Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 6: Worthy of trust
Amy had heard the rumors about the walking stick, but naturally had not believed them. A college-educated girl knew there was no such thing as magic. That the walking stick was giving her the odd feeling she just put down as her imagination. After all, Mrs. Maxwell was giving her that odd feeling, too. So when Mrs. Maxwell asked her to take the walking stick, Amy was initially reluctant. She dreaded how it was going to make her feel. Yet when Rebecca actually held it out to her, Amy’s feelings about everything changed. Her disturbed feelings dropped away, her worries dropped away, and she felt simply happy. Amy gladly took the walking stick and held it so she could look directly into its dragon face. It was a nice walking stick. Everything was nice.
The next thing Amy knew, she was sitting down and no longer holding the walking stick. She was too happy to miss it. Mrs. Maxwell was talking to her, and Amy listened carefully, because she liked Mrs. Maxwell. Mrs. Maxwell explained to her that she was sensitive to magic, and that she shouldn’t let those feeling make her uncomfortable. Amy had to laugh at that point, because she couldn’t even imagine feeling uncomfortable. Mrs. Maxwell smiled at her, which made Amy feel even happier. Then Mrs. Maxwell told her that if she ever felt any other magic nearby, she should get the children away from it and come tell her about it, because it might be dangerous. Amy naturally agreed to Mrs. Maxwell’s request because she wanted to please her. Finally, Mrs. Maxwell took her upstairs to her room and suggested she lie down and take some rest because she must feel sleepy. Amy did feel sleepy, and was happy to comply. She stripped down to her underclothes and climbed into bed. Mrs. Maxwell tucked her in just as her mother used to. Amy felt she had to show Mrs. Maxwell how much she loved her. “Good night, dragon lady,” she said, and then fell asleep.
Rebecca returned to her study and permitted herself the luxury of stretching out on the couch. It was a luxury she rarely permitted herself; the study was for work, not being lazy. However, she was disturbed by what had just happened with Amy Van Duesen and needed to think about it at length. She had told the walking stick to be nice to Amy, without considering exactly how the stick might interpret such a command. What it had done was to make Amy happy, obliterating any negative feelings or thoughts Amy had. In the process, the stick had shut down most of Amy’s mind, so that nothing could disturb her happiness. When Rebecca realized what had happened, she had taken the stick away from Amy. That had left Amy in a childlike state, too happy to be able to judge what was happening to her, willing to please by accepting any suggestion. Rebecca had explained to Amy what she was feeling and what she should do about it, and then sent her to bed and to sleep in order to recover from what had happened to her.
Rebecca was sure that over time Amy’s mind would return to its normal state. That was what generally happened to people when a magical influence was removed. What Rebecca was less sure about was whether Amy would remember the experience, or how her mind would deal with what Rebecca had told her. It was possible, given the abnormal condition of her mind at the time, that she might forget all about it. Or Amy might possibly accept everything Rebecca had told her as the absolute truth without even realizing why. Or . . . Rebecca stopped speculating at that point. She simply did not know. It worried her.
“Dragon lady.” To Rebecca, it sounded as if Amy had meant that as a form of endearment, and it made Rebecca smile a bit, despite her worries. Amy would find even a ‘dragon lady’ endearing. For Rebecca, the harsh truth was that this dragon lady had come close to hurting Amy while trying to be good to her. “Dragons are dangerous. And so, apparently, are dragon ladies,” Rebecca thought to herself.
Even more so than before, Rebecca wanted the advice and help of someone she could trust. She knew no one else who worked magic, at least no one she could readily contact, but she did know someone who knew about magic, and whom she trusted. She got up, left her study, and went to the phone room. Home telephones were still a rarity in 1886. The Maxwells had put theirs in a small room next to the front hallway, so that one servant could attend to both the door and telephone if need be. Usually the servant on duty was either James or Dora. This time it was Dora. Rebecca sent her out of the room, closed the door, picked up the phone, and rang the operator. She put through a long distance call to Boston, to Bridget Leigh Farnsworth.
