Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 8: Allies and enemies
Patty Leigh was young and happy to be on an adventure. Despite Becca’s orders that she not be served alcohol, Patty had persuaded a servant to fill her water glass with white wine at dinner. Pleased with herself and a bit tipsy, Patty had retired to bed and quickly fallen asleep.
She woke to the sound of gunshots in the night. Desperate to be part of whatever adventure Becca was up to, Patty begrudged every second it took to don a gown over her nightshirt and put on slippers. She dashed out onto the gallery just as the fragments of the stained glass window came tinkling down onto the floor of the great hall.
A horrible scream greeted her as she leaned over the railing to look down to the ground floor. There were no words, just repeated cries of agony . . . and the sound of something being chewed by an animal.
Patty could see there was something down there, something big, but the light was too dim to make it out. Then it dropped something on the floor. With a sickening feeling, Patty realized it was an arm that had been torn away from somebody.
More things fell on the floor. Patty could hear them drop. Then the thing lifted its head into the light and howled. Patty had never seen one before, but she knew it for a wolf. It was no natural wolf. It was enormous, as big as a bear or bigger, with thick columns of legs to support its gargantuan size. Its eyes were red. Blood, saliva, and fragments of flesh and clothes spilled from its jaws.
It howled again. That preternatural sound drove all thought out of the minds of the people there, casting them into despair, freezing them into place. Hopeless and helpless they stood, waiting to be slaughtered and devoured by the monstrous wolf.
And then the wolf was answered. It had howled. Its adversary roared. In that roar was magic to match the wolf’s, shattering the spell it had cast over the house’s inhabitants. And Rebecca Farnsworth Maxwell, the dragon lady, went on the attack.
Patty had never seen her Becca using magic before. She had expected bright lights, elaborate ceremonies, a show. Instead, she saw Rebecca detach herself from her children and descend the staircase at a deliberate pace. With every step the house shook, as if a creature of enormous weight walked within. To Patty, it looked as if Rebecca was somehow more real than the other people and the building around her, as if she somehow transcended reality. Patty had always known Rebecca as a gray-haired woman. So it mystified her that Rebecca now had chestnut-brown hair. Rebecca reached the floor of the great hall, and began striding across it to confront the wolf, with not a trace of a limp in her walk.
The wolf had been taken aback at being challenged, and at first had eyed its adversary in wonder. Did it see a woman? A dragon? Whatever it saw, it knew it for an enemy. Once Rebecca reached the floor, the wolf let out another awful howl, and charged its opponent. As it closed in, it leapt.
With a speed and force possible only with magic, Rebecca turned, lifted her walking stick, and swung it directly at the head of the beast. Magic affects the physical world, but so, too, does the physical world affect the magical one. The sterling silver dragon head struck the wolf head on, caving in the skull of the beast in the physical world. And in the magical world, the jaws of the wolf met the flaming breath of the dragon.
To Patty, it looked as if Becca and the wolf had collided, and then there was an explosion. Once her eyes recovered, she could easily see the wolf. It was lying on the floor, thrashing in its death spasms while dragon fire played over its body, its last pitiful howls drained of any magical power.
Where was Becca? Patty dashed to the stairs and descended as quickly as she could, all the while scanning the floor of the great hall for Rebecca’s form. It wasn’t until she got to the foot of the stairs that she saw Rebecca lying only a few feet away. Even in magic, to every action there is an equal and opposite action, and their collision had thrown both the wolf and Rebecca back in the directions whence they had come. Patty quickly pressed her ear to Rebecca’s chest. As Patty feared from what she had been told, Rebecca’s heartbeat was very slow, and her flesh felt cold. Some servant came up, and Patty told her to get blankets and hot water bottles, anything to help warm Rebecca up. She said the same thing to anyone else who came close. She lost track of how many people she said it to, and she kept on saying it even as blankets and water bottles arrived.
She said it to yet another person, but he didn’t go away for help. Instead, he knelt down and looked her square in the face, saying, “They have brought blankets, Patricia. What is wrong with Mrs. Maxwell, Patricia? What is wrong with Rebecca?”
It took hearing Rebecca’s name for Patty to realize she was being asked a question. She groped for words to explain what had happened, just as Grace had once explained it to her. “When she does magic, big magic, it . . . it depletes her. She almost just dies. We have to keep her warm and help her recover. She need more blankets, she needs more blankets . . .” There was more she needed, but Patty was too distraught at how fragile Rebecca looked, how thin a grip she seemed to have on life, to think of the rest.
The man replied, “Will a fire help, Patty? Will it help?”
