The woman’s face was noble and soft, reminding one of cherry-blossoms and dew-wet grass. Her eyes were deep and blue as…well, bluer than anything Cora had ever seen. They commanded her to look at their marine depths and be caught in their undulating beauty. The age of the portrait seemed to be in keeping with everything else in the room. The subject of the painting wore a soft, white evening gown and a cluster of forget-me-nots at her breast. Her shape curved in and out in lines of perfect grace, and she leaned slightly forward, a laughing smile on her rosy lips. Her auburn hair was swept up in soft, elegant waves, and fastened with a comb set with stones the color of her eyes.
Cora thought she could stand gazing at the portrait forever. Time passed unhindered, and Cora’s eyes took in every detail of the painting again and again. It was such a life-like portrait. She could almost hear the woman’s laughter, and feel the soft touch of her white hand. This woman could explain the mystery, Cora knew. If only she was real. If only she could help solve the story of the strange light.
Chapter Fifteen: Forbidden
Cora and Tucker banged inside dripping and gasping for air. The umbrellas were nowhere to be found so the water streamed in rivulets down their bodies freely.
“Mercy on us,” Maggie exclaimed. “To the tub, both of you and don’t come out until you are completely thawed.”
She herded the dripping pair up the stairs where they each soaked in steaming water until their toes were pruny and their cheeks glowed pink. Cora didn’t mind soaking in the tub in Maggie’s bathroom with the bubbles frothing around her. She let her mind wander to insignificant thoughts. Thoughts about the little things she never took time to ponder. Bubbles, for instance, were such delicate, fairy-like things. Little more than a crystalline ball with a shred of rainbow twisted inside. She scooped a handful of the bubbles and blew them across the room. Bet the woman in the painting took her baths in a gold-plated tub with diamond-studded feet.
Cora leaned back against the cool, porcelain wall and closed her eyes. Mysteries were a nuisance. She would have to tell Maggie the whole story and she knew what the result would be—they would be forbidden to step foot in the Other House without express permission from Captain Boniface. It was just, of course. The Other House did not belong to her and they had entered and rummaged in the chest without asking.
The water in the tub had cooled and Cora stepped out and dried herself with a plush towel, then wrapped up well in her pink bathrobe with the roses embroidered on the hem. The Woman probably wore a silk robe with an ermine ruff when she got out of the tub. Cora laughed at her fancy and rubbed a circle out of the fogged mirror.
“Shall we ever get this mystery out of our mind?” she asked her reflection. Of course not. Though I don’t know how we’ll solve it.
She met Tucker, equally shiny and warm in the kitchen. Maggie bustled from stove to table with cups of hot tea and warm ginger-cookies.
“You two will die of pneumonia and whose fault will it be? Mine. Not because I thought it a good idea, but because I was fool enough to give into your insistence.”
“No buts about it, Cora. I was irresponsible and if you get ill and—” Maggie shuddered and turned her back to the pair.
Maggie put her hands on the table and her lip trembled. “It can happen, Cora. Pneumonia is a serious thing. And in such an out of the way place as this… And what were you so intent on exploring anyway, miss?”
Maggie always added the little prefix to the end of anything she wished to make especially accusatory.
Cora dropped a lump of sugar into her tea and tried not to look at Maggie. “We were exploring the Other House.”
All was quiet in the kitchen. Tucker slurped his tea and Maggie hushed him. The white-faced clock on the wall ticked like a sentinel treading out the last watch before a dawn execution.
Cora squirmed. “I know we shouldn’t have gone in without permission, but I had to see what that light was, and it was the only way.”
“What light?” Maggie’s voice was laden with grave displeasure. Her feathers had been ruffled and no mistake.
It would all have to come out. “The first night we were here, as I went to bed I saw a light shining out of a window in the Other House. It was strange, Ann Company having assured us that nobody went in the house except once a year at the New Year when the Captain goes in to make repairs and tidy up a little.”
