Boston Adventure, page 45
I entered the dining-room intending to seek the Countess in the pantry. This room alone had been left untouched by the new mistress of the house; its walls were hung with Audubon’s eagle attacking the inflated white belly of a fish, his Iceland gulls and curlews, and interspersed amongst the birds were Currier and Ives Maine landscapes and paddle-wheel boats. Miss Pride said of it, “I could digest my food there as well as I did in Josie Brooks’ day if only Berthe didn’t let her livestock run free.”
As I paused in the doorway, the Countess appeared, coming out of the pantry with the intention, probably, of having a last minute look before she allowed supper to be announced. It must have been shocking for her to come upon two guests who had gobbled up visible portions of the food and had destroyed the appearance of half the dishes by their wanton hunger and who greeted her with their mouths full, one hand holding a slice of bread piled high with a layer of pickled herring, a layer of jellied partridge, one of salt salmon, and topped by a round of marinated onion, the other hand clasping by its neck a liter of cold wine. But the Countess’ hesitation was the briefest possible. Undismayed, she advanced and she said, as though she were delighted by what she saw, smiling, her large fair face aglow with hospitality, her diadem of sapphires forming for this perfect hostess an angelic halo, “Oh, you didn’t find the Niersteiner. You’re drinking that flat Moselle. Here, let me get you some real wine.”
Then, having finished her ministrations to the vandals and having caught sight of me, she cried, “Ah, angel! I was just going to look for you. What are you doing with your cape? Going? But you’ve only been here five minutes!”
I told her I was feeling a little ill, I believed I was catching cold. “Oh, no! How shocking! I won’t have you taking cold.” She thrust a plate of lobster en mayonnaise in front of the Baron and said, “Try this, Alexy, and give me your honest opinion. Will you excuse me for a moment?” And taking me by the arm, she led me into the hall and towards the yellow sofa.
“Now!” she said, adjusting the camellias at my shoulder to her liking. “Now tell me why you’re playing such a trick on me.”
“But it’s no trick, Countess. Really, I am all chills and fever.”
“Oh, adorable monster! But I’ll keep your secret. Is he gifted? Is he a gentleman? Darling, don’t think I’m prying, but I love you! I could not bear it if my Euphrysone weren’t treated well!”
Anxious to escape and afraid that if she kept me any longer I would blurt out the whole story of my wounded dignity, I put my cape around my shoulders and laughed, “He, Countess, is only Dostoievsky whom I shall read when I’ve taken an aspirin for my cold.”
“Seriously,” she said looking, indeed, very serious, “I am only thinking how Lucy Pride would feel about it. You know her anti-Semitism. But you do as you like, my dear pet! I will let you go only if you promise to be amused!”
“Oh, I do promise!” I assured her and I extended my hand in farewell, wishing to end this baffling dialogue. The Countess got up, kissed me, and went to the stairs. “How stupid of me! I forgot to tell you that he’s waiting in the library.”
I had known, even before I opened the door, that I would find Nathan Kadish in the library. He was standing in the lamplight, his birthmark towards me.
“Well,” he said, “aren’t you surprised?”
“Hello, Nathan. I’m glad to see you.”
“I should hope you might be, you poor girl! What you must have been through! Had I only known I would have come to solace you months ago.”
“How did you get in?” I said, amused and pleased that he had not changed.
“It was a very neat coup. I saw you come in here with that St. Bernard—what a moron he looks like—and waited a minute and rang the bell myself. I must say I was ready to give up when I got a gander at that butler. He was tough sledding, but the lady was a pushover.”
I saw that he was going over, with an admiring eye, the details of my attire, and I likewise allowed my look to travel upwards from his feet in muddied white shoes, over his immaculate gray suit and bright red bow tie to his face.
“Well, Sonie? Well, how would you like to get drunk? I very much regret that as I am currently in love with someone else, this is the only amusement I can offer you.”
It was the only amusement I was capable of enjoying. Even the prospect was sedative. As we went into the hall, Nathan said, “I assume that you won’t mind doing the boozing in my sort of saloon?” We met the soulless face of the butler who, opening the door for us, said to me, “Good evening, Miss Marburg. I hope you won’t find it too wet underfoot.”
