A Figure from the Common Lot
Book One: 1870-1871
Chapter One: Cette Illusion de la Mortalité
Book Two: 1876
Chapter Two: Possente Spirto
The Eye of a Magpie
Leaf, sharp, continuing, under-hand
Wheeling gears, dying in prison
Is a low-rate postcard
Issued by the government
One follows, the other is drawn behind
The House of Gremot
He was disturbed by the breakfast.
He had two letters to compose, and had finished the first—a short note, really. After last evening, Honoré had seen nothing more of Verbena’s husband; they had not met, in a true sense, and Everard might not know who it was that thanked him. Everard had roused from his stupor, eyes moistly throwing back a fraction of lamp light, half-comprehension in the jerking of his head. He’d looked Honoré over as Ebrach walked him to the porch.
Ebrach, wishing, as Honoré thought, to study Everard, had slowed. Given his lead, he might have gone as far as speaking. Honoré had preferred he did not. Let there be one new acquaintance before whom Ebrach’s solicitude did not render him an imbecile. Drained by grief, and fearing that he must not wait to lie down, he had pulled away. And afterwards had reason to be afraid.
Under the name of Jerome, and on the authority of Ebrach, he had now entered the house of his relative. He addressed the envelope to both Everards, but the note only to Verbena. Honoré wanted her to be pleased. Had he, this morning, remembered the name of her son, he would have pleased her better, in writing the lie:
Mr. Ebrach has awakened for you this loved one’s spirit. I witnessed this myself.
Yet, he felt he would insult her to offer more than this letter of gratitude, and the wish—which he knew to be nonsense—that the Everards would visit the Jeromes in return, when he had settled his own household.
He’d responded to Ebrach’s nudge, waking, sluggish, in a hot and unfamiliar room, disgusted that he smelled like a man who for days had not bathed; struggling, as always, to right himself.
Continued from “to right himself”
“But we must return now to Cookesville, to the hotel…I have nothing here. I do not even know―” Honoré felt peevish, and spoke peevishly to Ebrach. He, at this hour, was full of bonhomie and cordiality. And when he had drawn the curtain open, casting daylight across the bed, and when Honoré had writhed clear of the blanket (with which he resented having been covered) Ebrach caught him by the wrists and examined the bruises, purple to the elbow, where Honoré’s bones had struck the wooden steps.
“Now, how do you account for that?”
“Why…it is not for me to say, Mr. Ebrach. Since you have made your arrangements.”
Ebrach had been awake long enough to shave and clothe himself. Honoré accepted his own shirt, aired to a mild fug, badly wrinkled withal; its stains dabbed at. Next, Ebrach handed him his trousers. He could not recall undressing, and knew he had folded nothing away. Ebrach produced in turn braces, socks, and shoes. Honoré spent tedious minutes under his guardian’s benign smile, buttoning, fastening, buckling. Following Ebrach down the steps where he’d been consigned to the mercy of Richard the younger, Honoré was reminded, as his shirt dampened and his hair gathered dew; as one midge flew into his nostril and another his eye, that this room in which he’d spent the night was detached, after its fashion, from the main house.
Only Verbena waited. Ebrach had again shared his meal with the others while Honoré slept. And because he suspected Verbena of digging into her larder for provisions she ought to have kept aside for her family, Honoré had eaten as much as he was able of sausage, eggs, fried potatoes, melon and sourmilk biscuits.
“You goin’ to them on the hill today?”
A glow (he might…though he was not certain of such things…have called it maternal) warmed her eyes. Honoré, in a kind of agony at this mention of their engagement, threw down his fork at last, and turned to Ebrach, attempting for a second time what he had tried already to convey.
“But, sir, how…? Were we not an hour from Cookesville? No! I think longer than that! And Mr. Ziegler is not here!”
Ebrach sat by the window at the farthest reach of the bench, using his hat to fan himself. “Jerome, I believe you have an idea that you wish to return to Cookesville. But it won’t do. We will never have time to make such a journey, before our luncheon appointment with the Gremots.”
And in Ebrach’s manner there had not been sufficient innocence to disguise the fact…inside himself, he laughed. This was merely insulting. But Ebrach went on. “The wagon I see coming up the way brings our luggage from the Columbia. I may be mistaken. However, I believe I recognize Mr. Ziegler. Madam.” He laid his hat on the table and stood. Verbena, as with last night’s supper, and in an eddy of hovering, had both urged more food than Honoré could consume, and swept dishes away as he left them half-touched.
“I would consider it a very great kindness if you will allow me to borrow the bolster and pillow from the bedchamber where Mr. Jerome and I stayed the night. That is for Jerome’s sake, so that he may travel at ease in the back of the wagon.”
Here again, Ebrach painted a needless picture of wretchedness. Honoré looked up and forced a smile. Indignation having drawn his brows together, his lips seemed to stretch only tentatively. He had meant to produce a face of wry insouciance, of the sort that suggests, “Eh, bien, what one endures.” He saw her eyes fill.
“You’uns take all you need, Mr. Ebrach.”
Yet the Gremot manor could be seen―not from here, where Honoré sat; nevertheless, he had only to step onto the porch. He might even walk such a distance. He became aware that he fidgeted, beset by an impulse to stand, to go out of doors and prove to himself he was right.
“What, sir?” He spread his hands. With the eye of a headmaster, Ebrach was staring him down.
“Mr. Jerome, if I have your attention. I mean only to apologize to you. I could not have obtained your bag without paying your bill. I presumed, without knowing, that you would prefer to bathe, and to change your clothes before lunch. Now, sir,” he raised a palm, “matters of exchange are vulgar to me. In good time, you will settle your debt. We will not even call it so, but think of it, rather, as an opportunity. You assisted me last evening, and you may assist me again.”
They heard the sway of the wagon, the synchronous plod of Ziegler’s team, the familiar voice of Ziegler himself, calling, “Ho…ah!”
