Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 2: How to make an unfavorable impression every time
James looked at the walking stick carefully, though not too carefully. There could be no mistake. Either it was the same dragon-headed walking stick, or its exact duplicate. And James was sure there was no duplicate of that stick in the house. He gave Mrs. Maxwell a questioning look.
Rebecca returned his look with a wry grin. “It’s the same stick, James. It won’t leave me. Anyone who tried to take it from me or destroy it would regret trying. The only reason you could take it and try to get rid of it is because I let you.” She held it out to him. “If you want to try again, go ahead.”
James was thunderstruck. But he was also the major-domo, and proud of his position. He shook his head. “Far be it from me to doubt your word, Mrs. Maxwell. One effort was sufficient. But I do not understand what just happened.” He would not directly ask Mrs. Maxwell to explain. That was something even a major-domo could not do.
Rebecca sat down, putting her walking stick to the side. Looking steadily at James, she replied, “There are reasons people think I’m a witch, James, not that I would call myself one. That walking stick is one of them. Most of the reasons are about things that happened in the past, quite a few years ago. I have done nothing . . . unnatural here in Stockbridge until now. My concern is that there may be something unnatural going on with Ellen’s brother, the relative whose life she thinks is in danger. If there is, and I think it only a slight chance, I might have to use my . . . unusual abilities. If that happens, someone might decide to retaliate against me, my family, or my household. I’m telling you this, James, because in the absence of Mr. Maxwell and myself, you are in charge. If something unnatural happens in this house while I am away, do not try to confront it yourself. Your first priority is to get my family and the household members to safety.”
James considered what he had just heard. “What sort of unnatural events might occur?”
Rebecca shook her head. “I don’t know, James. Ghosts, objects that move by themselves, someone other than the gardener having fits, it could be anything. Just get people away from it, and send me word.”
And that, James thought, was that. He was supposed to deal with the unlikely and inexplicable. “Thank you, ma’am. Is there anything else?”
Rebecca thought for a moment. “Yes, two more things, James. Do you now understand exactly why I asked you if you wanted to stay on, and whether you wanted to receive my confidences? After what you’ve seen, I’m asking you again.”
James had a few private thoughts about how he had not expected these confidences. But he was a man of his word. To Mrs. Maxwell, he replied, “Yes, ma’am. I still wish to stay on, and I will treat your confidences with the same trust I treat Mr. Maxwell’s.”
Rebecca considered making it clear to James that in fact he now worked for her, not her husband, but decided that could wait for another day. Instead, she said, “The other matter has to do with the rumors. I think it time to take some new measures against them. I understand that the servants think they will lose their souls if they look at the walking stick for too long. So what I want you to do, James, is take a good long look at it yourself, and then somehow make it known to the servants that you have done so without being harmed.” And with that, she stood up and presented the walking stick to James.
James, like Beth Finch, would have been embarrassed to admit he believed the gossip about the walking stick, but he couldn’t entirely disbelieve it. Still, he thought to himself, he had already handled it once. He took it from Mrs. Maxwell, gave the head a good hard stare directly in its dragon face, and turned it around 360 degrees, inspecting its dragon head all the while. The head was silver and felt heavy enough to be solid sterling silver. (It was.) The dragon looked, as near as James could tell, more Oriental than European in style. There were no pupils in the eyes, which consequently always seemed to be looking at the viewer. The scales extended back from the head along the crook, almost to the base of the handle. James began to feel almost comfortable with the thing. He grasped it in his hand, as if he was going to use it himself as a walking stick, and noted how the scales kept it from slipping in his hand. At the very last, he picked it up and offered a deliberate smile to its face, as if to demonstrate he did not fear it, and then handed it back to Mrs. Maxwell. “It will be done, ma’am,” he said, bowed, and departed.
As a young child, Rebecca had not lent any luster to her name. She had been a whiny, willful, ill-tempered, selfish, disrespectful, and disobedient child. (We will not continue cataloguing her bad traits. They were a multitude.) She was heartily disliked by her siblings, other children, any of the adults in town who knew her, and even several who did not. It is said that she was friendly with a black cat, but whether this was true or just another rumor to taint her with suspicion of witchcraft has proven impossible to establish at this late date from conflicting testimonies on the subject.
