Boston adventure, p.31

Boston Adventure, page 31


Boston Adventure

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  Still, she had not spoken disloyally of Hopestill—perhaps, again, because her etiquette, the guardian angel of people in society, directed her, not her feeling—but she had spoken coolly and appraisingly as of a slight acquaintance and one whose “philosophy of life” was opposed to her own. But I suspected that there were other grounds, less intellectual, for the enmity, and that the divergence of their paths toward art was merely symbolic. It struck me that this poor ill-favored, twitching girl envied her cousin’s good looks, or that she would really have liked to mingle with the Bohemians as Hopestill did but, being spurned by them, had to cloak her disappointment in an indifference to the “psychology” of the artist.

  I said, “Perhaps Miss Mather spreads the word about her artists just as your stepmother does.”

  “Oh, certainly!” she cried vigorously. “You mustn’t misunderstand me. Hope doesn’t trifle with them. She believes in them, you know. It’s her catering to them that I don’t see.”

  “Her catering?”

  “Yes! Literally! She takes them strong cheese and rye bread and marinated herring and beer. And don’t think for a moment she does her shopping in any usual place like Pierce’s! No, she must have the shabbiest delicatessen on Revere Street! Oh, Hope is all of a piece.”

  This time I joined in Amy Brooks’ laughter and when we had finished, I looked up to find that we were being approached by a pair of extraordinary young men, introduced to me as Mr. James and Mr. Pingrey. They appeared to have been turned out on the same wheel and in the same proportions and differed only in their decorations, like “basic” vases which may be painted appropriately for a particular décor. They were the tallest men I had ever seen and, though they must have been no less than twenty-five years old, were still unused to their height, as if they had shot up overnight and had not learned how to steer themselves. Their knees were in a perpetual state of semi-genuflection and they thrust their heads forward and afterwards tossed them back in an agony of clumsiness. One was dark and a little bald, sallow, thin, strained, but the other was blindingly fair, as shining as a Swede and having the color of new apples splashed recklessly about his broad, bony face. I had not witnessed their arrival and the shock of seeing them suddenly before us unnerved me: it was as if, like genii, they had vapored forth through the floor.

  Miss Brooks, when she had presented her friends to me, travailed again in the mirth of her nervous system, and Mr. James and Mr. Pingrey were sympathetically infected, twisted and turned and bent their knees like two damaged snakes as between their giggles they all three reviewed some esoteric anecdote of their last meeting which, as nearly as I could make out, had been at a masquerade ball given by the Countess von Happel. I could not help thinking that the most elaborate costumes would fail to disguise any of these freaks in the slightest.

  “And what have you been doing since?” said Mr. Pingrey, the fair young man.

  “I was just telling Miss Marburg that I have been sketching. I was at T Wharf last week, Edward, and do you know there was actually a Chinese junk there?”

  “I don’t believe it! Truly I don’t believe it! I must have proof! You must show me a picture of it!”

  “Do come to see it. I value your criticism, you know. Come to tea soon, you will, won’t you? And you tell me what you’ve been doing since that disgraceful party.”

  Edward Pingrey drew up a chair as Mr. James goggled uncertainly at me, not sure whether the tête-à-tête which was about to be launched between Miss Brooks and his companion would exclude us and necessitate a separate conversation. He also drew up a chair, to my side of the sofa, prepared for the worst. But Mr. Pingrey, though he bent toward Amy quite intimately and now and again emphasized a point by laying a huge, spatulate forefinger on the arm of the sofa within an inch of her hand, and addressed her solely, did not lower his voice and even glanced at us occasionally as he talked as though to make sure we were listening.

  “Well, I’ve been doing something perfectly delicious, Amy. I have become intrigued with politics, of all things! You would never guess, would you, that a confirmed old ivory towerite like me would ever get involved in politics, but I have, my dear, up to the neck!”

  “But what kind of politics, Edward?”

  “By no means the usual kind! Not these tedious” (he pronounced “tedious” with a “j”) “municipal squabbles. Don’t misunderstand me: I realize the appalling state the city is in, of course, but there are so much bigger things! Such universal problems! I’ve joined an extraordinary group called ‘Les Chevaliers de la legion de Lafayette’ which will eventually be the international party. We wear red shirts, and I just wish you could have seen us, sixteen of us, marching through the Mill Dam in Concord the day we were formally sworn in. Amy, they’re bright red, really scarlet!”

