Chapter Sixteen - The Portrait

As soon as I got back to my room, I got a sketchbook and drew the woman as well as I could remember -- her exotic beauty, her mournful expression.

When I put down my pencil, though, I asked myself what I could do with this picture. I couldn't show it to Noel -- he didn't want to hear about anything supernatural and didn't want Caleb to hear about it; I figured that ban extended to Mrs. Bell and Willie -- and of course I didn't confide in Emmanuel.

I thought about including it in my next letter to Mary Kate, but she had been so practical about my visions of Zachary that I thought she would explain this away as well. And to be honest, I didn't know how to explain it to myself. I hadn't seen ghosts as a child, even though I had an active imagination to the point that sometimes I wasn't always sure what was real and what wasn't -- but that was only when I was caught up in my daydreams, and I had never been one to deliberately scare myself. Seeing ghosts had only begun since I came home from the war, and I sometimes suspected this was some sort of post-war madness.

Dorian might be sympathetic, but we hadn't spoken since we agreed we weren't going to pursue a relationship, and I didn't want to call on him yet, not with only this as a reason to meet. Rene, too, might be sympathetic, but I admit pride held me back from confiding in him. I didn't want him thinking his old Sarge was losing his mind.

The lack of someone to talk to about this made me miss Zachary even more keenly. He had always been the best at bringing me back to reality, ever since we were small. I turned to a blank page and drew what I remembered from his and Matilda's wedding day, she in her simple afternoon wedding dress, him in his uniform. It didn't erase the ache of missing him, but still I felt better afterward. Our family's trick of doing something, making something, when our hearts hurt had yet to fail me.

It was after midnight when I finally closed my sketchbook. It had been a long day and the relaxing effect of my cigarette earlier was starting to fade. I put my supplies away and went to bed, for once falling asleep not long after I lay down.

I woke abruptly, not sure where I was or even what day it was -- and upright, my cane still propped against the night table where I'd left it. I grabbed the bedpost to keep myself from collapsing, and eased myself back into bed, glad I hadn't gone any further.

My heart raced in my chest, and I stared into the darkness as I forced myself to breathe slowly. Sleepwalking was nothing new to me, of course, but it hadn't happened since I was six or seven. My leg throbbed with pain; I massaged my hip and knee, cursing under my breath at whatever had forced me up in my sleep.

Sleep was pointless. I sat up slowly and took my cane, pulled on a dressing gown, and picked up a sketchbook to pass the time. I went first to the bathroom, to take whatever pain reliever I could find -- they would only dull the pain, but I would settle for dullness at this time of night -- and was about to descend the stairs when I heard soft jazz piano from the music room.

Noel couldn't sleep, either, it would seem. Caleb must have been sound asleep for Noel to leave him.

Rather than disturb his music, I sat on the top step of the staircase and clasped my hands around my knees to listen. I would have preferred he seek his comfort with me, but I was glad he at least had music. 

As one song moved into the next, I heard another door open, and down the passage of the east wing came Emmanuel, bearing a candle in a candlestick. He paused at the top of the east wing staircase, his face emotionless, and listened for several minutes as his hand gripped the banister like he was on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. 

I almost spoke -- almost begged him, Talk to your son, he misses Simon too, but I kept my mouth closed.

Abruptly the music ended. Emmanuel made a soft sound, like he'd been startled out of deep thought. He frowned in my direction and held up the candle, and I said quietly, "He's a good pianist."

Emmanuel grunted and turned back to the passage.

"Mr. Thibodeaux, wait," I said and got to my feet. I followed after him and said, "If it were me, I'd be grateful I had two children to comfort me when my --"

He whirled to face me, an expression on his face that I was sure cowed everyone around him, and shoved the candle closer to my face. I managed not to flinch. He growled, "You don't know anything about it. You don't know anything."

"Then tell me. Tell me what's going on in this house, Emmanuel."

