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New Beginnings

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Anyway, I said fiercely to myself as I tucked my headphones more firmly into my ears to drown out the sound of the energetic children a few rows behind me, anyway, it is a beautiful old place, and I suppose even if it’s a bit run down, at least I’ll have something to do— “Oh, damn,” I muttered, as I caught sight of the signs on the platform outside the train window. My stop.

I snatched up my backpack and purse and heaved my suitcase off onto the platform. I was the only person to disembark, which I supposed made sense for the once-a-day local-service-only train from New York; if demand for tickets was really so small, it was no wonder most trains ran express right through Sharon.

I sighed, suddenly exhausted. Maybe the little station-house had a place I could get coffee, I thought, though looking at its sagging roof and peeling paint I rather doubted it. Still, since I’d only thought as far as the train to Sharon, I had to do something about getting to New Jerusalem; back in the city it had seemed eminently reasonable to plan on taking a cab, but now that I was here the parking lot was as deserted as the platform, so it was pretty clear I’d have to make other plans.

Right, I said to myself and squared my shoulders. Surely there had to be some way of getting there.

Despite its outward appearance, the station house was warm and brightly lit. There was no one behind the ticket counter, though, so I settled my baggage into an empty corner and leaned on the counter to wait. After so many days of travel, surely another few minutes couldn’t hurt.

Just then a girl came hurriedly through the swinging door to the back of the building. “Oh, hello!” she said, brightly. “I’m so sorry; I didn’t hear you come in.” She was a pretty girl, probably about my age, with hair the exact color of the autumn maples outside, and she had on the kind of vintage get-up that looked like it came straight out of a movie set in the 1940s: full skirt, seamed stockings, red lips. It suited her quite well, actually, I thought; she had the kind of lilting, musical voice you often heard in movies from that era as well. “Can I help you?” she said again, gently, and I realized I’d been wool-gathering.

“Sorry,” I said, and smiled back. “I’m suddenly exhausted. Any chance there’s a place to get a cup of coffee around here?”

“Well,” she said, cheerfully. “It depends on where you’re trying to go, really. There’s nothing open here in town at this time of day, but you might well find something on your way to—wherever you’re headed.”

“It’s a bit out of town, so you might not know it,” I said. “It’s a place called Rest-and-be-thankful? It’s just outside of New Jerusalem. Only,” I added, “I’m not actually sure how to get there.”

“Oh!” the girl said. “Well. I could give you directions if you want,” she said, doubtfully, “but I wouldn’t advise hitching; the roads are pretty deserted out that-a-way. Do you have anybody you could call? I can let you use our telephone.”

The sheer fact of the matter, though, was that I didn’t have anyone to call; even setting aside the question of whether there were working telephones at the house (much less cell service), both of which I doubted, the fact was that there would be nobody there to pick up even if I tried. The house had sat vacant since my grandparents had died, my father being off living his own life, and now that he himself had died, I was well and truly alone. I was accustomed to it—it’d been years I’d been on my own, after all—but something about the finality of having not a single soul who I could call made me feel it, somehow. I realized with horror that my eyes were filling with tears, and I shook my head, quickly, hoping the girl hadn’t seen.

One foot in front of the other, Laura, I said to myself, and, to the girl, “No, unfortunately, there’s no one.”

I had been dreading the kind of small-town questioning that kind of statement might provoke, but the girl only peered at me thoughtfully and tucked one shiny wayward curl behind her ear. “Well, good thing you came in now, then,” she said, smiling. “I just saw Lowry Tatlock go into the post office across the way; he lives just out past Rest-and-be-thankful, and I bet if you caught him he’d be able to give you a lift.”

I must have looked hesitant, because she laughed. “It’s fine, I promise! And, anyway,” she added, “you’ll likely have to spend the night here in town otherwise.”

