A Mischief in the Snow Part 24

"Because I finally brought myself to tell him a secret of my own... one I'm hardly proud to have kept, all these years."

Her eyes played over the lawyer's face, trying to read something of his tortured thoughts. Then his pained smile confirmed a suspicion that had come to her. Without the beard, there was something about the lips and chin, something about the bones of his cheeks, that reminded her of another...

"I've already told Richard Longfellow," he said. "I discussed it with Magdalene-and then, I went and told my son the truth."

The resemblance, when one knew what to look for, was very clear. The eyes alone were different. They did not dance.

"I promised him I would help, when he swore it was done in the heat of the moment, and that he deeply regretted his action. Still, there is no going back."

"No," she said, swiftly calculating the consequences of what she'd heard. "Magdalene will suffer for this as well. But then, you and she-?"

"Were lovers, yes, many years ago. I was called to the island not as a guest, but as a young man who knew the local woods, and could lead hunters to the boars' lairs, or drive the creatures toward their waiting weapons. Not a pleasant job, but one with a certain amount of excitement to it. That is how I met Magdalene, for even then she walked alone about the island. Her love of nature, her sweet wildness-these things drew us together. And in the end..."

"When you learned she carried your child-?"

"I have never done a harder thing, Mrs. Willett, I swear to you. Yet I had to admit I'd wronged not only Magdalene but my benefactors. John Fisher had been good to me, had taken me from a poor situation in life, and paid me well. When he died, his daughter wished to be sure she had someone who would look after her interests. It was she who sent me to Boston, away from Magdalene and the boy, to begin my study of the law. For that, at least, I have always been grateful. Had Magdalene and I married against John Fisher's wishes, or even later, against Catherine's, Magdalene would surely have been given nothing. Her family in Philadelphia, too, would have shunned her, I was convinced. And for long years, I could have given her little more."

"Ned knew of this?"

"Exactly when he learned he was her son, I'm not sure. And I don't wish to know! No more than I want to believe Catherine Knowles was pushed, as she claimed."

Had Reed learned the truth about that, too? Charlotte could not bring herself to ask him more. One day, perhaps. But not this one.

He suggested again that they keep to themselves what Mrs. Knowles had insisted on her deathbed. Would it really make a difference? If it came to a trial, he a.s.sured her, an unclear mind would provide some defense, especially after years of torment.

Charlotte decided she would need to think further, before she could decide for herself whether to keep silent about Catherine's death. Ned, however, was no longer among them. In his case, at least, vengeance might be left to the Lord.

"And Jonah Bigelow?" she asked finally.

"Not even he knew for sure that I was the father. I sent him small yearly sums in Catherine's name, to help him raise the boy. That's another reason I came back to Bracebridge-to see if I might do more for them both, with Ned approaching manhood. Though I was ashamed to let him know why. As it turned out, I gave the boy a note good for more than enough to travel far to the south, where he said he'd long hoped to go. And I promised I would send more, if he would only write to me."

"What will happen to Magdalene?"

"She has no wish to go back to Philadelphia, and has asked me to continue to manage her small trust. And yet, Mrs. Willett, I would do a great deal more," I would do a great deal more," he said, his voice breaking. "I would gladly marry her, if she would accept me. My feelings on seeing her again were rekindled; in my eyes, she has hardly changed. But it seems she no longer feels she's worthy of love. It is Catherine's d.a.m.nable influence, I'm sure! One day, perhaps, I may be able to convince Magdalene of the truth..." he said, his voice breaking. "I would gladly marry her, if she would accept me. My feelings on seeing her again were rekindled; in my eyes, she has hardly changed. But it seems she no longer feels she's worthy of love. It is Catherine's d.a.m.nable influence, I'm sure! One day, perhaps, I may be able to convince Magdalene of the truth..."

A clamor rose outside. The men who had left returned, four of them carrying Jonah Bigelow in the chair Charlotte had seen at the old man's fireside. Its occupant was much changed. Jonah seemed terrified-for himself, perhaps, and doubtless for his grandson.

"Ned's not there," reported one of the farmers, "nor any of his things, that we can tell. Jonah says he doesn't know where the boy's got to, but that he couldn't have done murder. Yet it looks as though Ned feared we'd find out, and ran away."

"What happened, Jonah?" asked Richard Longfellow, who had risen immediately. He stood watching as more misery etched itself into a face raised to accept further punishment.

"I don't know, and that's the truth, sir!" Jonah cried. He bent as one deep cough followed another. It took some time for them to cease.

"Ned carried me out earlier, to sit with the cobbler," Jonah began again. "As I do on a Sat.u.r.day morning. Amos takes his cart out later, and sees me home. But this time when I returned, Ned wasn't waiting-nor were some of the things that should have been in the cupboard, I admit..."

Watching this poor soul about to break into tears, Charlotte felt her heart touched by his tragedy, truly that of an entire family. "What is it, Mr. Reed?" she then asked, for she had seen the attorney's face darken.

