The Mirrors (part eight)
Charleton begged sympathy with his homely, engaging face…and the pain of his gaze, the flinching curve of his body, the girl’s heedless indulgent smile, told, if Charmante weren’t being fanciful…
“This one, in the tennis gear? Esta, were they sweethearts?”
“Oh, she didn’t like him much.”
“I think so, though,” she told Wright. “At least, I figure Carolee could tolerate the idea, of keeping company with him…so long as she was stuck out there. I’m guessing the Robacks had just the one daughter. Unless some older girl, off married, who wouldn’t come home for these things. But…”
He was scrutinizing her.
“Never mind. You see how she looks down at the camera, but she’s smiling for Charleton. See the way she’s standing?”
“No, ma’am, I can’t see a thing like that. I’d be a luckier man if I could.”
Charmante felt herself flush, hardly knowing why. Unpleased, she glanced aside at the half-hexagon porch. Shades were pulled at every window. She strayed her eyes to the roofline, across the floor below the attic, where the doctor had couched himself to brood over his garden.
Rothesay’s workshop (Carmine, employing one of his phrases, had told her, “He’s got himself organized in the attics”) was on the left side of the house, streetwise, east on the compass.
Blank glass, black in its recesses under the mansard roof, where only empty rooms sat behind, or curtains, yellowed like old newsprint. Dumain’s were open. Rothesay used this room…not to sleep in, but for some elaboration with the mirrors she had glimpsed, Carmine wanting her to absorb Charleton’s sad aura.
“Did you know…”
Wright unwrapped his sandwich from the paper folded against flies. He swallowed tea, and when she met his eye, said, “Not much.”
“Sorry. Did you know Mr. Rothesay was a doctor himself?”
“Let’s say I knew it yesterday. What kind, you figure?”
She shrugged. Esta’s clippings were about the Robacks, not the Dumains, her aunt faithful in saving anything come across that mentioned the family—but these chances had been sporadic. One was an obituary for Elizabeth Roback, née Dumain, born 1858, died 1908, thrown from a horse. That alone was a fact of interest; all else of Esta’s mistress—so near to her in age—was dull nineteenth century correctness. A woman of patrician rank, as such things were in America, who had kept her name out of the papers. Beloved wife and mother, admired by friends for her grace and generosity, her passing lamented by the Library Society and the Southern Women’s League.
“Carolee,” Charmante said, “is probably living. She’d be her mother’s age…I mean fifty, more or less. I wonder if she and Charleton were close cousins, or just connections?”
She wondered if he would joke on this as well. But he laid down the account he was reading of the island’s sale. “Carolee, onetime Roback, something else anymore we don’t know, wouldn’t stuck around here likely…needle in a haystack.”
“They seem to have gone down, don’t they?” She rested a finger on Wright’s clipping.
“Like the Dumains…like a lot of people.”
“But that one’s from 1921. Dumain killed himself in nineteen.”
“Well, so nothing. I think I’ll have to get a little book and write myself a list.”
Writing paper. She wouldn’t use the booklet she jotted her shopping in, because this, in its way, belonged to Rothesay. Charmante had never known her employer have opinions on purchases; he knew so little of what one bought to stock a larder, never mind what flour or butter cost. But the scientist in him liked seeing numbers.
For this reason, her poking in his things felt excusable. Inquiry, she might call it. Two sofas faced across the rug. Under the coffee table lid, under a bench cushion, were spaces for caching this and that…given Rothesay’s absent ways, she could believe he hadn’t discovered them.
All the furniture was too new, too cheap, to have belonged to Charleton. His inherited things…
Had been sold? Damaged by smoke? Charmante could feel her nerves, while rummaging, as though eyes were on her. But she meant to befriend this spirit…
The chest’s top drawer held only broken spectacles, a fair collection of these; the next held an order for its delivery. The remaining drawers, nothing. She sat, a thing she did on the job only at lunchtime. The books she ran her feather duster over were leather-bound almanacs, encyclopedias, or…she eyed them now…
Shakespeare, Chaucer, Bacon, Milton, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, The Old Curiosity Shop…
All alike, the kind people whose money could be spent on books bought by subscription, for just this reason. To fill shelves. To feel ready, armed with good purpose, for a day in retirement when they would sit and read them.
But…hidden in part by fancy woodwork…
She saw a slim chalk blue volume, dwarfed by its neighbor’s spine. When she stood and walked to the shelf, she lost sight of the little book. It sat below eye level, why she hadn’t noticed it, dusting.
Mes Pensées. A diary of blank sheets, that remained blank.
The first several pages were covered, though, in penciled indents, marks from someone’s writing, swirls of apparent sketches. He…she…whoever…had done this on purpose…
Was it possible? The words could be recovered by rubbing a lead over them. Why would you buy a book to write your thoughts, and then half do it, half not?
She felt a little angry, mocked for her integrity. A little like laughing. Would Mr. Wright be bold enough to do what struck Charmante as…as kind of stinky? Worse for you, dear, she told herself, if that’s how you are. Wanting to do bad, wanting to back off and watch, while you get someone else to.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)