Reluctant as I was to accept a ride from a stranger, I was even more reluctant to spend the night in town—and if they didn’t even have a coffee shop, I suspected a hotel would be out of the question, and the institutional plastic chairs in the train station looked decidedly uninviting. “You really think that’s a good idea?” I said, doubtfully. “Taking rides from strangers; isn’t that like something straight out of a cautionary tale?”

“It’s fine,” the girl said firmly. “Go! You don’t want to miss him.” She swept in front of me, light on her feet, and gestured out the window towards where I could just glimpse the fender of an old beat-up pickup truck parked in front of an old brick building labelled ‘Sharon Post Office.’

Well, I said to myself. What’s the worst that can happen? It’s not as if you can’t take care of yourself, after all. “All right, all right,” I said, and let myself be swept along behind her and out the door.

It wasn’t until I was halfway across the (empty) street that I realized I hadn’t even gotten her name. How would I explain myself to this mysterious Lowry Tatlock? I couldn’t very well say ‘Oh, a girl in the train station told me to talk to you’; this was a small town, but it wasn’t that small.

But when I turned back and poked my head into the station she was gone again. Well, no use for it, I’d just have to take my chances. Courage, Laura, I said to myself, as I’d said so often in the past few days and weeks, and marched up to the man who was my presumptive ride. He was leaning into the passenger seat, fiddling with something I couldn’t see, but there was no time like the present. “Hi,” I said, brightly. “Are you Lowry Tatlock?”

He was slender, in nice jeans and a button-down and a cowboy hat, I could see that much from the back. The old truck and the name (a grandfatherly name, if I’d ever heard one) had made me assume he was older; but then he turned around and I saw with a start that he was my age, or close to it. Dark hair, dark eyes, black-framed glasses, a square jaw—I would have said he was a good-looking man if I’d had practice evaluating that sort of thing, though I didn’t. “Yes?” he said, a note of inquiry in his voice.

“Hi,” I said. “So sorry to bother you, only—I just got off the train from New York, and—I’d planned to take a cab, only there aren’t any. And the girl in the station said you lived out New Jerusalem way, and—I know this sounds odd, but I was wondering whether there was any possibility you’d be able to give me a ride?”

He raised an eyebrow and looked me up and down, clearly startled. “A ride?” he said. “Out to New Jerusalem?” He had a nice voice, slow and sort of quiet; there was some kind of accent I didn’t recognize, a little drawl. A solemn face.

“I could pay for gas,” I said, hurriedly. “And if it’s out of your way you could just drop me off as close as you’re going, I can walk from there—” I gestured at my hiking boots, and he raised his eyebrows again. “I just don’t fancy staying overnight here,” I explained, “and I don’t know anyone, and the girl in the station said—”

“That I lived out that way, got it,” he said. “I do, in fact, live out that way. But—” he paused, and cocked his head slightly, resting one hand on his hip. “You’re not worried I’m a serial killer or something?”

“Well, I wasn’t before,” I said tartly. “Should I be?”

He laughed. He had a nice laugh, sudden and genuine; his eyes, I noticed, crinkled up at the corners slightly. It changed his face entirely. “I’m perfectly nice, I promise,” he said. “Are you sure you’re not a serial killer?”

On the face of it, bantering about serial killers could have been creepy, but weirdly, in this case, it wasn’t; I felt, of all things, comfortable. Not that it meant anything, really, but—well, it was a nice laugh, and the girl in the train station had seemed to know him. “Nope,” I said. “You’re safe. Unless you were looking for some kind of life-and-death adventure, in which case, sorry to disappoint.” I stuck my hand out. “Hi. Laura Grahame, nice to meet you.”

He shook my hand, solemnly. “Nice to meet you, Laura Grahame. You can call me Low,” he said, and I could hear the smile in his voice. “Well,” he said. “Since we’ve established that neither of us is threatening, may I offer you a ride?” His voice was teasing.

“You may,” I said, matching his tone. “Thank you,” and let him hand me up into the passenger seat of the pickup.

