1931. A southern city, its two populations existing mostly apart, intersecting in places.
As do the dead and the living. A matter of experiment, in the house Charmante Demorest keeps for Mr. Rothesay. Two past tragedies are linked to the site of the Dumain clinic, neither of them happenstance…and the deadly will of an old tyrant has made a way, returning.
The odd-job man, today walking the yard setting mole traps. He unbent his back when Charmante called out, “Hey!”
The front parlor, the same as every day, the chimneypiece and its stony odor, the white sheers damping sunlight. The temperature, never mind the bloomed camellias flanking the portico, wintry.
No reason to feel this 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… Was speaking, most times, 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 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, or burn coal, in these hardship days, when the calendar said March.
And you got heated up soon enough, 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 would know how much to ask for, so tomorrow she could pick up things at the grocer’s.
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 were 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 the day’s cooking was done. She began by 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.
It was Charmante’s job to brave the gloom, but once she’d got things warmed with the stove, and once the smells began to penetrate the staircase, the men would filter to the dining room, carrying on their discussions, easing into their seats, telling her to ignore them.
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…
The angle of exposure 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 rather prefer to slow the process down.”
“I have thought…great minds and all. You’re right, sir, we need that 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 not long after she’d come working for him, that he wished to drop the cubes in himself, watch each in its own time dissolve.
She got into the kitchen and out again, with the 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.
He had tapped her wrist, and silent, she waited.
“Carmine, this afternoon?”
“If we might have an hour of Mrs. Demorest’s time.”
He spoke sotto voce, not asking Charmante, but reminding Rothesay that time was money. Rothesay pinkened. She was paid by the week, so the calculation might require a bald offer.
“I’ll stay and help you if I can. What sort of thing…?”
“Easiest in the world,” Carmine said. “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 brick wall latticed with diamond-shaped openings, artful handiwork forgotten now the neighborhood had fallen so far out of the way. From Mr. Wright, she had heard a fanciful story, the sort of romance a trolleyman tells his riders. But she couldn’t see it, why one would leave letters, 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, fresh sheets, deliveries of medicines. People came and went.
The wall overlooked those tracks embedded in the lane and those beyond, the railroad’s. Next in view was a scrubby lot, a dump for losing and finding, one man’s trash a lowlier’s making-do. Then dead brush, peeling clapboards seen white at a distance, the riverside row of shanties.
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. She 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, the angel 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 a toothpick and tube of glue, Charmante undertook the odd little project. She let a drop fall between the 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 a sort of gatehouse gave entry to the basement. 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, had money put by. She could please her fancy, set her cap high or low. She smiled. Mr. Wright tended to think she put herself above him.
A huffing of breath that was Carmine’s, and corresponded to shoes clattering down stairs, rose in volume. Next, came the mothball scent that was his jacket’s. He skirted the table.
“Ah, what’s that? Curious.”
The unset wings tumbled; Carmine stooped after them. He failed at getting the glue to take again.
“Curious,” he said, handing the parts to her.
She returned both to the counter. “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… Mrs. Demorest, do you know who owned this house, at one time? There.”
The word was promising. Charmante had consigned the fragile corpse to the trash. She looked, 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. Aught-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…” Carmine 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, I think, had a valet, given a night out. They sounded the alarm, neighbors across the way who saw the first flare of it, in that sitting room just over our heads.”
He half-rose and pointed, his sleeve toppling the angel. “Bollocks!”
He said in a moment: “Awful of me, I apologize…”
“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 had made his way outdoors…addled, maybe, for breathing smoke… But why the gun? If the accident was planned, it had all gone wrong. Back door locked, front door unlocked. And you’ll appreciate, you can’t get to the garden wall, except by exiting the back way.”
Carmine, Rothesay’s friend, could gossip if it pleased him. Charmante tucked the angel behind the curtain, picked up her notepad, and found her place. She lifted, weighing each in turn, the sugar and flour canisters. She hadn’t thought of an intelligent question, not over-inquisitive.
“I wonder, Mrs. Demorest, if you have any sensitivity to atmospheres, as is sometimes said? I ought to have asked 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 definitely on to something. What…we can only hope to learn by putting them to the test.”
Charmante wished too that Carmine had thought better of introducing tragedy.
The men’s workroom, Dumain’s study, was 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 must be by suggestion. The sheers were yellowed from the sun, the ceiling plaster stained…work done a little slapdash, that the house be saleable. Rothesay, having got his price, hadn’t cared to improve it.
Twenty or more mirrors ringed the walls. A few were fixed on stands…all slightly angled, each towards the next. The blinds were hooked 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 can surely hear me call, from there by the sink.”
Charmante noticed first that she was following herself. And again, she was ahead of herself, disappearing, to pop back 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 driven, heartbeat of a hunted thing…
She found she hadn’t tracked her circuits, and might have started a third or fourth. A scientific glimmer of her own came, that little shocks you could anticipate must be masterable; that such effects could be acclimated to—
Another thought…is mirror time future or past?
But here was Carmine coming to fetch her. “Ah, the mirrors. We are 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’d 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. We can surmise 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, fallen back and scuffing his shoes—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 made her head spin.
She left an hour ahead, having taken herself along the route mentally, drifted 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 on foot, walking on to the factory gate, was probably a mile or two, and she could manage this…barring accidents, with time to kill.
The weather was all right, her shoes were sturdy. She put her mind to the problem at once. A property title would tell what? Only that the house had been Dumain’s and become Rothesay’s. Old maps, the city as it had lain…
A census or survey, done in 1900, seemed a certainty.
Newspapers, mention of Dumains, from 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 bundled in the closet, never threw one out? Those old folks who saved up all their odds and ends, hoarded gossip too…
Esta. Charmante, collecting Rothesay’s New York and Washington papers, along with the local Clarion, passed these to her aunt, who read a little, clipped recipes, clipped movie house advertisements with glamorous faces…and passed the rest to neighbors. But for a start she would ask Mr. Wright. In stages she would stoop to bypass her scruples. Because, she told herself, here’s the thing. Once you take up with a mystery, you’re investigating it anyway. She had crossed Dumain Street a hundred times, given its story the barest thought…and knew she never would again.
The boy from the grocery trailed her indoors, carrying her boxes to the kitchen. She paid him Rothesay’s tip, shooed him with a graham cracker in his pocket…and was alone, able to think. Conscious of it, that you could enter the house through the main or the servants’ door, lock it behind you or not…
But you could not get to the wall at back, but by an inside hallway, high or low. Dumain, possessing all the keys, could have gone as he saw fit.
Now, if it were ten on the dot, she would have shaken her head, forced off temptation, 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, let 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.” At a half-angle, the wings showed 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 said 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 probly four or five.”
Her spare minutes were ticking by. He suspected what she was up to, anyway, challenge in his silences and short answers. She would have to bear the onus for prying. Her aunt’s rules—her aunt’s idea of belonging to the house you served, conducting yourself to reflect propriety on your people—were worries of another kind. Who was to say they were rules at all?
Carmine was not local, and he’d got his rumors 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, general errands. Address enquiries to Mr. A. R.
She had come knocking in late winter. Because the advertisement was that sort, responses going care of the Clarion, Mr. A. R.’s privacy guarded. 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 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 had asked if he wanted any cooking. “If you had the pans…” she said, after scrounging the makings of flapjacks for his lunch, “I’d bake you a couple of pies. You’d have something for evening times that way.”
He 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 (she did not propose to render him beholden, or slyly condemn…she was being practical), he had gone to the depot and 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 fretting he’d put a foot wrong…
On form, leaving off substance.
“Whenever you want me,” she said.
Company rapped at the edge of her attention…a medicinal odor, a chair moved aside, soles scraping, an intake of breath. Rothesay, she thought, not Carmine. She was rolling shells, one to fill with the chicken stewing on the back burner; one with chocolate pudding, grown with the men to be a great favorite.
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 then, 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 the shop will 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, to 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, it seemed building up to thunder. Sprinkles dotted her dress.
She was unhappy with this…
This difference of opinion at the lunch table. She had left Rothesay jotting in his notebook, his lack of material so apparent he fooled not even her, who knew nothing of his 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 creeping charley undulated, wider in the shade. Rain began to pelt.
“Get you inside, ma’am.”
“No, I’m fine…”
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. The vision—she willed its vividness away—was too surprising to shock. Wright stood bent to show her a place sun might fall, its 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 did not herself know. Here was a man who offered her what he could, who kept himself polite and reserved…and she sounded to her own ears like an interrogator, peremptory.
“Reckon,” Wright said.
Carmine came down from the kitchen, frowning at his shoes’ descent. “Mr. Wright. You can answer me a question.”
His gait, like his knock, self-conscious, he trotted to them, giving Charmante the tightlipped smile of a conspirator. “A little patch of ground, that hath in it no profit but the name. But really…”
He swallowed, and said another thing. “My impression is that the cellarage must be achieved via that area Rothesay says is yours…” He shrugged a shoulder at Wright’s shed. “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 kicked a dandelion gone to seed, sending gossamer flying. “Come with me, you two, won’t you?”
The stairs were open backed, unrailed. Light came cottony, through the well of a never-cleaned window.
“It’s that room he means, Mrs. Demorest.”
“Dr. Dumain’s pharmacy.”
Somewhere in the catalogue of high manners was the rule that maids have no ears to overhear, but Charmante nodded Carmine this.
In Rothesay’s favor, the cellar wasn’t dirt underfoot, and didn’t smell like the floodtide biding its hour. It smelled of must; and faintly, of carbolic acid. A surgical table took much of this outer room, then enameled cabinets, instruments in a glass-front cupboard…a duo of pendant lights above 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 just have all the lights on.”
He acted as he spoke, catching each pull-chain. The walls showed paneled wood, painted ecru, a circus of cobwebbing under the beams.
Wright put his head inside the pharmacy door. “Nothing to see, far as I can.”
Charmante went next. Carmine’s future darkroom was furnished with empty cabinetry, lit by a naked bulb. 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…hell. “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, hauled back the door…
And said, when they joined him a moment after, “I guess it’s all right. 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 Charmante 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, except these houses were clean and painted, also was under the eye of neighbors. Esta’s grand-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, the Lord’s Day 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.”
The rising from her 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 any old newspapers?”
“Hmm, now, I don’t think she does. Her and me use them in the garden, keep weeds off.”
“Now…” Charmante echoed, lifting the pot from 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. Charmante’s aunt didn’t run an electric range; power here browned out daily. But hot plates were a blessing—coffee and eggs, a chicken fry, without the fuss of coaling the stove.
“Ma’am, I’ve heard Esta talk about the Kruikshanks that she worked for. But going back to the time before my mother and I came… Did you ever hear Esta say a name, who she worked for those days?”
Mrs. Parkins fell into a chair, her collie onto its side against her leg.
Running water in Esta’s house was a less easy thing, and Esta filled her sink, mornings, from the backyard pump—to rinse, cook with, drink. Charmante scooped water into the pot, ground some beans into the percolator, and still Mrs. Parkins sat placid.
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. I peg by that hospital burned down, year or two before the war. Well, I’m not straight on that.”
“The cholera hospital? Founded by the Dumain family, built with their money?”
“I don’t mean that war over there.”
“What did people used to figure? When you were a girl, or did they never talk about the one awful thing, with so much coming after?”
“How the fire got started, is what you mean?”
“Well, you know the one took the whole block was from the riot.”
This was how Mrs. Parkins remembered, 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 could’never got out…the fire just burned up in front the door.”
“Only 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.
“They said they was stacked like kindling wood under the windows. That’s what I always recollect.”
He had not lived through those times, that even Esta and Mrs. Parkins knew only by legend. Today, Charmante sat on the morning bus nesting a paper sack against her hip.
In aught-one, she had been twelve, Mr. Wright likely a year or two older. He had, it was possible, taken part in the riot, a boy of thirteen or fourteen. 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. You cannot start choosing sides.
But, for the smallness. Intent on his foolish photography, not caring that Carmine was afraid. Rightfully, the frisson, the brush against the skin, hard to ignore. A house that had its comings and goings all day, at such a particular moment to have been bothered with…
And not bothered after all, not a thing 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, I never said that.”
“Oh, I know who’s to blame.” Esta arranged herself, sitting, smoothing her gingham. “Guess I saw enough of em.”
Charmante went to the cabinet for a cup and plate 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 had said, “Rothesay, that’s not local”, Charmante had answered, “No, ma’am, he’s definitely from someplace else.”
They had laughed.
Esta put down her coffee cup, catching Mrs. Parkins’s eye. “Robacks had them a big place in the river, what they called Ile Saint-Hubert. Never farmed crops…had a hunting ground and big woods. Their city friends to come out, 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 I was widowed by the time Charleton got sent down to the home place.” She tapped her temple. “Had to rest up, from thinking too hard.”
Rothesay was departing, making for the gate, satchel in hand.
Mr. 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.”
His cab was just pulling to the curb. She thanked her employer, sidled around him, ducked under Wright’s raised arms, thinking with contagious annoyance, won’t you and your luggage be gone in a second, anyway…?
Rothesay was 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.”
Another second ticked, and she made herself answer, “Goodbye, Mr. Rothesay.”
Wright backed up the walk, making the mildest show of spinning on his heel.
Charmante 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, “My Memories” pressed in script on cardboard. 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. If her mother would give her anything, she’d leave it lay. That was how she was, Miss Carolee.”
The souvenir was not of love, then, 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? Esta, were they sweethearts?”
“Oh, she didn’t like him much.”
“I think so, though,” she told Wright. “At least, I figure Carolee could tolerate the idea, of keeping company with him…so long as she was stuck out there. I’m guessing the Robacks had just the one daughter. Unless some older girl, off 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 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.”
Charmante 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.
Rothesay’s workshop (Carmine, employing one of his phrases, had told her, “He’s got himself organized in the attics”) was on the left side of the house, streetwise, east on the compass.
Blank glass, black in its recesses under the mansard roof, where only empty rooms sat behind, or curtains, yellowed like old newsprint. Dumain’s were open. Rothesay used this room…not to sleep in, but for some elaboration with the mirrors she had glimpsed, Carmine wanting her to absorb Charleton’s sad aura.
“Did you know…”
Wright unwrapped his sandwich from the paper folded against flies. He swallowed tea, and when she met his eye, said, “Not much.”
“Sorry. Did you know Mr. Rothesay was a doctor himself?”
“Let’s say I knew it yesterday. What kind, you figure?”
She shrugged. Esta’s clippings were about the Robacks, not the Dumains, her aunt faithful in saving anything 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, thrown from a horse. That alone was a fact of interest; all else of Esta’s mistress—so near to her in age—was dull nineteenth century correctness. A woman of patrician rank, as such things were in America, who had 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…I mean fifty, 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 laid 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.”
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 on 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. Two sofas faced across the rug. Under the coffee table lid, under a bench cushion, were spaces for caching this and that…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 Charleton. 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 this spirit…
The chest’s top drawer held only broken spectacles, a fair collection of these; the next held an order for its delivery. The remaining drawers, nothing. She sat, a thing she did on the job only at lunchtime. The 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…
All alike, the kind people whose money could be spent on books bought by 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…hidden in part by fancy woodwork…
She saw a slim chalk blue volume, dwarfed by its neighbor’s spine. When she stood and walked to the shelf, she lost sight of the little book. It sat below eye level, why she hadn’t noticed it, dusting.
Mes Pensées. A diary of 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, half not?
She felt a little angry, mocked for her integrity. A little like laughing. Would Mr. 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.
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, the two of them talk about his misery in love.
What had the woman…well, what had Carolee, why pretend…
What had his cousin lied to him about?
Rain came pelting the zinc roof of the porch. The day was gloomy. Mr. Wright had no cause to take leave of Rothesay’s housekeeper. Why stay, since he could no longer work?
They were friends now, Charmante thought, thawed past formalities…
But not such friends he’d wait, and walk her to her bus.
She was alone. Alone, she would rather meet a ghost during daytime hours, with people on the street.
She felt the draw of the cracked door. A watermark lay on the rug, that shimmered for the eye just leaving it. She wasn’t ready for the mirrors. Embarrassed, but confident no one really heard, she knocked at Carmine’s bedroom door, and called: “Hello!”
Here was a chronicle of a warming season, draped to the tipping point, a tweed suitcoat and trousers, a shetland pullover, gabardines, a thinner cardigan, an oxford-cloth shirt. Carmine shed them nightly onto his armchair.
She saw the bedspread hem bowed by the heel of a boot. An empty binocular case hung on his dresser mirror, the glasses themselves butting a stack of quarter-fold newspapers, a few of her missing dishes, an ashtray. A wad of chewed gum with a toothpick stuck in marred the varnish.
Charmante looked hard at the mirror.
Rothesay’s schema seemed able to erase you from your own sight, made you watch your detached self like a third party. In the mirrored room were you, your reflection, and the interloper.
But even if she were thirty years younger, and trying her best to spook herself…
In the middle of Carmine’s jumble, it would take some doing. Moiréed by the sheers, a street tree clawed a slow-motion dance. 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 that she ought to have knocked at Rothesay’s door.
Another fantastic thought…horrid…
By rights, unentertainable. She was seeing him capable of these things. Of wanting rid of Carmine…of not going away, after all, only pretending…
She said aloud: “Now just stop!”
And felt the dusty tension of the room relax.
The windowsills would not be broad enough. She crouched, and placed the letter and 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.”
She watched him squat to ease up the lid. A nose came nudging his fingers, a muzzle pushed advantage. Whiskers sprang, then toes and a curl of claws under a chin.
“Go ahead, let him loose. 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 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. He jumped to 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. I just don’t like being snuck up on.”
Charmante 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 goodhearted. 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 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 that he no longer required her services.
“Where did you hear about Dumain…that he shot himself out there?”
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, imagining—could he?—some antebellum impropriety.
“Dr. Dumain was cousin to my aunt’s old people, the Robacks. You said the Dumains were a family. The Robacks were too, in their day. I don’t know any are left…I suppose Carolee was an only child, after all…”
Something thocked, like a cabinet door swinging shut. Kit, the likeliest suspect, came at the object sideways, tail puffed.
“It’s your angel fell. The wings are a lost cause, 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 many would be too much out of order, plain nosiness. And as to her Dumain connection, she might not avoid invoking Esta…
Without permission, she had no right. She could tell Carmine only what he thought to ask.
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 had struck the watching Dumain as contained, palpitating, but mildly (but he must do that). He inventoried this carcass he’d inherited, its nerveless limbs fallen to pin small, scurrying things…
Perhaps the legacy wasn’t well described in such terms. Perhaps Rothesay was avid for money only. Dumain followed, and his relative pottered, bright-eyed like a jaybird, spotting this proof and that.
There’d been the angry moment when destroying the rooms seemed best, and Dumain had tried it. He had ripped the guts out of Aunt Lil’s portrait. The effort sapped his energy, and after a rest he saw from the stairs the mad effect, the hatchet winking on the foyer rug, the 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…
Grandfather’s warden traversed the living quarters as he liked, as he pleased.
Others…Leonce…would read into this the family’s grinding defeat, enjoy a fresh blood-letting turn of the wheel. Dumain had found the number in the directory then, hired the downstairs furniture taken. He had carried the painting up to his bedroom; he had put Lil in the hearth, her face to the bricks.
Dumain retained some sense of time’s passage, and knew these events playing as moving pictures 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.
They scaled the wall, got on their haunches, peered close for what darkened the bricks. Or the young on a dare, curious, but ignorant of the place. Dr. Dumain, the suicide, grew forgotten. And so the years went. Leonce, if he had died, had not returned.
The first time, he walked the rooms with a woman. She held a notebook showing diagrams and footages. Bedrooms, west-corner, east-corner…bedrooms streetside, garden side, attic…
Rothesay inquisitive…she had not curbed his listening at walls with his stethoscope, his shining of a penlight into crevices, not at all. She had yawned at it, while the noise shimmered around Dumain’s self-sense, forming words:
“You’re taking on renters?”
“I hadn’t thought of it. Probably you’re right, though. I could make do upstairs. You could take the front half, this floor. And the other apartments would give an income.”
“Oh, please,” she said. “But, come to think of it, why not? You, now…you’re straight onto me.”
