Bright Flows the River, page 50
“Pity your children that they were born! Teach them what you can—if they will listen. Treat them with mercy, for they, too, will suffer in the common pit of misery in which we all live. But never condemn them for being what they are; you don’t know the mysteries of inheritance. Who does? Your children were a disappointment to you. Perhaps your father was disappointed in you, too.”
Guy’s face changed, but James did not see it. “Be kind to your children,” he said. “But once you have brought them to manhood let them go. Don’t hate them. Yes, I know that you dislike your children or at the very least are indifferent to them. But pity them for our common human predicament. Your children may have the usual human malice and ingratitude, stupidity and trend to evil. We all have. Their lives are their own, as yours is your own. Years of fatherhood may be wasted, but even in that waste we learn something about ourselves, or we should. We should learn tolerance even during dismissal, and hope for the best.”
The gray snow and wind rumbled at the windows but there was silence in that charged room. It was James who was the unseeing one now, and Guy the seeing. One was stunned almost to the dying point; the other had begun to live, and Guy, all at once, knew this was so but why it was so he did not understand.
James, in his agony, had begun to pace the room, as a man paces who has been stricken by an unbearable and twisting pain, and can find no surcease. He said, in that strained unnaturally high voice, “I’ve learned something about your father, from your own ramblings after you came out of your damned trances. He pitied you, didn’t he? You probably saddened him, but he did not blame you, or anyone else. He knew you had to find your own way, as we all must do. No one can find it for us except ourselves. If your children are intolerable to you, perhaps they found you intolerable also, for you were the stranger, the rebel, the strong one, and they have no strangeness, are not rebellious, and have no strength. I saw that for myself. You should have chosen a better mother for them, a woman more like yourself. That was your crime against your children—marrying their mother. What did you expect of that misbegotten marriage? Children of your own heart? If you did, then you are a worse fool than your wife, whom I pity. The kindest thing you can do for your children, now, I think, is to forget them or remember them with some commiseration and lenience. They will learn, and you can be sure of that! One day they might even become your friends, if you mercifully forgive them! But never indulge the folly of blaming yourself for what they are, though by your marriage you condemned them to that. To feel guilty is to be twice cursed.”
He turned his throbbing and exhausted face on Guy, and it was a face Guy was never to forget. James said, “We’ll probably not meet again. But, in your way, you have taught me something, though that was not your intention. You taught me to confront myself, though you could not teach yourself that! You brought me face to face with myself; you taught me that I was as self-indulgent as you are, and just as craven, and that it was time for me to be a man and do what I must do. So, perhaps, all the time I have spent with you was not a waste at all. It was an awakening, wretched though it was, almost unbearable though it was. What I must face now—it may be easier for what you have taught me.”
“Jim,” said Guy, but again the agonized man did not hear him.
“I couldn’t teach you to be a man. But you taught me!”
He looked savagely at Guy, and did not see that aware expression, that acutely understanding expression. He saw an obdurate one, a sullen and denying one, and suddenly he could not stand it. He ran at his friend and struck him furiously, backhand, across his face, crying out aloud in his increasing extremity of despair and grief. “Oh, damn you, damn you, you stupid bastard! You have the greatest thing a man can expect of life, the only glorious thing, the love of a noble woman! And what have you done to that woman, you wretched swine! I’ve seen her; I’ve talked with her; I have heard her voice and the love in it—for you! She did for you what few women can do for a man: Teach him how to truly be a man, how to truly live! Was it too much for you? So too much that you tried to kill yourself? Ran from her?”
He did not see Guy jump to his feet; he only saw that they were facing each other, their breathing tumultuous in the room.
Guy exclaimed, “Beth!”
James shouted, “Yes, Beth! The woman you don’t deserve, never will deserve! Beth Turner, who came here regularly to ask about you.” He wanted to add, in his turbulent pain, “The woman who came to me for consolation, as to a surrogate, the loving woman.” But he caught himself in time. It would be a monstrous thing to do to that woman, who had wept in his arms in her own anguish. He sorely wanted to do that thing, to alleviate his torture and make his friend share it with him, if only out of male jealousy. But he recoiled from that natural human desire.
“Beth—she has come here, to find out about me?” James did not see the sudden brilliant joy on the other man’s face, the elation, the overwhelming passion.
“Yes, yes! That she did, but why, God only knows. Only another woman could understand such pardon, such devotion, little as they are deserved.”
“Beth!” cried Guy, and he struck his palms together.
But James’s suffering was now too much for him to tolerate. He collapsed down into the very wing chair which Guy had abandoned. He put his hands over his face and moaned over and over, rocking himself back and forth. Tears spurted through his fingers. He had lost all control of himself. He was now just another man prostrated by hopeless grief, by a loss too terrible to be endured. He had consoled others; he could not console himself.
