A Figure from the Common Lot
Book One: 1870-1871
Chapter One: Cette Illusion de la Mortalité
Book Two: 1876
Chapter Two: Possente Spirto
Fraught with mystery.
He woke with these words in his mind, uncertain where they had come from. His face and chest were damp, the quilt wrapped too close, pushed under his nose so that he smelled its mustiness…also an unpleasant human taint.
He had been in the almshouse. Particularly when he was ill and unclean, Honoré’s last dream before waking was this one; the face, he did not know why, that of the Pinkerton man who’d sent him to Colorado (Mr. Littlejohn in reality kind enough). He was seized by the arm and shaken to his feet, thrown into a room with walls of ice, given no cover and permitted no rest…by his feebleness confined to the place where he lay. In that place one did not wait for the bedpan, because no one would have brought it.
It seemed he’d been tended with greater humanity by those who asked nothing for their service; and that those who stood to be punished for poor work, punished in turn the ones whose suffering showed them indifferent to their duties—as often they had been. He had not known better than to speak to the inspector.
He had forgotten his resolve.
He must not doze off again, to find he’d spent the night in Richard Everard’s bed. Struggling against the quilt’s folds, Honoré struggled also against the pillows and the mattress; finally he pushed himself upright and touched bare toes to the floor. His eyes saw blackness; the door was closed, but in a moment he made out a soft yellow light coming from beneath, and through its cracked panels.
He heard Ebrach’s voice. He heard Richard’s, and one other he did not know. The conversation sounded civil, unfriendly to a degree, but in no way ritualistic. They could not, he thought, have begun. Unless Ebrach’s manner of conducting a séance proved, in the execution, a disappointing sham. But Honoré, remembering the trunks, and Ebrach’s talk of oil lamps, could not believe the mental science had nothing of theatre about it.
He was famished. Free of cover, he noticed now the air steeped in the smell of onions, chicken fat, coffee. His day had been miserable. The family had eaten their supper, fed Ebrach his…but left the unwanted companion alone in the dark. Honoré’s eyes filled. He shuffled, cautious, expecting to find his shoes by tripping over them; instead, he stubbed his toe on the bedpost, fell backwards…then, supporting himself against the foot-rail, steadied his balance, stood again, and shuffled onwards, hands held out to feel among the pegs on the wall. The mirror dimly reflected the parlor’s light. The light was not strong enough for Honoré to distinguish whether any of these garments was his. But…he now recalled, he had given his coat to Ebrach. And with his coat, his pocketbook―his money, and his letters. He had, in effect, to ask Ebrach’s permission, if he wished to return to Cookesville.
Continued from “return to Cookesville”
One of these letters he knew by heart. (Some of its phrases, it was true, he knew only by heart, and had not quite got their meaning.) He reviewed Tweedloe’s intelligence, red-faced in the unlighted room, but with no reason to suppose Ebrach would gain ground from learning another of his secrets―Ebrach was beyond his reach already. Yet Honoré felt a small storm within, a feeling he could not name, a torsion…something proud, and desolate, and angry, when he thought of Ebrach’s, or anyone’s, knowing what Anne had done to him.
He ran his hands through the clothing on the pegs, and could not find even his waistcoat. He had knocked something down, some heavy overshirt that hit the floor with a crunch, giving off a whiff of wood smoke. He did not like being an offensive guest to the Everards, but he was lightheaded, unequal to stooping, unable to lift and rehang this. Must he cloak himself in the quilt, so that he might sit mortified at the Everards’ table, barefoot, disheveled, and with some part of him—he sniffed―odorous with vomit?
However, he had no choice. He would, though with chagrin, accept this natural consequence of Ebrach’s friendship. He found the knob, twisted it; at once, footsteps approached. Someone rapped at the door’s other side. Honoré backed into the shadows.
“Mr. Gremot, have you left your bed? May I render you any assistance, sir?”
Ebrach nudged open the door, the gap filling with light, and with his clean white collar, neat tie, and spotless waistcoat. He pushed his face through. It was a healthy face, washed free of grime, topped by a peak of oiled hair…and, to Honoré’s wonder, Ebrach had shaved. Was this spirit meeting such an occasion for respect? Did the dead take umbrage so readily? The lanterns from the parlor marked out a growing portion of the bedroom, throwing Honoré into a wedge of comparative brightness, stinging his eyes. Ebrach slipped inside, and closed the door behind him; gradually the light narrowed to a beam.