Bridget Leigh had been hired by Israel Farnsworth to be the child Rebecca’s nurse. After Rebecca had recovered from her injuries, Bridget became her companion, even though Bridget was eight years Rebecca’s senior. So when Rebecca returned back to Boston after her short stay with her parents, Bridget was happy.
Not that she was unhappy as Israel’s housekeeper. She liked the old man. He was kind, considerate, and entertaining. Much to his surprise, Israel became increasingly fond of Bridget. She cheered him up, and yet was a sensible girl. Perhaps, too, she reminded Israel of his youth and of loves won and lost. Two years after Rebecca had returned, Israel and Bridget married, though she was but seventeen, and he was in his sixties.
Rebecca was only nine, and Bridget and Israel decided she still needed a companion. Bridget brought in her younger sister Grace, who was thirteen. Grace was as illiterate as Bridget had been, so Rebecca set to work teaching her. The two became fast friends. Grace also helped out around the house, because Bridget bore Israel two daughters in quick succession, and needed help both during her pregnancies and after. Then Bridget’s mother died in childbirth, and Bridget brought her newborn sister Patricia and her one other sister, Eileen, into the household. Israel Farnsworth found himself the patriarch of a household of females.
This complicated family history explains why the grown-up Rebecca Maxwell’s relationship with Bridget was equally complicated. As Rebecca’s onetime companion, Bridget was a friend and honorary sister. As Israel’s widow, and as the most level-headed of the Leigh sisters, Bridget was the household matriarch and something of a substitute mother to Rebecca. With Israel dead (and his ashes scattered according to his request), Rebecca trusted no one more for advice than Bridget Leigh Farnsworth.
Although she had lived in Boston for three decades, Bridget still retained an Irish brogue. Rebecca felt greatly relieved when she heard Bridget’s distinctive voice coming over the phone lines. She quickly explained to Bridget that she was involved in magic and needed help, preferably from Grace, who had accompanied her on her magical adventures before Rebecca gave up magic and married. Bridget, who knew the moods of her former patient quite well, let Rebecca know that Grace might not be available, but that she, Bridget, would arrange something suitable, and that Rebecca should not worry. Rebecca came away from the conversation relieved that she would at last have help she could trust.
Ellen Taylor returned late that afternoon. She had learned everything she could from Charity and Sam about what Mrs. Maxwell had done. She had composed an elaborate speech expressing her gratitude to Mrs. Maxwell, in what she imagined was the approved style of contemporary orators, and learned it by heart. As soon as Dora showed Ellen into the library to see Rebecca, Ellen launched into her speech. She had made it only as far as the second sentence when she saw the walking stick. It made her realize that she was confronting a genuine witch. She froze.
In light of what had happened to Amy earlier in the day, Rebecca almost panicked, thinking the walking stick had entranced yet another of her servants. As soon as she realized that it was nervousness, not magic, causing Ellen to hesitate, she used a little magic on her own to give Ellen the confidence needed to complete her speech. It was a bit long-winded, but heartfelt for all that, and Rebecca responded by conveying her equally genuine happiness at being able to help the Taylors.
When she did not have company, Rebecca took her dinner with her children, along with Amy and Addie. To Rebecca’s relief, Amy came in to dinner with Deborah. She seemed normal. Apart from telling a funny story about how Beth had woken her up an hour ago and upbraided her for sleeping through the afternoon, she made no allusions to the events earlier in the day. After dinner, Rebecca accompanied Amy and Deborah to the playroom and joined in the play. She soon forgot her worries while taking part in her daughter’s games.
When Amy put Deborah to bed, she would either read her a story or make one up. This evening, Amy made up a story about a princess who rode a dragon, going forth to set things right in her father’s kingdom. While she was telling the story, her eyes kept flickering from Deborah to the walking stick and back. Rebecca, worried that the walking stick was somehow affecting Amy again, picked it up from beside her chair. Almost immediately, she felt as if she was transported into Amy’s story. She was no longer Rebecca, but a princess, and she could feel the air rush past her and the dragon’s flesh beneath her as they flew through the skies. Only when the story was over did Rebecca come back to herself. She had planned to talk to Amy and find out what she remembered about the walking stick and magic, but she was so rattled by what had just happened that she just kissed Deborah and bid Amy “good night” before going off to her own bedroom.
