A Figure from the Common Lot
Book One: 1870-1871
Chapter One: Cette Illusion de la Mortalité
Book Two: 1876
Chapter Two: Possente Spirto
Chapter Four: The Eye of a Magpie
Her mind was on Eugene Ebrach.
She had turned the key. She could bear the headaches more easily, her temple throbbed less, when she lay on the floor. The floorboards were cold and unyielding; the ice bag―a strange receptacle for faith and duty―lay where she had discarded it, sweating, dampening the sleeve of her dress. It followed Élucide to her room, carried upstairs by Sarah.
To accept that offered with gratitude, and with a young lady’s reticence, was what Mother expected of her—what Élucide had been taught. Always afterwards she said, “Yes, ma’am, thank you, it does help.”
It didn’t. The ice bag was too much; it sagged and needed shoving this way and that, woke her when it slid onto her shoulder or dropped to the floor…and she could only endure the migraine by keeping still. She had kicked away her shoes. She had crawled under the bed. And that was why Élucide locked herself in. Even this locking of the door was a fault. The greater fault was to be odd, not normal…to behave in ways unladylike and uncivilized. There was a depth of torment to this pain she could make no one understand. But that, as her father would say, was presupposing. So long as she took herself out of the way when she was sick, her torments seemed not much puzzled over by her family.
While the headache, once gone, tended to leave her dull and sleepy, until it had ended, she could never quite drift into a doze. Behind closed eyes, she hovered…it felt to Élucide as though this were really so—that from this low place she looked up at herself, and while floating above looked down…seeing the corporeal Élucide (Mr. Ebrach’s way with words) push her palms against her temples, bend her knees, then stretch her legs out flat. She saw vivid auroras, red waves that played across her eyelids. Her thoughts cycled, one thing arising from another. It was uncouth, she knew it, writhing on the floor, dirtying her nightgown with the coal dust that found its way into every out-of-mind corner, her hair coming unpinned, teasing itself into a coarse cloud. She pressed her fingertips against her eyes, and forced her mind to make a picture of Mr. Ebrach. The headache could go crouch in a corner, from which it might spring or slink away.
Élucide knew she had a pretty face. They held her in restraint, as though she were an imbecile, a child who would never grow up. And Mr. Ebrach had looked at her…all the while her mother was drawing conversation from Mr. Jerome. He, this new cousin, was horribly thin, his pale translucent skin bluish from the veins that showed through…
Continued from “that showed through”
He was actually dying of consumption. In her sitting room, when she’d told them how to behave towards Mr. Jerome, Mother had said this to Ranilde and Élucide. Élucide had never seen anyone dying up close.
“I don’t suppose he can do any sort of work…Mr. Ebrach calls him an assistant—but I imagine he’s befriended Mr. Jerome, and is only trying to sponsor him. Your father may be asked to pay his way into a sanatorium. And if he has really come to America by himself, and has no money, we likely will have to, of course.”
Mr. Jerome said his father’s brother was her grandfather. Or, he hadn’t said that, he’d said, to her mother: “An uncle, I believe, older than my father by some years.” Élucide had extracted her notion of family relations, in the same way Jerome had answered her mother’s questions―painstakingly, confusedly. Until Mr. Ebrach cut in, saying to Mother, “You will pardon my brusqueness, Mrs. Gremot. Jerome means to explain to you that your husband’s father had been his uncle; that your children’s ancestor in common with Jerome would have been Jerome’s grandfather, their great-grandfather. He is your husband’s first cousin.” And after that clarification, the topic had been dropped.
Brusqueness. It was a writer’s word. She thought she might never before have heard anyone use it. And Mr. Ebrach’s voice was an elocutionist’s. There was another word. Richard’s voice had a weedy character that Élucide could not love, though she loved Richard. Mr. Ebrach…
She entertained, in her private thoughts, calling him Eugene (but no…he was a very adult sort of man). When he left off speaking, it was as if you’d finished the page of a novel, and were just on the verge of turning it. She’d waited in suspense for him to speak again. And all the while, when he’d talked to Mother about Mr. Jerome, his gaze had moved up the table to Élucide’s face, pausing there for only a second. When she’d looked into his eyes, he’d looked…with appreciation, she thought, into hers, before turning to her mother or to Papa.
But Eugene Ebrach was not handsome in the way Richard was.
Once a fortnight, Richard came up the hill to make his report to her father, to sit in the library answering Papa’s questions, as to the way Old Richard managed the farm. At unexpected times, he came for particular business. Papa was willing to have her there with him, a witness to these visits. His big desk spanned the room’s width almost, and sat under the illumination of the French window. They’d needed to shimmy and shove the desk through the French window, when Mr. Ziegler had brought it up from the depot.
At the secretary, placed at an angle viewing one of the library’s massive corner moldings, she’d kept her eyes on the sonnets of William Lloyd Garrison (her father’s library had nothing fun to read; his poetry books were filled with tick marks and underlines, sayings he’d spotted to use in his speeches), and made silent observations. Élucide was past tutoring, at sixteen, but had this excuse, that she was learning, while her father tended his accounts and correspondence, while he talked tobacco with Richard.
She wouldn’t like…the familiar thought crossed her mind…no, she wouldn’t put up with, living in the ’stead.
“I see no reason the place can’t be made tolerable. Everard never would see the job through.” Papa once had told her this. “I give Everard a free hand. He has his boys to help. He has Sanderson.” The name led to a moment of silence. Élucide had heard her father say much about Sanderson.
The boys could find work if they wanted it; but they didn’t and they wouldn’t. And he would not be backed into a corner over his own affairs.
If he were going to hire a new foreman.
But if Richard married her…he could marry her…he’d never had a sweetheart that Élucide knew of—
They would build a house in town. She rubbed her temple and warmed to the subject. To go to Rutherford’s when she liked. To go anywhere when she liked, without her parents’ making a fuss…without, even, her mother and father there at all, to tell her, you may…you may not.
Not to live on a farm.
If Papa would like to be rid of the boys, why should he not settle on Élucide a portion of her inheritance? (This sounded big, this phrase acquired from someplace―she would jot it in her diary with the other things.) Or, she ought to have the house, at least, that Papa had promised her sister. Richard would come away with her; Mother and Papa could snub them, or call, then, as they chose. It made all the sense in the world.
Here, she fell from her resolve to look closely at Eugene Ebrach, and began to walk the rooms of her home with Richard, dreaming its architecture into dimension, casting―as though shining a lamp there―her mind’s eye into each shadowed corner, bringing structure and furnishings into being.
The house would need to be at the top of Arcadia Summit. It would need to be the Nachfolgers’ house, really. In fantasy, she could possess their site, commandeer their hilltop view, knock out their attic wall, add a balcony…with ornamented balusters, a broad rail over which she might lean on autumn days when the sky was blue, and the trees clumped around the farm pond, those that lined Tranquility Creek and the river’s bank, glowed like a warm hearth, the river flowing invisibly; its surface still, painted in clouds.
Also, she would replace the dormers. They were only there to cool the attic with their shade. A French window would light the space, as did that in the Gremots’ music room…and could be thrown open to the air.
For a moment she came awake…slipped then, into her childhood home, the cramped dining room, herself inching past Mr. Nachfolger, to sit where only a child could have fitted, between the table’s edge and the cupboard. He laughed as she climbed, feet on the chair-rung, hands on the tabletop, fingers working into the lace trim of her mother’s good linen cloth.
Élucide and Ranilde heard their brother’s yell; next, they heard Geneva shush him. Afternoons, she kept Walter in his room, whether or not he napped. Downstairs, Mother laughed, and a stranger said:
“You decide. Any kind of house you want, I’ll build it. But maybe you guess it’s easier to lease? You’re paying rent already.”
“Nachfolger”—it was Papa—“you reckon a hard thing is easier to do when you get used to it?”
Hand on the bannister, eyes monitoring the fold of fabric in her free hand as she hiked her skirt away from her shoes, Mother paused, and raised her face to the upper landing.
“Shoo! The two of you! Ranilde, come into the bedroom.”
This secret shared with Élucide’s older sister had taken a minute or so to impart; then Mother, hurrying through the door, had gasped as she fetched up toe to toe with Élucide.
“Luce! Underfoot, for Heaven’s sake! Were you eavesdropping?”
Élucide had never heard the word before. It sounded like a pretty thing to do―but she shook her head.
“Luce, Mr. Nachfolger wants to have a look at you.”
“Because he is a friend of Papa’s.”
“Then why doesn’t Nildie come?”
“Oh, because.” Saying only this, Mother had taken her by the hand. But Élucide knew what the adults had talked about. She and her sister, side by side at the top of the stairs, had waited for Papa from first hearing the commotion in the foyer. Mr. Nachfolger wanted to take Mother and Papa to supper, to a restaurant. Ranilde could go.
“Why can’t I go?”
“Now, you know better than to speak out of turn, Luce.”
It had been a question, more so than an admonition. She’d meant: speak to him. Mother drew Élucide downstairs and pivoted, just at the last. Moving backwards, she eased one foot to the floor, then the other, then patted her skirts into place, all the while blocking the view.
Élucide craned left and right to see Mr. Nachfolger, but quit, and kept still, when Mother said:
“Look at me, miss. Will you be good?”
His eyes were blue and his beard funny, growing under his chin, instead of on his face―so she recalled. And solemnly, he had said to her:
“Miss Élucide, what is your opinion on the revenue tax? You expect it’ll take Washington another go-round to decide for free trade or protection?”
She didn’t know whether he was joking. His face was both sober and sly. “Yes, sir, they ought to.”
He and Papa grinned at each other.
“Gremot, I’ve got a place on Vooris…well, let me say that right…I got a place on Lincoln.”
There had been a pause where neither spoke; then Papa had nodded with decision. “A place I’ll be happy to rent from you.”
“No, sir…I don’t expect you’ll be happy. But there’s no help for the rat hole. Take you just as long to build out in the country as in town. Take longer, if anything.”
She’d seen her mother sit up, lift her water glass and sip, her face shading, as though Nachfolger had lit a cigar at the table.
Nachfolger picked up his own glass, and tipped it towards Mother. “I apologize, ma’am.” Then he winked at Papa. “I was quoting from the source.”
“Sanderson’ll keep a good eye out for you”―that, rather than “farewell”, had been their guest’s last word, as he’d stepped up the platform to board his train. From the gleam in Nachfolger’s eye and from Papa’s snort, Mother deduced they had itemized Sanderson.
“Does Mr. Nachfolger think you ought not hire him?”
Ranilde walked a step behind Papa, holding to his coat sleeve. Mother had Élucide in front of her, nudging her by the shoulder on which rested one gloved hand, tugging the mittened hand held by the other. Bustled at this grown-ups’ pace, Élucide stumbled from time to time over her skirt, when the wind buffeted its folds between her knees. She saw a browning garland of pine boughs woven with holly, one that had decorated the station since Christmas and was being raucously stripped by the same jays whose agitation had parted it from its nail. Blue feathers and red berries…and pale green paint on the machinery down beyond the platform’s end, where the little house stood. She tried to tear loose from her mother’s hold.
Papa, at that moment, answered. “According to Nachfolger, nobody says Sanderson’s dishonest.”
He had decided to take the place on Lincoln Street, be on hand to oversee construction when the builder framed their house in the spring…and to deal with Sanderson, the only ready candidate for looking after the property, in person.
But by October of that year, Sanderson was out, and Papa had hired Mr. Everard.
