Iron Behind the Velvet ~ Chapter 24

~ Love is the Crooked Thing 1



The hill was too steep, the path a jumble of loose stones and lengths of rusted pipe. The book he sought was lost ... pages ripped from their bindings lay sodden under his feet. A wind whistled through. The torches. Why were the torches … 

“Father? Father?” Someone called for him. Needed him. I’m coming. Let me get my bag. Yes, yes. Why was it so dark?

Jacob!”

He opened his eyes to a nose only inches from his – a flaring nose – to pupils dilated black. 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. “Well ...”

“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 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 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.”

He pulled his glasses away and pressed his hands to his face, gave his cheeks a hearty scrub. “Thank you, Mary.” He folded the ear pieces, settling the spectacles to the eyeglasses stand on his library table. Hideous ... hideous thing, he thought for surely the six dozenth time. But a gift. Scavenged Above by a child, presented with satisfaction ... with love. What was he to do? Mary nodded her approval. After all, her hands on her hips seemed to say, he’d often requested her services in the hunt for the lenses. But a chipped china owl with an upturned beak? “I’m sorry to have been so ...”

“Crotchety.” 

Harummph! There was not even a trace of question in her voice. “Not the word I might have chosen,” he said, “but I suppose ... a fitting one.”

“Trust me, Jacob. It is.”

He 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 quavering 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 was but a girl! A flighty thing, mooning over Michael’s absence, a wardrobe chocked with dresses, hardly a book in her chamber.

“She wants to be our nurse.” He spluttered indignation across he surface of his tea, with bellows enough to force a spill, and Mary laughed. “I mean my ... and your ... assistant.

“I see. But, Mary, you ...”

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.

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. 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. 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.”

“Yes.”

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 ... 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.” Her chin jutted forward.

“Well,” he said. “Well, well, well.” His spoon showed tarnish, too and he brought it close for inspection.

Mary pushed her chair away from the table. “You’re repeating yourself.” Flushing, he noted again, but a blush of a different sort. 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.”

She smiled at him, and it was not 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, but a woman’s smile. Private. Had it been forever since she’d smiled so? Perhaps he’d failed to notice. “Of course you do. Good night, Jacob.”

The candles had burned low but it was not so terribly late. He shuffled to his desk 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, shoulder to shoulder at the push-bar. The newly-oiled wheels were nearly silent on the smooth concrete floor of the secret passage. But Aniela had agreed to go only half-way and too soon he’d heard her return – one corridor away from the basement entry, she’d struck an 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 latch. “You might get to tell her in person. She’s threatening to come Below and serve the next meal herself.” She groped for the pull chain and the stairwell’s bare bulb winked out. The door sighed shut behind her. 

Catherine … The urge to will her back flamed beneath his ribs. The magic of their last hours, 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 bold words – words not so long ago he’d have burned away in self-reproach and foot-pounding flight. A flushed disbelief heated his face and he breathed out – great rasping huffs of surprise. Your hands are my hands …

But he canted from the pull of her …

And reached 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 niche was empty. And no wonder, he thought, standing unnoticed at the entry. Damien had arrived well 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, he knew, 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 my 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 evidence 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.

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 …

But if Kanin were found, the words he’d prepared would play best without an audience.

And if I should find Mitch …

He could travel faster, much faster, by himself.

He stole back to the junction, 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 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 and Mouse, though distracted, might choose to follow, might send a message to the western crew ahead of him. Word could quickly spread. Father should hear of this journey now and from him. He stood, his hand on the 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. My decisions.

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. His pace quickened in the narrow tunnel. 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 secret passage, as he loped into the turn toward the wider tunnels 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 and laced at the throat in wet-leather knots. This ... this I will do. 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 iron threads beneath the earth.

"How is it I’ve forgotten this," 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 wove 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 pipe 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. I’m distracted, he thought. Surely, only that.

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 ladder 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? 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 … there’s more coming. There’s 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 long 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 … all’s well.”



Click HERE  for Chapter 25
__________

1. William Butler Yeats. The Young Man's Song from Responsibilities and Other Poems. 1916.

22 comments:

New York City Utopia said...

Exquisite!

Urban Literati said...

Will you be my ghost writer?

Krista said...

Oh...wow. This is lush and beautiful and moving, and I just can't wait to read more.

-Krista

Carole W said...

You all know how to encourage a writer. Thank you, NYCU, UL and Krista. I can't tell you how much your words mean. I'm astounded and humbled, and I want to work even harder.

Faster??? Did I hear someone mumble faster?

~ Carole

Brandy said...

"The chord between them seemed more a tensioned band, stretched over-tight."

Yes, yes it is. *eg*
And don't think that very lovely shower scene gets you out of anything either!

That said, you do find lovely poems to back you up.
Wonderful, brilliant as always.
Does Vincent explode from unresolved sexual tension in Chapter 26?

Your favorite intimacy Nazi, Brandy

Vicky said...

My dear Carole,
I've been trying unsuccessfully to leave comments ever since you posted your first chapter ever, I hope I've finally figured it out!
You've known what I think from the beginning, my dear friend: your writing is simply poetry. Thank you for everything; more than anything, for keeping true to the real Vincent and Catherine.
And... oh, mamma, what a chapter! I can't wait!
I love you, dear! It's been a wonderful year, I am so glad we met.

Carole W said...

Brandy - LOL - Vincent kept it under wraps for a couple years - he'll make it through #26. First he has to ...

Well, I won't tell out of turn.

