A Figure from the Common Lot
Book One: 1870-1871
Chapter One: Cette Illusion de la Mortalité
Book Two: 1876
Chapter Two: Possente Spirto
Peas in a Pod
Its current carved the land
Many more miles long
Than the eye can see
Landholders, granted degrees
On the bank, exchanged in principle
The ornamental alloy
Ebrach, Richard thought.
His father’s breathing, for a time inaudible, or drowned by this onslaught of wretched weeping in combination with Ebrach’s poetical spiel, meaningless to Richard, had become broken, as though the elder Richard suffocated, and fought death. Had he been awake, he would not have done so. But he was unconscious, and his mind’s instinct prompted these explosive gasps that counterpointed Ebrach’s baritone. He would awake in full, lost and obdurate, spoiling for trouble; and Ebrach would claim this disruption had broken the courage of Micah’s tentative, flighty spirit.
My fault maybe, Richard thought. He had chosen to bide here at his father’s feet. Had he not, in a way, taken responsibility?
He was not willing that his own voice be heard during this ceremony; therefore he was unwilling to speak to his father, even softly, begging him to be still. With his arms around his knees, he sat angled to the dining table, taking sidelong glances at the three who sat there. With a fascination that churned him up inside, Richard’s eyes were drawn to Gremot’s back, to the knobs of a spine that projected so prominently against the cloth of Lawrence’s shirt, as to be visible even by the light of Ebrach’s lamps. This frailty and passivity stirred an urge to violence in Richard. Gremot had done nothing to aid Ebrach. He’d sat and wept, and had not marked down a word.
Richard stared at Ebrach’s hand, closed over his mother’s. His mother sagged in her chair, her head inclined towards Ebrach, her swollen face oddly transfigured by the moisture that bathed it. She seemed younger to Richard…not the mother he’d known in his childhood, but like a child herself. He saw Gremot lift his head, and push to a posture half-sitting, half-cowering. And all the while, as he wiped at his face with Lawrence’s shirttail, Gremot shook with fresh tears. The fragmented light showed them glisten in the hollows of his eyes.
Lawrence had told Richard that Gremot would go to the house of his kin and relate all this. He would paint the Everards fools. He would show W. A. Gremot where to wind the coils of his snare, and at last, even the brutal charity Gremot extended to their father would be withdrawn.
But in outrage and amazement, Richard tried to picture this young scion of the clan playing the role Lawrence suggested. Would he faint, while dramatizing Ebrach’s séance…would he burst out weeping? Ebrach, of course, enjoyed things as he had arranged them. He might have sent Gremot himself up the hill in Ziegler’s wagon as readily as he’d sent his note of introduction.
“You dwell in darkness. You have long been away from our earthly realm; you approach, and yet you tremble at the threshold. What is it that you wish to tell? Micah, conquer these misgivings! It is your mother who stands at the door. It is she who lights your path and makes a way for you. She waits for you, Micah. Come to her and give her comfort…” And as he spoke of giving comfort, Ebrach, without seeming to wake from his trance, reached for Gremot’s hand. Richard was seized with an intolerable pain. He heard his mother speak.
“There shalt thou by the river, she who bears no water, seek the whirlwind, and reap in famine…how can I myself alone bear your cumbrance…?”
He felt a touch, fingers brushing against his arm. His father was awake; and like a cur dog, Richard, with a lowered head, shifted his eyes upwards to see his father’s intense gaze fixed on his mother.
“Daddy,” he whispered. “I can’t stay.”
It didn’t matter…he had not been asked to do more than keep quiet. “I can’t stay,” he said again, and pushed himself to his feet. And here on the porch, lingering after he had rushed through the door, he could not bring himself to leave the sound of his mother’s voice.
“…sew in arsenic and reckon in gunpowder. Lady of sorrows, here is gold for your trouble.”
His mother’s prophetic speech ended, and Richard, who’d feared an outburst from his father, heard for a time only stillness. He blinked in a sudden eclipse; then, an ordinary lantern flared, and the light grew steady. Ebrach had snuffed his lamps.
“Madam, do you keep spirits in the house at all?”
The man could ask this in perfect solemnity. Richard smiled, though smiling did not improve his mood.
“No, sir. We don’t have none of that.”
“I apologize, dear lady, if by the suggestion I have offended. I ask from simple concern for your well-being, because we have been blessed with a rare visit. A potent entity, Verbena, has chosen you for its vessel.”
Something occurred, which caused his mother to laugh in a lilting manner unknown to Richard, and disturbing to him. Ebrach had hugged her, perhaps. “Yet, may I say that your countenance is radiant. If you tell me you are well, I shall believe it.”
“It was Micah.”
Ebrach kept silent, and Richard heard a small cry of distress. “Oh, Mr. Ebrach, you don’t mean it weren’t!”
“Verbena. Certainly, we were visited by Micah. He has pined, these many years, for tonight’s reunion. No…I had merely recollected, for a moment, the divine words, and gave thought to their inclination.”
“I don’t remember a thing.”
“In your heart, my dear, you do.”
Richard heard Gremot’s subdued voice. Then, louder: “No! It is not necessary.” Gremot came through the front door, followed closely by Ebrach.
With sluggish reflexes, Richard pushed himself to his feet. He had listened there, crouched outside the window, while moths flittered into his face and lodged in his hair. He dismissed the notion that he could have been eavesdropping. This was his home; Ebrach was the intruder. And had it been Gremot, his confederate, acting―in Ebrach’s language―as a vessel, Richard’s explanation would have come readily enough. He cast his eyes over the waifish Gremot, who drooped with his head bowed, and was supported by Ebrach.
“Sir,” Richard said…and Ebrach, speaking as though he were a long-time friend of the family, and the age of Richard’s father, preempted him. “Mr. Jerome wishes to retire. I hope you will do me the courtesy of seeing him safely to his room. It is imperative that I record all I hold in memory of your mother’s words. And I must interview her while her mind is fresh.”
Into the weak illumination that fell across the porch through the open door, Gremot lifted his face. Richard saw his mouth compress and resolve into a bitter smile. He lifted his arm, and jerked the elbow from Ebrach’s grasp.
“Mr. Ebrach, I will find my own way.”
Then, keeping a distance from Richard, Gremot in stealth moved crabwise to the end of a plank, paused here and tensed his muscles, like one about to break from cover. Ebrach, while observing this, said only, “Richard.”
Richard looked aside as the plank bumped. Gremot had fled. His progress was uncertain in the dark, and weary…he might yet escape before Richard could catch him. But he finished his question. “Do you believe Micah came here tonight? What did it mean, all that my mother said?”
“As to meaning, I assure you, Richard, that those greatest disciples of the arcana, fathers of spiritualism most steeped in the divine lore, have written entire volumes in the attempt solely to interpret a single prophecy. Thus, as I stand here tonight, I can give no satisfactory answer to your second question. Your mother feels certain that Micah has spoken to her. And as you know, that has long been the desire of her heart. Now, sir, I ask again, that you will please see to Mr. Jerome. Bring me word if you find him in want of anything. Your kindness, Richard…”
His self-command through these remarks had been near perfect. Ebrach had chafed somewhat, positioned a foot behind him, and allowed his weight to balance on it; but he now took himself fully in hand. He looked into Richard’s eyes, and shaded compassion into his voice, as though he knew that Richard felt despised by the world, knew the things that, on his family’s behalf, Richard had done without.
“…is deeply appreciated.”
Gremot had a leg up on the lowest of the steps leading to the bedroom that belonged to Richard’s parents. Gremot had emerged, it seemed to Richard’s mind, like some creature from the forest of folklore, upending all the rooms of his house. He had come to a standstill here. Richard had only ambient starlight and the gibbous moon by which to see, but clear enough to him were the patterns of shade against shadow, the whiteness of Gremot’s human shape. He saw a floating pale orb rise from the top step; after a moment, he recognized this as his mother’s yellow cat. He saw Gremot bend to scratch its head…and still, he showed no sign of hearing Richard, as Richard strode up behind him.
He clamped a hand heavily on Gremot’s shoulder.
For this, his quarry emitted not a sound, no cry of pain or surprise, but at the impact flung out his arms, falling back against Richard. Taken at this accidental intimacy by a fit of rage, Richard shoved him away. Gremot hurtled forward this time, falling over the steps, landing on his elbows and knees. Richard watched as he lifted himself by inches to a seated position, crossed his arms tight over his chest, then turned to huddle against the stair rail. All this in utter silence.
“Jerome. Is that your real name, or are you one of them Gremots?”
“I am called Jerome.”
“Well, I didn’t ask you that. You come here to swindle Mr. Gremot?”
“Sir, I am here for no reason. I am here because I have been lied to.”
Richard felt an impulse to use his boot on Mr. Jerome, who, he felt, rather than being lied to, told nothing but lies. And who would not look at Richard when he spoke. But Ebrach would have the sheriff out, and his father, set to despise Ebrach, would under pressure of this embarrassment despise Richard.
His anger died; his better nature began to reassert itself. “You don’t want anything, do you?”
Jerome did look at him now, and with, it seemed to Richard, from the way he cocked his head, incredulity.
“Well, I told Mr. Ebrach I’d see you got here safe.”
“Then you must tell him so.”
Lawrence had crossed the road and gone down along Sanderson’s Run to the riverbank. He would have been guided by the smell of the water and its shine under the moon, by the leaden ooze of current reflecting the glint, where overhanging trees parted, of a thousand stars. Richard could do the same, but this book of nature was not a thing he read by heart, sub-intellectually. He could smell from where he stood that Lawrence, putting a light to his store of driftwood, had got a fire going. By the odor of smoke and, when this came into view, by the glow of the flames, Richard would find his way; he could dispense, then, with the reading of tokens.
Continued from “reading of tokens”
Yet prophecy, even if the great man Ebrach claimed no power to state its message, portended a time of change.
He and Lawrence freed, perhaps, from the servitude of unpaid labor, from their nine years’ humiliation. Richard felt this restiveness acutely, now he was twenty-five. He knew his father had married late. He knew he could find no other comfort in the similarity of his father’s sufferings to his own…
The Everard legacy was the cause of his unlived life. What was his father, but a drunk, a bankrupt, a failed tobacco farmer, a backwards Kentucky rebel among Indiana’s forward-looking Republicans? And if he and Lawrence turned their backs on their father, the Everards remained humiliated. For pride’s sake, they soldiered on.
But a harbinger of change, as his mother believed, had arrived in the person of W. A. Gremot’s mysterious by-blow.
Verbena had not allowed this natural conclusion. But her imagination could encompass magical things. Ebrach had unearthed this consumptive bastard, this foreign whore’s whelp who called himself Jerome, from the bowels of an Indianapolis tenement. Richard’s mother could see, in the return of one lost son, the promise of another. Richard saw a scheme of blackmail. Not that he disapproved. He would be pleased to see it unfold.
Ebrach, he told himself, was a fancy customer, to be sure.
Lawrence had an idea about Ebrach and Jerome…
Richard had his own idea. Lawrence formed opinions from sturdy alphabet blocks of reasoning. He formed them in a hurry, and he stuck by them. In age they were a year apart; from earliest childhood, Richard had had his brother’s companionship.
Although they looked nothing alike, it had been said of them countless times: “Those boys are two peas in a pod.” When Richard confronted a thing that troubled him, and wished to winnow out its specifics, he relied on Lawrence’s clarity of judgment—his brother nearly always grabbed the wrong end of the stick. Ebrach’s tender care of Jerome, Richard surmised, was the protecting of an investment.
A fortuitous undercut along the bank had been bestowed by a hand more generous than that of W. A. Gremot. What Richard called Lawrence’s veranda, his shoal at the river’s edge, was walled―at times the water ran low―by a bank-height of nearly three feet. The Squire permitted the Everards use of the stead; the stead was meagre and odiferous…and so, frequently, was nature. But here, in her evenhanded company, his brother’s affairs were hidden from the windows of the manor house.
A hedge apple sheltered Lawrence like a mother. Through many late summer evenings, the Everard boys had gathered its fruit for a pitching contest, aiming to cross the river…
Lawrence kept his batteau, the pole boat the brothers used to ply the margins, tied to the hedge apple’s trunk. All the bounty along the Gremot property was fair game to them. Fetched up bobbing in the shallows they might find anything (though never yet the drowned man Lawrence hoped for). Generally, they found empty barrels, rope, floating chunks of lumber. These they used for outdoor furniture and repairs to the stead.
Lawrence’s settee, where he fished and contemplated, was the bleached trunk of a fallen tree. Richard had helped his brother pole it loose from its lodging place at the mouth of Tranquility Creek, and float it downstream to Sanderson’s Run. What Lawrence contemplated, as he watched at sunset the breaching bass, the chimney swifts dive after mosquitos, the constancy of the river at work, Richard could not have said. A blankness, it might be, filled Lawrence’s mind. He envied this.
“Watch you don’t step on that muskrat trap.”
Lawrence spoke, as Richard sought a low place to put a leg over.
“You ain’t gone catch you one,” Richard told him. “Muskrat smarter’n you.”
“You know what’s stupid?”
Ruminative, and not insulted, Lawrence waited for Richard to join him on the log. He picked up a stick he’d laid at his feet, and stirred the fire. “I ain’t going back up to the stead. No sense. Look how late it’s got to be.”
Richard shrugged, deeming these remarks a non-sequitur. He knocked his brother on the arm. “What’s stupid?”
But Lawrence shot no comeback. He’d been serious. “All them shifting back and forth with the beds. What’s the reason?”
“Me.” Richard found it fair to say so. “It was me kicked up a fuss. Mama has took a shine to that Ebrach.”
“Shoulda made him walk back to his hotel. We loan him a barrow, he can push that other’un along.”
“What all did happen?” Lawrence asked.
He hated to tell…that crazy speech of Mama’s. But there’d be no keeping it quiet. “Lawrence, you wanna bet me something?”
“Lawrence, you wait for Mrs. Keene to show up on the doorstep tomorrow.”
On the day Ebrach’s name was first raised, the stead had been their home for eight years. His mother had quit attending church meetings at the time of her accident. Because, Richard assumed, the ways in which she’d been crippled by her fall caused her too much pain to be going out. That was all. Belief had lain dormant, and the Temperance Fellows either had fanned its flames, or worn down Mama’s resistance.
Every few weeks, Richard saw Cleome Towson drive her friend Mrs. Keene up the hill to the manor house; then oftentimes down again, bringing their charity to his mother…after having watched, from behind the Gremots’ black screens, his father start off to Hopper’s.
Today, the trap made straight for the stead, bouncing down the cutoff from the road. Miss Towson was a persistent suffragist…temperance was her entrée to the resistant household, just as temperance tempered Keene’s spiritualism. The two ladies were political bedfellows, and everywhere in the summer and fall months, Towson turned up, a raven on the doorstep, dressed in black, smelling like a musty raincloud. Her voice was high and soft. If women cared about sober conduct, they ought to care about political influence, and if they cared about political influence, they ought to demand the vote. She made this point, and if not encouraged, pushed no further.
Richard took the head of the black horse, Dick Turpin. He dug out his pen knife. The bony nose nudged Richard’s face, and he saw in the dark brown eye trust and remembrance of this occasional friend. Richard ran his fingertips over Dick Turpin’s neck and under his tackle, searching for the eggs of bot flies. He could hear the women talking. The month was October, the day hot and dry. The hands had been burning off the fields, filling the air with acrid smoke. The roots of the black walnut netted themselves over the stead’s dusty frontage, a pattern repeated in the cracking earth. Yellow switches of leaves, curled with webworm, littered the ground.
“We won’t come in, Verbena.” Mrs. Keene plunked herself onto the bench. “I don’t want you fussing. If I was to eat and drink at every house, I’d be broad as a barn…you sit here with me.” She patted the place next to her; and his mother, probably by at least two decades Mrs. Keene’s senior, obeyed with the docility of a poorhouse inmate commanded by the matron.
“Richard!” Mrs. Keene called out. He knew what she wanted. This rite of abstinent virtue embarrassed him intensely, and made him hate Mrs. Keene.
“Richard, when will your father return?”
He drew a breath. “My father didn’t tell me his business, ma’am.”
And she wasn’t interested. Even words chosen to shame her, so far as such a thing was possible, had no effect. Already, Mrs. Keene had repositioned herself, facing Mama, taking her by the hand. In striking this flattering and confiding pose, she might truly have been Ebrach’s drummer.
“…I heard him speak when I was in Indianapolis with my daughter. At the Jefferson Hotel there. I’m letting you have Mr. Ebrach’s book…”
“My mother don’t read.”
Mrs. Keene gave a snort. She opened the book, and he heard his mother say, “Oh, ma’am, what’s that?”
“Why, that’s one of the picture plates. This is a conception, Verbena, of what Mr. Ebrach calls the ‘divinities’. The spirit―you see him here―has reached a boundless place, where the past, present, and future are all one. He has great enlightenment to share with those of us on earth.”
She had got in deep with the spiritualists, Richard guessed, with such ease did Mrs. Keene lapse into their manner of speech.
She now took him up. “You see, Richard, Mr. Ebrach has clients who don’t read English, and he’s taken that into account. This book has lots of pictures. That’s exactly what I thought of.”
Ebrach’s book became his mother’s touchstone. She carried it in her hands, with her fingers, she stroked its pebbled cover. She admired the deep red of its leather, and the silvered design at the right hand corner, that resembled, to Richard’s eye, an Indian Pipe. Why it should be that, he couldn’t have said. Ebrach might himself have chosen this symbol of death in life, or the spectral plant might be, within the hocus-pocus of spiritualism, invested with such meaning. His mother, for a week, had been satisfied with the pictures alone.
She had at last carried the open book to his father. “What does it say?”
And his father with shaking hands had taken the book from her; lost in a study, he’d turned the pages of it back and forth. The elder Richard’s hands were at all times unsteady…it was the whisky made them so. He was an old man, and his eyes were slow to focus. But Richard knew, also, that his father battened inside himself a despair, one so strong that it checked his ire at these spiritualist outrages; that with great humility, from Verbena he would always hide this emotion. She had started the business with Micah again. Or rather, those women had started it.
After holding the book at arm’s length for some minutes, his father said, “The caption is a quotation, Verbena. See here.” He turned the book sideways, ran a finger along the bottom of the plate, and showed her a passage, centered and rendered in italics.
“Here is poetry. The engraving is an illustration of these lines…”
Who falter on this narrow span, made treacherous by blood and tears.
Unreconciled in wordless horror; their ranks unceasing none return…
Richard looked over his father’s shoulder. Some nameless artist’s muse had inspired a sad and gruesome vision: crowded on a bridge that arced above a chasm was a host of skeletal, wasted figures. They cast their arms heavenward, with a desperate plea they thrust out famined ribs… And their cheeks were sunken, their eyes, shrouded hollows.
The words his father read, on that night, were the first of Ebrach’s philosophy Richard had encountered. His mother, digesting this, was silent for a time. Then she said, “Richard, read me that poem.”
“They have gone before,” his father began. And for many nights afterwards, The Summoning of Ancients took the place of the family bible.
“Your mother is able to understand things, and she will understand this. I don’t say it doesn’t need careful explaining. But Richard, this foolishness won’t do. Verbena knows that.”
He had kept his face turned away from his father’s, made himself busy tending the grey horse. The elder Richard’s distracted words faded with his steps. Richard had named his father’s horse Nebukar, after one of his mother’s biblical characters. She had never seen these names written in verse. From memory, she sounded them out. And the realm of the heavens, being vast, could contain these new kings and prophets of whom she learned in church; God’s bounty and mercy such that should He choose, He might visit the same miracle on more than one supplicant.
His father’s thoughts on horses were apathetic, as was his general view of tobacco farming. Richard glided a hand down Nebukar’s right front leg. He clucked, and the horse lifted her foot, allowing him to cradle the hoof for cleaning. Gentle and thorough, he manipulated his pick, loosening small clots of mud, and this meditative work allowed his mind to work. He thought of his brother Micah. Richard had been told the story of his tartarly grandmother. She existed to him only as a miniature in an oval frame, the heavy-browed face of her youth, his own. His mama kept her dead mother-in-law among her store of fables. She was forever beholden to Peggy, she had told Richard. “She brung me up from the poorhouse, and that’s when I saw your daddy.”
His father had related his differing view. “My mother worked her disgracefully.”
He had decided that, at some point during their ride to the river and back, he must shed this weight, recount this family history. He had passed the Everard legacy into Richard’s keeping. “It was her way of not seeing the state of things clearly. She knew it herself.”
Peggy had pronounced a curse on his parents; but Micah had been the proof against it. And in the interim, between Micah and Richard, there had been stillbirths and miscarriages. Verbena, willing to be the mother of only one child, had for seven years privileged Micah with a near supernatural devotion. That she favored her eldest over his brothers, Richard’s mother had no art to disguise.
Not, that to Richard, and to Lawrence, who’d come into the world on Richard’s heels, Micah had been lordly in manner. Yet he had been so self-assured, even in childhood, that to his small brothers he had not seemed a child. Richard and Lawrence, peas in a pod, contentedly hand-in-hand in all things, had felt only pride and wistfulness when Micah left the family to be a soldier. The jealousy had come to Richard’s heart afterwards. His mother’s need to have Micah alive; her refusal to believe him dead―these were the products of ignorance, as his father understood. She could not separate every unknown thing from every possible thing. Their house had been near ruin. His mother’s gravitation to the occult had shivered its foundation, and brought it down.
Even from that night, he had not felt as close to Lawrence as he had in innocent times.
Mrs. Purfoy, Richard had thought, climbing the hill. He would laugh, telling Lawrence about her. She was tiny as Mama was, not a tooth in her head, her scalp nearly bald under her cap, a little cleft chin jutting over her collar. She had distrusted his father openly, dickered over terms…although these, she was positioned to set to her satisfaction. The elder Richard had at all points yielded to her.
And she was quick. Richard, opening a door to a standing closet in the bedroom, had heard a voice—from so close behind, it made him jump.
“Them shelves is fixed in place.”
Richard now seemed to hear a song of his mother’s weaving behind this distraction he forced upon himself. He dreaded setting foot in the parlor. But this prickling along his backbone must be only superstition.
The door swept backwards as his thumb touched the handle. His feet were trampled, and his father, for colliding with him, hung a moment, propping the door open with his body, hand dropping away to his side. His other came to rest on Richard’s arm, but he said nothing.
He had broken. This was the first idea that came to Richard’s mind. He’d come home and got at the whisky, after all. The explanation didn’t fully answer. His father’s waistcoat was torn loose from its buttons; his face was dotted with blood.
