Boston adventure, p.36

Boston Adventure, page 36


Boston Adventure

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  “Well, I shan’t go with you. As for myself, I find that kind of view uninspiring. Do you really like to look at dirty chimney pots? Anyhow, I must speak to this low character.”

  The low character, having acquitted himself of his debt, hastened to greet his friend. “You’re still here, then. I must talk to you. Can’t we go now?” He started, seeing me. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was interrupting.”

  “I was just leaving.”

  “Don’t on my account, please.” His bashful smile, as he blushed, so delighted me that although I should have left him at once to his confidences which he was perishing to impart to his friend, I did not move aside. He looked no older than a schoolboy and I could scarcely believe Preis when he introduced us, describing Mr. Garvin as a Harvard graduate student of philology, and went on, to the boy’s discomfort, to tell me that his formal study of language was not enough, but that he was now about to tackle Japanese.

  I said, “I am living now with the daughter of a Sinologist, or so I’ve been told he was. He had a large library of Japanese books too.”

  The two young men laughed and Gerhardt whispered to me, “He wants only a speaking knowledge of it, Miss Marburg.”

  “That’s what I wanted to tell you about,” said the other. “He’s beat my time, just as we predicted.”

  “Who? Kadish?”

  “Who else? He ran her down yesterday. And mind you, he had just left me five minutes before.”

  I could not help my outcry of surprise, but having no wish at that moment to acknowledge my acquaintance with Nathan, I turned abruptly and filled my cup from the large silver urn on the refreshment table. But I did not move out of earshot of the young men who, pausing for a moment after my ejaculation, continued their talk.

  “And let me tell you what else he’s done,” said Garvin. “He is contracted to teach one Harry Morgan of Park Avenue, Long Island, Beverly Hills, and Sun Valley enough German to get him through the course he flunked last year. Where the hell did he get the German is what I want to know.”

  “Oh, he knows German,” said Preis. “He speaks it like a native.”

  “Are you pulling my leg? I didn’t know he knew a word of it.”

  “There’s a lot you don’t know about him. And a lot I don’t know. But tell me how he got the Japanerin.”

  “Not here. Later.”

  “But how with that . . . Oh, all right. We’ll go in a minute. Let me stay just that long since it’s the last time I’ll be here.”

  Gerhardt’s face had lighted as he saw the Countess bearing down on us, sending her resonant laugh ahead of her. “Come along, Preis, you can’t accomplish any more here than you can at Jacob Wirth’s,” whispered Garvin.

  The Countess, without glancing at Gerhardt, took me by the arm and as she led me away, called over her shoulder to Garvin, “Come next Friday, won’t you?” Then, in a lowered voice to me, “I didn’t ask him to come for the music as I’m sure he hasn’t got an ear. I’m trying to drop the other one, and I thought I might get his friend to take him away with him. I’m sure he won’t show up again next week.”

  I said, “I’m sure I shouldn’t want to ‘drop’ anyone who admired me so much as Mr. Preis does you.”

  The Countess shuddered. “Ugh! I can’t bear it. Really, give a refugee an inch and he’ll take an ell. You understand, I hope, that I am not a refugee?” I took her question as meaning, “You don’t think for a moment that I have Jewish blood, do you?” or else as implying that she had come here of her own free will from a society that was not in the least threatened by the upstart revolutionists who had played the devil with people of Gerhardt’s class, definitely inferior to her own.

  I flattered her a little on her excellent English and asked her then how long she had been in America. I listened to her voluble reply with only half my mind while the other turned over the remarkable mention of Nathan Kadish’s name. I had been titillated at the sound of it, but without immediately being jealous of the Japanese girl whom he had “run down” I devoutly hoped I would not see him. With a coldness that startled and even alarmed me, I knew that at this juncture in my life, other things—indeed, all other things—were more important to me than being in love and, particularly, in love with Nathan.

