1931. A southern city, its two populations existing mostly apart, intersecting in places.
As do the dead and the living. A matter of experiment in the house Charmante Demorest keeps for Mr. Rothesay. Two past tragedies are linked to the site of the Dumain clinic, neither of them happenstance…and the deadly will of an old tyrant has made a way, returning.
The odd-job man, today walking the yard setting mole traps. He unbent his back when Charmante called out, “Hey!”
The front parlor the same as every day, the chimneypiece and its stony odor, white sheers damping sunlight; the temperature, never mind the bloomed camellias flanking the portico, wintry.
No reason to feel that emptiness ghost-ridden.
Of course, it couldn’t well be. Her aunt, who liked the phrase for calling this and that, never had meant by it spooks…most times been speaking of the solitary well-to-do, her clients, with their dusty drapes and cabinets, their spiderwebs of childhood ties blowing loose, still clinging.
The men were up in the attic, at the back of the house, where Mr. Rothesay did his scientific work. Voices just didn’t carry so far. They wouldn’t burn lights in a room not in use, and March weather didn’t much call for a fire.
And soon enough, you got heated up pushing a carpet sweeper. She had to get lunch on, two pots to boil, one pan to brown the chops, one in the oven for the rolls. She had to plug in the percolator and get the coffee started right off—and it was her day to inventory the cupboard. She’d know how much to ask for, so she could pick up things at the grocer’s on the way over tomorrow.
Rothesay’s was one of a block-end of tall attached houses, survivors of a 1901 conflagration, no more of their kind ever built in the city. The house faced north, the garden getting all the pleasantness…even the neglected patio set and quarter-circle bench more wistfully inviting than the squat bungalow furnishings of the parlor.
The climbing rose, and the bees it attracted; and intimate with this, the hoary trumpet vine that drew hummingbirds, were sweet life, and needed here.
To suit a fastidiousness of her own, Charmante would never sweep or dust while food was on the stove. She liked no dirtying of the air until after the day’s cooking was done. She began with wiping down countertops and table, settling Rothesay’s evening plate and coffee cup in a sink of soapy water. She dropped a slab of bacon on the beans, lidded them, turned the burner a notch above simmer, then moved to the dining room buffet for the linen and silver.
And here was Mr. Rothesay’s friend.
He eyed himself through the glass of the curio door. He kept at it, his back to her, while she nudged him out of her way, ratcheting loose a drawer, one, two inches…enough to snag the cloth. He spoke, and she glanced over her shoulder, catching him quizzing her with a look…but this was reflected in the oval of a small mirror on a shelf.
“You wouldn’t like to help me get that one down from over the fireplace, and carry it upstairs?”
“When I’ve had my lunch. And that means after I’ve got yours on the table.”
She had learned this, not to let their little enthusiasms run unchecked.
“If we introduce another, it will mean repositioning them all.”
“But I feel that’s just what we want to do.” Mr. Carmine answered Rothesay, who’d come down.
It was her job to brave the gloom, but once Charmante got things warmed with the stove, and once the smells began to penetrate up the staircase, the two men would filter to the dining room, carrying on their discussions, easing into their seats, telling her to ignore them.
It was why she started the coffee early. With two absentminded hands tugging corners, hindering more than helping, she laid the cloth, placed knives and forks. All the while their theme was acceleration. Something that needed to complete a circle and emerge whole at the beginning again…it was the angle of exposure that wanted measuring, not the shape or condition…
“But we haven’t tested the arrangement at all, so we have no useful observations to build from. Think, Carmine, if there is any reason we might prefer rather to slow the process down.”
“I have thought…great minds and all. You’re right, sir. We need a trial. We need the two of us stationed in the other rooms, observing. I’d like, even, if it were possible, to set up a camera near the fixture, but…tricky running a cable to it.”
“There I think…” Rothesay said.
Then: “Thank you, Mrs. Demorest.”
Charmante had carried in the tray, their two cups and the sugar. It was a foible of Rothesay’s, one he’d explained pink-faced a day or so after she’d come working for him, that he wished to drop the cubes in himself, watch each in its own time dissolve.
She had got into the kitchen and out again, with dinner and bread plates. She was not formal in her manners, not at ease using either “Mr. Rothesay” or “sir”, unless she’d caught him in a fog.
“Carmine, this afternoon?”
“If we might have an hour of Mrs. Demorest’s time.”
He said this sotto voce, not asking Charmante, but reminding Rothesay that time was money. Rothesay pinkened. She was paid by the week, and so the calculation might require a bald offer.
“I’ll stay and help you if I can. What sort of thing…?”
“Easiest thing in the world. You’ll only be walking. But we may ask you to bear with three or four repetitions.”
“You put the extra in my envelope, Mr. Rothesay. I need to see about lunch.”
She left them, their conversation back at once to the question of the camera.
The house concealed one of the city’s showpieces, a wall of brick with a lattice pattern of diamond-shaped openings, an artful handiwork forgotten, now the neighborhood had fallen so far out of the way. From Mr. Wright she had heard a fanciful story…but couldn’t see it, why anyone should leave letters for loved ones, or prayer candles, or flowers, or anything else in these niches. Hospitals were practical places; they employed crowds. Yes, there were quarantines. But also meals, laundry, deliveries of medicines. People came and went.
It was the sort of romance a trolleyman would tell his riders.
The wall overlooked two sets of tracks, those embedded in the lane and those beyond, the railroad’s. Next in view a scrubby lot, a dump for losing and finding, one man’s trash a lowlier’s making do. Tall dead brush then, peeling clapboards, seen white at a distance…the riverside row of shanty houses.
She went out to sit by the climbing rose with her plate and cup.
“Here, ma’am,” Wright’s voice came to her. “You like to have this?”
She saw straight off she wouldn’t. But he’d pulled this wingless porcelain angel out of a molehill, and kept it for her in his pocket. It would be needlessly curt to say, throw it out.
She could do that later. “Oh, thank you. Poor little thing.”
“Well, see,” he said. “Look what I found.”
He held out a palm, to take the angel back, and edged to the wall. From a niche he pulled a moth, dead, its pale green wings splayed stiff.
“Glue that on.” He showed her, delicate in his handling, the Luna held to the back of the figurine.
Bone white, still traced in gilt.
The notion was bizarre. The effect strangely moving.
To waste a few minutes, then, and litter her clean counter with toothpick box and tube of glue, Charmante undertook the odd little project…she let a drop fall between the object’s wing-stubs, pressed the dead moth to its back. The best place for this creation must be the windowsill. Wright would see it, passing where the house had an antechamber…a sort of gatehouse, entryway to the basement steps. This was his tool shed.
She was cagey with the odd-job man. She had seen him simple, and she had seen him shrewd. A wooer easy and honest would be just fine. Charmante was widowed, comfortable, money put by…
She could please her fancy, set her cap high or low. Private measures, however. She smiled. Mr. Wright tended to think she put herself above him.
A huffing of breath that was Carmine’s, and that corresponded to a noise of shoes clattering down stairs, rose in volume; next, came the mothball scent that was his jacket’s.
“Ah, what’s that? Curious.”
He rounded the table, picked up the figurine, caused the unset wings to tumble off, stooped after them, failed at getting the glue to take again.
“Curious,” he said, handing the parts to her.
She laid both on the windowsill. “Are you ready for me? I’ll go do the cupboard if you aren’t.”
“Just let me see if I can’t fix that.”
She parted the louvered doors, putting her back to him.
“Do you know who owned this house at one time? There.”
The word was promising. Charmante had consigned the fragile corpse to the garbage. She turned, and Carmine held up the angel, bewinged.
“Not the Rothesays?”
“No… I don’t think the Rothesays are a family, especially. Of course fire did for the old clinic, that was the start of it. Or, better to say, the end. Seems like ancient history and it’s not, really. Oh-one. Thirty years ago. But, Dr. Dumain…the Dumains…they were a family.”
They were, to be sure. The very street was named for them.
“Fire keeps threading its way through the tale, somehow. Dumain had enlisted, honorary officer, gone forty at least…” He laughed. “But then, half the troops down with flu…”
He cast an uneasy glance at Charmante.
“And so he was away from his house, off at one of the camps…”
“Forty, I suppose, is young for a specialist…”
“Well…he was supposed to be in convalescence, Dumain. He had, I think, a valet, who stuck with him. They sounded the alarm, the neighbors across the way, who first saw the flare of it…in that sitting room, just over our heads.”
He half-rose and pointed, his sleeve toppling the angel, Charmante’s hand the faster. By its porcelain skirt, she snatched it to safety.
“A lamp fell over?”
“A thought, Mrs. Demorest! Yes, I suppose that was apparently the case. But his body was found well away from the blaze. The fire had burned up by way of the chimney, into the bedroom above, his. But Dumain was down here…that is…out there, under the wall, shot in the head.”
This was quite a story Mr. Wright had never given her.
“Well, there’s your mystery. It’s not been proved, so far as I’ve heard, whether he’d made his way outdoors…addled, maybe, breathing smoke… But why the gun, of course? If the accident was planned, it had all gone wrong. Back door locked, front door unlocked. And you’ll appreciate, one can’t get to the garden wall, except by exiting the back way.”
Carmine, Rothesay’s friend, could gossip if it pleased him. Charmante picked up her notepad, found her place, laid the pad on the shelf; lifted, weighing each in turn, the sugar and flour canisters. She hadn’t thought of an intelligent question, one not over-inquisitive.
“I wonder, Mrs. Demorest, if you have any sensitivity to atmospheres, as it is sometimes said? I ought to have asked you if the place did not seem haunted to you, rather than give the game away.”
“I thought your work was scientific.”
“Ah, the mirrors. We are very definitely on to something. What…we can only hope to learn by putting the arrangement to the test.”
She too wished Carmine had thought better of introducing tragedy.
The men’s workroom was Dumain’s study, a part of the house Rothesay didn’t ask her to enter.
(“Nothing upstairs, Mrs. Demorest. People don’t go upstairs…”)
She thought she smelled smoke. She thought this had to be by suggestion. Here the sheers were yellowed from the sun, the ceiling plaster stained…work done that the house be saleable, a cursory hiding of Dumain’s mess. Rothesay, having got his price, hadn’t cared to improve it.
Twenty or more mirrors ringed the walls; fixed on stands, a few…all slightly angled, each towards the next. The blinds were tied closed.
“We’ve installed viewing lenses, in the bath and the adjoining bedroom. Slowly, Mrs. Demorest, you will take a turn about, and come back to the doorway.”
She looked at Carmine. “You said two or three times.”
“Yes…and we’ll need a signal.”
“Oh, don’t elaborate, Nat. She will surely hear me call, from there by the sink.”
From the first, Charmante found that she was following herself. And again, she was ahead of herself, disappearing, to pop in a flash opposite. Stealthy Charmantes darting concerted in a continual dance…
She felt wobbly.
“Mrs. Demorest!” Carmine’s voice came in an unnecessary shout. “Will you try keeping your eyes above the mirrors…and your pace a little quicker, and steady?”
She obeyed, rather than shout back. This took effort, fighting an urge to flight, clandestine movements playing at the corners of her eyes, her feet striking unnatural rhythms. Instinct, that of a hunted thing…the figures made her heart beat…
She found she hadn’t tracked the circuits, might have started on her third or fourth. A scientific glimmer of her own came, that little shocks anticipated must be masterable; that the effect could be acclimated to…
And another thought…is mirror time future or past?
But here was Carmine coming to fetch her. “Ah, the mirrors. We are very definitely on to something.”
He sat with the angel in his hand.
“I’m ready to go upstairs,” she told him. “If it’s time.”
He looked puzzled. “Oh. You’re thinking of the bedroom. Yes…as I said, that was Dumain’s. Rothesay, I take it you have nothing against Mrs. Demorest’s absorbing a touch of history?”
Rothesay was in the hall, hands in his jacket pockets, weight on the balls of his feet. Itching to get on with it, not coming in. She saw they were both in the hall, and she had been facing Carmine here, over the threshold…
Not the kitchen table.
“I hope,” Rothesay said, “Carmine didn’t overstate the case to you. Suicide…nervous breakdown. Dumain himself had had flu…the idea was he could visit the poorest cases in their homes, perfect candidate… He hadn’t recovered in full, and being not in his first youth, was worked to excess. Suffered it, from duty or wanting to keep up…”
He was leading the way—Carmine in the wrong somehow, and trailing—to the center of the hall where the staircase rose.
They seemed not to have noticed…
And what, Charmante stopped herself, would I have shown? Probably nothing. Probably nothing had happened. Just the mirrors had made her head spin.
She left an hour ahead of the bus, having taken herself along the route mentally, fallen asleep to it. A stretch of empty road ran between the city outskirts and her town. Her bus, caught at the crossroads gas station, picked up a gang of laborers; a few minutes after, it stopped at the canning factory. The distance was probably an extra mile or two, and she could walk so far…
Today she would board at the gate. The weather was all right, her shoes were sturdy. She put her mind to the problem at once, not wasting time. A property title would tell what? Only that the house had been Dumain’s and had become Rothesay’s. Old maps, the city as it lay…a census or a survey done in 1900…this seemed a certainty…
Newspapers, mention of Dumains, days the old squirearchy was still exalted.
She thought no one would allow her to see these things.
Who is this woman hunting after this family? Above herself, out for trouble…thinks she’s connected to them. That would be their notion. Wanting money.
There must be no money. There might not be a living Dumain…
But there were other ways, easier. Did she know someone who kept every newspaper, never threw one out? Those old folks who saved up all their odds and ends, hoarded gossip too…
Esta. Charmante passed her own along to her aunt, who read a little, who clipped recipes and hints…and passed the rest to the neighbors. But for a start she would ask Mr. Wright. In stages she would stoop to bypass her scruples. Because, she told herself, here was the thing…once you took up with a mystery, you were investigating it anyway. She had crossed Dumain Street a hundred times. She had given its story the barest thought—and knew she never would again.
The boy from the grocery bore his boxes to the kitchen. Charmante paid him Rothesay’s tip…and was alone, able to think. Conscious of it, as she’d told herself she would be, that you could enter the house through the area, lock the door behind you or not…
But you would not get to the wall at back, except you had passed indoors, by either the low way or the high. Dumain, with all the keys, could pass as he saw fit.
She’d have shaken her head, forced off temptation, if it were ten on the dot. Started the percolator going…she found herself eager, for the first time ever, to draw the men down with her cooking, hear what they’d concluded overnight.
But she heard Wright rattling in the tool shed. Wise to ask now, have him chew on it while he cut the grass, oiled the shutter hinges… Catch him again when his memory was well-jogged, and he’d thought of a name or two.
She left the kitchen and tapped at his door.
He put his head out. “How you like that angel?”
“Mr. Carmine helped me fix it up. You see it there, in the window.” It showed at a half-angle, the wings in their contrivance a little clumsy. “I did mean to come thank you… Mr. Wright, I was just hearing about Dr. Dumain, who used to own this place.”
His face showed only that he waited for her to go on.
“I suppose you came to work for Mr. Rothesay a year or two ago.”
“Rothesay? Nah, I been here probably four or five.”
Her spare minutes were ticking away. He suspected what she was up to, anyway, challenge in his silences and short answers. She would have to bear the onus for prying. And whom did she offend? Her aunt’s rules—her aunt’s idea of belonging to the house you served, conducting yourself to reflect propriety on your people—were another kind of matter. Who was to say they were rules at all?
Carmine was not local…and he’d got his rumor-mongering from someone.
“Dr. Dumain,” she said, “shot himself out there in the garden.”
“They say. Show you the place.”
“I haven’t got time. I’d kind of like to hear the story.”
“Well, come knocking.”
1912 Dumain St. Light housekeeping. Address enquiries to Mr. A. R.
She had come knocking in late winter…because the advertisement didn’t give a telephone number or box. Because the street was iffy; no reason to take an engagement there if you didn’t like the looks. First she had asked Mr. Rothesay if he had particular hours in mind. He had not much of anything in mind, but that the place was large for a bachelor, and he wasn’t managing to keep up.
She’d asked him if he wanted any cooking. If you had plates, she told Rothesay, after scrounging the makings of pancakes for his lunch, I’d bake you a couple of pies. You’d have something for evening times that way.
He had blinked at Charmante, considering this novelty of pots and pans.
“It grows complicated, Mrs. Demorest.” An embarrassed laugh. Rothesay didn’t know how to shop for such things. She was feeding him before he’d yet hired her, spoken of wages…or of duties, other than “these rooms down here”.
“Well, I can bring you a few of my own.”
A month or so past that familiar pinkening and stammering, and his misunderstanding her altogether (Charmante did not propose to render him beholden; she did not slyly condemn…she was being practical), he had brought Carmine home, as workmate and boarder. Rothesay was a man who could not do the common-sensical without a nudge; who wove knots around himself worrying he’d put a foot wrong…
On form, leaving off substance.
But Carmine, who seemed open to all ideas, could steer his friend with a word. He’d been a help to Charmante, and despite his regarding her as a performer might an audience—a sympathetic, but outside, presence.
She had set about this morning baking shells, one to fill with the chicken stewing on the back burner; one with chocolate pudding, meringue topping, grown with the men to be a great favorite.
“Whenever you want me,” she said.
Evidences were rapping at the edge of her attention…a medicinal odor, a chair moved aside, soles scraping, an intake of breath…Rothesay she thought, not Carmine. Rapping now came distinctly, in the playful way of someone at an open door, when the room’s occupant has her back turned.
“You anticipate me. That’s a good trick. I’m convinced…”
He moved to pantomime over the simmering milk, mock-shaking the cocoa tin.
“You be careful. If that lid wasn’t fixed on… Yes, Mr. Carmine?”
“Convinced you do have an intuition. I’ve seen…you’ll let me confide in you…” He made a noise, a tetchy laugh. “But not at once. Here’s Rothesay.”
“Don’t you think it’s a skill you could learn, Carmine…?”
“I, or anyone, I suppose. We might get Mr. Wright.”
“You are being facetious. We aren’t going to bother Mr. Wright. You haven’t, I hope, been bothering Mrs. Demorest?”
“Mrs. Demorest,” Carmine said, “is quite safe. What is it troubles you? The secrecy? Because I submit we don’t know well enough what we’re doing to conceal any crucial aspect that may emerge…and the fellow down at Brinck’s shall have got mysteriously ahead of us if he can suss one out.”
“Not secrecy. My point is this, at the camera shop they are trained to correct flaws…to sharpen an image, bring up contrast, remove flyspecks, et cetera. These are not judgments for others to make.”
Carmine shrugged. “No odds… My own judgment being virgin.”
Rothesay passed this off with a wave of the hand. “Dumain’s old pharmacy will be ideal, nothing there but artificial light. I believe the book gives instruction as to the type one wants in a darkroom. Now, Carmine, are you lazy about the matter? Or will you take it up?”
Charmante carried her plate and glass of tea outdoors to her garden seat. The day looked too much like rain; worse, seemed building up to thunder. Sprinkles dotted her dress.
She was unhappy with this…
This difference of opinion at the lunch table. She’d left Rothesay jotting in his notebook, his lack of material so apparent he fooled not even her, who knew nothing of the men’s sums and projections. Carmine had sat disdainful, leafing Rothesay’s book: Principles of the Photographic Art.
“Seen you out here. So I come by to show you.”
“Mr. Wright. Do you like working for Mr. Rothesay? Suppose you had to find another place?”
It was on her mind their argument might devolve, Carmine leave…that in some way, kind and vague as her employer was, she felt uneasy being alone with him. Wright stood not answering, not obviously pondering either. Baffled, it might be, by a woman so taken up with herself.
“I’m sorry. I was thinking out loud.”
For his sake she threw a keen look along the wall, where in the lee grew creeping charley, undulating wider in the shade. Rain began to pelt.
“Get you inside, ma’am.”
There, of course.
A glimpse, and the form, crumpled on its right arm, knee up, a well of black, rimmed red, under its left eye. Vivid, too surprising to shock. Not real…as Wright bent to show her a place sun might fall, weeds mostly dandelion.
The rain stopped.
“He was right-handed? Most people are.”
“Well, I don’t know that.”
“It was in the papers.”
Why she stated this as fact, she didn’t know. As an interrogator. Here was a man who offered her what he could, who kept himself polite and reserved…and she sounded to her own ears high-handed, peremptory.
“Reckon,” Wright said.
Carmine came out of the kitchen, frowning at his shoes’ descent of the steps. He looked up. “Ah! Mr. Wright. You can answer me a question.”
His gait like his knock self-conscious, he trotted; he arrived, giving Charmante the tightlipped smile of a conspirator. “Thereat the deed was done. But really…”
He swallowed, and said another thing. “My impression is that the cellarage must be achieved through the side-door…that area, sir, you utilize as a workroom. I may find myself needing access. I may not.”
“Mr. Carmine, I lock up afternoons fore I go. If it’s only morning times you need down there, door’s always open.”
Carmine frowned again at his feet and kicked a dandelion gone to seed, sending its gossamer flying. “Come with me, you two, won’t you?”
The stairs were wooden and open-backed. At the foot a little welled window sat above the railing. An electric bulb hung overhead.
“It’s that room he means.”
Wright might be mystified by this; Charmante, for manners, ought to feign ignorance…
Dumain’s pharmacy, though.
In Rothesay’s favor, the cellar wasn’t dirt underfoot, didn’t smell like Mother Nature reclaiming the manmade. The flooring smelled…floating nebulous…of carbolic acid. A surgical table was there, enameled cabinets. Instruments in a glass-front cupboard, freestanding. A duo of pendant lights over the tabletop, another on a bendable arm fixed at the head.
“I never been in there myself,” Wright said. “You want me to look for you?”
Carmine gave an embarrassed laugh. “Let’s have all the lights on.”
Acting as he spoke, he caught at each pull-chain. The walls showed paneled wood, painted green, cobwebbed under the molding.
Wright put his head round the pharmacy door. “Nothing in here, far as I can see.”
Charmante went next into Carmine’s future darkroom. Cabinetry projected inches from the wall, glassed again, every shelf empty, a single bulb piercing, still inadequate. By impulse she closed a door that sat cracked.
It swung back to tap her on the shoulder.
“Rothesay, actually,” Carmine told them, low-voiced, “is going away for a few days.” He laid a hand on the knob and thoughtfully shut them in. “His paper on false walls and acoustics. Medicos’ meeting in Boston…hoping to raise enthusiasm. That is to say, funding. Hence his notion of my busying myself in his absence with an educational project. He does not want further experiments with the mirrors. But, Mrs. Demorest, I hope you will…”
Breaking, he breathed a word…bugger. “We’re just in here!” he called out.
Charmante hadn’t known Rothesay to be a doctor. He surely did not have it in him to come sneaking to the cellar, from some jealous mistrust…
Of his assistant, having a private word with the help.
A human noise, the frustrated exhalation that accompanies fruitless search, came to them with the swinging of hinges. The noise went on, and someone seemed to murmur to himself, “Now…Jesus God…now…”
Wright moved soonest. “Let me get out there, Mr. Carmine.”
He edged with a hand on Carmine’s arm, to haul back the door…
And said, “I guess it’s all right”, when they came out afterwards. “He couldn’t hardly have stole anything, but I’ll go check my tools.”
Carmine’s eyes, though, were bleak as he said this.
Nothing that manifests…nothing that can be…
(She was bearing this in mind, in church, where faith was apt.)
…is not created for the good. You dispute this. You say that there is evil in the world, and that you have smelled the malignant breath of it. But your own small good, as you know, scarcely signifies in the face of God’s great good; nor, for you see matters from down here, rather than up there, should you flatter yourself you see them clearly…
The good she hoped for was the kind you kept, not asked sent your way. But she appreciated she had disturbed her own peace. And taken money for it, too…
She could have said no to Rothesay.
Dumain stirred. Charmante, sitting in the House of God, was not ashamed to think it. She believed it. But He has armed you against spirits, if spirits are of the devil. And if they serve some purpose of His own, they are not evil, only to human eyes too strange…
You are asked to believe in His purpose, not insist on understanding it. When Pastor Ratliff said: “Let us pray”, Charmante inside herself, said: “Father, let me be the help I can.”
She had a visit to pay her aunt, and it was Sunday, a day she had no duties at Dumain’s (she’d come to think of the house this way). Esta was not a Bonheur; she stood by her old church, and Charmante didn’t know what time her aunt might be gone or home.
The little row, so like those disreputable ones along the river…only these houses were clean and painted…also was under the eye of neighbors. Esta’s niece was one of theirs, and Charmante’s aunt didn’t lock her door.
“Hey there, ma’am!”
She lifted the pan, inviting, her plan to entice Mrs. Parkins inside…because, Sunday notwithstanding, she meant to rifle her aunt’s things, and it was better done before a witness. “Yellow cake.”
“She ain’t come back yet.”
Her rising from the swing was slow; Mrs. Parkins had a stick and a collie dog, and gained her feet using both. Charmante left the door wide, carried her cake to the kitchen. “Ma’am, do you know where Esta might keep old newspapers?”
“Hmm, now…I don’t think she does. Her and me use them in the garden, keep the weeds off.”
“Now…” Charmante echoed, putting the pot on the burner.
They had electricity along this way, a pole with a heavy tangle of wire at Esta’s corner, the menace of it looping low over her side patch. But Charmante’s aunt didn’t run an electric range; power in their town browned out daily. The hot plate was a blessing—coffee, eggs, whatnot, without the fuss of coaling the stove.
“I’ve heard Esta talk about the Kruikshanks that she worked for. But going way back, ma’am, to the time…you know, before my mother and I came. Did you ever hear Esta say a name, who she worked for those days?”
The daydream had been of brittled newsprint, a picture of the clinic, one of the doctor himself, framed in an oval, one of his colleague, hand-captioned…as in such chatty histories as she’d hoped to luck upon. Innocent times before tragedy.
But this bull needed taken by the horns. “Not Dumain?”
“Now why you say Dumain?”
“Oh, I’ve probably got it wrong.”
“It wasn’t Dumain owned her old place. Not that one was the doctor.” Mrs. Parkins fell into a chair, her collie onto its side against her leg. “The hospital burned down, year or two before the war. Well, I’m not straight on that.”
“The hospital. The cholera hospital, was…” Charmante took a moment. “Founded by the Dumain family, built with their money?”
“I don’t mean that war over there.”
No. You wished your country forward enough to use the term war of emancipation as, in hopes of liberating Europe, it had done freely. Her aunt’s generation called their childhood one the Jeff Davis war.
“What did people used to figure? When you were a girl, between that one awful thing and the other?”
“How the fire got started, is what you mean?”
“Well, you know the one took the whole block was from the riot.”
It was the way Mrs. Parkins remembered things, a fragment calling to mind another, ordered outside chronology.
“And then, what did they say about the hospital?”
“All the beds was on a ward in a long row. All them linens on the beds, see. The folks they had at the back couldn’t never got out…the way it burned up in front the door.”
“Just an accident?”
Mrs. Parkins, trying to picture a thing that had happened the year she was born, sat silent. A forbidden horror, a whispered secret among the youngsters, a cautionary tale from a grown-up. (“Hell away from those matches…”)
“They said they was stacked like kindling wood under the windows. That’s what I always recollect.”
Mr. Wright had not lived through those times, that even Esta and Mrs. Parkins knew only by legend. Today, Charmante sat on the morning bus nesting against her hip a paper sack.
In aught-one, she had been twelve. He was a year or two older. Possibly…the notion came…he had taken part in the riot. A boy of fourteen or fifteen. So many that age had.
No one said it. Everyone spoke of things as having happened, the militia coming, the sandbagged barricades, Gatling guns mounted, men on horseback charging crowds, sabres swinging. Those not burned out shuttering themselves indoors.
Not safe enough, the doors shattered by axe-heads, the men dragged out, vanishing after…
Even women shot in the street for nothing, for being there.
And no one now said, “I was there.”
She hoped Mr. Wright would happen by when she sat to lunch. Going through Esta’s trove with Carmine would not be helpful. At a bad time, it would tempt him away from his duties. Rothesay, it seemed to her, was the more at fault…
Well, dismiss it. She could not start choosing sides.
For the smallness. For his taking a pet over his foolish photography…
For not caring that Carmine was afraid. Rightfully so, the frisson hard to ignore. A house that had its comings and goings all day, at such a particular moment to have been bothered with…
Then not bothered after all, nothing broken or missing.
Her aunt had come through the back way unsurprised to find a niece and neighbor at her kitchen table. “Ma’am, Mrs. Parkins says you knew some of that family called Dumain, the rich folks in town.”