The woman bantered; Rothesay feigned himself disingenuous. She tapped his shoulder. “Do you think there’s real danger of a hidden cache, druggies’ gear, envelopes of compromising photographs?”
“They were sharing a house, keeping secrets from each other, the servant with freedom to search Dumain’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, 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 young fellow with reddish hair, a ninny. Great waves of noise shouted Dumain from the premises, knocked him 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 was kept on hand…on hands and knees…and 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.”
Dumain had followed the young man. Carmine’s reluctance colored his step, the lifting of his hand and the resting of it, repeated on the bannister down to the ground floor. He brightened here, in a way Dumain faintly smiled at. He made for the kitchen, and the woman who cooked, postponing odium with small talk.
Such people, simple in their emotions, as his cousin had been…
Dumain deplored it, that he had such fits, reluctant to call by name those who had leeched his life away. Afraid of spooks, one would think. He wasn’t being fair to his old playmates.
Carolee would not have loved him, even if he had been her father’s protégé, and at the manor they had ridden together, the three of them, himself able to sit a horse properly, take a fence…win her respect.
Too natural, then, for a lonely 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.”
“Well, that’s fine. You never ought to.”
The remonstrance felt abrupt…she hoped not out of place. But Charmante was sure Carmine’s had been an ordinary upbringing.
“I understand, yes, you were hired to cook…” His eyes grew startled. “No.”
He half-rose, cast looks left and right. “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 stared at the amber-black void, where the door let 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 be called a trick of broken shadow.
But the blue form showed movement into clarity; hollows became eyes, that sought to lock neither on Carmine’s nor Charmante’s.
The ghost 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?”
He said, after a moment, “We’ll pursue this. 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 remote place. Roughly Argyle, Nova Scotia. My mother, being in that country a new arrival… 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, nursed every fear, thought always of accidents…”
Carmine frowned. “Mrs. Demorest, I will even be very frank with you. Having me within her sight, and safe, was a bit of an obsession. 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…” 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 travelers’ inn. 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. Charmante hadn’t, for assuming only what she knew of him—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 would bring me books by the dozen…and would say, first day after settling in, come along for a walk, Nat. And so with the dogs we’d go off tramping. The terrain of 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 where they grow, 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 my employer. But of course I obey. Against my better judgment, it may be. I have no choice.”
“Oh, dear. 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, what about Rothesay? In a way, I want the story. And in so many ways, I don’t.”
“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, that 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, at the attic bedroom. “Did you get the sense, for a moment, before the ghost wafted in, that…our conversation… That 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.”
“I didn’t 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’s. Find himself instructed to do good, follow orders. All quietened down, without the need for drugs. Rothesay’s investigations are not meant to be secret. If you search the literature, you’ll find he writes extensively on his special subject, his theory about lunatics. One of his interests is 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 glanced back commiseration, patient with Carmine, Charmante’s to understand. No, it seemed unlikely either of them would be searching doctors’ literature. She was coming, in a slowly encroaching way, to feel appalled. She suspected Rothesay of drawing his son from isolation to observe him adapt…or fail.
“Now, you two. Let me leave you a minute.”
She hurried, jealous of what they might say…as though Carmine and his mystery were hers, and if Wright, being a man, took it over…
Up and down the stairs, stalked by Kit. She replaced the letter in its book, carried the photo outdoors. Had either been moved? A wiser sleuth would have used Rothesay’s chalk.
“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 seen Dumain…”
“Ah. This one, I will guess. Looks a poor sap.”
Wright tapped the face. “If I’m not wrong, ma’am, you was wanting to know bout that Carolee. Well, I figured…between all the folks 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—a flood measure telling the tract had been built on this century. It was the fashion in Carolee’s neighborhood to have an ornamental tree, a crape myrtle or mimosa, a magnolia…
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 to nowhere. Every several sported a lawn jockey.
“We’ll see if we can just take a walk along here,” Wright said, low-voiced. They had come partway on the only possible bus.
“You getting out? You know where you’re going?”
“Now, mister, don’t make me late starting work.”
With a smile of private cost, if any, Wright had thought to say this. Charmante was wary, working on anger. Sitting his empty bus at the stop until they’d reached the end of the block and crossed to the next, the driver had finally eased off.
They walked the six blocks on, to the place where Wright’s source had discovered Miss Roback.
During their ride, Wright had murmured a confidence or two. “First name Carolee, that’s what I heard. You don’t think it’s some other lady.”
“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.
“I don’t know your first name,” she said.
“I don’t know yours.”
“Well, I might of heard someone say, but I never heard you say.”
She stared at a man who had got to his feet staring down the bus back, as though he thought they should fall silent, seeing him off at his stop.
Wright said, “William.”
The 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. 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, coming round the side of a house three or four down, balancing a ladder under his arm. Their escort drove slowly, his wheels gliding to their footpace. Through his window he whistled Dixie, and when they reached Carolee’s, Wright’s friend said, undertone, “You’uns 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 step propping the kitchen door with her hip, holding a pitcher of tea.
“Now, ma’am, 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.”
Miss Roback was not at home. The men were banging nails over their heads, which annoyance in its way cloaked this indiscreet talk, making it easier.
“How did Mr. Wright happen to end up working on her roof?”
“They got a row of houses on this street messed up from that hurricane last September. Won’t take them any time to finish. It was Bill…my Bill…I don’t know what yours likes to be called…must’ve spoke for him 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.”
Well, it was a new world, drinking ice tea and eating wafer cookies in Carolee Roback’s kitchen. A new world, where the teachings of Esta still obtained. Trust didn’t flow both ways…your offense the less forgivable. You, to live in peace, needed 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,” she said, “is a little ahead of himself.”
“Somehow, I been and got on the wrong side of you again.”
Again they walked—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.
“Well, see,” he said. “I couldn’t hardly gone knock at Miss Roback’s door, street like that. You probably never heard of a little watering hole called Rolly Carter’s. I went down and ran into Jimmy Gaylord, the man you just saw, with the ladder…he works for Hillman, the roofer. Jimmy thought he was just hearing that name, Roback…”
“And did your friends have any other gossip we could use?”
He fell a step or two behind, not answering. She wondered whether a man’s tavern talk would not bear the word “gossip”, or if (no, it had) her stress on “friends” had sounded disapproval.
“Well,” she said, “Miss Roback’s street is pretty ordinary. When did their bank fail, the last time? There was a crash in thirteen, the year I got married…”
Married, why say it? Because Mr. Wright had mentioned a speakeasy. Because Mrs. Demorest was respectable. “I live there. But we’re going on, to my Aunt Esta’s.”
Hers 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, and tended to flooding. Just September the water was up, but a broom and bucket got the mud off her clapboards. She salted the weeds out of her brick walk. Her roof was in good order, her windows shined, their boxes planted with lantana.
She was proud of her little place. “I grew up at Esta’s, but when my father was around I lived in town.” Her pause drew him back to her side. “I was Miss Bonheur. Well…you know the time I mean…a lot of the men they arrested got sent to the work gangs. And so many were killed, of course. They laid them out, for the wives to come see…you remember that.”
“Your father was one of them disappeared, never turned up?”
“My mother died, two years after. What I’m really saying…”
She saw him doff his hat, to scratch his head, an embarrassed sign telling her he was sorry for her, 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, stands on manners like no one 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.”
In the icebox were chopped chicken parts, floured on a pair of dinner plates. 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 Gay Paree. I was on that island…think you said was where your folk lived, St. Hubert. They made an army hospital out there, keep everyone with the grippe quarantined.”
“Have you been telling me the truth, then, William? Dumain…” Which one had said it?
“Yeah, I saw Dr. 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…?
“Did people talk about him? Was he bad-tempered, kindly?”
Wright worked his knife.
“Slice thin,” she told him. “I’ll fry them 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.
“…does the odd jobs for Mr. Rothesay.”
“Oh, yes, oh yes,” Esta said.
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 tell me.”
Wright glanced at the window. They were talking about Esta’s old woman.
“…she says every day she’ll take care of me in her will.”
“No bad luck on it, but 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. Always been talk he might not have killed his self.”
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 on 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?”
“Oh, I think God’s got you on his list, like the government. If you don’t pay him his due, he’ll still be coming after it.”
Mrs. Parkins, making a little show of ostentation, not to impose on “family”, did not come in.
“She’s got you married off,” Esta said.
Over the supper, Charmante let Esta treat this guest as she chose, and Esta gleaned little more than 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.”
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.”
Charmante said: “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’d never go. But listen, niece. You know what you’re up to? 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 Charmante in the eye. “I never knew any Dumains much, that’s the truth. Old Devil had some bad hold on people. Two daughters, both married the same man…think about that. A grandson from the older, Miss Carolee from the younger. And a weakly son, died in the riot. Old Devil never passed til after all the rest was gone. Only one of em he didn’t get.”
A lone granddaughter outliving the whole of her clan…for what it spoke to, in itself a sad thing…
But, that Esta could have this fancy, Carolee having not been got, as though her flesh and blood could have willed it.
“And so, Elizabeth.” Charmante ticked names off her fingers. “And an older daughter…Polly, you said? Married to the same man…”
“I think they was even cousins some way before all that…them two families, Dumains and Robacks, tied up together. Polly’s son was Carolee’s brother, and her cousin both.” Esta made a face. “Now I remember that. Nobody called him dead, but nobody saw him since I don’t know when. And Charleton was his grandson.”
“Dumain’s, you mean. So Roback, the banker…the last one to own St. Hubert…”
“Was the father,” William said, “of the grandson by the first wife, and Miss Carolee by the second. Them two wives was 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. He had been on a vine-shrouded corner of his porch, the house dark, its shadow cooling Esta’s. The tip of a cigarette informed them that he listened, but only at Charmante’s questions had this neighbor begun to chime in softly…yes, Roback, owned that island…yes, Dumain, a tyrant…
And a grunt more emphatic at this next, of money.
“How are you, Mr. Meeker?”
“How do,” Meeker said, crossing to offer his hand.
“How do. William Wright.”
Meeker sat on Esta’s lowest step. “The old cholera hospital. I can’t say what Dumain was…doctor in charge. Called him young Dumain back then. Place got to be more like a poorhouse, being the epidemics would come and go, but in’gents get dumped off there, and the loonies. Now when they had the fire, Dumain had gave orders to lock the wards. Families crowded up outside the wall, and he got put under custody of the marshal so he didn’t get lynched. Pumps needed the river water, and the hoses laid out, and all them inmates, being wrong in the head, would go wandering, get theirselves in the way. That’s what Dumain said, and get loose in the town, jump out at the women. So he got the judge on his side. Thing was, one or two testified they heard Dumain…”
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 don’t need to live. Better if they didn’t.”
“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, with a sky like that.
They had let him go. Proof to Esta of an undying reality.
“Laws are only made. Here we got all this trouble again with the banks. You know the ones up in Washington can decide whatever thing they like. If there ain’t enough for everybody, too much work goes begging, nothing left to pay folks with…maybe they just change the law, Charmante. They do, whenever it makes sense to em.”
But Charmante 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. Important things needing debate 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 were the two of them, young, in a gold-plated frame—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; she had 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 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 hall 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’m thinking, be the one stirs trouble. Charleton has got 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 Charmante to know, baitingly. She would like to smile at Carmine. She could play along, without needing to be told why they played.
But his eyes were as she’d never seen them. Knowing, implacable. The register of his voice was different; not lower, but more potent. The musical drawl…
He held her gaze with an arched brow. Come to the realization. He was wishing this on her, making her hear the 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.”
Leonce puffed air through his teeth, and waved a dismissive hand.
“I’m going to start making lunch,” she told him.
“Mm-hmm, why not?” He allowed it, her passing into the kitchen.
Why not? The corporeal Carmine must eat. Which, 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.
She crouched, and stroked the cat, 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, and darted to the dining room, around the legs of Rothesay. Rothesay entered—and while 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 skirted the table’s edge. 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 would 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.
“I was hired by Mr. Rothesay, whether you like him or not. You don’t mean Carolee…?”
He was watching her, her face doing interesting things…fearful, defiant, questioning things, perhaps…and his smile altered, the jaw lowering, the teeth coming out. He grinned.
“No, Mrs. Demorest, she 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…Lil’s girl 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. Because there was cocoa and sugar in the house, because Carmine might struggle back for his favorite, she had milk on, simmering 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? Where the old cholera hospital stood? Burnt to the ground…both of em burnt to the ground, old grave robber’s hospital, old grave robber’s clinic.” Leonce laughed. “They raised a tent and laid out the corpses.”
“Yes. I know.”
She was picturing a scene from her mother’s story.
Her bed had been a chair and footstool pushed together, her covers a folded comforter, a makeshift she’d been still small enough, at twelve, to fit. She lay rigid, trying to be deaf for her mother’s sake. Esta had one bedroom, one bed, where the adults slept.
She heard Esta get to her feet, rummage for a wrapper, pad the floor, murmuring, “Hold on”, in answer to a tap on the sash.
“Esta, come out.”
Charmante raised herself, on her knees reached the wall where their voices came through the open window.
“You been gone a while,” Esta said.
The light of a match shot up orange. Cigarette smoke floated indoors.
“You mean, was he there? No. 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. He had another man to lift 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, that doctor would have it memorized, just which body was where. He could pick what he had in mind to make you look at. 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.”
Charmante found both men had lapsed, trancelike, into a swaying on their feet, empty in the eyes. As though their being there depended on her attention.
Leonce came back.
Or the eyes blinked, the posture straightened. “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. I felt Grandfather had somehow…what is that biblical phrase…? Compassed me about with evil. When I was newborn and could do nothing. My father had always wanted me away at school, he hadn’t liked the sight of me. I forgive, though, I understand. I’d thought, seeing it all in ruins, and the suffering…
“And 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 had been the cause…there are causes, Mrs. Demorest. I knew, I could know this without needing to have witnessed… I think they had left Joseph dead before the fire got in, Leonce and Godfrey. It’s odd how vividly I picture the body, facedown and horrid, and then the front, when I turned him… The flames had only licked him over.”
The voice was less obviously southern. He was a mournful creature; he hadn’t, unfolding these thoughts, told her much about Leonce’s identity.
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, cattycorner to where they stood, was making her skin crawl. As though you had gone to a wake, the body dressed and laid out…and you, turning to speak to a mourner, glanced 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…some story about the angel, I think.”
“Now, one time I went out to the island to visit my kin. They all took me for a fetch and carry boy, shown up to move em off.” A long chuckle. “One time I said to Godfrey, you let the old man prepare those needles. You don’t mind that, do you, God? Well, I was curious, ma’am. My brother’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 that angel away from him, and 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 like a sack, all weeping and bawling. Then I see him hunting…and I kick him down again. I say, God, you are never gonna kill me. Why don’t I just go slip it in the wall for you? Get hold that old devil when he comes down and throttle him! Now, Miss Carolee never known me before. I went right up to her and said, I could tell a story you never heard, ma’am. I can tell a lot of stories.”
“Crawling to his assassin, letting the thing be done.”
“Now old devil, I don’t think so.”
The exchange ended the visit. Leonce walked Carmine from the kitchen; Charmante heard feet spring 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.
Here at the city’s fringe had 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 the townsfolk…
That on that side sat stowed all the district’s horrors. On theirs lay peace and order.
William was not here. She had chivvied him far enough, perhaps. He had made up his mind, leaving her last night speaking of work, to be done with the house on Dumain, and with the company its tenant kept.
The trolley tracks, the railroad tracks, the waste field.
Houses taking up on both sides, a proper street thickening with storefronts—a jutting sign, Porter’s Lounge, strung with lit bulbs. Next door, dirty windows and a dead lamp, a stack of spineless books, two ragdolls arm-in-forlorn-arm.
Soaped on the glass, and always: Closed.
A residence hotel. A grocery.
A few better stores, better houses. All these things had survived the riot.
On the city-going side of Dumain had been postbellum growth. An era for these houses, then decay in fire and bedlam. Decay for all, when the city’s harbor traffic had fallen. 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.
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 to be going there.”
It was a town house, not a plantation house, brick-faced, with toy-like turrets at the corners, awnings… She did now flash on a vision, sighting a thing she had never to her knowledge seen. A larger structure, architectural cousin to the Dumain house, the original, rightful dwelling-place of Old Devil Dumain—
It is 1859. I stand…in an orchard…
Something told her this was so. 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 whinged, the bucket sloshed…he had even begun to hum a tune, unconvincing. At least, that song was not his habit irritated her; she felt he hummed by way of projecting: “Don’t be afraid, it’s only me.”
And this artificiality between them…no longer new friends… Was it because William 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.
She must get leave from Rothesay. Her shopping list, and Rothesay’s money. Of course, get William inside the house, so he would see, understand what was happening. But he might see only Rothesay and Carmine being themselves…
“You’ve lived on this street all your life.”
“Oh, that’s right. You’d said you lived on Main. There’s Pinckney, then 12th, then…”
She pointed, towards the rundown district she had mentally surveyed. She disliked her tone, sharpened for no reason he would know. But she did believe he had lied to her.
“Down that way. All right place for some to live. Not for everybody.”
We won’t overcome this, she thought. He sees what he sees in me.
She said: “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.”
He took a step back, at this, his answer a swallowed, “Um.”
“Really. You won’t go up in the house?”
“Give me some picture I can decide on.”
She weighed reasons for his 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—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 were only to come in as far as the lower hall, and the cellar stairs?”
“They had the house shut up. Nothing to do with me.”
“See, you all out there, maybe you never got to hear things. You didn’t know what Mr. Meeker had to say…all that was news to you. Well, in town, everybody knew for a long time.” A pause; a breath. “They had three boys in jail. Lynching party spose to get got up, drag em off. Police turn a blind eye.”
He was speaking, suddenly, about the riot.
Walking safe with her hand in his, her father’s, that intersection that had made her giggle as a child, Dumain and Main… This, Charmante recalled, and her parents careful not to talk at home. The backend of the Dumain Clinic, the only doctor who served people like the Wrights, if young William ever saw a doctor.
“You said she, the woman who hired you…”
The kitchen door opened, and Carmine came out. That lift of the chin, though. “Billy Wright, if it ain’t.”
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 be 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, not part of an old evil.
“Leonce, ma’am, used to run the numbers. How come he made his shop at the back of my car. See, it went 6th to 20th, so that was one way they worked out who won. That, and some tangled-up sh… Like springtime, first person at a corner not wearing a coat, or…”
He stopped, again embarrassed.
“Slick-haired gal. Ofay from over to the hospital, sometime come down this way.”
“I have no idea.” 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. “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 rhetorical question 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, and had wanted to jimmy at her buried things with the tip of a knife. He would do that to anyone.
She asked: “Is your grandfather up in the house?”
Sly, Leonce glanced over his shoulder, the corner of his mouth drawing towards that watchful room upstairs—and at Dumain’s bedroom window was Rothesay.
In figure. The whites of the eyes framed pupils with a mad, cool intensity.
Leonce and Dumain 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 ordinary rules of conduct. “Leonce, William and I are taking a walk. You come too.”
“Come on now.” William caught him by the sleeve. Leonce pulled back, manifesting reluctance 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 by the servant’s passage. At the door leading to the surgery something struggled in Carmine to wake.
“A little time,” he said. Charleton, perhaps.
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 steering him by the shoulder. They made for the change in fortunes dividing Dumain from Centre; and distanced from the house, Carmine straightened, walking with them as a companion.
But unspeaking, cloudy-eyed.
“What do you call that?” Charmante asked William. “That big house over there?”
“I don’t mean you. What does one?”
For once and for all! she told herself. “William, 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. She had pitied Clell enough to send money; sent it also because she hadn’t wanted him back. At length came 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. Here (hand scrawled) was 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. His friends were not swindlers; she was not asked to pay, no, not a dime if she didn’t care to, towards her husband’s interment.
Four-hundred and fifty dollars had seemed high.
But in the greater scheme of things, Charmante didn’t grudge it to a man she’d loved. A good love, for a year or two. She weighed sending an even five. But that would be giving insult for insult, and she didn’t know these people.
“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, canned, was not of her vocabulary. “My being told to resign…it wasn’t the end of the world. I had money in the Post Office. That was a thing I wouldn’t do either, let Clell get hold of my savings.”
She was getting places, not yet 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.”
