A Figure from the Common Lot
Book One: 1870-1871
Chapter One: Cette Illusion de la Mortalité
Book Two: 1876
Chapter Two: Possente Spirto
Chapter Four: The Eye of a Magpie
It was Eugene Ebrach she thought of…
She could bear the headaches more easily, her temple throbbed less, when she lay on the floor. The floorboards were cold and unyielding; the ice bag―a strange receptacle for faith and duty―lay where she had discarded it, sweating, dampening the sleeve of her gown. It followed her to her room, carried upstairs by Sarah.
To accept that offered with gratitude, and with a young lady’s reticence, was what Mother expected of her, what Élucide had been taught. Always afterwards she said, “Yes, ma’am, thank you, it does help.”
It didn’t. The ice bag was too much; it sagged and needed shoving this way and that, woke her when it slid onto her shoulder or dropped to the floor; and she could only endure the migraine by keeping still. She had kicked away her shoes. She had crawled under the bed. And that was why she’d turned the key…even this locking of the door was a fault. The greater fault was to be odd, not normal…to behave in ways unladylike and uncivilized. There was a depth of torment to this pain she could make no one understand. But that, as her father would say, was presupposing. So long as she took herself out of the way when she was sick, her torments seemed not much puzzled over by her family.
While the headache, once gone, tended to leave her dull and sleepy, until it had ended she could never quite drift into a doze. Behind closed eyes, Élucide hovered…it felt to her as though this were really so; that from this low place she looked up at herself, and while floating above looked down…seeing the corporeal Élucide (Mr. Ebrach’s word) push her palms against her temples, bend her knees, then stretch her legs out flat. She saw vivid auroras, red waves that played across her eyelids. Her thoughts cycled, one thing arising from another. It was uncouth, she knew it, writhing on the floor, dirtying her nightgown with the coal dust that found its way into every out-of-mind corner, her hair coming unpinned, teasing itself into a coarse cloud. She pressed fingertips against her eyes, and forced her mind to make a picture of Mr. Ebrach.
The headache could go crouch in a corner, from which it might spring or slink away.
No, they held her in restraint, as though she were an imbecile, a child who would never grow up. And Mr. Ebrach had looked at her…all the while her mother was drawing conversation from Mr. Jerome. He, this new cousin, was horribly thin, his pale translucent skin bluish from the veins that showed through…
He was actually dying of consumption. In her sitting room, when she’d told them how to behave towards Mr. Jerome, Mother had said this to Ranilde and Élucide. They had never seen anyone dying up close. “I don’t suppose he can do any sort of work…Mr. Ebrach calls him an assistant—but I imagine he’s befriended Mr. Jerome, and is only trying to sponsor him. Your father may be asked to pay his way into a sanatorium. And if he has really come to America by himself, and has no money, we likely will have to, of course.”
He said that his father’s brother was her grandfather. Or, he hadn’t said that, per se; he’d said, to her mother: “An uncle, I believe, older than my father by some years…” Élucide had extracted her notion of family relations, in the same way Jerome answered her mother’s questions―painstakingly, confusedly. Until Mr. Ebrach cut in, saying to Mother, “You will pardon my brusqueness, Mrs. Gremot. Jerome means to explain to you that your husband’s father had been his uncle; that your children’s ancestor in common with Jerome would have been Jerome’s grandfather, their great-grandfather. He is your husband’s first cousin.”
And after that clarification, the topic had been dropped.
Brusqueness. It was a writer’s word. She thought she might never before have heard anyone speak it. And his voice was an elocutionist’s. There was another word. Richard’s voice had a weedy character that Élucide could not love, though she loved Richard.
She entertained, in her private thoughts, calling Mr. Ebrach Eugene (but no…he was a very adult sort of man). When he left off speaking, it was as if you’d finished the page of a novel, and were just on the verge of turning it. She’d waited in suspense for him to start again. And all the while, when he’d talked to Mother about Mr. Jerome, his gaze had moved up the table to Élucide’s face, pausing there for only a second. When she looked into his eyes, he looked…with appreciation, she thought…into hers, before turning to her mother or to Papa.
But Mr. Ebrach was not handsome, the way Richard was.
Once a fortnight, Richard came up the hill to make his report to her father, to sit in the library answering Papa’s questions, as to how Old Richard was managing the farm. At unexpected times, he came for particular business. Papa was willing to have her there with him, a witness to these visits.
At the secretary, angled to one of the library’s massive corner moldings, she’d kept her eyes on the sonnets of William Lloyd Garrison (her father’s library having nothing fun to read, his poetry books filled with tick marks and underlines, sayings he’d spotted to use in his speeches), and made silent observations. She was past tutoring at sixteen, but had this excuse, that she was learning, while her father tended his accounts and correspondence; while he talked tobacco with Richard.
She wouldn’t like…the familiar thought crossed her mind…no, she wouldn’t put up with, living in the stead.
“I see no reason the place can’t be made tolerable. Everard never would see the job through. I give him a free hand. He has his boys to help. He has Sanderson.”
The name led to a moment of silence. Élucide had heard her father say much about Sanderson.
But…the boys could find work if they wanted it. They didn’t and they wouldn’t. He defied anyone’s making this his fault. No, he would not be backed into a corner over his own affairs. If he were going to hire a new foreman.
If Richard married her…he could marry her…he’d never had a sweetheart that Élucide knew of—
They would build a house in town. She rubbed her temple and warmed to the subject. To go to Rutherford’s when she liked. To go anywhere when she liked, without her parents making a fuss…without, even, her mother and father there at all, to tell her, you may, you may not.
Not to live on a farm.
If Papa would like to be rid of the boys, why should he not settle on Élucide a portion of her inheritance? (This sounded big, this phrase acquired from someplace…she would jot it in her diary with the other things.) Or she ought to have the house, at least, Papa had promised her sister. Richard would come away with her; Mother and Papa could snub them, or call as they chose. It made all the sense in the world.
Here, she fell from her resolve to look closely at Eugene Ebrach, and began to walk the rooms of her home with Richard, dreaming its architecture into dimension, casting, as though shining a lamp there, her mind’s eye into each corner, bringing structure and furnishings into being.
The house would need to be at the top of Arcadia Summit. It would need to be the Nachfolgers’, really. In fantasy, she could possess their site, commandeer their hilltop view, knock out their attic wall, add a balcony…with ornamented balusters, a broad rail over which to lean on autumn days when the sky was blue, and the trees clumped around the farm pond, and those that lined Sanderson’s Run…
No, wait…from Nachfolger’s, Tranquility Creek. And of course the riverbank, the trees…
Glowed like a warm hearth, water flowing invisibly, the surface still, painted in clouds.
Also, she would replace the dormers. They were only there to cool the attic with their shade. A French window, as in the Gremots’ music room, would light the space…and could be thrown open to the air…
For a moment she came awake. Someone had tried the knob.
Or not. She slipped into her childhood home, the cramped dining room, herself inching past Mr. Nachfolger, to sit where only a child would fit, between the table’s edge and the cupboard. He laughed, seeing her climb the chair-rung, fingers worked into the lace of her mother’s good linen…
Élucide and Ranilde heard their brother’s yell; next, they heard Geneva shush him. Afternoons, she kept Walter in his room, whether or not he napped. Downstairs, Mother laughed, and a stranger said:
Continued from “a stranger said”
“You decide. Any kind of house you want, I’ll build it. But maybe you guess it’s easier to lease? You’re paying rent already.”
“Nachfolger”—it was Papa—“you reckon a hard thing is easier to do when you get used to it?”
Hand on the bannister, eyes monitoring the fold of fabric in her free hand as she hiked her skirt above her shoes, Mother paused, and raised her face to the upper landing.
“Shoo! The two of you! Ranilde, come into the bedroom.”
This secret shared with Élucide’s older sister had taken a minute or so to impart; then Mother, hurrying through the door, gasped as she fetched up toe to toe with Élucide.
“Luce! Underfoot, for Heaven’s sake! Were you eavesdropping?”
She had never heard the word before. It sounded like a pretty thing to do…but she shook her head.
“Luce, Mr. Nachfolger wants to have a look at you.”
“Because he is a friend of Papa’s.”
“Then why doesn’t Nildie come?”
“Oh, because.” Saying only this, Mother took her by the hand. But Élucide knew what the adults had talked about. She and her sister, side by side at the top of the stairs, had waited for Papa from first hearing the commotion in the foyer. Mr. Nachfolger wanted to take Mother and Papa to supper, to a restaurant. Ranilde could go.
“Why can’t I go?”
“Now, you know better than to speak out of turn, Luce.”
It had been more question than admonition. She’d meant: speak to him. Mother drew her down the stairs and pivoted, just at the last. Moving backwards, she eased one foot to the floor, then the other, and patted her skirts into place, all the while blocking the view.
Élucide craned left and right to see Mr. Nachfolger, but quit, and kept still, when Mother said: “Look at me, miss. Will you be good?”
His eyes were blue and his beard funny, growing under his chin, instead of on his face. And solemnly, he had said to her:
“Miss Élucide, what is your opinion on the revenue tax? You expect it’ll take Washington another go-round to decide for free trade or protection?”
She didn’t know whether he was joking. His face was both sober and sly. “Yes, sir, they ought to.”
He and Papa grinned at each other.
“Gremot, I’ve got a place on Vooris…well, let me say that right…I got a place on Lincoln.”
There had been a pause where neither spoke; then Papa nodded with decision. “A place I’ll be happy to rent from you.”
“No, sir…I don’t expect you’ll be happy. But there’s no help for the rat hole. Take you just as long to build out in the country as in town. Take longer, if anything.”
Élucide had seen her mother sit up, lift her water glass and sip, her face shading, as though Nachfolger had lit a cigar at the table.
Nachfolger picked up his own glass and tipped it towards Mother. “I apologize, ma’am.” Then he winked at Papa. “I was quoting from the source.”
“Sanderson’ll keep a good eye out for you”―that, rather than farewell, had been their guest’s last word, as he’d stepped up the platform to board his train. From the gleam in Nachfolger’s eye and from Papa’s snort, Mother deduced they had itemized Sanderson.
“Does Mr. Nachfolger think you ought not hire him?”
Ranilde walked a step behind Papa, holding to his coat sleeve. Mother had Élucide in front of her, nudging her by the shoulder on which rested one gloved hand, tugging the mittened hand held by the other. Bustled at this grownups’ pace, Élucide stumbled from time to time over her skirt, when the wind buffeted its folds between her knees. She saw a browning garland of pine boughs woven with holly, one that had decorated the station since Christmas and was being raucously stripped by the same jays whose agitation had parted it from its nail. Blue feathers and red berries…and pale green paint on the machinery down beyond the platform’s end, where the little house stood. She tried to tear loose from her mother’s hold.
Papa, at that moment, answered. “According to Nachfolger, nobody says Sanderson’s dishonest.”
He had decided to take the place on Lincoln Street, be on hand to oversee construction when the builder framed their house in the spring…and to deal with Sanderson, the only ready candidate for looking after the property, in person.
But by October of that year, Sanderson was out, and Papa had hired Mr. Everard.
She trailed the moiré ruffles of Polly Nachfolger’s frock, until Ranilde, looking down from the steps above, said, “Quit it, Luce! Go away!” She sat, then, where she was, on the third-story landing, and would not go down to disturb her mother in the parlor, but longed for her mother to come get her. A servant came, carrying a basket of pressed shirts sent by dumbwaiter from the laundry to the linen room. Élucide had been at her heels not long ago, watching this fascination, but had got well ahead. The woman stopped every few seconds to catch her breath, laying her whole forearm along the bannister and bearing her weight on a clenched hand; she swung the basket and her outside leg together, and lifted herself one step further.
“Look at you sitting there, miss! You got no one to play with?”
This was one of those adult questions that was not really a question. Élucide had been told to go with the other girls…and they would not allow it. She felt ready to cry. The woman clucked and edged past, bending over her, not releasing the bannister. Élucide squirmed down two steps and got to her feet, then ran for the attic. She ducked under the basket, and heard laughter.
“Girlie, you gone make my heart stop!”
She heard Polly’s voice. The girls were here, among the trunks; they had littered the rug with garments taken from a wardrobe that stood with its doors flung back against the window’s light, concentrating dust-freighted shafts of sun to touch the room’s margins. In Ranilde’s hand was a curved sword, on her head a soldier’s blue cap. Polly wore a tall fur hat, and a brocaded coat trimmed in mink―whole carcasses with eyeless sockets, their withered snouts sewn to the hem, their tails sweeping the floor. Élucide felt an aching, envious hope. But they did not invite her to play their dress-up game.
“Oh, you! You can’t come in, Luce.”
Ranilde shut the door on her.
Mr. Nachfolger had got Papa to agree to be put up…
At this new Gremot dinner table, in their still-new house, Nachfolger spread his arm expansively over the back of an empty chair. Mischief was in his eyes. They met Élucide’s. He abandoned his first beginning.
“Young lady, a pestiferous obstacle to the county’s legitimate business…by this, I mean to say, a Democrat, has got himself elected commissioner. His constituents are few, but your papa, having raised his house, has landed among them. So also we find Mr. Ziegler, so also Sanderson.” He had thought of something. He abandoned the sententious, and in his usual accents said: “There you go, Gremot. Ziegler cancels Sanderson, and your vote puts you one up.”
The corner of Papa’s mouth twitched. Nachfolger again made Élucide his audience. “Mr. Rowan feels, on the strength of being there at all, that he answers to the voters’ mandate; he believes that he serves the unpopular party best by voicing at odd times its unasked for opinion on sundry items of order, by continually introducing…or, as one might say, interrupting…with his infernal objections to our every proposal. If the rest of us said mousetrap, Miss Élucide, Rowan would say poison. In charity, we will suppose that he, though a confounded dog, is not native to the manger; that he feels impelled to the role, merely, by an honorable sense of duty. And from this, we hope to free him…not his honor, which would be a difficult article to extract, but the weight of his conscience. You Gremots have been here for six years now, is that right?,” He cocked his head at her father. “You’ve come to know a lot of people in the county, and…”
He spiked a potato, beamed at Élucide, stuck the potato in his mouth, and dared to speak. “I guarantee, there’s more know you.”
Nachfolger, seated that day where Eugene Ebrach had been seated at lunch, had, like Ebrach, invited her to understand him, to be his ally. “Miss Élucide, you’ll like seeing your Papa’s name on the ticket…give you something to note down in your diary.”
Her diary was where she had noted down:
Richard Everard. Eleventh June. (His birthday.) Élucide Gremot Everard. Fourteenth August. (Her birthday.) Mother had said, “No!” to the mail order horoscope advertised in the Beacon. Proof in the stars would have been a comfort, a thing to abide by—
Richard will marry me on this day, this year…the hour of one’s birth, as Élucide thought, made a great difference, and that, she had never been told.
But the big loop of the script G could echo back that of the E…there must be in this a fateful symmetry. Practicing lesser augury, she had filled two pages with every sort of E and G—not copied from her penmanship book’s templates alone, but from the Gothic lettering of her bedside Bible, and Polly’s discarded Harper’s.
It was a tricky business. She could almost dragoon a heart from the design. She need only find a center E that was either very round or very slender. She had drawn little pictures of him, of Richard, the nose wrong in some way she hadn’t the skill to fix. She’d drawn a dress to be married in, made this an extravagance of crinolines (these were going out of style, but a wedding dress was not a day dress); and a second choice…one more modest and with only a waist length veil, in case Papa wouldn’t spend so much…
That her father might have had this conversation with a political friend seemed out of the question. Someone, though, had got her diary, found its hiding place under the mattress; had then, playing a mean joke on Élucide, restored it―but so near the foot of the bed she’d panicked. It was gone, it was humiliating, it would be impossible to speak up about the theft…
It was there. He only wanted her to know he’d read it. Or she. Really, Élucide suspected her sister. Yet Ranilde wasn’t the one who teased, and Ranilde was not a pet of Mr. Nachfolger.
Élucide found he continued to watch her. Papa sat smiling.
When she and Richard built their house, she would make the attic room her refuge. It would be warm and light, papered in yellow with white-painted furniture, and…she caught herself again, waking…did sofas come in purple? A bowl of goldfish on an iron pedestal, a Boston fern on the reading table…
Now, she needed Richard in the picture.
His habit was to call her “Miss.” If they met outdoors, he would touch his cap. She nearly always saw him wince, as though speaking to her gave him a cramp…but if he hated her, he shouldn’t linger like he did. Élucide thought he did not hate her.
“The voters,” her father had once said, “are men like Everard and Sanderson.”
Sanderson, the spring after the election, ambling over their lawn with the Everard boys, had spotted Élucide sitting on the back porch swing. He came and put his hands on one of the concrete urns that topped the pillar at the foot of the steps. And with a guileless face, looked up at her. “I voted for the Squire, Miss Élucide…you know why?”
Lawrence said, “Sanderson.”
Sanderson said, “Cause he’s a chiseler, and cause all his friends are richer than he is. I pay tax on my property, and I don’t like seeing a nickel of it wasted.”
Sanderson had grinned at the start of his remark. His laugh at the end was short, and came out as a sort of wheeze through his teeth. She looked at Lawrence. She wanted to ask him—he was easier—what Sanderson meant about her father’s friends. Lawrence raised his head and stared; Élucide stared back. This lasted a second or two, and Lawrence shot a glare at Sanderson. Élucide looked at Richard, standing apart from his brother, come to see her father…and saw Richard’s face grow pained.
“You may be pert with Mr. Nachfolger or with Mr. Rutherford, Luce. I would rather you didn’t. But, there is a difference—do you see it?—when you make yourself bold with Papa’s hands. That sort of thing is vulgar, miss.”
Thus chastised by her mother, Élucide had learned from this rebuke to be slyer, to keep an eye out for things that a daughter of the house might rightfully mention to the foreman’s son, without the risk of being either bold or pert.
She’d put her book down, got up from her chair, and come close to slipping out the French window. Richard had something against crossing the Gremots’ garden to reach the stead by the shortest way, some notion Élucide made out as beholdenness, if there were such a word; some suspicion of having accessed their hospitality by walking on their property in those places he did not in duty need to be…and this Richard would not have. He would not, either, set foot in their hall, but would leave the grounds circling round the front way, going down the drive and up the road…and so his minute or two’s head start did no harm. She would catch him on the path.
Her father, bent over his writing, caught Élucide first.
“Saw Everard making for Hopper’s. Or, we could say if we wanted to, making for town. He’ll be gone two or three days, Luce.”
The comment didn’t mean anything. Except to say that Old Richard was a drunk on a jag, that her Richard had no reason to call again until he could pretend to have consulted his father, and that Papa knew where Élucide thought she was going. She’d gone out and waylaid Richard in any case.
“Cleome Towson has been up to see my mother.”
The bricks baked in the afternoon sun. Like coals they radiated heat against bare faces and arms. Richard’s boots scuffed the crisping grass at the walkway’s edge. He turned to look at her, grimacing as though he wished not to see her. But he stayed, and pushed back his cap; at the same time he wiped the sweating bridge of his nose with his sleeve. He worked his mouth. He had something to say on the subject of Cleome Towson. He ought to, Élucide thought.
The hot weather had been making her sick…
The day before, a headache waking up; it had lasted through the afternoon. At five o’clock, she saw herself in the mirror, damply pale and red-eyed. But hungry. She wobbled down the stairs to the hall. Her mother and sister were there, Élucide watching them fan themselves before the open door—and the guest they were seeing off was Miss Towson. Neither walked out into the sun. They dropped their waving arms and came inside. Mother whispered to Ranilde.
And finding her younger daughter up and about, drew Élucide, with a raised eyebrow, into her confidence. “I don’t know what sort of man this Mr. Ebrach is. Cleome thinks the church has failed Verbena. Well, poor Verbena must be lonely.”
Richard said, “I guess she brung you’uns some gossip.”
He’d got that out at last, just when she was about to try another gambit: “Oh, if it would rain…”
“I don’t know.” She said this, instead.
“Well, I guess she did. Or you got no reason…”
She loved Richard’s eyes when his mood was sullen. She thought he was wonderfully brown from the sun. She did not mind…was even drawn to (proud, in fact, to be the cause of) these expressions of exasperation. “You’re wanting to ask―”
He gave her a direct look. She broke into a smile. Richard lifted his hands. “Or your mama is…what about Mr. Ebrach? Well, I got nothing to say about Mr. Ebrach!” He left her then, and after she’d followed a few paces, said, or Élucide believed she heard him say: “Miss Gremot”.
