Alan Irvine: Storyteller

A Heart Forged In Iron

I saw Daniel again last night. But now I know who he is and why he hasreturned. And I fear what will happen next...

The first time I saw him Janelle and I were lingering over a late breakfast, enjoying a quiet Saturday morning before the French Quarter stirred to life. Cool March air enticed us into opening the doors to the balcony. Janelle was playing with some roses and other dried flowers, sketching out designs for a flower arrangement while I read the morning paper. At one point, I glanced up from my paper and looked out through the open doors. A stranger stood on the balcony, gazing in at us. At Janelle. Something in his expression caused me to turn and look at her. When I turnedback towards the door, he had gone.

Since he had been wearing boots and work clothes of some type, I assumed he was simply a repairman of some sort. Later that day, I chided Rosetta, our cleaning woman, about letting workmen into the house without warning us. She indignantly denied having done any such thing. I let the matter drop,thinking she was simply covering her embarrassment at being caught.

A week later, however, I thought I saw him again. I was fixing myself a drink before dinner while Janelle talked on the phone with Helmut, the new architect at her firm. She laughed at something Helmut said--a light, carefree laugh. I had not heard her laugh like that in a long time and looked up. She did not see me; her eyes were closed as she threw her headback. I smiled as I watched her. Then a glimmer of movement caught my eye. Out on the balcony stood a man looking in.

I hurried to the door, but when I reached it, the balcony was empty. I stepped up to the iron railing and looked over, thinking whoever it was might have jumped down to the ground. But I saw only an empty street below. I checked the doors to the dining room and parlor, but they were locked, just as I thought, locked tight. I could think of no other way off the balcony, and decided I must have imagined him. A trick of the evening light on the door, nothing more.

Janelle's birthday came in mid-April. We planned a big party for the evening; we brought in beer and wine, cooked up several large pots of gumbo, invited everyone we knew, and threw open every room in the house.

Around midnight, the press of the crowd began to get too much for me. I grabbed a cold drink and made my way out to the balcony. I leaned against the iron railing for a few minutes, hoping for a cool breeze to break the hot, heavy air. None came.

I contented myself with resting my cold glass against my forehead, and looked out along the balcony. A few of Janelle's friends sat around a table nearby, gossiping in the candlelight. A little farther down, light from the next open door slashed across the night. Beyond the light stood a figure. A man, alone in the shadows, looking in through the door.

Without moving I watched him. As I had thought, he wore old workclothes--heavy boots, trousers, a stained work shirt, suspenders. A hat on his head, a hint of moustache on his face. Very old-fashioned and quite out of place. No one else on the balcony noticed him; nor he, them. His attention remained focused on something inside.

Pain, sorrow, regret all played across his face as he watched--what? What fascinated him so? By taking a step back, I could see through the door by me without loosing sight of him. I watched his eyes for a moment, then looked inside. At first I could not make out what he was looking at. I kept glancing from the party to him and back to the party again. Then it struck me. Once again, he watched Janelle. She and Helmut danced together up near the stereo, holding each other tight, shouting and laughing in each other's ear. As I watched them through the crowd, I remembered when we used to dance like that, Janelle and me, every Saturday night till dawn. I smiled at the memory, and wondered why we ever stopped. I thought perhaps I should claim Janelle from Helmut, but I did not move.

When I finally turned away from the door, the far end of the balcony stood empty and deserted. Somehow, I knew it would be.

For some reason, I said nothing about any of this to Janelle. The next day, however, I went out on the balcony to have a look at the spot where he had stood. It was the same spot where he stood the previous times as well. Nothing about it struck me as unusual; nothing, that is, until I examined the railing.

Like most balconies in the Quarter, ours was wrapped in an ornate, wrought-iron railing. For most of the length of the balcony, the iron rods bent in elegant, but simple designs. At this spot, however, they formed an elaborate panel: two hearts, in outline, interlocked, wreathed about with vines and roses. As I looked at the design, I noticed for the first time a deep flaw running through it. The right half of one of the hearts appearedto have slipped, leaving a sharp break across the heart. Three roses crossed the line of this break, and as they did, they bent abruptly, hanging down as if snapped and left to die. Examining the strange design, I knew my phantom must have some connection to it.