That sounded like a good idea. Patty nodded.
“Good,” the man said. “I’ll take her into the library where we’ll get a fire going.” And with that he reached under Rebecca and all the blankets and water bottles piled on her and picked her up.
Patty was torn between wanting a fire for Becca and not wanting her moved, but she let the man proceed, only pausing long enough to pick up the walking stick. They moved into the library, where the man put Rebecca down on a couch and then turned to help get a fire started, while servants adjusted the blankets and water bottles around Rebecca. Once they were through, Patty placed the walking stick on top of the blankets covering Rebecca. Almost as an afterthought, she reached under the covers and brought out Rebecca’s left arm, placing it on top of the blankets so her hand rested on the stick. She hadn’t been sure it would help, but as she watched, a bit more color flowed into Becca’s cheeks.
Relieved, she looked up, and realized the man she had been speaking to was James, still in his nightgown and hunting jacket. He made an odd sight, and Patty only barely stifled a laugh.
James realized what a sight he presented, and smiled at Patty’s barely stifled laugh. “Mrs. Maxwell is better, Patty? What else should we do?”
Patty shook her head. “Not much else. She’ll recover in her own time, I’ve been told, by those who’ve seen her do things like this before. Trying to rouse her before her time is no help. If we just keep her warm, that’s enough.” It only then occurred to her who had brought Becca in here, so she added, “Thank you for bringing her in here, James.”
James bowed. “It was a pleasure, miss.” He left, taking all the other servants with him.
Except one. Amy Van Duesen had taken the children back to their rooms, made sure Addie Fitch was getting them to bed, and had come down again. She now pulled up a chair and sat down right beside Patty. To Patty’s inquiring gaze, she replied, “I think I’m needed.” And with that, she reached out and placed her right hand on the walking stick, right beside Rebecca’s.
Patty looked in amazement as Rebecca seemed to come back to life. Her color returned, her eyes opened, and she looked directly at Patty and smiled. Then Rebecca saw Amy, and took alarm. She sat up, knocking some of the hot water bottles off of her as she swung her legs to the floor.
Patty turned and looked at Amy. She sat there, her arm outstretched so she could hold the walking stick, her eyes closed, her skin so very pale. It was as if the color and vitality had flowed out of her and into Rebecca.
Rebecca spoke very quietly to Amy. “You’ve done very well, Amy. Now you are going to take you hand off the walking stick and come and sit beside me on the couch under these nice warm blankets. And we will sit together and warm each other up. Do you understand, Amy?”
As if she were sleepwalking or in a trance, Amy nodded, lifted her hand off the stick, stood up and slid onto the couch beside Rebecca. She did all this without opening her eyes.
Patty and Rebecca shuffled the blankets and bottles to warm both women. Once that was done, Rebecca said to Patty, “Go to the kitchen and have them make up some hot tea or coffee, and heat up some pie or oatmeal for the two of us.” And when Patty hesitated, Rebecca gestured her away. “Go, go. And hurry.”
Hurry Patty could do. Most of the kitchen staff was up, having been woken by the gunshots. Patty quickly explained what was wanted, and faster than she anticipated found herself back in the library with a pair of kitchen servants, laying down food. Rebecca dug in quickly, but had to speak to Amy to get her to open her eyes and do the same. Meanwhile the servants piled more wood on the fire.
Once the servants had departed, Patty asked Becca, “Are you all right?”
Rebecca gave her a smile. “Tired, but all right, Patty. Do I have you to thank for the blankets and all?”
That reply cheered Patty up. “Yes, Becca, but I had help. A lot of the servants brought blankets, and James carried you in here.” Knowing that Rebecca was not on good terms with her husband, and recalling how carefully he had handled Rebecca, Patty had to add, “I think he’s in love with you.”
Rebecca snorted. “James’s romantic interests lie elsewhere.” Where was not Patty’s business. It was not Rebecca’s business, for that matter, and she had only found out inadvertently while exploring her magic yesterday.
When Patty realized that Becca was not going to say any more, she looked over to Amy. Amy was concentrating on eating the food in front of her, and had taken no part in the conversation so far. So Patty asked, “Amy, are you all right?” When Amy didn’t respond, she started to reach out to shake her, only to have Becca intercept her.
“Leave her alone, Patty. She can’t hear you.”
Patty gave Amy a quizzical look, then asked Becca, “What’s wrong with her?”
Rebecca gave a rueful smile. “Nothing. At least, I don’t think anything’s wrong with her. Somehow the walking stick took energy from her to revive me, and now it has put her in some sort of trance to help her concentrate on reviving herself.” Rebecca shook her head.