Esta arranged herself, sitting, smoothing her gingham. “I guess I saw enough of them.”
“Esta, I never said that.”
“Oh, I know who’s to blame.”
Charmante stood to serve her aunt, a flutter in her chest. She had told Esta she worked for a man named Rothesay. That his old house was one of the few standing…
She hadn’t said, you know which it is. You know who it belonged to. When Esta said, “Rothesay, that’s not local”, Charmante had answered, “No, ma’am, he’s definitely from someplace else.”
Esta put down her coffee cup, catching Mrs. Parkins’s eye. “Robacks had them a big place in the river, what they called the Ile St-Hubert. They never farmed crops…they had a hunting ground and big woods. Their city friends come out to jump around on horses.”
“How old were you then?” Charmante asked.
“Oh, now, I was all the way married when Polly died…who was Polly Dumain. And widowed by the time Charleton got sent away from school.” She tapped her temple. “Down to rest up.”
Rothesay was departing, making for the gate, satchel in hand. Wright, shouldering a travel trunk, followed. Charmante dropped the latch and stood clear. With an irritableness that loosed itself in a grimace, the flash of this, then a smile, Rothesay said: “Mrs. Demorest, I apologize. Please step through.”
It was less nuisance, albeit farcical, to sidle past. His cab was just pulling to the curb, Rothesay mumbling…at her, she found…
A letter of instruction would be in her envelope. Her envelope was given in advance. “The usual amount, however…I disagree with Carmine about your helping us any further…it hadn’t gone well, had it? So I won’t be asking again. Goodbye, Mrs. Demorest.”
A second ticked, and she made herself answer, “Goodbye, Mr. Rothesay.”
Wright passed them, angling for the lower front door.
She fell in at his side. “Will you sit to lunch with me, out in the garden? My aunt knew Dr. Dumain when he was a young man. I have some things to show you.”
She raised her sack so he could see.
He took it from her…a liberty…and fingered the clippings. “Now you’re making me curious. I’d sit down to a cup of coffee bout now…since you got nobody’s lunch to fix.”
“Oh, but Mr. Carmine?”
Wright was a little troublesome in his habits. “Away, or gone?”
But, he could see wisdom. “No, ma’am. He had all that tackle to buy, and said he didn’t like to stay the night by his lonesome. Be back, but I can’t say when.”
Esta had eased the photograph out of an album bound in cardboard, “My Memories” scripted on the cover inside a cage of vines. The first in her life Charmante had seen of this book.
The contents arrayed themselves, crackling onto the bedspread, and proved motley. Pressed flowers, swatches of silk and velvet, prayer cards, pretty bits of notepaper carrying Mrs. Kruikshank’s jotted gratitude, a school certificate for the boy that had died, a picture of him in babyhood swaddled in a wicker basket, a locket-sized duplicate of Esta’s wedding photo…
A place card with browned calligraphy, once gilt.
“What name does that say?” Esta asked her.
“Carolee, looks like.”
“Elizabeth’s daughter. Them two didn’t get on though. If her mother would give her anything, she’d leave it lay. That was how she was.”
The souvenir was not of love, not of partiality to a Roback daughter; but of witness, that such niceties had been…commonplace to that life. Esta had flipped her book to a brown print, page-sized and tabbed at the corners.
“You’ll have to show me which one is you.”
“Now here,” Esta said, perverse, “is that Charleton.”
The photograph showed young Dumain on the veranda with the family, the servants rising in rank as the stairs rose. It was that type of its era, when the itinerant photographer came to set up his equipment, and all the household were placed in the shot.
But the Robacks on their private island could never be troubled by salesmen. The portrait must have been hired.
Charleton begged sympathy with his homely, engaging face…and the pain of his gaze, the flinching curve of his body, the girl’s heedless indulgent smile, told—if Charmante weren’t being fanciful—
“This one, in the tennis gear? Carolee? Esta, were they sweethearts?”
“Oh, she didn’t like him much.”
“I think so, though,” she told Wright. “At least, I figure she could tolerate the idea. Of keeping company with Charleton…so long as she was stuck out there. I’m guessing the Robacks had just the one daughter. Unless some older child married, who wouldn’t come home for these things. But…”
He was scrutinizing her.
“Never mind. You see how she looks down at the camera, but how she’s smiling for Charleton. See the way she’s standing?”
“No, ma’am, I can’t see a thing like that. I’d be a luckier man if I could.”
She felt herself flush, hardly knowing why. Unpleased, she glanced aside at the half-hexagon porch. Shades were pulled at every window. She strayed her eyes to the roofline, across the floor below the attic, where the doctor had couched himself to brood over his garden wall.
Rothesay’s workshop (in one of his phrases, Carmine had told her, “He has got himself organized in the attics”) was on the left side of the house, streetwise. This would make it east on the compass.
“Did you know…”
Blank glass, black in its recesses under the mansard roof, where only empty rooms sat behind, or curtains where these hung, yellowed like old newsprint. Dumain’s were open. Rothesay used this room…not to sleep in, but for some elaboration with the mirrors she’d glimpsed, Carmine wanting her to absorb Charleton’s sad aura.
Mr. Wright unwrapped his sandwich from the paper he’d folded against the flies. He swallowed tea, and when she met his eye, said, “Not much.”
“No,” she said. “Sorry. Did you know Mr. Rothesay was a doctor himself?”
“Let’s say I knew it yesterday. What kind, you figure?”
She shrugged. And Esta’s clippings were about the Robacks, not the Dumains. Her aunt had been faithful in saving whatever she’d come across that mentioned the family, but these chances had been sporadic. One was an obituary for Elizabeth Roback, née Dumain, born 1858, died 1908, her fiftieth year, thrown from a horse. That alone was a fact of interest; all else of Esta’s mistress—so near to her in age—dull nineteenth century correctness. A woman of patrician rank, as such things were in America, who’d kept her name out of the papers. Beloved wife and mother, admired by friends for her grace and generosity, her passing lamented by the Library Society and the Southern Women’s League.
“Carolee,” Charmante said, “is probably living. She’d be her mother’s age, more or less. I wonder if she and Charleton were close cousins, or just connections?”
She wondered if he would joke on this as well. But he put down the account he was reading of the island’s sale. “Carolee, onetime Roback, something else anymore we don’t know, wouldn’t stuck around here likely…needle in a haystack.”
“They seem to have gone down, don’t they?” She rested a finger on Wright’s clipping.
“Like the Dumains…like a lot of people.”
“But that one’s from 1921. Dumain killed himself in nineteen.”
“Well, so nothing. I think I’ll have to get a little book and write myself a list.”
“Don’t see why you shouldn’t, except…” He peered upwards. “What all’s the point?”
Writing paper. She wouldn’t use the booklet she jotted her shopping in, because this, in its way, belonged to Rothesay. Charmante had never known her employer have opinions as to purchases; he knew so little of what one bought to stock a larder, never mind what flour or butter cost. But the scientist in him liked seeing numbers.
For this reason, her poking in his things felt excusable. Inquiry, she might call it…though not excuse enough to shut her conscience up. A crescent-shaped duo of steps spanned a living room corner, flanked by built-in bookshelves. Double louvers led to the dining room…one door kept folded back, a narrow chest of drawers fitted behind. Two sofas faced over the rug. Under the coffee table lid, under the bench cushion, empty spaces…given Rothesay’s absent ways, she could believe he hadn’t discovered them. All the furniture was too new, too cheap, to have belonged to Dumain.
His inherited things…
Had been sold? Damaged by smoke? Charmante could feel her nerves, while rummaging, as though eyes were on her. But she meant to befriend Charleton Dumain…
The chest’s top drawer held only broken spectacles, a fair collection of these; the next, an order for its own delivery. The remaining drawers, nothing.
She sat, a thing she did on the job only at lunchtime.
Those books she ran her feather duster over were leather-bound almanacs, encyclopedias, or…she eyed them now…Shakespeare, Chaucer, Bacon, Milton, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, The Old Curiosity Shop…
They were all alike, the kind people whose money could be spent that way bought on subscription, for just this reason. To fill shelves. To feel ready, armed with good purpose, for a day in retirement when they would sit and read them.
But…tilted, hidden in part by fancy woodwork…
She saw slim chalk blue, dwarfed by its neighbor’s spine. Standing, walking to the shelf, Charmante lost sight of the little book. It sat below eye level…why she hadn’t noticed it, dusting.
Mes Pensées. Blank sheets, that remained blank.
The first several pages were covered, though, in penciled indents, marks from someone’s writing, swirls of apparent sketches. He…she…whoever…had done this on purpose…
Was it possible? The words could be recovered by rubbing a lead over them. Why would you buy a book to write your thoughts, and then half do it, and half not?
She felt a little angry, mocked for her integrity. A little like laughing. Would Wright be bold enough to do what struck Charmante as…as kind of stinky? Worse for you, dear, she told herself, if that’s how you are. Wanting to do bad, wanting to back off and watch, while you get someone else to…
But here was a sheet of stationery paper, folded. Typed on.
Charleton I promise I made the story up. Please don’t accuse me of being better than that. I’m sorry I must have preyed on your mind far more than I could have known. Of course, she wasn’t anything like my silly romance. You know what we are. Where would I ever hear such moonshine, or what would my mother have to do with such a place? Please try to think so that I can believe you’re well. No, I apologize, but I’m afraid I will never want to see you. For so many reasons, but most of all because, you know it, I’m not good enough. I lose patience. I will do you some other mischief, and at the time I do it, I won’t care.
It was impulse, saying his name. As though she could ask him this question, his shade join her on the sofa opposite, and they talk about his misery in love.
What had the woman—well, what had Carolee, why pretend…
What, then, had his cousin lied to him about?
Rain came pelting the zinc roof of the porch. The day was gloomy. Wright had no cause to take leave of Rothesay’s housekeeper…they were friends now, Charmante thought, thawed past formalities…
But not so much they were looking out for each other.
She was alone. Why should her friend stay, since he could no longer work? And if she was alone, she would rather meet Dumain during daytime hours, with people on the street.
The cracked door. She saw a bloom of light arcing out. A watermark on the hall floor, that shimmered for the eye just leaving it. She wasn’t ready for the mirrored room. She knocked and called…the first large bedroom was bare.
Embarrassed, but confident no one really heard, she knocked at Carmine’s and called again: “Hello!”
Draped to a tipping point, here was the chronicle of a warming season—tweed suitcoat and trousers, shetland pullover, gabardines, a thinner cardigan, an oxford-cloth shirt. He shed them nightly onto his armchair.
The hem of the bedspread was bowed by the heel of a boot. An empty binocular case was strapped over his dresser mirror, butting a stack of quarter-fold newspapers…not, at a glance, placed to showcase any notable headline.
Charmante looked hard at the mirror.
Rothesay’s schema seemed able to erase you from your own sight, make you watch your detached self move like a third party. In that mirrored room, it was you, your reflection, and the interloper.
But even if she were thirty years younger, and trying to spook herself…
In the middle of Carmine’s jumble, it would take some doing. Moiréed by the sheers, a tree across the street clawed a slow motion dance, its closeness a distortion. Movement, but nothing of moment. An uncomfortable lot of traffic noise Carmine had to bear with.
The attic rooms were all Rothesay’s, except the back west corner. What did it mean that he preserved Dumain’s, kept it empty…had done nothing here but trace diagrams on the floorboards with chalk?
The rug was rolled against the wall, the stove in the fireplace painted white. Those were all the furnishings. She felt suddenly she ought to have knocked at Rothesay’s door.
Another fantastic thought…horrid…
By rights unentertainable. She was seeing him capable of these things. Maybe wanting rid of Carmine…maybe not going away, after all, only pretending…
“Now just stop!”
She felt the dusty tension of the room relax.
The windowsills would not be broad enough. And so Charmante crouched and placed the letter and the photo just inside the door.
Tuesday, Carmine was waiting for her at the kitchen table. “I’ve got Sir Christopher in a basket. Not knowing how you’d feel.”
He added: “Kit, you see, for short.”
“The truth is…”
She watched him squat to ease up the lid. A nose came nudging his fingers, a muzzle pushed advantage, whiskers sprang, then toes under a chin and a curl of claws.
“Go ahead, let him loose. The truth is, I don’t know why Mr. Rothesay doesn’t want a cat for the mice anyway. Whenever I find one of those traps gone off… And I can’t do more than throw the poor little thing in the garden.”
Kit was white, tabbied on one ear and the tip of his tail. He took stock of freedom, sniffed the length of the baseboard, flopped to paw under the icebox. Then he jumped on the table, which could not be allowed.
“Cats can see spirits. So they always say. They, I mean…the folklorists…not that cats say it of themselves. Perhaps they do…” Carmine cleared his throat. “I’m not really concerned about Dumain. That is, to find I’m sharing the house with him. He seems a sort of collateral to the mirrors’ energy. But I don’t want to be snuck up on.”
She was at the practical task of filling a saucer with milk, which Kit as she bent spilled with a head butt. But he cleaned up his own mess.
Carmine was good-hearted. If she offended by questioning him…if he said something to Rothesay…
She would simply agree. “I was prying where I’ve got no business, and I don’t excuse it.” Rothesay would then admit belief in Dumain’s ghost, hint at his purpose for the mirrors.
Or not. He might tell her, “Don’t encourage Carmine.”
He might tell her—it was possible—that he no longer required her services.
“Where did you hear about Dumain…that he shot himself out there?”
“Ah. From Rothesay.”
Ah. Well…that was coming full circle. “I have a connection to Dumain,” she told him. “You got me started. I went over Sunday to see my aunt.”
He reddened at this. Some antebellum impropriety, did he imagine?
“Dr. Dumain was cousin to my aunt’s old people, the Robacks. You said…when we talked…the Dumains were a family. The Robacks were too, in their day. I don’t think there are any left. I wonder…I suppose Carolee was an only child, after all…”
Something thocked, like a cabinet door swinging shut. Kit, likeliest suspect, came at the object sideways, tail puffed.
“It’s your angel fell. That wing bit is for it, I’m afraid.”
Of course, she wasn’t anything like my silly romance. You know what we are. Where would I ever hear such moonshine…
Charmante stooped for the angel, its porcelain, for all the bustle of its recent life, unharmed. The moth’s remains she brushed off above the waste can. She could dare one more question. Too much would be too much out of order, plain nosiness. And because she had that connection to Dumain, she might not avoid involving Esta…
Without permission she had no right. It would need Carmine inviting her.
She sat, facing him across a corner of the table. “What sort of conversation were you having with Rothesay when he told you the story?”
This younger brother, did he suppose himself victor?
He struck the watching Dumain as containing himself, palpitating, but mildly (…but he must do that). With avidity he inventoried this carcass he’d inherited, its nerveless limbs coming to rest, pinning small, scurrying things…
Perhaps Rothesay wasn’t well described in such terms. Dumain followed, and Rothesay pottered, bright-eyed like a jaybird, spotting this sign and that.
There’d been that angry moment when destroying the rooms seemed best, and Dumain had tried it. He’d ripped the guts out of Aunt Lil’s portrait. The effort sapped his energy, and after a rest he’d seen from the stairs the mad effect of it, hatchet winking on the foyer rug, paper and plaster gouged, Lil’s right eye on a twisted strip of canvas leering up at him. Clyde might at any time come through that way…he might traverse the living quarters as he liked, as he pleased.
Others…Leonce…would like reading into this the family’s grinding defeat, a fresh blood-letting turn of the wheel. Dumain had found the number in the directory then, and hired the downstairs furniture taken. First he’d carried the painting up to his bedroom, put Lil in the hearth, her face to the bricks.
But he could retain some sense of time’s passage, and knew these events playing themselves off, moving-picture-like, against an encroaching opacity, were old. He knew there had been a year, 1919, and it had been the end of the world.
On the grounds of his home, the living came and went.
Sometimes they scaled the wall, with its niches easily done, and took snapshots…oftener with no curiosity as to the place. Dr. Dumain, the suicide, forgotten. And so the years had gone. Leonce had gone. Leonce, if he had died, had not returned.
He came once, and walked the rooms with a woman. She held a book in her hands notated with dimensions. Bedroom, west-corner, squiggle-mark, twelve by fourteen, bedroom, east-corner…bedrooms street, attic…
Rothesay inquisitive, one of those.
She had not curbed his listening at walls with his stethoscope, his shining of a penlight into crevasses, not at all. She’d yawned at it, while the noise shimmered around Dumain’s self-sense, forming words:
“You’re taking on boarders?”
“I hadn’t thought of it. Probably you’re right, though. I ought.”
“Oh, please,” she said. “I’m being clever. But then, come to think of it, why shouldn’t you? You, now…you’re straight on to me.”
She bantered, Rothesay all seriousness. She tapped his shoulder. “But, do you think there’s real danger of a hidden will, envelopes of money…compromising photographs?”
“They were sharing a house, keeping secrets from each other, either with freedom to search the other’s rooms…so, at any rate…” He cut off, for she hadn’t, now they’d settled something between them, taken him up. “If you had anything…useful, we’ll say, perhaps more than compromising…you would need to hide it. In that circumstance.”
“And is that why the fire? He’d given up? He was going to put a stop to it all?”
“Well, I don’t know. How would I know?”
Let injustice lie, Dumain thought.
On another occasion, there was a boarder. A young fellow with reddish hair, a ninny. But in a way, sly. There were great waves of noise, Dumain shouted from the premises, battered, knocked to the clouds, aswim on a tide…of furniture vans, of Rothesay’s trunks and boxes, then of his drilling in the walls. The tide receded. Dumain was sucked indoors again.
Rothesay, living in his attics, was feeding pipes through holes. The boarder on hand…on hands and knees…never alacritous enough at the coupling and the feeding up. A pipe dropped to clatter behind the lathwork its path to the cellars. Rothesay at fault.
He was silent, and Carmine said, “No help for that. Shouldn’t make any difference, though?”
“You’ll need to go to the basement and see if you can’t retrieve it.”
Of his quarters, Dumain was jealous. His surgery, where he’d endured the dismal ache of continuation. The years had died to him, with love…the hope of. Life left no purpose but to serve. Any other use not atonement….he must suppose himself born to atonement. A man of such ripe profligacy as his grandfather, iron-sided himself, fire-proofed…sowed that his victims reap.
His grandfather…his father’s father, at any rate…
The progenitor’s very cradle carved with the family crest. The Chevalier Dumain could bear well enough the thought of others blessed, by the labor God ordained. Blessed through his Being…
Not God. The Chevalier.
He had followed the young man down. Carmine’s reluctance colored his step, and the lifting of his hand and the resting of it, repeated on the bannister to the ground floor. He brightened there, in a way Dumain faintly smiled at. He made for the kitchen, postponing odium with small talk. Such people, simple in their emotions, as his cousin had been…
Dumain deplored it, that he had such starts and fits, calling by name all those who’d leeched his life away. Afraid of spooks one would think. He wasn’t fair to his old playmates.
There…he must do the thing again.
Carolee would not have loved him, even if he had been her father’s protégé, and at the manor ridden together, the three of them, himself able to sit a horse properly, take a fence…win her respect.
Too natural, then, for the young pair to fall…
Compatible. He had alleviated her boredom. He was not handsome. Could he have been charming?
And given a role to play, a pretense…if she had allowed it.
Loved by someone, he might not have been repulsive to himself.
“I haven’t thanked you for yesterday’s lunch.”
“You never ought to.”
The remonstrance felt abrupt; she hoped not out of place. But she was sure Carmine had had an ordinary upbringing.
“Well, yes…I understand you were hired to cook…”
His eyes grew startled. “No.” He half-rose and stared at the doorway behind him. “Why am I saying it? Mrs. Demorest…”
Kit did not bristle, but jumped, and at the table’s edge settled chin on paws. Carmine and cat together fixed on the amber-black void letting onto the passage. Charmante looked, and saw Dumain.
The mirror above the console was gone. The paper was cream-on-white stripe, the passage lit by a half-dome of sun from the dining room. The figure might then be called a trick of broken shadow.
Now the blue form showed movement into clarity that lasted a second; eyes, that sought to lock neither on Carmine’s nor Charmante’s.
It seemed then to sigh itself invisible.
“But he may be here, in the room with us…”
“Mr. Carmine. Do you know what Dumain looked like in life?”
“I don’t. We’ll pursue this,” he said, after a moment. “I think I’d like sitting in the garden for a while. And I will confide in you, so far as I can.”
“I grew up in a very remote place. Roughly Argyle, Nova Scotia. My mother, being in that country a new arrival, and myself… I think the honest thing to say is that I had no companions. No one to be my friend. She, you see, keeping her house alone, had her superstitions.” Carmine frowned. “Mrs. Demorest, I will even be very frank with you. I think having me within her sight, and safe, was a bit of an obsession… No. What do I want to say? If you had a thing that provided you your living and your security, and if you lost that thing…were to lose it…” He shot her a quick eye, drummed his fingers. “Rothesay now, was a visitor of ours, about three or four times a year. Mum’s was a lodging house, otherwise a hotel. but travelers didn’t really turn up. And…you will understand…traffic was superfluous to her making-do.”
Carmine did not bear the sort of resemblance to Rothesay that made you notice at once. She hadn’t, for assuming him only an assistant, but the father was there, in the son.
“We were on a sort of sea-cliff, our place. No electric. Rainwater, caught in a cistern. Chores continual. I liked Rothesay, I looked forward to his coming. He brought me books by the dozen. And he would always say, first day after settling in, come along for a walk, Nat. And so with the dogs we’d go off tramping. The terrain on the coast is, you might say, scoured. Great sweeping views. A northern sea, always gathering itself…not like here, where you almost feel the salt water ooze its way in by stealth…
“He gave me a binocular. He gave me a telescope. He gave me lab equipment…the real goods, not some boys’ chemistry kit. Because, you see, he had a sort of pan-scientific scope of knowledge, Rothesay… And so I learned the birds, and the constellations, the reasons plants adapt themselves, mutate as they do…how to assemble a jumble of bones into a skeleton…all sorts of things…
“I’m in the position…why I tell you this…of being unable to regard Rothesay as other than employer. But yet, of course, I obey. Against my better judgment, it may be. I have no choice.”
“Then where will you go…? If it all begins to seem dangerous?”
“Home.” He shrugged. “Not for long, I don’t think. I couldn’t go back, in spirit…I have nothing to fall into anymore. She can’t well have kept all the chores waiting…” Carmine laughed. “I say that, and at once I picture it being just so. No, I suppose the thing is, I’d have to broach it. Mother dear, what about Rothesay? In a way, I want the story. And in so many ways, I don’t.”
“Then…can you tell me something? Is that what Mr. Rothesay is, a scientist? Or is he really a doctor, in the way Dumain was?”
“More the way, to hear him tell it, Dumain’s grandfather, the scary old patriarch, was. But I don’t get the joke, myself. You wonder, Mrs. Demorest, what’s the aim? Why the mirrors?”
He swung on his seat towards the house, and gazed up, as she’d done sharing Esta’s trove with Wright, to the attic bedroom. “Did you get the sense, for a moment, before the ghost wafted in, that…our conversation…it wasn’t only saying the thing said before… It was being there. Before. Wasn’t it?”
“You think this happened to me when I walked the mirrors, too.”
“Not then…I didn’t think so at the time. But now, yes.”
Wright and his progress across the lawn caught their ears. Both fell silent, Carmine scooting to the end of his bench. Wright sat next to him, gesturing he would not interrupt their talk.
“And, you think,” Chamante said, “this is part of the plan? Mr. Rothesay understands something about the mirrors, some way time gets upset by them?”
“He understands more than he tells. More than I know. All the acoustics, the tricks of the eye…he is curious to learn whether the madman could not hear the voice of his keeper as a benevolent god, rather than a petulant one… Find himself instructed to do good, to follow orders. All quietened down, without the need for drugs. Rothesay’s investigations are not meant to be secret. If you search out the literature, you’ll find he writes extensively on his special subject, this theory about lunatics. One of his interests, isolated populations…do they…”
His glance aside included Wright. “As plants will, you know, alter to such a degree they can’t survive elsewhere? The visits to Argyle were with this study in mind, not for my sake and my mother’s only.”
Wright looked a commiseration that was for her to understand, and patient with Carmine. No, it seemed unlikely either of them would be searching out doctors’ literature. She was feeling appalled, in a slowly encroaching way, suspecting Rothesay of bringing his son out from isolation to observe him adapt…or fail. But Carmine’s face showed only that mild ruefulness, there when he’d told her he obeyed for having no choice.
“Now you two. Let me leave you a minute.”
She hurried, a little jealous of what they might say, as though Carmine and his mystery were hers, and if Wright, for being a man, took it over…
Up the stairs, stalked by Kit, and down again, until he darted into the mirrored room. She replaced the letter and carried the photo outdoors. Had either been moved? A wiser person would have chalked outlines on the floor.
“Who are they?”
“Well…” She was testing Carmine, and the impulse hadn’t felt shameful when she’d conjured it. “I thought since you’d just got a look at Dumain…”
“Ah. This one, I will guess, under the awning.”
“If I’m not wrong, ma’am, you was wanting to know bout that Carolee.” Wright tapped the face. “Well, I figured…between all the ones I known, all my years of work, and all the ones they might known here and there, somebody heard of her, if she’s anyplace to be heard of.”
“And somebody did?”
He glanced at Carmine’s distracted silence, seemed to give some idea up. “Whatever time you’re free.”
These were bungalows…nice, of a middle-class type…a block of them. Brick, front parlors shortening the porch, a slope of banked front lawn, telling the tract had been built on this century. It was the fashion in Carolee’s neighborhood to have an ornamental tree, a crepe myrtle or mimosa, a magnolia…demure little Saucer…
The trees were all planted in circles of brick. Each house had the oddity of a fence, wrought-iron and painted white, running between properties, apparently nowhere. Every several sported a lawn jockey.
“We’ll see if we can just take a walk down the street,” Wright said, low-voiced. They had come partway, on the only possible bus.
“You getting out here?” the driver had asked. “You know where you’re going?”
“Now, don’t you all make me late, starting work.”
Wright had thought to say this. Charmante was wary, and working on anger. After sitting his empty bus at the stop until they’d reached the end of the block and crossed to the next street, the driver finally eased himself off. They walked three of the six blocks on, to the suburb where Wright’s source had discovered Miss Roback.
During the ride, he’d murmured a confidence or two…but keeping an eye out.
“First name Carolee, that’s right. Now, you don’t think it’s some other lady.”
“No, I would doubt it.”
This was sounding formal, another sample of that hauteur keeping her better-educated self on her own side of the aisle, which Charmante kept deploring, unable wholly to quash.
“I don’t know your first name,” she said.
“I don’t know yours.”
“Well, I might have heard someone say, but I never heard you say.”
She stared back at a man who’d got to his feet looking down the bus at them, as though he thought they should fall silent, see him off at his stop with respect.
Wright said, “William.”
They walked now, and this sleepy neighborhood, empty of traffic, its doors and windows shut, changed…like a spell cast…not in their wake, but up ahead. One or two people came out on their front porches. A woman with a broom. A woman carrying a table phone, trailing its long cord, wanting to show off she had it, chatting in the open air. One could suppose. A man drove past and slowed down.
“Lost your way?”
“No, sir. Miss Roback having some shingling done.”
“How come you brought your lady friend?”
Yes, anger, and she wasn’t sure at whom. She wouldn’t have Wright making up a lie to excuse her, when he hadn’t finished imparting what they were up to in the first place. She would have to drop a name, and it felt wrong to Charmante, to violate one of Esta’s immutable laws, that all her life she’d sensed the iron core of.
“I clean for Mr. Rothesay, over on Dumain Street.”
They walked on. Wright returned the wave of a man in overalls, who’d come round the side of a house three or four down, balancing a ladder under his arm. Their escort drove slowly, gliding his wheels to their footpace, whistling Dixie through his window, and when they reached Carolee’s, Wright’s friend said, undertone, “You come on back.”
Back along the fenceway, to where another man knelt on the grass before an unlatched toolbox. A woman in a grey, collared dress and white apron stood on the back step, propping the kitchen door with her hip, holding a pitcher of tea.
“Now, if you just take that from me, I’ll go get another glass.”
“Reckon I don’t need one special,” Wright told her.
“I’m Marian. Is it Mrs. Demorest? We can sit at the kitchen table.”
Well, it was a new world, drinking ice tea and eating wafer cookies in Carolee Roback’s kitchen.
She wasn’t at home. “How did Mr. Wright happen to end up working on her roof?”
The men were banging nails over their heads, which annoyance in its way cloaked this indiscreet talk, making it easier.
