A Figure from the Common Lot
Book One: 1870-1871
Chapter One: Cette Illusion de la Mortalité
Book Two: 1876
Chapter Two: Possente Spirto
The House of Everard
Micah, lost to his parents in 1862; dead fourteen years…nearly as many years now, as he had lived. Killed at a place called Middle Creek. Though his father did not believe the truth had ever been told. But to whom would he have written; and to what place would he have ridden? So as to have learned—
That men are stupid, that they will conceal to no purpose what is readily intuited. Micah was dead; his parents were told that this was so. Colonel Williams, under whom Micah had served, avowed it. And it was his sad duty; he felt a deep regret…
Verbena was an impractical woman, who believed in sprites. They’d had no body to bury.
Richard Everard rested in a stand of pigweed, here at Sanderson’s father’s house, his back against a soft old plank, broken in two, slanted over tumbling bricks that once had supported the steps…an easy chair for a man broken in two. He watched Gremot’s wagon come up, saw it pass by. He even lifted a hand to Ziegler. They were not enemies, he and Ziegler. At Cookesville’s fringe the houses grew poorer, smaller; they merged deeper into an entangled mutuality with poke and poison ivy. Next to the derelict ruin where Richard loitered, was a yellow-painted shanty, leveled against the hill, standing on posts of differing lengths. He heard the door at the back of Sanderson’s place swing on its hinges.
“You oughta done flagged down Ziegler. Seen him go by just now.”
“Mr. Sanderson, my sons will find me along the road.”
They would find him keeled over, Richard thought, find themselves mercifully unburdened. And it was what he’d meant. As he labored, falling to his knees and rolling himself upright, his heels kicking clouds from a termite hill and finding purchase at last on the side of a bleached stump, he met Sanderson’s eyes. Sanderson looked square at this circumstance of Richard’s—circumstance was all it was, this inability to stand on his own feet—his face expressionless, the butt of his musket burrowed in the dirt. He knew Richard’s mind. That was why, although he bore a sympathy for the man W. A. Gremot employed as overseer, he did not want Richard on his property.
Richard Everard walked under a torturing sun, and saw thunderclouds piling above the summit of Gremot’s hill. Richard and Lawrence might not come along today. The storm might break, long before their father had plodded home. And if he missed Ebrach, he would not mind very much. He was not certain he could be civil to Ebrach.
Nine years ago, Gremot had said to him, “I count nothing against your wages for the use of the ’stead. Give you a place to get your family settled in. And you can do as you like, as far as repairs and additions.”
Continued from “repairs and additions
He’d seen a hope of redeeming himself for the sake of his sons. Above all things, he had not meant to enslave them. A sober man, expiating his sins, Richard had given all his daylight hours to Gremot. He hadn’t known the bargain he was striking. The old home place of the Sanderson clan—nothing to do with Gremot, other than that he now owned it—had needed knocking from its foundation…and even its foundation sat on the floodplain. If Richard could have afforded to hire a fine new house built, he would have needed still to beg another patch of land from Gremot, and the house built from Richard’s wages would be on Gremot’s property. Gremot would have him strike a fresh bargain, then; and being sixty-four years of age, Richard would bargain next with God for another twenty years of life to pay Gremot. Or let the debt be carried to his sons. Richard ought to have demanded from the start the rights of a tenant, paid rent to Gremot and asked for a higher wage. The ’stead remained a hovel.
He sat at his desk, doing figures. More often than he looked at the ledger book―this useless exercise―Richard looked through the glass, at his fallow fields. The foxtail grass, the Joe-Pye weed, the goldenrod, that had filled the rows so quickly; these wild plants made a pretty sight. He could not mind that they thrived here. But his inheritance, his living, his life was buried in these fields. Turn the earth over, and start anew.
His corner of Ballard County had fallen under the sway of the Union regiments quartered in Kentucky. He could not farm his land. His eighteen-year-old son Micah, who’d run off to volunteer with the rebel army, had fallen to the Union. And they would strip Richard’s livelihood from him as well. They would, he felt. He had a bitter premonition of it. Some new owner would grow tobacco here.
He had two other sons. Richard was eleven; Lawrence was ten. He did not want them to admire the Union soldiers. He did not want them to hate the Union soldiers. His boys had been instructed in their father’s sentiments. “We are Everards. We have nothing to say to the enemy.”
The Everards were Presbyterian. That made no difference now to Verbena. When he had met her, she’d been wretchedly unschooled; so steeped in ignorance was this little wren-like creature, she could tell Richard only that she hailed from Carolina―she did not know North from South. Her family’s cabin had been visited by itinerant preachers, to whom her father had considered himself equal in authority on the Bible’s teachings. And that had been all her learning.
Verbena’s state of religion had reverted. Mania attracted her. Richard had once longed to civilize her tastes.
In those war days, every church, every Sunday, had a speaker. Every speaker told a story, to stir the sentiment and open the purse strings. “The Soldier’s Prayer”; “A Mother’s Dream of Heavenly Consolation”; “He Did Not Know His Own Brother”.
And when the meeting ended, the women gathered. The Everards did not belong here among the Baptists. Verbena had brought Richard at the invitation of Mrs. Sowers. He had come because Verbena, unlike herself these days—acting, as she thought, for Micah’s sake—would have braved the visit alone, and he did not want her doing it. Mrs. Sowers, who went up to Paducah to see her sister, knew of a mother, from down around Arkansas way…this woman had been told that her son was killed at Petersburg. But it was a mistake.
“They got his name mixed up with another’n similar,” Mrs. Sowers said.
“Oh.” Verbena sighed from the periphery.
Testimony, storytelling; these were all in all to Verbena, who could take no comfort in the written word. With a bright absorption, her eyes lit on each speaker’s face. Everyone in Chambliss and in the neighboring towns thereabouts, knew the war’s widows and its bereaved mothers. Mrs. Sowers had an ear out for the voice of poor Verbena Everard, now her self-assumed responsibility.
“He wasn’t never dead. Ma’am, they had took him to a field hospital. And when he got to where he could say his name, that’s when they sent Miz Smith the telegram.”
Telegram. Now it would be telegrams all the time. He wondered if Verbena understood what a telegram was. He’d shown her the letter from Colonel Williams, but it had been faith in Richard, not blind acceptance of Williams’s courteous phrasings, that had quietened her. The quiet hadn’t lasted; the faith had been misplaced. Richard, his attention fixed on his wife, had withdrawn to stand apart and alone. He was enraged; these Baptists could see in his eyes what he felt. They must realize his mood, from the choking fist with which he gripped his walking stick. Richard boiled, beneath a storm-sheared catalpa tree, amid a downpour of decaying blossoms. Odorous, tissue-white petals littered Richard’s hat. He shuddered them from the shoulders of his coat. They were falling, continually, drifting and piling around his feet.
On the principle of fellowship, one or two of the men had spoken. The latest to approach, offering his hand, said, “How do, Mr. Everard? We hopin you and missus gon come to dinner with us…”
He’d felt unsettled by Richard. His face had shown it.
“Another time,” he told his friends. “Them all have a lot to take on.” The man, standing within Richard’s sight, had gestured towards him, hand flicked backwards.
Richard seethed at these Baptists. They were spreaders of disease. One, a woman no taller than Verbena, her face scarred by small-pox, had topped Mrs. Sowers’s story. Noticing Verbena’s rapture, seeing where her sympathies lay, she had plucked Verbena by the sleeve. She had swept the circle with her eyes, taking them all in. Her story was a fireside fable, recounted in the language of a camp revival. It was a tale told of a cousin, an idiot given to the devil’s own fits, supposed at last to have died.
“Her mama had called to her, reverend put his hands on her…for two days, they had her laid out on a block of ice…and just when they dressed her, and threw the cloth over the kitchen table, she come awake…”
Richard was certain the next yarn would be that ancient corpse revived: the casket exhumed on some pretext, wherein lay in rigorous condemnation the twisted limbs of a pitiful soul buried in error. It was obscene, the ease with which they cast piety aside, and fell to this temptation; and Richard wished to drive among these women with his stick, left and right. The war’s end creeping on, they had no comfort for the bereaved. His wife might sigh and take hope from these representations, but the others—
The others devolved into a salacious contest to dredge the macabre from the cistern of their imaginations. It was this obsession with the occult; this linking of the occult to the miraculous, enkindling the fever in the weak-minded, that became the lure.
Verbena’s mind, as Richard had suffered for knowing, was weak.
He had expected he would never marry. Though he had been thirty-one, not old, when he’d asked Verbena to be his wife, Richard’s nature had been ever tempersome. He would not have had the patience to go courting. And he had felt so, even while still in his twenties.
Old Everard―the name by which Richard’s father was known—had lived yet, in those days. He had been born in Inverness; he spoke, when in his cups, in accents so dense that he spoke to himself alone. Richard’s father, the inebriate—the idle, lolling drunk—grew belligerent in his cups. There was no one with whom Old Everard could remain on terms. He had given over management of his farm to his heir; Lawrence, rooted to the stream that fed him, had proved a born tobacco man.
Richard, too, in those safe old times, had felt a nascent growth in his cautious soul. Wishing to be well rid of his family, he had begged his father’s permission to study law in Philadelphia, a cultured city…and a place far from Kentucky.
The economics of farming had kept his brother from marrying; and if the well-loved Lawrence, overweighed by the burden of his inheritance, could find no conjugal relief, what duty should the unloved Richard feel towards the name of Everard?
He felt none. Not even on the day he’d learned that Lawrence was dead. Not until his mother had written, unbending her pride, a confession of a kind Richard had never before heard from her. He had been home for Lawrence’s burial; he had returned to Philadelphia. And she wanted him back.
Peggy always held herself close. During his growing up years, he’d seen no fight in his mother. Let Old Everard begin to rampage, and this was her means of coping: without speaking a word, she walked from the house. She walked to the barn, where she would cradle one of the cats, scratch fleas from its head, dig with a meditative concentration her fingernails deep in its fur. Or, she might go down to the creek side.
Richard trailed behind, and Peggy had known he was there―still, his mother said no word. But she would stop; she would wait to feel Richard’s hand tug her skirt, take it, and walk side by side with him to the bank. If the kingfisher was there, or the heron, she pointed, silently.
Richard, I have no one to help. Your father vexes me, and I feel I will be harried to my own grave. Please visit and advise me what to do, if you will not come to stay.
Lawrence had been thirty-one.
Old Everard had once been young.
