Boston adventure, p.59

Boston Adventure, page 59

 

Boston Adventure
 



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  It had begun to snow long before the bus that brought me had bumbled into the little town, and by the time I had found her stone, it was covered over by a deep layer of white which was replaced by another as soon as I had brushed it off. Indeed, there was no need for me to see it, for I clearly remembered the bare factual legend engraved on the plain granite oblong: that she had been born some time and given the name Hopestill Pride Mather, and, being married, had taken McAllister, and that she had died a little more than twenty-one years after her birth. Nor was I, uncovering it and shielding it from the snowfall by my hunched-up body, urged by this physical symbol into recalling her better. I could not, as I crouched there, gazing, feel any harmony with her soul as it existed now or with her soul as it was arrested when her breathing stopped. I had not the faith as had her loving old friend the Admiral that her “spirit” still lived, though what he meant, approximately, was, “I have faith that Hopestill’s soul continues its existence. What I know exists is my faith.” But I granted the possibility that a soul might continue to operate in some imponderable place. There was, though, no affective coloring to the hypothesis: the grave could not become to me more than a little elevation of the soil and a flat stone and the skeleton which I visualized could not be hers but merely “skeleton,” merely “heap of bones,” and it was almost an accident that these bones had been the framework of someone I had known. I wondered when, in her grave, her hair had stopped growing and when its gloss was gone and if its dust were gray or red. I could see it yet, blandished by every change of light, the only remnant of her loveliness left when she lay in the fern-fingered casket. I shivered with the cold and with the memory of my mother’s obsession over Ivan’s hair which she thought had grown long in the water and was tangled with seaweed.

  I had come this long way in the cold to finish her history, in a sense. I thought that if I saw her simple, conventional grave, like all the others, I would be able to efface from my memory the unhappiness of her last days. Although passion was withheld from me as I knelt and I was conscious of the cold which, chilling the dramatic core of my errand, made it folly, tears fell from my eyes, as tame as the windless snow. But they were tears almost of ennui because the death for which she had made so wild a preparation, no longer shocked me but seemed a languid petering out, like the expiring fire from which there comes a final flare and hiss of resin and then is ash. My weeping did not last and when I stood up, I saw that for a moment the snow had stopped and the air was clear enough for me to see the village’s green roofs and white church spires.

  The snow returned, colder than before, and obliterated the hill opposite the one on which the graveyard was built. A wind came down from the north, swift and soundless. As clearly as though it were borne by the rushing air, I heard the block-flute piping The Well-Tempered Clavichord, and trembled, recollecting how, all during her illness I had sat in my room on Pinckney Street humming it over and over again so that I would not hear the telephone which at any moment might bring us word that she had died. That revenant, whose single tune had joined my very blood so that its floating through the canals of my body depended for the tranquillity of its progress upon the cadences of that passage of music, purling in my ungifted throat, brought back, as the sight of her grave had been powerless to do, the person of Hopestill, not as the shrunken creature in the casket nor as the handsome girl of Boston, but of the little girl with the long red hair in the dining-room at the Hotel Barstow. All the time she had lain in the hospital dying, I had been able to think only of her bare feet and of the green slippers which I had defaced and slashed and of her recollection, that night in the studio, of the effigy-burning in The Return of the Native. Reason told me I was laughable and self-important in feeling myself an element in her death, but superstition rebuked me, made me deafen myself to the telephone with Bach.

  She had been unrecognizable in her casket: her hair had been curled when half its beauty had been its straightness. A little rouge had been put on her lips which had never before been so treated. She was dressed in her wedding gown; she looked pinked and cooked like a frivolous cake. Mrs. Frothingham whispered in someone’s ear, “Such a pretty girl to make such a plain corpse!”

  I sat behind the straight, black backs of Philip and Miss Pride. Once Philip’s shoulders lifted with a sigh. The Countess and Amy Brooks, the Hornblowers, the Admiral, all the cousins, and the friends wept. The McAllisters were rigid like Miss Pride and Philip. The organ music seared me as it had done the day Hopestill married, and the bright, hot sunlight on the wooden floor of the little church stole into my very brain, burning it like liquid gold.

  The minister said: “One thing have I desired of the Lord, which I will require; even that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to visit his temple. For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his tabernacle; yea, in the secret place of his dwelling shall he hide me, and set me up upon a rock of stone.” The even voice and the words were cooling and when we knelt to pray, I mouthed the word “tabernacle” against the smooth wood of the pew ahead of me.

  Outside, in the merciless sunlight, the guests, with their faces streaming, were grouped about on the lawn. The white spire of the church pointed up to a sky where shiny cumulus clouds were approached by gray rain clouds. It was impossible to tell which went behind; the rain was coming, we all knew, and we waited impatiently for the signal to move on to the cemetery. It had been quite a nuisance for some people to drive all the way up on such an uncomfortable day. Of course, it was understandable that Hopestill should want to be buried by her father. Even so . . . Little conversations, far removed from the dead girl, had started up everywhere, and I heard a woman say to her companion, “He is very interesting, I suppose, but he is so alien to anything I have ever known. He has the word ‘success’ written all over him like the measles and his children have come down with it, too. The boy is very fat and was unmercifully teased at St. Marks, but somehow or other he has got in with Alexander Hornblower’s son and they’re as thick as thieves. So he gets on, you see.”

