[Link to the previous chapter]
Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 5: Unintended consequences
Choosing wisely does not mean escaping consequences. Rebecca’s father Nathaniel had chosen to take his child to Boston and leave her in the care of his cousin Israel Farnsworth. He had chosen wisely. When Israel returned Rebecca to her family the following spring, she was a different girl. She was joyful, polite, well-mannered, inclined to good deeds, and a voracious reader. She did need a cane to walk, and limped even so. Unlike the Rebecca of old she did not complain about her problem. Rather, she seemed determined through vigorous walking to overcome it. Nathaniel and Deborah were overjoyed to have their daughter returned to them so much improved.
So it was wormwood to Deborah’s soul to watch her daughter’s happiness quickly fade into sadness and listlessness. Spending almost a year in Boston in her Uncle Israel’s company had given Rebecca tastes and education that could find no outlet in a Berkshire farming community. Deborah herself found she could hardly keep up a conversation with her daughter. The other children bored Rebecca, and she soon lost all interest in playing with them. Without her Uncle Israel’s books, she had to fall back on her own imagination to keep herself entertained. She did not complain of this, either, but Deborah could see that her daughter was missing what made her happy, and that what made her happy must be in Boston. Once she reached that conclusion, it took her a week, and not a few tears, before she wrote a letter to Israel describing Rebecca’s changed disposition, and asking him to take Rebecca back. She dared not tell Nathaniel what she had done until the letter had been dispatched, for fear he might try to talk her out of it.
Israel received Deborah’s letter with mixed feelings. He had never had much interest in raising children. The several he had fathered in his travels had grown up without him, by and large. (While in the eyes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Israel was unmarried, there had been women, and sometimes even ceremonies, in remote parts of the world.) He thought himself too old now to take on such a burden. Yet he had enjoyed Rebecca’s company, once she had started to behave, and Bridget’s company kept before him the pleasures of teaching and of female companionship.
It took Israel two days to make up his mind. Once he had done so, he informed Bridget, and set out on the train the next day to retrieve Rebecca. The joy with which Rebecca greeted him can easily be imagined. Rebecca’s parents spent the evening negotiating the terms under which Israel would take Rebecca. The next day, Rebecca departed.
Nathaniel’s wise choice had made everyone happy. Yet one of its consequences was Deborah’s wise choice, which made everyone happy except Deborah herself. For Deborah was reserved that special hell on earth given to those who are wretched because they made what they knew was the right decision.
While she did not take it so much to heart, Rebecca left James in her husband’s study knowing she had made the right decision, and yet still regretting it. She had counted on James’s loyalty because she wanted it, and because she thought she could rely on magic to back up her authority. However, in pointing out that he was paid by her husband, James had forced Rebecca to recognize the difference between earning loyalty and imposing authority. She could not win James’s loyalty by magic, though she could impose her authority. But without his loyalty, she could not trust him in the work she had to undertake. And while it was within her abilities, she would not use magic to control James, to make him loyal against his own inclinations. That would make her little better than whomever had set the demon on Samuel Taylor. Instead, Rebecca left James to decide for himself where his loyalty lay. For her own part, she decided that no matter what James chose to do, she would find someone else, someone she knew she could rely on. Exactly who that would be, she was not yet sure herself.
Rebecca normally took lunch with James, Beth Finch, Amy Van Deusen, and Addie Fitch, using the opportunity to manage the household. Today she let them talk among themselves while she drank in the awareness her magic gave her. If she concentrated she could pick out every individual in the house. And while she could not read thoughts, she could gather some of people’s feelings, as she had earlier with Beth’s. James was still deliberating on what he should do, radiating uncertainty. Ben the coachman had been drinking, and his mind was a warm befuddlement. Amy was upset about something she didn’t want to raise at the table. She kept turning around and looking out the windows.
Rebecca knew she was allowing herself to get caught up in magic again. It was just that she was enjoying the experience so much that it was hard to put it aside. It took her until the end of lunch to bring herself back under much stricter control. She had work to do, as well as problems in magic to address.
