Bright flows the river, p.6

Bright Flows the River, page 6

 

Bright Flows the River
 



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  “And how is your friend today, Father?” asked Emil.

  “Bad. Very bad.” The priest sighed again and the sigh was like a sob. “They’ll be calling me for the Last Rites soon, I’m afraid.”

  “I hope not,” said Emil. He turned to James and said, “Mr. Jordan’s wonderful wife, Ruth, was murdered in her house a week ago, by a young thug who thought the house was empty and had entered to rob it. He saw Mrs. Jordan, and he knifed her to death.” Emil paused, and all at once his face was as savage as the priest’s. “He’s only a child, the social workers say. ‘Only sixteen.’ They’re trying to put him into the category of ‘youthful offender.’ In short, just naughty delinquency. That means, if they succeed, that he’ll never be tried for murder. He will be sent only to a tender correctional institution, and will be out on the streets again within a year, free again to rob and kill. ‘He never had a chance,’ the social workers say. To be brief about it, he had strict parents who tried to bake rotten and diseased flour into a sound loaf of bread. His brothers, though, are good boys and were never in trouble. Just this one stinking bastard who should never have been born. I don’t know who to pity more, Dick Jordan or the boy’s parents. Funny about heredity, isn’t it? Skips a couple of generations or more, then comes on full blast in a new generation. Some murderous ancestor came out in Billy Johnson’s psyche.”

  “Yes,” said James. “The criminal is born, not made by environment. Once we knew that in Britain, too, but the sobbers are at it there just as in America in these days. If one didn’t try to be very rational one would suspect an international conspiracy, designed to drive nations mad so they could be the more easily conquered and subdued.”

  “I do suspect a conspiracy,” said Emil, in a flat tone.

  “So do I,” said Father McQuire, “and it was spawned in hell.” He rubbed his flaming face with both his hands, a pathetic gesture of defeat. “And Ruth Jordan’s daughters want to get a loving psychiatrist to treat their mother’s murderer! It’s daft they are—or something worse.” As if he were afraid he had said something unpardonable, he flickered his hand and almost ran from the alcove.

  “Why do you suppose those daughters want to do that?” asked James.

  “Well,” said Emil, with an ugly intonation, “their mother had the money in the family, not their father, and I understand that the daughters get two thirds of it. Christ! But I’d put nothing past any human being now. Maybe, in their weasel souls, as the good Father would put it, the daughters are unconsciously grateful to their mother’s murderer.”

  James was not shocked. They had walked on again.

  Emil stopped before a door and knocked. He said, “When you are ready to leave, the nurse will call me; I will be here for at least five hours. Let’s have lunch, about one-thirty.” He glanced at his watch. “It is eleven now.”

  The door was opened and a bright middle-aged face with the traditional nurse’s cap appeared, and a happy little body came briskly into the hall. Emil said, “Dr. Meyer, this is Nurse Halstrom. She is on duty with Mr. Jerald until three, and she has been told about you. Nurse, Dr. Meyer, a friend of Mr. Jerald’s.”

  She nodded and her pink cheeks dimpled. “Good morning, Doctor. Yes, Dr. Witherspoon has told me about you. I am to leave you and Mr. Jerald alone until you ring the desk for me.” She beamed at James with curiosity, and he found himself smiling as ruddily. “How is Mr. Jerald?” he asked.

  The rosiness paled a little. “Well,” she said. “About the same, I think. He did have a restless night, I saw from his chart. Walked the floor for hours. He isn’t given much of a sedative,” and she glanced at Emil. “He smoked a great deal, and ate very little dinner. Pretty restless, I think.”

