The Doctor and the Dead Man's Chest (3 page)

BOOK: The Doctor and the Dead Man's Chest
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W
hile the guests, including the cardiologist, polished off the refreshments as if calories and cholesterol were back in style, Lydia finally introduced everyone. The bald, portly man turned out to be Amory Barnes, Lydia's assistant at the Colonial Society. The lean, sullen youth was Tom Winston, a distant cousin who had his own farm down the road. (Fenimore remembered that the area had been settled by two families—the Winstons and the Ashleys—and there was no love lost between them.) The bird-like woman was Alice Cunningham, director and librarian at the Winston Historical Society. And of course the Reverend Percy, alias Oliver, wore his own two hats: minister at St. Stephen's Church and headmaster of the boys' school.
“In colonial times, this farm was called a ‘plantation' because it was self-sufficient,” Lydia resumed her narrative. “Everything necessary to sustain life was either grown, raised, or made on the property … .”
“Sounds like our malls today,” interrupted Oliver, raising a chuckle or two.
“Flax was grown for thread and later spun and woven into cloth,” Lydia continued. “Corn was planted and harvested to make
bread and many other dishes—like the ones you've just sampled here. Cows and pigs were raised and butchered … .” She paused. Fenimore held his breath. With an effort, she went on.
“It was the custom for colonial women to keep diaries. And Jonathan's wife, Hannah, was no exception.” Lydia took a small leather bound book from a collection of crumbling volumes on the windowsill and began to read, “‘On the days the Butchering took place, I retired to my Room and did not emerge until it was over.'”
Lydia turned the book around so her audience could see the faded brown script with its capitalized nouns. “On the back wall of the barn you may still see the iron hooks …” she faltered. Fenimore moved toward her, but she managed to go on, “ … where the carcasses of pigs and cows were hung after they were slaughtered. Below the hooks there was a stone trough which caught the blood that drained from the butchered animals.”
The librarian wrinkled her nose in distaste.
Lydia continued reading, a little faster, “‘I call this Place behind the Barn, “Gehenna,”' Hannah wrote. ‘The Name comes from the Old Testament and means
a Place of Abomination
.'”
“I looked up ‘Gehenna,'” Lydia said, “and found this.” She read from a slip of paper, “‘A valley near Jerusalem where all kinds of refuse was left and fires burned day and night to prevent pestilence.'”
“Sounds like our city dumps,” offered Amory.
Fenimore was surprised to hear Lydia suggesting that they step outside to look at the barn. He shivered, although the house was warm.
Horatio was the first one out. He ran down to the river's edge and began skipping stones. You didn't have to be a country boy to know how to do that. It was instinctive. Resisting the impulse to join him, Fenimore reluctantly followed the others toward the barn. Amory strolled beside him. “Lydia tells me you're planning to write a new article for our
Quarterly
,” he said. “May I ask what aspect of colonial medicine you'll be tackling this time?”
Fenimore couldn't help warming to this friendly man who took an interest in his writing. “I thought ‘Mariner Medicine' might be a good topic.”
“What an interesting idea.”
Actually, he had just thought of it. The sight of Winston had reminded him of sailing vessels and ship surgeons.
Lydia paused at the entrance to the barn, just as Jenks was coming out. “You all know my caretaker, Fred Jenks.”
Everyone nodded. The brown, bandy-legged man looked more like a sailor than a farmer, Fenimore decided. Instead of beaming a welcome like his wife, he scowled and exited as quickly as possible.
The shadowy barn held a number of ancient farm tools—rusted rakes, baling hooks, and a sickle with a cutting edge that time had failed to dull. Fenimore was reminded vaguely of torture instruments. A dusty butter churn, some old harnesses, and a broken wagon wheel completed the collection.
“Now for Gehenna!” Lydia announced.
“Oh, do we have to?” whined the librarian.
Lydia marched ahead without hesitation, but as they turned the corner of the barn, Fenimore's stomach lurched.
The hooks were empty.
