madwoman? What difference does it make? Get me out of here at once!”

“I ought to understand this situation,” replied Darwin.

“You free me at once, you impudent fool, or I shall have you shipped off from the Institute! Do you hear me?” Jones shrieked, his volume growing as Darwin remained in place. “Make haste, you dusky rogue!”

“It is my understanding that no male students are permitted in here,” Darwin said, looking up and down the laboratory as though the hostage had turned invisible. “I haven’t been sleeping very well lately, it’s true, so I must not trust my eyes. Why, I should probably go home and see to it that I obtain a better night of sleep. Miss Swallow, if you please.” He winked to Ellen, bowed, and began to make his way out of the room.

“Thank you, Mr. Fogg,” Ellen called after him with a grin.

After several straight minutes of screaming and pleading for the janitor to return and then cursing his departure, the exhausted Jones, jaw slack, tongue hanging out, turned to Ellen. “Very well. Bring me the letter — the one to the other freshmen. I shall sign it. I shall sign it and I pray I shall never have to see you again!”

“No.”

“No?”

“The bargain has changed, Mr. Jones. You had your chance to choose. You shall now sign both papers.”

“What? But then I shall have no hope at all of persisting here!” he protested.

“You should have thought about that. It is one thing to treat me the way you have. But Mr. Fogg is a kind man and to berate him is unacceptable,” she said.

“How is the way I speak to the Negro janitor any of your affair?”

“If ever there is a fellow human being, or even defenseless animal, mistreated, I count it as my affair,” she said.

“You must be reasonable!”

“No, Mr. Jones, I mustn’t be. You ought to strive to be a better example to the sister you purport to love so well.”

This stoked all the fires inside the trapped freshman. His eyes seemed to bulge wider and whiter as his skin turned brighter red. “My sister!” he cried. “How dare you speak of her! Why, I am the world in her eyes. I am greater than Odysseus and Mose Humphries combined. Indeed! It is for her I did this!”

“What do you mean by that?”

“She heard there was a lady pupil here at the Institute. The poor girl, only thirteen, but already talking about how she wished she could do the same as you one day! Indeed! In that one breath, risking her entire future, replacing rightful dreams of marriage and children with laboratory wrappers and chemical fumes, and other unwomanly pursuits! Because of you!”

“So you thought if you frightened me away from the college you could tell her I ran off raising the white flag, and that it would prove to her women could not study science.”

Jones looked away from his captor, his silence providing her answer.

She felt stung and her eyes moistened in spite of willing herself to be strong. “Will you sign the two papers in exchange for your release or not?”

“No!”

“Then I wish you a good-night,” said Ellen.

“You won’t dare leave me overnight,” Jones said, seething.

“Have I proven nothing about myself to you through all this, Mr. Jones?”

“You won’t dare, woman!”

She could hear his howl challenge her — You won’t dare! — halfway up the stairs to the first floor on her way out of the building. A bit to her surprise, she slept very soundly that night.

Part Five

The captive seemed to have inured himself to his circumstances. When Ellen returned Sunday morning, he did not scream for help or yell at her. He accepted the breakfast she fed him without a word of comment or complaint, and even thanked her when she changed his pots through the aperture of the false floor and provided him a fresh suit of clothes that had long ago been abandoned by a former tenant in her boarding house.

She had underestimated his mettle. She expected him to be begging to sign the papers that would secure his release. In spite of her disappointment, she was impressed by his persistence. When she returned from attending church, she placed a newspaper in front of him and changed the page every ten minutes.

The day passed in such quiet fashion that it began to seem rather normal to have the head of a freshman Tech boy protruding through the floor of her laboratory. Their routine extended to the evening. Increasingly, Ellen became suspicious. When she was leaving, she thought he was grinning as he wished her “good night.”

Did he have some plan to escape in her absence?

But there he was the next morning, singing as she walking into the chamber.

“Tell me, Mr. Jones, what is it that has brought you such peace of late?”

“Why, you’ve lost, Miss Swallow, that’s what!” he said, followed by his dry cackle.

“How do you mean?”

“It’s Monday morning!”

“Yes. I fail to see the significance.”

“You are not permitted inside the classrooms. The professors come to you. Well, when the first professor of the day appears here, he will find what you have done. I will be freed without signing any confession, I shall say you cruelly hunted and captured me, and you will be shipped off for your actions! I wouldn’t be surprised if the police themselves were called in and you were dragged away in irons!”