Honoré was left unconvinced. The opportunity to which Ebrach referred seemed to be his own. If the paying of a bill was to recompense Honoré for his service, would not the next task he did for Ebrach be a favor? Of course, he’d done Ebrach the best of favors, but Ebrach would not count it as such.
“You must finish your breakfast, Jerome. My dear Verbena, I will leave you for a time, while I consult with Ziegler.”
Honoré centered a fresh sheet of his relative’s writing paper. This was embossed at the lower right with a “G”. The paper was thick, textured like suede, its color vanilla. An odor of vanilla seemed to free itself under the pressure of the nib, as Honoré wrote the date…yet this was elusive—the scent might come from the drawer.
He asked himself what he must say that would be reassuring to his wife. His relative’s lack of ostentation would not communicate to her the import of his achievement. He wondered if the house had a name. He toyed with the thought of making one up.
1° Septembre 1876
Clotilde believed he did not love her, and wished to hear him say he did. Extravagance, then, for her sake.
Mon amante la plus chère, épouse de mon cœur
The bowl’s unpleasant contents, and the coffee—far better coffee than Verbena’s, but too much of it—also scented the room. One Gremot servant, who had helped him in the bath, had been there to open the door when, wearing his dressing gown, Honoré returned.
“Mr. Jerome, would you rather have your breakfast at the table, or should I set down the tray on the window seat?”
Honoré was startled by this choice. On first being shown to his quarters, he had wanted only to feel clean again. He had not considered the view. To breakfast while gazing over the valley was luxury, no doubt. The window-seat circled a broad, half-moon expanse, with its velvet cushions propped one, two, three, at the right of each section, the paneled wainscoting under the tower windows more satiny in its glow than the cabriole-legged table, outfitted with matching chairs, ensconced in an alcove of the main chamber. The wardrobe door stood open, to prove—had he worried—that his coat, once in Ebrach’s custody, had been restored. His spare waistcoat and trousers had been pressed; these hung over a clotheshorse. The sullied things he’d arrived wearing were gone; his bag was gone. His polished shoes sat on the floor.
“No need, sir, for you to keep on your feet. Mrs. Gremot ain’t expecting you down before lunch time. I’ll just lay your breakfast on the table. Now, if you’re wanting anything, see here…” Robert―he had told Honoré this was his name―kept the pace of his speech slow. He raised his voice at the word “now”. He caught Honoré’s eye with a meaning look, and pointed to a brass object fixed to the wall near the mantelpiece.
“…that’s the speaking tube.”
His wonderment, his blinking silence, had sealed Honoré’s fate. He had entered the house with an invalid’s reputation. Robert must suppose him to have a poor grasp of English, or a mind dulled by disease. The meal had been prepared, also, for a sickly guest; the bowl contained Ebrach’s prescription for Mr. Jerome: milk curd, stirred with a raw egg. Honoré could stomach no more of this protein-fare for the consumptive. But it troubled him to send food away untouched; more so when the tray had been sent with kind intentions. Again, he faced the unfinished letter.
Where do you suppose I am today, writing to you? I will not speak of those who would not help, and who would not believe. This relative has opened his door to me
He stopped, wanting to say only that which was correct, regarding W. A. Gremot. In truth, Ebrach had opened this door. Honoré could see no harm in mentioning his relative in a generous light—could M. Gremot begrudge this? The alacrity, however, with which servants appeared in the house of Gremot, unsettled him.
And―he set down another of his lies―all your concerns that I would not be safe, travelling alone
He laid aside the pen.
A dangerous moment intervened, during which a surge of varied emotion—sorrow, ire, affronted dignity—compromised his breathing. Honoré pressed his hands flat on the surface of the desk, and forced an empty, quiet mind. He had had these attacks before, and even the reason for them, as he knew, was yet another of the injustices he’d borne. The memory of his hospital stay, of the surgery he would not have allowed (had they asked) crowded in on the heels of the rest, and Honoré, rather than steer his thoughts clear of these inflammatory obstacles, felt his heart beat like the wings of a moth.
“No,” he told himself. “I am not lying. In the natural way of things, I would have gone to my hotel and rested there for a day. There would be no Ebrach to change my plans.” He made a stronger effort, drawing one shallow breath, and another, timed to the tick of the mantel clock. That (the thought slithered into Honoré’s meditation) would tonight make a nuisance of itself; tocking, when one came down to it, more than ticking―possibly chiming, just as he’d begun to doze.
His conclusion about Ebrach was not entirely fair.
Honoré expected nothing of his relative…nothing other than courteous regard. W. A. Gremot was a landholder, a public man. The newest Progressiste could be launched on borrowed money; and Honoré did not have to embarrass his relative, or trade on his relative’s name.
They would say it privately. “He calls himself Jerome, but he is a Gremot.”
He’d meant to call at the Cookesville office, only to put himself at M. Gremot’s disposal; thus, in duty, to follow with a letter, thanking his relative for his time—and asking some small advice, so that a reply must be given. Yet so cautious and so respectful in its phrasing would his letter be, that his relative must take no umbrage. Honoré need not even use this proof, unless doubts of their connection were openly expressed. Of course, gossip of the wrong sort might raise against him an impenetrable barrier. Why could he not trust Ebrach, place himself in Ebrach’s hands, and be at peace?
He wondered whether he could avoid mentioning Ebrach to Clotilde. He thought he would; then felt an immediate doubt. Ebrach seemed quite capable of showing up at the Jeromes’ door. Perhaps he must tell Clotilde…something.
“I will look out the window,” Honoré decided.
The view (he recalled now the depths of house into which he, steadied on Ebrach’s arm, had pursued their guide to reach this bedchamber) was not of the river. He saw instead the roof of a carriage house, a young stand of pine, a slope descending to a green pond, a curved copper roof above a corner of white colonettes…and part of the walkway which led to this outbuilding. Beyond these garden features were hayfields, or so they appeared, flaxen grasses that bent under a driving wind. Farthest away, at the horizon, Honoré saw low hills enveloped in a blue haze.
