Bright flows the river, p.4

Bright Flows the River, page 4


Bright Flows the River

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  “We’re too civilized, James, and too busy obeying the sound rules. We believe in law and order and justice and decency, and may the best man win in the game of living. We believe in the sanctity of life and honor and pride.”

  “Um,” said James. “Perhaps we should develop some ruthlessness of our own, and gird up our loins and be men, as the Almighty advised Job. But somebodies have corrupted us with sweetness and light and general mildness and meekness and that abominable thing called ‘tolerance.’ Wasn’t it Christ Himself who advised men that if they lack a sword to sell their cloak and buy one? Yes. His Apostles carried swords, too. Nothing like going armed in a dangerous world, and the Liberal/Socialist/Communist Cabal have made it extremely dangerous, indeed, for an honest and upright man.”

  “To keep myself from having an overly optimistic view of the world, James, I often refresh myself by reading Roman history. When the Vandals came into Rome, the noble Roman Senators, wearing a very noble expression, repaired with nobility to the Senate, and there sat nobly in their noble white robes and scarlet shoes, awaiting the Vandals. To ‘communicate’ with them, no doubt, and impress them with noble sentiments and dialogue. The Vandals just went around to the Senate seats and quite ignobly cut off the Senators’ heads, one by one. I guess that’s all they deserved anyway. Where in the hell were their own swords?”

  “Probably their Catilinas had confiscated them,” said James, and laughed roughly. “Sword control, you know.”

  Emil smiled but without merriment. “Yes. Disarm the citizens and lay them wide open to the Vandals, and their bureaucratic masters. A very old story. I think we should now teach the boys in schools the arts of war and relentlessness against their miserable enemies.”

  Emil’s square farmer’s face had become less pleasant as he talked with James, and James thought there was a look of Odin about him. No, not Odin—Thor, the hammer thrower, the most virile of Emil’s ancient gods. James himself was losing his earlier resemblance to a fat and massive Toby jug, and his vital eyes had taken on a Draconian gleam. They had not talked of Guy Jerald this morning. They had a tacit if silent agreement that James was not to be influenced by another’s opinion, and that he was to be regarded only as a solicitous friend of the desperate man. But a quiet rapport had risen between the two men, an understanding which words merely underlined.

  James said, “In my father’s house, in London, a very big and ostentatiously vulgar house—to him vulgarity was highly amusing—there was a very bad engraving of the Paris mob storming the Tuileries during the period of the French Revolution. The street rabble. There they were, bloated and vehement and violent and conspicuously rampageous, their faces contorted with malicious and grinning hate and envy—oh, the sansculottes!—pouring up the magnificent steps, brandishing clubs, swords, pistols, scythes, and what not, lusting to loot all the beauty within the Tuileries. But they really preferred to destroy it and trample on it, for it represented to the rabble the majestic loveliness and glory which ignored and scorned them, and to which their ferocious and barbaric souls could never aspire, or understand. Yes, yes, the murderous rabble.

  “Nearby, watching with enormous contempt and disgust and genuine hatred stood a young corporal, Napoleon. Under the engraving was a legend ‘A bas le canaille!’ Yes, indeed, ‘down with the cattle.’ I was about ten years old when I became aware of that engraving in my father’s library, and I became devoted to Napoleon from that minute on. To this day I read everything published about him. He not only loathed the rabble, or the ‘street people’ as they are called now, but he understood their swine souls and their mindless impetus to demolish and kill and eat and drink and breed and rape and sack. So—he gave them wars, and they served him well.”

  “What did you think of Hitler, James?” Emil gave his new friend a sidelong look.

  “The perfect example of the rabble come to power, as was Stalin. I once heard this century called ‘the century of the common man.’ Yes, indeed. The world has lost all its capacity for grandeur. I can’t see any man anywhere, among our politicians, who has lofty and aristocratic spirit; a man of strength and fire and intellect and physical force. The world badly needs heroes. Now we have Socialism or liberalism or humanitarianism or ‘love’ or ‘compassion,’ but it is all the primitive manifestation of Neanderthal man. The lusting and rapacious beast, making mewling sounds and slinking, conjuring up personal enemies in natural thunderbolts.

