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
Her mind was on Eugene Ebrach.
She had turned the key. 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 dress. It followed Élucide 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 Élucide locked herself in. 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, she hovered…it felt to Élucide 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 way with words) 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 her 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.
Élucide knew she had a pretty face. 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…
Continued from “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. Élucide 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.”
Mr. Jerome said his father’s brother was her grandfather. Or, he hadn’t said that, 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 had 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 use it. And Mr. Ebrach’s 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. Mr. Ebrach…
She entertained, in her private thoughts, calling him 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 speak 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’d looked into his eyes, he’d looked…with appreciation, she thought, into hers, before turning to her mother or to Papa.
But Eugene Ebrach was not handsome in 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 the way Old Richard managed the farm. At unexpected times, he came for particular business. Papa was willing to have her there with him, a witness to these visits. His big desk spanned the room’s width almost, and sat under the illumination of the French window. They’d needed to shimmy and shove the desk through the French window, when Mr. Ziegler had brought it up from the depot.
At the secretary, placed at an angle viewing one of the library’s massive corner moldings, she’d kept her eyes on the sonnets of William Lloyd Garrison (her father’s library had nothing fun to read; his poetry books were filled with tick marks and underlines, sayings he’d spotted to use in his speeches), and made silent observations. Élucide 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.” Papa once had told her this. “I give Everard 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.
The boys could find work if they wanted it; but they didn’t and they wouldn’t. And he would not be backed into a corner over his own affairs.
If he were going to hire a new foreman.
But 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, that Papa had promised her sister. Richard would come away with her; Mother and Papa could snub them, or call, then, 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 shadowed 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’ house, 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 she might lean on autumn days when the sky was blue, and the trees clumped around the farm pond, those that lined Tranquility Creek and the river’s bank, glowed like a warm hearth, the river flowing invisibly; its 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 would light the space, as did that in the Gremots’ music room…and could be thrown open to the air.
For a moment she came awake…slipped then, into her childhood home, the cramped dining room, herself inching past Mr. Nachfolger, to sit where only a child could have fitted, between the table’s edge and the cupboard. He laughed as she climbed, feet on the chair-rung, hands on the tabletop, fingers working into the lace trim of her mother’s good linen cloth.
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:
“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 away from 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, had gasped as she fetched up toe to toe with Élucide.
“Luce! Underfoot, for Heaven’s sake! Were you eavesdropping?”
Élucide 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 had taken 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 a question, more so than an admonition. She’d meant: speak to him. Mother drew Élucide downstairs and pivoted, just at the last. Moving backwards, she eased one foot to the floor, then the other, then 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―so she recalled. 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 had 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.”
She’d 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 grown-ups’ 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 then 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 gon 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 illuminate 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 of mink 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. These 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, young lady, 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 once more 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 of 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? Sir,” he cocked his head at her father, “you’ve come to know a lot of people in the county, and”—he spiked a red 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 this lesser augury, she’d 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 from 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 at first. It was gone, it was humiliating; it would be impossible to speak up about the theft. The diary hadn’t been missing…he’d 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 that he continued to watch her. Papa sat smiling.
When she and Richard built their house, she would make this 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 to put 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 yet, if he hated her, he should not 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’n he is. I pay tax on my property, an I don’t like seein 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. Élucide looked at Lawrence. She wanted to ask Lawrence—he was easier—what Sanderson meant about being rich. Lawrence raised his head and stared; Élucide stared back. This lasted a second or two, then Lawrence glared 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, in passing, 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 through 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, she’d had a headache waking up; it had lasted through the afternoon. At five o’clock, she’d seen herself in the mirror, damply pale and red-eyed. But she was hungry, and had wobbled down the stairs to the hall. Her mother and sister were there. She’d watched them fan themselves before the open door, and the guest they had been seeing off was Miss Towson. Neither walked out into the sun, keeping back under the cool shade of the porch. They dropped their waving arms and returned. 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’d been 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…” He broke off. Élucide 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 wantin to ask―” He gave her a direct look. Élucide broke into a smile. Richard lifted his hands. “Or your mama is…what about Mr. Ebrach? Well, I got nothin to say about Mr. Ebrach!”
He’d left her then, and after she followed a few paces, said, or Élucide believed she’d heard him say: “Miss Gremot”. That, strictly speaking, was Ranilde. It didn’t matter. He had been 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. Up the stairs Nachfolger bounded, the boards going pop, pop, under the vigor of his ascent.
“Young lady, what sort of literature is that you’ve got hold of?”
She’d been 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 this 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 began again, “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. I tell you…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. Now, Gremot―it’s the people employ a newspaper man. When an emplo-yee 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 see Élucide’s reaction.
“Well, now, 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. Mr. Nachfolger countered, bringing forward his queen’s pawn one square. Élucide watched the match unfold, while her father and Mr. 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.”
Nachfolger brought his queen out early. He glanced at Élucide, using her, as from time to time he liked to do. She had no knowledge to encourage either his chess game or his investments, but giggled for him whenever he said anything improper.
“There’s 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 shook his head. He was grinning broadly. “I truly don’t know what you had in mind. But you talk to the farmers. They’ll 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, which move might save his king.
“Miss Élucide.” Nachfolger sat back. He had time on his hands. “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.”
Her father, thinking three moves ahead, 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, essentially—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.”
Continued from “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,” Mr. Nachfolger 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, as though her own dreams could tell her, 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.
“Well,” he answered himself. “High time. 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 still a copperhead. 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 have got past the brunt. There was always 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 often 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, if he’d refused to speak, would be the loser…but Élucide 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, and the sun’s rays had fallen bleached across the floorboards, she’d 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; equally, inertia seemed to weigh her in place. She saw Mr. Ebrach playing chess with Mr. Nachfolger. She could smell Ebrach’s scent.
And that, Élucide thought, gathering in a moment’s wakefulness, might be real and not an illusion. On this sleeping floor, there was only one tower room. Fighting among the children not allowed, it always was kept empty for guests. But Ebrach had the true guest’s apartment, with its sitting parlor opposite Mother’s. A while ago…she could not have said when, Élucide had heard his voice on the stairs. He’d been speaking to Robert. He’d passed her room on his way to Jerome’s.
Mr. Ebrach’s 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, as well as the hour. And anyone alone and wakeful in these small hours might feel, as Élucide felt, 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. Within her bed curtains, the dark seemed infinite…no beginning or end to it. This began to feel imprisoning. She clambered to the floor, and could discern strips of faint light where the windows’ lace panels fell open. Her matchbox and candle were on the bedstand, that this light could expose them. 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 in secret.
Élucide found her dress folded to air over the chair back. She could not reach behind, to button it without Sarah’s help; but she could pull the dress over her nightgown, fasten the buttons at the waist―and 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…Sarah assisted by someone with a master key, while Élucide had been asleep. 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 to Élucide tasted foul as medicine. She knelt, and plunged her hand blindly among the folded things in her trunk, her own body throwing shadow enough to block the candle’s light. Here at last was a crocheted bed-jacket. And here was disarray. She closed the lid. Her mother would tick her off for this, leaving Geneva a mess to straighten.