Lydia continued her lecture on the preservation of meat in colonial times. “Having no refrigeration, they pickled and smoked and salted it,” she explained.
Fenimore's stomach continued to churn. He looked away from the meat hooks, toward the river. Horatio was coming over the riverbank. As he rejoined the group, he caught Fenimore's eye and winked. Fenimore felt much better.
It is said that Blackbeard boasted that when he buried his treasure, he always buried two dead men to guard it.
—from
Pirate,
Folder/Lumis Library, Greenwich, New Jersey
A
s the group returned to the house through the kitchen, Mrs. Jenks drew Fenimore aside.
“Who would want to scare Mrs. Ashley like that, Doctor?” Her voice was hushed and urgent. Obviously, Mr. Jenks had informed her about the “practical joke.”
Fenimore searched her face. All detective now, he suspected everyone. “I don't know, Mrs. Jenks. Do you have any ideas?”
She frowned and shook her head.
“Well, if you think of anyone, be sure and let me know.”
She looked away, tugging at her apron strings.
As they made their way up the central stairway to the second floor, Amory was next to Fenimore. He said, “I can't wait to read about ‘Mariner Medicine.' Your writing is like a sea breeze after all those dried-up academic articles I have to edit for the
Quarterly.

“Ah, that explains it!” Fenimore said. “You didn't read my articles by choice. It was part of your job.”
“No, no, I assure you,” Amory protested heartily. “I would have read it anyway. Medicine has always fascinated me.”
Lydia guided them into a bedroom. Lydia's bedroom, Fenimore assumed, noting the array of medicine bottles on the bureau.
“This room has the best view of the river,” she said, drawing aside the gauzy curtain.
Below them, the Ashley River twisted through tall reeds to the horizon.
“Today, the only ships you see are small craft—sailboats, motorboats, and an occasional schooner. But in colonial times this river was crowded with topsails and mizzenmasts.”
“How deep is it?” Fenimore asked.
“About ten to twelve feet in most places. Deep enough to accommodate large ships. And because the land is marshy, a thick fog often hangs along the banks—excellent cover for the pirates and smugglers who used to ply these waters.”
Lydia had Horatio's full attention.
Fenimore imagined a ship's mast rounding one of those bends in the fog, and experienced that rare thing—an authentic glimpse of the past. He could also imagine a modern day schooner rounding those same bends—bearing a carcass of beef.
“That cottage at the far end of the property,” she pointed to a building barely visible in the distance, “has a tunnel that was once used by smugglers.”
“Relatives of yours?” Miss Cunningham asked snidely.
Miss Cunningham's remark referred to an ancestor of Lydia's husband, his great-uncle Nathan Ashley. A bachelor with a shadowy past, he had lived alone for years in the cottage on the edge of the property, and died under mysterious circumstances. Ever since, people in the neighborhood had given the cottage a wide berth.
Ignoring Miss Cunningham, Lydia changed the subject. “Here's something that should interest you, Alice.” She lifted a bed warmer from beside the fireplace. Made of brass, its hinged lid was perforated with a delicate design of a peacock.
“My mother's warming pan!” she gasped.
“Well, no,” Lydia said, “but one like it. This was made by the same craftsman as your mother's.”
The librarian's expression remained suspicious, and Fenimore was sure the first thing she would do when she got home was check the whereabouts of her mother's warming pan.
“Alice knows more about the history of this area than anyone,” Lydia said to Fenimore.
The librarian grimaced. Unused to compliments, she didn't take them easily.
“This map shows my property boundaries,” Tom announced abruptly. He was examining an old map that hung on the bedroom wall.
“Yes, that map shows the boundaries of the original Winston tract,” Lydia agreed. “Tom's a descendent of the first Winstons who settled here before the revolution,” she informed Fenimore.
Tom continued to study the map, his back turned to Lydia.
Lydia led them more quickly through the rest of the second floor. The most interesting feature was a massive iron chest at the foot of one of the canopied beds.
“Where did that come from?” Fenimore asked.