She trailed the moiré ruffles of Polly Nachfolger’s frock, until Ranilde, looking down from the steps above, said, “Quit it, Luce! Go away!” She sat, then, where she was, on the third story landing, and would not go down to disturb her mother in the parlor, but longed for her mother to come get her. A servant came, carrying a basket of pressed shirts sent by dumbwaiter from the laundry to the linen room. Élucide had been at her heels not long ago, watching this fascination, but had got well ahead. The woman stopped every few seconds to catch her breath, laying her whole forearm along the bannister and bearing her weight on a clenched hand; she then swung the basket and her outside leg together, and lifted herself one step further.
“Look at you sitting there, miss! You got no one to play with?”
This was one of those adult questions that was not really a question. Élucide had been told to go with the other girls…and they would not allow it. She felt ready to cry. The woman clucked and edged past, bending over her, not releasing the bannister. Élucide squirmed down two steps and got to her feet, then ran for the attic. She ducked under the basket, and heard laughter.
“Girlie, you gon make my heart stop!”
She heard Polly’s voice. The girls were here, among the trunks; they had littered the rug with garments taken from a wardrobe that stood with its doors flung back against the window’s light, concentrating dust-freighted shafts of sun to illuminate the room’s margins. In Ranilde’s hand was a curved sword, on her head a soldier’s blue cap. Polly wore a tall fur hat, and a brocaded coat trimmed in mink―whole carcasses of mink with eyeless sockets, their withered snouts sewn to the hem, their tails sweeping the floor. Élucide felt an aching, envious hope. But they did not invite her to play their dress-up game.
“Oh, you! You can’t come in, Luce.”
Ranilde shut the door on her.
Mr. Nachfolger had got Papa to agree to be put up.
At this new Gremot dinner table, in their still-new house, Nachfolger spread his arm expansively over the back of an empty chair. Mischief was in his eyes. These met Élucide’s. He abandoned his first beginning.
“Young lady, a pestiferous obstacle to the county’s legitimate business…by this, I mean to say, a Democrat―has got himself elected commissioner. His constituents are few, but your papa, young lady, having raised his house, has landed among them. So also we find Mr. Ziegler, so also Sanderson.” He had thought of something. He abandoned the sententious, and in his usual accents, said: “There you go, Gremot. Ziegler cancels Sanderson, and your vote puts you one up.”
The corner of Papa’s mouth twitched. Nachfolger once more made Élucide his audience. “Mr. Rowan feels, on the strength of being there at all, that he answers to the voters’ mandate; he believes that he serves the unpopular party best by voicing at odd times its unasked for opinion on sundry items of order, by continually introducing…or, as one might say, interrupting…with his infernal objections to our every proposal. If the rest of us said mousetrap, Miss Élucide, Rowan would say poison. In charity, we will suppose that he, though a confounded dog, is not native to the manger; that he feels impelled to the role, merely, by an honorable sense of duty. And of this, we hope to free him―not his honor, which would be a difficult article to extract, but the weight of his conscience. You Gremots have been here for six years now, is that right? Sir,” he cocked his head at her father, “you’ve come to know a lot of people in the county, and”—he spiked a red potato, beamed at Élucide, stuck the potato in his mouth, and dared to speak—“I guarantee, there’s more know you.”
Nachfolger, seated that day where Eugene Ebrach had been seated at lunch, had, like Ebrach, invited her to understand him, to be his ally.
“Miss Élucide, you’ll like seeing your papa’s name on the ticket…give you something to note down in your diary.”
Her diary was where she had noted down:
Richard Everard. Eleventh June. (His birthday.) Élucide Gremot Everard. Fourteenth August. (Her birthday.) Mother had said, “No!” to the mail order horoscope advertised in the Beacon. Proof in the stars would have been a comfort, a thing to abide by—Richard will marry me on this day, this year…the hour of one’s birth, as Élucide thought, made a great difference, and that, she had never been told.
But the big loop of the script G could echo back that of the E…there must be in this a fateful symmetry. Practicing this lesser augury, she’d filled two pages with every sort of E and G—not copied from her penmanship book’s templates alone, but from the Gothic lettering of her bedside Bible, and from Polly’s discarded Harper’s.
It was a tricky business. She could almost dragoon a heart from the design. She need only find a center E that was either very round or very slender. She had drawn little pictures of him, of Richard; the nose wrong in some way she hadn’t the skill to fix. She’d drawn a dress to be married in, made this an extravagance of crinolines (these were going out of style, but a wedding dress was not a day dress); and a second choice…one more modest and with only a waist length veil, in case Papa wouldn’t spend so much.
That her father might have had this conversation with a political friend seemed out of the question.
Someone, though, had got her diary, found its hiding place under the mattress; had then, playing a mean joke on Élucide, restored it―but so near the foot of the bed she’d panicked at first. It was gone, it was humiliating; it would be impossible to speak up about the theft. The diary hadn’t been missing…he’d only wanted her to know he’d read it. Or she. Really, Élucide suspected her sister. Yet Ranilde wasn’t the one who teased, and Ranilde was not a pet of Mr. Nachfolger.
Élucide found that he continued to watch her. Papa sat smiling.
When she and Richard built their house, she would make this attic room her refuge. It would be warm and light, papered in yellow with white painted furniture, and…she caught herself again, waking…did sofas come in purple? A bowl of goldfish on an iron pedestal; a Boston fern on the reading table.
Now, she needed to put Richard in the picture.
His habit was to call her “Miss.” If they met outdoors, he would touch his cap. She nearly always saw him wince, as though speaking to her gave him a cramp…but yet, if he hated her, he should not linger like he did. Élucide thought he did not hate her.
“The voters,” her father had once said, “are men like Everard and Sanderson.”
Sanderson, the spring after the election, ambling over their lawn with the Everard boys, had spotted Élucide sitting on the back porch swing. He came and put his hands on one of the concrete urns that topped the pillar at the foot of the steps. And with a guileless face, looked up at her.
“I voted for the Squire, Miss Élucide…you know why?”
Lawrence said, “Sanderson.”
Sanderson said, “Cause he’s a chiseler, and cause all his friends are richer’n he is. I pay tax on my property, an I don’t like seein a nickel of it wasted.”
Sanderson had grinned at the start of his remark. His laugh at the end was short, and came out as a sort of wheeze through his teeth. Élucide looked at Lawrence. She wanted to ask Lawrence—he was easier—what Sanderson meant about being rich. Lawrence raised his head and stared; Élucide stared back. This lasted a second or two, then Lawrence glared at Sanderson. Élucide looked at Richard, standing apart from his brother, come to see her father…and saw Richard’s face grow pained.
“You may be pert with Mr. Nachfolger or with Mr. Rutherford, Luce. I would rather you didn’t. But, there is a difference—do you see it?—when you make yourself bold with Papa’s hands. That sort of thing is vulgar, miss.”
Thus chastised by her mother, Élucide had learned from this rebuke to be slyer, to keep an eye out for things that a daughter of the house might rightfully mention, in passing, to the foreman’s son, without the risk of being either bold or pert.
She’d put her book down, got up from her chair, and come close to slipping through the French window. Richard had something against crossing the Gremots’ garden to reach the ’stead by the shortest way, some notion Élucide made out as beholdenness, if there were such a word; some suspicion of having accessed their hospitality by walking on their property in those places he did not in duty need to be…and this Richard would not have. He would not, either, set foot in their hall, but would leave the grounds circling round the front way, going down the drive and up the road…and so his minute or two’s head start did no harm. She would catch him on the path.
Her father, bent over his writing, caught Élucide first.
“…saw Everard making for Hopper’s. Or, we could say if we wanted to, making for town. He’ll be gone two or three days, Luce.”
The comment didn’t mean anything. Except to say that Old Richard was a drunk on a jag, that her Richard had no reason to call again until he could pretend to have consulted his father, and that Papa knew where Élucide thought she was going. She’d gone out and waylaid Richard in any case.
“Cleome Towson has been up to see my mother.”
The bricks baked in the afternoon sun; like coals they radiated heat against bare faces and arms. Richard’s boots scuffed the crisping grass at the walkway’s edge. He turned to look at her, grimacing as though he wished not to see her. But he stayed, and pushed back his cap; at the same time he wiped the sweating bridge of his nose with his sleeve. He worked his mouth. He had something to say on the subject of Cleome Towson. He ought to, Élucide thought.
The hot weather had been making her sick. The day before, she’d had a headache waking up; it had lasted through the afternoon. At five o’clock, she’d seen herself in the mirror, damply pale and red-eyed. But she was hungry, and had wobbled down the stairs to the hall. Her mother and sister were there. She’d watched them fan themselves before the open door, and the guest they had been seeing off was Miss Towson. Neither walked out into the sun, keeping back under the cool shade of the porch. They dropped their waving arms and returned. Mother whispered to Ranilde.
And finding her younger daughter up and about, drew Élucide, with a raised eyebrow, into her confidence. “I don’t know what sort of man this Mr. Ebrach is. Cleome thinks the church has failed Verbena. Well, poor Verbena must be lonely.”
Richard said, “I guess she brung you’uns some gossip.”
He’d got that out at last, just when she’d been about to try another gambit: “Oh, if it would rain…”
“I don’t know.” She said this, instead.
“Well, I guess she did. Or you got no reason…” He broke off. Élucide loved Richard’s eyes when his mood was sullen. She thought he was wonderfully brown from the sun. She did not mind…was even drawn to (proud, in fact, to be the cause of) these expressions of exasperation. “You’re wantin to ask―” He gave her a direct look. Élucide broke into a smile. Richard lifted his hands. “Or your mama is…what about Mr. Ebrach? Well, I got nothin to say about Mr. Ebrach!”
He’d left her then, and after she followed a few paces, said, or Élucide believed she’d heard him say: “Miss Gremot”. That, strictly speaking, was Ranilde. It didn’t matter. He had been unable to leave her without a second thought. He did not want to be rude to Miss Élucide.
But she had a difficult time making Richard behave like a husband.
“That man of yours, Everard―”
With their cigars and politics, Mr. Nachfolger and her father invaded the summer house. Up the stairs Nachfolger bounded, the boards going pop, pop, under the vigor of his ascent.
“Young lady, what sort of literature is that you’ve got hold of?”
She’d been stretched out over the cushions. Today, even the small muscle needed to push herself upright, to sit demurely with ankles crossed in the company of a gentleman, made the back of her neck feel moist. She showed him General Sherman’s memoirs, lifting the book, title out, for his approval.
Nachfolger took this from her hand, flipped through its pages, lost her place, read the dedication, handed it back. He spoke to her father.
“Gremot, I figure the womenfolk don’t need to educate themselves on the subject of warfare—God gave ’em a natural instinct for outmaneuvering the enemy.”
Papa was already at the table, laying pieces on the chessboard. Nachfolger began again, “That man of yours…”
“If Everard is my man, I’d like to know it. I can’t get a day’s work out of him.”
“Hmm. I tell you…Everard is a fine orator. I don’t know that it’s right to expect a man of philosophy to work the fields. Oil him up, and he can trickle out Jeff Davis like Mother Goose―get that gang of bushwhackers fired with the jackass’s religion. But note the vigilant eye of the Democratic press can’t just spread what it spies down at Hopper’s. Rowan’s got to dress it up in velvet before he puts it on the street. Now, Gremot―it’s the people employ a newspaper man. When an emplo-yee slanders the boss, he wants to keep it dainty, so he don’t get the boot.”
Mr. Nachfolger rolled out these words, swinging his chair on one leg to see Élucide’s reaction.
“Well, now, keep the young lady in mind, sir.”
“They don’t blush like they used to, Gremot.”
Her father moved his queen’s bishop’s pawn two squares. Mr. Nachfolger countered, bringing forward his queen’s pawn one square. Élucide watched the match unfold, while her father and Mr. Nachfolger exchanged their laconic, veiled comments. They’d dropped Everard, and spoke now about the railroad scheme…trading shares for local farmers’ land…so anyone could afford to get in.
