Chapter Twelve - Simon

I slept fitfully throughout the day, vaguely aware of the times Noel cracked open the door to check on me -- I assumed to make sure I hadn't vomited or fallen off the bed and couldn't call for help. Late in the evening, I woke to find Caleb's teddy bear tucked against my side. I sat up slowly and held the bear for a moment, smiling at the sweetness of the gesture -- Caleb really was an astonishing child -- and then got my cane, put on my shoes, and hauled myself to my feet.

As I went down the passage to Caleb's room, I saw his nightlight was on and the door was ajar. When I peered in, Noel sat at the foot of Caleb's bed as he watched Caleb sleep. He wore a serious, thoughtful expression on his face as he absently stroked Tumnus, nestled against his thigh. The kitten wasn't asleep, either -- her tail twitching slowly as she extended and retracted her claws, and her ears turned toward me when the floor creaked.

I tapped on the door and Noel looked up. He didn't exactly smile, but the frown disappeared when he saw me.

"I think he needs this more than I do," I said in a whisper as I came into the room, and I gave Noel the teddy bear.

He put it against Caleb's side. Still asleep, Caleb made a soft sound and wrapped an arm around the bear. Noel said in a similar low tone, "I think he was worried about you."

"He's a good kid." I said, after we both watched Caleb sleep some more, "Has he had bad dreams?"

"Not yet, but after the way Emmanuel treated him today it wouldn't surprise me."

The rain tapped on the windows, a sound I normally found soothing. "If you want my help to take Caleb away--"

"I can't," Noel said tiredly. "Every time I leave I have to truly ask myself if I'm coming back, but I always come back." He stroked Caleb's hair, and Caleb made a little contented coo. "It would only be worse if I tried to take him away. Emmanuel would drag my name through the mud."

"You're his son," I said. "Surely you know a few of the skeletons in his closet."

Noel's mouth worked a moment, then he said, "I do, but I also know it doesn't matter. He's a good ol' boy in a city run by good ol' boys. Anything I say about him only gets waved away."

He sounded so hopeless that I couldn't help myself -- I sat behind him on the bed and draped my arms over him so that I could hug him to me. He sighed, and then leaned back against me. He whispered, "I am glad you're here. Willie and Mrs. Bell do what they can, but at the end of they day, they're his employees."

"So am I."

"But you're not afraid of him. You're probably the only person in this house who isn't."

"He's nothing to be afraid of," I said. "He's a lonely, bitter old man who doesn't know how to be a father. That's more sad than frightening."

Noel huffed. "I've always been afraid of him. I can't think of many days when I haven't been afraid. People tell me I'm a hero because of what I did in the war and I want to tell them I just know how to live when you're always afraid."

"Bravery is acting in spite of your fear," I said, and he huffed again. "You were brave on the battlefield and you're being brave now."

We sat in silence for a while, listening to the rain and watching Caleb sleep -- or rather, Noel watched Caleb sleep and I watched Noel out of the corner of my eye. I wanted to do something, anything, to get him away from Emmanuel, from this old house and its memories.

All I could do, I thought, was be on his side.

Tumnus stretched out with a yawn, and resettled herself against Caleb. Noel sighed again, and said, "Come with me," as he got up from the bed.

We crossed the vestibule. I thought we might return to Noel's room -- I hoped we would, in fact, because Noel had a very comfortable bed -- but he took me to my room instead, and shut the door behind us.

I sat on my bed with exhaled. The day of rest had helped some, but I was grateful that the next day was Sunday and Caleb would be looked after by Noel and Mrs. Bell.

"Malcolm," Noel said, "I don't want you telling Caleb there are ghosts. He only agreed to go to bed because I said I'd sit with him a while. I know this is a strange old house, but I don't want him jumping at every shadow."

"I don't have to tell him anything," I replied. "I think he knows more about what's going on in this place than you or I do. What is going on in this place, Noel? Am I right -- is Charlotte Thibodeaux haunting Fidele?"

