Bright flows the river, p.52
Bright Flows the River, page 52
Then a cold and steely light flooded into his mind. No. For myself. For myself only. Memories of the past five years rushed in on him, of more than five years, of more than twenty, thirty years. He had not had a truly happy day since he had returned from the Army—until he had met Beth. Still, Beth had been only the precipitant of what he now knew must have eventually have frothed over. He saw himself with absolute clarity now. He could not blame Beth for what had happened to him, as once he might have done, and had really done. He recalled that terrible night when he had left her, to kill himself. He saw her stricken face again, her wounded face, her proud face. No, he could not blame Beth for the fury and the illness which had been his life. He could blame no one but himself. And from that pit of despair Beth had rescued him.
James had destroyed it all. Beth was blameless.
His thoughts turned brutally on James. But all at once the fever and rage in him began to subside. He knew James too well. James might have had his whores all his adult life, but James was no casual seducer, no contemptuous womanizer, no exploiter of women. Once, long ago, he had said to Guy, “A man who exploits a woman, so much more defenseless than himself, so much more vulnerable, so much more piteous, is worse than a murderer.” It was as if James stood in this cramped little space of toilet, washbasin, and tub with him, and was repeating his words in stern tones, not righteously, but with absolute conviction and belief. “A man who victimizes a woman is lower than the lowest dog. At least dogs have morality, which no man really has.”
No. James had not seduced Beth, nor she him. They had come together out of some dreadful need—both of them. For whom was Beth the surrogate? Lady Emma Godwin, of course, the dying and fascinating woman of whom James had so often written, so often spoken. James, at that infamous time, had not known that Emma was dying. But today, in his tears, he had mentioned that he had “known” something was wrong with Emma for over two weeks. He had known in his vitals, if not objectively. But even before that, he had said with shaking wonder and grief, even before he had left England his physician’s mind had subtly warned him.
Beth and James had come together out of their mutual and unbearable need.
Even a year ago Guy would not have understood it, would have been scornful about it. Now he understood, now he was not derisive. A deep pity came to him for both of those he thought had violated his life, the deepest compassion he had ever known. It was alien to him, strange to him, so unfamiliar that it dazzled his mind. It shook him to the heart. Beth had not betrayed him; James had not betrayed him. In coming together they had affirmed their love for another man, another woman, and that love had been strengthened, not weakened. It was not lust but love which had brought them together.
It was more evidence that his ruthless nature had changed to such extent that he could say aloud, “God have mercy on all of us. In a way, I am the one to blame, not my darling, not my friend. I deserted Beth. And James stayed with me, to help me, when he must have been in a sweat to return to his Emma.”
Guy had cried only three times in his adult life, once when he had heard about Marlene, once when his father had died, and tonight, earlier. He cried again.
“Guy?” There was a knock on the door. “Is there something wrong?”
He could hardly speak. “No, dear, nothing wrong. I’ll be out in a minute.”
She laughed. “I thought you had fallen in, you’re so thin.”
He looked at himself in the little mirror. It was a changed face he saw there, but one infinitely stronger.
He said, “No, I’ve fallen—out.”
He had one foolish impulse, to walk out with James’s cuff link in his hand and nobly say, “I found this. I understand.”
Instead, he wrapped the cuff link in a piece of toilet paper, threw it in the bowl, and flushed it away. He said to himself: The hell with spoiling my happiness tonight. I am going to tell my poor Beth about Emma. Poor women.
Lucy Jerald called her brother, Hugh Lippincott. At first he could not hear her clearly through her whimpering and gasping. He had never liked his sister, who, apart from being a fool, was also tearful a great part of the time, and had been from earliest childhood. She said, “Hugh. I’ve had a letter from Guy—”
“I know. I did, too. The family conclave day after tomorrow.”
“But. It’s so confusing. Billy and Marcy got the same letters. I don’t seem to grasp it.”
