Title: To Feed on Rose Petals
Author: Sylvia Bond
Word Count: 7,673
Fandom: Dark Shadows
Verse: Gina Lee (# 14)
Summary: Unbeknownst to Barnabas, his servant Willie has been receiving letters from his pen pal in California. Trouble is, Willie’s not been answering those letters, and it’s going to look like Barnabas can’t control his servant. So he makes Willie sit down and write something.
A/N: Barn always has to be in control! (And secretly, this is one of my favorite stories of this verse.)
The first he knew of the entire matter came on a night in mid-spring, when the snow finally gave itself up to a rain that pushed beneath the doorjambs and trickled in neverceasing drops from the leadings between the glass panes in the second floor windows on the north side of the Old House. The beginning of it came with a knock at the door, which he answered with his own hands as Willie, armed with buckets and pans, was occupied elsewhere, seeking to capture the result of the leaks in the master bedroom’s ceiling.
And there stood Miss Winters, wrapped against the cold and the wet, charmingly muddied up to her ankles and holding an envelope out to him. “It was mis-delivered, I believe,” she said.
“You must come in, Miss Winters, and dry yourself off before hurrying out again into the storm.” He took the envelope, hardly glancing at it, and motioned with it for her to cross the threshold.
With a shake of her head and a step backwards, she declined him. “No, thank you, Mr. Collins, but I must be getting back in case there’s a power outage, because as you know, Carolyn can’t sleep in all this racket and doesn’t like to be alone.”
“Of course,” he said at once, though privately musing that if Cousin Carolyn had the half the backbone possessed by Miss Winters, she’d do very well indeed. “Another time, perhaps, Miss Winters. Any prospect of a visit from you is a very pleasant one indeed.”
Nodding, Miss Winters ducked her head, held her scarf more firmly under her chin and hurried out into the night. He closed the door behind her, noticing only idly the sheet of rain that raced across the floorboards as if it thought to remain and gain control of the house by leaving a part of itself stranded there, and looked again at the envelope in his hand.
It was made of thin, cheap paper and was overstuffed, the glue on the seal threatening to come off even as he held it. Through a smudge in the ink it had been delivered to Collinwood instead of the Old House, which sometimes happened, but the part that surprised him was that it was addressed to his servant. Until he noticed the name of the sender. Of course, the
Late night strolls through village had shown him that the
Of course that woman would wish the friendship to continue, though for what reasons he could not begin to fathom. She had nothing of value to offer Willie that Barnabas could see, and in return, his servant’s contact with her was, by necessity, extremely limited. He was as confused by the relationship, a fact he would admit to no one, as much as by his servant insisting on more than one occasion that what was between them was merely platonic.
Overhead, he could hear the thumps and bangs as Willie carted around the buckets and pans, dumping the caught rainwater out of the windows and shutting them again. Hard at work, now, as he had been for the past month, barely a word out of him except for yes, and no, and okay, Barnabas. Exactly as a servant should be; Barnabas could not fault him. Curtains were drawn and pulled at the correct times, fires laid every evening without fail, candles looked after, an armoire refinished and gleaming, taking its rightful place in a side bedroom. And, in addition to several doors being taken down to be replaned and rehung, Willie had managed to strip years of paint from the wood trim on the second floor hallway. By hand he had done this, on his knees, working with a rag, a bottle of ill-smelling solvent, and a slender paint scraper. Barnabas had watched him for a full half hour until Willie, finally realizing his master was behind him, had carefully placed the solvent and rag down and, without turning, had asked, “You want somthin’, Barnabas?”
Only once had he caught his servant off guard, and that time Willie had not realized he was there. Willie had mentioned his intent to measure the doorway of an upstairs room in an attempt, one would assume, to figure out how far the door was out of plumb and had taken his tools with him early in the evening. Barnabas had come up the stair later that night, expecting Willie to hear him and turn to ask what was required of him. Instead, he had come upon his servant standing with his arms against the doorjamb, his head buried in the crook of his elbow. Not a sound had come from him, only a faint chuffing as the bellows of his lungs worked in and out. Deciding instantly that his servant was having a solitary breakdown akin to the one he’d had in the kitchen, Barnabas had turned the way he’d come, saving the proposed errand for later.