In the library, I opened the small cabinet filled with the old papers and documents concerning the house and its history. I searched through them for some information about the railing design. I found it in a series of letters between Andre Duchene and the Joseph McCarty Iron Works.

Duchene, who owned the house at the time, had ordered the railing in 1845 as a present for his bride Marie. He gave specific instructions about the design of the work, including its centerpiece, a panel with two interlocking hearts ringed with roses, Marie's favorite flower, and okayed the purchase of high quality iron bars from the Sligo Rolling Mills of Pittsburgh. A team of top smiths worked on the railing; Joseph McCarty personally inspected each section as it was completed. But when the workmen installed the centerpiece, they discovered a mysterious fault line breaking one of the hearts. McCarty apologized profusely and took the piece back to his shop. There he melted the iron and wrought it over. Yet, when the piece was installed, the workmen discovered the same flaw within it. Once again, McCarty took the piece back and remade it. He inspected it again as he loaded it himself onto the wagon and certified that the design was, at last, correct. But when it was unloaded, the heart again was broken. McCarty swore that no amount of careless jostling could have caused such a break. Indeed, the fault line didnot look like a break at all, but part of the design, deliberately done. Duchene, growing impatient, decided to leave the piece as it was, and ordered it installed.

I could find nothing more about the railing in the papers, but in letters and a journal from two years later, I discovered several references to a mysterious man Duchene saw out on the balcony on different occasions. "Again, I saw him last night," Duchene wrote at one point. "What is his interest in Marie? Why does he watch her so?"

Eventually the stange figure's interest in his wife infected Duchene as well. He hired a detective to follow Marie, and so discovered that she was carrying on an affair with a handsome, young banker named Renee D'Arecourt. Enraged, Duchene confronted D'Arecourt and challenged him to a duel. Although Louisiana had officially outlawed duelling by then, the duel still remained an acceptable, even the preferrable recourse for settling questions of honor, particularly among aristocratic families of old, French blood. D'Arecourt accepted the challenge at once.

Two days later, in the grey twilight before dawn, the two men met beneath the massive limbs of the famed Duelling Oak. Heavy fog covered the nearby river, spilling over the banks, drifting and swirling across the appointed ground. The two antagonists faced other, displaying no emotions as the judge reviewed the agreed upon rules, then produced a box containing two pistols.Each man's second stepped forward, inspected the weapons, chose and loaded one. Duchene and D'Arecourt each took the pistol in hand, and, on the judge's count, cocked, aimed, and fired. The two pistols roared. D'Arecourt staggered backwards and fell.

D'Arecourt's second ran to him and, setting his lantern on the ground, knelt over him. With a quick glance at the wound, the man shouted for the surgeon. But as the surgeon rushed over, he slipped on the wet grass. Hisfoot lashed out, kicking the lantern into the air. It crashed down onD'Arecourt's chest; the glass shattered, spilling burning oil over the wounded man. D'Arecourt screamed as his clothes caught fire and flames engulfed him.

Duchene concluded his account of D'Arecourt's death with the cryptic remark, "perhaps now he will be satisfied."

Shortly after that, a business trip took me to Pittsburgh. The project proved easier than expected, leaving me with some extra time. An afternoon of phone calls eventually led me to an archive containing the records of the long gone Sligo Rolling Mill.

Not sure what I expected to find, I searched for the record of Duchene's order. I found it easily enough. Underneath the entry, however, someone had added an unusual notation, that the order be filled with "the last iron shipment from the Garrity Furnace." Someone else had scribbled in the margin, "and get him out of here."

With the help of old records in the Carnegie Library, I tracked down information on the Garrity Furnace, a small blast furnace producing pig iron for the Pittsburgh finishing mills in the early 1840s. I even found directions to the ruins of the furnace, out near the town of Ligonier.