  Miss Brooks laughed. “I can’t take you seriously, Edward. I don’t believe for a minute you marched down the Mill Dam. They wouldn’t let you in Concord!”

  “Oh, wouldn’t they though! You can never guess who is the leader of our group. Guess!”

  “Someone proper? Someone I know?”

  “No one but your esteemed Uncle Arthur Hornblower!”

  I burst into laughter, an attack which came upon me quite unawares like a disease that strikes without preliminary symptoms. Until I heard Mr. Pingrey say “your esteemed Uncle Arthur Hornblower,” as if “your esteemed Uncle Arthur” were his given name to match his absurd surname which came directly out of the dramatis personae of an Elizabethan comedy, I had not altogether been aware that Mr. Pingrey and his sallow shadow, Mr. James and Amy Brooks were three superb, natural clowns. Now I was shaken to the soul with the circus and felt that if I heard again a mention of its patron, Youresteeemedunclearthurhornblower, I would roar uncontrollably. The three performers stared at me in amazement. I was silenced. At last I said, “I beg your pardon. I was only thinking I used to know a terribly peculiar person named Hornblower.” But as I uttered the name again, I was overcome.

  Mr. James bent a reproachful gaze upon me. “It’s not at all a common name,” he said.

  At that moment I was saved, for I saw Dr. McAllister coming into the room. He paused on the threshold and surveyed the guests and when he saw me, smiled. He gestured toward Miss Pride to indicate that he would join me when he had spoken to her. I rose from the sofa. “I’m very sorry I interrupted you, Mr. Pingrey. I was ever so interested.”

  The two lengthy young men stood up and bowed gravely. Miss Brooks giggled and said, “I think Uncle Arthur is comic, for that matter. It’s been so nice to talk with you, Miss Marburg. We must have another nice long chat about sketching.” And she extended to me a smooth, dead hand.


  In the earlier part of the afternoon when, each time the door opened, I thought Dr. McAllister would surely enter now, I believed that he would be distant, no longer interested in me since he was in the center of a web woven about him by metropolitan society. For while in Chichester he could combine the offices of friend and counselor, here, I thought, his science would be separate from his social manner and that still unable to see me in any rôle but that of factor in “the Marburg case” he would shun me, not uncharitably, but to spare me the repercussions of a chance remark that might be dropped by one of us and apprehended by some stranger who happened to be within earshot. But his smile, which was transmitted to me like a message in code, intended for only my perusal, assured me that his generosity had not been modified. On the heels of this sense of security, and at the moment when, deliberately turning his back toward me, he sat down beside Miss Pride and the Admiral, came a searing jealousy of the dozen people in the room who one by one broke from their conversations to cry out their delight at seeing him again or to go directly up to him with the request that they be allowed to “have” him next. For I had failed, in my portrait of him, to particularize the background, having painted it before I had studied him in all kinds of light and from
all angles. I had been literal and knowing him out of his milieu had been blind to the fact that he belonged to a type from which he could never extricate himself though he might denounce it. As he himself had told me, among the idiosyncrasies of this type was a simultaneous craving for and aversion to society, so that a complete break could never be effected. These were not merely the habits of a lifetime, he had said, but were the habits of two and a half centuries. In the renegade who has extirpated his New England accent and has espoused the life of the new frontiers, there is still the Puritan within his unalterable bones: a forward young lady at a house party in Winnetka, Illinois, importunately makes eyes at him, and if he recovers from his surprise sufficiently to make love to her, his performance will be cold, utilitarian, and intemperate.

  At the same time, I should have disliked it if, after his brief salutation to Miss Pride and the old lady in mourning, he had come at once to greet me, for I passionately desired to have evidence that he “belonged.” Yet, because I believed myself to be in love with him, I was nettled to discover that he was a great favorite. Thus, at the same time that I admired him as an aristocrat (the critical “I” did this, the I who was not in love), I wanted him to be a superior plebeian, a sort of polished edition of Nathan Kadish. Now, on the other hand, I had no desire to emend Miss Pride; her text did not bewilder me, and I was confident that I could imitate her style. In order, however, to meet the demands the doctor would make upon me if that extra-professional friendship I so coveted were ever to mature, I would have either to add something original to my translation of the old woman (I knew that he privately deplored my choice of model) or practice a certain dishonesty in deleting the elements in her that especially annoyed him. I wished to do neither, and it was for this reason that I hoped he might shoulder the responsibility himself and discover to me a strain in himself which matched my own.

