sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 49 ~ Erelong, Erelong …
Then let us be each other’s truth, let us
Affirm the other’s self, and be
The other’s audience, the other’s state …
Mary hurried through the twists of corridor, her nose buried in the spray of deep purple stars, every step onward rushing her back years.You are brighter than apples, sweeter than tulips, he’d whispered. You are the great flood of our souls bursting above the leaf-shapes of our hearts. You are the smell of all Summers, the love of wives and children, the recollection of the gardens of little children.1 Tears welled in her half-closed eyes.
Gibson Street. Only a few blocks from downtown, he’d allowed. Don’t peek, Mary. Let me surprise you. And, oh, he had. He had. A square, plain house, sturdy amidst the many grand and turreted homes, its grey-weathered siding humdrum beside the corals, ochres, and greens. But porches on three sides! A porte-cochere for his – their – blue Pontiac. A long, lush, level lawn, a shady side yard where babies might one day play on the quilts she would piece. Flower beds already brilliant with bloom – with purple flags and nodding red columbine, with cream-pink peonies. And at every corner and post – lilacs. Their joyous scent embraced her.
Nineteen years old, a single year at William Smith behind her, with a husband – a husband! – so handsome and kind. Her own mother couldn’t see how happy she was, nagging her to wait for someone with better prospects, for someone younger. Giving up your education, moving to ten miles from nowhere with a … a school teacher, when she might have landed a banker or a doctor, might have lived the society-life in Philadelphia or Boston. As if she were cut from that sort of cloth. Settling into his family home, her mother belittled, as if only a newly-purchased one would do. Forgoing a honeymoon – even a weekend at Niagara Falls – as if being practical was a flaw, a failure. As if love didn’t matter.
That first night, they’d watched the sun set over Lake Canandiagua, danced in the gazebo at Kershaw Park. That first night together, hers and Andrew’s, where candles softened anything shabby or worn. Where, on the dresser, a Ball jar stood massed with lilacs, the lavender blooms arching above her open train case and her sheer white gown … perfuming their bower. When everything lovely was yet before them, before Ella’s arrival and John Robert’s, before …
“Mary? Mary! What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a– Is that lilac? Where–”
Jacob. Standing in the middle of the passage. She’d nearly bowled him over. Staggered past him, she stilled at his voice, lifted her head from the bouquet’s memories … turned into his open arms, the shell of her shattery, her legs unreliable.
His arms tightened around her.
“Mary. Dear Mary. Come back with me now. Just a ways. Here we go.”
One arm around her waist, he urged her retreat into the upper alcove of his chambers, to the welcome, empty bench. She sank down, grateful her knees had not failed her, grateful for her oldest friend at her side, for his warm hand steady on her fluttering one. At his tug, she released the woody branch. Holding her gaze, Jacob breathed in the scent of the blossom, a loud and long breath, another and another and another, until hers matched his orchestrated rhythm. With his soft handkerchief, he mopped her clammy forehead and cheeks. The remembered dappled yard, the azure sky through a tapestry of leaves, the kiss of sun on her upturned face dimmed and diminished … cooled to gray and rust-red stone lit … lit still … by candlelight.
She closed her fingers on his wrist and smiled and, though his narrowed gaze never wavered, he ceased his ministrations.
“Kanin is back,” she said, having straightened her rounded shoulders. As am I, Jacob.
“Kanin!” Jacob sputtered. “Has something happened? I heard nothing on the pipes of his return. Is he on his way here?” He half-rose from his seat. “I must speak with him. Now.”
Mary cupped her hand over Jacob’s where it now knuckled the knob of his cane. “Sit. Sit. Now is not … appropriate.”
“He brought Olivia lilacs. Lilacs!”
Jacob stared at the bloom he held. “Ah,” he said. “Ah, yes. Her favorite.”
And mine. Once upon a time. “If the news had been bad or urgent, he’d not have appeared with flowers, unannounced. His coming home was … private.”
“Yes. Well.” He tucked the handkerchief into an inner pocket of his robe. “In due time, I suppose, Kanin will come ‘round.”
“Perhaps he already has.”
After a long moment of contemplation, Jacob nodded. “Was Olivia pleased to see him?”
“Oh, yes. If only I could have scooped up both children in their sleep, given them some time alone together.”
“Sleep, did you say? Both?” Jacob’s eyes widened and she imagined he placed a mental tick in the column of good signs versus bad. “I’d been thinking about your plan to spirit Olivia north …” he went on. “About their getaway. Perhaps now it won’t be necessary.”
“No, I suppose it won’t.” A wave of dismay washed over her. She knew it showed on her face; she could feel the heat in her cheeks, hear her selfish, selfish sigh. Now what? What will I ever find to talk about with Sebastien?