Well…I’ll tidy, she told herself. Later.
She padded softly on slippered feet 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 could not 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 as she groped in the dark, that 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 swing’s chains. Far below, she could see Lawrence’s fire. Or rather, 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.
It came up the steps and nosed Élucide’s hand; this, followed by 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 doin? Come down off there!”
Lawrence, instead, came up. She heard one boot land―and crunch as though mud-encrusted—on the bottom step; one on the step above.
Élucide 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 schooled Lawrence.
“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.” Lawrence 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. “Lawrence, did your father hire that man?”
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 Lawrence directly, “How is Richard?” And although she thought better of this, she had not been 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 done took a likin to you, and she been askin…”
Élucide now stood, and Lawrence layered no further nuance into his joke. But parting from her, he said: “I tell Richard you was askin, anyways.”
“Come help me sort this, Luce.”
Summoned from the breakfast table, Élucide had dawdled on the stairs and now found her mother’s sitting room door shut. She’d been taught that a noisy knock was rude; a jaunty one impertinent. Lightly, she rapped with her knuckles twice, entered, took her seat on a skirted footstool that her mother had placed for her, and found her chin at the level of the writing desk. She offered suggestions that 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 men and four women 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. Or not. 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.” Mother 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 at last, 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…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 don’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!”
Élucide waited. But having created suspense, 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.”
She thought her mother had had this admonition in mind, more her purpose than indecision over the seating of her guests. What was it, then, about poor Cousin Thomas’s illness? Something unpleasant. She wished her mother would tell.
“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 why, she asked herself.
“I don’t think he wanted me to make conversation. He wasn’t feeling well, was he?”
This was a point.
“Well,” her mother said, “that’s a fair excuse.” Not a good excuse. And in proof she’d taken the point, she 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 oneself, from too much walking outdoors; but then, one mustn’t be lethargic, sitting all day in one’s room. Élucide never doubted that her parents worried over her infirmity…that they sought answers with a good will. Only it seemed their interventions placed her at fault.
A minute passed. They might have finished. Élucide 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 a schoolmate of Papa, 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; by the unexpected arrival of Jerome and Ebrach, a degree of scrounging was called for. 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 Mr. 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 Cousin Thomas 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.”
Today, 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”―abandoned caution, sat up, and stared at Dr. Horace.
“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, lifting her eyes. Dr. Horace had his ear cocked to the right, in the direction of Mr. Ebrach. Ebrach, 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 Horace 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 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 gon 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 eye, 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, Élucide 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 have captured 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 to learn 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 an audience. 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,” he turned to Horace, “what you wish to know…I will tell you that her English is poor. But, madame”―Jerome turned again to Mrs. Horace; and in the earnestness of his argument, seemed not to notice his cuff resting now over his buttered asparagus―“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 had moved to the right of Jerome’s chair; he spoke softly, as though for Jerome’s ears only, but his reminder served for the table. All of them sat back from their plates.
“No, monsieur, certainly, thank you.” Jerome lifted his and offered it to Robert; and Robert, a damp napkin concealed already behind his back, brought his hand forward and dabbed at the cloth, as he leaned to take the plate, making the sprucing of Jerome’s place simultaneous with the clearing of it.
A space was made at the table’s head for the admiration and carving of the birds. Papa rose from his chair. He accepted from Robert his fat-bladed knife and horn-handled fork, and bent over the first capon to slice the skin. They were laid breast-side up, their cavities stuffed with onions and oysters, their legs aligned to square the curve of the silver gravy boat at the platter’s center. They numbered four―with nine dining, this made not quite a half chicken each. Heaped round the platter’s perimeter was a mix of boiled potatoes, squash, and beets, shining with butter and dotted with black pepper.
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.
Continued from “her mother’s eye”
“Mrs. McClurkin, by the way, wants to sit with us when we look over patterns.”
With the tavern-keeper’s son, Élucide would dance at her sister’s wedding. She would study her new brother-in-law at this close quarter, and learn whether her father had got him sized up. Owen had round, amiable features, and Élucide liked his looks well enough. He was not her sister’s knight. They had not, in point of fact, seen much of him these late months; not since the threat of Ranilde’s running off to Kentucky with Owen had been put to rest by her 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 about 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, then disappeared until they were 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, Callum McClurkin did business with Hopper―but no one called the Greenway Inn disrespectable. It was only isolated, almost on the county’s border. The inn had once been a stop on the old stage route, its traffic falling away with the rise of the rails. The Greenway served the county as a polling place still; 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.
“Lawrence, won’t you give me a dance?”
But this was silliness. Of course the Everards were not invited, nor Sanderson. She saw Mr. Ebrach’s warm eyes watching her, and because she was smiling already as she looked up and across at him, Élucide appeared to have exchanged something with Ebrach, 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?”
Ebrach’s 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 absent minded; 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 re-crossed; 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. Her mother did not miss it.
“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.”
Ebrach looked at her, his 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. 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 to 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 had been in calling the efficacy of prayer into question. This stroke had been given lightly.
Her father knew better than to add fuel to a growing antagonism between his guests. Élucide had done this herself, in a way. She had spoken out of turn to a male acquaintance, and in a voice that carried. She had given in to an wicked impulse. The result had been this line of talk. Her mother had not been wrong to fear Dr. Horace and Mr. Ebrach would prove ill-matched tablemates. Conciliatory words suggested themselves.
She thought, “No, I’m afraid, that’s all, that I’ve upset Papa.” She thought again. This was not entirely the truth. It was part of the truth.
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 had settled more comfortably at the Gremot table, or he preferred chicken to fish. He had picked the bones clean of meat, managed a good portion of potato, and pushed each wedge of beet to one side of his plate. Holding the table in suspense, Jerome held a silent colloquy with the remainder of his meal.
At length, he 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 the syrup, and resting in neat array against the rim of each footed bowl. The table’s period of silence was more concentrated. No course other than dessert was anticipated so much as the cheese. Coffee had been put on to brew, and the cake already uncovered on the sideboard…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 remained on his plate but a mix of bread 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. Jerome, when dining, tended to lean far over his plate. 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,” Élucide plunged in.
Ebrach had in some way taken her into his circle, where Jerome belonged already. 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 Élucide, but at her father. He went on: “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 answering his own argument, paused; and Élucide being his nominal partner in discourse, he lowered his chin, meeting her eye like a prompting schoolmaster.
“But,” she said, “they don’t really.”
She had startled her godfather. He thought that, perhaps—though her education scarcely permitted this—she disagreed on some point of theology. All Élucide’s theology came from Dr. Horace himself. All her early reading, before she’d got old enough to slip away 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, Miss Élucide…because they have not the discipline to perform what is in its own right an abandonment…an abandonment of self-interest…”
Dr. Horace weighed his words, this complication into which he’d wandered, and chose a shortcut.
