DLS Ch. 1

Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.

Chapter 1: A need and a necronym

 i.

It was just after she finished the washing that Ellen Taylor decided that she would do it. It might well cost her her job, but she had to do it. So she got herself cleaned up by the sink, took off her uniform, and put on the Sunday clothes she had brought with her this morning. She wanted to make a good impression. Her regular work clothes wouldn’t be good enough. Even the fancy uniforms they wore when the Maxwells were entertaining guests wouldn’t be good enough.

Ellen liked her job. The Maxwells’ summer place was new and airy. Mr. James, who oversaw all the servants, was not friendly, but he was fair and considerate. She had rarely had much to do with the Maxwells themselves, but they seemed like nice people. Ellen certainly hoped so. She was relying on them being nice people. At least on Mrs. Maxwell being a nice person. Ellen thought it reasonably likely. Mrs. Maxwell had never been heard to raise her voice to anyone.

It was only her second job, working for rich folks in their summer cottages. Her first job had been in Lenox, and she’d hated it. The owners were haughty, her fellow servants bickered, and there wasn’t much for her to do in Lenox itself. She’d heard that a new cottage was hiring in Stockbridge and applied. Her interview with Mr. James had been frightful, he had seemed so stern. Somehow he had decided to hire her. After the first season, he summoned her into his office and told her she had been a credit to the household. Ellen treasured that compliment. Mr. James was very sparing with compliments.

It was her third season, and she was about to put her job at risk. What had Mr. James told her? “I don’t care what rumors you hear, Ellen. Under no circumstances should you ever speak to Mrs. Maxwell about her past.” It wasn’t even safe to gossip about her among the servants. Mr. James had dismissed Susie for that and no more. At least everyone said so. Yet Ellen had heard the rumors, from her fellow servants, from people in Stockbridge, and even from her family. Now she was going to ask Mrs. Maxwell for help, on the basis of those rumors. If they were not true, she certainly would be dismissed. If they were true … Ellen could but hope.

On sunny mornings, Mrs. Maxwell would invariably sit in the garden parlor with Miss Finch, her private secretary. It was a sunny morning. The way from the laundry to the garden parlor ran along a hallway that was used only by other servants except at the far end, where it opened on the great hall. Ellen felt sure she could make her way to see Mrs. Maxwell without being seen, at least by anyone of consequence.

She turned the corner into the main hall, walking so quickly that she didn’t see Mr. James standing there until she almost ran into him. She came up short, only to find Mr. James peering down at her, looking directly into her face.

If she was dismayed, he was surprised. It actually took him a few seconds to recognize her, between her sudden appearance and the clothes she was wearing. He considered the behavior of all the servants while they were on the property as in his keeping. Here was a mystery. Mr. James put his hands on Ellen’s shoulders. “Those are nice clothes, Ellen. Definitely too nice for you to be working in them. Tell me what this is about.”

Ellen realized her chance of seeing Mrs. Maxwell was lost unless she could get past Mr. James. She decided the less she said the better. Standing up as tall as she could, and looking him directly in the face, she spoke as clearly as she could. “Mr. James,” she said, hesitated, and then announced, “Mr. James, I am going to see Mrs. Maxwell.”

Mr. James was puzzled. Ellen Taylor was a reliable servant. She came from a good family, she did her job, she caused no trouble, and until now she had never done anything unusual. Nor was she a bold creature. Something was up. What? “And why is that, Ellen?”

Mr. James’s simple question threw Ellen into confusion. She had not thought that far ahead. All of her courage deserted her. She dropped her head, closed her eyes, and in a small voice replied, “It’s, it’s personal.”

Mr. James raised both eyebrows. This was not an answer, but a refusal to answer. Yet Ellen did not seem at all defiant. Mr. James tried a gentler approach. In a soft voice, he asked, “You don’t want to tell me about it?”

Ellen shook her head. She couldn’t tell Mr. James. He would fire her on the spot. And now she would never see Mrs. Maxwell.

