Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 7: Visitors
Rebecca started to run as best as she could toward Beth and the parlor, and then stopped. She realized that the protective field she had erected around the house was not down. Whoever or whatever it was in the parlor was therefore a mundane threat, not a magical one. She should let the servants take care of it.
Then her anger flared. This was her house, her home. She was not going to let some maniac invade it and threaten her staff! She had the magical power to strike down any intruder. She started up again at a near-run. As she dashed past Beth, she heard James calling her to wait for help, but she was not to be put off. She reached the study door and, brandishing her walking stick as if it were a weapon, which it was, she strode into the room.
There was nothing there.
No, there was something there. Sitting in her own chair, Rebecca could see a young woman, scarcely more than a girl, apparently lost in concentration in her book. The girl looked up, saw Rebecca, smiled and stood up. “Becca,” she said, “It’s so nice to see you again.”
By this time, James, Beth, Tom the gardener, and Horace from the kitchen staff were all behind Rebecca, looking for the madman and not finding him in the room. Quickly sizing up the situation, James said, “Mrs. Maxwell, the intruder appears to have fled. With your permission, Tom and I will search the garden and grounds.”
Rebecca sighed. She could guess what had happened. She turned around and said to James, “I don’t think that will be necessary.” To Beth she asked, “What did the madman look like, Beth?”
Beth groped for words. “He was . . . he had . . . he growled and leaped at me and he had horrible things coming out of his face.”
“He startled you so much you didn’t get a good look at him, did you?”
Beth thought for a moment, and then nodded.
Rebecca turned around. To the girl, she used an accusing tone. “Patricia?”
The girl looked not at all put out. She replied, “It was just some fronds from the garden. I meant to surprise you, Becca.” She walked over to Beth, and with false sincerity dripping from her voice, said, “I am ever so sorry for scaring you. Please accept my apology.”
Beth would gladly have drowned Patricia in a bathtub at this point, but was spared the need to offer an equally insincere acceptance when Rebecca spoke. “James, this is Patricia Leigh, the youngest and most mischievous of the girls with whom I grew up. Have a room made up for her. She will be staying the night before I send her home tomorrow. Beth, I need to speak to Patty privately for a bit. So please continue with the preparations for the party, and I will come find you when I am finished. Thanks to the rest of you for coming to Beth’s aid, and you can go now.”
Once the servants had left, Rebecca turned and gave Patty a stern stare. “I should send you home right now for a trick like that, Patty.”
Patricia had meant to have a bit of fun. She thought Rebecca was overreacting. “Becca,” she pleaded, “you’re not going to really send me home now, are you? I mean, Bridget sent me out here to help you, and we haven’t even started on whatever magic you’re up to.”
Rebecca shook her head, walked over to her chair, sat down, looked again at Patty, and shook her head again. “Bridget sent you? More likely she mentioned my telephone call, and you took it on yourself to come out here. And how did you get here, anyhow?”
Patty, glad she could steer the conversation to safer topics, went and sat down facing Rebecca. “I came on the train from Boston last night, and stayed the night at Stockbridge House. My bags are still there. I walked over here this morning and thought I’d surprise you.” Realizing she had just left an opening for rehashing her behavior, Patty quickly continued, “But Bridget really, really did send me, Becca. Grace wanted to come, but she’s pregnant with a child, and Bridget wouldn’t hear of it. And I can be really helpful, Becca. Bridget says I’m a quick study. And I really, really want to see you do magic. I was too young before, and I can do anything Grace could do to help you. Better, because I know everything she knows and more. So, please, please, please, let me stay and help you. Please.”
Rebecca wondered exactly how much of this was the truth and how much Patty’s confabulation. She knew Patty to be an inventive story-teller, as if she was a recreation of Israel Farnsworth, minus his general respect for the truth. Clearly a phone call to Bridget was in order, if only to ask her to explain why she had sent this child to help her.
There is a drawback to self-knowledge and introspection, in that one often realizes the answers to questions one would prefer to ask in hopes of a better answer. Rebecca could guess why Bridget sent Patty. She wanted to “season” Patty, and at the same time urge Rebecca to be cautious. And those were indeed Bridget’s reasons. The trust Bridget and Rebecca had in each other was justified by their understanding of each other. Rebecca frankly would have preferred matters otherwise on this occasion. Still, she appreciated Bridget’s reasons, at the same time she could have done without them.
Rebecca snapped back to attention, to see Patty staring hopefully at her. Bridget had said she’d send someone Rebecca could trust. Well, she could trust Patty, at least to be loyal. Whether she could trust Patty’s judgment, well, that was another matter. This start was not auspicious. On the other hand, considering how she had spectacularly erred in Israel’s eyes when she bound the walking stick to herself, who was she to judge based on first efforts?
