A Figure from the Common Lot
Book Two: 1876
Chapter Two: Possente Spirto
On an oxbow
The current passes
A fallen tree, submerged
At a cross-angle, green murky-brown
Depths, hot from the sun
The surface still, gnats rise
Kingfishers, blackbirds, bank swallows
The river has right-of-way
The month was August. The steam-whistle blasted a warning, for the Cookesville spur was the end of the line, and the locomotive was about to be decoupled and moved to the turn-table. The platform’s exchange of humanity numbered in the dozens. And most of these―few Cookesville citizens being in the habit of startling their relatives by meeting them at the depot―had just left the cars.
Porters strode, one man in front, ushering, one behind, pushing, at a single luggage cart laden with travel trunks; this went down the ramp and up the alley, making for the Columbia Hotel. The station master checked his watch; others, noticing this, felt prompted to check their own watches. The two-faced clock that hung from an iron bracket bolted to the station house exterior pitched in, and tolled its own clanging note that rang across the platform.
A traveler, resting his back against the same wall, flinched; and for a moment, his weary face became animated. He set his lips in a sour line, his expression that of a man harried by yet another thing. He had, for ten minutes, held his portmanteau and witnessed with relief the clearing of the cars; he now dropped the bag at his feet. He withdrew his own watch, and saw that it was, as the depot clock had wound down to confirming, eleven in the morning.
The bag was not heavy, but to the traveler, it seemed so. The brim of his hat cast shadows that accentuated the hollows under his eyes. Among hats, this was a quality specimen, purchased from one of dozens of specialty shops that lined Denver’s Laramie Street. The traveler had found downtown Denver to be something like an Exposition that went on for all time. The hat bore his name, inked onto the maker’s label, affixed to the band inside the crown. He was dressed, somewhat to the detriment of the posh prosperity at which he aimed (for he was very thin), in a closely tailored suit. The traveler had known the extremity of poverty, and had always felt well with himself when his clothes were good.
Continued from “when his clothes were good”
But, taking into account his modest origins, and the odyssey that had delivered him here, onto the platform of the Cookesville depot, he could today regard himself a rich man. A thousand dollars had been added recently to his bank balance―and this was not money in trust; no portion of it was owed in advance to satisfy any debt. It was for Thos. B. Jerome to spend as he saw fit.
The man for whom Jerome waited burst, like the sunrise, from behind one of the lattice-work columns supporting the pavilion (and its tricolored bunting), that framed the platform. Eugene Ebrach carried his folded suit-coat; his shirt was damp at the armpits. It was, nonetheless, resplendently white. His waistcoat was of a wheat-colored linen; his tie, dove grey silk, with a thin white stripe. Even the leather of his summer luggage, rolling after him in the custody of a porter, was the color of cream. Ebrach spotted Jerome, and started towards him, but stopped some few paces up the platform. He took a handkerchief from his trouser pocket.
“Jerome,” he said. Ebrach was fair and rosy-cheeked, a man in his mid-thirties, about ten years older than Jerome. He removed his straw hat, fanned himself with it, and with his handkerchief dabbed at his face. Coming up, then, to stand beneath the clock, he looked downwards and tilted his chin at Jerome, who, dressed in dark woolen garments, seemed to shrink further into an exhausted slouch, wilting in Ebrach’s shadow.
“We will lunch at the hotel here in town,” Ebrach said. “The Columbia. I can’t recommend it…I have never set foot in the place—but the station master recommends it. I will take a room there myself.” Jerome bent his knees, caught his bag by the handle, and remained in this posture for a minute or two before rising. Ebrach’s voice, when he had spoken of the Columbia, had gained something in resonance; when he’d mentioned taking a room, his head had made a half-turn in the porter’s direction. The porter nodded. “The Columbia Hotel, sir.”
Ebrach reached into his waistcoat pocket for a dollar; the porter touched his cap and said: “Thank you, mister.” Ebrach, finished with the porter, turned back to Jerome, tapped him on the elbow, and began to walk ahead. “You have faith, Jerome, in these distant relatives of yours, or do you plan to stay in town also?”
“I have made no plans.”
Ebrach began to speak. He could do so, when he liked, in ringing tones; this, Jerome had learned of him in the Pullman car on the way to Indiana from St. Louis. Ebrach projected his words at will, snaring whom he might. He moved up the street, his steps brisk, his smile warm; he tipped his hat, gave his smile to the women he passed, looking deep into their eyes. He smiled, also, pleasantly at the men. “Hello, sir…how do you do?” His voice wove nets of intrigue along the quiet main streets of Cookesville. Jerome trailed, falling behind.
“We have no need of plans. You are quite right, Jerome. Our lives progress under the watchful eye of a benign intelligence, and we must go where fortune takes us.” They had Depot Street to cross on their way to the concourse, the circus through which the town’s commercial streets intersected. Ebrach led the way, aiming towards the upraised saber of the highest figure cast upon the summit of the soldier’s memorial.
“You sought me out, Jerome. But let us say, for argument’s sake, that you related your story to a stranger…” Ebrach glanced behind him. The effort of lugging his portmanteau showed on Jerome’s face. His eyes were either on his hands, as though the bag might slip if he did not watch himself grip it; or on the bricks of the street, as though he counted his steps.
Ebrach had begun laying his pieces on the board, practiced as he was at this art of conversion, aware of his audience. When he saw that the townspeople had begun to reason within themselves—to sidle up, to follow discreetly—Ebrach was loath to stem the dramatic tide. Yet, Jerome belonged to him, now he had taken up the acquaintance. He might look ill to these Indiana folk, if he did not bolster this poor scrap of humanity.
“What do you keep in your bag, Jerome?” Ebrach stepped back, and readily enough pried the bag from Jerome’s hands. “Why, this is nothing.” He hoisted the portmanteau to his shoulder. Ebrach then waved his free arm. As he did so he looked, soliciting commiseration, into the eyes of a bystander who clutched the halter of a mule. The man had not come to town to make eye contact with strangers; he flushed, and turned his face aside. Jerome straightened, caught up to within a foot or two of Ebrach, and showed signs of speaking. Ebrach preferred that Jerome not speak. Jerome was not an American; much of what he said was difficult to understand, and his dialogue would distract from the presentation.
“Yonder,” he said at once, waving again, “up the way and across the avenue, is the Columbia Hotel. You may read the sign from here.”
Ebrach was a man who had given innumerable public talks. He did not lose threads. He took Jerome by the lapel, drawing him firmly over the curb, and returned to his narrative. They crossed, and as they crossed, Ebrach said, “You heard a voice. A name was mentioned. At this, you found yourself astonished. You had traveled a great distance. Cookesville had been no more to you than a designation on a map. You had believed yourself friendless…”
The town’s heart, where Liberty Avenue crossed High Street, formed a graph of prosperity, from Snedden the undertaker’s single story with false front, to the three floors of Rutherford Bros. Mercantile and Dry Goods, to the Columbia Hotel’s unrivaled four. Ebrach smiled at the hotel’s rows of shining windows, arched in pairs under fanlights, framed by pilasters and separated by a sandstone façade the color of golden griddle-cakes.
But it was the panorama of downtown Cookesville afforded by the triple reflection from the hotel’s windows: back to the Rutherford Bros. display across the street, back again to the hotel, at which Ebrach smiled. He saw himself, and was pleased to do so; he saw Jerome faltering in his wake. But he could not drag Jerome by the lapel up the hotel’s steps. Jerome must move at his own pace. Ebrach saw that he and his companion had the attention of the High Street strollers. He saw heads cluster together; fingers, whose owners supposed they could not be observed, point.
Ebrach, if Jerome understood him, meant to paraphrase his explanation of himself, as he might give his story to a putative sympathizer. It was a performance; it was utter fraud. Ebrach threw a fulsome enunciation into each noun; he used these words―“voice”, “name”, “distance”―as tokens given out for future redemption. Each stranger Ebrach passed received this invitation. Jerome’s friendlessness was a sad thing indeed, as Ebrach expressed it. While thanking the doorman for his patience, he’d indicated Jerome with a nod; making a nice show of delicate feeling, he had then let his words die.
“Here is Mr. Jerome, coming along now…”
Jerome felt that, having been thus pathetically delineated, and being so tired, he might be excused for following Ebrach through the door in silence. Ebrach walked to the center of the lobby, still with Jerome’s portmanteau propped on his shoulder. He found it judicious at this point to lower the bag; less the strongman, more the weak man’s ministering guide.
Ebrach retraced his steps, and found that Jerome rested on one of the lobby’s velvet settees, his hat on the cushion beside him. Betranced (as it seemed), with his handkerchief he wiped at his face.
“I will see about a room,” Ebrach told him.
He noticed a familiar couple cross the lobby. He and the Forsyths, waiting side by side for the services of a porter, had spoken at the station. Ebrach hailed them; catching up and bowing to Mrs. Forsyth, he said, “Madam, when I had the pleasure of conversing with you, not long ago…” Forsyth, eyes bulging, pushed himself into Ebrach’s field of vision. Ebrach nodded, and said, “How do you do, sir?” Forsyth was a stocky young businessman, sweating under a high collar and through the strained fabric of his summer coat. He had caught sight, and disapproved of, Jerome in passing. He looked again at Ebrach. Finally, sending through his teeth a wet hiss of exasperation, he looked at Mrs. Forsyth.
“This is Mr. Ebrach,” she told her husband, as though Ebrach were a guest in the Forsyths’ parlor. “He’s the one we saw at the depot.”
“…and you had mentioned how troubling you find this heat; as I myself had been about to mention.” Ebrach beamed. “I insist, madam, that you and Mr. Forsyth precede me to the desk.”
“Well, I don’t know what all.” Forsyth was premature in murmuring this to his wife, as he ushered her towards the marble-dressed reception counter. A young woman seated at a corner desk glanced up at the Forsyths and smiled; she then returned to her ledger-book. The male clerk hastened forward. Ebrach had predicted this: that the Forsyths would clear the field for him. He now came to the counter, leaned across and said, making his voice intimate, “I won’t disturb you at your work.” Her head snapped up. “I am hoping,” he told her, “that you have a comfortable apartment.”
One voluminous sleeve brushed closed the pages of her book. The rib-crushing corset that cinched her waist threw an odd pitch into her movement, as she fetched up on the counter’s business side. Ebrach’s serene face had borne a smile all the while; he charmed married women without compunction―this one, however, was unmarried. He had another intuition.
He cut himself short, patting the marble countertop with the flat of his hand as though searching in memory for the name of an old acquaintance. He saw her dart a glance at a closed door sheltered from the lobby by a column. Under a gilt-trimmed corbel hung a sign: OFFICE.
“Will you tell me your name?” Ebrach asked.
“I can let you have a pis…” she fumbled the syllable. Her cheeks flamed. She directed a look of anger at her workmate, who stood grinning down at his necktie. She began again, “I mean a sitting parlor and bedchamber, on the third floor. My name is Miss Rutherford.”
“I don’t care for the morning light. I am not an early riser, Miss Rutherford.”
“Vernon,” she appealed to her associate. With some contempt, he told her: “Odd numbers.” She placed the reception book on the counter. “Please sign for thirty-three, sir.” And craned to watch as he wrote his name.
“Your father”―Ebrach felt he had learned what he needed to know―“is also one of the brothers of the emporium over the way?”
She giggled then, seeming to think she had understood him: “Oh, yes!”
“I,” he told her, lightly resting his fingers over hers, “am Eugene Ebrach. You may mention me to your father. I will not take my key at present. After my friend and I have had our lunch, I will stop by again.”
Jerome sat inert with his head against the settee’s backrest. Above his head hung a tonnage of chandelier, its burning gas jets concealed, as he supposed, within its tiers of dripping crystal. A circle of mirrored ceiling panels enhanced the chandelier’s dazzle; the whole effect searing to his travel bleared eyes. He closed them. He began to drift…he told himself he had no need to wait for Ebrach. Discounting the curious coincidence of their meeting, they had nothing to do with each other. He could write a note of thanks and have it taken to Ebrach’s apartment. He could cross the lobby to the lunchroom, and take a table. Coffee would be nearly as reviving as sleep.
Possibly, he told himself, it had been coincidence. No omen of Ebrach’s appearance on the stage had come to Jerome in advance of him. But he found it difficult to take such meetings for granted; Jerome had long trafficked among men who engineered chance and circumstance.
“I have left your bag in charge of the proprietor’s daughter. Her name is Miss Rutherford. I hope you approve, Jerome?”
Jerome seemed to sleep, but Ebrach had not taken him unawares. He stirred, and knowing that the effort would be sluggish, and its product feeble, put his hand on the back of the settee. He meant to stand up…this was no small thing…afterwards to settle affairs with Ebrach. But Ebrach had conceived a purpose for Jerome, and wished to appear before his public neither unconcerned nor impatient.
“Jerome,” he said, and took Jerome under the arms, “you must allow me to help you.”
Ebrach looked across the table. A bandstand, draped like the station house pavilion in red, white, and blue bunting, its skirting planted round with orange and yellow marigolds, was the view upon which Jerome, chin resting on his hand, eyes half-closed, seemed to meditate. Ebrach tapped his knife against his water glass. “Does your condition require a restricted diet? Will you take roast beef?”
Jerome laid his forearm, in its coat sleeve, flat on the cloth. His face was gaunt and lacking in supple expression; but reading Jerome as best he could, Ebrach supposed him affronted rather than embarrassed. He would, therefore, put himself so far in the wrong as to force an explanation.
“In my work,” Ebrach began, “moving unfettered, as I must, between this world and the next—for I have been endowed with a gift; a mission, I will call it, which I have not tried to refuse…for these things were not born of my own imagination, but bestowed upon my conscious will by that divine intelligence to which I had earlier referred…Jerome, I have held the hands of many sufferers. I well understand that the sickly and infirm are shunned; that they are often reluctant to speak of their trials.”
All this, Ebrach shared at large with the lunchroom patrons, his voice striking an oratorical cadence. Now he lowered it and spoke only to Jerome: “You have a consumptive look about you, sir.”
“Certainly, roast beef,” Jerome answered. “I am able to eat anything.”
Ebrach flagged the waiter, and consulting Jerome, added rolls and vegetables to their order, along with the roast beef. Spooning consommé, he asked, “Do you have loved ones who have gone before?”
The question, at once an absurdity and a vulgar trespass, made Jerome want to laugh.
“Monsieur,” he said.
“Sir,” he corrected.
(This hewing to American ways was for his own benefit; his accent must be apparent.)
“I thank you.” Jerome went on, with a formal dignity, “that you are so kindly concerned for my health. I have been many months at Colorado Springs. I am entirely cured.” He sipped from his glass of ice water. With this news, he had given Ebrach a victory. He shrugged. “Yes, of course, sir, I have a brother and a sister, and my own mother…they are all dead. You may say so, if you like.”
