Thieves of Fire tells two parallel stories at the same time. One story tracks the life of Carding, Vermont’s most famous resident, artist Joseph Stillman Croft. The second story involves Edie Wolfe and friends as they try to solve the puzzle of why Croft left town so suddenly in 1929, leaving his home and property to two women, Emily Willis and Kitty Wolfe (Edie’s grandmother).
Croft never made any bones about how much he hated women in general and those two women in particular. So why did his will give them everything until “his rightful heir” can be found?
And who is the artist’s rightful heir?
This is how Thieves of Fire begins.
THE BENEFITS OF FAME
“Old sins cast long shadows.”
—Senator Danielson Wolfe (R–Vermont) in a speech against the actions of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, 1953
If you will allow me, dear readers, I will tell you a story about a man who loved fame. Not fame in general, you understand, but his own fame.
His name was Joseph and he was a painter. Over time, he became an artist of great renown, and his work was beloved by millions. Consequently, he made a great deal of money, which is probably the part of being famous that he liked the best.
But he also loved the greasiness of fame, the way it opened doors for him without any effort on his part. This greasiness allowed him to ooze over people until they deferred to him, let him have his way, let him do exactly as he pleased wherever he pleased and, unfortunately, to whomever he pleased.
Joseph was born a shallow man, and he liked it that way. To his mind, shallowness gave him the right to ignore the needs of others, especially if those needs interfered with his work. And as you will see, Joseph Stillman Croft’s life was all about his work because that is what brought him fame.
Like most artists of his time—the late 19th century, the years dubbed “the Gilded Age” by Mark Twain—Joseph gravitated to New York City from wherever he was before that. He told everyone that he moved “to practice my art” but he really moved to make money from the rich and corrupt people who had also gravitated to the city.
With a small inheritance from his hardworking, self-sacrificing preacher father, Joseph set himself up as a portrait painter, someone who could make the captains of industry appear noble and their wives beautiful, even though it was quite rare for either of those things to be true. The problem was, lots of other young men who had talent equal to Joseph’s had moved to the city to do exactly the same thing, and there weren’t enough wealthy, corrupt people to go around.
One summer, Joseph decided to get away from the suffocation of New York to enjoy the cooler climes of northern New England. Since the train lines followed the path of the Connecticut River, that is the path that Joseph followed too. He’d heard about an artist’s colony—the so-called Cornish Colony—in one of the valleys where Vermont and New Hampshire cuddled up to one another. The famous sculptor, Augustus St. Gaudens, and the celebrated illustrator, Maxfield Parrish, both lived there.
Since Joseph had no interest in sculpture—too big, too difficult and too much work—he spent little time visiting with St. Gaudens. But Maxfield Parrish’s success was one that Joseph felt he could emulate for his own profit. So he squeezed as much information as he could from the renowned book and magazine illustrator then headed deeper into Vermont on a rail route that paralleled a body of water called the Corvus River. That line ended in a small town named Carding, a knot of population centered around the railway station, an inn, a mill that processed raw wool into useable yarn, a tiny newspaper, a campground of small cabins where folks of a religious persuasion spent their summers, and a store run by a family named Cooper.
As Joseph hiked the hills around Carding, he realized he’d discovered a landscape and way of life that he could sell. He sketched like a madman, capturing the swoop of a mountain named Merino on the far side of a local lake as well as weathered barns, the intense wrinkled expressions of the town’s older inhabitants, meandering sheep and cows, moonrise and sunrise over the river, and light streaming through trees.
At the same time, he calculated how far the weight of his fame would carry him in Carding, and came to the conclusion that he could get pretty much anything he wanted without a struggle. The locals tolerated him as something of a harmless eccentric, and were inclined to grant his requests. Only Kitty Wolfe, who ran a newspaper called the Carding Chronicle with her husband, seemed curious to know more about a painter named Joseph Stillman Croft. But news from New York City was thin on the ground in Vermont back then, and her curiosity remained unsatisfied…for the time being.
As Carding’s leaves turned yellow, red and orange, Joseph poked around the village looking for the perfect place to build a house. He told no one about his plans so when he checked out of the inn to go back to New York, the townfolks settled in for their long winter’s nap figuring they’d seen the last of the strange painter.
As soon as he got back to the city, Joseph rented a suite in the Broadway Central Hotel with a large set of north-facing windows that looked out over Grace Church, one of his favorite views of the city. By the end of that first week, he’d finished three paintings of what he called “the simple life in a Vermont village.” They were all in a style that was new to him with flattened perspectives and figures pared down to their essentials. The result resembled woodcuts, a style that underscored the sense of nostalgia for a mythological past that Joseph thought he could sell to the magazines.
He was right. By the time the snow melted in Washington Square, Joseph Stillman Croft’s stature had risen from that of a portrait artist with middling success to that of a rising star in the magazine world. In April, the painter sent a letter to Carding’s innkeeper reserving the hostelry’s best set of rooms for the coming summer.
