Digging into the past…

Excerpt from Chapter Eleven:

Hannah followed the back wall behind the stacks, peeking into every opening as she passed. At the corner, she was forced to turn toward the front of the building where she found a closed door with a small brass plaque that read, New Milton Historical Society.
She tapped politely and heard the high, thin voice of a woman call out for her to come in. The door opened into what looked like a large, unorganized storage room. There were boxes, newspapers, and piles of books stacked everywhere on the tables and floors. She searched the room for the source of the voice.
“Can I help you?”
Across the room, behind a table towering in old photo albums, was a small elderly woman with a silver-white bun piled high on her head. She wore round, gold rimmed glasses and her cheeks were tastefully rouged. Only her face and hair could be seen above the pile of albums. Hannah made her way over to where she sat.
“Yes, thank you so much. First of all, I’m supposed to say hello from your grandson, Roger. You are Mrs. Hathaway, correct?”
“Oh, yes. Roger is a lovely boy, isn’t he? So much like his father was at his age. He is forever willing to put up with me and my rambling. He keeps me young. Or, I make him old. One or the other!”
“Yes. We met him at the café and he was very nice. He told us about you.”
“Us? Is there someone with you I can’t see?” Mrs. Hathaway looked around and behind Hannah.
“Oh. No, ma’am. My friend and our little girls are in the children’s room. We were hoping to both speak with you, but once the girls got a look at that wonderful room, it was hopeless. She sent me on to find you alone.”
“Well, it sounds like you are looking for something in particular.”
“Yes, ma’am. I am. My name is Hannah Foster.”
“Well?”
“I was wondering if you know anything about the New Milton Garden Club.”
“Well, of course. My mother was one of the founding members. They used to meet right here in the library every Thursday, until it was disbanded sometime when I was still a child. The library was much smaller then, you know.”
“Yes. Mrs. Morgan told us about the vestibule.”
“Mrs. Morgan told you? Well, now, that’s a surprise,” she chuckled to herself.
“Your mother was a founding member?” Hannah cut in too quickly. “Was that back in the late eighteen-hundreds?”
“Yes, it was,” Mrs. Hathaway looked at her with more curiosity now. “Eighteen hundred and ninety-five, to be precise. Why does this interest you?”
“Because, we’re hoping to find some of their records, or maybe the minutes.”
“Why?”
“We’re researching one of their members, Maiya Whiting.”
“Where did you get that name?” Mrs. Hathaway stood up, leaning heavily on the table in front of her for balance. She hobbled around to where Hannah stood and looked into her face with piercing, steel blue eyes.
Hannah cleared her throat to give herself time. “I just… happened to come across it recently.” God. What a lame answer, she thought.
“I see. You don’t want to tell me. Well, no one knows for sure what happened to Maiya Whiting. That’s what I’ll tell you.”
“I… thought maybe if I could see the minutes or the records of the garden club, that maybe there would be a mention of her.”
“How do you think, with your limited knowledge of what happened in this town back then, that you could look at those minutes and uncover the truth to a mystery that has been a part of New Milton for almost one hundred years?”
“I… I didn’t realize that,” Hannah stammered, embarrassed that she had been naively too bold.
“Obviously, you have discovered something and it has piqued your curiosity. You think you might be able to figure out what she did? What happened to her? Where she went? Why? Is she a relative of yours?”
“No ma’am. I just don’t know how to explain right now.”
“Are you seeking money?”
“No ma’am. I’m just trying to uncover the story. I know something about it. A little.”
“Well, I’ll not have you bothering that family, if there are even any of them left. They went through enough over that, not to mention my poor mother and Mrs. Culver.”
“Mrs. Culver?”
“Yes. I suppose you came across her name somewhere, as well.”
“Well, yes, I may have. Is it possible that your mother was named Nina?”
“Where did you get this information?” She smacked the table with her knuckles. “There are people who have lived in this town all of their lives, and their parents lived here all of their lives and they don’t remember or care about these names.”
“I read about them recently in a book,” Hannah said.
“A book. Just an ordinary book. And, where did you get this book?” The old woman was good. No wonder she was the town historian. She stepped closer without taking her eyes off Hannah’s face, clearly assessing her in every way.
“It’s a…journal, actually.”
“A journal. Whose journal?” Mrs. Hathaway commanded.
“If you want to know, you must promise to keep it a secret or I won’t tell you anything else,” Hannah declared, standing straighter and looking stoically back at the tiny woman whose countenance seem to tower over hers. Mrs. Hathaway continued to analyze her with razor sharp intuition, intent on cutting through the pretense.
“Yes. My mother was named Nina,” she finally answered.
After a long moment of silence Mrs. Hathaway seemed to relax, or wanted to appear relaxed, and she turned to find her seat. “Go get a chair and sit down with me.”

Hannah looked for the closest chair that she could drag over. It was an antique oak school chair, not at all comfortable, but heavy and sturdy as a rock.
“My mother was Maiya Whiting’s closest friend, along with Mrs. Rebecca Culver.”
Hannah took a deep breath. It was almost too good to be true. This woman could actually have all the answers she needed.
“Will you promise not to talk about this to anyone? I will tell you about the journal, and one day soon, hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you even more.”
“I don’t have much time left to wait for the answers to cryptic riddles,” Mrs. Hathaway said. “You understand, don’t you? I’m old.” She folded her hands in her lap and sat straight up. “Yes, I promise not to tell your secret. I do have a right to know what you have discovered, however, as Nina Blakeslee’s daughter and the town historian, and I expect to be the first to whom you disclose any findings.”
“I found the journal of Maiya Elise Neville Whiting,” Hannah blurted out.
A gurgle came from Mrs. Hathaway’s throat as though she might choke. She coughed several times and daintily dabbed at her eyes with a lace edged handkerchief. “Where’s my water?” she croaked, reaching for an insulated mug decorated with a picture of two smiling children. Hannah watched, ready to run for help, while Mrs. Hathaway took several long gulps and cleared her throat.
“Her journal?” she responded weakly. She cleared her throat again and leaned in towards Hannah. “And, how do you come to have this journal? How can you be sure it is hers?”
“Oh, it’s hers alright. It’s written in French and we’ve been deciphering it. That’s where I learned your mother’s name and the name of Mrs. Culver.”
“Were there any other names mentioned?”
“Yes. A Monsieur Yves Delaflote.”
This seemed to energize Mrs. Hathaway, as though a window had been flung open and a breeze of cool mountain air had whisked itself around her. She sat up, arrow straight.
“As I suspected. And what did she say about Monsieur Delaflote?”
“She said he was her friend and that he was leaving. She told about a luncheon that the garden club gave for him, so they could say goodbye. Evidently he belonged to the club and was well thought of. Her last entry was the day before he was to leave. June eighth, nineteen hundred and ninety-nine.”
“Indeed. I’m not surprised.”
“Why?”
“Because Maiya Whiting disappeared the day that Monsieur Delaflote departed for France.”

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