He had settled in the city where he’d disembarked. As he’d stepped from the Clyde to board her launch, Malcolm Everard craned his neck, scanning the shore. He saw only fog. Moved by a swell, the launch dipped; and Malcolm, taking a crack on the ankle, fell backwards into the sound. A gull cried, and his startled eyes opened underwater, the brackish current dense as the mist, stinging away his sight. The pilot and a fellow passenger hauled him over the gunwale. A cloth was thrust into his hand; he wiped his streaming eyes and nose. “You are an immigrant, are you, sir?” the pilot asked him. Malcolm nodded. “Then you could not ask for a luckier sign. You have been baptized in the waters of the Mississippi. You will prosper, sir, in New Orleans.”
Malcolm, following his luck along the waterfront, had wandered up the first street that looked broad and clean under the sun at its zenith. A passerby, whose sleeve he’d plucked, told him this was the Faubourg Ste-Marie. He did not mind, at this moment, that his clothes were salt-stiffened, or that he carried his possessions in a sack slung over his shoulder. He’d liked the neat brick front of Sartain’s brokerage house, the blue-painted shutters, the polished brass handle, and the arms above the lintel, their bright green, gold, and red, the fanciful beast rampant which he knew to be an heraldic gryphon. He’d pulled open the front door, having no notion of what sort of place this was.
It was impulse had made him jump aboard the Clyde, throwing over his post, never doubting that a man who could read and write could make his living anywhere. At his parish school Malcolm had been taught a little French, along with church Latin; he had taught this in turn to his pupils, more ignorant than he, and none had complained. He’d known enough to ask Sartain: “Pardon, monsieur, qu’est-ce c’est?”; and to exclaim, “Vous en savez plus que moi!” These phrases, and one or two others, had sufficed. Laurent Sartain, explaining everything to his new clerk, convinced himself they’d had a long talk together, and that Malcolm, though a Scot, had some culture, and could do the job he had in mind.
In that year of 1804, the Sartains were themselves new Americans, though they were longtime Louisianans. They had not suffered greatly under the brief return to Spanish rule, but felt a depth of bitterness against Bonaparte. The Sartains were of an old Paris family; they belonged to the insular network of the pure French; they were loyal to their sovereign, even when that loyalty must be held in abeyance against the day the House of Bourbon should rise again—and the distinctions of their class, graded like the finely cured leaf which Sartain’s firm bought and sold, were lost on Malcolm.
Madame Sartain referred to her son-in-law as “Mr. Everard”; at all times, she spoke of him in the third person, whether he were out of the room or in it. From the day Malcolm had delivered Peggy home married, her mother had brought down this portcullis of alienating comportment, and Malcolm remained on the outside. Madame Sartain did not understand the Presbyterian sect; but beliefs exterior to Roman Catholicism were to her mere bibelots.
“Mr. Everard,” she had, on one occasion, said to her daughter, speaking from the foot of the dinner table; Malcolm, for ten years now her son-in-law, and seated, staring into his wineglass, at her left, “must realize that God pleases his own will. How could it be otherwise? Marguerite, we cannot say to ourselves, ‘I will defer these matters, I will decide later’; for each day that we live, it is only by God’s grace.”
It was Peggy who’d told Richard these things. Old Everard did not have the character to draw insight from his own past; to say to himself:
“This was a chance I might have taken.” Or, conversely, “Here I ought to have stood my ground.”
Six years Richard had been gone from Ballard County. For the past three, as though an ex-communicant, he had avoided his old home; he had not visited. He had worn his mother down, and Peggy was the only one who minded. She wrote, asking, would he not come back for a holiday, come and see his father…and Richard shelved her letters. After a month or so, he would take one down, answer it with his careful explanations. He could not leave his work; he could not risk his place.
His work at the saw mill was dangerous; it sorted ill with his ambitions, and with his second job, which required two good hands for self-defense. He had told Mr. Calderson and Mr. Harkiness, Esquires, on the day of his interview, that he was a student, his family too poor to pay for his education; that he took his law courses as his own labor afforded them, and that although past the age of twenty-five, he had not yet obtained his degree, and might not do so under the age of thirty. Richard hoped the firm would remember him for a clerkship, if one came open. He hoped, in his private mind, that the attorneys bore some respect for him, and might one day think of taking him into partnership. He doubted they respected him.
They did, however, trust him with sums of money, employing him to run down witnesses as needed (this Richard understood to be a literal stipulation, for a lubricated man might recall the near miraculous); to take their statements, to find these witnesses for a second time when their testimony was wanted before the judge. They could be guaranteed to the tune of ten or twenty dollars, another ten or twenty if they kept their court date, a discretionary bonus if Mr. Calderson, or Mr. Harkiness, won his case.
But Richard could not play the oily game with his employers; pose a fraudulent query, as though puzzled over some nuanced tangle in the legal code. As though conscientious young Everard wished only to be correct.
“You know a great deal about the law, Mr. Everard.”
He wished he could…bring himself to adopt the humble stance, shuffle his feet, entwine fingers at his middle button, clear his throat. “My education, sir, gives me some advantage; and for that, I trust I am a better servant to you, Mr. Calderson, Mr. Harkiness.” Yet every man in a position to do a thing for another expects buttering up—even at the sawmill the hands practiced in this way on their bosses.
He stood on the porch, that first night, having returned home at his mother’s behest for the second time within a month. For Peggy, he had sacrificed his place at the mill; he had, in effect, sacrificed his other job…but the attorneys wouldn’t know it yet, not until they had reason once more to summon Richard. He might―though he could not imagine how―wrest himself free before that time. He stood in the dark, his thoughts disturbed by an ungodly din. Frogs, toads, katydids, the night-singing mockingbird, every creature of the hinterlands that peeped and belched and whirred and chattered, battered Richard’s senses with a cacophony, a shivaree.
And its message was: Go. Get out.
He meant to be gone. He had come close to it, under this spell of misery and sheer noise. He might step down and walk off, make for the road. He knew the way; he did not need to see it. He did not want to see. He wanted to abandon this responsibility, along with his possessions, the tobacco fields, the creek, the woods, his mother and father. But Peggy, creaking out across the boards, pressed her hand against her rocker’s worn back, where wicker shoots, capable of slicing a fingertip, had unwoven themselves. He heard the wrench and strain, the rocker bearing the weight of his mother’s stout infirmity. Peggy grieved. She had sat on this porch immobile on nights as dark as this, weathering into her place. Through thunderstorms, through Old Everard’s rages. Her joints were barely limber enough that she could raise herself to retire to her bed at sunrise. But for all her grief, Peggy had not grown appreciably less solid.
A cousin, a nephew of Peggy’s, had corresponded from New Orleans. Bertrand Sartain had come up river to pay his relations a visit. Richard had kept Lawrence’s letter telling him these things that had portended so much; not the last letter Richard had received from his brother, but the last wherein he could discern his brother’s voice.
Cousin Bertrand has an eye for property. I walk him round the place, and all the while, he is gratified (though he cannot conceal his amazement) to know that we have a fine frame house, one with four bed-chambers; indeed, that the house may be reached by a well-traveled road. We do not live in a shanty, we are not beset by savages! Our land has been cleared and is in cultivation. However, I have promised Bertrand that we will go into the forest and have a day’s shooting. I hope, for his sake, that the dogs may tree a bear!
On the same page, but added some days later, Lawrence had written:
Bertrand asks, as a tobacco trader interested in new markets, how much income might a man earn, out of a farm like ours? Would it be worth Cousin Bertrand’s while to invest in Kentucky acreage? Dad has taken himself away from all this hospitality, as you would expect. But Bertrand, at the dinner table, tells Ma that Grand-mère Sartain―yes, to her grave―wanted only forgiveness. (That is a near quote, to give you a sense of Cousin Bertrand.) Ma does not want to talk over old days. I believe, Richard, that you and I will burn in Hell for the lack of some Catholic rite―but we will never know more about it.
Bertrand has come here to bind the family property back into the Sartain fold―now that he finds us solvent and civilized. There is another Marguerite. He would like me to come down to New Orleans and be introduced to her.
Lawrence, who had spent his first nine years in Louisiana, might, in theory, have carried away with him a resistance to the backwater airs. His health had always been robust; his build, like Peggy’s, stout. Richard was spare and sinewy; in looks, in temperament, at length, in destiny, Richard took after his father. His own health was a worry, for Richard was the Everard brother who had chosen to earn his living working at a job. With every fever, Richard suffered equally in spirit, horrified that he might be forced to return home.
For Lawrence, illness had been absent on the third Friday of his stay, at the time he had gone to bed. He’d awakened on the Saturday, not with fever, but a chill…the tell-tale on-setting symptom of the swamp-borne pestilence, which cost so many lives in the Mississippi delta. The Sartains had written Peggy in an agony of distress―she had received letters from half a dozen of her relatives; Marguerite, this girl of a generation known to Peggy only in the person of Bertrand, had written twice. Bertrand also had written twice. Some of Peggy’s relatives insisted it could not be the typhoid, others that malaria was impossible. They found it incredible, indeed, that at that time of year, in the early spring, Lawrence should have fallen ill; and yet, these unhappy humors of Fate were known.
“And then,” Bertrand concluded, “certainly, we have seen this phenomenon of a strong man whose constitution is unexpectedly weakened by a change of climate.” Seeming to fear his aunt would take this assertion in the wrong vein—as mere excuse-making—Bertrand had added: “But, my dear aunt Marguerite, we have been extraordinarily fortunate. Lawrence will, I think, with God’s grace, recover completely.”
And the Sartains, who had planned a campaign of delights for their lost cousin, who had dreamed of restoring this broken vessel that was the House of Sartain, had canceled dinners and dances, and tiptoed in their silent rooms, with the shades drawn.
Lawrence had not died in New Orleans. He had remained there for two months. He had felt well enough, in late June, to take passage on a river steamer, the Allouette. Or, he might not have felt well, Richard supposed. Lawrence could not have slept easily, for having left the farm to the destructive managing hand of Old Everard; he might as well have left it go to seed. He would have hated burdening the Sartains with his care, hated to be seen by them―by Marguerite, if he had taken a shine to her―at such poor advantage.
Thus it had been that, within the sight of the Allouette’s purser, a man named Biggins―as her master, Gideon Haws, related to Peggy in his letter―Lawrence had experienced a sort of seizure; an apoplexy, as the boat’s doctor certified it. The event had been witnessed also by one of her passengers, a Mr. Weinenger. Weinenger had gone after supper to take his usual exercise on the promenade deck. Passing, for the third time, the chair in which Lawrence sat, he’d observed for the third time that Lawrence retained an unnatural posture and a fixed stare. Weinenger began to feel himself called to a duty. On his fourth pass, he bent over Lawrence, and shook him by the shoulder. He hailed Mr. Biggins, whom he’d noticed close by. Lawrence seemed to wake, to come to his senses from out of a trance; both Weinenger and Biggins agreed that so it had appeared. He had braced himself to rise; he had pushed his chair aside…and collapsed, instead, onto the deck. Lawrence afterwards had lingered through the night, but never had regained consciousness.