He asked himself again the familiar question: what was the nature of Ebrach’s business? Had Ebrach been moved to charity by the case of Verbena Everard? No. The correspondence with the other one…the friend…had persuaded Ebrach that Verbena was simple and credulous. As of today, and ever afterwards, she would tell this story of Ebrach’s resurrecting of her son; and tell it with complete faith. Why, though, did Ebrach travel about as he did? The year had only so many days. Filling theater seats would, to Honoré’s mind, have been the way to make money at this work. But then, Ebrach was not a spiritualist―it was not merely that he said so himself, but that he did not call random spirits…he seemed, by his own representations, to treat the individual’s grief.
At the striking of the half-hour, Honoré returned to Clotilde. It was not yet noon, but a smell of roast meat had begun to rise from somewhere below, traveling the flues, or the stairwells, or the shafts of the dumbwaiters. He would impress his hosts to unhappy effect, if he could not show a good appetite at table.
“The Gremots are very early to lunch.” Honoré said this to himself, and eyed the bowl. Cod-liver oil, a thing to his frustration often recommended for the strengthening of frail constitutions, might account for the off-putting odor.
Mrs. Gremot had come into the hall; she had greeted Ebrach as a friend. She had murmured also to Ebrach, as though he’d been a physician in charge of an insensible patient, unheard words, whose tenor had sounded to Honoré’s ears commiserating—
Of Ebrach, rather than himself.
The hall had been as spacious, and as thickly furnished, as a salon; with room enough, despite chairs, tables, and cabinets, to accommodate the gowns of Mrs. Gremot, her two daughters, and a female servant. His hostess had been skirted by a pair of spaniel dogs.
Perhaps these pets roamed at large through the house, and Honoré might entice one to lick the dish clean. He crossed to the door, opened it, and peered out. The corridor that served these rooms was lit at either end by a mullioned window capped with colored glass; this not dramatically intricate in design—geometric scrolls, merely, in yellow and red. The sun dealt these hues in static squares like playing cards over the marble-topped console on the landing below. Honoré stepped away from his room, keeping a superstitious link to propriety, letting his hand rest on the door handle. He had heard, he fancied, the yip of a dog in some lower chamber, where also he could hear muted voices, carrying up the open staircase. But he could not venture about in his dressing gown; he must prepare to be called for lunch.
He was pinning his cravat, annoyed that he had not tied this well; and while he fretted over it, someone rapped at the door. Honoré called out, “You may enter!”―and saw in the mirror that his visitor was not Robert, who might have been of use, but Ebrach. Ebrach continued full of cheer; his smile tweaked the corners of his mouth, as though a thing had entertained him, and he suppressed the impulse to grin.
“Now, Jerome,” Ebrach said, “I am hoping to have a talk with you. You have been given a pleasant room.” He strolled past the foot of the bed, while Honoré at the same time edged by Ebrach, making for the wardrobe, before which he stooped to gather his shoes. “I am willing to sit wherever you suggest.”
By this, Honoré supposed, he was meant to find himself unmannerly.
“Please, Mr. Ebrach, I do not suggest. Sit as you like.” He pointed across the bed, shoes in hand, indicating the settee. With a low table and an armchair, this made a conversational grouping―in theory at least—though the settee’s angle to the table was rigid, and the armchair’s back was to the wall. But Ebrach took hold of, and swung the armchair round, to face the settee. It was now illuminated by a flickering of light and shadow, as the breeze tossed branch ends outside the window. Ebrach dropped to the settee’s right, where a wall and a quarter-wall met. He leant forward, and patted the armchair’s seat. “Mr. Jerome.”
It would not be wise, Honoré counselled himself, to be weak-minded with Ebrach―who seemed once more to be making arrangements; nor would it be clever to express reluctance over a trifle. He must sit, in any case, to finish dressing. He hurried with his shoes and took the chair Ebrach had placed for him.
“Jerome, you dislike having it mentioned. I refer to your illness…and, to these unhealthy excitations which you allow to overmaster you. And which, for your own sake, you must not. I hope, now you have bathed and taken an hour’s rest, that I find you somewhat restored; that your discontent has abated. You will say these observations are not mine to make, and this charge I will not deny. I apologize, Jerome, if I presume too far on our acquaintance…but I feel that it cannot benefit your state of health, permitting yourself to be stirred in this fashion.”
Honoré squinted through the play of leaves. “No, Mr. Ebrach, I am not discontented. For two years, since I have come to America…” He had not meant to say this. He left off.
“Jerome, I have never myself stayed long in the city of New Orleans. I know little of the sort of people who live there. I suppose, when you say America, you mean to say, rather, since you have come North. But leave that aside. I wish to speak of Verbena Everard. I spoke with Verbena, for some hours…I parted from her, I believe, at three o’clock. I think I did not disturb you.”
Honoré cocked his chin to the left, in assent. At that hour, no, Ebrach had not disturbed him.
“I find no guile in Mrs. Everard,” Ebrach went on. “Jerome, in my work, I must guard against a particular hazard. We see a great, earnest wish to achieve success; though an authentic success will not be always granted. I cannot prevent my subjects’ seeking impatiently for a false consolation. I might recommend one or two authorities―if a client insists on reading books―who are sound on spiritualism. I do not place the name of Ebrach among their ranks, though I have myself written of these things. Mine are humble assertions. Have you read Swedenborg, Jerome?”
Certain that he would soon have Swedenborg foisted upon him, Honoré sought a forestalling excuse. “I hope you don’t think of lending me a book, sir. I only live, today, at a hotel…”
“I have myself translated some few appurtenant passages from Swedenborg’s diary; these I include in the appendices of The Summoning of Ancients. I will give to you my book, Jerome; you need not think of returning it. I have not used an obscure terminology peculiar to my profession, but have written for the layman. The book will do you good. What I wish for you to grasp at present―and to the discouraging truth of which I can attest from my own experience―is that a woman determined to do so will very likely acquire for herself some compendium of quackery, which will teach her useless doctrine…or worse, she will listen to town gossip, which will poison her understanding.