He started an answer, then said: “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 had got to a street where it was better not to stand and talk, in Carmine’s bedazed company.
“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.”
“We’re coming right up to the place,” he told her. “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.”
“The maître d’ had a little racket going. Leftovers from the kitchen, that wasn’t supposed to go nowheres, only get throwed out… I don’t know why fancy places got rules like that… He would sell em, is how it was.”
William’s brother Harold still ran with the gang, at seventeen. William had been fourteen, his sister, just for information, 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 had been no trouble to anyone. Well, they stole a few times; 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. William and Harold had to do for themselves when they got hungry at lunchtime.
“It was all horse cabs back then, you recollect… Lotta jostle out front the hotel. You never could go put your cap out round the patrons, doorman mostly keep to his step and cuss, but other times come down and put his boot to the seat of your pants. Or maybe get you by the collar and hold you for the police. You could hunker down, tie a shoe quick, and here along the gutter, where they got coins changing hands, maybe spot a little glint. You ever stop at Merrick’s?”
“I don’t see how I could have.”
“You didn’t try.”
The drugstore had a foyer, with a basket for umbrellas, coat hooks on the wall. William was the kid, but Snake Eye…what they called him, puny runt, never grew… Snake Eye had moves. He could get his self in.
“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 was to run up behind, catch it above the handle. He would put his fingers close, not touching, offer 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 of the door, as soon as your hand was on it. They did not like to meet your eye, so they’d look away.
“And that’s when your friend snuck past.”
“Keep low going up the aisle, so he didn’t get seen. Fill his pockets.”
“And how did he get out?”
“Just light for it.”
“You didn’t get away with that very often?”
“Well…you have to hit different places. We was always moving.”
The boys had waited that day, and loitered, and circled the block… Merrick’s just wasn’t doing business. Then came a prospect, a woman. Twice William felt the flat of his brother’s hand on his back.
He kept his feet planted. “Shit, no.”
She 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 the difference was natural knowledge, funny to have forgotten. William watched his brother smile back, watched Harold thrust a hand in a jacket pocket, sway a hip, knock 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, a boy his brother’s age, and Harold, 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.
“While we all walked back that way, she was talking bout the clinic. Dumain’s was some way partnered up with them in Boston, whatever they did.”
And when the older boys were gone after the woman, through a door under the fire escape, William, afraid to stand waiting, had shrugged off his hunger, smacked his friend on the shoulder, and gone 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?”
Charmante envisioned a tentative test, the door found unlocked. Harold choosing to go in, his feet slowing, the darkness under the stairs uneasing. The dead quiet of the hallway, and Harold, coaching himself to courage, calling out—
Climbing to an upper floor, vanishing.
The mansion sat hard by the walk, older than the widening of its street for the rails. But it could never have had much frontage, nothing like the walled yards and sprawling oaks of neighborhoods farther north. Dumain preferred this perch; if he had come to want land, he owned it already…those unlucky plots below, where two of his family’s ventures had burned.
Here was a sign, surprising Charmante not at all, in naming this the Metropolitan Cultural Institute. A window rattled 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, 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 indoors?”
At the tap of her finger, he said, “Veronica.”
“That’s right. How is Dr. Rothesay?”
Carmine looked himself over, patted his clothing, drew a wallet and stared at it, his face blanched in the sunlight, bewildered. “Is Rothesay back…when?”
“Come inside and sit.” She patted a sleeve, Charmante’s. “Hello!”
This was vexing, but Charmante said, “How do you do, ma’am?”
A knowing laugh. “Veronica Dumain. Are you not…”
Ignoring Carmine’s answering of himself in a mumble, “When did he leave, though?”, Veronica hooked his arm and ushered him to the steps. When over her shoulder she saw that William and Charmante stood in place, she finished:
“…the housekeeper, over at Charleton’s? Mrs. Demorest? No, you two, come on up to my office. Miriam.”
“Warn me what?”
“That. It’s her. Hired me.”
In a hallway of yellowed parquet, and a faint echo of young voices, they canted their heads, listening, spying after signs.
Veronica yoohooed from her desk. Charmante and William climbed a floor to find her shuffling index cards, her hand directing them to the sofa where Carmine sat. “I’ve done it again…don’t tell! Marian.”
“Oh… Marian from Miss Roback’s.”
“Because I need to give Carolee a call. I think she’ll come get us in her car. Well! This is it, huh? Let me make two calls.”
Charmante gave William the barest sidelong look; he returned a warm nod. Carmine cradled a pillow, fingering the curtain that blocked his view…he peered at this fabric as though he’d woken in a strange land and studied a map.
“Don’t, if it will take very long,” Veronica was saying. “Oh, good! Then do…” She pitched across her desktop onto elbows. “Nat! Would you like to go up to my apartment and listen to music?”
“I don’t like this house.”
A knock, and the gap of the door inched wider.
“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 spoke to the operator again, while Charmante, in this little room crowded to capacity, took custody of the coffee tray, and William changed places with Carmine, getting him to his feet, shifting his arm into Susie’s grip.
Veronica cupped the receiver: “I thought we’d all drive out of the city some ways, and just have our little talk.”
Their road sagged low, following the river’s course where the towpath had run. Marian drove Carolee’s car; Veronica and her guests crowded the back seat.
“The Robacks were never so bad…that is, you think of them on their island, going back…”
Popping sounds came, of tires breaking twigs.
And Miss Roback said on: “We bred our own, as we used to say. Outsiders, visitors, would have to be invited by a protocol. So there could be no happenstance, no dropping by, no trespass. Everything ran as they had ordered it, my grandparents; everything theirs, the food they ate, the famous horses, the music…”
A moment of conscience, giving pause. Who would the musicians be, after all, or the dancers, entertaining?
“The hunts, Charmante. Believe it or not, my father’s dogs were set after otters. We ladies played capture the flag. The cousins held tourneys at tennis. And being from a place in the world where you had no truck with anyone but your own… My father’s friends were his prospects, his amiable competitors. He was courted by his mayor and his senator, he allowed his schemers to think he favored them. Those would be the planters, the shippers, the railroad men, the hoteliers. The Dumain relatives, building their clinics. Well, you know, bank loans among that group…they would shake hands on an understanding, during these visits… Or, what do you call them? Junkets.”
Charmante did not know bank loans, or island holidays. But Miss Roback 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 by the year, slowing aging. Dying offstage. When I got to be eighteen or so, I thought…”
Marian stopped the car before a slough of mud. “Ma’am, I don’t know if I ought to.”
“We all should get out, take the weight off.” William popped his door.
And Veronica said: “Let’s not chance it. We’ll get a boat for sure, but the car’s all we’ve got for getting home. Marian, back it up to that little rise we just came down.”
The river spread wide, grey-blue in its placidity, a looking glass until it lapped at knees of bald cypress, claiming a crescent of road for itself. Fools joyriding up this way often drowned, as you couldn’t know, shooting over the bump, where the water sat.
“When you were eighteen…” Charmante prompted.
Carolee returned a thin smile. “I thought I would get away, if I had to row across that river myself.”
“You don’t think there’s any trouble, ma’am, leaving the car.”
“William,” Veronica said, “I’m looking to hire someone to keep an eye on it. But I don’t know any reason why Marian needs to go across. Maybe…”
“Veronica, there’s only some of your plans I’d go along with. And anything you thought of just this minute, no. That’s Leonce in her.”
Marian spoke to William, who had known Leonce, this nodding intimacy doing something to Charmante. But first things first. “Veronica!”
“You heard right. Leonce was my own father.”
Carolee draped a scarf over her hat, and from a pocket pulled a bottle. “Do the mosquitos bother you, Charmante?”
A dumbstruck moment. Carolee waggled the bottle.
“Oh! Yes…thank you!”
Here was a social question never encountered, how much of a stranger’s expensive lotion to use before her eyes. Veronica had plunged ahead, imprinting heel-marks along the road.
She was singing out, “Heyo! Heyo…!”
“Please hang onto that.” Carolee spun to follow the same narrow margin…her feet in white tennis shoes. Charmante wondered if she’d really been given a gift.
“William,” Marian said, “keep a lookout for me, so I don’t slide off the edge. You first, Charmante.”
Behind, Charmante heard them laugh, a slam of the door, the engine rev up.
This mud was the sumpy, sticky kind…it took resolution to put the soles of her shoes heel-to-toe; and not—spiting unexpected help and generosity—to walk hard, feeling insulted. The other pair also talked privately, standing at a sandy cut above a shoal. Just shoal enough for the boatman, his bare feet sinking to his cuffed dungarees, to wade ashore with a string of fish.
His head, sharp and small like a blue-eyed brown wren’s, angled, seeing her walk up. The corners of his mouth turned down. He didn’t like Miss Roback’s manners, or the pep of Veronica…or Charmante on sight…
Or the most of humanity, it might be. A pontoon dock floated chained to a tree, the chain long lipped over by bark. A rowboat sat moored; fish scales, glued everywhere, glinted a pearly light.
“They’s a lot you all. Four women. Your boy comin?”
“Too much weight for your boat?”
“But you’s wantin someone look after that car.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Veronica said. “We can row ourselves over. Five dollars rent. Sit on the dock and clean your fish if you’d rather. Only you better be speedy on your feet if there’s trouble. He doesn’t like even setting foot on the island, 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.”
“Good enough. William, I’m going to give you a five-dollar bill. 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 with no lock, and a pole. Charmante stepped in and squatted, propping her elbows on the sides. Carolee and Marian were in the same undignified case. There was no clean, dry spot to ease yourself into a sit.
“I’ll man the prow,” Veronica said. “And jump out with that rope when we find a 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. Close to capacity, it bellied, riding low for comfort. Charmante’s trailing fingers touched water.
William laid the oar across his knees. To think of another thing besides drowning, Charmante 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 that ran 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…”
Carolee’s playmate had been her cousin, and one or two whose parents worked at the house. These children were not friends, but small guardians, toting the lunch basket, the fishing rods and bucket…sent along for that reason. They leapt onto the soft, rocky mud where snappers basked, dragged themselves by the roots of trees to a knoll of pine, and a lean-to shelter she and Charleton had built. The cousins did not play boy games or girl games, but a fantasy, a savage kingdom where ghosts were raised, condemned to servitude as the price of visibility.
“Grandfather, I think, put all that in our heads. He would call us in by the library fire, and try to terrify us with fairy stories.”
“And what were angels to you, in your games?”
“You gave Charleton a little porcelain angel.”
“Oh, much later. You said you came here fishing, with your father?”
If the shim had opened its crack, Charmante might have asked what she wished to know…what had been poor Charleton’s tragedy? Or when, to noticing eyes, had it shaped itself? Was he not a happy child?
“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.”
Until the year his going away became the end…
No more the glamour of travel and return, her father’s familiar absence. A sort of stupidity. Charmante could charge herself with this and forgive. For being sheltered, terribly poor, thought richer than others, knowing nothing of either condition, of what adults fretted themselves over day long—money. Her father had attended the medical school he could, had worked at jobs in Tennessee to live.
But now and then tips, untied earnings, tempted him to greet his little girl bearing prizes. Before the riot, Charmante had seen fabulous things: Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, Indian chiefs in full regalia, cowboys on horseback, caves with tinted pink and blue stalactites.
“Spell that word,” Daddy would tease.
She could, and could tell him these hung from the roof, not like the others, stalagmites…and she could spell that word too.
He turned to her mother, then, mischief in his smile, because Mother had said, “Oh, that’s crazy,” when the stereoscope came back from Nashville. Every neighborhood child had been in their kitchen, looking at the picture show. Biding time, every adult.
“Girls don’t need to be riding bicycles.”
Her mother had said that, as well…and possibly to want one was wrong, money wrong. Not many children on their street had bicycles. She would have lost it, a rough boy taken it from her…
But one summertime Christmas came a celluloid doll, with wiry red hair, dimples, blue eyes painted in a saucy roll. Her dress was stiff papery velvet, green with a yellow sash. Her name (she had 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 their lily skin 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 ever be. Or known that 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.
“Miss Roback, that 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: “Uh huh.”
There was trash, quite a lot of it—floating oil cans and tires, bottles and medicine tins… A little raft of soaked cardboard signs, opposition work from the coroner’s race. And driftwood, fencing in everything.
William poled them onwards. “There ain’t gonna be a beach, ma’am.”
“Don’t trouble,” Veronica said. “Get me up to that bank, and I’ll jump. So we can all get out.”
She snugged them close as the rope could be tightened…but the getting out remained a business. Veronica locked forearms with Carolee, who skidded onto a knee, streaking her shin with mud.
“Come on, Marian.”
“Back away, that’s the help I need from you.” Marian shooed Veronica and reached for Charmante.
William said: “Best we get the boat out the water and turned over. I don’t know that driftwood won’t keep slamming and knock a hole in it.”
We, he did not mean. The women made room for the man of the group to solve this.
“Do they keep up the house at all?” Charmante asked.
“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. When the boy sees the color of the little child’s skin, he thinks his wife is guilty…of the most shame-making sin he knows. He locks the door against her. She takes the baby and drowns herself. But the poor wife was innocent. She was a little bit colored, and the husband was a little bit colored. And the young ones had never been told the old family secrets. White folks like to scare themselves with a yarn like that…
“Now let’s talk about two little boys, three and two years old. One looked like a little white boy, the other had a yellow skin and wooly hair. Old Duman had just one son, one that counted. When Joseph’s 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, roots of trees making stairsteps. Tangles of wild grape fell in their way, that Marian, leading as William brought up the rear, buffeted clear with a stick. One by one, they bent and passed through.
And here the acreage showed, a good broad stretch, the house on its rise surveying rectangle after rectangle of a different weediness, of dryer, deader earth, tall grasses and aster clumps.
“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.”
A pattern frayed in shaggy seedheads, a path, of herringboned bricks…
The outer walls of the manse looked bleached, netted over with dead vines. Someone had walked the perimeter with poison to stop them fingering back. But little green trails crept through the lawn.
Lower windows were boarded over. Porch columns peeled, roof tiles sat streaked with rust. A greenhouse lay in parts, its broken frame, a mosaic of glass shards, pots crumbling into a mound of terra cotta.
Are you sad, Carolee? Charmante wanted to ask it.
Carolee said: “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 were locked, brass plate to brass plate. Carolee strode past them, past the curve of the veranda. Steps led down to the lawn, and up, to the top of a double porch.
Here torn screens were crowded with mimosa, and a climbing rose, tepid pink, riddled with black spot. Birds had left seedy droppings everywhere, their abandoned nests under the rafters. Cushioned wicker remained, its stuffing picked 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 of her childhood home made Carolee smile.
In the front hall was marble tile, hexagons of black and white; matching buffets either side of a massive 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 Roback manor was salvageable…the straight-backed chairs lining the wainscot even good for use. Easy to pick up and carry off.
“That’s the idea, Charmante,” Veronica said. “Everyone grab one.”
“Why do you suppose no one…Mr. Brasher…?”
“I know what you’re wanting to ask. You’d think they would come out, those river rats, loot the place, tear it down. Some squatter ought to have run us off with a shotgun by now. All of you hold still a moment and listen.”
They heard at length a scree, a bird of prey’s call.
The actual sound the island made seemed a rushing…a current. But muted, stealthy; a will behind, driving it. Charmante told herself you could not hear a thing like that. She met Veronica’s eye. She tried William’s, but he had scooted at an angle, and watched the staircase.
“Ma’am.” Marian spoke to Carolee.
“Yes, we should start. I don’t really think it’s awful here at night. But you get that impression, don’t you? It might be, that like your poor Mr. Carmine, you will never know when the change comes over you.”
“And so,” Veronica said, “we were with Joseph. Joseph had two sisters, Polly the elder. Her father married her well. A banker’s son, Wilmer Godfrey Roback. But 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.”
Charmante counted figures in Esta’s photo. “But twenty or so altogether, managing the place. Other women, if she cared to befriend them.”
“True. But you don’t picture it…you shouldn’t…Polly able to be happy, feel protected here. Find allies. I’ll telegraph the ending for you. She was found 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 decide this was detritus rocked by the passage of some craft, a woodpecker’s repeated whu-whu-whu-whu-eee-eee-eee-eee-eee obscured the evidence. Now the knocking seemed only its foraging after insects.
“Where was I? Somehow had arrived. Charleton was not the best fit for his role…he was, like I said, a two-year-old already. 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, 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. But 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.
“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 trying to control 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 what I mean. There’s more, of course. It may have occurred to you, the mother 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, by her 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 too horrid.”
“Sometimes I think it was Polly warning me,” Carolee said. “It began when I was fifteen or so, when God started…I ought to say Godfrey…started frightening me. We always made allowances for God because he was the one who’d found her. He had waded down into the water and tried for an hour to drag her out. The cold, or the hysterics, caused some kind of spell 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. But 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 frankly. Godfrey 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 kitchen syrups, not poor Aunt Livie’s cough medicine, not even plain peroxide. Not the paint thinner your Esta’s Charles kept in his shed, Charmante. And God was cruel, nasty cruel. A story I heard…they caught him 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 had 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 floor 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,” Charmante said, “my whole house would fit inside one of these.”
She watched William put his head around doors, looked herself, and commented, wanting mostly not this silence from him, wanting 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, with a glance at the wall. A fresher rectangle where a thing had been taken down…
“No dead ones in there,” William said.
She murmured an inanity. “Poor things.”
Then afraid suddenly that she and William were alone, Charmante hurried to the hall.
“Don’t look, dear. I know what you’re thinking!” Veronica called. “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. Veronica slipped inside. These mirrors were better matched in size, placed with a dead uniformity. The strange hum seemed to dance from surface to bright surface.
“Do you feel the pull?”
“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 entered the ring, moving to and fro in a blind search. “More than one in there… I see a woman…”
And then he froze and 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.”
Charmante lunged for his shirttail. Something brushed her ankle.
A little cat, white, tabby-striped on one ear. She had seen Sir Christopher go into Rothesay’s room…
A shock of noise came, and a flash.
She stood amazed at the rocketing reduplication of it, the pink veining, the tree that showered sparks. A 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?
“What? Polly…no time…”
A man loomed, put his hands on Polly’s shoulders. His face was blue, heavy-jowled. Polly surrendered to him, letting him draw her into invisibility, sending Charmante an odd face of triumph…
Polly foresaw her warning disobeyed, and ruin.
Charmante was inside the ring…her feet had somehow carried her here. Others waited, she had an awful sense of it. Among them she would see those men her mother had spoken of, pulped and burnt…
To free herself, she must walk towards the mirrors. Heavy rain burst, lowering the room’s energy, pattering the roof in a trance-rhythm, making Charmante want to curl up under a quilt. The storm’s hum seemed to blanket the island’s. She saw escape, two mirrors standing shoulder-width apart.
But a boy waited here.
Slim in a natty suit. His face lit up with relief. In his own world he had opened a door, afraid to, a fear bad enough that his smile on meeting an expected face was almost giddy.
The face could not be her own.
Fingers clamped her wrist.
“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 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 outside in the rain.”
“Veronica. Polly says there’s no time. Is she right? Is there some awful thing…I asked you a question about Rothesay…”
“I know you did. Trust me, I have no secrets, girlfriend. I feel like we all ought to sit down to a cup of tea, and it’s too bad…we’re stuck. I rushed you, coming out.”
They reached the landing top, and from the hall Marian gave a salute. Carolee in her chair watched them jog 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.
He hadn’t gone into the rain, only to a sheltered place under eaves, a foot’s width of dry brick demarked by a perfect line of saturation. But William stepped ahead, and she wasn’t sure if they were having a conversation, or if possibilities 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 growing on happily, but the gardener’s work was spoiled now by creepers tented over 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, Charmante was certain of this, too. That she had seen Harold, could tell something of him, a thing so sad, she was not at all tempted to share.
“You saw Rance. Did he speak?”
“Nuh. They had him in a ward bed. He had some big square bandage on his belly. 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 and carried by flatboat, wheelbarrowed load by load, packed to bear the weight of the Roback manse. Around the corner, a line of windows showed cellars below ground.
