The Mirrors (part forty-five)
Then the war. Then the epidemic.
And I was ill, but I worked. St. Hubert hummed quietly for me. Charleton, old friend, here you’ve come to me again, telling lies.
Here is Charleton, weary of movement, a book on his lap. A medical text. He never reads, when he can at all, for pleasure. Carolee gives him novels; she subscribes to a monthly service, and of her discards tells Charleton (because…he knows it…she won’t have him returning her gifts in person), “Keep that.” His shelves have become a library, while he can bring himself to fill his hours with only the edifying, the excusable.
If he did not have a servant, he would not have a fire in the grate. But his grandfather has hired a valet, a watchful eye for Charleton. On Sundays, rather than church, he attends the old man. Grandfather urges he keep up his strength, and questions him, autopsies the very tissue of his encounters with the public, each illness and injury he has treated that week.
“You’re lame, your left leg.”
“No. The muscles are weak somehow. The flu.”
“And do you see this aftereffect often? You are probably expert by now.” Grandfather adds, “In your way.”
“Some cases seem to carry a disability, some harm to the nervous system.”
“That won’t do! Do you mean on the left side? In the leg, in particular? The ambulatory powers compromised, with a typically observable character? What do you do with the patients, then, when they begin to recover? Do you have them walk a straight line?” He smiles. A hunter’s smile. “I suppose you haven’t bothered testing.”
“I am not studying the flu. I am treating the flu.”
The war has ended, the island is still a hospital camp. The flu, for the old year’s passing, has not much abated in its spread. But Charleton is at home now, another occasion of Grandfather’s ordering him carried off, directing his care from the turret apartment, the funnel of the spider’s web.
Charleton, for shouting his servant from the house…
Don’t you like taking in a show, now and then? Don’t you have a mother to visit?
Has won two hours’ freedom. Clyde will be back at ten.
He feels melancholy, burning Aunt Lil in pieces. He doesn’t disagree with her proscription. But he believes in, more than Carolee, their being as cousins, friends. While he feels weak and dull, has to limit his patient hours, he entertains…or, this change in his life, illness, makes him entertain…
Even, a day or two lately, Charleton has lain in bed, not rising to dress, breathing the smell of coffee and toast, telling himself things. Why be a Dumain? What use, not severing ties with the old man? Would he care if I disappeared, left him with only his household staff to torment?
No. He doesn’t care if I don’t disappear.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)