Boston Adventure, page 25
His irritation was transmitted to me. I was angry that from our conversation had been deleted any reference to ourselves except as we figured in the grim farce of existing Society, by the denunciation of which he made me cherish my desire to know what it was before it was annihilated utterly by the revolution. The word “society,” even though I was sophisticated enough to realize that he used it in its larger sense, was reflected on my mind as “Boston Society.” But while Nathan had no doubt that if, in his life-scheme, he decided to include me he could convince me of the truth of his cosmopolitanism, so I believed he would sacrifice his crotchets to my own. Each of us regarded the other as a child; each smiled inwardly and with indulgence at the other’s self-deceptions. And when I said, partly to tease him, that I still admired Miss Pride, he patted my hand comfortingly as if to say all was not lost, that he himself would remove the scales from my eyes.
Now and again, I was exhilarated by what he said of Paris. “My genius will bloom in a shabby bistro,” he said. “In the beginning, I will have only friends, rum, bock, and market girls. But later, having fame, I will, if I want her, have a bonafide Faubourg duchesse.”
Without realizing that the source of my rage was jealousy of that imaginary duchess, I blurted out, “Oh, I’m sick of George Moore.”
“Give me three reasons,” he demanded.
“I’m not interested. But no one with that much conceit can be decent.”
“Decent? What language they teach them in school nowadays! I suppose you think an artist ought to be a humble worm? Humble, like you? You, Sonia Marburgovna, are the most self-conceited baggage I have ever known.”
“Yes, you,” he mocked me. “For example, on the night you made that melodramatic, also fraudulent, also imbecilic Lady-of-the-Lake voyage around the Point to deposit an imaginary corpse in the Atlantic Ocean, did you not later lap up for flattery what was intended as advice? Did you not, when I absent-mindedly exaggerated your nature and called you deep, believe that you really were deep?”
I blushed and did not reply. We had turned into the street where the Brunsons lived, and Nathan stopped. “I won’t go any farther. As it is, I’m close enough to smell the putrefaction. Since you won’t—or as you are deluded into thinking, you can’t—go to Red’s now, would you like to after you have finished cleaning up their swill?”
I had not drunk beer since my father went away, and I was curious to know what it tasted like and what its effect would be. I was elated at the thought of the evening we might spend in the dark, disreputable saloon that advertised tables for ladies. Encouraged by the beer (and bock beer was in now), perhaps we would be able to revive the mood in the fog. But when Nathan added, “Shall I call for you here or at home?” the image of my home and its drugged occupant made me catch my breath as I realized with abject shame that I had not thought of my mother since the moment Dr. McAllister, changing the subject, had asked me why I had used Miss Pride’s name.
“No, I’m sorry, I can’t.” Too late I saw I should have said, “I can’t tonight,” but the pressure of the immediate future when my mother should awaken made me unable to look further ahead into an evening when I might be free to drink beer. I think Nathan acted not out of embarrassment but at the command of a reflex when, before I had uttered the last word of my refusal, he put his hand to the left side of his face and leaned into the shade of the elm tree under which we stood. His unilateral smile of twisted lips and one bright, malicious eye measured the altitude of his anger whose heights he had instantaneously scaled. With his right hand he tipped an imaginary hat and said, “I beg your pardon, moddam. No offense intended, merely a case of mistaken identity.”
I started to explain to him why I could not go with him, but he raised his hand for silence. “No, really, I’m not in the least interested. I was under the impression that we had a tacit understanding, commonly known as ‘friendship,’ but I see I was wrong. It is just as well. Momentarily, under the influence of certain romantic symbols, I forgot that I must burn the midnight oil tonight over the misguided but well-meaning Thomas More. Please overlook my brief collapse.”