Or half-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 trouble, everyone left to make up in their heads what they liked believing… Well then, folks got stirred and ran riot, like you know. But after, we started hearing people say it. Maybe Harold, maybe Rance, done what they shouldna. So many houses burnt up, so many killed…”
“William, people do. 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 had come to feel it himself, that burying the past was safest. From that time on, he worked in earnest, not a boy any longer, free to roam. “You couldn’t be out anyplace on the streets, not unless you had a job, and could tell the police you were out keeping at it. Nobody never talked about Harold again.”
She faced William and looked into his eyes. To say, “I saw him,” would lead to wrong, she was sure. He would fling himself back to the mirrored room. He suddenly put his arms around her.
For a minute or two they stayed this way. He was keeping it tight in his chest, she thought, and wasn’t going to let himself cry. But when he relaxed, he said: “You got a little of the sight…Charmante. So I believe you when you say so. Innocent.”
And by unspoken consent, they turned to the cellar door. William tested the handle; the door swung and caught, with a clink of glass. Daylight fell on a floor where quicklime had been scattered over dirt to harden it.
The shelves had rows of jars—
Whose contents, it became apparent to their eyes, were not pickles and succotash. They were brains. Or larger jars on the lower shelves held brains, drowned in a parchment-colored liquid. The upper shelves held a number of hearts, some intestines, other organs.
“Take a moment.”
The voice, not wholly welcome, of Veronica. “Don’t give way to it. Especially you, William. I don’t mean to be rude.” She crowded in with them. “Look. See how they’re labeled.”
Hashmarks, followed by three neat-handed letters, hyphen, three digits.
“William. In your own way, you did some of this work.”
“Ma’am. It’s…” He stood arms crossed, wanting, fearing to look. “What is it? What are you saying?”
“When St. Hubert was a quarantine camp, during the flu epidemic. When the poor boys died, and you helped carry them, on a stretcher, to…to those old tennis courts, I think, where they had the morgue tents.”
“Medical science.” Veronica bent at an enamel-topped table, slid open a narrow drawer, showed them books like ledgers. “The true names are here, the ages, military identification, hometown…” She pulled one and held it at her waist, so they could see. A fingernail lacquered rose pink tapped a column of numbers. Beside this was a quarter-inch column of boxes marked either slash, or Y.
“If there was no family…” She put the book away. “But if there was, they would get permission. All those records are in order too. Why are they here, the specimens? Why didn’t the army go off with them? Well, the army wasn’t supervising the scientific work. They were not even paying for it…they didn’t have the budget. Dumain’s clinic actually paid them. That shouldn’t surprise you. Where do you come up with the resources to even attempt researching a disease so terrible, so contagious? How did it happen, millions infected…why did it kill the young, mainly? Did I say already that Dumain outlived them all? Joseph, Charleton, Wilmer, Godfrey, Elizabeth?”
“It was Dumain collecting these?” Chamante asked. “He wanted to slice open brains…infected brains…and look at them under a microscope?”
“No. He stayed at his house in town. Charleton did this work. Charleton, by the way, killed himself.”
“Did he though? Could he have been killed?”
“Charmante! What do you know?”
A flaw in the public story. An incongruity. William believed Charmante had the sight; she doubted this. For her father’s sake, she would never claim such a thing.
But she could suppose one of them, the mirror people…
Possessed a strength, a ruler’s.
“I saw Charleton lying in the garden where he was found. The bullet hole was under his eye. Would he have shot himself that way? His grandfather was alive still…”
“Yes. The body was released to Grandfather. He told them he would prepare it himself.”
“An end, then. No questions. And…”
“Let’s go out. There’s a little side porch.”
Veronica gave a light pat to each back, and crabwise they escaped the specimen room. What a house, sitting here on its island, dismal and haunted—and no more by ghosts than by human ugliness.
The porch chairs were dry. William had not come with them. But Veronica motioned Charmante down. “And…?”
“I was thinking of Carolee. I can’t interview her.”
“Hmm…maybe you can. But ask me first.”
“I wonder about Charleton. If he was depressed over the work, felt coerced, Old Dumain would have been gleeful… It’s a funny word, I guess. But gleeful, making his grandson do something repugnant. He, Charleton…he was sick and heartbroken, it would have seemed to him there was no hope for anything. Being expected to pull organs out of people and put them up in jars! They were close cousins, were they? Or…I’d better just say. I found a letter in Dr. Rothesay’s house. The writer felt bad about telling Charleton a lie, a story he’d believed. She wrote like she knew her cruelty was…surgical, if you’ll forgive me.”
“Do tell! I never heard that one.” Veronica, if she’d had Sir Christopher’s whiskers, would have twitched them.
“The Metropolitan Cultural Institute.”
William came under the roof and sat on a window ledge. “There’s a stamp on the back page of the books in there. If all that belongs to you, why don’t you take it? Why don’t you…” He stopped Veronica’s answer. “Call what you do by the right name?”
“Why don’t I tell you a little story? No, a very short little story. It’s about me.”
Veronica smiled. William did not…but he gave way.
“When I was fifteen, William, maybe twenty years ago…maybe not…”
And Veronica, never-to-be-repressed, shook that playful finger. “When I was fifteen, my mother and I sat down, and we made a choice together, one of those things you understand so well you don’t have to say it in words. I wrote a letter to the president of Saint Philomene’s Academy for Young Women—Janet Sampson Howe, if you like… You’ve never heard of her.” She laughed, pleased they hadn’t. “I said, which was true, I have been educated at home. True, and a good thing. Mrs. Howe sent an appointment card. I took the train up…the school’s in Virginia…with a family friend as chaperone. That friend was Carolee, my father’s niece. We call each other cousin.”
“You’re saying it was a white school. You rode up on a white car, with a white woman to sponsor you, or reassure Mrs. Howe…”
“Oh, exactly, Charmante. A good education’s everything, isn’t it? No, I’m here and I’m not going back. And don’t you worry, William. I visit my mother all the time.”
“All I said was, nice work if you can get it.”
“Ha! The institute is funded by my grandfather, his legacy… I take the one thing back. A good education is helpful, but if you don’t have the wherewithal, try getting clear away. I started my training when the old horror still stalked the halls on occasion. He knew very well who I was. He scared me silly coming in where they had me typing, bringing along one of the doctors by the buttonhole, talking nasty little ailments over my shoulder. Not once did he say Veronica to me. The thing is, William, the institute does real work, those studies the name implies. We get requests for our data from all over the world.”
“Who was that woman?”
“You don’t have records on…” Charmante intervened. “On two boys, Harold Wright, and Rance…?”
“They were helping her with a study, the year of the riot. They disappeared.”
Veronica’s face was commiserating, musing, dodgy at last. “I don’t really know. You think I’m lying.”
“You don’t really know,” William said. “But you got an idea.”
“I can’t tell you why anyone would disappear. I can tell you the work hasn’t been all good. We do good, and we have done bad. But you see, without the trust funding us, the bad past would still be harm done, and the good that might mitigate it, impossible. That’s part of the answer…the sophistic part, if you like. William, I can make a little project of searching the archives. I’ll put a girl onto it.”
It was her wanting them not to assign him, the entity that appeared to be Dumain, too much power, Veronica’s reason for letting them look over the cellar. “I could have yelled out, hurry on back you two, and you’d be none the wiser. But what seems gruesome has an explanation not very shocking. Distasteful to some, sad… I, at least, feel sad so many died with no family to claim them. They must have joined the army just to have a place to be.”
They reached the front stairs, where Carolee and Marian waited. The weather was calm. Through the trees the river looked choppy.
“We’ll walk on to the boat. Somewhere around here is a lantern.”
“Let me,” Veronica said.
“No. Leonce is in there. I know where we put them, and it won’t take a minute. Why should I be afraid of the old place?”
But hand on the rail, Carolee paused. “I’ll ask you, all of you, not to be afraid for me. I feel emotional states are open doors to the mirror people. The old preacher who came to give our services had a saying. On frosty ground no evil thing takes root.”
They could not speak, as they watched her climb the stairs and enter the dark front hall.
“Carolee will tell you on the way back about our family arrangement, and how we found Rothesay. But I’ll say this much. When he came to claim the house, he told us he planned to reopen the clinic. My idea was making him agree to house the specimens. You’ll say there’s no clinic, just an empty lot. Well, if we had got around to sitting down at the institute…over the blueprints…”
Veronica’s chatter died, as a wave of unease took them all. Marian lit a cigarette. William circled to put his back to them, and Charmante, thinking she’d read this once, of pioneers and their wagons, turned herself at an angle to William.
Her view was of the island’s parklike grounds, of fog rising…
The dead were not in the fog. Charmante found herself locking eyes with the blue-jowled man, ardent behind the window of a sinister little shed, its blood-colored brick clarifying to visibility.
“You’re the daughter of a man I knew. That counts…”
His mouth did something, flickering. The smile looked tragic and wistful, the face like biscuit dough peeling from a death’s-head. It looked again sarcastic, loathing of the whole and healthy. “Counts as an introduction, Mrs. Demorest. You have questions, don’t you, for your father? You would like to see him. You would like to know if your mother is at peace, here with him.”
Only movement at the corner of her eye checked the step she’d been about to take. William, not keeping his place, walked at speed…he was slipping off among the trees.
Charmante calculated past her first impulse, to call William’s name. The boy in the mirror…he would have grown into a good-hearted man. They were not evil, these ghosts. Or these distant selves, capable of drawing life from the living.
“Harold!” she called. “You don’t want to do this!”
Why should any of them, not bitter like Godfrey, wish to seduce on Dumain’s behalf? William put out a hand as though to catch something. The door of the house flung open.
“I apologize.” Carolee hurried down, arms full with two lanterns and a cat. “They’re strong tonight. That, I think, is because there are too many of us. I’ve rowed out before with only Veronica. Marian stayed with the car. It seemed manageable, that time. I won’t say the circle…”
She caught her breath.
Veronica finished. “Wasn’t alarming in its way. Let me.” This time she meant, take the cat.
Marian in practicality placed one lantern on the ground, knelt, and lighted it. “That’s better. I had a hunch they’d back off a little.”
“Key it down. We’ll hold the other aside, in case this one doesn’t last us across.”
“Marian,” Charmante said. “Did you see them?”
“Oh, they don’t mean anything to me. I don’t have anyone dead. Not my mother and father, not my sister. And Bill looked all right last time I saw him.”
The dark around the lantern was pitch. But lifting her eyes, Charmante could see a twilight sky over the river, and orange…an unpromising sunset that would cloud ahead of dying.
William said: “What about out here, ma’am…? You never see the sheriff come along after dark, drive that road, other side? Be out rowing with a lantern…I don’t see that looking like any good.”
Carolee said, oblique: “I will always answer truthfully any question I’m asked. But also, I have a friend who knows when I come out to the house, and the sheriff won’t quibble with him.”
They reached the trees, filed one by one down the path. Charmante felt a lonely tug at her heart, growing acute, and so strong she mistrusted it.
Come back…you’re not leaving. I am still waiting.
My girl. Please don’t go.
Veronica said: “William, you’re in the lead. Take us to the boat where you put it.”
William moved heavy of breath, expending an ache Charmante knew, in the labor of righting the boat, nudging it into the water among the floating wreckage, wading in himself, at last—there seemed no other way.
She and Marian caught him by the arms, and William dragged himself aboard. Brasher’s craft weighed low once more, striking against the current…a strange, wrenching exercise, crossing water under a night sky.
Carolee spoke then, the cat’s purr audible, her stroking of him the faintest sibilance.
“Let me answer you, Charmante. Let me say what my cousin doesn’t know. The little porcelain angel, where did it come from? Where did it? We had a music box…I ought to say my mother had. The type with a cache for trinkets. Did I steal a treasure from her? She and I never had that conversation. I’m not sparing myself. I want to say I thought Charleton was too homely, too dull. But I couldn’t have hated him for those things. Remember Godfrey was alive, trying in fits to kill himself…trying to kill my mother. Kill her, I mean, by killing everything she loved. He started a fire in his bedroom. He poisoned the fish, pouring kerosene in their tank. And he arranged mirrors. I don’t think he knew…how to draw spirits, I suppose… I was jaded to it, then, not afraid. I just found God embarrassing, mad. Dangerous, in that he would go to the city and the police take him for some obscenity.” She laughed. “The Robacks were people of reputation. And so we had to acknowledge Godfrey, pay for him. And you see, Charleton had been my ally. He’d become useless, mooning over me, making a tragedy of his chaste love. I didn’t care for love, any sort. I wanted my friend to protect me. For a hateful…desperate, maybe…will to do mischief, I told him the angel was found in the ashes of the old hospital. That it was a talisman, or pledge, against the Dumain family’s guilt, to be passed to each generation until we’d redeemed ourselves…a sorority girl’s story. I didn’t know my cousin well enough. That yarn, which I promise I made up on the spot, seized his imagination. He wanted to take it from me, and I said, ‘Why, this is yours by right.’ I said that. And then I said, ‘Be careful’.”
William’s labor drowned all other sound. He grunted with the effort of one oar and a contrary flow of water, a concentration that could not afford being broken. The women sat poised, swallowing their breaths. Charmante knew the mirrors signaled; she felt them probe the nape of her neck. If she looked, she must shift from this crouch, and the life-preserving balance would be harmed, the current win.
They came free, a sudden glide. The waters lapped the shore twenty feet away. But William stopped pushing himself only when the bottom scraped among cypress roots. Veronica lurched with the lantern; the swing snuffed its flame. For minutes, they saw nothing. They heard nothing whatever human. The river, spreading to earth here, waved them into a tighter tangle.
Marian struck a match, and lit the second lantern. “There’s a log that’s still got bark on it, and see there, it goes up onto dry land. I don’t expect any better answer, Miss Veronica. We’ll have to tie up the boat best we can.”
“Poor Brasher. But it was us broke faith…so the Institute will buy him a new boat, if we ever find him.”
“I about done in my hands,” William said, to Charmante.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to do.” And then she said, “Thank you, William.”
“Yes, for Heaven’s sake, what a hero! We’ll think of something to make it up to you. Marian?”
Veronica was on the log-bridge. Marian sighed and handed up the light.
Joseph Dumain knocked one night at his son’s door.
Charleton did not live in this house alone…he was not alone, and the presence of boarders, of student doctors who interned at the clinic, kept his feet from the chasm, his eyes towards humanity.
Need was life, and the chasm was death.
But it was four a.m. He was in the kitchen, brewing coffee. His grandfather had conferred on him the responsibility of the clinic, and the running of it was not the burden, that stole sleep—
The old man had a curiosity. What components of the human species tended towards stamina, but yet with no excess of soul, as Grandfather used the term? He used it in the way of the British intellectual. He did not want his ideal “unit” to think existential thoughts, to worry over the goodness of man, over his place or purpose. Grandfather felt there was a mix of the races—he wished to learn what it was—that produced a superior breed of soldier.
A soldier to end all wars; for, being bred, he could be sacrificed in unlimited numbers. War would be a game then, a gentleman’s game, and the people would not trouble themselves to follow it.
Charleton, at twenty-four, hadn’t the stamina to speak his outrage. He was on his feet sixteen hours a day. He pulled back the door and saw Joseph; saw the weatherbeaten face grow pinched. He knew his own plain looks were bleached and hollowed uglier by his indoor life.
He hated this man. He was reminded, and his face told it.
Joseph said: “Don’t let the old man know. I’m staying a while.”
Charleton’s arm barred the way.
“Damn you, don’t be an idiot!”
He was an idiot to his father, not a qualified doctor who saw a dozen patients a day, visited the homes of others, updated the books in the evenings, ate meals standing. Joseph practiced in a rough, camp fashion, born of the army, the mines, the places his store of information had ossified into his bible.
One day, after helplessly allowing Joseph in, Charleton climbed to the attic library. Electric lights were not strung here, but windows gave daylight on four sides…light enough. The library was cramped, stuffed with paper, a fire trap. The floor below was entered from a private staircase, needing a key.
Inpatients here were seen by Old Dumain.
And a small staff shared a residential ward, to watch them nights. Charleton searched for an unimpeachable source, a medical journal that would tell Joseph not to hand out pills and send people away. He agreed with his father…many had nothing wrong. They had pains and indispositions that would sort best with a day of bedrest; they made themselves sicker, and others sick, coming to the clinic.
But of course they couldn’t take a day. For their bosses, for their spouses, they needed infirmity—proof of it, in a bottle of pills.
His grandfather had wanted…Charleton hadn’t known why it surprised him…to set aside the back rooms of the first floor as a special, Negro clinic. He had himself hired Dr. Bonheur, feeling depressingly his junior. He would have chosen to be guided by Bonheur’s manner, to let the greater competence take charge. But as they could not work side by side, Bonheur’s mentoring must be vicarious.
He carried a case history to the window. He looked down into the yard, and saw Joseph, saw that Joseph was speaking to Godfrey. The yard was a strip along the back premises, fitted with a handpump for water, a wrought-iron fence for a boundary, and a line for washing. Because of bedsheets, the men were sheltered from the alley.
News of Godfrey painted a degenerate, a pilferer, a fabricator of pathetic excuses, a creature void of the humane impulse…
Was evil too strong a word? It was not clinical, however, and Charleton told himself that at any time he might meet a patient troubled like Godfrey.
It was clear to him his father was giving over a drug, a blue glass bottle. Joseph was shoddy about dosages, about marking them down in the record book, reconciling this with the charts. Charleton saw that a spat had risen. They hissed at each other through their teeth, not to be overheard.
Who am I lying to? If I won’t tell the truth to myself.
He watched Joseph snatch at the bottle…and astonished, watched Godfrey’s face bunch into an animal sneer, watched him lunge and take Joseph, on the grass now, by the throat. The sturdy little bottle rolled away, its blue the thing discernible. And there was Bonheur, putting his head out the window.
Charleton flushed hot. He heard his father’s voice: “None you … in there need to involve yourselves. You … keep to your own business, or look out!”
Amid these dismissals were two epithets. He would not let them echo in his head. Going downstairs to duty, Charleton let the truth form itself.
The fight was over money. Joseph was selling tincture of opium, but Godfrey…no, Godfrey couldn’t pay. At the foot of the staircase, he turned onto the short hallway. The examining rooms, the open doors on either side…
The hall’s four benches.
“Hello…hello,” he said, and none of the patients answered. They needed a second’s time from looking at this stranger from the other side, to speaking, and Charleton was past by then.
“Dr. Dumain. Come in.”
Bonheur stepped out, nodded to the waiting patients. What Charleton wanted to say was not, “I apologize for my father.” There was something in begging forgiveness that made matters worse.
Closing the door, he said, “My father is…” He said, his voice regained: “We need to lock the drug cabinets. Here at the back, maybe have bars fixed on the windows. If someone were wanting in from the yard…”
“Well, I always do lock the cabinets.”
“I suppose I was thinking aloud…not suggesting… Anything, sir, my father… I believe he is not to be trusted around narcotics. Or intoxicants.”
Bonheur, cautious: “I notice if he comes down here, or if he turns up in the yard, it can be a little bothersome to the patients. There is only myself and Mrs. Turner to look after things. I don’t know that your father inclines to much natural respect…that is, about the places he puts his head into, or the ways he speaks to people.”
To be sorry for this was less a complexity, and Charleton apologized. “I don’t want him here. I don’t know how to be rid of him.”
“Bars,” Bonheur said, “might be an idea.”
They had agreed on that, their last conversation.
It was Mrs. Turner who saw the pregnant women, coaxed from them what they kept to themselves, even from Dr. Bonheur. That, Charleton understood, might be the woman’s wish to end it. Mrs. Turner performed abortions.
But upstairs, we know nothing about it.
His habit was early rising, leaving home without breakfast, reaching his grandfather’s office while it sat empty, gaining two hours of study before nine a.m., and rounds. He disliked that in the grand house were servants, that overcoats and hats needed handing over, summoning the return of; that coffee and sandwiches needed requesting, and faces popping in to learn if your tray could be collected.
And that, the poor staff being blameless, it was fair to say you were going when you went…
Grandfather in the way of tyrants was encyclopedic of knowledge. Under his preceptorship, when Charleton visited the hospital’s charity ward, a question…
“What do you notice about the eyes?”
“Would you call that crepitation?”
…sprang often as a calculated trap. Charleton pored in defense over patient files. When he had memorized them in gist, he went to the journals, teaching himself what he could about the diagnoses.
