By Richard Paolinelli
© 2020 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.”
* * *
Aspinwall took stock of his lodgings, finding a clean, comfortable-looking bed to sleep on, a nice chest of drawers, and a small closet in which to hang his clothes. Near the lone window was a reading table, chair, and an oil lamp. A pleasant view of a forest of sugar maples lay beyond the window. But as he unpacked, his mind was on much more than this simple room.
Against the opposite wall was a small table with a washbasin and a large pitcher of water. A medium-sized mirror with an ornate wood frame was affixed to the wall above the basin. Taking a moment to freshen up, Aspinwall regarded the face looking back.
It was the face of a thirty-two-year-old man, considered roguishly handsome by many. It was said back in Montpelier that he could charm any woman in the room. The more cynical voices noted that the wealthier the woman, the more he seemed to turn on his charms. But despite his reputation, Aspinwall had somehow managed to avoid being ensnared in marriage. This was by choice. He loved women. He loved their money. He did not love limiting his options when it came to either pursuit.
“Well, well, William,” he said to his reflection, flicking at some dust on his jacket. “Perhaps there is no need to go to Montreal after all. There might be something much more profitable for us right here.”
The truth was, his trip north was purely speculative, with some risk of failure, and he was only going in order to get away from Montpelier long enough to allow some unpleasantness to settle down.
But he smelled money here—lots of it—and no need to travel out of the country to get it. There had to be a large amount of wealth to keep an estate like this in order, especially when there was only one lone woman running it. Include the manor and the land it was on, and there had to be enough money here to last five lifetimes.
The best part of his equation was it would take a minimal amount of effort to cash in. A lonely, unmarried young woman would easily fall sway to his legendary charm. A brief courtship, a marriage and—after an appropriate amount of time had passed so as not to arouse suspicion—well, stairways were treacherous to navigate for a person of any age, after all. After the lady of the house had been dispatched, the oversized rodents would soon join her in the afterlife.
Within a year, after the estate had been liquidated, he could return to Montpelier as one of the city’s wealthiest men—surely the richest eligible bachelor by far.
After one last inspection in the mirror, Aspinwall made his way downstairs—taking care to make sure the door was tightly shut to keep out the cats—and found his way into the study. Clearly, Father Palmquist had conducted most of his affairs from this room, and a few minutes of rummaging through papers and drawers confirmed his assessment of the financial situation he’d stumbled upon.
Satisfied with what he’d discovered, he left the study and headed for the kitchen, passing through the dining room dominated by a large oak table. The aroma from the room was quite pleasant. He would not starve to death during his brief matrimony, at least. A pot of some type of stew boiled on the stove, but Tessa was on the other side of the kitchen.
She held a live chicken, and as Aspinwall stepped closer to see what she was going to do with the fowl, Tessa suddenly snapped the creature’s neck with a deft twist of her wrist, placed the carcass on a slanted cutting board next to the sink, then raised her other hand high above her head. Only then did Aspinwall take notice of what she clutched—a rather formidable butcher knife that she quickly swung downward. The severed head of the victim dropped into a small pail in the sink and was followed by the blood draining from the neck.
“Is dinner delayed?” Aspinwall asked.
“Oh, Mr. Aspinwall, you startled me!” Tessa exclaimed, jumping back slightly in surprise. “No. This is for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving feast. As I wasn’t expecting company, all I have for tonight is stew, bread, and cheese. I hope that’ll suffice.”
“It sounds as wonderful as it smells,” Aspinwall said, turning on the charm. “And please, you simply must call me Will, as all of my friends back home do.”
They did no such thing of course—he had no friends, at home or anywhere else for that matter, which suited him just fine.
“I’m not sure that I could . . .”
“Please, I insist. And your Christian name is?”
“Tessa,” he repeated, with a slight bow. “A beautiful name for a beautiful young lady.”
“Oh, Mr. Aspin . . . Will,” Tessa said demurely. “You are quite the flatterer. Why don’t you go sit down and I’ll bring your dinner out to you.”
The meal was quite fine: the girl could cook, which would make the next few months endurable before wrapping up his plans. Her cooking acumen wouldn’t change her fate, of course, he thought as he finished his meal. He’d confirmed his suspicions about how much money was available for the taking here and had laid the groundwork to add young Miss Palmquist to his list of conquests. He was well on his way toward his goal.
The evening’s work was nearly spoiled by one of her wretched beasts, a large orange and white tabby that suddenly leapt onto the table and stared ominously at Aspinwall. It was almost as if the monster was reading his thoughts. He jerked back guiltily as Tessa admonished the cat.
