The air around the Old House was crystalline in the dusk of autumn, sharp with memories of the storm that had just past, and whispering of the blasts of winter to follow from the sea. She reached up to knock on the door, pulling her scarf closer beneath her chin, inhaling the salt-scented air and shaking her head at Carolyn’s foolishness.
You won’t get me up there, Carolyn had said, pretending to shiver and rubbing her arms with her hands. Not this time of year. Besides, Cousin Barnabas has been in a bad mood, to hear Mrs. Johnson tell of it, since Willie was trapped two days up at that motel with you last week.
Here Carolyn had sniggered, probably at her own private musings of whatever hanky panky might have gone on. Although she could not have thought for a second that any actually had, seeing as part of the hanky panky would have had to involve Miss Victoria Winters.
Waiting in the dusk, Victoria hoped that Mr. Collins wouldn’t be overly upset at her present request, brought about by her employer’s insistence.
Get that car overhauled, Roger Collins had told her over the brandy he’d poured himself before, during, and after dinner. It’s high time it was done. And take Loomis with you. Whatever tomfoolery he was up to before he came here, he sure has a way with garage mechanics. He’ll scare them out of trying to cheat a Collins.
Not thinking the most logical thing: the fact that the car belonged to someone from the Collins family would be enough to keep that from happening.
Sometimes she felt she was the only sane person in the house.
A gust of wind tossed the tail ends of her scarf along her face and pushed her skirt hard against her thighs. She was about to knock again when she heard footsteps in the house, like the slow, far away echo of a loose board in a storm. Then the door was opened, shedding a yellow-grey light on the front porch, casting the smell of damp and woodrot and the ever-present ash and dust of fires that never went out and the shed of life that landed on every surface. She inhaled this now, smiling at the handsome, tall regalness that was Barnabas Collins.
He did look peeved, as if he expected her to be someone else, brows drawn together, his eyes dark. When he saw that it was she, his face brightened, as it perpetually seemed to do whenever he saw her, and he was, inside of a second, the pleasant, somewhat serious man she was coming to know. Tipping his head in a bow, he welcomed her inside the house with a gesture of his hand, wave and welcome all at once. She stepped across the threshold, peeling back her scarf and letting it drop to her shoulders.
“Miss Winters,” he said in ringing tones, “how welcome you are on this windy evening. I do not think we will get a storm for some days, but when it arrives, it will set the most recent one to shame.”
As it often was when she was with Barnabas Collins, she felt as if she’d stepped back in time. His manners contrasted with everyone else’s that she knew. And it always made her smile.
“I think you are right,” she said, thinking how earnest he was in his effort to make her feel at ease. “But hopefully, in the meantime, we’ll have ourselves a nice Indian summer.”
“Indian summer?” he asked, motioning with his hand that they should step into the Front Room. A fire was burning in the fireplace, snapping away at the chill and damp, sending flickering lights against the wallpaper, moving the shadows of the furniture around on the floor.
“Yes, Indian summer….” She looked at his puzzled expression, it was as if she’d suddenly started talking in a language he did not quite know, and there was a stern air about him as if he were going to start scolding her for it. “You know, just when you think winter has started, but it gets warm again and the sky is hazy, and the leaves start falling in earnest.”
He was nodding, but seemed distant for a second, as if she’d reminded him of something else. Something more distant than the room they were in. “Ah, yes, Indian summer, Willie has told me of it…for a moment, I thought—” He shrugged off the thought. “Never mind. I am familiar with the weather you describe, and quite lovely it is, too.”
“I expect,” she said, by way of apology, “that in England they call it something else?”
“Yes,” he said, leading her toward the fire, “I expect they do. Won’t you take off your coat, Miss Winters, and join me in a glass of wine?”
He wanted her to stay, that much was obvious. As he always did, unexpected call or not, he always wanted her to stay. She felt drawn by it, the wanting. The courtship. It was something she’d never experienced before, not at the Foundling Home, for certain, and not in any encounters in the village of Collinsport. To most, she was a working girl, in plain brown and blue dresses, sensible shoes, a secondhand coat that Mrs. Stoddard had given her. Camel hair, to be sure, and while Victoria suspected that Mrs. Stoddard had bought it for her new and had lied about it being second hand, that was the story that had gone around. And so, she was, simply, the governess in a secondhand coat.