I drove out the next day. I parked on the side of a small country road,and followed an old path a few hundred yards through the mud and the woods. The path curved around the base of a hill and out into a wide clearing flanked by the hill on one side and a rushing stream on the other. Faint lines of stone jutted from beneath the spring grass and tangled vines, marking the foundations of long vanished buildings. A large brick and stone structure rose up near the hill, a heavy, squat block topped by a pyramid shape tapering up to the remains of a chimney stack. A dark opening gaped at the base of the structure, revealing an egg-shaped cavern within. Here and there streaks of rust colored the brick. From the pictures I had studied, I recognized the structure as the remains of the old blast furnace. Long ago, a wood building would have encased most of the furnace, leaving the chimney jutting up into the sky. A bridge would have spanned the gap between chimney and hillside, allowing the workers to wheel loads of iron ore, limestone and charcoal up to the opening and dump them down into the inferno within. When the iron had been smelted from the ores, workers would broach that opening at the base, allowing the liquid metal to pour out into molds dug into the damp sand. I could almost hear the roar of the furnace, smell the charcoal smoke, see the red-hot blaze. I wandered the site for half an hour or so, foundbits of slag and fire brick, but no answers.

I pushed on to the local historical society in Laughlintown. And there I managed to piece together the story from old documents, newspaper clippings, and court transcripts...

Daniel Garrity and his partner Pat Conroy built the furnace in 1838 and worked it together. They produced good quality pig iron and soon had standing orders from several finishing mills in Pittsburgh. They expanded their operation, building more workshops, hiring more workers. Daniel married Beth Stahl and built a cabin for her nearby, planting a luxurious rose garden beside it for her. Although happy at first, after a while Beth grew bored and restless. She complained that Daniel spent more time at the furnace than at home, lavished more care and attention on the furnace than he did on her. Pat began to stop by the cabin to keep her company. He had no problem devoting his attention to the beautiful, young woman, and his visits grew steadily more frequent over the next year.

At last Daniel grew suspicious. How could he not? One night, he left to oversee the night shift at the furnace, but hid in the rose garden instead, watching the cabin. A short while later, he saw Pat come down the path and knock on the cabin door. Daniel watched Beth open the door, take Pat into her arms, and kiss him. The pair disappeared inside; a moment later the light went out. Daniel watched until dawn, until Pat left.

When Daniel confronted his wife, she first denied, then tearfully confessed to the affair. Daniel stormed out of the cabin. That evening, hecame to the furnace, searching for Pat.

With the furnace in full blast, Pat had been working hard, directing the workers as they poured loads of ore and stone down the throat of the chimney all day. By sunset, some of the ore had lodged in the chimney, blocking the escape of the gases generated within. It was a common problem, but a dangerous one. Gases trapped by the hanging block could build up pressure until they exploded, taking out much of the furnace. To prevent that, Pat had to quickly dislodge the block.

Pat was standing on the rim of the chimney, jabbing at the mass of ore with a long, iron rod, the red glow of the blast hot on his face when Daniel came looking for him. Crossing the wooden bridge, Daniel roared his partner's name. As Pat turned, Daniel charged. Pat tried to pull loose the iron rod to defend himself, but it jammed in the chimney, jerking him off-balance. Then Daniel hit him, slamming him into the rod. Pat staggered,dropping the rod. He turned as Daniel swung at him. The two grappled with each other, struggling, reeling in and out of the writhing, black smoke. Daniel clawed at Pat's eyes, tore at his face, shouting accusations at him.Pat wheeled about, seeking escape. With a fierce shove, he broke free,sending Daniel staggering backwards, out onto the chimney edge. Old mortarcrumbled beneath the sudden weight. A brick turned, and Daniel fellbackwards, into the shaft. He hit the blockage with a sickening thud, hung for a fraction of a second. Then, shaken by the impact, the block crumbled.The roar of falling stone drowned out Daniel's final scream...

At the bottom of the file, I found an old picture of the two men standing at the base of their furnace. I took a close look at the man identified as Daniel Garrity. It was the same man I had seen on my balcony.

The night after I returned to New Orleans, I found Janelle preparing to go out for the evening. A business dinner, she explained, just her, Helmut, and a client. I asked what time she would return, but she would only say that she would be late. When I offered to wait up, she laughed and told me not to bother. Helmut would see that she got home. Helmut would look after her. And then she left me.

I heard the front door close behind her. Heard her footsteps disappearing down the street, into the night. I looked up, and there, in the balcony door, stood Daniel, staring at the spot where she had been sitting.At last, I knew why he appeared, what he was trying to warn me about. He must have sensed that, for he turned and looked at me. In his eyes, I saw the same sad anger and pain that now filled my own.

 

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