  It was ten minutes before he glanced towards me again and even then he did not come to my isolated place in the bay-window. Attentively and with a charming smile or as charming a look of commiseration, he listened to gossip, complaints and reminiscences, making no distinctions, as far as one could judge from his facial expressions, between youth and age or between old friends and slight acquaintances. As his tour (as impartial as his visits to ward patients) brought him closer to me, I could hear his replies to remarks addressed to him.

  “Why, all I know of Germans is that in general their anatomy is similar to the American variety. That’s all I’m required to know in my profession,” he said to a woman who had just returned from a Bavarian watering place and confessed, with mock caution, that she had great faith in the Nazis (she pronounced the word with a scrupulous tset) as the liberators of the nation from her post-Versailles quandary. Now, in fact, I knew that the doctor had very strong opinions of the Nazis, but he refused to discuss the subject with this frivolous Germanophile who chose to esteem in the new system its most obvious, most spectacular, and most ambiguous virtues: the superbly trained Storm Troopers, the powerful health of the children in the youth movements, the touting of Wagner. He had deliberately made his reply as stupid as her observation, but if he hoped thereby to make her own words echo to her shame in her ears, he was disappointed, for she said, “Do you know I don’t really believe you? I think there is some secret of strength in the German body that exists in no other. Why, half of them, I should say, eat oleomargarine and have for years, and yet they’re the healthiest people in the world.”

  Not because he was in the least interested in the conversation, but because it was his moral duty, imposed upon him by his knowledge, to correct her, he replied, “Not only is margarine not unhealthful to anyone, but you would find if you cared to make a survey that an enormous percentage of the American people never use butter at all.”

  Vexed, the woman dropped the subject of the German physique and said, by way of dismissal, “At any rate, I think we all must recognize eventually that they are the leaders of the world.” Further infuriated by a remote, ironic smile on the young man’s face, she abruptly turned to her neighbor and shouted venomously, “What is the shocking tale I hear about your nephew and the Communists in Cambridge?” Dr. McAllister made his escape and came to the love-seat.

  “I’ve expected to see you here long before this,” he said genially. “I thought you looked forward to tea-parties.”

  I explained that I had not stayed away by choice but that Miss Pride had been educating me up to this afternoon. I intended no disloyalty because, far from being indignant, I was grateful for my preparation: had I not had it, the discomfort I had felt when I first entered the drawing-room would have continued and my talk with the Admiral would have fared much worse. But the doctor was contemptuous. “She drives a hard bargain,” he said. He inquired about my business training and he asked me if I had found Boston up to my expectations. I told him I could have asked for nothing better.

  “And Miss Pride? She’s teaching you the useful arts, I trust?”

  “Oh, indeed!” I said. I told him of the early morning conferences at which I was present. We took our breakfast together in the dining-room (Miss Pride was never tempted to be served in bed, a practice almost universal amongst her friends who, she told me, took as much care in selecting their bed-jackets as they did in selecting their dinner dresses) and at the end of it, Mary, the cook, was summoned from the cellar. Miss Pride was like a general previewing, with his aide, the campaign about to be started, the ammunition being money aimed where it would do the most damage to the enemy, for the Messrs. Pierce, Anderson, Rhodes, and the anonymous gentlemen entrenched in Hood’s Dairy, Lewando’s Cleaners, and the Megansett Fish Market were, to use her own expression, “to be watched untiringly.” The flattering telephone voice of Mr. Campbell of Rhodes’ might win someone off his guard to buy oranges at eighty cents a dozen by describing the properties of the fruit with such a wealth of mouth-watering adjectives that one might believe it was cheap at double the price.

