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Blackwood Farm


Page 27

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27

"AS SOON AS I SAW the ensemble of white wicker tables and chairs I recognized them again as the setting in my dream. It sent the chills up me and the panic came again in a brilliant wave, almost causing my teeth to chatter.

"I could hear Rebecca's voice in my head and I was afraid I was going to get dizzy. When I had described these dizzy states to the doctors at Mayfair Medical they had spoken of small seizures.

"But how could such an explanation account for this -- furniture duplicating that which I had only seen well in a dream? The fact was the seizure theory accommodated nothing.

" 'Mona, my darling love,' I said as we approached the table, 'I need you.¡¯

" 'What you need more than anything in the world,' she said, 'is to be with Stirling Oliver.' But I could see the passion in her eyes; I could see that she was holding back. I could see the evidence of my progress with her.

" 'And what we all need is supper,' said Aunt Queen, who greeted me with a kiss and then planted one on Mona's cheek also.

" 'You know, dear,' said Aunt Queen, 'you really are quite beautiful.¡¯

"Aunt Queen had decked herself out in a sack dress of beige satin, long strands of pearls, a shell cameo at her throat and the most glittering spike heels I'd seen ever. The band across her toes was studded with diamonds and the brilliantly wrought cameo of Apollo with his lyre at her neck was surrounded by tiny diamonds also.

"The entire supper arrangement was illuminated by soft floodlights attached to the side of the house and also by a ring of candles in hurricane lamps. The wicker was exceptionally detailed and well constructed -- what an antique dealer would have given a small fortune to have -- and as I studied it the atmosphere of the dream returned to me. Rebecca said in my ear, Red-haired bitch. I tasted dream coffee. The chills were quietly passing over me. A wave of terror passed over me. A life for my life. A death for my death.

"We were seated at once in the newly painted peacock chairs, and yes, I realized, Goblin's place was there to my left as it always was, and I had not even thought to ask for it.

"My mind and body were aswim with sensations. Merely glancing at Mona on my right side made me want to carry her up to bed. And then a dull misery from Rebecca's dream kept breaking through. Go into the Light, I silently prayed. I tried hard to focus on what was around me. I had to be a man for Mona. And this was no place to become a centaur.

"Jasmine, got up exquisitely in a tiny-waisted violet suit with a frothy white blouse, brought the tarragon chicken and rice to us. Big Ramona, in her usual crisp white apron, was pouring the wine.

"I could see that Aunt Queen had been working some kind of magic with Jasmine. Jasmine was experiencing some change in status. Jasmine had a glamour to her, and surely I wasn't responsible for it.

" 'And look at the shoes on these lovely ladies, would you?' I said to Nash and Mona. 'It makes me want to kiss their feet.¡¯

" 'Eat your supper, Little Boss,' said Jasmine in an under voice. 'You're not kissing my feet.¡¯

"Mona laughed.

" 'Nothing succeeds,' Nash replied, 'like excess.' He smiled. 'I must say it is a pleasure being here in these glorious surroundings. I've never heard the cicadas sing like this except here in Louisiana.¡¯

" 'And how have you spent today?' I asked. 'I feel that, having fallen in love with Mona, I'm neglecting you, but discovering one's future bride can be very distracting. I've become a happy madman.¡¯

" 'And well it should distract you,' he replied. 'And you mustn't worry about me for a moment. This is all so new to me, so fascinating. I've been quite fine. I took a long early afternoon nap and then spent a wonderful time surveying your Aunt Queen's fabulous collection of cameos.¡¯

" 'Cameos,' said Mona. 'You mean you have more than what we saw in the living room case?¡¯

" 'Hundreds more,' said Aunt Queen. 'Spanning my whole life, and you can well imagine how long that is. But here, a toast to Mona Mayfair, our lovely young guest, and to Nash Penfield, who will soon guide us on the Grand Tour, and to my great-nephew, who this day came into part of his inheritance.¡¯

" 'Mona's going with us to Europe, Aunt Queen,' I declared. 'Is there any way we could leave before midnight? Mona will be going as my bride.¡¯