“Patty,” she said, “you can stay, if you go and sincerely apologize to Beth and ask her if there’s anything you can do to make up for it, and make it clear you mean it. And you are going to have to study. I’ll not have an assistant who doesn’t understand what I’m doing, and no excuse that I didn’t require Grace to do the same thing will be accepted. Do you understand?”
Patty had listened to this without too many qualms. Bridget had told her much the same, and what Bridget said was law . . . which in Patty’s eyes meant it was to be obeyed unless there was very good reason to evade it, Bridget having many attributes of the Old Testament God, though with a lesser sense of mercy. Although according to Grace, Rebecca had been quite fun-loving in her youth, to Patty she was sounding much like Bridget. Patty wondered if it was something about getting older that drained the fun out of life. It remained to be seen if Rebecca was quite as severe as Bridget. Patty knew this was not the time to find out. She replied, “Yes, Becca. I’ll go apologize to her right now.” She stood up. “Just give me a chance, Becca, and I’ll be ever so useful to you.” Seeing that Rebecca did not immediately disagree with that pronouncement, Patty turned and headed out the door. She did not have any idea where Beth might be, but it would give her a chance to explore the house and poke her nose into places before Rebecca thought to forbid her.
Once she had left the parlor, Rebecca sat back, closed her eyes, smelled the flowers, and considered her situation. In James she had a servant she could rely on for everything, but did not trust. In Patty, she had a family member she could trust, but couldn’t rely on. She could trust Ellen Taylor, but to what end? Which reminded her that she still didn’t know how much yesterday had affected Amy. Nor had she made any progress at all in tracking down whoever had set the “bogle” on Samuel Taylor. And finally, her walking stick was acting strangely, even for it.
The last thought led Rebecca to pick up the walking stick and look it in the face. It did not matter how she held it, or even if she held it, when she was talking to it, but she felt more comfortable addressing it as if it was a person. “You and I,” she said to it, “we are going to have to get to work. And I will be taking on Patty as an assistant, much as I used to work with Grace. So treat her accordingly. No tricks such that you played on Amy.”
The walking stick was mute, of course. But Rebecca thought she could sense an eagerness in the stick, a desire to be at work again. She gave it an affectionate pat on its head, stood up, and went off to find Beth.
Beth Finch had left the garden parlor fully prepared to dislike Patty Leigh, perhaps even to hate her. Not only had she scared Beth and made her look like a fool, but she was Irish, and they were a dirty, drunken lot, as everyone knew. Nor did it help that Patty was prettier and dressed better than Beth.
Yet as the day wore on, Beth reluctantly found herself warming to the girl, who after all was some relation to Mrs. Maxwell. Patty not only apologized again, but willingly ran errands for Beth, just as if she were a servant.
It helped that Beth was in her element. She was organizing an event. She greeted the musicians as an equal and as a friend of their college friend Amy. To Mrs. Maxwell’s guests, she was not Beth but “Miss Finch, Mrs. Maxwell’s private secretary,” and they so addressed her. Best of all, her arrangements went off without a hitch. Under those circumstances, Beth’s good humor could spill over even onto the Irish girl.
The “Irish girl” did not object to being treated as a servant. Patty had in fact been a servant for a year. It was not that the Farnsworth-Leigh household in Boston needed the income. Instead, it had been because Bridget’s stern idea of raising Patty to appreciate wealth had included making her live without it for a while. Patty loathed work, any kind of work, but found that being a servant gave one a useful understanding of how a household was run. So while she was running Beth’s errands, she was analyzing the Maxwell household. By the time she changed into a good frock and joined the audience for the concert, she had made fast friends with most of the indoor staff.
James was happy with Patty as well, on totally mistaken grounds. He assumed Mrs. Maxwell had invited Patty, and that Patty’s presence indicated that Mrs. Maxwell was not going to engage in any more magic in the near future. If that were the case, the problem James faced of choosing whether to side with Mr. or Mrs. Maxwell might just go away. If it was wishful thinking on James’s part, at least it was reasonable thinking.
Rebecca managed to temporarily forget her problems during the concert. Though she had not had the chance to speak to Amy, Amy appeared quite normal while introducing the musicians. Beth was actually smiling at Patty, who was at least temporarily on her best behavior. The two-story stained glass window at the south end of the great hall provided a beautiful backdrop for the musicians, as well as illuminating them.
