A Figure from the Common Lot
Book One: 1870-1871
Chapter One: Cette Illusion de la Mortalité
Book Two: 1876
Chapter Two: Possente Spirto
The Eye of a Magpie
Leaf, sharp, continuing, under-hand
Wheeling gears, dying in prison
Is a low-rate postcard
Issued by the government
One follows, the other is drawn behind
The House of Gremot
He was disturbed by the breakfast.
He had two letters to compose, and had finished the first—a short note, really. After last evening, Honoré had seen nothing more of Verbena’s husband; they had not met, in a true sense, and Everard might not know who it was that thanked him. Everard had roused from his stupor, eyes moistly throwing back a fraction of lamplight, half-comprehension in the jerking of his head. He’d looked Honoré over as Ebrach walked him to the porch.
Ebrach, wishing, as Honoré thought, to study Everard, had slowed. Given his lead, he might have gone as far as speaking. Honoré had preferred he did not. Let there be one new acquaintance before whom Ebrach’s solicitude did not render him an imbecile. Drained by grief, and fearing that he must not wait to lie down, he had pulled away. And afterwards had reason to be afraid.
Under the name of Jerome, and on the authority of Ebrach, he had now entered the house of his relative. He addressed the envelope to both Everards, but the note only to Verbena. Honoré wanted her to be pleased. Had he, this morning, remembered the name of her son, he would have pleased her better, in writing the lie:
Mr. Ebrach has awakened for you this loved one’s spirit. I witnessed this myself.
Yet, he felt he would insult her to offer more than this letter of gratitude, and the wish—which he knew to be nonsense—that the Everards would visit the Jeromes in turn, when he had settled his own household.
He’d responded to Ebrach’s nudge, waking, sluggish, in a hot and unfamiliar room, disgusted that he smelled like a man who for days had not bathed; struggling, as always, to right himself.
“But we must return now to Cookesville, to the hotel…I have nothing here. I do not even know―”
He felt peevish, and spoke peevishly to Ebrach. He, at this hour, was full of bonhomie and cordiality. And when he had drawn the curtain open, casting daylight across the bed, and when Honoré had writhed clear of the blanket (with which he resented having been covered), Ebrach caught him by the wrists and examined the bruises, purple to the elbow, where Honoré’s bones had struck the wooden steps.
“Now, how do you account for that?”
“Why…it is not for me to say, Mr. Ebrach. Since you have made your arrangements.”
Ebrach had been awake long enough to shave and clothe himself. Honoré accepted his own shirt, aired to a mild fug, badly wrinkled withal, its stains dabbed at. Next, Ebrach handed him his trousers. He could not recall undressing, and knew he had folded nothing away. Ebrach produced in turn braces, socks, and shoes. Honoré spent tedious minutes under his guardian’s benign smile, buttoning, fastening, and buckling. Following Ebrach down the steps where he’d been consigned to the mercy of Richard the younger, Honoré was reminded, as his shirt dampened and his hair gathered dew, as one midge flew into his nostril and another his eye, that this room in which he’d spent the night was detached, after its fashion, from the main house.
Only Verbena waited. Ebrach had again shared his meal with the others while Honoré slept. And because he suspected her of digging into her larder for provisions she ought to have kept aside for her family, Honoré had eaten as much as he was able of sausage, eggs, fried potatoes, melon and sourmilk biscuits.
“You going to them on the hill today?”
A glow (he might…though he was not certain of such things…have called it maternal) warmed her eyes. Honoré, in a kind of agony at this mention of their engagement, threw down his fork at last, and turned to Ebrach, attempting for a second time what he had tried already to convey.
“But, sir, how…? Were we not an hour from Cookesville? No! I think longer than that. And Mr. Ziegler is not here!”
Ebrach sat by the window at the farthest reach of the bench, using his hat to fan himself. “Jerome, I believe you have an idea that you wish to return to Cookesville. But it won’t do. We will never have time to make such a journey, before our luncheon appointment with the Gremots.”
And in Ebrach’s manner there had not been sufficient innocence to disguise the fact… Inside himself, he laughed. This was merely insulting. But he went on. “The wagon I see coming up the way brings our luggage from the Columbia. I may be mistaken. However, I believe I recognize Mr. Ziegler. Madam.”
He laid his hat on the table and stood. Verbena, as with last night’s supper, and in an eddy of hovering, had both urged more food than Honoré could consume, and swept dishes away as he left them half-touched.
“I would consider it a very great kindness if you will allow me to borrow the bolster and pillow from the bedchamber where Mr. Jerome and I stayed the night. That is for Jerome’s sake, so that he may travel at ease in the back of the wagon.”
Here again, Ebrach painted a needless picture of wretchedness. Honoré looked up and forced a smile. Indignation had drawn his brows together, and his lips seemed to stretch only tentatively. He had meant to produce a face of wry insouciance, of the sort that suggests, “Eh, bien, what one endures.”
He saw her eyes fill. “You’uns take all you need, Mr. Ebrach.”
Yet the Gremot manor could be seen―not from here, where Honoré sat; nevertheless, he had only to step onto the porch. He might even walk such a distance. He became aware that he fidgeted, beset by an impulse to stand, to go out-of-doors and prove to himself he was right.
“What, sir?” He spread his hands. With the eye of a headmaster, Ebrach stood staring him down.
“Mr. Jerome, if I have your attention. I mean only to apologize to you. I could not have obtained your bag without paying your bill. I presumed, without knowing, that you would prefer to bathe and to change your clothes, before sitting at your cousin’s table. Now, sir…”
He raised a palm. “Matters of exchange are vulgar to me. In good time, you will settle your debt. We will not even call it so, but think of it, rather, as an opportunity. You assisted me last evening, and you may assist me again.”
They heard the sway of the wagon, the synchronous plod of Ziegler’s team, the familiar voice of Ziegler himself, calling, “Ho…ah!”
Honoré was left unconvinced. The opportunity to which Ebrach referred seemed to be his own. If the paying of a bill was to recompense him for his service, would not the next task he did for Ebrach be a favor? Of course, he’d done Ebrach the best of favors, but he would not count it as such.
“You must finish your breakfast, Jerome. My dear Verbena, I will leave you for a time, while I consult with Ziegler.”
He centered a fresh sheet of his relative’s writing paper. This was embossed at the lower right with a “G”. The paper was thick, textured like suede, its color vanilla. An odor of vanilla seemed to free itself under the pressure of the nib, as Honoré wrote the date…
Yet, this was elusive. The scent might come from the drawer.
He asked himself what he must say that would be reassuring to his wife. His relative’s lack of ostentation would not communicate to her the import of his achievement. He wondered if the house had a name. He toyed with the thought of making one up.
1° Septembre 1876
Clotilde believed he did not love her, and wished to hear him say he did. Extravagance, then, for her sake.
Mon amante la plus chère, épouse de mon cœur
The bowl’s unpleasant contents, and the coffee—far better coffee than Verbena’s, but too much of it—also scented the room. One Gremot servant, who had helped him in the bath, had been there to open the door when, wearing his dressing gown, Honoré returned.
“Mr. Jerome, would you rather have your breakfast at the table, or should I set down the tray on the window seat?”
He was startled by this choice. On first being shown to his quarters, Honoré had wanted only to feel clean again. He had not considered the view. To breakfast while gazing over the valley was luxury, no doubt. The window seat circled a broad, half-moon expanse, with its velvet cushions propped one, two, three, at the end of each section, the paneled wainscoting under the tower windows more satiny in its glow than the cabriole-legged table, outfitted with matching chairs, ensconced in an alcove of the main chamber. The wardrobe door stood open, to prove—had he worried—that his coat, once in Ebrach’s custody, had been restored. His spare waistcoat and trousers had been pressed; these hung over a clotheshorse. The sullied things he’d arrived wearing were gone; his bag was gone. His polished shoes sat on the floor.
“No need, sir, for you to keep on your feet. Mrs. Gremot’s not expecting you down before lunchtime. I’ll just lay your breakfast on the table. Now, if you’re wanting anything, see here…” Robert―he had told Honoré this was his name―kept the pace of his speech slow. He raised his voice at the word “now”. He caught Honoré’s eye with a meaning look, and pointed to a brass object fixed to the wall near the mantelpiece.
“That’s the speaking tube.”
Wonderment, blinking silence, had sealed his fate. Honoré had entered the house with an invalid’s reputation. Robert must suppose him to have a poor grasp of English, or a mind dulled by disease. The meal had been prepared, also, for a sickly guest, the bowl containing Ebrach’s prescription for Mr. Jerome: milk curd, stirred with a raw egg. Honoré could stomach no more of this protein-fare for the consumptive. But it troubled him to send food away untouched; more so when the tray had been sent with kind intentions. Again, he faced the unfinished letter.
Where do you suppose I am today, writing to you? I will not speak of those who would not help, and who would not believe. This relative has opened his door to me
He stopped, wanting to say only that which was correct, regarding W. A. Gremot. In truth, Ebrach had opened this door. Honoré could see no harm mentioning his relative in a generous light…could M. Gremot begrudge this? The alacrity, however, with which servants appeared in the house of Gremot, unsettled him.
And―he set down another of his lies―all your concerns that I would not be safe, travelling alone
He laid aside the pen.
A dangerous moment intervened, during which a surge of varied emotion—sorrow, ire, affronted dignity—compromised his breathing. Honoré pressed his hands flat on the surface of the desk, and forced an empty, quiet mind. He had had these attacks before, and even the reason for them, as he knew, was yet another of the injustices he’d borne. The memory of his hospital stay, of the surgery he would not have allowed, if asked, crowded in on the heels of the rest, and Honoré, rather than steer his thoughts clear of these inflammatory obstacles, felt his heart beat like the wings of a moth.
“No,” he told himself. “I am not lying. In the natural way of things, I would have gone to my hotel and rested there for a day. There would be no Ebrach to change my plans.” He made a stronger effort, drawing one shallow breath, and another, timed to the tick of the mantel clock. That (the thought slithered into his meditation) would tonight make a nuisance of itself; tocking, when one came down to it, more than ticking―possibly chiming, just when he had begun to doze.
His conclusion about Ebrach was not entirely fair.
Honoré expected nothing of his relative…nothing other than courteous regard. W. A. Gremot was a landholder, a public man. The newest Progressiste could be launched on borrowed money, and he did not have to embarrass his relative, or trade on his relative’s name.
They would say it privately. “He calls himself Jerome, but he is a Gremot.”
He’d meant to call at the Cookesville office, only to put himself at M. Gremot’s disposal; thus, in duty, to follow with a letter, thanking his relative for his time—and asking some small advice, so that a reply must be given. Yet so cautious and so respectful in its phrasing would his letter be, that his relative must take no umbrage. Honoré need not even use this proof, unless doubts of their connection were openly expressed.
Of course, gossip of the wrong sort might raise against him an impenetrable barrier. Why could he not trust Ebrach, place himself in Ebrach’s hands, and be at peace?
He wondered whether he could avoid mentioning Ebrach to Clotilde. He thought he would; then felt an immediate doubt. Ebrach seemed quite capable of showing up at the door. Perhaps he must tell Clotilde…something.
I will look out the window, Honoré decided.
The view (he recalled now the depths of house into which he, steadied on Ebrach’s arm, had pursued their guide to reach this bedchamber) was not of the river. He saw instead the roof of a carriage house, a young stand of pine, a slope descending to a green pond, a curved copper roof above a corner of white colonettes…and part of the walkway which led to this outbuilding. Beyond these garden features were hayfields, or so they appeared, flaxen grasses that bent under a driving wind. Farthest away, at the horizon, Honoré saw low hills enveloped in a blue haze.
He asked himself again the familiar question: what was the nature of Ebrach’s business? Had Ebrach been moved to charity by the case of Verbena Everard? No. The correspondence with the other one…the friend…had persuaded Ebrach that Verbena was simple and credulous. As of today, and ever afterwards, she would tell this story of Ebrach’s resurrecting of her son, and tell it with complete faith. Why, though, did Ebrach travel about as he did? The year had only so many days. Filling theater seats would, to Honoré’s mind, have been the way to make money at this work. But then, Ebrach was not a spiritualist―it was not merely that he said so himself, but that he did not call random spirits…he seemed, by his own representations, to treat the individual’s grief.
At the striking of the half-hour, Honoré returned to Clotilde. It was not yet noon, but a smell of roast meat had begun to rise from somewhere below, traveling the flues, or the stairwells, or the shafts of the dumbwaiters. He would impress his hosts to unhappy effect, if he could not show a good appetite at table.
“The Gremots are very early to lunch.”
Honoré said this to himself, and eyed the bowl. Cod liver oil, a thing to his frustration often recommended for the strengthening of frail constitutions, might account for the off-putting odor.
Mrs. Gremot had come into the hall; she had greeted Ebrach as a friend. She had murmured also to Ebrach, as though he’d been a physician in charge of an insensible patient, unheard words, whose tenor had sounded to Honoré’s ears commiserating–
Of Ebrach, rather than himself.
The hall was as spacious, and as thickly furnished, as a salon; with room enough, despite chairs, tables, and cabinets, to accommodate the gowns of Mrs. Gremot, her two daughters, and a female servant. His hostess had been skirted by a pair of spaniel dogs.
Perhaps these pets roamed at large through the house, and Honoré might entice one to lick the dish clean. He crossed to the door, opened it, and peered out. The corridor that served these rooms was lit at either end by a mullioned window capped with colored glass; this not dramatically intricate in design—geometric scrolls, merely, in yellow and red.
The sun dealt these hues in static squares like playing cards over the marble-topped console on the landing below. Honoré stepped from his room, keeping a superstitious link to propriety, letting his hand rest on the door handle. He had heard, he fancied, the yip of a dog in some lower chamber, where also he could hear muted voices carry up the stairs. But he could not venture about in his dressing gown; he must prepare to be called for lunch.
As he was pinning his cravat, annoyed that he had not tied this well; and while he fretted over it, someone rapped at the door. Honoré called out, “You may enter!”―and saw in the mirror that his visitor was not Robert, who might have been of use, but Ebrach.
Ebrach continued full of cheer. His smile tweaked the corners of his mouth, as though a thing had entertained him, and he suppressed the impulse to grin. “Now, Jerome, I am hoping to have a talk with you. You have been given a pleasant room.”
He strolled past the foot of the bed, while Honoré at the same time edged by Ebrach, making for the wardrobe, stooping to gather his shoes.
“I am willing to sit wherever you suggest.”
And by this, Honoré supposed, he was meant to find himself unmannerly.
“Please, Mr. Ebrach, I do not suggest. Sit as you like.” He pointed, shoes in hand, indicating the settee. With a low table and an armchair, this made a conversational grouping―in theory at least—the first’s angle to the table rigid, the other’s back to the wall. But Ebrach took hold of, and swung the armchair round, to face the settee. It was now illuminated by a flickering of light and shadow, as the breeze tossed branches outside the window. Ebrach dropped where the wall and a quarter-wall met.
He leaned, and patted the armchair’s seat. “Jerome.”
It would not be wise, Honoré counselled himself, to be weak-minded with Ebrach, who seemed once more to be making arrangements; nor would it be clever to express reluctance over a trifle. He must sit, in any case, to finish dressing. He hurried with his shoes and took the chair Ebrach had placed for him.
“Jerome, you dislike having it mentioned. I refer to your illness…and, to these unhealthy excitations which you allow to overmaster you. And which, for your own sake, you must not. I hope, now you have bathed and taken an hour’s rest, that I find you somewhat restored; that your discontent has abated. You will say these observations are not mine to make, and this charge I will not deny. I apologize, Jerome, if I presume too far on our acquaintance…but I feel that it cannot benefit your state of health, permitting yourself to be stirred in this fashion.”
Honoré squinted through the play of leaves. “No, Mr. Ebrach, I am not discontented. For two years, since I have come to America…”
He had not meant to say this. He left off.
“Mm…yes. I have never myself stayed long in the city of New Orleans. I know little of the sort of people who live there. I suppose, when you say America, you mean to say, rather, since you have come north. But leave that aside. I wish to speak of Verbena Everard. I spoke with Verbena, for some hours…I parted from her, I believe, at three o’clock. I think I did not disturb you.”
Honoré cocked his chin to the left, in assent. At that hour, no, Ebrach had not disturbed him.
“I find no guile in Mrs. Everard,” Ebrach went on. “Jerome, in my work, I must guard against a particular hazard. We see a great, earnest wish to achieve success; though an authentic success will not be always granted. I cannot prevent my subjects’ seeking impatiently for a false consolation. I might recommend one or two authorities―if a client insists on reading books―who are sound on spiritualism. I do not place the name of Ebrach among their ranks, though I have myself written of these things. Mine are humble assertions. Have you read Swedenborg, Jerome?”
Certain he would soon have Swedenborg foisted upon him, Honoré sought a forestalling excuse. “I hope you don’t think of lending me a book. I only live, today, at a hotel…”
“I have myself translated some few appurtenant passages from Swedenborg’s diary; these I include in the appendices of The Summoning of Ancients. I will give to you my book, Jerome; you need not think of returning it. I have not used an obscure terminology peculiar to my profession, but have written for the layman. The book will do you good. What I wish for you to grasp at present―and to the discouraging truth of which I can attest from my own experience―is that a woman determined to do so will very likely acquire for herself some compendium of quackery, which will teach her useless doctrine…or worse, she will listen to town gossip, which will poison her understanding.
“Now…Verbena Everard. Her nature is receptive, well-disposed to belief. She may, being unschooled, have a power of rote learning, that, like the hearing of a blind man, is tuned to a supra-normal acuity. She may perform upon herself a form of auto-hypnosis, in her desire—which is a powerful desire—to find communion with the spirit of her son Micah. I have tested her, Jerome. You will recall that the spirit whose voice we heard; who had used Verbena as his vessel, quoted from the Christian bible, from the book of Deuteronomy: ‘How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance’?
“Verbena knows a number of bible verses, and recites them using the habits of her ordinary speech; in my notes, I have recorded no instance in which she did not err. She knows by heart words tied to the commonplace, or to such images as her mind may readily conjure: ‘Open your door to a stranger, and you may entertain an angel unawares.’ This, Verbena tells me, is her watchword—but note how she has simplified the biblical language. I assure you, the quote is verbatim…so that you will observe, also, how Verbena amends her unconscious defects to reproduce what, to her own judgment, represents elevated speech.”
Honoré seemed to wake from a trance, feeling he’d been given some instruction. After a moment, he took the point…he even agreed with the point, but was offended, in his affection for Verbena, by Ebrach’s dispassionate summing up of her.
“Thus, Jerome, I conclude that Verbena Everard has not been coached; I am satisfied as to the limits of her ability to memorize and regurgitate phrases; also, I have discovered no evidence of a strong personality in Verbena’s life who might both have exerted such an influence, and had motive to have done so—therefore, the possibility of its being so would have been slim. And I conclude that she has not committed an act of persuasion upon herself…the constraints of the first instance presenting the same obstacle as to the second. I admit to you, that I went so far as to question her in her husband’s presence, regarding the circumstance of her accident. I did this, Jerome, because I knew she would lie to me. You must not suppose that a kind and simple woman, such as Mrs. Everard undoubtedly is, cannot produce a straight-faced lie when she wishes to…however, for my purposes, I must look into the subject’s eyes, note her mannerisms, hear the patterns of her speech when she tells an untruth.
“No, I believe, having applied these proofs, that Mrs. Everard does not conspire to practice upon me. On the contrary, Jerome, I believe that a being of some strength forced the utterance of those prophetic words. We will never know if Micah Everard came to his mother as well. The spirits did not remain with us long enough. I could not question this powerful one…”
He permitted the least wistful beat to separate this statement from his next:
“Jerome, I have not yet interviewed you.”
Lulled, both by the long discourse, and a kind of surrender―he could not translate so many difficult sentences so quickly―Honoré roused himself at Ebrach’s abrupt shift to the personal.
“Interview! But…you don’t suppose I make any claim. No, I have nothing to do…”
“Jerome! Please keep your seat. You are not accused of making claims.”
And Ebrach, in the manner of Broughton, sat unspeaking, letting the minutes pass. Honoré looked through a veil of sunlight, and could not see Ebrach’s face.