A stylish couple with money and fame of their own named Hanson and Emily Willis occupied one of the other suites in the Broadway Central. He was a popular writer, penning stories and novellas for the likes of Colliers, Godey’s Lady’s Book, and even The Strand Magazine in London. Hanson’s most beloved character was named Damienne Hawke, a sharp, intelligent woman who functioned as something of a paladin, championing the cause of justice for wronged women, poor workers, and street urchins against the crushing powers of wealth and privilege. Joseph thought the stories implausible, mostly because he didn’t believe that women were intelligent, so he more or less ignored Hanson.
Emily, however, turned out to be far more difficult to overlook. She was a curious woman—Joseph called her nosy—who asked far too many questions about the painter’s travels in the wilds of Vermont as well as the little town he’d discovered. She enthused about the artifacts he added to his paintings—milking stools, buckets, a hand-carved cane, quilts hanging over a fence—and asked lots of questions about who had made them. The painter answered Emily in the shortest sentences he could get away with and still be regarded as polite. (She knew a lot of people in the publishing world because of her husband, after all.) But Emily was not satisfied with Joseph’s answers so she did some digging on her own.
First she wrote to Augustus St. Gaudens, having once met the famous sculptor at a party in Washington, D.C. But he did not write back. Then Emily tracked down the editor of Colliers—an old family friend—who was responsible for buying Maxfield Parrish’s illustrations for the magazine, and asked for the painter’s New Hampshire address.
When she wrote to him, Parrish expressed some annoyance at finding out that Croft was horning in on his place in the magazine world. But after a lengthy exchange of letters, he finally told Emily what he knew about Carding, Vermont, which wasn’t much, and directed her attention toward the village’s newspaper.
Destiny surely had a hand in the lifelong friendship that flourished between Emily Willis, the wealthy New York socialite, and Kitty Wolfe, the editor of the Carding Chronicle. Emily and Kitty quickly discovered that they shared a similar perspective on the world, especially when it came to homegrown art and the people who made it. They also shared an instinctive distrust of Joseph Stillman Croft and that, as you will learn, is one of the key elements of this story.
“I must meet Kitty Wolfe,” Emily told her husband over breakfast one morning. “Will you come to Vermont with me?” Hanson agreed, only too glad to accompany his beautiful wife anywhere.
Joseph was not pleased when he discovered that his neighbors in New York planned to be his neighbors in Vermont as well. He knew it was all Emily’s doing. The cursed woman couldn’t keep her nose out of anything. He fully expected her to dog his footsteps while he sketched the hills around the village, and wondered if she was falling in love with him. He was an attractive and famous man, after all.
But to Joseph’s surprise, neither Hanson nor Emily paid him any attention once they got to Carding. Hanson quickly ensconced himself in the most comfortable chair on the inn’s porch, and with interminable cups of tea at one elbow, and pen and paper at the other, he wrote and wrote and wrote. In the meantime, Emily marched herself over to the Carding Chronicle to meet Kitty and David Wolfe in person.
After that, Joseph rarely saw Emily except for her early morning departures and late afternoon arrivals at the inn. But he heard a lot about her travels through the hills surrounding the village. She ferreted out a dilapidated house on the edge of town to introduce herself to Abner Small, a carver of intricate wooden figurines. She ventured into the woods to watch barrel and bucket makers at work. She spent hours with a lacemaker named Jane Hazen, copying down the old woman’s patterns. When she asked Kitty Wolfe to help her find local knitters and quilters, the editor put a notice in the newspaper passing along Emily’s request. Before he could put a stop to it, Joseph found the inn’s lobby filled with females sitting and talking in circles while they fiddled with bits of cloth and lengths of yarn.
When he complained to Hanson and tried to enlist the other man’s support in evicting the chattering mass, the writer merely laughed and said he’d given up trying to direct his wife long before they were married. “Beautiful faces may fade over time,” the writer told the painter, “while an intelligent mind lasts and lasts. Emily is not only beautiful, she was built to last. And I like her that way.”
One morning, Abner Small delivered a pair of canes to the inn. Emily commandeered a corner of the lobby for them, and they were soon joined by a box of lace pieces, children’s sweaters knitted from Carding wool, and a pile of quilts sewn together from scrap cloth. “Christmas presents,” was all Emily would say when Joseph asked what it was all about. That was the last straw for the painter and he complained bitterly to the innkeeper who just smiled and said that,“Mrs. Willis paid for the extra space for her collecting and she can do as she likes with it.”
By this time, Joseph’s career as an illustrator-in-demand had blossomed, and he realized the time had come for better and more permanent quarters in Carding. He took out the list of possible house sites that he’d compiled the year before, and after some consideration, chose the one from which he could get the best view of the local landscape with the least amount of effort.
