A Figure from the Common Lot
Book One: 1870-1871
Chapter One: Cette Illusion de la Mortalité
Book Two: 1876
Chapter Two: Possente Spirto
On an oxbow
The current passes
A fallen tree, submerged
At a cross-angle, green murky-brown
Depths, hot from the sun
The surface still, gnats rise
Kingfishers, blackbirds, bank swallows
The river has right-of-way
The month was August.
The steam whistle blasted a warning, for the Cookesville spur was the end of the line, and the locomotive was about to be decoupled and moved to the turntable. The platform’s exchange of humanity numbered in the dozens. And most of these―few Cookesville citizens in the habit of startling their relatives by meeting them at the depot―had just left the cars.
Porters strode, one man in front, ushering, one behind, pushing, at a single luggage cart laden with travel trunks; this went down the ramp and up the alley, making for the Columbia Hotel. The station master checked his watch. Others, noticing this, felt prompted to check their own watches. The two-faced clock that hung from an iron bracket bolted to the station house exterior pitched in, and tolled its own clanging note that rang across the platform.
A traveler, resting his back against the same wall, flinched; for a moment, his weary face became animated. He set his lips in a sour line, that of a man harried by yet another thing. He had, for ten minutes, held his portmanteau and witnessed with relief the clearing of the cars. He now dropped the bag at his feet. He withdrew his own watch, and saw that it was, as the depot clock had wound down to confirming, eleven in the morning.
The bag was not heavy, but to the traveler, it seemed so. The brim of his hat cast shadows that accentuated the hollows under his eyes. It was a quality specimen, this hat, purchased from one of dozens of specialty shops that lined Denver’s Laramie Street. The traveler had found downtown Denver to be something like an Exposition that went on for all time.
The hat bore his name, inked onto the maker’s label, affixed to the band inside the crown. He was dressed, somewhat to the detriment of the posh prosperity at which he aimed (for he was very thin), in a closely tailored suit. The traveler had known the extremity of poverty, and had always felt well with himself when his clothes were good.
But, taking into account his modest origins, and the odyssey that had delivered him here, onto the platform of the Cookesville depot, he could today regard himself a rich man. A thousand dollars had been added recently to his bank balance―and this was not money in trust; no portion of it was owed in advance to satisfy any debt. It was for Thos. B. Jerome to spend as he saw fit.
The man for whom Jerome waited burst, like the sunrise, from behind one of the lattice-work columns supporting the pavilion (and its tricolored bunting), that shaded the platform. Eugene Ebrach carried his folded suitcoat; his shirt was damp at the armpits. It was, nonetheless, resplendently white. His waistcoat was of a wheat-colored linen; his tie, dove grey silk, with a thin white stripe. Even the leather of his summer luggage, rolling after him in the custody of a porter, was the color of cream. Ebrach spotted Jerome, and started towards him, but stopped some few paces up the platform. He took a handkerchief from his trouser pocket.
Like the taking of a dog by the ear, this utterance fixed his companion in readiness for instruction. Ebrach was fair and rosy-cheeked, a man in his mid-thirties, about ten years older than Jerome. He removed his straw hat, fanned himself with it, and with his handkerchief dabbed at his face. Coming up, then, to stand under the clock, he looked down tilting his chin at Jerome, who, dressed in dark woolens, seemed to shrink further into an exhausted slouch, wilting in Ebrach’s shadow.
“We will lunch at the hotel here in town. The Columbia. I can’t recommend it, I have never set foot in the place…but the station master recommends it. I will take a room there myself.”
Jerome bent his knees, caught his bag by the handle, and remained in this posture for a minute or two before rising. Ebrach’s voice, when he had spoken of the Columbia, had gained something in resonance; when he’d mentioned taking a room, his head made a half-turn in the porter’s direction.
The porter nodded. “The Columbia Hotel, sir.”
Ebrach reached into his waistcoat pocket for a dollar. The porter touched his cap. “Thank you, mister.”
Finished with the porter, Ebrach turned back to Jerome, tapped him on the elbow, and began to walk ahead. “You have faith, Jerome, in these distant relatives of yours, or do you plan to stay in town also?”
“I have made no plans.”
Ebrach could speak, when he liked, in ringing tones; this, Jerome had learned of him in the car on the way to Indiana from St. Louis. Ebrach projected his words at will, snaring whom he might. He moved up the street, his steps brisk, his smile warm; he tipped his hat, gave his smile to the women he passed, looking deep into their eyes. He smiled also, pleasantly, at the men. “Hello, sir…how do you do?”
His voice wove nets of intrigue along the quiet main streets of Cookesville.
Jerome trailed, falling behind.
“We have no need of plans. You are quite right, Jerome. Our lives progress under the watchful eye of a benign intelligence, and we must go where fortune takes us.”
They had Depot Street to cross on their way to the concourse, the circus through which the town’s commercial streets intersected. Ebrach led the way, aiming towards the upraised saber of the highest figure cast upon the summit of the soldier’s memorial.
“You sought me out, Jerome. But let us say, for argument’s sake, that you had related your story to a stranger…”
Ebrach glanced behind him. The effort of lugging his portmanteau showed on Jerome’s face. His eyes were either on his hands, as though the bag might slip if he did not watch himself grip it; or on the bricks of the street, as though he counted his steps. Ebrach had begun laying his pieces on the board…practiced at this art of conversion, he was well aware of his audience. When he saw the townspeople had begun to reason within themselves, to sidle up, to follow discreetly, he was loath to stem the dramatic tide. Yet Jerome belonged to him, now he had taken up the acquaintance. He might look ill to these Indiana folk, if he did not bolster this poor scrap of humanity.
“What do you keep in your bag, Jerome?”
He stepped back, and readily enough pried the bag from Jerome’s hands. “Why, this is nothing.” He hoisted the portmanteau to his shoulder. He looked, soliciting commiseration, into the eyes of a bystander who clutched the halter of a mule. The man had not come to town to make eye contact with strangers; he flushed, and turned his face aside.
Jerome straightened, caught up to within a foot or two of Ebrach, and showed signs of speaking. Ebrach preferred that Jerome not speak. Jerome was not an American; much of what he said was difficult to understand, and his dialogue would distract from the presentation.
“Yonder,” Ebrach said at once, waving, “up the way and across the avenue, is the Columbia Hotel. You may read the sign from here.”
He was a man who had given innumerable public talks. He did not lose threads. He took Jerome by the lapel, drawing him firmly over the curb, and returned to his narrative. They crossed, and as they crossed, Ebrach said, “You heard a voice. A name was mentioned. At this, you found yourself astonished. You had traveled a great distance. Cookesville had been no more to you than a designation on a map. You had believed yourself friendless…”
The town’s heart, where Liberty Avenue met High Street, formed a graph of prosperity, from Snedden the undertaker’s frame house, to a dress shop with upstairs apartment, door-glass lettered Studio Metz, to the three floors of Rutherford Bros. Mercantile and Dry Goods, to the Columbia Hotel’s unrivaled four. Ebrach smiled at the hotel’s rows of shining windows, arched in pairs under fanlights, separated by a sandstone façade the color of golden griddle-cakes.
Continued from “griddle-cakes”
But it was the panorama of downtown Cookesville afforded by the triple reflection from the hotel’s windows, back to Rutherford’s across the street, back again to the hotel, at which Ebrach smiled. He saw himself, and was pleased to do so; he saw Jerome faltering in his wake. But Jerome could not be dragged by the lapel up the hotel’s steps. Jerome must move at his own pace. Ebrach saw that he and his companion had the attention of the High Street strollers. He saw heads cluster together; fingers, whose owners supposed they could not be observed, point.
Ebrach, if Jerome understood him, meant to paraphrase his explanation of himself, as he might give his story to a putative sympathizer. It was a performance; it was utter fraud. Ebrach threw a fulsome enunciation into each noun; he used these words―“voice”, “name”, “distance”―as tokens given out for future redemption. Each stranger passed received this invitation. Jerome’s friendlessness was a sad thing indeed, as Ebrach expressed it. While thanking the doorman for his patience, he indicated Jerome with a nod.
And making a nice show of delicate feeling, let his words die. “Here is Mr. Jerome, coming along now…”
Jerome felt that, having been thus pathetically delineated, and being so tired, he might be excused for following Ebrach through the door in silence. Ebrach walked to the center of the lobby, still with Jerome’s portmanteau propped on his shoulder.
He found it judicious at this point to lower the bag; less the strongman, more the weak man’s ministering guide. “Jerome…”
Jerome, he found come to rest on one of the lobby’s velvet settees, his hat on the cushion beside him. Betranced (as it seemed), in rote blankness he wiped with his handkerchief at his face.
“I will see about a room,” Ebrach told him.
He noticed a familiar couple cross the lobby. He and the Forsyths, waiting side by side for the services of a porter, had spoken at the station. Ebrach hailed them; catching up and bowing to Mrs. Forsyth, he said, “Madam, when I had the pleasure of conversing with you, not long ago…”
Forsyth, eyes bulging, pushed himself into Ebrach’s field of vision. Ebrach nodded and said, “How do you do, sir?”
Forsyth was a stocky young businessman, sweating under a high collar, and through the strained fabric of his summer coat. He’d caught sight, and disapproved of, Jerome in passing. Sending through his teeth a wet hiss of exasperation, he looked at his wife.
“This is Mr. Ebrach.” Spoken as though Ebrach were a guest in the Forsyths’ parlor. “The one we saw at the depot.”
“…and you had mentioned how troubling you find this heat…I had myself been about to mention it…”
He beamed. “I insist, madam, that you and Mr. Forsyth precede me to the desk.”
“Well, I don’t know what all.”
Forsyth was premature in murmuring this to his wife, as he ushered her to the marble-dressed reception counter. A young woman seated at a corner desk cast them a glance. “Vernon!”
She bent to her ledger-book.
Ebrach had predicted this: that the Forsyths would clear the field. At the counter he made his voice intimate, “I won’t disturb you at your work.”
Her head snapped up.
“I am hoping that you have a comfortable apartment.”
One voluminous sleeve brushed closed the pages of her book. A waist, by a rib-crushing corset cinched, threw an odd pitch into her movement, as she fetched up on the counter’s business side. Ebrach had borne a smile all the while; he charmed married women without compunction―this one, however, was unmarried. He had another intuition.
He cut himself short, patting the marble countertop with the flat of his hand, as though he searched in memory for the name of an old acquaintance. He saw her glance at a door part-hid by a column.
A gilt-trimmed corbel, here, and a sign: OFFICE.
“Will you tell me your name?”
“I can let you have a pis…”
Her cheeks flamed. She shot a look of anger at her workmate, grinning down at his necktie. “I mean, a sitting parlor and bedchamber, on the third floor. My name is Miss Rutherford.”
“I don’t care for the morning light. I am not an early riser, Miss Rutherford.”
With some contempt, the male clerk said: “Odd numbers.”
“Please sign for thirty-three, sir.” She craned to watch as he wrote his name.
“Your father is also one of the brothers of the emporium over the way?”
“The only one.”
Some pride at this…but deceased uncles and their merits were no concern of Ebrach. “I,” he told her, lightly resting his fingers over hers, “am Eugene Ebrach. You may mention me to your father. I will not take my key at present. After my friend and I have had our lunch, I will stop by again.”
Jerome sat inert with his head against the settee’s backrest. Above his head hung a tonnage of chandelier, its burning gas jets concealed within its tiers of dripping crystal. A circle of mirrored ceiling panels enhanced the dazzle; the whole effect searing to his travel bleared eyes. He closed them. He began to drift…he told himself he had no need to wait for Ebrach. Discounting the curious coincidence of their meeting, they had nothing to do with each other. He could write a note of thanks and have it taken to Ebrach’s apartment. He could cross the lobby to the lunchroom, and take a table. Coffee would be nearly as reviving as sleep.
Possibly, he told himself, it had been coincidence. No omen of Ebrach’s appearance on the stage had come to Jerome in advance of him. But he found it difficult to take such meetings for granted; he had long trafficked among men who engineered chance and circumstance.
“I have left your bag in charge of the proprietor’s daughter. Her name is Miss Rutherford. I hope you approve, Jerome?”
Jerome seemed to sleep, but Ebrach had not taken him unawares. He stirred, and knowing that the effort would be sluggish, and its product feeble, put his hand on the back of the settee. He meant to stand up…this was no small thing…afterwards to settle affairs with Ebrach.
But Ebrach, having conceived a purpose for Jerome, wished to appear before his public neither unconcerned nor impatient.
“Jerome…” He took Jerome under the arms. “You must allow me to help you.”
A bandstand, draped, like the station house pavilion, in red, white, and blue bunting, its skirting planted round with orange and yellow marigolds, was the view upon which Jerome, chin resting on his hand, eyes half-closed, seemed to meditate. Ebrach tapped his knife against his water glass. “Does your condition require a restricted diet? Will you take roast beef?”
He saw Jerome lay his forearm, in its coat sleeve, flat on the cloth. His face was gaunt and lacking in supple expression; but reading Jerome as best he could, Ebrach supposed him affronted rather than embarrassed. He would, therefore, put himself so far in the wrong as to force an explanation.
“In my work, moving unfettered, as I must, between this world and the next—for I have been endowed with a gift; a mission, I will call it, which I have not tried to refuse…for these things were not born of my own imagination, but bestowed upon my conscious will by that divine intelligence to which I had earlier referred…
“Jerome, I have held the hands of many sufferers. I well understand that the sickly and infirm are shunned; that they are often reluctant to speak of their trials.”
All this, Ebrach shared at large with the lunchroom patrons, his voice striking an oratorical cadence. Now he lowered it and spoke only to Jerome: “You have a consumptive look about you, sir.”
“Certainly, roast beef. I am able to eat anything.”
Ebrach flagged the waiter, and consulting Jerome (posing questions and answering these himself), added rolls and vegetables to their order, along with the roast beef.
He spooned at a consommé. “Do you have loved ones who have gone before?”
The question, at once an absurdity and a vulgar trespass, made Jerome want to laugh. “Monsieur…”
“Sir,” he corrected. This hewing to American ways was for his own benefit. “I thank you. That you are so kindly concerned for my health. I have been many months at Colorado Springs. I am entirely cured.” He sipped from his glass of ice water. But with this news, he had given Ebrach a victory.
He shrugged. “Yes, of course, sir, I have a brother and a sister, and my own mother…they are all dead. You may say so, if you like.”
Their waiter arrived, smoothly from his shoulder lowering a platter. He set before Ebrach one heated plate, Jerome another; in the center of the table he placed a basket of rolls. He meted two salvers of butter. Pressed into each slab was an undulating flag, and the dates: 1776-1876. A second waiter carted in covered platters and tonged out potatoes and beans. A third, in charge of wines, brought the burgundy Ebrach had chosen. The first returned, with the roast on a second cart, to gesture with the carving knife expressively.
Ebrach, buttering his roll, raised an eyebrow. “Do you have mustard?”
“Do you have mushrooms?
“We do, sir. But mushrooms are extra.”
“I would like a small plate of mushrooms and onions. The roast looks acceptable. Carve it.”
Ebrach glanced at Jerome, who was using a corner of the tablecloth to clean his fingers. Jerome tore off a bit of roll and pushed it into his butter. Jerome with his tailoring, his signet ring, and his gold tooth, had table manners acquired in the boardinghouse. Unless, Ebrach allowed, mute diligence, and an indifference to the use of knife and fork, were the European habit. He applied himself to his own lunch. He had little in the way of a private life; from each day’s waking breath, Ebrach either performed for an audience, or anticipated doing so. He did not always wish to hear himself speak.
He judged, however―when there was nothing left, but to order dessert―that the time was right. Jerome had taken offense. Jerome had not been instructed; his unbelief was natural. But Ebrach counted himself better off without overzealous adherents. He had come to this place to offer comfort to the frail and forsaken; and though Jerome doubted, and was not yet ready, he would be another of Ebrach’s lambs…one indeed, who had been sent to him for that purpose.
“Jerome, you have misunderstood me. You number me among the hypocrites. I will ask you to consider that at any time you may walk through the door of memory, and find there that all you have lost is restored. All is again as it was. What does this mean? What are memories and dreams, Jerome? They are the radiant light of the human spirit. If you gaze into a mirror, Jerome, what do you see? The reflection there is no more than a transference of energy. The light shines in; the light shines out. When you exercise your memory, what is this reflection, this picture of the past, that lights upon your mind’s eye? Energy, Jerome.
“There is a benign magnetism. And at its opposite pole, there is a malignant magnetism. We need not question this; science teaches us that the universe is so ordered. We are vessels, merely; yet, within our human shell, we house an electric current. When I say ‘gone before’, it is of this current I mean to speak, Jerome. I tell you that your loved ones wish you well, that they seek you at all times, that they have knowledge of many things, that it is their desire to help you in every way. Now see…”
With the practiced facility of a magician, Ebrach had un-pocketed his props. Jerome had not seen him do it…but of a sudden, from his right hand, Ebrach dropped a dozen or so iron pellets onto the cloth. He swept his left hand over these. They shivered. He brought his hand lower and closer. A few snapped up, attaching to the object Ebrach held: a three-inch bar of metal the color of pencil lead. A third pass, and all the iron pellets had been drawn to the magnet.
The demonstration, Jerome thought, was childish. It was not mesmerizing; it was not particularly scientific. Yet for its intended audience, the magnet’s action bewitched. A nearby waiter turned from his customer, a dribble of water flowing onto the carpet from the lip of his pitcher. The customer himself stared. Two matrons following the head waiter to their table, stalled and peered from under their hat brims, as Ebrach’s hand moved back and forth.
“These tiny souls, as we will imagine them,” Ebrach said, and looking aside, he smiled in benevolence at the older of the women, “cannot be moved without the energy of magnetism. Nor, Jerome, though your loved ones long for you, and though you long yourself to touch them once more, will your outstretched hands and theirs unaided clasp together…for the afterlife is not of earth but of heaven, and without this medium of magnetic current, without the transference of energy beyond the astral sphere, they have not the means to impart their message of love to you.”
Jerome, who would at the outset have preferred banana pie to roast beef, now refused dessert; and downed his cup of after dinner coffee with such haste that the waiter, still bent in a pouring attitude, felt called upon to refill the cup at once before escaping. Ebrach chatted on, and with cold compressed lips Jerome deflected these attempts at engagement.
