"The Lady's Maid's Bell" is a short story by the American author Edith Wharton. It was first published in the November 1902 issue of Scribner's Magazine. The story was later collected in The Descent of Man and Other Stories (1904).
In the story, a lady's maid named Hartley finds employment with Mrs. Brympton, a lady who is confined to her country estate because of delicate health. Hartley quickly grows fond of her kind mistress, and she has no complaints about her duties or fellow servants. There is, however, something mysterious about the place. It is strange that Mrs. Brympton never rings the bell but instead sends the house maid to fetch Hartley. The room opposite Hartley's is locked, and no one will tell Hartley who the pale woman was that she saw near the room on her first day. Hartley also wonders why, since the death of the former lady's maid six months ago, they have had trouble finding a replacement.
"The Lady's Maid's Bell" was adapted as the first episode of the Granada Television series Shades of Darkness in 1983.
Having just recovered from typhoid fever, Hartley is having difficulty obtaining a new position as a lady's maid. She is becoming desperate when she runs into Mrs. Railton, a friend of her former employer. Mrs. Railton recommends Hartley to her niece, Mrs. Brympton, who lives in the country due to poor health. Mrs. Railton believes Hartley will make a perfect new companion for her niece whose devoted maid of twenty years has died. Mrs. Railton tells Hartley that her niece is an angel and that Mr. Brympton is mostly away.
Hartley arrives at the gloomy-looking country house late in the afternoon. Once inside, she finds the house and the servants quite pleasant. A house maid shows her upstairs to the servants' quarters. Hartley looks down the dark passage towards her room at the end and notices a pale woman in a dark gown. The woman disappears into a doorway. The house maid does not notice the woman, but she is alarmed to find the door opposite Hartley's room open. She tells Hartley that the room is empty and Mrs. Brympton wishes it kept locked. Hartley settles into her room then joins the servants for tea at six. The pale woman is not there, so Hartley suspects she might be a trained nurse for Mrs. Brympton.
After tea, the house maid, Agnes, takes Hartley to Mrs. Brympton's bedroom. Mrs. Brympton is very pleasant and considerate, and Hartley takes to her immediately. The mistress, however, will not ring the bell to call Hartley. Instead, she rings for Agnes so Agnes can fetch Hartley. Hartley finds it very strange, since there is a bell from the mistress' room directly to hers. Hartley also discovers that there is no nurse for Mrs. Brympton. Agnes denies seeing the pale woman, so Hartley concludes she must have been a friend of a servant who was staying overnight secretly.
A day or two later, Hartley learns from Mrs. Blinder the friendly cook that her room had previously been the sewing room for the lady's maid. Hartley tells Mrs. Blinder she intends to ask Mrs. Brympton if she can use the empty room as her sewing room. Mrs. Blinder turns white and tells Hartley not to do so because the room had belonged to the last lady's maid, Emma Saxon, whom the mistress loved like a sister.
Nearly a week passes before Mr. Brympton arrives. The whole household turns tense, and Hartley knows right away the servants do not love their master. Hartley meets him for the first time when she enters Mrs. Brympton’s room before dinner. Mr. Brympton looks over Hartley quickly with his ill-tempered blue eyes and clearly decides the sickly-looking maid is of no interest to him. After he leaves, Hartley notices that Mrs. Brympton is white and cold to the touch.
Mr. Brympton leaves the following morning and everyone relaxes. Mrs. Brympton goes out for a walk and returns with a neighbor, Mr. Ranford. It being winter time and the country being deserted, Mr. Ranford is about the only companion for Mrs. Brympton. Mr. Ranford is friendly and well-liked by the servants, and he also appears to be on good terms with Mr. Brympton whenever he is around. Mr. Brympton only stays for a day or two at a time. He is loud and coarse, drinks too much, and is clearly not a good match for Mrs. Brympton who is quiet and retiring.
Several weeks go by, and Hartley continues to serve her kind mistress happily — yet she feels somehow uneasy. Her spirit rises when she is out on an errand walking to and from the village. In the house, however, she is affected by its gloom. When rain keeps her indoors for most of January, Hartley becomes nervous and begins to imagine she hears noises in the locked room. She is overjoyed when Mrs. Brympton sends her to town for some shopping one day.
In the village, Hartley runs into a maid with whom she served some years ago. The woman tells Hartley that Mrs. Brympton has had four maids in the last six months, and no one can stay in the house. Hartley becomes even more convinced that there is something wrong about the house.
Upon returning to the house, Hartley learns that Mr. Brympton is back and something disturbing has happened. Soon Agnes comes to fetch Hartley. Hearing Mr. Brympton in Mrs. Brympton's room, Hartley enters the adjoining dressing room to lay out the dinner gown first. She hears Mr. Brympton talking angrily to Mrs. Brympton about her visitor. Hartley rattles the toiletries to warn her mistress. Mrs. Brympton hears the noise and calls her in.
After supper, Hartley puts Mrs. Brympton to bed. She then goes to bed herself feeling nervous. In the middle of the night, she wakes to the noise of her bell ringing. Shaking with terror, she lights the candle and puts on her clothes. She hears the door of the locked room open and close, followed by footsteps hurrying down the passageway. Hartley freezes in terror for a minute before recovering her senses and rushing down to knock on her mistress' door.