Maggie’s face was pale, except for a spot on either cheek glowing an indignant red. “And you just walked into that house. There could be robbers or thieves in there. Murderers! Anything.” She covered her eyes with her hand and shook her head.
“Maggie,” Cora reached out a hand and stroked her sister’s hair. “I don’t think anything of a villainous nature has ever found its way to Puddleby Lane. Everyone here is good and kind—you know that as well as I.”
Maggie pulled away and crossed her arms. Tears stood in her eyes. “You are your own girl, Cora, and I’m only your sister. I can’t dictate what you can and can’t do. But you took a little boy, my son, into that house without knowing who or—or what was in there. It was a poor choice on your part.”
Why was Maggie so high-strung? A shutter banged in the wind and they all jumped. Cora shrunk into her seat. She hated disapproval of any kind, but Maggie’s was always worse for its womanly emotion. “Sorry, Maggie.”
“I forgive you. But that still doesn’t mend the matter. You and Tucker could be hovering on the verge of illness and we won’t know it for a day or two at the very least.”
Tucker sniffed and Cora and Maggie fastened their eyes on him.
“The tea’s too strong,” he said, by way of an explanation.
Maggie pushed her chair away from the table and stood. She tied the strings of her apron again and put her hands on her hips. Cora felt that each action was a death-blow to her chance of ever unraveling the mystery.
“You two are not to leave this house, not even to go on a walk for three days. And you are never ever to set foot in that other house without permission. Understood?”
“Good. And perhaps you’ll bypass pneumonia altogether. Let’s pray for the best.” Maggie returned to the stove and stirred a pot of something.
“What about pneumonia?” Frank’s jolly voice sailed into the kitchen on a cold blast of wind.
“Oh, Frank!” Maggie ran to him and threw her arms around his neck. “You’re soaked through.”
He put her from him gently and touched her cheek with a finger. “What’s this, my lady—tears?”
“Cora and Tuck went out in this gale and—oh, Frank! You’ve been out in it too. You’re in more danger than all of them with such a long walk from the station.” Maggie stripped his woolen overcoat from his back and pushed him down in a chair. She knelt on the floor and removed his soaked shoes.
Cora poured a cup of the black tea and stirred two lumps of sugar and a splash of cream into it. She passed the cup to Frank and kissed his cheek.
Frank grinned through a wreath of the fragrant steam. “I trudge all the way home through a gale like a shabby pilgrim on a trip to the Holy Lands, but I come home to be treated with the purplest Orientalism. Ah, my Scheherazade, will not thou rise and tell me this strange tale?” He touched Maggie’s chin and tilted it upwards, then kissed her.
Maggie laughed in spite of herself and perched on his lap. “Apparently there was some light shining in the window of the house next door the first night we were here. Cora saw it and never told me. This afternoon she asked if she and Tuck could go exploring. I didn’t want to let them go, but it seemed to storm had died down a little. But immediately after they left it picked back up and they were gone for an hour at least while I—”
“Now, now little woman,” Frank hugged her. “They’re home and they don’t look in the throes of death.”
“Yes, but they came home cold and wet and having traipsed through a house that they had no right to be in.”
“Find anything, Cora?”
“Frank!” Maggie pursed her lips and furrowed her brow. “You aren’t helping things.”
“My apologies, Mag. But I’d better get out of these clothes if you don’t want me to catch pew-mony too.” Frank winked, gulped the rest of his tea and strode out of the kitchen.
Maggie tsked and shook her head, but Cora noted with relief that her color was back. “Maggie?”
“Can I help with dinner?”
