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Authors: Margaret Miles

A Wicked Way to Burn (6 page)

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“But can you tell me what it all means?”

“There was a strange story from New York in the papers last year, which was widely repeated. It seems a very respectable and well-liked Long Island farmer, sitting in his chair on a Sabbath morning, smoking a small pipe, was seen to be quickly and thoroughly consumed by a mass of flames that came from within him. At the same time, the chair in which he sat was scarcely charred.”

“Oh!”

“His wife was in church, but the event was witnessed by a young female servant. She became hysterical, of course, and finally called for help. It was said she was so unnerved that she fled from the place the same day.”

“Poor girl!”

“Later, the man’s wife unhappily admitted that the
husband had been fond of blasphemy, and that she had recently heard him repudiate a solemn oath he had made to the Almighty—on what issue, I don’t recall. That satisfied the local magistrates as to both the agency and motive.”

“It was called an Act of God?” Charlotte’s eyes widened with surprise.

“Apparently. A blow for the Deists and their mechanical universe. But then, who knows? Who actually saw it happen? One simple child—a pretty thing who lost her wits, they say—and, of course, the Lord himself. While I’d accept in perfect faith anything He cared to tell me directly, I’m not sure the ravings of the only other human there guarantee us an accurate account.”

“So what
do
you believe took place?”

Longfellow took a moment to form his answer. Ahead of them, through the darkness, a string of bouncing lights ended in an undulating circle.

“A hearty Sunday breakfast, most likely with plenty of fermented cider. Then a seizure of the brain or heart … a quick death, one would hope … a hot coal dropped onto the waistcoat … and finally, a great deal of exaggeration by the press.” Longfellow shrugged eloquently. “One more martyr to tobacco! Or …”

“Or …?”

“On the other hand, the natural world is full of surprises, and no one yet knows the cause of many events we call unnatural phenomena. If, in truth, he did burn down to nothing, it would be very interesting to know exactly how, and why. It’s a shame there wasn’t a reliable witness.”

“But you said the girl saw what happened.”

He waved the idea away.

“It’s one thing to
see
something—another to
observe
and discover the actual truth of a matter. Observation, of
course, requires a proper perspective. It can’t be done hastily, or with the emotions. The first part involves using your eyes—the second, using your brain. Rational men will tell you there’s no place in Science for feelings of the heart. And Science is the place to look for explanations that will stand the light of day.”

Charlotte seemed to consider all of this quietly as they increased their pace. At the time, it was unclear to her companion how much of what he’d said she had truly taken in.

SOON AFTER CROSSING
the bridge, they neared the torch-lit group of milling people. Here, Charlotte considered, the road went uphill through brown, grassy fields with knots of dark firs and pines, and a few clusters of ghostly white birches. The roadbed at this stretch had been raised a few feet by the local citizens years before, to stand above the spring torrents that melted down on either side from the woods above. Once, these floods had brought rocks and pine cones to the track, which then eroded until it was full of small, winding gullies. Now only occasional wheel ruts impeded one’s progress through much of the year; tonight, these were filled with a fine, dry dust that muffled every step. There wasn’t much else to see.

“Do you suppose,” Charlotte asked her neighbor as he eyed the crowd, “that he was a pleasing man?”

“Who?”

“The husband in your story. You said he was well liked.”

“Pleasing? A farmer? He was hardly a strict churchman, from what his wife tells us. And he probably had good land to farm, living on Long Island. So yes, I’d imagine he was pleasing enough.”

“And his wife … was she very young, or of the same age as her husband?”

“Hmmm. If she had been young and comely, the New York papers would have remarked on it, as I recall they did in describing the girl.”

Charlotte looked off across the sloping moonlit field.

“And you say a similar thing might have happened here? On this road?”

“I only know what Cicero overheard and told me, and that it’s close to Allhallows Eve. When the dead walk,” he whispered, opening his eyes in pretended horror.

“Well, I wonder,” said Charlotte as they began to make out words from the crowd in front of them.

“What do you wonder?”

Longfellow gave her only his nearest ear now, using the other to decipher some of the noise that rose up into the night air.

“I wonder,” said Charlotte, who knew something about human nature, if not a great deal about Science, “whether the widow on Long Island really was a widow, after all.”

Chapter 5

T
HEN,” LITTLE JACK
Pennywort went on, working sweeping gestures into the retelling of the amazing story, “as I followed along, there was a pale sort of flickering just up around his shoulders. Just before I saw the yellow gleam … and then I tripped over a stone, and fell down in the road.”

“Not an unusual event in itself,” Richard Longfellow said in a low voice to Charlotte, as he began to weigh the elements of Jack’s story.

“That’s only the beginning,” an old hand assured newcomers who had missed the first telling at the Blue Boar.

“But as I looked again, the flames came right up out of him—all around! They rose with a
roar
, they did—rose up and danced like Satan himself, all around the old man right where he stood, waving his arms up in the air before he disappeared! Black smoke, first, black as night … and when the wind took it off, all I saw was a
white mist rise up, and a spot of blue fire,
damme
if I didn’t! There was heat enough to water my eyes, and the Devil’s stink of hellfire and brimstone!”