That, strictly speaking, was Ranilde. It didn’t matter. He was unable to leave her without a second thought. He did not want to be rude to Miss Élucide.
But she had a difficult time making Richard behave like a husband.
“That man of yours, Everard―”
With their cigars and politics, Mr. Nachfolger and her father invaded the summer house. Nachfolger bounded up, the boards going pop, pop.
“Young lady, what sort of literature is that you’ve got hold of?”
She was stretched out over the cushions. Today, even the small muscle needed to push herself upright, to sit demurely with ankles crossed in the company of a gentleman, made the back of her neck feel moist. She showed him General Sherman’s memoirs, lifting the book, title out, for his approval.
Nachfolger took it from her hand, flipped through its pages, lost her place, read the dedication, handed it back. He spoke to her father.
“Gremot, I figure the womenfolk don’t need to educate themselves on the subject of warfare. God gave em a natural instinct for outmaneuvering the enemy.”
Papa was already at the table, laying pieces on the chessboard.
Nachfolger said, “That man of yours…”
“If Everard is my man, I’d like to know it. I can’t get a day’s work out of him.”
“Hmm. Well now, Everard is a fine orator. I don’t know that it’s right to expect a man of philosophy to work the fields. Oil him up, and he can trickle out Jeff Davis like Mother Goose―get that gang of bushwhackers fired with the jackass’s religion. But note the vigilant eye of the Democratic press can’t just spread what it spies down at Hopper’s. Rowan’s got to dress it up in velvet before he puts it on the street. Gremot, it’s the people employ a newspaper man. When an employee slanders the boss, he wants to keep it dainty, so he don’t get the boot.”
Mr. Nachfolger rolled out these words, swinging his chair on one leg to watch Élucide’s reaction.
“Keep the young lady in mind, sir.”
“They don’t blush like they used to, Gremot.”
Her father moved his queen’s bishop’s pawn two squares. Nachfolger countered, bringing forward his queen’s pawn one square. Élucide watched the match unfold, while her father and Nachfolger exchanged their laconic, veiled comments. They’d dropped Everard, and spoke now about the railroad scheme…trading shares for local farmers’ land…so anyone could afford to get in.
“That is just about something for nothing.”
“No argument against it. But, you’re in the best place to set the doubters at ease. That tract you bought down by the bend, Gremot…too bad about the change of plans.” Nachfolger grinned. “I truly don’t know what you had in mind. You go on talk to the farmers. They appreciate a humble man’s hard-earned…”
Her father’s hand hovered over his vulnerable bishop. For minutes, he studied Nachfolger’s queen. Élucide moved along the bench to see the game more closely, but could not guess any better than Papa, what move might save his king.
“Miss Élucide.” Nachfolger, with time on his hands, sat back. “You got hornets, building a nest up over there.”
He pointed to the wire-cloth screen, meaning the overhanging eave.
“They can’t get in, Mr. Nachfolger.”
“You want to tell your papa to have his man fire that nest. Take em all at once.”
Thinking three moves ahead, her father took his bishop back a space, from the square on which he’d almost rested it.
Nachfolger shrugged, and brought his rook forward. “Now the advantage in a wedding, is that it puts everyone in a good mood. No one come to ply his trade or practice his politics.”
Her father’s game relied on a phalanx of pawns blocking his key pieces from attack. He sacrificed the last of them. Nachfolger had won, in essence—the white king was trapped, unable to move for Papa’s own rook and the black queen. “You mean to say, the guests have themselves a good feed, and they can dance if they want to.”
“I mean to say, you have Owen McClurkin and his family outside their native element…”
“Nachfolger, there’s a raft of McClurkins over in Henderson County.”
“Gremot, I know it.”
“I’m figuring to set Owen up in business, so he learns a little something about life.”
“Well, now, Rutherford might help you there. His daughter’s about run off that young man works the counter at the Columbia. You see how they all have a mind of their own, Gremot. That one…”
He winked at Élucide. “Might even go chase after one of the Everard boys.”
It was because she rarely saw her parents together, other than at the table, that Élucide’s picture-making snagged here. She wanted to know how Richard would change, how his face would look, if he loved her.
Papa ordered his life in this way:
Three days of the week spent at his office in town, two nights at the Columbia. When at home, he shut himself for hours behind the library door, or rode out with Ziegler to look at his fields. He made small jokes, when he was not making his point, and Mother, looking down at some practical chore her hands were busy with, smiled. Sometimes she laughed.
From Cookesville, Papa brought home rumors.
“Rutherford is starting a paper. He wants Horace to be his editor, or give him the name of a good man, one or the other. Rutherford’s sold on Hayes…for some reason.”
That had been the small joke. Mother smiled. Because they’d been at the end of dinner, her hands had little to do but stir her coffee.
“High time,” he answered himself. “We need our own organ in Cookesville.”
And Papa set off justifying Rutherford’s adventure, as though at his own table he were ever opposed. “The Beacon is nothing but a simple-witted, half-literate, barking yellow dog of a rag. Rowan should have been scuttled ten years ago. He was a copperhead then, he’s a copperhead now. But the shame of it, Fern, is that he refuses to talk down General Grant. You know what you call that? Conspicuous virtue. He does it for mischief, as much as selling Tilden in a Republican county. He’d just like hearing someone say the word ‘scandal’. Butter wouldn’t melt.”
Élucide’s mother―her back, at the table, always straight―picked up the cup, holding it poised above the saucer that she held in her other hand. “Mr. Rowan says our president is a plain, honest soldier.” Her speech grew wrapped in quotes as she paraphrased the Beacon’s editor. “He had faith in the advice of his dearest friends; he found their counsel good, and rewarded them with high office.”
“You see. He could pull a trick like that with his own man. But he won’t do it to a Democrat.”
Nausea was, of all loathsome symptoms, the worst. Élucide thought that after this half-sleep she would not be sick…she might even be past the brunt. There was an iffy, in between time, when she felt well lying down…and bored, and starved…but—
Not the minute she got to her feet, only as soon as she tried to do anything, the pain came surging back. A sensation of it remained now, like a swelling, pressuring her cheeks across her nose.
She might marry Mr. Nachfolger.
Mother and Papa might allow it, when she was a few years older. Richard the loser, if he’d refused to speak…but herself also, if she hadn’t made him know this.
Lavender light from the window tinted the old stain of vomit on the rug’s fringe. She could see the place from where she lay, that Sarah, hating the task, had tamped at with a rag. Once, on a day when thin clouds covered the sky in a solid bank, the sun’s rays falling bleached across the floorboards, she had seen the tiniest movement there…
And crouched to look. Moth larvae, worms, she saw them curl and uncurl. Worms with segmented brown shells, looking like bits of popcorn hull. Élucide was not a squeamish girl, who jumped at spiders and bugs. But, remembering this, she crawled out from under the bed. She stretched flat on the covers. Her room was no hotter at this hour than was tolerable. The light changed from lavender to blue, and she thought of getting up, before they all went to bed and she missed her supper. Inertia seemed to weigh her in place. She saw Mr. Ebrach playing chess with Mr. Nachfolger. She could smell Ebrach’s scent.
And that, she thought, gathering in a moment’s wakefulness, might be real and not the start of a dream. On this sleeping floor, there was only one tower room. Fighting among the children being not allowed, it was kept empty for guests. But Ebrach had the true guest’s apartment, with its sitting parlor opposite Mother’s. She had heard his voice on the stairs a while ago…he was speaking to Robert.
He would have passed her room on his way to Jerome’s.
His hair lofted to a peak by the part above his right temple. He was almost fair. He was almost blue-eyed. And his eyes pouched when he smiled, in the way that makes a smile seem particularly kind.
She woke in darkness. The clock on the landing had just sounded.
Only once, she thought…it was set to chime the half-hour, too. And in these small hours, anyone alone and wakeful might feel, as Élucide did, safer for the companionship even of this mechanical link to the civilized world, dawn and breakfast, a new day to make up for lost time. Inside her bed curtains, the dark seemed infinite, no beginning or end to it. This began to feel imprisoning. She beat a hand to find the opening, clambered out, began to spot faint lacings of light from the windows. Her matchbox and candle were on the bedstand. The candle was next to the lamp.
But Mother measured lamp oil carefully, as a means of knowing whether her daughter had been reading novels.
Élucide found her dress folded to air over the chair back. She couldn’t reach behind to button it without Sarah’s help; but she could pull the dress over her nightgown, fasten the buttons at the waist―that would serve for modesty.
By candlelight, she made out a tray on her dressing table, placed there in solicitude…but also, it might have been, in mild rebuke. By Sarah, assisted by someone with a master key, while Élucide slept. Here was a tall glass, its contents blocked from flies by a saucer. Under the plate cover she found only her mother’s digestive biscuits and a bunch of grapes. She was a fussy eater (this was a fault), but Élucide preferred to cut grapes in half and pick them clean with a knifepoint, rather than hear seeds crackle on the inside of her jaw, although…she paused…it was a question, whether eating seeds felt worse or sounded worse.
She ate the biscuits; one, and then the rest in a handful. She downed crumbs with a gulp of tea, and winced. Sweet tea tasted foul as medicine. She knelt, and plunged her hand blindly among the folded things in her trunk, her own body blocking the candlelight. Here at last was a crocheted bed-jacket. And here was disarray. Her mother would tick her off for this, leaving Geneva a mess to straighten.
Well…I’ll tidy, she told herself. Later.
On slippered feet she padded softly through the hall, down the stairs, meaning to sneak outdoors by the library window. She would sit on the swing for an hour or two, or go down to the summer house. Since she couldn’t sleep, she would watch the sky grow light, hear birdsong rise…that rarely witnessed interlude that could so lift the heart.
But it was early, much too early.
Her passage through the house seemed marked. The clock on the landing struck one; the grandfather clock in the library chimed, a minute or two after, just as Élucide had slipped inside, and pulled the door closed. She thought of, as she groped in the dark, how her mother or her sister―her father especially―would tell her, “Be careful. You’ll put your hand on a black widow.”
Its bite would feel like the pricking of a thorn.
She found the night was almost cool. She would have discarded the jacket even so, for the clamminess of sleeve over sleeve bunched against her arms…but she must not discard the jacket. It took awful restraint. She must not push her feet against the boards, and creak the chains. Far below, she could see Lawrence’s fire. Or the copper aura of it, the reflection that mimicked the flames, flare from time to time like a strobe of lightning across the mist. This was what she could see, from the hilltop.
But Lawrence was not down at the riverside, sitting on his log.
By Ziegler’s intelligence—“That boy does all right for his self, I reckon, fish all night, and sleep all day”—Élucide knew things of Lawrence Everard that she had never seen. Ziegler’s reports gratified her father’s sense of rightness…but Élucide cared only how Richard spent his days. Ziegler had told her, though, that whenever he stopped by the stead, he hardly saw Richard.
The dog arrived first. Or was perhaps heralded by a yap, muffled in its progress to the porch from her mother’s sitting room (where the spaniels slept in their baskets), by all the rooms of the house between. She hadn’t listened with attention to its warning. On any night, the spaniels barked at odd times, the Gremot property better guarded by Lawrence’s three or four mongrels.
This one came up the steps and nosed her hand, following with a bath from a furtive tongue. She caught the collie by the ear then, and with thumb and forefinger caressed the hollows of its skull. Giving way to an immoderate joy, the dog began to whine and pant.
“Fish, what you doing? Come down off there!”
Lawrence, instead, came up. She heard one boot land, crunch as though mud-encrusted, on the bottom step; one on the step above.
Continued from “the step above”
She had no fear of Lawrence. He was a nuisance to her, but she didn’t see in this meeting what her mother would have…the two of them speaking under cover of darkness, Élucide outside the house without permission. He was a slouching shape from where she sat, communicating truculence more clearly in contour than did his face in daylight.
“Why do you call him Fish?”
“I had a friend one time named Fish.”
“That doesn’t seem like such a nice thing.”
Her words, she found on consideration, could have conveyed more than she’d guessed. “I mean…I don’t think I’d like it if you named a dog Luce.”
She peered at him. He had made a sort of noise. “Well, you wouldn’t!”
“I never did, Miss Élucide. But I might.”
He might. Cussedness—it could hardly be doubted—was Lawrence; but more so Sanderson, who’d schooled him.
“Do you read the Beacon, sir?”
Her father sometimes read selections from the Beacon aloud, mostly in wintertime, on those infrequent nights they gathered as a family in the front parlor. She herself never read, to say read, Mr. Rowan’s paper, nor had she met him. Rowan stood merely as her father’s byword for mud-stickers and mules.
“No, miss, I don’t. Not like Mama don’t. I can if I want…” He trailed, and paused, and seemed to reject defending this contention further. “I see pretty good. Fish, get down here.” He snapped his fingers.
She called him by his name, and abruptly he stood straight, then backed away, putting both feet on the lowest step. To Élucide, this was unreadable. But if he didn’t want to answer a question, she would ask it anyway. From the day he’d broached the hiring of the man named Shad, Richard hadn’t come back to Papa’s library. She weighed asking directly, “How is Richard?”
“Lawrence, did your father hire that man?”
This substitute was not over-subtle. Lawrence laughed, loud enough to be heard, and catching himself, lowered his voice. “That’s been near a week, Shad come to work for us. I tell that colored boy, though, Gremot’s daughter taken a liking to you, and she been asking…”
She stood, and Lawrence layered no further nuance into his joke. But parting from her, he said: “I tell Richard you was asking, anyways.”
“Come help me sort this, Luce.”
Summoned from the breakfast table, she’d dawdled on the stairs and now found her mother’s sitting room door shut. Élucide had been taught that a noisy knock was rude; a jaunty one impertinent. Lightly, she rapped with her knuckles, entered, took her seat on a skirted footstool that her mother had placed for her, and found her chin at level with the writing desk. She offered suggestions her mother did not take. They had only the Horaces, in addition to Mr. Ebrach and Mr. Jerome. But, for the sake of politesse, the equation could not be worked. Mother disliked crowding her guests on one side of the table. The alternative was to demote someone…and this was trickier. It seemed she could not avoid seating Mr. Ebrach near Dr. Horace.
“But I’m certain their views are not compatible. I’d rather have them at opposite corners.” She had five males and four females altogether, but of guests taken separately, three men and one woman.
“Don’t yawn, Luce. You’ll have another spell.” The pencil tapped. “Well! Mr. Jerome might sit next to you…it will have to be four on that side. Otherwise, I’ll have Mrs. Horace with all the men. How old do you suppose he is?”
“I don’t know.”
Mr. Jerome dressed like her father. The thin planes of his face, his deep-socketed eyes, made him look shrunken above the collar, rather than skeletal, as were his hands. He might be a near contemporary of Élucide and her siblings. Nothing about him defined a particular age.
“But Nildie…or I, could sit next to Mr. Ebrach.”
“No. Mr. Ebrach goes across from Mrs Horace.” She scribbled over the first rectangle she’d drawn, and sketched another. She wrote “Me” at the table’s foot; “Papa”, at the head.
“I will have Dr. Horace on my right, and Mr. Ebrach simply has to go on your father’s left. We’ll say Mr. Jerome is family, then. I should call him Thomas.”
“He said you could.”
The hour was ten-thirty. At the chime of the clock, Mother pushed her chair from the desk, rose, and moved to the divan. She patted the seat. “Luce, I am going to tell you what Mr. Ebrach told Papa and me. I’m assuming Mr. Jerome will join us for dinner…I suppose he will.”
She raised her chin. Until she saw her daughter get up from the footstool, pick up a cushion from the corner of the divan; until with this wrapped in her arms and pressed to her stomach, Élucide had bounced into place beside her, Mother said nothing more.
“He was trained as a physician. I mean Mr. Ebrach. He served for a year or two on the…let me think.” She unclasped her hands and turned a palm up. “Did he say Caledonia, or Caligari? Well, I suppose the name of a ship doesn’t matter…we wouldn’t know one from another. Only, you understand me, Luce, medicine was Mr. Ebrach’s first career…and so, if he judges Thomas safe…oh!”
She waited. But her mother ended with dismissal, rather than share the meat of Ebrach’s confidences. “It would be tedious―and unpleasant, I think―to repeat much of what he said. I want you to show good manners when you speak to Mr. Jerome.”
Élucide thought her mother had had this admonition in mind, more her purpose than the seating of her guests. What was it, then, about poor Cousin Thomas’s illness? Something unpleasant. She wished her mother would tell…why not?
For propriety, though. One had to learn things by improprietous means. “I wasn’t rude to Mr. Ebrach. I like him. I don’t think I could have been rude to Cousin Thomas, either, because―”
Because…? “I don’t think he wanted me to make conversation. He wasn’t feeling well, was he?”
This was a point.
“Well, that’s a fair excuse.” Not a good excuse. And in proof she’d taken the point, Mother added: “You drank two cups of coffee at breakfast yesterday, miss―I don’t like the habit at your age.”
You don’t get enough sun, Luce. On the other hand, there was such a thing as too much sun, catching heatstroke, or overtiring yourself, from too much walking outdoors. But then, you mustn’t be lethargic, sitting all day in your room. Élucide never doubted that her parents worried over her infirmity…that they sought answers in good faith. Only it seemed their interventions placed her at fault.
A minute passed. They might have finished. She risked a question: “Why does Mr. Ebrach want to call spirits, if he’s a doctor?”
Mother stood, crossed to the desk, took up the sheet of paper and stared at her seating diagrams, as though reconsidering the dilemma of Ebrach; whether he really must go one place from Dr. Horace. “I suppose he is more like one of the Transcendentalists. I don’t say that’s a virtue. Mr. Ebrach tells us he would rid the world of confidence men if he could. But, at any rate, I accept his word on Mr. Jerome…on Thomas―and your Papa does.”
When Élucide’s parents entertained, they did so in a regular cycle: Nachfolgers, Horaces, Rutherfords, the fourth week reserved for a business crony of Papa’s…once in a blue moon, for a visiting Haws, an Armour cousin, or one of Mother’s college friends. Of all friends in the county circle, the Horaces were most bosom. Dr. Horace had been her father’s schoolmate, the Horaces were godparents to the Gremot children; they had followed the Gremots to Cookesville from their home in Louisville―and were easiest, at those times help was needed on short notice, to appeal to on the principle of Christian forbearance. The Horaces had agreed to a second visit, six days after the first.
But the Rutherfords were due tomorrow. Many things put by in the pantry must remain so; the unexpected arrival of Jerome and Ebrach called for a degree of scrounging. Yesterday, the Gremots and their guests had eaten chicken and potatoes. Today, they would eat chicken and potatoes, prepared differently. Yesterday’s leftover soup was reintroduced…today, augmented with leeks and a puree of cucumber.
Before the company sat down to dinner, Mother positioned herself at the back of the chair next to Élucide’s, and beckoned to Jerome, who’d ventured down the stairs in Ebrach’s wake. She showed him an encouraging face, called him by his surname, interrupted herself and began again.
“Thomas, I would like you here, at my left. The Horaces and Mr. Ebrach are guests; they are not family.” She touched his arm, and as he stood in hesitation, took his coat sleeve, guiding him forward. She lowered her voice. “I hope you feel well today?”
“Madame Gremot, I do.” But he remained standing…because, as Élucide supposed, no other guest was seated…and said to Mother: “I will sit any place.”
Ysonde, their cook, had got a catfish to round out the menu, one caught and sold to her by Lawrence; a fish so impressive in size that after baking and slicing it in the kitchen, she had reconstructed it on the serving dish with the head kissing the tail.
But fish must follow soup, and this could not be set on the table until after Dr. Horace’s grace.
“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” He drew breath. “Dear Heavenly Father, we thank thee for these friends; they who in the Christian spirit have opened their house, not to their fellows in faith and temperance alone, but also willingly do they offer their hand to a needy brother.”
Élucide’s eyes were on her own hands folded on her lap. Mr. Jerome, exercising caution, had taken her example; he bowed his head, laced his fingers, then—at Horace’s “needy brother”―sat up, and stared at him.
