Excerpt: A Figure from the Common Lot (Peas in a Pod third)
Peas in a Pod
“And no reason,” Haws added to Richard, “why you shouldn’t try the catfish. Our cook is careful about the bones. Arthur, this guest is Richard Everard. Richard, where have you come to us from?”
It was, in a way, the speech of the revival meeting; it had a “we are all brothers” character, but Richard disliked being drawn into the temperance circle less than he would have supposed.
Haws then, as though a voice had called him, exited abruptly through a door not far from Richard’s table. From the sultry warmth and outdoor smell of dry hay and horse manure, propelled—by the slam of a door—inwards on a gust of air, Richard guessed the stairs Haws had descended must lead to a stable yard. He was too hungry to turn the meal down. He said, “Yes, yes, thank you,” as Arthur repeated the selections Haws had made for him.
“Will you want ice water or milk?”
“I like to have both, thank you.”
He had let Haws get his name; he’d admitted to being his father’s son. He had managed to tell a lot, for having told Haws not much.
And after catfish, ham, potatoes with string beans, even a small helping of the pigeon pie, Richard sat, dividing his blackberry cobbler in fourths, dividing these again into eighths, lengthening the attention he gave to the last crumbs. His father was here. They all seemed to know it…but some mystery was being made of his whereabouts, and Haws had been away now for more than an hour. It had got to be nearly four in the afternoon. Richard was alone in the dining room, at his table facing the wall, and by rights they would want to close the kitchen until six.
His unease grew. He began to suspect he had misunderstood Haws. If he were not waiting for a purpose, then he ought to, now he had no choice, take a room for the night. Haws might simply have gone home. Richard began to push away from the table, delaying even this, making a slow business of rising to his feet.
The stair-rail creaked. He heard a tread bounce, then the open-mouthed breathing he’d learned already heralded Gideon Haws.
Richard lowered himself. Haws, too, sat, his weight shuddering the bench. Haws was merely stout, not heavy, but in his managerial way of pushing things along, he bustled with a physical force. He looked into Richard’s face, and Richard saw in his an echo of the woman on the bus’s determined kindliness. Haws began a story that seemed inconsequential.
“My cousin, Miss Haws, is the owner of this hotel. She is quite some years my senior, but we are cousins. I grew up in Rebecca’s care, my father being a widower―and I owe her more than I can say. Miss Haws came into her father’s money…her father, my namesake.”
He paused, as though Richard might have known this; Richard nodded, though he hadn’t, nor did he care…since his father had never cared to make these relationships explicit.
Haws went on: “Being complete in her devotion to our great reforming cause, my cousin bought this property…” He came to a standstill here. His remarks seemed to dissatisfy him, but he jumped to his feet, rather than finish.
“Miss Haws asks to see you.” And disentangling himself by taking the point directly, he now pointed in the direction of the lobby. He meant, Richard thought, the office. When Haws had first emerged, he’d been speaking to a woman.
“Miss Haws intends the hotel to be a haven for the abstinent traveler. And a wholesome abode, also, for those who’ve taken the pledge, where they cannot be subject to temptation. We sleep a hundred and fifty. About half our guests are regular boarders. The rest itinerants.”
Mute, Richard followed Haws. His father was a boarder here, that was what Haws was telling him. He did not want to ask any more. As they approached the reception counter a woman, drawing in the grey skirts of her gown, stepped forward.
“I am Rebecca Haws.”
She gave Richard her hand. He thought it wasn’t right to shake a woman’s, and took an awkward hold on her fingertips; over them, with some idea of the courtly manner, he bobbed his head. One corner of her mouth escaped into a smile. A second or two elapsed before Rebecca tapped Richard, in the way of her cousin, this time on the elbow. He released her fingers.
“You share your father’s name? Will I call you Richard?”
“Gideon will fetch your father here to the office, where we will all have a talk in private. Gideon has spoken to Mr. Everard, and your father knows, Richard, that you have come to see him.”
All this sounded to Richard as though wrong had been done. He was uncertain he hadn’t done it himself. Rebecca Haws was pallid and austere…she was not young; she might even have been his father’s age…but the skin of her face sat taut over the bones, and in her eyes Richard saw something that was young. And this was not an effervescence, as the sentimentalists would have it, nor a rose-petal blush that mantled there…
It was a bitter sense of injustice, like Richard’s own.
“Please sit on the sofa.” Miss Haws, moving behind her desk, rang a bell.
The sofa had a scroll back; its velvet was a deep shade of crimson. Richard supposed a woman might like to have a sofa of this type in her office, but felt, after his day’s journey, that he was not clean enough to sit on velvet.
“Please,” Miss Haws repeated. Jackson from the lobby stepped through the open door. “Will you send to the kitchen for a pitcher of ice water? There will be four of us. Thank you, Jackson. Richard…” Rebecca Haws lifted the lid of a stationery box, and used a fingernail to separate a precise, single sheet of letter paper. Suspended on his own name, Richard watched her center it and smooth it flat.
“Will it be a comfort to your mother…?”
She seemed to mean this parenthetically, as though she weighed some question of a personal nature. She raised her head then, reached for a pencil, tapped it against the blank paper, and caught Richard’s eye. “For I am very willing, as a woman, to compose a note to her. If you prefer, you may write to her yourself, of course. I do not wish to presume.”
He was alone with Miss Haws, and the subtle working that informed these statements baffled and worried Richard. He could not be rude to her, suspecting as he did that she employed his father.
“I mean to, ma’am.”
He enunciated back at her, in a voice that sounded alien to his ears. He would not write to his mother, of course. But this was not the business of Miss Haws.
“You are relieved to have found your father. I’m glad to know it, Richard. I hope you did not receive this news very unexpectedly? Again, if assurance from myself might be of comfort to your mother…I take it she is not alone, however.”
He was embarrassed. Lawrence being Lawrence, Richard was unable to see him doing Mama any good with this news, and that his brother should get to break it seemed unfair, when Richard was the sufferer and the instrument of its delivery. He had left Lawrence out of things when he’d asked Thomas to tell his mother he was well, and would soon return. Only that.
“She don’t read,” he’d reminded Thomas. “You got to go upstairs and talk to her.”
“I know that, sir. I take it as a pleasure, seeing Mrs. Everard again. We ain’t visited since you’uns come up to town.”
Another smile like the first. A small concession, to irony, not mirth.
He’d been about to confirm this too, that Lawrence was his brother…and realized no words were needed. Miss Haws had watched his eyes; while Richard hesitated, she had laid her pencil down with decision, having written nothing. Rebecca Haws was interrogating him, obtaining information under the guise of possessing it.
At that moment, Richard’s father walked into the office, followed by Gideon Haws, who quietly closed the door behind him.
The elder Richard smelled like a barn. He was sweating, and his legs brought him forward at a cramped, unwilling pace; his eyes fixed on those of Miss Haws. She had a hemp rug over her good carpet that covered most of the distance between the door and her desk. Richard saw his father come to its edge and halt, never yet turning aside to notice his son.
“You have not made yourself right with God, Mr. Everard.”
“Ma’am. You know how far I’ve gone astray. I ask nothing whatever of God, but that he dispose of me as it pleases him.”
It was this, the sound of his father’s voice, his conciliating way with Miss Haws, that affected Richard more than the sight of him. He forced his mind into nothingness, let himself see only words, legible on the spines of books, behind and above the head of Gideon Haws: Virtue, Prayer, Union.
Peas in a Pod
(2017, Stephanie Foster)