One summer day, when she was six, she went out to play with the other children in the neighborhood. Her appearance was greeted by the other children with the sort of endearments parents would claim their children did not know. Not that these bothered Rebecca in the slightest, except insofar as she found ways to pay them back with interest. On this day, they were playing in the trees. Rebecca was up quite high in the trees herself when, for some reason, she lost her footing, and plummeted to the rocky ground below. She hit the ground with a loud thud. Not a sound was heard from any of the children for the next ten seconds. And then Rebecca began to scream.
Rebecca screamed. She screamed in pain when a neighbor brought her back to her father’s house. She screamed in pain when the doctor came and set her broken bones and sewed up the worst lacerations. And then her screams changed to terror when the doctor told her father that her right leg was shattered beyond repair, and would have to be amputated.
Nathaniel Farnsworth was a man deeply disappointed by his daughter. Yet he was still her father, he still loved her, and he was unwilling to see her lose her leg if there was any hope of saving it. He decided to see what his cousin Israel Farnsworth, who lived in Boston, could do for Rebecca. So he had the doctor fix up Rebecca the best he could, put her in the back of his cart, and took her to the train station. Rebecca would have nightmares about that ride for years afterwards. Between pain, exhaustion, and the alcohol with which Nathanial liberally dosed her to quiet her, Rebecca passed out while waiting in the train station. She would remember nothing of what was her very first train ride.
Israel Farnsworth was a man of broad erudition and even broader experience. He had set not a few broken bones in his days on board ships. He examined Rebecca’s leg carefully, and then contacted two medical doctors he knew at the Massachusetts General Hospital. They did their best, and saved the leg. However, they warned Israel and Nathaniel that some of the damage was irreparable. Rebecca would not be able to walk for some months, if she ever did walk again. She would have to remain in Boston while she healed. Israel, who lived comfortably as a bachelor, decided he needed to hire a woman to serve as Rebecca’s nurse and companion. To Nathaniel’s initial consternation, Israel hired an illiterate fourteen-year-old Irish girl named Bridget Leigh, who spoke more of the Irish language than the English. (Israel had learned the Irish language after being shipwrecked there many years ago.) It was only after Israel explained his plans that Nathaniel gave his blessing, and took the long train ride home, leaving his dreadful daughter in the care of his cousin.
From this experience, Rebecca developed three of what in a few decades would be called “neuroses.” She always felt uneasy when riding in a horse-drawn vehicle. She disliked showing anyone the scars on her body, and so dispensed with using a maid to help her dress unless absolutely necessary. And the months wearing a cast and being unable to move had left her with an abiding dislike of being confined by clothing.
Her friends and servants, in New York as well as Stockbridge, thought Rebecca daring and eccentric for her choices in clothing. Rebecca had no ambition to be so distinguished. She simply could not abide wearing a corset at all, found the bustle too oppressive on account of its weight, and was comfortable only in loose-fitting clothes. She had the taste and money to have clothes made that met her needs and still looked, if not fashionable, at least stylish.
For their trip to her parents’ farm, Ellen had kept on her Sunday best. After all, she was going to be escorting Mrs. Maxwell, and wanted to make it clear both that the Taylors considered a visit from Mrs. Maxwell an honor, and that they were respectable people of some means. Ben, the coachman, helpfully put out a step to help Ellen mount into the carriage without dirtying her clothes.
Ellen hadn’t known what Mrs. Maxwell would wear. She hoped it would be something fine, though not too fine, enough to show her respect for the Taylors without being too resplendent. So she was very puzzled by Mrs. Maxwell’s appearance when she came out of the house. Mrs. Maxwell’s white blouse and brightly-colored jacket were suitably stylish for an excursion. But the plaid skirt, so short it barely reached below the knees, and what appeared to be gray-colored pants beneath them, were not just unfashionable, but not at all suitable for a lady to wear, no matter how fine the material. Ellen would perhaps have been even more horrified had she known that Mrs. Maxwell’s outfit had been adapted by her from the style of clothing worn by women in the now-defunct Perfectionist community in Oneida, New York, where they had practiced complex marriage among all the members of the community.
