Bright Flows the River, page 26
Her eyes were lilting with her secret mirth and James felt embarrassed. He said, “I am not actually prying, but I am Jerry’s old friend, not his physician. Anything you can offer concerning Jerry—I call him Jerry—might be of help to me. Have you known him long?”
A slight change came over her clean freckled face and she looked down at her plate. “Almost five years. We met in a disagreement. He needed my land, or at least a small part of it, for an easement on property he had brought ten miles from here, for a new development. So, our—acquaintanceship—began with a quarrel. His men had been harassing me for months, and then he came himself, to argue with me. But I knew of him. He never built the monstrosities other developers built—so, after a long discussion we came to an agreement.” Her pale and beautifully formed mouth had an almost unseen quiver. “Then we became friends.” She tucked a strand of her shining red hair behind her ear and sadness trembled on her strong but sensitive face.
More than friends, thought James, who was liking and admiring her more and more. He cleared his throat and poured her another cup of coffee from the silver pot. He said, “It was about that time that his letters to me changed. Again, anything you can tell me about him, and your own observations, will be of enormous help.” But, as he expected, she became reticent and a faint color touched her broad cheekbones.
She said, “He had problems. Not financial ones, I believe. He became restless. We had many long talks together, intimate talks. It has been my—impression—that he wasn’t really contented with what he had achieved, and he was becoming—agitated.” She began to eat and her eyes had a distant look, but one full of pain. “I remember my father,” she said, as if speaking to herself. “He had a small but prosperous factory, and then, after a period of reflection he sold it. He went out West and bought a medium-sized ranch, and was very happy. My mother wouldn’t join him. She was very upset, and I was going to school and stayed with her. Just before he died—he was forty-eight—he sold the ranch. He knew he was dying. He left the money to me.”
She is telling me something, thought James, intensely interested.
“My father,” she continued, “was in a turmoil until he made up his mind what to do. But he came to a quick decision, finally. He did what he always had wanted to do—and he was happy. My mother’s relatives thought he was ‘selfish,’ but a man has to save his own life, the only life he will ever have. If there is an Unpardonable Sin, it is destroying your life in the name of ‘duty’—or something else.”
Yes, she is definitely telling me something, thought James, elated. She isn’t a woman who is loquacious, and “communicative,” as the Americans say. She goes at things, intimate things, in an elusive fashion, which is purely good taste.
“It’s my opinion,” said Beth Turner, “that some men use the excuse of ‘duty’ to hide the real trouble—a fear of disturbing a comfortable fixed pattern and a fixed routine. If they are troubled over their lives. It isn’t always duty at all. It is—a form of cowardice. A fear of the unknown, a fear of adventure, and, in many cases, a fear of life itself. Life doesn’t form patterns and routines; life isn’t concerned with the prison-like walls men build about themselves. Life can be untidy, of course, but it is full of excitement—celebration. If one has the courage. What lost glories would the world have, in adventure and discoveries and music and pioneering and invention and new civilizations—if all men were careful and prudent!”
So, thought James. She was gazing at him ardently, and her eyes were eloquent, though there was a moistness as of grief in them. “I was never afraid,” she said, again as if to herself, and she shook her head. “I never stifled myself with prudence. I always did what I wanted to do. If others pressed me to follow a pattern they thought best for me—mostly best for themselves!—I refused to be confined. I’ve taken many chances; some were disastrous but they were always interesting and exciting, even the worst. I’ve never been bored in my life, though I came close to it when teaching school.” She laughed, and the sound was warm and endearing. “I didn’t really retire. I was fired, and thank God for it.”
James laughed with her. Yes, he thought, she is telling me something. What had Jerry said, with such loathing? “La dolce vita.” He said, cautiously, “Some men do get themselves trapped, don’t they?”
“Trapped? Yes. But they set the trap themselves. Then they lack the courage to unset it and get free. Sometimes the trap is money, sometimes it is what they call ‘Honor,’ and ‘responsibility to others.’ They are lying, of course. They’re just afraid to get free from the trap. They call themselves ‘conservative.’ That’s another lie. And—so they die in their trap and never have really lived.”