"Mona was clearly startled, but she didn't laugh. She only beamed at me, and then boldly she leaned over and kissed my cheek. 'You would really marry me tonight?' she asked. 'I think you're truly and egregiously in love with me.¡¯

" 'Absolutely and forever,' I said. 'But we don't have to wait for the ceremony. We could fly out tonight, and get married in Paris. Aunt Queen does it all the time -- just flying out. We'd need your passport of course, but I'd go back to the house with you --.¡¯

" 'Darling,' said Aunt Queen, 'I don't think that's necessary. I think I see the Mayfairs coming up the drive now.¡¯

"It was a giant black stretch limousine, just like Aunt Queen's car, crunching the gravel down as it lumbered to a stop before the front steps of the house.

"Mona turned around, then she turned back and she looked at me. The tears rose in her eyes. 'Tarquin,' she said, 'would you really take me with you tonight?¡¯

" 'Yes, absolutely!' I said. 'Aunt Queen, you know it's what you want, that I go to Europe, that I be educated! Nash, you can guide and tutor all of us.' I would die for Mona, I knew it. I would fight everyone in that car.

" 'Nash,' said Aunt Queen, 'go and greet them for me, darling. I see the security man rising to his feet. Call him off. I'll never make it across the lawn in these shoes. Be the front man, will you, dear?¡¯

"Mona quickly explained that it was Ryan Mayfair, the lawyer and father of Pierce, and Dr. Rowan Mayfair, and her husband, Michael Curry, who were now approaching the table. I stood up naturally, but Mona did not, and I moved behind her chair and I placed my hands on her shoulders. I had my back to those coming up the lawn. I was being rude. I was bracing for battle.

" 'Don't worry, my brave Ophelia,' I said under my breath, 'you shall not perish while this brave Laertes lives.¡¯

"But the most curious aspect to all this for me was not my own pounding heart, it was the cautious and almost hostile expression on Aunt Queen's face as the little party came around to the left of me, with Nash quickly inviting them to sit down.

"They all declined a chair. They were very much 'in a hurry,' but were very thankful. 'We've come to pick up Mona,' said Dr. Rowan Mayfair in a very soft and polite voice. I believe it's what you call a whiskey voice. 'Mrs. McQueen,' she said with a little nod of her head, 'you have a magnificent house.¡¯

" 'Well, I hope someday,' said Aunt Queen, 'you can come to visit.' But she was not her usual warm self when she said these words, and she was scrutinizing the group of them in a way I've never seen.

"Introductions were made all around, Ryan Mayfair looking as if he'd been born in his Brooks Brothers suit and Michael Curry, being the oldest and rough cut but a very handsome guy in his safari jacket, with his beautiful salt-and-pepper hair and a very easy manner. He had a very Irish look to him with his square face and blue eyes. The lawyer was uncomfortable and Dr. Rowan Mayfair wasn't exactly at ease either. Dr. Rowan had a high-cheeked, sleek beauty to her with bobbed hair. There was something undeniably frightening about her, though her manner was low-key.

" 'Come on, Mona,' said Dr. Rowan, 'we're here to take you home. You gave us a bit of scare slipping out this morning.¡¯

" 'I want you to leave me alone!' Mona said. It was practically a cri de coeur.

"I could scarcely bear the sound of it, and I flew into action without even moving. I held her shoulders. My heart was racing.

"But suddenly Dr. Rowan adopted an ominous face and said, to my complete shock, 'Michael, take her.¡¯

"Both Ryan Mayfair and Michael Curry moved towards Mona, and Mona screamed, backing up and overturning the chair, and I threw my arms tightly around her. She pivoted in my embrace and buried her face in my chest. She felt like the most fragile and precious little creature that I had ever known or loved, and I intended to fight for her.

