Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Hangman's Rope

“What’s that on the mantelpiece, little girl?”

Mr. Brunner had always made me nervous- his unctuous flattery to my mother and me on his way into my father’s study had always seemed slightly creepy, but I didn’t want him to tell Father that I’d been rude to him.

“A rope,” I said, not looking up at him but keeping my eyes on the needlepoint I’d been working on.

“A rope, sir.”

“Sir,” I repeated obediently.

“And what manner of rope would it be, for it to be placed in such a prominent location?”

“Father keeps collectibles there, sir, see the porcelain vases? He’s getting through his Chinese pottery phase, Mother says, and he’s buying historical things.”

“So what would be so historical about that section of rope, my little tyke?” Mr. Brunner patted me on the head. “I am so curious.”

I ducked out from underneath his hand. “Mother said it was a part of a rope that hung someone. I guess they must have been famous, but she didn’t tell me who it was. Why don’t you ask Father?”

Mr. Brunner straightened, looking thoughtful. “No, I don’t think I’ll do that. Why don’t you find out for me?”

“Me?” I was surprised, and dropped my needle. When I’d retrieved it from the floor, I looked up to see him looking at me thoughtfully.

“Yes, you. I’d consider it a favor. Would you like a nice present in return?”

“I suppose,” I said doubtfully. “Would Father mind?” Long experience had taught me no gift would be worth it if Father did decide he minded. I began to stitch a green border around the tail of the mermaid I was working on.

“No, no, my dear,” Mr. Brunner said hastily. “Just a secret between the two of us, hmm? Your father doesn’t need to be bothered about something like this- I won’t tell him if you won’t. Do we have a deal, then?”

“All right,” I said, but I made no gesture to shake his hand, and he dropped the one he’d extended. “If I can find out I’ll tell you.”

“Thank you, my dear child,” he exclaimed, a grin I did not really like the looks of lighting his features.

At lunch the next day, I asked my mother casually, “What’s the rope on our mantelpiece?”

Mother stared at me, her eyes suddenly focusing on me, which didn’t happen so often. “Ah, that is a rope with a great history,” she said.

Oh no, I thought silently. She was going into her history teacher mode again. Times like these reminded me that there must have been a reason she married Father.

I tuned out what seemed to be a history of the entire civil war and Abraham Lincoln’s presidency peppered with big words I didn't understand, until finally I heard her say, “And this rope is the rope that hung Mary Surratt!”

“Huh?” I said, chewing my dry peanut butter sandwich. I swallowed- Mother didn’t tolerate me talking with my mouth full, but my lunches were always stale and took a while to chew. Stupid catch-22. “Who’s Mary Surratt?” I finally managed to get out.

Mother looked at me with annoyance. “Did you hear a word I’ve just said? Or do you simply lack the ability to comprehend English? I give up,” she said in disgust, turning back to her newspaper and raising it to hide me from her sight.

I sighed. I’d have to look her up in the encyclopedia later.

Mary Surratt, it turned out, was the first woman the American government ever executed, for her complicity in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. It looked to me like all she had done was have the conspirators in her house, not actually help with the killing, but I supposed the government had had a good reason for having her convicted. Perhaps my encyclopedia had left out some of the evidence.

I shut the encyclopedia but carefully left it lying next to the shelf instead of putting it back. Mother and Father loved to see me use the books we had lining the walls of our house, but most of them were too dull for me to stomach. If they noticed, they’d be glad I was looking at them.
I had learned to take steps like these over the years.

It wasn’t easy, growing up with people whose interests had nothing whatsoever to do with mine, and whose interest in me only overlapped in regard to those interests. Sighing and thinking gloomy thoughts, I stepped into the backyard and slid off my shoes and socks. Mid-afternoon was my time to do things unnoticed- nearly everyone was busy then, and if I was quiet no one could find me.

