The Family Tree
The words on the slate were simple enough: “Save my loved ones.”
And the image he saw when he read the words was not a horrible image – a simple cottage nestled in a stretch of woods, next to a stream that might rightly be described as a river under the right conditions. A warm glow of firelight shone through the front windows, and, although he could not see them, he knew that a family was tucked up inside the cottage, gathered together around the fire.
But he knew just as surely that the cottage was in terrible danger, that something threatened it extremely and immediately. The force of this knowing took his breath away for a moment, and he was obliged to sit on the edge of his bed as his vision swam before him.
Elizabeth sat instantly beside him, her brow furrowed with worry. “Are you quite well, sir?” she asked him. She put a hand on his arm. “What did you see?”
Jennings shook his head. “I saw an ordinary peasants’ cottage,” he said. “But I felt overwhelming dread – something bad is about to happen.” He came to his feet. “I’m prompted to head northeast,” he went on. “I believe the house is along that road, not too far from here.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “You cannot mean to go now!” she exclaimed. “Into this storm? It’s madness!”
Jennings shrugged, closing the drawer where the slate still lay. “I must do what the slate bids me do,” he explained. “I’ve been given this gift for a reason.”
Elizabeth blinked, contemplating his words. She knew that if he had not been willing to act immediately on the night that she met him, she would now certainly be dead; she had no reason to think that this vision was any less accurate, or that his actions should be any less urgent.
“All right,” she said at last. “But I won’t watch you go out alone.”
Jennings, who had been on the point of departure, stopped abruptly. “You are not coming with me,” he informed her firmly. “I have no idea what sort of danger imperils this cottage, and the storm is quite fierce.” Indeed, the thunder booming outside seemed to be shaking the house as well as the windows. “It’s not safe.”
She stood, and raised one eyebrow. She had thought at first to remonstrate with him, but realized in the same instant that it would be entirely fruitless, and would only waste time which Mr. Jennings clearly deemed to be in short supply. “I will not watch you go alone,” she repeated. “If you will not take me with you, I will follow you.”
He stared at her, bereft of speech. He opened his mouth to ask her if she was in earnest, but he could already see the answer in her eyes, which looked coolly back at him with utmost conviction. “If I leave,” he said. “You will follow me.”
“Yes,” she replied simply.
He squinted at her. “Why?” he asked.
Her direct gaze faltered slightly. “I don’t want you to be hurt somehow without anyone’s knowing where you might be,” she said truthfully. “When you say you’re walking deliberately into danger, who can tell what might befall you!” Her shoulders twitched in a slight shrug. “Besides,” she added. “I want to know what’s going to happen to the cottage.”
She continued to watch him, and his eyes never wavered from her face. “Short of tying you to something,” he said finally. “Or locking you in a cupboard, is there any way to dissuade you?”
She gave him an apologetic half-smile. “Not really, no.”
At a loss to explain how he had let himself be talked into such a ridiculous course of action – and unwilling to acknowledge that in fact very little talking had marked the conversation – Jennings put a hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder and walked with her toward the door. “As you wish, then,” he said, trying to make his voice crisp but succeeding only in sounding wearily resigned. “We must move quickly.”
By the time Jennings steered the curricle onto the road, the storm had whipped itself into a veritable frenzy; rain flung down from the heavens in heavy sheets that quickly drenched them both, even though Jennings had put up the curricle’s hood before leaving the house.
Still feeling strongly that the cottage lay to the northeast, he guided his horses in that general direction, eventually ending up on a narrow lane that wound its way into a section of thick forest. His route was illuminated only by the flickers of lightning that lit the black sky, and he had set such a wicked pace that finally Elizabeth, her hands gripping tight to the side of the curricle, voiced her concern.
“Mr. Jennings!” she shouted over the noise of the storm. “We’ll be overturned! You cannot even see your path!”
Jennings looked askance at her. “I told you to stay home!” he reminded her.
“And you wish to kill us both to prove a point to me?” she asked him, pushing rain away from her face before clamping her hand once more on the edge of the seat.