" 'Come now, gentlemen,' said Nash in a gentle commanding voice, 'surely you're not trying to take this young lady by force! Mrs. McQueen, are you a neutral party in all of this?¡¯

" 'Indeed not,' said Aunt Queen. 'Jasmine, run get the men.¡¯

" 'Wait a minute,' said Michael Curry, and he made the universal gesture with both his hands for patience. He came on like the sweetest guy in the world. 'Mona, please stop the theatrics and come home, you know you have to. Mona, I don't want to be doing this. Nobody does, but you can't go off like this. Look at it from our point of view.¡¯

" 'I'm going to marry her,' I said. 'And if you lay a finger on her, I'll break your face. Oh, I can see you've got brawn on your side, plenty of it, but I'm young and I'm meaner than I look, so don't try me.¡¯

"As for Goblin, he had risen to his feet and I had whispered to him to do nothing. What he could have done I didn't know, but it frightened me and thrilled me at the same time.

"By now Clem and Allen were running towards the patio. And the security man had come from the front porch to stand by Aunt Queen, his hand on his gun.

"Aunt Queen motioned for Clem and Allen to come on and then stop.

" 'Aren't you all being a bit ridiculous about this?' Aunt Queen asked. 'This girl is having supper with us. I'll have my car bring her home this evening. I've never seen such hysterics before. Dr. Mayfair, I'm shocked.¡¯

" 'I'm sorry, Mrs. McQueen,' said Dr. Mayfair. Her voice was still low and husky, and very sincere. Yet a terrible power enforced her words. 'Mona's fifteen years old. Her parents are both dead. Sometimes she does things that are impulsive. I'm her legal guardian. I want her to come home, and as you can see, she won't do it.¡¯

"Michael Curry shook his head as if to say, The sadness of it, and then very gently he touched Mona's hair. He spoke to her in a soft soothing voice.

" 'Now come on, honey, I know how you feel.¡¯

" 'No, you don't,' she sobbed against me. 'None of you do.¡¯

" 'Mona, I love you,' he said, and then he went on tenderly. 'Let us take you back, sweetheart. You can see Quinn tomorrow. Quinn, you could come by the house, couldn't you? We'd be glad to have you. What about tomorrow afternoon? Come on, darling.¡¯

"I grabbed her head and whispered in her ear, 'Go home and get your passport and be ready.¡¯

"Dr. Mayfair shook her head as if she too hated this predicament. Or as if she'd heard my whisper. The lawyer, Ryan, the smoothie in the suit, never changed his pained expression. I think he was mortified but resigned. He was a good-looking son of a bitch, I had to give him that, and that probably meant his son, the infamous enemy Pierce, was also good-looking.

"Finally Mona turned around and, still clinging tight to my arm, she looked at them.

" 'I hate you that you did this to me,' she whispered. 'I hate you all. I don't trust you.¡¯

" 'Dear God, child,' said Aunt Queen. 'What do you want us to do?¡¯

"Nash looked totally alarmed. Allen and Clem were ready for battle. The security man was on full alert.

" 'She has to come home, Mrs. McQueen,' said Dr. Rowan patiently and courteously. Her face was too serene. 'Quinn, can you come see Mona tomorrow? I think Michael's suggestion was a good one.¡¯

"Mona turned to face me again, and with her back to the evil three she mouthed the word 'passport.' 'You'll come at three o'clock, all right?' she said. But her fingers secretly pressed the number two against the inside of my arm.

" 'Yes, three o'clock, I'll come.¡¯

" 'You can be our guest for dinner,' said Dr. Mayfair. 'Mrs. McQueen, Mr. Penfield, I'm sorry for all this. Truly I am.' She had such a frank simple manner that her words were almost believable. I mean by that that I couldn't hate her as much as I wanted to. But she was still scary in a secret way.

"Mona kissed me on the cheek. I took hold of her and kissed her on the mouth. 'I love you,' I said. 'I'm coming to get you.¡¯

" 'Be careful of all the ghosts,' she whispered. 'Be very careful, and remember, if I somehow become unreachable, or they pull some trick, go to Stirling Oliver. Oak Haven is the southern Retreat House of the Talamasca. Everybody knows where it is. Oak Haven Plantation. It's on the River Road near Vacherie.¡¯

" 'Got it,' I answered.

"She backed up. 'I'll see you tomorrow,' she said. 'Aunt Queen, thank you for the supper. Mr. Penfield, it was so nice talking with you.¡¯

"Suddenly she paused, staring at Aunt Queen, whose own face was the picture of distress. And then Mona went to her and embraced her and kissed her.

