A Mischief in the Snow Part 25

"He said you'd confessed," Charlotte told him gently.

"That's not true!" Ned exclaimed.

"Could he have feared his defense might have been insufficient to save the boy?" Longfellow asked his neighbor in bewilderment.

"I would imagine Moses Reed is a man who fears very little-even the anger of those he's wronged. And I begin to suspect he's a talented actor, now that I recall the scene. But Magdalene knew. knew. Richard, why do you think Alex G.o.dwin returned to Bracebridge last year?" Richard, why do you think Alex G.o.dwin returned to Bracebridge last year?"

"To find employment."

"Here, and not in Worcester, which is a far busier place? Catherine said Alex came to her with references. And yet, Hannah later told me Alex had been in some sort of trouble, before he was sent sent away. If that is true, who might have helped him out of it?" away. If that is true, who might have helped him out of it?"

"For serious trouble, I presume he would have consulted a lawyer-"

"And who is the one one man Catherine Knowles appears to have trusted?" man Catherine Knowles appears to have trusted?"

"You suspect Reed sent G.o.dwin there a year ago? But why?"

"What if-oh, how could he? But what if Reed himself wrote Catherine's final will?"

"If that's so, how was it we found a copy on the island?"

"Alex might have taken it there... or couldn't Reed have brought it with him, when he came to Bracebridge? He might have 'discovered' it in Catherine's bedroom-"

"While I was out looking for something spectral in the blasted hall! That could be. But wait a moment, Carlotta-do you suppose Reed is a murderer, as well?"

She stared back at him, hardly able to believe it herself.

"If he did plan for Alex to inherit Catherine's estate," Longfellow reasoned, "why would he then kill him, before before she died?" she died?"

"A necessary change of plans?"

"Remember, too, that her fortune had been reduced to nearly nothing. And I saw the final will. Reed stood to gain control of no more than thirty pounds a year, for Magdalene-the rest, what little there was, will now go back to Philadelphia. Including, of course, the recent widow's portion."

"But what if he saw this added inheritance not as a blessing, but a curse? Better to allow the Knowles family the return of that portion, if it would keep their eyes from Reed's other business, which may not have been exactly honest."

"Possibly..."

"He did tell us both earlier that Catherine's fortune was nearly gone. But do we know where where it went? You saw the way she lived, apparently on next to nothing." it went? You saw the way she lived, apparently on next to nothing."

"And if he'd invested wisely twenty years ago, he would have seen her wealth grow enough to easily ride out this latest depression," Longfellow concluded.

"He told us Mrs. Knowles decided a year ago to give Magdalene's son his due-which might have encouraged Reed to make other arrangements. Would Ned, after all, have forgiven a father who had ignored him for years?"

"A father?" Ned whispered.

"He might have taken the hatchet from the bag at Ned's feet-" said Charlotte.

"-having no idea that it was Lem's, and not Ned's," Longfellow finished.

"Reed did come over to talk to Grandfather," the young man added. "Asking how he was, and then, when I would take him home."

"When he might rid himself of Alex," said Longfellow. "He could hardly have known Lem and Alex had argued earlier. It must have been an unpleasant surprise to see his plans go wrong."

"It could have been worse," said Charlotte, "to find Catherine Knowles dying in my kitchen, yet still able to speak-"

"That was was somewhat disheartening," said a cool voice from the doorway. Moses Reed leaned there as they'd seen him do before, a placid expression on his smooth face. Then he brought an arm from behind his back, and aimed a c.o.c.ked pistol toward the group before him. somewhat disheartening," said a cool voice from the doorway. Moses Reed leaned there as they'd seen him do before, a placid expression on his smooth face. Then he brought an arm from behind his back, and aimed a c.o.c.ked pistol toward the group before him.

"The story you've spun together is rather remarkable- yet only a little less than the truth. My congratulations especially to you, Mrs. Willett, although I do dislike an inquisitive woman! But what you know will make little difference. I helped young G.o.dwin out of an embarra.s.sing situation in Worcester, as you have guessed. I arranged to have a charge of theft ignored, and promised him a small share of an inheritance for bringing me information. And you were correct about the widow's portion. I knew it was a race between Catherine and old Peter Knowles-to see who would die first. If only I had acted sooner! One day I learned she was to have the Knowles money, after all. No doubt they would have sent someone to help her invest it, hoping it would eventually return to them. And once they'd seen she'd lost her own fortune-"

"How did you manage that?" asked Longfellow.

"Do not interrupt sir, or I may find you in contempt! You will know it all soon, very soon. You see, G.o.dwin guessed more than I'd told him, and he became greedy. When I met him on the evening that preceded your ice party, he also told me he planned to tell you you about those d.a.m.ned shillings! What better reason for his murder, by one of many in Bracebridge? That evening, too, the little pig threatened about those d.a.m.ned shillings! What better reason for his murder, by one of many in Bracebridge? That evening, too, the little pig threatened me me, demanding one half of Catherine's fortune-which is, in fact, intact. What could I do but stop him?"

