Chapter 16 – The Portrait

Fidele by Jenna Lynn Brown

As soon as I got back to my room, I got a sketchbook and drew the woman as well as I could remember — her exotic beauty, her mournful expression.

When I put down my pencil, though, I asked myself what I could do with this picture. I couldn’t show it to Noel — he didn’t want to hear about anything supernatural and didn’t want Caleb to hear about it; I figured that ban extended to Mrs. Bell and Willie — and of course I didn’t confide in Emmanuel.

I thought about including it in my next letter to Mary Kate, but she had been so practical about my visions of Zachary that I thought she would explain this away as well. And to be honest, I didn’t know how to explain it to myself. I hadn’t seen ghosts as a child, even though I had an active imagination to the point that sometimes I wasn’t always sure what was real and what wasn’t — but that was only when I was caught up in my daydreams, and I had never been one to deliberately scare myself. Seeing ghosts had only begun since I came home from the war, and I sometimes suspected this was some sort of post-war madness.

Dorian might be sympathetic, but we hadn’t spoken since we agreed we weren’t going to pursue a relationship, and I didn’t want to call on him yet, not with only this as a reason to meet. Rene, too, might be sympathetic, but I admit pride held me back from confiding in him. I didn’t want him thinking his old Sarge was losing his mind.

The lack of someone to talk to about this made me miss Zachary even more keenly. He had always been the best at bringing me back to reality, ever since we were small. I turned to a blank page and drew what I remembered from his and Matilda’s wedding day, she in her simple afternoon wedding dress, him in his uniform. It didn’t erase the ache of missing him, but still I felt better afterward. Our family’s trick of doing something, making something, when our hearts hurt had yet to fail me.

It was after midnight when I finally closed my sketchbook. It had been a long day and the relaxing effect of my cigarette earlier was starting to fade. I put my supplies away and went to bed, for once falling asleep not long after I lay down.

I woke abruptly, not sure where I was or even what day it was — and upright, my cane still propped against the night table where I’d left it. I grabbed the bedpost to keep myself from collapsing, and eased myself back into bed, glad I hadn’t gone any further.

My heart raced in my chest, and I stared into the darkness as I forced myself to breathe slowly. Sleepwalking was nothing new to me, of course, but it hadn’t happened since I was six or seven. My leg throbbed with pain; I massaged my hip and knee, cursing under my breath at whatever had forced me up in my sleep.

Sleep was pointless. I sat up slowly and took my cane, pulled on a dressing gown, and picked up a sketchbook to pass the time. I went first to the bathroom, to take whatever pain reliever I could find — they would only dull the pain, but I would settle for dullness at this time of night — and was about to descend the stairs when I heard soft jazz piano from the music room.

Noel couldn’t sleep, either, it would seem. Caleb must have been sound asleep for Noel to leave him.

Rather than disturb his music, I sat on the top step of the staircase and clasped my hands around my knees to listen. I would have preferred he seek his comfort with me, but I was glad he at least had music. 

As one song moved into the next, I heard another door open, and down the passage of the east wing came Emmanuel, bearing a candle in a candlestick. He paused at the top of the east wing staircase, his face emotionless, and listened for several minutes as his hand gripped the banister like he was on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. 

I almost spoke — almost begged him, Talk to your son, he misses Simon too, but I kept my mouth closed.

Abruptly the music ended. Emmanuel made a soft sound, like he’d been startled out of deep thought. He frowned in my direction and held up the candle, and I said quietly, “He’s a good pianist.”

Emmanuel grunted and turned back to the passage.

“Mr. Thibodeaux, wait,” I said and got to my feet. I followed after him and said, “If it were me, I’d be grateful I had two children to comfort me when my –“