“We need only obey His Word. 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 favor of an idol.”
Horace looked at the fingers of Jerome’s nervous right hand, as they caressed the silverwork of the spoon resting 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 Horace’s eye, and the threat of being called on to participate, relaxed. He hunched low over his plate, picked up his spoon, and thrust it between his lips. Ebrach’s contention, couched in allegory, seemed to stymie Horace.
There had been another truth, another facet that Élucide had searched to see. She saw it now. But Dr. Horace might see this as well…her face might show it. That she had become a partisan of Ebrach’s; that she wanted him to win.
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 can hardly 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.”
Horace considered this. “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. He appeared 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, perceiving a trial of his own, first crossed an arm over his belly, propped an elbow on his left hand, his chin on his 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 God explain himself to us more fully, he may do so. He may not.”
Horace dropped both hands to his knees. He 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 recall the two verses which precede thirteen, in the book and chapter Dr. Horace cited during the grace?”
“I think…I would not know them.”
Despite Ebrach’s patience, and the care he had taken to avoid anything peremptory in his tone, Jerome shrank from the table’s attention. Dr. Horace cast him a piercing glance; to Ebrach, he said:
“What Mr. Jerome understands of the Bible may not be…”
Jerome unfolded his arms. “Unless you read this verse to me…then I may say, yes, I know that.”
“Sir,” Ebrach said, “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 and stopped. Shrugging, as her mother would have reminded her, was unladylike and 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, then looked at his plate, and could not hide, any more than had Élucide earlier, 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 Dr. Horace 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 had followed its path with their eyes. Élucide’s father, at a right angle to the sideboard, did not turn his head. He beckoned over his shoulder, and Robert stepped from his post and bowed over the host’s chair, hands behind his back. But Papa’s tone was conversational, rather than 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 Dr. 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 no further than the head of the steps. She waited here, effaced until called on, standing where the bannister met the wall.
“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. Then, twisting her shoulders round, she tilted her head and spoke in an audible whisper. Mother bent as though to hear.
Now, aloud: “You had better have Sarah fetch Sanderson. I’d wash away, If I had more lemonade, anyhow.” 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 back side 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.”
Continued from “speak to Sanderson”
This 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; this sign proof, in Sanderson’s lore, 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, for his father’s sake 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.
The trio’s last visit had found Richard looking up to see Élucide, from her swing, stare down at him. He’d kicked at the walk with the toes of his boots, until Sanderson, grinning, said, “Go on, son.”
But meeting his relative, Sanderson’s jaw became set, his hand dropped to the hackles of the dog by his side, eyes of dog and man narrowing. “You go on, tell the squire,” he’d urged Richard a second time, and watched as Richard doubled his pace, off to knock at the French window. And opportunity having presented itself to be seized, Sanderson squinted as though the light were bad, and his relative invisible to him.
Winging two birds with one stone, he remarked to Lawrence:
“A man can’t call his time his own, if he ain’t the master.”
“But what’s the trouble?”
She’d asked it of Lawrence, who must today serve as conversational butt. But this was not the same as speaking to Sanderson.
“Miss Élucide, Sanderson seen a man named Tinker talkin 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 of the screened one, that wrapped the back corners of the house. Here, a morning glory trellis fastened between pillars from the foundation to the roof, half-hid the swing where Élucide liked to sit on nights when she could not sleep, or on days when the weather was fine…more particularly, on summer afternoons when a storm was brewing, most of all when Richard might be expected.
“Luce.” 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.”
Mother 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 never 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 was likely 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 Élucide’s 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 Mr. Ebrach and Mr. 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 that 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, Élucide found a diary. She held this to the window’s light, saw nothing bulge between its pages. And even for having touched her mother’s diary, having moved it from its place, she felt uncomfortably accused. She put it away, and closed every drawer.
At the bedchamber’s threshold, she put her head round, and saw Geneva punching a cushion.
“Geneva, Mother wants a list of names, from Miss Towson.”
Geneva snugged the cushion in a corner of the armchair, patted its tufted center; then edged round the bed, straightening the covers.
“Miss, she keeps all her papers in the other room.”
“She wouldn’t have it tucked in the Bible, do you think?”
“No, miss. Let me come out and look.”
With a drop of the chin and a sidestep, these motions serving as permission to shoulder past Élucide and walk ahead of her, Geneva made for the sitting room door. Élucide lingered at the foot of the bed…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―Élucide 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 having 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 nothin but baby things in there, miss.”
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 once more the steps that led 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, Dr. Horace and Mr. Ebrach were not fighting.
The men had retired to the library; their voices, and a drift of their cigar smoke, came from beyond the hall, beyond the dining room. But closer, Élucide heard her mother say her sister’s name, in a cautioning tone. Ranilde’s answer: “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 of them facing the sofa, Ranilde away from them, arms crossed. Here, on the seat, were laid samples of lace—their mother’s insistent old-fashioned crochet, for one, bundled and fastened by an end pulled through. Mother had a good stock of old lace, picked off by Geneva from discarded things, here seeming only to lend a peasant, homespun contrast to the airy filament of that imported from Bruges; that which Ranilde, and Élucide, favored. But this, Mrs. Metz had warned, “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. That 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 find 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 to the doorway. “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.”
Mrs. Horace’s whisper, on the screened porch, had sounded to Élucide like: “What about that sick headache?” That intelligence sought in aid of the plan they’d hatched in her absence. And why ought Élucide 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 Fannie. She’ll most likely give it to Edith.”
This object, so making itself bothersome, named those who’d bought tickets last year to the Temperance Fellows’ autumn bazaar, checked off and designated (she had sketched in a legend at the bottom) by symbols of Miss Towson’s…members not yet approached, others 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.
And Mrs. Horace’s remark had been a bit of humor.
Fannie Rutherford was a second wife, less than ten years her stepdaughter’s senior; Edith around twenty-five. They were Mr. Rutherford’s “two young ladies”—his quip repeated on most occasions, whether or not he guessed that it pleased Fannie and insulted Edith. Fannie had diagnosed herself “dropsical”; she would have no doctor contradict her. Élucide had never seen Fannie ill; she had never seen Fannie’s ankles swell…and, though curious to know if this was as disfiguring as it sounded, could learn nothing from Edith.
Mr. Rutherford’s daughter tended to shrug angrily at the mention of his wife’s infirmity. Fannie was asked to do no work at the hotel, at the store, at the telegraph office, or for the new Vanguard. Edith simmered when Fannie begged her, with light insinuation (“Edith, you know how to make things work…you were born that way, I guess”), to take charge of the larder and the servants. Edith chafed against spinsterhood, bridled when Fannie called her a “sturdy girl”.
“She colors herself far stupider than she needs to.”