And Gideon Haws had dispatched his letter by courier, writing to Lawrence’s parents as the steamer docked at Louisville.
The black bordered envelope created a perturbance for the Chambliss postmaster. He had lately handled a flood of mail from New Orleans, addressed to a Mrs. (Marguerite) Everard; and that, in itself, made for mild sensation. Soon everyone local had known of the sad affair at New Orleans.
Nine years afterwards, at Peggy’s funeral, the postmaster recalled this to Richard, chewing the fat a bit, Richard thought. People got themselves started, and they ran on; the stories they told were in no way consoling.
“I didn’t know,” the postmaster said, “how Old Everard might take it. I thought I ought to get word to Peggy, let her decide what was best to be done.”
30 June 1840
Aboard the Allouette
My Dear Mr. Everard and Mrs. Everard,
The saddest of duties that can befall to a man’s lot, I must today undertake, in relating to you the unfortunate and unforeseen circumstance, which on the evening of June 28, before the eyes of witnesses, whose Testimony I will faithfully transcribe herein; upon the deck of the steamer Allouette, of which I do not deny that I am Master, there did occur a most sorrowful Event, the unfathomable nature of which the Angels alone can divine, a most tragic and irreplaceable loss to you—the Departure, it grieves me to report, of your son, Mr. Lawrence Everard.
Haws, in crafting his opening remarks, had in self-interest understood two points wanted making: first, that he was a man of refinement, equal to such tasks as called for delicacy; second, that his crewman, himself, and the owners of the Allouette, could not be held to blame for this Act of God. Even so, for having confused Peggy, and forced her to read, in mounting dread, through this preamble three times, Haws failed to proceed at once with the explanation he had promised.
Although being that we have had no means of consulting your Preferences on so mournful an occasion; of necessity, the loved one has been placed―with entire respect, I warrant, my dear sir―in the city morgue of Louisville; nevertheless, I recommend to you, while in no way presuming to impose my tastes upon you, the excellent services provided by Corbett and Dossett, undertakers; their premises are located, here in the city of Louisville, at No. 16 West Market Street. And, should you choose otherwise, I beg that you will yet allow me to render to you any assistance which may ease your sorrows and bring comfort to your hearts on so tragic an occasion.
By the third night of his second homecoming, Richard and Peggy had fallen into a routine. He still felt as though he might be seized with an uncontrollable urge; that an impulse of lunatic atavism might cause him to flee into the woods, so burdened was he by the weight of his mother’s need to have him there.
He stood again with his arm hooked round the porch pillar, faltering, almost yielding to it, almost falling into Peggy’s camellias. His mother had tonight come through the door with Old Everard’s walking stick. Richard heard her halt, give out a heavy exhalation, the stick scrape the porch planks as she leaned all her weight on it. He heard her land like a millstone, as the wicker cried its protest. And still, he kept his back to her.
“Richard,” Peggy said, “you will have to go to Louisville. I can’t ask Mr. McCrary to do me another favor.”
Not knowing a soul in Louisville, Peggy had known of no reason to doubt the abilities of Corbett and Dossett. She had gone down to the town of Chambliss, a roll of banknotes and Haws’s letter tucked into a pocket of her skirt; she had gone down walking out her grief, to call on her minister, Mr. McCrary.
“Peggy, have you had news?”
Stricken at the open door, his mother stood unable to speak. Her iron pride had foundered. But at the touch of Mrs. McCrary’s hands, closing over her own, drawing her into the parlor, Peggy righted herself. “I need to ask your help with one or two things, ma’am. You know I have no family in this state.”
Peggy would have to post this news to New Orleans, where her Sartain relatives, at present happy and relieved, would come to regret this lapse from pessimism. Her letter would need copying, probably six times over. Lawrence, she supposed―realizing this―would arrive by flatboat and wagon.
“Well, now, you just sit down…at that desk, there, if you want, love,” Mrs. McCrary said, for Peggy had insisted she would not take tea, and that the time she could spare was short. “We’ll take care of all that.”
While in town, Peggy made her purchases. At the end of her long walk home, she stopped at the cabins and called Naomi to come up to the house. Without a word to Old Everard, the two women spent the day rising bread dough, shaping rolls, painting these with a milk and sugar glaze; rolling out pie crusts, emptying jars of preserves from the larder. Finally, with her arrangements made, with no obligations left to worry her mind, Peggy had taken on the worst of chores.
Richard felt the stirring of his father, and shortly could hear Old Everard stump in his woolen socks, through the front parlor. Bent with rheumatism, unsteady from whisky, he grunted and told himself aloud what he was about as he progressed. He used chair backs, and the molding along the wainscot to hold himself on his feet. He had not yet stoked himself to rage. That would come. It was only for the giving of vent to his rages that Old Everard roused himself from his chair by the fire. But Richard’s shoulders cringed with every imprecation and muffled footfall bringing his father closer to the porch.
Continued from “closer to the porch”
“Peggy, the house is cold.”
“Nonsense, Malcolm. The way you keep still all day, you make a cripple of yourself. No wonder if you think so! I…” Peggy, grasping her husband’s stick, threw herself forward, leaning on it, her breathing strained. She turned to catch his eye. But in the darkness, only Old Everard’s crooked shape showed black against a halo of inconstant light, filtered through the globe of the parlor’s oil lamp.
“I sit up half the night, in this heat.”
As was Old Everard’s wont, he began to speak―in an undertone, and largely to himself―as he pushed through the open doorway. His voice rose, and he affected now to speak about Richard, rather than to Richard.
“He thinks that I don’t know a thing.” Old Everard’s gamy trousers were tucked inside his woolen socks; the socks were pulled to his knees. He probed with overgrown nails at his loose, unbuttoned shirt, scratching the bare skin of his chest. He came to rest against the pillar at the top of the steps. Richard moved to the sheltered side of the opposite pillar; the width between them was the distance between himself and his father’s fist.
“He has arranged his affairs,” Old Everard said, “in secret. His father’s property is no matter of respect to Richard. The ferryman”—he coughed, and drew at a plug of phlegm—“does not respect the property of Malcolm Everard. Richard’s mother…” Old Everard straightened himself; he pushed one arm upwards to gain purchase on a ring of lathe-work. As he did so, the front of his shirt gaped, releasing a noisome fug of liquor and ripened sweat that wafted across the porch.
“Peggy,” Old Everard said, having tried, unsuccessfully, to face her, as she had tried to face him, “feels that at last she may do some good, where she has brought about so much harm. Peggy says to herself, ‘I will ask the family lawyer to go over to Louisville’―and what good, we ask ourself, is a lawyer in the family, if he cannot be bidden to recover our stolen property? Richard may even perhaps have learned something about the law, while he loitered about the rooms of Mr. Harkness.
“And here he is, loitering on the front porch of his father’s house. Richard is a man of twenty-eight years, and Richard has no profession to occupy his hours, and Richard will not be a farmer. Why will he not go to Louisville? Peggy wishes that he would. Madame Marguerite Sartain wished her son Lawrence would go to New Orleans, and we have seen the fine harvest of his mother’s sowing.”
Having arrived at this height, in the upward levitation of his philippic, Old Everard paused. The night, teeming with hidden life, was impenetrable in its blackness. Peggy was at a disadvantage now, too heavy and too old to walk away from him. Old Everard reeled from his hold on the pillar; he lurched at Peggy, grappled onto his stick with both hands and wrenched―
But Peggy had no mind to resist her husband. She let go of the stick at once.
His father’s backwards momentum careered him towards Richard; and Richard, enraged already with Old Everard, felt this surge of ire flame, as a foot, clad in its stinking sock, stumbled over his shoe. He shoved his father, not in the direction of the house, but onwards in the way he had been heading. And Old Everard, boosted by this acceleration, this further dislocation of his center of gravity, sailed from the porch, over Peggy’s camellia bushes, and onto the patch of grass, dusty in August, dry as straw.
This accident, while unprecedented, did not chasten Old Everard. He remembered what he had been about doing, the jug he had intended to fetch when the open door had caught his attention, and he’d made for the parlor. He had not either forgotten where he’d left off in his narrative…and meant to take up his theme again. He took up his stick in the meantime; soon a sweet, oily perfume, a green scent of bruised leaves, mild spice intermingled with acridity, filled the air. Old Everard was pummeling Peggy’s camellias. If his rage were not consumed by the physicality of this act, he would beat the stairs, the pillars, the porch planks. He wheezed as he worked, malign breaths, fragments of curses which had yet to become articulate.
He stopped. He climbed the steps…and in his arthritic condition, his ligaments twisted further askew by his fall, Old Everard climbed, pulling himself by the handrail, pantingly, and with painful effort. Yet, when he reached Peggy in her rocker, he bowed, and handed her his stick. She did not flinch. It had never crossed her mind that he would strike her. He had never done so.
But he said to her, “It will come full circle. Peggy.”
Richard found Gideon Haws, the man, to be practical and capable of straightforward speech. The over-constructed, florid sentences in which he’d written to Richard’s parents, and in particular those letters pertaining to funeral arrangements that he’d exchanged with the man of God, Mr. McCrary, had been calculations; Haws, Richard observed, was of a calculating nature. Haws kept a house in Louisville, but lived in most seasons on the Allouette; therefore Richard had sent letters to him for weeks upon weeks, only to find Haws was afloat on the Mississippi. And Haws, learning, in return, with whom he dealt, had lowered his tone by degrees, from high style, to formal courtesy, to the duty-bound language of his final letter, in which Haws had acceded to the unavoidable. If Mr. Everard cared to call at his house, after the hour of noon, on the twentieth day of December, Mr. Haws would discuss with Mr. Everard that matter of business to which Mr. Everard, in his correspondence, had referred.
Christmas would fall within the week; the sacred day might pass before Richard had won a settlement from Haws. Should Haws yield to reason, the only gift Richard meant to bring home to his parents from the city of Louisville was the errant slave, Joab, Malcolm Everard’s property.
“The question of a debt,” Richard said, using careful terms, “is neither here nor there. You have not obtained a verdict in your favor. You have not proved your case. You have made no complaint against my father.”
The house of Haws was fine, substantial. It sat on an embankment above a floodwall. The house was brick, but had a white clapboard wing that extended on one side, black louvered shutters with keyhole cutouts, closed for the winter season over its many windows. Richard, climbing the steps, had noted the entry door, painted red, shining brass on the plate, handle, hinges, and knocker. Haws, he thought, was a prosperous man, to keep this house that, for the most part, he did not live in.
Haws said: “I felt, and I may have judged wrong, that in broaching the subject, I should have added cruelly to the grief of your mother and father. It seemed―” Haws, who had not demonstrated himself to be an inhospitable host, leaned against, while his girth resisted, the cherry-wood table. He reached for the brass bell.
“And, of course, yours, sir.”
My grief, Richard thought. The girl who had taken away his hat and coat, who had ushered him into the house―a graceless ushering, but one performed with her costume in better array―clattered up the steps at her master’s summons. Her cap, her hair, her general person, had taken on in the interim, a dampish slump, and she smelled as though she had been sweating over a boiled ham.
“How is Mary coming along with the lunch?”
Haws was capable of introducing this business for the express purpose of interrupting himself. He’d belittled Richard’s affection for Lawrence…and for no reason that Richard could detect, other than simple enjoyment, in this making of sly speeches, of his own finesse.
“Oh, sir, Mr. Haws, it will all soon be done.” The girl breathed a bit, and having thought where responsibility lay, added, “And Mary will come herself to tell you.” She shifted from one foot to another, while clasping her hands at her waist; she gave the impression of being on tenterhooks. Possibly, the ham was in danger of boiling over; possibly, Haws’s servants were unused to having him at home.
“Mr. Everard,” Haws said, “have you had enough coffee?” He seemed to catch Richard’s nod, passing it along to the maid, flipping her at the same time a backhanded dismissal. “You go on, then, Kitty. Tell madam cook the family don’t mind waiting, being that we’re used to it, but it makes a poor showing before a guest!” He winked at Richard.
“Mr. Haws, you said, ‘it seemed’.”
“Hmm. It seemed, sir, a very fair solution, I was going to say. But don’t you suppose that I have no intention of accepting your father’s valuation of his property. If he tell me this boy Joab is worth more than one hundred dollars, I will pay him the balance.”
This was patent nonsense. Richard had not brought with him anything like a hundred dollars. Had Haws made the niceties of his game clear in his letter, Old Everard might have been persuaded to part with such a sum; he might on the other hand have raged, and gone stubborn. I, Richard thought, ought to stand up now, and leave. I ought not to sit at this man’s table. Turning his back on Haws, however, would mean the end. Haws, having invented a debt, which it had not been in Lawrence’s character to owe, would have won in his bid to swindle the Everards.
“These two ducks,” Haws began. With an underhand swing of the carving fork, he indicated the two ducks, crisped on the spit to a greasy lacquered brown. Mary had brought the platter, following an eel chowder which dismissed both soup and fish; she had served the while holding to a haughty silence, proof that Haws’s remark had been passed in the kitchen. The ducks were divided from each other by a mound of buttered yams. One duck had by now been reduced to bones and a few peelings of skin; the other not yet depredated. “My daughter will tell you, Mr. Everard, there wasn’t one finer than the other, so I took ’em both. And a good thing, being that you turned up.”
As courtesy seemed to demand, Richard looked across the table for confirmation from Miss Haws. She…and he could not understand it…narrowed her eyes at him, as though she rebuffed a liberty he’d taken.
“Well, yes,” she said, “and you ought to have as much as you like, Mr. Everard. We have plenty of ham as well.” These remarks she enunciated in clipped clear speech. Miss Haws brandished her breeding, but Richard did not judge her to be his social superior. Mr. Haws was an average well-to-do man; he had, on the evidence, provided an average education for his daughter. Nonetheless, Miss Haws had a place in mind for Richard. She meant to put him there. And he had not come here with any notion of appealing to the father by courting the daughter. He disliked Miss Haws.
“I believe I have had enough, but I thank you, ma’am,” he said. While he had been eating Haws’s duck and ham, Richard had gauged Haws. He remembered his days in Philadelphia. He remembered his sanctimony over a certain sort of slick dealing, which he had despised…in which he himself would never have engaged.
“Mr. Haws,” Richard said, “you are the owner of the Allouette, sir?”
“There is a cobbler on the table,” Haws told him, nodding towards the cobbler, presented at table—by Kitty this time—in the iron skillet in which it had been baked. “I hope you don’t mean to say you won’t have just a little. It’s a berry cobbler, made with my daughter’s preserves. Rebecca, dish him up a piece.”
Rebecca Haws, in her disapproval of Richard, dished with aggression, a vast serving, four dollops of shiny dough and a bubbling froth of blackberry pulp, heaped to overflowing against the dessert plate’s austere gold rim. She lifted the plate across to Richard, and asked, with arch clarity, “Have you got a clean fork, sir?”
“Thank you kindly, ma’am, I have all I need. Mr. Haws―” Poised to dig into his dessert, Richard meant also to repeat his question, but Haws had not lost the thread.
“Sir, I am not the owner of the Allouette. You grant me too high a distinction. I am master of the Allouette. I helm her on her voyages.”
“Ought I to have been addressing you as captain, then, sir? I don’t wish to offend.”
“Young man, you may quite correctly call me Mr. Haws. We are not aboard the Allouette, and you are not one of my crew―though some men are great sticklers for a title.”
“I’m glad to hear you make that remark, sir.” Richard contrived a smile. He was unpracticed at this, and his fraudulence sufficed to draw from his adversary’s daughter a look, inimical and measuring.
“I find you, Mr. Haws,” Richard persevered, “to be a fair-minded and generous man.”
Haws himself, whose joviality had never, in any case, been acted wholeheartedly, now studied Richard with a wary eye.
“I hope,” Richard went on, “that you will write down for me, before I must take my leave, the name of the Allouette’s owner, with perhaps—if I do not ask too great a favor—a word or two of introduction. I assume he is the man to whom my late brother owed his debt. The matter preys on my father’s mind, as you may imagine, sir.”
“Joab,” Haws nodded to Joab, “you know Mr. Everard.”
This was not true. Richard knew, by Lawrence’s letters, which of his father’s slaves Joab was. He supposed he could have seen Joab in the company of his brother; if so, he had taken no notice of him. Joab, for his part, equivocated:
“Sir,” he told Haws, “this is Mr. Richard Everard.”
“Mr. Everard,” Haws said, “wants you to answer him a question. He would like to hear the story from you, Joab, rather than take my word for it.” Of his specious good humor, Haws had recovered a degree. He grinned at Joab.
“Mr. Everard, sir.” Joab nodded. He did not bow or bob. And wearing no expression, with no evident curiosity, he waited. Richard guessed Joab to be of his own age, more or less. Lawrence had put store by Joab as a tobacco man. Joab, possibly, was therefore somewhat literate; and might be of above average intelligence.
“Joab,” Richard said, “you were not in the way of a personal servant to my brother Lawrence.”
“No, sir. Mr. Everard had me to work alongside him.”
“You were a sort of foreman on the farm?”
“Well, sir, that would be saying a lot. Sometimes with the planting and the picking, we take on Irish, and I would oversee a little. And other times, when Mr. Everard had to be away up to Paducah, he would have me to look after things.”
“Why is it, Joab, that you went with my brother to New Orleans?” There were two answers to this question, and Richard knew them both.
“You come with me, Joab—that’s what he said to me—and we’ll find out how they grow tobacco in Louisiana; then I won’t have to come back and show you.”
“And was your journey wasted, or did you learn something of value?”
Joab, who in speaking of Lawrence, had wavered over an emotion he could not altogether conceal, now eyed Richard with anticipation.
“I reckon I learned something, Mr. Everard.”
“Any knowledge you have gained, which is advantageous to the cultivation of tobacco on my father’s property, belongs to my father. It is not your privilege, Joab, to pass along to Mr. Haws what my late brother intended for his own use.”
Joab heard this argument in silence.
“Joab.” Having leveraged already from Haws’s memory of events, a revision, Richard did not much care whether he winnowed out all of Haws’s falsehoods. He understood Haws to be a man whose lies sprouted under heat, like crabgrass in a bed of manure, as Haws found himself informed by circumstance.
“Mr. Haws tells me that you represented yourself as being the property of my brother Lawrence; that you made a claim to have been unaware of your status; and that therefore, Mr. Haws did not feel himself in the wrong for having taken you into his household, as payment for this debt he alleges, supposing you to have been one of so many effects which my brother Lawrence had left behind―the equivalent, we will say, of a watch fob.”
Richard waited. Haws, either in sarcasm, or unconsciously prompted to do so, fingered his own watch fob, and smiled. Joab remained silent.
“Joab, will you answer me?”
“I don’t believe I can, sir.”
“You belong to my father, Mr. Malcolm Everard. Has there been a time when you did not know that?”
“I know it rightly enough, sir.”
“Ought you not to have said so, when Mr. Haws tells me he asked it of you?”
Joab, as Richard had conjectured, was an intelligent man. He had heard Richard’s question; he might have understood it well, or he might have understood it in part. But he recognized the path that skirted the obstacle. “I did tell Mr. Haws that I don’t know my status―the way you say it, Mr. Everard―and that’s the truth. I never made a study of the law.”
Richard, in his mind’s eye, saw himself climb the porch steps. His conscience rebelled at his mother’s confronting him with this unanswerable question―had he won or lost―for his mother knew better than to ask. She had forced Richard’s return to his father’s house; she had asked him to call the farm his home; she had sown the country of Richard’s independence, modest as its boundaries had been, with salt—and nothing would grow there now. So, then, he told himself…and he was aware of Joab and Haws, eyeing him as he stood. He knew that he moved his lips, as though he argued with Peggy. Suppose, Richard thought, that I found her staring down over the hill as I imagine she would stare; her face bemused, a woolen sock lying atop her darning basket. Her fingers, probing its holes.
And she would look up, into his eyes, her own eyes reddened, but dry. His mother might say to him, “He’s gone”.
Richard knew he would be overtaken, then, by a great relief. And why deny it? He only dreamt a story, making up a thing in his own head. Old Everard lived. Yet Joab, he guessed, might feel a like relief at learning Richard’s news. Joab had had no way of knowing, at the time of Lawrence’s death―Richard would himself have found the notion incredible―that Old Everard’s reign was not to be restored. That the younger son would take over the farm, and be Joab’s master. He would not of course be loved, as Lawrence had been loved. But Joab, he presumed, did not fear him.
“Mr. Haws.” He did not think his reverie had lasted long. As a means of reclaiming dignity, Richard stood up straighter. The bills he carried with him were tucked in an inside pocket of his coat. He knew how much money he had―eighteen dollars.
“Sir, I can spare you ten dollars. I have my fare home to purchase, and I will need to pay Joab’s fare as well.”
A red and gold Brussels carpet covered the floor of Haws’s parlor. Richard wished to throw his clip of notes onto its center medallion, at the feet of Miss Haws, and ask Haws to stoop and count it; ask him if he believed that an Everard would try to cheat him. The parlor had a settee under the front windows, and Miss Haws―her grey woolen skirt spread across its cushion, so that she alone could occupy it―frowned up at him. Two pedestal tables flanked this settee, and Haws himself stood before a cabinet high as the ceiling, broad as the wall, filled with china gewgaws, polished until it gleamed with a deep burnished red that pitched up to gold, giving smug answer to each ember flaring in the fireplace grate.
“Ten dollars is something…” Haws allowed, judiciously.
“Papa!” Miss Haws rose from the settee. She brushed down her skirts. She looked at Richard with a kind of exasperation. “Papa, you are not going to take his money.”
Haws, at this outburst, shot out a guffaw, then chuckled his way to silence. He winked, this time at his daughter; and when he looked at Richard, nothing in his face or manner showed repentance for his scandalous dealings. “Rebecca tells me I am not to take your money, Mr. Everard. We will consider ourselves square then, sir. If you find yourself in future up Louisville way, call upon me. I may not be at home, but Rebecca will be here.”
He was thirty-one when he asked Verbena Lowther to be his wife.
For three years the farm had been Richard’s burden. Richard was not a born grower; he did not love the leaf. He did not cherish his seedlings, as he walked his rows, pinching the blown flowers, seeking those that had escaped his vigilant eye. Answering for an hour nature’s imperative, the tobacco plant might, in the morning sunlight and dew, burst into florescence and cross-pollinate with some uncultivated variety―
And so it might, as Richard saw it, and be glad of its freedom. He did not breathe deeply, when he stepped into the drying barn; he did not caress the bundles, his fingertips attuned to their texture, the perfection of the cure. Joab had it in him to do these things; and these agrarian preoccupations Richard left to Joab.
He did not mind doing sums. His temper, which had grown nearly as irascible as his father’s, made Richard Everard known among the tradesmen. He had taken to drinking whisky in the evenings. He was like his father in that, too. But without its sedative effect, Richard would have lain awake at night; he could not have borne the feeling that he was imprisoned in a cell. He had no light to see by in the dark hours, no work to be done, no means of fending off his loathing. The house closed in on Richard: its mildewed walls, its fetid, uncleanly stink, the human presence of his parents, sick and aging.
The workhouse in Louisville had produced Verbena Lowther.
“Verbena is a good worker; she takes instruction very readily. She does not complain or give trouble.”
Thus, the superintendent had written in answer to Peggy’s request. And Peggy, unfearing―in those early days, unsuspecting―had sighed, merely, over Verbena’s eager, pliable nature.
“Simple,” Peggy had said to Richard. He disagreed. Verbena’s intellect was unformed; she had never been taught to read or write, the only stories she knew were from the Bible. But she could hardly be expected to articulate well such thoughts as she had―when in her life she’d rarely been asked to articulate them at all.
And her limbs were so spare, her features so unadorned, her hair so lank, that Richard could not have thought of her as pretty or young…yet she was by no means old. She was not plain, either, although her teeth were bad. Like a stray cat or dog, accustomed to human society, inured to ill-treatment, Verbena blossomed into a pitiful and wholehearted loyalty, at the smallest show of affection.
Old Everard lingered. His own apoplectic attack had not killed him. It was Verbena who washed his feet and dragged his woolen socks on, Verbena who crouched on the floor, and scrubbed away the evidence of Old Everard’s passage from his bed to his chair by the hearth, Verbena who collected his filthy linens and boiled them clean. She wiped his face, as the drool ran from the left side of his mouth. Richard, and Peggy too, though his mother’s rheumatism excused her, walked around Old Everard; they smelled him unavoidably, but they averted their eyes from the sight of him.
Coming down the stairs in the mornings, Richard found Verbena in the back parlor, that room with the great hearth that his father had built first. Once, this had been the whole of the Everard homestead; later the anchor of its upper story, that slap in the face aimed at Malcom Everard’s in-laws. Whether it had been true or not, whether the Sartains made subtle accusations with their shipments upriver of furnishings and foodstuffs, or whether Malcolm had dreamed himself accused of stealing their Marguerite and forcing her and her sons into rusticity, he had built in vengeance. Yet to Richard’s father the house remained a cottage; rarely had Old Everard strayed from his hearth.
For Verbena, an upstairs bedchamber of her own, meals taken in privacy, her patient asleep before the fire, herself at loose ends, this life, in opposition to the workhouse, where Richard supposed she’d owned nothing (she had brought next to nothing with her), must seem a sort of miracle. He’d got out of the habit of passing her, these mornings, with a tight and silent smile. He’d felt ashamed of himself for not greeting her, as though he hadn’t wanted to wake his father; when in truth, he hadn’t wanted to speak to his father.
“Miss Lowther.” He forced the courtesy. “May I carry away that tray for you?”
“Oh, sir, I don’t ask you to.”
“Let me,” he said.
“I can’t mind as much as I ought to,” Peggy had said, later.
This, on the day they’d buried Old Everard. Richard’s father, despite the name by which he had for years been known, had died at the age of sixty-one. The bilious drive that had animated his spirit departed, a second fit taking him while he sat upright in his chair, Verbena at his feet, cross-legged on the rug, holding his hand. This was exactly as Peggy had found her, still caressing a hand that must have grown cold in hers, and singing in a soft voice a hymn she remembered, waiting for her mistress to come see about Mr. Everard.
Peggy had quit her wicker rocker. The penance she imposed on herself required the assumption of her husband’s place; the stain of his last year’s existence drawn through the cotton of her dress, transfiguring him into her flesh, as her flesh smothered the last traces of him.
Verbena had been set to scouring with lye soap all Malcolm Everard’s other haunts. At length his rebuking odor would rise―from the mattress of the marriage bed, from the horsehair of the fireside chair, from the floorboards along the way between―only on days when rain fell heavily. But Peggy knew, and Richard knew, because he’d helped her do it, how she’d pinioned her husband in this chair, in the final days of his delirium.
And that was what she’d meant, when she’d told Richard about not minding. “You know that soon enough, I will be dead myself. God will hold me to blame.”
She’d confided to Richard that she dreamed of Malcolm, seeing him wrench against his bonds, suffocate in the folds of the comforter they’d wrapped tight round his arms, hemmed edges folded again behind his back, so it was his own weight kept him from rising. But her husband had been restrained in his house…and that was kindness, all that was left of kindness: not forcing Old Everard out of his chair, not leaving him among strangers, not pouring medicines down his throat.
He could not, fancying that it made faces at him, lunge after the lion’s-head andiron; he could not shatter the mirror, because he had caught sight of himself and saw a savage peering through the window. He could not hurl Peggy’s teacups across the room, or cast her mending basket into the fire.
And Richard could not accept Peggy’s valuation of Verbena.
Verbena was capable, when confronted with disorder, of setting wise priorities, of righting those upended things fallen within her charge; she could choose so, not under direction, but by her own judgment. When she could no longer ask questions of Old Everard, and the interpreting of his needs had required a new language, Verbena had learned through touch, and the reading of his eyes, what he wanted, what comforted him.
Richard watched Verbena, in the days after his father’s burial. She had no deceit in her, no eye to size up circumstance to her advantage.
Molly, Peggy’s day help, walked up the road from Chambliss, Monday through Saturday. She collected wages from three households; she was thus something of an entrepreneur. So long as she remained strong and able, Molly had some choice in her position; she could jettison the worst of her three lots, and draw another.
“I don’t see why, ma’am,” she had told Peggy, “you won’t have her to help Naomi with getting the dinner on. It gives me a turn to find that creature following me when I’m about dusting…and what’s the use of having me to do the washing, when that one has done it already?”
Continued from “has done it already”
Verbena would not understand Molly, either. In a world that had none for her, poor unwanted girl, she had nudged out a place. Released from her old duties, she’d seen no reason not to take up new ones. Molly came to dust and wash, but Molly was not there all the time, while Verbena lived in a room upstairs, the possession of which astonished and cowed her. She felt a fearful gratitude…and meant to prove it. Peggy once settled by the hearth, Verbena eked, afternoons, into the kitchen, and began tending the pot. Naomi at last allowed this. Verbena could wash the bedclothes for all the household, as she’d once done solely for Old Everard; she could begin this task at once, after breakfast.
To Molly’s mind, Verbena, who earned no wage from Peggy but room and board, was undercutting the market, and privileged to do so. Peggy had confided to Richard that Molly’s labor was too valuable to her; she would need to, at the end of the year, send Verbena away.
He had taken to joining her, in the dim morning kitchen. Before Naomi came up the hill with her eldest son to light the breakfast fire, Verbena would be there, trying by herself. He saw that his mother’s fears were not unfounded…that Verbena’s notions of usefulness might yet be a source of trouble, but he sympathized―he sympathized as though he could see himself mirrored in her desire, having been freed from her old prison, to hold onto that freedom. Never had he heard her say a word against his father. She did not complain of the chill. She drank a cup of tepid water, and chewed on a hunk of dried bread, one she might have secreted away from her supper to make a morning meal of.
Richard carried in logs, and a pail of water from the well. He kindled the stove for her, and put the kettle on to boil. She was too weak and small to do these things; and yes, her will to do useful work might run afoul of her strength. But he would take care of this himself.
“Where do your people come from, Miss Lowther?”
She crooned out a little sighing breath, and said, “Oh…Carolina way.” But then, after looking up into his face for a long minute, she had softly corrected him, “But you ain’t been sayin it right. I didn’t never like to bother you.”
He guessed then, that “low” did not rhyme with “dough”, but with “bough”. She might have been orphaned; or might have sought admittance of her own accord to the workhouse. The name with which she had come to the Everards, written on her documents, might not be her birth name―as she was incapable of writing this down―but some official’s rendering.
He put a hand on her shoulder. He felt that the sufferings of her life had taught her a great forbearance. “Miss Lowther,” he said again, and saw by her smile that he was right. “I would like you to tell me anything you have on your mind. You will not bother me. You see how it is in this house. Your company in the mornings…” He stopped, unsure how to finish.
He watched Verbena, in the days after his father’s burial. Peggy had shed no tears at the death of Old Everard, and Richard had been glad of it. He had seen his father in bondage to his own paralyzed limbs, obscene effusions erupting from the passion of his struggles to free himself. He had felt horror, pity, and certainty…that he might one day be so reduced, degraded to such an animal state. But Verbena, because she loved everyone, it seemed to Richard―though he could not fathom such a heart―passed his father’s chair, and broke into the tears which came to her on and off.
