Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 10: The men in their lives
When they broke for dinner, Rebecca invited Abigail to spend the night. She did not know quite what she was going to do with Abigail, just yet. Helping Abigail solve a murder in her old home town did not appeal to Rebecca on its own merits. After how they had treated her a decade ago, Rebecca had little love for the townspeople. However, Rebecca couldn’t escape the idea that she was the only link between what was happening there, and what had happened to Samuel Taylor and to herself. She wanted time to carefully consider the possibilities and her options. Then, too, her husband would be arriving tomorrow evening, and she would have to deal with him, as well.
Abigail agreed to stay, and went over to Stockbridge House to retrieve her bags. There she found two telegrams awaiting her. One read, “VISIT STOCKBRIDGE NOT REPEAT NOT APPROVED STOP RETURN DC AND REPORT STOP AJ WALLACE.” Abigail pressed her lips together in frustration. Here she might be getting just the help she needed to solve this murder, and her boss was recalling her. Abigail debated whether to ignore this telegram and say she never received it. Then she recalled there was a second telegram. Probably a demand to file a report before I return, she sourly thought to herself.
She opened the second telegram. It read, “VISIT STOCKBRIDGE APPROVED STOP REPORT PROGRESS FORTHWITH STOP AJ WALLACE.” The message was so unexpected that Abigail had to read it twice. She hurriedly compared the time stamps. The second telegram had been sent ninety minutes after the first.
Abigail’s regard for her boss, Andrew Jackson Wallace, dropped another notch. The man can’t even make up his mind, she thought to herself. Still, he was letting her continue the investigation, and that was what mattered. Abigail dismissed the telegraphs out of mind. She would report when she had results to report.
Abigail thought Wallace’s telegrams were evidence of his indecisiveness, and it drove her to despair to think of the Office continuing in his hands. Had she known the truth behind those telegrams, she would have been heartened.
Secret Service Chief Brooks’s opinions of Abigail Lane and Andrew Jackson Wallace had undergone a complete reversal from what they initially had been. He had despised Lane as Heard’s pet, possibly his mistress. However, she had turned out to be a capable and professional investigator. By the time Brooks had fired Asa Porter Heard, he already considered Lane as indispensable. It was inconceivable that she could ever be an agent or rise to a higher position, but it was equally inconceivable to Brooks that the Office of Occult Affairs might exist without her.
His view of Wallace had taken the opposite turn. He had promoted Wallace to be head of the Office because Wallace seemed more practical than the dreamer Heard. However, in the years since, Wallace had proven to be more a petty bureaucrat than an effective leader. He hired and fired magicians rapidly, meddled in their investigations, and seemed to find more satisfaction in cutting costs than in producing results. To top it off, he constantly complained about Lane’s stubborn determination, which he considered insubordinate. Brooks, who normally had little sympathy for insubordination, mentally commended Lane for having the spirit to stand up to her incompetent boss, and turned a deaf ear to his complaints. He considered searching for someone to replace Wallace.
So when one of his best agents, the capable Solomon Davis, revealed himself as a magician at the beginning of 1886 and asked to be assigned to the Office of Occult Affairs, Brooks gladly directed Wallace to hire him. If Davis were to be as successful a magician as he was an agent, Brooks would have just the man he needed to replace Wallace. Not that Brooks told Davis so.
He did not need to. It took Solomon Davis about a month to come to the conclusion that the Office would be better off with him at the head of it. He quietly and methodically began to gather up control of the Office while carefully picking his fights with his boss on issues where he was sure to win.
Abigail’s trip to Stockbridge provided him with just such an issue. Wallace had exploded with anger when he received Abigail’s uninformative and deliberately tardy request for approval of the trip, and without a moment’s thought had immediately shot off a telegram to order her home. In contrast, Solomon Davis “lifted” her request, took it back to his office, closed the door, poured himself a thimbleful of rye whiskey, leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on his desk, and spent half an hour considering just what Abigail might be up to. As part of his efforts to take control of the Office, he talked extensively with every magician before they went out on assignment, and read all their reports as they came in. He knew Abigail had not been successful so far on this assignment. Davis also knew she was too stubborn to admit defeat. Abigail must have decided to seek help, he decided, and was too embarrassed to admit it, hence the uninformative request. From that, it was a simple matter to deduce whom she had gone to see in Stockbridge. Satisfied with his analysis, Davis went and hunted down his boss, and so undermined his confidence in his original order that Wallace agreed to send out a second telegram countermanding the first.
