Bright Flows the River, page 38
“I’m afraid you’ll have to stay here tonight,” said Beth. “We’re on the main road, though. It’ll be open in the morning. Is there someone you must call?” She was no longer appalled.
“I suppose I should call Emil Grassner. If he doesn’t see me in the morning he’ll wonder what has become of me.” He thought of the recent episode of the thug.
“I hope the telephone lines aren’t down, too,” said Beth. She ran to the kitchen, then called out with relief. “Still up. But you’d better call now.”
So James called Emil Grassner, who said, “For God’s sake! I’ve been worried about you and wondered where you were. Where are you?”
“Marooned out in the country,” said James, without regret. “Visiting a lady.”
“Ah,” Emil said, and chuckled. “Have a nice warm bed. How far out in the country?”
“About ten miles. And you’re wrong—”
“I doubt it,” said Emil. “Nothing like a good storm.”
“The plows will be out in the morning,” said Beth, as they returned to the fire and fresh glasses of cordials. “I think I can make you comfortable for the night.” They sat and drank and listened to the storm and felt the fire enfold them. They sat in a long and contented silence. At last the gale was diminishing.
Beth left the room as the clock struck midnight and appeared on the threshold with an armful of fresh linen. “You’re a big man, James,” she said. “And the sofa isn’t long enough for you. So, you’ll have my bed; I’ll change the sheets right now, and I’ll sleep on the sofa.”
He smiled at her gently. She suddenly bent her head down on the linen she held and began to cry, long, deep racking sobs. He did not speak or go to her. Now she was crying, “Oh, just lie down with me in the bed and hold my hand until I sleep! Just stay with me, just hold my hand! So I can sleep!”
“It’s been a long time since you’ve had a long sleep, Beth.”
“Yes. A long time.” She lifted her head. Her face was very white and wet. “I can’t stand it,” she said, quietly and simply.
“Yes, you can, Beth. You’ll stand even this, if it’s necessary.”
He went into the little neat bathroom. He saw she had laid out articles for him, shaving soap, a razor, heavy towels, a comb and brush, and a pair of silk pajamas and a man’s dark blue woolen robe. He knew that these must be Guy’s articles, and he considered them, musingly. Again, he was surrogate for an absent man, who should be here now, and not in Mountain Valleys tormenting himself to death.
He blew out the lamp in the bathroom, and went into the bedroom in Guy’s clothing, which was somewhat too tight for him. Beth had undressed. She was putting on a sturdy and sensible pale cream flannel gown; her long red hair drifted over her white shoulders. The lamplight flickered here also. James sat down on the edge of the big bed with its brass head and foot, its warm red blankets, its quilts. The room was quite cold and getting colder by the instant. Firelight drifted in through the open door. The wind still battered the windows. Beth lay down on her pillow and smiled at him and the smile was that of a shy girl. Then she blew out the lamp and there was only firelight and the night and the waning storm. James lay down, and gratefully pulled the blankets over himself.
He felt Beth groping for his hand, and he held her hand tightly and consolingly. She clutched his hand with a desperate strength, and said nothing. He could feel her trembling with repressed sobs. The wind died away at last. Beth relaxed, sighed deeply and quiveringly, like a child rescued from a dark and lonely wood and from the terrible howling of wolves. She fell asleep, her hand still holding James’s. He could catch the warm woman scent of her flesh, the fresh fragrance of her hair; she, in her sleep, nestled closer to him so that her cheek lay against his shoulder. He realized now, in the profound silence, how lonely he was himself, how lonely for Emma as Beth was lonely for Guy Jerald. Loneliness. The awful predicament of mankind, which is ended only in death, or briefly, in the bed of another stranger. We delude ourselves that we can ever be truly at peace, or for long, or even completely known, or loved for ourselves. We live in illusions, thought James, which is just as well. Reality might kill us.
He could not sleep. His own pain was increasing, his own awareness of mounting malaise, which still had no name. He was surprised when a brilliant bloated moon looked through the window, between the thick red draperies. So the storm had passed. He turned his head and looked at the sleeping woman beside him. The moonlight poured on her. She was starkly carved of silver and marble. Her full breasts mounded the sensible nightgown. Her hair had turned silvery also, in the sharp light. She was murmuring something. Her eyelashes quivered. She smiled. She drew James’s hand between her breasts and murmured again, a sound of love and contentment. Oh, damn Jerry! thought James, looking at her in compassion. The fool, to throw away all this—and for what?
He felt, to his alarm, something stirring in his loins. He wanted to shift away from Beth, in embarrassment, but she clung tightly to his hand, pressing it deeper between her breasts. He felt heat in his flesh. She opened her eyes just before the moon went behind new clouds and the wind rose again. She knew him, then, this surrogate for the man she loved. She had smiled at him, not with coquettishness or pretended shame, but with acceptance.
It seemed very natural, and right, to him then to do what he now ardently desired to do. Beth, too, was surrogate for another. In the mutual primal embrace they found comfort and tenderness as well as intense pleasure. They lay together for a long time and experienced no betrayal, but only joy.