“Verbena has taken your shirt to boil; she has put your waistcoat and trousers on the clothesline to gather the night’s dew. When they have dried in the sun, she will brush them for you. That is how she tells me she manages woolens.” Ebrach thrust out his left hand and patted two of the pegs, finding on the third what he wanted―a sort of field hand’s blouse, a shirt of the kind pulled over the head and fastened with a short placket.
“This will do. Verbena has laid out Mr. Everard’s trousers on the foot of the bed. I suppose you hadn’t noticed.”
“Ah, Mr. Ebrach, how do I know…?”
He had been ready to snap at Ebrach, over this faint criticism…how do I know what people do when I’m asleep? They enjoy their supper, no doubt. But Ebrach, in his helpfulness, was too brisk for recrimination. Able, it seemed, to see in the dark, he’d got the trousers, and stood holding these before him, sizing up the scope of the task.
“You had better sit down. Do you need my help with the shirt?”
Honoré rubbed a hand over his face, as he stepped into the ’stead’s living quarters, and having taken his eye off Ebrach, cast an anxious glance over his shoulder, to find the guardian of his welfare a step behind. Ebrach, as though this start had been a further symptom of illness, took Honoré by the elbow.
The cabin was not so different from the cottage of the Paquettes. The Everards also had arranged life to their convenience in the room where most of it was lived, so that each article of furniture―the washstand under the window, the mirror on the wall next to the chimneypiece, the lantern hanging from a hook above…an armchair, angled with its back to the table, a cupboard that filled the wall separating parlor from bedroom, a trunk next to a side door (another, of Ebrach’s, placed before this), a printed battlefield scene tacked above, a second row of pegs below, the dining table, taking most of the wall to Honoré’s right―commanded its foot or two of negotiable floor space. An iron stove sat inside the hearth, and he saw, on its flat top, a tin coffee pot and a loaf pan. The pan held a fourth remaining of what appeared a yellow cake. Honoré, at these articles, stared with naked longing.
The least dissipation of heat was perceptible, in this stifling air. Every door and window stood open. But facing the stove sat an elderly man, who sagged against the armchair’s back, knees buckled above the hearthrug, lower chest and lap covered by a blanket. The old man’s head lolled over his shoulder; he was deeply unconscious…and the room was not so large that his whisky reek had not crossed to the bedroom threshold. This, to Honoré, was somewhat consoling.
He would be the husband, the drunkard, whose return had worried Ebrach. Lank grey hair fell across the old man’s chin, weaving itself into his beard, and his arm that rested against the blanket was exposed to the elbow, its forearm fleshless, no more than stringy sinew attached to bone.
Honoré swayed to his right, and Ebrach laid a second steadying hand on his shoulder. For the moment, he let this go. When he’d walked into the parlor, Verbena had twisted round from the table, whispering to herself some word. Pressure stretched diagonal folds across the cloth as she levered her body up, while side by side the Everard sons, one with his back against the wall, legs sprawled, arms crooked behind his head, the other bent over his plate, working a knife into a plug of tobacco, watched from their bench opposite…not their mother’s struggles, but the actions of Jerome and Ebrach.
To be fair, Honoré allowed Verbena might refuse her sons, had they offered help. They were near to his own age, adult men living under the roof of their mother and father. He felt afraid to lift his eyes full in their direction, but thought he’d heard a snort or a sputter, a message shared with their enemies, about a shared joke; and that their otherwise rigid silence was an arduous act of suppression. Disgust escaped their faces blatantly enough. What they held back must be the urge to inflict harm. And one of them, seeing Honoré so dressed, must feel his grievance acutely.
He ducked Ebrach’s hold, and gave his arm to Verbena. She had rocked herself, by this time, onto her feet; Honoré, drawing her into an embrace, expected her murmurs to resolve into naming him a poor thing. But unspeaking, she tilted her head back and gazed into his eyes, her own filled with a sort of awe, into which he could read no meaning.
Her hair was caught under a rust-stained cloth embroidered with purple flowers, binding tight thin strands against her scalp. He saw this, as he glanced over Verbena’s head, and saw, on the face of the lean, dark Everard son, an expression of livid rage, disbelieving indignation. That could not be helped. Verbena had suffered, as Honoré had; in this respect, they knew each other intimately. He felt that he might whisper a word to her in French, and she would recognize his need.
