THE SOUNDING SEA
June 13, 1719, off the North Carolina coast.
With a shuddering lurch, the ship plowed headlong into yet another wave that reverberated throughout her. Deep within the Elsinore's hold, in their cabin near the stern, the O'Malley family huddled together and prayed that the storm would end soon. They had endured many storms during the three weeks they had traveled across the Atlantic, and this was far from the worst of them. The frequent storms were only one of the hardships that the O'Malleys and their nearly two-hundred fellow passengers had suffered on this voyage. First, seasickness had spread throughout the passengers, and the stench of vomit still permeated the stale air. Then much of the meat had been discovered to be spoiled, and everyone was rationed to meager portions of food. Several passengers had died on the crossing, including two children. Their families would be beginning their new lives with uncertain prospects, no home, almost empty pockets, and emptier hearts. Despite all of this, everyone was certain that the promises that the Colonies offered would make their trials worthwhile. Anything had to be better than the overcrowding, poverty, and social unrest that they had left behind in England and Ireland.
Six-year-old Mary O'Malley squirmed away from the hold of her parents. "I think I'm going to be sick, mama. I'm going up to the deck."
"Not without me, you don't," her mother Katherine announced. "It's far too rough for you to go by yourself."
Taking her mother's hand, Mary followed her into the corridor and up the stairs to the main deck. The sea was slightly rough, but the sky was clear, Katherine observed. She glanced overhead. Every sail on the Elsinore was unfurled and full, pressing the normally lumbering ship along as fast as the choppy waters would allow. Why are we going so fast through such seas? she wondered.
In Katherine's distraction, Mary had slipped from her hand and headed along the rail toward the bow. Katherine immediately knew where she was going. For every day of the voyage, Mary had come out and spent time pretending to hold conversations with the figurehead. She supposed it gave the child a feeling of comfort to pretend that the ship was alive and protecting them. Katherine knew better. She knew that ships were flimsy matchsticks against the power of the sea, and the fact that anyone, including them, made it across from one continent to another was a miracle.
"Mary, you must stay with me!" She shouted, and hurried across the rocking deck after her.
One of the crew members was clamboring down the shrouds from the main mast as she passed. "Tis not safe to be out here, ma'am," he said.
"The child is sick," Katherine called, and as she turned, she cleared the cabin house, and her heart stuck in her throat.
The black ship was almost upon them. Cutting diagonally across the waves, it had closed on the hopelessly sluggish Elsinore. Katherine could see the the black soot marks from countless battles streaked across its sails. The deck was lined with men, waiting for the distance between the two ships to close so they could come across and board them. They were pirates, and Katherine knew how pirates treated most of their prey. She knew that the best she could hope for was a quick death for her and her family.
"Mary!" she shrieked and began to run. The child was almost to the figurehead, a smiling mermaid with her black hair blowing back in the wind and her tail turned in a "Q". Mary stopped and turned, puzzled and weary with seasickness. Out of the corner of her eye, Katherine saw the orange burst of flame from the pirate ship, and the figurehead exploded in a shower of splinters. Mary screamed, and ran for her mother. The bowsprit collapsed into the waves, pulling the foremast and the upper half of the forward mast down with it. Mary ran into her mother's arms, and they crouched for cover behind the forecastle as rope and timber fell to the deck around them. One of the crewmen plummeted to the deck only a few feet from them. Katherine held Mary's face to her dress, whispering "Don't look, don't look, don't look" even as she herself could not turn her eyes away from the blood spreading from the sailor's crumpled body.
Someone grabbed hold of Katherine's dress and pulled her to her feet. She would never be sure, but she thought that maybe it was Captain Hardy. "For God's sake, get belowdecks, both of you!" He nearly dragged them to the companionway, where he stood between them and the approaching invaders as Katherine ushered Mary down the steps. Just before she herself started down the stairs, she saw grappling hooks flashing through the air and catching on the rails. Captain Hardy's men attempted to throw them overboard, but there were too many, and they were soon overwhelmed by the swarm of pirates leaping the ever-narrowing gap between the ships. Captain Hardy slammed the companionway hatch closed behind her, cutting off her view, but the shrieks of dying men told her plenty.
James O'Malley was in the corridor along with many of the other confused passengers. They had heard the explosion and clatter of the collapsing mast, and rushed into the corridor, only to find the stern hatch bolted shut. James' stomach sank as he saw the expressions on his wife and tear-streaked daughter.
Before he could ask what was happening, Kathering blurted, "Pirates! Pirates, James! We're being boarded! We must hide our valuables!"
"Wait," someone said. "It sounds like the fighting has stopped." Indeed, the screams had ceased--all too quickly, Katherine thought--and now there was only the sounds of boots upon the deck overhead.
"We're stopping," someone else said. The rhythmic shuddering of the Elsinore cutting through the waves was fading, and soon stopped altogether.
A flash of light gleamed in the palm of a young man's hand. "Let them come!" he said. "I'm ready for them." Katherine saw with horror that the man held a small flintlock pistol. He had the self-sureness of youth in his eye that frightened her more than the pistol. He had no inkling that such a trifling weapon was no match against an entire hoard of pirates. She was certain then that they all would die.
"Are you mad?" James said. "Put that away or they'll kill you for sure!" The others began hounding him as well, and soon the young man retreated to his cabin. He emerged a few moments later empty-handed.
Then the slow stride of boots passed overhead. They heard the bolt being slid back on the companionway hatch, and then sunlight knifed through the hold, silhouetting a figure at the top of the stairs.
"Everyone topdecks! Captain's orders."
"Did you hear that?" someone said. "The Captain must have won!" As they filed up the stairs, Katherine feared that his assumption was very, very wrong. Her fears were confirmed as they were lined up on the deck before a hard-faced man with a neatly-trimmed black beard and hair pulled back in a braid. It was not Captain Hardy. However, his clothes were not that of a pirate, but rather those of an English gentlemen. Katherine realized that this must be one of the English privateers she had heard of, pirates working under the authority of the King in exchange for a share of their takings. Although they were ostensibly protectors of the British colonies, they were really little more than well-dressed versions of the high-seas thugs they emulated.
Once all of the passengers were arranged on deck, the privateer captain cleared his throat and spoke. "Greetings. I am Captain Stillson. I apologize for interrupting your voyage, but we shall try to be quick about our business and let you on your way in due time. By the way, does anyone here have any sailing skills?"
An older gentleman in the back meekly raised his hand.
"Excellent," Stillson said, "because your skills will be needed by the rest of your passengers once we are gone, as the regular crew, I'm afraid, are all dead."
A gasp ran throughout the passengers, and one woman began to wail. Stillson tilted his head toward the woman. "Johnson, please. I can't stand crying."
"Right." Johnson stepped into the crowd of passengers and extracted the wailing woman. Still crying, he led her to the stern, out of sight of the others. A bloodcurdling scream filled the air, followed by a splash. When Johnson returned, he was alone. Katherine held her daughter close, her hand over the child's mouth.
"Now," Stillson continued. "While my men search the cabins, does anyone here have any valuables that they would like to turn over voluntarily, before we search you individually?"
One by one, the passengers stepped forward and deposited watches, gold chains, and a few pieces of jewelry into a small pile on the deck.
"Is that all?" the pirate captain asked. "Surely you come to a new country with more possessions than that."
One of the passengers stepped forward. "Sir," he said with an Irish accent. "We are laborers and farmers. We are not rich people to begin with. Most of us sold everything of value we had in order to afford passage."
"That's too bad," Stillson said. "I hate going to the trouble and risk of capturing a ship for nothing. My men work hard, and put their lives at risk each time we do so, and they expect proper compensation. I'm afraid that if I cannot reward them monetarily, then I shall have to instead allow them the pleasure of killing you all. Men!"
The passengers cowered as the pirates surrounded them. "I want you all to know that I am not a cruel man," the captain continued. "We shall separate the men, women, and children as to spare the young ones the trauma of witnessing their mothers die, and the women the trauma of seeing their husbands' blood spilled."
Men, women, and children alike began crying aloud at this news, causing Stillson to wince. "Please, please. No crying."
"NO!" Katherine shrieked, as Mary was torn from her grasp and pulled from the crowd. Stillson's eyes turned toward the sound, and his eyes locked on little Mary. Never before had he seen such beautiful innocence, such angelic features. His pirate heart tore at him. He was not supposed to feel compassion for his victims. Especially, he needed to harden his heart toward the little ones. Too many had fallen to the blade of his cutlass to allow himself to feel emotion. If he began to feel emotion for his victims, he might as well dock his ship and retire to a Caribbean island somewhere. His days of conquer would be over.
He tried to lock his sympathy away, but he heard a voice coming from himself, as though observing one of his men, not himself. "Wait," he said. "Bring the child to me."
The mate led Mary to the captain, who took her hand. He crouched and wiped the weeping child's cheeks. "There, there," he said. "It's all right. Please don't cry."
He turned toward Katherine. "Madam, please step forward.Is this your child?"
Katherine stepped to the front of the crowd. "She is mine. Please don't hurt her. She is so small."
Stillson waved a hand to dismiss her fears. "What is your name?"
"Katherine. Katherine O'Malley."
"And the child's?"
"Katherine, would you agree to granting me a promise in return for her life? Indeed, for the lives of everyone on board?"
"If you should settle in the place of my choosing, where one of my men can check in on you from time to time, would you agree to give me Mary's hand in marriage ten years hence?"
Katherine's hand flew to her mouth. She turned to her husband, who nodded insistently. She turned back to Stillson. "Yes, yes! Anything for her life!"
"Very well, then." He released Mary's hand, and she ran to her mother's arms. "I release you all. Mrs O'Malley, please settle in Charleston. I have associates there who will assure your husband gainful employment. I shall return in ten years to collect my due. Men!"
Stillson and his men turned toward the black ship. Lifting Mary and clutching her as tightly as she could, Katherine rushed to her husband's side.
"What have we done?" James whispered.
"The only thing we could," she replied. "We spared our daughter's life."
"And condemned her to what future?"
"Please, James. We have ten years to find a solution."
From behind them, a voice said, "I'll make sure nobody has to give up anything to that cutthroat ever again." It was the young man who had flashed the flintlock down in the hold. He reached down and removed the pistol from his stocking.
"No, man!" James shouted. "They're letting us go! Don't ruin this!"
"Out of my way, old man!" The younger man, little older than a boy, rushed forward, flintlock held outstretched in his trembling hand. Stillson was ascending a plank conjoining the two ships' decks. The young man took aim at the back of Stillson's head.
"Somebody stop him!" a voice screamed. A hand reached out and grabbed the man's wrist. The gun fired with a deafening explosion, and the pirate immediately behind Stillson fell and tumbled into the sea.
Stillson wheeled on the plank and strode fearlessly to the gunman, who lay subdued on the deck, his arm with the pistol still outstretched toward the pirate. Stillson kicked the gun away, then pressed his boot upon the man's fingers.
"You are a fool. What were you thinking?"
"Pirate filth!" the man spat.
"I've changed my mind," Stillson said to his mate. "Kill them all." As an afterthought, he added, "Don't worry about sparing anyone trauma."
The pirate captain strode back to his ship. In a way, he was relieved at this turn of events. The irrational youth's actions neatly dissolved Stillson's emotional dilemma. He could go on his way with a clear conscience.
He was almost back to the gangplank when a commotion caught his attention. "Come back here, you!" one of his men yelled. Stillson looked to see what was the matter, just as Mary came running across the deck, the first mate chasing after her, and began tugging at the hem of Stillson's coat.
"Please," the little girl cried. "Please spare them!"
Two pirates held Mary's parents, and were about to deliver them to their executioner. The captain looked down into the child's tear-filled eyes, and once more he was filled with a conflict of emotion.
"Please," she said again.
He would regret this. He knew he would. Yet, he could not do anything else. He was trapped between his two selves. Either decision would be his ruin. And if he were to be ruined, this innocent child might as well be the sole benefactor of his downfall.
"Hawthorne! Davies! Bring them here."
The two pirates led Katherine and James to the captain.
"Why?" James asked. "Why punish us all for the reckless actions of an ignorant youth?"
"Because I am a bastard," Stillson replied cooly. "The child is pleading for your lives. Tell me, ought I spare you?"
"Whatever will persuade you not to take the life of our daughter," James replied.
"Does our previous agreement still stand?"
"If that is what it takes, yes."
"Very well. Then I shall give you and your wife the opportunity to live. The girl, however," he took Mary's arm and pulled her to him, "comes with me."
"No, you can't!" Katherine started forward, but Hawthorne caught her arms and pulled her back.
"This group has shown me that they cannot be trusted to carry out their promises. The child is mine now." To his two men, he said, "Put these two on a lifeboat, then burn the ship." He turned to Mary's parents, eyes devoid of sympathy. "They shall have their chance to live." Then he reboarded his black ship, pulling the shrieking Mary roughly along behind him.
Stillson closed the shade on his cabin porthole before the burning hulk of the Elsinore slipped beneath the waves. He had retreated to his cabin as soon as he returned to the Black Wing. Mary was sent to the first mate's cabin and locked in. She would be all right there until the mate came off of watch. Until then, Stillson could worry about himself instead.
What had he done? He had brought a child on board a pirate ship. A female child. A boy could have been put to work, and trained in the ways of plunder, but a girl could only get in the way. Many of his men considered a female aboard ship a jinx. They would soon turn against him, he was sure. Worse than bringing a jinx aboard, he had shown weakness. How could the men ever respect him after this? Slaughtering the remaining passengers and burning the ship had restored his status somewhat, but now a permanant reminder of his emotional weakness was aboard. Perhaps, he wondered, he and Johnson should kill all of the other men before the reached port. He could recruit a new crew, one that was unaware of today's events, who would never doubt him...
In the hold, Hawthorne and Davies were separating and securing the day's meager takings. A handful of watches and jewelry, a few pieces of gold and silver. Even the passenger ship's food stores had been nearly depleted, and what was not depleted was spoiled. All in all, it had been a miserable day's work.
"What d'y'reckon the captain was thinking? Bringin' that girl on board an' all?" Davies asked.
"Dunno, mate, but that's not like him, not like him 't'all. All I knows is 'at a female on board the ship is bad luck all aroun'. I don' like it."
"Maybe he's--" Davies tapped his head with his finger.
"Or maybe he's thinkin' 'bout givin' up the life, becomin' a fam'ly man."
"Cap'n goin' soft?" Davies glanced around to see if anyone was within earshot. In a lower voice, he said, "If 'e's on his way out, that means one of us could take command."
"What, one of us two? Naw Mr. Johnson's first mate; it'd be a natural step up for 'im."
Davies thought back on all of the beatings he'd received at Johnson's hand. He didn't know if they were done with Captain Stillson's authorization, but a captain is supposed to know all that occurs aboard his ship, so he assumed that the captain was aware of Johnson's violent methods of discipline, if not directly ordering them. Captain Stillson was a fair and decent captain, all things considered. One could only assume that a ship ruled by Johnson would be run like a torture chamber. Johnson would not get the opportunity to be captain if Davies could help it.
"What if... What if Cap'n Stillson doesn't get the chance to make Johnson the new cap'n?"
"What are you saying?" Hawthorne asked carefully. He knew damn well what Davies was saying, but he needed Davies to say it directly. He was only as loyal to the captain as he needed to be to survive. But he sensed a battle for power was coming, and the loose tongues of others could be useful to him in parlaying a position within the new heierarchy.
"I'm saying, let's you and I take care of both Cap'n and Johnson the next watch change, when they're both asleep. After slittin' that girl's throat and dumpin' her in the drink, that is. Then you and I become cap'n and first mate."
"Who's cap'n and who's mate?"
"Well, I reckon I'd be cap'n, seein' as I came up with the plan and all."
"'ey now! I got rank. I been on this rat-infested hog longer 'an you."
"Fine. We'll flip a coin."
"I ain't got a coin."
"Well, then we'll use one 'a these 'ere..."
From his hiding place in the shadows, Johnson waited. He waited until the coin-tossing had turned to dice-rolling, when he could be sure that they would not suspect him of having overheard anything of consequence. Then he casually strolled around the corner and said loudly, "What's this? Gambling on watch?" Both men jumped to their feet, and Johnson noticed the glance they exchanged. Yes, boys, he thought, wonder how much I heard.
"Sorry, sir," Hawthorne spluttered.
"Relax, boys," Johnson said reassuringly. "It's been a long day, with blessed little to show for it. I'm willing to look the other way this time, but in return I need a favor of one of you."
Both Hawthorne and Davies thought frantically. Johnson was playing at something. He never let an infraction of discipline go unpunished. He was luring them into something, but neither could figure what. The one thing they were certain of was that he had not overheard their damning conversation. If he had, he would have killed them outright.
Finally, Hawthorne said, "What would that be, sir?"
"The girl Captain Stillson took prisoner. She's being kept in my cabin for the time being. I come off of watch for two hours. I need one of you to clear out a space in the forward store room and set up bedding for her."
"You didn't hear me, Hawthorne? Or are you questioning a direct order from a superior?"
"No, sir. I mean, right away, sir."
"Good. And do a good job of it. She's going to be with us for a while, and the Captain wants to maintain his reputation for treating his prisoners humanely."
Both Hawthorne and Davies knew that Stillson had never taken a prisoner before.
Davies spoke hesitantly. "Sir, if I may say--not speakin' from personal prejudice, but speakin' of a fact of the sea--a woman on board is bad luck for the ship, sir. If, as you say, the cap'n intends for her to remain, then the only result can be doom, uh, sir."
Oh, there will be doom, all right, Johnson thought. "The Captain is well aware the superstitions of the sea. He did not obtain the command of this ship by following the laws of superstition. If the Captain brought the girl on board in the first place, then it was for a reason. If he intends for her to remain on board, then that is also for a reason. Are there any other questions?" His expression told them that he expected none.
"No, sir," both said simultaneously.
"Good. Please inform me when the forward store room is prepared." Johnson strode away, smiling beneath his cold expression of command. He had handled the situation well. He had disarmed them by dismissing their dereliction of duty--something he normally would have given ten lashes for--and he had lured them into admitting their doubts about the Captain's judgement, and he had squashed that neatly. He was especially pleased with his improvised use of the word "prisoner." As first mate, part of Johnson's job was to ensure that the captain was never questioned aloud. A captain whose crew begins to openly question him cannot remain in authority. But Johnson himself had his own doubts about his captain. The decision first to offer to spare the ship's passengers in exchange for the girl's hand in marriage...unbelievable. And then to waffle and order her killed, only to change his mind again and bring her on board. The Captain was obviously no longer in a position to command decisively. There would have to be a change soon. Johnson realized that the caption knew that he had two choices: replace the crew, or be replaced himself. Either way, the change was going to happen by force. And Johnson knew which side he would be on.
Stillson sat at the small table in his cabin and contemplated the final swallows of amber liquid slopping back and forth at the bottom of their bottle. He had worked the puzzle of his dilemma in his mind for hours, and still no solution presented itself without blood. To take the graceful but disempowering way out, or fight and rebuild his command from bloody tatters? Either choice would end his career for at least a while, say six months to rehire and condition a crew. By then, others would have moved in to claim his territory. He would have to shift his hunting grounds elsewhere, to unfamiliar territory. His takings would be slim for at least a year after that. Perhaps he should return to the familiar waters of his native English isles. No, he was too well-known there, and the King only tolerated income taken far from the home shores.
A knock sounded at the door. "Come."
Johnson entered, and closed the door behind him. "Pardon the intrusion, sir, but I would like a word if I could."
"Certainly, Johnson. Sit."
Johnson sat opposite the captain at the small table. "I need to talk to you about the men, sir. Permission to speak freely?"
"Consider this an informal meeting, Johnson." He pushed the nearly-empty bottle across the table. "Help yourself."
"No, thank you, sir. Sir, the men are beginning to question your judgement in the matter of the girl you brought on board earlier. I've intervened and made them understand that they are to follow your lead in all matters, regardless of appearance. However, I cannot stop them talking among themselves off-hours. I'm afraid the situation does not bode well. I thought you should know."
Stillson nodded. "I surmised as much. Do they think I've gone mad?"
"Some of them, I'm afraid so, sir. Others don't know what to think."
"Do you think I'm mad."
"I don't know what to think, sir."
"Tell me, is there talk of mutiny?"
"Has it been taken care of?"
"Two of them suffered a mishap at the end of their watch, sir. There may be others that I am not aware of."
"The conclusion is inescapable to any of them with half a brain." Stillson sighed heavily. "The fact that they question my actions makes them realize that I am vulnerable. They will know that I realize that as well. Small reasoning will tell them that this state of uncertainty cannot exist for long aboard ship. The inevitable conclusion is, I go, or they do. They know that I, wielding the greatest power, will choose to replace the crew. Thus, their only chance of survival is to mutiny and eliminate me before I can eliminate them. The fact that we are at sea and more than a day from land gives them the upper hand. The question is, how quickly can they communicate these thoughts to one another and organize to act against me?"
"Sir," Johnson interjected, "if I may, I have an idea as to how you might arrive at a solution...agreeable to all."
"What is that?"
"The girl sir."
Stillson's eyes slanted. "What of her? I suppose you want to murder her and throw her to the sharks as well."
"No, sir. But she cannot remain on board. She will be a constant reminder to the men of what happened aboard the Elsinore. And those men who do not already doubt your judgement in capturing her believe that, as a member of the fairer sex, she is bad luck to the ship. That, I believe, is where your true danger lies."
"All right. Point well made. Continue."
"I suggest that we make for the nearest port that does not have patrols. We put the girl ashore, telling the people there that the goodhearted Captain Stillson was compelled to take responsibility for the life of this innocent when her parents were unfortunately caught in the midst of battle while we defended our territorial rights."
"That's very good. The girl leaves the ship with her throat intact, I regain my standing with the crew, and my reputation among the people gets shined a little. Yes, that's very good."
"Thank you, sir. Shall I act upon that, sir?"
"Yes. Go make it known that tomorrow we are to make for the nearest non-patrolling settlement."
"Very good, sir."
Johnson got up and was at the door, when Stillson said, "By the way, Johnson, you're one of the most reliable, capable hands I've had serve on this ship. Don't ever make me have to kill you."
"I'll try not to, sir."
Two days later, the Black Wing made anchor near the villiage of Simone, North Carolina. Mary was brought to shore in a skiff, accompanied by first mate Johnson and Captain Stillson. Stillson made his speech about taking pity on the girl and rescuing her from certain death, and pleaded for a kindly family to take her into their household. The last thing he did before returning to the ship, Stillson kissed Mary on the cheek and whispered, "Don't forget your promise, now."
Mary was taken into the home of a young couple who served as groundkeeper and housemaid to the land baron who lived in the palacial house overlooking the ocean. Mary grew up living a happily uneventful life, and blossomed into a beautiful young woman. Only sometimes did she recall the horror aboard the Elsinore, and those black images that came in her dreams lingered throughout her adolescence. She never forgot the words that the pirate had whispered to her on the dock that day, and she would occasionally gaze out to sea, knowing that someday he might return to claim her.
And one day, he did.
Dec 12, 1906, Manchester, New Hampshire
It was by good fortune and somewhat unusual circumstances that Jonathan Keller came to occupy the house overlooking the sea near Simone, North Carolina. A math professor at blah blah blah University, Jonathan's mind was not on obtaining real estate this chilly December day. He was on his way home from a funeral. One of his colleagues in the math department, Dr. Martin Sloan, had passed away following a brief bout with pneumonia. Keller shared a carriage with three of his fellow professors.
"Shame, happening so close to the end of semester," Burroughs said.
"Semester, nothing," Jonathan said, "Shame happening so close to Christmas. There will be no joy for his family this year."
"Sloan didn't have any family," Reicher said. "Those two gents sitting up front during the funeral were his nephews, and I'm sure they were only there to make sure no money got buried with him. Naw, nobody'll miss Sloan this Christmas."
"Well, I will," Jonathan said. "He was a nice old man, even though we never spoke much."
"More than he spoke to any of the rest of us!" laughed Highteller. The youngest of the group, four years Jonathan's junior, Highteller was fresh out of teaching college, and had a tendency to laugh nervously at inappropriate times.
As Jonathan recalled, Martin Sloan had visited his house only once, on the occasion of a faculty holiday gathering the previous Christmas. Sloan had remained quiet and introspective throughout most of the evening, milling about holding his drink in one hand and examining Jonathan's books and artwork.
"Tell me," Sloan had said to him, "did you paint this landscape of the university? The signature looks like yours."
"Why, yes, I did," Jonathan had told him.
"I didn't know you were an artist, lad."
Jonathan had blushed. He somehow did not find it proper for a mathematician to dabble in the arts. "It's sort of a hobby of mine. I don't paint often," he added a little too hastily. "I become far too absorbed in my academic work to trifle with paints anymore."
Sloan had looked up at him from beneath his imposing, unkempt eyebrows. "It's good to do something to take your mind away from numbers once in a while. Otherwise you get in a rut of logic and you can't think your way out. Say, that reminds me, how is the book coming?"
"Oh, fine, fine," Jonathan lied.
"What's this? Did I hear you're writing a book, Keller?" Reicher had wandered over unnoticed. Jonathan wondered if he had heard about the paintings.
"Um, yes." He really hadn't wanted to talk to anyone else about it, in case his fledgling efforts collapsed into failure. "I'm attempting to tie together my theories on variable infinities. I haven't gotten very far, though. You know, so many words, so little time."
"Still on that idea that infinity can vary in size?" Reicher sneered. "You'll be run out of the field, just like Cantor. Why don't you stick with something more popular, like the energy and matter theories Herr Einstein is working on?"
"Oh, fiddle," Sloan said. "Einstein is only dazzling with obfuscation. He simply states and restates the obvious. None of it adds up to a hill of beans." Sloan was gesturing wildly with his half-full wine glass, and Jonathan wondered how drunk he was. "Now if young Keller here can prove that some infinities are larger than others, then the whole field of physics will change." He turned to look Jonathan in the eye. "If ever I can assist you, son, let me know." He leaned in conspiratorially. "We need to show these young pups a thing or two about real math, eh?" He chuckled, and a bit of red wine fell from his bushy mustache onto the carpet.
Now that he thought about it, that had been the longest speech Sloan had made outside of a classroom that Jonathan had heard.
Burroughs broke into Jonathan's reminiscing. "Couldn't have waited until the Christmas break, could he? Someone is going to have to administer his final exams for him," grumped Burroughs. "I can tell you, it's not going to be me. I've far too many responsibilities this year as it is. Far too many."
"I suppose I could do it," Jonathan said. "If I can get the lecture hall, I can do both groups at once."
"You are right welcome to it," said Reicher. "Of course, having seniority, we could just delegate the responsibility to young Highteller, here."
"Say, now!--" Highteller protested.
"Relax, Will," Jonathan said. "I'll do it. Oh, here we are." He leaned his head out the window. "Fourth house on the left, driver!
"Well," he said, as the carriage lurched to a stop. "I'll see you all tomorrow, then. Thank you for the ride."
"Couldn't have waited till a Monday, could he?" groused Burroughs.
When he opened his front door, an envelope lay waiting for him on the entry floor. Odd, Jonathan thought. There's no mail delivery on Sunday. He picked up the envelope and laid it on the hallway table while he took off his overcoat and boots. Then he got the envelope and took it with him into his sitting room. Sitting down, he sliced it open with a letter opener and removed the folded sheet within.
"Reading of a will?" he said aloud. "Estate of Martin Sloan? Now why on earth would I be invited to that?"
One day short of a week after Martin Sloan's funeral, Jonathan Keller arrived for the reading of his will at the office of Francis L. Epicott, attorney at law. A light snow was falling, and Jonathan stamped the slush from his boots at the doorstep. Stepping inside, he removed his hat, which left a trail of melting snow drips upon the carpet, and entered the room where the receptionist told him the reading was being held. He stuck his head in the door.
"Sorry I'm late," he said.
Mr. Epicott, a slight man with a frock of hair falling unbidden across his forehead and half-moon glasses perched on his nose, peered at Jonathan from his rich leather chair and smiled. "Please, come in and have a seat. We were just about to begin."
"Thank you." Jonathan took an empty chair beside two other men, whose similarity in their flinty eyes and dispassionate expression led him to conclude that they could only be brothers. One wore a full beard and a worn farmer's overcoat; the other had only a moustache and an expensive-looking, worsted-wool topcoat.
"Who's this, then?" the bearded one demanded. His brother laid a hand upon his arm and shook his head subtly.
"I believe what my brother means," the mustached one said, "is that we have not yet had the honor of your aquaintence."
"Oh, I'm Jonathan Keller." He extended his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Mr...?"
The well-dressed one reached across his unresponsive brother to take Jonathan's hand. "I'm Courtroy Sloan. This is my brother Malcolm. Did you know our uncle well, Mr Keller?"
"I'm afraid only slightly. We were colleagues. I was quite surprised, in fact, to receive notice of this reading."
"Yes," Mr. Epicott interjected, "well, the late Mr. Sloan must have remembered you in some fashion, for your name is mentioned in his will."
"He's after what's rightfully ours," Malcolm muttered under his breath. Jonathan saw Courtroy's hand tighten around Malcolm's arm.
Epicott gave Malcolm a look over his half-moon glasses, but ignored the remark. "Let's get started, shall we?"
There was the usual verbiage about being of sound mind, etc, some pronouncements about his books going to the university library, and some silver candlesticks to a still-living cousin somewhere, and then the heart of the matter.
"'To my nearest living kin, my nephews Courtroy and Malcolm Sloan, I leave my home in Manchester, and all possessions not dealt with aforehand, to do with as they shall agree.'"
Both Malcolm and Courtroy leaned forward in their chairs, as though in anticipation of something. "'And to my colleague, Professor Jonathan Kelly, who was once kind enough to invite me into his home and charm me with me his dreams of publishing his mathematical theories and of painting, I leave my estate of Windmere in Simone, North Carolina.'"
"What?" Courtroy broke his composure and leapt to his feet, knocking over his chair.
Malcolm leaned forward and pounded his fist on Mr. Epicott's desk. "Now, see here! That land is ours!"
Epicott held up his hand. "Gentlemen, gentlemen, please calm down. There is more. 'The bulk of my liquid assets have been converted into a trust soley for Mr. Keller's use to preserve the history, grandeur and beauty of Windmere. My nephews, I'm sure, will understand, as they are all too aware that their chief talent lies in dissolving history and beauty into quickly-squandered cash.' That is all." Epicott laid down the papers on his desk.
