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.
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.”
(more to come)