Dark Millennium by Lorraine Balint (V.o.S.R.)

           

            Frank Black eased his car across the ramp leading from the Kittery Ferry.To his right, he saw a sign that read "Welcome to Maine.  You have just entered America's vacation land!"  Frank was becoming annoyed at this last phrase--- he'd seen it over and over again, the inane advertisement appended to the Maine License Plates he'd seen more and more of since he left Boston earlier that morning

and approached the Maine border. 

 

"Just what the Hell IS there to do in Maine, besides fish, hunt, and camp out, if you don't like any of them?" he wondered idly, as he reached for his map.  He pulled into a parking lot, scanned the map, and pondered his next move.

 

            He admitted to himself that considering trivial matters like the license plates was a mere distraction from the real reason he had come to Maine.  He checked the map index, and searched for the town of Fingus.  Microscopic dot on the map that it was, he found the inland town name easily.  Then, he forced himself to look up the place he was really headed, the place he had never heard of, but now felt compelled

to visit--- Collinsport.  The grid showed it to be in direct line from Fingus--- sixty miles apart, with Collinsport directly on the coast.

 

            Frank estimated the ride would take at least another three hours.  Why hadn't he taken a train, or even accepted the offer from--of all people!-- Barry Baldwin, who was a licensed pilot and co-owner of a small but comfortable Cessna?  "Christ, Frank," Baldwin had said, the day Frank had to apply for his leave of absence, "what's the deal with DRIVING almost 600 miles?  That'll take at least two days, especially for a mature fellow like yourself."  He'd said the last without particular emphasis, and even with a touch of friendly concern. 

 

Barry had grown to respect Frank a bit more since the Cass Downey case, and, in spite of his sometimes smarmy tendency to kiss up to Andy McClaren and the other directors, occasionally allowed himself to share Emma Hollis's anxiety for the enigmatic profiler.  Besides, these days, he seldom missed a chance to show off his plane. "I can fly you to the Bangor airport in an hour and a half!"

 

            "Thanks, Barry, but really... Emma already asked if I wouldn't rather take a train, even offered to buy the ticket for my birthday present, but I need time alone to think." 

 

            "Frank," Barry insisted, his voice deepening with genuine concern now, "you're alone as it is, except for your daughter, and thinking too much is what's caused a lot of your problems.  Whatever you're going to do in this--- what's it called again?  Collinsport--- You should just get up there, do it, and get back, PRONTO!"

 

            Frank smiled a thin line and shook his head "no".  "It's May, and the countryside's supposed to be beautiful in New England in the spring.  I plan on taking MANY rest stops to smell the flowers, I assure you!"

 

            Emma walked into Barry's cubicle as Frank was making this assertion. "If you want to smell flowers, then why not take Jordan with you?"

 

            "Family business she wouldn't understand," Frank said.  "Where I'm going, I doubt there will be children her age.  She'll be bored and begging to be sent back to Tom and Justine.  God, I owe them, and then some, for taking her all those times I had Bureau business that kept me late or sent me on trips.  Maybe next time, if there IS a next time... I have to check out the situation first."

 

            "Well, Frank, if you'd like, I can at least take her on outings, and to visit my

niece," Emma offered.  "That girl is ALSO a Backstreet Boys fiend like you wouldn't believe."  She smiled mischievously and rolled her eyes.

 

            "Thanks, Emma, I'll alert Tom and Justine.  Catherine's sister Dawn will be coming for a visit also, and she cares for Jordan, but she might not be so tolerant of the Boys, or N'SYNC, either."

 

            Before Frank left, he was approached by Barry, Emma, AND Andy. "You take good care of yourself up there," Andy wheezed.  "I know Maine doesn't have good connotations for you, on account of that Fingus business, but it's really great countryside up there.  Fishing season's just started too," he concluded, envy in his accordion voice.  Barry patted Frank's shoulder, and Emma embraced him tightly for at least a whole minute.

 

            "Be careful," she whispered in Frank's ear. "I have a funny feeling about this. Must be all the new things we've experienced since that--incident-- at your house.  At least when you came back to the Bureau I could keep an eye on you."

 

            "I'll be good, Emma," Frank said huskily.  "If anything happens, Jordan will be the first to sense it, I'm afraid, so you two keep an eye on EACH OTHER."

 

            The next afternoon, Frank was in Boston, to meet the woman who had set him on this journey with a mysterious phone call. 

 

            How well he remembered every nuance of that call, how he'd obsessed over every detail, on the long drive, the promised rest stops, while admiring the views from scenic lookouts, while eating bland fast food, while trying to sleep in his Boston motel room.

 

            When Frank's latest unlisted, unpublished number rang, he had instantly pressed Caller ID.  He knew it was a futile game, but sometimes the callers were careless.  On this occasion, he'd been successful--- he also recognized the Boston area code.  Who do I still know in Boston THESE days? he asked himself.  "Who is this?" Frank said shortly.

 

            "You are Franklin Black." A woman's voice, quiet yet insistent, soft yet with a slight depth that indicated middle age or older, speaking with perfect diction.  A voice Frank knew, or THOUGHT he knew.  A voice, moreover, that he believed he'd only get to hear on his dying day---his dead Mother's!  NO! It COULDN'T be.  Many older women sounded like that---

 

            "Who IS This!  How did you get this number!" Frank thundered in anger and fear.  Could this be Lucy Butler, calling from the bowels of Hell, sounding like his mother?  Thank God Jordan hadn't answered!

 

            "It was an emergency.  Life and death." the woman said calmly.  TOO calmly.

Life and death indeed!

 

            "NOBODY gets this number!"

 

            "Isn't it true that the restrictions expire after several months?  All I know is, I called, and they gave me the number."

 

            Frank glanced at his calendar.  Damn, what she said was true!  The time limit HAD elapsed.  So, while the number was still unlisted, any operator could give it out.  "WHO ARE YOU!"

 

            "Please don't shout, Franklin.  There is nothing to fear, except for myself.  The life and death I referred to is my own.  I am quite ill."  The caller paused, then announced, "My name is Sister Mary Innocent.  I am-- was the director of the St. Dymphna School for Girls in Fairbeach, Connecticut.  I'm calling from a hospital in Boston.  You can certainly have me checked out.  I DO understand your worries."

 

            "You can bet I WILL check, 'Sister'.  Now, what's this all about? And how did you know my real first name?"

 

            "Because I've known you for a long time, though you weren't aware of it.  Franklin, how much do you know about your mother's family?"

 

            "Are YOU a member of her family?"

 

            "Yes, I am.  Linda and I were cousins.  We grew up in a small town in Maine."

 

            "I've heard something of that," Frank admitted.  "But Mom seldom talked about it, and she died when I was just five.  After that, my Dad never talked about it either, even though he was from the Bangor area himself.  Why are you calling me now?"

 

            "Because...because, as I told you, I'm very ill.  In fact, I haven't much time left, and there are matters which must... MUST be settled before I pass.  I am sorry so much time has gone by, I'm sure Linda's boy became a fine man.  I've read of your FBI work in the papers.  Really, you ARE the only one who can help me in any case."

 

            Frank was becoming disarmed by the minute.  What was more, he knew it, and didn't care.  How much he'd wanted to connect with someone from his parents' past, someone who could help him KNOW his own mother and father even though they were both dead.  What a legacy to pass to his own daughter, if this woman was on the level! 

 

For a minute, he considered that this was another Millennium Group trick--- God, how well they knew the weaknesses of all in whom they took an interest, and exploited them!  Still, this "Sister Innocent" HAD invited him to investigate her.

 

            "Alright, alright, Sister, I'll consider helping you if I can, but now YOU have to give me some pertinent information.  The hospital you're in, your original given name..."

 

            Within an hour, Frank had accessed all the information he would need to start, including the nun's driver's license picture.  Of course, as befitted a modern day nun, she was depicted as wearing a subdued blouse and crucifix with no habit or headgear--- though the woman was listed as being age 76, there was a dark cloud of hair on her head.  Eyes, brown. Her nose was tiny, upturned, and she smiled rather sweetly for a driver's license "mug shot."   He wondered if she could possibly be as young-looking in person as she was depicted in the tiny photograph. 

 

Frank called the hospital, Mass. General, to confirm that she was a patient there.  Then he called Sister Innocent back directly, and promised he'd visit her as soon as possible.

 

            Frank hated having to tell Jordan that he had to go away, yet AGAIN. To be sure, she loved her maternal grandparents, the only ones she had left.  And his late wife Catherine's sister, Dawn, was due to arrive any day from her consulting job in California. 

 

Frank didn't like his former sister-in-law much; she had often criticized him and his work to Catherine.  As the conflict over Frank's divided loyalties to his family and the MG had grown, Dawn had edged in, irritating as a pebble lodged in a tight shoe. Still, she was Jordan's godmother, and genuinely fond of her niece.  Hopefully, Dawn and Emma would, between them, ease the elder Millers' burden of caring for the lively seven-year-old. 

 

"Your old dad won't be gone too long, anyway," Frank assured his daughter.  "Hardly worth pulling you out of school right now.  And when I come back, maybe we'll have some new family members we can visit together in the future."

 

            "I wish I could see them NOW." Jordan had pouted, and shook her froth of dark curls.

 

            "Honey, you know how I operate.  I HAVE to make sure they're the very best kind of relatives, so you'll be safe.  You can pick your friends, after all, but if it's family, you have to make the best of what you've been dealt.  I hope they have some nice kids your age."

 

            "And no 'bad men', right?"

 

            "I hope, no bad women, either."  He smiled at her tenderly.

 

            "I wonder if the new family has a yellow house."  Frank was surprised at this statement--- Jordan hadn't mentioned their former home in Seattle for some months.  He hoped this wasn't a set-back of some kind, after all he and his child had been through.

 

            Two days later, he had arrived at the extensive maze of large buildings that housed the Massachusetts hospital and its satellite services.  He walked down miles of corridor on the Oncology floor, until he came to the nun's small, private room.

 

            She was awake, and reading a newspaper.  When she looked up at him with a friendly, birdlike expression, Frank was astonished at how much she DID resemble the license photo--- in fact she looked even younger, save for her hair, which was all gone, due, apparently, to recent chemotherapy.  He took her hand; though her skin was soft, he could easily feel the bones.  In fact, she was terribly thin all over, indicating that she was, indeed, in the late stage of cancer.

 

            "Franklin," she whispered, overcome by emotion.  "Thank you for coming.  I won't waste a lot of time socializing, though I HAVE been lonely."

 

            "Don't any of your fellow nuns visit?" Frank asked, pity in his voice.

 

            "Well, they come up when they can, but we have a very active girls' school right now, so it's tough.  Plus, I miss the students as well, but we all agree, it's better not to have them travel such a distance to such a sad place in their conditions."

 

            "Conditions?" Frank was puzzled.  "I don't understand."

 

            "St, Dymphna's is a special live-in school for teenage unwed mothers," Sister Innocent, matter-of-factly.  "I thought you were going to investigate me."

 

            "Well, I was basically just making sure the place existed, and that you held the position you claimed.  I didn't really get into the school's purpose with the Fairbeach P.D."  Frank suppressed a smile, but Sister's wan cheeks dimpled.  "Didn't homes for 'wayward' girls go out with the Sixties, the Pill, welfare, and legalized abortion?"

 

            "Not entirely, but after some lean years, girls and their parents are once more realizing the value of such institutions.  Not just wealthy white girls with reputations to preserve, either.  We accept all races and religions, and provide for poorer girls who have nowhere else to go.  We introduce them to job skills as much as they're able to handle, and give them training for motherhood, as well as adoption advice.    I hope you don't mind my going on about it, but how I received my calling is directly related to the story I must tell you." 

 

She launched into it immediately, with brief pauses for sips of water, and closing her eyes for a few minutes at a time.

 

            "Best to begin at the beginning. As I told you, your mother and I were cousins.  But not ordinary cousins... In fact, there were few who knew we were related.  But that's what happens when one is---illegitimate."  For a moment, Sister sounded bitter.  "You think that is the entire reason for my vocation. Not all of it.  Linda was the niece of a wealthy, powerful man in our town---did you know that?"

 

            "No, but then there's a lot I don't know about Mother," Frank replied.  "She and my father lived a modest middle-class life, as far as I ever knew."

 

            "Linda's parents were Lathan Braithewaite and Nora Collins Braithewaite.  Nora was the younger sister of Jamison Collins, who, with his aunt Judith, ran the Collinsport Cannery and other businesses.  Now, it's all called 'Collinco International'.  Jamison was married to a lovely woman named Caroline, whom all admired.  But sometime after his daughter Elizabeth was born, he had an affair with the pretty younger sister of his butler, who was working on the family estate they called �Collinwood�, as a maid. I was one result.  My mother, Sheila Hanscombe�s death was the other result. 

 

�Jamison, to his credit, DID feel horribly guilty when my mother died, and vowed to provide me with every necessity and a good education.  The only condition was that I was to be raised outside the family estate. So I was sent to live with the Braithewaites, as a 'ward' I guess they called it.  I grew up with Linda� HER real name was Melinda, by the way-- who was a few years older, the same age as Elizabeth Collins.  Oh, yes, and soon after my departure, Jamison reconciled with his wife, and they had a son, named Roger. 

 

            "Still, I was allowed to accompany my guardians when they took Linda and their other children to visit the family home, 'Collinwood.'  I spent most of my time with my uncle Leonard, who was my father Jamison�s butler, but I also played with my half-sister and half-brother, though none of us was supposed to know about the relationship."  Sister smiled, and that dimple appeared in her wasted face again.

 

"Linda guessed first, which was confirmed by her parents, but she was ordered not to discuss it with the other children.  I suspect THEY were kept in the dark until adulthood, because they never said anything to me.  Linda would talk to me, as we were great friends, almost like real sisters." 

 

Sister sighed wistfully.  "Linda was special.  I don't know if you were old

enough to realize this, but she believed that angels watched over us, and told her things, like the fact that we were cousins."

 

            "Yes," Frank said sorrowfully.  "She had a gift.  She predicted her brother's death in WW2, and so many other things, it disturbed her mind.  One night, she told my father she KNEW she was going to die.  Over his protests, she went up to her room alone, a room filled with her drawings of angels, and--simply--died.  Of course, everyone suspected suicide, but the doctors couldn't find a cause of death.  And my father never got over it.  He lived in the same house, kept her things just as she'd left them--- for over 50 years!  What's more, I inherited some components of this trait, and my little daughter has it, even stronger.  It's not a gift designed to bring peace of mind."

 

            "I can imagine.  Many of the Collinses have a fey quality.  Nora's and Jamison's mother was said to be downright STRANGE--- she died in a fire when they were children.  They nearly died with her.  It's said she set the fire as part of some ritual... I don't know the details, Franklin, so I won't distress you further.  Back to my story.

 

            "So I grew up with Linda, attending the same private schools as herself and Elizabeth.  Now, it's so strange... My late mother, before she died, insisted that I be given her grandmother�s name, which happened to be the same name as Jamison's legitimate daughter�s.  To keep our identities distinct, Elizabeth was nicknamed 'Liz' and I was called 'Betty', Betty Hanscombe

 

�We had musical talent.  Linda and Liz played the piano, and I sang well, if I say so myself.  So well, my father decided to send me to Julliard in New York City.  Liz and Linda were jealous, but they were both going to Smith College, and then were supposed to wait for proper husbands to come along.  I guess it didn't matter as much whether I got a husband or not, and if I attained recognition for my talent, it would be a vindication of sorts for my secret father.

 

            "Liz excelled at business courses, and Linda was very much the liberal arts dilletante.  It was about this time that Linda first met your father Henry Black.  He was older, had been divorced, had two boys who lived with their remarried mother in Seattle, of all places.  Henry lived with his folks in Bangor until he could find a job that would take him to Seattle to be closer to his sons, who were quite young.  He had a friend working with him, a handsome but very naughty fellow named Paul Stoddard.  They came down to Collinwood one Christmas, when Linda and I were also visiting, and life was never the same after that.

 

 

            "I was just in my first year at Julliard when I encountered these two for the first time.  I liked Henry immediately--- he wasn't a handsome man in the usual sense, but he had a pleasant, comfortable expression, a warm manner about him, and he wasn�t upper crust, out of my reach...  I had the biggest crush on him, but he had it BAD for Linda, to her parents' dismay.  A divorced man with two kids, struggling to make ends meet, though he was already 30, was NOT what they had in mind for their dreamy daughter.

 

�Paul, on the other hand, flirted and followed ME, which bothered my serious half-sister Liz to no end.  I was very young and confused, let Paul hang around me until I had to go back to New York, but that was the extent of it.  He had Elizabeth right where he wanted her, then--- he had used me to get her jealous!

 

            "It was while I was in New York that I had a frantic phone call from Linda--- she had cleaned out her bank account, eloped with Henry, and was due to move to Seattle soon.  Her parents disinherited her then, but I believe she received some money on the sly, from both her mother and Liz.  You were born ten months later, to the DAY."

 

            Frank was amazed--- somehow he couldn't picture EITHER of his parents involved in such an impetuous romantic escapade!  Hard to think of Henry and Linda as YOUNG.  Well, that explained why his mother, who'd sprung from a wealthy background, had ended up an everyday housewife, if one who had seen angels.

 

            Sister continued, "It took a little longer for Paul to get Elizabeth.  You see, our father had investigated Paul, and didn't like what he'd found--- gambling debts, bad investments, low companions--- I don't mean your father of course, Henry was an ANGEL compared to a certain Jason McGuire, a boon companion of Paul's from Ireland, and quite full of Blarney when he wasn't scamming people. 

 

�In this period, though, there was a lot of confusion--- Liz's mother died of cancer, then Jamison died VERY suddenly, not to say SUSPICIOUSLY.  Liz was getting close to thirty herself, and refused to deny herself the object of her love and LUST.  I attended the wedding, as did Henry, Linda, and their own two small boys.  That was the first time I'd ever seen you and your little brother.  Such sweet little babies.  I was so envious.  Then, Linda left abruptly with the children.

 

�Henry was FURIOUS--- he'd wanted to take the boys to his parents in Bangor, but Linda told him that there was 'evil' in the air or something like that.  Apparently, there was a lot of trouble in their marriage, partly due to Linda's 'visions', and a terrible incident where you nearly drowned?"

 

            "My older half-brothers took me swimming with them in a nearby pond," Frank recounted.  "One of their friends pulled me under.  He let me go, of course, but my eldest brother was furious, and pulled HIM under.  He thought he'd released the boy in time, but apparently not.  The boy drowned, and my brother was sent to a reformatory until he was eighteen.  That was some years ahead, but when he got out, he disappeared from my father's life forever.  My father was bitter, because that's the ONLY misfortune my mother had failed to predict.  He didn't tell me this until our last visit before his death."  He paused.  "I think I can see where all this is leading to.�

 

            "You're right, Franklin.  I'm so sorry to have to tell you--- I wasn't sorry then, until--- but I'm getting ahead of myself.  Yes, I admit, I put myself in your father's sights that week.  It was PARTLY to protect myself from that Jason, and even Paul--- he and Liz had delayed their honeymoon until all the guests were gone and young Roger went back to school, so whenever Paul caught me alone, he'd start grabbing me... I guess his eager bride wasn't enough for him. 

 

�Henry intervened one day when it seemed BOTH of those-- those-- JERKS were 'hassling' me, as they say, nowadays.  I explained the situation to my Uncle Leonard, who was still the butler, and much respected, and he sent me back to the Brathewaites until I could go back to New York.  One day, when Lathan and Nora were out, and the servants had the afternoon off, Henry came to see me. 

 

�Franklin, I really was in love with him then.  As a woman who's since converted and given herself to the Lord, I know it was a terrible, wrongful thing to do... We just gave in to our lust, and Henry's frustration with your mother, and my confusion and rudderless feeling I'd had since he'd run off with Linda, and my real father's recent death, and the threats from Paul and Jason... I wanted to think that Henry loved me too, though two days later, he was on a train, bound for Seattle..."

 

            Sister Innocent (how ironic that name turned out to be!) had started sobbing during this portion of the sorry tale.  Frank, naturally, didn't WANT to feel sorry for her, she who had betrayed her own cousin who had been good to her, who had undoubtedly poisoned what was left of his parents' marriage, might well have been a factor in Linda's possible suicide...

 

Instead, Frank, who had seen and known so much of the greatest evils, understood ordinary lapses in humanity, and took pity on the skeletal little woman who HAD given up those sins to become a nun, and to take care of other girls who were also suffering for their folly.  He sat on the former Betty Hanscombe's bed, and held his cousin gently until her sobs subsided. "I can guess what happened next," he said quietly.  "You became pregnant."