James woke to a blaze of light on his face, and he sat up, blinking, confused, for a moment or two, as to where he was. Then he saw that he was in Beth’s small warm bedroom, with its red blankets and red thick draperies and that it was high morning. He smiled, content. He had had the finest sleep since he had come to America, and he was full of gratitude and affection. He got out of bed. Apparently the electricity was on again, for he felt a comforting warmth on his ankles from a register. He looked through the window and saw a world of iridescence, white iridescence glittering with small rainbows as the sun splintered on high knifed drifts, some of which reached the windowsill. At a little distance there was a long drift of trees, filled with snow, and the sky was a brilliant pale blue and the far mountains shone like blue polished metal against it. It was a beautiful world, after all, a lovely world. He went into the bathroom, took a long pleasant bath, and dried himself on thick white towels. Beth might live simply but she knew when to be luxurious. He smelled coffee and grilling bacon. Yes, all was well with the world. Perhaps.
A fire was burning brightly on the hearth. James went into the little dining room, which was freshly laid with china and silver. He heard Beth in the kitchen, and in a minute or so she came in bearing a platter of bacon and eggs and glasses of orange juice. She looked at him with the sweetest smile he had ever seen on her face, and eyes that were frank and open. “Good morning, James,” she said and bent to kiss his cheek. But he kissed her lips, slowly and gently. She was dressed in a crisp blue-and-white-checked frock, and her red hair was smooth and sleek and wound about her head. She looked like a girl.
She told him that the boy who helped with the farm chores had arrived in his jeep with chains on the tires. “The roads have been only partially cleared,” she said. “Joel will drive you into town. My car is almost completely buried.”
“I think,” said James, hesitating whether he should eat two or three eggs and then deciding on the latter, “that I’d like to stay here.” He saw her face change, and then she smiled again, but this time with cheerful despair. She made no comment. They ate in companionable silence. Finally James said, “I am more optimistic this morning.” She poured his coffee. He sighed with satisfaction as he ate a newly baked muffin, and spread strawberry jam on it.
She said, “I never asked Guy to give up his wife and family for me, James. Never. I only told him that he must make up his mind—for his own sake, his own life’s sa
“Like the donkey who starved to death trying to make up his mind which of two bundles of hay he would eat,” said James. “Forgive me. I’m not being facetious. It’s a very apt story. And not a new one. You can’t help him; he must do it himself and live with the choice.”
Beth sighed. “It’s not easy for him. Yes, I know I can’t help him. I could only, in mercy, leave it all up to him to come to a decision. It wasn’t easy for me, either, you know.”
James nodded and touched her hand with sympathy. It was nine o’clock. The farm boy came in, stamping his boots free of snow, a large rosy boy with a shy smile. “Plow’s not here yet,” he said, after he had been introduced to James, whom he regarded with open curiosity. “But the jeep’ll get through, Miz Turner. I hope.”
It took two long rough hours to reach the city and the Old House, a very cold two hours. The city was floundering in drifts in the blinding glare of light, and parked automobiles looked like smooth mounds under the snow. There would probably be no visit to Mountain Valleys that day. James was not surprised to hear that Emil Grassner was still in the hotel. He joined him there at lunch.
Emil winked at him. “You look as if you had just fallen out of a warm bed,” he said. “Very smug, very pleased. You work fast, don’t you?”
“It’s not what you think,” said James.
“It never is,” Emil said, and laughed and winked again.
“I was with Mrs. Turner,” said James. “She had asked me to go to her house for dinner—and to talk about Jerry. Then the storm blew up and I couldn’t leave last night. So, I stayed.”
Emil lifted his eyebrows. His heavy farmer’s face was surprised. “I should have known you British never do anything impromptu, with a stranger,” he said. “Did the lady have anything new to say about our patient?”
“Not really.” James became thoughtful. “She only verified what we had already guessed. Now, there is a splendid woman. She is more than a lady; she is a woman, and a better accolade than that I do not know. She reminds me of my friend, Lady Emma Godwin. In London. They don’t physically resemble each other in the least, but in spirit, shall we say, they are truly sisters. I think I can say, now, that our conjecture was right. He always wanted to be a physician or preferably do research on cancer. He can still do what he wants, in spite of his age. And that’s the decision he must make: To continue to live his life as it is at this time or do what he genuinely wants to do. Mrs. Turner really doesn’t enter—much—in that decision. But I do think that before he met her he was resigned to his present life, or was more or less adjusted to it, though he evidently hated it. She was only the precipitant. I think.”
“I have heard, from his brother-in-law, that he was a very unhappy man even before he met Mrs. Turner,” said Emil. “Then, for a while after that, he appeared happier than Mr. Lippincott had ever seen him, more at ease; so Mr. Lippincott told me. But then he suddenly changed again, slightly over a year ago, and seemed deeply distracted, even distraught, again to quote Mr. Lippincott. Yes. Apparently Mrs. Turner was the innocent precipitant. He had been ambling along for years, more or less miserably, then he suddenly came—”
“‘To a dark wood,’” said James.
“And went down into the Inferno. Where all of us go, sooner or later. Too bad we never have a Virgil to lead us back, or seldom do.”