“Now…Verbena Everard. Her nature is receptive, well-disposed to belief. She may, being unschooled, have a power of rote learning, that, like the hearing of a blind man, is tuned to a supra-normal acuity. She may perform upon herself a form of auto-hypnosis, in her desire—which is a powerful desire—to find communion with the spirit of her son Micah. I have tested her, Jerome. You will recall that the spirit whose voice we heard; who had used Verbena as his vessel, quoted from the Christian bible, from the book of Deuteronomy: ‘How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance’?
“Verbena knows a number of bible verses, and recites them using the habits of her ordinary speech; in my notes, I have recorded no instance in which she did not err. She knows by heart words tied to the commonplace, or to such images as her mind may readily conjure: ‘Open your door to a stranger, and you may entertain an angel unawares.’ This, Verbena tells me, is her watchword—but note how she has simplified the biblical language. I assure you, the quote is verbatim…so that you will observe, also, how Verbena amends her unconscious defects to reproduce what, to her own judgment, represents elevated speech.”
Honoré seemed to wake from a trance, feeling he’d been given some instruction. After a moment, he took the point…he even agreed with the point, but was offended, in his affection for Verbena, by Ebrach’s dispassionate summing up of her.
“Thus, Jerome, I conclude that Verbena Everard has not been coached; I am satisfied as to the limits of her ability to memorize and regurgitate phrases; also, I have discovered no evidence of a strong personality in Verbena’s life who might both have exerted such an influence, and had motive to have done so—therefore, the possibility of its being so would have been slim. And I conclude that she has not committed an act of persuasion upon herself…the constraints of the first instance presenting the same obstacle as to the second. I admit to you, that I went so far as to question her in her husband’s presence, regarding the circumstance of her accident. I did this, Jerome, because I knew she would lie to me. You must not suppose that a kind and simple woman, such as Mrs. Everard undoubtedly is, cannot produce a straight-faced lie when she wishes to…however, for my purposes, I must look into the subject’s eyes, note her mannerisms; hear the patterns of her speech when she tells an untruth.
“No, I believe, having applied these proofs, that Mrs. Everard does not conspire to practice upon me. On the contrary, Jerome, I believe that a being of some strength forced the utterance of those prophetic words. We will never know if Micah Everard came to his mother as well. The spirits did not remain with us long enough. I could not question this powerful one…” He permitted the least wistful beat to separate this statement from his next:
“Jerome, I have not yet interviewed you.”
Lulled, both by the long discourse, and a kind of surrender―he could not translate so many difficult sentences so quickly―Honoré roused himself at Ebrach’s abrupt shift to the personal.
“Interview! But…you don’t suppose I make any claim. No! I have nothing to do…”
“Jerome! Please keep your seat. You are not accused of making claims.”
And Ebrach, in the manner of Broughton, sat unspeaking, letting the minutes pass. Honoré looked through a veil of sunlight, and could not see Ebrach’s face.
“But,” he said again. “If you tell me one of these dead…dead…”
“Then, monsieur, I can suppose who it is, but I have no proof.”
“No, certainly not. That is precisely what we hope to determine.”
Honoré’s affronted self-esteem was deflated by this reasonableness of Ebrach’s, and he slumped to the chair’s opposite wing where the moving shadows no longer dazzled his eyes. He faced away from Ebrach now, and saw himself in the mirror.
“But I shall—if you will allow me to—speculate,” Ebrach continued. “You believed yourself to have been visited by a sister. Perhaps she was well when last you had seen her.”
“She was well―” Honoré thought of Claudette; the defeatedness with which she had once said to him that he could do as he liked. “No, monsieur, she was not well, she was unhappy. But so many years…and I have never thought of her dead.”
“Then I ask you to envision, Jerome, a scene―yourself and I, sitting, as we are, and speaking to one another in friendship. I ask you then to imagine that, in the way of ordinary conversation, I had said to you: ‘Have you any sisters?’ Now, you might answer me yes or no, and that would depend upon your own conviction regarding this sister’s fate…however, I dare to suppose—again, I apologize—that as we speak of this sister you do not at present feel the distress I witnessed in you last night?”
He conjectured, Honoré thought, that Claudette’s spirit had descended from what Ebrach liked to call ‘the other realm’…or that she had materialized from the ether, and had drawn close to her brother. Her unseen hand had touched his, and through some occult conduit (one which no doubt Ebrach’s book explained), her soul had spoken―and he, Honoré, had comprehended its language. Therefore, last night, he had known with the heart what he could not know now, by the light of day, with the intellect. And yet…he did feel convinced Claudette had died, and could give no sound reason for thinking so. She had never been ill as Honoré had been. And he himself lived. Even so, he trusted this revelation of Ebrach’s…but could not call his surety faith.
“What do you want to know then?” he asked. “I think she had nothing to tell me. Only,” Honoré saw in the mirror a reflection of his clothing and hair; which, like his household and his schemes, had become disarrayed.
“Only I was reminded of the angel…the angel of the Noel.”
“My husband wonders if you can have written to him some years back.”
Honoré’s place at the luncheon table was to the right of W. A. Gremot. Mrs. Gremot sat at the foot of the table, opposite her husband. A daughter, introduced as Élucide, sat across from Honoré, at her father’s left; another daughter, Ranilde, being two with Honoré this side of the table, had made a wide berth between them, moving her chair close to her mother’s. At Mrs. Gremot’s right, they’d put Ebrach; between Ebrach and Élucide, sat the son, Walter.
“I did write, madame.”
“But, now you are in America, you choose to go by a different name.”
He mistrusted these prompts.
For two years, although far more often than otherwise, the officials he’d encountered had seemed to know the truth, none had bothered themselves proving Honoré’s credentials false. On the hospital’s charity ward, they had not believed in Thos. B. Jerome, but they had expected their patient to die, and so had left him alone. And the almshouse, under its unending burden of penniless and consumptive immigrants, had grown accustomed to the point of apathy.