“You were crying before, Mary. And now you look … lost.” He leaned into her shoulder. “Tell me.”
“There’s nothing to tell. Not really. Kanin, the flowers … reminded me.”
“A place and time. What I once had.” Who I had. Who I was. She’d shared so little. In all these years, so very little.
“Of what you might have again?” Jacob brushed the lilac spray against the back of her hand and lay it on the bench between them. The scent wafted up, there, when she remembered to breathe. “Margaret’s favorite flower was the lily,” he murmured. “The calla lily.” From inside his cloak, he produced a sealed envelope. “This came for you. The sentry beneath 86th Street received orders to personally deliver, but brought it to me when she didn’t find you in your chamber. Or the nursery. Or the kitchen or the laundry.”
She didn’t even try to hide her deep sigh.
For Mary, from S, the address read, printed clearly, simply, with none of the swoops and curls of the showman’s signature. She shoved it in her skirt’s patch pocket.
Jacob patted her knee. “You should get that in water – the bloom, I mean. If I remember correctly, the thing to do is strip the bark two inches from the end and smash the stem. Do you have a little hammer? I’ve one if you don’t. And use warm water, not cold, in your vase.”
* * *
“At 34th and Herald Square, we’ll take the B, but how far? What’s your cross street?”
The repetitive clack punctuated the heavy air. At the screech of brakes, Eimear nudged her forward. “73rd!” she exclaimed and, lowering her voice, bent to her ear. “The Dakota?”
Catherine shook her head. The bells rang their two-toned alert. “Look!” she said, stepping out from the waiting crowd. “An empty car.”
“Wait! There’s a reason for that, sure enough. One we don’t want to discover, I’d wager. We’ll try the next.” Eimear grinned and led the way. “I like the last car, myself, though Mom taught us better, warning of who or what might lurk beyond the platform’s light in the long black tunnel.” A worn, hungry tide surged them forward. “Here we go. Hold on. There’re but two stops till we change.”
There was little time to do more than sway and step, sway and step, then hurry to their transfer. Eimear wove the throng with practiced ease, tall enough to see over suited shoulders, agile enough to dodge the stuffed backpacks and mismanaged umbrellas. Catherine clung to her elbow. On the B, they held fast to the handrail, but at Rockefeller Center, Eimear pressed her arm and tipped her head in signal seconds before a trio of orange seats opened behind them, two opposite each other by the windows. A scraggly-bearded man plopped down in the remaining backwards-facing chair, wearing shiny, pegged black pants and a worn silk hat – Lincoln-esque, if a foot too short at least. He whipped a newspaper from his coat already folded to the daily crossword and flourished a fat pencil, the red kind she’d used in first grade. Loudly and to the ceiling, he proclaimed the clues, brandishing the pencil straight up as if some divine lightning bolt might deliver the answer to the dull tip. “Message received,” he crowed and licked the lead, bending double to scratch letters in the squares, careful not to let anyone see. Everyone averted their eyes, Catherine noted. Everyone except Eimear.
They emerged at 72nd Street a miraculous thirty minutes later. A stream of white panel vans and yellow cabs droned past, the usual din muffled by the lingering assault of the subway’s cacophony. But sunset filtered through the treed perimeter of the park, and across the street, on the corner, her favorite vendor was still open for business, his yellow and white striped umbrella angled in welcome. She could taste the tangy, fresh lemonade with its crush of ice and emerald mint. The Imagine mosaic was but a short stroll away. Perhaps what she’d soon tell Eimear might be better broached there. On a bench, beneath the tall elms. Beneath this very bench …
Even as they passed the Dakota, the park’s call to her was strong, yet a line of taxis idled at the curb in front of her building. Surely they’d beaten Harcourt home. Surely he’d be stranded on the sidewalk of Centre Street until dark. A cab’s door popped open and she saw the passenger check his reflection in the rain-spattered window once he’d emerged, saw him reach with both hands to smooth his hair. She rushed Eimear to the Langham’s steps, past Roger’s evening replacement and across the lobby to the elevators. If it were Harcourt arriving, if he followed her … this time she’d have to hurt him.
They’d had no opportunity to talk, not since they’d sprinted for the Canal Street station. The subway was louder than loud, and she’d answered Eimear’s barely-audible question about Harcourt only with the roll of her eyes and a dramatic growl. In the elevator, it seemed they stood shoulder to shoulder with everyone else on her floor. Even her hallway was crowded as, home at last, laden with mail and shopping bags, one with young children in tow, her neighbors stabbed at their locks. Catherine unbolted her door and tossed away her briefcase and purse, turning to drag the waiting five-gallon water bottle inside. After her, Eimear followed with the second, rolling it over the threshold, straightening from her task just before the sculptured antelope at the entry. Eimear drew back, her lips pressed together in a quivery curve. Catherine thought she might burst out laughing. Or crying. Or shake with nerves. She’s trying so hard.
