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Authors: Margaret Miles

A Wicked Way to Burn (7 page)

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Everybody knew Constable Bowers. Hiram and his wife kept a notions shop in their home near the bridge, besides farming some land west of the millpond. Constable Bowers had few duties to perform beyond collecting and recording taxes levied by the Bracebridge selectmen, the ones who had picked him the past January for the twelve-month job. For nearly a year he had attended their meetings, where he generally dozed until they adjourned to a nearby house for refreshment.

Although the crowd made way for Constable Bowers tonight, it expected little of Hiram’s brain, and only a bit more from his ear. He had dressed in a great hurry; the cuffs of his shirt were caught up inside his coat, his
bulging waistcoat was buttoned one off the mark, and his neck cloth was entirely missing.

Several spoke, or shouted out the few facts known at the moment, for the constable’s benefit. Meanwhile, Charlotte again surveyed the faces around her. Most were masculine—of course, at this hour—and weather-stained to a warm mahogany. But she was surprised to see, bobbing behind the others, a lighter one that really shouldn’t have been there at all.

What was Mary Frye doing here, apparently all alone? The girl sometimes came to Charlotte’s door to fetch extra butter or cream. Originally from Worcester, Mary had been bound over by her father for three years to Jonathan Pratt and his wife Lydia. For two years more, until she was seventeen, she was expected to do whatever was asked of her at the Bracebridge Inn. Tonight, by torchlight, her wild eyes and tangle of black hair showed she had escaped Lydia’s influence for the moment. And she was clearly in search of something, or someone. Charlotte wondered who, and waited to see.

The wattles under the constable’s chin shook as he held up his hands for a chance to speak. Tomorrow, he told them, he would take down testimony at the inn from anyone who had something to say. To that end, he would remain there for most of the afternoon. After that, he would report to the selectmen to see if anything more should be done.

If, by that time, joked a wit hidden by darkness, Hiram was capable of seeing anything at all. Others immediately insisted that the Reverend Rowe be consulted as soon as he returned. From his vast reading and experience the preacher would know if a man could be kindled by human design, or by craft with witches or devils. Some already guessed the stranger had been lifted up and set down elsewhere on earth … they’d heard older folk speak of such things. Then again, he might have
been removed to some far more unpleasant part of the cosmology.

“But what,” shouted Peter Lynch with determination, “has become of the Frenchman? Find
him
and ask what happened! He left the Blue Boar right before this stranger, didn’t he? He’s the one we should go after!”

Dick Craft opened his mouth, as was to be expected. But whatever he had to say was stopped by a piercing scream. Mary Frye’s terrified cry shocked the air; before it died, the girl swooned and fell back lifeless. As luck would have it, her limp body was caught up by an extremely strong arm, extended at the nick of time. The crowd gasped, then let out its breath in relief. All, that is, but one man.

“Take your dirty hands off her!” the miller spat fiercely. Peter Lynch’s face was red as a roasted beet, and his eyes bulged with fury. Several men who stood between Lynch and the smith, who held young Mary, stiffened. Charlotte saw Nathan look to Richard Longfellow, and watched Longfellow ease his way around the circle.

“Of course you realize, Peter,” Longfellow began as he approached the miller, “that Nathan would be the best one to take Mary safely home. I believe Mr. Pratt would expect it of him … to return a maid who probably has no leave to be out in the first place. By the way, I’m glad I found you here tonight. I’ve been meaning to talk a little business, when you have a moment. My men tell me I have some hay acres I might sow next year with grain, but much depends on both the yield and the price of the milling, so I wanted to consult with you first, to ask you about a possible contract for grinding that I might pay for
now
, which would entitle me in future to a set price of, oh, say …”

When Charlotte looked around again, Nathan was already escorting a recovered but trembling Mary back along the road toward the bridge. And in a few more
moments, Jack Pennywort and the rest were returning to the Blue Boar, where they might find means to counter the evening’s growing chill.

“The miller was anxious enough to earn a dollar,” Longfellow remarked when he returned to Charlotte’s side. “It seems Peter Lynch is a man with two loves.”