Other than that, Willie’d been the perfect servant. Quiet and perfect and obedient in all ways.
This letter, now, from that woman would only encourage him to be otherwise. Barnabas was tempted to forbid any future correspondence, with one response, perhaps, from Willie, to indicate that she was not to write again. He tapped the edge of the envelope against the heel of his palm, musing. Half suspecting that that particular course would only prove, as it had in the past, to be more trouble than it was worth, regardless of the fact that there was nothing that Willie stood to gain by continued interaction with her.
For Willie’s part, his servant was not so stubborn as he was malleable. The right threat or punishment, and Willie walked the line that had been laid out for him. Walked it and did as he was told. Until, that is, some months ago when he’d met that
Somehow with their homespun ways thrown together with a few low-class meals on an ordinary table in a working class kitchen, they’d incited in him independence and energy unbecoming to his station. Upon knowing them, he’d begun to act above himself, throwing things, using profanity, making demands, and striking his master. Of the latter two, Barnabas could not decide which was the more offensive, though he might be able to admit that the ultimate act had been the most shocking, for it had shown him just how far Willie had been drawn in.
As to how far Willie had been willing to go for someone he merely considered a friend, Barnabas found incomprehensible, for he had demonstrated at many points along the way that he had been willing to do anything for her. Argue with his betters. Run into a burning building. Sneak time away that rightfully belonged to his master. Even attempt to conceal the generosity of a woman who had not two pennies of her own to rub together.
Oh, this, Willie had once said, in an attempt to do just that when asked about one of the edible gifts, I made this. It’s leftovers from yesterday. Though surely he of all people should have known that the dampness of the Old House was particularly prohibitive to a crust on a chicken potpie that was as flaky as the one being displayed to him. His mother had bewailed to the cook the effects of the nearby ocean on pastry 175 years ago, and, to his knowledge, the location of that ocean had not changed.
But he’d said nothing to his servant about it. Preferring to keep things as they were, Willie doing more work with a better attitude with that woman in town than he would without her being nearby. Any attempt to fracture the relationship had developed into all-out stubbornness and rebellion. Leading Barnabas to threaten the ultimate solution, which he thought would bring an end on it. It had, however, brought an oddly wrought arrangement, that of Willie’s perfect obedience in exchange for the friendship. Which, after a few false starts, had turned out to work rather well. He got what he wanted, a perfect servant. A hardworking, obedient, clever servant. And Willie, in his turn, got what he wanted, whatever that was. Although in Joshua’s day, an arrangement with a servant was unheard of, this seemed to be one of those occasions where one needed to adapt to the times. And so he had.
Placing the envelope on the writing desk in the front room, he went to the bottom of the stairs and looked up. Candles burned on the stand at the landing, and he could hear the clatter of pans as they were placed on the floor.
Silence. Except for the rain pattering constantly on the walls and the roof, the clang of metal on wood had ceased. He raised his voice and tried again.
A thunder of feet and his servant halfway down the stairs before drawing breath. One hand on the railing as those human eyes appraised him, seeking to judge the temper of his master. As it should be.
“What is it, Barnabas?” Willie asked.
“There is something for you here,” he replied, turning away.
A pause and then the feet on the stairs moved again, rapidly, the wood creaking with the strain. By the time Barnabas reached the entrance to the sitting room, the feet came to a halt behind him.
“What is it, Barnabas?” Willie asked again, his voice lower than before. Perhaps he feared he’d made some mistake, or that his master had an unpleasant job for him. Perhaps it was good for a servant not to feel so sure about his place; modern sensibilities required constant pruning.
“There,” said Barnabas, walking over to the fire before turning around. He wanted to see Willie’s face when he found out what it was. “On my writing desk. It came for you after it was mis-delivered to the Great House.”
The expression he expected to see in his servant was not forthcoming. As Willie picked up the envelope to look at it in the light of the candle on the desk, his face registered not surprise, but instead only a vague dismay as if he knew the contents of the letter by heart and did not wish to read them again. He turned the object over in his hands, feeling it with damp fingers, stained with paint, determining it to be the very same thing Barnabas had earlier: an overstuffed, cheap envelope from a poor, widow woman in
“You do not seem pleased to have received it, Willie.”