Mr. James let out a sigh. He didn’t know what Ellen could want with Mrs. Maxwell. But he had a gut feeling that Ellen had some reason that was forcing her to this atypical behavior. Perhaps it was some problem peculiar to women, by biology or emotion. Yes, that was most likely. Officially, Ellen should take such problems to Beth Finch, Mrs. Maxwell’s private secretary. Mr. James knew most of the female servants did not find Beth very sympathetic. Still, such problems belonged to Beth. She was in with Mrs. Maxwell right now. Mr. James could raise Ellen’s request to both at one time. He congratulated himself on finding a solution to the problem.

Ellen was still looking down at the floor. Mr. James took his hands from her shoulders, and put his right hand under her chin, lifting up her head so she looked into his face. “Ellen, you can’t go in unannounced to see Mrs. Maxwell.” Then he gave Ellen the barest ghost of a smile. “Let me announce you first.”

Ellen wasn’t quite sure she had heard that correctly. It was so far from what she expected.

Mr. James turned about, walked the score of steps to the parlor door and knocked on it. Once he heard a voice, he opened the door and went in, closing the door behind him.

Ellen stood where Mr. James had left her for several seconds, stunned at the turn of events. She finally began taking a few steps toward the parlor door. She had only covered half the distance when the door opened and Mr. James and Miss Finch came out. Miss Finch looked displeased and glared at Ellen. Mr. James, in contrast, looked unconcerned as he motioned Ellen to come over to the door. As she reached it, he turned and announced to whomever was in the room, “Miss Ellen Taylor.” With that, he gave her a bit of a shove and got her into the room, whereupon the door closed behind her.

Ellen had been in almost all of the rooms of the house. After all, she was a servant. Rooms needed cleaning. People in rooms demanded service. Still, she felt intimidated by the room. It was so sunny and so comfortably and expensively furnished. Even the polished floor challenged Ellen’s right to walk into the room. And over in her chair by the window, Mrs. Maxwell was sitting, looking at Ellen with simple curiosity.

Ellen returned the look with equal curiosity. She had seen Mrs. Maxwell often enough, but always involved in her own affairs. This was the first time Ellen could recall being the focus of Mrs. Maxwell’s attention. And the converse was true, too. She had always been busy when in Mrs. Maxwell’s presence. Now she looked carefully at Mrs. Maxwell. It was odd how her youthful face was at such variance with her gray hair. And leaning up against the chair, convenient to her right hand, was that walking stick. Mrs. Maxwell had only one, and she was never without it.

Mrs. Maxwell seemed to invite an inspection. She waited almost two minutes before she spoke. “Come and sit down, Ellen. James tells me you have something you want to say to me.”

It took Ellen a second to remember that Mr. James was only “James” to the Maxwells. Then she came forward and sat down in the chair facing Mrs. Maxwell. It was a nice comfortable chair, well-cushioned. To her right, the parlor doors swung out onto the garden patio, and the smell of fresh flowers was drifting into the room. Ellen closed her eyes and just breathed in the smell.

Mrs. Maxwell laughed and Ellen opened her eyes. Mrs. Maxwell smiled at her as she said, “I always do that, too, when I first sit down here. I think it a shame that most of my guests do not.”

Ellen took this for encouragement, and decided to begin. “Mrs. Maxwell, I need your help.” And she stopped, wondering just how to make her request.

Mrs. Maxwell seemed to sense Ellen’s confusion. “Take your time, Ellen. Tell me what has happened, and what you wish of me.”

Ellen latched onto Mrs. Maxwell’s words. Tell her what happened. “My brother works in the paper mill up in Dalton. Three nights ago, he was walking home from the mill when he saw . . . well, they call it a bogle.”

Mrs. Maxwell frowned. “A bogle?”

Ellen hesitated. She really wanted to apologize, get up, and leave. Duty to her family made her go on. “It’s a ghost or something that people see only when they’re going to die.”

Mrs. Maxwell’s frown grew deeper.