  The Countess was saying, “I have been here seven years and I’ve been a widow five, so you see I’ve had to make my own way like all the immigrants. How precious you are to praise my English! It’s all right for ordinary chatter, but you’d never guess how it fails me when I’m confronted with a conversation about music: I can’t understand a word. And consequently, much to my sorrow, I’ve had to avoid friendships with my fellow-artists. You can imagine how painful that has been.”

  The Countess puzzled me and from time to time the thought flashed across my mind that she was a fraud. Yet, I had it on what was probably good authority, that her talent was prodigious. Miss Pride had told me that before her divorce from Count von Happel and her marriage to Ralph Brooks, she had enjoyed a brilliant reputation in Vienna both as a singer and as a pianist. Hopestill Mather believed that her practice of filling her salon with people ignorant of music was sheerest snobbery, that she was the victim of the common European delusion that Americans had no taste and no artistic principles. And still, as Miss Pride pointed out, she had, with the sagacity of good breeding, made several concessions to Boston. True, she had remained aloof from its musical enterprises (tyros, asking her opinion of Koussevitsky, received the damning faint praise, “He’s all right, though by continental standards, these conductors in America are a society of mountebanks.”) but had gone in whole-heartedly for its art. Rather too effusively for her fellow-citizens who knew better, she declared that the Fine Arts Museum was superior to the Luxembourg. Miss Pride said that her concessions reminded her of the Greek who had set up the statue of Aristides in Louisburg Square and then to conciliate the rest of the community had faced it with one of Christopher Columbus. “Two negatives don’t, in that case, make a positive,” she said. “If we must have Aristides, whoever he may be, why can’t we at least have Daniel Webster?”

  I was curious to know why the Countess had left her Viennese husband, but nothing she said enlightened me. Except for brief interruptions when she told her guests good-by, that she loved them (this was her unvarying epilogue as the reference to her portrait was her opening gambit), she would not let me go but for three-quarters of an hour interrogated me minutely. She appeared disposed to regard my candidacy to her salon with favor. To my relief, she was incurious about my background and when, in connection with something she said about a room at the Chilton Club, I told her that I had never been there for I did not belong to society, she laughed and squeezed me closer to her.

  “American society! The nobility is made up of ‘cattle kings’ and ‘wool barons’ and ‘merchant princes’ and between you and me, you’re just as good as the rest of ’em, whoever you may be. I must confess a great weakness for New England, but try as I may I cannot take any stock in its society. Why, my people, when they are calculating time reckon in centuries, not in decades. It so amuses me to see Lucy Pride (I love her dearly and I hope you do too) show off her tea service which belonged to some governor or other in the eighteenth century. I don’t call it ‘old,’ though I do call it pretty. I brought very little with me from Austria, only a few knickknacks, among them a set of tankards that have been in my family since the thirteenth century. I think them fairly antique. I’m going to tell you a story on myself before you hear it from someone else who might make me sound brutal. I had only been in this country a few years and I had heard so much about the ‘wool barons’ and so on that I thought perhaps the government had established a peerage. You’re laughing at my innocence and I don’t blame you! Well, a man named Mr. Puce (I have to chuckle at the name because it reminds me of the gloves I have always had my chauffeurs wear) came to dinner here and the person who brought him introd
uced him as ‘the Chicago merchant prince.’ How should I know any better? American names are so exotic, you know, to a foreigner, that it’s not a bit strange to think of a ‘king of Wyoming’ or a ‘grand duke of Iowa’ or ‘prince of Chicago,’ so poor me! I had him go in first to dinner. He was flattered half to death, and the only reason the Baron Kalenkoff didn’t leave at once in a fury was that he thought I was playing a joke!”

  I could make no counter to this, and instead went back to the beginning of her anecdote. “I would like to see your tankards, Countess.”

  She laughed richly. “I’m no collector, darling! I’m not interested in things. Art is my life. Make me happy and tell me that it’s yours too!”

  “But I’m very green,” I told her. “I would like to make you happy, but I’m afraid all I can do is read.”