There was no answer from his servant. Head tucked halfway down to his chest, the letter frozen in his hands as if he’d forgotten he held it. A halfway plausible thought occurred to Barnabas, that because of her leaving, Willie no longer desired the friendship.
“If you do not want it,” Barnabas said now, “then cast it into the fire. Or,” here he held out his hand, “give it to me and I will hasten it there for you.”
An instant jerk upright, Willie’s head going back, the letter clutched against his breast with both hands.
Willie wanted the letter then, wanted it so badly that his heart was racing hard enough for the vampire to hear it. Beating, it seemed, out of fear that Barnabas would take the letter from him and that he would never know the homespun message sent to him from miles away. That fact, along with the initial lack of surprise from his servant, led Barnabas to another conclusion.
“This is not the first letter you’ve had from her, is it.”
Still no answer. Only a flash of blue eyes in the candlelight as Willie looked away. At the floor. At his toes. Anywhere but on his master. A sure sign that there was something being hidden.
“I asked you a question, Willie, and I expect an answer.”
A small headshake of negation as Willie still clutched the letter to him, the curves of his fingertips leaving small, dark, oval splotches against the whiteness of the paper.
Hiding his impatience, reminding himself that innocence would leave no mark, he moved forward. Willie, hardpressed not to move back, having learned at great cost what avoidance would bring him, began to show signs of the harried breathing that plagued him whenever he was being brought to task.
“And, if this is so, it would follow that you have written back to her. And yet you have asked for no stamps, nor have brought me any receipts for a purchase of the same. Am I to presume then, that you have stolen stamps from me?”
Theft, as Willie well knew, would not be tolerated. Not even in the name of Gina Lee Logan.
Still no answer. The obedient, compliant servant from only half a moment before was struggling beneath the surface of tight-lipped restraint. If it was to be a battle of wills, his was the stronger and Willie knew it. He raised his head and looked down at his stiff and shaking servant. Theft, of all things, had brought Willie down. And for something so small.
“Willie, I’ve warned you–”
“No, Barnabas,” said Willie interrupting him, ignorant of the bolt of shock that raced through his master at this presumption. “I didn’t steal any stamps or b-buy any.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“I d-didn’t. Sh-she wrote me, but I never wrote her. Never wrote her back.” His voice broke on the last of his statement as he tucked his head back down and placed the envelope on the writing desk. He took a sharp breath of air as he pulled his hand away. “Doesn’t matter anyway, I guess.”
Without being given leave or instruction, Willie turned to move out of the room. With a quick sweep of his hand, Barnabas picked up the letter and walked back over to the fireplace. Willie, sensing the movement, stopped and looked at him. At the letter in his hand.
“Shall I cast it into the fire, then?”
Now Willie had gone white, as if he’d been bled hard, the splotches on his face standing out a stark grey beneath eyes that were blank as stone. “What?” he asked, whispering.
Any pretense of lack of care vanished with a blink of Willie’s eyes, where Barnabas saw burning the raw, desperate craving of word from this ordinary woman, even if he saw fit not to return her correspondence. But still there was no answer.
“Your behavior has been unconscionable,” Barnabas said now, turning the letter over in his hands, slipping a fingernail beneath the seal of glue to break the flap open. The abandoned letter was now his by right. “Surely you know I tolerate rudeness as little as I tolerate theft.”
From the overfull envelope he pulled a thick sheaf of paper, the center of which, when he unfolded it, contained a simple child’s drawing of a man standing next to a house. It was signed by the artist, who had written the name Willie and used an arrow to point from the name to the image of the man, so there would be no question as to his identity. Then from between Barnabas’ hands slipped two slick squares that landed perilously close to the hot grate of the roaring fire. He heard Willie’s unbidden gasp as he looked down and saw that they were photographs. He bent to pick them up. Photographs of children. Gina Lee Logan’s brood. One of a boy on a metal tricycle, squinting in the blazing sun. The other of the girl, Polly, on a circular contraption, her hair streaming out behind her, her mouth wide as she leaned back. A bandage on her bare leg.
