[Link to the previous chapter]
Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 4: Realizations, responsibilities, and regrets
It was a pensive Rebecca Maxwell who rode home alone in the carriage that evening while Ben drove the horses. The burnt odor of the dead dog lingered in her imagination.
The Taylors had been overjoyed to have Samuel restored to them. They had asked Rebecca to stay for supper, and piled her plate with every good thing they had to hand. When it came time to depart, Rebecca told Ellen to stay the night with her family, and to return back to Stockbridge tomorrow afternoon. The Taylors, at least, were happy that evening.
Rebecca had done her best to appear happy and gracious. In truth, she was indeed happy for the Taylors, and not a little pleased that she had succeeded in a formal magical operation for the first time since she had married. Yet the dead dog weighed on her mind. The Taylors had assumed that it was some odd byproduct of Rebecca’s magic, and hence nothing to worry about. Rebecca let them think so. It was half the truth, at least. Rebecca knew the other half, and it worried her.
Years ago, James Greenleaf Whittier had written about a demonic dog with a human head. He had not been writing about the Berkshires. Somehow in the years since his book was published, the story had migrated westward. In its Berkshire form, the dog was supposed to be an incarnation of the spirit of Asenath Shattuck, a witch from Rebecca’s home town who had died in “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.” She had once been called the “Witch of the Berkshires.” Thanks to the dog legend, she was now more commonly called the “Bitch of the Berkshires.”
Rebecca was certain that the dead dog was all that was left of the “bogle,” its natural part, after the dragon had destroyed the demon that had seized Samuel’s soul. Someone had taken a legend, and a fairly recent one at that, from the town she grew up in and used it to attack someone in Dalton who was related to one of her servants. So far as Rebecca knew, the only connection between the legend and the victim was through her. Until she learned otherwise, she had to suspect that, somehow, she was the ultimate target of whoever was behind this attack.
Rebecca was fairly sure the source of this attack wasn’t Asenath Shattuck herself. Rebecca had met Asenath once . . . well, met her ghost. Asenath had been far from the malevolent entity described by legend. Unless she had changed drastically, Asenath didn’t strike Rebecca as the type to do something like this. Still, it would bear checking.
Rebecca had requested that the Taylors ask around to see if there had been any similar attacks, and they had readily agreed. They had been puzzled by Rebecca’s other request, to keep her role in the matter a secret, but they had agreed to that also. Judging from the casual conversation at the dinner table, which included a great deal of local gossip, Rebecca judged the Taylors were socially well positioned to find out about any other attacks. However, for the very same reason, Rebecca doubted that her own role would stay secret for long. The Taylors seemed like good and honorable people, but they would have to talk about Samuel’s recovery, and Rebecca’s role was too central to that and a prime morsel of gossip as well. It would come out.
Even so, Rebecca left the Taylors feeling she could trust Ellen. Ellen had appeared even more grateful than Samuel or Charity for what Rebecca had done. Rebecca judged that Ellen felt responsible for bringing in Rebecca and therefore obliged to her. In this judgment, Rebecca was quite correct.
Since she thought that her role in saving Samuel would get out, Rebecca decided she would have to take additional measures to protect herself and her family. She needed to protect them from a magical attack, and that would require working more magic.
Rebecca felt a queer eagerness to be about another major magical working. Currents seemed to flow from her into her walking stick and back again. It was as if she was coming alive after years of being dead, renewing an old partnership with her walking stick to engage in magic. She had succeeded in a formal operation. What more could she do? Her heart lifted with the thoughts of future triumphs, of righting wrongs, of living a glorious life. Why had she settled for her mundane existence?
At that thought, Rebecca caught herself. She recognized the signs of becoming intoxicated with magic. If she did not control herself, the magic would possess her, and not the other way around. Her control was not what it had once been. Had she been in full control, she would have interrogated the demon, found out who had sent it on its mission and why. Instead, the dragon had taken control and slain the demon. It had been emotionally satisfying, but counterproductive.
