Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 16: Family and friends
Nathaniel Farnsworth rose before dawn, as he did almost every day. There was farm work to be done before breakfast, and Tim couldn’t do it alone. His wife Deborah arose just after him, and headed to the kitchen to help fix breakfast. She found Tim’s wife Leah already there, getting the kitchen fire going.
Nathaniel had turned the management of the farm, and the main quarters in the house, over to his eldest son Timothy half a dozen years ago when Tim had married. He and Deborah had taken up quarters in the addition that had originally been put on to house the children as they’d been growing up. Nathaniel still retained ownership and still helped work the farm, but he left the decisions up to Tim. Like most such arrangements, there had been and still was some friction between the older and younger couple, but not much, for Tim was a dutiful son.
Becoming second in what had been her own household had bothered Deborah even less. Leah was not very assertive, and took on the leading role only as Deborah had relinquished it. Besides, Leah’s pregnancies had all been difficult and required city doctors, so Deborah had often to take control in Leah’s absences.
If Leah was timid, she was also observant. This morning she could see that her mother-in-law’s mind was not on her work. Leah could guess why. One of the neighbors had brought the news last night that Rebecca was in town and already involved in an altercation.
Leah was right. Deborah was concerned, hurt, and worried, all at once. She was concerned that Rebecca might be in trouble. She was hurt that her daughter had not written her to let her know she was coming, or sent any word on whether she would visit. And she was worried what might happen if she did visit. Deborah wanted to see her daughter. It had been years since she had seen her last. But she knew her son would object if Rebecca set foot in the house.
She heard the back door open, and figured it had to be the men returning early from their chores. Both her husband and her son were demanding eaters, and no doubt they would complain that breakfast was not quite ready, even though they knew it would be so. She turned to say a word to them, and saw Rebecca standing in the door instead.
Rebecca had risen early that morning. She had looked into Patty’s room, found that she had never returned that evening, and smiled inwardly. No doubt Patty was overdoing her job of socializing with the help. Rebecca had no worries about Patty being in trouble. The spell she had put on Patty’s cross yesterday had not just been to protect her against harm, but to alert Rebecca if it were breached. She left Patty a note, explaining to her where she would be that morning, and giving her instructions.
That out of mind, Rebecca had dressed herself, and had gone down to the hotel’s stables looking for a horse to ride. The ostlers had not expected a guest so early, and tried to put a sidesaddle on the horse they selected for Rebecca, until she made it clear that with her leg and walking stick she could not ride sidesaddle. This was not actually true, but served Rebecca as a convenient excuse. After those difficulties had been swept aside and the ostlers had helped her mount, Rebecca rode the horse out into the dawn and headed to what she would always think of as her parents’ home, where she completely surprised her mother, as we have seen.
The two women hugged and cried upon seeing each other, as one might expect. Rebecca broke off from her mother only to repeat the same performance to a lesser degree with Leah. Timothy might dislike his sister, but Leah did not. However, she was careful to show that affection only when Tim was not around. Once that was concluded, Rebecca joined in preparing breakfast as a matter of course. The three women gossiped freely, Rebecca asking about old acquaintances, Deborah and Leah asking about Rebecca’s children and life in New York. Left unmentioned were the previous day’s events. Also left unmentioned was how Timothy would react to his sister’s presence.
Nathaniel came in first, and took in the scene. His wife and daughter-in-law had shot him worried looks until they realized it was him, and not Tim. Rebecca just simply came over, and gave her father a hug. She knew that would embarrass him, as he was not demonstrative with his affections, and even went on to plant a kiss on his cheek before releasing him. Nathaniel was indeed embarrassed, blushed, and tried not to look pleased at his daughter. She reminded him so much of what Deborah had looked like when he first married her that it proved impossible for Nathaniel not to display a smile.
Leah’s three children came in next. None was old enough to work the farm, so they were not expected to get up before breakfast just yet. Their Aunt Rebecca was a stranger to them, and they huddled about their mother and grandmother while peeping out at the strange lady. Rebecca greeted them, but did no more. Her own children had behaved in much the same way. She would give them time to get used to her.
Finally, Timothy stepped into the kitchen. All the others froze, worried about what he might say. All, that is, except for Rebecca, who eyed her brother coolly, and then in a matter-of-fact voice said, “I’ve come for a visit, Timothy, and been chatting with Mother and Leah here while we’ve been preparing breakfast.”