He reached for the glass of cider-punch. Having no fat left on his bones, Honoré could no longer tolerate alcohol. A sip made him dizzy. Mrs. Gremot insisted they did not serve it in this house, but uneasily, he tasted an undernote of bitterness. Yet the soup had been cleared away, the pie just served was too hot―he could only fork at its crust and watch the steam curl…and no other device was at hand for gaining time.
Mrs. Gremot’s topics were pegged, it seemed, to the courses. While Honoré had spooned half-heartedly at the heavy cream soup, fearing to eat much of it, she’d asked him, “Mr. Jerome, are you wanting for anything in your room?”
“Madame, your kindness to me is excellent.”
Through the corner of an eye, he saw the girl Ranilde make her own eyes round; she pressed her lips together, and…it might be uncongenial for a guest to say of his host’s daughter, smirked…but she produced a face much like a smirk, as she looked across the table at her brother. Honoré, his gaze fixed on his plate, supposed some silent message to have passed between them. The cook appeared in the doorway, and Mrs. Gremot nodded. Two maidservants then entered, circling the table, one clearing soup plates, the other laying a dish of poached pears at its head; opposite, a sliced tongue. These were served at room temperature to ease stomachs through the transition of courses from cold to hot.
“Mr. Jerome,” his hostess said again. She spoke just at that moment when, her show of weighing and considering conspicuous, one of the servants had lifted Honoré’s plate, which remained nearly full. “If there is anything you prefer having, that I may ask Cook to bring you from the kitchen…” She left her remark open-ended, and Honoré, conscious now that his accent, or his English, amused the young Gremots, repeated what he’d told Ebrach.
“Madame, I am able to eat anything.”
Robert next carried in a platter and slightly tipped it, bending his knees beside Gremot’s chair, until the platter’s cargo of red and white ramekins crowded to its edge. He lifted and dropped the first onto Gremot’s plate. He rubbed his fingers together, and repeated the process down the table; reaching Honoré’s place, he said, “Sir, take care. These are hot from the oven.”
Continued from “hot from the oven”
Gremot sliced his chicken pie, making a cut with his knife, pivoted his plate, and divided the crust crosswise with a second cut. Honoré followed his cousin’s example.
“Mr. Jerome,” his hostess remarked, “Mr. Ebrach tells us you may be connected…distantly…to the Gremot side of the family.” A doubtful rise inflected “family”.
“I am…an uncle, I believe, older than my father by some years…” He confused himself. It was at that moment, while Honoré hesitated, seeking the amiable phrase of mild correction, that she divined her husband’s thoughts. Admitting the letters, absorbing the suspicion of rebuke, he lowered his glass and repeated her word: “Connected. So. I do choose not to call myself Gremot.” He sipped again at the cider-punch. And while his eyes were averted, Ebrach inserted himself, demonstrating, in his foreknowledge of Honoré’s connection to his own grandfather, an offending specificity.
“Mr. Jerome, my dear lady…” Ebrach then laid his knife on his dinner plate. Silver and porcelain clinked together. Mrs. Gremot, from studying Honoré, looked again to her right, and Ebrach directed his comments to the table.
“…began to assist me in my work shortly after his arrival in this country. He stayed at first with his Jerome cousins in New Orleans. I have not got that wrong, have I, Jerome?”
A touch astonished, Honoré answered, “You tell the story better than I am able, Mr. Ebrach.”
W. A. Gremot spoke to Honoré for the first time. “In your letters…excuse me, do I call you Thomas?”
Honoré nodded, drawing the punch glass close. He had got caught, with no warning, between Ebrach’s falsehoods, and Gremot, who, suddenly and sharply, had taken him up. Gremot clasped his hands and propped them on the table’s edge; he stared for a moment, over his wife’s head, through the passage that led to the hall. Honoré peered too, leaning over the table, and saw nothing of note, only a pair of folding doors, open to a sitting room on the farther side.
His toe had bumped what he feared was the shin of the girl opposite. A silence grew. She had not heard him speak…or thought he’d done an improper thing. He stared at his hands on his lap, then raised his head, darting a quick, exploratory glance across the table. For a moment his eyes locked on Élucide’s. One of the daughters, Ziegler had said, could not go up to town without taking sick. He thought this one had taken sick today, and tried to make a secret of it.
Gremot’s reverie ended. “I won’t tell you I know what exactly was in those letters. My recollection is you weren’t very clear about your own ideas. I believe I told my clerk to send one along to my lawyer…have him look it over.”
The tines of Ebrach’s fork could not puncture the wedge of crust he’d loosed from the whole; on these it balanced as it dripped white sauce. Honoré sat riveted by the sawing and clacking of Ebrach’s utensils. One hand rested with the knife between finger and thumb, the other levered the fork up and down, allowing the overflow to fall on the knife, drop by drop. Ebrach now took a long moment, holding the fork poised. He did not lick the knife, but slid the gravy off its blade into the ramekin. This exquisite way with chicken pie made Honoré feel an unreasonable revulsion. He bent his head over his own dish…and this seemed rude. His cousin had spoken to him. He looked at Gremot; and as a prelude to making his ideas clear, said: “For many years, sir, I have worked in the profession of journalism.”
“Jerome’s father, I am sorry to say.” Ebrach swallowed, first crust, then water. Manipulating cutlery, as one might instruments in demonstrating a surgical procedure, he worked with knife and fork at the pie’s interior. “Took a violent opposition to the work. Many times I have made…no, I will say, in every case, I make this point: that the God who gave us both intellect and curiosity, does not ask that we blind ourselves to the mysteries of the spirit. We are more truly Christian, thus, when we seek to become enlightened. We must come to know that aspect of our nature which is of the eternal, and the eternal is, by design…for it cannot be otherwise…non-corporeal. These preoccupations of the flesh―” He indicated the pie, withdrew his fork; on it was skewered a piece of chicken. Host and hostess, having grown through Ebrach’s speech, keen in their expressions, nodded, their eyes following the fork. “Hunger, pain, all physical impulses, are individuating…burdens, madam, that fix our feet upon the earth.” He had turned his face towards the head of the table, and from gathering the eyes of W. A. Gremot, of Élucide, of Honoré, settled again on Mrs. Gremot’s, turning towards her, making his persuasions to her, his voice becoming, in some manner, more intimate.