Patty wasn’t quite sure what to say to that, so she settled for a trite remark. “That’s convenient.”
Rebecca scowled. “No, it’s unprecedented. The walking stick has never taken energy from anyone before to help revive me. It has never shown much interest in anyone besides me before, and that included Grace. Yet it has developed this relationship with Amy, and I don’t know why. Maybe I caused it when I told the walking stick to be nice to her. Maybe it’s because Amy is sensitive to magic, even though she can’t do any on her own. Maybe there’s some other connection between them, though I can’t imagine what it is.”
Patty had no answer to that. She looked at Becca, and suddenly realized something had changed. “Becca, when you attacked the wolf, you had brown hair. But it’s gray again.”
Rebecca had reached for some pie, but looked up in surprise. “What wolf?”
Patty couldn’t believe the question. “The wolf you killed, Becca. What other wolf would I be talking about?”
Rebecca looked perplexed, and then gave a chuckle. “So it looked like a wolf to you. Makes sense. It wasn’t a wolf, though. It was a man possessed by a demon.” Patty’s look of incredulity caused Rebecca to add, “I know what I’m talking about, Patty. If there’s anything left of the body, you’ll see. It will be human.”
Suddenly Amy spoke up, “It was a man. Something horrible had been done to him.”
Rebecca and Patty both turned to see Amy looking at them quite naturally, as if she had been part of the conversation all along. Rebecca said to Amy, “Just so, Amy. If I could have avoided killing him I would have done so. Had enough to eat?”
Amy nodded. “I should be getting back to the children and then get some sleep before morning. Is there anything else you need me for, Mrs. Maxwell?”
Rebecca shook her head. “No. But I want to see you later in the day to talk about what happened. Good night.”
Amy nodded again. “Certainly, Mrs. Maxwell. Good night.” And with that she got up and left the room.
Rebecca watched her leave, and then turned to Patty. “I have no idea what’s going on in her head. This is all new to her, and she’s acting as if it were something normal. It worries me.”
Patty hesitated, not wanting to add to Becca’s worries, but finally said, “Becca, I don’t know how to put this. Grace has told me all about the adventures you had with her. But . . . but what happened out there in the hall isn’t like anything I was expecting. I don’t know if I can handle this. Maybe you should have your walking stick put me in a trance, like Amy.”
Rebecca looked Patty over. She was tempted to tell Patty that Grace had felt the same way in Vardley, but that, she realized would be cold comfort. Instead, she said, “So my hair was brown, was it? Chestnut brown, by any chance?”
Patty thought about it. “It might have been, Becca. It was too dark to make out the exact shade.”
Rebecca laughed. “If it was brown, Patty, it was chestnut brown. That’s what color it was before the walking stick and I were bound to each other. Maybe it gives me back my natural hair color when I’m practicing magic. I don’t know. I’ve never thought to look in a mirror when fighting off demons.”
That drew a smile from Patty, and Rebecca continued. “You see, Patty, I don’t fully understand it all myself. I just do the best I can. Do the same, and we’ll see if we can muddle through together. OK?”
To that proposition, Patty could nod in agreement.
For James, what everyone would remember as “the night of the wolf” was a high point in his career. He had confronted a horror, taken several decisive actions, and helped save the day for the Maxwells and for the household. One might think that when Mrs. Maxwell summoned him to the library late in the morning after she had eaten breakfast, he would go there happy in the knowledge that he would be rewarded for his efforts. James knew better. He realized he was about to lose his job.
Once he had entered the library, he took up a position at the side of the fireplace, facing Mrs. Maxwell. She looked quite well, if lost in thought, nothing at all like that fragile figure he had brought in here several hours earlier. She must have sent for some clothes, because she was attired in an informal walking dress, and the blankets had been taken away.
She looked up at him and asked, “How stand matters this morning, James?”
James knew his employer well enough to start with what would most interest her. “Doctor Sutherland has dressed Steven Smith’s wounds and pronounced him out of danger, but he will have to stay in bed for a week. We’ve gathered up the remains of Tom Fairley. His widow has agreed to a cremation to spare herself and her family further distress. The remnants of the stained glass window have been removed, and the window has been boarded up.” James paused. He wasn’t quite sure how to introduce the next subject.
Rebecca saved him the trouble. “What about whatever the fire left of the creature who attacked us?”
