Read A Wicked Way to Burn Online

Authors: Margaret Miles

A Wicked Way to Burn (11 page)

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“So,” sighed Diana, watching her rings catch the sunlight, “our country cousins seem to become more
imaginative every day. What phantasmal news! I suppose bursting into flame will become a new rustic style.”

“If it does,” her brother replied, “remember that it was invented by one of your own. Duncan Middleton is, or was, a wealthy Bostonian, as I believe Charlotte already mentioned.”

“Oh, I’ve heard of Middleton—though I’ve never received him,” Diana added, settling the matter of the merchant’s standing. “But what on earth was he doing here?”

“That,” answered Longfellow, “is something no one seems to know. Hardly anyone spoke to the man before he vanished.”

Charlotte dipped a spoon into her glass. Stirring some of the cream into the cider below, she ventured into the stream.

“I
did …
as he was walking down the road, at about three o’clock—”

“You didn’t tell me that last evening, Carlotta,” interrupted Longfellow, “when you asked me to be your eyes.”

“A lady need not tell a man everything she knows, Richard,” Diana countered briskly, a trace of the new radical spirit in her manner.

“Although in Boston, many ladies do try,” her brother retorted waspishly.

As this was not one of her few acknowledged faults, Diana maintained a haughty silence, but her eyes flashed at his irritating comment.

Charlotte attempted to smooth the waters.

“You didn’t seem to be particularly interested in him, Richard, at the time.”

“I see. Well, I’ll admit that Pennywort’s tale did strike me as being thin; in fact, it seems to have very little meat on it now. One might even conclude, ‘…it is a
tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’”

“‘Out, out, brief candle!’” his sister warbled with a pleased look, for Diana had her own collection of the Bard. She continued to play the Thane’s part.

“ ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
,
And then is heard no more.’

“It sounds as if Middleton made quite a colorful candle, too,” she concluded. “I believe I’d like to see where it happened. Would anyone care to go with me for an after-dinner promenade?”

“Perhaps, when I’m through,” Longfellow replied moodily. He played with his glass and said no more.

“You said this all happened at twilight, did you not?” asked Diana. “It’s usually a good time for imagining things. In fact, I’ve led a number of gentlemen to imagine things myself, after sunset. Now, this Jack person …”

“Pennywort,” supplied Charlotte.

“Jack Pennywort. Is that
really
his name? Jack Pennywort may have also had a wee bit to drink last night, if I know my country ways.”

“There’s a thought,” Longfellow exclaimed, and tossed back the last of his syllabub.

“And I am able to reason,” Diana went on, pushing back her chair, “that he knew the old Bostonian had money. Well, you said he dropped a good deal of it on the floor, didn’t you? In that case, I should be watching, if it were up to me, to see if Jack Pennywort has an unexpected windfall anytime soon. Although I suppose it might be natural for someone like that to squirrel it away for a good while, too…. Your provincials can be very secretive. And they normally spend so little, after all. I mean, one has only to look at them!”

Hannah, who had come in to tidy the table, held up her nose at Diana Longfellow’s manners, and gave Charlotte a moment’s fear for some of her best china. Meanwhile, Longfellow rose to his feet.

“It’s your opinion, then, that Jack went out, dispatched Duncan Middleton, secured the gold, and put a sticky mess down on the road to support his ridiculous story. After that, he ran back—all within the space of five minutes—to alert the tavern. Oh, and at the same time he dragged off the body, as well. Tell me, what do you suppose has become of the corpse?”

“I wouldn’t know. But if you can’t find it, perhaps no one has looked for it in the right place. That often happens to me. Not with bodies, of course. I usually lose track of smaller items; but then I’ve been led to believe I don’t have your larger talents in all things.”

“Has anyone been looking?” asked Charlotte.

“Several men went out with Bowers this morning—we met some of them just over the hill, on our way back. Apparently, no one has seen any sign of him.”

“As you’ll remember, you said you would tell me your conclusions. Have you come to any?”

“I don’t know,” Longfellow admitted, tapping his fingers against the back of Charlotte’s chair after he helped her to rise. He chose to ignore Diana, who had to help herself.

“But I would suspect,” he went on, “that this merchant will show up somewhere, someday, when the time is right.”

“Yes—and he’ll be dead,” Diana added darkly.

“What’s the village view?” Charlotte asked. “Did you hear anything new last evening in the tavern?”

“The more pious believe whatever happened to him is God’s will, and several agree it’s probably a rich man’s due. But, there was very little to go on last night.
Most suspected that Jack had imagined the whole thing, but that if he
hadn’t
, it must have been some clever trick of the Frenchman’s. Young Ned Bigelow, who reads, thinks Middleton is, most likely, a Rosicrucian alchemist in disguise.”

“Who, and where, is this French influence you mentioned?” Diana interrupted.

“A man called Fortier—a Neutral.”

“Oh, I see …”

“Fortier hasn’t been spotted since he left the tavern after sunset, just before the merchant went out.”

“Alchemy,” Charlotte repeated uneasily, reaching for her shawl. “Do you think anyone might actually believe he used magic to make the coins?”

“Why not? Lead to gold is a very old idea based on wishful thinking, which is powerful stuff. And except for Jonathan, not many around here have a prayer of touching much gold
except
by magic. Curiously, still others at the Blue Boar were much more impressed by the scarlet cloak. There was some idea that Middleton was an Italian prelate on a secret mission, and that his hobble suggested cloven hooves under his shoes. By the time I left, when several rounds of rum had warmed them up a bit further, they were so carried away that even Pennywort looked worried, bobbing around on his poor foot. I thought they just might throw him into the millpond to see if he would sink or float! And they say we live in the Age of Enlightenment,” Longfellow finished morosely, shaking his head.

“It seems to me that your villagers will never change,” laughed Diana. She had by now collected her wrap, long gloves, fan, and a small umbrella to protect her face. Placing her veiled hat carefully onto hair that was puffed and rolled, she sent out a further appeal.

“Now, Richard, take me to the scene of this great
Happening, and I will at least be able to say that I saw the sights, when I was in the country.”

It was a request delivered with admirable Boston spirit. With no more coaxing, her brother guided both of the ladies through Mrs. Willett’s front door.

Chapter 9

U
NDER A RIVER
of dust running through the afternoon haze, a good amount of traffic moved along the Boston-Worcester road. Charlotte Willett, Richard, and Diana Longfellow were met and overtaken on their way down to the river by farmers driving wagons full of hay, sacks of nuts, and pumpkins. They also saw men on horseback and one or two in carriages, as well as a strong country girl riding pillion behind a young man, the sun giving an additional coat of bronze to her round, carefree face.

Diana watched the parade at a distance, but appeared not to notice as individuals came closer and examined her own defenses against dust, light, and air. A few politely lifted their hats. Others, dressed in homespun linsey-woolsey, simply stared at her dress. It made no difference to Diana, who had often remarked that she loathed everything about the country. But, she found it
increasingly difficult to appear uninterested when Charlotte and Richard went on with their discussion of Duncan Middleton, each discovering what the other had learned about him, or hadn’t.

“He seems to have been dressed as garishly as young Hancock in town,” was Longfellow’s comment after Charlotte described her chance encounter with the merchant more fully. “And you’re sure he said nothing more?”

“Only two words.”

“Not much like John there! Very pale, you say …”

“I guessed he wasn’t used to being out. In fact, he was so pale, he looked almost ill.” Charlotte glanced over at Diana’s rice-powdered face, and again considered the odd requirements of fashion.

“Curious,” mused Longfellow. “Still, he did ride here on a horse, which would indicate reasonable health.”

“Incidentally, I met another one of Jonathan’s guests this morning, who said he heard Middleton speaking with Lydia in the room next to his. The man’s name is Adolphus Lee.”

“Interested in Nature, hair like a bird’s nest, step with a curious spring to it?”

“That sounds like the same man.”

“I met him in Cambridge, last year. He’d come up to study from somewhere … Connecticut, I think, and seemed moderately interesting. He was studying botany at the time,” Longfellow added.

“Now it’s animals.”

“A Jack-of-all trades. I’ll have to talk with him again.”

“He has a rather pretty brass telescope with him.”

“Does he? Hmmm. Now, here’s something you may not know. It seems Middleton also carried a brown bundle of cloth with him on his last outing, wrapped with string.”

“That is interesting—”

“And the gold mentioned last night was not only gold, but
Dutch guldens
, according to Phineas, who got a fair look at a few of them.”

“The old man gave one to Jonathan, too.”

“Did he? Then he certainly wasn’t trying to be inconspicuous.”

“That was a great mistake, I’d say,” Diana offered. “One shouldn’t flaunt money even in Boston, at least without being in good company. Not even then, if someone might produce a pack of playing cards.”

“Still,” Charlotte ventured, “in the country, it’s usually a good deal safer—” She stopped, remembering her own fears of the night before.

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” Longfellow warned. “I will say that Jack Pennywort, at least, seems an unlikely murderer. From what I’ve seen, he has the mind of a child.”

“But you don’t believe he’s honest?”

“Should I, because he’s childlike? You amaze me, Carlotta. I only say he doesn’t seem capable of a great deal of criminal planning. Children know what’s right and wrong, and should be held accountable. But a child might also be unable to keep itself from telling fanciful stories. Let’s just say I believe Jack when he says he saw
something.
His story’s too involved for him to have manufactured the thing entirely on his own.”

“How do you propose to separate the grain from the chaff?”

“By scientific methods, for a start. Last night, I gathered up a specimen of the burned material from the road, which I’ll attempt to analyze after supper. I’ve already sent to Boston for the necessary chemicals. They should be here by evening.”

“For the love of
heaven!
Must you always find something horrible to do, every single time I visit?” came a plaintive wail.

In the midst of further argument on the subject between sister and brother, they reached their destination.

The spot was still marked by a dark, ominous ring, for few had summoned the courage to touch it—though more than one had bent with that idea in mind. Diana glanced at it briefly with a handkerchief to her nose, and then began to readjust her apparel. Meanwhile, Longfellow embarked on a vivid description of the previous night for her edification.

During his monologue, Charlotte had some time for uninterrupted thought. She carefully observed the lay of the land around them. A running figure in a red cloak would have had a hard time escaping someone’s eyes, unless they had been blinded by sudden bright light, as she’d already surmised—and, as Jack steadfastly maintained. Jack had mentioned smoke that had drifted off to his left. This seemed probable: the wind had come from the northwest for most of the last two days. He’d also mentioned that he’d stumbled on a stone. Where was it? The road beneath her feet was trampled smooth, and seemed free of anything larger than a pebble.

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