“I believe we may see a break in the heat, tomorrow.”
Ebrach buttered the last of the rolls. “There is the least breeze…see how it takes the bunting there.” Using his knife, he pointed past Jerome’s nose, in the direction of the window. “They do not serve the coffee so hot as they ought.” But if he found his coffee lukewarm, he was leisurely nonetheless in polishing it off.
“That is your opinion, Jerome, as well.”
This attributing of opinions to him came near goading Jerome to speech; instead, he pushed at the table’s edge, meaning to leave Ebrach with a curt goodbye, and to book a room of his own―
But Ebrach at that moment stood, and said with an apologetic smile, “I hope you will forgive me, sir. I am rather tired.”
For ten minutes more, Jerome brooded. He watched his watch tick these off, then took another two or three minutes to rise from his chair. Bellying up to an unstaffed reception counter he found, with a start, that Ebrach had not gone away, but spoke from somewhere over his shoulder. The voice, after greeting Jerome, introduced him to the Miss Rutherford who had charge of his portmanteau, she also having come detached from a small desk.
“Jerome, you must consider me your host, so far as our lunch is concerned.”
He then asked Miss Rutherford to add the cost to his tab, speaking all the while as though he and Jerome were party to each other’s affairs.
“I have offended you, Jerome. I’m sorry for that…but it is the nature of my work to confront those anodyne assurances, as by which certain of our philosophers, exercising an authority which to themselves they have merely arrogated, explain life and death, present and eternal existence; and with which explanations the untutored will to enlightenment must content itself to be satisfied.”
Jerome sighed. It had begun again. He guessed that Ebrach, secure as he was now in harvesting his latest collection of tiny souls, would carry on in this vein, all his Cookesville speeches freighted with such mystifications.
But he asked, as though he were truly Ebrach’s partner in chicanery, “Mr. Ebrach, what is this work you do?”
The smile was wistful, and not for Jerome, but for Miss Rutherford. “I hold no title. My own philosophical bent is not acceptably of the world’s received teachings. I am not befriended by its academies and institutions. I do not ask that I should be. My reward is in the solace I bring to the lonely heart. And to the hearts of the bereaved.”
Here Ebrach located a traveler, resting, as Jerome had done earlier, on the velvet settee. He had deepened the smile in his voice, adding a sonorous character to bereaved. The traveler stirred. She pushed herself upright.
“Jerome, merely that I may better communicate my ideas to those who are so kind as to show an interest in my work, I take to myself the appellation of ‘mental scientist’.”
“Are you having a holiday?” Jerome asked Miss Rutherford. He saw her eyes widen, as though he’d insulted her.
Ebrach, begging leave, with an implication of Jerome’s chattiness delaying his rest, had collected his key and a sheaf of telegrams; Jerome, patient in invisibility, stood by the counter while Miss Rutherford stared after Ebrach as he crossed to the elevator.
“I hope that I may take a room, here at your hotel.” He spoke in the careful way of one who consults an English guidebook.
“Yes… Well, of course, we have rooms. On the first floor, if you like. Those are the least expensive.”
She seemed to study his clothing, and added, “I’m always off Sundays.”
“Then you will go to church.”
And Jerome arranged his stay at the Columbia.
Following a vague sense of orientation, he turned to his right. He had exited the hotel’s grand entrance; offered, this time, a faint acknowledging syllable to the doorman. Having toured the length of the Columbia’s façade, he crossed to the other side of Liberty Avenue, where an iron arch marked the entry to the city park (supposing one entered by the walkway; only conscience seemed to require it). He had viewed this from the window of the hotel’s lunchroom…feinting at questions in his mind, irritated to distraction by Ebrach.
The lettering wrought into the curve of the arch told Jerome the park was called, “Riverside Park”. Maybe, he thought, there is a river. But the first bench backed onto the sidewalk and offered a view of the bandstand.
Other than this octagonal platform, Cookesville’s park displayed no more than a closely cut lawn of grass…wide swaths of it, in this high and hot season of the year, turned to straw. Tall elms, planted either side of a corridor formed by the trees themselves, ran along a ditch, one that began feet away, a culvert that opened under the sidewalk, and widened in the distance to a stream, a grand march under intertwining limbs that, no doubt, led to the namesake river. Further up the walk, Jerome spotted two regimental beds of petunia and marigold…among the flowers miniature flags pitched up.
His emotions by now having heated to a particular parboiled state, Jerome told himself he was outraged at Ebrach’s behavior. He had come away from the hotel to sit, here on this bench, where he would not see Ebrach, so that he might freely consider his feelings.
For three reasons, he had nothing to say to Ebrach. First, he would not challenge Ebrach, or anyone else…he did not have the strength for debate. Second, on the train from St. Louis, Jerome had heard Ebrach―while holding some fellow passenger captive―tell of his plans. Ebrach had named Jerome’s destination as his own; this being not the state of Indiana, nor the city of Cookesville, but the property, the tobacco farm, of W. A. Gremot. He did not feel convinced that such a thing overheard could be happenstance.
He had beckoned the attendant…one of the wonderful luxuries with which the American Pullman car was appointed; and speaking low, made his request: “You will please deliver this to the gentleman, there, whose voice we have been hearing.”
On the back of his card, he’d written: “Sir, I ask a word with you, if you are so kind.”
Ebrach came up the aisle at once, and lowered himself onto the seat across from Jerome, offering his hand, simultaneous to leaning forward, elbows on knees. “Mr. Jerome, I have the advantage of you at present; but I will make amends by introducing myself…”
And Jerome, launching his enquiry with an uncertain construction, had tried: “Mr. Ebrach, how does it come to be…?” He could not find the words he wanted. He tried again. “I have heard you say Monsieur Gremot…”
“Ah!” Ebrach interrupted him. “Gremot…the name is French.”
They’d made their way, then, to this loose arrangement of traveling together, Ebrach attaching himself to Jerome; or Jerome growing dependent on Ebrach, as the case might be. Ebrach took things over, and Jerome, whose well-being was badly affected by rail travel, had wanted him to do so.
As to his third reason, he knew he would lose this fight, no matter whether he protested the use Ebrach was making of him, or allowed it. He might have said, “I am not so stupid, monsieur. I have heard of these things, this farce of speaking to the dead―”
Angered by this thought, Jerome flung his hand in a dismissive gesture, as though the argument were real. However, Ebrach had mastered his seduction of strangers. He would look about him for allies. He portrayed himself―his “philosophical bent”―as under attack… This was an old trick. Having forewarned of it, Ebrach would see his reputation benefit when the attack came. That was all. If Jerome found himself cast against his will as Ebrach’s accomplice, he must weigh the question in terms of his own vulnerability. Ebrach made an unsatisfactory friend and protector, but Jerome could not abandon Ebrach until he had found a new friend and protector.
He did not intend to impose himself on the benevolence of W. A. Gremot.
For…while becoming to a man of property, charitable feeling was by no means to be relied on. And having corresponded with his relative; or, to be accurate, having badgered a response from Gremot after two years of experiment, Jerome had gained some measure of his character.
March 17, 1873
I have seen your most recent letter; and I am aware of your claims. Your statements, as to family connections, have some merit in and of themselves. They do not prove to me anything of your identity or your purpose. I have given one of your letters to my lawyer; I have not retained the others.
W. A. Gremot
Jerome did not pretend to himself that his cousin might mean, with these sentiments, to express a friendly interest in his affairs. Though couched in terms peculiar to this branch of the family, Gremot’s courtesy was not so tricky that it could not be deciphered. He found it easy to believe this Belgian, who wrote so many letters, might be only some distant relative’s casual acquaintance―an imposter, a fortune hunter. But even dismissal had proved a lucky chance; the letter, providing Jerome an address, a business office in Cookesville―on the High Street, perhaps not far from where he now sat―had spared his wandering the streets of the state capital in vain.
Yet Ebrach had known more.
Changing trains at the town of Vincennes, Ebrach had ushered Jerome to a carriage he would have called third-class; and having not been aware of this other train, he admitted he would now be lost without Ebrach. As they approached Cookesville, Ebrach outlined an itinerary. “I have been in telegraphic communication with a Mrs. Keene, who lives in the town, and is a friend…”
He fell silent, as though musing on the sort of friend Mrs. Keene was. Ebrach then added a presuming teaser, bait at which Jerome would not snap: “When we arrive, I will learn what she recommends as to hiring a wagon…I can’t do otherwise. I travel with my instruments, which want delicate handling; also, I carry a small library, for, as you will suspect, the authorities whose works I consult are not to be found everywhere.”
The letter from America, for saying so little, had brought upheaval to the house of M. and Mme Sartain. Not all at once, but inexorably. Serrigny’s intimate, lately Honoré’s reluctant relative, Sartain had disclosed all that his employer, and his disdain for Honoré, would endure. Of course, a Serrigny was above excuses; but his deputy, at ordinary times above explanations, had offered to Honoré instead a premise: that Serrigny had not withheld his legacy without having the legal authority to do so, and under suspicion of separating Honoré from his money―
He had not withheld it at all.
They were soon to quarrel on this subject, but on a certain morning, not quite two years ahead of the letter’s arrival, Honoré had finished his walk bemused, and still supported by the arm of his new uncle. He was, as yet, unable to climb the stairs to his apartment without both Sartain’s help, and a rest between floors. While fanning herself, Mme Sartain had wrapped Honoré against his individual chill; and having been bundled into his chair before the first floor parlor’s hearth, he breathed―as he had been able to do for weeks now―without the congestion in his lungs, and found himself at ease.
“Monsieur Serrigny has excellent cause to distrust me.” Honoré spoke to tempt Sartain. “He may believe he has more than one cause.”
“The house had to be sold. She had made that stipulation in her will. A delay of some months would in any case have been unavoidable.” Betraying, then, the emphatic feeling behind the unlikely calm with which he’d begun, Sartain added: “But…it would be idiocy to sell for the sake of selling, before there could be any market for property!”
“Yes, I’ve heard of these difficulties.”
Honoré thought of Gérard, whose present plot of earth would never profit him. “The market must always be better tomorrow than it is today. If Monsieur Serrigny puts me off for a year, it will not seem so bad; and if he puts me off for five years…so much the more to my advantage! Also―”
He thought better of his next remark, and at this breaking off Sartain showed himself incurious, if not relieved. Honoré had been going to add that he would like, naturally, as much money as could be got from the sale of Mme Rose’s house… But he’d noticed the muscles of his uncle’s neck grow tight-strung. It had been with some relish (of a bitter taste)―and with his eye distinctly on Honoré―that Sartain had used the word, “idiocy”.
Paris, in the spring following the humiliation of France, had bled and burned in revolt. But Honoré had missed this. He had been ill, horribly so; was still not much recovered, and Serrigny, like most of those who had known Honoré (excepting the Sartains, who had cared for him, and had therefore missed nothing; and the unfortunate Gérard, who really was dead) had anticipated the worst. But “worst”, Honoré considered, was a figure of speech. Sartain, loyal to Serrigny, did not impute such a motive to a man he admired: of encouraging this delay, which he called unavoidable, and which might have permitted Sartain’s own niece to inherit Mme Rose’s money.
At the outset of their walk, teeth gritted, he had told Honoré, “Monsieur Serrigny asks me to advise him. And I have given it as my opinion that he may meet with you now at any date he cares to appoint.” A letter from Serrigny waiting in Mme Sartain’s possession, this by chance having arrived in the morning’s post, confirmed the news of Honoré’s legacy, promising that soon they would have their talk, reassuring him that the money was real, and not a figment.
But Serrigny had chosen not to arrange this meeting until the next year’s spring…on a particular anniversary in the month of March. Serrigny might devise signs and wonders, wishing her legatee to be impressed by the gravity of the occasion, but Honoré had been insensible of the hour and the day they had told him Mme Rose was dead. Even weeks afterwards that word had come to him like the whisper of a phantom.
Clotilde and Mme Sartain accompanied Honoré to the lawyer’s rooms on the Quai Saint-Michel, where Serrigny, observing that Honoré’s wife clung to his sleeve, said to her aunt: “Madame, take this girl away.”
“Yes, go.” Honoré caught Clotilde’s hand and loosed it. “Monsieur Serrigny has a thing he wishes to tell me in private.”
Pressured towards the door by the arm of Mme Sartain thrown round her waist, Clotilde still crafted a defense: “But I will understand nothing Monsieur Serrigny says, I am certain; so then it’s no difference if I stay or go, only…I can be very quiet there in the corner, monsieur.”
Over her aunt’s shoulder she cast appealing eyes at Serrigny; but he, reading through papers on his desk, raised his head, and shooed the women with a gesture. “Please, madame.”
Continued from “Madame”
Mme Sartain murmured an inducement. “We will ride in a cab, ma petite. Just to sit and look at the city is very pleasant.”
When they had gone, Serrigny pointed at a hard wooden chair before his desk, and Honoré, who had little flesh on his bones, perched at its edge in some pain, noting how well upholstered was Serrigny’s leather armchair. The window behind, its sky-blue draperies flung open to the sun, streamed light onto his desk, and concealed his face in shadow.
“I can’t force you,” he told Honoré, “to manage your affairs responsibly. She attached no conditions to the money. She may have told you about Jacques. If so, you will know the sort of indulgent mother Madame Rose was. Had she asked me, I would strongly have urged that she put the property in trust, to provide you a small income. Your education would not then have come at too high a price.
“Perhaps―though how it could be so, when she had lived with you under her roof―she believed you capable of resisting your inclinations.”
Serrigny left off speaking. He seemed to lapse into abstraction, his chin resting on his hand. Honoré did not know which of this statement’s two points―whether Mme Rose had believed this, or whether it was true―Serrigny expected him to address. He had never had a legacy formally transferred into his possession. There might be nothing more to say.
He had nearly risen, when Serrigny, emerging, waved a hand at him, palm down.
“Please. Madame Rose had a kind heart. She knew herself to be dying. You, in taking the place of Jacques, have done nothing wrong. I don’t suggest that you could have known of her plans. But I see no wisdom in you, and I say it frankly. I hope you will respect the good intentions of one who was truly your friend.”
He was being lectured without sympathy…and what was more, Honoré knew himself, if he were not wise, intelligent enough at least to see the import of what Serrigny claimed he did not suggest. Composing a face to conceal this thought, and using the front corner of the desk, Honoré pulled himself to his feet. “Because I have a wife to think of, Monsieur Serrigny, I will ask you for the cheque; and then, not to take up your time, I will leave, as soon as…”
A sardonic smile bloomed on Serrigny’s face.
“Monsieur Gremot, we have not begun to conduct our legal affairs. I have no cheque to give you―you will draw your money from an account at the savings bank on the rue de Combé; indeed, I would advise keeping the funds where they are. But when you have spoken with your friends, you may feel persuaded to choose a scheme of your own. No, you will be here for another hour or two…we will take refreshment, you need not fear. And you must tell me if you begin to feel unwell. However―I have been giving you advice. I suppose you haven’t had enough advice in your life to recognize the nature of it. When we die, Monsieur Gremot, we must place the sum of our lives in the hands of another. If you squander this legacy, it will not be merely so many francs that you are making an end of. Let me say this also: I see too much of the parvenu in your tastes and your ambitions. Why pursue that which society will not permit? Along the southern coast the air is wholesome, and there are any number of charming villages. You will find a house suitable for your family, one you can afford. If you insist, you may still have your Progressiste. I would not remain in Paris.”
Honoré sat for the third time, and Serrigny then drew down one from a stack of books at his right hand. “You must yourself make a will, for Madame Gremot’s sake…it may be that she will outlive you. I think, also, that since you are in a good position, her uncle being generous enough not to charge you rent for the rooms you occupy in his house, ten thousand francs might be put aside for the purpose of making an investment; to do so will not prevent your collecting a comfortable allowance…” He opened another of his books. “These are interest tables; I will make their meaning plain to you…have you ever voted in an election?”
“I mean any sort of election.”
“Yes, then―for officers of my club.”
“Do you have a club?”
Honoré drew breath. “The Schaerbeek chapter of the Council of the party of liberty of the proletariat…”
“That will do.” Serrigny had written down none of this. “Will you return to live in Belgium?”
“No, I think not.”
For an hour more, Serrigny spoke of all those things—taxes, investments, responsibilities civic and marital—mentioned in his introductory remarks; he read to Honoré from his books, demanding at intervals that Honoré come stand behind him, then sending him back to his chair. At one o’clock, he rang a bell; the boy summoned by this was sent to fetch their lunch from a nearby hotel.
“But…” Honoré, happier for having been fed, licked bread crumbs from his fingers, and searched his mind for any sampling of Serrigny’s advice that he’d understood or remembered. “Monsieur, you said at the beginning, she attached no conditions to the money. Am I not allowed to have it?”
“The money is yours, Monsieur Gremot.” Serrigny put aside his plate, and dealt onto his desk an array of papers. “Now, there is something to be said for taking one’s income on a quarterly basis…”
At the finale of their first meeting, he had called in his clerk; both crossed from desk to filing cabinet, traded documents and Latin terms, quibbled, lost things and found them. By then, Clotilde was back, and twice had put her head round the door; each time, Mme Sartain’s scolding could be heard from the antechamber. And Honoré, for the past hour, had slouched in his chair, daydreaming. He wanted his afternoon nap. He rose six times to scribble his name.
He had remained in Paris. He’d explained the money to Clotilde so as to make the amount seem unimportant. She would like Serrigny’s idea too well, her little cottage overlooking the sea…it was not even coincidence. Clotilde, at his bedside, had spun this yarn many times, while the others had come and gone. Serrigny supposed merely that he might add weight from another angle.
Tilting his head skywards, Honoré saw the parchment-colored walls of the tall house reflect a bright opacity, like the patent of nobility; while its cats, from between iron rails, peered down with scorn. He shifted his gaze again to street level, to the insouciant tasseled awnings, and felt mindful of old resentments. If Broughton had lived here, if he had not left Paris as Honoré had feared; if he’d been in communication with Serrigny throughout the years gone by since he’d found new work for Honoré, and had been not far away during all the forlorn months of his recovery, it seemed hard that Broughton had never called. He might have sent his card, nothing more, only to wish his old servant well.
Yet, for having been induced to sign one fatal paper; a power of attorney giving Serrigny guardianship of his money after all, Honoré would soon have more of it to spend…in seven months, on his twenty-third birthday. A fresh allowance to be disbursed on his twenty-fourth, and in two years more, at twenty-five, he would receive the bulk of his legacy: the ten thousand francs that Serrigny had wanted to invest in railway shares.
Serrigny preferred that Honoré’s concerns be addressed to him through Sartain. He had made himself disagreeable over this request for a consultation in person. “I hope you are not keeping secrets at home, Monsieur Gremot. I am quite willing to find employment for you. This life of the entrepreneur was your own choice. You have not gone through your money already?”
Most of it, yes. Among Honoré’s expenses was the rented office, in which Gilbert had taken up residence. This saved something; it meant Honoré paid his friend smaller wages―still, Gilbert had to be paid, or he would have to work, and the Progressiste needed every hour the two could spare. The printer had to be paid. Honoré (his old things no longer fitting) had bought two suits; he’d ordered cards and stationery. But all these were requisites for a man doing business.
“I thank you, monsieur. You are kind to make me the offer…but no, you have not understood me. I have a relative who lives in America. My father told me he is a rich man…”
Serrigny interrupted with a laugh. He did not laugh often in conversation with Honoré; but when he did, to an immoderate degree, he continued. “You have been writing letters to this relative. You have some scheme in mind, have you, in which you will allow him to sink his money?”
With the dignity appropriate to the proprietor and managing editor of a rising journal, Honoré ignored Serrigny’s jab…it was not the first time he had divined, and with such piercing accuracy, those things he could have got from Sartain. “I have written to my relative, and he has never answered. So I think with my English, I do not make myself sensible. No, I have come only to ask if you know where I can find Monsieur Broughton.”
By now, he and Gilbert had issued six numbers of the third Progressiste, and gained forty anonymous subscribers, a statistic that both gratified and disappointed. To drum up interest, they left copies everywhere: on omnibus seats…on theater seats; filtering in where crowds gathered, they dropped them into carelessly closed umbrellas. Honoré had had the idea of putting the Progressiste before the public by folding twenty-four inside twenty-four copies of the Figaro, a journal people wanted to read. With a ten-franc piece secured between the first two fingers of his right hand, and glinting in the sun as he worked, Honoré demonstrated his method of concealing these upside-down, so that the Progressiste would at once call attention to itself. The vendor had been a crippled veteran of St-Privat, who sold from a kiosk near the Gare du Montparnasse.
He was apprehensive. Honoré dismissed this.
“What! Send your wife to sell them for you, then. She will say you’ve had an accident with your leg, and the men will buy from sympathy.”
The vendor frowned. Honoré cleared his throat. “I know of no reason to complain about something given free…but say one does complain, she will tell him a stranger talked her into it, that’s all.”
Honoré and Gilbert also had perfected a technique for working in tandem to slip past the porters of the better hotels; Honoré sinking onto the front steps, coughing into his handkerchief, while Gilbert achieved the inner staircase, and pushed a Progressiste under as many doors as accounted for half their press run. They did their best to sell the others on the street.
Honoré now gave his own card to the boy who loitered in Broughton’s vestibule.
And was met with hesitation. Darkly, he said, “Why should I tip you, garçon? You will take that up at once!”
Through a full reading of the last October’s number of his own paper, he leaned against the door molding (the taking of a seat, too much a concession). He found himself permitted to climb four flights of stairs. At the second landing, Honoré began to require the bannister for support. At the third, he stalled, bent over gasping, and was surprised to hear Broughton speak.
“Gremot! I’m pleased that you have thought of visiting me. These stairs are rather trying for you, I’m afraid…put your hand on my shoulder. I will not let you fall. You must allow me to help you.”
Those, Honoré recalled, had been Broughton’s words.
He’d waited to speak until they reached the door to the apartment, left standing open. It would do no harm, Honoré thought, to ask his favor at the outset. By using the distraction of fishing in his pockets, he could be somewhat off-hand about the episode, while catching his breath.
He managed a smile. “It will be easier going down than up. They say it is.”
“They do say so.”
Broughton’s room was furnished with dull, useful things: bookshelves, a desk, two armchairs, a rug. The desk faced away from the narrow balcony; but he had not curtained his window, nothing shut out the light. Each letter and paper was held in place against the breeze by a lead weight. Honoré saw the city’s avenues fan out below like a declining star, the arches of the Pont Neuf and shadows cast beneath, that quelled the flashing waters of the Seine, a spot of carmine on the weathered hull of a little boat that sheltered there. The fair blue sky framed by the window against Broughton’s dusky interior, glowed with the grace of a cathedral’s fresco. Broughton, he saw, kept four geraniums in pots at the balcony’s edge, one sporting an early bloom.
“Read for yourself.” He held out the letter. He jogged it in the air, as Broughton did not take it immediately. “See what I am saying. And then, you will advise me how to say it best. You have…” He felt a dismaying pressure in his chest.
“I have, Gremot…”
Murmuring this, Broughton walked, head bent over the letter, to the lighter half of the room, and stepped through the open window onto the balcony. After a minute or two, during which Honoré heard the room fill with the sound of his own breathing, Broughton looked up. He came back inside.
“Please forgive me. I ought to have offered you a chair at once. I do not take my meals here, and so I am sorry to say, I’ve nothing much to give you. I have brandy, however. Sit…and I will fetch some.”
“No, I mean to say…”
Honoré backed, coming down abruptly onto an armchair. He tried carrying on in a natural voice. “You have asked to see the new Progressiste, do you remember?”
Years ago, when he had been friendly to Honoré, Broughton had asked this.
But the spell could not be avoided. He put his head over his knees, and buried his face in his handkerchief. It was not, Honoré thought, so much a sin to have feigned illness. He could start a cough readily enough; he could not always suppress it afterwards. Before Broughton, he ought not be punished with this embarrassment. He recited a prayer, as M. Bellet had once taught him to do, both a plea and a means of concentrating away pain; then recited it twice more. The spasms subsided. He was able forcibly to stop the first lagging cough. The next came out, then two or three, then silence.
He studied his handkerchief to see what the fit had brought up…and this was only spittle and phlegm, no blood. A corner was still clean; with this, he dabbed at his eyes. He blew his nose. Tired from the climb and the prolonged attack, he slumped for a moment against the wing of the chair.
His mind went black as though he’d fallen into a doze…
He opened his eyes. From the angle at which his head had come to rest, he saw between the rug’s fringe and the wall, exposed parquetry, pattern and dust, the dark waxy edge at the bottom of the skirting, scuffs lit by a shaft of sun. Four rings stained the floor, crusted white where water had dried. The month was April. Until the morning air had warmed, the geraniums sheltered here, indoors.
Honoré’s ears had half-listened to drawers pulled open, the rattle of glass and bottle…Broughton now drew the other armchair close, and thrust the brandy, waving the glass to release its scent, under Honoré’s nose.
“I have poured only a small amount.”
Honoré sat up. He straightened his clothes. And, for Broughton’s sake, took the glass and drank.
“Monsieur. I have made a request of you. I ask you almost nothing.”
“I’ve read your letter, Honoré. But I will read it again.”
Brought rose, retrieved the letter from his desk, and returned to his chair. For long minutes he sat, looking down at Honoré’s effort, thoughtful and unspeaking.
A vision of snatching it back began to urge. Honoré placed hands to brace himself for standing.
“You have conceived a plan to emigrate to America?”
Each, words whose sense together confused him somewhat, Honoré translated, taking measure of Broughton’s idea. He gave a conditional nod.
“I had heard that you have taken on family responsibilities.”
“But, I would go by myself, alone.”
“Gremot, do you suppose they have no laws at all regarding…”
Broughton shot an unhappy glance aside. “My best advice, as to your letter, is that you must write for yourself. You will better impress this relative of yours by using your own words, however imperfect. But Gremot, the Americans do not grant entry to all immigrants. Have you thought of it?”
When it had started, his campaign of letters, and Honoré still bedridden, he had believed himself destitute, dependent on the charity of a man who disliked him. The first had been of the simplest sort, taking advantage of the odd condition to which, through duress, he’d arrived. An announcement calculated not to alarm his American relative:
My dear cousin M. Gremot, I write to you on the occasion of my marriage…
No gift of money turned up in an envelope, however; and he had sent the same letter again, telling himself the first could have gone astray. Only in these last months had Honoré begun to threaten visiting America; and only that, in the nature of prodding the sleeping lion to learn whether effrontery, at last, would wake it.
He did think of emigrating. He had thought of it before.
They were ruining him, Messieurs Serrigny and Sartain, choking off his prospects with their reserved opinions. And he did not have the luxury, even, of pretending they conspired to do so, and of hating them for it. Serringy was a man of influence. Honoré was thought to be under Serrigny’s protection. By this unlucky convergence, he was cursed. Help with the Progressiste proved nearly impossible to find―for why should investors trust Honoré, when his patron kept him at arm’s length, and would not trust him?
Inside, an ember of indignation flared. He lifted a hand and rested it on his stomach. He had the right, as any man had the right, to decide his own fate…to leave this city, if he liked; to make a new start, if he chose. He had not begged Broughton for counsel. He had not come here to have his ambitions judged. He had asked a simple favor. Why should Broughton throw additional obstacles in the path, when he had tacitly refused to help in clearing the first?
Honoré cut short this answer, and said: “I see.”
He recalled the picture he’d had (and with which he now rebuked himself), of reading his work aloud to Broughton, of Broughton’s fingers on his blotter interlaced. Of his old employer kind, attentive in his corrections: “I’m afraid I don’t quite like it. But I have a suggestion, Gremot.”
As Broughton had been, once.
Honoré felt his eyes fill. Wiping them with his sleeve, he pitched his weight against the scrolled armrest, with all the vehemence of humiliation. His weight was not much to alter the balance of things, and Honoré struggled, to rise from his bed in the mornings, to rise from upholstered chairs…
From pavement to staircase, staircase to lobby, lobby to inner sanctum, where business was done.
He could not stalk from the apartment, as he would have liked. Broughton was on his feet ahead of Honoré, and placing two fingers on his shoulder, rather than assist him up, gently pressured him to his seat.
“You must allow me to give you supper. You have come a long way.”
Determined to stand, Honoré threw into it his most strenuous effort. “I must always have supper at home.” When Broughton proffered the letter, he waved this off with the back of his hand. “Monsieur, I do not need it. No, you have been all the help you can. I thank you, Monsieur Broughton, that you have opened your door to me.”
He had been shaken, and made somewhat sorry, by what he’d seen in Broughton’s face. Yet as Honoré descended the stairs, he reminded himself Broughton had for many months ignored him. Asked a small service, a mere courtesy of the sort due to friendship, Broughton had balked him. Then, finding they could not be amicable, Broughton would like to atone with an act of generosity…
Well, it was no use being kind in this commonplace way! Honoré had not come to have supper.
Broughton was happy to think himself right and have Honoré agree to be wrong. Feeling sad, and unsettled in his mind, he looked up from the street, and could locate, now that he knew, the single red bloom, knocking against the rail as the wind stirred it.
But on that same day, the miracle occurred.
In the Sartain’s downstairs parlor, feeling unequal to another step, Honoré rested, tucked in his blanket by the fire. Mme Sartain had given him mulled wine, so powerfully soporific combined with the brandy, that he was near falling into a deep sleep.
“You have a letter, Honoré. I saved it for you.”
Clotilde knelt on the floor beside his chair, and whispered these words. Once comprehending the import of the address—No. 10 High Street, Cookesville, Indiana—he said to her: “You don’t mean you’ve kept this from me for days?”
Her eyes welled. “No, Honoré! Madame, did the letter come today? It did.” Rather than get to her feet, she half-crawled towards her aunt.
So recently had Honoré been moved in this same way, he found himself caring for Clotilde, tender towards her as he sometimes felt. He would try, harder, he thought…but at what?
Drowsily, he rehearsed a different sort of conversation…
(Why, a letter, my dear, how charming…)
“Honoré.” Mme Sartain, with practicality. “What does this letter from America, that you have waited for, say?”
Jerome thought of coincidence.
We read significance into the thing we know to have happened; but for all that might have happened otherwise, only the ticking off of each chance, until one last remains―one conjoining of time and place―has made the known thing certain. A man walking with his dog along a road meets a stranger; and in his house, the stranger meets his daughter.
That Honoré had first made his home in the 6th arrondissement had been a choice, one born of pragmatism. He had gone in search of news, and news was minted in the heart of the city. But he could take lodging only as near the heart as he could afford. On the left bank of the Seine lived a circle, peopled with a M. and Mme Sartain, with a Mme Rose…a Gérard Costa, a Limolette…a Sylvie Perreau. Octavie had lived in that quarter, and so, on a poor street near the prison of Sainte-Pélagie, had the Garonds. But in any quarter, in any city, there would be such a circle; in any time of war, there would be a heightened mistrust of outsiders newly arrived.
That an outsider eyed by a close-knit coterie of neighbors should encounter a number of its connections, is no great mystery—for how could Honoré have known whether Paquette, or a dozen Paquettes, posted all along the way, had not been set to watch for him long before that day of August when he had walked Paquette’s road?
Michelet was Canadian. To Honoré, this had seemed much the same as being American.
“But is my help any use to you? I thought you were always begging for money.” He held his hat, while kneading at it with his fingers, and would not take the seat Honoré offered.
Michelet he’d got off badly with, annoying him by sending one of the city’s petty informants―so eager to sell their gossip that even the Progressiste attracted its share―on an errand to enquire in Montmartre after Michelet’s family. He had done so only because such door to door work was beyond his own strength, and the time was not right for disclosing his plan to Gilbert.
But he understood Michelet felt intruded upon.
“I apologize,” he said again. “You see that I am not troubled for money, monsieur. I am wondering, because I know nothing of it, and because you are from America, I believe…”
He waited, and Michelet, whose face had been stony, faintly altered his expression, relaxing his mouth and narrowing his eyes.
“I am wondering…if these things are always done in the same way.”
“Of course.” Michelet took a moment to stare at Honoré, taking into account the changes of two years. “Yes, I can help you cross into New York very readily. But…as I say, can you afford it? What does your word mean to me? Monsieur Gremot, you must agree to do as I tell you.”
For some months, he had obeyed Michelet, and paid Michelet. He had not trusted Michelet, but had been willing to believe that a lack of respect for authority was the exact quality wanted for such an enterprise…and that he’d seen Michelet, when compensated for a job, work at it with ardor enough.
Honoré often had heard―but never so well understood, as he did today―that money is not the only means of payment. The harsher of his punishments had been that, through Michelet, he’d become ensnared for the second time by Anne Lugard.
A rust-colored shallow pitched roof, seen where the slope descended; where the line of elms, viewed in perspective, curved and shrank away, began to float. It floated beyond sight with a dreamy slowness that, for a moment, puzzled Jerome’s sense of reality. He saw a jerry-built shed of sorts reveal itself perched on the deck of a flatboat, this making for some new berth, and becoming concealed again in stages behind a thicket of trees. A red shirt hanging next to a pair of white drawers flapped drying in the wind…or these were pennants, perhaps, a poor man’s semaphore. Left was a scintillation of sun on water to show the place the barge had been. And having seen the river―it was nearby, after all―Jerome felt a yearning to walk along its bank.
But his energy flagged in the afternoons, and only an hour or two’s sleep could restore in him the will to go down to supper. He considered whether he must return to the Columbia. He saw a man coming along the walk, eyes downcast as though he traced a map from patterns stamped in tufts of moss between glazed bricks. His neck and chest curved forward, his posture a crescent. The man wore no waistcoat, no necktie; the sleeves of his blue collarless shirt were rolled to the elbow, and he walked with hands in his trouser pockets. Stopping a few feet from Jerome’s bench, he withdrew the right, and tipped back a straw hat.
Jerome looked up into a black-browed, weather-beaten face.
“Are you the fella calls himself Jerome?”
This stating of the case could hardly be perfected upon. Good manners required that Jerome rise and offer his hand, but he’d seated himself in the middle of the bench…he would need something to brace against.
“I am Jerome, sir,” he said, without attempting it. “In what way may I help you?”
“George Ziegler.” The man came closer, bent over Jerome and patted him on the shoulder. “Mr. Ebrach sent me out looking for you. If you’ve a mind to come back to the hotel, I’ll see you get along all right.”
“You have business with Mr. Ebrach, sir?”
“Been talking to him bout hiring me to drive him out to the stead.”
This made partial sense to Jerome. “But Mr. Ebrach has told you, sir, that I also will ride with him to visit…this place.”
“Yessir. I know every which way out to the summit, Mr. Jerome. Oftentimes, I done jobs for Gremot.”
Jerome felt that he had not disputed this. He reached for the back of the bench, and Ziegler grasped his outstretched arm, saying, “You let me help you up, sir. Mr. Ebrach’s told me a thing or two.”
This news came unpleasing to Jerome, finding himself handicapped in this way by Ebrach, who seemed to him an unreliable teller of things. And he could not catch Ziegler’s eye, to show him the face of a man competent to manage his own affairs, for Ziegler, as though conscious of making himself too familiar, had fallen a pace behind, just touching Jerome’s elbow as they crossed the street.
When in safety they had reached the corner lamppost, Ziegler said, “Mr. Jerome, I keep a good, gentle team. It ain’t rained hereabouts near four days. Road along the river ain’t too bad in dry weather, but I don’t say it’ll be easy going.”
Ziegler’s revelation disturbed Jerome’s mental map of places and distances as gleaned from Ebrach’s talk; but then, Ebrach’s talk had wrought upon Ziegler this impression of an invalid―it could be nothing other than that, Ziegler had in mind with his “easy going”.
“Does not Monsieur Gremot live outside the town? In the suburb of Cookesville, I mean?”
Ziegler angled his head, and for a moment resumed his study of the sidewalk; then shrugged, and gave Jerome a forgiving smile. “No, sir. Mr. Gremot lives a good ways out. Mr. Ebrach told me he don’t mind if we take it slow, though. He cain’t do none of his work til the dark sets in.”
These two ideas both disturbed and repelled. Jerome was silent as they mounted the first of the Columbia’s front steps. He did not like to be asked, even by accident, to imagine Ebrach’s performances, or his own brusque relative’s participation in this calling of the dead. But more unsettling was Ebrach’s apparent object of residing with the Gremots until nightfall. They might wish to close their door against Jerome. They had not invited him.
