Thale's Follyby Dorothy Gilman
At the request of his father, New York City novelist Andrew Thale tackles an odd assignment - to check out an old family property in western Massachusetts, neglected since Aunt Harriet Thale's death years ago. Much odder still is what he finds. Far from being deserted, Thale's Folly is fully inhabited - by a quartet of charming squatters, former "guests" of… See more details below
At the request of his father, New York City novelist Andrew Thale tackles an odd assignment - to check out an old family property in western Massachusetts, neglected since Aunt Harriet Thale's death years ago. Much odder still is what he finds. Far from being deserted, Thale's Folly is fully inhabited - by a quartet of charming squatters, former "guests" of kindhearted Aunt Harriet. There is elegant Miss L'Hommedieu, Gussie the witch, Leo the bibliophile, and beautiful nineteen year-old Tarragon, who is unlike any girl Andrew has ever met in Manhattan. Andrew is entranced by these unworldly creatures and their simple life. Yet all is not well in Thale's Folly. A thief breaks into the farmhouse, and an old friend of the "family" disappears. While the peace that appears to have been Aunt Harriet's only legacy to her companions is destroyed, Andrew and Tarragon are drawn into mysteries they cannot fathom. But, for the first time, Andrew begins to understand that love and loyalty are life's greatest treasures.
"CHARMING . . . SWEETLY ENTERTAINING."
"THALE'S FOLLY IS A DELIGHTFUL READING EXPERIENCE."
Painted Rock Reviews
- Random House Publishing Group
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If a man be anointed with the juice of the herb Rue, the poison of wolf's bane, mushrooms, or todestooles, the biting of serpents, stinging of scorpions, spiders, bees, hornets and wasps will not hurt him.
John Gerard, The Herball, 1597
Andrew was bored. He was also as usual depressed. About the uncertainties of his future. About this idiotic reentry into his father's world, and certainly about this party he'd been forced to attend. It was the usual corporate affair, but with a number of faux bohemians thrown in, obviously out of a misguided effort to prove how broad-minded the company could be because the party was being held in honor of an author. Xavier Saabo's book was entitled The Zen of Machinery the word Zen was big these days and he was here because in his book he'd said very nice things about Meredith Machines, Inc., and Andrew's father was a corporate vice president of Meredith Machines, Inc.
Which was why Andrew was present under duress, as usual.
At the moment, with some irony, Andrew was noticing how carefully Xavier ignored the cluster of SoHo guests who had been invited expressly for him. What no one had foreseen, of course Andrew understood this perfectly was that the less affluent contingent were looking upon Xavier with contempt because he had joined the philistines, and Xavier was regarding them with contempt because he had long since exchanged his low-rent loft for an apartment on Park Avenue.
These musings on the creative life of which Andrew had once been a member were diverted when he saw that Jennifer Tallant had arrived, looking positively seductive in a black silk sheath. In his several years of college, they had seen rather a lot of each other until he realized that Jennifer assumed his ambition was to become a corporate VP like his father. He was glad now to see that she was escorted to the party by Charlie Drumm, who would very definitely become a corporate VP, if not president of his own company, given time, and Andrew was thinking kind and charitable thoughts about her when his father suddenly appeared: tall, fit, silver-haired, and important. Authoritative, too.
"Andrew," he said sternly, "you're not mingling."
"You mean merging, don't you?" quipped Andrew, since Meredith Machines was in the process of an important merger with PGH Plastics, Inc.
His father was not amused. "Mingle," he said, and turned away to continue his own mingling.
He and his father had already quarreled earlier in the day. Summoning Andrew from his cubicle in the nether regions of the company, where he wrote copy for the "Meredith Newsletter," also under duress, his father had announced that today was Friday.
"I've noticed," Andrew said warily.
"I've an assignment for you, Andrew," he told him. "Family business."
"Family?" This had puzzled Andrew, for there had not been much family since his mother had left his father seven years ago. There had never been an explanation for this; once upon a time Andrew had assumed that she must have been unfaithful, but now that he knew his father better he thought she need only have found him as much of a machine as those that Meredith produced. What made this difficult for Andrew to understand was that he'd been told that in his youth his father had been a guitar-playing political activist, leading protest marches and working for civil rights, yet somewhere along the way he'd traded those values for profit margins, sales figures, acquisitions, competition, and bottom lines. It was possible at times to feel sorry for him, but not today.