"And Catherine?" Longfellow asked warily, watching the pistol. "Did you then see to her, too?"

"Having started, it only made sense to finish the matter. I rode up the next morning and paid a visit, using the tunnel Magdalene showed me years ago. You see, unlike yesterday, when Mrs. Willett had her mysterious accident, I was once quite careless about 'covering my tracks.' Never expecting close scrutiny of my affairs, I'd simply kept a list of poor investments I might claim to have made; I was quite prepared to say they had drained away a little here, a little there. And while Catherine insisted on living like a hermit-G.o.dwin a.s.sured me she very nearly covered her old bones in rags-I concocted invoices, as if she still enjoyed a life of splendor. Who, after all, would ever know? Eventually most of what I controlled for her did come to seem like mine. Considering the piddling amount I was paid to manage her estate, Catherine Knowles was a fool to imagine I'd not not steal her blind. She may even have expected it-but she could never bear to come down from her eyrie to find out for sure. It seems she was satisfied with her immediate prey." steal her blind. She may even have expected it-but she could never bear to come down from her eyrie to find out for sure. It seems she was satisfied with her immediate prey."

"Why did you never go back for Magdalene?" asked Charlotte, curiosity overcoming her fear.

"Because 'Mad Maud' had spoiled everything for me. Once she was quite beautiful, and I was willing to marry her for any settlement John Fisher, or even Peter Knowles, would have given us. But just before Fisher died, she began to grow big with child. She said it was mine, but did I know for sure? Other men were there, after all, and she was hardly wise or careful. In the end, after her brat had ruined my plans I was packed off to Boston to earn my own living, which I pretended to be happy enough to do. And Catherine had a reason to keep the silly girl captive, as she'd been kept herself."

"So you simply forgot her," said Longfellow, his voice carrying his contempt.

"But here's the real surprise! Now, when the little fool could make amends-when the family in Philadelphia might finally reward me for taking care of her, so that they they need not-now, she need not-now, she refuses refuses to marry me! Let her rot, then. I have my fortune tucked away where none will find it. All I need do is take the boy with me and pretend he has killed the two of you for revealing his crimes." to marry me! Let her rot, then. I have my fortune tucked away where none will find it. All I need do is take the boy with me and pretend he has killed the two of you for revealing his crimes."

"Then you admit you tried to make us believe that your own son that your own son is a murderer?" asked Longfellow, to be very sure-and to gain time by keeping the lawyer talking. is a murderer?" asked Longfellow, to be very sure-and to gain time by keeping the lawyer talking.

"Certainly. I supposed he had more of his mother in him, and that he would run away, taking the blame. But he proved too intelligent-probably because I, too, contributed to his being."

"And now?" asked Charlotte.

"Now, we will proceed from judgment, to sentencing."

"How do you propose," asked Longfellow, "to accomplish our silence with one pistol?"

The attorney walked to an alcove where several curios were displayed. Among them was a rosewood box.

"Oh-" Charlotte breathed, as Moses Reed reached to open the lid.

"They're not loaded," Longfellow informed him. "I keep powder and b.a.l.l.s hidden, after another guest took- certain liberties."

"But I've brought powder and b.a.l.l.s for my own weapon. Earlier in my visit, I made sure that yours, too, were serviceable. In case I might come to need them." He c.o.c.ked first one dueling pistol, then the other.

Longfellow's eyes went to the door. The lawyer laughed, and stepped to block it. Two c.o.c.ked pistols were now in Reed's hands. A third lay on the tea table at his side.

"I don't care who you are," Ned cried defiantly. "I won't help you!"

"If you come with me willingly, boy," his father answered, "I will let you live."

"For how long?" the young man returned.

Charlotte gasped, and Moses Reed gave her a rea.s.suring smile. He could not see that Magdalene Knowles, wearing felt-soled slippers, had come into the doorway behind him, on her way to the kitchen with a tea tray.

"Have no fear, Mrs. Willett. It should be less painful than the other end of my pistol, which you felt yesterday. And your head will no longer trouble you. As for your heart, it may as well be taken by me as by another."

"And Magdalene?" Longfellow challenged. "What of her?"

"I have no further interest in what becomes of Magdalene Knowles. With no one left to care for her, she'll die soon enough. And that will be that."

"I doubt it," said Longfellow.

Reed turned at a slight sound, but he was too late. Magdalene had thrown the tray with surprising force; the man who had once claimed to love her raised his arms instinctively.

She launched herself toward him like a wild thing, causing Reed to stagger and fall, and cry out as he twisted a knee. Her full skirts flew over his face as she attempted to claim one of the weapons he'd dropped-the lawyer hung on to the pistol in his right hand. By some miracle, neither one had yet gone off.

Ned joined his writhing parents on the floor, clutching an arm that still threatened them with sudden death. For a few seconds he held on, until Moses Reed struck him a fierce blow with a clenched fist. The boy fell away, but by then Longfellow had leaped across the entangled bodies. Using a heel for encouragement, he made the attorney drop his weapon. He moved swiftly to reclaim a second, on the table. Turning to survey the scene, he saw Charlotte standing with a raised poker, her eyes flashing, much of her soft hair fallen down about her face.

