Chapter Six - A Change of Scenery
August was spent wrapping up my affairs in Chicago -- I said goodbye to the friends I'd made, gave notice at the summer school, visited the Art Institute one more time -- and preparing to move to my new home. Noel's secretary sent me a train ticket to New Orleans; in return, I sent a list of materials for the school room so that we would be prepared for every circumstance. As I planned out our lessons, though I hoped I could make use of the grounds rather than keep Caleb indoors, unless he was a sickly child and needed to be out of the sun.
I knew a little about my new city, as one of the men in my unit, Rene Gaspard, had been from New Orleans and spoke of it often. As soon as I could locate his address, I wrote to Rene to let him know I would be coming to the city and would like to see him if he had the time. His return letter arrived so quickly he must have written it the day mine arrived; he said that he would always have time for his old Sarge -- that I should come to dinner the first Sunday I was in Louisiana, in fact, so he could give me a proper welcome.
I had told Rene the name of the plantation where I would be, and asked if he knew anything about it, hoping for news about its distance from the city and if it was kept up for tourists or was a working farm. In his return letter, Rene said, Fidele belongs to one of the oldest families in the parish -- in the state, even, I think. I know that for as long as there's been a Louisiana there have also been the Thibodeauxes. Their family has had a lot of tragedy. The death of young Caleb's parents is just another chapter. I'll tell you the whole story when you're here.
Some families, I reflected when I had read this, have histories full of humor and misadventure -- like my own family, to the point that holiday suppers were often two or three hours long because we spent so much time laughing over old stories -- but some families' histories were full of death and sorrow. The Thibodeauxes, it seemed, were the latter, and I felt for Caleb and Noel even more.
Another letter I wrote was to my father, to tell him of my new position. His reply was reticent: he wished me well, advised me to follow the teaching practices he and my mother had instilled in me, and hoped he would see me at Christmas.
The night before I was to leave, Mary Kate helped me pack. She still looked worried, but she only said, "I hope you find everything you're looking for, Mal."
"I'm just looking for a change of scenery," I replied. At the time, I thought it was true.
Before dawn the next morning, I boarded the train bound for New Orleans. It was a long journey, and a fascinating one given the changes of the landscape from Illinois to Louisiana. I drew, I read, I walked the aisle to ease the stiffness in my hip and knee, I talked to my fellow passengers, and I watched the country change from rolling green farmland to swamps and bayous as we plunged deeper and deeper into the south.
It was after ten o'clock when the train pulled into the station in New Orleans and we could disembark. The moment I stepped off the train I had to stop and inhale the scents of my new city. San Francisco smells like the sea and Chicago smells like burnt sugar, but New Orleans smells of reefer smoke, barbecue on the grill, freshly mown grass, jasmine.
I collected my trunk. Up and down the platform, other travelers were met by their families or by men in chauffeurs' uniforms. Noel had written he would meet me at the station, and so I looked for a familiar face or even a driver bearing a sign with my name on it. Seeing neither, I dragged my trunk to waiting room and used the pay phone to call the number for Fidele, to let them know I'd arrived.
Rather than ringing through, the line beeped twice and went silent.
I put in another nickel and dialed the number again, with the same result. This didn't bode well -- if the phone was disconnected, what sort of condition could the rest of the farm be in? And it meant I had no way to reach Noel, as I hadn't thought to ask for his work number, and there was nothing to do but sit myself down to wait.
Despite having my sketchbook out to pass the time, eventually I started to feel forlorn and forgotten. The platform had emptied quickly and this late, no trains were pulling in or out. All the other travelers had moved on to their final destinations, while I resigned myself to the notion to spending the night in the waiting room along with the drowsy ticket agent, or finding a hotel until I could get through to my new employers.
Before I had to enact this plan, however, to my relief the waiting room door opened to reveal Noel Thibodeaux. He was dressed less formally than he had been in Chicago -- jeans and work boots with a white dress shirt, its sleeves rolled up -- and looked disheveled and handsome, making my heart do a little jump of happiness at the sight of him.
