Bright flows the river, p.19

Bright Flows the River, page 19

 

Bright Flows the River
 



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  Sal said, “I found this the other day, when I was sorting out his nightshirts. It’s a rosary. The Catholics use them, to pray with. I never saw your father use it.” Her voice was still and emotionless.

  “He had once been a Catholic, I think. I heard my mother say so.” Guy spoke quite normally. He knew the pain would come, but as of now it was absent.

  He did not know what to do with the rosary. Sal took it from him and lovingly twined it in the yellow twigs which were Tom’s fingers. She bent and kissed him again. Then very simply, she said to Guy, “He isn’t dead, really. He is still alive.” She went down on her knees, clasped her hands, and prayed in silence. Guy left the room. The coffeepot was bubbling on the stove. The wood hissed and rustled in its iron enclosure.

  Sal came into the kitchen. There were no tears now on her wounded face. She said, “Dinner’s ready. He wouldn’t want us to waste it. He would be glad for us to know he isn’t suffering any longer.”

  “He isn’t anywhere,” said Guy, and he put his head down on the table and began to cry.

  As Tom had willed, there was no funeral service. He was cremated the next morning, as he would have wished, and the only mourners were his son and Sal. Guy intended to notify his mother that night, if he could bring himself to do so. It was necessary, however. She was Tom’s widow, and one of his heirs.

  Tom was enclosed in a plain wooden coffin, as he had directed. There were no flowers, for he would not have wanted the living to be burned with him. There was a narrow sloping ramp down to shut iron doors, which would open to admit the dead man to its hidden fires.

  The coffin began to move down the ramp. The doors silently opened. For one instant Guy did catch a glimpse of far flame. He gave a great cry. He leaned down the ramp to seize the coffin but it slid from under his fingers, faster and faster.

  Fire. Fire would consume the body which had begotten him. Fire would take his father from him forever. Fire. His father had once said, “Fire creates life, and fire takes it, and it is one and the same.”

  When James left Guy’s suite he encountered Hugh Lippincott just outside the door. He looked beyond Hugh with dismay. “Is the family with you?” he asked.

  Hugh smiled broadly. “Yes, Bill’s parking the car, and Lucy and Marcy have taken the kids off first to dehydrate them for an hour or two. Glad I have no children. It will make it easier—Never mind, please. Why? You look sour, Dr. Meyer.”

  “I’ve just left Jerry. He spoke once, and said, ‘Oh, my God,’ and came wildly out of his apathy. He is now crying, and motioned for me to leave. I’m afraid if he sees his family it might set him back. Just my uninformed opinion.” His distress was eloquent. “Unless, of course, he is extremely fond of them all.” He looked doubtful. “Mrs. Jerald told me Jerry’s daughter was his favorite.”

  “Hah,” said Hugh. “It’s my suspicion that Jerry, as you call him, never had a deep paternal interest in his children. At least that’s Lucy’s opinion. She wanted her husband to be a second nursing mother to her brats, ‘devoting his time,’ as she called it, to the Precious Ones when they were crawlers and toddlers and brawlers. It wasn’t enough that he was working at least fifteen hours a day for the holy family—how Lucy loves money and wants more and more!—but he must give the rest of his waking hours to the Children. That’s the American fetish now, a driven father must not have a life of his own. It belongs to the Family. We aren’t men in America any longer, Doctor. We are just money earners and then playmates, or nannies, as you call them in England.”

  James smiled. “Well, that’s your damned fault, Mr. Lippincott. But the infection is now in England, too. We used to send our men-children away from Mummy when they were five years old, and our girls when they were eight. But alas, that has now changed for the vast masses of the people. Yes. Well. I don’t think Jerry should see his family for a bit.”

  Hugh said, “It’s Lucy’s delusion that Marcy was her father’s favorite. He would regard both his children without relish, I observed for myself, even when they were youngsters. He did set his son an example of manliness, but Lucy managed to circumvent that, too. She was always undermining Guy with her offspring. He wasn’t a self-immolating father all the time. I think he did try, sporadically, to influence them, but there was Lucy, undercutting him and ‘defending’ them or something. Typical. So you think Guy should be protected from the fond embraces of his family today?”