Her routine was to go to her study after lunch. Her study was a small room with spartan furnishings: a desk, a table, two chairs, and a couch. Here Rebecca normally sat at the desk for a while after lunch and went over the household accounts.
Today, Beth accompanied her there, and they went over Rebecca’s social calendar. As it was only June, and the season in the Berkshires did not begin until fall, her calendar was not busy. The only major engagement for the rest of the week was a concert and dinner she was giving in the great hall tomorrow. Rebecca was pleased to see Lattimore Sedgwick and his wife Sophonisba were coming. Lattimore was one of the more eccentric Sedgwicks, while Sophie’s beauty was matched only by her wit. With those two, dinner was sure to be lively. Thursday she was to have lunch with Rev. and Mrs. Field, and Friday lunch would be with Mr. and Mrs. Choate. Those would be informal occasions. Saturday she decided to take the children on a picnic. And she and Beth gave the following week a look-over. Once all that was done, Rebecca sent Beth off to summon Amy Van Duesen. It was rare for Amy to be out of humor, and Rebecca wanted to find out why. She genuinely liked Amy.
Beth Finch and Amy Van Duesen were the odd couple at the Maxwell’s cottage. Beth was short. Amy was tall. Beth was dark, while Amy was fair. Beth was level-headed, while Amy day dreamed. Beth had only a high school education (still a notable accomplishment in those days), while Amy was college-educated. Beth was strict and severe, while Amy was friendly and cheerful. Almost none of the other servants liked Beth, but they all loved Amy.
Despite all these differences, Beth and Amy were best friends. They each influenced the other for the better. Amy softened Beth, while Beth grounded Amy. Amy shared the fruits of her education with Beth and in turn relied on Beth’s judgment.
They did have some common attributes which they both would have preferred not to have. Both were in their mid-twenties, unmarried, and apparently destined for spinsterhood. Beth craved the status of being married, apart from wanting any particular man, but had never received an offer. Amy’s head was so full of romantic fantasies that she had never noticed or given any encouragement to the men who might have asked her. And American demography was working against both of them: there were fewer eligible men than women in the nation, and the median age for a woman to marry was twenty-two.
Beth found Amy out by the pond, sitting on the bench, with Deborah sprawled out on the grass beside her. Amy looked up, saw Beth, and smiled. “The dragon lady more of a lady and less of a dragon this afternoon?” she playfully asked Beth. Calling Mrs. Maxwell “the dragon lady” was a private joke between Amy and Beth. Amy had coined the phrase two years ago, capturing the contrast of Mrs. Maxwell’s mild temper with the fearsome appearance of her walking stick.
Beth threw herself onto the bench. “She seems back to normal. I think she passed on whatever was bothering her to James. Did you see the way he behaved at luncheon?”
Amy shook her head. “I guess I wasn’t paying attention to him.”
Beth peered at Amy. “You looked bothered yourself at luncheon. Is there something wrong, Amy?”
Amy hesitated before replying, “Just an odd feeling, Beth, when I’m in the house. Probably just a touch of claustrophobia.” Seeing Beth looking puzzled, Amy quickly added, “The fear of being in closed places.”
Beth laughed. Amy was the only person in the house with whom she laughed. “You, Miss Van Duesen, are in trouble. The dragon lady wants to see you in her study. And you know how small that room is.”
To conceal how disturbed she actually was, Amy tried to laugh as she stood up. She was so unpracticed at the arts of deception that the laughter came out sounding as if it had been produced by a strangled chicken. “Will you watch Deborah for me, Beth?” Amy asked.
Naturally, Beth was agreeable. She nodded and gave Amy a smile. Amy took heart at that, and returned the smile with genuine pleasure before heading for the house.