  Miss Pride had requested my presence at the meetings of the economists because she thought I should learn to run a house. If I proved to have any common sense, she might in time confer upon me the high honor of running her house. She had long been desirous of some such assistance, for her other affairs kept her busy. These other “affairs” included not only her extensive social life (I had been agreeably surprised that she dined out so often and went to so many concerts and luncheon parties, for I had supposed that she was as ascetic in this department as in any other) but also with a great many negotiations with her lawyer over her real estate, with her affiliation with divers philanthropic organizations interested in women’s prisons and in Christmas dinners for underprivileged children (whose fathers, no doubt, were those impassioned speech-makers in the Common who were after the blood of Miss Pride and her kind). She had recently, also, been in collaboration with the widow of a Harvard professor, preparing his correspondence and lectures for publication, and this took her to Cambridge for one full day each week.

  When I mentioned the work in progress, Dr. McAllister interrupted me. “Have you heard that the correspondence has become a thorn in her side and she only does it now out of a sense of duty?”

  “Why, no, you’re quite wrong. It’s exactly the sort of thing that suits her, she tells me.”

  “She tells you very little. But she tells me very much. She took umbrage last week when she found a reference to herself in one of the early letters. She copied it down and it was so priceless I learned it by heart. But I won’t tell you.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because you’d be furious.”

  My curiosity made me promise that I would keep my temper. But as he quoted the letter, my skin tingled with rage. It read, “Several of us dined two nights ago at Mr. Everett Pride’s who, as you know has one of the most elegant houses on our fair Hill. His treasures include a superb Copley, an indifferent Badger, three Homers that they tell me are fine (you know I never get anyth
ing from him but mal de mer!) and an excruciating creation of his own, his daughter Lucy. Awful to look at, tormenting to hear, she reminds me of nothing so much as a curlew.”

  “What a fool he was,” I said, “to write that down!”

  “I will say for Miss Pride,” said the doctor, “that her wit is always ready. She told me what she had said to the widow after she had run across the passage. She said, ‘Bosworth was pretty damned gawky himself, Mildred.’ ” He laughed at the sally which I found less amusing than I would have liked, and then asked me, “What do you think of Admiral Nephews? He says you’re a pippin.”

  “I liked him. Is he . . . Nothing.”

  “Come, is he what?”

  I flushed but plunged in. “I was going to say, is he fashionable?”

  “The most fashionable you could find in his generation,” returned the doctor with a smile. “Not in the one just after him, though—he’s a Unitarian.”

  Because most of my information about Boston came from schoolbooks, I did not know, until Philip McAllister told me, that Unitarianism had been out of style for more than half a century. Most of its present-day supporters remained in the fold because that was the environment to which they had been, as the psychologists say, “conditioned.” The Admiral, who was by nature a sensualist, would far rather have gone on Sunday to the Episcopal Church, the higher, the better. But an atavistic conscience held him in check and he made only a minor concession to his idiosyncrasy: he attended services at King’s Chapel where, despite its dedication to that doctrine indigenous to Boston, retained still a Royalist flavor, and old Lincoln Nephews could listen without shame to the organ, choice of Handel for King George, and fancy himself in the presence of ecclesiastical pomp.

  I was about to ask another question about the Admiral, but the doctor diverted my attention to a miniature which he had picked up from the table near us. Handing it to me, he said, “Boston was something in those days.” The faded miniature in its napless, maroon velvet frame presented a solemn, forthright girl. The central part in her straight hair was as precise as a clean wound. It was a face that made no compromises and in which no rounded lines appeared save those essential to the cheeks; her eyebrows were straight, her lips were straight, her nose was like a blade. The painter’s colors seemed artificial, for one thought that the original had been a study in black and white. The high, round collar was pinned with an oval brooch, and the invisible ears terminated in smaller matching ornaments. She was an Endicott, he told me, related distantly to Miss Mather’s father. He meant that Boston was something in the days when hell was immediate, altruism was ruthless, and justice was Mosaic. Now, cured of its chills and fevers, its blood watered down, it was no longer exciting. Still puritanical, it tried to imitate Sodoms and Gomorrahs in their decenter fashions, but the result was only dowdiness. Consider the Admiral, my friend commanded me, who had sunk in his rosy obesity upon a sofa and was telling the old woman dressed in widow’s weeds a joke at which neither laughed aloud although the exertion both of the telling and of the listening made all four wattles wag and the two heads nod. He was no cavalier! His cavorting at the Country Club was so respectable, so circumspect! His affectation of French phrases and his Latin, employed to give him a cosmopolitan piquancy, so marked him as a citizen of Boston!

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