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The Best Works of Joseph Hergesheimer CythereaJava HeadLinda CondonMountain BloodThe Bright ShawlThe Happy EndThe Three Black PennysWild Oranges
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The Best Collection of Joseph Hergesheimer
The Bright Shawl
The Happy End
The Three Black Pennys
Cytherea, by Joseph Hergesheimer
For DOROTHY Charming in the present and Secure with the past
It was, probably, Lee Randon realized, the last time he would play golf that year. He concluded this standing on a shorn hill about which the country was spread in sere diminishing tones to the grey horizon. Below, a stream held a cold glimmer in a meadow of brown, frost-killed grass; and the wind, the bitter flaws where Lee stood, was thinly scattered with soft crystals of snow. He was alone, no one would play with him so late in the season, and there had been no boy present to carry his clubs. Yes, this was the last time he'd try it until spring: Peyton Morris, who had married Lee's niece and was at least fourteen years his junior, had been justified in a refusal which, at its expression, had made Lee cross.
At worse than forty-five, he had told Morris curtly, he was more active than the young men hardly out of the universities. To this Peyton had replied that undoubtedly Lee had more energy than he; personally he felt as old as--as Egypt. Ridiculous, Lee decided, trying to make up his mind whether he might continue playing or return, beaten by November, to the clubhouse. In the end, with numb fingers, he picked up his ball, and walked slowly back over the empty course. The wind, now, was behind him, and increasingly comfortable he grew reflective:
The comparison of Peyton Morris's age with his, recalling the fact, to be precise, of his forty-seven years, created a vague questioning dissatisfaction. Suddenly he saw himself--a comfortable body in a comfortable existence, a happy existence, he added sharply-- objectively; and the stout figure in knickerbockers, rough stockings, a yellow buckskin jacket and checked cap pulled over a face which, he felt, was brightly red, surprised and a little annoyed him. In the abrupt appearance of this image it seemed that there had been no transitional years between his slender youth and the present. He had an absurd momentary impression that an act of malicious magic had in a second transformed him into a shape decidedly too heavy for grace. His breathing, where the ground turned upward, was even slightly labored.
It was, Lee thought with all the intensity of an original discovery, devilish unpleasant to grow old; to die progressively on one's feet, he elaborated the fact. That was what happened to a man--his liver thickened, his teeth went, his veins became brittle pipes of lime. Worse than all that, his potency, the spirit and heat of living, met without any renewal its inescapable winter. This might, did, occur while his being was rebellious with vain hope. Today, in spite of the slight clogging of his breath, his body's loss of flexibility, his imagination was as vigorous, as curious, as ever ... take that nonsense about the doll, which, in a recalled classical allusion, he had privately named Cytherea. Peyton Morris would never have entered into that!
Lee Randon, on one of his infrequent trips to New York, had seen it in a confectioner's window on Fifth Avenue, and instantly it had captivated his attention, brought him to a halt. The doll, beautifully dressed in the belled skirt of the eighteen-forties, wore plum-colored silk with a bodice and wide short sleeves of pale yellow and, crossed on the breast, a strip of black Spanish lace that fell to the hem of the skirt. It wasn't, of course, the clothes that attracted him--he only grew conscious of them perhaps a month later--but the wilful charm, the enigmatic fascination, of the still face. The eyes were long and half closed under finely arched brows, there was a minute patch at the right corner of a pale scarlet, smiling mouth; a pointed chin marked an elusive oval beneath black hair drawn down upon a long slim neck, hair to which was pinned an odd headdress of old gilt with, at the back, pendent ornamental strands of gold-glass beads.
Insistently conventional, selectly ordinary, in appearance, the stick with a pig-skin handle hanging from his left arm, he had studied the doll with a deepening interest. Never in life, he told himself, had he seen a woman with such a magnetic and disturbing charm. Fixed in intent regard he became conscious that, strangely, rather than small the figure seemed diminished by a distance which yet left every feature clear. With this he grew satirical at himself; and, moving resolutely down the Avenue, treated his absorption with ridicule. But the vision of the face, the smile, the narrowed eyes, persisted in his mind; the truth was that they troubled him; and within three blocks he had turned. The second view intensified rather than lessened his feeling, and he walked quickly into the shop odorous with burned sugar. The doll was removed from the window--it had come from Paris, he learned--and, after a single covert glance, he bought it, for, he needlessly informed the girl wrapping it in an unwieldy light package, his daughter.
To his secret satisfaction, Helena, who was twelve, hadn't been strongly prepossessed; and the doll--though Lee Randon no longer thought of it as merely that--left downstairs, had been finally placed on the white over-mantel of the fireplace by the dining-room door.
There, when he was alone, he very often stopped to gaze at the figure; and, during such a moment of speculative abstraction, he had, from the memories of early reading, called her Cytherea. That, Lee remembered vaguely, was the Cytheranian name of the mysterious goddess of love, Venus, of the principle, the passion, of life stirring in plants and men. But in the shape above him it had been strangely modified from an apparently original purpose, made infinitely difficult if not impossible of understanding. His Cytherea bore the traces, the results, of old and lost and polished civilizations; there was about her even a breath of immemorial China. It mingled with a suggestion of Venice, the eighteenth century Venice of the princes of Naxos--how curiously she brought back tags of discarded reading!--and of the rococo Viennese court. This much he grasped; but the secret of her fascination, of what, at heart, she represented, what in her had happened to love, entirely escaped him.
Lee was interested in this, he reassured his normal intelligence, because really it bore upon him, upon the whole of his married life with Fanny. He wasn't, merely, the victim of a vagrant obsession, the tyranny of a threatening fixed idea. No, the question advanced without answer by Cytherea was not confined to her, it had very decidedly entered into him, and touched, practically, everyone he knew, everyone, that was, who had a trace of imagination. Existence had been enormously upset, in a manner at once incalculable and clear, by the late war. Why, for example, the present spirit of restlessness should particularly affect the relation of men and women he couldn't begin to grasp. Not, he added immediately, again, that it had clouded or shaken his happiness.