James looked at Rebecca sharply. She knows, he thought to himself. And there is much, much more to this magic than I know. Aloud, he said, “The remains were those of a badly burned man. I summoned the police and attempted to explain what had happened. They were,” he paused, groping for a word, “skeptical, but were at a loss for any other explanation. After interviewing several members of the household, they departed, saying they may return for further enquiries.”
Rebecca nodded to that. It was no more than she had expected. She hoped they would be able to identify the man. It would help her hunt her opponent.
James moved on to the next difficult topic. “The events of the night alarmed many of the staff. I feared that they would resign as a group. I felt that a story reflecting positively on your magic, madam, would assist me in preventing this from happening. I persuaded Ellen Taylor to violate her pledge of secrecy to you and relate the story of her brother to the staff. It had a calming effect. Only two have quit, so far. I take full responsibility for Ellen’s actions, which she did at my insistent urging.”
Rebecca has started to smile at James, but now favored him with a quizzical look. “This is the second order of mine you have violated, James. I instructed you not to confront anything unusual that occurred in the house. But you must realize I understand and approve of the actions you have taken. So just what is bothering you?”
James took a deep breath. “Madam, under the circumstances, I felt it necessary to contact Mr. Maxwell using the telephone this morning.”
Rebecca’s face did not change, but her voice became chilly. “And what was his reaction?”
“He expressed great displeasure with recent events, and said he would arrive tomorrow night on the train from New York to take charge of affairs.” He had also accused James of being disloyal to him in concealing Mrs. Maxwell’s magical activities for several days, but that was not something James felt like mentioning to Mrs. Maxwell.
Rebecca leaned back on the couch and closed her eyes. In a soft voice, as if to herself, she said, “Oh, well, it was inevitable.” She opened her eyes and gave James an indifferent look. “Is there anything else, James?”
James would like to have said there was a great deal more. But there was nothing proper for him to say. He lamely replied, “No, ma’am.”
Rebecca closed her eyes, and with a wave of her hand said, “Then carry on with your duties. And send in Beth. I do not feel like going to the garden parlor this morning.”
Choose wisely. As James left the room and shut the door, he knew he had failed that challenge. He had feared for his job in a future conflict between Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell. He knew that the events of last night could not be kept secret. So he had contacted Mr. Maxwell as the one sure way to guarantee the loyalty of one spouse or the other. Yet in the upshot, he had lost the regard of both. And as he had stood in front of Mrs. Maxwell, he had realized how much more he would have preferred to have Mrs. Maxwell’s regard than her husband’s. James did not understand magic, but he did understand courage. In confronting a man-killer hours before, Mrs. Maxwell had demonstrated courage and won his admiration in a way her husband had not. It was a cruel irony that James realized just how much he wanted Mrs. Maxwell’s loyalty at the very moment he was forfeiting it.
It might have been some comfort to James to know that Rebecca would have preferred to have his loyalty. Rebecca was learning one too many lessons in loyalty that morning. The Choates had cancelled their lunch invitation for tomorrow. Two other invitations for next week had also been withdrawn. Clearly, rumors about the night’s doings were rapidly spreading across Stockbridge.
At least Rev. and Mrs. Field had not cancelled their invitation for lunch today. That was of little consolation. Rev. Field had been an old friend of her Uncle Israel’s, and let Rebecca call him by his given name, despite the thirty or so years of difference between them in age. He would be among the last to shun her. Although she would not admit it to herself, Rebecca took Patty along to the Fields’ cottage, Sunset, as much for moral support as the opportunity to introduce her to Rev. Field.
The Reverend Henry Martyn Field was then in his sixties. He had travelled extensively, married twice, and may be said to have “seen it all.” He was not going to let rumors and worries spoil a fine meal. So he arranged to have Patty sit down with his wife, while he took Rebecca out to the garden. He sat down on a stone bench, had Rebecca sit down beside him, and opened the conversation by saying, “Witches and wolves, that’s what the gossip is, Rebecca, witches and wolves. Silly gossip. Is there any truth to it? Are you all right? And what help can I give you?”
Rebecca, who had feared she was about to be given a lecture, was heartened. She answered, “Some truth, and no doubt some lies, Henry. Some unknown enemy is attacking me with magic. So far I have foiled him, but I need to find out who he is before he can strike again. I may not be so fortunate the next time he attacks. As for help, how are your conjuring skills?”
Rev. Field laughed at that. “I left that sort of thing to your Uncle Israel. He was a godly man.”
Rebecca could not help but snort at that. “He was an atheist, Henry.”
Rev. Field shook his head. “I stand by what I say, all the same. He meant well. Good intentions are in rare supply. They are all a man can have to make him godly.” He paused, gave Rebecca a piercing stare. “And how prevalent are good intentions among the good people of Stockbridge, Rebecca? How are they treating you?”