He’s had a fit, Richard thought. He bent his knees, twisted his neck to see up into his father’s face. “Daddy, what’s going on?”
His father pushed him aside, came to rest against the porch pillar. “You see,” he said, his voice quiet and distant. His words were like a dialogue with some invisible auditor. “I would have had better sense to take the musket to the barn. It was sentiment, I suppose. I thought of my mother. I saw the way she would smile…the room was hers. But I’ve told you that. I am too cowardly now to cross that threshold. Richard.”
His father spoke to him directly, frightening him less; but still, he leaned on the pillar, and stared into the blue dusk.
“You will not see me again.”
“I can read and write,” he told Mrs. Purfoy.
Richard’s father had paid her ten dollars cash, extra, for two weeks lodging. She had been unwilling, when accepting the money, to sign a piece of paper. His father in ordinary circumstances would find her practices underhand and untenable, her indignation feigned, but they hadn’t come to Paducah for a leisurely visit. They were in straits, bound to these arrangements. The genteel boarding houses wanted single lodgers, or childless couples. The shanties were lower than they had sunk, thus far.
Mrs. Purfoy dealt with tenants through an agent, and it had been by an exchange of letters mailed to a postal box, without knowing Mrs. Purfoy’s own address, and before they had seen the rooms, that Richard’s father had secured these.
“Madam.” He had a way of handling crooked dealers. He began by stating plainly the facts of the case. “I have sent a deposit payment to your representative Mr. Dyer, in the sum of twenty-five dollars. Do I now understand that the twenty-five dollars represents a fee for service, and that you require the rent money in advance; and that Mr. Dyer will concur with this when I speak to him?”
“Mr. Everard, them’s a lot of words.”
Mrs. Purfoy had thrust up her chin, stretching the ropes of her neck, pulling her mouth down at the corners…and she’d taken her time before answering. “Well, sir, would Mr. Dyer concur? I tell you. He ain’t down to his office on a Saturday, but you wait til Monday, and ask him. I won’t hold the rooms.”
She kept her apartment locked against her tenants. She would not open to Richard’s knock. The foyer of her house was lit by a fanlight high above the entry door; the gas was in working order, but she would not use it. Daylight flooded the staircase in the shape of an elongated, broken arch, merging with the light from the landing’s window. Up to the third story, and the attic story above, where there was no window to light the stairs, Richard and Lawrence had carried their mother.
Mrs. Purfoy’s rooms were on the first floor, on the left going through the foyer, up; or the right coming down. And each morning, for three days since they’d arrived, Richard had pounded at his landlady’s door.
“You cut that out.”
And speechless, regarded the man who’d told him this.
“She don’t deal with none of the tenants. She put her head out the window and ask me to come round and tell you. And I’m telling you. You been knocking at that door everday now. Mrs. Purfoy wants you to cut it out.”
He knew this man was Thomas. All Richard knew of horses he had learned from Thomas. Thomas, he thought, could not, in a matter of months, have forgotten him. He opened his mouth, caught himself having nothing to say…and though it seemed Thomas would not recognize him, still he frowned over Richard, while his eyes, rather than narrow, widened. His expression was one of pity and disbelief.
“You go on.” Thomas nodded towards the staircase. “I won’t leave you here to start up again.”
He recalled hearing his father give a name other than Purfoy as the employer of Naomi. But Richard did not know the city of Paducah. His father had chosen this house for reasons of economy; others, equally poor and pressed for time, might have fetched up on same street. So long as Thomas did not ask where Richard’s father had gone to, this insult…that the place he sought in Mrs. Purfoy’s employ must be lower than Thomas’s, mattered less to Richard than the urgency of securing it.
But not knowing how otherwise to broach the question, he asked: “Is your name Thomas?”
“It is, sir.”
Richard pointed towards the eyehole in the middle of Mrs. Purfoy’s door. “I want you to give her a message. Would you do that?”
Before Thomas could frame an answer, Richard was given a start, his degraded state of nerves setting his heart to pounding. At his back, the door scraped suddenly open, unsticking to torque on its hinges with the yap of a mean little dog.
Thomas shifted on his feet, and looked down at Mrs. Purfoy.
“He wants to give me a message,” she said.
“That’s all right, though, ma’am. I knowed the Everards one time. I told you that. Ask Mr. Richard what it is he been coming here to say to you.”
Richard waited, angling his body away from her, but willing to meet Mrs. Purfoy’s eye. She did not accept Thomas’s advice. She stared at Richard, and her stare was interrogative.
“Ma’am, is there a job you have needs doing? I can do any sort of work.”
She was silent, and she spent her silent minutes looking at Thomas, in a speculative way. Richard looked at his own boots, feeling he could not extract a foot from this mire, but that each effort must produce a new, unforeseen woe.
“You got that sickly mother,” Mrs. Purfoy said.
This subject was closed. He told her, “Ma’am, I can read and write.”
He had read most of his father’s books. His daily companion being his brother Lawrence (and Lawrence like to rag him to death over any kind of high-talking show), he couldn’t make himself sound like a book. But he was not illiterate; he could not, for ignorance, be sold a bill of goods.
“You ain’t very big,” she said. “What about that brother of yourn?”
“Lawrence…” Richard thought about Lawrence. “Might work alongside me, ma’am.”
“I need some’un to collect rents at my other property.” She gave Richard a second, frankly dubious, look. “Well, you better take that brother with you.”
He’d gone alone.
“What kinda job is it?’ Lawrence had asked.
“Well, I don’t know. She said, knock on my door tomorrow, and I’ll give you the book. Thomas says that’s where she got it all wrote down. I don’t know more than that, Lawrence.”
Richard believed, however, in Mrs. Purfoy’s lack of faith. She’d seen these tenants, and he had not. If she advised against his approaching them without Lawrence along, the reason was that she knew already what Richard must learn to his regret. But his brother, who’d been early down at the wharfside, was now engaged. He sat cross-legged on the floor, arranging and reconfiguring a handful of scavenged nails, a thrown horseshoe, a spindled table leg, a piece of cork.
“You ain’t got no sense. Go down one time and learn how long it takes getting there and back, and what all needs doing. Mama can’t be left here by herself all day.”
Richard’s brother had put his finger on the reasonable objection. He added, “If you don’t like taking this job, go get yourself anothern. We ain’t run out of money yet.”
He had watched his father push away from the pillar, lighting, in his descent, on only the middle step; and in his father’s carriage, Richard saw defeat, weight that dragged him sideways and bent him, to stare downcast at the darkening earth. Richard lifted his own eyes to the uncultivated field, dropped them to the creek at the foot of the hill. He saw the ruby sun’s reflection sink among the cattails. And in near darkness, Richard found his father again, and watched him walk into the barn.
He wanted no more to do with his father. He wanted never to leave the porch. A sound, a dogged, persistent, scrabbling that shaped itself into the heel of a shoe…after this, an exhalation of pain…chilled Richard as though a graveyard waited for him inside. The room was unlit, florid in the dying sun. His mother’s face ran with blood, and in this red light, it was the running of the blood that made him see it. She had smacked the wall, going down the stairs, and here left blooms and coronets of red―here and here again, down another two steps, and there, where she’d come to rest. She looked at Richard, out of one eye, and her mouth bubbled a froth of blood and saliva.
“Richard, carry me up the stairs, and let me rest a little. Then we be all right for going tomorrow. It’s what he says we got to do.”
Richard, unsteady from his first sight of her, stared at her ankle that was twisted round the wrong way, and pitched himself to the fireplace, vomiting.
He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Mama, let me carry you to the settee.”
“No, darling. That ain’t ourn. You got to take me up the stairs. And put the comforter on. I get up first thing, clean all that mess.”
He did not know who the purchaser was. His father had said, “A carpetbagger.” Perhaps no one would be so heartless as to dun them for ruined upholstery and stains on the wall. But the Everards were meant to be packed and gone in the morning. His father had arranged for the hauler, as he had arranged for their rooms. Richard knelt beside his mother, and darted his hands behind her neck, under her knees, trying to lift her without doing further harm. No, he would not get her up the stairs…she was feather-light, but he could not get her up the stairs…
Because he could not balance, carrying her in his arms. They would fall together.
An explanation formed, flowering like the blood spatters on the wall, whole in his imagination. This freebooter, this Yankee opportunist, this man who was putting them out of their home―might he not have come here, while Mama was alone and helpless? Might he not have stood over her and gloated? Why should Richard need to suppose his father had done this?
“Mama, I need Lawrence. Where is he?”
He did not know why this mention of his brother caused a tear to well from her unswollen eye. “Don’t go away looking for him. Stay here.”
“Well, I will, Mama. But what’s he doing?”
Nightfall made no difference to Lawrence, Richard knew. If his brother were out idling by the creek, he might idle half the night away. The thought occurred to him, with a faint hope, and a freight of cynicism…maybe his father had gone for the doctor.
“Don’t think ill on your brother, Richard. I only had a little accident. He don’t know nothing about it, or he’d come up to help.”
“An accident, Mama.”
But if she said so, it eased Richard’s mind, while also it broke his heart. His father had said, “You will not see me again.” The responsibility was his. He would have to find Lawrence. And he would fetch the doctor himself.
When they’d left Mrs. Purfoy’s house, Richard had asked a question.
His father’s anger had been profound. He hadn’t spoken since they’d stepped onto the walk; locked, as Richard knew, in one of his rages. Richard let himself fall behind, and from this distance followed, an eye on his father’s gait to judge his mood, as he crossed one street up from the house soon to be theirs, the next after that; then found himself stymied where this intersected with Broadway. Richard watched his father grapple onto the shirt back of a stranger who danced from foot to foot, blocking the way, spectating on some pastime of dice being played in the gutter—saw him bunch the cloth in his fists and force stillness on the man, while he shoved his way past.
Richard swerved, put his reddening face to the nearest wall, and found himself staring at a poster. Every arched niche under a cornice draped with yellow and green bunting was filled with one of these, identical, advertising: THE PENITENT SOLDIER (“…artful pathos, exalted drama…”―The Washington Times). Presented by the Breeling-Chesnut Troupe of Players.
Richard stopped, taken by a feeling of wonder. Mrs. Portia Breeling, (“Eliza”), smiled down by the half-dozen, coquettish likeness after coquettish likeness. She had an angelic pair of eyes, round red cheeks, a graceful hand at her throat, a wasp waist…
And yet a great robustitude of figure overall. But before he could discern the price of a ticket, he heard his father’s voice.
“Richard, I apologize. Tell me again.”
“I didn’t say anything, Daddy.”
He and his father had stabled their horses and come up river on the Sue-Belle. She, being a cargo-hauling flatboat, might stop and tarry at any wharf to take on another load, and she had likely pushed on. They might never see the Sue-Belle twice. In an odd frame of mind, but not unhappy, his father had told him (before the transaction with Mrs. Purfoy, when he’d still had his ten dollars in his pocket): “Some of the steam packets, Richard, will leave as late as midnight. But it’s no use giving your money over, until the boat is certain to go.”
“You asked,” he said now, “what will we do, when we come to live here? Didn’t you ask me that, Richard?”
“I will come down this way again. Most jobs in the tobacco trade are in this part of town, close to the river. I have little skill to do any of them…but it won’t matter. Take the first job for which any man will pay you a wage, and rise from there to a better place. That, Richard, is all any of us can do.”
Continued from “any of us can do”
There was something in his brother’s advice. Lawrence, Richard considered, could be relied on…if he said a thing today, he would say the same thing, in the same circumstance, next year or the year after. Richard loved, and had believed in, his father. His father had done a terrible wrong, and his wrong had devolved onto his son, who now bore all the burden of the elder Richard’s failure to be a man. And yet, though he was afraid to do what he’d promised Mrs. Purfoy, if he abandoned this obligation, he would only find himself poorer, and farther down the road, his time grown shorter. The next job might be worse.
Richard knew it would be worse, because every dark place he’d been forced to enter thus far had revealed at its heart a blacker pit of misery. His father’s advice, therefore, had been sound, even if his father’s character had not. Richard would do this job, and earn this wage, and try to rise to a better place.
“What is it you’re doing?”
Mrs. Purfoy, answering his knock that morning, had butted Richard in the stomach with her book, then snapped at him when he’d tucked it under his arm. “You told me you read and write. You sit down and copy out them names. You got mud on your boots?”
“No, ma’am. I haven’t set foot outdoors today.”
“Then you come inside. But don’t step on the rug.”
And she’d kept herself right in the crack as she pulled at the door handle, then hovered at his heels, while he stepped down into her sitting parlor. She’d blocked him round―as though he might get past her and snatch at the silver candlesticks―herding him to the secretary placed in an alcove, to sit on a stool facing the wall.
Finding only pen and ink for a writing instrument, Richard etched out a list for himself of tenants in arrears. He could see Mrs. Purfoy docking him the cost of one leaf of paper, one penny’s worth of ink. He heard her rustling and breathing over his shoulder, her voice muttering things, which he took as prompts.
“That Hopper.” Said with a noise of saliva moving through the gums. And at another moment: “Brogan. Now, that’un’s gone. Seven dollar, sixty cent. You done?”
This last, he thought, had been a real remark. “Yes, ma’am.”
Off she’d scrambled to a corner porch framed by a bay of three windows. Hopping onto a brocaded footstool, she yanked the window’s lower panel, tilted it back on its hinges, and let out a shout. “Thomas! You got to show Everard the property!”
Richard craned his neck, keeping Thomas in sight, while trying to mark out a configuration of three chimneys, or two gables and a church spire…or a tall tree, if need be. His father had taught him this means of finding his way in the woods. “Do you know the name of that house there? The one with the fretwork?”
“Thomas, did that sign say Guthrie Avenue?”
“I didn’t see no sign. This temant house,” Thomas added, after a silence, “don’t have no sign out…you can’t tell it by that, and it don’t have no number on the door. And I can’t stop here with you. Mrs. Purfoy wants me to come right back.”
The room in which Richard now stood was sorrowfully dim. A matching house across the alleyway, its rear windows shuttered, afforded only leavings of light that descended through the vertical shaft between. No space in this room was wasted, or―looked at another way―it was all waste, filth, and decrepitude. Even a foot or two below the ceiling, rope had been nailed without regard for the damaged walls, and employed for the hanging of damp, sour-smelling underclothes. The room seemed to draw its heat from a ferment of mouse, fried fish, and these garments, which were no less stained for having been rinsed.
There was a bedstead, occupied by a sleeper, who did not stir. Richard had been invited by his guide to shake this wretch to consciousness and demand of him Mrs. Purfoy’s rent. She had ushered Richard here, insisted he witness this, jabbing a finger at a box-like construction that divided the room, to leave a corner partitioned, a nook in use, it seemed, for the storage of plaster fallen from the ceiling. Within the box someone had tacked up a shelf. The shelf held a cup and plate…and a sock. Pegged up on two nails were a sack and a pistol.
“Now see that! You see that?” she said.
Richard remembered Mrs. Purfoy’s eccentricity over the shelves. Fixed in place, she’d told him. And why should they not be? Some paying tenant of the Everards’ own might make a bed in their closet?
“I,” his guide went on, “pay my rent. I pay same as Hopper. Nobody can’t help being sick. My husband went round to Purfoy already. She got no business putting me on the book. You have a look at what he got going on here! Take that pistol!”
Richard wasn’t certain she could have said this. But she smacked his arm and repeated, “You go on, take that pistol!”
“Well, ma’am, I can’t do that. It ain’t mine.”
He’d had his weight balanced on his left hand, resting on what amounted to the roof of this indoor shed. Richard backed out, careful of his head, and could not find his guide. She might not be, in any case, the Mrs. Upham he had down for room six.
Forsaken on the street, Richard had entered the house to find a door inside the staircase, one that ought to have led to the basement, soundly locked. He’d knocked his way down the darkening hallway, and only this woman, who might have been his own age, or twenty years older―her person was both elfin and slatternly―had opened her door to him.
She’d stared at him.
“Uh huh. What you want?”
Now he heard her scurrying back across the landing.
“That gun ain’t his, Major Fish. He says.”
“Well, stealing’s wrong. It’s a wise man lets his self get plugged dead, rather’n take what ain’t his by rights. Miz Upham, I will take that gun.”
Major Fish wore a waistcoat, flaring unbuttoned, and no shirt. His feet were bare. At this season, these were reasonable precautions, supposing the major’s livid complexion testimony, also, of a life spent shut away in one of Mrs. Purfoy’s airless rooms. Fish backed from the shelter as Richard had done, but worked, as he did so, the butt of the pistol into the band of his trousers, and secured it under his left brace.
“Sir,” the major said, sweeping a hand in the direction of Richard’s and letting it fall. “Fish, Almon. You seem like a young’un to be doing this work. You figure you know how to shuck them oysters?”
“Richard Everard, sir.” Richard wondered if Fish had been Union…or if he were no major at all. “I’ve collected nothing so far.”
Trying for a second time, Fish caught Richard’s hand, gave it a heave, once up and down; then thrust it aside with a vigor born of contempt. He bent suddenly over the sleeping man, and grabbed a fold of blanket. “Son, take ahold of the other end, and we’ll pitch Tinker on the floor.”
Richard obeyed. The temperament of Major Fish could be gauged only by his actions. His actions were rough and hasty, and he was now armed. The sleeping man, at the collision of his shoulder and temple with the floorboards, stirred, and relapsed dozing.
“Is this Tinker?” Richard looked at his paper. “Spose to be Hopper.”
Fish ignored him. Fashioning a hammock, he hoisted Tinker’s head and upper chest in the blanket’s folds. He swung him with violence. This lasted a moment or two, and Fish, breaking into a spell of coughing, let Tinker fall. Tinker roused feebly and mumbled, “Major Fish, what’s troubling you?”
“What rent does he owe?” Fish asked Richard.
It occurred to Richard Mrs. Purfoy might intend this, that his first day on the job be a baptism of fire. Fish wrenched from his throat a plug of phlegm, spat on the floor, pushed his waistcoat aside, and laid a hand on the pistol butt.
Richard felt he understood how Thomas had come to his way of thinking.
“I’ll tell you everything I know, Major Fish. She gave me a book and had me copy out the names of all her tenants owed back rent. I got a Mr. Tinker, here,” he tapped his paper, “lives down the basement. Owes Mrs. Purfoy fourteen dollars.”
“And what the old brimstone willing to take?”
There had been no discussion with Mrs. Purfoy of sums-in-earnest. But Richard recalled his father’s calculations in the last days of the farm. Fodder for the horses they must have, but they would hire no more labor. They kept chickens still, but no cow or hog, so milk and bacon must be bought; white flour also, as they could not grow wheat…and from their own seed must plant for themselves a few acres of vegetable crops. If the melons came in plenty, Johnson would trade in kind. They would burn no lamps. They must pay at least thirty percent to keep credit at the general store, stonewall the taxman; keep in with the blacksmith…
Fish’s eye bulged at this delay.
Well, Richard told himself, brimstone she was beyond doubt, but a sop would soothe Mrs. Purfoy better than nothing. “Sir, I’ve thought on it.” He waved a hand, and a figure came to him. “I believe she’ll take half.”
Drawing the pistol, Fish leaned into Tinker’s face. “You ain’t paid rent in four weeks. You got money hid somewheres.”
“I got nothing, Major. If you like to shoot me, better do it.”
“It ain’t right.”
Mrs. Upham spoke. And not in defense of Tinker’s life. She made her appeal to Richard, continuing as she had begun. She put a hand on his arm, urging his attention again towards the box, the unlawful apartment on which Tinker―or Hopper―collected an income at Mrs. Purfoy’s expense. “I pay my rent. I don’t have none of this shenanigan going on. Mister, I’d be better off if I didn’t pay.”
Fish meanwhile renewed his assault on Tinker. “I throw you out that window.”
“Throw me out the window, Fish. I got nothing.”
Fish straightened and tucked the pistol away. “Everard, that’s how you got to deal with em. Don’t say it always gets you nowheres.”
Richard’s mind prodded him, as though the abyss contained a glimmer of light after all. A small insight flared, and he began to see his way clear to doing this job. He offered a hand to the major, as though about to take his leave. The major might be a crack shot, and Richard’s conjecture gravely wrong. But when Fish flung out his own hand, coming at first pass within an inch of Richard’s, Richard slammed his fist upwards against Fish’s right forearm. He had to seize the pistol left-handed, and he didn’t know enough about sidearms to be sure it wouldn’t go off.
“Shit fire! God damn you! If you was wanting that gun, why wouldn’t you say so?”
“I apologize, Major Fish. I thought you had it in mind to sell the gun. Think I’ll do that myself.”
“Stand up and back off a ways,” Lawrence said. “I got a clear shot.”
“No, you don’t.”
Tinker’s blanket had fallen into the major’s possession, and they used it now to keep the mud off their trousers. They made themselves unobtrusive, a trio of vagabonds day-camping here at the boundary of the boat yard. A crenelated cliff-face of broken paddle wheelers, a feature peculiar to this landscape, obscured the distant view, and from somewhere amid the wreckage came the sound of a solitary worker’s hammer―tink, tink, clank.
Richard, Lawrence, and Fish came here only after the work slowed, towards late afternoon. They sat on a mild rise. Below them, a wall of vitriated brick held off the river. In this wall, iron rings were embedded at intervals, and one, weaker than the pull of the current at floodtide, wrenched from its socket by a wayward barge once moored there, had left behind a cavity. The ring’s bolt, bent crooked, jutted from crumbling brick. This was about fifty feet from where they’d laid Tinker’s blanket.
Richard stood, and Lawrence, scooting sideways, propped the pistol’s muzzle on his sleeve, his forearm on his knee. Richard began to smile…Fish also saw it coming.
“Ha. He ain’t getting it.”
The pigeon, which had hunkered uneasily, bobbing its head from side to side, fled its hole with a fretful ruckus of wingbeats and whistling. Lawrence continued sighting the pistol; he pivoted on the blanket, walking his heels round, aiming this time for his favored target―the overturned hull of a scuttled keelboat. The shot was difficult…not the distance only, but difficult for Richard to stomach. Lawrence, with his depredations, would have them run off the property. But his brother, who loved shooting things, trapping things, and dragging things out of cover, had loved the pistol from the day Richard brought it home, and had surprised Richard with the knowledge of firearms he’d picked up, without ever having touched a Colt revolver.
Rather than retrace his steps, on his inaugural day in Mrs. Purfoy’s employ, Richard, after leaving the tenement (and in every instance frustrated) walked on, thinking his dilemma through. He allowed Mrs. Purfoy to prosecute him, and tried, on the model of his father, to come back at her with a fair defense.
Of course, she had beaten his father.
