Twice the door to Emmanuel’s study opened and he came down the passage, but rather than bellowing at the boys to hush — he was of the generation that believed children should be seen but not heard, after all — he listened to the boys play for a few minutes, and then went back to his study.
Myself, I settled at the top of the staircase nearest Caleb’s wing of the house with my sketchbook and stationary so I could write letters while I kept an eye on the boys. When Tumnus grew tired of games she joined me, and curled into a bundle of gray fluff against my side where I could easily pet her when I wanted to rest my hand.
The rain continued steadily while the thunder and lightning came and went. Child of the city as I was, I always found rain to be a comforting sound, and days like this never bothered me. Thunder was another matter; the sound was too much like the shells the Germans had rained on us as we advanced through Europe, and I had to close my eyes and take a deep breath whenever thunder boomed.
Lightning flashed and thunder crashed, and I heard a shriek so terrified that I shoved my things aside and grabbed my cane without another thought. “Samuel!” I shouted. “Caleb!” I went down the passage, past Caleb’s rooms, to the tall window at the end that overlooked the sugar cane fields. There was a lump under the curtains; I pulled the curtain back to reveal the boys, huddled together and clutching each other. “What happened, Samuel?” I said. “Why did you scream?”
They both pointed at one of the many portraits that lined the passage. “The lady moved, Mr. Malcolm!” Samuel exclaimed. “She growled at us!”
Caleb nodded vigorously and pointed again at the portrait.
I said, “All right, stay there,” and moved closer to the portrait. Many of the paintings in Fidele were very fine, even a few by famous masters of the eighteenth century, and it seemed like a miracle that they had survived the Civil War and Reconstruction. This picture was of the same high quality, though I didn’t recognize the name of the artist; a portrait of a light-skinned Negro woman, likely a quadroon, with large sensitive eyes and her hair bound in a turban. Her expression was mild, though I supposed two imaginative children could convince themselves that she had turned fierce when the lightning struck.
And I realized as I studied her face, that I had seen this woman before — standing in the window of one of the unused rooms, which she left smelling of burnt sugar.
“Come on, boys,” I said and held out my hand to the children. “Let’s go see Mrs. Bell in the kitchen.” And while they were occupied, I thought, I could ask Willie to take the portrait down.
Caleb took my hand and Samuel took his, and we went downstairs. As we left the passage, I glanced over my shoulder at the painting again, and while her face was still lovely her expression was no longer mild — instead it was knowing, calculating, even.
I shivered, told myself it was just the odd light of a rainy afternoon, and said, “I bet Mrs. Bell would appreciate some help with lunch,” and took the boys downstairs.
When Alex came to pick up Samuel that afternoon, I told him about the lady in the painting — better he hear it from me, I figured, than an exaggerated version from Samuel. Alex looked down at Samuel as he brushed his hand through the boy’s thick hair, and said, “I suppose it’s been a spooky sort of day.”