Ellen knew she was losing Mrs. Maxwell’s sympathy. Torn between the need to get it out, and the fear of Mrs. Maxwell’s reaction, she blurted out, “He saw it, and he’s taken to his bed and won’t eat or drink and he’s just waiting to die. And he can’t die.” Try as she might, Ellen couldn’t keep the tears back by this time. Her last words came out between sobs.

She couldn’t see Mrs. Maxwell’s expression because she had a handkerchief up to wipe away the tears. It was just as well. Mrs. Maxwell’s dismay at what she was hearing was rapidly giving way to anger. In a flat, strained voice, she replied. “If you want, I could send for a doctor.”

“That’s no good,” Ellen cried. She started sobbing again, tried to control herself, and managed to wipe away enough tears to be able to look at Mrs. Maxwell. “I need you.”

Mrs. Maxwell sat there with her lips compressed tight. Ellen could see they were turning white with anger. After almost a minute, she replied, “I’m not a doctor and I don’t know your brother. There’s nothing I can do to help him myself.”

She’s not going to help me, Ellen thought. She won’t even admit she can help me. If I say it, I’m going to lose my job. But if I don’t say it, Sam will die. With that thought in mind, she summoned up enough courage to say, “But you’re the daughter of the witch Rebecca Farnsworth and . . . a witch . . . yourself.” And that was as much as she could say. Mrs. Maxwell looked so angry. Worse, the moment Ellen had mentioned Rebecca Farnsworth, Mrs. Maxwell had grasped hold of the walking stick and brought it forward until its dragon head stared balefully at Ellen. Ellen tried not to look at it. Things were supposed to happen to one, bad things, if one looked at it for too long.

Suddenly, Mrs. Maxwell stood up. In a voice so sharp that it seemed to run through Ellen, she said to her, “You will stay here until I return.” And then she turned and at a rapid pace walked into the garden. Ellen was too preoccupied to notice Mrs. Maxwell’s limp as her figure receded.

 ii.

 The Puritans had often named children after dead relatives. Such names are called necronyms. It was a practice that was handed down from generation to generation, and was still common in 1855, the year the reputed witch Rebecca Farnsworth had committed suicide. One of Rebecca’s stepdaughters-in-law, Deborah, was carrying a child at the time. When she was delivered of a girl, Deborah decided to name her Rebecca. She hoped that the new Rebecca would redeem the reputation of the name.

Thirty-one years later, Rebecca Farnsworth Maxwell sat facing her servant Ellen Taylor and rued the day her mother had chosen her name. She had hoped her old name and the reputation that went with it would have been left behind once she became Mrs. Robert Maxwell. Her anger at realizing that her hopes had been in vain was such that at first she wanted to strike Ellen Taylor. It was as much annoyance at herself as at Ellen that caused her to get up and stride into the garden.

It did not occur to Rebecca quite yet that Ellen had violated an order to all the servants that Rebecca herself had originated. Nor did it occur to her that Ellen feared the loss of her job for doing so. So often do we think only of ourselves, and see only from our own perspective. For Rebecca, the anguish of realizing that her reputation had followed her was all she could handle initially.

When she was a child, the first thing she had learned at her Uncle Israel’s hands was discipline. He called it one of the negative virtues, for it did nothing in itself. It just provided one with the control to act virtuously. She put that virtue to use now. She stopped herself, closed her eyes, took a deep breath, took several more, made herself smell the flowers, even tried to pick out each scent. Once she had identified three scents, roses, lilacs, and gardenias, she opened her eyes. Discipline, Rebecca.

“The next step is analysis: what is the problem?” she thought to herself, and smiled. “Here I go learning my lessons all over again. The first problem is that I have been found out for my past as a witch, even though I gave up magic before I married. No, that’s two problems. I gave up magic, but now someone wants me to practice again. And my reputation has endured and spread, despite my efforts to leave it behind.”