“Oh, Nathan!” I cried, hoping by the tender tone of my voice to convey my despair so that he would forgive me and I might then tell him about Mamma. But I did not achieve my aim. The long white fingers of his left hand stole downwards and revealed, bit by bit, his garish cheek. “It was all right in the fog where nobody could see you, wasn’t it? But it’s a horse of a different color—rather, to be more exact, a freak of a different color—in the clear public light of our respectable village bistro. Come off it, lovey, you call me Cranberry behind my back, don’t you?”
I was possessed by the deliberate unveiling of the birthmark and in a voice that came not from my conscious self but from the fanatical rapture with which I had secretly stared at it when I was ten years old, I said, “No, I love your birthmark.”
He had not expected me even to say the word, spoken perhaps for the first time in his presence since he was a child and was the target for his contemporaries’ downright jokes. My beastly declaration, a maudlin lie as he believed, brought a flush to the uncolored side of his face. As if confronting me with the tool of my crime to watch as my guilt blanched and shook me, he slowly turned his head so that his right profile was concealed by the trunk of the tree and from the dull ember which ran from his hair to his chin, the diabolical eye winked its purple lid. His limber lips were drawn to this side and from them issued a laugh in which mirth was not even pretended but which was the distance-muted entreaty of a wounded animal.
“That’s a hot one,” he said. “Very funny. Your wit, if you must know, surpasses your beauty. Let me say, however, that I have always been attracted by your hair. I observed the redolence of its natural oils in the fog. It reminded me, I don’t know why, of the interior of a water-logged tennis ball. I trust you will never cut its pristine grease with that decadent commodity manufactured by your Heroine of the Barstow, that is, soap. Well, I must go home. Hark! Do I hear my doting mother calling Cranberry! Oh, Cranberry!”
Jauntily, his arms swinging and his metal heel-taps clicking pertly on the sidewalk, he went back down the street, but at the corner turned and called, “I say, be an old dear and burn up those letters of mine, will you?”
“What letters?” I cried.
“Oh, curses on my absent-mindedness. Here I was thinking you were Josephine.” And he was gone, around the corner, his footsteps audible for a few seconds.
I reasoned, as I lingered in a breathless sickness, that if he had loved me, he would have sensed that I was in trouble, would have reviewed my words and noticed that there had been an inexplicable change between the time we met and the time we parted, and that the love so obvious in my voice when I had spoken through the flowers could not have perished within the space of ten minutes. And yet, when I considered what our relations might be after he had begged my pardon (for I had gradually progressed from a state of dazed helplessness to one of indignation and desired not to make an apology but to be tendered one by him), I was not sure that my love had not begun to wane a little after all. I was almost certain of it later, at the Brunsons’, when I heard Dr. Roberts remark, “We couldn’t hope to get a prize like young McAllister for this town. He’s cut out for a metropolitan practice. He’ll be one of your fifty-dollar-a-house-call society doctors. He’s got the style all right,” I had just gone through the swinging door into the kitchen to bring more wine from the ice-chest. When I heard the young man’s name mentioned, my cheeks warmed and I cooled them at the rush of frosty air from the opened door as I withdrew the bottle of sauterne.
In the following weeks, I did not become indifferent. The turbulence that stormed about my memories of Nathan did not subside but I moved, so to speak, out of range of its danger by promising that I would not make the first step towards our reconciliation. And in time the cool-headedness that I feigned became a
Dr. McAllister, after he had seen my mother two or three times, said that for the present she was well enough off at home. The first time he came, a few days after my talk with him, she was still in a state of total lethargy, but she had begun to speak English again. She was under the impression that the doctor had come to see her fancy-work and she exhibited it to him with the boredom and hauteur of a great lady who has at last summoned up the energy to pay a duty call on a dowdy friend and dispenses her good manners with an effort of will. “Thank you,” she said when he complimented her on a set of table mats embroidered with yellow tulips. “It don’t show up in this light but it’s done well if you like tulips.” Dr. McAllister said he was very fond of tulips and was surprised at my mother’s indifference to them. She smiled with some lofty, secret knowledge of the flower’s faults which she did not impart to us. Soon afterwards, in what I later recognized as a gauche breach of taste, I invited the doctor to drink a glass of brandy. My mother allowed her daft eyes to rove from one to the other of us. “Brandy?” she queried. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Sonia. You must forgive my daughter, Mr. Whatyoumaycallit, she’s always been a dreamy girl.” I started to point to the shelf where the bottle stood, still half full, but the doctor shook his head at me, and my mother went on, “I had a little money here years ago and this silly child can’t believe it’s all used up. Mamma, where is the golden egg? she’ll ask me and look in the Bible where we used to keep it. But she’s a treasure all the same.”