He said again, "Family?"
"Yes, I want you to look into property left me by my Aunt Harriet Thale. It's in western Massachusetts, about a four-hour drive from Manhattan, and you should be able to wrap it up in a day."
Andrew struggled to remember who this relative could be whom he'd certainly never met. "An Aunt Harriet Thale?" he repeated, frowning. "But she died all of five years ago, didn't she? Why this sudden interest now in the property?"
"Because," his father said patiently, "I've been paying taxes on one very empty old house surrounded by twenty-five acres, and I've been too busy with the merger to look into it. It's time a decision is made."
"You can't expect me "
" to make a decision?" His tone implied that he found his son incapable of any business decision at all. "Of course not. From you I ask for an assessment of what's there. A description. The property's in a godforsaken area, distant from any tourist attractions, but it's time to establish its value so I can decide whether to sell, hold, or whether those twenty-five acres could be developed. Take a camera. It's miles from nowhere but it's time to learn precisely what the situation is."
"Miles from nowhere," Andrew repeated, and suddenly grinned. "I remember now, it was called Thale's Folly! She was the recluse of the family, wasn't she? The family eccentric?"
"She was an embarrassment to us all," snapped his father. "I suppose you think that's amusing."
"I think it's very amusing," Andrew said. "I wish I'd met her. The house is empty?"
"Of course it's empty," growled his father. "You can borrow a company car and leave early tomorrow morning "
""Tomorrow! You mean Saturday?" His father knew very well how precious his two days of freedom were to him.
" and on your way out my secretary will give you a survey map of Tottsville, the deed describing its boundaries, and directions to Thale's Folly."
Andrew could not help but feel this ridiculous assignment was being presented to him as a subtle form of punishment. His father had patiently seen him through those first days following what he referred to as "Andrew's unfortunate incident" which did not quite do justice to Andrew's waking up nights in a cold sweat, or the absence of concentration that kept him from what he loved best and had assumed would be his life work but he failed to understand why Andrew couldn't simply get on with things now.
In a word, he was taking too long to recover.
Which of course was a perfectly rational viewpoint.
As he returned to his dull work of writing copy for the company newsletter Andrew found himself devoutly wishing for a well, what?
For a less rational world, he thought.
He was to get one.
The pith of the [Elder] branches when cut in round, flat shapes, is dipped in oil, lighted and then put to float in a glass of water; its light on Christmas Eve is thought to reveal all the witches and sorcerers in the neighborhood.
Richard Folkard, Plant-Lore, Legends and Lyrics, 1884
Andrew awoke the next morning with the bitter residue of sleeping pills lingering on his palate. Opening his eyes he immediately realized that after five days of mindless work he was being deprived of his free Saturday, and he was convinced that he faced an ill-starred weekend. The horoscope in his morning newspaper agreed with him: this is a day to remain at home, it read, avoiding the small disappointments and aggravations the stars suggest ... Beware of negative attitudes that will inevitably attract negative events with the force of a magnet.
Since Andrew could find no way to curb his negative attitude he left defiantly late in the company Mercedes for Massachusetts. He was not surprised, stopping for coffee in Connecticut, when the waitress inadvertently spilled coffee over his jeans.
"Perfectly understandable," he assured her. "My horoscope told me to stay home today."
As he passed the sign welcoming him to the state of Massachusetts, it began to rain, and he discovered the windshield wipers of the car didn't work. While he waited in a garage for them to be repaired and operative again, he pondered his attitude, his father, astrology, and life in general, and noticed that once he was ready to set out again, the rain had perversely stopped and the sun was shining. After lunching in a restaurant just off the Thruway he discovered that he'd left his raincoat behind, and it was necessary to retrace his route five miles to regain it. Once there, leaving the engine of his car running, he dashed into the restaurant, snatched his raincoat from the clothes hook in the hall, and was on his way again, except that as he drove away he saw in his rearview mirror that his action had been misunderstood: a man had rushed out of the restaurant to wave at him hysterically, and then to scribble something no doubt his license number on a piece of paper.
Damn cheeky of him, he thought, they know very well that I paid my bill.