Davis returned to his desk, satisfied that he had forced Wallace to support a competent operative. Several hundred miles away, Abigail Lane took the two telegrams as evidence of the further decay of the Office of Occult Affairs. She was wrong. They were harbingers of its revival under the leadership of Solomon Davis.
The next evening, Robert Maxwell sat in his study, awaiting his wife. James had updated him with the news that Rebecca had been spending most of her time with some woman named Miss Abigail Lane. James did not know why, and declined to speculate for Robert’s benefit. After his angry response to James’s telephone call of the previous day, Robert felt he should show some consideration for the major-domo’s loyalty. So he thanked him in glowing terms before dismissing him to summon Rebecca.
Robert need not have bothered. James’s sympathies were now entirely on the side of the wife. Although he had professed not to know what Mrs. Maxwell was discussing with Miss Lane, he could guess. That not even the usually chatty Patty Leigh would tell him anything was strong evidence that the conversations were about magic. To James, it was clear that a showdown between the Maxwells was about to take place. He knew he no longer had the confidence of Mrs. Maxwell, to his sorrow, and he no longer wished to rely on the support of Mr. Maxwell. However the conflict between the Maxwells worked out, James had decided to leave by the end of the year. He would have liked to have told Mrs. Maxwell so, but knew that would be improper.
Robert dreaded the confrontation he was about to have with his wife. That it would be a confrontation he was certain. He did not want a confrontation with his wife. For he was still in love with her.
Robert had met Rebecca when as a twenty-year-old she had come to New York to visit some friends, among whom were relatives of Robert’s. He had been enchanted. Rebecca was lively, intelligent, playful, and took an honest interest in people. Her gray hair and unusual taste in clothing had only added to her attractions. That she would inherit some of Israel Farnsworth’s money was the least of her advantages. He courted her, they married, and Robert found the joys of being married to Rebecca surpassed those of courtship. Among other things, thanks to Israel’s influence, Rebecca was remarkably open and frank about sex, definitely an atypical attitude among the better sort of women in that era, and made it seem both wholesome and enjoyable for both of them.
Robert had imbibed the sexual mores of his day. He wanted to be pure in marriage. That he had not been chaste prior to his marriage he regarded as natural, but as a part of the dead past, in any case. And his love for his wife kept him pure until he was faced with her inability to satisfy him while she was heavy with child. His love kept him faithful during her first pregnancy. He had a “slip” in the second pregnancy, but immediately regretted it, and swore to himself it would never happen again. In her third pregnancy, he had succumbed sooner, and had finally resorted to the rationale that if his wife could not satisfy him, she could not object if he went looking elsewhere. After that he felt no guilt.
But Rebecca did find out, and she did object. The two of them had a tremendous argument that ended with Rebecca saying he would never be allowed in her bed again. Since he had not been much in it lately anyhow, as Rebecca was near the end of her pregnancy with David, he did not take his wife as seriously as he should have. Robert did not realize it, but he had made two crucial mistakes that meant Rebecca was truly lost to him.
His first mistake had occurred during the great argument. Feeling guilty and yet self-righteous at the same time, Robert had lashed out at his wife. He knew she was embarrassed about the scars on her body. When they had first married, he had even played with tracing them and assuring Rebecca that he found them attractive because they were part of her, and she was attractive. Now, wanting to hurt her, he told her he found her scars ugly, and that she was ugly, too. He succeeded in hurting her. He also succeeded in killing any love she had for him, permanently. She felt he had lied to her, and that all his love had been a lie. Nothing he did thereafter could ever bring her to trust him again, let alone love him.
His second mistake was not appreciating his wife’s magical powers. She had decided to give magic up when she married, so he had never seen her do any, and had no idea what she could do. Once she had delivered David, and had time to recuperate, Robert had decided to assert his conjugal rights. He had not expected rejection, and when Rebecca rejected him, Robert lost his head and tried to assert his rights by force. The first taste he had of her magic was to be thrown out of their bed by an invisible force that did not treat him gently. The second was hearing his wife tell him to leave the bedroom, and having to do what she said even though he did not want to.
