The Mirrors (part thirty-two)
Carolee had studied business composition and etiquette, shorthand and typewriting, at a junior college in the city. Permitted to live in the dorm there, feeling not normal, not social among the girls. Never a fit with the normal, because she knew the island, her mother left behind there, and Godfrey. She was twenty years old. She had applied for acceptance at the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia. Of this, not a word to her grandfather, instinct telling her she would not like his help, and she would not like his refusal of it. It was all a hemming in, a written fate, a frightening end ordained, and while she ought to have given up a career and gone to protect her mother, she saw it in herself, that she could reject duty…
That love, on the island of St. Hubert, had never really been.
As for boyfriends…Carolee had tried very hard. She had let him be a husband to her.
“I did think I would have to kill Godfrey. For us to marry in peace. Yes, I mean that in every absolute it implies. I could have pushed him in the water, the way…no. I should take that back, he was ten years old. But you know, I’m so sure he killed my aunt. I think it cracked him, I think his soul left his body at that moment. I picture his foul little mind a blank, the idea everything, the watching to see what would happen. And after his long spell, Godfrey was left with what he grew up to be. Charmante, you don’t have Dumain blood. You don’t know what it is to be…experimental.”
He might be dead. He had vanished, Charleton telling them Godfrey was in the city, seen at the clinic buying laudanum from Joseph. He could not have been arrested, mixed up in the riot. Godfrey would not sit in a jail cell. He would beg, and weep, and offer bribes. Her poor mother would have been approached.
Elizabeth and Carolee said nothing at all to each other. Crossed fingers and doubted their luck. Buried Joseph Dumain in the family graveyard, there on the island. Joseph was her brother; Elizabeth had the right, his only capable…willing…next of kin, to state to the undertaker her preference. Grandfather, in a pretense of shock, had refused to leave his manse.
The body had been found in the wreckage, burned. Face down, the face salvageable.
Why the morbid impulse, to have an open casket? A thing about her mother that Carolee had never known. The body in its box sat on a table in the family chapel, the table draped with a rug. A rug that smelled, as everything so near the river smelled, of reclamation. Charleton quivered and hugged himself. Carolee, enduring the sermon beside him, felt he was stricken mad by the bodies Grandfather had volunteered him to carry from the rubble and ash, to lay out for the families to name.
She took her turn at the shovel and dropped a clod of clay on the uncle she’d barely known. She was angry they had done it to her, put a face on Joseph, one plastered and rouged, that she would now remember.
And the funeral supper, Esta at service with Aunt Livie. When Esta was gone home to her niece and grandniece, as she told them she must be, this old woman near ninety would be left to manage…
The futility of providing human company for Elizabeth Dumain Roback and her only child. Mr. Shirey, their minister, was the last visitor now.
Carolee had carried her plate to her room. She thought of being alone, lifelong. And thought that in town, she would find it tolerable. If the college accepted her, Grandfather would put her at Charleton’s side, both grandchildren harried to idiocy by their infantile cowardice in his presence.
What did it mean to resurrect a clinic, in a burned and spoiled neighborhood? Ugly, disheartening labors. Failure at length. If the college accepted her, she would withdraw her application. But she had no fear of this happening.
She spoke, knowing only Charleton knocked at a door that way: “This is my room. Go lose yourself.”
He came in. He sat on her bed, picked up her mother’s angel and fingered it. While he did, he told her what he had been told by Joseph.
“And I think I’ll tell you why I’d gone back to the island. I wasn’t a spineless girl. I could have taken secretarial work, eked a living, done my best to keep clear of the institute. But I say that, knowing I was never tested.”
“You can’t keep clear,” Veronica said. “Look at me.”
“The man I told you about… Your heart stops you, doesn’t it, Charmante? You know when you can love and live with someone, and when you can’t. He would have done what they call the right thing, of course, if he’d felt forced to it.”
“Here we are at the crossroads,” Marian said.
Her voice had more in it than fact. Charmante thought she offered Carolee a chance to change her mind, not tell what was easy to guess now, anyway.
“The island was good for that. We had cleaners once a week, and fixed our own suppers. I was very unremarked there. Not especially unwell. Tired…I felt like some vital part had been cut away. He told me, though, I could have as many children as I liked, the doctor found for me by my mother…so I knew that she’d asked Grandfather. To think of Grandfather’s knowing was just as awful as if he’d scraped me out himself.“
Carolee’s phrase made William shift in his seat.
“No, I could never have children, never put that taint on a child, have him grow up, take that risk…”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)