Read The Body in the Birches Online

Authors: Katherine Hall Page

The Body in the Birches

BOOK: The Body in the Birches


To Danielle Bartlett Emrich
Friend and HC Publicist, in Honor
of Our 11+ Years Together
To the people of Deer Isle and Stonington, Maine
Those whose roots have been embedded in the
granite for hundreds
of years and those who arrived later, including
the ones From Away


After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations



Many thanks to the following not only for their various expertise, but also for their friendship: Dana Cameron (author and character-name high bidder at the Malice Domestic charity auction); Dr. Robert DeMartino; Michael Epstein; my agent, Faith Hamlin; my editor, Katherine Nintzel; Thomas E. Ricks; Dr. Thomas Risser; and Captain Jamie Robertson, Robertson Sea Tours & Adventures, Millbridge, Maine.


Sophie Maxwell had not remembered it taking quite so long to reach the island. Darkness had fallen hours earlier, and now it was a dark only lonely roads in Maine produced.

The journey had started many hours ago. After an uncharacteristically panicked phone call from her mother, who was somewhere on a yacht in the Aegean with her third—no, wait, fourth—husband, Sophie had taken a train to Connecticut from Manhattan and a cab from the station to the house to pick up a car for the drive. She hadn't been home for over a year, but she knew the keys would be in the same drawer as always. Mother changed mates but never her beloved 1892 Victorian that sat high up on a peninsula jutting out into Long Island Sound. The shingle and stone house had been a wedding gift from her parents thirty years ago when Babs had married her college beau Sandy Maxwell. Less than two years later she'd found a receipt for a diamond-studded Piaget watch with instructions for engraving in the pocket of one of her husband's suits that she was taking to the cleaners. The initials weren't Babs's. They were his secretary's. She was dumping him for adultery, she told her friends, but even more for a complete lack of originality—“tacky is as tacky does.”

There was no question about keeping the house. Over the
course of his successors, Babs had added on and continued to restore the place until it became her own best jewel, one worth a cool ten million now.

There was also no question about keeping their daughter, Sophie—Babs demanded and got full custody. Despite her penchant for serial nuptials, no one could ever say Babs was not a good mother. Early on she'd decided Sophie was going to be her one and only child, directing her efforts toward her daughter's appearance, manners, and even intellect—“You need to be smart, but you don't need to flaunt it”—in much the same way she scoured the Connecticut countryside and auctions for the right salvaged chestnut to match the original flooring, the right dining room table and other furniture for the twin parlors with their ten-foot ceilings, and the right mantels for the six original fireplaces.

Thoughts of her mother had crowded Sophie's mind as soon as she'd unlocked the front door (bright red with a lion's head brass door knocker). It was impossible not to think of Babs when every inch of the house reflected her perfect taste and something more—something antiques dealers referred to as “an eye.” You couldn't learn it. You had to be born with it. So far Babs's only lapse in visceral judgment had been Sanford Maxwell, but she'd told Sophie that was why she never drank gin. “TMI,” Sophie, sixteen at the time, had told her. It did still bring a smile to her face, though, especially as her mother had always made sure that Sophie understood she was well worth the slip. Babs wasn't demonstrative—she was a New Englander after all—but she loved her daughter. And she loved her house. It had six bedrooms, six full baths, two halfs, assorted other rooms including a conservatory, and of course a state-of-the-art kitchen that Babs had remodeled every four years.

Sophie loved the house, too, but her room in the turret at the front of the home was her favorite, and she headed straight for it. Although it was not as large as the other bedrooms, she preferred her own private tower room, resisting her mother's attempts to get her to move as she got older. Babs had had a curved window seat
installed under the windows that looked straight out to the water. Built-in bookcases that curved as well still held Sophie's books charting her progress from girlhood through adolescence—
Anne of Green Gables
The Bell Jar
. Sophie greeted the volumes like the old friends they were as she dug out a large suitcase and a duffle from the closet. She didn't know how long she'd be staying in Maine, but she knew that even in July she'd have to bring some warm clothing.

Mother's current housekeeper had unpacked what Sophie had dropped off before she'd left for England and after she'd returned to New York in late spring. She'd been bunking with a friend from law school until she could find a job and there had barely been room for her interview outfits in the apartment, a studio on the East Side. Closet space had been sacrificed for a doorman and a tony address. Almost everything she owned was here in Connecticut.

“Why shouldn't I spend the night?” Sophie'd muttered to herself as she added a rain jacket to the pile. She had gotten in the habit of softly talking aloud to herself as a child and it had stuck, unlike the nail biting that Babs soon put a stop to by painting her daughter's fingernails with something so foul Sophie gagged just looking at them. Babs took her for a manicure and had the salon paint tiny daisies on Sophie's nails. Worked perfectly. The daisies were so pretty Sophie couldn't bear to destroy even one.

“I could get up early and be there by midafternoon tomorrow,” she said a little louder, addressing the warm burgundy-colored walls. She knew she was trying to convince herself and knew she wouldn't, but it was such a temptation. The room had always served as a refuge, and she had never needed it more than now.

She looked up from her packing. The window seat was beckoning. Donna Tartt's
The Goldfinch
was in her bag. She could run to the Firehouse Deli in Greenwich, get one of their delicious, humongous Reubens to go, and given that the house had a well-
stocked wine cellar courtesy of spouse number three, she could curl up and read, drowning her sorrows while clogging her arteries.

But her mother had been adamant that Sophie get to Sanpere Island as soon as possible. Sooner. It was a ten-hour drive with no stops, and she'd be lucky to get to The Birches by one in the morning. She sighed and continued tossing clothes into the luggage.

When she'd seen her mother's name on the cell display, she'd almost let the call go to voice mail. It was the realization that Babs was many, many miles away that had made Sophie pick up. Had Mother been in the same time zone, Sophie was pretty sure the call would have been one of the all-too-frequent ones she'd been getting since her return from London. “How's the job hunt? Where have you applied?” and so on. And so on. It had to be something more important if Babs was interrupting her trip. Her mother had cut straight to the chase.

“Sophie, you have to get up to Sanpere right away. You'll have to go to the house first. There's a ten thirty out of Grand Central. Don't take any of the other cars. Be sure to take the Lexus. You'll need to pack a few things. I don't know how long you'll be staying. I can't get there for at least three weeks. You probably don't have any cash. I've wired some to your account, so stop at an ATM. God knows you won't find one on Sanpere. You'll get there late, but they know you're coming.”

Sophie had finally been able to get a word in. Two, in fact.

“What's happened?”

Her mother's annoyance reached all the way across the globe. “It's been over a year since Aunt Priscilla died, but Uncle Paul is just now getting around to telling us her last wishes. Not just wishes, but instructions—instructions about The Birches. As in who gets it.”

“Why do I have to be there? She surely didn't leave it to me.”

“Of course not,” Babs had snapped. “If she was going to specify anyone, it should have been me.”

“So who is it going to?”

The Birches had been built by Sophie's great-grandparents, Josiah and Eleanor Proctor, as a summer “cottage” in the late 1800s. It was an ark of a place on Little Sanpere Island, connected to its larger neighbor, Sanpere, by a now well-paved causeway and to the mainland by an elegant suspension bridge, a WPA project that some on Sanpere continued to regret. “Got everything I need right here,” Old Joe Sanford said. He had never been over the bridge in all his ninety-four years and didn't intend to make the trip ever, even in a pine box. The Sanfords got planted almost in Joe's backyard and he'd saved room in the family plot for himself and his wife.

The Proctors had been “rusticators,” joining other wealthy Bostonians and New Yorkers in pursuit of the simple life. Bracing swims at dawn in Maine's frigid waters, sailing in the same, hikes on Mount Desert Island or climbing Mount Katahdin farther afield. The simple life didn't extend to cooking one's own meals or washing one's own clothes. An army of servants accompanied their employers on the two-day steamer journey from Boston, longer from New York.

The Birches was situated at the end of a point overlooking Eggemoggin Reach. Its rocky beach was home to a lighthouse, and over the years the owners of similar houses on adjacent lots—The Pines, Eagle's Nest, Ferncroft (those owners claimed Scottish ancestry)—had constructed several docks. Now a flotilla of pleasure craft bobbed at moorings that were passed down as carefully as the family silver.

Sophie's great-aunt Priscilla had been the youngest of her generation and her death marked the end of an era in some ways, but not in others. Just as Priscilla and her siblings had grown up at The Birches, spending their days on the water or in it, collecting
and identifying flora and fauna, doing jigsaw puzzles or reading the slightly musty books that had accumulated from generation to generation, so had Sophie and her cousins. The family prided itself on lack of change. Inevitably the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries had crept in through the screen doors that always banged shut and the windows, swollen from the damp, that didn't. There had always been indoor plumbing—there was a limit to roughing it but electricity replaced gas and a furnace was added. A telephone was the first real thin edge of the wedge, with a TV following, and Sophie had heard that her uncle Simon had installed Wi-Fi so he could telecommute.

Babs was the oldest in the next generation and Sophie knew she loved The Birches, and not only because of her love for a whole lot of pine beadboard. It was a love for the entire island as well. Babs Proctor Maxwell Rothenstein Williams Harrington had spent every summer on Sanpere until she went off to Wellesley, returning for only part of the summer until Sophie was born, and then she began to stay until Labor Day again. Sophie had never given much thought to what would happen to The Birches in the future. She vaguely knew that Aunt Priscilla took care of things. She was the one to whom you went when you found things like a leaky pipe or hornets' nest under the eaves. The Birches was just there and always would be.

“You are wasting precious time!” Babs had snapped in answer to Sophie's question, rapidly adding, “She didn't leave it to anyone but instructed Uncle Paul to get family members interested in the place to come for July. At the end of the month, he'll announce who will get it.”

Aunt Priscilla and Uncle Paul were childless. “Why can't it just go to the three of you?” Sophie suggested.

As soon as the words were out of Sophie's mouth, she knew why. Babs and her brother, Simon, a year younger, had never gotten along. The idea of their sharing even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was impossible. In turn they both loathed their
cousin Sylvia, who had never moved on from her infatuation with all things tie-dyed and infuriated Babs with constant exhortations to “Stay loose.” Sylvia's father had been the middle Proctor son, Babs and Simon's the oldest. Priscilla had been the only girl.

Her mother didn't even bother to answer Sophie. “Just get up there and stake a claim. I want you there before the Fourth. It's always a big deal at The Birches. I can't cut the cruise short. It's not the money, but—”

This time Sophie
been able to squeeze in a few words.

“Admit it, Mother. You want to stay. You've fallen for real this time. Ed is more than a nice guy. He's a keeper. ”

Babs had, of course, managed to have the final word. “Not that you'd recognize one. Now, get going. Uncle Paul always liked you. So did Aunt Priscilla.”

The words had stung. Not the last part of the sentence, but the first. Stung like an entire hornets' nest.

Sophie had stopped at the Firehouse Deli for a sandwich to go, and she ate it at the first rest area in Maine near Kittery, getting out so she would be sure to keep the Russian dressing from dripping on the SUV's leather seats. As she'd driven, she'd cataloged the number of relations who might be turning up at The Birches, or were already there.

Paul McAllister was Aunt Priscilla's second husband. Her first, George Sloane, had died before Sophie had been born. With no children of her own, Priscilla's nieces and nephews, and eventually their offspring, were much doted upon substitutes. Sophie was the oldest in her generation by a few months, but it had always been her cousins, Simon's twins Forbes and Felicity, who decided what they and the kids from the other houses on the Point were going to do each day. Although both lived in Manhattan, Sophie hadn't seen them in a year or more. Neither was married yet, but Felicity was engaged, which currently seemed to be her full-time job. Like
Sophie, Forbes was a lawyer. Only he was steadily making his way up the rungs to partner, while she had jumped off the ladder.

“Jumped.” She whispered the word aloud. One summer when she was ten, Forbes had decided the boathouse roof would make a swell diving board at high tide. He'd put a ladder up and declared that Sophie should go first, since she was the oldest. It was lucky she hadn't killed herself on the submerged rocks, only breaking her ankle. It wasn't until many years later that she realized just what Forbes had been doing: seeing if it was safe before he tried it. Aunt Priscilla had made Sophie a nook in one of the rooms off the kitchen, where she'd slept until her ankle was healed. Sophie had spent her days reading Priscilla's old books—
A Girl of the Limberlost, Daddy-Long-Legs
—and learning to knit. It turned out to be one of the happiest summers ever.

Surely Forbes wouldn't be able to get away from his job for more than a few days around the Fourth, which was a relief, and Sophie doubted that Felicity would be there. She'd long ago made it clear her idea of a beach was one in the Hamptons or the Caribbean. Maybe the South of France, but then there was all that smelly cheese and suspicious animal organs, plus garlic.

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