Bright Flows the River, page 14
“Jerry?” said James, his heart fluttering with hope.
Then Guy spoke for the first time in months. “Go away, Jim,” he said, in a rusted voice. “Go away, for God’s sake.”
James held out his hand, and he saw it was shaking. Guy shook his head. He leaned back in his chair and a gray tide flowed over his face. He relapsed once more into his self-induced stupor.
“I’ll be back,” said James. “You never left me when I almost died, so many years ago. I won’t leave you, Jerry. You and I have things to face together. You and I.”
Sherry? thought James, as the silver tray with its five crystal little apéritif glasses was presented to him. Abominable stuff. He was tired and beset and he did not know why. There was a black veil moving painfully at the back of his mind and he acknowledged frankly to himself that he was afraid to look behind it. So with polite irritation he declined the sherry, murmuring something about his liver.
“Oh! I thought the English—” said Lucy Jerald, with a helpless wave of her hands.
“My father,” said James, “was an Austrian. We drank schnapps at home.” It was not like him to be impolite, especially not to a woman. Helplessly again, Lucy glanced at her brother, Hugh Lippincott, who gave James a sardonic smile. “What the hell, Lucy,” said Hugh. “Don’t you have any whiskey in the house?”
“You know I do,” said Lucy. “I just thought—the English—”
“Dr. Meyer just finished telling you he likes whiskey,” said her brother. “And so do I.”
“Schnapps,” said Lucy with vagueness. “I don’t think—”
“Do you ever?” muttered her brother, but only James heard. “Same thing, Lucy. Whiskey, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.”
Lucy glanced at her son, William. “Billy?” she said.
“Sherry’s good enough for me,” replied William.
“For me, too,” said his sister, Marcy.
Lucy raised her empty blue eyes to the maid. “Whiskey for Dr. Meyer and Mr. Lippincott, Susie,” she said. She folded her heavy hands in her lap, meekly.
“I didn’t know you liked sherry, Bill,” said Hugh to his nephew. “On a diet?”
“No. But I really like sherry,” said William, sipping at his glass and struggling to keep from making a grimace “Besides, Mother’s cook is wonderful. No use drinking strong stuff and ruining the dinner.”
They were sitting in the beautiful but cavernous living room of the Jerald house, which, though there were five people present, had a hollow feeling to James. The white walls, with their silver moldings, enclosed a room of superb proportions, long and wide, and a white marble fireplace with a marble hearth showed a fire of substantial warmth and cheer. An incomparable interior decorator, probably from Philadelphia, had been responsible, it was apparent, for the gold and blue and light jade and white silk furniture of a Louis XV design, and, thought James, if they are not authentic they are damned good reproductions. The draperies were of gold silk drawn over filmy white gauze curtains and the rug, obviously genuine, was a fine old Aubusson in shades of blue and rose and dim yellow. Everything was in the best of taste and most elegant and beautiful, then why, thought James, did it appear so cold and distant and untenanted? Why even repellent? His father’s great warm and cluttered house, furnished by himself in a mixture of several heavy and ponderous periods, made James ache with nostalgia. Emma’s large house in London was similar to the house James remembered from his youth. Dear Emma, so ugly, with such gorgeous legs and big breasts and monkey face sprightly as a Pan’s, and with such an endearing wit and with such loud joyful laughter, and with such kindness and indecent language and innate tenderness! Emma, Emma, he thought with real hunger and yearning. You are flesh and blood, Emma, but my unfortunate hostess is composed solely of specious gilt, papier-mâché and plastic. He had not planned on talking to Emma tonight, until the vast dimness and pain in himself had subsided, but now he felt an urge to return to his hotel and speak to Emma at once Without explanations, she would understand his malaise.
The maid brought in a decanter of whiskey and a bucket of ice and large crystal glasses. “It’s good whiskey, Bourbon, Guy’s favorite,” said Hugh seeing James’s apprehensive expression. William glanced at it longingly, then resolutely drank his sherry.