“It is kind of …”
“Bizarre, Catherine. I have to say it, but in that, a match for my foyer’s umbrella stand with its gasping fish, though you were polite enough to o’erpass its unique features.” Eimear unbuttoned her jacket. “There must be a story behind this.”
“No, not really.” Not compared to what’s coming. She gestured for Eimear’s jacket and draped hers with it over the back of the couch. “Eimear, I …” She laced her fingers and tapped her chin. “About these calls. You’ll tell Flynn in the morning and then the paperwork begins. The reports. I’ll go with you to the station. I’ll stay with you and help all I can. I have … access … and what I don’t know, I’ll find out. This is Flynn and you. They’ll have these guys picked up by noon. They’re not hiding and I’m sure I saw the car. I’m a witness to the threat. You have the tapes. There won’t be any glitches. They’ll get pretrial detention so they won’t be released on bail. But tonight … I’m taking you someplace safe, someplace secret. A place close to home, very close, in fact. A place where even afterward you’ll always be welcome. Trust me. Don’t be afraid. Please don’t be afraid.” Catherine held out her hands and Eimear took them, a long wordless promise welling between them.
In the middle of her living room, Eimear made a slow revolution, her gaze traveling the shelves and mantle and bookcases, the apartment a bit forlorn with so many of her treasures secreted Below. “Are you moving?” she asked.
None of her friends visiting of late seemed to notice the changes. Even Jenny merely scowled at the marble creature on its stand, remarking only “Oh, the horns are back.” True – the new objects d’art on display were actually old, their recycling evidence to most observers of nothing more than whim or her changing mood – and decor Jenny had seen before. How could Eimear know? About her heart’s home, their hidden chambers Below. About the possibilities kindled by Martin’s dream and a serendipitous classified ad left behind in a cab. Was what she’d said – between my world and his – and what Eimear had seen – his shirt, his singular, mysterious, unexpected shirt – revelation enough? Perhaps the question should be rephrased. How much does she know already? But before she could answer, Eimear pointed to the stack of flattened cardboard boxes on the floor beside her desk, the remnants of her last foray to her storage locker to bring up filler for the empty places. Still, she wouldn’t equivocate or invent or mislead. Not this time.
“I have, in a way.” And might again. She touched her vest pocket and heard the reassuring rustle of newsprint. “And that’s part of what I need to tell you.”
“You mean show me,” Eimear said, looking past her to the carpet at the door. “You said you’d have to show me. And Catherine … you have mail.”
Catherine bent for the note and heard the closing metallic click of the stairwell door. The message was over-wrapped with ruled notebook paper, but peeking from the edges was an onion-skin envelope, its border red- and blue-striped, one from the box of vintage airmail stationery she’d found at the flea market on Columbus Avenue. The image made her smile – Vincent too, when she handed him the gift. Certainly Benny, who was her most constant messenger, seemed to fly through traffic, and letters dropped through the grates of certain storm drains arrived at their destinations as if on magical wings.
Missed you twice, Benny had scribbled on the notebook paper. A Mets day. Inside the wrapper was a card, a Topps bubblegum trading card. Dwight Gooden. His rookie year, 1985. It smelled still … pink. Sometimes Benny left Beatles cards, the same black and white ones girls in her grade school had once collected, sometimes Elvis, sometimes Batman or Superman and she’d pass them on Below. Sarah, in particular, harbored a fondness for Elvis; Eric was mad for comic book heroes. But this one … In a flash, she was at the pizza parlor, Edward’s expression so earnest as he presented the children’s gift to their chaperones, his instruction to Joe and her to share the Dave Madagan card so serious. She looked up at Eimear, held out the card. “For Edward.”
“Go on,” Eimear said, slipping it into the pocket of her purse. “Go on with your message reading. I’ll … I’ll just …” She eyed the balcony doors. “The view must be spectacular.”
Catherine nodded, already unfolding the stationery, making no effort, no effort at all, to hide.
Kanin is safely back, she read, with good news ~ our concerns here are less urgent than we believed. Mitch is not involved. The work continues.
What I do and what I dream, include thee, Catherine. When next I see you … V.