“Want to come along?” said Nathan to him, but the man, ignoring him, said to me, “Of course you have a very short walk home.”
“She’s not going home, you buzzard,” said Nathan, looking closely into the snobbish face. “Slave!”
Both the man and I were too shocked to speak. The white door slowly closed and I was certain that I looked for the last time upon the Countess von Happel’s brass knocker.
* * *
NOW ON the glossy Sunday after I had stayed until four o’clock in the morning with Nathan Kadish at a café in Scollay Square, I had as my traveling companions not only shame, jealousy, and despair, but in addition a headache that pounded and reverberated through each convolution of my brain and stretched to bursting each tunnel and cove of my skull, a tidal nausea, a chill as dry and plunging as a winter wind. Last night’s snow was deep and glazed, played on by bright sun, and the pavement over which we drove was like a polished blade casting upward shimmering filaments of frosty light. The spruce, hibernal landscape, simplified like a conventional design in which the vitality and the heterogeneous shades of autumn had been discarded for a white and mortal rigor, gave to the condition of my body and the state of my mind an incisive accent, and I could neither see nor imagine a source of warmth (chilliest of any detail in this fixed scene was the dun tendril of smoke ascending from a white chimney), nor could I be reminded by anything presented here of the good, the gratifying, the ennobling, or the pleasing elements of life. For I could observe only contrast, and in personifying nature as one will sometimes do in illness or in melancholy or conversely in well-being or in joy, I saw myself rebuked by the immaculate, inflexible earth for having been the night before exactly the opposite, just as I had been rebuked earlier this morning by Miss Pride whose wintry eyes in her bone-clean face had extinguished my heart’s heat so that I had stood like a stalagmite beside the chess-table receiving her terse lecture.
Nathan and I had revived and rescaled our friendships with mixtures of rum and soda water, the number of which a persistent, unsolicited clerk in the back of my tortured head kept trying, this morning, to count from memory. And at sometime these scorched, half-blinded eyes of mine had seen a chorus of footsore girls dancing on a platform to a rompish paraphrase of “O, Come All Ye Faithful.” They had been dressed like Santa Claus, if Santa Claus had been a girl in red, fur-trimmed underdrawers and a brassière of gold stars and had worn, in place of the smile of a kind-hearted old innocent, a grin of the most workaday lewdness. Either before or after this travesty, which at the time I had taken for granted but which this morning possessed the impossible quality of a comic dream, a sailor in His Majesty’s, the King of England’s, employ had briefly joined us and in exchange for my wilted camellias which he requested, declaring that he would preserve them to the end of his days in his mother’s prayer-book, he gave me a picture post card that we all regarded as irresistibly droll. It showed, in vivid colors, a small, libidinous, middle-aged man staring at a bathing beauty about to dive into the ocean while his portly wife, surveying a group of new cottages, remarked: “Look at the seaside development, George.” For some purpose, lost forever to memory, the sailor had laboriously printed his name, Sam Casserly, on the back with an obtuse blue pencil.
The iconoclastic antics of the dancing girls
I could not, though I exerted a supreme effort, retrace the paths I had traveled in our conversation, but I knew, if from nothing else than from the simple observation of human nature, that I had not been silent this whole time. What troubled me, therefore, to the point of tears which bubbled out of my red-hot eyes, was that I had possibly so involved myself with Nathan Kadish that I dared not cut myself off from him at once, must see him immediately again to ascertain how much and from what irascible or sentimental viewpoint I had revealed. And yet, because I could not dissociate him from my malaise, I desired nothing so little as this second interview.
When we had traversed another mile, I remembered that we had made an engagement for that evening when, at eight o’clock, I was to call upon him at his apartment in Cambridge for the purpose of meeting the Japanese girl. Simultaneously, I recalled my astonishment at hearing him ask me, “Does Shura live by herself in Chichester now?” I had been in control of my wits sufficiently to tell him nothing but I had found, by careful questions, that he had not heard of my mother’s commitment to the asylum, for he had been back to Chichester only twice in the past two years and by that time, I suppose, some new scandal was of more immediate interest.