  “Good,” said Emil. He nodded to the nurse, who moved off rapidly to the desk with the other nurses; her cheery voice echoed along the hall. Then he touched James on the arm and nodded again, this time at the door. James entered Guy Jerald’s suite. It was very dusky here, he saw, the dimness of the day increased by the half-drawn rich green curtains across the two high barred windows. This was the sitting room, excellently furnished with real or reproduced antiques, wing chairs, polished tables, mirrors, two bookcases, a Queen Anne sofa, an electric fireplace in which a quite realistic group of white logs simulated wood-burning, even to the flutter of artificial flames. Fine prints hung on the pale green walls, and there were fresh flowers about. Beyond was the bathroom and bedroom. It was a quiet and comfortable suite. There was an ormolu clock on the mantelpiece and it chimed in fragile music. James thought of the moldering old sanitariums in England all paid for by National Health, and so naturally all shabby and decaying. Yes, indeed, there was a great deal to be said in favor of private enterprise, even medical.

  He looked about him cautiously, standing near the closed door. At first he did not see Guy Jerald, so dusky was the room. It had an air of emptiness, as if no one had been there for hours. However, there was a heavy odor of tobacco, and, as usual in America, it was entirely too warm here. Still, in spite of the cigarette smoke, the air was fresh as if changed regularly. Then James saw the thin figure of a man in an opened white shirt and dark trousers crouched in a distant wing chair near a window. James came farther into the room, and he was strangely uneasy.

  The man’s head was bent, his arms folded on his knees, his gaze fixed on the floor. James could see more clearly now. The thick black hair, interwoven with gray, had an unkempt look, half fell over the bent forehead. James could see the colorless cheek, the fixity of feature, the clenched lips, the absence of expression. He was shocked. Could this immobile creature be the Jerald—Jerry—he had known? Could it actually be the vivid and sometimes exuberant and often wild man he remembered even from fifteen years ago? The almost fleshless face seemed made of pale wood, the muscles unmoving, the throat still, as if it did not possess a sound box or even a larynx. Then James saw that the fixity was the fixity of still agony and the long and aquiline nose testified to anguish, for it was translucent.

  “Jerry?” said James, and his voice was weak with pity. The man did not move. The thick black eyebrows did not lift; there was no sign of life in him anywhere. Only the cigarette smoking between two attenuated fingers gave any clue that this man lived at all. The long emaciated wrist finally moved; an ash was deposited in a cloisonné ashtray on the table beside the chair. So, thought James, he is quite aware, even if only mechanically aware. The man gave no other indication that there was a stranger with him, or that he was thinking.

  James turned on a brass lamp and a warm light moved into the dimness. He stood helplessly, still gazing on this man who had apparently withdrawn into the darkness of a living death. The clock chimed again and James started. Then the man lifted his head with a slow movement, as if his skull were made of iron and it was nearly impossible to lift it or it took all his strength. He looked at James.

  “Jerry?” James said again. Again he was shocked. The face that confronted him resembled the face of his old friend, but it was as if an uninspired artist had carved it, giving it the remembered features but none of its implied motility and vital glow. The dark eyes were larger in that shrunken face, yet they were inert, those once animated and lively eyes full of emotion. They were unseeing, far removed, empty. They were like the eyes of a dead bird, filmed and opaque. The once splendid bones of the face, sharp and defined and clear, appeared to have dwindled, become smaller and vague. The remembered mouth, quick to express amusement or annoyance, was only a line, pent and dry.

  Unable to look away from that devastated face, that dead face, James moved to a chair facing his friend and sat down. A cool sweat came out on his forehead. He had left the door, the lamp, yet Guy’s eyes fixed on the spot he had occupied. Then the head fell again, the stony chin on the chest. Once again the room was abandoned.

  James lit a cigar. He was usually a voluble man, energetic of speech and forceful of language. Yet he fumbled through a cloud of words and could not grasp any of them. He had a sensation both
of grief and helplessness. This was worse than he had anticipated. He rubbed his damp forehead. His wits evaded him. Then the warmth of the room irritated him, and he heard himself, to his own astonishment, speaking aloud.

  “Why the hell do you people keep everything so blazing hot, like a jungle?”

  The fallen head moved and lifted, slowly, slowly, and the deathly eyes looked at James, without recognition or cognizance. It was if it were responding to a harsh touch only, a response out of a nightmare. James felt the poignancy of his own pain as he stared at Guy, and a kind of inexplicable fury at what had come to his friend, and he did not understand why he stammered, “It’s really all there is, all there is!”

