Authors: Lillian Stewart Carl
Still Amanda felt like she'd just gotten away with something underhanded.... Yeah right. Like Hewitt, or Cynthia, or even Carrie would believe the truth. It was Wayne who'd believe her, and that sure wouldn't help.
What was really coincidence was that she was the person—the woman—loitering outside the gates of purgatory when they opened far enough for James Grant to slip through. She hadn't asked for him. While she was interested in his time period, her only interest in psychic woo-woo was the occasional New Age album.
It was like he threw himself at me.
And she hadn't exactly thrown him back. So what if she was susceptible to a handsome face—or at least to the image of one? She had hormones. She had intellectual curiosity, too. Helping James reclaim his name and his rank—repaying a two hundred-year-old insult—had started her on a great research project. All was well that ended—well, no, she had to get her thesis and its footnotes together. Maybe she could come up with a good reason why James Grant was buried in Sally Armstrong's back yard.
Amanda turned into a supermarket parking lot and stopped. Her budget would stretch as far as a basket of blackberries. Native blackberries, in memory of the long-vanished flesh of James Grant.
Rest in peace.
Amanda woke up Tuesday morning with the taste of fermented blackberries on her tongue. She gulped down cereal and coffee, then brushed and rinsed. The sting of mint cleaned not only her mouth but the lingering images of her dreams, of rushing anxiously from room to room trying to save the furnishings from battles which raged through the entrance hall and up the staircase.
She left Lafayette perched regally on the windowsill and strolled through the house, opening the drapes and relishing the last few moments of peace before the invasion began. The cleaning crew had left wooden surfaces gleaming and fabrics crisp and fresh. The odor of potpourri almost masked that of mothballs. From Page's window Amanda surveyed the manicured green lawns with their golden filigree of marigolds. The shadow of the house stretched away from Sally's window, reaching nearly to the site of the summerhouse. The archaeological team trooped across the garden carrying the tools of their trade, shovels, trowels, and ice chests. Wayne and Roy advanced from the gate. A distant cloud bank hinted that the clear morning sunshine might be only the calm before a storm.
Turning, Amanda brushed against the table. The miniature portrait plopped onto its face. She picked it up. No, she couldn't glue it to the tabletop.
She'd never again be able to think of James's handsome face without also thinking of the empty eye sockets of his skull.... Now that was getting way too sentimental.
Downstairs, Carrie handed out new fact sheets. Taking up his position on the steps, Wayne informed Amanda he was a Page right out of history, get it, get it? The stays protected her ribs from his nudging elbow. She bared her teeth in a laugh and threw herself gratefully on the first school group to appear around the corner.
Just after noon Cynthia Chancellor and her perfectly coordinated apparel arrived in the front hall. She set a Bloomingdale's shopping bag next to the sideboard and announced, “Well, Amanda, I hear you've been a very clever girl. Imagine guessing the identity of the bones before Bill Hewitt, even!"
"That isn't exactly what...” Amanda began.
Carrie peered through the parlor door. “Oh, good afternoon, Madame. May I be of assistance to you?"
"Oh no, no, I beat the others out here is all. I get so eager about these things. Melrose is becoming one of the premier historical attractions of the area, no doubt about it."
"What others?” Amanda asked.
"Bill and.... Why, here's Lucy and Vernon now. Come in, come in."
The Benedettos stepped into the house looking like serfs entering the castle, not sure whether they're going to be pelted with coins or with dung. “Hello, Mrs. Chancellor,” Vernon said, adjusting his tie. “You wanted to see us?"
"I wanted you to be here as part of the little ceremony I've arranged,” Cynthia said, “since you do so much for us here at Melrose Hall."
Amanda asked herself. Oh shit, she'd missed something on the schedule.
A group of tourists surged from the parlor into the entrance hall, Carrie at point. “It has been our pleasure to welcome you to Melrose Hall. Please do us the very great honor of stopping by the gift shop as you return to your carriages."
"Where's the dead body?” a teenager asked.
"Deceased persons remain in their homes for only a day or so, until the funeral rites can be performed,” Carrie answered. “The bones of the poor wretch consigned to a most unsuitable grave in the garden are now in Williamsburg Town. I could tell you somewhat of..."
The boy interrupted, “You mean there's nothing to see?"