“That is just about something for nothing.”
Nachfolger brought his queen out early. He glanced at Élucide, using her, as from time to time he liked to do. She had no knowledge to encourage either his chess game or his investments, but giggled for him whenever he said anything improper.
“There’s no argument against it. But, you’re in the best place to set the doubters at ease. That tract you bought down by the bend, Gremot…too bad about the change of plans.” Nachfolger shook his head. He was grinning broadly. “I truly don’t know what you had in mind. But you talk to the farmers. They’ll appreciate a humble man’s hard-earned…”
Her father’s hand hovered over his vulnerable bishop. For minutes, he studied Nachfolger’s queen. Élucide moved along the bench to see the game more closely, but could not guess, any better than Papa, which move might save his king.
“Miss Élucide.” Nachfolger sat back. He had time on his hands. “You got hornets, building a nest up over there.” He pointed to the wire-cloth screen, meaning the overhanging eave.
“They can’t get in, Mr. Nachfolger.”
“You want to tell your papa to have his man fire that nest. Take em all at once.”
Her father, thinking three moves ahead, took his bishop back a space, from the square on which he’d almost rested it.
Nachfolger shrugged, and brought his rook forward. “Now the advantage in a wedding, is that it puts everyone in a good mood. No one come to ply his trade or practice his politics.”
Her father’s game relied on a phalanx of pawns blocking his key pieces from attack. He sacrificed the last of them. Nachfolger had won, essentially—the white king was trapped, unable to move for Papa’s own rook and the black queen.
“You mean to say, the guests have themselves a good feed, and they can dance if they want to.”
“I mean to say, you have Owen McClurkin and his family outside their native element…”
“Nachfolger, there’s a raft of McClurkins over in Henderson County.”
“Gremot, I know it.”
“I’m figuring to set Owen up in business, so he learns a little something about life.”
Continued from “something about life”
“Well, now, Rutherford might help you there. His daughter’s about run off that young man works the counter at the Columbia. You see how they all have a mind of their own, Gremot. That one,” Mr. Nachfolger winked at Élucide, “might even go chase after one of the Everard boys.”
It was because she rarely saw her parents together, other than at the table, that Élucide’s picture-making snagged here. She wanted to know, as though her own dreams could tell her, how Richard would change, how his face would look, if he loved her.
Papa ordered his life in this way:
Three days of the week spent at his office in town, two nights at the Columbia. When at home, he shut himself for hours behind the library door, or rode out with Ziegler to look at his fields. He made small jokes, when he was not making his point, and Mother, looking down at some practical chore her hands were busy with, smiled. Sometimes she laughed.
From Cookesville, Papa brought home rumors.
“Rutherford is starting a paper. He wants Horace to be his editor, or give him the name of a good man, one or the other. Rutherford’s sold on Hayes…for some reason.”
That had been the small joke. Mother smiled. Because they’d been at the end of dinner, her hands had little to do but stir her coffee.
“Well,” he answered himself. “High time. We need our own organ in Cookesville.” And Papa set off justifying Rutherford’s adventure, as though at his own table he were ever opposed. “The Beacon is nothing but a simple-witted, half-literate, barking yellow dog of a rag. Rowan should have been scuttled ten years ago. He was a copperhead then. He’s still a copperhead. But the shame of it, Fern, is that he refuses to talk down General Grant. You know what you call that? Conspicuous virtue. He does it for mischief, as much as selling Tilden in a Republican county. He’d just like hearing someone say the word ‘scandal’. Butter wouldn’t melt.”
Élucide’s mother―her back, at the table, always straight―picked up the cup, holding it poised above the saucer that she held in her other hand. “Mr. Rowan says our president is a plain, honest soldier.” Her speech grew wrapped in quotes as she paraphrased the Beacon’s editor―“He had faith in the advice of his dearest friends; he found their counsel good, and rewarded them with high office.”
“You see. He could pull a trick like that with his own man. But he won’t do it to a Democrat.”
Nausea was, of all loathsome symptoms, the worst. Élucide thought that after this half-sleep she would not be sick…she might even have got past the brunt. There was always an iffy, in between time, when she felt well lying down…and bored, and starved…but—
Not the minute she got to her feet, only as soon as she tried to do anything, the pain often came surging back. A sensation of it remained now, like a swelling, pressuring her cheeks across her nose.
She might marry Mr. Nachfolger.
Mother and Papa might allow it, when she was a few years older. Richard, if he’d refused to speak, would be the loser…but Élucide also, if she hadn’t made him know this.
Lavender light from the window tinted the old stain of vomit on the rug’s fringe. She could see the place from where she lay—that Sarah, hating the task, had tamped at with a rag. Once, on a day when thin clouds covered the sky in a solid bank, and the sun’s rays had fallen bleached across the floorboards, she’d seen the tiniest movement there…and crouched to look. Moth larvae, worms, she saw them curl and uncurl. Worms with segmented brown shells, looking like bits of popcorn hull. Élucide was not a squeamish girl, who jumped at spiders and bugs. But, remembering this, she crawled out from under the bed. She stretched flat on the covers. Her room was no hotter at this hour than was tolerable. The light changed from lavender to blue, and she thought of getting up, before they all went to bed and she missed her supper; equally, inertia seemed to weigh her in place. She saw Mr. Ebrach playing chess with Mr. Nachfolger. She could smell Ebrach’s scent.
And that, Élucide thought, gathering in a moment’s wakefulness, might be real and not an illusion. On this sleeping floor, there was only one tower room. Fighting among the children not allowed, it always was kept empty for guests. But Ebrach had the true guest’s apartment, with its sitting parlor opposite Mother’s. A while ago…she could not have said when, Élucide had heard his voice on the stairs. He’d been speaking to Robert. He’d passed her room on his way to Jerome’s.
Mr. Ebrach’s hair lofted to a peak by the part above his right temple. He was almost fair. He was almost blue-eyed. And his eyes pouched when he smiled, in the way that makes a smile seem particularly kind.
She woke in darkness.
The clock on the landing had just sounded. Only once, she thought. It was set to chime the half-hour, as well as the hour. And anyone alone and wakeful in these small hours might feel, as Élucide felt, safer for the companionship even of this mechanical link to the civilized world, dawn and breakfast, a new day to make up for lost time. Within her bed curtains, the dark seemed infinite…no beginning or end to it. This began to feel imprisoning. She clambered to the floor, and could discern strips of faint light where the windows’ lace panels fell open. Her matchbox and candle were on the bedstand, that this light could expose them. The candle was next to the lamp.
But Mother measured lamp oil carefully, as a means of knowing whether her daughter had been reading novels in secret.
Élucide found her dress folded to air over the chair back. She could not reach behind, to button it without Sarah’s help; but she could pull the dress over her nightgown, fasten the buttons at the waist―and that would serve for modesty.
By candlelight, she made out a tray on her dressing table, placed there in solicitude; but also, it might have been, in mild rebuke…Sarah assisted by someone with a master key, while Élucide had been asleep. Here was a tall glass, its contents blocked from flies by a saucer. Under the plate-cover she found only her mother’s digestive biscuits and a bunch of grapes. She was a fussy eater (this was a fault) but Élucide preferred to cut grapes in half and pick them clean with a knifepoint, rather than hear seeds crackle on the inside of her jaw…although—she paused—it was a question, whether eating seeds felt worse or sounded worse.
She ate the biscuits; one, and then the rest in a handful. She downed crumbs with a gulp of tea, and winced. Sweet tea to Élucide tasted foul as medicine. She knelt, and plunged her hand blindly among the folded things in her trunk, her own body throwing shadow enough to block the candle’s light. Here at last was a crocheted bed-jacket. And here was disarray. She closed the lid. Her mother would tick her off for this, leaving Geneva a mess to straighten.
Well…I’ll tidy, she told herself. Later.
She padded softly on slippered feet through the hall, down the stairs, meaning to sneak outdoors by the library window. She would sit on the swing for an hour or two, or go down to the summer house. Since she could not sleep, she would watch the sky grow light, hear birdsong rise…that rarely witnessed interlude that could so lift the heart.
But it was early, much too early. Her passage through the house seemed marked. The clock on the landing struck one; the grandfather clock in the library chimed, a minute or two after, just as Élucide had slipped inside, and pulled the door closed. She thought as she groped in the dark, that her mother, or her sister―her father especially―would tell her, “Be careful. You’ll put your hand on a black widow.”
Its bite would feel like the pricking of a thorn.
She found the night was almost cool. She would have discarded the jacket even so, for the clamminess of sleeve over sleeve bunched against her arms…but she must not discard the jacket. It took awful restraint. She must not push her feet against the boards, and creak the swing’s chains. Far below, she could see Lawrence’s fire. Or rather, the copper aura of it, the reflection that mimicked the flames, flare from time to time like a strobe of lightning across the mist. This was what she could see, from the hilltop.
But Lawrence was not down at the riverside, sitting on his log.
By Ziegler’s intelligence—“That boy does all right for his self, I reckon, fish all night, and sleep all day”—Élucide knew things of Lawrence Everard that she had never seen. Ziegler’s reports gratified her father’s sense of rightness; but Élucide cared only how Richard spent his days. Ziegler had told her, though, that whenever he stopped by the ’stead, he hardly saw Richard.
The dog arrived first. Or was perhaps heralded by a yap, muffled in its progress to the porch from her mother’s sitting room (where the spaniels slept in their baskets), by all the rooms of the house between. She hadn’t listened with attention to its warning. On any night, the spaniels barked at odd times, the Gremot property better guarded by Lawrence’s three or four mongrels.
It came up the steps and nosed Élucide’s hand; this, followed by a bath from a furtive tongue. She caught the collie by the ear then, and with thumb and forefinger caressed the hollows of its skull. Giving way to an immoderate joy, the dog began to whine and pant.
“Fish, what you doin? Come down off there!”
Lawrence, instead, came up. She heard one boot land―and crunch as though mud-encrusted—on the bottom step; one on the step above.
Élucide had no fear of Lawrence. He was a nuisance to her, but she didn’t see in this meeting what her mother would have…the two of them speaking under cover of darkness, Élucide outside the house without permission. He was a slouching shape from where she sat, communicating truculence more clearly in contour than did his face in daylight.
“Why do you call him Fish?”
“I had a friend one time named Fish.”
“That doesn’t seem like such a nice thing.” Her words, she found on consideration, could have conveyed more than she’d guessed. “I mean…I don’t think I’d like it if you named a dog Luce.”
She peered at him. He had made a sort of noise. “Well, you wouldn’t!”
“I never did, Miss Élucide. But I might.”
He might. Cussedness—it could hardly be doubted—was Lawrence; but more so Sanderson, who schooled Lawrence.
“Do you read the Beacon, sir?”
Her father sometimes read selections from the Beacon aloud, mostly in wintertime, on those infrequent nights they gathered as a family in the front parlor. She herself never read, to say read, Mr. Rowan’s paper, nor had she met him. Rowan stood merely as her father’s byword for mud-stickers and mules.
“No, miss, I don’t. Not like Mama don’t. I can if I want…” He trailed, and paused, and seemed to reject defending this contention further. “I see pretty good. Fish, get down here.” Lawrence snapped his fingers.
She called him by his name, and abruptly he stood straight, then backed away, putting both feet on the lowest step. To Élucide, this was unreadable. But if he didn’t want to answer a question, she would ask it anyway. “Lawrence, did your father hire that man?”
From the day he’d broached the hiring of the man named Shad, Richard hadn’t come back to Papa’s library. She weighed asking Lawrence directly, “How is Richard?” And although she thought better of this, she had not been over-subtle. Lawrence laughed, loud enough to be heard, and catching himself, lowered his voice.
