Boston adventure, p.19

Boston Adventure, page 19


Boston Adventure

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  She said, “If you’re not needed here, won’t you drive to Boston with me and have a cup of tea? Mac will have you back in time for dinner.”

  I told her I must be at the Brunsons’ by four o’clock. “Nonsense. No one would make you work today. What Brunson is it?” And when I told her Dr. Brunson’s name, she said, “Oh, then he must be the Brunson brother-in-law of Harry Barker. I dare say he’s not such an ogre that I can’t beard him in his den. I’ll just run on and tell him you won’t be there while you’re getting your things and we’ll pick you up afterwards.”

  It struck me, as I went into the house to get my “things” (a large blue tam and a shabby leather jacket the sight of which, hanging listlessly on a nail behind the kitchen door, made me wish I had not accepted the invitation) that it was odd she had gone to the dentist and not to Mrs. Brunson. I concluded that she was afraid she might be trapped into a conversation with my mistress if she called upon her and such a conversation, entertaining as I conceived it, would cause Miss Pride severe discomfort.

  My mother had fallen asleep. I put the cyclamen on the high bureau, predicting as I did so that when Mamma learned where it came from, she would remind me, as she had often done in the past, of Miss Pride’s gracious gift of the rattle. (I was not disappointed. That evening when I came home, she was drinking a glass of the dentist’s brandy and tenderly cupping one of the blossoms in her hand. “It’s just like that man said, a person ought to think of the living. I think that Miss Pride’s sweet.”)

  Warmed by a lap robe as soft as fur and lulled by the steady speed of the automobile, I looked through the windows with careless eyes, not paying the close attention I had always planned, to every feature of the road and the villages through which we drove. And yet I repeated to myself, “At last I am going to Boston,” and the wonder of it was reinforced when Miss Pride marveled that in eighteen years I had not been farther away than Salem. Had she known, she said, she would have come to fetch me long ago. Sometime this spring she would come for me and would show me the Public Gardens when the tulips were blooming and the children were riding the swan-boats.

  She inquired if I had heard recently from my father and when I told her I had heard nothing since he left, five years before, she shook her head with some unexpressed disapproval and said, “You have been very brave, my dear child.”

  I could not reply to the compliment and I had no wish to deny it. I said, “Did Dr. Brunson say it was all right?”

  “Oh, perfectly. He’s a very good-natured man. I was amused to see a placard hanging prominently in his office which read ‘Terms Strictly Cash.’ He appears to be more prosperous than most men of his profession in small towns.”

  “He has a practice in Marblehead too,” I threw out.

  “As a matter of fact, I have met him before and his wife, too, on several occasions. And isn’t there a girl about your age? I met them under circumstances which makes it more convenient for me to be unable to place them clearly.”

  Inspirited by my curiosity, I asked, “Was it here or in Boston that you met them?”

  “Why, it was in my own house, Sonia. They came uninvited to my open house on Christmas Eve two or three years running, and each time I was so muddled by the throngs of people, all of whom appear at those affairs more or less familiar, that I said to Dr. Barker, with whom I have a nodding acquaintance, ‘One does see such remarkable people in one’s own drawing-room on these Christmas Eves of ours. Can you tell me, for instance, who that blonde woman is over there by the buffet with the identical daughter? Perhaps they are friends of the accommodator.’ And of course, as you’ve already guessed, the woman was Harry Barker’s sister. But what an unconscionable snob the doctor is! He did not enlighten me. He allowed me, each year, to make the same mistake. This past year, someone standing near-by jostled my arm and led me away to inform me of my faux pas. I was at first outraged with Dr. Barker for disclaiming any connection with his relatives. It’s not the sort of thing one does. But on second thoughts—and on looking for a second time at your employer—I forgave him, but could not resist the temptation to apologize for my mistake. I fear I made the poor man quite miserable. He greets me most perfunctorily on the street now.” She smiled at her triumph, effaced the look of amusement, and said, “You are disloyal. You should not have allowed me to tell you that unfortunate story. As penalty, you must now tell me your opinion of Chichester’s leading citizens.”

  “Why, they have been very good to me, ma’am.”

  “You speak the language that befits the grateful servant. But it was my intention today to give you a little vacation from your servitude. I wanted to have a long talk with you about that very charming man, your father, and what you remember of him, and what you think has become of him. And I wanted, even more, to know something about you.” Placing her hand lightly on my wrist, she said, “I admired your letter. Its restraint, its language gave more pleasure to me than anything that has come in the mails in thirty years.”

  “Thank you, ma’am.”

  “Now, Sonia, for the rest of the afternoon, do call me not ‘ma’am’ but ‘Miss Pride.’ As I was saying—you must forgive me; I am an old woman and apt to shoot off on a tangent at any moment—this is your holiday. I want you not to speak as a servant. I want to know something about you and therefore, I wish you to begin with your opinion of the dentist’s family.”

  I thought for a moment. “They are rather money-minded, I think. And Dr. Barker won’t come to their house, although they invite him all the time. It’s as though he were ashamed of them. I don’t know why he should be unless it’s that Mrs. Brunson wears an awful lot of lipstick and she’s too fat for her dresses and for the high-heeled shoes she wears.”