She also had to ask herself how it was that her mundane existence was so dismal that she should get caught up in magic again. She was wealthy, married, with four wonderful children, and the respect of family and friends. True, most of the wealth was her husband’s. True, she and her husband were estranged. True, her own blood relations, except her brother Jeremiah, never wrote to her and wanted nothing to do with her. At that point, Rebecca put a stop to her thoughts. Self-pity for a woman in her position was absurd.
No. With all the force of an unwelcome revelation, Rebecca realized that what she was missing was any sense that she mattered, that she did anything useful. Her husband sought the beds of other women. Her children were cared for by the staff. Her blood relations would be happy if she disappeared. And she meant nothing in herself to her friends. For all the difference she made, she might just as well not exist. That was what magic had given back to her, the sense that she made a difference.
Thanks to that revelation, it was a very unhappy Rebecca Maxwell who entered her Stockbridge cottage that evening. She was too late to see her children put to bed, but after what she had been thinking on the ride home, she felt she had to go up to look in on them anyhow.
She first visited her daughter Deborah’s room. After she had been there only a few moments, looking at her daughter sleeping in bed, Amy Van Duesen joined her. Amy was Deborah’s governess, and had an adjacent room. She whispered an account of Deborah’s day to Rebecca, which made Rebecca smile. Deborah was Rebecca’s favorite child, not because she was the oldest or the only girl, but because she was the only one who looked like both of her parents. Deborah had Rebecca’s build and Robert’s coloring. The three boys were all miniatures of their father, with no trace of Rebecca in their looks. After Amy finished her account, Rebecca left Deborah and Amy and went into her sons’ bedroom. They were still under a nurse, Adelaide Fitch, who slept in the room with them. Addie Fitch was a heavy sleeper, and Rebecca’s light footstep, even with her walking stick, did not disturb her. Robert, Junior, slept in his own bed. This coming fall, he would get a room of his own and a tutor. Rebecca spent some time watching him, marveling at how quickly her children were growing up, and regretting how little time she had spent with them. She spent less time on David and little Nathan in the bunk beds. David, as always, had squirmed out from under his blankets and sheets. Rebecca tucked him back in, thinking that in this, at least, one of her sons resembled her.
Major magical operations tired Rebecca out. Once she had seen her children, she headed directly to bed herself. She needed no maid to help her undress and called none, as usual. Normally, she did not look at her body, directly or in the mirror, so that she did not have to look at her scars or her right leg. Tonight, though, she spent some time examining every part of herself using the mirror. If she had been asked, she would not have been able to explain why. Perhaps she was worried about what was to come, and wanted to take stock of herself. Once she had completed her survey, she took a robe out of her closet, draped it across the chest at the foot of her bed, and retired. Rebecca normally slept with no night clothes, a practice which once had delighted her husband. She had laid the robe out only in case she needed to leave her bedroom during the night.
Beth Finch’s injured dignity had barely recovered overnight. At breakfast, she found out from Dora that the Taylor girl was still away, with Mrs. Maxwell’s permission. Beth was annoyed that a servant should get a day off, for reasons she did not know, and without notifying her. She could not dispute Mrs. Maxwell, so she saved her resentment for Ellen Taylor.
She headed off after breakfast to the garden parlor to see Mrs. Maxwell as usual. Typically, she would find Mrs. Maxwell sitting in her favorite chair, leaning back with her eyes closed and a smile on her face. Not this morning. Mrs. Maxwell was pacing in the garden, pacing rapidly at that, as if working off some excess energy.
In an effort to assert her jurisdiction without criticizing Mrs. Maxwell, Beth blundered. She greeted Mrs. Maxwell in the garden by saying, “Was your trip with the laundry girl a success?”
Rebecca had been too preoccupied with her thoughts about defending her household to even notice Beth’s presence. She was annoyed at being interrupted in her thoughts, and therefore easily took umbrage at Beth’s query. She turned and glared at Beth. To Beth’s consternation, the walking stick seemed to be glaring at her, too. In a sharp voice, Rebecca replied, “That is not your business, Beth.” She then brushed past her and strode back into the parlor, where she sat down in her chair. “Come, tell me what is on my schedule today.” Rebecca wanted to get through this chore and on to more important things.