Telling the story to Ranilde, Edith had twitched her shoulders. “Hmm. But I suppose no one knows how to measure a thing like that.” She traded a grim little smile for Ranilde’s giggle. “Fannie says to me, ‘Edith, I can’t manage’. Really! As though I had ever come to know anything without learning it first!”
“She’ll fit in just fine…there’s not too much of her.”
Hoisted by Dr. Horace, who’d clambered up ahead for that reason, Élucide was squeezed between her godparents. Their buggy was made for two passengers. Mrs. Horace patted the seat. “Set her down there, Gus, right in the middle.”
Once Élucide pushed herself all the way back, so that only her toes touched the floor, Mrs. Horace sat as well, working herself into the right-hand corner. She took Élucide by the hand, and lifted both theirs together, signaling to Mother and Papa a sort of triumph over no particular adversity.
Sanderson, being a man who could not stand at ease, had got a brush from under the dash, and began to raise a cloud of dust and hair 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.” Élucide muttered 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. She wished her mother permitted her 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 billows of feathers…) 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, Élucide set aside. She thought again of headaches, as Dr. Horace wedged himself in on her left. “Only once or twice a week. I have spells, I mean.”
She closed her mouth. Dr. Horace had something to say, and he―as she did not―had her mother’s attention.
“Fern, Walter, the dinner, to employ a saying of your cousin Jerome’s…” (Papa chuckled) “…was excellent. Virginia and I very much appreciate your thinking of us…” He paused. Lightning had split the clouds, coming simultaneous to a crack and a boom. The peal rattled the windows of the house; it seemed to have shaken the earth…and faded, as a gust of wind rose behind it, 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 bounced forward, shooing him. She raised her voice to include everyone. “With this heat, we can use a little rain!”
Élucide, lagging, answered her godmother, “No”; and again, stopped herself saying more, as Mrs. Horace gave her an absent glance, and Sanderson walked round the buggy.
“Reverend, I’ll put the top up.”
“Yes, you had better.”
Robert, standing by to pull the wheel chocks, stepped forward and circled the opposite way, helping Sanderson raise the buggy’s cover, fastening it on Mrs. Horace’s side.
She had been unable to sleep past dawn; she felt only half-awake now.
Élucide rubbed grit from her eyes and stifled a yawn, propping an elbow on the Horaces’ breakfast table. She peeled apart layers of biscuit, spooned over these her coddled egg, dropped on a dollop of orange marmalade, and mushed all together with the back of her fork. Dr. Horace added milk to his hot cider.
He sipped, cast a sideways nod at Mrs. Horace, and said, “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. She had not been aware, in her childhood years, 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; but that, on the contrary, its calming effect and sharpening of the mind were a boon, both to labor and domestic life, its use tending overall towards preventing such tragedies. Dr. Horace disagreed…but settled, in the houses of his friends, for abstention.
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 she had not yet been given. The letter-form’s creator (such exactitude suggested Miss Towson) had sketched in a pilcrow below the greeting, indicating the start of the body:
¶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.
The letter closed:
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 a slanting ray of light, this glared from its surface, and the names written there grew legible as she tilted it forward and up. Élucide bent, penned in “Mrs. Carpenter,” stopped, and sat back.
“Let me think.”
Mrs. Horace thought.
“I hope this letter finds you well, will do for Mrs. Carpenter.” She laid the paper down, and with a pencil, crossed Mrs. Carpenter off. Then she clucked, and said, “Oh, but Sarah is the one gets that airysisipus flaring up in the summertime. That’s a question…” Élucide had written the words already. She listened, while her godmother debated Mrs. Carpenter’s feelings.
“Comma,” Mrs. Horace decided, “…and that this hot weather has not been too trying for you.”
Working in start-stop fashion, her godmother’s memory needing to be sieved for those personal tidbits represented by the template’s blank opener, Élucide had helped to write three letters before the Horaces’ early bedtime. She had dozed under a stuffy comforter, in a room once hers and Ranilde’s, for what seemed an hour or two. She’d woken in darkness, without even the chime of a clock to tell the time. She’d overlooked the possibility of missing Ebrach. Mother had never told Élucide when he meant to leave, and might not herself know…Ebrach’s plans seemed to depend on Jerome’s.
Élucide felt this morning that she’d waited out the night’s remains without a wink.
The day was muggy, its heat unrelieved by rain. None had fallen, after the storm’s bluster chased them to Cookesville. Yet they would walk after breakfast to the Rutherfords’, the Horaces escorting Élucide along Lincoln, across Market and up Main, turning when they came to Second, making their way two blocks further up a gentle incline to the Rutherfords’ gate, at the corner of Second and Arcadia. The house was somewhat smaller than the Columbia Hotel; like the Columbia it was solid and stone-built, from the ground to the first story. The second and third stories 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, the palm of his hand caressing the nose of his favored white horse. Élucide saw Ziegler grab the brim of his hat, haul himself up straight. These mannerisms were Ziegler’s humor. He hiked his hands up the reins, shortening the slack, and yelled out, “Steady, steady, you malefactors!” His team ambled to a slow halt, and Ziegler, as he dealt out this fancy word, winked at Élucide.
“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.
“After them thunderheads come up, we never seen a drop of rain down along the river.”
Ziegler carried six day laborers in his wagon. They sat on four coffin-sized wooden crates; these had been shipped from an upstate nursery. The name, Briggs Fancy Varieties, was lettered in black and red on the sides.
Richard sat next to Ziegler.
He’d ridden in to sign the bill of lading; to make certain the men who waited at the livery stable were the same six he’d hired the day before, that there were no more and no fewer.
“And that mud slick down by Tranquility Creek…?”
“I been up and down through there.”
Rutherford had learned to interpret Ziegler. The road was clear. He called, over the backs of Queen and her stablemate, Duchess, to Richard. “Everard! Your father means to get that orchard planted before the weather turns?”
It pleased Élucide, Mr. Rutherford’s jollity. Not the shaded jibe—if it had been such—at Richard’s father, but that Richard was forced now to turn his head. He’d sat on the street side, shoulders hunched 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 preferred to do his own driving, had his horses headed opposite. He would take his young ladies along Second to Main, where they would join the morning’s carriage traffic, circle the downtown square and pass the city park. As they edged by others’ equipage, and strollers along the sidewalks, Rutherford, Fannie, Edith, and Élucide, would wave greetings to friends…in the businessman’s case, to customers; in Élucide’s, to constituents, for she, although small of stature, and a Gremot rarely seen by the county’s voters, today represented her father.
Richard tilted back, searching for Rutherford, who nodded and grinned, the grin broadening as Richard looked away fast. On meeting Élucide’s smile―the rock to Rutherford’s hard place―he’d flushed, and at last fixed his eyes on his own fingernails. Fannie, her view obscured by the driver’s perch, craned round, leaned to see her husband, broke into a giggle as though the sum of these confused exchanges equaled a richer entertainment than the parts.
Richard looked angry. Rutherford prompted him, repeating the gist of his question.
“Those fruit trees, Everard…before the weather turns.”
“Yes sir. My father wants those trees staked in. Before the weather turns.”
His tone was short, and taken with his manner, aloof, seemed the next thing to open discourtesy. The laborers’ shoulders drew tight; they shuffled their boots on the wagon bed. Three sat with their backs to the carriage. Two who faced the women were steadfast in keeping their eyes down, but one…a man with lank, dark hair, and brown, sun-weathered skin…clasped his hands over his knees, and angled his face to peer up at Fannie Rutherford.
Ziegler picked up his 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. He had treated Richard 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 purchased. Papa said Rutherford, by making a gift of such things to his friends, was also doing business. The Gremots had served Rutherford’s Stilton to Mr. Ebrach yesterday, and to their cousin Jerome—though Ebrach seemed the likelier convert.
“My buyer’s import man says those dates got no alcohol. Take a month or two maturing…just evaporates off.”
Mother said to Fannie: “Thank you, dear. You and George are so kind.”
And without a word, Sarah, handed the basket, carried it off, up the steps of the carriageway entry.
“I’ve kept myself very quiet, Fern.”
“You look well, dear. Your hair…”
Fannie was given to bobbing towards others, patting their arms to stop them speaking, thus 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…”
“Élucide 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 Élucide’s 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.”
Fannie, lifting her heels, and tipping on her toes, reached up from stairs to porch as though she plucked an orange blossom from a low hanging branch. She playfully tugged at a sausage curl. “Now, blue is a bad color near the face. Unless you’re very rosy.” This musingly; the thought, as it might have been, having just bubbled up. Fannie added, “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. However―
Continued from “However―”
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. She’d seen, for one, Sarah Carpenter. The Carpenter buggy had nearly passed Rutherford’s landau, when Élucide, remembering Mrs. Horace’s information, stood up and braced her feet, calves pressed against the seat front, one hand on its back to balance herself. She’d twisted, straining to see Mrs. Carpenter’s face. Her eye caught by this motion, Mrs. Carpenter had taken a tight two-handed grip on her buggy’s folded down cover, heaved herself against this, and looked behind. Her face was veiled under a swath of netting wrapped around the crown of her hat and tucked from the wind under the collar of her dress. But the raised skin, 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?” Ranilde sounded as though Élucide, in quoting Callum, should be held to account; not, she supposed, for his insult to her 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.
“Edith, you had better come in and meet Mr. Ebrach.”
“We’ll all go in now.” Mother put an arm round Fannie’s waist, just hovering above the bustle on her plum-colored skirt, not touching. She tapped Fannie’s elbow, and stepped away.
“I have met Mr. Ebrach, Nildie.” Edith pitched these words to her stepmother, and 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…” Her father’s voice was not rich and thrumming like Ebrach’s; it was steely and carrying, a cantering horse’s shoe striking brick.
Rutherford glanced up, saw his wife in belle-like hesitation at the foot of the steps, but gave his attention once more to Papa, and listened until he’d finished doling advice.
“…he’ll run an advertisement for the Vanguard, and 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 corner of the house, he had not. Lawrence had put his head into view, coming 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 Lawrence 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 Élucide need not sneak along, concealing her movements. Strolling up this way wasn’t an odd thing to do, if anyone―Cousin Thomas perhaps―were to peer out, and wonder where she was going. 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. Once she was in his view, he quit walking 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?”
“I don’t carry no fish in a sack.”
His scorn was intimate; Lawrence unbending towards her, to the extent of treating Élucide as he might Richard. “Catfish meat get poison, if he dies scared.” He added: “Catfish’ll live a day outside water. No,” Lawrence 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 his 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.” He’d shaken his head, jerking it to one side, hearing her say Richard’s name. “Why’s that? Your daddy wantin to know somethin?”
“No!” Now Lawrence was being foolish. “If Papa wanted something, he would call Richard to come up, or else…”
She’d 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 had settled, as she’d 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, “beady-eyed”, 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 lookin 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.
“I don’t know,” she said.
It was Mr. Rutherford, walking round the house, exuding 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?”
Élucide 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 the book 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.
(Papa, poised in a half-sit: “Rutherford, will you do us the honor of saying grace?”
And with that grandiloquence Papa’s friends affected for their wryest humor: “It is my wish, sir, to concede my place to Miss Élucide.”)
Micah…she knew this―had been an Everard, the brother who’d died in the war. She’d 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 forefront of her memory…justly, mercy, humbly.
As Dr. Horace might have done, she added, “Micah, chapter six, verse eight.” And fell silent.
Softly: “You ask, Luce, that He bless our table and our guests.”
“And… ” She would need to say this. “Heavenly Father, please bless our table and our guests, amen.” A laugh from Rutherford and Walter.
Papa echoed, “Amen,” a beat ahead of the others.
The Rutherfords had given Mother an extra woman; today, no fretting over what to do with Ebrach. She’d 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 from Rutherford’s, an American cheese from Pennsylvania, and the brandied dates. Cousin Thomas, as Élucide, seated beside him, must observe, hunkered over his plate, often using hands 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 her cousin’s 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…I guess you can’t really patch silk, to make it pretty, if you get a tear in it.”
“Well, silk is fancy, anyhow. But you’ll need something good for the theater…”
“Oh, but it’s a shame!” Fannie cut across her stepdaughter’s words, and Edith drew back in her chair, lacing her fingers and dropping her hands onto 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 those streaks where the dye doesn’t take. You ought, though,” here Fannie’s eyes left Ranilde’s and found Mother’s, seeking agreement, “to hold back a yard or so, in case you want turn-up cuffs.”
Fannie raised her own sleeve, and played her fingers about in the air, pantomiming her design. “Buttons, you see, like that.”
Ebrach had been quiet, speaking only to offer his admiration for the ham and the cauliflower—“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, Mr. Ebrach.” Mother, preoccupied, grew conscious of her words. “That is…I will, if you like, ask her what she does with it.”
Ranilde said, “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, Élucide’s sister explained. Owen couldn’t come out to the house very often, just now. Ranilde shifted away from Fannie as she spoke, her last comments addressed to Edith, her friend. 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 she meant―not to speak of money―that Papa would pay for her honeymoon. Fannie was leaning 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.
“I’d say it depends more on Owen. He might have to ask the boss for a whole month’s leave.” Papa nodded to Rutherford. Rutherford grinned. Nachfolger’s plan to put Owen behind the counter with Edith had been pushed ahead in the library.
Edith said, tapping her tablemate’s shoulder: “Mr. Ebrach, Owen’s father will ride to New York on the train with them!”
“No!” Ranilde swallowed, and waved the bitten half of her biscuit. “He won’t be with us 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. Her husband’s lips were compressed.
“Because, George, I think about that poor girl…”
“Fan, you had better not.”