Her smile shifted from the one indicating she was pleased with herself to one chastising herself for her follies. She had set herself up for this predicament. She could have had Robert build a place in Newport, or Saratoga, or some other resort. Instead, she was here in Stockbridge for six months every year. She had wanted the hills of her childhood. Yet by returning so close to the place of her birth, she had tempted fate. She should have expected that stories about Rebecca Farnsworth, either her namesake or herself, would make their way to Stockbridge. She had to wonder how long they had been circulating here, and how they had been distorted. That they made her out to be her namesake’s daughter, instead of step-granddaughter, was probably only the least of the distortions that had crept in.

As for Ellen Taylor’s brother, whatever his name was, he had probably been drunk and imagined the whole affair. He was probably in no danger of dying. Yet James had told her that Ellen was a good servant, from a reputable farming family. What if . . . ?

At this point, she was interrupted in her thinking by a figure approaching her. She turned and saw it was Beth Finch. Rebecca chuckled to herself. Her personal secretary was strict, reliable, efficient, and wouldn’t stop to smell the roses unless she was ordered to.

Beth stopped about five feet from Rebecca, and asked her, “Are you all right, Mrs. Maxwell?”

Rebecca decided to try an experiment to see how far the rumors had spread among her staff. She had noticed how Ellen reacted to the walking stick. It was not the first time she’d noticed servants trying to avoid it. In a cheerful voice, she replied, “I’m fine, Beth. Tell me, have you ever carefully examined the head of my walking stick?” She quickly tossed it up, grabbed it by its lower end, and extended the head of the stick toward Beth.

Beth’s face flashed a combination of surprise and fear. She quickly turned away. Trying to gloss over what she had just done, in a shaky voice she said, “That’s all right, Mrs. Maxwell, I just came out to see if you were all right. That servant is still sitting in the parlor. What should I tell her?”

It was just as Rebecca expected and feared. Ellen wasn’t the only servant who thought she was a witch. Beth, matter-of-fact level-headed Beth thought so, too. Rebecca let the walking stick drop in her hand as she lowered it, until the walking stick rested on the ground again. In a low voice, she said, “Beth, I’ve lowered the walking stick. I want you to turn around and look at me. That’s an order.”

Beth hesitated, and Rebecca thought of what measures she would have to take if Beth didn’t turn around. Finally she did, and looked at Mrs. Maxwell, at first with fear, and then with relief when nothing happened.

Rebecca kept her voice pitched low, and started to weave a bit of magic into it. “Beth, naturally you don’t believe in any of the silly superstitions that the less-educated servants tell about me. But you’ve heard them. So tell me, what do they say about my walking stick?”

Normally, Miss Elizabeth Finch would never have answered that question. She would rather have died than admit to Mrs. Maxwell that she listened to superstitious gossip. However, the reassurance and the touch of magic in Rebecca’s voice was enough to make her want to please Mrs. Maxwell by telling her what she wanted to know. In a soft voice, she replied, “If you stare at the head, if you look into the dragon’s eyes for too long, you won’t be able to look away, and it will steal your soul.”

Rebecca continued in the same low voice she had used before. “Thank you, Beth. I’m sure you find this whole business embarrassing to talk about. I certainly do. So why don’t you go back to the parlor and wait for me there, and just forget that all this happened.”

Beth smiled, nodded, turned around, and headed back to the parlor. Rebecca let out a sigh of relief. She had not practiced any magic, save once, since she was married, and had wondered if she still could. Her little essay on Beth had worked well enough. She was sure that by the time she returned to the parlor herself, the combination of magic and Beth’s own desire to avoid embarrassment would have made Beth forget all about what had just happened. Rebecca had found in past that magic was easiest and most reliable when combined with the subject’s own natural motivations. It was still true.

Rebecca then caught at herself. She felt different when she engaged in magic. She had felt the difference even with the small amount of magic she had used on Beth. She recalled that she had briefly felt that way just a few minutes before, when she had told Ellen Taylor to stay in the parlor. Rebecca mentally kicked herself. She must have been more upset than she realized, to have lost control and used magic without intending to, or even recognizing it at the time. “Discipline, Rebecca, discipline,” she muttered to herself. “Time to recall all the old lessons.”