Jennings did not answer; his attention was riveted on what little of the path he could see ahead of him. The sense of urgency that had been thrust upon him was now growing by the minute, and his heart pounded in his chest. He had no wish to die – and certainly no wish to harm Elizabeth in any way – but the urgency drove him forward as though no other thought could enter his brain.
After what seemed an interminable ride, the curricle passed underneath a canopy of trees, and the rain beating against the Jennings slackened. Elizabeth was able to peer ahead into the darkness. “Is that a light?” she asked hopefully, nodding her head toward what she thought – prayed – was a circle of yellow glowing faintly in the distance.
Jennings spied the tiny light and felt a glimmer of relief. “I believe so,” he said. Soon they had drawn close enough to make out the shapes of windows through which the yellow glow emanated, and then, a moment later, the cottage itself became visible – a blot of greyness contrasted against the black woods around it. “That’s the cottage I saw,” Jennings revealed.
Elizabeth was examining the cottage as best she could through the rain. “It does not seem to be in any danger,” she noted. “Are you sure it’s the one you saw?”
“I’m sure,” he said. He drove up to the front of the cottage and pulled the horses to an abrupt stop not ten feet from the door. “Ho there!” he shouted, but his voice was drowned out by the thunder and wind. “You there, inside!”
He climbed down and strode up to the house. “Ho there!” he yelled again, thumping the side of his fist on the door. Behind him, Elizabeth gathered her cloak around her shoulders and carefully slid down from the seat of the curricle.
“It is quite late,” she said to him, coming to stand beside him on the stone stoop.
“Lizzie!” Jennings exclaimed, surprised to see her. “I’m sorry!” he said contritely. “I should have helped you down!”
A dimple appeared, and her eyes twinkled as she looked up at him. “I believe I am quite capable,” she said drily. She tucked her hand under his arm. “But I am sure these poor people have long since gone to bed.”
As though to contradict her, the front door was flung suddenly open, and a middle-aged man glared angrily out at them. “What the devil is this about, then!” he demanded. “It’s near the middle o’ the night!”
“I apologize, sir,” Jennings said. “But I must ask that you leave this cottage at once!”
The man became angrier, and, squinting at Jennings in deep suspicion, he barked at him, “Are you out of your senses? What are you on about?”
From inside the cottage, a woman called out. “Who is it? Is it someone for Mama?”
The man looked briefly over his shoulder. “It’s someone I’ve never seen in my whole life,” he informed her. “He wants us to leave our house!”
A cluster of children of various ages appeared then, circling the man who seemed to be their father. They stared out in open curiosity at the strangers on their doorstep, until the woman who had spoken came up behind them and began shooing them away.
“Get back from the door now!” she admonished them. “Your father will take care of it.” She eyed the Jennings with the same suspicion that still lingered on her husband’s face. “Whoever in the world are you?” she asked. “You’re not here for Mama?”
Elizabeth, seeing an opportunity to turn the tone of the conversation, stepped forward and asked, as kindly as she could muster, “You’re expecting someone to fetch your mother?”
To her dismay, the woman’s expression became even more mistrustful. “My mother is dead, ma’am,” she said curtly. “She left us not two days ago.”
“And,” her husband interjected, his brows drawn together starkly over his nose. “If you were any acquaintance of her, I daresay you would know that she is gone.” He placed both hands, balled into fists, on his hips, and positioned himself protectively across the doorway. “So whatever your business is here, you’d best be off!”
“Please, sir,” Jennings said, wiping a hand across his face to clear the rain away. “I know it must sound exceedingly strange to you, but I assure you, you are in danger here!” He gazed pleadingly from the man to his wife, and then all around him at the raging storm. “Please! You must leave at once!”
The man in the doorway puffed his chest out, and his irritation suffused his entire person. “We will do no such thing!” he avowed.
A deafening explosion of thunder answered him, as a bolt of lightning split the center of the large tree to the left of the cottage. Elizabeth, at first startled nearly out of her wits, watched wide-eyed as the tree, its trunk now decorated with a few tongues of flame and a cloud of bitter-smelling smoke, slowly listed to the side.
