The Mirrors (part twenty-four)
In the front hall was marble tile, hexagons of black and white; matching buffets either side of a massive mirror losing its silvering…
Charmante watched William. If in wartime he’d done laundry and kitchen work, he must have entered this house.
Of course, if a house sat empty for even a season, mice would nibble, birds would nest. The Roback manor was salvageable…the straight-backed chairs lining the wainscot even good for use. Easy to pick up and carry off.
“That’s the idea, Charmante,” Veronica said. “Everyone grab one.”
“Why do you suppose no one…Mr. Brasher…?”
“I know what you’re wanting to ask. You’d think they would come out, those river rats, loot the place, tear it down. Some squatter ought to have run us off with a shotgun by now. All of you hold still a moment and listen.”
They heard at length a scree, a bird of prey’s call.
The actual sound the island made seemed a rushing…a current. But muted, stealthy; a will behind, driving it. Charmante told herself you could not hear a thing like that. She met Veronica’s eye. She tried William’s, but he had scooted at an angle, and watched the staircase.
“Ma’am.” Marian spoke to Carolee.
“Yes, we should start. I don’t really think it’s awful here at night. But you get that impression, don’t you? It might be, that like your poor Mr. Carmine, you will never know when the change comes over you.”
“And so,” Veronica said, “we were with Joseph. Joseph had two sisters, Polly the elder. Her father married her well. A banker’s son, Wilmer Godfrey Roback. But it meant Polly was exiled from her own. Her sister Elizabeth had been her only girlfriend in the world. She lived in this house, Polly…” Veronica’s hand swept the air. “With her father-in-law, her husband, her son.”
Charmante counted figures in Esta’s photo. “But twenty or so altogether, managing the place. Other women, if she cared to befriend them.”
“True. But you don’t picture it…you shouldn’t…Polly able to be happy, feel protected here. Find allies. I’ll telegraph the ending for you. She was found under one of those roots…as though the river had clawed her down and held her trapped. Some decent time after, Joseph’s father announced a child. The boy, somehow—”
Veronica struck a harkening pose. A creak, wash, thump, wash, creak.
The bank of the river. Before Charmante could decide this was detritus rocked by the passage of some craft, a woodpecker’s repeated whu-whu-whu-whu-eee-eee-eee-eee-eee obscured the evidence. Now the knocking seemed only its foraging after insects.
“Where was I? Somehow had arrived. Charleton was not the best fit for his role…he was, like I said, a two-year-old already. No, Charmante, William, you’re right to think that was Polly we heard. She will answer to her name. Now, you see why the place sits empty? People don’t come out here.”
“Someone upstairs, though.”
“Someone, William? Or do you think more something?”
He rose from his chair, crossed to the foot of the stairs; craned his neck trying to see past the curve. Charmante went to his side. She made out a carpet of red and blue, stripes of light under doors, right and left.
They were silent…the birds were silent, the sound of the current strong, and up there.
“What, William? I don’t see anything.”
“Well. I don’t like to say wind. Maybe it was. But a kind of flash, flash. Caught my eye.”
“Oh, we’ll all go up in a minute,” Veronica said. “You’ll be surprised. You won’t like it.”
William whispered to Charmante. “If it wasn’t for her.”
“Cool customer. But she’s a Dumain. Probably…”
“Stop it, you two. I’m happy to leave right now, myself, so don’t go putting your heads together like you know something the rest of us don’t.”
“Sorry, Marian. I was saying to William, Veronica is being brave for us all, because she knows…”
What’s going on, she thought.
“Sit. I would make the story shorter if I could. Joseph went off west on an army commission—that he took to keep away from his father. Why should he have had feelings for Charleton? But it was a shame. He was seeing this little boy as a gambit, the old devil trying to control his life. He could have been a father to Charleton. He might have been a man who hated and loved…in the right places, if you see what I mean. There’s more, of course. It may have occurred to you, the mother of Leonce and Charleton, was… Carolee, what can I say?”
“The plain truth. It’s never been your fault or mine. No one ought to think less of us. You and I have done all we can.”
Veronica stood, moved behind Carolee’s chair, and rested a hand on her cousin’s shoulder. “My grandmother was Old Dumain’s daughter. Yes, he made free with the unfortunates who belonged to his house. And you appreciate, by her my father and uncle were his sons. None of us ever spoke to Joseph. We have to suppose he knew this. That he despised the old man and rebuffed poor Charleton because he found it all too horrid.”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)