Richard had thought he would never marry. He had thought, many times since his visit to Louisville, of the high-handed rejection of Miss Haws. But weighing the question of Verbena, he found that his mind had resolved itself; that in his study of her, he had learned a hope of redemption.
Always on Sundays, after their liveryman, Thomas―he, holding second place in the hierarchy, under Joab―had dressed himself in his tailcoat and tall hat, hitched the buggy, brought this to the foot of the hill, and chocked its wheels, Richard would take his mother’s arm, and escort her down from the house, until the sloping path’s descent grew steepest.
“Thomas,” he called out then, “come give a hand to your mistress.”
“Miz Everard, ma’am. There you are, all done up!” The compliment in Thomas’s words lay in the delivery; yet his words were chosen with care. Peggy had grown fat. Her shawl disguised the straining lower, and the undone upper, buttons of her church dress. She had worn this same brown surah for years.
Between the two of them they spared Peggy’s swollen ankles and knees the rough passage, carrying her almost, each with an arm supporting her back, and a hand her elbow, so that her feet need scarcely touch earth. The three reached the level of the dirt lane that ran from the barn, past the house, down to the main road; here, Thomas climbed up between seat and dashboard, leant across, and clasped Peggy’s two wrists, while Richard, her son, assumed the more unseemly task of humping her up from behind.
He did not, on this Sunday, mount to his seat beside her. He did not speak to his mother, though he watched the restless way she arranged her skirts and her shawl, and knew she was aware of his rebellion, angry with him. She understood why he was willing to accompany her to church, and to dine with her at the McCrarys’ house after services. Not for any religious feeling, but because, as a farmer, Richard did business in the community. He did not want his reputation, his income, to suffer for his atheism and stand-offishness. The local gossip-mongers would have it, then, that Richard Everard was going the way of his father. These outings at his mother’s side refuted the rumor, proved―while he despised the good townsfolk for needing this proof―that Young Everard was not in thrall to drink.
Thomas had by now got onto his driver’s perch, and Richard, standing away from the buggy, left Peggy placed where she was helpless.
“Thomas,” he gave the order, “when you bring my mother home this afternoon, come up to the house and fetch me. Today, I am not going along.”
“Verbena, I hope you will appreciate…this is only a token, for the time being―”
His words, meaningless to himself, were nothing to her. Other than her tears, she had responded only by moving to the light of the window, and staring, bewitched, at the contents of the little box. Richard, hoping to bind her in promise to him, had perceived that for Verbena, who’d never owned a piece of jewelry, the idea of a gift, of someone’s giving her a thing of value, was in itself overwhelming.
He’d known that under pressure of Molly’s threat to give notice, Peggy might on any day carry out her plan. He’d had no pretext for visiting Louisville, and Richard’s temptation to do so, to make a grand gesture of his plight, had been thwarted by his sense of urgency. Too ambitious in having taken two days from home to buy a diamond for his bride, he would return to find Verbena gone. His mother might seize on this chance, saying to herself, “I will put a stop to this.”
She was so well able to read his thoughts.
He’d gone to Chambliss, where business took him most days. The trade that could thrive in a town the size of Chambliss comprised the feed and seed, the general store, the blacksmith’s, the coach house and small hotel, with its public bar. But an itinerant peddler was known to reside in the woods by the creek. In warm weather, he ceased even to travel, but lived there in a loosely constructed shanty, a tarpaulin roped to the trunks of two pines, his wagon’s bed making an upper chamber, its underside a lower; wagon and tarpaulin being the whole of his residence, and that, sufficient, in the waning autumn heat. From his inventory, the peddler might draw at least one example of almost anything,
“There’s a piece of luck for you, Mr. Everard,” the man told him. And in calling Richard by name, he perhaps conveyed a warning: “I know you, sir, though you may think me of no account.”
Richard had cut him short.
“I don’t mean to haggle with you.” He would pay what the man asked, on such an occasion, and spare himself hearing the romance which the peddler had only, for persuasion’s sake, conjured up in any case. He supposed the gold locket might prove brass; notwithstanding, it shined. It had, at its center, a ruby-colored stone, and this might be only glass. But Richard hoped Verbena would be happier wearing this around her neck. She would not take it off, while doing some chore, set it aside, and lose it.
“Verbena, do you understand me? You are willing to become my wife?”
She’d answered only by wrapping her arms around him. And tiny as she was, Verbena pressed her ear tight against his belly. He felt that this fierce clinging was her willingness expressed, that she had no other words. And that he might, as she was to be his wife, cherish her a little.
They did not return until the Monday morning; Mr. Mudgett, justice of the peace, having been so obliging as to drive up to the Everard place. He had collected Richard and Verbena, and taken them to his own house. This, as Richard had arranged with him.
A week earlier, Richard had walked the four miles to town. He’d hoped that clarity would assert itself through some natural sign; here, with the wind gusting up, the sky half overcast, the circling vultures, rising high, their wings spread, appearing motionless. Richard found the flight of these birds a peaceful sight. To him they were not fowl of portent, dire. The houses he passed; first, those of his neighbors, then of comparative strangers, became more numerous. The carriageway, rutted and weed-grown over the hills, became straight and barren where it bore heavier traffic; eventually, a row of frame houses at the foot of the hill turned the carriageway into a town street. The hill sloped down to a wooden bridge, and Richard walked past larger houses on the opposite side of it, some built of brick.
Johnson the druggist owned the general store. In his house Mudgett rented an upper front room; and here, in Gothic letters painted on the window, he advertised his law practice. But Richard had not walked far enough. He did not feel calmed, nor able, from exhaustion, to act without thought. At the corner of First Street and Pike, he stood immobile, and stared at Johnson’s house. Johnson had been either so lavish, or looked at another way, so frugal in his use of yellow paint, that he had flung a butter hue over outer walls, shutters and doors, the shingled gables, the steps and floor of the little angled porch.
“It would be a fine thing,” Richard said to himself, “to have a house in town.”
It would be a fine thing, as a man, to choose his own course without fear. He had resolved to appeal to Mudgett…but all along, as he’d walked, idle distractions had crowded out his dialogue. He had been unable to rehearse, within his mind, how this conversation would go.
Where the house attached to the next property, Richard approached a small side entrance that led to a staircase. He found the door unlocked. He climbed to the top, stretched his neck, and peered past the landing. He saw the hall unlighted. Every door was closed, and Richard heard no stirring of humanity.
“Well, go on up and knock,” Johnson advised. He did not glance up from his task of lettering labels. Richard supposed that to Johnson, the question had seemed foolish. “If he answers,” Johnson added, “Mudgett must be there. If he don’t, then I can’t tell you where he slipped away off to.”
Leaving the shop, Richard essayed the stairs again. He knocked at the first door. He heard a muffled, “C’mon in.”
Mudgett’s office was infused with a soporific, dust-filtered light. One window overlooked the street; the other, hazy blue hills―viewed from this height as a stage passenger might see them, distant and nostalgic. So the thought occurred to Richard, for in hesitancy and misery, he had nearly abandoned his cause. And what then would he have done, other than return to the road, to thread his way mindlessly onwards? At some junction beyond Chambliss, a traveler with no destination might come at last to the river. He might fall onto a flatboat, and, as the old fable of the ferryman had it, spend his remaining life there.
“Mr. Everard, I know you, sir,” Mudgett came round his desk, and gestured once, for Richard to enter…and Richard could not bring himself to do so. Mudgett gestured again, pointing to the high-backed wooden bench below the street-facing window. He himself took a seat at the bench’s opposite corner, leaning an elbow on his desk. The room was small. A homey touch, an oval rug made from rags braided in red, white, and green, filled the open floor between the bench, the slotted shelves, and Mudgett’s desk, where he sat with his back to the hills. Richard, having gathered courage, entered and slumped on the side of the bench nearest the door.
“Well, Mr. Everard, what troubles you?”
He could not tell what troubled him. He began a broken recounting of Peggy’s dealings with the workhouse. The shameful degeneration of his father’s mind and body, and Verbena…her great faithfulness. He did not really tell these things to Mudgett, a man he hardly knew. He spoke to the banjo clock, on the wall above the slotted shelves, that counted the minutes with a hollow thwock.
Had Richard’s mind been simple, as his mother believed Verbena’s mind to be, he would have called himself blessed. No, not blessed, Richard told the wall. And he looked fixedly at the hole, weakened by a confluence of cracking plaster―even now it was breaking apart, shedding triangular shards, exposing the laths that underlay them. Not blessed, but delivered, from a curse; had nature been so benevolent as to make him simple, good, uncomplaining, able to love.
“My father is dead,” he told Mudgett. “I am the landholder. I am the master.” But those rights did not confer upon him the right he sought. Nor did the marriage license he had purchased from the county clerk. Mudgett might be of the same mind as Peggy. Mudgett, as yet, had said nothing.
Richard looked down at his work boots. He did his share of labor on the farm, and at sunset, after coming in the back way, he would carry in his boots to the parlor fire, to dry on the hearthstone. In the mornings, he would brush them clean. He did not know what hours she slept and when she rose. He found her in the kitchen, in the greyest early light, and spoke to her, and tried to tell her that she was a solace to him. Richard supposed that he also had never been given a gift. Birthday tokens he had received in childhood. And from his father, through Lawrence, his inheritance. He had been nearly pressed to death by the Everard legacy.
Verbena had taken to cleaning Richard’s boots, and with far more care than Richard himself had shown. And he would not, for all the world’s prejudices, tolerate being denied this union.
Mudgett had taken out his pipe, and filled it. Once, he leaned in Richard’s direction and patted him on the shoulder. Otherwise, calmly smoking, he remained silent.
“Sir, I am sorry.” Richard held his handkerchief against his eyes. He felt humiliated, but there could be no help for it now. “All this is vexing to me.”
“Marriage,” said Mudgett, speaking at last, “is a great vexation.”
“Now it’s not,” he had told Richard, as they’d walked the edge of the third, and last, cross-street over from Pike. An irregular border of grass, its pioneering roots sprouting in tufts wherever the soil was a little richer or moister, provided a pathway of green stepping stones for avoiding mud holes.
“Not…” Mudgett repeated, crunching heel-to-toe over a strip of cinder. To keep the street passable, the hard-packed Kentucky clay, which could in wet weather turn to cement, was augmented with fire-place ashes, carried outdoors by the townsfolk and tossed here. But the traffic seemed to drive the larger bits edgewards, in a slow-moving wave, as though, imperceptible to the eye, the street flowed like a river.
“…that I don’t have a good notion of what needs doing. But we will talk it over with Mrs. Mudgett.”
