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And so it came to pass the summer when I was fifty-two and Chris was fifty-four that our mother's promise of riches, made long ago when I was twelve and Chris was fourteen, was at last realized.
We both stood and stared at that huge, intimidating house I'd never expected to see again. Even though it was not an exact duplicate of the original Foxworth Hall, still I quivered inside. What a price both Chris and I had paid to stand where we were now, temporary rulers over this mammoth house that should have been left in charred ruins. Once, long ago, I'd believed he and I would live in this house like a princess and prince, and between us we'd have the golden touch of King Midas, only with more control.
I no longer believed in fairy tales.
As vividly as if it had happened only yesterday, I remembered that chill summer night full of mystical moonlight and magical stars in a black velvet sky when we'd first approached this place, expecting only the best to happen. We had found only the worst.
At that time Chris and I had been so young, innocent and trusting, believing in our mother, loving her, believing as she led us and our five-year-old twin brother and sister through the dark and somehow scary night, to that huge house called Foxworth Hall, that all our future days would be colored green for wealth and yellow for happiness.
What blind faith we'd had when we tagged along behind.
Locked away in that dim and dreary upstairs room, playing in that dusty, musty attic, we'd sustained our selves by our belief in our mother's promises that someday Foxworth Hall and all its fabulous riches would be ours. However, despite all her promises, a cruel and heartless old grandfather with a bad but tenacious heart refused to stop beating in order to let four young and hopeful hearts live, and so we'd waited, and waited, until more than three long, long years passed, and Momma failed to keep her promise.
And not until the day she died -- and her will was read -- did Foxworth Hall fall under our control. She had left the mansion to Bart, her favorite grandson, my child by her own second husband, but until he was twenty-five, the estate was held in trust by Chris.
Foxworth Hall had been ordered reconstructed before she moved to California to find us, but it wasn't until after her death that the final touches were completed on the new Foxworth Hall.
For fifteen years the house stood empty, overseen by caretakers legally supervised by a staff of attorneys who had either written or called Chris long distance to discuss with him the problems that arose. A waiting mansion, grieving, perhaps, waiting for the day when Bart decided he'd go there to live, as we'd always presumed one day he'd do. Now he was offering this house to us for a short while, to be our own until he arrived and took over.
There was always a catch in every lure offered, whispered my ever-suspicious mind. I felt the lure now, reaching out to ensnare us again. Had Chris and I traveled such a long road only to come full circle, back to the beginning?
What would be the catch this time?
No, no, I kept telling myself, my suspicious, everdoubting nature was getting the better of me. We had the gold without the tarnish...we did! We did have to realize our just rewards some day. The night was over -- our day had finally come, and we were now standing in the full sunlight of dreams come true.
To actually be here, planning to live in that restored home, put sudden familiar gall in my mouth. All my pleasure vanished. I was actually realizing a nightmare that wouldn't vanish when I opened my eyes.
I threw off the feeling, smiled at Chris, squeezed his fingers and stared at the restored Foxworth Hall, risen from the ashes of the old, to confront and confound us again with its majesty, its formidable size, its sense of abiding evil, its myriad windows with their black shutters like heavy lids over stony dark eyes. It loomed high and wide, spreading over several acres in magnificent but intimidating grandeur. It was larger than most hotels, formed in the shape of a giant T, only crossed on each end to give it an enormous center section, with wings jutting off north and south, east and west.
It was constructed of rosy pink bricks. The many black shutters matched the roof of slate. Four impressive white Corinthian columns supported a gracious front portico. A sunburst of stained glass was over the black double front doors. Huge brass escutcheon plates decorated the doors and made what could have been plain rather elegant and less somber.
This might have cheered me if the sun hadn't suddenly taken a fugitive position behind a passing dark cloud. I glanced upward at a sky turned stormy and foreboding, heralding rain and wind. The trees in the surrounding forest began to sway so that birds took alarmed flight and screeched as they flew for cover. The green lawns so immaculately kept were quickly littered with broken twigs and falling leaves, and the blooming flowers in geometrically laid-out beds were lashed to the ground unmercifully.
I trembled and thought: Tell me again, Christopher Doll, that it's going to work out fine. Tell me again, for I don't really believe now that the sun has gone and the storm is drawing nearer.
He glanced upward, too, sensing my growing anxiety, my unwillingness to go through with this, despite my promise to Bart, my second son. Seven years ago his psychiatrists had told us their treatment was successful and that Bart was quite normal and could live out his life without needing therapy on a regular basis.
