“Mr. Meeks?” Elisabeth asked as she entered the room.
Huntington was feeling more than hearing a soft feminine voice. The sound, almost a humming melody, was the low-energy frequency of a familiar voice he could not quite place. He sensed the honeyed tone was not part of the dream he had been experiencing—or its continuation. Though unclear about its origins, he knew the voice, knew it was coming from his wife, Cora, dream or not. The soft voice again. Soft, why so soft? Still in a fuzz, not quite able to open his unresponsive eyes or bring further focus to bear, Huntington heard the delicate and nevertheless familiar voice yet again. Slowly, he realized he was waking from the pleasant dream that had started after Cora had left his room. Was there an accent there? he wondered. And what did she have to do with the wine grapes he was picking? Sliding back and forth from dream state to that womanly voice, he could not make sense of the situation.
For several days during that early autumn of 1988, Elisabeth had intended to see Huntington Meeks, though she had been told he would not, could not, respond to her. The idea of witnessing him in such a state pained her dearly. She knew visiting him was the right thing to do, but she wanted desperately to remember the man as he was before, the man who had gained her admiration and had taught her so much not so long ago.
Elisabeth chose a time when Huntington would be alone, his caregiver off for the day and Mrs. Ada on her regular rounds to survey the household. The new housekeeper—Elisabeth still considered her new—was a stickler to her routine. Mrs. Ada never missed a self-appointed duty, whether checking with the cook and visiting the kitchen for a quick inspection or reviewing costs and budgets.
Propped up on soft pillows at a low angle in his luxurious bed, Huntington lay with his head slightly to one side. Though having been in the room on other occasions, Elisabeth marveled at its appearance as she made the long pass across it toward her employer. The level of detail in replicating the master suite of an English great house took her back to the Old World. Her mind recalled trips she had made to such homes in Austria and in England during her time at university and while interviewing for positions as a governess for families of such estates. Horace Meeks, Huntington’s grandfather, had become obsessed with detail. Tessellated, Victorian-styled oak paneling, oil stained to a dark satin finish, covered every square inch of the walls and ceiling, which were accented by beautiful crown and doorframe moldings of matching luster. Dimly lit sconces evenly spaced on all four walls delivered only a soft hue to the room. Dark oak doors opened to side-by-side walk-in closets: his and hers. Luxurious leather furnishings finished off the replicated ambience of an aristocrat’s boudoir.
Huntington had shared family stories with her about his grandfather and the elder man’s time in England during the First World War. Those tales impressed upon her how the man had spent much of his time during the war on estates of very wealthy lords and ladies. How he had studied the details of those opulent manors, with plans for building his own grandiose home one day, Elisabeth may never know. Still, she was amazed by the end result, the exquisite manor in which she had the good fortune to live and to work.
Upon her approach to the huge bed (and returning from her daydreaming about those stories told to her), she found that Huntington appeared tranquil, at peace. She did not want to disturb the man, to make any noise, and she involuntarily quieted her own breathing as she crossed the room.
Suddenly, Huntington opened his eyes. This simple yet quick movement and the bright response in his eyes surprised Elisabeth as he focused on her. After her initial reaction, she smiled at him and said, “Good morning, sir.” His eyes opened wider, and if she was not imagining it, a hint of a smile emerged in the gentlemanly, parenthetical creases around his mouth.
Elisabeth slowly surveyed the dimly lit room and glanced at the various prescription drugs and medical devices on a small table just out of reach of the bed, a water glass with a straw on the ebony nightstand closer to Huntington. Her feelings for his suffering—was he suffering?—stirred up inside her, and she felt a tear forming in her right eye. His smile—was it a smile?—seemed to disappear.
Elisabeth, suddenly inspired, changed her tact. “I hope you are comfortable, sir. Can I do anything for you?” she asked quietly, not expecting a response, not clear as to why she was asking a direct question of the man. His smile (this time, she was quite sure it was a thin smile) had returned, and he blinked his eyes twice in quick succession.
Was that an answer?she wondered hopefully. “Sir, do you understand me?” she asked of him with apprehension. He blinked once, quickly. This action, and the obvious speed in the movement of his eyelids, surprised her once more.
“Okay, then I must ask…” Elisabeth said as she slowly formulated her thoughts and questions before proceeding. “Do others know that you can understand them?” He blinked twice. Oh my, she thought, the implications permeating and replacing her previously held view of the man’s state.
Weeks before, on that fateful day, Mrs. Ada had told Elisabeth the news of the man’s stroke and that Huntington had essentially been left in a vegetative state. Mrs. Ada had said he would be brought home from the hospital to live out his remaining days and that there was little hope for recovery. His life as they knew it had effectively come to an abrupt end. Life on the estate would change drastically for everyone—family, friends, and the household staff alike.