“But,” he said again. “If you tell me one of these dead…dead…”
“Then, monsieur, I can suppose who it is, but I have no proof.”
“No, certainly not. That is precisely what we hope to determine.”
His affronted self-esteem was deflated by this reasonableness of Ebrach’s, and Honoré slumped to the chair’s opposite wing where the moving shadows no longer dazzled his eyes. He faced away from Ebrach now, and saw himself in the mirror.
“But I shall—if you will allow me to—speculate. You believed yourself to have been visited by a sister. Perhaps she was well when last you had seen her.”
“She was well…”
He thought of Claudette; the defeatedness with which she had once said to him that he could do as he liked. “No, monsieur, she was not well, she was unhappy. But so many years…and I have never thought of her dead.”
“Then I ask you to envision, Jerome, a scene―yourself and I, sitting, as we are, and speaking to each other in friendship. I ask you then to imagine that, in the way of ordinary conversation, I had said to you, have you any sisters? Now, you might answer me yes or no, and that would depend upon your own conviction regarding this sister’s fate…however, I dare to suppose—again, I apologize—that as we speak of this sister you do not at present feel the distress I witnessed in you last night?”
He conjectured, Honoré thought, that Claudette’s spirit had descended from what Ebrach liked to call ‘the other realm’…or that she had materialized from the ether, and had drawn close to her brother. Her unseen hand had touched his, and through some occult conduit (one which no doubt Ebrach’s book explained), her soul had spoken―and he, Honoré, had comprehended its language. Therefore, last night, he had known with the heart what he could not know now, by the light of day, with the intellect.
But yet…he did feel convinced Claudette had died, and could give no sound reason for thinking so. She had never been ill as Honoré had been. And he himself lived. He trusted this revelation of Ebrach’s…and could not, even so, call his surety faith.
“What do you want to know then?” he asked. “I think she had nothing to tell me. Only…”
He saw in the mirror a reflection of his clothing and hair; which, like his household and his schemes, had become disarrayed.
“Only I was reminded of the angel…the angel of the Noel.”
“My husband wonders if you can have written to him some years back.”
Honoré’s place at the luncheon table was to the right of W. A. Gremot. Mrs. Gremot sat at the foot of the table, opposite her husband. A daughter, introduced as Élucide, sat across from Honoré, at her father’s left; another daughter, Ranilde, being two with Honoré this side of the table, had made a wide berth between them, moving her chair close to her mother’s. At Mrs. Gremot’s right, they’d put Ebrach; between Ebrach and Élucide, sat a son, Walter.
“I did write, madame.”
“But, now you are in America, you choose to go by a different name.”
He mistrusted these prompts.
For two years, although far more often than otherwise, the officials he’d encountered had seemed to know the truth, none had bothered themselves proving Honoré’s credentials false. On the hospital’s charity ward, they had not believed in Thos. B. Jerome, but they had expected their patient to die, and so left him alone. And the almshouse, under its unending burden of penniless and consumptive immigrants, had grown accustomed to the point of apathy.
He reached for the glass of cider-punch. Having no fat left on his bones, Honoré could no longer tolerate alcohol. A sip made him dizzy. Mrs. Gremot insisted they did not serve it in this house, but uneasily, he tasted an undernote of bitterness. Yet the soup had been cleared away, the pie just served was too hot―he could only fork at its crust and watch the steam curl…and no other device was at hand for gaining time.
Mrs. Gremot’s topics were pegged, it seemed, to the courses. While Honoré spooned halfheartedly at the heavy cream soup, fearing to eat much of it, she had asked him, “Mr. Jerome, are you wanting for anything in your room?”
“Madame, your kindness to me is excellent.”
Through the corner of an eye, he saw the girl Ranilde make her own eyes round; her lips she pressed together, and…it might be uncongenial for a guest to say of his host’s daughter, smirked…but she produced a face much like a smirk, as she looked across the table at her brother. Honoré, his gaze fixed on his plate, supposed some silent message to have passed between them.
The cook appeared in the doorway, and Mrs. Gremot nodded. Two maidservants entered, circling the table, one clearing soup plates, the other laying a dish of poached pears at its head; opposite, a sliced tongue. These were served at room temperature to ease stomachs through the transition of courses from cold to hot.
Continued from “cold to hot”
“Mr. Jerome,” their hostess said again. She spoke just at that moment when, her show of weighing and considering conspicuous, one of the servants had lifted Honoré’s plate, which remained nearly full. “If there is anything you prefer having, that I may ask Cook to bring you from the kitchen…” She left her remark open-ended, and Honoré, conscious now that his accent, or his English, amused the young Gremots, repeated what he’d told Ebrach.
“Madame, I am able to eat anything.”
Robert next carried in a platter, gave it a slight tip, bending his knees beside Gremot’s chair, until the platter’s cargo of red and white ramekins crowded to its edge. He lifted and dropped the first before their host. He rubbed his fingers together, and repeated the process around the table. Reaching Honoré’s place, he said, “Sir, take care. These are hot from the oven.”
Gremot made a cut with his knife and pivoted his plate, dividing the crust crosswise with a second cut. Honoré followed his cousin’s example.
“Mr. Jerome,” his hostess remarked, “Mr. Ebrach tells us you may be connected…distantly…to the Gremot side of the family.” A doubtful rise inflected family.
“I am…an uncle, I believe, older than my father by some years…”
He confused himself. It was at that moment, while Honoré hesitated, seeking the amiable phrase of mild correction, that she divined her husband’s thoughts. Admitting the letters, absorbing the suspicion of rebuke, he lowered his glass and repeated her word: “Connected. So. I do choose not to call myself Gremot.” He sipped again at the cider-punch. And while his eyes were averted, Ebrach inserted himself, demonstrating, in his foreknowledge of Honoré’s link to his own grandfather, an offending specificity.
“Mr. Jerome, my dear lady…”
He laid his knife on his dinner plate. Silver and porcelain clinked together. Mrs. Gremot, from studying Honoré, looked to her right, while Ebrach directed his comments to the table. “Began to assist me in my work shortly after his arrival in this country. He stayed at first with his Jerome cousins in New Orleans. I have not got that wrong, have I, Jerome?”
A touch astonished, Honoré answered, “You tell the story better than I am able, Mr. Ebrach.”
W. A. Gremot spoke to him for the first time. “In your letters…excuse me, do I call you Thomas?”
Honoré nodded, drawing the punch glass close. He had got caught, with no warning, between Ebrach’s falsehoods, and Gremot, who, suddenly and sharply, had taken him up. Gremot clasped his hands and propped them on the table’s edge; he gazed for a moment over his wife’s head, through the passage that led to the hall. Honoré peered too, leaning over the table, and saw nothing of note, only a pair of folding doors, open to a sitting room on the farther side.
His toe had bumped what he feared was the shin of the girl opposite. A silence grew. She had not heard him speak…or thought he’d done an improper thing. He stared at his hands on his lap, next raised his head, darting a quick, exploratory glance across the table. For a moment Honoré’s eyes locked on Élucide’s. One of the daughters, Ziegler had said, could not go to town without taking sick. He thought this one had taken sick today, and tried to make a secret of it.
Gremot’s reverie ended. “I won’t tell you I know what exactly was in those letters. My recollection is you weren’t very clear about your own ideas. I believe I told my clerk to send one along to my lawyer…have him look it over.”
The tines of Ebrach’s fork could not puncture the wedge of crust he’d loosed; on these it balanced as it dripped white sauce. Honoré had sat riveted by the sawing and clacking of Ebrach’s utensils. One hand rested with the knife between finger and thumb, the other levered the fork up and down, allowing the overflow to fall on the knife, drop by drop. He now took a long moment, holding the fork poised. He did not lick the knife, but slid the gravy off its blade into the ramekin. This exquisite way with chicken pie made Honoré feel an unreasonable revulsion. He bent his head over his own dish…and this seemed rude. His cousin had spoken to him. He looked at Gremot, and as a prelude to making his ideas clear, said: “For many years, sir, I have worked in the profession of journalism.”
“Jerome’s father, I am sorry to say.” Ebrach swallowed, first crust, then water. Manipulating cutlery, as one might instruments in demonstrating a surgical procedure, he incised with knife and fork the pie’s interior. “Took a violent opposition to the work. Many times I have made…no, I will say, in every case, I make this point. The God who gave us both intellect and curiosity, does not ask that we blind ourselves to the mysteries of the spirit. We are more truly Christian, thus, when we seek to become enlightened. We must come to know that aspect of our nature which is of the eternal, and the eternal is, by design…for it cannot be otherwise…non-corporeal. These preoccupations of the flesh―”
He indicated the pie, withdrew skewered a piece of chicken. Host and hostess, having grown through Ebrach’s speech, keen in their expressions, nodded, their eyes following the fork. “Hunger, pain, all physical impulses, are individuating…burdens, madam, that fix our feet upon the earth.” He had turned his face towards the head of the table, and from gathering the eyes of W. A. Gremot, of Élucide, of Honoré, settled again on Mrs. Gremot’s, turning towards her, making his persuasions to her, his voice becoming, in some manner, more intimate. “Our essence is such, that the soul longs to merge into a perfect state of unity with the divine body, which we call holy.”
This word, he pronounced roundly, and a pause, like the shutting of a door, lingered over the table, before Ebrach added: “But Jerome’s father, as do too many of those with whom I meet, wished to denote me a spiritualist…wished to count all spiritualists charlatans. He threatened, madam, to disown his son. Jerome then adopted the name of his American kin. He did this in respect of his father’s feelings. It is Jerome’s misfortune to be delicately constituted. He had not been long in this country before the southern climate…”
Mrs. Gremot shook her head, not in dispute, but to deplore in sympathy with Ebrach―for it seemed she knew something of the southern climate―its well-recorded malaise. “You will appreciate Mr. Jerome’s dismay…”
He engaged his hostess with candid eyes, drawing circles with the uneaten bite of chicken. “At discovering so strange a coincidence…that the husband of Mrs. Everard should prove to be in the employ of his cousin Gremot. It was far from Jerome’s desire to trouble his relatives, and he had no need of doing so, being established in his own career.”
“But he ought to have come to us,” she began. Remembering, then, to include Honoré in this conversation of which he was the subject, she directed her words up the table. “We would have asked Mr. Ziegler…” She paused. “Mr. Jerome?”
This while, Honoré had kept a covert eye on the face of W. A. Gremot, anxious that, his relative unwilling to believe in Ebrach’s quasi-Christian devil’s brew, he would believe none of Ebrach’s other assertions. Gremot seemed comfortable letting his wife shoulder the brunt of the table talk. He ate and drank, and looked thoughtful…but in an abstracted way, as though he thought of distant things.
“My cousin will not fall for Ebrach,” Honoré told himself. Of course…
Behind these words came a shadowy echo, as the mind forms a sentence before articulating it, even when one speaks in secret to oneself―I do not fall for Ebrach. Yet the lies Ebrach told were so apt, so soothing; to Ebrach, if Honoré chose it, all anxiety-making complications could be abandoned.
And having told himself this, he was at once shaken.
As do too many of those with whom I meet.
The words were not wholly unambiguous. But they had not met—how could it be, his father and Ebrach? Ebrach and Honoré had had a number of talks…some forgotten remark had caused Honoré to blink or balk, it might have been; but no, this was not the sort of truth that could be somehow…evident.
Yet his father would have said exactly those things. Words Ebrach recklessly plucked from the air fell on Honoré like a blow, like a stolen confidence. Gremot peered at Honoré, and said to Ebrach:
“Sir, Jerome’s looking peaky. You might take him out for some air. I mean to the back porch. Robert!”
Ebrach rose to his feet. Robert came at a bustle from the sideboard, murmuring that he would show Ebrach the way. Each of Honoré’s attendants took an elbow. And Élucide, using this stir as permission to leave the table, scooted her chair back, and flew through the archway, up the hall staircase.
This wicker sofa, stacked with cushions, was made private by a bannister that at Honoré’s left descended a short flight of steps; thus to resemble, in the figurative as well as the literal sense, a fence rail. The nook was completed by a cupboard built into the wall. Ebrach, hauling his charge out of range of whispers, exclamations―and one audible laugh―had said to Robert: “I have been shown the way. You must return to your duties.”
Ebrach, a guest to whom the Gremots were proud to give a tour, had got round the house while Honoré had rested in his room.
Yesterday’s journey seemed to him almost hallucinatory. From this end of the room, he was sunk too low to see the road he’d traveled on, to make a game for himself—to distract his thoughts from this humiliating lapse; to view, as from a future vantage, his past self. He’d looked at the wire-cloth screens from the road then…he looked at them now, and a play of waves, black moiré, seemed tuned to the gusting wind. The wind carried with it a smell of the attic’s baking rafters and the moist under-cellars, circulating through the respiring house, along with the outdoor smell of dry grass under thuderclouds. There was another sofa, identical, facing shadowboxes on the wall above Honoré’s head, and if he moved opposite, still he could not have seen the river, only these modest and practical collections, such artifacts as were unaffected by damp: arrowheads, polished stones, bird’s eggs.
By inspiration, or communicated through some subtlety, some cue planted among Ebrach’s speeches and mannerisms (a trick which Honoré found plausibly Ebrachian), he had guessed the words to rid him of Ebrach’s comforts.
“Coffee…” As to what refreshment he might take. “I will have bread…but I do not ask anything to be prepared. And, monsieur, what is the trouble with the girl?”
Lying as he did on the sofa, he might even have invested in the eyes he raised to Ebrach’s, something of a plea. Ebrach glanced in the direction of the hall, finding Élucide in memory where last she had been seen. And with an affect of gravity, he answered: “I would have judged, by the tilt of her head, and because I had glimpsed her appear to breathe over her glass of iced punch…you must remember, Jerome, that being placed on the same side of the table, I could scarcely in politeness have made a study of the girl’s demeanor. Or to have done so with any hope of diagnosis. But I would judge she had been suffering a pain in the right temple. I will call it migraine, then…though I speculate. I will, on your behalf, inform our hostess that you feel concern for your young relative. You tell me you are not in pain, Jerome, with this attack?”
“I am having no attack, Mr. Ebrach.”
It had been Robert, not Ebrach, who returned, carrying a tray with coffee, and to Honoré’s pleasure, buttered rolls. Ebrach was the important man in the house now. He supposed the Gremots had waited for Ebrach’s news, as he himself waited. He drained his cup, ate a roll; in contentment licked butter from his fingers, then pushed at the cushions, perhaps greasily, until at last he was able to sit forward and pour a second cup of coffee.
“This time,” Honoré told himself, “I will look at Ebrach, but I will not think about Ebrach.”
Ebrach had taken possession of his future. This was not to overstate the case. Honoré could not now untell the story—these inventions had erased its protagonist from the page. Like Tweedloe, Ebrach had bought Honoré’s debt…but he had done it with words.
So many days and weeks confined on his back, filthy and cold; or slumping neglected, feverish, wound in sticky linens, unable to expand his lungs…inured to helplessness, Honoré had accepted all he was given, asked for nothing they did not give. His world had been in his mind. A daydream had kept his preparations immature—he had not surrendered this figment.
But acquaintance forced acknowledgement that Gremot was the man his letter had forewarned him to be, and that Ebrach had understood him, where Honoré had not. He’d indulged this hope, that his cousin might welcome him like a kind father…or like, at any rate, a second Broughton; and having Broughton’s store of advice, his quietude and courtesy…Mrs. Gremot motherly, another Mme Rose―until that morning, Honoré had still half-willed it. He had fretted over his unloveable appearance.
But he thought now that W. A. Gremot was not disposed to love a stranger, and that in his cousin Jerome, a stranger was what he saw.
Clotilde had done nothing much in America for a year other than nurse an invalid spouse. She had wanted to make their home in Denver. Clotilde’s preference was not for herself; she thought only of the climate that had done Honoré so much good.
His had been a desperate case. At length, he’d been told by his physicians at Colorado Springs that he would be no better for a longer course of treatment. How else to understand, if they did not mean to say he was cured?
He chose to see his prognosis in this light.
But…he’d accounted it possible the long-awaited meeting was a thing best achieved and not postponed. Now he wished Clotilde by his side. The two of them together―“the little French couple”―would at least entertain, as they had in Colorado. He would not feel so lonely in this house. Clotilde had been given lessons in English, but could rarely, from embarrassment, bring herself to say as much as “thank you”. She clung to his arm, to an extent that embarrassed Honoré. Leaving her had seemed the better choice.
But, he thought, I have this excuse of returning to my wife…I must apologize to these relatives, and go at the earliest chance.
Having stirred in himself, with these reflections, that discontent Ebrach deplored, Honoré now spent some minutes coming from different angles at the proposition of rising. He had learned to rock forward and back; to gauge the instant when, catching himself tilt, he could push onto the balls of his feet.
And having done as much, he found a door, one that might lead to the garden, on the cupboard’s other side.
The air was soft today, a blanket to one always chilled. The Gremots had a view of the river…would they not also have a bench for sitting? Honoré made his way down two little stone steps, and along a path shaded by a poplar hedge. He admired the path’s herringbone pattern, the way brick-ends had been cut to fit at the borders, how clean swept it was. He estimated the hedge to be half its height from the house. His mind’s eye conjured a landscape architect’s diagram. He could see the rough outline of mature planting to structure, the angle of the sun, notations of footages and degrees of exposure. He would have liked a measuring tape. The trees, he was certain, had been planted at some precise distance apart, and each space between would be identical to the last. They were limbed up, now they’d grown more or less to six metres; their lower branches kissed, and were bound so, to form pleached arches. The path ran beside an outer wall of the house divided by uncurtained windows.
The façade, seen up close, was not pink…as from the road, it had appeared. The bricks were terra cotta; their glaze, shining in the sun, added an overlay of white to the red-brown. The hedge made veering from the walk impractical, nor could Honoré see past the lawn, though he glimpsed a wrought-iron fence, yellow and purple asters that crowded their heads between its bars, some portion of their coarse late-season foliage.
Inside the basement he saw a laundry, a long table lit by another row of windows. There a lone woman was seated on a stool, wearing a sock on her hand. She sat unsupervised, idle in thought.
“Course, I never have myself. I’d find it a nuisance. Hire a man to hunt up your shoes, count your shirt buttons, Mr. Ebrach…well. There are only so many hours in a day. Bad enough every Tom, Dick, and Harry wants to order them for you. I won’t pay for the privilege.”
Honoré heard Ebrach laugh. He was less certain himself that his relative had been joking. Their voices might have come from a parlor with its window open, beneath which he would pass if, reaching the corner of the house, he turned to the right. Or, they might be on the walk itself, paused in conversation just out of view.
“But I don’t see why he won’t have a servant, some kind of valet, to travel with him.” A second or two of silence. Gremot’s voice came back, with a suggestion of annoyed embarrassment. “Not much money, you think, Ebrach? You say you met up with Jerome on the train?”
Ebrach’s voice came somewhat nearer. Honoré could now make out the slow patter of meandering shoes. He backed up some paces, so that his encounter with them might seem momentary and unexpected.
“Jerome was given the example of frugality by his father. He may regard the matter much as do you yourself, sir. Though I would happily have given to him my own assistance had I known then whether Jerome had made up his mind.”
The two strolled into view, and rather than turn in Honoré’s direction, struck off across the lawn. Their backs had been to Honoré as they’d rounded the corner, and remained so. His position became all at once absurd. He had not considered the woman in the laundry, who might look up, and wonder to see him loitering here.
“Mr. Ebrach!” he called out. “Mr. Gremot! I apologize—”
“Jerome! What is it that you need?”
Conscious of the time it was taking him to do so, he caught them up at length, having not greatly increased his pace for hurrying. And the surmise was not unreasonable…Ebrach’s concern well-acted for the curtain’s late rise. Hailing and chasing after them in this way, now panting in an otherwise strained silence, Honoré must appear in want of something. He wasn’t. His feathers had been ruffled by his relative’s question, and he would have answered this—which he felt Gremot had no right to ask of Ebrach—only he had eavesdropped on their talk by accident.