Continued from “not invited him”
“Sir, you have done jobs for Monsieur Gremot. Is he a man who is very congenial?”
“I couldn’t rightly say.” Ziegler answered this after a long pause.
Jerome felt he might profitably rephrase his question. “Do you find Monsieur Gremot to be a great man of spiritualism?”
They had reached the Columbia’s tall double doors with their shining plate glass and vigilant attendant. Jerome this time took care, and said to the doorman: “Again I thank you.”
Ziegler followed him inside. “Mr. Gremot has a sharp way of dealing with folks, get on his wrong side. He wouldn’t go no farther than the law allows. I cain’t tell you about no church going habits.”
Thomas B. Jerome was a gentleman of New Orleans. Perhaps the real Jerome lived there still, and would be consternated to learn of another man calling himself by that name.
Honoré had never set foot in New Orleans.
“Has Michelet told you his other name?” his wife asked him. He was slow to understand her, and she lost patience. “No, he has not! You allow him to have the advantage of you! Suppose he cheats you, and you would like to call the gendarme? Who is this Michelet?”
They waited for the tender near a stack of trunks; armed with documents, but otherwise set adrift to their own devices, on the pier at Cherbourg in a heavy fog.
The Jeromes were fashionable visitors from New Orleans, returning home; Mrs. Jerome enchanting in her taffeta wrap, her scarlet bonnet plumed with a mist-damped aigrette. In accord with the habit of the beau monde, she carried in her arms a small dog. Anne bore no affection for the dog; the dog too much…for Anne’s shoes and Honoré’s trouser leg. Her pet’s name might, by its own accounting, have been, “Brute! Go away!”
But Anne called him Sylvie, thus with one blow delivering three insults―to the dog, to her relative, and to Honoré, who remained Sylvie’s adherent. Anne, with her trappings of richesse, believed she made a captivating picture, and to Honoré’s eyes, she did. But he felt as befogged as the harbor. The laudanum worked to calm Anne’s fears, not his own. He had downed the patent medicines she’d got from Maier (eager to give them Godspeed with yet another of his services). To the extent that it stupefied Honoré, it also suppressed his cough; the drug had taken away his appetite as well, and made a weary struggle of keeping his eyelids up. He was biddable with Anne, but had resisted going aboard ship in this condition.
“They can take you, you know. For desertion. It would be exactly his way to have a man follow us.” He was M. Sartain…and the childless Sartain, who took pride nonetheless in his family name, might do exactly that.
She’d cajoled. “I will let you be happy, if being another Jacques to me makes you happy. But think how it will be for me, Honoré, when our ship sails.”
From behind his back, she circled his waist with her arms, and nestled her two hands over the one in which he held the medicine bottle. “I have no friend in all the world but Thomas Jerome…no, not a sou of my own to save my life, if he abandons me.”
This, with sing-song playfulness. But at once she was serious, fanning herself with her own words―as she could―into a passion. “Because you will abandon me one day… You will, because I love you too much! I must be too stupid to see this is the start of it. I ask you to do this small thing, when I oughtn’t bother you at all…but I don’t care, not for myself. Honoré, I give you everything.”
He had wobbled and sighed over the long queue, the cause of their delay impossible, under such a blanket, to fathom―but he need only board safely. Maier had made all the arrangements.
Michelet had wanted Honoré to meet this Ambrose Maier, a friend of his whom Honoré had not met before. Maier had pull; he was a minor official of the Seine prefecture, and of course, in his position, he could not risk an untrustworthy customer. Were he to do a favor, he must know the man for whom he extended himself. The restaurant where Michelet had arranged this meeting was the Feuille d’Or.
Honoré, dressed himself in beautiful clothes, welcomed where once he had been shown the door, allowed the girl to extract his hat, from the hand jabbing with it at the air behind him. His mood was anxious. His eyes were on the two men who preceded him in the wake of the head-waiter. He disliked the confidential way they bent to each other’s ears.
He did not happily entertain Michelet and his friend.
“You will be host. It is only courtesy, after all. But also, it proves to Monsieur Maier that you are sincere. Why should he risk scandal and disgrace, unless he can feel certain you won’t betray him?” But Michelet would be on hand. “Yes, of course, I would not leave my client.”
The phrase pleased him. He repeated it; patted Honoré’s arm, and smiled. Honoré recognized this story…Michelet had told it a few weeks earlier. He no longer remembered the name of the official whose hands moved invisibly, and whose methods were a mystery. Michelet and his profligate friend had on that occasion eaten a quantity of oysters while downing four bottles of Cliquot. Nothing whatever to Honoré’s advantage had resulted from the expensive dinner.
He had summoned Michelet. Snubbed, he took Gilbert to the Feuille d’Or, not for a meal, but to question the waiters. The next day, Michelet appeared, his face once again eloquent of the man-enquired-after’s every resentment.
Honoré began, “I do not doubt that I am at fault.”
He did feel this. He had made the mistake of putting his faith in a man he knew, and for no better reason. “But I believed we’d made a bargain…the expense would be mine, and you would do what I could not. Now these papers begin to take so long to arrive, I think I can as easily learn for myself where to buy them. So I will save my money. I thank you, Monsieur Michelet.”
He rose from his desk, strode past Michelet (to a small degree, it may have been, crowding him) and rested his fingers on the door handle.
But Michelet refused the hint. “You…how can you judge? You say it yourself, you know nothing. You say…”
Straining, he drew his lips apart. “Very sensibly, Monsieur Gremot, that you trust me to do what you appreciate you yourself are unable. Don’t expect me to care if you are so bad-tempered you will throw your chance away…so close, monsieur, and after I have made nearly everything ready for you! Only consider that you would prefer, I’m certain, to sail for America this month…”
His voice, on this last emphasis, went a notch higher; with his left hand Michelet caught the edge of the door, the sinews of his wrist flexing. His elbow brushed Honoré’s chin. “Rather than in a year or more. Or never. You might easily fall among swindlers.”
Maier startled Honoré, so closely did he resemble the detective whose lunch Honoré had ruined long ago. But his smile was bland as he stood and bowed. They took their seats, ordered oysters, veal and roast duck, red and white wines, two bottles of champagne; and while they ate, and while Maier and Michelet talked, Honoré peered sideways at Maier. Certainly his beard was trim and grey. Perhaps this man was not so heavy-set, either. He might have been taller than the detective, whose picture had faded somewhat in Honoré’s memory.
“Now,” Maier said. “Monsieur Gremot, I have an excellent suggestion for you. Rather than pay for my services, I will ask that you do a service for me. You will be very happy to save your money.”
Honoré supposed at once that Maier trafficked in contraband. His words were judicious, and he congratulated himself. “I will hear what you have to say.”
“Ha, ha! Caution in all things, monsieur.” Maier, with his glass, gave a salute. “I am also helping a poor young woman. She seeks to emigrate, and, just as in your case, she must not make herself known to officials. Though her reason, Monsieur Gremot, is not yours.”
He spoke so knowingly that Honoré’s suspicions were re-engaged.
“It will be a great advantage to you. You will look very respectable traveling with a wife.”
At this remark, Honoré studied Maier closely. Could his inflection not have been ironic? Michelet and Maier smiled at each other over their glasses. As Honoré afterwards realized, they had not conspired to discover whether he was a fool…merely the proper classification and magnitude of his folly.
“You will decide for yourself whether you are able to agree to my plan. If so, you owe me nothing in payment. But,” Maier added with an air of discovery, “Madame Lugard is here. You may finish your dinner in her company. Perhaps you will find her charming.”
The steamer on which they sailed was a twenty-year old side-wheeler, the Opaline. Her harbor of destination was Halifax; her port of embarkation had been Gravesend. Jerome, under his wife’s care, remained in his cabin for much of the fifteen-day voyage. The Opaline sailed rough; she drummed and rattled her occupants with her boilers and her churning wheel. She had been built in an era when passengers for their safety avoided the open deck. She was not heavy enough to keep from rolling in high seas; and despite her coal stores, she obtained much of her momentum from her sails. Jerome was not alone in having suffered a bad crossing.
He came up from his cabin as the Opaline came into harbor, entering the second-class saloon white and clammy as a cave newt. And feeling, for all the laudanum with which Anne had dosed him, poorly rested.
She wore a gown of pinkish lavender, one Jerome had bought for her. This shade pleased her near her face. Because the room was cool, and because she wanted to be seen in her silk, she fidgeted with her sable wrap, letting it fall below her shoulders, shrugging it up, reaching low to gather its trailing ends from the carpet. She shared her table with a middle-aged couple.
The man, podgy back fully expanding his coat’s center pleat, high-crowned hat balanced on his knee, peered through the window, and seemed too interested in watching the pilot guide the Opaline into port. The woman looked like a stall-keeper, her legs spread under a blood-rose skirt, her coarse cheeks rouged, and hair pinned high. In a loud voice, she said, “Monsieur Jerome! All this time, we have not seen you.”
They were drinking champagne. Placed at a disadvantage, Jerome remained standing. Anne said, “Well, certainly you know Monsieur Maier. I suppose you have not met Berthe. Madame Maier, my husband will kiss your hand.”
She gave a rude laugh. Berthe Maier’s smile, in answer, was sly as she offered Jerome the back of her glove. Maier turned from the window.
“Madame…monsieur.” Jerome touched his fingertips to Madame Maier’s; he did not put his lips to her glove. His nod to Maier was curt, as he took the vacant chair. He was greatly surprised that Maier should be aboard the Opaline.
Anne pushed her glass across the table. “Take small sips. It will settle your stomach.”
“What, did you think you would cross the border in a barrel, loaded on a boxcar?”
Maier gave a merry snort. “You are Mr. Jerome, an American. You have a paper that says so. But likely enough, no one will ask to see it.”
The dog Sylvie had been sent away in a cab with Berthe Maier, bound for a Halifax hotel. “My dear…”
Maier smiled as he steered his wife along the pier, the palm of one hand between her shoulder blades, the fingers of the other tapping her elbow. “It is a very dull affair, waiting for trains to arrive. I give you another task. Find out the best restaurant in Halifax, and reserve a table for only the two of us. I will take on the chore of seeing off our young friends.”
With a jovial face and laugh, he had waved Berthe into the driver’s care. And seeing himself rid of his wife, Maier jogged back to them. He took up Anne’s carpet bag and Jerome’s portmanteau, squeezing one piece of luggage under each arm. “When I have set myself a task, Jerome, I finish it.”
Saying this, Maier struck off on foot, Anne trotting after, Jerome trailing. “Children, we depart for Montréal at once. There is nothing to see in Halifax.”
The single night of their Montréal sojourn (after a night on the train, another at a Quebec City hotel that seemed staffed by Michelets), they stayed at the Hôtel Royale, Maier still their cheerful companion. Whether he’d telegraphed excuses to Berthe, or had left her to stew in her wrath, he did not confide to his young friends. Jerome, the American, bearing these costs, found he had paid for this room as well, so sumptuous in its décor, that he, his wife…and Maier, their unshakeable follower…might have commandeered a chamber of the late Emperor’s autumn palace at Compiègne.
Tomorrow, Maier told them, they would board another train, one that would carry them to the city of Albany, New York.
Anne, petite, and Jerome, thin, made two small figures side by side under the shadow of the canopy’s brocade and gold fringe, their backs propped against a towering headboard bolstered with horsehair stuffing under the same crimson velvet, tacked under gimped baroque curves with brass nails. The mattress was covered in the same cloth as the canopy, the plumpness of its feathering drawing them down like quicksand. Maier sat depressing the bed’s other end, his weight more than equal to Anne’s and Jerome’s combined.
“I will give you good advice for nothing. You will not like the city of New York. Living there will cost you too much money; and there, young Jerome, with your cough, you are more likely to run afoul of the active public servant, who will not like the sound of it. You may settle comfortably in any of these small cities along the way―Albany itself will do. I prefer you go along to Syracuse. There may be help for you there.”
This made a joke for Maier, and he laughed, in a private way. “Keep your eyes open and learn, Jerome. Make plans for your life in America, after you have come to know America.”
Anne had not cared for Maier’s good advice.
Albany, Utica, Syracuse―they were not fashionable towns. The people who might see her in those places were of insufficient account. But Jerome had fallen into fever on the train from Montreal, and when they’d reached mid-journey, he could travel no further. And though Anne hated that part of New York that was not its great metropolis, as she hated all of France that was not Paris, she’d agreed to this: it was best to stop for the winter.
That had been the final matter of preference on which Anne allowed him his way. “Because in a strange country, to have the weather against us will make everything worse.”
She quoted Maier, for this was the confident manner in which Anne spoke of his mentoring. She had got to know him on the Opaline, and cited him as a figure of trust, where Jerome saw only a barnacle that could not be scraped off. But come the spring, they would have learned those things about America that Maier advised. Jerome wished his wife happy enough to live on in Utica…
In two back rooms of a small house near the railway. They had, by that late October, little of Jerome’s money left to spend. For control of the purse-strings Anne had pestered and wheedled, shading persuasion into nagging. “You aren’t going to do the chores yourself, are you? Does it please you to make me beg? You remind me of Jacques!”
Her bookkeeping habits were no better than his own, but in the course of a campaign she tired less easily. As to Jacques, Jerome thought it impossible he could resemble him—as there must be no person like Jacques. He had been mourned by his mother long before his death; his boyhood grown to Mme Rose ineffably sweet, the rest put aside to forget. To Serrigny, Jacques Rose made a ready example of uneducable ingratitude. When Anne wished him to have been so, he became a jail-keeper, cruel with his words and hands. But then again, she might wish him to have been a man of initiative, one who could make a living where there was none to be found.
Jerome’s birthday neared, and Anne, seeing the letter he penciled at their kitchen table, said, “Why, if the money is yours, will your bank not wire it to you directly?”
“Ah, but maybe! You can’t tell me what papers Serrigny has made you sign, so then you can’t say either what you haven’t signed! And if you write to him, you only give him information we don’t need him to have. Maybe, Honoré, if you ask a lawyer for help, he will make a contract of your letter, and help you to pay his own price…maybe he will hold the money over your head and have you jump and snatch at it like a little dog! Maybe he will draw you all the way back to Sartain’s house and to your Clotilde! This is a man who sees himself always acting for Madame Rose…but, did he marry her? Or could he have married her? He respects himself, Monsieur Serrigny, while to keep me from touching what would have been…”
“Don’t say it.”
He hadn’t wanted to hear the rest; her grudge, was all it was, against Jacques’s mother. She had got his money anyway, quite a lot of it. But Anne at this rebuke locked her blue eyes on Jerome’s, and he saw no tear in them. She opened her mouth in order to close it, a showy bit of stagecraft that communicated what her words confirmed.
“I don’t say it. I only say…you had better find work then, Honoré, so that you can hire an American lawyer to help you think of how to get what’s yours.”
They ate cold suppers; or more often, Jerome ate his bread and milk alone. Anne said, “I can do without. I’m never hungry.”
He supposed she could do without, by some means; her complexion, and her spirits, seemed bright enough. She fed Jerome with a spoon, teasing him along until the bowl was empty. “I love…one bite, my poor lamb… One more, my love…ah, who do I love? One…more…be good for me, Thomas Jerome… I love you!”
She was afraid of lighting the stove, and in this Jerome was helpless; he could not crouch on the floor, striking brimstone matches and breathing on the coals to start the flame going, drawing the smoky backdraft into his lungs.
Anne appealed to their landlord. Clinging with one hand exposed, to the blanket she had drawn round herself, she tapped at the door separating the Jeromes’ apartment from that of the Waldgraves.
“Please, monsieur, you don’t mind…?”
Waldgrave, susceptible to Anne, carried in the coal scuttle. When he’d grunted and pushed himself to his feet, leant over and swung the door shut, she clapped her hands, bouncing on her toes. “Oh, so much better! He…”
Her voice was soft, seemingly discreet. Anne murmured and pointed with an airy motion of her fingertips, at Jerome. Jerome sat ashen at the table, in the room that served as both kitchen and parlor, ghost-like in his silent and scarcely noticed presence. He watched her step close to Waldgrave, tilting up her chin and smiling. They were friends, and Mr. Waldgrave would, of course, understand.
“My husband is ill and he cannot do heavy work. He cannot do any sort of work.”
His autumn of happy idleness had been a taste of everyday life, as Honoré supposed life to be, for the class to which the Sartains belonged; a climax, golden and brief, to a tragic year. With a niece and nephew-by-marriage lodged under her roof, and Honoré’s state of well-being now reliable for a few hours at a stretch, Mme Sartain had begun to think of outings. Two or three times each week they were off, the three of them, to a restaurant lunch, a ride in an open cab to look at the wreck of the Tuileries, an afternoon play, or a concert (Mme Sartain enjoyed a lyric Italian air; to a French composer she listened with an unconscious hand over her heart, but she had always—“Oh, from my girlhood; the war doesn’t enter into it”—had strong feelings against German music, if it were not Mozart).
They had gone several times to picture galleries. Mme Sartain insisted on Honoré’s seeing art; she had no desire to see it herself. Her habit was to find an alcove furnished, for the comfort of customers, with an open-backed chair or divan.
“Clotilde, I can feel my toes start to swell. Help me with this business, my dear.”
As Mme Sartain lowered herself, Clotilde arranged the bustle and skirts, picking up bag and parasol; her aunt, accepting these back, shooed her away to her husband’s side. Honoré took Clotilde’s hand, and as they walked the room, she leaned, her cheek close to his, and studied, as he did, in detail and wonder, those few works by the followers of the notorious Manet, if not by Manet himself.
One summer-like October day, he’d watched his wife tug at her short sleeve in a trance of concentration, then pinch a fold of her white skirt, drawing it near the canvas. He’d been about to say to her, in some alarm, “Clotilde, what are you doing?”; but could hear the sharpness in his voice before he spoke.
Instead, he said, “That blue pigment is made from sulphur…yes, think of it! A Belgian discovered it, how to make this ultramarine from chemistry. Once it was a very expensive color of paint to use…”
He nattered a bit, after this beginning, on the theme of lapis lazuli and the Virgin’s mantle, trying to discover in making these remarks, his point; then glancing at his wife, noticed Clotilde stare at him in a breathless sort of way, round eyed. He was glad she had no egoism, no opinions on painting, or on any subject. She repeated, picture after picture (unless the figures made her blush), “Oh, look! Look, Honoré!”