“Our essence is such, that the soul longs to merge into a perfect state of unity with the divine body, which we call holy.” This word, he pronounced roundly, and a pause, like the shutting of a door, lingered over the table, before Ebrach added: “But Jerome’s father, as do too many of those with whom I meet, wished to denote me a spiritualist…wished to count all spiritualists charlatans. He threatened, madam, to disown his son.
“Jerome then adopted the name of his American kin. He did this in respect of his father’s feelings. It is Jerome’s misfortune to be delicately constituted. He had not been long in this country before the southern climate…”
Mrs. Gremot shook her head, not in dispute, but to deplore in sympathy with Ebrach―for it seemed she knew something of the southern climate―its well-recorded malaise. “You will appreciate Mr. Jerome’s dismay,” Ebrach finished his argument, engaging his hostess with candid eyes, drawing circles with the uneaten bite of chicken, “at discovering so strange a coincidence…that the husband of Mrs. Everard should prove to be in the employ of his cousin Gremot. It was far from Jerome’s desire to trouble his relatives, and he had no need of doing so, being established in his own career.”
“But he ought to have come to us,” she began. Remembering, then, to include Honoré in this conversation of which he was the subject, she directed her words up the table. “We would have asked Mr. Ziegler…” She paused. “Mr. Jerome?”
This while, Honoré had kept a covert eye on the face of W. A. Gremot, worried that, his relative unwilling to believe in Ebrach’s quasi-Christian devil’s brew, he would believe none of Ebrach’s other assertions. Gremot seemed comfortable letting his wife shoulder the brunt of the table talk. He ate and drank, and looked thoughtful…but in an abstracted way, as though he thought of distant things. “My cousin will not fall for Ebrach,” Honoré told himself. Of course…
Behind these first words came a shadowy echo, as the mind forms a sentence before articulating it, even when one speaks in secret to oneself―I do not fall for Ebrach. Yet the lies Ebrach told were so apt, so soothing; to Ebrach, if Honoré chose it, all anxiety-making complications could be abandoned.
And having told himself this, he was at once shaken.
As do too many of those with whom I meet.
The words were not wholly unambiguous. But they had not met—how could it be, his father and Ebrach? Ebrach and Honoré had had a number of talks…some forgotten remark had caused Honoré to blink or balk, it might have been; but no, this was not the sort of truth that could be somehow…evident.
Yet his father would have said exactly those things. Words Ebrach recklessly plucked from the air fell on Honoré like a blow, like a stolen confidence. Gremot peered at Honoré, and said to Ebrach:
“Sir, Jerome’s looking peaky. You might take him out for some air. I mean to the back porch. Robert!”
Ebrach rose to his feet; Robert came at a bustle from the sideboard, murmuring that he would show Ebrach the way. Each of Honoré’s attendants took an elbow. And Élucide, using this stir as permission to leave the table, scooted her chair back, and flew through the archway, up the hall staircase.
This wicker sofa, stacked with cushions, was made private by a bannister that at Honoré’s left descended a short flight of steps; thus it resembled, in the figurative as well as the literal sense, a fence rail. The nook was completed by a cupboard built into the wall. Ebrach, hauling his charge out of range of whispers, exclamations―and one audible laugh―had said to Robert: “I have been shown the way. You must return to your duties.” Ebrach, a guest to whom the Gremots were proud to give a tour, had got round the house while Honoré had rested in his room.
Yesterday’s journey seemed to Honoré almost hallucinatory. From this end of the room, he was sunk too low to see the road he’d traveled on, to make a game for himself…to distract his thoughts from this humiliating lapse; to view, as though from a future vantage, his past self. He’d looked at the wire-cloth screens from the road then; he looked at them now, and a play of waves, black moiré, seemed tuned to the gusting wind. The wind carried with it a smell of the attic’s baking rafters and the moist under-cellars, circulating through the respiring house, along with the outdoor smell of dry grass under thunderclouds. There was another sofa, identical, facing shadowboxes on the wall above Honoré’s head, and if he moved opposite, still he could not have seen the river, only these modest and practical collections—such artifacts as were unaffected by damp—arrowheads, polished stones, bird’s eggs.
By inspiration, or communicated through some subtlety, some cue planted among Ebrach’s speeches and mannerisms (a trick which Honoré found plausibly Ebrachian), he had guessed the words to rid him of Ebrach’s comforts.
“Coffee,” he answered, as to what refreshment he might take. “I will have bread…but I do not ask anything to be prepared. And, monsieur, what is the trouble with the girl?” Lying as he did, on the sofa, he might even have invested in the eyes he raised to Ebrach’s, something of a plea. Ebrach glanced in the direction of the hall, finding Élucide in memory, as Honoré thought, where last she had been seen.
And with an affect of gravity, he answered: “I would have judged, by the tilt of her head, and because I had glimpsed her appear to breathe over her glass of iced punch…you must remember, Jerome, that being placed on the same side of the table, I could scarcely in politeness have made a study of the girl’s demeanor―or to have done so with any hope of diagnosis. But I would judge she had been suffering a pain in the right temple. I will call it migraine, then…though I speculate. I will, on your behalf, inform our hostess that you feel concern for your young relative. You tell me you are not in pain, Jerome, with this attack?”
“I am having no attack, Mr. Ebrach.”
It had been Robert, not Ebrach, who returned, carrying a tray with coffee, and to Honoré’s pleasure, buttered rolls. Ebrach was the important man in the house now. He supposed the Gremots had waited for Ebrach’s news, as he himself waited. He drained his cup, ate a roll; in contentment licked butter from his fingers, then pushed at the cushions, perhaps greasily, until at last he was able to sit forward and pour a second cup of coffee.