As to servants, begrudging offices had been performed for him by those of others…he had earned contempt with uncivility, perhaps, not knowing how he ought to speak to a servant. His politics had always raised this difficulty, that to treat inferior men as brothers, one must first designate them inferior. And many had no wish to be Honoré’s equal. Those times he might have afforded a servant of his own, he had felt (he recognized it) something of his cousin’s impatience at the thought of waiting to be waited on—nor had he trusted that his money would last.
None of this could be explained under Gremot’s eye. Honed for the ploys of dependency, it would discern here the history of a sponger rather than a victim of circumstance. Honoré saw his cousin take a step backwards, turn and gaze at his golden summit, trimmed, from this vantage, by the top-growth of a pine plantation just on the slope’s downside. The sky on this day was a faded blue ribbon, twined among pillowed clouds, grey at their leading edges.
Gremot grimaced, and fell into his established habit. He ignored Honoré, and said to Ebrach, “The sun’ll be too strong. Him being out here without a hat. You had better take him back, sir.”
“Where are you going?” Belatedly, Honoré answered Ebrach’s question with another.
“We are walking round the property, Jerome. See up yonder―” He put a hand on Honoré’s back, tapping him under the shoulder blade, exerting pressure at the fingertips, asking without words that he go back to the house. Ebrach raised his arm and pointed. Honoré looked again at the meadow, and in the time his eyes had followed Ebrach’s movements, a pair of dappled horses had wandered or been driven there to graze. “We will climb to the hilltop and have a look at the fields, then head down to see the drying sheds.”
“Mr. Ebrach, I can walk with you.”
“Mr. Jerome, we’ll get the buggy out sometime this afternoon, and drive up along the road. Or,” Gremot stopped himself, appealing to Ebrach, “if he can’t ride at all…”
“Yesterday, Jerome had not recovered from the effects of the train journey. I believe he will ride tolerably now, after a day of rest. Sir, Jerome may walk with us as far as the summer house.”
“But…Mrs. Gremot won’t know what’s become of him. Ebrach, you’ll have to wait on me, while I go fetch Robert.”
He wanted no answer. His face through this exchange had exhibited an ungracious frankness. He bent into his stride, and striking the walk with a report, Gremot’s heels measured his pace. Arriving at the side door from which Honoré had exited, his cousin jerked back his head, finding, as Honoré knew, that it had not been pulled shut. Gremot palmed it open. The door slammed; the noise carried, and Honoré removed himself from Ebrach’s hand. His eyes on the dried grass, he placed his shoes between its tufts, and moved a short way ahead. He felt Ebrach following close at his back.
But, though he’d seen the summer house from his bedroom window, here Honoré could see only lawn, its point of descent hidden by a park-like placement of mature oak, many metres from the house; these must, with that eye-pleasing effect in mind, have been judiciously spared at the time of the manor’s construction.
“Then, Mr. Ebrach, where will I walk to?” Alone with him, Honoré felt easier.
“You needn’t walk at all, of course. I do not advise it, Jerome. You will tax yourself.”
“No, I came out to walk. That will not trouble me.”
He had not come out to walk. He made a pest of himself…and did it from stubbornness, because the dislike Gremot had conceived for him insulted his pride. He recalled the forced perspective of hill looming over roof and pond; he knew the way to the summer house to be steep. Ebrach would be off with Gremot, Honoré shunted aside to wait and pretend, if he liked, to be with them in their business. Or to return to the house, if he could manage the going uphill, and concede himself unwanted.
This relative practiced a mode of thinking Honoré had observed in his father, and in his sister’s husband, Feriet―that for having aspired to do an ordinary thing, one ought to be punished; that, somehow, the wish itself had earned the punishment.
“Mr. Ebrach, I will take the train tomorrow.”
“Jerome.” Ebrach got in front of him. “I hope you will not consider it. Mrs. Gremot has friends she would like to introduce to you. She is expecting you to remain the week. Jerome…do you not suppose that you are subject to upset, taking offense where none is meant, because you do not permit yourself proper rest? Your affairs may be urgent, sir, but your regrettable state of mind…”
“I have no affairs! Nothing,” Honoré added, “urgent.”
He did find it regrettable. Now, Ebrach had exposed him to a worse position. Now, he could not leave this house with dignity. They would decide him feeble-minded. They would nod to each other, and say that his illness spoke; they would no longer credit Honoré’s speaking for himself. He had come to Gremot to begin his career, to gain the trust of a trusted man…and these prejudices, hemming him round, would end it.
This, he said to himself, is unreason, if you like. That I must alleviate their burden by always leaving―by dying, they will hope…that is how it will all be resolved.
Ebrach changed the subject. They’d got to know each other; and already, Ebrach had a set face and a mannerism, a far-seeing posture he adopted, in overlooking Honoré’s outbursts. “Suffers from migraine, as I had supposed. The headache comes over her in inclement weather, or at any change of routine. She has needed to be schooled at home. I noticed nothing liverish in the girl’s complexion.” Comparing pallors, Ebrach here with a keen glance assessed Honoré’s. “Her mother says she does not have seizures, she has no tremor in the limbs, she does not faint.”
Honoré felt some impulse, at this, to defend again his weakness of yesterday. I do not faint. (No, not had Ebrach left him alone.) But there was no similarity between his condition and that of the Gremot daughter, and Ebrach might or might not have implied so.
“You and I will take the opportunity, during our stay, to speak with Élucide. I believe that in you, she may be willing to confide.”
Yes, then, Honoré reversed himself, I understand you after all. The door thudded shut, the noise again carried across the lawn. He looked behind, and saw Gremot closing on them in his hell-bent fashion, followed by Robert, who carried Honoré’s hat, a lap blanket folded and draped over his arm like a waiter’s towel; over his other arm, a basket. Ebrach took this moment to say, with an air of drama, and with no chance of Honoré’s answering him: “I have not forgot my promise. But I will do more than leave my book with you. Jerome, you are nearly awake. That which last night drew your sister to you, is a gift that you possess…you yourself know the reason for this. The nervous condition that vexes you is merely inattention. You are inattentive because the voices of the dead are for you very present.”
Then, finding Gremot within earshot, he removed the hand from Honoré’s shoulder. He assumed a sociable face, and smiled at Gremot.
“I’ve brought along one or two things Mrs. Gremot thought of.”
Their host, with a gesture, invited them to view the porch entry. Mrs. Gremot was there, hands clasped—seeing them off with her own eyes, on this uncertain business.
Honoré collected his hat from Robert. “Thank you…sir.”
“Bless you, Mr. Jerome, it’s no bother to me. But give me your arm and I’ll ease you along the way.”
Robert, who seemed to have been hurried in his preparations, now tucked the blanket over the basket top, and gave to Honoré his own arm. The others, in the meantime, had got some distance ahead, Gremot angling Ebrach off under the oaks. Honoré began to feel he’d walked far enough, had been on his feet long enough. When he’d first arrived, his relatives had seen he could not climb stairs without Ebrach’s support…some disbelieving sigh must have passed between them, while Mrs. Gremot thought of things.
He heard his cousin’s voice. “Everard is an intemperate man. I believe he is drunk most days anymore.” This was subtlety; Gremot meant to ask Ebrach whether, on the night before, Everard had come home drunk.
“The unfortunate circumstance,” Ebrach said, “places a burden on young Richard.”
To this, Gremot lifted his shoulders. “I don’t care for the son. The time seems right to me to be done with all the foolishness. I’ll be hiring a man to oversee the running of my new property. I can’t be there every day myself.” He barked out a single laugh. “I can’t take things on like I have been. Now. I see no reason why a good tobacco man, qualified to manage my Kentucky place, isn’t the man to recommend a foreman for my place here. Do you agree?”
“If he has been given charge of your establishment, and knows his own temperament, certainly he will prefer to see in others those habits familiar to himself.”
Gremot accepted this. “I don’t care either, for what you tell me about young Everard and my relative there…” He glanced back. Honoré, falling in arrears, tried to engage himself in their talk, and could not catch Gremot’s eye. “I don’t like it. But that’s not to say I don’t get your meaning, sir. A man might chafe at a job he isn’t suited to.”
The Everard sons were able, in Gremot’s opinion, to find employment. Didn’t need holding by the hand. Gremot’s neck strained here against this fresh prompting to look behind. The new road—before long, the company’d be hiring―would cut across the state’s southwest corner.
(Indiana being shaped somewhat like a Christmas stocking, it was the toe Gremot and his fellow investors meant to sever.)
It would make the flatboat traffic obsolete. No…day and a half or more down to Paducah, Cairo—was there any reason for it?
“And that’s not the half of it. From here, Cookesville, you could go straight on to the St. Louis line. And you know…”
Gremot lowered his voice; Honoré, having lost so much ground, strained to hear.
“Shift cargo on a damned packet, how many hands…couple dozen maybe…just there to ride along. Those wages factor right back into your cost. And that, Ebrach, is plain wasteful.”
Robert helped Honoré to the crest of the knoll; ringing its foot was a collar of earth covered in rushes…or, as the Americans called them, cattails. Ebrach and Gremot had got ahead now by the length of a city block. They were crossing (Gremot crossed already…Ebrach placing cautious shoes) a plank bridge over a ditch, where grew many more cattails. Gremot had opened the gate opposite; he had one hand lifting the latch, another firm hand keeping the way narrow.
But as Honoré watched Ebrach pass through, Gremot close and latch the gate behind him, Robert gently tugged at his arm. “Now, sir, we want to go this way, down to the pond.”
The summer house was screened, like the porch, the four triangles of its roof curling up at every edge, lopped by a central cupola. This hint of pagoda perhaps an outlier of the European fancy for orientalism. In the main house too, Honoré had noted effects that must have, in and of themselves, pleased either Gremot or his wife. It seemed characteristic of their taste that they liked a thing, or disliked it. They did not bring any two objects together to see them harmonize.
Continued from “see them harmonize”
Robert had got up the steps and had his elbow and the basket against the door, nudging it wider. Seeing what Honoré had seen, he chuckled. “That old heron. They put blue gill in the pond, sir, but they don’t fish it. Don’t matter, though, to the Squire. He carries his pistol whenever he comes down to sit… Mr. Jerome, I got a jug of water and Mrs. Gremot packed you some digestive biscuits.”
Inside, cushioned benches were arranged face to face, as on the back porch above, and in the same way hindering the view. Rearward, Honoré saw nothing of interest. An overturned boat, low and rectangular like a punt, but of lighter construction, was stored on its end under the roof; and the eaves cooled this half of the room, casting it in shadow. If he sat here, he would not see the pond. From the front, where the sun glared, and the long bolster that covered the bench had faded from red stripes to pink, he could not face the pond.
Offering wary thanks―omitting the “sir”―Honoré accepted the jug from Robert.
“Sir, if you like to lie down and take a rest, I got this blanket I brought along.”
Honoré selected one, from the tin proffered, and found that a digestive biscuit was, in this case, dry like a wafer; not sweet, but flavored with ginger. “Mr. Gremot has these guests often, Robert…who he will take to show the property?”
Robert looked into Honoré’s eyes, seeming to ask himself if he’d understood this question. “Sir, the Gremots know all kinds of people. A lot of em will come out here to the house. Some he sees at his office in town.”
The real question had been whether he might risk lying down; or whether he would then find himself cossetted by Ebrach, returning too soon, wanting to help him to his feet…filling out, like a stablehand loading a hayrack with fodder, the missing halves of his cousin’s obliquities.
Robert set the basket on the table, and unfolded one of the camp chairs that lay stacked against the wall. Honoré paced a distracted semi-circle, taking his refreshment on his feet. Yet this was rude, he realized.
“I will lie down, there.” He pointed to the back bench. He eyed the blanket, and shook his head. “The day is warm, do you think?”
“Mrs. Gremot didn’t know what all.” Robert nestled the blanket on the camp chair’s seat. He picked up the chair and put it down within reach of the bench, then returned to the door, bending to stopper it in place.
“I am right here, sir.”
And Robert sat, on the top step, just outside the threshold, where he could see the stock-still heron lunge, its bill emerge in a spray of droplets, clamped on a frog or fish.
Honoré had made for himself a half-conscious list; he had ticked these items over as he trailed Ebrach, four things to sort. Or three…if he regarded his relative’s intentions, and what was to be done about them, as two sides of a coin. He would fall asleep, he knew, lying here.
Ebrach had spoken some obscenity about his being close to the dead.
He would not allow Ebrach to tell him these things.
But to dream of angels…the symbolic interpretation that tradition most closely associates…
He had not been dreaming; albeit, he had been somewhat entranced by Ebrach’s voice. He opened his eyes. And the other business. What did Ebrach suppose this girl, Élucide, would confide to him? To nose beneath the susceptibilities of Verbena Everard, Ebrach had practiced first on Honoré. Was it only that? He wished to hold hands with this girl, by lamplight, in her room?
The wrong of it was intensely agitating. Honoré flailed an arm. Robert stood, and coming back inside, took up the jug. “What is it you want, Mr. Jerome? Are you breathing all right?”
“No, Robert…I am embarrassed. I will not be any trouble to you, after this.”
Robert, his face perplexed, helped Honoré to drink, supporting the jug with one hand, Honoré’s back with the other. Worried perhaps that he was as near death as Ebrach wished him to be. “Well, bless you, Mr. Jerome. You don’t trouble me.”
Ebrach had so far eluded his guesses. Honoré bore this in mind. He lay back down and, his voice meek—he had nothing else to say—repeated, as Robert lifted a corner of the blanket, and an enquiring eyebrow, “No, I will not trouble you.”
He turned his face towards the screen. He could see appended to the underside of the eave a grey paper nest, not of menacing size, smaller than the globe of a lantern, but busied upon by three or four wasps. These did menace, with their gloss and brittleness, their soldierly alertness, the spring-tension of their tiny movements. But he thought they could not come in.
And from a distant, wasp’s eye view of himself, he approached Ebrach. Ebrach, knocking at his door, had interrupted when Honoré had been about to finish his dressing and his letters. But he could now add a postscript to Verbena’s note before sending it down. He thought Gremot had been saying this—that Everard was a drunk, that Ebrach (and why, when Honoré would not tell him so, but had refused?) had passed along his own explanation for Honoré’s bruises; that Gremot wished to rid himself of the Everards, and that these things, the intemperance of the father and the violence of the son, would serve as excuses.
Honoré, if he presumed to warn them, would look loathsome and baffling to his recent enemy. He recalled Gérard Costa, open in his use of laudanum at Sylvie’s house, wretched with anger when accused publicly of the habit; and Honoré told himself that one met such people, whose proclivities led to such contradictory logic.
But he had solved this problem before. As with his work in Colorado, he must—because he would be of help to Verbena, if he could—repeat in naïveté the words he’d heard, pass them on as so much unthinking gossip. He was stupid and foreign, and could not comprehend their import.
So, closing his eyes, he returned to Clotilde.
Be strong and fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompense; he will come and save you.
He was a sculptor by trade, the man who stood there at the stall where pocket watches and ladies’ lockets were sold, at the church’s charity fair. The pretty miss, dressed in rose silk, as though for a fine occasion; and who had smiled so cheerfully, frowned now in puzzlement, as the sculptor studied the inscription etched on the back of a burnished gold timepiece, worn from long use. Then, her face brightened. “Here is Uncle Josiah!” Having said so, she blushed, and corrected herself, “I mean, Mr. Knight.” Had the sculptor not been a married man, he would have found the young lady’s confusion, and her mantling cheeks, most charming.
“I will take over your stall, Lucy,” the Reverend Mr. Josiah Knight beamed―and his niece, before going to her tea, whispered to him, “He wants to buy your watch, uncle, but you will have to ask a lower price.”
The sculptor looked at Mr. Knight in surprise.
“Yours? But this watch, sir, once belonged to my father.”
“Ah, then it was your brother sold it to me, poor man.”
“Why do you say so? His mother lives in my house, but she has heard nothing from him for months—he is, Mr. Knight, only my step-brother. My father must have made him a bequest of the watch in his will.”
“Young man, I ask no payment―the watch is yours. But the news I have will be a grief to you and to your step-mother.”
Honoré left off reading the story. He had read it through already, more than a dozen times. He liked, and felt encouraged by, the verse with which the tract began. As to the homily that followed, it was all, as the Americans would say, well and good. The sculptor’s late father had married a “vain, haughty widow”. She had favored her own son; the other, leaving his father’s house to make his fortune, had become―in the way of artists in fables―a lauded success. He had opened his home to his step-mother, widowed for the second time and destitute. Honoré did not dispute the tract’s message: that we must forgive our enemies. But he disliked―in fact, was offended by (and came near suspecting the motives of the attendant who, every day, handed him this same tract to read)—the fate of the stepson. He supposed that this character, unworthy of a name, who’d died as a beggar coughing and frothing at the mouth, on the Reverend Mr. Knight’s doorstep, could not have helped these things.
Honoré’s bed was not made. If Mr. Fenchurch came by today, he would see that his patient had not done as ordered. To work and to earn some part of one’s living conferred status on an inmate of the almshouse. To have the means to purchase a shirt, or a pair of shoes, a cup of milk, an egg—though the price was a token—made one nearly a citizen; while even some almshouse dependents had family who paid a portion of their keep. The attainment of a higher place, here at the level of the sewer, gave the privileged a lowlier backside to step on, as they hoisted their noses in the air. Honoré’s roommates felt that he paid nothing for his care; that it was fair treatment therefore to make him pay in some other respect, for what he was given.
Mr. Fenchurch, when he arrived, was snappish. The men’s hall stank. He wanted Honoré to grasp his point more readily. The room was cold, in January and February, punishingly cold. Now it was March, and the ice, dripping from the corner bracket that supported the overhanging roof…ice that had grown along the bricks, as it melted by day and froze again by night, into a rippling figurehead…had broken. Honoré had awakened that morning to its wrench and crash.
Mr. Fenchurch, resident assistant physician, was in a hurry when he made his rounds. But also he smiled, and spoke to Honoré with a desperate encouragement, “Yes, yes, that’s it.”
Mr. Fenchurch would, when he could, find cleaner work, healthier and more cooperative patients. But Honoré was a prisoner here. Fenchurch thought he ought to change his bed, tidy his allotted space, eat his meals, take his exercise.
“You will never gain any strength, going on like this.”
But that was not taking matters of rank into account. Here, in his corner, keeping from the common room where the other inmates gathered around the fire, Honoré did not have to fight anyone, which he did not have the will to do…and decidedly, not the muscle. He ate what he was allowed; what his roommates did not wrest away.
Of the Romish trinkets, so-called by Tweedloe, he had only his rosary left, which had through changes of fortune been packed, or pinned, or otherwise conscientiously attached to him. He was seen in this house as alien, maniacal perhaps, passionate in his piety, sitting apart in this way, fingering his beads. He told the rosary to pass the time, to mark the time, and to pray in earnest—to his deaf and distant God—for deliverance.
He did not mind these Protestant tracts. But they were a sort of possession; if he kept one for himself, it would be molested. And the fetching of this small entertainment made the sum of his daily exercise, after his visit to the water closet, and to the dining room. He returned the tract, and asked for another. He sat by the iron head-rail of his bed, where he got the strongest draft from the window, but where he had a view of the world, and light to read by.
Through the acute phase of his illness, the infirmary barber had kept Honoré’s head shaved. He wore a woolen nightcap that could not warm his scalp enough to be of much comfort, long johns, two shirts and three pairs of socks, a muffler round his neck, a dressing gown, and a blanket.
Yet the spring would come.
Honoré had studied the masonry quoins on the building’s corner. He thought that with bare toes he could secure a hold on their edges. The state might consider him its debtor. But why should they arrest him for walking away from the almshouse? He could never work to pay them, and it was no benefit to the county jail for Thos. B. Jerome to die on one of its pallets. And never, when he paused to listen…to a juddering cry of “No” rising and falling from another room, the slam of doors, footfalls vying against each other down the corridor, echoing, tense-making for Honoré in their approach, relieving in their fading onwards…never, had any whisper of a guardian angel said to him, for all his prayers:
As Jesus, by the account of the Apostle Luke, tells us, “Take heed to yourselves: if thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. (17:3)
It was too late for the sculptor, Luke Jefferson, to forgive his brother—indeed, he had hardly known his brother. Whether his father, prompted by the better angels of his nature, had felt remorse, as he lay upon his deathbed; or whether he had died unrepentant, was unknown to Luke Jefferson. Yet, with one enemy—she who had first sown in his father’s bosom the corrupt seed—he had made his peace.