He knew no one in this city where he’d grown up; he walked in thought of professional concerns alone. He began to notice Leonce.
Leonce was not then a young man who had a name. He was colored, light-skinned, light-haired, handsome. He dogged Charleton’s steps, touched his cap sardonically.
“Hey, there, brother.”
He made these words a habit, and Charleton answered only, “Hello.” He said one morning: “How do you do?”
“Oh, dandy. Not too bad. Got a little daughter, needs looking after.”
So…the object was begging. But having nothing against alms, Charleton rooted in his pocket.
“Charleton Dumain, what’re you thinking of? I wonder if you know me.”
“Ought I to?” The arm went lank, the bill between two fingers catching the breeze.
Leonce grinned. “Gracious, now. Listen to that. Ought I to.”
He put a hand on Charleton’s shoulder, and they walked side by side.
Charleton found himself pulled off the walk before his foot could touch his grandfather’s lowest step. He went with Joseph into the garden, to the well.
Joseph swayed on his feet, threw his head one direction and another, an alcoholic’s bargain with balance. “Why’s it so rank? Get that brick. Drop it in.”
Seated, Charleton waited for him to make sense.
Elbows across the well’s coping, Joseph listened. “See there? Where the hell it goes?”
True, the brick took time, splashing. The well from its depths billowed something putrid.
And what if Joseph, in his curiosity, tipped in? Charleton, knowing what he felt, decided whatever his father’s business, he would take up his own. “I can’t let you have Godfrey visit. Not at the clinic. Have him in your room if you like.”
“I don’t recollect calling you down to say hello.”
“I saw you from the window.”
“Don’t like your cousin? Don’t think he’s good enough for you?”
“Sir, I was up in the attic.”
“Up in the attic, soon down the stairs…”
A harangue now, that built while the two stared on, into the hole. A heavy flood would push what was discarded there, up to bob along the street, to eddy, tapping at basement windows. To lay itself out drying on the grass…
And what would it be? Tiny bones? Needles and bottles?
The abyss told Charleton’s mind these things. He forced hearing, and his father was saying: “Bonheur’s got no respect for you. You don’t know the coloreds. Bonheur’d never have any time of day for your brother, neither.”
He broke and turned to laugh, looking at his son.
“I don’t think Grandfather denies it. He gives Leonce money.” Charleton felt bold enough to say this, and calm.
“Well, Leonce got too much nigger blood to hide. You, he had some use for.”
Carolee had studied business composition and etiquette, shorthand and typewriting, at a junior college in the city. Permitted to live in the dorm there, feeling not normal, not social among the girls. Never a fit with the normal, because she knew the island, her mother left behind there, and Godfrey. She was twenty years old. She had applied for acceptance at the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia. Of this, not a word to her grandfather, instinct telling her she would not like his help, and she would not like his refusal of it. It was all a hemming in, a written fate, a frightening end ordained, and while she ought to have given up a career and gone to protect her mother, she saw it in herself, that she could reject duty…
That love, on the island of St. Hubert, had never really been.
As for boyfriends…Carolee had tried very hard. She had let him be a husband to her.
“I did think I would have to kill Godfrey. For us to marry in peace. Yes, I mean that in every absolute it implies. I could have pushed him in the water, the way…no. I should take that back, he was ten years old. But you know, I’m so sure he killed my aunt. I think it cracked him, I think his soul left his body at that moment. I picture his foul little mind a blank, the idea everything, the watching to see what would happen. And after his long spell, Godfrey was left with what he grew up to be. Charmante, you don’t have Dumain blood. You don’t know what it is to be…experimental.”
He might be dead. He had vanished, Charleton telling them Godfrey was in the city, seen at the clinic buying laudanum from Joseph. He could not have been arrested, mixed up in the riot. Godfrey would not sit in a jail cell. He would beg, and weep, and offer bribes. Her poor mother would have been approached.
Elizabeth and Carolee said nothing at all to each other. Crossed fingers and doubted their luck. Buried Joseph Dumain in the family graveyard, there on the island. Joseph was her brother; Elizabeth had the right, his only capable…willing…next of kin, to state to the undertaker her preference. Grandfather, in a pretense of shock, had refused to leave his manse.
The body had been found in the wreckage, burned. Face down, the face salvageable.
Why the morbid impulse, to have an open casket? A thing about her mother that Carolee had never known. The body in its box sat on a table in the family chapel, the table draped with a rug. A rug that smelled, as everything so near the river smelled, of reclamation. Charleton quivered and hugged himself. Carolee, enduring the sermon beside him, felt he was stricken mad by the bodies Grandfather had volunteered him to carry from the rubble and ash, to lay out for the families to name.
She took her turn at the shovel and dropped a clod of clay on the uncle she’d barely known. She was angry they had done it to her, put a face on Joseph, one plastered and rouged, that she would now remember.
And the funeral supper, Esta at service with Aunt Livie. When Esta was gone home to her niece and grandniece, as she told them she must be, this old woman near ninety would be left to manage…
The futility of providing human company for Elizabeth Dumain Roback and her only child. Mr. Shirey, their minister, was the last visitor now.
Carolee had carried her plate to her room. She thought of being alone, lifelong. And thought that in town, she would find it tolerable. If the college accepted her, Grandfather would put her at Charleton’s side, both grandchildren harried to idiocy by their infantile cowardice in his presence.
What did it mean to resurrect a clinic, in a burned and spoiled neighborhood? Ugly, disheartening labors. Failure at length. If the college accepted her, she would withdraw her application. But she had no fear of this happening.
She spoke, knowing only Charleton knocked at a door that way: “This is my room. Go lose yourself.”
He came in. He sat on her bed, picked up her mother’s angel and fingered it. While he did, he told her what he had been told by Joseph.
“And I think I’ll tell you why I’d gone back to the island. I wasn’t a spineless girl. I could have taken secretarial work, eked a living, done my best to keep clear of the institute. But I say that, knowing I was never tested.”
“You can’t keep clear,” Veronica said. “Look at me.”
“The man I told you about… Your heart stops you, doesn’t it, Charmante? You know when you can love and live with someone, and when you can’t. He would have done what they call the right thing, of course, if he’d felt forced to it.”
“Here we are at the crossroads,” Marian said.
Her voice had more in it than fact. Charmante thought she offered Carolee a chance to change her mind, not tell what was easy to guess now, anyway.
“The island was good for that. We had cleaners once a week, and fixed our own suppers. I was very unremarked there. Not especially unwell. Tired…I felt like some vital part had been cut away. He told me, though, I could have as many children as I liked, the doctor found for me by my mother…so I knew that she’d asked Grandfather. To think of Grandfather’s knowing was just as awful as if he’d scraped me out himself.“
Carolee’s phrase made William shift in his seat.
“No, I could never have children, never put that taint on a child, have him grow up, take that risk…”
Once their feet had lit on the road’s sparse gravel, and Veronica hoisted the lantern, they saw the car was behind, not ahead…they had landed down current, closer to town.
Marian jogged off. Headlights, with the revving engine, blinked into fog. “Doesn’t look like anything’s wrong. Nobody bothered with it.”
Veronica squatted by each tire, and climbed in last. “Mr. Brasher may well have manned his post, until it got… I wonder what you can see of the house from here?”
“You go on wondering.” Cool-handed, Marian backed, turned, and bumped them along at an easy pace. Every several feet bright pairs of eyes came reflected, animal haunches flinging into woods.
“And so. Carolee was telling you how she found out from Charleton what we are. What the family mission needed to be.”
“And Godfrey…” Carolee said. “I’m sure I’ve given you a picture, by now, of Godfrey. I wasn’t the rightful heir. My mother had died in aught-eight, the accident with her horse. Our lawyer…my lawyer, my cousin Giles Roback, ran out a portion of the estate hunting for Godfrey. Trying to prove him dead. Alive, if it came to it. Grandfather had placed St. Hubert in a forty-nine-year lease with the government. He had effectively disinherited us…or myself, of course. Leonce was not in the picture, and so not Veronica. Some theoretical heir, son or daughter of a son or daughter, if Giles finds such a person, may reclaim the island one day. Your Carmine, if he will. Meanwhile, we found records of my grandfather’s. Notebooks, with lineages and assessments, and trials…trials of…”
“Experimental constructs. He’d meant for his science to be a legacy. He wasn’t ashamed…no, he was the Great and Chosen. That was exactly what Grandfather believed. The books had diagrams for the mirror arrangements. You see, even they weren’t a secret. A blueprint, for those who would carry on the work. Imagine a family discovering…” Veronica, more confident than her cousin, fell no less mired over descriptives. “We thought we needed to locate the people listed. They were blood, after all. They might be ill, destitute. It wasn’t right to have money in trust for the institute, and property, acreage…”
“Money,” Carolee cut in, “that was mine, if Godfrey was never found. I don’t live in that little bungalow because I can’t do better. But, because…I have better things to do.” She paused on this turn of phrase. “I hope it doesn’t sound boastful to say I’m one of the good Dumains. I have chosen never to marry, never to bear a child. Veronica has pledged this with me.”
“And we’d thought, our friend Rothesay. He is a son, a proper direct Dumain, his mother one of the institute women. William, I don’t know if she was yours.”
“Not a thing I mind to go pursuing, ma’am.”
Charmante had let them talk on, would not…hadn’t come to terms…could not, yet, ask of Carolee or Veronica…
What happened to Dr. Bonheur? How could he have vanished?
Everyone at the clinic knew him. They loved him.
“Rothesay studied medicine abroad. He survived the war and stayed after, moving between England and Belgium, doing relief work, then teaching. Giles and I wrote letters. Rothesay wrote back. I’ll take the blame,” Veronica said, “for finding all that history too trustworthy. He had no wife, he told me. His calling was everything. Carolee and I decided giving him the house would be right, the best choice all around, because a clinic for the poor, Mr. Rothesay said, was just what he had in mind. The money saved on building, he said, would leave more for the good works.”
Still. Doers of good works must state their good intentions in ordinary terms.
A devil might read the secret heart.
Charmante woke, seeing the room with its Queen Anne furniture in a haze of bare sunrise. In her own bed she would have rolled over. But she had dreamed of things unresolved, and she was in Old Dumain’s house.
Yesterday, in the garden, she had walked prepared to summon all the energy…force, science, whatever channel from the mirrors gave visions. She had wanted to see Dumain at his window, watching…as he had…knowing fire would break out in the cholera hospital. He had known it, he had waited for it, to see flame shatter the first glass. To thrill at inquiry, listen to the screams, monitor the progress of escape. Learn, of the inmates, which could win. Dumain stood curious to know whether such events produced patterns of behavior, how these patterns served or thwarted, what new knowledge could be applied to the next tragedy.
What difference, then, did tragedy itself make?
He had put on his coat, his hat, walked the distance, found himself mobbed by his panicked staff. Told them to lock the wards.
And he had been a young man.
The room didn’t face Dumain Street. Charmante wanted to tiptoe into the hall, find one that did, prove herself right or wrong by how whole the empty field showed. Dumain might have watched the riot unfold as well, forty years later, tallying up more of his useful data. He might have watched, notebook in hand.
She was tired, her limbs resisting. And if she got lost…she surely would…wearing Susie’s borrowed nightgown, having to knock on another resident’s door…
It would not be a lasting humiliation. However, the Institute was a serious place. Dumain’s house sat not spookily empty, not even quiescent in the smallest hours. Students pursuing degrees lived here, doing their research in the archives. Her door was outlined by lamplight; and voices in talk, sweetly earnest, rose from other rooms.
She turned an armchair to face the window, saw a fenced lawn, a gated square, a wellhead, center. Godfrey’s ghostly face. She knew Charleton and Joseph had spoken here. Could anyone tell a secondhand story, tell it so potently the listener found herself walking at a man’s side, seeing the sights he saw himself, hearing a voice she would recognize, in tenor, in accent…?
Joseph Dumain’s. Accent, degraded Carolina. Tenor, sneering. Nothing in the flow of consciousness was hidden from the mirror people—the living, the dead, the dreaming, the musing, were one. No way to be certain, for the fog raised between their world and yours, whether you had the right to your information, or ought to conceal the knowing of it.
William, telling Marian to stop the car on Lafayette, had left them. No one asked why he refused a room at the institute, would not have Marian deliver him to his door. He preferred making his way where a man walking in the dark would trouble few, to his sister’s house without odd company.
More to the point, recognizable company. What taking up with Dumains meant to the Wright family, Charmante had learned. It would be a fault against her in Jane Breedlove’s book…
A chime sounded. Half-past six. Coffee was brewing, the institute staff starting the day’s work, noises of routine. Someone pushed a carpet sweeper.
A tap. “Mrs. Demorest.”
What about me? Chamante asked herself.
Susie entered. “I took away your things last night. You all were in some mud! Now here, these are from Veronica.”
The garments seemed Veronica’s uniform: cardigan, pintucked blouse, plaid skirt. Charmante’s cotton stockings were being washed, and she had no substitute. But Susie read her thoughts. “I’ll run over to my room. Look at that waist quick, and see if you need a safety pin.”
“Oh…bring one. Thank you.”
Warming plates on a sideboard held scrambled eggs and grits. Cold ham. Biscuits, soft butter. Coffee in the pot, orange juice and milk in pitchers. Sorghum syrup in its own bottle.
Charmante carried her plate and cup, and found Mr. Carmine alone.
“Hello! How are you feeling today?”
“Mrs. Demorest. I’m embarrassed.” He gave her an under-the-lids glance, and said lower: “I have a lapse of memory. I almost think I was not well yesterday, but… Was it yesterday?”
“It was a very busy day.” She said this as to a child. She admonished herself, but went on just the same: “You haven’t done a thing wrong. You do feel better though?”
“Ready to take myself off. I don’t care to look Veronica in the eye.”
“Now, really, I promise you…”
“Carmine. You haven’t come begging employment of Miss Dumain?”
The tone was tolerant jesting. That Rothesay had walked in, approached them unnoticed, to exert pressure she knew Carmine would feel as such, was not what alarmed Charmante.
“And Mrs. Demorest…I’m surprised. I make no mistake in supposing I still employ you?”
“I’m at fault,” Carmine said. “She was trying to help. I don’t know what occurred… I got out of bed yesterday, and I…”
“Mr. Rothesay, I may be late. But I’ll start at ten, as usual, if I can.”
Rothesay, his first open rudeness, turned unanswering and took a seat next to Carmine, tapping him on the knee. “Today we have opportunity to try what we’ve discussed. I believe there is great healing power in the mirrors, as you know.”
He gripped his son by the elbow. They stood to leave, Carmine leaving the better part of his breakfast.
There was nothing to call out in warning.
You could not charge a respectable physician, before a crowd of students, a handful of sober administrators, with being a man possessed. To Esta, Dumain was a sinister figure, who had peered at her hungrily. Esta had never met a powerful white man on his own level.
Charmante didn’t flatter herself…she had not either.
But Rothesay’s affable manner, his facility with phrases that put you in your place, but could, if you weren’t careful, sail right over your head… Dumain had been this way. Dumain, the young man of her vision and Meeker’s story, winning easy friendships, making his persuasions with humor. Plausible, forgiven.
Was Dumain angry she was here? Did he suspect her of undermining his purpose—of seeing his purpose, for Carmine? Did he mark how she’d separated them; did he vow to put a stop to this woman’s interference…?
Or was Rothesay only Rothesay, Charmante wisest now to clean his house one further morning, feed poor Carmine, write her apology and resignation in the afternoon? Be done with it.
Veronica walked up. “Are you going over to the house? I might go with you.”
“I don’t know anyone in this part of the city. I don’t know what would amount to a safe haven, if you aren’t here at the institute. If I needed to bring someone out of the house…”
Charmante felt defensive. Tricked, in a way…Susie was a servant. So am I, she wanted to say. That is not at all what I was thinking.
Veronica must, being adventuresome, be amoral. Not amoral in the soul, but in that doing right for her meant parsing pros and cons, planning campaigns. When the bold charged to the confrontation, they were consumed by whatever happened next.
The reticent, the meek, thought better of who it happened to.
“And what do you do at the institute?”
He said this, her driver, and was silent at the wheel, thinking. “So they collect data, and the submissions, what the researchers send us when we put out a call, all that’s in our files. Say a professor in Canada, a doctor maybe, in California, wants to know if a public milk program would improve test scores for children. I look for anything done on milk, anything showing upcurves in performance of schoolchildren, and compile the fields that overlap. Of course the client makes use of our work as he sees fit.”
“And so you don’t particularly assist Veronica?”
He turned pink and laughed. “Everyone assists Veronica.”
“Oh, I believe you.”
Small talk had provided a name, Paul Myers, a hometown, Toledo, Ohio, and an age, twenty-five. If while directing his turns she could, Charmante hoped to learn what the institute staff knew of Dumain. Likely they were naïfs. Possibly they shared the mirrors’ secret and guarded it.
“And do professors recommend graduates for a place at the institute? Is it…” She cut short the answer he was bursting to give, and covered herself. “I’m sorry to pry, but it’s so interesting! Will you work for the government? Or will you be a doctor yourself when your schooling’s done?”
“No to that, ma’am, not me. But not government per se, more like public welfare. Making the world a better place.” He said this as a quote, and the laugh came again, abashed.
They passed the canning plant, the gas station. At once, it seemed, they were at her house, a time/distance equation always measured walking. Those who owned cars here contrived their ways of keeping them. A few plank bridges over the ditch led to lawns. What Paul was to do, or what he might want to do, she hadn’t thought.
“Park if you can, and come in.”
“Oh, I should stay with the car.”
“I need to change clothes. It’ll be a while.”
He didn’t mind, he said.
Well, she couldn’t fault his courage, bound to carry only so far. He had described his work without tone or simplification, called her ma’am without condescension. If Veronica taught her people things, safe to say they’d keep those lessons in mind. She pulled the door shut, her mind on what to wear. Her work shift and apron couldn’t suit the visit she’d hectored herself into paying…
Before the daunting thing; before Rothesay’s house.
“Who’s that out there?”
“You look comfy. Maybe I should let you take that chair home.”
Esta was stretched on the brown rocker, feet on the ottoman, blanket on her lap. “Now, was I sitting here talking to myself?”
“His name is Paul. He works for the Metropolitan Institute, in town.”
“I don’t know. The only bona fide Dumain I’ve met is Veronica. And she’s an employee too…of some kind. What are your plans?”
“I came to see you got home all right.”
“Maybe you ought to make coffee while I change. Maybe Paul will come in.”
Charmante’s silk stockings, home-dyed, were for church. For church, this was not showoffish—it was respect, donning your best to visit His house. But what would Jane think? Mrs. Breedlove to you. And being honest, she found she had that inclination…to not love Mrs. Breedlove, for whose opinion she had to weigh which would earn the greater condemnation, her best or the clothes she wore maiding for Rothesay?
“That boy of yours is out there talking to Mr. Meeker and writing down in a book.”
Esta reported this, coming into the bedroom, not having put the pot on.
“It’s his work. They’re serious people at the Institute… Esta! We’ve never talked about the riot.”
Charmante stepped into a taffeta frock, and Esta moved to fasten the buttons.
“Don’t worry. I don’t want to know much. Just, what did you think went on, yourself? About Daddy.”
“I thought what everyone knew. Not where they took him…not if he was dead. They all folks, Dumains, stirred the trouble up, that’s what I thought. Two hundred men arrested and sent off for labor.”
Even Esta approached with care, even in a town where the sentiment was universal. They had wanted men for the coal mines. Prison labor cost nothing. The only bar between a free citizen and a prisoner was a fall. A fall was an easy thing to arrange for a black man.
“What did you think about Harold Wright? And Rance, of course, Rance Goodson.”
Who’d had a mother too.
“No sense. Couldn’t do what they was taught.”
Esta’s face came round Charmante’s waist, in the mirror catching her eye, making her close her mouth.
“I set up for you cause I have a thing to tell you. You never could surprise me no matter what, once you got yourself in with Dumains. I said, I know just why she ain’t come home. Nothing I can do. But then I said, Esta, after all this time you better tell.”
Said this, for the ears of Mrs. Parkins, or of God?
Charmante sat on the bed. Esta took the armchair.
She was twenty years old. Esta’s birthday was not remarked in the household.