Tucking the photographs and the drawing behind the sheaf of paper, he scanned the letter. It began with the typically modern and casual Dear Willie, and contained nothing more taxing than the simple account of a widowed woman’s life in a still-new place, her day-to-day concerns, an announcement of a loose tooth for the girl-child Polly, and the imminent arrival of a creature known as the Tooth Fairy, who would surely bring a dime if she were good. Danny’s bout with a cold, and baby Carla’s first babble that everyone was sure could be translated into Mama. This went on for several pages, at the end of which she indicated that she hoped he was well and that he would have time to write back, and that everyone sent their love. There was even a heart, drawn and colored in a bright red, done, presumably, by Polly. And it was signed, Love Gina.
No encouragement for rebellion or riot. No indication that all was not as it should be. Only the phrase, time to write back, jumped out at him.
With a casual flick of his wrist, he held out the collection of papers to his manservant, who, after a second without breath, realized what was being offered to him. Hands outstretched, not quite shaking, Willie came as close as was necessary and took back the letter. Crumpled the entire mess to his chest and moved away, looking up at his master.
“I-I–” he began.
“In future,” Barnabas said, “I suggest that you do not abandon what has been given you. How many times has she written without you crafting a response?”
This question startled Willie, he could tell by the drawn-together brows.
“How many times, Willie, the question is simple enough.”
“Eight,” he said, finally. “This is the n-ninth.”
Barnabas did the math. It averaged out to twice a week for the last month that the woman had written, not including this one.
The unconquerable Gina Lee Logan was, it seemed, prepared to write to Willie without a response until hell froze over. Or until his servant told her to stop, whichever came first. The former was more likely to happen than the latter, if Willie’s reaction was anything to go by. He might not have said it, but the letters mattered to him. That was obvious.
Less obvious, but even more insidious, was Gina Logan herself, whose friendship with Willie should have been no more substantial a meal to either of them than rose petals at daybreak, but which had presaged, without his realizing it, a series of meetings that had taken him quite by surprise.
His first encounter with her should have occasioned no memory, should have had nothing to remark its passing. But of course, seeing that it was connected with Willie, it had.
When he discovered her bringing food to Willie as if he were a shut-in, Barnabas had been astonished, not having any earthly idea who she was and why she would be doing such a thing. Upon realizing whose widow she was, the connection between her and the wood and the thankful gesture of the pie became apparent. It was at that point that Mrs. Logan had announced that a previous visit had been already paid and that the gift of food at this point and time was a repeat of the first. A visit that Willie had failed to inform him of.
At her leaving, his opinion of her as a common village woman became fixed, but was in high contrast to Willie’s opinion of her as a vital acquaintance. His attempt to discipline Willie in his manner of interaction with those of the village had spiraled into a toe-to-toe conflict unheard of in his father’s day, but which he had, since his engaging Willie Loomis as his manservant, a great deal of experience. The only way to handle it was to slap it down, hard. To reassert himself as master of the house, whose will and word were an unquestionable law to which obedience was the only response.
Even after that thrashing, a severe one by anyone’s standards, a second encounter with Gina Logan resulted from Willie’s persistence in his defiance of Barnabas’ injunction against ever seeing that woman again. Persisted beyond the point of chance, his servant had actually presumed upon her hospitality a mere two days later, where Barnabas, whilst strolling around the neighborhood before meeting Cousin Roger at the Blue Whale, had spotted Willie’s truck parked on a side street. Sure that he was mistaken, he’d walked up to the truck in the pelting snow, and was rewarded with the sight of Willie’s work gloves tucked above the steering wheel, as was his custom.
A knock on the door of the nearest house, from whence emanated the pattern of Willie’s sleep, revealed Mrs. Logan and the interior of her tiny house. Inside of which he saw Willie dozing in a rocking chair, with a child not his own in his arms.
He’d requested entrance, thinking to finish them all then and there, when his servant stopped him, standing up and handing over the child, moving past them all and into the snow, grabbing his coat as he went. Stalling the inevitable, with Mrs. Logan looking at him with hard eyes, saying goodnight in tones that were not suitable for a woman of her station.