To give me comfort Chris's arm lifted to encircle my shoulders. His lips lowered to brush my cheek. "It's going to work out for all of us. I know it will. We're no longer the Dresden dolls trapped in an upstairs room, dependent on our elders to do the right thing. Now we're the adults, in control of our lives. Until Bart reaches the stated age of inheritance, you and I are the owners. Dr. and Mrs. Christopher Sheffield from Marin County, California, and no one will know us as brother and sister. They won't suspect that we are truly descendants of the Foxworths. We have left all troubles behind us. Cathy, this is our chance. Here, in this house, we can undo all the harm done to us and to our children, especially Bart. We'll rule not with steel wills and iron fists, as was Malcolm's way, but with love, compassion and understanding."
Because Chris had his arm about me, holding me tight against his side, I gained strength enough to look at the house in a new light. It was beautiful. For Bart's sake we'd stay until his twenty-fifth birthday, and then Chris and I would take Cindy with us and fly to Hawaii, where we'd always wanted to live out our lives, near the sea and white beaches. Yes, that's the way it was supposed to be. The way it had to be. Smiling, I turned to Chris. "You're right. I am not afraid of this house, or any house." He chuckled and lowered his arm to my waist, pressuring me forward.
Soon after finishing high school, my first son Jory had flown to New York City to join his grandmother, Madame Marisha. There, in her ballet company, he'd soon been noticed by the critics and was given leading roles. His childhood sweetheart, Melodie, had flown east to join Jory.
At the age of twenty, my Jory had married Melodie, who was only a year younger. The pair of them had struggled and worked to reach the top. They were now the most notable ballet team in the country, a team of perfect, beautiful coordination, as if they could reach each other's mind and signal with a flash of their eyes. For five years they'd been riding the crest of success. Every performance brought rave reviews from the critics and from the public. Television exposure had given them a larger audience than they could ever have gained by personal appearances alone.
Madame Marisha had died in her sleep two years ago, though we could console ourselves by knowing she'd lived to be eighty-seven and had worked up until the very day she passed away.
Around the age of seventeen, my second son Bart had transformed almost magically from a backward student into the most brilliant one in his school. By that time Jory had flown on to New York. I had thought at the time that Jory's absence had brought Bart out of his shell and made him interested in learning. Just two days ago, he had graduated from Harvard Law School, the valedictorian of his class.
Chris and I had joined Melodie and Jory in Boston, and in the huge auditorium of Harvard Law School we'd watched Bart receive his law degree. Only Cindy, our adopted daughter, was not there. She was at her best friend's house in South Carolina. It had given me new pain to know that Bart could not let go of his envy of a girl who'd done her best to win his approval -- especially when he'd done nothing to win hers. It gave me additional pain to know that Cindy couldn't let go of her dislike of Bart long enough to help him celebrate.
"No!" she'd shouted over the telephone, "I don't care if he did send me an invitation! It's just his way of showing off. He can put ten degrees behind his name and I still won't admire or like him -- not after all he did to me. Explain to Jory and Melodie why, so their feelings won't be hurt. But you won't have to explain to Bart. He'll know."
I'd sat between Chris and Jory and stared, amazed that a son who was so reticent at home, so moody and unwilling to communicate, could rise to the top of his class and be named valedictorian. His impassioned words created a mesmerizing spell. I glanced at Chris, who looked proud enough to burst before he grinned at me.
"Wow, who would have guessed? He's terrific, Cathy. Aren't you proud? I know I am."
Yes, yes, of course, I was very proud to see Bart up there. Still, I knew the Bart behind the podium was not the Bart we all knew at home. Maybe he was safe now. Completely normal -- his doctors had said so.
To my way of thinking, there were many small indications that Bart had not changed as dramatically as his doctors thought. He'd said just before we parted, "You must be there, Mother, when I come into my own." Not a word about Chris being there with me. "It's important to me that you be there."
Always he had to force himself to speak Chris's name. "We'll invite Jory and his wife down, too, and, of course, Cindy." He'd grimaced just to say her name. It was beyond me how anyone could dislike a girl as pretty and sweet as our beloved adopted daughter. I couldn't have loved Cindy more if she'd been flesh of my flesh, and blood of my Christopher Doll. In a way, since she'd come to us at the age of two, she was our child, the only one we could claim as truly belonging to both of us.
Cindy was sixteen now, and much more voluptuous than I'd been at her age. But Cindy hadn't been as deprived as I. Her vitamins had come from fresh air and sunshine, both of which had been denied four imprisoned children. Good food and exercise...she'd had the best. We'd had the worst.