He scowled at me. He had the same vivid, ocean-colored eyes as Noel and Caleb, but his held none if the mischief of Caleb's, nor none of Noel's tenderness. Still, for a moment he looked like he wanted to tell me -- instead, he jabbed his finger in my chest and said, "You call me Mr. Thibodeaux," and stalked back to his room.

I sighed and scrubbed my hand through my hair. I thought about going down to the music room to join Noel after all, and decided against it. I doubted I would be able to comfort him any more than he could comfort me.

On my way back to bed, I stopped at Caleb's door to make sure he was still sleeping. As I expected, his nightlight was on and Tumnus was curled in the curve of his body. What I did not expect was to see Noel, also asleep, with Caleb in his arms.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

I thought, He must have taken the back stairs, even though I knew Noel could not get up here and fall asleep again in the short time since the music stopped.

All this time, I had thought the occasional soft, jazzy piano music had been Noel soothing himself in the night. I had never thought it might be someone else -- something else.

I went back to bed, but it was almost dawn before I finally fell asleep again.

-----

Before I took the job, Noel had told me he would need to travel frequently for his; he had not done this throughout September, which I put to his firm allowing him to take bereavement leave while he got Caleb settled.

But in the first week of October, Noel said at supper, "I need to go to Chicago for a few days. I'm leaving Wednesday and I'll be back Saturday night."

Emmanuel and Caleb both paused, looking at him -- Emmanuel suspiciously, Caleb unhappily -- and Emmanuel growled, "You spend a lot of time there, boy."

"Yes," Noel said mildly, "our headquarters are there." He said to me, "I'd like to call on the Talbots while I'm in the city. Do you think that would be all right?"

"I'm sure it would be," I said, and I have to say that it warmed me a bit -- Oliver had never even remembered the names of my siblings, let alone wanted to meet them or get to know them -- and I hoped that it would ease Mary Kate's worries about me, if she got to know Noel better. "I'll write to Mary Kate tomorrow and tell her to expect you."

"Thank you," Noel said.

"Who's this?" Emmanuel said sharply.

"My sister," I said. "She lives in Chicago with her husband and baby girl."

"And who's this husband of hers?"

"George Talbot," I said. "He's an editor for the Chicago Tribune."

Emmanuel snorted, "Newspaper man," but as he could find nothing more objectionable than that, he didn't comment more.

Still downcast, Caleb drank from his goblet of milk. Noel said to him, "I'll bring you back something interesting, and maybe in the summer I can take you with me and we'll go to a baseball game at Wrigley Field."

Caleb nodded, not even the prospect of baseball cheering him, and Noel looked at me, troubled. I patted Caleb's shoulder and he gave a brave, tiny smile.

After Mrs. Bell had taken Caleb to put him to bed, Noel said to me, "I would have told you earlier but I just found out I'm needed this afternoon. One of my colleagues was supposed to present this particular report but his wife is ill and he asked me to take his place."

"It's fine," I said. "I'll keep him busy during the day, and hopefully he won't miss you too much."

Noel huffed, with a tiny smile of his own. "I'll ask Mrs. Bell to sleep in his room, if problems start up again. But he hasn't gotten up in the night for almost a week now, so I think that particular crisis has passed." He added after a moment, almost shy, "I hope Mary Kate won't mind me visiting. I thought I might take them out to dinner, if they can come."

"I'm sure she'll be fine with it," I said gently. "She liked you."

He ducked his head at that. "Well. Thanks. Good night, Malcolm."

"Noel," I said before he could retreat to the library, "when you get back, let's take Caleb to lunch in the city. I think we all could use the outing."

He looked at me a moment, his lips pressed together, and then he nodded and left me to go into the library. I longed to join him, truly, but instead I went up to my room to write my letter at my writing desk. As much as I craved his company, I thought it was better to deny myself than to only want more than he was willing to give.

I mailed the letter to Mary Kate the next day, and before dawn on a wet Wednesday morning Willie took Noel to the train station. Despite the early hour, Caleb watched the car leave from the nursery window, and he was listless for the rest of the day, reluctant to play, study, or even draw. 