“Don’t try,” said Hugh, kindly. “Might tax your brains.”
“What? So confusing. I don’t even know where he is.”
“I’m sure he knows,” said Hugh, who also knew.
“So strange. He sent a truck driver or something, from the country, for all his clothes. All. I wonder why.”
“Maybe he’s going on a trip.”
“Well. Why didn’t he tell me, to give me enough time to pack, too?”
“Oh, God,” groaned Hugh.
“Never knew he had left the hospital until hours later, when Emil Grassner called. Discharged. I think that’s terrible—Discharging a poor, sick, deranged man who needs tender loving care all the time. Billy was arranging—”
“I know what Billy was arranging,” said Hugh, grimly. “Maybe that’s why Guy has gone with the wind.” He chuckled. “And he isn’t sick, and never was. He just had had a collapse, and he’s over that now.”
“I’ve called all the hotels, here and in Philadelphia. He isn’t there. What a thing to do to his wife and family. The children.” As usual, she never listened. “Lucy,” said Hugh. “Calm down. We’ll know everthing on the day after tomorrow.”
“The children,” said Lucy. “Only a crazy man would act like this.”
“Or a sane man.”
Hugh lost his short patience. “Please listen for once, Lucy. I think I know what Guy has in mind. A divorce. From you.”
“What?” said Lucy. Then she shrieked. “A divorce? Why? I don’t believe—Why should he want a divorce? I’ve always been a warm loving wife, faithful and devoted. He never said a word—I don’t believe—”
“You can believe it. He never told me, but I know. Lucy, he’s sick of you; he’s been sick of you from the beginning.” Hugh spoke brutally. “I warned you not to, before you married him, but you and Dad were so sure. I don’t know how he stood this for so long, until it made him almost crazy.”
“The children!” wailed Lucy. “I don’t believe—How shall we explain this to the children?”
“The hell with the children,” said Hugh, genially. “And they’re not children. They’re overripe adolescents, and always were. And always will be. Even I, their uncle, can’t stand them. They’re as attractive as bunions, in body and soul.”
“How can you talk that way about the children, Hugh Lippincott?”
“Easy. It comes naturally, after looking at them.”
“The money,” said Lucy, weeping wildly.
Ah, now we’re down to basics, Lucy’s basics, thought Hugh.
“Lucy, Guy has more than tripled the original fortune you had when you married him. And he’s put you into some very sound investments, besides. You’re a very rich lady, thanks to your husband.”
“If he—if he—I’d want alimony.”
“And I don’t think you’ll get it.”
“But there are the children!”
“Adults in body if not in mind. Marcy’s got a rich husband, thanks to the bundle Guy gave her before she got married. Billy’s got a private income from his grandmother’s, our mother’s estate.”
“But Marcy’s got children of her own! They’ll need every penny!”
“Oh, I’m sure if they ever do you’ll help them out, Lucy.”
He could see her shivering. “I don’t know how a man could do this to the children.”
“Lucy, if you don’t keep your mouth shut about your damned holy ‘the children’ I’ll hang up on you.”
“I’m thinking of my dear lovely home, my home.”
“The children are just as confused as I am, the poor darlings. What? Oh, my home. You think he will turn it over to me?”
He heard her sigh in relief. Then she said, and her voice became unusually sharp. “Is there Another Woman, Hugh?”
“There usually is. But the Other Woman couldn’t make headway if the marriage were strong, and yours never was, Lucy. No, I don’t know of any Other Woman,” and Hugh grinned to himself, thinking of Beth Turner.
“What do you mean, if the marriage were strong? There was nothing ever wrong with it, Hugh Lippincott, until Guy became so sick, the poor man. What are the children to do without a father?”
“How many infants does Guy have? That’s interesting.”
“Oh, Hugh. I mean Billy and Marcy. What are they to do?”
“What they’re always doing. I have clients here, Lucy. Buck up, old girl. You’re not losing a husband. You’re just releasing a prisoner, and be a good sport about it.”
