Read The Body in the Wardrobe Online

Authors: Katherine Hall Page

The Body in the Wardrobe (21 page)

BOOK: The Body in the Wardrobe
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“Whoa. One thing at a time. Yes, you can make cupcakes and I'll help if you like. Camden is close by water, an hour and a half by land. And are you sure about Facebook?”

“I'm sure,” Amy said. “If anything else mean happens I'm going to report her.”

Well, this was one for the books, Faith said to herself. Now what? Move schools—or not?

The cupcakes were soon baking, and sending a rich chocolate fragrance all over the house while Amy made two kinds of frosting—mocha and peppermint. Tom came in and dipped his finger into the mocha.

“Dad! Stop it! I'll let you lick the bowl,” Amy said.

Tom kissed the top of his daughter's head, meeting Faith's eyes. It wasn't hard to tell that his thoughts mirrored her own.

“Who was it on the phone?” Faith asked.

“Millicent. All very mysterious. I've been summoned to her house and she asked me to pick up Ursula. She said if Amy was well enough you could come, too.”

Faith was under no illusions as to her status with Millicent but was happy to have been included. Maybe they would finally find out what had been going on all fall and winter with the woman.

“I have to drop these cupcakes off first. I'll meet you there. Amy, if you need us you'll call?”

“Duh! But I won't. Cindy, Isabel, and I are rereading all the Nancy Drews. They don't think they're stupid like Cassie said. They're classics! I'm starting with
The Hidden Staircase
. And, Mom, they think it's really cool that you solved some mysteries!”

Tom's face darkened. Faith knew her husband definitely did not think any of her involvements with murder and crime was “cool.”

By the time she finished her errand and arrived at Millicent's, Ursula and Tom were sitting with cups of tea around Miss McKinley's formal dining room table. She was at the head, a stack of papers next to her.

“I am assuming that what I am about to divulge will stay in this room and go no further, although”—Millicent gave a gracious nod of the head much like royalty—“Ursula, you may tell your daughter in confidence. I would have invited her, but I didn't want a crowd.” She looked at Faith. “Faith is here because I wanted to start by thanking both Fairchilds for the help their son has provided. Dare I say he saved my life—oh, not literally, but figuratively?”

Faith was stunned. What on earth could Ben have done?

“You may recall the speaker at the historical society last fall. A Harvard professor.” Millicent's tone suggested another profession, something like “garbage collector.” “I ventured to correct him on a point regarding the Rivoire family, the Revere's French antecedents.”

“Yes, wasn't the talk called ‘Paul Revere and the French Connection'?” Faith said.

“And a very silly, extremely inappropriate title it was. As if you have to pander to get individuals to listen to our nation's history.” She gave Faith a look that clearly indicated there should be no further interruptions from her.

“Several weeks later the professor sent me a copy of a letter that he had come across in his research written by Paul Revere to a friend.” Millicent passed a sheet of paper to each of them. “Since it is difficult to read the writing, I will summarize. The gist of the letter was that the silversmith was annoyed at one Ezekiel Revere—
‘so called,' he notes—who was passing himself off as some sort of cousin in order to drum up business for his foundry. The significant sentence reads: ‘Said Ezekiel is no relation whatsoever.'”

“Oh no,” Ursula gasped. “This means . . .”

“Exactly,” Millicent said. “It meant that I was not who I thought I was, nor were my parents, grandparents, and so forth. Frauds. All of us frauds who were living a lie.”

Her words to Tom made sense to Faith now—
“She asked me what I would do if someone I respected had been lying to me for many years.”

Tom was obviously recalling them as well. “But, Millicent, how could any of you have known? And I must say I think it was particularly mean-spirited of the professor to bring it to your attention.”

Faith agreed—let sleeping Reveres lie, as they had been for a very long time.

“No, Reverend. He was merely doing what he thought was his duty. I despaired for a while. Perhaps you may have noticed that I was keeping to myself.”

All three nodded, and Ursula was so bold as to pat Millicent's hand, receiving the hint of a smile in return.

“And then one day I was listening to an interesting piece on NPR about using the Web to research one's ancestry. I decided that I would find out just who I was—or more specifically, who Ezekiel had been.” She patted a stack of papers. “Ben and I have been on a voyage of discovery together.”