This Ellen Taylor’s brother may well have been drunk. If so, a very little magic would convince him he had been seeing things. However, if there was magic involved, small chance though that was, she was probably the only person who could help. If only she had not given up most of her books when she quit doing magic!

Rebecca sighed. She was going to do this. She was going to break all sorts of promises she had made to herself about never using magic again. Why? What was Ellen Taylor to her, that she should inconvenience herself for her? Rebecca was not so used to servants that she could forget they were human beings, but she paid little attention to most of them. “Maybe,” she thought to herself, “if I’m going to have the reputation, I might as well put it to use.” It wasn’t the whole answer. Rebecca knew she had other motivations, even if she couldn’t articulate them. It was risky to act on poorly understood motivations. But what could go wrong in convincing a man he hadn’t seen a bogle?

 iii.

 Rebecca went back to her parlor. Ellen was sitting where she had been, obedient to the magically-reinforced command Rebecca had given her. Beth was sitting in her usual chair, between Rebecca’s chair and Beth’s own writing desk, looking uncomfortable.

Miss Elizabeth Finch was feeling uncomfortable because her dignity had been undermined twice in a quarter hour. She was a short woman, standing just over five feet, and felt keenly the disadvantage in a society that associated authority with size. By virtue of her position as Mrs. Maxwell’s personal secretary, she believed that any servant who wished to speak to Mrs. Maxwell should come to her. She believed that Ellen Taylor, who was just a washerwoman, had circumvented her by going to Mr. James, whom Elizabeth Finch regarded as only an equal. (James regarded Miss Finch as subject to his authority. Neither had tried to force the issue.) And while the memory was fading, she felt that she had in some way revealed a personal flaw to Mrs. Maxwell in the garden. She treasured Mrs. Maxwell’s good opinion of her, and it must be said in Beth’s favor, not just because Mrs. Maxwell was her employer. She felt a bond with Mrs. Maxwell.

Rebecca felt no such bond, but well understood her secretary’s character. She preferred happy servants. So she was at some pains to state how much she trusted Beth while sending her off on errands to cancel Rebecca’s social appointments for the rest of the day. Once Beth had departed, Rebecca told Ellen that the two of them would go to visit Ellen’s brother that afternoon to see what could be done. Ellen was so relieved to hear it that she forgot her place and actually gave Rebecca a kiss. Rebecca, who had spent most of her years growing up with women who kissed each other affectionately as a matter of course, returned Ellen’s kiss without a thought. It was only after Ellen had left the parlor that Rebecca realized what she had done, and laughed at herself.

Then she turned more serious, contemplating the business she was initiating. If Ellen’s brother was just drunk or imagining things, going there would put an end to it. But if something magical was going on, then Rebecca’s intervention could cause whatever it was to attack her and her family. Prudence dictated that she take steps to protect them.

The first thing she did was to summon James to the parlor. As always, he came in looking self-possessed. Being taller than every other inhabitant in the house, even Mr. Robert Maxwell when he was there, made it easier for James to maintain his dignity than it was for Miss Finch. James took up a position facing Rebecca and in front of her by about five feet, awaiting her commands.

“James,” she said, “do you want to continue working here?”

James was surprised. He promptly replied, “Yes, ma’am. Has there been some problem with my service? Did Ellen Taylor bother you inappropriately?”

Rebecca shook her head. “I’ll get to Ellen Taylor in a moment. But your service has been satisfactory, James. It is because it is satisfactory that I am asking. If you are going to continue here, I need to confide in you, and I do not wish to do so unless you are willing to take on that responsibility. It has not been part of your job so far.”

