Authors: Barbara Michaels
I was also worried about the big-eared scrap of a kitten. Did it have sense enough to come in out of the rain? The other animals were inside; I had seen both cats during my check of the house, and there was no question about Amy’s whereabouts; she was still stepping on my heels as I walked. I went to the kitchen and opened the back door. A ruffled ball of fur rolled in, squeaking angrily. I scooped it up—I could hold it in one cupped hand—and to my pleased surprise it began to purr.
“I got here as soon as I could,” I said.
It didn’t like thunderstorms either. It attached itself to my shoulder and clung, while I searched for candles and found them in a cupboard above the sink. I made myself a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table, a solid slab of wood five feet long and six inches thick, with the kitten on my lap.
With a certain smugness I wondered how I could have gotten into such a panic about the storm. There was nothing to be afraid of. The house was secure, its inhabitants were safe inside; candles on the table, matches beside them, I was prepared for any emergency. The house was like a fortress. The walls were thick, the windows tight; except for the night-dark skies and the flashes of lightning I would not have known a storm was shaking the outside air. Even the thunder, now close overhead, was diminished by the thickness of the ancient stone.
Reassured, the kitten climbed down my pants leg and headed for its food dish. I thought I heard a door close, somewhere off in the other wing. Kevin must be back—just in time. The rain was still only an intermittent spattering, but the torrent wouldn’t hold off much longer. I got up and went to the front door.
There was no one in the entrance hall. When I swung the heavy door back, no living form was visible, only silvery threads of rain that rapidly wove themselves into a thickening veil.
I stood there looking out. It occurred to me that I could not possibly have heard the sound of this door opening and closing. It was too far from the kitchen. A door somewhere else in the house—closer to me? The thought might have been frightening. It was not; I considered it and dismissed it almost in the same moment. Perhaps it had not been a sound at all, but only a sense of presence and of companionship. I had the feeling still, so strongly that I turned and scanned the brightly lighted hall.
No burglars, no ghosts—only the house itself, solid, secure, sheltering; so strong it had a presence of its own. Smiling a little at my fancies, I turned back to the door and saw the car lights appear at the top of the ridge.
Aunt Bea, in the flesh, destroyed my fantasies about dear old aunts. She must have been in her fifties, and she looked it, but in the nicest way. A little thick around the middle, a little gray around the ears—“I need to do my roots” was the way she put it—and no attempt to conceal the lines around her mouth and eyes. They were lines of laughter; when she smiled they fell into their proper places like pieces of a puzzle.
If I had had any feelings of self-consciousness at meeting her they would have been dispelled by her manner and by the necessary informality demanded by the weather. As she and Kevin came running in through the rain, the lights flickered and went out.
“Hello,” Bea said, laughing. “I would shake your hand if I could find it. Help!”
The lights promptly went on and Bea broke into another peal of laughter. “That’s service for you. Quick, Anne, take my hand before they go out again.”
“I’ve got candles,” I said, taking the hand she extended.
“Where?” Kevin asked, as the lights died once and for all.
“In the kitchen.”
“Smart girl.” This sarcastic comment was followed by a thud and a curse as Kevin tripped over something.
We made it to the kitchen, groping and laughing and banging into furniture along the way. The water in the kettle was still hot, so I made tea, and Bea and I sat with our elbows on the table and a candle dripping into a saucer while Kevin went out and started the emergency generator. I might have known there would be something like that, but even if I had known I would not have had the faintest idea how to operate it.
The lights went on; Kevin returned, dripping. I paid him no heed. Already I felt as if I had known Bea for years, and I was fascinated by her animated description of how her marriage had collapsed, after so many years. It was a very funny story. If I hadn’t been so entertained I might have been suspicious of her excessively casual account, and wondered why she was confiding so readily in a stranger.
After a long sedate career as a CPA, good old Harry had suddenly found God and joined a group known as “The Elect of the Second Coming.” Celibacy being a desideratum, if not a requirement of this cult, Harry had sought a divorce, which by then, his wife was happy to give him. She had not been so happy about his handing over their life savings to the Elect. “At least I saved the house,” she concluded cheerfully. “It was in both our names, and Harry couldn’t sell without my signature. Kevin, darling, you’re soaked! Go up and change this minute, before you catch cold.”
I could hardly apologize to Bea for what I had been thinking about her without admitting what I had been thinking about her, so I said a silent “mea culpa.” She was certainly entitled to a few months of recuperation and reorganization after Harry’s astonishing performance. Now that I had met her, I felt sure she would be an asset instead of a liability. This impression was confirmed when she sneered at Kevin’s tentative offer of a TV dinner (lasagna or turkey?) and began rummaging in the larder.
There wasn’t much in the larder except TV dinners. I knew, because I had looked. Bea produced a delicious meal from odds and ends, and refused my offer to wash the dishes.
“You’re not to touch the housework,” she said firmly. “The book is more important. Kevin told me all about it. I expect to be mentioned in the foreword, of course.”
We spent the evening in the library, with the rain hissing against the windows and the animals sprawled on the rug in abandoned poses. It was like a family. Bea produced an enormous piece of needlework that would one day be a rug—“Harry tried to sell it, too, but nobody would buy it.” We talked. I don’t remember what we talked about—nothing in particular—but we laughed a lot. I remember that. We laughed a lot.
Next day Bea and I went grocery shopping. She tried to persuade me to stay home and work, but it didn’t seem fair to ask her to tackle such a monumental job alone. Usually I hate grocery shopping, but with Bea it was fun. We had lunch in Pittsfield and did a little browsing around. When we passed a needlework shop Bea had to look in, just for a minute, and I bought a needlepoint pillow with a picture of a Chinese lady on it. Bea helped me pick out the yarn and promised to show me how to do it. I worked on it that evening and got quite a bit done—all the lady’s skirt and part of her umbrella.
