Bright Flows the River, page 29
“No. Not at all,” said James. “Dr. Grassner and I are much encouraged by his general improvement, at least mentally and emotionally. He has said a number of things to me. His physical improvement will follow his emotional recovery.”
“Oh, what on earth!” Louise flung up her hands and eyes and her ponytail hissed swish-swish on her narrow shoulders. “If there ever was a man so fortunate I don’t remember! Of course, a lot of men get a little funny around his age—” and she glanced malevolently at her husband with a meaning smirk. “They go looking for tramps, though. Nobody should be surprised. Of course, it’s a bad blow to a faithful wife, and sometimes divorce is the best thing for her.”
Self-disciplined and well bred though he was, James could not refrain from saying, “I deeply agree with you, Mrs. Lippincott. It is best for everybody, and I must admit, it can be the kindest thing for a woman to do for her husband.”
“What!” she exclaimed, and her eyes were ferocious and the greenish tint in them sharpened. “After a woman has given the best years of her life to a man?”
Hugh broke in. “How about a man’s best years given to a woman, Louise? How long does he have to stay in penal servitude?” His heavy face had taken on an alarming flush. Hypertension, poor devil, thought James. He murmured something intended to be soothing, but Hugh and his wife were locked together in some unseen combat inspired by a mutual aversion and hatred, and they had forgotten him.
Then Louise said softly, slyly, “Well, Hugh darling, you’ll never get a divorce from me.”
What atrocious manners and conversation before a stranger, thought James.
Then Hugh was laughing, as if he had heard James’s inward remark. He said. “I’m glad to hear your prognosis—James. I wish all good luck to poor old Guy. I met him when he came into the bank with his first big check, after he had concluded a very good deal with Prentice and Grace, housing developers in Pittsburgh. He swaggered—no, he stalked—into the bank, and naturally, as he wanted to deposit such a large sum, he was turned over to me. I was second vice-president then. There he was, in a shabby old coat and a cheap suit and no hat, bigger than life, and with fighting eyes which dared anybody, and he told me. Prentice and Grace had wanted to buy his whole really enormous amount of land, but he had held out for a partnership. So they finally settled for a junior partnership, and, under Guy, they’ve become the biggest developers in the whole Commonwealth, even bigger than Howard Chandler. Old Grace was more than a little conservative, and thought Guy a disaster—”
“Which he is,” said Louise. Her husband ignored her.
“He took a course in architecture,” said Hugh. “And worked during the day with his new partners. They gave him a little development to handle, and handle it he did, spectacularly. ‘Quality is our guide,’ it says in their advertisements, and so it is. A buyer gets his money’s worth in a good house, architecturally sound and distinctive, and sometimes he gets a little more. No tract houses are built by Prentice, Grace and Jerald, though old Grace is dead now. Just old John Prentice and his son, and Guy, run the business. They’ve won awards and such for their houses. A thirty-year-old house built by them is in first-class condition still. No shortcuts, no cutting corners. And they won’t build cheap houses, anywhere. Many of what they build are true-mansions, up in the hills. No one has ever failed to float a mortgage on one of their houses. The banks trust Guy.”
“Ha,” said Louise. Hugh still ignored her.
“Then he married Lucy, my sister.” Hugh’s face changed subtly.
“Poor Lucy,” said Louise. “What a mess she made out of her life, marrying that oaf. Ignorant, uneducated, rude, bad-mannered, uncouth—”
Her husband looked at her. “A man,” he said.
“No family,” chanted Louise, as if she had not heard him. “No background. A nobody. Poor Lucy.”
Hugh smiled. “A man. The kind this country needs. We’re short of such men. Entrepreneurs. Men willing to take great chances. Men with a will and a determination to succeed, and the devil with ‘security.’ I thought he was taking too much of a gamble, a lot of the time. But he knew what he was doing, and what looked like imminent ruin and bankruptcy turned into rousing success. I heard he used to give old Grace heart attacks, but Grace died a multimillionaire and had reams of praising obituaries in the newspapers. It was all due to Guy. No, I never liked him. I thought he was—uncouth—too, but there was a splendid mind behind that ruthlessness and drive. He seemed reckless, but he never was. We became wary friends, but I didn’t really start to like him as a person until about five years ago.” He paused and gave a short laugh which was not really amusement. “I think I was envious of him, actually. He had what I lacked. No infirmity of will. He had force.”