“Won’t take them any time to finish. They got a row of houses on this street messed up from that hurricane last September. It was Bill…my Bill…I don’t know what yours likes to be called…must’ve had him talk to Mr. Hillman. But I know what you’re saying.”
Marian dug a cigarette box from her apron pocket, and when Charmante shook her head, let this rest in her hand on the cloth. “I can talk to Miss Roback. I never saw her get in much of a temper. She doesn’t, with me, and she treats me pretty good. If you got something to say to her, it’s okay, I can let her know. But I have to know it’s not just some business.”
A new world, where the teachings of Esta still obtained, no less sound. Trust didn’t flow both ways…your offense the less forgivable; you, to live in peace, needing that good opinion. You could curry it, you could cultivate it with dignity, but you couldn’t flout it. No matter how little they cared for yours.
“Mr. Wright got a little ahead of himself.”
“Somehow, I been and got on the wrong side of you again.”
They were walking—it was all buses and walking, getting places—this time from the gas station to Charmante’s house, that she meant pointing out to Wright in passing (not inviting him in yet). The strung-out settlement where she and Esta lived hugged the road a mile or two between the city and the riverland.
“You see,” he said, “I couldn’t hardly gone knock at Miss Roback’s door, place like that. You probably never heard of a little watering hole called Rolly Carter’s. Where I went and I ran into Jimmy Gaylord, the man you just saw, with the ladder…works for Hillman’s, the roofer. Jimmy thought he was just hearing that name, Roback…”
“Well, when did their bank fail, for the last time? There was thirteen, the year I got married…”
Married, why say it? She was counting up crashes to frame an argument, jibbing at a pettiness… Because he’d mentioned a speakeasy; because Mrs. Demorest was respectable, and knew nothing of low places…
She said, “My father…”
It was a good house, not much smaller than Carolee’s. It was a good neighborhood…but maybe if Miss Roback came down this way, people would open their front doors, step onto their porches. Charmante’s yard sat flat and lower than the road; it tended to flooding. Just September the water had been up, but she had hosed off the clapboards. She kept the weeds out of her brick walk. Her roof was in good order, the windows shined, their boxes planted with lantana.
She was proud of her little place. “I live there. But we’re going on, to my Aunt Esta’s. My father. Well, you know, a lot of the men they arrested got sent way south to the work gangs. And so many killed, of course. They laid them out, for the wives to come see…you remember that.”
“He was one disappeared, and never turned up no more?”
“My mother and I moved out here, to stay at Esta’s. My mother died, two years after. What I’m really saying…”
He had taken off his hat to scratch his head, an embarrassed move telling her he was sorry for this news, and that he didn’t know her well.
“I had to tell Marian she could mention Esta to Carolee. I didn’t see any other way. Esta, William, is the most dignified person I’ve ever known. I have no idea how upset she’ll be. I only know she wouldn’t herself, in a thousand years, have sought out one of the Robacks. You understand.”
“Hey, now! Who you brung, Charmante?”
“Hey, Mrs. Parkins! This is William Wright.”
And since it was no use holding back, she added, ushering him onto Esta’s porch: “He does the odd jobs for Mr. Rothesay.”
Chopped chicken parts, floured on a baking sheet, sat in the icebox. Charmante at the hotplate spooned bacon fat into her aunt’s skillet, getting the supper going, and told Wright he could peel potatoes.
He laughed. “That’s all I done in the war, ma’am, boiling pots in the kitchen. Never got to France. I was on that island…think the one you said was where your folk lived, St. Hubert. They made an army hospital out there…everyone had the grippe kept quarantined.”
“Have you been telling me the truth, then, William? Dumain…” Which one had told her about it?
“Yeah, I saw Dumain. You’re not thinking I spoke to him.”
Carmine. But Dumain’s having the flu himself, the strain of a poor recovery tipping him into recklessness, had been Rothesay’s thought…hadn’t the odd vision under the garden wall suggested, though…
“You saw Dumain. Did people talk about him? Was he bad-tempered, kindly?”
Wright worked his knife.
“Slice them thin,” she told him. “I’ll fry those in the fat, after the chicken.”
He laughed approval. “Now I think of it…a little crazy, maybe.”
Voices, Esta’s, as Charmante knew, and Mrs. Parkins’s, as William might recognize, came through the side window.
“Oh, yes, oh yes,” Esta was saying, on the heels of her neighbor’s, “…does the odd jobs for Mr. Rothesay.”
Charmante cocked her head at William, returning his smile. “People thought he was crazy.”
“So I say…well, you got me thinking. Haven’t done that for a while.”
“Think,” she said, “of another thing, for just a second. You surely saw the house, up there on the high point of the island. I don’t know why you didn’t say so…”
Wright looked at the window. They were talking about Esta’s old woman.
“…she tells me every day she’ll take care of me in her will.”
“Well, if they all can’t go live with her…”
“Never mind,” Charmante said. “They’ll be at it.”
“I didn’t, cause it seemed like going farther into things than there was any sense doing. People always did say Dumain’s had a ghost in it. Always been talk he might not have killed himself.”
William’s face, and the slowness with which he drew these sentences out, told Charmante each was a question. To question was only reasonable…was she in fact trying to solve a mystery? Before she went badgering Carolee, she’d better have worked this out.
“But the truth is, I only feel danger. Don’t you? Someone’s in trouble. I don’t know why…why it seems me being called… Are you religious at all, Mr. Wright?”
He was muted by this, and she hadn’t made it an easy thing to interpret. Maybe only the “Mr.” offended.
“I think God’s got you on his list, like the government. If you don’t think about him, he’s still thinking bout you.”
Mrs. Parkins, making a little show of ostentation, not to impose on “family”, hadn’t come in.
“She’s got you married off,” Esta said.
Over the supper table William shot Charmante a few glances…but she let Esta treat this guest as she chose, and Esta gleaned as much as had her niece.
He was from the city, all his life. “Far end of Main Street…but no more, the house we lived ain’t there.”
They knew why…they were quiet. Then Esta put another question.
Well, he’d done every kind of odd job, never learned much of use in the army, was on the trolley line longest. And something new: “I live with my sister, way down Dumain. Just the three of us, now her kids are grown.”
Esta said, “Hmm.”
“Should we go out on the porch, for dessert?”
Not only was her quest not needfully secret, not shameful in any way, but ears, Charmante had come to think, might be of help…if any happened to pick up some of their talk. You didn’t know what people knew.
She gave Esta the whole story, and Esta sat thoughtful.
“If Carolee did happen to accept…I don’t know…a visit…”
“Oh, she never would. And I wouldn’t go. But listen. You know what you’re up to, Charmante? You’re stirring the devil. I don’t mean it like some superstition. It’s what I always thought, that time or two I laid eyes on Old Dumain. That man was the devil.”
“Then I’ll stop. If you say so.”
“You want to know why.”
“Why you thought?”
“It was the way he came around, looking like he’d just snatch you up.”
“You said a time or two.”
This was near rebellion, this mild doubt, and Esta sat forward to look her niece in the eye. “Well. I never knew any of them much, that’s truth. He had some bad hold on people, Old Dumain. Two daughters…both married the same man…think about that. There was a son from the older and Miss Carolee from the younger. And there was a weakly son carrying on the name of Dumain. That one I never did lay eyes on, but he died in the riot. Old Devil never went til after all the others. One of them he didn’t get, though.”
That Esta could have this fancy, a lone granddaughter outliving the whole of the clan…for what it spoke to, in itself a sad thing…
But, Carolee not having been got, as though this devil could have willed it…
“But who was he? There was Elizabeth…” Charmante ticked names off fingers. “An older daughter…Polly? Married to the same man as the younger…as Elizabeth…”
“I think they was even cousins some way before all that…those two families, Dumains and Robacks. The son that was the brother of Carolee, Godfrey…now I remember that. Vanished off the face of the earth. And Charleton was his grandson, from his boy…”
Dumain’s, not Godfrey’s. “So Roback, the banker…the last one to own St. Hubert…”
“Was the father,” William said, “of Godfrey by the first wife, and Carolee by the second. Them two, sisters.”
And Dumains, by birth. None of this, while not unbelievable, seemed very wise.
“He was a tyrant, Old Dumain.”
Esta’s tilt of the head said she could allow this.
“He had a hold on them because they were all so connected. But was it money, too? Did he shore them up?”
“Reckon,” said Esta.
From across the road someone called this out. He had been on a vine enshrouded corner of his porch, the house dark, its front facing east, shadow cooling Esta’s. The tip of a cigarette informed them he listened, but only at Charmante’s questions did this neighbor begin to chime in softly…yes, Roback the banker…yes, Dumain a tyrant…
And a grunt more emphatic at this next, of money.
“How are you, Mr. Meeker?”
“How do,” Meeker said closer, crossing to offer his hand.
“How do. William Wright.”
“The old cholera hospital.” Meeker sat down on Esta’s front step. “I can’t say what Dumain was…doctor in charge. Called him young Dumain, back then. Place got to be more like a poorhouse, most times, being the epidemics would come and go. Indigents get dumped off there. Loonies. Now when they had the fire, Dumain had gave orders to lock the wards. Been put under custody of the police so he didn’t get lynched…what he said was, time he got there the fire was in the staff wing, and they’d done evacuated all that. The pumps had to be set up so they could get the river water, and when the sheriff’s men make their way out to keep order, all these inmates, being crippled, some, and half-witted, some, and criminal, a few of em, would get theirselves in the way. Only was…at the trial one or two testified they overheard Dumain saying…”
He stopped, to wave a fresh cigarette at a cloud of gnats. “I have to get it right. I don’t know what he said, certain. But…them types of people didn’t need to live.”
“And you know,” said Esta. “They let him go.”
The day came up with a busy humidity in the air, a striated purple framing a sun ugly with rosiness. Thunder, Charmante thought. It was early in the season for a hurricane, but she could believe in one looming, when the sky looked like that.
They had let him go, proof to Esta of an underlying reality.
“Laws are only made. Here we got all this trouble again with the banks. You know the ones up in Washington can decide when they like, if there ain’t jobs for everybody… Too much work goes begging, cause there’s nothing left to pay folks with… Maybe they just change the law, Charmante. They do, whenever it makes sense to them.”
But she had left with her aunt’s blessing.
When he’d recognized her house, and hadn’t say goodbye, she had asked William to stop inside. She made coffee. It was late, the important things that needed debating could not be touched on any further. Of small talk…she had not much will to dream any up.
“Sweet little place.”
He feinted side-looks at the big portrait of Clell, filling an alcove where a cupboard, her curio table, and the door to her bedroom met to form it. On the table in a gold-plated frame, the two of them, young—her wedding picture.
William might have been thinking, how did he die? They always wondered. He might have been thinking, he was a handsome man. Yes, for that she’d forgiven Clell a great deal. He had caught her eye, and she’d taken what she wanted—she couldn’t excuse it.
“That was Mr. Demorest,” she said finally.
William gulped down his coffee and said, “Work tomorrow.”
She wouldn’t cross his path at all, coming up to the front door; and today, Charmante wished William could enter at her side. Not just the weather, but signs speaking to other senses warned…seemed warning. The door skimmed over the hallway rug.
She stood awkward, yanking at the key…sticky, worrisome if she were pursued…
Even for a moment came a vision, herself in mad flight heaving over the coat-tree to block the way, hauling open the kitchen door, but—
Misleading him, flying instead to Dumain’s surgery.
A voice not completely familiar grunted, else muttered low. The tree had a mirror attached, and the face reflected was Carmine’s.
“Now you, I think, are going to be the one stirs trouble. Charleton has the notion it won’t be allowed, our plan. Won’t be allowed…?”
He said this last mannered, as one who acts a conversation. He had answered, he wanted her to know, Charleton’s notion baitingly. Charmante would like to have smiled at Carmine. She could play along, without needing to be told why they played.
His eyes, though, were as she’d never seen them. Knowing, implacable. The register of the voice, different…not lower, but more potent. The musical drawl…
He held her gaze with an arched brow. Come to the realization. It was wishing this on her, making her hear its thought somehow.
“I think we haven’t met,” she said.
“Call me Leonce, ma’am.”
“I’d be sorry to cause trouble for anyone. I was pretty fond of Mr. Carmine.”
He puffed air through his teeth, waved a dismissive hand.
“I’m going to start making lunch,” she told him.
“Mm-hmm, why not?”
Why not? The corporeal Carmine must eat. Which one, she asked herself, is Leonce? And who would know?
Kit came weaving, wanting to jump in the icebox. “Sure now, baby, you hold on and I’ll pour you a saucer of milk.”
Was the milk even fresh, still sitting on the back step? Carmine would not have neglected feeding his cat…but it was seeing a ghost he’d been confident he could bear.
“You’ve been shirking on the job, Sir Christopher.” She crouched, and stroked him, and thought at least he might stay by her side, raise hackles, a mild heralding of Leonce, if he came back…
She was hearing bustle in the rooms behind. Her own name. Kit puffed, but merely darted past the legs of Rothesay into the dining room. Rothesay entered, and though she’d had no impulse to greet him with delight, the face composing itself to say, “Why, here you are back!”…froze.
The eyes stayed locked on hers, while nimbly he moved around the table’s border and closed. The lips were almost smiling.
But the smile, and the stare…
…like he’d just snatch you up.
“My granddaughter hired you. Or have I got it wrong? I heard her say to that son of mine she’d take care of it all…he would have the help he needed. I don’t like Rothesay. If I had my choice…”
He let this trail. He was amiable; he expected her to sympathize.
“You’d have to…”
She heard her voice cut out, her throat dry. “Tell me the name. I was hired by Mr. Rothesay, whether you like him or not. You don’t mean Carolee…?”
Unless this devil were Charleton… Was it possible?
He was watching her, her face doing interesting things, perhaps…fearful, defiant, questioning things…and his smile altered, jaw lowering, teeth coming out. He grinned.
“No, Mrs. Demorest, the Roback I do not refer to. I think the woman’s name is Veronica. I don’t much like Veronica, coming down to it…but I doubt it’s money she wants.”
He shook his head and drew so near, Charmante could only tilt hers back, or refuse to meet his eye. “This is all some stupidity…Carolee party to it, yes…some foolery of righting wrongs which have not been done. I don’t expect my work to be understood, but I might ask nonetheless—I think, fairly—that cretins don’t disturb me at it.”
She turned her back, took up her spoon and bent over the stovetop. Again today, because there was cocoa and sugar in the house; because of some vague hope Carmine might struggle back for it, she had milk on to simmer for pudding.
“Over yonder…” The voice was Leonce’s. A finger touched her shoulder.
A living man’s…she must not start.
“Have you ever looked out that way, out on that empty field? Did you know the Chevalier, the first Dumain to settle here, made a bequest of that land to the city? Where the cholera hospital stood. In the old grave robber’s heyday, that clinic of his, after. Burnt to the ground…both of em burnt to the ground.” Leonce laughed. “They raised a tent and laid out the bodies there.”
“Yes. I know.”
She was picturing a scene from her mother’s story.
Her bed had been a chair and ottoman pushed tight together, bolstered with a comforter, a makeshift she was still small enough, at twelve, to fit. She lay rigid, trying to be deaf for her mother’s sake and Esta’s. There was one bedroom; the three of them shared it. Her aunt had got to her feet, rummaged for a wrapper, padded, murmuring, “Hold on”, in answer to a tap on the window-sash.
They sat on the porch glider.
Charmante raised herself, slow and silent, on her knees reaching the wall where their voices came through the screen.
“Do you know who was there?”
“You been gone a while,” Esta said.
The light of a match shot up orange. Cigarette smoke blew in.
“Not that. Esta, I don’t expect it. I didn’t…but I went down the rows looking. Esta, that awful old man!”
“Was he like what I told you that once?”
“They were all under sheets. Some assistant he had, lifting them…they were feuding some way, those two. And I was about furious. Carry on like that, when you ought... I grieve. Don’t I grieve? But it makes me think of the card game, you know? After a while, he’d have it memorized, just which one was where. He could pick what he had in mind to pick. And some…you would never be able to say who they were. It’d be by the clothes, I guess.”
“You’re not crying though.”
“I don’t think I will…I don’t think I can. Esta, that old man just liked watching.”
“Oh, he did.”
She found both men had lapsed, trance-like, into a swaying on their feet, empty in the eyes. As though their being there depended on her attention.
Leonce came back.
“The work had to go on. I never felt that, for myself, there was anything else. Why mourn a heap of masonry? Why mourn money, kept from you? I did hate him…no, fathomlessly, I hated him… My grandfather. I felt he had somehow…what is that biblical phrase…? Compassed me about with evil. When I was newborn and could do nothing. My father… He’d always wanted me away at school, he hadn’t liked the sight of me. And I forgive…I understand. I thought, seeing it all in ruins, the suffering…despising him so much for having…
“Oh,” this one finished, after a moment, “not contempt. Something worse. To hold people in contempt for suffering is to grant them humanity, at least. To find suffering an interesting study! I did take up with Leonce. I wished for him to have his birthright. I thought all that was the cause…there are causes, Mrs. Demorest. I knew, I could know this without needing to have witnessed… I think they left him dead before the fire, Leonce and Godfrey. It’s odd how vividly I picture the body, facedown and horrid, and then the front… It had only licked him over.”
The voice was less obviously southern. He had been away at school. He was a mournful creature; he hadn’t, unfolding these thoughts, told her much about Leonce’s identity.
“Now Carolee said…”
Charmante eased into presuming on this acquaintance. Charleton spoke and did not speak to her; he called her by name, but all along…those shivers when the house had felt too empty…he might have done, with no vehicle to make himself heard. Poor weak Carmine.
Rothesay’s eyes, telegraphically aware…
Rothesay, catty-corner to where they stood, was making her skin crawl. As though you’d gone to a wake, the body dressed…and you, turning to speak to a mourner, glance back to see—
A moving eyeball under a half-raised lid. She said, “Charleton. She wrote you an apology. Carolee had given you some yarn…about the angel, I think.”
“I went out to the island to visit my kin. They all thought I was one of those fetch and carry boys, shown up to move em off.” A long chuckle. “One time I said to Godfrey, you go on, let the old man prepare those needles. I’m only asking…you don’t mind that, do you, Godfrey? Well, I was curious, ma’am. Old Charleton’ll scorn me for saying so, but…the sight of a man, living, crawling to his assassin, letting the thing be done… They do call em fiends, don’t they? I snatched it away from him, snapped off a wing.”
Leonce, with his odd charm, gave another friendly chuckle.
“You never saw the like! I said, God, I could crush this little thing in my hand right now. Would you like that? I’ll do it. So he gets himself up off the floor…all in a state, ma’am, dusty, clothes hanging off him like a sack, all weeping and bawling. I saw him hunt for something…and I kicked him down again. God, you are never gonna kill me, I told him. Why don’t I just go myself, slip it in the wall for you? Now, Carolee never saw me once before. I went right up and said, what about that old cholera hospital, Miss Roback? I know a story you never heard. I know a lot of stories.”
“Crawling to his assassin, letting the thing be done.”
“Now old devil, I don’t think so.”
But the exchange ended the visit. Leonce walked Carmine from the kitchen; Charmante heard feet springing up the staircase.
Rothesay woke in full, to smile at her. “I think you are scorching the milk, Mrs. Demorest. I’ll blame myself for that…and apologize. Carmine and I ought to keep well out of your kitchen before lunchtime.”
She felt exhausted, from holding back the impulse to run outdoors, to shout for William. She wanted no more to do with Rothesay, but said anyway, “Aren’t you worried about Mr. Carmine? Wouldn’t you like to send him home?”
“Mrs. Demorest, it is what I have in mind.”
The year of Esta’s birth, on an island in a southern river…
Born new asset to a family of wealthy bankers. There had then, here at the city’s fringe, been this wall. This wall on its little hump of earth, able with its niches to be scaled. But not meant to keep the inmates in, only to reassure.
That on that side sat stowed all the district’s horrors. Over here, peace and order.
William was not here. She had chivvied him far enough, maybe. He’d made up his mind, leaving her last night speaking of work, that he was finished with the house on Dumain…and with the company its tenant kept.
The trolley tracks, the railroad tracks, the waste field.
Past those, houses took up on both sides, a proper street thickening with storefronts, a jutting sign for Porter’s Lounge, strung with lit bulbs; next door, dirty windows and a dead lamp, a stack of spineless books, two ragdolls posed arm-in-forlorn-arm. On the door-glass, always, “Closed”.
A residence hotel. A grocery.
A few better stores, better houses.
All that had survived the riot.
On the Dumain side, post-bellum growth. An era for these houses, lasting twenty years or so, then decay in fire and bedlam. Decay for all, when the city’s harbor traffic fell. Charmante tried to draw in a vision, charged by the electric air presaging the storm.
The year is 1859, the day…
The one before the fire. She, as witness, would stare up from some low place, see these niches high overhead. She would stand on Dumain land, the rich Dumains, rising in fortune as the Robacks declined…
Or not. The tidal bore comes up the river first. Then the floodwaters spread.
On each day she came to Rothesay’s, she saw through her bus window a knoll near Old Centre Street (the city straddling its delta too sprawling to really have a center). She saw the mansion. It was a sort of school, or institute.
People spoke of it not often…and in that way of saying, when they did: “No call ever to go there.”
It was a town house, not a plantation house, so had more of turrets and awnings, less of oak-shaded veranda… She did now flash on something like a vision, sighting a thing she had never to her knowledge seen. A larger structure, architectural cousin to the…the Dumain house, the original, rightful dwelling-place of Devil Dumain. To the question she’d been asking herself, here was the answer.
It is 1859. I stand…in an orchard…
Something told her this. There is a hospital over the wall, its floors are being mopped. Sheets are being stripped from beds, lunches on trays hoisted by dumbwaiter. Eighty-three are doomed in this place, to die tomorrow. There is a man whose grandfather…can that be right?…owned this land. He has built a house, where from a squat rise his descendants may look down…
His descendants may look down. She wondered.
She ought to blame this wondering, blame her own mind for interrupting itself, but she blamed William. The ladder winched, the bucket sloshed…he’d even begun to hum a tune, unconvincing. At least, that this was not his habit irritated her; she felt he hummed by way of projecting, “Don’t be afraid, it’s only me.”
And was this the artificiality returned between them, no longer new friends….because he had seen her chairs and tables, the kind of drapes she hung on her windows, the kind of man she’d married?
He quit making noise. But she was forgetting herself…
She must get leave from Rothesay. Her shopping list, and Rothesay’s money. Of course, get William inside the house, so he would see this, understand what was happening. But he might see only Rothesay and Carmine being themselves.
“You’ve lived on this street all your life.”
“Oh, no, that’s right. You’d said you lived on Main. There’s Pinckney, and 12th, and then…”
She pointed, towards the rundown district mentally surveyed. She disliked her tone, sharpened for no reason he would know…but she did believe he had lied to her.
“Yep…ma’am. It’s an all right place for some. Not for everybody.”
We won’t overcome this, she thought. He sees what he sees in me; he always will. “William, you’ll help me out.”
“I been. I’ll go on.”
“You’ll come inside and look at something I want to show you.”
“Really. You won’t go up in the house?”
“Give me some picture I can decide on.”
She weighed reasons for this balking…Rothesay did not make classes among his servants, so far as Charmante had seen; she herself could bear up with seeing ghosts…even the cat could…and—a thought more generous-hearted—it would rain in a minute, so why not have a cup of coffee in the kitchen? His shoes would do for the kitchen.
Or, was it none of these things?
“Rothesay didn’t hire you. You said so. You said you’d been here…”
“Five or six years.”
Her smile was tight, but caught assuming too fast, his face with a saving humor lightened. “And when you were hired, you only came in as far as the lower hall, and the cellar stairs?”
“She didn’t ask no more. They had all the house shut up, no one come to clean…she told me they didn’t want it. Nothing to do with me.”
“See, you all out there, maybe you never heard. You didn’t know what Mr. Meeker had to say—all that was news to you.”
“No…yes. I didn’t know, I mean.”
“Well, in town, everybody did for a long time. The riot got started cause there was some, nobody knew where from…come to stir up trouble. They had three boys in jail. Lynching party was supposed to get up, drag em off, police turn a blind eye.”
Her mother, the years she’d gone on living, had said it often: “There was so much bound to blow up. I just knew it would.”
Walking that intersection that had made her giggle as a child, Dumain and Main…
This, Charmante recalled, and her father careful not to talk at home. Her father, here, at the back end of the Dumain Clinic, the only doctor who served people like the Wrights, if young William ever saw a doctor…
“She…” she began. The kitchen door opened. Carmine came out.
That lift of the chin, though. “Billy Wright, if it ain’t. Trolley man.”
Wright looked at Carmine’s smile, at Carmine’s thumb hooked in a vest pocket. “I feel like I know that voice.”
“You told me one time you didn’t want me riding your car. Had to be stubborn like that, Billy, wouldn’t just get on in with me. I don’t know why. Wasn’t me that lost.”
“This is Leonce,” Charmante told William.
And he answered: “Leonce Dumain.”
She folded her arms. The impetus of emotion stalled itself, between assuming the worst, abandoning them all to their fates; and a glimmer of trust for William…that what he was hiding must yet be honorable, nothing to do with an old evil.
“Leonce, ma’am, used to run numbers. How come he made his shop at the back of my car. See, this went 6th to 20th, so that was one way they worked out winners. That, and some fancy sh… Like springtime, first person at a corner not wearing a coat, or…”
He stopped again, more embarrassed.
“Slick-haired gal. Ofay from over to the hospital, sometime come down this way.”
“Oh, that sort of thing.”
Leonce had spoken, but she answered William.
“Had the police cut in, I guess. Got me canned.”
“But, you know, I can’t tell you where I went to, Billy.” Charming again, a wistful smile now. “I can’t say. Be easy like that, maybe, for old devil… How can I know til I catch him?”
He added, just when, neither of them caring much for Leonce’s conversation, his pause had dropped into silence. “Now, he thinks he’ll catch me. But he won’t.”
Had Leonce told her his Godfrey story from knowledge? Was the spirit side like a reference library of all that had ever been? Had he known Clell, even, in life? His ways were jesting, spiked with retribution…the world’s making winners of the lucky-born entertained Leonce, but still he felt it, the malchance of his own birth. She could believe this. Yes, he knew something, and had wanted to jimmy at her buried things with the tip of a knife. He would do that to anyone.
She asked him if his grandfather was up in the house. Sly, Leonce shot a glance over his shoulder, the corner of his mouth drawing towards that watchful room upstairs, and there in Dumain’s bedroom window was Rothesay.
In figure…the whites of the eyes framed pupils with a mad, cool intensity.
They wanted to kill each other.
Did a ghost, able to possess a living man, care if he spoiled his host? Any particular host, where any weak-willed or willing party would do?
She would have to disobey, break her ordinary rules of conduct. “Leonce, William and I are taking a walk. You come too.”
“Come on now.” William caught him by the sleeve. He pulled back, manifesting reluctances he seemed unable to express…
To force into expression through Carmine. The glib Leonce faded from Carmine’s chin and brow, an entityless blank coming over these. They ushered him through the servant’s passage to the street. At the door leading down to the surgery something struggled in Carmine to wake.
“A little time,” he said. Charleton, perhaps.
The two of them escorting him in this way would have drawn attention in a neighborhood like Carolee’s; Charmante with an elbow around Carmine’s slack arm, William gripping and steering him by the shoulder. They made for the change in fortunes that divided Dumain from Centre. A block from the house Carmine straightened, put his hands in his pockets, and came with them of his own accord.
He said nothing.
“What do you call that mansion, that school over there?”
“William, I don’t mean you. What does one?”
For once and for all, Charmante told herself. “I used to teach school. I got invited to a wedding, and I met Clell. My husband was a musician.”
Maybe to say so was to say everything, William knowing already that Clell was dead.
“It was his trouble that cost me my job. Reputation.” She shrugged. “I couldn’t control him. They wouldn’t have liked me better divorced. I had the little house, Esta’s money down, only if it was in my name alone. So it wasn’t…”
William’s word was not of her vocabulary.
“Being told to resign…it wasn’t the end of the world. I had my money in the Post Office. That was a thing I wouldn’t do either, let him get hold of my savings.” She was getting places, hardly arriving. “We were married thirteen years. We were together nine. We had a pretense I would go up to Chicago, when he got himself settled. William, my father was Dr. Bonheur. You must have heard of him.”