Rebecca had chosen her clothing, not for fashion, but for utility. Her Uncle Israel had said to her, “A woman who does magic in a dress is a fool.” Rebecca had proven him right twice. The second time had almost cost her her life. She was not going to test the rule a third time, if she could help it. She had worn bloomers in past when practicing magic. When she saw an engraving of Oneida women in a book in 1875, she had sat down with Bridget and sewn three outfits adapting the style. Although she had stopped practicing magic only two years later, she had kept those three outfits. One had been in her closet in Stockbridge ever since the house had been built.
Ellen felt a bit slighted by Mrs. Maxwell’s choice of clothing. Yet she did not dare say anything to Mrs. Maxwell about it. She did not feel she had the right to begin a conversation, let alone question her employer. Then, too, the walking stick resting on Mrs. Maxwell’s lap disturbed her. She thought gravity would have caused the head to face down, but no, it faced her directly. Ellen could see it stare at her, when she dared to look at it. Rather than find herself bewitched, Ellen decided to take an interest in the scenery on the side of road away from the dragon head.
Rebecca was at first not much inclined to conversation, either. While she no longer had nightmares about that childhood trip in the cart, traveling in the carriage was making her feel queasy. Ellen had naturally let her take her pick of seats, and she had chosen to face in the direction they were traveling. It was easier on her that way. Rather than give way to her feelings, Rebecca disciplined herself by trying to recall her lessons in magic, reminding herself of all she had ceased to practice in the last nine years. It was necessary for the task she might face. It also served to keep her mind off the jostling motion of the carriage.
Once she had several of her lessons straight in her mind and her queasiness under control, Rebecca opened her eyes and watched Ellen for a bit before starting a conversation. She immediately noticed how Ellen was doing her best to look away from the walking stick. It took Rebecca a bit longer to notice the contrast in their attire. Once she did, it caused her some inner mirth. Apart from their hats, Ellen looked more finely dressed than Rebecca. “But our hats,” Rebecca thought to herself, “they tell another story.” For Rebecca wore a fancy sun hat with a wide brim, and left her hair loose, while Ellen had hers tightly bound underneath a small but tidy cap.
With the inspection over, Rebecca proceeded to question Ellen about her brother. His name, as it turned out, was Samuel. He worked at the Crane mills, which were famous for making the paper used for dollar bills. Sam was twenty-four, and had married just under six months before. He lived at home with his parents, as he was expected to eventually take over the farm. And he had been walking home from work when he saw the bogle. When he arrived home, he simply announced he had seen a bogle, was going to die shortly, and took to his bed. He had not uttered a word since, and would not accept food or drink.
Much to Rebecca’s frustration, Ellen could tell her nothing about what the bogle had looked like. Rebecca was familiar with some classes of spirits, and would like to have narrowed down what the bogle might be, if it were real. Ellen had utterly rejected the idea that Sam could have been drunk, as he never drank right after work except on Saturdays.
Rebecca tried to keep the conversation going by asking Ellen about herself. Ellen was too distressed about her brother, though, to hold up her end, and the two lapsed back into silence. Ellen worried about her brother, while Rebecca tried to find solace in the passing scenery. She loved the hills and valleys of her native land, but on this day they were of no comfort to her. The possibility that she might have to engage in magic weighed upon her. She wondered just why she was doing this, and came no closer to an answer than she had that morning.
Both Ellen and Rebecca brightened when the Taylors’ place came into view. Ellen was home, and was bringing help for her brother, so she was happy. Rebecca’s was a milder pleasure. The Taylors’ residence reminded her of the home in which she had lived for the first six years of her life. There was the house, a modest structure painted in a faded mustard yellow. Off one end spilled farm buildings, including barns, stables, and coops. If there was one major difference, it was how most of the back lot was devoted to sheep pasture. Her family had kept only a few sheep when Rebecca was growing up, though now, like all hill country farms in the region, sheep were their most important business. Sheep had one advantage, too, in that they required very little labor to manage, most of the time. With so many sons leaving for the mills and cities, and some even working for people such as the Maxwells, farms had to manage with as little labor as possible.
