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Authors: Margaret Miles

A Mischief in the Snow

BOOK: A Mischief in the Snow
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Praise for Margaret Miles's
N
O
R
EST FOR THE
D
OVE

“Well-written… Miles has created two engaging
and original protagonists.”

—The Drood Review of Mystery

“Miles remains firmly in voice and in control of
her clever plot as she portrays the prosperous colony
and the heating up of its political climate.”

—Booknews from The Poisoned Pen

T
OO
S
OON FOR
F
LOWERS

“Miles weaves a wonderful spell.”

—Romantic Times

“Miles's clever dialogue satisfyingly contrasts
superstition and religious fanaticism with a steadfast
enlightenment belief in reason and science.”

—Publishers Weekly

“A superb colonial who-done-it. The wealth of detail
that makes the decade before the revolution seem so
vivid to the reader… makes the novel shine.”


Amazon.com

A W
ICKED
W
AY TO
B
URN

“An entertaining read.”

—Tales from a Red Herring

“A bewitching adventure… this New England
mystery of 1763 should certainly round out the
historical mystery scene nicely.”

—Mystery Lovers Bookshop News

“The first-time author brilliantly paints the
prosperous New England lifestyle…. An intriguing
case of habeas corpus in the capable hands of eccentric
protagonists. Even the victim shines as a crafty
codger and helps turn a strong story idea.”

—Booknews from The Poisoned Pen

“A colonial Scully and Mulder… keeps the
reader sailing through the pages.”

—The Drood Review of Mystery

“Ought to appeal to fans of Margaret Lawrence's
post-Revolutionary War series.”

—The Purloined Letter

Bantam Books
by Margaret Miles

A M
ISCHIEF IN THE
S
NOW

N
O
R
EST FOR THE
D
OVE

T
OO
S
OON FOR
F
LOWERS

A W
ICKED
W
AY TO
B
URN

F
or Paula and Tom

T
o mourn a mischief that is past and gone Is the next way to draw new mischief on.

—WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, Othello

Prologue

I
N THE COLONY
of Massachusetts, a few miles north of the village of Bracebridge, a large thrusting of rock rises up from the sighing marshes of the Musketaquid. While familiar to the village from afar, its interior remains, to most, a mystery.

Little in this rugged spot shows Nature's gentler side. But between steep walls graced only by slanting hemlock, and the peeling, aerial vine of native grape, a few bowers do lie scattered here and there, secret chambers whose floors may glint with wildflowers.

Though it is a subject frequently debated, the origin of Boar Island (for so the place is called) remains unresolved. Such discussions may be heard especially during long winter evenings at the Blue Boar tavern. Some suppose the curious formation to be of weathered lava, concluding from its shape that it must once have oozed from infernal regions, as Etna continues to do. Some claim it is no more than the start of a mountain range little different from others in New England. One elder blessed with a
classical bent has stated that the great mass could well be an expired head, evidence of Demeter's savage attempt to bring forth a new Giant. A few more speculate fairies may have had something to do with it. But most agree the rock was set down by the hand of God, as was the rest of the world.

Certain things, however, are beyond all dispute. The isle boasts an impressive dwelling resembling a Rhenish fortress, set near the top of a crag, guarded by nodding firs. One Johan Fischart, of Hanover, built this structure to crown his water-bound estate… which, strangely, no one had claimed before him. His new home yet unfinished, Fischart invited many guests from across the sea, and imported fierce Harz boars to give them sport. Unhappily, such rough entertainment often turns to tragedy, and in fact blood was spilled here, on both sides of the lance.
“May the next to visit you be the very Devil himself!”
was the curse one dying gentleman aimed at his cruel host.

Still, John Fisher, as the Teutonic lord soon came to be known, allowed his favorite creatures to tread paths between the precipices, breeding freely, feeding in the secret glens on whatever they most desired.