" 'Oh, darling, sweet little darling,' said Aunt Queen. 'God bless you and keep you. And here' -- Aunt Queen unhooked the diamond-studded cameo from her throat -- 'you take this.¡¯

" 'Oh, no, I couldn't,' Mona said.

" 'No, you must. Always remember us by it.¡¯

"Mona was going to break into tears again. Taking the cameo clenched in her hand she pivoted and went off fast, and the uncomfortable trio followed her, all of them piling into the awkward stretch limousine, which made a U-turn in the drive and soon vanished in the direction of the highway.

"Jasmine told our palace guard to go back to the kitchen. The security man seemed genuinely disappointed as he headed back to the front porch. Jasmine took my plate and gave me a hot helping of chicken and rice.

"I burst into tears. I just cried like a little kid. I cried and cried. I just sat there not caring who thought what and I cried. So what if I was eighteen. I cried.

"Nash came over to put his arm around me and Aunt Queen cooed to me and called me her poor darling.

" 'I never wanted anything so badly in all my life,' I said. 'I just love her.¡¯

" 'Oh, my precious Little Boy,' said Aunt Queen. 'Why on earth does it have to be a Mayfair!¡¯

" 'But what's wrong with them, Aunt Queen?' I asked. 'Good Lord, we went to their hospital! We go to their church. Fr. Kevin is a Mayfair. I don't get it.¡¯

"Nash gave my neck a firm squeeze and went back to his chair.

" 'Jasmine, give Nash a fresh plate,' said Aunt Queen. 'And you, Little Boy, please eat something. How can you be six foot three and not eat something?¡¯

" 'I'm only six foot one,' I explained, 'it's Nash that's six foot three. Nash, thank you for your moral support. Aunt Queen, I don't understand this.¡¯

" 'Well, my boy,' she said, lifting her glass of white wine for Jasmine to refill, 'I'm not sure I understand it myself, but the Mayfair family has always been viewed with suspicion. Dr. Rowan Mayfair, the genius behind Mayfair Medical, is perhaps the most universally admired of the clan, and she has immersed herself in public life and public service.

" 'But even Dr. Rowan is a mysterious figure. At one point she was so severely injured that all hope was given up, and then she made a miraculous recovery.¡¯

" 'Well, you can't blame her for that, surely,' I interjected.

" 'Can't I?' said Aunt Queen. 'I can tell you it wasn't through the intercession of a saint that she came back from the dead. That much is true.¡¯

" 'But what are you saying?¡¯

" 'As you saw, she's very restrained and sure of herself by nature,' Aunt Queen said. 'And perhaps she is a good person, perhaps she is a very good person. But the rest of the family is another matter.¡¯

" 'But what do you mean? The lawyer was like a loaf of white bread.' (Of course I was stealing Mona's words, but so what?)

" 'He's quite well respected,' Aunt Queen admitted, 'though his practice is mostly dedicated to the family. I'm speaking of other things. And surely you haven't forgotten that he manages our money. But there has been talk for years of congenital madness in the female line. Well, and in the male line as well. Mayfairs were drugged, locked in padded cells, even let their house on First Street fall into ruin at one time, though now that Mr. Michael Curry has come it's wonderfully restored, or so they tell me. Then there's the matter of Michael himself, almost drowned once in the swimming pool.¡¯

" 'But what could that mean?¡¯

" 'I don't know, darling, I'm only trying to convey that they're shrouded in mystery. It's a family with its own law firm and its own priest. Rather like the Medici, don't you think, and you know how the people of Florence used to rise against them and throw all their artworks out of the palazzo windows!¡¯

" 'As if the people of New Orleans would riot against the Mayfairs!' I scoffed. 'You're not telling me everything.¡¯

" 'I don't know everything,' she replied. 'They're a haunted family and some say they're cursed.¡¯

" 'You met Mona,' I said. 'You know she's lovable and brilliant. Besides, we're a haunted family, too.¡¯

" 'Something's wrong,' said Aunt Queen. She hesitated.

"I saw her eyes veer off. She looked at the place where Goblin sat watching her very steadily. She knew he was there, and as I turned to him I saw that he was locked to her.