I sat down on the edge of the ornamental fountain in my usual spot, dangling my feet in the water. I would be in major trouble if I was found here, but the only occupied room with a window facing the fountain was father’s study, and he never looked outside. The servants were in the kitchen or in their quarters, on the other side of the house. I sighed contentedly and watched a ladybug progressing along the rim of the fountain.

Trailing my hand through the water, I was deep in study, imagining myself winning a swim tournament and even my parents congratulating me. Of course, I barely got to practice- this little fountain was basically a wading pool- but I loved to swim, plowing through the waves faster than anyone.

A hand suddenly descended on my shoulder and I shrieked, not managing to repress it in time. I looked anxiously at the house, hoping no one had heard me, and then looked to see Mr. Brunner’s greasy visage.

“Hello, my little tyke,” he said, patting my shoulder.

“Eleanor,” I said with gritted teeth. I preferred Ella really, but not coming out of his mouth.

“Eleanor,” he said ingratiatingly, “you look like you’re enjoying yourself out here. Don’t worry, I won’t tell a soul. Did you find out what I wanted you to?”

The juxtaposition of his promise not to tell on me with the question of whether I’d found out the answer he wanted made me nervous. But I did have his answer, so I nodded.

“It was the rope used to hang Mary Surratt. Mary Surratt was a southern woman living in Washington D.C. at the end of the civil war, when John Wilkes Booth and-“

“Yes, yes, Eleanor, I know who she is. Thank you. Yes, this should be interesting…” he said, half to himself. “Oh, and of course, you’ll be wanting your reward!”

He drew a brown paper bag out of his pocket. The top of it was folded over and one side was stained with grease. “In exchange for your detective work, Eleanor, and as a token of gratitude for your not mentioning anything to your fath- your parents.”

“He won’t care,” I said, looking at the grotty bag doubtfully.

“Nevertheless, I’d rather it not be known that I was interested. Or that I was here. Agreed?”

“Sure,” I replied, and took the bag gingerly.

“Thank you, Eleanor. I am very grateful. I hope you enjoy your gift,” he said, with a nod to the bag, and then he hurried away out of the backyard, taking a side gate to get out.

I opened the bag curiously. And gasped. Being a historian’s daughter had not failed to rub off on me, even if I wasn’t really interested myself. But I knew enough to be aware that the pale granite stone in front of me was not carved with just any carving.

Was it Central American? African? Some tribe- I couldn’t remember which. This was old. Seriously old. And expensive. Maybe not the most rare artifact around- I’d seen similar ones around our house- but I’d always been warned not to touch them because they were valuable.

I started plotting how I could get hold of one of Father’s old magazines, with an advertisement for an artifacts seller who could buy it off me. What would I do with money of my own, though? Even if I just saved it…it would be nice to have a secret resource for emergencies.

I rubbed my nose, realizing it felt a bit raw. I should get inside before I sunburnt. The day had been very hot and sunny, but now a towering thundercloud was approaching from the north. Another good reason to get inside. I withdrew my feet reluctantly from the fountain water and shook them off to dry them before donning my socks and shoes.

* * *

That night I was harshly awakened after midnight by a loud clap of thunder. I shuddered, too shaken up to get back to sleep. I wrapped a quilt cozily around my flannel nightgown and sat on the floor, watching the rain pour copiously down the window. There was a chill, eerie rushing sound of a hard wind rushing around the house. I had a feeling this was not a mere storm, but a full-fledged hurricane.

I heard a loud tapping sound from downstairs that didn’t fit with the other noises. Had a loose tree branch started banging against the house? It could damage something. I decided to go and check.

Mother was already there before me. “It’s someone at the door, Eleanor,” she said upon seeing me. “Who would be out on a night like this?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “Why don’t you answer it and see?”

“It was a rhetorical question, Eleanor,” she snapped. “I’m hardly fit for seeing to visitors in my dressing gown, but I suppose I should see who it is.”

A dripping Mr. Brunner was revealed in a flash of lightning as Mother opened the door.