  “Oh, but that’s marvelous! I hope you aren’t so modern that you will find what I like démodé, as Hope Mather does. I can still cry at Père Goriot. As for modern novels, they don’t touch me. Either they’re cold or gross. And need they be so difficult?”

  I could not resist the temptation to advance myself with the Countess. “Balzac is sublime,” I said. “He has touched all passions and given the commonplace the stature of tragedy. I cannot feel that Shakespeare is any greater.” I was quoting from George Moore, a passage which had at first captivated Nathan with its audacity and then had filled him with derision. Since I had read very little of Balzac and worshipped Shakespeare with the fine rapture of adolescence, I visualized inverted commas about my words, but my voice did not convey them to the Countess who cried, “Lucy said you were clever, but she didn’t prepare me for this! What an addition to Boston you are!”

  My voice shook with shame as I replied, “Oh, I have only a few tags.”

  “By the way, I don’t understand your name, Sonie. Is it short for Euphrosyne?” Through a misreading of the word, she had metathesized the vowels and pronounced it “Euphrysone.” I explained that Sonie was my own childish corruption of Sonia. “What a pity,” she said. “Not that I don’t love Sonia for you, but it would have been so delightful if you had been named for the goddess of Mirth. Your eyes are so merry.” She held me off at arm’s length. With a supreme effort I obliged her by grinning, hoping to infect my eyes with the merriness I put into my lips. “There! Isn’t it the image of Euphrysone!”

  A woman and her daughter came up to us at that moment to say good-by. “Amelia and I have so enjoyed the afternoon, Berthe. I love your nest and your cunning little harpsichord. You’re like a sirocco to warm our cold New England.”

  The Countess glowed. “You’re a fibber,” she said, rising and taking both hands of her guest. “But you must come and tell me the same sweet-sounding fibs every Friday you possibly can. Next week I’m going to play the Haydn Opus 21 in D Major.”

  “I don’t believe I know it,” said the woman who did not, in that sense, know any music. “But if you will let us, we will come, won’t we, Amelia? Amelia is wild about music, aren’t you, Amelia?”

  Amelia, fourteen years old, a gawky girl with long legs and knobby knees who was, obviously, at this stage of her life, an enemy to music and to mankind, nodded in agreement and said in a high, rushing voice as if she had got it by heart, “Yes, I am, Countess von Happel. I don’t know anything about it, but I know what I like.”

  The Countess took them to the door, kissed them and proclaimed her love to the furiously blushing and twitching Amelia. She returned and settled down beside me again to resume her inquisition. But at that moment, she perceived that Garvin was edging toward the door, leaving Gerhardt Preis still standing by the refreshment table. “Well,” she said resolutely, “I may as well do it now, make it quite clear he can’t come again. Lou,” she called to a girl who was reading the titles in the collection of record-albums and turned at the sound of her name, “will you come meet Miss Sonia Marburg?”

  Lou, who did not supply her surname, sat down beside me and laughed softly. “She’s had to take steps at last, poor Berthe. You’re new here, aren’t you?” When I told her that I was, she asked frankly, “May I ask how you met the Countess?”

  “At Miss Pride’s, at tea the other day. Do you know Miss Pride?”

  “Oh, gracious yes, though I haven’t seen her in a month of Sundays. Has Hope gone on to New York yet?”

  “She left on Tuesday, but she’ll be back tonight. She’s going to spend week-ends here.”

  The girl laughed. “I dare say that was her Aunt Lucy’s idea. Poor girl, she does hate Boston so. You didn’t know she hated it? She has a perfect complex on the subject.”

  “I can’t understand that. I’ve seen very little of it, but that has seemed charming.”

  “You mean you’ve never been to Boston before? But where . . .”

  The Countess had dispatched Mr. Preis and returned to us. “I heard you tell Sonie that Hope has a complex. This child hasn’t been here long enough to know all our complexes and reflexes and prefixes, Lou, and I don’t want you to let our cat out of the bag. She’ll detest us and run away.”

