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Authors: Margaret Miles

A Wicked Way to Burn (5 page)

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Chapter 4

A
T TUESDAY’S TWILIGHT
, Richard Longfellow, the eccentric neighbor of Charlotte Willett, sat alone in his paneled study. As the light faded, he contemplated an object on one of the walls. The object was a portrait. Its subject was Eleanor Howard, a young woman with direct eyes, and hair that fell in dark ringlets.

Longfellow continued to gaze, but he no longer saw the portrait. Instead, memory had taken over, giving him the only other images he would ever have of her striking beauty—for the original had been tragically lost.

From time to time, he still imagined her sitting there beside him, sometimes rocking a cradle. But Eleanor Howard had been taken when an illness settled in her throat and choked the breath and life from her, as it had done to others nearby. His own grief at the loss of his fiancée had been shared by her sister Charlotte, who soon endured more sorrows of her own. Unlike Eleanor,
Aaron Willett had refused to be bled, but in the end it had made no difference.

Longfellow turned to the window, to find most of the sky’s color gone. It was lucky, he told himself, that he had learned long ago to enjoy a bachelor’s life. At least, he still had Charlotte. He had admired her from the first. Her features were nothing as special as Eleanor’s; he was reminded of the fact as he turned back to stare at the portrait once more, through the gloom. But Eleanor’s older sister had her own quiet charms, with an intelligent spark grown strong in a soul that had always been loved, and kindly treated. Charlotte, too, was capable of thinking eternal thoughts, possibly almost as capable as he was himself.

Uncurling his legs, which had a habit of becoming entwined, Longfellow sprang to his feet, determined to buoy his mood by lighting a candle. Eleanor had frequently experienced bouts of feverish imagination and activity, coupled with an exciting lack of restraint. Charlotte’s mind was quieter, more even, but still quite curious … although it did sometimes seem to him that she tended to plod.

Curiosity about the larger realities of the universe, things outside one’s personal life—that was the secret of lasting contentment! But when Longfellow felt the urge to philosophize, he imagined the scheme of things to be chaotic, and nearly unsolvable. He certainly held little hope for any rational system of order that tried to alter the petty obsessions of most of humanity, who did their best to ruin the world for each other. Wryly, he watched Charlotte perceive a natural harmony all around her, while she noticed human discord as a force of only minor importance. It was a rare turn of mind, he thought—possibly even one to be envied.

Whatever the truths of the cosmos, her bright moods invariably spilled over onto his darker ones when
the two sat and talked. She sometimes made him laugh out loud. Besides that, she listened well. And his neighbor had often helped him weather his frequent melancholia. She made him feel necessary … as her steadfast supporter, and as a good companion. He knew this to be a rare thing for a man whose quick, passionate nature had lost him nearly as many friends as he had ever claimed.

Not that he minded having few friends. He was, after all, respected. And as long as there were new ideas to explore, experiments to be conducted and studied, seeds to plant and stars to ponder, who could be bothered with courting admiration? Let others fear loneliness. The cup offered up by the physical world was filled to overflowing.

Energized by a new idea, Longfellow picked up the candlestick in front of him, and strode away from the fire toward a gold-framed mirror that graced one side of the simply appointed room. As he did so, he felt the pleasant flap of the long linen trousers he’d recently affected (taking the style of certain Italian peasants), which he wore outside his boots to further confound custom. The trousers were cool and comfortable, and they didn’t constrain him at the joints like common knee breeches, with buttons that bit into you when you sat. They also concealed lower legs he found quite adequate for the most part, if they did not bulge enough to meet fashionable standards.

Lighting two more wax tapers that stood in brass-backed sconces on either side of the Venetian mirror, he peered at his own image. It was less beautiful than the one he had been contemplating on the wall, but it had the advantage of being alive. By the light of candles and fire, the mirror revealed a pliant, if solemn, face. It could have been a trifle underfed, but it had full lips, and now it experimented with a
pleasant smile—nothing like the pinched, aristocratic sneer so popular in his former home by the Bay. Longfellow saw that false token all around him when he rode in to Boston to visit. It was enough to make a parson growl.

Further study brought to light the presence of new gray hairs among the dark mass that fell down his back—tied, but neither pomaded nor powdered. Still thick, by God, for a man who could no longer call himself young. And the eyes were certainly distinctive—the rich color of hazelnut shells. It was fortunate, he told himself, he was not a vain man by nature.

Moving away, Longfellow tapped the glass barometer that hung on the wall. For the moment, it held steady … steadier, he thought ruefully, than he felt himself. Would the evening
never
end?

He knew he had become dangerously mercurial again. Right now, he had the urge to argue about something—anything. Perhaps Locke, or Rousseau, or some other misleading and overblown fool. Cicero would take whatever side was left in an argument, and keep it up until they were both worn out with it, run down like clocks and ready for sleep. But Cicero was late returning home.

Longfellow sat at the pianoforte for a while, picking out a tune on the cool ivory keys, considering fate’s rude manners. In his father’s time, in Boston, Cicero had been far more than an adequate servant—in fact, he had nearly run his father’s city house … especially after Richard’s mother had died. He had also assisted the members of the family he’d “adopted” in delicate matters, often requiring a certain amount of finesse. At Jason Longfellow’s death, his will had ended the black man’s bondage, providing him with the legally required funds to remain free. But Cicero had agreed to stay in service to Richard Longfellow (who else, he asked, would have the job?) and had moved with him when the
aging young man, in love, purchased the house next to the Howards four years before.