“The Spanish Main, probably,” Lydia said with a twinkle.
“Explain,” ordered Oliver.
“I can't. It was part of the house when I came here. It weighs a ton. The legend is that it once held buried treasure. Blackbeard and Captain Kidd were both known to roam these parts. Some people think it was emptied of its contents and the treasure is buried somewhere on this property. The chest was found half-buried in the riverbank back in the 1850s. It took three men to extricate it, and just as they were about to open it a terrible electric storm came up and one of the men was struck by lightning. The other two carried him into the cottage to look after him. The story goes that while they were gone, the dead pirate returned to reclaim his treasure, because when they came back and opened the chest, it was empty.”
Horatio stared at the chest, pop-eyed.
“Fascinating,” murmured Amory.
“Bullshit,” grunted Tom.
“What do you think, Ms. Cunningham,” Fenimore asked, “as a historian?”
The center of attention, the librarian blushed an unbecoming hue. “I—I really don't know,” she stammered. “It is a fact that pirates frequented these parts, but there's no proof of buried treasure. Unless you could produce a map or letter or some other concrete evidence …”
Fenimore smiled, but resisted the temptation to share his map with the company.
“Oh, come, Alice. Have you no romance in you?” Oliver teased. “Don't you have the tiniest desire to get up a search for it?”
“A waste of time and money,” Ms. Cunningham said tersely, putting an end to the discussion.
As the others moved into the hall, Horatio lagged behind. Running his hand over the old chest and fingering the rusted lock, his eyes held a dreamy expression.
Lydia led them quickly past the next room. The door was closed and Fenimore heard smothered giggles on the other side. Susan's room no doubt. Tom, on hearing the sound, looked even grimmer. Fenimore, understanding the cause for the young man's black mood, fell back to speak to him.
“Fabulous house,” he said.
Tom made no answer.
Fenimore tried again. “I'm interested in Jersey brickwork. Do you know where I could find some other examples?”
“You an architect?”
“No, an amateur historian.”
“You should take a look at my place,” young Winston said. “It's east of here. It has one of the best brick ends in the county.”
“I'd like to.”
As Lydia directed them down the central staircase, they were
forced to separate. Fenimore made a mental note to remind Tom to show him his house some day.
At the bottom of the staircase, the tour petered out and the guests began taking their leave. Between goodbyes, Lydia placed a hand on Fenimore's arm. “Don't go, Andrew. I want to talk to you.”
He patted her hand. “I'm not going anywhere.”
On his way out, Oliver paused to invite Fenimore to visit his school sometime.
Miss Cunningham bid Fenimore goodbye with a flutter of eyelids and a simper. Although well past middle age, she had never learned how to be at ease with the opposite sex.
Surprisingly, Tom Winston came over and shook his hand. “If you're down this way again,” he said, “I'll show you that brickwork.”
“I'd like that,” Fenimore said.
Sensing that Lydia wanted to talk to Fenimore alone, Amory waved his farewell and went off with Oliver.
Fenimore watched from the window as the guests left in their respective cars. Percy, alias Oliver, took off in the yellow Saab. Tom spun rubber with the muddy Jeep. Miss Cunningham executed an awkward turn in the blue Taurus van, causing a pile of books to topple from the backseat. Amory wisely made sure the backdoors of the sedate, gray Pontiac were locked before setting off for Philadelphia.
When Fenimore and Horatio were the only guests remaining, Susan appeared and asked her grandmother for permission to go diving with Peter. Reluctantly, Lydia gave her consent. “But,” she added fervently, “be careful.”
“We will.” Susan kissed her cheek.
Disconsolately, Horatio looked after them.
“Scuba diving?” Fenimore asked. “A new hobby of Susan's?”
“Yes. Peter introduced her to it. He's looking for pirate treasure. Unlike Miss Cunningham,
he
believes in it. But the Ashley River is a poor place to search for it. Too muddy.”
BOOK: The Doctor and the Dead Man's Chest
2.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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