His voice came from behind his hands in paroxysms, as if his throat was being torn from him in bleeding fragments. “No, no, you aren’t worthy to have that woman. At least I’ve loved Emma and have returned her love. At least I’ve appreciated her, have never said one vicious word to her. The loveliest woman. I can’t ever condemn myself for coldness to her, for lack of consideration, for hardness of heart, for cruelty. No, never. I—I—Oh, my God! I—I can’t stand it! How can I stand it, that I must lose her soon, and watch her die? Lost forever. The only thing I love. Watch her die, in the worst pain imaginable. No—I won’t let her go through that! No, no. Oh, Emma, my love, my love. Take my life, but live. Emma, you mustn’t leave me—I—I—Emma.”
He rocked more wildly on the chair and the tears poured through his fingers and his whole body was convulsed. All the suppressed rebellion, all the suppressed agony, of the last days burst from him in a flood, uncontrollable, devastated. Blackness, streaked with scarlet, ran behind his eyelids and pain roiled his heart. He heard nothing but the scream of his own suffering, both mental and physical.
It was a long time before he could quiet himself, before his own torment numbed him. Then he became aware that Guy was kneeling beside him, that his head was on Guy’s shoulder, that Guy’s arm was about him in comforting, that Guy was wiping his eyes with a brother’s consolation. He lay in profound exhaustion in Guy’s arms and he closed his swollen eyes in a child’s desperate relaxation.
Only Guy heard the door open to show an astounded Emil Grassner on the threshold of the room. Emil stared, then understood, and his face was contorted with sympathy and his individual pain.
Guy said, “Let him rest, Emil. Then, I’m going home, today, to Beth.” He held out his hand to the psychiatrist and Emil came to him and took that hand and he put his other hand on James’s shoulder, in blessed silence and pity and affection, the soundless mutual affection which only men can know for each other in distress. It had no need for words.
Beth sat by her fire this gloomy day and stared sightlessly at the frost which glittered on her windows. Her eyes swelled with tears which endlessly dropped on the green wool of her frock, and her hands were clasped together on her knees. Her face was calm, however, and full of resolution.
She had come to the end of waiting. She knew it was the end and though the pain was there so also was her strength. Emil’s last message to her had informed her that Guy
“No,” she said aloud, “I have reached the end of patience.”
She considered Guy’s apparent decision. Whether or not that included her, she did not know. He had, without doubt, decided that she had no more part of his life or that he expected her to continue as before. “No,” she said again. “It can’t be as it was. For my sake. I owe that to myself, if I am going to continue living. To drift along again is beyond my courage and my endurance. I have my life to live, and it is my own. Certainly I will suffer, but I won’t let it go on so long that it destroys me. That would be a crime against myself and a crime against life. I am a breathing human being, and nothing is ever lost. I have had over five years of uneasy happiness. Yes, they were uneasy, I admit that at last.”
She would sell the farm to Joel on long terms, to be given to him on her death. She would find another place in this world to live, this most beautiful world. Only she could make it a desert to exist in, and she had never lived in a desert and would never live in it. There were too many fertile places, too many seas and mountains and vast glowing plains. She was not young, in her body, but she felt that in her soul she would never be old. The final separation in mind and flesh from what she had known these considerable years would be agonizing, she knew, but when were separations ever happy? Somewhere there was a place for her, uniquely her own, where she would find peace and contentment and no hopeless waiting any longer. Somewhere there might be another man to love, but it would be a man who was composed and of a piece, who could give her, if not rapture and total joy, then serenity and tranquillity. She had known too many men, and was too sophisticated, to believe that the death of one love meant the death of all love. No one could live fully without love, and love she would have. She was no callow woman or young girl. If one were deprived for all time of wine, there was good sound water; if excitement and leaping joy were lost, then they could be replaced by contentment and a measure of placidity and service. The evening of life was as beautiful as the morning, and far richer, for it had fulfilled itself. The moon was as lovely as the sun and it held more mystery. It had a majestic silence.
Perhaps there would be for her a man like James Meyer, a good kind man who could be trusted, a gentle man in whose arms she would sleep in peace, knowing he would be there tomorrow, and without caprice, who would trust her as she trusted him. It had come to her that she had never completely trusted Guy Jerald. She had understood him too well for that.
Of course, she reflected, the improbable might occur: Guy would return to her, his twisted life resolved, and with his own resolution. For an instant her heart beat faster and then she sternly repressed the sudden surge of emotion. If that impossible thing happened to her there would still be that change in her. Could she, however deep her love, be happy with a man without absolute trust? Was love possible, indeed, without trust, without the giving of one’s whole self? Yes, it was possible, but it was a love that would always be shadowed in some tarnished way, tarnished with a dim mistrust.
She asked herself: Am I looking for perfection when I know only too well there is no perfection? No, I am not looking for that. I only want to give completely of myself, as I want a man to give completely of himself to me. That doesn’t necessarily involve total trust; it involves—or does it?—a compromise. Am I strong enough to live the rest of my life in compromise? I don’t know.