For a year, he had not made any art himself. He felt stupid and afraid to try, out of touch…and was able to be charmed thus, by Clotilde’s shy hope—he guessed this―of owning a lapis blue dress, nothing more.
“Well, enough. Here, see this purple in the shadow under the garden wall.”
She bent, casting her own shadow over his pointing hand. “Oh…”
“I like that color best. But I don’t know of a name for it.”
But after a moment, he said, “Larkspur.” He found himself blurting this out, this English flower name. With any other companion, the fancy would have been embarrassing.
Honoré had wanted to, he’d always meant to, relaunch the Progressiste. He did not know why it was that, from the day he’d tried to be responsible for himself, to parlay his small legacy, which could not last, into a profitable career that would; to take himself away from M. Sartain’s house, which was only to act in accord with Sartain’s devout wish, he’d fallen into such a plague of discontent.
At the culmination, that week in June of 1874, he’d taken passage…had given way, at Maier’s wise and winking insistence, to Maier’s choice of the English vessel Opaline…it had pained Honoré more to know that the only two who would be badly shocked by his act of desertion would soonest excuse it. More so than it did to lie to his wife and to his dearest friend, and in that way, compromise.
He thought he had not harmed them much. He had made his excuses plausible…he had not vanished in the night. Neither Clotilde nor Gilbert would hate him for this. They would not…because he could not have betrayed them. Trust is given to strength, or to the illusion of strength. The sickly Honoré, in the esteem of his staunchest supporters, did not have quite the dignity of his convictions.
His wife marked his outline in their bedchamber each evening at six, before he came home. There would be the supper tray on the coverlet where his feet would rest, his book on the bedside table where his left hand would reach for it; his lamp ready to light, bedcovers turned down, dressing gown folded over the back of the armchair, slippers nestled between its legs, Clotilde’s own place held by her basket of needlework, on her pillow. He had nothing to do at home but slip into this outline. And there was Gilbert, filling pens, putting out fresh blotting paper, raising blinds, centering the appointment book on his friend’s desk, taking most of these himself, gone already when Honoré arrived, but back, and bearing coffee, at ten o’clock, to make sure that he had arrived.
“Yes, America…Clotilde! Where Monsieur Gremot lives in Cookesville, you have known this all along. You gave me the letter yourself.”
He’d been vague to her about when he would return, knowing that he would not return. And it was a low practice, he knew, one worthy of Maier, to approach her with this pretense; to imply they had ever talked about it, that she had forgotten or misunderstood him. He’d done worse than that by Clotilde, speaking (or mounting a defense) first with the Sartains, and had done so in the cowardly hope of their telling her themselves.
He had made a mistake with his new aunt.
Without respect for Honoré’s private things, Mme Sartain had torn his envelope and gone through its contents. The papers had nothing to do with Anne…the second name on Maier’s forged passport had been Mme Jerome (Clotilde). Maier had rehearsed Honoré in a story hewing close enough to the truth that, had Mme Sartain’s frosty stare been succeeded by a demand for explanations, he might have got this out…possibly in a voice above a whisper. But Anne, on the other hand, never had believed ignorance on the part of the Sartains a safe substitute for friendliness. Nor, even before Honoré’s clumsy exposure of himself, had she believed them ignorant.
And Clotilde, as he’d stood at the foot of the staircase, in the unlighted foyer before dawn, had come down sobbing on her aunt’s shoulder. Mme Sartain halted like a cannon unlimbered three steps up, a bastion of shelter to her niece; she was like the cottage wall that Honoré remembered, built of stone stacked on stone, and Clotilde’s fingers could not free themselves from her aunt’s arm to run to him; but yet she crept down, one step, then another, and reached with her right hand to stroke Honoré’s coat sleeve.
He had been discontented with his life. He had longed for this independence, for America. For this, these rooms, this unvaried view, either window showing the same sodden potato bed, a lawn more of cinders and crushed brick than of grass, though here and there waved tufts of yellow foxtail; this perch above the floods, where the rails ran fifty feet from the back door; this frame house, painted white, but flecked black with coal dust…as was the next identical house, and the next one after, lining this street, making this neighborhood. And in these rented rooms, his new American home, the passing locomotives shrieked and shook the floorboards beneath his cot in the hours before dawn, waking him from a restive, suffocating half-sleep between sweat-drenched sheets, to the cold grey light of a day to be spent in solitude.
For by that hour, Anne had left him.
He had tried to find work. Attracted by an advertisement in the Herald, Jerome read it through a dozen times to be certain his guess was not wrong as to the sort of help they wanted.
Selling these books would not be so different from asking strangers on the street to buy a newspaper. Jerome began to think he might do this sort of work. Knocking at doors, he reasoned, was not labor; he would be free with his hours, as Limolette had been. The standing demanded behind a shop counter would have exhausted his energy…but if he tried only a few houses the first day, a few the next, soon the outdoor air would brace his lungs, and he would grow stronger.
Honoré began to feel optimistic about the project. The winter, he told himself, might be hard to endure; this place, this city (which his imagination could not map to a geographic latitude), might be situated in a bad climate. But once he was earning money, or—Honoré was willing to entertain the idea—if even Anne were to earn some money, they would be able to leave as they had planned, in the springtime.
But on foot, it would have been impossible for him to reach Genesee Street. He had broken a silver dollar, one he’d hidden from Anne. He stooped to loosen the collar of his shoe, and slotted in a handful of nickels. He had hidden the dollar from Anne…he loved her and he suspected her…he would hide these as well.
Jerome listened to his cab depart, and looked with stealth over one shoulder, then the other; for he was about to test the handle of a forbidding door, one with its blind down, and no lettering to comfort him that he had found the right address. The door was unlocked. He saw, in the building’s foyer, ranks of post boxes, their tarnished scrollwork scratched and shining about the keyholes, while in the depths of the shadowed stairwell, three frosted globes of a gas lamp glinted as Jerome swung the door open.
Continued from “door open”
Muted dots of light danced over brass, and winked off one by one like will o’ the wisps, as the door closed. The connecting passage under the upstairs landing was indeed locked against the public behind a second door, the knob of which Jerome found only by groping for it. He assumed, then, that he must be expected on the floor above.
He had written a beseeching note to the box number given in the advertisement. As Thos. B. Jerome, American citizen, he could not be simultaneously Honoré Gremot, hopeful immigrant; but he could mention his great respect for the generous nature of the American people, his poverty, the wife he must support, his willingness to be diligent, prompt―
“…and every day, I have some idea that may be to your benefit. All my thoughts are free to you.”
Not liking this, but hating to cross out words on a business letter, hating again to recopy everything, he had made the hint more apropos, by adding, “I will work very hard for you, monsieur.”
He could not address his new employer by name―no name had been given.
Anne, perhaps a week after he’d shared this scheme with her, had walked up to his chair, hands behind her back. Her smiling mouth was turned down at the corners, rueful…not kindly so.
Before posting his letter, he had read it aloud to her. “Do you think this is right? What else should I say?” She had laughed, then, and her laugh, though she’d walked off to the bedroom and had not answered either question, had sounded to Jerome sweet and agreeable.
She laughed now. She brought her hand forward, and dropped a folded paper on his lap. “Read it.”
The letter began, like that of W. A. Gremot, with an unaccommodating salutation:
You may call between the hours of eleven o’clock in the morning and three o’clock in the afternoon, on the tenth day of November. We are located at 33 Genesee Street, room 11B.
J. Conrad Miller
A dark green smell of stagnant water seemed to filter up the shaft of the staircase from a basement drain; and was surmounted, as invisibly it neared the hall window, by an almond scent, as of fancy pomade. The steps were worn at the center, scored by the traffic of hobnailed boots. The wooden handrail in parts shone like a horse’s hoof, while by sweaty palms its top varnish had been gummed; and Jerome, making heavy use of it, left prints of his own that blotted the light touch of an earlier visitor.
He breathed carefully, telling himself, quiet, quiet…
On the top step, he sat and fished for his handkerchief.
“Well, I’m sorry to tell you, I can’t be much help to you. You need a little capital to get started. I can’t run a business by giving away my stock. Well,” the speaker repeated, “now, son, if this was your business, you couldn’t run it that way either.”
Someone approached along the hallway. Jerome’s right arm was wrapped around the newel post, his left hand pressed to his face. He heard footsteps slow and halt; a comment: “Hrrm.” He felt the board on which he sat bump, heard the others creak in succession under the impact of two heels, as the stranger stepped around him and bounded downstairs.
He was quiet now. He sat still and thought of nothing.
“You,” he heard another voice, “didn’t come up here looking for work?”
“I have written a letter to you, monsieur.” Jerome wasn’t certain of this. The man might be anyone.
“Oh… Believe I saw that letter of yours. You got no money, do you?”
“Sir, I have worked to pay my debt. You would not be sorry to trust me.”
Drained and unable to stand, Jerome had no picture of this man with whom he conversed. From what he had heard, he thought the sales arrangement might not be entirely honest; even so, the man seemed genial, in a fretful, hesitant way…genial and pitying.
“I got nothing to offer you right now. That’s the trouble. And I don’t want to keep you from taking up with a better opportunity.”
The man lowered one foot to the top step. Jerome, through watering eyes, looked up, and saw that he was balding, around forty, the lower buttons of his waistcoat undone, his gut working itself over a trouser band. Jerome saw the man steady himself, cautious fingers anchoring on pocks in the wall’s plaster.
He eased down coming to rest beside Jerome; introduced himself without offering to shake hands. “I’m Miller.” And again: “I got nothing to offer you.” But Miller reached inside his coat, and his hand, when he withdrew it, held a pocketbook. He took two bills, and laid them on the step beside Jerome, who realized Miller didn’t want to touch him. Yet his charitable nature had been touched.
“Is there nothing I can bring you? Will you have water?”
He tried to find her wrist, to stay it. One had opened the curtains, and the light raked over his skin; his chest burned and his fingers were ice. They did not know how their whispers disturbed the air.
“Madame,” he heard Anne say; and in English: “Will you help?”
“First things first,” Mrs. Waldgrave muttered.
Scooting an arm under Jerome’s shoulders, she hefted him into a semi-sitting position. She then tucked him against her bosom, as Anne took his hand and pressed the glass into it, crushing his fingers with hers. “Here, you must at least hold this.”
“I don’t know what about this nonsense of yours, Mrs. Jerome. Give that to me.”
Water bubbled onto her apron front as Mrs. Waldgrave tipped the glass against Jerome’s lips. He heard Anne’s heels tap away and come back in vexation, then stand in place, tapping out a continued rhythm. She drew a noisy breath, a reverse sigh. It was petulance, this mannerism. He did not know why he was moved by it.
Mrs. Waldgrave was not. “Mrs. Jerome…” She let Jerome’s head drop to his pillow, gathered the corner of her apron and tamped at his mouth. Then eyeing his disarrayed bedsheets, Mrs. Waldgrave bent over the cot and tugged at them. “Gracious, everything needs washing! Mrs. Jerome, I don’t run a hospital here. And I don’t run a poorhouse. You never paid me the rent yet this week. And ma’am, it’s a disgrace, you telling me Mr. Jerome doesn’t need a doctor.”
“Well, but if he does, I only know it today myself. Madame, you understand me…please, madame, consider that the day we arrived at this house, my husband had a bad fever, and you helped me…”
“Oh, I understand you, Mrs. Jerome. I been helping you all afternoon, keeping an eye while you went off somewheres. And Mr. Waldgrave’s helped you more than he ought. But you listen…I know something about the kinds of money-making schemes people get up to. Let me tell it to you plain. My husband and I will not sign any papers, we will not be witness to any sort of wrongdoing…”
“Anne.” He risked speaking. Nails were being driven into his right side; he feared his throat would close, and he would draw no more breaths.
“Oh, my poor love.”
She was offended by Mrs. Waldgrave. Anne flung herself over Jerome, found his hand and clutched it, kissed the back of it, and squeezed it to her heart.
She had exiled him from her bed. The effects of his illness made lying next to him intolerable to Anne; she had persuaded Waldgrave to bring this cot into their room, saying, “I want my poor Thomas to be easy. He hates, you know, to be touched.”
“Maier was here.”
Even this use of it, his voice shrunken to a whisper, might trigger another fit. Still, he said, “I heard you speak with him, in the other room.”
“That is not possible. You know Maier is not even…”
She caught herself at this repetition of his name. Not in the least artful, Anne looked with round eyes at Mrs. Waldgrave. But the guilty start, coming from a woman long marked out as a no good’un, to Mrs. Waldgrave’s mind made merely a fresh instance added to an embarrassment of evidence. She waited with her arms crossed, for Anne’s full attention, and when she had it, pointed to the clock, Sylvie’s clock.
He’d told Anne she might sell this if she liked, and she had said, “No, Honoré, how could I ever? You love it.” He had felt a lurch, then, of desperate affection for her. This day, he saw the clock’s face for the last time.
“It’s two-thirty, Mrs. Jerome. You go on fetch the doctor…or best let me. You don’t know your way around here.”
He had been in a dream of the past, and because she called him by his own name, was slow to comprehend this alien waking. Anne tugged him by the wrist, with effort so half-hearted she could not raise him. Changing tactics, she slid her hands under his damp shoulders. She jerked them away. Her cry expressed disgust, peevishness…
But something else. Perhaps only its proximity, its inflection, made Honoré feel she appealed to another person. “Honoré!” Anne put her hands under his pillow this time, and pushed until she had forced him to sit.
“You must dress yourself.” She draped his coat over him. “Help me.”
For her sake, he tried to force his eyes open. He did not understand this. Perhaps it was not really occurring. He groped for an armhole.
“Don’t let him fall over. Help me!”
“Leave him. I don’t see why you would not. Madame Lugard, you must have faith in human kindness.”
Jerome found himself roughly gripped by the left arm, his right wrested into a sleeve.
“Faith in yours? You leave me alone to make do, and you know I have no money. Half the month, until today, I’ve seen nothing of you! And today, only because I came looking for you.”
“And I have told you that this is your own fault.” In the alacrity with which Maier’s garbing of him progressed versus Anne’s, Jerome could discern a telling difference. She worried at his ankle, twisting his foot back and forth, huffing out angry, inarticulate sounds. Ill-clad at last, Jerome blinked and managed to find her…he saw she shook her hands in the air. He saw Maier come to the foot of the cot to stand by her side.
They bent closer to study him, finding his costume adequate, nodding to each other.
“I do not leave him, because he might say anything. He has said anything.” She darted in front of Maier, and began fastening Jerome’s coat buttons. Grabbing fistfuls of trouser-leg, she tried to place his feet on the floor.
Maier intervened. His bulk eclipsed Anne from Jerome’s view. Issuing a congenial chuckle throughout these maneuvers, he drew an arm over his shoulder, catching Jerome round the waist. “Up we go, my boy! We have a little journey to make, and after that you will have a very good sleep.”
But Jerome, even supported by Maier, could not stand. He sagged, and groaned, and wondered what they were doing.
“Jerome may say anything. But if he does, it is only a manifestation of his excellent gift. He is not well…not at all; he dreams, no doubt…and no one will believe what he says. And soon he will have nothing more to say. If you would only listen to advice, my dear. But you wish to give the appearance of involving yourself…you trouble over the opinions of people like these Waldgraves, and I have told you, it won’t do.”
This jostling and forceful handling caused Jerome’s fever to surge. He saw Anne, crouched in the corner, making monstrous faces of loathing.
“Anne, why is Maier here? Why are you lying to me?”
Laughing, Maier slung Jerome by the trouser seat, the trousers unbraced and otherwise falling down, and by the collar, moving him along at an urgent pace—while his speech remained good humored. “Why is Maier here? Maier himself can hardly account for it. He has made a mistake…yes, of this he is becoming certain. But at any rate, monsieur, Anne has left you. You speak to a phantom.”
His senses had been confused by the drawn curtains; he was arrived at the foyer in that part of the house belonging to the Waldgraves, groping for consciousness…not in the dark of nighttime, but a glare of afternoon sun. Jerome attached once more to reality.
“Now you see, she is no help to me,” he heard Maier say. “There she stands with her bag at her feet.”
The burden that was Jerome found itself backed through the front door, where a long uneven gap in the Waldgraves’ foundation divided the house from its wooden steps. Over the threshold and onto the landing at the head of these, his dragging feet glanced on this and that, and were settled, not firmly.
“Take hold of the rail. Put your hands on the rail.” At the same time Maier gave this order, he sidled by, seizing Jerome by the wrists and planting the hands on cold iron. “The rail.”
He trotted down the steps to wait beside Anne.
Her carpet bag sat on the walk, a dizzying zigzag of moss, at every angle of which bricks thrust up their edges. Jerome teetered, sinking, unbalanced on numbed fingers…and pitched forward. Injury was spared him by the bag. His eyes focused for a moment on the leather of Anne’s boot. He reached a hand to trace a fingertip along the toecap’s perforated design. She pulled her foot away.
“You see,” Maier said.
His world’s circumference now much reduced, Jerome recognized that his luck was not, in all things, unfavorable. His bed was at the row’s end. Each bed in the men’s infirmary confronted an identical bed across the gangway, but only four in all could be placed in corners, where the occupant might turn his face to a spare single wall, and imagine himself alone. Those inmates on either side of the door suffered a constant disturbance of coming and going, while these two beds only, at the far end, had useful windows. The others were set too high; worse, their panes had been painted over in whitewash.
Jerome, allowed this private view, could watch the rooftops of the almshouse complex sail, in an illusion of movement, under the clouds. Now and then what had seemed a broken pattern of tiles would erupt from an attic roof into clumsy, arduous flight, blackening his square of blue sky. He would count the minutes before, from the eaves above, the unceasing trill resumed.
This pigeons’ life was to Jerome almost theater…and held more interest than his own. His view was otherwise of the inmate lighted by the window opposite, of his deep yellow complexion, his half-lidded eyes that saw nothing, and his mouth that bubbled spittle.
Jerome did not look to his left. He’d tried this, and been asked what he was looking at…Frenchie. The stare that met his hazarded glimpse had looked murderously angry. But he worried over his placement vis à vis the patient across, whose liver ailment appeared a mortal one. Perhaps the windows were a sort of privilege afforded to the dying.
Labeled convalescent, he had been moved from the hospital’s charity ward to the poorhouse, as Mrs. Waldgrave named it.