"Malcolm," he said, as he approached my bench. "Welcome to New Orleans."
"Noel," I said, unable to keep how glad I was to see him out of my voice, and got to my feet. "Hello."
"This is Willie," he said, gesturing to the older Black fellow at his elbow, and I offered my hand.
"Nice to meet you, Willie."
"Nice to meet you, too, Mr. Malcolm," the man replied. He gave me a quick handshake and hefted my trunk. I then had only my cane and knapsack to deal with, and before I could awkwardly swing the knapsack back on my shoulders Noel took it and carried it with the straps over his arm.
"This way." He kept his pace slow to match with mine, and we left the waiting room to go to a solid, pre-war, black Packard sedan in the station's parking lot. Noel opened the rear door for me and I got in, and he got into the other side of the seat while Willie loaded my trunk.
Noel said, almost shy, "It's good to see you again."
"It's good to see you again too," I said, and then we fell silent as Willie got into the driver's seat.
"Slow route home, Mr. Noel?" he asked once he had started the engine.
"Yes, please, Willie," Noel said. He said to me, "I thought you might like to see some of the sights before we leave the city."
"Oh, yes," I said, eager at the prospect.
Willie started the drive from the business district to the prettier parts of the city, and as we went I said, "I tried to call the house to let you know I'd arrived, but I wasn't able to get through."
"That happens a lot, I'm afraid," Noel said. "It was only wired into the phone line a few years ago and it's never worked right. The phone company says its a problem on our end but I think they're just not willing to redo it."
"I see," I said, and let it drop as we approached streets of the French Quarter.
Once I'd had my fill of stately old houses behind garden walls or surrounded by oaks draped with Spanish moss, Willie drove us as close to Bourbon Street as we could get so I could see the neon signs of the legendary blues clubs. The streets were packed with tourists drinking in the many pleasures New Orleans has to offer, so Willie had to slow the Packard to a crawl.
One group in particular caught my attention as we crept along beside them. Like many tourists they were talking and laughing, but they were dressed more for hiking than dancing. Their guide carried an old-fashioned hurricane lamp as if he expected to be caught in the dark.
Noel snorted when I pointed them out. "That's a ghost tour," he said flatly. "They go to supposedly haunted houses and the tour guide tries to scare them with tales of voodoo and violence."
"Ghost tours," I murmured, and thought people who had actually seen ghosts would not seek them out for pleasure. "Some people will gawk at anything, I suppose."
"Most of the stories are just stories," Noel said. "But there are enough of them to be a nuisance. We get tourists who stop at Fidele to ask if they can sleep in our haunted rooms. Father sends them packing, of course. There are plenty of other old places that are willing to feed them a story of restless spirits in exchange for tourist money."
"Doesn't Fidele have any stories?" I said, smiling at him. "What restless spirits does it possess?"
To my surprise, neither Noel nor Willie answered at first, though their eyes met in the rear view mirror. Finally Noel said, "Any old house is going to collect a tale or two. Let's get out of the city, Willie."
"Yes, Mr. Noel," Willie replied, and as he took the first chance to turn away from the Quarter I leaned back in my seat and wondered at their response to what I had thought was an innocent question.
Compared to the neon of Bourbon Street, the darkness was absolute once we were out of the city and on the road through the bayou. It seemed to swallow everything except the glow of our headlights, and I fancied that the road was made of light, guiding us through the swamp.
After several quiet minutes through the dark, Willie turned the car onto another road and we passed through what appeared to be farmland, though the crops were nothing like pictures I had seen of cotton fields, even in the dark. I rolled down the window to get a better look, and Noel said, "We sold five hundred acres to the Louisiana Polytechnic Institute after the war. They're using it for their forestry department. What you're seeing right now is new growth forest."
"It smells wonderful," I said. "It reminds me of the mountains at home."
"I thought San Francisco has hills, not mountains."
"The city itself has hills. My father used to take us camping in the Sierra Nevadas."
"I've never been camping," Noel said. "I've never slept out-of-doors aside from the war, which is hardly the same thing."
