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Edith Wharton - SSC 10

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The World Over.

 

 

   
1936
   

 

 

 
Charm Incorporated.
 
 
 
I.
 
 

 
          
Jim!
I’m afraid… I’m dreadfully afraid…”

 
          
James
Targatt’s wife knelt by his armchair, the dark hair flung off her forehead, her
dark eyes large with tears as they yearned up at him through those incredibly
long lashes.

 
          
“Afraid?
Why—what’s the matter?” he retorted, annoyed at being disturbed in the slow
process of digesting the dinner he had just eaten at Nadeja’s last new
restaurant—a Ukrainian one this time. For they went to a different restaurant
every night, usually, at Nadeja’s instigation, hunting out the most exotic that
New York at the high tide of its prosperity had to offer. “That sturgeon stewed
in cream—” he thought wearily. “Well, what is it?”

 
          
“It’s
Boris, darling. I’m afraid Boris is going to marry a film-star. That Halma
Hoboe, you know… She’s the greatest of them all…” By this time the tears were
running down Nadeja’s cheeks. Targatt averted his mind from the sturgeon long
enough to wonder if he would ever begin to understand his wife, much less his
wife’s family.

 
          
“Halma Hoboe?
Well, why on earth shouldn’t he? Has she got
her divorce from the last man all right?”

 
          
“Yes,
of course.” Nadeja was still weeping. “But I thought perhaps you’d mind Boris’s
leaving us. He will have to stay out at
Hollywood
now, he says. And I shall miss my brother
so dreadfully.
Hollywood
’s very far from
New York
—no? We shall all miss Boris, shan’t we, James?”

 
          
“Yes,
yes.
Of course.
Great boy, Boris!
Funny,
to be related to a movie-star.
‘My sister-in-law,
Halma Hoboe’.
Well, as long as he couldn’t succeed on the screen
himself—” said Targatt, suddenly sounding a latent relief, which came to the
surface a moment later. “
She’ll
have
to pay his bills now,” he muttered, too low for his wife to hear. He reached
out for a second cigar, let his head sink back comfortably against the
chair-cushions, and thought to himself: “Well, perhaps the luck’s turning…” For
it was the first time, in the eight years of his marriage to Nadeja, that any
information imparted to him concerning her family had not immediately led up to
his having to draw another cheque.

 
          
  

 

 
II.
 
 

 
          
James
Targatt had always been on his guard against any form of sentimental weakness;
yet now, as he looked back on his life, he began to wonder if the one occasion
on which he had been false to this principle might not turn out to be his best
stroke of business.

 
          
He
had not had much difficulty in guarding himself against marriage. He had never
felt an abstract yearning for fatherhood, or believed that to marry an
old-fashioned affectionate girl, who hated society, and wanted to stay at home
and darn and scrub, would really help an ambitious man in his career. He
thought it was probably cheaper in the end to have your darning and scrubbing
done for you by professionals, even if they came from one of those extortionate
valeting establishments that used, before the depression, to charge a dollar a
minute for such services. And eventually he found a stranded German widow who
came to him on starvation wages, fed him well and inexpensively, and kept the
flat looking as fresh and shiny as a racing-yacht. So there was no earthly
obligation for him to marry; and when he suddenly did so, no question of
expediency had entered into the arrangement.

 
          
He
supposed afterward that what had happened to him was what people called falling
in love. He had never allowed for that either, and even now he was not sure if
it was the right name for the knock-down blow dealt to him by his first sight
of Nadeja. Her name told you her part of the story clearly enough. She came
straight out of that struggling mass of indistinguishable human misery that
Targatt called “Wardrift”. One day—he still wondered how, for he was always
fiercely on his guard against such intrusions—she had forced her way into his
office, and tried to sell him (of all things!) a picture painted by her brother
Serge. They were all starving, she said; and very likely it was true. But that
had not greatly moved him. He had heard the same statement made too often by
too many people, and it was too painfully connected in his mind with a dreaded
and rapidly increasing form of highway robbery called “Appeals”. Besides,
Targatt’s imagination was not particularly active, and as he was always sure of
a good meal himself, it never much disturbed him to be told that others were
not. So he couldn’t to this day have told you how it came about that he bought
Serge’s picture on the spot, and married Nadeja a few weeks afterward. He had
been knocked on the head—sandbagged; a regular hold-up. That was the only way to
describe it.

 
          
Nadeja
made no attempt to darn or scrub for him—which was perhaps just as well, as he
liked his comforts. On the contrary, she made friends at once with the German
widow, and burdened that industrious woman with the additional care of her own
wardrobe, which was negligible before her marriage, but increased rapidly after
she became Mrs. Targatt. There was a second servant’s room above the flat, and
Targatt rather reluctantly proposed that they should get in a girl to help
Hilda; but Nadeja said, no, she didn’t believe Hilda would care for that; and
the room would do so nicely for Paul, her younger brother, the one who was
studying to be a violinist.

 
          
Targatt
hated music, and suffered acutely (for a New Yorker) from persistently
recurring noises; but Paul, a nice boy, also with long-lashed eyes, moved into
the room next to Hilda’s, and practised the violin all day and most of the
night. The room was directly over that which Targatt now shared with Nadeja—and
of which all but the space occupied by his shaving-stand had by this time
become her exclusive property. But he bore with Paul’s noise, and it was Hilda
who struck. She said she loved music that gave her
Heimweh
, but this kind only kept her awake; and to Targatt’s horror
she announced her intention of leaving at the end of the month.

 
          
It
was the biggest blow he had ever had since he had once—and once only—been on
the wrong side of the market. He had no time to hunt for another servant, and
was sure Nadeja would not know how to find one. Nadeja, when he broke the news
to her, acquiesced in this view of her incapacity. “But why do we want a
servant? I could never see,” she said. “And Hilda’s room would do very nicely
for my sister Olga, who is learning to be a singer. She and Paul could practise
together—”

 
          
“Oh,
Lord,” Targatt interjected.

 
          
“And
we could all go out to restaurants; a different one every night; it’s much more
fun, isn’t it? And there are people who come in and clean—no? Hilda was a
robber—I didn’t want to tell you, but…”

 
          
Within
a week the young Olga, whose eyelashes were even longer than Paul’s, was
settled in the second servant’s room, and within a month Targatt had installed
a grand piano in his own drawing-room (where it took up all the space left by
Nadeja’s divan), so that Nadeja could accompany Olga when Paul was not
available.

 
          
  

 

 
III.
 
 

 
          
Targatt
had never, till that moment, thought much about Nadeja’s family. He understood
that his father-in-law had been a Court dignitary of high standing, with
immense landed estates, and armies of slaves—no, he believed they didn’t have
slaves, or serfs, or whatever they called them, any longer in those outlandish
countries east or south of Russia. Targatt was not strong on geography. He did
not own an atlas, and had never yet had time to go to the Public Library and
look up his father-in-law’s native heath. In fact, he had never had time to
read, or to think consecutively on any subject but money-making; he knew only
that old man Kouradjine had been a big swell in some country in which the
Bolsheviks had confiscated everybody’s property, and where the women (and the
young men too) apparently all had long eyelashes. But that was all part of a
vanished fairy-tale; at present the old man was only Number So-much on one Near
East Relief list, while Paul and Olga and the rest of them (Targatt wasn’t sure
even yet how many there were) figured on similar lists, though on a more modest
scale, since they were supposedly capable of earning their own living. But were
they capable of it, and was there any living for them to earn? That was what
Targatt in the course of time began to ask himself.

 
          
Targatt
was not a particularly sociable man; but in his bachelor days he had fancied
inviting a friend to dine now and then, chiefly to have the shine on his
mahogany table marvelled at, and Hilda’s
Wiener-schnitzel
praised. This was all over now. His meals were all taken in restaurants—a
different one each time; and they were usually shared with Paul, Olga, Serge
(the painter) and the divorced sister, Katinka, who had three children and a
refugee lover, Dmitri.