It was with relief that he finally reached the village of Tottsville, which struck him as too small and unpopulated to inflict any new aggravations. Scarcely a blip on the map, it was extremely rural and looked as if it had long since gone to seed. He passed a few summer cottages along the road with the names of Sunset Roost, Bide-A-Wee, and Rest-A-Wile. Then he passed a ramshackle motel open, a garage and gas station closed, and a post office closed, but with a sign reporting that it was open from 7 A.M. to 12 noon, after which mail deliveries were made. The map he'd been given was on the seat beside him. According to the small penciled X on the survey map, the road to Thale's Folly lay one mile beyond the post office, and on the left side.
Precisely one mile from the post office he spotted a narrow break among the trees and peered into what appeared to be a road, unpaved and uninviting, devoid of any signs of house or human being, and deprived of sun by the trees. An act of faith, he supposed, and with a sigh turned off the highway and entered.
He had not driven far when he saw that his progress was going to be a matter of zigs and zags: four winters of snow and of spring rains had pockmarked and eroded the surface of the road until, "like a blasted minefield," he muttered as he navigated around one serious-looking pothole only to swerve sharply to avoid another. The overgrown arch of trees darkened the road, masking the hollows and making him cross until ahead of him he saw a clear sunlit expanse and stepped on the accelerator; the car shot ahead and then came to an abrupt and shuddering halt.
"Damn!" he said in a loud voice, and after finding that neither reverse nor high gear moved the car, he climbed out to assess the situation. Again he said, "Damn!" because the car was leaning to starboard, its right back wheel firmly entrenched one might almost say half-buried in a particularly deep and sinister hole. This was surely more than his horoscope had led him to expect. He remembered the garage that he'd passed closed; he remembered the ramshackle motel, where no doubt there would be a telephone, and somewhere ahead on this road lay the old house and the acreage he was here to inspect.
He had choice.
With a glance at his wristwatch he was surprised to find that it was already after two o'clock, in fact nearly three o'clock. Common sense advised him to walk the two or three miles back to the motel, call for a tow truck, and invest the remaining hours of the day in rescuing the car. On the other hand he would only have to return in the morning to where he was now ...
He chose Thale's Folly.
Opening the trunk of the car, he dug into his knapsack for notebook and pocket camera, and after locking the car a purely reflex action, since he felt that if anyone could remove the Mercedes they could damn well have it he set out down the road to find his Great-Aunt Harriet Thale's house.
Once divorced from the car, he was surprised to find the air so fresh and filled with all the interesting fragrances of a July day: heat rose from the sun-warmed earth under his feet, and there was a distinct scent of pine. From the jungle of wild sumac lining the road there came the keening cry of a locust; a bird fluttered away, stirring the leaves of an oak tree, and this was followed by a profound silence interrupted only by the patter of the stones dislodged by his shoes; he'd forgotten what silence was like, and he was amused at the thought of its having a sound.
He had nearly passed the house before he noticed the mailbox next to the road, almost suffocated by tall grass and bearing the name of Thale in faded letters. He stopped to look at it, and then he saw the house, set back at a distance from the road among tall trees, its clapboards bleached by the sun into a scabrous silver-gray, its windows nearly blinded by wisteria. Beyond the mailbox lay a driveway, no more than a cart track now, and as he walked up the drive a sudden freshness assailed his nostrils: water, he realized. His father hadn't mentioned a river, pond, or brook, but it would certainly add value to the property. On such a hot afternoon he would appreciate the sound of running water; he might even take off his shoes and wade in it, adding an agreeable dimension to the green woods, blue sky, derelict house, and the astonishing silence, still so utter that he started when he saw a woman seated on the long side porch of the house overlooking the empty field.
It had not occurred to him that anyone would be occupying Thale's Folly, and his father had very definitely said it was empty since his aunt's death. But the woman sat as if she belonged here, propped up in the sun like an attenuated beanpole on which someone had placed a basket of flowers belonging to a hat composed of yards of tulle, at least a dozen chiffon roses, and a cloud of veiling.
A voice from beneath the inverted basket said to him pleasantly, "Good afternoon."
"Good afternoon," he said politely, and waited.
Without moving, the woman shouted, "Gussie? Gussie!"
From the bowels of the house came a muffled reply. The woman leaned forward to say confidingly, "She'll come now ... I am Miss L'Hommedieu."