Just as Rebecca resembled her mother in many ways, so did Timothy resemble his father, except that he was even taller and broader. Between being the oldest son and a bigger version of his father, Timothy felt he deserved to be the natural head of the Farnsworth family, and indeed a natural leader of the town. It seemed unfair to him that Jeremiah, who after all was a younger brother, was seen as the leading family member in town. That Jeremiah owed some of that prominence to his connection with Rebecca, the richest and most notorious member of the family, seemed even more improper to Timothy. Rebecca he regarded as a disgrace, an uncivilized brat of a sister who had grown up to be a snobbish city woman whose last visit to town had brought disrepute to the family’s good name. He had often sworn that she would never set foot in his house.
Well, here she was, the brazen hussy. Timothy started to open his mouth to order her out, and then caught sight of the walking stick. His tongue froze in his mouth. He did not believe his sister was a witch. Still, a man had died thanks to her a decade ago. And Tim knew that if he told her to leave, he would start an argument with his parents, and he just did not feel up to it. With that in mind, he simply grunted and sat down at the table.
Once the women served breakfast and sat down with the men, Timothy ate and watched his sister happily chattering away with the other around the table. His anger mounted. He should have ordered her out at once. He could not do it now that she had sat down with them for breakfast. If only there was some way he could strike at her!
At a lull in the conversation, Nathaniel, who liked his son-in-law, what little he had seen of him, asked Rebecca, “Is your husband with you, Rebecca?”
Rebecca shook her head. “No, he’s in New York with the children.” Then , realizing she might not have a chance to raise this again with her parents before it happened, she added, “Truth be told, father, our marriage is over. When I return to New York, Robert and I will be getting a divorce.”
Timothy saw his chance. “And how many adulteries is he charging you with, Rebecca?”
Now, divorce was a rare thing in 1886. The grounds for divorce were few, and all implied a failing by one of the spouses. There was no such thing as “no fault” divorce. One party was definitely at fault, guilty of unchristian conduct, false to the marriage vows, and in consequence was not even allowed to remarry as quickly as the innocent party. But the stigma of divorce even extended, in a milder degree, to the innocent party. So Nathaniel, Deborah, and Leah had all naturally disapproved of Rebecca for being a party to a divorce . . . until Timothy spoke. Then their sympathies immediately swung back to Rebecca.
Rebecca replied to her brother with all the confidence of the innocent. “None, Timothy. He will be admitting to adultery himself, since you must know. Do you need to hear details?”
Timothy was prepared to retort by calling Rebecca a vulgar name when he caught sight of the walking stick hanging from the table edge. He also realized he had lost the sympathy of the other family members at the table. Even Leah was looking at him with disapproval. It was not just that she sympathized with Rebecca; she was upset that her husband should raise such an inappropriate subject as adultery in front of her children. Timothy swallowed his words, looked down, and concentrated on his eating for the rest of the meal. Once he was finished, he got up and left the table and the kitchen without making eye contact with his sister again.
Deborah watched her daughter throughout the meal and was filled with regrets. She had sent Rebecca away to be raised by Israel Farnsworth, but she had never thought that her daughter would grow up to be such a stranger to her. She was as fine-looking a daughter as any mother could want, that was true. But her marriage was falling apart and she was in some sort of trouble in town that Deborah could not understand. Deborah wanted to advise her daughter, to warn her, to comfort her, and found she knew how to do none of those things.
Knowing his daughter had trouble mounting a horse, Nathaniel offered to go out and bring the animal around. Leah figured that mother and daughter would want to talk to each other, and thoughtfully absented herself and her children at the same time. But neither Deborah nor Rebecca knew quite what to say to each other. Deborah’s emotions overwhelmed her, and as she was convulsed by sobs her daughter took her into her arms. It was queer that Deborah had wanted to comfort Rebecca, and instead ended up being comforted by her. So they stood until Nathaniel appeared at the door, whereupon they kissed and tried to smile at each other before Rebecca went out to mount her horse. Deborah did not follow.
Nathaniel helped Rebecca mount. Once that was finished, he said to her, “Your mother worries about you, Rebecca.”