"She went on, eating tiny bits of chicken daintily as she talked:

" 'There are many old stories about Mayfair women having unusual powers -- an ability to call spirits, an ability to read minds, to know the future. But more than anything else there is this question of hereditary madness.¡¯

" 'Mona can see Goblin, Aunt Queen,' I said, glancing at him and then back to her. 'She has that power. Where in the world for the rest of my life will I find a beautiful brilliant woman who can see and love Goblin?¡¯

"I glanced at him again. He stared coldly at Aunt Queen. And she was staring at the spot where he sat. I knew she was seeing something.

" 'You know anyone who marries me,' I went on, 'is marrying Goblin.' I took his right hand and squeezed it. But he didn't respond.

" 'Don't be sad, Goblin.¡¯

"Aunt Queen shook her head. 'Jasmine, more wine, please, darling. I think I'm getting drunk. Be sure Clem's on alert to help me to my room later.¡¯

" 'I'll help you to your room,' I said. 'Those breakneck shoes don't scare me. I'm about to be married.¡¯

" 'Quinn,' said Aunt Queen, 'did you see how they have taken Mona home? Now please forgive my candor, but it seems to me that they are very afraid of Mona forming any alliance that can lead to her getting pregnant.¡¯

"Nash asked if he should excuse himself. Aunt Queen said absolutely not, and I also nodded to it.

" 'Nash, if we're all going to Europe together,' I said, 'you have to know who we are.¡¯

"He sat back nursing his soda quietly.

" 'Quinn, am I being unfair,' Aunt Queen asked, 'if I suggest that something intimate might have happened between you?¡¯

"I was stunned. I couldn't answer them. I couldn't tell them all that Mona had told me -- the story of the strange child, that it had been a mutation, that it had been taken away. I couldn't pass on these confidences.

" 'Maybe we are crazy,' I said, 'both of us. She being able to see Goblin, imagine that. And both of us seeing ghosts. She talked of it all from a scientific point of view. I felt like I wasn't a freak. I felt like she and I were of the same ilk. And now it seems this person, this precious person whom I so loved is being stolen from me.¡¯

" 'Darling, it's only for one evening,' said Aunt Queen patiently. 'You've been invited there tomorrow afternoon.¡¯

" 'And you're not dead set against my going?' I asked. I started cleaning up the chicken and rice on my plate. I was hungrier than ever. I wonder what trauma could have shaken my appetite. 'I thought you'd feel just the opposite.¡¯

" 'Well, this may surprise you,' said Aunt Queen, 'but I think you might accept this invitation for a very good reason. Few people outside the family ever get to see the interior of that mysterious Mayfair house, and you ought to take advantage of the privilege. Also I have a hunch that when you see Mona again, some of this fire will burn itself out. Of course I may be wrong, the child's gorgeous, but it's what I'm hoping for.¡¯

"I was plunged into misery but eating like a pig. 'Listen,' I said, 'if I can get her away from there, with her passport, can we set out for Europe immediately?¡¯

"I could see the continued amazement in Nash's otherwise placid and dignified face, but Aunt Queen looked a bit provoked.

" 'Tarquin,' she said, 'we're not stealing the girl. Jasmine, more wine please. Jasmine, you're not yourself. When have I ever nagged you so much?¡¯

" 'I'm sorry, Miss Queen,' she said. 'It's just those Mayfairs scared me. The stories people used to tell about their house, it was awful. I don't know if a boy Quinn's age --.¡¯

" 'Bite your tongue, beautiful!' I said, 'and you can pour me some wine, too. I'm going tomorrow.¡¯

" 'They had a ghost!' Jasmine said, quite belligerently. 'It used to scare off any workman who ever tried to work on that property. You remember my cousin Etienne, he was a plasterer, and they called him to that house, and the ghost pulled the ladder from under him.¡¯

" 'Oh, stuff and nonsense,' I said. 'And Etienne used to tell fortunes in the cards.¡¯

" 'I can do that too, Little Boss,' Jasmine sent back. 'I can read your cards, if you want, and tell you what your fate is.¡¯

"She took my plate and heaped it with a second helping. The chicken was really delicious now, and the gravy was thick.

