Authors: Louis Auchincloss
Tags: #Fiction, #General
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THE GOLDEN CALVES
Copyright Â© 1988 by Louis Auchincloss.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or repro-
duced in any manner whatsoever without written permission
except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical arti-
cles or reviews. For information address Houghton Mifflin
Company, 2 Park Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02108.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 87-32178
ISBN: 0-312-91487-3 Can. ISBN: 0-312-91488-1
Printed in the United States of America
Houghton Mifflin hardcover edition published 1988
First St. Martin's Press mass market edition/March 1990
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
In Loving Memory
for twenty years my
office in the Museum of North America, like those of the other curators in the porticoed marble edifice on Central Park West, seemed designed to make its occupant feel that she was usurping the space of a more important functionary. The ceiling was too high, the window that overlooked a verdant park too big, the door too richly paneled and the knob, shaped like a mountain goat's curly horns, too shiny for one who supervised only that section of the decorative arts department represented by the collection of Miss Evelyn Speddon. Some justification might have been found in the reflection that such disparity between appearance and reality was true of the institution itself, whose splendid columns and awesome faÃ§ade hardly reflected the precarious state of its exchequer. Constructed in 1930 by a banker who had subsequently lost the fortune with which he had intended to endow it, the museum had in the ensuing four and a half decades suffered a career of constant crises relieved only by desperate fund-raising campaigns. By 1975, however, even one so naturally pessimistic as Anita could indulge the hope that with a bright new acting director and a forward-looking chairman of the board, the museum's "image”âto use the term sacred to public relationsâwas brightening.
Miss Speddon, whose vast eclectic collection of Americana, from pre-Columbian figurines to chaste Shaker rockers, was in constant process of transmittal to the museum, had personally decorated Anita's office, adorning it in the protective apparel of the art patroness and shielding it from the jealous eye of the administration. The rushing steam engines, the galloping horses and gliding schooners of Currier &Â Ives covered the walls; a multicolored Tiffany lamp illuminated the desk; the shouting reds of a Pueblo carpet pranced on the floor. “I like to feel at home when I come here,” the old lady had retorted to Anita's feebly voiced protest. "You say that all these beautiful things set you apart from the other curators. Well, that's just what I want. Your office is my embassy in what I sometimes regard as almost enemy territory."
A collector and her institutional beneficiary, Miss Speddon meant, had always to be to some extent at loggerheads. As her field covered North America in all phases of its history, she had been almost obliged to come to terms with a museum dedicated to that continent, and she had hoped, by conveying a portion of her things in her lifetime, to be able to supervise their exhibition, and, by taking over Anita's full time and salary, to build an outpost in the museum's field of policy-making that would survive her.
But Miss Speddon, Anita feared, was getting too old and parting with her things too slowly to be able to accomplish her grand scheme before the end. It was becoming more and more difficult for her to surrender her beloved artifacts, each of which was a kind of baby to her, and Anita was reluctant to hurry the process, suspecting that Miss Speddon's very heartbeats might depend on the proximity of her collection and that for her to give it all up might tie the final passage of title to the final one of life. Nor could she visualize what her own life would be without the patroness who had provided her with the only home and love she had known.
"I should be like the Assyrian bas-reliefs in her front hall,” Anita murmured to herself. "Not a part of the American collection. Not really a part of anything once the person who cares is gone.”
The Assyrian warriors, with their high helmets, eagle beaks and cruel profiles, had been bought by Miss Speddon's father and, although outside his daughter's chosen field, had been loyally retained by her after his death. Anita, passing them in the hall every morning as she went to work, viewed them with affection and fancied that she could sense a corresponding reaction in the way their grip on their spears seemed to relax, like the slackening bodies of German shepherds recognizing a friendly presence.
"I never really lived before Miss Speddon took me in. How shall I live afterwards?"
But she knew Miss Speddon did not like her to be moody. Miss Speddon always insisted that she was not only young but pretty. Anita knew that she was not really that, yet she had a few cherished illusions. She liked to imagine that her brooding gaze lent an aura of sensitivity and intelligence to a face that might have else appeared merely long and pale. In the same way she hoped that her quick step and straight carriage gave grace to a figure which might without them have seemed to verge on the gaunt. It was a favorite fantasy of hers that when she pulled back the long dark hair that sometimes fell across her forehead, people who might at first have thought of Anita Vogel as a bit dry, a bit on the plain side, with a touch of the old maid or at least the bluestocking, would now perceive that, no, she was really something rarer, something almost fine, a presence not for the usual taste but for the discerning eye. And yet always, even at her present age of thirty-two (and almost thirty-three at that), she would blush at such absurdities, shake her head impatiently and turn back to whatever was on her desk.
And now she did so, only to be interrupted by the unceremonious opening of her door without a knock.
"I thought I'd catch you at the crossword! I was wrong. You're not even doing that.”
"If I only dared!” The acting director was constantly cheerful. "But what would the great Miss Speddon say? Anyway, I've come to see the model of the colonial kitchen." Â Â Â â
Mark Addams exuded more self-confidence than even an acting director aiming at the permanent post need exude. Everything about him seemed designed to promote a sense in the observer of a fresh broom sweeping clean, or a new and sparkling wine in an old bottle. He was on the short side but trimly and tightly put together; he had curly blond hair and a bright, fresh, clean boyish face that did not go with his age of thirty-five except when a flush of anxiety betrayed that he was trying not to look quite so pleased with himself. Oh, he could do the job, he seemed to be telling you; he could turn the museum around, he could drag it into the twenty-first century, if need be, but were people really going to understand how good he was? Mark had come to the museum from a public relations firm. He had to know that every scholar on the staff was praying to see the glitter in those friendly gray-green eyes extinguished.
“You're psychic," she admitted. âThe drawings just came in.” She pointed to the table on which was spread out the blueprint of a diorama of a kitchen in Peter Stuyvesant's New Amsterdam.
"Perhaps not so psychic as you suppose,” Mark retorted, going over to study it. "If we poor directors relied on being informed!” There followed two minutes of silent contemplation. "Well, I suppose it will do for a start. But I confess I look forward to the day when the gallery of Speddon period rooms reaches an era of greater elegance. In Williamsburg, doesn't your heart leap when you get away from all those pots and pans and tinkers' shops to the glory of the governor's palace?”
"I never heard anything so snobbish! That's just what was wrong with the way we used to be taught history. All that emphasis on the rich and mighty. On palaces and battles. What's wrong with a tinker's shop?”
But Mark was not in the least abashed. “Why should a museum be concerned with the lowly? With grubby pictures of drab lives? I think history in a museum should be a statement of its greatest themes. With portraits and busts and crowns and scepters and all the finest jewelry and dÃ©cor!”
"You should have been director at Versailles.”
"We have plenty of it right here in New York. With English governors and old manors and silver. Not to mention the Astors and Vanderbilts.”
"Is this the Museum of North America or the Museum of Tiffany and Company?”
He laughed his high, braying laugh. It was a laugh that seemed to annihilate criticism. "That's right, Anita. Keep me in my place. Be the gloomy Gus who stood behind the Roman general in his triumph, muttering, âRemember: you're only dust.' If they ever set up that museum for the Holocaust, you might be just the curator they need.”
Anita's hands flew to her cheeks in horror. “Oh, never, never! Never that." On a dank cold dawn she was in a stockade with a fence of barbed wire rising above the dripping black walls. She shook her head. Mark was staring at her. Why did it have to be so vivid to her? Was it not presumptuous to seem to share agonies to which she had never been exposed? Or
she been, in a former life? Or
she be, in a future one? People couldn't go through such horrors and have others immune. It could not be!
“What's wrong, Anita? Have I upset you?”
“What a horrible idea for a museum!”
Why didn't he go away? She had a place for Mark in her fantasies, a private place where they even did disgusting things together. Oh, God, if he could ever read her mind! But it was all right, wasn't it, to have fantasies if no one suspected them? Still, it was upsetting when he was right there in front of her, being absurdly kind to her, being absurdly charming, damn him. And of course not caring for her any more than he cared for his old grandmother, if he had one.
“You're right,” she continued breathlessly. “Museums should be filled with beautiful things. I agree with that. But even simple things in a New Amsterdam kitchen can be beautiful.”
“I was only kidding you.”
Anita picked up her buzzing telephone and heard a woman's voice. “Is the director with you, Miss Vogel? Will you ask him to call Mr. Claverack?" But even when she had delivered the message, he did not leave her to call the chairman of the board. With an ostentatious show of independence, he turned to the window and gazed over the park.
“You know, Anita, if I do become director, I'm going to need friends in this joint.”
She shivered. How could he go on this way! “Of course you're going to be director. Everyone knows the search committee is only a formality. Mr. Claverack has made his choice, and what's more, he's made the right one.”
"Thanks. But one never knows with Sidney Claverack. At his most cordial he may have already turned against you. And this place is full of people who would be only too happy to slit my throat. That's always the difference between profit and nonprofit institutions. In a business everyone binds up the boss when he starts bleeding. Even if they hate his guts, they know their income depends on him. But in a museum or a school the first red drop sends the sharks into a frenzy. They take for granted the endowment will still pay their salaries after they've devoured him.”
"You make us sound so awful.”
"I make us sound the way we are. That's why I'm going to need people like you to help me keep a level head. The pressures in this place are unbelievable. I've had to make each of the major trustees feel that he has me in his pocket. And each one expects me to be a different kind of director.”
Anita thought of the other great collector on the board. “What kind does Mr. Hewlett want you to be?”
“Peter Hewlett expects me to keep his collection intact in a separate gallery if it comes to the museum.”
"But that's against Mr. Claverack's policy! If every donor did that, you'd have fifty museums, not one.”