  Suddenly Emil said, “I just had the oddest thought. I wonder if Guy had come to these conclusions himself.”

  James nodded abstractedly. “I was thinking of something else, too. If I were superstitious—and perhaps I am—I would be convinced that behind it all looms the most terrible power of personal Evil, which is very cognizant, very wise, very puissant, and which is elaborately plotting. It knows all the mean and viscid traits of mankind, all its innate repulsiveness and ghastly insanities. And—it is using them.”

  Emil chuckled. “You mean Satan. My parents believed in him implicitly. I sometimes thought they believed more in his verity than in God’s.”

  “Well,” said James. “He does seem more imminent, I daresay.”

  They were now traveling swiftly through the countryside. Overnight most of the trees had lost their foliage except for an occasional twig clutching a few brown leaves like the scorched and shriveled pages of a once glowing book. Black trunks, black branches, stark thin scribblings against that white sky, appeared to be a casual etching, done at random and upward, from a dull and sepia earth, without direction or intent. Far beyond them rose the brown tumblings of the mountains, struck here and there by the acid green of a fir or a spruce. The car raced by silent farmhouses and silos, and chimneys fluttered with rags of smoke. It appears dead, thought James, but in reality this is the busiest time of the year for nature, who is laying down seeds in the sodden ground and banking them with fallen leaves to protect them against the winter and to fertilize them. Perhaps that is also true of the autumn of our life: In the last years of our lives we are burying the seeds of the spring of our resurrections, the ripened seeds of our experiences and our knowledge.

  They crossed an arched wooden bridge leaping over a narrow stream which glimmered dimly with leaden lights. Now they passed a number of brooding cows grouped near a hedge, and a dog ran after them with bustling authority and a great deal of noise. The landscape did not remind James of England in the least. Everything in America seemed designed and created on a vast scale, and he found it slightly disconcerting like the reverse of claustrophobia. The smooth road bent to the right and now the buildings of the Mountain Valleys sanitarium came into view, quite abruptly. James was surprised at the size of the sanitarium and its calm beauty, for Cranston was not a large city. Emil said, “Mountain Valleys is very well known. Patients come here from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and even from New York. It’s very beautiful, the country, in spring and summer and fall, and the sanitarium has an excellent staff, some of the best men available from other cities. In the center”—and he pointed to an impressive larger building—“is an old mansion once belonging to a coal baron; it’s five stories high and remarkably handsome inside, and carefully modernized so as not to ruin the fine mahogany paneling and oak floors and molded ceilings and heavy oaken doors. They let the enormous Venetian chandeliers alone and restored some of them, and the staircases are really grand and imposing. The original oriental rugs are there, too—priceless, they tell me—and some excellent landscapes, two alleged to be by Landseer.

  “The first two floors are the administration and staff sections, the three upper stories are what we don’t like to call ‘maximum security,’ but it is. Those tall windows are barred so tactfully that you’d think they were only casement windows. It’s also the richest section, suites and such and big finely proportioned rooms. The wings on either side are only three stories, the rooms smaller and filled with modernistic furniture, all very expensive chrome and vinyl and cheery paintings and razzle-dazzle rugs in bright
colors. Supposed to be mood-lifting. But comfortable for all its insistent gladsomeness. The right wing is for the ladies, the left for the gentlemen, and they are identical. There are common rooms, too, where they have dances and movies and TV and libraries, and kitchens, of course, and a large common dining room. We believe in being as coed as possible. We’re really quite advanced; we know now that mentally ill people of all ages haven’t lost their sexuality. You’d be surprised at the keen perking up that goes on when the sexes meet for arts and crafts and cards and games and the plays they put on themselves, under enlightened direction. A considerable number of very satisfactory marriages had their beginning here. Nothing like sex to stimulate sanity and health!”

  “I’ve noticed that,” said James, laughing, and looking with interest at the sanitarium. The buildings were all of white brick, quite vivid in the shadowy morning light, and every window was framed in glistening black shutters. The grounds were very considerable, almost parklike, with groups of evergreens and white birches and oaks and maples and elms, and many flower beds now scrupulously bedded down for the approaching winter. Surrounding it all were high and elaborately artistic iron fences and gates, the latter with lampposts. A long drive curved through the grounds to the double front doors. There were a few men about, quietly raking leaves. A man in a gray uniform appeared suddenly at the gate and scrutinized Emil and his passenger, then by some magic the gates silently opened.