"I very much regret,” Carrie began, to be interrupted again, this time by Cynthia.
"We'll be setting up a small display here in the entrance hall in just a few minutes, if you'd like to wait. Outside."
Oh. Thanks for telling me.
But Amanda had to hand it to Cynthia, the woman eased the tourists out the door and down the steps with the skill of a carnival barker. And the place was starting to resemble a carnival, as another tour group streamed out of the library.
"If you would do us the very great...” Wayne was saying, and stopped in mid-phrase when he saw his mother.
"In just a few moments we'll be setting up a small display about the British officer buried in the garden,” she told the sightseers. “If you'd like to wait outside."
The tourists exited. Bill Hewitt, Helen Medina, and several gofers carrying cardboard cartons, light standards, and display panels entered. “Here you are!” trilled Cynthia. “Wayne, run upstairs and bring down the miniature portrait of Captain Grant. Amanda, bring some wineglasses from the dining room—on the silver tray, the one I picked up in the Portobello Road in London. Carrie, help Helen with her lights."
Amanda raised an eyebrow at Carrie as she hurried past. Carrie quirked both of hers. The Benedettos retired to a corner. Cynthia shut the front door, closing out the circle of sunburned faces on the top step.
When Amanda returned with eight crystal glasses, the most she could fit safely on the tray, the exhibit was almost ready. One side of the hall was flooded with light so bright it drained the rich brown of the paneling into ash. In the glare stood the display flats, below the carved and scrolled wooden arch that bisected the hallway at the foot of the staircase. Laminated maps and sketches filled most of the panels—Amanda recognized them as standard-issue Yorktown Campaign illustrations. Wars looked much tidier, she thought, before the invention of photography.
Several small photos showed James Grant's bones both as they emerged in clumps from the ground and lay at parade rest in the lab. Her face carefully neutral, Amanda dodged Helen, who was snapping picture after picture of the assembly process, and set the glasses down on the sideboard.
Hewitt fixed a long Lucite box to the middle of the right-hand panel. Inside was the scabbard, mounted on thin prongs that made it look like it was floating in mid-air. One of Hewitt's assistants hung a smaller container on the opposing flat. Amanda craned forward. This box held four bits of brown bone, three no larger than pencil stubs and one considerably smaller. Finger or toe bones, she thought, and a molar. Hewitt was keeping the other ones in the lab until ... Until when?
Until either he ran down some relatives or Cynthia could orchestrate a funeral, all the national news organizations suitably represented, of course.
"Bill and I decided,” the woman was saying, “that it wouldn't be in good taste to display an obviously human bone, like a femur or, especially, the skull."
"Everyone having seen loose teeth,” Carrie returned, without pointing out that displaying human remains was as much a matter of law as of taste. Scientists weren't nearly as cavalier with bodies as they used to be.
"Absolutely. So we chose these little, rather anonymous pieces of bone, and the scabbard, and...” Cynthia indicated a third Lucite box, “...the silver buckle, a button, and the snuffbox. A shame we don't have the sword. The scabbard is very nice, but it's got that bend in it, and even with the badge it's just not as dramatic as a sword would be, is it?"
Helen shook her head. “Inconsiderate of Captain Grant, not to leave his sword."
But he did leave it,
thought Amanda. At least, it wasn't with his ghost.
Hewitt stepped back while one assistant tacked information cards beneath each box and illustration and another fixed a long, narrow lamp to the top of each panel. Vernon Benedetto mopped his balding head with a handkerchief. Wayne thumped down the stairs with the miniature, which he offered to Hewitt.
Cynthia beckoned. Wayne changed trajectory and gave the portrait to her. She held it up before her eyes, in the classic Hamlet-and-skull pose, and sighed. “Such a handsome young man. Cut down in his prime. Of course he was the enemy, we have to remember that, but Sally must have seen something in him, some sympathy for the Cause, perhaps. The Scots had been rebels themselves not long before. Here you go, Bill. Between the bones and the scabbard, I think."
Deadpan, Hewitt accepted the portrait and placed it in the last Lucite box. He hung it on the flat, turned on the lamps, and adjusted their shades so that they illuminated the displays without glaring into the eyes of the viewer. His minions gathered up their cardboard cartons and retreated into the faraway—and no doubt cooler—back regions of the house, passing Roy and a couple of other interpreters in the shadows of the hallway.