There was silence in the room. Malcolm fell back into his chair with a heavy exhalation. Courtroy, unwilling to break his dignity by righting his chair, folded his arms and stood there. Jonathan, too stunned to think of words, sat staring at the stiff, formal pages of Martin Sloan's will.
"This is not right," Courtroy finally said. "We have no choice but to contest the will."
"That is your right," Epicott said.
"Madness," Malcolm uttered. He gazed sideways at Jonathan with contempt in his eyes. "Because he likes to paint. Don't get too comfortable in your new house, Keller. This isn't over."
Courtroy's hand descended on Malcolm's shoulder. "Let's go." As they passed on their way to the door, Courtroy nodded slightly at Jonathan. "Good day, Mr. Keller."
Malcolm was less polite. "You ain't heard the last of us," he snarled. Courtroy all but pushed Malcolm out the door before he could do any more verbal damage.
Epicott attempted a sympathetic smile. "It's always difficult when the pain of grief is compounded by disappointment when the will is read. Congratulations, Mr. Keller."
Jonathan's eyes were glazed, still attempting to comprehend what had just happened. "I never even know Professor Sloan had an estate."
"Apparently he did. Now, there is some paperwork that I will need you to sign..."
But Jonathan was not conscious of anything else Epicott said. His mind was too busy reeling with the news of what he had just been given.
May 29, 1907, Simone, North Carolina
Jonathan Keller arrived in Simone in his rented wagon a little after noon, his trunks and bags stacked high in the bed. He had ridden from the nearest train station, ten miles away. As he crested a low rise, the town unfolded before him, a villiage virtually untouched by time, perched on the edge of the Atlantic, skinny fingers of fishing docks jutting into the water. The white houses gleamed in the midday sun, their gardens and yards bright green in their springtime splendor. Jonathan stopped to admire the ocean sparkling in the sunlight. He had seen the Atlantic several times in the past, but never had it looked so bright and welcoming. In New England, the Atlantic is like a dark woman, tempting and foreboding at the same time. He immediately felt that he was going to like it here.
Beyond Simone, a large hill angled skyward, dwarfing the little town. Atop the hill, squatted a low, dark, boxlike structure. Against the sharp blue sky, the building was silhouetted and featureless, a paradoxically dark spot amid all the brightness.
Jonathan spurred the horses on and descended into the town.
He had not been given an address to the house, only the name Windmere. Jonathan surmised that Simone was a small enough community that everyone just knew it by name. There was only one primary street through town, a wide expanse of rutted, packed dirt. At the end of the street, he saw a new building being constructed. From a distance, it appeared to be a government building, squat and square, and built of pipestone block. At least the town was still growing, he thought.
It didn't take Jonathan long to find the post office, an outhouse-sized building next to a dry goods store. A bell jangled as he entered the post office. The desk was deserted.
"Hello? Anybody here?" He leaned over the counter and peered through the doorway to the back room, but saw no one. "Hello?"
A few moments later, a greying man with a round middle came through a door that apparently connected the post office with the dry good store.
"Hello. Sorry I didn't notice you sooner. Not mail day, so I didn't expect anybody. What can I do for ya?"
"Oh, hello. My name is Jonathan Keller. I'm a new resident here, and," he laughed, "this may sound funny, but I wondered if you could tell me how to get to my house?"
The old man smiled. "Wherever it is, it's probably not far. No place is far from anyplace else around here. What's the address?"
"You see, I haven't got one. All I know is that it's called Windmere."
The smile faded from the man's face. "Windmere? You sure?"
"Yes. I'm the new owner."
"Then that can only mean Professor Sloan has passed on."
"I'm afraid so, yes."
"Then you'll be some sort of relation of his."
"No, I'm not."
The old man looked surprised. "The Sloan's let that house out of the family?" He shook his head. "Never thought I'd see the day. Well, then. The place you're lookin' for, Mr. Keller, is that big house up on top of the hill. I imagine you noticed it on your way into town."
"That big, dark, scary-looking place?"
"Ah, her bark is worse'n her bite. She's really quite impressive once you see her close up. Take Main Street here out of town. About half a mile out, a road branches off to the right. May or may not still be a sign there says 'Windmere Rd.' That road'll take you right to the house. You'll think you're goin' straight up to heaven before you get there."
"Thank you very much. I'd better be going." He shook the old man's hand. "By the way, your name was...?"
"Arthur Abraham. You might see me next door, too. I also run the store. So if you need me and I'm not in one place, I'm in the other."
"I'm sure we'll be seeing much of each other. Good day."
The Windmere Rd. sign was still there, although toppled and half-overgrown. Jonathan took the narrow road and soon began to climb the steep, wooded hillside. The horses strained at their reigns, and eventually Jonathan took pity on them and got off and walked alongside them to lighten their burden. Then the slope flattened out, and at the same time they emerged from the trees, and Jonathan saw Windmere.
The great, three-story house sprawled across the hilltop, its gently sloping roofline covering light-brown stucco walls. An imposing semi-circle staircase of river rock led up to the arched front doors. Jonathan led the horses along the circular drive to the front of the house, and he climbed the steps to the front door. He fumbled in his pocket for the large iron key Mr. Epicott had given him. He turned it in the lock and swung the great doors open.
If the entryway was any indication, the house had not been lived in for some time. A thick layer of dust covered the floor; cobwebs clung to every corner. The light fixture hanging above his head, he realized, was gas, not electric. His footsteps echoed deep into the interior of the house, far beyond the small area illuminated by the open front doors. For the first time, he began to question the practicality of his decision to give up his job and live here.
A pendulum clock by Seth Thomas, as tall as he was and twice as wide, guarded the entryway. Its face was hidden by the fog of dust on its glass. Jonathan wiped his hand across the glass to reveal the clock face. It was stopped at 4:24. It was most unusual clock, Jonathan saw, in that its weights came out of the top, ran along the ceiling, and dropped to the floor, like the outspread wings of a bird. On the wall alongside the cables which held the weights were markings for the days of the week. Sunday was near the ceiling. Friday was near the baseboards. Where was Saturday. Jonathan crouched and squinted in the darkness. The cables on either side descended into holes in the floor about nine inches in diameter. Evidently Saturday was in the basement. Jonathan twisted the small knob on the glass-paneled door and swung it open. Its inner works appeared to be in good shape. The long, heavy, brass pendulum even shone a little. A huge, right-angled winding key hung from its mount. He removed it, and, after some brief inspection to find where it went, began to wind the left side.. The mechanism was stiff at first, but moved more and more freely as he cranked on the key. The enormous clock emitted a deep, loud ratchet noise as the weight cable slowly winched in. Soon, the tremendous lefthand weight emerged from its rabbit hole in the floor and wobbled toward the ceiling. Jonathan stopped it midway between Monday and Tuesday, as it was early afternoon now. Then he removed the key and performed the same procedure on the righthand weight.
With the clock fully wound, the last thing to do before starting the pendulum was to set the time. Jonathan knew that these gravity-driven clocks could not be wound backward, only forward, so he would have to run the hands almost all the way around. He put the end of his finger beside the minute hand and gently pushed it around to 5:00. A loud whirring sound began within the clockworks, and a large brass hammer cocked back and began to strike the big domelike bell mounted on the clock's back wall. Jonathan covered his ears as the clock's earsplitting gong echoed throughout the house five times. Jonathan had to repeat this process until he reached 1:00 (11:00 and 12:00 were the worst), and he parked the minute hand at 1:35, going by the time on his pocketwatch. He had to rewind the left side of the clock slightly to put it back on schedule. Then he gave the big pendulum a push with his hand, and the clock came to life, tocking away with a deep, hollow rhythm. Jonathan always believed that clocks were the hearts of houses. Now that he had brought this house back to life, he began to explore it.
Stepping into the parlor, he found that the house's fixtures remained intact. Shadowy furniture sat sheathed in dusty dropcloths in the gloom. Ancient rugs, almost too rotted to walk on, spread out before him, seeming to dare him to trod upon them, almost like carnivorous creatures waiting to roll him up and slowly devour him.
Hurridly skirting the edge of the room, Jonathan went to the windows and pulled the draperies back. In the flood of pale sunlight and haze of dust, the room was much less threatening. It was, after all, only a room. A painting of the sea hung above the enormous, ornate fireplace. Examining it more closely, Jonathan saw that it was, in fact, a portrait of a disaster. Three sixteenth-century galleons foundered upon the rocks, a pair of them broken in two; the third turned upon its side, its helpless men clinging to the hull as they were swept toward the rocks and the pounding surf. Among the wreckage and upon the rocks themselves, Jonathan could make out the tiny figures of limp corpses. An inscription on a brass plate laid into the gilded frame said, "The Wreck of the Dutch East Indiaman Amsterdam, 1599". Jonathan shuddered. That would have to go. How could someone live in such a grand house and look upon such sorrow every day? However, Jonathan reminded himself, glancing into the cobweb-sheathed corners, so far the house had not displayed much cheerfulness.
From room to room he went, tearing open the curtains and allowing the bright afternoon sun to destroy the gloom. Ripping the dropcloths from the furnishings, he unveiled brightly-colored Georgean upholstries, richly-hued woods, and shining satiny bedspreads. As he climbed the wide, curving staircase to the second floor, Jonathan found himself reciting,
"In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
"Um, something, something, something...
"A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision I once saw:
"Er, something, something,
And drunk the milk of Paradise."
What a sad figure, Coleridge, Jonathan thought. Though remembered for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" he had always considered "Kubla Kahn" to be his finest work. The poem came to him in a single burst while high on opium. He began to write it down, but was interrupted by someone at his door, and was never able to complete the work. His remainder of his life was spent in the fruitless thoughts of what could have been, had it not slipped away to be lost forever.
Now that he thought about it, "Kubla Kahn" was very depressing, and he struggled to push it from his mind. There was already enough gloom to be eradicated in this house; he did not need to be adding to it with his own thoughts.
The bedrooms were on the second floor. What Jonathan took to be the master bedroom, due to its immense size, lay at the front of the house, and ran its complete length. A four-posted bed, each post as thick as his leg, and embroidered with intricate carvings, sat centered along the wall. Emerald-green drapes, somewhat muted from dust, spilled from its canopy and framed the thick mattress. An armoire larger than any Jonathan had ever seen obscured one entire end wall. As he went about removing the dropcloths, he saw that whereas the rest of the house was primarily Georgean, this room was done more in the French style, down to the powder-blue pull-out stool that squatted before the matching gilded vanity. Pulling open the draperies revealed a splendid view of the sparkling ocean. From this height, he could almost look down to the rocky shore at the base of the cliff. Oh, what a view! He immediately knew that he was going to make this his bedroom.
Several smaller rooms, a few of them locked, made up the rest of the floor. The furnishings in these rooms were not nearly as grand, and provided little more of interest to Jonathan. He left the dropcloths in place in these, figuring that they were better served protecting beds and chairs that would not be used often--at least, no time soon. He headed up the steep, narrow staircase to explore the next level.
The third floor, to Jonathan's surprise, was mostly empty. Bare walls and floors echoed his footsteps as he went from door to door, going into rooms, finding nothing. One room, at the front of the house, was locked. Being positioned directly above the master bedroom, he took it to be the largest on the floor, and was intensely curious about it. If, like the rest of the floor, it lay empty, why was it locked? Perhaps it wasn't empty. Perhaps this was where the family stored their riches. He dismissed the thought. Just his imagination running away with him. It had probably been locked by accident. He would find the remaining keys somewhere in the house, and then he would learn the boring, dusty truth.
At the other end of the floor lay what Jonathan took to be either a greenhouse or a painter's studio. Running the length of the house, the room was lined with huge, floor-to-ceiling windows. None of these were curtained, and sunlight streamed inside without inhibition. After decades of exposure, the maple floor and once-yellow walls were sunbleached to near-white. Now, why, he thought, would someone install all of these windows on the side of the house that faced away from the ocean? One would think that you would want them to face the better view.
He walked over and looked out, hands in his pockets. The sprawling grounds had become one big, overgrown field. Tall grass, as high as his waist, swayed lazily in the breeze. A rainbow of wildflowers sprayed across the landscape. Well, it certainlly was peaceful. Perhaps he could paint a wildflower landscape when he felt like doing a simple, popular piece.
He half-turned to go when he saw something out of the corner of his eye.
"What the--?" But when he looked out again, it was gone.
He shrugged, assuming it was a trick of the swaying flowers, and left the room. Still, for a moment, just an instant, he could have sworn that there was a face out in the field, looking up at him.
THE CRASH AND THE CALL
The night happened suddenly. The sun, having put on a dazzling display for most of the day, blazed briefly as it touched the hilly horizon, where it was swallowed by the dark pines. Jonathan was thankful he had discovered the canvas-tarped stack of firewood along the back of the house. Without the cheerful sun to exile the shadows, Windmere became a great, looming entity that Jonathan felt trapped within. Strange creaks common to ancient houses, but uncommon to the city-raised Jonathan, sent his imagination spinning. Each silken, sad, uncertain rustling of the curtains filled his mind with terrors never before imagined. The dull rhythm of the surf came through the open windows like the drumbeat of bloodthirsty savages. Even the twinkling of moonlight upon the water became a thousand glowing cat eyes peering at him through the dark.
The lively fire that blazed within the great fireplace helped but a little. Its orange light cast shimmering shadows upon the walls, teasing Jonathan with every half-seen movement. He sat with his feet tucked beneath him in a red velvet chair beside the fire, reading a volume of Lowell he had found in the library. It was titled, appropriately enough, "Fireside Travels," and it distracted Jonathan long enough for a burst of laughter to explode from him. He had just read a passage which went,
"I know nothing so tedious at once and exasperating as that regular slap of the wilted waves when the
ship rises and falls with the slow breathing of the sleeping sea, one greasy, brassy swell following another,
slow, smooth, immitigable. There is nothing so desperately monotonous as the sea, and I no longer wonder at the
cruelty of pirates."
But the burst of cheerfulness was short-lived, as the gloom and the wind and the waves conspired to feed a dread in Jonathan's mind. Finally, he gave up on his distracted reading and decided to go to bed. Perhaps if he could sleep, the dreadful night would pass him by, and he would wake to the greetings of the rising sun. Lighting a candle and grating the diminishing flames, he got up and went upstairs. His footsteps echoed loudly throughout the deserted house. It was, he thought, much like being within an old theater at night, after the actors who breath life into the scenes have all gone home, and the furntiture and wall hangings and knick-knacks become mere props. The hollowness of the place seems unnatural, and the harsh shadows created from the tightly concentrated sphere of a candlelight is so unlike the gentle shading of natural light.
Once in bed and beneath the satin covers, which were beautiful but cold, sleep came grudgingly. Each rustling curtain, each moan of timber, sent his heart racing.
"Feel no fret," he said to himself. "Feel no fret, feel no fret, feel no fret," he chanted beneath his breath. He closed his mind to the sounds of the house and thought of those wilted waves of Lowell's gently slapping against some becalmed ship's hull, until, finally, he dropped off to sleep.
He slept peacefully for hours, and was totally unaware of the shadow that came in the silent, dead hours of the morning and circled his bed.
In the morning, Jonathan arose from his bed and pulled back the curtains to reveal the sun rising beneath a sky shaded in red, pink, and orange, and the sea alive with dancing colors. The gloom and unease of the night seemed a distant folly. He felt nothing threatening in the brilliant dawn. This, he thought, is the perfect seascape.
After breakfast, Jonathan retrieved his art supplies from their shipping trunk and took them to the bedroom. He unfolded his easel and set it up next to the window, and found a stool to sit on. He analyzed the colors outside and prepared his pallette. Then, he held his brush poised over the canvas and looked out the window and felt--loneliness. The muted rhythm of surf bashing the rocks below seemed a lonesome, sad sound. The more he looked, the less blue the water appeared. It was, he realized, black. A bottomless black thing that ate souls. The sea no longer embraced the shoreline in his eyes; rather, the shoreline repelled it and held the hungry waves from unleashing their destruction.
Jonathan imagined centuries of souls crying their last within the black waters. So many lives who had put their faith and trust in the Atlantic, only to be taken by waters that demanded their toll. The sea, it was told, never gives up her dead, and Jonathan imagined hundreds of thousands of trapped souls wailing from within their watery grave. The ocean was filled with the dead, he realized.
With each crash of the waves, Jonathan heard the call of the sirens more clearly. The pounding surf was the call of the sea luring the hapless to their doom. Jonathan put down his brush. He could not paint this. If he hung this scene on his wall, it would be a source of constant misery. He began to wonder how he could remain in the face of such overwhelming misery.
Jonathan got up and began to stroll the halls. He wandered into the window-lined room he had taken to calling the greenhouse, and stared outside, hands clasped behind his back. The morning sun made the field glow, and his heart suddenly felt uplifted. Now here was something he could paint. He felt nothing but joy looking out upon the wide, flowery field. This view held such promise; there was such life within its flourishing blossoms. In contrast, the sea held only death.
Jonathan hurridly gathered his paints and easel, and moved it all to the opposite side of the house. He set up in a corner and began to work. Hours passed. Jonathan was unaware of the passage of time. He knew only the flick of the brush, the addition of a small burst of color in the right place. For him, there was only the swaying of the grass and the glow of the sun. His mind retreated into a trancelike state. His hand and eyes worked automatically. When he was done, it was with a sense of surprise, for he had had no sense of progression until he found himself with no more to add.
His cramped fingers aching, and his eyes blurry with strain, Jonathan got up and went for a walk to stretch his legs and recover. He had gone into these deep, trancelike states before, when he was doing particularly well. He called them his "zones". He had never experienced such a deep, long zone before, and he was amazed at how drained he felt.
The big, deeply ticking clock in the entryway said that it was almost 2:00pm (May 30, 1907). Wow. A lot of time had passed while he was at work. Amazing. It felt as though he had been at it for only a few minutes. It was refreshing in a way, this sudden burst of creativity. It made him feel full of life and accomplishment.
He stepped outside and wandered toward the cliff. The roll of the waves and the crash of the surf didn't seem so threatening now. The sensuous-smelling ocean breeze caressed his face and ran its fingers through his hair. Fighting back his fear of heights, he shuffled right up to the cliff-edge and sat with his feet dangling. He leaned over and looked down upon the rocks. It was certainly a long way down. If he slipped or the edge gave way, he would most definitely be done for. The rocks were wet, black boulders, some blanketed with stringy moss that undulated when the waves washed over them. An odd formation caught his eye, off to the left. He leaned forward just a little further and craned his head to see it better. A portion of the rocks at the base of the cliff appeared to be rectangular. They looked like a stunted boxcar. A coincidence of the geography, he decided. He believed such things were called "simulacra," natural formations that look like something else. Like the Old Man of the Mountain back home in New Hampshire.
The wind shifted, and Jonathan lost his balance and for a moment he was certain that he would go tumbling over the cliff. He threw his weight backwards in a panic and quickly scrambled back from the cliff's edge. He lay on his back in the grass, his heart pounding.
"Well, that was a stupid thing to do," he said to himself. "The rocks weren't that fascinating."
Jonathan returned to the house and went back upstairs to look at his painting. When he worked on a piece, he worked in such close detail that he was never quite sure what the finished work looked like until he stood back and surveyed it from a distance. He was impressed with the results. He did not consider himself a very good artist, but he had managed to capture the swaying action of the field and its random scattering of wildflowers with remarkable accuracy. But what was this? He leaned in. One part seemed uneven, a place in the field near the treeline that broke the consistency of the surface. He stepped back and looked again, and his skin broke out in gooseflesh. There, in the distance, was the unmistakable form of a woman crouched among the flowers, scissors in one hand, a bundle of fresh cuttings in the other. And she was looking directly out at him.
It had to have been a coincidece, an accidental simulacra in paint. He peered in again. No, each brush stroke, each little dot of paint, was very deliberate. He did not recall painting this person into the picture. Then again, he tended to paint individual bits of light and color, and was not usually conscious of the thing that he was painting. And the detail was too great, right down to the slender fingers clutching the silver scissors, and the shaded opening of her apron pocket.
Something else gnawed at him, something that just eluded his detection. There was something about the girl that was familiar. Did he know her from someplace? Had he unconsciously painted in someone he knew?
Then he recognized her: it was the face he had fleetingly glimpsed looking up at him the day before.
A chill ran down his spine. He jerked his head up and looked across the field at the treeline, but there was no one there.
THE SCHOOL GIRL
The entryway clock struck three. Wow, three o'clock already; he had wanted to go down and explore the town this afternoon; there was still just enough time to go. Thinking that it would be good to head to town and clear his mind of the confusing matter of the girl in the painting, Jonathan snagged his hat off of the ornate walnut hatrack opposite the Seth Thomas on his way through the entryway. He retrieved his horse from the stable and descended the hill into town.
There were few more clues as to what the stout pipestone building could be. Walls were contructed most of the way to the roofline, with rectangular gaps where the windows would go. The arched framework was in place where the doors would be, hovering several feet off of the ground, because no steps existed yet. Pallets piled high with additional stone blocks and curving, terra-cotta shingles lay scattered throughout the work site, indicating that there was much more building left to construct. Jonathan made a mental note to ask someone what they were building here.
Since he had already seen most of main street, Jonathan turned his horse down one of the side streets to explore the residential areas. The houses were simple, reflecting the personalities of the people who lived in them. Many were of the old Colonial style that Jonathan guessed could have dated back to before the civil war. As was typical of this part of the south, the trees hung low with greenery, and the air smelled fresh with plant life. Hedges and hanging potted plants lined the picket and iron fences. The shrill of cicadas filled his ears. Jonathan's hilltop was depressingly devoid of trees. Probably the constant wind made it too difficult for seed to find purchase. He decided that in the spring he was definitely going to have to plant some trees around the house. What the house possessed in grandeur, it sadly lacked in lushness.
Jonathan turned from street to street, marveling in the simplicity he saw here as compared to the bustling congestion of Manchester. For just a moment, he thought of selling Windmere and moving into town. The homes here seemed much more pleasant. Perhaps, he thought with a chuckle, he could sell Windmere back to Martin's nephews. Wouldn't Courtroy and Malcolm get a charge out of that! It would almost be worth doing just to see the expressions of shock and fury on their faces!
No, no, he reminded himself. He was going to stick this out. He had embarked on a whole new life, and he was not going to run away from everything that scared him a little. After all, he had only spent one night in the house. The unfamiliar surroundings were making his imagination a bit overactive, that was all. Within a week, he would settle into a routine, and his imagination would cease to find the house threatening each time the inky shades of night fell.
Presently, he came upon a woman out working her small flower garden. She stopped what she was doing when she saw him approach, and stood straight and threw him a small wave.
"Hello, there," she said.
"Good day, ma'am," Jonathan returned, doffing his hat a fraction.
She wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of gloved hand. "I haven't seen you around here before. You looking for someone's house?"
"Oh, no. I'm new to town. I'm just accustomizing myself to my new surroundings."
"Oh! Oh! You're the mister who moved into the Sloan house on top of the hill, aren't you?"
"The one and the same, ma'am. My name is Jonathan Keller."
"You should come on inside and I'll make you some tea. We'd love to get to know you. We get so few newcomers around here. It's kind of like Christmas when someone new shows up!" She laughed, a short, high-pitched cackle. "I'm Carlotta Russell, by the way."
"Pleased to meet you, Carlotta," Jonathan said, dismounting from his horse. He could not help but notice as he followed her to the house that her bundled hair, although greying, was once a wavy jet black, complementing her olive skin. And her brown eyes, though half-hidden by bags and wrinkles, were wide and dark. Carlotta was obviously once a stunning beauty. He wondered what had brought her here from whatever exotic locale she originated.
The glass in the door rattled as she swung it open a little too hard and it hit against the wall. "Oops. Don't mind me; I'm just a butterfingers," she said.
"It's quite all right, I assure you," he replied with a smile.
The house was small, and had the comfortably cluttered look of a home that has been occupied by the same people for many, many years. All along the walls, little oil paintings and pencil sketches hung in cheap frames. They weren't bad, he thought, but the inexperienced hand of an amateur showed. His very first works had borne the same taint. They were the sort of works that only got hung on the wall because they were done by a member of the family.
Carlotta led him through the living room and it's well-worn furniture and small piles of letters and books, and into the kitchen. She sat him down at the small, circular kitchen table and got a pitcher of tea from the icebox.
"My husband is a fisherman," she explained as she poured glasses for the both of them. "I'm afraid you won't be able to meet him this afternoon. My daughter should be returning from school at any minute. I know she'd love to hear what it's like in that great big house up there. You know, almost know one from town has seen the inside of it, it's sat empty so long. I'm sure you're gonna get a lot of questions about it. Folks are curious about the place."
"Why is that?" Jonathan asked, sipping his tea.
"Well, the stories, of course. Big place like that doesn't sit empty all these years without people latchin' onto the notion that it's haunted."
"Do you believe that my house is haunted, Mrs. Russell?"
She dismissed him with a wave of her hand. "Oh, I don't know as I believe in that stuff. Just...kids, you know. Tellin' their stories to impress one another."
"What are some of the stories you've heard?"
"Oh, strange lights at night, moanin', faces in the window. The usual haunted house poppycock."
"You've heard nothing more specific?"
Just then, the front door rattled open and closed, and footsteps came down the hall.
"That'll be my daughter. She's the one you oughta ask about ghost stories. Them schoolkids know all of 'em."
A young woman entered the kitchen, a bookbag slung over her shoulder. Jonathan caught his breath. She was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen. Here was the exotic beauty he knew her mother had once been, with long, black hair pulled back and draping down her back, deep, wide, brown eyes, and smooth, slighty-tinted skin. "Hello, Mother-- Oh!" she exclaimed as she caught sight of Jonathan, who had instinctively half-risen from his seat. "I didn't know you were expecting company. Excuse me." She began to leave the room, but her mother called her back.
"Actually, I was just telling this young gent that he should talk with you. This is Mr. Keller. He's taken up residence in the house atop the hill."
The girl's eyes grew wide. Totally disregarding etiquette, she said, "Really?" and pulled out a chair and sat at the table and stared at Jonathan.
"Gail, where are your manners?" her mother scolded.
"Oh! I'm sorry. I'm Gail Russell. But I suppose my mother had already told you everything you would want to know about me. Please, do tell us what it's like, the house on the hill."
"Er, well," Jonathan stammered. Actually, he did not know everything he wanted to know about this girl. He had expected a young schoolgirl, not this breathtaking, blossoming woman. "It's big. Really big. And it's got no electricity or running water. And, um...everything's covered with dust." No, wait. That wasn't right. That wasn't what he mean to say to impress them. "Oh, but it's really grand. And beautiful. Everything's covered with carvings, even the crown molding." He decided that he needed to shut up while he was ahead.
"Oh, but what of the ghosts," Gail asked. "Tell us about the ghosts!"
"Uh, well... I hate to disappoint you, but I haven't seen any ghosts."
Gail frowned. "Truly? Not a one?"
"Not a one."
"Oh, buggerall!" she exclaimed, stamping her foot.
"Gail!" Carlotta cried. "That is no language for a young lady to be using!" She turned to Jonathan. "I'm sorry. Her father. You know how the fishermen talk. She can't help but be exposed to it."
"It's quite all right," Jonathan said. "You'd be shocked at some of the things that get said in the faculty lounges at university, too."
"Oh, are you a teacher?" Gail asked, but her mother quickly defused the change of subject.
"I don't care if President Roosevelt uses that word; it's no way for a lady to speak in front of company! Go to your room!"
"Very well, mother." Gail shoved away from the table and stalked out of the room. They heard her footsteps stomp up the stairs.
"I'm very sorry, Mr. Keller," Carlotta said. "I'm afraid she won't be able to tell you ghost stories today."
He had really wanted to hear what tales about his house were circulating around town. Buggerall, indeed!
"Er, Mrs. Russell," he said, "I would love to come back and meet your husband sometime. Would that be possible?"
"Certainly!" Carlotta said. "We would love to have you back again. But it would have to be on the weekend. My husband leaves at the first gleam of dawn and doesn't return until after the crows have roosted."
"That would be just fine. Why don't you discuss it with your husband after he gets home tonight and let me know? You can leave a message for me at the post office if I don't see you beforehand tomorrow." He stood to go. "Thank you very much for the tea, Mrs. Russell. It was delicious. However, I have some supplies to buy, and I'm afraid I have to be running."
Carlotta walked him to the door. "Thank you so much for dropping by, Mr. Keller. It was a pleasure to meet you."
"As it was you. Good day."
"Goodbye," Carlotta said sweetly. As soon as she closed the door behind him, he heard her voice shouting as her feet pounded up the stairs, "Gail! I want to have a word with you, child!"
Smiling for many reasons, Jonathan dropped his hat onto his head and walked to his horse.
Jonathan snapped awake from the edge of sleep that night, one of those moments when you suddenly remember something for no reason. He had forgotten to ask Carlotta Russell what was being built on the end of Main Street. Oh, bother. There was nothing he could do about it now, and now he was going to lay awake a good while longer before he could fall back to sleep. Why did the human mind have to work in such irritatingly random ways?
He rolled over onto his back and lay staring into the black bowl of the bed canopy, straining to hear the ocean surf falling against the base of the cliff. Perhaps the steady, low noise would help lull him back to sleep. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he discerned a pale red glow coming through the curtains. This was odd. He had seen pale orange harvest moons, but never at the seaside; and he had seen the bright red disk of mars, but never so bright as to illuminate the ground. He had read accounts of a volcanic eruption in the Pacific that spewed ash so high into the atmosphere that it traveled the globe and turned the sun over England blood-red. Perhaps something of the like had happened again. He jumped out of bed and pulled on his dressing gown. A red moon; this would be a sight to see!
He went to the windows and pulled back the curtains. About ten feet away from the house, slightly above the tops of the windows, a glowing red orb hovered. It was a bit over a foot in diameter, and hung motionless in the steady wind that bent the tops of the shrubs near the cliffside. Smooth and featureless, it had no distinct edges that Jonathan could see. It seemed to be no more solid than a part of the air. And yet, somehow, Jonathan sensed a presence. He sensed that it was watching him. Watching him, and, at the same time, watching the sea.
Jonathan rubbed the palm of his hand over his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Still, the watching orb remained. This was madness! A part of him wanted to snap the curtains closed and go back to bed and pretend that nothing was there. Hopefully it would be gone by morning. But another part of him was fascinated and curious. He wanted to be able to reach out the window and touch it.
He turned the window latch.
It would be so warm.
He pushed open the window.
It wasn't that far. He could reach it.
His arm reached for it.
