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Wilfred Fellowes drew his handkerchief from the breast pocket of his mourning coat. “Come, come, Hildegarde, you mustn’t make yourself ill.” He proceeded to dab at his wife’s eyes, all the while speaking briskly as one would to a distraught mare. “You’re going to bear many healthy children.”
Remembering how her impoverished father had given her hand in marriage to his oldest and richest friend, a three-time widower, promising him a fruitful union at long last, Hildegarde whispered, “But our precious Sarah lived only a few hours. What if it happens again?”
“Never dwell on the past.” He beamed down at her. “Now, I have a surprise for you. I’ve hired a photographer to take a portrait of the three of us. Baby’s all laid out nicely in the nursery. Bridget dressed her in her christening gown and bonnet. Out of bed with you and I’ll ring for Bridget to put you in your loveliest frock.”
Steeling herself to behave as her father would have wished, Hildegarde’s hand moved to her belly. “It’s odd, being slender again.”
He smoothed his thick white mustache. “I will rectify that soon enough, my dear, I promise you.”
Months passed, but Hildegarde showed no signs of carrying another child.
“If things don’t improve soon, I shall schedule an appointment with Dr. Farley for you.” Wilfred scowled. “We’ll see if a medical reason can be given for your barren state.”
“Please don’t use that word,” Hildegarde quavered.
He pointed to the photograph hanging on the flocked red velvet wall of infant Sarah propped like a wax doll in her lap. “Then behave accordingly. Your duty is to preserve my line into posterity.”
Remembering how the ancient mausoleum doors swallowed up the tiny white coffin, she murmured, “I swear that I will never forget, not even for a moment.”
Instead of insisting on endless bed rest, Dr. Farley had recommended that Hildegarde relax in the fresh air of springtime. Reveling in her good luck, she arranged the wicker chaise longue to face away from the old stone mansion and toward a double row of blooming lilacs. Behind their intertwining branches lay the graveyard where the Fellowes mausoleum rose like a miniature castle among the tombstones of lesser mortals.
Shutting her eyes, Hildegarde breathed in the sweet perfume and dozed.
Hildegarde bolted upright.
A faint burst of giggles, light as soap bubbles, floated toward her. Bright against the lilac hedge stood four little girls, each taller than the last and all holding hands like paper dolls. Jaunty in their straw bonnets and white kid boots, they rose up, up, up, white skirts billowing.
“’Bye, Mama,” the littlest cried.
“Sarah, my darling, precious Sarah,” Hildegarde cried, “come back!”
But the children had vanished over the tops of the lilacs.
Where had her darling Sarah gone? And who were all her little friends? She ached to know. But how could she ever find out?
In their massive mahogany bed that night, Hildegarde lay beneath her panting husband thinking of their little girl. Her endless grief had made Wilfred turn against her. If she could let the memory of Sarah go, surely all would be well. “I long for another daughter,” she whispered.
“Don’t say that,” he growled, “or I will see to it that you will have nothing and be nothing. Nothing! Do you understand?”
His hands were at her neck, grasping and squeezing. “Wilfred,” she choked, “you’re hurting me.”
After a terrifying moment, the deadly grip relaxed. “Concentrate,” he told her, “on a son. Do you hear me? A son.”
As her maid helped her to dress the next morning, Hildegarde asked, “Bridget, am I like the others?”
The fingers stopped fastening the row of ivory buttons.
“The other wives, I mean.”
“Yes, madam.” Once more the buttoning commenced.
Bridget shrugged. “Young. Pretty. Sweet.”
Dead. The word echoed in her aching head. Wasn’t that what nothing meant?
“I have to ask you.” Hildegarde stopped, afraid to say what came next even though it had kept her awake all night. “Did—did the others—have a child? A daughter?”
A long silence filled the room. “Yes, madam, so they did. Each of ‘em.”
“And—and they all died?”
“Yes, madam.” The maid cleared her throat. “Just as your bairn did. In their sleep.” In a quick burst she added, “All in the old tomb out there, all four of ‘em, three with their mothers.”
“Bridget, how did their mothers die?”
“I can’t say for sure, madam.”
Hildegarde’s hands shook as she reached toward the woman. “Please.”
“It may have been something in their drink.”
“And—and the babies?”
“Smothered in the crib. Doctor said it was the pillows. Too fluffy for wee bairns.” Bridget’s jaw worked grimly. “Now, madam, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
Numbly, Hildegarde watched as the older woman walked slowly toward the door. Her heart lurched as Bridget turned back toward her. “I have a bit of money put by. If you want, madam, I can pack a valise. There’s a train at 11:05. In the city, you can hire a detective. He’ll get to the bottom of it all.”
Hildegarde imagined four little girls, small and light and bright as clouds dancing in a ring, and sent a fierce pledge to them all. The man who’d fathered them only to destroy them and their mothers would pay for his misdeeds. And, fortunately for posterity, there would be no male heir after all.
Interview with Nancy Brewka-Clark, Author of “Family Portrait”
What inspired your story?
Since I’ve spent a lifetime touring historic homes, I’ve enjoyed comparing the family portraits, so serene and dignified, to the actual lives these people led, often fraught with every hazard known to humankind.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
When I was ten years old I was given an antique set of the complete works of Nathaniel Hawthorne complete with fantastically eerie illustrations. “Young Goodman Brown” has haunted me ever since. In fact it led me to Salem, Massachusetts, or at least to the next town over which was actually part of Salem until 1668. To this day I expect to hear witches dancing in the woods and see them on their broomsticks silhouetted against a gibbous moon.
How long have you been writing?
I started writing and illustrating my work as a little kid. In college I won a national poetry prize, which gave me the impression I might be able to write professionally. Over many decades I’ve published fiction, creative nonfiction, journalistic nonfiction, poetry and drama and love each genre equally. My writing life came full circle when FunDead Publications of Salem put out five books of gothic horror with my work in them. Pre-pandemic we promoted them with readings at the actual 17th century home of Judge Corwin known worldwide as The Witch House because that’s where he heard early testimony from those accused. Given my propensity for gothic romance, it will probably come as no surprise that I’m married to a direct descendant of Susannah Martin, one of the 19 victims hanged in 1692.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
Mothers and daughters have always bubbled to the surface no matter what I think I’m writing. No human relationship is more electric or more conducive to shocking the reader with its ever-shifting currents.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
Oddly enough, the title of George Starbuck’s poem “Bone Thoughts on a Dry Day” always comes to mind when I’m struggling to write something new and fearing I might never be able to pull it off.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a second book of poetry to follow 2020’s Beautiful Corpus as well as a raft of short stories and some monologues for the ongoing playwrights’ series 365 Women a Year.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?