Gone, now, are Fisher and his huntsmen, yet the descendants of the first boars continue to roam. From the land, one can sometimes hear them screaming. Fisher, too, left a part of himself behind; his only child, a daughter, inherited his private isle. For years she remained there with an unfortunate relation, shunning the rough company of men. While their situation was considered wrong, none in Bracebridge attempted to alter it. Perhaps, it is whispered even now, this was because of the widespread belief that Boar Island is haunted.

Surely, across the faint breath of the marshes, one
does occasionally seem to hear spectral shouts and laughter, the clatter of swordplay, a harpsichord's metallic chime. Then, a few may recall stories of lusty men and women, whose amusements in the great house at one time sent forth true sounds of revelry. There are regular reports, as well, of phantom figures that come out to cavort in the mist, and lights that flare up magically, to bob along the shore. A few who trust in Science smile and say the basis for these occurrences is no more than marsh gas, or the cries of night birds, or the reverberating croaks of frogs. Most still have doubts sufficient to cause them to give the area a wide berth, adding to its natural isolation. Some things, it is said, no one can know for sure.

But other, recent occurrences have helped to illuminate, to some extent, the island and its inhabitants. These events took place early in the year of 1766, during days of cold and storm. These days, too, will long be remembered in Bracebridge, for they gave rise to murder.

Chapter 1

F
INISHED WITH A
hearty dinner of beef stew and brown bread, Charlotte Willett sat by the fire in the low-beamed kitchen of her farmhouse. Carefully, she inserted her stockinged feet into slippers double-cut from discarded silk, stuffed with a layer of feathers. These she covered with another pair of woolen stockings. With both feet well protected, she pulled on her stoutest leather boots, and laced them tight.

At the opposite side of the hearth, Lem Wainwright had barely lifted his face from a worn volume of
Gulliver's Travels.
While he attempted to hide his concern, he could hardly imagine any other woman of the village following Mrs. Willett's lonely example that afternoon—if conditions did seem perfect for her plan.

“You'll take care?” he finally asked, as the dappled dog at his feet raised his head to watch.

“I will,” she replied with good cheer. She clomped across the sanded pine floorboards, to find mittens in a woven basket full of winter apparel.

“How far do you mean to go?”

“Well—I don't know.”

“You'll be back before dark?”

Now it was Charlotte's turn to worry, for she'd again heard a note that had lately begun to grate. Lem's new inquiries into her actions seemed to have started in August when he'd returned from Boston, where he'd been tutored for a first term at Harvard College. For a number of reasons he'd abandoned his plans to attend. Instead, he'd come home.

She knew she could hardly expect him to speak to her as he had at the age of twelve—it was then that his parents, whose house on the road to Concord was still full of children, had sent him to help in her dairy. Today her small herd and barn were largely Lem's responsibility, an arrangement that freed Charlotte to follow other pursuits. But if that gave him a new privilege to question her plans, why was it that her growing curiosity about
his
affairs so often went unsatisfied? Still, young men deserved an additional degree of privacy, she'd decided, and this, she was determined to give.

“Sunset must be three hours away,” she said now, after taking a peek through to the large room with south-facing windows. “I suppose,” she continued, moving toward the back door, “that by then I'll have had enough. If I haven't
quite
managed to freeze my toes and fingers.” She bent briefly to pat Orpheus, giving him soft instructions to return to the hearth, for he could not come with her.

Lem seemed about to give a further warning, but seeing one of her strange new looks, he reconsidered and retreated into his storybook.

Charlotte tied a linen cap over her head and ears. She drew on a hooded cloak, and picked up a long muff of spotted lynx, something her mother had been given years
before by her new husband, and had cherished. It was still as useful as it was beautiful. Yet how sad, Charlotte reflected, that none saw such beauty alive today, roaming the remaining acres of transparent winter wood near the village. It was often remarked that old ways disappeared with the trees. Yet others insisted new ideas so improved their lives that the future was bound to be a great deal better than the past. She doubted either statement was entirely true. But the world did revolve swiftly, and with that thought in mind, she set the muff over one mittened hand. With the other she took up two joined objects made of wood, leather, and steel.