And on this day the superintendent, of whose imminent approach an orderly had minutes earlier warned them all, had stationed himself near Jerome’s bed. “Those of our inmates who are able-bodied, contribute to their own support. Most everyone you see working in this house, is resident here.”
Mr. Nash’s words acted for Jerome’s benefit, but were directed towards the two men who walked some paces behind. Physically they distanced themselves from the almshouse superintendent; and their goals seemed not those of the institution. They were alert, like otters who fish a still pond. One stretched his neck to view the condition of an unconscious man, the other examined a puddle that had not been mopped from the floor.
He tapped his friend on the sleeve. The friend nodded, catching the eye of Jerome’s hostile neighbor. “How do you do, sir?”
“Since you ask me, Mr. Scheinholt, I’ll tell you. I’m tolerable, thank you, sir.”
As Nash moved to lead his visitors back up the ward, Scheinholt’s colleague dropped behind. To Jerome he said, in a carrying voice, not concealing his purpose, “Mr. Jerome, is it? Are you comfortable here? Do you find yourself wanting for anything?”
“I would like to leave this place.”
Nash, for only a moment, broke off his conversation with the house physician.
That was Jerome’s memory of the exchange. He’d sunk into his pillow, telling himself he could see the import of Nash’s words. He would one day be called a resident of the almshouse. He might, humbled to it, take up his despised copy-work. He had no other skill. He would pay a token for his lodging and board; the public charge’s mantle of shame lifted, as the phrase he’d heard many times had it, by the dignity of labor.
“Who do I put on the envelope?”
She was named Bess, his helper. She, with her comb-furrowed strands pulled tight against her scalp, held away from her face by a white lace cap, made him think of Clotilde. Bess too had a washed-out sameness in the late summer hues of her coloring, her freckles and her grey eyes. But Bess was plump, and her shoulders curved softly, as though there were no bones inside to prop them up.
“Monsieur Tweedloe,” he told her.
He consoled himself with this thought, that he was no worse off for having lost his money; that he had never expected to have more of it than he could earn. But now, at his life’s nadir, it seemed to Jerome Tweedloe was an easier man to appeal to than Serrigny. Tweedloe had never spoken to him in harsh terms of reproof—or if he had, there’d been no winnowing of the harsh from the merely abstruse. Where Serrigny might, for the memory of an old passion, find cause to obstruct, Jerome felt that Tweedloe would be indifferent…
He did not much care about anyone’s moral character, least of all Honoré Gremot’s. Jerome would ask for no more than it might cost to take a furnished room, any sort of room. Tweedloe knew the debt would be paid.
“How do you spell ‘mah-sue’?” she asked.
“You will write ‘mister’ Tweedloe.”
“How,” asked Bess, “do you spell ‘Tweedloe’?”
Jerome knew, of course, that the letters were essentially the same, but that one did not say them in the same way. In particular, he doubted he had got the right idea about the “w”; and while he did not suspect Bess of wanting to laugh at him, his neighbor to the left (he could not risk a look aside to see if this were true) seemed by the sound of his respirations to be auditing their exchange, holding his breath in a conspicuous way when Jerome spoke, letting it out with a gust when Jerome fell silent.
M. Bernheim had long ago recited for him his English alphabet, but although he could recall his tutor’s accent being no different from his own, he was unable otherwise to recall what this had sounded like. He felt a similar embarrassment over his illiteracy with numbers, those he had seen only written as such, and had never heard pronounced (assuredly the English numbers did not, as Bernheim had contended, repeat, from twenty onwards, the same pattern to infinity…Jerome had heard figures in the thousands said at least three different ways).
“English is like any language. Translation is by far the easier means to gain a sense of it. And you see how these words rhyme. That…”
His tutor had said no more until he’d lifted his chin from his hand, removed his elbow from the table, and sat up straight. “Imposes a structure, a discipline, which will help your understanding.”
He had not liked to translate Wordsworth very much, or even Campbell or Moore (poets who, at least, told stories worth the translating); and had once locked the door against M. Bernheim, infuriating his father.
Bess, he had seen help others, but she had not yet sat at his own bedside. Up the aisle, her steps slow and sliding, she followed the orderly, and carried her little escritoire hugged to her stomach as though it had been filled with water. The orderly placed the chair for her, and while slipping away behind, stayed Bess with a hand on her shoulder.
Jerome watched as she laid the desk on the foot of his bed and gathered her skirts. Unselfconscious, she wiggled her backside onto the seat, took up the desk and adjusted it on her lap, opened its lid and extracted paper, brought out a fountain pen, and scritched a few shiver-inducing swirls. She shook the pen, tried again. She replaced it with a pencil. She did all these things with a concentration that betrayed a history of rebuke. She paused, her face becoming expressionless, and seemed to tune herself to a song of routine unspooling in her mind.
She must be troubled by some infirmity…she was, perhaps, merely simple.
“Give me your pencil and I will write the name.”
Bess pinkened, cast a furtive glance at the matron, bent towards Jerome, and whispered, “Oh, I can’t let you. I’m not spose to be any way familiar with the men.”
He was willing to believe that a draconian inclination, as with all institutions of which he had ever heard, governed almshouse proceedings; he expected his letter to be delivered up to the superintendent, or at the least the superintendent’s secretary, for vetting. But his suggestion had not been improper.
“This is only my wish, you will not trouble yourself,” he insisted. “Here, mademoiselle, let me write for you.”
“Wha’d you call me?”
Even with the shy Bess, he thought it a dangerous notion to define this designation…she might, for that matter, be married. “Mademoiselle,” he repeated, letting her hear the syllables. She laughed, the lilting laugh of a young girl. He drew a letter T in the air with a forefinger, and―as though this were flirtation, rather than a matter of having no choice―she giggled again; giggled when he sketched the W…but by the E, after peering uneasily at the matron, she’d taken hold of herself and begun to mark her paper.
“But what street does he live on?”
“He is famous. London is enough to find him.” Jerome did not entirely believe this. But he knew only two things about Tweedloe.
“Tweedloe.” She read the name off to herself; for a moment afterwards, her mouth hung open. Awaking then from the mystification Jerome had, without meaning to, raised upon the name, she asked: “What do you want the letter to say?”
Below his window was a brick courtyard, an open circle at its center, no evergreen shrub planted there, no dead stalk of summer’s flowers remaining, only wind-blown leaves and frost heaved earth. Jerome had seen down into this courtyard, this vertical view, only when he had been walked to the window, supported by the orderly.
“Sir, I ask you nothing.” He remembered Tweedloe’s phrase. “You will not like to have me in your debt. I have no means to earn my living, but I will pay you anything you would in kindness offer. You know the truth, I have done this before. I thank you, Mister Tweedloe.”
“In gratitude,” he added. “But please consider that I ask you nothing.”
“Is that what you want to say?”
“Yes, yes.” He had gone for Bess word-pause-word-pause, and all he’d spoken, she had matched with the motions of writing. “Now let me have your pencil so that I will sign it.”
It occurred that he could not be Jerome; that he must risk this confession. To Tweedloe, the letter of a stranger would be rubbish. He would not look at it. “And then, tomorrow, mademoiselle, we will write a second letter. If the time comes, and we have no answer, we will write again.”
“One of the young ladies,” Ziegler told Ebrach, “don’t ride too well. Takes sick pert near any time she comes up to town. But see here…”
He pointed to an arced strap of black iron. “How the seat sets up on springs. Mrs. Gremot will ride up here, and that young lady I was telling you about will ride up here.”
Ebrach reached for and patted the seat where at least one passenger could be accommodated next to the driver. The leather was cushioned and tufted. The wagon itself sported touches and trimmings of the coach-maker’s trade, a thrust of money spent, a dodge away from ostentation.
“And yet, you don’t find…”
It was not fully garish; it was the mass of the wagon that imposed itself, blocking a third of Liberty Avenue’s width, parked before a side entrance of the Columbia Hotel. At each molded corner a fleur-de-lis decorated the wagon’s paneled sides. The moldings and their ornamentations were dressed with gilt paint; the body of the wagon and its bed were black, the panels framed in black, the board backing each panel green.
While Ziegler loaded Ebrach’s two trunks, Ebrach maintained an air of abstracted contemplation. He might otherwise have given the impression of employing Ziegler as a servant. He returned to his thought.
“You don’t find, sir, that the young lady…I will not be so vulgar as to speculate on the nature of her infirmity. However, you cannot make the ride easy enough for her?”
“This time of year the road down along the river gets rutted bad. In the winter, it’ll harden up.”
A tangent Ebrach found better unaddressed. “Well, we will put Jerome in the seat.”
Jerome, he saw, had wandered. He had walked to the center of the concourse, and was reading the war memorial’s inscription.
Ebrach had come upon Jerome in the breakfast room, sitting at a table alone, single-mindedly attacking bacon and biscuits. He peered up at Ebrach, and did not smile. Not, within the short span of their acquaintance, had Ebrach seen Jerome express the smallest degree of cheer…a half-smile at best, secretive and somewhat mournful.
Jerome’s manner was not unfriendly. And yet this pale and meagre young man, who was not altogether well-bred, conducted himself with a touch of the autocrat. Ebrach found Jerome interesting for this, and had marked in him, coexisting with his unstudied arrogance, a naïve habit of trust. These qualities of which Ebrach had taken note thus far, began to trace for him Jerome’s silhouette, whose edges Ebrach meant to sharpen.
“Mr. Ebrach, I have learned something.” Jerome drew his napkin across his lips. “I wish to discuss our plans with you. You may please join me.”
Already, Ebrach’s generosity in tips had become a byword at the Columbia. As he lowered himself onto his chair, a waiter appeared. “You do not have musk melon in season, do you? I am fond of musk melon. Yes…”
He glanced over the menu, and with a back-handed wave at Jerome’s plate, added, “I will have coffee, bacon…and flapjacks, rather than biscuits.”
Content, he turned to Jerome. “Do you find your room comfortable, sir?”
“Mr. Ziegler has explained…”
This adhering to topic returned with the least hint of grievance. “That you have some arrangement which will not be suited…”
“Suited,” Ebrach hazarded, “to your purposes?”
“I will tell you plainly. I cannot be away for so many hours. This is my own fault that I have misunderstood you, sir.”
Jerome stopped, and waited for Ebrach’s answer. Ebrach glanced across to the window. He considered the weather as a subject of diverting small talk…he might repeat some variation on his comment of yesterday. He suspected Jerome would grow angry with him if he did, but saw benefit in Jerome’s sour mood. He had good news for this fellow traveler, news which should buck him up nicely, and which Ebrach would deliver in time.
The waiter arrived, placing Ebrach’s plate and pouring his coffee.
He lifted his cup and sipped.
Jerome drank his own coffee. Ebrach seemed to have no business other than his breakfast. A waiter appeared with flapjacks, and while the seconds ticked past, Ebrach ignored Jerome’s watchful stare. He sat instead overlooking his plate with brows drawn, as though taking stock of what he’d been given. He then lavished each flapjack with butter and syrup. He cut a wedge and chewed.
“So… You will visit the Gremots alone. In any case, they did not expect me.”
By this, Ebrach guessed that Jerome had indeed misunderstood. But the future foretold, though it approach by such deviating paths as were the divinities wont to choose, must be a thing worth witnessing. Ebrach felt that he would persuade Jerome. This balking was a factor of Jerome’s weakness; but it was his weakness that would force his concession.
Therefore, meeting his new friend’s wary eyes with a serene smile, Ebrach said to himself, “We are not in contention, you and I. I will bring you round shortly.”
Continued from “bring you round shortly”
“Jerome,” he said aloud, “the impression I have of you—you will forgive my saying so—is that by habit and temperament, you are a modest man.”
He saw the expression soften, with the inwardness of concentration. Jerome resisted, yet Ebrach knew that from the hour they had fallen in together, he had held Jerome’s attention…and had won every point. “What will you do here in town, if you have changed your mind, and won’t ride out with me?”
After a long pause, a murmur. “Modest.”
This pleased Ebrach, Jerome’s thoughts having snagged on a distraction. “You are reluctant to say that you would rather not be alone.”
“I have made no plans.”
“Mr. Ziegler seems to me entirely trustworthy.”
“But this business of yours…”
Jerome sat forward. Holding his hand flat, parallel to the table, he made a slicing gesture, darting a glance at the window in the opposite direction. And though his further explanation seemed to Ebrach almost incoherent, he listened. He nodded and smiled. He knew that the beliefs of many were deeply held—so much so they could not prevent within themselves this strong reaction, arising from those beliefs.
But they had not seen the work. They knew nothing about it.
“…this is what Mr. Ziegler informs me.”
Ebrach pushed aside his cup, laid a forearm across the table, and leaned to confide. His voice was warm, even paternal. “Your reserve, Jerome, is understandable. It is an honorable consideration. You are a man of business. Now, if you had said to me, ‘I have an appointment with a gentleman in town’, I would be very sorry to have burdened you with a feeling of obligation. Yet you tell me—you have said it twice—that you have no plans. I took a liberty last evening. I sent Mr. Ziegler to offer you his assistance. I may perhaps have acted with presumption. I trust that if I have offended you, you will accept my apology.”
He weighed a more explicit statement, and decided that Jerome was not so dull as to miss his meaning. Jerome sat for some minutes, lost, it seemed, in thought, wrapped in his mournful air. He stared at Ebrach’s plate, at two neglected triangles of flapjack, swimming in maple syrup.
“Have that if you like.”
“Mr. Ebrach,” Jerome said, taking up his fork. “I will go with you.”
The war memorial was not what Jerome had hoped for. As art, he liked it well enough. The monument was art, no mere welding together of factory molded piece-work. Some son of Cookesville had crafted drama with his dying general, his lieutenant, hand clenched on the shaft of the battle flag (real), a weeping, or wounded, soldier crouched at the lieutenant’s feet. The general would hold, for eternity, his unnatural moment of poise; from his rearing horse, he would never complete his fall. The sword in his upraised arm would always be a signpost. Bewildered newcomers leaving the railway station would always be told, “See over there, that statue.”
The memorial was inscribed with a short poem, uncredited.
Hail! Aegis uncorrupted, flag of my Republic
Call to me! And I, ever to thy summons rising
Rally! Men of valor, to thine Union rent asunder
By base Treason’s sword.
Dare brute cowardice imperil Liberty;
Valiant champions of Freedom―forward!
Jerome had thought the names of Cookesville heroes―those who had served or died in the American war―might be commemorated here. He had wanted to see the name Gremot carved in stone, or stamped in metal. He walked back across the concourse.
His name came at him, staccato, a sound, like a pebble from a peashooter, beginning to effect Jerome’s nerves. Ebach stood ushering. He straightened and stepped away from the bed of the wagon.
He had been tinkering with his trunks, disputing the question with Ziegler of whether weight alone would hold them secure. “I have glass…”
Ziegler pivoted, on a foot propped on the axletree.
“I have oil for my lamps…we do not want the oil to spill.”
“Mr. Ebrach, I don’t believe it will. Them trunks’ll set nice.”
“Jerome. You must ride on the seat with Mr. Ziegler.”
Jerome would rather have ridden in the bed. This was furnished like a small room, lined with a patterned rug, Ebrach’s trunks placed one either side, to balance the load. Between these was a slatted chair, its legs cut off short, a tasseled cushion on the seat. The driver’s perch looked high and dangerous. Jerome had never seen at close-hand such a vehicle as this wagon. He wanted to probe the motifs carved in its woodwork for hidden signs of the guildsman…
Rub fingertips over the glossy paneling.
Ziegler’s voice came from on high. “Done ordered this’un custom, from St. Louis. That’s where they brung‘er up from. I happen to be telling him how I was carrying you’uns out to the stead. And Mr. Gremot says to me, ‘Take the wagon, Ziegler’. He keeps it up here in the town, being mostly he uses it for business.”
“The Squire, Mr. Ziegler—”
Ebrach now spoke from the chair; he sat on the cushion with his legs stretched out, a protective hand resting on each of the trunks. “That is how Mr. Gremot is called locally.”
“Black and green, them’s the Squire’s colors.”
Ziegler’s boot connected square with the buckboard. He leaned over open space, holding out a hand. Jerome looked up into eyes shadowed under the brim of a straw hat, while across deeply tanned cheeks, furrows spread.
Green and black. His climb was checked by a momentary thrill. Jerome had never heard his father speak of any communal ties, any importance owed to the name of Gremot.
“You give me your arm, Mr. Jerome,” Ziegler said. “And I’ll haul y’aboard.”
Every street and avenue that converged across the center of Cookesville was paved in brick, the outer streets of the city remaining dirt, as Jerome discovered with a jolt, when first the wagon’s front wheels, then the rear, shuddered over the pavement’s abrupt end, and splashed through a gutter of mud.
Ziegler’s gentle team had drawn them at a slow walk, and as they departed Liberty Avenue, Jerome’s eye was attracted to a pair of squat castle-like towers, the color of sand and spired in green tile, rising to the treetops. Unwisely, he held this over-the-shoulder pose for a better look. Ebrach then caught his flailing left arm; after which Jerome, his heart calmer, took his right hand from the top of his hat, and with both, grappled onto the seat back.
“Thank you, Mr. Ebrach.”
It had to be said. Jerome could hear a sound he now recognized from having heard it a moment ago, Ziegler’s chuckle. He was seated on Ziegler’s left, and from a height that seemed equal to that of the bandstand’s pinnacle, watched the city park roll by. The wagon passed between two unbroken rows of wrought iron fence, each property’s fitted to the next, but overall not so level nor so flush that the fence line did not jog along the street. Each lawn was shaded by maples, well-grown but immature, planted at equal intervals to correspond with the boundary of each lot.
The name of this street Jerome had been too busy placing and replacing his hands, pressing and re-pressing his shoes against the boards, to notice. The houses here were two and three stories, freestanding even where the sliver of land that separated one from another…no wider than could accommodate the passage of a single body…seemed wasted in the aggregate.
Two houses in a row, two facing these opposite, and―if Jerome risked craning his neck to see―an entire cross-street of such houses, were of deep red brick with porte-cochères thrusting off their sides. These, and the porches at the fronts, of wood and painted white. Each porch had a row of posts, a flat roof, balusters under handrails, bracketing under eaves; each window had shutters painted to match the porch trim. The houses farther from the town’s center were clapboard chalets, green or yellow, slate roofs steep-pitched, chimneypots ornamented, every groin and border trimmed in shingling, spindling, and scrolling.