Admonishment was, of course, an invitation to argument…if Mr. Rutherford had not known this.
“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, or appear to be picturing it; and Élucide asked herself if Fannie had just told Edith she would never be married. Fannie, secure now in holding the floor, carried on without tact, patent in having been reminded by one tragedy of another. She raised both hands and clasped them together, making an energetic swing towards Ebrach.
“Mr. 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 when she had searched out and spoken with Lawrence. Her mother had another rule: “If you do not feel yourself to be in the wrong, repeating gossip, then you have no reason not to ask permission to do so.”
Ebrach’s face looked quite composed. He allowed a lapse of 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.”
“Isn’t it awful, Mr. Ebrach!” Fannie plowed through a harvest of raised eyebrows. “I suppose, though, being you’re a medium, you have tried to call…” She flapped a hand. “Well, that one…back from the dead…to learn how he came to drown.”
Élucide pressed her napkin to her lips. The earnest expression made her think of a foolish joke…of Rutherford’s pulling up the reins, slowing his carriage alongside the McClurkins’ gig.
“McClurkin. How do you do?”
“Rutherford.” Callum lifted his hat above his scalp, letting it fall into place, a comic effect. “It’s the squire’s daughter you’re ferrying today.”
Rutherford cleared his throat. Here a bon mot was called for…one he hadn’t yet coined…and Michael McClurkin got in first.
“Miss Élucide, you’ll want to tell this to your father. An Englishman, strolling the deck of his pleasure yacht, peers across the rail; and there, milord spies his first mate, paddling in the brine. Why, Mr. O’Malley, says he, how did you come to fall overboard?”
Over the hem of her napkin she caught Ebrach’s eye, shaking her head and shrugging, a clumsy apology for having seemed to giggle at a drowned man. She lowered her hands and her gaze to her lap. Mother’s posture was stick-straight.
“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 had seemingly been omitted from the narrative as she’d heard it. 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…closed my ears. And though he reached and wished to draw me to the surface, his hands were cold then. But I walk. 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 at 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, after 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 as Papa came from the library. (At his desk, Papa could always hear traffic on the carriageway.) Ziegler slipped a hand inside his shirt placket, and out, safe and dry, came 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 must 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 cut himself off, and waggling his straw hat, nodded. “You go on read that letter. I might know a thing or two, whatever Mr. Ebrach don’t explain.”
Papa now read 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 of which Papa had read, and that Ziegler knew already, drew them closer; Ranilde and Élucide following Mother, each listener inching into the hallway, then slowing to a halt, until an inner and an outer circle had formed. Mother stood behind Papa on his right, Ziegler on 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, a hand on the molding of the arch that let into the dining room. Robert, coming in 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 a day, Miss Gremot.” Ziegler gave Ranilde a brief glance. He gave the rest of his information to Papa. “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.” He pointed again with his hat, and Papa scanned Ebrach’s letter, finding the place.
“He says: ‘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 had 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’ equal in compassion and generosity, the trap had been 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 was, until the following morning, silence. It was his habit to pick up the latest Beacon when he went to town, and carry it home.
For a day, he’d held onto it.
Never before had Papa set foot in the back parlor after breakfast. He let the paper drop from his hand, onto Mother’s sewing table. “Has got his name in the Beacon.”
None of them made a grab for it, not until Papa, having said only that, turned on his heel and left the room.
From her cushion on the floor, where she knelt at the task of lettering place-cards, Élucide put forward a stealthy hand.
“Mother, what does it say?” Ranilde, stitching a monogram for her trousseau, drove her needle into the linen, laid her work on the arm of her chair; then tapped the paper three times, claiming it with an index finger, pulling it towards herself incrementally.
Mother’s eyes stayed fixed on her own stitching.
“Nildie, I don’t know anything about it.”
Papa looked at the Beacon, that publication that vaunted his political enemies’ perspective, 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; 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 Beacon’s rendition of the Examiner’s correspondent’s story:
“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 the 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, child-like 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:
Continued from “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 astonished 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 Tranquility Twp. Mr. Ebrach is a professional medium.
Papa was always finding the last straw, the reason he would fire Mr. Everard this time…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’d 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.
“Everard’s 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 he is 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, and 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 as she walked, and had seemed to Élucide at the age of seven, very old. But Élucide had 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, Miz 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 then exchanging a pregnant glance). Verbena would call after her sons, and Richard, if not plausibly out of earshot, might tramp back, sometimes followed by Lawrence. Sometimes not. Verbena would herd him indoors.
“You come in say hello…Miz Towson and Miz 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 a rebuke; it was an embarrassment, but not an explanation. And Micah was dead after all. Élucide hadn’t, for a year or two, guessed it. Mother was frank in referring to Grandmother and Grandfather Armour, gone to Heaven; 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.
But she loved Verbena.
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 with purpose) through the grass and into the pine straw, where the air until deep summer remained a chill breath, under the evergreen canopy that never let in sunlight. She looked over 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, and made a lunge for a black kitten, one who scurried with his littermates for the gap under the exposed log of the old cabin. She snuggled him against her smock; he crawled under the crook of her chin, coaxed into a rattling purr. The others, black, tortoiseshell, and ginger-colored, reversed course, Verbena, their benefactress, coming round the porch with table scraps, drawing every cat and kitten from its hiding place.
“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 fire Everard like I ought to. Not ’til I find a man to fill his shoes.” He’d exhaled with derision, hearing the expression as he said it. “Fill em! 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 the southern farmers 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. Everard’ll take two hours in a morning to walk up the road, sit for another couple on Sanderson’s porch listening to Sanderson talk about the bank stealing his land. I can’t have to do with it, Everard’s ways of getting by. The son, now…”
Richard’s father got by, by the employing of his son. And so Papa had made himself think of it, this next point. That was all.
“…just doesn’t have enough natural humility.”
She’d laid down her book and looked across at her father.
“I mean, to take what he’s given and give a little more. That’s what any man with any kind of 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. And it was Sanderson’s property Hopper crossed and re-crossed on his way to and from Cookesville. Hopper and his boat were a condemnation against Sanderson. He should have been keeping Hopper off.
And if ever Sanderson were arrested (“Which could happen,” Papa said), the discredit of it would fall as well 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 talking to a neighbor.”
But now he, 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 had been Walter. Fannie cut him short. “Do they only haunt the place they die?”
Mother, at normal times conspicuously the table’s exemplar of etiquette, interrupted Fannie. “And what, as a physician…”
Élucide bowed out of contention. She 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, able to see only margins of light―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 the gift, be a medium herself―attuned, as Ebrach was.
Ysonde brought the lemon pudding upstairs; Robert began slicing it hot at the sideboard, drowning the steam with a cream sauce. Without asking whether Jerome wished it, he had taken away the empty milk glass, and replaced it full. Jerome had not, until today, touched this that Mother at every meal ordered for him…milk being said to build strength in consumptives, and his appetite otherwise so poor.