  The Countess, more moved, I felt, than anyone except perhaps myself and Philip, pressed a point-lace handkerchief to her eyes and said to Miss Pride, “Ah! Let us pretend we are children again and are being escorted by our mammas for the first time through the Tuileries. Wasn’t it wonderful! Wasn’t it bliss to be ignorant then and not . . .”

  But now the casket was borne out and she did not finish. As we got into the automobiles, the merging of the clouds was completed; no blue sky was visible. A heavy rain fell, but in five minutes, by the time we had reached the gate of the cemetery, the storm was over.

  Soon after the funeral, Miss Pride and I left Boston to spend the summer in Mattapoisett. She had not liked, she said, to leave me alone in Cambridge again and although it might seem strange, at her age, to begin going to a new place, she had been rejuvenated, she said, by our work on the memoirs. We had not spoken of Hopestill at any time.

  I started down the graveyard hill. When I reached the road, my depression lifted and I was reassured that what I had just left was a tabernacle. I felt strangely energetic and as if I had completed a difficult task. It had not snowed here, but there was the bluish fog of autumn between the trees; there was the smell, acrid and like the moist hull of a walnut, of maple leaves that had begun to fall. From a second rise, the last little hill between the graveyard and the town, I saw that the mist was vanishing as I watched, and the sun was coming out. Snug and rubicund, splattered with scarlet and golden leaves, the earth lay at its meridian.

  It was late afternoon when I got off the bus on Tremont Street and I hurried. Miss Pride was giving a little dinner party, in honor of the engagement of Amy Brooks to Edward Pingrey. She had invited the Countess and the Admiral, Baron Kalenkoff, Mr. James, the Arthur Hornblowers, and the Norwegian water-color painter. We were to start with cocktails made with the second best gin, but during dinner were
to have the best champagne. “Champagne, you know, shouldn’t be kept too long,” she had said. “I have had this two years and I really must have it drunk up.”

  As I crossed the Common, where the leaves were curly underfoot and the squirrels were lively in their heyday, I glanced up at the State House dome still shining brightly in the last rays of the descending sun. I used it now as a sort of register for the light. My glance told me that if I made haste, that same glow burnishing the golden sphere would still be on my windows. I hurried on across Beacon Street, down Mount Vernon, then turned into Louisburg Square. For a few minutes I stood at the farthest corner, looking at Miss Pride’s house through the high black iron palings with their tops shaped alternately like sword points and sword hilts. Every seventeenth bloomed with a flower on a stalk like Grecian drapery. Frost had made the beds of myrtle droop, but the stunted evergreens were bright. Small Aristides and Christopher Columbus regarded one another across the expanse of dead grass.

  The sun had left the lower windows of our house, but mine and Hopestill’s on the third floor, and the servants’ above were red. I knew that within, the Cape Cod lighter on my hearth would cast forth blinding spears of light. For a moment, the scene seemed remembered, not perceived; it was as if some intelligence in my eyes themselves believed that they would take in the house with its green shutters, its brass letter-slot on the pure white door for the last time now and therefore saw all details overlaid by a film, by an impalpable smoke like the twilight which presently would absorb the sun. Perhaps the time had passed and I could not, save in imagination, traverse the short cobblestoned space between my vantage point and the door to which I owned a key. But then, immediately upon the full development of my feeling that Boston was a part of the past for me just as it was so completely for Hopestill, I was brought back to the present time and knew again that these realities had not diminished in size and in distinctness. Years hence they would perhaps, after Miss Pride was dead, and they would be like the trees of an avenue which perspective reduces and shrouds.

  Through the doorway of the building on which an inscription read: Per Angusta ad Augusta, a man and woman emerged. The man put on his bowler, then drew on his gray suède gloves. Their voices carried across the quiet square.

  “Is it too late to look in at Lucy Pride’s?” asked the woman.

  Her companion took his watch out of his pocket. “It’s six. Wouldn’t that rush us? I dare say it wouldn’t, but even so I’d rather not at this hour. Lincoln Nephews is usually the only one left by this time, the old loiterer.”

  The woman laughed. “You’re only angry because he gave you your comeuppance in charades.”

  “Ulalume!” cried the man with bitter scorn. “Who but the most egotistical pedant would act out such a thing as that!”

  They moved on down Pinckney Street and I ran across to Miss Pride’s house. As I fitted my key to the lock, I noticed that the last of the rosy light had gone and that over the steep street lay a topaz patina. Far below, the fragment of the Charles was pure, cold, blue, and across it, a single sail, like a perfect iceberg, moved slowly. From within the house came the Admiral’s voice, so close to me I knew he was about to open the door and I withdrew my key to wait for him. “Good-by, Lucy. I’ll be back in an hour. Back to Lucy’s cot where she dwells in untrodden ways. Ma’am, that was a bang-up tea you gave me. I’m so stimulated I could go waltzing and not peter out till morning.”