She sighed, and picked up her gloves. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you much about Guy. He’s a very complex character, but then, most people are. I only know he—changed. He is deciding something about his life. I do know that. I wish I could help you more.”
But you have, my dear lovely lady, James thought. You have told me a great deal in your elliptical way. He said, “You come in very often to ask about Jerry. Wouldn’t it be easier to telephone?”
Again a crest of color ran over her face. She said, “I often come into Cranston—I like to hear about Guy. Telephones get in the way. And I—” She paused, then once more she looked at James with that ardent vulnerability. “Sometimes I hope—well, that he wants to see me, has asked for me, and I want to be there when it happens.”
Lucky devil, thought James, that he has a woman like this to love him, and love him she does. She said, “How is Guy now?”
“I think,” said James, “he is beginning to make a decision.”
She leaned towards him. “Yes?”
“A great decision,” said James. “Perhaps a dangerous one, for him.”
She gazed at him, all her urgency in her eyes. “And?”
“I think he will start to—live.”
Her eyes swelled with tears. She dropped her head. James touched her hand. She murmured, “Thank you, thank you, Dr. Meyer.” She rose and he rose with her. He said, “My father was a very brave man. He died—violently. But he lived all the days of his life, and so his life, even in death, wasn’t wasted.”
He did not know why he said with impulsiveness, “Like Jerry, I have to come to a decision myself, but what that is isn’t clear to me as yet. Perhaps I’m just afraid to face it.”
She studied him with all her concentration. “You’ll, decide,” she said. “And, it won’t be ‘prudently.’ At least, I hope it won’t.”
It snowed again during the night, small hard flakes as sharp as ice, with a wind that tossed them into blizzards in the air and blizzards on the ground. James was familiar with such in Switzerland, where such a storm was hailed by skiers, of which he was one. The whole air palpitated with curtains of snow, so that everything was hazy and unreal, dreamlike and very cold. “I like this weather,” said James to Emil at breakfast. “Curiously exciting, promising as spring doesn’t promise. My first memory is of seeing such snow in Edinburgh; I must have been about eighteen months old. Yes, I definitely prefer it.”
“I don’t,” said Emil, “but then I’m actually effete, like most Americans. All we need is wheels, not legs. Well, it does promise Christmas. Why are you smiling?”
“I’m remembering a discussion between my father and mother.” Looking ruefully at the plate of ham and eggs he was devouring, and thinking of his weight, he became reckless and helped himself to another portion. “It was nearly Christmas. My father had just finished lighting his last candle for the Feast of the Lights. He had an enormous candelabra and the candles made a fine display. He stood over them with his hat on and prayed and Mama prayed with him, as I did. It was most solemn and inspiring. Then he helped Mama to decorate the Christmas tree in honor of the birth of the Messias. Dada then said, ‘He may have been the only begotten Son of God, but He was on earth for millennia before His birth as a Man, walking unseen among men except for a few. An
But Emil did not smile. He said, “Of course.”
“It was just one of Dada’s Jewish stories,” said James. “I don’t know why, but it impressed me very much. I used to look at strangers on the street, asking myself, ‘Is that He?’ Beggars and so on, derelicts, the abandoned and the hopeless, the suffering, the lonely, the forgotten, the people with painful faces, the crippled, the forlorn, the old, the life-torn. Of course, I was just a child. But it seemed to me that every time I asked the question of myself I got an affirmative answer. Children have such imaginations.”
“And sometimes what they imagine is true,” said Emil. They went out into the storm to go to Mountain Valleys. They discussed Guy Jerald. James said, “I’ve convinced Mr. Lippincott to keep the family away from your patient, Emil, as long as possible, so he can continue to improve. He isn’t improving physically but his mind is definitely focusing more and more on his problems.” James then told Emil of his encounter with Beth Turner. “By speaking of her father she was really speaking of Jerry; I knew that. But she is too much of a lady to chatter of her deepest feeling, and it is most evident that she is in love with your patient.”
