Excerpt: A Figure from the Common Lot (Élucide second)
“What did Hawkins do?”
“He spoke, Walter. Rambled, I should say. The voice was nothing like his own. I have mentioned that he was a Cornishman.” He turned from Walter to meet Fannie’s eye, and this detail seemingly had been omitted from the narrative. She did not nod at once…but after a moment, she did.
“The voice was unaccented, and of a higher pitch than Hawkins’s natural speech; the words more cultivated, having no trace of his native dialect: I lost the touch of his hand. I am sunk and thought the water, the waves sucking at the hull, to be the dull thud of a beating heart. They told me, close your eyes. And though he reached and wished to draw me to the surface, his hands were cold. But I have washed ashore…but no…I am become like a pennant upon the mast and see the harbor lights below. That is a sample of his wanderings. I could not commit a great deal to memory, and had no means of noting it down. Hawkins spoke for an hour or more. At times he wept. He had gone still and was near death by the time he was taken aboard the Bascom.”
Élucide now had a question. She stared at Ebrach, but he was besieged, and elected to give his ear to Fannie. The improper topic broached, the Gremots and the Rutherfords, had—all at once—unleashed their curiosity.
Three days earlier, jogging from the barn while thunder pealed, Ziegler had banged at the Gremots’ door. He raised a finger, saying nothing to Sarah, who’d opened to him, but turned to Papa, coming from the library. Ziegler slipped a hand inside his shirt, and out, safe and dry, pulled Ebrach’s letter.
My Dear Sir,
This note, along with my card, must serve as introduction. I offer my apologies, and beg you will pardon this―that in such presumptuous fashion, I make myself known to you. Mr. Ziegler’s praise of your fair-minded character emboldens me to take the liberty, and it is my sincerest hope that in so doing, I give no offense.
I am assisted in my work by a young man, Thomas B. Jerome. Mr. Jerome is a close relative of yours…
In his reading, Papa had paused here. “I don’t know why he says it.”
He looked first at Mother, then over his shoulder at Ziegler.
“That’un is a Gremot, sir. Don’t believe he could’ve been telling a lie…” Ziegler waggled his straw hat and nodded. “You go on read that letter. I might know a thing or two, whatever Mr. Ebrach don’t explain.”
Papa read now only to himself, running a finger along Ebrach’s lines, frowning, unwilling to accept him at face value.
“Well, then, you reckon it’s true, Ziegler? I guess you saw this for yourself.”
This, that might or might not be so, some mystery Papa had read, one Ziegler knew already, drew them closer; Ranilde and Élucide following Mother, everyone inching into the hallway, slowing to a halt, until an inner and an outer circle formed. Mother behind Papa at his right, Ziegler his left, both―Papa holding the letter at the level of his watch-chain―able to see what Ebrach had written. Sarah backed away step by step, but hovered with a hand on the arch that let into the dining room. Robert, coming from the parlor, stopped and waited at the foot of the stairs.
“Could they be finished already?” Ranilde asked.
“Them ghosts ain’t awake this time of day, Miss Gremot.” Ziegler gave the rest of his information to Papa. “Now, all the way out to the stead that’un calls himself Jerome was looking puny. Soon’s I get him off the wagon, he falls over in a dead faint. You see what Ebrach says in there.”
“Mr. Jerome is in failing health…but you will appreciate my position…if you tell me you have no wish to see me, I will not betray that private information which, under the circumstances, can be of no value to you. Mr. and Mrs. Everard…”
Papa had been reading aloud with the same over-precise enunciation that earlier conveyed his opinion of Ebrach. But he paused, at this mention of his foreman, and his voice changed.
“…have acted towards myself and Mr. Jerome in a wonderful spirit of compassion and generosity.”
“Ebrach come over to him, shook him a little…and straight off, he chucks up his oats. Ebrach asks him, tell me your name, son, and he says…” Ziegler here decided against something. “He says Gremot.”
“Well, then, Ziegler, what ails Mr. Jerome?”
Élucide could understand her father’s unhappiness. The county knew their business, it always did…knew about the Everards’ guests; knew what service Ebrach had come to perform. For her parents, who must for reputation’s sake, appear at least the Everards’ equals in compassion and generosity, the trap was sprung.
“Sir,” Ziegler said, “I got a pretty good idea.”
The sensation, within the house of Gremot, and the import, of Mr. Ebrach’s ceremony at the Everards’, had been potent; yet the event so extraordinary, so anomalous, that Papa’s response to Ziegler’s intelligence, until the following morning, was silence. It was his habit to pick up the latest Beacon when he went to town, and carry it home.
That afternoon, he’d left on a sudden pretext.
Never before had he set foot in the back parlor after breakfast. Papa let the paper fall onto Mother’s sewing table. “Has got his name in the Beacon.”
Until Papa, saying only that, had turned on his heel and left, none of them made a grab for it. From her cushion on the floor, where she knelt at the task of lettering placecards, Élucide put forward a stealthy hand.
“Mother, what does it say?” Ranilde drove her needle into the linen, laid her hoop aside, and snatched the Beacon up.
Mother’s eyes stayed fixed on her own stitching. “Nildie, I don’t know anything about it.”
That publication which vaunted his political enemies’ perspective, Papa looked at for three reasons: first, because it was prudent—what Commissioner Gremot felt about Rowan was none of Rowan’s business, to make capital of with his intemperate opinion-peddling; second, because it was prudent—those things Rowan hinted at could not be countered unless they were known; and third, because it was prudent—Rutherford’s Vanguard was in its infancy, and the Beacon remained, as yet, Cookesville’s paper of record.
Two columns and a half on the third page were filled by an article reprinted from the London Examiner. Ranilde read aloud the local rendition:
“I had been invited to attend a séance, conducted at a private house near Grosvenor Mews, by the celebrated medium, Dr. C____.”
The Beacon asked of its readers, in the smaller type of a sub-head: What is a séance?
A darkened room, in which a piano, situated beyond the reach of human hands, played a discordant tune; where writing had bloomed on a blank sheet of paper held by “Mrs. de N____” over the heat of a candle flame; and where a thin, childlike voice was heard to sob, “…as though some disconsolate spectral visitor floated above the chandelier.”
At the end of the last column, two fillers rounded out the space. The first was a joke:
Pass the Salt
Farmer Hodge’s lad was known to all the county as a deaf mute. One evening at supper, the youngster astonished his parents, piping up, “Ma, please pass the salt.”
“Dear me!” Mother Hodge ex-claimed. “Why have you never spoken a word till now?”
“Because,” Sonny replied, ‘Till now, I never wanted anything.”
(2017, Stephanie Foster)