sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 24 ~ Love is the Crooked Thing
The real prayers are not the words,
But the attention that comes first.
What miss-turn have I taken? The hill was too steep, the path a jumble of loose stones and jagged lengths of rusted pipe. The way more than unfamiliar … The book! The book he thought was lost … Found! … but – No! No, no, no! – ruined. Pages ripped from its bindings lay sodden under his feet. A frowning wind gusted through, blustering the smudged ink from the aged paper. Words rose and swirled around him like moths to a flame, igniting, falling to ash. The torches. Were the torches … laughing?
Someone called for him. Needed him. I’m coming. Let me … let me get my bag. Yes, yes. I left it back– Oh, where … where did I leave it?
He opened his eyes to a nose only inches from his – a flaring nose. Respiratory distress. To eyes wide and blackly dilated. Alarm. He arched away and Mary recoiled, her hand to her heart. Tachypnea, he registered. Flushing. Tachycardia.
“Dear God, I thought you were …”
“Asleep?” he grumbled, shifting in his chair … shifting again. This padding is not what it used to be.
She whistled out a breath.
“Don’t do that, Mary.”
“Don’t do what?”
“Don’t not say whatever is on your mind.”
“There’s nothing on my mind, Jacob. I brought fresh water for your tea and a few of William’s dried cranberry scones. I know how much you like them.”
She bustled around the table, closing books on bits of frayed ribbon, testing the screw-cap of his fountain pen, even peeking into the ink well. Between tidying tasks – Stewarding again, he mutely huffed, in all its meanings: manager, attendant, keeper – she readied the tea, eyeing him with an inexplicit expression, a bit waggish but for her pursed lips.
“Maybe it’s you with something to say, old friend?”
Old man, you mean. He pulled his glasses away and pressed his hands to his face, gave his cheeks a hearty scrub. “I should– I want to say– Thank you, Mary.”
The ear pieces folded, he settled the spectacles to the eyeglasses stand on his library table. Hideous … hideous thing, he thought for surely the six-dozenth time. A chipped china owl’s head with a too-yellow beak. But a gift. Scavenged Above by a child, presented with satisfaction … and with love. What am I to do? He’d requested her services in the hunt for his lenses often enough. Keep it, use it … for now.
He sent Mary what he imagined was an oblique look and she nodded, her hands on her hips. He didn’t sense her approval, exactly … more … her habit of patience. He really didn’t want to try it.
“I’m sorry,” he went on, “to have been so …”
Harummph! There was not even a trace of irresolution in her voice. “Not the word I might have chosen,” he said, “but I suppose … a fitting one.”
“Trust me, Jacob. It is.”
Father rose with a muffled groan and pushed a second chair to the table, the scrape of its legs camouflaging his complaint, he hoped. He leaned heavily on the high back. “Sit down, won’t you? Sit and tell me the news. I’m feeling somewhat out of the loop lately.” Seated once more, he patted the cleared spot on the table top, invitation to the tray Mary carried.
“I’ll pour,” she said, before he could reach for the handle. He could feel the probe of her assessment, but he pretended a fascination with the squaring of his letter opener with his magnifying glass, his perpetual calendar. “You know …” she continued, and he would swear that underneath her sympathetic tone a chortle lurked. “A long soak in the hot spring with a bit of eucalyptus and ginger tipped in would do wonders for your hip.”
He bit back a pointless protest. “It would,” he admitted. “Tomorrow, I’ll do just that.” Steam spiraled up as Mary poured, notes of soft jasmine and the sour orange beneath the malty strong Assam. She passed over his tea, pushed the plate of pastry his way.
“Any word from the crews tonight?”
He shook his head and took a sip. Ahhh …
“There’s nothing much we can do from here, is there, Jacob. Send our best thoughts, trust Vincent’s decisions, Kanin’s skill.”