It had only given him the desire, the safe necessity, to comprehend the powerful emotion that held Fanny and him secure against any accident to their love. To their love! The repetition, against his contrary intention, took on the accent of a challenge. However, he proceeded mentally, it wasn't the unassailable fact that was challenged, but the indefinable word love. Admiration, affection, passion, were clear in their meanings--but love! His brow contracted in a frown spreading in a shadowy doubt over his face when he saw that he had almost reached the clubhouse; its long steep-pitched bulk lay directly across the path of dusk, approaching from the east; and a ruddy flicker in the glass doors on the veranda showed that a fire had been lighted. To his left, down over the dead sod and beyond a road, he could see the broad low façade of his house with its terraced lawn and aged stripped maples. There, too, a window was bright on the first floor: probably Fanny was hearing the children's lessons.
* * * * *
That cheerful interior he completely visualized: Fanny, in the nicest possible attire, sitting in the curly-maple rocking-chair, her slippered feet--she had a premonition of rheumatism--elevated on the collapsible stool she carried about with her; and Helena and Gregory hanging on her knees. Gregory, of course, had tomorrow's task easily in hand, with another star for a day's good conduct in school; but Helena, shining in the gold and flush of her radiant inattention, would know nothing. Helena, Lee Randon acknowledged, spelled atrociously. If it weren't for the clubs and his spiked shoes he'd turn and go home directly, himself supervise the children's efforts at education. But Fanny did it much better than he; Helena and Gregory were closer to her; while they volunteered endless personal and trivial admissions to her, he had to ask them, detail by detail, what they were doing.
After he had changed his shoes and secured the latticed steel door of his locker he went up to the main room of the clubhouse, where, on the long divan before the open fire, he found Peyton Morris lounging with Anette Sherwin by a low tea table. The hot water, they informed Lee comfortably, was cold, inviting him by implication to ring for more; and then they returned to the conversation he had interrupted. Anette said:
"I asked her from Friday till Monday, over the dance, you see; but she wired she couldn't be sure. They are going to begin rehearsing at any minute, and then shoot--it is shoot, isn't it?--the picture. What did she tell you at the Plaza?"
"The same thing," Peyton replied moodily. "I only saw her for a scrappy dinner; she couldn't even wait for coffee, but rushed up to a conference with her director."
They were, Lee knew, talking about Mina Raff, a friend of Anette's earlier summers by the sea who was beginning to be highly successful in the more serious moving pictures. He had met her a number of years ago, in Eastlake, but he retained no clear impression of her; and, admitting that he hadn't gone to see her in a picture, wondered aloud at her sudden fame. Peyton Morris glanced at him, frowning; he seemed at the point of vigorous speech, then said nothing.
"Mina is lovely now, Lee," Anette spoke in his place; "you will realize that at once. She's like a--a wistful April moon, or corn silk."
"I like black hair," Randon asserted.
"That's amusing, when you think Fanny's is quite brown," Anette replied. "Whom have you been meeting with black hair? There's none I can remember in Eastlake."
"There isn't anybody in particular," Lee reassured her; "it is just an idea of mine." He had a vision of intense black hair swept about an enigmatic still smile, of an old gilt headdress. "Mina Raff must have developed if she gets half the pay advertised."
"She'll get twice that when this contract expires," Peyton put in; "and that will be increased again. No one on the screen can touch her." He made these declarations in a manner both shadowed and aggressive. Lee observed that he held a cigarette in one hand and a match in the other with no effort at conjunction.
"Mina simply tells you everything," Anette continued. "If she comes you must do your best. It's perfectly marvelous, with so much else, that she even considers it. I couldn't budge her when she was practically free."
"How is Claire?" Randon abruptly demanded.
"She's all right," her husband returned; "a little offhand, but no more than usual. I want her to go to the West Indies and take Ira but she won't listen. Why anyone who doesn't have to stay through these rotten winters I can't imagine." A flaming log brought out his handsomely proportioned face, the clear grey eyes, the light carefully brushed hair and stubborn chin. Peyton was a striking if slightly sullen appearing youth--yet he must be on the mark of thirty--and it was undeniable that he was well thought of generally. At his university, Princeton, he had belonged to a most select club; his family, his prospects, even his present--junior partner in a young but successful firm of bond brokers--were beyond reproach. Yet Lee Randon was aware that he had never completely liked Peyton.
His exterior was too hard, too obviously certain, to allow any penetration of the inevitable human and personal irregularities beneath. It might be possible that he was all of a piece of the conventional stereotyped proprieties; but Lee couldn't imagine Claire marrying or holding to a man so empty, or, rather, so dully solid. Claire he admired without reservation--a girl who had become a wife, a mother, with no loss of her vivid character. Her attitude toward Ira, now four years old--wholly different from Fanny's manner with her children--was lightly humorous; publicly she treated her obligations as jokes; but actually, Lee knew, she was indefatigable.
This was a type of high spirits, of highly bred courage, to which he was entirely delivered. Fanny was a perfect mother, a remarkably fine wife, but she bore an evident sense of her responsibilities. She wasn't so good-looking as Claire, who at times was almost beautiful; but Fanny had a very decided kind of attractiveness which Lee Randon wished she would more bring out. She was a little too serious. He didn't actually want her to drink and swear in public, that wouldn't become her; but something of that sort, he felt, might help her. At times, when she had had more than her customary cocktail and a half, he saw in her a promise of what he desired.
God knew he wasn't criticizing Fanny, he hastened to reassure even himself: how could he, in the face of all she had brought him--the freedom of money and undeviating devotion and their two splendid children? His house was as absolute in its restrained luxury of taste as was the unfailing attention to his comfort. It was purely for her own happiness that he wanted her to be, well--a little gayer. She was already developing a tendency to sit serenely on the veranda of the club through the dances, to encourage others rather than take an active part herself.
Expanding in the glow of the fire and hot strong tea he forgot all about his uncomfortable premonitions of age. Now it seemed to him that he had never been younger in the sense of being merely alive; after the tonic of the cold his nerves were strung like steel, his blood was in a full tide. Lee was aware of a marked sense of pleasure at the closeness to him of Anette; settling back, she willingly, voluntarily, leaned her firm elastic body against him; her legs, as evident in woolen stockings as his own, were thrust frankly out toward the flames.