Clell hadn’t wanted her. She had pitied him enough to send money; sent it also because neither had she wanted him back. There was a letter, the writer striking every attitude of veiled contempt. A girlfriend…who wanted, to be clear about it, absolutely nothing from Clell’s wife. Here was a clerk’s copy of the death certificate, notarized. And here was (hand scrawled) a copy of the undertaker’s bill. So that Mrs. Demorest would understand Clell had friends in Chicago, friends who would not see him buried in a potter’s field. And his friends were not swindlers.
Four-hundred and fifty dollars wasn’t much, in the greater scheme of things; she didn’t grudge it to a man she had loved…a good love, for a year or two. She’d weighed sending an even five. But that would be giving insult for insult, and she didn’t know these people.
“I did hear that…I think so. My sis, think it was, told me.”
“And so, you could have asked me, did I hear right? Was Dr. Bonheur your father?”
“I know he was.”
This was leveling, at any rate. William had carried home gossip, if you could call it that; his sister, looking out for him, had learned more…but to the Wrights, Charmante Bonheur Demorest was outside. William had gone on being polite and helpful.
“So why…or how…did you ever come up with the butterfly wings?”
“Moth,” she added, correcting. They’d got to a part of town where it was better not to stand talking, in Carmine’s bedazed company, on a street corner.
“Oh, that was just a way we played, when we was kids. Make angels out of clothespins.”
“Well, I love it. I’m sorry the poor thing got broken.”
“I was fourteen,” he told her. “We’re coming right up to the place. Right there.”
“Oh…the Aurelien. Clell’s band played the Rose Room sometimes. I’ve been inside.”
“My uncle Bert was a waiter. So that’s something.”
“Practically family. You’d better tell on, with your story.”
“Well, the Relyan maître d’ had a little racket going. Leftovers from the kitchen, that wasn’t supposed to go nowheres, only get throwed out… Don’t know why fancy places got rules like that. He’d sell em, is how it was.”
William’s brother Harold still ran with the gang, at seventeen. Sis, just for information, fifteen, a month from sixteen…
“Now, she has a name. Because I may meet her, one day.”
“Mrs. Breedlove. No…” He gave the tease only a beat. “Jane.”
The gang was not much trouble to anyone. True, they stole now and then; they carried knives, true. William recalled a lingering fog, the boys hugging themselves by the alley cans, waiting for the door to open. It was never right to knock, knocking either reserved for those who knew what one to use, or in some way illuminating to a kitchen snitch. They gang had to do for themselves when they got hungry at lunchtime.
“It was all horse cabs back then, remember…lot of jostle out front the hotel. You never could go put your cap out around the patrons…doorman mostly keep to his step and cuss, come down other times and put his boot to the seat of your pants. But maybe he’d get you by the collar and hold you for the cops. You could hunker down, tie a shoe quick, and here where they got coins changing hands, maybe spot a little glint in the gutter. You ever stop at Merrick’s drugstore?”
“I don’t see how I could have.”
“You didn’t try.” He smiled.
Merrick’s had a foyer, with a basket for umbrellas, coat hooks on the wall. William had been the kid, but Snake Eye…what they called him, just a puny runt, never grew…Snake Eye had moves. He could get his self in.
William, though, was an age he might not get sent to jail. “So they had me to do the other job. We always carried rags in our pockets, whatever place we went.”
When a customer stepped to the door, William ran up behind, to catch it above the handle. He put his fingers close to the hand, not touching; he offered to give the man’s shoes a polish, or do any little thing he had in mind.
“For a nickel, sir. But I take what you like to give me.”
The customer liked nothing at all, either given or taken…though now and again one would dig out a coin for charity. There were some who felt it. There were kicks, too, and backhands. Most let go the door, as soon as your hand was on it. They did not like to meet your eye, so they’d look away.
“And your friend snuck past.”
“Keep low going up the aisle, so he didn’t get seen. Fill his pockets.”
“How’d he get out?”
“Just run for it.”
“You didn’t get away with that very often?”
“Well…you have to hit different places. We was always moving.”
It had been a woman that day. They’d waited, and loitered, and circled the block…Merrick’s just wasn’t doing business. Now twice William had felt the flat of his brother’s hand shove his back.
He pretended he hadn’t. “Shit, no.”
She got to the top of the steps, pulled the door an inch or so, made a decision, it looked like. Came down, came right up to them.
“Maybe one or two of you would like to help me?” She had spoken to Harold.
“I’m a scientist, with the Metropolitan Cultural Institute, in Boston. Outside of Boston, I should say.”
She smiled, as though such a difference was natural knowledge, funny to have forgotten. William watched his brother smile back, thrust hands in his jacket pockets. Harold liked to dress all the way. He rested his weight on one leg, knocked back his hat…a sophisticate. The lady scientist brought out a cigarette case.
“We never seen that before. White lady smoke a cigarette.”
But these smokes had made a line of demarcation; Rance, Harold’s age, and William’s brother treated, neither as quick to strike a match as the lady herself. William and Snake Eye outside the barrier. They could listen, they could trail along, but they weren’t wanted.
“She was talking, while we all walked back that way, bout the clinic. Dumain’s was some way partnered up with them in Boston, whatever they did.”
And when the two older boys were gone after the woman, through a door under the fire escape…one never known to be used, halfway between front and back…William, afraid to stand waiting, shrugged off his hunger and went home.
“It wasn’t the last time I seen Harold. He come swanning back with a twenty dollar bill she give him, and Mama traded that for a five. So Harold did all right for nothing. All he had to do was answer questions.”
Questions about assimilation, in the forty years since the war, a comparative study of northern and southern populations, cities chosen for the nearness in size of these. Harold must return—that had been the arrangement—because there was no telephone he could use. Just go back, and see if she needed him that day.
“Go back, and knock on that same door?”
Somehow Charmante could envision this. A tentative test after a few minutes of dead quiet, the door found unlocked. Harold choosing to go in, calling out…
Harold taking a flight of stairs, vanishing.
The mansion sat hard by the walk, older than the widening of its street for the rails. But it must never have had much frontage, nothing like the walled yards and sprawling shade trees of neighborhoods farther north. And if Dumain had wanted land, he owned it already…those unlucky plots below, where two of his family’s ventures had burned.
Here was a sign, surprising her not at all, in naming this the Metropolitan Cultural Institute. A window came up above their heads.
“Mr. Carmine, is that you? Stay where you are!”
“I ought to warn you,” William said.
But the woman had flown downstairs, so it seemed. The front door was swinging before Charmante knew of what she ought to be warned.
“Why! William Wright. Do I remember?”
“Mr. Carmine, you look a little under the weather. Would you like to come in?”
At the tap of her finger, he said, “Veronica.”
“That’s right. How is Rothesay?”
He looked himself over, patted his clothing, drew a wallet and stared at it, his face blanched in the sunlight and bewildered. “Is Rothesay back…when?” He asked this of himself.
“Come inside and sit,” she repeated. “Hello!”
“Veronica Dumain. Are you not…” Ignoring Carmine’s answering of himself in a mumble, “When did he leave, though?”, she hooked his arm and ushered. When over her shoulder she saw that William and Charmante stood in place, Miss Dumain finished:
“…the housekeeper, over at Charleton’s? No, you two, come on up to my office. Miriam.”
“Warn me what?”
“That. It’s her. Hired me.”
She was at her desk, shuffling index cards, the hand now ushering Charmante and William to the sofa where Carmine sat. “I’ve done it again…don’t tell! Marian.”
“Oh… Marian from Miss Roback’s.”
“I need to give Carolee a call. I think she’ll come get us in her car. Well! This is it, huh? My place is upstairs. Let me make two calls.”
Charmante gave William the barest sidelong look; he returned a slight nod…slight but angled, as meant fellowship. Carmine, cradling a pillow, sat fingering the drape that blocked his view outdoors…he peered at this fabric as though he’d woken in a strange land and couldn’t name it.
“Don’t, if it will take very long,” Veronica was saying. “Oh, good! Then do…” She pitched over her desktop onto elbows. “Nat! Would you like to go up to my apartment and listen to music?”
“I don’t like this house.”
The gap of the door inched larger. Charmante, for manners, got to her feet. William got to his.
“Susie, I’ll take care of all that. I told Mr. Carmine you’d show him to the guest room and play him some gramophone records… Susie won’t leave you alone, Nat. And you know…he can only be in one place.”
Veronica was dialing again, while Charmante, in this little room crowded to capacity, took the coffee tray, and William changed places with Carmine, getting him to his feet, shifting his sleeve into Susie’s grip.
Veronica cupped the receiver: “I thought we’d all drive out of the city some ways, and just have our talk.”
Their road sagged low, following the river’s course where the oldest of passageways had run, the towpath. Marian drove Carolee’s car, Veronica and her guests on the back seat.
“The Robacks were never so bad…that is, you think of them on their island, where, going back…”
Popping sounds of tires breaking twigs.
“We bred our own people, as we used to say… Outsiders, visitors, would have to be invited by a protocol. There could be no happenstance, no dropping by, no trespass… Everything as they’d ordered it, my grandparents, everything theirs, the food they ate, the musicians…”
A moment of conscience again, giving Carolee pause. Who would the musicians be, after all, or the dancers, entertaining?
“Those hunts, Charmante. Capture the flag. The tourneys…I mean at tennis… And being from a place in the world where normally you had no truck with anyone but your own… They were bankers. My father knew other bankers. He knew his mayor and his senator, he knew his schemers. Those would be the planters, the shippers, the railroad men. The Dumain relatives, building their clinics. Well, you know, bank loans in that group…they’d just shake hands on it during these… What would you call them? Junkets.”
Charmante did not know bank loans, hardly could have a preferred name for island holidays. But Carolee lit on phrases; what anyone, in their conversation, did.
“It was all very insular, you mean.”
“It was a nuthatch. No, that doesn’t seem right. A weird effect of the same people coming back one time a year, slowing aging… Dying offstage. When I got to be eighteen or so, I thought…”
Marian stopped the car before a slough of sucking mud. “Ma’am, I don’t know if I ought to.”
“We all should get out, take the weight off.” William popped his door.
Veronica said: “Let’s not chance it. We’ll get a boat across for sure, but the car is all we’ve got. Marian, back it up to that little rise we just came down.”
The river spread wide beyond the dip, greyish-blue in its placidity, a looking glass lapping at knees of bald cypress, claiming its crescent of the road itself. Fools joy-riding up this way often drowned, as you couldn’t know when you shot over the rise where the water sat any given day.
“When you were eighteen.”
Carolee smiled thinly. “I thought I would get out, if I had to row across that river myself.”
“You don’t think there’s any trouble, ma’am, leaving the car.”
“William, I’m looking to hire someone to keep an eye on it. But Marian, I don’t know any reason you need to go across. Maybe…”
“Veronica, there’s only some of your plans I would go along with. And anything you thought of just this minute, no. That’s Leonce in her.”
She spoke to William, who’d known Leonce, the nodding intimacy (leave it alone) doing something to Charmante. And…
“Yes, ma’am. Leonce is my own father. Was.”
“One reason we’re going to Saint Hubert. So we can hash all that out.” Carolee draped a scarf over her hat, knotted it under her chin. Next from her bag she pulled a bottle of scented lotion. “Do the mosquitos bother you, Charmante?”
A dumbstruck moment passed. Carolee waggled the bottle.
“Oh! Yes they do…thank you!”
Here was a social question never encountered, how much of a stranger’s expensive lotion to use before her eyes. Veronica meanwhile had plunged ahead, imprinting heel-marks along the road. She was singing out, “Heyo!”…
And garnering, after four of these, an answer.
“Please, hang onto that.”
Carolee spun, making up the same narrow margin…her feet in tennis shoes. Charmante wondered if she’d really been given a gift.
“William,” Marian said, “do wait with the car a minute. You first, Charmante.”
Behind, she heard them in low voices having a chat.
This mud was stickier…it needed resolution to put the flat soles of her work shoes heel-to-toe; and not, spiting unexpected help and generosity, walk hard feeling insulted, fed up. The other two Charmante had been put between also talked privately, standing at a place the road banked, a sandy cut above a shoal. Just shoal enough for the boatman, his bare feet sinking to cuffed dungarees, to sluice up holding a string of fish. People astonished you along this river, going barefoot everywhere, fatalistic among the cottonmouths.
His head, sharp and small like a blue-eyed brown wren’s, shifted, seeing her walk up. The corners of his mouth turned down. He didn’t like Charmante on sight, or any of them…
Or the most of humanity, it might be. A pontoon dock floated on a chain, the chain lipped over by bark. Moored to the dock, a homecrafted rowboat, wide and low-keeled. Fish scales glinted pearly light, glued everywhere by the bodily fluids of things caught.
“They’s a lot you all. Four women. Your boy coming?”
“Too much weight for your boat?”
“But you’s wanting someone look after that car.”
“You can sit on the dock and clean your fish if you like. Only you better be speedy on your feet if there’s trouble. I’ll tell you what,” Veronica said. “We can row ourselves over. Five dollars rent for your boat, if you don’t like going to the island. He doesn’t like even setting foot there, he says.”
Veronica said this to Charmante, laying a hand on her shoulder. “So we’ll have to hire him to watch the car. Marian, how much is in the tank?”
“Oh, the tank is full. I’d never be coming out here not thinking of that. But you’d hardly notice what we used so far. Maybe just a little hair off.”
Whether or not a student of her father, Veronica dealt like no one’s dupe. She was calling them all as witnesses. “William, I’m going to give you a five dollar bill, and you take a look at it. Then you give it to Mr. Brasher.”
The implements Brasher used to steer his craft were a single oar sans lock, and a pole. Charmante stepped in as Veronica wished to order them, and squatted, propping elbows on the sides, Carolee and Marian in the same undignified case. There was no clean, dry spot to ease yourself into a sit.
“I’ll man the prow. And jump out with that rope if there’s any place to tie on. I hope you’re a strong rower, William.”
“The only problem is, can I reach from side to side without falling overboard.”
“Going out,” Carolee said, “the current should carry us dovetail to the beach. That’s how the island is situated…”
Brasher’s boat struck the deeps. And close to capacity, bellied, riding low for comfort. Their trailing fingers touched water.
William laid the oar across his knees. Charmante, to think of another thing besides drowning, said, “Have I seen Saint Hubert before and never knew it? I used to come down this way fishing with my father. A long, long time ago.”
“You were picturing a sea island, something like that? Coming along the road, you might well never notice. My grandfather let alone all the trees on the shore, for privacy…and of course to stop erosion. Which, speaking of, the river’s taken the little channel running the side across… There was a time, if the water was down, you could just step over. All scrub forest and swamp, not even a road going south. I suppose we were brave…”
Her cousin, and one or two whose fathers and mothers worked at the house. These children were not friends, not playmates, but small guardians, toting the lunch basket, the rods and bucket…sent along for that reason. But they had all bounced onto the soft, rocky mud, where snappers basked, and dragged themselves up bankside by the roots of trees, walked to a knoll of pine, with a lean-to shelter she and Charleton had constructed themselves. They had played Johnny Reb among the spiderwebs and snake holes.
“It all makes me think of him.”
“And what were angels to you, in your games?”
“You gave Charleton a little porcelain angel, and told him a story about it.”
“Oh, much later. And so…you came down here fishing with your father.”
If the shim had opened its crack, Charmante would have asked what she wanted to know…what had been poor Charleton’s tragedy? Or when, to noticing eyes, had it shaped itself? Was he not a happy child?
“Yes, a man in our neighborhood owned a horse he’d hire out for jobs. Or just for getting places. Daddy would set me on the saddle in front of him. Carolee, that was your cousin who let my father work at the clinic.”
Always it had been, until that year his going away became the end…
No more the glamour of travel and return, her father’s familiar absence. Always, a sort of stupidity. She could charge herself with this and forgive. For being sheltered, terribly poor, thought richer than others, knowing nothing of either condition, or of what the adults fretted themselves over day long, money. Before the riot, Charmante had seen fabulous things: Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, Indian chiefs in their regalia, cowboys on horseback, caves with tinted pink and blue stalactites.
“Spell that word,” Daddy teased.
She could, and could tell him they hung from the roof, not like the others, stalagmites…and she could spell that word too.
And he would turn to her mother, mischief in his smile, because she’d said, “Oh, that’s crazy,” when he’d brought the stereoscope back with him from Tennessee. Every neighborhood child had come to look at the picture show; biding their time, every adult.
Charmante had not got a bicycle. “Girls don’t need to be riding bicycles.”
Her mother said that, too…and possibly to want one was wrong, money wrong. Her father went to Nashville, the medical school he could. He worked at jobs to live. But now and then, tips, untied earnings, tempted him to greet his little girl bearing prizes. Not many children on their street had bicycles. She would have lost it, a rough boy taken it from her, her mother knew that.
There had been a celluloid doll. Wiry red hair, dimples, blue eyes painted with a saucy roll. Her dress stiff papery velvet, green with a yellow sash. Her name (she’d told Charmante) was Sandy. Sandy bounced across the bedspread in her white buckle shoes, lording it over her ragdoll comrades.
Neither the doll, nor the people in the pictures—the man and woman dwarfed by a giant redwood, the survivors of the Johnstown flood, posed before a house intact and upside down—had dismayed Charmante. They were magic, these beings. They were of some grand world out there. Her mind hadn’t expected them to stand for anything.
Bored while her father sat dozing, asked to keep an eye on the cork so he needn’t keep an eye on her, she would edge away looking for turtles…or run up the road spinning and giggling, fighting a cloud of mosquitos; or tiptoe into the pines, far enough to bang a stick on the trunks, her grandfather’s remedy for bears. She hadn’t thought of this time as the only time, all there would be. Or known the grand world belonged to Dumains and Robacks. It was true in some way…her father had died for those people.
Brasher’s boat smacked an underwater stob.
“Don’t dunk me, William.”
“I apologize, ma’am.”
A little byplay, a little conscious gallantry. But Veronica was sporty with everyone. Charmante noted only that she noted this, and a non-jealous woman would not.
“That, Miss Roback, that’s the place I’m aiming for?”
“Yes, but I hadn’t thought about…trash. Don’t try anything that doesn’t feel right to you.”
William said under his breath: “Huh huh.”
There was trash, quite a lot of it, floating oil cans and tires, medicine tins; a little raft of soaked cardboard signs, opposition work from the coroner’s race. And driftwood, that fenced in everything.
William poled them onwards; after a time of this, remarking: “There ain’t gonna be a beach, ma’am.”
“Don’t trouble. Get me up to that bank, and I’ll jump, like I told you. So we call all get out.”
The getting out remained a business. Veronica snugged them close as the rope could be tightened. She locked forearms with Carolee, who skidded onto a knee, streaking her shin with mud. Veronica helped Marian; Marian shooed her away and reached for Charmante.
“Best we get the boat on shore and turned over. I don’t know that driftwood won’t keep slamming and knock a hole in it.”
We, William did not mean. They made room for the man of the group to solve this.
“Do they keep up the house at all?”
“Not so much there’d be electric, or phone service. Or, I don’t think so. It belongs to the government, Charmante. I don’t know what they get up to.”
“Why don’t we walk this road,” Veronica said. “And I’ll tell you an old story, one you’ve heard before. A boy and a girl get married, and after a while they have a baby. The husband sees the color of the little child’s skin, and thinks his wife is guilty, of the most shame-making sin he knows. He locks his door against her…she goes and drowns herself. Or takes up her husband’s shotgun, I’ve heard it that way. The baby turns out their own natural born. The poor wife was innocent…but she was a little bit colored. And he was a little bit colored. And the young couple’s generation had never been told the old family secrets. White folks like to scare themselves with that one…
“Now let’s talk about two little boys. They were three and two years old. One looked like a little white boy, one had a yellow skin and wooly hair. Leonce wasn’t wanted. Old Duman had just one son himself, one that counted, and Joseph… When his wife gave birth, and the baby didn’t live, and the wife didn’t live, and Joseph told his father he would never marry again, Old Dumain saw his estate going to…”
“Godfrey.” Carolee said it. “My half-brother. My cousin.”
The path dwindled and pitched up, roots of trees making stairsteps. Heavy vines fell, tangles of wild grape that Marian, leading as William brought up the rear, buffeted back with a stick. One by one, they bent and passed through. And here the acreage showed, a good broad stretch, the house on a built-up rise a few hundred yards distant. Rectangle after rectangle of a different weediness, dryer, deader grasses, burdock and deer-browsed brambles…
“Where the tents was,” William said.
“Is there a guard?” Charmante asked Carolee.
“Not a soul I know of.”
“And nothing left that has any value now… All the furniture gone?”
“No, I don’t think so. But in a minute we’ll see.”
Leveled out lower than the lawn was a path, the bricks herringboned, a pattern frayed in shaggy seedheads. The outer walls looked brittled, bleached, netted over with dead grey vines…someone had poisoned the foundation, walked the perimeter with a spray pump to stop creepers fingering back. But little green trails slithered through the lawn.
All the glass was either intact, or the window boarded over. Porch columns peeled, lead white to pencil grey. The roof was streaked rusty from its nails. Where a greenhouse must have stood were stacked parts of one, broken frames, shivered panes, pots decomposing into a mound of terra cotta crumbs.
Are you sad, Carolee? Charmante wanted to ask it.
“We’ll go inside. I think there’s rain coming.”
And so they were to climb those stairs, that Esta had stood at the foot of.
The scrolled slabs of doors sat brass plate to brass plate, shut firm. Carolee strode past them, past the curve of the veranda. Steps led down to a wall between architectural outcrops, the second of these a clapboard double porch.
Here, a door that wasn’t locked. A dash of rain spattered them.
Brambles grew in and among a choking hedge, a distrait climbing rose clinging to a torn screen; birds had left seedy droppings and abandoned nests under the rafters.
Cushioned wicker rockers, their stuffing drawn out, the smell of mouse strong.
“Well, I’m sorry! I guess this won’t do…don’t get your hopes up, but we’ll see what’s to be found in the front hall.”
Not sad…the wreckage made Carolee smile.
And here was marble tile, tiny hexagons, black and white. Matching buffets, either side of a mirror losing its silvering. Charmante watched William. If in wartime he’d done laundry and kitchen work, he must have entered this house.
Of course, if a house sat empty for even a season, mice would nibble, birds would nest. The manor was salvageable…the straight-backed chairs lining the wainscot good for use. Easy to pick up and carry off.
Each of them carried one to the room’s center.
“Why do you suppose no one…Mr. Brasher…?” Charmante spoke to Veronica.
“I know what you’re wanting to ask. You’d think they’d come out and loot, those river rats, tear the place down. Some squatter ought to have run us off with a shotgun by now. All of you hold still a moment and listen.”
There was at length a scree, a bird of prey’s call.
The actual sound the island made seemed a kind of rushing…a motion, a current. But muted…stealthy…
A will behind, driving it. Charmante told herself you could not hear a thing like that. She caught Veronica’s eye. She tried William’s, but he’d scooted at an angle, and watched the staircase.
“Ma’am,” Marian said.
“Yes, we should start. I don’t really think it’s awful here at night. But you get that impression, don’t you all? It might be that, like your poor Mr. Carmine, you’ll never know when the change comes over you.”
“And so,” Veronica said, “we were with Joseph. He had two sisters. Polly was the elder. Her father had married her well. A banker’s son, Wilmer Godfrey Roback. It meant Polly was exiled from her own…her sister Elizabeth had been her only girlfriend in the world. She lived in this house, Polly…” Veronica’s hand swept the air. “With her father-in-law, her husband, her son.”
“But.” Charmante counted figures in Esta’s photo. “Twenty or so altogether, managing the place…and the stables, the grounds.”
“True. But you don’t picture it…you shouldn’t…Polly able to be happy, feel protected here. I’ll telegraph the ending for you. They found her under one of those roots…as though the river had clawed her down and held her trapped. Some decent time after, Joseph’s father announced a child. The boy, somehow—”
Veronica struck a harkening pose. A creak, wash, thump, wash, creak…
The bank of the river. Before Charmante could tell herself this was detritus rocked by the passage of some craft, a woodpecker’s repeated whu-whu-whu-whu–eee-eee-eee-eee-e! obscured the evidence. Now the knocking seemed only its foraging after insects.
“Where was I? Somehow had arrived. Not the best fit for his role…he was, like I said, a two-year-old already. And he was Charleton. No, Charmante, William, you’re right to think that was Polly we heard…she will answer to her name. Now, you see why the place sits empty? People don’t come out here.”
“Someone upstairs, though.”
“Someone, William? Or do you think more something?”
He rose from his chair, crossed to the foot of the stairs; craned his neck trying to see past the curve. Charmante went to his side. She made out a carpet of red and blue design, stripes of light under doors right and left.
They were silent…the birds were silent, the sound of the current strong, and up there.
“What, William? I don’t see anything.”
“Well. I don’t like to say wind. Maybe it was. A kind of flash, flash. Caught my eye.”
“Oh, we’ll all go up in a minute,” Veronica said. “You’ll be surprised. You won’t like it.”
William whispered to Charmante. “If it wasn’t for her…”
“Cool customer. But she’s a Dumain. Probably…”
“Stop it, you two. I’m happy to leave right now, myself, so don’t go putting your heads together like you know something the rest of us don’t.”
“Sorry, Marian. I was saying to William, Veronica is being brave for us all, because she knows…”
What’s going on, she thought, and wanted better words.
“Sit. I would make the story shorter if I could. Joseph went off west on an army commission, that he took to keep away from his father. Why should he have had feelings for Charleton? But it was a shame. He was seeing this little boy as a gambit, the old devil controlling his life. He could have been a father to Charleton. He might have been a man who hated and loved…in the right places, if you see I mean. If he’d had the temperament. There’s more, of course…it may have occurred to you. The mother, my grandmother, of Leonce and Charleton, was…Carolee, what can I say?”
“The plain truth. It’s never been your fault or mine. No one ought to think less of us… You and I have done all we can.”
Veronica stood, moved behind Carolee’s chair, and rested a hand on her cousin’s shoulder. “My grandmother was Old Dumain’s daughter. Yes, he made free with the unfortunates who belonged to his house. And you appreciate, my father and uncle were his sons. None of us ever spoke to Joseph. We have to suppose he knew this. That he despised the old man and rebuffed poor Charleton because he found it all horrid.”
“Sometimes I think it was Polly warning me,” Carolee said. “I began to get a sense when I was fifteen or so, when God started…I ought to say Godfrey… Started frightening me. He was twelve years old when I was born. We always made allowances for God because he was the one that found her. He had waded down into the water and tried for an hour to drag her out. There was some sort of spell from the cold, or the hysterics, that lasted months. I suppose you’d call it a nervous breakdown…in a ten-year-old boy that seems extreme. But it’s easy to think no one had quite the right seriousness in treating him. If God could ever have been rescued, they’d lost that chance. Yet, you know, barring discoveries, I can call my brother normal…”
She smiled a little at her hands on her lap, shrugged when thunder pealed. The room had been darkening all the while. “I’ll take my own advice and say it plain. He was not inbred. But he was the worst, every other way…he seemed defective. I don’t know when they started needing to lock the cabinets. There was nothing, not the vanilla syrup, not the cough medicine, not even the peroxide. Not the paint thinner your Esta’s Charles kept in the shed. And he was cruel, nasty cruel. A story I heard…they caught God throwing a little dog, that was his mother’s, into the river. It would swim back, and he’d heave it into the current again. Trying to wear it out, curious to know how many times it would fight to live. Charles, I think, put a stop to it. God was twisted…deviant… He didn’t pity anything in the world.”
Thunder again, and Charmante remembered her father singing a song, one—but she realized it only now—he’d made up himself, just to stop her being scared. When he had been home to sing it.
I will keep myself out of the storm, yet I know I’ll pass this trial
I will keep myself safe and warm, yet if you ask me Lord
I’ll walk this mile
I can’t mind a little noise
When I see the light of Heaven
For my heart does more rejoice
And the last rhyme eluded…but…
It had been pledged, pledging…
Pledging what? Faith. Fealty. They were lyrics with some polish to them…that weary trek from Tennessee in the colored car, her Daddy fining up his verses for his little girl.
“Did you want to go up now? Just get it over with?” Taking yes for granted, Veronica sprang, and Carolee stood.
“I’m not going,” Marian said.
Carolee wasn’t either, only joining them at the landing, as a hostess would walk a guest to the door. Charmante patted William’s arm and passed him by.
Under a tall window, Veronica at hall’s end crooked a finger, playful. This story was done in apartments, double-doored parlor rooms with second and third rooms branching off. Grand guest chambers, or living quarters for half-dependent sons and daughters.
“Sakes, my whole house would fit inside one of these.”
Charmante watched William put his head around doors, looked herself, and commented…wanting mostly not this silence from him. She wanted him not worried about ghosts, superstitious of springtime thunder. “Now see. Here’s one they didn’t get the furniture out of. They didn’t even take off the bedclothes.”
“Maybe hasn’t been that long.”
“A billiard room,” she said next. “I guess people really have them. And a fish tank!”
He offered her nothing for this, but crossed to peer at the few inches of water. Charmante crossed too, glancing at the wall. Then with purpose at the others, seeing only the one rectangle where a thing had been taken down.
“No dead ones in there,” William said.
She murmured an inanity. “Poor things.”
“Don’t look, dear. I know what you’re thinking!” Veronica called, seeing Charmante hurry to the first room past the stairs. “Never mind, they’re all in here.”
“William! But, no…I’m acting like you’ve seen what I have. You’ve never been upstairs. At Rothesay’s.”
She kept her hand where it was, restraining him by the wrist, her heart picking up with fear. Veronica strode ahead. William and Charmante edged…any further step would breach the circle. These mirrors were better matched in size, and placed with a dead uniformity. The strange hum seemed almost to dance from surface to bright surface, an engine in oscillation.
“You don’t want to stay. You feel afraid of going to the center.”
“But…you knew they were here. Veronica, when did you know…? Or why would you have let Mr. Rothesay start the same business in town…or…”
“Look, though. Look.” William loosed his arm and dared pass the ring. After staring a moment, he moved to and fro in a blind search, eyes above Charmante’s head. “I see someone in there. More than one… I see a woman…”
And then he froze, lifted a warding hand. “Oh, what’s it mean?”
“Veronica, help. Come out, William. Don’t you see it’s dangerous?”
“Rance is in there. I have to know if they got Harold.”
She lunged for his shirttail. Something brushed her backing ankle.
The little cat was white, tabby-striped on one ear. Sir Christopher had gone into Rothesay’s mirrored room…
A shock of noise came, and a flash.
Charmante stood amazed at the rocketing reduplication of it, this pink veining, this tree that showered sparks. Blue-blackness. White sheets of light. And yes, a woman. At riverside, where William had upended their boat. She was bent there, reading the water’s surface.
“Come along, there is not time,” she said.
Where was a friend, to make this understood to? Charmante was in the hallway after all, William was at her side. Outdoors it was still afternoon.
“What? Polly…no time…”
A man loomed and put his arms around Polly’s shoulders. His face was blue, heavy-jowled. Polly fixed eyes on Charmante, surrendering with an odd face of triumph…
She foresaw her warning disobeyed, and ruin.
No, she was not in the hallway. She was inside the ring…her feet had somehow carried her here. Other faces waited to appear, Charmante had an awful sense of it. Among them she would see those men her mother had spoken of, pulped, burnt… She was in the ring, and to free herself, she must walk towards the mirrors.
A heavy rain lowered the room’s energy, pattering the roof in a trance-rhythm, making Charmante want to curl up under a quilt. This new hum seemed to blanket the other. Now her eyes found the way, two standing mirrors shoulder-width apart.
But a boy waited here.
Slim in a natty suit. His face lit with a sort of relief. It came to Charmante he had, in his own world, opened a door, afraid to, a fear bad enough his smile on meeting an expected face was almost giddy.
The face could not be her own.
Her wrist was clamped by someone’s fingers.
“We were trying to get you,” Veronica said. “You see how strong this circle is. I couldn’t get past that…don’t turn around. That mirror across. They place each just a little off opposite, so the ghosts, if we want to call them ghosts, can…”
She turned a hand palm-out. “Wave at you, maybe. Beckon from the corner of your eye. My father is there.”
“I was afraid I would see mine. Did William go downstairs?”
“He went out into the rain.”
“Veronica. Polly says there is no time. Is she right? I asked you a question about Rothesay…”
“I know you did. Trust me, I have no secrets, girlfriend. I feel like we ought to sit down to a cup of tea, and it’s too bad…we’re stuck. I rushed you all, coming out…”
From the drawing room, Marian gave them a salute. Carolee in her chair turned to look up as they jogged down.
“I wish now I’d planned.”
“I wish you had. I need to talk to William.”
Veronica, flinging that airy gesture, hopped onto her seat and touched Marian’s knee. “You’re the sensible one…”
She was kindhearted, brave, she had natural charm, a thing Charmante by name-right ought to have. But, schoolmarmish…she had always been schoolmarmish…she wanted Veronica Dumain to feel rebuke.
Owning up to her recklessness! And breezy about that, too.
“You saw Rance. Did he speak?”
“They had him in a ward bed. He had some big square bandage on his belly.”
He hadn’t gone into the rain, only to a sheltered place under the eaves, a foot’s width of dry brick demarked by a perfect line of saturation. But he stepped out now, and she wasn’t sure if they were having a conversation, or if possibilities had mobbed his mind, and he walked, and spoke, in a fugue of horror.
Around the back of the house was an upstairs veranda, a ground-level terrace, an herb bed, lavender cultivated in a latticework pattern. It seemed to grow on happily, but the gardener’s work was spoiled by more of the creepers tenting themselves over sprouted saplings.
Charles, my great-uncle…he was the gardener. His hands touched these, rooted them in, trimmed them to hold that beautiful, useless shape. The blue-jowled man had been Godfrey…she was certain of this, too. That she had seen Harold, could tell something of him, a thing so sad, Charmante was not at all tempted to share.
“No, he didn’t speak. How would he know me?”
“They know us, William. Or if they don’t, they will, when they’re more powerful.”
The garden went downhill, the mildest of slopes, a few feet of earth once dug from a field, carried by flatboat, wheelbarrowed load by load, packed to bear the weight of the Roback manse. But where the deck above ended was a door. Around the corner, a line of windows showed cellars below ground…
Yet, not altogether. Sunken enough to serve for cool storage. The door was shut.
It sat speaking invitation.
“I have to tell you,” William said, “how it was with Harold gone. When they said some boys been seen talking to a white woman, and there was all that…all that kind of thing, that trouble, everyone left to make up in their heads… Well then, they got stirred and ran riot, like you know. But after… After, we started hearing people say it. Maybe Harold, maybe Rance, did what they shouldn’t have. So many houses burned, so many dead…”
“William, people do that, they blame the one at hand, when they know they can’t touch the others. Harold and Rance weren’t there to tell what happened to them. But they were innocent.”
His eyes filled. “It was hard that way on my mother. She never wanted to say Harold’s name. She took his picture and put the frame away, and put the picture away inside the Bible. She didn’t want any neighbors coming in and seeing it.”
And he’d come to feel it himself, that burying this past was safest. He’d had to work from that time on, in earnest, not a boy any longer free to roam. “You couldn’t be out anyplace on the streets, not unless you had a job, and could tell the police you were out keeping at it. Nobody never talked about Harold again.”
She faced him and looked into his eyes. To say, “William, I saw him,” would lead to wrong, she was sure. He would fling himself back to the mirrored room. He suddenly put his arms around her.
For a minute or two they stayed this way. She thought he was keeping it tight in his chest, and wasn’t going to let himself cry. But when he relaxed, he said, “You got a little of the sight…Charmante. So I believe you when you say so. Innocent.”
And by unspoken consent, they turned to the cellar door. William tested the handle, the door swung and caught, with a clink of glass. Daylight fell on a floor where quicklime had been poured over dirt to harden it. There were shelves. The shelves carried rows of jars…
Whose contents, it became apparent to their eyes, were not pickles and succotash. They were brains. Or, larger jars on the lower shelves held brains, drowned in a parchment-colored liquid. The upper shelves held a number of hearts, some intestines, other organs.
“Take a moment.”
It was the voice, not wholly welcome, of Veronica. “Don’t give way to it. Especially you, William. I don’t mean to be rude…”
She crowded in with them. “Look. See how they’re labeled.”
The labels bore hashmarks, followed by three neat-handed letters, hyphen, three digits.
“William. In your own way, you did some of this work. I don’t mean to be rude.”
“Ma’am. It’s…” He stood arms crossed, wanting, fearing to look. “What is it? What are you saying?”
“When St. Hubert was a quarantine camp, during the flu epidemic. When the poor boys died, and you helped carry them, on a stretcher, to…those old tennis courts I think, where they had the morgue tents…”
“Medical science.” Veronica bent at an enamel-topped table, slid open a narrow drawer, showed them books like ledgers. “The true names are here, ages, military identification, hometown…” She pulled one and held it at her waist, so they could see. A fingernail, lacquered rose pink, tapped a column of numbers.
Beside this was a quarter-inch column of boxes marked either slash, or Y.
“If there was no family, of course…” She put the book away. “But if there was, they would get permission. All those records are in order too. Why are they here…the specimens? Why didn’t the army go off with them? Well, the army wasn’t supervising the scientific work. They were not even paying for it…they didn’t have the budget. Dumain’s clinic actually paid them. That shouldn’t surprise you. Where do you come up with the resources to even attempt researching a disease so terrible, so contagious? How did it happen, millions infected…why did it kill the young, mostly? Did I say already Dumain outlived them all, Joseph, Charleton? His son-in-law, grandson, daughters?”
“It was Dumain collecting these…? He wanted to slice open brains…infected brains…and look at them under a microscope?”
“No. He stayed at his house in town. Charleton did this work. Charleton, you know, killed himself.”
“Did he though? Could he have been killed?”
“Charmante! What do you know?”
A flaw, in the public story. An incongruity.
The rules had changed. William believed Charmante had the sight…she doubted this. For her father’s sake, she would never claim such a thing, but she could suppose one of them, the mirror people…
Possessed a strength, a ruler’s.
“I saw Charleton lying in the garden where he was found. The bullet hole was under his eye. Would he have shot himself that way? His grandfather was alive still…”
“Yes. The body was released to Grandfather. He told them he would prepare it himself.”
“An end, then. No questions. And…”
“Let’s go out. There’s a little side porch.”
Veronica gave a light pat to each back, and crabwise they escaped the specimen room. What a house, sitting here on its island, dismal and frightening, haunted, and no more by ghosts than by human ugliness.
The porch chairs were dry. William had not come with them…
But Veronica motioned her down. “And…?”
“I was thinking of Carolee. I can’t interview her.”
“Hmm…maybe you can. But ask me first.”
“I wonder about Charleton. If he was depressed over the work, felt coerced, Old Dumain would have been gleeful… It’s a funny word, I guess. But gleeful, making his grandson do something repugnant. He, Charleton…he was sick and heartbroken, it would seem to him there was no hope for anything… Being expected to pull organs out of people and label them. Put them up in jars! They were close cousins, were they? Or…I’d just better say. I found a letter in Rothesay’s house. It isn’t signed. The writer felt bad about telling Charleton a lie, a made up story he’d believed in. She wrote like she knew her cruelty had been…surgical, if you’ll forgive me.”
“Do tell. I never heard that one.” Veronica, if she’d had Sir Christopher’s whiskers, would have twitched them.
“The Metropolitan Cultural Institute.” William came under the roof and sat on a windowsill. “There’s a stamp on the back page of the books in there. If all that belongs to you, why don’t you take it? Why don’t you…” He stopped Veronica’s answer. “Call what you do by the right sort of name?”
“Why don’t I tell you a little story? No, a very short little story. It’s about me.”
She smiled. William did not…but he gave way.
“When I was fifteen, William, maybe twenty years ago…maybe not…”
And Veronica, never-to-be-repressed, shook that playful finger. “When I was fifteen, my mother and I sat down, and we made a choice together, one of those things you understand so well you don’t have to say it in words. I wrote a letter to the president of Saint Philomene’s Academy for Young Women…Janet Sampson Howe, if you like… You’ve never heard of her.” She laughed, pleased they hadn’t. “I said, which was true, I had been educated at home. True, and a good thing. Mrs. Howe sent an appointment card. I took the train up…the school’s in Virginia…with a family friend as chaperone. That was Carolee, my father’s niece…we call each other cousin.”
“You’re saying it was a white school. You rode up on a white car, with a white woman to sponsor you, or reassure Mrs. Howe…”
“Oh, exactly, Charmante. A good education’s everything, isn’t it? No, I’m here and I’m not going back. And don’t you worry, William. I visit my mother all the time.”
“All I said was, nice work if you can get it.”
“Ha! The institute is funded by Dumain. Family fold, yes…I take the one thing back. A good education is helpful, but if you don’t have the wherewithal, try getting clear away. I started when the old horror still stalked the halls on occasion. He knew very well who I was. He scared me silly coming in where they had me typing, bringing one of the doctors by the buttonhole, talking nasty little ailments and peering over my shoulder. But not once did he say Veronica to me…so. The thing is, my dears, the institute does real work. I mean just those studies and analyses the name implies. We get requests for our data from all over the world.”
“And who’s that woman? Or…was she. I guess you need the whole story.”
“You don’t have records on that…” Charmante intervened. “On two boys, Harold Wright, and Rance…?”
“They were helping her with a study, the year of the riot. They disappeared.”
Veronica’s face was commiserating, musing, dodgy at last—and all but this, patent. “I don’t really know. You think I’m lying.”
“You don’t really know,” William said. “But you got an idea.”
“No…I can’t tell you why anyone would disappear. I can tell you it hasn’t all been good. We do good, and we have done bad. Without the trust funding us, the bad past would be just as bad, and the good would be impossible. That’s part of the answer. The sophistic part, if you like. William, I can make a little project of searching the archives. If you don’t mind, I’ll put a girl onto it.”
“You ask me. I’ll tell anything I can.”
It was her wanting them not to assign him, the entity that appeared to be Dumain, too much power, Veronica’s reason for letting them look over the cellar. “I could have yelled out, hurry on back, you two, and you’d be none the wiser. But what looks gruesome has an explanation not very shocking. Distasteful to some, sad… I, at least, feel sad there were so many who died here with no family to claim them. They must have joined the army just to have a place to be.”
They reached the front stairs, found Carolee and Marian had come outdoors to wait. The weather was calm. Through the trees the river looked choppy yet.
“We’ll walk on to the boat. Somewhere around here is a lantern.”
“Let me,” Veronica said.
“No. Leonce is in there. I was only using words, dear. I know very well where we put them, and it won’t take a minute. Why should I be afraid of the old place?”
But hand on the rail, Carolee paused. “I’ll ask you, all of you, not to be afraid for me. I feel emotional states are open doors to the mirror people. The old preacher who came to give our services had a saying. On frosty ground no evil thing takes root.”
They could not speak, as they watched her climb the stairs and enter the dark front hall. Outside too, evening closed.
“Carolee will tell you on the way back about our family arrangement, how we found Rothesay. But I’ll say this much. When he came to claim the house, he told us he planned to reopen the clinic. My idea was making him agree to house the specimens. You’re going to say there’s no clinic, just an empty lot. Well, if we had got around to sitting down…at the institute…over blueprints…”
A wave of unease took them all. Marian lit a cigarette. William circled to put his back to them, and Charmante, thinking she’d read this once, of pioneers and their wagons, turned herself at an angle to William. Her view was of the island’s parklike grounds, of fog rising…
The dead were not there in the fog. She found herself locking eyes with the blue-jowled man. He was before or behind a narrow window, of a sinister little shed, its blood-colored brick clarifying to visibility. “You’re the daughter of one of our own. That counts…”
His mouth did something, flickering. The smile looked tragic and wistful, the face like biscuit-dough peeling from a death’s-head. It looked again sarcastic, loathing of the whole and healthy. “Counts as an introduction, Miss Bonheur. You have questions, don’t you, for your father? You would like to see him. You would like to know if your mother is at peace here, with him.”
Only movement at the corner of her eye checked the step she’d been about to take. William, not keeping to his place in the circle, walked now at speed…he was slipping among the trees.
She calculated past her first impulse, to call William’s name. The boy in the mirror…he would have grown into a good-hearted man. They were not evil, these ghosts. Or these distant selves, capable of drawing life from the living…
“Harold! You don’t want to do this!”
And why should any of them, not bitter like Godfrey, wish to seduce on Dumain’s behalf? William stalled, slowly turned, put out a hand as though to catch something. The door of the house flung open.
“I apologize.” Carolee hurried down, arms full with two lanterns and a cat. “They’re strong tonight. That, I think, is because there are too many of us. I’ve rowed out before with only Veronica. Marian stayed with the car. It seemed manageable, those times. I won’t say the ring…”
She caught her breath.
Veronica finished. “Wasn’t alarming in its way. Let me.” This time she meant, take the cat.
Marian in practicality placed one lantern on the ground, knelt and lighted it. “That’s better. I had a hunch they’d back off a little.”
“Key it down. We’ll hold the other aside, in case this one doesn’t last us across.”
“Marian,” Chamante said. “Did you see them?”
“Oh, they don’t mean anything to me. I don’t have anyone dead. Not my mother and father, not my sister. And my Bill looked all right last time I saw him.”
The dark around the lantern’s circle was pitch, for the contrast. But lifting her eyes, Charmante could see a twilight sky over the river, and orange…an unpromising sunset that would cloud over ahead of dying.
William said, “What about out here, ma’am…? You never see the sheriff come along after dark, driving that road, other side? Be out rowing with a lantern…I don’t see that looking like any good.”
Carolee said, oblique: “I will always answer truthfully any question I’m asked. But also, I have a friend who knows when I come out to the house, and the sheriff won’t quibble with him.”
They reached the trees, filed themselves one by one onto the path. Charmante felt a lonely tug at her heart, growing. Acute, and so strong she mistrusted it.
Come back…you’re not leaving…I am still waiting.
My girl. Please don’t go.
Veronica said, “William, you’re in the lead. Take us to the boat where you put it.”
He moved heavy of breath, expending an ache Charmante knew, in righting the boat, nudging it into the water among the floating wreckage, wading in himself, finally—there seemed no other way.
She and Marian caught him by the arms and he dragged himself aboard. Brasher’s craft weighed them low once more, as they struck against the current…a strange, wrenching exercise, putting out on water under a night sky.
Carolee spoke then, the cat’s purr audible, her stroking of him the faintest sibilance.
“Let me answer you, Charmante. Let me say what my cousin doesn’t know. The little porcelain angel, where did it come from? Where did it? We had a music box…I ought to say my mother had. The kind with a cache for trinkets. Did I steal a treasure from her? She and I never had that conversation. I’m not sparing myself…I want to say I thought Charleton was too homely, too dull. But I couldn’t have hated him for those things. Remember Godfrey was alive, trying in fits to kill himself…trying to kill my mother. Kill her, I mean, by killing everything she loved. He started a fire in his bedroom. He poisoned the fish, poured kerosene in their tank. And he arranged mirrors. I don’t think he knew…how to draw spirits, I suppose… I was never afraid. Of Godfrey yes; the mirrors, no. I just found him embarrassing, mad. Dangerous. And you see, Charleton had been my ally. He’d become useless, mooning over me, making a tragedy of his chaste love. I didn’t care for love, any sort. I wanted my friend to protect me. For a hateful…desperate, maybe…will to do mischief, I told him the angel had been found in the ashes of the old hospital. That it was a sort of talisman, or pledge, against the Dumain family’s guilt. That it would be passed to each generation until we’d managed to redeem ourselves. I didn’t know my cousin well enough. That yarn…which I promise I made up on the spot…seized his imagination. He wanted to take it from me, and I said, of course. Why, this is yours by right. I said that. And then I said, ‘be careful’.”
She fell quiet.
William’s labor drowned all other sound. He grunted with the effort of one oar and a contrary flow of water, a concentration that could not afford being broken. The women sat poised, swallowing their breaths. Charmante knew the mirrors signaled; she felt them probe the nape of her neck. If she looked, she must shift from this crouch facing forward, and the life-preserving balance would be harmed, the current win.
They came free, a sudden glide. The waters lapped the shore twenty feet away. But William stopped pushing himself only when the bottom scraped a log or cypress root. Veronica didn’t catch the lantern in time; the swing snuffed the flame. They saw nothing for the minutes their eyes needed to adjust. They heard nothing whatever human. The river, spreading to earth here, waved them into a tighter tangle.
Marian struck a match, and lit the second lantern. “There’s a log that’s still got bark on it, and see there, it goes up onto dry land. I don’t expect any better answer, Miss Veronica. We’ll have to tie up the boat best we can.”
“Poor Brasher. But it was us broke faith first…so the Institute will buy him a new boat, if we ever find him again.”
“I about done in my hands,” William said, Charmante thought to her.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to do.” And then she said, “Thank you, William.”
“Yes, for Heaven’s sake, what a hero! We’ll think of something to make it up to you. Marian?”
Veronica was on the log-bridge, saying this. Marian sighed and handed up the light.
She was under Dumain’s roof, lying on one of his beds. Charmante did not expect to sleep well. In a downtown house she’d never tried, in a room of shapes thrown by streetlamps beaming, now and then a motorcar puttering and honking. If this entity believed her an enemy, and willed himself rid of her, he might appear…manifest in some way. A fear wanted her attention, and could not have it yet. She was taking her contemplations in order.
That morning she’d walked into the garden, prepared to summon all the energy…force, whatever it was…whatever channel from the mirrors to her mind gave visions.
She had wanted to see Dumain at his window, watching, knowing…as she knew he had…that fire would break out in the cholera hospital. He had known it, he had waited for it, to thrill at it, to see flame shatter the first glass. To thrill at inquiry, listen to the screams, monitor the progress of escape…learn, of the inmates, who could. He stood curious to know whether these events produced patterns of behavior, how such patterns served or thwarted; what new knowledge could be applied to the next tragedy.
What difference, then, did tragedy itself make?
He put on his coat, walked the distance, found himself mobbed by panicked staff. He told them to lock the wards. And he had been a young man.
This room didn’t face Dumain Street. She wanted to tiptoe into the hall and find one that did, prove herself right or wrong by how whole the empty field showed. He might have watched the riot unfold too, forty years later, tallying up more of his useful data.
He might have watched, notebook in hand.
Charmante was tired, her limbs resisting. And if she got lost…she surely would…wearing Susie’s borrowed nightgown, having to knock on another resident’s door…
It would not be a lasting humiliation. However, the Institute was a serious place. Dumain’s house was not spookily empty; it was not even quiescent in the depths of night. Students pursuing degrees lived here, doing their research in the archives. Her door was outlined from a bulb that burned in the hallway; and voices in talk, sweetly earnest, rose from other rooms.
Once their feet had lighted on the road’s sparse gravel, Veronica lifted the lantern, and they saw the car behind, not ahead…they had landed down-current, closer to town.
Marian jogged off. Headlights, the revving engine. Leaning from the window, she called: “Doesn’t look like there’s anything wrong. Nobody bothered with it.”
Veronica rounded with the lantern, squatting by each tire, and climbed in last. “Mr. Brasher may well have stayed at his post, til it got… I wonder what you can see of the house from here?”
“You go on wondering.” Cool-handed, Marian backed them until the road widened well clear of the bank. She turned the car and bumped them on at an easy pace, bright pairs of eyes reflecting every several feet, animal haunches flinging into the woods.
“And so…how many Dumains are there altogether now? You may ask yourselves. Carolee was telling you how she found out from Charleton…well, what we are. What the family mission needed to be.”
Joseph Dumain knocked one night at his son’s door. Charleton did not live in the house alone. He was not alone, and the presence of boarders, of student doctors who interned at the clinic, kept his feet from the chasm, his eyes towards humanity.
Need was life, and the chasm was death.
“… an inner mythology, I suppose. I can’t call it sight. I don’t believe I’m insane. But Carolee, I feel a darkness encroaching…”
He felt it. He fought every day to turn himself from it. His cousin had given him an analyst’s sigh. “And what if you described things to yourself differently?”
But it was four a.m. He was in the kitchen, brewing coffee. His grandfather had conferred on him the responsibility of the clinic; and the running of it was not the burden.
The old man had a curiosity. What components of the human race tended towards stamina, but yet with no excess of soul, as Grandfather used the term? He used it in the way of the intellectual British. He did not want his ideal “unit” to think existential thoughts, to worry over the goodness of man, over his place or purpose. He felt there was a mix of the races—he wished to learn what it was—that produced a superior breed of soldier.
A soldier to end all wars; for, being bred, he could be sacrificed in unlimited numbers. War would be a game then, a gentleman’s game, and the people would not trouble themselves to follow it.
Charleton, at twenty-four, hadn’t the stamina to speak his outrage. He was on his feet sixteen hours of the day. Exhaustion did not help him sleep. He pulled back the door and saw Joseph, saw the weatherbeaten face grow pinched. He knew his own plain looks were bleached and hollowed uglier by his indoor life.
He hated this man. He was reminded, and his face told it.
Joseph said: “Don’t let the old man know. I’m staying a while. He’ll know, of course.”
Charleton’s arm barred the way.
“Damn you, don’t be an idiot.”
He was an idiot to his father, not a qualified doctor who saw a dozen patients a day, visited the homes of others, updated the books in the evenings, ate meals standing. Joseph practiced in a rough, camp fashion, born of the army, the mines, the places his store of information had ossified into his bible.
One day, Charleton climbed the stairs to the attic library.
Electric lights not strung here, but windows gave daylight on four sides…light enough. The library was cramped, stuffed with paper. A fire trap. The clinic had four floors, not counting cellar and attic, the one below needing a key to enter from a private staircase. Inpatients here were his grandfather’s…
And a small staff shared a residential ward, to watch them nights. Charleton was looking for an unimpeachable source, a medical journal that would tell Joseph not to hand out pills and send people away. He agreed with him…many had nothing wrong. They had pains and indispositions that would sort best with a day of bedrest; they made themselves sicker, and others sick, coming to the clinic.
But of course they couldn’t take a day. For their bosses, for their spouses, they needed infirmity, proof of it, in a bottle of pills.
His grandfather had wanted…he hadn’t known then why it surprised him, or why the surprise of it felt more a warning…to set aside the back rooms of the first floor as a special, Negro clinic. Charleton himself had hired Dr. Bonheur, feeling depressingly his junior. He would have chosen to be guided by Bonheur’s manner, to let the greater competence take charge. But as they could not work side by side, Bonheur’s mentoring was vicarious. Charleton felt his own patients sighed and made do, not much liking young Dumain…able to pity him, unable to hide they did.
He carried a case history to the window. He looked below into the yard, and saw Joseph, saw that Joseph was speaking to his cousin Godfrey. The yard was a ten-foot strip along the back premises, fitted with a hand-pump for water, a wrought-iron fence for a boundary, and a line for washing. Because of bedsheets, the men were sheltered from the alley; it was clear to Charleton his father was giving over a drug, a blue glass bottle.
Carolee…his mind took him to her…had borne up with Godfrey; she’d managed that. He was not able to state to her his admiration.
“Oh, Jesus Lord, don’t!”
The news he had of Godfrey painted him a degenerate, a pilferer, a fabricator of pathetic excuses, a creature void of the humane impulse…
Was evil too strong a word? It was not clinical, however, and Charleton said it to himself, that at any time he might meet a patient troubled like Godfrey.
Impartiality was the rule—
But Godfrey was not a patient. Joseph was shoddy about the dosages he measured; about marking them down in the record book, reconciling this with the charts. Charleton could see from where he stood a spat risen…they hissed at each other through their teeth, not to be overheard.
Who am I lying to? If I won’t tell the truth to myself.
He watched Joseph snatch at the bottle…and astonished, watched Godfrey’s face bunch into an animal sneer, watched him lunge and take Joseph, on the grass now, by the throat. The sturdy little bottle rolled off, its blue the thing discernible. And there was Bonheur, putting his head out the window.
Charleton flushed hot. He had heard his father’s voice: “None you need to involve yourselves…you keep to your own business, or look out…”
Amid these dismissals were issued three epithets…he would not let them echo in his head. Godfrey had the bottle and was gone. Going downstairs to duty, Charleton let the truth form itself.
The fight was over money. Joseph had sold tincture of opium, but Godfrey…no, of course, Godfrey couldn’t pay. At the foot of the staircase, Charleton turned onto the short hallway. The examining rooms, the open doors on either side…
The hall’s four benches.
“Hello…hello,” he said, and none of the patients answered. They had needed a second’s time from looking up at this stranger from the other side, to speaking, and Charleton was past by then.
“Dr. Dumain. Come in.” Bonheur stepped out, nodded to the waiting patients, backing. This room was empty. What Charleton wanted to say was not, “I apologize for my father.”
There was something in begging forgiveness that made matters worse. He said, “My father is…” He said, his voice regained: “We need to lock the drug cabinets. Here at the back maybe have bars fixed on the windows. If someone were wanting in from the yard…”
“Well, I always do lock the cabinets.”