Mr. Brympton opens the door, his face red and savage. Seeing Hartley, he says "How many of you are there, in God's name?" Hartley asks if she may go in. Mr. Brympton replies "You may all go in for what I care" then walks away to his own bedroom. Mrs. Brympton is lying on her bed looking weak, but she smiles and asks for her medicine. After taking the medicine, she lies with her eyes closed. She then reaches out calling "Emma". When Hartley speaks, Mrs. Brympton opens her eyes clearly startled. She tells Hartley she was dreaming, then thanks her and assures her that she is all right.
Hartley lies awake the rest of the night. In the early morning, she is called by Agnes to Mrs. Brympton's bedroom. Mrs. Brympton asks Hartley to go to the village for her prescription and be back before Mr. Brympton is up. She then adds that Hartley can also drop off a note for Mr. Ranford while the medicine is being prepared. At first, Hartley is alarmed that Mrs. Brympton may be filling a prescription secretly with the intention of overdosing herself. Then she realises it is the second errand her mistress is trying to keep her husband from finding out. She hurries back to the house and slips in through a side door. An hour later, she is stopped by Mr. Brympton in the hallway. He asks what she was doing out so early. She denies having been out. Mr. Brympton then asks if she thinks he was drunk last night. Hartley honestly tells him that she does not think so.
Hartley is still shaken by the events of the previous night. She is not ready to leave, however, because she does not wish to abandon her kind mistress. She works at her sewing until the sewing machine breaks down. As she looks to see what is wrong, a photograph falls out of a drawer. Hartley is shocked to see it is a portrait of the pale woman she saw on her first day. She rushes to Mrs. Blinder and shows her the photograph. Mrs. Blinder identifies the woman as Emma Saxon. Hartley tells her that she has seen Emma. Mrs. Blinder, choosing to ignore the comment, tells Hartley to run along so she can start cooking.
For the next week or two, Mr. Brympton stays on and Mr. Ranford stays away. Then one day Mr. Ranford calls. After making merry over tea, Mr. Brympton sees him off personally. Soon after, Mr. Brympton departs and Mr. Ranford begins to call again regularly, though not as frequently as before.
A month later, Mr. Brympton is still away and said to be cruising with a friend in the West Indies. Servants, including Hartley, are in better spirits with their master being far away. Mrs. Brympton also appears to feel better, and Hartley is finally able to walk past the locked room without a shiver. She looks out the window of her room and sees snow beginning to fall. Hearing a footstep, she looks up expecting to see Agnes. She freezes when she sees instead Emma Saxon standing in the doorway. Although she cannot move, Hartley is not frightened. She can feel Emma silently asking her for help.
Then suddenly Emma turns and walks out. Hartley follows. Emma goes down the backstairs and crosses the empty passageway to the back door. She looks back at Hartley then opens the door and goes outside. Hartley follows Emma across the courtyard to the path through the woods. Emma keeps walking towards the village, leaving no footprints in the snow. Hartley's courage fails her and she tries to go back, but she finds herself unable to do so as if she is being pulled by Emma. Emma finally stops in front of Mr. Ranford's house. Hartley knows Emma wants her to do something, but she cannot figure out what it is. Before she can ask Emma, the door opens and Mr. Ranford comes out. Hartley looks back and sees that Emma has disappeared. Hartley faints. When she comes to, she finds herself inside being tended to by Mr. Ranford. She tells him that she was out for a walk when she felt faint at his gate. After being driven back, she is sent to bed early by Mrs. Brympton.
Hartley is awakened in the night by the furious ringing of her bell. She dresses quickly, knowing that whatever it is, it is going to happen now. She hurries down the passageway and opens the door to the main hall. She sees Emma Saxon at the head of the stairs. As the door shuts, Emma disappears and Hartley hears the key turning stealthily in the house door.
Hartley runs to Mrs. Brympton's room and knocks. She knocks for a second time before the door is opened by Mrs. Brympton. Mrs. Brympton is still dressed despite the hour and appears surprised to see Hartley at her door. She turns pale when Hartley tells her that the bell rang. She tells Hartley in an uncharacteristically harsh manner that she is mistaken then begins to close the door. Just then, Hartley hears a man's footsteps in the hall downstairs. Finally understanding the truth, Hartley tells her mistress that Mrs. Brympton is back in the house. Mrs. Brympton faints at her feet. As Hartley tries to lift her, Mr. Brympton comes up the stairs and pushes past them toward the dressing room. Hartley grabs him by the sleeves and begs him to look at his wife. He shakes her off furiously. He is about to open the door when they hear a slight noise inside. Mr. Brympton tears open the door and sees Emma Saxon standing on the threshold. He staggers back covering his face. Emma disappears. As Mr. Brympton stands still afterwards, Mrs. Brympton raises herself. She stares at her husband for a moment then falls back down.
Three days later in a snowstorm, Mrs. Brympton is buried. During the service, Hartley sees Mr. Ranford leaning slightly on his stick and Mr. Brympton staring at him across the church. After the service, Mr. Ranford disappears. Mr. Brympton drives off to the train station as soon as the body is buried, without a word to anyone.