The Mirrors (part fourteen)
The dark around the lantern’s circle was pitch, for the contrast. But lifting her eyes, Charmante could see a twilight sky above the river, and orange…an unpromising sunset that would cloud over ahead of dying.
William said, “What about out here, ma’am…? You never see the sheriff come along after dark, driving that road, other side? Be out rowing with a lantern…I don’t see that looking like any good.”
Carolee said, oblique: “I will always answer truthfully any question I’m asked. But also, I have a friend who knows when I come out to the house, and the sheriff won’t quibble with him.”
They reached the trees, filed themselves one by one onto the path. Charmante felt a lonely tug at her heart, growing. Acute, and so strong she mistrusted it.
Come back…you’re not leaving…I am still waiting.
My girl. Please don’t go.
Veronica said, “William, you’re in the lead. Take us to the boat where you put it.”
He moved heavy of breath, expending an ache Charmante knew, in righting the boat, nudging it into the water among the floating wreckage, wading in himself, finally—there seemed no other way.
She and Marian caught him by the arms and he dragged himself aboard. Brasher’s craft weighed them low once more, as they struck against the current…a strange, wrenching exercise, putting out on water under a night sky.
Carolee spoke then, the cat’s purr audible, her stroking of him the faintest sibilance.
“Let me answer you, Charmante. Let me say what my cousin doesn’t know. The little porcelain angel, where did it come from? Where did it? We had a music box…I ought to say my mother had. The kind with a cache for trinkets. Did I steal a treasure from her? She and I never had that conversation. I’m not sparing myself…I want to say I thought Charleton was too homely, too dull. But I couldn’t have hated him for those things. Remember Godfrey was alive, trying in fits to kill himself…trying to kill my mother. Kill her, I mean, by killing everything she loved. He started a fire in his bedroom. He poisoned the fish, poured kerosene in their tank. And he arranged mirrors. I don’t think he knew…how to draw spirits, I suppose… I was never afraid. Of Godfrey yes; the mirrors, no. I just found him embarrassing, mad. Dangerous. And you see, Charleton had been my ally. He’d become useless, mooning over me, making a tragedy of his chaste love. I didn’t care for love, any sort. I wanted my friend to protect me. For a hateful…desperate, maybe…will to do mischief, I told him the angel had been found in the ashes of the old hospital. That it was a sort of talisman, or pledge, against the Dumain family’s guilt. That it would be passed to each generation until we’d managed to redeem ourselves. I didn’t know my cousin well enough. That yarn…which I promise I made up on the spot…seized his imagination. He wanted to take it from me, and I said, of course. Why, this is yours by right. I said that. And then I said, ‘be careful’.”
She fell quiet.
William’s labor drowned all other sound. He grunted with the effort of one oar and a contrary flow of water, a concentration that could not afford being broken. The women sat poised, swallowing their breaths. Charmante knew the mirrors signaled; she felt them probe the nape of her neck. If she looked, she must shift from this crouch facing forward, and the life-preserving balance would be harmed, the current win.
They came free, a sudden glide. The waters lapped the shore twenty feet away. But William stopped pushing himself only when the bottom scraped a log or cypress root. Veronica didn’t catch the lantern in time; the swing snuffed the flame. They saw nothing for the minutes their eyes needed to adjust. They heard nothing whatever human. The river, spreading to earth here, waved them into a tighter tangle.
Marian struck a match, and lit the second lantern. “There’s a log that’s still got bark on it, and see there, it goes up onto dry land. I don’t expect any better answer, Miss Veronica. We’ll have to tie up the boat best we can.”
“Poor Brasher. But it was us broke faith first…so the Institute will buy him a new boat, if we ever find him again.”
“I about done in my hands,” William said, Charmante thought to her.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to do.” And then she said, “Thank you, William.”
“Yes, for Heaven’s sake, what a hero! We’ll think of something to make it up to you. Marian?”
Veronica was on the log-bridge, saying this. Marian sighed and handed up the light.
