Excerpt: A Figure from the Common Lot (The House of Gremot second)
The House of Gremot
“Mr. Jerome, please forgive me.” Lovas cleared his throat. “Do you recognize these papers…do you acknowledge them, sir?”
With the sleeve of his dressing gown, Honoré blotted away tears. The papers were impersonal things; they gave credence to the life of a man who did not exist. Dogneaux’s letter was trash, a souvenir Honoré had kept because he thought of his father and their visit to Paris. He had acquired it as a consequence of that year’s events, and had used it to leave M. Gremot. The only paper he had from a relative of his own would look to have been written by, “a business associate, no more”—it was what Honoré had told the first official. As for Thos. B. Jerome, père…they could look for him, if they liked.
“Mr. Lovas, what question should I answer?”
“Your visitors are waiting in my office, Mr. Jerome. If you will step inside, now.”
This time the hand Lovas lent, after he’d watched a minute of Honoré’s groping for equilibrium, found its mark, and in this proximity, he added softly, “Mr. McCutcheon did have a difference of opinion with me, as to showing you the papers. He was inclined to question you. However, the description and circumstance of your arrival are to me persuasive enough.”
It was the priest Honoré saw at first, standing over the woman’s chair, and it was he whose face Honoré searched. McCutcheon had said a promising thing―that she spoke no English. Anne, depending on her game, might pretend so. But this was not Anne. The blue dress attracted his eye…of all colors, he had always liked this blue that was near purple. The woman’s posture was cowed. She had inched herself far back in her chair, and huddled with arms crossed over her belly, hands tucked from sight. Her hat had a bunch of netting veiling the brim, the face beneath not wholly seen. She darted a glance across, rather than look boldly up, and shuddered, freeing her arms with a jolt that shook her body.
Distrait, clutching at her hat, she leaned over her knees, all as though seized by some mad emotion, or sudden nausea. Lovas stepped between the chair and Honoré.
“Father Zaide, this is Mr. Thomas Jerome. Jerome, Father Zaide has brought this woman…”
She had got the hat and its obstructing garnish off her head; she drove the pearl-tipped pin through the crown, and flung the hat to the floor. Honoré’s first notion had been that she was herself an inmate. Next, it crossed his mind that to a stranger—a lady—he must smell very offensive. Then she began to wail.
“Oh…te voir…! Oh, Honoré, tu n’es pas morts!”
Lovas stopped speaking, and moved quickly behind his desk. Honoré believed himself to be having a crisis. He could not breathe.
He was able to shuffle to the chair, and fall there beside Clotilde; and far from being repulsed, she gathered him into her arms. By some miracle he could not grasp, she had forgiven him, when—so certain the Sartains had taught her to despise him—he had for almost a year not thought of her.
This April morning, frost held to the grass in every shaded place, marking out the shapes of house fronts, the trunks of trees, and each fence slat. Honoré had a muffler wound round his neck, stuffed into the collar of his overcoat. He used a stick, giving support on the right; on his left he relied on Clotilde, his hand on her shoulder, her arms round his waist. They walked as far as a street called Elm, every day. Honoré ate regular meals, every day. He did not feel well, after these two weeks of freedom—but he felt safe. They took their lunches and suppers with the other boarders. Father Zaide had visited twice. Otherwise, Honoré saw no one, only Clotilde.
“Are you tired, Honoré? Will you go a short way farther?”
They had two rooms at Connaught’s Hotel, and Clotilde, never before responsible for a household, had no part of her nature inclined to the dictatorial. She did not attempt to make terms with Honoré. She made only gentle requests. She hadn’t minded, or had shown no sign of minding, that on his release from the almshouse, he had spent three days resting, sleeping much of the time…or sitting blank-faced, empty of thought—and had barely spoken to her.
“I am writing a letter to my aunt.”
He thought she was prattling. He sat before the fire grate, the back of his chair touching hers, while she sat at the desk. He was wrapped in a wool blanket under a goose-feather comforter; inside this cocoon, his hands were warmed by a hot water bottle.
“I will put something in…to Bertrand, from his father. But you will tell me what to say.”
He felt the chair backs bump as Clotilde scooted round to see his face. “I meant to give our son your name, Honoré…but my uncle said he did not want to hear your name in the house. I thought it would please him better, then, to hear his own name.”
That was her way of calling this to his attention, that he’d forgotten the child. And he had. The day she’d rescued him from the almshouse had been so fraught for them both, that nothing had crossed his mind. But in the days that followed, Honoré had begun to feel patched back together, stepping blindly, with Clotilde’s hand holding his, into civilized life. He had allowed her to bathe him. He had accepted a box of clothing, brought by Father Zaide, not for charity’s sake—he no longer needed charity—but that practicality demanded. Honoré had no possessions.
It seemed late, at that point; yet in decency, he must find in himself love for this son, and persuade Clotilde that he felt it. He nearly loved her. She had ransomed him from a dark place, and she was the only one…the only one who would cross the ocean to do this.
“Bertrand is with your aunt, or have you sent him to your mother?”
He saw her eyes glisten, as though he’d said a hurtful thing. “No, Clotilde, I only ask. But the child was born in good health?”
“Honoré, when he is old enough, he will come here to live with us.” She waited, and he did not answer this, though it had been a question. “But, it’s true, my aunt is keeping him. Yes, Bertrand was born a fat baby. His hair is black, like yours, and he is always laughing.”
“Tell him…” Clotilde’s uncle had never been a believer, or a friend. Though not an enemy. Honoré owed his life to the Sartains, but felt they’d come already, and long since, to a fair settlement. “Tell your aunt and uncle that I send them my respect. Tell Bertrand he has my love.”
She got him outside for these walks to the end of their street, back to their house. Clotilde, with her mind on small advances, wanted only to see Honoré achieve one step further, eat with a better appetite, show the spark of his old ambition. But he feared, in secret—because to Clotilde he would not say so—that he was not recovering.
Opposite, all along the way, the low slant of the sun made shadow, refrigerating the air, so that Honoré and Clotilde, keeping to the street’s warmer side, felt both the sun’s rays on their cheeks, and a chill cross-breeze. A man coming towards them stopped abruptly, tilted up his hat, and gestured with a gloved hand at chest level, tracing a finger in the air as though calculating a sum. All this seemed an almost intentional projecting of his thoughts.
He called out: “Mr. Jerome! I’d have said it couldn’t be! You remember me, sir?”
“Mr. Waldgrave, I do remember.”
Waldgrave, crossing, kept Clotilde steady in his sight. Close now, he peered at her. She withdrew her arms from Honoré’s waist, and stood straight, puzzled, still gripping his sleeve. The meeting was awkward, for two reasons. The first, as a good husband, he must remedy at once.
“Mr. Waldgrave, you have not met my wife, Clotilde.”
To her, he said, “I stayed at this man’s house, when I first arrived here.” He was relieved that she accepted this, and asked no question. What Waldgrave might suppose Honoré had been up to could not be improved by seeming to exclude him, holding a private conversation under his nose, in their own language.
Waldgrave took this news in silence, and bent to press Clotilde’s hand. “Mrs. Jerome, it is my very great pleasure.” She gave him a wavering smile. He smiled back, some genuine pleasure occurring to him (as it would seem) that lent to his face a welcoming glow.
“Mr. Jerome,” he added. “I have a thing to say to you in confidence.”
The House of Gremot
(2017, Stephanie Foster)