Yet this much was in Richard’s favor—she could hardly hire labor at a cheaper price. Long before he’d gone down to knock at her door, he’d weighed these worries: that two weeks was no time at all, that Mama wasn’t near well enough to be moved, that Mrs. Purfoy must be persuaded to let them stay on in their rooms, that money needed for plain living could not go to pay rent, not even for honor’s sake; but that he could do something for her in exchange…
He’d been hired for sufferance, he guessed. Not for mercy. For bare tolerance.
“Give me another day, ma’am.”
And why should she give him another day?
He was distracted by a commotion across the street. He found he’d wandered as far as Broadway. The matinee at the Belvedere Theatre was about to start.
“Standing room in the gal’ry! Room in the gal’ry, folks!” a man on the theater steps called out. He scanned the crowd for stragglers, and his eye met Richard’s. “Thirty-five cent, young man! Pathos! That’s what the paper say. Gunfight! Fickle heart of a woman! Dandy couple songs…”
Richard could spare thirty-five cents. Digging in his pocket, he advanced a few steps, while his eyes followed the dance of the white-gloved hand that held the tickets. He felt the pistol butt echo his movements, slapping itself against the brace where he’d secured it, the way he’d seen Fish do. Two years ago a man had carried a pistol into a theater. Richard stood still. He wondered if he would be jumped in the lobby, thrown in jail.
An arm, inside a sleeve of white batiste, extended over his shoulder.
“I haven’t any change, but that’s quite all right.”
Before Richard could turn to see the face of his benefactress, the tout had snatched the dollar, taken his elbow, and was bustling him through the door.
“You get on, son, don’t lose your place.”
Yet for all the hurry to fill seats, by the time Richard, hunched in a guilty posture, had inched to a gap along the rail where he could see the stage, he found there was nothing to see. For twenty minutes, the curtain stayed down, and the musicians played. He had time to recall what he’d been asking himself. Mrs. Purfoy had not said, “Be here tomorrow.” She’d said, “Bring the money when you get it.”
Mrs. Upham, he thought…then heard an old, familiar tune: “My Old Kentucky Home”. And a stir that passed from the orchestra to the gallery, for the audience had been given the signal that the curtain was, at last, about to rise.
Major Fish’s assault on Tinker, and Richard’s wresting of the gun from Fish, were events Lawrence had wished to see reenacted.
“Well, first off, you have to be Tinker, then.”
By the same reasoning, he’d made Lawrence be Fish for the second lesson. But Lawrence, never averse to a roughhouse, had turned Richard’s gambit around on him. Vouchsafed a strong clue to the denouement, he embellished on the role of Fish, stepped on Richard’s foot and shouldered him backwards.
And Richard let go the gun at once, rather than risk its firing off.
“Richard!” They heard their mother call from the bedroom where she was meant to be kept quiet.
“They torn down a building up the street.” Lawrence lowered his voice, following close on Richard’s heels, burying the gun under his shirt.
“You saw that? Mama, you need anything?”
“No!” Lawrence raised his voice, and Verbena, at the same time, said, “No, I don’t need nothing, darling. I heard a lot of carrying on out there.”
She was beside the bed, sitting up in a hard chair, at peace somehow, as Mama could be, without a thing in the world to do with her hands. Richard had seen how much of her frail strength his mother would spend, how many long minutes she would take to prop herself on her good arm against the chair’s unyielding seat, to push herself upright on one leg, ease her way with the support of the bureau and the door sash, out to the sitting room. Or down the staircase, working by the wainscot along the hallway, to the convenience shared by the attic’s residents with those on the third floor…to do for herself, not to trouble her sons.
The first doctor, the one Richard had rousted from his supper table in Chambliss, had carried her in his buggy back to his surgery. He’d warned Richard, after setting the ankle, that a bad break might become gangrenous. That Mrs. Everard’s sons proposed hauling her off to Paducah on a hired wagon next morning had seemed to him incredible; but the doctor, Richard guessed, having a living, and a roof over his head, couldn’t appreciate how it was for the Everards, who had neither.
The Paducah doctor’s guarded prognosis, on examining Verbena, had been more optimistic. He removed the dressing and the splint, and told Richard, “Step over here, and lay your hand there…yes, that is what I mean…lay your hand gently on your mother’s ankle.”
The doctor moved aside, elevating Verbena’s leg, with one hand supporting the ball of her calf, and her heel resting on the other’s open palm, while remarking to Richard, “You will be fortunate never to have a broken bone yourself.” He motioned, and Richard gingerly, more than gently, touched a finger to the tight and deep blue skin. “If you do, the sight will become familiar enough…it’s no use to be shy about it. You see, this is not healing well. But I don’t say I notice any corruption. The odor would be very apparent. You would notice it yourself. Only I call your attention to the unnatural position of the foot. The bones have not begun to knit in so short a time…but I wonder if we will have trouble correcting this tendency.”
The doctor had proposed to Verbena that he would like to try setting her ankle a second time; and she, catching him by the sleeve, had whispered, “When the first one set my shoulder, it like to scared me half to death.”
“Well, a dislocated shoulder can be tricky. It will sometimes recur. Everard”―the doctor addressed Richard―“at the corner of Broadway and Oak, there is a drugstore. If your mother cannot sleep, I will recommend whisky.”
He wrote a prescription, which would have allowed to Verbena Everard a full quart of medicinal rye―to be taken (the doctor pulled open the glass doors of his upper cabinet, muttered under his breath, squatted to root in his lower cabinet, stood and beckoned to Richard with cup and bottle in hand, “This much, a dram, you see”) as required. But his mother would not have whisky in the house. And she would not have Richard and Lawrence wait on her.
“We’ll be quiet, Mama,” Richard promised now.
His brother cut in. “Mama, you don’t mind us being gone for just a while.” Lawrence, letting his weight drop onto the foot of the bed, sprawled over on his back, and looked up at his mother. And at that moment, she noticed his belly, the gap of his shirt buttons.
“Lawrence! Did you get hold of a gun?”
“Well, shit, I didn’t mean to go that time. It’s still my turn.”
The lot Lawrence had guided his brother to was empty. “Who knows how long it’s been? Since Grant torn up the waterfront, maybe. No, I didn’t never see that house come down! Cause you don’t stop to listen.”
He spoke loftily, with a kind of new-found stature. This change had come over Lawrence in the space of an evening, since he’d become a gun-toting man. But he’d squandered the two cartridges remaining in the cylinders of Tinker’s Colt, and taken both their turns without getting the hang of the Colt’s kick.
Richard chose next day to set out late, not minding much that his plan left Lawrence chafing through the afternoon. He thought he understood now, how these tenants could be managed. As he led the way, he checked his bearings. The empty gun was tucked in Lawrence’s waistband.
“Two things. The ones don’t pay the rent end up ahead of the ones that do, cause they’re all living in their rooms anyways, but the ones who paid are short the rent money, and the ones didn’t still got it. That’s how you got to figure. There’s a lady, Mrs. Upham, work for us like a pry bar, cause she don’t like Hopper, and she don’t like Tinker and them other slackers. Lawrence, we got to look at the boss lady’s side of things. She can’t make money throwing out every tenant. She got to bargain for whatever rent she can get. What you and me need to do, is find all the Mrs. Uphams in this place, and set em all against each other…delinquents and informers.”
He looked at Lawrence, who grinned with sly pleasure. “You got some big words, brother.” He repeated, “Delinquents and informers.”
“You understand me. The tenants don’t tell the truth, and they gone hide from us, or lock their doors on us, if they can get away with it. All them with a axe to grind, be our deputy sergeants.”
“Then you and me’s the captain and the lieutenant. What’s your other thing?”
“This is what I figured out, Lawrence. They get hold of money, the ones that work at a job…and we got to catch em before they done spent it. First…”
Richard, for emphasis, counted off this point, striking one index finger against the other. “We find out what we need to know―where one of em works, and what day he gets his pay. Then we go after him, and make him cough. See, that’s why we need the gun.”
“Well, that’s okay, then…I can bluff it. But gun without cartridges ain’t no use in a fight. You got to give me some money.”
“I don’t have hardly nothing to spare. Today, Lawrence, we got to earn us some money.”
In some ways, the tenement house’s exterior looked no less respectable than Mrs. Purfoy’s higher-rent property. Against the window of a streetside apartment, behind grimacing iron scrollwork, the Everard brothers saw curtains, not badly stained, the back of a faded easy chair, threadbare only at the corners, a small table and painted glass lamp; next to this, a black book set as near the window—therefore with the words on its spine, HOLY BIBLE, rendered as legible from the street—as feasible. But the symmetry of the house was distorted by an extra story built above its original attic. Every room that could be divided into a smaller unit and crammed with another tenant had been made fruitful in this way. The tenants, in riposte, took a free-spirited view of their house and its attachments. Richard ushered Lawrence into the dark entry hall, where the fixtures had been sealed over, the cause of replacing them abandoned.
“We’re going to the back of the house. Nothing up front I don’t have on my list. I wanna knock on Mrs. Upham’s door…”
Richard and Lawrence turned, and discovered in the dim stairwell, Major Fish. “Tinker gone on the run. Left his gear behind, but I got ahold of it already.” With these defiant words, Fish raised his face and squinted at Richard. He said to Lawrence, “Don’t know you, mister.”
“Major Fish, sir, this is my brother Lawrence.”
And Fish by this small courtesy was mollified. He outranked the brothers, according to their self-appointed status, and the conceit pleased him.
“Major,” Lawrence asked, “was you in the war?”
“I tell you,” Fish said. “I was in the Home Guard. Never left Kentucky.”
Richard hadn’t asked Thomas why he did not himself collect the rents. Thomas had chores to do. These tenants needed hunting down; it might take half a week’s diligence to find one of them. As though he faced a skirmish at dawn, Richard had lain awake through the night, and in his mind, ordered every piece of information he’d gained from his day’s experience. From his calculations he had derived this idea―that the working tenants must leave the house around sunrise. They might head to some drinking hole at the end of their day, and not be seen at home before dark. He must catch them early or after supper.
“Fish,” he said. “Do most of these―Schumacher, Giesling, Hopper, Manners…” He looked down at his paper. “I guess I’m gone scratch off Tinker. And Upham’s spose to paid. Do most of these have some kind of job they work at?”
“Hopper don’t work, but he got money most times. I saw Schumacher go up to the attic.”
That, Richard thought, was a poor answer in more ways than one. On his trip to the attic yesterday, he’d found the temperature overpowering, the darkness impenetrable. And no one had answered his knock.
Today, at the top of the attic stairs, he saw a promising light, a bluish infusion over the bare boards of the landing…this, and the faint breezes that lowered by a degree or two the attic’s stifling heat, implied an open window. The door to Schumacher’s room was stoppered ajar. Following Fish, Richard ducked inside, and saw only a chest of drawers, a washbasin, a narrow iron bedstead, a trunk at its foot stacked with books. Lawrence took a crouching stance in the corner, rested his back there, and wiped sweat from his face with the hand that held the gun, thus waving and pointing it at his brother and Fish.
Fish, baking in this upper story oven, began to radiate an odor of doneness.
“Schumacher, you hiding out there?” The major stuck his head out the attic window.
“State your business, Fish.”
“What you owe Madam Purfoy? Cause they’s come to collect.”
“The rumor…” Schumacher said, and Richard saw his head move into view, past the fall of the curtain. He could make out nothing of Schumacher’s face, silhouetted as it was against the setting sun, which had broken through irregular rooftops with the orange incandescence of a smelting furnace.
“…is that our chatelaine had sent round only one enforcer. And the inmates ran that one off empty-handed. J. Tinker, of course, took fright. But Tinker is wanted by the town policeman. Major, I’m not coming in. Not til the sun goes down.”
In answer to this, Fish’s bare feet seemed to give from under him, and falling out of the dialogue, he came down on the bed, breathing hard. Richard was curious to know where, in fact, Schumacher was. He crossed to the window, put his head out, and saw the alley he’d seen the day before from Hopper’s window two floors below. From this height, it was no more than a soot-colored streak overhung by eaves, drains, clothing hung on lines, in a broken pattern that diminished down the block. Richard felt his ankles go soft. All in a rush his one-handed balance on the window sash became inadequate. The roof sloped away under his eyes like a chute. The top of the opposite house sat lower, looming so close that Schumacher―who must be fearless―might have jumped across to it from his perch. On its flat surface Richard saw a blanket…on this, a near naked man and woman lay motionless side by side. Schumacher sat on the window ledge. The width of a brick supported his back; one foot was braced against a fence of decorative tinwork.
“You see how it is,” he said to Richard. “Pretty well suffocating up here until the night sets in. I’ve been told I owe six and a half dollars. I happen to be flush at the moment. Stand back, please, and I’ll climb through.”
An arm, bent at the elbow, snaked round the curtain; the hand groped backwards, and caught a grip on the window’s molding. After a queasy moment in which Schumacher seemed to ratchet up momentum by swaying himself forward and back, a leg was thrown over the windowsill and he staggered all at once into the room. Stopping short of collision with Lawrence, he widened his eyes at the gun, tiptoed himself around, then looked over his nose at the rug, breaking into a smile. Schumacher was shirtless. He screwed up his eyes and offered a silent hand.
Continued from “silent hand”
And as he took Richard’s, turned his face away to study Fish on the bed. “Major, are you comfortable? Fish!”
He smacked Fish aside, loosed a pair of spectacles crushed against the counterpane under Fish’s thigh. Schumacher held these up, studied the condition of the lenses, wiped them on a back pocket, and put them on.
“I’m a dentist. I don’t practice on my own. But I’m willing to practice on anyone.”
He smiled at Richard again, an ironic curve to his lips. “Schumacher, sir. Allow me to cross in front of you.” He selected a book from the stack on his trunk, and dropped it on the bed beside Fish. Fish, opening rheumy eyes, gazed down as the book fell open of its own accord. His mouth worked ruefully. Two five dollar banknotes had been tucked into the binding.
“Did you tell me your name was Everard?” Schumacher asked. “Or, could I have gotten that from Fish? Never mind. Mrs. Purfoy keeps meticulous records. That we all know. She will credit me for payment in advance. Unless, sir, you are able to make change.”
“No.” The room was hot. Richard felt choked by an emotion akin to hatred, and did not understand himself. Schumacher’s manner was friendly. He had mocked only Lawrence’s gun, an attitude to which Richard could not take offense. He had caused no trouble over the money. He seemed content, even, to pay more than he owed.
“You know, I won’t complain if you haven’t got a receipt for me. Some of them are likely to, however. But, Mr. Everard, the tenants in this house are ordinary people.”
“I can write you a note if you like.”
“I don’t insist on it.”
“Tear offen the corner on one of them bills and give it to him. It’ll spend just the same.” Lawrence, wilting by the open door, spoke in frustration, and added under his breath, “Goddamn.”
Schumacher laughed. Taking Fish by the arm, he propelled him off the bed. “You had better get out.”
On the way, Richard stopped again at Hopper’s, twisted the knob that was loose in its collar, giving it a yank, rattling the door in its frame. Next, he kicked the foot of this. He tried pounding the door with his fist, got pain for his effort…and if Hopper was in there dead drunk, as Tinker had been, the noise could not have stirred him. Lawrence tugged Richard’s elbow, motioning him aside, heaved himself back…and Richard, in turn, caught his brother. Dilapidated hardware was one thing—a knob might come to pieces the twentieth time someone tried it. He could see then how giving it a thorough try, twenty times all at once, wasn’t the same as breaking Mrs. Purfoy’s property on purpose. That would put them in the wrong with her.
As he explained this to Lawrence, he heard Schumacher’s laugh. Schumacher had donned an undershirt, followed them down, and was seated on the bottom step, watching them. “Hopper has repaired to his second home. The box…”
He elevated his tone, a professor pointing to a formula on a blackboard.
“You may have wondered. Or, you may have observed…it has a curtain that can be drawn across the front. For decency’s sake, we must suppose.” He rose, and walked towards them, pausing to cup a hand over his ear outside the Uphams’ door. “You’ve never seen anything like it. I’m guessing. There may be nothing exactly like it. However, otherwise, Tinker and his woman have a moneymaking arrangement that’s commonplace enough.”
They found Fish waiting on the walk. The major pantomimed at them, a finger to his lips, a hand waving them forward; he then crowded behind the brothers, hurrying them along, past the front of the next house. This had a side entry, and wooden steps below a door, independent of, and not quite meeting, the parent threshold. Fish jogged up the unpaved gap, rustling through a stand of milkweed, releasing a trailing cloud of silk. As though they were three stage comedians, he stopped without warning, causing Richard to stumble, and Lawrence to collide with Richard.
“This’ll do. Follow me.”
Not following, they watched as Fish slipped in at the back of, and under the steps. Richard made a wry face. Lawrence frowned, stared, and muttered, “He ain’t hid.” The major burrowed in his heels and backed an inch or two into the farthest corner, shrouding himself in semi-darkness.
He moved his head side-to-side, bumped it…and gave up on looking Richard in the eye. “You got ten dollars.”
Richard crouched. “Major Fish, that money belongs to Mrs. Purfoy.”
“Now, you listen. Yesterday, you said she’d take half.”
“Well, I was figuring she would.” He knew precisely the argument Fish was developing.
“Schumacher give you ten, but he didn’t owe more than six. You give’er five, and you keep five. You get your cut. That’s how this game’s always played.”
Lawrence, Richard supposed, was longing for his cartridges. He couldn’t imagine his brother knew anything about the work of a rent collector. But yet―
Joab had always managed the Irish; and Richard’s father had always said, “Don’t have to do with them.” He thought, though, that he could recall talk, carrying up the hill of his childhood, from the creekside laborers’ camp, along with snatches of song and wood smoke. To the Irish, the rent collector was a crooked, hated figure.
The phrase did ring in Richard’s memory. And the other was true as well. The tenants would come to hate him. After two days’ work, he found it easy to hate them in return. The nature of the job was hateful. He took out his pocketbook, but knew better than to show Fish the note he extracted from it. This Richard tucked into his boot, and leaned forward, raising his face to Fish’s.
“Fish, you figure you done some work today?”
Today, when they’d gone down to the boat yard, Richard had given Fish another dollar.
It was a week since they’d returned, dogged, on the third day―and had at last got Giesling’s money too. But this was because Schumacher had come down from his attic and persuaded Giesling to unlock his door.
“Your conscience will trouble you less, friend, if your debts are squared away. And Everard will trouble you less. Consider what we have learned of our rent man’s methods.” Giesling opened his door, and looked down over Schumacher’s head. They were, by Schumacher’s account, old schoolmates; and it seemed the taller Giesling fell by habit into the foil’s role.
“What have we learned?” Giesling spoke with a certain flatness of tone. “Go on, Schumacher.”
As though Richard was not there by his side, Schumacher spoke only to Giesling. “Everard offered to accept from Tinker a portion of Madam Purfoy’s demand. And Tinker, having not a wooden slug with which to bargain, fled from us. I, on the other hand, found it prudent to pay more than I owed…”
Giesling interrupted. “Then why not pay for us both? I would rather deal with you.”
“However, Giesling, we have not tried the third condition―that of giving Everard exactly what he asks for.”
Tick-tock, Richard thought.
“Everard’s pattern,” Schumacher went on, “you will note, has been entirely consistent. He returns to us every day. We must assume he will do so until Madam Purfoy is satisfied. So you and I must likewise determine how best to dispatch him. I may have made the mistake.”
Giesling, down for owing six and a half dollars, the same as Schumacher, withdrew, closing his door, but not shutting it; and Richard heard a stony scrape, as though Giesling’s money were kept in a well. He reappeared.
“Everard, put your hand out.”
He disbursed his rent in coin, counting these one at a time into Richard’s palm. Something was being conveyed by this performance…and all at once Richard felt that Schumacher suspected him of doing what he had done, take the overage, rather than give it to Mrs. Purfoy.
Lawrence hooted. He swung his arm with elation. Being that he was seated, and that Richard stood over him; he bashed, at the same time, his brother’s shin with the pistol butt.
“You seen that?”
He had gouged a chunk of wood―this unquestionably; they’d watched it fly―and come within an inch or two of a pit in the hull where an earlier ball had dug in. Richard caught him by the wrist. “Give over the gun now. I get my turn.”
He wasn’t encouraging his brother with praise, both for his smarting shin, and because he questioned whether Lawrence was skilled or just lucky. He too would have said, if he’d come so near a target, that he’d aimed at it.
“Us oughta go down a ways,” Fish said, “and shoot up Hopper’s boat. Not waste cartridges on nothing.”
It was a thought to entertain. Richard had been with Fish to the wharf where Hopper’s boat sat, half-foundered in the shallows, to be unmoored only by the law or the next great flood. The shanty on deck had a broad tin roof. Darkness was coming on, and creeping close under its cover, they might risk emptying the Colt, for the satisfying bang of the ball striking metal…
The fly in the ointment being that Hopper might roust up his cronies and take after them, even on suspicion.
“Hey!” Lawrence, pointing, got to his feet, blocking Richard’s view. “Lookee there! Some critter swimming. Beaver, maybe.”
“It’s a dog.”
The blunt mongrel snout, the flattened ears and sodden fur, gave the creature an appearance not unlike that of a swimming beaver. Its body was near-submerged, its faltering progress more easily traced by its wake.
The dog could not climb the wall; it was far from the opposite bank, and for some reason―the pull of the current, perhaps―paddled itself steadily away from the boat slip. Shooting it might be an act of mercy. Richard fancied he could see its eye.
And how the fixed eye had passed from life to death, those times Richard remembered with his father, hunting whitetail… This passage, now vivid in the sight of memory, never so familiar as to lose its breath of the uncanny, made him shiver. He thought that if there were a God, each life, even that of a dog, must be weighed on the scale.
He tried calling, “Hey, pup! Here, pup!”
Fish took up the call: “Doggy! Doggy!”
“Y’oughta try shooting it,” Lawrence said. “It gone drown anyways.”
Propping wrist against forearm, Richard steadied the gun, aiming for the little skimming head, that looked like a floating cannonball. And as he stared, his finger pulled the trigger. He was not sure he’d meant to.
“I think you got it. I don’t see that dog no more. That’d be something.”
“Well, don’t say it,” Richard told his brother.
They heard Fish’s boots crunch away, up the ramp, and saw his weedy garments and grimy skin grow, from each other, and from the dusk, indistinct in mutual greyness. Richard worried that Fish was serious about Hopper; that he’d begun to stump along with Hopper’s boat in mind.
He stopped, without turning, and spoke: “I don’t myself handle firearms.”