“That’s been near a week, Shad come to work for us. I tell that colored boy, though, Gremot’s daughter done took a likin to you, and she been askin…”
Élucide now stood, and Lawrence layered no further nuance into his joke. But parting from her, he said: “I tell Richard you was askin, anyways.”
“Come help me sort this, Luce.”
Summoned from the breakfast table, Élucide had dawdled on the stairs and now found her mother’s sitting room door shut. She’d been taught that a noisy knock was rude; a jaunty one impertinent. Lightly, she rapped with her knuckles twice, entered, took her seat on a skirted footstool that her mother had placed for her, and found her chin at the level of the writing desk. She offered suggestions that her mother did not take. They had only the Horaces, in addition to Mr. Ebrach and Mr. Jerome. But, for the sake of politesse, the equation could not be worked. Mother disliked crowding her guests on one side of the table. The alternative was to demote someone…and this was trickier. It seemed she could not avoid seating Mr. Ebrach near Dr. Horace.
“But I’m certain their views are not compatible. I’d rather have them at opposite corners.” She had five men and four women altogether, but of guests taken separately, three men and one woman.
“Don’t yawn, Luce. You’ll have another spell.” The pencil tapped. “Well! Mr. Jerome might sit next to you…it will have to be four on that side. Otherwise, I’ll have Mrs. Horace with all the men. How old do you suppose he is?”
“I don’t know.”
Mr. Jerome dressed like her father. The thin planes of his face, his deep-socketed eyes, made him look shrunken above the collar, rather than skeletal, as were his hands. He might be a near contemporary of Élucide and her siblings. Or not. Nothing about him defined a particular age.
“But Nildie…or I, could sit next to Mr. Ebrach.”
“No. Mr. Ebrach goes across from Mrs Horace.” Mother scribbled over the first rectangle she’d drawn, and sketched another. She wrote “Me” at the table’s foot; “Papa”, at the head.
“I will have Dr. Horace on my right; and Mr. Ebrach simply has to go on your father’s left. We’ll say Mr. Jerome is family, then. I should call him Thomas.”
“He said you could.”
The hour was ten-thirty. At the chime of the clock, Mother pushed her chair from the desk, rose, and moved to the divan. She patted the seat.
“Luce, I am going to tell you what Mr. Ebrach told Papa and me. I’m assuming Mr. Jerome will join us for dinner…I suppose he will.” She raised her chin. Until she saw her daughter get up from the footstool, pick up a cushion from the corner of the divan; until at last, this wrapped in her arms and pressed to her stomach, Élucide had bounced into place beside her, Mother said nothing more.
“He was trained as a physician. I mean Mr. Ebrach. He served for a year or two on…let me think.” She unclasped her hands and turned a palm up. “Did he say Caledonia, or Caligari? Well, I suppose the name of a ship doesn’t matter…we don’t know one from another! Only, you understand me, Luce, medicine was Mr. Ebrach’s first career…and so, if he judges Thomas safe…oh!”
Élucide waited. But having created suspense, her mother ended with dismissal, rather than share the meat of Ebrach’s confidences.
“It would be tedious―and unpleasant, I think―to repeat much of what he said. I want you to show good manners when you speak to Mr. Jerome.”
She thought her mother had had this admonition in mind, more her purpose than indecision over the seating of her guests. What was it, then, about poor Cousin Thomas’s illness? Something unpleasant. She wished her mother would tell.
“I wasn’t rude to Mr. Ebrach. I like him. I don’t think I could have been rude to Cousin Thomas, either, because―”
Because why, she asked herself.
“I don’t think he wanted me to make conversation. He wasn’t feeling well, was he?”
This was a point.
“Well,” her mother said, “that’s a fair excuse.” Not a good excuse. And in proof she’d taken the point, she added: “You drank two cups of coffee at breakfast yesterday, miss―I don’t like the habit at your age.”
You don’t get enough sun, Luce. On the other hand, there was such a thing as too much sun, catching heatstroke, or overtiring oneself, from too much walking outdoors; but then, one mustn’t be lethargic, sitting all day in one’s room. Élucide never doubted that her parents worried over her infirmity…that they sought answers with a good will. Only it seemed their interventions placed her at fault.
A minute passed. They might have finished. Élucide risked a question:
“Why does Mr. Ebrach want to call spirits, if he’s a doctor?”
Mother stood, crossed to the desk, took up the sheet of paper and stared at her seating diagrams, as though reconsidering the dilemma of Ebrach; whether he really must go one place from Dr. Horace. “I suppose he is more like one of the transcendentalists. I don’t say that’s a virtue. Mr. Ebrach tells us he would rid the world of confidence men if he could. But, at any rate, I accept his word on Mr. Jerome…on Thomas―and your papa does.”
When Élucide’s parents entertained, they did so in a regular cycle: Nachfolgers, Horaces, Rutherfords, the fourth week reserved for a business crony of Papa’s…once in a blue moon, for a visiting Haws, an Armour cousin, or one of Mother’s college friends. Of all friends in the county circle, the Horaces were most bosom. Dr. Horace had been a schoolmate of Papa, the Horaces were godparents to the Gremot children; they had followed the Gremots to Cookesville from their home in Louisville―and were easiest, at those times help was needed on short notice, to appeal to on the principle of Christian forbearance. The Horaces had agreed to a second visit, six days after the first.
But the Rutherfords were due tomorrow. Many things put by in the pantry must remain so; by the unexpected arrival of Jerome and Ebrach, a degree of scrounging was called for. Yesterday, the Gremots and their guests had eaten chicken and potatoes. Today, they would eat chicken and potatoes, prepared differently. Yesterday’s leftover soup was reintroduced…today augmented with leeks and a puree of cucumber.
Before the company sat down to dinner, Mother positioned herself at the back of the chair next to Élucide’s, and beckoned to Mr. Jerome, who’d ventured down the stairs in Ebrach’s wake. She showed him an encouraging face, called him by his surname, interrupted herself, and began again.
“Thomas, I would like you here, at my left. The Horaces and Mr. Ebrach are guests; they are not family.” She touched his arm, and as Cousin Thomas stood in hesitation, took his coat sleeve, guiding him forward. She lowered her voice. “I hope you feel well today?”
“Madame Gremot, I do.” But he remained standing…because, as Élucide supposed, no other guest was seated—and said to Mother: “I will sit any place.”
Today, Ysonde, their cook, had got a catfish to round out the menu, one caught and sold to her by Lawrence; a fish so impressive in size that after baking and slicing it in the kitchen, she had reconstructed it on the serving dish, with the head kissing the tail.
But fish must follow soup, and this could not be set on the table until after Dr. Horace’s grace.
“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” He drew breath. “Dear Heavenly Father, we thank thee for these friends; they who in the Christian spirit have opened their house, not to their fellows in faith and temperance alone, but also willingly do they offer their hand to a needy brother.”
Élucide’s eyes were on her own hands folded on her lap. Mr. Jerome, exercising caution, had taken her example; he bowed his head, laced his fingers, then—at Horace’s “needy brother”―abandoned caution, sat up, and stared at Dr. Horace.
“My friends.” Horace smiled, and turned a pitying face to Jerome. “I have in mind a passage from Deuteronomy. We do well to consider these sayings that instruct of Our Father’s will for us. This call to obedience is a timely one. ‘Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God.’ Chapter eighteen; verse thirteen.” He stopped, and a minute elapsed, at the end of which Élucide, having missed her supper the day before, in hope unbowed her own head, lifting her eyes. Dr. Horace had his ear cocked to the right, in the direction of Mr. Ebrach. Ebrach, the third graceless one at the table, had all the while gazed at the place above the sideboard where hung Grandpapa Gremot in oil, Mrs. Horace’s watercolor of their house on its hilltop, and the studio portrait of W. A. Gremot and family, taken in Indianapolis nine years ago.
“For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord.”
This time Horace quoted without attribution, and without coherent attachment to his earlier remarks. But he spoke in an undertone. He then raised his voice.
“Heavenly Father, we thank thee for this abundance; yet we remember those who suffer hunger. We thank thee for this company; yet remember the friendless. We pray for those who dwell in the darkness of error, that your light show them the narrow way to salvation. We beseech your blessing on this house and on those who have gathered at this table. In the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Redeemer, amen.”
The company seated at the table—six of them Gremots; therefore beseeching His blessing on their own behalf—repeated Dr. Horace’s “amen”. Robert, head also bowed, otherwise at attention by the sideboard, had waited for this word, along with Sarah and Mary.
He began to ladle, and the women, carrying conservative helpings of soup, to circuit the table; Sarah moving clockwise from the head, Mary from the foot. After this course, Sarah took Mary by the arm, chivvying her along until debatably out of earshot, and urged her down the kitchen stairs. “Go on help Cook now, bring up the fish. And don’t you spill anything more!”
Soon Mary reappeared, hefting, with little gasping breaths and with both hands, her end of the carrying board. Ysonde was relaxed, using only one hand to support the other end, their loose harmony falling out of tune as they eased the platter onto the sideboard.
“Mary Paton, let me do this thing myself. All your help gon help me into trouble.”
Robert stepped up. “Come on, Mary.”
But it was Sarah who sidled past Ysonde as she departed, catching her eye in passing with a roll of her own eye, then taking up a plate and holding it out for Robert. On this he laid two filets of catfish, and four spears of asparagus plucked from an oblong cut-glass dish.
“Mary,” Sarah said, “take that to her, over there.” She nodded towards Mrs. Horace.
“You seem to be eating a good lunch, miss. Yesterday”―this time, Mrs. Horace addressed Papa―“she was bothered by the hot weather, I expect.”
“That’s likely so, ma’am. When the night cools off, Luce gets up and around easier.”
No, Élucide told herself. Up and around was an expression. Her father had used it, that was all. No one had seen her with Lawrence and whispered this word in Papa’s ear. She buttered her second roll. She knew it was low manners, making sandwiches at the table. For an interval of ten minutes or so, they had all sat contained within themselves, and there had been no talk, only the masticating of fish and asparagus, and the sound of cutlery tapping and scraping. Élucide had perhaps been enjoying her food too well for Mrs. Horace’s taste.
Theirs was not the table’s only conversation. Dr. Horace broke across a low exchange between her brother and Ranilde: “Young Walter, how are your preparations coming? Will you recite for me?”
And Mr. Ebrach had just told Mother:
“Madam, your cook has handled the fish just as she ought. It would be a pity had she overbaked it.”
“Please don’t let me be nosey with you, Mr. Jerome, but are you quite alone in the world?” Mrs. Horace had startled him, it seemed. She prompted: “You told Mr. Gremot you live in St. Louis.”
Papa glanced up from his plate. Jerome opened his mouth.
The delay, between this demonstration of intent to speak, and speech itself, was of sufficient length to have captured Ebrach’s and Mother’s attention. Their voices died away. Jerome answered then, his manner rushed.
“I do live in St. Louis. But this is only for my purpose today. I may live anywhere.” He paused. He spoke again. “Madame, I have a wife. She has not traveled with me.”
“Is your wife an American, Mr. Jerome?”
“I know men love to have their names spoken of in connection with acts of mercy, and how easy it is to yield to the impulse, but we must not forget that what may be mercy to the individual is cruelty to the State.”
Dr. Horace put down his tea glass, and lifted his hand, but Walter―chin up, enunciation pointed―carried his piece to the sentence’s end. “Mr. Johnson said that. I call it a good turn of phrase…bet it surprises them to learn where I got it. But not right away, I won’t tell.”
“You think it will, Walter. You suppose.” Mother, murmuring.