“My friends.” Horace smiled, and turned a pitying face to Jerome. “I have in mind a passage from Deuteronomy. We do well to consider these sayings that instruct of Our Father’s will for us. This call to obedience is a timely one. Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God. Chapter eighteen; verse thirteen.” He stopped, and a minute elapsed, at the end of which Élucide, having missed her supper the day before, in hope unbowed her own head. Dr. Horace had his ear cocked to the right, in Ebrach’s direction. He, the third graceless one at the table, had all the while gazed at the place above the sideboard where hung Grandpapa Gremot in oil, Mrs. Horace’s watercolor of their house on its hilltop, and the studio portrait of W. A. Gremot and family, taken in Indianapolis nine years ago.
“For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord.”
This time her godfather quoted without attribution, and without coherent attachment to his earlier remarks. But he spoke in an undertone. He then raised his voice.
“Heavenly Father, we thank thee for this abundance; yet we remember those who suffer hunger. We thank thee for this company, yet remember the friendless. We pray for those who dwell in the darkness of error, that your light show them the narrow way to salvation. We beseech your blessing on this house and on those who have gathered at this table. In the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Redeemer, amen.”
The company seated at the table—six of them Gremots; therefore twice beseeching His blessing on their own behalf—repeated Dr. Horace’s “amen”. Robert, head also bowed, otherwise at attention by the sideboard, had waited for this word, along with Sarah and Mary.
He began to ladle, and the women, carrying conservative helpings of soup, to circuit the table; Sarah moving clockwise from the head, Mary from the foot. After this course, Sarah took Mary by the arm, chivvying her along until debatably out of earshot, and urged her down the kitchen stairs. “Go on help Cook now, bring up the fish. And don’t you spill anything more!”
Soon Mary reappeared, hefting, with little gasping breaths and with both hands, her end of the carrying board. Ysonde was relaxed, using only one hand to support the other end, their loose harmony falling out of tune as they eased the platter onto the sideboard.
“Mary Paton, let me do this thing myself. All your help just help me into trouble.”
Robert stepped up. “Come on, Mary.”
But it was Sarah who sidled past Ysonde as she departed, catching her eye in passing with a roll of her own, then taking up a plate and holding it out for Robert. On this he laid two filets of catfish, and four spears of asparagus plucked from an oblong cut-glass dish.
“Mary,” Sarah said, “take that to her, over there.” She nodded towards Mrs. Horace.
“You seem to be eating a good lunch, miss. Yesterday”―this time, Mrs. Horace addressed Papa―“she was bothered by the hot weather, I expect.”
“That’s likely so, ma’am. When the night cools off, Luce gets up and around easier.”
No, she told herself. Up and around was an expression. Her father had used it, that was all. No one had seen her with Lawrence and whispered this word in Papa’s ear. She buttered her second roll. She knew it was low manners, making sandwiches at the table. For an interval of ten minutes or so, they had all sat contained within themselves, and there had been no talk, only the masticating of fish and asparagus, and the sound of cutlery tapping and scraping. Élucide had perhaps been enjoying her food too well for Mrs. Horace’s taste.
Theirs was not the table’s only conversation. Dr. Horace broke across a low exchange between her brother and Ranilde: “Young Walter, how are your preparations coming? Will you recite for me?”
And Mr. Ebrach had just told Mother: “Madam, your cook has handled the fish just as she ought. It would be a pity had she overbaked it.”
“Please don’t let me be nosey with you, Mr. Jerome, but are you quite alone in the world?”
Mrs. Horace had startled him, it seemed. She prompted: “You told Mr. Gremot you live in St. Louis.”
Papa glanced up from his plate. Jerome opened his mouth.
The delay, between this demonstration of intent to speak, and speech itself, was of sufficient length to capture Ebrach’s and Mother’s attention. Their voices died away. Jerome answered then, his manner rushed.
“I do live in St. Louis. But this is only for my purpose today. I may live anywhere.” He paused. He spoke again. “Madame, I have a wife. She has not traveled with me.”
“Is your wife an American, Mr. Jerome?”
“I know men love to have their names spoken of in connection with acts of mercy, and how easy it is to yield to the impulse, but we must not forget that what may be mercy to the individual is cruelty to the State.”
Dr. Horace put down his tea glass, and lifted his hand, but Walter―chin up, enunciation pointed―carried his piece to the sentence’s end. “Mr. Johnson said that. I call it a good turn of phrase…bet it surprises them where I got it. But not right away, I won’t tell.”
“You think it will, Walter. You suppose.” Mother, murmuring.
Jerome sat in stiff awareness of having gained ears. He’d been using his fish knife to winnow out a bone…this he’d placed so neatly on the plate’s rim that its curved shape and the pressed scroll design seemed, in geometrical proportion, to echo each other. He lowered his poised fork, eyes on Mrs. Horace. His shirt-cuff brushed the bone to the cloth.
“I apologize, Mr. Jerome. I don’t mean a thing by asking.”
“Madame, no, I will apologize. No, the question is not an offense. I am an American myself.”
Horace cleared his throat. “You suggest, Mr. Jerome, that by virtue of your status…”
“It is a year, I think, Clotilde has been here. Monsieur, what you wish to know…I will tell you that her English is poor. But, madame…” Jerome turned again to Mrs. Horace. “She is quite safe. I have not left her without a friend.”
“Mr. Jerome, sir. I won’t take your plate until you say you’re done.”
Robert spoke softly, as though for Jerome’s ears only, but his reminder served for the table. A space was made at the head for the admiration and carving of the birds. They were breast-side up, cavities stuffed with onions and oysters, legs aligned to square the circle of the silver gravy boat. They numbered four―with nine dining, this made not quite half-a-chicken each. Heaped round the platter’s perimeter was a mix of boiled potatoes, squash, and beets, shining with butter and dotted with pepper.
Papa rose, accepted the fork and fat-bladed knife, bent over the first to slice the skin. What might, had Jerome been an easier conversationalist, have passed for light table talk, instead weighed silence over the Gremots and their guests.
Ranilde leaned to catch her mother’s eye. “Mrs. McClurkin, by the way, wants to sit with us when we look over patterns.”
Élucide would study her new brother-in-law at close quarter, dance with him at her sister’s wedding, learn whether Papa had got him sized up. Owen had round, amiable features, and his looks she liked well enough. He was not her sister’s knight. They had not, in point of fact, seen much of Owen these late months; not since the threat of Ranilde’s running off with him to Kentucky was put to rest by their parents’ allowing of a formal engagement. Was it wrong, or was it only practical, to marry for the benefit of being married at all?
Owen seemed at his ease going on the town with his brother and cousins, the McClurkin men like a gang of rowdies invading Cookesville on celebration days. They were flash dressers, they pulled rolls of notes from pockets, bought drinks and meals for strangers, disappeared until flush again. Papa called them, “the county’s first generation of idle money.”
But Owen’s father was not another Hopper. Possibly, as Mr. Nachfolger had it, McClurkin did business with Hopper―but no one called the Greenway Inn disrespectable. It was only isolated, almost on the county’s border. The Greenway served as a polling place; a sheriff’s inquest, now and then, was held in its public room. And if McClurkin kept his independence, and rubbed contrarily against county authority, he did Papa some good by it. The Greenway was too far from the stead. Old Richard could not walk so many miles. So there was no mixing of Everards and McClurkins.
Élucide could see them, Richard and Lawrence, dressed in morning coats, standing under a garland of tissue-paper flowers, Sanderson, too―the three of them like a cluster of aldermen at a mayor’s inaugural. She might chase after the Everard boys. She forked another piece of chicken, with some spite at Ranilde’s punishing herself, leaving food on her plate for the sake of her corset laces. But mostly, Élucide bent low to hide from her mother (Papa faced her, and would note it) the irrepressible smile.
She would ignore Richard. He might…he would, wearing good clothes, look fine as an actor on the stage…but she would pick Lawrence. She would take up a fold of her gown in either hand, and swish the hem at him in a mockery of a curtsey.
“Oh, Lawrence, won’t you give me a dance?”
This was silliness. Of course the Everards were not invited. She saw Ebrach’s warm eyes watching her, and because she was smiling already as she looked across, she appeared to have exchanged something with him, some private understanding. When he smiled in return, she felt she had. This her mother saw at once.
“Mr. Ebrach, have you traveled very much abroad?”
The smile spread wider; he beamed it across the table, then grew thoughtful as he spoke. “I have not much traveled, madam, as one thinks of travel. In my youth, I toured Rome and Florence, and saw the famous attractions there. Among the antiquities, that which most strongly impressed me was the mausoleum of Cecilia Metella. In that unquiet place, a depression of my own spirits came over me…this, while having known at the time, nothing of the ancients. Yet, so far as one can accurately relive in memory the particulars of an old experience, I judge that whoever haunts those stones, does so from a very great distance. I saw also the Mamertine Prison. Distinctly, I felt there a trepidation, mixed with a sort of thrill―a frisson; these sensations affected me like the after-echo of a ringing bell (though of course, I had heard nothing of the kind). One is aware of a disturbance near the altar. In Florence, I visited the Basilica of Santa Croce…”
He left off. Man of the spirit that he was, Ebrach could discover as well, vibrations in the living. Mother had been nodding in that fixed way of the absentminded; twice though, she’d glanced at Dr. Horace―once, at “whoever haunts those stones”; again when Ebrach pronounced “frisson” as a French word, and spoke of the ringing bell.
“My years at sea, as you might not suppose, were somewhat monotonous. We crossed the Atlantic, and recrossed; once arrived at Liverpool, the ship would make from there her circuit along the British coast, stopping at Queenstown, whence she sailed again for Halifax. And I, as ship’s physician, was wanted aboard. Rarely was I able to take leave and visit those ports of call where the Colossia stayed. On one occasion we collected a load of cargo at Copenhagen, and I saw no more of the city than the environs of the harbor.”
“The Colossia,” Élucide said. “Was that the name of your ship?”
“She was my ship, Miss Élucide…as you say.” His answer was sober; he’d missed, as he must, her mischief.
“She was struck in heavy fog, by the Aamberg, near Cape Race. Four of the Colossia’s lifeboats were hauled in by the Aamberg herself. One was lost. I have not, to this day, heard of its fate. And two were rescued by a schooner whose crew had seen the flares. That ship was the Bascom. I and some twenty others spent the night adrift, before the Bascom found us next day. My watch put the hour at near ten in the morning. The sun had just begun to drive away the fog.
“Had we passed another night on the open sea, we would all have been found dead of exposure. Our boat had been half-swamped, our feet immersed. Mine had become utterly numb below the ankle, and I could only grip the side of the boat with my hands. We found by light of dawn that we had lost three, vanished overboard…insensible, it may have been, from the cold, and unable to keep their places. A small boat on the ocean’s waves pitches, you see, madam. After so many hours, one’s strength falters.”
“Oh!” An intuition came to Élucide. “That was how you got to be spiritual.”
He looked at her, mouth grave, eyes intent and pleased. She thought she’d managed the right sort of comment; she had shown aptness, as would a protégé. Ebrach looked at Jerome, and Jerome quickly turned his eyes aside, meeting Élucide’s. Here, she saw a weary despondency, that seemed native there, give way to something urgent…Jerome struggled with an impulse to speak. He did not speak. Dr. Horace spoke―and not to Ebrach, but to Papa:
“The Colossia. That was ten years ago, I believe. She used to ferry the Irish laborers to Canada…from there they’d cross the border, and sell themselves for soldiers. Back during the war.”
“Ten years, in the coming spring, sir,” Ebrach said. “She sank in April of ’67.”
“And, as the young lady surmises, at a desperate hour you sought comfort in the Word, and took inspiration there.” Dr. Horace was courteous; his tone also dry and faintly doubtful.
“Certainly, we prayed. One of the lookouts, a man named Samuel Abraham, a woman passenger…a Mrs. Campbell, and a Cornishman named Hawkins…those three, and I, huddled together on one seat nearest the bow. Their names I have not forgotten. Mrs. Campbell was kind enough to spread her shawl round myself and Hawkins. Abraham took on the role of junior officer, the Colossia’s second mate being at the tiller. Yes, we prayed. We prayed through each hour of wakefulness…and sleep was far too perilous. The second mate may have dozed. He was gone in the morning.”
Like the editor of the Beacon on the topic of the president, Dr. Horace had stated a plain fact about the steamer Colossia. And in a manner hard to perceive, but easy to suspect, he had slighted Ebrach. Ebrach told his story to Mother, to Élucide and Jerome, last to Papa, as though he conversed with the others, but not with Horace. He’d asked them to contemplate a man’s death; but the greater rebuke was in calling the efficacy of prayer into question. This stroke had been given lightly.
Robert stepped forward, bent his head next to her father’s and asked, in a whisper, if the time had come.
“Mr. Jerome.” Papa turned to their most laggardly guest. “You like these birds, I hope?”
“The dinner, Mr. Gremot, is excellent…” He tailed off, but as one who means to go on. They waited. Jerome held silent colloquy with the remainder of his meal, darted a glance at Ebrach, and said, “The birds are not overbaked.”
“No, sir.” Papa cut across Walter’s chuckle. “But you’re ready to move along? Say so if you aren’t.”
“Please, clear these things, monsieur.”
Papa nodded to Robert.
Two types of cheese were offered, a dense yellow cheddar and a crumbling Stilton. Each guest was given compote of plum, toasted wafers of rye bread nestled in syrup, tidy against the rim of each footed bowl. The table’s period of silence was more concentrated, no course other than dessert anticipated so much as the cheese. Coffee was put on to brew, the cake already uncovered on the sideboard…and so fragrant with spices and molasses as to speak of its own pleasures.
Dr. Horace rooted his small Bible from the pocket of his coat. “The survivors of the Colossia prayed. You tell us so, Mr. Ebrach. Most lived, but many died…”
He cleared his throat; his sermonizing tenor swelled.
“He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. That is the inspired Word of God, given to the prophet Micah. The loss of hope, the fear that He has turned from us, that He does not hear us, when our voices are frailest; that when we suffer, when we are most in want of comfort, compassed about by darkness and despair…”
Dr. Horace kept his eye on Jerome. Jerome had begun at last to eat with a good appetite. Nothing was left on his plate but crumbs and trailings of syrup, into which he had pressed the back of his spoon. But taking warning from the doctor’s aposiopesis, from the quiet of the expectant table, he did not put this in his mouth. He raised his head in wariness, and found Horace staring.
“Mr. Jerome, this is the crux, the very cause of apostasy. Why do Christians fall from grace? Why do they doubt that God is merciful and His judgment infallible?”
“Because, Dr. Horace…”
Ebrach had in some way taken her into his circle, where Jerome belonged already. She saw that Dr. Horace was building an attack against Ebrach…he must recognize the importance to Ebrach of Jerome. Her cousin was frail, and Élucide chose to shoulder his burden. “Because they die.”
“Miss Élucide, you put the matter bluntly.”
He smiled, not at her, but her father. “And thus, confronted with mystery, some grow to doubt Him—in their weakness, they doubt His compassion. Equally, they may doubt His justice. He has promised us peace and an end to suffering. Yet, as we know, an age on earth is, in the realm of the eternal, the winking of an eye. Some, in their impatience―in their ignorance, we may say―seek an early deliverance. In fine, they seek after idols.”
Here Dr. Horace, quite capable, if no one took him up, of addressing his own argument, paused.
“But,” she said, “they don’t really.”
A startled laugh from her godmother.
Though of course Élucide didn’t, her education scarcely permitted, disagree on some point of theology. All her theology came from Dr. Horace himself. All her early reading, before she’d got old enough to slip off at Rutherford’s and buy a book of her own choosing, had been Bible study, and the sermons of Wesley, under the guidance of Mrs. Horace. Élucide thought of the molten calf, the Philistines, Jezebel, worshipers of Baal and sons of Belial. She knew of no Cookesville citizen who behaved this way.
“Those who abandon Him in their hearts…because they have not the discipline to perform what is in its own right an abandonment…an abandonment of self-interest…”
He weighed his words, and chose a shortcut. “We need only obey. We are asked to do no more. The mind of man was not made to fathom the mystery of God. To attempt to do so is sin.”
He did not succeed altogether in keeping his gaze from straying to the right. “I refer to the deceiving practice of substitution, to the perversion of faith into practice alone. A belief may be in itself an idol, in such cases where a purpose of one’s own takes the place of God’s purpose. Prayer may be an idol. Prayer is no more than ritual, if we do not ask when we pray, My Lord, what is your purpose for me?―and listen humbly for His voice in reply. If we merely repeat forms of words in hopes of dispelling fear, we pursue the favors of an idol.”
Horace looked at the fingers of Jerome’s nervous right hand, as they caressed the silverwork of the spoon on his plate.
Continued from “on his plate”
“The dying are beset by dread; the bereft, by grief. Grief so great, they would follow the loved one to the grave…they do, at times, Dr. Horace. And those who must soon depart, and those who must remain, suffer alike…their burden feels to them a living death; it is the same. They fear the prospect they see before them, a starless sky above a lonely plain, an exile into a strange land. Here, life and death are one, and the bridge glimpsed through the fog cannot be crossed. The way is a black tunnel, its mouth gapes in shadow, phantoms haunt its gate. You will say none may pass, but that they have faith.”
As Ebrach began to speak, Horace retreated from his high ground to the extent of pivoting in his chair; and Jerome, freed now from his eye, and the threat of being called on to participate, hunched low, picked up his spoon and thrust it between his lips.
Horace said, tensely smiling: “Well, sir, you put words in my mouth. You will have to tell me your idea in simple English. I hardly can enlighten you, when I hardly can make heads or tails of you. Do you ask me a question?”
“Dr. Horace, if I hear you rightly, you construct your thesis on three points. That faith may be defined as obedience to the authority of the bible and to the word of God. That when we lose faith because we doubt his purpose, we sin nonetheless, in seeking—as you say—to fathom what his purpose may be. That we must ever ask of God, when we pray, to show us what is his purpose.”
“I will neither agree, nor disagree with you, sir. Perhaps you make a fair representation. But I do not know your purpose.”
This brought a chuckle from the head of the table. And like so many outposts receiving a signal, Mother, then Walter, last Ranilde, respectively smiled, laughed, and giggled. Élucide did none of these things. She had faith in Ebrach, who seemed unperturbed. He smiled also.
“Sir, I will use your own phrase. I am at a desperate hour; I am a drowning man. Have I no recourse in prayer, then? Ought I to silently sink, because I know of no purpose in dying, no way in which I can serve God by surrendering to death? Do I pray with my last breath to be delivered from error, of which I am judged guilty, but the nature of which I must not seek to know? If I am rescued, shall I believe his purpose from the start was only to try me?”
“I will answer your last question.”
But Horace first crossed an arm over his belly, propped an elbow on his left hand, his chin on the right. After a moment’s thought, he said: “When God sees fit to try one among us more rigorously than others…that man must indeed suppose himself to have been chosen to serve some particular end. He must not question his Maker’s wisdom in so choosing. All Christians―I and you alike, sir―suffer our earthly trials according to His plan, the purpose of which will in the fullness of time be revealed. He who humbles himself before God in this life will receive in the afterlife his Heavenly reward.”
“Revealed, but under what circumstances?”
“That is unknowable. He is God. Thus, we obey.”
“You do not insist, then, that the trial bear some relationship to the purpose. That if I am very greatly tried, God’s purpose for me must be proportionately great?”
“I don’t understand you, Mr. Ebrach.”
“That a man saved from drowning; or, shall we say, a mother who has lost a beloved child…that their sufferings are, in God’s infinite plan, much the same as those of a rail passenger who finds his ticket has gone astray, or a householder who receives an unexpected guest?”
“Then, sir, in simplest terms, of course—though we cannot know it—we assume the greater trial serves the greater purpose.”
“Now, Dr. Horace, we are taught that faith without works is dead. Therefore, in our desire to be charitable, we do as the bible commands…”
“As God commands.”
“And, again, the medium through which we discover his will…that which he commands me to do, as opposed to such use as he may make of you, or any other at this table, is obedience to his word…and…”
Ebrach’s light skipping of a beat here, flavored with skepticism his nod to Horace. “To the ministers of his word. But you say that if we pray, and beg that God explain himself to us more fully, he may do so. He may not.”