"I'll meet her," he heard Peyton say, and realized that they were still talking about Mina Raff. She wouldn't attract him, Lee Randon, in the least, he was sure of that ... no wistful April moon. What, then, did engage him? He was unable to say, he didn't know. It was something intangible, a charm without definite form; and his thoughts returned to Cytherea--if he could grasp the secret of her fascination he would be able to settle a great many disturbing feelings and needs. Yes, what she mutely expressed was what, beneath his comprehension, he had come to long for. He had never recognized it as the property of any woman nor satisfied it in himself.
Here, certainly, his loyalty, his affection for Fanny, weren't damaged; he was, he thought, beyond assault there. It was only that, together with his fidelity to his wife, an increasing uneasiness possessed him, an unabated separate interest in life, in women. He was searching for something essential, he couldn't discover what; but, dismissing the problem of how he'd act if he found it, the profound conviction remained that when his hopeful quest was over then indeed he'd be old, finished, drained. Lee Randon secretly cherished, jealously guarded, that restless, vital reaching for the indefinable perfection of his hidden desire. For a flash it was almost perceptible in Anette, her head half-buried in the darkness of the divan behind the rise and fall of her breasts in a close sweater of Jaeger wool.
* * * * *
She stirred, smiled at him absently, and, with Peyton's assistance, rose. The long room, unlighted except for the fire, was lost in obscurity; the blackness against the window-panes was absolute. Outside, however, Lee found a lingering glint of day; the snow had stopped, but the wind had increased and was blowing over the open expanse of the course in the high gaunt key of winter. His house, across the road, showed regular cheerful rectangles of orange illumination: he always returned to it with a feeling of relief and pleasant anticipation, but he was very far from sharing Fanny's passionate attachment to their home. Away--on past trips to the Michigan iron ore fields and now on shorter journeys to eastern financial centers--he never thought of it, he was absorbed by business.
But in that he wasn't alone, it was true of the majority of successful men he knew over forty; they saw their wives, their homes, they thought of their families, only in the intervals of their tyrannical occupations. He, in reality, was rather better there than most, for he occasionally stayed out at Eastlake to play golf; he was locally interested, active, in the small town of Fanny's birth. Other men--
He made a calculation of how much time a practising lawyer saw his wife: certainly he was out of the house before nine--Lee knew lawyers who were in their offices at seven-thirty--and he was hardly back until after five. Nine hours absent daily through the week; and it was probable that he was in bed by eleven, up at seven--seven hours' sleep; of the eight hours left in twenty-four half if not two-thirds of the Sundays and some part of the others were devoted to a recreation; and this took no account of the briefcases brought home, the thought and contributary preoccupations.
More than that, his mind, his hopes and planning, were constantly directed toward his legal concerns; the wife of such a man filled about the position of his golf or billiards. Lee Randon had never analyzed this before, and the result amazed him. With younger men, of course, it was different; they had more time and interest for their homes, their wives and children. Everything constantly shifted, changed, perished; all, that was, but the unintelligible spurring need beyond any accomplishment.
In him it was almost as though there were--or, perhaps, had been--two distinct, opposed processes of thought, two different personalities, a fact still admirably illustrated by his private interest in the doll, in Cytherea. Much younger he had been fond of music, of opera and then symphony concerts, and his university years had been devoted to a wide indiscriminate reading: sitting until morning with college men of poetic tendencies, he had discussed the intricacies of conduct in the light of beauty rather than prudence. This followed him shyly into the world, the offices of the Magnolia Iron Works; where, he had told himself optimistically, he was but finding a temporary competence. What, when he should be free to follow his inclination, he'd do, Lee never particularized; it was in the clouds nebulous and bright, and accompanied by music. His dream left him imperceptibly, its vagueness killed partly by the superior reality of pig iron and ore and partly because he never had anyone with whom to talk it over; he could find no sympathy to keep it alive.
That it wasn't very robust was evident; and yet, throughout his youth, it had been his main source of incentive. No one, in the Magnolia works, knew the difference between the Glucks, Alma and Christopher, nor read anything but the most current of magazines. At intervals Lee had found a woman who responded to the inner side of him, and together they swept into an aesthetic emotional debauch; but they came inevitably, in the surrounding ugliness of thought and ascribed motives, to humiliating and ugly ends; and he drifted with increasing rapidity to his present financial and material sanity.
What remained of the other was hardly more than a rare accelerated heart-beat at a chord of music like the memory of a lost happiness, or at the sea shimmering with morning. He never spoke of it now, not even to Fanny; although it was possible that he might be doing her understanding an injustice. Fanny, generally, was a woman in whom the best of sense triumphed; Fanny was practical. It was she who saw that the furnace pipes were inspected, the chimney flues cleaned before winter; and who had the tomato frames properly laid away in the stable. Problems of drainage, of controversies with the neighbors, were instinctively brought to her, and she met and disposed of them with an unfailing vigorous good judgment.
A remarkable companion, he told himself; he had been a fortunate man. She was at once conventional and an individual: Fanny never, for example, wore the underclothes of colored crepe de chines, the elaborate trifles, Lee saw in the shop windows, nightgowns of sheer exposure and candy-like ribbons; hers were always of fine white cambric, scalloped, perhaps, or with chaste embroidery, but nothing more. Neither did she use perfumes of any sort, there was no array of ornamental bottles on her dressing-table, no sachet among her handkerchiefs, her cambric was not laid in scented flannel. Her dressing, a little severe, perhaps--she liked tailored suits with crisp linen waists and blue serge with no more than a touch of color--was otherwise faultless in choice and order; and, it might be that she was wholly wise: Fanny was thin and, for a woman, tall, with square erectly held shoulders. Her face was thin, too, almost bony, and that magnified, emphasized, the open bright blueness of her eyes; all her spirit, her integrity and beauty, were gathered in them; her hair was pale and quite scanty.
Yes, Fanny's eyes were her principal attraction, they were forever startling, contrasted with the rest, not only remarkable in shade but, as well, in light; in her quick unreasoning tempers, the only perceptible flaw of her character, they sparkled with brilliancy. The tempers, Lee decided, descending the narrow stony road from the club- house to his gate, were an unavoidable part of her special qualities: her quick decisiveness, her sharp recognitions of right and her obdurate condemnation of wrong--these distinctions were never obscured in Fanny--necessitated a finality of judgment open to anger at any contrary position. Aside from that she was as secure, as predictable, as any heavenly orbit; her love for him, beginning before marriage, had quietly and constantly increased; her usual mood was moulded to his need; nothing had ever contested the supremacy of his place with her.