My friends, often we say in our hearts, “I cannot forgive”; when what we mean to say is, “I cannot excuse.”
Many acts of a selfish or heartless kind are more than we can make excuse for; and failing to find reason adequate to justify such cruelty, we feel that the act is unforgiveable. Yet, it is not the act; rather it is our sin, our human weakness, that frailty which is the inheritance of all mankind, that we understand and forgive. And this we may do, without excusing the act. It is myself that I forgive, when I forgive my brother.
The almshouse clerk, Mr. McCutcheon, using the grip of his walking stick, struck one sharp blow on the open door. Honoré would not close this, as though to imply he did anything in secret; yet McCutcheon’s habitual gait being soft and slippery (the stick he carried, as the inmates said among themselves, less prop than weapon), the report cracked off the panel without warning, and jolted Honoré’s shoulders.
“Mr. Jerome! The superintendent requests you. You have a visitor, Jerome.” McCutcheon’s voice rose, incredulous, on the word “visitor”. And Honoré’s nerves, far from settling, became ungovernably hectic.
Since she didn’t care, he might not shock her; though all through the winter he had been unwilling to disrobe, and hadn’t washed—and his rag-bag of garments had taken on, in addition to his own smell, that of the hall’s polluted air. Anne, under the tutelage of Maier, had learned herself entitled to spend the legacy of Jacques Rose. Perhaps their schemes had come to this. She might have brought a paper for Honoré to sign.
But the two of them, on the other hand, might have fallen out. He hoped they had. Anne could be kind, or could at times want so badly to appear kind, that the distinction was hard to see…and Honoré, in his need for her, had not tried. She had been gentle to him on one or two occasions.
Because he had not yet shed the blanket, laid aside the tract, or attempted to rise, McCutcheon, his expression fixed on the brink of goggling, entered the room and hovered a bit, marked in reluctance to touch such an embodiment of disease and filth. Then, laying aside his stick, he grappled with duty, seized Honoré under the arms and hauled him to his feet.
“Do you know where the office is? Have you been there? We will cross the courtyard. Are you wearing shoes?”
With an irate eye, McCutcheon watched his stick roll to a stop in the corner between wall and window. He had allowed his hand to lose contact with it. He snatched it up, spun and departed as though he would endure no more. And as Honoré―no, he was not wearing shoes―padded after McCutcheon to the door, McCutcheon strode onwards, reaching the end of the corridor. Honoré shuffled, but could not put on speed to catch him. His energy was expended already, going down the stairs for his meal, coming up the stairs in the only way he could, by sitting on one step, stretching an arm to the handrail, and levering himself to the next. This daily outing took some hours. And there was no reason it should not.
McCutcheon was gone altogether, so far as Honoré could tell, when he achieved the foot of the stairs. He had been passed by twice, buffeted in each case from the rail he clung to. Hugging the wall, Honoré crouched and crawled, taking hold of a baluster, pulling himself upright, beginning his slow descent again. Being so tardy to arrive, he found that here, where the staircase broadened to a first or final step that curved around the newel post, he could not guess which way McCutcheon had chosen.
The common room could be reached by a dogleg that led to a short passage directly under that of the upper floor. He might exit from there to the courtyard. He had seen the almshouse green through windows that overlooked it; diagonal footpaths trodden bare, looping around mudholes and making for an unknown wing across the way. Next to this set of windows was a door, but Honoré had never tried it, to know if they kept it locked. To his left, he saw a different sort of door, one sealed against whatever light from an interior chamber might have escaped, and forbidding, like a black-uniformed sentry, the inmate’s quavering touch on its tarnished knob.
He was stymied. He waited, in the hope that McCutcheon would come back. He might not. Anne, if she were her old self, would have no patience for this cooling of her heels over a discarded lover; yet would hardly, for having made of him an invalid in the first place, see in this inconvenience a fault of her own.
They had thought he did not speak English.
Too weak to open his eyes, Honoré made this discovery, that he’d grown dependent on watching the effect of his words, withdrawing a bad choice, testing a better substitute; and become so fluid in the practice that his study of faces acted as a second, functioning linguistic form, integral to his understanding of American English, with its jumble of accents, gestures, and slang. He could not speak to them without sight. All the baffling grammar crowded in at once.
The story of Anne and Maier—how they’d forsaken their charge; how they’d got away with it—came entertainingly to the mind of this person or that, and Honoré, submerged in a stupor from which he could not stir, had heard it told at his bedside more than once. Pictures behind closed eyes etched and colored themselves, of things he had not seen. As upon a theatrical set, he gazed at the hospital gate.
“No, if we have a ward of the county, we treat him until we cure him.”
A voice he knew carried on a conversation that seemed always to ebb and revive. “We may say for the poor, at least, that they are numerous. And that any one of them may redeem the debt for himself and his fellows, by showing us some facet of his disease we have not seen. This one has a tubercular right lung; the left lung is not so badly affected. Emaciated.”
Honoré felt the bedding taken up, the small heat trapped beneath his blanket vapor away. One put a finger under his chin and tilted his head back. An unanswerable misery throbbed here at his throat; never had Honoré felt a pain exactly like it.
“The surgeon got those tonsils. Note, silver nitrate, applied direct to the inflammation.” His mouth was pulled open. He thrashed a feeble hand; a finger and thumb parted his jaws wider. The shadow of a human shape obscured the light. His head was twisted, not roughly, to the side, and a second voice remarked, “That tooth needs pulling.”
The doctor made a sort of grunt, and worked, in an experimental way, at Honoré’s blackened tooth, the one that had for some years been broken. “Come out soon enough on its own. He’ll swallow it one day. This one…” Movement receded, and they had not thought to restore the covers. A mild clatter, and then: “This one is called Jerome, Thomas. I can’t tell you anything of interest. An ordinary case of phthisis pulmonalis, likely a history of chronic pneumonia. Speaks no English.”
They chatted. Honoré learned he was being given a grain of quinine twice daily. The doctor believed the dose could be increased; he would try strychnine (rat poison, Honoré thought). If Jerome improved, a syrup of iron and lime might be recommended as a blood tonic.
Now the sheet and blanket were drawn back into place.
“And so he may not succumb, not from this present crisis. I suppose he must go to the almshouse.” The doctor’s assistant had spoken, and the place he named bore no portent then, for Honoré. But he listened again to the anecdote…that facet of interest in an otherwise ordinary case.
Traffic nearing the hospital gate had crowded the thoroughfare. The cabby, being the source of the tale, as he’d recounted it to the gatehouse guard, and again to the hospital warden, had seen Anne―“blonde-haired gal”―carpet bag in hand, tickle the chin of another hack’s horse. The horse lifted its head; she dodged underneath, and threaded among stalled vehicles. The driver rapped at the communicating door on the roof…and his own hack, for all the response he got, might have been empty. He feared it was empty. He feared himself bilked, and bunching his whip, leaned over the top, beating at the window. Mr. Rose got out.
“Where she off to? That ain’t the way!”
The cabby had only Mrs. Jerome’s word for it that her husband’s admission papers were in order.
“Sir, I do not understand you,” Rose said.
Now the cart before them jerked ahead, and left a gap into which a neighboring cab fitted itself askew; and as their wheels came near locking, the second driver, gesturing with the butt-end of his own whip, shouted: “You! Back off that fleabitten hearse!” The cabby found it necessary to jump down from the box and nudge at Rose, plucking at his sleeve, urging him to go in, while Rose continued unable to understand.
“Ah, monsieur…” He spread his hands. “How can I help?”
“And then she set up to jabbering on the other side.”
He elbowed past Rose, who had even―so great was his display of courtesy―touched his hat as he took himself out of the way. Reaching the other door, the cabby found Mrs. Jerome still his passenger. Under his nose, she extended an ankle as though to alight.
“My bag! What have you done? Everything I have is inside!”
They were a ripe pair of foreigners, the cabby thought, but madam liked to insinuate, if he got her meaning, that he’d not stowed the bag at her feet, when he knew he had…only a moment ago, he’d seen her carry it away with her own hands. This was a mere shenanigan. He became conscious of having let Rose out of his sight.
And then, he made his greater blunder.
Mrs. Jerome had described her husband as “very ill”. The cabby had seen Jerome need loading himself, like another piece of baggage, and could recall Mr. Rose awfully adroit with it, while his own hands had been busy strapping on Rose’s trunk. (“Weighed like it was full of bricks.”)
Suppose this Jerome was in fact a corpse…and that that was their game.
“You get on out!” he told Anne, and forced his way past her. He got a good look at Jerome. He gave Jerome a vigorous shake. He started and knocked his head on the inside roof, when the corpse opened its eyes. Jerome mumbled a name, or called for his mother, the cabby couldn’t have said…and closed his eyes again. Rose was gone. The cabby twigged, before he’d backed onto the street, there to be assaulted by a chorus of hoots and cruel epithets, that madam had gone with him.
Jerome had no admission papers, no Mrs. Jerome, no friend Maier.
(It had of course been Maier, committing against the reputation of his rival Jacques, a posthumous outrage).
Until this abandonment, Honoré had never been treated at a hospital. He would not have had to do with one. Mme Rose, dying, had on this point been adamant, begged that she not be carried from her bed, on the day she must take to it.
“That place. They would be happy with more bones to sell. Honoré, you would never hear of me again!”
No, he told himself. They could not have cut something away, something that had been inside. He had not understood the doctor. When he’d grown well enough to be raised on a stack of pillows, remembering where the pain had been, Honoré traced a fingertip over the skin of his throat. He did not know what a tonsil was. He could not find a scar. He felt his eyes widen with the horror of it. By some means, they had disguised their butchery; with an instrument called a “probang” (which might, he supposed, be a sort of firearm) they had given vile drugs.
“I am perfectly able to reason,” he’d told himself. “I have always, in the past, recovered from these fevers. I have never been so weak as I have been since all this was done to me.”
He thought it again, waiting on the empty staircase, either for help or punishment…the choice was not his. Always, a gang of men sat around the common room fire, and wherever there was a gang, there was sport. He would only make a joke of himself if he tried the courtyard door and found it locked…
He wanted to see Anne.
The knob of another door, one that opened onto the basement steps, bumped into its cratered niche in the plaster; and up came a cloud of unpleasant steam, smelling like the boiling of befouled sheets (it was). The billow preceded a man, who called out, “Jerome!” and bounded up the stairs. “McCutcheon put his head in at the window. Will you hurry along, Jerome?”
He was named Fromisch, and Honoré did not really know him. He crouched before Honoré, hands on knees, and Honoré looked into his face. “The office, sir…I have not been to the superintendent. Will you point the way to me?”
He let his weight fall against the newel post, and wrapped an arm around it. But Fromisch caught his other arm, saying at the same time, “Let loose that post. I’ll take you on over there myself.”
He meant this in the purest practical sense…taking a grip on Honoré’s wrist, slinging the arm round his neck, catching Honoré by the waist and carrying him in the manner of an injured man, Fromisch propelled him at a brisker clip than he had traveled for many months. A woman mopping circles on the common room floor straightened as they came near; with a reddened hand she stretched for the door.
“Thankee, Abigail,” Fromisch said.
And to Honoré: “You’ve not seen Lovas? Well, I can’t think of anything much I’ve heard. A lady and a priest…”
It was not the start of an anecdote. Fromisch cut himself short, and changed tacks. “You got no family in the county, do you, Jerome?”
Confused, Honoré repeated, “A lady and a priest?”
“Well. Now and again…it’ll be a widow, lot of times, wanting to donate some particular thing. A good pair of boots belonged to her husband, it might be, or a winter coat. Sometimes a religious article. So she asks Mr. Lovas to find her an inmate…you get my meaning?”
It was a heart-sinking possibility, then, that Anne had not come for him; that he was to meet a stranger, a woman of his own faith bearing a missal or some such, for the disposal of which Mr. Lovas had thought of the devout Jerome. Briefly, he saw Maier costumed (and quite capable of it) as a priest…but, if she had not left Maier, if she had not given Maier up, both as lover and as guiding light in criminality, Honoré hoped never to see Anne again.
Now the door at the end of the path was pulled open, and McCutcheon came out onto the stoop. He watched, edging back the corners of his mouth, and said nothing, while his hand on the doorknob worked to and fro. When Fromisch brought Honoré near enough for a private word, McCutcheon stepped down and put his face close, as though Honoré’s ears could in that way be excluded.
“Mr. Lovas has some papers to show Jerome. I’ll go ahead now and tell him again.” On this peevish note he stopped, and reversed himself; with an ironic sweep of the hand, he allowed Fromisch to hike Honoré over the threshold first.
And did not go ahead. McCutcheon came in on their heels, lowering his voice. “Father Zaide is one of those Jesuits. And she hasn’t said a word in English. She only talks to the priest.”
Continued from “talks to the priest”
The offices on this wing were at an upper level, along a length of open hallway exposed behind a wooden railing. Fromisch, who’d said merely, “Hmm,” in response to McCutcheon’s gossip, hesitated with his burden at the foot of the stairs. The door nearest the landing stood ajar. All the clerk’s movements were telegraphed from this point…the bounce of the stick that accompanied his rush to the upper landing, the smart rap on the frame of the door―
And once summoned inside the supervisor’s rooms, the intonation of his words, the import of the words themselves, those that burst out intelligibly―must be some money…back to his own people―easy to guess. Through the open door came McCutcheon’s indiscreet voice, flat, softer, confiding, louder. He issued again, followed by a man whose face was not old, but whose hair was white.
Fromisch heaved a sigh and made to haul Honoré up; the newcomer, helpful, trotted down halfway, to hover hands in the air near Honoré’s shoulder and elbow…for Fromisch was masterful in the discharge of his duties, and had in no time elevated Honoré as far as the open door. He released him there, drawing back with a watchful gesture, as one spinning a top. All three stood poised to see if Honoré could remain on his feet.
“Mr. Lovas,” Fromisch said. “Mr. McCutcheon. Is there any other thing I can do?”
“Mr. Fromisch, you may return to your work…with my gratitude, sir.” Lovas shook Fromisch by the hand, and looked at Honoré. “Mr. Jerome, I am Henry Lovas, acting superintendent.”
Honoré shook Lovas’s hand, and said nothing. Though Fromisch had mentioned the name, he had believed Mr. Nash to be the superintendent still; he had heard the names of so many officials, and hadn’t grasped what Fromisch was telling him. He hadn’t either, with his dumbfounded silence, offended Lovas. The acting superintendent gave leave to his clerk; McCutcheon stepped into the hall, and stood at attention, his stick propped on the top of his shoe, handle resting against his palm. Honoré, at Lovas’s behest preceding him, heard the door snap closed behind.
More politic than his clerk with inmates, Lovas ushered Honoré by the arm into what proved an antechamber, saying, “I have a small item of formal business…please take a seat, Mr. Jerome. Do you see that envelope?”
A gas sconce was fitted to the wall above; beneath this luxury of illumination, Honoré saw a legal-sized envelope lying on a round table beside a sofa. Lovas, he thought, meant for him to look at its contents. He dropped onto the sofa, landing in a clumsy sprawl, and Lovas shot forward, again making helpful movements that came too late.
“Those were found sewn into the lining of your coat, after you’d been…admitted…to the hospital as a public charge. They were placed in your file when you came to us.”
“Sailing for America! You will make yourself very ill, Honoré.”
He’d grown tired of this prediction, and gave no answer. Her other guest ignored her.
Sylvie fluttered…irresolute, as one might suppose. “What else do I know?”
No doubt she’d had it in mind already, what she wished to say. But she had gone to the window, and asked this of herself, of the raindrops and the red umbrella passing below. She then gave up the role, and said, in a voice as frank as Mme Sartain’s: “Jacques Rose, of course, lived for a time in Canada. That was where he sold his worthless shares, and made such trouble for himself. But I think you have never met that man Michelet.” Though still her back was to him, this name Honoré heard Sylvie make distinct. She cared enough to turn now, and meet his eye. “Also, Honoré, that relative of my husband, that niece, that I gave a place to in my house, so that she would not starve―that Anne.” She could nearly manage the innocence she meant to affect. “She, I suppose, went over with Jacques. But I would not go to her for advice. I will find you someone.”
Sylvie had acquired a suitor, an old admirer of her husband the general, one of the few now left who came to her house; though she dressed herself and laid her table as she had always done, willing that Honoré and her penurious baron constitute a salon.
“Nonsense, Sylvie!” The baron, dreaming over his pipe on her divan, roused himself. “Find someone! Honoré, I have been to America. Aboard ship you must carry only the money you need…and never sit down at cards! But your valuables you must keep on your person.”
Armed thus with fresh information, he’d returned home to Mme Sartain.
“Oh! You would like to hide away your papers? You have secret affairs, monsieur, that you hope to conceal? And you wish me to sew these things up for you…because of course, you cannot fathom this for yourself, this little chore a married man might ask of his wife!”
“No, madame…I apologize.” Fingers clinging to his envelope, he took a step backwards.
“Well, you had better show me this coat you plan to wear. Do you know―” She chopped at the air, cutting short Honoré’s second apology. “Monsieur Sartain is very angry with you.”
“Only these things…let me! Please, madame, I should have my passport, but the others…I apologize to Monsieur Sartain―”
He wrested free the paper that Maier had told him he must present to be waived through customs; and Clotilde’s aunt―having ripped open the envelope by which Honoré had thought to keep his private affairs from her eyes―had otherwise got the lot, the old and the new: the false passport, the little tintype of Thos. B. Jerome’s mother, the letter from Jerome’s father advising him to make certain purchases while in Paris (that touch of veracity that had made Maier thread his fingers together and smile like the sun).
She threw them all to the table, and with such force that W. A. Gremot’s dismissal floated away on a puff of air. Honoré stooped, and Mme Sartain, shooing him, also stooped.
He pleaded with her. “But this is business, madame, my reason for going. Clotilde cannot make a sea voyage. What if the baby comes? I’m sure it would die.”
She rose to her feet. She laid his letter atop the other papers. Sober as a magistrate, she looked these over, taking them up one at a time, each in turn duly considered. Last, she crossed to the window, angled the tintype to the light, pursed her mouth as she read the back of it…at no point had she given vent to the disgust that colored each movement, each frown and moue. He no longer had the courage to speak.
But at last, with Jerome’s mother in her hand, Mme Sartain rushed on Honoré, flapped the tintype under his nose, and drew breath.
“What if the baby comes? Then there will be one Gremot with more sense than you!” And in the end, all these she had confiscated from Honoré, she had sewn up together.
The man from the county’s three-legged stool had screeched and tottered into position, stirring him from sleep, the whump of the leather satchel on the floor rousing him completely. Honoré could recall his beginning to bend and rise, bend and rise, bringing things out of his bag. At the same time he talked. He was to determine, he said, whether Honoré qualified as destitute, and might be admitted on a judge’s order to the almshouse, or whether, in preference, he might be sent to his own house. Honoré lay suspended on a flow of words, distracted by the bobbing figure, the noises and the shuffling papers.
The man flashed a glimpse of Honoré’s forged passport before his eyes, and all at once spoke up in a clear voice, where for some minutes he’d seemed to ramble, chewing through the familiar tale, and Honoré had not kept pace.
“…calls herself Anne, now and again though, Clotilde…Jerome, that is; had a gentleman named Rose with her. You can probably tell me his other name.”
“No, monsieur, I cannot.”
Maier might rather have kept these papers, if he had not been in such a hurry. He would have wanted Gremot’s letter, for one, bearing as it did the address of a well-to-do American.
“Who in New Orleans did you say I should write to?” The man’s tone was trusting, as though the two of them together had already decided this.
But Honoré said, “No, I have no one.”
“You have a father, also Thomas B. Jerome?”
That he could be called to account for Maier’s fictions, Honoré had not considered. “I believe it will be of no use for you to write my father.”
“That may be. I’ll see what can be accomplished with a telegram.”
A second official had questioned Honoré, showing him, after each checking of a box, or notation, the form on which he recorded these answers.