Horace dropped both hands to his knees, drummed the fingers of his right.
“Does he then bestow his trials on the pious or the impious? Is there no labor, no task, which the believing Christian can undertake to better serve him, his will being unknowable, as you say…and cloaked in secrecy? Because you will appreciate, sir, that if we, in blind obedience, perform only prescribed acts, and offer repetitious prayers; and these, merely inspired by fear―either of retribution, or of seeing another rewarded in our place―then by your own accounting, the church and its practices are reduced to a form of idolatry.”
“I have not said so. I believe, Mr. Ebrach, that you enjoy playing devil’s advocate. But you know there is a difference. I will use one of your own examples. If I am making a journey―we will say, to Indianapolis―I cannot go to my desk and sketch a rail ticket on a piece of note paper. I cannot draw up many such tickets and hand them about at the station, as though these fraudulent facsimiles had real value. It may be that you intend to build your argument by comparing paganish codswallop to the rites of the Christian church―and you know, sir, that the comparison is false and misleading. You cannot print your own currency; you cannot make statutes of the law to suit your convenience; and you cannot give the legitimacy to occultism that belongs to the Word of God.”
Ebrach, following this sally, did not concede or subside, though he had not gained the table’s majority opinion. “You carry the debate too far afield, Dr. Horace. I cannot be put in such a position as to examine the origins of the bible itself. I will not, either, raise the point that the founders of the non-conformist church rebelled against the formulism of state religion. It seems to me that if God takes the trouble to plan a path for each human life, if he intervenes in strange ways which he has not created our minds to comprehend, he will not refuse to make his meaning plainer if we balk at his will, or go astray from his plan. He did so with the prophet Jonah.”
“But Jonah lived in the days before the Messiah, when the Way had not yet been revealed to the people. Mr. Ebrach, the sacrifice of his Son for the redemption of our sins was a compact; the means by which we attain the Kingdom of Heaven, our salvation, through faith in Jesus Christ.”
“And when you yourself, Dr. Horace, have a text in mind…as you said you had, when earlier you quoted from the eighteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, you consider that you speak by choice; that you give thought to these matters and determine by calculation the passage best suited to your purpose of the day?”
“You weave words, Mr. Ebrach, and again I must plead ignorance. I do not understand you.”
“Mr. Jerome,” Ebrach spoke to his companion gently, as one might awaken a sleeper. “You are a Roman Catholic?”
“Yes, Mr. Ebrach.”
“Can you call to mind the two verses which precede thirteen, in the book and chapter Dr. Horace cited during the grace?”
“I think…I would not know them.”
To Ebrach, aside, Horace said: “What Mr. Jerome understands of the Bible may not be…”
“Unless you read this verse to me…then I may say, yes,..”
“Sir, have I your permission to put the same question to your daughter?”
“Luce.” Papa did not ask himself, or Ebrach, which daughter. “How much of Deuteronomy have you got memorized?”
The moment was somewhat pivotal. She did not want to play along with Ebrach―if she could understand him so well―and be disagreeable to her godfather. But there was only one truthful answer.
“I can’t say. I mean…I know Dr. Horace has taught me…” She moved her left shoulder, caught herself. Shrugging, as her mother would remind her, was rude; it was not an answer…but the matter was as Cousin Thomas had said.
“If I hear it, I’m sure I do know it.”
She wondered if anyone knew the Bible by heart. Even Dr. Horace had, not long ago, consulted his. Her father’s mouth twisted. He looked down the table, at his plate, and could not hide this private grin.
Ebrach said: “Respectfully, I submit that Dr. Horace has not taught Miss Élucide, or she could say. And that his pupil gains nothing from his allusions, if he conceals, and will not frankly share, his meaning. Or, one might say, his purpose. For a man in my profession must be familiar with Dr. Horace’s import, when he quotes from Deuteronomy…and I claim no particular gift for memorizing scripture. But I have heard these words many times: ‘There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or daughter to pass through fire; or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch… Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.’
“It is a charlatan’s or a propagandist’s trick to persuade by proxy. Dr. Horace has given you the key to locate these verses for yourself. Should any of you do so, he…or she…may feel as pleased to have discovered the solution to Dr. Horace’s riddle, as does any person who has solved a puzzle. He may say to himself, ‘I see now, what Dr. Horace was reluctant to state openly before Mr. Ebrach.’ Do I offend you, sir?” He turned to Horace.
A fly that had buzzed its wings on and off at the top of a window sash, arcing out in flight every few minutes, bulleting again into the glass, zoomed free at last from this false imprisonment, and soared over the table. It landed on the rim of the tea pitcher. Those facing the sideboard followed its path with their eyes. Élucide’s father, angled to the sideboard, beckoned, and Robert stepped from his post and bowed over the host’s chair, hands behind his back.
But Papa’s tone was conversational, not confidential. “Robert, will you ask Mrs. Gremot whether she doesn’t suppose we ought to have that cake?”
Mother did not answer this, not until Robert got to the foot of the table and, as instructed, asked her. This bit of theater disengaged the combatants, and Horace, distracted by the prospect of cake and coffee, never replied to Ebrach.
The women moved, after dinner, to the screened porch; following, Sarah came only to the head of the steps, effaced until called on.
“Look how the clouds are coming in.”
Mrs. Horace ignored the gestured-to settee, and crossed to the window. “Fern, your Mr. Ebrach takes some getting to know. I haven’t made up my mind about him.”
This, with her eyes on the weather. Twisting her shoulders round, she spoke in an audible whisper. Then, aloud: “You had better have Sarah fetch Sanderson. I’d wash away, anyhow, if I had more lemonade.”
Reaching for Mother’s elbow and leading her aside, Mrs. Horace said another thing, her voice too low this time for Élucide to make out.
Sanderson was the Horaces’ general man, who came out mornings from his bedroom on the backside of their house, coaled the stoves and lit the fires, swept the front porch and walk, and tinkered through the day at odd jobs round the place, as the mood took him, and the season demanded. Wherever in the county need was reported, by such outriders of the faith as Cleome Towson, Dr. and Mrs. Horace paid their calls, upon the unredeemed alcoholic and the isolated bereaved.
There was no stopping the mission: not for deluge, blizzard, shotgun…or reputation. Sanderson thus served the Horaces also as coachman and protector.
He was a connection, bearing the resemblance of a younger brother, to the Gremots’ Sanderson. Both men were known by their surname, their Christian names property only of their clan and the tax man. The Sanderson brothers (if they were brothers) were not on terms with each other. The Horaces’ Sanderson had never been seen to lift a friendly hand (and the Horaces would dislike it if he had) when passing his relative’s compound at the head of River Road. The Gremots’ Sanderson could not be kept from leaving his hillside perch, descending the hand-hewn steps that split the rock face…then, as he passed near the stead, falling into company with Lawrence and Richard; his excuse for venturing to the summit, that Richard had business with Papa, and that he was Richard’s friend. On such pretexts Sanderson often could be found loitering in the Gremots’ garden.
“Don’t speak to Sanderson.”
That had been Papa’s instruction, the last time he’d caught Élucide at it. “He’s spoiling for a fight, and there’s no reason to give him one. Sanderson’s the type when he gets his nose out of joint, won’t say a word back to you, but he’ll go stir up trouble among the low-life down at Hopper’s. That’s how a lie gets to be the common story before you know the story’s ever been told. And you’ll have the devil’s time refuting it.”
But Sanderson had sway with the Everard boys. He might tell Richard he’d noticed “the brush beat down” while checking his traps; a sign, in Sanderson’s lore, proof of a trespasser. He might say that while pounding out a hide on the slab of sandstone he used for a porch, he’d marked a stranger go by―a thing rare on this stretch of road, where most of the acreage belonged to Élucide’s father. Richard not daring to leave aside what Papa might expect Old Richard to have attended to, trailed Lawrence and Sanderson, with a burdened slope to his shoulders, and a face of gloom.
Meeting his relative, Sanderson’s jaw became set, his hand dropping to the hackles of the dog by his side. “You go on, tell the squire,” he’d urge, watching as Richard doubled his pace, off to knock at the French window. And opportunity presenting itself to be seized, Sanderson would squint as though the light were bad, and his brother invisible to him. Remark to Lawrence, winging two birds with one stone: “A man can’t call his time his own, if he ain’t master.”
“But what’s the trouble?”
Lawrence that day must serve as conversational butt. It wasn’t the same as speaking to Sanderson.
“Miss Élucide, Sanderson seen a man named Tinker talking to the hands. I seen him too, one time…that’s how I knowed it was Tinker.”
Élucide had been sidling towards the nearer veranda, one of two round porches either side the screened one, that blunted the back corners of the house. Here, a morning glory trellis half-hid the swing where she liked sitting on insomniac nights, or days when the weather was breezy and fine; more particularly, summer afternoons when a storm was brewing…
Most of all when Richard might be expected.
Her mother stopped her. “Go up to my room and find that list of names. Yes, the one I showed to you. Don’t waste time. The Horaces are about to leave.”
She had that morning picked out Miss Towson’s list from a stack of correspondence held in place by the Armour Bible. Grandfather and Grandmother Armour had been late before any of the Gremot children were born; their lives, so far as they had left behind any legacy of themselves, were written on an inside page: a birth, a marriage, and two deaths. And having been told, “This is very old, this is not to play with”, Élucide had barely touched it. She knew almost nothing of her mother’s girlhood or education. Mother’s guiding doctrine was practicality in all things, such that she dealt only with the present. Her life might have begun with her own marriage.
A slipshod housewife, by a precept of Dr. and Mrs. Horace, was a canker on the fruit of domestic happiness; the neglected home like as anything to drive a husband to the tavern. Élucide, having the vice of untidiness, worried that this might be true, that (her father’s precept) if everyone supposed it to be true, the failing would tell against her just the same. Richard’s father being what he was, Richard might himself take to drink. Their home together, like her room, might accumulate dust and clutter. Why this should be so, when her room was cleaned often as any, she hadn’t worked out. Perhaps one could be marked for disorder, as the Everards were marked for intemperance.
Mother’s order was impeccable…and Élucide knew what she sought.
The papers had simply gone from the writing desk. Its surface gleamed. She could not find even the notes and sketches her mother had made for the seating of Ebrach and Jerome. She searched the letter rack, looked under the blotter, pulled out the right-hand drawer…pulled until it slipped down at an angle.
She lurched to catch it before it fell. And balancing the drawer on her fingertips, saw there was nothing at the back (though she did not suspect her mother of hidey-holes); nothing under the boxes of papers, nothing in them but blank sheets. Her mother had formal and informal paper, a type for letters, one for notes, one for condolences, one for invitations…and Élucide was certain Mother kept only paper in the compartments where paper belonged.
In the left-hand drawer, otherwise empty, she found a diary. She held this to the window’s light, saw nothing bulge between its pages. And even for having touched it, for moving it from its place, she felt uncomfortably accused. She put her head round at the bedchamber, and saw Geneva punching a cushion.
“Geneva, Mother wants a list of names, from Miss Towson.”
“Miss Luce, she keeps all her papers in the other room.”
“She wouldn’t have it tucked in the Bible, do you think?”
“No, now. Let me come out and look.”
Geneva snugged the cushion, whumped out a last billow of dust, straightened the bedcovers going past, and made for the sitting room door. Élucide lingered…but the only object on her mother’s nightstand besides the lamp was a wedding picture of Mother seated, young and straight-faced, a hand raised to her shoulder; and Papa, in an awful collar and horrid mutton-chops, smiling with one corner of his mouth, standing behind her chair, his fingers linked in hers.
On the mantelpiece―she checked, though she knew it already―were a pair of candlesticks and her mother’s porcelain clock.
Geneva waited beside the desk. She had opened no drawer without Élucide’s eyes to avow it. Élucide waited, in turn, while Geneva searched exactly as she had herself done.
“Would she have anything in that trunk?”
“She don’t keep nothing but baby things in there, Luce.”
Knowing that she would trudge these steps twice again, once Mother had told her (she would) that the list was “right where I left it”, Élucide returned to the screened porch. They’d all gone. Even Sarah had gone. She turned back, resentful, climbed again to the front parlor, paused in the hall and listened. She heard men’s voices: Dr. Horace’s and Mr. Ebrach’s. Both laughed, and laughed together. Next, her father spoke in his emphatic way, his words from this distance unintelligible. She might have heard him say, “Everard.” At any rate, her godfather and Ebrach were not fighting.
The men had retired to the library; their voices, and a drift of cigar smoke, came from the little hall beyond the dining room. But closer, Élucide heard her mother say her sister’s name, in a cautioning tone.
Ranilde: “Fine, I just won’t! I don’t even care!”
The women had gone, then, to the back parlor.
She found her mother standing with Mrs. Horace, the two facing the sofa. Ranilde, back to them, arms crossed. Here on the seat were laid samples of lace—their mother’s insistent old-fashioned crochet, for one, looped and fastened. She had a good stock of old lace, picked off by Geneva from discarded things, seeming only to lend a peasant, homespun contrast to the airy filament of that imported from Bruges. That which Ranilde, and Élucide, favored.
But Mrs. Metz had warned, “That one must be ordered very many months early.” The dressmaker had given Mother a sample of a factory lace, imitative of the better quality, destined, in Élucide’s opinion, to win the contest. There’s a cheaper substitute for everything. It was a rule of Mother’s. Its corollary had to be, then: Pitch your first bid high, and negotiate down to your preference.
“You might get you a fine-spun cotton just as nice as that peau de soie,” Mrs. Horace was saying. Élucide’s sister, under her skirt, stamped a foot. “Less harm tearing a hole in it.” She whispered her next advice. “Cotton won’t either stain under the arms so bad as silk.”
She glanced across. “Fern, here’s your daughter.”
“Mother, you have to tell me where to look. I can’t find it.”
Catching Ranilde’s mood, Élucide let her posture slip; and traipsed, if walking with a flounce amounted to traipsing, into the parlor. Yet Mother waved all this away―both the sullen face and Miss Towson’s list.
“Never mind. I’ve sent Sarah to have Geneva pack for you. You will ride home with the Horaces tonight, and help Mrs. Horace write some of her letters. That will be your contribution to the bazaar. The Rutherfords will bring you back tomorrow.”
Her godmother’s whisper, on the screened porch, had sounded to Élucide like: “What about that sick headache?”
Intelligence sought in aid of the plan they’d hatched in her absence.
And why ought she to spend a night away? Because at dinner she’d been forward, as Mother and Mrs. Horace would judge it, with Mr. Ebrach. All the while, Mother had known where the list was. Probably here, in the back parlor…where from her mending basket, she could pull surprising things. Mrs. Horace said, “Fern, if you come across that list, send it along with Mr. Ziegler…or, if he’s not coming up tomorrow, give it to Fan. She’ll most likely give it to Edith.
“She’ll fit in just fine…there’s not too much of her.”
Mrs. Horace patted the seat. “Set her down there, Gus, right in the middle.”
Once Élucide had pushed herself all the way back, so that only her toes touched the floor, Mrs. Horace took her by the hand, and lifted both together, signaling to Mother and Papa a triumph over no particular adversity. Sanderson had got a brush from under the dash, and finding busywork, began to raise a cloud from the horse’s flank. Mrs. Horace wrinkled her nose, flapped her fan without opening it. “This way, Fern…”
She called out, as though they were en route, pulling away, rather than stationary in the drive. “She won’t bump around too much and take another spell.”
“I don’t know that she’s ever had a spell two days running.”
“No…” Muttering an answer on her own behalf, preoccupied with tugging her skirt loose from the person of Mrs. Horace and tucking it under her own thigh, Élucide wished herself permitted even one stiff petticoat, something that might give her a figure. She had thought, often, while sketching in her diary (smart fitted skirts with bustles, little cuirass jackets with passementerie trim, hats with unprecedented plumage…) that she would die under the town’s scrutiny, for want of a decent thing to put on. Her day dresses were hopelessly the fashion of a decade earlier.
But this grievance, so well-rehearsed, she set aside.
She thought again of headaches, as Dr. Horace wedged himself in on her left. Only once or twice a week…
But he had something to say, and her godfather―as she did not―had her mother’s attention.
“Fern, Walter, the dinner, to employ a saying of your cousin Jerome’s…”
“…was excellent. Virginia and I very much appreciate your thinking of us…”
Lightning split the sky, coming simultaneous to a crack and a boom. The peal rattled the windows of the house, shook the carriage wheels…and faded, as a gust of wind rose, with a rumble like a loaded boxcar rolling.
The storm’s encroachment startled them. The sky, northeast over Cookesville, remained blue.
“Thank you, Sanderson. We don’t want the blanket. Luce, you’re not feeling chilled.”
Mrs. Horace raised her voice to include everyone. “With this heat, we can use a little rain!”
Sanderson nodded to Robert, standing by to pull the wheel chocks. “Reverend, put the top up.”
“Yes, you had better.”
She was unable to sleep past sunup.
Rubbing grit from her eyes and stifling a yawn, she propped an elbow on the Horaces’ table, peeled apart layers of biscuit, and over these spooned coddled egg. She added a dollop of marmalade, mushing all together with the back of her fork.
Dr. Horace added milk to his hot cider. “Now, young lady, what do you call that concoction?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what does it taste like, miss?”
“Like cake, ma’am, a little.”
“Then I’m sorry we don’t serve coffee here.”
They laughed, and Élucide laughed, too; she would rather please her godparents than not. In childhood years she hadn’t been aware of this more rigorous practice…that some Temperance Fellows considered coffee, tea, and chocolate to be stimulating beverages, and that the Horaces were among them.
Papa’s argument in favor of coffee aligned with his argument in defense of tobacco (needless to say, he had one)…that it did not break up homes, or lose men their jobs. That on the contrary, it calmed and sharpened the mind, a boon both to labor and domestic life, its use tending overall towards preventing such tragedies. Dr. Horace…liking the adage that vice travels in company, disagreed.
And Élucide understood from Mother that tobacco was not for ladies.
Through yesterday’s late afternoon, she’d worked at the big desk in the study where both Horaces did their writing; Élucide perched on a stool, balancing with her heels hooked over the bottom rung, Mrs. Horace small in her husband’s leather chair, constantly shifting to improve her view.
Stationery before the template, Élucide studied the words she was to copy. She inked her pen. She wrote, “My dear”.
She read these words aloud to Mrs. Horace.
The template offered: Mr./Mrs./Miss, followed by a line, the name Élucide had not yet been given. Miss Towson’ list named those who’d bought tickets last year to the Temperance Fellows’ autumn bazaar, checked off and designated (a legend sketched in at the bottom) by symbols of hers: members not yet approached, those who were not yet members, a reluctant few who had not been at home (or had not answered their doors); another few, who, approached once, had made their excuses. These names were underlined. Soon they would have a second talk with Miss Towson, Mrs. Keene, or Mrs. Horace.
Below the greeting, each paragraph was over-indicated with a pilcrow:
¶I hope ________.
¶May the Temperance Fellows count on the honor of your presence at our annual Autumn Bazaar, to be held on the ________ day of ________?
¶Tickets are to be collected at the door; and may be purchased in the amounts of:
Party of ()___
Children under age 16 admitted free.
¶A further contribution of ________, if you are able to assist our very worthy cause, will be most appreciated.
With Sincerest Gratitude, Yr. Obedient Servant, ________
“Well…start with Mrs. Carpenter.”
Mrs. Horace stretched her arm towards the window. The paper in her hand caught light, the names growing legible. Élucide penned in “Mrs. Carpenter,” and sat back.
“Let me think.. I hope this letter finds you well, will do for Mrs. Carpenter.” She laid the paper down, crossed off Mrs. Carpenter…then tsked. “Oh, but Sarah’s the one gets that airysisipus flaring up in the summertime. That’s a question…”
Élucide had written the words already. She listened to her godmother debate Mrs. Carpenter’s feelings.
“Comma. And that this hot weather has not been too trying for you.”
Working start-stop fashion, memory needing to be sieved for those personal tidbits represented by the template’s blank opener, Élucide had helped her godmother write three letters before the Horaces’ early bedtime. She had dozed under a stuffy comforter, in a room once hers and Ranilde’s, woken in darkness, without even the chime of a clock to tell the time. She had overlooked the possibility of missing Ebrach. Mother hadn’t told when he meant to leave, and might not herself know…Ebrach’s plans seemed to depend on Jerome’s.
