The Mirrors (part eight)
He let this trail. He was amiable; he expected her to sympathize.
“You’d have to…”
She heard her voice cut out, her throat dry. “Tell me the name. I was hired by Mr. Rothesay, whether you like him or not. You don’t mean Carolee…?”
Unless this devil were Charleton… Was it possible?
He was watching her, her face doing interesting things, perhaps…fearful, defiant, questioning things…and his smile altered, jaw lowering, teeth coming out. He grinned.
“No, Mrs. Demorest, the Roback I do not refer to. I think the woman’s name is Veronica. I don’t much like Veronica, coming down to it…but I doubt it’s money she wants.”
He shook his head and drew so near, Charmante could only tilt hers back, or refuse to meet his eye. “This is all some stupidity…Carolee party to it, yes…some foolery of righting wrongs which have not been done. I don’t expect my work to be understood, but I might ask nonetheless—I think, fairly—that cretins don’t disturb me at it.”
She turned her back, took up her spoon and bent over the stovetop. Again today, because there was cocoa and sugar in the house; because of some vague hope Carmine might struggle back for it, she had milk on to simmer for pudding.
“Over yonder…” The voice was Leonce’s. A finger touched her shoulder.
A living man’s…she must not start.
“Have you ever looked out that way, out on that empty field? Did you know the Chevalier, the first Dumain to settle here, made a bequest of that land to the city? Where the cholera hospital stood. In the old grave robber’s heyday, that clinic of his, after. Burnt to the ground…both of em burnt to the ground.” Leonce laughed. “They raised a tent and laid out the bodies there.”
“Yes. I know.”
She was picturing a scene from her mother’s story.
Her bed had been a chair and ottoman pushed tight together, bolstered with a comforter, a makeshift she was still small enough, at twelve, to fit. She lay rigid, trying to be deaf for her mother’s sake and Esta’s. There was one bedroom; the three of them shared it. Her aunt had got to her feet, rummaged for a wrapper, padded, murmuring, “Hold on”, in answer to a tap on the window-sash.
They sat on the porch glider.
Charmante raised herself, slow and silent, on her knees reaching the wall where their voices came through the screen.
“Do you know who was there?”
“You been gone a while,” Esta said.
The light of a match shot up orange. Cigarette smoke blew in.
“Not that. Esta, I don’t expect it. I didn’t…but I went down the rows looking. Esta, that awful old man!”
“Was he like what I told you that once?”
“They were all under sheets. Some assistant he had, lifting them…they were feuding some way, those two. And I was about furious. Carry on like that, when you ought... I grieve. Don’t I grieve? But it makes me think of the card game, you know? After a while, he’d have it memorized, just which one was where. He could pick what he had in mind to pick. And some…you would never be able to say who they were. It’d be by the clothes, I guess.”
“You’re not crying though.”
“I don’t think I will…I don’t think I can. Esta, that old man just liked watching.”
“Oh, he did.”
She found both men had lapsed, trance-like, into a swaying on their feet, empty in the eyes. As though their being there depended on her attention.
Leonce came back.
“The work had to go on. I never felt that, for myself, there was anything else. Why mourn a heap of masonry? Why mourn money, kept from you? I did hate him…no, fathomlessly, I hated him… My grandfather. I felt he had somehow…what is that biblical phrase…? Compassed me about with evil. When I was newborn and could do nothing. My father… He’d always wanted me away at school, he hadn’t liked the sight of me. And I forgive…I understand. I thought, seeing it all in ruins, the suffering…despising him so much for having…
“Oh,” this one finished, after a moment, “not contempt. Something worse. To hold people in contempt for suffering is to grant them humanity, at least. To find suffering an interesting study! I did take up with Leonce. I wished for him to have his birthright. I thought all that was the cause…there are causes, Mrs. Demorest. I knew, I could know this without needing to have witnessed… I think they left him dead before the fire, Leonce and Godfrey. It’s odd how vividly I picture the body, facedown and horrid, and then the front… It had only licked him over.”
The voice was less obviously southern. He had been away at school. He was a mournful creature; he hadn’t, unfolding these thoughts, told her much about Leonce’s identity.
“Now Carolee said…”
Charmante eased into presuming on this acquaintance. Charleton spoke and did not speak to her; he called her by name, but all along…those shivers when the house had felt too empty…he might have done, with no vehicle to make himself heard. Poor weak Carmine.
Rothesay’s eyes, telegraphically aware…
Rothesay, catty-corner to where they stood, was making her skin crawl. As though you’d gone to a wake, the body dressed…and you, turning to speak to a mourner, glance back to see—
A moving eyeball under a half-raised lid. She said, “Charleton. She wrote you an apology. Carolee had given you some yarn…about the angel, I think.”
“I went out to the island to visit my kin. They all thought I was one of those fetch and carry boys, shown up to move em off.” A long chuckle. “One time I said to Godfrey, you go on, let the old man prepare those needles. I’m only asking…you don’t mind that, do you, Godfrey? Well, I was curious, ma’am. Old Charleton’ll scorn me for saying so, but…the sight of a man, living, crawling to his assassin, letting the thing be done… They do call em fiends, don’t they? I snatched it away from him, snapped off a wing.”
Leonce, with his odd charm, gave another friendly chuckle.
“You never saw the like! I said, God, I could crush this little thing in my hand right now. Would you like that? I’ll do it. So he gets himself up off the floor…all in a state, ma’am, dusty, clothes hanging off him like a sack, all weeping and bawling. I saw him hunt for something…and I kicked him down again. God, you are never gonna kill me, I told him. Why don’t I just go myself, slip it in the wall for you? Now, Carolee never saw me once before. I went right up and said, what about that old cholera hospital, Miss Roback? I know a story you never heard. I know a lot of stories.”
“Crawling to his assassin, letting the thing be done.”
“Now old devil, I don’t think so.”
But the exchange ended the visit. Leonce walked Carmine from the kitchen; Charmante heard feet springing up the staircase.
Rothesay woke in full, to smile at her. “I think you are scorching the milk, Mrs. Demorest. I’ll blame myself for that…and apologize. Carmine and I ought to keep well out of your kitchen before lunchtime.”
She felt exhausted, from holding back the impulse to run outdoors, to shout for William. She wanted no more to do with Rothesay, but said anyway, “Aren’t you worried about Mr. Carmine? Wouldn’t you like to send him home?”
“Mrs. Demorest, it is what I have in mind.”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)