Ziegler took them along a puddled lane.
Here dropped a ravine, the land spreading into sunlit fields. Jerome saw a stand of young willow, the river glint beyond what seemed miles of stacked lumber. On the right were a few cottages…one last fronting a ditch, facing the town. His uncle Alain, he thought, would have had this freedom in America, to build in defiance as he liked.
The wagon passed a field of maize. Some poultry sheds, a rank odor and frantic noise.
They came round a curve and were charged by a blinkered horse, pulling a buggy.
The driver reined up. Ziegler lifted his hat. Whip in hand, the driver tapped her own hat.
Here was a stucco building, foursquare in construction, its façade higher than its roof. It was named on a shingle that hung beside the road: the Belle Rivière Hotel. The hotel stood adjacent to a livery stable…information Jerome made out from faded lettering painted across a row of stalls. He saw a huge hub-and-spoke wheel jutting out of one, next to this a browsing horse, another stall filled with straw bales and, prominently, the curved blades of a rusted harrow.
The Belle Rivière’s owners hadn’t thought of window boxes, or wouldn’t be bothered with them. And yet Jerome could see its simple architecture soften through ripples of heated air, into mirage; the hotel divorced from its setting, restored to a French village of his memory. The fancy left him oddly affected. He might have asked the station master (he who had recommended the Columbia to Ebrach), “Is there no other hotel in Cookesville?”
He might have taken a room at the Belle Rivière, and seen no more of Ebrach.
He had given in. Ebrach’s insinuating ways were such that, even as he undermined Jerome’s errand, he replaced it with his own. Nothing Jerome had been able to think of could contradict that unsettling intuition: You are afraid to be alone. He knew this was true. He had struggled, explaining his change of heart…how it had been brought about by Ziegler’s confidences…
But that Ziegler had not been indiscreet. He hadn’t wanted Ebrach to believe so. The complexity of making a thing clear, while he must avoid direct reference to it, had proved stronger than Jerome’s command of English. But only Ebrach, pleased to garner the attention that fueled his enterprise, could plough like an engine through crowds of strangers.
Unless Jerome remained at Ebrach’s side, he must spend the day hesitant in his room, waiting Ebrach’s return. Thinking of these things, he shrugged. He could accomplish nothing here, not without help; the help would have to be that of the only friend he’d made.
The road descended, became now a public highway that ran alongside the river. As the wagon rolled downhill, the team’s pace picked up to a trot, and from under the wheels, billows of gritty dust began to rise.
Dust from the dry road, which by Ziegler’s assertion, would make their way smooth. Jerome felt bowed with foreboding. He hunched his shoulders and turned his head to the left. Stands of trees, their corrugated bark strangled by creeping vines, striped the road in shadow. Blocked from the sun, the leaves were turned vermilion, black-spotted with blight. Limbs splayed overhead. Here the leaves were yellowed, galled, knitted round with worm-spun filaments. Brambles grew where the canopy gaped. Insects in the treetops droned, a thrum that vaulted high, died to a buzz and swelled again.
Jerome put his shoulders back and drew a deep breath. Air came into his lungs like a hot compress. He gazed up through the cage of branches to an azure sky. Laced, silvered, diseased, so many crooked fingers sporting a sprig of greenery, vibrated, dark against light…
Light reflected piercing from a mass of white clouds.
The wagon’s progress felt slower than the coursing of these across the sky, their gathering in darkness near the horizon. Near at hand, a tiny bird, its feathers saturated in vivid yellow, sang again and again a fluting song that ended with a warning note: chip, chip, chip. And as though the weltering of the river valley had a tropical character, he found by its song another, clad in scarlet. This one issued a spate of chatter followed by wanton melody, then hopped thorn to thorn, whorls of thorns fully finger-length on knotted trunks—
Suddenly, it flew high into the trees, and disappeared.
Jerome, who never ordinarily felt quite warm, decided that he must remove his coat. They had reached the bottom of a dell; here Ziegler put the switch on, driving the wagon fast up the incline. As they topped the next rise they slowed, and were mobbed by insects, the horses catching the brunt, Jerome and Ziegler the rearguard. Feeling yet more dissatisfied with Ebrach’s arrangements, Jerome swatted the back of his neck, saw quivering spasms rake the horses’ flanks.
Each, inheriting the flies of its comrade, snorted in turn and slung its tail.
They passed a cabin on stilts, painted and in use; next to this, an older one, fallen down. Ziegler slackened the reins and stared uphill, at a man sprawled there on the ruin’s steps.
Jerome heard Ziegler make a noise in his throat. They jogged ahead to a dip in the road. The wagon traversed a small bridge with a flat open deck and scant inches to spare. They seemed to sail over open water. The mouth of this stream, where it fed into the river, lapped a vanishing bank.
Sparkles of miry ground menaced in the underbrush.
“This’yer’s Tranquility Creek. We come midway. See up ahead, that mud waller I was telling you about,” Ziegler said. “I got to bring’er crost at a trot. Hee now, Pete! Patsy!”
He smiled a bit, and as though in some inner dialogue had thought of a point with which he agreed, nodded two or three times. Having arrived with himself at this concurrence, Ziegler laughed aloud.
Jerome, doubtful, looked away from the river and glanced at his seatmate.
After taking the horses at a clip through a sequence of furrows and shallow pools, Ziegler slowed the wagon and peered aside. “Are you feeling poorly, Mr. Jerome?”
He looked, for some reason, contrite.
Jerome had never known such a climate. He felt as though he might relax his hands and slump in his seat without fear…to find himself propped up by the thickness of the air.
“Jerome,” Ebrach said.
With a small angling of his chin, letting him see into the wagon bed, Jerome answered this recurrence, this pestilential summons. A trunk lid was raised. The trunk was filled with books―three careful stacks of them―and with papers, filed in an accordion portfolio that occupied the trunk’s remaining fourth. Through this, Ebrach sat rummaging. It occurred to Jerome he’d been busied in this way for some time—
And that to be in the presence of Ebrach, without hearing the voice of Ebrach, must be an uncharacteristic experience.
“Are you familiar, Jerome…”
He glanced up. “Hand me your coat, and I will put it away.”
So far Jerome had managed only the unbuttoning. At intervals he had tugged the cuff, abandoning this effort while lurching with the wagon’s motion. His left hand was presently snagged in his left armhole, tension pinning his right arm to his side. Ebrach clamped a hand on the undressed shoulder, and began peeling back the right sleeve.
At last, sweating freely and steadied by an added hand from Ziegler, Jerome was unprisoned. Ebrach folded the coat into a tidy square, and laid it inside the trunk over a stack of quarto-sized books. He drew from the portfolio a single sheet of paper.
He made show of deliberation.
And though Ziegler was his only auditor, again he used Jerome as his dialectic partner. “Are you familiar, Jerome, with that which is called automatic writing? When I use the expression, do you understand my meaning?”
“Mr. Ebrach, I know…I believe…there are people who say they contact spirits, who use this way of…to make themselves involved…”
“Just so. I will read to you, Jerome, an illustrative example from my own work. What sort of work is it that you suppose I do?”
This was egregious. This is what I asked you, only yesterday.
He made the complaint inside himself, and found his memory muddled. Ebrach, Jerome thought, talked in circles. Meaning only to sound the words out, to find―if this were possible—their sense, he said aloud: “A mental scientist.”
“It is,” Ebrach said, “more almost than science can encompass. Here is a letter from the Reverend Mr. Douglas Murchison. Mr. Murchison is, by his calling, a man of faith. And yet, what is this greatest of mysteries, that which no faith can explain? Religious teaching alone offers insufficient consolation to the bereaved. Why so?”
He spoke of things hidden. But nature, rather than conspire to Ebrach’s advantage, produced an effect contrary to his theme. The wagon had passed the last of the overarching trees. A track bisecting an expanse of cultivated fields, the whole of a sun-drenched vista, forked away from the main road, and Ziegler steered them along this way, the track not much wider than the wagon itself.
Dust hung on the air where some other vehicle had gone before. The last of the cooling shade was buffeted back, and where the last shadow fell, heat with a visceral presence rose. Jerome, beginning to feel a certain dread admixed with his discomfort, pulled his hat brim lower. He would have liked to take this off and fan himself with it, but didn’t dare. There was no relief here from the sun. He looked across the bottomland towards the river; then, turning to his right, looked uphill.
These, he thought, were tobacco fields. Jerome had never seen tobacco as it grew in the earth, yet he was certain these big-leaved plants were W. A. Gremot’s cash crop. Over the slope’s contour, narrowing in the distance, a pattern seemed to weave itself into a net: the rows of plants, and the exposed soil between. Black laborers crouched with white cloths laid behind them.
“They got to weed regular, got to be done by hand…burn em up in the sun like that,” Ziegler remarked. Birds settled on and bobbed over the cloths, taking up for examination and discarding bits of leaf and stem, hammering at clods of earth.
“Ay-phids. Hornworm. Farmers raise corn don’t like them crows, but they do us some good. Flea beetles…”
Ziegler’s pointing hand crossed before Jerome’s eyes. “Ain’t too bad this year. Had a good winter.”
The farmers, Jerome thought, not the insects. My father must not, not at that time, have been a poor man. The cottage he saw, his first home, where many Gremots had lived, was the memory of a small child. He saw himself standing in a sort of well, walls towering out of reach, windows he could not look through. He recalled a dog, patched brown and white, himself clutching its shaggy, feathering tail. Bare feet sinking into cool, powdery loam. His mother’s flowers, which he remembered only as orange and sour-tasting. His grandmother plunging a stick about, beetles and caterpillars raining onto a cloth. She had said, speaking in the old language, “Now we will toss these devils into the water for the ducks to eat.” He retained this scene in his mind clearly, so fascinating had the sight been to him at the time, dozens of tiny creatures on their backs, spinning like boats caught in a treacherous eddy.
Not in the least impatient was Ebrach with his companion’s drifting attention.
“…do you imagine it to be so? Jerome, we are intuitive beings, we are so created. Do we dispute this? Our minds insist upon logic. Suggest to me a premise, and I, even if I am untutored, even if I am skeptical and in doubt, will perceive―I must perceive―that there is a corollary which the premise demands.
“Jerome, consider a premise, if you will. I have lost a loved one; I am inconsolable. I believe, for I have been taught so to believe, that the Christian heaven is a realm of infinite peace. Here my loved one no longer suffers; here, all worldly pains and sorrows cease. And more, Heaven is a place of exultation, of rejoicing, and of reunion. My loved one is not the first to have departed this world…for death is the inescapable burden of the human condition.
“Why, then, am I unreconciled? Why do my days seem to me desolate and cold as the grave? If I love, then all I understand of heaven is all that I must wish for the one I love. If I have faith, I must suppose that she, dwelling now in bliss eternal, knows that joy which surpasses the transient pleasures obtainable on earth. The greater the strength of my love, the greater must be the comfort I take in my faith. The more I attest that my love was innocent, that she was gentle, that she was pure of heart, an earthly angel…the more it must seem fitting and just to me, that she has become a heavenly angel. What higher reward? What more logical consummation of the truest expression of love, in harmony with a perfection of faith? And yet, Jerome, I am unreconciled. Why is that?”
Here in the open air, Ebrach could sermonize with a reckless extravagance of emotion. His question fell upon a protracted silence. He then touched a finger lightly to Jerome’s hand. It was not a device; he’d meant for Jerome to answer.
Nature―obliging this time―answered. Ahead and to the right, beyond the summit of a conical hill, mounted threatening clouds. Lightning forked and from the sky came a noise like the massive limb of a tree splitting and crashing to earth. Jerome had not been thinking of the departed. The love he’d lost had proved a false premise. She had taken his money. She had thrown him to the pavement. She had left him…and the nature of the man she had chosen, in all that he was, and all Jerome was not, told what Anne could not herself have been bothered to say: what she valued, what she condemned.
His heart ached at Ebrach’s words. “She has gone. But, you…for you nothing has changed.”
On a sheltered plateau leveled by human endeavor, sat a house of stocky angles and assorted schools of architecture; a one-eyed sentinel, wearing its helmet-shaped roof above an oval window. From somewhere to the rear a tower rose.
At second glance, Jerome began to doubt this façade overlooking the road was really the front. He could see two rounded porches, both of which made a grand entry. This, giving a view of the fields, the road, and the river, also was more than half-enclosed behind black wirecloth. Here the Gremots could watch in secret the property’s comings and goings.
“Nothing has changed.”
To the words Ebrach’s baritone gave an arresting echo. “Yes. And this the bereaved feel acutely. That they, stricken, remain in place, while with each day the loved one passes further from their reach. You have intuited the logical fallacy of mere religion. I do not denigrate the Christian faith; nor do I disbelieve in salvation. I say only what I have said already. Our loved ones wish us well, Jerome. It is their desire to tell us so, and to set our minds at ease.”
He spoke with an especial kindness, as though, being used to the power he was able to exercise over others, he assumed all cases were alike.
“Howdy, boys!” Ziegler called out.
He ran the wagon from the middle of the track, until its two right wheels bumped higher ground. Jerome, feeling himself slip, clung fiercely to the back of the seat. They were edging side to side past a farm wagon, one whose team had come up at a trot.
The driver said, “Shit, Ziegler!”, and as he tilted his face to the sky, shook the reins, letting them fall like lashes over his horses’ flanks. The other stared at Jerome, grinned at Ziegler, and said, “How do. Fixin to thunder.”
“Maybe get some hail,” Ziegler answered. The two wagons came apart and moved off in their opposite directions.
“Have you heard, Jerome,” Ebrach asked, “of the Varuna?”
“Monsieur, I have not.”
He had grown tired of Ebrach’s questions. He unclenched his fingers and patted, in an absentminded way, the place where his coat pocket would have been…but he was not wearing his coat. He used his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his face, and found he’d dirtied it with a film of grime, dust that all the while the horses’ hooves had been kicking up. “Mr. Ziegler, we are soon to arrive?”
“See up the road a piece, Mr. Jerome?”
Jerome’s voice had held a plaintive note, and when he did not raise his head to look where Ziegler pointed, Ziegler leaned back, and caught Ebrach’s eye. “Mr. Ebrach, that little house up a-ways set low. That’s the stead.”
“Well, then, Mr. Ziegler, we are nearly there.”
Raindrops fell. Jerome heard three or four hit the brim of his hat. Bap, bap, bap…they made a staccato sound. Dark spots peppered his trousers, water beaded and ran from the horses’ backs. And then the rain stopped.
Ebrach had hastily cracked his trunk lid and thrust the letter inside. But he did not take this weather as a cue to drop the subject. “It was not so many years ago, Jerome, that the Varuna was lost. A small number of her crew were able to save themselves. Her passengers perished.”
“Je vous comprends.”
A foundered ship, the drowned carried beneath the waves to rest forever on the seabed. Ebrach would claim some whitened corpse, some clean-picked bones, had contacted him.
“You do not suppose, Mr. Ziegler…” The voice sounded measured, distant. “That Everard has returned to his home?”
“Mr. Everard don’t always come home right away, whenever he goes up to town.”
“Then to Mrs. Everard, we must give every assistance.”
The woman, Jerome supposed, was Mrs. Everard. She had been watching them come closer; on her porch she stood, hugging a corner post that supported a crooked tin roof. She was emaciated, yet Jerome saw the end of the plank board borne down by her weight. The porch was no more than this, so many planks laid over hewn sandstone blocks, and as the woman shifted, the board’s other end clapped against the lower siding, while the wind shook in counterpoint the panes of an open casement. For minutes she waved them along with her free arm, stretching her neck to see better, her slack lips breaking into a smile, her small body bouncing, bouncing, as she pushed herself upright against the post.
This log house sheathed in clapboard, that Ziegler had twice named the stead, was without foundation. The four corners of the cabin proper, like the two beams of its porch, were shouldered up by stone footings. Under the lowest of the rain-spattered boards, one prodigious log, rough and exposed, ran the cabin’s length. The steady tenor of Jerome’s queasiness was lifted by a pulse of disappointment. He had never visited a log cabin.
But the stead was rehabilitated, with its siding and new windows…made to look like a small house. One after another, a row of faces appeared in the gap under the big log. Cats unfurled onto their four legs, or sprang up like fleas, rose dusty from the rows of the vegetable patch…
One inched on its belly from an overturned metal tub beside the pump. A stand of parched grasses became animate. Jerome spied more than twenty altogether, marmalade, and grey, black, white, calico, poised for one moment in their flight to judge for themselves the shape of this intrusion.
“Hoah!” Ziegler shouted.
The wagon’s metal parts creaked, and at this double threat of noise and mystery, a great sensation swept the feline community, a great exodus depopulated the stead’s grounds. But a single yellow tabby, a fat tom, sat on his haunches, rubbing an ear in invitation, on the wooden pump housing. The lull ended. Thunder began to volley. The horses stomped their hooves and sniffed the vibrating air. Pete, as though blaming his teammate for hobbling his escape, rolled his eyes, threw his strong neck to one side, and bared his teeth.
Ziegler’s hand was on Jerome’s right shoulder. He reached across and took him by the elbow. Applying mild pressure, he eased Jerome into a semi-stance; retaining this posture, Jerome shuffled along the footboard, and Ziegler, helping him alight from the wagon, kept up a flow of talk. “Here we are at the stead, Mr. Jerome. You don’t have to ride no more. Mr. Ebrach has gone to see about Mrs. Everard. I got some water here in a canteen…”
“Where will I put my trunks, madam?” Jerome heard Ebrach ask. “I must have them out of the rain immediately.”
“In Richard and Lawrence’s room.” Her voice was high-pitched, her vowels elongated. “Or in the back bedroom. Them’s th’only places.”
“Ziegler!” Ebrach called, and Ziegler said to Jerome, “I got to go to Mr. Ebrach.”
Continued from “go to Mr. Ebrach”
He extended his hand. Gusts of wind funneled through a stand of pine sheltering the stead’s northwest exposure. Resinous air fanned the damp silk of Jerome’s waistcoat, his moist shirt underneath. But he felt its touch on his cheek like the wafting of cobwebs, unsoothing…an irritation. He felt sick and faint.
He grasped the canteen. Ziegler nodded and patted his arm.
He drank, sloshing water on his clothes.