He would only touch it for a moment.
He leaned too far and lost his balance and began to fall head-first out the window. His other flailing hand caught the window frame and checked his fall. Wide-eyed, he threw himself back into the room. He stood and tried to coax his pistoning heart down to normal speed. My God, that had been close. And twice in one day! How ridiculous! He shook his head. Definitely staying away from heights for a while, he thought.
He gingerly reached out and pulled the window closed. When he did so, he noticed that the mysterious ball of red light had vanished.
The morning sun sliced through the open curtains and prodded Jonathan awake. He cursed himself for forgetting to close them again and tried to fall back to sleep. Finding that he was not going to fall asleep again, he eventually threw back the sheets and groggily stumbled out of bed. What were the curtains doing open anyway?
Suddenly he was wide awake. The events of the night seemed so impossible in the warm, safe sunshine. But the open curtains, and his general lack of sleep were evidence that he had not dreamed it. The red ball of light had been real, all right. He thought of Carlotta's hints that Windmere was haunted. The thought that she may have been right dashed through his head. He shook his head. No, it had to have been something naturally-occuring that he had misidentified. It may not have even been right in front of the house, at it had appeared. Without any physical points of reference, it was impossible to guage its true distance or proportion. It was probably only a reflection from something, or one of those air refractions that he had heard sometimes happen at sea. Why, he could have been looking at an image of the sun rising on the other side of the world! Jonathan chuckled to himself at his gullibility and headed downstairs for breakfast.
After he had eaten and dressed, Jonathan decided to take a walk around the property. He had been told that it extended for some ways to the north and west, but he had no idea what the land was like beyond the line of trees on the other side of the field. He put on his hat and started off across the field. Whether consciously or not, his path took him to the point in the trees where the girl had appeared in his painting.
It was much warmer out in the field than he had anticipated, and soon sweat beaded his forehead and dampened his shirt. The cuff of his shirt was becoming wet from repeatedly wiping his brow. He thought about heading back and coming out when it was cooler. But when he stopped, and the steady rustle of his legs pressing through the grass ceased, the silence was so pure that he could not abandon it. Only the sounds of insects calling and buzzing through the air broke the stillness. For whatever reason, be it the curve of the hill, or Windmere's massive edifice, the constant ocean wind did not reach back here. He looked around at the reds and purples and yellows stretching away in all directions, the treeline appearing small and distant in the sea of wildflowers and green-yellow prairie grass. He wished he knew the names of them all. He made a mental note to buy a book of wildflower identification on his next trip to town. Come to think of it, he wasn't even sure if Simone had a bookstore. That was a disturbing thought.
Reluctantly, not wanting to shatter the silence, he continued forward.
Reaching the treeline, he plunged in. The cool darkness within here was a shocking change from the warm brightness of the field. He stood a moment, waiting for his eyes to adjust, and took in the smells. The damp earth gave off a deep, musky smell. He tried to pick out individual things: fallen leaves, moss, damp rocks, ferns, earthworms and snails, birds and squirrels, deer. All of these bundled together into one great smell that defined forests. To Jonathan, the smell of moisture was not the smell of cleanliness. It was the smell of decay, of leaves and worm excrement and animal carcasses breaking down. It was the part of the cycle of nature that made the soil rich and the vegetation lush. To Jonathan, the smell of decay was the smell of life.
Soon his eyes grew accustomed to the dimness, and he quickly picked out a deer trail meandering through the trees. He followed it. When again he emerged on the other side, the bright sun now blinded him. He threw a forearm across his eyes and squinted into the glare. He was in another field, much like the one immediately behind his house. He guessed that Windmere had once had working farmland, and these wildflower fields separated by trees were the remains of agricultural fields. There were enough wildflowers now that he ought to become a wildflower farmer!
In the middle of the field was a log cabin. He couldn't make out much detail from here, but it appeared to be in remarkably good shape for such an obviously old relic. He couldn't remember the last time that log cabins had been built regularly. He made a path for the cabin, intrigued. In the back of his mind, he knew that he was hoping to discover that this was where the girl he had seen lived.
Surely enough, when he got to the cabin, he found that the windows were gaily decorated with boxes full of flowers, giving the impression of cheer and welcome. However, the shades were drawn and the door was locked. He walked all around it. It was in good condition. No gaps showed in between the logs. The chinking was sound. The roof appeared solid. Even the stones at the top of the chimney were true. At some point in its history, glass windows had been inserted for a modern touch. A rough wooden gutter led down into a water barrel next to the back door (which was also locked). Jonathan lifted the lid. The barrel was full. Of course, that didn't mean anything. A rain barrel could regulate itself without anyone around to use it.
Jonathan thought briefly of smashing a window and crawling inside to explore, but thought better of it. He was not certain whether the cabin did in fact lie on his land. If it did lie on his land, that still gave him no excuse to smash into it. For all he knew, there could still be people (namely, a young woman who likes to pick flowers) living on the grounds that he had not been told about. Martin Sloan may have appointed a caretaker and invited them to live on the grounds without telling anyone about them. But why make the caretaker live way out here when the whole of Windmere stood empty and unoccupied? Certainly there was ample room for a caretaker to make a home and not disturb much of the rest of the house.
Unless he was scared away by the ghosts, he thought suddenly.
Ah, ghosts. He shook his head. Boy, that Carlotta woman had sure fed a lot into his imagination with only a few words!
Completing his circle of the house, Jonathan saw that a gravel path led away from the front of the cabin and disappeared through a cutout in the trees. What the hell, he thought. He had the whole day ahead of him. He started down the path, his shoes crunching in the dry gravel, and the smell of warm limestone blending with the flowers.
Jonathan emerged on the other side of the trees and found himself at a T-intersection with another gravel road. He was pretty sure he knew what this road was. He closed his eyes and pictured the layout of the Windmere estate. He had traveled northwest...this small road from the cabin led due west...the larger road he was now on ran north-south... This must have been the main road in and out of Simone, the one he branched off of to come up here. One small and inconsequential mystery solved. Now there mainly remained the mystery of the girl. Jonathan suddenly had the realization that he had never actually seen the girl. He had caught a glimpse from the corner of his eye of what he had taken to be a figure in the field, and he had painted an image of somebody who he didn't recall seeing. Both instances could have been products of his imagination, which, admittedly, appeared to be more active since his arrival.
He took his time walking back to Windmere. Partially, he was enjoying the fine day and the wonders of nature. Mostly, he was hoping that the girl from his picture would turn out to be more than a figment.
A GHOST STORY
"Morning, Arthur," Jonathan said, the overhead bell jangling as he came through the general store's door.
"Mornin', Mr. Keller," Arthur replied. "Help you find somethin' partic'lar today?"
"This was a long shot, but I thought I'd check and see if you have any oil-based paints."
"Like for paintin' your house?"
"No, no. Artist's paints. This was the only place in town I thought might carry them."
Arthur pointed to the back of the store. "I've got a few in the back, across from the rice bags. Don't know how old they are, but if they're all dried out you can bring 'em back."
"Thank you." Jonathan headed down the aisles that smelled of sawdust and horse remedies and corn. He turned the corner at the bags of rice and there was Gail Russell, browsing the very shelf Jonathan had intended to look at.
"Oh! Um, hello," he said, suddenly remembering to remove his hat.
Startled, Gail turned suddenly. The look of surprise on her face quickly turned into a smile, and her deep brown eyes sparkled. "Good morning," she said. "How are you?"
"Fine. Fine. I, uh, I see you're looking at the paints, too. Do you paint also?"
"Now and then. I really only have time during the summer. Now that school is out, I thought that I would get one or two colors that I need. I can't afford many, so I have to be choosy. I can't decide which ones to get." She looked at him with her large, suggestive eyes. "Perhaps you could assist me?"
"Oh, uh," Jonathan stammered. "Well, I, uh. I would choose white...and black. Yes, white and black," he said with what he hoped sounded like authority.
"Black and white?" she repeated sceptically.
"Yes. Because, erm, you see, ah...you can...mix...each of them with anything else, and those shades can be combined with others to make just about any color you want." There! He smiled, happy that he had pulled such a thing off the top of his head. "Oh, and they help make everything go twice as far!"
Gail smiled with what he was sure was amusement at this silly old man.
"What an excellent idea, Mr. Keller!" she said. "Black and white it is!"
"Really? Oh, uh, thank you."
Gail pulled one tube each of white and black from their display boxes, but did not walk away. She seemed to be looking around for something else she might suddenly need back at this end of the store. "Well, it was a pleasure meeting you again, Mr. Keller," she finally said.
"Likewise," he replied. She shuffled her feet a bit, then slowly began to step away.
"Well, goodbye," she said.
"Goodbye..." She started to walk away. Jonathan mentally slapped himself on the forehead. "Wait! Miss Russell--"
She quickly turned. "Yes?"
"I, uh, well, the truth is I'm rather pleased we bumped into each other again..."
"As am I!" Her face positively glowed.
"You are? Um, that is, I would like to have gotten to speak with you more when we first met the other day."
Her smile faded and she glanced at her feet. "I'm terribly sorry about that. Mother was right; that was no way for a lady to act." Her eyes met his again, adventure flashing within them. "I just got so excited to meet somebody who actually lives in that mansion. I want to hear all about it!"
"Actually, I wanted you to tell me about my house."
Her expression melted into confusion, then she giggled. "Now, what could I possibly tell you about your own house? I've never even been inside it."
"You could, if you'd like." Immediately, Jonathan regretted saying it. It sounded like a proposition.
"That's very forward, Mr. Keller."
He waved his hands in the air. "No! No! That's not what I meant! That came out wrong. I just...I wanted to hear the ghost stories that your mother told me you knew. The stories about Windmere. You could come up, see the house for yourself. With your mother."
"I...I couldn't," Gail said.
"Oh, now, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you."
"I'm not afraid of you, Mr. Keller," she said, the smile returning to her face. "I think you are a very sweet man." She stepped closer to him, quite close, and said in a low voice, "Are you free this afternoon?"
"I'm going to the far bluffs to the south to paint seascapes. Why don't you join me? We can spend the afternoon painting together. And," she almost purred the words, "I can tell you ghost stories."
Jonathan's heart pounded in his chest. "That sounds like a very pleasant afternoon," he squeaked. "Shall I come by and pick you up?"
"No, you mustn't. My mother... Well, my mother would not allow it. This must remain our secret rendevouz." She placed a fingertip lightly upon his lips. "You can do that for me, can't you, Jonathan?"
"Yes...I suppose I could do that... But why does you mother--"
"I must go. Meet me on the south bluffs at one." She backed away and began to walk off, saying in a loud, conversational voice. "It was a pleasure to meet you again, Mr. Keller. Thank you again for your assistance. Good day."
"You're welcome," he said meekly, with a half-wave. "Good day."
Back home, Jonathan quickly gathered his paints, brushes, and canvas, and carefully tied them within their carrying bag. He folded up his easel and bundled everything together. He hurridly threw together and wolfed down a sparse lunch, then loaded his supplies onto his horse and set off down the hill. He asked himself why he should be so simultaneously nervous and eager to meet Miss Russell. There was more than a bit of impropriety in meeting the young woman outside of the awareness of her parents. Yet he had not thought twice in agreeing to see her. Yes, he wanted very badly to hear what was said within the town about Windmere, but his compulsion went far beyond that. He somehow did not care if they sat out in the sea breeze and the swaying grass all afternoon and never spoke a word about Windmere. He did not understand why, but this Russell girl made him quiver like a leaf in a breeze. Beyond her otherworldly beauty, there was an edginess, a sense of danger about her, and he was intrigued by that. And why shouldn't he pursue her? He was embarking on new adventures in life; why not embark on new adventures of he heart as well? Jonathan struck up a whistle as he guided his horse through the trees.
On the other side of the bowl-shaped harbor, atop a sandy bluff covered with scraps of grass, Gail Russell stood sideways to the strong salt-scented wind and peered through a battered brass spyglass. It had been an old spyglass of her father's, given to her as a child so she could watch for her father's fishing trawler to skate over the horizon. Now she aimed it toward land, at the old house on top of the hill. She watched the fuzzy image of Jonathan Keller mount his horse and set off down the hillside. She watched him until he disappeared behind the treeline.
She lowered the spyglass, and smiled while brushing her windswept hair away from her face.
Jonathan's horse pawed its way up the sandy bluffs. He had spotted Gail from a distance, silhouetted at first sitting upon a stool before her canvas, and his heart had pounded increasingly harder as he drew nearer and details of her features emerged from the haze of distance. She appeared to have been here for quite some time already; he hoped that he wasn't too late. She was either too engrossed in her work to notice him, or was coyly pretending not to notice him as his horse topped the hill and approached her.
"Good afternoon, miss," he called, dismounting and walking toward her with his bundle of supplies.
She turned slowly, not at all startled, and he knew that she had been listening for him, pretending to be unconcerned of his whereabouts.
"Hello, Jonathan Keller," she said, brush held aloft in mid-stroke. "I'm pleased you could join me."
"A pleasure," he replied.
"Please, have a seat."
"Thank you." He unfolded his little wood-frame-and-canvas stool and his easel and set them up near her. "It's a good day for a seascape," he said, conversationally. "There's just enough wind to give some life to the surface."
"Isn't there, though?" Her eyes did not look at him or leave her canvas. "I love the ocean during a mild gale. I love the way the water churns and boils. The way it froths as it licks the beach." She turned her head to look at him for the first time since he'd arrived. The early afternoon sun made a halo around the edges of her wide-brimmed hat. It was white with blue stripes, and a black ribbon holding it onto her head. He wished that she would take off the hat so he could watch her loose hair dance in the wind. "Have you ever felt anything more exhilerating than the froth of the waves sliding between your bare toes, Mr. Keller?"
He felt himself turning red, and got that feeling that had been her intention. "I can't say as I have. I never got to the beach much when I lived in Manchester."
Gail went back to her painting. "You really must try it now that you're here, Mr. Keller. There are lots of things in Simone that you didn't have in Manchester."
"I shall take that under advisement."
She turned and looked down and pointed at his feet with her paintbrush. A little glob of blue streaked with white clung to the tip of it. "Why don't you start by taking off your shoes. You are at the beach, you know."
For the first time, he noticed that she herself was barefoot. Her white shoes lay neatly side-by-side on the ground beside her easel. Her, slender, very white feet were tucked beneath her stool. Jonathan noticed that she had very long toes, the tips of which were curled into the sand. He was suddenly afraid to remove his shoes. He knew they were at the beach, and it made perfect sense, but this girl, this confusing, mysterious, enthralling girl, somehow made the suggestion sound as though he would be naked.
She was watching him, waiting. He sat down on his stool and slowly began to untie and remove his shoes. As he pulled off his stockings, he suddenly became afraid that his feet would smell. But if the did, it was quickly swept away by the salty breeze. He set his feet flat on the ground and let the course sand slip between his toes. He smiled. This really wasn't so bad! And rather than feeling naked, he just felt...free...and wild.
"Now, isn't that better?" she asked, smiling.
"Why, yes. It's quite pleasant, in fact," he replied.
"Now you'll be able to paint much easier!" she said, turning back to her canvas. "Free your feet, and your mind will follow!"
Jonathan laughed, and began to assemble his oils. Yes, he really was quite relaxed now. His toes buried in the sand, and the dune grass tickling his ankles made him feel anchored to the bluff. He felt part of the bluff, and knew how it was warm and dry on the surface, and cold and moist deep in its core. Through the dune, he could almost feel the waves slithering ashore, and the seawater pouring down through the grains of sand. Extending his mind, he felt the shell-ridden bottom spun by the incoming waves, and further out, the sea grass swirling in the current. He felt the warmth of the sun on the ocean's surface, and the brush of passing clouds of plankton.
He was suddenly aware of how the ocean was constructed, the mechanics of how it moved. He knew just the way the whitecaps should crest, exactly how the shadows of clouds should look upon the surface, how the sunlight should be eaten by the water, how the marriage of ocean and beach should appear. He quickly mixed his paints and began to dash his brush across the canvas. So much to capture! He vainly wanted to document it all at once, and his stupid hand and brush would not keep up with his flashing mind.
He did not know how long he had been working when he heard Gail say, "It looks like you've found inspiration."
He snapped from his reverie and for the first time mentally stepped back and observed what he had created. It was not bad, he thought. Details had become lost in his rush to capture them. Instead, they were only hinted at with just enough highlights and shading to let the mind's eye fill in the gaps. The overall effect was rather impressionistic. It was a new style for him, and not one he had intended to pursue. He was pleased with the results, though. He wondered if he could do the same thing intentionally.
"It's very European," she said, her arm snaking around his shoulder. "Very exotic."
His moment of thrilling self-satisfaction vanished, and the old nervousness rose up to replace it. Should he act upon her directness? Was she even aware of her directness? For heaven's sake, she was little more than a child! He had already seen that she was not well-schooled in the ways of modern etiquette. How could one expect her to know the rules of romance? No, he had best not act upon her momentary lapse of judgment. He would be taking advantage of an inexperienced young girl.
"Why won't you look at me, Jonathan?" she asked.
With difficulty, he turned on his stool and looked up to meet her eyes. Oh, god, those eyes! The clouds slid across them. They tore all restraints from his heart, and he wanted to take her in his arms. He fought to constrain his urges. "I was just...engrossed in my canvas," he fibbed.
"I was beginning to think you didn't like me," she said.
"No, no. I do like you, Gail. I'm just...I'm experiencing a lot lately, and I guess I'm easily distracted." He smiled, trying to turn the whole thing into a joke. But Gail was not smiling.
"I wouldn't blame you if you didn't want to see me. I mean, my mother..." She looked up to the sky, gathering her words. "Let me tell you why I said my mother would not allow me to see you privately. She is quite protective of me, you see. My father's business, it's very dangerous, and both Mother and I know every time he goes out that he may not return. It is by the grace of the sea and the blessings of God that he returns to us night after night.
"Mother claims not to believe in any of the stories that are told about Windmere. But I think that secretly she does. Too much death and misfortune has fallen upon the occupants of that house for her not to believe at least some of it."
The hair on Jonathan's arms and the back of his neck began to crawl. He wanted to break in and ask her exactly what misfortunes and deaths had happened in his house? But he felt that she should be allowed to go on uninterrupted.
"After you left the other day," Gail continued, "I mean, right after, Mother came up to my room and told me that I was not to speak to you of that house. She said you would have enough problems up there without my stimulating your imagination with tales meant to frighten children."
"What sort of problems?" Jonathan interrupted.
Gail shrugged. "I don't know what she meant by that. I suspect she believes that someone like yourself from the city would not be used to living with no electricity or running water.
"Anyway, she also told me that I was not under any circumstances to go up to that house, either on my own or by invitation. She said that the house is cursed and nothing good would come of my entering it."
"Oh, now, cursed?" Jonathan laughed. "Curses are for gypsies and Egyptians. There's no place for curses in this modern age."
Gail's eyes burned with fright and seriousness. "Do not laugh! That is what has been said for generations. That there is a curse upon Windmere and all who occupy it. My mother has nothing against, you, Mr. Keller. She only wants to protect me from harm."
Jonathan was filled with a sudden urge to sweep her into his arms and tell her that no harm would come to her as long as she was with him. Instead, he said, "Do you believe in the curse?"
"I believe in some things. I don't know if I believe in the curse. I don't think all of those things would be said about Windmere if some of them weren't true."
"So why do you risk so much to meet me here, in secret, against your mother's wishes and your own beliefs. If I am the bearer of a curse, you should stay away from me, shouldn't you?"
She blinked, surprised. "Isn't it obvious, Jonathan?" Her arm trailed wistfully down his arm and her fingers curled into his hand. "I like you. I couldn't let our first brief encounter be our last." She looked straight into his eyes. "I do believe something is very wrong up there. I believe that you could be in great danger. You deserved to know this."
"So tell me. Tell me everything you know about Windmere."
A gust of wind came up and caught Gail's painting. It lifted the wood-framed rectangle of canvas into the air like a sail and sent it tumbling across the dune. "Oh, no!" she cried and took off running after it. Gail's long skirt, however, was not designed for running, and she tumbled in the shifting sand. Jonathan jumped up and ran to her side.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine. But would you please retrieve my canvas?"
Jonathan stood and trotted after the painting, which was no longer cartwheeling across the bluff, but was now flopping slowly end-over-end. He easily caught up with it and grabbed it. Shaking the sand from it, he carried it back to Gail, who still lay on in the sand and the grass.
Laughing, he said, "I think you've created an abstract, my dear!" He flipped it around to show her. The tans and yellows and blues and whites had smeared throughout one another, and embedded sand now speckled across the entire piece.
Gail moaned, "Ohhhhh! Bother. I wouldn't mind so much, but that canvas was expensive!"
"I'm pretty sure you can unfasten it from its frame and use the other side. Lots of great artists re-used their canvases, you know." He noticed that she still wasn't getting up. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"I'm fine. I just suddenly decided that I like it down here. Look." She pointed overhead. "Look at how the clouds skate by. And the birds seem to hang in midair with their beaks pointed out to sea." She patted the ground next to her. "Come. Lay in the sand with me, Jonathan."
He shrugged, thinking no harm could come from it at this point. He set the painting down next to her easel and stretched out alongside her. The daylight filled his eyes. He had not realized how bright and vividly blue the sky was today. And without the horizon to give them proportion, the clouds seemed to fairly rocket by. He was amazed at how the sunlight lit their tops on fire, then was slowly consumed by the cloud depths, until their undersides were nothing more than dark shadows. It was, he realized, much like being under the sea.
Gail's fingers twined into his. "Isn't life beautiful, Jonathan?"
He considered the question a moment, and said, with more honesty than he had expected, "Yes. Yes, it is."
They lay in silence for a long while, watching the sky slide by, and listening to the sea and the gulls.
Finally, she said, "Do you want me to ruin the moment, Jonathan?"
"What do you mean?"
"Do you want me to finish telling you what I was starting to tell you? About Windmere. Or do you want to simply lay here and not speak of it and go home in a state of bliss?"
Jonathan turned on his side to look at her. At some point, she had slipped her large hat off, and her long, wavy, black hair spilled across the sand. "I think I shall be in a state of bliss no matter what you tell me," he said.
"Then I will tell all, with complete honesty.
"Windmere has stood atop the hill for as long as anyone in Simone can remember; at least 200 years. The family that owned it have always been secretive and unforthcoming, so no one ever knew for certain what things occured within its walls. Legend has it that the man who build the build the house was a merchant who was in cahoots with the pirates who infested these waters. They left his ships untouched in return for an annual payment. The man is supposed to have double-crossed one of the pirates, or betrayed him somehow, and they dueled, and both men lost their lives. It is said that Windmere is haunted by the ghosts of the pirate and the merchant, whose eternal battle spills over into our world now and then."
"Well, I haven't seen anything of the sort," Jonathan said. Though now he thought of the red orb that had floated outside his bedroom window, and doubt began to creep into his mind.
"It may be that you are immune to the curse. If that is so, then thank your lucky stars, Mr. Keller!"
"There you go with curses again."
"The curse is supposed to fall upon the decendants of the merchant who betrayed the pirate. The ghosts have tormented them for centuries. If you aren't related to any of them, then you may be safe. But if not...then I fear for your soul, Jonathan Keller."
"You can be quite a melodramatic girl, you know that, Miss Russell?"
"I'm not being melodramatic!" she said sulkily. "That house is an evil one!"
"All right, then. Present your evidence. What has happened within your lifetime to support your belief in this curse?"
"Well..." She thought for a moment. "The last owner of the house, Mr. Sloan, never lived in it at all. He said he did not want any part of the family curse. It has remained empty since before I was born. But my friends have claimed to have seen lights and moving shadows from within. And great eldritch moans emanating from its walls."
"So you've personally experienced nothing."
"There was one time... I was out on the dunes, not far from here, and I could see the house in the distance, just as we can now. I came to watch the sunset, and when it was over, it was quite dark. I had begun to pick my way back across the top of the bluff, when I saw a strange red light atop your hill."
Jonathan's blood ran cold. "A red light, did you say?"
"Yes. Not very big, little brighter than the starboard light of my father's fishing boat. I thought at first that I had gotten turned around and was facing the ocean. So I pulled out my father's spyglass--which I carry with me every time I come to the shore--to get a better look at it. It was unmistakably your house, for the ball of light distinctly lit the front of it. It hovered right in front of the house, just between the second and third row of windows. I watched it for about five minutes, during which time it remained motionless. Then, suddenly, it was gone. Like a candle snuffed." She looked over at Jonathan with eyes that pleaded with him to believe her.
"The red light I cannot deny. I have seen it myself," he said after a moment.
Gail rolled over to lie on her stomach, propped up on her elbows. She looked at Jonathan excitedly. "You have? Oh, this is wonderful!"
"It is? sounds pretty bloody ominous to me."
"I mean, this proves that the stories are true. I have to admit that I never put much stock into the tall tales of my schoolmates. Most of them are very immature. Even after I saw the light that night, I questioned whether I had seen the reflected light from a distant ship, or someplace in town, or whether I had even seen it at all. None of my classmates ever saw such a thing, and it does not exist in any of the tales. But now you have seen it, too! So it must be real!"
"I have to admit that I don't know what I saw. But I know that I saw something."
Gail rose to her knees and brushed the sand from the front of her dress, a gesture Jonathan found oddly appealing, then sat back on her heels with her hands resting on her knees. "The best part of all, is that you are free from the curse! You are not a descendant of the original Sloan, so you won't be bothered by his pesky ghost! Oh, Jonathan, I'm so happy for you!"
Unexpectedly, she leaned down and kissed him. As startled as he was, he still took in every instant of the fleeting moment. Her lips were warm, soft, and sweet, and were gone far too soon.
Gail jerked upright, her fingertips flying to her mouth. "Oh! Oh! I'm so sorry! That was a very-- Oh, my!"
Jonathan sat up. "It's all right, Gail," he said reassuringly. "It's ok." He took her hands in his and lowered them from her face. "It was just an impusive moment..."
And then he found himself kissing her.
As they led their horses on foot off of the bluffs and toward the town, Jonathan found his mind blank of topics of conversation. His thoughts were still back on the gusty dunes and Gail's heart-warming kisses and the image of her hair and dress billowing in the wind as she knelt on the sand, her bare feet half-immersed in the dune-tops. He felt himself hypnotized by this exotic beauty, a man operating as though controlled from outside of his body when in her presence. A thought came swimming through the middle of his reverie: how would her mother feel about her seeing him now? Certainly if Gail's theory of the curse were true, and he could not be harmed by it because he was not a Sloan descendant (and Jonathan was still not certain that he believed in curses anyway), then what reason for Mrs. Russell not to allow her daughter to see him?
Gail herself was uncharacteristically silent for most of the long walk into town. She, too, was distracted by memories of their afternoon on the bluffs. Such an unladylike woman she was turning out to be! She felt in her blossoming woman's body that she was everything the opposite of what her mother always enforced that she should be. And, oh, how she did love it! If the quickness of her breath, or the tingle on her skin, or the quivering adreneline rush through her blood, or the pulsing heat in unmentionable places were the sensations of a bad girl, then to hell with propriety! What did her mother know about the real world anyway? Having been swept by an American soldier from the comfortable care of her family at Gail's own age and brought here where she had been equally provided for, what did her mother know of survival?
Her father--now there was a real man. He risked his life every day for his wife and daughter, earning just enough to keep them comfortable and warm while he sacrificed his own pleasures in the cold, stinging winds of the Atlantic. He knew of lust, and he knew of swearing, and he feared neither, because he knew that one must save his fear for true danger, and ignore those things which cannot physically harm you. Gail wanted to be a fisherman herself one day. She wanted to pilot and care for her own boat. She wanted to strain at pulleys to heave it onto the beach so she could scrape barnacles from its tender wooden hull. She wanted to feel rope passing through her hands as she lowered and raised the nets, knowing that everything she brought to her family came from her own hard work and not from numistatic trickery with ledgers. She wanted to live honestly and simply, and to say and do those things which came from her heart, not pretending to be a socialite princess when she was not.
And while she yearned to live wild and free, she also wanted a husband who was kind and intelligent, whom she would not fear. The boys her age--the ones her mother continually steered her towards because they would probably earn a good living as farmers (a profession Carlotta felt to be much safer and productive than fishing)--were stupid and violent and ugly. They tried to impress her by shooting small birds and squirrels from the trees, which they then held up for her to see as though they had just shot a lion on safari. These idiot boys would only grow up to be sullen, temperamental men who expected her to warm their food and their beds and to leave them alone otherwise. She was sure that if she married any of them that she would end up like the women she knew on their street, who only communicated with the outside world through fleeting glimpses through the curtains and scurry-out, scurry-in trips to the grocery. More than one, she knew had suffered humiliating beatings. She knew, because they often called upon her mother for first aid, and Gail had accidentally walked in on them more than once.
Jonathan Keller did not seem very adventurous, and he was a mathematician, which meant that he was capable of practicing the numistatic slight-of-hand that she loathed. But he was funny, and intelligent, and cute, and when he fell victim to his desires while trying to comfort her, and his lips fell upon hers, she feared her whole body would melt. She could look past his lack of adventurousness for now. Maybe she could change that and give him a few adventures to whet his appetite.
Gail came to a halt on the edge of town. "This is where we must part, Mr. Keller," she said.
"Please, Gail, call me Jonathan."
She smiled, and glanced down for just an involuntary moment. "Very well, Jonathan. I don't think my mother is ready to accept you yet. Don't mistake me; she likes you, just not...with me."
"I hope that I will see you again soon."
"I am certain that you will."
"Oh! I almost forgot. My graduation ceremony is this Sunday, at 2pm. It won't take long; there are only twenty of us. Do you think you could make it? I would mean the world to me if you could be there."
"Yes," he said, taking her hand. "Of course I will."
"Oh, thank you!" She hesitated a fraction of a second, then leaned over and kissed him quickly. "I must go. I'll see you again on Sunday, then."
"If not before," he added. "Goodbye."
"Goodbye." She mounted her horse and continued down the road into town.
Jonathan waited a few minutes to give her enough head start that it would not appear obvious that they had been riding together, then mounted his own horse and entered town. How had it happened? he wondered. How had his heart been taken so swiftly and unexpectedly by her? He shrugged the thought off. Did it matter?
When he passed the half-constructed building on Main Street, he realized that he had once again forgotten to ask what it was.
THE FLOWER GIRL
The sun was riding low in the sky, and the shadows stretched long across the hilltop when Jonathan arrived home. The breeze had shifted and the temperature had begun to drop. Jonathan shivered atop his horse. The early evening chill was a sharp contrast to the warm sand atop the bluffs earlier in the day.