But to Barnabas, she was a lady. He was pouring wine for her now, disregarding her silence, or taking it as acquiescence. Crystal decanter, gold rimmed goblets, and all for a casual glass of wine for a solitary guest arrived unannounced on an autumn evening. When he turned to look at her, a glass in each hand, she could see the glow in his eyes that she was becoming convinced, over time, existed because she was in the room. She never saw him look like that at Carolyn, that much was certain.
But the glow dimmed when he saw that she had not taken off her coat.
“Why, Miss Winters—” He stopped, not wanting, it seemed, to find fault in her in any way. But he was disappointed, too, and he tipped his chin down, as if chiding himself for being so forward. “I do apologize, I simply assumed…well, indeed, you are on an important errand of some kind, and here am I wanting you only to tarry a while with me.” With a smile he seemed to resign himself to her leaving, and it was that which prompted her to take off her coat and walk through to the foyer to hang it on the rack. When she returned, more candles had been lit and the room was as bright and welcoming as a velvet-draped bower.
Barnabas held out a glass to her. She took it, and tipping the rim of it with his glass in salute, took a small sip.
“Won’t you sit down, Miss Winters, and rest after your ramble through the woods?”
She was more used to fetching and carrying for others. But each visit with Barnabas Collins was teaching her to enjoy being waited on hand and foot. Even if it was not something she was used to.
She sat in the chair closest to the fire, knowing from past experience that if she did not, he was apt to argue with her and scold her to take the best seat in the house for herself. And then write a note the next day, delivered by Willie Loomis, to apologize for taking such a firm tone with her. All with a graceful charm that drew her in like the coaxing curve of a newly budded rose.
He sat in the seat opposite from her and set his wine glass on the little round table. “So, what brings you to the Old House on such a night?” Hands steepled in front of him, eyes open and watching her.
“Well, actually, Roger Collins sent me to ask you a favor.”
“Yes, and it’s rather a big one, I’m afraid.”
“There is no favor,” said Barnabas, spreading his hands wide as if offering a benediction, “too big for a family member. Or a charming occupant of the Great House.”
Of course he would say that. With a dignity of promise and goodwill, as if he’d waited for just this minute to be able to help her out.
“Well, it’s Willie Loomis, you see.”
“Willie?” he asked, his eyes narrowing, as if he were confused. “What about him?”
“We need him to help me.”
His eyebrows rose as if he could not imagine such a thing.
“You see, when I was driving last week to pick up Carolyn at the airport, well, you remember.”
“Yes, indeed I do.”
“Mr. Collins has since decided that the car needed a complete overhaul, you see, and we thought that Willie, being, well, that he could keep them from taking advantage of me at the garage.”
“Wouldn’t…” Barnabas’ voice trailed off as he paused to look at the fire. And then at her, his eyes dark. “Wouldn’t the fact that the car belongs to a Collins be enough to keep you from harm at the garage?”
She could only shrug. “I think the garage has changed hands recently, and Mr. Collins, well, he’s been busy at the cannery….”
“And is unable to take up your cause. I see.”
“Yes, that’s it exactly.” She took a sip of wine, where even the tiniest taste washed away her nervousness. She’d not realized how anxious Roger’s idea had made her. In his way, he wanted to look out for her, but, as was typical of him, what he thought would make her life easier actually put her on the outside, looking in. Asking for favors. Borrowing the power of others.
“And he felt,” Barnabas continued, “that Willie, with his street experience, could make sure, at least for this first visit, that the Collins standard of excellence should be upheld, is that it?”
“Yes.” She nodded now, feeling the heat of the fire along one side of her face, reaching up to feel the hot silk of her hair. As it always was, the wine and the fire quite relaxed her, and she could finally feel her shoulders start to fall against the back of the chair. “And if it would be alright with you, he could come with me tomorrow to make sure. Mr. Collins is, well, he—” She stopped, not wanting to criticize.
