The Mirrors (part eighteen)
A dollar half-slip had been the hasty plan. These shops, in their way, counted as neighborhood; Charmante worked on Dumain and could have, if she’d liked, walked down to browse. A little conversation, before she committed herself to a ten-dollar girdle. Albeit a sumptuous deep pink. And made in Paris…
No, it seemed mad. It seemed almost a test. “I work for Mr. Rothesay. At the other end of Dumain.”
She might. Charmante gave another fact. “My father was Dr. Bonheur…you might remember him.”
“Oh, I know Mrs. Turner very well. I’ll take you up to her one day. She’s been retired twenty years now.”
This, low-voiced and knowing, the non-sequitur implying… Ah!
But of course, Charleton’s intelligence.
“Why, dear. What a look you had on your face this minute!”
“My name is Charmante Demorest. I came down here wanting the address of a Mrs. Jane Breedlove. If you know her…?”
“My daughter-in-law, dear. I have a telephone in the office. And I,” she added, pushing off along a narrow aisle, “am Gloria.”
William did not enviably have a phone, but the Breedloves and Jane’s brother shared a metered one with the upstairs and downstairs apartments in their house.
“Are you cooking, love? Or do you want to go to Main’s? She says…” Gloria perched the talking end while a voice could still be heard, the operator’s, asking a deposit of five cents. “We ought to walk down, have a cup of coffee, you meet everyone. Albert, my son, won’t be home for lunch til after eleven. Now, you know Main’s, the cafeteria, nothing to do with those people…”
She added argument in the way of one, also with the eye of one, who can’t believe this is a problem for you. The after-lunch arrival at Rothesay’s might just be, but of priorities, Charmante preferred this. The Breedloves seemed making an occasion of her visit—and she’d come for the express purpose of erasing a bad impression.
She liked William in his suitcoat and tie. They could walk on side by side, one further block, a Sunday couple on a weekday afternoon. Talk about what they had, at Main’s. (What else could a cafeteria be called, on that corner of Dumain and Main?)
How you could tell a hurricane sky, if you could…
The fall one making plenty of work, but…swept off those white trash shacks down the river. And too bad, no one said any different, you didn’t wish ill on anyone.
She smiled for Albert. Her telltale face had altered, reminded of Brasher, a person she’d met. But the skies all this spring, just evil looking, don’t you think? Yes, Jane. Trying to say her name in a friendly way, overwhelmed being wanted by William’s sister. In the family.
Somehow she was there already. On Albert’s crew, a man who’d lived through Galveston, back when. “They climbed up onto the roof of a house and from there got onto a hotel, used boards or just anything floating, get themselves across, try to find high ground someplace up above the tide.”
Back when. Silent attention to pie. Galveston close to the time of the riot, a thing not mentioned out and about. Then Gloria, segueing on the strength of it, returned Mrs. Turner.
“She has always had kindly things to say about Dr. Bonheur.”
“Yes, I’d like so much to sit down with her.”
A gift. A keepsake? Something home baked…
She weighed it. They neared Rothesay’s.
“You’ll come inside this time? Come back to the kitchen, William, because I have to tell you an important thing. A story of Esta’s.”
This one day she had license…some…for the laxity of starting work too late to fix lunch, which was a duty. The kitchen smelled of grease; random dishes belonging in cabinets sat on the stove, worrying her. Either of her charges might be innocent enough to put a bowl on a burner.
“Listen for a minute. Do you hear them?”
William shook his head. “I’ll sit here and keep an eye up the passage.”
She sat, though itching to tidy, equally to go upstairs and call after Carmine, facing herself towards the garden door. Both entries covered. “Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe somehow it’s over. But this word comes from Polly.”
She told him, hushed. She felt the island’s hum with them, here in town.
“Esta held that inside, then and all the years after. She couldn’t tell Charles, she wouldn’t tell Livia. Livia would have been terrified to death.”
The bell rang.
William stirred. “I’ll come right along beside you.”
Together they went through the library, through the front foyer. The bell rang again, and making hurriedly past the landing, Charmante heard…someone. The truth, he said. The voice that answered seemed Leonce. She hoped it was not that way.
“Open up!” Cheerful, and Veronica. “William! How do!”
She swept indoors. “Charmante! I know you wanted this little friend back home, but you forgot to take him along when you went off with Paul. Go, baby.”
She let Sir Christopher drop to the floor from the flap of her mackintosh. Charmante pivoted on a heel, thinking of his saucer of milk, that he’d scurry off expecting it, and his can of sardines…
He didn’t go to the kitchen. He went for the mirrors.
And as the cat’s tail whipped round the newel post, Rothesay from the shadowed hall materialized, walking down ahead of Carmine.
“What sort of emergency is this?” Bass, raspy, southern.
The state of feeling, the voice conveyed, was tetchiness…as to why William should be in his house. Perhaps, in his town clothes, who he was…
Rothesay cleared his throat at William, asking. And why did Veronica stand there, chin lifted, staring him down?
“How do like that?” She knocked Charmante on the arm. “I think I can introduce you. Grandfather, don’t you know what we’re after?”
Carmine at the top of the stairs had stalled, his face working oddly…against his will, was Charmante’s thought. She thought then, not so…poor Nat hasn’t got one. It was Leonce, at battle with another. Rothesay advanced, a step nearer, a step nearer. Power gathered in the eyes, the mouth… She fixed Old Dumain with a stare of her own, remembering wanting to know this, what stamped a man’s features as he annotated horror in his mental book, threading out details into new planned horrors…
Veronica, not caring, shoved past.
Her shoulder bumped Carmine. Then she was gone, into the mirrored room. William threw an arm around Charmante. She had choked back a cry, decided Veronica could not be recalled. And who was to tell a Dumain she endangered herself?
Either Leonce, or his enemy, won. Carmine dove for Rothesay; Rothesay flying bang into the stair-rail, the two tumbling to stillness. That was all.
The ugly false front, the gable that is no gable. A peak constructed of brick…it has a flavor of the low country…
Of Europe, yellow and red.
Approaching from the trolley stop, you see this, the old man’s house. There were parts of France, too, such architecture, such refusal to be lovely, such Protestant disdain…for you, the non-elect…exemplified Home. You might carry this masonry oceanbound in memory, recreate it as American comfort.
Comfort, the devil you know. You return to the garden, or arrive there, wonder, shudder, at the candy-pink spirea…the waxy pachysandra. Why the unerring eye, Grandfather? Cussedness? Fear of a rival god? A Dumain’s towering arrogance, that he shall decree a thing and have you believe it?
And if you cannot, how interesting. Human nature, let us study it.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)