Lee swung open the white wicket that broke the middle of his border hedge and went up the path over the broad lawn; the house, an admirable copy of locally colonial dwellings, was a yellow stucco, with a porch on his left and the dining-room at the extreme right. Beyond the porch was the square of the formal garden, indistinguishable at this season, and the garage, the driveway, were hidden at the back. He mounted the broad steps of field stone at the terrace, but, in place of going directly in under the main portico, turned aside to the porch, past the dim bare forms of the old maples. Just as he had anticipated, the glass door showed him Fanny sitting in the maple slatted-back rocking-chair; Gregory, in blue, was present, but Helena not to be seen.
His wife's hands were lying idly in her lap, and she was gazing into nothingness with an expression he had never before noticed, there was a faint troubled doubt on her brow, a questioning expression about her eyes. As he stood momentarily quiet he saw her hands slowly clasp until he felt that they were rigid, and her mouth became pinched; her face seemed actually hard. Gregory spoke to her, with his fat fingers on her sleeve, but she made no reply, paid no attention to him. Lee could hear Gregory's demanding voice; and then, gathering herself, Fanny sighed deeply and smiled at her boy. She was wearing her pearls, her rings sparkled in glittering prisms; and, as he opened the door, Lee Randon wondered if he had forgotten an engagement to go out for dinner?
* * * * *
He asked at once if this were so, but found that they were staying at home. She regarded him still, he realized, a little withdrawn in the abstraction he had surprised. This, because it was so uncommon, disturbed him, and he demanded what was worrying her.
"Nothing, really. What made you suppose I was bothered?" Her reply was instinctive; and then, after a pause, she continued, more insecurely, "I was only thinking about some things.... Lee," she inquired, "you love me very much, don't you?"
"Why, of course," he spoke almost impatiently.
"That is all I have, you see," she admitted; "and that was what was in my mind. The other women I know are so different; they seem to have so many more interests than I, and to care less for them than I do for my one. It is exactly as though I belonged before the war and they came afterwards. It is true--I am old-fashioned. Well, I don't care if you don't! But, just the same, it's a problem; I don't want to be out of the times or narrow; and yet I can't, I don't know how, and I honestly don't want to, change.
"It wouldn't be any better if I smoked more cigarettes or drank more gin, that would be silly." Lee was startled by the similarity of her words to his unformed thought. "No one likes fun better than I do, but the fun now is so different," her voice had the sound of a wail, "it's nothing but legs and getting kissed by anybody but your husband. I don't want other men to kiss me, Lee, only you. And I want you to be glad about that, to care for it more than anything else. You do, don't you?"
Again she hesitated, and again he assured her, in a species of annoyance, of his feeling.
"It's because I adore you," Fanny insisted; "it may be awfully foolish and ark-like to say, but you're all I want, absolutely." Her manner grew indignant. "Some women at tea today laughed at me. They did nothing but describe how they held their husbands' affections; actually that, as though it were difficult, necessary; the details were sickening, and reminded me of that old joke about leaving off your wedding ring. It was all too horrid! And, underneath, they were bitter and vindictive, yes--they were uneasy, afraid of something, of somebody, and treated every good-looking woman as a dangerous enemy. I couldn't live like that, I'd rather die: I told them they didn't trust the men they were married to."
"What did they say to that?" Lee asked, standing in the door.
"Agreed with me. Alice Lucian said I was damned well right she didn't trust hers. She loved him, too, but she didn't propose to take any liberties with the sanctity of her bed. They all thought Claire was a fool to let Peyton see Mina Raff like that in New York--the way to avoid trouble was to make sure it couldn't begin. Has Peyton said anything to you about Mina Raff? She is perfectly stunning, of course, and an actress."
"Not to me," Lee told her; then he recalled the prolonged attention to Mina Raff on the divan at the Club. "What if he is crazy about her?" he observed indifferently; "it can't come to anything. It won't hurt Claire if Peyton sits out a few dances with a public idol."
"I shouldn't think so either, but the others were so positive. I just told them how happy we are together and how devoted you are--fifteen marvelous years, Lee. It was plain that they envied us." She rose and came close to him, her widely-opened candid blue eyes level with his gaze. "Not the slightest atom must ever come between us," she said; "I couldn't stand it, I've been spoiled. I won't have to, will I, Lee? Lee, kiss me."
He met the clinging thin passionate purity of her mouth. "No, certainly not, never," he muttered, extraordinarily stirred. He asserted to himself that he would make no such fatal mistake. The other, the errant fancy, was no more than a vagrant unimportant impulse. "Don't let these women, who cat around, upset you; probably they are thinking not so much about their husbands as they are of themselves. I've seen that Alice Lucian parked out in a limousine during a dance, and she was going right to it."
"It is foolish of me," Fanny agreed, "and not complimentary to our love. I have kept you so long over nothing that you will be late for dinner. I don't care!" Her manner bore a foreign trace of abandon in its radiant happiness; and, with spread fingers on his back, she propelled him toward the stairs. But, in their room, he failed to change his clothes: he sat lost in a concentration of thought, of summoned determination.
The interior, with dotted white Swiss curtains at the large windows, both an anomaly and an improvement on the architectural origin, was furnished largely in dull rubbed mahogany, the beds had high slender fluted posts, snowy ruffled canopies and counterpanes stitched in a primitive design. He possessed an inlaid chest of drawers across from the graceful low-boy used by Fanny as a dressing-table; there was a bed stand with brass-tipped feet, a Duncan Fyfe, she declared; split hickory chairs painted a dark claret color; small hooked rugs on the waxed floor; and, against the mirror on his chest of drawers, a big photograph of Fanny and the two children in the window-seat of the living room.