“Madame,” he said, “do you have, in this house…”
“The privy,” she told him, “is out the back way.”
“I will escort you, sir. Here are your shoes. I will go hang the lantern while you put them on.” Ebrach pointed and Honoré noticed then his shoes placed, with the socks folded into them, beside the front door. A pair of work boots, separating at the soles from their nails, sat next to them, the row of toes and heels aligned by some exacting hand.
A backyard closet was nothing daunting. That had been the way of things at Honoré’s early home in Huy. And he wanted a private talk with Ebrach.
The evening air, tempered by the storm, folded around him with the comfort of a warm bath. Some night-blooming flower, influenced by a force unknown―for the wind had died―issued an intense perfume. From a pine above their heads, a owl’s descending call repeated, a quavering series of tripping notes…less eerie to Honoré than nostalgic. All about the lantern Ebach had hung on its hook by the privy door, a cloud of translucent tiny insects circled, and Honoré, as he pushed the door closed, looked upwards. He watched, for a moment transfixed, as a bat seemed to fall from the sky, disappear into darkness, and fall once more.
He had thought of three questions for Ebrach. The first was simple.
“You have not, Mr. Ebrach, done your work already, and now you prepare to leave?” He hinted, also, at his third question, but in his mind, he saw the radiance of Verbena Everard’s eyes.
“Jerome,” Ebrach began; and, catching himself, said, “pardon me…”
Honoré cut him short. “Please do, monsieur, call me Jerome. That is the name on my American papers. You will understand.” He looked into Ebrach’s face, and saw Ebrach smile down at him. “I may also, for all I know, embarrass these relatives, and I do not wish to. You understand that as well.”
“Jerome.” Ebrach continued smiling. “I have sat down to supper with the Everards, and that is all. But Richard and Lawrence have shared with me certain of their concerns. Can you guess what troubles them?” This, of Ebrach’s, anticipated Honoré’s second question…was it safe for him to remain in this house?
“There is one who dislikes me, because I am a Gremot, and he, as I suppose, dislikes my relatives; or, because I am here at all, and I cannot help that―I did not expect to be.” Honoré looked at Ebrach again.
“Richard, the elder brother…” These words had come slowly, and here Ebrach tailed into silence. He seemed to muse on some private knowledge. He had reminded himself of something. He reached up and unhooked the lantern, lifting it above his head. His right hand thus engaged, he stepped behind Honoré, and with his left, touched him on the shoulder, resting his fingers against a knob of bone.
“Look there. Do you see how they have added a sort of sleeping porch, that can be got to only from the outside?” He raised the lantern higher, and swung it, causing a circle of light to swell over three rough steps and a door, then the whole of a flat-roofed addition that jutted from the cabin’s back wall. Honoré nodded to Ebrach; murmured then, for the lantern’s light was dim, and Ebrach might not have known, “Yes, I see.” It had been a puzzle to him…an anxiety, in point of fact…four in the house, with, tonight, two visitors―but only the one small bedroom.
“Verbena and Mr. Everard―you noticed that he had returned?―sleep here. But she has asked me to accept the use of this room for the night, and I must do so, for the offer was meant sincerely. Now, let me ask you, Jerome, do you feel much recovered? Are you faint?”
“I intend―” Honoré interrupted himself, and hesitated. He knew he’d lost this contest with Ebrach; he might, in any case, have been waging it alone. Richard, the elder brother, the one who’d given Ebrach pause, also was the one who had stared at Honoré with some emotion deeper than anger. He felt certain of it. He could not do without Ebrach as an ally.
“No, Mr. Ebrach.” But, what had been the question? “Yes…”
He made a fresh start. “I am recovered, I am quite well. You know it, that this morning, I was entirely well. I would not faint―” Again, he made a digression, and to no purpose. He swallowed. “I intend to help you, as you say, to be your assistant. I have not eaten for many hours, monsieur.”
This, to Honoré’s dismay, made Ebrach laugh.
“I have taken that into consideration as well, and Verbena also knows. But, Jerome, you will need to share my room tonight. You will have done a great favor to Richard and Lawrence by vacating theirs.”
“And tomorrow?” He supposed he had overheard his third answer. Perhaps the message Ziegler had carried to W. A. Gremot had been coldly received. Perhaps there was no answer.
“Tomorrow we have an invitation to luncheon. I ventured to accept only on my own behalf. I shall be delighted to send word in the morning to Mrs. Gremot that you will accompany me.”