“We are happy he could help,” Tom said.

“Oh, he more than helped! You will read all the results in a little monograph I am putting together on the subject. I do not wish to cast aspersions on Paul Revere. It could well be that he was ignorant of the facts, but more likely ashamed. I will explain. Ben was able to trace the foundry records. It was initially called the ‘Hitchborn Works.' Deborah Hitchborn was Paul Revere's mother. She came from a large and well-connected family.” There was a pause while Millicent
preened, letting this fact sink in. “Ben and I began to suspect that Ezekiel was indeed a cousin of Paul's, but on the Hitchborn side—or possibly a brother of Paul's, born on the wrong side of the blanket.”

All very interesting, but Faith was tempted to ask, “What's it all about, Alfie?”

Millicent pulled out a file with a flourish. “Ben urged me to have my DNA tested to see whether there might be a match with known Revere descendants.”

Her son was a genius! And brave.
Millicent would not have called them all here together were it not a happy issue out of all misfortune.

“I
am
a Revere. There is no doubt whatsoever.”

Millicent stood up and went over to her sideboard. The framed mourning rings composed of the hair from those authenticated ancestors looked brighter than Faith had ever seen them.

“I believe this calls for a celebration. Sherry, anyone?”

Faith had the distinct feeling that the universe had settled back into place. No need to ask how or why Ezekiel had appropriated the name “Revere.” It was in his blood, and Millicent's, too.

Monday morning arrived much too swiftly, but the weekend had been a time of healing and reflection. Ruth had been only a year younger than Sophie. Will pointed out that this made his wife's grief sharper, and it was true. She realized that her own happiness—her marriage, the new house, and the prospect of starting a family in the future, all things Ruth would never have—made her feel the loss more intensely. Saying good-bye to Will was eased by his promise to finish the job in Atlanta as soon as possible. “A few days more at most, darling, maybe sooner,” he'd said, much to her joy.

Her phone was ringing as Sophie walked into her office. She answered it quickly.

“Hello, Mrs. Maxwell. It's Francis Whelan, and I know it's very short notice, but I'm hoping you'll have time today to go out to Bonaventure since I'll be departing at week's end to meet some friends in Venice. I am partial to the city in January.”

Why not? Sophie thought. Things were slow in the office, and Will would be back soon. She'd want to be with him. Today was perfect.

“I am at your disposal.” The courtly gentleman was influencing her choice of words. She added, “And please do call me Sophie.”

“Meet me at the Mercer Williams House in an hour? It's on Monterey Square on Bull Street. I can give you a quick tour and then we can head out of town. We can take my car.”

“That sounds wonderful, but are you sure you can spare the time if you are leaving so soon?”

“Time is what I most have to spare. Shall we say ten o'clock?”

Francis was waiting on the sidewalk in front of the house next to a bright red vintage sports car
.
“Bought it brand-new back in 1962. A Thunderbird Sports Roadster with Kelsey wire wheels, not that that means anything to you, I imagine, but it meant the world to me. Thought I was very hot stuff back then.”

“And still are,” Sophie said, thinking of Uncle Paul and his car, now theirs. Will would love to see this one.

Francis led her around the back of the house and inside through a gift shop. “I can be candid with you and not mince words as needs must with most of the people who come to visit the house. No Mercer ever lived here, particularly not Johnny, and no, I will not be discussing anything to do with the murder case involving my friend Jim Williams. As you will soon see, he was a true artist and a collector of all things beautiful.”

Sophie smiled. “I regard The Book as ‘faction'—a hybrid of fact and fiction—and would much rather hear what you can tell me about the house's true history.”

“I knew you were my kind of girl from the moment I met you.
So to start at the very beginning, the house was designed by John Norris. Construction was begun by Johnny's great-grandfather, General Hugh Weedon Mercer, in 1860. As it turned out, not the most auspicious time to embark upon a building project of this scope. The war interrupted things and the general had to sell it as it was. The house was completed in 1868.”