“Come out now!” she ordered, stepping away from the house and beckoning frantically with both arms.
Jennings grabbed the man by the front of his shirt and dragged him outside. “Now!” he shouted.
The woman, rattled by the blast of lightning, hastened to follow Elizabeth’s instructions, grabbing her children and pushing them before her into the storm. She had not even cleared the doorway herself when the tree, groaning monstrously in protest, fell crashing down onto the roof of the cottage. The roof caved in, and the cottage walls bowed outward; the branches of the tree brushed against the woman, eliciting a terrified scream from her, and causing her to jump forward several feet in alarm.
“Good God!” the man exclaimed, standing in awe at what had just happened. Before him lay the crushed remains of his small cottage, pinned beneath a smoldering tree that had, until this moment, been as welcome a sight of homecoming as the house itself. The worst part of the destruction was over the sitting room, and the man realized that, had the Jennings not come by and brought the whole household to the door, the roof would have fallen on all of them.
“You’ve saved us,” he murmured. “We would have been killed if not for you.” He shook his head in shock and wonder. “We would surely have been killed.”
The woman, clutching her children as close to her bosom as possible, gazed with unabashed gratitude at Mr. Jennings. “How did you know?” she asked him breathlessly. “How could you know?”
Jennings, breathless himself, released his grip on the man’s lapels. Putting his hand on the man’s shoulder, he shook his head, and replied, “I did not know, ma’am. I believe – but perhaps you will think me mad – I believe your Mama – her spirit, I mean – led me here.”
“Mama,” the woman repeated, and her eyes filled with tears. “Thank God for it, sir! Thank God!”
Jennings found Elizabeth at the breakfast table the next morning.
“I did not think you would be up, my dear,” he said, sitting across from her. “After returning home so late, I thought you would sleep the day away.”
She smiled at him. “Much like you, I suppose,” she said. “I woke when I usually do, and could not go back to sleep.” Her smile broadened. “I slept very well for all that,” she added. “It was most gratifying to have saved someone, and to have had such an adventure!”
Jennings laughed. “An adventure indeed!” he said, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “And I daresay they’ll have their cottage rebuilt in a trice, and none the worse for wear.”
Elizabeth tilted her head. “As to that, sir,” she said. “Do you routinely pay for people to rebuild their cottages? And for their accommodation in town?”
Jennings looked down at his coffee cup, and waved his hand dismissively. “They had to stay somewhere,” he explained diffidently. “And rebuild somehow.”
“Of course,” Elizabeth said, still smiling softly. “You are a very good man, sir,” she told him.
He looked up at her. “I try very much to be so, my dear,” he told her. “And I thank you for your good opinion, for I believe no one’s counts for more.”
Elizabeth felt tears stinging her eyelids. “And yours to me,” she managed to say around a sudden lump in her throat. “But I believe,” she went on brightly. “That we were tasked with reading my mother’s journal, and her letter to me.” She patted a stack of leather-bound books that lay on the table beside her. “I have brought them, as well as the family Bible, that we might go through them together.”
Jennings leaned forward. “Excellent!” he said, his interest piqued.
After their breakfast, they made their way outside, to a shaded spot of grass not far from the house. After Jennings put down a blanket, he and Elizabeth sat, alternately enjoying the warm day, reading through her mother’s journal entries, and wading through the copious family tree that had been traced onto cream-coloured paper and tucked carefully into the cover of the Bible.
As she read, Elizabeth became gradually aware that her mother’s peridot ring had been one of a pair, that a second ring of amethyst had also been passed down to various women in the family.
“Mr. Jennings,” she said. “I can trace both the peridot and an amethyst ring back at least five generations on my mother’s side.” She gestured to the entry she was currently reading. “The amethyst was given to my grandmother on her birthday, the same year that my mother received the peridot ring.”
Jennings raised one eyebrow, his eyes quickly scanning the entry. “Who gave your grandmother the amethyst?”