She had been married two years to Charles, not a choice. She hadn’t at eighteen considered love, whether love were possible, and if so, who? Her brother, nine years her elder, had been better placed to walk free of Roback land. He was gone. Gone alone to the city, patching along for yourself…this to a girl was cowing. A thing he didn’t know, urging her. Making it a fault of her pride.
She thought Ma’am wouldn’t like her going. Would, in that way of hers, big up those despairing eyes, flutter those hands, say, “If you choose,” on a great sigh. Aunt Livie, a very old servant, whose husband had been Gustus…names Esta’s brother made her believe were for the lowest and the blackest…
Gustus really had come from Africa, dear old man…
Livie told her, you can’t go just because you think you can.
Esta didn’t exactly think it. Ma’am had wanted her to marry Charles. She had done this; she saw Livie’s point. What did it mean to say, I’d rather not? It meant you thought you were wanted someplace.
She was out in the kitchen, seeing if there was a little fat and flour to bake a cake for herself. A wildcat shriek came from the riverside. Or the noise had seemed a panther. Livie snatched her stick and pushed to her feet.
“Lord Amighty! Charles get his shotgun!”
But no bang was heard. Quiet, then keening…a caterwaul, but with words to it, human. She and Livie had to wash and lay out the body. This was not so awful—Polly had been fresh. Livie clucked and moaned. Esta patted the hair with a linen towel.
“Auntie, should I get some rosewater to rinse it out?”
“Well, child, go on.”
Esta and Livie baked a number of things through the rest of that week. First, Godfrey rested frozen on his bed, eyes drilling the ceiling, eerie little noises coming from his chest. Esta kept the door standing open when she brought up the tray.
On another day, he ate in a ravenous way that she found obscene.
Four days after death, Polly lay well buried in the Roback plot. Old Devil had gone back…to where, Esta had no picture. She knew almost nothing of Polly’s father, who had summoned his daughters when he wanted a visit.
“Charles, what’d you see when you went down there?”
She was expecting, so Charles said to her, “You best not know. Won’t do you no good.”
No, if this little one had to be born with a spirit in him or her, no mother would wish, for nosiness, to have brought that on. Esta held her tongue.
For a minute. “But that child, sugar, what ails him?”
He shook his head. She loved Charles a little for the commiseration in his eyes. He had been very willing for Mr. Roback, at any hour getting himself up for a chore; becoming, since the family had gone down…so many on the island slipped away, not asking leave…the man who did everything, and far too much.
Esta had waited to see him hate them.
“Not enough whippin,” he said.
A month after the death, and Mr. Roback was still in town at his hotel, seeing after his ruined bank. This was the job he’d been given by the receivers. From ’75 when Roback’s closed, to now, and the end of his married life, he had been off the island almost always. He was not there to whip Godfrey, not there to see his son recovered…
Not there to visit him at all.
Godfrey was in Livie’s care. Led that day to a rocker on the veranda, bundled tight in a quilt, given a pitcher of strong tea, at once he had kicked the table to the paving, the pitcher and glass left shattered. Esta was hauling her bucket and mop, duster and broom, upstairs in one swoop, however much Charles would fret if he saw her climb two flights without the handrail. She was angry. Livie called this baby anger, said not to mind, but tuck a little nosegay in the bodice of her dress.
But Esta saw them bereft on this island like lunatics taken over the asylum. No one blamed poor widowed Roback, so much tragedy in the family…
Esta blamed him. He had burdened Livie as though her age somehow put her in charge. More than once Godfrey had knocked her to the floor. He would kill her. She dropped her cleaning things, made to strip the stinking bed, decided the shutters ought to be thrown well open—not just here, but all along the hall, moving what air could be moved.
She shoved through the big closet into Polly’s room. Shoved, because a chest blocked the way. Something fell chiming to the carpet, to Esta’s relief, only a brass bell. She doubted a living soul knew what bric-à-brac belonged to the house…
Then, if she broke a thing, so be it.
She walked the door wider, eased her belly around…marveled suddenly. It came to her Polly had arranged this, had wanted warning if her son tried to enter her room. Maybe she had locked the other door.
Across from the bed sat a long bureau, its heavy mirror hung on wire. Esta heard a splash of water, an inch, inch, as though the mirror strained at its mooring. She saw Polly.
“You are the wise one. Please do condemn us all, that’s only right. Don’t let that child be born on the Ile St-Hubert, my poor Esta. But let me tell you what I must. If this mirror leaves its place, return it. On no account break one. On no account let the circle be. Take each and carry it to its home.”
Charmante thought the Breedloves would live off a side street, and here were only businesses. Conspicuous as she was dressed, she expected a small wave of news to precede her. She must get the address from whatever of these places showed life.
Not this, number 818, whitewashed glass and padlock…
A café would be ideal…how good to have a cup of coffee…
But a sundry, a barber shop…
She stopped before a girdled truncation of hips and thighs, two headless torsos sporting scaffolded bustiers. Madame LaMode, said the window. It would be comforting to ask a woman, but Charmante felt that if she entered, she would need to buy something.
French Teddies, a hand-lettered sign offered, first to catch her eye.
“Hello-o…!” came a voice.
The proprietor was found squatting under a rack, unpacking a box. Charmante stretched a hand to her. The oh, dear hadn’t been for stiff knees…it was for Charmante herself.
“There! You look very nice. You don’t make your own dresses, do you?”
The woman stepped back, stepped around, her question not an insult.
“I do, mostly. Not this one.”
“No.” Thoughtful. “If I were choosing for myself, I would do a full skirt, yes. A belt gives a figure.”
She ushered Charmante by the elbow, to a fully-limbed mannequin. “The Regine. You see she’s not a bit like your mother’s stays. Like a second skin, dear.” She patted Charmante’s hip.
These merchants, in their way, counted as neighbors. Charmante worked on Dumain and could, if she liked, walk down to browse. A dollar half-slip had been the hasty plan. A little conversation, before she committed to a ten-dollar girdle. Even one a sumptuous rose-pink…
And made in Paris—
No, it seemed mad. It seemed almost a test. “I work for Mr. Rothesay. At the other end of Dumain.”
She might. Charmante gave another fact. “My father was Dr. Bonheur…you may remember him.”
“Oh, I know Mrs. Turner very well. I’ll take you up to her one day. She’s been retired twenty years now.”
Low-voiced and knowing. Ah! But Charleton had explained Mrs. Turner.
“Why, dear. What a look you had on your face this minute!”
“My name is Charmante Demorest. I wonder if you can give me the address of a Mrs. Jane Breedlove. If you know her…?”
“My daughter-in-law, dear. I have a telephone in the office. And I,” the woman added, pushing off along an aisle of satin robes, “am Gloria.”
William did not enviably have a phone, but the Breedloves shared a metered one with the upstairs and downstairs tenants.
“Are you cooking, love? Or do you want to go to Main’s? She says…” Gloria perched the talking end while a voice was heard, the operator’s, asking for a deposit of five cents. “We’ll all walk down, have a cup of coffee, you meet everyone. Albert, my son, gets his lunch at eleven. Now, you know Main’s, Mrs. Demorest, that cafeteria just on the corner of Main and Dumain…”
Gloria added argument in the way of one—also with the eye of one—who can’t believe your feet aren’t moving. The after-lunch arrival at Rothesay’s might prove fatal to Charmante’s good references, but of priorities, she preferred this. The Breedloves were making an occasion of her visit.
Charmante sat liking William in his suitcoat and tie. Each had a shy glance for the other. Albert, still lowering to his seat, was on a theme. That hurricane making plenty of work, even here in April, swept off those white trash shacks down the river…
And God bless’em, if they take up someplace else, no one wishing ill on anyone.
“Oh, hush,” Jane said.
Charmante smiled for Albert. Reminded of Brasher, her telltale face had altered. “But the skies all this spring, just evil looking, don’t you think?”
“Oh, hon!” Jane said this time.
Charmante was joining in, in a friendly way, trying…overwhelmed at being wanted by William’s sister. In the family.
Somehow she was there already. On Albert’s crew was a man who had lived through Galveston. “So they climbed on the roof and got another ways up, onto a hotel, used boards or just anything floating to get themselves across. Awnings going up and down like lungs, that’s how he put it. That was the bodies, the folks, and the cows and horses, caught under and moving with the tide.”
Silent attention to pie. Galveston was close to the time of the riot. Gloria, segueing on the strength of it, brought back Mrs. Turner. “She has always had kindly things to say about Dr. Bonheur.”
“I’d like so much to sit down with her.”
A gift, Charmante thought. A keepsake? Something home baked…
She weighed it. And then it was time to go.
To Rothesay’s, they walked side by side, a Sunday couple on a weekday afternoon.
“Come in, back to the kitchen, William. Because I have an important thing to tell you. A story of Esta’s.”
Dishes belonging in cabinets sat in grease on the stove, worrying her. Either of her charges might be innocent enough to put a bowl on a burner.
“Listen for a minute. Do you hear them?”
William shook his head. “I’ll turn my chair and keep an eye up the passage.”
She sat, though itching to tidy, equally to call after Carmine, making the garden door her own vigil…both entries covered. “Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe somehow it’s over. But this word comes from Polly.”
As she told him, hushed, she felt the island’s hum—with them, in town.
“Esta held that inside, then and all the years after. She couldn’t tell Charles, and wouldn’t tell Livie. Livie would have been terrified to death.”
The bell rang.
William stirred. “I’m right along beside you.”
They went through the library, to the foyer, together. The bell rang again, and Charmante heard the voice of…someone. The truth, he said. The answerer seemed Leonce. She hoped it was not that way.
“Open up!” Cheerful, and Veronica. “William! How do!”
She swept indoors. “Charmante! I know you wanted this little friend back home, but you forgot to take him along when you went off with Paul. Go, baby.”
She let Sir Christopher drop from the flap of her mackintosh. Charmante pivoted, thinking of his saucer of milk, that he’d scurry off expecting it, and his can of sardines…
He didn’t go to the kitchen. He went for the mirrors.
The cat’s tail whipped round the newel post, and Rothesay from the shadowed hall materialized, ahead of Carmine.
“What sort of emergency is this?” Bass now, raspy and southern. “What does that fellow want, Mrs. Demorest?”
Tetchiness was the feeling, the voice conveyed, as to why protocol should be flouted? Perhaps, in his town clothes…who William was?
Rothesay cleared his throat at William, asking. And why did Veronica stand there, chin lifted, staring him down?
“How do like that?” She knocked Charmante on the arm. “I believe I can introduce you. Grandfather, don’t you know what we’re after?”
Carmine at the top of the stairs stalled, his face working oddly…against his will, was Charmante’s thought. But she thought again, not so…poor Nat hasn’t got one. This was Leonce in possession, at battle with another.
Rothesay descended nearer, a step nearer. Power gathered in the eyes, the mouth. Charmante fixed Old Dumain with a stare of her own, remembering wanting to know this, what stamped a man’s features as he annotated horror in his mental book, threading out details into new planned horrors…
Veronica, not caring, shoved past.
Her shoulder bumped Carmine. Then she was gone, into the mirrored room. Charmante choked back a cry, deciding Veronica could not be commanded. Who was to tell a Dumain she endangered herself?
Either Leonce, or his enemy, won. Carmine dove for Rothesay; Rothesay flew bang into the stair-rail, the two tumbling to stillness. That was all.
The ugly false front, the gable that is no gable.
An apex of façade-work…it has a flavor of the low country… Of Europe, brick yellow and red.
Approaching from the trolley stop, you see this, the old man’s house. There would be parts of France, too, where such architecture, such refusal to be lovely, such Protestant disdain…for you, the non-elect…exemplified Home. A migrant might carry this masonry oceanbound in memory, recreate it as American comfort.
Comfort, the devil you know. You return to the garden, or arrive there, wonder, shudder, at the candy-pink spirea, the waxy pachysandra. Why the unerring eye, Grandfather? Cussedness? Fear of a rival god? A Dumain’s towering arrogance, that he shall decree a thing, and you believe it?
And if you cannot, how interesting. Human nature, let us study it.
Under a no-more-compatible mimosa, dropping blossoms the pink of sunburnt white flesh, a bench. Concrete. Greened, blackened. Fungal colonies bore into its pittings. You will look at this bench, look at this bench, and see yourself. For a flickering of air that embodies the form of a man, you see your father. He should be Joseph. You are Charleton.
But he is Benjamin Oriah Bonheur. A youth…
To a daughter of forty-two, he seems so. He looks afar off, over the river, at peace. Half-dozing. Once so wise, so young. You today are older than he…
You have never totted up accounts. Did not, when three years ago you reached his last recorded one, of thirty-nine.
For that is to suppose him dead.
You fought. Miracle like an iridescent bubble floating. But the mist of it evaporated; you had not seen the day it burst. You might be Esta’s age, seventy-two, and then you would of course resign yourself. Esta had been cautioned, but had birthed the boy on St. Hubert. Ought she to have clung to Charles, begged him to row her across?
Joseph stands, sneering. His neck is broken; he laughs…the noise lolls out in saliva and villainy. Life’s been hard on you, son? Go have a gander. Put your head right inside that well.
The well wants to vapor out something bluish, a sulphurous incandescence.
The smell is deeply foul. Joseph smells also, fatty and charred. See him. He won’t have you cast aside responsibility. See, Charleton, here comes Godfrey. He belongs to this rehearsal. Your head turns, though you force your muscles tight. Joseph puts his back to you, all undressed, flesh not like a blackened log in a fire-grate…more part-skinned, part bronzed. Mottled yellow and red.
I don’t care. I have only one care. I see we are in the clinic. I remember it. Was my father murdered? He could have done nothing but try to help.
You see a white stucco house with clay tile roof, an engineer’s aerie. Below, the shantytown, thrusting angles of jerry-built dilapidation, wind-blown mosquito netting tangling in palms, metal tanks of water…or fuel, rusted. You go barefoot. The air is almost wet against your skin. A doctor not of much help here…they believe African blood is proof against the yellow fever. Proof against this sweating suffocation of labor. It isn’t.
But the dead are replaced.
Blue-jowled Godfrey out of the well, follows the clamp of hands on its coping. Fingers without nails, bone-ends. In this guise, he is eyeless…the lips so flaccid as to tear themselves free. The fingers strain and separate, two or three fall to lodge on a creeping vine, a jessamine. But his mood is merry, like Joseph’s. Only too happy to tell you his accident matters, it must be known.
Ha. Who cares about Lil? Dowager queen of boxed remains, doyenne of Robacks in their graves. Remember, Mrs. Demorest, how satisfied they were, to have me gone for good? I was melting away down there. Why, if you hire a man to dig, my twelve-years’ disintegrating corpus might still be found. Where truth is found.
Ha and ha, again.
I am trying to cooperate. It’s the shortest way, I believe. We are given burdens in life to bear; at times we shoulder injustices. Why should a thing like this fall from the sky on anyone? I think of you Carrie, and our baby girl, and what good money is, if we end up spending it to knock our heads against a wall. Until I’m home I can’t look anyone in the eye and make them hear. You’ve lived your year without me. Go on, then, and let it be.
You look at Joseph, through the window, the clinic unlit. The hour is six or seven, the sky beaming hot evening light. Dumain’s patients lie abed, some strapped, some drugged. Some with tubes in their veins, but ambulatory. They feel dazed, weakened—
But will need, if they can, to find strength. To smash wire-embedded glass, bang, bang. These windows, so freshly painted white, are painted shut.
To drop, though the drop is three stories, to the little garden court. Or burn.
Your companion is Leonce. If it matters, you are thirty-two in this year of 1901, and he is twenty-five. To the extent of jealousy, it matters…yes. One of this pair, an outsider might observe, is misshapen. His belly sags, undershirt pushing through button-gaps. His arms are heavy, jacket big in the shoulders to accommodate how weight sits on him. His legs are toothpicks, he is stooped and triple-chinned, cavern-chested. If he stood beside Charleton, Godfrey in young middle age would look his father.
Godfrey is in exile from his own inheritance.
Wilmer Roback’s “protector”, designated in the will by which he escaped fatherhood, fingers the purse strings of Godfrey’s allowance. Grandfather has an agent in every pawn shop, he cannot be stolen from, allows Godfrey enough each month to die on.
The two watch Joseph open drawers in the pharmacy.
Burning fills the air, but wise Leonce says they won’t take off til nighttime. Dr. Bonheur has been out to clear the hall, warning the sick of no help for them today: “Get home and shut your doors.”
He’s gone, driving Mrs. Turner’s brougham, seeing her safe away. His bag is packed with tourniquet bandages, burn salve; his plan is to make for the courthouse, where they say the fighting got started.
Joseph must be left to guard the building. Downtown will be wounded, poor whites and blacks alike who don’t deserve dirty nails and shaking hands, unkind words.
Leonce tries the door. The lever under his thumb goes down and up.
“Got a bolt on. Go knock at the window,” he tells Godfrey.
“No. He’ll open sooner for you.”
They stand in stalemate. Both alive to the next step, of commitment.
Leonce has no conscience, none as to thieving. He has the coolness to hoard drugs, be tempted by them never. Nothing in his professional life does he intend sharing, or performing, before the eyes of Godfrey Roback. If the bolt will fly, he’d like it Godfrey’s boot that prints itself on the door; if the glass wants smashing, Godfrey’s blood on the floor.
Godfrey fidgets and sweats. Leonce has an idea. He might count it a holy vision. “God. Old man’s in there…”
Godfrey looks bloodshot at Leonce.
“Nobody’d ever know it, in the morning when the fires burn down, and they start clearing out the rubble, how someone or some other got killed.”
A waft from the inferno touches him, and he steps to put Godfrey between himself and the rising shouts. He has spoken of the devil twice; now the riot seems ready to run before dark. Leonce can’t help grinning. Granddaddy caught upstairs, no time to scuttle up his hill. “Don’t it all belong to you? If the old man dies…”
“No. It belongs to Charleton.”
“Oh, now, that’s true. Easy touch, though…Charleton. Try to lift you up, if you kneel down and repent.”
He watches a smile play at Godfrey’s upper lip. Whelp. Makes him curl his own. He shoves Godfrey along the walk. The shank Leonce keeps in the seam of a sleeve tumbles the old man’s private lock, his body blocking Godfrey’s view. “You go in say hello. I’ll be right down the hallway. God!”
Godfrey farts with the suddenness of his arrested feet, and mutters, “Fuck you!”
“What you got on you?”
“Hell you need money for?”
Leonce chuckles, very inwardly. He withdraws to the stoop, pleased to, points to the brick that serves as stopper. “Don’t have to take that, but you ought.”
God is too stupid not to come pick it up himself.
You peer at an upper landing, a floor once a factory loft. Noises of watchfulness, anxious rustles under sheets. Curtained partitions are all you see; but that voice, you hear. “By all means. Take up your bed and walk.”
He laughs, his affable, colonial laugh. “Or stay. This is an easy way to earn money, lying on your back. I would think a simple enough equation to work out for yourself. And if the medicine makes you woozy, the effect won’t last.”
You hear a slither of metal. Papers being paged aside.
“On consideration, however, I’ll dismiss you. I can’t use you if your heart’s not in it. And so I can tell you that you’ve been on the placebo. Young man, your symptoms are imaginary.”
“But,” the young man says. “I get paid.”
Grandfather doesn’t answer.
You reverse yourself, to the closet at the foot of this flight. He is coming down, coming this way, passing by. You pad from the closet and follow.
Leonce, you observe, makes no move, and the old man flits off, spry. A peek ahead shows him in the lobby, able to work a lock faster than your partner. You stand foolish in your spying place, no one of consequence…and none to see your clumsy issue. You burst, staggering on the waxed floor. Hold yourself a moment, waiting laughter.
A silent hall. The rumbling tension from outdoors, closing on you. Kill Leonce another time…but he’s gone and left.
You hear breaking glass, taut, swallowed speech, a command as to an idiot, muffled against clanging bells that signal authority…and an idiot’s reply.
A wrench, wrench of metal, a cabinet pummeled and twisted. A clatter and clink. Clink a dozen times more, a host of little bottles striking.
Pounding of a nightstick at the clinic’s street entrance.
Brick clutched fierce in your fist. You have had it this while. Find him…
Someone has set a fire. You hesitate and the door flies, you fall. The men that thunder past are followed by a dark billow of smoke.