She braced herself as she crossed the threshold. The odd feeling was still there. Once she was in the house, it surrounded her. She couldn’t explain the feeling, but she couldn’t ignore it, either. At first she had hoped it was indeed some form of claustrophobia, but then at lunch she’d felt something similar coming from Mrs. Maxwell. Rather than deal with the feeling, she had taken Deborah outdoors to play. Now as she walked down the great hall to Mrs. Maxwell’s study, she looked up at the rainbow image in large stained glass window at the south end of the hall, and prayed she’d not have the feeling again when she met Mrs. Maxwell.
Despite her petition, the feeling that Amy had earlier today near Mrs. Maxwell was even stronger in the study. Now, close up, she could tell that it was very similar to the feeling she was receiving from the house. The feeling from the walking stick was even stronger. It was making Amy uncomfortable. She sat down at Mrs. Maxwell’s invitation and prepared to endure the interview.
Mrs. Maxwell looked at her curiously, and then asked, “You seemed a bit out of sorts today at lunch, Amy. Is there anything wrong?”
Amy tried to put on a smile, and had as much success as she had had laughing with Beth. “No, ma’am.” Realizing that would hardly satisfy Mrs. Maxwell, Amy added, “I was preoccupied with my lesson plans for Deborah.” There, that should satisfy Mrs. Maxwell, Amy thought.
Far from satisfying her, Rebecca was even more concerned. It did not take magic for her to recognize a lie so poorly told. Rebecca was at a loss to proceed, believing that confronting Amy with the lie would not make her any more cooperative. Well, she thought to herself, you’re using magic again. Might as well put it to constructive use. Putting a bit of magic into her voice, she said, “Amy, if . . .”
That was as far as Rebecca got, because Amy visibly flinched the moment Rebecca started speaking. To Amy, it was as if Mrs. Maxwell’s voice was carrying the same odd feeling.
Rebecca had never seen that reaction from anyone when she was using magic. She needed time to think about what this meant, so she asked Amy, “Did I startle you?”
Amy was relieved that Mrs. Maxwell’s voice had stopped carrying the weird feeling. Maybe, Amy thought, the odd feeling was starting to go away. She just shook her head. “No, not really. I guess I’m a bit jumpy.”
Acting on an inspiration, Rebecca stood up. Naturally, Amy did as well. Rebecca said to Amy, “Here, would you hold my walking stick for a minute while I adjust my belt?” With an admonition to the walking stick to be nice to Amy, Rebecca held it out to her.
Rebecca could see Amy had been reluctant to take the walking stick. However, from the moment Rebecca had told the walking stick to be nice, Amy’s reluctance had vanished and she eagerly took the walking stick, holding it so she could look directly into the dragon’s face. Amy was smiling.
Rebecca congratulated herself. Her guess had proven correct. Amy was a “sensitive,” a person who could feel magic in their vicinity, although having no magical power of her own. That explained Amy’s nervousness at lunch. She hadn’t been looking out the window. She had been looking at the window, where Rebecca’s protective spell encased the house. Clearly, that also explained her nervousness in Rebecca’s presence. Poor girl, not knowing what she was feeling, she might well have been wondering if she was going crazy.
With that resolved in her mind, Rebecca turned her attention back to Amy. She was still standing there, smiling at the walking stick in her hands. Rebecca said to her, “I’ll have the walking stick back now, Amy.”
Amy didn’t move. She showed no sign she had heard Rebecca.
Rebecca raised her voice. “Amy? AMY?”
Amy didn’t move.
End of chapter five
Oh, nice ending for this chapter. Also very much liked the “special hell on earth given to those who are wretched because they made what they knew was the right decision”. And the high-society name-dropping (I recognized the names solely because of my years of associating with the likes of you.) I’m going to be a snit and call you on the numerical agreement in “a person who could feel magic in *their* vicinity”, “his” being more idiomatic for Rebecca’s time, “his or her” to ours.
I appreciate the compliments. I will consider your emendation, but am inclined to reject it in this case because the voice is that of the narrator, who, it has been previously established, is not Rebecca’s contemporary. That said, text that sounds out of time destroys the illusion, so I will consider the issue again.