“The fire ain’t hot no more.”
She was contrite. Verbena, testing the coffee pot, cradled her two palms around its sides…and Honoré, momentarily anxious for her, was himself contrite. He trespassed grossly on her hospitality.
“If you have coffee, madame, I will drink it.”
He had washed his face and hands at the pump. He had scratched the head of the yellow cat, and the yellow cat had followed him indoors. This unsettled house made Honoré ill at ease. He hunched over the china plate onto which Verbena had cut up half a cantaloupe, ladled a lukewarm chicken stew, crowded a hunk of cornbread (not cake…and a thing Honoré had never before tasted); also a slice of custard pie, somewhat adulterated by the pool of onions in white gravy with which the cornbread was soaked. Honoré ate in a rapid, self-conscious way, forking in great bites, leaving behind drips and crumbs on the cloth. He downed all of the cold coffee that remained in the pot.
He felt he’d crossed a border of some sort between the city of Cookesville and his relative’s land; that the rule of democratic law might not obtain here. He was eager, thus—on the principle that a thing must start before it may end—to see the launch of Ebrach’s science; to take his place and watch events from a sheltering envelope of darkness.
Yet events, at present, waited for Honoré.
Ebrach had opened his trunk. Seated at the table across from his assistant, he leafed through the book he’d carried back with him―a sort of journal, its pages filled with the writing of different hands. He had also brought out, like Bess of the almshouse, a small escritoire. This, he placed near Honoré’s right elbow. Lifting the lid, as though inviting approval, he waited, and Honoré, his mouth overflowing with melon juice, looked up and met Ebrach’s eyes. He dabbed an Everard brother’s sleeve against his lips. He did not understand the unspoken question. But Ebrach now turned his attention to Verbena:
“Colonel Garfield, did you say?”
“I don’t say nothin. He says.” She looked, with sorrowful eyes, to the armchair and her sleeping husband. A crash from the brothers’ room was followed by a curse that contracted her shoulders, and Verbena took Ebrach’s lead uncertainly. As though deaf to the rumpus, he had gone about his preparations, while Richard and Lawrence advertised what they were about―the search of their own bureau drawers.
“My husband’s paper, the one they don’t put out no more, said Garfield gone into politics…an them Republicans wantin to bleed the south dry. I think it’s cause he get his name in the paper, anyways. An sometime they said Middle Creek. Well, that’s the place Micah was fightin. Richard didn’t use to hold no one to blame, cept the war by itself. I don’t know nothin about it.” These last words Verbena whispered, chin hovering close over the table, back turned to the open bedroom door. Then, finding near the hand that supported her, Honoré’s empty plate, she whispered, “Darlin, what else you want?”
“Madame, I thank you―” he began. It was foolishness. Each word of Richard and Lawrence’s speculative conversation was distinctly audible; these ugly names, aimed at his ears and Ebrach’s, were distressing to their mother.
“Madame…” he repeated, hoping to deflect her attention. She’d cried out, as though taken by alarm. Then half seated, Verbena rose again, casting a shame-faced glance at Ebrach, who gave no sign of noting her embarrassment, nor of having heard himself described by Lawrence. He turned a page, and did not lift his eyes from the journal.
“Madame, you have been good and kind to me, and I will help you. Tell me what I may do.”
“I cain’t do none a the washin up tonight, but I got to move these supper things over to the sideboard.”
Honoré faced the wall, and could see, if he looked to his right, a low two-drawered table, that in part blocked a narrow cabinet. Verbena, her gait no hindrance, could negotiate this, sidle through a truncated space, pass the sideboard, slip an arm inside the cabinet…as nimbly as she negotiated the perimeter of the dining table, laying aside dishes one by one, efficient and almost noiseless. Under a sort of compulsion, she kept looking at the clock that hung on the wall. Honoré, following her gaze, looked too. She had made him aware of its ticking, but the light was not strong enough for Honoré to see the hour fixed upon its face.
“You related to them up there?”
He turned, surrendering a salt cellar. Verbena cleared the dishes with such a practiced hand, her supervention so quick—“No, darlin, let me”—that he had scarcely helped her at all. This Everard son was heavyset and round faced, no taller than Honoré; and stubbornly he fought a tendency to break the righteous steadiness of his gaze. He repeated, gesturing at the darkness outside the window: “Them, up there.”