Jerome sat in stiff awareness of having gained an audience. He’d been using his fish knife to winnow out a bone; this he’d placed so neatly on the plate’s rim that its curved shape and the pressed scroll design seemed, in geometrical proportion, to echo each other.
He lowered his poised fork, eyes on Mrs. Horace. His shirt-cuff brushed the bone to the cloth.
“I apologize, Mr. Jerome. I don’t mean a thing by asking.”
“Madame, no, I will apologize. No, the question is not an offense. I am an American myself.”
Horace cleared his throat. “You suggest, Mr. Jerome, that by virtue of your status…”
“It is a year, I think, Clotilde has been here. Monsieur,” he turned to Horace, “what you wish to know…I will tell you that her English is poor. But, madame”―Jerome turned again to Mrs. Horace; and in the earnestness of his argument, seemed not to notice his cuff resting now over his buttered asparagus―“she is quite safe. I have not left her without a friend.”
“Mr. Jerome, sir. I won’t take your plate until you say you’re done.”
Robert had moved to the right of Jerome’s chair; he spoke softly, as though for Jerome’s ears only, but his reminder served for the table. All of them sat back from their plates.
“No, monsieur, certainly, thank you.” Jerome lifted his and offered it to Robert; and Robert, a damp napkin concealed already behind his back, brought his hand forward and dabbed at the cloth, as he leaned to take the plate, making the sprucing of Jerome’s place simultaneous with the clearing of it.
A space was made at the table’s head for the admiration and carving of the birds. Papa rose from his chair. He accepted from Robert his fat-bladed knife and horn-handled fork, and bent over the first capon to slice the skin. They were laid breast-side up, their cavities stuffed with onions and oysters, their legs aligned to square the curve of the silver gravy boat at the platter’s center. They numbered four―with nine dining, this made not quite a half chicken each. Heaped round the platter’s perimeter was a mix of boiled potatoes, squash, and beets, shining with butter and dotted with black pepper.
What might, had Jerome been an easier conversationalist, have passed for light table talk, instead weighed silence over the Gremots and their guests. Ranilde leaned to catch her mother’s eye.
Continued from “her mother’s eye”
“Mrs. McClurkin, by the way, wants to sit with us when we look over patterns.”
With the tavern-keeper’s son, Élucide would dance at her sister’s wedding. She would study her new brother-in-law at this close quarter, and learn whether her father had got him sized up. Owen had round, amiable features, and Élucide liked his looks well enough. He was not her sister’s knight. They had not, in point of fact, seen much of him these late months; not since the threat of Ranilde’s running off to Kentucky with Owen had been put to rest by her parents’ allowing of a formal engagement. Was it wrong, or was it only practical, to marry for the benefit of being married at all?
Owen seemed at his ease going about the town with his brother and cousins, the McClurkin men like a gang of rowdies invading Cookesville on celebration days. They were flash dressers; they pulled rolls of notes from pockets, bought drinks and meals for strangers, then disappeared until they were flush again. Papa called them, “the county’s first generation of idle money.”
But Owen’s father was not another Hopper. Possibly, as Mr. Nachfolger had it, Callum McClurkin did business with Hopper―but no one called the Greenway Inn disrespectable. It was only isolated, almost on the county’s border. The inn had once been a stop on the old stage route, its traffic falling away with the rise of the rails. The Greenway served the county as a polling place still; a sheriff’s inquest, now and then, was held in its public room. And if McClurkin kept his independence, and rubbed contrarily against county authority, he did Papa some good by it. The Greenway was too far from the ’stead; Old Richard could not walk so many miles. So there was no mixing of Everards and McClurkins.
Élucide could see them, Richard and Lawrence, dressed in morning coats, standing under a garland of tissue-paper flowers, Sanderson, too―the three of them like a cluster of aldermen at a mayor’s inaugural. She might chase after the Everard boys. She forked another piece of chicken…with some spite at Ranilde’s punishing herself, leaving food on her plate for the sake of her corset laces. But mostly, Élucide bent low to hide from her mother (Papa faced her, and would note it) the irrepressible smile.
She would ignore Richard. He might…he would, wearing good clothes, look fine as an actor on the stage; but she would pick Lawrence. She would take up a fold of her gown in either hand and swish the hem at him, in a mockery of a curtsey.
“Lawrence, won’t you give me a dance?”
But this was silliness. Of course the Everards were not invited, nor Sanderson. She saw Mr. Ebrach’s warm eyes watching her, and because she was smiling already as she looked up and across at him, Élucide appeared to have exchanged something with Ebrach, some private understanding. When he smiled in return, she felt she had. This, her mother saw at once.
“Mr. Ebrach, have you traveled very much abroad?”
Ebrach’s smile spread wider; he beamed it across the table, then grew thoughtful as he spoke. “I have not much traveled, madam, as one thinks of travel. In my youth, I toured Rome and Florence, and saw the famous attractions there. Among the antiquities, that which most strongly impressed me was the mausoleum of Cecilia Metella. In that unquiet place, a depression of my own spirits came over me; this, while having known at the time, nothing of the ancients. Yet, so far as one can accurately relive in memory the particulars of an old experience, I judge that whoever haunts those stones, does so from a very great distance. I saw also the Mamertine Prison. Distinctly, I felt there a trepidation, mixed with a sort of thrill―a frisson; these sensations affected me like the after-echo of a ringing bell (though of course, I had heard nothing of the kind). One is aware of a disturbance near the altar. In Florence, I visited the Basilica of Santa Croce…”
He left off. Man of the spirit that he was, Ebrach could discover as well, vibrations in the living. Mother had been nodding in that fixed way of the absent minded; twice though, she’d glanced at Dr. Horace―once, at “whoever haunts those stones”; again when Ebrach pronounced “frisson” as a French word, and spoke of the ringing bell.
“My years at sea, as you might not suppose, were somewhat monotonous. We crossed the Atlantic, and re-crossed; once arrived at Liverpool, the ship would make from there her circuit along the British coast, stopping at Queenstown, whence she sailed again for Halifax. And I, as ship’s physician, was wanted aboard. Rarely was I able to take leave and visit those ports of call where the Colossia stayed. On one occasion we collected a load of cargo at Copenhagen, and I saw no more of the city than the environs of the harbor.”
“The Colossia,” Élucide said. “Was that the name of your ship?”
“She was my ship, Miss Élucide…as you say.”
His answer was sober; he’d missed, as he must, her mischief. Her mother did not miss it.
“She was struck in heavy fog, by the Aamberg, near Cape Race. Four of the Colossia’s lifeboats were hauled in by the Aamberg herself. One was lost. I have not, to this day, heard of its fate. And two were rescued by a schooner whose crew had seen the flares. That ship was the Bascom. I and some twenty others spent the night adrift, before the Bascom found us next day. My watch put the hour at near ten in the morning. The sun had just begun to drive away the fog.
“Had we passed another night on the open sea, we would all have been found dead of exposure. Our boat had been half-swamped, our feet immersed. Mine had become utterly numb below the ankle, and I could only grip the side of the boat with my hands. We found by light of dawn that we had lost three, vanished overboard…insensible, it may have been, from the cold; and unable to keep their places. A small boat on the ocean’s waves pitches, you see, madam. After so many hours, one’s strength falters.”
“Oh!” An intuition came to Élucide. “That was how you got to be spiritual.”
Ebrach looked at her, his mouth grave, eyes intent and pleased. She thought she’d managed the right sort of comment; she had shown aptness, as would a protégé. Ebrach looked at Jerome, and Jerome quickly turned his eyes aside, meeting Élucide’s. She saw a weary despondency, that seemed native there, give way to something urgent; Jerome struggled with an impulse to speak. He did not speak. Dr. Horace spoke―and not to Ebrach, but to Papa:
“The Colossia. That was ten years ago, I believe. She used to ferry the Irish laborers to Canada…from there they’d cross the border, and sell themselves for soldiers. Back during the war.”
“Ten years, in the coming spring, sir,” Ebrach said. “She sank in April of ’67.”
“And, as the young lady surmises, at a desperate hour you sought comfort in the Word, and took inspiration there.” Dr. Horace was courteous; his tone also dry and faintly doubtful.
“Certainly, we prayed. One of the lookouts…a man named Samuel Abraham, a woman passenger, a Mrs. Campbell, and a Cornishman named Hawkins…those three, and I, huddled together on one seat nearest to the bow. Their names I have not forgotten. Mrs. Campbell was kind enough to spread her shawl round myself and Hawkins. Abraham took on the role of junior officer, the Colossia’s second mate being at the tiller. Yes, we prayed. We prayed through each hour of wakefulness…and sleep was far too perilous. The second mate may have dozed. He was gone in the morning.”
Like the editor of the Beacon on the topic of the president, Dr. Horace had stated a plain fact about the steamer Colossia. And in a manner hard to perceive, but easy to suspect, he had slighted Ebrach. Ebrach told his story to Mother, to Élucide and Jerome, last to Papa, as though he conversed with the others, but not with Horace. He’d asked them to contemplate a man’s death; but the greater rebuke had been in calling the efficacy of prayer into question. This stroke had been given lightly.
Her father knew better than to add fuel to a growing antagonism between his guests. Élucide had done this herself, in a way. She had spoken out of turn to a male acquaintance, and in a voice that carried. She had given in to an wicked impulse. The result had been this line of talk. Her mother had not been wrong to fear Dr. Horace and Mr. Ebrach would prove ill-matched tablemates. Conciliatory words suggested themselves.
She thought, “No, I’m afraid, that’s all, that I’ve upset Papa.” She thought again. This was not entirely the truth. It was part of the truth.
Robert stepped forward, bent his head next to her father’s and asked, in a whisper, if the time had come.
“Mr. Jerome.” Papa turned to their most laggardly guest. “You like these birds, I hope?”
“The dinner, Mr. Gremot, is excellent…” He tailed off, but as one who means to go on. They waited. Jerome had settled more comfortably at the Gremot table, or he preferred chicken to fish. He had picked the bones clean of meat, managed a good portion of potato, and pushed each wedge of beet to one side of his plate. Holding the table in suspense, Jerome held a silent colloquy with the remainder of his meal.
At length, he darted a glance at Ebrach, and said, “The birds are not overbaked.”
“No, sir.” Papa cut across Walter’s chuckle. “But you’re ready to move along? Say so if you aren’t.”
“Please, clear these things, monsieur.”
Papa nodded to Robert.
Two types of cheese were offered, a dense yellow cheddar and a crumbling Stilton. Each guest was given compote of plum, toasted wafers of rye bread nestled in the syrup, and resting in neat array against the rim of each footed bowl. The table’s period of silence was more concentrated. No course other than dessert was anticipated so much as the cheese. Coffee had been put on to brew, and the cake already uncovered on the sideboard…so fragrant with spices and molasses, as to speak of its own pleasures.
Dr. Horace rooted his small Bible from the pocket of his coat. “The survivors of the Colossia prayed. You tell us so, Mr. Ebrach. Most lived, but many died…”
He cleared his throat; his sermonizing tenor swelled.
“He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. That is the inspired Word of God, given to the prophet Micah. The loss of hope, the fear that He has turned from us, that He does not hear us, when our voices are frailest; that when we suffer, when we are most in want of comfort, compassed about by darkness and despair…”
Dr. Horace kept his eye on Jerome. Jerome had begun at last to eat with a good appetite. Nothing remained on his plate but a mix of bread crumbs and trailings of syrup, into which he had pressed the back of his spoon. But taking warning from the doctor’s aposiopesis, from the quiet of the expectant table, he did not put this in his mouth. Jerome, when dining, tended to lean far over his plate. He raised his head in wariness, and found Horace staring.