“No…” His mouth lost that power at times to form words, no mental turning from place of threat to safe. His grandfather with the back of a hand had corrected this embarrassment…
“I suppose I was thinking aloud…not suggesting… Anything, sir, my father…I believe he is…not to be trusted around narcotics. Or intoxicants.”
Bonheur, cautious: “I notice, if he comes down here or if he turns up in the yard, it can be a little bothersome to the patients. There is only myself and Mrs. Turner to look after things. I don’t know that your father inclines to much natural respect…that is, about the places he puts his head into, or the ways he speaks to people.”
To be sorry for this was less a complexity, and Charleton apologized. He dared, “I don’t want him here. I don’t know how to be rid of him.”
“Bars,” Bonheur said, “might be an idea.”
They had agreed on that, their last conversation.
Mrs. Turner saw the pregnant women, spoke to them privately, so they could tell her things they’d have kept to themselves, even from Bonheur. Those things, Charleton understood, were sometimes the names of the men who’d forced this, the woman’s wish to end it. Mrs. Turner, if she performed abortions, acted contrary to the clinic’s mandate; it was a secret he felt he would never broach. At the same time, he felt secrets tainted the air around him.
He had come home to work under his grandfather’s preceptorship, at the charity hospital, the clinic building not yet renovated to a useable state. Charleton’s habit was early rising, leaving without breakfast, first to reach his grandfather’s office. He would have two hours at his studies before nine and rounds.
He wanted little of his grandfather’s society, disliked that in the grand house were servants, that handed-off overcoats and hats needing bringing back; cups of coffee, sandwiches, requesting. And that it was reasonable and fair to tell where you were going when you went…
So many checks and balances were burdensome to a recent college boy. Charleton was shy; only in his medical capacity (with conversation awkward in any case), did he take confidence. Old Dumain was, in the way of tyrants, encyclopedic of knowledge. Charleton in defense pored over patient files…when he felt he’d memorized them in gist, he went to the journals, teaching himself what he could about the diagnoses. He knew no one in this city where he’d grown up; he walked in thought of professional concerns only.
He began to notice Leonce.
Leonce was not then a young man who had a name, not whatsoever conceived as a close relation. He was colored, light-skinned, light-haired, handsome. He dogged Charleton’s steps, touched his cap sardonically.
“Hey, there, brother.”
He made these words a habit, and Charleton answered only, “Hello.” He said one morning: “How do you do?”
“Oh, dandy. Not too bad. Got a little daughter, needs looking after.”
So… The object was begging. But having nothing against charity, he rooted in his trouser pocket.
“Charleton Dumain, what’re you thinking of? I wonder if you know me.”
“Ought I to?” The arm went lank, the bill between two fingers at his side.
Leonce grinned. “Gracious, now. Listen to that. Ought I to.” He put a hand on Charleton’s shoulder, and they walked side by side.
He found himself pulled off the walk before his foot could land on the lowest step, before he could climb to his grandfather’s door. His father still pretended a distance between himself and Old Dumain, as though Charleton could be a repository for secrets. They went into the garden, to the well, Joseph lighting for a moment on the bench.
“Why’s it so rank?”
He swayed to his feet, threw his head in one direction and another, his motions an alcoholic’s bargain with balance, wild then arrested. “Get that brick. Drop it in.”
Seated, Charleton waited for him to make sense. But finding the act wasteful, he obeyed. Joseph came after him, flung to his elbows across the coping, and listened. “See there? Where the hell it goes?”
The well in Grandfather’s garden, true, billowed something putrid from its depths. And the brick had taken its time splashing…
And what if Joseph, in his curiosity, tipped in? Charleton, knowing what he felt, decided whatever his father’s business, he would take up his own. “I can’t let you have Godfrey visit. Not at the clinic. Have him in your room if you like.”
“I don’t recollect calling you down to say hello.”
“Well, you didn’t. I saw from the window.”
“Don’t like your cousin? Don’t think he’s good enough?”
“Sir, I was up in the attic.” Sir was all Charleton could call his father, gone all his life.
“Up in the attic, soon enough back down the stairs…”
A harangue now, that built while the two stared on, into the hole. A heavy flood would push what was discarded there, up to bob along the street; to eddy, tapping at basement windows. To lay itself out drying on the grass…and what would it be? Tiny bones? Needles and bottles?
The abyss told Charleton’s mind these things. He forced hearing, and his father was saying: “Bonheur has no respect for you. You don’t know the coloreds. Bonheur’d never have any time of day for Leonce. Calls himself Dumain.”
He broke and turned to laugh looking at his son.
“I don’t think Grandfather denies it. He gives Leonce money.” He had felt bold enough to say this, and calm.
“Well, Leonce got too much nigger blood to hide. You, he had some use for.”
Carolee had done secretarial studies at a junior college in the city, able to live in the dorm there, feeling not normal and social among the girls…never a fit with the normal, because she knew the island, her mother left behind there, and Godfrey. She was twenty years old. She had applied for acceptance at the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia. Of this not a word to her grandfather, instinct telling her she would not like his help, and she would not like his refusal of it. It was all a hemming in, a written fate, a frightening end coming, and while she ought to have given up career and gone to protect her mother, she saw in it herself, that she could reject duty…
That love, on the island of St. Hubert, had never really been.
As for boyfriends…she had tried very hard. She had let him be a husband to her, though knowing…
“I did think I would have to kill Godfrey. For us to marry in peace. Yes, I mean that in every absolute it implies. I could have pushed him in the water, the way…no. I should take that back, he was ten years old. But you know, I’m so sure he killed my aunt. I think it cracked him, I think his soul left his body at that moment. I picture his foul little mind a blank, the idea everything, the watching to see what would happen… And after his long spell, Godfrey was left with what he grew up to be. Charmante, you don’t have Dumain blood. You don’t know what it is to be…experimental.”
Godfrey might be dead. He had vanished, Charleton later telling them he was in the city…seen at the clinic buying laudanum from Joseph. But Godfrey could not have been arrested, mixed up in the riot for whatever reason.
Never have sat in a jail cell. He’d have begged, and wept, and offered bribes. Her poor mother would have been approached.
They said nothing at all to each other. Crossed fingers and doubted their luck. Buried Joseph Dumain in the family graveyard, there on the island.
For the open casket Carolee had to blame Elizabeth. He was her brother…she had the right, his only capable…willing…next of kin, to state to the undertaker her preference, Grandfather holed up in a pretense of shock. Joseph’s body had been found in the wreckage of the clinic, burned. Face down, the face salvageable.
Why the morbid impulse? A thing about her mother she had never known. The body in its casket sat on a table in the family chapel, the table draped with a rug. A rug that smelled, as everything so near the river smelled, of reclamation. Charleton quivered and hugged himself, and Carolee, enduring the sermon beside him, felt he was stricken mad by the bodies Grandfather had volunteered him to carry from the rubble and ash. To lay out for the families to name.
She took her turn at the shovel and dropped a clod of clay on the uncle she’d barely known, but by legend. She was angry they had done it to her, put a face on Joseph she would now remember.
After the burial, supper.
A buffet, Esta at service with Livia. And when Esta was gone home again to her niece and grandniece, as she had told them she must be, this old woman near ninety would be left to manage…
The futility of providing human company for Elizabeth Dumain Roback and her daughter. Mr. Shirey, their minister, was the only visitor now.
Carolee carried her plate to her room. She thought of being alone. And thought, that in town she would find it tolerable. That if the college accepted her, Old Dumain would put her at Charleton’s side, both his grandchildren harried to idiocy by their infantile cowardice in his presence. The takings-on he could spin into mankind itself suffering for the sins of disobedient children…
What did it mean to resurrect a clinic, in a burned and spoiled neighborhood? Ugly, disheartening labors. Failure at length. If the college accepted her, she would withdraw her application…but she had no fear of this happening.
“This is my room. Go lose yourself.”
She said it because she knew only Charleton could knock at a door that way. But he’d come in. Sat on her bed, picked up her mother’s angel and fingered it. While he did, he told her what he had been told by Joseph…
“I think I’ll tell you why I’d gone back to the island. I wasn’t a spineless girl. I could have taken secretarial work, eked along…done my best, even, to keep clear of the institute. But I say that, knowing I was never tested.”
“You can’t keep clear,” Veronica said. “Look at me.”
“The man I told you about. Your heart stops you, doesn’t it, Charmante? You know when you can love and live with someone, and when you can’t. He’d have done what they call the right thing, of course, if he’d felt forced to it.”
“Here we are at the crossroads,” Marian said.
Her voice had more in it than fact. Charmante thought she offered Carolee a chance to change her mind, not tell what was easy to guess now, anyway.
“The island was good for that. We had cleaners once a week by that time, and fixed our own suppers. I was very unremarked there. Not especially unwell. Tired…I felt like some vital part had been surgically removed. He told me, though, I could have as many children as I liked…the doctor found for me by my mother, so I knew she’d asked Grandfather. To think of Grandfather’s knowing was just as awful as if he’d scraped me out himself.“
Carolee’s phrase made William shift in his seat.
“And then Charleton… No, I could never have children, never put that taint on a child, have him grow up, take that risk…”
The city had a curfew, so the cars did not run around the clock. At the shed they were swept out, shined up, checked under seats for baggage. It happened now and then, a sleeper…but these were drunks, so the job was to sober them up to where they’d make off under their own steam.
“Who you think that looks like?”
It looked to William like the man who’d got him shitcanned, the reason he spent his days at these lowly tasks. The lost baggage more bother than any abasement of the broom and rag…a comedown only because he’d been conductor for a good few years…
But the baggage, because how long before you’d be accused of taking something? Or strong-armed into seconding false testimony? That, in the seat…he thought of it now…had forced the knowledge on him, in his jawboning way, a snare for the man in power not corrupt in accord with city custom. A woman sent to complain she’d lost her purse, up from someplace south, nowhere to stay, too far from home, couldn’t pay for a bed…
Leonce would wink. “Bird in hand.”
You did not precisely know a dead man when you saw him, but you knew the smell of blood, the burst balloon of gas and fluids a living gut holds in. William decided if the shed boss thought the corpse was Leonce Dumain, he could say so. If he thought a man who’d been under his own eyes since three in the afternoon could be caught out, have done magic, been two places at once…he’d have to find a wiser way of saying it.
William answered with a shrug, and didn’t care if this looked stupid or stubborn.
“In’t that Leonce? Leonce…something.”
“I don’t know him.”
He didn’t know if he was being prompted to say the name. Gossip was a bitch in this town if they thought the riot of twenty-two years past still could thread back to the brother of Harold Wright. That exposed cringing over the mouthing of “Dumain”, he could be hounded to supply an answer.
“Seem sensible to see if he’s drunk.”
William agreed. That smell. Those white crooked fingers. Ain’t drunk, go to hell. You put your hand on a dead man if you want.
The boss muttered, pushed past and shook Leonce.
Veronica said: “I guess he cheated his customers. He told me everyone thinks the numbers are fixed. The only right fix is to let everyone win a little so they keep quieted down and playing. Someone took a seat behind him and shot him in the head. Didn’t take his money purse, just revenge. I measure my father by the fact that once Carolee had gathered me in, so to speak…once I’d got my diploma and gone to work for the institute, which is to say, for Grandfather…Leonce did not show up. He did not bother me or my mother. I don’t think he ever wanted for money. I saw him last time a few months before he was killed. Just to wave to…that was us, we waved.”
Old Dumain, the Chevalier, his father’s title that in his youth he’d borne for others’ irony, had died at ninety-six in 1920. One of his sons was dead before him—Joseph, in the riot of ’01. Another, acknowledged only as grandson, ruled a suicide in ’19. A third, unacknowledged, had outlived him by three years, murdered in ’23.
Carolee shrugged. In the dark of the car, Charmante, sitting next to her, felt she did. The mother of Charleton and Leonce had been Dumain’s daughter. Had the devil found Polly and Lil, his white daughters, inviolable? Favored the younger, Elizabeth, over Mary?
Taking, of course, his conception of favors into account.
“Polly was a troubled woman. And Godfrey…I’m sure I’ve given you a picture, by now, of Godfrey. I haven’t got an answer. At any rate, I wasn’t the rightful heir. My mother died in aught-eight. The accident with her horse. Our lawyer…my lawyer, my cousin Giles Roback, ran out a portion of the estate hunting for Godfrey. Trying to prove him dead. Alive if it came to it. Grandfather had placed St. Hubert in a forty-nine-year lease with the government. He’d effectively disinherited us…myself, of course. Leonce was not in the picture, and so not Veronica. Some theoretical heir, son or daughter of a son or daughter, if Giles finds such a person, may reclaim the island one day. Your Carmine, if he will. Meanwhile, Giles found records of my grandfather’s. Notebooks, with lineages and assessments, and trials…trials of…”
“Experimental constructs. As you’ve said, dear. He’d meant for his science to be a legacy. He wasn’t ashamed…no, he was the Great and Chosen, that was exactly what Grandfather believed. The books had diagrams for the mirror arrangements—even that wasn’t a secret. A blueprint for those who would carry on the work. Imagine a family discovering…”
Veronica, more confident than her cousin, fell no less mired over descriptives. “We thought we needed to locate the people listed. They were blood, after all. They might be ill. They might be in poverty. It wasn’t right to have money in trust for the institute, and property…”
“Money,” Carolee cut in, “that was mine, if Godfrey was never found. I don’t live in that little bungalow because I can’t do better. But, because…I have better things to do.” She paused on this turn of phrase. “I hope it doesn’t sound boastful to say I’m one of the good Dumains. I have chosen never to marry, never to bear a child. Veronica has pledged this with me.”
“And we’d thought, our friend Rothesay. He is a son, a proper direct Dumain, his mother one of the institute women. William, I don’t know if she was yours.”
“Not a thing I mind to go pursuing, ma’am.”
Charmante had let them talk on, would not…hadn’t come to terms…couldn’t, yet, ask of Carolee or Veronica…
What happened to Dr. Bonheur? How could he have vanished?
Everyone at the clinic knew him. They loved him.
“Rothesay studied medicine abroad. He had stayed, after the war, moving between Dover and Ghent, doing relief work at first, then teaching. We wrote letters back and forth…I’ll take the blame for finding all that history too trustworthy. He had no wife, he told me. The calling was everything. He said he sometimes wondered what it would be to have a daughter. Sly as that, you’ll note. But I took it for a straight answer, straight enough. Carolee and I decided giving him the house was right, the best choice all around, because a clinic for the poor was just what, he said, he had in mind. The money saved, he said, would mean more for the good works.”
Still. Doers of good works must state their good intentions in ordinary terms.
A devil might read the secret heart.
She woke, seeing the room with its Queen Anne furniture dimmest, the light of bare sunrise, her eyes with the grainy feel of not enough sleep. Charmante in her own bed would have rolled over. But she’d dreamed of unresolved things, and she was in Old Dumain’s house. It seemed to her, rising and donning Susie’s robe, that the drive to the city, however poky for the road’s poor surface, could have lasted an hour at best… The distance was eight or nine miles.
She turned an armchair to face the window, saw a fenced lawn, a small square, a misty wellhead at center. A strong image came of Godfrey’s ghostly face. She knew Charleton and Joseph had spoken here. Could anyone tell a secondhand story, someone else’s, tell it so potently the listener found herself walking at his side, seeing the sights he saw himself, hearing a voice she would recognize, in tenor, in accent…?
Accent, degraded Carolina. Tenor, sneering. She would never hear Joseph speak to prove to herself this was so. But Carolee had not given her Charleton’s thoughts and experiences. He’d given his own. In her few hours’ sleep, there had been time.
Was it possible, then, that William had told his story as she recalled? Had he ever spoken so much? And would he, speak before an aristocratic Dumain, and Leonce’s daughter? Nothing in the flow of consciousness was hidden from the mirror people—the living, the dead, the dreaming, the thoughtful, all one. No way to be certain, for the fog raised between their world and yours, whether you had the right to your information, or whether you ought to conceal the knowing of it.
William, telling Marian to stop the car on Lafayette Avenue, another neighborhood demarcation, had left them. No one asked why he refused a room at the institute, and would not have Marian deliver him to his door. He preferred making his way, on streets where a man walking in the dark would trouble few, home to his sister’s house without odd company…
More to the point, recognizable company. What taking up with Dumains meant to the Wright family, Charmante had learned. It would be a fault against her in Jane Breedlove’s book.
Through the wall an airy chime sounded. Half-past six now. And coffee was brewing, the institute staff starting the day’s work, noises of routine. Someone pushed a carpet sweeper in the hall. Through the wall again, voices…an audible snatch.
What about me? Chamante asked herself.
Toilets and showers for residents were on the ground floor. “Plumbing in an old place like this…” Susie had shaken her head, showed in passing a closet off the staircase landing. “There’s a commode and a washstand in there.”
A knock, and her name again. “Mrs. Demorest. I took away your things last night. You all were in some mud! Now here, these are from Veronica. She thinks they’ll do for you.”
The garments seemed Veronica’s uniform: cardigan, pintucked blouse, and plaid skirt. Charmante’s cotton stockings were gone being washed, and she had no substitute. But Susie read her thoughts. “I’ll run over to my room. Look at that waist quick, and see if you need a safety pin.”
“Oh…bring one. Thank you.”
The dining room functioned on the principle of getting your own from the kitchen. Warming plates on a sideboard sat under deep dishes of scrambled eggs and grits. Cold ham… Soft butter… A four-slice toaster, worked by the first comer for whoever else wanted some. Coffee in the pot, orange juice and milk in pitchers. Sorghum syrup in its own bottle.
She carried her plate and cup, and found Mr. Carmine by himself.
“Hello! How are you feeling today?”
“Mrs. Demorest. I’m embarrassed.” He gave her an under-the-lids glance, and said, lower, “I have a lapse of memory. I almost think I was not well yesterday, but… Was it yesterday?”
“It was a very busy day.” She said this as to a child. She admonished herself, but went on just the same: “You haven’t done a thing wrong. You do feel better though?”
“Ready to take myself off. I don’t care to look Veronica in the eye.”
“Now, really, I promise you…”
“Carmine. You haven’t come begging employment of Miss Dumain?”
The tone was tolerant jesting; suggestive for that, that Carmine had embarrassed himself. That Rothesay had walked in, approached them in this unnoticed way, at once to exert pressure she knew Carmine would feel as such, was not what alarmed Charmante.
“And, Mrs. Demorest, I make no mistake in supposing I still employ you?”
“I’m at fault,” Carmine said. “She was trying to help. I don’t know what… I got out of bed yesterday, and I…”
“Mr. Rothesay, I may be late. But I’ll start at ten, as usual, if I can.”
Rothesay, his first open rudeness, turned unanswering and took a seat next to Carmine, tapping him on the knee. “Today we have opportunity to try one of the things we’ve discussed. I believe there is great healing power in the mirrors, as you know.”
He caught his son by the elbow; they stood to leave, Carmine leaving the better part of his breakfast. There was nothing to call out in warning.
You could not charge a respectable physician, before a crowd of young students, a handful of sober administrators, with being a man possessed. To Esta, Devil Dumain had been a sinister figure, peering at her beady-eyed. Esta had never met a powerful white man on his own level.
Charmante didn’t flatter herself…she had not either.
But Rothesay’s affable manner, only peeved, only that at times; his facility with phrases that could put you in your place, but could, if you were not careful, sail right over your head… Dumain had been this way. Dumain, the young man of her vision and Meeker’s story, winning easy friendships, making his persuasions with humor. Plausible, forgiven.
Dumain would be a Rothesay…not a demon at all. Not by appearances. Was he angry she was here? Did he suspect her of undermining his purpose, of seeing his purpose, for Carmine? Did he mark how she’d separated them, did he vow to put a stop to this woman’s interference…?
Or was he only the man he seemed, Charmante wisest now to clean Rothesay’s house one further morning, feed poor Carmine, write her apology and resignation in the afternoon? Be done.
Veronica entered, in company with a person of secretarial air, whose face, whose arms hugged to his chest, said I hardly knew what to do…
“Are you going over to the house? I might go with you.”
“Veronica, I need you to be here…in case.” She beckoned. Veronica took Carmine’s chair and leaned in. “I don’t know anyone in this part of the city. I don’t know what would amount to a safe haven, if I haven’t got the institute. If I needed to bring someone out of the house…”
Chamante felt defensive. Tricked, in a way…Susie was a servant. So am I, she wanted to say. That is not at all what I was thinking.
Veronica must, being adventuresome—the notion rang true—be amoral. Not amoral in the soul, but in that doing right for her meant parsing pros and cons, planning campaigns. When the bold charged to the confrontation, they were consumed by whatever happened next.
The reticent, the meek, the cautious, thought better of who it happened to.
“I really need to go home first. It’s not much past seven, is it? Last night I couldn’t let my aunt know why I didn’t…there’s no phone line out that way. Someone would have to have walked from the gas station…”
Poor Mr. Roy, the owner, be rung off his cot by the bell.
And Esta, she doubted, knew what number to ask for. Unfair to put her in such a position, needing the operator’s help finding Rothesay, as though she chased after this city doctor’s business. As they did, but for the direst of crises, Esta would query the grapevine.
“And what do you do at the institute?”
Her driver was the secretary. But Paul now told her his work was in the archives. “You see, all the studies collect reams of data, and…say…a professor in Canada, a doctor in Switzerland, wants to know if a public milk program would improve test scores for children. So we find anything done on milk, for health, anything showing upcurves in performance of schoolchildren, and compile the fields that overlap. The client makes use of our work as he sees fit, of course.”
“And so you don’t particularly assist Veronica?”
He turned pink and laughed. “Everyone assists Veronica.”
“Oh, I believe you.”
It was necessary to tell him where to make his turns, and advisable, if while keeping an eye out and making small talk she could, to learn what those at the institute knew of Dumain. Likely the staff were naïfs. Possibly they shared and guarded the secret.
“You don’t sound like a local. Does the institute advertise, or do professors recommend graduates for a place? Is it…”
She cut short the answer he was bursting to give, and covered herself with a touch of demurral. “I’m sorry to pry, but it’s so interesting! Is it an insider’s arrangement? For, statisticians…? Or are you really only medical researchers?”
“No, ma’am. Not medical per se, more public welfare. A lot of the programs started…or, go back…”
This last muttered, a coaching of himself. “Taking the Spanish flu into account…that was a big upsetter, you know…the country was not ready for it.”
He stopped speaking, as they’d come to the canning plant, the gas station, and her turn.
“The Dumains, did they have a special reason?”
“That I can’t say. The funding was from the trust, and then the institute separately…”
Won grants…a guess. Coming so soon on her house, a time/distance equation always measured walking, she laid a hand on his arm. In her town, the few who owned cars contrived their ways of keeping them. Houses fronted close to the road, none had drives or garages. But there were backyards. What Paul was to do, or what he might want to do, she hadn’t thought.
“Pull over if you can, and come in.”
“Oh, maybe I should stay with the car, in case.”
“I need to change clothes. It will be a while.”
He didn’t mind, he said.
Well, she couldn’t fault his courage, bound to carry only so far. He’d described his work without tone or simplification, called her ma’am without condescension. Whether Veronica taught her people things…whether they knew why…was a question not to be asked.
She pulled her door shut, her mind on what clothes to change into. Her work shift and apron couldn’t suit the visit Charmante had hectored herself into paying, before the daunting thing…before Rothesay’s house.
“Who’s that out there?”
“You look comfy. Maybe I should let you take that chair home.”
Esta was stretched on the brown rocker, feet on the ottoman, afghan on her lap. “Now, was I sitting here talking to myself?”
“His name is Paul. I don’t think I caught the other. He works for the Metropolitan Institute, in town.”
“Well, I don’t know. The only bona fide Dumain I’ve met is Veronica. And she’s an employee there…of some kind. What are your plans?”
“I just came to see you got home all right.”
“Maybe you ought to make coffee while I change. Maybe Paul will come in. Maybe he won’t.”
Her silk stockings, home-dyed, were for church. For church, this was not showoffish—it was respect, wearing one’s best to visit His house. But what would Jane think? Mrs. Breedlove to you, Charmante told herself. And being honest, found she had that inclination…to not love Mrs. Breedlove, for whose opinion she had to weigh whether her best would bring the greater condemnation, or the clothes she wore maiding for Rothesay.
“That boy of yours is out there talking to Mr. Meeker and writing down in a book.”
Esta reported this, coming into the bedroom, without having put the pot on.
“It’s his work. They’re serious people at the Institute… Esta! We’ve never talked about the riot.”
She stepped into a taffeta frock, and Esta moved to fasten the buttons.
“Don’t worry…I don’t want to know much. Just, what did you think went on, yourself? About Daddy.”
“I thought what everyone knew. Not where they took him…not if he was dead. They all folks, Dumains, stirred the trouble up, that’s what I thought. Two hundred men arrested and sent off for labor.”
Oblique was the way people said it. Even Esta, even here in a town where the sentiment was universal. They’d wanted men in the coal mines. Prison labor cost nothing. The only thing between a free citizen and a prisoner was a fall. A fall was an easy thing to arrange for a black man.
“What did you think, then, about Harold Wright? And Rance, of course, Rance Goodson.” Who’d had a mother, too.
“No sense. Couldn’t do what they was taught.”
Esta’s face came round her waist, in the vanity mirror catching her eye, making Charmante close her mouth.
“I set up for you cause I have a thing to tell you. You couldn’t never surprise me, no matter what, once you got yourself in with Dumains. I said, I know just why she ain’t come home. Nothing I can do. But then I said, Esta, now, after all this time you better tell.”
Said this, for the ears of Mrs. Parkins, or of God?
Charmante sat on the bed; Esta took the armchair.
She was twenty years old.
Her birthday was not remarked in the household. She had been married two years to Charles, not a choice. Esta hadn’t yet, at eighteen, considered love, whether love were possible, and if so, who? She had a brother nine years her elder, better placed to walk free of Roback land. He was gone. Takings like his, going alone to the city, patching along for yourself, cowed. She thought Ma’am wouldn’t like it…would in that way of hers big up those despairing eyes, flutter those hands, say: “Well, go,” on a great sigh. Auntie Livie, a very old servant, whose husband had been Augustus…names Esta’s brother had made her believe, without saying, were for the lowest and the blackest…
Augustus really had come from Africa…dear old man…
Livia told her, you can’t go, just because you think you can.
Esta didn’t exactly think it. Polly had wanted her to marry Charles. She’d done this; she saw Livia’s point. What did it mean to say, I’d rather not? It meant you thought you had someplace to go.
She was out in the kitchen, seeing if there was a little fat and flour to bake a cake for herself. A wildcat shriek came from the riverside. Or the noise had seemed a panther. Livia pushed to her feet on her stick.
“Lord Amighty! Charles get his shotgun.”
Quiet, and then keening…like a caterwaul but with words to it, human…
She and Livia had to wash and lay out the body. This was not so awful—Polly had been fresh. Livia clucked and moaned. Esta patted the hair with a linen towel.
“Auntie, should I get some rosewater to rinse it out?”
“Well, child, go on.”
“Charmante, I baked that cake.”
“Ma’am, you had a right.”
Esta and Livia baked a number of things through the rest of the week. First, Godfrey upstairs lay frozen on his bed, eyes drilling the ceiling, eerie little noises coming from his chest…Esta leaving the door standing open when she had to bring up a tray. On another day, he ate in a ravenous way that she found obscene.
“Charles, what’d you see when you went down there?”
Four days after the death, and Polly well buried in the Roback plot. Old Devil gone back…to where, Esta had no picture. She knew almost nothing of Polly’s father, who had summoned his daughter when he wanted a visit.
She was expecting, so Charles said to her, “You best not know. Won’t do you no good.”
No, if this little one had to be born with a spirit in him or her, no mother would wish, for fool nosiness, to have brought that on. She held her tongue for a minute.
“But that child, sugar, what ails him?”
He shook his head. She loved Charles a little, at that moment, for the commiseration in his eyes. He had been very willing for Mr. Roback, always at any hour getting himself up for a chore; becoming, since the family had gone down…so many on the island slipped away rather than take leave…the man who did everything, and far too much.
Esta had waited to see him hate them.
“Not enough whippin,” he said.
A month after the death, Mr. Roback still kept in town at his hotel, seeing after his ruined bank. This was the job he’d been given by the receivers. From ’75 when Roback’s closed, to ’78, reopened for the disbursing of thin assets to first claimants, to now, and the end of his married life, he’d been off the island almost always. He was not there to whip Godfrey; he was not there to see his son recovered.