Their waiter arrived from the kitchen and smoothly lowered to the table the platter he had carried balanced on his shoulder. He slid before Ebrach one plate that held creamed potatoes and julienned string beans; before Jerome another. He placed in the center of the table a basket of rolls. He set down two salvers of butter. Pressed into each slab was an undulating flag, and the dates: 1776-1876. Another waiter, in charge of wines, brought the burgundy which Ebrach had chosen. The first waiter returned, with the roast on a cart, and gestured expressively, wielding fork and carving knife.
Ebrach, buttering his roll, raised an eyebrow. “Do you have mustard?”
“Do you have mushrooms?
“We do, sir. But mushrooms are extra.”
“I would like a small plate of mushrooms and onions. The roast looks acceptable. Carve it.”
Ebrach glanced at Jerome, who was using a corner of the tablecloth to clean his fingers. Jerome tore off a bit of roll, and pushed it into his butter. Jerome with his tailoring, his signet ring, and his gold tooth, had table manners acquired in the boardinghouse. Unless, Ebrach allowed, mute diligence, and an indifference to the use of knife and fork, were the European habit. He applied himself to his own lunch. Ebrach had little in the way of a private life; from each day’s waking breath, he either performed for an audience, or anticipated doing so. He did not always wish to hear himself speak.
He judged, however―when there was nothing left to order but dessert―that the time was right. Jerome had taken offense. Jerome had not been instructed; his unbelief was natural. But Ebrach counted himself better off without overzealous adherents. He had come to this place to offer comfort to the bereft, the frail and the forsaken; and though Jerome doubted, and was not yet ready, he would be another of Ebrach’s lambs…one indeed, who had been sent to him for that purpose.
“Jerome,” Ebrach said, “you have misunderstood me. You number me among the hypocrites. I will ask you to consider that at any time you may walk through the door of memory, and find there all you have lost is restored. All is again as it was. What does this mean? What are memories and dreams, Jerome? They are the radiant light of the human spirit. If you gaze into a mirror, Jerome, what do you see? The reflection there is no more than a transference of energy. The light shines in; the light shines out. When you exercise your memory, what is this reflection, this picture of the past, that lights upon your mind’s eye? Energy, Jerome.
“There is a benign magnetism. And at its opposite pole, there is a malignant magnetism. We need not question this; science teaches us that the universe is so ordered. We are vessels, merely; yet, within our human shell, we house an electric current. When I say ‘gone before’, it is of this current I mean to speak, Jerome. I tell you that your loved ones wish you well, that they seek you at all times, that they have knowledge of many things, that it is their desire to help you in every way. Now see…”
With the practiced facility of a magician, Ebrach had un-pocketed his props. Jerome had not seen him do it―but of a sudden, from his right hand, Ebrach dropped a dozen or so iron pellets onto the white linen cloth. He swept his left hand over these. They shivered. He brought his hand lower and closer. A few snapped up, attaching to the object Ebrach held: a three-inch bar of metal the color of pencil lead. A third pass, and all the iron pellets had been drawn to the magnet. The demonstration, Jerome thought, was childish. It was not mesmerizing; it was not particularly scientific. Yet, for its intended audience, the magnet’s action bewitched. A nearby waiter turned from his customer, a dribble of water flowing onto the carpet from the lip of his pitcher. The customer himself stared. Two matrons following the head waiter to their table, stalled and peered from under their hat brims, as Ebrach’s hand moved back and forth.
“These tiny souls, as we will imagine them,” Ebrach said, and looking aside, he smiled in benevolence at the older of the women, “cannot be moved without the energy of magnetism. Nor, Jerome, though your loved ones long for you, and though you long yourself to touch them once more, will your outstretched hands and theirs unaided clasp together…for the afterlife is not of earth but of heaven, and without this medium of magnetic current, without the transference of energy beyond the astral sphere, they have not the means to impart their message of love to you.”
Jerome, who would at the outset have preferred banana pie to roast beef, now refused dessert; and downed his cup of after dinner coffee with such haste that the waiter, still bent in a pouring attitude, felt called upon to refill the cup at once before escaping. Ebrach chatted on, and with cold compressed lips Jerome deflected these attempts at engagement.
“I believe we may see a break in the heat, tomorrow.” Ebrach buttered the last of the rolls. “There is the least breeze…see how it takes the bunting there.” Using his knife, he pointed past Jerome’s nose, in the direction of the window. “They do not serve the coffee so hot as they ought.”
But Ebrach, if he found his coffee lukewarm, was leisurely nonetheless in polishing it off. Then he added, “That is your opinion, Jerome, as well.”
This attributing of opinions to him came near goading Jerome to speech; instead, he pushed at the table’s edge, meaning to leave Ebrach with a curt goodbye, and to book a room of his own―but Ebrach, at that moment, stood, and said to Jerome with an apologetic smile, “I hope you will forgive me, sir. I am rather tired.”
For ten minutes more, Jerome brooded at the table. He sat looking at his watch tick these off, then took another two or three minutes to rise from his chair. Bellying up to an unstaffed reception counter he found, with a start, that Ebrach had not gone away, but spoke from somewhere over his shoulder. Ebrach’s voice, after greeting Jerome, introduced him to the Miss Rutherford who had charge of his portmanteau, she also having emerged from behind the office door.
“Jerome, you must consider me your host, so far as our lunch is concerned.” Ebrach then asked Miss Rutherford to add the cost to his tab, speaking all the while as though he and Jerome were party to each other’s affairs.
“I have offended you, Jerome. I’m sorry for that…but it is the nature of my work to confront those anodyne assurances, as by which certain of our philosophers, exercising an authority which to themselves they have merely arrogated, explain life and death, present and eternal existence; and with which explanations the untutored will to enlightenment must content itself to be satisfied.”
Jerome sighed. It had begun again. He guessed that Ebrach, secure as he was now in harvesting his latest collection of tiny souls, would carry on in this vein, all his Cookesville speeches freighted with such mystifications. Yet he asked, as though he were truly Ebrach’s partner in chicanery, “Mr. Ebrach, what is this work you do?”
“Why,” Ebrach’s smile was wistful, and not for Jerome, but for Miss Rutherford. “I hold no title. My own philosophical bent is not acceptably of the world’s received teachings. I am not befriended by its academies and institutions. I do not ask that I should be. My reward is in the solace I bring to the lonely heart. And to the hearts of the bereaved.” Here Ebrach had located a traveler, resting, as Jerome had done earlier, on the velvet settee. He’d deepened his smile, and added a sonorous character to the word “bereaved.” The traveler stirred. She pushed herself upright.
“Jerome,” Ebrach continued, “merely that I may better communicate my ideas to those who are so kind as to show an interest in my work, I take to myself the appellation of ‘mental scientist’.”
“Are you having a holiday?” Jerome asked Miss Rutherford. He saw her eyes widen, as though he’d insulted her. Ebrach had collected his key and a sheaf of telegrams; Jerome now waited, patient in his invisibility, at the counter while Miss Rutherford stared after Ebrach, who had crossed to the elevator.
“I hope that I may take a room, here at your hotel,” he said to her, speaking English in the careful manner of one who consults a guidebook.
“Yes, yes”―she was flustered―“we have rooms. On the first floor, if you like. Those are the least expensive.” She frowned at Jerome’s face, seemed to study his clothing, and added, “I’m always off Sundays.”
“Then you will go to church,” he said, and arranged his stay at the Columbia.
Following a vague sense of orientation, Jerome turned to his right. He had exited the hotel’s grand entrance, offering, this time, a faint acknowledging syllable to the doorman whom he’d earlier ignored. When he had toured the length of the Columbia’s façade, he crossed to the other side of Liberty Avenue, where an iron arch, also in the form of painted lattice-work, marked the entry (if one entered by the walkway; only conscience seemed to require it) to the city park; the same which he had viewed from the window of the hotel’s lunchroom. The lettering wrought into the curve of the arch told Jerome the park was called, “Riverside Park”. Perhaps there was a river, he thought, but the first bench he found backed onto the sidewalk and offered a view mainly of the bandstand.
Other than the bandstand, Cookesville’s park was no more than a closely cut lawn of grass, and in this high and hot season of the year, wide swaths of it had turned to straw. Tall elms, planted either side of a corridor formed by the trees themselves, ran along a ditch, one that began at a culvert opening under the sidewalk, and that widened in the distance to a stream, a grand march beneath intertwining limbs which, no doubt, led down to this river. Jerome could see two regimental beds of petunia and marigold; among the flowers, miniature flags pitched up here and there.
His emotions by now having heated up to a particular parboiled state, Jerome told himself he was outraged at Ebrach’s behavior. He had come away from the hotel to sit, here on this park bench, where he would not see Ebrach, so that he might freely consider his feelings. For three reasons, he had nothing to say to Ebrach. First, he would not challenge Ebrach, or anyone else…he did not have the strength for it. Second, on the train from St. Louis, Jerome had heard Ebrach―while holding some fellow passenger captive―tell of his plans. Ebrach had named Jerome’s destination as his own; and this was not the state of Indiana, nor the city of Cookesville, but the property, the tobacco farm, of W. A. Gremot. Jerome was not convinced that such a thing overheard could be mere happenstance.
He had beckoned to the attendant…one of the wonderful luxuries with which the American Pullman car was appointed; and speaking low, had made his request: “You will please deliver this to the gentleman, there, whose voice we have been hearing.” He had written on the back of his card: “Sir, I ask a word with you, if you are so kind.” Ebrach had come up the gangway at once, and lowered himself onto the seat across from Jerome, offering his hand and saying, simultaneous to leaning forward, elbows on knees, “Mr. Jerome, I have the advantage of you at present; but I will make amends by introducing myself…”
And Jerome, launching his enquiry with an uncertain construction, had tried: “Mr. Ebrach, how does it come to be…?” He could not find the words he wanted. He tried again. “I have heard you say Monsieur Gremot…”
“Ah!” Ebrach interrupted him. “Gremot…the name is French.”
They had made their way, then, to this loose arrangement of traveling together, Ebrach attaching himself to Jerome; or Jerome growing dependent on Ebrach, as the case might be. Ebrach took things over, and Jerome, whose well-being was badly affected by rail travel, had wanted him to do so.
As to his third reason, he knew that he would lose this fight―in which he’d had no wish to engage―no matter whether he protested the use Ebrach was making of him, or allowed it. He might have said, “I am not so stupid, monsieur. I have heard of these things, this farce of speaking to the dead―”
Angered by this thought, Jerome flung his hand in a dismissive gesture, as though the argument were real. However, Ebrach had mastered his seduction of strangers. He would look about him for allies. He portrayed himself―his “philosophical bent”―as under attack; this was an old trick. Having forewarned of it, Ebrach would see his reputation benefit when the attack came. That was all. If Jerome found himself cast against his will as Ebrach’s accomplice, he must weigh the question in terms of his own vulnerability. Ebrach made an unsatisfactory friend and protector, but Jerome could not abandon Ebrach until he had found a new friend and protector.
He did not intend to impose himself on the benevolence of W. A. Gremot. While becoming to a man of property, charitable feeling was by no means to be relied on. And for having corresponded with his relative; or, more accurately, for having badgered a response from Gremot after two years of experiment, Jerome had gained some measure of his character.
Continued from “measure of his character”
March 17, 1873
I have seen your most recent letter; and I am aware of your claims. Your statements, as to family connections, have some merit in and of themselves. They do not prove to me anything of your identity or your purpose. I have given one of your letters to my lawyer; I have not retained the others.
W. A. Gremot
Jerome did not pretend to himself that his cousin might mean, with these sentiments, to express a friendly interest in his affairs. Though couched in terms peculiar to this branch of the family, Gremot’s courtesy was not so tricky that it could not be deciphered. He found it easy to believe this Belgian, who wrote so many letters, might be only some distant relative’s casual acquaintance―an imposter, a fortune hunter. But even dismissal had proved a lucky chance; the letter, providing Jerome an address, a business office in Cookesville―on the High Street, perhaps not far from where he now sat―had spared his wandering the streets of the state capital in vain. Yet Ebrach had known more.
They’d changed trains at the town of Vincennes, Ebrach ushering Jerome to a carriage that Jerome would have called third-class; and having not been aware of this other train, he admitted he would now be lost without Ebrach. As they’d approached Cookesville, Ebrach had outlined an itinerary. “I have been in telegraphic communication with a Mrs. Keene, who lives in the town, and is a friend…” He’d fallen silent, as though musing on the sort of friend Mrs. Keene was. Ebrach had then added a presuming teaser; bait at which Jerome would not snap: “When we arrive, I will learn what she recommends as to hiring a wagon―I can’t do otherwise. I travel with my instruments, which want delicate handling; also, I carry a small library, for, as you will suspect, the authorities whose works I consult are not to be found everywhere.”
The letter from America, for saying so little, had brought upheaval to the house of Monsieur and Madame Sartain. Not all at once, but inexorably. Serrigny’s intimate, lately Honoré’s reluctant relative, M. Sartain had disclosed all that his employer, and his disdain for Honoré, would endure. Of course, a Serrigny was above excuses; but his deputy, at ordinary times above explanations, had offered to Honoré instead a premise: that Serrigny had not withheld his legacy without having the legal authority to do so, and under suspicion of separating Honoré from his money―he had not withheld it at all.
They were soon to quarrel on this subject, but on that morning, not quite two years ahead of the letter’s arrival, Honoré had finished his walk bemused, and still supported by the arm of his new uncle. He was, as yet, unable to climb the stairs to his apartment without both Sartain’s help, and a rest between floors. While fanning herself, Mme. Sartain had wrapped Honoré against his individual chill; and having been bundled into his chair beside the first floor parlor’s hearth, he breathed―as he had been able to do for weeks now―without the congestion in his lungs, and found himself at ease.
“Monsieur Serrigny has excellent cause to distrust me.” Honoré spoke to tempt Sartain. “He may believe he has more than one cause.”
“The house had to be sold. She had made that stipulation in her will. A delay of some months would in any case have been unavoidable.” Betraying, then, the emphatic feeling behind the unlikely calm with which he’d begun, Sartain added: “But…it would be idiocy to sell for the sake of selling, before there could be any market for property!”
“Yes, I’ve heard of these difficulties.” Honoré thought of Gérard, whose present plot of earth would never profit him. “The market must always be better tomorrow than it is today. If Monsieur Serrigny puts me off for a year, it will not seem so bad; and if he puts me off for five years…so much more to my advantage! Also―”
He thought better of his next remark, and at this breaking off Sartain showed himself incurious, if not relieved. Honoré had been going to add that he would like, naturally, as much money as could be got from the sale of Mme. Rose’s house…but he’d noticed the muscles of his uncle’s neck grow tight-strung. It had been with some relish (of a bitter taste)―and with his eye distinctly on Honoré―that Sartain had used the word, “idiocy”.