* * * * * *
The weeks flew by on the chill wings of early winter. Life at Puddleby Lane settled into a sort of rhythm set by the dance of the days. The first rays of sunlight curtsied to the dark of night and began the dance. Cora would take the children out to walk along the barren shore searching for treasures of the sea. In her moments alone Cora was content to walk for hours on the sand, watching the gulls winging over the white-frothed waves in utter abandon, reckless of the salt spray and strong winds. Her spirit seemed to soar with them, and her heart to mount on wings of prayer. It was so easy to be good when one had nothing but the sea, the sky, and God to speak to. If only life could always be so—nothing to vex and everything to build strength.
The air agreed with Dorothy too. She had only grown rounder and rosier from the daily walks. Cora delighted to hold Dot in her arms and show her off to Captain Boniface whom they often met pacing the sands in front of the three cottages. They were good friends now—the children and the captain. Cora laughed at the idea that she had been scared of him. Her ease in Captain Boniface’s presence would be complete if only—.But the persistent thought that the Other House and Captain Boniface were wrapped up in each other plagued Cora’s mind. She could not tell why she felt that way. But if she could get a few clues as to his youth, perhaps it would help solve the mystery.
For, though Cora had not been back to the Other House and the beautiful guardian of the chest since that stormy afternoon, she had thought of it constantly. If only Maggie hadn’t forbidden them to go back.
They had not caught pneumonia, and there had been nothing terrifying in the house anyway. It seemed a desperate measure to forbid any visiting in the Other House. Maggie had said it was only the unauthorized visiting that was a problem. Still…Cora didn’t want to ask Captain Boniface outright. For starters she’d have to admit she had been prowling in a house that didn’t belong to her. Secondly, mysteries never seemed so mysterious when one talked them over aloud as if they were of no more consequence than the price of eggs—and that was another thing. Even Piper’s Corner could not entirely disentangle itself from the hard times in America. The stock market was still down, and people—so many, many people—were desperate. Prices, rates and politics weaseled their way into discussions at dinner, over tea, and even on walks to town. How could such a national calamity find its way this obscure little town that was so cut off from the world in every other way?
“Captain Boniface,” Cora said as he escorted her to town on an errand one afternoon. The Captain and she walked on either side of the sandy road where the footing was less slippery.
“Don’t you ever get tired of money?” Cora swung her pail with Frank’s lunch in it until the lid rattled. Dry oak leaves crackled underfoot, murmuring at her passing.
The Captain laughed and stroked his chin. “Can’t say that I’ve had th’problem of havin’ so much money I could get overly tired of it.”
Cora laughed too and plucked a sprig of holly from a tree near the road. “What I mean is, don’t you get tired of speaking of money and thinking of money and slaving away for money all the time?”
“Oh, I do. If one could live without money I should do so in an instant. It’s such a necessary evil, though.” She plucked the holly berries from the spray one by one and sent them rolling into the road.
Captain Boniface puffed out his cheeks and blew on his hands. “Aye. So ‘tis.”
Cora pulled her coat closer. The early December wind keened around them. “I don’t need to be rich, but I should like just enough money that I didn’t have to be working every minute to keep the shabby ends of life meeting.”
Captain Boniface jammed his hands in his pocket and swung his long legs. Cora had to trot to keep up. “Are you speakin’ of yer own experience or just thinkin’ aloud?” he asked.
“I don’t know… Frank works so hard to keep our family together and if…if something came up and he couldn’t, I’ve been thinking of what I could do to make any money.”
“Now, Miss Cora. You needn’t worry your pretty head about that.” The Captain inclined his head toward the distant Piper’s Corner. “You’ve got friends here, and—God forbid—if anythin’ did happen to one of you, we’d not be leavin’ you in the lurch.”
Cora dashed across the sand-road and put her arm into the Captain’s. “Thank you. I know you are too good and kind to do anything of the sort.”
Captain Boniface chuckled and pulled his hat down over his eyes. Cora ventured a study of his profile. Strong features—cut from stone, yet supple and changing as the wind over the ocean waves. Kind features—as capable of tenderness as any woman’s. Noble features—if any man could be trusted to treat a woman with gentleness and respect, it was Captain Boniface.