He navigated through the outskirts of town in silence. I probably should have made conversation, but I’d been travelling for more than 24 hours by that point, and the warmth of the cab made me sleepy. The hillsides were a blaze of color, orange and russet and gold and the occasional shockingly scarlet maple, the sky that crisp blue you only ever really got in autumn in New England. It’d been so long since I’d been back, but everything was wonderfully familiar: little white houses nestled behind stone walls and split-rail fences, stately old brick Colonials facing the village green, a small white church tucked beneath the branches of an oak that had to be at least two hundred years old.

The Abbey had old oaks like that, I thought to myself, and old beeches too—

But I cut off that line of thought. No use thinking of bygones. I’d been telling myself that for the past two weeks, and it had gotten me this far. Think about the future, I told myself, encouragingly. There’s the house—the frankly huge house—and settling in—and you’re going to have to get a job—

It hadn’t been my intention to come to Rest-and-be-thankful at all, was the thing. I’d wanted to be a nun, and had been a postulant at Brede Abbey in Sussex. Yes, I know how it sounds—a nun, in this day and age! But I’d found something there I’d never had before: community, a sense of belonging, a place. Before Brede, I’d been alone all my life. My mother had died when I was a baby, and my father had been distant, a cold, unloving sort of man; I’d been in boarding schools in both America and England since I was seven, had spent my summers at having Educational Experiences with a series of undoubtedly very well-paid nannies, and then, when I was old enough, working. I’d discovered Brede when I was at university, working towards my degree (architecture with a focus in historic preservation) and it had been like coming home, or rather finding a home for the first time: warmth, laughter, friendship. I’d soaked it up, and they’d let me enter as soon as I finished school.

But then my father died, and I’d discovered I’d inherited the old family house that had been sitting empty in upstate New York for a decade, and Mother Prioress had decided I wasn’t quite ready for temporary vows. Oh, she’d phrased it gently, and made it clear I could come back in a few years if I still felt the call, but she thought (and the Council agreed) that I needed a few more years in the world before I vowed myself to Brede for life. “That you’re inheriting the house is providential, really,” she said, but it was cold comfort as far as I was concerned. What did I want with an empty house in a town I didn’t know?

And I didn’t relish the Sound of Music comparison, either. At least Maria had had a plan.

“So, Laura Grahame,” Low said, next to me, and I startled. I hadn’t meant to be so silent, but you did get into the habit as a nun, and I’d found it hard to break. “Are you going to Rest-and-be-thankful?” he said, and I looked at him, surprised. I hadn’t said the name of the house, I was sure. He darted a glance at me and grinned, that same startling grin again. “It’s your name,” he said. “A Grahame, going out to New Jerusalem? It was an easy guess.”

“A good one,” I said, and he tilted his head in acknowledgement.

“You ever been?” he asked. Come on, Laura, I said to myself, and roused myself enough to converse; it was the least I could do, if he was giving me a ride.

“When I was a child,” I said. “Haven’t been back for years, though.”

“Mm,” Low said, thoughtfully. “What brings you here, then?”

I wasn’t going to get into that. Nothing like saying to a handsome man that you had wanted to be a nun, after all, not if you wanted him to look at you like you were normal afterwards. “Oh,” I said, faux-casually. “A new beginning, I suppose.”

Either I was broadcasting ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ very clearly or Low was uncommonly perceptive. “Ah,” he said. “Fair enough,” and didn’t say anything else. I was beginning to get the sense that he was well-schooled in silence, himself.

Then he raised an eyebrow and smiled, a little half-smile I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t been looking right at him, and said, “So, you know it’s haunted, right?”

It was the last thing I’d expected. “What?” I said, because I did know that, but I hadn’t expected him to. “How do you know about that?”

That surprised him; he looked at me, astonishment clear on his face, for so long I was worried he was going to run us off the road, but he caught himself in time and straightened out the car. “What do you mean, ‘how do you know about that’?” he said. “I grew up here, and there were always rumors of ghosts; how do you know?”

