The Mirrors (part seven)
“Hey, now! Who you brung, Charmante?”
“Hey, Mrs. Parkins! This is William Wright.”
And since it was no use holding back, she added, ushering him onto Esta’s porch: “He does the odd jobs for Mr. Rothesay.”
Chopped chicken parts, floured on a baking sheet, sat in the icebox. Charmante at the hotplate spooned bacon fat into her aunt’s skillet, getting the supper going, and told Wright he could peel potatoes.
He laughed. “That’s all I done in the war, ma’am, boiling pots in the kitchen. Never got to France. I was on that island…think the one you said was where your folk lived, St. Hubert. They made an army hospital out there…everyone had the grippe kept quarantined.”
“Have you been telling me the truth, then, William? Dumain…” Which one had told her about it?
“Yeah, I saw Dumain. You’re not thinking I spoke to him.”
Carmine. But Dumain’s having the flu himself, the strain of a poor recovery tipping him into recklessness, had been Rothesay’s thought…hadn’t the odd vision under the garden wall suggested, though…
“You saw Dumain. Did people talk about him? Was he bad-tempered, kindly?”
Wright worked his knife.
“Slice them thin,” she told him. “I’ll fry those in the fat, after the chicken.”
He laughed approval. “Now I think of it…a little crazy, maybe.”
Voices, Esta’s, as Charmante knew, and Mrs. Parkins’s, as William might recognize, came through the side window.
“Oh, yes, oh yes,” Esta was saying, on the heels of her neighbor’s, “…does the odd jobs for Mr. Rothesay.”
Charmante cocked her head at William, returning his smile. “People thought he was crazy.”
“So I say…well, you got me thinking. Haven’t done that for a while.”
“Think,” she said, “of another thing, for just a second. You surely saw the house, up there on the high point of the island. I don’t know why you didn’t say so…”
Wright looked at the window. They were talking about Esta’s old woman.
“…she tells me every day she’ll take care of me in her will.”
“Well, if they all can’t go live with her…”
“Never mind,” Charmante said. “They’ll be at it.”
“I didn’t, cause it seemed like going farther into things than there was any sense doing. People always did say Dumain’s had a ghost in it. Always been talk he might not have killed himself.”
William’s face, and the slowness with which he drew these sentences out, told Charmante each was a question. To question was only reasonable…was she in fact trying to solve a mystery? Before she went badgering Carolee, she’d better have worked this out.
“But the truth is, I only feel danger. Don’t you? Someone’s in trouble. I don’t know why…why it seems me being called… Are you religious at all, Mr. Wright?”
He was muted by this, and she hadn’t made it an easy thing to interpret. Maybe only the “Mr.” offended.
“I think God’s got you on his list, like the government. If you don’t think about him, he’s still thinking bout you.”
Mrs. Parkins, making a little show of ostentation, not to impose on “family”, hadn’t come in.
“She’s got you married off,” Esta said.
Over the supper table William shot Charmante a few glances…but she let Esta treat this guest as she chose, and Esta gleaned as much as had her niece.
He was from the city, all his life. “Far end of Main Street…but no more, the house we lived ain’t there.”
They knew why…they were quiet. Then Esta put another question.
Well, he’d done every kind of odd job, never learned much of use in the army, was on the trolley line longest. And something new: “I live with my sister, way down Dumain. Just the three of us, now her kids are grown.”
Esta said, “Hmm.”
“Should we go out on the porch, for dessert?”
Not only was her quest not needfully secret, not shameful in any way, but ears, Charmante had come to think, might be of help…if any happened to pick up some of their talk. You didn’t know what people knew.
She gave Esta the whole story, and Esta sat thoughtful.
“If Carolee did happen to accept…I don’t know…a visit…”
“Oh, she never would. And I wouldn’t go. But listen. You know what you’re up to, Charmante? You’re stirring the devil. I don’t mean it like some superstition. It’s what I always thought, that time or two I laid eyes on Old Dumain. That man was the devil.”
“Then I’ll stop. If you say so.”
“You want to know why.”
“Why you thought?”
“It was the way he came around, looking like he’d just snatch you up.”
“You said a time or two.”
This was near rebellion, this mild doubt, and Esta sat forward to look her niece in the eye. “Well. I never knew any of them much, that’s truth. He had some bad hold on people, Old Dumain. Two daughters…both married the same man…think about that. There was a son from the older and Miss Carolee from the younger. And there was a weakly son carrying on the name of Dumain. That one I never did lay eyes on, but he died in the riot. Old Devil never went til after all the others. One of them he didn’t get, though.”
That Esta could have this fancy, a lone granddaughter outliving the whole of the clan…for what it spoke to, in itself a sad thing…
But, Carolee not having been got, as though this devil could have willed it…
“But who was he? There was Elizabeth…” Charmante ticked names off fingers. “An older daughter…Polly? Married to the same man as the younger…as Elizabeth…”
“I think they was even cousins some way before all that…those two families, Dumains and Robacks. The son that was the brother of Carolee, Godfrey…now I remember that. Vanished off the face of the earth. And Charleton was his grandson, from his boy…”
Dumain’s, not Godfrey’s. “So Roback, the banker…the last one to own St. Hubert…”
“Was the father,” William said, “of Godfrey by the first wife, and Carolee by the second. Them two, sisters.”
And Dumains, by birth. None of this, while not unbelievable, seemed very wise.
“He was a tyrant, Old Dumain.”
Esta’s tilt of the head said she could allow this.
“He had a hold on them because they were all so connected. But was it money, too? Did he shore them up?”
“Reckon,” said Esta.
From across the road someone called this out. He had been on a vine enshrouded corner of his porch, the house dark, its front facing east, shadow cooling Esta’s. The tip of a cigarette informed them he listened, but only at Charmante’s questions did this neighbor begin to chime in softly…yes, Roback the banker…yes, Dumain a tyrant…
And a grunt more emphatic at this next, of money.
“How are you, Mr. Meeker?”
“How do,” Meeker said closer, crossing to offer his hand.
“How do. William Wright.”
“The old cholera hospital.” Meeker sat down on Esta’s front step. “I can’t say what Dumain was…doctor in charge. Called him young Dumain, back then. Place got to be more like a poorhouse, most times, being the epidemics would come and go. Indigents get dumped off there. Loonies. Now when they had the fire, Dumain had gave orders to lock the wards. Been put under custody of the police so he didn’t get lynched…what he said was, time he got there the fire was in the staff wing, and they’d done evacuated all that. The pumps had to be set up so they could get the river water, and when the sheriff’s men make their way out to keep order, all these inmates, being crippled, some, and half-witted, some, and criminal, a few of em, would get theirselves in the way. Only was…at the trial one or two testified they overheard Dumain saying…”
He stopped, to wave a fresh cigarette at a cloud of gnats. “I have to get it right. I don’t know what he said, certain. But…them types of people didn’t need to live.”
“And you know,” said Esta. “They let him go.”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)