"I can give no sympathy to a man with so much to answer for! He might have seen Ned properly apprenticed, and learning a trade, instead of involved in this business on the island! How I wish it were Jonah, instead, who-" His voice sank dramatically. "And yet I know it must be my own fault, too-my own burden. For I came back too late, far too late-"

His head now in his hands, Moses Reed wept.

Longfellow came to them at that point, and sat down.

"He told you?"

"Yes," Charlotte said simply. He reached out and clasped her hands.

"I know, Carlotta. A terrible waste. At least we've formed a plan to make the rest something less of a problem. Edmund and I have-"

Before Longfellow could go on, a hush fell over the house. There in the doorway stood Captain Montagu, his wife on his arm. Though not dressed in their Boston best, both wore austere expressions that might have accompanied such finery, while they accepted the stares of those who watched as their due. Not a man or woman dared to speak; all waited while the couple looked over the house, seeming to see no one. The silence appeared to satisfy them, proving their authority if it did not exactly give welcome.

They walked slowly to the front where Christian Rowe waited, his hands folded as if in prayer. Upon reaching him, Edmund and Diana turned to face the village. Now they examined certain faces before them, willing guilty eyes to look away. Some admitted later that while the Montagus could be warm enough when they chose, they were no doubt made of sterner stuff than most in the small world of Bracebridge.

"I heard, sir," the captain said to the minister hovering at his side, "that you would hold a meeting today, to look into the death of Alexander G.o.dwin."

"That is what we are about, sir, yes," said Rowe.

"But that is not all you're discussing today, is it, Mr. Rowe?"

"You may hear accusations, Captain, concerning a certain scheme. They are unproven," Christian Rowe answered carefully.

"Men too often accuse one another, it seems, without proper proof. That is how our courts of law are always full, yet accomplish little. When, indeed, they are allowed to open at all."

The captain paused for whispers that came in response to this hopeful sign. Did he agree with them, after all, that the Crown had been unfair?

"You are aware, I believe, that my wife and I have come to Bracebridge to visit her brother?" he continued.

"Yes, sir," said Rowe.

"And that I have not not come on the King's business?" come on the King's business?"

"Why, yes, sir. That is what I would say, if asked."

"However, were I to decide to make make what I begin to see here the King's business-" what I begin to see here the King's business-"

Montagu gave another look about the room. He could almost hear new fears rising over the illegal business still unmentioned. It was enough, he decided. "Were I to see the result of criminal activity about me, I would be sorry, sir. For then, it would be my duty to make someone suffer for it. to make someone suffer for it. I hope-I sincerely hope-that this will not be necessary." I hope-I sincerely hope-that this will not be necessary."

The captain reached into a pocket of his waistcoat and pulled out a silver shilling. If the room had been quiet before, it now seemed full of dead men. No one dared to breath as he flipped the coin into the air, sending it to Richard Longfellow. The move was antic.i.p.ated, the shilling handily caught.

"Do as I do," said Edmund Montagu, "and you'll have nothing to fear. At least for now." With that he looked to his wife. Diana smiled back serenely.

It seemed to Charlotte that Diana played a role she had been born to, standing at the arm of a powerful husband, who was also blessed with good sense and understanding. If he could be masterful, so might she; together they could regard a painful past, an uncertain future. This joining, and not the lonely role of Nemesis, would be Diana's strength. Charlotte only hoped that in future her friend would trust a sympathetic husband, and would not run from him again.

The captain led his lady out amidst the hushed crowd, and Charlotte wondered what sort of finale he and her neighbor had decided on. She saw Longfellow stand and hold the shilling high for all to see.

"For the good of my conscience, and quite possibly my soul," he told the a.s.sembly, "I am going to take this symbol of corruption from our place of worship. For the sake of your own, I would suggest that every man here do the same. What has lately occurred in Bracebridge has brought discord among us; worse, it has led to a loss of life, and the ruin of happiness."

No one seemed to disagree.

"Ned Bigelow is gone," he continued. "Whatever else he may have done, he took good care of his grandfather, who now has no one to help him face his final years. This shilling will be the first contribution to a charitable fund for Jonah's benefit. I know a silversmith in Boston who will melt down what I bring him, without question, and make it pure again. I will be glad if others follow my example. Or you may leave your shillings, later, outside my door; I will set out a basket. And I would advise the women here to check carefully at home, to see if they have lately come upon coins a little too heavy, a little too soft, with bright indentations around their edges. These must circulate no longer!" These must circulate no longer!"

"But if we give them all to you, some of us may starve!" cried a wary voice from the crowd.

"Starve? I think not. No one has ventured a great deal, after all. And there will be a surprising amount in the village poor fund soon, for any who are truly in need. A good exchange, I think, for keeping your ears, gentlemen, as well as your goods, and your reputations-dubious though some of the latter are. You have elected me, and I will and I will keep the peace here!" keep the peace here!"

Longfellow began to walk through the throng, hearing the others rise to follow him down the aisle, through the entry, and out the door. He went to one side of the snowy path they'd earlier trampled. There he dropped the shilling, which made a final shining statement as it caught the sun.