Fish’s stories opened in such fashion, hanging up the brothers on mild tenterhooks. At the street’s edge were so many brick ends chucked like a row of teeth above the boatyard’s mud and gravel. Trodden into the fabric was all the detritus brought down to the river or carried up…untwisting hemp cordage wheeled flat, softening wood splintered, paper…
Paper painted, printed, jotted upon, yellowed cards, newsprint, posters, tickets.
Richard’s eye glanced on a word: “Wanted”. He saw Fish zag to the right, making for a waterfront saloon he favored…a long shed, built using only necessary angles, its brown planks bowed and straining at their nails.
Lawrence caught up to Fish, stepping past Richard, who’d stooped to loosen the scrap that might, in disappointment, have been let fall from a pocket. Or been pitched away in a mood of celebration. He preferred to think so. He remembered his father saying that he would come down this way, that he would take the first job offered. He heard the ring of the hammer, and thought of turning back.
“No,” Fish told Lawrence, who was listening. “I don’t myself handle firearms. Not no more.” And if he said so, Richard thought, trotting up to join them, he took an elastic view of recent events.
“Now, when the war was done with, I carried my sidearm faithful. Never had no call to use it. Well, I don’t say that. Used it on a mad dog once’st. Used it on a copperhead snake. But I didn’t never turn my weapon on a fellow man. Not til the day I was arrested.”
Silence descended, and Lawrence at length gave Fish the prod he’d paused for. “What’d you do to get arrested?”
“I was plied upon, is all that happened. I did nothing on my own account. This was one time back when I was a hand on the Dick Parry. Little foreign fella that we called Mattoo fell into company with me. I believe it was on purpose Mattoo come sidling up. There was another one named Jasper Merriman. By the time we made the run up to Louville a few times, I got to noticing how Merriman would go disappear an hour or two, and turn up flush when he come back. I asked Merriman, you got a wife up in town give you money? He told me, I’m gone let you in on my secret. Now we got down in the hold, and hid up among them hogsheads we was carrying downriver. And here I find Mattoo come along behind me, quiet as a cat. First thing he does is pull out his big Bowie knife. Shows it to me, drawing it back and forth crost his own neck, just playacting, you see…but to give me the idee. Cause Mattoo understood more English than he knew. He says to me, we ask you nutheen. Only a small theen.”
Mattoo, as Fish brought him to life, sounded like Fish, slowed down, and speaking through puckered lips. Fish suspended his narrative. The saloon’s door was at his back; groping behind him, he found the handle, and without a word pushed through.
“That foreigner,” said Lawrence, “and that other’un, Jasper. What was they gone ask Fish to do?”
“Well…steal from someone.”
Lawrence issued three short laughs. He liked this, hearing Richard tell him what he suspected himself. Richard thought they had lost Fish, and was about to say this too, when the saloon’s door swung back, and Fish emerged with a jug in his hand, smelling as though he’d spent a share of his dollar on a dram or two by the glass. Fish was like a stagnant pool; every fresh drop that stirred his surface brought strong odors weltering from the depths. But he was generous with the boys. He had been generous from the day they’d shared their first dollar. Richard now took the jug, drank, and passed it to Lawrence.
He was giving Fish money, and associating with Fish. He had made Fish his chief informant, when he knew he ought to do none of these things. Schumacher’s intelligence was of more value. But Schumacher’s reason for helping, as Richard believed, was to hold him in check, to control what he knew about the tenants. He’d told Richard they were ordinary people, and by that he’d meant—they are, and you aren’t. Schumacher the dentist was liked, bound to be…he had a skill to barter. It made Richard feel spiteful, although he liked Schumacher. He envied Schumacher. He saw that privilege meant more than having better choices…a privileged man assumed that it was possible to choose.
Richard’s was a small education, but he told himself he could use less book-learning than he had. All that reading in his father’s study had done him no good. He could hear his own speech rise and fall, and knew he could not help himself doing this. He felt half-wishful and half-defiant, wanting either to understand Schumacher’s jokes, so that Schumacher would stop making them, or to bait Schumacher with his own backwardness, and force his contempt from cover.
He did not, now, expect his place in the world to rise. The world made a place for you, and kept you there.
After the jug had gone round three times, Fish also heaved round. He’d lost interest in Hopper’s boat. Neither had he remembered to take up his story…but Lawrence had not forgotten.
“What was them gone ask you to do, Fish?”
Taking one last pass, Richard swallowed the dregs, swung the jug and tapped Fish in the ribcage. “Mattoo. And Jasper Merriman.”
“A man name Rice…”
Hands by instinct clutching the jug to his chest, Fish walked for a time. “A man name Rice…jeweler’s agent, carrying diamonds down to Norlans…”
Lanterns hanging along the water’s edge, lanterns that lit the city’s lowest streets, began to flare one by one. “Had em in a pouch, strapped on the inside of his vest. Always wore him a pistol in a holster. I was to wait, Merriman said, at the top of the stairs, whenever Rice come down after supper, and take up talking to him. Didn’t matter what. Idee was, his back being to the others, and him being engaged, they get the best of him, fore he have a chance to draw that gun. Now, I had to think me about that Bowie knife. I done shook hands with the two of em…then I ruminated on the fix I got myself in.”
Fish’s plan, one he’d expected would keep him on the right side of the law, while also doing a good turn for the unfortunate Rice, had been simple. Mattoo and Merriman must secrete themselves away until they could sneak in close enough to launch their attack. They could not at the same time hear what Fish was saying to Rice. He’d resolved to warn Rice of his danger.
“How’d you get put in jail, then?” Lawrence asked.
“I didn’t get put in jail. Now Mattoo come up behind Rice, and stuck the knife clean in him. I just been saying…sir, Mr. Rice, I got a thing to tell you, worth your time if you hear me out. And here was Rice, pushing back his coat, laying his hand on that pistol butt. It was pride, much as anything, done him in. If he’d of been civil, Mattoo might not have took alarm.”
“They hang Mattoo?”
“Cain’t say they did. Now here Rice pitched over, and like to brung me down them stairs with him. And Mattoo, a-wanting them diamonds, had to hie his self after the carcass. I took off, run past Merriman (didn’t seem like he was doing nothing), and when I got onto the deck, I saw we was a middling ways out.”
Fish discarded his shoes and jacket, dived into the water, and swam for the opposite bank. Here he found himself baffled before a deep undercut topped by a woven mass of overhanging roots. He could feel cold water pooling in the shade. He grappled for, and found, a handhold, thrusting bare toes into a tangle of fibrous growth, telling himself, “You gone stir a copperhead nest, boy.” And as he levered against it, the sheath of bark he clung to gave and tore away, leaving only a slimy surface of bare wood. Fish’s hand, breaking flat against the water, came down on a human head.
“I knowed it, from the feel of the skull.”
They’d put Rice overboard, and the corpse had floated after him.
This, however, was the impression of an instant. The head twisted at the contact of Fish’s fingertips, and Jasper Merriman rose like an otter from the roiled mud of the shallows, flinging droplets from wet hair.
“Jasper Merriman, that was murder you done!”
Hand over hand, tree root by tree root, Fish pulled himself down the bank, meaning to escape Merriman’s company. But Merriman, taking himself along in like manner, followed.
“Almon Fish, no one was never spose to be killed. Now you let me give you a leg up, and then you pull me up after. You was in this, Fish, whether you like it or not. We got to rely on one another.”
“But…you said I go first.”
“Mr. Fish, sir, I put myself at the mercy of your good nature. And if you ain’t got one, I put myself at the mercy of God.”
Merriman took purchase on the bones of Fish’s ankle; Fish cursed, as his shirt snagged and ripped…he could feel, against his right cheek, a pair of tiny feet’s scurrying motions. He anchored himself at last, crooking a knee around a slender trunk, and offered his hand to Jasper Merriman, once to haul Merriman from the water, a second time for luck, after the two of them stood on their feet together, safely ashore.
“I reckon,” Fish told Merriman, “I head downriver, hang close to the bank. Might find a boat tied up somewheres.” These words, Fish thought, had signaled his intention. He meant to make his own way. He hadn’t expected Merriman would stick like a bur.
“Jasper Merriman was a thief, and there ain’t two ways about it. I couldn’t seem to shake him off, and the more I was seen in his company, the worse it looked for me.”
He and Merriman, after meeting with a swift-running feeder creek that blocked their passage, began to cross open country. Their fugitive partnership sustained itself over long miles of woodland and farmsteads. Fish admitted to Richard and Lawrence he’d joined Merriman in stealing from these farmers. “I didn’t have no shoes. That was the first thing I had to get hold of. Then we took us some milk and a couple chickens…”
Fish raised his voice. “Well, course, such doings ain’t right…I don’t want you boys thinking so.”
A lantern bobbed, just ahead, and by its light they saw a man back onto the walk. He’d closed the door of his shop with a strong and intentful thud, making the glass panes rattle. As he passed them by, he raised the lantern, shining it in their faces; to make himself plain, he raised it higher, leaned forward and gave an appraising look to Major Fish. The shopkeeper then straightened his back, and lowered the lantern to a sociable waist-height.
“Howdy, sir,” Richard answered.
They walked on for some paces, Fish muttering to himself, counselling himself, it might have been, against indiscretion. “Got to watch,” Richard heard him say.
“Why,” Lawrence asked, “didn’t you turn Merriman in, soon’s you come to a town?”
Mentioning this, Fish first peered around and behind him. “The law go after thieves and murderers. That much is the truth. But marshal don’t sort the testimony. Merriman could point the finger at me same’s I could point the finger at him. He say I was talking to cover my own guilt. He knowed only two men could accuse him of having to do with Rice. The law don’t care, boys. Marshal put the both of us in a cell together, and wait for court day.”
“You mean to say,” Richard interpreted, “Merriman would’ve throttled you.”
“How’d you ever get away from him?” Lawrence asked.
He heard a second voice, twanging like a banjo, familiar, and in its familiarity, startling; now it was singing solo, where from contrast alone, it had before made a sort of harmony with the sweetness of his mother’s. The words were in a language Richard could not make out. His mother laughed, and he felt relief; that she felt well, that she was happy. In the next instant he felt, himself, heavy-hearted. He ought not fall so easily into temptation. Had it been a month or two ago, and his mother still in the old house, plying her broom to her contented song, Richard would have given her no thought, spent his day with Lawrence, doing as he pleased. He had a duty now to look after her.
They were on the sofa, his mother and Mrs. Purfoy. The maroon fabric had come to the Everards’ use faded in its worn patches to the mauve of late mourning; also, the sofa had gained something in dirt from Richard and Lawrence’s trouser-seats. Blue and white china tea things―not his mother’s―were on the table; the table laid with a linen cloth, supplely edged in crochet lace. And that was Mama’s, her handiwork.
Mrs. Purfoy rose. She said, “Ma’am, I sure enjoyed your company.”
Richard breathed his own spiritous vapors, and those of his brother. Lawrence sagged, fingers probing the door jamb at his back; using this, he guided himself to the floor, boot heels skidding to a sprawl.
“Everard, you got money for me today?”
As she spoke, indifferent to the antics of drunken tenants, Mrs. Purfoy shifted the market basket, and began tucking away her teapot. Their mother flushed pink. She worked her damaged limbs, with a side-to-side motion, trying to do what a lifetime had taught her she must―help with the tidying. But Mrs. Purfoy, seeing Verbena’s hand grope after a teacup, said, “No, ma’am, I get them myself.”
Richard had had money for Mrs. Purfoy since a week ago. He told her only, as he drew out his pocketbook: “I collected from Giesling.”
She remained bent over the basket, arranging her cups and saucers, but raised her head to look up at Richard…as though she knew what a face she made, rows of furrows etching her brow. “What you got there?”
“Well, three dollars ain’t what he owed me.”
He did not dare contend with her outright, but excused nothing either; merely thrust out his hand, offering the money again. “They don’t pay what they owe, ma’am.”
He feared he’d let himself sound like his father.
And knew he had, when Mrs. Purfoy separated the coins, snapping them onto her palm with a crisp twist of the fingers, avoiding the touch of his. “Sound like you getting smarter. You figure out how to make em do it.”
Lawrence had woken sturdily free of the queasiness that plagued Richard. The morning was grown too hot for lying around indoors. But the concrete was cool, the enveloping air sweetish with the scent of rotting mulberries that littered the ground nearby. Richard, emerging from lethargy, took a deep breath. Lawrence punched his arm.
“Did you hear Fish say he got arrested?”
They sat on Mrs. Purfoy’s stoop. Soon, Thomas would be dispatched to tell them she did not like them doing so; that tenants had no privilege to loiter before the premises, making her house look cheap.
“But then Fish said he didn’t get arrested.”
Richard’s chin was cushioned in his hands. He did not want to puzzle over Fish and his stories. “Well, he don’t tell the truth.”
They heard the voice of Mrs. Purfoy coming from her porch, like the scree of a hawk driving a songbird from cover. The sultry air carried even the creak of the window’s hinge to Richard’s ears. He knew Thomas would not climb the hill to deliver Mrs. Purfoy’s rebuke and chivvy them up until he’d finished the chore she’d surprised him at. Richard stood. His head ached, but a walk would cure it.
“Us’uns,” Lawrence stood as well, and complacent, having memorized the way more readily than Richard, took the lead, “got to make Fish tell what become of them two from the boat.”
Fish required no ceremony or occasion marking the passage from his bolting of the door against the brothers, to his admitting of them into the basement. Named in Mrs. Purfoy’s book as Tinker’s below-stairs neighbor (and in fact still owing), Fish, besides having acquired Tinker’s possessions, had enlarged his apartment to include Tinker’s old room.
Some feature of the tenement’s architecture―a drainpipe connecting to the sewer, maybe―was concealed here under an angled panel of tinplate. Fish ducked, as he guided them through Tinker’s door, splaying his fingers against the metal to avoid bumping his head. The metal bounced and fell into place with a rattle like thunder. Lawrence, pleased by this, pushed the panel up and down, up and down, until it grated and shifted at the corner. A thin triangle of malodorous open space appeared.
“Cut that out.” Richard lowered his own head, not enough, and felt the metal edge catch and yank at his hair.
Daylight through Tinker’s window, altered by a film of grit into a snowy mottling, fell over four drawers without a dresser. From one of these Fish took up a cigar end. There were other butts, and half-chewed plugs, in this particular drawer, assorted in size and dirt; and seeing Lawrence stare, Fish said, “One cent.”
Lawrence dug in his pocket. “Richard!”
“Take one anyway, if you want it.” Richard looked Fish in the eye. “You owe one cent less on the rent.”
The Tinker collection had also a pasteboard box, or the lid of one, in which curled a putrid spine, next to a long-snouted, needle-toothed skull.
“Thems the only bones I got.” Fish, with this comment, acknowledged Richard’s inspection. “Not enough of em to sell. Got me a chunk iron, weighs near a pound. If you’uns ain’t got money, we might take that along.”
Continued from “take that along”
Richard did not want to drink with Fish today. Until now, he’d had no idea how Fish lived, whether his claimed war service paid him a pension; whether he hired out for odd jobs. For pity’s sake, Richard no longer regretted the money he’d shared with Fish…but then again, the money had been stolen.
“All I got left is Manners,” he told Fish, taking up business.
“You ask Schumacher bout Manners. He’s the one would know.”
Lawrence, squatting beside one of Tinker’s drawers, lifted from it a lady’s boot; turning this over, he studied the wear of the sole, tugged at a stiffened leather lace, then let it fall.
“Fish,” he said, “what about that Mattoo you said didn’t get hanged? You don’t mean he got away with murdering a man?”
“I tell you.” Fish sat on the floor. He made a hostly gesture, inviting the brothers to join him. “After the war, thought I might hear mention of Rice, but I never did. Sometimes…” He gave Richard a wise squint. “It ain’t worth nobody’s while looking into things. Remember now, how I told you I kept that army pistol by my side. Being that way, I came fit for the work. Done patrol in the Home Guard, and could supply my own weapon.”
“To keep thieves away at night, you mean,” Richard prompted, for though it was Lawrence who wanted this story, Fish persisted in expressing himself to Richard. And enlightened by this link his own words had made, he saw a possibility of steering Fish onto a clear path. “That was how you run across Merriman the next time.”
“No, sir. I ain’t never seen Merriman since. Got me a paying job, and I went looking for my Henrietta.” The stage of memory requiring darkness to unfold its scenes, Fish reclined, with his back to the wall, crooking his arms and making a pillow of his hands. He closed his eyes. Richard lay back on Tinker’s rug, and imitated Fish.
He had stolen money from Mrs. Purfoy. If she kept him at this job, he might short her two or three times more…but she knew what she was owed. The tenants knew what they had paid.
“…figuring I save near everything I earn, being that I live and eat aboard the Parry…”
Mrs. Purfoy had been upstairs yesterday, not to befriend Mama, but to look in on her. A hired man could do far better at collecting Mrs. Purfoy’s rents, but she would have to agree to his terms, pay him something up front. Richard’s father had paid her a considerable sum, thirty-five dollars altogether. She had a surplus, then, to stake against expenditures. If Richard brought Mrs. Purfoy anything, she had won by the transaction. And if he brought her nothing, she had not lost. In payment for Richard’s work she’d agreed only to guarantee their rooms. He thought the tea had been to satisfy herself on his mother’s progress. The brimstone had a heart, perhaps, and would not put them out on the street until Mrs. Everard was well enough to be moved.
Fish, amplified by his narrative, made his voice heard again. “Had to pick up and make a fresh start. Now on this night I’m telling you, the fog lay thick. Couldn’t see nothing. I come on to watch at the midnight hour.”
Richard opened an eye.
Lawrence manipulated a dainty crystal knob such as might have fitted a cutlery box, so that its facets flashed a prism…red, then green, then blue. “Fish, now, you ain’t never said,” Lawrence began. “You don’t want this, do you?”
“Fifty-cent.” Fish nodded at Richard. This bartering principle established, he was getting ahead fast on his delinquent rent. Lawrence pocketed the crystal. “You ain’t never said what all you was patrolling.”
“Why,” said Fish, “I was night watchman on the wharfboat.”
Fog had settled over the waterfront with a density that showed to Fish’s eyes rings of red-gold around each lamp that hung along the deck, warning river traffic of the wharfboat’s presence. Isolated from all living things, Fish rolled into his coat in an out-of-the-way corner by the deckhouse, his plan pragmatic: being able to watch nothing, he might just as well cozy up and have a nap. But to his annoyance, as he began to doze and dream, he heard voices close at hand. He heard his own name.
“Course living on the river, I don’t answer first time I hear someone say fish.”
To this fair point, Lawrence grunted accord.
“But I put my hand down stealthy and drew out my pistol.”
Drowsy, as Fish in his story had been, Richard stopped chasing the words put out on the street, and thought instead: “A watchman.” He must make Lawrence give back the Colt, and discount the major’s militia training, which he could not offer to an employer. He guessed he owed Mrs. Purfoy around ten dollars. He saw no reason she should hold her hand over him if he paid her…if he promised to. They might hire him on at the livery stable. Having charge of valuable property, the livery must want a man to keep watch at night. Likely they had one already…but Richard thought of a winning pitch. He saw himself, bolder in fantasy than in life, speak to the proprietor:
“Any other kind of work needs doing, I can get to it in the slack time. But now, supposing a fire were to break out…you want a man that can make himself useful. I know horses, sir…I know how to calm em.”
He got lost. Patrolling on horseback, he wore the Colt in a holster, the plumed hat of a cavalry commander. With a knuckle he knocked this back, and cast a cool eye over the streets of a town more resembling Chambliss than Paducah, though here came a man leaving the boat yard, carrying his toolbox―
He woke, brought short by his brother’s raised voice.
“No! Bet I can, easy. Oughta make a good bang.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Fish said, sitting up straight. “Get yourself all the way over to the corner. I open the door wide as she go.” The glance he threw in Richard’s direction was peeved. “Your brother cain’t be laying there in the way.”
With happy purpose, Lawrence pushed himself to his feet, drawing the pistol and telling his brother, “Move, cause I’m gone shoot that metal.”
Richard sat up. “No, you ain’t! You don’t know what’s behind there. What if you bust a pipe, some way? Fish!” He appealed to their tempter. “You got to live down here.” He tried a diversion. “What was the rest of your story? That about voices you heard.” He refused to budge, and Lawrence stood stubborn, tapping a boot heel on the floor.
Fish, emerging from a thoughtful stupor, said, “Now that’s a thing to consider. Might be sumpin nasty come out. Son, you best leave it alone. I tell you what about them voices. I saw a shape come at me out the fog…then I saw the other’un come from the opposite way. I knowed I could only get clear if I was to fire a warning shot, and when the one duck, I run on past him.”
The gambit served, but Fish found he’d winged the stranger, rather than warn him, and that the man’s fall had blocked his escape. He tried quick-stepping past the writhing body. “But he rolled over and caught me by the ankle. Made me stumble. Didn’t have no good in mind, but I credit the man. Cause the other’un’s gun go off, and next thing the ball near parts my hair. I get up in a crouch, and let off a shot back at him. Hear that’un holler out, so I knowed I hit him.”
Again, Fish sprang ahead, and the wounded man sprang after him. Blinded by fog, Fish shuffled, cautiously followed by the stranger, who shuffled close on his heels. Fish flailed hands in the air, to shoo the stranger back, and the stranger flailed likewise, plucking at Fish’s sleeves. Pursuer and quarry collided. Locked in each other’s arms, they crashed and rolled, banging against the office door.
The night clerk yanked this open. He had one hand on the handle; the other gripped a double-barreled shotgun, aimed loosely at the two men. He stared.
The stranger disentangled himself, struggled to his feet, raising his good arm in a forestalling gesture. “Sir! It’s Mr. Davis, is it? You know me. I spoke to you not twenty minutes ago, asking what delayed the Maugis.”
“Is that Mr. McCormick?” The clerk goggled at McCormick, clamping his bleeding shoulder; with doubt he looked Fish up and down. “So it is. The night…the night is uncommonly foggy. Mr. Fish has mistook you for a trespasser.”
He made this a question.
“No, sir!” McCormick, rather than Fish, answered. “This rascal, this blackguard, this desperado, who might call himself Fish―he has said nothing to me about it―has shot me unprovoked! And he has killed my friend, Mr. Jellicoe.”
“Well,” Fish told Lawrence, “take a strict view of it, you might say I fired the first shot. But I cain’t know more than I know at any one time. Them two was acting like conspirators.”
“Did you kill that Jellicoe?”
“Don’t know that. Last I heard, Jellicoe was lingering. It was McCormick spoke agint me before the judge. Judge want to know how come I didn’t call those men to halt. I said to him, Honor, they was coming at me from both sides, and for all I knowed, a gang of em could of been hiding in the fog.”