I don’t know what made me say it; I’d never told anyone before, even though it was the ghosts that had gotten me to the Abbey in the first place: hard not to believe in the existence of another world when you’ve seen it first-hand, all through one magical summer of your childhood. Maybe it was the intimacy of being in a car together in the dim twilight, the way the endless twisting roads made the journey feel timeless; maybe it was the exhaustion; maybe it was simply that I’d felt comfortable with him since I’d laid eyes on him. But for whatever reason it just slipped out. “Saw them,” I said, and then bit my lip in disbelief, because he was going to think I was crazy now, for sure.

Low didn’t say anything, but I saw his hands tighten on the steering wheel. “Gotta say,” he said, after a moment, “I didn’t think you’d even have heard the story, much less have seen them.” He shook his head.

“So, what?” I said. “You thought you’d scare me?”

He grinned. “Something like that,” he said, easily. He flicked his indicator, and we turned onto an even smaller little dirt road, nearly a track, nestled between two gently sloping hills. Just then, the sun came out from behind the late evening clouds and cast a golden gleam over everything, limning the trees and the stone walls and the little creek with an edge of gold. And then we rounded a curve and the house came into view.

“Oh,” I exhaled; I couldn’t help it. “Now I see why it’s named Rest-and-be-thankful.” My memories of the house were hazy, really, shrouded with a child's unconcern for such things; besides a general memory of age and size, I hadn't been able to come up with particular details. Now as an adult I could recognize the lovely details: the elegant lines of the columns, the (I gulped) slate roof, the diamond-paned windows reflecting the last gleams of light. The overwhelming feeling was—well, peace.

Low pulled the truck up in the circular drive, in front of the door, and shut the engine off. “Well,” I said, after a moment. “Thanks for the ride.”

He turned and looked at me. “My pleasure, Laura Grahame,” he said, a soft edge to his voice that I didn’t quite know what to do with. I busied myself gathering my bags.

Low actually got out of the car and walked me to the door, which was entirely unnecessary, but welcome nonetheless; the house was dark and the evening was getting cold, and I couldn’t help but shiver a little as I fished for the key the lawyers had given me. “You think I’ll see them again?” I said, impulsively.

Low tucked his hands in his jeans pockets and looked at me thoughtfully. “The ghosts?” he said. I nodded, and he paused a moment, clearly thinking about it. “I couldn’t even begin to answer that,” he said, finally.

I supposed I’d hoped he’d say yes, he thought I’d see them again; seeing the ghosts of my ancestors would have meant some glimmer of magic, some glimpse of that enchantment that had so captivated me that one long-ago summer and shaped my life ever since. But this was adulthood, and I supposed wanting it wasn’t quite enough. “Well,” I said, obscurely disappointed. “I guess we’ll see.”

“Right,” Low said, and turned to go. But before he got to the truck he turned back. “Laura,” he said. “What did the girl you met in the train station look like?”

I paused with my hand on the doorknob. “Copper-colored hair,” I said. “A vintage dress, um, blue, I think, and red lipstick—hair in waves—very classic-movie-starlet, actually,” I said. “Why?”

“Well,” Low said, gravely. “They put in ticket machines a couple of years ago at that station; it’s all electronic now.”

“Oh,” I said, not quite sure what he was getting at. “So?”

“So,” he said, and spread his hands. “To my knowledge, there isn’t anyone working there any longer.”

“Oh,” I said again, dumbly. Did he mean—

Low grinned and peered at me over his glasses. “Yup,” he said. “And I don't know anyone in town who looks like that, anyway. So there, Laura Grahame, is your answer.”

I stood in the foyer for long seconds after Low departed, my suitcases at my feet, trying to wrap my head around it. I’d apparently already seen my first ghost at Rest-and-be-thankful.