  “I do, indeed. I will leave you to manage that, Mr. Lippincott. He is making progress. He should not be disturbed.”

  “Frankly, I think they’ll be relieved not to see him.” Hugh’s smile was wry. “I’ll manage it some way, for poor Guy. Up to about five or so years ago he was quite a man, and when he could escape his family for Philadelphia or New York he never inhibited himself. It was his only relief. I often went with him. Then about five years ago he changed. I suspect some damned woman has got him in her clutches.”

  James thought of Miss or Mrs. Turner, of the coppery hair and delicate but womanly features and wine-warm eyes and the character that shone so strongly from her countenance. But he did not mention her to Hugh. Hugh said, “He was more or less always a gloomy cuss, except when he got out of Cranston.”

  “He wasn’t gloomy in the Army,” said James. “A wild one, at times. But then, we were young.”

  “Wild, eh? I can’t remember him being that way, and I’ve known him for over twenty-five years. Always the dutiful one. His mother died about ten years ago. I had the feeling he wasn’t exactly devoted to her, either, but he did his duty, he confided in me once, and he said it as if it was a dirty word. I never knew or saw her, but I did hear she had been a hard-working woman in her time. Guy set her up quite luxuriously in later years, though. He was a great one for doing ‘what was right,’ as he called it.”

  “Alas,” James said, and smiled. “There is quite a difference between doing one’s duty, and hating it, and doing what one must, out of conviction.” He thought of his father. “I never heard my father speak of ‘duty.’ He spoke always of heroism. That’s another story, a terrible one but in a way inspiring. Well, Mr. Lippincott, I am leaving it to you to protect Jerry from his family today.”

  “I hear you are staying at the Old House,” said Hugh. “My wife—she is visiting her own family in Philadelphia just now. Let’s have a drink together, and dinner, later, if you’d like that.”

  “I would, indeed,” James said, and was surprised to discover that he meant it and was pleased. Sunday was always a lonely day for him except when he was with Emma. He reflected that Hugh was not the exigent man—entirely—that he had at first suspected. Well, he was exigent, but he was also a man of honor, a rare thing these days.

  10

  The next day, at breakfast, James told Emil Grassner of Guy’s sudden eruption into near violence the day before. “Good!” said Emil, smiling with approval.

  “I wish I knew what it was I had said,” James remarked. “It was something about fire, I think. Was he ever involved with a fire that you know of?”

  “No. I don’t think so. Fire. It may have been free association.” He added, “I am staying in Cranston only two or three days this time; my patients in Philadelphia, you know. But Charlie Witherspoon will be on hand if you need him. You may, at that, with doddering Parkinson and Guy’s family. You’ve accomplished more in these few days than we’ve been able to do in months. You’re good for him, James.” He studied the other man. “You don’t look so vibrant yourself. Something wrong?”

  James tried to laugh. “As I told you before, I think I’ve caught Jerry’s ‘disease,’ whatever it is. But whoever heard of a spiritual virus?”

  “Oh, it’s common.” The two psychiatrists, this time, entered Guy’s suite together. Emil noticed that Guy appeared very agitated and that he looked at the two men with a kind of fearful despair before he subsided again into his usual apathy. Emil said to him, “Fight it out, old man, fight it out. We’re with you all the way.”

  “Let me
alone,” said Guy, and these were the first words, since the one, “death,” which Emil had heard in the beginning, that Guy had uttered to him.

  “That’s exactly what we are doing,” said Emil. “We are letting you alone to come to your own conclusions. That’s all we can help you to do.” But Guy turned away his head, and hid his ravaged face. Emil nodded at James, and left.

  James at down and looked with distaste at the fraudulent fire. He said, “I’ve met your family, Jerry.” No response from the huddled man. “I’ve met your brother-in-law. For a banker he is quite an honest man.”

  There was no response, except James saw that Guy had clenched the flaccid hand which lay on his knee. “I suppose it isn’t impossible for a banker to be honest and straightforward.”

  “All bankers are thieves!” Mary Jerald cried to her son two weeks after Tom had died.

  “But you put your own money in the bank,” said Guy. He had aged; his dark face was sallow and his eyes were puffed in heavy shadows. He appeared exhausted and hardly present as he sat in the kitchen of his mother’s house.

  “Well, I can’t keep the money in the house,” said Mary. “There’re thieves outside here, too.” She looked at her son, turning from the stove to survey him with less than affection. “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve all this. And you are as bad as your father, Guy, in spite of all my work and all I’ve taught you. You say I can’t get that fifteen-thousand-dollar insurance policy your pa left that filthy hussy, but I can’t see why. It’s really my money; when I talked to the bank they told me I couldn’t, and so did you. It’s not right! And you letting her live there on my property until she finds another place, as you call it. She will, you can be sure of that. And you staying there with her, too. Shameful. I don’t know, sometimes, where I’ll hide my face. And all he left me was two thousand dollars! Is that right? Maybe I should see a lawyer about that insurance policy.”

  “I’ve told you, it won’t do any good,” said Guy.

  “And I can’t forgive you for not letting me know he was dead, until after the funeral. If you can call that a funeral. Heathenish. No minister, no flowers, no mourners except you and that dirty woman. Was that right?”

  “Would you have gone to his cremation, Ma?”

  “I wouldn’t have let him be cremated! And I thought you loved him. Such love, letting your father be burned!”

  “He told me it was what he wanted. Besides, it is in his will.”

  “Wills! Foolishness, if they’re written by a sick man.”

  “He wasn’t sick when he wrote it, two years ago. So don’t get some stupid idea, Ma. I am asking you again: Would you have gone to his funeral?”

  Mary glared at him. “Yes! I would have kept that woman away! I would have ordered her out, as you ought to have done!”

  Guy nodded. “That was what Pa was afraid of, and that’s why he didn’t want you to know he was dying, or me to tell you when he was dead, until after his funeral. Ma, you refuse to understand. Pa loved Sal. She loved him.”

  Mary’s eyes became fierce with rage. “You call that love, that—that lustfulness? Cohabiting with a woman not his wife? ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ It’s one of the Ten Commandments. Adultery!”

  Guy spoke out of his anger and pain. “Ma, it wasn’t adultery. They loved each other. You and Pa never loved each other, and so your living together was the real adultery, the spiritual one.”

  “I never lived with him after you were born!” Mary’s thin dark face flushed with embarrassment.

  Guy nodded again. “Yes, he told me.”

  Mary was aghast. “He talked such lewdness to you, you, his son?”

  “Ma, Pa was the most moral man I’ve ever known. The most decent—” His voice broke. He looked at the dreary February weather outside the window. Iron and snow. The window blurred in front of his eyes. At least his father wasn’t under all that. He, Guy, had scattered his ashes as he had wished, with Sal beside him one dark night, and Sal had whispered, “God bless you, dear Tommy. I’ll never forget you, never. No matter where I go, I’ll think of you always, and pray for you.” She had not cried. She had shed not one tear since Tom’s death. Her grief was too deep for tears. She had said, while walking with Guy as he slowly scattered the ashes over Tom’s own land, “He read me a poem once. I don’t remember what it was, but it was something about ‘he is not dead, he sleeps.’ I think that way of Tommy, I really do. Sometimes I think he comes awake to see us. I often turn real fast, thinking he’s right behind me, smiling that way he had.”

  “Lewdness!” Mary cried again. “And only that two thousand dollars, even though I never knew he had that much. We’ve got to sell our land, that farm. It ought to bring about eighteen hundred dollars, things getting higher as they are. We’ll divide that between us.”

  Guy said, out of his listless sorrow, “It’s my land now, Ma. Not yours, not one inch of it. Pa left it to me.”

  “Half is rightfully mine, Guy Jerald, and you know it! I was his wife. It’s only right I get my share.”

  “You left him many years ago, Ma. And again, you were never really his wife. You’ve talked to the bank, I know, about that farm, and no doubt they told you the land was mine, it was in Pa’s will.”

  “You’re going to rob me of my share?” Mary struck the iron stove with her spoon.

  “You got your rightful share—two thousand dollars. I’m not robbing you of a thing. If Pa had wanted to, seeing you had left him, he need not have left you a cent.”

  “You’re wrong! I read about wills in the paper last week. The faithful spouse gets her rightful share of her husband’s property, even if—even if she had left him because she couldn’t stand the life he made her live. And he wasn’t faithful to me, with that disgusting woman. Adultery!”

