Authors: Barbara Michaels
“No live-in servants?”
“I think Mom has some people lined up for when they get back,” Kevin said vaguely. “She offered to get somebody for us, but I told her never mind; I figured you wouldn’t want a lot of people around, getting in our way.”
A few hours earlier I would have told him he had figured right. I do find it hard to concentrate when people are scuttling in and out, running vacuum cleaners and grabbing dirty cups out of my hand. That’s why I can’t work at home. But now that I had seen the house I would have welcomed servants, scuttling or not.
I was brooding about this when Kevin added nonchalantly, “Besides, Aunt Bea will be here tomorrow.”
“My mother’s sister. Her divorce was final last month, and she’s at loose ends, after thirty years of marriage. She was pleased to come and help out.”
As one of my favorite writers must have said somewhere, the direst forebodings pressed upon my heart. Aunt Bea, struggling with the pangs of singleness, would be worse than a gaggle of maids. She would have carefully tinted hair poufed up around her face—unless she had fallen prey to melancholy, and let it fall in gray wisps. She would be comfortably rounded or tightly corseted, depending, again, on her state of mind. And she would talk, interminably, on all sorts of boring subjects, ending up with Harry, or whatever his name was. How his decision to leave her had taken her completely by surprise, how she never imagined there could be another woman, how she had fought to keep her home.
All this flashed through my mind with formidable and depressing completeness. Because I had to say something, and because I could not force my lips to shape exclamations of rapture, I asked politely, “What happened, after thirty years? Or should I ask?”
“I don’t know,” Kevin admitted. “All she told Mom was that Uncle Harry (aha, I thought) had gone into male menopause and didn’t look as if he was ever coming out. There’s a rumor going through the family that he hit her.”
“How awful,” I said, visualizing the frail old lady cowering on the floor nursing her black eye and begging Harry not to hit her again.
“Whereupon,” Kevin continued, “she gave him a karate chop to the Adam’s apple, and a right to the jaw, and walked out.”
My mental image underwent an abrupt metamorphosis, the frail little lady ballooning into a formidable matriarch with iron-gray waves and a forty-five-inch bust. I found this image more sympathetic than the first (let him have it again, Aunt Bea!) but did not suppose I would find it any easier to live with.
I relapsed into moody silence while Kevin rhapsodized about Aunt Bea’s cornbread and angel-food cake, her needlepoint and her quilts, her skill at storytelling and at Snakes and Ladders. But it was hard to remain glum; the silken warmth of the air, the splendor of the night sky over the battlements, the purring cats and snoring dogs—the general air of comfort was too pervasive to be resisted. I finally made a sound that Kevin recognized as a yawn.
“You must be bushed,” he said. “Want to hit the sack?”
“I guess I will.” I rose, accompanied by Tabitha, who was stuck like a limpet to my shirt front.
“You know where everything is,” Kevin said lazily.
“If I don’t, I’ll look for it.” The cat licked my chin. “What do I do with this?” I asked.
“She’ll sleep with you if you let her. But watch out, she hogs the covers.”
“Thanks for the warning. Well—good night.”
“You don’t get nervous at night, or anything, do you?”
“What do you mean by ‘anything’?”
Kevin laughed. “Well, I’m always open to seduction. Feel free. Actually, for once that wasn’t what I had in mind; it just occurred to me that my room is some distance from yours, so if you’re the type that hears burglars or sees ghosts you might want to move into my wing of the house. Mother thought you would prefer that room, but it is rather isolated.”
“I do not hear burglars or ghosts. And I’m tired enough to sleep soundly. Don’t call me; I’ll call you.”
“Whatever you say,” Kevin murmured.
I found my room without any difficulty, though manipulating the light switches with my arms full of twenty pounds of cat was not so easy. When we reached the bedroom Tabitha unhooked her claws and jumped onto the bed.
When Kevin had shown me where I was to sleep I’d been a little disappointed. I would have preferred the older part of the house, where his room was located. According to Kevin, that portion dated from the fifteenth century, which I could well believe; its thick walls and narrow, tortuous passageways appealed to that childish streak of mystery and romance that is buried, more or less deeply, in all of us. I had said something about ghosts—maybe Kevin hadn’t realized I was joking, though he had let out a whoop of laughter and replied that he only wished there were some.
At any rate, I couldn’t find fault with my room, which was in the Queen Anne part of the house. I appreciated Kevin’s mother’s thoughtfulness in selecting it for me, even if I did suspect that her real motive had been to put me at a discreet distance from her son. Like the corresponding downstairs rooms, this one had been decorated in 1745, and the molded plasterwork on the overmantel and ceiling was delicately lovely—swags of pastel vines and roses against a white background. The canopied ceiling of the bay window overhanging the garden must have been added at the same time. Someone had put bowls of fresh flowers on the dresser and on the table beside the ivory velvet chaise longue. I deduced, cleverly, that the cleaning team had been there that day, and that Mrs. Blacklock had left explicit instructions. There was even a good light for reading in bed.
I rummaged around in my suitcase till I found the book I had been reading, and climbed into the bed. It was big, double-sized, with a frilly canopy, but the damned cat had gone to sleep smack in the middle of it, and I had to shove her to one side before I could stretch out. Halfway through the chapter I found that the volume was slipping out of my hands, so I turned out the light.
The dark of a summer night, silvered by moon and stars, is not black; it is the most beautiful shade of velvety blue. The breeze that touched my face smelled like roses. I watched the pale translucence of the muslin curtains twist and lift, like dancers without bones, ghost dancers. Kevin’s suggestion that I might be afraid struck me as the funniest thing I had heard in months. I started to laugh but fell asleep before I could produce more than a chuckle.