Lucy shrilled, “A prisoner! What do—” But Hugh was already gone. She sat down and cried a little, then opened a drawer in her desk where, in a neat file, were recorded her financial assets. They made very comforting reading. She felt no grief, no real outrage, no sorrow, that her marriage was ended. In fact, there was a measure of relief in her shallow reflections. The house to herself. No bellowing, intransigent, impatient stranger who looked at her with a stranger’s eyes and usually concluded the conversation with a weary “Shut up, Lucy, why do you have to flaunt your foolishness?” And Eric Daumbler had recently become a widower and looked at her yearningly when she entered the bank. It was only The Children—But she’d make it up to The Children. Encouraging them, giving them supportive help, maternally guiding them, the poor darlings, in their suffering. They didn’t deserve this heartless traumatic injury. They needed their mother. She must remember to send Marcy’s older child ten dollars next month on her birthday, as usual.
Lucy went out to lunch.
“I want these few days alone with you,” said Guy Jerald to Beth. “We’ll go to James’s wedding this afternoon, then we’ll be alone.” His exhausted face was still exhausted, but the tense lines were diminishing.
“If you’re taking up permanent residence here, sweetheart, you’ll have to help Joel with the chores.”
“Oh, I’m a farmer myself.”
“And with the dishes.”
“Like all women you try to make slaves out of men.”
“I’m not your housekeeper, dear.”
“But you’ll soon be my wife. Thank God for New York State and its sensible divorce laws. Beth, you are sure you won’t regret giving up the farm to go with me?”
“I’m not giving up the farm, Guy. Joel is going to run it for me when I am with you in that university town. And we’ll use it ourselves in the summer.”
“Ah, you’re already plotting. Come sit on my knee, dear conspirator. I can’t seem to get close enough to you, Beth. As you know, Beth, I will be taking summer courses, to speed things up.” His black eyes were alive, full of anticipation. “It’ll be a long hard grind, but I’ll make it.”
“With no regrets?”
“Yes, with the regret that I didn’t do this three, four years ago, when I already knew I should. But I was afraid of losing money, then, afraid to break out of my nice cozy nest.”
“But you’ll still be making money in the building business.”
“True.” She saw, with amusement, that he had a satisfied look. No matter what happened, a strong man always put money, territory, and power ahead of any woman—that is, if he was a man. The new philosophy of the man-woman relationship degraded a man, emasculated him, corrupted his intrinsic nature, destroyed his natural place as a man among men. The area where he met women should not be confused with the mighty place where he met his peers. One was a predatory forest where he hunted with his male companions. The other was the hearthstone where he rested and built up strength for the next foray. Whoever violated this instinct, built into a man’s genes throughout the millennia, violated the very essence of a man, and distorted the normal world of men. Women who believed that they could hunt beside a man, and compete successfully in his own territory, were deluding themselves, and corrupting their instincts. Beth, smiling as she perched on Guy’s knee and submitting to his caresses, thought of what her mother had once said: “God created man out of the dust of the earth and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils. But it’s nowhere recorded that He did this for women. He used one of Adam’s ribs to make a woman—but He never gave her the breath of life to make her a living soul.”
“What are you smiling about?” said Guy, with suspicion.
“When a woman wears a smile like that she should be taken to bed.”
“In the middle of the day, with an apple pie baking in the oven?”
Guy said, “I concede to the apple pie.”
Beth said, “The hell with the pie; I can turn the oven off.”