Not there to visit him at all.
Godfrey was in Livia’s care, led that day to a rocker on the veranda, bundled up tight in a quilt, given a pitcher of strong tea. At once he’d kicked it to the paving…shattered. Esta hauled her bucket and mop, duster and broom, managing all in one swoop however much Charles would fret if he saw her climb two flights without the handrail. She was angry…Livia called this baby anger, said not to mind, but tuck a little nosegay in the bodice of her dress.
Esta was angry they were bereft on this island like lunatics taken over the asylum. No one blamed poor widowed Roback, so much tragedy in the family… But he’d burdened Livia as though her age somehow put her in charge. More than once Godfrey had knocked her to the floor. He would kill her.
She dropped her cleaning things, made to strip the stinking bed, decided the shutters ought to be thrown well open…not just here, but all along the hall, moving what air could be moved through the stagnant sickroom. The big closet had a door at either end. It was Polly’s room Esta shoved her way into. Shoved, because a chest blocked passage. Something fell chiming to the carpet…to her relief, only a brass bell. Esta doubted a living soul knew what bric-à-brac belonged to the house…
Then, if she broke a thing, so be it.
She walked the door wider, eased her belly around…marveled suddenly. It came to her Polly had arranged this, had wanted warning if her son tried to enter her room. Maybe she’d used to lock the other door.
Across from the poster-bed was a long bureau and heavy mirror hung on wire, its weight looming…a threat. Esta heard a splash of water, an inch, inch, as though the mirror strained at its mooring. She saw Polly.
“You are the wise one. Please do condemn us all. That’s only right. Don’t let that child be born on the Ile St-Hubert, my poor Esta. But let me tell you what I must. If this mirror leaves its place, return it. On no account break one. On no account let the circle be. But take each and carry it to its home.”
This end of Dumain was difficult. She thought the Breedlove house would be off a side-street, and here were only businesses. Conspicuous as she was dressed, Charmante expected a small wave of news to precede her. At the same corner William had told Marian the night before, Paul had let her go. She would get the address from whatever of these places showed promise. Not this one, number 818, whitewashed and padlocked.
A little café ideal…how good a cup of coffee would be…
But a sundry shop, a barber shop…
She came to a girdled truncation of hips and thighs in a window, two headless torsos sporting scaffolded brassieres. Madame LaMode, painted on both glass panels. It would be comforting to ask a woman, but if she entered, she would need to buy something.
French Teddies, a hand-lettered sign offered, first to catch her eye.
“Hello!” she called back.
The proprietor was found squatting under a rack, unpacking a box. Charmante stretched a hand to her. But the oh, dear hadn’t been her knees…it was Charmante herself.
“There. You look very nice. You don’t make your own dresses, do you?”
Madame, as Charmante supposed her, stepped back, stepped around, her question not an insult…the emphasis on own.
“Not this one.”
“No.” Thoughtful. “But yes, if I were choosing for myself, I would do a full skirt. A belt gives a figure. Yes…”
She took Charmante by the elbow, ushered her to a fully-limbed mannequin. “The Regine. You see she’s not a bit like your mother’s stays. Like second skin, dear.”
Madame patted her hips.
A dollar half-slip had been the hasty plan. These shops, in their way, counted as neighborhood; Charmante worked on Dumain and could have, if she’d liked, walked down to browse. A little conversation, before she committed herself to a ten-dollar girdle. Albeit a sumptuous deep pink. And made in Paris…
No, it seemed mad. It seemed almost a test. “I work for Mr. Rothesay. At the other end of Dumain.”
She might. Charmante gave another fact. “My father was Dr. Bonheur…you might remember him.”
“Oh, I know Mrs. Turner very well. I’ll take you up to her one day. She’s been retired twenty years now.”
This, low-voiced and knowing, the non-sequitur implying… Ah!
But of course, Charleton’s intelligence.
“Why, dear. What a look you had on your face this minute!”
“My name is Charmante Demorest. I came down here wanting the address of a Mrs. Jane Breedlove. If you know her…?”
“My daughter-in-law, dear. I have a telephone in the office. And I,” she added, pushing off along a narrow aisle, “am Gloria.”
William did not enviably have a phone, but the Breedloves and Jane’s brother shared a metered one with the upstairs and downstairs apartments in their house.
“Are you cooking, love? Or do you want to go to Main’s? She says…” Gloria perched the talking end while a voice could still be heard, the operator’s, asking a deposit of five cents. “We ought to walk down, have a cup of coffee, you meet everyone. Albert, my son, won’t be home for lunch til after eleven. Now, you know Main’s, the cafeteria, nothing to do with those people…”
She added argument in the way of one, also with the eye of one, who can’t believe this is a problem for you. The after-lunch arrival at Rothesay’s might just be, but of priorities, Charmante preferred this. The Breedloves seemed making an occasion of her visit—and she’d come for the express purpose of erasing a bad impression.
She liked William in his suitcoat and tie. They could walk on side by side, one further block, a Sunday couple on a weekday afternoon. Talk about what they had, at Main’s. (What else could a cafeteria be called, on that corner of Dumain and Main?)
How you could tell a hurricane sky, if you could…
The fall one making plenty of work, but…swept off those white trash shacks down the river. And too bad, no one said any different, you didn’t wish ill on anyone.
She smiled for Albert. Her telltale face had altered, reminded of Brasher, a person she’d met. But the skies all this spring, just evil looking, don’t you think? Yes, Jane. Trying to say her name in a friendly way, overwhelmed being wanted by William’s sister. In the family.
Somehow she was there already. On Albert’s crew, a man who’d lived through Galveston, back when. “They climbed up onto the roof of a house and from there got onto a hotel, used boards or just anything floating, get themselves across, try to find high ground someplace up above the tide.”
Back when. Silent attention to pie. Galveston close to the time of the riot, a thing not mentioned out and about. Then Gloria, segueing on the strength of it, returned Mrs. Turner.
“She has always had kindly things to say about Dr. Bonheur.”
“Yes, I’d like so much to sit down with her.”
A gift. A keepsake? Something home baked…
She weighed it. They neared Rothesay’s.
“You’ll come inside this time? Come back to the kitchen, William, because I have to tell you an important thing. A story of Esta’s.”
This one day she had license…some…for the laxity of starting work too late to fix lunch, which was a duty. The kitchen smelled of grease; random dishes belonging in cabinets sat on the stove, worrying her. Either of her charges might be innocent enough to put a bowl on a burner.
“Listen for a minute. Do you hear them?”
William shook his head. “I’ll sit here and keep an eye up the passage.”
She sat, though itching to tidy, equally to go upstairs and call after Carmine, facing herself towards the garden door. Both entries covered. “Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe somehow it’s over. But this word comes from Polly.”
She told him, hushed. She felt the island’s hum with them, here in town.
“Esta held that inside, then and all the years after. She couldn’t tell Charles, she wouldn’t tell Livia. Livia would have been terrified to death.”
The bell rang.
William stirred. “I’ll come right along beside you.”
Together they went through the library, through the front foyer. The bell rang again, and making hurriedly past the landing, Charmante heard…someone. The truth, he said. The voice that answered seemed Leonce. She hoped it was not that way.
“Open up!” Cheerful, and Veronica. “William! How do!”
She swept indoors. “Charmante! I know you wanted this little friend back home, but you forgot to take him along when you went off with Paul. Go, baby.”
She let Sir Christopher drop to the floor from the flap of her mackintosh. Charmante pivoted on a heel, thinking of his saucer of milk, that he’d scurry off expecting it, and his can of sardines…
He didn’t go to the kitchen. He went for the mirrors.
And as the cat’s tail whipped round the newel post, Rothesay from the shadowed hall materialized, walking down ahead of Carmine.
“What sort of emergency is this?” Bass, raspy, southern.
The state of feeling, the voice conveyed, was tetchiness…as to why William should be in his house. Perhaps, in his town clothes, who he was…
Rothesay cleared his throat at William, asking. And why did Veronica stand there, chin lifted, staring him down?
“How do like that?” She knocked Charmante on the arm. “I think I can introduce you. Grandfather, don’t you know what we’re after?”
Carmine at the top of the stairs had stalled, his face working oddly…against his will, was Charmante’s thought. She thought then, not so…poor Nat hasn’t got one. It was Leonce, at battle with another. Rothesay advanced, a step nearer, a step nearer. Power gathered in the eyes, the mouth… She fixed Old Dumain with a stare of her own, remembering wanting to know this, what stamped a man’s features as he annotated horror in his mental book, threading out details into new planned horrors…
Veronica, not caring, shoved past.
Her shoulder bumped Carmine. Then she was gone, into the mirrored room. William threw an arm around Charmante. She had choked back a cry, decided Veronica could not be recalled. And who was to tell a Dumain she endangered herself?
Either Leonce, or his enemy, won. Carmine dove for Rothesay; Rothesay flying bang into the stair-rail, the two tumbling to stillness. That was all.
The ugly false front, the gable that is no gable. A peak constructed of brick…it has a flavor of the low country…
Of Europe, yellow and red.
Approaching from the trolley stop, you see this, the old man’s house. There were parts of France, too, such architecture, such refusal to be lovely, such Protestant disdain…for you, the non-elect…exemplified Home. You might carry this masonry oceanbound in memory, recreate it as American comfort.
Comfort, the devil you know. You return to the garden, or arrive there, wonder, shudder, at the candy-pink spirea…the waxy pachysandra. Why the unerring eye, Grandfather? Cussedness? Fear of a rival god? A Dumain’s towering arrogance, that he shall decree a thing and have you believe it?
And if you cannot, how interesting. Human nature, let us study it.
Under a no-more-compatible mimosa, dropping blossoms the pink of sunburnt white flesh, a bench. Concrete. Green, blackened. Fungal colonies bore into its pittings. You will look at this bench, look at this bench, and see yourself. For a flickering of air that embodies the form of a man, you see your father. He should be Joseph. You are Charleton.
But he is Benjamin Oriah Bonheur. A youth…
To a daughter of forty-two, he seems so. He looks afar off, over the river, at peace. Half-dozing. Once so wise, so young. You today are older than he…you have never totted up accounts. Did not, when three years ago you reached age thirty-nine.
That is to suppose him dead…
You fought. Forever…miracle like an iridescent bubble floating. But the evaporating remains were vanished, you had not seen the day it burst. You might be Esta’s age, and then you would of course resign yourself. She had been cautioned, but had birthed the boy on St. Hubert. Ought she to have clung to Charles, begged him to row her across?
Joseph stands, sneering. His neck is broken; he laughs…the noise lolls out in saliva and viciousness. Life’s been hard on you, son? Go have a gander. Put your head right inside.
The well wants to vapor out something bluish, mist with a sulphurous incandescence.
The smell is deeply foul. Joseph also, fatty and charred. See him. He won’t have you cast aside responsibility. See, Charleton, here comes Godfrey. He belongs to this rehearsal. Your head turns, though you force your muscles tighter. Joseph puts his back to you, all undressed, flesh not like a blackened log in a fire-grate, more part-skinned, part bronzed. Mottled yellow and red.
I don’t care. I have only one care. I see we are in the clinic. I remember it. Was my father murdered? He could have done nothing but try to help.
You see a white stucco house with clay tile roof, an engineer’s aerie. Below, the shantytown, thrusting angles of jerry-built dilapidation, wind-blown mosquito netting tangling in palms, metal tanks of water…or fuel, rusted. You go barefoot. The air is almost wet against your skin. A doctor not of much help here…they believe African blood is proof against the yellow fever. Proof against this sweating suffocation of labor. It isn’t.
But the dead are replaced.
Blue-jowled Godfrey out of the well, follows the clamp of hands on its coping. Fingers without nails, bone-ends. In this guise, he is eyeless…the lips hang so flaccid as to tear themselves free. The fingers strain and separate, two or three fall to lodge on a creeping vine, a jessamine. But his mood is merry, like Joseph’s. Only too happy to tell you his accident matters, it must be known. Carolee…Lil…
Ha. Who cares about Lil? Dowager queen of boxed remains, doyenne of Robacks in their graves. Remember, Mrs. Demorest, how satisfied they were, to have me gone for good? I was melting away down there. Why, if you hire a man to dig, my twelve-years’ disintegrating corpus might still be found. Where truth is found.
Ha ha, again.
I am trying to cooperate. It’s the shortest way, I believe. To shoulder injustice. Why should a thing like this fall out of the sky on anyone? We are given burdens in life to bear. I think of you Carrie, and our baby girl, and what good money is, if we end up spending it to knock our heads against a wall. Until I’m home I can’t look anyone in the eye and make them hear. You’ve lived your year without me. Go on, then, and let it be.
You look at Joseph, through the window, the clinic in darkness. The hour of the day is six or seven, the sky brooding. As so often it broods. Dumain’s particular patients lie abed, some strapped, some drugged. Some with tubes in their veins but ambulatory. They feel dazed, weakened, but will need if they can to find strength.
To smash wire-embedded panes, bang, bang. These windows, so freshly painted white, are painted shut.
To drop, though the drop is three stories, to the little garden court. Or burn.
Your companion is Leonce. If it matters, you are thirty-two in this year of 1901, and he is twenty-five. To the extent of jealousy, it matters…yes. One of these two, an outsider, a Mrs. Demorest, might observe, is misshapen. His belly sags, pushing undershirt through button-gaps, over trouser band. His arms are heavy, jacket big in the shoulders to accommodate flab, how weight sits on him. He is stooped and triple-chinned, cavern-chested. If he stood beside Charleton, Godfrey in young middle age would look his father. Godfrey is an exile from his own inheritance, Grandfather with an agent in every pawnshop, Wilmer Roback’s guardian angel his son’s “protector”, fingers on the pursestrings of his allowance…enough monthly to die on.
The two watch Joseph potter in the pharmacy.
Burning fills the air, but wise Leonce says they won’t take off til nighttime. Dr. Bonheur has cleared the hall, warning the sick there’ll be no help for them today: “Get home and shut your doors.”
He’s gone driving Mrs. Turner’s brougham—she has more money than Bonheur himself—seeing her safely to her own home. His plan is to make for the courthouse, downtown, where they say the fighting got started. He is not alone in this. Charleton’s note had said meet me there…
Charleton half-dead these latter days, pallid cheeks vein-etched, eyes stricken…
Given to staring after the old man in a way that troubles Bonheur.
Old Dumain descends from his manor house, uses his key, and climbs the staircase. No one knows what he does up there. That something will become of the wretched clan, Bonheur never doubts. The more Dumains in one place, the more unearthly the atmospheric hum. He is a scientific man and puts these thoughts aside.
“I’ll need to close things down, lock up…”
Joseph must be left to guard the building, see to the patients. There will be wounded, poor whites and blacks alike who don’t deserve dirty nails and shaking hands, probing.
Leonce tries the door. The lever under his thumb goes down and up. Got a bolt on. “Go round knock at the window,” he tells Godfrey.
“No. He’d sooner open for you.”
They stand silent. Both alive to the next step, of commitment.
Leonce has no conscience, none as to thieving, none to murder. He has the coolness to steal these drugs, and be tempted by them never. Nothing in his professional life does he intend sharing, or in effect performing, before the eyes of Godfrey Roback. If the bolt will fly, he’d like it Godfrey’s boot prints itself on the door. If the glass wants smashing, Godfrey’s blood on the floor.
Godfrey fidgets and sweats. Leonce has an idea.
He might count it a holy vision…it makes him smile. “God. Old man’s in there.”
Godfrey looks bloodshot at Leonce.
“Nobody’d ever know it, in the morning when the fires burn down, and they start clearing out the rubble, how someone or some other got killed.”
A hot gust touches him from the left, and he steps to put Godfrey between himself and the rising shouts. He has spoken of the devil twice, now the riot seems ready to run before dark. He can’t help grinning. Granddaddy caught upstairs, no time left to get safe away. “Don’t it all belong to you? Old man dies…”
“No. Charleton…” Godfrey says this much, and wonders if Leonce just fished him.
“Oh, now, that’s true. Easy touch, Charleton. Try to lift you up, if you kneel down and repent.”
He watches a smile play at the grandson’s upper lip. Whelp. Makes him curl his, disgusted. Leonce shoves Godfrey along the side path. Dumain’s lock tumbles to the shank he keeps in the seam of a sleeve placket, his body and bent head blocking all of Godfrey’s view. “You go say hello. I’m right down the hallway. God!”
Godfrey farts with the suddenness of his arrested feet, and mutters, “Fuck you!”
“What you got on you?”
“Hell you need money for?”
Leonce chuckles, very inwardly. He withdraws to the stoop, pleased to, points the sumbitch to the brick serving as stopper. “Don’t have to take that, but you ought.”
God is too stupid not to come pick it up himself.
You peer at an upper landing, a floor once a factory loft, alight with day. Noises of watchfulness, anxious rustles under sheets. Curtained partitions all you see…but that voice, you hear. “By all means. Take up your bed and walk.”
He laughs, his affable, colonial laugh. “Or, otherwise, stay. This is an easy way to earn money, lying on your back…I would think a simple enough equation to work out for yourself. And if the medicine makes you woozy, it won’t last. However, in fact…”
You hear a slither of metal. Papers being paged aside.
“I’ll dismiss you. I can’t use you if your heart’s not in it. And so I can tell you now that you’ve been on the placebo. Young man, your symptoms are imaginary.”
“But…” the young man says. “I get paid.”
Grandfather doesn’t answer.
You reverse yourself, to the closet at the foot of this flight. He is coming down, coming this way, passing by. You pad from the closet and follow.
Think, someone says. Picture yourself where you are. Charmante, reach out a hand…
The hand closes on a key.
The time, this opening through time, was brief. The key had never left her fingers. From letting herself and William inside the house, she had fondled it, turned it forwards and back, telling Esta’s story.
William was nowhere now. To Charmante, the motive power to open her mouth and call would not come. Rothesay at the foot of the stairs lay, arms parenthetical to head. Blood spattered over a white sleeve.
The knob behind her rattled.
Leonce, you observe, makes no move, and the old devil, spry, disappears. A crack’s view shows him in the tiny lobby, able to work a lock faster than your partner. You stand foolish in your spying place, no one of consequence—no one at all—to see your clumsy issue. You burst…and stagger on the waxed floor. Hold yourself a moment, waiting laughter.
None. Kill Leonce another time. But he’s gone and left you.
You hear breaking glass, taut, swallowed speech, a command as to an idiot, muffled against clanging bells that signal authority…an idiot’s answer back: “Get that!”
A wrench, wrench of metal, a cabinet pummeled and twisted. A clatter and clink. Clink a dozen times more, a host of little bottles smashed.
Pounding of a nightstick at the clinic’s Dumain entrance.
Brick clutched fierce in your fist. You have had it this while. Find him…
Someone has set a fire. You hesitate and the door flies, you fall…the men that thunder off are followed by a dark billow of smoke.
Charleton. A strangled voice whispers this. So it is, your cousin nearby, speaking answer to a question. So in shock, so atremble, so mad. You smile at this one thing. Negligible Charleton wants to die for Carolee. If he puts himself in the way, he will…
For nothing. Nothing but your pleasure. Flames crawl in a pool of something spilt. Your skin blisters, your eyes sting and weep…but the air is tolerable, not itself blistering. The old man totters, keeps his feet.
The door flies.
When her feet began to run, she knew all this had come before. The dining room, the kitchen, the garden door. The pursuing figure. Both hands pulling at the knob, frantic, and remembering, thinking even to admonish herself for stupidity, the fixed bolt…
The pursuer boomed, entering her flesh and out again. Accompanied by a blinding light. No, the light of a mirror’s flash.
She stood wildly disheveled, mission-driven confidence in the set of her jaw, and with clenched fingers hung the mirror on the dining room wall. That lightspeed union had left Charmante with Godfrey’s sight…suffering for chemical burns, strength pumped by held breath, by will to survive. And bringing down the brick. Hands on the neck, then, choking the life out. But…
The devil lived. At Godfrey’s feet fell not his grandfather.
In agony, he booted Joseph facedown.
“Why is William not here with us?”
“That I can’t say. At the moment I don’t know where poor Nat is.”
“And…” Charmante took a kitchen chair, saying the words anyway. “I need to sit down. Is Rothesay dead, do you think? We can’t waste time, calling an ambulance.”
Veronica sat, and tamped her face with a shirt cuff. “Will you help me take down one more mirror? If they don’t suck us back in, yes, we’ll look at Rothesay…and do whatever we can for him.”
“Is he Dumain? Or if he was…if he’s dead…does Dumain leave the world that way?”
“Chamante, you and I are learning together. How could I know?”
“I’m sorry.” She owed Veronica an apology for more than one thing. For not saying at once, how are you? Instead she said: “Because you’re stronger than the rest of us. I could never have gone in that room and come out again. And because…”
“Oh, yes, you could.”
“Because of the institute. Because of Dumain.”
“Because I had secret information, is that it? Did you think I could be Dumain?”
“But, Veronica…you’ve never felt he has power in his old house?”
“Of course he does. That is, he haunts a little. I warn the kids, and they take it for a joke. The place is too busy…and I only allow mirrors built into the furniture, that can’t be moved.”
She rose, patting down her skirt. “As I guess…not knowing…the old devil’s here, because his conduit is here. Worse on the island. And what we’ll do about that, Carolee and I haven’t decided.”
It was necessary to step around the figure of Rothesay. It did not open an eye or stir, or seem to breathe. The hum, though…not even audible, just present. Charmante caught Veronica’s elbow, and passed her on the stairs.
The ring of mirrors showed its single gap. But they were far from victory….the hum grown to a mockery here, of thin glassy voices. Charmante aimed for the one belonging to Mr. Carmine’s room, easiest to put in its place. Veronica, behind her, seized the nearest at hand.
“Close your eyes.”
Advice come too late.
Two boys, picking their way down a hill. They call it a hill, and low as the land sits on the delta, the rise from here to the good streets, again to Dumain’s mansion, its conical turret roofs surmounting, is at least a climb.
The elder boy is on the brink, when the height shoots up, and nothing less than the life of a man seems to him unembarrassing. The younger still a child.
The game today is one they’ve played before.
Gotten away with, it might be fair to say. This barren field, site of the hospital that burned. They aren’t safe…a status only gratifying to a quixotic quest. The land is posted, the mansards topping the ornate brick wall harbor eyes, and twitching fingers, quick to summon a constable. Possibly the old man at the institute watches all: discomfited neighbors, streetcars going back and forth, cops wandering down in no hurry, scavenging boys.
As…scavenge is the game.
Luck has never come to Harold, nor the acolyte he directs in the search, William. But bones are found here, everyone says…or someone said, sometime…buried in the grass and litter. William, by himself, believes that a bone—a jaw with teeth on it, maybe—must carry the spirit inside, must wait to tell you its story. You might hold it overhead in the light of the moon and see what the dead man saw, the last dance of burning men and women in their throes. He pictures this well.
He has been prodding absorbed, but then his stick breaks. He gets onto his feet, smacks his uncovered calves, killing mosquitos he’d had no time to itch over a moment ago. Now he discovers Harold has gone striding off.
He stands torn, in a heartache he doesn’t understand. He can’t often, no matter what he digs up, win praise from Harold. Or the better thing than praise, a grin, a whoop, eyes wide with surprise. His brother is only a brother to him, and still, a sort of father. At the top of the rise, across the street, seen and vanishing behind a car, seen again, leans Leonce. His jacket is trim at the waist; he has spats on. The hat he wears is rounded at the crown, tall. Harold wants to acquire a hat, instead of the cap he thinks makes him look like a laborer.
William has nothing to wear on his head, and in the summertime wouldn’t like to. But of what Harold knows, what he cares for, William is an apt pupil. It has to do with getting yourself free. With being a man…a man…who can go anyplace. Part of what aches in William’s heart is Harold’s easy plan to leave them all behind. No, he won’t want a tagalong brother where he means to go.
But, does he mean to, this minute?
With no goodbye. And whatever time he strolls home, no apology? Irresolute, William stubs his shoes against the meadow grass. He sees exposed dirt, driven-up mole tunnels. He sees a shine like metal, and has to kneel again to winkle the object out. A brass fitting, as might secure a hose to a tank. Pretty in itself…if he had a chain to hang it on, almost an ornament. He would give it to his sister Jane, as his mother would ask where’d he been to, to get hold of a thing like that? And if she thought what he thought himself, that it was from the fire engines, from way back, she would fling it out the door.
When he stands, prize in his fist, he can’t see Harold. There is no street to see him on. Rolling clouds surround the viewer, smoke to make one gag and suffocate, like others he hears. But you know yourself a witness from a strange vantage…no sense alive in you but sight. One of the mansard roofs is below this window; the house it tops glows into insubstantiality and implodes, the collapse of its wooden beams ripping gas pipes. A pretty seashell hue, like that of an expensive lampshade, mushrooms through the plaster dust.
Time, from this welter of destruction, mirrors a picture gentler, more poignant to you than that of the field. You are William again, and your brother is reading to you a storybook. Jane knows the words; Harold does not, really, but quick-minded, invents things to explain the pictures.
“Harold! It’s Scottish. Ah ween…that means he thinks so.”
He is a little figure of a brownie, wearing red long-johns and a pointed cap, hopping a gremlin dance on one leg.
“Shut up,” William tells his sister.
They’ve all had a little schooling, but only Jane…
A more present part of him says, you forgot. It can’t matter. Jane likes Charmante, wasn’t after all prepared to dislike her.
“A woman a little better than you is about right.” Teasing. “I see improvement already.”
So, that Jane had wanted to be a teacher, and that Charmante had been one…
Maybe, William thinks, it was a salvation he hadn’t said it.
And his thinking, mind aloft of the onslaught, has cost the power that carries him its strength. Enough. This was truth, in this mirror-land…he saw it. Not any means of righting wrongs, of gripping the hand and pulling the lost one into embrace, but only the endless replay of it all. He could see Harold disappointing, himself to his sister unfeeling, his mother, not angry, only tired, losing their growing up to the work she did…
The phantoms wanting you to join them had no more. They lied. The room he’d stepped into became a room again, a circle of mirrors missing three.
Charmante in a struggle with Carmine.
The way the mirror stuck on, she’d had the fleeting sense, was it, the phenomenon itself, the centrifugal pull inherent…
The room came unmisted, clear sight rolling as her second mirror fell—and it was Carmine stopping her. The balance of strength sat not automatically on his side; Nathaniel Carmine, as such, was slight of build, a cerebral vampire by habit, pasty from indoor life, winded by cigarettes.
Charmante in physical tenacity, his better. But who was he?
“William, trust me. You’ll be more help to her if you help me first.”
Veronica’s voice faded, William’s in reply a mumble. Back with them again, her love—she would say it—but herself departing. She was in the garden. At the table she turned in her hand a porcelain angel.
I am Charmante Demorest.
She tried the experiment, of declaring identity, and the waning circle superimposed no interloper’s vision, not of Charleton, not Godfrey, not He…or She. The Omniscient seemed not Dumain either. Charleton lay at the base of the wall, the bullet hole under his eye liver-hued. The eye like a windfall plum gone rotten, the other open.
How do you come to be here? I want to know, I want to tell. Charleton, I’ll be your voice.
I thought about Joseph.
Sometime after the riot, the inferno, the months the militia held the city, the gangs brought in to sweep the glass, break the burnt foundations, cart away barrows of brick…brick by the ton…broken cornice-work, roofing slates sliced down like cleavers…
Sometime after, I found myself again. I hadn’t known where I’d gone. I was with my grandfather…
Under charge of. I never saw him in my room, but I came to understand he’d been ordering me things, perhaps only bromide of potassium, possibly opiates. He’d had a woman in, reading to me, filling my head with bible language. I had barely believed in her. Purgatory, I thought…I’m in Purgatory. What else would Purgatory be but endless scripture?
I woke. I walked down the stairs to the garden. I walked up the stairs, to one of the turrets. I looked for my clinic, and saw only a bright field of labor under the sun. I learned…someone said…Leonce said…
That the state gave a contract, money enough to skim the cream. Prisoners couldn’t vote, so no one wanted them, but transients from the work camps could. Men rode out rounding them up, carried them down on cars…from Tennessee even, North Carolina.
No, I pass it by, those years when repairing the house, my quarters, my surgery…
When I had this to keep my mind busy.
I could strike up a conversation, I had people around me. I don’t tell you I hadn’t seen the shrinking, the shying in their eyes. I was never from that time of the riot welcomed, wanted. I was dreaded. The superstitious I caused to feel it, that death stalked alongside me; the very superstitious might catch at their crosses…or some still hung a little bag around their necks, a fetish.
