Excerpt: A Figure from the Common Lot (Gone Before second)
One of these letters, Honoré knew by heart. (Some of its phrases, it was true, he knew only by heart, and had not quite got their meaning.) He reviewed Tweedloe’s intelligence, red-faced in the unlighted room, but with no reason to suppose Ebrach would gain further ground learning another of his secrets―Ebrach was beyond his reach already. Yet he felt a small storm within, a feeling he could not name, a torsion…something proud, and desolate, and angry, when he thought of Ebrach’s, or anyone’s, knowing what Anne had done to him.
He ran his hands through the clothing on the pegs, and could not find even his waistcoat. He had knocked something down, some heavy overshirt that hit the floor with a crunch, releasing a whiff of wood smoke. He did not like being an offensive guest to the Everards, but was lightheaded, unequal to stooping, unable to lift and rehang this. Must he cloak himself in the quilt, so that he might sit mortified at the Everards’ table, barefoot, disheveled, and with some part of him—he sniffed―odorous with vomit?
However, he had no choice. He would with chagrin accept this natural consequence of Ebrach’s friendship. He found the knob, twisted it; at once, footsteps approached. Someone rapped at the door’s other side. Honoré backed into the shadows.
“Mr. Gremot, have you left your bed? May I render you any assistance, sir?”
Ebrach nudged open the door, the gap filling with light, and with his clean white collar, neat tie, and spotless waistcoat. He pushed his face through. It was a healthy face, washed free of grime, topped by a peak of oiled hair…and, to Honoré’s wonder, Ebrach had shaved. Was this spirit meeting such an occasion for respect? Did the dead so readily take umbrage? The lanterns from the parlor marked out a growing portion of the bedroom, throwing Honoré into a wedge of comparative brightness, stinging his eyes. Ebrach slipped inside, and closed the door behind him; gradually the light narrowed to a beam.
“Verbena has taken your shirt to boil; she has put your waistcoat and trousers on the clothesline to gather the night’s dew. When they have dried in the sun, she will brush them for you. That is how she tells me she manages woolens.” Ebrach thrust out his left hand and patted two of the pegs, finding on the third what he wanted―a field hand’s blouse, the sort pulled over the head and fastened with a short placket.
“This will do. Verbena has laid out Mr. Everard’s trousers on the foot of the bed. I suppose you hadn’t noticed.”
“Ah, Mr. Ebrach, how do I know…?”
He had been ready to snap at Ebrach, over this faint criticism…how do I know what people do when I’m asleep? They enjoy their supper, no doubt. But Ebrach, in his helpfulness, was too brisk for recrimination. Able, it seemed, to see in the dark, he’d got the trousers, and stood holding these before him, sizing up the scope of the task.
“You had better sit down. Do you need my help with the shirt?”
Honoré rubbed a hand over his face, as he stepped into the stead’s living quarters, and having taken his eye off Ebrach, cast an anxious glance over his shoulder, to find the guardian of his welfare a step behind. Ebrach, as though this start had been a further symptom of illness, took Honoré by the elbow.
The cabin was not so different from the cottage of the Paquettes. The Everards also had arranged life to their convenience in the room where most of it was lived, so that each article of furniture―the washstand under the window, the mirror on the wall next to the chimneypiece, the lantern hanging from a hook above…an armchair, angled with its back to the table, a cupboard that filled the wall separating parlor from bedroom, a trunk next to a side door (another, of Ebrach’s, placed before this; a printed battlefield scene tacked above, a second row of pegs below), the dining table, taking most of the wall to Honoré’s right―commanded its foot or two of negotiable floor space.
An iron stove sat inside the hearth, and he saw on its flat top a tin coffee pot and a loaf pan. The pan held a fourth remaining of what appeared a yellow cake. Honoré, at these articles, stared with naked longing.
The least dissipation of heat was perceptible, in this stifling air. Every door and window stood open. But facing the stove sat an elderly man, who sagged against the armchair’s back, knees buckled above the hearthrug, lower chest and lap covered by a blanket. The old man’s head lolled over his shoulder; he was deeply unconscious…and the room was not so large that his whisky reek had not crossed to the bedroom threshold. This, to Honoré, was somewhat consoling.
He would be the husband, the drunkard, whose return had worried Ebrach. Lank grey hair fell across the old man’s chin, weaving itself into his beard, and his arm that rested against the blanket was exposed to the elbow, fleshless, no more than stringy sinew attached to bone.
Honoré swayed to his right, and Ebrach laid a second steadying hand on his shoulder. For the moment, he let this go. When he’d walked into the parlor, Verbena had twisted round from the table, whispering to herself some word. Pressure stretched diagonal folds across the cloth as she levered her body up, while side by side the Everard sons, one with his back against the wall, legs sprawled, arms crooked behind his head, the other bent over his plate, working a knife into a plug of tobacco, watched from their bench opposite…not their mother’s struggles, but the actions of Jerome and Ebrach.
To be fair, Honoré allowed Verbena might refuse her sons, had they offered help.
They were near to his own age, adult men living under the roof of their mother and father. He felt afraid to lift his eyes full in their direction, but thought he’d heard a snort or a sputter, a message shared with their enemies, about a shared joke; and that their otherwise rigid silence was an arduous act of suppression. Disgust escaped their faces blatantly enough. What they held back must be the urge to inflict harm. And one of them, seeing Honoré so dressed, must feel his grievance acutely.
He ducked Ebrach’s hold, and gave his arm to Verbena. She had rocked herself by this time onto her feet; Honoré, drawing her into an embrace, expected her murmurs to resolve into naming him a poor thing. But unspeaking, she tilted her head back and gazed into his eyes, her own filled with a sort of awe, into which he could read no meaning.
Her hair was caught under a rust-stained cloth embroidered with purple flowers, binding tight thin strands against her scalp. He saw this, as he glanced over Verbena’s head, and saw, on the face of the lean, dark Everard son, an expression of livid rage, disbelieving indignation. That could not be helped. Verbena had suffered, as Honoré had; in this respect, they knew each other intimately. He felt that he might whisper a word to her in French, and she would recognize his need.
“Madame,” he said, “do you have, in this house…”
“The privy,” she told him, “is out the back way.”
“I will escort you, sir. Here are your shoes. I will go hang the lantern while you put them on.” Ebrach pointed and Honoré noticed then his shoes placed, with the socks folded into them, beside the front door. A pair of work boots, separating at the soles from their nails, sat next to them, the row of toes and heels aligned by some exacting hand.
A garden closet was nothing daunting. That had been the way of things at Honoré’s early home in Huy. And he wanted a private talk with Ebrach.
The evening air, tempered by the storm, folded around him with the comfort of a warm bath. Some night-blooming flower, influenced by a force unknown―for the wind had died―issued an intense perfume. From a pine above their heads, a owl’s descending call repeated quavering, a series of tripping notes…less eerie to Honoré than nostalgic. All about the lantern Ebach had hung on its hook by the privy door, a cloud of tiny insects circled, and Honoré, as he pushed the door closed, looked upwards. He watched, for a moment transfixed, as a bat seemed to fall from the sky, disappear into darkness, and fall once more.
He had thought of three questions for Ebrach. The first was simple.
“You have not, Mr. Ebrach, done your work already, and now you prepare to leave?” He hinted, also, at his third question, but in his mind, he saw the radiance of Verbena Everard’s eyes.
“Jerome,” Ebrach began, and, catching himself said, “pardon me…”
“Please do, monsieur, call me Jerome. That is the name on my American papers. You will understand.” He looked into Ebrach’s face, and saw Ebrach smile down at him. “I may also, for all I know, embarrass these relatives, and I do not wish to. You understand that as well.”
Ebrach continued smiling. “Jerome, I have sat down to supper with the Everards, and that is all. But Richard and Lawrence have shared with me certain of their concerns. Can you guess what troubles them?”
This, of Ebrach’s, anticipated Honoré’s second question…was it safe for him to remain in this house?
“There is one who dislikes me, because I am a Gremot, and he, as I suppose, dislikes my relatives…or, because I am here at all, and I cannot help that…I did not expect to be.”
He essayed a fixed and firm eye.
“Richard, the elder brother…” These words came slowly, and here Ebrach tailed into silence. He seemed to muse on some private knowledge. He reached up and unhooked the lantern, lifting it above his head. His right hand thus engaged, he stepped behind Honoré, and with his left, touched him on the shoulder, resting fingers against a knob of bone.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)