It just so happened that the site was in the middle of one of the roads ringing the village green but Croft figured that with his fame and money, he could build wherever he wanted in Carding. When she heard about Croft’s plans, Kitty Wolfe tried to rouse local feelings against them but succeeded only in making the men in town look more kindly on the painter and the size of his wallet.
Croft broke ground on his house late that summer, and by autumn, it was enclosed against the coming snow. Satisfied with its progress, the painter left for New York just before Thanksgiving with portfolios full of work for his New York editors. This time, he shunned the Broadway Central Hotel, careful to rent rooms in a building that did not include Emily and Hanson Willis.
Life was good to Joseph that winter. His depictions of the “simple life in a New England village” appeared on multiple magazine covers, and the first of his many annual calendars appeared. Money accumulated in his bank account at a satisfying rate. When he found out that Emily Willis was with child and not likely to return to Vermont any time soon, his satisfaction was complete.
Joseph arrived in Vermont that spring with a portfolio of detailed house plans tucked under his arm. He sprinkled his cash liberally among a small army of carpenters, furniture makers, wallpaper hangers, and painters. The fact that some of them also served on the village’s board of selectmen did not escape the notice of Kitty Wolfe who continued to agitate against the painter’s takeover of one of Carding’s main roads.
“You’ll rue the day,” she admonished the town’s selectmen, “that you ever trusted that man.”
They laughed at the notion, as well-paid men will do when something runs counter to the best interests of their wallets.
Everything in Joseph Croft’s shallow life was rolling along in the right direction when a train pulled into the station on a hot June day, and Emily Willis, her ink-stained husband, and their firstborn son disembarked. To make matters worse, they were accompanied by crates full of furniture.
“Since we didn’t see you all winter, we didn’t have the opportunity to tell you,” Emily said when she crossed paths with the painter. “We bought the old Cooper house on the street above yours.”
Croft was appalled, almost to the point of physical illness. But Kitty Wolfe was delighted. So the battle lines in Carding were joined. On one side stood Joseph Stillman Croft with his wallet and his fame. On the other was Emily Willis, Kitty Wolfe, and other locals such as Abner Small and Jane Hazen.
Everyone managed to remain civil for a while, maintaining a veneer of sociability with visits on both sides. And according to Croft, relations might have remained that way for a lot longer had Emily Willis respected the natural boundaries between men and women. But she didn’t.
Her first sin was treating the local quilters, carvers, knitters, and ironworkers as though they had talent. Croft’s face grew pinched and his manner more acerbic as the self-taught villagers started to think of their work as worthy of attention. “They are getting above themselves,” Croft growled to his master carpenter. “Above themselves. Who do they think they are?”
The master carpenter said nothing because he thought his wife’s quilts were quite beautiful.
Then Emily commissioned Kitty and David Wolfe to set some of the local knitting and quilting patterns on paper. At first, the “Willis woman,” as Croft called her, was content to have these useless bits of flotsam printed in the Carding Chronicle. But then she used her husband’s publishing connections to have them printed in the New York World. Croft was disgusted when he discovered that the patterns were well received.
“Trash for those who don’t know any better,” he muttered to his still-silent master carpenter.
Then Emily Willis violated all conventions of artistic merit. In the days before her family was due to leave Vermont, she shipped boxes and boxes of work made by Carding’s artisans to New York. Just before Christmas, the Willises opened their new home on Fifth Avenue to the public so people could buy Abner Small’s carvings, Jane Hazen’s intricate laces, brightly colored hats and sweaters for children made by something called the Corvus Knitters Society, and quilts made by “the ladies of the Carding Quilt Guild.”
When Emily sent the money these items earned back to Carding, she usurped Joseph Stillman Croft as the most popular person in the village. Now instead of paying attention to the great painter and illustrator Joseph Stillman Croft, people throughout Carding openly adored Emily Willis and Kitty Wolfe for bringing a little more prosperity and recognition to their remote village.
The painter always counted that as the Willis woman’s most unforgivable sin. Without the unquestioned adoration from the people of Carding, Croft’s shallow nature took hold. He drove away the men who’d built his house, calling them “gougers and cheats.” He complained about the postal service, produce from the local farmers, and bread from the bakery. He wrote scathing letters to the Carding Chronicle that Kitty was only too happy to publish until everyone in town had been insulted by the painter.
One by one, the people who maintained his home left Croft’s employ. Finally his staff was reduced to a widow named Helena Pearce, her young daughter Maddie, and a rotating number of itinerant laborers who chopped wood and kept weeds from taking over his property. After a while, Croft became so reclusive, a whole generation of children born in Carding reached school age without ever seeing the man.
That’s where matters stood on the day that the renowned painter asked Helena Pearce to let her ten-year old daughter pose for a holiday calendar illustration. The woman agreed with the proviso that Maddie receive art lessons and supplies from the painter in return.
As it turned out, it was a request with far-reaching consequences.