Paris, in the spring following the humiliation of France, had bled and burned in revolt. But Honoré had missed this. He had been ill, horribly so; was still not much recovered, and Serrigny, like most of those who had known Honoré (excepting the Sartains, who had cared for him, and had therefore missed nothing; and the unfortunate Gérard, who really was dead) had anticipated the worst. But “worst”, Honoré considered, was a figure of speech. Sartain, loyal to Serrigny, did not impute such a motive to a man he admired: of encouraging this delay, which he called unavoidable, and which might have permitted Sartain’s own niece to inherit Mme. Rose’s money.
At the outset of their walk, teeth gritted, Sartain had told Honoré, “Monsieur Serrigny asks me to advise him. And I have given it as my opinion that he may meet with you now at any date he cares to appoint.” A letter from Serrigny waiting in Mme. Sartain’s possession, this by chance having arrived in the morning’s post, confirmed the news of Honoré’s legacy, promising him that soon they would have their talk, reassuring him that the money was real, and not a figment.
But Serrigny had chosen not to arrange this meeting until the next year’s spring―on a particular anniversary in the month of March. Serrigny might devise signs and wonders, wishing her legatee to be impressed by the gravity of the occasion, but Honoré had been insensible of the hour and the day they had told him Mme. Rose was dead. Even weeks afterwards that word had come to him like the whisper of a phantom.
Clotilde and Mme. Sartain had accompanied Honoré to the lawyer’s rooms on the Quai Saint-Michel, where Serrigny, observing that Honoré’s wife clung to his sleeve, had said to her aunt: “Madame, take this girl away.”
“Yes, go.” Honoré caught Clotilde’s hand and loosed it. “Monsieur Serrigny has a thing he wishes to tell me in private.”
“But…” Pressured towards the door by the arm of Mme. Sartain thrown round her waist, Clotilde had nonetheless crafted a defense: “I will understand nothing Monsieur Serrigny says, I am certain; so then it’s no difference if I stay or go, only…I can be very quiet there in the corner, monsieur.” Over her aunt’s shoulder she cast appealing eyes at Serrigny; but he, reading through papers on his desk, raised his head, and shooed the women with a gesture. “Please, madame.”
Madame Sartain murmured an inducement. “We will ride in a cab, ma petite. Just to sit and look at the city is very pleasant.”
When they had gone, Serrigny pointed at a hard wooden chair before his desk, and Honoré, who had little flesh on his bones, perched at its edge in some pain, noting how well upholstered was Serrigny’s leather armchair. The window behind him, its sky-blue draperies flung open to the sun, streamed light onto his desk, and concealed his face in shadow.
“I can’t force you,” he told Honoré, “to manage your affairs responsibly. She attached no conditions to the money. She may have told you about Jacques. If so, you will know the sort of indulgent mother Madame Rose was. Had she asked me, I would strongly have urged that she put the property in trust, to provide you a small income. Your education would not then have come at too high a price.
“Perhaps―though how it could be so, when she had lived with you under her roof―she believed you capable of resisting your own inclinations.” Serrigny left off speaking. He seemed to lapse into abstraction, his chin resting on his hand. Honoré did not know which of this statement’s two points―whether Mme. Rose had believed this, or whether it was true―Serrigny expected him to address. He had never had a legacy formally transferred into his possession. There might be nothing more to say. He had nearly risen, when Serrigny, emerging, waved a hand at him, palm down. Honoré resumed his uncomfortable seat.
“Please. Madame Rose had a kind heart. She knew herself to be dying. You, in taking the place of Jacques, have done nothing wrong. I don’t suggest that you could have known of her plans. But I see no wisdom in you, and I say it frankly. I hope you will respect the good intentions of one who was truly your friend.”
He was being lectured without sympathy…and what was more, Honoré knew himself, if he were not wise, intelligent enough at least to see the import of what Serrigny claimed he did not suggest. Composing a face to conceal these thoughts, and using the front corner of Serrigny’s desk, Honoré pulled himself to his feet. “Because I have a wife to think of, Monsieur Serrigny, I will ask you for the cheque; and then, not to take up your time, I will leave, as soon as…”
A sardonic smile bloomed on Serrigny’s face. He interrupted.
“Monsieur Gremot, we have not begun to conduct our legal affairs. I have no cheque to give you―you will draw your money from an account at the savings bank on the rue de Combé; indeed, I would advise keeping the funds where they are. But when you have spoken with your friends, you may feel persuaded to choose a scheme of your own. No, you will be here for another hour or two…we will take refreshment, you need not fear. And you must tell me if you begin to feel unwell. However―I have been giving you advice. I suppose you haven’t had enough advice in your life to recognize the nature of it. When we die, Monsieur Gremot, we must place the sum of our lives in the hands of another. If you squander this legacy, it will not be merely so many francs that you are making an end of. Let me say this also: I see too much of the parvenu in your tastes and your ambitions. Why pursue that which society will not permit? Along the southern coast the air is wholesome, and there are any number of charming villages. You will find a house suitable for your family, one you can afford. If you insist, you may still have your Progressiste. I would not remain in Paris.”
Honoré sat for the third time, and Serrigny then drew down one from a stack of books at his right hand. “You must yourself make a will, for Madame Gremot’s sake…it may be that she will outlive you. I think, also, that since you are in a good position, her uncle being generous enough not to charge you rent for the rooms you occupy in his house, ten thousand francs might be put aside for the purpose of making an investment; to do so will not prevent your collecting a comfortable allowance…” He opened another of his books. “These are interest tables; I will make their meaning plain to you…have you ever voted in an election?”
“I mean any sort of election.”
“Yes, then―for officers of my club.”
“Do you have a club?”
Honoré drew breath. “The Schaerbeek chapter of the Council of the party of liberty of the proletariat…”
“That will do.” Serrigny had written down none of this. “Will you return to live in Belgium?”
“No, I think not.”
For an hour more, Serrigny spoke of all those things—taxes, investments, responsibilities civic and marital—mentioned in his introductory remarks; he read to Honoré from his books, demanding at intervals that Honoré come stand behind him, then sending him back to his chair. At one o’clock, he rang a bell; the boy summoned by this was sent to fetch their lunch from a nearby hotel.
“But,” Honoré, happier for having been fed, licked bread crumbs from his fingers, and searched his mind for any sampling of Serrigny’s advice that he’d understood or remembered. “Monsieur, you said at the beginning, she attached no conditions to the money. Am I not allowed to have it?”
“The money is yours, Monsieur Gremot.” Serrigny put aside his plate, and dealt onto his desk an array of papers. “Now, there is something to be said for taking one’s income on a quarterly basis…”
Honoré had remained in Paris. He’d explained the money to Clotilde so as to make the amount seem unimportant. She would like Serrigny’s idea too well, her little cottage overlooking the sea…it was not even coincidence, Honoré believed. Clotilde, at his bedside, had spun this yarn many times, while the others had come and gone. Serrigny supposed merely that he might add weight from another angle.
Tilting his head to look skywards, Honoré saw the parchment-colored walls of the tall house reflect a bright opacity, like the patent of nobility; while its cats, from between iron rails, peered down with scorn. Honoré shifted his gaze again to street level, to the insouciant tasseled awnings, and felt mindful of old resentments. If Broughton had lived here, if he had not left Paris as Honoré had feared; if he’d been in communication with Serrigny throughout the years gone by since he’d found new work for Honoré, and had been not far away during all the forlorn months of Honoré’s recovery, it seemed hard that Broughton had never called. He might have sent his card, nothing more, only to wish his old servant well.
Serrigny had asked, “You have not gone through your money already?”
Most of it, yes. Among Honoré’s expenses was the rented office, in which Gilbert had taken up residence. This saved something; it meant Honoré paid his friend smaller wages―still, Gilbert had to be paid, or he would have to work, and the Progressiste needed every hour the two could spare. The printer had to be paid. Honoré (his old things no longer fitting) had bought two suits; he’d ordered cards and stationery. But these were requisites for a man doing business.
Yet, for having been induced to sign one fatal paper; a power of attorney that had given Serrigny guardianship of his money after all, Honoré would soon have more of it to spend―in seven months, on his twenty-third birthday. A fresh allowance would be disbursed on his twenty-fourth, and in two years more, at twenty-five, he would receive the bulk of his legacy: the ten thousand francs that Serrigny had wanted to invest in railway shares.
Serrigny, at the finale of their first meeting, had called in his clerk; both crossed from desk to filing cabinet, traded documents and Latin terms, quibbled, lost things and found them. By then, Clotilde had come back, and twice had put her head round the door; each time, Mme. Sartain’s scolding could be heard from the antechamber. And Honoré had, for the past hour, slouched in his chair, daydreaming. He’d wanted his afternoon nap. He’d risen six times to scribble his name.
Serrigny preferred that Honoré’s concerns be addressed to him through Sartain. He had made himself disagreeable over this request for a consultation in person. “I hope you are not keeping secrets at home, Monsieur Gremot. I am quite willing to find employment for you. This life of the entrepreneur was your own choice.”
“I thank you, monsieur. You are kind to make me the offer…but no, you have not understood me―I have a relative who lives in America. My father told me he is a rich man…”
Serrigny interrupted with a laugh. He did not laugh often in conversation with Honoré; but when he did, to an immoderate degree, he continued. He said at length:
“You have been writing letters to this relative. You have some scheme in mind, have you, in which you will allow him to sink his money?”
With the dignity appropriate to a proprietor and managing editor, Honoré ignored Serrigny’s jab…this was not the first time he had divined, and with such piercing accuracy, those things he could have got from Sartain. “I have written to my relative, and he has never answered. So I think with my English, I do not make myself sensible. No, I have come only to ask if you know where I can find Monsieur Broughton.”
By now, he and Gilbert had issued six numbers of the third Progressiste, and gained forty subscribers, a statistic that both gratified and disappointed. To drum up interest, they left copies everywhere: on omnibus seats…on theater seats; filtering in where crowds gathered, they dropped them into carelessly closed umbrellas. Honoré had had the idea of putting the Progressiste before the public by folding twenty-four inside twenty-four copies of the Figaro—a journal people wanted to read. With a ten-franc piece secured between the first two fingers of his right hand, and glinting in the sun as he worked, Honoré demonstrated his method of concealing these upside-down, so that the Progressiste would at once call attention to itself. The vendor had been a crippled veteran of St-Privat, who sold from a kiosk near the Gare du Montparnasse. He was apprehensive. Honoré dismissed this.
“What! Send your wife to sell them for you, then. She will say you’ve had an accident with your leg, and the men will buy from sympathy.” The vendor frowned. Honoré cleared his throat. “I know of no reason to complain about something given free…but say one does complain―she will tell him a stranger talked her into it, that’s all.”
Honoré and Gilbert also had perfected a technique for working in tandem to slip past the porters of the better hotels; Honoré sinking onto the front steps, coughing into his handkerchief, while Gilbert achieved the inner staircase, and pushed a Progressiste under as many doors as accounted for half their press run. They did their best to sell the others on the street.
Honoré now gave his own card to the boy who loitered in Broughton’s vestibule. And was met with hesitation. Darkly, he said, “Why should I tip you, garçon? You will take that up at once!”
He found that he had four flights of stairs to climb. At the second landing, Honoré began to lean on the bannister for support. At the third, he stalled, bent over gasping, and was surprised to hear Broughton speak.
“Gremot! I’m pleased that you have thought of visiting me. These stairs are rather trying for you, I’m afraid…put your hand on my shoulder. I will not let you fall. You must allow me to help you.” Those, Honoré recalled, had been Broughton’s words. He’d waited to speak until they reached the door to the apartment, left standing open. It would do no harm, Honoré thought, to ask his favor at the outset. By using the distraction of fishing in his pockets, he could be somewhat off-hand about the episode, while catching his breath―and without seeming rude. He managed a smile. “It will be easier going down than up. They say it is.”
“They do say so.”
The apartment was furnished with dull, useful things: bookshelves, a desk, two armchairs, a rug. Broughton had been writing letters of his own. His desk faced away from the narrow balcony, but he had not curtained his window; nothing shut out the light. Each letter and paper was held in place against the breeze by a lead weight. Honoré saw the city’s avenues fan out below like a declining star, the arches of the Pont Neuf and shadows cast beneath, that quelled the flashing waters of the Seine, a spot of carmine on the weathered hull of a little boat that sheltered there. The fair blue sky framed by the window against Broughton’s dusky interior, glowed with the grace of a cathedral’s fresco. Broughton, he saw, kept four geraniums in pots lined up at the balcony’s edge. One sported an early bloom.
“Read for yourself.” Honoré held out the letter. He jogged it in the air, as Broughton did not take it immediately. “See what I am saying. And then, you will advise me how to say it best. You have…” He felt a dismaying pressure in his chest.
“I have, Gremot…” Murmuring this, Broughton bent his head over the letter, walked to the lighter half of the room, and stepped through the open window onto the balcony. After a minute or two, during which Honoré heard the room fill with the sound of his own breathing, Broughton looked up. He came back inside.
“Please forgive me. I ought to have offered you a chair at once. I do not take my meals here, and so I am sorry to say, I’ve nothing much to give you. I have brandy, however. Sit…and I will fetch some.”
“No, I mean to say…” Honoré backed against one of the armchairs, coming down abruptly on its cushioned seat. He tried carrying on in a natural voice. “You have asked to see the new Progressiste, do you remember?”
Years ago, when he had been friendly to Honoré, Broughton had asked this; and Honoré had not omitted to tuck a copy inside his coat pocket.
But the spell could not be avoided. He put his head over his knees, and buried his face in his handkerchief. It was not, he thought, so much a sin to have feigned illness. He could start a cough readily enough; he could not always suppress it afterwards. Before Broughton, he ought not be punished with this embarrassment. He recited a prayer, as M. Bellet had once taught him to do, both plea and means of concentrating away pain; then recited it twice more. The spasms subsided. He was able forcibly to stop the first lagging cough. The next came out, then two or three, then silence.
Honoré studied his handkerchief to see what the fit had brought up…and this was only spittle and phlegm, no blood. A corner of the handkerchief was still clean; with this, he dabbed at his eyes. He blew his nose. Tired from the climb and the prolonged attack, Honoré slumped for a moment against the wing of the chair. His mind went black as though he’d fallen into a doze…but for only a brief time. He opened his eyes. From the angle at which his head had come to rest, he saw between the rug’s fringe and the wall, exposed parquetry, its pattern and its dust, the dark waxy edge at the bottom of the wall, scuffs illuminated by a shaft of sun. Four rings stained the floor, encircled with a white crust where water had dried. The month was April. Until the morning air had warmed, Broughton must shelter his geraniums indoors, aligned here in a tidy row.