Tonight, Cicero was down at the taproom of the Bracebridge Inn, imbibing news with his wine. Like his Roman namesake, he enjoyed society even while he frequently objected to it, and it to him. Since he was no longer a slave, he had a right to sit with the others. But for several reasons he preferred a warm, hidden nook around the chimney corner. Jonathan Pratt served him Madeira there, often bringing him stories as well. And as the evening progressed and the wine and rum flowed, Cicero frequently chuckled at what was meant for very few ears (and certainly not his own), coming from patrons warming themselves beside the fire.

Bored again with his train of thought, Longfellow shifted, and started a new tune. “Maybe I’ll have to get a cat to talk to,” he muttered to himself, sulking while he cocked an ear at something in the distance.

Abruptly, the front door opened and shut, and quick feet sounded in the hall. In another instant, Cicero stood before him, bent almost in two.

“I came …” he gasped, “because I supposed … even in your mood … that you’d be interested in what I’ve heard …”

Overcome, he again lowered a head that appeared to be topped by a gray, tailless, fashionably short-curled periwig, although it wasn’t.

“Difficult for me to say,” Longfellow replied, waiting for more. It was not forthcoming. Cicero still fought for breath and equilibrium. Longfellow tapped his fingers on the piano lid impatiently. “And difficult for you, it seems. Another secret?”

“No. Better hurry, though … the rest of the town’s … probably there already.”

“Really.”

“It seems Jack Pennywort … over at the Blue Boar …
started walking up the Worcester road, following an old man who’s a stranger in these parts—aaaahhh! … and the old man … it seems that the old man … well, he caught fire! Ignited all by himself … nobody knows how.”

There was quite a long pause, and the ormolu mantle clock chimed the hour.

“He
what?”
Longfellow inquired, squinting with impatience.

“They say … he … went up in flames.”

Catching his breath, Cicero studied the effect his news had produced. He had been aware of his employer’s black humor since suppertime. He believed this new event would be able to change it, and perhaps provide them both with amusement for several days.

“What—on the road? And who, if you don’t mind my asking, are
they?”
Longfellow queried, taking several steps to peer out of a window into the darkness. There were lights on the opposite hillside, where none should have been.

“Over the bridge, up past the tavern. Jack Pennywort was the only one to see it. Some already say it’s the Devil’s work. Or witchcraft, at least. Jack claims there’s nothing left of the fellow at all!”

“Ah, Pennywort. There’s an opinion to value,” Longfellow retorted. “And witchcraft, too,” he ventured with slightly more interest. “What won’t the undisciplined mind get up to, on a dull evening.”

“An interesting story, though, especially for Jack to make up by himself.”

“True. Especially for Jack. Although he might have remembered—”

“The reason I ran was because I thought you’d like to go over and take a look for yourself, while the thing was still hot.”

“A look at what? I wouldn’t imagine there’d be anything left to see. Not if the Devil made a real job of it.”

A jumble of voices could be heard coming from the direction of the inn. But Longfellow had a stubborn streak, and would not be easily moved from a mood.

“Well, you might want to observe everybody
else
going out for a look!” Cicero cried, falling into a chair. “It would be a shame to have to listen to it all tomorrow, secondhand.”

Finally unable to resist the urge to go, Longfellow bolted toward the hallway. “Are you coming?” he threw back behind him.

“Not just yet I’m not,” Cicero said with a sigh, bending closer to the fire.

“Then I suppose it’s up to me to watch the curtain rise, and take in the show …”

The declaration had barely stopped ringing through the hallway when Longfellow, still wrestling with his coat sleeves, slammed the heavy door behind him, leaving the lion’s head knocker to pound out a final farewell.

ONCE THROUGH HIS
front gate, Richard Longfellow paused, faced with a dilemma. If he “forgot” to go and ask Mrs. Willett to view with him the scene of whatever had occurred, she might think the oversight was intentional. She would also ask him endless questions, probably well into the next week.

But if he turned and went to find her, while all Bracebridge was tramping across the river (she might even have gone ahead of him already!) then he would miss the beginnings of what promised to be a ridiculous entertainment—the sort of thing that pleased Longfellow more than most social events. Undecided, he stood with his feet pointed downhill.

When he finally did turn, he saw Charlotte’s cloaked figure coming out of her yard with a lantern, walking so that she was unable to see an enormous yellow face with
a toothless grin coming up behind her. Longfellow waited and watched the timeless spectacle of a rising autumn moon, noting how the eastern blackness had turned blue again around the luminous disk with its heavily pocked surface.

“You’d make a fine Diogenes,” he offered pleasantly as she approached.

“It’s less an honest man I’m after than an answer to what’s causing all this noise! Did someone ring the fire bell?”

Longfellow shook his head as she took his arm. Soon, they hurried through inky shadows that lay across the road.

“No … but flames of a kind were involved.” He smiled to see her face, lit from below by the horn box she carried, take on the look of a jack-o’-lantern.

“According to Cicero,” he went on, “there seems to have been a case of what’s been called
spontaneous human combustion
here. Not unheard of, although I believe it is the first time it’s been managed in this part of the world. At least, it’s the first I’ve heard of it.”

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