Startled, for Mrs. Maxwell had never spoken so to her before, Beth returned into the parlor herself, took up her seat, opened up the appointment book, and began, “There is nothing today. Tomorrow . . .”
Before Beth could say another word, Rebecca suddenly stood up. She had come to a decision on what she should do next. Without any consideration for Beth, she brusquely interrupted her in that same sharp voice, “Enough. I don’t want to hear any more.” Rebecca started walking toward the garden to get away from Beth, with whom she was becoming very annoyed.
The reason Rebecca preferred to begin her days with Beth in the garden parlor was because the sights and smells of the garden always cheered Rebecca up. She had been too preoccupied this morning before Beth interrupted her for the garden to have its usual effect on her. Yet now that Rebecca had decided on what to do, she was no longer oblivious to her surroundings. When she reached the garden door, she saw the flowering plants, took in their odors, and stopped right there to enjoy her garden.
After a few minutes standing there, she turned around, determined to be off about her business, but in a much better mood. The first thing she saw was Beth, who was still in her accustomed chair, staring at the floor. Unbidden, magic let Rebecca feel how upset Beth was. Rebecca had to consciously recall and review what she had done earlier to realize why Beth would feel so. She softly called, “Beth?”
Beth looked up, a bit surprised by Mrs. Maxwell’s change in tone.
In a warm voice, Rebecca said to Beth, “I’m not myself this morning. Please put the book away. I will see you after lunch. Go find James, and tell him I want to see him in Mr. Maxwell’s study.” And with that, she started across the room and headed toward the door leading into the great hall.
Beth was torn between making sure she had heard right, and being chastised by Mrs. Maxwell again. The need for certainty won out. “Mister Maxwell’s study, ma’am?”
Rebecca turned, gave Beth a smile, and replied, “Yes, Beth, Mr. Maxwell’s study. Tell him I will be waiting there for him.” She turned again, finished crossing the room, and left.
Beth was still confused about Mrs. Maxwell’s odd behavior, but relieved that Mrs. Maxwell didn’t really seem to be upset with her. She quickly tucked away the appointment book in her bag, and set off to find James. Mrs. Maxwell may have phrased her last statement as if it were just information Beth should give James, but Beth knew that in reality it was a command that James attend her immediately.
James had been hired by Mr. Robert Maxwell while the Maxwells’ cottage in Stockbridge was being constructed. Unlike most of the help, he worked and lived there all year long. Even during the six months when none of the Maxwells were living there, the house and grounds had to be maintained. James prided himself on having improvements made every year in the off-season to pleasantly surprise the Maxwells when they returned.
His opinion of the Maxwells themselves he had formed the first year he had served there, and until yesterday had seen no reason to change it. Mr. Robert Maxwell was a reasonable but busy man of business who paid all the bills, including James’s salary, and gave all the orders during the two months he was up here. Mrs. Rebecca Maxwell was a kind-hearted but distant woman who dressed oddly and who was the subject of absurd rumors. While publicly the Maxwells’ marriage was happy, it had actually broken down before they came to Stockbridge. James knew that Robert Maxwell kept a mistress in New York, and had helped find him women here in Stockbridge. It was one of his duties to report back to Mr. Maxwell any sign that Mrs. Maxwell might be straying. James did not know whether Mrs. Maxwell knew about her husband’s women, or that James was supposed to spy on her. He would not have been surprised to find out that in fact she did know.
Yesterday’s events had upset James’s notions. He had heard the rumors about the original Rebecca Farnsworth, as well as the rumors about her namesake who had become Mrs. Maxwell. He had investigated them and until yesterday dismissed them as superstition. Mrs. Maxwell’s trick with the walking stick put those rumors in a new and disturbing light. She clearly took the possibility of magical threats to the household seriously enough to confide in James, which confidence they both knew was unprecedented. Her sudden interest in the life of any servant other than Beth Finch or Amy Van Duesen was also unprecedented.