Still, I share your frustrations and I understand, and I can't tell you the rest just yet, but I promise to take care of it. Him.... Them....

Thanks for sticking with me,
Carole

Carole W said...

Vicky, thank you! You've been so encouraging to me from the very first words of I Carry. It's meant everything.

Paraguay is just too far away.

Come back.

~ Carole

Kemara said...

Carole,
This was wonderful as always! I was wondering when Catherine gives Vincent the book of Neruda's poems? Your story made me look him up, but I can't remember just where he was mentioned. Thanks!

Carole W said...

Kemara- youve a good eye/ear/memory! I never mentioned C giving V that book of poetry, did I? I guess I was just imagining that at some time in the past she did. I'm going to edit that sentence for clarity. I appreciate the head's up. My brain does fog sometimes and I can't always remember what I've written -vs- what I've thought.

And thank you so much for your kind words. I'm amazed, grateful and humbled.

~ Carole

Kemara said...

Well, the funny thing is I could've *sworn* I read the scene where she gives it to him! She found it in Smyth's bookstore and bought it even though it was more modern than V is used to reading. And I think C. marks one of the poems and V. goes "does she really think/feel that about me?"

So if you didn't write it, who did? Or am I going crazy? I hadn't heard of Neruda until I read your stories.

Carole W said...

'Twasn't me. Neruda is so ... sensual ... that I'm sure other fan fic writers have used him. I can't remember a story like the one you describe, but it sounds completely plausible.

In fact, when I was thinking of my edit to the sentence, I came up with a similar idea, finding two volumes at Smythe's and buying them. I decided to save the description for perhaps another story, the sensual sequel perhaps … the two of them, reading through?

I had a similar scene in I Carry when C copies out the e. e. cummings poem, that it was more modern than V's usual read, and I used a Neruda poem once before in Chapter 9, in the title and in a note left behind for C. The man was a genius with words. I'm hooked on him.

~ Carole

Kemara said...

Maybe I did get the e.e. cummings confused then. LOL! I'm an English major, but you've opened my eyes to some of the more modern stuff.

Found a used copy of the Durants' autobiography at Amazon and thinking about ordering it. And then there's the Norton Anthology of Poetry at 2,000 pages....

You're dangerous to my credit card!

Sonia Who? said...

Carole, you should post your stories at http://www.fanfiction.net/tv/Beauty_and_the_Beast/

Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading the rest of the story and any additional future BatB story you write.

Best wishes
Sonia

Carole W said...

Thanks, Sonia! I'll certainly consider posting the arc at fanfic dot net. I'll have to give the whole series another editing though, so maybe when I'm done with this story. I know I'll send this one in to Tunnel Tales, but after that, I should take a look at the other fan fiction sites. Thanks again for the encouragement.

Carole

Anonymous said...

This story just knocks me out! I'm dying for the rest. Dying I tell you!

Leanne

Carole W said...

Leanne, it's nice to hear from you again! Thanks for the comments here and on the earlier stories too. I'm kind of dying today myself, working on the same paragraph for 2 hours now. It's a short paragraph too.

~ Carole

PS:
I'm glad MM was good for you ;-).

Urban Literati said...

LOL. Carole, your comment reminded me of an Oscar Wilde quote. You've likely encountered it:

"I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again."

Carole W said...

This one threw me down, UL! I'm still laughing, the big hard, bend over, hands on my knees, kind of laughing.

It rings too true, and if I've read that quote before, I've completely forgotten it. Wouldn't that make a perfect banner to hang over our desks? If I had calligraphy talent, say. Which I do not.

Thanks for this. I'll treasure it. I mean it.

~ Carole

Vicky said...

I hope this comment won't get me in trouble or seem disrespectful to anyone, so pleas feel free to just remove it, Carole.

To be honest, this whole blog is too much quality next to what I usually find in the Beauty and the Beast section of Fanfiction.net! (Not all of it, mind you, some favourite authors have posted there as well as in the BATB sites; but since anything goes, I've also seen little care for "details" like grammar or spelling). I am grateful for the effort our specific BATB sites (like CABB or the BBRC) put into editing and reviewing stories that are being posted. It speaks of consideration for the readers too. (I don't know about other fandoms, this is the only one I belong too... but it may be that I'm just spoiled by the amount of talented people we have.)

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for encouraging new writers! Actually, somehow I see ff.net as a big working room for them, if you know what I mean. But Imagine that! is clearly on a next level, out of the working room and up on the bookshelves! I hope I'm making any sense.

Krista said...

Oh, Carole. (I know. I'm consistent :-P) I love this newest revision. The interplay between Father and Mary, between Vincent and the pull and chafing of his perceived responsibilities against his desires...this is all so real . And fantastically, utterly, gorgeous.

Great job, again and still. (And it was in March, 2009 that I posted the first comment on this chapter. The wheel turns, but here we still are, because it's worth it. :)

-Krista

Carole W said...

Oh, Krista, thank you. When I reread this part with Father and Mary, I had a moment of thinking it might be out of place, that it might bog down the story, but I had to leave it. There's still life going on at home, and important things are changing. It seemed relevant and I'm so glad you liked the interchange.

So, if Mary can begin a romance, maybe Father can snag a girlfriend too. It might go a long way toward making him less cranky and negative. I have the person all lined up as you know. If if IF I ever get there. NOT IN THIS STORY. I hear you, don't worry. There's enough going on already.

Vincent … poor thing. He really needs that 'Monday night' I keep promising.

Two years of friendship. Wow. I'm so glad.

Carole