" 'Jasmine's telling you the truth, darling,' said Aunt Queen. 'They're a haunted family, as I said.' She paused. 'Before Dr. Rowan came out from California, no one would go near that house. Now they have big family get-togethers there. They are an immense clan, you know. And that's what I fear when I think of them. They're a clan, and a clan can do things to you.¡¯

" 'The more you say, the more I love her,' I responded. 'Remember, I got my passport in New York, when I was there with you and Lynelle. I'm ready to rumble. But what do you mean, they're a haunted family?¡¯

" 'For years,' she said, 'it was a dreadful ghost, just as Jasmine described. He did a lot more than push people off ladders. But he's gone now, this illustrious ghost. And what surrounds them is talk of genetic mutations.¡¯

"I had to be quiet. But it didn't work. She went quiet too.

" 'What happened to the dreadful ghost?' I asked.

" 'Nobody knows except that something violent occurred. Dr. Rowan Mayfair almost lost her life, as I mentioned. But somehow or other the family got through it. Now Mona, Mona came down from an intensely inbred line of the family. That's why she's been named the Design¨¦e of the Legacy. Can you imagine? Being chosen because you are inbred? If there are genetic problems, you might guess that Mona has them.¡¯

" 'I don't care,' I said. 'I adore her.¡¯

" 'Mona didn't grow up at the house at First and Chestnut. She grew up on St. Charles Avenue, not very far from Ruthie's house, and her people went back to a plantation house in the country. There was a murder. Mona wasn't a rich little girl, by any means.¡¯

" 'Mona told me all this. So she wasn't rich. Do I have to love somebody rich? Besides --¡¯

" 'You keep missing the point. The child is now in line to inherit the Mayfair fortune.¡¯

" 'She told me that, herself.¡¯

" 'But Quinn, don't you see?' she persisted. 'This child is under intense scrutiny. The Mayfair Legacy involves billions. It's like the capital of a small country. And here she's gone from an unstable family to inherit an unimaginable fortune. Nash, you explain it. The girl's rather like an heir to the throne of England.¡¯

" 'Exactly,' said Nash in a very mild professorial manner. 'In the sixteenth century it was an act of treason to court young Elizabeth or Mary Tudor because they were in line for the royal crown. When Elizabeth finally became queen, the men who had dallied with her were executed.¡¯

" 'You're implying the Mayfairs might kill me?' I asked.

" 'No, indeed not, what I'm trying to say,' Aunt Queen returned, 'is that they will reclaim Mona no matter where she goes or how. You saw for yourself. They were quite prepared to pick her up bodily and carry her to that limo.¡¯

" 'We should never have let her go,' I said. 'I have a terrible feeling about it.¡¯

"I glanced at Goblin. He looked solemn and remote, his eyes on those opposite me.

" 'When you see her tomorrow. . .' Aunt Queen began, but then she broke off.

" 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,' I murmured. 'How long must I endure until I see her? I want to go to the house now and climb the vines to her window.¡¯

" 'No, darling, don't even contemplate such a thing. Oh, we never should have gone to Mayfair Medical, but how did I know that the little heiress would be in the Grand Lumini¨¨re Caf¨¦?¡¯

"Jasmine refilled my plate with plenty more of the chicken and rice. I started eating again.

" 'I don't trust anybody now except Mona,' I said. 'I love you, you know that, but I'm in love with her, and I know, positively know, that I will never love anyone as I do her. I know it!¡¯

" 'Quinn, dear, it's time for the worst tidbit of gossip.¡¯

" 'I can take anything,' I said between forkfuls.

" 'They've already arranged a husband for Mona,' said Aunt Queen gently. 'It's her cousin Pierce.¡¯

" 'She told me that, too,' I said, fudging just a little. I gestured to Jasmine for more wine.

" 'Did she tell you that Pierce is her first cousin?¡¯

"Even I was shocked by that. But I didn't answer.

" 'Oh, darling,' Aunt Queen said with a sigh, 'I want to set our course for Europe right away, but we're not going to be able to take Mona Mayfair.¡¯

" 'Well, I can assure you,' I said, 'I'm not getting on any plane for anywhere without her.' "</

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