“And Cousin Roger wants this done as soon as possible, is that it?”
Nodding silently, she felt herself smile. As it always was, Barnabas to the rescue. How secure he was, how confident, knowing what she meant to say without her having to say it.
Barnabas sat up in his wingback chair, drawing himself into a straight line, nodding in return that yes, he would do this for her. Arrange that it should be so. “I will call Willie now, and we will set the arrangements.”
“Oh—” She stopped.
“What is it, my dear?”
“Isn’t he having his supper, I mean, I smell food cooking from down the hall.”
“It is no matter,” he said, flicking the backs of his fingernails against the arm of the chair. “He can eat it just as well, later.”
With that, he stood and went to the hallway. Called for his servant, and all the while she tried to understand why this made her feel uncomfortable. Certainly she’d never heard Willie complaining about his situation, or have anything much to say about it at all. From the time she had known him, Willie had never taken pains to hide his opinion of things or people. Until he had started working for Mr. Collins, that is. At which point, he’d become rather silent on his view of the world. Perhaps it was something he’d learned, some force of discretion. Some new restraint copied directly from his boss.
Before she could figure it out, Willie arrived, his footsteps, quick and urgent, preceding him by mere seconds. Carrying a dishtowel in one hand, bundled and stained as if he’d been using it as a napkin. Collar open, hair damp and combed back as if he’d just washed up prior to sitting down to his meal. When he saw her sitting there, his jaw dropped in total astonishment and not a little dismay. It was almost obvious by the way he turned his face away from her that he’d not expected to see her, did not want to see her. Not the reception she was used to getting from Willie, not recently. Except that it was. He’d been ignoring her ever since they’d returned home after the blizzard.
Then Willie turned his eyes to his boss, and the circles of candlelight in the hallway hid his expression so well, she thought she’d imagined his lack of welcome. Surely that couldn’t be it.
“What is it, Barnabas?” he asked, voice low. As it usually was when he was talking to Barnabas. Not timid. More, cautious. Funny how she’d not noticed it till this moment.
“You will come in and help me make arrangements for your attendance upon Miss Winters tomorrow,” said Barnabas, gesturing to the chair where she sat. He walked towards her and Willie followed, one half step behind, eyes locked on Barnabas’ shoulder. Towel twisting in his hands. The rush of their passing moved the candlelight in the sconces to flicker and bend.
Barnabas stopped before her and reached for her hand. Clasped it between his large, cool palms. And raised a smile to her as he spoke to Willie. “Miss Winters has need of your counsel at the garage for repairs to her vehicle.”
A slow nod was his reply, but Victoria could see that Willie was waiting for more information before agreeing out loud, and that Barnabas was going to give it to him.
“You will convey Miss Winters to and from the garage, as she needs it, and discuss with the mechanic the repairs that are needed. A full overhaul, I believe Cousin Roger said?” This last addressed to her and she was quick to reply.
“Yes, that’s what he said. It was very kind of him to offer, but I’m beginning to think that I’m causing a great deal of trouble.”
“No trouble, I assure you, Miss Winters. Is that not right, Willie?”
Willie started to nod, then opened his mouth. “Y-yeah, that’s right. No trouble.”
“You see?” asked Barnabas pressing her hand a little harder now. “Willie is happy to do anything that you require.”
Her host cast a glance to Willie, and Victoria caught the flicker of something else there that she could not translate into meaning. Probably just the usual warning to mind his manners. Or to take extra special care of her, as Barnabas himself would have done. Probably nothing more than that.
“As am I, my dear,” finished Barnabas, drawing her hand to him as if he meant to kiss it. A quick flinch from her, involuntary and sharp, stopped him. Not that she minded, of course she didn’t. But he usually only attempted this when they were alone. Not with an audience of one. Willie Loomis, eyes large and round and dark and watching her. It almost made her uncomfortable. Almost. But not as uncomfortable as the thought of taking him away from his regular work. She knew what it was like to be called upon for a special errand, only to find out, upon her return, that she’d left some even more important task unfinished for someone else.