A dinner shirt lay in readiness on the bed, the red morocco boxes that held his moonstone cuff links and studs were evident, but he ignored those provisions for his ease. There was a strange, a different and unaccountable, uneasiness, a marked discomfort, at his heart. The burden of it was that he had a very great deal of which, it might well be, he wasn't worthy. In Fanny, he told himself, as against everything else discoverable, he had the utmost priceless security life could offer. Outside the brightness and warmth and charm of their house the November night was slashed by a black homeless wind.
Her sureness, undeniably, was founded on the inalterable strength of her convictions; against that sustaining power, it occurred to him, the correctness of her beliefs might be relatively unimportant. Could any more be required of a faith than its ability, like a life preserver on water, to hold an individual safe from sinking? Strangely enough, the one or two greatly powerful men with whom he had come in contact were like Fanny, prejudiced, closed against all opinions contrary to their own, impatient of doubt and self-questioning.
Fanny, Lee Randon recognized, was indefatigable in her efforts to form him in her own unassailable mould; she insisted in the most trivial, and often tiresome, ways, that he should reach and maintain her standards. He had been in return, more often than not, rebellious, humorously or with a suspicion of annoyance; but now, suddenly, it seemed to him that just that, the limitation of Fanny's determined attitude, was, perhaps, the most desirable thing possible. If it were possible of acquisition! Such a certainty wasn't his naturally--those two diverse strains in him again; but one, he added, had been practically obliterated. The first step in such a course of practical wisdom would be to put Cytherea out of his life, dislodge her finally from his thoughts, and the over-mantel downstairs. This, diplomatically with the doll, he could, of course, do now, whenever he chose. With that, and whatever it represented, accomplished, Lee had a premonition, his life would be secure, placid.
The disturbance caused by Fanny's searching tenderness subsided a little; and, as it dwindled, the other restlessness, the sense, yes--of wasted possibilities and years, once more grew evident. By God, if Fanny insisted on being, at any cost, herself, it would be unreasonable in her not to recognize the same need in him. But Lee was obliged to add the old and familiar and increasingly heavy provision: any individuality of being, of desire, must not be allowed to impair the validity of their common existence, their marriage. Fanny had an advantage over him there, for all her aspirations turned inward to their love, their home and children; and his ... but if he knew their goal he could have beaten life.
* * * * *
Footfalls approaching over the hall--the maid to tell him dinner was served--brought him sharply to his feet, and he hurried down to where Fanny, who liked to do such things, had finished lighting the candles on the table. In reply to the glance of interrogation at his inappropriate clothes he explained that, trivially occupied, he had been unaware of the flight of time. Throughout dinner Fanny and he said little; their children had a supper at six o'clock, and at seven were sent to bed; so there were commonly but two at the other table. He had an occasional glimpse of his wife, behind a high centerpiece of late chrysanthemums, the color of bright copper pennies and hardly larger; and he was struck, as he was so often, by Fanny's youthful appearance; but that wasn't, he decided, so much because of her actual person-- although since her marriage she had shown practically no change--as from a spirit of rigorous purity; she was, in spite of everything, Lee realized, completely virginal in mind.
The way she sat and walked, with her elbows close to her body and her high square shoulders carried forward, gave her an air of eagerness, of youthful hurry. Perhaps she grew more easily tired now than formerly; her face then seemed thinner than ever, the temples sunken and cheek- bones evident, and her eyes startling in their size and blueness and prominence. She kept, too, the almost shrinking delicacy of a girl's mind: Fanny never repeated stories not sufficiently saved from the gross by their humor. Her private severity with women who did, he felt, was too extreme. The truth was that she regarded the mechanism of nature with distaste; Fanny was never lost, never abandoned, in passion--Lee Randon had wondered if she regarded that as more than a duty, the discharge of a moral, if not actually a religious, obligation. It was certain that she was clothed in a sense of bodily shame, of instinctive extreme modesty, which no situation or degree of feeling could destroy.
He understood, however, that he could not have Fanny as she was, immeasurably fine, without accepting all the implications of her character--other qualities, which he might desire, would as well bring their defects. Lee didn't for a second want a wife like Anette. His admiration for Fanny was, fundamentally, enormous. He was glad that there was nothing hidden in his life which could seriously disturb her; nothing, that was, irrevocable. Which had he been--wise or fortunate, or only trivial? Perhaps, everything considered, merely fortunate; and he wondered how she would have met an infidelity of his? He put his question in the past tense because now, Lee congratulated himself, all the danger was passed: forty-seven, with responsibilities that increased every month in importance, and swiftly growing children; the hair above his ears was patched with grey.
"I don't like that centerpiece," Fanny observed, "I can't see you. Still, it's as well, I suppose, since you didn't change. You look so much better in dark clothes, Lee, thinner."
"You shouldn't make me so comfortable."
"You'd see to that, anyhow; men always do. Honestly, Alice Lucian was a scream this afternoon, she said that she hated and distrusted all men; yet I'm sure no one could be more considerate or dependable than Warner. Now, if she had a husband like George Willard--"
"What would you do," Lee asked, "if I spent my spare time with the very young ones?"
"I'd have a doctor see you," she replied coolly. "What in the world put that in your head? Haven't you everything here a man could want? That's exactly what they were talking about; it's so--so idiotic. Those younger girls ought to be smacked and put to bed, with their one-piece swimming-suits and shimmying. They give a very misleading impression."
He lost the course of her speech in considering how little of themselves women, old and young, showed each other. If Fanny meant, if she for a moment thought, where the girls they were discussing came in, that there was smoke without fire.... It was all devilish strange, the present day, disturbing. The young men, since the war, had grown sober, and the older men resembled George Willard. The exploding of so much powder, the release of such naked passions, had over-thrown the balance of conduct and pressure. How fortunate, he thought again, he was in having Fanny.
They moved into the enclosure by the fire-place, where Cytherea was remote in shadow against the chimney, and through the hall to the living room for coffee. His wife placed the portable stool under her feet, and silence enveloped them. At intervals the clear treble of the children's voices was audible from above, and once Fanny called up for them to be quiet. The room was large, it filled that end of the lower floor, and Lee's gaze idly rested on the smoke of his cigar, veiling the grand piano in the far corner. There were no overhead lights, the plugs for the lamps were set in the baseboard, and the radiance was pleasantly diffused, warm and subdued: the dull immaculately white paint of the bookshelves on his left, silver frames on a table, harmonious fabrics and spots of color, consciously and sub-consciously spread a restful pattern. In reply to his comment Fanny acknowledged that she had seen the snow; she hated winter, she proceeded, and thought that if it turned out as bad as last year they might get away to Cuba and see Daniel.