  “You do love that word, don’t you, Ma?” Guy stood up. The heavy oppression in his chest never fully lifted day or night. Only when he sat with Sal in her warm steamy kitchen, and talked of his father, did the pain lighten. She would tell him antic things Tom had said in the past, and the antic things he would do, and they would smile together, as she had planned.

  “Why are you letting that wicked woman live on our farm?” demanded Mary. “It’s a disgrace. People will think—will think—” She flushed again.

  “I don’t give a damn what people will think, Ma. Sal’s got a home there as long as she wants it.” He now lived permanently on the farm. He added, and with a furious desire to hurt his mother, “Sal was really Pa’s wife, in every way. She and I—we helped him through his illness. You weren’t there. You wouldn’t have come. Sal, it was, who washed him when he had no strength left to do it himself. Sal washed him when he was dead. We comfort each other.”

  Mary’s eyes squinted at him with malevolent black fire. “How?” she asked.

  “How what?”

  “How do you comfort each other, as you say?”

  Guy looked at her for a long and somehow awful moment. Then he said, “I’ve met people with dirty evil minds before, Ma, but you are the worst. I don’t need Sal. I have a pretty little chippie in a whorehouse, where I go every Saturday night. I pay her five dollars. And she’s a more moral woman than you are, Ma.”

  Mary screeched shrilly, but Guy left her. He could hear her hard sobs and reproaches all the way out to his car. He detested himself for what he had said to his mother, but he found himself laughing for the first time since his father had died.

  He had not told Mary that he had received a letter from his bank, courteously asking him to call “at his leisure, but as soon as possible, on a matter of great importance.” He wondered what the bank wanted, and thought it sounded ominous. His mother would not halt at anything to get her “share.” He went to the bank the next day, in the afternoon. He was now a foreman in the mill and so had a few privileges. “I bet they’re up to some mischief,” he told Sal, as he washed, and then changed his clothes. “Let’s see: The name is Daumbler, vice-president.”

  “Yo
ur pa didn’t owe a cent to anybody,” said Sal. “What can they do to you?” But she was afraid of all authority, and she chewed her lip. He patted her shoulder. “You’ll soon know, tonight, Sal.”

  Mr. Eric Daumbler, first vice-president of the Cranston First National Bank, received Guy courteously. He was a brisk and very sleek young man with a crew cut of sandy hair, and shrewd gray eyes, and very well dressed. Guy, in his best suit, which had been pressed by Sal, felt like an uncouth farmer. His shoes had mud about the soles. Mr. Daumbler led him into a small but very pleasant office and closed the door portentously. He sat down and surveyed Guy in a most agreeble way.

  “Mr. Jerald, you recently inherited nine hundred acres of land near the city. Is that correct?”

  Guy answered with caution, “Correct.”

  Mr. Daumbler opened a box of polished silver, and offered Guy a cigarette, which he accepted. Mr. Daumbler flicked on a silver lighter and smiled genially. His dry fair face moved into folds. Guy’s caution grew.

  “Mr. Jerald, we have a—client—who is prepared to offer you four thousand dollars for that land. We know it’s pretty barren and the most your father ever earned on it was six hundred dollars or so a year.” He paused.

  “More than that,” said Guy. “Enough to pay taxes, which were five hundred a year, and to feed the stock, on which my father made some money, too, and to live himself.”

  Mr. Daumbler nodded. “Sorry. We just took a cursory survey. Now, that land isn’t really worth four thousand dollars, Mr. Jerald, but our client has made the offer and we don’t know why. Very generous, isn’t it, considering the original price was only nine hundred dollars?”

  “You don’t know why he wants my land?”

  Mr. Daumbler shrugged. “Oh, we have an idea he wants it as a sort of plaything, perhaps to raise horses.” The young man smiled indulgently. “You know how men with money are. Besides, it would be a sort of tax shelter.”

  Four thousand dollars. That was a lot of money. But something quickened in Guy. Even rich men do not throw money away on worthless land, no matter how eccentric they are. He suddenly remembered something Tom had said to him three years ago. “A man buys land, he doesn’t sell it. But do what you want with it, son. The city’s expanding; this land is going to be very valuable someday, for houses and such.”

 

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