"It's great fun. I'll have to take you sometime." We gazed at each other a moment before we both looked away. I said, "What do you do with the rest of the farmland?"
"We're still a sugar cane farm," Noel said. "Simon hired a new manager just after the war and he's been bringing the farm into modern times. We're actually doing fairly well," he added in a tone of faint surprise. "The farm is paying for itself, anyway."
The road took us through the new forest, and then to an alley lined with cypress trees that had a good century or two on the trees behind us. At the end I could see the house itself, lights ablaze on the veranda.
However, what should have been a welcoming sight gave me a shiver; with its darkened arches on the lowest level and the unlit windows in the upper floor, the house resembled a gaping maw, open to swallow us whole.
"My father is likely still awake," Noel said, his cool tone returned. "Caleb is in bed. You'll meet him in the morning."
"All right," I said. "Has he always lived at Fidele?"
"No," Noel said. "Simon and Grace lived in the city. They used to bring him here to visit Father sometimes, though."
"And you didn't live here, either, until Caleb came," I said.
"Not since I was eighteen. I'm leasing out my house for now." He paused, looking out the window. "I miss it."
The garage was a converted carriage house located to the side of the house, that still smelled of leather and oil. Noel guided me up the path to the big house, and let me pause to take it in before we climbed the main steps.
The brick path from the carriage house brought visitors to the side of the main house, where I could see both the front cypress-lined drive and the gardens behind. In the gardens, flowers and trees grew in brick planters, and there were cane benches built around oak trees. Beyond the garden walls was the bayou, glinting with fireflies and its trees rustling softly in the evening breeze.
The house itself was white stone, with flowers growing right up to the floors of the lower wall. Arches sheltered the entrances; we had to climb stone steps to reach the main doors and the veranda that surrounded the house. There were no columns like the plantations of my imagination, but there were several tall windows symmetrically placed in the walls and chimney stacks on each corner.
The odd feeling I had gotten from the house at first sight seemed ridiculous as we went through the arches and climbed the steps. The house was beautiful and well-kept, and I could see already where I could take Caleb to enjoy the sun and to study the plants and flowers. I supposed there was a dark history to the place as there was to any grand house in this part of the country, but I thought I understood the allure of the antebellum south, too, in the grace and beauty of the house and grounds.
I felt deeply for Noel. It could be no easy thing, trying to earn a living while keeping up one's gentility. It made me glad my family had no reputation like the Thibodeaux family did.
We were met at the front door by a tall Black woman in a shirtdress, her hair in slim braids and bound in an orderly bun, whose gaze swept over me as we came inside.
"Good evening, Mr. Noel."
"Good evening, Mrs. Bell," Noel said as he gave her my knapsack. "This is Malcolm Carmichael, Caleb's new tutor."
She gave me another scrutinizing look, as if she couldn't decide if I was a useless Yankee or not, and then said to Noel, "Mr. Emmanuel is waiting for you in his study. Caleb is in bed. Would you like supper tonight?"
"Yes, thank you, for both of us and Willie if he needs it," Noel said, and told Willie, "Take Mr. Carmichael's trunk to his room, please," and as they crossed the vestibule to take one of the staircases, said to me, "Let's get this over with," and started up another.
I hauled myself up with my hand on the banister and my cane, and took advantage of my slow pace to look around. The house was even grander on the inside. The vestibule went all the way up to the top floor, and each side of the house had its own mahogany staircase. The wood floors were polished to a shine, the wallpaper was a rich pattern in green and black, portraits hung on the walls in the vestibule and in the landings above, and halls led from the vestibule to the four wings of the house.
Noel said quietly as we climbed, his pace slowed to mine, "My father disagrees with my approach for raising Caleb, but since I'm Caleb's legal guardian the decisions ultimately rest with me. Don't take anything he says too seriously. "
"I'll try not to," I said, and Noel gave me another of his barely-there smiles as he led me down the passage to a book-lined study.
He rapped on the open door with his knuckles. "Father, we're here."
