The house is gray stone, meant to have the grandeur of an English castle, and the local residents were indeed impressed when Deerfield was built in that last quarter of the nineteenth century when rich Americans vied to show off their untaxed wealth. In earlier years, many in this seacoast town halfway between Boston and New York had owed their livelihood to the Deerfield family, enterprising New England ship owners and merchants who knew when to take a risk. They stitched the canvas sails, tarred the wood hulls, forged nails and metal rims for the cooper’s barrels, wound hemp in the ropewalk, and lost their lives to bring glazed blue-and-white dishes from a faraway land where slant-eyed men wore pigtails and ladies and concubines tottered, smiling, on brutally deformed feet. So yes, the locals were impressed by the Deerfield mansion, as well as jealous, scornful, envious, wishful and delighted to accept any meager crumb of invitation to enter the gates. Hypocrites. It’s always that way toward the rich, and if the Deerfields were not in the class of the Astors or Vanderbilts, they were at least minor kings in their corner of the world.
Come to the present, when Jane Avery arrives at Deerfield in her pickup, and the house speaks quite differently to passersby than it did to the long-dead townspeople who watched its stones rise. Jane glances at the locked, wrought iron gate, then following the directions given on the phone, continues along the shore drive to the service road by the gatekeeper’s cottage. There is no one to stop or greet her, and she parks her truck and walks up a side path to the front door under the portico. The location is still magnificent, the house set well back from the road on a slight elevation facing eastward to the sea. Even on this cold March afternoon, the slaty ocean dull beneath scudding clouds, anyone can see it’s prime real estate. Yet the mansion lacks its former impact, and Jane wonders as well at its odd positioning. Instead of presenting a broad façade to the road as might have been expected, it puts its narrow end to the front, like a shoebox on a store shelf, and much of that is hidden from view by the massive beech trees on the lawn and an excess of shrubbery that conceals the first floor halfway up the windows. The castle-like architecture seems, like most monarchies, diminished in the twenty-first century, its spare, towered design out of place in a modern world. A palpable sense hangs over Deerfield that there was money here once, and now it is gone.
Jane chooses the heavy, old-fashioned knocker over the insignificant doorbell recessed in the wall and knocks twice. For a minute, no one answers, nor is there any sound of footsteps approaching, yet she almost imagines someone lurking silently on the other side. She is about to knock again when the door suddenly opens, and there stands a short, twisted creature who seems to relish the startled look Jane gives her. She has a pointed, fox-like face, black hair drawn into a stiff topknot and a burst of red bloodshot in her right eye. Her height is perhaps four foot four or five, and it’s her spine, crooked from birth, that has misshaped her. She smiles, almost sneers, as if to say, You see, you think you are fair-minded, you would never judge anyone by their appearance, oh no, but already I have caught you. Go on, try to pretend you weren’t repulsed.
“I’m Jane Avery,” says Jane firmly. “I’ve come about the caretaker’s position.”
“I know that,” the woman scoffs, then she turns abruptly, as if she’s had enough of the way people look at her. “Follow me. She’s upstairs, in one of her painting moods.”
Ahead is a hall leading to a great room with a grand piano and crystal chandelier, but Jane gets only a glimpse as her guide turns right and begins to mount a narrow staircase. The short woman wears a dark-colored dress, nylons and high heels, and the twist in her spine makes her clump a little as she ascends the stairs. Her topknot is a trussed-up little bundle, a blot of ink that bobs defiantly atop her skull. Dyed black, surely, because the woman is seventy, seventy-five? She keeps her back to Jane, disinviting conversation. Halfway up, the staircase switchbacks at a landing to reach the second floor, and Jane is led into a large open room at the front of the house, an artist’s studio.
“Tell her you admire Jackson Pollock,” the woman hisses over her shoulder. Then, to the other woman in the room, she announces, “This is Miss Jane Avery, applying for the position of caretaker.”
The painter at the easel turns and frowns, whether at what she sees or at the interruption, Jane can’t tell. This woman was pretty once, a lingering hint of a cameo face, but the chin-length wave of dyed red hair is somehow desperate, for she, too, must be past seventy. And how can an artist do such a poor job of applying lipstick, an uneven smudge that bleeds into the withering lines above her upper lip? She is dressed theatrically in a long green paisley tunic over gold harem-style pants, a matching green scarf around her hair. The room, which extends the full width of the house, is high-ceilinged but poorly lighted by its diamond-paned windows, and an assortment of chairs, small tables, and one or two loveseats is pushed out to the perimeter. On one table is a silver tray bearing the remnants of afternoon tea, an indication of servants somewhere in the house. Spattered drop cloths cover the floor, and encircling the room, on the walls, in the window seats, propped on other easels and stacked against the furniture is a multitude of framed and unframed paintings in varying sizes. Jane recognizes a confusion of styles: classical, impressionistic, cubist, Grandma Moses, Andy Warhol. The canvas now on the easel appears to be a self-portrait, an emerging face haloed in a fiery nimbus of hair.
“I’m on to something good today, Bella. I feel it,” says the artist, pleading toward her picture.
“If you say so.” The little female shrugs and gives Jane a sideways look and a roll of her eyes that says, Humor her.
“I’m here about the caretaker position,” says Jane, since no one appears terribly concerned about the subject or about making an official introduction. Back at the coffee shop she had spoken on the phone to someone who identified herself only, curtly, as Miss Deerfield’s secretary, apparently this woman named Bella. That leaves the artist as Miss Deerfield. She dabs her brush on her palette, not bothering to face Jane as she speaks.
“Why do you want the job?”
“I’ve recently left an engineering position on the West Coast, and I’m contemplating a career change.”
“And you consider becoming a caretaker a step up?”
“I consider it an interim step while I reassess my priorities.”
“So there’s no guarantee you’ll be staying.”
“Your ad said the position was temporary.”
Miss Deerfield turns now, one eyebrow raised inquisitively. Bella also is watching. Jane returns them both a level gaze. She knows the story doesn’t quite fit her—or does it?—but she’s sticking to her answers. The artist and her secretary exchange glances.
“We were hoping for someone bigger, burlier,” Miss Deerfield continues, assessing Jane’s slender five-foot-two frame, her delicate face framed by tendrils of blond hair. The equation of size with capabilities is a misconception Jane has dealt with most of her adult life and has learned to counterattack.
“I can do whatever lifting is required,” she says, “clearing, pruning—”
“No!” The word, almost a shout, comes from both women together. “No, that’s not the caretaker’s job,” Miss Deerfield says, ruffled. “Bella, didn’t you explain?”
“Not on the phone,” Bella retorts.
Miss Deerfield gives a last frustrated glance over her shoulder at the interrupted painting and sets aside her palette.
“We don’t need any pruning or gardening done,” she says to Jane. “It’s a security position. The job is to keep trespassers off my land, as long as it is my land,” she adds, tight lipped. “Do you know anything about birds, botany, wildflower identification?” Jane shakes her head, the swing in topic beyond her.
“Well, they all want it, you see. Can’t wait for me to die to get their hands on it.” She utters a dry laugh.
“Who?” asks Jane. The question is pure curiosity. She’s already thinking this is probably not the place for her, and in a minute she will excuse herself, keep going, drive on. Yet she can’t help but be fascinated by this setting, by these two women who appear, putting it nicely, to be slightly cracked. Jane pauses, emitting a dry inner laugh of her own. Isn’t she, too, cracked, damaged, broken?
“The land trust people, the tree huggers, bird watchers, environmentalists.” Miss Deerfield spits the words. “Also, the art association, historical society and town council, to name a few more.” She sweeps her hand as if knocking pieces off a chessboard, then eyes Jane critically, although not measuring her size this time.
“You drove through the town on your way here?”
“Not very big, is it?”
“No. It seems to have quite a number of antique shops.” Jane recalls the clustered stores on the cobbled main street, a typical old New England village that has reinvented itself as a quaint, upscale shopping mecca. “Art galleries, an art museum,” she adds, remembering a gray stone structure that dominated one corner, similar in style to this house but on a smaller, friendlier scale. Similar in style to this house…
“Yes.” Miss Deerfield nods at the connection dawning on Jane’s face. “My grandmother founded our art association and donated that building. Art runs in my family.” Pride enters her voice, and Jane’s gaze goes again to the pictures ringing the room. She doesn’t pretend to any artistic judgment, and perhaps it’s the clutter that makes it difficult to appreciate any one painting in particular, yet nothing extraordinary stands out. Nonetheless, as Miss Deerfield continues her story—her grandmother and mother both esteemed artists and generous patrons—Jane begins to comprehend. Talented or not, these are the sort of people a nonprofit art organization can’t afford to turn down or offend. Put a bust or a bronze plaque in the lobby, admit a canvas or two into every show, bestow—surprise!—an award here and there, and the donations will keep coming.
“Now they think that when I die, having no heirs, I’ll leave them my mansion and estate as a haven for artists, a summer camp for talented young people.” Miss Deerfield’s lip curls. “Then there are the land conservation people who want to protect me and my three hundred acres of woods and fields from rapacious development. If I’ll just sign everything over to them, they’ll guarantee to permanently preserve it as an invaluable buffer adjoining the state forest.” Her hand flicks toward the rear of the house, indicating an extensive property.