  My companion’s face showed nothing. I did not know whether her objective had been the one she had stated to me, or if she had wanted, out of sheer malice, to hear ill spoken of people so far her inferior that I was surprised she even troubled herself with thinking of them. She questioned me not only about the Brunsons’ reading habits and their friends and their political and religious opinions, but also about my own, and when she had exhausted my information, said, “Now that I have your dossier, let me ask a final question: Would you really come to work for me without any wages?”

  “Indeed I would, ma’am.”

  “Miss Pride, please. You don’t think you could do better? You don’t think you have any other talents?”

  “Oh, no, I have no talents, Miss Pride. I’m very poor in school. I won’t be given any honors at commencement.”

  She smiled. “Nor was I given any honors. But I wasn’t thinking of that kind of talent. I mean the talent of character which hasn’t much to do with braininess. With brains, yes, but not with braininess. That, you may as well know, I can’t abide. It isn’t useful to a woman and I’m not altogether sure it’s useful to a man. Dr. Philip McAllister is a brainy man and he’s not as sensible as he might be. Do you know him?”

  I said I did not, that I had only heard his name. He was one of the house physicians at the Chichester hospital.

  “He’s one of my niece’s beaux and a charmer. But brainy, as I say. I suppose you had Dr. Galbraith for the little boy? Between you and me, Sonia, he’s a rascal. He’s killed as many patients as he’s cured, but then, as I often say to Philip, they all do. I am my own physician. I ventilate my house well and I take a walk every day. As a result, I’m never ill. I don’t believe in any of these fads, these vitamins, allergies, neuroses. I am the most old-fashioned woman in Boston.”

  I told her—because I could think of nothing else to say—that I was never ill, and that I believed I had made up my mind never to be ill when I was a child and was offended by the medicine bottles of the Hotel guests. And then, when she said nothing, I asked her pointlessly if she were coming back this summer. “What made you think I would not? No, I don’t change.”

  There was a momentary silence.
Twice she parted her lips but thought the better of it. Then she plunged in. “You have read more than I thought you had. Not more than I should have expected you to, but more than I really like. At your age, you should concentrate on manners, my dear, not on ideas. But that can be remedied later. Will you be satisfied with a very simple explanation of why I have fetched you out of Chichester? Can you believe it is no more than that I am interested in human nature and see in you an interesting juxtaposition of class—whatever that absurd term may mean—possible only in a democracy in an advanced stage of decomposition? I mean by that: my family, on my mother’s side, was established in this country by an indentured servant whose master settled in Virginia. The descendants of my ancestor, having acquired their freedom, worked north to Massachusetts. In those days, to be sure, such servitude was often little more than a convenient way to get passage to the colonies. A servant had not necessarily been a servant. In the case of my family, I don’t know, for the records are full of gaps. But for the sake of argument, let us say that servants’ blood runs in my veins. Yet I am, for all practical purposes, a member of the oldest American aristocracy.”

  Her glittering golden eyes, full on my face, commanded me to keep my mind on what she was saying, and I listened intently, nodding now and again as I did in Plane Geometry class when I did not understand a word of the instructions.

  “You’re no servant, Sonia. You belong to a class which no longer exists in this country, that is, the artisan class. And since so august a body of society has been demolished you must, so to speak, skip a grade. I may as well tell you that your father is the only specimen of his lamented genus I have ever had the good fortune to know, and it was a bitter day when I heard he had left us. For he left me as well as you and your mother, my child. I felt, ‘So long as Hermann Marburg makes my shoes, I will be in touch with the reality of the past.’ Ah, he did not realize his responsibility!”

  As she spoke, she lifted the hem of her long coat. “You see what I wear now. Painful, hideous, expensive, flimsy! And look at your poor feet, those poor feet I used to see when you were a little girl. Then they wore shoes that had been wrought with devotion. I hope for your good father that he went back to his family in Würzburg.”

  “I hope so too, Miss Pride. But he said that night when he left that he was going out west.”

  “Perhaps you’ll meet once again. You must forgive me if I am I blunt: he was a fool. He took the indifference—they were poor, how could they help it?—of the fishermen as an index to all Americans towards good leather-work. He was like the visitor who sees only New York and carries away the impression that the United States is a hodgepodge of skyscrapers and horrible racket. Actually, if he had come to Boston as I begged him to do time and again, he would have prospered.”

  “I guess so. But he didn’t have any energy, you know.”

  I was thinking of how he would brood on the winter evenings because Saint Bonaventure had failed him or he had failed the saint, he was not sure which. He was not altogether dead, for, corruptible as were his vows to go to Mass, they must have sprung from a recognition of his sloth which, by the creed of his hard-working family as well as by that of the church, was a deadly sin. And the fact that his reaction was overt, even though incompleted, suggested a residue, at least of the talent of remorse. Paradoxically, this very filament of remorse had served as the central thread in a great fabric of mortal sin, for, stirring him out of his house on Sunday morning, setting his feet on the road to the chapel, it languished; his contrition melted and, his mind reflecting, his will consenting, he went no further, took the other road leading to the Coast Guard house. But it had not occurred to me until now, hearing Miss Pride praise his talents, remembering how Nathan had admired his sensibilities, that my father was not a man whose misery could be mitigated by a change of environment or an increase of worldly goods or an establishment in a society. He was a robbed man, and the robber of what Miss Pride had esteemed was the very thing Nathan had loved: his sensibility, refined by what influence I could only conjecture. And this sensibility had led him away from the traditions of his religion and his work and neither the one nor the other could stand alone.