She was under Dumain’s roof, lying on one of his beds. Charmante did not expect to sleep well. In a downtown house she’d never tried, in a room of shapes thrown by streetlamps beaming, now and then a motorcar puttering and honking. If this entity believed her an enemy, and willed himself rid of her, he might appear…manifest in some way. A fear wanted her attention, and could not have it yet. She was taking her contemplations in order.
That morning she’d walked into the garden, prepared to summon all the energy…force, whatever it was…whatever channel from the mirrors to her mind gave visions.
She had wanted to see Dumain at his window, watching, knowing…as she knew he had…that fire would break out in the cholera hospital. He had known it, he had waited for it, to thrill at it, to see flame shatter the first glass. To thrill at inquiry, listen to the screams, monitor the progress of escape…learn, of the inmates, who could. He stood curious to know whether these events produced patterns of behavior, how such patterns served or thwarted; what new knowledge could be applied to the next tragedy.
What difference, then, did tragedy itself make?
He put on his coat, walked the distance, found himself mobbed by panicked staff. He told them to lock the wards. And he had been a young man.
This room didn’t face Dumain Street. She wanted to tiptoe into the hall and find one that did, prove herself right or wrong by how whole the empty field showed. He might have watched the riot unfold too, forty years later, tallying up more of his useful data.
He might have watched, notebook in hand.
Charmante was tired, her limbs resisting. And if she got lost…she surely would…wearing Susie’s borrowed nightgown, having to knock on another resident’s door…
It would not be a lasting humiliation. However, the Institute was a serious place. Dumain’s house was not spookily empty; it was not even quiescent in the depths of night. Students pursuing degrees lived here, doing their research in the archives. Her door was outlined from a bulb that burned in the hallway; and voices in talk, sweetly earnest, rose from other rooms.
Once their feet had lighted on the road’s sparse gravel, Veronica lifted the lantern, and they saw the car behind, not ahead…they had landed down-current, closer to town.
Marian jogged off. Headlights, the revving engine. Leaning from the window, she called: “Doesn’t look like there’s anything wrong. Nobody bothered with it.”
Veronica rounded with the lantern, squatting by each tire, and climbed in last. “Mr. Brasher may well have stayed at his post, til it got… I wonder what you can see of the house from here?”
“You go on wondering.” Cool-handed, Marian backed them until the road widened well clear of the bank. She turned the car and bumped them on at an easy pace, bright pairs of eyes reflecting every several feet, animal haunches flinging into the woods.
“And so…how many Dumains are there altogether now? You may ask yourselves. Carolee was telling you how she found out from Charleton…well, what we are. What the family mission needed to be.”
Joseph Dumain knocked one night at his son’s door. Charleton did not live in the house alone. He was not alone, and the presence of boarders, of student doctors who interned at the clinic, kept his feet from the chasm, his eyes towards humanity.
Need was life, and the chasm was death.
“… an inner mythology, I suppose. I can’t call it sight. I don’t believe I’m insane. But Carolee, I feel a darkness encroaching…”
He felt it. He fought every day to turn himself from it. His cousin had given him an analyst’s sigh. “And what if you described things to yourself differently?”
But it was four a.m. He was in the kitchen, brewing coffee. His grandfather had conferred on him the responsibility of the clinic; and the running of it was not the burden.
The old man had a curiosity. What components of the human race tended towards stamina, but yet with no excess of soul, as Grandfather used the term? He used it in the way of the intellectual British. He did not want his ideal “unit” to think existential thoughts, to worry over the goodness of man, over his place or purpose. He felt there was a mix of the races—he wished to learn what it was—that produced a superior breed of soldier.
A soldier to end all wars; for, being bred, he could be sacrificed in unlimited numbers. War would be a game then, a gentleman’s game, and the people would not trouble themselves to follow it.
Charleton, at twenty-four, hadn’t the stamina to speak his outrage. He was on his feet sixteen hours of the day. Exhaustion did not help him sleep. He pulled back the door and saw Joseph, saw the weatherbeaten face grow pinched. He knew his own plain looks were bleached and hollowed uglier by his indoor life.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)