“I see,” Ellen said solemnly. “I believe you are mistaken.”

“I don’t think so!”

“Yes. You see, when the first professor comes, I shall act as surprised as he at your presence here. I shall say I was experimenting with the construction and engineering of an elevated floor — certainly such a project would fit into one curriculum or another here — and that while I was at church on Sabbath day, you must have invaded my laboratory, breaking the explicit rules of the college, and gotten yourself enmeshed in my woodwork.”

Hearing her plan, Jones first flushed then turned pale down to his lips. He was speechless.

You will be shipped off, Mr. Jones, and likely banished from every college in Boston,” she continued. “Don’t fear. You still have approximately forty minutes to decide before President Rogers calls on me.”

“Very well!” exclaimed the captive. His eyes were wild with fear. “I will do it! I will sign both of them, upon my honor! Hurry!”

She calmly inserted the papers along with a pencil into an aperture she had prepared in the compartment for the purpose. After he hurriedly signed his name to both, she produced a key, unlocked a device near the hinges of the device, and separated the trap around his neck. Pulling himself out, Jones collapsed on the floor in a near hysterical state, his limbs trembling and writhing from the numbness of forty hours’ confinement.

“Curse you, Ellen Swallow, and this entire wretched basement!” he cried when he had managed to pull himself up into a standing position, knocking down a table filled with supplies. Then he stumbled out of the laboratory without another look back.

“Godspeed, Mr. Jones,” she said to herself. Then she returned to her demonstration table and her current experiment, which really had been slowed over the last few days. Not having the burden of a hostage would certainly be helpful.

The harassment of Ellen reached a lull around that time freshman year, though a few months later there were other instances. She did not suspect Hawthorne Jones of those, however. On the occasions she was walking in a corridor or out in the fields and Jones was somewhere nearby, he would turn away abruptly. Once, she was coming up the stairwell while he was coming down. He did an about face and must have walked all the way to the roof of the Institute.

She did not detect hatred or contempt in these passing moments. Instead, there was that glimmer of fear in his eye.

One morning that spring, Ellen sat contemplatively in the window seat of a train returning to Boston.

“Say, put that out,” she heard a gruff voice. “This isn’t the smoking car.”

Ellen leaned over and looked through the aisle, where she saw Hawthorne Jones puffing on a cigar.

“Oh, is that so?” Jones answered to the man who had reprimanded him. He was about to say more when his eyes met Ellen’s. He paled and quickly extinguished the cigar. Seeming to steel himself, he walked over to Ellen’s seat.

“Miss Swallow,” he greeted her with a tremor in his voice, the first words he had spoken to her since he left the basement almost half a year earlier.

“Yes, Mr. Jones?”

“Well?”

“Well?” she repeated.

“For five months and longer since I walked out of your laboratory I have waited. Waited to be called into the president’s office, or to see in the faces of my friends the fact that they had finally read the letter I signed. Yet neither has occurred. It torments me. Why, I’d rather hand around the letters myself than wait!”

“You needn’t wait any longer, in that case,” Ellen said. “I have burned them in the furnace.”

“What?”

“Both of them. Only a minute after you exited. Why, if you had waited just a moment you could have collected their ashes.”

Jones was flabbergasted. “But why?”

“For your sister.”

“How so?”

“You are a hero to her. If your name was tainted, if you were shipped off from Tech, there is little doubt in her loyalty to you her mind would turn against the Institute, and probably science in general, and any dream she rightfully cherished of being a scientist — a technologist — of gripping firmly the reins of the future one day would wither and die.”

“Ha!” came a cackling response. “Ha! Now you’ve done it, you witch! You hold nothing on me forevermore!”

Jones continued cackling as he lost no time in lighting another cigar in triumph. But by that time Ellen’s attentions had been directed elsewhere. The train had begun to jerk backward and forward, throwing Jones off balance and then flat to the floor. There was a general murmur of interest and surprise on the opposite side of the railroad car that quickly turned into a mood of alarm and terror. Ellen stepped over Jones to the other side of the train. Heart in her throat with an ominous sensation, she looked out the window to see the Boston harbor afire — or so it seemed.

Now God’s real test had come to her.

“I’m ready,” she said to herself, though this time even Ellen Swallow trembled to imagine what might be about to come.