“This time,” Honoré told himself, “I will look at Ebrach, but I will not think about Ebrach.”
Ebrach had taken possession of his future. This was not overstating the case. Honoré could not now untell Ebrach’s story—these inventions had erased its protagonist from the page. Like Tweedloe, he’d bought Honoré’s debt. But Ebrach had done it with words.
So many days and weeks confined on his back, filthy and cold; or slumping neglected, feverish, wound in sticky linens, unable to expand his lungs…inured to helplessness, Honoré had accepted all he was given, asked for nothing they did not give. His world had been in his mind. A daydream had kept his preparations immature. He had not surrendered this figment.
But acquaintance forced acknowledgement that Gremot was the man his letter had forewarned him to be―and that Ebrach had understood him, where Honoré had not. He’d indulged this hope, that his cousin might welcome him like a kind father…or like, at any rate, a second Broughton; and having Broughton’s store of advice, his quietude and courtesy…Mrs. Gremot motherly, another Madame Rose―until that morning, Honoré had still half-willed it. He had fretted over his unloveable appearance.
But he thought now that W. A. Gremot was not disposed to love a stranger, and that in his cousin Jerome, a stranger was what he saw.
Clotilde had done nothing much in America for a year other than nurse an invalid spouse. She had wanted to make their home in Denver. Clotilde’s preference was not for herself; she thought only of the climate that had done Honoré so much good. His had been a desperate case. And at length, he’d been told by his physicians at Colorado Springs that he would be no better for a longer course of treatment. How else to understand, if they did not mean to say he was cured?
He chose to see his prognosis in this light.
But…Honoré had accounted it possible the long-awaited meeting was a thing best achieved and not postponed. Now he wished Clotilde by his side. The two of them together―“the little French couple”―would at least entertain, as they had in Colorado. He would not feel so lonely in this house. Clotilde had been given lessons in English, but could rarely, from embarrassment, bring herself to say as much as “thank you”. She clung to his arm, to an extent that embarrassed Honoré. Leaving her had seemed the better choice.
But, he thought, I have this excuse of returning to my wife…I must apologize to these relatives, and go at the earliest chance.
Having stirred in himself, with these reflections, that discontent Ebrach deplored, Honoré now spent some minutes coming from different angles at the proposition of rising. He had learned to rock forward and back; to gauge the instant when, catching himself tilt, he could push onto the balls of his feet.
And having done as much, he found a door, one that might lead to the garden, on the cupboard’s other side.
The air was soft today, a blanket to one always chilled. The Gremots had a view of the river…would they not also have a bench for sitting? Honoré made his way down two little stone steps, and along a path shaded by a poplar hedge. He admired the path’s herringbone pattern, the way brick-ends had been cut to fit at the borders, how clean swept it was. Honoré estimated the hedge to be half its height from the house. His mind’s eye conjured a landscape architect’s diagram. He could see the rough outline of mature planting and structure, the angle of the sun, notations of footages and degrees of exposure. He would have liked a measuring tape. The trees, he was certain, had been planted at some precise distance apart, and each space between would be identical to the last. They were limbed up, now they’d grown to six metres, more or less; their lower branches kissed, and were bound so, to form pleached arches. The path ran beside an outer wall of the house divided by uncurtained windows.
The façade of the house, seen up close, was not pink…as from the road, it had seemed. The bricks were terra cotta; their glaze, shining in the sun, had added an overlay of white to the red-brown. The hedge made veering from the path impractical, nor could Honoré see past the lawn, though he glimpsed a wrought-iron fence, yellow and purple asters that crowded their heads between its bars, some portion of their coarse late-season foliage.
Inside the basement he saw a laundry, a long table lit by another row of windows. A lone woman was seated there on a stool, wearing a sock on her hand. She sat unsupervised, idle in thought.
“’Course, I never have myself. I’d find it a nuisance. Hire a man to hunt up your shoes, count your shirt buttons, Mr. Ebrach…well. There are only so many hours in a day. Bad enough every Tom, Dick, and Harry wants to order them for you. I won’t pay for the privilege.” Honoré heard Ebrach laugh. He was less certain himself that his relative had been joking. Their voices might have come from a parlor with its window open, beneath which he would pass if, reaching the corner of the house, he turned to the right. Or, they might be on the path itself, paused in conversation just out of view.
“But I don’t see why he won’t have a servant, some kind of valet, to travel with him.” A second or two of silence. Gremot’s voice came back, with a suggestion of annoyed embarrassment. “Not much money, you think, Ebrach? You say you met up with Jerome on the train?”
Ebrach’s voice came somewhat nearer. Honoré could now make out the slow patter of meandering shoes. He backed up some paces, so that his meeting with them might seem momentary and unexpected.
“Jerome was given the example of frugality by his father. He may regard the matter much as do you yourself, sir. Though I would happily have given to him my own assistance had I known then whether Jerome had made up his mind.”
The two strolled into view, and rather than turn in Honoré’s direction, struck off across the lawn. Their backs had been to Honoré as they’d rounded the corner, and remained so. His position had become all at once absurd. He had not considered the woman in the laundry, who might look up, and wonder to see him loitering here.
“Mr. Ebrach!” he called out. “Mr. Gremot! I apologize—”
“Jerome! What is it that you need?”
Conscious of the time it was taking him to do so, Honoré caught them up at length, having not greatly increased his pace for hurrying. And the surmise was not unreasonable, Ebrach’s concern well-acted for the curtain’s late rise. Hailing and chasing after them in this way, now panting in an otherwise strained silence, Honoré must appear in want of something. He wasn’t. His feathers had been ruffled by his relative’s question, and he would have answered this—which he felt Gremot had no right to ask of Ebrach—only he had eavesdropped on their talk by accident.
As to servants, begrudging offices had been performed for Honoré by those of others…he had earned contempt with uncivility, perhaps, not knowing how he ought to speak to a servant. His politics had always raised this difficulty, that to treat inferior men as brothers, one must first designate them inferior. And many had no wish to be Honoré’s equal. Those times he might have afforded a servant of his own, he had (he recognized it) felt something of his cousin’s impatience at the thought of waiting to be waited on—nor had he trusted that his money would last.