“There was a time,” he said, “when I would know … when I would be in the thick of it all.” He nested his cup to its saucer and dropped his gaze, staring into the brew as Narcissa might, in search of the irretrievable thing. Not until Mary’s small cough interrupted his ruminations did he look up. He sighed and nodded at her. I’m ready. Go on.
“Here’s a bit of news,” she said. “Brooke plans to go to nursing school. She told me just today. Peter’s taking her around next week to look into a couple of programs. He’ll get with Marguerite about the paperwork, she said.”
“She wants to be a nurse? Brooke?” She’s but a girl! he thought, but knew enough not to say. A flighty thing, mooning over Michael’s absence, a wardrobe chocked with dresses, hardly a book in her chamber. When did she–
“She wants to be our nurse,” Mary told him.
He spluttered indignation across he surface of his tea, with bellows enough to force a spill.
Mary laughed. “I mean my … and your … assistant.
“I see. Well. But, Mary, you are my …”
She shrugged and drew her shawl higher, closer. Truly it was a lovely color on her – topaz, the amber of fine cognac, best by hearth fire and candlelight. The silver in it notwithstanding, her hair was – in his mind’s eye – still the same rich shade.
The years, he mused … and sighed. Look how they come, a mingled crowd of bright and dark, but rapid days. Beneath them, like a summer cloud, the wide world changes as I gaze.1
From a side drawer, he fished out an aged serviette and mopped his saucer dry. In that same drawer, behind a stack of napkins and embroidered cloths were many gifts, migrated gifts, gifts that adorned his study for months, sometimes years before he could … retire them. He should clear them out, find another hatbox like the two already full, stashed in his armoire. Make room for the owl.
“Well,” he said again. He broke off a bite of scone and for a moment contemplated its tender crumb. Another child grown. “Well, well, well.”
“And Olivia has named her baby.”
“That I do know,” he said. “She was in for a check-up earlier this evening. A bit overstressed, the both of them, and understandably so, but Olivia’s a strong woman. She’s had to be. I’m … surrounded by strong women.”
“You are.” Mary gave his hand a gentle pat. A fallen cranberry clung to the cake plate’s edge. She plucked it up, savored it. “Althea. The rose of Sharon. Lovely, isn’t it? She’ll have the naming ceremony as soon as everyone returns, so we’re to keep that quiet, I suppose.”
“Quiet,” he complained. “I’m coming to loathe the quiet. I miss them all, more than I could have imagined. Vincent, of course. Catherine. Some special warmth is gone without the two of them nearby.”
“And they should, by rights, still be on their honeymoon.”
A spot of tarnish on her teaspoon captured her attention. She rubbed at it, rubbed some more, then squinted at the bowl, mumbled … something. Is she in pain? Is that a nagging cough?
“I’m going out … ummmm … I’ve a date.”
“A date for what?”
“You know, Jacob. A date.”
“With whom? Where?”
“Oh, don’t look so surprised. With Sebastian. And I don’t know where. And until you change the set of your face, I’ll not say another word about it.” Her chin jutted forward.
“Well,” he said. “Well, well, well.” His spoon showed tarnish, too, and he brought it close for inspection. Good Lord, man! Vocabulary! he admonished his mottled reflection.
Mary pushed her chair away from the table. “You’re repeating yourself.”
Flushing, he noted again, but a blush of a different sort, and it put a stop to his mathematical calculation of the difference in their ages, Sebastien’s and Mary’s. She was, he reminded himself, still young … relatively … and Sebastien young-at-heart. Why not?
She paused at the steps, her hand on the railing. “Arthur is asleep in the top drawer of your sideboard.”
“I, ahhh, leave it open for him.”
“Of course you do. Good night, Jacob.”
She smiled at him, and it wasn’t the encouraging smile she offered the children, or the wry grin she often shared with Sarah, or even the familiar one he counted on, one of confidence and approval. No, it was a woman’s smile. Private. Had it been forever since she’d smiled so? Perhaps he’d failed to notice.