“Jellicoe oughta seen McCormick jump you. He didn’t have no business, shoot at a man defending himself, no more than…”
Here was a tangle. Lawrence closed his mouth, and Fish shook his head.
“Lawrence, a man can be wronged, and if he speak up to save his self, a wronged man can be hanged. J.P. jugged me thirty days. I can stand a jail cell, though…stood it fine, if it wasn’t for that temprance preacher. Now I don’t say I mind a sermon, but you ain’t seen me go in a saloon.”
Richard cocked his head at Fish.
“You ain’t seen me go in a saloon, youngster, but I come out straight away. It’s the man drinks in company gets a habit. Now, boys, there’s good words in the bible. The door is unlocked, but it don’t avail. You got to step up on your own and walk through. Mr. Flanagan seemed kindly enough, and I had wrote to Henrietta, explain to her how I come to be out of work again. I said to the preacher, would you carry a letter to my betroth and say a word or two of comfort, so she don’t feel forsook?”
Miss Henrietta had begun to take on odd characteristics in Richard’s imagination, appearing there as a twin to Mrs. Purfoy. Not—conceivably—that a dainty, pretty girl could not have promised herself to Fish. Lawrence, brightening at the upshot foreshadowed by the major’s words, nodded as though he knew much about clerical hypocrisy.
“Lawrence, you coming down to the river with me?” Richard hoped his brother would refuse, and Lawrence, turning to him with dropping jaw, said: “No, sir. Fish ain’t done.”
“You go on stay then.”
Today, no matinée throng waited outside the Belvedere. Pasted strips of red paper canted across every poster. “Final Performance”, maybe, or, “Watch This Space”. Richard could not read the words from across the street. Had it not been for the gallery’s liberal exchange of commentary, he would never, either, have realized his disappointment.
Portia. He still saw her as the lady in white. He still looked for her along the street. But he looked to prove to himself he was wrong.
Even to use her name in this way was absurd; he had never laid eyes on Mrs. Breeling. The troupe’s second cast gave the matinées. Yet…what if he’d said to Lawrence, or to Fish, she did me this kindness, paid for my ticket, saw something in me, picked me out from the crowd…
What became, then, of his secret?
He stepped into the street, and began to cross Broadway. Richard felt as though he’d fallen to the bottom of a well…a place where, so he’d once read, stars could be seen by daylight. His view was opaque, and he could not pull himself up again.
The butt of a whip came across his chest and a gloved hand held him back. This time his benefactor was the driver of a gig, who’d spared Richard’s stumbling into a slough of muddy water that pooled in the gutter.
“Look ahead of yourself, son. Watch where you set your feet.”
Meaning to thank him, Richard said, “I’m sorry.”
He held his thoughts in check, darted up the alley behind a row of storefronts, found Oak Street, where in secret he’d bought whisky at the drugstore. Here he broke into a run. Rather than seek the river, Richard leapt the low wall of a church yard, and laid himself under the shadow of a juniper bush, in the lee of a headstone.
The story made no difference. If Richard liked to imagine a thing, the sweetness was his alone; but if he told others, he saw how this fruit would wither on the vine. It was the could-be-so that gave to dreams a sort of magic. His mother understood this. No…his mother lived in a world of little else. But fix time and place before the witness of others, and ever afterwards, you would be servant to the lie.
He had seen Lawrence and Fish close ranks against him. He lay flat on the grass and dug each fingernail into earth. Fish was unlikely to have seen “The Penitent Soldier”―but Schumacher and Giesling probably went to plays. Richard had watched Fish, when he told an untruth on purpose, and had seen his consciousness that he did so undisguised from himself. Fish lied, and accused others of lying, about money, about drink…
He assumed those he met to be thieves and drunks. Fish lied like a child, or like any powerless man, without the bold eye of mendacity, or the hope of success.
But the coincidence was too strong. Fish, against his will, made party to robbery and murder. Fish, arrested for gunning a man down in the fog. Fish, losing his sweetheart to the preacher who’d carried to her his letter. In the play, the soldier, condemned for a murder done by another, had hanged for it. The preacher, in marrying Miss Eliza, did no wrong (albeit, some in the audience had burst into rude noises during his lengthy proposal).
The preacher had even spoken the line: “The door is unlocked.”
He had probably used the word “avail”. Richard thought he had.
And Heaven, the better place, was consolation enough to redeem the state’s error in putting to death an innocent man. Richard had been a little shocked that the play could end like that. He could find no moral in the story…for the soldier had meant to do right, and by inexorable force of circumstance had been driven to the gallows.
Afraid he might choke up, recounting this; or blush, speaking of Mrs. Breeling, he had kept this one thing done by himself from Lawrence’s knowledge. But his brother would say he could see no coincidence in Fish’s story; or, that if one existed, he saw nothing remarkable in coincidence itself. Richard could see Fish in his cups, his memory-pictures growing soft at the edges; new pictures (And what was the difference between the mind’s impression and a recollection? Did they not look the same?) called into being by half-heard conversation. Thus, the border between the real and unreal being misty to Fish, he could, while speaking with conviction, adjust discrepancies in his narrative, and without knowing himself to lie. Richard thought of his father, of alcohol brining excuse into belief. Richard Everard was not, after all, a better man than Fish, but one subject to the same traps and humiliations. He might have made for himself a new life, convinced now he’d done no harm.
“You open up your pocketbook for me.”
Mrs. Purfoy had one hand clenching the broom handle, the other rhythmically urging speed upon Richard, shaking her bunch of keys at him. “Show me where you gone keep this safe.”
He bowed the leather outwards so that she might view its empty heart, if that had been her subtle thought. Here was Richard’s only valued possession, the folded paper with its single column of writing in his father’s hand, a fastidious list made for Richard’s use, of names and addresses…
And these taught nothing to Richard but his own isolation. He could turn to none of these men for help—the lawyer who’d overseen his father’s bankruptcy, the banker who’d closed his father’s account, Mr. Dyer, Madam Purfoy’s property agent. And an unknown New Orleans cousin, Bertrand Sartain.
“What’s on that paper?”
Words, written down. He swallowed the sarcastic retort. But feeling angry as though she’d insulted his father, Richard said, “I don’t care if you look, ma’am. You take that out and look.”
He stabbed the pocketbook at her, shaking it under her nose, but she would not take it from him. Instead, she seized him by the wrist to hold his hand steady, made to jam the key into the one of the pocketbook’s slots; her sinewy little forearm springing taut, the metal edges of those she still gripped pressing into Richard’s flesh. The key missed, and clattered against the floor.
Without a word she’d demoted him to odd job man. This he knew to be his answer, as to how long he could cheat her, and what she would choose to do about it. She’d chosen to lower Richard’s status. Mrs. Purfoy was booting him down the basement stairs.
“I found me a tenant take Tinker’s room. Some’un told me…”
She fixed an eye on Richard; an eye that said, it ought to have been you. “Fish done filled up that room with junk. You clear it out.”
That he would get no help from his brother perversely pleased Richard. He nursed this grievance. Lawrence, far from bearing his weight at the pitch of crisis, had shied like a colt, seeing Mama at the foot of the stairs, and gone bolting out the back door. He had sniveled as Richard dragged him inside. He didn’t have enough sense to be sent after the doctor…he had not cleaned the house as Richard commanded. Nor had he helped (unless hand gestures in mimicry of others’ labor could count as help) to load the wagon that carried their baggage to the packet next day. He had never changed Mama’s dressings, never balanced a meal tray up three flights of stairs―
What had Lawrence done since they’d come to Paducah, but tag after Richard to the tenement house? A dog would have been more use. Lawrence had stolen the Colt. He had earned on his own account not a cent. He could not bestir himself to work at a chore; he did so only when Richard asked him to, ordered him to, begged him to…and finally, like as anything, did the chore himself.
He didn’t want Lawrence…but still, he ached over this, that once the breach had opened, Lawrence had gone directly to Fish’s camp. He spent all his time with Fish now, mad, for some unfair reason, at Richard. They barely spoke.
But Richard did not choose to be disrespectful to Fish. He had thought he might remove Tinker’s things without much sweat; that he might push them across the passage and shove them over Fish’s threshold.
The room was hell.
So far as Richard could think, this was the best word by which to name Fish’s hole in the ground. He had not toted over a lantern…he had not guessed that in broad daylight he might need one. In Fish’s room there was no daylight. Fish had crammed the gleanings of his river walks high enough to block the window, leaving a narrow footpath to his pallet on the floor. Granted, the rubbish that stocked Fish’s store looked roughly organized…so that he might lay his hands, as Richard surmised, on that which any of the tenants came down seeking.
And Fish had lied about the bones. Or (it was possible) Fish considered his possum separate in purpose or nature from these sad little skulls that filled a bucket near Richard’s feet, and had startled his adjusting eyes. Fish might have sat on some height above the river and watched the brickbat dropped in to give weight, the knot tied in the sack’s neck, the tossing of it…then bided his time retrieving the bones, until water and decay had done their work, and left them clean.
Fish was not there, and so Richard did not take the liberty of disarranging his hoard. He knew what Mrs. Purfoy would think of him for this footdragging. Already, she’d told Richard that before Saturday—which meant he must begin the work this afternoon—he was to dismantle Hopper’s “business”, and get paint on the walls of Hopper’s old room.
She knew what was in there. By some means, she knew it all; all the doings within her domain.
“You bring them boards along to the back of the property, and make sure you get them nails out. Don’t throw em away! And don’t you leave nails laying out where some’un step on em. Even the broke ones. Then you stack them boards up orderly, so Thomas can go take a look and see what he wants.”
The possum’s ligaments, and something foul about the pasteboard itself, palpably colored the air as Richard carried the box lid across the passageway; and now, with each fresh burden, a current of stink trailed him. It seemed to have melted into the perspiration beading his forearms. Fish’s scrap lumber, he saw, would be heavy and unwieldy. Why he should not add this to Thomas’s stack, if Thomas had a use for old boards, Richard could answer only by consulting a muddled sort of ethics. Fish had picked these things up, they belonged to him, and Richard was not the arbiter of the major’s right of possession.
Navigable space shrank steadily. Three times, before the instinct to duck low enough had been hammered into it, Richard’s head had bumped the pitched ceiling. His luck held while he carried the drawer of mateless shoes that had interested Lawrence. But the second drawer’s rotting bottom gave way, and Richard watched the nuisance-making worst of Fish’s collection—bits of glass, crockery, a porcelain doll’s face—cascade to the floor, clinking, crunching, skittering, rolling. He did not find the doll’s face, the one thing that had seemed worth rescue, until he took a step backwards, trying to salvage what he could, forcing the drawer’s frame to stay put as it splintered from its dovetailed joints, and skewed diamond-wise. He cursed the blue eyes, the painted lashes, the fatuous smile; this last, curved lips on a chip of china, Richard pried from the sole of his boot. As fortune, in such matters, was wont to dictate, the doll’s face had probably been Fish’s treasure among treasures.
He heard a wheezy whistling. And a bang of metal, ringing at intervals off the iron stair-rail. Lawrence, bounding onto the cellar floor, skidded into Richard, dropping what looked like a metal tub, or part of one. This as it hit reverberated like a drum. Lawrence, with round eyes, took in the passageway’s condition.
“Richard! Did that sewer pipe go to leaking like you said?”
Lawrence squinted at his brother’s unsmiling face, and kicked at a mattress roll. Another half dozen of Tinker’s earwig colony went tearing from the brown-stained ticking.
“Lawrence, if you brung more junk down here, you got to make a place for it over in Fish’s room.” Richard kicked, in turn, at Lawrence’s object, not a tub, he saw, but part of a steam boiler’s chamber, the iron peeled loose beneath the welded seam. “Fish coming along? I got something to tell him.”
“Richard!” His brother seemed to hesitate in thought; then, as though compulsion flung ahead of restraint, seized his find, and as suddenly, jerked his hand from the burred edge. Lawrence spun round at Richard’s laugh, put his finger in his mouth, and saw in his brother’s eye that which made him angrier―collaboration with the enemy.
He did a thing he had never done.
At times, they’d hurt each other in their horseplay, but that was only fooling. Now, Lawrence took a resolute grip on his boiler scrap, and swung it at Richard. Richard, dodging the blow, lost his footing. He slipped on Fish’s shards and fell backwards. Lawrence stood glaring over Richard, as though for a moment he contemplated striking his brother…and not as an impulse of rage, but with harmful intent.
And then Lawrence heaved the metal towards Tinker’s open door. Weighty as it was, and curved in shape, it resisted, catching air…and came straight down, rather than fly. The gong-like ring ended the match. Lawrence’s fit of temper fell away; he was somewhat out of breath, and went to lean against Tinker’s jamb. Richard, having caught himself with the palm of a hand, found a piece of glass embedded there. He yanked it out, and the blood that had oozed began to run freely.
“Why you take orders from that old piss bucket?” Lawrence asked.
“Orders!” Richard pressed his palm against his trouser band’s dark wool, thinking, even at this pass, that his mother would not like finding his shirt stained with blood. In his frustration with Lawrence, his mind swam. That Lawrence could belittle him, because his hours belonged now to Mrs. Purfoy, when Lawrence had been right alongside helping Fish to skewer him on this forked stick…
With only a hint of mistrust in that dry little voice, a beady eye and a chosen word―so long as he had not squared his debt to her―Mrs. Purfoy could stop Richard’s obtaining other employment. He had explained this to Lawrence; his brother knew it. No less than Richard, Lawrence had drunk the spoils of their theft, and what had he done towards earning the ten dollars’ deliverance? He had made himself scarce while Richard toiled…he had wandered the city with Fish.
Fish now added his person to the swelter and stench of the confined space. They heard him speak, as he eased himself down the staircase with a flat-footed gait that cracked each treadboard. Fish seemed to answer an accusation.
“No, sir. That never was me. Mr. Hopper, I always been a good friend to you. There’s ways and ways a man can be of service.”
Both brothers turned to see if Fish was alone. Merely because he was unable to move further, and without waking fully from his deep absorption, Fish came to a halt on the lowest step and looked, through a spirituous haze, into Richard’s condemning eye.
“Fish!” He stomped a foot. “You see all this?”
The watery gaze widened. Their onetime friendship bobbed to the glassy surface of memory’s well, and waved a dying hand. Fish fell against Richard, and gripped him above the elbow.
“Who done it?”
Lawrence stomped his own foot. “He done it! He done it cause she told him to!”
“Madam Purfoy, you mean.” Fish spoke to his ally, a grievous timbre coloring his voice; he turned to Lawrence and said confidentially, as though Richard were no longer there. “I knowed it already, son. The old ditchweed means to put me out.”
“A poor man,” Fish said, “who don’t work for hire, cain’t fight the prop’ty class. Madam Purfoy’s law is above what us’d call fair dealing, Lawrence―and that cause she get what she pay for.”
This time Richard shouted, and was gratified to see the major cringe. His brother’s nodding collusion, the obscene mannerism with which Fish had delivered his gross insult, made Richard feel a kinship with Tinker…wherever Tinker was. The Colt was empty. Lawrence, though inseparable from it, had long run out of funds for cartridges. They were in the basement, far from the second floor. But Richard’s understanding of Tinker’s hopeless exasperation felt intimate.
Shoot me…throw me out the window, but no more of this.
“Fish! I have other jobs to do. I don’t mind helping you, but you got to get your worthless shit stowed!” He looked fiercely at Lawrence. “Mrs. Purfoy done rent Tinker’s room. I don’t wanna see you in there, brother…not today, not tomorrow, not one time, not never no more!”
Richard heard the name uttered tentatively, the voice coming from the hall outside Hopper’s room. He had the door and windows open. He had almost emptied his jug of water. And the water had come out again through his pores. If any air moved, it moved at the pace of a glacier and breathed the heat of an inferno.
“What, sir? I can’t tell you anything about Schumacher.”
The light was not strong in this alley-facing room. The man stepped inside, mopping over his neck with a bandanna, dabbing at a thin patch of scalp exposed between tufts of russet hair. A stranger to Richard, he might be around thirty, older by a few years than the man he sought.
“Schumacher…I was going to say, told me I might find you here. I’ve been away from town. You are Everard? Oh, and I apologize…I am Manners.”
He had come to pay his rent. Richard, at the moment, wished not to look Manners in the eye, but his brush could hold only so much. The day before, he had smashed apart Hopper’s box with a mallet, his rage at sons of bitches, disloyal kin, and ditchweeds, burnt down to a simmer by sundown, when finally he’d laid aside his tools, having pulled a can of nails. These, he would carry home to Thomas. The devil, Richard thought, could take the boards…but likely enough, no one would take them, and Thomas in the morning could deal as he chose.
Richard’s imagination had forsaken him. Fish’s boon companion would go further wrong each day; and these days, although Mama would not believe it, Richard had no sway with his brother. He was not loved by Lawrence…he would not be listened to.
Yet she asked this of him, that he protect (“look after,” she said), his younger brother. He found it unjust. He was a year older than Lawrence. What had he ever learned in life, that his brother ought not to know as well as Richard knew it? Mama seemed to rank them sentimentally: Micah near mythical, Richard held responsible…and Lawrence, incapable. Richard could not do what his mother asked, though it was her faith that crushed him, not the asking of itself. But he had no time to chase after Lawrence, and also be head of the house, and earn a living.
He and his brother were no longer friends.
The way was dark, and no comforting picture had come to Richard’s mind, as he slapped whitewash on Hopper’s wall. He had always, in the past, been able to daydream. He’d felt the tears well, and let them fall, their course drowned in the sweat that dripped from his hair. He was alone. But…apparently, not.
Continued from “apparently not”
“I am a teacher, you know. Well, I suppose you don’t. No reason. But, of course, for part of the year I must have other employment. I sell periodicals.” Each short statement was delivered by Manners with an uncertain inflection, and Richard heard his shoes make a skidding sound across the floor. The last chore in Hopper’s room would be to sweep the boards clean of grit.
He made a quick about-face, and still did not look directly at Manners. He bent over the pail and dipped his brush, and with head lowered, squinted upwards. “You brung me money? I can’t say, Mr. Manners, what you owe, cause I don’t have the book.”
“Oh, it don’t matter, Everard. I have twenty dollars. That is for the back rent, but also to secure the room for next term. Summer is all but over.” Manners gave a laugh, as though this remark had been a quip…a laugh mildly skittish, serving as punctuation to end an awkward transaction. His hand sketched a vague gesture that Richard understood. He rested his brush in the pail, straightened his back and held his palm out, as Manners dug the bill from his trouser pocket. Richard had never held a twenty…never seen one, that he knew of.
“Well,” Manners said, “this is hot work.”
The comment brought silence, and he added a non sequitur. “I suppose you are something of a general factotum for Mrs. Purfoy.”
“May be,” Richard said.
Manners collected himself. “Take care on that ladder, Everard. Good day, sir.”
“Mr. Manners…thank you.”
The folded paper nagged, prodding at Richard’s hip, as he climbed his ladder, up and down. Hopper’s walls drank whitewash, Hopper’s stains came back like a curse, and Richard foresaw running his supplies out before he’d got a finished coat on even one wall.
Thomas, after mixing up his recipe in a half-barrel, had dipped Richard’s pail only two-thirds full. “I expect that’ll do.” He cocked his head, acting for Richard the part of a man assessing his measurements, conveying that this was judgment, not an occasion for bargaining.
He added: “Anything slop out the bucket on the way over go to waste. Ain’t no reason put it in.”
Thomas had adamantly rejected Richard’s proposal to save back and forth by locking his bucket and tools at night behind Hopper’s door. “Them keys don’t keep no one out. I got use for my good ladder, sir. No sense doing without for lack of caution.”
It seemed to Richard that he would expend himself needlessly, carrying the ladder, his meagre portion of whitewash, and his water jug from Thomas’s shed to the tenement house, taking the better part of a week to do what might have been done in a day and a half.
And Richard was bedeviled by a persistent fear…that Mrs. Purfoy would find means to circumvent his ever repaying her. He had heard of this runaround. If he could not make the walls white as flour, she would condemn him to do the job over. He saw her totting up the cost of lime, the coal that boiled Thomas’s pot, the brush whose bristles had worn to the nubbins against the rough plaster…until he owed Mrs. Purfoy, rather than she owing him. Richard could think of nothing in his world kind or pleasing with which to blanket this anxiety.
But the slap of the brush lulled his mind to wandering, and his imagination stole back.
“If I took that twenty,” he told himself, “I could ride as far as a train can go…Kansas City, maybe.”
He would be gone beyond reach; the theft would hardly matter. He would go onwards by stage from the end of the line to the port of San Francisco. And there, all the big ships came in. Away and away he might sail…to Australia, China, Africa…places he could not really envision, for all his father’s reading of newspapers aloud. He would be lost to his mother and brother, as Micah was. But when he’d made his fortune, when the settlement of a trifling debt might be accomplished with the flourish of a purse; when he had cabled Lawrence to let Mama know he was on his way back…
Richard found he could not draw the curtain wide enough to stage this scene. His mother might have loved Micah best, after all. Her middle son might never be better in her eyes, even for having returned from the dead, which Micah could not do. Manners had invoked the name of Schumacher, and Schumacher had been instructing Richard―in ways that were too veiled, or too citified, for his understanding. Yet of the adult world’s mechanisms, Richard had grown aware. He did not stand here alone, though it seemed the room was empty; though he looked down over the alley, and the alley looked devoid of humanity. This was an illusion.
At the street corner, and after every span of three or four houses, Richard’s progress back to Mrs. Purfoy’s was halted; the ladder, heavy under his left arm, would begin to slide, the jug dangling from his thumb, to strain the tendons of his right hand. He needed to stop a minute and hike his burdens back into place.
He retained a picture of the farm; by force of habit this rose before his mind’s eye at the word “home”―but Richard preferred to say he had no home. It felt right to him to scorn the boss lady’s rooms. He stood stinking with sweat, blocking foot traffic, conscious of eyes that narrowed. He dragged the ladder clear. Gifted with this excuse, Richard would have liked to strike contempt from their faces, to hoist and swing the ladder in circles with a feigned ignorance. “Pardon me, ma’am. Well, heck. There it goes on the other side! I apologize, sir.”
But he didn’t dare. All the while, as he returned to Thomas’s shed, he thought of the twenty, and his occupied hands left him unable to finger this in his watch pocket and know it safe. The sun, at a late summer slant, pierced his neck, so low and hot he felt chilled as he walked into shadow at the back of Mrs. Purfoy’s property. Thomas sat before his shed on a cane chair, driving mosquitoes from his face with the smoke of a cigar.
The shed sported a fresh coat of whitewash, dazzling Richard’s eyes.