  “Nonsense,” came Miss Pride’s voice. “My rum cakes have gone to your head, Lincoln. Run along now, do.” The Admiral laughed and with him laughed his friend. “Ha! Ha!” her rare bark burst upon me and when the old man opened the door, he found me on the step laughing too, for what reason I was not sure. She was there, behind him. Under the lamplight, she appeared vigorous and even youthful, as if her age which she had passed on to her niece were buried along with Hopestill in New Hampshire. She looked again as she had done when I was five years old in Chichester; her flat, omniscient eyes seized mine, grappled with my brain, extracted what was there, and her meager lips said, “Sonie, my dear, come out of the cold. You’ll never get to be an old lady if you don’t take care of yourself.”

  CHRONOLOGY

  NOTE ON THE TEXT

  NOTES

  Chronology

  1915

  Born Jean Wilson Stafford on July 1 in Covina, California, the fourth child of John Richard Stafford and Ethel McKillop Stafford. (Father, born 1874 in Atchison County, Missouri, was the son of a successful cattle rancher. After graduating from Amity College in College Springs, Iowa, he worked as a journalist in Chicago and New York City and for the telephone company in Tarkio, Missouri. Mother, born 1876 in Rock Port, Missouri, was the daughter of an attorney. She attended Tarkio College and taught school in Rock Port and Salida, Colorado. Parents married in Tarkio in 1907 and had three children: Mary Lee, born 1908, Marjorie, born 1909, and Richard (Dick), born 1911. Father published novel When Cattle Kingdom Fell in 1910 and later wrote Western stories for pulp magazines under the names Jack Wonder, Ben Delight, and O. B. Miles. Family moved in 1912 to Covina, where father used his inheritance to purchase a ten-acre walnut ranch and build an eight-room house at 831 Lark Ellen Avenue.)

  1920

  Father sells walnut ranch and moves family to San Diego, where he speculates in stocks. Stafford enters kindergarten.

  1921

  Father loses proceeds from sale of the Covina ranch along with much of his inheritance in the stock market. Family travels by car to Colorado in summer and moves into rented house in Ivywild neighborhood of Colorado Springs. Stafford enters first grade. Father borrows money from his mother and continues writing.

  1923

  Family moves to Stratton Park area of Colorado Springs.

  1925

  Family moves to house on Arapahoe Street in Boulder so that Mary Lee can live at home while attending the University of Colorado. Stafford begins attending University Hill school.

  1928

  Family moves to house at 1112 University Avenue. Mother begins taking in female students as boarders. Father remains unemployed while working on treatise on government finance and debt (book is never completed).

  1929

  Mary Lee graduates from University of Colorado and begins teaching in Hayden, Colorado. Stafford enters State Preparatory School as sophomore.

  1930

  Marjorie graduates from University of Colorado. Stafford begins working during summers as a waitress and maid at a dude ranch in Ward, Colorado.

  1931–32

  Wins statewide student essay contest for “Disenchantment,” account of her family’s move from California to Colorado. Marjorie begins teaching in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Stafford becomes features editor of Prep Owl, her high school newspaper. Family moves to house at 631 University Avenue. Stafford graduates from high school in June 1932.

  1932–34

  Enters University of Colorado on scholarship that covers her tuition fees. Studies philosophy, Latin, and the history of science. Majors in English and takes courses in Victorian literature, Middle English, and Anglo-Saxon taught by Professor Irene McKeehan, who becomes her academic mentor. Writes stories and short plays for creative writing course taught by John McLucas. Dick graduates from Colorado A&M in Fort Collins in 1933 and becomes forest ranger in Oregon. Stafford earns money for expenses in series of campus jobs, including posing as nude model for art classes.

  1934–35

  Leaves home and moves into boardinghouse at 1001 Tenth Street. Becomes friends with Lucy McKee Cooke and Andrew Cooke, married law students at the center of social circle known for heavy drinking and sexual experimentation. Moves in with the Cookes.

  1935–36

  Becomes friends with Robert Hightower, a premed student with literary interests. On the evening of November 9, 1935, Lucy McKee Cooke returns home in an agitated state, quarrels with her husband, and then fa
tally shoots herself while Stafford is telephoning a physician for assistance. Stafford’s parents move to Denver. Forms lifelong friendship with Paul Thompson, an instructor in the English department, and Dorothy Thompson, his wife. Writes senior thesis “Profane and Divine Love in English Literature of the Thirteenth Century.” Awarded scholarship to study Anglo-Saxon at the University of Heidelberg for one year; Hightower also receives a scholarship at Heidelberg. Writes one-act play about the death of Beethoven, Tomorrow in Vienna, that is performed by the University of Colorado drama club in April 1936. Awarded BA and MA degrees in English in June. Attends summer writers’ conference at the University, where she meets Whit Burnett and Martha Foley, editors of Story magazine and the Story Press, and Robert Penn Warren. Lands in Cuxhaven, Germany, on September 18 and joins Hightower in Heidelberg. Struggles with spoken German and stops attending lectures in November.

 
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