 
          
At
first this state of affairs was very uncomfortable, and even painful, for
Targatt; but since it seemed inevitable he adjusted himself to it, and buried
his private cares in an increased business activity.

 
          
His
activity was, in fact, tripled by the fact that it was no longer restricted to
his own personal affairs, but came more and more to include such efforts as
organizing an exhibition of Serge’s pictures, finding the funds for Paul’s
violin tuition, trying to make it worth somebody’s while to engage Olga for a
concert tour, pushing Katinka into a saleswoman’s job at a fashionable
dress-maker’s, and persuading a friend in a bank to recommend Dmitri as
interpreter to foreign clients. All this was difficult enough, and if Targatt
had not been sustained by Nadeja’s dogged optimism his courage might have
failed him; but the crowning problem was how to deal with the youngest brother,
Boris, who was just seventeen, and had the longest eyelashes of all. Boris was
too old to be sent to school, too young to be put into a banker’s or broker’s
office, and too smilingly irresponsible to hold the job for twenty-four hours
if it had been offered to him. Targatt, for three years after his marriage, had
had only the vaguest idea of Boris’s existence, for he was not among the first
American consignment of the family. But suddenly he drifted in alone, from
Odessa
or
Athens
, and joined the rest of the party at the
restaurant. By this time the Near East Relief Funds were mostly being wound up,
and in spite of all Targatt’s efforts it was impossible to get financial aid
for Boris, so for the first months he just lolled in a pleasant aimless way on
Nadeja’s divan; and as he was very particular about the quality of his
cigarettes, and consumed a large supply daily, Targatt for the first time began
to regard one of Nadeja’s family with a certain faint hostility.

 
          
Boris
might have been less of a trial if, by the time he came, Targatt had been able
to get the rest of the family on their legs; but, however often he repeated
this
attempt,
they invariably toppled over on him.
Serge could not sell his pictures, Paul could not get an engagement in an
orchestra, Olga had given up singing for dancing, so that her tuition had to begin
all over again; and to think of Dmitri and Katinka, and Katinka’s three
children, was not conducive to repose at the end of a hard day in Wall Street.

 
          
Yet
in spite of everything Targatt had never really been able to remain angry for
more than a few moments with any member of the Kouradjine group. For some years
this did not particularly strike him; he was given neither to self-analysis nor
to the dissection of others, except where business dealings were involved. He
had been taught, almost in the nursery, to discern, and deal with, the motives
determining a given course in business; but he knew no more of human nature’s
other mainsprings than if the nursery were still his habitat. He was vaguely
conscious that Nadeja was aware of this, and that it caused her a faint
amusement. Once, when they had been dining with one of his business friends,
and the latter’s wife, an ogling bore, had led the talk to the shop-worn
question of how far mothers ought to enlighten their little girls on—well, you
know… Just
how much
ought they to be
taught? That was the delicate point, Mrs. Targatt, wasn’t it?—Nadeja, thus
cornered, had met the question with a gaze of genuine bewilderment. “Taught? Do
they have to be
taught!
I think it is
Nature who will tell them—no? But myself I should first teach dressmaking and
cooking,” she said with her shadowy smile. And now, reviewing the Kouradjine
case, Targatt suddenly thought: “But that’s it! Nature
does
teach the Kouradjines. It’s a gift like a tenor voice. The
thing is to know how to make the best use of it—” and he fell to musing on this
newly discovered attribute. It was—what?
Charm?
Heaven
forbid! The very word made his flesh creep with memories of weary picnics and
wearier dinners where, with pink food in fluted papers, the discussion of “What
is Charm?” had formed the staple diet. “I’d run a mile from a woman with charm;
and so would most men,” Targatt thought with a retrospective shudder. And he
tried, for the first time, to make a conscious inventory of Nadeja’s attributes.

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