We had finished The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe a few days before, so it was time to start a new book. He and Noel were reading Peter Pan at bedtime, which I thought was enough about pirates for the time being, and passed over Treasure Island for a slim novel that I had brought, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince in French. After lunch, I asked Willie to build a fire in the library and took Caleb and Tumnus there with the book and plenty of crayons and blank paper. On the surface we were studying French vocabulary; mostly, though, I tried to distract him from his unhappiness with the story. As we worked our way through the story I asked him to draw some pictures of the events, like the snake eating an elephant or the rose in her glass dome.

I could never understand Emmanuel's scorn for make-believe. To me, it was a relief to put the real world aside in favor of lands where pixies dwelled, or a boy might travel from planet to planet by a flock of birds, or where wise children might rule as kings and queens.

When school hours were over, Caleb lay on the hearth rug with Tumnus, petting her while she rhythmically flexed her paws. As I drew them, I wondered where his mind went when it wandered, and if he heard the jazz music at night and knew who played it. Caleb, I suspected, knew far more about what was going on in this house than any adult, and of course had no way to tell us. His handwriting was improving, but it was still beyond him to write about such sophisticated concepts such as hauntings and ghosts.

My father had advised me on a few matters with Caleb, like how to engage him when games and crayons weren't enough, and books that were appropriate for his age, but when I asked him what they had done when I sleep-walked as a child, he only said what I already knew: time and patience. Children outgrow it.

I had not outgrown it. There had been a long lull, but now that it had begun again it happened almost every night. I couldn't go far without waking myself up due to pain, but it was still disorienting to find myself out of bed and sometimes as far as the passage outside my door, my leg and hip screaming in protest, and having to make my way back to bed or the nearest chair using only the wall as support. It was even harder to fall asleep again afterward without help for the pain, and I didn't want to overdo that. Taken after midnight, sleeping pills and reefer made me groggy in the mornings, something I couldn't allow when there was a child in my care.

I toyed with telling Mary Kate about this, but decided even her practicality wouldn't help in this situation. There was nothing to be done but try to sleep, and if I didn't, concentrate on looking after Caleb properly in the morning. Most days I managed this, but to be honest when he didn't want to play outside or even run through the passages of the big house, I was grateful for the chance it gave me to simply rest.

I said as I sketched the boy and kitten, "Have you ever been to a baseball game, Caleb? They're very exciting, especially when you go to one of the big stadiums. I got to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play once. I cheered so loud they invited me to pitch for them, but after one game I decided teaching was more important than baseball."

Caleb gave me a look like he knew I was pulling his leg, and I grinned at him. There was a tiny kernel of truth there -- I had pitched for my college team, but that was ten years ago. "I bet you'll like baseball."

He huffed, so like Noel I smiled to myself. Tumnus chose the moment to pounce on him, and they wrestled together on the hearth rug.

 

-----

Supper was quiet. Emmanuel barely acknowledged us, which again made me wonder why he forced Noel to bring Caleb to Fidele if he didn't even want to speak to the boy. I had assumed from the beginning that it was a matter of pride; but as I remembered his face as we listened to the midnight serenade, I wondered if it was fear.

I lay awake that night with my arm behind my head and listened to the rain, and tried to calm my thoughts. Finally I turned the lamp back on and picked up the nearest sketchbook, and wrote down everything I knew. There was at least one female spirit here, which I assumed had to be poor mad Charlotte; now I believed there was a second one as well, perhaps a former slave; and of course I was certain Simon was haunting the house, too, to watch over his brother and son. 

Caleb, I thought, knew about Charlotte, as did Noel. I hadn't thought before that Emmanuel knew or believed in ghosts, but now I thought maybe he knew more than any of us. He had lived in this house all his life, after all.  