Finally accepting what had happened, Reed sank back with a groan. At last Magdalene straightened her skirts, then reached beneath them. In another moment, her hand emerged with the third pistol.

She studied it for a moment, seeming to consider, while the others froze. She turned so that the barrel faced the man beside her. Without even a flicker of expression, she then made another sudden move-and flung the pistol aside, into the fire.

The sharp explosion that followed caused a final moment of panic, until it was discovered that no one in the room had been injured after all.

"Well, Reed," said Richard Longfellow, as Ned rose to his feet. "It would appear that once more, your plans have changed. But none here will harm you further, as long as you stay still. We will all be glad, I think, to leave that privilege to the courts. Ned," he instructed, "go across to the inn, and tell Captain Montagu he's needed. Don't explain why. The village will soon know the truth-but not, I think, tonight. Tomorrow, perhaps, when Mr. Reed is on his way back to Boston, with a suitable escort. Wait a moment-tell Cicero, too. He'll not forgive me if he misses the rest."

"Gladly sir." Ned stared down at the man on the floor, but turned away without a word. Instead he went to his mother, to kiss her cheek in a manner that seemed entirely natural.

"I thank you, again," he said, "for my life."

At long last, Magdalene Knowles had reason to smile.

Chapter 37.

CHARLOTTE WILLETT AND Richard Longfellow sat together in her blue study, on the afternoon of his return from a trip to Cambridge. Winter's grip had loosened; they now sat with their sides, rather than their feet, to the fire. Richard Longfellow sat together in her blue study, on the afternoon of his return from a trip to Cambridge. Winter's grip had loosened; they now sat with their sides, rather than their feet, to the fire.

"Reed will be hanged within the month," he reported. "Few were surprised that none of his Suffolk County colleagues offered to come and defend him-nor did any here in Middles.e.x. He stood to give his own defense, with the usual results. It seems even lawyers can't abide someone who has so thoroughly tainted their fine profession. In fact, I heard John Adams made it a point to go personally across the Charles to chastise Reed, while the fellow sat in jail. There is nothing a man of rhetorical skill enjoys more than a captive audience," he finished with a bemused smile.

"Lem," Charlotte offered, "went to visit Jonah, Ned, and Magdalene last evening. They've all decided Bermuda's healthy climate would be best for their future home together. That had been Ned's plan for his grandfather all along. And a physician he summoned last week from Boston gives Jonah every hope for many more years, if he no longer has to face the winter cold."

"That's good to hear. I'll go and visit them tomorrow."

"I'm sorry you missed our own excitement..."

During the time Richard was in Cambridge, Charlotte and the rest of the village had been roused one night by the meeting house bell, which rang out madly. At first it seemed there must be some mistake, for no one smelled smoke. A few supposed a superst.i.tious neighbor had been unsettled by a magnificent display of the aurora borealis. This time, it sent down draperies of red and green from the northern sky.

And then, someone had pointed lower, to the marshes, where there was a yellow glow. It was soon agreed this must be the house on the island, consuming itself. What was not decided was whether the fire had been started by an earthly hand, or by one of the malevolent spirits still residing there.

When Charlotte finished telling Longfellow of the conflagration, he suggested that it might after all have been caused by old John Fisher, gnashing his teeth at the mess his daughter had left behind. Charlotte then asked if rot of another sort, perhaps logs left to molder, might not have heated itself to the point of combustion. This caused her neighbor to praise her astute application of Scientific law. And yet, neither knew, for sure....

What was known before long was that the house, and all of its curious furnishings, had been thoroughly destroyed. As its new owner would soon travel to Bermuda, it was a.s.sumed the island would be home to no one for a generation, at least. Until then, the boars could rest easy.

"But now," said Longfellow, after he'd taken a last forkful of admirable cherry pie, "I wonder what you'll find to do with yourself, Carlotta."

"I've wondered that myself. With Lem able to care for the dairy, I might try something new, I suppose."

"Bees, perhaps?"

"Well..."

"You might consider taking up the violin; we'll need a new fiddler. But you might do better to build something useful on your brother's land, to surprise him when he visits. You'll allow me, I hope, to help you start. I've a willing pair of hands."

"I know," she answered, smiling. "But by planting time, what a.s.surance do I have that you won't have them full with new plans of your own?"

"Who knows?" said Longfellow. He stretched his feet further across the fire, until they nearly touched those of his neighbor. Through the south windows, the maples already showed swollen red buds that came before the green. He imagined the new season full blown, and found himself pondering how long he'd need... to find a reason to join Charlotte in something that would take them on together, so that he might always have her at his side.

About the Author

MARGARET M MILES, now the author of four Bracebridge mysteries, is working on another. She and her husband live in Washington, D.C.To learn more about Bracebridge and some of the subjects in the books, please visit her website at:www.margaretmiles.com

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