  “All this,” said Emil, with some bitter irony, “is not to protect the community from the loonies inside, but to protect the loonies from the community. Especially from unwelcome relatives with an eye out for inheritances and hope high in their black hearts—this covers most children. I’ve had many a talk with sons and daughters, who earnestly asked me, with big tearful eyes, if I weren’t an advocate of the ‘happy death,’ meaning euthanasia. ‘Dad—or Mom,’ they’ll whimper, ‘is just a vegetable now and didn’t I think—’ I always say no. And I, and the physicians here, do everything possible to keep Dad and Mom healthily alive, and aware, and legally protected. We have some patients with very modest incomes, and we have a quota for the poor souls who live on Social Security and nothing else. It isn’t odd that their offspring aren’t in the least anxious for these parents to die.”

  James said, “But your practice is in Philadelphia, isn’t it?”

  “Yes. But I have an interest in Mountain Valleys and I have a number of patients here myself. People who have about given up trying to cope with our present world, and I don’t blame them. I can’t always cope, either.” After a moment he added, “The psychiatrist in charge here is Charles Witherspoon, who is cynical about psychiatry. He knows damned well that most patients would be cured without any so-called treatment at all—if they just had a little peace of mind. A very able man, with many credentials. Well, form your own opinion of him.”

  The double doors opened silently and a very pretty young lady, a receptionist, greeted them with the typical American smile, “wall-to-wall teeth,” as James ungenerously called it. But she had very nice legs, he observed. Emma was noted for her own nice legs, almost as admirable as these, one of her beauties, thought James, who found Emma’s ugly and gay and animated monkey countenance the most fascinating in the world of women. They entered an immense hall, the walls lined with long and enticing sofas, the walls heavy with portraits and landscapes and seascapes, many of them valuable. The floors were thick with elegant oriental rugs, and a huge and sparkling chandelier, lit on this gloomy day, hung from the ceiling of the second story.

  “Dr. Witherspoon is waiting for you, Doctor,” said the young lady, who looked hesitantly at James. But Emil merely nodded to her genially and let her lead him and James to a door at the end of the hall. James noticed that the warm air was fresh and fragrant, and not institutional. He saw tall live plants in brass buckets scattered everywhere. One was actually blooming with broad pink flowers. He touched them furtively as he passed them. Thankfully, they were not plastic. He had no objection to plastic; it was really very useful; but he did not like it in quantities, and especially did not like it when it was designed to imitate, quite cleverly, the authentic article. There were enough imitation people, he reflected, without making the whole environment fraudulent, too.

  The young lady touched a discreet bell near the door, then coyly opened the door and glanced within. She must have received a signal, for she held open the door for the two visitors and stood politely aside, still smiling that fixed Cheshire smile. James found such smiles very pathetic and he wanted to pat the girl consolingly on the bottom, and say, “There, there, lovey.”

  The office beyond the door seemed to be a very handsome living room, with a bounding bright fire on a black marble hearth—which had a mantel above adorned with valuable objets d’art, and above which hung a Venetian mirror framed in ornate gold. A choice oriental rug in dim blue and yellow covered the wide floor, and the furniture discreetly arranged were genuine antiques. James recognized a Duncan Phyfe here and there, and a piece of Sheraton, not to mention old red leather chairs embellished with brass studs. A Florentine desk, carved discreetly, stood under still another shining chandelier, and there was a scent of chrysanthemums and fern and wood smoke happily floating about. The room was very quiet and had a feeling of repose and peace. There was not even a clatter of a typewriter to be heard here, nor a distant banging of a door, nor a voice.

  A tall man of about sixty was standing behind the desk, and though he was slender and compact he gave the instant impression of being strong and immovable. He resembled a still statue made entirely of gray granite, from his severely cut hair to his immobile slab of a face, gray clothing, gray hands, gray lips, harsh nose and rudely carved cheekbones and small colorless eyes like remorseless pebbles. There was no friendly expression on his face; it had the fixity of stone and was, James thought, about as gentle.

