Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A raging smallpox epidemic in spring 1764 prompts a mass exodus from Boston to more pastoral New England settings in Miles's (A Wicked Way to Burn) latest mystery. Retreating to the deceptive tranquillity of Bracebridge, Mass., three patients--Diana Longfellow, Phoebe Morris and Lem Sloan--willingly take the controversial smallpox inoculation (administered by alcoholic Dr. Tucker), expecting only mild symptoms and a short recuperation. But the abrupt death of Morris--who, along with the others, has been hosted by widow Charlotte Willett and Diana's brother Richard Longfellow--leads to conjecture about the true cause of her death. Before long, another death, ruled suicide, adds to the abundant speculation, prompting Charlotte and Richard to investigate the disturbing and tarnished pasts of the Bostonian refugees. Miles's clever dialogue satisfyingly contrasts superstition and religious fanaticism with a steadfast Enlightenment belief in reason and science. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Late that evening, Charlotte Willett sat in her borrowed chamber, between those of Dr. Tucker and Cicero, where she and her faithful dog kept each other company. Orpheus sensed that something unusual had happened, and was full of concern for his mistress. While she walked about, he watched her carefully, moving out of her way when she forgot he was there, looking into the hallway as steps came and went, or when the front door banged below. He watched, too, as Charlotte sat motionless in the Windsor chair next to her bed, still recalling the events of her exhausting day.
First she had discovered Phoebe, and had gone for help. After the initial investigation, she'd stayed to do what she could for Diana and Hannah, while Lem, pressed into a window seat, watched for passersby along the road, wishing, Charlotte imagined, that his friend Will Sloan would suddenly reappear.
Later, Reverend Rowe had paid them all an unwanted visit. Before he left, he had scared Hannah half to death with his questions and suspicions, anxious to pin blame to someone, though he had no proof. Fortunately, Diana had been more than a match for him, and her chilly manner soon drove the reverend to the door. They might have welcomed him had he anything useful to say, or any comfort to give. But as far as Charlotte could determine, Reverend Rowe brought nothing to the situation that helped settle matters. Though of course, thus far, neither had anyone else.
After that, Richard Longfellow and Phineas Wise came in with two others who carried a pine box. When the constable had seen Phoebe for himself, from a distance, the young men carried her away to a cellar in Longfellow's barn, where she wouldawait her eventual interment. Then Longfellow and Wise went outside to examine the areas beneath the windows of the house, but found nothing beyond a wealth of spring grass, nor any further indication of what might have happened during the night.
Tears now came to Charlotte's eyes, as she remembered Phoebe whirling with joy only days before, when the path of her young life had seemed clear. How she wished she'd been more inquisitive while the girl was still alive! Hannah, too, had obvious regrets--though she was as yet unable to weep for one who would soon have become her daughter. She could not even speak Phoebe's name; rather, she seemed to be brooding, enough so that Mrs. Willett feared for her well-being, and suggested a dose of valerian from her simples chest, for sleep. The idea had frozen the distraught woman further, as if she somehow dreaded the prospect. Yet sleep would be needed, Mrs. Willett knew, before any of them could begin to forget. Time must pass: there was no other hope. For Phoebe had left them, never to return.
A short while later, seeking comfort in her own bed, Charlotte lay grateful under a warm quilt. But as she felt the clarity of the day fade, she continued to think. Lem said he'd been awakened, he supposed by moonlight, long after he'd gone to bed. Something had lifted him from sleep--a noise, or the light, or a moving shadow. And well out of hearing, she had been roused at the same time, for she had heard a different clock strike three.
Could it possibly be, she wondered, tingling at the thought, as it was with Aaron? For years there had been that occasional brush of a hand on her cheek, with no one there; the echo of soft steps, which Orpheus, too, seemed sometimes to hear; a recurring scent of horehound. Lately, such impressions had lessened, but Aaron Willett was with her still. Now, could there be another? Last night--could Lem have heard a life end, while she woke to sense a new beginning?
She hardly liked the idea, which went against her faith in Nature, and her trust in Reason. If others were to suspect such a thing, it could certainly give encouragement to those who accused her of being willful and dangerous--including Christian Rowe--even though spirits had long been a part of religious belief. In fact, she knew some of her most pious neighbors feared the walking dead. When the day ended, and fires burned low, there was more than entertainment, she felt sure, in the ghostly tales they continued to tell their children.
But were not even the most learned inclined to believe in such things, given a proper incentive? Who was not moved by the shade of Hamlet's father, or Banquo's ghost? Charlotte hardly knew what others might believe, but she suspected it was probably more than most would be willing to admit.
At any rate, she decided, she would continue to keep her own counsel in this, for she had, after all, grown used to discovering things for herself. Unnatural or not, death required a sorting out, before life could move on. In that, she might help. She would start by sifting quietly, employing her intelligence. Soon she might ask a few more questions.
After that, thought Mrs. Willett, she might, perhaps, go just a little farther.