“I appreciate all of this,” she said, putting her wine glass down on the little round table next to her, pushing her hands against the arms of the chair to rise. She could barely do this, Barnabas was standing so close. Willie moved back almost instantly, and Barnabas a second later. As if he could not bear to see her go so soon. Which was flattering, in a way, although uncomfortable. She found herself drawn to it though, as she always was, even as she fought against the surge of pleasure. It was nice to be wanted.
And nicer still to see Willie dip his head, looking at her, eyes dark and serious in the candlelight. The color of blue stones washed grey by the sea. Some hair slipping over his forehead, and his soft, careful reply, “It’s no problem. I’m happy to do it.”
“You will meet with Miss Winters at the garage, and tend to anything she wants, is that clear?”
“Yes, Barnabas,” said Willie, his face turning in Barnabas’ direction, though Vicki couldn’t be entirely sure that Willie was actually looking at his boss.
“And you will convey her to and fro as necessary, as well as tend to your regular chores.”
“Yes, Barnabas,” said Willie again. She noticed his hands were clenched tight around the towel, so tight she saw the cloth begin to come soundlessly apart. And his hands were shaking.
Then Barnabas was taking her hand and leading her to the foyer, a smile softening his sharp features, white in the darkness of the hallway. A hand touching her back, his fingertips drawing a faint circle along the cloth of her dress, like a little electric shock.
“You will let me know,” he was saying, taking down her coat and helping her into it, “if there is ought you need and do not receive tomorrow. I need to know that you are well taken care of, Miss Winters, though I am unable to assist you myself.”
“I will,” she said.
Pulling the scarf out of the coat pocket she placed it on her head and tied it under her chin. Almost loath to go out into the crisp wind, even though the fine wine was simmering in her veins and would keep her warm. She seldom drank even this much at the Great House, but the Old House was different. It was always different here, like velvet to silk. Both fine, but the Old House had a constant current of the past shifting through the air, never letting her forget how it had a place, a constant, deep-rooted place. Something she did not have, and never would. Unless she could find it. Connect with it, in such a place.
Willie stood behind Barnabas in the hallway, a candle catching the gleam of his eye, like a secret star in the dark. The rest of his face was dusted with shadows, and she could not tell if he tore at his towel or whether his hands were at rest. Only that he stood still, watching her. She didn’t think he was smiling.
“Thank you, Mr. Collins, I appreciate everything you do for me. As does Roger Collins.”
“It is nothing,” said Barnabas, taking her hand now and kissing it as he had wanted to do earlier.
“My car will be the happier for it,” she said, feeling the smile as she thought of the memory, “and no need for Willie to rescue me, even if there is another blizzard.”
“No,” said Barnabas, straightening, rising, his shoulders going back. He let go of her hand. “No need for that.”
“Goodnight, Mr. Collins,” she said to him. Then nodded to Willie standing in the half-dark. “Goodnight, Willie. See you tomorrow.”
There was a pause. Then he said, “Yeah, tomorrow.”
She turned to go, shutting the door behind her, feeling the last warmth of the house before the wind and the darkness cut into her. Hearing the low tones of Barnabas to his servant, “Come with me, Willie.” Obviously, they had a lot to do.
The last of the twilight had faded and full night had fallen. Vicki let her memory lead her through the woods to the Great House. In spite of herself, she was looking forward to her day with Willie Loomis.
There was a brilliant fog as she stood on the sidewalk in front of Manny’s Garage where she had brought her car. Around her were the sounds of the men starting up their work. One of them had asked her if she needed help, but had left her alone when she told them she was waiting for Willie Loomis. As had everyone else. She didn’t like the garage, it smelled of grease and something old and dirty, but she supposed that was why the last owner had gone out of business. There were signs that the new owner was making an effort to clean up, the pile of tires she remembered always being there was gone now, replaced by a bright, new sign that told of prices and services. And the men wore clean uniforms, so she supposed that was something. You couldn’t turn an old garage into a going concern overnight.
Nor could Willie turn the Old House into an historic show home, though it often seemed that was what he was trying to do. Always working hard, reaching for some invisible goal in his head, and now today, he would be taken away from that. Would he appreciate the break? Or would he resent her for it? She did not know.