“Sulphur, most likely,” Longfellow commented quietly.

“There was an old woman burned up once,” began one of the two quails who had come with the rest of the tavern men, “down in Baltimore, I believe it was—”

“And after that he was gone,” Jack continued, raising his voice to be heard by all,
“disappeared
, from what I could see! Though to make sure, I turned myself complete around, and round again.” He demonstrated by hopping about on his good foot, holding out both arms for balance.

“He might have run off into the trees,” mused a skeptical new arrival.

“Ain’t any, as far as you can throw a rock,” Jack retorted, pointing.

There was murmured agreement. That much of what Jack said was true. It was at least sixty paces to the woods near the crest, with no other growth between high enough to hide in—not even a large boulder to stand behind. Back along the road to the last clump of firs was another hundred paces. Jack had already assured them that this, too, was out of the question, and most seemed to believe him. Which created a logical puzzle, unless a man
could
simply catch fire on a rare October evening. Or unless, of course, Jack Pennywort was telling a tall tale.

“—until only a kneecap and a foot were left of her,” concluded the story from Baltimore, during the lull. “Nobody ever knew why.”

“So I stood and looked as far as I could see,” Jack insisted, “but there was nothing at all—naught of his red cloak, no body, nothing so much as a shoe buckle. This is all that’s left right here!”

Looking like a curiously diminished Mark Antony on a stage, in Longfellow’s opinion, Jack extended an open hand dramatically toward the dark patch on the ground before him. A lantern was lowered so that all could see for themselves a thin, gummy mass about the size of a cartwheel, under the pool of light. It was the only sign of anything unusual on the road.

On the face of it, Jack Pennywort wholly believed his own story. Among his audience, gooseflesh rose on the limbs of more than one.

“Say, Jack—would you know what happened to all that gold?” called out drunken Dick Craft.

This time, only an owl in the woods replied.

Charlotte didn’t understand the question, but the mention of a red cloak gave her a start. She thought back to her own afternoon walk, to the bent old man, the offered and accepted apple. She looked up at Longfellow, but found him wholly engrossed in examining the reactions of the crowd.

A chorus of voices rose up again, repeating not only the last query, but also asking who the old man was, where he came from, and what he had been doing out alone, on foot, in the road at night.

“He’s stopping over at the inn—I know that much,” broke in a deep voice. “Came today. Saw him there before supper.” Charlotte recognized the large head of Nathan, the inn’s blacksmith, towering over those around him.

“Maybe he’s there now, then,” reasoned another. “Maybe somebody should—”

“If he went up in smoke, I say it must be
witchcraft!”
cried a voice that exploded into a screech. This new idea was met by a rustle of misgiving from some of the listeners, while others responded with clucks and whistles of disapproval.

“In that case, ask Phineas Wise,” somebody else yelled.
“He was born up the coast, where they know all about such things.”

Phineas ignored the barb that had been old even in his grandfather’s day. Amidst more laughter, his sharp eyes continued to measure the strength of the gathering, looking for the first sign of any plan to turn back to his tavern for a warm mug of new cider, or something stronger.

Meanwhile, the beginnings of scattered arguments showed that some conclusions had already been drawn, and sides taken—a natural thing among men and women raised on political talk and sermons, and quite used to examining and judging their fellows.

Charlotte recognized several of her neighbors, lit strangely by their lanterns, or more broadly from above by pitch torches that flickered in the rapidly cooling night breeze. There was Peter Lynch, the miller, next to Nathan, who himself stood solid and quiet, with folded arms as strong as barrel bands. Near the center of the wide circle she saw Tinder and Flint, as they were sometimes called, the two old fixtures of the Common bench and the Blue Boar’s fireside. And crowding in next to them were three boys—young men, really. She could name one member of the trio: Sam Dudley, who lived along the Concord road.

She was surprised to note that the Reverend Rowe was absent, then remembered that Hannah had said he’d gone to Boston for a day or two. (Hannah was probably already asleep, along with her husband and oldest son who had lately been wearing themselves out with haying the Willett farm, and helping at others.) If the preacher
had
shown up, Charlotte thought, something dogmatic would surely have been heard by now.

As it was, she did hear some of Reverend Rowe’s flock whispering uncharitable things in the darkness—ideas they would have been ashamed to repeat in
church, or in the light of day. The sound of it made her heart beat faster. But it was a question of economics that was being discussed in the most lively tones.

“Even if the gold’s melted down, shouldn’t it still be here somewhere?”

“There’s nothing like it in this muck,” said a man with a stick.

“Maybe it flew away,” joked another. “That’s often happened to me!”

“Or ran, with a little help,” another replied ominously.

“Well, Jack was only gone for a couple of minutes.”

“Could’ve taken the gold—I’m not saying you did, Jack—but he
couldn’t
have hid a body anywhere near here, could he? Or carried it away himself, either.”

Several men again looked around carefully, while Jack began to squirm. Finally, he voluntarily turned out pockets which contained nothing unusual.

“What about the Frenchman? Didn’t he lead the old man out the door?” Peter Lynch called out harshly, casting his eyes about for support.

But before anyone could say more, an edge of the crowd swung open to make way for the hurrying figure of a short, portly man.

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