“Mr. Jerome, this is the crux, the very cause of apostasy. Why do Christians fall from grace? Why do they doubt that God is merciful and His judgment infallible?”
“Because, Dr. Horace,” Élucide plunged in.
Ebrach had in some way taken her into his circle, where Jerome belonged already. Dr. Horace was building an attack against Ebrach; he must recognize the importance to Ebrach of Jerome. Her cousin was frail, and Élucide chose to shoulder his burden. “Because they die.”
“Miss Élucide, you put the matter bluntly.” He smiled, not at Élucide, but at her father. He went on: “And thus, confronted with mystery, some grow to doubt Him—in their weakness, they doubt His compassion. Equally, they may doubt His justice. He has promised us peace and an end to suffering. Yet as we know, an age on earth is, in the realm of the eternal, the winking of an eye. Some, in their impatience―in their ignorance, we may say―seek an early deliverance. In fine, they seek after idols.”
Here Dr. Horace, quite capable, if no one took him up, of answering his own argument, paused; and Élucide being his nominal partner in discourse, he lowered his chin, meeting her eye like a prompting schoolmaster.
“But,” she said, “they don’t really.”
She had startled her godfather. He thought that, perhaps—though her education scarcely permitted this—she disagreed on some point of theology. All Élucide’s theology came from Dr. Horace himself. All her early reading, before she’d got old enough to slip away at Rutherford’s and buy a book of her own choosing, had been Bible study, and the sermons of Wesley, under the guidance of Mrs. Horace. Élucide thought of the molten calf, the Philistines, Jezebel; worshipers of Baal and sons of Belial. She knew of no Cookesville citizen who behaved this way.
“Those who abandon Him in their hearts, Miss Élucide…because they have not the discipline to perform what is in its own right an abandonment…an abandonment of self-interest…”
Dr. Horace weighed his words, this complication into which he’d wandered, and chose a shortcut.
“We need only obey His Word. We are asked to do no more. The mind of man was not made to fathom the mystery of God. To attempt to do so is sin.” He did not succeed altogether in keeping his gaze from straying to the right. “I refer to the deceiving practice of substitution, to the perversion of faith into practice alone. A belief may be in itself an idol, in such cases where a purpose of one’s own takes the place of God’s purpose. Prayer may be an idol. Prayer is no more than ritual, if we do not ask when we pray, My Lord, what is your purpose for me?―and listen humbly for His voice in reply. If we merely repeat forms of words in hopes of dispelling fear, we pursue the favor of an idol.”
Horace looked at the fingers of Jerome’s nervous right hand, as they caressed the silverwork of the spoon resting on his plate.
“The dying are beset by dread; the bereft, by grief…grief so great, they would follow the loved one to the grave…they do, at times, Dr. Horace. And those who must soon depart, and those who must remain, suffer alike…their burden feels to them a living death; it is the same. They fear the prospect they see before them, a starless sky above a lonely plain, an exile into a strange land. Here, life and death are one, and the bridge glimpsed through the fog cannot be crossed. The way is a black tunnel, its mouth gapes in shadow; phantoms haunt its gate. You will say none may pass, but that they have faith.”
As Ebrach began to speak, Horace retreated from his high ground to the extent of pivoting in his chair; and Jerome, freed now from Horace’s eye, and the threat of being called on to participate, relaxed. He hunched low over his plate, picked up his spoon, and thrust it between his lips. Ebrach’s contention, couched in allegory, seemed to stymie Horace.
There had been another truth, another facet that Élucide had searched to see. She saw it now. But Dr. Horace might see this as well…her face might show it. That she had become a partisan of Ebrach’s; that she wanted him to win.
Horace said, tensely smiling: “Well, sir, you put words in my mouth. You will have to tell me your idea in simple English. I hardly can enlighten you, when I can hardly make heads or tails of you. Do you ask me a question?”
“Dr. Horace, if I hear you rightly, you construct your thesis on three points. That faith may be defined as obedience to the authority of the bible and to the word of God. That when we lose faith because we doubt his purpose, we sin nonetheless, in seeking—as you say—to fathom what his purpose may be. That we must ever ask of God, when we pray, to show us what is his purpose.”
Horace considered this. “I will neither agree, nor disagree with you, sir. Perhaps you make a fair representation. But I do not know your purpose.”
This brought a chuckle from the head of the table. And like so many outposts receiving a signal, Mother, then Walter, last Ranilde, respectively smiled, laughed, and giggled. Élucide did none of these things. She had faith in Ebrach. He appeared unperturbed. He smiled also.
“Sir, I will use your own phrase. I am at a desperate hour; I am a drowning man. Have I no recourse in prayer, then? Ought I to silently sink, because I know of no purpose in dying, no way in which I can serve God by surrendering to death? Do I pray with my last breath to be delivered from error, of which I am judged guilty, but the nature of which I must not seek to know? If I am rescued, shall I believe his purpose from the start was only to try me?”
“I will answer your last question.”
But Horace, perceiving a trial of his own, first crossed an arm over his belly, propped an elbow on his left hand, his chin on his right. After a moment’s thought, he said: “When God sees fit to try one among us more rigorously than others…that man must indeed suppose himself to have been chosen to serve some particular end. He must not question his Maker’s wisdom in so choosing. All Christians―I and you alike, sir―suffer our earthly trials according to His plan, the purpose of which will in the fullness of time be revealed. He who humbles himself before God in this life will receive in the afterlife his Heavenly reward.”
“Revealed, but under what circumstances?”
“That is unknowable. He is God. Thus, we obey.”
“You do not insist, then, that the trial bear some relationship to the purpose. That if I am very greatly tried, God’s purpose for me must be proportionately great?”
“I don’t understand you, Mr. Ebrach.”
“That a man saved from drowning; or, shall we say, a mother who has lost a beloved child…that their sufferings are, in God’s infinite plan, much the same as those of a rail passenger who finds his ticket has gone astray, or a householder who receives an unexpected guest?”
“Then, sir, in simplest terms, of course—though we cannot know it—we assume the greater trial serves the greater purpose.”
“Now, Dr. Horace, we are taught that faith without works is dead. Therefore, in our desire to be charitable, we do as the bible commands…”
“As God commands.”
“And, again, the medium through which we discover his will…that which he commands me to do, as opposed to such use as he may make of you, or any other at this table, is obedience to his word…and”—Ebrach’s light skipping of a beat here, flavored with skepticism his nod to Horace—“to the ministers of his word. But you say that if we pray, and beg God explain himself to us more fully, he may do so. He may not.”
Horace dropped both hands to his knees. He drummed the fingers of his right.
“Does he then bestow his trials on the pious or the impious? Is there no labor, no task, which the believing Christian can undertake to better serve him, his will being unknowable, as you say…and cloaked in secrecy? Because you will appreciate, sir, that if we, in blind obedience, perform only prescribed acts, and offer repetitious prayers; and these, merely inspired by fear―either of retribution, or of seeing another rewarded in our place―then by your own accounting, the church and its practices are reduced to a form of idolatry.”
“I have not said so. I believe, Mr. Ebrach, that you enjoy playing devil’s advocate. But you know there is a difference. I will use one of your own examples. If I am making a journey―we will say, to Indianapolis―I cannot go to my desk and sketch a rail ticket on a piece of note paper. I cannot draw up many such tickets and hand them about at the station, as though these fraudulent facsimiles had real value. It may be that you intend to build your argument by comparing paganish codswallop to the rites of the Christian church―and you know, sir, that the comparison is false and misleading. You cannot print your own currency; you cannot make statutes of the law to suit your convenience; and you cannot give the legitimacy to occultism that belongs to the Word of God.”
Ebrach, following this sally, did not concede or subside, though he had not gained the table’s majority opinion. “You carry the debate too far afield, Dr. Horace. I cannot be put in such a position as to examine the origins of the bible itself. I will not, either, raise the point that the founders of the non-conformist church rebelled against the formulism of state religion. It seems to me that if God takes the trouble to plan a path for each human life, if he intervenes in strange ways which he has not created our minds to comprehend, he will not refuse to make his meaning plainer if we balk at his will, or go astray from his plan. He did so with the prophet Jonah.”
“But Jonah lived in the days before the Messiah, when the Way had not yet been revealed to the people. Mr. Ebrach, the sacrifice of his Son for the redemption of our sins was a compact; the means by which we attain the Kingdom of Heaven, our salvation, through faith in Jesus Christ.”
“And when you yourself, Dr. Horace, have a text in mind…as you said you had, when earlier you quoted from the eighteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, you consider that you speak by choice; that you give thought to these matters and determine by calculation the passage best suited to your purpose of the day?”
“You weave words, Mr. Ebrach, and again I must plead ignorance. I do not understand you.”
“Mr. Jerome,” Ebrach spoke to his companion gently, as one might awaken a sleeper. “You are a Roman Catholic?”
“Yes, Mr. Ebrach.”
“Can you recall the two verses which precede thirteen, in the book and chapter Dr. Horace cited during the grace?”
“I think…I would not know them.”
Despite Ebrach’s patience, and the care he had taken to avoid anything peremptory in his tone, Jerome shrank from the table’s attention. Dr. Horace cast him a piercing glance; to Ebrach, he said:
“What Mr. Jerome understands of the Bible may not be…”
Jerome unfolded his arms. “Unless you read this verse to me…then I may say, yes, I know that.”
“Sir,” Ebrach said, “have I your permission to put the same question to your daughter?”
“Luce.” Papa did not ask himself, or Ebrach, which daughter. “How much of Deuteronomy have you got memorized?”
The moment was somewhat pivotal. She did not want to play along with Ebrach―if she could understand him so well―and be disagreeable to her godfather. But there was only one truthful answer.
“I can’t say. I mean…I know Dr. Horace has taught me…” She moved her left shoulder, caught herself and stopped. Shrugging, as her mother would have reminded her, was unladylike and rude; it was not an answer—but the matter was as Cousin Thomas had said.
“If I hear it, I’m sure I do know it.”
She wondered if anyone knew the Bible by heart. Even Dr. Horace had, not long ago, consulted his. Her father’s mouth twisted. He looked down the table, then looked at his plate, and could not hide, any more than had Élucide earlier, this private grin.
Ebrach said: “Respectfully, I submit that Dr. Horace has not taught Miss Élucide, or she could say. And that his pupil gains nothing from his allusions, if Dr. Horace conceals, and will not frankly share, his meaning. Or, one might say, his purpose. For a man in my profession must be familiar with Dr. Horace’s import, when he quotes from Deuteronomy…and I claim no particular gift for memorizing scripture. But I have heard these words many times: ‘There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or daughter to pass through fire; or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch… Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.’
“It is a charlatan’s or a propagandist’s trick to persuade by proxy. Dr. Horace has given you the key to locate these verses for yourself. Should any of you do so, he…or she….may feel as pleased to have discovered the solution to Dr. Horace’s riddle, as does any person who has solved a puzzle. He may say to himself, ‘I see now, what Dr. Horace was reluctant to state openly before Mr. Ebrach.’ Do I offend you, sir?” He turned to Horace.
A fly that had buzzed its wings on and off at the top of a window sash, arcing out in flight every few minutes, bulleting again into the glass, zoomed free at last from this false imprisonment, and soared over the table. It landed on the rim of the tea pitcher. Those facing the sideboard had followed its path with their eyes. Élucide’s father, at a right angle to the sideboard, did not turn his head. He beckoned over his shoulder, and Robert stepped from his post and bowed over the host’s chair, hands behind his back. But Papa’s tone was conversational, rather than confidential.
“Robert, will you ask Mrs. Gremot whether she doesn’t suppose we ought to have that cake?”