The woman, anchored by one hand to the post, swung herself, dropping to land on a bare foot. Her walk was a loping, cripple’s gait.
“What’s your name?”
The word came out like two notes of a song. And she was not so elderly as Jerome had supposed, perhaps the age his mother would by now have been. He leaned against soft splinters at the cabin’s outer corner, and found his clumsiness had emptied the canteen. He was horribly thirsty.
He felt his fingers slip and the canteen strike the toe of his shoe.
“Take care, sir,” he heard Ebrach say. The loose boards reverberated as Ebrach and Ziegler carried the first trunk inside. The rain began to fall now, heavy and steady. Mrs. Everard, a broken creature, in strength no more than a shadow, tugged at Jerome’s hand with fingers like brittle bones.
“You come inside. Come on in and set.”
But he felt submerged in a riot of sensation. His fingers intertwined with hers; bathed in rainwater, they slid apart. The water, uneasy in his stomach; the water, pelting against his back. The voices, and the thunder.
Ebrach’s voice, instructing, directing. He had not, however, been lecturing. He had taken command, his superintendence commonsensical, almost admirable. Perhaps a man who traded in human anguish and was accustomed to illness, who divined the keys to heightened states of emotion and tuned them higher, saw this often.
“Can you tell me your name?” he’d asked.
And there was nothing unconventional in the question. Jerome, ill so often, had answered this perhaps a hundred times. He had fallen ill again, and in the half-consciousness of his first stirring, incapable of calculation, had told the truth.
But it might have been that Ebrach suspected his secret.
“Mrs. Everard, I hope that you will trust me in this, that it is far from my intention to cause you distress; that any question I ask, I ask only of necessity. And that, madam, owing to the utter importance, the materiality of the question, in the manner to which it bears upon our purpose.”
Mrs. Everard wept. She made inarticulate noises which sounded indeed like distress. “I cain’t rightly say. He might come home any time. Sometime he don’t come home for a day or two. You done me so much kindness, Mr. Ebrach. But I cain’t say. I cain’t say.”
“Verbena.” Ebrach’s clothing rustled. His clothing bore a scent as though his trunks were mothproofed with lavender and orange-peel sachets; as Ebrach moved about, a faint Ebrachian essence lingered. Jerome heard him rise, accompanied by the wrench of an armchair weak on its legs. Ebrach’s voice came again, from a somewhat different elevation.
“You have done nothing. You are not at fault. However, when your son Micah makes himself known to you, at that moment, we must have no interference. Mr. Everard cannot be admitted.”
Jerome could see none of this, but heard the sobbing, and her stifling of it, that followed Ebrach’s words, break out in a sort of ecstasy at “your son Micah”; give steady accompaniment through “makes himself known to you”; near drown Ebrach’s emphatic “at that moment”; but be mastered, reduced to snuffles and the sound of a human form writhing, by “cannot be admitted”.
“No,” Mrs. Everard said. “No, no.”
They had placed a damp cloth over Jerome’s eyes. They had removed his shoes and socks, propped his bare feet on a pillow, taken his collar and cravat, and his waistcoat; they had taken his shirt and trousers as well, and left him embarrassed before the eyes of Mrs. Everard, in his undershirt and drawers. He no longer slept, but remained too enervated…thought from muscle yet too much detached…
He heard three echoing thuds, and was surprised, not pleased, that he recognized the noise. Someone had stepped onto the porch, making the loose planks rebound.
Mrs. Everard, whose voice was birdlike, seemed also, when words failed her, to emit anxious call-notes. With these suppressed cries, and the taking up of her skirts, she rose. Jerome heard her bare feet pad the boards. He heard the creak of a hinge.
“Mama, you been worrying yourself half to death with all this. Look at you crying.”
“Richard, don’t you come in here. Don’t you know…”
Richard pushed past his mother. A smell of unwashed hair and sweat came to Jerome’s bedside, along with angry breathing. He could not see Richard Everard’s face, but felt his contempt.
“Mama, I run acrost Zeigler up to the barn. He told me what he heard. This’un said his name was Gremot. Mr. Ebrach, sir, how do you do?”
“Mr. Everard.” Ebrach’s greeting was delivered from where he stood. Jerome heard no sound of movement. Ebrach might not have offered Everard his hand. “Sir, I hope you will remember yourself. Mr. Jerome is unwell.”
“Mr. Jerome ought to be with his own kin. They got room for him.”
His mother’s voice was light and insistent like the rain that pattered against the stead’s tin roof. “Richard, won’t you get the fire a-goin for me? Mr. Ebrach, I got a chicken hanging up down the cellar. I wrung its neck just when I seen you come up the road. Richard, you get on. Your daddy might come home.”
Richard’s breathing receded. From the next room, which was no distance away, a stove door clanged.
“Verbena…” Jerome heard Ebrach speak in diminishing tones, followed by a scraping. Verbena Everard murmured thanks, and Ebrach appeared to urge something. Not by his presence to alter the habits of the family, however, the weather…
No, she told him, the stove draws good. Take all the heat out the chimley.
A moment passed. Bump, bump, bump, again. Logs hammered the floor as Richard dropped them one by one.
“You will forgive me this liberty I take. Your name is lovely, it gives me pleasure to say it.”
Jerome pictured the solemnity with which Ebrach gazed down upon Verbena Everard’s face.
“Nobody but my husband don’t call me Verbena. Not since Mother and Daddy was living.” But she was delighted, her trust in Ebrach complete. “Micah was Daddy’s name. Th’other two come from his family.”
“And with your first son, you felt a particularly close bond.”
“Mr. Ebrach, you said when Micah comes. But what if he don’t?”
“Verbena, I will tell you a story. I will, in fact, read to you a letter.”
He pushed round to reseat himself, and Jerome felt through the mattress the pressure of his hand. He might be aware now of Jerome’s wakefulness; but Ebrach was aware of any audience. Inflecting a becoming pathos into the words of his correspondent, as he read he fully assumed the role.
My dear Mr. Ebrach,
I thank you for your kindness―for your forbearance, I should say. I did not believe in your work at the time I was introduced to you. The manner of my conduct was ungentlemanly, and you must forgive me this. I pray you do. But, you understand me, sir; you know what I have suffered.
That I grieve, that I am imprisoned in a black despair, from which no solace shall deliver me; not in a year―no, not in a thousand years!—you know this, sir. For I have lost my reason. My reason, Mr. Ebrach. Of late I cannot comprehend the speech of others. I climb the little hill beyond the chapel, to the graveyard, with its old stone markers―I wish to lie on the ground and sink into the earth, to swim among the dead! The sky above seems fathomless as a great ocean. I feel my blood freeze. I conceive of a process of transformation. Mr. Ebrach, at such times, I understand something of your teaching; but, they will not allow it.
Sir, I see her in a dream―a dream that never ceases; in my waking hours, it will not leave me, the vision overtakes me, her white arms reaching from beneath the waves, her eyes pleading. She is suffocating. She is cold. She is alone.
My reason, Mr. Ebrach. Can God do nothing, to alleviate this madness? Can He not say to me, these things are not so. She is safe in My Own House. And I, will I never be healed, or must I join her? Join her where? I beg that you will help me, sir. I apologize that in my distraction, I hardly know what I write.
Yours most gratefully,
Mrs. Everard said, with a sigh, “Oh.”
Perhaps falling under the spell of Murchison’s bedeviled imagination, Jerome now felt a chill in his own blood. Lunch had got past him…he hungered after the promised supper, so much so that the image of the wrenched-necked chicken, hanging, as he pictured it—as chickens did hang in the marketplace—by the feet, in no way damped his appetite. But he might not be given supper. He had lain, listening to their conversation, and wondering why, as the nature of Ebrach’s plans made itself apparent, he should find himself dependent on the Everards’ charity—
Why he should be in their home at all.
A terrible sense of injustice came over Jerome like a spasm. He made two fists of his hands and heard Ebrach make a shushing noise. Did I not, he asked himself, say to Ebrach in the breakfast room…hours ago, only this morning: “You will go alone to the Gremots.” He was certain he’d said something very like it. Ebrach ought then to have answered, “No, Jerome, you mistake me. I have no business with the Gremots.”
And I, Jerome told himself, have no business with the Everards! I don’t know who they are! I would never have agreed to this. After all, I was right at first. He had been carried to this bed, and here he lay, humiliated and unwelcome, utterly at Ebrach’s disposal. His breathing became troubled. He pulled the cloth from his eyes.
The scene, the room itself, was not so different from the way—sightless and half-dreaming—Jerome had furnished and populated it. He’d known from the manner in which his visitors grunted and shuffled as they moved about, that the room was small, its free spaces narrow. At the foot of the bed, almost touching it, stood a four-drawer bureau; above this hung a mirror. Ebrach’s armchair had been wedged between the bed and the wall. Mrs. Everard perched on a wooden stool at Jerome’s left hand. In deference to her guest, she must have insisted on the hard seat…Ebrach’s courtliness would not otherwise have permitted it.
One curtain panel was drawn across the window, the other bunched at its side. A buffeting wind puffed the cloth out, sucked it back into the sash. Rough plastered walls and the ceiling were whitewashed; the door was whitewashed…and for this treatment the room, as Ebrach tucked both curtain ends over the rod, grew appreciably brighter.
He scooted around the bed. Jerome pressed hands into the mattress and found no dignifying purchase; the feathers mushed and spread under his fingers.
“Mrs. Everard, if you will kindly allow me.”
She snugged herself among overalls and shirts that hung in a sort of nook framed by the door and the bureau. Ebrach then annoyed Jerome very much by bending low over his face, peering at him eye to eye…taking measure, as he guessed, of the patient’s enfeeblement. He heard in Ebrach’s no longer hushed voice that familiar note of satisfaction, the caretaker’s who rouses a drowsing charge.
“Jerome, are you comfortable, sir? What shall I bring to you?”
“I apologize, Mr. Ebrach.”
And with all the frigid standoffishness his invidious position allowed: “It must make you wish you had not wanted me to come, this embarrassment to you.”
“Nonsense. Given your circumstance, you need hardly ask my forgiveness, Jerome.”
Thus capping rebuke with innocent insult, Ebrach busied himself, easing the pillow from under Jerome’s feet. “Madam, if you have such a thing as a quilt or a coverlet…”
“I got me plenty of them in the cupboard.”
“…and if you are able to produce a cup of milk, into which you will stir a raw egg…”
Applying to her shoulder, as she emerged from her sons’ garments, the light two-fingered touch he used to steer others’ movements, Ebrach smiled gently. “Dear lady, will you place this pillow, while I lift Mr. Jerome? Now, Jerome…”
“Oh, the poor thing.”
Ebrach lowered Jerome’s head. “Are you comfortable?”
“Yes, merci, you are kind to me, monsieur.”
Not yet released to fetch the blanket, which Jerome wanted (and the miserable sick-room food, which he did not), Verbena fretted over him, smoothing away strands of hair from his brow. He felt in his heart an answering tenderness. He loved Verbena Everard. He was baffled by Ebrach’s lack of courtesy. He supposed this too, this setting straight of the social lapse, must be his own chore.
“Madame, Mr. Ebrach has called you Mrs. Everard, I believe. And I am…”
Here he stammered. He collected himself. “You have heard Mr. Ebrach, I think, say my name, but we have not been introduced. I am—”
He felt he understood Ebrach’s artfulness. Verbena’s sons might lie to their mother; Ebrach might lie to her, and was probably soon to do so…
But Jerome could not. “I am Honoré Gremot, madame.”
“My manners have been remiss.” There was in Ebrach’s voice the faintest possibility of dryness. “Mrs. Everard, I apologize to you. However, Mr. Gremot has set an example which will be a lesson to me.”
Ebrach, he thought. The chill he’d felt persisted.
Because Verbena stood and watched him, Honoré had downed the milk-and-egg concoction, then forced himself to swallow two or three bubbles of nausea that rose in its wake. She’d bundled the quilt under his chin. Stooping to the floor, she’d come up with an enameled basin in her hands.
This, she placed on the mattress at his elbow and whispered, “Just in case.”
Honoré’s relationship with mirrors was dodgy, and when dressing, when shaving, he limited his approach to pragmatic vignettes, a concentrated narrowness of view. At home, he had Clotilde to assist with the application of stud buttons, cuffs and collars, the tying of cravats, the drawing on of coat sleeves. When alone, he did all these things for himself; and did in any case buff his own shoes, nudge his hat to the fashionable angle, run a clean handkerchief along the links of his watch fob and over the initials on his signet ring, until the gold glittered.
Of his own human face and figure, there was, to Honoré’s way of thinking, nothing to see at present. He did not seek discouragement by dwelling on a temporary state of affairs…when all the time his health was improving. A better day for looking at himself in mirrors would come.
But he was forced to it at the moment, propped where Ebrach had placed him. He saw fingers of bronze bordered in iridescence encroach the silvering of the Everard sons’ looking glass. This was marred by pitting overall…also by a ghost, that kept taking him off guard, materializing in dim light.
(Ebrach having drawn the curtains tight, leaving Honoré advised to rest in bed through the afternoon and evening.)
The pallid face in the glass seemed to catch Honoré’s eye with a suffering and sunken eye of its own, one that shifted quickly away.
Verbena’s wooden stool was now a bed stand, pushed into what Honoré supposed to be its native niche, and he could not quite reach the ewer and blue enameled cup she had arranged on its seat, unless he unwrapped himself, edged to the side of the bed and put his legs over. Water seemed an excellent thing to Honoré; he hoped to find the ewer filled with it, and not some over-solicitous surprise. A syrupy health tonic was possible…even vinegar. He’d known such ideas occur to the kindest people.
He found that one of Ebrach’s trunks took up half the passageway (if it could be called by that name), on the right-hand side of the bed. But this made a place to sit; not, with a pillow for a cushion, an uncomfortable one. Setting the order of things straight, and in defiance, Honoré yanked the curtains open, unmanaging Ebrach’s protection of him from exposure to light and air. He sniffed at the ewer. He carried it around the bed, assumed the seat he’d made for himself, and drank from the spout, ignoring the cup.
Outside the window was the stand of pine, imprinted on earth in long shadows, all else imbued with a sultry orange light, sweet-smelling air still thick and hot.
Honoré felt that he ought to make trouble. He ought to insist…
Where was Ziegler now? Where had he gone with the wagon?
Insist, on being allowed to return to Cookesville, this very evening, whether or not darkness was falling, and Micah Everard was expected home.
He thought he had not thought enough about Ebrach.
What was Eugene Ebrach to Honoré Gremot but a double mockery of his own parroting habits, his incurable lack of tone? It was tone that served the privileged class…as a sort of advance notice, a ripple of movement that disturbed the air, a sign readable to those born well…
It was tone that made success. If Honoré could truly have been anyone’s equal, as Sevier and Dogneaux had taught him; as, with their more militant speech, Gérard and Limolette had insisted he was…if he had been capable of making these waves, he would not have needed so many schemes, or trodden such an arduous path in the introducing of himself to his own relative.
Ebrach was a gentleman. Ebrach, the thimble-rigger, the huckster, the man of sharp practice. If Honoré had aspired to sell his product under a beautiful façade, to drive himself into the lives of others with an implacable self-confidence, then he had aspired to be Ebrach…
And might reach the height, at best, of inferior masquerade. Ebrach, because he had not been poor, or because he was more clever than Honoré, or because he was ruthless―
He was ruthless.
Richard Everard, his talk audible through cracks in the door, continued aggrieved. He was one of the two they’d passed on the road, one whose face Honoré would know if he saw it again; whose voice he’d come to know already. Richard insisted that Ebrach understand his point. He might have taken Ebrach by the lapel. It sounded to Honoré as though he’d stamped a foot.
“How long do I have to be put out of my room?”
“Richard, you go on out to the pump, fetch me some water.”
Breathing syllables of frustration, Mrs. Everard had built to this intervention. She had done something like it before…and that, Honoré guessed, was her way. She did not confront anger; she diverted it. She sent her son on an errand, one material to his own interests…if he balked, he would wait for his supper.
His displeasure, as seemed characteristic, was dramatized by noise. Boot heels smacked the floor, a pail banged against a wall or post.
“My dear Verbena,” Ebrach said. “My understanding with Mr. Gremot, that he would assist me in my work, had been arrived at only yesterday. For I must have an assistant…and although I am alone at present, yours is a case I find far too intriguing to have made delays on that account. I was resolved to come to Cookesville without postponement.
“As you may guess, in this work the temperament of the individual is of great importance. Most of those I interview are not qualified to take a hand in it. These matters, Verbena, were thought of. The divinities had arranged for me a fortuitous meeting.”
Verbena Everard sighed.
“Mr. Gremot has long been ill.”
“Oh, the poor thing.”
“He had made to me certain assurances regarding his state of recovery. We do not, however, blame Mr. Gremot for being hopeful. It is not my place, it would be unseemly in me, to speculate upon his private plans. I consider myself, Verbena…”
Here, Richard returned. Water could be heard sloshing onto the floor.
“Mama, don’t. I’ll get me a rag.”
“I consider myself, Mrs. Everard…” Ebrach’s voice smiled. “A friend to Honoré Gremot. I consider myself, indeed, the guardian of his welfare. However, you are aware that I have asked Mr. Ziegler to call on Mr. W. A. Gremot, and to take to him my card, and the note I have written. You see, Richard, these disruptions will soon pass.”
And this, Honoré thought, was the means by which Ebrach would take control of, and invert, the patronage which was his own by right—for he was a Gremot; he had paid the cost, in years of loss and torment. And Ebrach, coming to this place, could not―however much he wished it―make himself known to W. A. Gremot without a pretext.
But Ebrach had forged a way.
His rebellious mood tempered, and not by forgiveness, Honoré pulled the curtains closed. He crawled back onto the bed, rubbing at naked arms raw with mosquito bites; he felt scornful, astonished, and inclined to laugh, as he considered Ebrach’s day’s achievement. What a figure of fascination this stranger, this invalid Ebrach had sequestered in their house, must now become to the Everards!
He would have to play his role, then—if, by napping for another hour or two until sunset, he could draw from himself the strength to join Ebrach at his work…
Whatever magic lantern show or puppetry this summoning of the dead entailed. He would give way and allow himself to echo Ebrach’s bald untruths. And the story that would spread after tonight’s business, through the countryside surrounding Cookesville, must be fraught with mystery.