 

            "Yes," she sighed, relaxing, the secret told at last.  "When I returned to New York. I was attending classes, and felt quite sick.  I don't know why I'd let-- I'd let--- after what had happened to my mother, but I guess stupidity CAN be hereditary.  What made it worse was that SHE had died, so I feared that I would also die...

 

�I went looking for an abortionist, and instead, found Jason McGuire... He said that he would handle everything, funnel extra cash my way, if I helped him with a scam or two... I failed badly, and was ready to call Henry, my Uncle Leonard, ANYBODY--- But I was afraid of what Linda would say, what my uncle would say, what LIZ would say. 

 

            "I worked up the nerve to call the Braithewaites, but the first words out of their mouths were that Linda had died on Christmas night.  I said no more, and didn't come home for the memorial service.  I was 7 months along, living on what was left of my trust from Jamison.  I was out of Julliard, singing and waiting tables in a tavern until the boss said my big stomach was driving away the customers. 

 

�I gave birth in a charity ward, to a pretty dark-haired baby girl I named

Victoria.  I don't know why I chose such a fanciful name, but she was just so quiet and well-behaved from the beginning, she was my little princess... Within two weeks, I was up and scrounging for work again, but it was hard to find someone to watch such a new baby, and I hated to leave her... Nobody would hire me. 

 

�Again, I thought, call someone from home.  Not Henry... I knew he must have felt as bad as my father did, so long ago.  My Uncle Leonard... I wanted to call him, but facing him with another inconvenient infant in his lifetime was too much... Finally, all but a few dollars was gone.  I had lost my room, and it was a matter of time before the authorities took Victoria away from me anyway. 

 

�I wasn't thinking straight--- I just saw the orphanage, like a magical vision.  There were children in the play-yard, they all looked clean and well-cared-for--- it was by no means a Dickensian snakepit.  So I grabbed a clothesbasket, scribbled a note stating my baby's name, wrapped her up well--- it was early March, and still wintery, put her on the doorstep, rang the doorbell, and ran down to the corner, watching... 

 

            "The minute the door opened, I regretted my decision.  I wished I could have swooped my baby back into my arms, but they'd have never let me take her.  Day and night, after, I was terrified that she would be adopted, and I'd never see her again.  I lived in a charity mission then, cooking for the other homeless, and finally, decided the only way to keep Victoria in my sight was to tell my half-sister.  I was afraid I'd freeze up if I called, or that I'd have to deal with Paul or even my uncle.  So I wrote a letter to Collinwood, figuring, naively I know now, that a sealed envelope would be respected in that house.

 

            "Months went by... no answer.  So I finally called.  JASON answered, of all people!  I dared not speak, and he hung up with a curse.  I finally realized what had probably happened to my letter.  I rushed to the orphanage, and looked through the play-yard bars, as I often did.  An attendant, surrounded by a few little girls, had brought my Victoria outside, as they always did on fine days.  I felt so foolish--- if Jason had my letter all this time, my baby would have vanished from the orphanage long ago.  If HE didn't intercept it, then who had it? Why hadn't the person answered me?

 

"It was then I fell very ill.  I was sick for weeks.  The charity home sent me to yet another charity ward.  Then when I finally came out of it, my UNCLE was sitting at my bedside!  I was too weak to question how he'd found me, though I guessed it had to do with the letter.  He explained that Paul Stoddard had left Liz, soon followed by Jason McGuire, but that Liz, for some unfathomable reason, had sacked all the household help, save for a cantankerous roustabout named Matthew Morgan.

 

�Before dismissing Uncle Leonard, she'd called him in to show him my old letter, which had apparently been in PAUL'S possession all this time, and found after his departure.  Liz was terribly angry--- you see, I had deliberately left out the name of my baby's father, hoping to see her and discuss it in private.  My uncle got the impression that she thought PAUL was Victoria's father!  Of course I denied it, but couldn't bring myself to say it was Henry.

 

� 'So it must be that Jason, then,' he said sadly, but I said no to that, also.  A soldier on leave who promised to marry me, but died in action, that was my lame excuse. 

 

            " 'Well, Mrs. Stoddard settled  a good deal of money on us anyway, seeing you're her cousin and all,' Uncle Leonard said.  'She also said she'd look after the baby, though she can barely cope with little Carolyn'---her daughter with Paul---'on her own.' 

 

�But when I said I would get the baby back with the money, he said no.  The authorities would deny me custody, after having abandoned the child.  Plus, taking that baby in might force Liz to live normally again, and Victoria would benefit financially.  I admitted he was right, and began a long, difficult life of leaving my baby behind.  I told Uncle Leonard to tell the Collinwood folks I had died.  Several years later, HE died, and I guess the Collinses forgot us. 

 

�I had stopped visiting the orphanage.  I figured that Liz had taken Victoria already, and I didn�t want to feel that crushing pain of seeing all the children come to the play yard, realizing my daughter would not be there.   I WAS a fool, yet again� If only I had known---!  Oh, I�m getting ahead, again.

 

�I took the money and used it for night school.  I figured I might as well become a secretary or a nurse.  I had no more heart for singing, and with this secret, wished to stay out of the public eye.  It WAS still the 1940s, after all.  The local college held satellite classes in a Catholic high School.  Holy Innocents, it was called.�

 

Frank said, �From which you later chose your name as a nun.�

 

Sister smiled wistfully.  �Yes, because that�s where I was �born again�, in a way.  Not one of those extravagant conversions, though.  It was a quiet rebirth.  I had never admired nuns before--- we were very �WASP� back in Maine, though of course it was once a French colony and still had many descendants of the French settlers, and a lot of interaction with Canada.

 

�But in this school, were some teachers who saw my distress when I encountered some of the young MARRIED mothers who were attending the classes, when their husbands brought their children to drop them off or pick them up.  I had not brought up my marital status or the fact of my unwed motherhood, for obvious reasons.  But one day, I saw a little girl who resembled my Victoria, and I crumbled under a statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus., pleading for help.�

 

Frank commented, �Now, that IS dramatic.�

 

Sister shook her head.  �I assure you, I was really pretty quiet, but one nun, Sister Maria Clara, saw my tears, and brought me into the teacher�s coffee room, and called a Father Rondini.  He was very kind, they both were, and I unburdened myself finally.  I added that I felt I could never have another relationship with a man with my history, that I still missed my child and her father too much� But I wanted some purpose in life. 

 

�They didn�t push anything on me, just encouraged me to keep studying until I found my calling, and to attend ANY kind of church, to keep my faith somehow.   Perhaps, like other women in my situation, I would even eventually find a kind church-going gentleman who would accept and love me, who would marry me and give me more children before it was too late, taking away the sting of what had happened with Henry and Victoria.

 

            �In a way, that IS what happened� I took their advice.  I passed all the nursing and secretarial classes, indeed, that filled most of my nights.  I had my pick of positions in hospitals and offices.  I met other men, and even dated a few--- but chastely!  Nothing clicked, but I wasn�t sad or regretful about it.  Then after trying many churches, I made full conversion to Roman Catholicism in the Holy Innocent parish church.  That was in 1950. 

 

�Five years later, I simply realized my calling to be a nun, perhaps to serve God by helping other young women with similar problems.  My nursing and other credentials and degrees were of great help when I was placed at an array of children�s homes, and finally, in 1966, at St. Dymphna�s.  I found my true scope in caring for other unwed mothers, though I was proscribed from revealing my own early heartbreak to them. 

 

�In spite of that, though, I did my best to help the young women make many difficult but ultimately rewarding decisions about theirs and their babies� futures.     I rejoiced with them if they were able to keep their babies.  I cried with them when they made the choice to give them up, or complications arose which caused stillbirths or deformities.  I have held many babies, some of whom resembled my own lost baby, without breaking down. 

 

�I believed the hardest days were behind me.  I had long ago lost any contact with the Collinsport people.  My Sisters working in the Home and the girls and young women, with their babies, were my family. I thought every day about my daughter, but it was a vague memory, as I had never seen her, or heard about her, since she was two or three.  I wanted to believe that God was caring for my Victoria as He cared for my Sisters and daughters in the Spirit.  That she had grown up like her cousin Carolyn, Elizabeth�s daughter, whom I did read about occasionally, and was quietly in society back in Maine, such as it was.

 

�Then, the truth struck with savage force.  In the late 1970s, the business of the Home, as you observed earlier, did decline due to social changes.  We acted in concert with several other institutions in the Tri-state area.  By then I was a nurse practitioner, and for a few years was sent driving about to various places to check throats, give shots, and other basic care.  My perambulations brought me to New York City, to Hammond�s Foundling Home--- the very place I had left Victoria in that long-ago winter!

 

�Once again, I had an emotional reaction that was difficult to conceal, though I �knew� Victoria had not been there for thirty years!  I DID calm myself, but the manager of Hammonds, a Mrs. Hopewell, looked at me like she knew me!  If it had been a few years earlier, that might not have happened, because of course our order used to wear full habits with veils, but by then we were in more civilian outfits with very short veils and our hair showing.

 

�Mrs. Hopewell asked if I had relatives in the city, as I bore a striking resemblance to two young women--- one, a sad girl who sometimes used to watch the children at the playground in the 1940s, who later disappeared, and the other, an orphan who had grown up in the place, and did not leave until she was twenty, to work for a rich family in Maine! 

 

�As the years went by,  Mrs. Hopewell had come to believe that the lonely young woman was the mother of the girl, whose name was most unusual.  Victoria!  But she insisted that the mother, even though she could no longer visit, MUST still have had an interest in her child� Because every month after her disappearance, forty dollars in cash was sent to the orphanage on behalf of Victoria, who, due to never having been adopted or claimed, had been given the surname �Winters� to commemorate the cold day in March 1946, when she was left on their doorstep.

 

�At that point, I grabbed this nice older lady by the shoulders and choked out my deep, dark secret that only one nun and a couple of priests had heard.  I confirmed it by reciting the exact words of the note I had left, describing Victoria�s appearance and clothing , her birthmarks--- even the basket.  And insisted that if I HAD forty dollars a month to give, I would never have left my darling baby, or  I would have tried to get her back.  She said she wished I had, as Victoria, while a sweet and intelligent girl, had felt out of place with no adoption and no real name.  I was sick to learn that the money that had bought me off COULD have been used to get custody after all! 

 

�Even before Mrs. Hopewell told me that the forty dollars a month was sent anonymously from Bangor, Maine, I suspected that this was Elizabeth�s way of dealing with the situation of the child she believed to be her husband�s with her slutty half-sister, ME.  This was confirmed when she told me that Victoria had left the orphanage in 1966 to work as a governess for Mrs. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard and her brother Roger Collins, looking after Roger�s son David, who was nine at the time.  They hadn�t wanted to raise her as a Collins, but wanted her to work for them!

 

�I must have been a pathetic sight, a respectable nun, begging this orphanage matron to tell me if she still heard from Victoria, who had, apparently, been a favorite of hers.  Sadly, she told me that she used to get letters and calls regularly until 1969, and then it was as though Victoria dropped from the face of the earth!  She had made inquiries, of course, but all they�d tell her was that Victoria had married some fellow named Jeff Clark, and never returned.  Never.  Never a call, never a card, never a mention in a paper.  I still keep in touch with Hammond�s--- they call it Hammonds Family Services now--- and they haven�t had an e-mail, either.

 

�Mrs. Hopewell was kind enough to give me all the letters and other papers and pictures she�d saved of Victoria.  I got to know my daughter at second hand!  Oh, Franklin� If only I hadn�t stayed away from the orphanage so long ago, if only I had dared to visit Maine at some point before 1969.  I should have had at least a chance to meet her.  Perhaps you and your brothers--- your FATHER--- could have known her too!  By all accounts, she was a wonderful young lady.�

 

Now. Sister Mary Innocent, who had once been a heartbroken unwed mother named Betty Hanscombe, wept openly, the wound opening afresh.

 

Frank didn�t know quite what to say, though he was moved by her tears and again held her.  The nun pulled the drawer of her bedside table open, and extracted a large envelope.  Frank took it, and opened it to look at the faded black and white photos, the lurid old Kodachromes.

 

Victoria �Winters� Clark had been slender, with long dark hair, almost black.  She had large dark eyes and a pert nose, like her mother.  Frank could not see any indicators of Henry Black�s DNA, or his own, but there was something about the pretty girl in the 1960s sleeveless miniskirt that reminded him of his own mother, Linda--- Melinda Braithewaite Black, who of course had been her cousin.   Frank�s younger brother, Tom, did resemble their mother more than Frank.  This Victoria did look a bit like Tom, he supposed.  And the dark cloud of hair--- it resembled his daughter Jordan�s lavish wild mane.

 

�Sister, what do you want me to do?� Frank asked, trying to control an emotion of loss welling up inside him.  �This---my�sister�has been missing for thirty years.  You found out about it, when, twenty years ago?  Why didn�t you get in touch with me when you first found out?  I swear I wouldn�t have passed judgment, but I have to tell you, if you wanted me to find her, even then it might have been too late.�

 

Sister Innocent, now completely unburdened, fell back exhausted on her pillows.  �Franklin, I DID try to find her myself, once I knew.  Mrs. Hopewell--- a good woman, dead now these five years--- and I joined our resources.  We hired good detectives.  If Victoria was to be found, they WOULD have found her.  But the road ended right in Collinsport, maybe even Collinwood itself.  We found out that the man known as �Jeff Clark� had been released from an asylum for the criminally insane.   He was confined there because he was found wandering around with a noose in an area where several girls had been strangled. 

 

�Nothing was proven, but later he went to work for a Dr. Lang, and there were rumors that he dug up graves!  That doctor later ended up dead under suspicious circumstances.  Victoria apparently met Jeff when she was driving one of the Collinses somewhere and ran into a tree rather than hit him!  There was a lot of trouble with some other woman, an old girlfriend of this Jeff�s it seems, who ended up dead, and the young couple just vanished soon after their wedding.  The details are in there with the pictures and letters.�

 

�So you basically want me to find her body and her killer,� Frank said on a sigh, �thirty years after the fact.  If this Clark DID kill Victoria, he could well be dead himself by now.�

 

�Franklin�  I know perfectly well this sounds like the delusion of a dying woman who wants some kind of closure if not a reunion before the end.  And you�re probably right.  But there is this� in a weird way, I do not believe my daughter is dead.  There is a veil, Franklin�. A veil between this world and� The next world, or perhaps another dimension.  I�m a Collins like your poor mother, I grew up in and around Collinsport and Collinwood, and we heard many such stories of hauntings, time travel, even a vortex��

 

Frank shook his head.  �Sister, I do believe in some spiritual things, not exactly like my mother, of course��

 

�You say you have visions, and your daughter as well.�

 

�But what I see�. Is inevitably tragic.  I see death.  I see murder.  I see what the killer sees� My gift and my curse.  My daughter, perhaps, might have been some help in the spiritual realm, but she�s only eight years old.  She has been threatened by evil forces before, so she can NOT be involved in this.  Even if the killer is already deceased.  I can�t penetrate that barrier, and she must not� Until she�s mature and able to handle the dangers. 

 

�I fear as the new Millennium and the destiny of humanity reaches some conclusion in 2012, that Jordan WILL be tested and tried--- but until then, she must have some semblance of a normal life, and that also means the dead--- even her mother, even this new aunt of hers--- must stay dead.�

 

�Franklin, what would your father want?�

 

�Sister, I don�t know� He didn�t try to find you after Mother died, and he didn�t want to deal with his older son--- he was good at avoiding what bothered him.  I can�t say he was a warm father at all to the children he knew he had, so an illegitimate daughter probably would have alienated him.  However�  I have had the same kinds of losses, even worse because I realize some of them were brought about by large, unseen forces of evil and domination.  Something in me still rebels, even though I KNOW the fight is futile. 

 

�I think about the loss of my wife Catherine and friend Lara, who both gave up their lives to save Jordan� My friend Bletch� The betrayal of my other friend Peter� My fellow agents Emma and Barry, who fight along with me� And now I have found and lost a sister, all in one hour.  I can�t explain WHY I�m going to help you, even though it�s probably going to be a failure, except that NOT doing so WILL bother me for the rest of my life, even if it�s just for the sake of the mystery.  EVERYONE on this earth deserves an answer, even if it hurts like Hell.�

 

Sister Innocent said, �Franklin� What could hurt worse than losing one�s family and one�s faith?  Physical pain is terrible, I KNOW that already, but the other pains have been going on for fifty-three years.  Take those away, and God will help me to deal with what�s left.�

 

 

 

House of Dark Shadows sequel--- Journey Into the Night of Dark Shadows

 

After Maggie Evans was released from the hospital,  Jeff Clark, who had proposed to her in the emergency room and was now her official fiance, wanted to whisk her right away to Boston, where a couple of his paintings had been sold at the Evanston gallery, commanding good prices.  Plus, he had been approached about opening a studio with some fellow artists in different media, accepting commissions, and even giving art lessons.  That the late, loathsome vampire, Barnabas Collins, had arranged Jeff's original trip to the gallery as a means of getting him out of town so he could court and, hopefully, wed Maggie, was the supreme irony.  Instead of getting rid of Jeff, Barnabas had inadvertantly provided the means by which the young artist could begin married life with the reincarnation of the former's own lost betrothed, Josette.

 

However, Maggie demurred from Jeff's eager, even anxious, intentions; she would happily leave Collinsport and elope to Boston, as soon as the question of David Collins's future was settled.  This involved waiting on the improvement of the condition of his aunt Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, who still drifted in and out of a catatonic state caused by the multiple shocks of the horrible deaths of her only child Carolyn, her only brother Roger (David's father), her friends Professor Elliot Stokes and Dr. Julia Hoffman, and the near-murders of her former secretary Daphne Budd, Carolyn's fiance Todd Jennings, and Maggie herself. 

 

That which most held back Elizabeth's recovery, and and re-assertion of her gentle-but-firm command of  both her household and business affairs, was her guilty belief that the entire catastrophe was the result of her too-ready acceptance of Barnabas Collins, who had presented himself as a long-lost cousin from England.  If only she had questioned his extremely strong resemblance to a centuries-old family portrait, or HIS tendency to identify current family members, including herself, with other people who had lived in the same era. 

 

If only she'd had his background checked, or listened to Elliot's warnings about Barnabas's strange behavior--- diappearing during the day and present only after sundown, his insistence on living in a derelict old family home with no utilities, and his treatment of wretched Willie Loomis, who HAD inadvertantly set Barnabas loose from the mausoleum, but who ALSO, in the end, had tried to save Carolyn, and gave his life to rescue Maggie.... These thoughts tortured and immobilized Elizabeth for several months.

 

In the meantime, Maggie patiently kept giving lessons as usual to the now-orphaned David (his mother had perished in a fire when he was eleven, almost three years previously), and assisting the now-recovered Daphne and Todd when they came to help manage Collinwood and the Collins businesses.  David had become attached to Todd, especially; they had in common their great grief over Carolyn. 

 

But Todd, still a rising executive in the Collins enterprises despite his recent misfortunes, also kept the boy distracted by showing him around the company that David would eventually inherit. And, almost inevitably, Todd's daily exposure to quiet, pretty, and dutiful Daphne, a fellow victim, led them into a slow-growing relationship, which eased their bad memories somewhat.

 

Finally, a confluence of events led to great changes at Collinwood, which would rock all concerned.  First, Elizabeth's mind cleared--- up to a point.  She still had interludes when she would lose herself in her unbearably sad thoughts, but she COULD be broken from their grip by necessity.  Her faithful retainers could now consult her about crucial business decisions.  More importantly, from her point of view, she had set about resolving her most pressing family problem--- what to do about David, who was still loved and cared-for by the now-tightly-knit Collinwood survivors, but had been an unhappy youth even BEFORE the Barnabas debacle.  (Maggie had once confided to Elizabeth that, as a grisly April Fool's joke, just before Barnabas came along, David had, very realistically, simulated hanging himself from the rack in her closet!)

 

Elizabeth executed the first of the changes.  She made one of her now-rare forays into the estate office, and asked Daphne to find Maggie.  When the governess arrived, the secretary was tactfully sent for an extra-long coffee break.   "Maggie,"  Elizabeth began, "How long have you and Jeff been engaged?  Since last year?  It seems quite a long spell, but I've lost track of time...."

 

"About 6 months now," the younger woman replied.  "Really, not that long, compared to some engagements.  We WERE discussing a late-summer wedding, very private and quick, but if you or David aren't ready, we can certainly----"

 

"No, DON'T put it off any longer," Elizabeth said.  "I am extremely grateful for your consideration, and so is David, I'm sure, but you and Jeff  deserve to begin living your own lives away from this unhappy place, after all you've been through.  Besides, David is already of high-school age, and one must think of his college preparation.  You've been absolutely STERLING during those difficult years since his mother passed on, and now his--- his father, but he needs the stimulation of his peer group and learning the skills he will need in the company.  I will be sending him to Choate, which my late... brother attended, rest his soul."