“Love, you call it?” she returned with a grimace.

“I’m afraid it passes for that, with some. I suppose ‘lust’ would be a more precise term.”

Charlotte turned her flushed face into a cold wind, away from the moving crowd. Several questions leaped and fought for place in her anxious mind. What had happened here? And what was likely to happen next? It was possible that an old man had disappeared from the road. According to Jack, he had quickly burned to a blackened mess, in a way some explained as a freak of Nature. Others were already calling it the Devil’s work. According to the miller, the stranger might have been murdered for some gold he carried, perhaps by a Frenchman who had also disappeared. From the laughter around her, it was clear that at least some of the townspeople were unconcerned, believing that the whole thing was a Halloween prank.

One thing seemed to be agreed—nobody knew where the old man with the red cloak was now. Hiram Bowers couldn’t be expected to reach the heart of the matter any time soon. And until someone did … someone else might be in for trouble. Crippled, henpecked Jack Pennywort would certainly be teased, hounded, and accused. Of what, though? Possibly, only of telling a good story. But if it were proved that something had really happened tonight, a few among them might decide Jack was responsible.

And this Frenchman … She was well aware that feeling against the French was still running high. If Peter Lynch insisted that one of the old enemy had something
to do with stealing, and possibly murder, she knew of several who wouldn’t rest until more than one person had paid. It was a disturbing thought.

But broader horror hid in the first feeble cries of “Witch!”

People could smile, now, when they talked of the withered belief. Charlotte had reason to suspect that
the Devil’s work
might still become a terrible rallying cry in New England, especially at a time when fear and anger divided neighbors. Oh, town folk might quickly assure you that things had changed since the days when suspicion had led to tragedy up and down the coast. But she herself remembered recent talk, when Aaron had been called worse than “Quaker” by men and women who were suspicious of anyone from beyond the village they were born in. One or two of them were on the road tonight. Were her neighbors all so different from their ancestors of seventy years ago?

If the village concluded the stranger’s disappearance was due to a quirk of Nature, there would be interest in discovering how it had happened. But if witchcraft was suspected by more than a few, the
how
would become unimportant. Then the only question likely to be asked was
who?
Who knew enough to call down fire and brimstone; who would be held responsible? While other possible explanations of what had happened tonight could result in some kind of justice, this last one, if it were believed in Bracebridge, promised nothing of the sort. Charlotte shivered at the idea.

Still, one could hope that the old man would turn up again soon, with an explanation of his own. And certainly, Jack Pennywort—like the young girl on Long Island—might not be the most reliable of witnesses. It was an odd time of night to take the air, but it
was
possible that that was all the man in the red cloak had in
mind. Jack could have made up the rest, especially after an evening at the Blue Boar. And yet…

Had anyone walked to the hill’s crest to see if the stranger had gone down the other side? Or perhaps he’d doubled back, and was settled in his bed at the inn even now. She could think of several other questions Hiram Bowers might ask, if and when he thought of them.

Coming out of her own world, Charlotte was relieved to see a dark, familiar face beside Richard Longfellow’s.

“You might ask Cicero,” she quickly proposed to her escort, “to walk me home, after he’s seen enough here. Then, Richard, you could go on to the tavern and hear what’s being discussed. You know I’ll look forward to hearing your opinion of the whole matter in the morning,” she said sincerely.

It was a speech designed to flatter as well as encourage him, but it hadn’t been necessary. Longfellow, too, had read the crowd and was uneasy. As a selectman, he felt it his duty to watch the mood of those he represented, and to see what might develop. He was also anxious to see if anything in the tale Jack told might stand up to the scrutiny of a logical mind.

“But you’ll have to Wait a little longer for my opinion,” he added, after he’d agreed to go on without her. “I’m off early for Boston. Diana has decreed one of her country retreats should take place. I’ll go in with the chaise and bring her back … followed, no doubt, by a wagon full of necessities.”

“Dinner, then? I’ll make a fricassee. And we’ll drink syllabubs,” she added with a ghost of a smile.

On that expectant note, they parted.