The candles had burned low, but it was not so terribly late. He shuffled to the sideboard and scooped Arthur from his nest. “Let’s have a little treat, shall we?” he crooned, opening his hand to the remains of the scone. “You’ll be all right until I return, yes? Back to sleep, now. Back to sleep.”
* * *
Damien and Aniela had departed with the cart of food, sober-faced, shoulder to shoulder at the push-bar. The newly-oiled wheels were nearly silent on the smooth concrete floor of the initial passage. But Aniela had agreed to go only to the first junction where the way changed and descent began, and too soon he’d heard her return – one corridor turn away from the basement entry, she’d struck soft announcement on the pipes.
“Go now,” he’d said. “Please, Catherine.” And she had.
He’d released her, torn himself away with wrenching regret, railing against the circumstance that begged her patience, her endurance and resolve yet again. He felt it wrong to walk away; he needed to stay close. Wanted to. Her last kiss had been sweet, deep with passion and promise. The disappointment he’d tasted was his own.
Aniela stepped through the doorway and he turned – slowly – to greet her. “So …” she ventured, casting a glance around the room. “Catherine is …”
“Already Above.” Aniela nodded and started up the steps, a fleeting touch to his arm in passing that transferred concern, sympathy, the electric charge of her optimism. “Please tell your mother we appreciate her gifts,” he remembered to say. “Her food has provided us with more than sustenance.”
Aniela looked down on him from the landing, her hand on the shop door’s handle. “You might get to tell her in person. She’s threatening to come Below and serve the next meal herself.” She reached overhead for the pull chain and the stairwell’s bare bulb winked out. The metal door sighed shut behind her; its latch engaged.
It wasn’t locked, not to those below. He could rush the stairs, the shop’s lobby, burst through to the street, call out before she drove away.
Catherine … The urge to will her back flamed beneath his ribs. The magic of their last hours still palpable, the coincidences – a mystery in mid-story, pages begging to be turned. Their separation so sharp, so sudden. If only. But half-proud, he replayed his last bold words – words not so long ago he’d have never echoed, the very thought – this thought, this … interpretation – he’d have burned away in self-reproach and foot-pounding flight rather than utter. A flushed disbelief heated his face and he blew out a rasping huff of surprise. Her touch had burned through his clothing; her quickened breath acknowledged his yearning caress.
Your hands are my hands … he’d murmured, guiding hers over no-longer secret places.
But he canted now from the pull of her …
And bolted, reaching the narrow stone circle in sprinted minutes. Demanding his deliberate tread, each step spiraled him deeper, augered him into the earth, back to his world, to his life. The leaping flame of his alarm had been damped by her logic and alternatives, but suspicion smoldered still. And fear … for there was much to lose.
Faces formed in his imagination, faded and formed again: Catherine’s, so precious; Kanin’s, Olivia’s, Father’s. Mary’s and William’s and Elizabeth’s. Pascal. Mouse. His elders, his teachers. The youngest ones.
Mitch. And if not Mitch, then some faceless, dark recruit.
Everything was so very fragile.
He rounded the last turn of the high approach to camp. The sentry’s niche was vacant. And no wonder, he thought, standing unnoticed at the portal. Damien had arrived before him with their supper, and the fire, now stoked, licked at the curves of the steaming black kettle. Workers, slump-shouldered and dusty, straggled in through the lower passageways, their faces lifting at the aroma of toasting bread. Cullen was busy with the soup, stirring, scattering the coals to lower the boil, but the heat of it permeated the chamber and he could discern the individual scents of garlic and red wine, the tomatoes, the simmering marrow of beef. And the coarse black pepper, Delfina’s generous handful, just as he liked it.
Jamie knelt at a cooler and lifted the lid. “Salad! Hey, everybody. We have salad!”
He could see it, a treasure chest of jeweled colors, edible emeralds and rubies, could taste the bright and the crisp, could feel the cold on his teeth. Eat something before you go …
But he hesitated. His responsibilities loomed before him as a road sign, a fingerpost with a dozen arrows nailed to it. He stalled in its shadow.