She would have gone on in an interminable eulogy of my abilities, my eyelashes, my character, had she not been silenced and rendered immobile by the returning torpor which immediately extinguished the light in her eyes and fixed her mouth. She sank to a chair and did not change her position for the half hour that the doctor lingered. Her hand, resting on the table covered with her fancy-work, could have been made of marble.
On his later visits, Dr. McAllister saw her alone, in the bedroom, and I could sometimes hear him interrupting her in the midst of what I knew, though I could not distinguish the words, was a tale of persecution. “Now, wait a minute, Mrs. Marburg, I haven’t got the scene clear in my mind. Tell me what the place looked like.” She would begin again, her voice sailing the calmed waters of her perpetual woe.
He told me that it was possible she was posing, that she was cleverer than I thought, but when I asked him what it was she could gain hereby, he could not answer to my satisfaction. “I don’t know. Maybe she’s afraid that now you are nearly grown you will leave her. But that mustn’t alarm you, for I don’t think she’d ever do anything drastic to keep you with her.”
“Drastic? Why, she would never harm a hair of my head.”
And he replied, “Certainly not,” but his tone was so positive that paradoxically it was suspicious and a week later, when I went to the hospital to see him, I said, “The other day when you said my mother would never do anything ‘drastic’ to me, did you mean it?”
“I knew you would be troubled by that and I regret I said it. But the fact is that insane people—and mind you, I’m not saying she’s insane—can turn against anything if they feel they’re driven to a wall. For instance, when your mother discovers that you lock her in, she may be furious. That’s why we must decide about the asylum soon because you won’t be able to deceive her indefinitely. And that’s why—that and because even suicide is not an impossibility—you’d better get rid of anything she might use against you or against herself, knives and so on.”
“I can’t believe it,” I said. “Why, now she’s not much different from what she’s been for years. Now that she’s started to speak English again.”
“I don’t doubt that. But has it ever occurred to you that for years you have been in exactly the same danger that you are now? You don’t think, do you, that this has come on her overnight?”
“Oh, no,” I said. “I guess I’ve known it for a long time. I always just thought she was queer and never was afraid until that night Dr. Galbraith came.”
I could hardly bear to be in the room with her, not because I was afraid of what she might do to me, for, despite the doctor’s ominous warning I remained convinced that, as I had told him, she would not “harm a hair of my head,” but because she trusted me and did not know that at any moment I might lock her up behind high walls whose corridors rang with maniacal laughter and groans of the hopeless damned souls of this hell on earth. And when Dr. McAllister one day gave the place, which hitherto had existed in my mind merely as the word “asylum,” a name and said we would send her to Wolfburg, it seemed to me that evening that she must be able to read my mind, obsessed with its hypocrisy. For heretofore the asylum had been as remote in space as her admittance there had been in time. But the articulation of the name and, further, the articulation of one that was not unfamiliar to me, forced me to open my eyes to its masonry, its approach, its gates, for this was a tangible destination. Thus, we could no longer use the conventional formula, “if she is taken somewhere,” but now must say, “if she is taken to Wolfburg.” Moreover, Dr. McAllister had this time used the active rather than the passive voice, had said, “We will take her,” not “She will be taken,” making personal the escort which had formerly been an abstract force. The doctor said, “Wolfburg has beautiful gardens, kept by some of the inmates.” I wondered that he, in his kindness, should have built me so cruelly real a picture, going even so far as to name a particular feature of the lunatics’ industry, an herb garden rivaling the famous one in Concord. But his intention was not tactless; it was just because of his frequent references to Wolfburg in the weeks that followed that I was able, when I first saw it, to enter the gate with composure and to admire that very horticulture, the first mention of which had unnerved me.