She hoped he did. It was a break for her, too. Carolyn was taking David for the day, and while Vicki didn’t believe that the times tables was going to get covered by noon as they should, the break might do the boy good, as well.
A truck pulled up in the yard, and she recognized it as Willie’s instantly, even though there was a bit of fog between them. Old and white, with a touch of rust around the tire wells, it was, still, more reliable than her car. He stopped the truck, and got out. Patted his pockets to make sure he had his keys, and walked over toward her. Looking like he’d not slept much, or very well, and that maybe he’d missed his breakfast. Which wasn’t really likely seeing as it was past nine o’clock.
“Am I late?” he asked her, stepping up beside her. “My alarm clock didn’t go off, and well, without the sun….”
“You’re right on time.” She smiled, thinking how he was, in his own way, as courteous as Barnabas Collins. Rougher, of course, without the polish, but his eyes were gentle as he looked at her, anxious that his tardiness should have caused her any inconvenience.
“You sure?” he asked, wanting to be sure.
“Yes,” she replied, smiling even in the chill of the morning. How kind of him to worry.
He smiled in return. It lit up his eyes for a second, and then he turned to look into the depths of the garage. “You wanna come in with me or stay out here?”
“I’ll come in.”
He led the way, the flex of his shoulders coming back in a stance she recognized in Joe Haskell and even Roger Collins. The position that said, I am not to be fooled with so don’t even try. Funny how Barnabas’ shoulders never did that, or maybe it was because they were always that way. These thoughts occupied her while she listened to Willie describe what was wrong with the car, or what might be wrong, to the man behind the counter. The only part she understood was the bit about the oil pan, because Roger Collins had spent a great deal of time one evening spelling the whole thing out for her.
“That’s been fixed, now, so don’t go messing with it,” Willie was saying. “The oil is good. Just look at the engine and the ball bearings, and new tires. Put the best you got on.”
Vicki raised her hand to touch him on the shoulder and he instantly turned around, eyebrows raised in expectation, hair falling across his eyes. He pushed it back, still looking at her.
“I don’t think—” she began, and Willie was shaking his head.
“Only the best for a Collins,” he said, “an’ you work for a Collins, an’ so.” He shrugged, and that was the end of it. She could hardly argue with Willie, not in a garage, not in front of three strange men. Besides Barnabas had probably given him instructions, knowing Barnabas, about what should be done and to what lengths Willie should go to make sure it was done. Even to the point of hushing her in public.
“Okay, Willie, you know best.”
A little tip of his head and he was back to the counter, signing papers and handing over the keys.
“All set,” he said, turning to her, shoulders relaxing back down. Probably didn’t even know he was doing it, but it was interesting to see just the same. “We can pick it up at five, they said.”
She responded with a silent nod, following him out to his truck, and waiting, while the fog dissipated in a little breeze around her, for him to unlock and open the door for her. Getting in was a little difficult, as the truck was high off the ground. He didn’t offer a hand, though he looked, oddly enough, as though he wanted to. Instead he simply watched as she pulled herself in, then shut the door gently behind her. Head down as he walked around the front of the truck, climbing in, keeping his eyes to the front. She’d not made him this nervous, she was sure, the last time they’d driven together, or even at the hotel. It was as if a frost had taken him over; he kept his eyes focused toward the front of the truck as he got in, starting the engine without looking at her, and driving out of the parking lot as if he didn’t have a passenger with him.
“Where can I take you, Miss Vicki? Barnabas said anywhere you want to go.”
“Home, I guess.” She settled against the back of the seat and tightened her scarf, letting her hands fall folded in her lap. But she didn’t want to go home. Outside her window, as the truck rolled along, was miles and miles of autumn in between the pockmarked bare trees, where the storm had taken a part of the fall foliage with it. The fog was lifting and behind that shone a brilliant sun, the spokes of lapis sky bright through the orange lace of the trees and white clouds. Only in Maine had she seen that particular color. And only at this time of year, when the scattershot of orange and brown and yellow and gold made such a contrast that the sky looked bluer than it actually was. Than it actually could be. It was an illusion, she knew, but it was brilliant just the same.