Honoré’s ears had half listened to drawers pulled open, the rattle of glass and bottle; Broughton now drew the other armchair close, and thrust the brandy, waving the glass to release its scent, under Honoré’s nose. “I have poured only a small amount,” he said. Honoré sat up. He straightened his clothes. And, for Broughton’s sake, took the glass and drank.
“I have made a request of you. I ask you almost nothing.”
“I’ve read your letter, Honoré. But I will read it again.” Brought rose, retrieved this from his desk, and carrying the letter in his hand, returned to his chair. For so long he sat and looked at what Honoré had written, thoughtful and unspeaking, that Honoré believed he had indeed said everything wrong.
“You have conceived a plan to emigrate to America?”
“Conceived…” Translating each of these words separately, whose sense together confused him somewhat, Honoré took measure of Broughton’s idea, and gave him a conditional nod.
“I had heard,” Broughton said, “that you have taken on family responsibilities.”
“But, I would go by myself, alone.”
“Gremot, do you suppose they have no laws at all regarding…” Broughton sighed. He looked unhappy. “My best advice, as to your letter, is that you must write for yourself. You will better impress this relative of yours by using your own words, however imperfect. But Gremot, the Americans do not grant entry to all immigrants. Have you thought of it?”
When it had started—his campaign of letters—Honoré was yet bedridden; he’d believed himself destitute, and dependent on the charity of a man who disliked him.
The first had been of the simplest sort, taking advantage of the odd condition in which duress had placed him. Honoré had sent an announcement calculated not to alarm his American relative:
My dear cousin Monsieur Gremot, I write to you on the occasion of my marriage…
No gift of money had turned up in an envelope, however, and he had written the same letter again, thinking the first could have gone astray. Only in these last months had Honoré begun to threaten visiting America; and that, only in the nature of prodding the sleeping lion to learn whether effrontery, at last, would wake it. But…
He did think of emigrating. He had thought of it before.
They were ruining him, Messieurs Serrigny and Sartain, choking off his prospects with their reserved opinions. And he did not have even the luxury of pretending that they conspired to do so, and of hating them for it. Serringy was a man of influence. Honoré was thought to be under Serrigny’s protection…and by this unhappy convergence, he was cursed. Help with the Progressiste had proved nearly impossible to find―for why should investors trust Honoré, when his patron kept him at arm’s length, and would not trust him?
Inside, an ember of indignation flared. He lifted a hand and rested it on his stomach. He had the right, as any man had the right, to decide his own fate…to leave this city, if he liked; to make a new start, if he chose. He had not begged Broughton for counsel. He had not come here to have his ambitions judged. He had asked a simple favor. Why should Broughton throw additional obstacles in the path, when he had tacitly refused to help in clearing the first?
“Why, monsieur…” Honoré cut short his answer, and said: “I see.” He recalled the picture he’d had (and with which he now rebuked himself), of reading his work aloud to Broughton, of Broughton’s fingers on his blotter interlaced. Of his old employer kind, attentive in his corrections: “I’m afraid I don’t quite like it. But I have a suggestion, Gremot.” As Broughton had been, once.
Honoré felt his eyes fill. After wiping them with his sleeve, he pitched his weight against the scrolled armrest, with all the vehemence of humiliation. His weight was not much to alter the balance of things, and Honoré struggled…to rise from his bed in the mornings, to rise from upholstered chairs. He could not stalk from the room, as he would have liked. Broughton was on his feet ahead of Honoré; and placing two fingers on his shoulder, rather than assist him up, gently pressured him back into his seat.
“You must allow me to give you supper. You have come a long way.”
Determined to stand, Honoré threw into it his most strenuous effort. “I must always have supper at home.”
When Broughton proffered the letter, he waved this off with the back of his hand. “Monsieur, I do not need it. No, you have been all the help you can. I thank you, Monsieur Broughton, that you have opened your door to me.”
He’d been shaken, and made somewhat sorry, by what he’d seen on Broughton’s face. Yet as Honoré descended the stairs, he reminded himself that Broughton had for many months ignored him. Asked for a small service, a mere courtesy of the sort due to friendship, Broughton had balked him. Then, finding they could not be amicable, Broughton would like to atone with an act of generosity. Well, it was no use being kind in this commonplace way! Honoré had not come to have supper. Broughton was happy to think himself right and have Honoré agree to be wrong.
Feeling sad, and unsettled in his mind, he looked up from the street, and could locate, now that he knew, the single red bloom, knocking against the rail, as the wind stirred it.
Continued from “the wind stirred it”
But on that same day, the miracle had occurred. In the Sartain’s downstairs parlor, feeling unequal to climbing more steps, Honoré rested, tucked in his blanket, by the fire. Mme. Sartain had given him mulled wine, so powerfully soporific combined with the brandy, that he had nearly fallen into a deep sleep.
“You have a letter, Honoré. I saved it for you.” Clotilde knelt on the floor beside his chair, and whispered these words. Once he’d comprehended the import of its address—No. 10 High Street, Cookesville, Indiana—he’d asked her: “You don’t mean you’ve kept this from me for days?”
Her eyes welled. “No, Honoré! Madame, did the letter come today? It did.” Rather than get to her feet, she half-crawled towards her aunt. So recently had Honoré been moved in this same way, that he found himself caring for Clotilde, tender towards her as he sometimes felt. Yet almost everything he said to her seemed to come out sharply.
“Honoré,” Madame Sartain asked, with great practicality, “what does this letter from America, that you have waited for, say?”
Jerome thought of coincidence. We read significance into the thing we know to have happened; but for all that might have happened otherwise, only the ticking off of each chance, until one last remains―one conjoining of time and place―has made the known thing certain. A man walking with his dog along a road meets a stranger; and in his house, the stranger meets his daughter.
That Honoré had first made his home in the 6th arrondissement had been a choice, one born of pragmatism. He had gone in search of news, and news was minted in the heart of the city. But he could take lodging only as near to the heart as he could afford. On the left bank of the Seine lived a circle, peopled with Sartains, with Roses…a Gérard Costa, a Limolette…a Sylvie Perreau. Octavie had lived in that quarter, and so, on a poor street near the prison of Sainte-Pélagie, had the Garonds. But in any quarter, in any city, there would be such a circle; in any time of war, there would be a heightened mistrust of outsiders newly arrived. That an outsider eyed by a close-knit coterie of neighbors should encounter a number of its connections, is no great mystery—for how could Honoré have known whether Paquette, or a dozen Paquettes, posted all along the way, had not been set to watch for him long before that day of August when he had walked Paquette’s road?
Michelet was Canadian. To Honoré, this had seemed much the same as being American.
“I thought that you were always begging for money.”
Michelet held his hat while kneading at it with his fingers, and would not take the seat Honoré offered. He’d got off badly with Michelet, annoying him by sending one of the city’s petty informants―so eager to sell their gossip that even the Progressiste attracted its share―on an errand to enquire in Montmartre after Michelet’s family. He had done so only because such door to door work was beyond his own strength, and the time was not right for disclosing his plan to Gilbert.
But he understood that Michelet felt intruded upon. “I apologize,” he said again. “You see that I am not troubled for money, monsieur. I am wondering, because I know nothing of it, and because you are from America, I believe…” He waited, and Michelet, whose face had been stony, faintly altered his expression, relaxing his mouth and narrowing his eyes. “I am wondering,” Honoré finished, “if these things are always done in the same way.”
“Of course,” Michelet said. He took a moment to stare at Honoré, taking into account the changes of two years. “Yes…I could help you cross into New York very readily. But can you afford it? What does your word mean to me? Monsieur Gremot, you must agree to do as I tell you.”
For some months, he had obeyed Michelet, and paid Michelet. He had not trusted Michelet, but had been willing to believe that a lack of respect for authority was the exact quality wanted for such an enterprise…and that he’d seen Michelet, when compensated for a job, work at it with ardor enough. Honoré often had heard―but never so well understood as he did today―that money is not the only means of payment. The harsher of his punishments had been that, through Michelet, he’d become ensnared for a second time by Anne Lugard.
A rust-colored shallow pitched roof, seen where the slope descended; where the elms, viewed in perspective, curved and shrank away, began to float. It floated beyond sight with a dreamy slowness that, for a moment, puzzled Jerome’s sense of reality. He saw a jerry-built shed of sorts reveal itself perched on the deck of a flatboat, this making for some new berth, and becoming concealed again in stages behind a thicket of trees. A red shirt hanging next to a pair of white drawers flapped drying in the wind…or these were pennants, perhaps, a poor man’s semaphore. Left was a scintillation of sun on water to show the place the barge had been. And having seen the river―it was nearby, after all―Jerome felt a yearning to walk along its bank.
But his energy flagged in the afternoons, and only an hour or two’s sleep could restore in him the will to go down to supper. He considered whether he must return to the Columbia.
He saw a man coming along the walk, eyes downcast as though he traced a roadmap from patterns stamped in tufts of moss between glazed bricks. His neck and chest curved forward, making of his posture a crescent. The man wore no waistcoat, no necktie; the sleeves of his blue collarless shirt were rolled to the elbow, and he walked with hands in his trouser pockets. Stopping a few feet from Jerome’s bench, he withdrew his right, and tipped back his straw hat. Jerome looked up into a black-browed, weather-beaten face.
“Are you the fella calls himself Jerome?”
This stating of the case could hardly be perfected upon. Good manners required that Jerome rise and offer his hand, but he’d seated himself in the middle of the bench…he would need something to brace against.
“I am Jerome, sir,” he said, without attempting it. “In what way may I help you?”
“George Ziegler,” the man told him, and coming closer, bent over Jerome and patted him on the shoulder. “Mr. Ebrach sent me out looking for you. If you have a mind to come back to the hotel, I’ll see to it you get along all right.”
“You have business with Mr. Ebrach, sir?”
“Been talking to him ’bout hiring me to drive him out to the ’stead.”
This made partial sense to Jerome. “But Mr. Ebrach has told you, sir, that I also will ride with him to visit…this place.”
“Yessir. I know every which way out to the summit, Mr. Jerome. Oftentimes, I done jobs for Gremot.”
Jerome felt that he had not disputed this. He reached for the back of the bench, and Ziegler grasped his outstretched arm, saying, “You let me help you up, sir. Mr. Ebrach’s told me a thing or two.”
He disliked finding himself handicapped in this way by Ebrach, who seemed to Jerome an unreliable teller of things. And he could not catch Ziegler’s eye, to show him the face of a man competent to manage his own affairs, for Ziegler, as though conscious of making himself too familiar, had fallen a pace behind, just touching Jerome’s elbow as they crossed the street.
When in safety they had reached the corner lamppost, Ziegler said, “Mr. Jerome, I keep a good, gentle team. It ain’t rained hereabouts near four days. Road along the river ain’t too bad in dry weather, but I don’t say it’ll be easy going.”
“Does not…” Ziegler’s news disturbed Jerome’s mental map of places and distances as gleaned from Ebrach’s talk; but then, Ebrach’s talk had wrought upon Ziegler this impression of an invalid―it could be nothing other than that Ziegler had in mind with his “easy going”.
“Does not Monsieur Gremot live outside the town? In the suburb of Cookesville, I mean?”
Ziegler angled his head, and for a moment resumed his study of the sidewalk; then shrugged, and gave Jerome a forgiving smile. “No, sir. Mr. Gremot lives a good ways out. Mr. Ebrach told me he don’t mind if we take it slow, though. He cain’t do none of his work ‘til the dark sets in.”
These two ideas both disturbed and repelled. Jerome was silent as they mounted the first of the Columbia’s front steps. He did not like to be asked, even by accident, to imagine Ebrach’s performances, or his own brusque relative’s participation in this calling of the dead. But more unsettling was Ebrach’s apparent object of residing with the Gremots until nightfall. They might wish to close their door against Jerome. They had not invited him.
“Sir, you have done jobs for Monsieur Gremot. Is he a man who is very congenial?”
“I couldn’t rightly say.” Ziegler had answered this after a long pause. Jerome felt he might profitably re-phrase his question. “Do you find Monsieur Gremot to be a great man of spiritualism?”
They had reached the Columbia’s tall double doors with their shining plate glass and vigilant attendant. Jerome this time took care, and said to the doorman: “Again I thank you.”
Ziegler followed him inside. “Mr. Gremot has a sharp way of dealing with folks, get on his wrong side. He wouldn’t go no farther than the law allows. I cain’t tell you about no church going habits.”
Thomas B. Jerome was a gentleman of New Orleans. Perhaps the real Jerome lived there still, and would be consternated to learn of another man calling himself by that name. Honoré had never set foot in New Orleans.
“Has Michelet told you his other name?” his wife asked him. He was slow to understand her, and she lost patience. “No, he has not! You allow him to have the advantage of you! Suppose he’s cheated you, and you would like to call the gendarme? Who is this Michelet?” They waited for the tender near a stack of trunks; armed with documents, but otherwise set adrift to their own devices, on the pier at Cherbourg in a heavy fog.
The Jeromes were fashionable visitors from New Orleans, returning home; Mrs. Jerome enchanting in her taffeta wrap, her scarlet bonnet plumed with a dew-damped aigrette. In accord with the habit of the beau monde, she carried in her arms a small dog. Anne bore no affection for the dog; the dog too much…for Anne’s shoes and Honoré’s trouser leg. Her pet’s name might, by its own accounting, have been, “Brute! Go away!”; but Anne called him, “Sylvie”, thus with one blow delivering three insults―to the dog, to her relative, and to Honoré, who remained Sylvie’s adherent.
Anne, with her trappings of richesse, believed she made a captivating picture, and to Honoré’s eyes, she did. But he felt as befogged as the harbor. The laudanum worked to calm Anne’s fears, not his own. He had downed the patent medicines she’d got from Maier (eager to give them god-speed with yet another of his services). To the extent that it stupefied Honoré, it also suppressed his cough; the drug had taken away his appetite as well, and made a weary struggle of keeping his eyelids up. He was biddable with Anne, but had resisted going aboard ship in this condition.
“They can take you, you know. For desertion. It would be exactly his way to have a man follow us.” He was M. Sartain…and the childless Sartain, who took pride nonetheless in his family name, might do exactly that. She’d cajoled. “I will let you be happy, if being another Jacques to me makes you happy. But think of how it will be for me, Honoré, when our ship sails.” From behind his back, she’d circled his waist with her arms, and nestled her two hands over the one in which he held the medicine bottle. “I have no friend in all the world but Thomas Jerome…no, not a sou of my own to save my life, if he abandons me.” This, with a sing-song playfulness. But at once she was serious, fanning herself with her own words―as she could―into a passion. “Because you will abandon me one day….you will, because I love you too much! I must be too stupid to see that this is the start of it! I ask you to do this small thing, when I ought not bother you at all…but I don’t care, not for myself! Honoré, I give you everything.”