And Willie, upon hearing of his plans for the misbegotten hoyden that his servant called a friend, had sworn at him, had leaped at him with the intent to do harm (though it was laughable that he thought he would succeed), and demanded, demanded that Barnabas put a halt to what he was, rightfully so, as master of the house, planning.
And then had come their odd arrangement. Perfect obedience from his servant for the continued safety of the
And then there had come the house fire. And the bargain between master and servant, totally unnecessary in his own day, had unraveled with a quickness that informed him that however tame Willie might have seemed, his wildness, surely with him since birth, was ever at the ready to spring forth. The tether which held him to sanity and mildness, the tether that was Gina Lee Logan, was gone in an instant, up in flame, literally, and Willie had lunged at him, teeth bared. Lunged and struck him.
He’d been prepared to kill Willie, and Willie, equally prepared to die, had not moved, would not move, not even to avoid his master’s blow. And Barnabas, in the face of this, could only regret that such strength of character would get so out of hand and have to be destroyed.
Then had come the knock on the door, and another encounter with Gina Lee Logan, who, it was obvious, had not died in the fire that had destroyed her home.
When he let her in, she only had eyes for Willie Loomis. Sprawled there on the stairs, absorbing her gaze as if he couldn’t quite believe that she was there. Blood on his mouth from the blow he had taken, breath in shallow gasps. And her, reaching out to Willie as if she did this thing, this gesture, of a frequency so often that it was commonplace. But then he’d jerked back. And she, clenching her fists, had whirled to face Barnabas.
What had astonished Barnabas most at that moment was, in the face of aridity and despair, that having lost her house and all her earthly possessions, her only concern was for Willie. Her demands had been for him. Her bravery, unaccountably as if she were a man on a field of honor holding the only pistol with any bullets in it at all, had unsettled Barnabas to the point where, instead of throwing her out and finishing what he had started, he had engaged with her in a heated debate about the rights and wrongs of disciplining one’s own servant.
Brought back to reality from the Thomas Paine-like conversation of the rights of all men by the revelation that she, in fact, knew who had brought her the wood in the early part of winter, made him realize that she was more dangerous than he had first assumed. Not just a common fisherman’s widow to wring her hands and wait by the window for any man to take up her cause. Not merely a lonely, modern woman hoping to entice a rich man’s servant with her covered dishes and sweet deserts. If that were the length and breadth of it, he would throw her out into the snow and forbid her return and that would be the end of it.
The actual measurement of her had exceeded his assumption of it and she would have to be dealt with.
He’d had her cornered. Step by step, moving forward so that she had no place to go but backward. Close enough so that either of them were within arm’s reach, and he could read in his servant’s expression the very thoughts that whirled behind dazed eyes. Even Willie had not known that this wolverine had existed inside this common woman’s skin. Never so more apparent than when she’d stopped, planting herself between him and Willie, sticking out her chin and telling him, in the succinct tones usually preserved for an arbiter of legal matters, what he could and could not do, and exactly what she thought of him. In his own house. Without pause or compunction or any worry at all as to the consequences of it.
It could not be borne, and he would not suffer himself to do it. There was only one solution, and he gathered up the darkness from where it hovered within and prepared to strike. Within seconds the problem of Gina Logan would be gone, and Willie soon after that, and he could start anew, with a new servant. Preferably one with no friends, no wolverine to protect him with unsheathed claws and a set of vocal cords that worked perfectly well. Well enough to make complaints and remarks around the village as to Barnabas Collins’ real nature. However true, it was a truth he could not afford to have revealed.
He reached for her, the sap of need rising with a swiftness that reminded him he’d not yet fed that evening. Then Willie had made a small noise, startling him. And Gina Lee Logan had taken that second in her grasp and began to cry. Erasing the wolverine, the revolutionary, even the well-armed man on a field of honor, all were dissolved and she became just what she was. A common village woman coming up against a powerful, well-placed founder of that village and not a man to be trifled with.
Yet when he’d handed her the handkerchief, she’d practically spat on him, not caring that she’d insulted him yet again. Not even worried that she’d come that close to being in death’s grasp. Surely she’d known? And yet, she’d turned on her heel and with a final farewell to Willie had left with a stride befitting a man departing a field of honor upon which he has bested his opponent. So that he was left feeling that even though he had won this round, Mrs. Logan would, forever and for all time, refuse to acknowledge it.