When Bea said she thought she would turn in, I got up too. I was halfway throughForever Amber , which I had never read, and I was curious to find out what she was going to think of next. It would be comfortable reading in my nice soft bed, propped up on ruffled pillows, with Tabitha sprawled across my feet.
“By the way,” Bea said, struggling to squash her acres of canvas into a huge shopping bag, “you may not have noticed that tomorrow is Sunday. I suppose both you young creatures are heathens?”
“Druid,” said Kevin, stretched out in his chair. “Reformed.”
“I’m afraid…” I began.
“My dear girl, I’m not trying to convert you,” Bea exclaimed. “I merely wanted to establish my claim to the car tomorrow morning.”
“There are three cars,” Kevin said. “And a pickup truck.”
“I don’t think the truck would be suitable,” Bea said seriously.
I stayed up till late finishingForever Amber . Bea had already left by the time I got downstairs next morning. The air had a Sunday feel to it and the garden was pure Italian cinquecento—heavenly blue skies, darkgreen cypresses, porcelain roses. It was delightful being out in the garden alone, without some gardener popping out from behind a bush; I got a basket and some clippers from the garden shed and cut off the dead roses. Then I picked a bunch for the house. They were so opulent I couldn’t resist adding flower after flower to the sheaf in my basket. I was arranging them in a crystal vase when Bea came back, looking very sweet and demure in a blue linen suit with a white bow under her chin.
“How was the service?” I asked politely. Kevin came in just in time to hear the question and the response.
“Wonderful. Father Stephen is an inspired speaker. He looks the way I’ve always imagined Saint Francis would look: fully cognizant of and sympathetic with human weakness, but with a touch of the divine.”
I was a little startled by this rhapsodic description, and by the glow in Bea’s eyes; it was a mood I had not seen and would not have expected. I was also surprised by the title she had given the minister.
“Is he—are you—Catholic?”
“Episcopalian,” Bea said. “I mean, the church is; I’m ecumenical.”
“Uncritical,” Kevin said, smiling. “Undiscriminating. Susceptible to any smooth-talking, good-looking—”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Bea said calmly. “I have always selected my church, not by denomination, but by the character of the pastor. Father Stephen is uniquely gifted.”
“Clever of you to have found that out after only one sermon,” Kevin said. I frowned at him. I am no church-goer, but I don’t believe in making fun of other people’s sincere beliefs.
Bea seemed to be used to Kevin’s teasing. “One sermon is enough,” she said. “But Father Stephen has a fine reputation locally. I talked to several people after the service, and they praised him to the skies. It was nice to meet some of our neighbors.”
“Neighbors?” I repeated, recalling the empty acres that surrounded us.
“Well, they are the closest ones we have. I’ve been invited to dinner tomorrow night. They asked you, too, but I told them I would have to check—that you were very busy and had no time for social activities.”
I cringed mentally when she said that; I had certainly come here to work, but so far my accomplishments were nil.
Kevin appeared untroubled by guilt. “I wouldn’t mind meeting the neighbors,” he said, “but I’m not sure they would like to meet me. Do they understand that Anne and I aren’t married or even engaged? I’ll bet they think the worst.”
“Nonsense,” Bea said. “You young people always think anyone over forty is a hopeless old fogy. People take this kind of thing quite for granted today—even when there is anything to be taken for granted, which in this case there is not. Besides you are being chaperoned by your Aunt Bea.”
Kevin burst out laughing. I didn’t join him until I saw the twinkle in Bea’s eye.
So next night we went out to dinner. The house was one of the ones whose gateposts I had admired on the day of my arrival. Heraldic griffins perched atop the stone pillars, paws (or do griffins have hooves?) lifted in majestic warning. The house was a lovely old Georgian mansion built of soft red brick and filled with handsome antiques. The host, Dr. Garst, was a surgeon. His wife was considerably younger than he, with the overly slim figure and haggard face that indicate a fanatical preoccupation with the beauty-youth cult.
There were a couple of sticky moments during the meal, when the subject turned to politics. Our host and hostess were dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries, and Kevin’s views, not to mention my own, were not exactly conservative. However, I learned long ago, after a series of screaming matches with my father, that rational argument is impossible with such people, so by adroitly changing the subject from socialized medicine to local history, and from the iniquities of income tax to horticulture, I managed to keep our host from accusing Kevin of being a communist.
Most of the other guests were of the same social class and age group as Dr. and Mrs. Garst—nice but dull. Two were different.
Father Stephen was one of these. I could understand why Bea had fallen for him, in the most ecumenical sense. If I had been casting a romantic old-fashioned film I would have picked him to play the kindly parish priest. He was an extremely handsome man, with a head of thick white hair and a trim body, and he exuded that aura of warmth that the best priests, doctors, and psychiatrists have. He was also a witty and intelligent conversationalist. He and Kevin got together and started discussing the metaphysical poets, and Kevin lost the pained smile that was his unfailing sign of boredom.
I didn’t have much opportunity that evening to talk with Roger O’Neill, the only other person in the group who attracted me. He spent most of the time making eyes at Bea, who was looking particularly pretty. I liked his face. It was one of those homely-amiable faces, with a lumpy nose and a wide mouth that curved up in a perpetual smile. But there was a quirk at the corner of the smile that kept it from being saccharine; every now and then his left eyebrow would shift, parallel to the quirk, which gave him a pleasantly cynical look. I guessed he was in his late fifties or early sixties, and he let it all hang out—his stomach, his jowls, and his bald spot.