The Little Boy Next Door
Amaryllis Waverly peered through her living room drapes at the workmen unloading an armoire in front of the large, newly built house next to hers. The prospect of finally having neighbors excited her since her husband, a mate on a Marblehead merchant vessel, was often at sea, and she was frequently left alone. Amaryllis had long hoped a nice young couple would move into the neighborhood, a woman near her own age with whom she could become close friends.
Throughout the day a number of wagons arrived at the house, and men unloaded furniture, clothing, carpets and various personal items at the side door. Late in the afternoon, as the workmen were finishing with their task, a fine brougham drove up the circular driveway and parked in front of the main entrance, signifying that the owners of the home had arrived. A liveried driver got down from his seat and opened the carriage door for his passengers.
As Amaryllis watched her new neighbors cross the veranda and enter the house, she felt a twinge of envy mix with her joy. The woman was exquisite, the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Amaryllis, whom most people considered extremely attractive, paled by comparison. Even at a distance, she could see that her neighbor's complexion was like fine bisque and her stylishly coiffed hair was a lustrous black.
Amaryllis was so awed by the woman's dazzling beauty that she barely noticed the man who accompanied her. It wasn't until he emerged alone from the house several minutes later that she got a good look at him.
Not at all handsome, she thought uncharitably.
He was hardly a suitable match for his stunning companion. Perhaps he wasn't her husband; maybe the unremarkable gentleman was her father, uncle or even an older brother.
"Maybe her husband travels, as does my own," she mused aloud.
How perfect that would be: two lonely women forging a friendship while their husbands are away. Amaryllis sighed. She had always been a dreamer, prone to creating elaborate, romantic fantasies in her head. She ought to have been an author, she was often told while attending school. With her active imagination, she might even have become America's answer to Jane Austin. But she had not given serious thought to writing. Being a wife and mother was what Amaryllis wanted above all else. Unfortunately, she had so far been unable to conceive a child.
"Someday," she said with a sigh.
Until then, she would have to content herself with building a friendship with the raven-haired beauty who was moving into the house next door.
Not wanting to appear too eager, Amaryllis waited until the next day before introducing herself to the new neighbors. When she knocked on the front door, a dour-faced housekeeper answered and showed her inside. As she'd expected, the interior of the house was as grand as the exterior. The furniture was of the highest quality, expensive artwork adorned the walls and fine china and silverware were prominently displayed.
"Please wait here," the housekeeper instructed when they entered a cheerful, sunlit parlor. "I'll tell the Missus you're here."
Amaryllis's brief glimpse of her new neighbor had not done the woman justice. The black-haired beauty was even more stunning seen at close range. Her skin was flawless. Her waist, held tightly in place with a corset, was tiny and her limbs delicate. Although everything about the woman was perfect, it was her dazzling emerald eyes more than any other feature that left Amaryllis feeling plain and inadequate in comparison.
"I'm Magnolia Bainbridge," her new neighbor announced in a charming Southern accent, as Amaryllis stood speechless, gaping at her. "You must be the young woman who lives in the house next door."
Amaryllis nodded dumbly. While she had always loved her home, she suddenly wished she had a larger, grander house.
"It's such a charming, warm looking home," Magnolia observed, attempting to put her guest at ease. "It's just the type of place I would like to live in myself."
"But your house is so magnificent and so large."
Magnolia humbly brushed aside the compliment.
"It's too big! And overly ostentatious, if you ask me. It'll be quite drafty come winter, I dare say."
The two women spent a pleasant afternoon getting acquainted. When dusk began to create shadows in the parlor, Magnolia invited her guest to dinner, and Amaryllis accepted with alacrity. No sooner did the dour-faced housekeeper set the dinner plates in front of the women than the sound of the front door opening announced the arrival of the man of the house.
"Bertrand," Magnolia called. "Come here and meet our neighbor."
Amaryllis recognized the middle-aged man who had ridden in the brougham with Magnolia the day before. Again, she thought he was an odd match for his beautiful wife. No doubt Magnolia had been attracted to her husband's great wealth rather than to his person.