Louise raised her voice. The ponytail swished. “I can tell you something about your cheap brother-in-law, Hugh Lippincott. I saw him in Philadelphia a year ago, in a hotel restaurant, with a perfectly awful-looking woman with dyed red hair and the ugliest clothes! An almost old woman. At least she appeared that way. A farm wife, or something. She wore a woolen knitted cap or hat on her head! And knitted gloves! And her clothes! Guy didn’t see me. He was talking to that woman as if there wasn’t another woman in the world. Really.”
She saw that both men were giving her rapt attention, and she preened.
“That creature was just his kind. A nothing, a nobody. No makeup. I saw her hands. Raw and red, like a washerwoman’s. They had their heads together. She looked as if she didn’t have a cent in the whole world.” Louise laughed her raucous laugh. “I thought he was trying to get a new domestic for Lucy, but Lucy wouldn’t have such an ugly thing in her house. Lucy, I admit, has some style. Now, you wouldn’t believe this, but it’s true! Guy took both her hands and held them and he seemed to be begging her for something. And”—she paused portentously and her malice was a bright glee on her face—“I know what it was. I followed them. They went upstairs in the elevator together! My God! Yes, just his kind. And I’m telling you the God’s truth. They went upstairs together to some bedroom.”
She gleamed at them both dramatically. “I never told Lucy. It would break her heart, poor thing.”
“I don’t believe it,” said Hugh, in the flat hard voice he used to his wife. “That doesn’t sound like the kind of woman he goes for. They all look like Lucy, and the younger, the better.”
Louise sat up alertly. “And how do you know that?”
Hugh grinned at her. “Oh, we often go to Philadelphia together! And New York and Boston and other places. You know that, Louise.” He assumed a tone of mock gravity. “He never keeps a woman more than a week or so. He’s looking for some ideal, or something, and the sort of woman you describe certainly isn’t what he likes.”
“I asked you how do you know that?”
“I’ve seen him—around,” and Hugh grinned at her cruelly. Again they were locked in some deadly if unseen combat. “No, Louise,” said Hugh after a moment or so. “You must have been mistaken about the man.”
“I wasn’t! I was only six feet away. He never saw me, he was so engrossed with that awful creature. Engrossed! You’d have thought she was Cleopatra or something. I almost laughed out loud. It was the funniest sight. It was around that time that he began to show signs of his mental illness. You remember.”
Hugh sat and thought. He said, “He started to change five years ago. I think I was the only one who knew it, though Lucy began to complain that he had lost all interest in his family. He seemed to be losing interest in his business, too, and in the banks.” He rubbed his chin. “Well, James, what do you make of it?”
James was thinking of Beth Turner. So they had had a rendezvous, that wonderful fine woman and the beset man. Yet—what had made him ill? What, with such a woman, had made him turn his face away from all that he had worked for since he had been a young man? La dolce vita? A mistress like Beth Turner could make any man’s life noble and fulfilled, and help him to endure it.
Then he remember
They went back to the abominable conversation pit for an afterdinner drink. Louise was still chattering with hating glee of Guy Jerald. “Just imagine a man in his position committing adultery with a hideous creature like that! Where on earth did he pick her up?”
“I never trust your judgment about another woman, dear,” said Hugh. “She must have been beautiful.”
Yes, thought James, beautiful.
“She was positively dreadful! An old bag. Her hair was a mess and such an awful dyed color!” Again the pony-tail swished and swished.
James was hesitating on the brink of the pit. He looked apologetically at his watch. “May I be excused?” he said. “I think I am coming down with a chill. This weather, you know.”