Honoré had wobbled and sighed over the long queue, the cause of their delay impossible, in such heavy mists, to fathom―but he need only board safely. Maier had made all the arrangements.
Michelet had wanted Honoré to meet this Ambrose Maier, a friend of his whom Honoré had not met before. Maier had pull; he was a minor official of the Seine prefecture, and of course, in his position, he could not risk an untrustworthy customer. Were he to do a favor, he must know the man for whom he extended himself. The restaurant where Michelet had arranged this meeting was the Feuille d’Or. And Honoré, dressed now himself in beautiful clothes, welcomed where once he had been shown the door, allowed the girl to extract his own hat from the hand that jabbed with it at the air behind him. But his mood was anxious. His eyes were on the two men who had preceded him in the wake of the head-waiter. He disliked the confidential way they bent to each other’s ears. He did not happily entertain Michelet and his friend.
“You will be host,” Michelet had told him. “It is only courtesy, after all. But also, it proves to Monsieur Maier that you are sincere. Why should he risk scandal and disgrace, unless he can feel certain you won’t betray him?”
Michelet would be on hand. “Yes, of course, I would not leave my client.” The phrase pleased Michelet. He repeated it; patted Honoré’s arm, and smiled. Honoré recognized this story…Michelet had told it a few weeks earlier. He no longer remembered the name of the official whose hands moved invisibly, and whose methods were a mystery. Michelet and his profligate friend had on that occasion eaten a quantity of oysters while downing four bottles of Cliquot. Nothing whatever to Honoré’s advantage had resulted from the expensive dinner.
“I do not doubt that I am at fault.” He did feel this. He’d made the mistake of putting his faith in a man he knew, and for no better reason. “But I believed we’d made a bargain…the expense would be mine, and you would do what I could not. Now these papers begin to take so long to arrive, that I think I can as easily learn for myself where to buy them. So I will save my money. I thank you, Monsieur Michelet.” Honoré, on this occasion, had risen from his desk, strode past Michelet (to a small degree, it may have been, crowding him) and rested his fingers on the door handle. But Michelet refused the hint. He seized Honoré by the sleeve.
“How can you judge? You say yourself you know nothing. You say”―here, straining, he’d drawn his lips to produce an unpleasant smile―“very sensibly, Monsieur Gremot, that you trust me to do what you appreciate you yourself are unable. Don’t expect me to care if you are so bad-tempered you will throw your chance away…so close, monsieur, and after I have made nearly everything ready for you…only consider that you would prefer, I’m certain, to sail for America this month,” his voice, on this last emphatic word had gone a notch higher; with his left hand Michelet caught the edge of the door, the sinews of his wrist flexing…he then swung it open. His elbow brushed Honoré’s chin. “Rather than in a year or more. Or never. You might easily fall among swindlers.”
Maier had startled Honoré, so closely did he resemble the detective whose lunch Honoré had ruined long ago. But his smile was bland as he stood and bowed. They took their seats, ordered oysters, veal and roast duck, red and white wines, and two bottles of champagne; and while they ate, and while Maier and Michelet talked, Honoré peered sideways at Maier. Certainly his beard was trim and grey. Perhaps this man was not so heavy-set, either. He might have been taller than the detective, whose picture had somewhat faded in Honoré’s memory.
“Now,” Maier said. “Monsieur Gremot, I have an excellent suggestion for you. Rather than pay for my services, I will ask that you do a service for me. You will be very happy to save your money.”
Because Honoré meant to go abroad, he supposed at once that Maier trafficked in contraband. “I will hear what you have to say,” he told Maier.
Michelet and Maier, as he’d afterwards realized, had not conspired to discover whether Honoré was a fool, but the proper classification and magnitude of his foolishness. Maier told him, “I am also helping a poor young woman. She seeks to emigrate, and, just as in your case, she must not make herself known to officials. Though her reason, Monsieur Gremot, is not yours.” Maier had spoken so knowingly that Honoré’s suspicions were re-engaged. “It will be a great advantage to you, monsieur. You will look very respectable traveling with a wife.”
At this remark, Honoré had studied Maier closely. Could his inflection not have been ironic?
Michelet and Maier smiled at each other over their glasses. Maier said, “You will decide for yourself whether you are able to agree to my plan. If so, you owe me nothing in payment. But,” he added with an air of discovery, “Madame Lugard is here. You must finish your dinner in her company. Perhaps you may find her charming.”
The steamer on which they sailed was a twenty-year old side-wheeler, the Opaline. Her harbor of destination was Halifax; her port of embarkation had been Gravesend. Jerome, under his wife’s care, remained in his cabin for much of the fifteen-day voyage. The Opaline sailed rough; she drummed and rattled her occupants with her boilers and her churning wheel. She had been built in an era when passengers for their safety avoided the open deck. She was not heavy enough to keep from rolling in high seas; and despite her coal stores, she obtained much of her momentum from her sails. Jerome was not alone in having suffered a bad crossing. He came up from his cabin, as the Opaline came into harbor, entering the second-class saloon white and clammy as a cave newt. And feeling, for all the laudanum with which Anne had dosed him, poorly rested.
Anne wore a gown of pinkish lavender, one Jerome had bought for her. This shade pleased her near her face. Because the room was cool, and because she wanted to be seen in her silk, Anne fidgeted with her sable wrap, letting it fall below her shoulders, shrugging it up, again reaching low to gather its trailing ends from the carpet. She shared her table with a middle aged couple. The man, podgy back fully expanding his coat’s center pleat, high-crowned hat balanced on his knee, peered through the window, and seemed too interested in watching the pilot guide the Opaline into port. He did not acknowledge Jerome. The woman looked like a stall-keeper, her legs spread under a blood-rose skirt, her coarse cheeks rouged and hair pulled high. In a loud voice, she said, “Monsieur Jerome! All this time, we have not seen you.”
They were drinking champagne. Placed at a disadvantage, Jerome remained standing. Anne said, “Well, certainly you know Monsieur Maier. I suppose you have not met Berthe. Madame Maier, my husband will kiss your hand.” She gave a rude laugh. Berthe Maier’s smile, in answer, was sly as she offered Jerome the back of her glove. Maier turned away from the window.
“Madame…monsieur.” Jerome touched his fingertips to Madame Maier’s; he did not put his lips to her glove. His nod to Maier was curt, as he took the vacant chair. He was greatly surprised that Maier should be aboard the Opaline. Anne, seated beside the window, opposite Maier, pushed her glass across the table. “Take small sips. It will settle your stomach.”
“What, did you think you would cross the border in a barrel, loaded on a boxcar?” Maier gave a merry snort. “You are Mr. Jerome, an American. You have a paper that says so. But likely enough, no one will ask to see it.”
The dog Sylvie had been sent away in a cab with Berthe Maier, bound for a Halifax hotel. “My dear,” Maier smiled as he steered his wife along the pier, the palm of one hand between her shoulder blades, the fingers of the other tapping her elbow, “it is a very dull affair, waiting for trains to arrive. I give you another task. Find out the best restaurant in Halifax, and reserve a table for only the two of us. I will take on the chore of seeing off our young friends.” With a jovial face and laugh, he’d waved Berthe into the driver’s care. And seeing himself rid of his wife, Maier jogged back to them.
He took up Anne’s carpet bag and Jerome’s portmanteau, squeezing one piece of luggage under each arm.
“When I have set myself a task, Jerome, I see it through.” Saying this, Maier struck off on foot, Anne following and Jerome trailing. “Children, we depart for Montreal at once. There is nothing to see in Halifax.”
That night they stayed at the Hôtel Royale, Maier still their cheerful companion. Whether he’d telegraphed excuses to Berthe, or had left her to stew in her wrath, he did not confide to his young friends. Jerome, the American, had paid for this room, so sumptuous in its décor, that he, his wife…and Maier, their unshakeable follower, might have commandeered a chamber of the late Emperor’s autumn palace at Compiègne. Tomorrow, Maier told them, they would board another train, one that would carry them to the city of Syracuse, New York.
Anne, petite, and Jerome, thin, made two small figures side by side under the shadow of the canopy’s brocade and gold fringe, their backs propped against a towering headboard, this bolstered with horsehair stuffing under the same crimson velvet, tacked round baroque curves with gimping and brass nails. The mattress was covered in the same cloth as the canopy, the plumpness of its feathering drawing them down like quicksand. Maier sat depressing the bed’s other end, his weight more than that of Anne’s and Jerome’s combined.
“I will give you good advice for nothing. You will not like the city of New York. Living there will cost you too much money; and there, young Jerome, with your cough, you are more likely to run afoul of some active public servant, who will not like the sound of it. You may settle comfortably in any of these small cities along the way―Syracuse itself will do. Keep your eyes open and learn, Jerome. Make plans for your life in America, after you have come to know America.”
Anne had not cared for Maier’s good advice.
Syracuse, Albany, Utica―they were not fashionable towns. The people who might see her in those places were of insufficient account. But Jerome had fallen into fever on the train from Montreal, and when they’d reached Utica, he could travel no further. And though Anne hated that part of New York that was not its great metropolis, as she hated all of France that was not Paris, she’d agreed to this: it was best to stop for the winter. That had been the final matter of preference on which Anne had allowed him his way.
“…because in a strange country, to have the weather against us will make everything worse.” She quoted Maier, for this was the confident manner in which Anne spoke of his mentoring. She had got to know him on the Opaline, and cited Maier as a figure of trust, where Jerome saw only a barnacle that could not be scraped off. But come the spring, they would have learned those things about America that Maier advised.
Jerome wished his wife happy enough to live on in Utica, in two back rooms of a small house near the railway tracks. They had, by that late October, little of Jerome’s money left to spend. For control of the purse-strings she had pestered and wheedled, shading persuasion into nagging―“You aren’t going to do the chores yourself, are you? Does it please you to make me beg? You remind me of Jacques!” Anne’s bookkeeping habits were no better than his own, but in the course of a campaign she tired less easily.
As to Jacques, Jerome thought it impossible that he could resemble him…as there must be no person like Jacques. Jacques had been mourned by his mother long before his death; to Mme. Rose his boyhood had grown ineffably sweet, the rest put aside to forget. To Serrigny, Jacques Rose made a ready example of uneducable ingratitude. When Anne wished him to have been so, Jacques became a jail-keeper, cruel with his words and hands. But then again, she might wish him to have been a man of initiative, one who could make a living when there was none to be found.
Jerome’s birthday neared, and Anne, seeing the letter he penciled at their kitchen table, said, “Why, if the money is yours, will your bank not wire it to you directly?”
“Ah, but maybe! You can’t tell me what papers Serrigny has made you sign; so then you can’t say either what you haven’t signed! And if you write to him, you only give him information we don’t want him to have. Maybe, Honoré, if you ask a lawyer for help, he will make a contract of your letter, and help you to pay his own price…maybe he will hold the money over your head and have you jump and snatch at it like a little dog! Maybe he will draw you all the way back to Sartain’s house and to your Clotilde! This is a man who sees himself always acting for Madame Rose…but, did he marry her? Or could he have married her? He respects himself, Monsieur Serrigny, while to keep me from touching what would have been―”
“Don’t say it.”
He hadn’t wanted to hear the rest; her grudge, was all it was, against Jacques’s mother. She had got his money anyway, quite a lot of it. But Anne at this rebuke locked her blue eyes on Jerome’s and he’d seen no tear in them. She’d opened her mouth in order to close it, a showy bit of stagecraft that communicated what her words confirmed.
“I don’t say it. I only say…you had better find work then, Honoré, so that you can hire an American lawyer to help you think of how to get what’s yours.”
They ate cold suppers, or more often, Jerome ate his bread and milk alone. Anne told him, “I can do without. I’m never hungry.” He supposed she could do without, by some means; her complexion, and her spirits, seemed bright enough. She fed Jerome with a spoon, teasing him along until the bowl was empty. “I love…one bite, my poor lamb…one more, my love…ah, who do I love? One…more…be good for me, Thomas Jerome…I love you!”
She was afraid of lighting the stove, and in this Jerome was helpless; he could not crouch on the floor, striking brimstone matches and breathing on the coals to start the flame going, drawing the smoky backdraft into his lungs. Anne appealed to their landlord. Clinging with one hand exposed, to the blanket she had drawn round herself, Anne tapped at the door separating the Jeromes’ apartment from that of the Waldgraves.
“Please, monsieur, you do not mind…?” Waldgrave, susceptible to Anne, carried in the coal scuttle. When he’d grunted and pushed himself to his feet, leant over and swung the door shut, she clapped her hands, and bounced on her toes. “Oh, so much better! He…” Her voice was soft, seemingly discreet. Anne murmured and pointed with an airy motion of her fingertips, to Jerome. Jerome sat ashen at the table, in the room which served them as both kitchen and parlor, ghost-like in his silent and scarcely noticed presence. He watched her step close to Waldgrave, tilting up her chin and smiling. They were friends, and Mr. Waldgrave would, of course, understand.
“…my husband is ill, and he cannot do heavy work. He cannot do any sort of work.”
His autumn of happy idleness had been a taste of everyday life, as Honoré supposed life to be, for the class to which the Sartains belonged; a climax, golden and brief, to a tragic year. With a niece and nephew-by-marriage lodged under her roof, and Honoré’s state of well-being now reliable for a few hours at a stretch, Mme. Sartain had begun to think of outings. Two or three times each week they were off, the three of them—to a restaurant lunch, a ride in an open cab to look at the wreck of the Tuileries, an afternoon play, or a concert (Mme. Sartain enjoyed a lyric Italian air; to a French composer she listened with an unconscious hand over her heart, but she had always—“Oh, from my girlhood; the war doesn’t enter into it”—had strong feelings against German music, if it were not Mozart).
Continued from “if it were not Mozart”
They had gone several times to picture galleries. Mme. Sartain insisted on Honoré’s seeing art; she had no desire to see it herself. Her habit was to find an alcove furnished, for the comfort of customers, with an open-backed chair or divan. “Clotilde, I can feel my toes start to swell. Help me with this business, my dear.” As Mme. Sartain lowered herself, Clotilde arranged her bustle and skirts, taking bag and parasol; her aunt, accepting these back, shooed her away then, to her husband’s side. Honoré took Clotilde’s hand, and as they walked the room, she leaned, her cheek close to his, and studied, as he did, in detail and wonder, those few works by the followers of the notorious Manet, if not by Manet himself.