“What is it, Vicki?” Willie asked, and she turned to look at him.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re looking at somethin’, and you made a little sound. Everythin’ okay?”
He drove along the road, with two hands on the wheel, as he had during the blizzard, more along the yellow line on the outside than the white stripe in the middle, swerving every now and then as if he knew exactly where the bumps were, and how far a jog he needed to make to avoid them. But didn’t he see the fall? The sky? The sparkles of gold as the leaves fell in the wind of the truck’s passing? No. His eyes were glued to the road, with only a single glance in her direction. A shame, really.
“We should go for a walk in the woods,” she said, smiling to herself. Sillyness, but there it was. An impulse. Not something she often gave into, and woods were typically only something that David hid in and that had to be searched till he was found.
“A walk. In the woods.”
He seemed almost horrified. The truck swerved, and he tightened his hands on the wheel.
“Yes, with me. I suppose you’d rather be walking with a tall red-headed beauty, or a—” She was joking, of course, but out of the corner of her eye, she could see him shaking his head.
“Oh, no, no. I just thought—well, that you’d want to get back to Collinwood an’ all.”
That wasn’t what he’d been going to say, she felt, but he was being nice, as always. Much nicer than he’d been when he’d first arrived at Collinwood. So much so that she sometimes had difficulty comparing the two men. It was as if he was two different people.
“There’s a wooded area up ahead,” she said, pointing. “And a path that follows one of those streams that goes to the sea.”
She felt his eyes on her, one hard look, and then back at the road.
“Look, there’s a place where you can park,” she said. We can walk through the woods and still be back at Collinwood before lunch. They’re not expecting me till then.”
He was slowing. The truck was slowing, but it didn’t feel like it was going to stop.
“Please, Willie? It’s such a beautiful day, and I feel like I want to get as much warmth and sun as I can before the winter sets in.”
She didn’t know what it was that she had said, but she felt the truck speed up and the place she had been pointing to whipped past them before she had time to protest.
He drove on for a moment, concentrating on the road, his face grim. Then he said, “It’s colder than it looks, you know. You don’t have the coat for it. Barnabas wouldn’t like it if you caught cold on account of me. ‘Sides, I got work to do.”
Her first impulse was to argue with him about it. Her coat was fine, she wasn’t a child who didn’t know how to dress for the weather. She wanted to walk in the woods on this beautiful day and why wouldn’t he let her? Taking a breath, she realized that if she wasn’t a child, then she couldn’t whine about it either. If he had to get back to work, and she had to curtail her own desires, then that was that. Some things couldn’t be helped, was all.
She sighed. Work awaited her as well.
The Collins clan departed at mid-afternoon in the brisk wind, with Vicki waving them off from the front archway. Roger Collins had been called to Boston on business, and Carolyn and David were joining him for an impromptu holiday. No consideration was given for the expense of suddenly-bought train fare or, either, for the regimen of David’s schoolwork. No, off they would go, expensive leather bags packed with far too much clothing, Mr. Collins clutching the handmade briefcase that surely contained important paperwork to be reviewed and signed. As she turned into the doorway, pushing the heavy, solid wood closed against the sprightly afternoon, she saw Mrs. Stoddard lingering in the front foyer.
“Some peace and quiet, at last,” said Mrs. Stoddard, tipping her head back to sigh. Eyes lingering on the art along the walls, the portrait of the original Barnabas Collins, and then on Vicki. “And you’ll have plenty of time for that doctor’s appointment in Bangor, now, won’t you?”
“Yes, I will. Thank you.” Tipping her head, in some gratitude, thinking that somehow Mrs. Stoddard might have arranged this unexpected vacation from the shoulder-tensing task of keeping young David in his seat in the schoolroom when the air outside stirred with scent and the leaves burst forth with flames.
She watched Mrs. Stoddard head toward the back study, the smaller one, with wood paneled walls, and the cozy fire. The small bottle of brandy and a crystal glass tucked behind one of the bigger books that no one looked at any more. It was uncertain whether her boss would look at old family albums or stare into the golden fire. Either way, Vicki suddenly found herself with time on her hands. Hours to go till Willie would be by to take her to pick up her car. The afternoon fine, with no hint of rain, and the sky as blue as a sapphire gem.