Rebecca knew her mother was not the only family member worried about her. She debated how much to say, and then decided that if she could not speak to her own flesh and blood honestly, then she should not have come. “Someone is trying to kill me, Father. I don’t know who and I don’t know why. But whoever it is has killed others already.”
Nathaniel was alarmed. “You did not tell your mother that, I hope.”
Rebecca shook her head. “No. And don’t worry too much, Father. I have help. An agent from the Government in Washington is working with me. And it is not as if I am defenseless,” she said, holding her walking stick up.
Unlike his son, Nathaniel had no doubt in his mind that Rebecca could perform magic. More than thirty years ago, his cousin Israel had required Nathaniel’s help to perform a magical ceremony to defeat Rebecca’s namesake, Nathaniel’s step-mother. Nathaniel remembered. He had not understood Israel’s magic. He did not understand his daughter’s magic. But he knew both were real.
Nathaniel looked at his daughter, still looking so young despite her gray hair, smiling, sitting in a man’s saddle, not a proper woman’s saddle, and holding her strange walking stick with one hand and the reins in the other. She has help, he thought to himself, help and Israel’s training, and she knows well enough we will give her whatever other help she needs.
There was no need to say any of that, so Nathaniel did not. He just nodded, wished his daughter “Godspeed,” and went back to his chores.
Rebecca barely looked at the road as she headed back to the town. She was increasingly baffled by the behavior of the walking stick. Twice, without any prompting on her part, it had reached out and persuaded her brother Timothy to back down from making incendiary remarks. This was yet another unprecedented action.
As Rebecca looked back over the last several days, she could see a pattern emerging. Everything had been normal up until she had actually used the walking stick in an operation, seriously used magic for the first time since she married. (What she had done to her husband when she found out about his infidelities hardly counted.) It was as if she had woken up a different creature from the one she had worked with a decade ago. Yet it was the same entity. Rebecca was absolutely sure about that. It had the same familiar feeling. Indeed, Rebecca thought to herself, it felt even more familiar than before, if that made any sense. It just was acting differently. It wasn’t just doing what she asked it to do. It was doing more than that, it was doing things unasked. But why this was becoming a regular occurrence, Rebecca could not fathom. There was something she was missing, some perspective she could not see.
She wondered if Abigail Lane was right, that the dragon, the spirit in the walking stick, was taking her over. But that made no sense. She was Rebecca, with her own feelings and motivations. Why would a dragon care about what Rebecca wanted?
Rebecca was so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she didn’t notice the person coming up to her until that person grabbed the reins. She looked down. There, standing in the road, was Abigail Lane.
Abigail said to her, “I called to you, but you didn’t seem to hear me.”
Rebecca glanced about. It was still early, and there was no one else in sight. “I was occupied with my own thoughts. Let’s get off the road before we are seen together.”
Abigail gave a snort to that, but they headed off together toward the woods on one side of the road. Rebecca wondered at this meeting. They were not supposed to meet until tonight. And why was Abigail limping? Come to think of it, Abigail wasn’t wearing clothing appropriate for a clerk. And that thought led Rebecca to the last thing she hadn’t noticed before: Abigail’s hair was its natural dark blond color. Patty had told her yesterday that Abigail had dyed it black.
So once they had moved far back enough from the road not to be seen easily and Rebecca had dismounted and tied up her horse, she said to Abigail, “Shouldn’t you be getting ready to work at my brother’s?”
Abigail had taken a seat on a stone wall. She shook her head. “That’s all over. It’s not safe for me to go back, and useless anyhow.”
Rebecca had sat down beside Abigail. To her, Abigail sounded discouraged. So she took a hopeful tone. “You’ve only been there for three days. It is too early to give up. I picked up several clues yesterday. Surely we will find this man.”
Her words had no effect on Abigail. She shook her head again, looked Rebecca full in the face. “It’s too late. We will never find him. I know who he is. It’s my fault he’s here, and he knows too much about both of us for us ever to find him.” Abigail thought about how to explain what had happened to an incredulous Rebecca. “His name is William Maverick. He used to work for the Office of Occult Affairs. He was fired for improper conduct.” She looked away, then looked down to the ground in shame. “I trained him. I used stories about you and your uncle to help train him. And they’ve brought him here for some reason. And there’s nothing I can do.”
