Bright flows the river, p.45

Bright Flows the River, page 45

 

Bright Flows the River
 



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  He took her into the bar, which was already filled with residents of the Old House and their guests of the evening. He found his table. He was very pleased with her. It was nonsense to say a man could not love more than one woman at a time. He loved three, in different ways, Emma, Beth, and Marian Kleinhorst, and they were grande dames and worthy of a man’s devotion.

  “I’m having two other guests,” he told Beth, after he had ordered their drinks. “Hugh Lippincott and his friend, a Mrs. Kleinhorst.”

  Beth’s face changed. “I don’t think Mr. Lippincott likes me, James.”

  “Of course he likes you. He paid you several compliments after you had left.”

  “Did he—guess?”

  James shrugged. “Possibly. But he’s not one of those slyly sniggering men. After all, Mrs. Kleinhorst is his dearest—friend, and he needs such a woman. He wants to divorce his wife, but it seems that Marian won’t marry him.”

  Beth became interested. “Why not?”

  “I think it has something to do with old Jerry, who castigated him for a lack of ‘duty and responsibility,’ and he seemed to disapprove of Hugh’s relationship with Marian.”

  Beth colored a little. “Yet he—I—”

  “I know. That’s part of his bad trouble. Ambivalent. I imagine he disapproves of himself, too.” James laughed gently.

  Beth shook her head, and in silence sipped at her drink. The subdued light in this wood-paneled barroom, with its brown leather chairs, made Beth appear young and too vulnerable.

  She said at last, “Guy is a very strange man. We’ve known each other for almost five years, yet I never know, when he visits me, what his mood will be that night. There were times when I thought he hated me, though he never told me why.”

  “His conscience, I believe,” said James. “Now, I have no conscience, thank God.” They laughed together. Then James said, “I did not see him today. Emil Grassner advised against it. It appears that old Jerry had had a bad night. Now, don’t be alarmed. We expect these setbacks during the process of regaining mental health. And I think he is steadily coming to some final decision in spite of himself. Final. When he does he will be completely well.”

  Beth said in a low voice, “Whether or not that includes me doesn’t matter so much anymore. I only want him to have some peace of mind. If his peace of mind demands his never coming to see me again, I think I could stand it. I know I could. I only want his happiness.”

  Hugh and Marian arrived, and James rose to meet them. Hugh’s blond face was surprised, as he shook Beth’s hand, but his smile was kind and thoughtful. As for the women, they were at once en rapport. Beth studied Marian with admiration, the slender aristocratic face, the pale gilt hair, the lovely silvery eyes. Marian was swathed in an abundance of dark mink, and her dress was an elegant black silk and her jewels flashed at ear, throat, and wrist. An open fireplace sparkled and cracked on the black marble hearth, and Marian looked about with appreciation. “How charming,” she said. “I’ve never been here before. It reminds me of some old Austrian inn on the Gross Glockner, in the winter. Helmut and I—it was one of our favorite places.” Sadness touched her sensitive face. She said to Beth, “My husband. He was—killed—after the war. At Nuremberg. He was a soldier.”

  Beth understood. She lightly touched Marian’s hand with sympathy, and in love Hugh touched Marian’s hand. He said to James, “What does a man do when the woman he wants to marry says no.”

  “He thanks her,” said James. The two women laughed aloud but Hugh looked blank for a few moments. He said, “You’re a great help, Jim.”

  “I’m in somewhat of the same situation myself,” said James. “My friend, Lady Emma Godwin, refuses to marry me, too. She is afraid that if we marry, and one of us dies, the sorrow will be too much for the one living. She imagines that death, if we are not married, will be less terrible for the one remaining. She is wrong, of course.”

  “Women,” said Hugh, waving his hand. “Marian, as you know, is afraid that if she marries me I will come to hate her for my having given up my whole life’s work. I can’t follow a woman’s reasoning, but then no man can.”

  “You men are not so simple,” said Beth. “You are very complex characters, much more so than are women. Compared with Guy I am as clear as brook water and as uncomplicated.”

  “I never could understand him,” said Hugh. “He’s closemouthed and surly, and we never particularly liked each other. Now I’m sorry for him.”

