Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Choice, Part 1

The house in Caledon Cay had seen better days. Better decades, in fact. Beams sagged, parts of the frame showed signs of wood-rot, and the odor of mold was pervasive. Mildred Squibb opened the windows and tried to air out the building, even as she sensed this would be a hopeless task.

Ezra, her husband, maneuvered a trunk of their belongings into the master bedroom. He wrinkled his nose both at the odor and at the wallpaper, which was peeling in several places and, in any event, a style that was more suited to the ’40s. He focused on the task at hand, which was to unpack the trunk while Mildred fixed them supper. Placing his unlit pipe between his teeth, he went back to work.

The house had come into their possession several months earlier, after John Meadows, a second cousin of Mildred’s, was declared dead. Meadows had disappeared seven years earlier, vanished in the middle of the night, but no body was ever found. After the statutory period, the estate was settled. The Squibbs were surprised to discover that they were Meadows’s heirs, in the absence of more lineal descendents.

John had lived in the house in the Cay for more than thirty years; he had inherited the house from his father, Symington. Symington Meadows had been born into poverty, but through a combination of hard work, graft, and outright chicanery had amassed a fortune, and had gone on to become a powerful force in Caledon’s government in the early part of the century. Despite his wealth, Symington preached the virtues of hard work and the evils of easy money, pointing to his poverty-filled youth and his own successes. Mysteriously, after he died, no sign of his fortune was found, save for the Cay house itself, then a magnificent structure. Naturally, John searched the house for any clue – such a key to a safety-deposit box – then searched it again for good measure. He hired an attorney to search banks and brokerages for accounts in Symington’s name, and the attorney hired a detective to seek any less-conventional sources of the man’s wealth. None of these efforts was successful, and John, who did not inherit any of his father’s drive or skills, led a life of genteel poverty while the house decayed around him, until he seemingly vanished one day.

Mildred, a stern-faced woman with her hair in a severe bun and an unfortunate fondness for clothing patterns that would be better suited as drapery, had been raised on stories of Great-Uncle Symington’s wealth and the mysterious disappearance of his fortune. Her own family fortunes, or lack thereof, naturally affected her prospects, and she married Ezra Squibb, a genial, kindhearted man who was perhaps the least ambitious person she had ever met. He had all the drive of an opium addict. Tall and lean, he was good with his hands, so he had as much work as a handyman as he wanted; unfortunately, he wanted as little as possible. Mildred knew that she was lucky, at least in some respects, because Ezra treated her well and was too lazy to take up with another woman. Still, she continually nagged him about his lack of ambition, and often wished she was a woman of means.

When they inherited the Cay property, Ezra’s instinct was to sell it, sight unseen, and use the funds to take time off work. Mildred had objected. “What if the furnishings are valuable? How do we know we won’t be taken advantage of by an unscrupulous estate agent? What if,” she looked into Ezra’s eyes, “the key to Uncle Sy’s treasure has been in the house all this time? We could find it, and we’d be rich.”

Ezra looked doubtful. “I’m certain that the house was searched thoroughly, probably more than once. If nothing was found, doesn’t it seem likely that there was nothing to find?”

“We are going to live in that house,” she said in her usual tone of exasperation, “and we are going to look for the money that is rightfully ours. Is that clear?” It was, and so the Squibbs packed several trunks and set out for the long journey from their flat in Brigadoon to Caledon Cay.

Now they had arrived, and Mildred placed a piece of paper on the desk, dipped her pen in an inkwell, and drew a systematic plan for searching the entire house and grounds, including notes such as “secret room – search for – behind bookcase?” The couple ate their meal in silence.

Over the intervening days, Mildred followed her plan precisely, searching every nook in the house, while Ezra mainly smoked his pipe and tried to stay out of the way. He would amble through the streets of the Cay, or sit beside the water, or drink an ale in the pub that was reportedly the favorite of the infamous pirate Pegleg Volare back in the previous century. He passed a restful afternoon in the local graveyard, filled with simple markers and elegant mausoleums. He even spent a pleasant hour or so in a shop filled with naughty pictures – the French have no shame! – before the proprietress escorted him out of her shop for loitering.

Ezra returned one evening in fine spirits, puffing contentedly on his pipe as he ambled up the front walkway. His spirits sank when he saw his wife, in the library, sitting on the edge of chair, sobbing quietly. “I looked everywhere. I went through every paper in the house, looking for anything from Symington’s time. I checked desk drawers, steamer trunks, the attic, the servants’ quarters…I looked for hidden passages…I looked into every book in the library, hoping for a hollowed-out section, or a map hidden between two pages. Nothing is here.”

Ezra tried to comfort his wife the best he could, and gently suggested that they start clearing out the house the next day, with the aim of selling it and moving back to Brigadoon as soon as possible. Mildred gave him a reluctant nod.

But fate had other plans. Later that evening, Mildred sat at the desk and pulled down the drawer to create a writing surface. She opened a small door to retrieve an envelope and, in doing so, inadvertently triggered the latch that revealed the desk’s secret compartment. Of course, she had long since discovered that trick, and the compartment was empty, or so she thought. In moving to close the compartment, however, her fingers brushed against a piece of paper that was attached to the top of the compartment, invisible to the eye, and revealing itself only by the most careful touch. Detaching the paper carefully, so she did not tear the brittle material, she pulled it through the compartment and placed it on the desk.
The prize turned out to be a yellowed envelope, which contained a single piece of foolscap, folded once. Mildred’s fingers trembled as she unfolded the paper and read the doggerel on the page:

Though I was born to low estate and destined to strife
I amassed both power and wealth throughout my life.
Power is fleeting, a treasure no one can save;
Though wealth is lasting it comes not to the grave.
If power you seek, then look toward the throne
And overcome obstacles to make it your own.
If treasure you seek, you shall find in the place
Where once-passioned lovers take their last embrace.

“Oh, this is it!” she exclaimed. “A riddle that will lead us to the treasure. If only we knew how to solve it…”

Ezra was unambitious, but no fool. “The last couplet seems to point to Symington’s burial place. Seek the treasure where ‘lovers take their last embrace.’ Isn’t that the grave, where the living say farewell to the dead?”

Mildred nodded vigorously. “That must be the answer.” She jumped to her feet, and opened the hall closet, where she selected two kerosene lanterns and, after some thought, a hefty crowbar.

“What are you doing?”

“Symington has a crypt in the Cay cemetery. You said it yourself – where lovers take their last embrace. We couldn’t find anything in the house because he hid it – where he had someone else hide it – in his crypt. He must have been resting on it for decades!”

Her husband nodded. “Ayuh. I can see that. But it’s been there all that time. Can’t it wait until morning?”

But Mildred had a wild expression, and would not be stopped. She thrust a lantern at him, her body language asking whether he was coming with her or not, but that, either way, she was heading out. He sighed and accepted the lantern, then placed his empty pipe in his mouth and his hat on his head on the way out the door.

1 comment:

HeadBurro Antfarm said...

Oooooo... I love a mystery... especially one written so wonderfully as this! Ezra is my kind of hero - laid back to the end :)

Can't wait for more!