Friday, March 11, 2005

"Taylor House" Chapter 5: "Historical"

Moving in wasn't that difficult. Louis only could fit so many belongings in his ten-by-twelve-foot bedroom at home. Or rather, at his parents' house. He had to force himself to make the distinction mentally. It felt strange to try to think of anything else as home. Especially the empty, dusty antebellum mansion on Galveston Island that had seemed to fall into his lap.

Louis made the long drive south in two days, arriving at Taylor House with little incident on a Saturday afternoon. Mr. Cross met him at the door, and silently began unloading the rented trailer and the truckbed. He carried Louis's boxes and bags of laundry up the winding stair to the upper floor. Louis followed, lugging the duffel bag and his laptop bag. Cross walked slowly into the master bedroom, pausing to look around. Louis could hear the slightest sigh from the imposing figure.

Cross didn't make any small talk while he moved the various items inside. Louis didn't press him, thinking that this was probably as uncomfortable and difficult for Cross as it was for him. By the time the last few items were unloaded, Mr. Salvador's black Cadillac pulled up, and he stepped out. He wore a vanilla-colored suit with a matching panama hat, reminding Louis of the Bradbury story about a similar ice-cream-colored ensemble. He carried his briefcase in his left hand and extended his right, as he walked across the brown lawn. "Mr. Fielder, it is once again a pleasure to see you. I am quite pleased you have decided to accept your grandfather's proposal."

Louis smiled in response, more in response to the melodic sound of Salvador's heavily accented words, than to their meaning. Louis had liked Salvador from the moment they met. Everything about the lawyer exuded sincerity.

With the moving completed, Louis and Mr. Salvador went into the same study where the will had been read, and over the course of the next hour, Louis signed myriad documents, forms, and releases. Finally, Salvador closed the large manilla folder, and stood. "Congratulations, Louis. And welcome home."

Louis stood and shook the lawyer's hand again. "Thanks, Mr. Salvador. I appreciate all your help."

"It's what I do, Louis," replied Salvador, with a smile. "Very well. Thank you again. I'll show myself out." Salvador stuffed all the paperwork into his briefcase and hurried out the door without another word.

Louis followed the lawyer out into the hall, and watched him pass through and shut the large front door. He looked around the large hall. The sunlight was cutting through some high windows, painting bars of light on the high wall above the stairs. Louis turned and went up the stairs into his new room. Cross was putting away his clothes in an ornate wooden wardrobe next to the bed.

"Oh, please, Mr. Cross, I can do that."

Cross set down the tee-shirt he was folding. "As you wish, Mr. Fielder."

"Please, call me Louis."

"Very well, Mr. Louis."

"Mr. Cross, I have a question. It may be a bit...indelicate, so I apologize in advance."

"Yes, sir?"

"This was my grandfather's room?"

"Yes, sir."

"And that, I'm guessing, was his bed, yes?"

"Yes, sir."

"Mr. Did my know... there?"

"Oh, no, Mr. Louis, he spent the last several months of his life in the hospital. He passed away there."

"Oh. Good. I mean... I'm sorry to bring it up, Mr. Cross."

"No bother, sir. I understand completely."

"Thank you. Well, I'm going to go get cleaned up."

"Very good, sir."

Louis took a shower in the palacial upstairs master bath, one of the first additions Linus Taylor made when he began renovating and updating the house in the 1950s. Louis showered, and put on some fresh clothes. When he walked back into his bedroom through the connecting corridor, on the sitting table in the center of the room lay a metal serving tray with a few sandwiches and a glass of iced tea. Louis hungrily gobbled up the sandwiches, swallowed the tea in three gulps, and carried the tray and dishes downstairs. Through a series of trial and error, he found the kitchen, and set the dishes in the gleaming sink. He walked around a bit through the rest of the downstairs. There were a guest room on the ground floor, in addition to the study, kitchen, formal dining room, and enormous library. He had noticed two other doors upstairs, which he assumed were more guest rooms. The very size of the house was hard for Louis to comprehend. It didn't seem so big from the street.

He walked through the back door from the kitchen to the back lawn, where he spotted Mr. Cross trimming the hedges. He walked over.

"Mr. Cross, I wanted to thank you for lunch."

Cross looked up from his clippers. " 'Twas no bother, Mr. Louis."

"Did you cook for my grandfather?"

"Aye, sometimes. He had hired a regular cook for weekdays and special occasions, after Mrs. Taylor passed. Toward the end, when he was in and out of the hospital, he let the cook go. When he needed something, I took care of it."

"You were a good friend to him, Mr. Cross."

Cross turned back to snipping at the hedges. "Friend? Oh no, sir. Wouldn't presume that. Just a bit of a butler, when he needed one."

"Well, I'm glad you're here, Mr. Cross. And I appreciate what you did for him."

Cross smiled, in spite of himself. " 'Twas no bother at all, Mr. Louis." He paused, and looked over his shoulder. "I'm glad you're here, too."

Louis tapped Cross on the back and nodded, then went back inside.

There was a knock at the front door, and Louis, now the man of the house, hurried to answer it.

A short man with a sad comb-over and tweed jacket stood before Louis, brown hat in hand. His wire spectacles and squinting eyes reminded Louis of pictures he had seen in a childhood book: Mr. Mole, from "The Wind in the Willows."