“Please, ma’am,” he said, shivering and clutching a big satchel in both hands. “May I stay here until the storm is over? I wouldn’t want to impose, but the road is flooded and the lightning is pretty bad. I would try to go through, but it is totally impassable and dangerous at that.”

“No problem,” my mother said, but her tone was ungracious. “You can take the little room in the back. Try not to bother anything and leave as soon as it’s safe.”

“Oh, thank you, my dear lady. You are a hostess as generous as Father Abraham himself.” Still effusing with praise, I watched him go up the stairs with my mother and turn around to give me a questioning look behind her back. I nodded, and put a finger to my lips, figuring he’d wanted to know if I’d kept quiet.

He beamed smarmily at me and disappeared up the stairs.

I stood silently for a minute, motionless; listening to my mother shut the door of the tiny guest room on a still-talking Mr. Brunner; listening to the rain pounding the roof tiles and splattering against the cold ground; listening to the sudden crashes of thunder that boomed periodically across my eardrums; listening to the sound of myself yawning, but somehow too tired to move and go back to bed. And then listening to the sound of the guest room door quietly creak open.
My eyes opened wide. Even wider when I heard the familiar creak of my own door opening a moment later.

A quiet hiss of breath from upstairs, then-

“Oh- there you are,” Mr. Brunner said in a stage whisper from the top of the stairs. “I thought you’d gone to bed.”

“No,” I said.

“Well, then, I want to ask you something,” he said, not inquiring further about my remaining downstairs, as I’d half expected. He seemed to have something worrying on his mind.

“What?” I said.

“I know this is awkward, but-” he ran his hand through his soggy hair, sweeping it off his forehead, and sighed. “I suppose I’ll have to be frank. What can I give you that will convince you to be quiet about what you know?”

“Quiet?” I repeated, confused.

“Quiet from your father- well, from everyone. But particularly your father.”

“Sorry,” I said nervously. “About what again?”

“About where you saw me before.”

“I saw you before?”

“Yes!” he said through gritted teeth. “Do you need to repeat everything?”

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I don’t understand exactly what-“

“I didn’t think you were that thick, even making allowances for your age,” Mr. Brunner muttered. “I thought it was fairly obvious, but I’ll spell it out- I really can’t afford having you confused on this one. I don’t want your father to know I was trying to break into his study in the middle of the night. Understandably. I imagine you’ve guessed why.”

“What?” My eyes widened in surprise.

“You didn’t know?” I had taken Mr. Brunner by surprise too. “I was certain that was you, looking out the window towards me.”

“I was sleeping all night till the storm started,” I informed him.

He muttered something, probably a curse. “I just told you the very information that-“ he cursed again, a word I didn’t know. “Blast. Well, you will keep quiet, won’t you? I already did give you a nice present last time, didn’t I?”

“Yes,” I said, and as he slumped with relief, I had a thought and added, “If you tell me why.”

“I don’t know if I can,” he said, eying me warily. “It could be dangerous for both of us if you know.”

I waited while he thought for a moment, looking carefully at me. “I suppose I can tell you some of it, but you can’t tell a soul. For your own safety, really.”

“I promise,” I said seriously.

“You know there are a number of old-time Confederate families in the south,” he began, and I nodded. “Well, some still have a fair amount of land and wealth. Not to mention power and influence in this area. Right now, some of them are making deals with certain- other elements- I won’t name any. Let’s just say, some are making practical alliances with groups that the more traditional planter family descendants don’t approve of. Strongly don’t approve of.”

“What does my father’s study have to do with anything? He only studies history from much longer ago.” I was not really sure where Mr. Brunner was going with all this.

“Yes, but the university occasionally asks him to decide certain questions- basically, it’s a long story, but he sort of did a favor for someone important on one of the sides in this argument that I’m telling you about.”

“You’re not telling me very much.”

“It’s better for you that way. But I’m getting there.”

“You broke in for the rope?” I hazarded.