This morning she felt she’d waited out the night’s remains without a wink.
Continued from “without a wink”
The day was muggy, unrelieved by rain. None had fallen after the storm’s bluster had chased them to Cookesville. But they would walk after breakfast to the Rutherfords’, the Horaces escorting Élucide to foot of Arcadia Summit. The house was somewhat smaller than the Columbia Hotel, but like the Columbia solid and stone-built, from the ground to the second story. This and the third were half-timbered, European in inspiration, American in scale. The Nachfolgers, over their colonnaded porch, looked down on the Rutherfords, and the Rutherfords, over the crowns of the big maples that marked the corners of their property, looked up at the Nachfolgers.
But though the city of Cookesville was not spread at his feet, Rutherford’s situation was the happier. Snow and ice never prevented the town’s first citizen from going about his business.
“Miss Élucide, I believe that’s Ziegler, coming up the way.”
Rutherford stood a few paces from his front gate, caressing the nose of his favored horse. Élucide saw Ziegler grab the brim of his hat and haul himself up straight, such mannerisms Ziegler’s humor. He hiked his hands along the reins, shortening the slack, and yelled out, “Steady, steady, you malefactors!”
The team ambled to a halt, and Ziegler, dealing out this fancy word, winked at her. “Miss Élucide, I thought you done gone off with the Reverend Horace.”
“I did, Mr. Ziegler, but I’m coming home with Mr. Rutherford.”
Maybe, she thought, she had sounded pert, seated in a carriage on Second Avenue, singing out these words where anyone could hear them. Both Ziegler and Rutherford chuckled with far more merriment than seemed warranted.
Ziegler carried six day laborers, seated on four coffin-sized wooden crates shipped from an upstate nursery, Briggs Fancy Varieties lettered in black and red on the sides.
Richard sat next to Ziegler.
He would have ridden in to sign the bill of lading; to make sure the men who waited at the livery were the same six he’d hired the day before, that there were no more and no fewer.
“After them thunderheads come up, sir, we never seen a drop of rain down the river.”
“And that mud slick…?”
“I been up through there.”
Mr. Rutherford called to Richard. “Everard! Your father means to get that orchard planted before the weather turns?”
This pleased Élucide, Rutherford’s jollity. Not the shaded jibe, if it was, at Richard’s father, but that Richard was forced to turn his head. He sat hunched elbows over knees, face blocked from view by Ziegler, neck twisted stubbornly, so that he must look at nothing but Rutherford’s neighbor’s fence.
Ziegler’s team faced the road out of town. Rutherford, who did his own driving, headed his horses opposite. He would take his young ladies along Second to Main, join the morning’s carriage traffic, circle the downtown square and make past the city park. As they edged others’ equipages, and strollers along the sidewalks, Rutherford, Fannie, Edith, and Élucide, would wave greetings to friends. In his case, to customers, in Élucide’s, to constituents—for though small of stature, and a Gremot rarely seen by the county’s voters, today she represented her father.
Her smile the rock to Rutherford’s hard place, Richard flushed, and fixed his eyes on his own fingernails. Fannie craned round, breaking into a giggle as though the sum of these confused exchanges equaled a richer entertainment than the parts.
“Those fruit trees, Everard…before the weather turns.”
“Yes sir. My father like to see those trees staked in.”
The laborers shuffled their boots on the wagon bed, three with their backs to the carriage, two facing. One…a man with bound long hair, and brown, sun-weathered skin…clasped hands over his knees and angled his face to stare at Fannie Rutherford.
Ziegler picked up reins. “Sir, I be getting on. Don’t do to keep the ladies waiting.”
“Best of luck to you, Ziegler.”
Rutherford waved the wagon off. This parting shot as though Richard worked for Ziegler.
“Fern! See what I’ve brought!”
“Fannie, how are you?”
They came close to synchronizing these non sequiturs and might, trading them, have considered themselves squared for hellos. The basket occurred every month. The imported foods department at Rutherford’s was not the only place within a day’s travel up or down the river, where cheeses, chocolates, nuts, and sugared fruits might be bought. Papa said Rutherford was doing business, placing a gift of such things on his friends’ tables.
“My buyer’s import man says those dates got no alcohol. Take a month or two maturing…just evaporates off.”
Mother said, rote, letting Sarah carry off the basket: “You and George are so kind.”
“I’ve been keeping myself very quiet, Fern.”
“You look well, dear. Your hair…”
Fannie was given to bobbing towards others, patting their arms to stop them speaking, a charm to cut in before they’d finished. “Ringlets fill out my face a little, I think. I don’t like my chin.”
“Fannie, there is nothing wrong…”
“Luce is the lucky one. That’s what I’m always telling her.”
It was true. Fannie readily found compliments for Élucide…when within Edith’s hearing. Seeing the Horaces off, she’d flitted in a half-circle and lighted on admiring the dress. “Have I seen it? I don’t think I have! These young girls have the complexion to wear yellow. Isn’t it a shame, Virginia!”
“Oh, Fannie. You and I are not the same age.”
“Now, blue is a bad color near the face…unless you’re very rosy.”
Tipped on her toes, Fannie reached as though she plucked an orange blossom from a low hanging branch, playfully tugging at a sausage curl. And musingly, the thought, it might have been, just bubbling up, said, “Never wear your hair pulled back, Luce, not til you’re much older. Well, though, they do say, if your shoulders are broad…”
Fannie, like Élucide, was petite, and in this war with Edith, most of Fannie’s missiles were aimed at Edith’s stature, at the lack of feminine grace that must accompany height and heavy bones.
Fannie could be said to have a weak chin. Élucide wondered now whether her own chin was all right. She began to back slowly, from Mother and Fannie, Papa and Mr. Rutherford, Ranilde and Edith. She would go round the house, slip through the back door, and…just for a moment…dash upstairs to her mirror.
“Whom did you see, Luce?”
She returned to her mother’s side.
The Carpenter buggy nearly past Rutherford’s landau, Élucide, remembering Mrs. Horace’s information, had stood and braced her feet, calves pressed against the seat front, a hand on its back for balance. She twisted, straining to see Mrs. Carpenter’s face. Mrs. Carpenter took a tight two-handed grip on her buggy’s folded cover, heaved herself half-sitting, and looked behind. Her face was veiled, a swath of netting wrapping the crown of her hat, tucked from the wind under the collar of her dress. But the rash, red as a strawberry, showed plain on her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. Élucide stared, rather than wave. Mrs. Carpenter’s mouth pursed.
“What on earth are you doing, Luce?” Edith had asked.
“Oh…I don’t know.”
This was not a story for Mother. “I saw Mr. McClurkin with Owen’s uncle.”
“You mean to say, it was Callum McClurkin you saw. Did he speak?”
“Yes, ma’am, he did.” Edith answered.
But Mother raised her eyebrows at Élucide, expecting more.
“He called Mr. Ebrach ‘that spiritual gent’, and said he’d heard we had him here for a guest. He said he had a fiddler hired for a dance, and we ought to bring Mr. Ebrach along.”
“Well, what does that mean?” Her sister sounded as though Élucide, in quoting Callum, should be held to account; not, she supposed, for his insult to their parents, but for the repeating of it…for reminding Mother that the father of Ranilde’s fiancé was the sort of man he was.
“It means,” Mother said, “he’s having sport with the local gossip.”
Ranilde pinched Edith’s sleeve. “You had better come in and meet Mr. Ebrach.”
“I have met Mr. Ebrach, Nildie.” These words pitched to her stepmother; even more loudly, as she and Ranilde reached the door: “I’ve talked to him already three or four times.”
Papa stood with his eye on the barn, Rutherford facing the house. “You want to see Allen Fairburn, at Marion, or Gallagher, publishes the Republican down in Chambliss. They are both Hayes men…”
Rutherford glanced up, saw his wife in belle-like hesitation at the foot of the steps, but listened until Papa was finished doling advice.
“…he’ll run an advertisement for the Vanguard, keep a stack in the office, hand them out to callers, if you’ll do the same.”
“I’ll write Gallagher…ask him to step up and see me, whatever time he’s passing this way.”
Rutherford jogged off then, to steady Fannie as they climbed the steps together. Papa caught up to Élucide.
He had possibly glimpsed Lawrence, but she thought that with his back turned three-quarters from the house, he had not. Lawrence had come up between the wall and the laurel bush, noted the Gremots’ guests, noted Élucide watching him. He’d withdrawn in his untroubled way, his ordinary distrustful squint betraying not a ripple of interest or shame. But he might have picked up his pace, having seen enough; he might already be past the trees, cutting over the meadow that would soon be a young orchard.
“You had better go help your mother, miss.”
“Papa, I will. In a minute.”
He smiled at this, a closed-mouthed Gremot smile, and strode after Rutherford.
Her head was above the level of the screened porch’s windows, but she need not sneak along, concealing her movements. It wasn’t an odd thing to do, strolling up this way, if anyone―Cousin Thomas perhaps―were to peer out, and wonder where she was going. To her mother’s cutting beds, from where she could see as far as the top of the meadow…and her mother might, anyway, have sent her on this errand. But one could pretend too far. If she stopped inside to ask what flowers were wanted, she would miss Lawrence.
Richard’s brother did not loiter within the hundred yards cleared of trees, the trim grass and rose borders that constituted, with the gopher-fenced plots, their garden. He’d kept off the walk, putting the poplar hedge between himself and the windows. She caught him shuffling, barely moving, past the last of these.
He quit altogether, and waited for her. He held a gunny sack, dangling it by the neck; the sack was muddy and wet, but flaccid…empty, she supposed.
“Lawrence, did you get us another fish?”
“No, miss, I don’t carry no fish in a sack.” His scorn was intimate; Lawrence unbending towards her, to the extent of treating her as he might Richard. “Catfish meat get poison, if he die scared.”
He added: “Catfish’ll live a day outside water. No…”
He shook his head at her widening eyes.
“I get me one, I run a chain up through the gill, and I leave him down along the bank. But I ain’t caught none today. I brung up some conies.”
She could think of no rejoinder to this lore. They’d had today’s capons yesterday. They would have Sunday’s ham today…and rabbit for supper, probably baked in a pie.
“Lawrence, who were those men Richard hired?”
“Just some of them from up at the camp. Why’s that? Your daddy wanting to know something?”
“No! If Papa wanted something, he’d call Richard to come up, or else…”
She had been going to say, he would send Isa down, or Ziegler, if Ziegler’s business took him past the stead; and the message, nominally, would be for Richard’s father. All that was true, but the truth of it offended Lawrence. His swagger of a moment ago settled, as she let the end of her sentence hang, into a slouch of ill-humor.
“Lawrence!” She said it quickly. “One of them had a beady-eyed look.”
This expression, her mother would have called vulgar slang. Perhaps she ought not to have used it. Perhaps she didn’t read its meaning as Lawrence did. He lifted a hand, nearly touched her arm, then seemed to think better of it.
“When’d you see them?”
“Up at Mr. Rutherford’s place. Mr. Ziegler was going that way.”
“And which’un was looking at you?”
“Oh, he didn’t look at me. He looked at Fannie Rutherford.”
“Tell me how I know him.”
“He was dark.”
“Four of em’s colored. What else?”
She had thought, at the time, that the man’s face resembled Richard’s, only far older. He must have labored his whole life under the sun.
It was Rutherford, walking round the house, clouded in the scent of tobacco. Alone, he’d come outdoors to smoke a second cigar. “You’re the one sells Gremot his own rabbits. Savvy young entrepreneur.”
“You mean to say, how do you do? Dandy…is how I do, Mr. Everard. Miss Élucide, you and I will be holding them up at the table.”
Rutherford offered his arm.
“He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
She was rescued by her godfather’s pride. His pupil had not learned by heart the contentious verse from the book of Deuteronomy. Nor could she recall any part of Micah, Dr. Horace’s other text. Ebrach having made something of her failure to support his argument, Dr. Horace had recognized a foundation in need of shoring up. On the road to Cookesville she’d been drilled over these words, and was able today, though she knew her face was pink, to pelt them out.
“Rutherford, will you do us the honor of saying grace?”
With that grandiloquence Papa’s friends affected for their wryest humor, he had answered: “It is my wish, sir, to concede my place to Miss Élucide.”
Micah…she knew this…had been an Everard, the brother who died in the war. She had pushed him aside as irrelevant, but he seemed suddenly the key—some fierce emotion, embarrassment conjoined to the image of Richard, drove the rhythm of the verse to the front of her memory…justly, mercy, humbly.
As Dr. Horace might have done, she added, “Micah, chapter six, verse eight.”
“You ask, Luce, that He bless our table and our guests.”
But, Mother would mean for her to say it. “Heavenly Father, bless our table and our guests, amen.”
A laugh, at this rush of words, from Rutherford and Walter. Papa, a beat ahead of the others, said: “Amen.”
The Rutherfords had given Mother an extra woman; today, no fretting over what to do with Ebrach. She had put him between Edith and Fannie. And with the Rutherfords, religion was not a topic…no Horace-like wrangles would be pursued. But on all topics, Fannie talked more than anyone else.
“Things that get her started keep her going,” was what Papa said about Fannie Rutherford.
They were eating shortbread biscuits, Emmenthaler, an American cheese from Pennsylvania, and the brandied dates. Cousin Thomas, as Élucide, seated beside him, must observe, hunkered over his plate, often using fingers where he’d been provided cutlery. She thought she should comment…not on his table habits, which they all allowed, but the course itself. She watched for some break in his concentration, during which she might say, “I especially like these dates, don’t you, Mr. Jerome?”
Rehearsed inwardly, the remark sounded inane, and she lacked the confidence to offer even this in a voice that would snare his attention. He had been darting upward glances at Fannie Rutherford, catching himself lingering, bowing his head.
“Mrs. Horace,” Ranilde told Edith, “says cotton, not silk…you can’t really patch silk, to make it pretty when it gets a tear…”
(More to their godmother’s point, patched silk was a byword for vanity.)
“Well, it’s fancy… But you’ll need something good for the theater…”
“Oh, but it’s a shame!” Fannie cut across her stepdaughter’s words; Edith drew back, laced her fingers and dropped her hands to her lap. “To not be married in silk. And after, you want to color it something a shade or two off white—pearl grey or fawn—so you don’t see streaks where the dye doesn’t take. You ought, though…”
Here Fannie’s eyes left Ranilde’s and found Mother’s. “To hold back a yard or so, in case you want turn-up cuffs.” She played fingers in the air, pantomiming her design. “Buttons, you see, like that.”
Ebrach had been quiet, speaking only to offer his admiration for the main course: “I believe I’ve never had it prepared in this way. She has…your cook, Mrs. Gremot…sautéed the cauliflower in fat from the ham, has she not?”
“Ysonde will be pleased to hear you’ve said so.”
Mother, preoccupied, grew conscious of her words. “That is…I will, if you like, ask her what she does with it.”
Ranilde: “I suppose Mrs. Metz will take the gown back for alterations.”
“Oh no, we won’t have Mrs. Metz for that. Geneva and I, easily, can do that sort of thing.”
“But when will you go to Niagara? Not in the winter!” Fannie laughed. Jerome glanced up at her.
They had not made up their minds. Owen couldn’t come out to the house very often, just now. There was the setting up of housekeeping; they might rather be well settled in before they went away for a month, and, “It partly depends on Papa.”
By this was meant―not to speak of money―that Papa would pay for the honeymoon. Fannie leaned forward in her chair, head cocked and chin raised; she’d opened her mouth two or three times, unable peacefully to surrender a topic she had herself started.
Papa: “I’d say it depends more on Owen. He might have to ask the boss for a whole month’s leave.”
Rutherford grinned. Nachfolger’s plan to put Owen behind the counter with Edith had been pushed ahead in the library.
Edith tapped Ebrach’s shoulder: “Owen’s father will ride to New York on the train with them!”
Ranilde swallowed, and waved the bitten half of her biscuit. “He won’t be at our hotel. Mr. McClurkin has business in Albany.”
“Tammany,” Papa murmured.
“Nildie! You had better not let Owen McClurkin drag you off just anywhere, around all that water. Because…”
Fannie rose an inch or two, and peered down the table.
“Because, George, I think about that poor girl…”
“Fan, you had better not.”
This was invitation to argument…if Mr. Rutherford had not known it. “That poor girl, George! She only went along the footbridge because her fellow took her by the hand, and cajoled her to follow him!”
“Young lady drowned, Mr. Ebrach. That was when they had the Centennial regatta, back in June.”
“That had nothing to do with Niagara Falls! Why should they have a footbridge there?”
“Edith, you and I will never travel to Niagara Falls, so how can we guess what they have or don’t have? I only say when girls go out-of-doors, they have to be more vigilant than men do, and more careful of accidents. A man doesn’t understand how hampering a skirt can be.”
The men reached for their water glasses, none wishing to address this; and Élucide asked herself if Fannie had just told Edith she would never be married. Fannie carried on without tact, patent in having been reminded by one tragedy of another. She raised clasped hands and made an energetic swing to Ebrach.
“Fern told us you had been in a shipwreck.”
Élucide looked him in the face, interested. A good portion of their conversation of yesterday must have been passed in the parlor, during the twenty minutes or so she had searched out and spoken with Lawrence. Her mother had another rule: “If you do not feel yourself in the wrong, repeating gossip, then you have no reason not to ask permission to do so.”
His face looked serene. He allowed only a second or two.
“I had told some part of the story yesterday, Mrs. Rutherford, when I had the honor of dining in company with Dr. and Mrs. Horace.”
“That poor man! Isn’t it awful, Mr. Ebrach!” Fannie plowed through a harvest of raised eyebrows. “I suppose, being you’re a medium, you have tried to call…am I right? Call? Yes, that man…back from the dead, to learn how he came to drown.”
Élucide pressed her napkin to her lips.
“I can only confess to you, Mrs. Rutherford, that I had never thought of doing so. Yet they who have gone before cannot return at will. Let us not use the term ‘medium’…a designation so often abused. I ask you to consider, madam, that before we may pass through a mountain, we must blast a tunnel; and we will not cross otherwise, but by a slow and arduous way. I had known this officer, as I had known Mr. Hawkins―by his surname only. Thus to invite his appearance would be a bit akin to sending a letter abroad, addressed only to Trevelyan—
“You wish to speak, Jerome?”
Jerome, who’d muttered the word “akin”, and had seemed to ask himself, in French, what was meant by this, viewed Ebrach with a brooding eye. “Please, monsieur, a letter abroad…”
“At the time of the Colossia’s sinking, Mrs. Rutherford, I had no interest in the afterlife. I was neither a practicing Christian, nor had I given serious thought to the discipline of spiritualism. In the public habits of spirit-callers and in the theatricality of their séances, I had discovered neither diversion nor philosophy. Yet, before my own eyes, a very odd thing had occurred…it seemed remarkable to me at the time.
“Should I today encounter another Hawkins, my comprehension would be perfect; I would be intrigued rather than confounded. But as a physician, I had wanted to diagnose Hawkins according to the dictates of my training.”
“What did Hawkins do?”
“He spoke, Walter. Rambled, I should say. The voice was nothing like his own. I have mentioned that he was a Cornishman.” He turned from Walter to meet Fannie’s eye, and this detail seemingly had been omitted from the narrative. She did not nod at once…but after a moment, she did.
“The voice was unaccented, and of a higher pitch than Hawkins’s natural speech; the words more cultivated, having no trace of his native dialect: I lost the touch of his hand. I am sunk and thought the water, the waves sucking at the hull, to be the dull thud of a beating heart. They told me, close your eyes. And though he reached and wished to draw me to the surface, his hands were cold. But I have washed ashore…but no…I am become like a pennant upon the mast and see the harbor lights below. That is a sample of his wanderings. I could not commit a great deal to memory, and had no means of noting it down. Hawkins spoke for an hour or more. At times he wept. He had gone still and was near death by the time he was taken aboard the Bascom.”
Élucide now had a question. She stared at Ebrach, but he was besieged, and elected to give his ear to Fannie. The improper topic broached, the Gremots and the Rutherfords, had—all at once—unleashed their curiosity.