“My great-grandmother,” Elizabeth said. “Each ring was the birthstone of the recipient, and my mother writes that they had been ‘passed through the family for over a hundred years’.” She gazed at Mr. Jennings. “But what indeed could be the significance of them? They’re not precious stones, or expensive rings. They’re both silver, quite ordinary.” She frowned, pondering. “If they had some sort of magical significance, would that not act more as a protection?”
“One would assume,” Jennings murmured. He also frowned, puzzled by this matriarchal mystery, but then abruptly his brow cleared, and he looked at Elizabeth with dawning revelation. “The rings marked them,” he guessed. “They marked them, and yours marked you.”
Elizabeth’s eyes opened wide as she digested this. “It makes sense,” she decided finally. “But why would my mother wish to mark me in such a way?”
Jennings shook his head. “I cannot imagine she would do so,” he said. “Even if I entertained the notion that she would wish you harm – which I cannot do – it seems apparent that she had no idea what the ring represented. It targeted her as well, after all, if I am correct; I believe to her it must simply have been an heirloom.”
Elizabeth had grown very serious. “What on earth could my mother have done?” she asked. “That someone would wish her dead? What on earth could I have done? I’ve barely been allowed out of my home since I was a little girl!”
Jennings put a comforting hand on hers. “It can’t possibly be anything either of you did,” he said. “You are clearly the kindest and best of women, my dear, and I can see through these pages that your mother was very much the same. No.” He shook his head again. “No, I believe the deaths of your mother and grandmother, and the attack upon you, were orchestrated for some magical purpose.”
Elizabeth was both intrigued and horrified; a “magical purpose” would perhaps explain how such a dire creature had been summoned to murder her, as well as the dark and secret manner of visiting a fever upon her mother and stealing her grandmother away in her sleep. But at the same time, the notion that such magic existed boggled the mind and crushed the spirit – how could anyone hope to combat or elude such a supernatural force?
“Surely we’re letting our imaginations run away with us, sir,” she said. “Although I have seen your gift, and know that it is real, surely it is not possible to arrange a fever, or for a woman to die in the night of apparently nothing!” She took a deep breath, struggling to contain her emotions. “Surely not,” she repeated, rather nervously.
“I’m not saying it’s something I see every day,” Jennings replied, gently squeezing her hand. “But when the notion occurred to me, I felt strongly – ” He held his other hand against his chest. “That I was heading in the right direction.” He looked at her out of the corners of his eyes. “And what I have read here,” he began, speaking with a sudden air of delicacy. “Prompts me to believe it.”
“What do you mean?” Elizabeth asked. With a mixture of curiosity and dread, she went on, “What have you read?”
Jennings ran his fingers over the front cover of the Bible. “According to your mother’s family tree, at least two women – sometimes still children – died in each generation. There were other deaths, of course, and by the dates given it seems that more than one woman died in childbed, but every nineteen years, two or more women died within a fortnight of each other. Most recently are your mother and grandmother, and now, nineteen years later, your own life has been threatened.”
Elizabeth blinked, nonplussed. “Nineteen years?” she repeated. “What significance could ‘nineteen’ have?”
“It is the cycle of the moon,” Jennings offered. “It will be in the same location in the sky at a particular time, every nineteen years.”
Elizabeth did not know what to think. To be sure, something diabolical had been dispatched not only to murder her but also specifically to take her mother’s ring. In her mother’s Bible was a record of deaths in which Jennings had seen so sinister a pattern. And it had in fact been nineteen years since her mother died. But the moon had never held any special relevance to her family, as far as she was aware, nor had magic ever been the subject of any discussion. It all sounded so unbelievable.
She leaned forward and picked up a carefully folded paper. “Allow me, sir,” she said. “To read you the letter my mother left me.” She unfolded the paper, holding it delicately as though it might break apart, and began reading:
“Dearest Elizabeth, I am looking on you now as I write this for you, and I have never seen such a sweet and beautiful creature in all my life. I am desolate to consider the possibility that I might not be here to share your life with you. But we all are here according to God’s design, and none of us knows which moment will be our last. My dreams told me that my time here is finished, but they have also told me that you will grow to be happy and strong and good, and that all is happening as it should.