THE CAT WOKE MEnext morning, standing on my stomach and pushing her cold nose into my face. She was so fat her four paws felt as if they were digging into me clear down to my backbone.
I let her out and considered the possibility of another hour’s sleep; but it was too gorgeous a morning to waste in sodden slumber. My window faced east. Dawn was a filmy curtain of rose and azure above the darkgreen hills. When I made my way to the kitchen I was joined by the entire animal population making peremptory noises. I had no idea where Kevin kept their food, so I opened the door and urged them out. Belle was the last to leave; her sigh and reproachful look assured me that I had disappointed her.
It was midmorning before Kevin appeared, rubbing his eyes and yawning. I greeted him with the condescension early risers feel for slugabeds. Coffee restored him to relative coherence and affability.
“I am a night person,” he announced. “I hope that isn’t going to be a problem.”
“I am normally a night person too. But it was so pretty this morning, I couldn’t stay in bed. We’ll work out a schedule, don’t worry.”
“I suppose you’ve been outside,” Kevin said. “I wanted to show you the gardens.”
“I like seeing things myself. The grounds are beautiful. I’ve never seen so many roses. And I met the gardeners—Mr. Marsden and his assistant, Jim something—”
“There’s another one,” Kevin said. “I think his name is Mike.”
“Three gardeners? How often do they come?”
“Every day, I guess.”
I blinked. My mother has a cleaning lady—so-called—one day a week; she weeds her own petunias. But of course those acres of flower beds and velvet lawn and exotic trees must require a lot of work, especially during the summer. I was to have a series of shocks like that for the first week or so; it is hard for the bourgeoisie to realize how the other one-tenth of one percent lives.
“So,” I said, seeing that Kevin’s eyes were showing signs of intelligence, “what do we do today?”
Kevin looked at his watch. “Is it that late? Damn, I’ve got to meet Aunt Bea at the airport in a few hours.”
With only a few hours to spare, there didn’t seem to be much point in starting work on the book. Kevin suggested a game of tennis. (There was also a squash court and a swimming pool.) I went down to ignoble defeat in straight sets. After lunch—ham sandwiches and canned soup—Kevin left. Aunt Bea was getting a lot more consideration than I had rated; but my mood was so mellow I didn’t even drop a hint to that effect.
Big white puffy thunderheads were building up in the sky. The air was warm and sticky. I felt good, though. Perhaps because I do it so seldom, exercising always gives me a feeling of virtue.
There didn’t seem to be any point in working on the book. I went to the kitchen. Kevin had made an incredible mess with a few glasses and TV-dinner trays. He hadn’t washed the animals’ food bowls either. When I got through, the kitchen was spotless. Might as well let Aunt Bea start out with a good impression of me, I thought.
I wandered out into the courtyard with a book of crossword puzzles that I had found in the library, but instead of opening it I just sat, hands folded, staring peacefully at the sky. I couldn’t remember when I had felt so relaxed. It had been a hard year, what with one thing and another. I had worked like a dog. I deserved a rest.
When I opened my eyes again, the puffy white clouds were developing dark edges and the sunlight was gone. I crossed the courtyard and went out through the covered arch that led to the gardens. The sun blazed out in its last defiance as I emerged from under the shadow of the arch, and the roses in the neat beds glowed like gems—rubies and garnets, pearl and rose quartz, golden topaz. Then the sun blinked out behind the mass of clouds that were boiling over the rim of the hills. Lightning split the liver-colored belly of the sky. I counted automatically. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand…before I heard a bellow of distant celestial rage. It was coming on fast, and it was going to be a good one. So far the sheltering hills had kept the rising wind from reaching me; it was uncanny to watch the branches high above genuflect and writhe under the lash of the air, while I stood in a little pool of calm.
I wished Kevin would get back, not so much because I was concerned about his getting caught in the storm, but because I would have enjoyed some company. I am afraid of thunderstorms. When I’m alone I get in bed and pull the covers over my head. I started back to the house with every intention of doing just that. The sight of the patio furniture distracted me. The frames were wrought iron, but the bright cushions would get soaked unless I did something about them. I dragged them into the kitchen. As I carried the last one in, a drop of rain smacked down onto the flagstones, leaving a spot the size of a quarter.
A cat went whizzing past me through the kitchen door. It moved so fast I couldn’t see which one it was. “Belle!” I called, scanning the darkening courtyard anxiously. A bark from the kitchen replied. Belle, no dumbbell even if she was slow and old, had long since sought shelter.
What about the rest of the animals? And the windows—mine I knew were open, some of the others probably were too. I went racing through the house, calling as I went. The only animal who responded was Amy, the part-Irish Setter. She hadn’t realized anyone was home. When she heard my voice she galloped to meet me and tried to persuade me to pick her up. She followed me as I went from room to room, getting under my feet and moaning.
A quick check assured me that the windows were all closed except for the ones in the rooms we had used—kitchen, library, bedrooms. I finished my rounds in Kevin’s room, which had long French doors opening onto a balcony that ran along past all the bedrooms in that wing. The rail was crenellated and high enough to be useful in a siege. I could picture Kevin shooting arrows through the slits. He would look sensational in a tunic and tights.
If I had been an admirer of thunderstorms, this one would have been worthy of attention. From Kevin’s windows I could see out across the swimming pool as far as the northern hills. The treetops twisted like creatures in torment, and the gray-black clouds might have been heavenly cattle stampeded by the silver whip of the lightning.
When I turned from the window the room was so dark I could hardly make out the shapes of the furniture. I switched on every light I could find as I hurried along the hall and down the stairs. Candles, I thought busily. If the power fails I’ll need candles.