The Dancing Floorby Barbara Michaels
For years, Heather Tradescant had dreamed of the journey she and her father would take to England - a pilgrimage to the great gardens of history. But now that her father is dead, Heather is determined to fulfill his dreams, although the trip won't be the same without him. To Heather's annoyance, her request to see the fabled seventeenth-century garden of Troytan House… See more details below
For years, Heather Tradescant had dreamed of the journey she and her father would take to England - a pilgrimage to the great gardens of history. But now that her father is dead, Heather is determined to fulfill his dreams, although the trip won't be the same without him. To Heather's annoyance, her request to see the fabled seventeenth-century garden of Troytan House is denied by the owner, a millionaire industrialist. Stubbornly, Heather is determined to infiltrate the manor's defenses, and she is shocked to discover part of Troytan's famous garden overgrown with a thicket of thorns that seems almost malevolent in its resistance to her intrusion. After she braves the wall of briars and reaches the Victorian manor house beyond, she senses a strange miasma of evil lurking, tainting its peaceful beauty. For reasons Heather cannot comprehend, the reclusive owner seems all too pleased to meet her, but his enthusiasm rings false. Heather begins to wonder whether it is only stories of long-vanished witchcraft that haunt Troytan House and the village beyond or whether there is some more modern evil nearer at hand and far, far more dangerous.
American schoolteacher Heather Tradescent's plan to travel to England to visit the country's historic gardens with her parents is cut short when the two die in a car accident. Heather, who was especially close to her father, is in her mid-20s and, now, virtually alone in the world. In an attempt to aid her emotional recovery and follow through on her father's desire to explore the gardens, she decides to make the trip by herself; with substantial insurance money in hand, she sets out on what is initially a very lonely journey. The trip proves so depressing, in fact, that she decides to return home after one last stop: Troytan House, an estate once owned by a man named Tradescent, who may have been her ancestor. The town, as Heather quickly discovers, is obsessed with a supposed case of witchcraft and, in particular, with a witch named "Old Demdike." When Heather finds her way into Troytan House by way of an overgrown, ominous maze, she, too, becomes swept up in the witchcraft craze. Troytan House's current owner, the wealthy and eccentric Frank Karim, persuades Heather that she should stay and help him restore the grounds to their former 17th- century glory; a garden-lover in her own right, Heather can't turn down the offer. Meanwhile, secondary characters are each more mysterious and unpredictable than the other: caretaker Sean; Frank's son Jordan; the next-door neighbors, the Betancourts and Frank's friend Jennetall know a good deal more about witching than they let on.
The supernatural stuff never gets silly or overblown, while Michaels's own subtle touch lends an effective air of spookiness to an intriguing study of a woman's coming into her own.
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They have no definite approaches, but wander about in circular side-tracks, and most savage monsters are concealed in their labyrinth of deception. Henry, Abbot of Clairvaux
It was still dark outside when I woke, sweat-soaked and shaking after another of those awful dreams. The plot changed nightly, the danger differed, but the theme was always the same; a desperate attempt to reach him, through fire or flood or some other monstrous menace, before it happened. Sometimes I saw him, smiling and unaware, deaf to my screams of warning, just before the wave broke or the flames engulfed him. Sometimes he had seen the danger and turned a tormented face toward me, crying out for help, as I beat vainly at the barrier that separated us.
Sometimes she was there, sometimes she wasn't. But I could always feel her presence, watching and waiting.
My groping hand found the light switch. It took me a while to remember where I waswhat hotel, what town, what country. There had been so many different rooms. They were all more or less alike, whether the furniture was imitation Chippendale or imitation Danish modern. This one was imitation Elizabethan, with fake beams across the ceiling and a bed draped with imitation hangings that didn't actually open and close.
I had learned how to fight the lingering horror of the dream by concentrating fiercely on prosaic details like those, and by playing back, like a recorded tape, the memories of how I had got to . . . the Witches' Roost Inn, in the village of Malkin in the county of Lancashire in the country of England. It was getting harder and harder to place myself. I had covered a lot of territory in the past three weeks.
Wehad planned to start from London, and that was where I began, in the quiet church in Lambeth. It was a museum now, and part of the churchyard had been laid out as a garden. We always assume the sun will be shining when we're on vacation, but it was raining that day, not hard, just a slow gray drizzle like tears. The little garden had a softer kind of beauty in that misty air. The bulbs made a brave show, crimson tulips and blue scilla, narcissi yellow as sunshine. The gray stone sarcophagus looked less incongruous in that setting than one might have supposed. It was carved with designs as exotic as any that ever graced the coffin of an Egyptian pharaohcrocodiles, dragons, temples. I sat on the edge of the fountain for quite some time while the rain straightened my hair and darkened the shoulders of my raincoat. There was no one else there. No one at all.
Hampton Court, Winchester Castle, Hatfield House; London to Surrey to Sussex, Hampshire and Somerset and Wilts, and then east, into Suffolk and Norfolk before heading north to my present location. Not from stately home to stately home, though I had seen a few; it was the gardens I sought, the old gardens. I had followed with dogged persistence the route we had planned, driving long miles every day and falling exhausted into bed every night, each time in a different hotel. (Not tired enough to sleep without dreaming, though.) I had avoided the smaller inns and the bed and breakfasts. They were too cosy. I didn't want to be welcomed like a friend, or chatted up by ye hoste and hostesse.