As they wandered through the rooms, Francis pointed out the expert faux painting done by Jim Williams himself on baseboards and other areas to simulate wood and marble. “Jim bought this place in 1969 and restored it to more than its original glory. At a very young age, he was one of the pioneers in saving places from the wrecking ball all over the Lowcountry. And you can see from the paintings, furnishings, and everything else here that he had the ‘eye'—that gift that enabled him to spot something all the rest of us would have walked by or thought was junk.”

“It feels as though he just stepped out,” Sophie said. “Not like a museum, but a place someone lived.” She added, “Someone who loved it.” The feeling was strongest in the drawing room, with its magnificent chandelier and portraits. The house on Habersham was on a different scale entirely, but she was longing for March and the chance to furnish her own nest.

Francis nodded. “Yes, Jim loved it. Many's the time I sat with him over a glass or two and he'd tell me about a recent find. Of course his big parties were something else altogether. We won't see their like again, not even in Savannah. Now, let's head out to Bonaventure. I've brought a picnic. Cemeteries make a wonderfully peaceful spot for an outdoor repast. I had Clary's do up some sandwiches and sides. Hope you don't mind.”

“Mind? I'm delighted.” Sophie linked her arm through Francis's as they left the house. She resolved to come back and take in the rooms again soon. Despite its notorious place in popular culture, she found it soothing, an oasis where one could lose oneself in the beauty of a bygone era. Will had been to the house many times,
no doubt, but she wanted him to come with her, too. Wanted to go into all the house museums and everything else in Savannah with him. She almost laughed aloud. She was definitely becoming a native.

As soon as Francis had parked and they walked into the cemetery, Sophie knew she had been foolish in resisting a visit here. It was as if the cemetery had been staged by Edward Gorey. The sun filtered through more Spanish moss than she had seen anywhere else. The paths were a mix of sand and oyster shells.

“Come on,” Francis said quietly. “Let's go visiting.” He held a small cooler in one hand and took one of hers with the other.

They walked in silence past plots filled with marble statuary—Victorian angels, ornate crosses, weeping women with bowed heads, elaborate flowers that would never wilt. Sophie could hear birds far above and looked up at the sky through the canopy of live oak.

“Back in the day there were eagles. I'm talking way back in the seventeen hundreds when John Mullryne and his son-in-law Josiah Tattnall built their plantation here on the banks of the Wilmington River.
Bonaventure
means ‘good fortune' in Italian, but their good fortune didn't last but a few years. They were Loyalists. The place was confiscated during the Revolutionary War and they were banished. Terrible fate for a Savannahian. Long story short—Tattnall's son bought it back, then sold it again. Every time it changed hands, keeping the family burial ground was a proviso. The graveyard expanded in time and finally the city bought it in the early nineteen hundreds as a public cemetery. You can buy a plot still, although the prices have gone up.”

Sophie recognized the statue of Little Gracie from the myriad reproductions in Savannah's gift shops. She didn't see any tears on the child's face as Carlene had claimed, but there were bouquets of flowers and small toys at her feet.

“Here's the family plot where the Bird Girl statue used
to stand. The original's in the Jepson now. Too many foolish people, no, worse—plain ignorant—would have their kids climb on it to take pictures and other appalling things. No respect.” Francis shook his head.

There were still a few red camellias blooming, and Sophie thought once more that she didn't miss the bleak Northern winters at all. Noting her gaze, Francis said, “Get Will to bring you out when the azaleas are in season. Now, that's a rare sight.”

A few minutes later, he turned right. “First stop, we'll visit the Aikens. I was only a little older than you when he came back to Savannah for their final years, but I had the pleasure of knowing him and his lovely wife well. Some were surprised that he wanted to return, but I wasn't.”

“I think this must be another story,” Sophie said. “I only know him as a poet and then his famous short story, ‘Silent Snow, Secret Snow.'”

“Have a seat and I'll tell it. The bench is his tombstone, and later Mary's. Hoped people would come out and enjoy a martini while they sat surrounded by all this.” Francis gestured elegantly at a particular stand of trees with lacelike moss so long it almost touched the ground. “Liked his martinis. I've brought a shaker from time to time, but today we're drinking sweet tea. Read the inscriptions before we sit.”

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