Daniel was Lee's brother, four years his junior, an administrador of a sugar estancia in the Province of Camagüey; a man who, absorbed in his crops and his adopted Spanish-tropical civilization, rarely returned to the United States. This projected trip to Cuba they had discussed for many Novembers; every year Fanny and he promised each other that, early in February, they would actually go; and preparatory letters were exchanged with Daniel Randon; but it always came to nothing. Either it was impossible for Fanny to leave the children, the house, or the servants, or Lee's affairs were in need of close supervision.
Suddenly it annoyed him to discuss again, uselessly, Camagüey; it had become only a vain pretence, a sustained mirage, of escape from disagreeable days. While it was hot in Cuba, Daniel maintained, the trade wind coming with evening made the nights cool; it was far more comfortable, summer and winter, at La Quinta than in Eastlake. Cuba, he made it seem, Havana and the colonias of cane, the coast and the interior, was a place with none of the drawbacks of a northern land or society; there were, certainly, conventions--the Spanish were a very punctilious people--but they operated in a conveniently definite, Daniel might almost say a sensible masculine, manner. He had not gone into any further detail, but had sunk into his celebrated immobility of expression. Lee, therefore, had drawn his own, natural, conclusions; he had come to regard Cuba in the same light as that of the early Castilian adventurers--an El Dorado, but of freedom rather than gold.
A perverse restlessness settled upon him, and he put down his coffee cup abruptly; the contentment in his surroundings vanished. Lee wanted to be somewhere else, see something different, not so--so tranquil, so complacently delivered to the uneventful. Fanny, he told himself resentfully, would be satisfied to sit exactly where she was for a year. She met his fleet scrutiny with a faint smile. Her face wouldn't be greatly changed by old age, by death. She was like that, inside and out. Whirling ungracious fancies passed through his brain. He shook his head, and Fanny instantly demanded, "What is it, Lee, what is worrying you?" Nothing, he replied, but she continued to study him until, giving it up, she turned to the approaching dance; there would be a dinner at the Club before it, and forty people from out of town had accepted. They must all have a perfect time, she declared. Gregory could be heard laughing, and, with a sense of relief, of escape, he volunteered to go up and see what kept the children roused. He would only make them worse, Fanny observed, he was as fidgety as Helena; but her tone carried to him her compelling affection.
* * * * *
The darkened room where Helena and Gregory slept held a cold glimmering whiteness; and the light he switched on showed a most sanitary bareness and two severe iron beds. There was a moment's stillness as he entered, the scrutiny of two rosy faces framed in blanket and sheet--there were no pillows--and then there was a delighted vociferous recognition of his presence.
"You must sit on my bed," Helena insisted.
"No, mine!" Gregory cried; and, as he settled by his daughter, "For every minute you're there, father, you must sit here. Guess what I have with me." Lee Randon had no idea, and Gregory produced a willow switch. "That's for anybody who isn't good."
There was a wriggle down under the blanket, and Lee leaned forward; "Are those your feet?" he demanded; "do you go that far down, are you that tall?"
"Gracious, that's nothing," Helena cut in; "just see where I go." He discovered that her active toes were almost under the end bar of the bed. The covers were moulded by her firm body. In a few years, he thought with a constricted throat, Helena would be grown up, flung into the complex troubles of maturity. However, he knew, life wouldn't greatly upset her--she had a calmness more stolid than Fanny's together with his own sharpened sensibilities: it was probable that she would marry soon.
Gregory was different; while Helena, in small ways, was unamenable, he was as good as the gold stars he continually got for admirable conduct. He had a deliberate, careful mind and, already, a sense of responsibilities. He spoke slowly, giving the impression that the selection of words was a heavy business; where Helena's speech came in careless rushes. Gregory, too, Lee Randon told himself, would not be at a loss later. The two children actually demanded very little from him now beyond the love they took for granted and its obvious return. But, for his part, did he give them much, indeed, any more? Was there, Lee wondered, a deficiency in his sense of parenthood?
He knew men all of whose labor was for their children; they slaved to have comfortable sums against their children's futures; they schemed and talked, often fatuously, for and about their sons and, in lesser degree, daughters. They were, in short, wholly absorbed, no more than parents; at the advent of a family they lost individuality, ambition, initiative; nature trapped them, blotted them out; it used them for its great purpose and then cast them aside, just as corporations used men for a single task and dropped them when their productiveness was over.
But he wasn't like that, it might well be unfortunately. His personality, his peculiar needs, had survived marriage; the vague longings of youth had not been entirely killed. They were still potent and still nameless; they had refused to be gathered into a definition as exact as ambition. Lee had moved to Gregory's bed, and was holding one of the small warm hands, inattentive to the eager clamor of voices. Perhaps his ambition had vanished when he had left the first plan of his future for the more tangible second: there wasn't much in the material industry of iron founding, nor in his present wider activities, to satisfy the imagination.
Taking the place of that, he had an uncommon amount of energy, vitality, a force of some kind or other. Whatever he undertook he followed with a full vigorous sweep; he was successful in convincing a large proportion of the people with whom he dealt that their ends were the same as his; and here, as well, chance, fate, had been with Lee--no one, practically, had lost through a belief in him.
His situation today, he wholly and gladly admitted, had resulted from the money Fanny brought him. Until his marriage he had been confined to the Magnolia Iron Works; of which, it was conceivable, he would in time be manager, maybe, much later, part owner. But, with fresh resources, he tried fresh fields, investments, purchases, every one of which prospered. He owned or operated or controlled an extraordinary diversity of industries--a bottling works for nonalcoholic beverages, a small structural steel plant, the Eastlake daily paper--a property that returned forty per cent on his capital--a box works, purchased before the war, with an output that had leaped, almost over night, from thousands to millions, a well-known cigarette--
His energies, forever turning from routine paths and stereotyped preoccupations, took him vividly into countless phases of existence. He had accumulated nearly a million dollars and Fanny's affairs had benefited greatly; his administration of her money had been rigid: but --for whatever it was worth--his wife had, in liberating him from the company of the super-hot cupolas, made it all possible.