Chapter Text

The next few weeks were so busy I almost didn’t have time to wonder whether I’d see a ghost again. The lawyers had made sure the electricity was connected and the heat on, but that was as far as it went, and I had my hands full just trying to get the house livable. The morning after I arrived had dawned gray and blustery, and the sun never really rose; the wind had howled around the house and blew the leaves off the maples. But I’d turned on all the lights and put on some 1940s swing (inspired, I supposed, by the girl in the train station), and I’d gone around shaking the dust cloths off the furniture and exploring all the nooks and secret crannies of the house and setting the grandfather clock ticking. I found, to my surprise, that I quite liked the work; there was a peculiar kind of pleasure in shaking off the dust of years of neglect and making the house into a home again.

And that was my routine for the next several weeks, cleaning and organizing and generally setting in, until one day in early December I found myself sitting on the floor of what I supposed had been a parlor once, but was now currently serving as a storage room for my trunks and baggage, which had finally arrived from England. I was enough of a preservationist that I didn’t want to change the house in its fundamentals—it had beautiful bones, with its old twelve-over-twelve windows, its hand-blown wavy glass, its original fireplace (with bread oven!) in the kitchen. But I didn’t see why I needed to keep every single piece of paper ever accumulated by my ancestors, either, so I was sorting the papers in the drawers in one of the linen chests.

I was also, I confess, brooding a little bit. I’d been raised from an early age to value my independence, and I’d prided myself on not needing anyone; self-sufficiency was a value my father had inculcated in me long before he sent me off to school. But there was self-sufficiency and then there was loneliness, and I was beginning to feel as if I were verging on the wrong side of that line.

And I couldn’t stop thinking about Low, either, which was disconcerting. I could have chalked it up to the loneliness, or attributed it to the fact that he was the only person I’d really met beside the cashier at the grocery store in Goshen (when I’d managed to get the ancient jalopy in the barn running), who didn’t really count because we hadn’t exchanged more than a few words during a strictly business transaction. But I kept catching myself hoping I was hearing the crunch of truck tires on the driveway, and—well, I didn’t quite know what to do with that, to be honest.

“Damn it, Low, get out of my head,” I said out loud, and slapped yet another piece of paper down onto the ‘discard’ pile.

“I said much the same, you know,” a voice said.

I whipped around. Knowing the house was haunted was one thing; having a voice suddenly interrupt me out of nowhere was another entirely.

It was the girl, the girl from the train station, though she was in a trim, buff-colored jacket-and-skirt uniform this time, and next to her was a dark-haired man in the uniform of—unless I missed my guess—an officer in the U.S. Army, circa 1940. It was he who’d spoken; he had a warm voice, rather—well, if I were an author, I’d have described it as ‘laughing’; he had a haughty face, but the smile lines around his eyes showed that he was nowhere near as forbidding as he first appeared.

“Well, Laura?” he asked. “Do you know who we are?”

Not being terribly well-versed in the etiquette of addressing ghosts, I thought for a second, not wanting to offend. “I believe,” I said, finally, “that I found an old photo of you on the sideboard in the music room. It said ‘Richard and Eleanor, on their honeymoon, 1946’ on the back.”

“Exactly,” said Eleanor Grahame, née Shipley. “It wasn’t grand—we couldn’t afford much, after the War—but we did so want to be have an adventure after we’d been apart so long.”

“Not that we’d started out that way, mind,” Richard Grahame said, admonishingly, with a sort of good-humored glance at his wife. “We’d grown up together, of course, but I’d gone off to West Point, and she’d been first here taking care of the farm while her brother was on the front and then later a part of WAAC, and so we hadn’t seen each other in quite a while by the time we ran into each other again, and I—well,” Richard Grahame said, “I thought at first she was the impertinent child who’d dogged my footsteps when I was young, and I didn’t look beyond that.”