Mother did not answer this, not until Robert got to the foot of the table and, as instructed, asked her. This bit of theater disengaged the combatants, and Dr. Horace, distracted by the prospect of cake and coffee, never replied to Ebrach.
The women moved, after dinner, to the screened porch; and following, Sarah came no further than the head of the steps. She waited here, standing where the bannister met the wall, effaced until called on.
“Look how the clouds are coming in.” Mrs. Horace ignored the gestured-to settee, and crossed to the window. “Fern, your Mr. Ebrach takes some getting to know. I haven’t made up my mind about him.” This, with her eyes on the weather. Then, twisting her shoulders round, she tilted her head and spoke in an audible whisper. Mother bent as though to hear.
Now, aloud: “You had better have Sarah fetch Sanderson. “I’d wash away, If I had more lemonade, anyhow.” Reaching for Mother’s elbow and leading her aside, Mrs. Horace said another thing, her voice too low this time for Élucide to make out.
Sanderson was the Horaces’ general man, who came out mornings from his bedroom on the back side of their house, coaled the stoves and lit the fires, swept the front porch and walk; and tinkered through the day at odd jobs round the place, as the mood took him, and the season demanded. Wherever in the county need was reported, by such outriders of the faith as Cleome Towson, Dr. and Mrs. Horace paid their calls, upon the unredeemed alcoholic and the isolated bereaved. There was no stopping the mission; not for deluge, blizzard, shotgun…or reputation. Sanderson thus served the Horaces also as coachman and protector.
He was a connection, bearing the resemblance of a younger brother, to the Gremots’ Sanderson. Both men were known by their surname, their Christian names property only of their clan and the tax man. The Sanderson brothers (if they were brothers) were not on terms with each other. The Horaces’ Sanderson had never been seen to lift a friendly hand (and the Horaces would dislike it if he had) when passing his relative’s compound at the head of River Road. The Gremots’ Sanderson could not be kept from leaving his hillside perch, descending the hand-hewn steps that split the rock face…then, as he passed near the ’stead, falling into company with Lawrence and Richard; his excuse for venturing to the summit, that Richard had business with Papa, and that he was Richard’s friend. On such pretexts Sanderson often could be found loitering in the Gremots’ garden.
“Don’t speak to Sanderson.”
Continued from “speak to Sanderson”
This had been Papa’s instruction, the last time he’d caught Élucide at it. “He’s spoiling for a fight, and there’s no reason to give him one. Sanderson’s the type, when he gets his nose out of joint, won’t say a word back to you…but he’ll go stir up trouble among the low-life down at Hopper’s. That’s how a lie gets to be the common story before you know the story’s ever been told. And you’ll have the devil’s time refuting it.”
But Sanderson had sway with the Everard boys. He might tell Richard he’d noticed “the brush beat down” while checking his traps; this sign proof, in Sanderson’s lore, of a trespasser. He might say that while pounding out a hide on the slab of sandstone he used for a porch, he’d marked a stranger go by―a thing rare on this stretch of road, where most of the acreage belonged to Élucide’s father. Richard, for his father’s sake not daring to leave aside what Papa might expect Old Richard to have attended to, trailed Lawrence and Sanderson, with a burdened slope to his shoulders, and a face of gloom.
The trio’s last visit had found Richard looking up to see Élucide, from her swing, stare down at him. He’d kicked at the walk with the toes of his boots, until Sanderson, grinning, said, “Go on, son.”
But meeting his relative, Sanderson’s jaw became set, his hand dropped to the hackles of the dog by his side, eyes of dog and man narrowing. “You go on, tell the squire,” he’d urged Richard a second time, and watched as Richard doubled his pace, off to knock at the French window. And opportunity having presented itself to be seized, Sanderson squinted as though the light were bad, and his relative invisible to him.
Winging two birds with one stone, he remarked to Lawrence:
“A man can’t call his time his own, if he ain’t the master.”
“But what’s the trouble?”
She’d asked it of Lawrence, who must today serve as conversational butt. But this was not the same as speaking to Sanderson.
“Miss Élucide, Sanderson seen a man named Tinker talkin to the hands. I seen him too, one time…that’s how I knowed it was Tinker.”
Élucide had been sidling towards the nearer veranda, one of two round porches either side of the screened one, that wrapped the back corners of the house. Here, a morning glory trellis fastened between pillars from the foundation to the roof, half-hid the swing where Élucide liked to sit on nights when she could not sleep, or on days when the weather was fine…more particularly, on summer afternoons when a storm was brewing, most of all when Richard might be expected.
“Luce.” Her mother stopped her. “Go up to my room and find that list of names. Yes, the one I showed to you. Don’t waste time. The Horaces are about to leave.”
Mother had that morning picked out Miss Towson’s list from a stack of correspondence held in place by the Armour Bible. Grandfather and Grandmother Armour had been late before any of the Gremot children were born; their lives, so far as they had left behind any legacy of themselves, were written on an inside page: a birth, a marriage, and two deaths. And having been told, “This is very old, this is not to play with”, Élucide had never touched it. She knew almost nothing of her mother’s girlhood or education. Mother’s guiding doctrine was practicality in all things; such that she dealt only with the present. Her life might have begun with her own marriage.
A slipshod housewife, by a precept of Dr. and Mrs. Horace, was a canker on the fruit of domestic happiness. The neglected home was likely as anything to drive a husband to the tavern. Élucide, having the vice of untidiness, worried that this might be true, that (her father’s precept) if everyone supposed it to be true, the failing would tell against her just the same. Richard’s father being what he was, Richard might himself take to drink. Their home together, like Élucide’s room, might accumulate dust and clutter. Why this should be so, when her room was cleaned often as any, she hadn’t worked out. Perhaps one could be marked for disorder, as the Everards were marked for intemperance.
Mother’s order was impeccable…and Élucide knew what she sought.
The papers had simply gone from the writing desk. Its surface gleamed. She could not find even the notes and sketches her mother had made for the seating of Mr. Ebrach and Mr. Jerome. She searched the letter rack, looked under the blotter, pulled out the right-hand drawer…pulled until it slipped down at an angle. She lurched to catch it before it fell. And balancing the drawer on her fingertips, saw that there was nothing at the back (though she did not suspect her mother of hidey-holes); nothing under the boxes of papers, nothing in them but blank sheets. Her mother had formal and informal paper, a type for letters, one for notes, one for condolences, one for invitations…and Élucide was certain Mother kept only paper in the compartments where paper belonged.
In the left-hand drawer, otherwise empty, Élucide found a diary. She held this to the window’s light, saw nothing bulge between its pages. And even for having touched her mother’s diary, having moved it from its place, she felt uncomfortably accused. She put it away, and closed every drawer.
At the bedchamber’s threshold, she put her head round, and saw Geneva punching a cushion.
“Geneva, Mother wants a list of names, from Miss Towson.”
Geneva snugged the cushion in a corner of the armchair, patted its tufted center; then edged round the bed, straightening the covers.
“Miss, she keeps all her papers in the other room.”
“She wouldn’t have it tucked in the Bible, do you think?”
“No, miss. Let me come out and look.”
With a drop of the chin and a sidestep, these motions serving as permission to shoulder past Élucide and walk ahead of her, Geneva made for the sitting room door. Élucide lingered at the foot of the bed…but the only object on her mother’s nightstand besides the lamp, was a wedding picture of Mother seated, young and straight-faced, a hand raised to her shoulder; and Papa, in an awful collar and horrid mutton-chops, smiling with one corner of his mouth, standing behind her chair, his fingers linked in hers.
On the mantelpiece―Élucide checked, though she knew it already―were a pair of candlesticks, and her mother’s porcelain clock.
Geneva waited beside the desk. She had opened no drawer without having Élucide’s eyes to avow it. Élucide waited, in turn, while Geneva searched exactly as she had herself done.
“Would she have anything in that trunk?”
“She don’t keep nothin but baby things in there, miss.”
Knowing that she would trudge these steps twice again, once Mother had told her (she would) that the list was “right where I left it”, Élucide returned to the screened porch. They’d all gone. Even Sarah had gone. She turned back, resentful, climbed once more the steps that led to the front parlor, paused in the hall, and listened. She heard men’s voices: Dr. Horace’s and Mr. Ebrach’s. Both laughed, and laughed together. Next, her father spoke in his emphatic way, his words from this distance unintelligible. She might have heard him say, “Everard.” At any rate, Dr. Horace and Mr. Ebrach were not fighting.
The men had retired to the library; their voices, and a drift of their cigar smoke, came from beyond the hall, beyond the dining room. But closer, Élucide heard her mother say her sister’s name, in a cautioning tone. Ranilde’s answer: “I just won’t! I don’t even care!” The women had gone, then, to the back parlor.
She found her mother standing with Mrs. Horace, the two of them facing the sofa, Ranilde away from them, arms crossed. Here, on the seat, were laid samples of lace—their mother’s insistent old-fashioned crochet, for one, bundled and fastened by an end pulled through. Mother had a good stock of old lace, picked off by Geneva from discarded things, here seeming only to lend a peasant, homespun contrast to the airy filament of that imported from Bruges; that which Ranilde, and Élucide, favored. But this, Mrs. Metz had warned, “must be ordered very many months early.” The dressmaker had given Mother a sample of a factory lace, imitative of the better quality, destined, in Élucide’s opinion, to win the contest. There’s a cheaper substitute for everything. That was a rule of Mother’s. Its corollary had to be, then: Pitch your first bid high, and negotiate down to your preference.
“You might find a fine-spun cotton just as nice as that peau de soie,” Mrs. Horace was saying. Élucide’s sister, under her skirt, stamped a foot. “Less harm tearing a hole in it.” She whispered her next advice. “Cotton won’t either stain under the arms so bad as silk.” She glanced across to the doorway. “Fern, here’s your daughter.”
“Mother, you have to tell me where to look. I can’t find it.”
Catching Ranilde’s mood, Élucide let her posture slip; and traipsed, if walking with a flounce amounted to traipsing, into the parlor. Yet Mother waved all this away―both the sullen face and Miss Towson’s list.
“Never mind. I’ve sent Sarah to have Geneva pack for you. You will ride home with the Horaces tonight, and help Mrs. Horace write some of her letters. That will be your contribution to the bazaar. The Rutherfords will bring you back tomorrow.”
Mrs. Horace’s whisper, on the screened porch, had sounded to Élucide like: “What about that sick headache?” That intelligence sought in aid of the plan they’d hatched in her absence. And why ought Élucide to spend a night away? Because at dinner she’d been forward, as Mother and Mrs. Horace would judge it, with Mr. Ebrach. All the while, Mother had known where the list was. Probably here, in the back parlor…where from her mending basket, she could pull surprising things. Mrs. Horace said, “Fern, if you come across that list, send it along with Mr. Ziegler…or, if he’s not coming up tomorrow, give it to Fannie. She’ll most likely give it to Edith.”
This object, so making itself bothersome, named those who’d bought tickets last year to the Temperance Fellows’ autumn bazaar, checked off and designated (she had sketched in a legend at the bottom) by symbols of Miss Towson’s…members not yet approached, others who were not yet members, a reluctant few who had not been at home (or had not answered their doors); another few, who, approached once, had made their excuses. These names were underlined; soon they would have a second talk with Miss Towson, Mrs. Keene, or Mrs. Horace.
And Mrs. Horace’s remark had been a bit of humor.
Fannie Rutherford was a second wife, less than ten years her stepdaughter’s senior; Edith around twenty-five. They were Mr. Rutherford’s “two young ladies”—his quip repeated on most occasions, whether or not he guessed that it pleased Fannie and insulted Edith. Fannie had diagnosed herself “dropsical”; she would have no doctor contradict her. Élucide had never seen Fannie ill; she had never seen Fannie’s ankles swell…and, though curious to know if this was as disfiguring as it sounded, could learn nothing from Edith.