Him, Honoré had told: “I am not French.”
And was shown a box marked, “Other”.
“Mr. Jerome, please forgive me.” Lovas cleared his throat. “Do you recognize these papers…do you acknowledge them, sir?”
With the sleeve of his dressing gown, Honoré blotted away tears. The papers were impersonal things; they gave credence to the life of a man who did not exist. Dogneaux’s letter was trash, a souvenir Honoré had kept because he thought of his father and their visit to Paris. He had acquired it as a consequence of that year’s events, and had used it to leave M. Gremot. The only paper he had from a relative of his own would look to have been written by, “a business associate, no more”—it was what Honoré had told the first official. As for Thos. B. Jerome, père…they could look for him, if they liked.
“Mr. Lovas, what question should I answer?”
“Your visitors are waiting in my office, Mr. Jerome. If you will step inside, now.”
This time the hand Lovas lent, after he’d watched a minute of Honoré’s groping for equilibrium, found its mark, and in this proximity, he added softly, “Mr. McCutcheon did have a difference of opinion with me, as to showing you the papers. He was inclined to question you. However, the description and circumstance of your arrival are to me persuasive enough.”
It was the priest Honoré saw at first, standing over the woman’s chair, and it was he whose face Honoré searched. McCutcheon had said a promising thing―that she spoke no English. Anne, depending on her game, might pretend so. But this was not Anne. The blue dress attracted his eye…of all colors, he had always liked this blue that was near purple. The woman’s posture was cowed. She had inched herself far back in her chair, and huddled with arms crossed over her belly, hands tucked from sight. Her hat had a bunch of netting veiling the brim, the face beneath not wholly seen. She darted a glance across, rather than look boldly up, and shuddered, freeing her arms with a jolt that shook her body.
Distrait, clutching at her hat, she leaned over her knees, all as though seized by some mad emotion, or sudden nausea. Lovas stepped between the chair and Honoré.
“Father Zaide, this is Mr. Thomas Jerome. Jerome, Father Zaide has brought this woman…”
She had got the hat and its obstructing garnish off her head; she drove the pearl-tipped pin through the crown, and flung the hat to the floor. Honoré’s first notion had been that she was herself an inmate. Next, it crossed his mind that to a stranger—a lady—he must smell very offensive. Then she began to wail.
“Oh…te voir…! Oh, Honoré, tu n’es pas morts!”
Lovas stopped speaking, and moved quickly behind his desk. Honoré believed himself to be having a crisis. He could not breathe.
He was able to shuffle to the chair, and fall there beside Clotilde; and far from being repulsed, she gathered him into her arms. By some miracle he could not grasp, she had forgiven him, when—so certain the Sartains had taught her to despise him—he had for almost a year not thought of her.
This April morning, frost held to the grass in every shaded place, marking out the shapes of house fronts, the trunks of trees, and each fence slat. Honoré had a muffler wound round his neck, stuffed into the collar of his overcoat. He used a stick, giving support on the right; on his left he relied on Clotilde, his hand on her shoulder, her arms round his waist. They walked as far as a street called Elm, every day. Honoré ate regular meals, every day. He did not feel well, after these two weeks of freedom—but he felt safe. They took their lunches and suppers with the other boarders. Father Zaide had visited twice. Otherwise, Honoré saw no one, only Clotilde.
“Are you tired, Honoré? Will you go a short way farther?”
They had two rooms at Connaught’s Hotel, and Clotilde, never before responsible for a household, had no part of her nature inclined to the dictatorial. She did not attempt to make terms with Honoré. She made only gentle requests. She hadn’t minded, or had shown no sign of minding, that on his release from the almshouse, he had spent three days resting, sleeping much of the time…or sitting blank-faced, empty of thought—and had barely spoken to her.
“I am writing a letter to my aunt.”
He thought she was prattling. He sat before the fire grate, the back of his chair touching hers, while she sat at the desk. He was wrapped in a wool blanket under a goose-feather comforter; inside this cocoon, his hands were warmed by a hot water bottle.
“I will put something in…to Bertrand, from his father. But you will tell me what to say.”
He felt the chair backs bump as Clotilde scooted round to see his face. “I meant to give our son your name, Honoré…but my uncle said he did not want to hear your name in the house. I thought it would please him better, then, to hear his own name.”
That was her way of calling this to his attention, that he’d forgotten the child. And he had. The day she’d rescued him from the almshouse had been so fraught for them both, that nothing had crossed his mind. But in the days that followed, Honoré had begun to feel patched back together, stepping blindly, with Clotilde’s hand holding his, into civilized life. He had allowed her to bathe him. He had accepted a box of clothing, brought by Father Zaide, not for charity’s sake—he no longer needed charity—but that practicality demanded. Honoré had no possessions.
It seemed late, at that point; yet in decency, he must find in himself love for this son, and persuade Clotilde that he felt it. He nearly loved her. She had ransomed him from a dark place, and she was the only one…the only one who would cross the ocean to do this.
“Bertrand is with your aunt, or have you sent him to your mother?”
He saw her eyes glisten, as though he’d said a hurtful thing. “No, Clotilde, I only ask. But the child was born in good health?”
“Honoré, when he is old enough, he will come here to live with us.” She waited, and he did not answer this, though it had been a question. “But, it’s true, my aunt is keeping him. Yes, Bertrand was born a fat baby. His hair is black, like yours, and he is always laughing.”
“Tell him…” Clotilde’s uncle had never been a believer, or a friend. Though not an enemy. Honoré owed his life to the Sartains, but felt they’d come already, and long since, to a fair settlement. “Tell your aunt and uncle that I send them my respect. Tell Bertrand he has my love.”
She got him outside for these walks to the end of their street, back to their house. Clotilde, with her mind on small advances, wanted only to see Honoré achieve one step further, eat with a better appetite, show the spark of his old ambition. But he feared, in secret—because to Clotilde he would not say so—that he was not recovering.
Opposite, all along the way, the low slant of the sun made shadow, refrigerating the air, so that Honoré and Clotilde, keeping to the street’s warmer side, felt both the sun’s rays on their cheeks, and a chill cross-breeze. A man coming towards them stopped abruptly, tilted up his hat, and gestured with a gloved hand at chest level, tracing a finger in the air as though calculating a sum. All this seemed an almost intentional projecting of his thoughts.
He called out: “Mr. Jerome! I’d have said it couldn’t be! You remember me, sir?”
“Mr. Waldgrave, I do remember.”
Waldgrave, crossing, kept Clotilde steady in his sight. Close now, he peered at her. She withdrew her arms from Honoré’s waist, and stood straight, puzzled, still gripping his sleeve. The meeting was awkward, for two reasons. The first, as a good husband, he must remedy at once.
“Mr. Waldgrave, you have not met my wife, Clotilde.”
To her, he said, “I stayed at this man’s house, when I first arrived here.” He was relieved that she accepted this, and asked no question. What Waldgrave might suppose Honoré had been up to could not be improved by seeming to exclude him, holding a private conversation under his nose, in their own language.
Waldgrave took this news in silence, and bent to press Clotilde’s hand. “Mrs. Jerome, it is my very great pleasure.” She gave him a wavering smile. He smiled back, some genuine pleasure occurring to him (as it would seem) that lent to his face a welcoming glow.
“Mr. Jerome,” he added. “I have a thing to say to you in confidence.”
“Mr. Waldgrave, you may return with us to our house, which is not far. Or…my wife, if you only speak English…she will not have heard you.” He hoped Waldgrave would ask, in plain terms, for the money that Anne must owe him.
Waldgrave backed away two steps, moving closer to the fence. Honoré, unwilling to instruct Clotilde, and, having no means of detaching her, drew her with him.
“This was that day Mrs. Waldgrave had gone after the doctor. It took her a couple hours’ wait before she could have her say, and about another hour with the doctor in his room. She had a lot on her mind, Mrs. Waldgrave.”
The landlord’s pause lengthened.
Honoré said, “I think so, yes.”
“Yes. She got him to promise he’d come round the house, cast his own eye on the…circumstance. She was chugging along, Mr. Jerome, back up the street, when a cab passed her by, headed off the other direction. Mrs. Waldgrave thought she saw a certain party was in that cab.”
Waldgrave fixed his eye on Honoré’s, lowering his head and raising his scant brows. These heavy hints were not, for Clotilde’s sake, necessary. But Honoré answered again, “I think so.”
“Well, the other thing I have to say is…my wife got into those rooms. She went up the stairs to knock on Mr. Barnsfield’s door, brought him down with her to be a witness. Mrs. Waldgrave can’t say how much time passed―”
Verging on a quip, he winked at Clotilde, rather than Honoré. Her eyes widened. “I’m just guessing it may have been more than an hour, her putting the whole thing across to Barnsfield. Barnsfield says to Mrs. Waldgrave, why doncha open that window? Don’t smell too good in here.” He grinned. “What’d she see, Mr. Jerome, when she looked out that window?”
What had she seen? Honoré, uncertain of Waldgrave’s motive, hazarded, “If this is a matter of concern, sir…that something has been taken…”
“No, no, no.” Waldgrave waved his hand. “No, what she saw, Jerome, was that certain party moving around behind the house. She had got something hid under those back steps. What was it?”
Surmising that Waldgrave had a habit of speech, Honoré waited this time for the dénouement to be supplied.
“A portmanteau, sir. Mrs. Waldgrave spoke to her through that open window…threatened to have the police after her. And that one took up a stone she had found there by the steps. Threw it, Jerome, and smashed out the other window in the bedroom. You’ll remember what the room was laid out like.”
“And…she was found by the police, after all?”
“Nope. She’s gone.” Waldgrave nodded with decision, extending the vowel on the last word.
Honoré felt that, bundled as he was, he would not extract his pocketbook without some difficulty. But he tucked his stick under his arm, and closed fingers on a coat button.
“No, Mr. Jerome, I don’t ask you for a nickel.”
As they returned, Honoré walked the fence side, and Clotilde, again on his left, studied the hard-packed dirt to spot such pebbles and gouges as might twist a shoe heel. As often as she looked down, she glanced up again, and he would not meet her eyes…but could sense, nonetheless, ardency there, an unspoken plea. He ignored her. She could not bring herself to ask what words he’d exchanged with Waldgrave, and Honoré would not explain unless she did ask. Waldgrave’s story solved some portion of the mystery. Her carpet bag—he had almost come to think of it as part of Anne, so integral was it to his picture of her—had been empty. Or perhaps his own clothes had been stuffed inside to give it weight. She had discarded it on the street; she hadn’t cared to keep it. The bag, in Anne’s scheme with Maier, had been a distraction. She had come back for what she wanted.
He did not feel well.
On the day following his talk with Waldgrave, he got up and dressed, and saw through the window that again the ground was covered in frost. They had been lucky, or perhaps Clotilde had been clever in her choice—their sitting room was at the corner of the house. The room was papered in rusty red, its moldings and baseboards varnished dark brown, and it seemed, despite this, pleasant and light. Windows on two sides allowed a flow of air on a warm afternoon, that vented away the close smells of a much-used carpet, a downstairs kitchen kept boiling and frying most of the day.
At Sylvie’s, near the end of Mme Rose’s time, he had felt this lethargy and ache, of fever coming on. He had tried morning after morning to rise, to dress, to work, to write…only a paragraph or two at the desk in the room Sylvie had given him.
“I won’t walk today,” he told Clotilde.
Meaning to show him a bright face, she smiled; he saw her smile fall away, and her eyes that shed tears so easily, fill. She turned, catching herself on the edge of the desk. “Honoré!” As though happily the idea had just occurred to her, she lifted both hands at once, and came back to the sofa, carrying a sheet of writing paper, and a pencil. “If you write it down and ask the kitchen for a tray, I will go…only for a minute.”
So that she would not stand there in tears and eagerness holding things, he stopped speaking and wrote:
Mme Jerome, as you know, Mrs Connor, can speak only french. She will ask you for a tray, for breakfast. And I am only here in our room to be consulted for anything.
What else? He felt, on a second reading, that Mrs. Connor would understand this, and that it would do. He printed his name, and gave the note to Clotilde, but when her fingers closed on it, held the paper for a moment before letting her take it away.
“Clotilde…one day soon, you will have to try harder. Otherwise, you know, you need my help with everything.”
Now he was alone. He lay on his back, raised his feet to the sofa cushion, and rested there with knees bent, unselfconscious of his boot heels. Tweedloe’s letter lay on the table. Honoré, throwing out an arm, caught at its edge.
On that first day, with Father Zaide accompanying them to their rooms, Clotilde had said to him: “There is something I am meant to give you.”
She’d crouched over her bag, and with a blanched face peered up, while her hands shook over the undoing of its buckles. “Monsieur l’abbé, tell my husband, please, what Monsieur Broughton said.”
“Mr. Tweedloe’s instruction, Mr. Jerome, as related to Madame Gremot by Mr. Broughton, was that the letter be placed in your hands.”
It had been Broughton who’d arranged Clotilde’s passage, seen to it she had shipboard companions with whom she could speak, telegraphed to the priest, Zaide, arranged that he wait for her at the New Jersey pier where her ship had come to harbor. When they’d taken their seats on the train, Zaide showed to Clotilde a paper, on which were written three or four addresses. They were alike to her; the thought of a day spent visiting these houses one after another, nerve-wracking. She’d pointed to the Connaught Hotel, saying, “This one, this one…will we go to the almshouse today?”
“Madame Gremot, we will not arrive in Utica today. And this business of securing your rooms must be done, or where will you go to live, having found your husband?”
“But how could I wait? How could I know you were alive?”
Clotilde had spent a month, from the day Broughton appeared at the Sartains’ door, praying…and weeping. Yet, apprised by him of Honoré’s disaster—even for having accepted the full scope of it—she’d felt towards Honoré no condemnation.
After fishing the letter from an inside pocket of her valise, she’d called his attention to its seal. “Honoré, look, I have never touched it.”
He was sorry she thought this of him, that he must be so ready to snap at her, to assign blame. He had put the letter aside…then looked at it finally; afterwards leaving it on the table, at hand to be taken up again. Each day, needled anew by some remark of Tweedloe’s, he felt compelled to read it over.
Near Braintree, Essex
2nd, February, 1875
My dear Gremot,
You may well imagine my delight at receiving some six of your letters, bundled together and wrought upon with quizzical inscriptions rendered by various hands. Gremot, I carried the lot to the fire―and set about reading them by its light. I said to myself, ‘My old acquaintance has made his way to America. He sends news.’ I was not troubled to note that the address of your apparent home was shared by that of an Oneida County almshouse. They do things differently abroad, I reminded myself. Gremot may not, after all, have succeeded in reducing himself to that most abject state of impoverishment, for which Destiny seems specially to have marked him out.
And since you ask for nothing, I will tell you about my auriculas. I have set out two dozen cuttings from a particularly good purple, with a vibrant yellow eye―a variety named ‘Royal Robe’; also, I have hopes of propagating the orange-ish sport (discovered by Mr. Allenby) of a rather commonplace yellow, ‘Madame Defarge’―
Perhaps, however, Broughton has got the right idea about you. He proposes that this insistence of yours, this motif which repeats itself in virtually the same terms through six otherwise dull and uninformative examples of your prose, is to be interpreted as begging. Broughton would have it, and he is more the man of the world than I, that you have got yourself in a desperate spot, and appeal to me for your deliverance. He blames himself. He tells me he had rashly attempted to discourage this emigration scheme of yours, having supposed you might respond to good advice by choosing wisely. Nevertheless, I must say in his defence, that in nearly all other matters of the intellect, I find Broughton perfectly sound.
I am rather late in setting these thoughts down. I had, in fact, sent a telegram to a man I know of, who lives in the city of New York. He, in turn, has sent a report of such interest, Gremot, that I shall herewith impart its contents, with the wish that you may heed the lesson contained therein.
Maier and Anne had insured Honoré’s life three times over; Anne, in each instance, presenting herself as Mrs. Thos. B. Jerome, and being named beneficiary. The difficulty for the felon, in the prosecution of this type of fraud―as Tweedloe’s agent had informed him―was not so much in obtaining the policy (for this was only a matter of paying money to those eager to receive it), but of proving the death. Anticipating Honoré’s furnishing himself at length in the role of mortal remains, Anne and Maier had planned to bide their time, their reliance invested in the “excellent gift” to which Maier had once referred. Anne’s neglect of Honoré, and the patent medicines she’d made him swallow, Tweedloe told him bluntly, had been acts of deliberation.
Continued from “acts of deliberation”
By no means is Mme Lugard lacking in that shrewd grasp of life’s facts with which society generally credits women of her profession. You must guard against this weakness of reason, Gremot, and exercise common sense. Have you not observed with your own eyes (and on more than one occasion) the native acumen upon which Mme Lugard is capable of drawing, when the reach of the law is imminent? Yet, you will believe she could not have judged that you were in need of a doctor.
Had Maier known you as I know you, he would better have appreciated the pertinacity with which you cling to life. He would have apprehended, long before the Waldgraves began to suspect Mme Lugard, the futility of his waiting game.
Now, as to your difficulties. Some portion, bear in mind (and rather to one’s astonishment) remains to you yet, of the legacy which you received from Mme Rose. This is no great sum, but it will pay your debt, and allow you, for a time, to live comfortably. Serrigny will arrange the transfer of these funds to a New York bank. You are not so many months from your twenty-fifth birthday, when you shall be entitled to the lot. After that, I can think of only one circumstance which may intervene when tempting opportunity weighs in, once more, with your determination to surpass yourself in folly, having got your hands on any amount of money.
This letter I despatch to you by a messenger whose presence at your side will come athwart any future representations of Mme Lugard. It will do you good to feel ashamed of your conduct. For better or worse, you must assume the responsibility to which you have pledged yourself.
p.s. I may have a small job for you in America, by which—if you are able to take it on―you will have the chance of augmenting your income. Do not thank me.
The last of his fortune, an amount that had looked substantial when calculated in francs, dwindled in American dollars to a balance of two-thousand eight hundred and twenty-three…this, through five or six years of frugal boarding house living, might perhaps stretch so far. But Honoré now had two mouths to feed. And he had yet to settle with the almshouse.
Mr. Lovas, at the sight of their reunion (and needing not much of Honoré’s gasping and Clotilde’s moaning, before taking alarm) had left his office through a side door. A moment later he was back, ushering in another man, not McCutcheon—a junior clerk, perhaps, or a secretary.
“Fetch Mr. Fenchurch. He must be on the grounds somewhere.”
A horrid and distressing thought came to Honoré. He would be found ill; they would not let him go. He would remain imprisoned here.
“No, Mr. Lovas, no.” He struggled to force himself—as he had never before struggled—to breathe quietly. Clotilde sobbed, her nose buried in Honoré’s dressing gown, and urged him not to die: “Not now! Not when I have come for you!” He’d felt hope then, that her purpose, her reason for bringing Father Zaide, was to gain his freedom, and to take him…not home, but away.
“No, Mr. Lovas, I will not need a doctor. You can see I am not ill at all. This is nothing.”
“Father―” Lovas put out his open palms.
“There are matters of business…yes? I have no doubt.” Zaide remained standing, still and impassive, in front of Lovas’s desk. “But…if you will trust me to return. You are able to give leave to an inmate, in such cases where he may pay a family visit?”
“Yes, I am able to do that on my own authority. I see your meaning, Father.”
And when Honoré had paid his bill, he would have less money…not enough to guarantee his future. Money was a discouraging worry; these early signs of his infirmity returning, far more so. He had held it off somehow, kept hungry and vigilant, living in constant fear; he had hidden himself, and even fever had overlooked him.
So it seemed…but now he’d relaxed his guard, it had found him again.
He saw the knob twist and the door open, propelled by an invisible hand, as though a ghost entered. But the sound of a woman’s voice came from the landing, breathless; her words loud and slow as she repeated some instruction. “There now. Get that door back on its hinges. Door…never mind.”
The woman, whom he knew to be Mrs. Connor, backed into their parlor, carrying a tray. She emitted a grunt…of the voluntary sort, to imply that this had been an undertaking, bringing up this order.
“Oh, merci, merci!”