Rebecca was dismayed by how downcast Abigail was, and she could not understand why. She sought to rally Abigail. “But you trained him, Abigail. You know him well. That’s a tremendous advantage. Between what you know about him and I know about this town, we will smoke him out!”
Abigail looked up at Rebecca. Rebecca had hoped to see a smile. Instead, Abigail gave her a stony look. She said to Rebecca, “You don’t understand. He’s a more powerful magician than I am. There’s nothing I can do against him. I’ve failed.”
End of chapter sixteen
First, don’t like to be picky, but it jarred: first paragraph “There she found . . . already there,” Too many ‘there’s’.
Otherwise, a quieter chapter to offset the others, allow nerves to unfrazzle. I like the way you’re developing the walkingstick as a character and keeping the suspense going in doing so. I also like the way you’ve used a down-note at the end: a different kind of jeopardy. Look forward to the next episode
Picky’s fine, especially when I agree with you! I have edited the line in question, making it simpler, which is usually a good thing to do.
We need to have a blog session some time or other on helpful criticism. I know I feel uncomfortable criticizing the writing of people I’ve never actually met. But first I need to spend some time this weekend actually reading other people’s blogs. I have been dreadfully delinquent that way, but the weekend is available. That definitely includes yours.
Thanks for the praise of my handling of this chapter. Now Abigail and Rebecca know what they’re up against. But will it do them any good?
It was not clear until Rebecca left her parents’ house that the solution to Rebecca claiming to be unable to ride sidesaddle was not that she arrived by coach, but on a horse saddled with a man’s saddle. This left me puzzled when Nathaniel offered to bring Rebecca’s horse around, as I thought perhaps you’d forgotten she had come by coach. The actual solution needs to be mentioned in the paragraph about the ostlers.
Your construction of what was going on in the stables was so far removed from what I had meant that it took me a while to see how you were led astray by the passage. I have made some modest revisions to it to clarify what was going on. I may have to look at that passage again, though.
I’ve only just picked this up: it didn’t come via Notifications. If you’re visiting, you’ll notice new chapters from Neve: Skimaskall the Last Dragon, and Widow Cob’s Cat. I hadn’t intended to pursue that one but have been encouraged by ‘Russell’s’ comments.
And I like your idea of a post on helpful criticism. I’ve never attended writers’ circles, writers’ workshops, or others by ilk, so I’m hesitant of offering a criticism. I think we’re all affected by the negative clout of that word when in fact it ought to be positive.
Maybe the criticism issue will be Monday’s/Tuesday’s post, which means I need to think about something intelligent to say and some good questions to ask.
I keep misplacing my replies. This is the second time in two days that the ‘reply to comment’ box has blinked into oblivion, taking my well-thought out reply with it. I’ve a feeling there’s a sink somewhere that collects them. Anyway, to reply . . .
You could start with why every writer needs constructive criticism in order to improve. We all like praise, but if everyone says, yea, that’s great, how will we know where improvements are needed? We need someone to notice the inconsistencies of plot, that often repeated, repeated, repeated word that begins to jar on the reader, those typos, those misplaced punctuations, misspellings, the many ways an author’s work can be improved – often by deletion.
Will that do for a start? I wish you the best with it. Now I’m going to click this button before another reply goes ‘poof!’ into 0100100100001110001
Should I copy your remarks to my post on the subject, now that it’s up? Or would you prefer to put up a version as a comment yourself?
Use as you will. You might prefer to knock them into your own style, credit me or not, keep me anonymous, I don’t mind. That way I can always come back with another comment!
Sorry to be Johnny-come-lately to this spirited thread. I enjoyed this installment; the Farnsworths always seem like characters from history (realizing some of them are, of course), rather than fiction, thanks to the care you take in creating them, Brian.
I think CP is off to a good starts, and I’ll try to make a helpful contribution to the debate on the criticism blog, sometime soon.
Well, I am playing laggard to you in reviewing CP’s fiction, having just got started last night, so we can share the Johnny-come-lately honors! And thanks for the compliment.
The first time I tried developing characters in a story, I ran into a serious problem. I wanted a specific character’s death to be a very meaningful event in the story, but the character was a throw-away part at that point in development. I had to find a way to make people’s understanding of the character live up to the adjectives I was using to describe her death.
It’s another variant of the “show the reader, don’t tell the reader” lesson in writing. I’m learning to appreciate that lesson more and more.