As he took his things into the house, he looked forward to a hot cup of tea, followed by a warm bath. Perhaps he would write some letters to back home. (What to say about the Russell girl? Probably nothing for now.) But before he could do any of that, he had to put his mobile artist's studio away. He carted the bundle of supplies and the folded easel and stool to the second floor studio. The room glowed golden in the late afternoon sun.
Perhaps, he thought, setting up the easel, Gail would be willing to sit for me? He sat on the canvas stool and gazed into space. He remembered her kneeling on the sand, hands on her knees, her hair flying in the breeze. He knew just the colors he would use. A deep, rich, earthy brown for her irises; the pitchest, most unspoiled black for the depths of her pupils; the purest white for the sparkles in her eyes. He would lay out her hair first in royal blue, then layer that with black so that the blue would imitate her shining highlights. Yes, blue would be a theme. The bands on her hat and the trim in her dress would mirror the blue of the sky, and the highlights in her hair would echo the deep blue of the ocean. She would metaphorically be the ocean, untamed and undiscovered; a vast mystery waiting to be explored.
What hue to use for her skin? There should be a touch of violet underlying it, to accompish her luscious Mediterrannean tones, as well as one more carry the theme of blue. Jonathan suddenly had an image of her posing in the style of, well, in the the style of the classic artists, but one far too bold for a girl her age. He blushed, and with much difficulty and reluctance, purged the image from his mind.
He was eager to begin working on Gail's portait, even without her there. He set up a canvas and began to lay in his background. This would be a test run, he thought, just to see how accurately he could capture her using only his mind's eye. His paintbrush began to fly, and soon a vague, ghostly shape began to form on the canvas.
He had to stop and remix the blue; it wasn't quite a light enough shade for the trim on her dress and hat. With his eyes off of his canvas, he became aware of movement outside of the window. He jumped to his feet. The flower girl was back! She was right next to the house, snipping flowers at the very near edge of the field. This time he was certain that this was no mirage. He was amazed at how exact the details were as compared to his accidental capture of her image on his canvas. The worn, creased apron within which she carried her cut flowers was identical, as were the small silver scissors held in her left hand. Her sunlight-yellow hair was pulled back into a bun and tied in place with a pink ribbon. Her skin was so fair that it reflected the reds and blues of the blossoms that she lifted to her nose.
He stepped closer to the window, debating whether calling to her or pounding on the window pane would startle her less. In the end, he was freed from the decision, because, almost as if sensing his presence, she turned and looked up directly at him. She was so startled that she dropped the flower she had been holding.
Jonathan waved congenially, and mouthed "Hello," but the apparently frightened girl turned and ran. She disappeared around the corner of the house.
"Wait!" he called, and dashed out of the room and down the stairs. He ran through the kitchen and burst out the back door, but did not see her anywhere. Then he caught a glipse of her pale pink dress entering the woods on the far side of the field--exactly where she had appeared in his painting, and where he had entered the woods when he discovered the old cabin earlier in the day.
"She's lightning!" he exclaimed, and set off across the field after her.
The sky had begun to grow darker as a layer of clouds moved in from the ocean and stifled the sun. The temperature had dropped further, and Jonathan wished he had thought to grab a jacket on his way out the door. There was, after all, one hanging from the hook just beside the kitchen door.
His sprint across the field soon warmed him, however. By the time he reached the treeline, he was actually sweating. He plunged into the woods, found the deer trail, and jogged across the shelterbelt rapidly. When he emerged on the other side, there was the cabin, sitting somewhat ominously in the middle of the prairie grass, which now swept nervously from side to side in the strengthening wind. There was no sign of the girl. She had to have gone to the cabin. That was the only place she could have gone. A bit out of breath from his unplanned run, Jonathan walked briskly across the field. The long, windswept grass slapped at his thighs. As though to complete the sense of unwelcome, large raindrops began to hurtle from the sky.
No lights were on when he reached the cabin. The curtains were still drawn, and the back door was still locked. But she had to have come here; there was no place else...
Jonathan ran around to the front door and pounded on it with his fist. It was really raining now, and he was considering breaking through a window this time, owner or no owner. There was no answer to his repeated pounding. "Bugger this," he muttered. He was looking around for something to ball around his fist so he could break out the window when a silly notion occured to him. He reached out and turned the doorknob. The door opened. He swung it open to reveal the darkness within. "Hello?" he called. He stood in the doorway a moment longer while waiting for the reply that never came.
He scurried inside. He was sure that the owner--if there was one--would not mind him sitting out the rainstorm here. He closed the door behind him and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. There had to be a light in here somewhere...
Gradually, he began to make out shapes. A table stood not far in front of him, and on top of it he thought he could make out the shape of an oil lamp. He groped toward the table like a blind man until his hand wrapped around the lamp's unmistakable hobnail glass. Conveniently, a box of matches lay on the table next to it. He lifted the lamp's hurricane neck and lit a match, which he touched to the wick until it burned with a blue and yellow flame on its own. Jonathan blew out the match and held the lamp aloft to look around.
The cabin was small, only a few rooms, roughly divided. The table he stood at was right in front of the small, narrow kitchen. To his left, on the opposite side of the cabin, about twelve feet away, were two sitting chairs with a small smoking stand in between. A small, three-shelf bookcase flanked the wall next to one of the chairs, though it was filled mostly with sewing and knitting items, and only a few books. A wall separated the kitchen from the small bedroom, which wasn't really a bedroom at all, simply a bed tucked into an area behind the kitchen and immediately off of the sitting area. Throughout the house, bundles of dried daisies, mums, violets and roses dangled upside-down from the rafters.
The incessant rain tapping on the roof made Jonathan feel like it was trying to come into the house to get him. He went to the sitting area and also lit the lamp atop the smoking stand. Somehow the extra dim light made him feel a little bit better. It was funny, but this tiny space felt more eerie and threatening than the huge, intimidating house he lived in. Which, he remembered, was officially haunted.
It didn't appear that the rain would let up anytime soon, so Jonathan sat in the chair nearest the bookcase and pulled one of the books to look at. He could at least entertain himself while he waited. The book's title was:
Triumphs of Thirty Centuries
A Graphic Description of
Achievements, Explorations, Discoveries and Inventions
and of the
RISE AND PROGRESS OF SHIP-BUILDING AND OCEAN NAVIGATION
Edward Howland, Esq.
author of many popular works
Goodness! He felt exhausted just having read the title page! Across from the title page was a steel engraving of two sea-serpents dueling in the turbulant ocean. At least it would be entertaining, he thought. However, he had scarcely begun reading the first chapter when a woman's voice said, "What are you doing in my house?"
Jonathan jumped. He dropped the book in his lap and looked up. The flower girl stood in the kitchen by the back door. She was backed up to the door, as though either preparing to run out it or blocking him from using it.
He jumped to his feet. "I--I'm terribly sorry. I wasn't told that anybody else lived on the property. I came in to get out of the rain. Please forgive the intrusion."
"You were following me, sir."
"Er, well, yes. But I was merely curious. I'm the new owner of Windmere, and I had seen you picking flowers on the property a few times. And, well, I just..." he flapped his arms as though attempting to stir the dust of words. "I wondered who you were."
She stepped forward into the kitchen. Apparently his foolish gestures and verbal stumblings proved that he was not a threat. Although young in appearance, her voice was strong and assertive. "I am the daughter of the caretaker of Windmere. And who, pray tell, is this gentleman who has so much interest in my flowers?"
"My name is Jonathan Keller. Is your father the caretaker around? I'd like to speak with him if I may."
The steel in her eyes faltered. In an instant, she transformed from a strong, imposing woman into a figure of sadness and pain. "Both of my parents are dead."
"I'm very sorry to hear that." A single lock of butter-yellow hair had come loose from her bun and dangled over the right side of her forehead. It captivated him. He tried not to fixate on it, but for some reason his eyes could not leave it. He had wanted to ask her something? What was it? Oh. "So you live in this cabin now?"
She looked up from where she had been gazing at the countertop, and the steel returned to her blue eyes as she asserted her territory. "My parents left me this cabin, and the charge of Windmere. I take care of it now."
"I see. I don't know if you've been informed, but Martin Sloan passed away recently and left Windmere to me. I must say, you've done an excellent job keeping the place up. I mean, it was completely ready to move into." He chuckled nervously and ran a hand through his hair. "Uh, you see, the thing is, um... It's just me there, and I don't really need a large portion of the house kept up. I don't really have any income to speak of. I guess what I'm saying is that Windmere doesn't really need a caretaker any more." He smiled, which he feared looked more like a grimace.
She gave him a hard look. "Are you attempting to fire me from my duties, Mr. Keller?"
Attempting? "Well, um, no. I mean, yes, I'm trying to tell you that you can be relieved of your caretaking duties. But I'm not firing you in the sense that I'm unhappy with your work or anything."
She stepped around the dining table and stood within a foot of him. She was almost exactly his height, but Jonathan felt very small beneath her withering glare. Yet even now the dangling lock of hair above her eyebrow distracted him. And when she spoke, he could not help but notice how perfectly formed and naturally red her delicate lips were. "The caretaking of Windmere is a charge which my family has held since it was built. It is not a servant's position from which you can dismiss me. Windmere and I are as one. Her guardianship is my inheritance." She crossed her arms and said smugly, "And I am your inheritance as well."
Jonathan opened his mouth to argue with her, but no words came. She was right, in a way. She had probably lived her entire life on the property; he really had no right to kick her out, especially not ten minutes after first meeting her. He sat back down in the chair and nonchalantly smoothed his trousers and tried to think of a dignified way out of the situation. "Yes," he said finally. "It was presumptive of me to think of you as a common servant when you are so obviously much more than that. And, seeing how excellently you kept Windmere during her long vacancy, I would be anything but a fool to let you go so out of hand. I'm afraid, though, that I cannot pay you a very rich salary."
"I need no salary," she said curtly.
"Well, that settles it then," he said with a smile. Looking around at her cramped living quarters, he said, "You know, as I said, it's only me up there in that big house. If you'd like, you could move into the house. There are plenty of rooms; you could have your pick of them. There's no reason for you to have to stay in this small place, and you wouldn't have to walk all that way across the fields..."
She turned her back on him and strode back to the dining table. She place her hand on its weathered wood top, where its surface was stained black and red from untold years of use. Her fingertips drew slowly across its surface. "I cannot leave this place," she said wistfully. "My life is here."
"Oh. All right." The temptation to pry was great. This place seemed to hold such great sadness for her, yet she insisted that she remain emotionally entombed within its walls. Jonathan failed to understand such people. On the other hand, he had never experienced a great tragedy in his life, and could only surmise at how he himself might react. He thought of Burnswell, the astronomy instructor at the university. After his wife died, he had been beside himself with grief, yet would not remove one item of his late wife's possessions from the house. It broke his heart to be constantly surrounded by her memories, yet he could not bear to remove them from his sight. "Well," he said congenially, spreading his hands, "the offer stands, if ever you should change your mind."
She turned her head slighty to look at him, smiling sweetly, though great sadness still echoed in her blue eyes. Jonathan's world filled with brightness at the sight of the barely-upturned corners of her lips. It was as though someone had ordered the clouds cleared from the sky and the sun to rise early. What was this magical place of Simone, with all of its beautiful women? "Thank you," she said. "That's very kind of you. And thank you for allowing me to remain at Windmere. I should not have spoken to the master of the house so harshly. I apologize."
"No, no." He dismissed her prior lapse of etiquette. "It is I who should apologize, for following you here, for intruding within your home, for trying to put you out of a job without so much as a 'by your leave.' Oh, heavens, I have so many things to apologize for." He threw his hands up. "I hereby apologize for any future transgressions, by word or action, that I may or may not make, from here until such time as my eventual death renders further such transgressions impossible."
She laughed, the sound of the crystal chandeliers of heaven rustling in the wakes of passing angels. Her sadness, for the time being, seemed to have been forgotten. "Oh, Mr. Keller, you should have been a lawyer!" She went to the window and pulled back the curtains to look outside, where the falling rain still streaked the window pane. "I don't think it's letting up any. If anything, it may be raining harder, if that was possible." She dropped the curtain and walked back to the sitting area, her hands clasped in front of her. "I could not possibly allow you to walk back to Windmere through this downpour. You are welcome to stay here until it stops. Would you like some tea? It would only take a minute to warm some water."
For the first time, Jonathan became aware of his wet clothes, and the chill which ate into him. "Thank you, that would be wonderful."
She went to the kitchen and put a kettle of water on the stove. When she returned, she sat in the chair opposite Jonathan and noted the book he had dropped on the floor. "It's full of terrible exaggerations," she nodded toward the floor, "that book."
"Oh!" Jonathan picked up the book from its unceremonious resting place and held it on his lap. "I couldn't tell you. I hadn't gotten very far in it. Even if I had, I wouldn't know." He grinned broadly. "This is my first real experience with the sea."
She leaned back comfortably with her legs crossed beneath her voluminous dress, and the line her body described became fixed in Jonathan's mind as a work of art. "He goes into great masses of detail about the discoveries of the ancient explorers, none of them true. He talks of sea serpents, and peoples with their faces in their chests, and cyclopeans, and a hundred other things that never existed." She leaned forward, her forearms resting on her knees and her hands clasped. "The sea is a vast and mysterious place, filled with wonders far beyond the claptrap you'll find in that book. You should take that book back with you, Mr. Keller, and throw it into the ocean. I'm sure it will get a good laugh from reading it."
"You speak as though you've spent quite a bit of time around the ocean."
She sat back once more. "I have not a memory that does not somehow involve the sea. It is as much of me as that great house you now call home."
"I'm a newcomer to the seaside life. Tell me about the ocean."
"I don't want to talk about the sea," she said abruptly. The kettle was beginning to steam atop the stove, and she got up to tend to it. She returned bearing two cups of tea, one of which she handed off to Jonathan.
"Thank you," he said.
"The ocean is a constant here," she said, sitting once more and resting the teacup in her lap. "Although a beautiful, inviting creature, she can be relentlessly monotonous. Day after day, the thudding surf sounds upon the rocks like a metronome. She is good to you, when she wants to be. But the ocean, she is an ill-tempered child who will lash out without warning upon you. Make no mistake, Mr. Keller, I love the ocean as much as I would love any child. But that does not mean that my love is ever-constant."
Jonathan nodded. "I think I understand you. When I first arrived here, my first sight of the Atlantic took my breath away. It sparkled like a jewelry display. But not long after, I looked upon it from my window and it filled my heart with loneliness and despair. And then, just today, it was once again a happy sight." Suddenly, he remembered his afternoon on the bluffs with Gail. Was that only just a handful of hours ago? He could not believe that his object of elation had so easily faded from his memory. His mind flashed to the present, to that captivating twist of dangling blonde hair. How could his thoughts oscillate so easily between the two? This was just not right!
"Many men come here thinking the ocean will submissively hand them their fortune," she said, pausing to sip her tea. "It is only after they have tasted death that they gain an understanding and respect for it. They learn that the songs were right; the sea is indeed their mistress, but not in the romantic sense they had supposed."
"If I may ask, have you tasted death at the hands of the sea?"
She looked him square in the eye, unblinking. "Everyone tastes death by her hand sooner or later."
He hesitated to ask the other half of his question, but he had to know. "Did the ocean take your parent's lives?"
She looked away from him into the distance, listening to the faint rumble of the storm-driven breakers smashing into the distant cliffs. "Yes, I suppose it did." Her eyes began to shimmer, and a tear rolled down her cheek. "I'm sorry," she said. "This is why I don't like to speak of the sea."
Jonathan jumped up, offering his hankerchief. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to--"
She stood and walked away from him, wiping her eyes. "No. It's...it's all right. I bring these things upon myself. One is forced to eternally relive some memories no matter how hard one avoids them."
Jonathan shuffled his feet awkwardly. "Perhaps I should leave. I think the storm's abating. And I don't mind getting a little wet..."
"No!" She rushed to him, clutching her hankerchief. "I mean, please, stay. I so rarely get company. It would be nice to have someone to talk to." She smiled through her red eyes and tear-streaked cheeks. "I promise I won't go off on you again."
He guided her down into her chair. "I find that hard to believe, that a pretty young woman such as yourself would not have a parade of men wishing to visit you."
She shook her head. "I'm afraid not."
"Well, don't you have any girl friends in town?"
"No. I really don't ever go to town."
He sat back down in his own chair. "Surely you must go once in a while! Even just for provisions."
"Everything I need is in this cabin and on this land. There's no need for me to go into town. Besides," she said, "the handful of people from town whom I've met...we didn't get along."
"Well, we get along," Jonathan said.
She smiled brightly, and Jonathan's memories of Gail were once again eclipsed by it. "Yes, we do!"
"I would be more than happy to visit you and talk with you any time you'd like. And of course you are always welcome to come calling at Windmere. I promise we will talk about more pleasant subjects than the ocean."
"That would be nice," she laughed.
"Now," he said, "I truly should be going. The rain sounds like it's stopped, and I have occupied your space much too far into the hours of the night. I would hate to deprive you of your much-deserved rest."
"Oh," she waved her hand, "twaddle. But if you must go..." She got up and pulled an oil lantern from its hook on the wall and lit it from the one on the dining table. "Take this. The night is pitch up here; you would wander off the cliff into the ocean long before you would find your way back to the house."
"Thank you," he said, taking the lantern and putting his hat back on. He opened the door, and the sound of falling rain had been replaced by the slow drip of water from the roof and the trees. A variety of insects and frogs chirped and whirred in celebration of the passing cloudburst. "Well, goodnight."
She suddenly moved forward and hugged him. "Thank you," she said, "for following me."
The walk back to the house was a confusing and treacherous one. Twenty feet from the cabin, the small sphere of light from his lantern revealed nothing but heavy-lying prairie grass in all directions. The treeline was totally invisible, and even if he could see it, he doubted that he would be able to find the correct place to enter to take the deer trail to the other side. He wandered around a bit, searching for the path he had made in the grass on his way here. However, the wet, heavy grass was all laid over, obscuring any dim trail he may have created. It was hopeless. He'd have to turn back and ask to spend the night. That wouldn't be so bad. He would like to spend more time with her anyway. She had been very pleasant to talk to. And her eyes had shone so, and her laughter had been so musical, and the way the corners of her mouth upturned when she smiled was just so...so...kissable.
What was he thinking! Not six hours before, he had been kissing Gail. She was the one he ought to be thinking of kissing! Oh, what was wrong with him? He had already obligated himself to Gail; he must not muddle the situation with thoughts of another.
But still...he had to turn back. Locating Windmere was hopeless in this featureless black. He would have to spend the night at her cabin, and just--somehow--avoid temptation. But that seemed like an impossible task.
Maybe it was his imagination, or maybe his eyes were adjusting to the dark, but he thought he discerned a glow beyond the now visible dark band of treeline. That could not be the sunrise already! Had the night truly dissolved so completely? He walked toward the faint reddish glow, and as he drew closer to the treeline, he noticed that he could see the silhouetted roofline of Windmere, and he realized what the glow was. It was the orb, floating once more above his bedroom windows. He could not see it yet, but he was certain of it. Oh well. For once, he was going to let Windmere's mystery light ease his mind rather than confound it.
Following the glow led him to the deer path through the shelterbelt. On the other side of the trees, the red glow and silhouette of Windmere were very pronounced, and it was a simple matter of walking up to the house and letting himself in. Rather reluctantly, he went up to his bedroom. The hovering light gave him the creeps, but he felt compelled to make sure that was what he had followed.
As he climbed the stairs, he could already see a pale red slash of light emanating from beneath his bedroom door. He approached the door slowly, and, as though looking over his own shoulder, watched his hand fall from a great height upon the doorknob. He turned it, the door opened, and he saw his bedroom bathed in red. Even from the doorway, he could see it through the curtains. The orb was larger and brighter than ever before. And now, Jonathan observed, it pulsed angrily.
PRELUDE, PART II
June 21, 1719, the open Atlantic
Captain Stillson lay on his side and watched the glint of moonlight play on the black waves outside of his porthole. He did not sleep. Sleep had not come for several nights. He could not afford sleep. Instead he lay in bed and watched the rolling sea he loved so, as though each moment would be his last with it.
Now came the sound he had expected all of these nights: the cautious turning of his cabin door handle. He lay perfectly still and feigned sleep as the door eased open, barely sounding in its well-oiled hinges. The gentle pad of bare feet upon the planks approached his bunk. He remained motionless, a shard of moonlight illuminating one open eye. There was the velvet hiss of a cutlass unsheathing, so faint that his breathing almost obscured it. The moment had arrived.
Stillson whirled, his cutlass flashing in the moonlight at the same time as the dagger descended. A faceless scream pierced the dark as his blade met flesh, even as Stillson himself cried out at the icy bite of steel plunging into his shoulder. A second man fell upon him and twisted the sword from his hand; a third grabbed hold of his feet and dragged him from his mattress, and he landed heavily on the floor. He swung blindly, the thin moonlight through the porthole revealing only fractions of bodies and faces. Calloused and scarred fists pummeled him into submission.
A match flared, and Stillson's whale oil lamp came to life, and Johnson bent low, holding it before him to examine the Captain's face.
"Evening, Cap'n," he said. "Sorry 'bout this, but it's how things are, y'know."
Stillson saw Hawthorne and Davies' glowering faces in the yellow light. "I'd wondered who you'd bring with you."
Johnson nodded toward his compatriats. "Some men see earlier than others when the time for change has come. McQuarry and Peterson, well, they didn't catch on so quickly, and I had to make sure they didn't, er, contaminate those who did. Again, my apologies for shorting you two crewmen. It's how things are."
"You won't last," Stillson said. "You don't have influence with the King. He won't protect you. He won't keep his galleons at bay. The Black Wing is a liability to the crown now. You'll be taken down like a common thief without me."
"If there is one thing you have taught us well, sir, it's how to fight. Now, goodnight, sir."
A swift punch plunged Stillson into darkness.
Stillson opened his eyes, and recoiled in horror. He instinctively tried to scramble backwards, but his legs found no purchase. Far below, the savage sea lashed in white spray at the ship's hull. The wind tore at Stillson's clothes and lashed his face with his own wet and scraggly hair. The snap of canvas relaxing and pulling taut came from overhead. He looked about and saw that he hung suspended, as though crucified, from the longest yardarm of the main mast. Heavy ropes bound his arms tightly to the thick oak spar. Looking down, he saw men hurring about their practised tasks of coaxing their ship--no longer his ship, he thought sadly--through the foul weater. Periodically, one of them would pause in what they were doing to gaze upward at him, their faces unreadable. Cursing the circumstances he had brought upon himself, he wished the mutineers had killed him on his own decks, like a man, rather than submitting him for this prolonged humiliation.
Horrified, he watched as the water rose up to meet him as the sail stretched full and pulled the ship toward the sea. The ship leaned precariously in the gale, until Stillson's boots skipped across the waves like a dancing toy. Somewhere, he heard a man laugh.
Slowly, sluggishly, the great ship righted herself, until the hungry waves once again flailed far below. The sail snapped with the shift of the wind, and the ship listed in the opposite direction. Stillson watched down the yardarm as the opposite end disappeared, and the sea slapped over the railing and washed across the deck.
Then the wind and waves conspired to again list the ship to starboard, and this time she continued to lean until the sea boxed his legs as though he were a doll. Then the spar bit into the water, and Stillson found himself suddenly, inescapably, immersed. He struggled against his bonds as the Atlantic sought to force itself into his lungs and filled his ears with a netherworldly groan, like the demons of the deep shrieking for his soul.
Just as he thought he could bear no more, as he was about to open his mouth and give to the ocean the life he had denied it too many times, the Black Wing spared him and pulled his head above water. The waves slapped at him as he gradually emerged from the brine, as though fingers desperately attempting to hold on to him.
Looking wearily through his tangled mat of hair, Stillson spied Johnson and Hawthorne at the railing, watching him. The ocean's demons still moaned in his ears, but he thought he saw Johnson's mouth form the words "dead" and "morning."
But Stillson was not dead by morning. All though the night, the sea and the ship played their deadly game of tag with his listless body, but when the sun rose and two men edged out upon the ratlines to cut him down, he raised his head and spat in the nearest one's eye.
THE TALE OF ALICE BROGNAUGHTON
Jonathan got on his horse early that morning and started down the hill into town. He had to get out of the house, away from the property, and clear his head. The night had been a sleepless one. The pulsing red orb had eventually dissipated, but Jonathan lay awake for hours longer, afraid of the things it may have portended. He wondered if the orb's changed appearance meant that the storied entity of the house was now turning against him, as it had all of Windmere's previous occupants. In the end, though, the night passed uneventfully, and the morning left Jonathan with a new unease. He felt he must visit Gail. He had to be sure that his heart lay with her and no one else. Of this, his mind was more troubled than by any interlopers from the spirit world.
As he entered town, he paused before the construction site. Overalled men with scarred and damaged hands and weather-ruined faces were hard at work raising the stone blocks into place. He was about to call out to one when he noticed a new stone upon three pallettes lashed together. Unlike the other reddish, square blocks, this one was a long, narrow rectangle of tan sandstone. Upon it were the words "CARNEGIE LIBRARY". A smaller sandstone block, oval in shape, lay on the ground in front of it. This one read "1907".
Jonathan gave a laugh, slapped his leg, and cried, "Well, then!" causing several of the construction worker's heads to turn. Jonathan gave them a slightly embarrassed tip of the hat and moved on.
His instincts steered him to the Russell house. He did not know how well Carlotta was receive him. He already knew through Gail that Carlotta considered him a threat to her daughter. He expected that under normal circumstances, if the subject of Gail was not broached, she would be sincerely happy to see him. However, if she had learned of her daughter's secret rendevouz with him the previous day, he imagined that she would turn him away. However, as he intended to ask directly for Gail, he could not predict how Carlotta would react. He swallowed his nervousness as he knocked on the door.
Carlotta opened the door and smiled politely when she saw him. "Good mornin', Mr. Keller. You're out an' about early today. Not that it isn't a pleasure to see you any time."
"Thank you, Mrs. Russell. I wondered, would your daughter Gail be home? I wish to speak with her."
Carlotta's smile dropped. "She's not home," she said, a little too quickly.
"I see... Do you know when she'll be back?"
All right. Well, maybe he could at least ask Carlotta something else that he was curious about. "Ok. Perhaps you could answer something for me. Do you know anything about the family of caretakers who lived on the edge of the Windmere estate? I met one of them yesterday, her name is, uh..." He suddenly realized that he had no idea what the flower girl's name was. After a while, he had been so comfortable in her presence, and she had felt so familiar to him, that he had simply never thought to ask. Oh, how embarrassing! "Well, I wonder if you knew any of them," he finished awkwardly.
"Oh." Carlotta seemed to relax a little. If he was only here to ask Gail for some general information about a local family, then that was different than speaking her daughter about private things. "No, I'm afraid I can't help you, there. Let me think, who would know who kept up the Sloan place...?" She snapped her fingers. "Ah! Alice Brognaughton. She published Simone's first and last newspaper, gosh, some fifty years ago. She's shrivelled up like an old apple, but her mind is as sharp as ever. Go ask Alice. I think she'll know."
Carlotta told him how to get to Alice's house. Jonathan thanked her and returned to his horse. As he drew away from the house, he scanned the upstairs windows for a brown-eyed face looking out at him, but he saw only drawn curtains.
Alice Brognaughton's house was a disintegrating clapboard structure surrounded by a peeling white picket fence. The front yard was a random hodge-podge of flowers, ground cover plants, vines snaking up trellises, and blossoming hanging baskets, punctuated by crumbling stepping stones and small, debris-covered sitting benches. Jonathan stepped carefully along the half-overgrown walkway to the front door, frightening a cloud of small birds from the flora on the way. He knocked, and waited patiently for a long time. He knocked again. As he was about to turn and leave, he heard the sound of a bolt being thrown, and the door slowly cracked open. Jonathan had to peer into the shadows to make out the small, gnarled face which peeked out at him.
"Yes?" the face asked.
Jonathan removed his hat. "Hello. I've come to see Alice Brognaughton. Is that you?"
"Tha's me. Whaddya want?"
"I'm told that you might be able to give me some information about the caretakers of Windmere. I'm told you used to run the newspaper here."
"You don't want to talk about the War, do you?"
"All right. Come on in, then."
The old woman retreated into the dimness, and Jonathan followed. When he closed the door behind him, he became engulfed in darkness, the only light coming from in thin shafts around the blinds. As his eyes became accustomed to the dimness, he saw that the living room was a jumble of books, newspapers, and magazines. Hardly a surface was left uncovered. He wound his way across the room through a path forged between bundles of periodicals to where Alice was clearing off a chair for him. Then she sat in the only unoccupied section of the sofa and sat bolt-upright, hands clasped in her lap, gazing at him with her one good eye which wasn't clouded by cataract. He gingerly sat in the chair, half-expecting its dusty surface to disintegrate beneath his weight.
"Now, what kin I answer for ya?" she asked.
"My name is Jonathan Keller. I recently came into inheritance of the Windmere estate, atop the hill."
"Your family wasn't Sloans somewhere down the way, were they?"
"No. They weren't."
"'at's lucky for ya, then."
"Anyway, there is a cabin on the edge of the property. I met the current occupant, who said that her family have been caretakers for Windmere since it was built. I wondered if you could tell me anything about them."
The old woman pondered for a moment. "I believe that would be the Lawson family. The Lawsons have spent more time at Windmere than the Sloans, it would seem, what with the Sloans taking flight all the time."
"The Lawsons? The girl I met is quite young, about twenty. She told me that her parents had died, but was reluctant to speak of it. Do you know anything you could tell me?"
"Not really. I haven't spoken to a Lawson in years. None of 'em ever came to town much. All I can tell ya is that ever' one of 'em seemed obsessed with keeping Windmere ship-shape. It was like they owned it instead of the Sloans. You said you met one, eh? I thought the last of them died or left town several years ago. Guess I thought wrong."
"So you don't know of any tragedies within the family," Jonathan prodded.
"'fraid not," Alice replied.
"Oh. Then I'm sorry I bothered you, Ms. Brognaughten."
"Nothin' of it," she said. "Thought maybe you were one of those folks wantin' to talk about Abe Lincoln and their imaginary assassination plots. They think just because the Yanks tried to burn me out durin' the war that I knew somethin' I didn't. That war was pure insanity, and that's all there is to it."