Puzzled, he said, "How do you do? My name is ..." He hesitated. His name was Andrew Oliver Thale, but this was obviously a situation that required delicate handling. "My name is Andrew Oliver," he said.
A pair of beady eyes studied him with interest. "You've come about the advertisement?"
The screen door burst open and a woman's voice cried, "What is it now, Miss L'Hommedieu? Leo and I were down in the cellar " Her voice broke off as she saw Andrew standing in the dust, and her eyes narrowed. She said fiercely, "You're all wrong, we advertised for a younger man. I'm not saying your character's bad but you're too old by at least five years."
A Gussie, a Miss L'Hommedieu, and an advertisement ... "Too old for what?" he asked with interest.
Miss L'Hommedieu chuckled. "I don't think he knows what you're talking about, Gussie."
"I don't, I really don't," Andrew admitted, smiling up at Gussie. She looked fierce, capable, and shrewd, and she wore an apron; definitely his great-aunt's house was inhabited. "My car," he said. "It broke down back on the road."
"Car?" Gussie looked astonished. "Nobody drives this road except the mailman."
"It looked interesting," he said, and with an irony he wished he could share he added, "I hope I'm not trespassing."
"Invite him to dinner," said Miss L'Hommedieu, tugging at Gussie's skirt. "We've got potatoes, haven't we? We'll have fish when Tarragon gets back." The flowered hat quivered as she bent toward the road. "Here she comes now. Ask her."
Andrew turned. A girl was trudging around the rear of the house carrying a rod and bucket and wearing a pair of shorts and a man's voluminous shirt. He was not prepared for anyone so youthful, and this girl could be no more than eighteen or nineteen. She looked frail under her burden of fishing gear, and he had the most absurd desire to leap forward to carry the bucket for her, but she had already passed him to deposit it on the steps.
"Five," she said, and wiped her face with a corner of her shirttail. It was a small, oval face with delicately modeled cheekbones, a wide tender mouth, and eyes of a startling shade of blue. Her hair had been bleached by the sun into a pale gold, and her skin had been darkened by the sun into a flawless beige just a shade darker than her hair. He realized with astonishment that she was beautiful, and wondered what on earth she was doing here.
"Mr. Oliver, this is Tarragon. Tarragon, say hello to Mr. Oliver."
"Hello," the girl said, ducking her head and starting to enter the house.
Miss L'Hommedieu called after her, "He didn't come about the advertisement, Tarragon."
The girl turned at the door to give Andrew a quick, sidelong, startled glance, and then she was gone, leaving him to wonder just what the advertisement might be that offered her so much relief at not being answered.
Gussie said sternly, "If you're thinking we have a telephone for calling about your car, we don't."
He was not at all surprised by this. "It's all right," he said.
She nodded. "You'd better stay for dinner," and to Miss L'Hommedieu, "I'll tell Leo he's staying dinner in forty minutes." Then she, too, vanished into the dim interior of the house.
Andrew glanced at his watch: they would dine at half-past four in the afternoon? He thought of Manhattan, the rituals and the happy hours and the late dinners, but he was distinctly curious now and he reminded himself that a good detective adjusts. Turning to Miss L'Hommedieu he said pleasantly, "You advertised for someone?"
She nodded, beaming. "For a young man, a very nice young man, to do light farmwork."
"I see." He felt it extremely thoughtful of them to want to improve his father's property but he wondered if it might not be more thoughtful to let his father know they were here. "You're uh planning to develop the farm?"
Miss L'Hommedieu looked shocked. "Good heavens, what gave you that idea? It's for Tarragon, of course."
She said reprovingly, "We are quite isolated, Mr. Oliver, and it cannot have occurred to you, of course, but Tarragon you've seen her has very few opportunities living here. Things are, shall we say, somewhat irregular for her? We are considerably older, as you may have noticed."
He admitted that he had noticed this, yes.
"There is also the shall I say, uncertainty? of our future here."
He grinned. "That I can understand, too."
"The problem, then," she continued, "is to find a husband for Tarragon just as soon as we possibly can."
He said in a stunned voice, "A what? Good heavens!"
She nodded serenely. "I don't recall who said it probably Benjamin Franklin, since he said nearly everything but necessity is the mother of invention. It was Leo's idea. A very clever one, don't you think?"
He said incredulously, "You mean you're advertising in the papers for a young man to work on the farm, but actually you're hoping to marry him off to Tarragon?"