One summer-like October day, he’d watched his wife tug at her short sleeve in a trance of concentration, then pinch a fold of her white skirt, drawing it near the canvas. He’d been about to say to her, in some alarm, “Clotilde, what are you doing?”; but could hear the sharpness in his voice before he spoke. Instead, he’d said, “That blue pigment is made from sulphur…yes, think of it! A Belgian discovered it, how to make this ultra-marine from chemistry. Once it was a very expensive color of paint to use…” He nattered a bit, after this beginning, on the theme of lapis lazuli and the Virgin’s mantle, trying to discover in making these remarks, his point; then glancing at his wife, noticed Clotilde stare at him, in a breathless sort of way, round eyed. He was glad she had no egoism, no opinions on painting, or on any subject. She repeated, picture after picture (unless the figures made her blush), “Oh, look! Look, Honoré!” For a year, he had not made any art himself. He felt stupid and afraid to try, out of touch…and was able to be charmed thus, by Clotilde’s shy hope—he guessed this―of owning a lapis-blue dress, nothing more.
“Well, enough,” he said to her. “Here, see this purple in the shadow under the garden wall.”
She bent, casting her own shadow over his pointing hand, found that which he pointed to, and said, “Oh!”
“I like that color best,” he told her, “but I don’t know of a name for it.” But after a moment, he said, “Larkspur.” He found himself blurting this out, this English flower name. With any other companion, the fancy would have been embarrassing.
Honoré had wanted to, he’d always meant to, re-launch the Progressiste. He didn’t know why it had been that, from the day he had tried to be responsible for himself, to parlay his small legacy, which could not last, into a profitable career that would; to take himself away from M. Sartain’s house, which was only to act in accord with Sartain’s devout wish, he’d fallen into such a plague of discontent.
At the culmination, that week in June of 1874 he’d taken passage…had given way, at Maier’s wise and winking insistence, to Maier’s choice of the vessel Opaline…it had pained Honoré more to know the only two who would be badly shocked by his act of desertion would soonest excuse it; more so than it did to lie to his wife and his dearest friend, and in that way, compromise. He thought he had not harmed them much. He had made his excuses plausible; he had not vanished in the night. Neither Clotilde nor Gilbert would hate him for this. They would not…because he had not betrayed them. Trust is given to strength, or to the illusion of strength. The sickly Honoré, in the esteem of his staunchest supporters, did not have quite the dignity of his convictions.
His wife marked his outline in their bedchamber each evening at six, before he came home. There would be the supper tray on the coverlet where his feet would rest, his book on the bedside table where his left hand would reach for it; his lamp ready to light, bedcovers turned down, dressing gown folded over the back of the armchair, slippers nestled between its legs, Clotilde’s own place held by her basket of needlework on her pillow. He had nothing to do at home but slip into this outline. And there was Gilbert, filling pens, putting out fresh blotting paper, raising blinds, centering the appointment book on his friend’s desk, taking most of these himself, gone already when Honoré arrived, but back, and bearing coffee, at ten o’clock, to make sure that he had arrived.
“Yes, America…Clotilde―where Monsieur Gremot lives in Cookesville, you have known this all along. You gave me the letter yourself.” He’d been vague to her about when he would return, knowing that he would not return. And it was a low practice, he knew, one worthy of Maier, to approach her with this pretense; to imply they had ever talked about it, and that she had forgotten or misunderstood him. He’d done worse than that by Clotilde, speaking (or mounting a defense) first with the Sartains, and had done so in the cowardly hope of their telling her themselves.
He’d made a mistake with his new aunt. Without respect for Honoré’s private things, Mme. Sartain had torn his envelope and gone through its contents. The papers had nothing to do with Anne…the second name on Maier’s forged passport had been Mme. Jerome (Clotilde). Maier had rehearsed Honoré in a story hewing close enough to the truth that, had Mme. Sartain’s frosty stare been succeeded by a demand for explanations, he might have got this out…possibly in a voice above a whisper. But Anne, on the other hand, never had believed ignorance on the part of the Sartains a safe substitute for friendliness. Nor, even before Honoré’s clumsy exposure of himself, had she believed them ignorant.
And Clotilde, as he’d stood at the foot of the staircase, in the unlighted foyer before dawn, had come down sobbing on her aunt’s shoulder. Mme. Sartain halted like a cannon unlimbered three steps up, a bastion of shelter to her niece; she was like the cottage wall that Honoré remembered, built of stone stacked on stone, and Clotilde’s fingers could not free themselves from her aunt’s arm to run to him; but yet she crept down, one step, then another, and reached with her right hand to stroke Honoré’s coat sleeve.
He had been discontented with his life. He had longed for this independence, for America. For this, these rooms, this unvaried view, either window showing the same elongated patch of sodden potato bed; a lawn more of cinders and crushed brick than of grass, though here and there waved tufts of yellow foxtail; this perch above the floods, where the rails ran fifty feet from the back door; this frame house, painted white, but flecked black with coal dust…as was the next identical house, and the next one after, making this neighborhood, lining this street. And in these rented rooms, his new American home, the passing locomotives shrieked and shook the floorboards beneath his cot in the hours before dawn, waking him from a restive, suffocating half-sleep between sweat-drenched sheets, to the cold grey light of a day to be spent in solitude. For by that hour, Anne had left him.
He had tried to find work. Attracted by an advertisement in the Herald, Jerome had read it through a dozen times to be certain his guess was not wrong as to the sort of help they wanted.
Selling these books would not be so different from asking strangers on the street to buy a newspaper. Jerome began to think he might do this sort of work. Knocking at doors, he reasoned, was not labor; he would be free with his hours, as Limolette had been. The standing demanded behind a shop counter would have exhausted his energy…but if he tried only a few houses the first day, a few the next, soon the outdoor air would brace his lungs, and he would grow stronger. Honoré began to feel optimistic about the project. The winter, he told himself, might be hard to endure; this place, this city (which his imagination could not map to a geographic latitude), might be situated in a bad climate. But once he was earning money, or—Honoré was willing to entertain the idea—if even Anne were to earn some money, they would be able to leave as they’d planned, in the springtime.
But on foot, it would have been impossible for him to reach Genesee Street. He had broken a silver dollar, one he’d hidden from Anne. He stooped to loosen the collar of his shoe, and slotted in a handful of nickels. He had hidden the dollar from Anne…he loved her and he suspected her…he would hide these as well.
Jerome listened to his cab depart, and looked with stealth over one shoulder, then the other, for he was about to test the handle of a forbidding door, one with its blind down, and no lettering to comfort him that he had found the right address. The door was unlocked. He saw, in the building’s foyer, ranks of post boxes, their tarnished scrollwork scratched and shining about the keyholes, while in the depths of the shadowed stairwell, three frosted globes of a gas lamp glinted as Jerome swung the door open. Muted dots of light danced over brass, and winked off one by one like will o’ the wisps, as the door closed. The connecting passage under the upstairs landing was indeed locked against the public behind a second door, the knob of which Jerome found only by groping for it. He assumed, then, that he must be expected on the floor above.
He had written a beseeching note to the box number given in the advertisement. As Thos. B. Jerome, American citizen, he could not be simultaneously Honoré Gremot, hopeful immigrant; but he could mention his great respect for the generous nature of the American people, his poverty, the wife he must support, his willingness to be diligent, prompt―“…and every day, I have some idea that may be to your benefit. All my thoughts are free to you.” Not liking this, but hating to cross out words on a business letter, hating again to recopy everything, he had made the hint more apropos, by adding, “I will work very hard for you, monsieur.” He could not address his new employer by name―no name had been given.
Anne, perhaps a week after he’d shared this scheme with her, had walked up to his chair, hands behind her back. Her smiling mouth was turned down at the corners, rueful…not kindly so. Before posting his letter, he had read it aloud to her.
“Do you think this is right? What else should I say?” She had laughed, then, and her laugh, though she’d walked off into the bedroom and had not answered either question, had sounded to Jerome sweet and agreeable. She laughed now. She brought her hand forward, and dropped a folded paper on his lap.
“Read it,” she said.
The letter began, like that of W. A. Gremot, with an unaccommodating salutation:
You may call between the hours of eleven o’clock in the morning and three o’clock in the afternoon, on the tenth day of November. We are located at 33 Genesee Street, room 11B.
J. Conrad Miller
A dark green smell of stagnant water seemed to filter up the shaft of the staircase from a basement drain; and was surmounted, as invisibly it neared the hall window, by an almond scent, as of fancy pomade. The steps were worn at the center, scored by the traffic of hobnailed boots. The wooden handrail in parts shone like a horse’s hoof, while by sweaty palms its top varnish had been gummed, and Jerome, making heavy use of it, left his own prints that squashed out the light touch of an earlier visitor. He breathed carefully, telling himself, quiet, quiet…
On the top step, he sat and fished for his handkerchief.
“Well, I’m sorry to tell you, I can’t be much help to you. You need a little capital to get started. I can’t run a business by giving away my stock. Well,” the speaker repeated, “now, son, if this was your business, you couldn’t run it that way either.”
Someone approached along the hallway. Jerome’s right arm was wrapped around the newel post, his left hand pressed to his face. He heard footsteps slow and halt, and a voice comment: “Hrrm.” He felt the board on which he sat bump, heard the others creak in succession under the impact of a heel, as the stranger stepped around him and bounded down the stairs. He was quiet now. He sat still and thought of nothing.
“You,” he heard another voice, “didn’t come up here looking for work?”
“I have written a letter to you, monsieur.” Jerome wasn’t certain of this. The man might be anyone.
“Oh,” he said. “Believe I saw that letter of yours. You got no money, do you?”
“Sir, I have worked to pay my debt. You would not be sorry to trust me.”
Drained and unable to stand, Jerome had no picture of this man with whom he conversed. From what he had heard, he thought the sales arrangement might not be entirely honest; even so, the man seemed genial, in a fretful, hesitant way…genial and pitying.
“I got nothing to offer you right now. That’s the trouble. And I don’t want to keep you from taking up with a better opportunity.” The man lowered one foot to the top step. Jerome, through watering eyes, looked up, and saw that the man was balding, around forty, the lower buttons of his waistcoat undone, gut working itself over his trouser band. Jerome saw the man steady himself, cautious fingers anchoring on pocks in the wall’s plaster. He eased down and came to rest beside Jerome; introduced himself without offering to shake hands.
“I’m Miller,” he said. And again: “I got nothing to offer you.” But Miller reached inside his coat, and his hand, when he withdrew it, held a pocketbook. He took two bills, and laid them on the step beside Jerome, who realized Miller didn’t want to touch him. Yet Miller’s charitable nature had been touched.
“Is there nothing I can bring you? Will you have water?”
He tried to find her wrist, to stay it. One had opened the curtains, and the light raked over his skin; his chest burned and his fingers were ice. They did not know how their whispers disturbed the air.
“Madame,” he heard Anne say; and in English: “Will you help?”
“First things first,” Mrs. Waldgrave muttered. Scooting an arm under Jerome’s shoulders, she hefted him into a semi-sitting position. She then tucked him against her bosom, as Anne took his hand and pressed the glass into it, crushing his fingers with hers.
“Here, you must at least hold this.”
“I don’t know what about this nonsense of yours, Mrs. Jerome. Give that to me.” Water bubbled onto her apron front as Mrs. Waldgrave tipped the glass against Jerome’s lips. He heard Anne’s heels tap away and come back in vexation, then stand in place, tapping out a continued rhythm. She drew a noisy breath, a reverse sigh. It was petulance, this mannerism. He did not know why he was moved by it. Mrs. Waldgrave was not. “Mrs. Jerome…” She let Jerome’s head drop to his pillow, gathered the corner of her apron and tamped at his mouth. Then eyeing his disarrayed bedsheets, Mrs. Waldgrave bent over the cot and tugged at them. “Gracious, everything needs washing! Mrs. Jerome, I don’t run a hospital here. And I don’t run a poorhouse. You never even paid me the rent this week. And ma’am, it’s a disgrace, you telling me Mr. Jerome doesn’t need a doctor.”
“Well, but if he does, I only know it today myself. Madame, you understand me…please, madame, consider that the day we arrived at this house, my husband had a bad fever, and you helped me…”
“Oh, I understand you, Mrs. Jerome. I been helping you all afternoon, keeping an eye while you went off somewheres. And Mr. Waldgrave’s helped you more than he ought. But, you listen…I know something about the kinds of money-making schemes people get up to. Let me tell it to you plain, ma’am. My husband and I will not sign any papers, we will not be witness to any wrongdoing…”
“Anne.” He risked speaking. Nails were being driven into his right side; he feared his throat would close, and he would draw no more breaths.
“Oh, my poor love.” She’d been offended by Mrs. Waldgrave. Anne flung herself over Jerome, found his hand and clutched it, kissed the back of it, and squeezed it to her heart. She had exiled him from her bed. The effects of his illness made lying next to him intolerable to Anne; and she had persuaded Waldgrave to bring this cot into their room, saying to him, “I want my poor Thomas to be easy. He hates, you know, to be touched.”
“Maier was here.” Even this use of it, his voice shrunken to a whisper, might trigger another fit. Still, he said, “I heard you speak with him, in the other room.”
“That is not possible. You know Maier is not even…”
She caught herself at this repetition of his name. Not in the least artful, Anne cut short her words, and looked with round eyes at Mrs. Waldgrave. But the guilty start, coming from a woman long marked out as a no good’un, to Mrs. Waldgrave’s mind, appeared merely a fresh instance added to an embarrassment of evidence; Mrs. Waldgrave waited with her arms crossed, for Anne’s full attention, and when she had it, pointed to the clock, Sylvie’s clock. He’d told Anne she might sell this if she liked, and she had said, “No, Honoré, how could I ever? You love it.” He had felt a lurch, then, of desperate affection for her. This day, he saw the clock’s face for the last time.
“It’s two-thirty, Mrs. Jerome. You go on fetch the doctor…or, best let me. You don’t know your way around here.”
He had been in a dream of the past, and because she called him by his own name, was slow to comprehend this alien waking. Anne tugged him by the wrist; yet with so half-hearted an effort, she could not raise him. Changing tactics, she slid her hands under his damp shoulders. She jerked them away. Her cry expressed disgust, peevishness…but something else. Perhaps only the noise itself, its proximity, its inflection, had made Honoré feel she appealed to another person. “Honoré!” Anne put her hands beneath his pillow this time, and pushed until she had forced him to sit. “You must dress yourself.” She draped his coat over him. “Help me.”
For her sake, he tried to force his eyes open. He did not understand this. Perhaps it was not really occurring. He groped for an armhole.
“Don’t let him fall over. Help me!”
“Leave him. I don’t see why you would not. Madame Lugard, you must have faith in human kindness.” Jerome found himself roughly gripped by his left arm, his right wrested into a sleeve.
“Faith in yours? You leave me alone to make do, and you know I have no money. Half the month, until today, I’ve seen nothing of you! And today, only because I came looking for you.”
“And I have told you that this is your own fault.” In the alacrity with which Maier’s trouser leg progressed versus Anne’s, Jerome could discern a marked difference. She worried at his ankle, twisting his foot back and forth, huffing out angry, inarticulate noises. Ill-clad at last, Jerome blinked and managed to find her; he saw her shaking her hands in the air. He saw Maier come to the foot of the cot to stand by her side. He saw them bend closer to study him…finding his costume adequate, nodding to each other.