Three days earlier, jogging from the barn while thunder pealed, Ziegler had banged at the Gremots’ door. He raised a finger, saying nothing to Sarah, who’d opened to him, but turned to Papa, coming from the library. Ziegler slipped a hand inside his shirt, and out, safe and dry, pulled Ebrach’s letter.
My Dear Sir,
This note, along with my card, must serve as introduction. I offer my apologies, and beg you will pardon this―that in such presumptuous fashion, I make myself known to you. Mr. Ziegler’s praise of your fair-minded character emboldens me to take the liberty, and it is my sincerest hope that in so doing, I give no offense.
I am assisted in my work by a young man, Thomas B. Jerome. Mr. Jerome is a close relative of yours…
In his reading, Papa had paused here. “I don’t know why he says it.”
He looked first at Mother, then over his shoulder at Ziegler.
“That’un is a Gremot, sir. Don’t believe he could’ve been telling a lie…” Ziegler waggled his straw hat and nodded. “You go on read that letter. I might know a thing or two, whatever Mr. Ebrach don’t explain.”
Papa read now only to himself, running a finger along Ebrach’s lines, frowning, unwilling to accept him at face value.
“Well, then, you reckon it’s true, Ziegler? I guess you saw this for yourself.”
This, that might or might not be so, some mystery Papa had read, one Ziegler knew already, drew them closer; Ranilde and Élucide following Mother, everyone inching into the hallway, slowing to a halt, until an inner and an outer circle formed. Mother behind Papa at his right, Ziegler his left, both―Papa holding the letter at the level of his watch-chain―able to see what Ebrach had written. Sarah backed away step by step, but hovered with a hand on the arch that let into the dining room. Robert, coming from the parlor, stopped and waited at the foot of the stairs.
“Could they be finished already?” Ranilde asked.
“Them ghosts ain’t awake this time of day, Miss Gremot.” Ziegler gave the rest of his information to Papa. “Now, all the way out to the stead that’un calls himself Jerome was looking puny. Soon’s I get him off the wagon, he falls over in a dead faint. You see what Ebrach says in there.”
“Mr. Jerome is in failing health…but you will appreciate my position…if you tell me you have no wish to see me, I will not betray that private information which, under the circumstances, can be of no value to you. Mr. and Mrs. Everard…”
Papa had been reading aloud with the same over-precise enunciation that earlier conveyed his opinion of Ebrach. But he paused, at this mention of his foreman, and his voice changed.
“…have acted towards myself and Mr. Jerome in a wonderful spirit of compassion and generosity.”
“Ebrach come over to him, shook him a little…and straight off, he chucks up his oats. Ebrach asks him, tell me your name, son, and he says…” Ziegler here decided against something. “He says Gremot.”
“Well, then, Ziegler, what ails Mr. Jerome?”
Élucide could understand her father’s unhappiness. The county knew their business, it always did…knew about the Everards’ guests; knew what service Ebrach had come to perform. For her parents, who must for reputation’s sake, appear at least the Everards’ equals in compassion and generosity, the trap was sprung.
“Sir,” Ziegler said, “I got a pretty good idea.”
The sensation, within the house of Gremot, and the import, of Mr. Ebrach’s ceremony at the Everards’, had been potent; yet the event so extraordinary, so anomalous, that Papa’s response to Ziegler’s intelligence, until the following morning, was silence. It was his habit to pick up the latest Beacon when he went to town, and carry it home.
That afternoon, he’d left on a sudden pretext.
Never before had he set foot in the back parlor after breakfast. Papa let the paper fall onto Mother’s sewing table. “Has got his name in the Beacon.”
Until Papa, saying only that, had turned on his heel and left, none of them made a grab for it. From her cushion on the floor, where she knelt at the task of lettering placecards, Élucide put forward a stealthy hand.
Continued from “stealthy hand”
“Mother, what does it say?” Ranilde drove her needle into the linen, laid her hoop aside, and snatched the Beacon up.
Mother’s eyes stayed fixed on her own stitching. “Nildie, I don’t know anything about it.”
That publication which vaunted his political enemies’ perspective, Papa looked at for three reasons: first, because it was prudent—what Commissioner Gremot felt about Rowan was none of Rowan’s business, to make capital of with his intemperate opinion-peddling; second, because it was prudent—those things Rowan hinted at could not be countered unless they were known; and third, because it was prudent—Rutherford’s Vanguard was in its infancy, and the Beacon remained, as yet, Cookesville’s paper of record.
Two columns and a half on the third page were filled by an article reprinted from the London Examiner. Ranilde read aloud the local rendition:
“I had been invited to attend a séance, conducted at a private house near Grosvenor Mews, by the celebrated medium, Dr. C____.”
The Beacon asked of its readers, in the smaller type of a sub-head: What is a séance?
A darkened room, in which a piano, situated beyond the reach of human hands, played a discordant tune; where writing had bloomed on a blank sheet of paper held by “Mrs. de N____” over the heat of a candle flame; and where a thin, childlike voice was heard to sob, “…as though some disconsolate spectral visitor floated above the chandelier.”
At the end of the last column, two fillers rounded out the space. The first was a joke:
Pass the Salt
Farmer Hodge’s lad was known to all the county as a deaf mute. One evening at supper, the youngster aston-ished his parents, piping up, “Ma, please pass the salt.”
“Dear me!” Mother Hodge exclaimed. “Why have you never spoken a word till now?”
“Because,” Sonny replied, ‘Till now, I never wanted anything.”
Below this, a tidbit of local interest:
Mr. Eugene Ebrach, who hails from Indianapolis, pays a visit this week to Mr. Richard Everard, whom many will know as a resident of Tran-quility Twp. Mr. Ebrach is a professional medium.
Papa was always finding the last straw, the reason this time he would fire Everard…and then letting it go, in the face of bad weather, leaf-wilt, a depressed market. Not for lack of decision. Élucide’s father had got into a dilemma, and the dilemma had not been apparent at its start, but had grown by the year into the present tangle. He had brought on Everard in the first place to please Dr. Horace. In sponsoring him, Horace had stated this as the crux of the Temperance Fellows’ mission—that a drunkard like Everard could be reclaimed; that the attempt must be made.
“His repentance is sincere, Walter. I have counselled him, and I believe it. We can save a man whose reason is sound, and whose heart is capable of gratitude. He will not drink from idleness, if given steady work.”
In those early years, Fellows Miss Towson and Mrs. Keene would now and then bring one of their baskets of tinned cocoa, quilting scraps, spools of thread, ladies’ illustrated papers (anything that might be helpful to Verbena, yet was not materially a sort of alms, as, for example, a Christmas ham. Benevolent ostentation, pity for the wife of a failed man, would have raised Richard Everard’s ire.) The girls were sent upstairs to Geneva to have their hair plaited; to be dressed in clean smocks. They were then given over to Miss Towson and Mrs. Keene, who walked with them down to the stead. Mother wanted her daughters trained to acts of charity; she did not otherwise encourage them to mix with the Everards.
But Élucide, with no living grandparents, no relatives at all close by, had attached herself at once to Verbena. The adults she knew were near her parents’ age. These friends of Mother’s and Papa’s thought of her as they thought of their own children. They liked best to teach the young Gremots, when they could—how to behave (in the company of adults), how to do useful work.
Verbena Everard had a bent shoulder. She limped when she walked, and had seemed to Élucide at the age of seven, very, very old. But Élucide never felt afraid visiting the stead. Verbena was something like the kindhearted grandmothers of storybooks; her voice was musical, pleasing to the ear. She made a fuss over the Gremot girls, as she hugged them, each in turn. “Oh, ma’am, Miss Towson, you brung my pretty gals! There’s my Lucey…and there’s my Nildie!”
She chided Richard and Lawrence for their unsociability, if she caught them (the boys most often observed in flight while the party coming down the hillside took pains to find its footing; Miss Towson with Mrs. Keene exchanging a pregnant glance). Verbena called after her sons, and Richard, if not plausibly out of earshot, might tramp back, rarely followed by Lawrence.
Verbena would herd him indoors. “You come in say hello…Miss Towson and Mrs. Keene come down, and they brung my gals.”
She spoke of her other son, Micah, as though he were just missed, had wandered, for a time, from his mother’s sight. And Verbena gave things away…simply gave them, without investing a lesson in the act. “That’s a pretty color, ain’t it, Lucey? You have that.”
Élucide’s mother had made her return the blue tin cup she’d admired.
“But what makes them poor?”
She couldn’t see it, at that age. Mr. Ziegler sometimes worked for Papa. Robert worked for Papa. Mr. Everard worked for Papa.
This was rebuke; it was an embarrassment, but not an explanation. And Micah was dead after all. Mother was frank in referring to Grandmother and Grandfather Armour, gone to God’s House; here, her parsimony with words, her pursed lips, implied something distasteful and concealed. These haulings-up-short made for unhappy thoughts that tied themselves in Élucide’s memory to Verbena Everard.
She was not permitted to visit the stead by herself…still, she could go out to the garden alone. She could shuffle (this was not the same as walking) through the grass and into the pine straw, where under the evergreen canopy the air remained chill. She looked to the crest of the hill, and the house was still plainly in view.
“If Mother calls, I will run right back.”
She reached the stead, made a lunge for a black kitten, snuggling him against her smock. He crawled to the crook of her chin, coaxed to a rattling purr (and shedding appreciable fleas). The crowd of them, kittens and cats, soon set up a din…Verbena, their benefactress, was coming with table scraps.
“Sweetie, you picked you out one?”
But Papa didn’t want cats in the house. Élucide had brought home three or four of Verbena’s kittens, and they had all been put in the barn.
Her father had begun talking to her in a pointed way, these last months, when she slipped into his library, and he had Everards on his mind.
“I can’t sack Everard like I ought to. Not til I find a man to fill his shoes.” He exhaled with derision, hearing the expression as he said it. “Fill them! Men like Sanderson and Everard, take pride in the family name…neither one’s any credit to it. Everard likes to think it was the war ruined him. Well, we all fought the same war! The United States government gave sympathizers the fairest break they deserved…if you see the most of them ran themselves into bankruptcy, ran a good prospect into the ground, it’s because these Kentucky farmers like Everard, who never worked more than a patch, aren’t natural businessmen. Watch Everard take two hours in a morning to walk up the road, sit for another couple on Sanderson’s porch listening to him talk about the bank stealing his land. I can’t have to do with it, Everard’s ways of getting by. The son, now…”
She laid down her book and looked across at her father.
“Just doesn’t have enough natural humility. I mean, to take what he’s given and give a little more. That’s what any man with ambition needs to do. Nine years is plenty time to get out and make a push. You never saw it happen.”
Every time a new reason to fire his foreman cropped up, Papa drove it like a fence post into the ground. He was encircling the Everards with reasons.
Here along the river was land wanted for the new road…
It was Sanderson’s property Hopper crossed and recrossed, making his way to trouble Cookesville…
Hopper and his boat were a condemnation against Sanderson. Sanderson should have been keeping Hopper off.
And if ever he was arrested (“Which could happen,” Papa said), the discredit of it would fall also on his friends the Everards. “You can see it coming, but you can’t stop it. There’s no law a landowner can use to keep his tenant from hobnobbing with a neighbor.”
But now Papa, Nachfolger, and Rutherford, had been given a strange gift. Her father seemed leery of Ebrach, as though he feared luck so good.
“You mean, Hawkins got…taken over. It was one that drowned.”
That was Walter. Fannie cut him short. “Do they only haunt the place they die?”
Mother, the table’s usual exemplar of etiquette, interrupted Fannie. “And what, as a physician…”
Élucide had wanted Ebrach to tell her whether these random spirits, cast by accident…someplace (that was not Heaven), could, or would―like blindfolded players at a party game―latch onto anyone close by.
She seemed always to be chasing her own injudicious remarks, and failing to catch herself before she’d made them. But that…the headaches too…might be the result of influence. She might, could she learn to cultivate her powers, be a medium herself―attuned, as Ebrach was.
He began with the first question. “Walter, you wish to know…you must correct me if I have this wrong…what is the work of one who communicates with the dead? In the present respect, a medium, if you like. In what fashion do the dead speak, that they may be heard by the living?”
Her brother had had some wisecrack in mind; if Ebrach had confined himself to “yes” or “no”, he would have got off his joke and been happy. But Ebrach spoke like a man who means to grapple with an arcane subject at length. Walter looked unhappy.
Ebrach turned to his left. “Mrs. Rutherford, you ask, if you will allow me to paraphrase, whether there is such a thing as an angry spirit, bewildered and unwilling to believe in the loss of its earthly existence; whether that place where death came violent and premature must therefore be, as such things are termed, haunted?”
Fannie, speechless, nodded.
“Mrs. Gremot.” Ebrach turned to his right. “Madam, as a physician, I felt that Hawkins’s might be symptoms of a state of mental confusion, a kind of dementia, brought on by hypothermia.”
“But today you would rather suppose that one of the drowned had possessed Mr. Hawkins, and spoke through him.”
There was nothing accusatory in this; only a level disbelief. Ebrach sat upright, and rested his eyes on Jerome. He addressed them all.
“We know―we call this knowing―what we are able to observe. Those things which we observe consistently, such tangible evidences as appear to have been produced under near-identical conditions, we consider to have a worldly explanation; and we flatter our own apprehension in calling such explanations scientific. We suppose that when we are able to manufacture a set of conditions, and that when, having done so, we reproduce also the same evidences, we understand their cause.
“We may observe that a man or woman in a weakened physical state wanders in the mind. Yet we must observe also that in nature, discrete zones, each manifesting its own properties—the sea and the shore, for example, the salt water and the fresh, the air that we breathe and the solid ground upon which we walk…imbue, where these zones meet or overlap, one with the characteristics of the other.
“But, in witnessing first hand, signs that inform us that this is the borderland, this the place where the dead, with those living who approach their time of crossing, interact, we wish to interpret what is the result of this transformational state, as its cause.”
Mother, like Walter, had got more from Ebrach than she’d bargained for. Her reprieve came unexpectedly, as Rutherford took part.
“Well, then, sir. What about Fan’s notion? Ghosts in the graveyard and so forth?”
“Sir, you are under Mr. Gremot’s roof. This house, in the vastness of the universe, is an atom of space; yet it is one which can be contained unto itself, shut from the wider world, by the closing of a door or window. However, if you set foot outside, beyond the threshold of this house, where do you say you have gone to?”
“Out there!” Rutherford flapped a hand over his left shoulder, referring to the window behind him and all that might be seen through it, had he bothered to turn and look. “But…if it’s what you’re getting at…I’ll say I’m on Gremot’s property.”
“Yet, I suppose, you don’t give the world to Gremot.”
“Well, the property ends at the fenceline.”
“But you do not tell me, Mr. Rutherford, that the eternal realm, God’s Heaven, if you like, ends at the fenceline.”
“Well, now, it seems like, Ebrach, you’re the one giving Gremot too much credit. He’s a comer, but he ain’t God.”
The quip pleased Papa; it appeared to please Ebrach, and Rutherford, having authored it, was pleased most of all. But he’d misunderstood Ebrach’s words on purpose…he had only turned them around.
Papa sat and smiled at their banter; a host who would not take sides among his guests.
Ysonde brought a lemon pudding upstairs; Robert sliced it hot at the sideboard, drowning the steam with a cream sauce. Throughout dinner, Élucide and her cousin had taken turns glancing at each other; he perhaps also toying with some social observation, finding no will to make it. But he’d done well keeping up…he’d got through some part of each course. She would have guessed, even, that he felt well…
She saw Jerome’s fingers burrow in his coat pocket, and emerge with a handkerchief. He blew his nose―wetly but not loudly. He offered no apology for having done so at the table, and Élucide watched to see whether he would lay his handkerchief on the cloth. The hand, for a moment, seemed to waver. But he stuffed it in his pocket, brought it out empty, and used both to reach for his milk. He scooted to the limits of his chair and bent low over his glass.
She chanced it. She had been staging these words in her mind an hour since. “Are there very many Gremots in New Orleans?”
His chin lifted, and she saw eyes rimmed in tears. She’d been wrong then…Cousin Thomas suffered. He was ill, or in pain, or felt―and if he did, her heart went out to him―wretchedly unwelcome at this table.
“I…mademoiselle.” He looked aside at Ebrach. “But these cousins are called Jerome…”
“Oh! I’m sorry! I remember.”
A passage of pudding, and when she’d eaten two-thirds…five-eighths, perhaps, leaving that pointless morsel for manners…
Quietly: “Mr. Jerome.”
She faltered, but thought: Why would I not ask? The New Orleans cousins were on his mother’s side. Ebrach had not said this, but the name was not the same, so it must be. People could be, in strange ways, connected to one another…
Well, then. Her mouth twitched. What could Richard, liking to keep himself aloof from Miss Élucide, do about that? You can’t—it was what people always said—pick your relatives.
“Hell-o, cousin.” Next time, she might truly buffalo her quarry.
He had heard her, after all; he turned, just as she’d nearly tapped his arm and spoken louder. Though his eyes were dark and liquid, he seemed composed.
“When you were with your family in Louisiana, did you ever hear of a man named Bertrand Sartain? I have a…”
She had been going to say “friend”, but remembered her father sat next to her. Jerome’s brows drew close…and his lips formed a smile, the only one she’d ever seen on his face. A grim, sour smile, as of one who finds suspicion bitterly confirmed.
“George! Indianapolis is not so far I can’t manage.”
“Mr. Ebrach will give us one of his séances. Not that I know anyone. Well, not to know, you know. But, I won’t mind, if you want to talk to Nettie.”
“I reckon Nettie would have come haunting me by now, if she wasn’t done talking.” Rutherford winked at Mother.
After two ticks of the clock Jerome spoke again, not much above a whisper. “No, mademoiselle. No, I think I would remember the name. And I have heard it now, to my…surprise.” The emphasis was directed across the table, at Ebrach.
“George! Well, never mind. Mr. Jerome!”
He lifted to Fannie a face steeped in misery.
She let startled dismay betray her own. But her mind, in back of stumbling words, was at work. “We…that is…no… What do I want to say…? George and I will be so pleased, if you will come visit us at the weekend, dear.”
“Mrs. Rutherford, I am leaving tomorrow.”
He spoke to Ebrach. Animated by what appeared a private dispute with his companion, Jerome brought a hand down flat on the cloth, and something combative, almost haughty, colored his speech. “Mrs. Gremot, I apologize, you are very kind to me…but yes, I will have to go.”
From the head of the table, a quick and hearty, “Good to have seen you, sir!”
A delay followed, during which Jerome, forming the language of his reply, pursed his lips and peered at his host.
“These humors, sir, madam, are brought on by his illness…I beg your forbearance. Jerome, I am sorry to have mistaken you. I thought you had said you had no plans.”
With an irritable glance, Jerome contradicted this. “No! I have come here all the time with a plan, a thing I have to say to my cousin…to Mr. Gremot.”
And what that thing was remained an enigma. Ebrach, standing, murmuring an apology to Mother, went around the table to wait behind Jerome’s chair. He bent, and spoke in a voice for Jerome’s ears chiefly. “You will record your thoughts on paper…that is the easier way to render sensibly what it is you hope to impart.”
For everyone’s benefit, then: “Mrs. Gremot, I will take Jerome to his room. He will have his supper there.”
He laid a hand on Jerome’s shoulder, a signal that he would help him from his seat; and at Ebrach’s touch, Jerome abandoned his protest.
“Luce, I didn’t hear what you said to Mr. Jerome.”
For a long silent time they had waited for Cousin Thomas to climb out of earshot. The name Sartain had, by some mystery, exposed the fault Mother picked out; what Élucide’s knowing of this name implied, that, her visits to the stead, and the duty she’d been given towards Jerome.
But Papa would sometimes answer on her behalf, speaking to Mother, and she to Papa, as though their daughter were not in the room with them. This day, he seemed to be on Élucide’s side.
“She asked him who he knew in New Orleans. Don’t think it brought all that on.”
Mother opened her lips as though she would disagree…and said nothing.
“Rutherford, we’re holding up the ladies.”
By this prompt of Papa’s, the dinner ended. Mother rose, Ranilde and Élucide rose after her, Edith and Fannie rose, and they all followed Mother to the screened porch. Fannie was talking already, enamored of her Saturday affair; pursuing it, even though Ebrach was unlikely to stay if Jerome would not. The vision had sprouted to a salon, to an actual discourse on spiritualism…and Fannie knew how to overcome that setback.
