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Authors: Katherine Hall Page

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BOOK: The Body in the Wardrobe
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A few moments of silence stretched out before Sophie replied, her voice lowered again, “I just can't. Not right now.”

“Oh, sweetie, your first quarrel? I remember ours. I was sure we were headed for divorce and it was too late for an annulment. I know it doesn't help to tell you it will be fine, but I will anyway. And if you're lucky you'll have plenty more. You only have what sounds like a really serious argument with the person you love most—and that's Will.”

Sophie snuffled audibly. Faith added, “How about asking someone in his family? Southern families worship their ancestors as much as New England ones—and love talking about them. Start a generation or so before and work your way to the more recent kin like Aurora.”

Taking a deep breath, Sophie cleared her throat. “The only person I'd feel comfortable asking would be Will's dad. Aurora was his mother. Maybe I will, but not today. The chance that it would upset him is not one I want to take. We're all gathering at Bells Mills, Gloria's family plantation house, for a Lowcountry boil.”

“Oh I wish I could jump on a plane and get down there! I'm assuming you have never had one. You're in for a rare treat! When I serve up our pot roast Sunday dinner, my thoughts will be with all the shrimp, sausage, and other yummy things you'll be eating instead. A boil is a little like a clambake, but the seasoning—Old Bay is best—adds way more kick. This could sum up the difference between the two regions in a nutshell, or I should say stockpot.”

“I'd better let you go and I should start to get ready, too,” Sophie said. What she really wanted to do was talk some more, with a real cup of coffee, unburdening herself to Faith about all the events of the previous evening. Faith would have some juicy words to describe Patty Sue. Sophie sighed, and it must have been audible.

“Put on a pretty outfit, Sophie Maxwell, and get yourself out there. Babs is still in Savannah, right? You two make a fine pair, just as you and Will do. Where is he now?”

“Upstairs asleep. The party wasn't over until after three.”

“Then go wake him up with a kiss and more.”

It was after two o'clock by the time Faith walked toward Meredith Hill, where Ursula lived, carrying a basket with lemon squares and gingerbread, both Ursula's favorites. She felt a bit as if she should be wearing a hooded little red cape. After she crossed the Green from the parsonage, she walked swiftly past Millicent Revere McKinley's small white house, strategically located so the bow window in the parlor afforded a view straight down Main Street and over most of the town's historic Green. The town clerk had let
slip to Faith that Millicent—admitting to seventy—was well past eighty. The octogenarian spent most of her days perched behind the sheer muslin curtains, keeping an eye on Aleford. She'd know that Faith was going to Ursula's as soon as Faith turned up Meredith Street and she'd guess what was in the basket. She wouldn't know why, though, and Faith didn't want to be stopped. Millicent had a knack for creating spur-of-the-moment errands that placed her directly in her quarry's path. Yet, the slight figure of the older woman did not come bolting from the front door and Faith kept walking. Perversely she began to worry why Millicent
hadn't
stopped her. She was grateful to avoid the interruption, but now she was worried that Miss (not Ms., thank you very much) McKinley's sight was not as sharp as it had been. She'd pack another basket with corn muffins and anadama rolls—no sweets, thank you very much—and visit Millicent tomorrow.

The large homes in this part of town were already discreetly decked out for Christmas with wreaths and occasionally some pine roping around the lamppost. Nary an inflatable Santa nor LED reindeer, and, heavens above, no tacky lighting festooned across the center-entrance Colonial facades.

She'd called Ursula to make sure she'd be home—and alone. The door opened before Faith could ring the bell.

“This is a delight,” Ursula said. “Come in. I have the kettle on.”

Faith followed her into the kitchen at the rear of the large Victorian house and put the basket on the round table by the windows across the back, which the Rowes had put in many years ago to take advantage of the view toward the river at the bottom of the garden. Faith knew that Ursula and her husband had moved into the house after their marriage, Arnold Rowe dying much too young many years ago. They'd raised son Arnie and daughter Pix here. It was a house that had always been filled with people—grandchildren and the prospect of a great-grandchild, now that the Millers' oldest son was married.

