The Mirrors (part three)
Carmine came out of the kitchen, frowning at his shoes’ descent of the steps. He looked up. “Ah! Mr. Wright. You can answer me a question.”
His gait like his knock self-conscious, he trotted; he arrived, giving Charmante the tightlipped smile of a conspirator. “Thereat the deed was done. But really…”
He swallowed, and said another thing. “My impression is that the cellarage must be achieved through the side-door…that area, sir, you utilize as a workroom. I may find myself needing access. I may not.”
“Mr. Carmine, I lock up afternoons fore I go. If it’s only morning times you need down there, door’s always open.”
Carmine frowned again at his feet and kicked a dandelion gone to seed, sending its gossamer flying. “Come with me, you two, won’t you?”
The stairs were wooden and open-backed. At the foot a little welled window sat above the railing. An electric bulb hung overhead.
“It’s that room he means.”
Wright might be mystified by this; Charmante, for manners, ought to feign ignorance…
Dumain’s pharmacy, though.
In Rothesay’s favor, the cellar wasn’t dirt underfoot, didn’t smell like Mother Nature reclaiming the manmade. The flooring smelled…floating nebulous…of carbolic acid. A surgical table was there, enameled cabinets. Instruments in a glass-front cupboard, freestanding. A duo of pendant lights over the tabletop, another on a bendable arm fixed at the head.
“I never been in there myself,” Wright said. “You want me to look for you?”
Carmine gave an embarrassed laugh. “Let’s have all the lights on.”
Acting as he spoke, he caught at each pull-chain. The walls showed paneled wood, painted green, cobwebbed under the molding.
Wright put his head round the pharmacy door. “Nothing in here, far as I can see.”
Charmante went next into Carmine’s future darkroom. Cabinetry projected inches from the wall, glassed again, every shelf empty, a single bulb piercing, still inadequate. By impulse she closed a door that sat cracked.
It swung back to tap her on the shoulder.
“Rothesay, actually,” Carmine told them, low-voiced, “is going away for a few days.” He laid a hand on the knob and thoughtfully shut them in. “His paper on false walls and acoustics. Medicos’ meeting in Boston…hoping to raise enthusiasm. That is to say, funding. Hence his notion of my busying myself in his absence with an educational project. He does not want further experiments with the mirrors. But, Mrs. Demorest, I hope you will…”
Breaking, he breathed a word…bugger. “We’re just in here!” he called out.
Charmante hadn’t known Rothesay to be a doctor. He surely did not have it in him to come sneaking to the cellar, from some jealous mistrust…
Of his assistant, having a private word with the help.
A human noise, the frustrated exhalation that accompanies fruitless search, came to them with the swinging of hinges. The noise went on, and someone seemed to murmur to himself, “Now…Jesus God…now…”
Wright moved soonest. “Let me get out there, Mr. Carmine.”
He edged with a hand on Carmine’s arm, to haul back the door…
And said, “I guess it’s all right”, when they came out afterwards. “He couldn’t hardly have stole anything, but I’ll go check my tools.”
Carmine’s eyes, though, were bleak as he said this.
Nothing that manifests…nothing that can be…
(She was bearing this in mind, in church, where faith was apt.)
…is not created for the good. You dispute this. You say that there is evil in the world, and that you have smelled the malignant breath of it. But your own small good, as you know, scarcely signifies in the face of God’s great good; nor, for you see matters from down here, rather than up there, should you flatter yourself you see them clearly…
The good she hoped for was the kind you kept, not asked sent your way. But she appreciated she had disturbed her own peace. And taken money for it, too…
She could have said no to Rothesay.
Dumain stirred. Charmante, sitting in the House of God, was not ashamed to think it. She believed it. But He has armed you against spirits, if spirits are of the devil. And if they serve some purpose of His own, they are not evil, only to human eyes too strange…
You are asked to believe in His purpose, not insist on understanding it. When Pastor Ratliff said: “Let us pray”, Charmante inside herself, said: “Father, let me be the help I can.”
She had a visit to pay her aunt, and it was Sunday, a day she had no duties at Dumain’s (she’d come to think of the house this way). Esta was not a Bonheur; she stood by her old church, and Charmante didn’t know what time her aunt might be gone or home.
The little row, so like those disreputable ones along the river…only these houses were clean and painted…also was under the eye of neighbors. Esta’s niece was one of theirs, and Charmante’s aunt didn’t lock her door.
“Hey there, ma’am!”
She lifted the pan, inviting, her plan to entice Mrs. Parkins inside…because, Sunday notwithstanding, she meant to rifle her aunt’s things, and it was better done before a witness. “Yellow cake.”
“She ain’t come back yet.”
Her rising from the swing was slow; Mrs. Parkins had a stick and a collie dog, and gained her feet using both. Charmante left the door wide, carried her cake to the kitchen. “Ma’am, do you know where Esta might keep old newspapers?”
“Hmm, now…I don’t think she does. Her and me use them in the garden, keep the weeds off.”
“Now…” Charmante echoed, putting the pot on the burner.
They had electricity along this way, a pole with a heavy tangle of wire at Esta’s corner, the menace of it looping low over her side patch. But Charmante’s aunt didn’t run an electric range; power in their town browned out daily. The hot plate was a blessing—coffee, eggs, whatnot, without the fuss of coaling the stove.
“I’ve heard Esta talk about the Kruikshanks that she worked for. But going way back, ma’am, to the time…you know, before my mother and I came. Did you ever hear Esta say a name, who she worked for those days?”
The daydream had been of brittled newsprint, a picture of the clinic, one of the doctor himself, framed in an oval, one of his colleague, hand-captioned…as in such chatty histories as she’d hoped to luck upon. Innocent times before tragedy.
But this bull needed taken by the horns. “Not Dumain?”
“Now why you say Dumain?”
“Oh, I’ve probably got it wrong.”
“It wasn’t Dumain owned her old place. Not that one was the doctor.” Mrs. Parkins fell into a chair, her collie onto its side against her leg. “The hospital burned down, year or two before the war. Well, I’m not straight on that.”
“The hospital. The cholera hospital, was…” Charmante took a moment. “Founded by the Dumain family, built with their money?”
“I don’t mean that war over there.”
No. You wished your country forward enough to use the term war of emancipation as, in hopes of liberating Europe, it had done freely. Her aunt’s generation called their childhood one the Jeff Davis war.
“What did people used to figure? When you were a girl, between that one awful thing and the other?”
“How the fire got started, is what you mean?”
“Well, you know the one took the whole block was from the riot.”
It was the way Mrs. Parkins remembered things, a fragment calling to mind another, ordered outside chronology.
“And then, what did they say about the hospital?”
“All the beds was on a ward in a long row. All them linens on the beds, see. The folks they had at the back couldn’t never got out…the way it burned up in front the door.”
“Just an accident?”
Mrs. Parkins, trying to picture a thing that had happened the year she was born, sat silent. A forbidden horror, a whispered secret among the youngsters, a cautionary tale from a grown-up. (“Hell away from those matches…”)
(2020, Stephanie Foster)