Bright flows the river, p.27

Bright Flows the River, page 27

 

Bright Flows the River
 



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  Guy was already unfaithful to her. If he did seek her body it was in an absentminded way, as one reaches for bread when hungry. He also did it because of a sense of “duty,” and what was “owed” his wife, though he suspected that Lucy would prefer him not to be dutiful in that fashion. Still, she was his wife and therefore his property, and he had a responsibility for her. When he felt most indifferent towards her he reminded himself of his obligations. Too, he was not unaware of her beauty, which could occasionally excite him, and of her position in Cranston, and even in Philadelphia. Sometimes he was even proud of her.

  “I wish,” said Lucy, plaintively, “that it would stop snowing. I do hate winter.”

  Guy thought of his father’s house, in which there had been no luxuries, and he felt a thrust of nostalgia for a moment. This was the most luxurious suite in the Old House, but to Guy it was alien and tenantless. Even its pleasant appointments had no meaning for him. It was not his home.

  “I can’t wait for the house to be ready,” Lucy continued. She was not aware that Guy had not as yet answered her. She never noticed if anyone did not reply to her remarks. What she cared about only were her own dim thoughts and dimmer words. “I do wish they’d hurry. And I’m not sure about that rose-colored paper for my bedroom. I think I’d rather have lavender.”

  His mother had worn lavender at his wedding, a color not becoming to her, but it was her first real silk dress. She had been almost abject in the company at the wedding and had effaced herself as much as possible. She had acquired a wild way of staring lately, as if she did not believe in all this good fortune and expected to see it whisked away like a dream. But she would not, as yet, give up her rooming house and her boarders.

  She had hardly spoken at the wedding to anyone, so impressed had she become, and so timorous. She would glance at her son, marveling, and no longer resentful. Still, she thought that Lucy “could have done better.” She had not liked the Episcopal church in which the wedding had taken place; it had had an unpleasantly subduing effect on her, and Mary Jerald did not like feeling subdued. At all times, she wished to feel in command of a situation, a trait Guy had inherited from her. She thought that she looked handsome in her new gown and hat and this did help her among all those strangers who were evidently so rich and important and so polite and proper. She could not understand why Guy seemed at ease with them all and looked handsome himself. She felt both uncertainty and pride. Guy perceived all this with his growing bitter amusement and almost felt affection for his mother.

  My father, he thought now, did not dance, after all, at my wedding. Nor did Sal, who had not been invited, nor did Sam Kurtz, who was now Sal’s husband, and also had not been invited. Guy was determined that no part of his past should intrude on his present and his future. It never occurred to him that he owed any “duty” to the woman who had loved his father so faithfully and so long, though he had given a two-thousand-dollar check to her as a wedding gift. He had never gone to their house, which was near his mother’s. Sal and Sam had understood. They sent him a card on his birthday and at Christmas, but never telephoned him or wrote to him.

  Lucy was continuing her meandering monologue about their house. Guy returned to his blueprints. Then all at once he was seized by a savage despair, a turbulence of mind which was nameless but almost overwhelmingly powerful. It resembled, slightly, the despair he had felt after his father’s death, an incredulity, a denial. But of what he was incredulous and what he was denying he did not know. He threw aside his pencil. He stood up and began to walk up and down the warm, lamp-lighted room. Lucy watched him without surprise or curiosity. To her, he was only her husband, who was pacing the room, and she did not wonder why. It was probably only “business,” anyway. That he had any thoughts aside from her and any aspirations, she was not capable of conjecturing.

  She believed she loved him, not as she loved her father and brother, but she was sure she loved him. Why else had she married him? He was really very good-looking, if not distinguished, really. She was used to the abruptness and moods of men and never questioned them. That men had emotions and abysses and terrors in themselves, aside from her own expectations of them, would have inspired her perplexed disbelief. Others were as unreal to her as the characters in a play, and in company she played her expected gracious part without once wondering what thoughts roamed the dark alleys of their minds and what were their motives and emotions, what their desires and hopes and hatreds and longings. All her nebulous thoughts and her own gestures were mimicries of the world she knew, automatic reactions of a conventional pattern, mannered and unquestioning.