“You spoil me, Faith,” Ursula said. “I doubt the basket you are carrying is the latest handbag fashion, although one never knows.” She emptied some of the boiling water she'd used to warm the teapot into the sink and added the tea leaves before pouring in the rest of the water. “Lapsang souchong, so I think no lemon, all right?”

“Perfect,” Faith agreed.

They let the tea steep a few minutes while they talked of various parish and Aleford matters and then Ursula filled the cups. Her hands with their long slender fingers were steady, but Faith noticed that the skin was becoming as translucent as the fine bone china Ursula had put out.

“Pix wants me to take in a lodger, or move to one of those assisted living places,” Ursula said. She had followed her visitor's glance and correctly interpreted the look of concern that Faith had not been able to keep from her face. “I suppose that's why you're here. She wants you to talk to me about it.”

“Oh no, absolutely not. I would have said so on the phone. In any case it's not my business. Maybe Tom's.” One thing Faith had learned very much the hard way was that New Englanders, particularly Ursula's generation, were extremely private people.

Ursula startled her by laughing. “Don't be upset. I
have
talked to the reverend—a number of times. Why don't you tell me what you think? I know it's a big house for one old lady. You must have an opinion.”

Faith did. She'd had this conversation with Pix with increasing frequency over the last years, and especially after Ursula's serious bout with pneumonia two winters ago.

“I don't think you would be happy living anywhere else,” she said. “Of course Pix, and all of us, worry about your being here alone. What do
you
think about a lodger? Just to have someone else in the house.”

“It depends on who it is. Nobody too chatty. I wouldn't have minded that girl from Sanpere who needed a place to stay—she
was a quiet little thing—but she is going to finish her senior year on the island and live with the Hamiltons.”

“Maybe start with just a few changes. Like wearing one of those medical alert devices around your neck or on your wrist.”

Ursula smiled. “Tom's idea, too, and I've said yes. He put it nicely. Told me it was for all your sakes not mine.”

It certainly would have been simpler if her husband had shared these conversations with her, Faith thought, but he was scrupulously tight-lipped about what amounted to the secrets of the confessional. This time it was only mildly irritating; others were much more so.

“What else did he suggest?”

“He thinks I should move my bedroom to this floor and remodel the half bath into a full accessible one. We measured my bed and it would fit nicely in the library, along with most of the rest of the furniture from my room. He said we could move my father's big desk out into the living room below the bay window facing the street. He measured that, too.”

Her husband was quite the Boy Scout, Faith thought. It looked like a done deal. Pix would be very happy.

“I intend to tell Pix and Sam when they come back from Charleston,” Ursula added. “Who would have thought they'd become such good friends with their in-laws so soon?”

It wasn't her story to tell, but Faith wished she could let Ursula in on her daughter's secret—that Pix had known (in the biblical sense!) the father of the bride in college, meeting in complete surprise after the intervening years at the wedding.

“Now, enough about me. I know that look, Faith Sibley Fairchild. You came here with something on your mind other than gingerbread and lemon squares.”

Faith accepted some more tea and quickly related her telephone conversation with Sophie.

“Paul and his older sister, Aurora, were very close,” Ursula said. “I think there were only the two of them. His marriage to Priscilla was a first for him and a second for her. Priscilla and Aurora hit it off
immediately, which must have pleased Paul. I remember Priscilla talking about how much she loved their trips to Savannah. Aurora was one of those determined women who got together to form the Historic Savannah Foundation and literally saved the downtown. It was all going to be strip malls and office buildings. Now I believe it's the largest historic district in the country.”

“Never underestimate the power of women,” Faith said, looking forward to telling Sophie about Aurora's role in transforming what Britain's Lady Astor called the city in 1946—“a pretty woman with a dirty face.”

“As I recall,” Ursula continued, “Paul's brother-in-law was a good bit older than his wife. He had a heart attack and died when she was about forty. That's all I know about him. I'm sorry not to be more help, but I've forgotten a lot of what Priscilla probably told me. You know how she loved a good chat.”

A good gossip, Faith thought to herself. Priscilla Proctor had not been a mean gossip—if she had been Ursula wouldn't have been her friend.