“It’s hardly ten,” said Louise, “I did want to talk to you, Doctor, about poor Lucy and her poor children, with such a husband and father.”
Hugh stood up. “I’ll drive you back,” he said. He seemed relieved, and James suspected he was glad to leave his wife for a while. James thanked his hostess ceremoniously. He had not got used to the white glare of the house, and his eyes hurt and he was inexplicably depressed. Louise gave him her dry hand and smirked coquettishly, but her eyes despised him.
When Hugh and James drove off in the warm car Hugh was silent for a considerable time. Then he said, “I’ll either divorce that bitch or murder her.” His voice was pent, and he had blurted out the words as if he had lost control of himself.
James murmured, “Well, murder is a bit extreme, isn’t it? And the murderer often suffers some degree of heart failure afterwards. Very wearing.”
Hugh laughed his first spontaneous laugh of the evening. “How English,” he said. “You even kill with flair, don’t you? And, no doubt, politely.”
James smiled. “It doesn’t do to be vulgar, does it? And murder can be pleasing, if handled nicely. Our lieutenant, in the war, actually apologized to a German when he bayoneted him and said, ‘I wish you were a bloody Russian instead.’ Now, that is being civilized.”
Hugh said, “Are you really very tired? I thought we’d go—somewhere—and get something decent to eat. You’ve got to admit that dinner was filthy, but that’s what Louise likes. It’s also cheap.”
“Come to think of it,” said James, with cheer, “I am a bit famished. I’m accustomed to eating later. What have you in mind?”
“You’ll see,” said Hugh, and he sounded like a youth, and drove faster through the quiet snowy streets. “A friend of mine. A superb cook.” The car rolled on through wide and pleasant streets of older houses, all solid and gracious. Hugh pointed out a number. “Guy is responsible for some of these. You’ll notice there are no ranch houses here or split-levels. All genuine Tudor or Georgian, with a touch, here and there, of Mount Vernon. Nothing ostentatious, though.”
He added, “My house wasn’t my idea. But it was what Louise wanted, and she bought it herself.”
He stopped his car before a house very similar to Guy Jerald’s, Georgian and quietly impressive, of brick and stone, set a distance back on wide snowy lawns filled with trees. Many sedate windows were bright with lamplight and one or two had the warm crimson shadow of a fire upon them. Hugh actually leapt from the car and ran around and opened the door for James. He looked buoyant and a little excited.
“Whom are we visiting?” asked James.
“My friend, Mrs. Kleinhorst, my dear friend.”
“But, is she expecting us?”
“No, but she is always ready for guests.”
They went up the long cleared path to the double oaken door, and Hugh rang the bell with a flourish. James could see his face, flushed and happy, and he thought to himself: So. The door opened and a tall slender lady appeared, dressed in a long black dress, her pale hair heaped gracefully on her small head. When she saw Hugh she exclaimed delightedly, “Oh, come in, darling! I’m so glad to see you!” Then she saw James, and stepped back.
“A friend,” said Hugh. “I’ve told you about him, Marian. Dr. Meyer, a friend of old Guy’s.”
They entered the snug warm hall with its shaded lights and quiet and good pictures on the paneled walls. A sense of peace and relief came to James. His hostess was holding out a long soft hand to him and smiling, and he took that hand and thought: A lady. Like Beth Turner, the woman also had strong firm features, not symmetrical but attractive. Her complexion was pale, as were her eyes and brows, and when she smiled she became intriguing, beautiful and serene. She took her guests’ coats and hats and put them into a closet, then led them into a living room lit by firelight and soft lamplight; a foreign room. Hugh suddenly put his arm about her and kissed her long and passionately, and her white hands reached to his shoulders. It was simply done and James thought it charming, even touching.
The room was deceptively reserved and it was filled with excellent antiques and there was a wall of books on each side of the rustling log fire. “We’re hungry, Marian,” said Hugh, like a schoolboy. “Feed us.”
