Boston—Christmas night, 1830
From an upper-story window, the six-year-old boy watched a lone figure scurry from the mansion and vanish into a swirling vortex of snow. A lump caught in his throat. He swallowed hard, fighting the dread pounding through his veins.
Mrs. Guthrie was the last of the servants to leave the five-story brick manse, gone off to spend what remained of Christmas with her family. A shudder racked the boy’s body at the idea of spending the night alone in his room. Dejected, he turned and made his way toward his bed, glancing none too bravely at a doorway alive with shadows.
A soft thud echoed from below.
His thoughts scattered as he strained to hear past the sudden pounding in his ears.
Unholy fear shot him down the dark corridor and into his parents’ room. His mother lay propped against a mass of soft pillows with a book in her lap, firelight casting a soft glow over her smile.
“Mummy!” He clambered onto the four-poster with breathless little grunts.
His mother slid an arm around him and pulled him into her warmth. “Is that old tree thumping against the house again, dear?”
He snuggled tight against her. “Uh-huh.”
She brushed her cheek across the top of his head. “Your father will see to its removal when he returns from England, sweetheart. Would you like me to read you to sleep?”
“Uh-huh.” He slid an arm around her middle and cuddled closer. The familiar, safe scent of Mum mingling with the fragrance of fresh linens soon beckoned him into the lazy space between sleep and consciousness. He lay without thought now, wrapped in warm blankets and the security of gentle arms.
A sound, like the shattering of glass, broke the silence. His mother’s stiffened body threw him wide-awake.
Muffled noises swept through the house. A distinct shift took place, as though the very currents of air around them wailed in violation.
Hot terror gripped his heart. “Oh, Mummy, that’s not the tree—”
Her fingers pressed hard against his mouth. “Not a word.” Bundling a blanket around him, she snatched him off the bed and stuffed him underneath it. “There you go, up against the wall.” She kissed him, covered his face, and then crawled back onto the bed.
“No!” she whispered. “Whatever occurs, do not move or make a sound until I tell you it is safe. No one will see you in the shadows if you lie perfectly still.”
Fingers trembling, he managed a slit in the folds of the blanket. Across the room, a full-length mirror tilted at an angle cast a dim reflection of his mother through smoky glass, her eyes round and darting about the room.
When the door swung wide, she shifted on the bed, the creaking loud in the boy’s ears. Polished black shoes and the lower half of a man’s pant legs appeared. The boy crammed a corner of the blanket into his mouth to keep from crying out.
“You!” his mother gasped.
The door slammed and the boy gritted his teeth against a shivering that threatened to take hold of his body. A hard click of heels on the wood floor, and the back of a thick-necked man with black hair materialized in the mirror. He moved to the bed.
Mute cries exploded in the boy’s head.
“Well, well, well.” The man stood before her, the tips of his shoes under the bed, his words a harsh rasp. “I don’t have to tell you no one will come to your aid now, do I? You know what I came for.”
Pressed deep against the pillows, the boy’s mother held the covers tight against her chest. “You’ll not find what you seek in this house.”
“And where will I, madam?”
When she failed to respond, his hand cracked hard against the side of her face. “Cease your foolishness!”
The boy stuffed more of the blanket into his mouth.
The man bolted from beside the bed. Snarling and cursing, he flung open drawers and wardrobes, the contents spilling onto the floor in great heaps. He moved back to the bed and knelt. Heavy grunts—so close—shot a new wave of panic through the boy. He squeezed his eyes shut and held his breath until his lungs burned. He nearly wept as his bladder betrayed him and emptied its contents into the blanket. Would the man be able to smell the wool now dripping with hot urine?
A soft knock sounded at the door. The man rose and moved toward the noise. The boy’s eyes shot open. The mirrored image evaporated, leaving only shoes and pant legs visible once again. Another set of shoes appeared at the open door. A muffled argument flared and then faded. The door slammed shut and the man returned to the bed.
“You are making me quite angry now, madam,” he bellowed. “If I have to force you to talk, things will become quite unpleasant for you.” The man’s reflection in the mirror wavered as he leaned over the bed and dug his squat hands into her arms.
“Please,” she whimpered.
A strangled sound gurgled from the man’s throat. He hit her again. Blood smeared the side of her mouth.
How could he help her? He should stop this. But cowardly fear kept the boy plastered to the wall.
The man struck her once more, then planted his knee on the bed and dug into her throat. He shook her like a rag doll, violent animal sounds whistling through his teeth. At last he released her, tossed her against the pillows, and left the room, closing the door behind him.
The terrified boy huddled beneath the bed, his gaze fixed on the reflection of his mum’s unmoving figure. One of her arms dangled over the edge of the mattress. She had not told him to move yet, nor to speak, but he spied one of her ear bobs lying on the floor. With a trembling hand, he snatched up the bauble and buried it in the folds of the blanket.
The door swung open again. The man’s shoes and pant legs appeared once more and moved to the bed. He searched for something before bending to the floor again. “Damn it!” His hand brushed along the floorboards, sweeping dangerously close. The bed gave and creaked as he lifted himself upright. He ripped the remaining earring from her ear, and then made his exit.
Afraid to call out lest the bad man return, the boy huddled beneath the bed, staring at his sleeping mother’s reflection while the blazing fire dwindled to ash and the room chilled. After awhile, he came to the devastating realization that calling out would do no good. Tears streaked his cheeks, but the horror of it all, and fear of the man’s return, held him fast to the wall.
Two servants found the boy and his dead mother the next morning. Terrified of the murderer, they secretly transported him to the countryside to await his father’s return. Lonely and grief-stricken, the boy clutched to his heart the one tangible thing he had left by which to remember his mother—the gold and garnet earring.
Days turned into months, and months into years, but his father never came.