A fist, now, was softly pounding him; and Gregory's voice threatened tears. "What is it?" Lee Randon asked. "You will have to excuse me, I was thinking."
The narrative which followed, the confused history of a two and a half dollar gold-piece finally taken from Gregory by his mother, was broken into by Helena's irrepressible contempt at his youthfulness.
"He thinks the money is gone," she explained, "because Mother put it in the bank for him. I told him when he got it there would be a lot more, but he just wouldn't listen to me. No matter what anybody said it was no good."
"Well," Gregory inquired, "how much more?"
"I don't know, silly; but packs."
"That depends on how long you leave it in the bank," Lee instructed him. "If you didn't ask for it for twenty years--"
"But I want it next Thursday," Gregory hotly interrupted; "won't it be any bigger then?"
"He does nothing but ask and ask questions," Helena added. Lee patted Gregory's cheek:
"Don't let Helena discourage you. If I don't put the light out your mother will make me go to bed."
There were breathless delighted giggles at the thought of that absurdity. He leaned over his son. "Kiss me!" Helena cried. "Now kiss me," Gregory echoed. "Kiss me back again--"
The light went out with a sharp click, and the room was once more a glimmering darkness, blanched and cold. The ruddy faces of the children, their bright hair, even their voices, were subdued. Fanny, apparently, hadn't moved; the light at her shoulder was reflected in the cut steel buckles of her slippers; she had slight but graceful ankles. He recognized this, drawing a sheaf of reports from his brief- case; but, after a perfunctory glance, he dropped them beside him on the floor.
"Really, Lee, your condition is getting dreadful," Fanny observed; "you are too nervous for words. Go in and look at that doll you brought from New York. She ought to teach you repose even if I can't." A swift concern shadowed her eyes. "Are you doing too much, do you think? It isn't necessary, you know. We have plenty. I don't understand why you will go so hard at all those fool concerns of yours. There might be a mortgage on us, from the way you work."
The latter part of her speech he forgot in the calling of his attention to Cytherea. Fanny had said that the doll might tranquilize him. The opposite was more probable--Cytherea, what could be more disturbing? Fanny hadn't noticed her smile, the long half-closed eyes, the expression of malicious tenderness, if such a thing were possible, the pale seductiveness of her wrists and hands, the finger nails stained with vermilion. He tried to imagine a woman like that, warm, no-- burning, with life. It seemed to Lee the doll became animated in a whisper of cool silk, but he couldn't invent a place, a society, into which she fitted. Not Eastlake, certainly, nor New York ... perhaps Cuba. What a vanity of nonsense his thoughts had led him back into: Cytherea, a thing of wax, was on the over-mantel beyond the hall; Cuba beyond the sea.
The smoke of another cigar, precisely in the manner of the one before, hung between him and the piano. His wife settled contentedly in the curly maple rocker, her rings flashing in the swift drawing of threads from a square of linen.
* * * * *
Early in the morning Lee Randon drove himself, in a Ford sedan, to a station on the main line of a railway which bore him into the city and his office. It was nine miles from Eastlake to the station, where he left the car for his return; and, under ordinary circumstances, he accomplished the distance in twenty minutes. The road was good and lay through open rolling country, grazing and farmed land; he knew its every aspect thoroughly, each hill and turning and old stone house, in the pale green of early spring with the flushed petals of the apple blossoms falling on the dark ploughed ground; yellow with grain; a sweeping stubble with the corn shocked in which rabbit hunters, brown like the sheaves, called to their dogs.
Now it was sombre and, in the morning and evening, wrapped in blue mist; the air had the thick damp coldness usually precipitated in snow; the cattle, gathered about the fodder spread in the fields, were huddled against the rising winds. The smoke of a chimney was flattened on a low roof; and Lee, who had sometimes wished that he were a part of the measured countryside life, had a sudden feeling of revolt from such binding circumstances. He wasn't surprised, this morning, that it was difficult to get men to work in the comparative loneliness of the farms, or that farmers' sons went continually to the cities.
When they couldn't get there they crowded into their borough towns, into Eastlake, at every opportunity, attracted by the gaiety, the lights, the stir, the contact with humanity. Before prohibition they had drunk at the hotel bars, and driven home, with discordant laughter and the urged clatter of hoofs, to the silence of star-lit fields. The buggies had gone; High Street, on Saturday night, was filled with automobiles; there was practically no drunkenness; but there was no lessening in the restless seeking stream of men, the curiosity of the women with folded hands and tightly folded lips.
They all wanted a mitigation of a life which, fundamentally, did not fill them; they had an absorbing labor, love and home and children, the church, yet they were unsatisfied. They were discontented with the primary facts of existence, the serious phases, and wanted, above everything, tinsel and laughter. If a girl passing on the street smiled boldly at such youths they were fired with triumph and happiness; they nudged each other violently and made brazen declarations which, faced by the girls, escaped in disconcerted laughter. Their language--and this, too, was a revolt--was like the sweepings of the cow barns.
Life, it occurred to Lee Randon, in this connection, was amazingly muddled; and he wondered what would happen if the restraint, since it was no better than sham, should be swept away, and men acknowledged what they so largely were? A fresh standard, a new set of values, would have to be established. But before that could be accomplished an underlying motive must be discovered. That he searched for in himself; suppose he were absolutely free, not tomorrow, that evening, but now--
Would he go to the office, to the affairs of the Zenith cigarette, and, once there, would he come home again--the four thirty-seven train and the Ford in the shed by the station? Lee couldn't answer this finally. A road led over the hills on the right, beyond a horizon of trees. He knew it for only a short distance; where ultimately it led he had no idea. But it was an enticing way, and he had an idiotic impulse to turn aside, follow it, and never come back any more. Actually he almost cut in, and he had to swing the car sharply to the left.
If he had been in trouble or debt, if his life had been a failure, he would have understood his impulse; but as it was, with Fanny and Helena and Gregory, all his flourishing affairs--why, it was insanity! However, what absorbed him in his present state of mind, of inquiry, was its honesty; nothing could be served by conventional protests and nice sentiments. Lee had long wanted to escape from life, from the accumulating limiting circumstances. Or was it death he tried to avoid?