A few minutes later, Cicero ushered Charlotte Willett homeward among the last of the observers. In the forest behind them, the horned owl continued to laugh at the curious ways of mankind, and the pines sighed in soft surprise at the rising of the autumn wind.

Over the broad valley, the moon shone down on the black reaches of the Musketaquid, turning the river to winding strips of silver. And walking just ahead, the three boys Charlotte had noticed earlier playfully pushed and challenged one another. From the talk that drifted back to her, it was clear they were alive to the possibilities of the night: elves and goblins that could be expected to move through the electric air, and strange lights that might dance in woods and bogs.

One by one, each dared the others to stay and find out what kinds of things lurked in the deepest shadows. But before long, the boys branched off onto different paths through the fields, headed home, while Charlotte and Cicero kept to the Boston road.

Despite his protests, Charlotte left Cicero at Longfellow’s gate, and walked the last of the way by herself. While the lantern cast its warm light on the ground in front of her, a colder light frosted the trees that had begun to writhe in a boreal wind, under brightly twinkling stars.

By the time she reached her front yard, the ground seemed to dance under moaning branches. Remembering that she’d bolted the main door early in the evening, she continued around the house to the barnyard, and entered through the kitchen. Inside, banked coals gave out a welcoming warmth, and Orpheus thumped his tail in greeting.

Charlotte went to the pantry, brought out some bread and cheese, and sat by the hearth to share it with her companion.

As the room retreated to a familiar, spice-scented background, she went over what she’d heard and seen. But she made little progress, and finally decided, with a yawn, to go to bed. Before leaving the kitchen, she went to the door. The old dog slowly rose, shook himself, then
padded up to the open portal. And there he stood perfectly still.

Charlotte saw the hair between his shoulders rise before she heard the low, uncertain growl. Orpheus took a step forward, sniffing, and one step back again, careful to stay between his mistress and the night. Outside, the rushing sea-sounds of the leaves and the tortured creaking of bough on bough left her own ears unable to distinguish anything closer. But the old dog, whose nose was even better than her own, suspected something was in his path. He finally ventured through the doorway and went on for a few feet, as if carrying out a duty. Within a minute, he had retreated back inside, still growling softly to himself as he watched the dark.

Charlotte closed the door quickly, deciding that tonight she would set the heavy crossboard inside its iron brackets. Surely, it was only the wind. But an evening like this might frighten a Berkshire bear!

Taking up a candle, she went out of the kitchen through one of two doors that flanked the fire, into the main room of the house. She walked toward the tall clock at the bottom of a flight of steps. Pausing as she had done on most nights of her life, she patted its burled sidewood, before ascending the narrow stairs.

In the upper hall, her candle guttered beside a partially open sash, to which she reached out and brought down with an unexpected bang. As her heart pounded, she gasped at something that lurched against her skirts. But it was only the furry body of Orpheus, who had followed her silently on her way to bed.

The old dog jumped away when she whirled. He, too, looked around, wondering what was wrong. It was enough to make Charlotte laugh at the state of her nerves, but at the same time, it brought home to her how Jack Pennywort’s curious story might be affecting her own mood—as well as encouraging fear in others. Apparently,
even she was anxious to believe the worst on this windy, moonlit night.

When she was in her nightgown, she pushed back the covers, sat on the edge of the large feather bed, leaned to pat Orpheus’s head, and slid her feet between the cool smoothness of trousseau linens.

It was then that she recognized a familiar scent—a sweet, medicinal aroma that came to her at odd times, and for no earthly reason. She felt the hairs on her arms rising. But this time, instead of knowing fear, she felt a sense of wonder and relief.

Horehound had been Aaron’s favorite candy. Every autumn, she had made the lozenges he enjoyed whenever he had a cough, or when he worried about his throat after a day outside. Although she no longer made them, their scent was as vivid tonight as if Aaron stood by, clattering the candy against his teeth.

She knew it was impossible. But it wasn’t the first time she’d noticed the penetrating aroma in this room.

She hoped it wouldn’t be the last.

Blanketed by a feeling of protection and love, Charlotte settled back, closed her eyes, and slept.

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