The problem with all of this, I thought, was that seeing ghosts didn't mean you knew what to do about them. Sometimes I tried speaking to them, but as had happened when I tried to talk to Simon, they could't really communicate in return. 

I could ask my father for advice about teaching, I thought wearily, but there was no one I could ask about the restless dead.

The phone rang.

Now, the phone was in a niche in the passage outside of my room, close enough that I heard it if it rang, which was rare, and usually Noel or Mrs. Bell answered it downstairs.

It was so late I didn't want Mrs. Bell to get up to answer it, so I got my cane and left my room to answer it myself; and I intended to scold whoever was calling at this hour, unless it was an emergency.

I picked up the receiver mid-ring. "Fidele, Malcolm Carmichael speaking."

There was no answer but the hiss and crackle of static.

"Hello?" I said impatiently. "Is anyone there?"

Faintly, I heard a voice as familiar to me as my own. "Mal?"

I dropped the receiver, I was so startled. And then I snatched it up again. My hand shook as I held the receiver to my ear. I whispered, "Zack?"

Thunder boomed and lightning crashed, and for a moment I thought I saw a tall shape at the end of the passage, outlined against the window.

In the next flash of lightning, the shape was gone. There wasn't a sound from the receiver in my hand; the phone line was dead once again.

I put the receiver back in the cradle and stood there for a moment, my fingertips resting on the phone. Finally I said, "I miss you, Zachary," and went back to bed.

-----

Friday, the rain continued. After lunch, I put Caleb into his rain boots and slicker, put on my own raincoat, and took him out for a long walk in the garden -- or rather, I walked, he ran down the path to investigate a clump of flowers or fallen leaves, and then ran back to me to show me the pretty rocks or tiny frogs he found. The rocks I put in my pocket; the frogs, we released in the stream. 

A postcard arrived for Caleb with the day's mail, with a picture of Wrigley Field and a big, cheerful, "GREETINGS FROM CHICAGO" on the front, and a short message from Noel on the back.

 

Caleb,

This is the stadium where the Cubs play. I can see it from my hotel. There is also a museum nearby with many old paintings and statues where I like to spend a little time between meetings. Chicago is a very pretty town with lots of tall buildings, and it smells like cotton candy! 

I miss you very much.

Love,

Uncle Noel

 

I read the postcard aloud to Caleb, and the notion of a city smelling like cotton candy tickled him so much he actually giggled. We spent the rest of the afternoon designing a city made of sweets and cookies.

It was such a good day that when I went to bed, it seemed inevitable that a ghost to come along and ruin it. For once I was wrong; as far as I could tell, Fidele's otherworldly residents kept to themselves. 

Saturday morning, Alex Christie came with Samuel shortly after breakfast. With Noel out of town and Emmanuel uninterested in the day-to-day management of the farm, he didn't plan to stay long; but the boys could spend all day playing together, and so Alex planned to return for him in the afternoon.

I tried to keep the boys limited to the nursery and the schoolroom, not always successfully. They galloped up and down the passage, one moments as knights and the next as pirates, with Tumnus on Caleb's shoulder as their prisoner or mascot or the princess they had rescued, depending.

Twice the door to Emmanuel's study opened and he came down the passage, but rather than bellowing at the boys to hush -- he was of the generation that believed children should be seen but not heard, after all -- he listened to the boys play for a few minutes, and then went back to his study.

Myself, I settled at the top of the staircase nearest Caleb's wing of the house with my sketchbook and stationary so I could write letters while I kept an eye on the boys. When Tumnus grew tired of games she joined me, and curled into a bundle of gray fluff against my side where I could easily pet her when I wanted to rest my hand.

The rain continued steadily while the thunder and lightning came and went. Child of the city as I was, I always found rain to be a comforting sound, and days like this never bothered me. Thunder was another matter; the sound was too much like the shells the Germans had rained on us as we advanced through Europe, and I had to close my eyes and take a deep breath whenever thunder boomed.