 

"I suppose it would have come to this, even without all our.... problems,"  Maggie allowed.  "Still, now, mind you, Elizabeth, it's not that I'm trying to keep my job--- I'm sure I could find a teaching position in Boston, until Jeff and I start a family--- but I AM worried about you.  You will be so alone in this isolated place."  The governess reached out for Elizabeth's hand; the older woman gratefully returned the clasp. 

 

"Perhaps Jeff could commute to Boston, or open a studio in Bangor, and I could come up here from our home, assist Daphne, keep you company, tutor David when he's on his summer vacation---  In spite of some of our differences, I DO care about HIM, and I believe he DOES care for ME.  I don't know how I could go on, not knowing how you two are doing every day."

 

"Ah, Maggie, Maggie,"  Elizabeth sighed, now embracing the petite governess, "You are a treasure.  I don't know if what I feel for you is motherly, exactly---"  Now, tears came to her eyes "--- But you HAVE been SUCH a comfort."

 

The younger woman replied, "It's hard to believe that less than a year ago, things had come to such a pass with David and his father, that I was ready to leave then !   But maybe, if I had--- Willie wouldn't have---" She choked back a sob--- "Maybe Willie wouldn't have been so tempted to go looking for buried treasure.  He wanted ME to share in it, you know, then went ahead in his bull-headed way even when I refused.  Perhaps if I had been a bit more tolerant, I could have talked him out if it.  Or if not, if I wasn't around, Barnabas would have gone away, or been caught sooner, or even CURED, before he did worse to poor Carolyn and everyone else."  Maggie bent her head, as if in shame.

 

Elizabeth cupped Maggie's pointed chin in her warm palm, and said with wavering firmness, "NONSENSE, DON'T do what I'VE been doing these last six months.  PLEASE, don't blame yourself, and I will make greater effort not to blame MYSELF.  You'll be paralyzed, as I have been paralyzed.... Now you see why you MUST move away.  I will miss you too, but we will always have the phone, and letters, and of course you and Jeff will always be welcome to visit---- it would be lovely to see your children.... I should have liked grandchildren... "  Now she wept. 

 

Maggie ran for tissues and a glass of water to accompany Elizabeth's medication, but, to her surprise,  the older woman had already collected herself, though she was shaking.   "Yes, I will always miss having grandchildren.  But there will be your children, and perhaps I will live to see David's.  There might even be Daphne's---- she and Todd seem to be getting closer."

 

"How do you feel about that, Elizabeth?  I know how much you wanted him and Carolyn--- Sorry---"

 

"I am trying to maintain the same positive atttitude that I have about you and Jeff, dear.  Todd's still a fine man, and a fine employee, and I wish to retain him, and see him advance.  Daphne, likewise, has always been a fine secretary, and a very nice girl who had a bad time.  In fact, if things hadn't gotten--- out of hand, and Todd  had married my daughter, I might have tried to have Daphne introduced to some other nice young men in the company.  It still might not work out, but they, too, deserve to find happiness after the terrible.... horrible...." 

 

Now Maggie learned Elizabeth's method of calming herself.  The older woman drew a huge breath through her nose, and expelled it very slowly and thoroughly.  "I find this works almost a well as the happy pills when bad thoughts try to take me over.  That's a yoga trick, I believe.  Anyway, the future must take care of itself.  My time is passing--- too many dear ones gone--- but I will do what I can to help all of YOUR futures.  I'd like to start by discussing your severance pay, and the Christmas bonus I'm SURE I owe you, and how I can help with your wedding plans---" 

 

The next great change took place the very next day.  Sarah Johnson had been moping around for a week, unsure of how to bring up a subject that was sure to be sore, now that Maggie Evans was preparing to leave Collinwood.  After twenty-seven years of service to the Collinses, it was time for her to take care of what was left of her OWN family---- Sarah's sister Hannah had called to tell her that their elderly mother had been diagnosed with something called "Alzheimer's Disease" and was getting harder and harder to care for alone.  "The doc says, otherwise, she'll probably live another ten years, but if I don't get some help, Sis, I'LL be long gone before then."

 

"I don't know, Han, things are only just settling down around here, after all those awful murders and whatnot."  Sarah shuddered at her last memory of Carolyn Stoddard, gracefully slumped in the foyer in her pink "Josephine" gown, blood running down her white neck and shoulder, her eyes glazed, DEAD.... Nobody wanted out of her situation more than SHE did, but----

 

 "I'm not sure Mrs. S. is up to looking for another 'domestic manager' as she so elegantly puts it, and to make it worse, David's governess is going soon.  If I ask Mrs. S. nicely, she might advance me a bit more and I could forward it to you, so's you could find a nice 'home' for Mom, or a nurse, until I'm free---"

 

"But that's just IT, Sarah.  Mom's driven off the last half-dozen nurses and 'health aides' I hired.  She WON'T go to a home, not like we have any good ones around here anyway.  Maybe if she gets SO bad that she doesn't know the difference, but like I said---- I'm not sure I can last till then.  After all, my husband's been dead almost as long as yours, and my kids live out of state.  THEY'RE not coming back here to relieve me, so it's all on us."

 

"Okay, okay, Hannah, hang in there a little bit longer, I'll SEE what I can do."  Now, Sarah was dusting the busts of Generals Lafayette and Washington which stood in the front hallway, and thinking over her problem, when the doorbell chimed.  She glanced through the glass doors of the foyer, but the ancient panes gave a distorted view of the vaguely female figure on the porch outside.  "Darn, I hope it isn't another one of those reporters for the 'Star', doing another one of their stupid articles about 'Collinwood--- After the Tragedy' for the Women's pages." 

 

Sarah darted to the door, sharp words at the ready, but when she got a good look at the elegantly-dressed, red-haired woman before her,  she dropped her feather duster.  "My God, Carlotta Drake !" she exclaimed, "I haven't seen you in--- let me think, at least ten years.  Since that day you took up for that  misbegotten nephew of yours when he chased poor young Carolyn out of that tower room !  Like you two OWNED it, instead of Mrs. Stoddard.  And nothing up there but some old art supplies, anyway."

 

The woman on the doorstep appeared nonplussed at Sarah's shrill, FAR from friendly greeting.  Her own voice in reply was husky, but calm and smooth as silk.  "Why, Sarah Johnson, I'm SHOCKED that would be the first thing you would say to me after all this time.  Remember when we were once such good friends---- When you first came to work here, and I was the one who showed you the ropes, so to speak!"  Carlotta put on an injured expression, and batted her heavily-mascaraed eyes at Sarah. 

 

Sarah relaxed.  "Ye-e-es, I guess I have to admit, you WERE born here, just like Mrs. Stoddard and the rest, and having two hundred years' worth of ancestors as Collins workers gave you a bit of an edge.  But still, Carlotta--- now wait a minute, I shouldn't be keeping you outside like this !  Come on in, and we'll have a 'cuppa', like your mother, rest her soul, used to say.  I'm not too busy these days, since, to be plain, there just aren't too many folks living here anymore."  Her eyes filled with tears as she led Carlotta down the servants' stairs, into the great kitchen.

 

"Yes, yes, I heard all about that, even where I was living, in Augusta," Carlotta answered soothingly. "You poor thing, you must have been the rock of the family, Sarah--- Those of our standing have always been such for our so-called 'betters'."

 

"Now, that's unfair, Carlotta," Sarah replied as she set up a pot of coffee. "You still like it strong?"  The other woman nodded, and the housekeeper went on, "Poor Mrs. Stoddard, losing her only baby like that--- I FOUND Carolyn,  it was the absolute WORST I've ever seen----AND her only brother.... Now, there's just David left on THIS side of the family.  He's going to need strong shoulders to run the business someday, and and take the pressure off his poor Aunt."

 

Carlotta was gazing around the large, whitewashed kitchen that she remembered so well, and said, almost to herself, "There IS more family, that I remember.  Descendants of Jeremiah Collins, who was the brother of Joshua, the direct male ancestor of this branch.  But a grand-daughter of Jeremiah's married a grandson of Joshua's, and they had a few children who scattered around the country, only one of which continued to live here.  This son was the ancestor of Mrs. Stoddard and David, but there ARE more relatives, not all that distant.  Except for the ones who went back to England and lost touch with Collinwood--- until last year, alas."

 

"Yes, you WOULD know all that, I recall how you'd always take your breaks, with your nose stuck in one of the family histories from the library upstairs,"  Sarah said. "I guess Mrs. Stoddard still writes to a few of the other Collinses, but that Barnabas from England WAS a nasty surprise, I must say.  The closest of the American cousins happens to be a friend of the governess's intended, Mr. Clark, because they're both artists.  They ran around together a few years ago when Mr. Clark was studying art in Paris. 

 

�That Collins, Quentin, still lives there.  I guess he does all right, selling wacky-looking paintings--- he gave one to Mrs. Stoddard.  But of course he has a trust fund to fall back on, though for a while he tried to get along without it.  Had to play the 'starving artist' as I recall, but proud as any Collins peacock !!"

 

"Quentin, Quentin,"  Carlotta mused.  "I know where he fits in on the family tree, but I don't recall his ever visiting here, even as a child."

 

"He never did.  The whole family, ME, and the governess, Maggie, met him when we toured France a few years back.  That's when Maggie met Mr. Clark, and  Mr. Collins gave Mrs. S. the picture.  She and her daughter both liked him--- before Carolyn got tied up with Mr. Jennings, I think Mrs. S. was hoping they'd end up together, you know, keeping it all in the family."  Sarah smiled wistfully.  "Anyway, since he'd be the nearest heir after David, Mrs. Stoddard has been clamoring for him to visit here. I wish he would, she's awful lonely, and now, Maggie is leaving, and to tell the truth, Carlotta, I may have to.  MY mother's still around, and she needs both me and my sister."

 

"Oh, that's too bad,"  the red-haired woman said.  "I KNOW you've ALL had a dreadful time --- ah, poor dear Carolyn, except for that one incident, I remember what a sweet young girl she was.  Gerard DID like her--- she wasn't mean to him like so many other children and even adults were.  People can be SO cruel to someone who's shall we say, 'special'.  It was his birth, you know--- my poor dear sister, who had been beaten by her husband through most of her marriage and pregnancy.... She was never 'right', even after he left her, and drowned on that lobster boat, and then she died after that ghastly childbirth.  No wonder Gerard had problems."

 

"Yes, I suppose so,"  Sarah said, though she left UNSAID what she thought of Carlotta's calling her nephew "special".  "I'm sure the whole misunderstanding could have been cleared up, but Mr. Collins got mixed up in it, and he always had a way of flying off the handle at the help."  She remembered how Roger had dismissed Willie Loomis, and how it had indirectly led to the catastrophe.  "Mrs. Stoddard was still too broken up over just having lost Mr. Stoddard at the time.  I kind of don't blame you for taking up for your nephew, Carlotta, family's family, but stalking out like you two did, without notice---"

 

"I was hurt for both Gerard and myself,"  Carlotta protested, "and Mother was already gone a year by then, so I felt I had nobody to turn to.  Besides, even I thought, perhaps it was time to break away from this place for a while. It's a wonderful house, but so full of ghosts and memories, I confess even I felt closed in sometimes."

 

Sarah observed the flowing dress her guest wore, a silken symphony of printed hibiscus.  "Well, you look like you did all right for yourself, Carlotta.  You always had style, even when you wore the black and white,"  she joked, pointing to her own black uniform topped by a plain white apron.  "You were smart, too.  What'd you DO these last ten years, and by the way, where's Gerard?  He grew up okay?"

 

"Well, he will NEVER be, completely---- I had him tested, and while he's quite competent at many manual chores, his mental level hovers around, maybe, twelve years old.  But he learned to read and figure simple things, got a driving license, maintained our home, and worked around the dress shop I owned in Augusta.  I bought it when I received Mrs. Stoddard's generous severance check."

 

"Ah-hah, that's where you got the great wardrobe."

 

"Yes, but I recently sold the business.  I had a great urge to come back, maybe to open another shop, unless that Brewster's is still around."

 

"It IS, but you could try the nearby towns, Logansport, maybe.  Ellsworth's even bigger, they might have room for one more clothing store.  Or you could open a souvenir place.  We get a lot of tourists, come summer.  They even end up HERE, you'd think this was, oh, a national park or something.  Especially after what happened last year--- it was tough chasing the nosey ones away, without all the help we used to have."

 

"Well, too bad you don't have Gerard here.  HE would guard this place against--- interlopers."  Carlotta grew pensive, and fingered an antique heart-shaped gold locket that seemed out-of-place against her gaudy designer knock-off.

 

"Still got that family heirloom, I see,"  Sarah commented. 

 

"Yes, it's been passed down to the eldest daughters in my family line since the early 1800's.  An ancestress of mine rendered service to the Collinses above and beyond the call of duty, you might say."  Now Carlotta smiled, a bit slyly, Sarah thought.  Lord knew WHAT kind of service the ancestress rendered--- maybe to a Collins MAN?  Then Sarah dismissed her randy thoughts.  For all Carlotta's veneer of sophistication, the housekeeper remembered what a prude she could be, and her mother before her. It had nearlly KILLED them when Louisa Drake had gotten knocked up, crying rape, and they basically FORCED her to marry the brutal Ivan Miller Stiles, who'd been Gerard's father.  

 

No, to protect and serve the Collinses above all else, including their own blood, THAT should have been their family motto.  Listening to Carlotta, one would think coming from a long line of servants for one family was right up there with coming from royalty, and demanded almost the same show of aristocratic dignity. 

 

Still, the housekeeper was glad for the company, however eccentric, and an idea had been growing in her mind since Carlotta said she wasn't working at present.  Nor, apparently,  her nephew, who, in spite of his afflictions, might well have mellowed into the kind of reliable handyman the estate desperately needed, what with Willie Loomis gone, and none of the other workers hired since then, having stayed for more than a month. "Say, Carlotta," Sarah said, "Let me go and check--- I'll bet Mrs. Stoddard might like to see you after all these years."

 

"I'm not sure," the other woman demurred.  "After all, though she DID send me a nice severance check, I guess we left under something of a cloud."

 

"Hey, it was over ten years ago.  You two got on well, before that--- like sisters, almost, I used to think.  This was YOUR home, much as it was hers, even if your name wasn't on the deed.  You both were just as fond of it--- I'm sure she understood that much.  With all her losses, she's probably very forgiving right about now.  It might be a nice change for her, and maybe she could give you some business advice."  With that, Sarah briskly stepped out of the kitchen.  Carlotta could hear her firm, purposeful footfalls on the servants' stairs.

 

After a few minutes, she, too, darted upstairs, and headed for the great hall, lined partly with extensive bookshelves, and partly with a large collection of fine art, both family portraits, and masterpieces the Collinses had acquired through the years.  Carlotta recalled that Jamison Collins, father of Elizabeth and Roger, was obsessed with the realistic painter Bourgereau--- several monumental canvasses, featuring Rubenesque Frenchwomen, glared down at her. 

 

Among these and the numerous landscapes, she found the portrait she sought--- that of a beautiful blonde woman with crystalline blue eyes, clad in a low-cut red gown, a haughty expression on her finely-molded face.  There had once been a nameplate which read "Angelique Bouchard Collins 1782--1810", but someone had long ago removed it, or it had fallen off,  and only the tiny screw holes were left. 

 

Still,  Carlotta recited the remembered inscription to herself, savoring the whispered words, like a declaration of love.  Then, she whirled around, looking for another, larger canvas, an equestrian portrait featuring a handsome man with a scarred face, but it was gone.  Perhaps it was up in the attic---- with so many paintings, she recalled, the Collinses frequently rotated them.  That's probably how the nameplate was lost, she thought.

 

"Oh, there you are,"  Sarah Johnson said, making the other woman jump.  "I remember how much you liked that picture.  Came to a bad end, though, didn't she?"

 

"Alas, yes,"  Carlotta faltered.  She felt the painted aquamarine eyes searching her face.  She reached for her locket.  I'm still faithful, Angelique, she thought, always and forever.  And Gerard... Until we find The Only One.  I have a feeling.... it will be soon.  "How odd that they would still be having witchcraft trials in the 1800's, even such a small one, eh?  Even more odd that they would still hang somebody for that.  It was right in the back yard, you know.  I haven't looked yet, but is that big old beech tree still out there?"

 

Sarah nodded absently, contemplating the face in the picture, then said, with some sympathy, "Maybe the witchcraft trial was just an excuse to punish the poor girl for some other fault they COULDN'T execute her for.  That one, she looks uppity, for sure.  I dare say, someone that pretty and proud probably made somebody else mighty jealous."

 

You have NO idea, Carlotta thought, but replied amiably, "Could be you're right.  The family histories said she was a belle who won hearts from New Orleans to New Hampshire.  Her husband, Gabriel Collins, couldn't believe his good luck at winning her from her other beaux.  However, she must have practiced some superstitions from Louisiana, and you know how New England towns were, even by then.  The minute somebody's cow died, or a child caught a fever, they sought a scapegoat.  Oh, well, it's nice to see that her memory is still honored here, even without identification.  There used to be another picture, of a Collins man with a horse, which faced this one from right across the room.  Where is that?"

 

"I'm not sure," Sarah said.  "There was a bunch of pictures Roger Collins sold when it seemed the company was going under.  Then, of course, it didn't, but it was too late.  I know, it WOULD be a shame if a family portrait or two had gotten mixed up with them, but last I saw, there were still plenty in the attic.  It may still be there.  Anyhow, Mrs. Stoddard is eager to see you, I'll take you up."  The two women went up the stairs.  When they reached the landing, Carlotta caught sight of the stairs to the tower.  Sarah, noticing, said, "After you talk to Mrs. S., I'll take you up there if you want, in memory of olden times.  Still has a fabulous view of the cliffs and the ocean.  Mr. Clark went up there last autumn and painted a picture of the colors on the trees.  He said there was only one reason he'd ever want to live in this house, and that was the tower room."

 

"Well, of course," Carlotta replied.  "Those old artist supplies weren't there by accident.  The tower room WAS used by--- by previous artists who cropped up in the family."

 

"And, of course, YOU knew THAT,"  Sarah chuckled.  "Well, that might be a good lure to get that Quentin fellow here for a nice, long vacation.  Anyway,"  as she led the red-haired woman through a carved Gothic-style door into a vaulted room whose ceiling was flecked with gold stars against a blue background, "Here she is, Mrs. Stoddard."

 

Elizabeth rose from her Queen Anne settee, and approached Carlotta.  She took both of the visitor's hands in hers.  "My God, Carlotta, it's WONDERFUL to see you.  When Sarah told me, I felt happier than I have for some time.  You're looking well."

 

Carlotta answered carefully, casting down her face in humility.  "I'm happy, too, ma'am, in spite of--- of the way we parted years ago.  You WERE most generous to me--- to US, and for that, I will always be grateful.  And now, all I want to do is express my deepest sympathy for all your losses."

 

Elizabeth sighed, and tears once more welled in her jade-colored eyes.  "Carlotta, I have always felt sorry that you felt compelled to leave.  My late brother was a good man, but he had a hair-trigger temper.  Besides, Carolyn was SO upset--- she had just lost her daddy, and they had often gone up to the tower to look at the ocean together.  She had no inkling of some of Gerard's, er, obsessions... Poor children.  And I was in no condition to intervene.  But what does it all matter, now?  We must make the most of our time with those old friends we still have left.  And in spite of our different backgrounds, I DID consider you a friend since we were youngsters."  She glanced at Sarah.  "And you too, naturally.  We are the only ones left who remember this house in its brighter days."

 

"I still feel the same, Elizabeth," Carlotta replied.  "I KNEW this was the right time to come back--- it was like a tiny voice pleading in my ear.  I admit I was getting tired of the grind of running the shop--- Nine hours a day, six days a week, and Sundays spent on paper work.  I couldn't keep help, either--- the young ladies these days don't have the same work ethic."

 

 The young ladies also didn't like occasionally being stuck alone with Gerard, but Carlotta was not about to mention that.  "I was thinking of opening a boutique in this area, and then we could get together sometimes, for tea and gossip.  Better than the olden days."  The olden days..... with Angelique....

 

"I have even a BETTER idea,"  Elizabeth said.  "Rather than get tied up with another business, why don't you just come back here, as my domestic manager--- I think that's the current term for housekeeper."  She smiled through her tears.   "Sarah here is about to retire, due to family concerns.  The work is no longer onerous, as the family has.... has dwindled.  It will be a long time until David marries and replenishes the family tree.  He will be off at school for most of the year, anyway. 