“I do not leave him,” she said, “because he might say anything. He has said anything.” She darted before Maier, and began fastening Jerome’s coat buttons. Grabbing fistfuls of fabric, she attempted pulling him to his feet.
“But―” Maier intervened his bulk. This time Anne was eclipsed from Jerome’s view. Issuing a congenial chuckle throughout these maneuvers, Maier drew Jerome’s arm over his shoulder, catching him round the waist. “Up we go, my boy! We have a little journey to make, and after that you will have a very good sleep.” But Jerome, even supported by Maier, could not stand. He sagged, and groaned, and wondered what they were doing.
“Jerome may say anything. But if he does, it is only a manifestation of his excellent gift. He is not well…not at all; he dreams, no doubt…and no one will believe what he says. And soon he will have nothing more to say. If you would only listen to advice, my dear. But you wish to give the appearance of involving yourself; you trouble over the opinions of people like these Waldgraves, and I have told you, it won’t do.”
This jostling and forceful handling caused Jerome’s fever to surge. He saw Anne, crouched in the corner, making monstrous faces of loathing. “Anne,” he asked her, “why is Maier here? Why are you lying to me?”
Laughing, Maier slung Jerome by the trousers, which were unbraced and falling down, and by the collar, moving him along at an urgent pace, while Maier’s speech remained good humored. “Why is Maier here? Maier himself can hardly account for it. He has made a mistake…yes, of this he is becoming certain. But at any rate, monsieur, Anne has left you. You speak to a phantom.”
Jerome had thought it was nighttime, but his senses had been confused by the drawn curtains. Not knowing how he’d arrived at the foyer in that part of the house belonging to the Waldgraves, he groped for consciousness in the glare of the afternoon light, and attached once more to reality.
“Now you see, she is no help to me,” he heard Maier say. “There she stands with her bag at her feet.” He backed with his burden through the front door, where a long uneven gap in the Waldgraves’ foundation divided house from wooden steps. Over the threshold, down a steep drop, and onto the landing at the head of these, Jerome was propelled. “Take hold of the stair rail,” Maier said. “Put your hands on the stair rail.” He gave these orders, at the same time sidling around Jerome; then seized him by the wrist, and planted his hand on the cold iron.
“The stair rail,” Maier said again, and trotted down the last two steps to wait beside Anne.
Her carpet bag sat on the walk, placed over a spreading zigzag of moss, at every angle of which the bricks thrust up their edges. Jerome teetered, sinking, his weight balanced against the rail…and pitched forward. He lay at Anne’s feet, injury spared him by her bag. His eyes focused for a moment on the leather of her boot, and he reached out a hand to trace a fingertip along the toecap’s perforated design. She pulled her foot away.
“You see,” Maier said.
Jerome, his world’s circumference now much reduced, recognized that his luck was not, in all things, unfavorable. His bed was at the row’s end. Each bed in the men’s infirmary confronted an identical bed across the gangway, but only four in all could be placed in corners, where the occupant might turn his face to a spare single wall, and imagine himself alone. Those inmates on either side of the door suffered a constant disturbance of coming and going, while these two beds only, at the ward’s far end, had useful windows. The others had been set too high; worse, their panes were painted over in whitewash.
Jerome, allowed this private view, could watch the rooftops of the almshouse complex sail, in an illusion of movement, under the clouds. Now and then what had seemed a broken pattern of tiles would erupt from an attic roof into clumsy, arduous flight, blackening his square of blue sky; he would count the minutes before, from the eaves above, the unceasing trill resumed. This pigeons’ life was to Jerome almost theater…and held more interest than his own. His view was otherwise of the inmate lighted by the window opposite, of his deep yellow complexion, his half-lidded eyes that saw nothing, and his mouth that bubbled spittle.
Jerome did not look to his left. He’d tried this, and been asked what he was looking at…Frenchie. The stare that met his glance had looked, in its own right, murderously angry. But he worried over his placement vis à vis the patient across, whose liver ailment appeared a mortal one. Perhaps the windows were a sort of privilege afforded to the dying.
Labeled convalescent, Jerome had been moved from the hospital’s charity ward to the poorhouse, as Mrs. Waldgrave named it. This day, the superintendent, of whose imminent approach an orderly had minutes earlier warned them all, stationed himself near Jerome’s bed. “Those of our inmates who are able-bodied, contribute to their own support. Most everyone you see working in this house, is resident here.” Mr. Nash’s words acted for Jerome’s benefit, but were directed towards the two men who walked some paces behind. Physically they distanced themselves from the almshouse superintendent; and their goals seemed not those of the institution. They were alert, like otters who fished a still pond. One stretched his neck to view the condition of an unconscious man, the other examined a puddle that had not been mopped from the floor. He tapped his friend on the sleeve; his friend nodded. Catching the eye of Jerome’s hostile neighbor, the man said, “How do you do, sir?”
“Since you ask me, Mr. Scheinholt, I’ll tell you. I’m tolerable, thank you, sir.”
As Mr. Nash moved to lead his visitors back up the ward, Scheinholt’s colleague dropped behind. To Jerome, he said, in a carrying voice, not concealing his purpose, “Mr. Jerome, is it? Are you comfortable here? Do you find yourself wanting for anything?”
“I would like to leave this place,” Jerome said.
Mr. Nash, for only a moment, broke off his conversation with the house physician.
Jerome could see the import of Nash’s words. He would one day himself be called a resident of the almshouse. He might, humbled to it, take up his despised copy-work. He had no other skill. He would pay a token for his lodging and board; the public charge’s mantle of shame lifted, as the phrase he’d heard many times had it, by the dignity of labor.
“Who do I put on the envelope?”
His helper was named Bess. She, with her comb-furrowed strands pulled tight against her scalp, held away from her face by a white lace cap, made him think of Clotilde. Bess too had a washed-out sameness in the late summer hues of her coloring, her freckles and her grey eyes. But Bess was plump, and her shoulders curved softly, as though there were no bones inside to hold them up.
“Monsieur Tweedloe,” he told her.
He consoled himself with this thought, that he was no worse off for having lost his money; that he had never expected to have more of it than he could earn. But now, at his life’s nadir, it seemed to Jerome Tweedloe was an easier man to appeal to than Serrigny. Tweedloe had never spoken to him in harsh terms of reproof; or if he had, there’d been no winnowing out of the harsh from the merely abstruse. Where Serrigny might, for the memory of an old passion, find cause to obstruct, Jerome felt that Tweedloe would be indifferent―he did not much care about anyone’s moral character, least of all Honoré Gremot’s. Jerome would ask for no more than it might cost to take a furnished room, any sort of room. Tweedloe knew the debt would be paid.
“How do you spell ‘mah-sue’?” she asked.
“You will write ‘mister’ Tweedloe.”
“How,” asked Bess, “do you spell ‘Tweedloe’?”
Jerome knew, of course, that the letters were essentially the same, but that one did not say them in the same way. In particular, he doubted he had got the right idea about the “w”; and while he did not suspect Bess of wanting to laugh at him, his neighbor to the left (he could not risk a look aside to see if this were true) seemed by the sound of his respirations to be auditing their exchange, holding his breath in a conspicuous way when Jerome spoke, letting it out with a gust when Jerome fell silent.
Continued from “when Jerome fell silent”
M. Bernheim had long ago recited for him his English alphabet; but, although he could recall his tutor’s accent being no different from his own, he was unable otherwise to recall what this had sounded like. He felt a similar embarrassment over his illiteracy with numbers; those he had seen only written as such, and had never heard pronounced (assuredly the English numbers did not, as Bernheim had contended, repeat, from twenty onwards, the same pattern to infinity…Jerome had heard figures in the thousands said at least three different ways).
“English is like any language. Translation is by far the easier means to gain a sense of it. And you see how these words rhyme. That”―Bernheim, Jerome remembered, had said no more until he’d lifted his chin from his hand, removed his elbow from the table, and sat up straight―“imposes a structure, a discipline, which will help your understanding.”
Jerome had not liked to translate Wordsworth very much, or even Campbell or Moore (poets who, at least, told stories worth the translating); and had once locked the door against M. Bernheim, infuriating his father.
He had watched Bess help others, but she had not yet sat at his own bedside. Up the aisle, her steps slow and sliding, she followed the orderly, and carried her little escritoire hugged to her stomach as though it had been filled with water. The orderly placed the chair for her; and while he slipped away behind, stayed Bess with a hand on her shoulder.
She laid the desk on the foot of Jerome’s bed and gathered her skirts; unselfconscious, she wiggled her backside onto the seat, took up the desk and adjusted it on her lap, opened its lid and extracted paper, brought out a fountain pen, and scritched a few shiver-inducing swirls over the paper’s surface. She shook the pen, tried again. She replaced it with a pencil. She did all these things with a concentration that betrayed a history of rebuke. She paused, her face becoming momentarily expressionless, and seemed to tune herself to a song of routine unspooling in her mind.
She must be troubled by some infirmity…she was, perhaps, merely simple.
“Give me your pencil and I will write the name.”
Bess pinkened, cast a furtive glance at the matron, bent towards Jerome, and whispered, “Oh, I can’t let you. I’m not s’pose to be any way familiar with the men.”
He was willing to believe that a draconian inclination, as with all institutions of which he had ever heard, governed almshouse proceedings; he expected his letter to be delivered up to the superintendent, or at the least to the superintendent’s secretary, for vetting. But his suggestion had not been improper.
“This is only my wish, you will not trouble yourself,” he insisted. “Here, mademoiselle, let me write for you.”
“Wha’d you call me?”
He’d thought it a dangerous notion, even with the shy Bess, to define this designation…she might, for that matter, be married. “Mademoiselle,” he repeated, letting her hear the syllables. She laughed, the lilting laugh of a young girl. He drew a letter T in the air with a forefinger, and―as though this were flirtation, rather than a matter of having no choice―she giggled again; giggled when he sketched the W…but by the E, after peering uneasily at the matron, she’d taken hold of herself and begun to mark her paper.
“But what street does he live on?”
“He is famous. London is enough to find him.” Jerome did not entirely believe this. But he knew only two things about Tweedloe.
“Tweedloe.” She read the name off to herself; for a moment afterwards, her mouth hung open. Then, awaking from the mystification Jerome had, without meaning to, raised upon the name, she asked:
“What do you want the letter to say?”
“Sir.” Below his window was a brick courtyard, an open circle at its center, no evergreen shrub planted there, no dead stalk of summer’s flowers remaining, only frost-heaved earth. Jerome had seen down into this courtyard, this vertical view, only when he had been walked to the window, supported by the orderly.
“Sir, I ask you nothing.” He remembered Tweedloe’s phrase. “You will not like to have me in your debt. I have no means to earn my living, but I will pay you anything you would in kindness offer. You know the truth, I have done this before. I thank you, Mister Tweedloe…in gratitude,” he added. “But please consider that I ask you nothing.”
“Is that what you want to say?” Bess asked, her earlier question re-phrased.
“Yes, yes,” he told her. “Now let me have your pencil so that I will sign it.” It had occurred to him that he could not be Jerome; that he must risk this confession. To Tweedloe, the letter of a stranger would be rubbish. He would not look at it. “And then, tomorrow, mademoiselle, we will write a second letter. If the time comes, and we have no answer, we will write again.”
“One of the young ladies,” Ziegler told Ebrach, “don’t ride too well. Takes sick pert near any time she comes up to town. But see here,” he pointed to an arced strap of black iron, “how the seat sets up on springs. Mrs. Gremot will ride up here, and that young lady I was telling you about will ride up here.”
“And yet, you don’t find…” Ebrach reached for and patted the seat where at least one passenger could be accommodated next to the driver. The leather was cushioned and tufted. The wagon itself sported touches and trimmings of the coach-maker’s trade, a thrust of money spent, a dodge away from ostentation. The wagon was not fully garish; it was the mass of it that imposed itself, blocking a third of Liberty Avenue’s width, parked before a side entrance of the Columbia Hotel. At each molded corner a fleur-de-lis decorated the wagon’s paneled sides. The moldings and their ornamentations were dressed with gilt paint. The body of the wagon and its bed were black, the panels framed in black; the board backing each panel green. While Ziegler loaded Ebrach’s two trunks, Ebrach maintained an air of abstracted contemplation. He might otherwise have given the impression of employing Ziegler as a servant. He returned to his thought.
“…you don’t find, sir, that the young lady—I will not be so vulgar as to speculate on the nature of her infirmity…however, you cannot make the ride easy enough for her?”
“This time of year,” Ziegler said, “the road down along the river gets rutted bad. In the winter, it’ll harden up.”
This tangent Ebrach found better unaddressed. “Well, we will put Jerome in the seat.” Jerome, he saw, had wandered. He had walked to the center of the concourse, and was reading the war memorial’s inscription.
Ebrach had come upon Jerome in the breakfast room, sitting at a table alone, single-mindedly attacking bacon and biscuits. Jerome peered upwards at Ebrach, and did not smile. Ebrach had not, within the short span of their acquaintance, seen Jerome express the smallest degree of cheer…a half-smile at the most, secretive and somewhat mournful. Jerome’s manner was not unfriendly; and yet this pale and meagre young man, who was not altogether well-bred, conducted himself with a touch of the autocrat. Ebrach found Jerome interesting for this, and had marked in him, coexisting with his unstudied arrogance, a naïve habit of trust.
These qualities of which Ebrach had taken note thus far, began to trace for him Jerome’s silhouette, whose edges Ebrach meant to sharpen.
“Mr. Ebrach, I have learned something.” Jerome drew his napkin across his lips. “I wish to discuss our plans with you. You may please join me.”
Already, Ebrach’s generosity in tips had become a byword at the Columbia. As he lowered himself into his chair, a waiter appeared. “You do not have musk melon in season, do you?” Ebrach asked him. “I am fond of musk melon. Yes,” he glanced at the menu, and with a back-handed wave at Jerome’s plate, added, “I will have coffee, bacon…and flapjacks, rather than biscuits.”
Content, Ebrach turned to Jerome. “Do you find your room comfortable, sir?”
“Mr. Ziegler has explained…”
(Jerome spoke, Ebrach felt, with the least hint of grievance.)
“…that you have some arrangement which will not be suited…”
“Suited,” Ebrach hazarded, “to your purposes?”
“I will tell you plainly,” Jerome said. “I cannot be away for so many hours. This is my own fault that I have misunderstood you, sir.” Jerome stopped, and waited for Ebrach’s answer. Ebrach glanced across to the window. He considered the weather as a subject of diverting small talk. He might repeat some variation on his comment of yesterday. He suspected Jerome would grow angry with him if he did…but saw benefit in Jerome’s sour mood. He had good news for this fellow traveler, news which would buck Jerome up nicely, and which Ebrach would deliver in time.
