“Maggie had another bad dream last night,” Aunt Betty murmured over the tinkle of silver spoons on ceramic bowls. Dick’s spoon dipped again into the steaming peach pudding and rose to his mouth.
“They’re getting more frequent,” Aunt Betty pointed out.
Dick swallowed. “So send for a doctor. Find out what’s wrong.”
“People aren’t like things, Dick. You can’t just fix them. They’re complicated.”
Dick dabbed his mouth with a spotless white napkin, the lines around his mouth half-hidden by his full mustache. He met her eyes.
“What do you want me to do? If a doctor can’t fix her, I can’t.”
“Maybe it’s something…subconscious. The dreams terrify her. Maybe it’s because of your long trips away. Maybe she needs you home.”
“She’s got her brother.”
“Ribs is only seven. Two years younger than her. But you’re her father.”
Dick rose and two attending servants appeared, one who lifted a black coat ceremoniously and a second who proffered a high-topped hat. Dick turned, thrust both arms into the satin-lined sleeves of the coat, and shrugged the coat over his shoulders. He lifted the hat from the servant’s hands and placed it firmly over his curly dark hair.
“Aunt Betty, little girls have to grow up sometime.”
When he was gone, Aunt Betty hobbled over the multi-colored mosaic floor to the wide, curving staircase that glittered like gold and ivory. Evidence of the master’s trade lined the walls and floor—a stone half-nude cherub playing a panpipe, a framed depiction of some mythological battle between a man and a monster, an exquisitely curved vase of lapis lazuli, and many more exceptional specimens of art through the ages.
“It is not a home for children,” she muttered under her breath as she mounted the stairs, laboriously. She passed her own portrait on the stairwell, a pose from her younger days when her hair was black and her back straight.
She found the children huddled in a window-seat overlooking the frozen pond in the center of the sleeping garden.
“Maggie’s been crying,” Ribs announced. “I gave her a handkerchief, but she won’t stop.”
“Go away,” Maggie snapped, her voice muffled. Only her honey-brown curls were visible behind the moist cloth handkerchief. “Where’s Papa?”
“He’s meeting a man on Courthouse Street. Apparently the party has a very important piece of art to sell.” Aunt Betty’s emphasis laced the words with acid.
Maggie’s face, swollen and flushed, emerged from behind the handkerchief.
“I wish he would come home. He’s not safe.”
“Now, Maggie, why would you say that?” Aunt Betty groaned a little as she lowered herself to the cushioned window-seat and gathered Maggie in her arms. Ribs, not to be ignored, quickly occupied the space on the other side of his great-aunt.
“We’re all unsafe,” Maggie hiccupped. “He’s coming after us.”
“Who is coming after us? Darling, is this from your dream?”
“Honey, you should know it’s just a dream. No one wants to hurt you in real life.”
“But it’s true,” Maggie insisted. “We’re going to die.”
A chill seemed to descend upon the room, as though a draft from the wintry garden had entered through the window. Aunt Betty hugged her great-niece tighter.
“Why should we die?”
“Because,” said Maggie, her tears reflecting Aunt Betty’s pale face. “We did something awful. We did it and we have to pay.”