“I am, Mr. Everard.” Honoré echoed the tense half-smile, expecting to hear again from Lawrence Richard’s complaint―that if he were a Gremot, he had no business imposing his infirmity on the Everards.
“Then when you get up there to visit,” Lawrence said, “you gon have yourself a story to tell.”
Honoré had no answer. He knew what Lawrence hoped to imply…but did not know himself welcome among the Gremots; far less, then, was he likely to gossip with them.
“Mr. Jerome, the table has been cleared.” Ebrach closed his book. “My trunk is not locked. You will please fetch the oil lamps, and place one at either end. Lawrence!”
Ebrach remained where he sat, but amplified his voice; and Lawrence, whose name lent itself to a ringing effect, bunched his upper body in a combative stance. “Will your brother Richard come out to speak?”
This summons could not have escaped Richard’s hearing. He had withdrawn into an open room, and was separated from Ebach by a distance not much greater than his own height. But Lawrence, without taking his eyes from Honoré, backed a step to the bedroom door. He rapped his knuckles against its frame.
“What’s he want?” Richard said.
Verbena now tucked her wiping rag into her apron band, and slipped along the cupboard, her skirts brushing Honoré as he knelt by Ebrach’s trunk. She went to her husband’s chair, taking only his fingertips in hers.
“Richard! I put away some supper for you.”
The younger Richard, conceding as far as the bedroom threshold, stood and watched his parents…stared for a minute at his mother unable to wake his father. He then directed a nod, or a sideways shake of the head, at Lawrence, who moved closer to his brother’s side. Such tacit exchanges Honoré had seen before. Skating almost, along the edge of the rug, cautious that he not stub his foot against an outcropping of furniture―thus to offer the excuse of having made a mess or a noise―Honoré came to the table, arms nearly overloaded. He felt that if Ebrach had not been there, and did not (as by force of personality he could) exert the restraint of authority, the brothers would have crowded him, thrust a boot in front of him, bumped his arm—seized, then, on this provocation of having been touched by Honoré, to beat and kick him. He removed himself from their reach as far as possible, sliding round the table, laying down his burden of lamps and oil can, after which he sat next to Ebrach.
Ebrach said, “Well done. I would have asked you to bring the can in any case. Do you know how to fill such a lamp?”
Continued from “fill such a lamp”
The oil’s fragrance, though capped, could not be contained. Each step had made the can slosh and waft a scent that was like cedar wood combined with a musky attar of rose. The globes of the lamps were multifaceted cut crystal. The flames when lit would flicker, and their waxing glow refract a thousand times, magnified in luminosity against the night’s blackness. Honoré could foresee this hypnotic effect; he did not want the responsibility of helping to stage it.
“You, Mr. Ebrach, will do best to fill them. Is there another thing that you need from me?”
“There is, in fact, a particular service. Mr. Jerome…”
“Why do you call him that?” Lawrence asked, and Ebrach ignored the question.
“Mr. Jerome, it is my practice to ask that my subject make of him or herself a vessel; that the mind be cleared, every thought and sound subsumed, to a concentrated vision of the face, the very cadence of the longed-for voice. The subject thus fully attuned, the loved one must feel emboldened to answer our call, for the way is alight with mental energy. I say that the message will flow, Jerome…by this channel, it will flow, in a passage as natural and unimpeded as the mountain stream which follows the spring thaw.”
Ebrach, to go with this thought, had unleashed something—as his little speech climbed its mountain—of his banked incantatory heat. He paused. And Honoré, having assumed the role of magician’s assistant, felt called upon to offer an affirmation equally evocative.
“The subject,” he said, looking only at Ebrach, as though they alone conversed, “is taken by the hand. She writes, but this is the spirit expressing so much that it has endured in its loneliness…”
Ebrach’s eyes widened slightly, but he spoke without the least irony.
“Yes, indeed, Jerome; however…our subject, our dear Verbena, does not write. Thus, we shall alter our plans somewhat.”
Here, though, was irony―and Honoré felt it. He allowed himself only the smallest of smiles. “Then I am to be clerk of the spirit. I will write down these words that are spoken.”
“I hope you will make yourself comfortable as you see fit, sir.”
Ebrach, whose smile was also secretive, pushed the writing desk an inch or two towards the table’s center, and squared it before what he must intend as Honoré’s place; one not under the protection of his wing, as it were, but leaving Honoré with his back to the brothers, vulnerable. Ebrach turned to Lawrence and Richard.