Charleton. A strangled voice whispers this. So it is, your cousin nearby, giving answer to a question. So in shock, so atremble, so mad. You smile at this one thing. Negligible Charleton wants to die for Carolee.
If he puts himself in the way, he will. For nothing.
Nothing but your pleasure. Flames crawl in a pool of something spilt. Your skin blisters, your eyes sting and weep…but the air is tolerable, not blistering of itself. The old man totters, keeps his feet.
Again, the door flies.
When she began to run, Charmante knew all this had come before. The dining room, the kitchen, the door to the garden. The pursuing figure. Both hands pulling at the knob, frantic, and remembering, thinking even to admonish herself for, the fixed bolt. The pursuer boomed, entering her flesh and out again, accompanied by a blinding light.
No. By the light of a mirror’s flash.
She stood wildly disheveled, mission-driven confidence in the set of her jaw, hanging with clenched fingers the mirror on the dining room wall. That lightspeed union had left Charmante with a trace of Godfrey’s sight…suffering for chemical burns, strength pumped by held breath. And bringing down the brick. Hands on the neck, choking the life out. But…
The devil lived. At Godfrey’s feet lay not his grandfather. In agony, he booted Joseph facedown.
Think, someone says. Picture yourself where you are. Charmante, reach out a hand…
The hand closes on a key. The key has never left her fingers.
From letting herself and William inside the house, she has fondled it, turned it forwards and back, telling Esta’s story.
“Why is William not here with us?”
“That I can’t say. At the moment I don’t know where poor Nat is.”
“And…” Charmante took a kitchen chair, saying the words anyway. “I need to sit down. Is Rothesay dead, do you think? We can’t waste time calling an ambulance.”
Veronica tamped her face with a cuff. “I like the way you put that. But I know what you mean. Will you help me take down one more mirror? If they don’t suck us back in, yes, we’ll look at Rothesay, and do what we can for him.”
“Is he Dumain? Or if he was…if he’s dead…does Dumain leave the world that way?”
“Chamante, you and I are learning together. How could I know?”
“I’m sorry.” She owed Veronica an apology for more than one thing. For not saying at once, how are you? Instead she said: “Because you’re stronger than the rest of us. I could never have gone in that room and come out.”
“Oh yes, you could.”
“And because of the institute.”
“Because I had secret information, is that it? Did you think I could be Grandfather?”
“You’ve never felt he has power in his old house?”
“Of course he does. That is, he haunts a little. I warn the kids, and they take it for a joke. The place is too busy…and I only allow mirrors built into the furniture, that can’t be moved.”
She stood, patting down her skirt. “As I’d guess…not knowing…the devil can rise where his conduit is. His flesh and blood seem an avenue, but he needs a soft head, let’s say, to induce the mirrors. Carolee and I don’t know who made the island grouping…and we haven’t got our gumption up for that job! Sorry truth.”
Going up meant stepping around Rothesay. The figure did not open an eye or stir; the hum was not even audible, just present. Charmante caught Veronica’s elbow and passed her on the stairs.
Here the hum was a mockery, of thin glassy voices. The ring showed its single gap. Charmante aimed for the mirror belonging to Carmine, easiest to put in its place.
Veronica seized the nearest at hand. “Close your eyes.”
Advice come too late.
Two boys pick their way down a hill. They call it a hill, and low as the land sits on the delta, the rise from here to the good streets, again to Dumain’s mansion, its conical turret roofs surmounting, is at least a climb.
The elder boy is on the brink, when the height shoots up, and nothing less than the life of a man seems to him unembarrassing. The younger is still a child.
The game today is one they’ve played before.
Gotten away with, it might be fair to say. On this barren field, site of the hospital that burned, they aren’t safe…a status only gratifying to a hunter’s quest. The land is posted, the attics topping the brick wall harbor eyes; and twitching fingers, quick to summon a constable. Possibly the old man watches all—discomfited neighbors, streetcars going back and forth, cops wandering down in no hurry, scavenging boys.
As scavenge is the game.
Luck has never come to Harold, or the acolyte he commands, William. But bones can be found here, everyone says…or someone said, sometime…buried in the grass and litter. William believes that a bone, a jaw with teeth on it, maybe, must carry a spirit inside, waiting to tell its story. You might hold it overhead in the light of the moon and see what the dead saw, the last dance of burning men and women in their throes. He pictures this well.
He has been prodding absorbed, but his stick breaks. He gets up smacking his uncovered calves, killing mosquitos he’d had no time to itch over. He discovers Harold striding off.
William stands torn, in a heartache he doesn’t understand. He can’t often, no matter what he digs up, win praise from Harold. Or the better thing than praise, a grin, a whoop, eyes wide with surprise. His brother is only a brother to him, but still a kind of father. At the top of the rise, across the street, seen and vanishing behind a car, seen again, leans Leonce. The jacket is trim at the waist. The hat tall, rounded at the crown. Harold wants to acquire a hat, instead of the cap he thinks makes him look like a laborer.
William has nothing to wear on his head, and in the summertime wouldn’t like to. But of what Harold knows, what he cares for, William is an apt pupil. It has to do with getting yourself free. A man can go anyplace. Part of what aches in William’s heart is Harold’s easy plan to leave them all behind. No, he won’t want a tagalong brother where he means to go.
But, does he mean to go this minute?
With no goodbye. And whatever time he strolls home, no apology? Irresolute, William stubs his shoes against the meadow grass. He sees exposed dirt, driven-up mole tunnels. He sees a shine like metal, and has to kneel again to winkle the object out.
A brass fitting, as might secure a hose to a tank. Pretty in itself…if he had a chain to hang it on, almost an ornament. He would give it to his sister Jane, as Mama would ask where’d he been to, to get hold of a thing like that? And if she thought what he thought himself, that it was from the fire engines, from way back, she would fling it out the door with a prayer.
When he stands, prize in his fist, he can’t see Harold. There is no street to see him on. Rolling clouds surround the viewer, smoke to stifle and choke. You know yourself a witness from a strange vantage, no sense alive in you but sight. One of the attics is below; the house it tops glows and implodes, the collapse of beams ripping gas pipes. Now a pretty seashell hue, like an expensive lampshade’s, mushrooms through the dust.
Time, from this welter of destruction, mirrors a picture gentler, more poignant than that of the field. You are William again, and your brother is reading a storybook aloud. Jane knows the words, kicks her heels, itches to grab the book and set the sense of it straight. Harold cannot, really—but quick-minded, he invents things to explain the pictures.
“Harold! It’s Scottish. Ah ween…that means he thinks so.”
He is a little figure of a brownie, wearing long-johns and pointed cap, hopping a gremlin dance on one leg.
“Shut up,” William tells his sister. They’ve all had a little schooling, but Jane alone learns like a whip—
A more present part of him says, you forgot.
It can’t matter. His sister likes Charmante, wasn’t prepared after all to dislike her. “A woman better than you is about right.” Teasing. “I see improvement already.”
So, that Jane had wanted to be a teacher, and Charmante had been one…
Maybe, William thinks, it was a salvation he hadn’t said it.
And his thinking, mind aloft of the onslaught, costs the power carrying him its strength. Enough. This was truth, in this mirror-land. He saw it. Not any means of righting wrongs, of gripping the hand and pulling the lost one into embrace… Only the endless replay. He could see Harold disappointing, himself to his sister unfeeling, his mother not angry, only tired, losing their growing up to the work she did.
The phantoms luring you to their ranks had no more. They lied. The room became a room again, a circle of mirrors missing three.
He saw Charmante in a struggle with Carmine.
Sight came unmisted, clarity blooming as her second mirror fell. Fell, but could not be taken. The balance of strength sat not automatically on Nat’s side; Nathaniel Carmine, as such, was slight of build, a cerebral vampire by habit, pasty from indoor life, winded by cigarettes.
Charmante in physical tenacity at least his equal. But who was he?
William, trust me. You’ll be more help to her if you help me first.
Veronica’s voice faded, William’s reply a mumble. He was back, her love (she would say it), but herself departing…
She was in the garden. At the table, turning in her hand a porcelain angel. Charleton lay by the wall, the bullet hole under his eye liver-hued. The eye like a windfall plum gone rotten.
The other open.
How do you come to be here? I want to know, I want to tell.
Charleton, I will be your voice.
I thought about Joseph.
Sometime after the riot, the inferno, the months the militia held the city, the gangs brought in to sweep the glass, to break the burnt foundations, cart away barrows of brick…
Brick by the ton. Broken cornice-work, roofing slates that had sliced down like cleavers; sometime after, I found myself again. I hadn’t known where I’d gone. I was with my grandfather.
Under charge of.
I never saw him in my room, but I came to understand he’d been ordering me things, perhaps only bromide of potassium. Or opiates. He had a woman in, reading to me, filling my head with bible language. I barely believed in her. Purgatory, I thought…I’m in Purgatory. What else would Purgatory be but endless scripture?
I woke. I walked down the stairs to the garden. I walked up the stairs, to the turret. I looked for my clinic, and saw only a bright field of labor under the sun. I learned…someone said…
Leonce said. That the legislature had voted a contract, money enough to skim the cream. Men rode out rounding up transients from the camps, carried them down on cars…from Tennessee even, from North Carolina.
No, I pass it by, those years when repairing the house, my quarters, my surgery…
When I had this to keep my mind busy.
I could strike up a conversation, I had people around me. I don’t tell you I hadn’t seen the shrinking, the shying in their eyes. I was never from the time of the riot welcomed. I was dreaded. The superstitious, I caused to feel it, that death stalked alongside me. The very superstitious might catch at their crosses…or some still hung a little bag around their necks, a fetish.
Joseph, you see. When there’d been good in him yet; when he’d gone west wanting to make his life of value. Impossible he should value his life. Joseph’s father was my own father, and my grandfather. I was Carolee’s cousin and her uncle. You know all that…but call it my catechism. I repeat these things to remind myself of the debt I owe.
Mrs. Demorest, I hadn’t presumed I could purchase redemption, atone for but a fraction of my grandfather’s wickedness. Because I cared…nothing…for my health or reputation, I made it my work to go everywhere, at any hour, day or night. If my sleep were interrupted, if I were duty-worn, I told myself those trials would hasten the end, merely. I could not love, I could not marry, I could not rise in my profession. I was a taint, more than tainted; any service I could perform was a blessing to my soul.
I charged no fee. I turned down no caller. I gave comfort as I could, to the drunkards, the addicts, the beaten women, the dying ones in childbirth. I would not have borne it easily if they’d called me saint, but this they did not. They felt a shame in it, giving me their secrets. Knowing they counted the dollars saved, and bought what could not have been afforded, for paying the most charitable attendant. I suppose they knew I martyred myself, and that my grandfather kept me alive.
So you see, there is no blame. It was the Devil giving alms and afterwards extracting his price.
Then the war. Then the epidemic.
And I was ill, but I worked. St. Hubert hummed quietly for me. Charleton, old friend, here you’ve come to me again, telling lies.
Here is Charleton, weary of movement, a book on his lap. A medical text. He never reads, when he can at all, for pleasure. Carolee gives him novels; she subscribes to a monthly service, and of her discards tells Charleton (because…he knows it…she won’t have him returning her gifts in person), “Keep that.” His shelves have become a library, while he can bring himself to fill his hours with only the edifying, the excusable.
If he did not have a servant, he would not have a fire in the grate. But his grandfather has hired a valet, a watchful eye for Charleton. On Sundays, rather than church, he attends the old man. Grandfather urges he keep up his strength, and questions him, autopsies the very tissue of his encounters with the public, each illness and injury he has treated that week.
“You’re lame, your left leg.”
“No. The muscles are weak somehow. The flu.”
“And do you see this aftereffect often? You are probably expert by now.” Grandfather adds, “In your way.”
“Some cases seem to carry a disability, some harm to the nervous system.”
“That won’t do! Do you mean on the left side? In the leg, in particular? The ambulatory powers compromised, with a typically observable character? What do you do with the patients, then, when they begin to recover? Do you have them walk a straight line?” He smiles. A hunter’s smile. “I suppose you haven’t bothered testing.”
“I am not studying the flu. I am treating the flu.”
The war has ended, the island is still a hospital camp. The flu, for the old year’s passing, has not much abated in its spread. But Charleton is at home now, another occasion of Grandfather’s ordering him carried off, directing his care from the turret apartment, the funnel of the spider’s web.
Charleton, for shouting his servant from the house…
Don’t you like taking in a show, now and then? Don’t you have a mother to visit?
Has won two hours’ freedom. Clyde will be back at ten.
He feels melancholy, burning Aunt Lil in pieces. He doesn’t disagree with her proscription. But he believes in, more than Carolee, their being as cousins, friends. While he feels weak and dull, has to limit his patient hours, he entertains…or, this change in his life, illness, makes him entertain…
Even, a day or two lately, Charleton has lain in bed, not rising to dress, breathing the smell of coffee and toast, telling himself things. Why be a Dumain? What use, not severing ties with the old man? Would he care if I disappeared, left him with only his household staff to torment?
No. He doesn’t care if I don’t disappear.
Ships come into harbor. Ships want doctors. Countries on the world’s other side want…
Everything of the west, so they say. I am forty-two. I won’t be the father of a child. Might I not marry?
He can, at this, think only of his misery in love—the only love he wants, ever has. A cruelty of birth which is somehow in the Plan, outside earthly bounds.
As a young man, Charleton had done what the desperate do, written rhyming verse, riddled with set phrases. In extreme mundanity, he had disguised Carolee as Cybele. One day he’d discovered red-penciled commentary, in the margin of his opus…
A quote from Croker, on Keats:
Here Apollo’s fire produces a pyre, a silvery pyre of clouds, wherein a spirit might win oblivion and melt his essence fine, and scented eglantine gives sweets to the sun, and cold springs had run into the grass, and then the pulse of the mass pulsed tenfold to feel the glories old of the newborn day, etc.
The critic’s point being (a fair one, however harsh on the youngster) that a word must not, chosen only for having the proper sound, drive the storyline. The greater poet tells his vision, and through his gift draws his language.
And nutshelled here was the undefeatable pith of Grandfather. He diagnosed with more acuity than the mass of his rivals, the less talented.
But the premise is false.
Is it? In that, Charleton decides, faults pass. I have not harmed anyone that I know of. I have tried when I could to help. My bad poetry I carry to the grave, with all my errors. I am foolish and believe that Carolee, as a soul detached, might on some other plane meet with mine…
That that love would have no wrong in it.
But I carry this thought to the grave.
He stands, a slow and difficult thing of late. He has the impulse to read one of her novels.
You are in by the front door. You will leave by the front door.
You hadn’t done it for a reason, dear curious public. Clyde’s going off will have been his luck—
If it ends up a matter of killing.
Days now, you’ve left the angel in her niche, come back and wept to see her there. Your body deceives at times, says it wants food. Food gives aches in the sides and guts, but on sober early mornings you steal milk from porches.
Pursued at times, beaten with broomsticks.
If the angel were gone, Grandfather would give you lunch. He has that pity in him.
Well, no, Godfrey. He wants you to die, by whatever means nature inflicts. He wants to know if you can bear another needle. Just when you’ve gone to seeing armies of phantoms stalk you, lunge at the corners of your eyes, gone to shake at the knees, bowl side-to-side as you beg…
And the air you suck in saws, grates, screams…
“You’re filthy, God.”
“Why don’t I throttle you?”
How this question stimulates; how the face says, ah, yes, why not indeed?
“I’m far from alone here. I can press the bell this instant. I suppose if you were determined, you might seize some object…” Grandfather looks around, pausing over the mirror more than the letter-knife. “But your suffering can hardly be lightened by…
“Exertion,” he decides. “I don’t know that. The interesting thing is that only you can say. Fiends like yourself, and the rest of us, the normal, have no intersection of experience. You want the needle. And I want you to go to the washroom and alleviate some of your stink. Then we will dine. You will tell me if you have no appetite, if that is what your state culminates to…”
At the brink.
All this is sincere. Grandfather makes notes.
But the angel never leaves. Grandfather has judged and wishes death on you. You are going to steal from Charleton.
Of his downstairs rooms your cousin has made a blank. Here is a strange sort of luxury, that fits can be thrown, inherited things cast away, grand gestures be…
What else? Indulged. A man who can, wade through his sloppy broodings, glare at his aunt-sister. Who’s gone missing, Godfrey notes. Glare at Lil, tell himself he’ll sell her, let her be bought for the gilt that frames her; sell the overflow of his grandmother’s furniture, dragged from the institute when the rooms were filled instead with filing cabinets.
“Kill yourself,” Godfrey says. In a whisper, sent up the parlor chimney.
Clyde, slow of wit, desperate for religion, admires Charleton. As if the lie about charity wasn’t plain enough. For Leonce, careful at it (a man like Leonce can only beam, slip Clyde dollar coins, delighted such a cabbage-head exists in the world), Clyde had found simple words for the saintliness of Charleton’s acts.
Charleton at St. Hubert, Godfrey’s empty legacy. Laboring, rather than kill himself, to die in service to his country. Dull material for thought, cousin Charleton, and the intruder shrugs him away. Why should the door to the surgery be locked inside the house? Likely, Godfrey thinks, it isn’t. He decides he has no confrontation to wait upon.
You and I, Charleton. He moves to the kitchen, eye out for a box or sack…
I’ll take it all, and then I’ll take it all.
When your family thinks you’re dead, it’s you they don’t think of.
Charmante began to find earth under her feet. Charleton was a moving picture, his sufferings waves of reaction. Godfrey forced the watcher into himself, a pillbox view from a foul, degraded trench, one that held some fascination…
And invited a terrible pity. But this hold, too, faltered away.
She was in the garden. Charleton’s feeble grip yielded to Godfrey’s, that will to live, in defiance of all mischance, all misery. Godfrey shoved at his cousin, Charleton staggered, and both figures flashed through her living self…
The thunderclap as before, boom, and boom.
But she turned unharmed, a ghost unpresent to the men. They stood in a low-voiced, tooth-gritted argument. At the wall, where the dandelions bloomed. Godfrey, in disgust, wanted Charleton to take back the gun. He prodded his cousin’s belly; he struck him in the face. He tried to, at last, frantic, press it into Charleton’s hand.
Charleton with both hands crushed Godfrey’s and drew the fingers up, inch upon inch…his strength suddenly jacked, the passion of suicide in it. Charmante could not hear the shot. But Charleton fell, and the gun fell, landing where the dead hand slackened. This time she stepped away, and Godfrey’s charge indoors came at closest view…
Soon he was gone to the surgery below.
The theft played like music, in notes of metal and glass. The story was ending, and its Guide moved her to what must now be shown. Godfrey driven by a jealous whim to pry, to the top of the house. Bottles buttoned inside his shirt, his music accompanying him, one, two, three flights. Charleton’s bedroom littered with books and papers, on the floor around his chair. A discarded sweater and a pair of slippers. Heavy dust, garden dirt on the rug. Clyde, prohibited from entering, from touching, has foisted on Dr. Dumain a carpet sweeper. It lies with its long handle prone, stretched flat like the body below.
That Clyde will have to discover.
Godfrey goes to the firescreen. Something foul has been burnt on Charleton’s hearth. Or…he finds with a sniff…something chemical, a thing of cloth and gilded wood. Oil and varnish. Lil.
This is far madder than he’d have credited his cousin…
Smiling, he scoots back the screen, draws out a scrap.
But the eye animates. She is his mother, Polly.
In panic he trips, falls, flings away the bit of canvas. He gathers the bottles spilled from his shirt, flies, rakes back the front door, runs to his grandfather’s house. He never looks to see the consequence, the smolder in a stack of paper. The back door at 1912 Dumain Godfrey has locked, done by habit, a thief buying time.
One vision more.
A garden, that of the institute. Charmante might have stood peering through the devil’s iron gate, nameless as any nightcrawler, but not daring this. To put a foot on his property. To sleep there, sheltered under a shrub. She sees Godfrey lurch to the well’s coping, in terrible pain. His running all this distance has torn his lungs…his clutching looks a declining agony, an end. The breathing sounds sieved in blood.
But Godfrey wants the drugs. The light at the center shines a little stronger.