“She doesn’t look in the least like the women he prefers, who all look somewhat like his wife.”
“I have the impression, lately, that his wife and all his other women are only surrogates for some other woman, though he never mentions her, if she ever existed at all.” But something dim stirred in his mind, some far memory.
“She couldn’t have been very important to him, if he married Lucy Lippincott,” said Emil. On arriving in Guy’s suite they found him standing at one of the barred windows, watching the snow. They spoke to him; he did not turn, nor did he answer. But they felt a sort of vibration about him, almost tangible. Emil left, and James and Guy were alone. James went to the other window and looked out at the snowy earth. “It looks like a wedding cake, doesn’t it?” he asked.
Guy turned quickly, looked at him with his feverish eyes, then fell into his wing chair and turned aside his head. James said, “All it needs is candles, and ribbons, and a bride.”
“My bride,” thought Guy on a snowy December day. He had been married to Lucy Lippincott for three months. They were occupying a suite in the Old House while negotiations were being, completed for the possession of Lucy’s birthplace, and its renovation. She was already pregnant with her first child, and was none too pleased, nor was Guy. He knew, by now, that she was no Marlene, nor would she ever be. A man does not substitute another human being for a memory. He did not blame himself for his error; he blamed Lucy. He was now fully acquainted with her limited mind, her vacuous thoughts, her pretensions, her narrow range of responses, her inability to understand anything imaginative and tenuous, anything oblique or sensitive. Poetry was beyond her comprehension, though she had attended a very smart school for girls. An allusion would bring only a wide empty gaze, sometimes puzzled, sometimes blank. She knew only the immediate, and only that immediate which pertained to herself. In those three months she had exhibited no temper, no fire, no indignation, no profound emotion. A few times she had been petulant and dissatisfied, and, once or twice, she had been sullen when crossed. Her conversation consisted of eulogies to her father and brother, discussions of clothes, the past honeymoon and whom they had met in New York, and complaints of interior decorators. Of Guy and his desires and hopes she did not speak, though he had talked for hours about them.
She had no interest in him as a man, as a husband, as a lover. Why, in God’s name, then, had she married him? He was to wonder that the rest of his life. Had her father persuaded her, when, in less than two years, Guy was a rich man, a partner of Prentice and Grace? He only knew that for some obscure reason she had decided not to marry Eric Daumbler. But the reasons she had married him, her own reasons, were still vague and uncertain. That her family approved had been evident. William Lippincott’s main bank had lent Guy over half a million dollars, and with alacrity. Half had already been repaid, and half of Jeraldstown had been built, sound if small houses and eagerly purchased even before completion. An apartment building, not shoddy but sturdy, was under way. Oil, of course, had not been found on the land and Guy now knew that the geologists who had visited him had had other matters in mind, matters concerned with Howard Chandler. In fact, no oil rig had ever appeared anywhere else in the farming community, and the one oil well had become dry in less that three months.
One thing only moved Lucy almost passionately, and that was money. Then her pretty tinted face would display quite a degree of vivacity, her blue eyes would shine, her mouth would become wet with greed and would glisten. Yet, she had never known the poverty of a Mary Jerald. Guy had begun to learn that greed was not felt solely by the poor and that the rich could be avaricious indeed, beyond the avarice of a beggar. The poor desired money for security; the rich desired it for status and luxury, though many, he had found, were penurious. They delighted in spending the money of others or enjoying its fat comforts when proffered by others, even if they counted every penny twice before spending it themselves. The more money a man had, the greater the honor given him, whether he was a scoundrel, a liar, a hypocrite, or a gouger, and carefully pared cheese, as his mother had called it. The average middle-class man made far more display of what he had than did the very rich, and the workingman was not far behind in his extravagances.