  “Energy?” queried Miss Pride.

  “I don’t know how to say it. I only mean that I’m not sure he would have been happy just to thrive in Boston.”

  “Why, on the contrary, I think he would have. He was, after all, not a very complicated person. I daresay if he had just had his beer and Wienerschnitzel and had been able to hold up his head amongst his neighbors, he would have been completely happy.”

  Although I did not disagree with her, I did not, reflecting on him, think that my father had been so naïve a man, nor had he been so much the conventional comic-strip German. Miss Pride was either forgetting or ignoring my mother who was the author of a good deal of the tumult in him. Quite different, for example, from the rough kindness he showed me in the shop had been the nature I saw in the house when all the mild amusement at our jokes had faded from his face, as if he stepped from the sunlight into the shade, or as if his skin, obedient to the affections of his soul, darkened with his entering into the gloom which enveloped my mother and all she touched. Just as, at other times, in his shop, he would be gazing out the window at the bay and his heart could not fail to impart to his face some of the joy he felt in seeing the clean white sails under the blue sky and on the blue water. The impressions, altered by his heart into a desire for a life inclusive of such things, would be altered once again until in his eyes and lips there would be indications that he was deep in a radiant dream of being already part of such a life, being free, I suppose, not only of his duty towards my mother and me, but free even of the memory of it. How inevitable it seems that happiness will be the next state we come to if only we are once rid of our present sorrow! Our troubles seem to have but one axis: we forget that even though our love were returned, our debts would not willy-nilly take themselves off; that even though the headaches which plague us were cured, we should still suffer from a broken heart. Could my father, who had cried like a child and sobbed that despairing word, Verzeihung, be content ever with what Miss Pride imagined for him? His sin of omission, because it seemed imposed upon him by some external evil, angered him, for he had gone so far in his transgressions against the law of the church that he could no longer bear his terror of the consequences and temporarily substituted another emotion. Just so, the dipsomaniac wrests himself from the fear of his desire by changing the name of it to “need,” thus to tolerate his destruction as if it were no fault of his own. It was this reasoning in hallucinations whose existence he felt obliged to prove to others that made him say, if I asked him why he had not gone to church, “Something I can’t account for held me back.”

  Miss Pride was asking me a question. “You’re finding the approach to Boston distasteful, aren’t you?”

  I quickly looked out. We were going through the merry slums where wanton cats sprawled full-length on the sidewalk and dirty, murderous children shot pop-guns at one another and hideously howled against the exasperated clang of the trolley-car. Bleak tenements nudged a pallid sky where Chichester’s sun did not shine. Dark cafés, sunk like black eyes into the walls, advertised with winking, blood-red lights, “Beer . . . Schlitz . . . Beer . . . Schlitz.” Some distance ahead of us I saw the white column of the Customs House, and I realized with disappointment that all the way, the State House dome had been invisible, and that, because of the detours we had made, my original impression of it as dwarfing all the other buildings on the mainland, would be altered, would be perhaps forever lost. I asked Miss Pride if we drove past it.

  “Oh, you shall see it, never fear. I see you’ve been properly brought up to respect Boston.” Her voice was ironic. “But I’ll let you in on a secret—I think the State House is a perfect fright.”

  She said there was no time today to acquaint me with Boston’s points of interest (dashed by her contempt for
the State House, I was just as glad) but she would show me the one thing which she had always felt was the jewel of the city. She would not care about the destruction of everything else, the First Church or the gardens or King’s Chapel, if only the Granary Burying Ground were preserved.

  We entered its iron-bound precincts and advanced down the central path between the splitting gravestones that tilted backwards toward the austere obelisk of Franklin and the eroded sarcophagi. The several trees of the yard, black-trunked, thickly burled, and leafless now, and the naïve death’s-heads, sprouting angels’ wings on the decaying wafers of rock, were dextrous accidents, for they, and the wind we heard when the noise of traffic was briefly suspended contrived to give the place an air so formidable and esoteric that I felt death, at his most facetious unsightliness, walking beside me. I understood why she had said this was the heart of the city. Walled on one side by the Athenaeum through whose back windows a solitary old Bostonian, withered and hewn, was gravely regarding us, the sparse and lowly graves of the harsh garden testified to the city’s conviction of its rightness and its adamant resistance to change.

  Miss Pride confessed that she was partial to graveyards and often spent a full day in the one in Concord where the famous authors were buried, and of which she was particularly fond since it accommodated many of her ancestors. She spoke of others in New Hampshire and in Maine but declared that this small antique plot where we moseyed was her “first love.”

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