The Mirrors (part sixteen)
William agreed. That smell. Those white crooked fingers. Ain’t drunk, go to hell. You put your hand on a dead man if you want.
The boss muttered, pushed past and shook Leonce.
Veronica said: “I guess he cheated his customers. He told me everyone thinks the numbers are fixed. The only right fix is to let everyone win a little so they keep quieted down and playing. Someone took a seat behind him and shot him in the head. Didn’t take his money purse, just revenge. I measure my father by the fact that once Carolee had gathered me in, so to speak…once I’d got my diploma and gone to work for the institute, which is to say, for Grandfather…Leonce did not show up. He did not bother me or my mother. I don’t think he ever wanted for money. I saw him last time a few months before he was killed. Just to wave to…that was us, we waved.”
Old Dumain, the Chevalier, his father’s title that in his youth he’d borne for others’ irony, had died at ninety-six in 1920. One of his sons was dead before him—Joseph, in the riot of ’01. Another, acknowledged only as grandson, ruled a suicide in ’19. A third, unacknowledged, had outlived him by three years, murdered in ’23.
Carolee shrugged. In the dark of the car, Charmante, sitting next to her, felt she did. The mother of Charleton and Leonce had been Dumain’s daughter. Had the devil found Polly and Lil, his white daughters, inviolable? Favored the younger, Elizabeth, over Mary?
Taking, of course, his conception of favors into account.
“Polly was a troubled woman. And Godfrey…I’m sure I’ve given you a picture, by now, of Godfrey. I haven’t got an answer. At any rate, I wasn’t the rightful heir. My mother died in aught-eight. The accident with her horse. Our lawyer…my lawyer, my cousin Giles Roback, ran out a portion of the estate hunting for Godfrey. Trying to prove him dead. Alive if it came to it. Grandfather had placed St. Hubert in a forty-nine-year lease with the government. He’d effectively disinherited us…myself, of course. Leonce was not in the picture, and so not Veronica. Some theoretical heir, son or daughter of a son or daughter, if Giles finds such a person, may reclaim the island one day. Your Carmine, if he will. Meanwhile, Giles found records of my grandfather’s. Notebooks, with lineages and assessments, and trials…trials of…”
“Experimental constructs. As you’ve said, dear. He’d meant for his science to be a legacy. He wasn’t ashamed…no, he was the Great and Chosen, that was exactly what Grandfather believed. The books had diagrams for the mirror arrangements—even that wasn’t a secret. A blueprint for those who would carry on the work. Imagine a family discovering…”
Veronica, more confident than her cousin, fell no less mired over descriptives. “We thought we needed to locate the people listed. They were blood, after all. They might be ill. They might be in poverty. It wasn’t right to have money in trust for the institute, and property…”
“Money,” Carolee cut in, “that was mine, if Godfrey was never found. I don’t live in that little bungalow because I can’t do better. But, because…I have better things to do.” She paused on this turn of phrase. “I hope it doesn’t sound boastful to say I’m one of the good Dumains. I have chosen never to marry, never to bear a child. Veronica has pledged this with me.”
“And we’d thought, our friend Rothesay. He is a son, a proper direct Dumain, his mother one of the institute women. William, I don’t know if she was yours.”
“Not a thing I mind to go pursuing, ma’am.”
Charmante had let them talk on, would not…hadn’t come to terms…couldn’t, yet, ask of Carolee or Veronica…
What happened to Dr. Bonheur? How could he have vanished?
Everyone at the clinic knew him. They loved him.
“Rothesay studied medicine abroad. He had stayed, after the war, moving between Dover and Ghent, doing relief work at first, then teaching. We wrote letters back and forth…I’ll take the blame for finding all that history too trustworthy. He had no wife, he told me. The calling was everything. He said he sometimes wondered what it would be to have a daughter. Sly as that, you’ll note. But I took it for a straight answer, straight enough. Carolee and I decided giving him the house was right, the best choice all around, because a clinic for the poor was just what, he said, he had in mind. The money saved, he said, would mean more for the good works.”
Still. Doers of good works must state their good intentions in ordinary terms.
A devil might read the secret heart.
She woke, seeing the room with its Queen Anne furniture dimmest, the light of bare sunrise, her eyes with the grainy feel of not enough sleep. Charmante in her own bed would have rolled over. But she’d dreamed of unresolved things, and she was in Old Dumain’s house. It seemed to her, rising and donning Susie’s robe, that the drive to the city, however poky for the road’s poor surface, could have lasted an hour at best… The distance was eight or nine miles.
She turned an armchair to face the window, saw a fenced lawn, a small square, a misty wellhead at center. A strong image came of Godfrey’s ghostly face. She knew Charleton and Joseph had spoken here. Could anyone tell a secondhand story, someone else’s, tell it so potently the listener found herself walking at his side, seeing the sights he saw himself, hearing a voice she would recognize, in tenor, in accent…?
Accent, degraded Carolina. Tenor, sneering. She would never hear Joseph speak to prove to herself this was so. But Carolee had not given her Charleton’s thoughts and experiences. He’d given his own. In her few hours’ sleep, there had been time.
Was it possible, then, that William had told his story as she recalled? Had he ever spoken so much? And would he, speak before an aristocratic Dumain, and Leonce’s daughter? Nothing in the flow of consciousness was hidden from the mirror people—the living, the dead, the dreaming, the thoughtful, all one. No way to be certain, for the fog raised between their world and yours, whether you had the right to your information, or whether you ought to conceal the knowing of it.
William, telling Marian to stop the car on Lafayette Avenue, another neighborhood demarcation, had left them. No one asked why he refused a room at the institute, and would not have Marian deliver him to his door. He preferred making his way, on streets where a man walking in the dark would trouble few, home to his sister’s house without odd company…
More to the point, recognizable company. What taking up with Dumains meant to the Wright family, Charmante had learned. It would be a fault against her in Jane Breedlove’s book.
Through the wall an airy chime sounded. Half-past six now. And coffee was brewing, the institute staff starting the day’s work, noises of routine. Someone pushed a carpet sweeper in the hall. Through the wall again, voices…an audible snatch.
What about me? Chamante asked herself.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)