Miss Pride, either through Dr. McAllister with whom I saw she was on very good terms (even though he was too “brainy” for her liking and though his liking of her had certain reservations which he had taken no pains to conceal from me) or through her sharp eyes, knew that something was troubling me, and from the first day of her return to the Hotel, I felt her observant gaze upon me, missing nothing, as I served in the dining-room. Forbearing to make any comment when I confessed that I had not read anything in The Atlantic Monthly but the stories and the poems, she gave me a look so discerning that I felt any explanation was unnecessary since she apparently already understood why I had not been able to study out the essays. I was careful to wear an imperturbable countenance whenever she was near-by. If it happened that during the night I had slept badly and had dreamed of Ivan and had wakened to my mother’s presence beside me in the bed, then had been unable to burst from the infrangible circle of my anxiety over her, I was still not so forgetful in the morning as to allow my face to relax into its natural weariness, but instead smiled and walked briskly as I took Miss Pride’s dropped egg in from the kitchen. The effort that went into keeping myself upright and my eyes wide open perhaps imparted to my appearance the very rigidity I had strived for.
It was my misfortune, however, to be caught off guard several times by other guests. Mrs. Prather, for example, a woman of what are called “good intentions,” had come to call on my mother at the very first of the season, for she had heard of Ivan’s death through Gonzales. She was, as are all those with good intentions, democratic, as I had often heard her say. “I do not feel toward my servants as many people do,” she would remark on the veranda. “I think of them as human beings, every bit as good as I am.” In her humanitarian ardor, she called on us one Sunday on her way home from church, crept to the door with a soundlessness which may very likely have been calculated in spite of her charity. She caught me in tears, their cause being vague in my mind n
After this visit, I sometimes overheard my name spoken on the veranda and I was said to be “looking badly.” The voices were lowered as the ladies explained why I did. Some believed that I was anemic; others thought that my mother was ill and that my pallor came from staying up with her at night. No one suspected her of being mad, but they delighted in talking about Ivan whose epilepsy had been reported to them in as much detail as he could recollect, by Gonzales when he drove them from the station. A number of them said that the disease was hereditary and either through loyalty to their sex or through expostulation of my father whom they had never ceased to discuss, they designated him as its transmitter. They were opposed by the group who maintained that epilepsy was acquired after a blow on the head or an attack of scarlet fever.
Miss Pride, of course, took no part in these discussions, but possibly in the intention of showing the other guests that she had an interest in me far more generous than theirs, which was merely clinical, conversed with me as I served her. Far from elevating her in their estimation, her gesture was deprecated as bad taste and disservice to myself. “She won’t go to heaven by bending over backwards to that child, pretending to be a Little Sister of the Poor, when she wouldn’t part with a red cent of her precious money,” it was said vindictively. “My word! You can’t get credit for talk!” The old ladies were more displeased with Miss Pride this summer than ever, for the young Dr. McAllister was a frequent guest at her table and it was so arranged that it was never possible for anyone else to engage him in conversation. What if he was a personal friend of hers? Were not physicians, in a sense, public property? Consequently, since Dr. Galbraith, whose death was long and solemnly lamented, could not be consulted over the soup and since his successor never came to the Hotel for meals, Miss Pride’s monopoly of the market was found intolerable. Finally someone hit upon the hypothesis that she had paid for his education and had offered to set him up in practice, the bribery being motivated by her desire to marry off her troublesome niece to him.