"Your newspaper business was destroyed during the war?"
"May I ask what happened with your newspaper? The bits and pieces I've heard sound fascinating."
"Not much to tell," Alice said. "I grew up newspaperin', up in Baltimore, where they've got more papers than they know what to do with. My parents ran a small newspaper there, and I worked in the shop since I was old enough to walk. When I got older, I married one of the handsome young reporters on the staff, fella named David Brognaughton. We moved up to New York City, where we tried our hand at starting our own newspaper. That didn't work out. New York is way too subdivided by gangs and controlled by political machines for an outsider to come in and succeed. David got killed when one of the neighborhood gangs who worked for city hall raided our shop and set the building on fire.
"I came down here to get as far away from the insanity as I could, bringin' only my street smarts and my newspaper know-how with me. I decided to give it a try again, and started a small newspaper here called the Sentinel. That was...let's see...1849. Same year that Poe bought it back home in Baltimore. He wrote a couple of pieces for my father's newspaper, you know. Back before he was known.
"Anyway, it's hard to make a newspaper work in a small town like this. Even harder if you're a woman on her own. It was only a weekly, and I wrote most of the articles and did most of the pen illustrations myself. I set the type and ran the press, which was hand-operated, by the way.
"The Sentinel came out every Friday for fourteen years. It was that damned war that did me in. I don't know how any copies of the Sentinel would have been read outside of Simone, or why. But they were read by some mighty important folks up north. The Federalists thought I was bein' too sympathetic to the Southern cause. I wasn't bein' sympathetic to any of 'em. I told it like it was. I said both sides were crazy to turn brother against brother. I spoke my mind and came and they burned me out for it.
"'course, the Yanks didn't completely burn me out. I kept a copy of every issue of the Sentinel I put out. They're in the attic now. I intend to give them to the new library once it opens. When I do, you can go down and look at 'em there. Maybe you'll find what you're lookin' for in there somewhere."
"That's a remarkable story, Alice. Say, do you know when the new library is opening?"
"In a couple of months, I think. That sort of depends on Mr. Carnegie. He's giving small towns like us the money to build our own libraries. When it will open will depend on how much money is left over for books."
"I see," Jonathan said. "Well, I won't take up any more of your time. Good day."
"Hope you don't mind if I let you show yerself out. My legs aren't so good any more, and a walk back and forth to the door and back is like a hike through the woods for me."
"That's perfectly all right," Jonathan said. He walked out into the startlingly bright outdoors and reflected that while one question had been answered, he was still left with numerous others.
Throughout the remainder of the week, Jonathan repeatedly attempted to call on Gail, and was rebuffed by Mrs. Russell each time. Finally he was told that she was not interested in older men and he would do well to look elsewhere. He had no luck trying to encounter her around town, either. He did not see her in any of the shops, nor down by the docks, where her father's fishing boat would have moored. He even rode out to the bluffs on the off chance that Gail might have her stool and easel set up there, but the only thing he found on the dunes were babbling gulls.
It must have been true. Gail must have had a change of heart about him, or she surely would have found some way of contacting him. The only conclusion he could draw was she had indeed chosen not to see him any more. Perhaps she had realized that their afternoon together was nothing more than an impulsive moment, or maybe she had found one of the school boys her own age more to her liking. Women her age, even those as mature and intelligent as she, had a tendancy toward fickleness, and all Jonathan could do was to deal with it. With heavy heart, Jonathan abandoned further efforts to contact Gail.
But there was another, a voice in his head reminded him. There was the caretaker's daughter, the one who had beguiled him so thoroughly upon their meeting that he had completely forgotten to ask the simple question of her name. He spotted her on the estate grounds now and then. He should go and speak with her, he told himself. But every time she passed within his sight, words fled his mind. There was all the time in the world to approach her, he told himself. After all, they shared the estate grounds. It wasn't like she wouldn't be around the next week, or the next month, or next season, or even next year...
The old tall windows in the second-floor studio had been cemented shut with layer upon layer of paint. Jonathan spent an hour of Saturday morning chiseling away at the seams of one of them before he was able to force it open. At some point in the house's lifetime, the corded weights within the windowframes that helped the windows go up and down had been cut, making the job all the more difficult. Straining until he thought his back would give way, the heavy sash grudgingly lifted, a fraction of an inch at a time, until he had it about half open. He had intended to open all of them and let the room air out, but he would just have to enjoy the breeze of a single window; he was not going to tackle any more of them today.
With the master bedroom windows and the doors to both rooms open, a strong current of air drifted throughout the upstairs. Jonathan sat at his easel beside the one working window and enjoyed the bit of fresh air that wafted in. He had just gotten started priming a fresh canvas when the gull flew in. The yellow-beaked bird swooped in over his head squawking its shrill cry, and began to circle the room.
"What the--? Get out! Shoo!" Jonathan chased the bird around the room, flapping his arms and trying to drive it back out the window while keeping it from flying through the doorway and invading the rest of the house. He hated seagulls. They were noisy, filthy birds that thought everything they saw was food. If he didn't get it out of here, it would probably end up trying to eat his tubes of paint, in addition to crapping on everything in sight.
The panicking bird, began to crash into the windows, frantically looking for a way out. Jonathan tried to steer it to the one open window, but the bird only beat at his head with its black-tipped wings and squawked some more. Finally, Jonathan gave up and fled the room, slamming the door behind him to at least contain the beast. He went downstairs and out the back window, and stood in the yard looking up at the studio. Glimpses of black, white, and orange, flashed around the room, and even from down here he could actually hear the repeated thuds of the poor creature banging into the windows. Jonathan shoved his hands into his pockets and wondered what he could do to extricate the thing from his studio.
A voice from behind him said, "What on earth is happening up there?"
Jonathan turned and saw the caretaker's daughter. A glance down at the small bouquet protruding from her apron pocket told him that, sure enough, she had been out picking wildflowers. He wondered if she ever did anything else.
"A gull," he said. "Got into my studio. I can't get the bloody thing out."
"Oh, the poor thing!" she exclaimed. "It's going to hurt itself!"
"Poor gull? Poor studio. It's going to take me a week to clean up the mess that thing's making."
"Wait here," she said, and went inside. Jonathan remained out in the yard, watching the gull slowly destroy his studio.
A couple of minutes later, the squawking and banging ceased, and the girl presently appeared at the window, calmly holding the terrified gull cupped in her hands. "Go on," she said. "Go find someplace else to be." She released the bird, which swooped around the corner of the house toward the ocean, braying loudly. Leaning upon the windowsill and looking down at Jonathan, she called, "No more bird."
"That's remarkable!" he said. "How did you do that?"
"You just have to know how to deal with the wildlife around here, Mr. Keller."
"Thank you very much, Miss-- Say, this is terribly embarrassing, but I never asked your name."
She giggled and tossed a daisy from her apron which fluttered to the ground at his feet.
A bluebonnet fell from a delicately outstretched hand.
A violet spiraled lazily down, which Jonathan impulsively reached out and caught.
He smiled upward at her. "It's very good to make your aquaintence, Miss Lawson."
Jonathan arrived with his horse and buggy at Anna's cabin early on Sunday morning. Emboldened by his chance encounter with her the day before, he had siezed the opportunity to invite Anna to join him for Sunday morning church services. Church was always a pretty safe first date. The setting was usually agreeable to both parties. Each would be surrounded by lots of other aquaintences to use as a distraction in case post-service conversation faltered. And the girl almost never had to concern herself with the potential suitor behaving with impropriety. For most couples, church also often offered the chance to casually meet the parents and other relatives without the pressure of being interrogated over dinner at their house. And church is never a bad setting for the parents of one of the parties to see the potential boyfriend/girlfriend in. In the case of Anna and Jonathan, however, neither had relatives to have to introduce the other to, so the occasion would be even more relaxed.
By good fortune, Jonathan had discovered the old buggy forgotten in a corner of the stable. It had required two baths to remove all of the accumulated dust and pigeon droppings and who knew what else, and he had to throw a horse blanket across the seat to cover up a nasty rip in the leatherette, but all in all it was a much more luxurious vehicle to drive to church than his old weatherbeaten wagon. He had to take the buggy all the way to the bottom of the hill and then back up the main road in order to reach Anna's drive. When he knocked on her door, she emerged wearing a gorgeous yellow dress that complimented her hair, white gloves, a yellow bonnet with a white band, and a small white handbag. She held an old Bible in her hands that Jonathan recognized as one of the three books on her shelf. Her hair hung down her back in a single braid. Jonathan suddenly felt rather ragged in his old suit. He owned only two suits, both of which he had primarily used while teaching.
"Good morning, Anna. You look lovely."
"And you look very handsome, Mr. Keller."
"Please, call me Jonathan from now on."
The leaf springs on the buggy were old and stiff, and the washboard road gave them a good jouncing all of the way into town.
"I apologize for the rough ride," Jonathan called over the racket of the rattling buggy.
"It's quite all right," she laughed. "It beats walking."
"I hope this isn't too forward a question, but do you go to church often?"
"Almost never, I'm afraid," she said.
"I know you don't own a horse or buggy of your own," he said. "You're always welcome to borrow one from the stable."
She was silent for a moment. "I wouldn't feel right doing that," she said.
"You are technically the caretaker. Consider it a perk of the job."
"I would rather," she said shyly, "prefer your company to riding alone."
Jonathan blushed. They did not say anything else until they reached town.
The church smelled of old wood and aging books. Because the building also served as the town hall, the pews were designed so that the backs could swing up, over, and down to face the rear of the building during official town meetings. Jonathan found that extremely clever, and spent the first little bit of service distractedly examining the cast-iron fixtures that made it work. The service was the usual solemn intoning, punctuated by hymns sung by warbling, off-key voices. Jonathan's mind was far from the sermon. He was too busy mentally rehearsing how he would ask Anna over to dinner that night. And when her gloved hand crept into his and squeezed it tight during prayers, his heart pounded so loudly that he was sure the congregation would take notice and turn to stare at him.
Jonathan was so distracted throughout the service, in fact, that he failed to notice Gail Russell and her parents until they were filing out of the church. The Russells were already standing just off of the sidewalk, chatting with someone else, when Jonathan and Anna emerged and came down the church's front steps. Gail was looking around in boredom just as Jonathan also spotted her. She and Jonathan's eyes met. He saw her eyes dart to Anna and flash with anger. Uh-oh.
He was going to do the prudent thing and acknowledge her with a simple nod and walk on, but Carlotta also saw them. Appearing delighted to see Jonathan in the company of a woman who wasn't her daughter, she herded the entire family over to them. She introduced them to Richard, a stocky man of fading spirit who grunted a "Pleesedtameetcha," and Jonathan introduced them to Anna, all the while looking to Gail, who returned his gaze with cold fury. Carlotta took up Anna in conversation, giving Gail the opportunity to draw Jonathan aside and speak to him in harsh whispers.
"So you're seeing her now," Gail hissed, jerking her head at Anna.
"Yes," Jonathan admitted. He felt he had nothing to feel guilty about. After all, it was she who had ignored his attempts to meet, not he.
"But I thought... I thought... that we..." he voice began to falter.
"Please don't cry, Gail. It's not like that."
"I'm not crying; I'm bloody furious!" she almost shouted. "How could you? Without even bothering to speak to me about it! You ignored me all week, after what I thought was a wonderful time together, and now you show up here with her."
"Gail, I did try to call on you. I looked all over town for you. Your mother said you weren't interested, and strongly suggested I not come back. What was I to think?"
"I went," she said, biting off each word, "with my aunt to Wilmington to buy a dress for my graduation this afternoon."
"Your mother never told me that. I thought you were brushing me off."
"Well, I wasn't. But it looks like you found someone else easily enough. Enjoy your new girlfriend."
With that, Gail spun and went back to her mother's side. "We ought to be going, mother." Loudly, for all to hear, she called, "Good day, Mr. Keller. I'm sorry you won't be able to attend the ceremonies this afternoon."
"So am I," he said, and waved goodbye to Gail.
The ride back was mostly quiet. Jonathan and Anna made small talk, but did not discuss church until Anna said, "I take it that was an old girlfriend."
"What? No. Yes. Sort of. There was a misunderstanding."
They rode on some more. When they reached the fork in the road, Anna said, "Go on up to the house. I'll walk back from there. I'd hate to make you drive all the way to my place and back down on my account. Though it was sweet of you to do so this morning."
Jonathan turned onto Windmere Road. As they entered beneath the dark canopy of trees, he said, "Are you angry with me?"
"About that girl?" He nodded, and Anna laughed. "Jonathan, she approached you, not the other way around. The look on your face was quite an amusement when she did. It's not your fault that she chose to make a spectacle of herself."
"I'm glad you feel that way," he said, "because since I've met you, there has been room in my heart for no other." There. He said it. There was no taking it back.
She curled her hand through the crook of his elbow and lay her head against his arm. "You're a lovely, kind man, Jonathan. I am pleased beyond words that you should say that. Still... You do not know me that well. Perhaps you would be happier with her. She's very pretty. And she seemed to feel quite strongly about you."
"No. Even if I wanted anyone but you, she showed me today that she is not someone I would want to keep close to me for long."
They arrived at the house, and Jonathan pulled the horse and buggy around to the stables out back.
"May I accompany you back to your home?" he asked.
"Yes, thank you."
"Give me a minute to stable the horse. I'll be right back."
Once the horse was safely stabled again, they began a leisurely stroll across the fields. Anna's lithe body flowed so naturally and easily through the tall grass, he heard not a rustle as she moved.
"Anna..." he began.
"Why would you suggest that I would be happier with Gail Russell?"
"I told you."
"No, I mean--do you feel this isn't working out with me? With us?"
She reached out and took his hand. "Jonathan, I am happier right now than I have been in ages. When I am with you I am so happy that I fear what will come. There has been so much loss in my life. I do not want to lose you just when I think that happiness has at last found me again. Everything that I have loved, I have lost."
They had reached her cabin door.
"You won't lose me," he promised.
"You say that, and I believe that you say it sincerely, but I fear that loss is inevitable."
"Nothing is inevitable."
"Loss is inevitable. Nothing lasts forever, Jonathan."
She giggled. "Oh, you silly, sentimental man."
He kissed her, and to him, it felt like forever.
Anna became his constant companion. When not in her presence, his days were overcast, and his nights held no stars in the sky. In Anna's company, the summer seemed to fly by quickly for Jonathan. Their first official dinner together, at the early beginning of summer, still burned in sharp detail in Jonathan's mind. Jonathan had made them broiled duck, although he had to have one of the locals, Roland Sanders, shoot the duck for him. He had been nervous enough as it was, so when Anna daintily removed a piece of 18-grain shotgun shot from her mouth and set it on the side of her plate with a quiet clink, he had been mortified. He was certain that that was it and she would walk out and never want to see him again. Instead, she laughed, a light, melodious laugh that rose to the dining room's high ceiling and fell back down upon him like a rainbow. "Well!" she exclaimed. "At least we know it's fresh!" As many times in his mind that he tried to retrace the meandering steps of their relationship, he kept arriving back at that instant as the moment when he knew that he loved her.
Much to her delight, Jonathan painted her portrait. Without announcement, he showed up at her cabin one day carrying his materials.
"Whatever is all this for?" she asked?
"I have decided that you are to be my next subject," he answered, setting up his easel and stool in the grass outside of her back door.
"You are a silly boy," she said, "painting pictures of things you get to look at every day." But she had run back inside to change into her best dress, and her smile and eyes said that she truly looked forward to it.
He set up a chair for her to sit on, positioned with the field of flowers as a colorful backdrop.
Jonathan went to work, seeing not the subject, but a collage of light and color which he meticulously documented with his brush. Anna was a very patient subject, and never complained about the amount of time she had to sit motionless in the chair, nor did she reposition herself and ruin his perspective.
When he was finished, he sat back and studied the final work. A puzzled look came over his face. "That's odd," he said.
Anna came up behind him to see. "How very imaginative! I don't know what the word is for that particular artistic style, but I like it."
He had painted Anna accurately. Her face was the same angelic one he was so pleased to look upon in reality, her hair danced in the breeze just as it did now, her smooth, creamy hands were folded in her lap, clutching a single rose, just as they had been. But the dress was the same, and it was different. The dress in his picture continuously melted and changed into different dresses. It looked as though he had painted a patchwork quilt of all of the dresses he had seen on her, softly blending from one to another as his eye moved across the canvas.
"It's funny," he said. "I must have had my imagination on automatic. I certainly wasn't looking at my subject when I did that part." He tried to laugh it off, but the whole thing was very confusing and disturbing.
"My dearest," Anna said, taking him into her arms, "nothing has ever looked so wonderous to my eyes."
Later in the summer, Jonathan taught Anna how to play billiards down in Windmere's game room. It had been at her suggestion; Jonathan had been quite appalled when she had asked him to teach her how to play a game usually reserved for smokey game halls or saloons.
"Sweetheart," she laughed. "it will only be the two of us, and no one else to care that I am being unladylike."
But as he always did within the house, a presence lurked just behind his shoulder, and he wondered if it was truly only the two of them.
One morning when Jonathan came downstairs, something seemed to be missing, but he couldn't figure out what it could be. He looked all around, nothing appeared to be out of place. He chalked it up to his imagination and tried to put it out of his mind. But all throughout the morning, the feeling continued to nag him that something was amiss.
On his way out the front door, he realized that the Seth Thomas had stopped. Its great tocking metronome no longer filled the silences of the house. Odd, he thought. He had just wound it the day before; it should have kept running for a full week. The dangling weights, he noticed, had barely moved from their fully-wound positions. He opened the glass door and gave the mighty pendulum a gentle push. It swung stiffly from side to side for a few seconds, then returned to hanging impotently.
"Oh, bother," Jonathan muttered. He would have to find out if anyone in town did clock repair. He didn't know if this was a task that a mere jeweler was up to.
When he went to pick up his mail, he asked Arthur Abraham if he knew anyone qualified for large-scale clock repair, and Arthur suggested he try Carl Elm. Elm ran the portrait studio down the block, but clocks were also a hobby of his, and he might be able to help Jonathan out.
Elm's shop was very modern-looking, with the customary tin ceiling replaced by a plain white plaster one, and the windowframes and doorways rose up in rounded arches. On one wall were copies of his photographic work; on another were shelves lined with cameras of all shapes and sizes. Jonathan was just looking over a particularly strange, boxy camera, when a man came out of the back wearing a chemical-splotched apron. He had dark hair--ruffled from being beneath the camera cloth, no doubt--and small eyeglasses. Unlike most of the men in Simone, Carl Elm was clean-shaven.
"Hello," he said. "What can I help you with today?"
"I was told that you might be able to repair a clock of mine. It's stopped today for no reason."
"I might. What kind?"
"Spring-wound, or OG?"
"OG? I'm sorry, I don't know what that means."
"Operated by gravity. Does it have weights that drive the movement, or a big coil spring?"
"Oh. It uses weights."
"All right," Elm said. "I can probably help you out. Did you bring it with you?"
"Er, no," Jonathan said. "I can't move it. It's sort of...built into the house."
"Well, that is a special clock, then," Elm said. "Seth Thomas didn't make too many like that. Tell you what. I don't normally do this, but I'll come out to your house to work on it. The opportunity to work on a rarity like that will make it worth the house call."
It was a slow day, so Elm gathered his tools, hung out his "Closed" sign, and rode with Jonathan to the house.
"I didn't realize that you lived here," Elm exclaimed as they entered the house. I've always wondered what the inside of this place looked like."
"Well, you won't get to see much of it," Jonathan said. "The clock is just inside the entry here--"
Jonathan stopped in mid-sentence just within the doorway. The unmistakable tocking of the clock filled the air.
"Oh, well, hey, now," Elm said with a smile. "She doesn't sound so broken after all."
"I swear, it wasn't..."
"That's all right," Elm said, opening the clock door and peering upward into its works. "It's really pretty common for these old clocks to sieze up. Then when a big jolt comes along they get shocked back to life."
Jonathan tried to think of what would shake the house hard enough to re-activate the clock. He couldn't think of anything.
"I'm sorry I brought you all the way out here for nothing. Can I offer you some tea or something to make up for interrupting your day?"
"That'd be all right, I guess. Like I said, I've always wanted to see the inside of this place."
Jonathan gestured him into the adjoining sitting room. He cast one last look over the happily ticking clock before he walked to the kitchen. Maybe it really was jolted back to life by something that rattled the entire house while Jonathan was out. Nonetheless, what disturbed Jonathan was the fact that the clock's date and time were now set perfectly.
THE WINDMERE HORROR
Jonathan and Anna arrived back at Windmere after a ride in the countryside late one afternoon to find two unfamiliar horses tied in front of the house. Waiting on top of the expansive stone steps were Courtroy and Malcolm Sloan. Jonathan groaned under his breath. He had hoped that they had chosen to silently abandon their pursuit of the house. No such luck.
"Sweetheart," he said, "why don't you get off here and run home? These men are here on business. I'll likely not see you until tomorrow."
"Jonathan, they don't look friendly. Are you going to be all right?"
"I'll be fine," he said reassuringly, helping her down from the back of horse. "I'll see you later."
"Come see me as soon as you're able," she said, looking up at him from the ground, her face filled with worry.
Jonathan pasted a smile on his face. "I will."
He kept the phony smile on his face as he approached the house and dismounted.
"Good day, gentlemen," he said, removing his hat and climbing the steps.
"Good day to you, too, Mr. Keller," Courtroy said, pointedly not removing his own bowler. "I must apologize profusely for our unannounced arrival. It's just that we had no way to contact you."
"We have a post office here in Simone," Jonathan replied cooly.
"Yes, well, here we are. I wondered if you would be so kind as to spare us a bit of your time."
"Regarding what?" Jonathan asked, although he knew damn well what.
"Regarding the continued question of the validity of our late uncle's will."
"If there is a question about it, contact Mr. Epicott. That is a matter for attorneys, not for me." Jonathan made as though to push past them and go inside, but Malcolm stood his ground and blocked him. "Excuse me," Jonathan said.
Courtroy spoke from behind him. "I will concede that, Mr. Keller. However, it is rather late in the day, and seeing that we have traveled so far, I wonder if we could impose on you for a room for the night."
Jonathan growled inwardly. Courtroy was right, though. The sun was etching long shadows on the grounds, and would soon disappear altogether. There were no hotels or inns to speak of in the tiny villiage below. As much as the idea repulsed him, he had no choice by the rules of etiquette but to shelter them for the night. "All right. You may stay the night. But this does not change the fact that you must still contact my attorney regarding the will."
"Of course not," Courtroy said with a well-oiled tongue. "Thank you, Mr. Keller. You are too kind."
"Yes, I am," he mumbled as he unlocked the door and escorted the brothers inside.
Courtroy and Malcolm followed Jonathan through the doorway. In the entry hall, Courtroy paused at the placidly tocking clock and ran his fingers lovingly down its glass.
"Ah, Seth," he murmered. "It's good to see you again, old friend."
Jonathan led them into the parlor, where both Courtroy and Malcolm drank in the surroundings with a critical eye. Courtroy saw Jonathan's painting of Windmere hung over the mantle. "Where is the Amsterdam?" he asked. "You've removed it."
"It's upstairs, in one of the bedrooms," Jonathan replied calmly, settling himself onto one of the two facing sofas. "I found it unspeakably depressing to look at." He studied Courtroy carefully, as though monitoring the level of reaction the comment would provoke.
Fury burned within Courtroy's eyes, though at first he said nothing. When he did speak, he spoke politely and with only the slightest edge of anger. "Members of our family served aboard the Amsterdam. Two of them--cousins--perished in the very disaster depicted in that painting. It has great sentimental value in our family."
"Take it," Jonathan said, dismissing Courtroy's concern with a wave of his hand. "I've no love of it."
Malcolm picked up a silver candlestick holder from the endtable beside Jonathan and made a show of inspecting it while holding it threateningly like a club. "I wouldn't go falling in love with anything else around here, either," he snarled.
"Now, brother," Courtroy said, as though speaking to a child. "We did not come here to make overt threats to the man."
Only veiled ones, Jonathan thought. "What did you come here for, Courtroy?" he asked.
"Only to talk," he said, eyes wide with innocence. "We wanted to see how you were getting along up here, all by yourself. Of course, we now see that you aren't exactly by yourself," he added, with a leering grin on his face.
Jonathan ignored the bait. "I'm getting along quite nicely, thank you. Your concern for my welfare is appreciated."
Courtroy strolled around to the other sofa and sat down, throwing one arm across its back and casually crossing his legs. Malcolm remained standing to the left of and just behind Jonathan. "Past members of my family have found it difficult to live up here and abandoned the effort," Courtroy said. "I'm surprised to hear that you are having an easier time of it than ten generations of Sloans have."
"Perhaps my expectations were lower," Jonathan replied cooly.
Courtroy leaned forward and looked Jonathan in the eye. "I will cut to the quick, Mr. Keller. Speaking as gentlemen, without the involvement of attorneys, I will tell you that I mean to have Windmere. There is a movement afoot to have my dottering uncle's will invalidated on grounds of senility--"
"Martin Sloan's mind was perfectly intact!" Jonathan interjected angrily. "He was teaching calculus right up to the day he died."
"Be that as it may," Courtroy said, "my attorneys are good enough that no one will care if he was tutoring Einstein. Now, all I have to do is send a single telegraph to unleash my legal Kerberos. I am here to offer you one last chance to settle this dispute like gentlemen. I had hoped that whatever had influenced my ancestors to turn out of this place would also have affected you. Seeing that you remain seemingly content here, I am forced to financial influence. What will it take to make you cede ownership of Windmere to me?"
"There is nothing you could offer me to make me change my mind."
Courtoy arched an eyebrow. "Oh? Really? Nothing at all? You would not want to leave even if, say, the pretty girl I saw you with were to be lured away to her own palace in the upper Hudson Valley? You would not follow her?"
Jonathan started out of his seat, but regained his composure and sat down again, seething. "Don't...you...involve...her."
"But why should you object to our offering her a life better than what she could have here? I mean, really," he said, gesturing at the room, "this place looks nice on the outside, but think about it. No electricity, no running water, horrid winter storms, an economically non-existant town neighboring it. She could have the most modern mansion, with the most pleasant views and weather, just a short distance from New York City, the center of the world. I'll bet she would be much more inclined to marry knowing that she would be getting that instead of this."
"She's not going anywhere," Jonathan said brusquely.
"Why don't we ask her? Bring her here. It's her decision to make."
"This is between you and me, Sloan. She has no claim to this house."
Courtroy chuckled, an evil, dark chuckle full of rats and spiders. "But if I am not mistaken, I believe she has claim to you."
"Go to hell, Sloan."
"In good time. In good time." He once again leaned back comfortably. "So what else have you done with the place? Besides changing out the pictures over the mantle. I like the one that's there, by the way. I don't remember it. Wherever did you find that?"
"I made it," Jonathan said.
"Oho! An artiste as well! If the coming legal battle goes badly for you, Mr. Keller, would you be so gracious as to let that picture go with the house? I don't believe Windmere has ever had her portrait made before."
"The only thing you're getting out of this," Jonathan countered, "is a long, hard train ride home."
Jonathan slept fitfully that night. He lay on his back and stared into the black shadows of the canopy and relived that evening's conversation over and over. He did not know what to make of the veiled personal threats and less vague allusions of misfortune. The Sloan brothers certainly had the advantages of wealth and connections. Jonathan did not see how he could compete with their legal maneuvering. He knew somebody at blah blah who had taught at Harvard. Perhaps they would know someone from the law school there... A dozen different strategies were born and abandoned in his head. Each one was a dead end. Jonathan was checkmated; he saw no way out.
Another mystery bothered him. Courtroy had called the clock "old friend." What did he mean by that? And he was familiar with everything in the house. He had noticed the missing painting from over the mantle. When had he been here? Had he been living here under Martin Sloan's nose? Or worse, sneaking around when Jonathan wasn't around? The thoughts tumbled around in Jonathan's head like clacking rocks.
Contributing to his insomnia, the red orb outside of his window was back. The driftless, unblinking sphere seemed to goad him. Why couldn't it come when he was in a good mood? It was so frequently present when Jonathan was feeling miserable, that he began to wonder if it was a product of his bad moods, or the cause of them.
He rolled over onto his side and tried to ignore the red glow from outside. Perhaps he should give in to the Sloan brothers; maybe they would allow him to remain as caretaker or something similar. He only knew that he could not leave Windmere now. He felt drawn to the house now, almost...compelled to remain. He latched on to the sensation that the house needed him, and rode its comfort downward into sleep.
He did not get to arrive at sleep, because that's when the screaming started.
Jonathan burst from his room to find Malcolm Sloan in a ball at the far end of the hallway, shrieking like a man who had peered into the depths of hell. Perhaps he had, for Courtroy Sloan stood cringing with his back to the wall, staring wild-eyed across the corridor through the open door of their room.
"For god's sake," Jonathan said, pulling his dressing gown around himself. "What's the matter?"
Courtroy held out a halting hand. "Stay where you are! It's there! In the room!"
"What's in the room? For god's sake, tell me what's going on!"
"It's the Windmere Horror!" Malcolm wailed. "It's real! It's real!"
Courtroy's eyes were darting back and forth between Jonathan and the open door. "Get out! Get out while you can! I dare not move, but if you run--"
Jonathan was not fooled by their little charade. He had to congratulate them on a clever plan: trick him into leaving Windmere by pretending that it was haunted by a malicious ghost. Windmere Horror, indeed. This was penny-theatre stuff. He was about to open his mouth and say so, when Courtroy gasped, "Oh, no!"
Jonathan watched in astonishment as a black shape--no more than a shadow, really--slid out of the bedroom along the floor and paused in the doorway. Suddenly, the formless shape darted across the hallway as quick as a cat and enveloped Courtroy in an instant, who began gasping for air. Courtroy clawed at his throat, but his fingers passed right through the entity. Now it was Jonathan's stood rooted to the spot, helpess to do anying but watch Courtroy struggle for air. He could not believe his eyes. This appeared to be no parlor trick.
Malcolm finally broke out of his state of hysteria and made a run for it. He barreled past Jonathan, toward the stairs. He almost made it. Just short of the stairway, a huge, swirling whirlpool of flame appeared in midair, filling the corridor. It encroached on Malcolm, who resumed screaming, and turned and ran back the way he had come. The flaming vortex followed. Jonathan ducked back into his room as Malcolm raced past him once more. The whirling flames passed right by Jonathan's door. Oddly, he felt no heat.