The character sketch being finished, Cora turned away. All this she knew, and yet Cora would not, could not force the question from her lips. She wished it was easy to ask such a strange question:
So, Captain Boniface, who is that woman?
And what right had she to suspect the captain knew anything? Cora’s face flamed and she settled her tam tighter on her head. It was no use. She could not out and out ask the captain about the Other House. She would have to be content with simpler information.
“Have you always lived on Puddleby Lane?”
The Captain pushed his cap up on his head at a jaunty angle and set his chin. “Pretty near. My father and I moved here and took over the care of th’cottages when I was seven. ‘Bout Tucker’s age.” He chuckled softly.
“You say you take care of the cottages…do you own them?”
“Not all of them.” The Captain pulled the collar of his coat higher. “The Bonnie Addie’s mine, of course…”
And the Other House? But Cora kept the thought silent. “Who owns our cottage?”
“A Mr. Beaumont from back near your old home. He was the one that suggested th’plan to Frank.”
Cora froze in the middle of the path. “Mr. Beaumont?!”
“Aye. I would think you’d have heard all about it from Frank.”
“No.” Cora dragged her feet in the sand and shook her head to clear the bewilderment. “Mr. Beaumont’s daughter and I were not the best of friends…perhaps Frank realized I would not like Puddleby Lane so well as I do if I knew her father owned our house. It was probably the wisest decision.”
The Captain nodded, and bumped Cora playfully with his elbow. “So y’do like Puddleby Lane?”
“I think it’s the dearest place on earth. Even if Dorie-Ann’s dad does own my home.” She smiled ruefully.
“Ah. Well, you needn’t worry ‘bout seeing the Beaumont family if y’don’t like them. The elder Mr. Beaumont—your friend’s grandfather—bought the house. I saw him th’day of the purchase when he arranged for me to take care of it. The only other thing I ever heard was that he’d died and the deed had passed to ‘is son. Your friend’s daddy. So I wouldn’t fret yerself on that account.”
Mr. Beaumont owned their cottage. Cora’s stomach knotted. Their hard-earned money was going to the rent which was going to Mr. Beaumont which was probably going into manicures and beauty-shop appointments, candy and movie-tickets for Dorie-Ann’s benefit. The idea turned Cora’s stomach. Frank worked long and hard at the railway. He had the three-mile walks to the station morning and night, and the strenuous day of work in between. Especially the weeks he worked on the construction of the railway bridge. Some nights he came home happy but so tired that he kissed Maggie, dropped into a chair and fell asleep over his cup of coffee.
At least Frank had a job and the price of living at Puddleby Lane was minimal. Still, most of the money went to the rent. The remainder Maggie threw her heart into piecing together to make a beautiful tapestry for their home. Candles and coal were dear, as were sugar and tea. Yet nothing seemed to be lacking under Maggie’s expert management.
All the effort and work that went into keeping the family afloat, Cora realized, was being painfully extracted and thrown to the capricious winds of the Beaumonts. The idea sent a pathetic shiver through Cora’s body, and she felt sick. Suddenly Piper’s Corner resumed that queer habit it had of morphing between a bright existence and a shabby ghost-town.
The Captain and Cora stood at the cross-roads. Cora swallowed and grabbed one of Captain Boniface’s hands. “Promise you’ll always be here?” Why had that come out? She hadn’t known that was what was coming, but she needed the assurance of a friend when the prospect of Mr. Beaumont for a landlord loomed on the horizon. “Will you promise you’ll always live in the Bonnie Addie and be near us?”
Captain Boniface shrugged his outer coat off and draped it around Cora’s shoulders. His rough hand passed lightly over her hair and he lifted her chin “I’ll be here when you need me, Miss Cora. I promise.”
Tears sprang to Cora’s eyes and she wrapped her arms around the Captain. Here was something strong and reliable; someone that had weathered storms and come through them. Here was a friend who she could depend on.