“I’m going to ask Verbena Everard. George can just drive me over when we start for town. I don’t see why she won’t give us a little talk. Well, she would only be answering questions, really. No one is too shy for that! I think, Fern, she would enjoy the attention, don’t you think?”
The problem presented, of Ebrach’s drawing the Everards into the Rutherfords’ circle, was greater than that of winkling out her daughter’s secret, and Mother answered with care: “I believe Mr. Ebrach intends for Mrs. Everard to tell her story.”
Élucide came to a halt in the doorway, the toe of her shoe bent just at the top of the step. She took a breath.
Behind her Sarah scudded, and sloshed a little, with the coffee tray. “Oh! I nearly run you down, miss!”
“Luce! Don’t you look pale!”
Edith said it…and Élucide hoped she did look pale. Why she ought to, she couldn’t guess. Retribution brewing, perhaps, for the falsehood she was about to tell.
“Have you got a headache, Luce?”
“Then run to your room. Sarah, set those coffee things down, and get some ice, please.”
Élucide thanked Edith for sparing her the necessity of putting on an act, which trial avoided was a deliverance. Mother had organized habits. She could shelve and unshelve her suspicions; they would come back. They did not call for adding to.
But she wished she knew of a way to keep Sarah downstairs…
She was going to eavesdrop through Jerome’s keyhole. She would rather not be caught at it. The time was a quarter to two. Informed of this by the landing clock, she paused to look out the window. She heard a male voice, indistinct. She put her knee on the sill, hiked up her other knee, and glimpsed Robert, just as he veered wide to pass the junipers outside the bay window. He had his son with him.
Isa sprang ahead with a leap, broke into a run, stopped when Robert called out, to walk slowly backwards, holding his arms extended like a bird’s wings, showing presentable clothes to his father. The two of them turned at the top of the circle. Robert pointed down the drive, in the direction of the road. Isa shook his head and pointed a degree or two higher.
Robert nodded, patted his son’s shoulder, and Isa sprinted off. He sometimes ran, or said he did, the whole eight miles to Cookesville.
She slipped back to the rug, hearing Sarah’s breathing, waited, hands clasped at her waist. Shoes drummed the stair-runner half-a-dozen times.
While she had dilly-dallied, Sarah had bustled. Élucide would otherwise have wiped the imprint of her cheek from the glass. Sarah’s eyes lit on the smudge and her mouth tightened.
“Sarah, thank you, I don’t need anything else.” While the ice bag changed hands from Sarah’s to her own, she spoke to dispense with the next question.
But still puffing, Sarah said, “Miss, I got nine things to do at one time!”
They scurried apart; Sarah down, and Élucide, after swiping at the glass with her sleeve, up. She stood silent on the hall rug, then began to tiptoe, coaching herself. Why would she not be heading for the window at the other end of the hall, to see whether Isa had come back? He would come back, sooner or later, and his appearance would be proof…ironclad proof for a feather-light dispute (though she could not imagine Jerome disputing this).
She crept past her own room. She was grateful for Sarah, so anxious she might take longer than she ought, and that Mother, entertaining guests, might need her, she would not climb a single uncalled-for step. She thought they had, all of them, left the table at the first decent minute after Ebrach’s ushering of Jerome from the dining room. And since she had not crossed him on the landing, he must still be with Jerome.
Stopping, cocking an ear, she listened, and padded forward. Ebrach’s voice came to her, not in words, but beats that grew louder, culminating in audible speech, just as she reached for the knob. The door swung open. He had turned the knob on his own side silently, in the way of a solicitous friend; his scent, and words, flowed outwards.
“Be discreet in what you choose to say, Jerome.”
He faced her then, holding her eyes as though to charm her against making false claims. But she trusted Ebrach…to be alone with him in a dim hallway did not scare her in the least.
“Ah, Miss Élucide, you are thoughtful. I had not myself considered it.”
He raised a forefinger, the gesture that says: “Wait a moment.” He stepped into the room. She could hear distinctly his side of the exchange. “Well, Jerome, you must try the treatment. If you find it gives no relief, or if you feel chilled, you will have the sense to lay the ice bag aside.”
Of course. She had it in her hand…
Now Ebrach stepped into the hall, revealing in his wake, Jerome.
“Pour vous, monsieur.”
That―exercising her French―was yielding to a rather disrespectable whim. Her cousin might find her pert. But Jerome said, “Mademoiselle, vous êtes très gentille. Je vous remercie.”
He accepted it with his right hand, and with his left, caught hers before she’d withdrawn it, bowed over and kissed it lightly, releasing her fingers as he retreated.
He closed his door.
Ebrach began to speak at once. “I will walk with you, Miss Élucide. You are a young lady blessed with an intuitive soul.”
She was so pleased at this, that he would think it of her, that she said nothing in demurral. She was spiritually sensitive. She had lain awake for hours in the dark, able to do no more than watch the air seem to shimmer, and the room’s deep shadows resolve into the mouth of a tunnel. Listening, she could hear the faintest whisper of a voice. At dinner, she had concluded something not unlike this, that she might be afflicted as Ebrach’s Mr. Hawkins had been afflicted…
She passed her room and her feet slowed. A reminder, once made conscious, no longer wanted…she’d planned to toss the ice bag on her pillow. But he stopped also, and looked at the closed door.
She said: “That’s mine.”
He walked ahead, speaking only of his companion. “Jerome does indeed suffer pain. His back troubles him very much, though he will not say so. These complications occur in the consumptive, as the disease advances. You discerned this, for of course, you are more than usually aware of such things. Jerome does not take sufficient exercise. A weakness uncorrected must breed greater weakness.”
It was disagreeable that people found fault with the sick…
She had blurted and was stymied. Was there a but? Jerome made an easy houseguest. He asked for nothing in preference to his illness. He kept to himself, seemed happier, for that matter, alone in his bedchamber.
She thought of Robert, of Geneva in particular, who disliked accommodating visitors’ maids and valets. Some would not make their own beds, or hang up their clothes, behaving like guests themselves. But Jerome, her father had remarked on it, traveled without a servant…
Continued from “without a servant”
“Mr. Ebrach, why would Thomas travel so far by himself? What does he want to say to Papa?”
With the sweep of an open palm, he encouraged her to descend first. The questions were improper; they were displays of naked curiosity. Mother would have said, “Luce!”
“He hopes to borrow money.”
She let her breath out too slowly for Ebrach to hear this as a sigh.
She did not deplore Jerome. Why should he not have Papa’s money? The railroad company, the Republican party, the Temperance Fellows did. She was disappointed, that was all. On Ziegler’s evidence, Papa’s first idea of Jerome had seemed likeliest…he would prove to be that cousin, the letter-writer. No romance she’d read had built to a dénouement exactly like the alteration wrought by Jerome and Mr. Ebrach on the house of Gremot, but she’d dreamed of a secret more compelling.
Hoped that, if she were truthful with herself, this odd messenger from the old country might have borne (as strangers in novels did) a relic, some symbolic objet which conferred an estate on her father, and with it a title of irreproachable potency.
He had a title, of course…one bestowed by the locals. He had an estate. He was proud to say that to no man did he owe so much as a dollar; that every acre of land, the office he held, the first and last shingle of his roof, was his, the fruit of his own labor.
“It takes an eye for opportunity,” he would say. “But you get nowhere if you don’t get yourself going.”
And who in Cookesville would not have agreed? Papa’s were excellent virtues. But those who grinned at Élucide, when they said to her, “Now, you’re the Squire’s daughter, is that right, miss?”―did not really kid, lighthearted, though they pretended it. Nor were they deferential.
“Of course, you will understand,” Ebrach said. “That Jerome is unlikely to suggest such a thing. He means only to thank your mother and father for their kindness. And to assure them he intends reciprocating their hospitality, when he is able to furnish them with an address.”
They had reached the landing. He touched her arm, drawing her into the alcove of the great arched window, and Élucide waited for him to finish, here where they could not be seen from the hall.
“He will write again, and he will invite your mother and father to visit him at his own house.” Ebrach smiled. His smile was of the sort that begins by pushing up the lower lip, and stretching just one corner of the mouth. He was ironic. He seemed to take pleasure in her steady gaze. “No. As you of course suppose, they won’t. Not unless some circumstance impels them to make the visit. But Jerome is unwell. He has a young wife…he has, in fact, a son…and these two will survive him. Therefore, your father must think of something to do, other than snub his cousin Jerome.”
Élucide gave Ebrach back his own smile.
He did not follow her into the hall, but stayed behind on the landing. This was for the sake of appearances, that no one presume him to have spoken with Gremot’s daughter in private. And though he wasn’t to blame, he had roiled the waters. He had put himself in the middle of an uncomplicated plan. Her feigning illness was only a small untruth; many (Fannie Rutherford, for one) would have thought nothing of doing the same. But Élucide ought to be in her room at this moment, and she was here, downstairs. She found the hall still and echoing.
She could hear no human noise from the screened porch, none from the back parlor. And then she did…a hoot of mirthless laughter from Edith. Mother spoke. Either she’d responded to Edith, or ignored her and changed the subject. With only tone and rhythm to measure, Élucide thought her mother’s voice sounded flat, corrective like a schoolmarm’s. She wondered if Ebrach stood with an ear pricked, thinking to wait until her breathing and the click of her heels on the parquet had died away. He was allowing her a considerable space of time.
She placed her feet with care, quieting her steps, and sneaked through the dining room. From here she began to hear Rutherford’s voice. In the way letters of a distant sign will coalesce, taking on to the straining eye the shape of familiar words, Rutherford’s, as she listened, grew more intelligible. Her posture was arrested, hands out and palms flat, as though if startled, she could fly.
“Those two…” Rutherford said. He added something she puzzled over, and during this instant of inattention, moved on.
“…always been a bad idea.”
Papa spoke: “The boys can take care of their mother.”
Everards again. She heard his voice lower and rise.
“…prove it, if he wants to try. Nothing to do with me!”
She really could not run mute past Ebrach, back up the stairs.
She thought again.
She might just now have got a headache. Could truth, if she gave him the story she’d given Mother, knot itself up, where two lies fell one after the other? Would they leave a tangle between, in which anything might be so?
But this was giving herself too much anxiety…too much weighing of calculations, when at any moment someone would enter the hall or dining room. She edged round the heavy front door, and nestled, dragging up the folds of her skirt, heels on the bench-seat, fingers laced round her ankles.
A successful man’s portico, spending money where it showed. After allowing the cost of construction to rise, her father had almost nixed their tower from the architect’s plan, in favor of his important entryway. He had instead, at the time the framing had gone up, nixed the architect. They’d sat together, in Mr. Orthcutt’s Indianapolis office, conferring over details, until Papa knew enough of Orthcutt’s business to distrust his fee: “Fern, I’m being charged to say I prefer this, and I’d rather not have that. It never cost me anything before to know my own opinion!”
The back of the house faced the road, the grand façade the circle where guests turned their carriages. Columns in threes, under a mutual capital, niched out hiding places, hers and her siblings’ from childhood. She might go undiscovered for an hour, invisible from any upstairs window.
An hour was a plausible time to have been sick, and come to feel better…
Her father, who knew his own opinion, had made up his mind. He’d been eager to confer with Rutherford in the library. It was good to be right…good to talk, then, to a friend who would tell you this himself. Papa was going to sack Richard’s father. The wedge, the prying tool, had come to him when he’d bought his new acreage in Kentucky. Though the Cookesville property spread wider than anyone standing at the summit could see, this new holding was three times as big. Her father had a man in mind, one he knew, but hadn’t yet sat down with. He was going to bring Mr. Sperling home, walk him around—leave him, then, in the hands of his foreman.
He would instruct Mr. Everard to explain how he did the work. Richard’s father would be caught drunk, maybe…and that would be his most merciful way out. The story would be only the word of a man who had no ties to these parts; it was not Papa’s fault if fresh eyes on the scene noted what familiarity overlooked. Her parents did not gossip.
Each day at sunrise, when the heat had not yet risen, and before the family left their beds, Geneva and Sarah embroidered, or took turns working the sewing machine under the attic window. Cleome Towson or Mrs. Horace arrived on occasion to help craft Ranilde’s trousseau; and all the women in their circle talked over the menu, the music, the guests. Each day they checked another item off the list (sometimes, on second thoughts, adding it back). Each step closer to her older sister’s flight into marriage excited Élucide as well, with envy, impatience; after Christmas she would become Miss Gremot…an adult, really.
The ordinary, in the last few weeks, had become conditional.
Could it be so easy to escape?
She could see nothing, from any balcony or porch, other than Gremot land. In her life, since they’d come south, she had seen only this view of the road, the way into Cookesville. She knew of no reason River Road could not be followed its opposite direction, west from the town, passing farmsteads on the far side of Papa’s fields, passing other towns where the locals might call the road by some other name, making towards…she thought Evansville was the next sizeable place downriver. But to journey by wagon, hugging the meandering bank, would mean many days’ rough travel.
She stretched out a hand, as though to take up her bag; as though the night had come, and she could hear the tread of his boots. She’d never tramped any distance on foot. She knew that a few Catholics among the hands made up a walking party on Sundays. It took them two or three hours to reach Holy Rosary chapel, and many hours more to return. Old Richard, who was truly ill, walked most weeks to Hopper’s; and if a passing wagon would carry him the four miles from Tranquility Creek to Cookesville, he would sleep the night in the Belle Rivière’s stableyard, and walk, if need be, all the way home.
Once Everard gets himself liquored up, Papa said, he can stagger along half-dead and not feel a thing.
They would never know…closely as her parents watched her…that by morning, she and Richard would have reached Cookesville. Even if she burdened him along the way, and could not help stopping. They would go to St. Louis―not because her cousin Jerome lived there, but because they must…they must live in a city, one with stores and theatres, and crowds of people. Owing to Hawses, they could not go to Louisville. Élucide let this daydream build of its own accord, so that inspiration would feel natural as memory, and she would not perceive herself forcing the narrative.
But there was the usual trouble over Richard’s dialogue.
“As you know, Miss Élucide, your father has ordered me from his land. But how could I have gone away, unless I’d seen you one last time…”
He would not say this.
She could see him showing up in company with Lawrence and Sanderson, not lifting his head to look her in the eye…and burning underneath rigid manners, alone in his intractability, thinking Papa cared, that her father could be moved, by an Everard’s immobility, that he thought at all of Richard’s stand against him, when he decided a thing.
Élucide decided this truth less important than the fantasy’s conclusion. She had a gold locket and a pearl necklace. Richard was fit for labor. Coming home nights to their rented house, he would speak to her by the fire, of his frustrations. And she would advise him, sound and sure; Papa without knowing it sponsoring his son-in-law, because he’d taught his business to his daughter.
Lawrence seemed also to be in the room, sprawled in an armchair, soaking up most of the fire’s heat. Lawrence, as she could not imagine his life without Richard, might need to be their boarder. But they would have a friend, as well. True, if Cousin Thomas wanted to keep in good with Papa, he might not like associating with the runaways. But, what had Mr. Ebrach said? Papa had his politics to think of…
The story moved in time, the two of them handsomely seasoned by the passage of years, strolling the deck of a steamer bound for Europe.
“Do you remember the locket, my darling…how poor we were then?”
They were prosperous now; her husband expected her to wear good things. Élucide sketched in imagination a travel wardrobe, ensembles for a new century, even slimmer in profile that the current styles.
She tried composing, this time with a straight face, Mrs. Everard’s answering line:
“Dearest, when I recall our first days together, I see only a golden…”
A golden what? Glow, she supposed. Of happiness.
And politics seemed to have routed her reverie. She knew the blow would fall in another way. A day when the Gremots had no visitors, a Sunday dinner. Her father saying what he had said before: “I’ll have my man see to knocking down the stead. We might put up a shelter along there, temporary, for the wagons, til the new road comes in.”
Papa’s approach was nothing veiled in mystery; when he said the stead, he meant the Everards, the last trace of their stamp on his land. Mother, playing Ziegler’s role—that of Papa’s other voice—might complement this opening. She would talk, Élucide thought, about the limits of charity.
The laying of the rails would encroach on Sanderson’s property; the road would not take his house, only lie so close as to leave it unsaleable. And unlike Papa, whose heart was made glad by the prospect of freight moving fast across his acreage, Sanderson took bitterly this question of domain. He could not be reconciled to the commissioners having voted for this.
Sanderson’s, though, was the unpopular view.
Everyone in Cookesville who knew of a man idle or out of work, bedeviled him with the same advice:
Just wait a while longer, wait a while longer…and the jobs will be plentiful.
Papa had introduced Mr. Sperling by proxy, talking these things over with Mother in Élucide’s hearing; and she, having got the new foreman’s name, found herself shuttled two steps ahead in the relationship. She must know and accept this man. Only with conspicuous and intentful disrespect, could she refuse.
The windbreak was allowed to grow thick along Sanderson’s Run, blocking sight of the road where it crossed under shadow. Growth piled the bank…teasel, goldenrod, ironweed, like refugees from a panic, with their backs against orderly cropland. Old canes rust-red among stands of blackberry, poison ivy climbing the locust, roadside leaves covered in dust. The trees themselves, bent hobbled by wild grape and low crowned, swept by winds along the river.
She saw a rider, taking his horse along at a walking pace.
Once he’d emerged into full sun, she saw Ziegler’s straw hat, and Isa straddling the horse in front of him, holding onto the saddle. That had been his errand, to fetch Ziegler…he’d run as the crow might fly, four miles overland, down and up from the wading pools and Indian caves that marked Tranquility Creek’s modest descent to the Ohio, the boundary separating Gremot land from Ziegler’s piece.
She saw Isa jump as Ziegler slowed his horse. A minute passed, and he scrambled (clothes no longer, for these adventures, presentable) over the outcropping that forced the curve to the hilltop.
“Miss Élucide! The sheriff’s man was down at Hopper’s!”
“You saw them arrest Hopper?”
In silence, Isa swung himself back and forth, hands clasped around the ball finial topping the post at the foot of the steps. She tried again, lightening the burden of proof.
“Isa, what did Mr. Ziegler tell you?”
“He had his shotgun over his shoulder, and he rang the bell. And he told Hopper to come on out…and it was Hopper’s woman come out.”
The front door opened, and Robert came out. But Isa, catching his father’s eye, told Élucide the last thing he’d got from Ziegler, anyway.
“Deputy said if Hopper was hiding, better tell him he was wanted, or they’d haul him in, whatever time he showed his face. And she said she wouldn’t tell Hopper nothing! Said you go on whistle for Hopper!”
Robert said, “That talk isn’t right. Nobody needs to hear it.” He looked at Élucide. “Miss, we all thought you’d gone upstairs. I don’t want Isa giving you trouble when you feel poorly.”
She shook her head. The air was motionless. Still she made the excuse: “It was stuffy in my room. I’m better since I came outside.”
No, she was not troubled…she was grateful for Isa’s news; it was a nuisance being sheltered, having to read improper truth between a story’s censored lines. She could not, for manners’ sake, speak with anyone a word about Hopper’s boat.
But then she did. “Robert…Hopper only stops near Sanderson’s place because he gets traffic from the hands, don’t you think?”
He blinked. He laughed one “ha” on an exhalation of surprise, followed with an appreciative chuckle, as though she’d told a good joke.
“Miss Élucide, your daddy would say so. I can’t be late, now, knocking at the library door if Mr. Ziegler’s showed up. Son, you come on with me.”
And Robert trotted down the steps, shooing Isa ahead.
She was a bright spot, in her mustard-colored dress, as she approached the men. She found the circle’s bricks littered with branch ends that had come down from the oaks, browned leaves studded with insect galls. One of Mother’s spaniels, suffering from the report of early acorns that popped like gunfire against the roof, made a frantic dart from under a concrete bench, ears back, teeth apologetically bared. Pressing Élucide’s skirts as she passed the door leading into the little hall, he burrowed through the privet to lay himself low by the foundation.
Papa turned from Ziegler, beckoned, and put his hand on her shoulder, separating the two of them from Ebrach and Rutherford, but not interrupting himself to ask anything of her. “You’ll never break up a gang like that. His man Tinker’ll turn up again, handing out tokens in town, and all along the road. He’ll get his old custom back…sheriff can jug Hopper for a year. That won’t kill his business.”