“Mortimer!” she exclaimed. “You’re being a very naughty boy. Get down, now.”
The cat flicked an annoyed look at its mistress, cast one last long glare at Aspinwall, then leapt to the floor and trotted out of the room.
“I’m terribly sorry about that,” Tessa said. “He sometimes seems to think he rules this house.”
“No harm done.” Aspinwall made a mental note as to which cat would be the first to share in its mistress’s fate when the time came. “It’s been quite an exhausting day—if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ll retire to my room for the night.”
“Certainly. Good night, Mr.—Will.”
“And a very good night to you as well, Miss Tessa.”
Aspinwall made his way up the stairs, pausing at the second-floor landing when he felt as if he were being watched. Turning to look behind him, he spotted that damned orange and white menace about halfway up the stairs, as if it were stalking him.
“Vile beast,” Aspinwall muttered, quickly making his way up the next flight where he closed the door, double-checking to make sure it was firmly latched shut. He did the same with the door to his own room. Shaking off the eerie feeling from the cats, Aspinwall dressed for bed, and fell asleep dreaming of the wealth that would soon be his.
* * *
When the sun rose the next morning its rays fell upon a slight dusting of snow that had fallen during the early morning hours. Aspinwall arose and went through his morning routine. Once washed and freshly shaven, Aspinwall inspected his best suit to make sure it was immaculate before putting it on. His mind was still on his plans for this house as he made his way down the first flight of stairs. He pulled up short once he reached the landing: seemingly every cat in the house had gathered in a pack at the head of the next flight.
“I think I’m going to very much enjoy bundling the entire lot of you in burlap sacks and hurling you all into the river,” he muttered under his breath. He’d make removing this infestation a top priority once this house was his.
He started to shoo the beasts out of his way when a sudden sound from behind made him turn quickly. He barely had time to register the blur of orange and white fur—Mortimer—hurtling toward him when the large tabby landed on his face, all four sets of claws digging deep into his flesh. The force of the impact made him stumble back into the railing; he tumbled over, plunging downward, screaming in pain and terror as he fell to the first floor.
Aspinwall’s body slammed into the very same large oak table he’d dined on the night before, his shoulders striking near the edge so nothing was there to stop his head from continuing along on its journey. Aspinwall heard a hideous snap and suddenly lost all feeling from his neck down. He found himself completely unable to move. It took everything he had within him just to keep breathing.
His head dangled slightly over the edge of the table, which he realized seemed to be slightly tilted, with the high end of the slope at the other end of the table. Out of the corner of his eye he noted the presence of an empty metal tub that looked capable of holding five gallons of water. Before he could begin to puzzle out the configuration of the tub and table, Tessa walked into the room, her right arm concealed behind her back. She seemed remarkably unconcerned with his present circumstances.
He tried calling out, to ask her for help, but he couldn’t force the air from his lungs to form the words he wanted to say. He could only gulp in enough air in short, halting gasps – like a landed fish on the riverbank – to stay alive. Several of the cats, including his attacker, gathered on and around him.
“Goodness,” she said, looking down at Aspinwall. “Still alive, Mr. Aspinwall? I am quite afraid, sir, that this simply will not do at all.”
With that she raised her arm above her head, revealing the large meat cleaver, and swung it downward. Aspinwall’s last sight was that of light reflecting of the sharpened blade; then darkness.
* * *
Tessa swung the blade a second time and her boarder’s head tumbled free, falling into the tub. The blood from the severed neck flowed into the container beneath it. Some of the cats began sniffing and licking about the open wound.
“Not yet my pretties,” Tessa said, shooing the cats off of the corpse. “Let me put my bird in the oven, and then I’ll properly prepare him for your feast. This will truly be a fine Thanksgiving for us all.”
* * *
Palmquist Manor now lies deserted, an empty crumbling shell of its former glory, uninhabited for all of the decades since Tessa Palmquist’s death. The old spinster was found long dead of natural causes after nearly a full month had passed with no sign of her in town or outside the mansion. Her cats had been gnawing on her and had nearly stripped all of the flesh from her bones. Every single cat was put down.
No member of Tessa’s family ever came to claim the property, and it was eventually sold at auction. But no owner ever spent more than a single night within its walls. It was said that at night you could hear the yowling of cats throughout the house. And on Thanksgiving Day itself, more than one passerby has claimed they thought they heard the unholiest moaning, of a human being in supreme agony and terror. A few swore they heard a woman’s voice, too, softly humming an old tune . . . and the thwack of metal cutting into wood.