  In the meantime Guy was beset by a clamoring but unseen chorus of despair and fury. His pacing became faster. His head beat like a drum; he was sweating. His dark skin shriveled in a suffering he could not understand. Nor could he give a name to it. It was both within him and without him. It had no form, no outline. It was just there like a storm, inchoate and murderous, battering both his mind and his body. It might be mysterious and unknowable, but it was certainly there, weakening his muscles, making him tremble.

  It had some aspects of the rage and agony he had experienced when he had learned of Marlene’s death. Something, he thought in his terrible confusion, has died. He stopped his pacing and stood very still, breathing heavily, in the middle of the room. Something has died.

  The thought terrified him. In an effort to escape he looked at Lucy. All at once he hated her. He projected all his torment on her.

  My bride, he thought. And hated her.

  “My bride,” he said aloud in the darkening room of his Mountain Valleys suite. He stood up and began to walk, faster and faster, and James watched him. He saw the tortured aspect of Guy’s face with alarm. He stood up, not speaking, wanting to touch that agonized man and afraid to do so.

  Then suddenly Guy turned to him, though James knew he did not really see his friend. “I hated her then,” he said in his hoarse quick voice. “I didn’t know why, and I didn’t care. You see, something had died.” He put his hand to his head. “And I didn’t want to know, then, what it was.”

  He was gasping. “But I know now. It was something in myself. I shouldn’t have blamed her. She was only a symbol of the murder.” He looked at his hands as if expecting to see blood on them. “But I couldn’t have done anything else then, could I? A man gets driven—”

  “Yes,” said James. “He drives himself. No one else holds the reins.”

  But Guy said, “It wasn’t her fault that she wasn’t Marlene, though I tried to think it was, and blamed her. It was what I had killed in myself, rejecting what I had always wanted. It’s only a ghost—but it’s there.”

  “Yes,” said James, “we are always there.”

  The blank dark face was still turned to him, and James knew that Guy was seeing something appalling in himself. Then he fell into his chair and he was gone again into the awful chaos of his mind.

  Later, James told Emil of that episode. He was somewhat disheartened. “It’s still dicey,” he said. “He’ll die soon, or go mad—or come out of it. It was dreadful while it lasted. He can’t endure much more of it.”

  “Do you have any idea who Marlene is, or was?”

  “I have a vague feeling I ought to know. I think there was some girl in Europe, just after the war. He never told me. But one night in Berlin he came back to our temporary barracks, and there was blood on his clothes. He never explained, and I didn’t ask. Those were fearful times, Emil.”

  “Do you think it’s possible he killed that girl?”

  James pondered. Then he shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. She was never his ‘bride.’ When he spoke of a bride his voice was full of hate. I think he meant his wife. And he said, ‘I shouldn’t have blamed her.’ Yes, it’s all dicey, still.” Then he brightened. “He said he shouldn’t have blamed her. I see a significance in that. When a sick man stops blaming someone else for his torment he has made a great stride in the right direction. He has gained some insight in
to himself.”

  “Blaming himself is a sort of absolution,” said Emil. “The next step, of course, is removing himself from the place or person he has hated. That is only just, to the other, to himself.”

  Alone, in his room, Guy had a sudden clear thought, devastating in its ruthlessness. He started upright in his chair, and panted.

  He said, aloud, “I killed what I really needed all my life, not what I told myself I wanted. I killed it because I had no bravery, and because I was afraid of it. I had told myself I had a ‘duty.’ It wasn’t just that. I was a coward. I knew that when I tried to kill myself. I’ve been trying to kill it again. I am still a coward. That’s why I should die. It is too late.”

  Then he said, “Beth. Beth.”

  15

  When James reached the Old House he found a message from Hugh Lippincott, inviting him to dinner that night at seven-thirty. James was tired and disheartened. The depression was not caused by Guy Jerald but by something in himself. Accustomed to the psychiatrist’s way of diagnosing his own malaise—a somewhat doubtful practice in many instances, and confusing—James probed at his own subconscious and could produce nothing but the memory of his father, and the strange admonition. He could actually see his father’s intense blue eyes and the restless reproach in them. He was glad that he had this invitation, which would divert him at least. He told himself, with some conscious virtue, that he might discover something new about Guy. He also felt very lonely. He was not one of those psychiatrists who find their most engrossing diversion in discussing cases with other psychiatrists who were, he admitted, as much in the dark as himself when confronting the mysterious labyrinths of the human psyche. So he was glad that he would not have to have dinner with Emil that night.

  He had noticed that most Americans took it for granted that everyone had a motorcar at his disposal. A man without a car was almost in the position of having been castrated, or, at least, was a paralyzed cripple. So he had the manager of the hotel call a taxi for him and refused to notice the man’s upraised brows. He had to wait nearly twenty minutes for a taxi to come for him. He gave the driver the address and he did notice that the man surveyed his old tweeds with both disfavor and suspicion. “That’ll cost you about five dollars,” the driver said, and waited for distressed sounds. But James nodded and climbed into the cold interior. He was certain, by the set of the driver’s shoulders and the bulging of his neck, that the latter suspected that there would be no tip. Also, he had pointed his ears at the English accent. They rode in dark silence through the clogged streets where the street-lamps made stark holes of yellow light on the snow. The houses became progressively more lavish with an odd jumble of big ranch residences mixed with bastard Tudor and Georgian and something amorphous which had been explained to James as “split-levels.” He thought them freakishly designed and of no particular character and certainly not too inviting with their lighted windows at unexpected placements, like a badly built mass of blocks raised by a clumsy child.

  No doubt they are functional, if ugly, thought James, trying for charity. But, like the ranch houses—out of place in this climate—they offered no privacy or retreat for any beset soul. However, James had learned, privacy was not cherished by Americans. Parents and children were always tumbled together like puppies in a heap, and squirming. Houses were “open,” so that children could race easily from one spot to another, bellowing, always in evidence with no escaping them. Where did the master of the house retire to on an evening, for a quiet drink alone with his newspaper, after the hubbub of the day? James had also discovered that American men had been coerced, by their wives, into believing that the father of the family should be a “pal,” to his offspring, listening attentively to their gasping chatter and their shrieks in the evening, and never having an instant alone to recoup his stamina and his strength. How tiring, how sapping, how proletarian and plebeian! The “hut” syndrome, as James had called it, seemed to have taken over the unfortunate country. It could also be called the aborigine syndrome, where the whole family clamored about in a cave, in a welter of “togetherness.” How dreary. How exhausting, how cheap. If a man sought peace and privacy and contemplation for himself, he was labeled, according to American psychiatrists, as “antisocial.”

  James smiled in the cold taxi. I’m very antisocial, he thought, with satisfaction. I am an adult, a civilized man, a lover of seclusion, and possibly a gentleman. I build my hedges high. Solitude is a lovely thing, a well of replenishment, a time for a man to examine his life. He thought of Guy, with an earnest pity. Had he been beset, as so many male Americans had been beset, with no time to organize his private life and reflect on his soul and cultivate his own garden? It was very possible. No wonder that most American men were neurotic, the poor sods, with women and children always besieging them. No wonder marriage had little attraction for young men now; no wonder so many of them were homosexuals. They had to escape somehow, from the omnipresence of their women, their shrill demands, their inexhaustible and meaningless jabbering, their endless complaints and petulance. They never let then men alone if they could help it. King Solomon, in his Proverbs, had had many wise remarks about women and their carping and their everlasting proximity. There was much to be said for the denounced St. Paul, who had had very little admiration for women.

  James remembered that Hugh Lippincott had remarked on Guy’s apparent indifference to his family. Then, thought James, there’s hope for him. James also remembered that most American men referred to their houses as “homes,” a vulgarism if there ever was one, and no doubt inspired by ubiquitous Mum. If American men were more and more acquiring interesting mistresses, then good luck to them! A man had to save his own life. He had to run, lest he expire in heart attacks and dangerous neuroses. The whole demoralized country had become a nursery for children or a spa teeming with women. But England’s getting just as bad under deadly Socialism, thought James. Vulgarity at its worst. The aristocratic spirit had departed from the West. I must remember that! James said to himself. When the patrician imperative left a civilization it descended into mobs, with women transcendent. Then came the end. Boorishness, James reflected, thy name is Woman. (Except for Emma, who is a real womanly creature, and not an aggressive and howling banshee.) In America, there was always a cry for “love,” but a more loveless country James had never known before.

  The taxi came to a stop and James abandoned his reflections. The house before him was an enormous ranch one in the shape of a sharp-angled U. It spread its one story on a vast amount of land filled with bending spruces and its roof seemed burdened by a white glacier. Its tremendous windows glared with lamplight, chasing the dark night with glittering expenses. The taxi driver, truculent in his long silence, was immensely gratified by his tip, and turned to grin at James in a most friendly manner. A door in the center of the house opened and Hugh Lippincott appeared on the threshold, waving jovially.

  “I’m sorry, Doctor,” he said, when James came up to him. “I thought you had a car. I’d have picked you up if I’d known.”

  “No matter,” said James, amused, and he shook his host’s hand. “It was very kind of you to invite me tonight. I’m a little fagged out.” (Hugh had mentioned that he had no children, and James was cheered.)

  He entered a great hot hall floored with random stones, and “open,” as he feared. Here, everything was “modern,” with a considerable amount of white textured plaster walls hung with abstract paintings, and a plushy rug of a violent and vehement purple hue. Everything was furiously bright and unshaded. Mrs. Lippincott came to meet him, and James thought that she, also, was bright and without shade or subtlety. She was a little bouncy woman, conspicuously animated and possessing the usual wide and gleaming smile and vast acreages of teeth common to many American women, and most wearying. Her eyes bulged; her eyelids did not shelter them, so they flagrantly revealed the full olive orb with the brilliant whites. Also, like many American women, she was very tanned, and her skin had a leathery texture and ma
ny dry folds and deep wrinkles, though she was not more than fifty-four. Her face was small, but it was filled with those staring eyes and great wet teeth. For the rest, she was breastless, but at least, thank God, she did not wear a man’s shirt and trousers, though the black skirt had a hard time restraining the full thighs. She was what is described as “petite,” and she apparently thought that was cuddlesome. Her brown hair was “casually” drawn into a ponytail and swished about on her shoulders like a horse’s extremity. Her chest clanked with a series of gold chains, and her neck was scrawny. The blue blouse languished on her front, for there was nothing underneath, except brown ridges. She looked painfully vivacious and relentlessly exuded health. Her little hand was as dry and fleshless as a bone in James’s own hand. Her fingers felt like winter twigs. Her legs were full of tendons and huge, and brown also. James suspected she played a lot of tennis and golf, and, no doubt, he thought sourly, she diets and lifts weights. Her forehead was like an and desert, and he suspected her body was that way also.

  She was a parody of a woman, and James thought of his womanly Emma and the womanly Beth Turner. If Louise was an aristocrat, as Lucy Jerald had implied, then aristocracy was in a bad way in America. Her voice, as she chattered to James, was as strident as her house, and had no ease or softness. A most repulsive woman. She thought a flood of words was “warm” and hospitable, and she gleamed at James in a very disconcerting manner. Probably feels she is a femme fatale into the bargain, he thought, but she is as sexless as a hockey mistress. She’d be quite at home in the field. James was full of pity for Hugh. Why, in God’s name, did American men marry such? At least she had not committed the crime of reproducing herself.

 
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