Eleanor laughed and pressed his hand affectionately. “And I thought he was—what was it I said, Dick, that you were ‘haughty, stuck-up, and too prideful for your own good, and that I wouldn’t let you court me for all the tea in China’?”

“Something like that,” Richard Grahame said, ruefully. “I confess, I rather tried to block it out.”

“But clearly it didn’t work out that way in the end,” I said, eagerly. “What happened?”

 

You have to understand how it was, during the War (said Richard Grahame); we Americans hadn’t gotten into it officially until quite late, and once we had, it was all any of us could think about. The papers played up the heroism of ‘Our American Boys,’ and they showed propaganda reels about dashing soldiers and the sweethearts who loved them before every movie feature; when the Army recruiters made their presentations, they were inundated with volunteers. We were all raring to go overseas: against the Germans, against the Japanese, it didn’t matter. Our country was at war, and we were going to fight!

So you can imagine my surprise when I was called into the Colonel’s office at West Point and told that I would be going not to France or Belgium or the Philippines but that I’d be staying in America—and not just that, that I’d be going to, of all places, my own hometown in New York State. Oh, he made it sound important, to be sure, but he couldn’t tell me anything official until I’d arrived at the posting, thanks to the Espionage Act—though he hinted it was mostly to do with my extraordinary skills at math and data analysis that had landed me the posting, which was some comfort. I was proud, in those days; I’d grown up, if not quite in silks and velvets, at least in the finest cottons and wools New York had to offer, and New Jerusalem had been a small pond in which I’d been a big fish. My sister Barbara had teased me, the way younger sisters do, about my not-so-secret desire to do something bold and brave for the war effort, and I’m afraid she wasn’t far wrong; but we were all thinking that way, in those days, and so I dismissed her.

So my pride was pleased at the prospect of some special posting to my hometown, even if I didn’t know what it was yet—so much so that even the news that the official posting was to Shipley Park couldn’t dampen my spirits. I’d known Shipley Park when it was still called Shipley Farm and was nothing more than a gracious old Colonial farmhouse and several dilapidated barns; these days it was apparently rather more than that. Nominally it was to do with something bland, like improving methods of agriculture to better supply the troops with provisions—Orange County was good cover for that, after all, with its long agricultural history—but once I arrived there, I realized that in practice it had to do with code-breaking and ciphers and signals intelligence: the idea that if only we could discover what the Japanese planned to do, we could defeat them at their own game.

A simple idea, but devilishly hard to put into practice. If I’d had grand ideas about being some kind of savior to the war effort and single-handedly breaking the PURPLE code (and, while I was at it, impressing little Eleanor Shipley, who’d been a veritable scourge to me in childhood), well, I was rapidly disabused of those notions. At Shipley Park, I was just another cog in the machine: one of a hundred grunts spending hours applying single-use ciphers (called ‘one-time pads’ and generated by a horde of women too matronly to qualify as WAACs but interested in serving the war effort nonetheless, through the use of a bingo-ball machine and thin onion-skin carbon paper) to each day’s codes and sending them out over the wireless. We toiled away day after day, sweating in the airtight confines of the converted Shipley barn that was heated to tropical temperatures by the heat generated by the new-fangled computing machines hidden away in the basement, and we spent month after thankless month at the same task. It was no comfort to know that the boys at Arlington Hills were making progress, or to hear that the Brits at Bletchley Park were having success with the Enigma codes. For us at Shipley, it was never-ending tedium, and we hadn’t had a solid breakthrough since ’39.

It wasn’t that there weren’t bright spots. Barbara surprised us all by eloping with a British officer on exchange after only a few days’ acquaintance; the sort of man a young girl of good breeding might find charming and an elder brother might have disliked on sight, except that Barbara was anything but your typical dimwitted dime-novel heroine and Peaceable managed to combine a startling gift for strategy and a quick intelligence with his wry wit and dashing good looks, so that I found myself heartily approving despite my initial reservations. Then there were the short-lived, evanescent moments of success: working with the shy, bespectacled man who was the principal architect of our code-breaking machines to crack a key component of PURPLE’s vowel-encryption key, for example—a matter of number-shifts and other esoteric cryptographic techniques—or the brief window of time I found myself holding a deciphered one-time pad with details of the precise location where the Japanese were holding a gathering of their senior leadership.