Please know that you are the only thing in my life that makes me so proud, and that I have never known happiness as I know it since you have been with me. Whatever occurs, I will watch over you and love you, and I give you my peridot ring, given to me by my own dear grandmother, both as a keepsake and as a connection to me. If ever you find yourself in harm’s way, call upon me, my dear sweet girl, and I will render you what aid I can.
With all my heart, forever,
Both Jennings and Elizabeth sat quietly for a long moment, each affected by the heartfelt simplicity of her mother’s words. Finally, Elizabeth raised her head and said softly, “I have always felt that she meant the ring to be a protection.” Momentarily overcome, she blinked away tears and cleared her throat. “I think she sought to protect me, sir, perhaps from the very forces that had haunted her dreams.”
“I believe you are right,” Jennings said gently. “She seemed even to feel that the ring possessed a magical quality – one that would allow her to come to your aid, even from beyond the grave. Whether she meant that literally or symbolically, I cannot know. But it would be silly, if she were part of some dark family secret, even to hint at a magical aspect to the ring. Even if all we had heard of her were false, which I cannot believe, to bring such attention to the ring would be illogical, and perhaps even detrimental to the purpose.”
“But what purpose could it be?” Elizabeth asked. “What usefulness could a family find in eliminating its own members?” She shook her head. “It makes no sense.”
“No,” Jennings said. “But perhaps your mother did in fact work some magic on the peridot ring.” When Elizabeth looked inquiringly at him, he continued, “If the rings are a mark of some type, then they have been part of a series of deaths in your family going back to the beginning of the record written here. For you to escape that fate is, as far as I can see, unprecedented.” He reached out and once more took Elizabeth’s hand in his. “Perhaps it was your mother who guided me and who wrote on the slate. Perhaps she somehow altered the nature of the ring – possibly without even realizing it herself – and in so doing caused your attacker to fail in his attempt.”
Elizabeth considered this. “I find a good deal of comfort in that notion,” she said. “The thought that she would wish ill upon me had been rather distressing. But,” she went on, frowning. “Who then has placed these rings into my family? And why?” Her frown deepened. “And since, whatever the reason, it must be of extreme importance, will my attacker not be made desperate by my escape? Will he not find me?”
Jennings’s expression was grave. “I have thought of that since the moment I found you in the park, my dear,” he said soberly. “Your mother and grandmother were taken in a – shall we call it a ‘clandestine’ manner? – that implies there is no place where this power cannot reach. If in fact they were murdered, then I cannot understand what has prevented your being taken away in the night as well.”
Elizabeth gave a small smile. “If my mother was the one who spoke through the slate, sir,” she told him earnestly. “Then it was no doubt because your gifts would offer me protection. You are the reason the creature does not return.”
Jennings looked vaguely embarrassed. “I’ve done nothing,” he said, worry still creasing his forehead.
“You saved my life,” Elizabeth pointed out, squeezing his fingers.
“But I’ve done nothing to protect it since,” Jennings protested, his cheeks flushed. “My ‘gifts’ have told me very little about your attack.”
“Perhaps it is something about you, sir,” Elizabeth said, still smiling. “Perhaps your very presence is keeping something at bay.”
Jennings raised one eyebrow. “I shall be afraid to let you out of my sight, my dear,” he said. “If you put such thoughts into my head.” He raised her hand to his lips. “I have a task for you,” he added, gesturing toward the journal. “You must correspond with all your relation, and discover who had each of these rings.”
Elizabeth blinked, somewhat daunted by the prospect of contacting a score of people she had never laid eyes on. “For the last hundred years?” she asked.
A sudden grin dispelled Jennings’ solemnity. “Yes,” he said. He leaned toward her. “If we can learn who had the rings originally, then we will have found your attacker.”
Elizabeth cast a sardonic eye at him. “That person would be well over a hundred years old,” she said drily.
“That would explain why he sends monsters to do his work for him,” Jennings said, his eyes twinkling.