An older gentleman in one of the wing chairs by the fireplace looked up from his newspaper. Emmanuel Thibodeaux also had the strong features his sons and grandson shared -- heavy brows, vivid blue eyes, square cheekbones -- though it appeared Simon and Noel had gotten their generous mouths from their mother. His look was neither kind nor welcoming, and I had no trouble believing the threat Noel had told me of would come from this man.
"Malcolm Carmichael, this is Emmanuel Thibodeaux," Noel said.
"Pleased to meet you, sir," I said, giving Emmanuel my friendliest smile. In return, he fixed a piercing look on me and gestured to the armchair opposite him.
"Have a seat, Carmichael." There was a fire in the hearth to fight the slight chill in the air. Still, it was far warmer than Chicago, and I took off my jacket before settling into the chair.
Noel went to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a scotch. "Thirsty, Malcolm?"
"Scotch and soda, please," I said.
Emmanuel was still looking at me much the same way Mrs. Bell had, as if he couldn't make up his mind about me. "Where did you serve?" he said without preamble.
"European theater, in the 4th infantry division."
"Wounded at Normandy?"
"Hurtgen Forest," I said. "After the Battle of Paris."
"Hm," he said again, and gave Noel a stern look as Noel handed me my glass. "Now, that's a true soldier. You get out and you fight. You face the enemy head-on, like we did in the Great War."
Noel, standing by the fireplace with his drink, didn't as much as glance in his direction. "Head-on in the trenches, were you, Father?"
Pointing at Noel, Emmanuel said to me, "This one was an engineer. May as well have spent the war ordering paperclips."
I said quietly, "The Pioneer Troops did amazing things, Mr. Thibodeaux. We even heard of them in Europe. Given how Noel was honored, you should be aware of that."
Emmanuel harrumphed. Noel and I drank in silence.
Finally Emmanuel said, "And your people, Carmichael?"
I swallowed the sip I had taken. "My people?"
"Your parents. Grandparents, if you know who they are."
"Father," Noel said.
I rested the glass on my knee. "My great-grandparents came to the States from Scotland during the California Gold Rush, and founded a brewery which two of my uncles now run," I said evenly. "Glennfinnan whiskey is fairly popular in the Bay Area. I'd be happy to order a crate if you'd like to give it a try. Most of my family either work for the brewery or for themselves. Until they retired, my parents ran a progressive school where we had colored and immigrant students as well as whites, and openly discussed things like birth control and socialism in addition to the Three Rs. My older brother enlisted as a conscientious objector and was a medic in the Pacific theater. My younger brother was just a child during the war, and is now a senior at the University of California, San Francisco. Before she left to have a baby, my sister taught remedial studies at a lower-income school in Chicago. I'm actually the boring one -- I believe teaching children should involve less sitting at desks and more exploring the world around them. I also draw a comic book for fun."
I heard a soft sound from Noel, and when I glanced at him he had a hand curled in front of his mouth as if he were smothering a laugh. Emmanuel, on the other hand, was staring at me from beneath his furrowed brows.
"You hired him," he said to Noel. "If my grandson turns out to be a simpleton or a radical, I blame you."
"I think Caleb will be fine," Noel said quietly.
I wanted to reach out my hand and wrap it around his. I couldn't imagine what it was like to grow up in a house with a parent who despised you. Noel was a war hero and held a position of responsibility, but that didn't seem to matter to Emmanuel.
I said, "I've been able to reach troubled children before, and I've taught children who weren't troubled but who needed some extra time and care. Once I know where Caleb is in his development, I can give you a better understanding of what I hope to accomplish with him this year."
"It won't be necessary," Noel said before Emmanuel could speak. "As the contract said, we won't interfere as long as you're working with him."
"Thank you," I said.
"I know he's very excited to meet you," Noel added.
"I don't know how you can tell," Emmanuel said sharply. "The boy's mute."
"I know, Father," Noel said quietly. "But I can tell."
Emmanuel harrumphed. "This one," he pointed again at Noel, "is sending my grandson to a psychiatrist. In my day if a child misbehaved like this we'd take him behind the woodshed and beat him into speaking."