Thomas nodded to him. “You go on, put that ladder away.” They were equals now; Richard in truth―because Mrs. Purfoy would not trust him―somewhat the subordinate. He obeyed.
“You all want me to rinse the pail at the pump, Thomas?”
“No, sir, don’t matter. Whitewash get dry, you just fill’er up again.”
Richard went to the pump himself, poured water over his face and hair, filled his jug and emptied it. He wiped his mouth, and fished out the twenty. Holding the bill in such a way that the amount was clear to be seen, Richard walked back, and stopped a few feet from Thomas’s chair. He saw Thomas glance at the money as he raised his eyes.
“Manners,” Richard said, “come back from wherever he went to, wanting to pay what he owes. Told me he wants to keep the room. For next term…that’s how he said it.” He shrugged. Thomas said nothing. Richard knew Thomas would not accept this money until the nature of the request had been made plain.
He could not quite manage “please”, but tried: “All of it, Thomas. That’s how Manners means it.” He flushed. If he worked on this speech a little harder, he could make his mischosen words sound outright, rather than vaguely, accusing. With some humility Richard added, “Mrs. Purfoy won’t open up to me, times she’s not expecting me. Will you take this to her?”
“Yes, sir, I will.” Thomas reached out and took the twenty, but let his hand rest on his knee. He did not tuck it in his own pocket.
The season was dry, rain had not come, yet overnight the humidity that had tormented Richard vapored away. He could step off the ladder, take a swig of water, lean across the windowsill, and the air that filled his lungs was discernibly cooler, a relief at last. He was getting it over with, this job. No longer did he exercise his mind with rebellion. The hatefulness held no novel character now, though the solace gained from resignation was small. But Richard felt he’d grown a scab on the inside.
He heard the crunch of shoes, and expected to see Schumacher’s half-smile when he turned. The visitor was Thomas. When Thomas seemed to wait for him to speak first, Richard said: “Look, it’s all near done.” And when Thomas still didn’t speak, he added, “She never said nothing to me about up there.” He arced the brush past his chest, pointing to the ceiling, then straightened his arm and pointed again to the wall, where rust formed indelible aureoles.
“And I can’t get them stains.”
Thomas took these points in order. He tipped back his hat and studied the ceiling. “Wouldn’t call it worth the trouble. Well, I mean…you mention you ain’t happy with it, she tell you go back and fix it, so I say, don’t mention it. Anyways, that plaster have to be cut out to fix.” He stepped up to the wall, peering close. “I just hide that behind a bureau, myself.”
Richard agreed, on both counts. He said so…and there was a quiet space between them. Mrs. Purfoy suspected him of idling, he thought. But Thomas’s business was his own.
“Mr. Richard.” He cleared his throat. “I like you to know something. She has got a sum of money from your father. She made a choice she wasn’t gone tell you. I can’t say myself how much money in the envelope, but I can say what place it was sent from.”
“Thomas, I’d appreciate knowing.”
“Haws Temprance Hotel, Main Street, Louville.”
Thomas had got a satisfactory look at the address; Mrs. Purfoy winking an eye and reading it off, with a trip in her inflection as she pronounced the word, “temperance”.
“Haws,” Richard repeated. He thought Main Street would stick in his memory well enough.
“I expect you’re right, sir. That’d be the one Joab knowed, from way back.”
Way back…those were the days before Richard’s birth, and he hadn’t been thinking of this story at all. Thomas remembered that time; he, along with Richard’s father—the elder Richard the survivor of his generation—had known the dead Everards, Richard’s grandparents and his uncle Lawrence. Thomas’s mind could walk that landscape. Richard knew his father took some pride in his dealings with Captain Haws; at the same time, he had never told Richard all of it. A fence he would not jump balked him, something Haws had done that angered or embarrassed him.
“Thomas, do you know what become of Joab?”
“I know he said he live one place all his life, and he going on the railroad, see something of the country. But I ain’t hear from him, no.”
“My daddy been in Louville!”
Set up there, Richard guessed, with work and a house of his own…wanting to provide for his wife and sons, not willing to come get them. What can I do? He might have spoken these words aloud. Thomas, from his back pocket, extracted a roll of bills. “Naomi put that by. I think you got to make your way up. Can’t say what she has in mind.”
Richard, telling himself he must not stop to count it out, tucked the money away; and now, for the second day in a week, he carried cash in his watch pocket. In the time he’d lived in Paducah, he had not once seen Naomi. He hadn’t considered how Thomas lived…where Thomas lived. Belatedly, Richard opened his mouth, and Thomas forestalled his thanks.
He spoke again of Mrs. Purfoy. “No, I can’t never say what she reckon to tell, and what she reckon keep to herself.”
“Dining room. End of the passage.”
The clerk leaned across the counter, and the guest arched his back and looked over his shoulder, to a corniced entryway and a short paneled corridor, that led away from the Haws Temperance Hotel’s lobby.
“We have a table dahote service,” the clerk went on. “Being that the hotel is run something like a boarding house. Service go leven to three, lunchtime, six to ten o’clock evening times, take in the latecomers.”
He queried Richard’s status with raised eyebrows. “Some rooms here is for guests, and some is for residents.”
“Can you guess where I make my home, sir?” Playfully the man covered the registry book with his hand. He read off, with the cadence of stage patter, a few of the items chalked on a menu, that sat on an easel where the passage to the dining room began. “Pigeon pie…made, I presume, from the catch o’ the day…summer punch, tender brisket…oughta separate those two next time…”
He was a salesman. The clerk scratched his head.
“Great Neck, New York. I have been three months traveling, young feller; and I mean to go on til I reach Denver. I have only a month to survey the western territories, before the cold weather comes on, then I must return by way of St. Louis, and ply my trade along the southern ports. And what, sir, do you suppose my trade to be?”
Richard saw him bend over the fat valise he had set at his feet, watched his industrious unbuckling, and felt the jitters settle again in his own wrists and mid-back. He thrust trembling hands in his trouser pockets. He could hardly bear this wait…but the salesman had got through the door first. For a brief time, Richard had taken this as a rare instance of luck.
It was the first time he’d gone anywhere atop an omnibus, another indulgence whittling at his pennies, but safer than sorry in this unfamiliar place. There had been at the outset packets, marking his first experience of an Evansville transfer…from poor Jellicoe’s Maugis. Her master, a man named Billings, shot in passing an unseeing glance over the deck; unseen himself afterwards. Richard had moved on to the celebrated helmsmanship (why so, other than advertising, he hadn’t learned) of the George Finn’s French, who came right onto the wharfboat shaking hands…even Richard’s.
He had slipped down the stairs too early for breakfast, hurried up Broadway half-choking, with no coffee to wash it down, on a roll saved from supper, and come to the wharf an hour before the mail would leave. He had not packed a bag, not knowing how he could make this trip, other than in secret…
And had bought, embarrassed asking, a pauper’s ticket. He had not, supposing the smooth loop of the Ohio from near Chambliss to Paducah representative, guessed the Maugis could reach her stop as late as the following midnight. Whereas the Finn came mornings to Evansville, boarding when she’d unloaded and taken on fresh, in theory, leaving at seven.
On the wharfboat he’d slept, starving himself for frugality, on a waiting room bench.
Richard found his comprehension of river travel continued naïve. Beginning with an idea he wouldn’t buy a vendor’s meal and overpay, but suffering sorely by the time the sun’s setting rays fell glimmering off clouds of insects along the shore, Richard had taken a bottle of milk and half a chicken.
Remains of this came back up, on the way uptown from the Louisville wharf. The woman he sat next to, eyes still crimped at the corners from distaste, but manner a study in kindness, asked―after he’d pulled his head back over the rail, dug out his handkerchief and sunk low on the seat―if he had family in Louisville. He countered with a question of his own.
“Ma’am, do you know anyone in Louville named Haws?”
“Well.” She glanced at the man across, who, with a silver coin between two fingers, gestured to a fellow passenger buried behind a newspaper, as though he enumerated his points: this, this and this. “I can’t say I know anyone to know them. But I’ve seen Mr. Hawes, the shellfish man, run his advertisements in the paper. I believe I know of a Miss Haws.” She paused, and Richard, not proposing to make a general search among all the Hawses of Louisville, had been about to thank her, when she added, “You had better stay at Colonel Starke’s, if you’re looking for work.”
She might have thought of Starke’s because she was well-bred, and expensive lodging was all she’d ever used, or knew of. On the other hand, she might have looked him up and down—she had looked him up and down—and judged Richard poor and friendless. It might be that sort of place. But he had half a suspicion Haws was that sort of place.
Giving her a nod, he put the name of Starke at the back of his mind.
The driver had told him, “They’s a lot to Main Street. Are you going up Main Street, or down Main Street?”
He had gone up Main Street, and gone down Main Street, walking on the opposite side for good measure, and he could not take the driver’s sound advice to hire a cab―“Cabby know where Haws is, and I ain’t heard of it”―because he didn’t dare spend his money. He might have yet to pay for food and lodging; or he might buy a return ticket. But he could not do both.
It seemed wisest to Richard to find his father at once, to know then whether he would spend the night in Louisville. His father might only have passed through the city, stopping at Haws, and the address Thomas had seen might mean nothing now.
He found himself stalled, despairing, the man before him crowding the sidewalk with his valise and stick, thrusting this out with uncanny instinct, and rapping it against the pavement in time to the tune he whistled. Hard Times, Richard thought…but the man made a jaunty affair of it. Richard was weary, parched now and famished, but forgave all—for the man, almost clicking his heels, darted aside and tugged at the handle of a red door, one trimmed with shiny brass.
He had noticed this building on his first pass, the incongruity of its architecture. The hotel was really two houses, united by a coat of white paint, festooned along its separate rooflines with four flags whose device, on this windless day, Richard could not make out. Led by the salesman’s whistle into the lobby, he walked under the shingle he’d failed to notice earlier.
Now he watched his guide lay on the reception counter three steel cables, each fitted with a ring at either end. They were of differing lengths. The salesman extracted from his valise a bandage next…or so it appeared.
“What you got there?” the clerk asked.
“Why, young feller, do you suffer from weakness in the extremities?”
The clerk lifted one of the cables, weighing it and listening to the jingle of the rings. “I might do, a little.”
A door behind the counter opened and a man backed out of what must be an office. He did not yet withdraw his head from inside, but stood ending his conversation, one hand on the jamb, the other on the knob. Richard heard muffled words, and from within, a woman’s voice; then, with a conscious briskness, the man pulled himself straight, and closed the door. His attention was attracted by the salesman, who had fixed the bandage through the rings, and was securing the clerk’s arms at shoulder width.
“Hold your palms out flat, and keep your elbows steady, just like you had hold of a breadbox.”
The clerk, whose eyes had been following the salesman’s adjustments, looked now at his hands, easing his wrists farther apart, making two loose fists to take a grip on an invisible object about a foot-and-a-half wide.
“Palms flat.” The salesman tightened the strap. “There now. Exert gentle pressure outwards, and you will feel a release in the joints…do you feel it, sir?”
“I feel something.” The clerk stretched his elbows; the cable resisted.
“The amelioration of strain in the ligaments is achieved naturally and with complete safety, using Dr. Woolner’s Flexing Cables. Sir.” The salesman noted the newcomer. “Leon Lenster.” He offered his hand. The other man, waving away Lenster’s pitch, said, “Gideon Haws. No, Mr. Lenster, I thank you kindly.” He noticed Richard.
“I am Mr. Haws. Have you brought a message for me?”
Gideon Haws had a good-natured face, which Richard, meeting his eyes dumbly, saw lapse into puzzlement. The question had confused his expectations—for a moment, he’d wondered how Haws knew him…knew he was arriving today. Haws glanced at Richard’s feet, and scratched his balding left temple.
“I am the manager of this hotel. Who do you work for, son?”
He saw himself, then, as Haws saw him. He was dressed in a mended shirt, he wore no hat and carried no bag. Haws must guess he had not come for a room; supposing, rather, Richard to be a tradesman’s apprentice, or a general clerk… And the thought inspired a bitter wish that the misconception could be the truth, that his life could be no more than the daily waking to an undemanding routine.
“Mr. Haws…” He stopped. “I…”
He changed his mind. In giving his father’s name, he was giving his own. He did not introduce himself, but asked, “Is there a man stayed here one time, called himself Richard Everard?”
Lenster, meanwhile, had freed the clerk from Dr. Woolner’s device, saying, “Well, Mr. Jackson, I will leave with you one of my cards.”
Haws stepped from behind the counter, and as he passed by Lenster, found he must also accept a card. He murmured, “Yes, sir. I know of a lady with rheumatism, I will pass this along to her. I thank you, sir…”
And edging his hand backwards along the counter’s edge, Haws parted in stages from Lenster. Lenster crouched again over his valise. Haws tapped Richard’s shoulder, ushering him to a window where the light was strong, and looked closely at his face.
“You’re a relation of Mr. Everard’s.”
“Can you tell me where to find him?”
He did not like the hesitation, the thoughtfulness of Gideon Haws’s frown. “If I carried a message to Mr. Everard on your behalf, son, what would I be telling him?”
And with this neat wording, Haws had got him trapped.
“That Richard has come to see him.”
“Well.” Haws seemed to change the subject. “Have you had your dinner?”
“Then come along with me.”
He trailed Haws past the stairway to the hotel’s upstairs, and through the passage that led to the dining room. Haws jogged a step down, and Richard stopped at its head. He read a second chalked notice hanging on the wall…not the dining room’s hours of service, but an announcement of the Temperance Fellows’ biweekly chowder. It had taken place the evening before. Richard looked at the stopper bolted to the floor, that held the door in place. Finally, unwilling, he lifted his eyes, and searched the long tables, of which he counted four, three laid endwise to the windows, spaced evenly and covered in white linen. The fourth, unoccupied, sat in dim light below a sconce, against the wall to Richard’s right. And at his left, he saw a long wooden bench by the kitchen door. Through this, a waiter swung into the room, carrying a pitcher of ice water balanced high, guiding his way with an outstretched basket of rolls.
Mr. Lenster was here, sitting on the bench, writing with a pencil in a sort of diary, taking a moment to assess his prospects, it might be…for the tables had room enough to feed twice the crowd. None of these men was Richard’s father. No sign in the lobby had suggested the temperance hotel was exclusive to male guests, but he saw no women dining here.
He heard an amused voice. Haws, the hotel’s manager, had not passed the tables without pausing to speak. “How do I find the summer heat? Well, Gideon, I keep to my own business and it generally finds me.”
Haws laughed, turned, and noticed Richard still at the threshold. He hurried back, encouraged Richard with a tap on the shoulder, and gestured towards the more secluded table. “You’ll like a quiet meal, I’m guessing. Mr. Everard is your father, Richard?”
It seemed right, at this moment, to mention money, before he let Haws go further. “I don’t have hardly more than three dollars, sir.”
“There is still plenty of ham, I believe.” Haws signaled over his head for the waiter, dropped the hand to the waiter’s shoulder, and drew him forward. “Here is Arthur to take your order. We have new potatoes on the menu, do we Arthur?”
“Yes, sir. And string beans go with em.”
“And no reason,” Haws added to Richard, “why you shouldn’t try the catfish. Our cook is careful about the bones. Arthur, this guest is Richard Everard. Richard, where have you come to us from?”
It was, in a way, the speech of the revival meeting; it had a “we are all brothers” character, but Richard disliked being drawn into the temperance circle less than he would have supposed.
Haws then, as though a voice had called him, exited abruptly through a door not far from Richard’s table. From the sultry warmth and outdoor smell of dry hay and horse manure, propelled—by the slam of a door—inwards on a gust of air, Richard guessed the stairs Haws had descended must lead to a stable yard. He was too hungry to turn the meal down. He said, “Yes, yes, thank you,” as Arthur repeated the selections Haws had made for him.
“Will you want ice water or milk?”
“I like to have both, thank you.”
He had let Haws get his name; he’d admitted to being his father’s son. He had managed to tell a lot, for having told Haws not much.
And after catfish, ham, potatoes with string beans, even a small helping of the pigeon pie, Richard sat, dividing his blackberry cobbler in fourths, dividing these again into eighths, lengthening the attention he gave to the last crumbs. His father was here. They all seemed to know it…but some mystery was being made of his whereabouts, and Haws had been away now for more than an hour. It had got to be nearly four in the afternoon. Richard was alone in the dining room, at his table facing the wall, and by rights they would want to close the kitchen until six.
His unease grew. He began to suspect he had misunderstood Haws. If he were not waiting for a purpose, then he ought to, now he had no choice, take a room for the night. Haws might simply have gone home. Richard began to push away from the table, delaying even this, making a slow business of rising to his feet.
The stair-rail creaked. He heard a tread bounce, then the open-mouthed breathing he’d learned already heralded Gideon Haws.
Richard lowered himself. Haws, too, sat, his weight shuddering the bench. Haws was merely stout, not heavy, but in his managerial way of pushing things along, he bustled with a physical force. He looked into Richard’s face, and Richard saw in his an echo of the woman on the bus’s determined kindliness. Haws began a story that seemed inconsequential.
“My cousin, Miss Haws, is the owner of this hotel. She is quite some years my senior, but we are cousins. I grew up in Rebecca’s care, my father being a widower―and I owe her more than I can say. Miss Haws came into her father’s money…her father, my namesake.”
He paused, as though Richard might have known this; Richard nodded, though he hadn’t, nor did he care…since his father had never cared to make these relationships explicit.
Haws went on: “Being complete in her devotion to our great reforming cause, my cousin bought this property…” He came to a standstill here. His remarks seemed to dissatisfy him, but he jumped to his feet, rather than finish.
“Miss Haws asks to see you.” And disentangling himself by taking the point directly, he now pointed in the direction of the lobby. He meant, Richard thought, the office. When Haws had first emerged, he’d been speaking to a woman.
“Miss Haws intends the hotel to be a haven for the abstinent traveler. And a wholesome abode, also, for those who’ve taken the pledge, where they cannot be subject to temptation. We sleep a hundred and fifty. About half our guests are regular boarders. The rest itinerants.”
Mute, Richard followed Haws. His father was a boarder here, that was what Haws was telling him. He did not want to ask any more. As they approached the reception counter a woman, drawing in the grey skirts of her gown, stepped forward.
“I am Rebecca Haws.”
She gave Richard her hand. He thought it wasn’t right to shake a woman’s, and took an awkward hold on her fingertips; over them, with some idea of the courtly manner, he bobbed his head. One corner of her mouth escaped into a smile. A second or two elapsed before Rebecca tapped Richard, in the way of her cousin, this time on the elbow. He released her fingers.
“You share your father’s name? Will I call you Richard?”
“Gideon will fetch your father here to the office, where we will all have a talk in private. Gideon has spoken to Mr. Everard, and your father knows, Richard, that you have come to see him.”
All this sounded to Richard as though wrong had been done. He was uncertain he hadn’t done it himself. Rebecca Haws was pallid and austere…she was not young; she might even have been his father’s age…but the skin of her face sat taut over the bones, and in her eyes Richard saw something that was young. And this was not an effervescence, as the sentimentalists would have it, nor a rose-petal blush that mantled there…
It was a bitter sense of injustice, like Richard’s own.
“Please sit on the sofa.” Miss Haws, moving behind her desk, rang a bell.
The sofa had a scroll back; its velvet was a deep shade of crimson. Richard supposed a woman might like to have a sofa of this type in her office, but felt, after his day’s journey, that he was not clean enough to sit on velvet.
“Please,” Miss Haws repeated. Jackson from the lobby stepped through the open door. “Will you send to the kitchen for a pitcher of ice water? There will be four of us. Thank you, Jackson. Richard…” Rebecca Haws lifted the lid of a stationery box, and used a fingernail to separate a precise, single sheet of letter paper. Suspended on his own name, Richard watched her center it and smooth it flat.
“Will it be a comfort to your mother…?”
Continued from “comfort to you mother”
She seemed to mean this parenthetically, as though she weighed some question of a personal nature. She raised her head then, reached for a pencil, tapped it against the blank paper, and caught Richard’s eye. “For I am very willing, as a woman, to compose a note to her. If you prefer, you may write to her yourself, of course. I do not wish to presume.”
He was alone with Miss Haws, and the subtle working that informed these statements baffled and worried Richard. He could not be rude to her, suspecting as he did that she employed his father.
“I mean to, ma’am.”
He enunciated back at her, in a voice that sounded alien to his ears. He would not write to his mother, of course. But this was not the business of Miss Haws.
“You are relieved to have found your father. I’m glad to know it, Richard. I hope you did not receive this news very unexpectedly? Again, if assurance from myself might be of comfort to your mother…I take it she is not alone, however.”
He was embarrassed. Lawrence being Lawrence, Richard was unable to see him doing Mama any good with this news, and that his brother should get to break it seemed unfair, when Richard was the sufferer and the instrument of its delivery. He had left Lawrence out of things when he’d asked Thomas to tell his mother he was well, and would soon return. Only that.
“She don’t read,” he’d reminded Thomas. “You got to go upstairs and talk to her.”
“I know that, sir. I take it as a pleasure, seeing Mrs. Everard again. We ain’t visited since you’uns come up to town.”
Another smile like the first. A small concession, to irony, not mirth.
He’d been about to confirm this too, that Lawrence was his brother…and realized no words were needed. Miss Haws had watched his eyes; while Richard hesitated, she had laid her pencil down with decision, having written nothing. Rebecca Haws was interrogating him, obtaining information under the guise of possessing it.
At that moment, Richard’s father walked into the office, followed by Gideon Haws, who quietly closed the door behind him.
The elder Richard smelled like a barn. He was sweating, and his legs brought him forward at a cramped, unwilling pace; his eyes fixed on those of Miss Haws. She had a hemp rug over her good carpet that covered most of the distance between the door and her desk. Richard saw his father come to its edge and halt, never yet turning aside to notice his son.
“You have not made yourself right with God, Mr. Everard.”
“Ma’am. You know how far I’ve gone astray. I ask nothing whatever of God, but that he dispose of me as it pleases him.”
It was this, the sound of his father’s voice, his conciliating way with Miss Haws, that affected Richard more than the sight of him. He forced his mind into nothingness, let himself see only words, legible on the spines of books, behind and above the head of Gideon Haws: Virtue, Prayer, Union.
Miss Haws sighed, and Richard shrank into his corner of the sofa. Her sigh had not been the commonplace show of female exasperation, but a relinquishing, as though she would fight no more, in some contest wherein her magnetism still outmastered his father’s. In silence, she pointed to the sofa, and Richard felt that his father’s eye had been on him all along.