She had almost immediately forgiven Guy for that dreadful night of shame and degradation. She had told herself, until just recently, that she had understood in all the ramifications of understanding. But she would never forget. She had too much pride. Even if Guy became trustworthy, there would always be that remembrance, like a warted toad in a clear polished pond within a forest. For there would be fear, which was part of mistrust. He was too changeable, and though changefulness had its own certain excitement it was too disturbing. The world was disturbing enough without bringing that turmoil onto one’s hearthstone.
She did not intend to vegetate in some backwoods of life, but she did intend to keep the eye of the storm over her as long as possible during the rest of her life. Middle age had its own ripeness and the maturity of golden wheat and tasseled corn. She would rejoice in the storms, revel in them, and then sit at her own fireside when the storms were over. Middle age brought the knowledge that nothing remains, nothing is eternal, and the fury of one day brought the calm of tomorrow. Without fury there could be no following calm; without calm there could be no thunderous fury. Youth saw only one shallow aspect, one fugitive facet, to life. But middle age knew that life had infinite variety, and every variety was a wonder in itself.
With a sad and loving smile she thought again of James Meyer. By this time his Emma had joined him. He would not leave the city without informing her. She envied Emma who had such a man; he had told her that she resembled that Emma in mind and spirit. I should like to meet her, Beth thought. James was to be trusted, and he was solid and assured, but never would he grow fat in spirit and retreat from living. He could be hurt, but he would endure and still feel zest and eagerness for the next day. Perhaps, somewhere, there was a man for her like this, who rejoiced in the blissfulness of good food and good sleep and laughter and surety, who could love without giving pain, or, at least, not too much of it. Had Guy ever truly loved her? She wondered.
She heard her dog’s rollicking bark, which increased in sound as he rushed nearer the house. Was some visitor arriving, for her who rarely had a visitor? She stood up, put aside the book on her knee, turned on another lamp. Then her heart gave an incredulous and gasping leap. That hard running footstep on the packed snow: Only Guy ran like that when he could not wait to see her. “Oh, no!” she exclaimed, and tried to move, but she was trembling, and she locked her hands together and stared at the door. It opened. For an instant she closed her eyes; her heart was rushing so fast that it was choking her. She opened her eyes again. Yes, it was Guy, it was surely Guy! She uttered a strange strangled cry and then her face lit up as if a searchlight was pouring its fullness upon it. Her eyes became huge and enormously brilliant. Her mouth flushed red and quivered.
“Beth!” he shouted, and came towards her, hatless, his heavy coat flaring out behind him.
“Guy,” she said in a faint voice. She saw him fully now in the lamplight. He had always been lean, but now he was emaciated. The strong rectangular face she had known had aged, had become lined with suffering. The black eyes were as bright as ever, but they were sunken. His dark color was not vibrant now; it was merely sallow. Her mouth opened on a moan of compassion and love.
He came towards her, smiling widely, and breathless, and he held out his arms to her. He expected her to turn into them as always she did, crying out in the dear and remembered way. But to his bewilderment and sensation of absolute coldness he saw that she was paling, and that though she smiled there was a kind of sternness of her features, an unfamiliar withdrawal. He stopped. “Beth?” he said. “I’ve come home, to you. Beth?”
She came to him slowly, walking in some sort of feeble slow way, and then she was in his arms and her head was on his shoulder, hidden. He felt the quickened breath heaving against the ribs of her slender body. She did not put her arms about his neck as always. They hung limply at her sides. But he felt her tears on his neck, the hot slow tears. He put her from him gently, and looked down into her face, the shut wet eyes, the pale mouth. It was Beth, the Beth he loved, and yet it was not Beth. He held the upper part of her arms strongly, and a terrible fear came to him.
“Beth?” he said. “I’m here, I’ve come home to you.”
“Have you?” she said, in so dim a voice that he could hardly hear her. But he heard. He held her arms tighter and the fear was almost overpowering. He said, “Can you forgive me, my darling?”
“Yes. I forgave you. Almost at once.” S
She felt the growing chill of his fingers through the wool of her frock. She remembered that he had been very ill, almost mortally so, these past months. She reproached herself distractedly. With the remembered gentleness she slowly removed his coat. “Come, and sit by the fire, and tell me all about it—my darling.”
But he stared at her speechlessly for several moments. Then he said, “Is there something wrong, Beth?”
“No,” she answered. She did not say, “But I have changed, and I am not the woman you ran from.” She tried to smile. Her face was very strained. She took his arm and led him to his old chair by the fire. He let her lead him but he continued to stare at her. He sat down as obediently as a child. He took her hand. He held it to his cheek, then kissed it. He heard himself stammering idiotically. “They lent me a car today—the sanitarium. I’m discharged. Emil Grassner. He knows you. He told me all about it—your visits. I didn’t know. I had to—I came as fast as I could.” He was staring up at her pleadingly, and this was a Guy she had never known before.
“Yes,” she said. “I want to know everything.” She struggled to become normal, made herself smile. “I have a roast loin of pork and baked yams and applesauce.” Her tone was mischievous, if labored. “Or, is your wife expecting you for dinner?”