Noel sighed and scrubbed his hand through his hair. "Charlotte Thiobodeaux died over two hundred years ago. Let the dead rest in peace."

"When the dead rest I won't disturb them. That doesn't seem to be the case here."

"Malcolm--"

"Is the bottle tree meant to catch Charlotte?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Noel said.

"A ghost pushed me down the stairs," I said. "We're already beyond ridiculous."

"You slipped on polished wood," Noel said. "That's what I've told Caleb."

I frowned but said, "All right, Noel." Of course I wasn't going to tell Caleb ghost stories, but I had seen two ghosts near him now, and I didn't think there was much I could tell him that he didn't already know.

And if the ghost of a madwoman was fixated on him, I had to find a way to protect him.

We both glanced up when thunder rumbled and the lights flickered. "Do you have matches for the candles?" Noel said. "The lights may go out again."

"I have a lighter," I said. "But I expect I'll go straight to bed."

"You might want a hot bath first," Noel said. "To relax the muscles, if nothing else." He started to open the door, then said, "I saw some of your comic while I was looking for your address book. You have a lot of black notebooks on your desk. Sorry for snooping."

"I don't mind. What did you read?"

He got a tiny bit of a smile. "Your two knights having, uh, a moment of privacy."

"Wish fulfillment," I said, gazing at him, and he looked away.

"Yes. Well. I enjoyed it more than the cartoon we saw last week."

"Thanks," I said, starting to smile.

"And I got through to your friend Rene. He seems very ... enthusiastic."

"That's Rene in a nutshell."

"He mentioned maybe coming to see you tomorrow."

"I'll be happy to see him. Is it all right if he does? Probably along with his fiancee. She's a lovely girl."

"It's all right with me. With Emmanuel, who knows?" He started to open the door, but once again stopped himself. "Do you need anything? Now that Caleb's asleep I might go to bed myself."

"No, I'm all right. Thank you."

Still, he lingered, and we watched each other until there was a crack of thunder, loud enough to make us both flinch. We smiled at each other in understanding.

"Noel," I said, "if you want to stay with me, you know I'll let you."

"I don't," he began, when thunder boomed, lightning crackled, and there was a popping sound as the light flared and went out. I felt in my pockets for my lighter, and managed to light one of the candles beside the bed without burning the tips of my fingers.

Noel was still leaning against the door, and I saw him exhale when I lit a second candle. "Are you all right?"

"I'll be better when this storm has passed."

I brought him one the candles. "Here. Good night, Noel."

"Good night," he said quietly, and we gazed at each other a moment before he gave a tiny shake of his head and left my room.

Still weary and sore from the fall, I went straight to bed, but I lay awake for some time as the rain fell.

Sunday morning was still gloomy and wet. I heard Noel, Emmanuel, and Caleb leave for Mass with their usual Sunday morning bustle, and lay in bed for a good fifteen minutes before forcing myself up. The soreness in my back and hips made me hobble like a man three times my age, and I thought wearily that it was not going to get much better any time soon. Still, I made my way to the bathroom at the end of the hall -- a true room for bathing, with a dressing nook, a floor mirror, and a high-sided copper tub on a pedestal, fed with copper pipes. I turned the taps to fill the tub with hot water, and sank in, hoping Noel's advice would help the aching.

So far, I had spent my Sundays in the city, to eat at one of the little cafes that dotted the French Quarter, and write letters or draw as I watched the city go by. Today, I was far too weary and sore to stir from the house.

Still, if my friends wanted to visit, I wanted to be able to receive them. I would keep my letters short -- I had already described the inhabitants of Fidele in detail to Dad and Mary Kate -- and reserve my energy for my friends. Since Noel had given permission for them to visit I wasn't worried about them being turned away, though Emmanuel tended to send anyone hoping to tour the house or the grounds packing, which I thought was a pity. Many of the grand old houses in the area allowed tourists to visit; even the ones that were still working farms allowed them on certain days of the week. But I doubted Rene and Angelique would ask for a tour; I would make coffee and maybe some biscuits, and we would likely stay in the kitchen where we could chat with ease.