The waiter arrived, placing Ebrach’s plate and pouring his coffee. Ebrach lifted his cup and sipped. Jerome drank his own coffee. Ebrach seemed to have no business other than his breakfast. The waiter returned with flapjacks, and while the minutes ticked past, Ebrach ignored Jerome’s watchful stare. He sat, instead, overlooking his plate with brows drawn, as though taking stock of what he’d been given. He then lavished each flapjack with butter and syrup. He cut a wedge and chewed.
“So.” Jerome at last gave way. “You will visit the Gremots alone. In any case, they did not expect me.”
By this, Ebrach guessed that Jerome had indeed misunderstood him. But the future foretold, though it approach by such deviating paths as were the divinities wont to choose, must be a thing worth witnessing. Ebrach felt that he would persuade Jerome. This balking was a factor of Jerome’s weakness; but it was Jerome’s weakness that would force his concession. Therefore, meeting Jerome’s wary eyes with a serene smile, Ebrach said to himself, “We are not in contention, you and I. I will bring you round shortly.”
“Jerome,” Ebrach said aloud, “the impression I have of you—you will forgive my saying so—is that by habit and temperament, you are a modest man.” He saw Jerome’s expression soften, with the inwardness of concentration. Jerome resisted; and yet Ebrach knew that from the hour they had fallen in together, he had held Jerome’s attention…and had won every point.
“What will you do here in town, if you have changed your mind, and won’t ride out with me?”
After a long pause, Jerome murmured, “Modest.”
This pleased Ebrach, Jerome’s thoughts having snagged on a distraction. “You are reluctant to say that you would rather not be alone.”
“I have made no plans.” Jerome repeated yesterday’s remark. He propped his elbow on the back of his chair, leaned his head against his fist.
“Mr. Ziegler,” Ebrach said, “seems to me entirely trustworthy.”
Jerome sat forward. “But this business of yours…” Holding his hand flat, parallel to the table, he made a slicing gesture, while darting a glance at the window in the opposite direction. And though Jerome’s further explanation seemed to Ebrach almost incoherent, he listened; he nodded and smiled. He knew that the beliefs of many were deeply held—so much so that they could not prevent within themselves this strong reaction, arising from those beliefs. But they had not seen the work―they knew nothing about it.
“…this is what Mr. Ziegler informs me.”
Ebrach pushed aside his coffee cup. He laid his forearm across the table, and leaned towards Jerome. His voice was warm, even paternal. “Your reserve, Jerome, is understandable. It is an honorable consideration. You are a man of business. Now, if you had said to me: ‘I have an appointment with a gentleman in town’, I would be very sorry to have burdened you with a feeling of obligation. Yet you tell me—you have said it twice—that you have no plans.
“I took a liberty last evening. I sent Mr. Ziegler to offer you his assistance. I may perhaps have acted with presumption. I trust that if you are offended, Jerome, you will accept my apology.” Ebrach weighed a more explicit statement, and decided that Jerome was not so dull as to miss his meaning.
Jerome sat for some minutes, lost, it seemed, in thought, wrapped in his mournful air. He sat and stared at Ebrach’s plate, at two neglected triangles of flapjack, a-swim in maple syrup.
“Have this if you like,” Ebrach said, nudging his plate in Jerome’s direction.
“Mr. Ebrach,” Jerome said, taking up his fork, “I will go with you.”
The war memorial had not been what Jerome hoped for. As art, he liked it well enough. The monument was art, no mere welding together of factory molded piece-work. Some son of Cookesville had crafted drama with his dying general, his lieutenant, hand clenched on the shaft of the battle flag (real); a weeping, or wounded, soldier crouched at the lieutenant’s feet. The general would hold, for eternity, his unnatural moment of poise; from his rearing horse, he would never complete his fall. The sword in his upraised arm would always be a signpost. Bewildered newcomers leaving the railway station would always be told, “See over there, that statue.”
The memorial was inscribed with a short poem, uncredited.
Hail! Aegis uncorrupted, flag of my Republic
Call to me! And I, ever to thy summons rising
Rally! Men of valor, to thine Union rent asunder
By base Treason’s sword.
Dare brute cowardice imperil Liberty;
Valiant champions of Freedom―forward!
Jerome had thought the names of Cookesville heroes―those who had served or died in the American war―might be commemorated here. He had wanted to see the name Gremot, carved in stone, or stamped in metal. He walked back across the concourse.
“Jerome,” Ebrach said. He straightened and stepped away from the bed of the wagon. He had been tinkering with his trunks, disputing the question with Ziegler of whether weight alone would hold them secure. “I have glass,” he told Ziegler, who stopped climbing. With one hand on the seat, pivoting on a foot propped on the axletree, Ziegler swung to look over Ebrach’s shoulder. Ebrach, looking up at Ziegler, added, “I have oil for my lamps; we do not want the oil to spill.”
“Mr. Ebrach, I don’t believe it will. Them trunks’ll set nice.”
“Jerome,” Ebrach said again. “You must ride on the seat with Mr. Ziegler.”
Jerome would rather have ridden in the wagon bed. This was furnished like a small room, lined with a patterned rug, Ebrach’s trunks placed one either side, to balance the load. Between these was a slatted chair, with a tasseled cushion on the seat. The driver’s perch looked high and dangerous. Jerome had never seen, at close-hand, such a vehicle as this wagon. He wanted to probe the motifs carved in its woodwork for hidden signs of the guildsman…and did rub fingertips over the glossy paneling.
“The Squire,” Ziegler began, his voice coming from on high. “He done ordered this’un custom, from St. Louis. That’s where they brung ‘er up from. I happen to be tellin’ him how I was carryin’ you’uns out to the ’stead. And Mr. Gremot says to me, ‘Take the wagon, Ziegler’. He keeps it up here in the town, bein’ mostly he uses it for business.”
“The Squire, Mr. Ziegler—” Ebrach spoke from the chair; he sat on the tasseled cushion with his legs stretched out, a protective hand resting on each of the trunks. “That is how Mr. Gremot is called locally.”
“Black and green, them’s the Squire’s colors.”
Ziegler’s boot connected square with the buckboard. He leaned over open space, holding out a hand. Jerome looked up into Ziegler’s face. The eyes were in shadow under the brim of the straw hat, while across the deeply tanned cheeks, furrows spread: Ziegler smiled.
Green and black. Jerome’s climb was checked by a momentary thrill. He had never heard his father speak of any communal ties, any importance owed to the name of Gremot.
“You give me your arm, Mr. Jerome,” Ziegler said, “and I’ll haul y’aboard.”
Every street and avenue that converged across the center of Cookesville was paved in brick, the outer streets of the city remaining dirt, as Jerome discovered with a jolt, when first the wagon’s front wheels, then the rear, shuddered over the pavement’s abrupt end and splashed through a gutter of mud. Ziegler’s gentle team had drawn them at a slow walk, and as they departed Liberty Avenue, Jerome’s eye was attracted to a pair of squat castle-like towers, sand-colored and green spired, rising to the treetops. Unwisely, he held this over-the-shoulder pose for a better look. Ebrach then caught his flailing left arm; after which Jerome, his heart calmer, took his right hand from the top of his hat, and with both hands, grappled onto the seat back.
“Thank you, Mr. Ebrach.”
It had to be said. Jerome could hear a sound he now recognized from having heard it a moment ago. Ziegler’s chuckle. Jerome was seated on Ziegler’s left, and from a height that seemed equal to that of the bandstand’s pinnacle, watched the city park roll by. The wagon passed between two unbroken rows of wrought iron fence, each property’s fitted to the next, but overall not so level nor so flush that the fence line did not jog along the street, up, down, sideways. Each lawn was shaded by well-grown but immature maples, planted at equal intervals to correspond with the boundary of each lot. The name of this street Jerome had been too busy placing and re-placing his hands, pressing and re-pressing his shoes against the buckboard, to notice. The houses here were two and three stories, free-standing even where the sliver of land that separated one from another―no wider than could accommodate the passage of a single body―seemed wasted in the aggregate.
Two houses in a row, two facing these opposite, and―if Jerome risked craning his neck to see―an entire cross-street of such houses, were of deep red brick with porte-cochères thrusting off their sides; these and the porches at the fronts were made of wood and painted white. Each porch had a row of posts, a flat roof, balusters under handrails, bracketing under eaves; each window had shutters painted white to match the porch trim. The houses farther from the town’s center were clapboard, green or yellow, with steep slate roofs, ornamented chimneypots, and a deal more of shingling, spindling and scrolling. Ziegler drove them along a puddled lane, and here, to the left, the land dropped into a ravine, then spread away into sunlit fields.
Jerome saw the tops of a stand of young willows, the river glinting beyond what seemed miles of stacked lumber. On the right were a few one-story frame houses, the last of these faced the town, rather than the road. The wagon passed a field of maize, a poultry shed (to judge from its noise and odor); they came round a curve, where from an open stable yard a buggy pulled by a blinkered black horse charged at them. The driver reined up. Ziegler lifted his hat. Whip in hand, the driver tapped her own hat. Here was a stucco building, foursquare in construction, its façade higher than its roof. It was named on a shingle that hung beside the road: the Belle Rivière Hotel. The hotel stood adjacent to the livery stable…information Jerome made out from the faded lettering painted on the side of a row of stalls. He saw a huge hub-and spoke wheel jutting out of one, next to this a browsing horse; then a stall filled with straw bales and, prominently, the curved blades of a rusted harrow.
The Belle Rivière’s owners hadn’t thought of window boxes, or wouldn’t be bothered with them. Yet Jerome could see its simple architecture soften, amid the ripples of the heated air, into mirage; the hotel divorced from its setting, restored to a French village of his memory. This fancy left him oddly affected. He might have asked the station master (he who had recommended the Columbia to Ebrach), “Is there no other hotel in Cookesville?” He might have taken a room at the Belle Rivière, and seen no more of Ebrach.
He had given in. Ebrach’s insinuating ways were such that, even as he undermined Jerome’s errand, he replaced it with his own. Nothing Jerome had been able to think of could contradict Ebrach’s unsettling intuition: “You are afraid to be alone.” He knew this to be true. He had struggled, explaining his change of heart…how it had been brought about by Ziegler’s confidences…but that Ziegler had not been indiscreet. He hadn’t wanted Ebrach to believe so. The complexity of making a thing clear, while he must avoid direct reference to it, had proved stronger than Jerome’s command of English.
But only Ebrach, pleased to garner the attention that fueled his enterprise, could plough like an engine through crowds of strangers. Unless Jerome remained at Ebrach’s side, he would spend the day hesitant in his room, waiting Ebrach’s return.
Thinking of these things, he shrugged. He could accomplish nothing here, not without help; the help would have to be that of the only friend he’d made.
The road descended, became now a public highway that ran alongside the river. As the wagon rolled downhill, the team’s pace picked up to a trot, and from under the wagon’s wheels, billows of gritty dust began to rise. Dust from the dry road, which by Ziegler’s assertion, would make their way smooth. Jerome felt bowed with foreboding. He hunched his shoulders and turned his head to the left. Stands of trees, their corrugated bark embraced by creeping vines, striped the road in shadow. Blocked from the sun, the vines were turned vermillion, spotted black with blight. Limbs splayed overhead. Here the leaves were yellowed, galled, knitted round with worm-spun filaments. Brambles grew where the canopy gaped. Insects in the treetops droned, a thrum that vaulted high, died to a buzz and welled again.
Jerome put his shoulders back, and drew a deep breath. The air came into his lungs like a hot compress. He looked up through a cage of branches, to an azure sky. Stripped, silvered, diseased, so many crooked fingers sporting a sprig of greenery vibrated, a contrast of dark against light…the light reflecting from a mass of brilliant white clouds. The wagon’s progress felt slower than the coursing of these across the sky, their gathering in darkness near the horizon. Here at hand, a tiny bird, its feathers saturated in vivid yellow, sang again and again a fluting song that ended with a warning note: chip, chip, chip. And as though the weltering of the river valley had a tropical character, he found by its song another, clad in scarlet feathers. The bird now issued a spate of chatter, followed by wanton melody, then hopped from thorn to thorn—whorls of these, finger-length thorns on a knotted trunk—suddenly, it flew off high into the trees, and disappeared.
Jerome, who never ordinarily felt quite warm, decided that he must remove his coat. They had reached the bottom of a dell, and here Ziegler put the switch on, driving the wagon fast up the incline. As they topped the next rise, they slowed, and were mobbed by insects; the horses first catching the brunt, Jerome and Ziegler afterwards. Feeling yet more dissatisfied with Ebrach’s arrangements, Jerome swatted at the back of his neck, and watched spasms of quivering rake the horses’ flanks. Each, inheriting the flies of its comrade, snorted in turn, and slung its tail.
The road went past a cabin on stilts, painted and in use; next to this, a fallen-down house. Ziegler turned to stare uphill. Jerome’s gaze followed, and he saw a man sprawled there, on the ruin’s steps. He heard Ziegler make a noise in his throat. The road dipped again; the wagon traversed a small bridge, one with a flat open-sided deck, and scant inches to spare. They seemed to sail over open water. At the touch of the switch, the team jerked ahead. Ziegler, joggling the reins, admonished them: “Hee, now. Pete! Patsy!”
At the mouth of the stream, where it fed into the river, the bank dipped low, and water nearly lapped the road.
“This’yer’s Tranquility Creek. We come mid-way. See up ahead, that mud waller I was tellin’ you about,” Ziegler said. “I got to bring ’er crost at a trot.” He smiled a bit, and as though, in some inner dialogue, he had thought of a point with which he agreed, nodded two or three times. Having arrived with himself at this concurrence, Ziegler laughed aloud. Jerome, doubtful, looked away from the river, and glanced at his seatmate. Ziegler might have been speaking to Ebrach.
After bringing the horses at a clip over a sequence of furrows and shallow pools, Ziegler slowed the wagon and peered at Jerome. “Are you feeling poorly, Mr. Jerome?” he asked. And looked, for some reason, contrite.
“No, sir.” Jerome had never known such a climate. He felt as though he might relax his hands and slump in his seat without fear…to find himself propped up by the thickness of the air.
“Jerome,” Ebrach said. Jerome allowed his posture an inch or two of slackening, and from this angle could see, with a small turn of his chin, into the wagon bed. One trunk lid had been raised. The trunk was filled with books―three careful stacks of them―and with papers, filed in an accordion portfolio that occupied the trunk’s remaining fourth. Through this, Ebrach sat rummaging. It occurred to Jerome that Ebrach had been busied in this way for some time…and that to be in the presence of Ebrach, without hearing Ebrach’s voice, must be an uncharacteristic experience.
“Are you familiar, Jerome…” Ebrach glanced up. “Hand me your coat, and I will put it away.”
(more to come)