I had no difficulty at all in calling to mind what had happened after we left the café in Scollay Square. Emboldened by my renewed friendship with this charming young man, this paragon, as I often told him as we ascended the back side of Beacon Hill, of sense and sensibility, I did not hesitate to adopt his suggestion, when we got to Pinckney Street and I found I did not have my door key, that I call out to Miss Pride while he bombarded her window with snowballs. For Nathan said that the procedure was more practical than rousing the whole house by ringing the door-bell.
“Hello, up there!” I cried. “Miss Pride! I’m locked out!”
“Hey!” shouted Nathan. “Hey, lady! Come down and let a person in! It’s cold out here!” To our delight, one of the snowballs went in the window. I congratulated Nathan on his marksmanship and we shook hands, gazing at one another with deepest admiration. Presently Miss Pride’s head appeared. “Hush! I’m coming.” Nathan backed away and as he receded into the whirling snow, I had the impression that like the Cheshire cat, he was leaving his smile behind. He whispered, “So long, madam,” and vanished as the outer door opened and Miss Pride stood shivering on the threshold in a brown wrapper. Her scanty hair was unpinned and it bristled about her collar. I was not in the least frightened. On the contrary I felt loquacious and was on the point of asking Miss Pride to join me in a drink of her whiskey as I was suddenly urged to tell her what I knew about Hopestill. But before I had opened my mouth to speak, she said sharply, “Come in at once and go upstairs, you wretched girl. If one whisper of this reaches anyone, I’ll turn you out of the house.” She said no more, or if she did, I did not understand her. But in the morning when I went to the library, she spoke at length.
The sight of the glass of sherry beside the chess-board made me gasp and lift my eyes to Mr. Pride, but the thought was at once in my mind that he and Dr. Eliot had one time eaten Brazil nuts with their wine. There was no corner of the room without its alcoholic associations: here Mr. Whitney and I had stood drinking whiskey, there Mr. Morgan had constantly refilled his glass, and Miss Pride, mercilessly smelling the bouquet of her wine between leisurely sips, reminded me that I had been drunk, had been drinking heavily, had had too much to drink, had reeked of alcohol, that I must learn to refuse the third glass of whatever it was, whiskey, rum, gin, brandy, wine. She had learned from the Countess that I had pled illness and had left the party (I could have wept with gratitude for the Countess’ discretion), but she had also learned from Mr. Pingrey that I had said I must run an errand for her. The latter, comparing notes with his hostess, had been furious. Moreover, I had made no apologies to Mr. Whitney who had been kind enough to give up his evening for my sake, and I had refused point-blank to be introduced to Mr. Hornblower who was Miss Pride’s cousin and who had had the generosity to show an interest in what he had heard about me.
In view of my egregious misdemeanor, I was to be punished by exclusion from a series of parties to some of which I might otherwise have been invited. These parties were to be in celebration of Hopestill’s engagement to Philip which had been announced at the Countess’ shortly after I left. The marriage was to take place in three weeks’ time. On the day following this, a dressmaker was coming on from New York and Miss Pride had planned that she and I, for these pre-nuptial weeks, would dine together at an early hour, and the rest of the time, she implied, we were to make ourselves as scarce as possible except in those quarters dedicated to our work.
Just as one cannot be surprised at death when it has been prepared for by a long illness, as the liar cannot be surprised by the consequences of his lies, so I was not surprised by Miss Pride’s news, for I had known from the moment Hopestill spoke Philip’s name the afternoon before that it was her intention to marry him by fair means or foul. And yet, want of surprise does not cancel out grief over the death nor regret that the lies have been found out, and I did not hear Miss Pride without desolation. I mustered up what politeness I could, said I was sure she was happy over the turn of events, that it must have been something of a thunderclap since it was so sudden. Miss Pride assured me that on the contrary no one had been in the least taken unawares, but naturally everyone had been delighted.