Coming in on her heels, Clotilde moved in front of her, and reached to help. Mrs. Connor said, “No!” She softened her tone. “Don’t you touch that, ma’am. Let me lay these things out.” She noticed Honoré. “Are you getting up? No reason for that, heaven sakes!”
She’d brought a pot of coffee, buttered toast, four little mummified fish taken late from the skillet, milk, jam, and two boiled eggs. He would have to get up, to eat this breakfast, but she cowed him somewhat. Honoré, saying in English what Clotilde had said, “Thank you, madame, thank you”―waited until after Mrs. Connor left them, to fight the sofa again.
His wife stood attentive, holding a paper.
When he did not acknowledge her, she followed his movements with alert eyes, as he put his nose over his cup; and finding the coffee not too hot, drained it, then poured out a second. Defeated, Clotilde sank to her knees, but in this wilted posture remained for only a moment. She drew herself up, took a knife, and set to work spreading jam on a piece of toast. She pushed toast and paper across the table. It was the note he’d written, the name “Connor” crossed through with a line, the spelling corrected.
“I have made a mistake,” he told Clotilde. Mrs. Connaught was, in fact, the hotel’s owner, not an unrelated proprietress. He accepted the toast and used it as a pointer, to emphasize his instruction. “Eat your breakfast, madame.”
Clotilde sat on the sofa, and Honoré lay on his side, knees drawn up, his head on her lap. One of her hands massaged his back, the fingers of the other twined curls in his short hair, and let them fall. Clotilde was a comfort. He admired her, even, for her devotion, and for the courage she’d shown. She was a girl who shrank from strangers and new places…she must have willed this sacrifice, this odyssey to America.
He asked himself why he found such fault in her.
The last time he’d made her cry, she’d done nothing, merely answered him, when asked, “I suppose Monsieur Broughton paid your fees, and got your papers for you?”
“Papers! What papers do I need?”
“No! Pay attention to me. Your passport, of course.”
“Oh…but I don’t know.”
Already her face had become wary, and the way in which she folded her arms and lowered her eyes told Honoré another thing—he was about to hurt her, and she anticipated this. Clotilde had got used to his treatment of her, his irritable temper, his carping habit. He ought to stop.
But so important to Honoré were these questions, that he’d hammered them at her, even after the tears broke. His anger was with Maier. Each document he’d purchased, each that Maier had insisted he could not do without, had been presented as a separate expense. And Honoré had done nothing at the customs shed in Halifax but hold Anne to his side (or perhaps she had held him) and wait, while Maier went away whistling a tune, and came back a short time later to lead them down the pier. Whatever emolument Maier had arranged, Honoré had needed only that, and might have paid it himself, if he’d been savvier, if he’d known the corrupt avenues Maier knew.
Tweedloe’s accounting of Maier’s history did not take in the amoral whole.
He had seen her face, at first not remembering who she was. But a voice intervened:
“Clotilde, come out of there! This is not the time.”
The voice was Mme Sartain’s, and he saw Mme Sartain every day. He believed in her. He hadn’t believed in Gilbert, who seemed not to keep still, and whose face took on various characters, shifting from one to another before Honoré’s eyes, in a fashion his illness had made familiar and tedious to him. Often, Gilbert was really Gérard.
Gérard had carried Honoré to Mme Rose’s house, because Sylvie asked it. Gérard’s nature was excitable; he believed himself persecuted and unloved—but it was because of these qualities he never said no when asked for a favor. Such slights as most would regard petty…a letter misplaced and unanswered, the mention of a name without permission of its owner, worried Gérard, the opium-eater, the communist, the half-Spaniard. Gérard worried that on him, for even such things, revenge might be taken.
“The house is empty!”
The shop indeed, as they had found it, was dark and shuttered. A few items of no value were left on the shelves—the paper that covered these, a candle butt, a few of the apothecary bottles. Gérard spun on his heel and faced the open door, and they both heard the fiacre bounce on its springs, followed by measured hoofbeats that rapidly accelerated to a trot. Gérard put his hands to his temples, and fell against the jamb…but these expressions, though extravagant, might have been born of a genuine despair.
They’d got as far as the boulevard Montparnasse. The driver had said to Gérard, “There is a barricade ahead, blocking the way. I will have to stop.” In a moment, he’d added, “Here comes a guardsman.”
The fiacre’s doors on both sides were yanked open, and Honoré opened his eyes. He had sagged low on his seat, and saw only the citizen-soldier who stood on Gérard’s side; but he could hear the driver shouting at a third man.
“No! Well, if you do, you may as well throw me in prison. Take my horse! You will bankrupt me!”
From the left, he heard the command: “Citizen, step out! Stand forward!”
“I will step out…” Gérard’s voice shook with agitation. “I am only taking my friend to visit a dying woman. I don’t understand this.”
“You also!” The other tugged at Honoré’s coat. “What! Is this one dying, too?”
Gérard had moved away, and it was from a distance Honoré heard him speak. “You don’t suppose he can walk?”
“You had better have an ambulance.” The guardsman came closer. Honoré heard a jingling of harness rings, and the driver shouting, “Leave that alone!”
“Citizen, this is not your horse.”
Boot heels clattered. Grunts and the sound of grappling bodies. At the same time, the soldier who’d been jerking Honoré by the arm in desultory fashion, heaved an angry sigh, climbed out of the fiacre, and slammed the door. Gérard, closer, said, “I am a member of the Commune myself. Citizen, I realize, of course, that this animal belongs to the people. But…” A pause. “You will allow me―for an hour…that is all I need―to rent the horse. I have twenty francs. Good silver. You see.” Silence. The guardsman spoke.
“Where are you going, then? I will have to ride with you.”
He had not been incapable of walking.
They had pushed him from the carriage, and he had walked to Mme Rose’s door. He would pay Gérard the twenty francs…he’d said so. Yet some part of Honoré’s mind told him he had seen only a picture of himself saying these words. He was instead, by habit, moving slowly towards his old room.
The door, before he touched its glass knob, was pulled open from inside. A woman was seated there, beside Mme Rose, the room lit by only a crack of daylight through its boarded-over window. He knew now it had been Mme Sartain who’d taken him by the wrist, silently drawn him across the threshold, and closed the door with such soft deliberation, not even the latch had clicked. The seated woman was a servant of the Sartains. And Mme Rose, lying on the bed, her skin turned yellow, her mouth agape, had seemed beyond waking, unable to know that he’d come back. At her request, he’d come back.
Mme Sartain spoke to Honoré. She asked, he thought, if he would leave again with Gérard. Too quiet for his ears, she said something to her maid. Understanding none of it, he lay himself on the bed, his hand dropping next to Mme Rose’s, his cheek against hers. Her skin felt cold and dry. His breath came back hot in his face. But she was not dead. She lifted her arm, and her fingers, like drifting feathers, came to rest in his hair.
The hallucinations weren’t frightening; they were a nuisance. In the mornings, when Honoré felt calm, only too tired and weak to sit up, he did not see things. But during the afternoons and evenings, when the room grew close and hot, and Mme Sartain would not open the window (“No, my poor child, the air is full of burning. Be quiet about the window”), he was disappointed. His state seemed unimproved, his fever would not abate, his cough brought up a quantity of blood. He would die, he thought.
He told himself, no, I won’t die. What would I die of?
“Gilbert, am I in Paris?”
“Yes, of course.”
Gilbert read to him until he slept; when Honoré woke, Gilbert drew up his quilts or turned them down, depending on whether he felt too chilled or too hot, and gave him water to drink. He lifted Honoré, and helped him lay more comfortably against his pillows.
“But, you were there with me. You came with me to Madame Rose… And then you left. You went away while I was telling you― Well, I don’t remember.”
“Honoré, I have only arrived in the city eight days ago.”
“I think she has died.”
“Yes, it’s true, I’m sorry to say. Do you remember that we’ve talked about this already? It is that friend of yours you think of.” Gilbert bent for the Patrie he had laid on the rug, and carried it to the window. “There’s an article here, where the Comte de Boussac says a good thing.”
In a speech before the National Assembly at Versailles, culminating with the resignation of his post, Boussac, armed this time with only the fist he pounded into the palm of his hand at every point he made (multiple times in succession where the point was most emphatic), charged that France had been disgraced, made stupid and brought low, her army unmanned―and that these comeuppances had been brought on by her own infatuation with Empire, well before she had lost the war, the bloodbath owed to the Communards a symptom, merely…yet one which gave proof of this warning which Boussac delivered to the assembly—that France’s population had grown adulterated, provincial, her strength sapped by ignobility, her vulnerable borderlands overrun with peasant stock, men of precisely the sort which compose the mob. The heart of the nation (Boussac, not wholly unreconciled to the Prussian demands, was prepared to divest France of her Basques and Bretons in addition to her Alsatians) would beat with more vigor severed from this weight.
“He would like to live in the days of Clovis; Charlemagne is too modern.”
Honoré smiled as Gilbert read through Boussac’s condemnations; laughed a little, even, at his friend’s quip…and Gilbert threw the paper down, returning to his chair.
“Honoré, I want to make a confession.” He leaned over Honoré, stared into his eyes, rested a hand on his forehead. “Yes, I think you are better today…I think so. You have been calling me Gérard, you know. I don’t want to say this to you, unless I can be sure you will understand me.”
Having heard nothing from Honoré since the end of August, Gilbert in October had suspended publication of the Progressiste. He’d begged a meeting with Sevier, now the paper’s only contributor; had huddled with Sevier in his father-in-law’s upstairs room…Dogneaux the printer had come along as well.
Sevier considered his waistcoat buttons, and thumbed his watch chain. “Gilbert, the answer is that I will buy the Progressiste.”
He elbowed Dogneaux at once, and he, on the verge of speaking, fell silent. Sevier named his sum. One hundred francs was neither the fortune Honoré had envisioned; nor, in fact, as much money as Sevier had on hand. “Twenty francs in earnest. Dogneaux and I will give you that much today…you have one or two subscribers, the name is worth something. And Gilbert, you will manage our business affairs just as you have been. Then, you see, all the early profits…I mean by profits, of course, money not taken by expenses, will make up the rest.”
“Monsieur Sevier, the Progressiste is not mine to sell.”
Rather than be hired on speculation, to become an employee of Sevier’s, and do the work that as half-owner he did already, Gilbert had taken over from Dogneaux those tasks by which Honoré had once earned a portion of their rent…and found himself most days setting type and treadling out handbills, in the dank and poorly-lit Dogneaux cellar.
He had been at the task of arranging letter cases, as Dogneaux had at some point between the afternoon of the day before and that morning, disarranged them—
“Do you remember Honoré Gremot?”
“Honoré is my very good friend, madame. I have not forgotten him.”
“It is his father.”
Gilbert dropped his work, and turned to see Mme Dogneaux’s face. She looked somewhat exasperated, as she leaned over the rail. This was not the decently mournful composure Gilbert would have expected. But he knew madame had disliked Honoré’s father.
“I’m sorry, madame.” He swallowed. “Sorry to hear of it. And I doubt I can be of much help. Honoré…”
“You will have to speak to him. He gave me his card.” She snorted, for this had been a snub. “You may as well have it.” She fluttered the card in the air at Gilbert, and―probably due only to clumsiness―it fell from her fingers. Mme Dogneaux was not unkind to Gilbert. He squatted, reached to pick it up, then heard the voice of M. Gremot.
“Gilbert! He has been sending you messages.”
“Do you mean Honoré, monsieur?”
Honoré had not asked Gilbert, in the midst of this recounting, how his father had looked. He had a vivid picture, and could not recall if Gilbert had sketched it in their talk, or if his own imagination had, of stiff hands hooked over the stair rail, shoes planted on the first and second steps, no lower. His father throwing backwards glances at the cellar door, as though he doubted whether Mme Dogneaux, having lured him there, were not capable of locking him in.
Honoré had then been away the better part of a year.
He had not written to his father, not once; and if M. Gremot understood this to mean, as it did, that Honoré would have no more to do with him, and if this circumstance had borne home, at length…had cost Papa some small anxiety in the night’s watches, he could not have looked any more the scarecrow. Honoré had always seen his father hollow-cheeked, lank-haired, and reedy of build.
And if his suitcoat had not at last parted at the seams, neither would his costume have changed. Even at this extremity, he would want the coat restitched. (He might even ask Mme Dogneaux to do the work, so dependent on their mutual enmity had the Dogneaux and M. Gremot become.)
“Yes, and I have been told…he is a blackguardly looking fellow, Gilbert. I believe he means only to swindle me.”
Gilbert sorted this. “A man has come to you, monsieur, and he has told you some news.”
“News! He tells me that Honoré is dying in Paris!”
“But you don’t believe him.”
“He did…Honoré…used to send telegrams.”
“But, monsieur, I always brought them to you.”
M. Gremot admitted that the man had not asked him for money; had sworn, even, that he would pay the fare himself. “But, of course, it is impossible now to enter Paris…so what can he mean, Gilbert?”
“He is coming back, this man?”
“Coming back…listen! He tells me he has been hired to fetch me, and that when he is paid to do a job, he does it! He will answer me nothing as to who employs him. And so, I think, why not…” Here, Honoré’s father decided against telling Gilbert what he thought. “But it is out of the question. I can never leave my work.”
It was puzzling. For a moment Gilbert stood, still with M. Gremot’s card in hand, and tried to guess how, within the terms of such a proposition, a man could be swindled…if that man were poor, and only a lawyer’s clerk.
From the front of the house, a sound of commotion descended, and M. Gremot, lifting one hand from the rail, swept this past his own ear, twice, as though shooing away foolish words, that they might not penetrate his hearing. He pivoted, then, climbed to the cellar door, and burst into the kitchen. At once, Gilbert discerned a fourth voice, an oddly accented voice, one that spit short, and resentful, answers, from amid the shouting of Gremot, Mme and M. Dogneaux.
Gilbert hurried after M. Gremot.
The stranger was of Mme Dogneaux’s height, somewhat less tall, therefore, than Dogneaux himself, but taller by a head than Honoré’s father. He was sinewy, unshaven but not bearded, his disreputable coat and hat fitting him too well to have been scavenged.
“Our friend Gremot is to go to Paris with you…and you tell him there he will hear something to his advantage.” Dogneaux said this, a hand gripping the arm of Honoré’s father, intonation snide on the word “advantage”.
“No. I tell you plainly that Honoré Gremot is dying. Nothing else, only that.” The man shrugged. “But this concerns his father, if it concerns anyone. Or, I will say”―a sour smile animated his face―“if it is to the advantage of anyone. But you will not blame me if he is dead already. I have waited two days now, at my hotel.”
“Gilbert!” Mme Dogneaux in her own right seized an arm, Gilbert’s, and pulled him into the kitchen. “What has this man said?”
It was M. Gremot at whom she stabbed a finger. “Every day, what has he said? Only that he expects his son to die in Paris!” She turned to the stranger. “Is there any message?”
“What!” He took this question incredulously, almost affrontedly. “Madame…you mean to say…from Honoré to his father?”
Meanwhile, Mme Dogneaux had been digging in her apron pocket. “Because!” She found a coin, thrust it under the stranger’s nose. “I will pay you for your service—I don’t grudge the loss of a franc piece! And Honoré’s father will be happy then. He will be doubly happy! He has saved his own money, and he can wash his hands now, of his son. You have told him what he hoped to hear!”
At this outrage, M. Gremot found himself goaded to express that which he’d thought better of earlier. “This man is a friend of Honoré.”
The stranger glowered.
“How do I know, then…I know my son. I know the notions Honoré takes, and it is possible. After all, he must have very little money…”
Gilbert saw it. M. Gremot allowed it. Gilbert blushed to relate it, and Honoré guessed that to some degree, his friend had allowed this himself—that he, in pursuit of his father’s money, would put Michelet up to the story (that the stranger was Michelet seemed manifest, though he’d not given Gilbert his name). But even had his faith been perfect, M. Gremot could not have brought himself to act. He feared this too much…this rushing off madly; he would lose both his living and his good name. He could not go to Paris.
“Monsieur Gremot,” Gilbert had said. “Shall I go in your place?”
“Of course your father loves you. But he doesn’t trust you.”
His friend was wrong, as to the first. Honoré wondered, though…
“My father gave you money, Gilbert?”
“He gave me one hundred francs. Honoré, I have spent most of it.” He seemed to think of something. “Are you telling me the truth, that you have no debts? No!” This time, after a pause, Gilbert said, “I don’t mean to say that. I mean…I don’t know what you want money for, but it’s yours by right. You can have it. I will only need to find work.”
“No, Gilbert. By right, the money is yours.”
Gilbert’s own rail journey to Compiègne had passed, in contrast to Honoré’s, with such placid efficiency that he had nothing to report of it, other than the unsatisfactory disclosures―and few of these―offered by Michelet.
“Do you think we will be let through the gate? Does one not need permission from a general of the army…or…” Gilbert cast doubtful eyes towards his companion’s hat brim, Michelet having made his face unavailable by pulling this low. “Or, of the National Guard, is it?”
“Are you very stupid, monsieur?”
The means of entering the city of Paris was not a topic for railway carriages, Gilbert gathered. A minute passed in silence. He asked then, as he had asked already, “Have you seen Honoré?” And went further this time. “His cough has become much worse?”
“No! No…understand, I am not Honoré’s friend. Honoré, I think does well enough for friends. Those times I have seen him, his cough was not so bad…he always knew when to lie down and rest himself. I think you may be assured of it, he will never try his strength farther than he must. No…but, see monsieur, it does not cost all the money in the world to hire me! A man who barely lives, who can be made use of today and forgotten tomorrow…on another day, perhaps, used again―he may be sent on an errand, as the man who has money sees fit to pay him. But, all this…” Michelet gestured as though the two of them, journeying in this fashion―he, without baggage; Gilbert, facing uncertainty with the sum of his possessions stuffed into a small satchel, neither well dressed, both having lunched on bread and coffee, and seated in a third class compartment―could embody some overriding theme of largess.
“…must be paid for by someone…you can see that.”
He sat forward during this speech, crossed his ankles, and pointed three times for emphasis to the carriage floor, seeming to feel he’d carved out for Gilbert a picture of wealth…what it did for those who had it, what it meant to those who did not.
“My grandmother allows me a cot in her kitchen, and we live together in this one room. She asks only six francs a week. She has rented everything else to pay her own rent. But, she says she is happy to have me at home.”
They had not taken a hotel at Compiègne, but directly took a boat, one for which Michelet had arranged when he’d first passed through. While the boatman squinted down the course of the Oise, Michelet tugged at a sack, drawing this with curses from a coil of rope. Gilbert quavered on the top of a low wall. It appeared from this he must jump—that was what Michelet had done―and the boatman, watchfully studying Michelet, thrust his hand behind his back. Without turning, he waited for Gilbert to clasp it.
Michelet clucked. “Have you left this in the open for three days, to be ruined by the rain?”
He was undressing himself as he spoke, discarding his original coat, leaving it on the deck in a heap. He pulled another out of the sack…a soldier’s coat; clearly so, to judge from its decorated collar and buttoned skirt.
The boatman gave a jerk of the arm, and Gilbert found a coil of rope did not make for a soft landing.
“Ruined?” A long ruminative pause. “I have not let anyone touch your worthless sack. I have not touched it myself. That, monsieur, is what you asked of me.”
“Gilbert,” Honoré said, “I don’t know what day it is.”
“It is the twenty-fifth day of April.”
“There you see…I don’t misunderstand. I know you, of course. But I’ve lost my…”
No. Honoré’s thought had been that ordinary living, that mundanities such as walking along a street, noticing the rain, how far from home you were when it began to fall…or the stink of cabbage that wafted from a cellar window, the impact of one’s shoe striking pavement, punctuating conversation…these small sights and smells fixed one’s memories, and without them, lodged in an unchanging room, things remembered drifted and merged with things dreamt. “Say what you have to say. It may be you will tell me again if I forget.”
Gilbert coughed behind his hand, and hooked his heel on the chair rung, clasped one knee, and for a time, stared at the rug. “You told me, on the day you left, that you were finished with your father…and I said to you, no, I don’t think that can be. You told me, if I remember…that Monsieur Gremot had saved his money to help you make a start, but when you’d wanted money for the Progressiste, he refused…”
Honoré stirred. “Yes! I told him, this is my work, and he told me I played a game of working. But, could I have gone back to live under my father’s roof? You know I could not. Could I leave Bruxelles and make my own way? You see he would not allow it. Look how he was when I borrowed money…”
Cut short, Honoré shut his mouth. After a moment, Gilbert said: “You thought he had got his gossip from Madame Dogneaux.”
“Well, but, Gilbert, Dogneaux, when I saw him last, had some especial grudge against my father. More than their old trouble.”
Continued from “their old trouble”
“Honoré, I can’t answer to that. Dogneaux had probably spoken to him about what I…” A longer moment stretched. Gilbert began—in a painful way—to find words. “I had an idea…it seemed sensible to me then. I thought that your father would not be at peace with your four hundred francs debt to Monsieur Eckhold…I thought if he knew, he would want to pay the debt himself, to cancel it. He would be very angry with you, of course…and so you could not borrow twice. Then you would have to abandon your Paris scheme. Honoré, what did I try to tell you?”
He put both feet on the floor and stood, leaning with crossed arms on the washstand that Mme Sartain had moved to Honoré’s bedside.
Gilbert had tried to frighten him with a story. But Honoré could see his position equivocal, should he point out now the nonsense of his friend’s smallpox. He said, “What do you see out the window? Is it raining?”
“I’m looking at pigeon dung. The roof here swims in it…and then…” Gilbert straightened and edged himself between bed and washstand. “I can just see the walk opposite. There are three windows below the street, but nothing to see inside―one has a lamp and the others are dark. Here is Monsieur Sartain, leaving the house with his daughter…I suppose the girl must be his daughter. She is overdressed for the weather, I would say. No, I think it hasn’t rained…it may be raining far off. Or the haze I see might be only smoke.”
Honoré knew the Sartains to be childless. But the girl could hardly matter. “Gilbert, open the window.”
A few seconds passed. “Well, I will then.”
Outdoor air and the sounds of the street were the only fresh things that could come to Honoré’s senses, to anchor him in a world that had features, and events that altered from day to day.
“Gilbert, if you like, you may write to my father.”
“Honoré, I have written to him. He knows…he has the right, I think.”
“But tell him this. I have paid my debt.”
Sucking in breath with a stifled noise, Gilbert abruptly left the room. Honoré would rather not puzzle over his friend’s emotion, which threatened to break out at all times they were together. Gilbert thought him dying―or thought Honoré believed this himself. He did not. By paying his debt, he’d meant only that Tweedloe had, in purchasing it, paid M. Eckhold. And that M. Gremot, if he liked, might ask Eckhold whether this were true, that Honoré owed him nothing, and be told: “It is”.
His father would not know the difference.
Mme Sartain, helped by two servants, was vigorously assaulting Honoré. The younger of these, dressed this time in the black of a housemaid’s uniform, and set to the task of polishing, he knew well…but had never until this day seen her in his room. The rag oiled the sick-room air with the scent of oranges. Octavie’s eyes, when she happened to glance at the patient, darted upwards to an unseen horizon.
Mme Sartain bathed him, dipping her sponge into a basin of tepid water. She and the domestic he’d first seen at Mme Rose’s house, stripped his bed and changed his linens, rolling him from one side to the other. They tucked Honoré into a dressing gown and drew up his clean sheet and blanket; these chores executed so briskly that Mme Sartain would not pause to answer questions.
He felt sweat dampen his arms and back. “Too much…”
“Please, monsieur. None of this, when I have just finished putting you in order!”
She closed her hand over Honoré’s, and stopped his uncovering himself. “You have two visitors today!” She stepped back from the bed, fixed him with a look, then stepped further, giving the whole room her inspection. He saw that she noted the corner where Gilbert had placed a mirror to reflect the window, as Honoré had asked. He would not explain this to Mme Sartain if she ordered it restored.
But she said only, “Octavie, go! Monsieur l’abbé is waiting.”
His first visitor was Guillaume La Roche.
“I am sorry to find you confined to your bed.” La Roche pulled the chair closer. “Do you have all you need for comfort? Is there anything you would like to ask, before we begin?”
Today he wore an ordinary suitcoat and trousers, wisdom for a priest braving the Commune. But unquestionably, he had come to perform the offices of his calling. The Sartains had got the incongruous notion, Honoré thought, that the Abbé La Roche was his own priest. He could guess only that this had arisen through Broughton’s inquiries, and that Broughton, Biencourt’s cognac and cigars sufficient to his purpose, had arranged for La Roche to pass the guardhouse, as he had arranged for Gilbert.
“Monsieur l’abbé, I have been given the sacrament. I believe so. It may not have been.”
“Well,” said La Roche, after a silence. “Marriage is also a sacrament.”
Clotilde, despite all, was an innocent, faithful girl. She did not deserve a lifetime of condemnation. La Roche allowed the import of these words to settle between them, and added, “That she has come to live with her aunt and uncle will not stop the talk.”
“But it must be impossible! Madame Sartain…?”
“No, it is Monsieur Sartain who is the brother of Madame Paquette. Paquette was a soldier once. Sartain, true enough, feels his sister lowered herself with this match. I say only what he says himself. Honoré, there are parts of the city that are no different from a village.”
Honoré had wondered at the time, and it had been La Roche he’d asked the question of…whether Baum could divine so much from a few words exchanged at the table, or had somehow been told of him.
“Émile Baum―” he said to La Roche.
“It was Paquette’s idea that Clotilde would be given to his friend, but he and Baum had not yet settled terms.”
And the freedom fighters had been in a frame of mind to negate the future; they had resolved to die. Honoré easily could feel outrage on Clotilde’s behalf―but why should La Roche expect he would marry her?
“Do you need persuasions before you can make up your mind? Honoré, a man who gives alms to a beggar may say to himself: ‘I do not lose much by this’; or he may say, ‘It is to my advantage to be seen by the public in this light’―but to the beggar, the coin does not become, by these calculations, of greater or lesser value. We choose to be kind, because God has commanded it, that we love one another; and because if we are kind, others may be kind to us. You must help Clotilde because you can.”
Persuasion was at work here, even so―if one accepted, as Honoré did, the germ of La Roche’s argument. The Sartains had given him a bed in their house; they’d chosen to do this kindness. Also, it had occurred to Clotilde’s uncle that Honoré might―by the grace of God, if Sartain preferred to feel so―perform one task yet within his scope. And this was not to discount the generosity of the Sartains. They had taken Honoré in and tended him, when he could not have chosen any other salvation; and he was obligated now to repay them as he was able. He did not disagree.
“Clotilde has nothing to give you,” La Roche said. “You will marry her for charity’s sake. But her charity towards you is of more value than any fortune. I mean what I say. It will do you no harm to see yourself as you are, Monsieur Gremot. Clotilde tells me she loves you. What, when you have squandered every chance, will redeem you, other than love?”
La Roche stood and went to the door.
Honoré was awakened by a cough that began sharp and dry, then scratched at his throat with persistence, until he knew he must bring something up. He flailed for his cup. It was thrust into his hands, and as he forced the puttyish, red-flecked matter to loosen, to be expelled—most of it, and then at last, all of it—he heard Clotilde’s voice.
“Oh, stop, stop!”
He thought she did not admonish him for what could not be helped; rather, she prayed, after a fashion. He opened his eyes and saw her stretch to the bed.
“No, don’t touch that.”
He could do small things for himself―though once, putting it back, he had allowed the cup to slip to the floor. The thick ceramic had rested unharmed where it struck the rug, but left a mess that Madame Sartain had sighed over. Clotilde, her large eyes spilling tears, managed now to shift her weight. She eased the cup from his fingers. She lifted her hands, as though playing the part of one who makes a discovery. The pitcher also was kept on the washstand.
“Do you want me to pour you a glass of water? I will!”
She made bare progress in her attempt to rise, pressing her hands against the arms of the chair, fighting the mass of her belly. Perhaps she still mourned her father…Clotilde wore black, some woman’s ordinary gown that fit her because it was so big. For modesty’s sake, she had pinned the neck with a broach; it would otherwise have sagged from her shoulders.
“No. Mademoiselle, you should not trouble yourself.”
At these words, she sank back and began to sob, twisting in pitiful discomfort, finally crooking her elbows and putting her sleeves to her face. And having obtained, at the price of her distress, a breathing space, Honoré tried to guess what it was they expected of him. He had fallen into a doze when La Roche had not come back. He was alone now with Clotilde. Why…?
There was a ceremony…he eked the realization slowly, from the possibilities that suggested themselves. One that must be performed before the other ceremony.
Now he seemed to be acting correctly. She drew her arms away, and he saw the raw eyes that had once softened his heart.
“Will you agree to be my wife?”
M. Sartain—more so, Honoré thought, than Mme (who had some affection for her husband’s nephew-by-marriage, that won out, at times, over her exasperation with him)—had laid this plan, and had seen, like the poles of a tent collapsing in the wind, his every objective fall. The Sartains were cosmopolitan, and monsieur, in particular, liked a quiet house. He’d dreamed of his niece (widowed, if God so willed it), going back to her Ardennes village, carrying her infant to her mother. For a month, from the day the Abbé La Roche had united them, Honoré had not seen Clotilde. He hoped she had gone.
“You have been on the streets.”
“I have done my best to stay off the streets.”
“But, still, going about as you do, you are hearing talk…?”
“From where I sit”―Honoré had not yet made his point―“you know, I hear the shells fall all day long. The battle is coming close. Look!”
His glass, within the hour, had acquired a film of fine sooty ash, floating on its dregs of milk. It was necessary for Gilbert to bend close to see this. Any window that showed a lamp behind it had become a danger, and the Sartains’ were kept shuttered. He opened his mouth, and Honoré spoke, lifting a languid hand to forestall him. “Monsieur Sartain has been visited by Serrigny…he has come back to the city. I know he has been in the house, twice so far, but he has not come upstairs to see me.”
“I’m sorry for that. They have only been making a plan, I’m sure, in case…”
“It’s insignificant.” Honoré waved this away, too. He was less offended by Serrigny’s snub, than worried he had gone cold on sponsoring the Progressiste. “Gilbert, have you written anything?”
“You don’t suppose―”
They could not be natural together, as a year ago they had been. Over-conscious of Honoré’s frailty, Gilbert would not debate, but at any hint of contention, stopped himself.
“I couldn’t manage to write, Honoré. My hours don’t permit.” Your hours, Gilbert might have said (to view the matter with less tact). These were empty, and Honoré had condemned his friend to share them.
He was not afraid of being helpless in his bed, should the house be overrun; he was frustrated, rather, at hearing excitement he could not see, being unable to work―at such a time!—while the city was in flames. Gilbert by candlelight read halting sentences to Honoré, and when not asleep, Honoré lay in his bed and thought of his father, of W. A. Gremot…often of Mme Rose, sometimes of Broughton or Tweedloe.
But this day, he had been summoned to an appointment. Gilbert helped Honoré cross the landing, and stopped before the room opposite. He rapped on the half-open door. Mme Sartain’s voice came subdued: “Enter, please”―but she left her chair, and met them at the threshold, pulling the door wide until it bumped the wardrobe’s edge. Having produced this noise, she looked, frowning, at Honoré. Her thumb marked her place in the book she still carried.
“Yes, Gilbert, that chair. Honoré! I have news for you.”
Her brocaded armchair was next to a sewing table, where, on a normal day, she would have done her mending under the window’s light. She dodged a hand to catch up her lap blanket before Honoré had come to rest against it; Gilbert holding him, for a moment, suspended. Madame Sartain then tucked the blanket across Honoré’s knees. He wore only a long nightshirt under his dressing gown, a cap and bed socks―the progress of which he’d followed as Mme Sartain knitted them, through her turns watching over him.
“I tell you this, because it won’t do for you ever to mention it. You will not be so clumsy, if you know. And when you see Clotilde, I hope you will be very courteous to her. I hope―” She shut her mouth, and looked at Honoré, as an exhibition-goer might regard a painting in bourgeois taste, jarring in an overworked frame. Her lips made a thin line; her eyes widened. “I hope that you appreciate, as it seems you and Clotilde will make your home together, something of your duties as a husband. Are you well today, Honoré?”
He measured his recovery in meals taken, in the matter his cough brought up, in the length of time he could spend sitting up in a chair. And despite the pall of smoke hanging over the Seine, these signs had improved.
“Better, yes, thank you, madame. Have you told me what you meant to say?”
“No, no. This is what I mean to say…that you must not talk to Clotilde about the baby.”
“A stillbirth?” Gilbert ventured.
Mme Sartain found Gilbert sensible. She turned to him at once, on the invitation of his remark, and said frankly, “Her mother, Madame Paquette, will take the infant away, when the time comes. Clotilde has done nothing but cry. That is not the girl’s fault.” Here, she looked again at Honoré. “It’s too absurd.”
Since Mme Sartain forbade it, he did not ask Clotilde whether that same alchemy which had made Émile Baum a martyr, had to her village made Baum’s son his own; or whether, because Honoré had married her, the child, who in his illegitimacy might have grown up happy enough, would be condemned with the name of Gremot.
She had come back the first of June, still in black, demure and small, but smiling with a kind of radiance, like a ghost in the mirror, when she looked away from Honoré. When she looked at him, her eyes were round and solemn. He shared a bedchamber with a girl he’d spoken to on three occasions before his marriage to her, in an apartment the Sartains had made for them at the front of the house. Honoré’s old room was now their sitting parlor.
For three years afterwards, Sartain had kept his voice even and his words restrained; he’d controlled his dislike of “my niece’s husband”, “that one”, “him”, by shutting himself, outside meals, behind the door of his private study. One day it had become necessary for Honoré, his furtive starts and stops drawing Mme Sartain in his wake, to beard Sartain there. Having thought it best to make this argument to the head of the household, he’d been forced to break his news to both. He was startled by the coldness of Sartain’s eye. Until he’d broached his emigration scheme, Honoré had not seen his uncle truly livid.
“Do you not have a word to say, Monsieur Gremot, as to your wife?”
“But…exactly as I have said, monsieur. I tell you, it’s no use for her to come until I after have met with my relative. How can I know what sort of place…”
“Honoré!” Mme Sartain interrupted him. “In four months’ time, you will be a father.”
He had noticed something about Clotilde—but she had never told him this.
Clotilde was trying to extricate herself, and with such gentleness that she’d scooted to the sofa’s farthest corner inch by inch; this drawn-out effort, these fingertips pressing his face and shoulders, woke Honoré to a feeling of irritation.
“You may go out if you like,” he told her. He dangled a hand and sought to push himself upright.
“No, Honoré, someone is at the door.”
Their visitor knocked again. In her voice, Honoré had heard Mme Sartain’s practicality; on this occasion, when he’d meant to be sharp with Clotilde, she ignored him.
He heard murmurings, a card offered.
Clotilde was sheltered behind the door, holding to its outer edge and peering round. Honoré rolled to face the sofa back. His feet slid to the floor. He could not see the man who entered…he had worked himself to a kneeling position on the rug. He heard his wife’s nervous laugh, some rustlings of a silk-lined topcoat, the pocketing of a pair of gloves. Then he was surprised…to find himself boosted by the elbows, spun and dropped sitting on the sofa.
The stranger stood over him. He made a small joke on manners, the sort people sometimes did make, addressing this to Clotilde. “Thank you, ma’am, I will take a chair.”
Honoré shook the visitor’s hand; he was about to put things on their proper footing, tell his wife to fetch his checkbook, dispense with this debt and with the man’s humor, when his interviewer from the charity ward dug inside a breast pocket, and handed Honoré another of his cards.
“Now, you speak English, sir, I know that. And my French ain’t up to much. That won’t worry you…it’ll be between the two of us, what I have to say.”
The card read: “Corneil Littlejohn, Private Enquiry Agent”.
While Honoré studied this, Littlejohn stood watching him with a lively eye. He tilted his chin, looking over his shoulder at Clotilde. His lips spread into an impish smile, as though he felt moved by her round eyes and lack of English, to a second witticism.
Honoré intervened. “Go, madame. Take this tray to Mme Connaught, ask her if there is any coffee.” He gave her a curt nod and saw the plea in her eyes, the wish that he would explain it all. He took up the pencil, using the back of his earlier note to write this request; and, conscious of something in the nature of duty, remiss, either on his own part or Littlejohn’s, pushed himself against the table, rising partway to his feet, a process that lasted until Clotilde had left the room.
“Mr. Littlejohn, there is a chair…”
“Voilà une chaise, oui. Now you have a seat, Mr. Jerome.”
Littlejohn plumped into the armchair. Honoré lowered himself again.
“I don’t require a great show of hospitality. This is a business affair. Mr. Jerome, lookee here.” He rooted in a different pocket; this time he brought out and unfolded a printed map, one that showed the American states and territories. A red line had been inked over a sequence of black lines crossed at intervals, such as represent the course of a railway. The superimposing ink connected Utica with a vast stretch of country, and ended at a hand-lettered name, circled also in red: Colorado Springs.
“That gives an idea.” He ran a finger along the route. “It’s a long ways out to the Colorado Territory. Why do you suppose anyone wants to go there?”
He allowed an annoying pause, that of the coy interviewer Littlejohn had proved himself to be. Of the western territories, Honoré knew that Americans were paid in grants of land for settling there—paid, because they would be killed by Indians…
The next item out of the pocket would be a prospectus. “Why should I suppose, then, Mr. Littlejohn?”
“Jerome, you’re a consumptive. You would like to be cured.”
If there were a cure…if Littlejohn suggested this long journey played any part in it, Honoré would spend the last of his money, and willingly follow the path of Littlejohn’s red line. However, he did not like the word “consumptive”. If ever he referred to his illness, he quoted the doctor’s diagnosis of many years ago.
“My lungs are not strong…”
“Of course you would. Naturally you do.” Satisfied to answer himself, Littlejohn interrupted Honoré, and continued unspooling his persuasions. “It’s the dry air in the Rockies, what they call a rarefied climate. They have a sort of camp arrangement up there…like a military camp, you follow me? The lung patients, during the season, live out-of-doors in tents. You ever hear tell of Pikes Peak? You have.” He nodded. “That gives you a picture.”
The picture it gave was of an alpine ridge towering above a plain; a plain dotted with cactus and tumbleweed, where a noble creature, stiff of limb and glassy of eye, stood…doing nothing in particular…for Honoré had only seen a bison exhibited in the form of taxidermy.
“You have a friend.”
Littlejohn leaned elbows on knees, raising his head at an angle that furrowed his brow, his eyes canted upwards; and with this devotional posture, his words grew in portent. “A gentleman has written to you…he has also corresponded with me, by telegram. I’ve been talking to Father Zaide…that’s another friend of yours.”
Tweedloe, Honoré thought. The report on Anne had come from Littlejohn. “You are not a man who does work for the county?”
“Eh? No…on the contrary. I tackle any job that may need doing. Anyone pays my fee is my boss. I do, sometimes, work for the county. Here’s madame.”
He sat up straight, and turned his face to the door. Honoré also had expected the footsteps to be Clotilde’s, but after a bounce on the landing and a creak down the stairs, they passed into silence. Littlejohn pitched his voice lower. “A man named Wygand, a New Yorker like yourself, is headed out to Colorado Springs to take the cure, same as you. You have something in common, you see…you have two things in common, right there. Wygand might be a political appointee. I can’t tell you myself what sort of work he does―”
He allowed another of his pauses to linger. “But, that’s the kind of question that comes up in conversation. You’re new to America. Let’s say you find yourself passing the time of day with Wygand. You might see what you can learn.”
Having said these things, he stood and picked up his map. “No, Mr. Jerome.” Motioning Honoré down with his hat, then donning it, Littlejohn dismissed Honoré’s feint towards escorting his guest to the door, which in the execution would have tried the patience of a brisk man. “I won’t have any trouble finding my way.” A few steps from the threshold, he added, “Father Zaide has some business of his own in Denver. Might as well ride out together. He don’t mind keeping an eye, seeing you and madame get along all right. Now, you think you can make yourself ready to go, Jerome, at any time in the next few days?”