Richard saw his mother on the porch. His father’s stick was propped against her knee. She had for so long abandoned her old habit, that Richard might from this alone have taken warning. But he’d had no need of warning. He knew, and he had known when he’d set out to defy her, that his time of reckoning with Peggy would come. Verbena, heedless, scampering up the hill, delighted with her marriage, able, in those days, to move about with such insouciance, had not needed Richard’s arm around her waist. But he had held her under his protection, slipping his forearm beneath hers, and guiding her gently by the wrist.
He settled his wife first, walking Verbena past his mother; who neither looked up, nor spoke, as her new daughter-in-law crossed the Everard threshold.
“This is your room now,” he told Verbena. He opened one of the lower drawers of the bureau, one that had always been empty, that he’d planned to offer her. It came to his mind he had no looking glass, no dressing table. “And see, I don’t mind about my own things. Arrange our room as it pleases you best, my darling. I will be very happy. I am very happy.” He was as near to happiness as he had been in his life, though the muscles of his face felt to Richard immoveable.
“I don’t have hardly nothin.”
He knew she heard the difference in quality between his speech and her own. And indeed she owned so little…Richard for his part, had taken so little…that Verbena in making away with all she loved had barely added to the bag’s weight. Richard, cautious and pessimistic, had superimposed a scant layer of night things; for it was Sunday, and he wore already his church-going suit.
Mrs. Mudgett fed them chicken with dumplings…a dumpling, in Mrs. Mudgett’s kitchen, being a fat egg noodle. She’d filled their plates with stewed cabbage. And with their coffee, served what she called sweetbread. Richard found this molasses cake gobby and over-syruped, disliking it; Verbena, who had been given treats at the workhouse only on particular holidays, devoured all sugary things. She ate Richard’s leftovers, then accepted a third piece from Mrs. Mudgett. Gratified, Mrs. Mudgett took Verbena through her cupboards.
“You hold out that basket, and I’ll put these hankies in. See how they have little violets on ’em?” She bent down, from the step-stool she had climbed onto, and pointed out the embroidery work to Verbena.
“Oh, look at them, Mrs. Mudgett!”
“Well now, you don’t read, do you, Verbena?”
“No, ma’am, I cain’t.”
“Well, then, I might trace you out a monogram on one of these plain corners. Can you embroider?”
“I can some, ma’am.”
“Then you’ll like these fine. Your name is a kind of flower. Now, do you need a pair of white gloves?”
“Oh, ma’am, I don’t need nothin. You make me afraid, bein so kindly to me.”
“Afraid of what, land sakes?”
Thomas knocked at the open door, and Richard told him, “Bring those things in.”
Thomas placed the bag and the basket on the floor at the foot of the bed. He said, “Mr. Everard, these two things was all Mr. Mudgett had told me was yours, and I brung both of em up.”
Having dealings with Old Everard far more often than Joab, Thomas had learned this manner, this guarded speech, this precise stating of what he understood to have been expected of him. Richard’s father had taken some glee in punishing initiative.
“You go on, now, Thomas.”
He paused beside his father’s chair. Old Everard had been kept, in prudence, well away from the fire. But Peggy, with Molly’s help, had got the chair pushed closer. Richard noticed deep feathering scratches that curved along the floorboards. Peggy, with her bad knees, could not have lifted even her own side of the chair, and Molly was of a resentful temperament. What she resented, she made a bad job of. She would have laid down her dust rag and given the chair a shove. His mother ought to have asked him to do this small task.
Molly, moving about the upstairs, had perhaps glimpsed Richard scrutinizing the parlor floor near the hearth, and wondered at him. He heard her breathing, her descending steps drawing close, her apron rustling; then, following a somewhat deliberate silence, she heaved a gasp, as though surprised.
“Mr. Everard, are you home?”
He had left it to his mother to manage Molly. Richard didn’t care for Molly, or about her, and doubted he had ever spoken two words to her. He considered her now, looked her in the face; saw her eyes―which had been guarded―narrow. She sized him up in angry calculation.
“Molly,” he told her, “when your mistress comes down from her unpacking, you must do as she tells you. Mrs. Everard will want to see the table set for dinner.”
He was rewarded. The anger in Molly’s eyes, at this forewarning of what must be to her an intolerable reverse of status, flared to naked rage. But she checked herself. “Let me get out the silver, Mr. Everard. You’ll be wanting it polished up.” This was all she said. Richard expected she would shortly be gone.
Peggy, even though she remained on the front porch, and seemed in no respect to have stirred from her rocker, might have overheard the exchange. Richard did not underestimate his mother. But he felt emboldened by his skirmish with Molly. Stepping onto the porch, he took his father’s place, and leaned against the pillar, his back to Peggy.
“Ma’am,” he said. “Verbena is my wife now. I do not ask your approval.” He felt conscious of his shirt collar; his tight suit coat.
“When you came to live at home, Richard…” Peggy’s voice was all he heard.
Not a sigh, nor even the dry rasp of the rocker’s straining fiber. She was well resigned to her disappointment, then…but he knew she did not approve. “I’ve said to you I am not an Everard. Your father, Richard, was a liar.” He thought she spoke ruefully, with the faintest smile in her voice. “He claimed he would copy papers into English for my father. He would catch me by the wrist, ‘Oh, mam’selle…’; with an accent as bad as you may guess, Richard. I helped him to stay in my father’s employ. I did his work for him. And I very much appalled my mother and father by marrying him.”
He thought that she meant to tell him, by this—this recalling to herself of old times―that she understood and forgave. Yet Peggy had reminded herself she was a Sartain.
“But was Malcolm a good husband to me? Well, you know that for yourself. When he was young and handsome and charming, I thought I had done well. And when, Richard, Malcolm was dying, I thought I had done well―I brought that girl here from the workhouse! I told you these things, that I wanted him here at home…and we had so little money.”
Now he could hear his mother’s efforts to sit forward, perhaps to stand. The stick scraped, unsound in its purchase, and he thought he ought not let her use it. At this moment, however, Richard felt wary of Peggy. He did not turn to look at her.
“I could not imagine. I would not have had this imbecile under my roof…if I supposed my son would become enamored of her! Richard! You will never have children!”
Verbena, he knew, could not prove herself against Peggy. He thought of his mother’s iron will. All her suffering, years of it, compressed into a dismissive phrase: “Well, you know that for yourself.” He could see himself, trailing her, poised, as though strung on a wire, terrified by his father’s rage, but afraid too, of his mother, of Peggy’s stolid, silent back. Until she yielded. Even now, when Richard heard the noise of a crockery dish shattering, he was shaken and wanted to hide.
His wife feared an act of kindness, and Richard understood why this was so. He understood Peggy as well. She thought she could make him side with her in this. She was wrong. He had bound his life to Verbena’s. He could not sever himself from his choice. Peggy’s intent, it might be, was to call her son an imbecile.
He realized he had nothing to answer. As Peggy herself had done in his father’s day, Richard walked away from wrath, going down the steps and along to the barn.
“I do not ask your approval,” he had said to his mother.
Until the day Peggy died, he never said another word to her.
Fixed outside one window of his mother’s room was a rose arbor.
His father had crafted this. Malcolm Everard’s years of sober energy, when he’d been capable of such handiwork, done to please his wife, had been few. Richard, in Peggy’s lifetime, had kept her arbor touched up with whitewash, dabbing his brush over the summer’s dirt. He had seen her through the window, her chair in its shaft of sunlight, her Bible on her lap; and he had not lifted a hand to her, nor had she lifted her eyes to look at Richard. The climber flowered milky white, unfurling petals to a reveal a blush-pink heart. She was an old variety, a billowing Napoleonic rose, her era ended and her name unknown. And Richard even now, after the first frost of each autumn, untied the bronzed canes and tucked them away under straw, to sleep through the winter. His mother’s rose.
But Peggy’s old bedstead was not a thing Richard wanted in the house. In his father’s dying days, the mattress had been badly soiled, but Peggy had aired it in the garden, turned it over, rather than burn it; and on her marriage bed, she had closed her eyes for the last time. He’d asked them to haul this off, the wagoneer and his helper, who had brought Richard’s new desk.
Peggy’s south-facing bedroom had been crowded, with Old Everard’s chair wedged in amidst the iron bedstead, her blanket chest, wardrobe, table and mirror: tall, weighty pieces borne over the sea from Europe, sent to her from New Orleans by her parents. Her furniture blocked the windows’ natural light and cast shadows of its own; the shadows multiplied against each other, deepening the room’s chill and odor…and in her day had exacerbated Peggy’s isolation.
Richard was clearing it out, all of it. And Micah, six years old, was underfoot. Richard heard a deal of carrying-on, from inside the narrow linen cupboard. But he and the hauler from Chambliss, Mr. Marcus, were tackling the wardrobe.
“I would rather…”
This cry was followed by a disturbing escalation in the level of clatter; nevertheless Richard finished speaking his thought to Marcus: “I would rather you take the door off its hinges. You know your work, of course, better than I…I only say, I don’t like the look of it.”
“You best see to that youngster,” Marcus said.
“Daddy, what’s that?”
He pulled the cupboard door open, wide enough for a grown man to investigate, and found Micah scaled halfway to the ceiling, perilously straddling the shelf boards, his back against the wall.
“That,” Richard said, “is a way in to the loft.” He knew the plea at once to come. “No, Micah, I don’t have time. You get down and out of there.”
But, for safety, as he said these words, he reached up and hauled his son to the floor.
Continued from “his son to the floor
Peggy would have felt this as a rebuke, Micah’s excitement, playing and exploring in her room, as Richard stripped it to the carpet. Micah had not liked to sit with his grandmother. He’d rebelled at the smell and sight of the old woman, whose circulation had grown so poor her blue-veined legs would no longer hold her up. Peggy doted on her grandson, but Micah could not, having not the social graces of adulthood, conceal his dread as Verbena ushered him into Peggy’s room. Peggy’s eyes were too poor to read at a pace to hold Micah’s attention; she recited, instead, didactic passages, mostly biblical, from her store of memory. She knew she bored the child. Her pride demanded this, the devotion of a grandson that she believed through hard years she had won by rights. Shrunken in stature, an inmate under her own roof, Peggy imposed her will easily on one person―and through Verbena spoke to Richard.
He had loved his mother, and had wanted to be reconciled with her. It was for pragmatism only that Richard was taking Peggy’s room. His mother had converted Richard’s unwillingness to absolve her of fault into her own grievance…she, who had caused this breach. He would not apologize. Not when he saw Verbena caring for Peggy as tenderly as she’d cared for Old Everard.