“It was a Mrs. Keene who wrote to me,” he told them, “on behalf of your mother. This is so, Verbena?”
Verbena abandoned her husband to his rest, and returned to the table with hands worrying at her apron band. “Ever’thin I asked, she done wrote for me. Miz Keene’s a good soul, Mr. Ebrach.”
He beamed upon her; beamed at Richard and Lawrence, inviting Verbena’s sons to appreciate the benevolence which their mother’s story was bound to awaken in a feeling heart. “And I report to you that Mrs. Keene transcribed faithfully all you had confided, adding, for my benefit, only this: that she felt you, of all women, deserving of this visitation…this exaltation, one might say; that, had it been within her power to remunerate me herself for my services, in love and charity, she would have done so.”
Verbena, using her washrag, wiped at tears.
“Richard. Lawrence.” Ebrach rose from his seat. Honoré saw the brothers’ faces suffused with a mute frustration. Ebrach, as he spoke with their mother, had held them suspended over Mrs. Keene; only occasionally had he glanced up at them. He had been busy with the filling and trimming of his first lamp. He now carried his can of oil to the other end of the table.
“Jerome, did you find the matches?”
“That, Mr. Ebrach, I had not thought of.”
Hastening to the sideboard, Verbena said, “Them is in the drawer, right here.” She had pulled out a tin of matches, and offered them to Ebrach, before Honoré could do more than circle into the open from his safe corner. He had no reason now not to take his seat.
“Madam, you are kindness itself.” Ebrach had in the meantime got the other lamp apart, and the hand with which he poured was so controlled he did not require a funnel. Continuing, as though his remarks to the Everard sons had been unbroken, he said:
“There is an armchair in your room, which I think I would prefer your mother to use during our communication. Either of you may bring it here and place it, if you will, at the head of the table. There, under the window.”
Richard retreated into the bedroom.
Grunting, he emerged, shifting the chair one way and another, ratcheting it at last past the door frame, to find himself stalled by his brother’s stolid figure. He let the chair thud to the rug.
“Lawrence, if you ain’t no use, stand out of the way!”
“That bench,” Lawrence said, “have to be moved, if we gon get this up to the window.” He laid a hand on the bench’s armrest, and with a rapid push-pull jolted Honoré, sending the pencil he’d been honing to a point clattering along with the small knife, back to the escritoire’s interior. He quit bothering with the writing things. They would dislike him if he apologized for being in their way; they would dislike him if he offered to help them. He could think of nothing he might say that would not add evidence to the brothers’ indictment against him; and so, supposing they would also find him arrogant, he said no word at all, but withdrew to stand beside their mother, while they wrestled the furniture.
“I,” Ebrach began, and seeing that the brothers prolonged, with a maximum of noise, their shifting of the bench and placing of the chair, he spoke instead to his assistant: “Jerome, have you been trained in shorthand?”
“No. I apologize, monsieur. But I will make short notes as I am able.”
“I merely ask. If any apology is owed, then I must apologize to you, sir. Yet it is not I who make these demands…will you be seated? You must make yourself ready, for we do not know when Micah Everard will visit this place.”
At this mention of her son’s name, Honoré heard Verbena catch her breath.
“Verbena.” Ebrach ushered her round the table; helped her into the chair now at its head. By leaning across and extending an arm, he could do so from where he stood. Having thus placed his principles, Ebrach again addressed the brothers.
“Richard and Lawrence, I am a stranger to your household. I can know only those things which I observe. Yet I know of no house”―here he looked with purpose to the chair where the elder Richard slept―“where much is not concealed from the eyes of strangers. That is as it should be. I may be wrong to suppose that you greatly dishonor your mother; that you disrespect her devotion to your father and to your brother’s memory; that you disregard her labors to put food on your table and keep your house for you. These things may not be, but may only appear to me in my ignorance so.
“But I will say to you that your mother, of the many hundreds I have met, on this side, and on the other side―for they on the other side, sirs, have their desires and their grievances, as do the living―seems to me a woman whom I would call good. I know of your mother’s suffering, but I have not heard her complain. I have witnessed her generosity, yet I have not heard her thanked. Save,” Ebrach raised a hand, “by my companion, Mr. Jerome, whom you unaccountably despise, as a stranger might guess you despise your own mother.”