She would go for a walk, then. On her own.
The first time she’d ventured into the woods on the Collins estate, some time ago, she’d been overwhelmed. The Foundling Home in New York had been bound by lilac trees, it was true, and somewhere beyond the vast walls of grey and brown stone, Central Park was purported to burst with every kind of plant imaginable. She’d never been near it. Had never ventured further from the confines of the home than what was allowable by the sisters. Which was to say, not very far.
Her scope of the world had been bound by the small neighborhood in which the home was situated. Stone and cement, little corner shops, back alleys with shambled brick, constant noise, the occasional stunted tree. And the lilac bushes. Someone, some time past, had planted them, in a ring, just inside the tall, pointed iron fence. They grew lush, and someone was always threatening to cut them back, to make the founding home somewhat more orderly in nature, but no one ever did. Each spring, the blossoms would come out, purple, lilac, and white. Some lasting only a day or two, others weeks. The children had gathered them, tossed them about, the older girls soaking them in water to rinse their hair, or to twine in the button of a lapel. For weeks the smell of them permeated the halls of the Foundling Home, till at last the heat of summer baked it away. It happened every year, and by the time she left the home for Collinwood, to her spring was lilacs.
Her first walk into the woods after she’d arrived at her post had been in late fall, when the green leaves of summer had been replaced by the ochre and fire canopy overhead. Strange glossy-leaved plants spread as ground cover beside the path, in competition with spiny rough, red vines she could never discover the name of. Huge sweeping furs, their branches drooping down as if in anticipation of the first heavy snow. The path somewhat muddy and slippery beneath her feet. And the smells, she remembered that first time how many smells there were. None she could then identify, some dank, some bright, some pungent, all of them drifting into her lungs through her open mouth as if she could not get enough. Nothing like the greasy New York air; she walked and breathed and smiled.
Now the smells were familiar though still unidentified as she headed up the long path that led from the Great House up to Widow’s Hill. Another path led from Widow’s Hill to the Old House. From there, from the back door of the kitchen of the Old House, still another path led back to the Great House, forming a big triangle that kept the two houses connected with each other and the pounding view of the sea.
Near the lee of the hill were a tangle of rocks that she had to clamber over, wondering, as she always did, if these were the rocks that Josette had tumbled over on her way up to the cliffs as she made her desperate and sad attempt to escape the man who had been chasing her. Whoever that had been. But the day was far too sunny to be contemplating Josette and her sad fate for very long.
Instead she looked out at the pounding blue sea spread before her, white waves, spilling, endless green foam on the black and jagged rocks. The smell of salt, coming up strong with the ceaseless breeze that whipped up the cliffs and into her face. Sending her hair streaming back, out of the confines of the ribbon she’d hastily tied. Vicki reached up to pull the ribbon down, letting her hair free, stuffing the ribbon in her pocket. Only a secondhand one, dull brown, in keeping with her sensible air as a governess. Wouldn’t matter if she lost it, but the sisters had driven into her the sin of waste.
Not chill, but brisk. The edge of bite from the wind cupped her cheeks and slid behind the collar of her coat. Winters were hard in this part of the world, it seemed to her, at least last year’s had been, but no one in the house had commented upon it in the least. Not even when, in early October, the snows had come for days and everyone had been trapped in their houses. Willie, she’d learned, had been on a trip for Barnabas to Bangor during that storm, and had almost been lost on the roads coming home. Three hours it had taken him to drive from Bangor to the door of the Old House, Mrs. Johnson had told her, though how he’d managed it at all in a whiteout no one knew. Vicki got some hint from the tone of Mrs. Johnson’s voice that Barnabas had been beside himself waiting, and had dragged Willie from the cab of the truck as soon as it had pulled into the driveway, taking him into the kitchen and treating him for a near case of frostbite. No one else, at the Old House, however, ever spoke of it, and she never felt bold enough to ask.