“Hopper,” Rutherford murmured, “ain’t the star attraction.”
She saw Isa ride away on Ziegler’s sorrel mare, cantering her up the wagon path to the water trough. Ziegler never stayed, not for a meal, not when night came on, not when thunder kicked up. But he liked taking a walk around the Gremot barn, his interest in Papa’s horses and vehicles professional. He liked seeing stalls kept in good order, clean and clean-smelling, tackle hung up as tackle ought to be.
Ebrach studied Rutherford’s face, then Papa’s. He’d glanced at Élucide, giving her a gentleman’s nod, his judgment the perfection of social grace: how much, and how little, to acknowledge her.
Rutherford scratched his sideburn. “I’ll put Thacker onto it. I set him to cover the courthouse news. Make sense for him to do a piece on Hopper. Then Sanderson or any of the others…” He paused. “Gremot, I mean McClurkin’s brother.”
“I know that. But name him. Name Sanderson, name Michael McClurkin, name Everard.”
“Well. I’ll tell Thacker.”
The topic died into silence. Ebrach spoke.
“Mr. Ziegler, Jerome will not be dissuaded. He thinks he will take an early train. Something which he has not confided to me, a personal matter…has cemented his resolve. However, sir, it remains for us to determine the safest conveyance for carrying Mr. Jerome to the depot.”
“Mr. Ebrach, you see if what I got in mind’ll suit you.”
Ziegler batted back the brim of his hat, and spoke to Élucide’s father. “I’m thinking, right this evening, I load them trunks of Mr. Ebrach’s on the farm wagon, hitch up Miss Pearl, and take that’un into town. Stop at the depot, check the schedule there, and leave the trunks in store. I go on to my brother’s house, let him have charge of the wagon, bring his buggy back here in good time for the early train, less they tell me it ain’t going for some reason. Buggy be an easier ride for Jerome.”
Finishing, Ziegler brought his eyes round to Ebrach’s.
And he, projecting plans gathering steam, glanced over his shoulder at the library’s French window. “It’s for the best that I take my leave as well, sir. Jerome has no one else to accompany him. Mr. Ziegler, you have taken things very competently in hand, and I am indebted to you. Mr. Rutherford, you must ask your wife’s patience, and tell her that it would have been my grateful pleasure to accept her invitation, had circumstances been other than they are.”
“Sir, with respect, there’s nothing sets Fannie back. But she’ll be tickled if you write those words down.”
Jerome had been Ebrach’s reason for arriving and was his reason for leaving. And what was Ebrach to Jerome? A kind of cicerone, helping him to make his way in America… Or a kind of guardian, a prop. Then what was Jerome to Ebrach? They quarreled; they appeared not overly fond of each other.
But Élucide felt in an unaccountable way foredoomed by their going; she’d gone out to the circle before dawn, raising her father’s eyebrow. It was as though the whole world moved, and she herself would never move. Her friendlessness, her dependency, seemed to her suddenly illuminated—she had never been from her parents’ house on any errand of her own.
With beautiful apologies, Ebrach begged Mother’s and Papa’s understanding…it was best Jerome not eat before his ride into town, and Ebrach himself preferred no breakfast. This was, therefore, put back an hour, the Gremots’ routines for a fourth day upended.
Blinking, otherwise speechless at five-thirty in the morning, Jerome appeared to acquiesce, lying down on the seat and allowing himself to be tucked up with a blanket. Before climbing to the jump seat, Ebrach handed up to Ziegler Jerome’s portmanteau and his own satchel. Élucide then watched until the lanterns at the back of the buggy vanished down the drive, sometime after the sound of Miss Pearl’s hooves had merged into birdsong.
On her swing, with a conscientious effort, and for perhaps an hour, she mused over all that came to mind…and dodged the object that kept intruding. She was saving the possibility of it.
At his daily hour of seven-thirty Papa had left the table, cutting his breakfast, rather than his plans for the day, short. Mother, rising and speaking of chores, left at eight, ahead of her daughters. Élucide shuffled and lagged, in sour mood…her state of mind today such that she wanted no part of Ranilde’s wedding. By the time she reached the foot of the staircase, she was able to run to her room, her light steps on the carpet unheard.
She saw at once.
A piece of writing paper folded like a letter, extended from the book’s top and bottom, bumping its pages apart. She closed the door behind her. Within a few paces, she could read the title, its scripted silver a challenge on the red background. But not fully believing these characters could say The Summoning of Ancients, Élucide moved closer. She touched the book, did not lift it; with a fingertip nudged it, and read the spine again.
EBRACH. This was all else to be read on the outside, here alone were title and author embossed. She paced around the bed, walking an arc from the chest of drawers to the window and back. Again. After a third circuit, she decided she would go, after all, to her mother’s sitting room, just as though she’d had it in mind coming up the stairs…
And not spoil the promise of this gift, not interrogate the mystery of its being here.
There would be a handful of letters, notes of explanation couched in apology, to send out. To Mrs. Horace, for Ebrach’s near-argument with Dr. Horace. To Miss Nachfolger, who kept her father’s house, had stayed behind in Cookesville to supervise his affairs while he visited the capital, and would mind having missed Jerome. Like Cleome Towson, Polly drove. She could, on her own behalf, accept invitations. But Mother made a distinction between a spinster with no social position, and Henry Nachfolger’s unmarried daughter.
As well, Verbena Everard would need writing to, her case requiring the most diplomatic tact. Old Richard would read Mother’s words. A Gremot had imposed on the Everards’ hospitality…and truly, this debt had grown beyond her parents’ ability to repay it.
At ten-thirty, Mother rose from her stool.
“It’s time for me to see about dinner. The rest will have to wait. In fact…I don’t know, Luce, if I can do anything about Cousin Thomas. Did he ever tell us his wife’s name? I haven’t got an address. If he happens to write—he said he would, didn’t he? Then…well, the only thing to do is write back, ask whether he had a safe journey, whether he feels recovered from the train…and if he and Mrs. Jerome would like our help with anything. That gives him a fair chance to say what it was he came here to say.”
She’d known the name was in her memory, that she could recall it. Élucide leaned both elbows on her mother’s writing desk, and put her chin in her hands. She heard her mother’s voice recede from the fireplace to the threshold, fall into silence. But Mother had not paused there, waiting for answers to her two questions—and yes, Ebrach had, at any rate, said Jerome would write.
Left without instruction, Élucide had come out to the porch. It was getting late for the midday meal; the Gremots liked sitting down at eleven-thirty. Mother, on reaching the kitchen, found Ysonde balked, perhaps…something planned for dinner had spoiled; the two of them were in the pantry, changing the menu. Or Papa had been held up at his desk.
She rocked back and forth on her swing, listening for her better angel’s better suggestion. But it would be. Richard keeping Papa. All the while, since yesterday, Élucide had worried over the man she’d put Lawrence onto. She’d met this stranger’s eye…and might, by her carelessness, have altered his fortune. He’d had a quick, noticing way, and a sardonic set to his mouth, that one. She imagined, if she were in Richard’s place, she would back off conflict at once, let the worker stay and prove himself a troublemaker, before facing Papa. A crisis over labor must be solved, as it always seemed, by more money.
Papa would lift the papers from the right-hand corner of his desk―the bills he intended to dispute, constituents’ letters he had not yet talked over with Nachfolger―set these aside, straighten their edges, take the black-covered book he kept underneath his correspondence, open it, select his pen, write the date, record Richard’s report, ask for clarification…on this point, on that point. Then he would say to Richard:
“Your father needs to sort that.”
And Richard, clenching his cap, winched up by this reminder that the Everards’ way of doing things was not W. A. Gremot’s way, would answer through his teeth:
“He will, sir. He expected you’d want to know, is all.”
She thought there were times Richard spent his father’s wages, rather than plod that circle again.
This was nothing to feel saddened over, that he would find employment at Rutherford’s hotel, or at Nachfolger’s glassworks―at length, if the money proved good as advertised, at building the new road. Nothing to her, that he would live in town. And choose the company he kept.
But…her handsome Richard, shot the saucy eye by Rutherford’s chambermaids…
By shop assistants, half of whom lodged together at a rooming house a block from downtown. These working girls were a byword in Cookesville. They had no mother and father to answer to; they dressed, and spoke to men, as they pleased. One of them would charge Richard, flounce at him without shame. And he would marry her.
The thought made Élucide feel rebellious; made her want to switch allegiances. Since she could do nothing about Richard, she wouldn’t wait here to see him. No, no one had called her, dinner would be late. She might as well read Ebrach’s letter now, not fight temptation until bedtime.
But there was no letter from Ebrach.
Jerome had written. She had made some sort of impression on him…the words were French.
Je m’excuse, Mlle Gremot―je l’espère ne jamais être grossier…
He apologized. He hoped never to be rude. Of course he hadn’t been…he had barely spoken to her. Jerome praised, as he had the night before, her kindness. And, in return for the solicitude he believed she’d shown him, he had given Élucide a gift. The letter was penned, but along the paper’s left border, top and bottom, he had made a drawing in pencil―the hanging branch of a vaulting pine, the stead’s water pump, a fat tabby (Verbena’s Charley, capturing even the chewed ear); the background done only in shading, light, medium, dark…this and the white paper giving volume to form, the stead’s gaping underside, three peeping kittens.
Comme je suis votre cousin, je l’espère aussi être votre ami. Vous devez s’il vous plait demander à moi tout service…
She thought of her mother’s conviction that Jerome wanted money. As did everyone…but, on the contrary, he offered to be of help, by any means within his power.
Je vous écrirai à nouveau.
What had Ebrach told her? That Jerome would write again. That, by implication, if Papa would not sponsor him materially, Rowan…or Rowan at the instigation of some other of Papa’s political enemies, would find fertile ground in this theme. His frail cousin, left by W. A. Gremot to founder—
Citizens of Cookesville, consider Mr. Jerome’s impoverished widow, the fatherless child…
An appeal against that generally condemned, juxtaposed with any man’s name, from what Élucide had learned of politics, might be enough to sink him. And from what she’d learned of Ebrach, when he wanted a particular thing of Jerome, he had no trouble—a suggestion or a touch had been enough—in getting it. Perhaps, then, though Jerome had written to her, it was only because Ebrach could not. Ebrach had some use for his good reputation in the city of Cookesville; he did not canvass her parents’ support alone, but that of all the Fellows.
She looked at The Summoning of Ancients, lying closed on her small bureau. She had slipped the letter from its pages rather than open Ebrach’s book to see what those two pages would tell her. She hadn’t thought of it. Now, having discerned the key to his message, she would never find the place he’d left it.
She recovered. She had been clumsy, she had made a chore for herself, but the task was not undoable. Again she spoke aloud: “It was in the middle pages, somewhere.”
She dropped Jerome’s letter on the bed, and reached for Ebrach’s book. Sarah knocked at the door.
“Miss, they’re ready now, and Missus wants you to come down.”
Élucide ignored her…it would take only a minute to page through a chapter. The message must be connected to those things they’d said to each other; some word in Ebrach’s text would jump out. She would understand him.
But the book had picture plates, printed on heavier, shinier paper; it wanted, at each place one was bound, to fall open. One of these, dead center, sprang at Élucide. Skeletal, rag-clad men and women, their mouths open and arms raised in supplication, otherwise folded in defense to hide their shrinking faces, massed along an arched bridge, primitive stones shown black patched with white, depicting an eely surface. One of the hell-bound had been captured here―and would always be―plummeting, limbs flailing.
The poem was called, “Die Schönheit”; it had been translated into English, and preceded the illustration drawn from its unlovely imagery. Sarah knocked a second time. In a rush Élucide read the poem through, racing over its final stanza.
They have gone before
The wheel will turn and turn forevermore
The hour is foreordained, no hand may steer
Our fated vessel from her destined shore
A-sail on waters black where starlight falls
A sigh at place of parting fills the air
With an endless echo of despair
“Miss! Are you taken bad again?”
“Sarah! I’m coming right now. Tell Mother!”
She turned the page. Her eyes on Ebrach’s text, she hooked her stepstool with her toe and pulled it from under the bedspread. Had he written the poem? Was that the message? Without taking her eyes from “Die Schönheit”, Élucide climbed, scooted back on the bed until her legs dangled.
The poem seemed mostly to reiterate, to state in pithier, if no less lofty, language, what Ebrach had said to Dr. Horace: Here, life and death are one, and the bridge glimpsed through the fog cannot be crossed. That, Élucide thought, could not be what Ebrach meant…not for her. She turned the plate over, then flipped two pages further back. A chapter ended here. Most of this page was taken by a long footnote in tiny typeface:
15 Swedenborg’s vision of the Heavenly Realm, a conurbation of dwelling-houses whose rooms and furnishings differ from those of earthly mansions, only in the degree of their magnificence. The angels, as he saw them, had been garbed as their maker arrayed them; they were wingless, with the faces and the physical form of men
Her eyes skipped to the top, and to the paragraph-length finish of a sentence, under which the footnote appeared.
consistent, and seemingly unimpaired; this, taken into account with his retiring habits, indicates to us that he suffered no mania (none, that is to say, which conforms to the established characteristics of a mental disturbance; i.e., the incidents were not in themselves distressing; they did not at length manifest as such, nor become more so over time; his rational apprehension
Exhaling, she quit this chapter, leafed past the poem and the picture, and ahead three pages into the next chapter. She skimmed, feeling as though a pendulum were swinging. She sought capital letters, quotes, italics, anything that might speak to her.
A thumbprint, or a portion of one (Jerome’s possibly, smeared with ink as he’d written his note to her), found at the top right corner of page 121, brought minor panic. Possibly, she had detected Ebrach’s marker. She could put the book away…some hiding place other than beneath the mattress…
The silence began to nag.
Sarah had not come back, and Élucide could hear, now her ears were pricked, her father’s voice. She could smell meat pie of some kind, onions and gravy and browned crust. There was Walter speaking, there was Ranilde. She did not hear her mother. But…would it take very long to read a page? She read.
And, to her relief, his author’s voice chatty now, rather than academic, Ebrach recounted an anecdote.
In the early autumn of the year 1871, I had found myself paying a call to the G.N.E.C.S. Mission House, on Perkins Street, in Charlestown, Massachusetts, over which Jephtha Crowninshield presides.
Dr. Crowninshield’s chief practice is in the field of remote healing; however, also, he is a spiritualist, and one in the truest sense. This he had proved to me in London, for, night after night, as we visited the houses, respectively, of Mrs. Janes, Captain Featherstone, and the temporary residence of our recent acquaintance M. Quincey (who had taken rooms at the Albert), at no point did Dr. Crowninshield suggest a summoning; but yet, when accommodating Mrs. Janes, who in particular had insisted that we sit, neither did he make any show of reluctance; rather, on the contrary, he made arrangements at once to comply with her whim, and did so with a sincere spontaneity.
Upon issuing his invitation (this, after an interval of two weeks following our return to America), Dr. Crowninshield had promised me a surprise, and indeed, I was surprised―pleasantly so―in making the discovery that his houseguests were none other than M. and Mme Quincey. Though he is an epicure, and a man of generous good nature, M. Quincey is no world traveler; and had, when in England, expressed to me a reluctance to cross the Atlantic.
I found myself thus unexpectedly looking into M. Quincey’s humorous eyes, and gladly returning his amiable smile, as my host withdrew from the vestibule, and ushered us toward the music room. It is in the music room that Dr. Crowninshield prefers holding these informal gatherings.
“Monsieur Ebrach, our ancients have sent you at the precise moment; you are the very man! We are, myself and madame, in a disagreement. We will have your view.”
This, M. Quincey said to me, and soon it was evinced that by “madame”, he did not refer to Mme Quincey, but to another guest, one to whom Dr. Crowninshield quickly introduced me, seeing that I had noticed a fair-complected young woman―whose eyes were a determined grey―seated near the fire, and with a book opened on her lap.
“Mrs. Oliver Keene, sir,” the doctor said. “Mrs. Keene, may I introduce to you our friend, Mr. Eugene Ebrach? He also is a physician.”
“How do you do, Mr. Ebrach? You must call me Mercy.” Following these conventional words, and her cordial invitation, she launched at once upon the topic at hand:
“Sir, a woman with whom I correspond is persuaded that her recovery from a terrible burn on her left arm can be attributed to the devoted ministrations of her Persian cat, Don Pedro. The cure, I attest to, for I had visited her the winter of her accident, and had seen with my own eyes the terrible injury done―that she lives at all…” Here, affected, Mrs. Keene broke off; but immediately, she took up her theme.
“But, that she lives, sir, with the least lingering disability, is quite miraculous. However, Mr. Ebrach, the cat had been a companion of her childhood. It had died many years before. Each day, during the course of a month, while she lay near insensible from fever, she had felt―so she insists―Don Pedro nestled against her left side, his soft fur touching the damaged arm.”
The debate between M. Quincey and Mrs. Keene, hinged, therefore, upon this question: Might the spirits of our departed animals be summoned, as well as those of human beings; and if so, having no language in common with either their masters or their fellows, by what means
The same Mrs. Keene? It seemed impossible. Certainly, Mrs. Keene at the time had lived in Cookesville…1871 was only five years ago…and Mother, in any case, called Mrs. Keene Eliza. Élucide thought she would remember hearing of someone called Mercy. But, could the Keenes be sisters-in-law? She knew of no reason why they ought to be.
She could hear Ebrach:
“My dear Mrs. Keene, I know of a lady in Charlestown, Massachusetts, who bears your name…”
She sat up and laid the book, spread open at the crucial thumb-printed page, on the counterpane folded across the foot of her bed. Would he have said, “…and you, like she, are a woman blessed with an intuitive soul.”
No. He was not oily. He was a wonderful man.
Mother called her name first, then rapped; a rap like that of Élucide’s penmanship master knuckling out correction on the desktop…one, two, three.
“I want to see you in the hall.”
“Mother! Don’t wait dinner for me. In just a minute…”
There was another thing. Determined grey eyes. She found it off-putting, a little embarrassing, this expression. The words sounded…besotted. She dropped onto the floor, and smoothed her skirt. She hadn’t washed her hands or combed the hair away from her face, as expected. This was a fault.
“Élucide Bernadine, are you lollygagging on purpose?”
A name, an address, a friend of Ebrach’s…never mind her, the other Mrs. Keene. Why could Élucide not write to Dr. Crowninshield? He was a remote healer. What did it mean? She might puzzle this out…something, she surmised, to do with prayer. But at present, it meant a pretext. She had headaches; she could ask whether his mission might be of any help to her.
Dr. Crowninshield, Mr. Ebrach spoke―
Well, highly of you, sir. That was what people said in letters.
Mr. Ebrach spoke highly of you, sir. I am very willing that you should give word to him, whether or not we are able to effect a cure, that
“Luce! Come out at once!”
The door was pushed open, and Mother―saying under her breath, “Mercy!”―met Élucide’s eyes and widened her own. The exchange lasted only a second. She looked over her daughter’s shoulder, eyes sweeping the room for contraband.
Then, voice controlled, she said: “I had rather you didn’t read Mr. Ebrach’s book, until I have read it myself.”
Meek on her mother’s heels, on the landing where they’d spoken, she and Ebrach, Élucide courted danger, pausing to whisper the words aloud, to fix them in her mind.
“Crowninshield, Charlestown, Perkins Street.”
“…that, I will be delighted to renew our acquaintance.”
End of Volume One
The city of Cookesville is a made-up place, located west of Louisville, KY and east of Evansville, IN. The city, a bastian of Republicanism as it was, when the party stood for abolition and temperance (and even, among many sturdy clubwomen, The Vote), is enjoying a wave of prosperity, during the post-Civil War decades of the nineteenth century. The locals are quite satisfied with the height of their hills, which, with Hoosier dryness, they refer to as summits. However, the little sketch above gives an idea of the Gremot farm’s topography.
And in Volume Two of this series, All Bedlam Courses Past (in progress), we’ll see Élucide discover the limits her world places on a woman’s ambition; the fate of the Everard family; Honoré accepting a shadow of his own ambitions, in exchange for the privilege of living — and W. A. Gremot, Cookesville itself, arriving at a culmination.