What a revolting business appeared my sodden, sentimental interlude in the slums of Boston! While we had sat in dirty tumult, Hopestill in her turquoise dress with fresh camellias at her shoulder which Philip had bought her (probably at the same stall where earlier he had bought mine) was elegantly, forthrightly playing her game and playing it with an éclat which disguised her guile even to herself.
I was too absorbed with my diversified pains to determine, from Miss Pride’s manner, whether the damage I had done myself in her eyes was irreparable. I recalled the pinch she had given me last night when she had discovered Mr. Morgan in the library. It had been a sort of gesture of fellowship, as though she had wanted me to know that she knew that I, her pupil, shared fully her revulsion. How appalling then must have been the sight of my disheveled person, the sound of my thick voice as I stumbled into the vestibule!
No apology was forthcoming from my dry, swollen lips. I swayed, dumb and contrite, before the chess-table, awaiting my dismissal. She gave it finally and with a stingy smile, but one which made my heart leap for joy, she said, “I have been told that Bromo-Seltzer brings relief to your kind of suffering,” so that I knew my exile would not be permanent.
If only the short space of three weeks would cure my other ill, my stifling and manacled envy of Hopestill! It was like a fretting child that having a limited experience of the mercy of time believes that the mumps and his imprisonment will last forever and that the time at playing he has lost can never be made up but must blight his whole life. Love, commingled with envy, confounds the mind like drink or fever and the world narrows to the size of one’s own soul. Archimedes, if he could have got off the earth, could have moved it. The wretched person, if he could get outside himself, could find the proper physic. But one does not learn, believes with laic obstinacy that the efficacious remedy is the homeopathic one: the common cures, impotent as a broth of newts’ eyes and bats’ wool, are the escape from love into love, or into writing verses about one’s love or reading others’ verses, or into a recital to friends of one’s love and its debacle. Our obfuscated faculties cannot comprehend that the addition of fuel to the fire will make the blaze brighter and the heat more intense. Thus, I desired to replace Philip with someone who looked exactly like him, who had the same sort of voice and the same kind of mind and had even the same stiff back.
Eleven o’clock each Sunday, when Mac and I started out for Wolfburg, was the hour at which the descendants of believers and a few believers gathered sociably before Emmanuel and Trinity, the furred issue of the limousines offering to each other hands in gloves, white even in the winter, or a caress that served as a kiss in these days of so many colds and “catching” coughs, but was rather the light pressure of cheek against check. Along Commonwealth Avenue, others briskly walked in typical pairs: the middle-sized man with a black mustache, a bowler, a Chesterfield, and gray suède gloves, was formally but devotedly protective of his wife or sister in a short mink coat, adorned with last night’s gardenia for whose longevity the ice-chest was responsible, a dress of which the gentle-colored skirt showed beneath the coat, a small hat topped with a crinoline posy. Now and again, as we drove past, I saw someone I had met at Miss Pride’s or at the Countess’, and if my nod were acknowledged, even though its target showed by her thoughtful scrutiny that she could not “place” me (“That’s Lucy Pride’s chauffeur,” said the perplexed eyes, “but who can the girl be?”), I felt mildly triumphant. But mildly, because the luxury which embraced me—the camel’s hair lap-robe, the shining glass between myself and my impeccable driver, the thermos bottle of consommé provided me in case I should get cold, my own expensive coat imported from the woolen mills of New Hampshire—made these outward signs merely the superfluous confirmation of my good fortune. If my greeting to one of the Sunday promenaders was not received, I felt no disappointment for, if I needed them, I could summon any number of explanations for the slight, none of which reflected unfavorably on me: Mrs. Frothingham was without her spectacles, Mrs. Coolidge was flustered because she thought she would be late to church. Admiral Nephews did not fail to know me. “Hello!” he cried as we stopped before the red light on Exeter Street. “Where are you going on this day most calm, most bright?” He pointed me out to his frail wife who leaned upon a cane, and she nodded amiably but tugged at his arm to remind him that this was no time to dally.