The next snow like that was years away, people said. It never snowed like that two years in a row. Or five, or ten. Or even thirty. Though, just last week a blizzard had come through like an angry, live thing, catching her and her broken down car on the road. Oil leaking all around, and then Willie, in his disreputable looking but dependable truck, coming to a halt, his sea blue eyes serious, work roughened hands capable as he knelt on the snowy ground and checked for her, so that she wouldn’t so much as have to get her hands dusty. He’d saved her from, at the very least, a very cold walk, and then some. What if Willie hadn’t come along? What if? Carolyn had managed just fine stranded at the airport with, no doubt, half a dozen beaux to cater to her every spoiled whim. Men always went for blondes, even Willie, in the early days, had been quite taken with that pampered head of hair. But then, he’d made creepy advances on her as well as Carolyn, wanting to touch her, trapping her in the doorway, smiling the whole time, as if, given enough encouragement, she would surely fall to his charms.
So different now, he was.
The sun was slanting through the trees, a huge swell of wind kicking across the tops of them, spilling the red and orange leaves down like colored snow. She felt that she might head down the other path, toward the Old House to meet Willie and save him the drive to the Great House. He would be hard at work, she knew, as he always seemed to be, sunup to sundown, and sometimes even past that. A changed man from the rogue who had stared at her like he wanted to divest her of all her clothes, and quickly too. Now, he was quite different. She turned up her collar and headed down the hill, through the open field, past the fir trees that behind them shielded the lilac tree that Willie had shared with her last spring. She always thought of it as their tree, it was the only one on the estate, as she had discovered through her searches. Other lilacs existed along the back streets of Collinsport, in the poorer sections of town, so she knew that plenty grew around this part of Maine. But on the estate, it was the only one.
The Old House, long columns faded white and the small peak of roof that stuck out a bit over the little widow’s walk, darker with slated roof, pushed its way past the trees, almost shouldering them out of the way, as if on purpose. As if it wanted to see her properly. As if a house had eyes, which was silly. She shrugged these thoughts off, and tried to comb her fingers through her hair. It was a mess, she knew it, but it would have to do. Willie wouldn’t mind; she just hoped she didn’t run into Barnabas looking so disheveled. He tended to see her, she felt, in such a ladylike light, that to dissuade him of this even for one second was unthinkable.
She walked up to the back door, the one that led to the kitchen, and knocked. In days past, she might have walked right on in, but a few encounters with a Willie shaken in such a panic that he’d left the doors unlocked and that Barnabas might find out had taught her to at least pretend they were locked. The knock echoed in the empty rooms beyond and came back to her. Hollow. She tried again, and heard the steps coming toward her. Paced and quick, giving her the hint, before the door was even opened, that it was Willie rather than Barnabas, who was, no doubt, away on business, as he always seemed to be.
The solid door, with its glazed thick glass pulled back on its hinges without a sound, and there stood Willie, hair hanging in his eyes, shoulders a thin, straight line in his flannel shirt, face without expression as he looked at her.
“Miss Vicki,” he said. Toneless.
“Hello, Willie,” she said in reply. “I thought I’d save you the drive up to Collinwood.”
“Uh,” he said now. “Um….”
Somehow he was rattled by her unexpected appearance, for reasons she couldn’t determine. His hands weren’t covered by anything to show he’d been in the middle of something. No grease, or paint, or even a rag in his hand smelling of Brasso to indicate why he was standing there staring at her as if he didn’t know her.
“Is it time, do you think? To head to the garage? Or too early?”
His jaw worked as he dipped his head down, his eyes in shadow for a brief dark flash, and she opened her mouth to ask if he was alright, when he said, “Sure, we can go now, if you like.”
He turned away, leaving the door open, but not inviting her in as he sometimes did, when the wind was blustery, or the air sharp with cold. Not today, apparently. She imagined he was getting his keys and his wallet and jacket, and didn’t feel he had time for any niceties. Within seconds he reappeared, closing and locking the door behind him, shoving past her, not rudely, but rushed. Preoccupied. Not looking at her, even as he strode up to his truck and opened the passenger door for her. Waited till she was settled in and closed it behind her. Stopping by Woods - Part 2