Malcolm shot into his room and slammed the door. Immediately, the shadowy wraith suffocating Courtroy flew across the corridor and passed through the bedroom door. The vortex of fire made a right turn and disappeared through the wall. From within the bedroom, a horrible symphony of shrieks and thumps filled the air. A low moan rattled the windows, as though the gates of hell had opened up within. Then they both heard the sound of glass shattering, followed by silence.
Jonathan approached the room cautiously. He pressed his ear to the door, but heard nothing. That was both good and bad. Courtroy sat slumped on the floor, gasping.
"I think it's gone," Jonathan said. He tried the doorknob, but it was somehow locked from within. "Help me open this."
"No!" Courtroy panted. "You mustn't go in there!"
"Malcolm could be hurt."
"The danger of releasing that thing is too great!"
"But he's your brother! Besides, you saw it go right through the walls. A locked door will not contain it. Now help me."
"Yes, yes. You're right." Courtroy struggled to his feet, and together, they leaned their shoulders into the door.
Both men threw their weight against the door and smashed it open.
"Good lord," Jonathan said. The room was a shambles. Furniture was overturned. The bedding had been torn from the mattresses. The window was broken. The closet door stood open, their clothes strewn about the floor. "What on earth happened in here?" Jonathan half-whispered.
"Malcolm? Malcolm!" Courtroy darted about the room, righting chairs and peering beneath piles of clothes and sheets. "Where is my brother?"
Jonathan suddenly experienced one of his sinking feelings, the sensation of the bottom of his stomach dropping out and pulling his heart down with it. He slowly approached the shattered window. Hesitantly, he stuck his neck out and looked down. Dimly revealed by moonlight, Malcolm's body lay twisted in an unnatural shape on the ground far below.
There was no longer any doubt. The Windmere Horror was real.
In the dim yellow comfort of the gaslights, Courtroy Sloan and Jonathan Keller sat at the old wooden harvest table in Windmere's narrow, high-ceilinged kitchen, sipping warmed brandy. Neither man wanted to remain alone in the house while the other rode to town and telegraphed the next town to summon police, nor did they want to ride together in the dark. So they sat in the kitchen and waited for dawn.
Jonathan was uncertain how to express his sympathies. He did not like either of the Sloan brothers, least of all Malcolm, but the man had still been Courtroy's brother. He felt he should say something, but nothing came, so he said nothing and left it up to the other man to speak.
Finally, Courtroy said, "I'm sorry for bringing our family's troubles down on you. Some would even call it a curse. I never believed the stories. Now I have no choice."
"I'm a mathematician. I don't believe in curses."
Courtroy snorted. "After tonight, you may. Tell me, have been happy your blah months here?"
"I suppose so, yes. Relatively."
"You haven't been awakened by bloodcurdling screams in the night, or horrifying spectres hovering above your bed? You haven't seen the furnishings fly about the room as though trying to attack you? You haven't felt compelled to take up a kitchen knife and open your veins?"
Jonathan was taken aback. "Why, no, of course not. I wouldn't have stayed here if I had. You know that."
Courtroy set his cup on the table and leaned back. "Yes, I know. That's why I say it is our family's curse. That's why you never saw it before tonight, when there were Sloans in the house."
"What did I see, exactly?"
"The Windmere Horror. At least, that's what my family calls it. We've gone to great pains not to publicize it."
"I've heard rumors," Jonathan said.
"Yes, that's unavoidable. But I guarantee you have not heard the entire story. And I guarantee that the rumors you've heard are not half as horrifying as the reality."
Lawrence Sloan arrived in the colonies from England in 1699, though some records indicate 1700. He was barely a man, and eager to make his fortune, seeing this new land of England's as ripe with advantage. Immediately upon his arrival in Niew Amsterdaam, Lawrence began making shrewd trades and deals, and soon had enough capitol to purchase his own trade ship. One ship became three, and three became six, and within a few short years, Lawrence had succeeded in his initial goal of amassing a small fortune.
He set his sights on a larger goal: shipping domination of the entire coast. The north, he saw, was where all of the colonists were arriving, and where most of the major industry was likely to develop. The colonies were steadily spreading to the south, however, and Lawrence recognized that the rich, desirable goods would come from there. The south was free of the devestating winters that crippled the north's growing and shipping season, and its rich soil could produce textiles and foods found nowhere else. For total success, he somehow needed to link both coasts with his ships. This was already being done by some, but all were located in the north, which added an additional week to the journey south and back. If Lawrence could establish a port in between the two points, he could, using multiple ships, load and offload with his buyers and put cash in his pocket more quickly than his Niew Amsterdaam rivals.
In 1704, the fledgling trader baron chose the tiny fishing hamlet of Simone to relocate his business to, believing that its mid-Atlantic coastal location would thrive into a major shipping port. Young and ambitious--some would say arrogant--Sloan ordered the construction of a grand house, a palace to demonstrate his success and power. To further its imposing presence, Sloan chose the highest hill for his construction site, a grassy half-moon where he could overlook both of his dominions of the sea and the town. Not trusting the skills of the local workers, Sloan brought in only the best artisans from London, Paris and Italy. This caused grumblings among the townspeople. They were a tight-knit community, used to working together to make ends meet, and the new arrival was simply expected to fall into that mindset. Once the ships full of foreign laborers arrived, though, and the high beams of the massive edifice began to sprout upon the hilltop, they began to realize that the good of the community was not Sloan's primary interest.
The great house was completed in 1705. Lawrence stood upon his wide, wooden canopy porch and surveyed his dominion. The wind, had soon discovered, was ever-present up here, but it smelled of the sea, which was the smell of wealth, so Lawrence welcomed it. The house should have a name, he thought, as do all good estates back home in England. Thinking of the constant companion of the wind, he initally considered naming it Windermere, after the lake near his hometown of Cornwall. But he did not want people to associate his grand provence of the sea with some mere lake, so he shortened the name and dubbed his estate Windmere.
As the years passed, Sloan's dream of connecting the upper and lower coasts did not materialize, and Simone did not thrive as he had led the villiagers to hope. However, Sloan's ships still found buyers for his goods elsewhere, and his personal wealth continued to flourish. He remained in Simone, crediting his impressive estate to his continued success. When the people of Simone realized that he had abandoned his efforts to bring the trading ships to their town, the grumblings grew louder. Sloan's presence was an ever-sore reminder of his own gain at their expense, and he became less and less welcomed within the town.
Then a dark cloud of trouble cast its shadow over Sloan. Pirates had blossomed like algea on the coastal seas, intercepting the trade ships, stealing their goods, and sometimes murdering the crews. Sloan's fleet was hit especially hard. Four of his ships were pilliaged and burned; a fifth had half of its crew killed. Seasoned sailors to replace the missing became hard to find, as men refused to sign aboard ships sailing into pirate-infested waters. Other traders quit the southern route altogether, and Sloan's ships were forced to wander empty from port to port, vainly seeking cargo to return home with.
And then one day the pirates arrived in the quiet town of Simone. It was a bewildering moment. The pirate captain made a bizarre speech about compassion and pleaded for someone to take custody of a little girl who accompanied him. Sloan, his curiosity piqued by the black ship in the harbor, had made a rare descent into town to see what was going on. When the captain presented the little girl, Sloan saw that no one had the courage to approach the bandit of the high seas. So Sloan himself stepped forward to accept guardianship of her. Brief words were exchanged, and the pirate and his men left, and the townspeople assumed they had seen the last of him.
Sloan, the villiagers knew, had drawn the pirate here, what with his ship's frequent encounters with their ilk. He was bringing trouble to their town, when the people only wanted to be left alone to their quiet idyllic existence. When the pirate attacks subsided and Sloan's ships once again sailed the ocean uninhibited, they assumed that he had made some kind of deal with the pirates. In their minds, that made him no better than a pirate himself, and many wanted him driven out of town. But cooler heads prevailed, and as the years went by with no more visits from pirate ships, the citizens began to calm and forget that strange day.
Meanwhile, Sloan presented the girl to the young couple who kept his house and grounds. Henry and Heather Lawson lived in a small cabin on the edge of the property, and Sloan correctly assumed that their childlessness was not by choice. The couple eagerly accepted their new charge and set about making her new life as happy as her short life to date had been unhappy. The child would not speak at first, and her parents could only theorize at the horrors she had seen aboard the pirate ship. Eventually, however, the child began to speak again, though never ever of the events that had brought her to them, and the new family settled into the routine of a happy household, and the past eventually faded into haze.
Then one day the pirate returned. He went directly up the hill to Windmere, and what transpired there, the villiagers could only guess. The next morning, the pirate ship was gone, and for the people of Simone, that was the end of the story. But for the Sloan family the hell had only just begun.
Lawrence Sloan died of tuberculosis in 1742. Because Lawrence had been a miser who never allowed his fortune to be tapped by a wife, his estate passed down to his brother, Reginald. It was not long after Reginald Sloan and his family took possession of Windmere that the terror began.
The children began to complaining of dark shadows that passed over their ceilings and walls. Their parents dismissed it as the overactive imaginations of children in a new, large, creepy house. Then the children reported that their bedsheets were being ripped from their beds as they slept, and this Reginald and Lucy had to take more seriously. They searched everywhere, but were unable to find signs of an intruder, or any other natural cause for the disturbances. All they could do was shrug and hope that their lives would soon settle down.
But the bedsheet indidents soon turned to something far more menacing. Night after night, the children themselves were thrown from their beds. The family of five took to sleeping within a single large bed in the master bedroom that overlooked the ocean. Soon, Reginald and Lucy also began to see the dark shapes crawling along the walls, even on moonless nights. Lucy begged Reginald to move them out of the house, but Reginald was a man of reason. He persisted in denying that anything supernatural was happening, and told the family that they were staying their ground.
One night, Lucy awoke to the sensation of something sitting on her chest. A great invisible pressure descended on her face and began to suffocate her. Her thrashing awakened Reginald, and the entity turned on him. Invisible fingers clutched his throat and tried to choke the life from him. Then the entity vanished, and the family spent a fearful, sleepless night with the candles burning and watchful eyes studying the corners. In the morning, dark bruises ringed Reginald's throat.
Reginald and Lucy moved away from Windmere soon after that, leaving the house in the charge of Thomas and Elizabeth Lawson, the caretakers who lived in the cabin on the edge of the property. Thomas and Elizabeth made frequent trips to the house to dust and sweep and keep the house prepared in case the Sloans should decide to return. Neither one ever saw or heard anything unusual, and the other Sloans began to think that Reginald and Lucy had made the story up. The family knew that they were not as financially well-off as Reginald's brother, and probably did not want to admit that they were unable to afford the considerable expense of maintaining such an estate. The ghost story was undoubtedly a discrete way to remove themselves from the financial responsibility without disgracing themselves.
However, the next Sloans to move into the house discovered that those assumptions were wrong.
Reginald's cousin, Roderick Sloan, moved into Windmere next. An already aged man in his sixties, Roderick was found dead within a week. Heart failure was presumed. Roderick's son, Arthur, brought his family to Simone next. Arthur and Rebecca were a childless couple, and they had their first taste of the Windmere presence on their first night there. They awoke to find their bed shaking. They had heard the ghostly stories and rumors, but, unfamiliar as they were with the geography of North Carolina, they passed this incident off as a mild earth tremor.
On the second night, the entity escalated its presence and got Arthur and Rebecca's attention. As Rebecca was preparing for bed, she drew open the curtains in the second-floor bedroom and was confronted with a visage floating outside the window so horrible that she was unable to speak of it. She refused to spend another night in the house and departed the next morning, leaving Arthur alone to face what he was sure was nothing more than a product of Rebecca's imagination.
Arthur became the next victim of what was becoming known among the family as the Windmere Horror. He fled the house three nights later, refusing to describe what had driven him from the house.
And still, Sloans came. There were sometimes gaps of decades, but a sceptical Sloan would eventually attempt to cheat the Sloan curse. A few of them remained for several years. Most succumbed to the nightly terrors and escaped the estate within a year.
The people of Simone were aware of none of this. The Sloans were a prideful clan, and kept their misfortune mostly to themselves. However, there is no stopping rumor, and gossip about the sequentially fleeing Sloans buzzed throughout Simone. Windmere naturally assumed a reputation for being haunted. How true this was went beyond the gossipers' wildest imaginations.
"My uncle Martin believed the stories, and refused to come to Windmere when he inherited it," Courtroy concluded. "I personally thought it all poppycock. Tonight's events have swayed my thinking, however." He glanced nervously at the overhead timbers that groaned from the constant outside wind.
"Who do you think it is?" Jonathan asked. "Is it Lawrence Sloan's ghost?"
"I have no idea," Courtroy conceded. "There is a story among my family that it was the pirate who visited Simone when Lawrence lived here. Something supposedly happened between them to cause bad blood between Lawrence and the pirate. Lawrence might have betrayed the pirate somehow. No one really knows. Unfortunately, not even the name of the pirate has survived, so there is no way of researching the story's veracity."
"I can imagine that the events are not talked about much within your family."
Courtroy shook his head. "No. Especially not in Lawrence's era. The family had to maintain their reputation, you know."
The slip of dawn was beginning to shine golden on the kitchen walls. "This long night is over," Courtroy said. "If I may borrow your wagon, I shall collect my brother's body and take it to the authorities."
Jonathan held the reigns of Courtoy's horse as Courtoy loaded his brother's body into the wagon and covered it with a canvas. Jonathan had once despised this man as an opportunist and a swindler, but now he felt only sympathy for him. To have had to live in the shadow of such misfortune was unimaginable, and then to have his only inheritance be that of an ancient curse as well as lose his only brother to it...
Courtroy shook Jonathan's hand from atop his horse. "Good day, Mr. Keller. I imagine we shall not meet again. I give you Windmere free and clear. You have been the first to find happiness within its walls in a hundred and fifty years. It's time that it belonged to a line that could enjoy it for the palace it is. May your happiness be continued. Farewell."
Jonathan watched the horse and wagon ride down the path until it disappeared from sight down the hillside. Then he turned to go back into the house, but found himself unable to take another step near it. Courtroy's story haunted his thoughts. True, his life here had been mostly uneventful, but how long would that last? He had seen the Windmere Horror. He knew that its legend was true. Would it turn its centuries-old vengeance on him now?
He decided that he could not return to the house, not right away. He thought about going to town, but it was very early, and he was not ready to explain the night's events to the people there. There was only one place that Jonathan thought of with a sense of comfort. And so he skirted the house, and began to cross the wildflower field.
Anna, not surprisingly, was awake. She beamed at Jonathan as she opened her door and saw him there. "What a lovely surprise so early in the morning!" she exclaimed. Then she saw his face. "Why, whatever is the matter? You look so troubled."
"Apologies for the early interruption," he said. "It has been a very disturbing night. May I come in?"
He came in and sat at her kitchen table, and she made him hot tea. She offered to cook him breakfast, but Jonathan said he wasn't hungry. Then he told her of the night's events, including a sketchier version of the Windmere Horror and the Sloan curse.
"I do not think it's safe for you to come to the house again," he concluded. "I'm not certain if it's safe for me to return. I may have to abandon the house like all those before me."
"Dearest Jonathan," Anna said, placing her hand on his. "What a horrific experience! I have a belief about the spirit world, however. I believe that there is no such thing as a good spirit or a bad spirit. The spirit simply reacts according to the personality of the person who sees it."
"What do you mean?"
"Let's say you are a cruel, mean, uncaring person. If you encounter a spirit, that spirit is going to sense your cold, brutal soul--for that's what a spirit is, the soul released from the body. A spirit senses and interacts with other souls, not the bodies they occupy. When a spirit encounters a soul like that, it will react viciously, in just the manner such a person deserves.
"Now, when a spirit encounters a kind, compassionate soul--say, like yours, my dear," she smiled at him, and Jonathan blushed. "When that happens, the spirit will react gently, perhaps not even make its presence known, for it doesn't want to frighten that person.
"From what you have said of this Sloan family, every one of them has been greedy and discompassionate. Perhaps Windmere is haunted, but the spirit there only reacts angrily toward Sloans because that's just the type of people they are. You, on the other hand, may live there your entire life and never have a bad experience."
Jonathan considered this. "That makes sense, I suppose. I still don't know if I can return there for a while."
"Dearest," Anna said, standing and wrapping her arms about him, "you may stay here as long as you wish."
Winter was in the air by the end of October. The air had taken on a sharpness within the lungs, and a bite on the skin. For a few weeks, Windmere hill was ablaze in autumn color, and Jonathan and Anna took frequent long strolls among the sunset-colored woods. They spent hours lying upon blankets spread out upon the crackling fallen leaves, observing the birds and squirrels scurry about with their winter preparations while the dry, golden leaves rustled in the branches overhead. After the leaves had withered and fallen, Windmere Road was covered a foot deep, and Anna took to calling it "the road to El Dorado."
Early November brought the first gales of winter. These slashed at the hilltop with sleet-bearing hurricane winds, and assaulted the cliff with great surging waves that smashed into flash-freezing spray a hundred feet high. Windmere had withstood countless of these across its two centuries, but they frightened Jonathan nonetheless. Anna would come to the house and spend those nights sitting up with him. She accepted the storms as just another part of the ocean's personality. Her calm presence soothed Jonathan. He loved her all the more for displaying such courage in the face of nature's violence, and she loved him all the more for being afraid of this common phenomena. After the storms, they would go outside to survey the new landscape, and Jonathan was always amazed at the layer of snow and ice that plastered the east side of the house, especially the way that the icicles raked back sharply. It was as though the house had been struck by a massive ice-spraying gun. Anna tried to explain that, in a way, it had.
"You need to begin preparing Windmere for winter," she said one day, following one of these storms.
"Why? What needs to be done?" he asked. Having lived his entire life in the city, Jonathan did now know about the special hardships of enduring a rural winter. Anna could see that he would need much help if he were to survive his first winter here.
"Sweetheart," she said, "the winters here are not like at home. There is no road-dragging service here. The road between Windmere and Simone will be impassible soon. Your horse may be able to make it if the snow is not too deep, but your wagon will not. To prepare for the worst, you must put in a full season's supply of food and other provisions. You have to have enough firewood for at least five months--"
"Yes, five months. You have only a half-dozen cords left now. You will need at least ten times that. You should block off non-essential parts of the house to make it last longer. The windows should be sealed. We'll have to tend to the pump. Oh, there are so many things to do. I shall make you a list, and I will help you with what I can."
As they went over Anna's list, Jonathan once again offered to have her come live at the house. "Surely this place would be safer and more comfortable in the winter time than your cabin."
"I am perfectly content there," she said sweetly. "It takes little wood to warm my small space. Besides," she added, "you would soon become bored with me if you were to see too much of me."
"Oh, Anna. I could never become bored with you."
"Sweet words, my love, but I'm afraid that reality soon overcomes romance." She gave him a small peck. "I would rather that you retained some longing for me."
"You are an enticingly exasperating woman," Jonathan said.
"And you, love, are an enticingly stubborn man," she replied.
Their winter preparation list became temporarily forgotten.
The order that Jonathan left with Arthur Abraham was an extensive one, and one costly enough that Arthur was happy to process. It would take a few weeks to get it all here, but he would have it sent up to Windmere as soon as everything arrived. The cordwood order could be filled locally, and Jonathan could have that within the week.
Before he left town, Jonathan paid a visit to the Elm Portrait Studio, a place he had been meaning to stop in to, but never got around to.
"Ah, Jonathan!" Carl exclaimed with surprise. "I was wondering when you would get down here!"
"Hello, Carl," Jonathan said. "How's business?"
"Oh, not too bad. Have you come to finally move into the modern age of photography? Hand illlustration won't be around much longer, you know."
"Oh, I don't know about that," Jonathan chuckled, slowly walking along the shelves of display cameras. "The cold, exacting eye of the lense won't ever replace the emotion of the human hand, I don't think. I am, however, in the market for one of these. I'd like to give one to Anna for Christmas."
"Sure. What kind are you looking for?"
Jonathan explained what he had in mind, and Carl helped him pick out a small Kodak blah, not too expensive, and not too bulky. He had Carl put it in a plain box so that Anna wouldn't accidentally spot it before Christmas.
Jonathan waved goodbye to Carl as he left the store, and then he got on his horse and rode out of town for the last time that year.
The first major snowfall of the season occurred two weeks before Christmas. Despite the four-inch snowcover and temperatures in the mid-twenties, a sizeable crowd turned out for the grand opening of the Simone Carnegie Library. Carol Elm, the town's first librarian, cut through a yellow ribbon held across the front door by the mayor and the owner of the next-door livery, who had donated the land the library stood on. The event was captured in a photograph taken by Carol's husband Carl. The photograph can still be seen in the library today, on the wall just to the left of the curved walnut checkout desk. If one looks closely closely at the crowd, they will see, among the top hats and bonnets and voluminous mustaches, a striking large-eyed girl looking back at the camera. She is the only one besides the ribbon-cutters not facing the library. Her name is Gail Russell.
PRELUDE, PART III
THE DEVIL'S STEWPOT
August 12, 1728, somewhere in the Florida Keyes.
The iron grate in the heavy oak door moaned open, and a piece of fruit and a few hunks of cooked rat were tossed through. A figure scrambled from the shadows on hands and knees. The wedge of light let in by the open grate illuminated a single eye peering through bedraggled, greying hair, and for just a moment the pirate Simpson locked gazes with it. There was still something human in the former Captain Stillson's eye. Simpson felt a surge of horror and awe at the man's resiliance--an illusion swiftly broken by the way the broken man attacked and gnawed at the scraps of food.
Simpson hurridly shut the grate on the horrible figure within and repadlocked it. He padded back down the trail to the beach, where the remainder of his crew sat enjoying their dinner around fires, the Black Wing anchored in the bay behind them. It had been a good day. They had overtaken a Spanish galleon, carrying tons of gold and silver and food supplies, presumably on their way to one of Spain's many colonies in this part of the world. The majority of the day had been spent transferring the massive amount of cargo to the Black Wing before burning the hulk and retreating to their island hideout to celebrate. Tonight, the men enjoyed sangria and cured beef, and dreamed of the women they would spend their takings on when they sailed up the coast in a week's time. It was obvious to Simpson by the efficient swiftness of the battle that Captain Johnson was a formidable pirate, well-deserving of the loyalty professed by his men.
Simpson was one of the younger men aboard on this voyage, having joined in the wake of his former captain's capture and execution, upon which the crew had dissipated among the many other pirate ships plying these waters. He did not know who the man was hidden away within the shallow cave the men called The Devil's Stewpot, nor what the man had done to deserve such a terrible fate. The man, whom the other referred to just as "the prisoner", was there when Simpson came on board, and, from what little information he had gathered, had been there for several years.
"Why is it called The Devil's Stewpot?" he had asked, when first assigned to take food there.
"Because 'oever's in there eats mainly bugs, mice, snakes, and whate'er else crawls or slithers inside," one of the men told him. "We only feed 'im when we're 'here, which isn' of'en."
Simpson could only speculate that the man must be extremely violent and dangerous. He must have done something truly traitorous to Captain Johnson. Perhaps, Simpson thought with fright, he was a failed mutineer, and Captain Johnson was making an example out of him. No wonder the men claimed such loyalty to the Captain! It would certainly make Simpson think twice about attempting such foolishness.
Simpson was almost to the beach when he spotted the silhouetted masts of a ship coming around the end of the island. He stopped and watched as the unmistakable, low shape of a war galleon emerged with alarming speed. He opened his mouth and began to cry "Warship!" when twelve pounds of iron tunneled through his chest.
The first shots of the battle reverberated through Stillson's prison. He scurried to the door and peered through the small openings in the grate. He could see little but flashes of orange flame and clouds of smoke. Then a tremendous explosion rocked the ground, and Simpson fell back to the cramped recesses of his cave. The sound of debris showering the jungle around his prison confirmed his fear. The explosion could only have been the Black Wing's black powder store erupting in a cataclysm of death and destruction. He should have felt sad at the death of his beloved ship, but Stillson felt only emptyness. Stillson felt nothing now. Nearly ten long years in this dark, damp, infested prison had beaten his emotions into oblivion, and caused his mind to retreat into near-madness. His hair, once jet-black and pulled back into a tight, neat Oriental braid, and his neatly-trimmed beard were now long, matted, and grey, and crawled with lice.
Only one emotion remained, a small spark deep within that held his mind away from the bottomless crevice of madness, that pumped his life's blood minute by minute, day by day, year by year. There was a woman promised him, an ethereal beauty expecting him, waiting for him to come and make her his wife. He would fulfill his promise. For nine years, he refused to die, determined to return to her and live his last days in happiness, in the arms of a beatiful woman.
Now the sound of distant gunfire was joined by the much closer sounds of men screaming. Stillson winced, remembering the last time his own sword had sliced into flesh. A cannonball whistled overhead and smashed into the jungle somewhere. Shouts in a foreign language Stillson did not understand. Stillson's mind began to descend into blackness.
A cannonball slammed into the immense prison door, knocking Stillson into the dirt and causing rocks and dust to rain down from the ceiling. Stunned, he lay motionless in the dirt, gazing upward. He marveled at the eddies of dust swirling and dancing through the shafts of light. Light. Stillson slowly turned his head, and his heart leapt. The once inpenetratable door stood ajar, buckled inward, large gaps visible in its planks, through which glorious daylight streamed.
Stillson wanted to run to the door and tear it from its fixtures and dash into the open. But the small part of his mind still rational held him back. It would be best to wait for the fighting to end, he reasoned. And so he waited. He lay in the dirt and gazed longingly at the blades of light piercing the door and he forced himself to wait. Time had long ceased to have meaning for Stillson, so he had no idea if he lay there for hours or days before all had remained quiet for long enough to risk venturing outside.
Standing as best he could in the low cave, Stillson leaned against the wall and pulled against the edge of the door. His left arm was almost useless now. The dagger wound had infected, and his arm had swollen and blackened, before withering altogether. He should have let them saw the damn thing off. But now he put it to work as though it were still as strong as the days he wielded swords two-fisted against defending sailors.
Slowly, the door began to move. Suddenly, he felt its weight shift beneath his hands, and the entire thing collapsed into pieces. The sunlight blinded him. Throwing an arm over his eyes, he shuffled forward, and for the first time in almost ten years, he stood in the open. He tried to stand straight and walk forward, but the years of crouching had ruined both his back and his legs, and Stillson fell to the ground. Determined to taste freedom once again, he crawled on his hands and knees through the jungle.
He emerged into where the jungle opened up to the beach. He could not believe the devestation before him. Bodies littered the sand. The blackened, still-smoking timbers of the Black Wing lay at an angle in the bay. The poor bastards had never even made it back to the ship. The majority of the crew had died on the beach, waving only cutlasses and daggers in the face of water-borne cannon and muskets. At least a few of the attackers had followed their prey onto land, and died along with them. Stillson crawled over the body of Simpson and approached one of the invaders. He examined the body armor and the helmet. "Spaniards," he croaked. Stillson saw clearly now what had happened. The fool Johnson had attacked a richly-laden galleon, forgetting the escorts that always lurked on the distant horizon, and had led them directly to their hideout, where they had taken him completely unprepared. And here was the reckless Johnson now, laid back before the remains of his dinner fire, half of his head missing from a close musket shot.
That evening, Stillson cooked Johnson's remains over a fire and ate his first decent meal since his imprisonment.
Dec 25, 1907
Deep beneath a thick blanket of snow, Windmere was the perfect image of Christmas. The sun shone brightly upon the ocean and the cliff, and the snow sparkled upon Windmere's roof and front lawn. A thin wisp of smoke rose from one of the chimneys and lazily dissipated in the sharp, still air.
Tramping out across the back field with a pair of snowshoes, Jonathan got Anna and brought her to the house. She had never been on snowshoes before, and she laughed and shrieked as she stumbled over the fields.
Inside, Jonathan had done his best to decorate the house for the holidays with the few things he had found in the attic. None of the trees upon his hilltop were right for a Christmas tree, so he had forgone one and hung dried garlands and wreaths instead. The whole house was filled with the scent of junipers and cinnamon. On the small table in the sitting room, hot cider was waiting for them. Jonathan started a fire going while Anna unfurled a blanket from the shelf and wrapped herself within it upon the sofa. Anna snuggled close to Jonathan and sipped from her glass as they sat on the sofa and listened to the crackling fireplace.
"Do you think sometimes," Jonathan said, "that a moment in time can last forever?"
"Yes, I think that's possible," Anna replied, with just a touch of wariness.
"I would like to capture this moment and make it last forever."
Anna gazed into the steaming brass-bright depths of her cup. "Oh, don't wish for such things. Just think of all of the other moments we would miss if we stayed in just one forever."
"I suppose you're right. But what if we could? And still go on and enjoy all of those other moments?"
"You're going to break out your canvas, aren't you, darling?"
"No, no." He got up from the sofa. "Wait here. I'll be right back."
Jonathan went upstairs and retrieved the small box wrapped in gold and green foil from beneath his bed. The little box was remarkably heavy for its size. He hoped that Anna would like it. She seemed to be a rather old-fashioned girl who didn't go for many of the day's modern conveniences. However, he saw the way she marveled at his paintings, and she had once remarked that she wished that she had his artistic talent. Maybe a camera would give her that sense of artistic accomplishment without having to master the mixing of paints and the delicate strokes of brushes.
When he came back downstairs, Anna had the blanket wrapped tightly around her and her feet curled up beneath it on the sofa. "You look cold," Jonathan said. "Shall I put another log on the fire?"
Jonathan tossed another split quarter into the flames and prodded the glowing mass with the poker to coax it along. Then he went to the sofa and held the little box out to her. "Merry Christmas, Anna."
"Why, thank you, Jonathan." She set the box in her lap and stuck her hands out through the blanket just enough to tear off the wrapping. She lifted the lid and peered inside, a funny look on her face. "It's lovely, dear. And quite unusual. Pray tell, what is it?"
"Why, it's a camera," he said, sitting beside her. "Haven't you seen one of these before?"
She shook her head silently.
"It's quite simple to use," he said, taking the camera from its box. "You point this round lens at the subject you want to photograph, look down through this square lens on top here..." he held the camera to his eye and pointed it at Anna. "...and push this button." The camera made a tinny chink noise. Through the viewfinder, Anna's face showed a mixture of perplextion and startlement.
Jonathan lowered the camera. "Did I choose wrong?"
Anna's face brightened in a smile. "No, not at all. It's just new to me. You'll have to show me how to use it, that's all."
Jonathan jumped up excitedly. "Well, come over here, near the window, where there's light. I'll give you your first lesson."
"Jonathan," Anna said quietly.
"I believe that I would like to wait until later."
"Oh. All right."
"You see, I feel kind of bad. Because I am of such limited means and handiwork, I'm afraid that I cannot give you a proper gift."
"Oh, that's all right, Anna. You don't have to..." His voice trailed off as Anna's bare leg slid out from beneath the blanket, and the edge of the blanket fell away from her bare shoulder.
"I fear that I have but one gift to give to you," she said.
Gail Russell lay in her darkened bedroom and stared at the ceiling. She had not thought of Jonathan Keller in a long time, yet tonight her mind was consumed by him. Their time together had been so brief, but in that short time he had permeated her heart and soul to the point where she could think of no other. In the days after graduation, she had lain in this very bed and pined away, almost never leaving the room. She was forbidden to see him, yet if she left the house she felt compelled to go to him. He was with that other girl now, but she was not right for him. Gail could make him see that. If she could only spend a little time with him, talk to him, show him what she could provide for him, then he was sure to change his mind. She was certain of it. They were probably together right now, curled before his fireplace. The poor man. He was deludedly thinking he was happy when really what he really wanted was here in this cold, dark room, watching the trees wave twisting shadows over the ceiling.
Her mother had become so alarmed by her sullen attitude following graduation that she had sent Gail away to stay with her aunt Lily in Wilmington, for "as long as it takes to get your mind off that man." For six months she stayed there, but she never stopped thinking of him. Finally she realized that the only way that she would be allowed to return home--where there was the small chance that she would encounter him--would be to pretend to be "cured." She put on a great show of being cheerful and gay, and even began dating a friend of her cousins. She went so far as to allow him to kiss her in front of her family, just to make sure that they got the idea. (When he tried to kiss her in private later, she bit his lip and kicked his shin.) They allowed her to come home in time for Christmas. The very first thing her parents had done was to drag her out to the opening of the new library, so everyone would see that everything was fine with their emotionally fragile Gail. That's what they had called her when they sent her off: emotionally fragile.
Jonathan had said that her name was Lawson. It was said that she lived up there on the property with him. Gail had a feeling in the pit of her stomach about this Lawson girl. Some instinct told her that this girl had something to hide. For one thing, Gail knew all of the gossip in town, and she had never heard of Anna Lawson. She had never even met anyone from the family, and the Lawsons were supposed to have been in Simone since its founding. Gail bet that this so-called "Anna" was some out of town girl who was after Jonathan's inheritance. Gail knew just what she'd do. She'd go down to that new library and see what she could find about this Anna Lawson. There would be something there. She knew it. She would find the incriminating evidence, and then she would go to Jonathan with it, and he would be hers again.
Yes. He would be hers again.
The day after Christmas began deceptively pleasantly, with temperatures in the low 30s and a clear sky that brought snowmelt trickling from the rooftops in the bright sun. Despite the nice weather, not many people were out of their homes, other than the children, who did not have school. Even the new library, busy with curious townspeople since its opening, was almost empty. Carol Elm had been thinking of closing a bit early due to the low traffic. The Russell girl had been her only patron since 10am. People were exhausted after the excitement of the holiday, she guessed, and were spending the day recuperating.
By midafternoon, the air took on a sudden, significant chill. Marla Hendricks reported seeing the thermometer outside her kitchen window drop fifteen degrees in ten minutes. The sky turned the slate grey that causes fisherman to keep one eye on the skies and one hand on the winch handle. When the snow began, it began in large, wet flakes that looked like popcorn falling from the clouds, and everyone knew right away that it was going to be bad.
By 5pm, four inches covered the ground. By sunset, the ocean had disappeared behind a veil, and even the Broad Bay light a few miles up the coast was invisible. The snowdrifts were already up to the windowsills. It was the kind of storm that people knew would not pass without claiming its toll.
Gail pulled on a pair of her father's old overalls over her skirt and zipped her high-top, fur-lined boots on over that. She gathered her heaviest parka--which was still none too heavy--and wrapped the lower half of her face with a muffler. Her gloves went into her pocket, to be put on once she was safely out of the house.
Her mother and father would never have allowed her to make the journey to Windmere on her own, even had the roads been passable. But she had no choice. She could not explain the urgency to her parents; they would not understand. What she had learned in the library's archives was too important to wait until the spring thaw. She believed that Jonathan's very life might depend on her contacting him. A part of her still loved him, even if he had been lured astray. Very likely, after she reached him and he heard what she had to say, he would have a change of heart and would be hers once more. She sighed inwardly, gazing out the window at the white world which reflected the late afternoon sun in sparkling shades of light blue. Winning Jonathan back was a long shot, she knew. Was it worth the risk she was about to take? Yes, she told herself. Even if he did not return to her arms, she would still have alerted him to the great peril he faced, and that alone was worth the risk.
Slowly, silently, Gail pushed up the window and stepped out onto the porch roof. Her feet began to skid, and for a moment she feared that she would tumble over the edge and to the ground, but she caught ahold of the windowsill and regained her footing. Carefully, she lowered the window and began to edge toward the corner of the house in baby steps. At the corner was a tree that used to host a simple treehouse that her father had built for her as a child. The treehouse had been sacrificed to the stove one winter when firewood was scarce, but the short planks nailed to the trunk as a sort of ladder remained. She would have to jump a good five feet, but she felt she could make it.
Crouching at the very edge of the roofline and taking careful aim, Gail steeled herself. Then she launched herself into the air and stretched desperately for the branch that angled up and over the house. She caught it in an explosion of powdery snow, and dangled there for a moment while she regained stability. Then she swung her legs over until her feet caught the uppermost plank protruding from the trunk. She walked herself hand-over-hand down the branch until she could grip the tree trunk in a bear hug. Shen she removed one foot from the step and felt for the next one below. Slowly, step by step. she lowered herself down the makeshift ladder and hopped the last couple of feet to the ground. The snow buried her up to her knees. She could not take her horse without being noticed; she would have to wade the long trek through the snow. The road from town was at least a mile until it met with Jonathan's; then it was another half-mile or so up the steeply winding hillside road to reach Windmere. The shadows were beginning to stretch across her lawn. She had better move quickly. Gail blowed through the thick snow, and, one step at a time, began her arduous journey.
Outside of town, away from the sheltering trees and houses, the drifts became significantly deeper. Gail struggled up the road against the knee-high snow. She shivered in spite of the heavy coat and high boots she wore. The sun was beginning to set on the coast, and the temperature was dropping rapidly, but she had to get to Windmere. She had to see Jonathan, to warn him.
She came to the fork where Windmere Road curved away up the hillside, and she started up toward the house. The climb up the steep hill only increased her efforts against the snow, and rapidly drained her strength. She had to stop every ten feet or so to catch her breath and rest her aching legs. Then, as though the house sensed her approach, the wind blew in off the ocean, bringing with it a charcoal-grey cloudbank and a skin-searing squall of snow and sleet. Gail wrapped her muffler closer around her face and forged ahead, eyes closed against the pelting snow.
Her fingers and toes were beginning to numb. The driving snow plastered her clothes to her body which pierced her body with chill. The next time she opened her eyes, the world had turned white. The wind whipped up the loose snow from the ground in addition to what it carried with it, and Gail found herself snowblinded in a whiteout. She could not stop. To stop meant a quick death by freezing. She stumbled ahead, one hand out in front of her, should she wander off the path.
Soon the rough bark of a tree met her hand, and she knew with sinking certainty that she had meandered off of the road. Her only choice now was to continue following the hill upwards, until eventually she emerged from the treeline, hopefully within sight of the house. Gail lurched from tree to tree, hoping against hope that the squall died before she did. The trees were vague shadows around her. They squelched the driving wind somewhat, but the heavy sleet still stung her face and blurred her vision. Her feet struggled to carry her from one lurching step to the next.
Finally, inevitably, she could go no further, and her weakened legs collapsed beneath her. She fell into the snow next to a large, ancient tree. She lay there in the cold, clinging snow until she had gathered only enough strength to drag herself around to the far side of the tree, where its massive trunk sheltered her somewhat from the brunt of the wind. She was so tired. She wanted only to sleep. She sat in the snow with her back to the tree and waited for death to take her. Each time she began to drift off into sleep, part of her mind shook her awake and reminded her that Jonathan needed her. What she had to tell him was too important to allow herself to die. Just a few more minutes, she told herself each time, and then she would be able to go on.
As her half-lidded eyes gazed listlessly into the white oblivion, a shadow emerged from the hazy dark columns of trees and approached her. Her failing mind took a while to recognize who it was.
"You?" Gail whispered with feeble breath into the howling wind.
"Take my hand," Anna said. "Come with me."
The winter crept on. For a quiet village like Simone, winter is usually a magic clock that freezes time for a few months. When the first deep, toe-numbing freeze hits, everyone goes indoors and goes into a sort of hibernation, coming out only to when they have to and scurrying back in as soon as they can. The boats don't leave the bay, and nobody from out of town passes through. In the spring, the snow retreats and releases the town from its coccoon, and the residents emerge from their homes and Simone returns to life as though nothing had happened.
This year was different. Far from ears at Windmere, the talk of the town was the missing Russell girl. She had vanished from her bedroom on the night of the last bad storm. Finding the large depressing in the snow beneath the tree where she had descenced, the surmised that she had climbed from her bedroom window onto the roof, and from there to the tree. However, the storm had obliterated all other trace of her path beyond the yard. Not a soul had seen her departure that night.
There was activity in Simone like it had never seen in December before. Every man and boy, and quite a few of the women, dressed in layer upon layer of coats and sweaters, tramped throughout the town and nearby countryside, searching for some sign of the girl. The snow was always at least up to their knees, and often came up to their waists. When the line of searchers got about half a mile outside of town and the drifts came up to their chests, they had to call the search off.
Gail Russell appeared to have vanished from the face of the earth. When Herb Ostermeyer, who had headed up the search party, announced that there was nothing more they could do, Carlotta Russell was inconsolable. Richard Russell, a man of the sea who felt lost while trapped on land for the winter as it was, detached from reality. Though he could never admit such a thing aloud, his daughter was the only thing he loved more than either his wife or his boat. Without two of those, and with his wife in continual hysterics, Richard Russell simply mentally departed. Darlene Simmons, from across the street, came to stay with them and tend to their needs, as neither of the Russells were capable of dealing with their day-to-day chores.
And so the town waited in nervous anticipation for word to come of the Russell girl. Within their hearts, they knew that her probable fate was that she had wandered astray in the blizzard and frozen to death. Never speaking of it, they waited in tense anticipation not of news of her return, but of news that her body had been found.
In late February, the season's erratic weather took yet another change when the Gulf Stream current shifted eastward earlier than normal, bringing with it warm southern waters that tempered the air. The almost unbelievable deposits of snow dissolved, and for a change the townspeople were cheered to see muddy streets again.
Carl Elm went into the post office on Friday morning to pick up his mail (for the weekly delivery came late in the afternoon on Thursday). Arthur Anderson also handed him a bundle, about the size of a thick book, wrapped in many layers of plain paper and tied with twine. It had no post or return address on it. Simply Carl's name written in pencil. It was heavy.
"What's this?" Carl asked.
"Mr. Keller dropped that off for you," Arthur said. "Said he was on his way out of town and wouldn't have time to give it to you in person."
Jon had left town? And at such an early hour. Carl wondered what sort of business he was on, that he would leave town with hardly a word to anybody. He gathered the rest of his mail, thanked Arthur, and hurried down the street to his studio, eager to see what Jonathan had left for him. When he got to his shop, he set the bundle on the counter and untied the twine. He peeled away the layers of paper and found a stack of glass photographic negatives. A note on top of the stack said,
"Would you work these up for me?
Carefully handling it by the edges, Carl picked up the first plate and held it up to the light. Not bad, he thought, for an amateur.
On Sunday the 22nd, Carl and Carol went to church and were horrified to find that the entire service had been turned into a choral rememberance of Gail Russell. He had turned to Nellie Conrad beside him and whispered, "What, did they find her?"
Between dabs of her eyes, Nell replied, "No, not yet. But what is one to expect after all this time?"
Carl turned to his wife and said, "I hope the Russells aren't here to see this."
"They're up front." Carol lifted her chin toward the front-row pews. "What a horrible thing for a parent to have to endure! This is only telling them to give up hope."
Carl nodded solemnly, and wondered if Gail could hear Mendelssohn's Beati Mortui from wherever she was.
March 14, 1908
Two weeks passed with no word from Jonathan. Carl understood that his friend's whereabouts were none of his business, but he was crazy with curiosity. Jonathan wasn't the type to just up and leave on adventures. He was about the least adventurous person Carl knew.
"Maybe," his wife suggested, "he just got tired of the country life and went back to Manchester."
"No. Why would he leave me undeveloped photos if he had?"
Carol shrugged. "Some people just give up. They don't mean to. It just happens one day."
"Don't talk like that, Carol." In the back of his mind, though, Carl worried that maybe Jonathan had given up. Maybe the isolation, or the lack of ameneties, or maybe even the ceaseless, thrumming wind had gotten to him. It had happened to others. People occasionally came to Simone in search of the quaint seaside life they had seen romanticized in magazines and books. They rarely stayed longer than a year. Usually, they were gone even before the November wind turned sharp and spiteful. Jonathan was different, though. He had arrived almost timidly, well aware that he did not fit in with the community. His gracious and unsupposing manner seemed to telegraph his self-consciousness at living in the shadow of a dead man who came from a long-established Simone family. Also, he had seemed happy here. Especially after he met that girl. Carl suddenly realized that Jonathan had never introduced him to her. Carl didn't even know her name. Funny, he thought, how some things just get taken for granted when you're speaking with someone.
"I wonder if I shouldn't take a ride up the hill and have a word with Jon's girl," he announced unexpectedly. "Ask about, you know, his state of mind before he left."
"Carl Elm!" Carol snapped crossly. "You'll do no such thing! That's rude and intrusive, and you know it. We've never so much as been introduced to the girl, and you want to ask her if her man is in the altogether." She shook her head as though unsure what she would ever do with such a social disgrace as him.
"Perhaps you're right, dear," Carl said, succombing to his wife's scolding and becoming suddenly extremely fascinated with an uneven seam in the wallpaper.
It was late morning on the fourteenth when Jonathan walked into Carl's shop. "Hullo, Carl," he said.
Carl looked up from the disassembled pocket watch he was bent over at his workbench and plucked the jeweler's loupe from his eye. "Jon! How good to see you! I was beginning to worry about you for a while there."
Jonathan looked down at the counter. "Oh. Well. I had some business to attend to."
A dark cloud passed over Carl's thoughts at Jonathan's reticence. "Right. You'll be wanting your photos, then. I'll just fetch them from the back."
"Thank you," Jonathan said.
Carl emerged from the back room with a black cardboard holder. He handed it to Jonathan, who opened it on the counter and began flipping through the half-dozen images. At the sight of the girl in the old-fashioned dress, a light entered Jonathan's eyes that Carl had not seen for a long time.
"She's a right pretty one you've got there," Carl ventured.
"That she is," Jonathan agreed.
"You know, it struck me the other day that I've never had the chance to meet this girl. Don't even know her name. When are you going to bring her around to the house?"
"Oh my gosh! I'm so sorry, how thoughtless of me! Oh, dear." It was good to see Jonathan flustered again. It meant he hadn't left them after all. "Her name is Anna. Anna Lawson." An odd smile grew on his face. "Of course, I hope that won't be her name much longer."
Carl cocked an eyebrow. "Oh? Holding something out on us, are you, Jonny?"
Jonathan shuffled his feet uneasily. "Oh. Oh, all right. This was supposed to be in secret, but I can tell you, can't I, Carl?"
"Honest as the day is long, that's me."
"All right." Jonathan reached into his inside jacket pocket and brought out a small square box. He removed its top to reveal a sparkling gold and diamond ring, laying atop a bed of cotton. Carl whistled. "It took me two days of searching every shop in Wilmington to find the right one. Going from shop to shop and back again. One shop I think I visited four times before I was certain that this was the one. Then I sat in my hotel room for two weeks, staring at it, and wondering if I was doing the right thing."
"Of course you are, Jon. I'm delighted for you. But tell me, what did you say to the little lady about your trip? Wasn't she worried when you were gone for so long?"
"I, uh, I haven't been to see her yet. When I left, I told her that it was some leftover business from the university, and it might take a while. So she shouldn't be worried yet."
"You going to pop the question right away?"
Jonathan smiled broadly. "As soon as possible. Erm, there's just one thing I wondered if I could talk to you about."
"Well, you see, I haven't gotten the chance to do this before, and I was wondering... Well, how did you propose to Carol?"
Carl's eyebrows shot up. "Oh! Well, let's see... As I recall, Carol and I had been courting for some time, and we had gone out for a ride, and it was getting dark, and I was in a hurry to get her back to her parents', because her mom didn't like me very much. Still doesn't. Anyway, to get to the farm, we had to cross this low point in the road where the creek sometimes flowed right over. There was a little water going over it, maybe two inches, and my horse Etta, she was 'balky,' and she stopped dead in the road in front of that little trickle of water. I hopped down and tried pulling on her reigns, but she wouldn't budge. Carol said, 'Can I help?' and I said, "No, no, I'll get her.' Of course, I was too balky myself to admit that I couldn't, so I just kept pullin' on her reigns, and Etta, she just dug her hooves in deeper and leaned back. Finally, Carol says, sweet as can be, 'May I give it a try?' And I'm standing in the cold creekwater with my shoes and the cuffs of my pants soaked, cussin' and fighting this horse, and I blurted out, 'Lady, I'll marry anyone who can make this blasted horse move!' So Carol gets down, pats the horse on the cheek and says something ladylike to her, then just takes the reigns and walks Etta across the water! And I said, 'Well, I guess that's it, then.'"
Jonathan had to catch his breath from laughing. "That's a wonderful story! But I don't think I can do it that way."
"If you ask Carol, she'll tell you that it was very romantic, that I went down on one knee and asked her to spend the rest of my life with me, or some such. But the other way's how it really happened. I don't know, just have her over for a nice dinner, tell her all the good things about her, and then ask her. I'm sure it'll come naturally if you don't think too hard about it."
"I hope that it does. I'd better be going. Thank you for the advice."
"Anytime. Give me an update tomorrow!"
"I will," Jonthan said with a smile, and went out the door.
The door flew open before Jonathan could even reach out to it, and Anna burst from the house and wrapped her arms around him. "Welcome home!" she cried.
"I missed you," he said, and kissed her.
"I missed you, too. Come inside. You must tell me all about your trip."
Jonathan peered around her at the inside of her small cottage. After two weeks in a cramped hotel room, and a long train ride, the thought of another confined space didn't appeal to him. "If it's all the same," he said, "can we go for a ride while I tell you? I rather miss the out of doors up here."
"Of course. Anything you want." She turned and closed the door behind her.
"Don't you want to fetch your overcoat?"
"No. It's a rather fine day, I think."
Indeed, the day was shaping up to be one of the finest in months. By now, the only piles of snow remaining lay hidden within the permanantly-shadowed treebelts. It felt positively warm to Jonathan once they were out in the fields beneath the full sun.
"The flowers will be blooming soon," Anna said. "I can't wait to see them."
They came to the top of a grassy rise overlooking the fields. In the distance, the ocean sparkled. "Oh, look, Jonathan." Anna dismounted and knelt in the grass. She gently pushed the grass away from a crop of tiny white blossoms. "Aren't the lovely? I can't believe they're blooming already."
"What kind are they?"
"I don't know. You should come down and look."
"Isn't it wet down there?"
"No, it's perfectly fine. Get down here with me, silly."
Jonathan got off the horse and crouched down beside Anna. "They're very pretty."
She sat, tucking her legs beneath her. "Sit down here with me. You can see them better when you're not so high up."
Anna grabbed him by the arm and roughly pulled him down to the ground. She leaned over and kissed him, and said, "I swan, it is impossible to give you a hint!" Then she kissed him again.
Jonathan didn't know if it was the scent of freshly-revived grass, or the dazzle of the waves filling his eyes, or Anna's intoxicating kisses that a short time later caused him to reach inside his coat and produce the small box from Wilmington.
"I intended to wait until later for this," he said, opening the box. The ring inside caught the light and outshone the ocean. Anna's eyes widened. "I wanted to set the scene. But I can't wait any longer." He removed the ring and slipped it onto Anna's finger. "I can't go another minute without knowing that you will be my wife."
Anna's face was siezed in shocked surprise. She gaped at the ring on her finger. Slowly, something like fear began to fill her eyes. Tears welled and began to fall down her cheeks. She stood up, tugging the ring from her finger. "I... I can't... Ngh! Take it. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." She tossed the ring at Jonathan's feet and turned and ran. Jonathan started after her, calling her name. She paused and turned just long enough to call, "Don't follow me! You can't...you can't...be with me!"
Then she was gone. Jonathan stood staring dumbly at where the ring lay surrounded by a little rainbow in the grass, and wondered how everything could have gone so horribly so fast.
For the first day in many a month, Carl and Carol Elm were able to open the windows of their little house on Burboun Street and let the clean spring air flush the stagnant winter staleness from the house. Carl liked the fresh, clean scent of spring that carried in the air this time of year. The piles of snow were now little more than heaps of slush, trickling to the gutters. The once rock-hard ground had taken on the soggy springiness of well-saturated soil. The first tints of green were beginning to color their lawn as the sunlight brought the grass back to life.
Carol, on the other hand, still thought that it was far too early to have the windows open, and she sat wrapped in a shawl while logs blazed in the fireplace. Carl though that burning a fire while the windows were open was a terrible waste of heat, but it kept both of them happy, and those compromises had kept them married for the past twelve years.
Carl was reading a book, and wishing that the radio had been invented yet so that he could be doing something more interesting in this scene, but it hadn't, and so he read a volume of the adventures of Horatio Hornblower (which he was not certain had been written yet, either) by the yellow-tinged afternoon light. On the page, he came upon a character named Lawson, and a mental note resurfaced in Carl's mind.
"Oh, say, dear," Carl said, "I kept meaning to ask you, but kept forgetting. Do you know anyone by the name of Anna Lawson?"
Carol looked up from her book and peered at her husband ovhad d er her glasses. "As a matter of fact, someone was asking me about that name a little while back. It was...Oh! The Russell girl. Gail Russell. She came in looking for some information on her for a genealogy project. It was the day after Christmas, I remember, because she was the only one there. My gosh, that would have been just before she disappeared!"
"My friend Jon Keller stopped in to pick up some pictures, and told me that that was the name of the girl he's been seeing. Anna Lawson. She's quite a striking girl. I was just surprised that in a town this size I'd never met her."
Carol chuckled. "That's a different Anna Lawson, then. The one the Russell girl was looking up has been dead for almost two hundred years."
Carl closed his book in his lap. "What?"
"It must be a coincidence, I said. Gail's Anna Lawson died at the age of nineteen in the 1730s."
Carl let the book thud to the floor when he stood. "Carol, you must open up the library and show me the documents you found for Gail Russell."
Carol lowered her book to her lap but did not close it. "On a Sunday? Can't it wait until tomorrow?"
The memory of Jonathan's photograph floated through his mind. "No, dear, it can't. I fear that Jon has gotten himself into very dangerous circumstances."
Roland Sanders trudged through the underbrush with his dog Samuel, .22 rifle gripped in his hands. The March chill sank into the rifle's black metal barrel and soaked through his thin, fingerless gloves. A single red squirrel, stained with the dark brown of drying blood, dangled by the tail from Roland's ammunition pack. He needed to tag one more to have enough meat for stew tonight. Although squirrels were plentiful in these parts, it was still somewhat early for them to be out in large numbers. Samuel had a good nose for squirrel, though; it wouldn't take long.
Suddenly, Samuel began sniffing the air and took off at a trot through the trees. "Ah, good boy!" Roland called and walked briskly after him. Here among the trees, the spring sun had not yet touched all of the snow, and small patches still lay here and there, their tops brittle with a layer of melted and refrozen ice. His boots kicked through these and crunched over the frosty leaves as he began to almost jog to keep up with his energetic dog.
Ahead, Samuel had come to a stop beside a tree, looking around at the other side of it. Well, it wasn't a squirrel, or Samuel would have had his forepaws up on the trunk, looking upward at his trapped quarry.
"Whatcha got there, boy?" Roland came around to the far side of the tree, and his eyes followed the dog's gaze. "Oh, good lord."
The hoofbeats of Carl Elm's horse sounded as one as it galloped up the road to Windmere. He had precious little time. Already, the sun had begun to disappear behind the trees, and with it came a drop in temperature that was pulling a slate-grey cloudbank in from the ocean. Soon, it would be dark, and raining, and the shadowy, towering walls of Windmere were intimidating enough in the daytime. Carl's new knowledge only added to his apprehension of being on its grounds after nightfall.
The documents that Carol had shown him only confirmed his fears, that Jonathan had stumbled into something very unusual, and possibly fatal. Carl himself failed to understand the circumstances, but the conclusion he had drawn was the only one plausible. Somehow, impossibly, Jonathan had become involved with a girl who had been dead for over a century and a half. A ghost. A ghost whom, Carl now feared, liked to kill.
Carl galloped his horse around the long, curving driveway and into the shadow of Windmere, a shadow which stretched to the cliff's edge, where safety collided with space and a long, deadly plunge to the rocks below. The crash of breakers dying upon the boulders filled Carl's ears as he pounded frantically on the front door. After long moments during which Carl envisioned Jonathan meeting terrible fates, the door opened upon a tired-looking but live Jonathan. He looked as though he had not slept or changed clothes in days. He was unshaven, his wrinkled shirt hung untucked, and his hair stuck out at odd angles.
"Oh, thank God!" Carl exclaimed. "Jonathan, we must speak immediately, about Anna.
Jonathan's face looked stricken at the mention of her name, and his fingers buried themselves in his hair.
"She's gone, Carl," he said morosely. "She gave me the mitten. I don't understand. Everything was fine. I don't...I don't know what to do..."
Carl pushed his way inside, towing Jonathan by the arm. "I'm sorry to say this, my friend, but that's the only good news I've heard this day. Though," he added, glancing about nervously, "I'm not sure we could say that she's gone, per se. Come, let's sit."
Carl guided Jonathan into the living room and helped him sit on the sofa. He sat down opposite of Jonathan and leaned in. "Jon, friend, what I have to tell you is very difficult. In fact, I don't even know how to explain it to myself, so I will simply have to blurt it out."
"What is it?" Jonathan appeared frantically distressed. "It's not my Anna, is it? Nothing has happened to her, has it?"
"Er, not quite. Not recently. Look, the girl you've been seeing is not exactly who you think she is. That is, I don't believe she's been entirely honest with you about her past. You see, Jon, Anna Lawson doesn't exist. Not anymore."
Jonathan propped his elbow upon the sofa arm and leaned his tired head against his hand. "What are you getting at, Carl?"
"Jon, Anna died..." Jonathan emitted a loud moan. "She died in 1732. I know it sounds incredible, but--"
"Are you bloody mad?" Jonathan cried. "That's impossible. She's as live as you and me. I've touched her. I've been to her home. For God's sake, you developed a photograph of her, man!"
"I know, I know. Look, no one understands the physics or abilities of the spirit world. People have been taking photographs of spirits since photography was invented. Remember the exposure flaw on your photo of her? I don't think that was a flaw in the film. I think the camera captured her for what she truly is--a ghost. Our minds and eyes are only filling in the rest."
"Poppycock," Jonathan spat.
"All right," Carl said. "Let me cite you the evidence. My wife told me that Gail Russell came into the library a few months ago looking for information about your Anna Lawson. This is what she found:
"Church records indicate that Anna Marie Lawson was the daughter of Henry and Heather Lawson, the original groundskeeper and housemaid of Windmere. Interestingly, there is no birth record for her. She simply appears in the church records around 1720.
"The only other record of her is that of her death, on May 30, 1732, aged 19 years. The cause of death was not noted. However, I did find a brief account of her passing by an Ebenezer Abraham in A History of Dare County. In a chapter about Lawrence Sloan, the man who built Windmere, it reprints a letter by Abraham, in which he describes helping to build a large stone tomb for the girl at the base of the cliffs below Windmere. Lawrence Sloan put up the money to construct it, and paid a handsome sum to the Lawson family in compensation for their grief. If you ask me, I'd say he had something to do with it."
"No," Jonathan said. "It's not possible. There's a mistake. That cannot be my Anna. It's...coincidence. A coincidence of name."
"That's what I had hoped, too," Carl said. "But there are no census records of an Anna Marie Lawson of her age anywhere. That, and there's one more thing. Something terrible which I learned only as I was leaving the library before coming here this evening.
"Jonathan, Gail Russell is dead. Her body was found earlier today by a hunter."
"Oh, no," Jonathan moaned. "Sweet Gail. Poor, sweet Gail. Why should God have singled out that innocent child?"
"It gets worse. Gail Russell vanished, as far as my wife can recollect, the same day she came into the library and learned the same things about Anna Lawson which I have just told you. What's more, her body was found on your property, Jonathan."
"She was found in the woods just off of the road below the house. They're saying it looks like she died of exposure. Be that as it may, I think she was on her way up here to warn you about Anna. I also suspect that Anna may have played a part in her death."
"Never!" Jonathan cried. "Anna would never-- Even if she were-- This is preposterous!" Jonathan stood and pointed a trembling finger at his friend. "I will show you how wrong you are! We're going to go to Anna's house, you and I, and you are going to see what a solid, flesh-and-blood, live human being she is. And then...and then..." His voice faltered, and his hand lowered slowly to his side. "And then I fear I must pay my respects to Gail's mother."
The rain lashed at Carl and Jonathan as they trudged their way through the muddy field toward Anna's cabin. With every gust of wind, the fragile flame within the oil lantern Jonathan carried fluttered and threatened to die. Carl feared that if they lost their only light, they would become hopelessly lost out in this featureless field, and they would be forced to spend the night at the mercy of the sky.
"This is madness, Jon!" Carl cried over the wind and the rain. "We can come out here in the morning!"
Jonathan wheeled on Carl. In the flickering lamplight, his face was a study in torment. Insanity tainted his eyes. "No!" he screamed. I'm going to show you! She lives! You'll see! You'll see!"
Carl backed off and submitted to following Jonathan as he carried out his futile obsession. Carl glanced over his shoulder, seeking the black outline of Windmere against the blacker sky, and wondering if he could make it back to the house on his own if he were to turn about and abandon his friend. As though in answer, a gust of wind came in off of the ocean and sent Carl staggering. He stumbled onward, hurrying to catch up with the dim bobbing light ahead of him.
