Readers, in tandem with the accompanying blog posts, to appear serially, this page will grow, week by week, into the complete novel. Each Tuesday’s post will feature three pages, with an additional two pages linked from the post to this page. Visit anytime to read the novel from the top!
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.
(more to come)