It turned out, though, that even those successes weren’t meant to be, at least not the intelligence-related ones. The vowel-encryption breakthrough turned out to be a dead end, and our chain of command decided we couldn’t do anything with the intelligence about the Jap confab without revealing that we’d successfully broken some of their code and had been listening in on their transmissions, so we did nothing at all. It was disappointing, I don’t mind telling you, and I slipped into somewhat of a depression, though of course I wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone for the world, except for perhaps Barbara, but she was in New York City with her new husband.

And the icing on the cake was that I couldn’t stop thinking about Eleanor Shipley. I’d known her as Ellie, when we’d played together as children; now she went by Eleanor and by that point was one of the linchpins in running not only the farm portion of Shipley Farm (our cover) but in administering the WAAC contingent at the Park as well. I’d see her trotting about the place in her uniform and heels, charming the visiting officers and browbeating the junior corpsmen into doing what she wanted, and she wouldn’t acknowledge me at all. I’d dreamt of being a dashing hero and proving to her that I wasn’t the scrawny kid she’d pushed into the pond at Rest-and-be-thankful, but that was hard to do when her gaze skittered over me like she didn’t know me, or, when she did look at me, she looked politely disinterested like I was something only vaguely intelligent or useful.

So I resolved I’d be as cold and haughty as I could, to show her how little she affected me. But I’d be working feeding cards into the computer, or eating in the mess, and she’d float through my head, and I’d have to admit to myself, resignedly, that if I couldn’t get myself to stop thinking about her I was going to have to do something dire, like—

 

A sudden sound from the driveway broke in on Richard Grahame’s narrative, and he paused and cocked his head, listening. “I told you,” he said, mildly, “that I’d said something much like what I caught you saying about your Low.”

“He’s not my Low,” I said, indignantly, and he gave me a mysterious sort of close-lipped smile.

“Be that as it may,” he said. “I think you’ll find there’s someone here to see you; we’d best be off.”

I glanced towards the foyer, where I could just make out a shadow hovering in the stained-glass sidelights that flanked the front door, and when I turned back Richard Grahame was gone without a trace. Eleanor Grahame was still there, however, settling herself gracefully into an armchair, legs crossed demurely at the ankles.

I probably ought to have gone to see who was at the door, but I couldn’t resist. “What did he mean, ‘something dire’?” I asked her. “What did he do?” I asked her.

The newspaper clipping I’d found tucked in the back of that setting-off-on-their-honeymoon photo had described her as ‘flitting about like a brightly-colored butterfly,’ and I’d thought it overblown at the time, but watching the way she moved now, I understood. “Well,” she said, smiling. “He married me, in the end, though it took some getting there.”

“I gathered that, yes,” I said, drily. “But: why are you telling me this?” I asked. “Not that it’s not fascinating, but—surely you don’t think this has something to do with me?”

She smiled, that same mysterious smile her husband had worn, a knowing curve of the lips. “That,” she said, “you will have to discover for yourself, I’m afraid.”

“If by that you mean to imply that I’m supposed to get married—” I said, heatedly, and Eleanor Grahame laughed, a peal of a laugh, like bells.

“Dick does take a rather roundabout way of getting to the point,” she said, fondly. “Think,” she urged, as if I were being a particularly recalcitrant pupil. “He’d expected to fight in Europe, but ended up in New Jerusalem instead; he’d expected to be a grand success, but couldn’t manage to crack the code; he’d expected to be able to impress me, but he couldn’t do that, either—or at least not as far he knew,” she confided, and her eyes crinkled with secret laughter.