"I'm pleased to meet you," Amaryllis said with a cordial smile.
Bertrand nodded his head and automatically replied, "The pleasure is all mine."
Yet there was no sign of welcome or pleasure in his eyes or his voice.
A moment later the front door opened again, and in walked a woman leading a small boy by the hand.
"And who might you be, little man?" Amaryllis asked.
The smile on Magnolia's perfect face quickly faded.
"This is our son, Bertie," she announced softly.
"Please take the boy upstairs to the nursery," Bertrand ordered the nanny gruffly.
Amaryllis thought it odd that neither parent spoke to their son or showed the somber little boy any sign of affection.
* * *
Over the next few months, Amaryllis had occasion to visit with Magnolia several times, yet rarely did she see young Bertie. Her heart went out to the child, whose sad eyes revealed a loneliness far greater than any she'd ever known. The forlorn little boy brought out the maternal instincts that Amaryllis was beginning to believe would never be put to use. She thought it was one of life's cruel ironies that Magnolia had the child that she herself longed for, and yet neither of the Bainbridges spent time with their son or showed him any affection. No wonder Bertie's eyes always held the haunted look of an orphan.
"It's not natural the way those two treat their son," she complained to her husband on one of his rare days home from sea.
"It's really none of our business," he replied--meaning it was none of her business.
Despite her husband's implied suggestion that she not meddle in their neighbors' affairs, Amaryllis couldn't help feeling concerned about little Bertie Bainbridge. For days on end, she would keep a silent vigil at her window searching for any sign of the boy. She thought it most strange that on even the warmest, sunniest day the child never went outside to play. Neither the nanny nor the boy's parents walked him to the park or drove him to the zoo. If Bertie were her son, Amaryllis would spend every afternoon with him. Yet Magnolia--in all other respects a delightful person--was a terrible mother who neglected her child most cruelly.
* * *
One spring day while Amaryllis was having tea with her neighbor, she announced, "I hear there is to be a fair in Copperwell next week."
"Oh, really?" Magnolia replied. "A fair--how quaint!"
"Yes. I'm sure your little boy would enjoy it."
Magnolia's good humor turned frosty.
"I don't think my husband and I will be able to attend."
"How unfortunate, but if you can't make it, I wouldn't mind taking Bertie with me."
"Bertie won't be able to go at all. He is supposed to visit with his grandparents in Philadelphia next week."
"Then perhaps I can make it up to him by taking him to the beach or to the park when he returns from Pennsylvania."
"That won't be necessary. You needn't concern yourself with my son."
"It's just that I would like to do something nice for him."
"I appreciate your kindness," Magnolia said stiffly, "but I would rather you not take such a keen interest in my child. He is my responsibility, after all, not yours."
Magnolia rang for the housekeeper and rose from her seat, indicating the visit was at an end. Amaryllis nodded her head and left without a word. Thus, the blossoming friendship between the two young women was summarily nipped in the bud.
* * *
Three weeks passed, and Amaryllis, whose husband had been gone for more than three months, missed the companionship of her neighbor. Although she still didn't approve of the way the Bainbridges neglected their child, Amaryllis realized her husband had been right: it was none of her business.
One dismal, foggy day, when she was feeling especially despondent, Amaryllis summoned the courage to knock on her neighbor's door. Magnolia graciously accepted her apology and invited her inside.
"I've missed you," Magnolia confessed as the two women sat down to tea. "My husband went to New York on business, and I have only the servants to keep me company."
Amaryllis wisely held her tongue. She didn't dare mention that Magnolia had a son she ought to be spending her time with.
The two women had a delightful afternoon, eating pastry, drinking tea and discussing the current fashions in Godey's Ladies Book. Eventually, darkness fell, and it was time for Amaryllis to return to her own home.
"We should go shopping together sometime," Magnolia suggested enthusiastically when she showed her guest to the door.
"Yes," Amaryllis agreed. "I'd like that very much."
"Maybe on Monday. Bertrand won't return from New York until Wednesday. We can go shopping and then out to lunch afterward."
Both women had been so busy making plans that neither heard Bertie come down the stairs. Magnolia was startled when she turned and saw her son standing behind her in the foyer.
"What are you doing out of your room?" she demand to know.
"I was hungry," the boy said, his eyes cast down, apparently afraid to look his mother in the eye.
"Go back upstairs. I'll have Nanny bring you something."
Breaking her vow not to get involved, Amaryllis retrieved a piece of candy from her purse and offered it to the child. "Would you like a sweet?"
The boy nodded, smiled gratefully and reached for the candy. As he drew near her, Amaryllis saw bruises on the boy's face, and an icy chill stabbed her heart.
It was not uncommon for parents in the nineteenth century to use physical punishment when disciplining their children. It was an era when the old adage "Spare the rod and spoil the child" was the rule, not the exception. Still, the bruises on Bertie's face upset Amaryllis. She hated to see people mistreat those that were weaker than themselves. She despised men who beat their wives, adults who abused children and anyone who mistreated animals.
"I told you to go to your room," Magnolia cried as she snatched the candy from the child's hand. "Nanny! Come get Bertie and see that he stays upstairs."
Amaryllis bit her tongue to keep from criticizing Magnolia's treatment of the boy, although she thought it abominable. When she left her neighbor's house shortly after the disturbing incident, she knew there would be no more tea parties and no shopping trip. Lonely though she was, Amaryllis had no desire to be friends with such a cruel, unfeeling woman as Magnolia Bainbridge.
* * *
Amaryllis walked along Ocean Avenue, her eyes often glancing at the horizon. Her husband's ship was due back any day, and she longed to see him again. Since her friendship with Magnolia had soured, she missed him more than ever.
It wasn't until two days later that the mighty merchant ship returned to its home port, and Amaryllis made preparations for a special homecoming dinner. Alas, it was the commanding officer of the ship and not her husband who appeared at the Waverly's home. When Amaryllis saw Captain Phillips on her doorstep, she immediately surmised what ill wind had blown him there.
"I'm terribly sorry to have to bring you bad news," he began.
There was no need for him to finish his message. Amaryllis knew why he had come, and she fainted at his feet, knowing her beloved husband would never return.
* * *
After the memorial service, Amaryllis had to make some difficult decisions. Her husband had left her some money but just barely enough on which to get by. The house--passed down through several generations of Waverlys--was an old one in need of repair. She could either live in genteel poverty while the house continued to deteriorate around her, or she could sell it and purchase a smaller, more economical home.
"Moving would be the wiser thing to do," she convinced herself. "Why do I need all these rooms now that I'm alone?"
It was not only her husband's death that saddened the young widow but also the belief that she would never bear the children she so desperately wanted.
"It's just not fair!" she cried in a rare moment of self-pity. "I, who would make a patient, loving mother, am destined to remain childless while Magnolia Bainbridge ...."
Amaryllis shook her head. Such bitter recriminations were not very Christian-like, and she was at heart a decent, God-fearing woman.
At some point during the weeks that followed her husband's death, however, Amaryllis's yearning to have a child overshadowed her fear of the Almighty. She managed to convince herself that it would be in everyone's best interest if she--and not the Bainbridges--raised little Bertie. Naturally, the boy would benefit most from such an arrangement, but most likely the parents themselves would be happier without the inconvenience of an unwanted child.
With the aid of a real estate agent in Boston, Amaryllis purchased a small house in Maine, a modest home to be sure, but one large enough for a young widow and her growing boy. Once her plans were finalized, all she had to do was bide her time until Bertrand made one of his regular business trips to New York. She didn't have long to wait.
As Amaryllis mixed a strong sleeping draught into a jar of strawberry jam, she thought about the Ten Commandments. Funny that there wasn't one prohibiting kidnapping. She supposed the only commandment she was in danger of breaking was "Thou shalt not covet anything that belongs to thy neighbor." Technically, though, she reasoned, a child was not a thing, so she would probably not be damned for eternity for whisking young Bertie off to Maine.