Joseph, you see. When there’d been good in him yet, when he’d gone west wanting to make his life of value. Impossible he should value his life. Joseph’s father was my own father, and my grandfather; I was Carolee’s cousin and her uncle. You know all that…but call it my catechism. I repeat these things to remind myself of the debt I owe.
Mrs. Demorest, I hadn’t presumed I could purchase redemption, atone but for a fraction of Grandfather’s wickedness. Because I cared…nothing…for my health or reputation, I made it my work to go everywhere. At any hour of the day or night. If my sleep were interrupted, if I were duty-worn, I told myself those trials would hasten the hour, merely. I could not love, I could not marry, I could not rise in my profession. I was a taint, more so than tainted; any service I could perform was a blessing to my soul.
I charged no fee. I turned down no caller. I gave comfort as I could, to the drunkards, the addicted, the beaten women, the dying ones in childbirth. I would not have borne it easily if they’d called me saint, but this they did not. They felt a bit of shame in it; they knew they gave me their secrets. They knew they counted the dollars saved, and bought what could not have been afforded, for paying even the most charitable attendant. I suppose they knew I martyred myself. And that my grandfather kept me alive. So you see, there is no blame. It was the Devil giving his alms and afterwards extracting his price.
Therefore…my patients knew they were bargaining. They never spoke among themselves.
Then the war. Then the epidemic.
And I was ill, but I worked. St. Hubert hummed quietly for me. Charleton, old friend, here you’ve come to me again, telling lies.
Here is Charleton, weary of movement, a book on his lap. A medical text. He never reads, when he can at all, for pleasure. Carolee gives him novels. Of fiction, his cousin is a great reader. She subscribes to a monthly service, and of her discards tells Charleton (because…he knows it…she won’t have him returning her gifts in person): “Keep that.” His shelves have become a library, while he can bring himself to fill his hours with only the edifying, the excusable.
If he did not have a servant, he would not have a fire in the grate. But his grandfather has hired a valet, a watchful eye for Charleton. On Sundays, he attends Old Dumain, rather than church. Grandfather urges he keep up his strength, and questions him, autopsies the very tissue of his encounters with the public, each illness and injury he has treated that week.
“You’re lame, your left leg.”
“No. The muscles are weak somehow. The flu.”
“And do you see this aftereffect often? You are probably expert by now.”
Grandfather adds: “In your way.”
“Some cases seem to carry a disability, some harm to the nervous system.”
“That won’t do! Do you mean on the left side? In the leg, in particular? The ambulatory powers compromised, with a typically observable character? What do you do with the patients, then, when they begin to recover? Do you have them walk a straight line?” He smiles. The hunter’s smile. “I suppose you don’t bother testing.”
“I am not studying the flu. I am treating the flu.”
The war has ended, the island still a hospital camp. The flu, for the old year’s passing, has not much abated in its spread. But Charleton is at home now, another occasion of his grandfather’s ordering him carried off, directing his care from the turret apartment, the funnel of the spider’s web.
Charleton, for shouting his servant from the house…
Don’t you like taking in a show, now and then? Don’t you have a mother to visit?
Has won two hours’ freedom. Clyde will be back at ten.
He feels melancholy, burning Aunt Lil in pieces. He doesn’t disagree with her proscription…but believes in, more than Carolee, their being as cousins, friends. While he feels weak and dull, has to limit his patient hours, he entertains…or, this change in his life, illness, makes him entertain…
Even, a day or two lately, he has lain in bed, not rising to dress, breathing the smell of coffee and toast, telling himself things. Why be a Dumain? What’s the use of not severing ties with the old man? Would he care if I disappeared, left him with only his household staff to torment?
No. He doesn’t care if I don’t disappear.
Ships come into harbor. Ships want doctors. Countries on the other side of the world want…
Everything of the west, so they say. I am forty-two. I won’t be the father of a child. Why might I not marry?
Make a home…
He can, at this, think only of his misery in love, the only love he wants, ever has. It is something in the Plan. It is outside earthly bounds.
As a young man Charleton had done what the desperate do, written rhyming verse, riddled with set phrases. In extreme mundanity, he had disguised Carolee as Cybele. A margin of his opus discovered, one day, red-penciled…
A quote from Croker, on Keats:
Here Apollo’s fire produces a pyre, a silvery pyre of clouds, wherein a spirit might win oblivion and melt his essence fine, and scented eglantine gives sweets to the sun, and cold springs had run into the grass, and then the pulse of the mass pulsed tenfold to feel the glories old of the newborn day, etc.
Croker’s point being—and a fair one, however harsh on the youngster—that a word must not, chosen for having only the proper sound, drive the storyline. The greater poet tells his vision, and by his gift draws his language.
And nutshelled here, the undefeatable pith of Grandfather. He diagnosed with more acuity than the mass of his rivals, the less talented gens.
Yet his premise was false. In that…
In that, Charleton decides, faults pass. I have not harmed anyone that I know of. I have tried, when I could, to help. My bad poetry I carry to the grave, with all of my error. I am foolish and believe Carolee, as soul detached, might on some other plane meet with mine…
That that love would have no wrong in it.
But I carry this thought to the grave.
He stands, a slow and difficult thing of late. He has the impulse to read one of her novels.
You’re in by the front door. You will leave by the front door.
You hadn’t done it for a reason, dear curious public. Clyde going off will have been his luck.
If it ends up a matter of killing…
Days now you’ve left the angel in her niche, come back, wept to see her there. Your body, deceiving at times, will say it wants food. Food makes aches in the sides and guts… but early mornings you steal milk from porches. At times pursued, beaten with broomsticks.
If the angel were gone, Grandfather would give you lunch. He has that pity in him.
Well, no, Godfrey. He wants you to die, when you die, by whatever means nature inflicts. He wants to know if you can bear another needle. Just when you’ve gone to seeing armies of phantoms stalking you, lunging at the corners of your eyes; gone to shaking at the knees, bowling side-to-side as you beg…
When the air you suck in saws, grates, screams…
“You’re filthy, God.”
“Why don’t I throttle you?”
And how this question stimulates; how the face says, ah, yes, why indeed?
“I’m far from alone here. I can press the bell this instant. I suppose if you were determined, you might seize some object…” Grandfather looks around, pausing over the mirror, more than the letter-knife. “But your suffering can hardly be lightened by…
“Exertion,” he decides. “I don’t know that. The interesting thing is that only you can say. Fiends like yourself, and the rest of us, the normal, have no intersection of experience. But you want the needle. And I want you to go to the washroom and alleviate some of your stink. Then we will dine. You’ll tell me if you have no appetite, if that is what your state culminates to…”
At the brink.
All this is sincere. Grandfather makes notes.
But the angel never leaves. You are going to steal from Charleton.
Your cousin has made a blank of his downstairs rooms. Here is a strange sort of luxury, that fits can be thrown, inherited things cast away, grand gestures be…
What else? Indulged. A man who can, wade through his sloppy broodings, glare at his aunt-sister. Who’s gone missing, Godfrey notes… Glare at Lil, tell himself he’ll sell her, let her be bought for the gilt that frames her; sell the overflow of his grandmother’s furniture, dragged from the institute when the rooms were filled instead with filing cabinets.
“Kill yourself,” Godfrey says. In a whisper, sent up the front parlor fireplace.
Clyde, slow of wit, desperate for religion, admired Charleton. As if the lie about charity wasn’t plain enough. For Leonce, careful at it (a man like Leonce could only beam, slip Clyde dollar coins, delighted such a cabbage-head could be in the world), he’d found simple words for the saintliness of Charleton’s act.
Charleton at St. Hubert, otherwise Godfrey’s empty legacy. Rather than kill himself, trying to die in service to his country. Dull material for thought, cousin Charleton, and the intruder shrugged him away. Why should the way down to the surgery be locked from inside the house? Likely it wasn’t. He decided he had no confrontation to wait upon.
You and I, he said to himself, but moved to the kitchen, eye out for a box or a sack…
Take as much as could be.
When all your family thinks you’re dead, it’s you they don’t think of at all.
Charmante began to find earth under her feet. Charleton was a moving picture, his sufferings waves of reaction. Godfrey forced the watcher into himself, a pillbox view from a filthy, degraded trench…one that held some fascination…
And invited a terrible pity. But this hold, too, faltered away.
She was in the garden. Charleton’s feeble grip yielded to Godfrey’s, his will to live, in defiance of all mischance, all misery. Godfrey shoved at his cousin, Charleton staggered, and both figures flashed through her living self…
The thunderclap as before, boom, and boom.
But she turned unharmed, a ghost unpresent to the men. They stood in a low-voiced, tooth-gritted argument. At the wall, where the dandelions bloomed. Godfrey, in disgust, wanted Charleton to take back the gun. He prodded his cousin’s belly; he struck him in the face. He tried to, at last, frantic, press it into Charleton’s hand.
Charleton with both hands crushed Godfrey’s and drew the fingers up, inch upon inch…his strength suddenly jacked, the passion of suicide in it. Charmante could not hear the shot. But Charleton fell, and the gun fell, landing where the dead hand slackened. This time she stepped away, and Godfrey’s charge indoors came at closest view…
But soon he was gone to the surgery below.
The theft played like music, cinematic, in notes of metal and glass. The story was ending, and its Guide moved her to what must now be shown. Godfrey driven by a jealous whim to pry, to the top of the house. Bottles buttoned inside his shirt, his music with him, one, two, three flights. Charleton’s bedroom littered with books and papers, most on the floor around his chair. A discarded sweater and a pair of slippers. Heavy dust, garden dirt on the rug. Clyde, prohibited…easy for Godfrey to read this drama…from entering, from touching, has foisted on Dr. Dumain a carpet sweeper. It lies with its long handle prone, stretched flat like the body below.
That Clyde will have to discover.
Godfrey goes to the firescreen. Something foul has been burnt on Charleton’s private hearth. Or…he finds with a sniff…chemical, a thing of cloth and gilded sticks of wood. Oil and varnish. Lil. This is far madder than he’d have credited his cousin…
Smiling, he scoots back the screen, draws out a scrap.
But the eye animates. She is his mother, Polly.
In panic he falls back, trips, flings the bit of canvas. He gathers the bottles that have spilled from his shirt, flies, rakes back the front door, runs to his grandfather’s house. He never looks to see the consequence, the smolder in a stack of paper. The back door at 1912 Dumain, Godfrey has locked, done by habit, a thief buying time.
One vision more.
A garden, that of the institute. She might this time have stood peering through the devil’s iron gate, nameless as any nightcrawler, but not daring this. To put a foot on his property. To sleep there, sheltered under one of his spirea bushes. She saw Godfrey lurch to the coping, in terrible pain. His running all this distance had torn his lungs…his clutching looked to Charmante like a declining agony, an end. The breathing sounded sieved in blood.
But Godfrey wanted the drugs. The light at the center shone a little stronger.
She saw him watched. Her first direct sight of Dumain’s face. Coming white from shadow, it rested victorious. Intent…
Weathered, where all quizzical furrowing, all mockery…
All decisions taken…to not rescue, not excuse, not forgive, not alter a punishment for the pathos of the one punished, not withhold condemnation for tears or pleading, for illness, for injury inflicted by his own hand, had drawn their history. Vital, and ageless, for an intelligence so old.
He looked at her as though she stood visible—and his speaking of her name was like a physical touch, grotesque. Then he stepped closer to his grandson, and landed a blow between the shoulder blades.
A physical touch. But this was poignant, if anything.
If only her fingers mashed against Nat’s could communicate her friendship towards him, that she loved him, and fought him for his own salvation. She saw the circle broken to just this mirror; William, in her peripheral vision, even now pulled a floor-length dressing glass…
To rest near the wall, the last arc split, the two reflecting nothing of each other.
He spun and caught Carmine around the waist. Carmine fell slack as a ragdoll, Charmante taken off guard. The mirror struck the floor and splintered.
Veronica rushed in, knelt by Carmine and unbuttoned his collar…but this time, he seemed himself at once. He stood. Charmante edged to take William’s hand.
“You’re all right…everyone’s all right?” William asked.
She thought suddenly of her taffeta church dress. Sweating and laboring…well, here they’d come to wrestle the devil in their finest…why not?
It made her laugh. Then Carmine laughed.
He winked at Veronica.
A princess, to deliver her swan-changed brothers, must for six years keep mute, never to speak or laugh. She sews shirts from aster flowers. When the curse ends, one shirt lacks a sleeve, and so one brother is left with a swan’s wing instead of an arm. Alike, Charmante (at least, this tale from childhood had come to mind), for failing to shepherd one mirror to its safe home, saw Carmine part healed, part possessed.
Veronica thought not by Leonce. “No. Wouldn’t I know? Maybe Rothesay…young Rothesay went off adventuring abroad. He may have had some charm. Had to have, the number he did on Nat’s mother.”
Holding silent and hearing only birds in the camellia trees, themselves panting like sprinters…that quieting…and no hum rising to prominence…
No hum at all. William said, “I’ll go see about Rothesay. But I don’t know.”
“What our story needs to be,” Charmante finished for him.
“Well, Miss Dumain. I think we agree I’m not strong on my feet, after yesterday, and all. The hallway was dark, and I came out after my…employer. I had a dizzy spell, I think.”
“You fell against him.”
The mantel clock chimed. “How can it be two!”
“Because that one’s not set right. By my watch only about five til. Really, Charmante. Mirror time is mirror time. We’ve been here twenty minutes. That’s why,” Veronica drew her to the stairs, “our story’s good. William!”
“I can’t wake him up, but he’s living.”
“Then go get a pillow. Charmante, grab a coverlet. Let’s look like we’ve done our best. I’ll call for an ambulance. Better if I do.”
And because she and William were the help; because William did not enter the house proper, but on this exceptional day, and Charmante never bothered the men at their work…
The only information worthwhile to the ambulance men, to the doctor and the hospital staff, was given by Veronica and Carmine. Carmine had got up an act by that time, frailty and confusion, self-rebuke, masterfully done. Charmante almost mourned for him. She and William, though, had got up an act of their own…a little slow and having to think a minute…
For this, she felt almost ashamed. Rothesay, sixty hours after his fall, died, with no police suspicions. An accident.
But by the will of a grandson. Old Dumain the hated one…Rothesay not of that world, not able to be seen. No law could account for such things.
When they were newlyweds, after a week of William settling into Charmante’s house (she’d put Clell in the closet when they first began to court), Albert drove them into town to visit Mrs. Turner. Mrs. Turner, being down with the hay fever, hadn’t gone to the church.
“More down on her dignity,” Jane said. “She’d never go out and make a spectacle of herself, not for anything. But best if you do see her, where you can have a private talk.”
What was private, now, with family, where before she’d had only Esta?
But, of course, Mrs. Parkins, Mr. Meeker…they all looked out for her. Private was the way her new sister saw Charmante. Maybe she had grown this way, maybe sensed so many secrets that concerned her, but were kept by others.
The keepers were the dead. She could not have guessed at twenty, at thirty-five, a year ago…that they moved on their own side, to bring truth to hearts empty for the lack of it.
Twelve years old, a schoolgirl. Aware, but barely, of differences—that she and her parents lived in the right place, that there were lower places, but that her father’s status meant this—
A uniform, teachers whose religion was not theirs. For mission, for service, they taught colored daughters. They told her and the other girls: “You are the best of your generation. You will make your mark, and by that foothold gained, you will lead the generations to come.”
It sounded grand. She hadn’t known why, as to Charmante Bonheur, such a prediction should be, but had had a notion…maybe notion wasn’t a word to do credit to herself…of studying chemistry. The canal, the one that would open vast commerce to North America, wasn’t yet beaten as a challenge, in 1901. Because of the yellow fever. Someone, some destined soul, must discover a cure.
The day had been fine, the sky blue. She stayed outside…her mother hadn’t come to the door right away, to call her in. Charmante was growing beans in Mason jars, a project foolish to Esta.
“Grow beans in the garden.”
But these were in her bedroom window, and she slid round the house to peek up at them, her white laced shoes scuffing dust along the bricks. Her father said he would buy her a box camera; now, and not at the end of the year…still her reward for good marks.
“You pledge me.”
She had answered him, cheeky: “Don’t you worry.”
He cocked his finger at her, the sign between them that said, I’ll let you get away with it. The progress of her hybrid beans to be high science, what with the photographic record and his own microscope…
Two things happened. She remembered the crash coming on that way. Against the blue, black smoke churning up crazily, the smell of it a sudden gust. Her mother flown feverish onto the porch. A creak of the screen and she was there, mouth falling open, but only her hand gesturing.
A man drove up. “Dr. Bonheur sent me. You know me, ma’am.”
He tipped his hat. Her mother nodded, flashed indoors and out, purse under her elbow. She put a hand on Charmante’s shoulder, ushered her to the stranger’s grip, swung by the forearms into the bed, neighbors coming out to stare. Everyone pointing at the horizon. In thirty years, the implication hadn’t before occurred, the privilege of her father’s sending this man to protect them.
What those whose eyes followed their escape might have felt.
The wagon took them up and down streets in an S-shaped path, down the long shallow way to the wharf, doglegging to bump over a dirt field, past low sheds. Then a familiar sight, the road to Esta’s.
The thrill of all this…it had been thrilling…the utter silence of the adults, kept Charmante from looking behind. When the driver cracked the whip, and they rattled away flinging mud, she thought of the view back. She saw a line of orange. Another moment, and they were too far from the city limits, nothing to see but the arching trees.
She had written over her understanding with information. The visceral of the orange was a tricky memory to extract. Now and then it came, and the right feeling, the one of awe, only awe, came too.
The house wasn’t burned. It was smashed, looted. Their clothing strewn on the floor. The men who’d come to destroy the neighborhood had pissed on all of it. The Bonheur windows were empty squares, the dishes shattered. Her bean jars. The table legs amputated, the chairs unstuffed. The stereoscope, the tin box of postcards, her father’s painstakingly-saved-for lab equipment, gone. The hoe, and rake, and shovel, gone. Sandy, abandoned by Charmante since the age of eleven, when she’d decided grown girls didn’t play with dolls, had been abandoned by the white mob, too. She sat watching from her shelf, and Charmante grabbed her down, having not much else to save.
She would not have been there but for Esta. “You tell me what good you think it’ll do, Carrie. Look at the age I am, nothing’s changed.”
And so for the sake of that wisdom, that had to be witnessed and passed on, Charmante’s eyes had seen the state of her father’s mortgaged house. There would be no money for the fixing up. Her mother’s cancer came, after the check for eight hundred dollars offered by a vulturine downtowner, after the moving of them, their salvage, into Esta’s house for good.
There was no school now for Charmante to attend. Her mother made lessons for her, and left a notebook with a plan mapped out, for the rest of the year she’d stopped living. William thought the mirror world could tell only truths. Show only things that had been. Hold out only that false hope, of learning a better lesson.
Then, of possible answers, she had weighed:
One. Her mother knew. Daddy had written, and feeling ashamed…could she?…that he was a prisoner somewhere, she’d put his letters away. In Esta’s trunk; on Esta’s promise, ironclad. Or, she hadn’t felt ashamed…more bearable…but Daddy had asked her not to explain. Just then, at that raw time. He had said it himself, you could not make your case, until they would hear it.
Two. Her mother hadn’t known. The letter existed, maybe dozens of them, but sat undelivered. Never forwarded.
Three. The vision was false. True things could be, and could hew closely, one stranger’s story to another’s. A devil had showed her those words on paper, or the Guide had, for His unknowable purpose.
But if she were to bring it up with Esta, she must decide. Whether more of her father than her memories afforded mattered…whether she wouldn’t rather not. Her parents were not two adults with a marriage between them, they were Daddy and Mother. She had not spied on them, to know their private ways together.
Her choice was in the air, going to Mrs. Turner’s.
“What are you writing down?”
“A letter to Esta. You know, she got her ABCs at the same time she was trying to teach her little boy his. I mean, Will, I’ll get it all on paper, and then I have to see if she’ll let me read it to her. I’ve been thinking how I’ve always thanked her for so many things I haven’t said.”
“Well, Albert, that’s sensible. You hear?” William squeezed her shoulder.
Mrs. Turner lived at a residence hotel, quality…or the brave remnant of it. A doorman who knew they were expected stepped into the elevator with them, carman as well. Albert, with some finesse, slipped him a dollar, sparing the Wrights.
He took a seat in the lobby. “No, I won’t go up. You come down when you’re ready. I’ll stick around and look at the papers.”
“Jane,” Chamante said, in the hall after the bell rang again, and the car sounded its bump of descent, “didn’t come along either.”
“That’s a little bit because Mrs. Turner makes do on her dividends…”
The door across opened.
She wore a good suit, a frock jacket with double-pleated vee to the waist, an ankle skirt, bottom trimmed in a tight-crimped ruffle. A good suit of 1920, it might have been. Her figure still able to carry it, an abstemious diner…
“There’s a face I haven’t seen in a hundred years!” Mrs. Turner hugged Charmante and stood back. “But your mother’s there too.”
Losing the light of the alcove, she drew them inside. The dim parlor held a chill after a winter’s meted coal. A cord ran from the tea table, a single burner that warmed the pot. A Christmas basket sat next to this, tins of holiday cookies open for display. And missing, from months of frugal hostessing, their twos and threes.
The crash had harmed Mrs. Turner’s dignity. Or an earlier poverty, from the time she’d stopped buying clothes. She was Esta’s age…so, what an interesting life she had led, a young woman of the ’80s; near Charmante’s age when the clinic had burned.
“This is all so lovely. Thank you so much for having us.” The last was the first thing Charmante had said to Mrs. Turner.
Who looked at her. “Now, never mind. I was always right here for a visit. I don’t mean that to chide you.”
“Somehow,” Charmante said. They did say this, locals, a word to take all awfulness into account. “I remember how much my father was pleased to have found you, ma’am. He would talk about what he couldn’t do himself, without Mrs. Turner.”
“I know he did, bless him.”
Her mother had stood reserved to those references. Charmante could recall the vaguest impression of…well, she would have to say, for learning what she had, the illicitness, the disapproval.
“Were you a nurse, all your career?” she asked.
“You understand…they had a colored side to the city hospital, like they do, and they wouldn’t have a white nurse. I had just gone down to ask if they’d hire me on, because my husband didn’t have any living those days. That was how I got trained, not going to school for it. And then one of the doctors wanted me to work for him privately.”
William said: “Mrs. Turner. Tell Charmante about your family in Washington.”
Charmante listened half-listening, nibbling a shortbread cookie.
Mrs. Turner’s father a government clerk, never any of the Sangtrys in slavery, no. Recommended for his post by a Colonel Denison, whose father he’d been valet to first. Gout took the old man, with the son off fighting. Mrs. Turner’s father managed household accounts for the widow, in her grief incapable…
Charmante waited for some natural pause, a chance of asking without eagerness, did you ever hear…? Or, did my mother ever speak to you?
Mrs. Turner had not married down, though it was said, and her husband’s people were not connected to that Turner. You remember…no, you young things sure don’t. Well, after the end of the Reconstruction, when all that supposed to get better got worse…now, then, I was a bride myself, eighteen years old…
Mr. Turner had lost the inventory of his parlor piano store.
“He had a lot on the books. He kept just three models in the showroom. And he always had to go around visiting, make sure the ones that quit paying hadn’t gone and sold what they didn’t have the right. Keep in with the neighbors, in case someone was fixing up to leave town.”
But those the Turners owed money to, had themselves to go chase for it. The Turners went south. They moved, and moved again. All her instruction, all she had gleaned watching her doctor, Mrs. Turner employed in setting up a place.
She called it a place; she meant a one-room clinic where, outside all rules, skirting paths closed to her, she had practiced as a physician. “I used a kerosene stove to boil water for sterilizing the instruments. I never did anything wrong or cheap.”
I haven’t done Mrs. Turner justice, Charmante thought. Not yet. “You’ll come out to our house one of these Sundays?”
“Yes I will. Yes I will.”
They parted, talking a little more in the alcove. But only insistence, Charmante keeping after it, would make them friends.
“How he used to tell me what a bright little girl he had! He was just sure you’d be a doctor yourself one day.”
The words seemed to call for something…the obvious reply, or Mrs. Turner’s asking it herself: What is it you do?
But more, another friendly spate. “Dr. Bonheur would say, if you only look at history, forty years is not much time at all. And what progress, what a long way come! Forty more years, all the better. He didn’t listen to it when people complained…he’d say, you’re not seeing the picture. I remember he had those talks with poor Charleton.”
It was true. Her nephew-by-marriage had differed, too, with Esta.
“They’ll turn us back. You wait.”
“No, ma’am. Can’t be done. Oh, they’ll turn me back. They’ll turn you back. But altogether, they won’t turn us back.”
Charmante had forgotten that about her father.
She was in a well-lighted basement room, full windows on two sides, top panes at street-level, bottoms in their wells. Like the research library this was, the room had long, wide study tables, stacked with reference books, filing cabinets around the walls, cubbies flanking the librarian’s desk, name-tagged for the staff. Charmante with a cubby of her own, where she could stow her files-in-progress, have new requested items placed for her by the interns.
You could not escape the Institute. So Veronica said; so for Charmante it proved. Without knowing, she had been of the Institute all her life. William had known without belief or benefit, only sorrow. Even Nathaniel Carmine was of the Institute.
His new self, though, showed signs of wanderlust.
“You see what I mean…what I meant whenever we were having that talk.”
Veronica, perched on the table, waving that hand that breezed away obstacles, liked to come down daily. She’d had other talks with Charmante, any number. To be what Paul was, and his colleague now, an archival researcher, was a great step up from maiding. Hackled a bit by the sinister weight of it, the fine line of studying the human species for hardiness, selecting for promise—that Dumain territory into which one stepped when the line was crossed—Charmante had found no justification for refusing this honor. She could be of some help to her husband, track clues, locate the woman who’d lured Harold.
And earn good wages. Childless, as all Dumain’s damaged were, no legacy for her own, she would make a scholarship in her father’s name. Daddy had taken—no, he’d been blessed with—the optimistic view, the rising view. It was fitting Benjamin Oriah Bonheur be the hope of some young person’s future.
“Nat’s got an entrepreneurial bent. He’s not the sweet thing we knew…he’s itching to try his luck at large. And I can hardly make him a prisoner, perfectly sane, perfectly capable. I think, I do think, he’ll start up with the mirrors. Someplace. What else would that fragment possessing him have in mind? But how can we know distance, from this place, the center, won’t be better than worse?”
“But…it’s terribly dangerous.”
“It is, and I’ve got no answers, girlfriend. Anytime you think of one, call me up. Even in the middle of the night.”
They brooded on the Ile St-Hubert. Were at least some of its ghosts laid? Polly…Godfrey…
Guide. Charmante addressed him. Not her father, she was certain. An ancient spirit, a low-country angel. Guide, I understand. I have seen and pitied Charleton.
Been shown how he died, some unnamed crime of forced self-murder.
The impulse was to despise that murdering hand; that foul and ugly man, unredeemed, unseeking of redemption. She couldn’t…because she’d been Godfrey.
Is that the lesson, the antidote to evil, when it comes again?
Our doom not tragic high feeling, but petty reluctance, moral laziness? We don’t want to walk in the shoes; we want to cast our despising eyes here and there—and feel comfy, pleased with ourselves, unchallenged.
Through Godfrey’s eyes she had seen, and not Dumain’s.
The Guide was kind in that, but he had shown her more. Dumain, rich, free in his dealings to conceive a thing and have it done, hadn’t the pitifulness of his grandsons. Suffering was the way in; a man without suffering was the devil.
And so remember.
For here was one question answered. The spirit of Dumain could not die with Rothesay. It hummed on, on its island, and would come again.
Old Dumain (the Chevalier), 1824–1920
Mary (Polly) Dumain Roback, 1849–1879
Joseph Dumain, 1852–1901 (27 years old in 1879, when Charleton was two years old, and wedged into his household to pass for a son)
Elizabeth (Lil) Dumain Roback, 1858–1908
Godfrey Roback, 1869–1919
Leonce Dumain, 1876–1923
Charleton Dumain, 1877–1919
Carolee Roback, 1881–living
Veronica Dumain, 1896–living
Benjamin Oriah Bonheur, 1862–vanished 1901
Charmante’s mother, Carrie, 1865–1903
Charmante Bonheur Demorest Wright 1889–living
William Wright 1887–living
1859—Year of fire at old cholera hospital
1901—Year of riot, disappearance of Harold Wright and Rance Goodson
1931—Year events in this story take place