Authors: Margaret Miles
HE YOUNG MAN
finished his breakfast at a brisk pace, slowing only to pour more heavy cream over the remainder of his porridge.
“You didn’t hear anything before you went to bed?” Charlotte quizzed Lemuel Wainwright from a low stool, as she toasted two more pieces of bread by the fire. He thought, then shook his head. Lifting his spoon again, he remembered one thing.
“A ton of acorns fell on the roof, when the wind rose.”
Charlotte handed him a piece of the hot bread to butter. “Nothing woke you later? Did you hear me coming home?”
The boy shook his head. As the sun crept into the yard, he watched the blue bolt of a diving jay, and heard it squawk. They’d already finished milking Mrs. Willett’s cows. Before long, he would walk them out to pasture,
through the crisp morning air that was just starting to warm.
The two had made their bargain when Lem still attended the village school run by Dame Williams, where he’d learned to read the Bible and to cast accounts as all boys were expected to do. His large family lived only a few miles away, but a brood of hungry mouths had made their oldest look around for another place to board, as soon as he could. All the noise at home had shown him the joys of solitude, so he had slept happily in Charlotte’s barn for more than a year, coming inside only during spells of bitter cold.
Lem was still learning. But at fourteen his duties were nearly those of a man. On most days, he left the cows where he’d led them, and walked back across the meadow to see to the poultry, haul water, and take care of odd jobs, and to make sure the firewood was piled high. At day’s end he gathered the herd back in, helped milk them once more, and then returned to the kitchen for supper and a look at a borrowed book—often with Charlotte nearby … always after a disapproving Hannah had gone home. Her own sons had better things to do than read, as she’d told him herself more than once.
“You didn’t happen to see the old man on the road yesterday afternoon, wearing a scarlet cloak and leading a horse?” Mrs. Willett now asked gently.
Finished with his breakfast, Lem continued to cast dreamy eyes at the window while he shook his head. Soon, Charlotte told him what he’d missed by going to bed at sundown, as usual. She waited for his comments. He offered only a question.
“Should I take them to the river today, or back behind the orchard hill?”
“The hill, I think,” she answered.
In another minute the boy disappeared, and soon
Charlotte heard the bell of the lead cow as it swung away into the fields.
Strange, how events that left one person unmoved could act like a burr on the mind of another. But then, people rarely asked Lem what he thought of anything. Maybe one needed practice, to answer. She would have to think about that.
Today, Charlotte took morning coffee to her south facing study, where sunlight and shadow from the maples outside leaped over polished wood, and along walls painted the blue of a robin’s egg. Looking around the place she’d made into a sort of private nest, she ticked off her latest tasks on her fingers, listing them out loud.
The apples were finished; most of the herbs were gathered in and drying; the root cellar was well stocked with potatoes, turnips, and parsnips from the garden; the bees and their hives had been seen to, although they might need to be fed a little sugar water again, before the hard frosts. And the hay had provided more than enough winter fodder for the dairy herd—she was relieved at that.
No other areas seemed to need her immediate attention, so she turned her mind eagerly to what her neighbor had called the second part of observation. As she did, the miniature portrait of Aaron on her desk, the one painted before he left Philadelphia, seemed to stare directly into her eyes. Whether he would have liked it or not, she knew what he would have expected her to do. Charlotte leaned on the brocade-covered arm of her chair, and thought.
The old man had been there, and now the old man was gone. But was he really gone from the earth, or only the Boston road? Maybe the whole occurrence was nothing more than an involved jest—though it certainly seemed a poor one. This, she thought, had been Longfellow’s first opinion. She wondered if he still stuck to it.
A further possibility was that Jack Pennywort, never
the most sober of men, had “decorated” (knowingly or not) whatever it was he really saw. But what
Jack seen, and
The stranger might, understandably, have taken fright at being followed up the road from the tavern. Perhaps somehow, cleverly, he had diverted Jack’s attention before slipping away. But how? Unless …
Charlotte’s next idea seemed even more fantastic, at least at first. The old gentleman might have
to give a dumb show. What if he wanted people to believe he’d gone up in smoke and flames? What if he’d chosen to leave his past behind, to start a new life? Hadn’t that been her conclusion as soon as she’d heard the story of the Long Island farmer and his servant? (She would have guessed that the figure she’d seen herself was well beyond affairs of the heart—but one never knew for sure.) Still, how fast could the bent old man have trotted off? And exactly
had he fooled the wary Jack Pennywort?
On the other hand … Jack wouldn’t have had to be fooled at all …
if he had been a paid accomplice.
Or it could even be that Jack, perhaps with someone else, had actually done away with the stranger.
Steeling herself to the last unlikely possibility, Charlotte thought on. While Jack returned to the tavern to tell a story that might have been carefully planned, a larger man (perhaps this Frenchman they talked of?) could have taken the body, and the gold, and hidden them somewhere. But this really didn’t seem plausible, either, considering what she knew of Jack’s character. After all, here was a man who rarely did
wrong, and who lived in fear even of his wife! Nor could Charlotte imagine anyone else trusting Jack to share that kind of awful secret for long. But for a coin or two, Jack Pennywort
have gone along with something
Another possibility remained. There could have actually
been an extraordinary occurrence of some kind, a phenomenon that had caused the stranger to be entirely consumed by internal flames. Some believed it possible, at least on Long Island. Spontaneous human combustion, Richard had called it. Was it credible? She knew that numerous forces in Nature were still largely unexplained. And some of them
deadly. For instance, even though Dr. Franklin had recently coaxed lightning down from the clouds, it still had a mind of its own, and might take a life in an instant.
Thinking hard, Charlotte recalled having once heard from Aaron’s brother, Captain Noah Willett, about something called Saint Elmo’s fire. Reportedly, this could turn a ship’s entire rigging blue with an eerie, dancing flame that sometimes played on seamen. That sounded more like Jack’s story. But this phenomenon rarely caused harm to those it touched … and she’d not heard that it made anybody disappear.
The bright morning sunshine had turned a tray of cut-crystal glasses on a sideboard into several miniature suns. For a few seconds, Charlotte stared into their brilliance. Then, realizing her thoughts had run away with her reason, she looked down to open a drawer and search for paper and ink. At first, because her eyes were dazzled, she saw nothing within. Just like the night before, in the kitchen doorway, when she’d been unable to see anything outside—
Light? Could that be the answer? Coming from the lighted tavern into the darkness would have made it difficult for Jack to see clearly. Further, blinding flash could have kept him from seeing the stranger in the scarlet cloak jump off the road and run away. Thinking again of lightning, she recalled there had been nothing like it in the sky the night before—just steady moonlight, which should have shown Jack what he expected to see … an old man running away. Still, if the stranger carried a
source of light
him … it might be part of a reasonable explanation. The thing simply called for more thought, and more questions. At least, it was something.
Now, what about the other show, the one put on by Mary Frye? Could her fainting have had anything to do with the evening’s first act? At any rate, it was probably fortunate for Mary that Nathan had been there to lead her out of harm’s way. She wondered what excuses Mary had made, while the girl and the smith walked back to the inn. Well, she could soon find the answer to that easily enough.
Finishing her cup of coffee, Charlotte decided on a course of action. She wrote out a list of tasks for Hannah, who would arrive before long.
After that, she embarked on a journey of her own, not knowing that it would raise far more questions than it would easily, or safely, answer.
THE FRAGRANT HALLWAYS
of the Bracebridge Inn were quiet when Charlotte Willett entered softly through a side door. No one, she was glad to see, was about.
Unlike the Blue Boar, the Bracebridge Inn was a refined establishment that frequently housed distinguished guests … patrons who would appreciate a good wine, a meal of several courses, and a bed without bugs. Its landlord was both tolerant and pleasant. He was also insightful, well informed on regional gossip, and more than a little fat. Together with his wife, Lydia, he was quite able to maintain the atmosphere of safety and comfort demanded by his clients.
Jonathan Pratt took a pocket watch from his protruding vest when Charlotte knocked on the door of the tiny room where he kept his accounts. At his urging, she came in and sat delicately.
“You’re very early this morning, Mrs. Willett. Especially considering the hours I hear you’ve been keeping.
“I came to see if you could spare me a sack of coal,” she began innocently.
“A sack of coal,” Jonathan repeated slowly, pinching his nose.
“I ordered some to be delivered next month,” she replied, “but the nights are already so chilly—”
“That you need some coal today. Certainly. We wouldn’t want you to freeze. Would you care to go and make the arrangements with our smith, or shall I speak to him for you?” The innkeeper already knew the answer. He also knew that it could be extremely tiresome for a single woman in a small village to follow convention, but that it was often necessary if she wanted any peace. This was especially true when one entered the home of a stickler for propriety in others—like Lydia Pratt.
“I think,” said Charlotte, after considering, “that it would be just as well if I spoke to Nathan myself.”
“It would be a great deal simpler,” the innkeeper agreed with a nod. He had met this grown and respectable woman as a forthright girl of ten, when he was the inn’s new owner. In those days, Charlotte Howard came and went as she pleased, bringing pails of cream, butter, and honey, and taking home sugar, tea, or coffee beans for her family. Sometimes, she walked over just for news and conversation. Often enough, their talks supplied Jonathan with more information than he had to give. Over the years, he had watched his pretty young friend train her ears and eyes well, although not everyone was aware of her skills … probably because she refrained from using what she learned to her own advantage, unlike so many others.