Throughout dinner, they’d taken turns glancing at each other; he also, perhaps, toying with some social observation that, like Élucide, he hadn’t found the courage to make. 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. His hand, for a moment, seemed to waver. But he stuffed it in his pocket, brought the hand out empty, and used both to reach for the milk. He then sat back in his chair and bent so low over his glass that he appeared to bury his face there.
She chanced it. She had started rehearsing these words in her mind an hour since. “Are there very many Gremots in New Orleans?”
He lifted his chin, and she saw his eyes were 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 paused, and here looked sideways at Ebrach. “But these cousins are called Jerome…”
“Oh! I’m sorry! I remember.”
And Ebrach, though savoring his pudding, had borne his topic in mind. He had been asked three questions. He began with the first.
“Walter, you wish to know…in essence…you must correct me if I’ve got 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, Élucide thought, had had some wise remark 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, and looked down the table. “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,” Mother said, “that one of the drowned had possessed Mr. Hawkins, and spoke through him.”
There was nothing accusatory here; only a level disbelief. Ebrach sat upright against his chair back, 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 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 Mr. Rutherford took part.
“Well, then, Ebrach. 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 crooked an elbow, and 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,” Ebrach said, “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 had misunderstood Ebrach’s words on purpose. He had only turned them around. Papa would have caught this in an instant…Mr. Ebrach must certainly have. Yet Élucide’s father sat and smiled at their banter; a host who would not take sides among his guests.
Quietly: “Mr. Jerome.”
She waited. 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 so. People could be, in strange ways, connected to one another. Well, then. Her mouth twitched at the corner. 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. “Hello, 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 appeared 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 that her father sat next to her. Jerome stopped her as well. His 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.
Fannie again half-rose to catch her husband’s eye. “Indianapolis is not so far I can’t manage.”
Mr. Rutherford said, “Um.”
“Mr. Ebrach will give us one of his séances. Not that I know anyone. Well, I don’t mean know. But, I won’t mind, George, 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.
Jerome, his voice low, surprised Élucide with an answer. “No, mademoiselle. No, I think I would remember the name. And I have heard it now, to my…astonishment.” The emphasis was directed across the table, at Ebrach.
The nature of her affront was not clear to Élucide, but she’d got onto a miry subject. After two ticks of the clock Jerome spoke again, his voice not much above a whisper. “I apologize, mademoiselle.”
“George! Well, never mind. Mr. Jerome!” Fannie raised her voice. She rested fingers on Ebrach’s wrist, and craned her neck. Mr. Rutherford popped his fork into his mouth. Jerome lifted to Fannie a face steeped in misery.
She let her own betray a startled dismay.
From the time Fannie had taken her seat next to Ebrach, she had barely glanced across the table. “Mr. Jerome, George and I, that is…no.” Rejecting this, she flicked her fingers. But her mind, in back of the stumbling words, had been at work. “George and I will be so pleased, Mr. Jerome, if you will come visit us at the weekend.”
“Mrs. Rutherford, I am leaving tomorrow.”
Jerome spoke to Ebrach. He then looked to the table’s foot. 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.”
Spotting opportunity, Élucide’s father threw out 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 up the table. Ebrach cut in.
“These humors are brought on by his illness. Mr. and Mrs. Gremot, I beg your forbearance. Jerome, you surprise me. I thought you had said you had no plans.”
This, with an irritable glance, Jerome contradicted. “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 had been remained an enigma. Ebrach, standing, murmuring an apology to Mother, had gone 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 with clarity what it is you hope to impart.” And then, for everyone’s benefit: “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. It had been the name Sartain that exposed the fault Mother had 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. She had bungled this somehow.
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 signal of Papa’s, the dinner ended. Mother rose, Ranilde and Élucide rose after her, Edith and Fannie rose, and all followed Mother to the screened porch. For Élucide, Fannie provided a kind of shield. She was talking already, enamored of her Saturday affair, and pursuing it, even though Ebrach was unlikely to stay if Jerome would not. But Fannie’s vision had grown to a salon, an actual discourse on spiritualism; and she knew how to overcome that setback.
“I am going to ask Verbena Everard. George can just drive me over, when we start back for town. I don’t see why Verbena 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. Behind her Sarah scudded, and sloshed a little, with the coffee tray.
“Oh! I nearly run you down, miss!”
“Mother.” Élucide took a breath.
“Luce! Don’t you look pale!”
Edith said this; 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 Élucide some ice, please.”
She thanked Edith, not aloud but inside herself, for sparing her the necessity of putting on an act, which trial avoided was to Élucide 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 Élucide 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, and Élucide, informed of this by the landing clock, paused to look out the window. She heard a male voice, indistinct―it might have come from the dining room below. She put her knee on the windowsill, hiked up her other knee, and glimpsed Robert, just as he veered wide to pass the juniper bushes outside the bay window. He had his son with him.
Isa sprang ahead with a leap in the air, broke into a run, stopped when Robert called out, then walked 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.
And to see them, Élucide had pressed her ear against the glass.
She slipped back to the rug, hearing Sarah’s breathing, and waited, hands clasped at her waist. Shoes rapped a rhythm on the uncarpeted edge of two or three steps, then drummed the center of the runner half a dozen times more.
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 at once, and her mouth tightened.
“Sarah, thank you, I don’t need anything else.”
This was brusque, Élucide thought, but she’d hoped, while the ice bag changed from Sarah’s hands to her own, to dispense with the next question.
But still puffing, Sarah spoke again, clipping Élucide on “else”.
“Miss, I got nine things to do at one time! I brought you what your mother said.”
They scurried apart; Sarah down the stairs, and Élucide, after swiping at the glass with her sleeve, up.
She stood silent on the hall runner, then began to tip-toe, coaching herself. She need only, if caught, make a convincing excuse. 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 the proof…ironclad proof for a feather-light dispute (though she could not imagine Jerome disputing this). Élucide crept past her own room. She was grateful for Sarah, so anxious she might have taken longer than she ought, and that Mother, entertaining guests, might need her, she had not wanted to 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 seen Ebrach in the downstairs hall or crossed him on the landing, he must remain in Jerome’s room. She doubted she could have missed him.
Stopping, cocking an ear, she listened, moving forward. Ebrach’s voice came to her, not in words, but in beats that grew louder, culminating in audible speech, just as Élucide reached for the knob.
The door swung open, and she felt a small displacement of air. 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 telling her: “Wait a moment.” Ebrach stepped into the room. She could hear distinctly his end of the exchange. “Well, Jerome, you must try the treatment. If you find it gives no relief, or if you feel chilled, then you will have the sense to lay the ice bag aside.”
Of course. She’d had it in her hand; this had been Ebrach’s interpretation. Now he stepped into the hall, revealing in his wake, Jerome.
“Pour vous, monsieur.”