Less urgent. Vincent’s cryptic understatement implied the intrusions the crews labored to contain had been identified, judged, and a plan of management decided. And his words were an intimate pledge: When next I see you2. A passage from one of her favorite poems. Catherine sighed with relief and anticipation. So much had transpired. Her visit with Sam. Maryfields and Martin and Seamus. The tramp-art chest of treasures and coincidence. Earlier, she’d determined she would somehow join him once again beneath Woodlawn, go to him. Tell him. They’d have needed hours, but now ... She returned the sky-blue paper to its envelope, on the way to the terrace tucking the edge of it under the saucer of a potted cyclamen on her dining room table, the handwritten address topmost. Unmistakeable. Proud.
“Can I get you anything?” Catherine asked. “Coffee or tea?”
Eimear turned from the railing, her arms folded against the coming evening’s breeze. Behind her, the pale spring leaves of the park’s expanse had deepened to hunter and forest green. The street lamps would soon wink on. Even from this distance, Catherine could point out the landmarks of her heart – the dark hill of their beginning, the now familiar unlit paths and byways, the secret doors.
Not long ago, bundled together under their eider quilts, Vincent had recounted Father’s first admonishment. Don’t tell her anything. She’d turned in the embrace of his arms. But you told me everything. He had, without hesitation. I knew, he’d murmured against her cheek. From the beginning, I knew.
As do I.
It really was that simple.
“I’d better be leaving off the caffeine. I’m jittery enough,” Eimear said. She held out her spread fingers and indeed a mild tremor traveled through. A last glint of sun reflected from the silver of her wedding band, a bright prism off the center setting.
“Your ring is beautiful. The symbols … what do they mean?”
“‘Tis the Warrior Shield, fashioned after the Ardagh Chalice.” Eimear circled the medallion with its blue stone once, twice. She lowered her hands, clasped their nervousness behind her back. “A long story.”
Catherine ushered Eimear inside and into the kitchen. “Have you eaten today? My refrigerator’s bare, but I have … ” She opened an upper cabinet and inspected the contents of the shelves, hands on her hips. Peanut butter. Some Fig Newtons. Dried apricots. Raisins. Sticky foods Vincent avoided as a child, but tastes he loved. “Well, not that much.”
“I’ve half a tray of lasagna leftover, Catherine. And since we’re going home … before …”
Eimear’s eyes were dark with growing confusion. With worries enough on her mind, this tease was unfair. “You’re right. We should get on the road. Let me pack some things. My car’s in the garage below.”
Standing at her dining table, Eimear studied the pages of the donor’s flyer she’d left there – the Naumburg Orchestra, the summer concerts in the park. She’d receive four season tickets for the check of support she’d written, tickets she’d give away, unneeded. This morning, she’d dreamed of Eimear and Flynn sharing their secret seats below the bandshell. Only a few doors remained closed between them now. Somehow, she would – they would – open them.
Vincent’s note lay in plain sight and Father’s invitation was atop the morning’s mail, his script ornamented and flowery, too distinct to disregard. She’d read it. Of course she had. It was meant to be … and time. Catherine shouldered her bag, waiting in the open doors of her bedroom for Eimear to meet her gaze, to begin their journey.
“Before we leave, I need to send a message of my own …”
In the elevator and down – fifteen flights until they were alone in the car, until the doors opened to an empty hallway. Two levels of red-carpeted steps; the service stairs the rest of the way. In silence. Only the dull echo of their tread … and the beat of her heart.
Eimear followed without question, through the quiet laundry room, past the gray doors to the garage to the storage area, through the labyrinth of hodgepodge and rummage to the maintenance-way, barricaded by the building’s super since Brian’s adventure with a rickety utility cabinet stowing little more than worn mops and ragged brooms, easy to push aside. Without hesitation Eimear stepped onto the first rungs of the ladder. When she disappeared from view, Catherine began her descent, pulling the doors closed, repositioning the cabinet from behind them on her perch, thanks to Mouse and his complication of inserts and levers, casters and camouflaged slots. She emerged from the shaft of light to an empty threshold. Already Eimear had ventured from the block basement into the old brick passage and through the rubbled entrance. The red-gold gleam from the tunnel beyond was a brilliant aura around her.
Catherine wedged the crowbar from its hiding place behind the messaging pipe and tapped out her coded regrets. Work. Obligations Above. But soon, she promised. And thank you, Father. I miss you too. By the last rap, Eimear was back at her side.
“Where we’re going … ‘tis an underground shelter?”
“It’s more than that. More than shelter.”
“Between your world and his, you said.” Eimear queried the white light streaming from some fine-placed ocular high above them, then the corridor’s beckoning glow. “Is that where we are, Catherine?”
Chapter title: Sara Teasdale. From When Love Was Born.
Opening quotation: Delmore Schwartz. Prothalamion.
- Amy Lowell. Lilacs. From What’s O’Clock. 1925.
- Elizabeth Barret Browning. Sonnets form the Portuguese. IV.
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