“Why don’t you leave?” Lawrence, driven back by the floodtide of Ebrach’s rhetoric, clutched at this last insult. But he’d missed Ebrach’s point. Dropping her sodden rag to the table, Verbena lifted her face, and Ebrach, in the manner of one delivering a coup de grace, removed from his coatsleeve a fresh handkerchief of his own. Wordlessly, he offered it to her.
“Oh, Mr. Ebrach, no.”
Ebrach squeezed her hand, pressing the handkerchief into it, and taking this, she dabbed at her eyes, while with her other hand, she held onto Ebrach’s, imploring him: “You won’t go. You brung him here with you. I take it as a sign. Oh, Mr. Ebrach.”
“I will now light the lamps,” Ebrach said. “Jerome, I must again ask you to prepare yourself. Richard, will you extinguish the lanterns?”
One lantern, the one Ebrach had used earlier, hung by the side door, the other sat atop the cupboard, throwing its light from a high place; still, the room fell mostly under shadow. Richard stooped, scooted out the cupboard’s bottom drawer; boosting himself by this foothold, he snagged the lantern, reckless as he swung it low, and said: “Mr. Ebrach, you got all the help you need now?”
“The emotional tenor of the locus is of great importance,” Ebrach answered, and Richard, baffled, made a half-articulate noise, somewhat of pain.
“Think if you will…”
Ebrach struck a match, lighting his first lamp and affixing the globe, as Richard snuffed the lantern’s wick. The second lamp flared next, and the ’stead’s parlor, as Honoré had envisioned, began to dance with a constellation of spectral light.
“…of what an egg is, when one cracks the shell. Consider the spirit, severed from the body, fluid, every pressure threatening the fragile membrane with disintegration. Bear in mind, Richard; and you, Lawrence, that our first visitor may arrive here at any time or from any point of the compass, for the realm whence his journey originates is one of eternal night, and he cannot determine where the path that draws him leads. It is the great yearning of your mother’s heart, the purity of her love, and the bond that ties her to your brother Micah, that will find, capture, and hold his searching spirit. In the temple, discord has no place. If your heart holds no belief, you would do well to leave this room. We have only this one chance.”
Verbena, sunk in the armchair, wrung at the handkerchief, and pressed it to her mouth.
“Well,” Richard peered at Ebrach, straining his eyes through the flicker of lamplight. “I don’t want anyone sayin it was my fault, if this fool business don’t turn up right.”
“You may believe that I will not say such a thing. We are beginning, Richard. You must choose.”
Lawrence had chosen already. Through the open door they heard a loose plank from the front porch bump and come to rest. Richard stared after his brother―for a long hesitant moment, he stared―and the door was a black rectangle that took on none of the lamps’ effects. But Richard’s choice was to settle himself on the floor, next to his father’s chair.
“Monsieur.” Honoré made his voice a whisper. “I think I cannot see.”
“Jerome, you will put on paper the words you hear. You do not understand your task. Were Verbena able to hold the pencil, she would transcribe as the spirit dictated. Automatic writing is not composition. You are acting as medium; you must attune yourself, as I have said. You must sense the chord to which Verbena tunes herself. You must try. This is a thing, I confess, that I have not attempted. But I feel that tonight they―the ancients―are very close to us. We will discover what is their desire.”
Ebrach’s confidence sounded glossed by a sort of elation, as though he believed in the experiment. And what do I write? Honoré wondered. Did Ebrach mean him to assist by inventing words?
Ebrach took Verbena’s hand, and for a time, bowed his head.
“Ancients.” The voice he used was hushed, though wonderfully resonant. “There are no enemies among us. The lamps are lit, to guide you to this place. There is here a heart open to receive such comforts as the long departed…” He ceased this preamble.
The silence became prolonged.
Honoré found himself doubly startled when Ebrach said: “Jerome, will you speak? She asks for you. Will you speak to her in your own language?”
Forced to this, he felt a spark of the outrage Ebrach had induced at the breakfast table. The thought of all he’d been wrung through in a single day made him want to crawl into bed. He did not know Ebrach’s game. What do I say, then? Honoré asked himself. And in these words heard the echo of a distant memory.
Qu’est-ce vous dites, bien aimé?
Pourquoi parlez-vous bavardage?
Vous devez être fou pour venir ici.