Nor were matters going any better this morning. Mrs. Maxwell had come back late in the evening without Ellen Taylor. All she told Dora, who had seen her come in, was that Ellen would return later today. Presumably something had happened. James had to wonder if it involved magic. And now Beth Finch had come to James and told him that Mrs. Maxwell seemed very distant and preoccupied when they met, and that she wanted James to attend her immediately in Mr. Maxwell’s study. There were only two keys to that study. Mr. Maxwell had one and James had the other. James was not looking forward to meeting an annoyed Mrs. Maxwell standing outside the door to her husband’s study. However, when he arrived at the study, he found the door unlocked, and Mrs. Maxwell at the far end of the room, staring out the window.
Without even turning to see who had come in, Mrs. Maxwell said, “James, please close and lock the door, and then get out the architectural plans for the house. I do not know where Robert keeps them in this clutter.”
James was sorely tempted to ask a question, but decided he had best see what Mrs. Maxwell was up to before speaking. After attending to the door, he went to the cabinet in which the drawings were kept, got them out, and placed them on the large table in the center of the room. Once he had done that, he announced, “The plans are here, ma’am.”
Mrs. Maxwell turned, walked over from the window, and looked at the rolls of paper with annoyance. But her voice was steady and emotionless as she said to James, “Lay them out so I can see the main plans for each floor of the entire house.”
James proceeded to do so. He brought over several paperweights from various parts of the room to make the plans lay flat. Once he was finished, he gestured to them. “It is as you asked, Mrs. Maxwell.”
Mrs. Maxwell strode to the long side of the table until she was standing next to James to his right. She lifted up her walking stick in her left hand until it was positioned so that, if it had been alive, it could have seen the plans as well.
So James had thought in fancy. To his shock, the head of the walking stick seemed to come alive. He could see it move, just a little, as if it was looking over the plans. James blinked and looked again. The head was still moving.
James had had enough. He stopped looking at the walking stick, and looked at Mrs. Maxwell instead. She seemed wholly preoccupied with the plans. Then she lifted her right hand and raised it, fingers spread out, over the plans. All of a sudden, there were two flashes. For a moment, it was as if the lines on the plans marking all the exterior walls lit up. And at the same moment, there was a flash of white light in the study’s window.
Mrs. Maxwell sagged for a moment after the flash. Then she straightened up, walked over to one of the easy chairs in the room, and sat down. With a negligent wave of her hand, she said, “Put the plans away, James. I won’t need them any longer.”
James did as he was instructed, then came and stood before Mrs. Maxwell. “Is there anything else, madam?”
Mrs. Maxwell looked up at him. James was surprised by the change in her demeanor. Up to this point, she had looked preoccupied, just as Beth had said. Now she stared intently at James. Her voice, too, shifted to one of determination. “Yes, James, there is. Someone or something unleashed a demon that stole Samuel Taylor’s soul. I retrieved his soul yesterday. I intend to find who was responsible and punish him. It is possible that person may find me first. So I have cast a protective spell over the house which will ward off minor threats, and warn me about major ones. Tell anyone who saw the flashing light that it was just an atmospheric disturbance. If they remain unconvinced, send them to me. That is all.”
James turned to go, and then with great reluctance turned back. “Ma’am?”
Rather than confront Mrs. Maxwell directly, especially after whatever it was he had just seen, James decided to proceed by steps. “Was the door unlocked when you came in?”
Rebecca pursed her lips before answering, “No.”
Rather than make an accusation, James decided to rely on the facts. “This is Mr. Maxwell’s private study. No one is supposed to enter it without his permission, and he and I have the only keys.”
Rebecca’s lips formed a thin smile. “I thought by now, James, you would understand that I don’t need a key to open a locked door.”
Without waiting for him to reply, Rebecca stood up and walked over to James, until they were standing only inches apart. James looked down into her face, and saw a challenging look there he had never seen before.
“Let us understand one another,” Rebecca said to him. “You have been my husband’s employee since he hired you. You have kept my husband’s secrets well, including keeping them from me. I hold no grudge against you for that. That is what my husband requires of you, and that is what he pays you for. So long as it has been a matter of which trollops my husband bedded and which men I did not, I did not care that your loyalty was to my husband over me.