Hugh Lippincott, Lucy’s brother, did not inspire trust in James. He said, “No ice, if you please, Mr. Lippincott.” “English,” murmured Lucy. Hugh raised his eyebrows, lifted the decanter, and said, “Say when.”
He began to pour. James watched. When the glass was almost half full he raised a finger. “Water in another glass, please,” he said. “No ice.”
Mother and son and daughter exchanged swift looks. Hugh smiled widely. “Same here,” he said. He filled his glass and saluted James. He’s amiable enough, thought James, and seems to be the only one of this family with any intelligence. He had hoped that Guy’s son, who had once made a perspicacious remark about his father, would reveal some intelligence, too, but James was disappointed.
Hugh Lippincott was a large man, almost as large and massive as James himself, with a plump and sallow face which showed all the discretion of a banker. He was as blond as his sister, and he had a wary look for all his size, which meretriciously enough denied the very little hidden blue eyes under thick yellow brows, the grotesquely small nose like a cherry and approximately of the same color. In spite of his ease in his chair he had an alert aura, as if ready to pounce at any moment. His apparent relaxation was meretricious also, James concluded. He wore an excellently cut suit of a deep “banker’s” blue, and his shoes, no doubt handmade, were as brilliant as black mirrors. He was, from his appearance, an overfed and self-indulgent man of about fifty-nine.
William Jerald, son of Guy, was a young man of twenty-six, not very tall, not even as tall as his mother, and he was frankly quite fat, with sloping shoulders under his gray suit, a vivid red tie, and dusty boots. He, too, resembled Lucy in that his thinning hair was blond. But he had light brown eyes, the color of sandpaper and as abrasive, and a loose full mouth. Cunning, but not bright, thought James. I wouldn’t trust him around the till. Avaricious, too, judging from his eyes, and he’s been doing too much womanizing from the expression of his mouth, and there’s a twitchiness under all that candid air of innocence and that American aspect of boyishness. Good God, he is close to thirty and looks as if he has been playing cricket all day! But I shouldn’t carp. We’ve got a generation or two of him in England also. A bas le prolétariat! They’re turning the whole bloody West into a bankrupt spa, filled with sharks.
Lucy’s daughter, Marcy Blanchard, was hardly more prepossessing in James’s uncharitable opinion. True, she had her father’s coloring, in that her eyes and short straight hair were black, and she had his aquiline nose. She was not tall but was stocky, with a round dark face and a tight petulant expression and a thin mouth too highly colored by the wrong lipstick. She was never still a moment. She had her twin brother’s twitchiness but it was more pronounced. She was constantly crossing and uncrossing her thick blunt legs with the muscular calves, and tossing her arms about so that quite frequently she upset a piece of fine Meissen ware on the table beside her. She never stopped, it seemed, from saying “Whoops!” when her flying elbow overturned the delicate little flower girl with her miniature basket of roses. She would impatiently slap if back in its upright position as if it had mortally offended her. (Lucy, finally, removed the objet d’art, to James’s relief.)
Marcy wore a white silk blouse with the inevitable shirtwaist with sharp collar points, and a long black silk skirt which was always in disarray, revealing her unattractive legs. She wore but one piece of jewelry, a gold gemmed wedding ring. Lucy, in her blue dress, which concealed the offensive huge “bum,” was almost dainty in comparison with her daughter. James thought, of Marcy, that she resembled one of the new hockey mistresses now in the “comprehensive” schools in England, who rose, not from some aristocratic stratum, but from a mill. Ja
“How long are you staying in America, Dr. Meyer?” asked Hugh Lippincott, as if very casually, but James became alert.
“I just don’t know how long, actually,” he said. “This is a sort of holiday for me, you know.”
“A refill?” asked Hugh. James was surprised to discover he had already drunk his whiskey. “Thank you,” he said, and held out his glass, and Hugh poured it a third full of whiskey. Again, the quick exchange between mother and children.
“Been in America before?” asked Hugh.
James paused. “It’s becoming more like England every day, or perhaps England is becoming more like America.”
“Is that a compliment or an insult?” asked Hugh, and he smiled, and this time there was no wariness in the smile but a bland attractiveness.
“I’m no lover of Socialism,” said James, “and it’s name is, really, Fascistic Communism.”
William said, “Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Fascism isn’t Communism.”
“Sorry, Mr. Jerald, but it is. Both Mussolini and Hitler visited Russia, before the war, long before the war, to study things at first hand, how to brainwash the people, how to subdue and oppress them, how to herd them into slave-labor camps, how to kill them more or less quickly if intransigent, how to silence dissent, and how to torture exquisitely, and how to terrify the people with random arrests and the knock on the door in the night. In short, how to brutalize a nation. Poor Russia, poor Italy, poor Germany. The last two, especially. Italy and Germany had never known such evil before. Of course, there was Bismarck and his Socialism, from which tens of thousands, millions, of fine Germans fled, to the advantage of other countries. And Italians, when they could do it more easily, ran from Mussolini, also to the advantage of other nations. Most of them came to America, and I think, if ever your country throws off the present and impending tyrants, the Italians and the Germans will be the ones to lead the counterrevolution.”
“Tyrants!” exclaimed Marcy, of the short, muscular, and flailing arms. “We’re a free country, Dr. Meyer!”
“Are you?” he asked with bluntness. “I am afraid I must disagree. America may be a little freer than England—still—but not so much. The whole world is seething with tyrants. There is not a peaceful spot on this earth any longer. Surely you read your newspapers! If it isn’t a bloody outright revolution going on, it is something more sinister, a very old plot by the self-designated elite to rule and master and oppress all the peoples. It started with Robespierre and the bankers who financed him, and the very wealthy—outside of France. But it is too long a story to go into at this time—this pleasant evening. I am sure we have something closer to us to talk about.”
William blinked those sandpaper-colored eyes and gave James a superior smile. “But this conversation is interesting, a different point of view. How did you come to your conclusions that America isn’t a free country any longer?”
James quietly ground his teeth. He was tired of being polite. “I read your newspapers, several of them, every week, in England—even if you do not. Your schools, grammar schools—or, as you call them, public schools—are uniformly teaching conformity, as our schools in England are teaching our young. Both countries are now bringing up a whole generation to be meek, docile, fun-loving, illiterate, lazy, irresponsible, immature, overfed, infantile—Education is in poor repute. The young must be served, especially with drugs and amusements and fairy tales. But never honor, never patriotism, never manliness, never pride—and never, of course, education in the true sense of the word.”
Hugh said, “I agree. You should see and hear the new applicants for jobs in our banks and our business. Men and women, in their late teens and early twenties, unable to speak a sentence in decent English, unable to write legibly, unable to follow the simplest written directions, unable to use the simplest of machines, unable to concentrate for more than a few seconds; restless and useless. Their sole preoccupation is ‘fun,’ money, food, coffee breaks, dancing, and sex. No wonder so many of our businessmen are dying of heart attacks—having to deal with such rabble.”
“But—” said Lucy, with one of her vapid gestures.
“Really!” exclaimed Marcy. “Our schools are wonderful, our boys and girls are wonderful! So much brighter and more aware than our—your—generation, Dr. Meyer! My children go to a progressive school—the things they learn—!”
“What?” asked her uncle. Apparently he had never used that harsh tone of voice to her before, for she blinked and stared at him a moment before answering.
“Why, things relevant for today! How to get along with your peers. Life styles. Awareness!”
“The things which are relevant today are irrelevant for tomorrow,” said her uncle, in that hard voice. “‘Awareness’ of what? I’ve never seen such blank faces as I see on children these days, totally unintelligent, like rabbits. As for manliness, they wouldn’t know a fist if they saw one.”