Lightning flashed and thunder crashed, and I heard a shriek so terrified that I shoved my things aside and grabbed my cane without another thought. "Samuel!" I shouted. "Caleb!" I went down the passage, past Caleb's rooms, to the tall window at the end that overlooked the sugar cane fields. There was a lump under the curtains; I pulled the curtain back to reveal the boys, huddled together and clutching each other. "What happened, Samuel?" I said. "Why did you scream?"

They both pointed at one of the many portraits that lined the passage. "The lady moved, Mr. Malcolm!" Samuel exclaimed. "She growled at us!" 

Caleb nodded vigorously and pointed again at the portrait.

I said, "All right, stay there," and moved closer to the portrait. Many of the paintings in Fidele were very fine, even a few by famous masters of the eighteenth century, and it seemed like a miracle that they had survived the Civil War and Reconstruction. This picture was of the same high quality, though I didn't recognize the name of the artist; a portrait of a light-skinned Negro woman, likely a quadroon, with large sensitive eyes and her hair bound in a turban. Her expression was mild, though I supposed two imaginative children could convince themselves that she had turned fierce when the lightning struck.

And I realized as I studied her face, that I had seen this woman before -- standing in the window of one of the unused rooms, which she left smelling of burnt sugar.

"Come on, boys," I said and held out my hand to the children. "Let's go see Mrs. Bell in the kitchen." And while they were occupied, I thought, I could ask Willie to take the portrait down.

Caleb took my hand and Samuel took his, and we went downstairs. As we left the passage, I glanced over my shoulder at the painting again, and while her face was still lovely her expression was no longer mild -- instead it was knowing, calculating, even.

I shivered, told myself it was just the odd light of a rainy afternoon, and said, "I bet Mrs. Bell would appreciate some help with lunch," and took the boys downstairs.

-----

When Alex came to pick up Samuel that afternoon, I told him about the lady in the painting -- better he hear it from me, I figured, than an exaggerated version from Samuel. Alex looked down at Samuel as he brushed his hand through the boy's thick hair, and said, "I suppose it's been a spooky sort of day."

"She was a scary lady, Daddy," said Samuel solemnly.

"We'll talk about it at home," Alex said, and shook my hand. "See you next week, Malcolm, Caleb."

We watched them go down the steps to Alex's car, parked in the drive, and Caleb held my leg and looked up at me. "Willie put the painting away for a while," I told him. "We'll see what Uncle Noel has to say."

I didn't say anything about it to Emmanuel at supper, nor did he ask about playtime except to growl, "All your toys put up, boy?" and Caleb nodded.

"The boys are very good about that," I said; I helped, of course, but they never whined or dragged their feet. Julia must have taught Samuel to pick up after himself from early on, and I suspected Grace had taught Caleb the same thing.

Emmanuel merely grunted, and that was all the conversation for that evening.

We didn't expect Noel back until late, but still Caleb clung to me when it came time to give him to Mrs Bell. "It's bedtime, peanut," I said. "Uncle Noel will be home when you wake up in the morning."

He lay his head on my shoulder. I patted his back and looked helplessly at Mrs. Bell.

"Come along, sugar," she said. "Mr. Malcolm can't read you your bedtime story if you're not in bed."

As strategies went, it was a fair one; Caleb pulled himself out of my arms reluctantly and took Mrs Bell's hand, and kept his eyes on me until they were through the sitting room door.

I got to my feet and snapped off the radio. Part of me wanted to look at the painting again, to see if her expression changed in the lamplight; but looking after Caleb, I reminded myself, was more important than letting my own imagination run amok. Still, I was antsy for Noel to come home so I could talk to him about this latest development -- so I could talk to Noel, period. 

It would have to wait. Fresh from his bath, Caleb listened to another chapter of Peter Pan and we said a bedtime prayer. I tucked him in and let Tumnus get comfortable in her usual nook beside him. I turned on his nightlight and sat on the edge of his bed. 

"Uncle Noel will be home by morning," I said again. "Sleep tight, peanut."