She sees him watched, her first direct sight of Old Dumain’s face. Coming white from shadow, it rests victorious. Intent.
Weathered, where all quizzical furrowing, all mockery…
All decisions taken: to not rescue, not excuse, not forgive, not alter a punishment for the pathos of the one punished, not withhold condemnation for tears or pleading, for illness, for injury inflicted by his own hand—
Where all this has drawn its history. Vital…and ageless, for an intelligence so old.
He looks at her as though she stands visible—and his speaking of her name is like a physical touch, grotesque. Then he steps closer to his grandson, and lands a blow between the shoulder blades.
A physical touch. But this was poignant, if anything.
If only her fingers mashed against Nat’s could communicate her friendship towards him, that she loved him, and fought him for his own salvation. She saw the circle broken to just this mirror, William even now pulling a floor-length dressing glass…
To rest near the wall, the last arc split, the two reflecting nothing of each other.
He spun and caught Charmante around the waist. Carmine fell slack as a ragdoll. The mirror struck the floor.
Veronica rushed in, knelt by Carmine and unbuttoned his collar…but this time, he seemed himself at once. He stood. Charmante edged to take William’s hand.
“You’re all right…everyone’s all right?” William asked.
She thought suddenly of her taffeta church dress. Sweating and laboring…well, here they’d come to wrestle the devil in their finest…why not?
It made her laugh. Then Carmine laughed.
He winked at Veronica
A princess, to deliver her swan-changed brothers, must keep mute for six years, never once to speak or laugh. She hides herself, sewing the spell’s undoing, shirts made from aster flowers. When the curse ends, one shirt lacks a sleeve, and so one brother is left with a swan’s wing instead of an arm. Likewise (at least, this tale from childhood had come to mind), Charmante, for failing to shepherd one mirror to its home, saw Carmine part Nat, part possessed.
Veronica thought not by Leonce. “No. Wouldn’t I know? Maybe Rothesay… Young Rothesay went off adventuring abroad. He might have had some charm. You’d think so, the number he did on Nat’s mother.”
Holding silent, hearing only birdsong from the oak, the three of them panting like sprinters…
And quieting, no hum rising…
William said, “I’ll go see about Mr. Rothesay. But I don’t know.”
“What our story needs to be,” Charmante finished for him.
“Well, Miss Dumain. I think we agree I’m not strong on my feet, after yesterday. The hallway was dark, and when I came near the bannister I had a dizzy spell…”
“You fell against him.”
The mantel clock chimed. “How can it be two!”
“Because that one’s not set right. By my watch only five til. Really, Charmante, mirror time is mirror time. We’ve been here twenty minutes. That’s why,” Veronica drew her to the stairs, “our story should hold good. William!”
“I can’t wake him up, but he’s living.”
“Then go get a pillow. Charmante, grab a blanket. Let’s look like we’ve done our best. I’ll call for an ambulance. Better if I do.”
And because she and William were the help; because William did not enter the house, but on this exceptional day, while Charmante never bothered the men at their work…
The only information worthwhile to the medics, to the doctor and hospital staff, was given by Veronica and Carmine. Carmine’s possessor performed, emotive, a role of frailty and distraction, self-rebuke. Charmante almost mourned for him.
She and William played too…the easy roles, two servants a little slow, confused by facts, having to think a minute…
Rothesay died, sixty hours after his fall, with no police suspicions. An accident. But the living Rothesay had not been of that world, not able by Charleton or Godfrey to be seen…only the figure of a tyrant, their grandfather.
No law could account for such things.
When they were newlyweds, with William settled in Charmante’s house (she had put Clell in the closet), Albert drove them into town to visit Mrs. Turner. Mrs. Turner, being down with hay fever, hadn’t gone to the church.
“More down on her dignity,” Jane said. “She’d never go out and make a spectacle of herself, not for anything. Best if you do see her where you can have a private talk.”
But what was private, now, with family, where before she’d had only Esta?
And Mrs. Parkins, of course, Mr. Meeker…they all looked out for her. Private was the way her new sister saw Charmante. Maybe she had grown this way, maybe had sensed so many secrets that concerned her, held by others.
The holders were the dead. She could not have guessed at twelve, at twenty, at thirty-nine…that they moved on their own side, bringing truth to hearts empty for the lack of it.
“What are you writing down?”
“A letter to Esta. You know, she got her ABCs trying to teach her little boy his. I mean, Will, I want to have it all on paper, and then see if she’ll let me read it to her. I’ve been thinking how I’ve always thanked her for so many things I haven’t said.”
“Well, Albert, that’s sensible. You hear?” William squeezed her shoulder.
The hotel’s doorman followed into the elevator. “Mrs. Turner, up third. That’s right. She told me to look out.”
Albert, sparing the Wrights, slipped him a quarter. “No, I won’t go up. You come down when you’re ready. I’ll stick here and look at the papers.”
“Jane,” Chamante said, in the hall after the bell rang again, and the car bumped its descent, “didn’t come along either.”
“That’s a little bit because Mrs. Turner makes do on her dividends…”
A door at the hall’s end opened.
Mrs. Turner edged out, in a good suit—a frock jacket and ankle skirt, legs bare, feet in heels. A good suit of 1920, it might be…her figure still able to carry it.
“There’s a face I haven’t seen in a hundred years!” She tottered a little, but hugged Charmante and stood back. “Your mother’s there too.”
A cord ran from the tea table, a burner warming the pot. A Christmas basket sat next to this, tins of holiday cookies open for display. And missing, from months of frugal hostessing, their twos and threes.
The crash had harmed Mrs. Turner’s dignity. Or an earlier poverty, from the time she had stopped buying clothes. She was Esta’s age…so, what an interesting life she’d led, a young woman of the ’80s; a seasoned practitioner, custodian to a world underground, when the clinic burned…
“This is all so lovely, ma’am. Thank you so much for having us.”
Mrs. Turner looked at Charmante. “I was always right here for a visit. I don’t mean that to chide you.”
“I remember how much my father was pleased to have found you. He would talk about what he couldn’t do himself, without Mrs. Turner.”
“I know he did, bless him.”
Her mother had stood reserved to such references. Charmante could recall the vaguest impression of…well, for learning what she had…disgust.
“Were you a nurse, all your career?” she asked.
“You understand. They had a colored side to the city hospital, like they do, and they couldn’t have a white nurse. I’d just gone down to ask if they’d hire me on, because my husband didn’t have a living those days. That’s how I got trained, not going to school for it. And then one of the doctors wanted me to work for him privately.”
William said: “Mrs. Turner. Tell Charmante about your family in Washington.”
Charmante, nibbling a shortbread cookie, half-listened.
Twelve years old, a schoolgirl. Aware, but barely, of differences—that she and her parents lived in the right place, that there were lower places, but that her father’s status meant this—
A uniform, and teachers whose religion was not theirs. For mission, for service, the sisters taught colored daughters. They told her and the other girls: “You are the best of your generation. You will make your mark, and for gaining that foothold, you will lead the generations to come.”
It sounded grand. She hadn’t known why, as to Charmante Bonheur, such a prediction should be, but she’d had a notion…maybe notion wasn’t a word to do herself credit…of studying chemistry. The canal, that would open vast commerce to North America, wasn’t beaten as a challenge yet, in 1901. Because of the yellow fever. Someone, some destined soul, must discover a cure.
The day had been fine, the sky blue. She stayed outside…her mother hadn’t come to the door right away, to call her in. Charmante was growing beans in Mason jars, a project foolish to Esta.
“Grow beans in the garden.”
But these were in her bedroom window, and she slid round the house to peek up at them, her white shoes scuffing dust along the bricks. Her father had said he would buy her a box camera; now, not at the end of the year—still her reward for good marks.
“You pledge me.”
“Don’t you worry.”
“Cheeky with your old Pa.” He cocked his finger, a sign between them to say, I’ll let you get away with it, this time. The progress of her beans was to be high science, what with the photographic record and Daddy’s microscope and slides…
Two things happened. She remembered disaster coming on that way. Against the blue, black smoke churning up crazily, the smell of it on a sudden gust. Her mother flying feverish to the porch. A creak of the screen and she was there, mouth falling open, hand gesturing.
A man drove up. “Dr. Bonheur sent me. You know me, ma’am.”
He tipped his hat. Her mother nodded, flashed indoors and out, purse under her elbow. She put a hand on Charmante’s shoulder, ushering her to the stranger’s grip. Swung by the forearms into the bed, neighbors coming out to stare… Everyone pointing at the horizon. In thirty years, the implication hadn’t occurred, the privilege of her father’s sending this man to protect them.
What those whose eyes followed their escape might have felt.
The wagon jogged them up streets and down in an S-shaped path, down the long shallow way to the wharf, doglegging to bump over a dirt field, past low sheds.
Then a familiar sight, the road to Esta’s.
The thrill of all this…it was thrilling…the utter silence of the adults, had kept Charmante from looking behind. When the driver cracked his whip, and they rattled off flinging mud, she thought of her father. She saw a line of orange, and the billowing cloud spread wide like a storm…black, br0wn, yellow… Another moment, and they were too far from the city limits, with nothing to see but the arching trees.
Charmante had overwritten her child’s understanding with information gained. The visceral of the orange was a tricky memory to extract. Now and then it came, and the right feeling, the one of awe, only awe, came too.
The house wasn’t burned. It was smashed, looted, their clothing strewn on the floor. The men who’d come to destroy the neighborhood had pissed on all of it. The Bonheur windows were empty squares, Mother’s dishes shattered, and the bean jars. The table legs were amputated, the chairs unstuffed. The stereoscope, the tin box of postcards, her father’s painstakingly-saved-for lab equipment, gone. The hoe, and rake, and shovel, gone. Sandy, abandoned by Charmante since age eleven, when she’d decided grown girls didn’t play with dolls, sat abandoned by the white mob, too. Watching from her shelf…
Charmante grabbed her down, having not much else to save.
She would not have been there but for Esta. “You tell me what good you think it’ll do, Carrie. Look at the age I am, nothing’s changed.”
And so for the sake of that wisdom, that had to be witnessed and passed on, Charmante’s eyes had seen the state of her father’s mortgaged house. There would be no money for the fixing up. Her mother’s cancer came, after the check for eight hundred dollars offered by a vulturine downtowner, after the moving of them, their salvage, into Esta’s house for good.
There was no school now for Charmante to attend. Her mother made lessons for her, and left a notebook with a plan mapped out, for the rest of the year she’d stopped living. William thought the mirror world could tell only truths. Show only things that had been. Hold out only that false hope, of learning a better lesson.
Then, of possible answers, she had weighed:
One. Her mother knew. Daddy had written, and feeling ashamed…could she?…that he was a prisoner somewhere, she’d put his letters away. In Esta’s trunk; on Esta’s promise, ironclad. Or, she hadn’t felt ashamed…more bearable…but Daddy had asked her not to explain. Just then, at that raw time. He had said it himself, you could not make your case, until they would hear it.
Two. Her mother hadn’t known. The letter existed, maybe dozens of them, but sat undelivered. Never forwarded.
Three. The vision was false. True things could be, and could hew closely, one stranger’s story to another’s. A devil had showed her those words on paper, or the Guide had, for His unknowable purpose.
But if she were to bring it up with Esta, she must decide. Whether more of her father than her memories afforded mattered…whether she wouldn’t rather not. Her parents were not two adults with a marriage between them, they were Daddy and Mother. She had not spied on them, to know their private ways together.
Her choice was in the air, going to Mrs. Turner’s.
“What are you writing down?”
“A letter to Esta. You know, she got her ABCs at the same time she was trying to teach her little boy his. I mean, Will, I’ll get it all on paper, and then I have to see if she’ll let me read it to her. I’ve been thinking how I’ve always thanked her for so many things I haven’t said.”
“Well, Albert, that’s sensible. You hear?” William squeezed her shoulder.
Mrs. Turner lived at a residence hotel, quality…or the brave remnant of it. A doorman who knew they were expected stepped into the elevator with them, carman as well. Albert, with some finesse, slipped him a dollar, sparing the Wrights.
He took a seat in the lobby. “No, I won’t go up. You come down when you’re ready. I’ll stick around and look at the papers.”
“Jane,” Chamante said, in the hall after the bell rang again, and the car sounded its bump of descent, “didn’t come along either.”
“That’s a little bit because Mrs. Turner makes do on her dividends…”
The door across opened.
She wore a good suit, a frock jacket with double-pleated vee to the waist, an ankle skirt, bottom trimmed in a tight-crimped ruffle. A good suit of 1920, it might have been. Her figure still able to carry it, an abstemious diner…
“There’s a face I haven’t seen in a hundred years!” Mrs. Turner hugged Charmante and stood back. “But your mother’s there too.”
Losing the light of the alcove, she drew them inside. The dim parlor held a chill after a winter’s meted coal. A cord ran from the tea table, a single burner that warmed the pot. A Christmas basket sat next to this, tins of holiday cookies open for display. And missing, from months of frugal hostessing, their twos and threes.
The crash had harmed Mrs. Turner’s dignity. Or an earlier poverty, from the time she’d stopped buying clothes. She was Esta’s age…so, what an interesting life she had led, a young woman of the ’80s; near Charmante’s age when the clinic had burned.
“This is all so lovely. Thank you so much for having us.” The last was the first thing Charmante had said to Mrs. Turner.
Who looked at her. “Now, never mind. I was always right here for a visit. I don’t mean that to chide you.”
“Somehow,” Charmante said. They did say this, locals, a word to take all awfulness into account. “I remember how much my father was pleased to have found you, ma’am. He would talk about what he couldn’t do himself, without Mrs. Turner.”
“I know he did, bless him.”
Her mother had stood reserved to those references. Charmante could recall the vaguest impression of…well, she would have to say, for learning what she had, the illicitness, the disapproval.
“Were you a nurse, all your career?” she asked.
“You understand…they had a colored side to the city hospital, like they do, and they wouldn’t have a white nurse. I had just gone down to ask if they’d hire me on, because my husband didn’t have any living those days. That was how I got trained, not going to school for it. And then one of the doctors wanted me to work for him privately.”
William said: “Mrs. Turner. Tell Charmante about your family in Washington.”
Charmante listened half-listening, nibbling a shortbread cookie.
Mrs. Turner’s father a government clerk, never any of the Sangtrys in slavery, no. Recommended for his post by a Colonel Denison, whose father he’d been valet to first. Gout took the old man, with the son off fighting. Mrs. Turner’s father managed household accounts for the widow, in her grief incapable…
Charmante waited for some natural pause, a chance of asking without eagerness, did you ever hear…? Or, did my mother ever speak to you?
Mrs. Turner had not married down, though it was said, and her husband’s people were not connected to that Turner. You remember…no, you young things sure don’t. Well, after the end of the Reconstruction, when all that supposed to get better got worse…now, then, I was a bride myself, eighteen years old…
Mr. Turner had lost the inventory of his parlor piano store.
“He had a lot on the books. He kept just three models in the showroom. And he always had to go around visiting, make sure the ones that quit paying hadn’t gone and sold what they didn’t have the right. Keep in with the neighbors, in case someone was fixing up to leave town.”
But those the Turners owed money to, had themselves to go chase for it. The Turners went south. They moved, and moved again. All her instruction, all she had gleaned watching her doctor, Mrs. Turner employed in setting up a place.
She called it a place; she meant a one-room clinic where, outside all rules, skirting paths closed to her, she had practiced as a physician. “I used a kerosene stove to boil water for sterilizing the instruments. I never did anything wrong or cheap.”
I haven’t done Mrs. Turner justice, Charmante thought. Not yet. “You’ll come out to our house one of these Sundays?”
“Yes I will. Yes I will.”
They parted, talking a little more in the alcove. But only insistence, Charmante keeping after it, would make them friends.
“How he used to tell me what a bright little girl he had! He was just sure you’d be a doctor yourself one day.”
The words seemed to call for something…the obvious reply, or Mrs. Turner’s asking it herself: What is it you do?
But more, another friendly spate. “Dr. Bonheur would say, if you only look at history, forty years is not much time at all. And what progress, what a long way come! Forty more years, all the better. He didn’t listen to it when people complained…he’d say, you’re not seeing the picture. I remember he had those talks with poor Charleton.”
It was true. Her nephew-by-marriage had differed, too, with Esta.
“They’ll turn us back. You wait.”
“No, ma’am. Can’t be done. Oh, they’ll turn me back. They’ll turn you back. But altogether, they won’t turn us back.”
Charmante had forgotten that about her father.
She was in a well-lighted basement room, full windows on two sides, top panes at street-level, bottoms in their wells. Like the research library this was, the room had long, wide study tables, stacked with reference books, filing cabinets around the walls, cubbies flanking the librarian’s desk, name-tagged for the staff. Charmante with a cubby of her own, where she could stow her files-in-progress, have new requested items placed for her by the interns.
You could not escape the Institute. So Veronica said; so for Charmante it proved. Without knowing, she had been of the Institute all her life. William had known without belief or benefit, only sorrow. Even Nathaniel Carmine was of the Institute.
His new self, though, showed signs of wanderlust.
“You see what I mean…what I meant whenever we were having that talk.”
Veronica, perched on the table, waving that hand that breezed away obstacles, liked to come down daily. She’d had other talks with Charmante, any number. To be what Paul was, and his colleague now, an archival researcher, was a great step up from maiding. Hackled a bit by the sinister weight of it, the fine line of studying the human species for hardiness, selecting for promise—that Dumain territory into which one stepped when the line was crossed—Charmante had found no justification for refusing this honor. She could be of some help to her husband, track clues, locate the woman who’d lured Harold.
And earn good wages. Childless, as all Dumain’s damaged were, no legacy for her own, she would make a scholarship in her father’s name. Daddy had taken—no, he’d been blessed with—the optimistic view, the rising view. It was fitting Benjamin Oriah Bonheur be the hope of some young person’s future.
“Nat’s got an entrepreneurial bent. He’s not the sweet thing we knew…he’s itching to try his luck at large. And I can hardly make him a prisoner, perfectly sane, perfectly capable. I think, I do think, he’ll start up with the mirrors. Someplace. What else would that fragment possessing him have in mind? But how can we know distance, from this place, the center, won’t be better than worse?”
“But…it’s terribly dangerous.”
“It is, and I’ve got no answers, girlfriend. Anytime you think of one, call me up. Even in the middle of the night.”
They brooded on the Ile St-Hubert. Were at least some of its ghosts laid? Polly…Godfrey…
Guide. Charmante addressed him. Not her father, she was certain. An ancient spirit, a low-country angel. Guide, I understand. I have seen and pitied Charleton.
Been shown how he died, some unnamed crime of forced self-murder.
The impulse was to despise that murdering hand; that foul and ugly man, unredeemed, unseeking of redemption. She couldn’t…because she’d been Godfrey.
Is that the lesson, the antidote to evil, when it comes again?
Our doom not tragic high feeling, but petty reluctance, moral laziness? We don’t want to walk in the shoes; we want to cast our despising eyes here and there—and feel comfy, pleased with ourselves, unchallenged.
Through Godfrey’s eyes she had seen, and not Dumain’s.
The Guide was kind in that, but he had shown her more. Dumain, rich, free in his dealings to conceive a thing and have it done, hadn’t the pitifulness of his grandsons. Suffering was the way in; a man without suffering was the devil.
And so remember.
For here was one question answered. The spirit of Dumain could not die with Rothesay. It hummed on, on its island, and would come again.
Old Dumain (the Chevalier), 1824–1920
Mary (Polly) Dumain Roback, 1849–1879
Joseph Dumain, 1852–1901 (27 years old in 1879, when Charleton was two years old, and wedged into his household to pass for a son)
Elizabeth (Lil) Dumain Roback, 1858–1908
Godfrey Roback, 1869–1919
Leonce Dumain, 1876–1923
Charleton Dumain, 1877–1919
Carolee Roback, 1881–living
Veronica Dumain, 1896–living
Benjamin Oriah Bonheur, 1862–vanished 1901
Charmante’s mother, Carrie, 1865–1903
Charmante Bonheur Demorest Wright 1889–living
William Wright 1887–living
1859—Year of fire at old cholera hospital
1901—Year of riot, disappearance of Harold Wright and Rance Goodson
1931—Year events in this story take place