She then withdrew her gaze from his father’s face, opened a drawer to her left, and lifted from it a book, a Bible, Richard thought. He and his father both had followed the movements of Miss Haws; now at this release, they found each other. His father had always been gaunt, and bowed by his losses. In six weeks’ time he had not changed greatly; only, following that moment of recognition, the eyes seemed to Richard more deeply hollowed, before he saw them close.
His father flung one distracted hand to the side, and Gideon Haws, saying, “Now, Mr. Everard,” also with his hands made a helpless sketch in the air. Turning towards the door, and then away, Haws lunged with the exaggeration born of discomfiture, towards the Windsor chair beneath the window. Richard saw his father sink at the knees, and collapse to the carpet. He had not fainted. He seemed overcome by a terrible grief. The sight was piteous to Richard, mortifying; it affected him with a tortured sympathy. He did not want to touch his father. He felt an unjust anger at the Hawses, at Rebecca, reading serenely, at Gideon, anxiously working his hands on the chair’s back. Richard escaped, turning away and burying his face, his arm pressed against the sofa’s scrollwork.
He heard a knock at the door. He heard the breathing of Gideon Haws, two of the chair’s legs hitting the rug the least second apart, and the voice of Haws, his words following a discreet rattle of the knob.
“Well, we won’t mind that. If I’d known you were seeing Mr. Angelis, I’d have sent along my compliments―however…I will take the tray in myself. Thank you, Arthur.”
This interlude, and the momentary concentration on Haws―the ice water Richard had forgotten, the foresight of Miss Haws that he now understood―enabled him to gain control. He faced the room again. Haws was bent over his father, offering a glass. His father was sitting up now, wrists propped on his knees, holding in one hand a bunched handkerchief. To Haws, he said, “I thank you kindly, Gideon.”
“Mr. Everard, will you take a seat there, on the sofa?”
Richard sobbed, clenched his jaw until his head ached, and made himself be still. He accepted his own glass unspeaking; and Haws, seeing the elder Richard push himself to his feet at last, moved the chair to a place near his cousin’s desk. Richard’s father dropped next to him, and rested a hand on his shoulder. Another stifled noise burst out. His father’s abandonment had been the cause of all his trials…and Richard loathed this too-easy commiseration. That he could feel consoled at this touch infuriated him. His father knew none of what he had been through.
Gideon Haws now took his seat, swallowed a gulp of water, and after a look exchanged with Miss Haws, said: “I am afraid, sir, there is some fault in what you’ve done. Yet, I do believe it was the lust for alcohol ruled your better nature the day you came to us; and at that time, although you’d avowed yourself to be an abstainer, you had not yet conquered the demon. You must listen to what Miss Haws has to say.”
Miss Haws sipped at her own glass of ice water. She looked at Richard’s father, and lifted her chin. “Mr. Everard. At this house, we do not close our doors to any man. The sinner that repents, sir, has not chosen his way; his way has been chosen for him. I know only this―you have told me a very great lie. And needlessly, Mr. Everard. It is nothing to me…” She broke off, and emptied her glass. “Nothing to me, if you have a family, or if you have not. But God knows the truth at all times, Mr. Everard.”
“Ma’am, my reason for lying, for telling you I was alone in the world, was shame…it was only for shame. Rebecca―”
She looked up sharply, surprised at her given name, possibly angry, Richard thought—he did not understand this woman—and stared his father down. He saw his father lower his head, eyes fixed on his clasped hands. “I haven’t told you everything. And I won’t. These things can’t matter now I’m leaving.”
“Mr. Everard, your son may share your room tonight. In the morning, I will ask Gideon to fetch you, when Mr. Horace arrives. But I have never said I expect you to leave.”
She cast a glance at Gideon Haws, who hadn’t ceased intertwining his fingers on his lap. Her eyes widened and her brows drew inward, her voice giving way to a quiver of strong feeling, “I hope you were listening when I spoke just now, Mr. Everard…I hope Mr. Horace has done you some good.”
Dismissed, Richard’s father stood. Her distress moved him; the sardonic undertone was there, but the tears were as well, a tremor running through his own speech.
“Rebecca, the way that you mention has been a torment to me…no, I would hardly have chosen such a path; nonetheless, all my life I have plodded it. I have not got my mind sorted on this question of God. Had I sought an end—done away with myself, Rebecca―I would not have considered it either bravery or cowardice…and I would not have considered it sin. But I have considered it often…I have been a torment to others. You know it, now.”
This was a thing past between the two of them, an old contention, the strength of which Richard felt; and felt jealousy, for his mother’s sake…or for his own. “But,” his father finished, “I have said it before…I will never have the means to thank you adequately. And you, Gideon.”
He turned to Haws, gave his hand; and Haws, his face much relieved, jumped from his chair.
“We will have Jackson put the lamps out. I am overdue at home.” He said this to his cousin, throwing the remark over his shoulder; at the same time, he shook the elder Richard’s hand, and urged him towards the door.
“Well, Gideon, you might have gone home at once. I did tell you I could manage. Richard.”
Miss Haws had hooked him again, as he was rising from the sofa, on the verge of trailing after his father. “You must let Jackson or Gideon know if you have need of anything.
“Mr. Angelis runs the kitchen over at Colonel Starke’s. Arthur―I am guessing it―had to go begging for ice. The heat has been damnable. And Mr. Horace is the preacher who gives the sermon at the Sunday prayer meetings. But also, his sway with Miss Haws is considerable. Rebecca knows her own mind, yet she will consult Mr. Horace at every step.”
His father’s voice, dry, soft for a moment, then dryer still—these variations discernable to Richard’s ear as they sat in darkness, the heat remaining damnable—told Richard that his father practiced, but did not adhere to, the Haws doctrine; that he cared for Miss Haws, or at any rate respected her, and disliked Mr. Horace.
Richard had got his feet over the edge of the bed, though this was pushed close to the wall, the attic floor being partitioned for servants’ chambers, and his father’s about the width of a wardrobe. They would share the bed, narrow as it was, but at present neither thought of sleeping. His father sat on the mattress and faced the door.
Richard leaned over the windowsill. He had not asked this question; he would not have remembered the names, but his father meted out information in a monologue, on and off.
“I won’t light the lamp. Not at this hour. Besides, the room is muggy enough.”
His father had begun with these comments; then they’d settled in their places. Richard felt able, with ambient moonlight, to see sufficiently, and the street lamps still—though soon they would be extinguished—dropped sulphurous pools along Main Street. Richard’s father had halted their progress a floor below, and shown him to the washroom, waiting in the hall while Richard took his turn. He was a long while taking his own, but Richard, who’d given way to tears again once he’d closed the door, thought his father had done the same, that his eyes showed it.
“Mama.” He’d tried to guess, standing outside the washroom door, why his father would not ask, and how he would broach the subject.
“You have seen to your mother’s welfare admirably. Like a man, Richard. I believed I had done a terrible crime…I can’t account for it in words. You see, I have never yet accounted for it; I haven’t found the words. I’ve kept all this to myself. But I was very heartened to learn that Verbena…that she lives.” The light in the hallway was dim, and his father turned away, saying these things. Richard felt proud and infuriated—and silenced. He’d expected to be the bearer of news; clearly his father had got news.
“Is it Thomas you been hearing from?”
He rested his chin now, on crossed arms, and felt sweat precipitate, bead on, finally slide down his neck. He wondered what was the good of washing, when you could not keep clean, and in the morning, would have no clean clothes to change into.
“Thomas?” The mattress communicated movement. Richard supposed his father had turned to look at him, but he would not look back. “Well, now I recall…”
The voice receded; his father seemed to recall these things more to himself.
“It was a Mrs. Lerner. She took Naomi on as cook, and Thomas expected she’d find a place for him, too. No…” He stopped.
Richard, made indignant by this nattering, felt contrite, loyal―in a way he had not expected―to Thomas. He’d managed only an inarticulate, disbelieving noise.
“You haven’t forgiven me, Richard. But…it was only because you came looking for me. I would have liked to believe you could forgive me. Is there anything you want me to tell you?”
For Richard, forgiveness did not assume the shape of a monolith. It was not a weighty object, in the room with them, or absent. He felt his grievances in disparate ways: the wrong done to his mother, the injustice of her certainty that he could manage Lawrence, which he could not. He wanted his father back, to take charge of things; he accepted his father, and wished that this journey were over. But his father had not lived up to his duties, and thought Richard’s unforgiveness hinged on disappointment. He seemed not to see it…how he had thrown him to the waves and left him to founder. Richard did not count himself disappointed; his view of the world was altered irrevocably. He was exhausted and wanted only for his father to take up the burden that was rightfully his.
“Well.” He responded to the silence. “I will answer the question you have asked me. You want to know how I got word of you, and as I will suppose, why I would not send you word of myself.”
He’d kept his loaded musket at the ready. Old Everard being to his son no figure of piety, the elder Richard had felt, even, that this culmination of his father’s dereliction had been the Everard legacy’s just reward. His own brother Lawrence might have married, years before New Orleans, had his father loved the farm better, and not heaped every care onto Lawrence’s shoulders, merely because Lawrence—simple of heart, patient and kind-natured; able, of all beings on earth, to respect Old Everard—had loved the farm.
“There ought to have been a natural line of succession. I don’t much like to hear Mr. Horace talk, Richard, but…as to drink, I can’t disagree with him. Whisky perverted the course of our fortunes. Still, I had meant to put a stop to it.”
He had been unable, on that night, as he’d told Richard, to set foot again inside the house. “I thought I might go down to the creek…I did go down to the creek…but the water runs too shallow. I couldn’t make up my mind. You see, Richard, I had so carefully sewn up every loose thread…so that I might be subtracted from this equation as nothing, no longer needed. And I had undone all that. I was afraid to lie in the water, not knowing what I might do.
“I have heard men claim themselves taken by a fit, that they could not account for their acts. No. I saw myself, I knew myself, I abominated myself; but for a time, I could not stop myself. I felt savage…and the savage strikes not to kill, but to live. I might resist dying in shallow water. It wasn’t death I sought, not for atonement’s sake. Only an end to this affliction, this lifetime, this disaster touching everything that I have touched.”
These were the words Richard’s father, having set himself the task, had found. And then, for some minutes, he left off speaking, and seemed to contemplate their echo.
“I walked, up the road. And my thought was that I would go on walking and not stop. That death would take me then, like a pistol shot, at some unexpected moment, and be done.”
At sunrise, he found he had cleared the environs of Chambliss. His luck holding, he’d been passed by only a wagon, redolent of tobacco, but empty. Walking without cease produced a great thirst, leg cramps, and blistered feet, but Richard’s father took these torments as redemption. He told himself he would soon be delivered. He would faint by the side of this road…after that, he would know nothing more, and the peaceful circling of buzzards would mark his resting place. He had fallen, in a kind of seizure, his muscles convulsing of their own accord―and had lain helpless, in full awareness of his state. But at some point, he had dozed.
“It was charity that interfered.”
Richard’s father drew a breath, beat aside the weakness making his low voice quaver. He continued in better command, words inflected now with his ordinary humor. Richard could not smile. His own face, mirrored on droplets of humidity made opaque by the outdoor lamps, seemed a watcher…a stranger who viewed Richard Everard, namesake of his father, but not his father’s image. He might have been alone in this room.
His father had called book learning useless. “Your mother is the better example to you.” And mocked, in a pulpit voice. “There is a land of glory just over the way from here. And what we have been robbed of will be restored to us there. Prayer will make it so. You see, Richard, that your mother is right, and I am wrong.”
But this subtle turn of mind was the product of education—his father’s, denied to Richard and Lawrence. Richard did not understand his way of joking. And yet he would rather, now, hear this mordant sarcasm, than see his father shed tears.
He had been helped, half-conscious, onto a wagon loaded with crates of new-harvested beans.
“These bound for Louville. That the way I’m headed, sir, up along the river.”
“I am myself trying to get to the river.”
He had slept off his weariness, and a distance now separated him from the day and place of his shame. The wagon driver had lifted this stranger from the dust, willingly shared with him his canteen of water; and in his eyes Richard Everard was not evil. The resolve to die faltered.
The driver’s appraisal, so far as appearances were concerned, had been a reasonable one. “You might get you a place on a packet boat, mister. They’s always looking for hands. Then I give you this advice. Haws got a drying-out house in Louville, and if you cain’t pay, they don’t charge you.”
His father had not assumed at once that an inscrutable deity wished to guide him to the Haws establishment. Anyone might bear that name. But, escorted by Jackson to speak with Gideon Haws and Mr. Horace; sensible of his filth and degradation, and feeling his age, Richard Everard knew that as God willed it, he was about to be set a new task.
“Gideon is a good soul. He is unlike his uncle, whom I dealt with at one time. He reveres his cousin—and why should he not?―being that he gets his living by her. I believe Rebecca suspected me at first of being wanted by the law…she took great care in choosing her questions. And after our interview, kept clear of me for three weeks. I was given this room, and placed in the charge of Mr. Jasper.”
Jasper, Richard thought. He was distracted by a notion he knew to be fanciful; moreover, he could not think of a single virtue in discovering the whereabouts of Fish’s old mate.
“For those in need of charity, Rebecca and Gideon—within their means—will make a place; and so they cannot employ a large number of servants. Mr. Jasper is of far more use than I. But also, the hotel provides some stabling for guests. Mr. Horace keeps his rig here, and his two horses.”
While his father described his duties, the thought came to Richard that he might, on that night, have run after him, that they might have abandoned their troubles together; that they might happily have worked in the Haws stable side by side―
But the picture, so pleasing, had no ring of truth. Not, for his mother and brother’s sake, on a practical basis, and not intuitively. Richard did not know what would make his father happy.
He asked: “Daddy, are we going home? Or are we staying here?” And in asking, yielded. His father, hearing this “we”, that paired the two of them, would find himself forgiven; and Richard found, also, that he preferred this, to fall in step with his father.
“That’s enough now.”
Sleep might not come, not easily; but the morning would, and Miss Haws had expectations. Richard felt the mattress depress, heard his father’s boots…one, then the other, fall to the floor and slide as he pushed them under the bed. He felt his father stand, and heard his braces slap the bedrail. He unfastened a button of his shirt…he would need, also, to extricate his legs, to unlace his own boots. He was embarrassed by these intimacies imposed by poverty; and there was no use in it―his father did not find fault. He did not notice such things at all. And for weeks Richard had shared a mattress with Lawrence.
“Home,” his father said. “Are you making your way in Paducah, then?”
“I’m sorry for that. I set off once, meaning to make a place for myself. Then I was called away. I never much thought of my father’s house as home. But for you, and for Lawrence, of course…” He left off. “You know that I am not a religious man; but not either irreligious. I find that we humans strive. We suffer and cause suffering. We happen upon a quiet spell when we feel at ease. And if a God orders the world, his purpose is unfathomable. I don’t propose to struggle against him or deny him; but all philosophy, all rites, are a waste of time to me. I chose to follow this course, and so I bide with it, until I feel moved strongly to take some other course.”
Sitting on the bed again, his father steadied himself with a hand on the iron frame, and hauled up his legs. He rolled onto his side, allowing Richard the pillow, making the least of his own portion.
“Now, speaking of Lawrence…” And Richard heard affection in his father’s voice. “It occurs to me I took the long road answering your question and never got round to doing it. Mr. Jasper has a brother, an engineer on the Dick Parry, who now and then gets down to Paducah. He did me the favor of inquiring at Mrs. Purfoy’s house, whether you had taken the rooms. If you had not…”
Resting his head on the pillow, Richard dozed almost at once. He opened his eyes. An engineer, he told himself. This, though the word meant nothing to Richard, other than motors and machinery, was skilled labor—and Merriman had been a deckhand like Fish. His father’s naming of the Parry tempted Richard again to embrace the implausible. The coincidence seemed real, and even explainable. Richard shared his father’s name. If Mama…
If his father had done murder, he would not wish to be Richard Everard. Had his father changed his own name, Gideon Haws might not have known whom Richard sought. His father’s voice surprised his reverie. He’d left a sentence hanging, and Richard had gone off, half-asleep, and forgotten this.
“If you had not taken the rooms, I would far more have confided in Miss Haws, and allowed her to guide me.”
They worked, in the stable, side by side.
The breakfast had been generous as dinner the afternoon before. Richard could not remember sleeping, but knew himself to have wakened, aware of the room cooled, and the window lightened; and the light that came through it was pale and yellow. He felt agitated, but also weary, as though he needed hours more rest.
Mr. Horace’s Isambard rippled too with restlessness, as Richard stroked the horse’s neck. Isambard would eagerly have taken exercise. Of all things once ordinary to his life, Richard missed most a morning ride on such a day as this, beginning foggy, the air rising hot with the early smell of autumn leaves. His brother―though Lawrence sat a horse badly, and could not keep quiet―would have been good company.
In the vivid way Richard imagined things, the whole of it, the city of Louisville, this stable yard, his old home, Lawrence still his friend, Main Street’s traffic transmuted to the song of migrating blackbirds on the road to Chambliss, lived…elusive and simultaneous, these things existed in one place. A boat rocked on the bank of a river. Richard must step aboard at the dip of the swell and fall into this dream. A greater purity of faith could have brought it fully into being, but this he lacked. His father was speaking, answering some question of Richard’s he had himself left aside.
“Mr. Horace will take one or the other out most days…” His voice changed. “Here is Mr. Jasper. Patrick, my son has come to visit me.”
Richard had noticed Isambard’s ears twitch, heard the soles of boots crunch over the grass, and hoped Gideon Haws had come to fetch them. His inclination to dislike Jasper was wrong, he knew. He disliked a man invented, between Fish’s yarn and his own idle thoughts.
“Richard, this is Mr. Jasper.”
“Young Everard.” Jasper wore a cap. He touched this; his eyes were pale and wry. Outdoor labor had burnt Jasper’s Gaelic freckles into a patchy, crosshatched sorrel. “I heard tell of you coming to visit, from the inside help. I mean Jackson.” Flexing his fingers after shaking Richard’s hand, Jasper hunkered down and looked up into his face with a scrutiny Richard felt made sport of his father, as―in some way―the comment about Jackson had.
“Your son ain’t a big talker, Mr. Everard. You figure…” He straightened, and they stood face to face. “To be teaching him all you know. The boy help you get your work done.”
These were three cheerfully delivered jabs, and Richard decided he could do without Jasper on the man’s own merits. His father answered, “I don’t expect Richard will stay for long, Patrick—I may not myself remain, depending on Mr. Horace’s counsel.”
“Mr. Jasper!” Gideon Haws called from the hotel’s open side door. “Will you take charge of Isambard?”
Richard gave over the harness to Jasper, who fell silent under the eye of Haws, and he—it must be that his standard of manners required he not shout the name of a woman, or a preacher, across the yard—hurried down the stairs. Traversing the distance of twenty feet or so, he tugged at his watch chain, took his timepiece in hand and popped it open with a thumb, but did not look at it.
“Mr. Everard, Miss Haws apologizes for the late hour. She had a telegram to send, and waited the answer. She has asked that Mr. Horace and I join her in her private apartment for luncheon, and asks that you and your son do likewise.”
The elder Richard turned his back on Jasper. “Miss Haws is kind. And Horace, as we know, speaks more eloquently after a good lunch.”
Haws gave a laugh, fond and unassuming, as though the witticism were in no way barbed. “Well.” Now he could, with a purpose that would not offend, Haws checked his watch, and said: “It’s eleven o’clock.” One Main Street clock, in tacit support, began to clang, then a second brassier note sang the air. “Mr. Horace has particular news for you, Mr. Everard. We will have time enough, before we sit down at table, to square away these matters of business.”
Her private apartment, like her office, was furnished with articles that pleased the taste of Miss Haws. Embedded in the room’s upholstery, draperies, and carpet, was a scent of lavender, and a winter smell of coke. The newer smell was of coffee, Mr. Horace’s toilet water, and his oiled hair. The hair rolled like a wave to a part above his left ear, and curled there, the sideburns thick and trimmed to a razor’s edge. He was a contemporary of Gideon Haws, not yet forty. From a damascene armchair, Mr. Horace rose to his feet. Haloed by a shaft of sunlight, he regarded the Everards.
“Mr. Everard, and Richard, how do you do, sirs.” Horace shook hands with Richard’s father, gave Gideon a rueful smile, offered a hand to Richard; and Richard, remembering Jasper, had been about to do his father proud for manners…he’d got out as much as, “How do you do,” when Horace turned to the two men, and began to speak: “Miss Haws has followed Kitty down to the kitchen. She has left me acting the role of host. Though properly, now Gideon is here, I ought to give over…”
“Not at all.”
“I do not take coffee. But the coffee is hot. I don’t believe Miss Haws will mind.”
Horace’s gesture included the sofa and the table on which the coffee service had been laid. “Won’t mind, I mean to say, if I mention Mr. Gremot. Mr. Everard―”
Richard’s father had been on the verge of resting his back against the sofa’s.
“This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.”
And as though this declamation had been a shot across the bow, Gideon Haws crouched over the coffee pot, alert and self-effacing; holding this posture, he poured for his cousin’s guests.
“Ephesians, Mr. Everard…of course you know the passage. However, it is not the case merely that the sanctity of the marriage bond is an exemplar; it is one, in its character and essential nature―this vow between husband and wife, this conjugal love―to the love our Savior bears for the body of the church itself. Christendom, Mr. Everard.”
Horace permitted a silence. Neither Everard offered to break it. “It is the case, sir, that no line of distinction can be drawn between one’s duty as a Christian, and one’s duty as a husband. To be of Christ, to be of the church, is to regard the marriage bond as sacred. You have said to Miss Haws that shame drove you to conceal your married state. Miss Haws forgives you. But she cannot harbor you here. Realize, Mr. Everard, that this abandonment of your wife is the abandonment of Heaven’s grace. You cannot suppose, sir, that the broken body will heal of its own accord; nor that the unreconciled, sinners and doubters both, will have time enough to wander by the wayside, until they choose to seek salvation. For the word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword…Hebrews, Mr. Everard…chapter four, verse twelve. You do not have time. You must fulfill the promise you have made. Now, it happens that among the Temperance Fellows…”
Continued from “Temperance Fellows”
They heard female voices, and the sweep and catch attendant on the mechanics of a woman’s hoop skirt. Miss Haws entered a passage from a doorway at the apartment’s rear; a passage made lighter with papered walls, but much taken up by a cherry cupboard. She paused to shoo her servant. Kitty tripped at her mistress’s heels, and fluttered with girlish indecision―yet she seemed older than Miss Haws. She had doughy jowls, and eyelids that fell sadly at the corners.
“No, Kitty, we will want our lunch as soon as may be. Run back down to the kitchen and see what Mr. George has to say.”