They had agreed to pretend to be a happily married couple in public, but their marriage was dead. Robert acquired his own bedroom. He discreetly pursued mistresses, and even prostitutes when he was desperate. But none satisfied him as Rebecca had. The prostitutes wanted his money, and his mistresses wanted money and either marriage, if they were single, or revenge on their spouses, if they were married. Robert could never escape the feeling he was being used by these women. It irked and bewildered him that Rebecca did not seem to miss him, or want another man in her bed. His wife had become a mystery to Robert.
Rebecca dreaded meeting her husband, but her reasons were closer to James’s than her husband’s. Her love for him was dead. She just did not relish the conflict she was about to have.
Rebecca entered the study and closed the door. She saw her husband sitting behind his desk, and cast about for a chair to sit in. With annoyance, she realized he had had all the other chairs in the room pushed out of the way. She was expected to stand before him, like a criminal before a tribunal. Rebecca’s annoyance was succeeded by amusement. Robert thought he was going to dictate to her, did he? He was in for a surprise or two.
She took up a position facing him, standing in the middle of the study. “Well, husband, what have you to say to me?”
Robert had hoped to cow her a bit by forcing her to stand. He could see that it was not working. So he opened using what he thought of as his “official” voice, in hopes that it would express his authority. “I have been listening to James describe to me your activities of the last few days, Rebecca. You have started practicing magic again, and have endangered our children by doing so. I want you to give it up, and return to New York with me to live as my wife, a proper wife who knows the duties and obligations of that sacred office.”
Rebecca was annoyed by her husband’s remarks. She was tempted to remind him just who had violated his sacred obligations as a husband. And she simply could not believe that he honestly thought she was the one endangering her children. But she had no desire to turn this meeting into an argument. She had made up her mind, and her purposes would best be served by bringing this meeting to a swift conclusion. So she said, “And if I do not?”
Robert had expected complaints and remonstrations. This response was unexpected. Rebecca was forcing him to explain just what extreme measures he was willing to use, long before he wanted to do so. Still, he must not appear weak. In that same firm voice, he replied, “If you do not come back with me on the terms I stated, I will take the children from you, have them brought up by servants, and you will never see them again.”
Rebecca was appalled, not that Robert could do such a thing, but that he would even suggest it. She interpreted his threat as evidence of his loss of love for her, as opposed to the confusing mixture of love and hate he was actually feeling. So her tone hardened as she said to him, “You cannot do that, Robert.”
It was worse than Robert feared. She was simply rejecting reality. Perhaps she was mad. Such thoughts encouraged Robert to make a threat he probably would never have used otherwise. “Understand, Rebecca, I can and I will do it. And if you oppose me, if you cause any trouble, I can have you confined to a madhouse as a hysterical woman. You have already forfeited your rights as a wife. Do not forfeit your rights as a mother by disobeying me.”
If Robert Maxwell had actually known what conditions were like in asylums, he would never have made that threat, even under such provocation. But Nellie Bly’s investigation and exposé of the Blackwell Island asylum was a year in the future and unavailable to him. He thought of asylums as places where the deranged were treated with the utmost kindness.
Rebecca knew no better. Still, she was aghast that her husband would even think to resort to such measures. She had been reluctant to confront her husband, but now she felt justified by his own cruelty. She said to him, “Robert, you don’t understand. You cannot prevent me from seeing my children. You cannot confine me. You can do nothing to oppose me, unless I let you.” She saw his look of incredulity, and decided to smash it. “Try me, Robert. Will you tell me the name of your mistress in New York?”
Robert shook his head, and expressed his disgust by replying, “That is a foul question for a wife to ask.”
Rebecca smiled. “I would think the foulness was in the practice, but no matter.” And infusing magic into her voice, she continued, “Tell me the name of your mistress in New York.”
Before he could stop himself, Robert replied. “Nancy Wright and Theresa Norton.” He looked at his wife in amazement. She must have used magic on him, and he had been unable to defy her.
Rebecca was beyond being hurt by the revelation that her husband was bedding two women in New York. But she was willing to hurt him on that account. “So, Robert, the wife of one business partner and the daughter of another. I am surprised that Nancy has sunk so low. Let me show you what I can do to you, Robert. You will not be able to enjoy the love of either one of them, ever again. I guess you’ll have to go hunt for a new mistress or two now. I wonder what you will say to the old ones.” And she laughed.