They went to the quiet wedding of James and Emma, in the county courthouse. They, with Emil Grassner, were the only witnesses; the mayor officiated, with some self-important pompousness. He had discreetly notified the newspapers. It was not every day that an English baronet and an English peeress appeared before him for his services. Such a handsome lady, too, with a devilish look in her eyes and a hearty manner, if a rather loud voice. She seemed to be laughing inwardly all the time. The baronet was a gentleman, that was obvious, though he looked a little sick today. But men were always agitated when getting married. There was money here, too. He could smell it. There was a white envelope peering from Emil’s pocket. “Dearly Beloved,” began the mayor, and Emma squeezed James’s hand and winked at him lewdly. She wore a sensible tweed suit and a tweed hat, and looked, James thought, remarkably like Beth Turner though they did not resemble each other physically in the least. There was a certain dauntlessness about them both, a certain intrepid nobility.
Guy had had a sharp twinge at the first meeting between him and James, for the male instinct was still there, possessive and ferocious. Then he cursed himself for a contemptible wretch who should grovel at James’s feet and not have had that lust to kill. He saved both of us, thought Guy. He admired Emma, but thought her somewhat ugly. There was no comparison between her and Beth, for, to him, Beth had become the fairest and most desirable of women blooming in his love like the most precious of wines. Beth was tweedily dressed also, and James thought that both she and Emma were county ladies. James had looked at Beth with deep fondness and joy in her happiness, and had kissed her cheek on greeting her. Somewhere he had acquired a red rosebud, and Emma carried a bouquet of yellow roses, gift of Emil Grassner. There was also a smaller bouquet for Beth.
The mayor, a jovial little man as spherical as a pear, insisted on taking them into his office, where he served them a dubious brandy (The English liked brandy.) The reporters came in with cameras, to James’s startled annoyance, and the mayor apologized. “Make it short, boys,” he said, sternly, and put himself in the center of the picture. “Let them have their fun,” said Emma, who was always tolerant. She gave them her best smile and profile, her face jaunty under the tweed hat. She had decided that Guy was a somewhat dour and humorless man, but extremely masculine and sensual. She approved of him. She had loved Beth on sight, recognizing their unique sisterhood. No doubt Beth was the lady James had comforted, and she was pleased. The poor girl seemed very comforted now. As she sipped at the brandy Beth’s hand had crept into Guy’s.
Beth carefully kept from her expression every sign that she knew of Emma’s malady and her impending death. She had wept in Guy’s arms last night, but she had understood Emma even before she had met her. Emma was her own kind. The
It was seven o’clock when they left the mayor’s office, and the snow was flying again and the wind was bitterly nimble. They went to the Old House for the wedding dinner. “We leave tomorrow morning for Nassau,” said James. “So, with many regrets, I am afraid this is goodbye.”
The word hung in the air poignantly, and no one said, “Oh, not goodbye. We’ll meet again.” They knew they would not.
But they all got drunk in defiance of the dread and invisible sixth member of the wedding. Guy raised his glass and said, “As my father always toasted: ‘To life, to love.’” They returned the toast. Guy said, “This time, my father will dance at my wedding. He promised. He’ll be there, the old scoundrel.”
It was the night before Thanksgiving and Guy wryly thought how appropriate it was for him. He and his wife, Lucy, his children, William and Marcy, and Hugh Lippincott and Louise, were gathered together in the cold, vast and elegant sitting room of his house. The big fire could not warm that atmosphere or render it relaxed and comfortable. With Guy were two of his lawyers from Philadelphia, chill-eyed, alert youngish men with whom he had been consulting all day yesterday. They held dispatch cases on their knees and they had thoroughly studied, in a few minutes, all the members present.
Lucy’s first remarks to her husband had been, “Where on earth were you?—so confusing—the children—I called—why did you disappear?—are you still ill?—you look awful, so thin—are you sure you should be out?—it’s been a very hard time—the children have been out of their minds—how could you do this to us?—where did we go wrong?—don’t you have any feeling for your warm loving family?—the children have been distracted—I haven’t slept since you ran away from the hospital—how could they discharge you when you are so sick?—Billy’s been running home every weekend to help poor Hugh—I don’t know—I don’t know—”
by Taylor Caldwell / Literature & Fiction / Historical Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes