Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 11: Civic leaders welcome Rebecca home
Jeremiah Farnsworth was content with the world in a way only a successful man can be. He had a wife whom he loved dearly, children filled with joy, a thriving business, and the respect, sometimes the envy, of the town’s leading citizens. No civic affair was complete without his attendance, no good cause without his name among the leading subscribers. If there was a single cloud in his life, it was that most of his siblings deplored his good relationship with their sister Rebecca.
Yet it was in some respects thanks to Rebecca that he was a success. He was the fourth child of Nathaniel and Deborah Farnsworth, born two years after his notorious sister. Like her, he was named for a dead relative, his paternal grandfather, the earlier Rebecca’s husband. Along with his siblings, he had hated Rebecca before she was injured. Unlike his siblings, he had quickly grown to like and admire her when she briefly returned the year after her accident. He was forever asking his parents when he could go see his sister in Boston. And he had started modeling his behavior on what he admired about hers, the little he saw of it.
The following year, Nathaniel decided to take his son at his word, and sent him off to spend a few weeks with his sister in Boston. It was to be the first of many trips. Jeremiah and Rebecca became playmates, and eventually firm friends. Jeremiah picked up some of his sister’s city ways and aspirations, yet unlike her could come home and still fit in.
Over the years, he proved to be a smart, capable lad. He attracted the attention of old Israel Farnsworth. Surrounded by women in his household, perhaps Israel was grateful for another male in the house, if only as a regular visitor. Perhaps he saw Jeremiah as the son he would never (legitimately) have. Israel provided money so that Jeremiah could receive a good high school education. Jeremiah did very well in high school. He studied hard. But he didn’t just study his books. He studied his Uncle Israel as well, and talked to him about his business affairs. When Jeremiah came to Israel fresh out of high school with a proposal to take over and remake the Market Street general store in his home town, Israel had gladly lent him the money and offered some solid business advice as well. Both came in handy. Jeremiah turned the Market Street store into the most profitable business in town, measured by its return on the money invested in it. It was one of his greatest pleasures as a businessman that he had paid back every cent on time and with interest to Israel and, after Israel died, to Bridget. Indeed, Bridget had not wanted to let a good thing go, and had become a silent partner in the store.
Jeremiah believed in being an active manager, and toured his store daily. He had stopped to talk to his newest sales clerk, Fanny O’Rourke, when he heard someone yelling, “Micah” elsewhere in the store. Micah was Jeremiah’s childhood nickname, the result of an improbable confusion between the Bible and mineralogy. There were fewer than half a dozen people who knew that nickname and would use it. Jeremiah had no doubt about which one it was. Rolling his eyes at Fanny, he raised his voice and shouted back, “In here, Barnabas. In here.”
Barnabas Dawson, the manager of the Double Eagle Hotel, waddled into the room. He was a short, heavy-set man, prematurely balding. His hotel catered to the wealthy, and Barnabas did his best, despite his physical shortcomings, to ape their styles in clothing, diction, and manners. Unfortunately, any unexpected challenge was likely to cause Barnabas to revert to his humbler origins. As soon as he saw Jeremiah, he shouted, “Micah! What’s the married name of your sister?”
Jeremiah, who knew what was coming, played stupid. “Which sister is that, Barnabas? I have five, as you know.”
Barnabas halted when he was half a dozen feet from Jeremiah. He had come over as quickly as he could from his hotel, and while that was not very quick, it was enough to put him out of breath, so he paused before replying. In a lower voice, he said, “The witch. Rebecca.”
Jeremiah shook his head in mock sorrow. “Now you know, Barnabas, that that’s just a rumor.” He raised his hand to his black beard and stroked it. “Now let’s see, what is it? Roberts? No, no, Robert is her husband’s Christian name. It’s something similar, though . . . Richards . . . Rhinehart . . . oh, wait, I have it, it’s Maxwell.”
Barnabas bubbled up at the name. “That’s it. Your witch of a sister is in my hotel!” He gave Jeremiah an accusing look.
Jeremiah was enjoying how upset Barnabas looked. “Well, you know, Barnabas, you had been telling me how business was slow. She said she might come for a visit, and I recommended your place to her. I hope you’ve not had to go and cancel someone else’s reservation just to please me and my family.”
Barnabas vigorously shook his head. “That’s not it at all, Micah. We’ve rooms to spare. But once the word gets out, the customers will leave my place in droves. I’ll be ruined.”
Jeremiah strode over to Barnabas, put his arm around the shorter man, and began steering him back toward the main entrance. “Now, now, Barnabas, she’s well behaved when she isn’t conjuring up fire-breathing dragons in the parlor. I’m sure she’ll be a credit to your establishment. And have you considered how she could actually attract more customers?”
Barnabas was bewildered by Jeremiah’s speech, but understood the last part: he might be able to make more money. He looked up at Jeremiah and asked, “More customers?”
Jeremiah gave him a big, encouraging smile as they stepped into the store’s front lobby. “Certainly, Barnabas. Now, some fly-by-night operator would try to publicize her presence in a big way. But you, you’re subtle. You don’t go shouting from the rooftops that my sister is there. No, what you do is quietly tell some of the most important guests how you have, under your roof, the only living woman ever accused of witchcraft in a court of law in these United States. And you make it clear that the woman has come to your hotel because she knows you will protect her privacy. So the other guests should never stare at her or accost her, but if they are polite, you will make sure they get to sit with her at the main table for dinner. Good Lord, man, with a set-up like that, you’ll have to take reservations eight days a week for dinner.”
“Yes, yes, I see,” said Barnabas. “It requires subtlety, and I’m the man for it.”
They had reached the store’s main entrance. Jeremiah released Barnabas, gave him a slap on the back and said, “Then go to it, man. I’d come with you and help, but I have to mind the store. I’ll come by later to escort Rebecca to dinner and help spread the word.”
Barnabas, cheered at the thought of more business, smiled, headed off, but turned to wave once more at Jeremiah before disappearing around the corner of the building. Jeremiah stood there for a few moments after, shaking his head in amusement at the thought of Barnabas trying to be subtle. Then he turned about and retraced his steps until he was face-to-face with his new clerk.
She looked at him with a smile and a furrowed brow, as if she wasn’t sure she should be amused. “You should be in Congress, Jeremiah, with a silver tongue like that. Did they actually put Rebecca on trial for witchcraft?”
Jeremiah shrugged. “Of course not. But that won’t matter to Barnabas.” He gave the clerk a sharp look. “I was going to ask how you could possibly have heard me say that, as I was in the lobby, and then I remembered to whom I was speaking. Even though I know you can do that sort of thing, ‘Fanny,’ it still takes me by surprise when you do it. It’s not something I’ve ever seen Rebecca do.”
“Fanny,” who under her newly dyed black hair was really Abigail Lane, answered back, “Our abilities are different, Jeremiah.” She sighed. “And so it begins. I consented to this scheme, but I still think your sister is taking a big risk, people in town feeling about her the way they do.”
Jeremiah favored Abigail with a smile. “As I’ve already said, I find this whole scheme a bit harum-scarum, but I can’t fault my sister’s psychology. If someone’s gunning for her, making herself a target is a sure way to draw him out. If he’s not, her highly visible presence is sure to disturb him. And after what happened the last time she came to town, I imagine she’ll be cautious.”
Some customers entered the room. Jeremiah knew better than to continue the conversation in their presence, but just before he walked over to greet them, he said to Abigail in an undertone, “Still, she’s a headstrong woman when she has a mind to it.”
Rebecca had returned to her home town on the Wednesday after her showdown with her husband. She had arrived in high style. Rebecca had worn a very new and expensive blue dress, and had Patty accompany her dressed as her maid. They had ridden over from the railroad station in the Double Eagle’s carriage and swept into the hotel, the most elegantly attired among the new guests, drawing everyone’s attention.
Barnabas Dawson liked to greet his richest and most notable guests in person when they arrived, and waddled out from his office to greet these new ones. He had been giving Mrs. Maxwell what he imagined was a splendid welcome when his eyes lighted on Rebecca’s walking stick. His voice caught in his throat. Without trying to be rude, he looked at Mrs. Maxwell more closely, saw the gray hair, and thought he recognized her face. But he could not be sure, for he had seen Rebecca only briefly a decade earlier, and he could not afford to lose a paying guest, either. So he staggered through the rest of his welcome, registered “Mrs. Robert Maxwell and maidservant,” and went off to find Jeremiah to confirm his suspicions.
Like her brother not long after, Rebecca had been highly entertained by Barnabas Dawson’s reaction. It was just what she had wanted, to take the town by surprise. She had no doubt her arrival would be known all over town before night fell.
Once they took up their rooms, Rebecca dispatched Patty to perform several tasks for her. She did not want Patty, or anyone else, to know about what she was going to do next. She considered it her private affair.
Rebecca changed into a gray dress, of as fine a quality as the blue, but much less conspicuous. Using magic to make herself less conspicuous still, she left the hotel and walked over to the town hall. A little more magic, and the police chief’s office was empty of anyone save Ben Murphy himself. Ben was variously described as the town’s deputy sheriff, constable, or police chief. He liked the latter term, as it conveyed the illusion of a big city police department, and not his pitiful staff of part-timers.
Seeing a lady step into his office, Ben stood up and began to greet her. Then he saw Rebecca’s face. Unlike Barnabas Dawson, Ben did not need any further evidence to know whom he was facing. He turned pale. “Rebecca,” he said in a voice not above a whisper.
Rebecca gave him a very false smile. “So nice to be recognized after all these years. But you needn’t stand on my account, Ben.”
Ben suddenly lost control of his right leg. He fell, tried to grab his desk to steady himself, failed, and went crashing to the floor. He looked up to see Rebecca standing over him, a smile still on her face. “You needn’t stand on my account, Ben,” she repeated.
Forgetting that it is a bad idea to antagonize someone who has the drop on you, Ben yelled, “What have you done to me, you witch?”
Rebecca shook her head. “You are a bit slow today, Ben. I’m letting you know what it’s like to be crippled. But there’s something missing.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Oh, I know, it’s the pain, the pain of being six and feeling your leg smashing on a rock because someone pushed you out of a tree. Because you pushed her out of a tree.” And with that, she turned her walking stick into a weapon and brought the dragon head down on Ben’s right leg as hard as she could. The bone did not break, but Ben’s scream was very satisfying to Rebecca. She brought the walking stick down on his leg a second time, and then a third, with similar results. Then she paused, with the stick raised over her head, and said, “Ready for another blow, Ben?”
Ben had tried to crawl away from the pummeling, without much success. Once he stopped yelling, he decided on pleading instead. “Please, Rebecca, it was years ago. We were children, we were kids, we didn’t know what we were doing!”
Rebecca lowered the stick. “But we’re adults now, Ben. Now you know what you did. Now you know a bit of what it was like. But that’s only a fraction of what I suffered.” And I could make you suffer it all, she thought to herself, and then dismissed the notion. She had more important things to do.
Rebecca pulled over a chair and sat down. She grounded the stick in front of her, leaned forward, and fixed Ben with a severe look. “I’m here to stay for a while, Ben,” she told him. “If I’m left alone, there will be no trouble. But if anyone raises a cry of ‘witch’ against me, if anyone tries to harm me or run me out of town, they will see what a witch can do against them. For your own good, Ben, and for the town’s own good, make sure people leave me alone. I’m holding you responsible for maintaining order. And as you’ve just found out, I can be vengeful when I am crossed.” Finished with what she wanted to say, she stood up and left the room without waiting for a reply.
Ben Murphy discovered he could use his right leg again a few minutes after Rebecca left. But there were burns and bruises on the leg where the walking stick had struck, which were curiously slow to heal. Ben found it best to keep as much of his weight on his left leg as possible for several days thereafter.
That accomplished, Rebecca strode openly through the streets of her home town. She wanted to be noticed now. And she particularly wanted people to see where she went next. She was going to remove some of the taint on her reputation by befriending the Congregational pastor.
After the town had lost its last native-born Congregational pastor in her namesake’s day, they had built a parsonage adjacent to the old church as a way to attract new ministers. Rebecca passed by the church and turned up the walkway to the parsonage’s front door. She used the knocker on the door to announce her presence.
Mary Elizabeth Wilson was the parson’s wife. She was twenty-four, three years younger than her husband, and already had two children. Like her husband, she was not a native of the town, but had moved there only two years ago.
The finely-dressed lady at the door introduced herself as Mrs. Maxwell and asked for her husband. Mary took her husband’s responsibility for the care of souls seriously, and invited Mrs. Maxwell in to wait for her husband. She had children and laundry to attend to, but she escorted her guest into the parlor, where distinguished people were entertained. Mary offered her guest some pie and coffee, which Rebecca graciously accepted. It was only when Mary served the refreshments that she took notice of the walking stick.
Mary was not a native, but she had heard the stories about the witch with the dragon-headed walking stick and how she had killed the town’s pastor a decade earlier. She dared not say anything to her guest. If she were wrong in her suspicions, she would be unforgivably ashamed. If she were right, then she did not want to put this witch on her guard. So she waited until her husband came home, and then quickly explained the situation to him the moment he stepped in the door. He did not seem worried. He assured his wife that there was no danger, and told her he would meet their guest as soon as he attended to some things in his study.
Rebecca had noticed a change in Mrs. Wilson’s demeanor, and guessed why. She meant no harm to Mrs. Wilson, or to any other member of the Wilson family, so she continued being a polite guest. She heard the front door open, Mrs. Wilson’s footsteps in the hall, and then another set of footsteps, a heavier set, in the hallway. Mrs. Wilson appeared, and said, “My husband will be with you in a moment, Mrs. Maxwell.”
Rebecca smiled, thanked Mrs. Wilson, put aside her coffee, and waited. Sure enough, in a few minutes a pleasant-looking young man appeared. He gave Rebecca a smile, said, “Welcome, Mrs. Maxwell, I am the Rev. Thomas Wilson.” He strode forward as if to shake Rebecca’s hand. She stood up. Only at the last moment did he reach into his suit coat pocket, pull out a pistol, point it at Rebecca’s head, and fire at point-blank range.
End of chapter eleven