If Guy feared and despised the poor he had known, he was now fearing and despising the very rich even more. He had met a considerable number of them in New York and Philadelphia. His own desire for money was not the same as his original desire. He wanted to be far richer than those he had already met, so he could despise them the more. He feared yet wanted their power. He had defended himself against the poor. Now he must have more and more money to defend himself against the rich, and to detest them fiercely. Money brought independence from fools, and fools were not confined to the poverty-stricken. Gilded stupidity, in fact, was more disgusting than beggarly stupidity. There was no excuse for it.
He had finally sold his land to Prentice and Grace with the proviso that he become a partner. Then he had borrowed money, to his elders’ amazement, from both a Philadelphia bank and William Lippincott’s bank. For some reason, very uncertain, they had lent the partnership money and were, in a manner of speaking, themselves part of the partnership. At first Mr. Prentice had been distraught with anxiety and trepidation at the sum, but Guy had taken on a newly dauntless air which, though it hinted of danger, yet had exciting implications. Mr. Grace, an elderly man, had at first “dithered” and had issued warnings. His firm was prosperous, he would say to his partners, but not in the same category as Chandler, yet now, in this incredibly short time, they were surpassing, or at least equaling, the Chandler Development Company. That is, of course, with borrowed money. “But Chandler borrows even more money,” said Guy, with impatience. “You can’t get anywhere by being too conservative and not taking chances. And everyone who can lay his hands on a small down payment is buying a house. We’ll give the poor bastards something for their money, which is more than Chandler can say. No Chandlertowns for us.”
He was sitting, this snow-filled December Sunday, in the sitting room of his suite in the Old House, waiting until it was time to go to visit his father-in-law, whom he did not respect. Hugh Lippincott and his Philadelphia wife, Louise, would be there also. Louise was as silly as Lucy, but in a different way. She was an athletic, bouncy little woman of even more pretensions than Lucy, and she was assertive and slyly shallow, yet with a cunning mind. She never failed to bring her family into any conversation, and to display an overt contempt for Cranston and her husband. Yet, unlike Lucy, she had remembered her lessons and could surprise even Hugh with an occasional touch of wit or perceptiveness. Lucy would stare at her, unaware of not too subtle insults, merely blinking her va
Lucy was sitting near the window staring out at the snow, her pretty mouth discontented. She seldom read a book; she read only fashion magazines and magazines full of “hints” in decorating. Occasionally she did read a romantic novel, some trivial thing concerning virginal heroines and what she described as True Love, though true love was as incomprehensible to her as almost everything else. Guy was sitting at a table, studying blueprints of the apartment house, and of another he was contemplating. He rubbed his eyes and glanced at his bride and wondered again why he had married her. Of course, she did resemble Marlene, but he now saw it was only a superficial resemblance. In mind and spirit there was no comparison. That he had not loved Lucy at all, but only a dream and a memory, did not excite his remorse. He blamed Lucy for his inane marriage. He had persuaded himself that she had deceived him.
It was darkening outside though it was hardly past three o’clock. A lamp outlined Lucy’s fair head with a shifting nimbus as she moved. A magazine lay open on her black velvet knees. She kept rubbing her wedding gift from Guy, a necklace of rubies, more than he could reasonably afford at the time. The movement of her fingers was sensuous, which could not be said of her body in bed. In bed she was as lifeless as a stuffed doll and as passionless. The delicate fire of a Marlene was missing; it would never be there. She knew all the gestures of affection from observation, but if she felt any real affection for her husband it was not evident. She accepted him as she accepted everything else in her life, an extension of herself, a convenience; she had done the expected thing, at Daddy’s suggestion, which she had not resented or protested. What true marriage was, the deepest meeting of spirit and mind and body, the deepest commitment and love, never occurred to her. She never quarreled with Guy, though she had a way of dimly carping if dissatisfied, with more than a hint of a whine in her voice, which was echoless and, Guy would think, practically bodiless. Yet she was healthy enough and could play tennis and golf quite expertly.
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