I thought for a moment. “So it’s about—expectations?” I said. “You mean, like I expected I’d stay in the Abbey?”

But she didn’t answer. Eleanor Grahame was gone.

Chapter Text

The knock at the door that had interrupted Richard Grahame’s story turned out to be a little tissue-wrapped package on the doorstep, which, when opened, proved to be a plate of Christmas cookies from a Jennie Featherstone, who was apparently my neighbor. “Welcome to New Jersusalem!” said the accompanying card, in scrawling penmanship. “I’m just down the road; please do stop by!”

It wasn’t something I’d normally do, but I was lonely, and I kept on thinking about what Eleanor Shipley had said about expectations. Being at Rest-and-be-thankful wasn’t what I had expected, but that didn’t mean I shouldn’t be willing to try. So one bright snowy morning I picked up the phone and called the number Jennie Featherstone had left, and was promptly invited over for coffee. So I bundled myself into my boots and winter jacket and off I tromped down the snowy little lane.

And, much to my surprise, it was—lovely. Jennie turned out to be younger than I was, of all things, a tiny, elfin, slip of a girl with laughing dark eyes and piles of black curls; when I showed up on her doorstep she swept me into her little one-room cottage (“it used to be the gatekeeper’s house,” she said, confidingly, “back when people needed such things”), took my coat, and settled me into a chair with a cup of coffee before I could catch my breath. In that peculiar meeting-of-the-minds feeling that happens sometimes, I liked her immediately.

Her family had been in Orange County for two hundred years, she informed me, and she had no intention of ever leaving “even though most people our age want to move to the city!” She had that kind of breathless energy that’s able to sweep people up into enthusiasm rather than making them tired, and over homemade fruitcake (“a family recipe, going back to colonial times”) the two of us settled down to get to know each other.

It was her recitation of who was who in New Jerusalem that gave me the idea; if I was going to hear about all of these Cunninghams and Tarringtons and Shipleys and Tatlocks (which name, I confess, made me start, just a little) that gave me the idea: I could have a party, throw open the doors of Rest-and-be-thankful to the neighborhood as a way of getting to know folks. It wouldn’t have worked in Oxford, but here in small-town upstate New York it just might.

Jennie, luckily, was not only enthusiastic but also willing to help. She promised she’d bake cookies galore and the pumpkin pie that was apparently her speciality, and she’d even be responsible for inviting everyone if, she said, I was willing. In turn, it would be my responsibility to get Rest-and-be-thankful ready and decorated.

I didn’t see Richard Grahame or Eleanor Shipley Grahame again in the weeks leading up to the party, which was just as well; there was something about the house that demanded only traditional decorations, so I spent the better part of a day tramping through the forest with my saw looking for a tree, and the better part of another making garlands out of pine—I could have bought them, but I’d learned the value of manual labor in the Abbey, and something about it settled my mind. I ventured out to Goshen for candles and cider, and then ventured out again when I discovered a historic recipe for claret punch that had apparently come down from one of the earliest Grahames.

It was a Christmas party like any other, really: the scent of evergreens, candlelight, plenty of good food and small talk among neighbors. We drank the (frankly awful) claret punch and sang carols and stuffed ourselves on Jennie’s pies, and even with the relative awkwardness of basically throwing myself a “welcome to town” party it was—warming.

I don’t remember much of it, in the end; the night’s mostly a blur of light and music and smiling neighbors. But a few moments do stand out: Jennie, laughing and teasing me as if we’d known each other for years instead of days. Low, stamping his boots on my doorstep and greeting me with that startling smile. Low again, trailing a reverent finger over the crèche I’d laid out.

And just at the end of the evening, when we were raising a glass of champagne in a toast, finding myself suddenly standing next to Richard and Eleanor, by the fireplace. “To new beginnings,” Eleanor murmured, and I smiled.

“To new beginnings,” I said, and raised my glass.