Alarmed, Robert stood up to protest. But Rebecca beat him to the punch. Her words cut into him like knives. “Sit down, Robert, and stay seated until I tell you you can go. And don’t speak until I give you permission.” Robert returned to his seat with a thud. He was shocked at what his wife was doing to him. Except the one time, she had never used magic against him. And he could do nothing, nothing against it! Even more horrifying, his wife seemed to be changing in front of him. Her eyes sometimes seemed to shift until they looked different, alien, large and golden. Dragon eyes, he realized.
Now fully in command of the situation, Rebecca addressed her husband. “This is how it is going to be, Robert. Sunday, you will take the children and return to New York. You will instruct James to shut up the house here and release the staff. You will take no measures against me, nor curtail my access to our funds. Once I have finished what I need to do, I will return to New York.
“Our marriage is through, Robert. If it wasn’t before, threatening to take the children away and lock me up was enough. I will divorce you on grounds of adultery and you will not contest the action. We will make whatever reasonable arrangements we can agree on about money and the children. And then we will go our separate ways.
“If you dare defy me on anything, ever again, Robert, I will use magic to punish you. Try to stand up, try to speak. . . . You can’t. If I can do that on the spur of the moment, imagine what I can do with preparation.
“So: take the children, close up this house, and await my return to New York. You can speak and get up now. Do you have any questions?”
Robert slowly stood up. He wanted to say a great many things to his wife, things she would not want to hear. But after what Rebecca had said and done to him, he did not feel like tempting her wrath. Still, he had a question. “If I’m to take the children and shut up the house, Rebecca, where are you going?”
Rebecca looked down at the carpet on the floor, thinking, before she looked up and answered him. “I have an enemy who is using magic against me, Robert. And I think I know where he is. I’m going back to where I came from. I’m going home, Robert.” She turned to leave.
Even now, Robert still was torn between love and hatred of his wife. She had reached the door when he called after her to warn her, “They ran you out the last time, Rebecca. They don’t want you there. They’ve never liked you.”
Rebecca turned back to face her husband. Strange, she thought, that’s what Henry said to me about Stockbridge. And I’m running away from Stockbridge. But not my home town. Never again. To her husband, she said, “Do you know what Amy Van Duesen called me, Robert? Dragon lady. I think she meant it as a joke. But it’s not a joke any longer. I’m going home. And the Lord have mercy on anyone who tries to thwart me, because this dragon lady will show none to them.”
End of chapter ten
END OF PART ONE
It’s not easy making Robert a sympathetic character, but I assume you haven’t expended the energy in showing us his POV for no reason. It’s hard to imagine Rebecca could change the way she feels about him, but I suspect her relationship with her husband won’t be ended as easily as she expects.
Robert will make at least two more appearances in the story; more than that I can’t say at the moment. He’s here partly to make the point, too often forgotten, that people go bad for a reason, and often thinking they still have right on their side. Robert’s peers would have publicly condemned him and privately agreed with him about cheating on his wife, but they would have publicly and privately condemned Rebecca for not obeying her husband.
I had written more about Rebecca’s attitude, but cut it because it wouldn’t tie to anything else in the story. The one thing worth noting in the text as it stands is that it wasn’t Robert’s adultery that ended his marriage; it was his criticizing his wife on one of her few vulnerable points. Make of that what you will.
Noted and understood. I may have put too much hope in the possibility that Robt isn’t a lost cause, even though Rebecca is clearly done with him.
So far, it’s clear that you cross the dragon lady at your peril, but I wonder if she will ever be happy? Maybe I am a romantic, after all?
I can’t say more about either Robert’s or Rebecca’s fate at this point, except to say that their marriage is really over. Whether that will lead either or both of them to happiness or not, subsequent chapters will show.
Duly noted. Of course, you like to see things turn out well for characters you care about — I want E&A to find their way back home — but if a certain sea captain had pursued happiness instead of revenge, it would have been a rather boring voyage. Writers can be cruel, that way.
It’s true. I hate reading a story when writers kill off a favorite character. But I might have to do it myself.
I’m sorry to hear that, and don’t like to think which of my favorites it might be. I trust that if the time comes, you’ll do it with all due care, consideration and narrative effect.
If the time comes, it will make sense. That I can promise.