The hot bath was soothing, as was the sound of rain -- torrential at times, when wind blew and the rain beat harder against the walls. I was sure Willie drove his charges carefully; his affection for Caleb and Noel was clear, and I thought he even bore some for Emmanuel. They must have known each other as young men or boys, and I thought Willie must care for Emmanuel because of that shared history and the way Emmanuel had been before the Great War, tender enough to court poor Fabienne, honorable enough to win the loyalty of his employees.

Perhaps he would have been a good father if he'd never gone to France, but my father had fought in the same war, the same trenches, and I had never feared him a day in my life. Of course, he had found the love of his life there, not lost her.

Well, I didn't want to make excuses for Emmanuel, and most days I didn't want to try and understand him, either. I wanted him to treat Noel better and not terrorize Caleb, and I found no reason to hide my disapproval when he didn't. Perhaps this was unwise of me, given that he was basically my employer, but wisdom is not one of my virtues.

I must have dozed off in the tub, because a sudden loud bang made me start. It wasn't thunder, and not a slamming door or even running footsteps -- it took me a moment of listening until I realized it was the sound of someone slamming shut the the cover of a piano. I climbed out of the tub -- the hot water had done its work, and climbing out was much easier than climbing in -- dried off and dressed, and went downstairs to the music room, though I thought -- hoped -- whoever had made that noise would be long gone by then.

Like the library, this room had several tall glass windows, an impressive feat of engineering for a house built in the 1700s. On sunny days sunlight glowed on the polished wood, softened by sheer white curtains; on days like today, the room seemed muted, the white walls and delicate furniture shades of grey, as if they had been sketched and then erased and re-drawn.

The cover on the piano was closed. That sense I often had, of someone else in the room with me, made the hairs on the back of my neck prick and my shoulders twitch. I moved to the windows, where I could see the drive curve toward the carriage house. The grounds of Fidele were empty and still, all the farmhands and forestry students asleep or in church, or just staying out of the wet.

In the silence, I murmured, "Simon?"

There was another loud bang from the piano, as if it had been dropped from a great height. I whirled toward it, startled, and stumbled until I regained my balance with my cane. My breathing was loud and panicked in my ears.

Well, I had asked him to manifest himself. I couldn't be too upset when he actually did.

"Simon," I said, and cleared my throat so I didn't sound so hoarse and frightened. "Simon, it's all right. Noel's looking after Caleb the best he can. Don't be upset."

Silence. I didn't know what I expected to happen, really -- for Simon to show himself to me again, or for the ghosts in the house, because I was sure there were more than one by now, to suddenly dissipate? For nothing to happen was far more realistic.

"Noel sure misses you," I whispered, and the air, already cool from the storm, grew colder as if all remaining heat had been sucked from the room. I braced myself, but before there was another sound or vision, the black Packard pulled up the drive.

I exhaled. Warmth returned to the room, and I stood there for a moment more before turning away from the windows. Whatever Simon had wanted to tell me would have to wait for another time.

The rain cleared around noon, letting the sun first peep through the clouds and then finally shine strongly as they moved south. Willie set out the outdoor furniture so that we could eat lunch on the patio, though when I offered to help Mrs. Bell cook she shooed me away and told me to rest.

I tried to relax in the sitting room, but eventually gave up and got my stationary, sketchbook, and pens to write letters in the library. There, the fire was lit and so were several candles. Noel was reading in one of the armchairs as Caleb played with Tumnus on the hearth rug. He has tied a piece of yarn around a piece of paper folded like a fan, for Tumnus to chase and pounce on.

They both looked up when I paused in the doorway, and they both smiled -- Caleb widely, Noel mostly in the eyes. Caleb scooped up Tumnus and brought her to me, and I scratched her head.