Revenez à votre propre pays
It was August, and the day’s heat lingered, even at this late hour. A ticking in the background could be heard, a barrage of whirrs and taps, moths that flew at and battered themselves against the lamps’ glass.
Honoré saw a windmill. The vision belonged also to the summer. It had never been right. But, by the order of heaven, why should it not be that all seasons of memory are one? The windmill creaked, until it too began to whirr, soughing a language of music, answered in return by hidden birds, piping their calls in the field, nest to nest. All these things manifest, as the heavens and the earth rejoiced, the angel of the Lord appearing before shepherds keeping watch over their flock at night. The windmill, majestic, inscrutable and winged, rose above the Mehaigne where cattle, if not sheep, had been grazed.
This snatch of poetry he’d half-chanted had been a song of his grandmother’s. She had told the story of the Noel, her arms cradled around Honoré and his sister Claudette. He remembered her lap. Riding so many hours ago, in Ziegler’s wagon, he had recalled her voice; at the moment, he could not. It was Claudette’s face he saw.
He had asked his sister why…why leave, if it makes you unhappy?
Honoré, you can do as you like, but I am shut up in these rooms all day. I will die here. She had been not quite sixteen…and he had not seen her from that time. He’d grown bored with answering her letters; he had not cared for her stories. She wrote about her husband’s friends, as though of herself there were nothing to tell. And even this unrewarding news was borne by a greater tedium of semi-literacy…what word had she meant to use? What had she meant to say at all?
But for many years now, she had not written.
He saw her face, much like his own, and although at times since, he had been close to death; although in delirium he had seen extraordinary things, Claudette’s face had remained until now shrouded, her tear-darkened, mournful eyes, forgotten.
She was dead. Of course she was, and had been all this time, while he’d pushed aside the idea of finding her again. He put away the pencil held in readiness should Verbena speak, and buried his face in his arms. He heard Ebrach’s voice recite some pagan verse, to which Honoré could not listen, and could not stop himself hearing.
They have gone before
Alone sightless above the chasm
A fainting soul cowers here
And takes never a step more
Wakes at a dying breath unheard by Heaven
Still muted cries bestir the air
With an endless echo of despair
“Ma petite soeur,” Honoré, raising his face, spoke to Claudette, and with the tail of his borrowed shirt wiped tears from his cheeks. “Tu me rends triste.”
Verbena, he knew, had not ceased to weep during this spell-casting of Ebrach’s. He thought his services were not needed. She would exhaust herself, and had not as yet said a word.
“Micah, I have twice heard a voice. Will you come closer? You have suffered terribly. Over empty earth you have kept your vigil, and feared that your loved ones had all gone. She cries, this one who guides you―you hear, through the divine continuum, an echo lucid as starlight; she cries, and you, with sense beyond sight, respond. Will you speak again?”
This was a kind of trance-speech, and Honoré felt himself mesmerized; not deluded by Ebrach, whom he supposed to have buffed his art to a high polish…but stunned, in a way, at his own response. Ebrach, having produced this tide of emotion, seemed impervious to it. His right hand cupped Verbena’s left. Her face was awash in tears and mucous, her head slumped against the cushioned chair Ebrach had foreseen her need of, her strength spent as Honoré had predicted.
In pity and sympathy his own tears welled again. He wished for her to find relief in some fraudulent miracle, the engendering of which ought to be within Ebrach’s power. Ebrach’s head remained bowed, his eyes closed; he recited onwards, another supplication to the spirit of Micah Everard, in the same vein…but reached, as he did, across the table, and took the hand that Honoré stretched across to him. Now the three were linked.
“There shalt thou by the river, she who bears no water, seek the whirlwind and reap in bitterness…how can I myself alone bear your cumbrance? You ask, have they all gone to ashes? Charred iron barricades, a thousand carried away in liberality…mad rioters with torches swing from sign-posts…hunted dead under a white flag. An old man draws the blood of the poor, draws every raven after his kind. And the swine deceives the devil. You shall have no part nor inheritance. Amputated nerves and clammy feet, your head is broken and your bones are soft. A lunatic massacred by imps…”
Honoré stared. She had not lifted her head. She was not possessed; she had not spoken in a voice not her own. Yet, the language, so far as he knew, was not within Verbena’s capacity. He felt chilled in the face of this transformation, his skepticism falling in contest against superstition. Ebrach had opened his eyes. Making no movement that might disrupt the flow of her speech, he straightened, and regarded Verbena with priestly calm.