Mr. Rutherford’s daughter tended to shrug angrily at the mention of his wife’s infirmity. Fannie was asked to do no work at the hotel, at the store, at the telegraph office, or for the new Vanguard. Edith simmered when Fannie begged her, with light insinuation (“Edith, you know how to make things work…you were born that way, I guess”), to take charge of the larder and the servants. Edith chafed against spinsterhood, bridled when Fannie called her a “sturdy girl”.
“She colors herself far stupider than she needs to.”
Telling the story to Ranilde, Edith had twitched her shoulders. “Hmm. But I suppose no one knows how to measure a thing like that.” She traded a grim little smile for Ranilde’s giggle. “Fannie says to me, ‘Edith, I can’t manage’. Really! As though I had ever come to know anything without learning it first!”
“She’ll fit in just fine…there’s not too much of her.”
Hoisted by Dr. Horace, who’d clambered up ahead for that reason, Élucide was squeezed between her godparents. Their buggy was made for two passengers. Mrs. Horace patted the seat. “Set her down there, Gus, right in the middle.”
Once Élucide pushed herself all the way back, so that only her toes touched the floor, Mrs. Horace sat as well, working herself into the right-hand corner. She took Élucide by the hand, and lifted both theirs together, signaling to Mother and Papa a sort of triumph over no particular adversity.
Sanderson, being a man who could not stand at ease, had got a brush from under the dash, and began to raise a cloud of dust and hair from the horse’s flank. Mrs. Horace wrinkled her nose, flapped her fan without opening it. “This way, Fern.” She called out, as though they were en route, pulling away, rather than stationary in the drive. “She won’t bump around too much and take another spell.”
“I don’t know that she’s ever had a spell two days running.”
“No.” Élucide muttered an answer on her own behalf, preoccupied with tugging her skirt loose from the person of Mrs. Horace, and tucking it under her own thigh. She wished her mother permitted her even one stiff petticoat, something that might give her a figure. She had thought, often, while sketching in her diary (smart fitted skirts with bustles, little cuirass jackets with passementerie trim… Hats!…with billows of feathers…) that she would die under the town’s scrutiny, for want of a decent thing to put on. Her day dresses were hopelessly the fashion of a decade earlier.
But this grievance, so well-rehearsed, Élucide set aside. She thought again of headaches, as Dr. Horace wedged himself in on her left. “Only once or twice a week. I have spells, I mean.”
She closed her mouth. Dr. Horace had something to say, and he―as she did not―had her mother’s attention.
“Fern, Walter, the dinner, to employ a saying of your cousin Jerome’s…” (Papa chuckled) “…was excellent. Virginia and I very much appreciate your thinking of us…” He paused. Lightning had split the clouds, coming simultaneous to a crack and a boom. The peal rattled the windows of the house; it seemed to have shaken the earth…and faded, as a gust of wind rose behind it, with a rumble like a loaded boxcar rolling. The storm’s encroachment startled them. The sky, northeast over Cookesville, remained blue.
“Thank you, Sanderson. We don’t want the blanket. Luce, you’re not feeling chilled.” Mrs. Horace bounced forward, shooing him. She raised her voice to include everyone. “With this heat, we can use a little rain!”
Élucide, lagging, answered her godmother, “No”; and again, stopped herself saying more, as Mrs. Horace gave her an absent glance, and Sanderson walked round the buggy.
“Reverend, I’ll put the top up.”
“Yes, you had better.”
Robert, standing by to pull the wheel chocks, stepped forward and circled the opposite way, helping Sanderson raise the buggy’s cover, fastening it on Mrs. Horace’s side.
She had been unable to sleep past dawn; she felt only half-awake now.
Élucide rubbed grit from her eyes and stifled a yawn, propping an elbow on the Horaces’ breakfast table. She peeled apart layers of biscuit, spooned over these her coddled egg, dropped on a dollop of orange marmalade, and mushed all together with the back of her fork. Dr. Horace added milk to his hot cider.
He sipped, cast a sideways nod at Mrs. Horace, and said, “Now, young lady, what do you call that concoction?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what does it taste like, miss?”
“Like cake, ma’am, a little.”
“Then I’m sorry we don’t serve coffee here.”
They laughed, and Élucide laughed, too; she would rather please her godparents than not. She had not been aware, in her childhood years, of this more rigorous practice; that some Temperance Fellows considered coffee, tea, and chocolate to be stimulating beverages…and that the Horaces were among them. Papa’s argument in favor of coffee aligned with his argument in defense of tobacco (needless to say, he had one)―that it did not break up homes, or lose men their jobs; but that, on the contrary, its calming effect and sharpening of the mind were a boon, both to labor and domestic life, its use tending overall towards preventing such tragedies. Dr. Horace disagreed…but settled, in the houses of his friends, for abstention.
Through yesterday’s late afternoon, she’d worked at the big desk in the study where both Horaces did their writing; Élucide perched on a stool, balancing with her heels hooked over the bottom rung, Mrs. Horace small in her husband’s leather chair, constantly shifting to improve her view.
Stationery before the template, Élucide studied the words she was to copy. She inked her pen. She wrote, “My dear”.
She read these words aloud to Mrs. Horace.
The template offered: Mr./Mrs./Miss, followed by a line, the name she had not yet been given. The letter-form’s creator (such exactitude suggested Miss Towson) had sketched in a pilcrow below the greeting, indicating the start of the body:
¶I hope ________.
¶May the Temperance Fellows count on the honor of your presence at our annual Autumn Bazaar, to be held on the ________ day of ________?
¶Tickets are to be collected at the door; and may be purchased in the amounts of:
Party of ()___
Children under age 16 admitted free.
¶A further contribution of ________, if you are able to assist our very worthy cause, will be most appreciated.
The letter closed:
With Sincerest Gratitude, Yr. Obedient Servant, ________
“Well…start with Mrs. Carpenter.” Mrs. Horace stretched her arm towards the window. The paper in her hand caught a slanting ray of light, this glared from its surface, and the names written there grew legible as she tilted it forward and up. Élucide bent, penned in “Mrs. Carpenter,” stopped, and sat back.
“Let me think.”
Mrs. Horace thought.
“I hope this letter finds you well, will do for Mrs. Carpenter.” She laid the paper down, and with a pencil, crossed Mrs. Carpenter off. Then she clucked, and said, “Oh, but Sarah is the one gets that airysisipus flaring up in the summertime. That’s a question…” Élucide had written the words already. She listened, while her godmother debated Mrs. Carpenter’s feelings.
“Comma,” Mrs. Horace decided, “…and that this hot weather has not been too trying for you.”
Working in start-stop fashion, her godmother’s memory needing to be sieved for those personal tidbits represented by the template’s blank opener, Élucide had helped to write three letters before the Horaces’ early bedtime. She had dozed under a stuffy comforter, in a room once hers and Ranilde’s, for what seemed an hour or two. She’d woken in darkness, without even the chime of a clock to tell the time. She’d overlooked the possibility of missing Ebrach. Mother had never told Élucide when he meant to leave, and might not herself know…Ebrach’s plans seemed to depend on Jerome’s.
Élucide felt this morning that she’d waited out the night’s remains without a wink.
The day was muggy, its heat unrelieved by rain. None had fallen, after the storm’s bluster chased them to Cookesville. Yet they would walk after breakfast to the Rutherfords’, the Horaces escorting Élucide along Lincoln, across Market and up Main, turning when they came to Second, making their way two blocks further up a gentle incline to the Rutherfords’ gate, at the corner of Second and Arcadia. The house was somewhat smaller than the Columbia Hotel; like the Columbia it was solid and stone-built, from the ground to the first story. The second and third stories were half-timbered; European in inspiration, American in scale. The Nachfolgers, over their colonnaded porch, looked down on the Rutherfords, and the Rutherfords, over the crowns of the big maples that marked the corners of their property, looked up at the Nachfolgers.
But, though the city of Cookesville was not spread at his feet, Rutherford’s situation was the happier. Snow and ice never prevented the town’s first citizen from going about his business.
“Miss Élucide, I believe that’s Ziegler, coming up the way.”
Rutherford stood a few paces from his front gate, the palm of his hand caressing the nose of his favored white horse. Élucide saw Ziegler grab the brim of his hat, haul himself up straight. These mannerisms were Ziegler’s humor. He hiked his hands up the reins, shortening the slack, and yelled out, “Steady, steady, you malefactors!” His team ambled to a slow halt, and Ziegler, as he dealt out this fancy word, winked at Élucide.
“Miss Élucide, I thought you done gone off with the Reverend Horace.”
“I did, Mr. Ziegler, but I’m coming home with Mr. Rutherford.”
Maybe, she thought, she had sounded pert, seated in a carriage on Second Avenue, singing out these words where anyone could hear them. Both Ziegler and Rutherford chuckled, with far more merriment than seemed warranted.
“After them thunderheads come up, we never seen a drop of rain down along the river.”
Ziegler carried six day laborers in his wagon. They sat on four coffin-sized wooden crates; these had been shipped from an upstate nursery. The name, Briggs Fancy Varieties, was lettered in black and red on the sides.
Richard sat next to Ziegler.
He’d ridden in to sign the bill of lading; to make certain the men who waited at the livery stable were the same six he’d hired the day before, that there were no more and no fewer.
“And that mud slick down by Tranquility Creek…?”
“I been up and down through there.”
Rutherford had learned to interpret Ziegler. The road was clear. He called, over the backs of Queen and her stablemate, Duchess, to Richard. “Everard! Your father means to get that orchard planted before the weather turns?”
It pleased Élucide, Mr. Rutherford’s jollity. Not the shaded jibe—if it had been such—at Richard’s father, but that Richard was forced now to turn his head. He’d sat on the street side, shoulders hunched over knees, face blocked from view by Ziegler, neck twisted stubbornly, so that he must look at nothing but Rutherford’s neighbor’s fence.
Ziegler’s team faced the road out of town; Rutherford, who preferred to do his own driving, had his horses headed opposite. He would take his young ladies along Second to Main, where they would join the morning’s carriage traffic, circle the downtown square and pass the city park. As they edged by others’ equipage, and strollers along the sidewalks, Rutherford, Fannie, Edith, and Élucide, would wave greetings to friends…in the businessman’s case, to customers; in Élucide’s, to constituents, for she, although small of stature, and a Gremot rarely seen by the county’s voters, today represented her father.
Richard tilted back, searching for Rutherford, who nodded and grinned, the grin broadening as Richard looked away fast. On meeting Élucide’s smile―the rock to Rutherford’s hard place―he’d flushed, and at last fixed his eyes on his own fingernails. Fannie, her view obscured by the driver’s perch, craned round, leaned to see her husband, broke into a giggle as though the sum of these confused exchanges equaled a richer entertainment than the parts.
Richard looked angry. Rutherford prompted him, repeating the gist of his question.
“Those fruit trees, Everard…before the weather turns.”
“Yes sir. My father wants those trees staked in. Before the weather turns.”
His tone was short, and taken with his manner, aloof, seemed the next thing to open discourtesy. The laborers’ shoulders drew tight; they shuffled their boots on the wagon bed. Three sat with their backs to the carriage. Two who faced the women were steadfast in keeping their eyes down, but one…a man with lank, dark hair, and brown, sun-weathered skin…clasped his hands over his knees, and angled his face to peer up at Fannie Rutherford.
Ziegler picked up his reins. “Sir, I be getting on. Don’t do to keep the ladies waiting.”
“Best of luck to you, Ziegler.”
Rutherford waved the wagon off. He had treated Richard as though Richard worked for Ziegler.
(more to come)