None of this could be explained under Gremot’s eye. Honed for the ploys of dependency, it would discern here the history of a sponger rather than a victim of circumstance. Honoré saw his cousin take a step backwards, turn and gaze at his golden summit, trimmed, from this vantage, by the top-growth of a pine plantation just on the slope’s downside. The sky on this day was a faded blue ribbon, twined among pillowed clouds, grey at their leading edges.
Short on patience, Gremot grimaced, and fell into his established habit. He ignored Honoré, and said to Ebrach, “The sun’ll be too strong. Him being out here without a hat. You had better take him back, sir.”
“Where are you going?” Belatedly, Honoré answered Ebrach’s question with another.
“We are walking round the property, Jerome. See up yonder―” Ebrach put a hand on Honoré’s back, tapping him under the shoulder blade, exerting pressure at the fingertips, asking without words that he go back to the house. He raised his arm and pointed. Honoré looked again at the meadow, and in the time his eyes had followed Ebrach’s movements, a pair of dappled horses had wandered or been driven there to graze. “We will climb to the hilltop and have a look at the fields, then head down to see the drying sheds.”
“No…Mr. Ebrach, I can walk with you.”
“Mr. Jerome, we’ll get the buggy out sometime this afternoon, and drive up along the road. Or,” Gremot stopped himself, appealing to Ebrach, “if he can’t ride at all…”
“Yesterday, Jerome had not recovered from the effects of the train journey. I believe he will ride tolerably now, after a day of rest. Sir, Jerome may walk with us as far as the summer house.”
“But…Mrs. Gremot won’t know what’s become of him. Ebrach, you’ll have to wait on me, while I go fetch Robert.”
Gremot wanted no answer. His face through this exchange had exhibited an ungracious frankness. He bent into his stride, and striking the walk with a report, Gremot’s heels measured his pace. Arriving at the side door from which Honoré had exited, his cousin jerked back his head, finding, as Honoré knew, that it had not been pulled shut. Gremot palmed it open. The door slammed; the noise carried, and Honoré removed himself from Ebrach’s hand. His eyes on the dried grass, he placed his shoes between its tufts, and moved a short way ahead. He felt Ebrach following close at his back.
But, though he’d seen the summer house from his bedroom window, here Honoré could see only lawn, its point of descent hidden by a park-like placement of mature oak, many metres from the house; these must, with that eye-pleasing effect in mind, have been judiciously spared at the time of the manor’s construction.
“Then, Mr. Ebrach, where will I walk to?” Alone with him, Honoré felt easier.
“You needn’t walk at all, of course. I do not advise it, Jerome. You will tax yourself.”
“No, I came out to walk. That will not trouble me.”
He had not come out to walk…and he made a pest of himself. He did it from stubbornness, because the dislike Gremot had conceived for Honoré insulted his pride. He recalled the forced perspective of hill looming over roof and pond. He knew the way to the summer house to be steep. Ebrach would be off with Gremot, Honoré shunted aside to wait and pretend, if he liked, to be with them in their business. Or to return to the house, if he could manage the going uphill, and concede himself unwanted.
This relative, Honoré thought, practiced a mode of thinking he had observed in his father, and in his sister’s husband, Feriet―that for having aspired to do an ordinary thing, one ought to be punished; that, somehow, the wish itself had earned the punishment.
“Mr. Ebrach, I will take the train tomorrow.”
“Jerome.” Ebrach got in front of him. “I hope you will not consider it. Mrs. Gremot has friends she would like to introduce to you. She is expecting you to remain the week. Jerome…do you not suppose that you are subject to upset, taking offense where none is meant, because you do not permit yourself proper rest? Your affairs may be urgent, sir, but your regrettable state of mind…”
“I have no affairs! Nothing,” Honoré added, “urgent.” He did find it regrettable. Now, Ebrach had exposed him to a worse position. Now, he could not leave this house with dignity. They would decide him feeble-minded. They would nod to each other, and say that his illness spoke; they would no longer credit Honoré’s speaking for himself. He had come to Gremot to begin his career, to gain the trust of a trusted man…and these prejudices, hemming him round, would end it.
This, he said to himself, is unreason, if you like. That I must alleviate their burden by always leaving―by dying, they will hope…that is how it will all be resolved.
“The girl…” Ebrach changed the subject. They’d got to know each other; and already, Ebrach had a set face and a mannerism, a far-seeing posture he adopted, in overlooking Honoré’s outbursts.
“…suffers from migraine, as I had supposed. The headache comes over her in inclement weather, or at any change of routine. She has needed to be schooled at home. I noticed nothing liverish in the girl’s complexion.” Comparing pallors, Ebrach here with a keen glance assessed Honoré’s. “Her mother says she does not have seizures, she has no tremor in the limbs, she does not faint.”
Honoré felt some impulse, at this, to defend again his weakness of yesterday. I do not faint. (And he would not have, had Ebrach left him alone.) But there was no similarity between his own condition and that of the Gremot daughter, and Ebrach might or might not have implied so.
“You and I,” Ebrach said, “will take the opportunity, during our stay, to speak with Élucide. I believe that in you, she may be willing to confide.”
Yes, then, Honoré reversed himself, I understand you after all. The door thudded shut, the noise once more carrying across the lawn. He looked behind, and saw Gremot closing on them in his hell-bent fashion, followed by Robert, who carried Honoré’s hat, a lap blanket folded and draped over his arm like a waiter’s towel; over his other arm, a basket. Ebrach took this moment to say, with an air of drama, and with no chance of Honoré’s answering him: “I have not forgot my promise. But I will do more than leave my book with you. Jerome, you are nearly awake. That which last night drew your sister to you, is a gift that you possess…you yourself know the reason for this. The nervous condition that vexes you is merely inattention. You are inattentive because the voices of the dead are for you very present.”
(more to come)