The Mirrors (part four)
Esta had eased the photograph out of an album bound in cardboard, “My Memories” scripted on the cover inside a cage of vines. The first in her life Charmante had seen of this book.
The contents arrayed themselves, crackling onto the bedspread, and proved motley. Pressed flowers, swatches of silk and velvet, prayer cards, pretty bits of notepaper carrying Mrs. Kruikshank’s jotted gratitude, a school certificate for the boy that had died, a picture of him in babyhood swaddled in a wicker basket, a locket-sized duplicate of Esta’s wedding photo…
A place card with browned calligraphy, once gilt.
“What name does that say?” Esta asked her.
“Carolee, looks like.”
“Elizabeth’s daughter. Them two didn’t get on though. If her mother would give her anything, she’d leave it lay. That was how she was.”
The souvenir was not of love, not of partiality to a Roback daughter; but of witness, that such niceties had been…commonplace to that life. Esta had flipped her book to a brown print, page-sized and tabbed at the corners.
“You’ll have to show me which one is you.”
“Now here,” Esta said, perverse, “is that Charleton.”
The photograph showed young Dumain on the veranda with the family, the servants rising in rank as the stairs rose. It was that type of its era, when the itinerant photographer came to set up his equipment, and all the household were placed in the shot.
But the Robacks on their private island could never be troubled by salesmen. The portrait must have been hired.
Charleton begged sympathy with his homely, engaging face…and the pain of his gaze, the flinching curve of his body, the girl’s heedless indulgent smile, told—if Charmante weren’t being fanciful—
“This one, in the tennis gear? Carolee? Esta, were they sweethearts?”
“Oh, she didn’t like him much.”
“I think so, though,” she told Wright. “At least, I figure she could tolerate the idea. Of keeping company with Charleton…so long as she was stuck out there. I’m guessing the Robacks had just the one daughter. Unless some older child married, who wouldn’t come home for these things. But…”
He was scrutinizing her.
“Never mind. You see how she looks down at the camera, but how she’s smiling for Charleton. See the way she’s standing?”
“No, ma’am, I can’t see a thing like that. I’d be a luckier man if I could.”
She felt herself flush, hardly knowing why. Unpleased, she glanced aside at the half-hexagon porch. Shades were pulled at every window. She strayed her eyes to the roofline, across the floor below the attic, where the doctor had couched himself to brood over his garden wall.
Rothesay’s workshop (in one of his phrases, Carmine had told her, “He has got himself organized in the attics”) was on the left side of the house, streetwise. This would make it east on the compass.
“Did you know…”
Blank glass, black in its recesses under the mansard roof, where only empty rooms sat behind, or curtains where these hung, yellowed like old newsprint. Dumain’s were open. Rothesay used this room…not to sleep in, but for some elaboration with the mirrors she’d glimpsed, Carmine wanting her to absorb Charleton’s sad aura.
Mr. Wright unwrapped his sandwich from the paper he’d folded against the flies. He swallowed tea, and when she met his eye, said, “Not much.”
“No,” she said. “Sorry. Did you know Mr. Rothesay was a doctor himself?”
“Let’s say I knew it yesterday. What kind, you figure?”
She shrugged. And Esta’s clippings were about the Robacks, not the Dumains. Her aunt had been faithful in saving whatever she’d come across that mentioned the family, but these chances had been sporadic. One was an obituary for Elizabeth Roback, née Dumain, born 1858, died 1908, her fiftieth year, thrown from a horse. That alone was a fact of interest; all else of Esta’s mistress—so near to her in age—dull nineteenth century correctness. A woman of patrician rank, as such things were in America, who’d kept her name out of the papers. Beloved wife and mother, admired by friends for her grace and generosity, her passing lamented by the Library Society and the Southern Women’s League.
“Carolee,” Charmante said, “is probably living. She’d be her mother’s age, more or less. I wonder if she and Charleton were close cousins, or just connections?”
She wondered if he would joke on this as well. But he put down the account he was reading of the island’s sale. “Carolee, onetime Roback, something else anymore we don’t know, wouldn’t stuck around here likely…needle in a haystack.”
“They seem to have gone down, don’t they?” She rested a finger on Wright’s clipping.
“Like the Dumains…like a lot of people.”
“But that one’s from 1921. Dumain killed himself in nineteen.”
“Well, so nothing. I think I’ll have to get a little book and write myself a list.”
“Don’t see why you shouldn’t, except…” He peered upwards. “What all’s the point?”
Writing paper. She wouldn’t use the booklet she jotted her shopping in, because this, in its way, belonged to Rothesay. Charmante had never known her employer have opinions as to purchases; he knew so little of what one bought to stock a larder, never mind what flour or butter cost. But the scientist in him liked seeing numbers.
For this reason, her poking in his things felt excusable. Inquiry, she might call it…though not excuse enough to shut her conscience up. A crescent-shaped duo of steps spanned a living room corner, flanked by built-in bookshelves. Double louvers led to the dining room…one door kept folded back, a narrow chest of drawers fitted behind. Two sofas faced over the rug. Under the coffee table lid, under the bench cushion, empty spaces…given Rothesay’s absent ways, she could believe he hadn’t discovered them. All the furniture was too new, too cheap, to have belonged to Dumain.
His inherited things…
Had been sold? Damaged by smoke? Charmante could feel her nerves, while rummaging, as though eyes were on her. But she meant to befriend Charleton Dumain…
The chest’s top drawer held only broken spectacles, a fair collection of these; the next, an order for its own delivery. The remaining drawers, nothing.
She sat, a thing she did on the job only at lunchtime.
Those books she ran her feather duster over were leather-bound almanacs, encyclopedias, or…she eyed them now…Shakespeare, Chaucer, Bacon, Milton, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, The Old Curiosity Shop…
They were all alike, the kind people whose money could be spent that way bought on subscription, for just this reason. To fill shelves. To feel ready, armed with good purpose, for a day in retirement when they would sit and read them.
But…tilted, hidden in part by fancy woodwork…
She saw slim chalk blue, dwarfed by its neighbor’s spine. Standing, walking to the shelf, Charmante lost sight of the little book. It sat below eye level…why she hadn’t noticed it, dusting.
Mes Pensées. Blank sheets, that remained blank.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)