The selectman walked a few feet further and turned to face the road, keeping his back to the rest.

A thaw continued to warm the air, but he knew it would be months before the roads would be entirely clear. The village would see other freezes and dangerous ice; further storms would force them to depend on one another, as they scrambled to dig their way out. That was the way of winter-it was the way of life.

Sometimes, little things could happen to make one glad to be a part of it all. Something like that was happening behind him now, he suspected, for he heard the pleasing sound of silver on silver, more or less, as the pile of coins mounted. Many of his neighbors turned and pa.s.sed before him, starting down the road with furtive nods, bolder bows, even tips of their hats, set back atop their ridiculous, rustic wigs.

What they had done had been audacious, brazen, shameless-and it proved they had no love for overweening authority. In the end, what he'd uncovered made Longfellow a little proud of living among these unruly and resourceful villagers, after all.

Chapter 36.

THE BRIEF WINTER day was done. In Richard Longfellow's.study, the ormolu clock beneath the Venetian mirror struck the hour of five. day was done. In Richard Longfellow's.study, the ormolu clock beneath the Venetian mirror struck the hour of five.

Charlotte glanced quickly to the gla.s.s. This was something he had observed her to do for several days, when she supposed no one saw. Had she grown vain? Or did she consult the thing to see if someone crept up unexpectedly?

At least, most of what had threatened the village lately was now put to rest or to flight, thought Longfellow. Once again a villain-this time an unfortunate one, whose loss would be regretted-had left them. He'd rarely thought of Ned Bigelow before. Perhaps, he told himself, he should take time to become better acquainted with the other village lads, who seemed to grow like stalks of corn. At least he might try.

At the moment, though, he planned to enjoy the end to this latest flurry of unwanted activity. It would be a pleasure to become reacquainted with the old fellow who spent cold nights in the kitchen, tending his creaking joints before the fire, replenishing his mind with reading. At the moment, Cicero was in the taproom across the way learning the news from Boston, where each of them had friends. At his return, Longfellow would hear whatever news he'd discovered, hidden in his favorite nook behind the great hearth.

For a while, at least, they would be glad to lose their visitors and return to an occasional game of chess or backgammon, and the revolving arguments manufactured on a regular basis to learn all sides of questions both considered worthy of study.

"Diana and Edmund will leave soon," said Charlotte, thinking of the future as well.

"Yes-and be pleased to start over in their own humble establishment."

"Are they above?"

"They went to the inn with Cicero. To be served, as you know, is, to Diana, one of the sweeter pleasures."

"I've been left as well. Lem went out to see Mattie."

"I predict you'll often lose his company as the weather improves. And then, one day..."

"Orpheus and I may easily enjoy ourselves, as long as we can walk, and visit someone who will throw us a bone from time to time."

"Then we're all pleased by our prospects," he said, smiling.

"And yet..."

"Qualms, Carlotta?"

"Richard, do you think Magdalene will go back to Boston with Moses Reed?"

"He told me he would discuss the question with her today; that is what I imagine they're doing upstairs. She can hardly return to the island by herself. And since it will go, now, to the Knowles family, it might soon be sold. I wonder if they will auction or keep the furnishings?"

"She could live here with Jonah. Each of them will need someone. And as they both care for Ned..."

"You forget Catherine's death hasn't entirely been explained. He might not have her, if he suspects..."

"You and Reed did discuss the manner of Catherine's death?"

"And decided to say no more. We can't prove prove what she claimed was anything but a dying woman's imagination." what she claimed was anything but a dying woman's imagination."

"Magdalene will suffer greatly, when she's told her son has been forced to leave her."

"She may also warm to Reed-even marry and bear him another son, I suppose."

"Do you think so?" Charlotte doubted it. During the night of storm, soon after she'd found Moses Reed once more, Magdalene had said she would not see her lost love again. It was almost as if she could barely recall the man who'd stood before her, though for years she'd pined for him. But was that really true?

"Richard," she said suddenly, "suppose Magdalene realized, long ago-"

Before she was able to voice her new thought, they heard a tapping at the window. A youthful face reflected their candlelight-they were doubly surprised to see that it belonged to Ned Bigelow.

Longfellow leaped to his feet and went out into the hall, then through the small dining room to a door leading to the piazza. He returned in a few moments with the young man they'd supposed was far away.

"I couldn't leave my grandfather alone, sir, after all,"

Ned began. "His illness, you see, has worsened, and he depends on me. I don't care what I have to pay for the shillings. I planned to find a ship at Providence, but once I got half way to Framingham, I decided I'd better turn around and come home. I'll stay-though Mr. Reed told me I shouldn't."

"The shillings?" Longfellow asked, amazed. "What about the murder of Alex G.o.dwin?"

"What about it?"

"But-do you now say?-"

"Wait," said Charlotte.

"Yes, Carlotta?"

"I think we all may have overlooked something important. Do you remember, Richard, that Moses Reed told us he would fight for Ned in court?"

"He did say that, when he thought the boy was innocent."

"But what changed his mind?"

"Well... Ned?"

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