What became clearest was that, of all the things which had happened to him, he would not, at the beginning, have deliberately chosen any. One, it seemed, bred by the other, had overtaken him, fastened upon him, while he was asleep. Lee knew a man who, because of his light strength and mastery of horses, had spent a prolonged youth riding in gentlemen's steeplechases for the great Virginia stables; a career of racing silk and odds and danger, of highly ornamental women and champagne, of paddocks and formal halls and surreptitious little ante- rooms. That he envied; and, recalling his safe ignominious usefulness during the war, he envied the young half-drunk aviators sweeping in reckless arcs above the fortified German cities.
Or was it, again, only youth that he lamented, conscious of its slipping supinely from his grasp? Yet, if that were all, why was he rebellious about the present, the future, rather than the past? Lee Randon wasn't looking back in a self-indulgent melancholy. Nor was he an isolated, peculiar being; yes, all the men he knew had, more or less, his own feeling; he could think of none, even half intelligent, who was happy. Each had Lee's aspect of having been forced into a consummation he would not have selected, of something temporary, hurried, apologetic.
He thought more specially of men celebrated in great industries, who had accumulated power beyond measure, millions almost beyond count-- what extravagantly mad outlets they turned to! The captains of steel, of finance, were old, spent, before they were fifty, broken by machinery and strain in mid-life, by a responsibility in which they were like pig iron in an open hearth furnace. What man would choose to crumble, to find his brain paralysed, at forty-five or six? Such labor was a form of desperation, of drowning, forgetting, an affair at best an implied failure.
That was the strength, the anodyne, of drink, of cocktails, that they spread a glittering transformation about crass reality; people danced at stated times, in hot crowded rooms, because life was pedestrian; they were sick of walking in an ugly meaningless clamor and wanted to move to music, to wear pearl studs and fragile slippers and floating chiffons. "The whole damned business is a mess," he said aloud. Then, reaching the city, he threw himself with a familiar vigor into the activities he had challenged.
Returning over the familiar road, in his small closed car, he was quieter mentally, critical of his useless dissatisfaction; he was making needless trouble for himself. Small things filled his thoughts, among them the question of how much gin would be consumed by the cocktail party Fanny and he were having before the dinner dance at the Country Club. Peyton and Claire Morris, Anette and, if she came, Mina Raff, with two men, and the Lucians. Perhaps twelve in all; two quarts. The Country Club dances, principally made up of people who had known each other long and intimately, decidedly needed an impetus; society was rather dreadful without rum. Anette was an attractive girl; she had beautiful legs; but they were hardly better than Fanny's; why in the name of God was he captivated by Anette's casual ankles and indifferent to his wife's?
Women's legs--they were even no longer hidden--were only a reasonable anatomical provision exactly shared by men. Why, he particularized, did he prefer them in silk stockings rather than bare, and in black more than bright colors? Anette's had never failed to excite his imagination, but Alice Lucian's, graceful enough, were without interest for him. How stupid was the spectacle of women in tights! Short bathing skirts left him cold, but the unexpected, the casual, the vagaries of fashion and the wind, were unfailingly potential. Humiliating, he thought, a curiosity that should be left with the fresh experience of youth; but it wasn't--comic opera with its choruses and the burlesque stage were principally the extravagances of middle age.
* * * * *
The orange juice and square bottles of clear gin, the array of glasses and ice-filled pewter pitcher in which Lee mixed his drinks, were standing conveniently on a table in the small reception room. Fanny, in a lavender dress with a very full skirt decorated with erratically placed pale yellow flowers, had everything in readiness. "Mina Raff came," she announced, as he descended the stairs. "Anette telephoned. To be quite frank I didn't much care whether she did or didn't. She used to be too stiff, too selfish, I thought; and I never liked Anette."
"Nothing but prejudice, that," he replied decidedly. "Anette has a very good head. You have just heard stories from envious women." He was careful to say nothing about her legs. "I haven't found her the least bit out of the way; and she thinks a lot of you."
"Bosh," Fanny said inattentively; "I know what she thinks of me. I am surprised, Lee, that you do so well, because really you are nothing but an impressionable old fool." She touched him affectionately on the cheek, "But I can take care of you and Anette too."
He didn't in the slightest wish to be taken care of in the manner she indicated; yet there was nothing he could answer; and, at the sound of a motor on the drive, he turned toward the entrance at the back. It was the Lucians; and as he greeted them the whole small company swept into the house. Claire, with her narrow dark vivid face, wore diagonals of black and grey, with a long trailing girdle of soft blues and pinks. She came up at once to Lee and kissed him with a warm friendliness. "Have you seen Mina Raff?" she asked; "she's wonderful."
As Claire spoke Lee Randon saw the woman who was becoming such a noted personality. She was slim, neither tall nor short--Peyton Morris was removing a voluminous white cloak with dull red stripes and a high collar of fox. He had been wrong in his remembrance of her, for her loveliness was beyond challenge. Yes, a wistful April moon described her very well: Mina Raff was ashen blonde, her face was a very pure oval, and her large eyes, the delicate slightly drooping mouth, held an expression of devastating sweetness.
She came forward promptly, and yet with a little touching air of hesitation, and accused him, in a serious low voice, of having forgotten her. That, he returned, was ridiculous, an impossibility. Pictures of her were in all the magazines. Close by her he recognized that the sweetness was far from sugary; there were indications of a determination that reached stubbornness; already there were faint lines--skilfully covered--at the corners of her eyes, and she was palpably, physically, weary. It was that, he decided, which gave her the wistful charm. That and something more. She was considered, he knew, and by the judges best qualified, to have a very sure and perfect talent; and he had no doubt that that possession stamped and qualified her.
He was obliged to attend to the cocktails; and, at his back, a gay chatter of voices rose. He had fleeting impressions of very different people: a strange man in naval uniform with the insignia of a commander; Anette in a scanty sheath of satin from which an airy skirt spread to the left like a fan; Alice Lucian sitting on the steps with George Willard: Frank Carver remote and lost in his bitter thoughts; Elsie Wayland with the gold halo of an income almost a dollar a minute.
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