Too Soon For Flowers Part 24

Looking up, she shook her head to Longfellow's question and noted that Signore Lahte, too, must have been staring hard and long into the stranger's face. She saw him pull himself together with a shudder.

"Can it be," Longfellow asked in surprise, "that you know this gentleman, Gian Carlo?" A wave of the other's hand dismissed the idea, but Longfellow persisted in his concern.

"You appear unwell. The stagnation of the air seems to have made it lose its potency-er-so perhaps we should move on."

Lahte then attempted an explanation. "A man of art, of strong feeling, is sometimes overcome ..." His handkerchief appeared, and he wiped it over features that had begun to quiver, though he still tried to contain his distress.

"Something of a shock, I agree. I, too, have little stomach for viewing death-though I would guess that Mrs. Willett might like to linger awhile longer."

Charlotte looked up from examining a hat, largely intact, which she had found on the floor. "I think a brief prayer would do no harm."

"Hmmm," Longfellow responded, as he led Signore Lahte up the wooden steps set into the soil, rising toward warmth and light.

When she was alone, Charlotte closed her eyes, while the two tallow candles continued to smoke and sputter. A few seconds later she slid behind the trestle table that supported the body, and carefully lifted up the head with her hands. His neck was undamaged, she thought, yet the top of the skull was obviously indented. That was odd. And the affected area was not swollen. This told her he must have died suddenly, very soon after the injury had occurred. Though he may, of course, have died of inhaling what he could not swallow. Nearly overcome by the horrible thought, and the odor, she looked away, then forced herself to examine a patch of the matter on the coat more closely. It was unusually dark ... but it most probably had little to do with whatever final misfortune had overcome this man out on the road. Why, then, did she have a nagging suspicion?

Charlotte seemed suddenly to hear the echo of a familiar voice in the close chamber. Again she heard the angelic song of Gian Carlo Lahte, and felt a sudden rush of warmth as she realized that this death affected her somewhat less than had the recent discomforts of Il Colombo. But could he know this stranger? Or had her imagination, too, become feverish? Longfellow had asked the same question-but if it was true, why would Lahte not say so? Well, if he would not or could not enlighten them, the dead man might yet tell them something, after a bit of wheedling and teasing-perhaps even enough to satisfy her own suspicious spirit.

Blowing out both candles, Mrs. Willett hurriedly pulled the door closed behind her, to join the two men waiting above. At her appearance Longfellow walked forward. His guest continued to pace slowly among the village stones, some distance away.

"Mrs. Willett! Are you satisfied? He was thrown, it would seem to me."

"Well ..."

"Of course you question, too, where he has come from. But we may know more when I have made a sketch of him and sent it off to Montagu in Boston. Though I believe all signs point to a trader from abroad. I might even guess, from his physiognomy, that he is of a European race which I have observed near the eastern Mediterranean and up toward the Slavic lands. The reddish hair and pale skin are similar to those of many Scots and Irishmen, yet there is something else about the face which reminds me of the residents of Prague. The clothing seems inconclusive. His Spanish silver, of course, could have come from anywhere. Have you an idea of your own?"

"He seems to have lost some of the wine I presume he drank while on the road earlier today-"

"No doubt of that, by the aroma."

"But when?"

"When?"

"He could hardly have vomited the wine up, I think, after his fall-if death was due to the injury to his head. For that must have come only moments before his heart ceased to beat ..."

"You refer to the lack of swelling in the depression over the brain. Not unlike the difference between a deer killed outright and one whose wounds fill with blood when he must be chased down. Well, perhaps the man's stomach rebelled first, then. He may have gotten off his horse, had another drink, vomited it up, then stumbled. And having fallen back upon a rock-"

"But then how do we explain the great force of the blow? For I can hardly believe-"

"All right, then-he was thrown after he regurgitated, which he did while still on his horse. In either case his death would have been an accident and thus should cause us no further concern."

"Yet if he died because he choked on what he tried to expel, one could not blame the horse, which might otherwise be destroyed for killing a man. And would the village not rest more easily if he were examined by a physician, so that we might learn exactly how he came to his end?"

"I suppose it might. But nothing points to anything more worrisome, you will agree?"

"Except for his face. It did occur to me that he might have suffered a recent illness. Perhaps even a very serious one. Richard, the dark vomit-"

"Yet he appears to be unaffected by jaundice, if you are trying to tell me it might be the yellow fever. And he would have been ill indeed, in the last stages. I doubt he could have sat on a horse all the way from Boston. Still, it may be wise to post a sign warning others not to enter, since it can be highly contagious ... especially, now that I come to think of it, in August and September. I believe I will make my sketch quickly and close the place up. When I send off my handiwork, I will enclose a request for Warren to come to us. It will give him a healthy ride. Now, where has Lahte got to? There he is, over by the Proctors. Shall we go and take him home? I suspect he, too, is not entirely well, though melancholy may be his own particular ill today."

As they walked to join Signore Lahte, they saw that his good humor had evidently returned. This was fortunate, thought Longfellow, who also saw that the Reverend Rowe approached them on the main road. "Gian Carlo," he called over the quiet stones. "Are you sufficiently recovered to meet what pa.s.ses in Ma.s.sachusetts for a holy man?"

"I will be delighted," the musico answered, coming forward with a confident stride.

"I doubt that!" said Longfellow with some certainty. "But we shall see."

"YOU ARE A Roman Catholic, signore?" asked the thin man, clothed in his usual ill-fitting suit of black broadcloth. Christian Rowe said the foreign word with distaste, after receiving what he suspected was a sinfully excessive bow.

"I was raised in the Church, certainly, good Father. But I dispute the laws of Rome, and I repent of my part in its superst.i.tious ceremonies."

"Oh?" answered Rowe, brightening a little as he readjusted his stiff hat over a halo of golden hair. "Then am I to presume you are now a Protestant?"

"I protest much in this life, Father, and pray that you will take me into your flock. Like a poor sheep, I look for guidance. And you see I have heard of your wisdom even in Boston before coming here."

"Really!" the reverend responded, rising on his toes. He gave a fond thought to several slim copies of his sermons, printed the previous winter and left in a King Street shop. Perhaps not all of them had languished, after all. "That is gratifying," Reverend Rowe allowed, giving the gentleman before him a faint smile. "Although as I am a minister, rather than a popish priest, I should be addressed as 'Reverend.' Or simply 'sir.' And we do not think of men here as sheep-nor do we see their spiritual leaders as all-powerful. Yet ministers are well respected for their wisdom and learning in this place. You do realize," Rowe went on with sudden suspicion, "there is no question of a Roman ma.s.s ever being said here in Ma.s.sachusetts?"

"But of course, reverend sir! Who would dare to pollute such ... such a grave and pure place?"

This time Rowe answered with a look of beatific mildness. But as another slight movement drew his attention, his expression changed once more.

"Madam, have you, too, examined this man's body?"

"I have looked at his face, Reverend. Since no one yet knows him, I thought it my duty."

"Duty! Something one hardly expects to hear from you, Mrs. Willett!"

Longfellow caught the preacher's eye, then gazed pointedly at the new slate roof of the stone manse behind them, which was a recent and expensive gift.

"But you are correct," Christian Rowe continued more cautiously, "in suggesting it is the duty of all to help our fellow creatures. Quite correct. Someone, somewhere, must be searching for this unfortunate, whose death, I am told, was an accident?" His challenging stare relaxed only when the preacher was sure he would receive no more unpleasant news from those who stood before him.

"Then I believe we are all agreed," Longfellow concluded, rubbing his hands. "It will be quite unnecessary for you to take more than the briefest look at the body, Reverend. I have some fear of possible contagion, as it is the height of summer, so rather than ask you to prepare him for burial I shall call for a physician, at the town's expense, who may do so. I plan to take the likeness of the corpse myself, so that they might ask in town who he was, for it seems he came here by way of the Boston road. Town House might hear a complaint that the man is missing, as you say. If not, there will be plenty of lodging houses to examine."

"Your friend Captain Montagu might be of some use in that."

"So he might! What a good idea, Reverend. I'll be sure to let him know you thought of it. Now we must be off, but I will return shortly with paper and pencil."

As the minister walked back to his parsonage, Richard Longfellow and his friends began to climb the long hill that rose to the east of the village. "A nice piece of flattery," he soon commented to Signore Lahte, who replied with a dubious smile.

"I have had much practice, in the service of others."

"You did warn us of your dramatic accomplishments. Here, however, they may be viewed as the mark of a wastrel and a truth-slayer if you are found out."

"Ah, yes. If ..." Lahte returned.

"I will be busy for a while. Settle yourself in my house with Cicero's help, and enjoy a siesta. I hope tonight you will delight us with more of your voice and show us your skill at the pianoforte. After that, perhaps we might take a closer look at the sky."

"The sky?"

"The telescope," Charlotte informed him, "is one of Mr. Longfellow's favorite hobbyhorses."

"And a far-reaching breed, capable of allowing us to fly into the astral realms-much like your splendid arias."

"Oh, yes," Il Colombo replied with a weariness that Mrs. Willett noted with increased sympathy. She had already wondered at Lahte's apparent desire to ingratiate himself with the Reverend Rowe. Now she asked herself if he felt he must pay for his supper and for the company of others. And might the man not tire of being eternally reminded of the singular difference that set him apart from the rest of his gender? These questions were soon joined in her mind by several others, as the trio moved quietly through the afternoon heat. Like small feathers, such unanswered questions had a way of tickling one that did not always turn out to be entirely pleasant.

TOO SOON FOR FLOWERS.

Also by Margaret Miles.

A WICKED WAY TO BURN.

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