  The guests were enthusiastic about the dinner, and James enjoyed it also. He was not feeling so despondent now in this kind company. He looked frequently at the two women, admiring them, loving them both. Emma would delight in them, and they in her. He began to talk about Emma and her imminent arrival, and Beth and Marian listened with affection. “I think Emma will come around to marrying me when she arrives. At least, I hope so.”

  Finally, he turned to Hugh. “I think,” he said, “that when Jerry completely recovers he will feel more generous towards you. I don’t know why, but I am almost sure. In that event, there’ll be no obstacles, I hope, between you and Marian.” Marian gazed at him and there was a bright moisture in her eyes.

  “You’re more sure than I am,” said Hugh, almost sullenly. “I know Guy too well. Obstinate, unbending, like the laws of the Medes and the Persians. You don’t change, in your middle years, into something entirely new and different.”

  “I’ve seen that happen,” said James.

  Hugh sighed. “I never could understand why he married my sister. It’s incongruous. She’s ‘faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null.’ Even if Lucy is my sister I can honestly say I never met a more stupid woman. If she ever had an original thought it would crack her alleged mind like the mirror of the Lady of Shalott. Oh, she’s attractive, all right, but Guy’s too wary and cold a man to marry a woman just for appearance. And he didn’t marry her for money, or to advance himself in any way. He didn’t need her at all.”

  “As I told you before, I think, she must have been surrogate for another woman. There was a girl in Germany. I never saw her but he described her to me once, and it sounded as if she resembled your sister, Lucy. Most people would never guess that Jerry was vulnerable, perhaps even sentimental in hidden ways, but he is. When I knew him, as lads together, a livelier lad you’d never find, and full of passion and vitality, and hope. It’s all under that façade of his, still. I’ve seen it burst out these three weeks, at intervals—the old Jerry. Vital. Furiously ardent—and full of pain. In all these years, didn’t you get glimpses yourself?”

  “No,” said Hugh, promptly. “Except when he was raising hell with somebody, often me. No wildness; just rage. No passion; just fury. Dogmatic when it came to destroying someone’s hopes. Then he really had a good time.” Hugh’s voice was bitter. “If he couldn’t enjoy living, then no one else had a right to that enjoyment, either. A brighter woman than Lucy would have divorced him long ago, but she’s so stupid that she probably thinks all men are like Guy, more or less, and should be endured, as a nice wife. When she would complain sweetly about him she never blamed the things he really was, incredibly bad-tempered, ruthless, grim. A tyrant. She only blamed him because he wasn’t demonstrative with his children, and didn’t ‘adore’ them as she did. Never for his brutal insults to her even before relatives or guests, never for his open contempt for her, never for lacking tolerance for her shallow feelings or silly remarks. She was always avid for money, and what life she had to give was for her children. She never saw them for what they were. She thought that every hour that Guy wasn’t working should be ‘devoted to the family.’ She never stopped talking about that. In fact Lucy seldom stops talking. She’s more like a poster than a woman, a pretty but two-dimensioned lithograph. Advertising Jell-O.”

  “But, he’s been faithful to her—in his ‘fashion.’”

  “Yes, and isn’t that insane?”

  “Quite.”

  Hugh looked at Beth, whom he had come to admire an
d appreciate. How could a woman like this stand his rude brother-in-law, his violent and somber nature, his puritanical inconsistencies? She was either a saint or a fool. But no one could understand a woman in love, especially not a woman who loved a man who was not lovable in the least, or even endurable. Aside from her sensual mouth she looked serenely contained, of a piece, and sensible. Her clothing might be inexpensive but Hugh sensed that this was not because of poverty but of choice. Unlike his sister, Beth was a lady, as was Marian.

  Hugh looked at James. “I’ve heard that my nephew, Bill, has been consulting some lawyers in Philadelphia, about his father. He’d surely love to consign Guy to some far-distant little institution, burying him alive and then forgetting him. There seems more to his hate for Guy than just a desire to take over, and I know what it is, I think.” He thought of Guy’s savage beating of his son after the raping episode. His hysterical sister had told him.