“Paul wanted his sister to come to Sanpere for a visit, but she was always busy down there with one cause or another, especially after her husband died and then her goddaughter—now what was her name?—married Aurora's son: Will's mother and father. She was thrilled. Gave them the big house and moved into the carriage house behind it. Priscilla and Paul went to the party for the baptism after Will was born. Priscilla couldn't get over it—how many people there were, with tons of food and drink, starting the day before and going on into the day after.”

“They know how to party in the South,” Faith said, ruefully thinking of all the staid postbaptismal gatherings she'd attended where thimble-size glasses filled with very dry sherry and small platters with very dry tea sandwiches were the standard fare.

“I do know Will's mother died when he was a teenager after battling breast cancer for years. It must have been devastating for all of them. Paul is the one who told me how hard his sister was
taking it. Amanda—I thought her name would come back to me—was like a daughter to Aurora, something about Amanda's losing her own mother young and Aurora stepping in.”

“This all sounds very tragic, but what about Aurora's death?” Faith asked.

Ursula looked stricken. “That was tragic, too, my dear, even more tragic. She died only a few months later, a suicide. Losing Amanda had caused a breakdown of some kind. Paul and Priscilla raced down to Savannah—it happened during the summer, when they were on Sanpere—but weren't in time. Whatever she had taken or done left her alive for more than a day, but there was no hope. Horrible for her family. I do remember being surprised when I heard. She'd always been portrayed as a very strong woman, plus she still had her son and grandson, whom she adored.”

What news to bring Sophie, Faith thought, as she sat in silence with Ursula. Poor Will. To lose the two most important women in his life, both so close together and both such cruel deaths. Amanda must have been quite young.

Ursula patted Faith's hand—the New England equivalent of a bear hug. “This will help clear things up between the newlyweds, even if it is a sad story. Sophie needs to know what her husband has suffered, and must be suffering still.”

Faith brought the dishes to the sink and obeyed Ursula's quick response to leave everything for her to do. They'd been down this road before.

Walking home, she started to shiver and wished she'd worn a warmer jacket. It had been a glorious fall, the foliage more brilliant than she had ever remembered. Mother Nature's ruse to ease everyone into the bleakness of winter. They'd already had a substantial snowfall, gone now, but there was little doubt that more was waiting in the wings. She would call Sophie in the morning and deliver the unwelcome news.

She was surprised to find Tom at home sitting in a darkened
living room. She sat down on the couch next to him, but before she could say anything, he did. The phrase no one ever wants to hear:

“We need to talk.”

“We're purists when it comes to our boil,” Randy said, slipping his arm through Sophie's and leading her over to three big stockpots simmering on an outdoor grill. “That means no vegetables except corn on the cob and potatoes—new ones, the kind with red skins. And shrimp with the shell on, no crab. Lots and lots of shrimp. Lots of smoked sausage, too. And only Old Bay for seasoning. I don't think you have that up north. Looks like we're close to adding the shrimp. Come take a look.”

Sophie was glad her brother-in-law had taken her under his wing, a role he'd adopted at the office, too. He was funny and smart with charm to burn. They worked on different floors, but he often swooped into her office and insisted she go for coffee, where he regaled her with highly entertaining stories of Savannah, past and present.

“I do know what Old Bay is. My friend Faith Fairchild in Massachusetts uses it in her crab cakes. She told me it has just about everything in the spice cabinet from paprika to cardamom.”

Randy looked a little skeptical at the idea of Bay State crab cakes with Old Bay. He grabbed a pot holder and lifted the lid. “Just breathe that in, sugar.”

The aroma was heavenly, and Sophie said so. It seemed like a simple recipe—everything went into a pot of boiling water at various times, potatoes first—but Randy assured her the proportions had to be just right.

“Across the river in South Carolina, they call this Frogmore Stew, being as the guy who invented it back in the day was from Frogmore. The town is called Saint Helena now, but you'll still see
‘Frogmore' on some menus. It's always been called a Lowcountry boil here. Better get you plenty of paper napkins, maybe a bib, or you'll get your nice little dress messed up good.”

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