Minutes later, Charlotte accepted a ride on a neighbor's passing sleigh. It then continued on along hard-packed snow, down the hill that led to the village. They first passed between Richard Longfellow's impressive house and the Bracebridge Inn across the way. After a few hundred yards of open fields, the sleigh reached tree-lined lanes, and came to the closely huddled dwellings of the village proper.

At the stone bridge over the Musketaquid River, Charlotte gave the driver her thanks, and hopped down. For a moment she stood gazing at the milky surface below. What current still flowed was covered, she supposed, by several inches of ice, and two would be sufficient. For weeks she'd missed her usual walks, and was not about to spend the entire winter inside. Ice, bare and beautiful, gave her a rare chance to glide like a swallow into a part of the countryside that was usually inaccessible, to see what she could see.

By the river's edge she sat and attached two wooden plates filleted with leather straps to her boot soles—plates set with curl-fronted, sharp-backed blades. Rising, she tested her work, maneuvering away from the shore. Soon
leaving the houses behind, she flew through the bright winter sunlight, under an azure sky. Nothing in the bleached stalks on either side of the ice distracted her; no reflection but her own came from a sparkling surface. Though numerous avenues branched off into barely glimpsed pockets, she avoided them, keeping to the good sense of the broadest path. Lulled by the singing of her skates, she let her mind, instead, wander.

She had come out hoping to relieve a sadness that had settled within her. Recalling the painful news once more, Charlotte felt a wave of sympathy. She willed it away. Diana would not be comforted by her sighs.

Grief! How much of it she'd felt in her own short life. First, her parents had gone; then illness had taken her sister Eleanor, soon to have become the wife of their new neighbor. And in the same dreadful week, six years ago, her own husband, Aaron….

Then, she and Richard Longfellow had mourned together. He, too, must now be remembering that terrible time, having learned only the week before that Diana's child had died. Two days after the letter reached them, his sister was brought to Bracebridge by a coachman, accompanied by a small coffin, without her husband, Edmund Montagu. She requested they bury the boy among Charlotte's family, atop a knoll on the Howard farm bordering her brother's own. Diana knew that Richard and Charlotte often visited the graves there. She told them Captain Montagu spoke increasingly of taking her to London. Should they go, she feared a Boston burial might mean their child would lie forgotten. And that was a thing she could not bear to imagine.

The morning after Diana's arrival, Richard, with Lem's help, had carried the coffin up the snowy slope of the knoll, as Charlotte and Diana followed. At the top
they covered the small box with a layer of balsam, and then a cairn of stones. As soon as the earth could be broken in the spring, the coffin would be lowered into a permanent grave.

The child's death was tragic—yet they'd known from the first that Charles Douglas had come into the world too early, and was not strong. Dr. Warren warned them the boy might fall prey to a winter fever, a malady that gave cherubic faces a heavenly touch of blue, even while their mothers rocked them before high fires. Such women were frequently reminded new life can never be certain, and that they bore no blame. But the six weeks of life allotted to the boy had made his parents grow ever fonder, so they felt his passing most keenly. At least, Diana assured them with marked coldness, this was true for one.

She told them, too, that Edmund refused to allow himself to share her grief, no doubt for the sake of his duties. The captain was a King's officer, of course. But could this have hardened him to the death of his firstborn son and heir? Considering his respect for his own noble family, and his love for Diana, Charlotte could not bring herself to believe it. Though she had no way of knowing the real reason for his absence, she did know that heart-lessness was not a part of Edmund Montagu's character.

At the moment, there
was
a great deal in Boston to distract him. Bales of Parliament's new revenue stamps had arrived; still, they sat unopened in Castle William, out in the bay. These blank paper sheets of several denominations, their corners variously stamped with figures of red ink, were ready for sale and use, and were now required for the printing of newspapers, as well as for documents including deeds, degrees and licenses, court writs, manifests, and port clearances. The main objection to the stamps (beyond their added cost to business) was that for
generations the colonial assemblies had raised royal revenues themselves. This new order given by a distant body— one that lately seemed to ignore the pleas of America's own popular houses—was not only an insult, but a threat to liberties long enjoyed in all the provinces. The people of Boston had made it clear enough that any official attempting to support or sell the stamps would be sorry for it—which was why Governor Bernard had gone to sit in his castle as well, comforted by two British men-of-war anchored nearby. Meanwhile, trade and legal business had come to a halt.

Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson had closed civil and admiralty courts, and promised he would keep them closed, as long as the stubborn colonists prevented the implimentation of the new law. While more distant counties might choose to ignore his wishes, Suffolk County could not. In Boston, without properly stamped and filed papers, it became increasingly difficult to borrow, and shipping languished; without the civil courts, merchants could no longer legally enforce the collection of debts. And with trade disrupted, the price of flour, which was usually imported from the colonies to the south, shot up like a rocket. There was good reason to fear that more riots, resembling the one that had destroyed Hutchin-son's home the previous August, were in store for the new year. This much Charlotte knew from her glances at Longfellow's weekly copies of the
Boston Gazette.

But who in Boston, she wondered, could predict what might happen next? Surely not Governor Bernard, nor Mr. Hutchinson; each had incorrectly gauged the feelings of the town before. Yet did Sam Adams, John Hancock, or Joseph Warren know better? She imagined that this time there was likely to be a long, stubborn stand-to, before all arms were grudgingly lowered.

On the other hand, each year brought times of trouble, set between more encouraging days. In every season, she reminded herself, some would suffer under clouds of sorrow, while others celebrated the rebirth of hope and happiness. Diana and Edmund had experienced their loss as a storm that had driven them apart. But one day soon, they might begin to drift back together again—especially if they had help.

Bringing herself to a halt, Charlotte looked about the blank ice. She took a deep breath of the chill air, feeling it sear its way into her chest. Perhaps she and Richard could find some way to restore Diana's tranquillity. Then, they might recover their own.

For it seemed they, too, had grown apart. Frequently she expected to hear footsteps at her kitchen door, as before. Lately, they rarely came. Out on a solitary walk, she sometimes glimpsed her neighbor approaching; more than once, he had then turned away. Now, she hesitated to set her feet on the path between their houses.

No more did they picnic on the grass, or walk together through the fields, nor did they often spend quiet evenings before a fire. Instead, after the summer visit of his friend Signor Lahte, they seemed uneasy with one another. Lately, she even imagined a hint of suspicion in her neighbor's inquisitive gaze.

Had her admitted interest in the
musico
offended him? It had certainly done
her
little good. But it might be that the winter's tedium, its lack of immediate employment, was to blame for Richard's inattention. She knew he tended to black moods; perhaps this was an unusually long and gray one. At least he had extended an invitation to visit this evening, so that they might cheer Diana.

Charlotte stamped her feet onto the ice, attempting
to loosen her stiffening limbs. This caused her hood to fall. In a burst of exasperation, she pulled at her cap, freeing a pinned knot of hair to glint like clear cider.

Why bother to think about trouble?
Freedom
was what she'd come out to find today! And was it not all around her? Nature was an anodyne, always ready to offer comfort if one would only look around. Full of beauty and surprises, it wove life into patterns, maintained its own balances, followed observable laws. Richard often impressed the last idea upon her. Charlotte knew she had an ample sense of life's harmony, while his interests tended to be a bit more precise.

For instance, he would have noted that there, surrounded by marsh, stood a group of elms resembling frozen fountains. They had lost not only their leaves, but most of their outer bark. Each had dropped several branches, too, now embedded in ice. All were dead, surely. What in the Great Design had doomed them? She skated closer to find out.

Looking up, she was surprised to see a red hawk seated on a high branch. She squinted to see it more clearly. It appeared to watch her as well. The heavy bird lowered its head and raised its tail, cocking its thick, powerful body. She wondered if they might be acquainted. She'd frequently seen one like him in the white oak of her barnyard, watching her chickens. Cap in hand, she glided on, warmed by the feeling that she was somehow welcome in the silent grove.

BOOK: A Mischief in the Snow
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