* * *
Mrs. Ada had come to the Meekses’ home shortly after Elisabeth had been employed as governess to the Meekses’ daughter, Monica. The new housekeeper was an improvement over the dire old Mrs. Stedman. But like the old one, Mrs. Ada, going by the name that she had directed the staff to use, was rather set in her ways. Also, after the family had warmed to her, she managed to insert herself into all manner of family and household business, no matter how trivial. This intrusion was an issue that unsettled Elisabeth, though she could not put a finger on the reason why.
Several years had passed from the days of the ancient Mrs. Stedman as housekeeper to the horrible day when the devastating stroke had afflicted Huntington Meeks. Despite Huntington’s condition, there were pleasant and productive days in the manor. Monica, Moni to Elisabeth, had grown as her mother had wished, learning a breadth of worldly subjects and becoming nearly a young lady. She would soon head off to finishing school in Europe. The exact school had not yet been settled upon, though Cora lobbied for her own alma mater, Preston School for Young Women, in Leipzig, Germany. Monica’s mother gave her daughter latitude in the final decision. Elisabeth had known the day would eventually come when Monica would leave home, and her employment with the family would no longer be required. That was the lifecycle of a governess, she knew all too well. The Meekses never had other children who might continue her employ for a few more years, as was the case in larger families. But Elisabeth had long resigned herself to that fact and had consulted many times with Huntington about her career path, her future, though it had seemed so distant in those early days. These were informal discussions that she and the man had had many times as quiet moments availed themselves. Huntington had, from the early days, treated Elisabeth like an elder daughter, like a protégée, like an equal of class, for which she was immensely grateful.
Her love for the family would last forever, and her life on the beautiful estate had been magical, save for those interactions with Mrs. Stedman and that odd mobster bunch years prior, those smarmy men who had somehow wrangled their way into Huntington’s life and onto the estate. She was very happy on the day when those men had been shown the gate, never to return. Only Nicolas Marcos had continued to bother her when she was off the estate, always trying to learn about the Meeks family and estate happenings. His “running into her” had occurred less frequently in recent months, but she still fretted over the next possible encounter and especially over what the real meaning of the man’s interests might be.
* * *
“Sir, I am, of course, curious as to why you are taking me into your confidence,” Elisabeth stated at his bedside.
The man, completely still, other than tiny facial contortions, blinked his eyes once, slowly, as if for emphasis.
“Well then, I must carefully consider my questions, hadn’t I? This is quite shocking news to me, sir,” she said softly while formulating her words and contemplating the big picture. “We had been informed of your stroke and that there was little hope of any recovery for you. I must apologize for not coming to see you sooner. That original, devastating news had… had hit me very hard, sir. But now… I find that the situation is very different. You indicate that others do not know of your true capacity, but surely your wife must know, have some idea. Is Cora aware?” she asked.
Huntington Meeks blinked his eyes once in response, the creases around his mouth returning to and tightening in a faint smile.
“Sir, Cora and Moni are in the city shopping today, and Mrs. Ada will return from her duties very soon. Before much longer, she will check in on you. How can we…?” Elisabeth hesitated and briefly stopped speaking. “How can I discover your intentions for me?” she asked rhetorically as her eyes looked across the room, not focusing on anything in particular.
The man did not respond, allowing her to work through her own processes to find the questions she would need to communicate with him—and he to convey his intentions to her.
She could sense a frustration in the man, though only by instinct. He did not blink or smile or contort his face in any other way. But she felt it; she knew the man well enough and that he would be desperate for her to continue. “Okay, so, one blink means yes, while two mean no, and no response from you must mean I don’t quite have it right, or you don’t know the answer. Will that do for now, sir?” she asked of him as he lay stone-still under the delicately woven eiderdown with his head remaining at just the slightest of an angle to one side.
One blink of his eyelids and a small uptick in the muscles around his mouth were a clear-enough message for her confidence to rise.
“All right, then, we have the makings of a plan,” she said, congratulating them both. “The first thing that comes to my mind is the question of why you are keeping this news to yourself. I must formulate the right questions to lead to that reasoning. Do you agree?”
Huntington blinked his eyes once. Nothing more.
“Then…” Elisabeth paused as she continued to frame her thoughts. “You have been waiting awhile for an opportunity like this to communicate with me or someone else you can trust. And we have so little time. Once Mrs. Ada returns, I will have to leave. But I will make regular visits. I will return as often as possible. I will find ways to distract your caregiver, to give her errands and such. But Mrs. Ada must not find out. Do you agree with that, sir?”
His eyes blinked once with a vigor that sent an emotion throughout his still body.
Elisabeth was in awe of the amount of information that could be communicated in this manner, though still frustratingly slowly. “So then, the players. We—I—must discover whom you fear, whom you do not want to know this information, whom you trust, and why. Your caregiver, she has not been here very long. She is not a part of this then, I would imagine?”
