The auction was held at 5 p.m. in the street-level drawing room of the Lord Nelson Hotel, here in Halifax. Death on a Leipzig Balcony, by Robert Capa, was the first item on the docket. The auctioneer had just said, “.?.?. taken on April 18, 1945,” when my mother, Nora Ives ?— ?married name, Nora Ives Rigolet ?— ?walked almost casually up the center aisle and flung an open jar of black ink at the photograph. I heard, “No, it can’t be you!” But it was my own voice, already trying to refute the incident. My mother was tackled to the floor by the auctioneer’s assistant. An octopus of ink sent tentacles down the glass. My mother was lifted roughly to her feet by two security guards and escorted from the room. And here I thought she was safely tucked away in Nova Scotia Rest Hospital, across the harbor in Dartmouth, room 340.
I had been at the hotel to bid on Forest of Fontainbleau, an 1863 landscape by Eugène Cuvelier, the tenth photograph on the docket. Of course I lost out on that. Because immediately I went to the police station on Gottingen Street. There, through the one-way window, I witnessed my mother’s interrogation at the hands of my fiancée, Martha Crauchet. “We get the Chronicle-Herald in the common room, interlocutrix,” my mother said to Martha. I saw Martha jot down a word on her legal pad; I assumed it was ‘interlocutrix.’ “Last week, Tuesday’s edition, maybe it was Wednesday’s, there was a notice of the auction. Right then I put my thinking cap on.” My mother fit on an invisible cap, like screwing in a lightbulb. “I decided it was best to leave during tea. You must understand, interlocutrix, that the hospital staff is always distracted during tea. I filched money from the attendant’s station. A little tin box they keep there. Then I slipped out the food service door. Free as a bird.”
“Then what ?— ?you made your way down to the wharf, right?” Martha said.
“I had on my good overcoat,” my mother said. “Not to worry I’d catch a cold.”
“And of course you now had pocket money for the ferry.”
“Once I arrived Halifax-side, I made my way to the Lord Nelson and sat down in the room where the auction was held. Have you ever been to the Lord Nelson, interlocutrix?”
“I have. Yes.”
“A very nice hotel, don’t you think? I sat there just as I pleased. Just like that. It was all quite exciting. I had my little jar of ink in my coat pocket. From Arts and Crafts.”
Transcript, March 19, 1977 ?— ?Halifax Regional Police
The interrogation ended around 7 p.m. Before a police officer accompanied her on the return ferry to Dartmouth and then to Nova Scotia Rest Hospital, I watched my mother, still in the interrogation room, make a drawing of Halifax Harbor for Martha. She drew it on a napkin. My mother had been given cups of coffee and a scone to tide her over. She signed the drawing, and in addition wrote, “Thank you for the warmest conversation I’ve had in possibly three years. Let’s please stay in touch.”
I lived in the cottage out back of 112 Spring Garden Road, a big Victorian house owned by Mrs. Esther Hamelin, my employer. The other person who lived on the property was a Mrs. Brevittmore (whose position was referred to as the “all-purpose”), who occupied a large, sunny room toward the rear of the house, overlooking the spacious, manicured lawn and garden. Mrs. Hamelin had turned seventy on March first. As she put it, “I was born into money. It was from the fisheries.”
Mrs. Hamelin’s photographic collection was mostly on the walls of the master bedroom, down the hall from the library, and two guest rooms on the third floor had some photographs on their walls. Also, there were fifteen late-nineteenth-century French photographs in the library. In my time working for Mrs. Hamelin, I knew her to have plenty of people in for tea. Plenty of professors of art from far-flung places. Plenty of dinner parties, but no overnight guests. Depends, of course, on what one means by overnight guest. Because one morning at about 4:30 I did notice Mrs. Brevittmore leave Mrs. Hamelin’s bedroom, carrying a tray with teacups and saucers and a teapot on it. I had been an insomniac in the library, studying up on Avignon Pont St. Bénezet, 1861, by Édouard Baldus, which I was to bid on in London a week later. (I lost out on it seconds before the final gavel.) It depicted wooden boats along a riverbank, an unfinished stone bridge, quiet waters. Anyway, I heard a rustle in the hallway, looked up, and saw Mrs. Brevittmore closing Mrs. Hamelin’s bedroom door. When I mentioned this to Martha, she said, “Well, either they’d just had a rendezvous or they didn’t. Either-or, it’s none of your business. Love is difficult enough to find in the world, isn’t it, and judgments don’t have a place here. You’re either happy for someone or you’re not. I’m happy for them. If you aren’t, then I’m not happy with you. Like my mother put it, ‘Some things say a lot, even if you can’t pronounce all the words.’ Then again, my mother read a lot of Victorian novels.”
“Okay, fine, but by ‘rendezvous’ you mean ?—”
“Use your imagination, Jacob. It’s the one thing left you when someone’s door is closed. I want to meet those two. Please introduce me to them soon. It’s just not right that I haven’t met them yet.”
“Mrs. Hamelin wants to meet you too,” I said. “She told me she’s looking at her calendar for when.”
“She’s been looking at it a long time,” Martha said. “But I refuse to get grumpy about it. I just won’t. Things happen when they’re meant to, mostly. But you have told her we’re serious, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I have,” I said. “I most definitely have.”
My employment had originally been listed in the Chronicle-Herald: “Wanted: Live-in assistant. Must have special interest in travel. Interviews by appointment.” During my interview, Mrs. Hamelin asked how much education I’d had. I told her one year at Dalhousie University. She asked why I had dropped out. I told her I couldn’t afford the tuition. “Oh, I see,” she said, adding, “even though I’ve heard it’s modest for residents of Nova Scotia.” She asked my age. I told her I was twenty-nine. She asked how I’d been supporting myself, and I said, “Receiving and sorting stock at John W. Doull, Bookseller. Also, weekends I worked in the Halifax Free Library. My mother formerly was head librarian there.” She asked if I read a lot. I dissembled by replying with a question, hoping there was just enough irony in my voice to imply that the answer should be obvious. “Well, I am around books seven days a week, aren’t I?” She laughed hesitantly and asked if I’d done particularly well in any subject during my one year at university. I said, “That would have been a course called Introduction to Psychology.” She asked, “Why do you suppose you did well?” I said, “Because as I understood it, it was all about taking notice of people’s behavior and having strong opinions about it.” She said, “Good, good. Taking notice of people’s behavior at auction is very useful. You have to be competitive, especially at the opportune moment. You have to keep your wit...