 

�In the meantime, it will be basically, just you, me, and Daphne Budd, and SHE lives in town.  We can get a cleaning service to come out a couple of times a month, so it will mostly be we two, doing light work, dusting the rooms, watering the plants, laundry and cooking.  You can have whatever room you like here, days off as you require them, and a good salary.  

 

"And as for your nephew.... I understand he's become a skilled handyman in spite of his----his challenges.  I could use a good all-around person for the simpler repairs, trimming the hedges and what-not, shoveling sidewalks in winter, and errands in town.  If he can take care of my two horses, all the better. 

 

�I have a service trimming the  lawns, and plowing my driveways, so he wouldn't have to fret over that, and there's that fine little room off the kitchen, with a bathroom right nearby, where a young man could have a sense of privacy.  I have never had anything against him, in spite of what happened, and maybe he could find a nice girl in town who would accept him.  I'm sorry to get so personal, but I miss having a family about...."

 

Carlotta's husky voice broke as she practically sang, "Why, Elizabeth, I'd be HONORED to take the position--- it would be a homecoming for me.  I accept for Gerard, too--- city life was too intense for him anyway." 

 

So were the temptations of city women, she thought, flirting with the handsome if simple boy one minute, then screaming about attempted rape when he responded in his clumsy, groping way, the next.  Oh well, perhaps he'll stay in line, now that he will be getting what he REALLY wants.... A nice Collinsport girl, indeed.  Gerard, simple as he was, knew what he wanted, and it existed only in that tower room....

 

Elizabeth, delighted, glanced over at Sarah Johnson.  "Well, now we're all satisfied.  Sarah can leave without a qualm now, and I didn't have to bring in a total stranger to replace her.  Sarah, we'll discuss your severance later.  And like I told Maggie, you'll always welcome to visit, and be treated as a guest instead of an employee."

 

Sarah's eyes misted.  "Now, ma'am--- Elizabeth--- you know I'll have to pop in to check up on how you're being taken care of."

 

A few minutes later, Sarah and Carlotta were standing in the tower room, surveying the incredible view.  The sharply- descending slope of the back yard yielded a grand view down to the rocks of Widows' Hill, beneath which there was yet another drop, about 75 feet below, to a seaside jetty, full of cruel-looking boulders, upon which young, terrified Josette Du Pres had flung herself to escape her fiance, the vampire Barnabas.  (Her teenaged cousin, Angelique Bouchard, had arrived, at first, with the wedding party, then went back to New Orleans and environs, before finally marrying Barnabas' cousin Gabriel six years later.) 

 

Carlotta commented, "Thank heavens Mrs. Stoddard never sold those beach-front acres.  We'd be looking at big, ugly, modern summer homes for the nouveau riche."

 

Sarah sighed and answered, "You're right about that, but this is a huge place to keep up.  Two hundred acres, down from three, but STILL !!  I remember, around the time Mr. Collins sold the paintings, he also wanted to relieve the family of another hundred acres, including that Old House.  Ugggh, in a way, I wished he HAD, as that's where Barnabas soon holed up, and that poor ninny Willie Loomis."

 

"Yes, I remember HIS folks, too,"  Carlotta said.  "His father often came up here to tinker with the plumbing and such.  Willie was a nice-looking boy, but a sullen temper, and without the same excuse as my poor nephew."

 

"Well,"  Sarah sighed, "you should've seen him just before.... Just before the spit hit the fan.  We STILL don't know exactly how he did it, but Barnabas broke that wretched young man like a wild horse, and probably would have worked him to death like a horse, if he didn't have OTHER deadly things in mind.  Nobody misses Barnabas Collins, but there's SOME who'll still shed a tear for Willie Loomis."  As if to prove this point, Sarah wiped a couple from her own eyes.

 

Carlotta patted her shoulder. "Listen, Sarah, may poor Willie rest in peace.  We won't talk about that anymore.  I was speaking about the property.  I'm glad Mrs. Stoddard kept THIS portion of the land.  It's the original part of the estate, settled by Isaac Collins around 1700."

 

Sarah resumed her no-nonsense attitude.  "Now, Carlotta, plenty of old estates and farms have been broken up.  Those old families die off, and there's plenty of new people who need a place to live.  Maybe it won't happen for years, but I'm sure David will sell some of this someday.  Or deed it to the state, you know, for a school or asylum or whatnot."  The housekeeper turned to her companion, and was shocked to see the expression on Carlotta's face--- a mask of horror, sorrow, anger....

 

"Good Lord," Carlotta whispered, "it CAN'T happen.  Other places, but not COLLINWOOD.  This has been a special place, going back even to Indian times....  And look around us, in this room.  Look at all the accumulated junk that the family has been storing up here.  I'm surprised Mr. Clark had ANY room to paint.  That's what this room was meant for---- art.... and love.  Love of the estate, and other kinds of love...."    Then, she suddenly shook her head, as though she had been talking in her sleep.  "I'm sorry, Sarah.  That's the kind of foolishness that got Gerard and myself more or less booted from here ten years ago."

 

Sarah replied thoughtfully, "No, maybe that kind of imagination and care IS what this place has been missing.  I haven't got it---- I may get sentimental once in a while, but my feet are usually too firmly planted on the ground.  All I can see are miles and miles of hallways and dusty rooms with too many fancy old knick-knacks.  I may have spent half my life working here, but I've always been kind of an outsider, compared to yourself.  Well, you're home now, and making sure the modern world doesn't mess up this tower will be YOUR problem from here on in."  She smiled now.

 

Carlotta smiled back, without a trace of her smarmy confidence.  When Sarah exited the tower room ahead of herself, the other woman quickly moved to a corner or the room with a large cabinet.  She pulled it open a moment, glimpsed a large, grimy canvas inside, then shut the door quickly, and hurried down after the housekeeper.

 

Carlotta and her nephew moved in by the next weekend, a couple of days after David was finally sent to Choate and Maggie went to Boston with Jeff, to look at apartments.  Gerard, in addition to having a morose, surly attitude, stuttered and stammered.  He was all of twenty-six years old, but was as childish as his mental tests indicated. His reading material, such as it was, consisted mostly of comic books, save for a couple of dog-eared Playboys that Sarah Johnson found, just before she moved out.  Oh well, she thought, he's a legal adult, and maybe he enjoys them for the articles, hah-hah. 

 

Gerard liked pounding "Chopsticks" on the grand piano.  Elizabeth and Daphne often covered their ears when he sang along with his radio.  He was a good enough driver once he got near town--- likely, fearful of the police--- but was a menace when careening madly down the long and winding drive from Collinwood, laughing wildly as he rounded hairpin turns and tilted over steep gullies.  His clothing was often slovenly, and his aunt Carlotta was frequently heard to demand that he take a shower.  "You HAVE your own BATHROOM, Gerard!"

 

However, when it came to his work, once he processed a request through the labyrinth of his brambled, resentful brain, he was an idiot savant--- everything was done perfectly.  Perhaps because he was so animalistic himself, he got on splendidly with the horses, even seemed to know their language.  He was an amazing rider, better than any jockey.  He changed the oil and did fairly complex repairs on the cars.  He repaired some of the old outbuildings--- both carpentry and brickwork.  And he would calmly do special favors in return for his most cherished privilege--- to spend a few hours, alone, up in the tower room.

 

"What does he do up there?"  Daphne Budd asked Carlotta one day.  "Gerard doesn't paint, does he?  Does he take pictures?"  The young woman thought the older one was rather strangely dressed for a housekeeper--- Carlotta still had a closetful of fancy dresses from her shop and wore the impractical garments rather than the almost-reassuring, sensible black uniform, stumpy shoes, and apron.  However, Daphne reflected. it's not as though she has to scrub floors or anything.  The cleaners took care of the grimy chores, and there was Gerard for everything else.

 

"He's like anyone else, he enjoys the scenery,"  the new housekeeper replied, rather sharply.  "As long as he's not busy, I thought it was all right."

 

"Oh, I'm SURE it is,"  Daphne said. "But sometimes, when I leave after dark, when I look up there, the blinds are drawn, and he has the light on so you can see his shadow moving.  So he's not looking at scenery anymore, and there's no TV up there."

 

"He takes his magazines up there and--- and pretends.  He pretends to be Lord of Collinwood."  Carlotta sounded dead serious.

 

"Well," Daphne said with a smile, "He's probably not the first person to fantasize about that, and I doubt he'll be the last.  It feels like--- like forever in that room.  Like time has stopped.  Maybe that's why artists like it, besides the great lighting and the view.  It's perfect for someone whose vocation is to capture a moment forever on canvas, or in sculpture.  It's probably fun for somebody holding a romantic tryst, though I don't think Gerard--- he wouldn't bring someone into the house, would he?  I mean, he certainly should have a social life if he wants, but I worry about Mrs. Stoddard all the time, after I leave."

 

"Good heavens, NO!"  Carlotta snapped.  "Besides, I've told Gerard NEVER to bring anyone in here without clearing it with ME first, and he ALWAYS listens to me.  I wish to protect Mrs. Stoddard too, after all, we WERE childhood friends."

 

"I'm sorry if I implied anything, Carlotta."  Daphne patted the older woman's shoulder.  "It's just that we went through all that terror last year, from someone we thought we could trust.  I have no right to project it on you and your nephew, who's done such wonders spiffing up the old place."

 

Carlotta grinned widely, and batted her sodden lashes, looking rather grotesque, Daphne thought.  "Maybe you'll feel better after we hold Maggie Evans's wedding here at the end of the month," the housekeeper said.

 

"Yes, that's pretty exciting, but won't that be a lot of work for just the three of us?"

 

Lazy, lazy, lazy, Carlotta thought, but said with that same unnerving smile, "Of course not.  Mrs. Stoddard's having it catered, and then cleaned up, all by outsiders.  Now, we'll have to keep an eye on THEM."  She watched Daphne put on her coat, and out the window as Todd met the girl under the port-cochere with a picnic basket.  If only I could be rid of her after that damned wedding, Carlotta thought, then shook herself.  Okay, I don't like what she just said, but we need her help around the house, don't we?  Don't we, Angelique?  It's too big for one or two people... Even after The Only One gets here.  IF he ever gets here.

 

Carlotta discovered the simple solutions to both of her dilemmas, when she plucked up a sheaf of envelopes from the kitchen table.  Daphne, good secretary that she fancied herself, had, for once, forgotten to bring the mail into the office before she'd left for her little picnic with Todd.  They'd be back in an hour, but Carlotta decided a little chipping away was in order.  So she took the envelopes directly to Elizabeth's room.  "Goodness, spending time with that young man has made Daphne a bit negligent, hasn't it?"  Carlotta grinned again, as she gave her employer the mail.

 

"Oh, Carlotta, relax.  I would have seen these sooner or later.  I'm GLAD Daphne and Todd are taking a break today.  Maybe we should try having a picnic ourselves, though I'd wait until it gets a bit warmer."  Elizabeth sorted the envelopes, tossing the business mail in one pile on her bed, personal mail in another pile, and junk mail--- right into her porcelain wastebasket.  The next letter, covered with many stamps and postmarks, she opened right away.  "It's from my young cousin Quentin in Paris,"  she said, excitedly.  There was a couple of typed sheets, and photographs.  

 

Elizabeth skimmed through the letter.  "Hmmm, he can't come to his own friend's wedding, at his own cousin's home, because he, himself, has just taken a bride in Paris and has to stay there, 'tying up loose ends', as he puts it.  Trying to keep all his other former girlfriends from jumping into the Seine, I daresay----" 

 

Elizabeth looked up.  Carlotta was still standing there.  "Oh, Lord, Carlotta, I'm sorry I said such a thing aloud.  Quentin's a nice lad, really, but he's quite attractive in every way, and he's rich AND an artist.... I can see where a girl couldn't resist him.  The odd thing is, he didn't marry a French woman, he married a young lady who grew up right in Maine, in Ellsworth, and was going to the Sorbonne.  Tracy Harrington, her name is. Very pretty girl, judging by the pictures. Quentin has these writer friends who were researching the Paris catacombs, but the wife is also a part-time model, and this Tracy was in a little fashion show with her, and she introduced them.  Well, I hope they'll be happy.  I hope they'll see fit to stop here  when they come back to the USA!"  

 

Elizabeth handed the pictures to Carlotta.  "Wedding snaps.  They were married in a Parisian registry office, but they posed outside of Notre Dame.  The writer couple,  the Jenkinses, were their witnesses.  Quentin, as you can see, is the tall, dashing Aubrey Beardsley type holding the hand of that adorable dark-haired girl in the blue mini-dress.  The shorter, fair people are the Jenkinses, I guess."

 

Carlotta studied the pictures without a word.  She ignored the blond couple, dismissed the swarthy bride, and focussed entirely upon the lanky, black-haired young man, whose intense gaze, she recognized instantly.  Instead of people and the flying buttress of the cathedral, she saw this man in an early 1800's riding outfit standing by his horse in a field, a scar on his cheek.... The Only One, her soul cried out to Angelique. The Only One--- but he's THERE.  How shall I get him to come HERE?  FOREVER?

 

The Story of Stuart Forbes and Hepsey Gifford

 

To Morgan Collins (paramour of Stuart Forbes who caught a ride on the

great wheel of karmic justice before he ascended to peace and freedom

from the ether):

 

I was working on a humorous post but was continually interrupted by

blips and blarps.  As a true child of DS, I realized I had encountered

the dread phenomenon: A Ghost in the Machine!  Apparently this ghost had

been attracted by my story of Thaddeus Collins, and my general sympathy

for your anguish over losing Stuart, even in spirit.

 

Eventually, said ghost identified herself, and I realized, not only did

she have quite a story to tell, but as a fellow mother, I could not but

empathize with her sorrow.  You have often wondered about the true

reason you and Stuart were forced to part. 

 

Here it is, in her own words:

 

            Perhaps you remember me, Morgan Collins. Though, given your ever-present sense of self-importance, perhaps you don't.  After all,

it WAS a long time ago, and you died many years before I did.  My name was Hepsey Gifford when you WERE acquainted with me. 

 

Yes, it is I, whose father, Noah, and Stuart Forbes's father Nathan, were in business together, manufacturing and installing the many intricate metal fitments on your family's ships. Your father Justin often shared a drink with them down at the Eagle tavern, but never invited either up to the Great house.  Ah, the petty cruelties of class warfare.

 

            But it is not your late father's snobbery of which I speak now. It is of an a mutual acquaintance of ours, whom you claim was dear to

you, but was infinitely dear to ME.  Yes, I mean Stuart---not "your" Stuart, but mine, MINE! 

 

I knew him from infancy; he was four years older.  His mother Sukey  and mine, the former Ruby Tate, spent most of their days together, keeping accounts and tidying up the office.  So Stuart was assigned to watch me, a task which he undertook with surprising eagerness.  He played with me, taught me letters before I went to school, and let me tag after him, all without prompting from above.

 

            Even so, we both knew what our parents expected of us when we grew up. We were to marry, and ensure that the business would stay in our families. This was no problem for ME, as I loved Stuart with an instinct like that which animates breathing.  Since he was always kind and affectionate to me (though under our parents' watchful eyes) I naturally assumed he felt the same toward me.  The future held no surprises, or so I thought.

 

            When I was 20, we became unofficially engaged.  Our parents were to announce it within six months, then a fancy wedding on my 21st

birthday.  It was then, I began to notice that his affectionate treatment of myself became perfunctory. 

 

I did not understand; he had been taking me out on nightly strolls, and we'd "spoon" on warm, moonlit nights.  I was eager for our wedding night, and he certainly seemed so.  Until he actually popped the question that had always been assumed. . . It was as though the reality of having said the words weighed him down.

 

            The six months became a year. . .two years. . . Somehow, we made it to five years.  Our parents were furious, our friends were

bewildered.  I knew little at that time of any man's romantic attraction for another man, though I understood it was forbidden by religion, law,

and custom. 

 

Stuart never let on to me, but our moonlit strolls had dwindled, and it would be days, then weeks, when he did not call for me.  I was becoming an old maiden, though I could not consider breaking from him and opening myself to courtship by other men before it was "too late".  Not that there weren't others who were interested (I was pretty enough then, and still young-looking), and many of them were worthy men.

 

            There are no secrets in a small town, and Collinsport was a law unto itself in these matters.  Vague rumors about Stuart's activities soon

reached my ears.  I would ask him in a delicate way, if he had any confidence to impart, as I always considered myself his best friend, as well as fiancee

 

I think he WANTED to tell me, but he had developed a tendency to become secretive and indecisive, dating from the time he began putting off our wedding. I told him I would always love him and want him for the father of my children (hopefully soon, as I was already 27 and he was 31.)  This, I think, scared him in some way.

 

            Finally, one day in 1840, I took a day off from working for our fathers' business (mercifully, Noah and Nathan remained friends, as did

our mothers), and followed Stuart from a distance. He went to a tiny cottage hidden in some trees near the shore.  A man in a plain cape,

pulled-down hat, and false-looking whiskers, met him at the door.  They entered without any sign of familiarity.  I approached the place

stealthily, and dared a peek into the sole window.

 

            They were kissing---! Passionately, with full embrace, QUITE unlike the way he'd been kissing ME the last few years! I wanted to break down the door, to shout and hit, behave like I'd seen jealous fishwives behave. . . I got hold of myself, realized I hadn't taken a good look at Stuart's companion, who was, of course, divested of his disguise.  So I looked one last time.  I was as shocked by who the man was, as I had been by what they were doing. . .

 

            MORGAN COLLINS! A casual friend of Stuart's whom he sometime met at the Eagle, as our fathers had socialized  with Morgan's father Justin years ago, before the latter's mysterious illness.  Stuart had introduced us, and we'd passed time in the Eagle.  But I could not warm up to my fiance's friend, and Morgan seemed to find me trifling, though I knew he'd been hanging around an old schoolchum of mine, Catherine Harridge, who had aristocratic lineage but whose family had fallen upon hard times.  Catherine did sewing and gave French and Italian lessons, and her sister Daphne (they were orphans by this time) worked for the local doctor as a nurse.  In short, they were no more in the Collins' social set than my family was. 

 

Furthermore, Catherine had almost become engaged to Morgan's cousin Bramwell, now at sea, toiling to restore his own family fortune.  However, several years had gone by without definite word of Bramwell's return, and, like myself, Catherine was approaching an age of desperation for married love and the hope of children.  That the replacement who presented himself also happened to be a Collins, one of the weathier ones, at that, was just a stroke of good luck.  Ah, Catherine, I thought, if only you could see whom Morgan is stroking now. . .

 

I confess, I watched with a morbid curiosity, and more than a little vicarious arousal, as the two men began to strip each other of their many clothes.  Morgan, of course, being quite the dandy, had more, and of course every item had to be peeled slowly and carefully, and laid over a chairback in the fussiest manner.  Stuart, however, revealed his manly assets in about a third of the time.  As the two more or less fell upon a cot in a dark corner and rolled over together, I turned away from the sight of those bodily delights I believed I was never to know with my fiance.

 

            I went home, and kept this knowledge to myself.  However, I DID intimate to my mother that the engagement to Stuart was off for all time.  She informed my father, who informed the elder Forbeses. . . who must have laid down the law to their laggard son.  He appeared on our doorstep two weeks later, a whipped child of almost 32 years, telling me his father had arranged with our pastor to waive the banns so that we could be wed as soon as possible. 

 

            NO! I said.  I told him then, what I had seen.  How COULD he want a MAN, whom he could NEVER live with under the light of moral and social approval, and, moreover, with whom he could never have children--- and I had known from my babyhood how much Stuart adored children!  I told him, after having watched the preliminaries of whatever transpired with Morgan, the image would NEVER leave my memory, and would forever pollute our own efforts at intimacy.

 

            Stuart broke down, weeping, and said that he and Morgan were through--- the fickle Collins lover, under pressure to marry and beget heirs to both the family wealth and fodder to feed a rumored family curse, had finally proposed to Catherine, who accepted him. Morgan's Aunt Julia--- spinster sister of Justin and self-proclaimed keeper of the family honor, apparently had her suspicions about Morgan and Stuart, as well as an unexplained resentment against Bramwell's branch of the family. 

 

Stuart was sure this engagement was the result of her machinations.  The hardest part, for Stuart, was Morgan's seeming delight in his triumph, whisking away the former love of his nemesis, who was due to return any day, but, hopefully, not before the wedding.

 

            "I CAN love you as you want--- I CAN put that memory out for you--- Dearest Hepzibah, whom I wronged so--- please give me a chance!" Stuart begged.  I permitted him to kiss me.  As his soft lips covered mine for the first time in months, at least!--- I felt an enormous repulsion.  He had kissed Morgan so--- had probably kissed more than just Morgan's lips--- those two bodies, embracing. . . Stuart's body, tall and tanned and muscular. . . Stuart could be putting that body upon MINE. . .