Rebecca looked down at the ground between her feet, where the tip of her walking stick touched the earth. “Best not to speak of the matter.”
“They have never liked or accepted you, Rebecca.”
As Henry Field had expected, that remark took Rebecca by surprise. She gave Henry a skeptical stare.
“It is true, Rebecca,” he continued. “You may be Mrs. Maxwell, but the people of Stockbridge well remember you are really Rebecca Farnsworth, and they recall your predecessor and namesake as well. Worse, their gods are not your gods, their shibboleths not your shibboleths. Too much of Israel has rubbed off on you, Rebecca. They know you are not one of them, and they will be happy to see your downfall.”
Rebecca did not want to accept what Rev. Field was saying. “You speak poorly of your friends and townspeople, Henry.”
Rev. Field replied with some bitterness, “I know of old what they are like, Rebecca. I have no illusions about them.” Henry’s first marriage had been to a French woman who had been at the center of a scandal not long before. She had never quite been accepted, either.
Rebecca knew the story, and granted the point. “So what do you suggest, Henry?”
He looked her straight in the face. “Go forth and confront this enemy, whoever he is. He attacks you with magic; use magic to defeat him. And then you may bid defiance to all the ill-wishers here in Stockbridge, and return or not as you choose. None of them will have the courage to stand against you.”
Rebecca gave vent to one of her frustrations. “If only I had not given up my magic books before I married!”
Henry placed his hand on top of hers and gave her a kindly smile. “You thought you were doing the right thing, Rebecca. And perhaps it was the right thing, then and there. You have been a wife and mother, and those are worthy roles, too. Now and here, you must become a magician again, as Israel was when he was needed in that role. Take up the challenge, hone your skills, find yourself allies. Books are only one tool, Rebecca. Stop regretting what you have lost, make use of what you have, and find more of what you need. You were not destined to lose this battle because of some decision you made nine years ago.”
To that, she had to return a sad smile. “You are right, Henry. I have just felt so overwhelmed.”
He nodded. “Your life has been overturned. Feeling overwhelmed is natural.” He stood up. “Smite your magical enemy, Rebecca. Leave me to gather some friends and smite your mundane enemies here in Stockbridge. I can do that much for you.” That drew a smile from Rebecca, and Henry decided to essay one more joke. “And now let us go into lunch, before my wife thinks I have run off with you.”
Rebecca returned home in a much better humor than when she had left. Rev. Field had cheered her up immensely. So it was not until her driver pulled the carriage up to the front door that she realized that the magical shield she had reinstalled over the house in the morning was down again. Something had breached it. Without even waiting for a step to be brought, she vaulted down to the ground and rushed through the front door in a panic.
She had reached the end of the front hallway, and was about to turn into the great hall, when she heard a voice behind her. “Oh, Mrs. Maxwell?” She turned to see Dora standing just outside the telephone room. She was ensorcelled.
Rebecca stopped in her tracks. Horror gripped her as she thought of her children being under some stranger’s spell. Had she lost her family just by stepping out to lunch?
Dora walked up to her and offered her a book. “A lady came while you were gone. She said she would wait for you in the library. She didn’t give her name, but told me to give you this book. She said you would understand.” And with that, the spell dropped off Dora.
Rebecca hardly noticed. She grabbed at the book. It looked familiar, but there was no writing of any kind on the front cover or spine. She flipped it open. On the fly leaf, she saw a signature had been scrawled repeatedly: “Rebecca Farnsworth.” It was her writing. Rebecca knew what the book was, now. It was her copy of The Mysteries and Wisdom of Enoch. And it was one of the books she had given back to Israel when she stopped practicing magic.
Possessed by an overwhelming fury, Rebecca turned about again and rapidly walked down the hall to confront her enemy. She threw open the door to the library and marched in. Holding out the book to the woman she saw sitting in a chair by the now-cold fireplace, she thundered, “How dare you enter my house! Who are you, and how did you come by this book?”
The woman calmly put down the book she had been reading and stood up. She was tall, as tall as Rebecca’s husband, with dark blond hair, and gray eyes that resembled Amy Van Duesen’s. She showed no sign of alarm, but looked Rebecca squarely in the face and stated, “My name, Mrs. Maxwell, is Miss Lane, Miss Abigail Lane. I am a practicing magician in the United States Secret Service, Office of Occult Affairs. And I have come to request your assistance in my investigation of the death of Hiram Shepley.”
End of chapter eight