"He's five," Noel said, even quieter, his entire body as still and tense as a coiled spring. "No beatings."
I said, glancing from Noel to Emmanuel and back, "Noel mentioned Caleb is seeing a therapist, Mr. Thibodeaux. I think that's a wise decision, given the way he lost his parents."
Emmanuel harrumphed again, then waved a hand to me in dismissal. "Show Carmichael where he's to sleep. You've missed supper."
"Yes, sir," Noel said, and waited, his hands fisted in his trouser pockets, as I got myself to my feet.
Neither of us spoke as we thumped our way through the house back to the vestibule. "The nursery is that way," Noel said finally, pointing down the west wing. "Mrs. Bell sleeps in the room beside Caleb's. You are down here." He took me into the east wing, and opened the first door in the passage to a small but opulent room containing a four-poster bed and heavy walnut furniture, where Willie had left my trunk. The window looked out to the gardens and the river in the distance. I opened the window and leaned out to inhale the scents.
"It's beautiful," I told Noel.
"I suppose it is." He peered out the window over my shoulder, and my breath escaped me at his nearness. "I hardly notice it anymore. It's like the wallpaper."
"I like it." I looked at him over my shoulder. As much as I wanted to close my eyes and let my imagination run wild -- his hands on my hips, his lips grazing my ear, his body jerking short and sharp into mine -- I forced my eyes to stay open and my expression to stay friendly.
Noel's gaze fell to my lips, and there was a slight pause before he stepped away. "I'll get you when supper's ready." He gave me a nod and left my room.
I sat on the edge of the bed and scrubbed my face with my hands. The tension in the house was thicker than I had anticipated, and I wondered if Noel wanted another person as a buffer between himself and his father as much as he wanted a teacher for Caleb.
Focus on the boy, I thought, and that was enough to drive lustful thoughts away. During the war my unit had joshed me about how I would drop everything to help any child we came across -- and there were so many children in need over there, so many war orphans, so many who had known nothing but violence and want all of their short lives -- and the feeling hadn't stopped even while I dealt only with children of privilege who had never gone to bed hungry. Their problems had been different -- neglect from parents absorbed in their own lives, education that moved too fast or too slow for their needs, a strange and confusing world they had been thrust into too quickly by parents who thought children were only miniature adults -- but they were still children in need of comfort and acceptance, and I had done my best.
I rose and unlocked my trunk, and began to unpack my things. I hung my shirts and trousers in the wardrobe, and filled the bookcase with novels and sketchbooks. I could already imagine how I would draw my new household -- Mrs. Bell's severely beautiful features, Willie's lined face, Emmanuel's red cheeks and shrewd eyes, Noel's loveliness.
I had brought a collection of books for Caleb, too, which would go in the schoolroom. Primers for grammar and math, spellers, books on geography and science; and for fun, books that my brothers and I had liked as boys, stories of pirates and monsters and gods.
All that was for later, though. First I had to meet and win over my pupil. Caleb may have been excited to meet me like Noel said, but still he might be a shy child, or he might be a violent one, lashing out in his grief. He might hate me on sight. He might take some winning over for us to be friendly.
I was pondering the best way to introduce myself as I organized my books, when the door creaked. I looked up, expecting to see Noel, but while the door was ajar there was no one in the doorway. I looked out into the passage only to find it empty. I shrugged, thought old houses make noises all the time, shut the door again, and went back to the bookshelf.
Now, I was used to being looked at, even before the war. I was often the tallest man in the room, and since the war I also was a tall man who used a cane. I knew the feeling of eyes on me, of being examined and judged.
This feeling was as if someone were standing behind me and inspecting me from head to toe. The hairs on the back of my neck pricked. My skin felt hot, as if I were standing too close to a fire.
I turned abruptly, ready to confront whoever was making this inspection, but again -- no one. Not even a fluttering curtain.
There was a light tap on the door, which jarred me out of my confusion. I opened it and there was Noel. "Supper's ready, if you're hungry."