It will not do to indulge ambivalence now.
The trek to Independence Avenue would be shorter with the opening of the rediscovered passageway. If, when he arrived at Levon’s old home place, if all were quiet, still sealed and secreted, if there were no evidences of trouble … or Kanin … he could inspect the last scheduled work site beneath Spencer and Leighton. They’d not had the manpower to spare a scouting crew so far north. Yes. A reasonable reason.
Cullen dipped a wooden ladle deep into the stew, filled the first bowl. The chatter stilled for the business of supper.
Don’t go alone … she’d implored.
But if Kanin were found, the words he’d prepared would play best without an audience of others.
And if I should find Mitch …
He could travel faster, much faster, by himself.
He stole back to the shadows, made his way to the newly repaired ladder and hurried down. A single curl of apple peel lay on the tunnel floor, still moist and fragrant. The sight of it stopped him and after a moment he reached down for it. Burying his nose into his palm, he nuzzled at the sweetness, an ache of hunger at the roof of his mouth, though not for food.
There were no pipes in the uncharted passage, but at the base of the ladder a last line of communication ran to a relay post south of camp. His absence would not pass as a familiar evening ramble. Damien knew his plan. Cullen and Jamie planned to return to the western campsite after supper. They’d notice him gone, perhaps leave their deserved meal to follow, perhaps alert the waiting crew. Word could quickly spread. Father should hear of this journey now and from him. He stood, his hand on the black cast iron, tracing the pattern of rust, searching for words to assure, to quell worry. Finally, he could manage only a lean truth in new code.
And a message for Catherine. Know that I love you.
A bundle of rag torches stood upright in a cleft of stone. In the ladder well, a lantern burned, and with its fire, he lit beeswax-soaked fibers that flamed and settled to a bright, yellow glow. In the secret passage again, his pace quickened. He felt the stretch and reach of his legs, the springing coil of muscle in his thighs, a tightening in his abdomen, a loosening of his arms. As he left the connecting tunnel, as he loped into the turn toward the wider corridors north and west, he surrendered to his blood’s urgency. His heart thrummed, each footfall rhythmed with it, and the treasured light began, a white-hot pinpoint in the deepest reach of his mind that blazed stronger and stronger until he was that light, until he was exchanged for it.
This … I can do.
His hood was down; his cloak free in the air behind his knees, the mantle close about his shoulders, its long laces crossed over his sternum and tied ‘round his waist.
This … this I will do. For he had promises to keep, those of his own lips and those unspoken, those exacted at the moment of his birth.
* * *
Father made his way to the pipe chamber, a path well worn over the years, yet this evening each step seemed tentative, faltering. He’d held his concerns from Olivia, for the most part from Mary, but he feared the quiet from the crews at work. All along, the reports had been short, indeed, cryptic, but they had come – morning, mid-day and suppertime. Since Friday evening, there had been only two coded taps, spare all’s wells that did little to convince him of their veracity.
They’re busy … focused as they must be …
Or perhaps Pascal is merely behind. Messages, backed up. He might use my help.
His staff rapped against the stone floor and his knuckles pinged with the reverberation; his hip burned. But more than the cold complaint of his joints, a kind of heartburn plagued him, one of reasoned misgiving, impatience, a dismaying grudgingness. I’m not as good as I once was, he grumbled to himself
The passage meandered and declined, delivering him at last to the full confluence of the pipes. Resting on his cane, he watched Pascal as he worked, as he danced between the pipes, his ear and his tapping sticks a single willing conduit from one heart to another. Even after all these years, after studying the codes, revising them, teaching them, after designing relays and echo devices, after working innumerable hours alongside Pascal’s father transcribing the keys to paper, the chamber thrilled him … still astounded him. The origin of it, a mystery, indecipherable, seemed to him this evening a rare and delicate thing and representative of all he lived to protect. This was the soul of it, the manifestation of their community – their communion – the invisible chord that bundled them close. And yet on this evening, he feared a breach, a break somewhere along the long iron threads beneath the earth.
