The house cleared out early the next morning: Noel with Caleb to take him to therapy, Emmanuel into the city and driven by Willie. There were no papers for me to correct or tests to grade, of course, so I said to Mrs. Bell, “Teach me to make biscuits?” and after she gave me a thoughtful look, she agreed.
Learning to make biscuits, proper biscuits that baked up light and flaky, took most of the morning. I offered to teach her a dish that I knew, but she laughed and patted my arm, as if to say no Northern boy could have anything to teach her.
With the biscuits in the oven, I was left to my own devices again. I decided to work on my comic, and took my sketchbook to the library. I sat at the study table, my view the wall of books opposite, organized by the color of the leather bindings as many great home libraries were.
Out of curiosity, I left my sketchbook and climbed the rolling ladder a step, just to see the titles that weren’t easily visible from the ground. I found Balzac novels in original French, Dickens in both English and French, a first edition of Victor Hugo. I pulled the ladder along the track idly, curious about what other novels Thibodeauxes of years past had deemed worth keeping. There were more books in Latin and German as I went along, everything from Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars to The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe. They were a family of readers, it seemed, and that gave me hope for Caleb’s educational prospects.
As I replaced a copy of Ovid on the shelf, I heard a rustling sort of thump, and saw that one of the books had fallen to the floor. It must have been placed on the shelf precariously, and my rolling around on the ladder must have dislodged it. I climbed down from the ladder and picked up the book to put it away, but first took a few minutes to look it over.
It was small volume compared to my own sketchbook, about the size to fit in a roomy pocket, plainly bound in brown leather with no indication of a title on the front cover or the spine. On the frontispiece were lines to note the dates — which were 1731-1745 — and the owner, Achille Thibodeaux.
As I paged through it, I realized it was a ledger — an accounts book of sorts, recorded purchases and sales in increasingly large amounts as the plantation began to sustain itself, starting with the purchase of the land itself and the materials to build the house. I had little experience reading eighteenth-century French, much less in reading eighteenth-century handwriting, but this turned out to be an accounts book and not heavier fare. I knew the words for things like cotton and eggs and sugar, of course, and I would come to recognize words like hectare, auction, and overseer.
I started to put the book back in its place, but then paused. It might give me some insights into the history of the plantation and of the family. Granted, it wasn’t the same as finding a diary or a cache of letters, but I thought it might still answer some of the many questions I had about the Thibodeaux family and the history of Fidele.
Before I could read further, I heard Willie pull up in the Packard, and looked out the window toward the carriage house to see Caleb walking with Willie to the house. Caleb looked gloomy, and dragged his feet even though he held Willie’s hand.
I put my own things aside and went out to meet them. “Caleb, Willie,” I said and stooped down, leaning on my cane, so I could speak to Caleb directly. “Wait until you see what Mrs. Bell and I made for lunch. I made biscuits! And they’re even edible!”
As I hoped, that got a smile from Caleb, even if it was just a small one. I rose and ruffled his hair, and Willie took him inside.
Proper lessons began that afternoon. We worked on writing numbers and letters, and went over the first few French vocabulary words. After his nap we read another chapter from The Lion, a The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and then a geometry lesson — by which I mean we got his marbles and played Ringer in the garden until Emmanuel and Noel came home.
Caleb was indifferent to Emmanuel, but as soon as he heard the smooth purr of Noel’s Jaguar on the drive, Caleb was antsy to meet him. I kept him out of the carriage house until Noel had safely parked and turned off the engine, and then he ran to Noel and Noel swung him up into his arms. Caleb put an arm around his neck and kissed his cheek. “Did you have a good day with Mr. Malcolm, Caleb?” Noel asked him, and Caleb nodded vigorously. “Good, because I have something for you after supper.” Caleb’s eyes grew big and he wiggled eagerly, and Noel laughed. “After supper, peanut. Go and wash your hands.” He put Caleb down and Caleb ran into the house ahead of us.
Noel lingered to wait for me. “How has he been today?”
“A bit sad after his therapy session,” I said and we began the slow climb up the stairs. “But I think I distracted him afterward. He does fine once he focuses on his lessons again. Do you meet with his therapist at all?”
“I pick him up afterward,” Noel said. “I usually have a word with her about what they covered. He doesn’t speak to her, either, but he draws pictures, and she watches him play with the toys she has in the office.” He paused. “He doesn’t draw pictures of the fire.”
“Does he trust her?” I said, and Noel looked at me with his brows drawn.
“I hope so. I never thought about it.”
Supper that night was beef pot pie, its gravy fragrant with rosemary, and I added this to my mental list for future cooking lessons. Again the meal was mostly silent until I told them what Caleb and I had done that day, and that got Noel talking a little bit, too.
Willie had brought us our coffee and Caleb another glass of milk when Noel said, “Willie, will you bring in the package I brought home?”
Willie smiled and said, “Right away, Mr. Noel,” and went to fetch it. Caleb wiggled in his chair until Emmanuel cleared his throat meaningfully, and then Caleb pressed his lips together and gave me a sidelong look. I gave him a sidelong look right back.
Willie returned with a box wrapped in brown paper, which Noel took and gave to Caleb. “This is to help you look at the stars, peanut,” he told Caleb, and Caleb’s eyes grew enormous before he started ripping off the paper.
“You’re spoiling the boy,” Emmanuel said.
“Somebody has to,” Noel replied, not looking at him.
Caleb tore off the paper and opened the box to find a small toy telescope. His mouth formed a silent “O” and he looked at Noel with shining eyes. Noel smiled in return, genuine.