This "inne" was smaller than I would have liked, but I had had no choice; it was the only hotel in town. The town was smaller than I would have preferred too; I had planned to spend the night in Manchester, but the events of the afternoon had left me too shaken to go onfirst the disappointment of being refused admittance to the place I had come so far to see, and then the accident and its unpleasant consequences.
The accident wasn't my fault. Admittedly I was in a bad mood because I had been turned away from the gates of Troytan House so unceremoniouslynot even by a person, but by a brusque electronic voice. I had known the place wasn't open to the public, but the anonymous voice hadn't even given me a chance to explain what I wanted and why. It roused all my worst instincts, which were in the ascendant anyhow, so I headed for the nearest village, thinking I would have tea and try to decide whether to give it up or make another attempt the following day.
It was a small town, and the narrow High Street was congested. As I later learned, it was market day. This, and the fact that I was an American, convinced despite all evidence to the contrary that I was driving on the wrong side of the road, made me proceed with caution. When the boy darted out in front of me I slammed on the brakes, and was thrown forward against the wheel when the car behind rear-ended me.
I hardly felt the jolt; I was too busy looking for the kid, praying I hadn't hit him. When I saw him standing safe on the sidewalk, conspicuous in his bright blue sweater, I was so relieved I felt sick. Then I saw his face. He wasn't hurt or frightened. He was grinning broadly, and he was looking straight
He appeared to be about twelve, or, if he was small for his age, thirteen. His sweater, of a particularly garish shade of bright, electric blue, and his gray wool pants might have been a school uniform. He was a nice-looking boy, with a shock of fair hair and features that were probably regular and attractive when they weren't distorted by that ugly smile. It fattened his cheeks and narrowed his eyes, and I knew, as surely as if I had read his mind, that he had deliberately run out in front of the carplaying chicken, or trying to scare me.
Traffic had stopped and people were gathering around my car and the other vehicle whose bumper appeared to be attached to mine. Ignoring the profane shouts of the other driver, I headed for the boy.
I suppose he had expected sympathy and apologies. The expression on my face must have told him he wasn't going to get either, but he was slow to react, and I had had a lot of practice dealing with smart-ass twelve year olds. I grabbed him by the shoulder.
He struggled and swore. I had expected that, and had no trouble holding on. I only meant to lecture him, and maybe shake him a little, until he bent his head and sank his teeth into my hand.
My reaction was pure reflex. It was just a slap, it couldn't have hurt him as much as those sharp white teeth were hurting me, but he screamed as if I had stabbed him.
A nasty scene ensued, as they say. The first to arrive was his mum. I deduced as much from the fact that the boy, still screaming, flung himself into her outstretched arms, though she looked awfully young to be the mother of a child that old. She was a tiny woman, not much taller than the boy, with a fashionably emaciated figure set off by tight pants and fitted jacket. Her smooth, fair-skinned face would have been pretty if it hadn't been distorted by rage. She added her screams to his, accusing me of everything from child abuse to assault and battery.
I tried to apologize. I wasn't exactly proud of what I had done, and the crowd that had gathered made me uneasy. Mum finally ran out of breath, but the broken ejaculations that succeeded her shouts made it clear that she wasn't buying my excuses.
Then a man in the front row of the spectators cleared his throat. "It ain't the first time he done that, Miz Betancourt. Who's gonna pay for my fender I'd like to know?"
He was a big man, who would have made two of her, but when she looked directly at him his eyes shifted and he said no more. The spectators began to drift away and mum, with a last blistering glance at me, put a protective arm around the boy and walked off. He glanced over his shoulder and smirked at me.
The owner of the dented fender remained. I lost the ensuing argument. No witnesses stepped forward to support my suggestion that maybe he had been following me too closely. After I offered to exchange insurance information, or whatever the procedure might be, he gave me a squinty-eyed look, and realization dawned. He wanted money. Call it settling out of court, call it a bribe, by that time I didn't care. I had a splitting headache and a sick sensation of isolation, the way a new kid in school feels, surrounded by indifferent or mocking strangers. I handed over fifty pounds, and checked into the hotel.
The Witches' Roost. I'd seen Queen's Heads and Boar's Heads and Green Men and other quaint names, but never a witch's anything. It must refer to some local legend, since several shops had similar namesThe Witches' Cauldron (a restaurant?) and The Witch House. I wasn't moved to investigate; I was too anxious to get under cover, away from the unfriendly faces and hostile looks.
I couldn't get away from my accusing conscience so easily. I had never laid a hand on any of my students. I had never even been tempted to do so. I prided myself on my ability to handle trouble-makers, and small-town Midwest schools are still pretty safe. I ought to have been able to control myself.
A boy that age shouldn't be biting people, though. He was no street kid, scratching for survival; mum's accent had been refined, if her vocabulary had not. I inspected my hand. His teeth had broken the skin in a couple of places, so I washed and sprayed the abrasions with antiseptic. Some people would say it served me right if they got infected.
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