* * *
Magnolia was surprised when her housekeeper announced that Mrs. Waverly had come to visit. The two women had barely spoken a dozen words since the funeral.
"Amaryllis!" she said graciously when her neighbor entered the parlor. "How are you holding up, my dear?"
The young widow brushed an imaginary tear from her eye.
"I'm so lonely in that house with my husband gone."
"You know you're always welcome here. In fact, Bertrand is out of town, so why don't you spend the night? We can have a good, long talk. But first, let's have something to eat. The cook baked the most delicious scones today."
As though on cue, Amaryllis reached into her bag and took out the jar of strawberry jam.
"Here. We can spread this on the scones. I found this jar in the back of my cupboard this morning."
* * *
The sun was just beginning to set when Magnolia's head fell on the pillow of the couch. She had eaten a second helping of scones with jam and would probably be out for several hours. Amaryllis tiptoed to the kitchen and saw that the cook, too, was fast asleep, having sampled the jam before putting it in a serving dish. The same was true of the housekeeper and the nanny.
Her heart beating rapidly, Amaryllis raced up to the third floor to rescue the abused little boy. At the top of the stairs, she paused and knocked on the door.
"Bertie? Are you awake?"
There was no answer. Amaryllis inched the door open. At the sight of the tiny white coffin in the gathering darkness of the room, a wave of grief and despair descended upon the young widow. She was too late! The Bainbridges, either through neglect or direct physical brutality, had killed their innocent little boy.
Amaryllis fell to her knees, buried her face in her hands and wept. After several moments she raised her tear-filled eyes toward heaven and, as billions of grieving people before her had done over the centuries, beseeched God to answer one question: why?
When at last her tears subsided, the heartbroken young woman got to her feet. The room was dark. Night had come. There was nothing left for her to do but return home, alone, and mourn her husband and her would-be son. But first, she wanted to say a final farewell to little Bertie. She walked to the coffin and opened the lid. Her heart ached at the sight of the child's head resting on the satin pillow. She lovingly touched the soft, silken hair on his head.
"I wish I could have saved you," she whispered. "I would gladly give my own life to restore yours."
Suddenly, the child's eyes opened. Amaryllis covered her mouth to muffle her screams. In the dim light, she saw Bertie turn toward her, his mouth parted in an aberrant smile, revealing unnaturally large, pointed incisors. The terrified woman could not move. Like a sacrificial lamb, she stood still, docilely waiting for death to claim her. Little Bertie Bainbridge obliged. He sat up in his coffin, leaned forward and sunk his teeth into her neck.
* * *
Magnolia woke with a slight headache. The sleeping draught had left her disoriented. When her head finally cleared, she realized with a start that it was nighttime. She must feed the boy!
She ran to the kitchen to get one of the bottles of animal blood from the locked chest and went upstairs to Bertie's room. In her haste, she tripped over Amaryllis's body, which was lying on the floor at the foot of her son's coffin. The abnormal paleness of the corpse left little doubt as to the cause of death: Amaryllis had become one of Bertie's unfortunate victims.
Magnolia knew she must act quickly. She would have to tell the nanny, the housekeeper and the cook--all handsomely paid for their silence--to begin packing. The Bainbridges had to leave Puritan Falls at once, for when word of Amaryllis's death got out, suspicion would fall on Magnolia, Albert and their cursed child, as had happened so often in the past.
"If only ...," Magnolia sighed.
Then she shook her head and forced herself not to wish for the death of her only child. Despite what he was, she loved her son very much, and she would do everything in her power to protect him. She reached down and closed the dead woman's unseeing eyes.
Magnolia turned at the sound of Bertie's voice.
"You've been a bad boy again," she gently chastised him.
"I'm sorry, Mommy. I was hungry."
Magnolia opened her arms, and the child embraced her. Then she lovingly wiped the blood from her son's lips and kissed him on top of his head.
It's not the little boy next door who worries me; it's the black cat on his lap: Salem!