“I think Mrs. Turner is Jerry’s Virgil,” said James.
A waitress came in with a slip of paper for James. “It seems I had a call from London last night. About ten; three o’clock in the morning in England. Emma never called me before; I always called her. I hope there is nothing wrong,” said James, with alarm. He went to his room and waited with rising dread for Emma to be called and to answer. His heart began to pound too loudly in his chest. But when Emma answered her voice was round and merry as always.
“Well, where were you, you dog?” she demanded.
He sat on his bed, sighing with relief. “I was out, ducks, visiting.”
“A lady, no doubt. Well, good for you. Was she kind to you?”
He entered into the game with spirit, so relieved he was. “Very. The lady I wrote you about, old Jerry’s lady. We discussed him—thoroughly.”
Emma laughed. “Was that all you discussed?”
“Now then, I’m disappointed in you, Jimmy. Have you lost your touch?”
“You’ll have to tell me, when I go home.” He added, “There was a fierce storm here, what they call a blizzard, and we were snowbound and I had to stay the night.”
“Aha,” said Emma.
James said, “You gave me a fright, love, calling at three o’clock British time. You never did that before.”
There was a slight pause, then Emma said, “You’ve been away so long, or it seems that way, and I was missing you dreadfully and I had the thought of calling you. I couldn’t sleep. I tried a very tedious book and then took a pill, and it did no good. I even had the thought of flying over to America and joining you for a time. I’ve only seen New York, you know, and San Francisco, and Chicago. Never Pennsylvania, which I hear is a charming state.”
“A commonwealth,” said James. “Well, why don’t you fly over and we’ll be together for the little time I am remaining? We’re doing quite well with Jerry, but it may be a week or two more.” The thought of seeing Emma soon made him feel like a boy, brimming with first love.
Her voice became suddenly serious. “I will let you know, Jimmy, tonight. I really think I will join you.”
He felt joyous. “We’ll stay awhile together. There are many places I want to see myself. No sense in rushing back, if you are with me.”
“But your practice.”
“Hodgkins is taking care of that for me, you know. Time for a holiday, I think. England must be gloomy now. We can go to Florida and lie in the sun, and then off to the islands in the Caribbean. What fun. You must bring your dark glasses. The sun is very strong here now, even though it is winter and deep in snow.”
There was another pause. Then Emma said, “I’ll have my new spectacles in a day or two. Then I’ll go to you, Jimmy. Jimmy? I love you.”
His love for her made him always conscious of any nuances in her voice. He became alert. “Emma? Is there something wrong?”
“Now, what on earth can be wrong, except that I am lonely and I’ve lost my char and have to go through the tiresome business of replacing her, and my cook, Simon, is pouting because he’s afraid he’ll have to tuck in and help with the housework until I get a new char. He’s so damned temperamental, as you know.”
But James said, “What did old Harrington say about your eyes and the headaches you’ve been having recently?”
“My eyes? Oh, yes. It’s just old age coming along, Jimmy. We can’t escape it, alas.” Had her voice really become fainter, dimmer? James shifted on the bed.
“Emma. I feel there is something wrong. You must tell me!”
“Oh, Jimmy, you and your delicate ‘feelings.’ You’re worse than an old woman, worse than some old pussy in a village. By the way, that damned cat you gave me last summer bit me yesterday. I—”
He found himself sweating. “You must tell me, Emma, or I’ll be on the next plane and the hell with old Jerry.”
“You don’t mean that, Jimmy. And again, there’s nothing wrong. I’ll call you tonight.” Her voice was again full. “I think I know what bothered me. Yesterday was the a
Now she was laughing. “I bought you a really stupid present in remembrance, Jimmy. I hope you’ll enjoy it. Yes, a few weeks in the sun would do us both good. Don’t be off with another lady tonight, love, until you’ve heard from me.”
“I love you, Emma.” His voice had thickened, and there was a cold darkness in him.
“So you’ve said before, Jimmy love, and I believe you.”
“Will you marry me, Emma?”
Still another pause. Then Emma said, “I may do that, Jimmy, I really may. Perhaps.” Again her voice had changed. “Oh, Jimmy! I can’t wait to see you! I really can’t!”
Was that a sound of shaking despair in her voice? Oh, God, make it my imagination, thought James.
“On the other hand,” said Emma, “I’m not in favor of marriage, as you know. We’ll see. And wait for my call tonight, my darling.”
There was loud static on the line. “Emma? Are you there, Emma?”
But there was no answer. He replaced the receiver slowly. He felt sick and weak. He tried to shake himself together. Anything that touched Emma, no matter how trivial, touched him. But it must be his imagination. Emma had called him on an impulse, remembering the “anniversary.” She had been lonely for him, in spite of her many devoted friends. There was nothing wrong, nothing at all. But the fear remained. He thought of the warm sun in Florida, in the Caribbean, and Emma beside him. He thought of her almost-promise to marry him. It would be their honeymoon. The telephone rang.
“James?” said Emil. “I hear the Interstate road passing by Mountain Valleys is open now. We can go there after all.”
“You seem upset, James,” said Emil, as they drove out of the city. “Anything wrong?”