“Don’t forget the birders,” Bella eggs her on. “They’re the worst trespassers.” She picks up the recital herself, usurping the narration. “Five years ago we had a rare seagull from China land down on the shore, and for weeks we were overrun by people peering through binoculars. They camped on the road so we could barely get out our own gate, and when the gull wasn’t around to amuse them, they tried to sneak onto the estate, snooping around the house and poking into the bushes for more birds.”
“So your job is to patrol my land and keep everyone off my property,” Miss Deerfield concludes, “except for once a week when I am now obliged to open my estate to the public for a Sunday morning stroll in return for certain tax considerations. You will lead these nature outings.” She ends on a resentful tone at this violation of her realm.
Jane takes a deep breath. She’s still standing, no one having offered her a seat, although except for a computer desk and chair tucked into one corner, there’s no furniture free to sit on. The ad in the local paper had read: Caretaker wanted. No experience necessary. Temporary position. Cottage and small remuneration. It did not read: Security guard/naturalist/tour guide. Yet she can’t keep running, and this place, quiet and isolated, may be what she needs. Miss Deerfield seems far less interested in asking about her than in airing her own grievances.
“I don’t have any experience or training as a nature guide,” Jane says, ensuring this point is made clear.
“It’s not necessary,” Miss Deerfield replies blithely. “I doubt many people will actually show up. If visitors do materialize, all you need do is lead them in circles and keep them from straying while they ooh and ahh at whatever exciting flora and fauna I’m told inhabit my private property. You like hiking, the outdoors.” She glances at Jane’s blue jeans and work boots.
“That will suffice.”
“And the cottage mentioned in your ad is the gatekeeper’s cottage where I drove in?” Jane asks. “Is it furnished?”
“Charmingly! You’ll be entirely self-sufficient there. Bella will give you the key.”
“Two hundred dollars a week.”
Jane pauses. It was only idle chance that she opened the discarded newspaper on the coffee shop counter as she passed through town. The job isn’t quite what she expected, these two women certainly aren’t, but their needs are apparently met by the household staff, and she’ll be left alone in plenty of privacy. She can always stay a week or a month and move on. With any luck, she’ll be able to turn around and go back. Her eye travels once more around the ring of art, building itself inward toward the center of the room, and it strikes her that of all the varied styles and imitations she sees there, one is missing.
“What do you think of Jackson Pollock?” she asks.
“Spatters! He paints spatters!” The words spew from Miss Deerfield’s mouth in indignation and wrath. Her hands fly apart into the air. “How can anyone call that art? That joke, that mockery! He—” She stops, veers her glance from Jane to Bella, her eyes narrowing. Jane, too, watches Bella, who looks back in lamb-like innocence.
“Well.” The word elongates itself as Miss Deerfield resumes an unaffected pose. “Never mind about him. We’re settled then. You will lead the walks and otherwise keep people off my land. Either of us may terminate this employment at any time.”
“Agreed,” says Jane.
Bella goes to the desk with the computer, opens a drawer and returns to disdainfully hand her a key.
“You’ll find it’s dusty inside,” she says with satisfaction.
“I’m sure it will do,” Jane replies.
Bella escorts her downstairs and out the door, then resets the buttons on the alarm system panel. When she returns to the studio, Charlotte Deerfield is adjusting the focus on a pair of binoculars as she follows Jane’s progress across the lawn.
“She’s too smart for you, Bella. Jackson Pollock. You really meant to antagonize me today, didn’t you?”
“I don’t like her,” snaps Bella, watching at Charlotte’s side.
“You don’t like anyone.”
“She doesn’t know plants or birds.”
“All the better. People will get bored and not come.”
“The town and the land trust will say you didn’t fulfill the provisions of the agreement, and I’ll be the one who has to deal with them.”
“That’s your job. Besides, I advertised. She’s the only one who answered.”
“She’s the first one who answered. The ad only appeared today.”
“Lucky us. We’re spared the effort of any more interviews.”
“You didn’t even ask for a resume,” Bella accuses. “How do we know who she is, really?”
Charlotte hands her the binoculars. “Get her license plate number. Check her out on your computer or whatever else it is you do.”
“She’s hiding something,” Bella warns, but Charlotte makes no response. She picks up her palette and brush, but the painting on the easel looks stiff and dry already, a depiction of artificial youthfulness. Not an hour ago, she thought the portrait was trying to tell her something; now it doesn’t please her, it isn’t right. Her expression slips from confusion to rejection to grief. What do you want from me? she begs.
“It’s no good, is it?” she asks.
“Too much yellow in the flesh tones,” say Bella and shrugs.