“We should all like America to be a gentler country,” said Marcy.
“In an eminently ungentle world?” James broke in, with exasperation. “You’ve got to give Russia credit for one thing: Young men and women, when they reach the age of twelve, are ruthlessly examined for scholarship and literacy. If they are only average or are under-average in intelligence, they are sent to work in the fields and factories, to learn agriculture or hard labor. To learn to make themselves useful. They are taught militarism. Above all, they are taught patriotism. The Russian people would never die for Communism. But they are taught to honor, respect, and love the Motherland, and they would die for her, as we all know from the siege of Stalingrad. So, the Russians are hardy. Each young man, and often strong girls, too, are taught the art of war, and how to kill and how to survive. For what are the Russians arming and making themselves indomitable? To advance a ‘more gentle’ nation? What nonsense. Give the Russians respect: They have never deviated for a single moment, even in a fraudulent period of ‘détente,’ from informing the entire world that they intend to conquer and subdue it—and that includes your country too, Mrs. Blanchard.”
“But—” said Lucy.
Marcy directed a glance of pure hatred at James. “I don’t want my children to grow up in a militaristic world,” she said.
“If I had children,” said James, “I shouldn’t want that, either. But we must face the fact that we are now confronting an envious and hostile world. You cannot go unarmed any longer, sad to say, unless you are willing to be slaves.”
William gave a snicker. “‘Better dead than red.’”
James looked at him with quiet rage. “Too simplistic, as you Americans would say. Let me tell you something. Immediately when Hitler took power he had all the arms of the unfortunate German people confiscated. The reason is obvious. They could not fight back.”
William interrupted. He snickered again. “Well, he did a good job on the Jews, anyway!”
It was rare for James to feel the impulse to murder. He made himself breathe less furiously. He said, “If we do not all begin to protect ourselves the Fascistic Communists will do a good job on us, too.”
He thought of his father, who had died in an effort to save the helpless. He felt the corners of his eyes fill with water. Something behind the black veil in his mind shifted, moved, murmured, exhaled. The malaise in him quickened, almost choked him.
He added, “The great prophet Isaias said, ‘My people are going into captivity, because they have no
He paused, looked about him. “The most terrible captivity of all—the captivity of the human mind and the human soul. Sealed into speechless conformity. Humanity deprived of humanity. To serve its masters—and they are in every capital of the world today, plotting against us. And the ‘knowledge’ of which Isaias spoke is kept far from us, or we refuse to learn it.”
He saw that Hugh was watching him and suddenly he no longer disliked that ambiguous man, for all he was a banker. Those very small blue eyes were fixed on him with great intensity and there was no unfriendly glint in them.
He continued: “It’s not just Russia, though she is more overt than the rest of us. It’s the men in our great capitals, the plotters, the tyrants, the murderers. Power.”
Marcy, the stocky and sinewy, gave a whimper. “I’m thinking of the children,” she said.
James was freshly infuriated. “I don’t quite understand that American phrase, ‘the children,’ Mrs. Blanchard. Whose children do you mean when you say ‘the children’? Your neighbors’, the children in every school in America, the children of the world—whose children?”
She glared at him again. “Why, I mean my children!”
James nodded. “I thought so. But there are millions of children in the world, madam, besides yours, though perhaps you never considered that. What of them, besides your own?”
She was so angered that she blurted, “I don’t care about anyone else’s children except mine!”
James nodded again. He was so tired. “I thought that was what you meant. I sometimes get a little confused over American—vernacular. When I say ‘the children’ I mean the children of the whole earth. I believe that is proper usage.”
She did not hear the ironic insult. She was fumbling wildly in her purse, which was beside her. She dragged out something with which James was only too familiar: a package of cellophane envelopes packed with photographs. She thrust the package at James, as if it were a weapon, and said, “These are my children!”
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