Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 19: Stockbridge interlude
Rebecca was flying! Her dragon shot up into the atmosphere as if it were leaping for the stars. The beating of the great wings as the dragon sought to gain altitude reverberated through the beast. Though she had no handhold on the dragon, indeed was holding her walking stick with her right hand, Rebecca was so snugly settled in the bend of the dragon’s body that she felt perfectly secure. She could see the dragon’s head swinging back and forth, searching for its objective.
The dragon turned and struck out in level flight. Rebecca took the opportunity to look around. She had great difficulty making sense out of what she was seeing. It was as if her beloved Berkshire hills were far, far below them, vague and indistinct. Here and there she could make out bits of magic, but at this altitude she could not say where they were, or even what they were. She looked up and saw the stars coming out with the sunset. There didn’t seem to be much magic in the sky, at least that she could see. There were what looked like great owls or hawks, magical birds of some type, off in the distance. Rebecca wondered whether she was above or below the clouds. She couldn’t see them anywhere.
Abruptly the great beast turned and plunged almost straight down in a dive. The wings folded back as the dragon picked up speed in its fall. Rebecca marveled that she wasn’t being blasted by a wind, and waited for the dragon to slow its fall before setting her down. The land grew close with dizzying speed, and Rebecca could see they were heading directly into a house. To her astonishment, the dragon was not slowing down at all, even as it looked as if they would crash into the house. Indeed, for an instant, she had the impression that they were actually going through the roof of the house.
The next thing she knew, she was standing upright in a room. She was encircled by blue flames that were burning off the excess magic she had brought back onto the material plane. And the dragon was nowhere to be seen.
Rebecca recognized the room. It was Henry Martyn Field’s study in his cottage “Sunset.” And sitting there, looking at her in amazement was Henry himself. Sitting opposite him was Amy Van Duesen.
It would have been hard to say which of the three people in Henry’s study was the most astonished by Rebecca’s appearance. Amy and Henry had been talking, when the air in the study began to vibrate. A wind had come out of nowhere and sent Henry’s papers flying all over the room. There had been a flash of light and a loud report, as if lightning had struck in the room, and Rebecca had appeared.
The first to recover was Amy. She had come to Stockbridge for Mrs. Maxwell’s help and protection, and here was Mrs. Maxwell. Amy leaped up from her chair and caught up Rebecca in a hug. She didn’t bother stifling her sob of relief as she buried her head in Mrs. Maxwell’s shoulder.
The Reverend Henry Martyn Field had seen many strange things in his life, but he had to admit that Rebecca’s arrival in his study was one of the most impressive magic tricks he had seen in a while. Israel Farnsworth couldn’t have done it better. And Rebecca’s timing couldn’t have been beat.
Before Henry had a chance to speak up, the door to the study opened and Mrs. Field stepped into the room, looking quite alarmed. “Henry, are you all right?” she asked. “The house was shaking . . .” And there she stopped, confounded by the uncharacteristic sight of papers strewn all over the study and by the unexpected sight of Rebecca Maxwell in her unusual attire.
Henry could see all sorts of ways in which this situation could go wrong, so he took control to steer thing aright. “Everything is fine, Frances. Rebecca stopped by for a private chat. Would you take Miss Van Duesen and offer her some refreshments while Rebecca and I are talking?” Amy had looked up while he was speaking, so he addressed her next. “That’s right, Miss Van Duesen, you go along with my wife and have a bite to eat. Mrs. Maxwell and I will decide what to do to help you. You needn’t trouble explaining it to her yourself.”
Amy was relieved that she would not have to explain what had happened to Mrs. Maxwell. At the same time, she did not want to part from her. And she had not yet spoken to the walking stick. She hesitated, torn between staying and going.
Rebecca took her cue from Henry. “That’s right, Amy, go along with Mrs. Field. Henry and I will straighten things out.” And she gave Amy the best smile she could manage.
Amy let herself be persuaded. She let go of Mrs. Maxwell and went through the study door. Frances Field followed, after giving her husband a quizzical look.
Rebecca’s smile died the instant the door was closed. She turned to Henry and said, “Exactly what sort of problem did you just commit me to solve, Henry? And what is Amy doing in Stockbridge? I have a feeling the two are connected.”
Henry was reluctant to open the subject, as it was one Rebecca had implicitly placed off limits in their friendship. So he played for time. “That was quite a remarkable entrance, Rebecca. Though my guests usually announce themselves at the front door.”
Rebecca was having none of it. “It must be bad for you to try to distract me, Henry.” And it must involve Amy Van Duesen, and that’s why the dragon brought me here, she thought to herself. It wants me to help Amy. And this is . . . oh, forget “unprecedented” — revealing.
Henry knew he had been caught. “It is bad, Rebecca. Your husband assaulted Amy in her bed last night. Apparently he was drunk and she was able to escape with little more than a fright. As to why she is here, she cited the example of Jane Eyre, who knew better than to stay around a master who was attracted to her. Unfortunately, she chose to emulate Jane by fleeing without any destination in mind, or the resources to live upon. She decided to come to Stockbridge and throw herself on your mercy, and then realized you probably weren’t here, which is why she came to me.”
Henry watched Rebecca narrowly as he spoke. The difficulties in her marriage had been a forbidden topic, so Henry was not sure how much she knew of her husband’s infidelities. He saw that she was chagrinned at first, but became thoughtful.
What he did not expect was her reply. “This is my fault,” she said.
Now Henry was a man of his times, and he knew men often strayed and complained that their wives did not satisfy their needs. But Henry was also a Christian minister, and he held every man responsible for his own sins. He shook his head. “No, Rebecca. Your husband was drunk.”
Rebecca raised an eyebrow. Then she looked Henry straight in the eye. “And was there another woman involved in all this?”
Henry blushed. He had hoped not to mention this, but was relieved that Rebecca understood the situation. “According to Amy, the other servants believe Robert went out to visit his mistress in the city and that the meeting did not go well.”
Rebecca tartly replied, “Probably so. You see, Henry, I put a spell on Robert to make his mistresses reject him. So while Robert may be at fault, I helped cause this. I have to wonder if he attacked Amy to revenge himself on me.”
Henry did not reply immediately. The idea that a wife could put a spell on her husband to make him faithful fascinated Henry as a problem in morals. But that was for later consideration. And he preferred to not consider the possibility that this was some sort of revenge rape. The real problem at hand was dealing with Amy, and to that subject he would confine his remarks. “I was going to offer the girl my protection.”
Rebecca shook her head. “Thank you, Henry, but she’s my responsibility. I’ll take her back to my place, and arrange it that Robert does not bother her.”
“You are staying here, then?”
Rebecca frowned. “No. I have to get back to my home town. This night, in fact. I left without telling people where I was going.”
Henry gave her a worried look. “You are in trouble? The rumors of your activities have already made their way here to Stockbridge, Rebecca. I was told you had killed the minister in town. Knowing Tom Wilson, I didn’t think you would bother.”
Rebecca grimaced. “He tried to kill me, Henry, but only because he was under a spell.” Seeing how that alarmed Henry, Rebecca tried to give him a more encouraging look. “I have help, Henry, and we know the man we seek. It is just a matter of time before we find him and deal with him.”
As they walked from “Sunset” to her cottage, Rebecca said to Amy, “Rev. Field already told me what happened. I do not hold you responsible, Amy. You may stay here, as long as you want. Mr. Maxwell will not bother you. And when I finish my current business, I will go with you back to New York and we will settle matters.”
Amy nodded, thought about whether she should say anything, and then decided that she owed Mrs. Maxwell at least as much trust as she had just given Rev. Field. “He’s never bothered me before, not at all. I don’t know what I did that made him think . . .”
Rebecca cut in. “You didn’t do anything, Amy.”
Amy didn’t respond, for which Rebecca was grateful. She did not want to explain much more about her marriage, or what she had done to Robert when they last spoke.
The two walked in silence for a bit. Rebecca recalled that she had meant to speak to Amy before leaving Stockbridge last week, but had failed to do so. Well, she thought to herself, after what Robert just tried to do to her, I’ll never find out for sure if the walking stick did anything harmful. Even so, she seems normal, apart from what has just happened.
However, Rebecca noticed there was some sort of magical connection that was going in fits and starts between Amy and the walking stick. It puzzled Rebecca. She decided to broach the subject, after all. “Amy, I was concerned for you last week. After you handled the walking stick, you seemed . . . a bit disoriented. Have you been all right? Were you harmed in any way by the walking stick?”
Amy gave a light laugh. “No, Mrs. Maxwell, of course not. I don’t really remember what happened that day very well. But the walking stick hasn’t harmed me. Why, the dragon told me all sorts of wonderful stories. I’m still learning all the stories she told me. And I’ve just been explaining to her what happened since last week, and she was telling me about how you rode her to come here.”
Rebecca could not contain her surprise. She stopped walking and turned to Amy. “It speaks to you?”
Amy looked puzzled. “Of course. Let me show you. It’s easier when I hold it.” And she reached for the stick.
Rebecca let her take it, and watched while Amy took it and looked the head of the stick in its face. She was smiling as she spoke. “You were in the Devil’s Acre and the dragon rescued you from the demons. And when you handed the stick to me last week, you asked her to be nice to me, and she found out I liked stories, so she told me a lot of stories.” Amy held out the stick for Rebecca to take it. “That was very sweet of you, Mrs. Maxwell.”
Rebecca took the walking stick back, for the moment completely flummoxed by what she had just witnessed. It so upset her ideas about what had happened that day. She turned to resume walking back to her home with all of her thoughts in confusion. Amy silently followed alongside her.
Rebecca struggled to make sense of what Amy had just demonstrated. Amy was a sensitive, so that might well explain why she could talk to the walking stick more easily than Rebecca. And the evening after she held the walking stick, Amy told a story about a princess riding a dragon, a story the walking stick clearly knew. So the walking stick must have told her that story on that day. What Amy had just done demonstrated to Rebecca that she could not sense that Amy and the walking stick were talking unless she herself was holding the stick as well. So it all could have happened just as Amy described. Did happen, Rebecca corrected herself. Why Amy’s mind seemed to close down remained still unexplained, but maybe she was just absorbing stories. It was not a matter of any urgency to figure out.
To Rebecca, this proved that Abigail’s fear that the dragon (or whatever it really was) was taking her over was simply wrong. It seemed almost the other way: the dragon was doing her bidding even unasked. Why, Rebecca still could not explain. She recalled that her Uncle Israel had always said that if you couldn’t understand what was happening, you were asking the wrong questions and basing your thinking on incorrect assumptions. Well, she had stood one of the standard assumptions on its head. What different questions did she need to ask to make sense of what had been happening?
This much Rebecca knew, that the dragon had been able to bring her onto the magical plane to serve its purposes. If it could do that, Rebecca thought to herself, then I can bring it here to serve mine.
James was surprised at the arrival of Mrs. Maxwell with Amy Van Duesen in tow. He dispatched Dora to take Amy to her old room and to make the room ready. Once that was done, he attended Mrs. Maxwell in her study.
She addressed him in a challenging tone. “Amy will be staying several days until I wrap up my affairs in my home town. While she is here, Mr. Maxwell must not be informed that she is here. If he comes here while I am absent, he must be kept from her.” She paused, then continued in the same tone. “My husband assaulted Amy in her bedroom. You would not keep my secrets from my husband, James. Does your loyalty to my husband mean you will not keep this one from him as well?”
It was not a surprise to James that Mrs. Maxwell did not trust him, but he also recognized that she was giving him another opportunity. For that he was grateful. Not that it mattered; he liked Amy, and would willingly protect her. “I will see to it that Amy’s presence here is not known to Mr. Maxwell.”
Rebecca looked hard at James. Though she could not read thoughts, she could read emotions well enough to tell he meant it. She was tempted to inquire into his reasons, then decided not to. She had other matters of more importance to address.
James, on the other hand, decided he should use the opening to bring up another matter and show Mrs. Maxwell what he felt about his employer. “Ma’am, you should know I have decided to leave my position here at the end of the year. Miss Fairley, the gardener’s daughter, and I will be marrying, and I have a mind to go West to look for new opportunities.”
“You have told my husband this?”
“No, ma’am,” James replied.
Ah, so that’s how the wind blows, thought Rebecca. James is telling me he has lost favor with my husband. I wonder why. And he’s going to make an honest woman of Elsie Fairley, now that her father’s dead. Good for him! To James, she said, “I haven’t the time to talk about this right now, James. I must get back tonight. When I return, we will discuss this further. If you and Elsie are marrying, at the very least we must hold a celebration for you here and provide a wedding gift.”
It was not all he could have hoped for, but it was enough. James replied, “Thank you, ma’am.”
Thinking about the staff, Rebecca remembered something she wanted to find out. “Is Ellen Taylor here, James?”
“No, Mrs. Maxwell, I let her go with most of the staff according to Mr. Maxwell’s instructions. She needed to find work, and expressed a wish to be helpful to you. I know the manager of Brown’s Hotel in your home town, and was able to secure her a job working there for the summer. I had just sent word of this arrangement to you this afternoon by mail.”
Rebecca was both perplexed and grateful. Perplexed, because James, who had betrayed her confidences last week, was going out of his way to be helpful to her, and yet could expect no advantage in doing so. Grateful, because she could use another pair of eyes hunting for this Maverick, and she could trust Ellen Taylor. With a feeling that time was pressing on her, Rebecca could only repeat herself. “Thank you, James, that was most considerate of you. As I say, we must talk when I return. But tonight I must ride back. Have the fastest horse in the stable saddled. I need to make a telephone call and be off.”
James bowed and departed for the stable. Rebecca went to the telephone room and rang her rooms in the Double Eagle. She wanted to let Abigail know she was all right and would return. And she wanted to send Patty over to Brown’s Hotel and see if Ellen Taylor could be recruited in the search for William Maverick.
Patty answered. She was overjoyed to find out Rebecca was fine, and babbled at some length. It took Rebecca asking several times before she could get Patty to explain why Abigail wasn’t there. In Abigail’s absence, Rebecca decided to combine her two goals into one mission. She asked Patty to go over to Brown’s and try to enlist Ellen Taylor, looking for Abigail both on her way out and way back. Rebecca explained that she would be returning that night, and that Abigail should be so informed. Then she rang off and headed for the stable.
Patty was pleased with the outcome of the telephone call. She felt that Rebecca’s order to go see Ellen trumped Abigail’s order to stay at the Double Eagle, an order she had deliberately not mentioned to Rebecca. After all, helping out had to be better than just sitting around.
James had selected Taghonick, one of her husband’s favorite horses, for Rebecca to ride. Rebecca was in a hurry, but she knew better than to try to push the gray race horse to a gallop the whole way. Best to set a moderately lively pace for the miles ahead. Rebecca even tried to catch some sleep in the saddle.
She could not sleep. She felt time pressing on her. For all that she was glad to be of help to Amy, her absence meant that Abigail was alone in confronting this William Maverick, and she was confessedly weaker than him.
She felt capable of dealing with Maverick. The dragon she had ridden to Stockbridge seemed enormously powerful, more powerful than Rebecca had thought. It was even acting in her interests, that was clear. So why wasn’t it trying to take her over? Yes, reverse Abigail’s worry, and ask why wasn’t it happening? What had changed in nine years since she had last called on the dragon in any serious way? How was she different? How was the dragon different, apart from the changes in its behavior? She felt she was getting close to the answer, but it still eluded her.
Abruptly Rebecca sat up in the saddle. She had received a magic shock, a very unwelcome one. She knew what that shock meant. Patty’s spell had been breached. She was in some sort of trouble involving magic.
Rebecca did not worry that she might have sent Patty into trouble. All she knew was that she had to rescue Patty, and she was still miles away. And so she gave a sad look to the horse. To herself, she whispered, “Sorry, Taghonick, but I need all the speed you have.” And then she spelled the horse. She spelled the horse to want to gallop, to run, to push himself to his uttermost limit, and if necessary beyond. Taghonick pricked up his ears. His mind and body thrilled to the challenge, to the opportunity. He set off at a gallop.
Taghonick collapsed and died about 400 yards short of the Double Eagle. Rebecca gave him not a thought. She had not the time. She abandoned the horse, saddle and all, and made her way to the Double Eagle. She went upstairs, pulled open the door to her rooms, and found a dead body just inside.
Her heart almost stopped with the shock before she realized it was dressed in a man’s clothes. Rebecca closed the door and stepped over the man. She had not the time for him, but called out to Patty and Abigail, and quickly searched her rooms. Neither was there.
Only then did she stop to look at the corpse on the floor. She realized that it gave off traces of magic. Thinking that it might provide a clue, Rebecca kneeled down and rolled the corpse over. The man’s face was a mask of pain. She did not recognize him at all. But she did recognize what he was holding in his clenched right hand. It was the chain of Patty’s necklace. No doubt the cross was in his hand. Rebecca pried his fingers apart to be sure. There it was. She took it from him and held it in her hand.
Rebecca sat there, kneeling on the floor, looking at the cross. She could not think of what to do next. She no longer had any method of her own to find Patty. She had felt time bearing down on her, she had rushed back, and now could do nothing. Under the strain, she broke down and cried.
For several minutes, Rebecca sat there crying, without a hope. Then she came to herself and stood up. If she could not find Patty herself, she would call on her dragon and enlist its help by whatever measures were necessary.
She had just begun to frame a request to her walking stick when the doorknob turned. Quickly Rebecca held her walking stick forward to defend herself.
It was Abigail. Before she could say a word, Rebecca said to her, “Patty’s in some sort of trouble. I need to find her.”
Abigail wearily nodded. “I know. Maverick has her.”
End of chapter nineteen
What, I have to wait another week? And another?
And another and another. Because, if I’ve done my job, all your questions will be answered on February 1 when the last chapter comes out.
That was unexpected. A sacrifice to engineer the climax?
It is instrumental to the climax. The next chapter will let you decide if it was inevitable or not.
With this chapter I got the feeling that things were simmering, as in a stewpot. Eye of toad, etc, lurking just beneath the surface.
Indeed, the toad is just about to peep out from under his rock. 🙂
As CP already observed, most unexpected. Even if you don’t understand all its motives, it’s very handy having a dragon around. In that regard, I wondered how Maverick (who prefers having others do his dirty work) would prove a threat to Rebecca, then we learned he’s acquired some important leverage. This will be interesting. Rebecca & dragon don’t strike me as good hostage negotiators.
And what sort of hostage negotiator will Maverick be, eh?