He smiled faintly and held my hand. 

I had told Noel there wasn't much music left in me since the war; but sometimes I could scrape up a little. I loosely held his hand and softly sang, "Dodo, l'enfant do, l'enfant dormira bien vite. Dodo, l'enfant do, l'enfant dormira bientôt."

-----

I woke to the sound of the Packard coming up the drive. It was early, before sunrise but the light is still pale and gray as if lightly drawn in pencil. I got out of bed and put on a dressing gown, put my sketchbook in my pocket, and went to the vestibule to wait for Willie and Noel to come through the main doors. 

It was only a few minutes' wait, Noel first, followed by Willie, who was carrying his valise. "I'll take it from here," Noel said and took the valise. "Thank you, Willie. Get some sleep."

"Good night, Mr. Noel," Willie said and went through the passage to his quarters.

Noel gave me a tired smile as he climbed the stairs. "You're up early."

"I was awake," I said with a shrug. I offered my hand to take the valise but Noel shook his head.

"I've got it. Thanks." We went down the passage to his room, and I eased into Noel's armchair as he began to unpack his valise.

"How is Caleb? Has he had any bad dreams?" he said as he put his worn clothing into the laundry hamper.

"Not that I've noticed," I said. "Mrs. Bell hasn't said anything about it. But, Noel, something odd happened yesterday."

"Oh?" he said, wearily, and I pressed my lips together.

"It can wait until you've slept."

"No, tell me now." He sat on the edge of the bed nearest me. 

"He and Samuel were playing in the passage outside the school room, and they said -- well, Samuel said, but Caleb agreed with him -- that the woman in one of the paintings growled at them." Noel sighed, and I said, "It's entirely possible it was just lightning and shadows -- it was very stormy yesterday -- but I had Willie take the painting down anyway, at least for now."

"What was the painting of?"

"A beautiful Negro woman in a turban." 

Noel nodded slowly, looking serious. "Supposedly Achille Thibodeaux had a Haitian mistress. That's said to be a portrait of her, though given the dating of the painting it's probably by someone who never saw her  and only knew her by the story."

"Possibly," I said, and then took the sketchbook out of my pocket. "Or by someone who did." I opened it to the picture of the ghost I had drawn, and handed it to Noel. "I saw her in one of the windows that night we were in the garden."

He took the sketchbook, frowning more as he gazed at the picture, and he gave the book back to me. "You must have seen the portrait and didn't remember it. You're in that passage all the time." He gave me a faint smile. "And you'd been taking your medicine."

"Marijuana doesn't cause hallucinations," I said, "no matter what Reefer Madness says." Noel sighed, and I said, "Look, I know something's going on in this house. I've seen things, I've heard things --"

"Please stop," Noel said, his tone quiet and tired, and I shut my mouth. "This is an old house, Malcolm. It's got a sad and bloody history. Just -- just let it be."

I frowned down at the picture, and said, "Fine, all right," as I put the book away. "Good night, Noel." I took my cane and hauled myself up.

"Your sister sends her love," Noel said as I started to leave the room.

I paused and looked back at him. "How are they?"

"Faring well," Noel said. "She's -- bonny. That's the right word, isn't it? She's a bonny lass. She's someone I like being around."

"I'm glad." I paused, then said, "Did you see Oliver?"

Noel's brows furrowed, and he got up again to finish unpacking. "He was there."

"I'm not jealous," I said. "I just want to know."

Noel held a pair of Oxfords, his thumb brushing over the leather as if there was a smudge only he could see. "I saw Oliver at our client meeting. But I had little time for socializing and what I did have, I spent with your sister and  your brother-in-law and your niece."

I exhaled, and then scrubbed my hands over my face. "I'm sorry. I'm ridiculous."

Noel paused, then came to me and wound an arm around my neck. He ruffled my hair with his knuckles. "You're the best kind of ridiculous."

I pushed his hand away with a, "Knock it off," but I was smiling.

>> Chapter Seventeen