His gaze flicks to Quill. It isn't the corpse my cousin is speaking about. I watch my transgression grow in his estimation with every step I take.
"Mr. Quill, I will speak with you presently. Please clean up this abominable mess before it upsets the women." Benjamin looks at me coldly. "Come with me, Evie."
I follow Benjamin, but my mind is far away, spinning off into terrible realms until I no longer see the dwelling house or the whole of the sky outside. How was I to explain what happened? Surely Benjamin won't believe me if I tell him the hired man crawled from his grave to torment me. But I believe that was what happened. I wished Ross wouldn't leave with Iris, and he knew it now, being of that strange, omniscient state that awaits us in death. When all was revealed to him, he'd returned for my wicked soul.
Benjamin walks ahead of me, upright with pious fury. As we pass concerned brothers and sisters making their way for the dwelling house, he urges them to stay in groups, to wait for news. His anxiety spreads like a disease to everyone we meet on our way, affecting even me, after all I've seen.
He takes me into the Elder's house, into that small, dark hallway. No sooner has the door closed than Benjamin grasps my hands and jerks me close to him. Without my hands to flail for balance, I topple into him. He mistakes--perhaps intentionally--my fall for an embrace, and wraps his arms around me. His clothes reek of perspiration, and the smell gags me.
"You're safe, Evie," he murmurs, his lips feverish against my forehead. "Thanks be to God, you're safe."
I extricate myself from his grip as quickly as I can.
"What did he do to you?" he asks, oblivious to my discomfort. He puts a hand on each of my shoulders, and the weight of his touch is oppressive.
"He did nothing. He came at me, and he reached for me, but then the hired man stopped him."
Confusion passes over my cousin's expression. "That's who I was talking about, Evie. John Quill. Did that man hurt you? Did he threaten you in any way?"
I shake my head slowly. "Benjamin, something strange is happening here. That man--"
"I'll send him away!" Benjamin vows. He pulls me to him, forcing my head against his chest even as I stiffen in surprise. John Quill held me in much the same way, beside Iris's grave. In Benjamin's arms, I feel nothing like that safety and comfort. Instead, I feel the phantom hands of cousin Lottie's husband. My heart beats terribly, and my stomach turns over, just as it had that horrible day.
I push Benjamin back, the way I'd been unable to shove Robert. "Stop! Just stop!"
He looks for a moment as though I struck him. He reaches up and buttons the top button of his shirt, then unbuttons it and refastens it again, all the time blinking and beginning attempts at words he ultimately abandons. Finally, he closes his eyes and drops his hands, collecting himself with great visible effort. "You're startled, I am sure. First, to see such a terrible thing, and then to be accosted by that man–"
"He did not accost me!" I fight hard to regain my senses. If I throw a tantrum now, Benjamin might truly send John Quill away. I don't want to think on the consequences, either to the safety of the commune, or to my own foolish heart. I've pinned too much hope on John Quill as a romantic partner, though I knew it to be folly from the start. Still, he seems to bear some feeling for me, despite his earlier willingness to avoid me. Would Quill take me with him, as Ross had been willing to take Iris?
"Benjamin," I begin again, softer this time, "You should thank the hired man. He saved me. I don't know what would have happened..."
A wild, hysterical sob forces its way into my throat, and I choke it back. For the first time, my brain allows me to comprehend fully what happened.
I'd been pursued by a dead man in that hall.
If I cry in front of Benjamin, he'll want to comfort me, and the thought makes me sick. My skin prickles at the thought of him touching me.
"There is nothing to fear," Benjamin says, though if he reassures himself or me, I can't be certain. Still, he seems to regain his senses, and the wild, impassioned light in his eyes fades. We're on safer ground now, I hope, though I won't let him get between me and the door. He smiles the calm, neutral smile he gives everyone, and the tightness in my chest eases. "I will certainly thank Mr. Quill for his help. I am sorry you had such a frightening experience."
The truth of it is, the dead man doesn't frighten me half so much as Benjamin does. My cousin, my stepbrother, looks at me the way Robert gazed upon me from the moment I'd arrived in Boston. My mother and stepfather had both written to Benjamin about the "moral failing" that had caused me to be cast out from Lottie's house. Of course he thinks me a ruined girl who'll easily fall into his arms and continue my immorality.
"It was a dead man. It was Ross, the hired man. Iris told me that she had seen him after he'd died, and her arms were covered with bites--" I begin, only for my cousin to cut me short.
"You needn't worry about that. Everything is under control." His platitudes shock me. Hasn't he seen the body? Hadn't he seen Iris's?
"I'm telling you, it is not!" I stamp my foot. "That was a dead man, Benjamin! A dead man walked into the dwelling house. He meant to attack me."
"You're tired, and troubled. I will not ask you to recount all this to me." The matter is closed; I can see it in his eyes. "I'll hear the rest from Mr. Quill."
I leave the Elders' house in a state of such vexation I scarcely watch where I'm going. Only when I stomp down from the porch do I see Quill there, awaiting his fate. My cousin is behind me, so I can't spare a word to Quill, but I want to run into his arms and beg him to keep Benjamin away from me.
A few Shakers make their way toward the dwelling house, where I can only assume the remains of poor Ross have been removed. If I go there, I'll have to wait until morning to learn if Benjamin has dismissed Quill. I can't linger outside the Elder's house. That leaves me with only one other place to go, and I force my feet to walk for as long as I can before breaking into a run for the hired men's house.
YOU ARE READING
After her father’s death and her mother’s hasty remarriage, Evelyn Whitney is handed over to the Shaker commune of Bannock, New York, into a life she has little chance of escaping. When the dead become monsters and community loyalties fracture, Evel...