That―exercising her French―had been yielding to a rather disrespectable whim. He might find her pert. But Jerome said, “Mademoiselle, vous êtes très gentille. Je vous remercie.”
He accepted with his right hand her unintended offering, and with his left, caught hers before she had withdrawn it, bowed over and kissed it lightly, releasing her fingers as he retreated. He then closed his door.
Continued from “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 Ebrach would think it of her, that she said nothing in denial. 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 Mr. Hawkins had been afflicted.
She passed her room again, and her feet slowed. The impulse was a prompt, once made conscious, no longer wanted. She’d planned to toss the ice bag on her pillow. Ebrach also stopped, and looked at the closed door, as Élucide looked.
She was embarrassed, telling him this. But he walked ahead, speaking only of his companion. “Jerome does suffer pain. You discerned this, for of course, you are more than usually aware of such things. His back troubles him very much, though he will not say so. These complications occur in the consumptive, as the disease advances. Jerome does not take sufficient exercise. A weakness that goes uncorrected must breed greater weakness.”
And having begun with these words, Élucide groped for any reasonable mitigation…certainly, Jerome made an easy houseguest. He had asked for nothing in preference to his illness. He kept to himself. He 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 own clothes, behaving like guests themselves. But on the other hand―her father had remarked on this―Jerome traveled without a servant. The two notions had arisen in tandem. She saw a means of approach to what she’d come for.
“Mr. Ebrach, why did Mr. Jerome want to travel so far by himself? What does he want to say to Papa?”
They were at the top of the stairs. Ebrach put a hand on the bannister, with the sweep of an open palm encouraging her to descend first. Her 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, and 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 Élucide had dreamed of a secret more compelling. If she were truthful with herself, she knew she’d hoped 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 he owed to no man 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’ll 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, that right, miss?”―did not really kid, light-hearted, 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 that 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 the lower lip upwards, and stretching just one corner of the mouth. He was ironic. He seemed to take pleasure in Élucide’s steady gaze.
“No. As you of course suppose, they won’t.” He nodded, confirmed in what she had not said. “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 Ebrach to have spoken with Élucide in private. And Ebrach, though he wasn’t to blame, had roiled the waters. He had put himself in the middle of an uncomplicated plan. She’d feigned feeling ill, and this 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 hear…a hoot of mirthless laughter from Edith. Mother spoke. She either had responded to Edith, or ignored her and changed the subject. With no words, only tone and rhythm by which to measure, Élucide thought her mother’s voice sounded flat, corrective like a school marm’s. She wondered if Ebrach stood with an ear pricked, thinking to wait until her breathing and the click of her heels on the hall’s 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 for them, grew more intelligible. Élucide’s posture was arrested, her hands out and palms flat, as though if startled, she could fly.
“Those two…” Rutherford said. He added something that Élucide puzzled over, and during her instant of inattention, moved on. She heard him finish, “…always been a bad idea.”
Papa spoke: “The boys can take care of their mother.”
Everards again. His voice lowered. She heard: “…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 the truth, if she gave him the same story she’d given Mother, become knotted up, where two lies fell one after the other? Would they leave a small gap between, in which anything might be so?
But this was giving herself too much anxiety…too much weighing of these calculations; 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, resting her heels on a bench-seat, lacing her fingers round her ankles. A successful man’s portico, showing where the money was spent, had been Papa’s choice at the time the house was built. The back faced the road; the grand façade the circle where guests turned their carriages. Here three columns, under a mutual capital, niched out a hiding place, Élucide’s from childhood. She might sit undiscovered for an hour, invisible from any upstairs window. An hour was a plausible time to have been sick, and come to feel better.
And her father, after thus allowing the cost of construction to rise, 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 learned enough of Mr. Orthcutt’s business to distrust Mr. Orthcutt’s 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!”
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 sat down with. He was going to bring Mr. Sperling home, walk him around—leave him, then, in the hands of his foreman.
Papa would instruct Mr. Everard to explain how he did the work. Everard would be caught drunk, maybe…and that would be his most merciful way out of the ordeal. The story told 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, they added 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 in 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.
Élucide had 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 spend 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 had 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 had taught 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, suits 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, just 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, 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 from Ziegler’s horse. A minute passed, and he scrambled (his clothes no longer, for these adventures, presentable) over the rock, the outcropping that forced their drive’s 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 that topped 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! 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. He veered, pressing Élucide’s skirts as she passed the second door leading into the hall, then burrowed under 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’re not going to break up a gang like that. Hopper’s 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; he took a professional’s interest in Papa’s horses and vehicles. He liked seeing stalls kept in good order, clean and clean-smelling, tackle hung up as tackle ought to be.
Rutherford scratched his sideburn. Ebrach studied Rutherford’s face, then Papa’s. He’d glanced at Élucide, as Papa drew her to his side, and given her a gentleman’s nod, his judgment the perfection of social grace: how much, and how little, to acknowledge her.
Rutherford said, “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…” Ebrach stressed “personal”, eyes on Papa, then turned again to Ziegler.
“…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 straw hat; he too made the first part of his address 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. I 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 had come out to the circle at dawn, raising her father’s eyebrow. She felt as though the whole world moved, and she herself would never move. Her friendlessness, her dependency, seemed to her suddenly illuminated—she had never gone from her parents’ house on any errand of her own.
With beautiful apologies, Ebrach had 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 had, therefore, been put back an hour, the Gremots’ routine for a fourth day upended.
“Ah…no breakfast.” 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 onto the jump seat, Ebrach had 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 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 the morning room 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’d reached the foot of the staircase, she had been able to run to her room, light steps on the carpet unheard.
She’d seen it at once.
A piece of writing paper folded like a letter, extended from the book’s top and bottom, bumping its pages apart. Élucide closed the door behind her. Within a few paces, she could read the title, the scripted silver a challenge on its 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.
Continued from “read the spine again”
EBRACH. This, in block letters, was all else to be read on the cover; title and author embossed here alone. Élucide 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.
Mother wanted help with her letters. There would be a handful, 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 who would mind having missed Jerome. Like Cleome Towson, Polly Nachfolger 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, then 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 mid-day 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 man. 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, being 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, even the chewed ear captured); 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 un 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 un-doable. 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 point where a plate 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, its primitive stones engraved in black patched with white, depicting an eely surface. One of the hell-bound had been captured here―and would always be so―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 step-stool with her toe, and pulled it from beneath the bedspread. Had he written the poem? Was that the message? Balancing on the balls of her feet, and without taking her eyes from “Die Schönheit”, Élucide climbed, sat on the bed, and scooted back 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 under 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’s voice. 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 lived in Cookesville…1871 had been 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…”
Élucide 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; her 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 scooted forward, 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, 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
“Élucide! Come out at once!”
This time, 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. Élucide’s head was lowered, her mother’s posture upright. Though they were the same height, she looked over her daughter’s shoulder, eyes sweeping the room for contraband.
Then, her voice controlled, 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 (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.