Once the carriage stopped, and the women got out, Rebecca took a closer look at the farm. Compared to Stockbridge cottages, it was not imposing. Indeed, in Rebecca’s eyes, it did not look as well-maintained as her childhood home had been. The paint was peeling in places, and the roof needed shingling. Still, it was a respectable-looking place. Rebecca reserved judgment until she went inside.
A short, middle-aged woman wearing inside work clothes came out and gave Ellen a hug. Once she had been released, Ellen turned to Rebecca. “Mrs. Maxwell, this is my mother, Mrs. Alan Taylor.”
Mrs. Taylor looked Rebecca up and down, found her attire puzzling, and before Rebecca could say a word, said to her daughter, “This is the grand woman you work for? The one who is a witch? She doesna look much like one nor th’other.”
Ellen colored in embarrassment, while Rebecca could barely suppress a chuckle. To spare Ellen further embarrassment, Rebecca quickly replied, “Mrs. Taylor, I grew up on a farm much like this, so I suppose I am not much of a grand woman. As to being a witch, well, let us see whether your son needs a witch, grand or otherwise.”
Mrs. Taylor recalled why Mrs. Maxwell had been summoned, and realized her opening remark had not been tactful. By way of apology, she said, “Sure enough, we’d be wanting your help with him, and I meant no offense. Would you come on in?” She stood aside to let Rebecca step through.
Rebecca graced Mrs. Taylor with a nod and stepped inside, removing her hat in the process. She found herself in the main room, which doubled as a kitchen and the dining room. She looked about, and reflected that if the Taylors skimped a bit on their house paint, the same could not be said for their furniture, which looked store-bought and new. Farming was not a very prosperous business in the Berkshires, but the Taylors looked to be getting by.
There was a younger woman, who looked to be scarce out of her teens, if that, working in the kitchen. Mrs. Taylor came in, with Ellen trailing behind. Mrs. Taylor pointed to the girl. “That’s Charity, Sam’s wife she is. Charity, this is the Mrs. Maxwell that Ellen has been telling us about who’s come to look at Sam.”
Charity had been watching over the large pot in the fireplace. Once she heard who the visitor was, she laid aside the spoon she had been using to stir the soup in the kettle, and came up to Rebecca. If she’d been less distraught, she would have addressed Rebecca courteously. Instead, she simply said, “Will you help my husband?”
Rebecca did not want to make promises or hold out false hopes. But it is hard to disappoint someone who stands before you, pleading for help. She said what she could. “I will do what I can.”
Charity did not care to make fine distinctions. Her husband was dying. He was her sole means of support. The doctor they called in could do nothing. Her sister-in-law Ellen had said she would bring a witch, a rich woman, to break the spell killing her husband. So long as Rebecca did not say “no,” Charity would take her answer for a “yes.” She took Mrs. Maxwell by the arm. “Come this way.”
The two women walked down the short hall to a back room, the bedroom of Samuel and Charity since they had married. Charity opened the door and showed Mrs. Maxwell in, following her and closing the door behind her.
It was not a large room, but it was furnished comfortably enough. There was a dresser for both Sam and Charity, a closet, a table on which both a wash basin and chamber pot rested, two chairs, and the bed. The room had windows on two of its walls, and a chromo hanging over the bed ornamenting yet another wall.
Rebecca noticed absolutely none of this. Her attention was riveted by the figure in the bed. There was a man there, lying under the covers. Rebecca looked right into his face, and saw that he was young, in his twenties. He had to be Samuel Taylor. He appeared to be sleeping.
So much might any person have seen. Rebecca was a magician. Looking at the man, she was shocked by what else she saw.
The man in the bed had no soul.
End of chapter two