Rebecca “talked” to her walking stick. She gave it commands and used it in operations of varying complexity. The stick did not “talk” back, not in words. Instead, it conveyed information about its state and what it was doing. Rebecca was sufficiently practiced in communicating with the walking stick that she could interrogate it, after a fashion. Once she was in her bedroom, she put that skill to use to investigate what had just happened in her daughter’s bedroom. From what she could gather, the walking stick had not been influencing Amy, at least not right then. Yet it had been able to influence Rebecca because Amy’s story meant something to both Rebecca and to the walking stick. That she had a wish to be the princess, righting wrongs, was obvious to Rebecca. What the story meant to the walking stick, she could neither tell nor imagine.
With that resolved in her mind, Rebecca prepared for bed. Overall, despite the unexpected events, Rebecca was happy with how the day had gone. Amy looked like she had recovered. The Taylors were grateful. And Bridget would find help for her, somehow. That the Taylors had not been able to uncover any other stories about a bogle, and that the walking stick was manifesting new powers were minor worries. Rebecca easily dropped off to sleep.
James, on the other hand, slept poorly. He had hoped to find out what had transpired at the Taylors’ and use that information to help him decide whether to support Mr. or Mrs. Maxwell. In this he had been completely disappointed. Ellen had promised to keep the matter a secret, and said not a word to any of the other servants. James had gone to bed, realizing that the day had slipped away, and with it some of his standing with both of the Maxwells.
Beth Finch was happiest when she was busy. On Wednesday morning she was very happy indeed. There was to be a concert and dinner in the house. She and James had to engage in the preparations as equals. Beth had to see to the arrangements for the guests and musicians. The latter were a string quartet, four girls whom Amy had known at Vassar, and they would be staying the night. Carriages would have to be dispatched, rooms prepared, the seating in the great hall for the concert and dinner established, and so on. Beth was in her element.
Beth was also very efficient. Much of this she had already planned, and what had to be done was done quickly and easily. Even the weather was cooperating. The sun streamed through the stained glass window at the south end of the great hall, lighting up the depiction of St. George. Beth had the musicians’ chairs arranged so that the afternoon sun would light up their scores.
Coming in from the opposite end of the great hall, Rebecca saw Beth open the door and go into the garden parlor for their morning meeting. “Typical Beth, to be ready ahead of time,” thought Rebecca with a smile.
Suddenly, Rebecca heard a scream from the parlor. Beth came rushing out with a look of fright on her face. She saw Rebecca and shrieked, “There’s a madman in there!”
End of chapter six
The opening of this chapter, with Amy’s blissfull, repetitive response to the dragon being “nice”, is wonderful. I also like that the cliffhanger of this chapter does not necessarily entail a supernatural cause.
Who is Dora? I went back to previous chapters and she’s only mentioned in Chapter 4 previous to this, but there is no explanation of who she actually is.
Thank you for the compliments. The story has conspired with me to provide a variety of chapter endings, which is to say I have been consciously trying to vary them, and the story grants me ample opportunities.
Dora is a servant. I gather I haven’t made that clear. Sometimes I treat the servants as casually as Rebecca does.
Looking forward to the next Chapter 🙂
Just another day of social engagements and magical manipulations at the Maxwell household! I enjoyed this chapter, though I admit keeping track of all the new characters and their names made me wish for a cast of characters. Consider one for the inevitable print or eBook version of DLS. I was grateful for the dramatis personae and genealogy in the preface to Hilary Mantel’s excellent “Wolf Hall,” for example.
Like a play, the dramatic cast of characters! Rebecca has a very, very complicated family, especially since she is closer to Bridget, Bridget’s sisters, and Bridget’s children than she is to her own siblings, except Jeremiah (who, incidentally, is about to take center stage for a moment). My favorite recent book that handled the complicated family relationships very well was Lauren Groff’s “The Monsters of Templeton,” in which the family tree IS the story in a lot of ways. Can’t quite do that here. Must think if there’s a better way to get the story across.
“Wolf Hall,” eh? Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell? Hadn’t heard of it, but sounds interesting.