"Can I help you?" Louis asked.

"Yes. I believe, ah, you might. My name is Harper. Canton Harper, chairman of the Coastal Texas Historical Society, ah, Galveston chapter. Are you a relative of Mr. Taylor's?" Harper spoke in short, soft bursts, taking in only enough air to speak a phrase at a time. This gave his words a sort of natural eagerness, an out-of-breath quality sometimes heard in museum curators.

"Mr. Taylor was my grandfather," Louis replied.

"Ah, yes, well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Mister--"

Louis took the mole-man's hand. "Louis. Louis Fielder."

"Yes, Mr. Fielder. Louis. A pleasure." Harper grinned a bit too eagerly, and continued wringing the brim of his hat absent-mindedly. "So, are you taking care of the house, in Mr. Taylor's, ah, absence?"

"Yes, that's right."

Harper shook his head, wearing his best "sorrowful" face. "Such a shame, ah, what happened to that man. Just a tragedy, just a tragedy."

Louis nodded, "Well, thank you."

"Yes indeed."

After a few seconds of silence, Louis said, "Right. So, what can I do for you, Mr. Harper?"

"There are a few matters, ah, I'd like to discuss with you, if I may, Mr. Fielder."

Louis opened the door wider and stepped back. "By all means. Please come in, Mr. Harper."

"Thank you, ah, Louis." Harper stepped in, and stood for a moment in the hall, looking at the doors, the stairs, the table in the center with the vase of flowers. He seemed to catalogue everything around him, appraising each item.

Louis opened the door to the study. "This way, sir."

"Ah, right. Thank you."

Harper waddled his way into the study and sat immediately in one of the leather armchairs before the great desk. Louis shut the door and walked around the desk, easing into his grandfather's chair. "Go ahead, Mr. Harper."

"Thank you, Louis. Yes. Ah. The, ah, Coastal Texas Historical Society is an organization of local, loyal Texans who are dedicated to the preservation of our regional heritage. You may not be aware of this as an, ah, outsider, so to speak, but this state, and particularly this island, have a rich and storied history, of which Asher--excuse me, Taylor--House, ah, plays no small part."

Louis nodded. "No doubt. I've read a little about the island's past."

Harper grinned again, larger than before. "Right. Then you are aware, ah, of how important it is to preserve such local landmarks as this lovely, ah, residence."

"Absolutely. And I'm determined to do so."

"Excuse me?"

"Preserve Taylor House. I've very commited to it."

Harper squinted, looking a little pained, and readjusted his spectacles on the bridge of his nose. "I don't think you understand what I'm, ah, getting at. Allow me to speak plainly. The Coastal Texas Historical Society, ah, would like to...sponsor, ah, the preservation of Taylor House. Just a historical marker outside, ah, and perhaps the occasional tourist exhibition. None of it will be any, ah, inconvenience to you, of course. We at the Historical Society like to promote, ah, a symbiotic relationship with our, ah, patrons."

Louis smiled and stood. "Right. Well then, good day, Mr. Harper."

"But wait--will you consider the proposal we're offering?"


Harper stood, grinding his hatbrim in his hands. "But Louis, ah, Mr. Fielder, I don't think you realize what an opportunity--"

Louis stepped around the desk and took Harper by the elbow, leading him into the hall. "Oh, no, Mr. Harper, I hear what you're saying. And I appreciate it, don't get me wrong. But my grandfather wished for sole ownership of the house to stay in the family line. So I must say no, and thank you."

Harper sputtered, "But Mr. Taylor, rest his soul, ah, is no longer with us, and while his wishes should be respected, one must be, ah, reasonable about such things. It would be a terrible shame to miss--"

Louis reached the door and turned the handle. "Thank you for stopping by, Mr. Harper."

Harper jerked his elbow away from Louis' guiding hand, and pulled his abused hat down on his head. He stepped onto the porch, then turned back, raising a warning finger to Louis. He scolded, "Mr. Fielder, I must warn you, once an offer from the Historical Society is refused, you will not be considered a member of this community in good standing! This could have serious repercussions on your, ah--" Harper looked over Louis' shoulder, and the color left his face. "Good day, sir!" The historical society chairman turned and stormed down the steps to his ancient Chevrolet.

Louis turned and saw Cross standing behind him, a bit muddy from the yardwork, leather-gloved and holding the hedge-clippers. Cross watched Harper get in his car, and then said to Louis, "I wouldn't let Harper or any of his kind in here anymore, Mr. Louis. Mr. Taylor learned early on that when those Historical Society members visit, things tend to go missing. Nice things, too."

"Oh, I think he's harmless, Mr. Cross. Besides, what can they do to me now, since I've refused?"

Cross shrugged. "Not much, I'd imagine. Still, best not to give them any chances."

"Got it. Thank you," said Louis, shutting the front door. "Looked a bit like a mole, didn't he?"

Cross laughed, "Aye, that he did. You know, that's exactly how your grandfather described him, too." Cross turned and headed back through the kitchen toward the back yard, chuckling to himself.

Louis turned back and peeked through the glass window next to the door, pulling back the curtain. Harper was still in his car, in front of the house. Though he couldn't make out what Harper was yelling into his cell phone, Louis guessed that he was the topic of conversation. Harper looked up at the house again, realized he had been spotted, and sped off down the street.

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