Chris asked if we were going to stay out here all day and wait for pelting rain to drench us both before we went inside. He tugged me forward, urging me on with his cheerful confidence.
Gradually, step by slow step, as the thunder began to crash and swiftly come closer, with the swollen, heavy sky zigzagging with frightening electrical bolts, we approached the grand portico of Foxworth Hall.
I began to notice details I'd missed before. The portico floor was made of mosaic tiles in three shades of red intricately laid to form a sunburst pattern that matched the glass sunburst over the double front doors. I looked at those sunburst windows and rejoiced. They hadn't been here before. Perhaps it was just as Chris had predicted. It wouldn't be the same, just as no two snowflakes were the same.
Then I was frowning, for to all intents and purposes, who ever saw the differences in falling snowflakes?
"Stop looking for something to steal the pleasure from this day, Catherine. I see it on your face, in your eyes. I vow on my word of honor that we will leave this house as soon as Bart has his party and fly on to Hawaii. If a hurricane comes and blows a tidal wave over our home once we're there, it will be because you expect that to happen."
He made me laugh. "Don't forget the volcano," I said with a small giggle. "It could hurl hot lava at us." He grinned and playfully spanked my bottom.
"Quit! Please, please. August tenth will see us on our plane -- but a hundred to one you'll worry about Jory, about Bart, and wonder what he's doing all alone in this house."
That's when I remembered something forgotten until now. Waiting inside Foxworth Hall was the surprise Bart had promised would be there. How strangely he'd looked when he'd said that.
"Mother, it will blow your mind when you see -- " He'd paused, smiled and looked uneasy. "I've flown down there each summer just to check things over and see that the house wasn't being neglected and left to mold and decay. I gave orders to interior decorators to make it look exactly as it used to, except for my office. I want that modern, with all the electronic conveniences I'll need. But...if you want, you can do a few things to make it cozy."
Cozy? How could a house such as this ever be cozy? I knew what it felt like to be enclosed inside, swallowed, trapped forever. I shivered as I heard the click of my high heels beside the dull thuds of Chris's shoes as we neared the black doors with their escutcheons made decorative with heraldic shields. I wondered if Bart had looked up the Foxworth ancestry and found the titles of aristocracy and the coats of arms he desperately wanted and seemed to need. On each black door were heavy brass knockers, and in between the doors a small, almost unnoticeable button to ring a bell somewhere inside.
"I'm sure this house is full of modern gadgets that would shock genuine historical Virginia homes," whispered Chris.
No doubt Chris was right.
Bart was in love with the past, but even more infatuated with the future. Not an electronic gadget came out that he didn't buy.
Chris reached into his pocket for the door key Bart had given to me just before we flew from Boston. Chris smiled my way before he inserted the large brass key. Before he could complete the turning action, the door swung silently open.
Startled, I took a step backward.
Chris pulled me forward again, speaking politely to the old man who invitingly gestured us inside.
"Come in," he said in a weak but raspy voice as he quickly looked us over. "Your son called and told me to expect you. I'm the hired help -- so to speak."
I stared at the lean old man who was bent forward so that his head projected unbecomingly, making him seem to be climbing hills even while standing on a flat surface. His hair was faded, not gray and not blond. His eyes were a watery pale blue, his cheeks gaunt, his eyes hollowed out, as if he'd suffered greatly for many, many years. There was something about him something familiar.
My leaden legs didn't want to move. The fierce wind whipped my white, full-skirted summer dress high enough to show my thighs as I put one foot inside the grand entrance foyer of the Phoenix called Foxworth Hall.
Chris stayed close at my side. He released my hand to put his arm around my shoulders. "Dr. and Mrs. Christopher Sheffield," he introduced us in his kindly way, "and you?"
The wizened old man seemed reluctant to put out his right hand and shake Chris's strong, tanned one. His thin old lips wore a cynical, crooked smile that duplicated the cock of one bushy eyebrow. "My pleasure to meet you, Dr. Sheffield."
I couldn't take my eyes off that bent old man with his watery blue eyes. Something about his smile, his thinning hair with broad streaks of silver, those eyes with startling dark lashes. Daddy!
He looked as our father might have looked if he'd lived to be as old as this man before us -- and had suffered through every torment known to mankind.
My daddy, my beloved handsome father who'd been the joy of my youth. How I'd prayed to see him again some day.
The stringy old hand was grasped firmly by Chris, and only then did the old man tell us who he was. "Your longlost uncle who was, ostensibly, lost in the Swiss Alps fifty-seven years ago."
Copyright © 1984 by Vanda Productions Ltd.