The men stood, and Richard stood, as Miss Haws entered. Gideon moved to the parlor piano, and brought away its bench, placing this on an open patch of carpet where his cousin’s gown could be accommodated.
“Did I hear you speak of the Temperance Fellows, Mr. Horace?”
“My dear Miss Haws, I will gratefully cede the floor to you. I have not yet shared our news with Mr. Everard.”
She digressed at first. “I think you remember Kitty? She is still somewhat difficult, I’m afraid. She may disrupt us, though she knows well enough how to serve at table.”
Richard, for his mother’s sake, had had a lot of religion. He’d been bored and overwhelmed by Horace’s deadening representation of marriage. But his attention revived seeing his father sit up for Miss Haws. He heard warmth in his father’s voice, and disliked it.
“I do remember Kitty. I remember those ducks.”
“Then you will be pleased. I had that in mind when I sent Mr. George to the poulterer’s.”
She waited, let her smile fade, drew a breath, and said, “You are a tobacco man, Mr. Everard. Our friend in abstinence, Mr. Walter Gremot, who supports our cause in a material way…”
She lowered her gaze, then raised her eyes, but those she met, now she’d resolved to speak of business, were Horace’s. “Has a great property in the state of Indiana. He tells us his man, who oversaw the labor there, had proved unsatisfactory. Mr. Horace has promised to write Mr. Gremot today. We know of no reason he will not agree to speak to you in his office, if Mr. Horace provides you a letter of introduction.”
Through the courses of the luncheon, Horace, in the honored seat at Miss Haws’s right, chewed his fowl, swallowed his lemonade, smiled at Richard’s father on his own right, and dropped another cork to bob in the stream of his observations on family.
“I hail from Indiana myself—Indianapolis was my first home, Mr. Everard—and I have always been a city preacher. Intemperance, you must know to be an evil among the poor, the idle unemployed, where on the corner of every street a saloon may be found. You, Mr. Everard…”
While speaking, Horace had pressed the tines of his fork against a bit of skin that crackled paper-thin from the leg he’d stripped clean of flesh. In mid-sentence, he nipped this off with his knife, speared and ate it. “You, who have farmed all your life, found your position lonely? Or that your cares overburdened you?”
“My father was a drunk, sir. I have only followed in his way.”
Horace then gave Richard, seated across from his father, a frank look. He addressed the elder Richard, nodding. “My father was himself in the ministry. And my grandfather, an ironmonger, came down with the canals…as one might say, plying his trade. He began in Halifax, where he had immigrated to, from the West Country…the west of England. So they always said among the old folks, and that is all the family lore I have.”
Richard knew this cue might have yielded much conversation―but his father drained off his glass of lemonade and picked up his cutlery, placing the knife and fork crosswise on his plate.
“Mr. Jasper once was a saloon keeper,” Horace went on. “That is why he manages his work so well, from knowing how to keep a public house. He has paid the price for drinking his profits. Now, my dear Miss Haws, I wish to propose to you an idea I have turned over in my mind, since our earlier talk.”
And in the manner of one making a proposal, Horace tapped his knife, ringing a note from the rim of his glass. “A man hath joy in the answer of his mouth: and a word spoken in season, how good it is! Proverbs, Miss Haws. You smile―so I will give you chapter and verse. Fifteen; twenty-three. By which I mean to suggest, that should Mr. Everard arrive in Cookesville bearing a letter, the clerk may carry it in to Mr. Gremot, and our friend may lay it aside. He may not guess that you consider the matter urgent. I put it to you, and to you, Gideon, that Walter certainly will give audience if I accompany Everard to Indianapolis myself.”
Richard’s visit had lasted then, only the one full day.
“I am beholden to Mr. Horace, and I must do as he sees fit. I have never been to Indianapolis. Mr. Horace says a good early train can make it there from Louisville by the afternoon.”
His father gestured with his hand; careless in this, he held a twenty-dollar banknote. Richard saw the denomination plainly. Three times he forced his eyes upwards to meet his father’s.
“This is your fare to Paducah―and something more…which you are meant to give your mother. A gift, Richard, from Miss Haws. She tells me she will be happy to have you write to her, when you have arrived home safely.”
His father could say more than one thing using words that conveyed nothing particular in themselves. Richard felt he’d been instructed that Miss Haws did not want him to speak his thanks to her in person; but that he might carry back with him to Paducah all the news he’d gleaned. Miss Haws would have, indeed―Richard had come to know her well enough―insisted her name be mentioned to his mother.
And when he opened the door to their parlor, she sat wearing the green silk…fiddlehead, as his mother named the color, the dress of Peggy’s she loved best. She made a patchwork of its elegance, tightening the waist with the sashes of her calico apron.
“When your daddy coming home, Richard?”
He could believe Mrs. Purfoy, wanting company, had bargained for it with this knowledge. He could believe, also, that his mother simply knew, and asked no explanation for his going away, because to her his father’s return was as much a certainty as Micah’s.
“I don’t know, Mama. Where’s Lawrence?”
“He gone off. How your daddy looking, Richard?”
“Mama…just the same.”
And sooner than Richard had expected, his father came home.
Rain swept through the town that day, falling in thunderous bouts, leaking through the roof and chimney. Richard sat with Lawrence on the floor, throwing dice, using their mother’s sewing buttons for markers.
“Don’t you lose them.”
She had said this, seeing Lawrence bustle past with her tin box in his hands, and Lawrence had by now lost several. As a sidelight to the game, he was blowing buttons through a rolled-up envelope, shooting them to ping off the glass lamp and thwack against the pot-bellied stove.
“You gone choke on one of them. I’m waiting,” Richard told him.
Lawrence’s laugh was low and satisfied. “You keep rolling boxcars, brother.”
The knob rattled. They never locked the door when they were all at home, and only Richard sat with his back to it, his eye on the delta of black dust floating at the bottom of a rivulet, burbling through the mortar where the pipe had been ill-fitted. His mother, it occurred to him, sat waiting every day, dressed in green, eyes on the door.
He expected the visitor would be Thomas or Mrs. Purfoy.
A heavy boot came down, wrenching a bleat from the top tread of the stairs…but a heavy boot did not preclude the foot of their landlady. His brother’s palm smacked over the dice, Lawrence glaring across, meaning he too suspected Madam Purfoy letting herself in.
But Richard looked at his mother and saw what for days he’d hoped to—joy, unadulterated, unmixed. He watched his brother jump to his feet.
“Daddy! Richard says you got you a job in Indiana.”
“Well, I have, Lawrence, as of yesterday.”
His father’s hand patted his brother’s shoulder. “Richard, will you stand and look at me?” This, as though he believed, wrongly, that Richard had fallen from forgiveness since they’d parted.
Verbena sat, quiet, round-eyed and attentive, hands clasped on her lap. Their father dug in a pocket, drew out a money clip, and handed Richard three dollar bills.
“You and Lawrence go now, for an hour or two.”
Up Broadway the brothers walked, keeping pace with each other…Richard with Lawrence beside him. “You know where you gone buy cartridges?”
“Over to the grocery.”
He was surprised.
“They got everything there,” Lawrence told him. “Could I see that money?”
From his watch pocket, Richard pulled the bills, in happy sympathy with Lawrence—his friend—saying, “You have this.” Peeling off a dollar. “Get yourself what you want.”
They had needed more than two hours to relish the freedom of money to spend, and their world coming a little righter. They wandered down to the boatyard, dodged into Fish’s watering hole, on the pretext of looking for Fish…bought a half-pint of rye, on the pretext of doing an errand for Fish. And as Fish himself could not be found, they went a ways farther on, to the place where Hopper once had docked his boat; where they could drink and shoot targets, and no one would mind them.
Near dark they returned. Their father sat cross-legged on the floor at their mother’s feet, using the table for a writing desk. He stood when they walked through the door, with a face that made Richard dart a glance at Lawrence. And it was to Lawrence their father spoke.
“Son, you have got hold of a pistol. You hand that over to me. Now.”
The task began with a study of the roots, the span of soil circling the tree’s base, from which the tree would have a natural lean. Should the tree be uprooted by a cyclone, it would fall one way or another, the direction of its fall predicted by the habit of its growth. But a tree that wanted felling could be notched, and in this way forced to crash away from the stead’s roof. For a week they’d tackled underbrush; Lawrence, more than his brother, bedeviled by chiggers.
Richard told him, “It’s that big belly draws em.”
Lawrence spat on the ground, and dug his fingers under his trouser band, his arms red and patched with poison ivy rash. But so were Richard’s and so were their father’s. They had cleared for themselves a yard…but to have a garden, to grow winter food for their cellar, to open the stead’s windows (after they’d bought windows and nailed them in place) to light and air, they must cut away the pines.
“Them’s growed there, since before the old place was abandoned,” Sanderson told them. “Seed themselves out the windbreak, yonder.”
He pointed, to where the stand—planted when his grandfather had built the homestead, when there had been no road along the river, Indiana only a territory, Old Sanderson a pioneer in these parts—umbrellaed, in the way of evergreens, shadow and cool air in aromatic depths; while along the crowning ridge, waxy needles threw back the sun.
“But you don’t wanna touch them. Get you some fair lumber out these here.”
“Have to haul them saw-logs to the mill.”
Ziegler’s services were not volunteered, but at Gremot’s behest, he’d come down to oversee a little, and help less. Ziegler watched them work, and sized up the job they did… But they would labor through the week before they could begin to chop firewood, and negotiate with Ziegler for the hauling of the logs.
“You got that pump working, Mr. Everard?”
“Not yet, Mr. Ziegler. I am not mechanical, myself. We get our water from the barrel, at present. But, sir, I will take your advice on that.”
“I say you need a new’un. It’s the hands been using it…hands broke it. Ain’t been no one living down here to care for the place.”
Sanderson, at Ziegler’s arrival, had grown frigidly silent. He now circled the trunk of a pine, swinging his hand axe as though he practiced a form of dowsing…steel seeking sap, telling Sanderson where to make the cut. But from behind the trunk they heard his voice. “Mr. Gremot own this property. He can fix what’s broke as suits his self. But he don’t have to, Ziegler. He can do what he wants with his property.”
Ziegler said, “Sanderson, I reckon he’s getting the property fixed up. Pump be handy, Mr. Everard, when we go to pull them stumps.”
Richard’s father had no work horse and no mule. He had not earned his first month’s pay from Gremot; but Gremot had been willing to advance a sum, paid to Ziegler direct, to cover the hiring of Ziegler.
Sanderson lived in the house he’d built “one stick at a time”, next to the ruins of his father’s house. These were eyesores on a slope along River Road, near the city of Cookesville. Since the Everards had come, Sanderson had walked up the road to the stead daily. He considered this his family place, though his father had surrendered his fields long before Gremot had employed a land agent to broker the purchase of them, and appeared on the summit with his architect.
“You gone buy you a pump,” Sanderson told Richard’s father, when Ziegler had driven away, up the switchback that led to the site, just being leveled―to gather his second piece of intelligence, then wire the news to Gremot. “You gone buy a pump from Ziegler’s brother, I can tell you that…cause it’s his store Ziegler gone take you to.”
“Mr. Sanderson, I will get to know the ways of the folk here, in time.”
“I don’t mince words. If I mean to say a thing, I say it plain. You have two sons. The three of you together will put the old place in order. Mr. Everard―”
Gremot was thirty-four, father of a young family. He had from his own father inherited his seed money and his first patch of land. With this southern Indiana acreage, he was expanding his holdings. It rankled somewhat, with the elder Richard, this wide-eyed frankness, this unsmiling severity, coming from a man twenty-one years his junior.
Gremot had then said the plain thing.
“I do not expect any of my hands to be found set to work on the stead. Nor are they to drive your wife to town when you have got yourself a buggy; nor to fork your potatoes when you have got yourself a garden.”
Richard’s father had answered, “Sir, I understand my place.”
While they worked, he told Richard and Lawrence as much as he had learned of Gremot. Gremot had spoken his opinion of Sanderson exactly so: “My last overseer had a place of his own, outside the town.” To make his point, he’d worked back obliquely. “This operation is new to me, but I don’t want you to suppose, Mr. Everard, that I’ve not been a tobacco man for many years. I have ways I prefer to see things done. I want my foreman on the property.”
Gremot had on his desk a gold weight cast in the shape of a hogshead barrel; this held down a stack of particular papers, the corners of which the elder Richard watched Gremot’s fingers drift to, while he spoke, straightening them, aligning them. “Mr. Horace has told me a thing or two. I understand you’ve farmed your own land.”
Horace, who’d come along with Richard’s father, had spent fifteen minutes alone in his room with Gremot before the candidate himself was summoned. Horace, it appeared, had found Gremot needing a fair amount of persuading.
“Every sort of crisis may come up in farming. You know it yourself. And the hands aren’t any use left alone. Now. If I have to task a man with running halfway to town at every emergency, it’s no help to me. I might as well hire that man as my foreman and be done with it.”
Gremot had looked up then, after frowning over his papers, his face altered for an instant by a small, dark smile; and Richard’s father had not risked smiling in return at such mild humor—if this were humor at all.
At a lull in the interview, in a bid for fellowship, he had mentioned his mother, Marguerite Sartain, and his family’s New Orleans connections. Gremot rested his chin on his hand. After a minute or two, he said, “I am not French. Now, sir, tell me what sort of farmer you are.”
Then, for an hour, Gremot had questioned him on matters the elder Richard found trying. He’d relied on Joab to oversee his own labor. He might have taken on the management of Gremot’s property, as he’d managed his Kentucky farm, getting to know the local trade, electing, with the disinterest of an outsider, to deal with this merchant, strike that one off his list…himself hiring for Gremot a trustworthy foreman. But Gremot was no dilettante farmer, investing in land, and living in the city. This he proved by sitting back, and saying in an undertone, “A thing or two.”
And, lighting into it: “In any case, Mr. Everard, let me apprise you. My name is marked on every hogshead. My custom comes to me on reputation. Every leaf is as like to another as nature and consistent practice can make it. But when I say practice, I am talking about scientific theory, Mr. Everard. Burley is not a sweet leaf…”
Richard’s father had seen enough by then, of Gremot’s character, to know he must accept the offer of the stead sight unseen, or lose it—lock, stock, and barrel—along with his hopes of employment. He had hoped, therefore, the stead would prove sound and livable from the outset.
They were disappointed, but the Everards had come without choice. With their bedrolls they made camp in the front parlor.
“He has a theory,” Richard’s father told him, as they sawed at pine boughs, pitch peeling the bare skin of their hands and arms raw, the fabric of their shirts and trousers saturated with it…pitch clotted with needles and sawdust. “Once, early in the season, an application of Paris Green. Paris Green, overdone, says Mr. Gremot, will acidify the soil; it will accumulate and the rains will not wash it clean. It will poison the leaf, and the leaf will turn bitter. I am, rather, to closely observe the hands, and have the hands, in turn, keep a sharp eye out for the cutworm, the hornworm, the grasshopper, and the flea beetle―”
After putting Richard’s father through his paces, Gremot had dismantled every word he’d elicited, ticking off a number of rules, giving his probationary foreman no chance to write them down.
“He might have sat me in the chair and told me just what he wanted in the first place. But,” his father held Richard’s eye, putting the strength of it across, “that’s not his way.”
“He’s not French… What is he?”
“One day, when he wants the advantage of me in some respect, I will be made to find out. In the meantime, Richard—and see to it Lawrence remembers—he is the boss.”
Lawrence found admirable qualities in Sanderson, as he had in Fish. Sanderson was, by contrast, reclusive and abstinent…even vocally so. Had he been a joiner, Sanderson might have become a Temperance Fellow. Yet despite this common ground, his division with Gremot seemed complete. He spoke with satisfaction:
“You gone buy cord wood fore the winter set in. Ziegler haul you a load. Get you a good price on it.”
He was not happy to see the Everards overcharged, but was happy to see Ziegler overcharge them. Today, he’d set Lawrence to work, gathering fallen bricks from the outdoor hearth. Sanderson was quick and exacting in his masonry, and would not interrupt his concentration to answer questions. Nor was Lawrence, working hard enough for his own taste, at the task of sitting on his rump and handing over bricks, inclined to ask any.
“Have to season that for six, seven months…but I say a winter, and a second winter, is best for green pine.” Using his trowel, he pointed, and did not look up. Lawrence picked dirt from his bare toes, and held a brick at the ready.
“Be all right to burn in this here,” Sanderson added. “You don’t want no pine in the house.”
He must also, Richard’s father had calculated, find a man to repair the stead’s chimney. Sanderson did not work for hire, but as the spirit moved him. Verbena would spend her days alone here. For her sake, that at least she would have her kitchen indoors, his father planned to buy a new iron cookstove. She would labor less, and his conscience would trouble him less. The purchase would put him deeply in debt to Gremot.
“…but I’ll work it off. Owed money makes no difference, when the banker is the same man who sets your wages. You see how it is, Richard. If it was a sum of money Gremot was after, he could pay me better, and get it back sooner. More likely he’ll hold the debt over me to keep my wages down. But since I own nothing Gremot could want the law to seize, he must have the patience to allow me time.”
The sky softened to ink.
Then a glow the color of ashes came up, growing stronger, like the slow turning of a gas lamp’s key. A bird in the hedge apple above Richard’s head launched its morning recital of identity and territory with a whistle of refined sweetness, followed by a short buzzing call-note, and a song: pure-ur me-e-e-e, pure-ur-me-e-e-e. Even here on the riverbank, an odor like that which permeated the stead, sumpy and weedy, swelled with the warmth of the coming day.
Naomi and Thomas had meant only to do right, in giving him the money for his fare. Rebecca and Gideon Haws had done their Christian best, reuniting the Everards, enlisting Mr. Horace to find a place for Richard’s father.
But, Richard thought, what if I had never showed up that day?
“Me, I didn’t take that bargain, sir.” Sanderson, on early acquaintance, had said this to his father. He’d meant the stead, the home that would cost nothing, no rent withheld from the foreman’s wages, and that, with his sons’ help, Richard’s father was free to improve as he liked.
Until the past few years, Richard could have said he’d spoken to Gremot only a handful of times. His father had shouldered this weight, as long as he had been able. He’d thought of his age, his obligation to the Hawses, the terrible imbalance of duty between himself and Verbena. He’d taken up with the whisky again, but the drink had not for years got the better of him. Yet all the while, Gremot had been fastidious in his refusal to acknowledge labor done by the boys. Their father worked for him; they did not.
And could not…though Gremot once had said he’d hire them on as hands. This would mean a full day in the fields. It meant doing Gremot’s assigned chores in the wintertime. Lawrence, who fished and hunted with Sanderson, scoffed at this, telling Richard, “No, sir. I’ll never be that poor.”
And Richard, propping his father by the elbow once again, would not be at liberty. If he managed and labored both, he would be in violation of his agreement with Gremot. For nine years, not a day had gone by the brothers hadn’t worked, for loyalty’s sake, for pride’s sake—and Gremot must know no wage could fetter a servant to the land more inescapably than did the sons’ own desire to protect their father. They would not have it said, come hail or high water indeed, that disaster to the Gremot crop could be laid at the door of the drunken foreman.
It was Richard who drove the farm wagon twice a year to the camps that teemed in the fields beyond the depot; twice a year he was a competitor for labor…and rougher than the others, willing to do down a neighbor. He could gauge the evidences of laziness and troublemaking. He knew the man laid stretched out with his head on his bundle, the one who would not rise from his dice when called, who sauntered over at last, and could not do even that without exchanging glances with his mates, wasn’t worth the hiring—his disrespect would spread through the ranks like typhoid.
Richard had made a reputation for himself, dismissing any man with whisky on his breath, and was gratified to hear it said of him that his discipline was iron. By iron example, he worked the fields alongside Gremot’s hands. He would not tout a higher wage. He’d hit on a better thing—the offer of a bonus, by the job. Gremot, given demonstrable cause (and under no other circumstance that Richard knew of) could be talked into spending money. The itinerants could ramp the takings as they liked. They could get the boss’s fields sowed or cleared, and move on to the next place.
Lawrence, too, out tramping, shooting stray dogs, badgers, foxes; trawling the riverbank, setting his traps and springing poachers’, leveling his shotgun at trespassers, bagging turkey and rabbit, bought by their cook for the Gremots’ table, did a yeoman’s service that Gremot ignored. When Richard did business with him, as he must now—their father did not always have the strength to leave his bed—Gremot was steadfast in the use of phrases reflecting that inflexible will. He had not yielded an inch.
“Ask your father’s opinion…”
“When you talk to your father….”
Richard boiled. But he spoke using Gremot’s own short, direct sentences; Gremot’s own country-school grammar.
“I hired a man, Shad. He was a good worker for my father one time, sir. He had his doxy and four youngsters with him, staying in a tent, up at the camp, but…”
He’d felt the eyes of Gremot’s sickly daughter on his face, but her father had not flinched. Gremot liked her with him in his library, auditing these conversations. The farm had a row of cabins for the married hands, and a kind of barracks for the single men, half-occupied during slack months, not near adequate in the seasons of heavy labor. But no single man could bring a woman into the barracks. This was a matter of policy.
“I told him he’d have to make do on his wages, and get himself a place in town.”
Richard thought Shad would take a bed in the barracks, keep his own pay and leave his family to live on sufferance in the tent. And maybe, in time, Gremot would want to know this. But he made no comment on those things he approved. He distrusted a good report, preferred to hear of something gone amiss, and have Richard instruct his father to deal as he directed.
“Your father meant to sack the Irishman arrested on the Saturday.”
“He did, sir. He has done, sir.”
Baily, sobering in his cell, had watched Richard hand over his parting wages to the constable, the transaction conducted as a lesson before Baily’s eyes. Unlike his father, Richard did not catch a man flouting the rules, and consider his own trials in mitigation.
“Then tell your father, that if he sees fit to take on a man permanently, he may discuss terms with me.”
Richard knew he would himself discuss terms with Gremot.
Lawrence stirred and stretched. He had been sitting up all this time, his eyes closed…asleep like that, as far as Richard could tell. The sky was now chalky blue, the birdsong a piercing rivalry between Richard’s solitary blackbird, and a migratory host roosting at the mouth of Sanderson’s Run.
“Mrs. Keene show up first thing, I’m figuring.”
In suspense, through his nap, Lawrence had retained their conversation. Either in tune with his brother, or merely put in mind of it by their anomalous visitor, he’d thought of another thing. “Richard, you think that Mattoo, the one Fish talked about…”
“This’un,” Richard told him, “is a Gremot. He ain’t French. Sides, Mattoo’d be way older.”
Peas in a Pod