A tender victory, p.1
A Tender Victory, page 1
For Edward C. Aswell, with gratitude
for all the labor he did on this book
When matters, events, or people bored or exhausted or troubled Dr. Francis Stevens, he would retire mentally to a pleasant place where he could reflect on the fact that he so closely resembled Francis Cardinal Spellman that it had become an affectionate joke between him and his friend. The cardinal had bantered him about it, and they had had many a gentle laugh together not only on their personal resemblance but on the fact that they both had the same Christian name. Astonishingly, too, they had much of the same temperament: genial, realistic, strongly executive, merciful, and humorous, and both possessed a passionate spirituality.
I wonder, thought Dr. Stevens today, keeping a bland, fixed smile on his face for the benefit of the others in the rectory library, whether Father Francis has to suffer fools as much as I do, and be so at their mercy? Probably. He may have a special prayer he says to himself for the alleviation of aching jaw muscles and twitching lip corners. I must ask him. Dr. Stevens said aloud, “Yes, indeed. I am positive of it.”
It was very seldom that these two phrases were received with anything else but pleased nods, heads inclined in gratification, or smiles of acknowledgment. He had polished and cultivated these phrases and this smile to the point where they covered practically everything. What situation could they not, indeed, embrace with suavity and good will, especially when uttered in a thoughtful or softly contemplative voice?
Dr. Stevens, a most intuitive and sensitive man, suddenly became aware that for the first time the amiable phrases had produced a shocked silence. He came out of the warm lethargy produced by boredom and the heat of the August day, and blinked. The ladies and gentlemen surrounding him were staring at him with horror and perplexity. With drowsy detachment he studied their expressions, still smiling gently and emptily, as if his companions were mere dreams. Then his facial muscles pained him acutely as he relaxed his smile, and he put up his fat white hand to his pouched jaw.
The library walls glimmered with so many sedate and profound books that the general effect was depressing, in Dr. Stevens’s opinion. But that was probably, he sometimes ruefully reflected, because of their contents. Why could not religious books speak of happiness and joy and gaiety in the love of God, and why could they not have brighter and more attractive bindings, sparkling, here and there, with a touch of interesting orange or rose or gilt? Religion was not a doleful thing, full of somberness and ennui. It was a living and brilliant experience, exultant, sometimes ecstatic, a rainbow of light between man and God. It was revelation and sympathy. It was man’s deepest rapture. To suggest that Christ may have laughed, that He may have rejoiced, that He may have partaken of the wine He produced at the marriage in Cana, was practically blasphemous to certain minds. It was very sad. The Bible spoke of God walking in the garden, His joy over what He had created, and His majestic satisfaction in His works. No doubt He had been happy over the plains of flowers He had caused to spring up in a dark and muddy wilderness redeemed from the waters. No doubt He had laughed with pleasure at the “hills skipping like young lambs.” No doubt He had smiled at the children who had gathered about Him. No doubt but that when He had taken on the flesh of man He had enjoyed the simple pleasures of man, had liked the fresh and juicy fruit He had made, had relaxed in sleep, had gazed with rapture at a lovely dawn or a sunset of particular grandeur, and had blessed them all. He constantly created universes hardly visible to man with all his powerful instruments, but, when He was a Man, no doubt He thought a budding rose as important, as meaningful, and had stooped to inhale its fragrance. There had been loving admiration in His words, “The lilies of the field.”
You’d never be able to tell this from the books written about Him, Dr. Stevens had been thinking, depressed.
Now he was abruptly aware that his inane remark had created much consternation. He blinked rapidly, and focused his somewhat glazed eyes on the ladies and gentlemen surrounding him in the library. He was sorry that he had even momentarily thought of them as fools; not only was this forbidden in Holy Writ, but it was very unkind. These were nice people, well-meaning if somewhat restricted in their ideas, full of natural good will, if not scintillating; disposed enthusiastically in the direction of “excellent works,” if lacking some imagination. Moreover, a few of the gentlemen were quite astute businessmen, and Dr. Stevens admired them for their efficiency and for their determined public virtue.
They sat about him in the dark-red and dark-blue leather chairs of the library, and between him and them a tea table had been set up. Little shafts of August sun darted through the venetian blinds and struck upon the polished silver tray and teapots and china. The small tinklings which had accompanied the well-bred and quiet voices had had their part, however, in the lulling of his consciousness into that warm lethargy, during which he had made some disastrous error. Alarmed, he tried to remember the remark which had elicited his genial murmur. His eyes wandered during this effort. He looked for enlightenment at the big mahogany desk with the gold-tooled leather top, the conservative blue draperies at the tall narrow windows, the dark-blue rug, the red-leather sofa, the discreet reproduction (very good) of a Gothic English cathedral hanging between the windows. It was all very proper, very stiff, very heavy, and even while he tried to recall what the remark had been, he could not help a vagrant and uneasy thought: Johnny will be stifled by this. But what have I said, anyway?
The accusing eyes under the ladies’ prosaic hats, the stern eyes of the bald and thin, or fat, gentlemen, the waiting consternation on their faces, made his round face even redder than usual. But as a clergyman he had learned to be adroit. His cherubic smile became very sweet and apologetic, his blue eyes shone tenderly. He took out his fine linen handkerchief and passed it over his polished head and bright cheeks. He laughed. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “But you must excuse an old gentleman. After all I’m over seventy, and sometimes my mind wanders.” He studied the ladies. The one with the most accusing eyes was doubtless the one who had addressed the fatal question to him. She was a short, fat, competent woman in her sixties, all three of her chins very determined; she was astonishingly brisk for her age, and Dr. Stevens respected her shrewdness and her realistic common sense. Though she had a passion for big floral prints, such as the dress she was wearing today, he forgave this aberration and its deplorable results. He looked into her somewhat hard gray eyes and added, “Dear Mrs. Grant, I do hope you will forgive my elderly forgetfulness. Would you mind repeating what you just said?”
The group exchanged compassionate glances, and Dr. Stevens smiled inwardly and with affection. Since they were all in their late fifties or early sixties, they were still his juniors. He rightly believed that they were thinking: Well, poor old gentleman! It’s to be expected at his age. Now they smiled at him genially. Mrs. Grant said, “We were, as you know, discussing our new young pastor, whom we have decided to accept on your recommendation and endorsement, though he’s had only one small parish before he went into the Army. You have told us today, and on previous occasions, that he was your favorite student at the Stevens Religious Institute.”
She had spoken precisely and a little loudly, as one speaks to one who is either a “foreigner” or practically senile. The others nodded, and smiled at him. Well, he thought, I deserve it. I had no right to let my mind wander to the books, but after all ten of these long discussions over the past weeks, I can perhaps be forgiven for becoming bored. Poor Johnny!
Mrs. Grant smoothed the white gloves on her fat knees. “We all know how grateful we should be to our armed forces, and how gallantly they did their duty in Europe in the
The boy should be congratulated, and the Army, too, thought Dr. Stevens with some lack of charity. He said, with mildness, “You must remember that young John Fletcher was not exactly a soldier. He was a chaplain.”
“But still,” said another lady, seriously, “he necessarily came into contact with—military characters. I don’t read modern war fiction, of course, but my daughter does, and though I can hardly believe it she tells me that the language—and the things soldiers do—” At this point, the gentlemen looked embarrassed and smiled briefly at each other, remembering the first war.
Dear Mrs. Howard, thought Dr. Stevens, you’d be amazed how many brutalized characters there are in the world, and what language, and what things, go on busily about your innocent self every hour and every day! He marveled that even the Mrs. Howards could live six decades and not know that the world was not composed, in the main, of “good people.” He regarded the smooth-faced, slender little lady with more than a touch of pity.
Mrs. Grant broke in. “And so my question to you, Dr. Stevens, was this: Was there any possibility that Mr. Fletcher had become even slightly depraved and rough and insensitive from his contacts with soldiers?” She smiled, and her big face became almost pretty. “And you answered, ‘Yes, indeed. I am positive of it.’”
Dr. Stevens was appalled. That was what came of thinking of books when silly questions were being asked. Then he was immensely relieved, for all the ladies and gentlemen were laughing and shaking their heads, and were obviously commenting to themselves on Dr. Stevens’s age.
He said, “How dreadful of me, and how inexcusable. Frankly, though, I am a bit tired, and sitting here among you, my friends, I allowed myself to relax for the first time in a long while.” He spread out his plump little hands and beamed. “There are some people who say they can’t relax in New York. But I never relax so well as when I’m here, and I can sleep like a baby, any time, at any hour.”
If they had not completely forgiven him before, they forgave him utterly now, for they were all old New Yorkers, and loved their city. They embraced the new pastor, John Fletcher, in their expansive affection for Dr. Stevens. Mrs. Howard said happily, “In a way, it’s so romantic that our new pastor has been an army chaplain. So colorful. What experiences he must have had! I think it is ever so exciting, don’t you?” She turned to the others, and they agreed heartily.
“So many of our boys have been in the Army,” said Mrs. Grant. “I’m sure that Mr. Fletcher will be a sound influence on them; understanding them. Besides, he’s young, and he’ll have more in common with them.”
Dr. Stevens believed that stage properties were as necessary to a clergyman as they were to actors. The people with whom Dr. Stevens had to deal daily, whether in New York or in Illinois where he had once lived, were solid and conservative citizens, and so he always dressed very soberly, even for a clergyman, and he used an old-fashioned gold watch which had belonged to his father. He sometimes told himself that the watch had bridged many very awkward moments in his life, especially when someone had begun to suspect that Dr. Stevens was perhaps not so reliable and proper as he appeared to be. The watch was always reassuring to timid and conventional souls. He used it now, letting the eyes of the ladies and gentlemen touch the heavy gold chain looping across his firm little paunch, and then light approvingly on the big “repeater” with its thick, etched covers. Some of them sighed with nostalgia for a dead father, and Dr. Stevens sighed with them for his own father, who had been a clergyman also, and a grave, unworldly, and saintlike soul.
