By Richard Paolinelli
© 2019 RICHARD PAOLINELLI . ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO COPYING OR ANY OTHER REPRODUCTION OF THIS STORY IS PERMITTED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.
The people of Williston, Vermont merely called Tessa Palmquist an eccentric spinster. Had she been born a century earlier, they would have called her something much different: witch.
At twenty-five years of age, neither a classic beauty nor homely, Tessa seemed to have no interest at all in ever getting married. Outwardly showing little interest in men, she preferred spending her time in the company of her two dozen cats, and they all had plenty of room to call home.
Palmquist Manor predated the Revolutionary War and had been built by Arne Palmquist for his new bride, Marie Dimsdale, shortly after the end of the French and Indian War. For just over a century the manor had stood as proud and tall as the sugar maple trees surrounding it.
While the manor had weathered the decades in good order, the family that called it home had not fared so well. Now, just three years removed from the War Between the States, the Palmquist family tree had withered down to the manor’s current resident, Tessa, after tuberculosis claimed her parents.
The family tree had indeed faltered over the decades, but the family fortune had remained surprisingly strong. As the couple’s only child, Tessa inherited the entire estate with no aunts or uncles coming to call for a share. As far as Tessa, or anyone else knew, the nearest relatives of any note were out-of-state cousins who had no inclination to head for northern Vermont, no matter the potential amount of financial gain.
The townsfolk only encountered Tessa on those rare occasions when she traveled the two miles west into Williston on some errand. She was the inevitable target of gossip, of course, mostly for not receiving any suitors despite being the heiress of a lofty estate that should’ve attracted some attention. For the most part, she was treated with bemused tolerance and left to her own devices.
“There’s Old Maid Tess,” some of the children would call out, some loud enough for her to hear, as children were wont to do. She didn’t mind their taunts. She was completely content with her solitary life.
Still, despite having more than enough money to support her and her ever-growing herd of cats for the rest of her life, Tessa sometimes took in a boarder at the manor. The occasional lone traveler, passing through the area looking for a warm bed—and who didn’t mind all the cats—would find what he or she sought on the third floor of the manor. Fortunately, for the guest’s sake, the cats were blocked from this floor with only the rare intrusion to be dealt with when the wrong door was left ajar.
On the eve of Thanksgiving Day, the first snow had yet to fall upon the hills of northern Vermont, even though the mercury plunged downward with each passing day. The number of travelers through the area had also been dropping, with most already having made it to their intended holiday destinations.
William Aspinwall had no family to mark the holidays with; he was a two days’ ride from his home in Montpelier, and was looking to increase that distance as quickly as possible.
But with the sun threatening the western horizon, and Burlington still a dozen miles away, the sight of Palmquist Manor brought a similar joy to the lone traveler as would once swell in his heart at the sight of his childhood home back in Montpelier. After two days on horseback—and one miserable night in a bed that made a slab of granite seem comfortable by comparison—the sign on the gatepost reading Rooms convinced Aspinwall to stop for the night.
The grounds were well kept, the weary traveler noted, as was the exterior of the white home with black trim. There was no sign of servants or workers about, which Aspinwall attributed to the late hour of the day. He dismounted, tied the reins of his horse to the sturdy-looking hitching post in front, and strode up the stairs. He gave the red door three solid raps with the large polished brass knocker and stepped back to wait.
In a few moments he heard footsteps approaching from the other side of the door; it opened to reveal a rather plain-looking young woman. She wore a simple blue muslin dress, her brown hair pulled into a sort of rough, but tight, bun in the back.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” Aspinwall replied, removing his hat. “My name is William Charles Aspinwall III, and I am bound for Burlington. I saw your sign at the gate and was hoping you might have room for the night for a weary traveler?”
“Why certainly, sir,” Tessa replied, opening the door wider and stepping onto the porch, glancing at her visitor’s horse. “You can stable your mount in the barn—there’s some oats in there you can give him. By the time you’re done, I’ll have your room ready. It’ll be two dollars for the room and another dollar for the horse.”