“How is it I’ve forgotten this … height differential,” he muttered, as he reversed and gingerly lowered one foot to the top rung of the last ladder down. On the chamber floor, he steadied himself, one hand to the rough-hewn wall. Perhaps Mouse could devise a ramp, a nice, long, sturdy ramp with hand rails. There was no denying it. He missed Mouse.
He made his way to the center of the chamber, to its core, passing the alcove where Pascal made his bed. Not his chamber, a large but sparse room not far from here … but his home, a rumpled assemblage of quilts and pillows. No books were stacked nearby, instead, a basket crammed with tapping sticks of both wood and iron, and on the table a set of sharp-edged carving tools, a bowl of copper fittings.
“Father?” Pascal acknowledged him with a quirk of his eyebrow, and without breaking stride, hurdled a low stand of pipes, scaled a dented upright to tap a single tone at a rusted joint, then leapt and landed in the dust. He sprang away, dancing on his toes, a bob and weave of the labyrinth to reach one particular line where he hammered out an enthusiastic, drumming roll.
Father tried to discern the messages, tried to sort one from another. A muddle. A word, a name here and there. I’m distracted, he thought. Surely, only that. I haven’t lost my touch; I refuse the very idea.
Pascal appeared from nowhere, rising from a crouch before him. He held up the sticks. “Want to take a turn? For old time’s sake?”
He smiled and grasped the end of one and froze at the sight – their two hands on a baton. He saw the passing of it, another sort of relay – duty and responsibility and a certain kind of power – from the old king to the prince. An inevitable transfer, but a heavy, reluctant thing.
Abashed at his own hubris, he dropped his hand.
“No. No thank you, Pascal. Another time …” But Pascal was gone. The chatter seemed suddenly noisy and rude. Incessant. Father rubbed his forehead and longed for quiet. No, he said to himself. Quiet has been the problem. He could almost hear Mouse, his voice clear in the cacophony – I know what I know. And I know ...
He did know. Something was, if not wrong in the northern tunnels, then not quite right.
“What?” Pascal called, now high within the maze of pipes. “Did you say something?”
“I said … ” He reconsidered and raised his voice. “Rather, I wanted to ask, have you any word from Vincent? Or from anyone on the crews? From the sentries?”
Pascal, his brow furrowed, pressed his ear to a bend, one hammer held high in the air to stem the conversation. Two sharp raps, and he listened again. Then, nodding, he delivered a brisk answering tattoo. “Just now,” he called out. “From Vincent. He’s going to inspect … wait, he’s switched to another code, the newest one we’ve been working on. Right, okay, got it. He’s checking out a closed-off entrance. Levon’s old place at Mount St. Vincent’s.”
“Levon’s place? At the college? That door has been sealed for years.” Father frowned, a twinge of pique scattering the puzzle pieces before him. “Did he say why? There was nothing more?”
Pascal shrugged, then bent to the pipe. “No … Wait! There’s more coming. A message … for Catherine.” He closed his eyes, his lips moving with the words. A small pad of paper hung from a chain fastened to his vest. He pulled it from his watch-pocket and with the stub of a pencil, began a concentrated scribble.
Agitation levered Father’s cane back and forth, hand to hand. A part of him wanted to march through the winding tunnels north in demand of the answer. At the very least he might compose a–
Pascal swung to the floor, tapped out a call for a runner. “There was more,” Pascal said, laying a gentle hand on Father’s shoulder. “A second message for you. Vincent says … “I will explain.”
Chapter Title: William Butler Yeats. The Young Man’s Song from Responsibilities and Other Poems. 1916.
Opening quotation: Mary Oliver. Poem by the same title.
1. William Cullen Bryant. The Lapse of Time.
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