The man blinked twice in rapid succession.
“But she does not need to know, correct?”
Huntington motioned yes with his eyes as his quick answer.
“Do you fear Mrs. Ada, sir?” she asked quietly, becoming concerned where these transactions were headed and that Mrs. Ada could return at any time.
The man responded with one slow blink.
“You seem less sure there. Any others?” she queried.
He blinked twice—no.
“Interesting, sir. So you think Mrs. Ada is someone to fear, or at least not to trust—for some reason that we must eventually get to—but not others, though you do not want others, besides Cora and me, to know that you can communicate and that there is a problem of some sort. Have I got this all correct so far?” Elisabeth asked conspiratorially.
One quick blink of the man’s eyes appeared, and a clear sense of relief overtook his features.
Elisabeth was again astonished at how she adapted to this form of communication, how she could quickly read the man’s body language, miniscule as it was. Huntington could only convey information to her with a very few muscles of his face, but the two of them were communicating nonetheless.
Down the long hall from the grand staircase leading to the bedrooms of the west wing, faint voices trailed toward the direction of Elisabeth and Huntington Meeks. Elisabeth knew that it was Mrs. Ada finishing her rounds and that she would be returning to Huntington in a few seconds.
“Sir, I must go soon. Mrs. Ada will be here any moment to check on you. I will be back. I will take some time to consider my questions and hopefully make this easier for you,” Elisabeth stated firmly. She began to consciously compartmentalize these new revelations and how she must proceed. She finally decided to keep everything associated with Huntington’s concerns in this metaphoric container and to deal separately with the situation, a situation that was not at all clear to her.
Huntington blinked once in agreement, apparently disappointed.
“Sir, we will work through this. Please do not worry. I will be back as soon as possible,” Elisabeth said to assure him.
* * *
Later that evening, Elisabeth daydreamed about the shocking revelations from Huntington Meeks. What did they have to do with anything? Her mind drifted off during dinner with her coworkers in the small staff dining room. Anna, her closest friend and newest member of the household—going back just two years—noticed her lack of attention to the small group and asked her about it. Elisabeth quickly made a weak excuse, hoping Mrs. Ada had not noticed Anna’s inquiry. She wanted to move on without further detection.
Elisabeth helped with the usual cleanup, and then she made some excuses and headed to her room. She preferred to take a longer route through the manor on the way there. This route led down a narrow hallway in the lower floor of the manor, up a flight of stairs, through the grand hall, past the entrance to the solarium, and up two different flights of stairs to the staff quarters in the rear half of the manor’s east wing.
I need to create a line of questioning for Huntington,she considered while sitting in a comfortable old chair in one corner of her room. The room was bland, save for the few framed photographs she had hung on the gray walls, photos of worldly places she admired and destinations she wanted to visit one day, such as the Rock of Gibraltar, whose image hung above the chair and just over her right shoulder as she sat. The limestone towers of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, brightened the room from the wall opposite her direction. An aerial view of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, was prominently positioned above her bed.
Looking over her left shoulder and out of the window into a moonlit night, Elisabeth found her mind oddly settling on those days when Breem and his bunch, including that despicable Nicolas Marcos, had visited Huntington and when the men had ventured out onto to the estate lands to the east of the manor. In her mind, she could see the men and could again sense her fear for what their true purpose might have been.
She asked herself if those ugly men had something to do with Huntington’s worries. And surprisingly, how did Mrs. Ada play into all this? Elisabeth pondered these things as she stared out into the night, glancing without focus over huge valley oaks and at the silhouette of the range of hills farther out, the moon giving a ghostly hue with just enough light to illuminate the main features of the beautiful estate.
Furthermore, she considered when Breem had his falling out with Huntington. And when did Mrs. Ada arrive as housekeeper? Wondering why Mrs. Ada had come up for consideration and placing the thought in the back of her mind, she continued to think. What was the timing of those two events? The timing was close, right? She had not regarded the two events as being related at the time. They seemed to be discrete occurrences. But were they?
A list of questions and potential redirects began to form, and she mentally placed them in the special compartment she had constructed in her mind. Elisabeth reflected internally on how she would manage this new file box, aware of its separateness and its different purpose. She, on a more practical note, gave this new mental space a term limit, though not strictly defining it. She could feel the need and the value of keeping everything compartmentalized. This way, she could work on the problem independently in some regard. When all this—whatever it was—had played out, she would hope to discard it at once, with only a nebulous memory of the box and what it had contained remaining.
As a script took shape in her mind, and as she started to feel the weight of the day and its effect on her usual stamina, she decided that it was time for bed. Elisabeth lay there with her plan in mind, not yet able to sleep, suspecting Breem had to do with Huntington’s worries. And Mrs. Ada—what about her?
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