  What in hell was he talking about? he thought with despair. It was as though someone else had spoken with his own tongue out of vast madness or memory. Had he been trying to say, out of that despair and fury, that there was only despair and fury in the world, after all, and nothing else?

  Then, to his awe and his own trembling, he saw that for an instant those terrible dead eyes had flashed with life and a remembered wildness. A black glow had lit them, like exploding light on polished coal. James leaned towards Guy. He said, and his voice was broken. “Jerry, for God’s sake—!”

  He knows me, he knows me, he heard me, James suddenly thought with a shaking exultation.

  Once again the eyes became dead and filmed and the head dropped. James did not move or speak. He felt the enormous retreat of the spirit of his friend, but in some way he knew that the retreat was not into nothingness this time, but into something else.

  “I tell you, Jerry, there ain’t anything else. This is all there is, I’m telling you, all there is! So help me God! And I’m a damned heathen, and I can say that!”

  It was a hot August day in 1946 on a farm near Cranston, a large stony farm which could be coaxed to yield only by the most intensive effort and tons of fertilizer, none of which it got regularly. Even when listlessly tended, it was “played out,” as neighboring farmers said derisively. The soil was mostly infertile, and barren, and many acres were sheer wasteland, full of strangling bush and snarled half-dead trees. The apple orchard produced wormy little apples which tasted like acid wood and usually fell long before any signs of ripening. The pear trees were blackly blighted and no one had removed them. Only the small acreage of bottomland could sustain a stand of corn or wheat, but because of neglect these were almost always brown with fungus, or stunted. The bare land stretched fair into the distance, and beyond that distance the foothills, fiery in the August noon, were burned and eroded. Behind them the green and purple mountains lifted ancient battlements against a sky white with heat.

  What timber was on the land—it had been cleared ruthlessly of good timber long ago—was second-growth and scraggly. As if in celestial malice this growth had been frequently struck by lightning, and the charred logs lay at the feet of the weak growth above them. Here it was dank, the dark earth teeming with toadstools, the air heavy and fetid.

  The surrounding farms were green and fertile and blooming, full of sunshine and ardent crops, pastures thick with grass, fields bursting with life. The Jerald farm was a desert among them, somehow sinister and silent and abandoned. The neighboring farmers, husbandmen all, mourned for the land.

  The farmers, however, could not make derisive remarks about the stock. The few Holstein cattle and the six Angus cows were fat and sleek and complacent, the three hundred chickens plump, and vigorous about laying large eggs, and the Poland China swine were bigger than those belonging to the neighbors, and their flesh succulent. It was suspected that the intelligent and curious guinea hens were kept solely as pets, and on a large blue pond several geese and ducks lived in total amity. There was one dog of pluralistic ancestry, who gravely did duty as a watchman and took that duty with the utmost seriousness and never pursued cars on the road or quarreled with other dogs. “The stock got better sense than ole Tom Jerald,” the farmers would say with some envy. “Wonder where he gets the money to feed them, he and his drinking and his blowsy Sal.”

  Tom Jerald raised considerable truck, too, and it was a constant amazement to his neighbors why his vegetables and melons were so gigantic, grown as they were on a small patch of fertile land. His strawberries, also, were prized in the market, and his raspberry bushes were scarlet with juicy berries. But his old tractor was rusted and unreliable. It amused the farmers that Tom plowed in an anachronistic way, with a plow of the sort never seen in the neighborhood since 1915. It was pulled by a hearty mule who seemed to be a pet, too, and who laughed at the neighbor horses with high glee, much to their sedate discomfiture. Tom owned an elderly car of unnamed vintage and make, which aroused all the dogs in the country, it was said, when Tom drove it into town. It not only smoked, it rattled like a bevy of cymbals, and its fenders seemed imminently about to drop on the road. But it ran, and that was all Tom cared about, and he drove it as considerately as if it had been a new Cadillac, and he kept it waxed and polished.