The reluctant awareness that he’d grappled with her at all floated vaguely above the fact that if he was foolish enough to allow his temper to destroy one of them, he would really have to follow through and kill both of them. And that would attract too much attention indeed. Not to mention the fact that any forced separation would leave either of them with nothing to lose. And any man with nothing to loose, as
How had it come to this?
Willie, an uneducated manservant. Gina Logan, also uneducated, without connections. Creating a bond between them that although harrowed by time and circumstance, and without, even, a source of strength upon which to draw, appeared sturdy enough to withstand even the fiercest of attacks.
It had proven to be too much. But, like a snake that turns under the heel crushing it to bite, would only grow to be more trouble the more he tried to dampen it. The friendship would have to be allowed. But with provisions to keep it in check.
And thus the gift was given. He’d never seen anybody more grateful than Willie Loomis had been at that moment in the kitchen when he’d delivered it.
From that had come obedience. Without reluctance, without argument, as he’d always promised Cousin Elizabeth. Practically a miracle.
And now, looking at his servant, looking at him, at the ready, one would assume (one would hope), to spring into action at the smallest command, he knew he wanted it to continue, this miracle. Gina Lee Logan was the tether that would restrain his servant and he wanted it tied down. Hard.
“You will correspond with her,” he said now.
Startled, Willie’s whole body jerked, several of the papers from the missive he grasped to him falling loose and fluttering to the floor. “What?”
“I believe I was perfectly clear,” he replied without moving a muscle, hearing the rain patter down as if it were beginning to slow, catching the vague movement of the candlelight in the everpresent draft that whispered through the Old House. “You will correspond with her.”
“B-but, I don’t–”
The veritable nadir of his servant’s resistance reflected in those words was a thing to be squelched before it had time to climb and grow.
“You will sit down at that desk, take pen to paper, and you will reply to her letter. You will tell her you are well, you will add any trivial thing which comes to your vacant head, and you will seal the envelope and you will take it to post in the morning, do I make myself clear?”
There was no answer. Only a vague flash from Willie’s eyes as he tucked his head down and looked at the papers becoming crumpled in his grasp. His hair fell forward, and he turned slightly away, chest rising once and then falling sharply as if he struggled with himself.
Barnabas moved forward now, knowing he had to take this in hand before it got out of hand, as it had a way of doing when Willie felt himself being impinged upon. How his servant managed to maintain this modern effrontery was beyond him; he, Barnabas, knew how to contain it, and that was all that mattered.
Now he stood close to his servant, the edges of his lapels almost touching the backs of Willie’s curved fists as he clutched at Gina Logan’s letter. He stood perfectly still, only Willie’s ragged breathing brought his chest to rise as if to meet the cloth of Barnabas’ suit, only the pulse of the human heart thudded to echo in the tremor of his jaw.
“I have any number of ways to make you obey,” Barnabas said, his voice low. “You have only to choose.”
Trembling now, Willie lifted his head, presumably to make himself be heard, though his tone was merely above a whisper. “Don’t make–please, don’t make me.”
The question Barnabas was about to ask as to the purpose behind his servant’s resistance vanished as the blackness rose inside him, shaping the words before conscious thought. “You will do as I say.”
Staggering as if he’d been struck, Willie’s head snapped up, and his eyes, shining like glass, found their master’s. At the same moment, his hands fell, almost convulsive, fists opening into spread palms, papers and photographs and envelope, all of it, falling to the floor to scatter like autumn leaves.
“N-no, B-barnabas, don’t–”
“You will find pen and ink in the cabinet there, and paper in the drawer,” he said, ignoring the tremor of Willie’s body only inches from his own. “You will do it now.”
As he stepped away, he sensed rather than saw his servant clasp his hands to either side of his head, bone-tense fingers weaving their way through his hair as if he meant to pull it out, strand by strand. Turning his back on this, he faced the fire, holding out his hands as if to warm them over the flames. A small sound as Willie breathed in sharply, the exhalation carrying with it the tremulous note of a vanquished soul. Then, after a pause, came the sounds of papers being gathered, and a chair being pulled out. Wood scraping against wood as Willie took the letter and the writing materials and laid them out in preparation.