When his mother had grown too weak to leave her bed, and had known she was dying, Richard had expected she would confess it, at last: “I said a terrible thing to you, Richard.” He had stood over her bed, watching her. He could not guess her state of mind. Her black eyes met his; but he saw no shrewdness there, no apprehension. He did not want false consolation, remorse induced by delirium and fear of the grave.
She was dead.
Being that he himself did not posture in grief, and that Micah seemed already to have forgotten his grandmother, Richard took his family to town. For his wife and son, he’d made an outing of choosing his new desk. Possibly then, the gossips would say Richard Everard did not mourn with proper feeling.
Johnson’s clerk showed him a lawyerly model. Verbena backed herself to a window ledge behind the salesman’s desk, her mouth closed tight over her missing front teeth. His wife was pointed at here in town, as Richard knew. They made her shy, these good citizens of Chambliss, and he deplored it. She held Micah’s hand in hers. Bending over his head, she whispered, “What your daddy gon buy us?”
Micah tugged himself free. On tiptoes, he leaned over the catalog, and fingered the swirls, as illustrated, in the desk’s burled veneering. Unable to fathom their nature, he allowed his father to catch his hand. Richard then tried shooing their son back to Verbena’s arms; Micah crouched instead, and began pulling drawers open. Next he tried fitting his head inside one.
The hole where a drawer resided when closed, was a dark well of mystery. Richard had made it so, explaining in answer to Micah’s why, that a man―“we will call him Mr. Smith”―might claim to have forgotten that he and Micah’s father had come to an understanding.
“And so I need a place to keep my papers. Mr. Smith…” Richard pantomimed the retrieving and flourishing of a signed contract. “Sir, is this not your signature?”
Thus invited into the game, Micah became Mr. Smith.
“Nooo…” He thrust out his palm, and ran up at once against an obstacle. “Daddy, what did you say?”
“Well, a signature,” Richard explained, “is when you sign your name. You know how to write your name, Micah.”
Lawrence had been a handshake and word-of-mouth farmer, but Richard preferred business done on a legal footing. He had gained something in respect among the town’s storekeepers and churchgoers, being now a married father―but he was not Lawrence. Richard had been marked out, in a way he did not understand. They mistrusted him. How then could Richard do business on a handshake, if the other man only pretended to look him in the eye?
He had placed his desk in front of the porch-side window.
Seventeen years ago, Richard had wanted to look out over his tobacco fields, while he sat and did his sums. He sat now with his back to heedless beauty, nature’s insistent reclamation…this, no more than her right. This wasteland concerned the bankruptcy court’s assignee. It did not concern Richard, a tenant on his own property. Though even that bitter thought was an indulgence he allowed himself. This place they called the Everard farm was not his property.
He had reached the low point of his fortunes. Micah’s death was not the reason; it was the war. He had traded with the Union Army, when Ballard County had been swarmed by their encampments; many another had done the same. Richard, because he was not loved by the locals, because open sympathy for the south was too dangerous, too apt to be labeled treason, had taken the loyalty oath, declared himself a true American, a faithful Union man. He had rooted these lies firmly in the soil with every shoot that he, his young sons, his slaves, and his hired hands, had transplanted there, for the sake of raising another year’s crop. That, during the war, had been the only means of doing business. And this was the harvest, that he had now not a friend in the world. Now, when Richard needed labor, he had no money to pay wages. He had mortgaged his property to borrow the money to pay the wages to harvest last year’s crop; he could borrow nothing more. They had driven him down.
The musket he had propped against his desk, which Joab’s eyes kept lighting on, was not purposed for silent bargaining. It was meant for another reason. But still, Richard worried over the welfare of his boys, Richard and Lawrence.
“Sir,” Joab said, “this is the law of the land. I’ve done as right by you as I can, but I am not beholden to you. I don’t mean to be unjust in my dealings with any man, but I have a living to make. I am my own property, and what I know, and what I can make with my hands, those things are mine. I won’t leave you if you pay me fairly, but I have a right, sir.”
Thomas stood a few feet back from Joab.
The four remaining, of the slaves he had once owned, were not his property. No one had offered Richard compensation for this loss. He had bargained on fidelity, not to himself, nor to the Everard name, but to the land, their only home…and his hour had been stayed, while his feet stumbled on rocky ground, until he had landed level with them, Joab and Thomas and Shad. Only their fear of uncertain prospects had given him a claim on their service.
Naomi, Thomas’s wife, had not come today with the others, but these three bore testament to the different fates that would befall them as free men. Richard was most jealous of Joab, to whom he had given so much latitude. Joab had no wife. He was known throughout the county for his gift, that natural-born affinity for the growing of tobacco. He was Richard’s age. And Richard was fifty-five. He knew anyone would rather hire Joab, and give responsibility to Joab, than hire Richard Everard, the drunk. He looked at Thomas, younger than Joab; not, Richard knew, particularly an ally of Joab’s.
“Mr. Everard, sir,” Thomas said, “my wife Naomi, she got herself a job up to Paducah, bein cook for a widow lady, Mrs. Lerner.”
“And is Mrs. Lerner taking the both of you?”
“She don’t know me yet. She didn’t ask for no married cook. But I can do any kind of work, any place, if Mrs. Lerner don’t have no use for me.”
Shad, always silent, might have a great deal of calculation behind his eyes, or none at all. He was half-Irish; he might easily pass, if he made his way to the city. He had done only menial work for Richard. Likely, he would fall into the ranks of itinerant laborers.
“Shad, stay or go. You know they may sell the farm from under our feet any day. I have nothing to give you.”
It was nothing that he’d gone over to Paducah. All his legal troubles, all his dealings with the bank, had taken him to the county seat…and this was only a substitution, which Verbena would not seek to understand. He had kept himself sober for four days. He could, at this extremity, beat the devil in a game of close reasoning. For as near as made no difference to thirty years, Richard had drunk himself to sleep at night. Now, his barns empty, his fields fallow, his slaves’ cabins unoccupied, he could walk the land, and danger and salvation were alike to him. But for four nights, he had survived until morning. He had done it for his son, because he’d known they would have to take lodgings…in a city where his failures were unknown, where he hoped to be given a job.
He must rely on Richard, who was now his eldest. His empathy for his sixteen-year-old son was heartfelt. He had not been born to this role, as his father had not been born to the Everard legacy. And Richard had no choice but to force this sorry inheritance onto these shoulders. Lawrence wasn’t a sensible boy. He was stocky and stubborn, as his grandmother had been. Richard, then, must come along, learn the address, see the place with his eyes, bear this street and these rooms in his memory. He would have to speak to Mrs. Purfoy’s agent, and witness his father’s signature, if need be. All that, because Richard kept his secret.
But he did not mean to make himself an embarrassment to his son, reeking of whisky and tilting off balance as he walked by Richard’s side.
He’d found Verbena at her sweeping, on the evening of his return.
“I don’t never mind,” she’d told him, once. “Ever’day…long time ago, I swept down my mother and daddy’s house, an that was my own chore.” She sang a ballad, an old song she had learned by heart, the lyric fixed in her mind by the notes she knew.
Sough, wind, down in the vale
Lady of sorrows
White and pale
Night come, o’er the far hills
For on the morrow
All will be well
All will be well
She had a singing voice which wove into these words like a reed instrument, drawing out the sense of them, their history bound to a distant shore where fathers of her clan had drowned plying their trade; their women coiling skeins of yarn…knitting, waiting to be told. She wore, snugged with the strings of her apron, one of Peggy’s old dresses. His mother had packed her youth away in a trunk, when she’d grown too fat to wear the gowns she’d brought from New Orleans. Verbena was too slight, her weight had not altered by an ounce in twenty-four years. At the workhouse, she’d been taught no dressmaking skills, only the rudiments of mending. And so she had cut inches from the skirts, and basted up the hems; even now, like a waif, Verbena donned ill-fitting castoffs. He had never persuaded his wife to buy things for herself.
“I don’t like for you to do this work,” he said to her. They had no servant left in the house, not one. Verbena kept on her feet all day. He saw no reason why his wife ought to labor for the benefit of a stranger. Slowly, as if the rhythm of her song and the sweeping lulled her like a cat’s purr, she finished just a bit more, just a bit more, and stopped. Holding her broom, one hand above the other, Verbena looked up at Richard. Her eyes, he thought, had been infected with the dull stupidity of the church women.
“Verbena. I will take that broom.”
“Lawrence…” A brief cry of pain escaped her, as he jerked the broom away, and a splinter of wood snagged her finger. Verbena did not gasp at violence. She had not gasped at the news of Micah’s death; but within a day, her unremitting tears began to flow.
“Lawrence. Where is he?”
“Off to the creek. He gon get fish for our supper.”
By this, she meant to apologize―that there was no supper. Richard had no toleration for pretexts. Their youngest son wasted a great deal of time, sitting on the creek bank, wandering in the woods.
He found that sobriety had not conferred those virtues touted by the advocates of temperance. His mind had not settled into serenity and order. Rough-handed, he gave her back the broom. “No more. Go upstairs and pack what you wish to take away with you. Do you know why I took Richard to Paducah?”
Instead of answering, she looked around, past him to the back door, as though possessed by a sudden fear he had forgotten to bring Richard home. Well, of course, Richard was down at the barn, putting the horses away. His middle son was a deft hand with horses…for the good it would do him to have a skill, or to love a thing.
In frustration, Richard dashed from her fingers the broom she still held loosely, and heard it bang like a gunshot against the floor. She made only a small noise of distress.
“Verbena, we have lodgings now, in Paducah. We are leaving this house. Tomorrow, Verbena. And you may not fill more than a single trunk. The rooms are small.”
“No, Richard, we ain’t goin.”
She had not spoken to him in defiance. She would not have done so. A disbelieving, despairing comprehension had at last come to her, and she rebelled.
“No, Richard. He don’t know any other place but this’un. He’ll come back and he won’t know where we gone to.”
He felt something inside crack in two. He did not know if this were heartbreak or madness. She had become lost to the grave robbers. He seized her by both wrists.
“Micah is not coming here.” He was dragging her, across the parlor, up the stairs. “If this house burned to the ground, if a whirlwind scattered the ashes, if the ashes lighted on the blood-soaked earth where the boys were rendered to sausage by the enemy’s cannon—and if some pitiful trace of our son were touched by a cinder of his old home, it would restore nothing, Verbena, nothing!”
And when he had dragged her to the top, he threw her across the threshold of their room. Now she wept, and huddled, and shrank away from him, but in his rage, he pursued her. When, eluding his fist, she fled past the bedroom door, Richard seized her again, by one wrist of a trailing arm. He spun her and hurtled her down the stairs.