  James, the astute, knew at once that here was a man almost excessively good and kind and perceptive, a man of probity and filled with great and awesome compassion, and a profound intuition. James had met very few men like this psychiatrist, and always felt, when meeting them, that he had been given some kind of absolution. Of such were the saints made; it was a gift of God to know them. James was not surprised when, after introductions, he found the granite hand to be hard yet sensitive and shy.

  Dr. Witherspoon inclined that rude head towards James and said, in a rough voice like gravel, “Will you have coffee, Doctor? Or tea, perhaps?”

  “Coffee, please,” said James. He smiled at the other man. “I detest tea.”

  Emil was relieved. Charles had instantly accepted James, as he accepted few men. Charles might be the best of men but he was no soft accepting fool. He did not suffer fools gladly, either, and he had no patience with the pretentious and the frauds and the hypocrites. His opinion of mankind, Emil knew, was not exactly benevolent, for all his greatness of soul. No one could deceive him. Emil honored him as he honored no other man.

  The pretty receptionist brought in a silver tray, very polished and ancient, with delicate cups and saucers and spoons and a bright coffeepot also of silver. The three men sipped thoughtfully, and James found Dr. Witherspoon studying him with the calmness of marble.

  “I understand,” said Charles Witherspoon, “that you are not here in the capacity of Guy Jerald’s psychiatrist, but only as his old friend. Emil told me yesterday.”

  James made a disarming gesture with his thick rosy hand. “Only as Jerry’s friend. We called him Jerry in the Army. Jerry and I were close friends. I wasn’t popular, for a number of reasons, and it comes to me now that Jerry wasn’t either. Our relationship with our fellow soldiers was sometimes dodgy, to say the least. I can understand why I wasn’t the chap from the local pub, but I don’t understand why Jerry and the others weren’t matey. Strange, I never realized that until now.” He looked thoughtfully into his cup and frowned. “Jerry had every trait considered to be necessary if one wants to make friends. He was very steady, consider
ate, would lend money, was interested in others to a certain extent, and generous and never backbiting or mean or treacherous. Malice was beyond him. He was always straightforward. I never knew him to do a contemptible thing, or show any greed.”

  “Perhaps that’s why he didn’t make friends,” said Charles Witherspoon.

  James glanced at him, startled. He considered. “Yes. Very probable.” He paused. “It isn’t pleasant to think that one has to be a thoroughgoing rascal to be loved by one’s fellow men.”

  For the first time Charles smiled. It was a smile like a bleak light falling momentarily on granite. “But it’s true, just the same. ‘Night calls unto night, and deep unto deep,’ to quote the Bible. So does rascality call to rascality, and we’re a world of scoundrels, you know. We are uncomfortable in the presence of decency.”

  The heavy hoarse voice had subtly changed, and James recognized the change as incurable sadness. Charles picked up a folder on his desk, glanced within it, then put it down.

  “As Emil has probably told you, and Guy’s physician, too, we haven’t much to go on concerning your friend. I never knew him before he came here, or was brought here. I have to rely on others, including”—and again that bleak smile—“his wife and children. It seems Guy, or Jerry, as you call him, isn’t very communicative.”

  James thought, with dismay: If you haven’t been able to communicate with him, I haven’t a prayer.

  “I have a tentative diagnosis,” said Charles, “my own, and I admit I haven’t any real grounds for it. Guy Jerald is as sane as anyone I’ve ever known. But he is in such a depression that he might as well be blind and deaf and locked in a black dungeon. He’s shut the whole damned world out—while he makes up his mind about something. That’s only my opinion, of course, and Emil agrees with me. We are giving him as little medication as possible. He doesn’t need sedating, he doesn’t need tranquilizing, he doesn’t need mood-lifting drugs. He needs, I think, to be let alone. We are letting him alone as much as possible. We’d go along with that indefinitely, but he is showing signs of an impending physical collapse, too. Possibly willing himself to die. If this keeps on, he will die; there’s no doubt of it. The point is: Do we have a right to interfere, to force him to live against his will?”

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