  He said, “Old Guy had better snap out of this very soon or we’ll be in an unpleasant situation. Bill can’t do much harm because I am there. But he’ll try.”

  “I have every hope, Hugh, that Jerry will come out of it.”

  The guests left because the storm was increasing and James went upstairs to his books and his bed. He looked at his watch. In less than forty-eight hours Emma would be here, and he smiled tenderly. That night he slept. He had never been happier, for he would have the woman he loved, and he would begin his new life. He felt buoyant, excited and renewed.

  The next morning when he met Emil at breakfast Emil said, “We’ve had the worst storm in anybody’s memory. It went on all night, and it will be a day before even the Interstate will be completely open. It’s still snowing and blowing, you’ll notice. I called Mountain Valleys before I came down for breakfast. Guy is still in that catatonic state, but he seems less unaware. I think he’s deliberately cultivating it, to avoid our efforts in his behalf. Well, anyway, we can’t go out there today.”

  “Well, I don’t entirely regret that. I’m expecting an overseas call, which will arrive at any time today, and I want to be here to receive it. Then I must go at once to New York to meet Emma’s plane.” He looked anxiously at the snow. “Will the airport here be open?”

  “We try to keep it open even when the roads are clogged, for Cranston is as attached to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as a placenta is attached to the wall of the uterus. We’re more dependent than we like on those cities. I listened to the weather reports before I came down. The snow is slowing down. So, when Lady Emma comes to New York on her way here our airport will be ready to receive her. As for your going to New York early tomorrow, or even tonight, your chances are good.”

  When Emil had left to see some patients in the Cranston Memorial Hospital, James could hardly keep his excited anticipation under control. He informed the desk that he was not leaving the hotel that day, but would be in either his room, the dining room, or the lobby, and that he was expecting an important call. At noon, he was trembling with impatience. At two o’clock he was almost wild, for there had been no word from Emma. He took to pacing. What could have gone wrong? He calculated the time. In England, it was night, seven o’clock or more. James called the Plaza Hotel in New York and reserved three rooms for himself, Emma, and Emma’s maid, Susan. They would stay overnight in the city, for Emma would be tired. The next day they would come to Cranston. He looked at his watch. Only half past two. Then, unable to endure the tension any longer, he called Emma’s house. But there was no answer. His heart began to thump. He tried to reassure himself. Thursday was Simon’s day off. But Emma should be packing, with Susan helping her.

  Now he began to sweat. His whole body was shaking. He bathed his face with cold water, and, rare for him, he swallowed a tranquilizer. He went down to the lobby. The elderly clerk saw him from a distance, and smiled and beckoned to him. Emil ran as swiftly as a youth to the desk. The elderly clerk beamed on him. “We tried to call you, Sir James, but the telephone was in use.” He paused, then said with his own excitement, “The lady, her ladyship, is in her suite. She—”

  “Lady Emma is here!” James almost shouted in his incredulity and joy. “In this hotel? Here now?”

  “Yes, sir. She seemed tired, so went to the suite. You’ll find her there—” But James was already racing for the elevator, gasping, his face ruddy and slight. Why hadn’t she called him from New York? Or from the London airport? Or from anywhere? Why this secrecy? The elevator crawled. It stopped. People got in and out and James almost screamed in his impatience. After a long, long while it reached his floor and he ran out and galloped down the hall to Emma’s suite.

  The door was open. He ran into the living room shouting, “Emma, Emma, where are you, Emma?”

  She came from her bedroom and ran into his arms and he held her as if he would never let her go again, and kissed that dearest face over and over, and almost cried with his joy and love. He heard his own exclamations of rapture and adoration. He held her off to look at her, his eyes wet, his mouth shaking. And she clung to him, held his face in her hands and kissed his eyes, his lips, his chin, and her own eyes were wet.

  “But why, Emma, didn’t you let me know?”

  She took his hand and kissed it. He could feel her trembling. “It’s a long story, love. A long story.” How incredibly wonderful it was to hear her rich voice. But her glowing olive complexion was sallow, and no longer vibrant. She shivered a little. He took her back in his arms, smoothed her hair, stroked her cheek. “I’ve been almost out of my mind,” he said. “I was going frantic. Why didn’t you let me know so I could meet you in New York? How could you have been so cruel to me?”