After slogging through the wet field for what seemed to Carl an interminable amount of time, Jonathan stopped, and Carl pulled up short behind him. A small portion of a house's black, wet, wooden wall showed in his lamplight.
"We're here," Jonathan said flatly.
Jonathan led them around to the front of the house, where he pounded on the front door. No one answered.
"There aren't any lights on, Jon," Carl pointed out.
"She's asleep. Give her a minute," Jonathan snapped.
After a second round of pounding on the door failed to produce an answer, Jonathan said, "Okay, she can't hear us over the rain. We'll just go in. It's probably unlocked."
Jonathan turned the handle on the door. It disintegrated in crumbles of rust, and the mechanism tore out as the door splintered apart. Jonathan stood dumbfounded with the remains of the handle in his hand while the brittle door fell slowly open. Carl pushed past him and dragged him into the house. "Let's at least get in where it's dry," he said.
"Anna?" Jonathan called. "Anna?" There was no response. Only the sound of dripping water came to their ears through the darkness.
"Give me the lantern," Carl said, snatching the light from Jonathan's hand. He walked to the center of the room, slipping on loose, wet debris, and almost stumbling over the remains of a chair that lay in a heap beside a rotting table. He held aloft the light, revealing the ragged, drooping maw that had once been the roof. The rain and wind poured in. Carl strode around the interior, revealing the rotted remains of Anna's cabin a section at a time in his small halo of light.
"This can't be," Jonathan muttered numbly. "This can't be." Here was the mouldering remnants of the chair he had sat in when he first met her. Here were the mossy, tattered strips that had been the blue floral sheet that divided her bed from the rest of the house. Beyond it, the collapsed and flattened bed itself had become home to nests of mice and birds. Jonathan's mind reeled. None of the past year seemed real. Had it even been? Was he mad? Had he fantasized the whole affair in the recesses of his isolated, house-bound mind?
"Jonathan," Carl said from across the room. Jonathan went over to where Carl stood next to the reading chairs and small bookcase. Carl held out a thick black volume, swollen with moisture and mildew, and falling to pieces. Jonathan took it from his hand and gently turned the cover. It was a Bible. It was Anna's Bible. Carl held the lamp over the pages so Jonathan could see the family tree penned in brown, spidery ink on the inside cover. "You see?" Carl asked.
He saw. There on the brown-spotted pages, near the bottom, were the names Henry Luce Lawson (b. April 4, 1684) and Heather Maureen Lawson (b. Jan 17, 1686). A line connected their names, and from that, another line branched out. This one was labeled Anna Marie Lawson (b. Aug 12, 1712).
"There aren't any dates of death," Jonathan observed.
"You noticed that, too," Carl said. "It's almost as though no one was around to finish the tree."
Jonathan snapped the Bible shut. "Well, this proves nothing. Anna could have been named for an ancestor in this book."
"Jon, wake up!" Carl shouted. "Look around you! All of this did not happen in one day! This cabin has been deserted for decades!"
"But I was here!" Jonathan protested. "It was nothing like this!"
"You saw what she wanted you to see. Maybe she projected an image into your mind. Maybe you walked through a window in time. I don't know. But now she's gone and what you see around you is reality."
Could all of this decay have been here the whole time? Each time he visited Anna in this house, had he been mrely passing through an illusion of the past? But everything felt so real to the touch. He'd eaten at this rotting table; had sat in that collapsed chair; had touched her warm, soft flesh... Jonathan suddenly thought of Christmas day, and began to feel slightly sick to his stomach.
"I must see," he said. "There is only one thing which will convince me that what you say is truth."
"And what is that?"
"You said that one of the villagers wrote of helping to build her tomb at the base of the cliffs. I need to go there. I need to see her body."
Not far from Windmere, where the grassy safety of land fell away to a dark, wet death, a narrow trail led down the cliff-face to the rocky shore. Jonathan had seen it before in his walks around the estate, but he had never dared to venture down its slippery, precipitous path. Now fear did not exist in his mind as he marched down it, obsessively focused on what may or may not lie at the bottom. Carl followed hesitantly, clutching at the crumbling, muddy cliff-face for dear life as he edged along the steep path, never allowing his feet to fully leave the ground. He had almost refused to join Jonathan on this quest, but the more noble part of his personality won out, the part that could not see Jonathan walk into such danger unaccompanied. Truthfully, if either of them slipped and fell, there wasn't a damn thing the other could do about it, except watch their friend's body tumble onto the boulders below.
If Jonathan experienced any difficulty in navigating the steep, narrow trail, he did not show or mention it. He plunged straight ahead, striding confidently, without caution or hesitation, until he reached the bottom. He waited impatiently for Carl to catch up to him, for which Carl was thankful, for Jonathan still carried their only light. When Carl at last stepped from the muddy dirt onto the rock-lined shore, Jonathan started off along the rocks without a word.
The roar of the waves down here was deafening. What was the mere rumble of thunder on top of the cliff was the full-fledged cry of a beast at the bottom. Carl thought that he would go mad. He was not a sea-going person; for that matter, he rarely left the even, solid streets of Simone. He was in alien territory. His feet slipped and wavered upon the uneven rocks, and he flinched every time a wave broke with a snarl only feet away and drenched him with cold spray. Jonathan, however, scrambled over the boulders with ease. Finally, just to keep up, Carl pulled off his shoes and strode barefoot along the rocks, which helped some.
Eventually, the ground began to slope upward, above the reach of high tide, and above the spray of all but the largest breakers. At the top of the rise, nestled among the boulders and only murkily visible as a darker shape against the storm-black sky, was a squat, square form with a slanting roofline. Jonathan stopped and turned toward Carl, lantern held aloft.
"That's it, isn't it?" he shouted across the din of the wind and the waves. "That's her tomb."
"I would suppose so, yes," Carl shouted back. "I've never seen it. I doubt many people have. Hardly anyone even knows about it."
"Come on, then," Jonathan called.
He stumbled up the boulders, sometimes going down on one hand for leverage while desperately holding the lantern up and away from the danger of being smashed on the rocks. Finally, he reached the tomb. It was a flat, featureless rectangle of black, mossy stone. Jonathan ran his hand over the single large slab that served as a door. It was cold, and wet. He wanted to feel Anna in the stone. He wanted to feel her soul reaching out to him from within its prison. He felt only the rough surface of rock that has been gradually eaten and pitted by generations of waves assaulting it. Could it be true? Could his love be lying dessicated and lifeless within this cold rock? It seemed so unfair. She should have sunlight, and flowers, and warmth. He leaned his arm and forehead against the slab and began to sob. He refused to believe it. He refused to let this injustice be the truth of his beloved Anna.
Stepping back, he searched for a seam or handhold to grip. Finding a depression in the edge of the slab that appeared to be how the door was originally swung open and closed, he set down the lantern and got both sets of fingers into the narrow crevice and pulled with all of his might. The door did not budge.
Carl was just now approaching the tomb. "Carl!" Jonathan called. "Help me with this, man!"
Carl also fitted his fingers into the crevice, and, with the two of them straining as though pulling a locomotive, the door began to fractionally give way with a low grind.
"Harder!" Jonathan cried. "We almost have her!"
Carl closed his eyes against the blurring rain and ocean spray and channelled all of his strength into pulling aside the great slab. He felt the stone shift. His heart leapt, and he somehow found more strength to pull harder. It continued to move, swinging more freely until he heard Jonathan say, "Ok, that's enough."
Carl opened his eyes. Jonathan had picked up the lantern, and was peering into the man-sized crevice they had opened in the tomb face. He turned to look at Carl. "Here we go," he said, and vanished into the crypt.
Carl did not like graves. He did not even like going into cemetaries. He especially did not like the mausoleum-like above-ground crypts that one walked into. The body was too close; the rotting corpse was within an arm's length, with only a few layers of concrete, lead, or pine separating him from it. This was much worse. This was a dank, dark, sepulchre, in the rain, in the dark, with the surf pounding hungrily at its base. Only the absence of Jonathan's light outside the tomb prodded Carl to follow him into it.
Remaining in the doorway, Carl saw Jonathan approach the raised stone casket. He held the lantern over the lid and peered closely at its surface. Then he faltered and raised one hand to his face. Carl feared that Jonathan was about to collapse, and mindlessly rushed to his friend's side. Jonathan turned away, but did not collapse. There in the lamplight, deep shadows within its engraving, were the words:
ANNA MARIE LAWSON
1712 - May 30, 1732
IN GOD'S HANDS
"I'm sorry, Jonathan--" Carl began.
"No!" Jonathan whirled. "It's not her! It's a coincidence! Here! Look!" Jonathan began to press against the sarcophagus's lid, which began to inch off, revealing the blackness within.
"Don't! Jonathan!" Carl tried to grab his friend's arm, but Jonathan only pushed him away. Carl moaned. Oh, this was sacrilege! Above all, Carl could not bear to see the corpse within. How he hated death!
A putrid stench filled the crypt, and Carl began to gag on the scent of ages-rotted flesh. Jonathan did not seem to notice, single-mindedly heaving against the protesting stone until the lid fell away with a tremendous crash and smashed into pieces on the floor. Carl turned away.
A loud groan escaped Jonathan's lips. Carl turned and saw his friend begin to go down. The lantern swung crazily in Jonathan's flailing arm. Carl feared that it would certainly break against the coffin and leave them both in the pitch black with only the body in the casket for company. He rushed to catch the lantern as Jonathan fell. He caught it just as Jonathan's legs went out from under him and caught Carl's feet. Carl stumbled. He fell forward and reached out to catch himself on the coffin's rim. His hand missed and plunged into the casket. Carl lurched forward, holding the lantern high to avoid breaking it on the coffin, and he looked down upon the face of the corpse.
The woman, he was sure, had once been beautiful. Even through the blackened, peeling, leatherlike flesh that clung to the counters of the skull, and the massive trauma to its left side, it was obvious that she had high cheekbones and delicate features. The remains of long, wavy hair, mostly green now but with patches of sunshine yellow showing here and there, lay like a halo about the skull. The long, slender bones of her fingers lay clasped upon her stomach, the blackened, crumbling remains of a single rose trapped beneath them. And although mostly rotted, fragments of her dress remained. It was pale pink, with a ruffle on the collar and a bow at the side. It looked very much like the one Carl had seen in the photograph he had developed for Jonathan.
Carl's fascination with the corpse's details lasted for less than a second. That was the amount of time it required his brain to comprehend what he was less than a foot away from and to send a scream racing from his lips. Carl threw himself backwards and landed on his back, but amazingly preserved the lantern.
"It's true," Jonathan moaned from where he lay crumpled on the floor. "It's true. The ravages of time cannot conceal my Anna's beauty. That is her. My beloved Anna lies lifeless within this grave." He pushed himself up onto his hands. "I don't know if I can go on. What more is there for me? My life has ended here alongside hers."
Carl got to his feet and went to Jonathan and put an arm around his shoulder. "This is going to take some time to absorb," he said. "You have been through an incredible experience the shockingness of which I can only imagine. What you need now is rest and time, and those are both best gotten in the comfort of your home. Come." He pulled Jonathan to his feet and led them to the door. Carl looked forward to his own warm home and familiar bed. He wondered if he would sleep tonight. He also wondered how he would explain the night's events to Carol. She was going to think that her husband was a damned fool liar.
At the entrance, Jonathan turned and gazed back for a long while. Carl gently tugged at his arm, and as though coming out of a trance, Jonathan sluggishly turned and left the crypt.
THE SOUNDING SEA
The storm outside diminished and died out during the early morning hours, but the tempest within Jonathan's heart and mind raged on. In an instant, in the lightning-flash of time it had taken for the casket lid to fall away and for Jonathan to see the truth before his eyes, his world had disintegrated. He no longer knew what was real and what had been an illusion. The paintings he had made, the ones with Anna glowing within the fields, were they only projections within his imagination? He wanted to grab them and rush into town and thrust them into people's faces and demand they tell him what they saw. He wanted to, but he hadn't the strength to remove himself from the parlor sofa. The ashes lay cold and dead within the fireplace, and he was cold, but he could not bring himself to get up and stoke a fire. He pulled the blanket around himself. A faint floral scent wafted up from it. He held it to his nose and inhaled deeply. It was Anna's scent. Her last vestiges were locked within this blanket. He pulled the blanket over his head and wept.
Carl woke suddenly sometime in the deep hours before dawn. He didn't know what had woken him; the storm had stopped, and Windmere was quiet. He just had the feeling that something felt amiss. His eyes quickly adjusted to the pale orange light cast weakly by the fire's dying embers, and he realized that the sofa facing him was unoccupied, its blanket spilling from the cushions and into a heap on the floor. Carl threw aside his own blanket and got up from the sofa he'd been asleep on, cursing himself for sleeping so soundly. After observing Jonathan's continually deteriorating mental state on the long walk back to the house, he had grown concerned and offered to stay the night, fearing that Jonathan might bring some harm onto himself. Now his charge had vanished from not ten feet away. Most likely, Carl thought, he had woken up during the night and gone up to his bedroom. He shot a sidelong glance at the front door. He hoped that was the case.
Carl went up the staircase and down the hall to Jonathan's room. He rapped softly on the door and called his name, quietly enough to not rouse him from slumber, but loudly enough to merit a reply if he was awake. There was no answer. Carl turned the knob and carefully eased the door open. Stepping halfway into the room, he took a look around and immediately knew that Jonathan had not been here this night.
"Jonathan?" he called. The house replied with only the distant steady tock of its clock. Carl walked down the hallway, to the only other open door on the floor. He stepped into the studio, marveling at its walls of windows and wide vista on the property. Walking to the windows, he looked out upon the field. The remaining fragments of stormclouds slid rapidly across the moon, revealing the field in shards. Carl wondered if Jonathan had gone across that field, in search of a truth which did not exist. A truth that Carl himself wished did not exist tugged at his conscience: if Jonathan had not gone to Anna's cottage, then there was only one other place for him to be.
When Carl arrived at Anna's cottage, it was the same desolate wreck he had seen earlier in the evening. Water stood pooled on the floor and dripped from the wreck of the roof; birds peeped from the remaining rafters at the intrusion of his lamplight. Carl's mind found it hard to accept Jonathan's story. None of it seemed possible. How could this place have ever been taken for a warm, sheltering home? Carol's voice came into his mind, reminding him to observe the facts and not his impressions. He had developed the photograph. He had even seen the girl at church, though he had not had the opportunity to speak to her. There was simply no way for him to believe that Anna Lawson was the mere delusion of a lonely man living in an empty, isolated place.
"Anna?" he called faintly.
The rock was cold and wet under Jonathan's cheek. Icy seawater sprayed across him. He opened his eyes. The inky-black ocean lazily rose and fell, preparing for another assault upon the rocks.
"You will have them, won't you?" Jonathan asked the waves. "You'll keep pounding these boulders, hour by hour, day by day, year by year, until you have devoured them, won't you? And you won't stop there. It will take millennia, but you won't stop until everything is gone, until all of the continents have been ground into sand and the world is one great ocean. Because that's what you do. You eat everything."
Jonathan pushed to his feet, unsteady. Had he been drinking? He didn't think so. He marched on across the slimy boulders until he stood at the doorway of Anna's sepulchre. He could not go in. He could not see his beloved's dessicated corpse lying upon its cold slab. But he could not go back, either. He could not part from her. Not ever again. He dropped to his knees and went down on hands. He hung his head and felt torn between two impossibilities. Without thinking about it, he began to crawl. He inched his way across the cold grey floor, not raising his head, not acknowledging the horror only inches above him. He collapsed to the floor and rolled over upon his back. Reaching out a hand, he caressed the side of her coffin. "I'll not leave your side, Anna." No, never again. He would remain here, throughout all the tides to come, he and Anna together for eternity.
The night slid by, and the sea tirelessly sounded out the Earth's heartbeat, and Jonathan finally found sleep.
He awoke to light. At first, he thought that it was morning, but when he opened his eyes, Anna stood over him, her body lit as though bathed in sunlight. Darkness still filled the doorway behind her.
"Jonathan," she said softly. She knelt and touched his arm. "This is no place for you." Jonathan scurried backwards at her touch and huddled against the wall. Anna drew back.
"Get away from me!" he spat. "You aren't real. You never were."
"I am as real as ever I was while flesh and blood. I'm just different now."
"That," he said, pointing at the open casket, "that is you. You're dead. Don't you know that?"
"I realize that I have changed." She gestured to her corpse. "That is something which once carried me. I feel no connection to it now. For a long time, I was sad that I had died. There was no home for me any more. There was no family to be a part of. I missed being able to taste, and to feel. I missed warmth. But, Jonathan," She knelt by his side and held her hand to his face, but did not touch him. "You showed me that I could experience all of those things again. I learned that I was able to do everything I did in life, only a bit differently. For two hundred years, I had not felt another person's touch. I had not smelled the flowers, or felt the sun warm my skin. I had not felt love until you made it happen."
"How could you not tell me?" His voice had lost its anger and defiance. Now it cracked with a sadness and betrayal that made Anna wonder how she could feel her heart break when she had none.
When she finally spoke, it was gently, as though a mother comforting a child. "I had hoped that it wouldn't matter. I thought that if I could touch and taste and be in your world as though alive, what difference did it make? Oh, I know I've been so unfair to you. You deserve to know everything--the whole story--but it is so painful to remember, and being with you has kept the pain away for the first time in so long. I wanted to spare you the horror of what happened to me. However... It's time, Jonathan. Time you understood all." She held out her narrow, delicate hand, so pink that even now he could not accept that it was dead. "Take my hand. Take it, and I will show you."
Trembling, he reached to her.
A PROMISE KEPT
May 30, 1732, Simone, North Carolina
The day was sunny and bright, and the wildflowers swayed lazily in the soft breeze. The smell of blossoms and freshly-cut stems filled the girl's lungs as she lithely stepped barefoot through the field toward her house. She set her flower-cutting scissors down on the barrel behind the house and went through the back door. Her mother Heather stood at the counter, slicing vegetables for dinner. Her father, Henry Lawson, sat at the table writing a letter.
"I got a whole bunch of flowers to adorn the dinner table, Mother," she said, holding out her apron. Its large pocket bulged with her day's cuttings. "They smell so fresh after yesterday's rain! Just smell them!"
"I can smell them from here," her mother said. "Right now, would you help me with dinner, please?"
"Of course, mother." Sometimes she forgot how hard both of her parents worked for the Sloans. Her mother had to attend to that entire great house at the top of the hill. Really, that house could keep five servants busy, but her mother had to do it all herself. She didn't know if the owners were misers, or were not as wealthy as they appeared.
Her father's job was to manage the Sloan family's books, visit their customers in town, and keep inventory of their holdings. As if that weren't enough, he was also the Sloan's sole groundskeeper. Why, she thought with alarm, he was probably sick of seeing those flowers she kept bringing home! Well, she was almost nineteen, at at the age where she needed to either take a husband, or go to work alongside her parents at Windmere. She would probably present herself for employment at the house. Assisting her parents, who were reaching the age where they could not do as much as they once could, was only one motivation. Mainly, marriage was not an option. None of the boys in town caught her fancy. They were all goofy show-offs who wanted to leave the village to become sailors on the open sea. They spouted about romance, but not of the kind with a girl. As far as she was concerned, they wanted to see exotic lands and sea serpents more than they wanted to hold the hand of a pretty girl.
"Oh, mother, I just remembered," she said excitedly. "I saw a ship coming in while I was outside. It looked like it was going to anchor in the harbor. I wonder who it could be?"
"Probably another shipment of goods for Mr. Sloan," her father said wearily. "I'll probably be writing that up all day tomorrow."
Three heavy thuds landed upon the door. "In fact, that's probably Mr. Sloan come to summon me down to the docks now," Henry said. He stood and went to the door. But when he opened it, he did not find Mr. Sloan, but a horror to behold.
The pirate Stillson stood in the doorway. Wild eyes peered from beneath wilder hair. His long, greying beard hung in tangles and clumps, and things crawled in it. The once-fine clothes of a respected ship's captain were now faded, soiled, and tattered. A dark, shriveled arm clutched feebly at a crutch which supported a twisted leg. But it was the eyes that frightened Henry the most. Sanity and humanity had left them. In them burned only a mindless determination.
"I understand the Lawson family lives here," Stillson said. Henry nodded slowly, uncertain whether he stood anything to gain through a lie. Obviously the people in the town had directed him here, and Henry did not believe that lying to this madman would be a good idea. "Good. I have come to collect on a promise. I've come for my Mary."
Anna turned at the name. Mary? She had been called that once; she did not remember by whom, or why they should call her that. Her name was Anna. Her parents, Henry and Heather, had named her that. So why did the name Mary sound so familiar?
She locked eyes with the man in the doorway, and she knew him. Suddenly, in violently rapid bursts, her memory recalled everything. This man, younger, kissing her on the cheek, saying "Don't forget your promise, now." Days upon a ship, confined to the darkness, afraid to emerge because of all the frightening men about. This man, separating her from...Mama and Papa! The blood pirates mermaid exploding slashing these weren't her real parents lifeboat these weren't her real parents adrift not her real parents promise promise a promise WIFE! She screamed as realization hit her from so many sides at once. Stillson's crazed eyes shifted to the shrieking girl.
"Ah. Hello, pretty."
"What is the meaning of this?" Henry asked, as Stillson pushed his way into the small house.
"Why, it is nothing but the collection of a debt," Stillson replied. "You do remember our agreement on the dock thirteen years ago, don't you, old man?"
"I never made an agreement with you. I've never seen you before in my life."
"My agreement was with the whole town, yourself inclusive. In ten years' time, I would come to retrieve the young woman as my wife. In return, I spared your fine community the flame of my cannon and the edge of my sword." Stillson did not feel it necessary to mention that he had, in fact, been imprisoned and unable to plunder the city even if he had wanted to. "In fact, I have given you three years' reprieve to enjoy the continued company of this fine young woman." His constantly swiveling eyes considered Anna lustfully. "But your time has run out. I am come to collect, and I wish what is mine. Now."
"Now listen here," Henry said. "We were not on the docks that day, and know nothing of such an agreement. The girl was brought to us to raise as our own. She is not yours, and I won't let you take her."
"Sweet Mary," Stillson said. "I spared your mother and father once. I regret that I am not able to do so twice."
With that, Stillson drew his blade and ran the old man through.
"Papa!" Anna cried.
"Run, child!" her mother rasped.
Anna was immobilized by the sight of the man she had called Papa for so many years crumpled in a spreading pool of blood. But when Stillson's boots stepped over the body and he thumped across the room toward her, swinging his crutch as rapidly as he could, something broke inside of her.
"You'll never have me!" she shrieked, tears hot on her face and choking her throat. "You've destroyed everything I've ever loved! I'll never give you the satisfaction of my love!"
Anna wheeled and flung open the back door and ran into the wildflower pasture. Behind her, she heard Stillson thump across the threshold and his crutch bang against the swinging door. But Anna was young and swift, and she easily outpaced the hobbled pirate. She crossed the field, continually glancing behind her to make sure the crazed man was not gaining. Then she was in the shadow of Windmere, where she found Mr. Sloan sitting behind the house, smoking his pipe and wondering at the commotion across the field. She collapsed at his feet.
Clutching at his legs, she pulled herself up, and begged, "Help me, please, Mr. Sloan! Hide me! He is going to take me away!"
Sloan stood and pulled her to her feet. "There's nothing I can do. You cannot take shelter here."
"What? But, no, you don't understand. You must help me!"
"I must abide by the agreement. The Captain has come to collect his due. I must not interfere with that."
"The agreement?" Anna felt faint as realization sunk home. "You made the agreement with that murderous thief? How could you...?"
"It was for the good of the town," Sloan said. "Don't fret. You won't come to any real harm. In fact, he will treat you like royalty. He wants only to retire from the sea in your company."
"I can never go with him!" Anna cried, crumbling to her knees in tears.
Stillson was almost across the field. Sloan pulled her up by the elbow. "Come now. You must fulfill your half of the promise. If you do not, he will bring his wrath down upon our little village. Don't you see? Your sacrifice is so little compared to the good it will bring. Believe me when I say I am sorry that it must be you, but it's how things are."
Anna wrenched her arm from Sloan's grip. "The only promise I make is that he will never enjoy my company nor my bed!"
She began running again, around the house and across the front yard. She heard Stillson's bad leg dragging across the gravel path. She did not look back. She looked only ahead of her, at the sea and the sunlight dancing off the waves that dazzled her eyes, and she longed to join it. Then her bare feet were pushing off from the crumbling edge of the cliff, and she was falling, tumbling toward the sea. Far below, a rolling, blue-green hill of water approached, about to complete its long journey across the Atlantic, and she knew that it would be the one to take her. As it reached the boulders, frothy fingers reached up to grasp her in a furious crash
that echoed like thunder within Anna's tomb. Her slim fingers slipped from Jonathan's, and she sank onto the bench and hung her head. Jonathan sat across from her, staring, numb. His breath came in ragged heaves, his heart raced within his chest. It had been...as though he had been her. He had seen it all through her eyes, felt the long grass slap his legs as she ran, felt the plunge of despair that filled her heart and coerced her to take her own life.
Then there was the indisputable knowledge that this was truth. His beloved Anna, that which consumed his passion, was no more than a shade. Their love was a false one, one that could never be fulfilled. But if she was but a projection of what once was, then how? How had her hand fit so solidly and perfectly into his? How had her kiss warmed his body so? None of it made any sense. But one question floated above the others.
"What of the pirate?"
Anna looked up. "I do not understand."
"How did he die?"
She shrugged; a miniscule gesture almost lost. "I do not know. After I went over the cliff, there was nothing for a long, long time. Just...floating in emptiness. Gradually, I became aware of myself, and my surroundings. It was like a slow growth in the womb. When I was finally able to move freely and explore, a great deal of time had moved on. Another Sloan lived in Windmere, and the pirate Stillson, he was...gone. I never learned what became of him."
"I thought perhaps he had died here as well. I assumed so, because it's said that his ghost haunts the house. It was not until I saw his violence firsthand the night Malcolm and Courtroy Sloan stayed at the house that I believed in him. I never understood, though, why he would choose to terrorize this place. But now I understand. He's angry over losing you, and still searches for you." A terrible though leaped into his mind. "Oh, no! Anna, you must go away from here! Never come to the house again! He will destroy you!"
A small smile inched across Anna's face. "No pirate haunts this place."
"What do you mean? I've heard the stories, I've seen his fury!"
"Oh, my dear Jonathan. I am not entirely the delicate lass you see when you are with me."
She nodded, smiling. "Yes. I am the only spirit that haunts these grounds."
"The red orb outside my window? Was that you as well?"
"Yes. I think I appear that way when something is strong within my heart. Originally, the house had a large canopied portico above the front door. The top of the portico served as a balcony for the third floor. I would stand out there and look out to sea, searching for my true parents, the ones put out on the boat by the pirate Stillson. After the portico was removed and replaced by the stone steps, I just kept using that spot. I have no need for floors after all. When you arrived, my attention turned from the sea to you. I watched you, tried to feel who you were. I was confused. I did not know how I could feel for you when I have no body to feel with. I observed you, trying to understand myself."
Jonathan thought back to the night the red light had led him from Anna's cabin back to Windmere. As though reading his thoughts, Anna said, "I helped guide you back to the house that stormy night we met. The pulsing you saw was my heart pounding."
He had foolishly mistaken her love for anger, and feared her. Of course, he did not know then what he knew now. And the terrible apparition which he witnessed the night Malcolm Sloan lost his life. "I find it hard to believe that the lovely, gentle soul I came to knew was also known as the Windmere Horror, a vicious entity which I observed for myself."
"It's a side of me which I did not myself anticpate. You see, after I died and came back, there was so much anger, and the one who had betrayed me and my adoptive parents was no longer here to extact vengeance upon. So I vowed to make this a miserable place for his descendants. A man like that should not have been allowed to remain in his castle, and therefore his relatives did not deserve it, either." She looked up at him, and Jonathan recoiled at the literal flame of hatred burning within her eyes. "I tormented them, Jonathan. I made women scream and children weep. I made men curse their gods. I drove them from their homes, just as I had been driven from mine." She half-rose, her hands in fists. "I would have driven them from the cliff had I been able to!"
She must have seen the terror in Jonathan's eyes. Controlling herself, she lowered back down to the bench, and dropped her gaze. When she looked up again, her eyes glowed with warmth. "And then you arrived, Jonathan. At first, I thought you may have been another Sloan, returned after all these years. But then I visited you in your sleep, and I could sense that you were not one them. You felt...different. Kinder." She smiled. "You captured my curiousity. And then you captured my heart..."
Realizing the contradiction in her words, she trailed off. Jonathan understood. Her feelings of love served only to remind her that she had no heart to feel with. He saw a single tear slide from her downturned face and fall to the damp floor.
"Gail Russell is dead," he said. "Did you know that?"
"Yes," she said.
"I hate to ask this, but I must. I've seen you incur your wrath upon those who deserved it. I know that Gail saw you as a rival. Did you have anything to do with it?"
"Yes. No. I did not cause her death. She brought that upon herself. I did help her to cross to the other side. I sensed her slipping from the mortal plane, and I came to her in the storm and guided her to where she belonged. I held no animosity toward her. I did not want her to have to spend eternity wandering lost in the forest, wondering what happened. I am sorry she had to die, but I am happy she completed her journey safely."
He stood and held out his hand. "Come. We have much more to talk about. Let's do it somewhere warmer."
"Leave me," she said. "I feel neither warmth nor cold. Leave me here in my tomb. I belong dead."
"You have been free of your tomb for a long time, Anna. Most should be so lucky. You belong up there." He pointed upward, indicating Windmere. "With me."
She grasped his hand in both of hers, but remained seated. "I can never love you as other women could. I am but a poor substitute for flesh and blood."
"Right now, I do not care so much about that."
"But we will be forever in two different worlds," she protested. "You will grow old. I will not. I can never give you children. And you cannot marry someone who does not exist!"
"We'll deal with one question at a time, eh? Right now, the only question I need an answer to, is: will you return to Windmere with me?"
She stood, wiping the tears from her cheeks. Jonathan wondered if her cheeks would taste of salt water if he were to kiss them. Were her tears made of real water, or were they only a projection of her psyche? He pushed the question from his mind. At this moment, he needed the answer to only one question.
"Do you mind having flowers in the house?" She asked. "I like flowers very much."
"As many flowers as you like, Anna," he replied.