"Oh yes, we are prepared to be quite ruthless for Tarragon's sake."
He shook his head. "It won't work, you know."
"If it doesn't," she told him calmly, "we will let him go at the end of a week our finances are extremely limited and trust that another will turn up."
"Like a vaccination," he said, fascinated. "If the first doesn't take "
"A most indelicate way of phrasing it," she told him, "but I am not unaccustomed to vulgarity. You seem a pleasant young man, Mr. Oliver."
"Thank you," he said meekly, "and you may call me Andrew."
"And you may call me Miss L'Hommedieu," she said with a bow of her head that came very near to ejecting several flowers from her hat.
Gussie, arriving at the door, said, "Dinner's served."
Andrew held out his arm to Miss L'Hommedieu and slowly, gravely, she rose from her chair, at which point he discovered that she was almost as tall as his own six feet. He escorted her through the screen door into the kitchen, saying, "I really should wash my hands before dinner."
"There's a basin," she said, pointing to the kitchen sink, and continued on her way without him.
He approached the sink, which had a strange mechanism at its edge that looked surprisingly like a pump of some sort. There was an enamelware basin in the sink; he tipped the water out of it and turned on the faucet. Nothing happened; no water flowed; he realized too late the purpose of the basin he'd emptied, and wiped his hands instead on his jeans. A very odd kitchen, he thought, looking around him and identifying a large woodstove, a small three-burner kerosene camp stove, a huge, well-scrubbed wooden table, and a row of oil lamps on a shelf. Quaint, he decided, and with a shrug he abandoned washing and walked down a hall that smelled of mildew, and into the room on his left.
It was the dining room, and it was dim. Light from its two windows had been all but obliterated by the wisteria outside, and then further diminished by tattered lace curtains that hung like spiderwebs across the glass. In the twilight it was difficult to distinguish the shapes on the table until Gussie brought in a candle and lighted it. Its glow illuminated a white china tureen with steam rising from it in clouds that sent long shadows leaping across the walls.
Gussie said graciously, "I don't believe you've met Leo yet."
Leo, seated at the table, raised his head just long enough to observe Andrew. "Democrat, Republican, or Libertarian?" he snapped.
"Independent," said Andrew.
Leo lost interest and ducked his head again so that only his baldness and the bridge of his nose could be seen. He looked peevish, inquisitive, and very shy.
"You do have electricity," Andrew suggested, his glance returning to the candle as he seated himself.
"Oh my goodness yes," Miss L'Hommedieu said warmly.
"It's just that it's been turned off," put in Gussie.
"Ever since Miss Thale " It was Leo's voice, and they all turned to stare at him sharply. " left us," he added lamely.
"Miss Thale?" Andrew was suddenly alert.
"We are her guests," explained Miss L'Hommedieu. "You haven't met her yet, she is away just now."
"Away?" Andrew echoed.
Miss L'Hommedieu picked up her spoon. "Since you have not met her, naturally she is away. Shall we eat now? Gussie's fish stews are delicious."
"Herbs in 'em," Leo volunteered. "Gussie raises 'em eh, Gussie? Basil in this one, right?"
Tarragon said eagerly, "They have beautiful names, say them for him, won't you, Gussie?" In the candlelight her face had the translucence of a Renoir portrait.
Gussie nodded. "I'll tell a few, I don't mind. There's rosemary and summer savory, damask rose, lemon balm, sage, angelica and tarragon."
"Tarragon!" exclaimed Andrew.
They all beamed at him, Tarragon looking the most pleased of all. "It was up to us to name her," explained Gussie, adding dryly, "Herbs grow very well in poor soil ... Tarragon, `there is nothing good or evil save in the will.'"
"Epictetus," said Tarragon.
Leo gave Tarragon a stern glance and cleared his throat. "`Inferiors revolt in order that they may be equal, and equals that they may be superior, and such is the state of mind which creates revolution.'" He did not wait for an answer but ducked his head again and applied himself to his soup.
"Aristotle," said Tarragon.
"She may not have had advantages, Mr. Oliver, but we've seen to it she's well-read. Try her on something, go ahead."
Amused, Andrew said, "A, man who knows he is a fool is not a great fool.'"
"Chuang Tzu," replied Tarragon, smiling.
Leo lifted his head, spoon in hand, to say, "What kind of work you do out there? You have a job?"
Startled, Andrew said, "Me? I work for Meredith Machines, writing copy for the company newsletter." Courtesy of my father, he thought bitterly.
A rich chuckle emanated from the man. "Writing happy news to cheer up the poor bastards?"
"Now, Leo," Gussie said soothingly, and to Andrew, "He's a Marxist, you see."
"Workers of the world unite and all that?" quipped Andrew.
"And all that, yes," said Leo, glaring at him. "Going global aren't they out there?"
Andrew, glancing around him, thought that "out there" sounded just about right. "But how on earth do you know about global expansion when it's out there, and you're here. And no electricity," he added.
"Radio," said Leo. "When we've batteries."
Leo shrugged. "At the moment, no. Anything new?"
Andrew considered this. "More wars ... more revolutions ... More mergers even Meredith Machines."
"Ah, downsizing," murmured Leo. "Going to lose your job?"
"Damn confident," responded Leo. "Know the boss?"
Andrew said weakly, "Well, yes. My father happens to be corporate VP of the company."
"Hah," snorted Leo. "Nepotism."
Out of some irrational loyalty to his father, Andrew said angrily, "It's not my idea to work at Meredith Machines, it's simply that my father surely this is natural insists on my having a job with some income. Writing copy isn't creative, not compared to real writing "
At the word writing Gussie broke in to say, "Miss L'Hommedieu writes. Show him, Miss L'Hommedieu. Read us what you wrote today, please?"
Miss L'Hommedieu said with dignity, "I much prefer my readings to take place evenings."
"Mr. Oliver may not be here," said Tarragon.
Gussie gave her a sharp glance but said only, "Do, Miss L'Hommedieu, you know how much we enjoy them."
"Oh very well." From among the layers of chiffon she drew out a sheet of paper, glanced at it, and cleared her throat. Once sure that she had everyone's attention she read, "The fires were burning late that night, small coins of brightness in the darkness. There were no drums, for the night could be full of ears, and what they planned must never be heard. If eyes watched from a distance they would see only four people speaking in low voices and solemnly nodding. Calmly, gravely, they discussed death ... the death of Basil Hopkins French."
She stopped, folded up the sheet of paper, and restored it to an inner pocket.
Andrew, startled, said, "But that's good, what happens next?"
"I write only beginnings," said Miss L'Hommedieu.
"Sometimes endings," pointed out Tarragon.
"Yes, but not often. I find middles extremely dull."
"Yesterday's was ever so exciting," put in Tarragon. "About a woman named Marla Tempest who'd begun having very strange dreams."
Gussie said, "I preferred the one about the heartbroken young girl living near the ocean where she found a message in a bottle, washed in on a wave."
"And when she cleaned the bottle a genie came out," Tarragon told him with triumph.
Disconcerted, Andrew said, "Yes, but surely you want to know more? Want to know what happens next?"
"Why?" asked Miss L'Hommedieu.
Andrew realized that his mouth had dropped open in astonishment as he groped for an answer. He said, "Because," and then he said, "Because " and then he sensibly closed his mouth.
Gussie smiled forgivingly. "Now if everyone has finished their dinner it's nearing time to watch the sunset. You'll stay the night with us, Mr. Oliver? It's far too late to find a garage or a telephone."
He felt absurdly grateful for this offer, he had expected to sleep in his car. "Thank you, thank you very much," he told her.
"Then we'll retire to the porch now to see the sun set."
Impulsively he said, "What do you do when it rains?"
It was Leo who answered. "We watch the rain."
This left Andrew wondering why everything said here seemed to have a curious logic that struck him as indisputable and yet was scarcely logical at all. By now, rather amused, Andrew followed them out to the porch, where he had first encountered Miss L'Hommedieu, and they all sat down to contemplate the sky. lie had to admit that it was a very theatrical sunset, a combination of vivid pink, scarlet, and salmon, with a stripe of dull blue to introduce the coming night. He glanced at the faces beside him and found them intensely serious; Miss L'Hommedieu in particular looked ecstatic, almost embarrassingly so. On the other hand, he realized that he'd not noticed the setting of the sun in months and possibly years. In Manhattan the sun rose, the sun vanished, and was noted only when missing.
"There!" said Gussie abruptly as the brilliance vanished behind the trees. "Tarragon, we've very little to entertain Mr. Oliver, it would be hospitable of you to show him the view from Bald Hill."
He said quickly, "Thank you, but I really must visit my car. I brought an overnight bag in the trunk, thinking I might be late returning to New York."
"Holding what?" demanded Leo.
Andrew said crisply, "Pajamas, toothbrush, swimsuit and towel, change of shirt."
This appeared to appease Leo. "Later," Gussie said with authority. "Tarragon Bald Hill."
Bald Hill it would be, but since he was to be accompanied by Tarragon he made no further resistance. A farmworker she must not marry, he thought firmly, and perhaps he could explain to her the idiocy and the risks of an advertisement in the newspapers for a man. He followed her across the empty field and into the woods until the trees thinned and a very steep and cone-shaped hill presented itself , and bald it was, with not a tree on it. With a sigh he climbed the hill behind her, the only sound his quiet panting and the crunch of pebbles underfoot. He would have liked to stop and rest halfway up the hill, since it was steeper than he'd realized and he was out of condition, but Tarragon shamed him by going out of her way to climb joyfully over the occasional boulder rooted in the earth and then to proceed tirelessly toward the darkening sky at the summit. He was relieved when they reached the crest, and after catching his breath sat down on a rock to look.
The hill had brought them high above the mist that was stealing over Thale's Folly and was already settling in the valley below. From where they sat a group of smaller hills around them rose like islands out of a moving sea of cloud, and when the mist thinned, he could see dozens of twinkling lights, like stars, shining in a town somewhere below. New York seemed a thousand miles away. He said, "It's beautiful, it's like looking at the world upside down."
Tarragon turned and smiled at him. "I thought you'd like it."
He nodded. "I do, very much," but he was looking at her now, seated on the ground not far away and hugging her knees as she looked down into the valley. In the sky that had been filled with sunset, the moon was emerging now from behind clouds to shed a ghostly light, and in this play of light and shadow Tarragon's face was dark but the moonlight had turned her hair as pale as spun silver. "Tell me," he said. "Tell me how you ever came to live at Thale's Folly. You've been here a long time?"
"For as long as I can remember."
"Oh yes." Her smile deepened. "I think I'm rather like the others someone nobody wanted."
He stared at her in astonishment. "What on earth makes you think that?"
She said cheerfully, "Because Miss Thale had the naming of me, and my birth certificate reads Tarragon Sage Valerian. I have the very strong suspicion that she found me abandoned on somebody's doorstep."
"Good heavens!" he exclaimed. 'And named you that?"
She nodded. "Miss Thale was very into herbs, you know. She studied them, planted them, loved them." She laughed. "Of course when I was very little they told me that my mother was a beautiful heiress who eloped with a circus magician, after which both were killed falling from a tightrope ... a little hard to believe, don't you think?"
He said cautiously, "It does sound rather exotic."
She nodded. "Gussie and Miss Thale collected people the way others collect stray cats. I mean really collected them; they'd drive around Pittsville once a week in their old Ford car looking for homeless people and people in trouble. When I was five or six there was a boy to play with his name was Jake and then an out-of-work Shakespearean actor we called him Hamlet because he gave wonderful speeches from Hamlet and a man who we called Merlin because he told fortunes, and there was Mr. Omelianuk who had only one leg, and Trudy who had run away from a husband who beat her, and a little girl named Jane. There have been all sorts of people staying with us, it's never been lonely."
And now you have me for a night, he thought, and hoped he wouldn't wake them with a nightmare. "But they've all left?"
"When they were ready to leave, yes."
"And you, are you ready to leave?" asked Andrew. "How old are you?"
"You don't have to be married at nineteen, you know, the idea's positively medieval." It suddenly seemed important to impress this upon her. Very important.
"I know that," she told him seriously, "it's just that it would make them so happy to see me settled before " She hesitated. "Before Mr. Thale comes."
"Mr. Thale ... Have I met him?" he asked innocently.
She shook her head. "You may not believe we could be so unscrupulous, Mr. Oliver, but nobody knows we're living here except the mailman, of course, who brings Leo's checks each month. We could be found out at any moment. We'd like to believe Miss Thale is away visiting friends, but really she died five years ago and the farm belongs to her relatives now. They'd be ever so shocked to find us here."
"They would, yes," Andrew said truthfully.
"It's why they've advertised for a young man to fall in love with me."
"If he comes. If he falls in love."
"Oh, he will," she said confidently," and then I need only select. That's very important, you know, to choose what's yours and reject what isn't. They've taught me that."
Amused, he said, "Such confidence!"
"Well, you see," she confided, "Gussie is very gifted, she knows how to cast magic spells." She added scornfully, "It's very rude when people call her a witch, but she does do wonders with our potatoes. We have to plant them at the dark of the moon and sprinkle ashes over them and "
"For heaven's sake, there are no such things as magic spells and witches."
She laughed delightedly. "Then you'd be very unhappy if you stayed long, Mr. Oliver. You should see our sunflowers, they're almost as high as the bean stalk in the fairy tale."
"The one that Jack climbed?"
He wanted to explain to her there was no such thing as magic, and that he was certainly proof of that. He wanted to tell her of the weeks months now that he'd moved through each day smiling and nodding, saying all the correct words, thinking too much and feeling nothing at all, but the moon had brightened the mist and was casting its own spell of enchantment over the hill, and the stars were coming out of hiding, and it was wonderfully restful, at least for the moment. He had never expected his mind and his nerves to be tranquilized and soothed by a moon, a star, a girl, and a treeless hill.
Tarragon said, "Shall we go back now?" When he didn't stir, she said, "You wanted to go to your car, didn't you? For pajamas?"
He sighed. He had no desire to move; he had even less desire to leave Bald Hill now that he'd arrived here. "Yes, we'd better go," he agreed, and relinquishing the rock on which he'd sat or been glued, he thought wryly he followed her out of the moonlight into the mist below, his sense of calm leaving him with every step. It would, as usual, be a sleeping-pill night.
The mist had cleared when he set out on his mile-long return to the car. It was a lonely walk, and when the moon disappeared behind a cloud it was a dark one, enlivened only by the cheerful sound of crickets. When he reached the Mercedes, he was pleasantly surprised to find a flashlight in its compartment and regarded it with a new interest: imagine, he thought, one need only press a button and there was light, no matches needed at all; a very remarkable invention, he thought, except for its need of batteries. He remembered that Leo's radio needed batteries. Before he left Thale's Folly tomorrow he would make a point of buying a package of them for him, a fair exchange for those moments of peace on Bald Hill.
He shouldered his knapsack and headed back. Walking at a brisk pace the flashlight helped the trees lining the road seemed almost to be marching along with him, tall sentinels guarding the silent forest behind them that could might, surely be inhabited in this dark night by ghosts, a headless horseman, or he thought with a smile a witch who cast spells. Or possibly, as in Miss L'Hommedieu's story, he might find four people huddled around a campfire, planning the death of what was his name Basil Hopkins French? An owl suddenly broke the silence with a mournful hoot, the moon emerged again in the west from a bed of pale stars, and Andrew suddenly laughed aloud and couldn't think why.
Reaching Thale's Folly the house loomed black against the indigo-blue night sky, the turrets at each corner like twin exclamation marks. A solitary light shone in the kitchen window, no doubt a kerosene lamp but more likely a candle, he thought, and prayed the mattress they'd promised him for sleeping had not been chewed by squirrels or mice, because in the morning he had a long walk ahead of him to find a telephone and a tow truck. Opening the door to the kitchen he found Gussie waiting for him, and he was touched to see that she'd brewed a cup of tea for him.
"Valerian good for sleeping," she told him. "Bring it with you, I'll show you to your room."
She led him up narrow carpeted stairs to the second floor, and down the hall past closed doors. "Here," she said. "Miss Thale's room." She handed him a candle, lighted it for him, and was quite suddenly gone.
His candle sent shadows up and down across the ceiling; he set it down on the old-fashioned oak stand and then sat on the bed to drink his tea. His impression of the room was one of ruffled white curtains at the windows, several ancient portraits, and a mirror on the wall and oh, God, a chamber pot? Gilt-edged, no less.
He could absorb no more; peeling off his clothes, he snuffed out the candle, pulled on his pajamas, and as he sank down into the bed he realized he'd not taken his sleeping pill.
Got to get up, he told himself ... have to ... must get up ... Must ... and was still mumbling when he fell asleep.
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