“Yes. It wasn’t locked up, even, so I suppose I have you to thank for not telling your father. He would have locked it up if he suspected anyone was interested in it.” He took a few steps and sat down on the stairs. A half light shone on the top of his face, coming from the rainy window at the top of the staircase, as he continued.

“There are a number of historical personages with importance to these men. Mary Surratt is one of them. And this piece of rope has a lot of significance to certain people because of who she was, and who her descendants are. Whoever has possession of it has a certain power and respect, and also a kind of hostage- he can threaten to destroy it unless the others do what he wants, I suppose.”

“And it’s in your bag right now?” I asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Brunner said.

“Excellent.” A third voice came from the shadows farther down the hall.

“Who- who’s there?” Mr. Brunner demanded.

“Your house is singularly popular tonight, miss. My congratulations.” The figure stepped closer to us and I saw it was a tall, fairly slim and muscular man. It was too dark to make out his features, but I didn’t think I’d met him. Mr. Brunner seemed to have a better idea of who he was.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“I’m after the rope, of course,” the man said calmly. “Isn’t it obvious? The one currently in your bag, unless you lied just now. I doubt you did, though. I was the one who saw you through the window when you entered the study to get it.”

Mr. Brunner didn’t say anything, but I saw his hand tighten on the handles of his satchel. The stranger must have seen it too, for he said pleasantly, “I wouldn’t try that. Hand it over peacefully, now. Don’t want to frighten the little girl, do we?”

I doubted Mr. Brunner really cared for my sensibilities.

“Who sent you? I’ll have you know I’m backed by Hunter,” he said defiantly.

“I think you’ve guessed. Hunter’s nothing to my boss, as you know- or I wouldn’t have challenged you now. But I think it won’t be too difficult, will it? Just surrender the rope to me and everything will be fine.”

“You’re still trapped here because of the storm, though,” Mr. Brunner pointed out, but I could see him weakening in his determination. Who were these people? I wondered. The man hadn’t pulled a gun or anything, had he? No one seemed to be ready to make a first move.

“Give it up,” the man whispered softly, persuasively. “It’ll be so simple. No trouble. Just hand it to me and go back to bed.”

Mr. Brunner opened his bag, and hesitated. “And then? Hunter will find me and shoot me in the head.”

“No he won’t,” the man said, and Mr. Brunner snorted in disbelief.

“No, you misunderstand me,” he said with a smirk. “He doesn’t do his own dirty work. One of his other men will come for you. You can always run.”

“The same as his ancestor?” Mr. Brunner said ironically. “Maybe. I’m not one of the families. There are things more important than pride.”

“Something both of us believe or neither of us would be here right now,” the man said, inclining his head. “Let’s get on with it.”

Mr. Brunner’s head turned frantically from side to side as if searching for a way out. Seeing none, he reached into his bag and withdrew the rope. It was a sudden, direct motion after the long moments of vacillation.

“Here,” he said with disgust. “Take your stupid prize. I’m going to regret this.”

“Thank you,” the stranger said seriously. “You’ve just done me a great favor. And I’m not at all inclined to fight one such as you.”

“You’d probably win in the end anyhow, but thanks for the compliment,” Mr. Brunner said wryly. “I’m going to bed. If only there was anything to drink, I swear to God I’d not go to bed without having drunk it. Well, at least when I have to run tomorrow it’ll be without a hangover.”

“Good night, then,” the man said politely, and turned, running down the hallway so lightly I couldn’t hear his footsteps over the sound of the rain outside.

“Go to bed, little girl,” Mr. Brunner said, suddenly sounding exhausted past all bearing. “Forget everything you heard. And- I’m sorry you had to be there, if that means anything.” He climbed up the stairs, his walk that of an old man.

I went to my room, but I knew both of them were still in my house. The thought made it impossible to get into bed and fall asleep, but it was not the only reason I sat by my windowsill with my arms hugging my bent knees, my cheek pressing against the cold comfort of the glass, staring out into the falling raindrops until they were illuminated by the light of dawn.

No comments:

Post a Comment