"Yes, please." I followed him downstairs to the kitchen, which was in the lowest level of the house. In previous centuries it had probably been a close and smoky room, but now it was cozy and modern, with a sleek icebox and gas stove, and a round wood table with a basket of biscuits in the center, nestled in a tea towel.
"There's always biscuits," Noel said, picking up one, and he bit into one before sitting down. The table was set for two; Mrs. Bell had made us ham and Swiss cheese sandwiches on crusty homemade bread, piled high with lettuce and sliced tomato, and poured us tall glasses of cold milk. Crisp red apples were cut into slices and piled on our plates, as well.
"I don't think I've ever had proper southern biscuits." I took one too. It was flaky and buttery, tasting of buttermilk, and melted on my tongue. "My mother was French," I said once I'd chewed and swallowed. "We usually had croissants for breakfast."
"Is that how you learned French? From your mother?"
"Oui," I said. "Do you speak it?"
"Un peu," he said. A little. We both picked up our sandwiches. "Creole French, anyway. I imagine it came in handy during the war."
"It did, once we landed at Normandy." We both ate. I said, "Has Mrs. Bell been your housekeeper long?"
"For as long as I can remember," Noel said. "My mother had a rough time when she was expecting us and Mrs. Bell was hired to look after her. She ended up raising us."
"She must have been very young."
"Seventeen, I think. Of course, she was just Miss Leila then. Mr. Bell came along later."
I frowned as I chewed my next bite. "Then your mother--"
"Passed away a few minutes after I was born." He picked up his glass. "Simon is -- was -- the eldest by an hour."
An hour. I didn't know much about childbirth but I knew enough that his previous statement made a terrible sort of sense. "I'm sorry," I said, and he nodded simply and had a long drink.
Mentioning my own mother again seemed cruel, even though she had passed away as well. I ate my sandwich, which Mrs. Bell had made perfectly, just the right amount of mayonnaise and mustard, savory ham, and fresh vegetables and Swiss cheese. My mother had given us high standards when it came to food -- army chow had been lower than what we served the family dog -- and I thought Mrs. Bell would have pleased her greatly, if the sandwiches and biscuits were anything to go by.
After a few more bites and drinks, Noel said, "I tried to outfit the schoolroom according to that list you sent, though if you're going to be outdoors most of the time I suppose it will mostly be a storage room."
"We'll use it when the weather's disagreeable."
"That may be frequently for the first few months. Hurricane season starts in October."
"I'll gear my lesson plans for indoors, then. Do you get hurricanes every year?"
"Not that often." He drank and then held the glass loosely in his fingers. "But we get rain if the heart of a storm itself is within a few hundred miles. Winters can be very stormy indeed, and the house was only wired for electricity after the war. It fails sometimes when the weather's bad, so we keep candles and matches in every room."
"I'll keep that in mind." We ate in silence for a few minutes more, then I made up my mind and said, "Oliver Davenport said you wanted to know if I believe in ghosts. I'm curious as to why."
Noel shrugged. "There are ghost stories all over the parish."
"I'm not going to run off and join a ghost tour company."
"No, I don't think you would." He fixed his gaze on me. "Do you believe in ghosts, Malcolm?"
"I believe in things I can see," I replied. Our plates were bare by now, our glasses empty. "I'm still curious about why you want to know."
"Mostly I didn't want you filling Caleb's head with nonsense," Noel said. "Even if this city has a history of mysticism and magic, it's not something he needs to be exposed to, at least not at this age."
"I agree completely."
"I need him to feel safe," he said, which surprised me, but before I could inquire further he gathered our plates and took them to the shining new dishwasher. "Feel free to amuse yourself as you like tonight. There's a radio in the drawing room, if you like that sort of thing. I'll be in the library for a few hours more. Good night."
"Good night," I said, feeling dismissed; but I supposed since I was his employee the same way Willie and Mrs. Bell were, he had every right to dismiss me.
I went back to my room, not wanting the radio tonight. I had boarded the train at four a.m. and was weary from travel. Though it was still relatively early, I put on my pajamas and went to bed. Sleep came quickly.
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