“Gracious!” he exclaimed, sitting up in his chair. “It is almost four o’clock! My assistant, Mr. Montrose, should be here almost any moment with Mr. Fletcher. The ship docked more than an hour ago. Of course, there are the Customs, and other dreary matters, but still—”
He gestured aside the efforts of a starched and elderly maid who wished to refill his teacup. A wave of subdued but excited movement ran over the ladies and gentlemen. Dr. Stevens was touched to see the ladies pat their hair and preen a little. Dear, good creatures. The man who said, “I still feel young inside though I am over seventy-five,” had spoken a profound truth. The soul never aged, even though the body withered. Its youth manifested itself in sudden quick lightings of weary old eyes, in sudden smiles of pure enthusiasm, in sudden childlike joys and anticipations. Let the narrow-spirited and shallow-hearted laugh contemptuously at elderly feminine preenings and at old men’s bright ties and gay socks, at white curls, and sports jackets hanging on bent and tired shoulders. All these gave evidence of an immortal spirit which the drabness of the years and the heaviness of daily living could never extinguish.
Dr. Stevens returned his watch to his pocket, suffused with the glow which only those who understand men, and pity them, can experience. He was about to speak again when a furious clamor rose from behind the closed door of the library. It was an uproar of the kind one might expect to hear only among young wild animals in a disturbed and riotous jungle, and the discreet draperies at the windows appeared to sway in alarm. The ladies and gentlemen half rose in their chairs, their faces frightened and questioning, and they looked mutely at Dr. Stevens for explanation.
“Good God!” he cried, and for once did not glance at his audience for any reaction. “What was that?”
As abruptly as the clamor had burst out in the serene and quiet parsonage, as abruptly it stopped. Dr. Stevens and the ladies and gentlemen were dumbfounded. The minister sank back into his chair; the other gentlemen stood bewildered. “Some commotion in the street outside,” said Dr. Stevens, but without conviction. The inhuman noise had definitely originated in the sunlit corridor outside the library. However, as there was no orderly and logical explanation for it, an illogical one had to be produced, no matter how incredible.
“It didn’t come from the street!” exclaimed Mrs. Grant. “This is a good neighborhood! It came from just outside this room.” She glared at Dr. Stevens, obviously demanding not only reassurance but explanation. “Why doesn’t somebody open the door?”
The gentlemen exhibited no eagerness to follow her suggestion; they only stared at Dr. Stevens. In some way this involves you, and it’s your affair, said their eyes accusingly. He moved in his chair, preparing to rise, when they all heard a muffled and gently masculine voice outside the door. It spoke as if it had been speaking during the clamor, and now it rose in strength and affection.
“Nobody’s going to hurt you,” said the voice. “Nobody ever has, since you were my kids. Remember? Nobody hurt you in Salzburg, or anywhere else, and not on the boat, either. Nobody’s going to hurt my children. I’ve just brought you home, see. Now, Jean, you’re the biggest, and you take Emilie’s hand; that’s right. She’s just a little girl; she’s your sister from now on. Right? Kathy, you take Pietro’s hand; he’s frightened. And Max, stop chewing your lip and stand up straight. That’s right, that’s right. Good kids! Now, then, just follow me—”
Where’s Montrose? thought Dr. Stevens, with some wildness.
“What is this?” cried Mrs. Grant, outraged because she was perplexed. She was accustomed to a very orderly world where nothing unexpected happened. “Children? Whose children?”
Where, thought Dr. Stevens profanely, is that damned Montrose? They were all staring at the shut door again, and the ladies were exhibiting signs of fear and umbrage, and the gentlemen merely stood and stared blankly. It was worse for
There was a shrill scream outside, followed by another abrupt silence, and the door flew open with a crash. And there was Mr. Montrose, tall, white-haired, marvelously tailored, with a flushed and appalled face. His usual dignity was gone; he gave the aspect of one who had been running madly before a high wind, with some horror behind. He looked at Dr. Stevens, who was standing now, and tried to speak, but only his white eyebrows jerked up and down and his opening and shutting mouth emitted no sound but a squeak. His large thin nose twitched, and he threw out his hands, dropped them to his side again, then threw them out helplessly.
Then he jumped. He jumped high and wide, to Dr. Stevens’s dazed astonishment. Mr. Montrose was definitely not the type to jump at all, under any circumstances. Yet there was Horace Montrose leaping like a flea, up in the air, and then to one side of the door, and again he squeaked.
“Good kids!” said Mr. Fletcher’s voice. “Now then, just follow me. Don’t be frightened. Just good kind people here, giving you a home—”
A mass burst into the room, a mass of jolting faces, arms, legs, bodies, all churned together as in a nightmare. White wild faces of children, thin flailing arms and legs of children, tangled heads of children, dilated and glaring eyes of children. They gave the impression of being a multitude in impetuous explosion; actually they were only five. And then behind them, smiling indulgently, stood young Mr. Fletcher, still in his chaplain’s uniform.
The mass halted, breathing loudly, on the threshold, pressing together as if for protection, prepared to flee, to struggle, to bite, to tear, if necessary. They stood and looked at the petrified group in the library, and from them rose a hoarse and muttering sound, the sound of fear, panic, and hate.
by Taylor Caldwell / Literature & Fiction / Historical Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes