The Mirrors (conclusion)
But if she were to bring it up with Esta, she must decide. Whether more of her father than her memories afforded mattered…whether she wouldn’t rather not. Her parents were not two adults with a marriage between them, they were Daddy and Mother. She had not spied on them, to know their private ways together.
Her choice was in the air, going to Mrs. Turner’s.
“What are you writing down?”
“A letter to Esta. You know, she got her ABCs at the same time she was trying to teach her little boy his. I mean, Will, I’ll get it all on paper, and then I have to see if she’ll let me read it to her. I’ve been thinking how I’ve always thanked her for so many things I haven’t said.”
“Well, Albert, that’s sensible. You hear?” William squeezed her shoulder.
Mrs. Turner lived at a residence hotel, quality…or the brave remnant of it. A doorman who knew they were expected stepped into the elevator with them, carman as well. Albert, with some finesse, slipped him a dollar, sparing the Wrights.
He took a seat in the lobby. “No, I won’t go up. You come down when you’re ready. I’ll stick around and look at the papers.”
“Jane,” Chamante said, in the hall after the bell rang again, and the car sounded its bump of descent, “didn’t come along either.”
“That’s a little bit because Mrs. Turner makes do on her dividends…”
The door across opened.
She wore a good suit, a frock jacket with double-pleated vee to the waist, an ankle skirt, bottom trimmed in a tight-crimped ruffle. A good suit of 1920, it might have been. Her figure still able to carry it, an abstemious diner…
“There’s a face I haven’t seen in a hundred years!” Mrs. Turner hugged Charmante and stood back. “But your mother’s there too.”
Losing the light of the alcove, she drew them inside. The dim parlor held a chill after a winter’s meted coal. A cord ran from the tea table, a single burner that warmed the pot. A Christmas basket sat next to this, tins of holiday cookies open for display. And missing, from months of frugal hostessing, their twos and threes.
The crash had harmed Mrs. Turner’s dignity. Or an earlier poverty, from the time she’d stopped buying clothes. She was Esta’s age…so, what an interesting life she had led, a young woman of the ’80s; near Charmante’s age when the clinic had burned.
“This is all so lovely. Thank you so much for having us.” The last was the first thing Charmante had said to Mrs. Turner.
Who looked at her. “Now, never mind. I was always right here for a visit. I don’t mean that to chide you.”
“Somehow,” Charmante said. They did say this, locals, a word to take all awfulness into account. “I remember how much my father was pleased to have found you, ma’am. He would talk about what he couldn’t do himself, without Mrs. Turner.”
“I know he did, bless him.”
Her mother had stood reserved to those references. Charmante could recall the vaguest impression of…well, she would have to say, for learning what she had, the illicitness, the disapproval.
“Were you a nurse, all your career?” she asked.
“You understand…they had a colored side to the city hospital, like they do, and they wouldn’t have a white nurse. I had just gone down to ask if they’d hire me on, because my husband didn’t have any living those days. That was how I got trained, not going to school for it. And then one of the doctors wanted me to work for him privately.”
William said: “Mrs. Turner. Tell Charmante about your family in Washington.”
Charmante listened half-listening, nibbling a shortbread cookie.
Mrs. Turner’s father a government clerk, never any of the Sangtrys in slavery, no. Recommended for his post by a Colonel Denison, whose father he’d been valet to first. Gout took the old man, with the son off fighting. Mrs. Turner’s father managed household accounts for the widow, in her grief incapable…
Charmante waited for some natural pause, a chance of asking without eagerness, did you ever hear…? Or, did my mother ever speak to you?
Mrs. Turner had not married down, though it was said, and her husband’s people were not connected to that Turner. You remember…no, you young things sure don’t. Well, after the end of the Reconstruction, when all that supposed to get better got worse…now, then, I was a bride myself, eighteen years old…
Mr. Turner had lost the inventory of his parlor piano store.
“He had a lot on the books. He kept just three models in the showroom. And he always had to go around visiting, make sure the ones that quit paying hadn’t gone and sold what they didn’t have the right. Keep in with the neighbors, in case someone was fixing up to leave town.”
But those the Turners owed money to, had themselves to go chase for it. The Turners went south. They moved, and moved again. All her instruction, all she had gleaned watching her doctor, Mrs. Turner employed in setting up a place.
She called it a place; she meant a one-room clinic where, outside all rules, skirting paths closed to her, she had practiced as a physician. “I used a kerosene stove to boil water for sterilizing the instruments. I never did anything wrong or cheap.”
I haven’t done Mrs. Turner justice, Charmante thought. Not yet. “You’ll come out to our house one of these Sundays?”
“Yes I will. Yes I will.”
They parted, talking a little more in the alcove. But only insistence, Charmante keeping after it, would make them friends.