My poor child,
You tell me that you are resting well, that your strength has improved somewhat; that most days you are out of doors in your chair, and sometimes walk a little; that your breathing troubles you less, in the good mountain air. For all these things, I trust you do not forget to thank the Blessed Saviour humbly when you make your prayers; as do I, and pray that you receive such grace in recovery as He wills. My son, I encourage you with a story.
Zaide’s stories were didactic. He did sometimes report news, if general and of a marvelous nature, such as the meteor that had crossed the skies over Utica in June. Honoré’s encouragement came in this form:
A one-legged veteran, wounded in the Mexican war, had been given odd jobs about the parish, that he might bear his poverty with self-respect. Love had come to him late in life. His wife had fallen gravely ill in childbirth, and he had hoped to afford a doctor for her. During this time, a theft occurred―a gold candlestick was missed from the altar. The man’s wife died. The child lived, and when, many years afterwards, her elderly father died also, she found the candlestick at the bottom of a trunk, wrapped in the pillowcase upon which her mother’s head had rested in her final hours; this avowed to by a letter from her father confessing the theft, asking the daughter’s forgiveness, and begging that she seek, on his behalf, that of the parish. The daughter’s marriage had lifted her to a better station in life, and upon returning the stolen ornament, these had been her words: “Whatever the value of such an object may be, we will match the sum with a donation to the poor fund, my husband and I. The temptation that led my father astray was only the wish to save a life. And if a life be saved by this gift, my father’s soul will rest at peace.”
He was to pump Wygand; this Honoré had understood from Littlejohn. He found at once that he could, though they’d planned nothing between them, discern Zaide’s hidden directive. But here in Colorado he was left to his own judgment, and Honoré judged that a man must be attuned to any matter closely concerning him. A story such as Zaide’s to Littlejohn’s agent needn’t be any subtler—but Wygand would hear the word “theft” and guess Honoré’s purpose.
He had been in a poor state, when in Denver Mrs. Esterhazy had taken charge of him. He had boarded his train fainting and feverish, Clotilde flighty and panicked, Father Zaide with them at the Utica station, and gone again, after handing Honoré to a matron of the Invalids’ Aid Society, to take his own place on a regular sleeping car. The matron had assigned Honoré to a lower berth on the chartered car he shared with seven other consumptives and their attendants, bound for the mountain cure. The lower berths were for the caretaker’s convenience, for the patient who could not assist with his own needs―could not feed himself, get on and off his thin mattress alone.
The train was ten days en route. It was held up twice, once to unload a woman with no hope of reaching Denver alive; again, for a man found dead in his berth that morning.
Following his first course at Colorado Springs, Honoré had returned to Denver to spend the winter months in Mrs. Esterhazy’s sanatorium, and the Jeromes were given a shared apartment, Honoré in one bedchamber with Wygand, Wygand’s sister and Clotilde in the other.
Clotilde could do little more than study faces until Mrs. Esterhazy arrived with her fluent French, to take a cup of tea with these two of her patients. “The Jeromes,” she’d told Mrs. Tell, “passed through Syracuse, on their way to settle in Utica. Mrs. Tell, Honoré, makes her home in Syracuse.”
Sheltered behind his chair, and sheltering Honoré with her arms around his neck, Clotilde nodded dumbly, cowed by the great stone house, and by companionship of Mrs. Tell’s quality.
“Arthur,” Mrs. Tell said, “was in Utica with the Senator for a fortnight last August. That was his last campaign…I mean Arthur’s, of course.”
Wygand added nothing, and Honoré, in awe of Mrs. Esterhazy’s casual way with mixed information, some of which she must have obtained from Littlejohn, chose not to speak. He felt his mind had grown stupid, following this latest bout of suffering. If Clotilde could be Anne (or Anne perhaps Clotilde), he would neither contradict, nor confirm. To Mrs. Tell, he gave a wan nod of his own. The women chatted, agreeing and disagreeing on whom the Jeromes ought to meet.
It had been Wygand’s afternoon habit to sit with him on the balcony, and Honoré at these times would talk about illness, what it meant to have lost one’s career, how pressing a worry money could be when the future held only confinement and dependency. When Mrs. Tell returned with Clotilde from their lunch in the dining room, Wygand would stand, painfully―but to Honoré’s eyes, with an enviable alacrity―and say, “Here is Maudie. Well…they advise me to exercise, and so I shall.”
And the sallow Wygand, his stick bearing his weight, his arm linked through his sister’s, looked down at Honoré in his invalid’s chair, and smiled.
Maude Tell had made a project of improving her French by tutoring Clotilde in English, and had bought for her a book of useful phrases. Honoré knew thus by his own witness that Clotilde had learned a good store of English words; he had told her many times she ought to practice at them. She would like to have Honoré always talk to the Americans, but to say everything twice was too much wearying work for himself. It was an over-reliance that wanted discouraging.
“One day,” he’d said to her.
And decided he would rather not say. To speak in this way could invite trouble, bad luck; it was bound to invite tears. The book of phrases, he had thrust at Clotilde, tapped its cover under her nose…
She’d taken it into her hands then, but allowed it to slip onto the counterpane.
“No! Madame.” He picked it up, and slapped it open against his free hand. “Each of these questions in English is the same as the French, whether or not you understand it. It makes no difference! You will only point to what you wish to ask. Clotilde, that is not so difficult.”
Continued from “not so difficult”
“Honoré, I will, if you show me.”
He had given to Mme d’Amboiseau of the Hotel Amboiseau in St. Louis, a sum of money, and told her also (though he had not told Clotilde): “If my wife can be of any help to you, you must ask her—otherwise, she will only sit in her room with nothing to do.”
Littlejohn had a way of putting things.
Honoré opened his eyes, and moved his head slowly, so as to make no sound, orienting his waking brain to the view over his right shoulder. He remained in his relative’s summer house. The door stood wide, but Robert no longer sat on the step. Honoré was relieved. He was embarrassed to feel this. He told himself, “Robert is very kind to me.” But he preferred to get up with neither witness nor help. He still hoped for a chance to walk, under the baking sun, the pond’s perimeter.
Littlejohn, Father Zaide, Mrs. Esterhazy, now Ebrach―each had subsumed the history of Thos. B. Jerome into a more diffuse narrative. The day would come when none who’d met him could agree on exactly what they knew of Jerome. He thought this a wiser perspective, this harvest of his contemplation—even a sort of rebirth.
It had got to be nearly five. Honoré restored his watch, found its pocket while his eyes were drawn to the hot glow of a low sun, beyond the shade of the overhanging roof. He was not chilled; rather, he was unable, after such periods of inactivity, to feel warmth. The disease had unhinged his nervous system. It was as though his limbs had been pressed against cold plaster, his hands dipped in icy water. He took a shuffling step towards the door.
He heard his relative’s voice.
“They’ll be getting supper on…it’s that time already.” In accord with his individual humor, Gremot chuckled. The hour, assuredly, seemed premature for supper.
“I won’t stop,” he went on, “being you’ve got Robert to give you a hand.”
“Walter, I have taken up your afternoon. You are more than hospitable, sir.”
As Ebrach and Gremot passed by the summer house, and the polite words of their leavetaking faded, Honoré, having eavesdropped upon nothing of interest, made out nothing more. Robert’s head passed under the window, and in another second, he was on the steps.
“There you are on your feet, Mr. Jerome. I was having a word with the Squire and Mr. Ebrach. You ought to come on up to the house, sir. It’s near supper time.”
Honoré nodded in response to Robert’s nod, forced an uncomfortable smile in response to Robert’s pitying one. He blocked the doorway where he stood, but didn’t grasp this, until Ebrach, now himself at the foot of the steps, said, “Jerome, Robert will gather those few things, and close up the summer house. Let me help you.”
He reached a hand and caught Honoré by the arm.
Robert slipped past, saying, “Pardon me, Mr. Jerome.”
“Are guests expected, Mr. Ebrach?”
“Tomorrow, at luncheon, you will be introduced to the Reverend Dr. Horace and to Mrs. Horace, so Gremot tells me. The Horaces reside in Cookesville.”
“And this lunch is before noon?”
“The family keep to the farmers’ hours generally. They are early to rise and early to bed. But no, tonight, Jerome, we are their only guests. You may ask to take supper in your room…however, I think the evening meal will not try you with so many courses.”
He allowed Ebrach this, as silence often seemed the better answer, when an explanation for his behavior had been mooted. Honoré was able to sit in a chair for an hour or more, and to be waited on; these things could not be tiring. But he’d been mocked and worried at the dinner table. He might elect to eat his supper alone.
They began to climb, a different and steeper path than the one Robert had brought Honoré down; and here the brick promenade ended, the slope’s dirt toughened instead with pea gravel and crushed oyster shell, that threw off a nacreous glitter. Ebrach walked at Honoré’s pace; he showed every sign of patience doing so. Toting the blanket and basket, Robert trailed, coming now and again to a full halt. He could not otherwise maintain a particular distance.
The Sartains…the Gremots certainly, had, or did, carry on with private talk before their help, as though their words could not be heard. Honoré had resolved himself on a question for Ebrach, but wondered whether in this house real privacy was ever permitted. Each time he came to rest, a servant appeared, bearing a tray. And each tray that appeared must be taken away. He could not move from one room to another, from house to grounds, without the family expressing―or rather, suppressing―a dismayed surprise.
He decided he must be at ease with Robert. “Mr. Ebrach, all this time―”
The English, in explaining his new-gained insight, he did not trust himself to use correctly.
“All this time?”
“Mr. Ebrach, I would like you to advise me what to do.”
“Honoré, that is my intention, to advise you. Even to guide you, if in my philosophy, you discover any wisdom. As I have promised, this is my wish, to share my work with you more fully. We have had one talk, and we will have another.”
Now content in solitude, comfortable in his dressing gown, Honoré was certain these pleasures could not last. In a moment, someone would knock at his door. He bent over his pen, and began a postscript to Verbena Everard.
It will interest you to know your husband’s prospect. My relative, as I have heard him to say, will choose a foreman for his property in
He stopped, and tried to recall the sound of the name. Then again, it might not be a name, but a thing. He wrote a tentative Qu…stood, walked to the fireplace, and studied, for a long moment, the speaking tube. He had never used one. He saw himself shouting in vain into the brass funnel-end, meeting with only silence…he saw a below-stairs scullery maid, unaware that he was in the house at all, and unable to interpret his accent, demanding—once, twice…again, to the point of humiliation―that he repeat his request. He shrugged. Even if Robert answered, this curiosity of his would appear too much like gossip. His relative had been speaking to Ebrach.
He returned to the desk. He crossed out the letters; crossed out “for his property in”, and wrote: for this property he buys.
Her husband would read the note to her, because she could not read it herself. These false starts were somewhat embarrassing. But, Honoré thought, Mr. Everard must then puzzle over my meaning. That is what I intend.
He pushed Verbena’s note aside, and slid Clotilde’s closer, reading through, while positioning the paper at a writing angle, what he’d put down that morning. Then Honoré wrote on, half-attending, filling the page with such incidentals as farmland scenery and dining car menus―so to please his wife with a long letter.
Because Clotilde, alone, would have to make an effort, he had not allowed her on this trip. But he was sorry once more, having met the Gremots, having got lodged in their house…held here in check, he supposed, because it would show them in a bad light, this never-before-seen cousin coming for one day, and leaving them the next. The Gremots would give him their hospitality, and introduce him to their friends, though they disliked it, and he disliked it.
Now I am sorry you could not come with me. I am asked to stay a week with these relatives, but already I have an idea of the future, although I cannot promise where we will make our home. On the train, I met a man
He knew this was Ebrach, because immediately afterwards, the door moved an inch or two, and he heard Ebrach’s voice, calling softly, “Jerome, shall I come in? You need not meet me at the door.”
Despite these words, and despite the fact that Ebrach, his hand extended and holding a small book bound in Venetian red, had entered in any case, Honoré began in token politeness to rise from his chair.
Robert at six had brought his supper, and though it was yet daylight, lit the lamps. The sun was now setting, the hour not yet seven. The room’s light was lurid. The fireplace bricks, scrubbed clean of soot at the end of their winter use, stood exposed to the mortar, illuminated in blood orange, and were not so clean, after all. Everything touched by the sun had melded into copper, against which the yellow lamplight pulsed.
Ebrach, standing before the hearth, was bathed in this light.
“Jerome,” he said, “while a portion of the day remains to us, I wish to borrow your writing desk. I have no wish, however, to view your private correspondence.”
Honoré squinted at Ebrach’s smile, blinked his right eye, afflicted by the sun, and felt a childish hurt. Ebrach had called him by his own name on their walk up the hill. Now, they were under the roof of his relative; and Ebrach had sat to supper with Gremot, a man whom Ebrach seemed to admire, and who didn’t want Honoré there. He feared, and equally he resented, that Ebrach had switched loyalties.
“No! Use the desk as you like. See for yourself, my letters are not private.”
As he shuttled himself backwards towards the fireplace, he thought too late of Ebrach’s glancing at what he’d written, and guessing his purpose where Verbena was concerned. If Ebrach now courted his relative, he would…apologize, perhaps, for his assistant Jerome’s trespass; thus to alert Gremot. Honoré’s picture of Ebrach’s behaving in this way seemed to him exceedingly apt. But then Gremot, with his temper, would not hide his anger well, and by this means Honoré might know whether Ebrach’s friendliness were a sham.
It was a great deal to think, of course.
Ebrach thanked him, courteous as though Honoré’s voice had not been sullen, then moved to the desk, and opened the drawer. He edged Clotilde’s letter away, set his small book down, and placed a sheet of his own. He tested the pen. He inhaled and released a gust of air before beginning, all with that niceness in measuring and balancing that irritated Honoré.
After a time, he began to believe Ebrach composed a letter—that he had used all the ink in his own room, and had come here only for this. The sun was gone, and the night felt chill, and he waited on Ebrach for no reason. A chambermaid, following behind Robert, had turned the bed down, placed a hot water bottle between the sheet and comforter. Honoré took a step towards the bed.
“But why,” he asked himself, sketching a small halting movement with his hand, “do I have this worry, whether Ebrach makes mysteries, or is my friend? I can ask again for his advice, and if still…”
He looked at Ebrach, saw him bend close over his work, but turn his face, so that his chin tilted in Honoré’s direction at the same time his eyes were cast down. It was exasperating, this half-acknowledgement, half-rejection. Honoré blew out an angry breath, took another three steps, and sat heavily on the bed.
If still he will no longer help, and he has no message for me, it is enough! I will leave tomorrow, after these Horaces.
“Be at ease, Honoré,” Ebrach said. “You may retire at any time. And it will be better that you not think of ceremony, now we have become friends, but rest as you feel you must.” He swung his knees to the side, and stood. “Please read what I have written here…but be careful of the ink.”
I speak, and as I speak, I hear my own words. I think, and I perceive my words; this perception strikes the inward ear—I hear myself as I would hear you, if you and I conversed. Yes—if I am very observant, I will discover, that at times I do not speak, when my words are mere figments of my secret mind, they echo there, in this same fashion, as though I had spoken them aloud. As words form themselves in my thoughts, they may stir me to some powerful emotion; I will feel this upsurgence, this impassioned force, as a pressure in the ears and the nose. My breathing alters in accord with the degree to which I am calm or excited—exactly in the way one draws breath before raising the voice. You will find this to be true. Examine your own state of mind. Your face may mirror your thoughts, as you contemplate that which rouses or disturbs you. You may move your hands, as though gesturing; you may stand suddenly and pace. You may utter inadvertently what you had meant to keep to yourself.
The mind is so connected to this unconscious medium of expression, that thought and speech are not far removed from one another, as the casual philosopher might otherwise suppose. Why do I write this, Jerome? Because I have conceived these words, I have put them on paper, and I have made of them an object. You, Jerome, will by this understand me, and yet, I have spoken nothing to you.
Honoré had taken the paper, his fingertips touching its margins. He frowned over these references, reading Ebrach’s words; he slid his feet to the floor, thinking he would crawl under the covers, and not be cold…then, noticing himself, became annoyed. He skimmed the rest. He read it through again.
“Yes, I think.” He handed the paper to Ebrach. “And you suppose, sir…”
He stopped for a moment, and pondered―but dashed away this notion of calling Ebrach Eugene. “You suppose to have read my thoughts.”
“Jerome, do you imagine I am speaking of you?”
At this, Honoré turned his back on Ebrach, explored beneath the comforter for the water bottle and pushed it deeper, so that it would touch his feet. He climbed onto the bed.
“Shall I leave?”
“No, monsieur. No…”
Ebrach went to the desk, set the paper down, picked up the book, and also, hooking its top slat with two fingers, the chair. He placed the chair at Honoré’s bedside, sat, and held out the book. The title was not to be found on the front―that, embossed only with pendant flowers that shined like pale human faces―but on the spine.
“There are, on the other side, many discontented souls.”
Bien, Honoré said inside himself, peut-être. He didn’t care for them. But he met the eye of Ebrach, who waited his acknowledgement.
“They have not wished to die. They have awakened in a place where they can find no familiar landmark. They long for their erstwhile homes and can find no road to lead them there. But you know this. You know it…yet, you are of the world still.”
He leaned nearer. He hovered his hand above the book, and raised his eyebrows. Honoré thrust it back, to watch it fall open, in a further instance of low magic, at the place sought.
Ebrach read for a moment, tugged the comforter straight, and laid the open book on Honoré’s knees. “Chapter Two: ‘The Divinities’. The divinities, Honoré, as I explain in this chapter, are those spirits whose passage over the chasm between death and the assumption into the spiritual body, is complete. They are benign, and their desire for you is only to offer comfort and counsel. I have told you some of this before. Others have not crossed, and cannot cross. Their sorrow, their rage, their incomprehension, forbids surrender. You have spoken with your sister. She has crossed, and you must not weep, but rejoice that it is so. Yet the unreconciled remain with us, though we cannot know it…that is, I should say, we cannot perceive it…not even I, who am attuned, can know how many souls dwell here, in the very air of this room.
“Honoré, you are restless. You are lachrymose. Small matters aggravate your temper. More than once, I think, you have been in close communication with these unhappy dead. They have not crossed; they are lost between this world and the eternal. Have you not suspected…have you not found yourself in the throes of an unreasonable sentiment…and asked yourself why, how can it be, that I feel strongly what I know I do not believe?”
The assertion was both true and untrue. Also, Ebrach had used a difficult word—but Honoré thought himself accused of crying easily. He did cry easily. The tendency had become insuppressible from the time his health had broken. He did, as well, question his anger, which so often threatened harm to his hopes. But Ebrach would suggest that this emotion was not a fault in Honoré’s character, but a kind of possession.
With impatience, he discarded the book facedown against the comforter, and the silver lettering on its spine animated, flickering back a gleam of lamplight. “What makes you―”
But here were wanted words that would prevent Ebrach’s brushing him aside. “Why do you say that I have ever seen a spirit?”
“You have probably never seen one. I have never seen one. There is no earthly device to measure the substance of the spiritual plane. Many a dishonest practitioner purports otherwise. But consider…the sun shines, its energy is vast, a solid body under the sun casts a shadow, and when the sun lies at the horizon, we may see what we call a ray of light…but yet the light is all around us. When you walk at the midday hour, all is imbued with the sun’s radiance. The energy of the spirit is like the energy of the sun. And at the hour of sunset, I suspect…perhaps…”
Ebrach held his eyes, and laid each of his own hands, the right and the left, over Honoré’s. “You have come near the end, Honoré. You may see things that I am unable. I suspect, I was about to say…that this late refraction may indeed be visible, and may look something like a ray of light. Perhaps, it can be seen by one at the threshold, one to whom they are reaching. I hope you will agree to write for me.”
Honoré felt a hollow shock. He was both repulsed by Ebrach’s bald confession, and unexpectedly indifferent to it. He’d known this, after all. He did not want to withdraw his hands. Ebrach’s fatherly warmth consoled him like a dream of shelter and peace, even accepting this dreadful undercurrent of suspicion…that Ebrach wanted to be with him as he died, wanted to take possession himself of Honoré’s spirit, during this crossing. No, Ebrach was not a charlatan―he was a believer, and intent on seeing proof of his beliefs.