  “Berthe, you’re priceless! Why, that’s what makes us so interesting.”

  “Do you know what Amy and I think? We think Hope is going to change her tune and fall in love with Boston after all.”

  “Why that prediction?”

  “Don’t you think she’ll marry Philip McAllister?”

  “I’m sure I haven’t the least idea,” returned the girl coldly and rose. “Berthe, I’ve had a wonderful time. May I come again next week?”

  “But, darling, don’t go yet! I want your opinion. You know he went to Manchester for his holiday this year. Don’t you think that indicates something?”

  The girl merely smiled and drew on her gloves. “Will you ask Amy to ring me up? I want her to do Monadnock for me from the top of Prospect Hill. No, don’t get up. Good-by.”

  When she had gone, the Countess put her arm about my waist. “Now I have you all to myself. Tell me, don’t you think we’re right about Cousin Hope and that nice young man?”

  “I don’t know Hope at all well. She seems a little . . .”

  “A little highly seasoned for Philip? Of course we all think that, but that’s precisely the reason we think he’ll pursue her to the end. His mother and grandmother are so opposed, you know. Everyone talks about it ad infinitum so I’m not telling tales out of school. Haven’t we got mean little minds?”

  A hysterical laugh from the doorway announced Amy Brooks’ breathless arrival. “Berthe, darling!” she cried and skipped across the room to kiss her stepmother. “I was so engrossed in doing the Oyster House that I completely forgot it was Friday. Mr. Pingrey was along and we’ve already had our tea. Do you forgive me?”

  “I don’t mind anything you do so long as Mr. Pingrey is your chaperon. We were just making a match between Hope and Dr. McAllister, and I was also on the very point of saying I’m betting on another marriage of a certain young lady not a thousand miles away to a young man whose name begins with P.”

  Amy Brooks collapsed in shaking laughter, her eyes brimming with tears, and I got up, unnerved by the spectacle and aware suddenly that we three were alone. The Countess permitted me to go only after she had got my solemn promise that I would come to her every Friday for the rest of my natural days. “And now, good-by, come back to me. I love you!”


  Dinner was served punctually at seven, and nothing would have induced Miss Pride to delay it by a minute. She regarded tardiness at mealtime as the same sort of self-indulgence as illness. But as she insisted that I dress each night (she did not herself, but thought that I should “learn how to manage an evening frock against an evil day,” the evil day presumably being the one on which I should be invited out somewhere) I could not help being late, and she had finished her soup when I entered the dining-room. “We dine at seven, Sonie,” she said, laying down her
spoon. “You shouldn’t have changed.”

  “I thought you wouldn’t like it if I didn’t.”

  “When two rules conflict, the important one is the one that should be obeyed. It is commendable in you to remember to dress, but punctuality is infinitely more important. I understand that you were late to Berthe’s today.” She leaned forward so that her face was framed by the white candles as she confronted me with this astonishing information. Was I so simple that my very actions could be read in my face? I dared not question her and for some minutes she pursued the subject without hinting at the identity of the scout who had lurked about the doorway on Beacon Street to time me. But she was not angry. She smiled. “It was a mistake. Berthe is rather lax about everything except her Fridays. I suppose it meant you didn’t hear the music and that never sets well with her. But she wasn’t offended. She telephoned me the minute you left the house to say how pleased she had been with you. She referred to you by some foreign nickname that I did not catch. I was rather surprised you were already on such intimate terms.”

  I explained how she had come to call me Euphrosyne (rather, Euphrysone) and while Miss Pride said nothing, I was sure she was taking in every word in order to repeat it the next time Berthe’s name was brought up amongst her friends. I went on then to tell her that I had been delayed because I had encountered Mrs. Prather on Dartmouth Street.

  “Who is Mrs. Prather?”

  “Why, you must remember her. She has come to the Barstow every summer for years. At least as long as you have. She sits under the ptarmigan in the dining-room.”

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