“How he used to tell me what a bright little girl he had! He was just sure you’d be a doctor yourself one day.”
The words seemed to call for something…the obvious reply, or Mrs. Turner’s asking it herself: What is it you do?
But more, another friendly spate. “Dr. Bonheur would say, if you only look at history, forty years is not much time at all. And what progress, what a long way come! Forty more years, all the better. He didn’t listen to it when people complained…he’d say, you’re not seeing the picture. I remember he had those talks with poor Charleton.”
It was true. Her nephew-by-marriage had differed, too, with Esta.
“They’ll turn us back. You wait.”
“No, ma’am. Can’t be done. Oh, they’ll turn me back. They’ll turn you back. But altogether, they won’t turn us back.”
Charmante had forgotten that about her father.
She was in a well-lighted basement room, full windows on two sides, top panes at street-level, bottoms in their wells. Like the research library this was, the room had long, wide study tables, stacked with reference books, filing cabinets around the walls, cubbies flanking the librarian’s desk, name-tagged for the staff. Charmante with a cubby of her own, where she could stow her files-in-progress, have new requested items placed for her by the interns.
You could not escape the Institute. So Veronica said; so for Charmante it proved. Without knowing, she had been of the Institute all her life. William had known without belief or benefit, only sorrow. Even Nathaniel Carmine was of the Institute.
His new self, though, showed signs of wanderlust.
“You see what I mean…what I meant whenever we were having that talk.”
Veronica, perched on the table, waving that hand that breezed away obstacles, liked to come down daily. She’d had other talks with Charmante, any number. To be what Paul was, and his colleague now, an archival researcher, was a great step up from maiding. Hackled a bit by the sinister weight of it, the fine line of studying the human species for hardiness, selecting for promise—that Dumain territory into which one stepped when the line was crossed—Charmante had found no justification for refusing this honor. She could be of some help to her husband, track clues, locate the woman who’d lured Harold.
And earn good wages. Childless, as all Dumain’s damaged were, no legacy for her own, she would make a scholarship in her father’s name. Daddy had taken—no, he’d been blessed with—the optimistic view, the rising view. It was fitting Benjamin Oriah Bonheur be the hope of some young person’s future.
“Nat’s got an entrepreneurial bent. He’s not the sweet thing we knew…he’s itching to try his luck at large. And I can hardly make him a prisoner, perfectly sane, perfectly capable. I think, I do think, he’ll start up with the mirrors. Someplace. What else would that fragment possessing him have in mind? But how can we know distance, from this place, the center, won’t be better than worse?”
“But…it’s terribly dangerous.”
“It is, and I’ve got no answers, girlfriend. Anytime you think of one, call me up. Even in the middle of the night.”
They brooded on the Ile St-Hubert. Were at least some of its ghosts laid? Polly…Godfrey…
Guide. Charmante addressed him. Not her father, she was certain. An ancient spirit, a low-country angel. Guide, I understand. I have seen and pitied Charleton.
Been shown how he died, some unnamed crime of forced self-murder.
The impulse was to despise that murdering hand; that foul and ugly man, unredeemed, unseeking of redemption. She couldn’t…because she’d been Godfrey.
Is that the lesson, the antidote to evil, when it comes again?
Our doom not tragic high feeling, but petty reluctance, moral laziness? We don’t want to walk in the shoes; we want to cast our despising eyes here and there—and feel comfy, pleased with ourselves, unchallenged.
Through Godfrey’s eyes she had seen, and not Dumain’s.
The Guide was kind in that, but he had shown her more. Dumain, rich, free in his dealings to conceive a thing and have it done, hadn’t the pitifulness of his grandsons. Suffering was the way in; a man without suffering was the devil.
And so remember.
For here was one question answered. The spirit of Dumain could not die with Rothesay. It hummed on, on its island, and would come again.
Old Dumain (the Chevalier), 1824–1920
Mary (Polly) Dumain Roback, 1849–1879
Joseph Dumain, 1852–1901 (27 years old in 1879, when Charleton was two years old, and wedged into his household to pass for a son)
Elizabeth (Lil) Dumain Roback, 1858–1908
Godfrey Roback, 1869–1919
Leonce Dumain, 1876–1923
Charleton Dumain, 1877–1919
Carolee Roback, 1881–living
Veronica Dumain, 1896–living
Benjamin Oriah Bonheur, 1862–vanished 1901
Charmante’s mother, Carrie, 1865–1903
Charmante Bonheur Demorest Wright 1889–living
William Wright 1887–living
1859—Year of fire at old cholera hospital
1901—Year of riot, disappearance of Harold Wright and Rance Goodson
1931—Year events in this story take place
(2020, Stephanie Foster)