  The small farmhouse, which had a red silo, was as battered as the car, and there was no sign of paint on it. It was now silvery with age, and its shingles curled and its doors were warped and full of slivers. But its windows were brightly polished and showed cheap white muslin curtains, made of worn sheets, and it was always buried in a teeming and colorful mass of flowers from spring to autumn. That was Sal’s doing, of course, Sal who had been born on as worthless a farm as Tom’s, and a member of a family of twelve children who now made their livings in town in a dubious fashion. Sal herself was known to be “no better than she should be.” Hadn’t she kept house for Ole Schiller, a farmer on the other side of Cranston, and hadn’t his three sons openly accused her of sleeping with their father as well as cooking for him and raising the table vegetables and the chickens? Ole Schiller had left his mortgaged farm to his sons, but he had left three thousand dollars to Sal and the huge brass bed on which he and his “woman” had slept for quite a number of years. Sal was forty-three, Tom Jerald fifty-nine, his son, Guy, nearly twenty-four, Guy had gone off to the war, drafted, of course, and was now home on the farm.

  Everyone felt sorry for Mary Jerald, Tom’s wife, who kept a boardinghouse for workingmen who had no other home. At least she was respectable and went to church, and had left Tom years ago when she could no longer endure his “rioting” and general worthlessness, and drinking. A good son would have disowned Tom Jerald as a father and stayed with his exemplary mother. But—“what’s born in the bone will come out in the flesh.” It was obvious that Guy preferred his father, even from earliest childhood, though that was the only crime he had ever committed, to the neighbors’ knowledge. He had worked in one of the sawmills since he had left high school, and in the winters he lived with his mother. In the summers he helped his father on the farm, and was often with Tom during the winter holidays. But he was now considered “queer,” in that he had become very quiet and was sometimes morose and never seemed to smile and certainly was never “neighborly.”

  Tom was sitting, this hot August day of 1946, on the broken steps of the stoop in front of the farmhouse. He was a small and satyric man with a grin that was described as “fiendish,” and he appeared made of faded wood and leather thongs, with never an ounce of good flesh. He had a dry browned face with blue eyes and a fair beard as scraggly as his trees and a very prominent nose and big yellow teeth. He was as quick and restless as a sparrow, which he somewhat resembled, and his head was bald and freckled and as brown as his face. If his house was filled with decrepit furniture and had no rugs except for the hooked ones Sal had made, it also harbored many books, which puzzled the few neighbors who had ever entered the house. For it was rumored Tom could not read or write. He never received a newspaper, though he had a very old radio which squawked with static when used, which was almost always.

  Tom was never without a pipe or one of his homemade cigarettes which had a very strong odor, “like manure,” the neighbors would say. He was now tamping his pipe with a thin a
nd grubby index finger and was staring up at his son, who stood before him. His grin was both ironic and very wide, and not too kind.

  Guy “took after” his mother, Mary Jerald, in that he was much taller than his father and lean rather than fleshless. His uniform was neat and fitted him well, unusual for a common soldier, and his boots were polished. His shoulders were broad, his waist narrow, his hips taut and hard. He had a good face, the neighbors had to admit, and quite handsome, thin and dark and mobile, with excellent features, large black eyes, a sullen but expressive mouth and a rounded chin full of strength, with a hint of obstinacy. His mother, it was said, came of a “nice family,” working-class but respectable, and her father had been, a bricklayer with a commendable income. Guy had her round head and her thick black straight hair, very abundant, and neatly combed.

  He stood, now, before his father, his arms folded somewhat obdurately on his chest, one big hand holding a cigarette. He was smiling slightly, but the smile did not radiate as did Tom’s lively grin.

  “Yes, sir,” said Tom. “That’s all there is, son, your life, and it’s the only life you’ll ever have and no one can live it for you. You got to live as it’s your nature to live, or, sure as God, you’ll pay and pay bad all the rest of your years on this earth. And you can’t whimper it was only your duty that you ruint your life and it ended up in the privy of ‘responsibility.’ That’s one thing the angels, I heard, never accept as an excuse. You can’t blame other folks, either, for the stink you make of your life. You did it all your lone self. It ain’t anybody’s fault but your own.” His voice was naturally high and a little shrill.

 
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