 

            At first I'd pushed Stuart away, but he held me with desperate force, and kissed me again, this time pressing his tongue;  I was kissing him back!  And clinging to him with all the power of my own long-repressed lust!

 

            He whispered to me then, that he needed to be alone with me right away, so that he wouldn't lose his resolve.  "We'll be married by next week, anyway--- but at least you'll KNOW for sure, Hepsey. . ."

 

            "Take me to the cottage then," I demanded.  "If you seal our commitment THERE, I KNOW the ghost of your former affair won't haunt us!"

 

            He turned white, but meekly agreed.  "It will be only once--- Dear God, I MUST rid myself of the memory as well.  With you, the love of my whole life, it might be possible. . ."

 

            Stuart told my parents he was taking me for a drive in his phaeton.  As I stood with him in the small wagon, we held each other by the waist as he drove the horses to the seaside cottage.  After he tied up the horse, he swung me up in his arms, and kicked open the flimsy door, and carried me over the thresh-hold.

 

            Soon, we were both naked on the rough blanket. . . I writhed passionately against the body I had longed for.  Stuart kissed and fondled me, though, to my dismay, his enthusiasm seemed to have slipped.  I wept in my shame at having let myself be so used, only to fail in my quest, when he suddenly rolled on top of me and kissed my tear-stained face.  "Hepsey, Hepsey, it WILL be done", he said in a harsh voice, as he spread my legs apart and I could FEEL him. . .

 

            It hurt at first, but I kept quiet, and after a while, wished it never had to end!  But it did, and Stuart, instead of hugging and kissing me in gratitude (or at least allowing ME to do so!), rolled over, and sighed painfully.

 

            "It WAS a mistake, wasn't it?" I wailed.  "Oh, God, this is MY fault for insisting we come here---"

 

            "No, Hepzibah, 'twas MINE for allowing it to happen--- it would have made no difference if we were properly wedded and on a proper honeymoon trip in some anonymous lodging. . . But we are connected now and forever.  I had no French letters to safeguard us, so we WILL be married by next week.  Afterward, though, I don't know. . . "

 

            "Are you suggesting a marriage in name only?"

 

            "Do you really want to go through another such embarrassing interlude?"

 

            "No--- and yes--- I DID like it while it lasted, but now it's all gone bitter in a few minutes!"

 

            "Well, Hepsey, it will ALWAYS be thus.  Listen, it won't be so terrible--- if it turns out we haven't created a new life, then in a year, we will save money for an annulment.  Our parents will have no choice but to realize that even THEY were wrong about us."

 

            I felt my hollow belly, where even now Stuart's seed might be starting to grow.  It wouldn't be so bad, one way or the other.  Perhaps, if there WAS to be a child, he would come around and try to live a more normal married life.  If not, I would be free again in a year; perhaps Stuart would settle some money on me, and I could move to another town where I might still find a kindly older man, a widower, perhaps, with young children I could nurture until I had at least ONE of my own. . .  I agreed to this proposal.

 

            In the space of a week, much happened.  Bramwell Collins came back; I heard from Daphne that he tried to get Catherine to change her mind, but despite the strangeness of some of the Collinses, she insisted on the sense of her decision.  Justin Collins suddenly died, and Catherine disappeared for twelve hours.  When she came back, she and Morgan married immediately.

 

Daphne, who'd been courted in a half-hearted manner by Morgan's younger brother Quentin, a scowly malcontent who'd killed a man for insulting his family, found herself drawn to Bramwell, whom she'd nursed through an illness.  On the day Stuart and I made our vows in the pastor's parlor, we heard she'd run off and married Bramwell!

 

            At first, Stuart and I did not announce our marriage.  We continued to live in our parents' homes until a new one was readied for us.  Our parents apparently thought nothing was wrong with this arrangement; after all, they probably reasoned, we'd waited so many years for the consummation, a few more weeks would hardly matter.  We weren't impetuous adolescents, after all!  But in our hearts, Stuart and I were as passionate as any young lovers--- except that HIS passion wasn't directed at ME!

 

            A month after our wedding, Stuart was supposed to come and show me our new cottage, located on a new lane near the harbor.  I waited impatiently, then ordered our stable hand to prepare my own small wagon.  At first, I drove to where I knew the cottage was.  There was nobody about the small house, still smelling of fresh timber and paint. At least, I THOUGHT there wasn't--- I heard the whinnies of two horses, hidden in the woods nearby.  So I tiptoed through the door, which was slightly ajar. 

 

            In the room that was to be our bedroom, I could hear two masculine voices--- My new husband's baritone, and Morgan Collin's tenor!  I peeked throught the doorway.  I repressed a sigh of relief--- at least they weren't sullying MY new home with their loathsome love-making!  However, they were speaking with their heads quite close together.  Stuart's hand was on his true beloved's shoulder, as if in commiseration.  And, upon closer listening, commiseration it WAS.

 

            "She-- she BETRAYED me, Stuart!  The BITCH!  I gave Catherine everything--- my name, my fortune, the love I took from YOU--- and that BITCH turned out not to be the virgin she pretended on our wedding-night!  She was already full of my cousin's kisses, his caresses, and his-- his foul SEED!"

 

            "She is with CHILD?" Stuart asked incredulously.  How he must be comparing Morgan's situation to ours, I thought bitterly, though I had come to the conclusion that there would be NO child for us.

 

            "Yes!" Morgan choked.  "And after I had done HER the favor of forgoing relations until I acquired some precautions, because I didn't want her to bear my Collins child---- doomed to join in the Lottery, as his or her unhappy elders must"  ("Lottery?" I thought, "what does THAT mean?") 

 

"And now, her despicable, disgusting lover is married to her own sister--- poor child, I can imagine what SHE must be going through!  It's a horrible mess, and all because I wanted to please my family!  It's not that I didn't love Catherine in my own way--- I'm sorry Stuart, but if I had been born with the ordinary inclinations, she WOULD have been my first choice of a mate. However, I was born to deny my deepest yearnings, because I am not allowed the option of deserting my family duties, as Bramwell's father did. . . My God, Stuart, if I can rid myself of this millstone somehow, could you, WOULD you flee this dirty-minded town with me?"

 

            Stuart's faced displayed his full agony.  "Morgan, would that I could--- but it's impossible at this time.  I cannot tell you why, just yet.  In a year, I'll know---"

 

            "I may not HAVE a year!  The Lottery may end by claiming me--- it almost DID.  I was possessed by a tormented soul, though, thankfully, not the one who maddened my father and his bastard child--- I DID recover.  But if the Lottery turns up my name again--- Christ, Stuart, what am I to do?"  They both wept.

 

            Stuart whispered, "Morgan, the cottage.  Our cottage.  It's still there.  I've kept it up, sweeping it and cleansing the bedclothes."  (So THAT'S where my loving groom spends his days, I thought, removing traces of our "guilty" afternoon there!)  "We can go back there---"

 

            "The HELL you will!" I screamed, as I stepped into the room.

 

            "Hepsey Gifford, how dare---" Morgan cried.  He appeared about to strike me, but Stuart stayed his hand.

 

            "Morgan, I'm sorry, I should have told you at the first.  Hepsey and I are--- are married.  Like you, we had no choice---"

 

            "Stuart MADE LOVE with me, Morgan!" I shouted.  "In YOUR bed!  It was WONDERFUL!"

 

            "And how is it NOW, Hepsey?" Morgan sneered.  "Your groom lives in his parent's house, has told nobody else of your wedding, and just re-affirmed his longing for ME."

 

            "This is to be OUR home.  This is to be OUR bedroom.  OUR bed, just ONE, is arriving tomorrow.  Now, go back to Catherine, Morgan.  And tell Stuart the truth before you go.  Isn't there at least a slight chance that baby might be yours?"

 

            "Well," Morgan admitted, with a very red face, "the FIRST night, I admit, we TRIED--- but SHE sounded quite sure.  And Bramwell could have leapt for joy--- obviously their romp was a great deal more vigorous., and more likely to bear results---"

 

            "Perhaps," I taunted, "there will be TWINS.  One for you, one for Bramwell---"

 

 `"ENOUGH!" Stuart barked.  "Morgan, you'll just have to go back and work this out as best you can.  As for YOU, Hepsey, we will move in here, but that big bed will only have one occupant--- yourself.  I don't know where this will all lead. . ."

 

            After Morgan left, I apologized profusely, abjectly, abasing myself, kneeling on the hardwood floor before my heartbroken spouse.  "I LOVE you, Stuart, this is the ONLY way, can't you see?" I wept.

 

            "No, but I am stuck.  For now.  I have already begun saving for that annulment.  I suggest you do the same."

 

            I went back home.  I felt unwell, but that was understandable, given the circumstances.  However, the next morning, I had to jump out of bed, and barely had time to stick my head out a window, whereupon I vomited copiously.  Oh, God, I'm coming down with plague, I thought--- there had been a rumor that denizens of Collinwood had barely survived this archaic disease.  Perhaps Morgan had contaminated me in some way!  My mother commented on it, scolding me for befouling her rhododendrons below my window.  However, I looked quite peaked, and she tried to get me back to bed, but I insisted on continuing the tasks I had set myself.

 

            I went back to the cottage, to supervise the placement of the new furniture and carpets.  It hardly seemed the same place where we'd had that awful argument.  Ere long, Stuart would surely arrive, and he would be civil to me again.  But he did not come.

 

            As the afternoon wore on, I became angry.  He and Morgan must have fled together after all!  At least, I thought so, until my mother-in-law Sukey ran into the cottage and asked if I knew where Stuart was.  "Did you decide to spend a night together?" she asked.  I said no, but I thought he might have gone to visit his old friend Morgan?   "No, Morgan came to me, saying he had business for Stuart and hadn't seen him since yesterday."

 

            This WAS odd.  Finally, I said, "I believe I know where he MIGHT have gone.  But you wait at home, Mother Sukey."

 

            I jumped into my wagon, and cracked the whip a little smartly, heading out to the cottage hidden in the trees.  I ran in, and found a note from Morgan.  "Stuart, meet me at Widows' Hill when the sun begins to set."  I looked outside: it was setting now.  No time to waste.  I unhitched my horse, and leapt upon him, bareback.  I forced the animal into the gallop of his life, as we traversed back lanes to the cliff near Collinwood.   I didn't get there in time--- I stood upon the precipice, and looked down, a hundred feet, to see Stuart's body, split almost in two upon the jagged boulders below.

 

            A moment later, Morgan ran up, shouting, "STUART MY LOVE!  DON'T LEAVE ME!!"  Then he stopped dead beside me, and gazed down at the wreck of the man we had both loved best on earth.  In a moment, he turned on me like a snarling beast.  "YOU did this, you jealous BITCH!  Just like the BITCH I'm married too--- but you're a MURDERING Bitch!  Oh, Stuart, Stuart---"  Morgan wailed.

 

            "I DIDN'T--- Dear God, Morgan, how can you think that I COULD!  He's done this to himself---"

 

            "Even if he DID jump on his own, it's still YOUR doing!  Taking him over like that, when we were about to run away!"

 

            "Oh, STOP it, Morgan," I said, sniffling--- the pain in my mind was slow-growing as my love for Stuart had been--- "He'd already made up his mind.  We were going to get an annulment after a year.  He told me to start saving---" Then, I gasped.  "Morgan--- wait a minute--- Stuart NEVER meant to kill himself!"  I pulled out the crumpled note that I'd forgotten in my terror and new grief.  "He was coming to meet YOU!  Probably to tell you his decision!"

 

            Morgan examined the note.  "I NEVER wrote this!"  Then, he pulled a similar note from his pocket.  "I thought Stuart sent me THIS--- there was a messenger--- whom I suspect we'll never find now!"

 

            I gazed at the printed note, begging Morgan to meet Stuart on the cliff.  "He was set up, and so were we," I concluded.  "Somebody else obviously knew of your meetings in that cottage and didn't like it.  Even though you had both married, there was always a chance the marriages would break up, and you'd both go away together.   I didn't arrange this, and I rather doubt Catherine did---"

 

            "Catherine--- all I'm left with NOW!" Morgan said bitterly.  "And YOU, a widow that will never be acknowledged as such--- obviously, of the two of us, someone decided that a mere Forbes was more expendable that myself.  Which rules out Bramwell as a suspect," he said with a hysterical laugh.

 

            "Then who---" I began, but fear broke off my question.  There was a rustle in the bushes nearby.  Suddenly, a short-but-sturdy red-haired, middle-aged woman, ascended the cliff.  "Morgan, why aren't you with Catherine?" she asked.  "We'll be drawing for the Lottery later, you should be with her, in her delicate condition.  And what is Hepzibah Gifford doing here?"

 

            "Aunt Julia, don't look over the cliff," Morgan begged in a manner that was sure to entice his aunt to peer over the precipice.

 

            Her eyes widened as they took in the dolorous sight.  "Dear God! Stuart Forbes!  Oh, poor Nathan and Sukey--- and you, too, Hepzibah, I heard you were finally going to tie the knot after SO many years of waiting."

           

I began to cry in earnest now.  It hardly seemed necessary to discuss my marriage in name only.

 

            Julia and Morgan helped me down the cliff.  I fainted.  The doctor was summoned.  Before he gave me a sleep draught, he asked me a few questions.  Then my parents came to get me, and the doctor planned to come to my house to give me a more thorough evaluation.  On the day we buried Stuart, I was told that I was in the second month of pregnancy.

 

            My parent sent me to live with my mother's relatives until my baby was born.  They wanted to remove the child from my sight and give it away, but I fought them fiercely.  This was the last vestige of all my life's hopes and dreams with Stuart.  Somehow, I must find a way to keep my little Ned, and be able to return to Collinsport

 

Ultimately, salvation arrived in the person of a certain Timothy Fillmore, a widower with two small daughters.  He'd glimpsed me at church with my little Neddy, was touched by the story of my widowhood (a secret more easily shared in the bigger community of Bangor), and began to court me.  Within six months we were wed, and he'd adopted my son. 

 

            Ned grew up to resemble my father's side of the family, of middling height with a small face.  But he also resembled blonde Sukey and well-tanned Nathan.  He didn't grow to be as handsome as his father, but he was a pleasant-looking boy who reflected his heritage.  Sukey and Nathan knew immediately this was their grandson, and were permitted to treat him as such, but due to the secrecy that had surrounded my first marriage, all were convinced that few of the townspeople would believe it.

 

The minister who had performed that ceremony had passed away, and while there was a certificate, it meant little when those who had signed it had the most to gain from pretending it was genuine.  So to the general public, Ned was Timothy's son from HIS previous marriage, whom I had adopted, rather than the other way around.

 

            Neither I nor Tim cared all that much about the situation.  He and his daughters loved Ned as their own blood.  And when I gave birth to twin sons of our own, a couple of years later, this sealed our family bond.  It had taken that long for me to build up enough trust to accept Tim as my spouse in the fullest sense, but, unlike the debacle of the inadequate consummation with Stuart, it turned out to be well worth the wait.  The Lord in His mercy had permitted me to retain my youthful looks, and had allowed dear Tim to retain a lusty vigor, as well as a deep love for me.

 

I confess that I did not love him with quite the same depth as I had Stuart, but believed that was simply because I had known Stuart since I was born. I would never make up so many years of lost time with Tim. Still, I cared for, and lusted after my husband enough to satisfy him until the day he died, which unhappy event took place 25 years later.  And that was when my NEXT epoch of misery began--- but I am getting ahead of myself.

 

OSTEND--- A PREQUEL AND SEQUEL TO �BLOOD ON THE LIPS�

Chapter One

October 1996.  

The year's peregrinations brought me back, as always, to Ostend.

I hated it.  Not the place itself, which is interesting enough, though rather desolate of

tourists in the bleak prelude to winter.  And I had become sufficiently familiar with

the surroundings, so that when I arrived at the grand, yet empty hotel, it was almost like

coming home.

 

                Still, it was a home I hated, much as I had hated our old house in Philadelphia after

HE left.  Like the house I had left, the hotel, large as it was, had many intimate, inviting

nooks, but also like the house in Philadelphia, once you were in what seemed a warm place,

it was like a trap--- the warmth held you down, suffocated you. . .  So strange to feel claustrophobic in such a large space.

 

                But, like the house in Philadelphia, I had no choice but to make an obligatory

appearance at THIS hotel, because both were a connection to HIM--- my life with my

brother, and my last glimpse of him, had taken place in the Philadelphia house; the last

few days that ANYONE living had seen him at all, had passed in this hotel, twenty-five

years ago. 

 

                Yet, though by that time I hadn't seen Stefan for eight years (and likely never would

again) it was in Ostend that I felt closest to him, because it was there he had made a stand

for what our father considered a "normal" life that, I wanted to believe, could have brought him back to me. 

This was the reason my brother (my half-brother, really) had been made to leave the house

in Philadelphia, and why I always gladly stayed away until my appointed time in December,

when I would have to face our father at Christmastime.

 

                "You didn't find him," Father would say, pained resignation in his voice.

 

                "No, Daddy," I would reply.  Nearly twenty years of searching, on and off at first,

then, once I had found a calling that required continual globetrotting, obsessively for the last

ten.  Always, always, ending up in the last place where Stefan had been seen alive, and yet,

no results, not even the faintest trace of a body, in all the wide world.  It was thanks to this

that our father's hopes never completely dimmed.  How I wished they would.  How I wished

to be free of this search, a quest he couldn't join, due to his increasing infirmities and

business obligations.  A quest he wouldn't have undertaken in any case, believing that if

Stefan was still alive, only I could draw him back to the home from which Father had

ejected him.

 

                No, it was all on me.  I had, in devotion to my brother's memory,  allowed myself to

be coaxed to sacrifice my own life, my own marriage, and my obligations toward my own

child.  My Danila. . .

 

                "Well," Father would answer, "there's always the new year.  You're going to Jamaica

next month, Terez.  Perhaps he's hanging out with those Rasta people by now."  He would

smile sadly at whatever such feeble,  joking suggestion he'd made.  The NEXT words he'd say,

before the tears sprang to his fading azure eyes, the eyes so like Stefan's, would be, "So,

where's our Danila?  Always takes her sweet time getting back from school. . ."

 

                December  was still nearly two months away.  I HOPED this would be the last Ostend

trip, but reality told me that, unless Father passed on in the near future, I'd be seeing that

blustery, empty beach and that grey line of autumnal ocean outside the French windows of

my usual balconied room (the room Stefan had last occupied) for years to come.  How often

I'd had occasion to wish for Father's demise since the awful day Stefan left.  Maturity had

finally brought a degree of compassion, though; now, all I wished for was for the search to be

well over, and for our family to have peace.

 

                I reviewed all that I had learned since before my brother had departed, and all that I remembered from before that parting.  Our father had come from a family of prosperous Budapest merchants.  He'd joined the Hungarian army in the late Thirties, and was part of the futile resistance to Hitler's invasion.  In that period, he'd met Stefan's mother, an extremely beautiful girl, protegee to a noblewoman, and possibly of noble birth herself. 

 

                There was strenuous objection to the match, not from the girl's family, who had long

since disappeared, perhaps in the heat of the invasion, and never heard from again.  Instead,

it was the noblewoman herself who created an obstacle.  While father agreed that marrying

a soldier during wartime, and one without aristocratic antecedents himself, might not have

been the ideal situation for his girl, Jana, the pair had become obsessively involved. 

 

One night, Jana managed to slip away, and Father deserted his unit to elope with her.  They lived

on the run, evading the army, the Nazis, AND her benefactress.  Jana was already pregnant

when she ran away, and Stefan was born in a border town six months later.  Just when

they were about to be turned in, Father met a member of an underground resistance unit

who found the little family a means of escape to England.

 

                Once there, Father started a small business that grew steadily, despite wartime

privations and the blitz.   Even after the war was over, though, he and Jana always had the feeling that her former guardian would still be after her, though for what reason at that point, he would not tell me.  What he would say was that Jana was rather eccentric, tiring easily during the day, and lively at night.   

 

Father believed that their lives would become more relaxed and normal if they went to America, and so, once his business had established a base of operations in Philadelphia, he brought Jana and Stefan, now aged five, to the United States.  Stefan's nanny, Irma, a young peasant girl who'd joined the family's escape from Hungary, also came with them.

 

                Unfortunately, the plan to normalize the family ended in disaster.  Jana was nearly

insane with terror during the passage across the ocean, hiding in the bunk  in the family's

cabin, under a pile of blankets, a great deal of the time.  She had already demonstrated an aversion to water, only bathing under duress from her husband, and only with Irma's assistance. 

 

Once established in Philadelphia, she calmed down somewhat, but Stefan had become afraid of her, clinging to Irma, especially at night.  Jana's restlessness then continued unabated, made more acute by the fact that her husband spent increasing hours building his business into an international concern.  Father had lost track of what his wife was up to when he wasn't home.

 

                One night, though, when the devoted but exhausted Irma finally had an evening off,

 Father arrived home early.  He walked into his son's nursery, in the belief that Jana was

putting the child to bed.  Oh, she had the boy in bed, all right, but, as Father put it, "She

wasn't singing him a lullaby. . ." At this point in the story, Father would become evasive,

and sigh heavily.  When pressed, all he would say was, "she was---was HURTING him,"

in what manner he wouldn't specify.  I always thought, perhaps it was a form of incest, but

Stefan had manifested terror toward his mother, something more consistent with painful

abuse, I believed.

 

                Father had Jana committed, a fact he never told Stefan.  The boy was simply allowed

to believe the mother he both loved and feared had gone back to England, where the family

still had some friends.  Jana, forced to undergo a therapeutic regimen in the asylum that

involved cold showers, died a scant month later, of an apparent heart attack, after one

such procedure.   "Believed to be brought on by a previously undetected genetic weakness, but no indications of disease or deformity", was the doctors' assessment, post-mortem.

 

                Father was devastated, feeling guilty about having separated Jana from the life she'd

led before their meeting, which he believed had led to her untimely demise.  Stefan became lonely, save for his fondness for Irma.  Rather than try to introduce a new woman into the equation, Father stuck with the familiar, and married his son's nanny, two years after Jana's death.  Stefan was eight by then, and ten when I was born.  Father and Mother were far from being in love, though they cared for each other as friends.  Still, Irma had made a good adjustment to life in her new country, and was helpful to Father's business as well.  Plus, she remained devoted to Stefan, even after I came along. 

 

                In so many cases, any older sibling from a previous marriage would have resented

the offspring of a latter union.  But, not so with Stefan.  He'd been so isolated from children

his own age, even after he was in a regular school, that he more or less helped bring me up

to be his most dedicated, devoted playmate.  He was the first to teach me to count, to lisp the  alphabet: the one who always read to me, pushed me on the swing, taught me to play

ball like a boy. 

 

Other boys, and even some girls, would laugh and point when they saw the adolescent tending to his toddler sister.  He would cry sometimes, in response to the teasing, but he never turned from me.  And he was my hero, even if he cried,  more so than Father, whom we saw so seldom anyway.

 

                One day, when I was around eight, in the third grade, the realization that there was

something truly different about Stefan, something DISTURBING, was imparted to me in

the cruelest way.   Stefan, who'd received a new, large car for his birthday, picked up a

young male friend along the way, while driving me to school one morning.  I didn't like his

friends much in general, though at first I was happy that he'd finally made some.  But he

didn't have a girlfriend yet, as far as I knew.

 

                When he slowed to drop me near the school, I protested because it was a block

further away than he usually stopped.   "Look, Terry," he'd replied, "I really have to stay

here with Philip.  I'll drop you off in the regular place tomorrow, I promise."  As I got

out of the car, I turned to see him put his hand on Philip's shoulder.

 

                As I got to the schoolyard, a couple of my rowdier classmates gathered around me.

"Know what, Terretts?" one boy said, deliberately mispronouncing my Hungarian name.

 "Your big brother's a queer."

 

                "What do you mean?" I asked, unsuspectingly.  "He's different than most big boys,

I guess, but---"

 

                "Don't you know what QUEER is, Terretts?  He loves other boys!"

 

                "What about it?" I asked defensively, though what I was defending, I had no idea.

I was only eight, and my attacker wasn't much older.  Plus, it was the "innocent Fifties!"

So what he said next was extra shocking.

 

                "Queer, TerrettsHO-MO-SEX-SHU-AL.  He wants to be with another boy like a

girl,  kiss him, marry him, poke him with his---"

 

                "NO-NO-NO!" I screamed.  "How can you say that?  How would you know? "

 

                "My sister and her boyfriend were on a date, and saw him in a car with some guy.

They were kissing up a storm.  Margie and Joey stopped kissing each other, just to watch

your brother and the other guy go at it!  Joey wanted to get some other guys together to

knock your brother around, but your Dad's too rich to mess with, and anyway, Stef puts

on a regular show at Lookout Point every chance he gets!  The big kids track him

wherever he goes, just for a good laugh!"

 

                I wanted to protest further, but I'd seen Stefan put his hand on that Philip.  He'd

deliberately chosen to be with Philip, rather than take a chance of dropping me at school,

for all the good it did.  They were probably up at that "Lookout Point" place right this

minute, "going at it," whatever THAT meant.  THAT'S why, at eighteen, Stefan had never

had a girlfriend.  My brother was QUEER.  That's what queer WAS.  God forbid our parents should find out!

 

                One of our teachers, a nun (ours was a Roman Catholic parochial school),

had come outside in response to my cries.  When she saw my tears, she asked, sternly,

what the other kids had done to me.

 

                I was already ashamed on Stefan's behalf.  I also understood, from what bits and

pieces of moral education our teachers fed to us as it suited our age level, that whatever

Stefan and Philip (and possibly, others) were doing was a SIN, even worse than what the

boy-girl pairs might do.  I had ALSO been taught that association with a known sinner was

bound to reflect even on his most innocent acquaintances.  I felt I was no longer innocent.

But I could not compound my guilt by the possible consequences to Daddy and Mama, or

even my tormentor, who, after all, was merely relating a fact he thought I should know.

Thus began my habit of protecting everyone, except myself. 

 

                "I'm sorry I made such a noise, Sister," I muttered humbly.  "I tripped, and thought

I was hurt worse than I was." Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the boy smirk.

I WAS hurt terribly, all right, in a way from which I'd never completely recover. 

 

                "You should be outgrowing the impulse to cry at every ache and pain, Terez,"

Sister said sternly.  "You should save signals of distress for something SERIOUS.  And

remember, Our Lord endured far greater Agony, yet did not call upon His Father until

the last possible minute."

 

                I can't EVER call upon my OWN Father, I thought, as I trudged behind her and the

others, on the way to class.

 

                Mama picked me up to bring me home.  Stefan wasn't there yet.  I hid in my room

until dinner, thinking of how I could ever face him again, and trying to imagine just WHAT

being a homosexual involved, beyond kissing.  The boy had been about to enlighten me

before I cut him off.  What was that about poking?

 

                It was Stefan himself who came to my room to fetch me for dinner.  What had seemed impossible, actually went smoothly; I forced myself to go quietly at his coaxing.  I even held his hand.  It was the same hand I'd held a thousand times, but now, it felt different, the hand  of a stranger.  A hand that had touched Philip "like a girl."  Not yet knowing the varieties of homosexual behavior, of ANY sexual behavior, really, it didn't occur to me that STEFAN might be the "girl" in the equation.

 

                I remember that dinner well.  Father, who'd been encouraging Stefan to seek

part-time work after school, even if he wasn't interested in working for the family firm,

asked calmly how the day went.

 

                "Oh, Dad," Stefan said, "just the usual.  We're getting close to our finals now.

And I DID make the rounds, after school, applying in offices.  They all seemed so dull. 

Then, when I was tired from that, I stopped near a nursery.  A green house.  There were

all kinds of plants.  You know I always liked gardens." (This was true.  Stefan and I had kept

one together, ever since I could walk.) 

 

"The owner came out, and when I started asking about them. He's a grower for  many fine florists in Philly.  He said he was looking for an assistant, to learn about breeding new hybrids.  Like Luther Burbank.  Like Gregor Mendel!  Dad, I want to do it.  I could even major in Botany in college, become a professional---"

 

                "THAT'S A LIE!" Father suddenly thundered.  "All of it!  I KNOW you weren't in

school today, Stefan.  They phoned here, to check on the "sore throat" excuse you called in,

saying you were ME!  I don't know WHAT you were up to, but I DOUBT it was looking for a job!"

 

                "Dad. . ." Stefan's eyes welled up.  "I'm---I'm sorry.  I DID skip school."

 

                "Where WERE you?"

 

                "Just out. . . driving around.  Ran into a friend, spent some time with him. . . But

then I DID go out looking for a job!  As God is my witness!  I can even give you the name

of that flower farmer---"

 

                "I'd rather have the name of that 'friend'!  It wouldn't happen to be that Philip,

now, would it?  And as for working in a GREENHOUSE, forget it!  I'm not going to pay

College tuition--- assuming you'll EVER get to college, skipping school at such a crucial

time as this--- so you can study FLOWERS, for God's sake!  My God, what am I bringing up here?  Your real mother---"

 

                Mama, seeing that both "her" children were crying by this time, shushed Father.

"You are bringing up two very nice children,  Tamas.  Stefan is very sensitive.   Maybe

he's not like you.  So what?  He can be successful, doing something different.  And as for

dragging Jana's name into it . . ."

 

                "Irma, you're a good mother to that boy, but you don't see the things I see, don't

know some of the things I know. . . Will NEVER know.  Enough."  As Father left the table,

napkin still hanging from his collar, I wondered if, in fact he DID know what I had just

learned.  I remember looking at Stefan, who, I could tell, was seething with rage, even as

he sniffled.   His bright, honest dreams, whether or not they involved Philip, were shattered

forever, we both knew.  I hugged him in silent solidarity, knowing that I would NEVER

mention what my schoolmate had said, unless it was a matter of life and death. . . Right

now, Stefan's life depended on my silence.

 

                After that awful day, things were the same, yet not the same.  I went to school.

I was teased, but I got used to it, and after a while it subsided, when there were no further

Lookout Point incidents to keep it going.  Stefan forced himself to accept a position with one

of those dreary offices, but at least Father didn't force his son to work for him.  Stefan went

to a local University in spite of the fact that he was bright enough for the Ivy league, partly to irk Father, and partly, I believe, because Philip was going there.  Then, one day, I saw Stefan dejected.  Father was strutting, jubilant. Later, in private, I asked Stefan why he was so sad.

 

                "Philip---Philip transferred to some college in California.  His whole family's moving

there, as well.  That figures.  Phil's Dad works for a friend of our Dad.  I'll bet Dad fixed

the whole thing with him!"

 

                "That's just dumb, Stefan.  Why would Daddy do something like that?"  Tell me the

truth, my eyes implored.

 

                "It's---It's hard to explain to a little kid like you.  Little kids--- they get mad at you

as fast as Fathers, sometimes.  I don't want YOU mad at me.  Or Mama, either.  This

would kill her."

 

                Frustration over the continued lies made me bold.  "It's 'cause you love Philip,

like a girl, like you want to marry him---"

 

                "WHO could have told you something like that, Terry?  It's not---not--- oh, Hell.

You're a smart kid.  I should know, I taught you a lot myself.  Maybe the wrong things---"

 

                "NO!" I said firmly.  "The kids at school told me last year.  But maybe I WOULD

have guessed it, sooner or later."  Then I cried.  "It hurts.  Not just cause you're

different, and you're making Daddy mad.  But to know that people are going to pick on you,

and even ME. . . That's BAD, Stefan.  That's why it's a sin. . . "

 

                "Terez," he replied, "if something's causing that much trouble, maybe it IS wrong.

But I can't help it.  It just grew in me, this feeling.  Maybe it comes from my real Mama,

like Dad says. . . I wish I could find her, and ask what was so wrong with her, that now

something's wrong with me."

 

                "But you'd have to go to England!" I sobbed.  "I don't want you to go away from me!"

 

                Stefan hugged me then, tighter than he ever had.  "Okay, okay, Terez," he crooned.

"No point in making a bad thing worse. . . I WISH I could be like other guys sometimes,

enjoy dating girls. . . I KNOW they follow me around," he grinned.  I started to smile, too.

"Look, Terez, I'll try.  I MEAN it.  I'll try going out with girls, study business books,

whatever. Because you, and your Mama, mean a lot to me.  And maybe Dad will get off my

back.  Then, when you're a grown-up, and I can live someplace else, you can join me, and

we'll start a nursery."

 

                "With LOTS of flowers!" I sang.  "You know, Stefan, you must think I'm a grown-up

already."

 

                "How do you figure that?" he asked.

 

                "Because, since we really started talking about this stuff, you only called me 'Terez',

not 'Terry'."

 

                He rumpled my hair.  "That's because you're a lot more grown-up than me, or even

our Dad, sometimes.  You're more like your own Mama, every day."

 

                "Stefan, does she know?  I mean, if I know, she MUST!"

 

                "Only what Dad lets her know. She once pulled me aside, and asked if I thought I'd

like children someday.  That was her way of bringing it up, delicately.  I kind of brushed

her off.  I'll work on being good from now on."

 

                "You were like a daddy to me sometimes.  It would be nice if you could be one

yourself, someday. . ." That was the last time we ever talked about it.

 

                The next year went by, easily at first, then more difficult.  Stefan brought girls home

that he was dating, but never the same one twice.  After a while, they trickled down

to nothing, but he still went out.  His grades began to slide, save for his European History

class.  Father pounced on this detail.  "So, now you have a burning interest in History?"

 

                "Well, dad, my Professor told me, if I could just bring the other grades up, maybe

I might make a good History instructor.  He fixed me up with a couple of tutors---"

 

                "NOT until I meet these 'tutors' for myself.   Why can't you keep up with the work,

anyway?"

 

                "Maybe too many classes at once, Dad.  If I could drop one or two, I could do justice

to the ones that are left.  It would take longer to graduate, that's all."

 

                "Well, if I'm going to be supporting your academic career for the extra time, it had

better be for something more remunerative than teaching, even in college."

 

                Again, Stefan tried to hide his rage at this latest set-back. 

 

                "I want to meet your famous Professor," Dad snapped.  "And, Stefan, when are we

going to see some fresh young faces around here again?  Female faces, that is?"

 

                "Like I told you, dad, I've got a lot of schoolwork. . . "

 

                "You go out enough."

 

                "I always take my books!  I go to the library!   I meet with my---my tutors!  I don't

have time for that stuff!"

 

                "That had better be the only reason, boy.  And bring those tutors by.  And maybe

that know-it-all professor."

 

                The tutors passed muster once they admitted they were serious students who

preferred the company of young ladies (or those who were female, but not ladies.)  The

handsome Professor Hallett, who came to dinner with us, was even married, but separated.

That didn't bother dad too much, and the tenuous peace reigned once more.  Stefan's grades

improved somewhat.  Then one day, the spit hit the fan.

 

                The very attractive Professor Hallett was fired for what college officials were

discreetly calling, in the papers, "a scandal of ever-expanding proportions."  Professor

Hallett,  turned in by a scorned student lover, was discovered to have engaged in a series

of affairs with many of his students.  Both female AND male.  The student who'd ratted him

out was a boy.  And the one whom the Professor had preferred over this disgruntled

former lover was his fellow classmate . . .

 

                Mama and I weren't aware, at first, of what was happening.  Dad must have paid a

mint to keep Stefan's name out of the papers, out of testifying to the College Board of

Governors.  He DID keep Stefan grounded, forbidden to leave the house, to make any calls,

until he made up his tormented mind what to do next with this incorrigible pervert.

 

                Stefan was frantic, missing his lover and his freedom.  One day, he went into father's

study to ask permission to take me out for a hamburger. "Dad," I could hear him say,

"Terez ASKED me, and you know I wouldn't do anything to hurt her or mess up her head---"

 

                Cringing in the hallway, I heard a loud SLAP! and Stefan walked out, a red welt

spreading across his cheek.  As he glanced my way, I could see he held the tears in his eyes,

something at which he was becoming proficient.  I was frightened of the way he looked

when he did this, like the hurt and anger was being roped down inside, but would continue

to knaw at him like I'd seen animals at the Zoo chewing at the bars of their cages.  Once in a

while, if the bars were weakened by rust, something dangerous would break through . . .

 

                "Terez, please help me," he whispered hoarsely, suppressing sobs.  "I don't know

what he's going to do with me.  Send me to jail, to a nuthouse. . . Oh, GOD, I'm so sorry,

Terez, you're only ten, even if you COULD help me, I haven't the right to ask. . . "

 

                "Stefan, listen," I said, "if you need to get out, I could cover for you in some other

way.   Daddy can't be everywhere to watch you.  Sooner or later he's going back to the office.

And I could distract Mama---"

 

                "Just a short time, Terez.  Just one trip---to the bank.  I need some money, from the account I started for myself, he can't touch THAT.  After that, I don't know--- but just this once, sweetheart."

 

                Two days later, we saw our chance.  Father finally HAD to go back to the office.

He left strict instructions with Mama, our housekeeper, and his personal assistant, to keep

an eye on Stefan.  Still, with all these obstacles,  we'd thought up a plan that was quite simple, but had a good chance of succeeding, if Stefan returned from his errand swiftly.

 

                Mama was sitting with us, watching television, when I suddenly clutched my stomach.  "Oooh, Mama," I said, forcing tears to spring from my eyes. 

 

                "What is it, love?" she jumped to my side.

 

                "Feels like something's--something's broken inside," I muttered.  "Hurts."

 

                Mama felt my forehead.  I hadn't a fever, but my agitation was making me feel terribly warm, so much that my face reddened.  My temperature must have risen correspondingly.

 

                "It may be nothing, it may be appendicitis---but we'd better get her to the pediatrician," Mama declared.  "Stefan, I'd rather you came along---Terez will be less frightened if you're there."  She called to Father's assistant to bring the car around.

 

                When we got to the pediatrician, our Driver sat outside in the car,

and the three of us tumbled into the waiting room.  Of course, only Mama was allowed into the examination cubicle.  While I groaned and moaned, Stefan was to sneak out past where the driver awaited, dash to the bank, and be back within fifteen minutes, as we'd rehearsed.

 

                I kept the adults a good twenty, just to be on the safe side, telling tales of how this

had happened several times already, a week or two a month, as Stefan had instructed me. 

Finally, the doctor released us with the diagnosis that I was, likely, about to change into a woman, a few years earlier than average.  Armed with a "starter" kit of pads and Pamprin, we trudged back out to the waiting room.  Stefan wasn't there.

 

                Mama immediately sniffed deception, and glared at me, but held her tongue.

Ten minutes passed.  Twenty.  We walked out to the car, and Mama told the driver to circle

the nearby streets.

 

                It was then, we saw Stefan, on a street corner, talking to a man--- Professor Hallett!

The Driver pulled alongside, and Mama called, distinctly, in a tone of such controlled rage

as she'd NEVER used to Stefan in his whole life, nor to me, either.  "Get in the car!"

Not even a TRACE of her accent.

 

                Stefan was about to run, but our driver, a large man, got out.  The courageous

Professor pushed Stefan away, and trotted down the street.  My brother wore a look of

such forlorn betrayal. . . He got into the car without further inducement.

 

                Mama didn't speak to either of us, just herded us indoors, and called Father home.

He threw the door open with such force, it almost broke from the hinges.  "STEFAN!

TEREZ!"

 

                Stefan and I came downstairs, hand-in-hand, as befitted co-conspirators, though

I, too, felt betrayed.  In the hallway upstairs, just after we'd gotten home, I'd wept to him,

"Stefan! You PROMISED!  Just the bank, you said. . . Fifteen minutes. . . We would have

gotten away with it!  Now we're both going to get killed!  I HATE you!"

 

                "Terez. . . I won't insult you by apologizing, but I AM sorry. . . I DID go to the bank,

but I had to call him, one last time, see him---"

 

                "Kiss him good-bye, you mean!"

 

                "Terez. . . I hope you never know what it's like. . . to love someone like that. . .

Someone who uses you, then shoves you aside when trouble comes---"

 

                "Someone like YOU!  You QUEER!"  I cried hard, then, and he comforted me

enough so that I willingly, if gingerly, held his hand as we went down to face our Father---

 

                ---Who wasted no time, when Stefan was before him, to grab my willowy brother by

his shoulders, and SLAMMING him into the nearest wall.  "Irma, get Terez out of here,"

he growled, "I'll deal with HER later."

 

                My brother's eyes were black with fear; he trembled all over, even drooled a little.

How many times had HE taken up for ME?  Times without counting.  "NO!" I screamed,

and broke from Mama's grasp, to hang onto Stefan. "You can't MAKE me leave MY BROTHER

so you could KILL him!  You kill HIM, then you have to kill ME too!  It's my fault, too!"

 

                My defiance caused Father, who'd never laid a violent hand upon me in my life, to

slap me away like a mosquito.  Mama grabbed me again, and cried "TAMAS!  Calm down,

or I will call the police!"

 

                "Shut UP!" Father roared.  "NOBODY'S going to get KILLED, DAMN IT!  As for

the POLICE---" he gazed at the boy in his grasp--- "Maybe I'll let them take this

DISGUSTING piece of PERVERTED  FILTH.  Sodomy's still a crime in these parts!"

 

                "No," Stefan begged.

 

                "Then, maybe the NUTHOUSE, where I sent your PERVERTED MOTHER!"

 

                "WHAT?" Stefan and I both cried in unison.

 

                "That's right, you FAGGOT.  My God, It all fits.  It all fits!" Father began to laugh

rather insanely himself, I thought.  "This POLLUTION comes from that SICK bitch.

I loved her, I loved her till I was sick myself, and how did she repay me for getting her out

of Hungary?  She---I had to clap her in the ASYLUM!"

 

                "No, Daddy," Stefan whimpered like a child.  "She went to England.  You and Mama Irma SAID so.   She went to live with your friends, and that's why I got my money out of the bank, so I could go visit her, ask her why I'm screwed up, maybe I'll get better then, oh, DADDY,  don't tell me you and Mama lied!" Stefan glanced toward Mama, who only nodded assent, but shamefacedly, at deceiving the boy she regarded as her own son.

 

                "Well, I HATE to burst your bubble, SON, but even if I stick you in the very

same asylum, you WON'T find her."  Father wore a cruel, poisonous grin.

 

                "She got out, didn't she?" Stefan said with faltering hope.  "She was released, or escaped, and went to England, then. . ."

 

                "She's DEAD, son.  DEAD.  A month after she got there.  Thank God she never had

a CHANCE to get out, after what---" Father choked every time he came to the specifics of the late Jana's offense. 

 

"And, after I TOLD you and TOLD you about this DISGUSTING way of life you keep running to, Stefan--- You CAN'T stay away.  You LIE, and CHEAT, and you even get your SISTER involved----She's just ten, for GOD'S SAKE!  I CAN'T let you do to HER, what your GOD-DAMNED MOTHER. . ."

 

Father  suddenly released Stefan, who was so unprepared, he fell to the floor.  "You have a choice, Stefan.  You say you have some money.  Well, we both know I have MORE.  Enough to send your little dickweed buddy Philip away, enough to keep your name--- MY NAME--- out of this whole mess at the College, enough to get you locked up until you're so old and grey, you'll forget just what the HELL you ever wanted to LOOK at another man for--- but you have a choice. 

 

�You can choose to go MY way, go to a hospital, let them do whatever they have to to straighten you out.  Or, you can take your piddly nest-egg, and get the Hell out of this house, NEVER to return.  I can't have you corrupting your sister, causing grief to your step-mother, and scandalizing our lives, my business.  Maybe you're good for something, maybe you can make it out there. . . I don't give a Damn, anymore.  Go, and it's FOREVER.  Your choice, Stefan."

 

                Stefan rose slowly, all his tears, sobs, fear extinguished.  He stood, for the first and

last time, eye-to-eye with our Father.  "I can't help the way I am.  Maybe it's my mother's fault, maybe not.  All I know IS, you could send me to a thousand shrinks, pump me with gallons of hormones, whatever, shock me, lock me in a rubber room. . . I'm NOT going to change.  I'm just GOING. . . out of this PRISON.  And the sooner, the better."  He ran past Mama and myself, up to the attic, to get his suitcases.

 

                The next-to-last I ever saw of my brother was his slow descent down the stairs, with his heavily-laden suitcases.  (Stefan had the habit of rushing to obtain the latest fashions, even at this early stage, and I was sure he had only skimmed the cream of his extensive wardrobe.)   He made a move as though he was going to drop the luggage to hug me good-bye, but our Father glared at him.  Without missing a further beat, Stefan walked through the wide old door Mama held open for him.  Father could not stop me from rushing to the living-room window to watch my brother take one last look back at his former home. 

 

The late afternoon sun struck him as he turned away   again--- the light outlined his fine profile, his light brown hair became a golden nimbus, and even from a distance, his eyes shone violet-blue.   Then a cloud crossed the sun, and there was just a dark figure trudging down the street.  THAT was my final sight of Stefan.

 

                The act of throwing out his only son immediately  deflated  Father (for such I called him, and thought of him, from that moment--- an entity as distant as the silhouette that had just vanished from my sight.)  Any thought of punishing me seemed to dissipate, though he warned me against ever trying to contact Stefan.  "What will you do now?" Mama asked wearily.  (She had been deflated too.  And hurt as badly as myself, though how badly I was not to know for another year.)

 

                "Send the girl away to a convent school, somewhere. . . I don't know," Father finally admitted.  "God, Irma, don't make this worse than it already is, with questions I can't answer.  Let's just not mention--- him--- again."

 

                It was strange how quickly our lives became "normal" again, after Stefan's exile.  Father, and to an extent, Mama, began to live as though he'd never existed, and expected me to do the same.  What choice did I have, at that point?  Plus, I couldn't injure Mama's feelings any further; I began to fear for her health the day she, a maid, and I had packed the last of Stefan's clothes to be given to the Salvation Army (an ironic destination for a homosexual man's wardrobe!)  She was putting photo albums and scrapbooks into a trunk destined for the attic when her lips turned blue, and she became terribly short of breath.

 

                "Mama, you MUST go to a doctor!  It must be your heart.  Remember your own mother," I admonished.  Though I was still under eleven then, I already knew the story of how my maternal grandmother had died of heart failure while a refugee in Hungary; she'd only been thirty-six.  Mama was thirty-seven now, but she'd enjoyed a prosperous, fairly placid existence--- until recently. 

 

                "Yes, Terez my baby.  It just hurts so much since my other baby is gone. . . Stefan really was my baby, too, you know.  Jana couldn't do a thing with him.  I was only sixteen, but my mama had taught me so well. . . "

 

                "Mama, please, don't fret over him!  He might come back someday, maybe Father will be sorry and ask him to come back--- but take care of yourself!  I need you--- Stefan may need you again--- FATHER needs you---"

 

                "Tamas!" she spat.  "Terez, you must do one favor for me--- I can no longer be to your father what I once was.  I loved him and helped him, even if he didn't quite love me--- But it's over for me.  You notice how we have separate rooms now.  But whatever befalls, love, DON'T desert him completely.  Be angry at him, leave him for a while, but always return, because in his own way, he DOES love you.  And perhaps THAT will be what brings our Stefan back.  Promise me, Terez, even if I am gone before that day."

 

                "Only if you promise to go to a doctor, and stop talking about being 'gone'."

 

                Even though Father and Mama were, indeed, living separate lives in their large house, Father DID feel compunction over his wife's condition, and MADE her go to the best (and most expensive) cardiologists in the state of Pennsylvania.  It was to no avail--- nowadays, I suppose, Mama would likely have been a candidate for a heart transplant.  But this was 1962, some years before such procedures were even attempted (and frequently failed anyway, in that early era!)  Still, the medicines kept her going, interspersed with hospital stays, for another three years. 

 

I had just started high school when our principal, Sister Maria Vincent, walked directly into our classroom and led me out by the hand. . . Our Pastor drove me to the hospital, his small case of equipment for the Last Rites on the front seat between us. . .

 

                Father emerged from Mama's room.  He said, gruffly, not looking at me (which had been his habit since Stefan's departure), "Thank God you came in time.   Your mother--- Irma---Christ!" he broke off, and ran down the hall.

 

                I sat by the bed where Mama was encumbered with a breathing tube and IV's.  There were strange machines that blipped and beeped.  She gasped, "Terez, remember the promise. . ."

 

                "Mama," I wept, "if only Stefan was here, maybe you'd get better.  But it's been over three years now. . ."

 

                "Terez. . . Listen.  In my jewelry box at home, a key. . . Post Office. . . 1307.  Stefan's and mine. . ."

 

                I was shocked out of weeping.  "You mean, you two have been WRITING, and you didn't tell ME?"

 

                "Just in last year. . . Would have told you. . . next birthday.  He called while. . . Tamas out.  Rented box for us.   Stefan is. . . England. . .   Letters are in album trunk, with address.  Let Stefan KNOW.  But be careful.   Tamas not--- not ready.  Be good, Love.  Have faith.  Someday, he'll be--- he'll---"  Suddenly, Mama made a guttural, rattling sound.  I was already screaming for help when I saw her eyeballs roll out of sight.

 

                Father followed hard upon the doctors and nurses--- I guess he hadn't run out of the building after all.  He gently led me out of the room.  He got sleeping pills for me from the doctors.  I recall being alert for the wake and the funeral.  Two days after the funeral, the pills rans out, and I searched for the PO Box key and the letters in the trunk.  They were GONE.  Father must have heard Mama talk about them through the door, after all!  The heartless bastard!   I couldn't even tell Stefan about his beloved stepmother's passing!

 

                Oh, what to do?  I went to the Post Office nearest the house, and enquired about Box 1307.  When they said it wasn't registered to Irma or Stefan Kossuth, and that nobody named Tamas Kossuth had asked about the same box, I believed them.  Perhaps the box I sought was further afield.   I ran home, determined to search my father's room for clues.   The door, of course, was locked.  But I knew where the housekeepers stashed the skeleton keys.  

 

I was soon looking into Father's drawers and closet.  Stupid of me, of course Father got rid of the evidence!  Then I looked into the fireplace grate (the house we lived in was over 100 years old, and every room had a small hearth, though they were seldom used, save to toast marshmallows and pop corn--- mine and Stefan's former winter pastimes.)  There were burned paper fragments, now grown cold.  A piece of envelope--- a piece of a name--- Chiltern--- and a melted blob of metal.  The key?

 

                Still, the strange name had given me an idea--- I went back to the Post Office.  I asked about a Box belonging to a Chiltern.  I dangled the blob before them.  "Fell in the fireplace, stupid accident."   No Chiltern Box registered, maybe  I should try the next Post Office a couple of miles away.   They called for me.  Sure enough, there was a PO Box in the name of Stephan Chiltern.  I called a taxi, and soon told the sad story of my mother's dying wish to the Postmaster there.  He GAVE me a new key to Box 1307. 

 

                I happily clutched Stefan's latest letter to Mama.  Father would be outraged when he learned of my errand, but I was determined to commit Stefan's new address to memory--- Father was hardly going to get me a lobotomy in order to forget!   Then I noticed--- NO RETURN ADDRESS!  I tore open the envelope.  I read the letter--- there was nothing substantial in it, no clue as to my brother's actual whereabouts, just "How are you and Terez?  I am well, happy, and am working in a garden at last!"  My mother, now dead, had known the address, any other copies of it were now destroyed, and unless Stefan included it in a future letter, it was hopeless.

 

                Father said nothing when I finally arrived home, late for dinner--- he just GLOATED.  He knew, all right!  "Father, please, where is my brother?" I begged.

 

                "Keep visiting your mailbox, you little thief," was his pleasant reply.

 

                I did.  Two more letters arrived in the next month.  Stefan was puzzled as to why Mama wouldn't reply--- "Mama Irma, is everything all right?  Is Daddy stopping you from writing?"  Yes, Stefan, I wept, unable to answer him.  Daddy put a stop to it, all right.  A month passed without another letter, and I realized that Stefan had given up. 

 

                Father and I had fallen into a routine--- now we simply pretended that Mama had never existed, my presence notwithstanding.  We faced each other at dinner, then we would each drift off to our own occupations.  I forced myself to excel in my studies, the better to escape to some glamorous women's college, the further away the better.  And I vowed never to return, until I could go to England and search high and low until I could bring my brother home.

 

                This obsession, of course, put a crimp in what should have been a carefree adolescence of exploring my options for the future, including love options.  I had grown to resemble Mama in coloring, but my father in facial features; plus, I was middling tall, just shy of five-and-a-half feet, tending, again, toward Father's side of the family.  

 

However, one thing about his appearance I prayed I would never inherit--- in early middle age he was already inclined to a solid, barrel-like figure, with the dismal promise of corpulence, due to heavy eating, and drinking of spirits, without Mama to act as a brake on his self-indulgence.  Deprived of the family he'd more or less thrown away, and denying himself the opportunity to recoup, even, perhaps, finding another wife to console him, Father must have felt there was little point in maintaining his appearance--- or his manners, yet another discouragement to my bringing any friends to our home.

 

                Yet there was one boy who followed me with his eyes all through grammar school, and became bold enough to approach me in high school, a boy I'd always regarded mainly as a friend, but who intimated he wanted more.  As I reached my eighteenth year, I decided that it would be prudent to cut any possible losses, and concentrate on this devoted suitor. 

 

Daniel Callahan was his name, the son of a very successful plumbing contractor, and certain to take over his father's business in due time.   But before that eventuality, he wanted to join some branch of the military and see something of the world--- and upon that, I pinned my hopes.  I dreamed of marrying Daniel for the express purpose of joining him if he was stationed in Europe; unrealistically imagining that, even if my moving there was possible, I would have the means, the time, and the PERMISSION to comb England and the Continent for some trace of "Stephan Chiltern".

 

                To test Daniel, I often talked of my wonderful brother and his idyllic life as a gardener in England, then sigh, "But dear Father never approved of Stefan's career, and so I'll have to raise my own funds for a visit, though Father would NEVER want his daughter to travel alone."

 

                At this Daniel, utterly smitten, and angry on my behalf at my "dear father's" obstinacy, would protest that he would see to it that I went to Europe, even if I had to wait a while until he was settled in the family business.  "We'll go together, make it a honeymoon, a second one if we're married a while by then," Daniel promised, his pale blue eyes shining in his earnest if ordinary pale face.   "When's the earliest we CAN marry, Terry?  I know I'll be signing up soon, crossing my fingers that I don't end up in that Vietnam, and that will be four years. . . . Then, you're probably all set for college, also four years. . . . If we get engaged now, do you think we'll both make it through four years, mostly apart?"

 

                "I don't know, Daniel, but Dear Father will get angry if I DON'T go to college and take up some career to make it worth the investment.  I can't say that I blame him, and, really, you can't imagine HOW I've been looking forward to getting away--- to Radcliffe or Smith or Bryn Mawr or Vassar. . . .  But we'll get together when the time is right.  You'll see."

 

                Little did we know that the right time was closer than even Daniel would have wished.

 

                It was during this time that I re-read the few letters of Stefan's that I had been saving all these years.  I was putting one back in its envelope, when, for the first time, the POSTMARK caught my eye.  It was generic enough; obviously it had been posted from London, but the tinier, slightly smeared words and numbers I had always taken for granted, flared like neon!

 

 I got a magnifying glass, and transcribed them as best I could.  "Wilb_r_ C--ss # 67_1" was the best I could do.  Then, I got out the proper volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, looked up the enlarged map of London, with its listing of communities and points of interest.

 

Under "W", there were 2 places that seemed close:  Wilborn Cross, and Wilbury Cross.  Okay, okay, I thought, now all I have to do is call these Post offices, and HOPE one still had a listing for Stephan Chiltern, or at least, old records of his P.O. Box, after so much time.  And I have to do it somehow, without it appearing on OUR phone bill.      

 

I couldn't ask Daniel; he thought Stefan and I were writing regularly.   There WAS someone, I realized, who might help:  Our former maid, Clarice, the one who had been helping Mama and myself pack Stefan's clothing on the fatal day of Mama's first heart attack.   After Mama finally passed away, Clarice, who had liked and respected her immensely, quit and got a new job, when Father had turned into a bitter martinet. 

 

"I'm sorry, Miss Terry," she'd said that day, "But I'm not a young woman anymore and I can't take it.  Hate to leave you with HIM, but he's not too mean to YOU, just kinda cold.  Maybe now, he'll hire someone with no memories and calm down some.  At least, I'll PRAY on it.  In the meantime, if you EVER need anything, you just come to my new place, and I'll help you, in Missus Irma's memory." 

 

She had given me the address of one of Philadelphia's Main Line familes, the Baxters, and a new, private phone number.  I dialed it now, and it was out of service!  Then, I decided to check Father's office records.  If there was an influential Philly family whose number he DIDN'T have, it would have been an almost unbelievable oversight.   He had the Baxter's main home number, all right.  He probably had Stefan's information squirreled away somewhere as well, but THAT he would keep as a well-guarded and locked secret unto his dying day and beyond, I suspected.

 

I called the Baxters to confirm whether Clarice was still working for them, saying I was her niece from out of town.  The butler who had answered said yes, but it was her day off, and I'd have to call her at her apartment on the estate.  I said I had lost her home number, so, instead of handing it out, he patched me to an extension, a private line which connected to the apartment.  In a moment, I recognized Clarice's grumbling growl as she said "Hello?" obviously annoyed to be bothered by her employers on her day off!

 

"Clarice!  Clarice Rucker!"  I all but wept into the phone.  "It's me, Terez-- Terry-- Kossuth!"

 

"Miss Terry?  After so much time?  Are you okay, baby? How's it you're calling me on the house line?"

 

I explained, and after polite inquiries as to her current state of affairs ("Oh, just FINE, Miss Terry.  I got a lot of help here, and they talk to us pretty civil and pay us pretty good.  And when I was real sick with the flu last year, they paid EVERYTHING, and fed me better chicken soup than even my Mama, rest her soul.  And I got such a NICE set of rooms here, and I'm sorry about the phone, but here's my new number. . .")

 

"Thanks, Clarice.  Remember when you once said, if I needed anything, in memory of my mother--- It's about my brother Stefan, Clarice.  I think I can find him, with your help."  Again, I explained about the overseas phone calls that would be necessary.  "Don't worry, I'll pay you   back--- DOUBLE.  TRIPLE, if I succeed!"

 

"Now, Miss Terry, don't worry about that.  Just the cost would be fine, and knowin' I helped bring you folks back together.  Come around any Thursday or Sunday.  Maybe it's too late for you today, but come this Sunday, and we'll go to my church together first, to pray for Mr. Stefan AND Mr. Tamas, that their hearts are healed someday."

 

This seemed reasonable, and as for attending Zion A.M.E. with Clarice, well, once Stefan was gone, Mama was dead, and I had passed out of 8th grade at my old Parochial School, neither I nor Father had attended the church of our origin.   But I figured, I'm going to need all the help I could get, if, indeed, help from a Higher Source WAS possible.  Even if it emanated from a simple church on the south end of Philly.

 

I was taken aback when we DID go--- oh, Clarice hadn't changed all that much in 4 years, though she wept with joy at seeing what "a FINE young lady you're shapin' out to be, Miss Terry!"  I said she didn't need to call me "Miss" Terry anymore, or else, I'd call HER "Mrs. Rucker" (her husband had passed away before I was born.)  "No, M--- Terry, I don't need to be reminded of THAT rascal.  Clarice and Terry, that's the way it is.  We're all equals before the Lord.  Even such misguided souls as--- forgive me--- your brother and your Daddy."

 

"No need to forgive, Clarice, you called it just right.  I hope I get a clue as how to set them straight someday."  (Oh, the irony of THAT phrase, in regards to Stefan, whose orientation no longer disturbed me, so long as he settled down with a nice enough �friend� and was happy and productive.)

 

"I hope so, too, Terry---" Clarice sighed "--- but, understand, you MIGHT get an answer today, and though it might not be the answer you WANT, or maybe you won't KNOW it's the answer right off--- you have to accept it and try to work your way around it.  It's all we can do, acceptin' the Lord's will.  He knows best."

 

We sat through what would, under other circumstances, might have been termed the most ENTERTAINING church services I had ever attended, or, likely, would EVER attend.  There was singing--- and I mean SINGING.  I could see how so many Motown  pop stars had gotten their start in the choirs of their childhood churches (even if they weren't faithful attendees AFTERWARD.)

 

 I'm sure I heard the next Aretha Franklin or Diana Ross in the women's section that day.   A Little Richard sound-alike was enthusiastically rallying the Men's chorus.  And, of course, there was a BAND--- it included an organ, to be sure, and a trumpet, but there was a drummer and other musicians OUR church would NEVER have included in its sedate traditional choir loft.  One of the men played a SAXOPHONE !

 

Then, the minister, after delivering a fire-and-brimstone sermon, asked that the parishioners ANNOUNCE their intentions, quite unlike the modest list our priest used to read from every Sunday, and which one had to PAY to get on.  Clarice, all inhibitions shed in her rapture, sang out the names of every member of my family, living and dead, that the Lord would save the living from perdition, the dead would have peace, and all would be happily reunited on the Judgment day, never to part in Paradise.  The orchestra and chorus answered each intention with a thunderous AMEN, LORD, AMEN!

 

It was good enough for a start. 

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

�Damn that grandson of mine!�  Sam Evans thought, as he waited by the locked door of his tavern,  �The Blue Whale�, in the damp chill and dense fog of the wee hours of a Maine autumn morning.

 The young man was supposed to have picked up his grandfather after closing time, due to Sam�s usually-trusty Toyota having been at the repair shop for the last 2 days.  Here it was, the third night , already (the mechanic promised the obscure engine part would arrive in a week), and for the first time, Willie Loomis was later than he USUALLY was, by a HOUR. 

 

It was too late to call Collinsport�s only taxi.   Jeff Wilkins, who had to work alone since his brother was in the hospital,  had taken Sam�s last inebriated Halloween customers home at one, after which the exhausted cabbie was finished for the night.

 

Sam debated whether to re-open the �Whale� and use the phone to call Willie, who was never around to answer anyway, probably off at a costume party, or some other tomfoolery.  He fought the urge to call his always-trustworthy grand-daughter Sophia, but the poor girl was always so tired� Overworked by Roger Collins, Sam grumbled inwardly, who kept the household staff to a minimum in the huge mansion he shared with his sister Elizabeth Stoddard, over the latter�s objections.  

 

Sam KNEW his �Sofe� would jump out of bed at 2:30 in the morning, throw on a thin sweater, and pick up and deliver home her dear �Grampus�, as she called him (�To her, I�m a cuddly old GREY whale,� he thought  fondly), then arise again at 6:30 AM to assume her duties. 

 

Along  the way, they were sure to run into Sohpia�s delinquent brother, hurrying back from his big night out, thus making the devoted sister�s efforts a double waste.  The boy could NOT claim to have as many chores at Collinwood, even though he was, technically, in charge of much of the heavy labor on the estate.  Sophia reported that Willie breezed his way through his work detail,  then was out, practically every night, with some college girl who was probably just slumming with the handsome, wild-but-good-natured dolt, until something better came along.  

 

Earlier that very evening, during the brief but fierce thunderstorm, Sophia had called to tattle on Willie again.  She related that he had been late to pick up the new governess or tutor or whatever for that spoiled Collins brat David, some poor girl named Victoria Winters, who had gotten totally soaked at the train station while waiting for him.  �And he made ME carry all her luggage!� she�d wailed.

 

So, Sam resisted the impulse to go back inside for the phone.  No new-fangled cell-phones for HIM; there was something about the damp, electrically-charged atmosphere in Collinsport that often rendered them unreliable, in spite of the huge new tower in Ellsworth, the next town over.  (Sophia had mentioned something of the kind had troubled the newcomer.)   

 

However, a sudden need to use the rest room forced him indoors--- he felt too old to comfortably do his business outside, behind a bush, and far too cold. 

A few minutes later, with his grandson STILL nowhere in sight, Sam decided, what the hell, he�d TRY calling the boy, and then Sophia.   He rang up the number at the caretaker�s cottage Elizabeth Stoddard had generously allotted to his grandson, Willie�s first official �bachelor pad.� (�Aw, Grandpa, nowadays we call it a �crib�,� the boy had protested.  �Bachelor pad is SO 1960s!�)

 

No answer; well, Sam had expected THAT.  Now to try the young man�s cell phone, which, besides being unreliable, was often out of service, because Willie was forgetful about paying  the bills.

 

Sam rejoiced to hear that it was being answered.  Maybe that college girl was helping Willie to pay for the damned thing.   But the old man was dismayed to hear the voice that DID answer.

 

�Hel-hello?� --- a weak, uncertain voice that resembled Willie�s, QUITE unlike his usual braying bravado.  �Who�who�s ziss? �

 

�Willie?  It�s your GRANDFATHER, you twit!  You were supposed to pick me up by one-thirty!  What the hell�s the matter with you, are you DRUNK?  STONED?�

�Oh, I�m�I�m sorry Gran�paReally sorry.  But something�something happened��  Willie sounded like he was going to CRY.

 

What the HELL�S the matter with that kid, Sam thought, then felt guilty about yelling at his grandson.  It sounded, for once, like something was really WRONG.  Maybe he�d been in some accident, and was afraid to tell him.  Sam was often exasperated with the young man, but he DID love him as much as he loved the worthy Sophia. 

 

He worried about the both of them every day since they were born,  through all the years he�d helped his daughter Maggie raise them after their father, Willie Senior, had abandoned them 15 years earlier, and in the 2 years since she had died of cancer, like her own mother, Margarida.

 

�Willie,� the older man now said, putting reassurance into his gruff voice, �What�s the problem?  You stuck somewhere yourself, something about the car?  Don�t worry, whatever it is, we�ll just call Sofe, and she---�

 

�It�it�s okay Gran�paReally.  I was with Kelly, you know, the girl I�I was��  Now came a choking sound, a gasp, and for a moment, some weird growling sound. 

 

�WILLIE!  What�s the matter, did you have a car crash, are you and that Kelly okay?  Where the hell are you?�

 

Willie returned to the call, now audibly weeping.  �Yeah , there was--- an accident.  But Kelly, she�s not--- she wasn�t involved.  She--- we had a fight �cause I got drunk, and she--- left me to go with some other guy, I don�t know--- know �is name.  The car, I thought I hit someone, but I didn�t, and it broke down and I was drunk and got sick---�  Willie was now talking in a rush, through his sobs.

�Willie, just tell me where you are, never mind Sophia, I�ll call a cop.  Don�t worry if you really DIDN�T hurt anyone.  First offense and all that, and you know George Patterson�s a good friend of mine.  Sit tight and I�ll be there, soon as I can.�

 

�No-no, Gran�pa, it�s okay.  Someone�s coming with me.  He helped me when I was broken down.   I�m getting better, now� It�s�It�s all over.�

 

�I don�t believe that for a minute, and I don�t trust some random stranger you met in the middle of the night, even if he DID help you out of a jam,�  Sam harrumphed, now irritated with his errant grandson again.   This whole business with the girl--- what if Willie had hit HER with the car, or thought he did?  Not that he was really a MEAN kid, and the girl wasn�t exactly the love of his life, but if he was THAT drunk--- maybe the girl was still out there, injured and dazed, or the guy she allegedly left Willie for�

 

But Willie wasn�t telling him where he was located, so Sam couldn�t exactly call George Patterson to help him find the boy.  There were these other new-fangled expensive things called GPS units, but Willie couldn�t afford one as yet, and who knew, maybe the same interference that wrought havoc with Collinsport cell-phones would jam the satellite�s signals.

 

 So Sam knew he really had no choice but to tell Willie he would wait, after all.   As he hung up the phone behind the bar, though, Sam made sure the police station was on speed-dial, in case he didn�t like the looks of Willie�s new pal.

 

Twenty minutes later, from the tavern window, Sam saw Willie�s car pull in.   �Well, I guess he wasn�t that far away after all, on the road from Ellsworth, maybe,� he groused.   Still, he tensed when he saw his grandson and a tall stranger emerge from the vehicle, and his hand was on the phone, about to hit the speed-dial button.

 

Willie had a key to the tavern�s front door, which, Sam had to give him credit, the younger man had never used except in emergencies.   Willie looked wan and sad, but the stranger had a hand on his shoulder--- to steady the boy, Sam thought at first.  Then he took a good look at the taller man, and had to control a shudder.

 

It wasn�t the man�s general appearance that bothered the seasoned barkeep, who had seen all manner of haberdashery, and knew better than to judge a man by his clothes.  And indeed, in this case, there would have been nothing remarkable anyway. 

 

The sturdy, muscular man was dressed in a ubiquitous, if somewhat tight, sweatshirt bearing the logo of the U-Maine football team, the Black Bears, and equally snug jeans.  Indeed, these were almost uniforms for Sam�s grandson, even though Willie had recently given up on the university after a spotty attendance and academic record.

 

It was the FACE, older and far more knowing than a college boy�s, incongruous in the casual youthful ensemble, yet made the open-mouthed and fanged bear logo even more ominous and vicious�. The stranger was a handsome devil, with dark blond hair, rather like Willie�s , finely chiseled features, with a wide forehead, serious expression, and piercing eyes of an unusual blue-grey with hints of green and GOLD.  A handsome devil, for sure, Sam thought, and why did he think of THAT word? 

 

Because he HAD seen that face before, nearly 50 years before, in fact.  His mind wandered back to that time�

 

Back in his ambitious youth, when a young handsome Sam Evan was casting about for extra work to support his art school education�  Because, before he inevitably inherited the family business (Evanses having owned and operated the Blue Whale for half of its 250-year history) Sam had displayed talent and hoped to be a famous painter one day.

 

Unlike  the replica grandson he was someday to have, the young Sam not only had plans, but the love of HIS life--- Margarida Texeira, daughter of a Portuguese fisherman for the Collins enterprises that had recently been promoted to captain of one of their largest fishing trawlers.   Her family objected to the romance, of course, due to the religious, ethnic, and economic differences, but Margarida insisted that if Sam could somehow prove he could make a good living from his art, their objections would somehow magically vanish.

 

Things were not looking good for Sam at that point--- an Army veteran already, who had endured a tour of duty in Korea; working part-time for his father at the Whale, and part-time in the Collins cannery; all the while working feverishly on canvasses to peddle to summer tourists AND sneaking out to see his beautiful Margarida� 

 

Yet he knew he was far from earning what his love�s family expected for their daughter, who had also attracted the eye of a prosperous young builder who attended Our Lady of Fatima Church in Ellsworth with them.   Sam knew quite well that first-generation immigrant families were quite capable of putting a LOT of pressure on a daughter to marry their choice, even if America forbade them from FORCING her to do so.

 

So he was taken aback when Jamison Collins, owner of the Collins businesses and the father only of little Elizabeth at that time (Roger was born about 5 years later, which event killed his mother Caroline) called the young artist/canning machine operator into his office.  Sam was full of anxiety--- business had been slowing a bit and he feared a lay-off, and at such a crucial time!  He had to fight to keep from trembling.

 

�Young man,� Jamison, plain-faced and tough-looking for an aristocrat, said sternly.  �I�ve heard that you are an artist, a painter specifically.�

 

Sam almost fell off his chair; so far, he had only told some sympathetic old lady in the labeling department about his ambitions.  He hadn�t wanted the burly cannery men to make fun of his �sissy� plans.  �Well�� he stammered��I intend to go to art school--- someday.  Is it against some company rule? �

 

Jamison laughed at the younger man�s discomfiture.  �Good Lord, Evans, of course not.  You don�t look the sort who would plan to spend his whole working life in a factory--- or a tavern like your father owns, not that there�s anything WRONG with that, so long as a he doesn�t tolerate disorderly behavior.�

 

Sam replied with spirit, �As far as I know, he does not, sir.�  Then afraid again, he added, �begging your pardon, sir.�

 

Jamison replied, �This isn�t the Army, either, young man.  You ARE a bundle of nerves, though.  Well, maybe it�s the artistic temperament I�ve heard so much about.  I merely wanted to give you a commission.  You�ve done commissions, haven�t you?�

�Ye-esss, I DID paint a couple of portraits for people, and seascapes to order. I don�t know if I�m qualified, though---�

 

�Well, I confess I�ve done some checking up on you, Evans, when my housekeeper, Sarah Johnson, said her sister Phyllis worked with a young artist right here in the cannery.  I�ve been wanting a portrait done of my wife and daughter together for my wife�s birthday in two months.  I was going to consult other professionals, but just on a whim, I went to see some of your other works.  You, young man, have got an AMAZING talent.   Give this job the old college try, and if I�m satisfied and my wife is pleased, not only will I pay you well, I will help you pay for that art school in Boston.�

 

Sam jumped out of his chair, and ran to shake the older man�s hand.  �Thank you, sir! I will do my best---�

 

�Well, do your best or do your damnedest, Evans, but I expect to see some efforts, sketches, by the end of next week.  Tomorrow afternoon, before you come in for the evening shift, I�d like you to come up to Collinwood for lunch at 12:30, meet my wife and daughter, work out a schedule, look at likely spots to pose them, the usual.   Afterward, bring me the bills for your supplies and so forth.�

 

And so, the next morning, Sam drove his old jalopy (which had once been a Ford--- well, that�s what the registration said; it was so rusty he wasn�t quite sure) up the long, winding road along an old beachside cliff known as Widow�s Hill.   This precipice was so-called because sailors� wives and mothers traditionally went up there to watch for their husbands� and sons� ships expected returns, and sometimes threw themselves off in grief if their menfolk were lost at sea. 

 

 In all his years of living in Collinsport, Sam had driven this far up the road just once, to see the fabled Collins mansion from a distance.  The estate was the only home there, its occupants the only residents of the private drive. 

 

The great stone mansion was a beautiful and yet strange place, with many fanciful, romantic and even haunting legends attached to it.  The local kids loved to tell ghost stories about a Woman In White who roamed the grounds, the shade of some early Collins wife who had joined the ranks of common sailors� wives who had thrown themselves from Widow�s Hill in despair.  Hard to imagine why a rich, beautiful bride should feel despair, but perhaps, Sam realized, maybe she had been pressured to marry the wrong man, like his Margarida was being pressured into a more �suitable� match.

 

�Will people ever LEARN!� he thought angrily about such a dilemma, and so distracted by his thoughts that he didn�t pay enough attention to the directions of the uniformed guard who had emerged from a small cottage near the fanciful wrought-iron gates of the estate.  The guard pressed a button, and the gates swept open slowly and gracefully, as if in welcome.

 

Sam did manage to find the way down yet another winding driveway to the parking area, his rusty, indeterminate heap soon incongruously esconced amongst some very shiny, new vehicles.  No Rolls Royces--- the Collinses  weren�t THAT wealthy--- but a  Cadillac  and a Lincoln were parked in the drive near a large brick-and-stone carriage house that had been converted into a garage.

 

Sam stepped out of his car onto the fine, flagstone-paved driveway.  Then it hit him that he was actually going to walk up to, and into the legendary (or notorious, depending on one�s point of view) castle of the Collinses.

 

As he strolled up a walkway that was a continuance of the driveway pattern, he passed a free-standing patio with an ornate fountain, with a telescope that commanded a view of the ocean on one side, and the distant village on the other.  Further up the walk, he gaped at a large pool flanked by a stone cottage that appeared to be part living quarters and part storage shed.  This area bordered on large garden of summer flowers and herbs (Sam assumed the latter were for putting fresh flavor into the Collinses� gourmet meals.) 

 

Another turn, and he walked under an archway (apparently a bridge between the house wings) into a granite-paved courtyard with another large fountain.  He really wasn�t sure at which of the numerous arched doorways he was supposed to make his presence known!

 

Then a quick movement caught his eye, almost above his head.  There was a small turret with a latticed window, jutting over a doorway, seemingly at random.  A small, red-headed girl was peeking at him from behind lace curtains, clearly giggling.  A slim hand fell on her shoulder, and in a moment, Sam saw the woman to whom the hand belonged, the most beautiful lady he had ever seen, save for his fianc�e  Margarida, of course.

 

Like the child, who was obviously her daughter, Mrs. Collins (for Sam realized who she was) had red hair, but of a more subtle shade, with strands of gold in it, which gleamed in the sunlight as she stood behind the window.  �Titian red,� the young artist breathed to himself, as the door nearest to him opened.

 

A woman in her fifties, who bore a more youthful resemblance to the older cannery labeler Sam knew, and dressed in a starchy black uniform with a white collar and cuffs, said, �Mr.  Evans?  I am Mrs. Sarah Johnson, Phyllis Jenkins�s sister, as you know.  I�m sorry that you were not properly directed to the front door�-- (Sam thought, �WHAT front door?�)��However, this passage will lead to the front foyer.  Welcome to Collinwood.  Please follow me.�

 

So Sam went down one set of steps with Mrs. Johnson, to a large area tiled in a checkerboard pattern, which pattern appeared to be almost uniform in every direction he could see.  Then they took a turn, and came into a grand foyer, with a grand staircase and upper balconies visible, and a wall covered with the most paintings Sam had ever seen outside an art gallery.  Many were portraits, presumably of Collins ancestors; by the styles of clothing, some obviously dated back to the late 1600s!

 

Sam knew that the Collinses , lesser descendants of some noble house in England, had come to the southwestern coast of Maine around1670, when the territory was still part of the Massachussetts Bay Colony.   And with their growing power, first as merchants, then ship builders, then fishing and canning industries, then lately other food concerns, the Collinses were instrumental in breaking Maine away from the faraway mother colony. 

 

One of the portraits, of a dashing gentleman in Restoration costume, must be the patriarch, Isaac Collins, Sam thought, then wondered why this venerable painting wasn�t in a place of honor, rather than grouped with other, lesser family members.  And, further, Sam wondered if the legendary �Woman In White�, the doomed Collins bride, was represented among this group of portraits.

 

A familiar voice startled him.  �Samuel Evans!� snapped the commanding, but rather warm, voice of Jamison Collins.  �I realize that being in the presence of my ancestors is a compelling sight, but do come and meet my family!�

 

And so, Sam solemnly took the delicate, manicured, expensively-jeweled hand of Caroline Rogers Collins.  He almost could not bring himself to look into her beautiful eyes, but when he did, he was enchanted by their unusual color, which veered between violet and blue when she moved into different lights.  Boy, it was going to be tough to capture her colors--- the hair, the eyes, and her skin, which was shell-like, beige-white with subtle splashes of a rose that was not rouge on her cheeks, nose, and chin.   �I�m�I�m�HONORED to make your acquaintance, Mrs.  Collins,� Sam stammered.

 

�Now, now, calm down,� Caroline said in a husky, yet musical voice.  �We want you to enjoy your times here, even if you are working.  We try to provide a happy place for all who work here�. And this is our Elizabeth,� she continued, as she drew forth the red-haired child whose hand she held.

 

Elizabeth Collins was just shy of five, but in spite of her giggles earlier, was well-trained to be polite to guests--- and precocious as well.  �How�ye do?� she said.  �Bon--bon joor, monser.  Mama says you�re going to paint us in a pitcher like upstairs in the hall.  Is that like taking a pitcher with a cam�ra?  We have LOTS of those.�

 

�Umm, no, Miss Collins,� Sam answered the child seriously.  �It�s going to take more than a couple of minutes, I�m afraid.  You and your Mama will have dress in your best clothes, to sit and pose in a special place for a while every day until I draw some sketches with pencils, see?  And then after I copy the best one to a piece of stretched cloth called a canvas, then you both will have to sit again with the same clothes, posed in the light so I can get the paint colors right.   Then, when it�s all done, your Papa will have it put in a nice frame and hang it, so people 200 years from now can look at it, like the ones in the hall.  What do you think of that idea?�

 

Elizabeth put her thumb in her mouth, which gesture was gently deflected by her mother.  But she stood very still otherwise.  �I�m real good at bein� still,� she declared.  �It�s fun to think people are gonna see this for a hunnert years, after I grow up.  I�ll have fun watchin� them.�

 

Sam turned to the parents.  �Do you believe she can handle sitting still for at least a half-hour at a time, and then resume it after a break?  I do sketch pretty fast--- I had to, when I used to draw little sketches for my Army buddies who wanted something to send to their wives and sweethearts.  If it�s still too difficult, I could draw the basics from a photograph, and just do the final poses to set the lighting and colors.  Whatever�s best for you.

 

Caroline, the one most directly concerned, considered.  �We�ll try both ways. We�ll pick any spot you deem suitable, and we�ll pose for a photo, but also I want Elizabeth to have some practice at holding still.  She�ll need it when she goes to school.�

 

Jamison said, �Great, we can begin the tour after lunch.  We�d better get started, as I have to get back to the office by two.�  He led the way through the vast checkered foyer and paneled hallway, which was festooned with more portraits and landscapes.  �We have even more paintings--- my father was quite the collector, though his knowledge of genuine works wasn�t the best.  A few of these ARE copies of masterpieces, but they caught his eye, or my mother�s.  We rotate them on a regular basis.  Caroline here can explain some of the stories behind the paintings after I have to leave.�

 

The group had arrived at a long dining room, with an elegant, yet light-looking French table and chairs.  The room itself was paneled in a calming, golden shade of oak, with yet more paintings on the walls; at the end was a large window with stained-glass trim which opened to a view of the lawn which led to the ocean.  The table bore a porcelain centerpiece containing  some of the same kinds of flowers Sam had seen outside.  The china, while fine, was simple and plain white, obviously for daily use, as was the colonial-styled silverware.

 

Mrs. Johnson, accompanied by a younger maid in similar attire, brought in the bowls and plates. The Collinses evidently preferred simple fare--- there was a hearty but unremarkable chowder, bland broiled halibut with creamed potatoes and green beans, followed by an apple betty.  Elizabeth even joined in, eating with relish--- Sam was a little surprised that such a young child, with such aristocratic parents, enjoyed fish and chowder and BEANS!  However, the young artist was quick to complement his hosts� cook.

 

Jamison said, �Our regular cook is off today. Mrs. Johnson did the honors.�

Caroline added, �It�s a treat to have native Maine specialties.  You will have to try her boiled dinner and apple pie with cheddar.  Elizabeth, especially, doesn�t much care for the usual cuisine, but this pleasant, basic food, she really took to it!�

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