Rebecca even relaxed and enjoyed a laugh or two during dinner. As she had hoped, Lattimore and Sophie Sedgwick carried the conversation. Lattimore regaled them all with stories of the couple’s voyage last winter in the South Pacific, from feasting with semi-naked natives to bathing in a thermal pool on the side of a volcano. Sophie had all the gossip from Washington, D.C., including details of how President Cleveland had married his ward who was almost thirty years his junior. If both of their stories occasionally turned a bit risqué, well, the guests were all young sophisticated adults, and Rebecca had heard much more explicit stories from her Uncle Israel while she was growing up. Rebecca’s kitchen staff particularly outdid themselves with the mushroom soup and the chocolate cake, and if the gravy was not quite thick enough, no one had the poor taste to remark upon it.
All in all, it was a successful event. Rebecca commended the servants, told James Patty would be staying for several days after all, and went to bed the tired but happy mistress of a Stockbridge summer home.
Rebecca woke up. Something was wrong.
In the darkness, she got up out of bed, donned her robe, grabbed her walking stick, and headed for the bedroom door instinctively, before she consciously realized what had happened. Her protective field was down. Someone or something had used enough magical power to breach it at the front door.
Rebecca’s bedroom was on the second floor. The better rooms on the second floor were all on the east side of the house, and they were all connected by an open gallery that overhung the great hall. As Rebecca stepped out of her room, she became aware of a pungent odor, an animal odor. She went to the railing and looked out over the great hall to see what was there.
The great hall was lit by gas. Most of the lights had been turned off for the night, and the few left on were set low. So the hall was only dimly illuminated. At first, Rebecca could only see shapes, several shapes moving in the center of the hall. Then one passed directly under a wall sconce, and Rebecca saw it clearly. It was a wolf. It was thin and ugly and blood-splattered and reeked of its kill, but it was most definitely a wolf. There had to be at least a score of them down there.
Rebecca was astonished. Wolves in Stockbridge in 1886? The idea was absurd. This was a civilized region. There was no place for wolves in it. (Indeed, one was less likely to run into a wolf in the Berkshires in 1886 than one is today.) And yet here they were. Magic was certainly involved.
One of the household servants emerged from the west hallway. Almost immediately two wolves attacked him. They seemed to fear nothing, but just charged at him. The servant picked up a music stand and swung it at one, knocking it out of the way, only to find two more after him. He began yelling for help, and then screaming that one of the wolves had him.
Rebecca crossed to the end of the gallery and headed down the stairs. She could hear other people stirring, awakened by the servant’s yelling. She had to put a stop to this. She was sure she could kill a wolf with magic. She did not let herself consider whether she could tackle a score of them.
She was halfway down the stairs, and already drawing the attention of a wolf or two, when a figure emerged out of the darkness at the north end of the great hall. It was James. Rebecca had to look twice to believe what she was seeing. James was in a nightgown, but had put on a hunting jacket over it. And he was carrying a rifle.
Rebecca was so relieved by his presence that she did not remember how she had ordered James not to confront anything unusual that appeared in the house. Instead, she came to a stop, and waited to see what James would do.
James had been woken up by Dora, who had been stationed in the front hall overnight. When the front door had opened of its own accord and the wolves had entered, Dora had sensibly fled to his room, hammering on his door in a panic. James’s attire was a compromise between speed and necessity: the hunting jacket was for carrying his ammunition. Although the Maxwells did not know it, James had hunted wolves, bears, cougars, buffalo, and even Tasmanian tigers. Slaughtering a pack of wolves in a Berkshire house promised to be an unusual pleasure for him. Knowing their animal nature, he calmly took aim and wounded a wolf with his first shot. The cry of the wounded creature disheartened the other animals, giving James all the time he needed to reload and start killing the vermin.
Rebecca had retreated partway up the stairs to be out of James’s line of fire. When the gardener appeared with a baseball bat and began bludgeoning some of the remaining creatures, Rebecca felt the situation was under control. She waited for them to finish, so she could see to the injured servant.
So it was an unpleasant surprise to suddenly find her children clutching her. She turned to see Amy bringing up the rear as they came down the stairs. Rebecca tried to push the children behind her and up the stairs while shouting over the shooting, “Get the children out of here. You want them to be shot?”
And then she saw Amy’s face. Amy was terrified. She shouted back to Rebecca, “There’s something horrible out there. You said to get the children away if I felt anything like that. I’ve got to get them away. It’s back there.”
Rebecca couldn’t comprehend it. Amy was feeling some hostile magic? But, however they got in, the wolves weren’t magical. She had to be mistaken. Unless . . . unless the wolves were a diversion.
Alarmed, Rebecca turned to see if it was safe to go downstairs yet. As she glanced toward the south end of the great hall, the stained glass window exploded.
End of chapter seven