Helen turned on her video camera. Cynthia fluffed up her hair with her fingertips and posed herself beside the exhibit, hands folded, one foot turned out. She smiled like she was about to start turning letters on
Wheel of Fortune
. “It was only last week that we discovered a human skeleton in the gardens behind Melrose Hall. Thanks to the efforts of our staff, the bones have already been identified as those of Captain James Grant, the dashing hero of one of the best-loved legends of Melrose..."
"Luck,” muttered Hewitt. “The archaeologist's best friend. Dumb luck."
Amanda amended silently.
Wayne sidled closer. “Mother's amazing, isn't she? To have such energy at her age."
Cynthia was maybe a whopping fifty-five. As for her energy, she'd probably wither and die if isolated from the adulation of mere mortals. Lucy, peering from behind her husband's bulk, caught Amanda's eye and winked. Amanda stared. Lucy nodded and smiled, eyebrows working, as though the two of them shared some secret.
What is going on with her?
Amanda asked herself.
"...thank you for your support of Melrose Hall and Colonial Williamsburg,” Cynthia concluded.
Of course “the staff” wasn't meant to actually appear on camera any more than the furnace stokers mingled with the first-class passengers. Funny how Amanda was thinking of furnaces. With the lights and crush of bodies, the already warm hall was sweltering. She tried fanning herself, but the fan was only coquettish ornament, and barely stirred the air. The silk of her gown stuck to her skin with each shallow breath. She sent a silent thank-you to the pharmaceutical industry for antiperspirants and deodorant soap.
"Are you all right?” whispered Carrie.
"Hyperventilating, as usual,” Amanda wheezed.
"Hang in there."
Sweat trickled from beneath Wayne's wig. Vernon's head was as shiny as the polished banister. Helen's hair straggled out of its bun and down her neck. “Over to the side,” she directed. “Point to the scabbard. Now to the portrait. Look thoughtful. Thoughtful, not spaced-out."
Cynthia took Helen's direction with a resigned air, and waited while Helen changed back to her still camera.
"Okay, Bill, this is your baby, into the picture—Cynthia, squeeze to the side—don't worry, you'll still be in the frame.” Carrie turned a laugh into a cough.
By the time Helen finally switched off the lights even the impeccable Cynthia was drooping. But her production number wasn't over yet. “Where did you put those glasses, Amanda?” she called. “Oh, I see, on the sideboard. Eight—just right."
Not counting the dark faces in the recesses of the hallway, Amanda thought, and looked around. But Roy and the others were gone.
Cynthia reached into her shopping bag and pulled out a bottle of Glenlivet. “We should make a small toast to Captain Grant. Since clan Grant country is in Strathspey, where Scotch whiskey comes from, how else to toast him but with Glenlivet?"
"Outside of the fact Dundreggan isn't in Strathspey but further west,” murmured Carrie.
"And there's perfectly good whiskey made elsewhere in Scotland,” Vernon added under his breath.
"You know what she means,” whispered Wayne. No one stepped on Cynthia's lines.
She poured a splash of amber liquid into each glass and made sure each person had one. Amanda held the cool crystal to her nose and inhaled. The peat-smoky tang of the whiskey reminded her so strongly of James Grant's presence on the staircase it was all she could do to keep from looking over her shoulder.
Cynthia lifted her glass. “To Captain James Grant, of the 71st Highlanders. May all victors be as charitable to the defeated as our sainted founding fathers."
Wayne pinged his glass against Amanda's. She drank. The whiskey seared her tongue and sent a dry steam into her sinuses. It was sacrilege to drink whiskey this way. She imagined a cool, rainy evening, a flickering fire, a man's scented breath in her ear—the right man, of course, not the same old been there done that.... What she really wanted right now was a vat of iced tea, a couple of gallons to drink, the rest to swim in.
With a chorus of coughs and throat-clearings everyone swallowed his or her drink. Helen smacked her lips appreciatively and glanced at Cynthia, but the bottle was already back in the bag.
The glasses clinked onto the tray. Carrie trotted toward the kitchen. Helen stowed her cameras away and disassembled her lights. Hewitt bellowed for his assistants. Cynthia opened the front door and invited the crowd—which had dwindled considerably, Amanda saw—in to see the new display. “Wayne, dear, explain all of this. Remember to stay in character."