"Thank you for giving me your Teddy," I said. "He helped me sleep quite well." Caleb beamed and hugged Tumnus, and went back to the hearth rug to play. I sank into the other armchair with a sigh.

"Still hurting?" Noel said, holding his place in the book with a finger.

"Less than I was. I took your advice and had a hot bath, and that helped a lot." I arranged my stationary on the sketchbook as a makeshift lap desk. "How was your morning?"

"Your usual Sunday," Noel said and resumed reading. "Well, our usual Sunday."

"Not exactly a day of rest and contemplation, I take it."

Noel huffed in answer, not looking up from his book. "Did your friends come by?"

"No," I said. "They must have had morning mass too."

"Most of the city does."

I smiled to myself, not offended by his dismissive tone, and started a letter to Mary Kate.

Not twenty minutes had passed when there was the unmistakable sound of a car coming down the drive. I tucked my letters into my sketchbook and took up my cane, and met Willie at the great front doors. Willie helped me get one of the doors open, and I went down the front steps to greet Rene and Angelique.

When the door opened, though, out stepped Dorian Mayeux. He smiled at me, bashful, his head ducked. "Rene thought you might prefer a visit from me than from him." He reached into the back seat of his little car and brought out a round pan wrapped in tin foil. "Angelique sends her love and a strawberry pie."

I laughed, touched, and gave him a quick kiss. "I love strawberry pie. Come on, we'll see if Mrs. Bell deigns the pie worthy of eating."

Mrs. Bell did find the pie worthy, and Willie took away the extra place setting from the table when we sat down to lunch. Today it was baked ham, mashed potatoes, and green beans, the delectable scents fortifying me as Emmanuel subjected Dorian to his usual scrutiny.

"You work at the courthouse," Emmanuel said as he spread his napkin over his lap.

"Yes, sir," Dorian said. "I'm one of the court clerks."

"And how do you know Carmichael?"

Dorian glanced at me, and I said, "One of the men from my unit lives in the city. Dorian is friends with his fiancee."

"It's a small world," Noel observed, pouring a glass of milk for Caleb.

Emmanuel looked skeptical, eying Dorian, and then harrumphed to himself and went about eating in his usual way, paying more attention to his food than to the rest of us.

"Where did you serve, Dorian?" Noel said, and we spent the rest of lunch talking about England and mainland Europe and the places we'd like to go and things we'd like to see, now that the world was at peace again. Caleb, who tended not to pay much attention to grown-ups' talk during meals, listened attentively, his eyes on Dorian. Dorian talked to him, too, which I was glad to see, even though Caleb only answered his questions with his usual nods and shrugs.

Lunch eaten, including slices of strawberry pie with a dollop of fresh whipped cream on top, Dorian said, "I belong to an amateur photography club and I brought my camera. Would it be all right if I took some pictures of Fidele?"

"I'm all right with that," Noel said before Emmanuel could do more than inhale.

"Outside," Emmanuel growled. "I don't want strangers ogling the interiors."

"Of course, Mr. Thibodeaux," Dorian said mildly, and I walked with him to fetch his camera from his car.

"I'm sorry about all of that," I said. "I think Emmanuel would be happier as a hermit in a cave than dealing with other people."

"I know," Dorian said as he took his camera case out of the trunk of his car. "We've actually spoken before. Either he didn't recognize me or he didn't want to admit he did."

The camera was a Kodak Brownie with a detachable flashbulb, which Dorian left in the case since we would be outside. "What do you want to see first?" I said as we ambled toward the garden.

"Let's just wander," Dorian said, so we followed the brick paths to find subjects for Dorian's camera.

"Do you ever use models?" I said as I lowered myself onto one of the benches under an oak tree and Dorian lay on the grass to photograph a particularly interesting clump of flowers.

"Sometimes," Dorian said as he focused the lense. "I can't always afford to hire professionals, but sometimes my housemates or friends volunteer." He glanced at me. "I would love to photograph you."

"Ah," I said with a laugh. "I doubt a crippled model would win you any prizes."

He lowered the camera to look at me. "People don't notice your limp as much as you think they do," he said, and pointed the camera at me. I exhaled but didn't smile as he clicked the shutter a few times.

"But people do notice it," I said. "I see them looking."

"Or they look because you're tall, blond, and handsome," Dorian said and got to his feet. "They could think the same thing I thought the first time I saw you -- like you're the Prince Charming all the fairy tales talk about." He came to me and held my face in his hand a moment. "Though fairy tales are quiet on what to do when Prince Charming has already found a Prince Charming of his own."

"If you mean Noel, he's got more important things on his mind than romancing me."

"Hm." Dorian lifted the camera and focused on my face. "Lean back a little."

I rested my head against the tree trunk and looked at Dorian through my lashes. "I could be your Prince Charming."

Dorian laughed. "I like you, but I don't know if I want to battle for your affections."

"Who says it would be a battle?"

"The way he watched you at lunch said a lot." He held out his hand. "I don't mind, Malcolm. I like you, but I also know that whatever happens between you and me will depend on what happens between you and Noel Thibodeaux."

I took his hand and he hauled me to my feet. "Nothing's going to happen between me and Noel Thibodeaux," I said, but given the note I had found under his pillow, I wondered if that was true.

We ambled through the gardens for a while longer, until my leg started to ache and my limp grew more pronounced. When we reached the house we saw that Noel and Caleb were playing outside. Dorian took out his camera again to photograph them as Noel lay on the grass, holding Caleb up on his knees to make Caleb fly.

He brought Caleb down again once he saw us, and sat up, shoving a hand into his hand to smooth it back into place. "Did you find good subjects to photograph?" he said, and caught Caleb in his arms when Caleb threw himself into Noel's lap. He gave Caleb several noisy kisses as Caleb squirmed and giggled, and then said, "Let me talk to Dorian and Malcolm for a few minutes, peanut. Where's your kitty? I bet Tumnus would like some company."

Caleb shook his head and put his arms around Noel's neck, and lay his head on Noel's shoulder. "All right," Noel said, stroking his back, and looked at Dorian again.

"I found some great subjects," Dorian said. "The grounds are just beautiful."

"Thank you," Noel said. He hesitated and glanced at me, then said, "Do you develop your own pictures?"

"Oh, yes. I have a little dark room set up at my house."

"I've got a roll I need to have developed, but I'd rather not take it to a drugstore. It's a rather sensitive subject." He added, before Dorian could answer, "I'm happy to pay for the supplies and your time, of course."

"No need," Dorian said. "I get a discount anyway, since I buy in bulk."

Noel took a roll of film from his trouser pocket. "I hoped you'd say yes."

Dorian put the roll in his camera case. "I could bring these back next week."

"That would be perfect."

"What's the subject?"

"A cemetery out in the woods, on former Fidele land."

"We think it was a slave cemetery," I added.

"I want to have the land surveyed, so we can decide the appropriate path to take," Noel said. "We will probably never know exactly who is buried there, but we should still treat them with respect."

"Of course," Dorian said, and looked at me. "I should be on my way."

I walked Dorian to his car, and after he put his camera case away in the trunk we stood beside the car a moment, smiling but not daring to risk another kiss.

Dorian said, "I'll report back to Rene that you're well."

"Thanks. And tell Angelique thank you for the pie."

"I will." We shook hands, and Dorian said, "Good luck with whatever happens next."

"Nothing's going to happen," I said, and watched until he turned off the drive and onto the main road. I sighed heavily once he was gone, and headed back to the house.

Noel and Caleb had moved to the swing under one of the great oaks, Caleb leaning against Noel's side as Noel read to him. I almost continued on my way to the house, but they both smiled at me so happily that I decided to join them. Noel rubbed my shoulder once I'd eased myself onto the bench, and I closed my eyes and slowly rocked the swing as I listened to him read.

>> Chapter Thirteen