“I’ve got only cold ham and cold turkey,” said Mrs. Kleinhorst, in a warm and gentle voice. “It’s Sue’s night off. I was about to have dinner myself, alone. But I’m so glad you came—Hugh.”
All her movements were graceful and quiet. She brought the men drinks and sat down with a hearty cocktail for herself. She smiled at James, but her eyes kept straying to Hugh and for the first time he saw what was really meant when it was said, “Her heart stood in her eyes.” She was not reticent about her emotions, nor, most obviously, her love for this man. Her every glance was candid and open. A clock chimed somewhere, peaceful and unhurried. The fire sparkled. A little white dog came into the room and jumped up immediately on Hugh’s lap. There was the faintest suggestion of a Chopin nocturne moving through the wood-scented air.
The chill in James’s bones began to thaw. He relaxed in his deep chair and put his feet on a footstool. Mrs. Kleinhorst surveyed him kindly and said, with interest, “Hugh has told me so much about you, Dr. Meyer. How is Guy Jerald?”
“Coming along very encouragingly,” replied James. “Not fast enough to please his doctors, of course, but I have every hope for an eventual—revival.”
Intelligence and delicacy shone on the woman’s face and in those very pale eyes, almost silvery. She said, “I don’t know Guy very well, nor his wife. Just socially. But I thought him a remarkable man. Very unusual.”
There was the dimmest hint of a Teutonic accent in her sweet voice, yet her English was impeccable. She was looking at Hugh again. Hugh was stroking the little dog but he was regarding his hostess with frank love and tenderness. James was interested. This was a different man from the man in the glaring white ranch house. It was a man of gentleness and composure. He said to James, “I’ve known Marian since she came with her parents as refugees from Hitler.”
Then why the devil didn’t you marry her in the first place? thought James. Hugh said, “She had to leave her husband, in Germany. He was a colonel in the Wehrmacht. He was forty years old. She was only seventeen.”
“Helmut was a good man,” said Marian Kleinhorst. “At great risk he smuggled us out of Germany. He was also a friend of Herr Schacht’s so we were able to bring with us a great deal of our money.” She looked fully at James and smiled sadly. “My father was very rich. He inherited much, much money from his father and grandfather. They were jewelers. My father was a rabbi.”
Is she challenging me? thought James, with his own sadness. He said, “My father was an Austrian Jew, Mrs. Kleinhorst. He was killed, somewhere in Germany, after many excursions into Germany to save his co-religionists.”
Her silvery eyes glistened with tears, and she smiled tremulously. “I see,” she said. She breathed deeply.
“We set a very bad precedent at Nuremberg,” said James. “What if the Western world loses in an inevitable war with the Fascistic Communist countries? Will we see our officers and generals, our armies, our rulers perhaps, executed as war criminals?”
Marian nodded, but she said, “Still, many of those executed were guilty of the most barbaric crimes.”
“True. But that is so of all wars. And barbarians are not the exclusive property of any country.”
Again she nodded. “My father always said that the West and the East would, one day, be engaged in the most deadly war the world has even seen. That was even before the last war.”
Deftly and quickly she moved a small round table before the fire, left the room, and returned with a white cloth and napkins and silver. While the men drank another drink she laid out the services and James saw some exquisite Austrian plates of dark blue and gold and white. He found himself very hungry, and very relaxed. He stretched out his feet to the fire. He yawned with pleasure. Hugh was humming with the almost inaudible music. He appeared years younger than he had over an hour ago. One could sleep here in peace, thought James, forgetful of the terrible world outside these doors.
Marian left the room again. Hugh said in a low voice, “She won’t marry me.”
James raised his eyebrows with inquiry. Hugh said, “It’s the damned banks. Everything I have is tied up in them. They’ve been my whole life, since I was a kid. Marian said I would come to hate her if I lost—everything. Besides, she says, she is too old for me. I need a young wife, she says, for children.”
James said, with an unusual lack of reticence, “I have a dear mistress in London. She refuses to marry me, saying that marriage is often the death of love. I disagree—well, sometimes. But why would you lose ‘everything’ if you left your wife?”
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