“Are there no servants?” Aspinwall looked around at the well-kept house and grounds. “Surely a house of this size has many, Missus . . . ?”
“Miss Palmquist,” Tessa corrected. “I am not married and I have no servants.”
“You do an impressive job maintaining the place all by yourself,” Aspinwall noted, withdrawing his purse and counting out three dollars to hand over to his host.
“Oh, I have a neighbor. He and his sons come over from time to time and take care of what’s needed outside and in the barn.” Tessa collected her rent. “I’ll see to your room as soon as you’re finished outside.”
“Thank you, Miss Palmquist,” Aspinwall said as she walked back into the house.
He led his gelding to the barn, which was just large enough to house four horses and a light carriage small enough to be drawn by the only mare already residing inside. Slipping off his valise and then his saddle, he led his mount into the stall next to Palmquist’s horse. Slipping a feed bag half-filled with oats onto the gelding before he left, he gathered up his belongings and headed for the house.
Tessa had left the front door ajar and Aspinwall was just as impressed with what he saw of the interior as he had been with the exterior. If the rest of the manor was anything like what he could see from the foyer, it was a home filled with high-quality furnishings, tasteful paintings and tapestries, and was immaculately kept. His only complaint would be the presence of what appeared to be at least a dozen wretched cats. The hostess appeared at the top of the staircase, waving him up.
“Ah, just in time, Mr. Aspinwall,” she said. “Your room is ready.”
“I must say, you’ve done quite well with this house.” He gathered up his valise and started up the stairs. “And you say you live here alone?”
“Ever since my parents died, yes,” Tessa replied. “It isn’t too difficult to manage, and I’m not quite all alone here. I do have my precious cats to keep me company.”
“Yes, such.” Wretched beasts, he thought, rounding the second-floor landing and following Tessa up the next flight of stairs. “Wonderful creatures. You do seem to have quite the collection of them.”
“They keep me company and I like having them about,” Tessa said with a laugh as they reached a door at the top of the stairs. “I keep this door closed at all times to keep them out of the boarders’ rooms.”
“I’ll remember to do the same,” Aspinwall said, looking down at the foot of the stairs where several of the cats had gathered. They seemed to watch his every step. It was with no small sense of relief that he crossed the threshold onto the third floor, Tessa closing the door behind him. “Is there no family nearby to help?”
“The closest I know of live in Boston, and wouldn’t be caught dead outside Massachusetts.” She led him to the first door in the hallway, which was already open. “But I don’t mind at all.”
“Now then,” she continued. “This will be your room right here. I was just about to do some work in the kitchen, and dinner should be ready in an hour. I can have something ready for you for breakfast before you leave for Burlington, if you like.”
“To be honest,” Aspinwall answered, lying with nearly every word, “I’m not due for three more days. I’m catching a boat upriver to Montreal. I doubt I could find better lodging in Burlington than what I see right here. Perhaps I’ll stay here for an additional day and get rested up for the remainder of my journey—if that’s agreeable to you, of course?”
“Why certainly,” Tessa replied with a warm smile. “Stay as long as you like. We don’t get many visitors here, especially this time of year. You’re more than welcome.”
“At three dollars a day, of course,” Aspinwall said, a charming smile making it the joke that was intended.
“Of course, Mr. Aspinwall.” She returned the smile as she exited the room, closing the door behind her. “I’ll let you get settled in. Don’t forget, dinner is in an hour.”
NEXT WEEK: A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and lots of evil intentions.
* * * * *
Like what you’ve read so far? Be sure and sign up for Richard’s newsletter, “Postcards From Infinity“, and if you’d like to become a patron you can do so right here. Any amount you choose will be appreciated and will help keep this blog, these weekly serials and Richard’s podcast, “A Scribe’s Journey” up and running. Thank you for reading and for your support.