“But now a threat of magical attack hangs over this place, and I need someone managing the household I can rely on, someone who will keep my confidences. When I asked you to receive my confidences, I had this possibility in mind. You agreed to keep my confidences as secret as you kept my husband’s secrets. I am holding you to that, James. Anything I do involving magic is a secret, and you are to tell no one about it, including my husband, unless I give you permission. Keeping my confidences rises above any other commitment you have, even to my husband.”
James’s worst fear about accepting Mrs. Maxwell’s confidences had become real, and he had not even realized what it might be until it was upon him: Mrs. Maxwell was forcing him to choose between her and her husband. He could see no clear path, for it seemed he must make an enemy of one or the other, and that must inevitably lead to his losing this position. He sought refuge in the one certainty. “As you say, madam, Mr. Maxwell still pays my salary.”
Rebecca offered him a mirthless smile. “Indeed he does. I could change that. But of what worth is a purchased loyalty?” She took on a somber look. “I fear we are entering into difficult times, when even my husband’s money cannot save us, James. Only my magic. I need someone reliable I can trust to help me protect this household. I had hoped it would be you. You still have that possibility open to you, James. Keep my confidences, or no. Choose wisely. And choose soon. There will be no need to tell me what you have chosen. I will know.” And with that she walked past James and out of the room.
Choose wisely. James stood in Mr. Maxwell’s study after Mrs. Maxwell had gone for several minutes, thinking about what had just happened. For some reason, Mrs. Maxwell did not want her husband to know she was practicing magic. This suggested that Mr. Maxwell would definitely want to know if she was, and soon. James felt himself poised on a knife’s edge. He had to act, and act soon, if he was to retain the support of either Mr. or Mrs. Maxwell. Not to come out clearly for one or the other would lose him the support of both. In answering her as he just had, James realized he had already lost ground with Mrs. Maxwell. Every day from now on that he did not decide, he would lose ground with both husband and wife. But to choose the wrong one would cost him his job.
If only he knew which one would win in a conflict between them! On one hand, Mr. Maxwell had the legal rights of manhood and the money, and had rewarded James in past for his loyalty. On the other hand, Mrs. Maxwell had this strange magic whose nature and scope James did not understand, and she was here at hand in Stockbridge. Before yesterday, James had been certain Mr. Maxwell ruled the household, and permitted his wife to retain her position because she was the mother of his children. Now, he could not say for sure which one ruled. It might well be Rebecca Maxwell who ruled, and allowed her husband to stray because she only cared for his money and social status.
As he closed and locked the study door, James realized that Mrs. Maxwell hadn’t even suggested what she would do if he betrayed her. Was that because she couldn’t actually do anything? Or had he already become of such minor importance in her eyes that she didn’t think it worth the trouble to threaten him? Choose wisely.
End of chapter four
I was caught up short by “Adelaide Fitch” and “Beth Finch” only a few paragraphs apart; I was briefly confused. And James varies between calling Rebecca “Madam” and “Ma’am.”
1. Confusion between Adelaide Fitch and Beth Finch noted. My apologies. I only expect one of these characters to play a significant role in later chapters, so this will not be a continuing problem.
2. James calls Rebecca “Madam,” “Ma’am,” and “Mrs. Maxwell” indifferently, except when company is around, in which case he never uses “Ma’am,” because it is too informal. Mentally, he thinks of her as “Mrs. Maxwell” or “Mrs. Rebecca Maxwell.” He never thinks of her by her first name alone to ensure he never addresses her that way. That he slips as far as thinking of her as “Rebecca Maxwell” near the end of the chapter shows just how much events have disturbed James.
It has become my Friday lunchtime treat to read your latest chapter. Perhaps I should wait until Monday, so that I have something to look forward to on that usually dreaded day. I don’t think I can wait over the weekend, though.
Thanks for sharing this!
Thanks for the compliment, Deb. I would try to solve your problem by posting on Fridays and Mondays, but I’m not writing that quickly! 🙂
It’s always interesting to see how characters react under stress, and the tension is building at Stockbridge! I enjoy the way you’re weaving in nuances of the social fabric that binds the Maxwell household together, and makes James’ choice so difficult for him.
James was a supposed to be an incidental character at first; it wasn’t until I got to the scene with him and Rebecca in her husband’s study that I realized just how complicated the Maxwell household is.