Bright Flows the River, page 28
The living room, alas, had what was known as a “conversation pit.” The fury of light almost blinded James. There were no dim corners, no retreats. The furniture was also ultra-modern Swedish. With some trepidation he lowered himself into a low-slung chair all leather and chrome. It sloped; most uncomfortable. His feet sank into a carpet of beige turf. If Guy’s house had seemed tenantless this was a noisy carousel. Here the walls were full of not very good paintings of horses, all in stride and all very active, and all, he concluded, gelded. It was strange that a large house like this, with no bustling about it and no loud voices, could seem, indeed, noisy. Perhaps it was the large standing lamps with white shades like whiskey barrels, the white velvet “groups” of assorted small sofas and settees, all decorated with tubes of chrome, the white leather chairs alike twinkling, the thick white draperies, the occasional scarlet cushion, the white marble fireplace with, alas, another artificial fire, the white painted tables, which gave the atmosphere an effect as of vociferousness. James literally felt his eardrums ache and his eyes dazzle, though not pleasantly. The room was really gigantic, as were the windows, yet every aspect seemed shouting and imminent.
And everything was fastidious to the point of vulgarity.
Even the portable bar, over which Hugh was now presiding, was white.
“A sweet manhattan for me, Hugh,” said Louise Lippincott, commandingly.
“Isn’t it always?” her husband returned, in a disagreeable voice. Louise shrugged, then turned her blazing smile on James. He almost recoiled. She was entirely too fervid for a woman her age and James felt some compassion. He discovered that she never stopped talking and she was always crossing and uncrossing her legs, restlessly, as if in heat despite her appearance of asexuality. He had come to the conclusion that she was a very stupid woman, as stupid, in her way, as Lucy Jerald. At least Lucy had periods of silence, however vacuous. Louise had a sprightliness, which soon tired James. Many American women affected this sprightliness, which James found wearing. There was no repose about them, as there had been repose about Beth Turner. They appeared to have a terror of silence. Oh, for a calm evening with Emma, before her robust fire and a bottle of good brandy at hand and polished crystal glasses and newspapers and books!
Another uproar ensued. Hugh, at a gesture from his wife, had turned on a blast of recorded music which rushed from every surface in the room and engulfed the dismayed James. He caught a faint suggestion of Mozart, but was not certain. All the instruments were fused together. Why did Americans hate peace so much, and quietude? Louise said brightly, “Those are selections from St. Paul, Superstar!” (She spoke in exclamation points.)
“I thought it was Mozart,” said James, accepting a big glass of whiskey from his host. Hugh laughed. “It’s a plagiarism of every selection of music you ever heard,” he said. “Or it seems that way to me.”
Louise was listening, rapt. She jerked her head at her husband and said, “Oh, Hugh. You are tone-deaf, really.” She flung her body forward at the hips and concentrated all her energy on listening. James grew more depressed. He found energetic women exhausting; they made him nervous. Hyperthyroidism? Her eyes were bulging and staring enough and her skin as dry as brown paper. She was one of those women who believed she was intellectual. Over the clamor she began to talk to James of her family in Philadelphia. He caught a word here and there but blessedly the music drowned out most of her conversation. She was asking him a question. He cupped his ear and looked at her inquiringly. “I think that’s enough,” Hugh said, and abruptly turned off the blaring. Louise gave him a look at once hateful and despising.
“You never cared for music,” she said.
“Is that music?” said her husband. She ignored him and talked of fox hunting, to which she was addicted, in Virginia. She had cousins there. James wanted to close his eyes, and take a short nap. Even the whiskey could not revive him.
Louise had been in England many times. She adored everything there. Everything was so quaint. James thought of the black and brutal foundries of Birmingham and Manchester, the mills of Sheffield. “So darling,” said Louise, sighing. “The dear little villages and the dear little houses with thatched roofs. So toylike.” James thought of the mighty piers in Southampton, the muscular air of London, the great high moors, the mounded hills of Yorkshire. Ah, England, once Empress of the world, now reduced, in her people, to a soft blob of state-fed helplessness! The land remained, but the people—? The malaise in his mind quickened and again he saw the eyes of his father. Land of Shakespeare—land of Council houses! Land of the elegant Stuarts—land of billboards shouting, “Drinka pinta milka day!” Land of the grand Tudor Queen Elizabeth I—land of featureless Queen Elizabeth II, with her fixed smile and gloved waving hand! What had King Lear said: “Dear land, I do salute thee!” James’s eyes moistened and he wept inwardly at the death of glory. But glory was dying all over the Western world, and beyond its borders the masculine Vandals of the steppes were eyeing it as a ripe if decaying feast. The West had become feminized. But Aristotle had foreseen this in every civilization which did not preserve its male authority and strength. The martial simplicity and power of the West had degenerated into a meretricious “love” for everybody, however unworthy, and had disarmed itself of the imperative to survive. More than arms was the spirit of a noble people. But where was nobility, now, in any Western nation? There remained only a a soft whimpering, a desire to be overfed and “tolerant,” a desire to be cozy.
What had George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, said? “To the question, what shall we do to be saved in this World? There is no answer but this, Look to your Moat.” But all the “moats” in the West were filled with stinking and dropping black water through which fetid weeds were growing. Beyond the Urals a forest of steel was rising—Perhaps we deserve no more than the knout, after all, thought James with bitterness.
But was it not the infirmity of will in the so-called leaders which had brought the West to her flabby knees? And had it, indeed, not been “planned that way”?
All this time those sentient blue eyes of James had been fixed courteously on Louise, and James discovered, to his mortification, that Hugh was regarding him with wry amusement. The big blond man sat negligently on the sofa, not too near his chattering wife, and James had the startling thought that perhaps his host had followed his every thought. I have, he said to himself, too mobile a face.
Louise’s father had been a congressman. She was conversing emphatically on the joys of Washington. Quaint? Surely she had not said that that white terror of a nearly Communized city was “quaint”? But she had! James was incredulous.
He fell into a gloomy pondering. Louise said with sharpness to her husband, “Hugh, really! You’re neglecting me and our guest. Please. Another manhattan, and another drink for Dr. Meyer. His glass is empty.” Hugh rose slowly, and Louise looked at him with flared-nostril umbrage as if he were an intransigent dog. She almost snapped her fingers to make him hurry. Hugh performed at the bar. James thought: She needs a clout. She sighed and looked at James with her extensive gleaming smile.
“Hugh is always daydreaming, which is bad for a banker, isn’t it? Lately he seems to move in a cloud as if he’s thinking.” She laughed raucously. “Now, that’s really funny—Hugh thinking! I don’t think he ever had a serious thought in his life. Just money.” Her tone became scornful and she glanced at Hugh with a malevolent glint in her eye. “Hugh! Don’t get any ice slivers in my drink, for God’s sake! Do try to make it right, for once.”
James remembered Hugh at Guy’s dinner table, a grim and forceful man: He was neither in his own house. Why? James had seen too many American husbands like this, silent, almost docile, before their arrogant wives, who were always ridiculing them or ordering them about. And usually the wives were insolent fools like this one, maliciously demeaning their men. They seemed to enjoy it.
Louise took her glass from her husband without thanking him or even looking at him. For an instant he stared at her, and J
“Money!” said Louise, disdainfully. “That’s all men think about. They don’t care for the real world, the world of the suffering downtrodden, the victims of unjust treatment in this country, the oppression, the alienated, the hungry, the unfortunate workingman—”
So, thought James, she’s one of Those. What had an American writer called them? Yes—the “radical chic,” who knew no more of the world than a newborn piglet, who lived in fantasies of workshops, sweatshops, and assorted social ills which had passed away over half a century ago. Many of them still thought in the dolorous clichés of the Depression thirties, thankfully far in the past. There was no use in arguing with them. They assuaged their own mean guilty consciences with loud declamations in defense of and in behalf of a legendary “Poor.” But never would they set themselves to alleviating the condition of the aged, the truly deprived, the deaf and the blind and the lonely slowly dying of despair in obscure places. These, evidently, were not the “Poor.” They prattled of civil rights, and treated their employees with harsh contempt and injustice, but then those employees were not the Noble Poor, not the mythical truck driver and factory worker and carpenter and plumber who earned, they alleged to believe, a “handful of dollars a week.” James could not help himself. He said, “Mrs. Lippincott, I had an occasion to talk to a truck driver one day recently. He averages at least thirty thousand dollars a year.”
She gave him a pitying smile. “You mean his employer nets that, not the poor driver himself.”
“I do mean the driver. He works for a national firm. A big pleasant man who told me of his house and his wife and children. One of his sons is in an excellent university.”
She shook her head archly at him. “Oh, dear. Someone was pulling your leg, I am afraid, Doctor. Conditions in this country are appalling. But they are better in England, aren’t they, under Socialism?”
“They are very bad in England, madam. All the drive and tenacity and determination of the British have been driven out of them, and deliberately, too. There is no incentive for the superior to work; they are impotent. Our doctors are leaving the country. We haven’t built new hospitals in England for many years. British medicine is demoralized; British force has been killed; British originality has been extinguished. The inferior are transcendent, subsisting fatly on the punitive taxes of the superior.”
But she was regarding him with a sidelong superb smile. “Oh, now, not really! I have British friends; they write me regularly.”
James ignored that. “And your own country, madam, is fast falling into the Socialist-Communist slime, too, and will soon be smothering as England has been smothered. You call yourselves a democracy. Perhaps once you were, but that is true no longer. Socialism and democracy are a contradiction in terms, mutually exclusive. Socialism is a very old and primitive form of government, and it has always failed, for it is alien to human nature, and unnatural. The end result, of course, when society falls into chaos, is Fascistic Communism. And sometimes”—and now James was so upset that a savage note crept into his voice—“it is all a people deserve—the knout and the torture, the concentration camps, the forced-labor camps, the rope and the rifle, the slavery, the prisons, the barbed wire. You will get them!”
He was so tired of these people. England had them, too, those parvenus who had somehow managed to acquire illicit money or had contrived to keep it from the murderous tax gatherer. He thought of the ruling clique in Russia who lived luxuriously on the toil of their hopeless masses, and their British Socialist government counterparts, who lived as delightfully on their own countrymen. Barbarism!
“You sound like a Hitler,” said Louise, with her wide mocking smile.
“Who was financed by your own bankers, and by the British bankers, too, even during the war.”
“Oh, come now, Doctor!”
James went on relentlessly, as if he had not heard her. “Just as the bankers financed Stalin, the same men who were financing Hitler.”
She was aghast and incredulous. Both rows of her enormous plate-like teeth were revealed as her chin dropped. “But what would be the purpose?”
“To destroy freedom in the whole world, so that the ‘elite’ can rule, as they call themselves.” It was no use. She was one of Those who, lacking information, believe themselves to be informed. The room had become one glare of whiteness to James and he felt a faint nausea. He looked at his host, who was listening with an inscrutable expression and frowning into his glass.
“Hugh!” shouted his wife. “Did you hear what Dr. Meyer just said about bankers?”
“I did. And it’s true,” said her husband. “Not little bankers like ours, of course, but the international ones who in the full meaning of the word have no race and no country.”
She stared at him, all projected eyes and teeth. The rest of her face was blank and sagging and disbelieving. A maid appeared at the edge of the “conversation pit” and announced dinner. Still staring and blinking, Louise rose and the men rose with her.
The large dining room was not in the least restful. Again, there was a blaze from a modern chandelier, the beige turf of the living room was in evidence once more. The furniture had a suspiciously plastic coating, and was the color of lightly bilious feces, James thought with exasperation. Here light glared off white walls and stung the eyes. The oval table did have an authentic lace cloth and napkins and the smooth blameless crystal, if without character, at least sparkled. But there was no authoritarian weight to the silver, which was slippery in the hand. The china, of good quality, was absolutely white, with not even a suggestion of a border.
A pallid soup of undetermined flavor was served in a bowl of ice, which had a white frilled piece of paper under it. The cold rolls also were embowered in paper, and each square piece of butter nestled in those stiff frills, and the lamb chops coyly displayed frilly pantalettes. The baked potatoes, to James’s disappointment, had dollops of sour cream spreading miserably over the contents, and the peas were obviously out of a tin and quite cool. But the salad was luxuriant, masses of rabbity green and yellow raw vegetables and croutons overwhelmingly drenched in some dressing which James was positive was made of raw eggs, lemon juice, and mineral oil. He desperately planned on an early departure so he could return to the Old House and scrounge some proper food. He noticed that nothing here was hot, only lukewarm.
The wine was not good, if red, and it was acrid. The coffee, cool also, was served in demitasse cups, and he was invited to partake of a sugar substitute. There was no cream. The dessert, as he feared it would be, was a monster bowl of fruit, and the cheese had no élan. The house was very warm but James began to feel uncomfortably cold and he feared that he was coming down with a chill.
And Louise never stopped talking. Hugh did not listen; James politely attempted to, but the cataract of words confused him, and their loudness distracted him. If the damned woman would just say something intelligent I could focus on it, he thought. He wondered how his host could be so portly on this food and how Louise maintained the mighty massiveness of her thighs. Certainly it was not on fare like this. He suspected them of gorging secretly at noon and between meals. He became conscious of Hugh watching him with eyes suggesting hilarity, and he was embarrassed.
What was the infernal woman chattering about now? Evelyn, Marie, Tracy, Meg, Wendy, Sally, Alice, Susie, Barbara—She was speaking as if James were well acquainted with these invisible females. He had lost the thread somewhere. She spoke with confidence that he was deeply involved with them, as she was. Who in hell were they? He glanced helplessly at Hugh, who was silently laughing behind his napkin. Then as the flow of words inundated him he came to the solution: Louise was talking endlessly about her nieces. He was quite familiar with this phenomenon: Wealthy childless women invariably had large clots of nieces, all devoted and all “adoring and adorable.”
Then, if as by magic, the dreary plastic bundle was thrust at James. Sometime, he mused, when he was semiconscious, Louise had left the table to procure the horror. Colored photographs tumbled about him in sheafs, all of young women in overstuffed shorts and trousers and the ubiquitous men’s shirts, all with gross teeth and little eyes squinting in blasting sun and all clutching children (hard to tell the sex) in very brown hands. The children were disgracefully fat and wore greedy or petulant expressions, full of dissatisfaction. But one photograph was a little attractive, a tall young man, lean and athletic, with pronounced strong Apollonian features and short fair hair and large sinewy hands. James said, “A nephew?”
Louise looked at him with acute disfavor. “My niece, Barbara. She plays in tennis tournaments.” James studied the totally flat chest, the narrow hips, the brown ligamented neck, and he had an unkind thought: A transsexual, if I ever saw one. “Oh,” he said. Hugh gave a strangled cough and Louise turned a truly nasty face on him. “You never did like Barbara,” she said accusingly.
“I prefer the female sex,” he answered.
Well, thought James, we do have a lot of women in England like these, too, God have mercy on us. What had gone wrong with their female hormones? Did the decline of masculinity in men cause it to develop in women? Was it a sort of unconscious protest against that decline?
Mrs. Lippincott had remarked something concerning Guy Jerald, and James pulled himself out of his lethargy and listened. She was staring at him impatiently and was asking him a question—apparently again. “Lucy tells me Dr. Parkinson said Guy’s condition was pretty hopeless and she had better prepare herself that he would have to be permanently institutionalized.”