  She gently removed herself from his arms. There were tears on her cheeks. “And where’s Sue?” he demanded, as he placed Emma in a chair.

  She looked up at him and he saw something he had never seen there before. Terror. He recognized it at once, and at once a thick cold fist struck him in his vital center.

  “I came alone, love, because I wanted to be alone with you.” She reached out and took his hand. “Alone with you, with no interference. My bags are here. I was just unpacking.” She scrutinized him with close attention, and smiled. “Jimmy, you are fatter than ever, you big pig. Oh, Jimmy, how I love you! Love you, love you!”

  He drew a chair close to hers, caught her hands and held them tightly. “Very well, Emma, tell me.” He saw that she was considerably thinner than she had been almost a month ago. That splendid body was still splendid, but it had dwindled to a certain extent. He saw that her lips were dry and blistered, as if she had been exposed to a heavy frost. Her smile was less gay and raffish, though it was evident she was trying to conceal this. The little streaks of white in her chestnut hair had widened. She had aged. Again he saw the terror in her eyes. The hands he held were slighter, and too hot. A huge pain shrank his chest, and then his temples. He felt he was smothering. “Emma, tell me.”

  She said, “Have you whiskey, Jim? I’d appreciate a drink, a very large drink.”

  He stared at her and did not know how white his own face was. He was a physician as well as a psychiatrist. Emma was ill. Her vividness had dulled. Some vital virtue had left her. He caught her chin and minutely examined her face. He saw what had to be seen, and a vast dark coldness came to him. When he stood up his legs were so weakened that he almost fell. He filled a glass with whiskey, and poured water into another glass. He could feel her watching him, and now he knew she was afraid for him. She took the glass and drank deeply, unusual for Emma. She coughed, choked, gave him the empty glass, and smiled that awful new smile of hers. He sat down again. He said, “Emma, stop torturing me. Tell me.”

  “I didn’t want to tell you over the telephone, Jimmy. I wanted to be with you.” Her voice broke. “In fact, I was going to write you, to tell you I must never see you again. That it was all over.”

  He thought he was impervious to shock. Now he knew what terrible shock was, numbing, crushing, making one shudder, turning one’s body to wood.
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  “Never to see me again? Why, Emma?”

  “To spare you. You see, I’ve known for over a week. I was going away before you returned. Somewhere on the Continent where you’d never find me.”

  Her voice had become faint and dim. When he could not move or speak she reached for his hand, pressed it to her cheek; it was very cold and tremulous. His hand was limp in her own. He was breathing the slow ponderous breaths of shock, of almost mortal shock.

  “But I’m a coward, Jimmy, love. A nasty weak coward. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t write you a chilly letter saying it was all over, and that we must never see each other again. I even thought of inventing a new lover—to spare you. But, when it came to the sticking point, I couldn’t. I couldn’t do that to you, Jimmy, though it would have been the best for you. You would suffer a little while, then you would forget me, and perhaps come to hate me. I’d have been more content with that—if I hadn’t been such a coward.”

  His eyes were glaring, stunned, at her. There were drops like tears falling from his forehead. She closed her eyes and said, very quietly, “You see, Jimmy, I’m dying.”

  “Dying,” he repeated, stupefied. The word was unreal, but it was like the rattle of dead bones, bones irretrievably dead.

  She was groaning as she spoke. “I should not have been such a coward. I should have removed myself from your life, as I originally intended. I was going to hide, to die alone, happy that you’d never guess. It was all arranged.”

  He could not speak. She said, “I’ve been in New York for three days, Jimmy. I went to the Sloan-Kettering Institute. I wanted to get a final opinion. After all, there are so few competent neurologists in England now. When I went to the Institute, it was to see your old friend Dr. Norton, who left England five years ago. Dr. Norton. He saw you in New York this time. And—when he confirmed—what Dr. Brandall on Harley Street had already told me—he said I must tell you. I refused. He has given me until tomorrow to tell you myself, to show you—If I haven’t told you by then he is going to call you.”

 
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