He waited for the sound of Willie sitting and did not hear it.
He spun around. Willie stood by the desk, one hand hovering over the surface of the wood he himself had tended to, palm held flat out, whispering over the grain. Eyes upon it as if contemplating his next move. His other hand hung at his side, straight and still to casual eyes, but Barnabas saw that the tips of his fingers twitched as if straining against becoming a fist.
When he realized his master’s gaze upon him, Willie looked up. Muscles in his neck standing out like iron cords, eyes turned dark with blackened hate, mouth clenched shut as if his next words could slice through bone.
Barnabas waited for this to pass, and when it did not, he folded his hands in front of him, and tipped his head to one side in warning. “I will not have her thinking that I have forbidden you to write to her, Willie.”
Barnabas settled his shoulders back, expecting an outburst, prepared for it. It was imperative that this letter be sent and that all other letters from her should be responded to. That Willie understand that in this household, his position was a narrowly prescribed one, and that when he was told to write, he would. Orders from the master were to be obeyed; his servant would know his place. He waited for further protest, but none came.
Instead Willie looked at him. Neck relaxing, mouth opening a fraction, eyes regaining their normal color. Both arms fell at his sides now, hands still, chest falling and rising slowly.
Good, then. His servant was working it through his foolish brain as to what the most immediate task at hand was.
Willie’s mouth opened further, and when he spoke, his words were perfectly clear. “You don’t want her to what?”
“I don’t want her to think–” began Barnabas, and then he stopped. In his servant’s expression he saw the question that he did not dare utter, though it came to him as plain as if Willie had actually spoken: Why should you care what she thinks of you?
The threat of Gina Lee Logan raising the hue and cry in Collinsport was a worry in the past. He did not care what she thought of him, of course he did not. His only purpose now was to maintain the balance that had been obtained by allowing a relationship that had been perfectly within his rights to forbid. That much was certain.
“It is your rudeness that I’m trying to avoid,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “I do not want her to think that I would allow you to be so rude as not to respond.”
He stepped forward, clenching his fists at his sides, waiting for the second when Willie’s body would fall back, waiting for the reaction that would indicate that his servant was acknowledging his rightful position as being below his master’s. It never came.
“You will answer this letter, and you will answer all her letters to you, do I make myself clear?” Voice raised, feeling the thunder within it, the weight of it as it settled over the room to land on his servant’s shoulders.
There. That shift in his spine and along his legs as Willie moved as if to get away. Only coming to bump against the desk, unable to retreat further. Head cast down as if to avoid his master’s gaze. But the eyes, flicked up at him, watchful and still, with that modern boldness that Willie seemed to be able to manage even when the threat of punishment was at its most severe.
“Do I make myself clear?”
A pause. Willie’s breath, perfectly slow and steady. Not harried or quick. Jaw relaxed.
“Okay, Barnabas,” he said. As if Barnabas had merely given him a list of chores to be done in a certain order and by a certain time and he with the entire following day to do them. As easy as that, with the confidence that his master’s request was well within his ability to perform it.
Barnabas opened his mouth to protest the insolence, when, without another word, Willie slid into the chair at the writing desk and open the top left draw to pull out several sheets of the note paper that Barnabas used to write list of tasks for Willie to do. Then Willie slid the top from the squat bottle of ink, and dipped the pen in and tapped it along the edge of the glass rim as if he’d done it a hundred times before. Shoulders hunched slightly as he put pen to paper, sending a dark blotch to spread almost instantly against the white. With a spare glance at Barnabas, Willie pulled another sheet, and tried this again, and Barnabas had to turn away. Fists clenching each other now, the whiteness of his knuckles standing up sharply in the flickering light of the fire.
Of course he could care less what that woman thought of him. She, amidst the great, complicated layers of class and distinction, mattered no more than a charwoman, or a mender of nets. Willie would do as he was told, and would continue to do so in future until the relationship itself sputtered out naturally over the shifts and patterns of time.
What she thought of him did not matter. It mattered even less now that she was miles away. Several days by train, he’d been told, even more by car; her influence over his servant was less significant than a spec on the horizon.
He unclenched his hands, and took a breath. Prepared to turn around, certain that if Willie were still exhibiting that insolent, knowing look, he would snatch his servant up by the collar and order him to the kitchen. The ink from the bottle would go everywhere, and of course the letter would have to be started clean, from the beginning. But Willie would be wiser for having been taught, yet again, what was acceptable behavior in this household and what was not.
Now he turned. Willie was engrossed in his letter, the pen going slowly from bottle to page, moving across it, and then back to the bottle again. In that slow, thoughtful rhythm obliqued by ballpoint pens, which seemed to rush a man to gather his thoughts and never left a moment for hesitation or contemplation. His servant’s left hand lay splayed across the page, streaking the ink as it held the paper tightly down.
Even from here, from his position by the fire, Barnabas could see that the page was almost spoiled by blobs of ink, but that was to be expected in a first draft. He would let Willie finish, and then have him copy it out. On the good paper.
Then Willie looked up. In his eyes was a smatter of fear, but behind that, layered and still like an animal in wait, was that knowing expression. Pen paused over paper as the ink gathered on the tip of it, ready to fall and Willie completely unawares.
Barnabas weighed the contrast of the fear with the insolence, pausing to watch as the ink dropped and spread in a perfectly round, glossy black circle. Then he took a breath.
“You will finish that letter, and then you will copy it out clean. You will use the crème colored paper, and you will finish tonight and then tend to your chores.” A pause, with Willie watching with silent eyes and a quiet expression. “And I do not want to hear that you have been remiss in your correspondence to her. Not ever. Do you understand?”
A wordless nod as Willie’s gaze moved to the paper beneath his hands. At the words written there, his brow drawing together, confused, as if he’d not written them out just seconds before. He flexed the fingers of his right hand around the pen, the fingers of his left flexing in echo, and then nodded again.
“Sure, Barnabas, I’ll take care of it. I’ll see that it gets done.”
“Good,” Barnabas said, nodding. “Excellent.”
He strode past the writing desk, his movement fluttering the papers stacked there, and walked into the foyer. Reached for his great coat and put it on, grabbing his cane and wrapping his hand around it almost without thinking. It was raining when he opened the door, but only barely. Enough to let the smell of the damp earth rise to his nostrils and to let the scent and sound of the ocean reach him with the soothing curl and uncurl of the water against the rocks and sand on the beach.
Order would be kept in his house, and he would be the one to keep it. The friendship that existed between his servant and that woman, that Mrs. Logan, would continue because he willed it. Whatever it was that they exchanged between them, be it words or silence, it existed because he decreed that it would.
He stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind him, satisfied with that.
When he returned in the bare hour before dawn, he took his coat off and hung it and the cane on the coatstand. Then he went to the writing desk and discovered that Willie had followed his instructions, as it were, to the letter. Sitting there was an envelope, already sealed and addressed to Mrs. Logan of
The stationary that had been used was the more expensive kind and he saw no scraps or tags of paper that indicated that Willie had wasted this privilege. Nor, he saw, now that he was looking directly at the envelope, had Willie included a return address. An omission, of course, for surely she would know who it was from the second she opened it; Willie’s looping scrawl was unmistakable.
Uncapping the ink, he took the pen (not cleaned properly, he discovered), and dipped it in the ink. Turned the envelope at an angle, and, standing, wrote the return address for the Old House in his own hand, which was distinctly different than Willie’s. When she saw it, she would know. Would know that it had been his doing that Willie was now writing back to her, and would continue to do so as long as his master choose to allow it.
He put the envelope back on the desk and took a small rag from the drawer and used it to wipe the still-wet ink from the nib. Looking down, Barnabas waited while the ink dried on the envelope. Willie would have to be taught the proper use and care of pen nibs, but in his present state, the lesson would be easily absorbed. Some resistance remained, perhaps, to his master’s directive to correspond with Mrs. Logan, but that would pass in time. As would that woman’s hold his servant’s affection and friendship, which surely a distance as great as a continent would wear away without any intervention on his part. He had only to wait until what was between them withered like rose petals in an early frost. He had only to wait.
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