James was not sure exactly what this was about. In his experience, a wife confided in her personal secretary, or her children’s governess. To confide in her husband’s servants was unheard of. Perhaps Mrs. Maxwell had picked up some rumor about her husband’s mistress in New York. Perhaps, although it was unlikely, she had fallen in love with someone herself. James could see all sorts of unfortunate possibilities. But he trusted in Mr. Maxwell’s support. So he replied, “I will treat your confidences with the same care I do Mr. Maxwell’s, ma’am.”

Rebecca chuckled slightly. James had no idea what he had just agreed to. He would soon learn. “Thank you, James. To return to Ellen Taylor, our efforts to prevent gossip about me among the servants have failed. Ellen Taylor came to see me because she thinks I am a witch. Tell me, how many of the servants believe I am a witch?”

James considered a moment. He replied, “I would say at least two-thirds of them, ma’am.”

Rebecca was appalled and curious at the same time. “How do you arrive at that figure, James? Have they spoken to you about it?”

James shook his head. “None would dare. I have noticed that about that many glance uneasily at your walking stick, to which they seem to attribute some sort of supernatural power.” James knew precisely what they thought about the walking stick. He had overheard enough of the gossip. But he felt it would bother Mrs. Maxwell and lower his dignity to mention the details of servants’ superstitions. After a pause, he added, “Do you wish me to dismiss Ellen Taylor?”

It was Rebecca’s turn to shake her head. In a mild voice she replied, “No, no, she brought the matter up because she is afraid for the life of a family member. It would be against human nature to expect her to keep quiet in such circumstances. It even speaks well of her as a person, for all the trouble it will cause me.”

There was a pause. James was puzzled at Rebecca’s decision. Rebecca was nerving herself to do as she had decided before James had presented himself. Beth Finch was not the only member of the household to feel at a disadvantage because of her size. Rebecca stood only five-four, and was slight of build. Finally she spoke. “So they look askance at my walking stick, James. Do you think if I got rid of it and used another, or even two or three new ones, they would be less nervous about it?”

James nodded. “They would.”

Rebecca smiled, more to lull James than out of genuine happiness. “Then, James, I want you to take my walking stick out to the yard, throw it as far away as you can, and come back here.” She stood up and offered it to him.

James was even more puzzled by the suddenness of this request, but decided to do as he was told. He took the walking stick, walked out onto the patio, past the garden, and down the lawn as it sloped to the pond. He tossed the walking stick into the woods besides the pond. He was not unhappy to do that, truth be told. And then he walked back.

He came into the parlor door from the garden to see Mrs. Maxwell standing there facing him. The walking stick was in her right hand.

End of chapter one

(Link to the next chapter)

11 Responses to DLS Ch. 1

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    My thanks to Deb MacMillan, who caught me nodding off and substituting the name of a 19th century English actress for one of my characters. This has been corrected.

  2. hinsor says:

    Nice work, Mister Bixby. I like ahistorical settings in general, this one in particular, and I’m enjoying getting to know these characters. I’ll be back.

  3. Brian Bixby says:

    Thank you, sir. I’m glad you enjoy my tale. It’s encouraging words that will keep me going.
    I will drop by to look at your blog thoroughly in a day or two, but have to say after skimming over that I like black tea and chocolate, too, though I prefer whiskey to rum.

  4. hinsor says:

    I certainly understand that. Encouragement and spirits will see us through.
    Look forward to your tour of Edward & Amelia, and to seeing what happens to the Dragon Lady next.
    Your succinct, but informative, author page is inspiring me to say something substantive about my life as a writer, rather than a wayward epicure.

  5. lly1205 says:

    Thanks for writing, I really like it and I’ll keep reading 🙂

  6. Michael Dow says:

    Nice set up, and a good dramatic beat for the end of the chapter.

  7. Brian Bixby says:

    And thanks to E.J., you can actually see what the walking stick looks like, up there in the header.

    Nice to have you on board, Michael!

  8. Judy says:

    Hmm, you’ve got yourself a reader! 🙂

  9. Brian Bixby says:

    Welcome on board. I hope the rest of the story lives up to your expectations.

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