The Mirrors (part thirteen)
She faced him and looked into his eyes. To say, “William, I saw him,” would lead to wrong, she was sure. He would fling himself back to the mirrored room. He suddenly put his arms around her.
For a minute or two they stayed this way. She thought he was keeping it tight in his chest, and wasn’t going to let himself cry. But when he relaxed, he said, “You got a little of the sight…Charmante. So I believe you when you say so. Innocent.”
And by unspoken consent, they turned to the cellar door. William tested the handle, the door swung and caught, with a clink of glass. Daylight fell on a floor where quicklime had been poured over dirt to harden it. There were shelves. The shelves carried rows of jars…
Whose contents, it became apparent to their eyes, were not pickles and succotash. They were brains. Or, larger jars on the lower shelves held brains, drowned in a parchment-colored liquid. The upper shelves held a number of hearts, some intestines, other organs.
“Take a moment.”
It was the voice, not wholly welcome, of Veronica. “Don’t give way to it. Especially you, William. I don’t mean to be rude…”
She crowded in with them. “Look. See how they’re labeled.”
The labels bore hashmarks, followed by three neat-handed letters, hyphen, three digits.
“William. In your own way, you did some of this work. I don’t mean to be rude.”
“Ma’am. It’s…” He stood arms crossed, wanting, fearing to look. “What is it? What are you saying?”
“When St. Hubert was a quarantine camp, during the flu epidemic. When the poor boys died, and you helped carry them, on a stretcher, to…those old tennis courts I think, where they had the morgue tents…”
“Medical science.” Veronica bent at an enamel-topped table, slid open a narrow drawer, showed them books like ledgers. “The true names are here, ages, military identification, hometown…” She pulled one and held it at her waist, so they could see. A fingernail, lacquered rose pink, tapped a column of numbers.
Beside this was a quarter-inch column of boxes marked either slash, or Y.
“If there was no family, of course…” She put the book away. “But if there was, they would get permission. All those records are in order too. Why are they here…the specimens? Why didn’t the army go off with them? Well, the army wasn’t supervising the scientific work. They were not even paying for it…they didn’t have the budget. Dumain’s clinic actually paid them. That shouldn’t surprise you. Where do you come up with the resources to even attempt researching a disease so terrible, so contagious? How did it happen, millions infected…why did it kill the young, mostly? Did I say already Dumain outlived them all, Joseph, Charleton? His son-in-law, grandson, daughters?”
“It was Dumain collecting these…? He wanted to slice open brains…infected brains…and look at them under a microscope?”
“No. He stayed at his house in town. Charleton did this work. Charleton, you know, killed himself.”
“Did he though? Could he have been killed?”
“Charmante! What do you know?”
A flaw, in the public story. An incongruity.
The rules had changed. William believed Charmante had the sight…she doubted this. For her father’s sake, she would never claim such a thing, but she could suppose one of them, the mirror people…
Possessed a strength, a ruler’s.
“I saw Charleton lying in the garden where he was found. The bullet hole was under his eye. Would he have shot himself that way? His grandfather was alive still…”
“Yes. The body was released to Grandfather. He told them he would prepare it himself.”
“An end, then. No questions. And…”
“Let’s go out. There’s a little side porch.”
Veronica gave a light pat to each back, and crabwise they escaped the specimen room. What a house, sitting here on its island, dismal and frightening, haunted, and no more by ghosts than by human ugliness.
The porch chairs were dry. William had not come with them…
But Veronica motioned her down. “And…?”
“I was thinking of Carolee. I can’t interview her.”
“Hmm…maybe you can. But ask me first.”
“I wonder about Charleton. If he was depressed over the work, felt coerced, Old Dumain would have been gleeful… It’s a funny word, I guess. But gleeful, making his grandson do something repugnant. He, Charleton…he was sick and heartbroken, it would seem to him there was no hope for anything… Being expected to pull organs out of people and label them. Put them up in jars! They were close cousins, were they? Or…I’d just better say. I found a letter in Rothesay’s house. It isn’t signed. The writer felt bad about telling Charleton a lie, a made up story he’d believed in. She wrote like she knew her cruelty had been…surgical, if you’ll forgive me.”
“Do tell. I never heard that one.” Veronica, if she’d had Sir Christopher’s whiskers, would have twitched them.
“The Metropolitan Cultural Institute.” William came under the roof and sat on a windowsill. “There’s a stamp on the back page of the books in there. If all that belongs to you, why don’t you take it? Why don’t you…” He stopped Veronica’s answer. “Call what you do by the right sort of name?”
“Why don’t I tell you a little story? No, a very short little story. It’s about me.”
She smiled. William did not…but he gave way.
“When I was fifteen, William, maybe twenty years ago…maybe not…”
And Veronica, never-to-be-repressed, shook that playful finger. “When I was fifteen, my mother and I sat down, and we made a choice together, one of those things you understand so well you don’t have to say it in words. I wrote a letter to the president of Saint Philomene’s Academy for Young Women…Janet Sampson Howe, if you like… You’ve never heard of her.” She laughed, pleased they hadn’t. “I said, which was true, I had been educated at home. True, and a good thing. Mrs. Howe sent an appointment card. I took the train up…the school’s in Virginia…with a family friend as chaperone. That was Carolee, my father’s niece…we call each other cousin.”
“You’re saying it was a white school. You rode up on a white car, with a white woman to sponsor you, or reassure Mrs. Howe…”
“Oh, exactly, Charmante. A good education’s everything, isn’t it? No, I’m here and I’m not going back. And don’t you worry, William. I visit my mother all the time.”
“All I said was, nice work if you can get it.”
“Ha! The institute is funded by Dumain. Family fold, yes…I take the one thing back. A good education is helpful, but if you don’t have the wherewithal, try getting clear away. I started when the old horror still stalked the halls on occasion. He knew very well who I was. He scared me silly coming in where they had me typing, bringing one of the doctors by the buttonhole, talking nasty little ailments and peering over my shoulder. But not once did he say Veronica to me…so. The thing is, my dears, the institute does real work. I mean just those studies and analyses the name implies. We get requests for our data from all over the world.”
“And who’s that woman? Or…was she. I guess you need the whole story.”
“You don’t have records on that…” Charmante intervened. “On two boys, Harold Wright, and Rance…?”
“They were helping her with a study, the year of the riot. They disappeared.”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)