Authors: Louis Auchincloss
Tags: #Fiction, #General
And in his first two years at the museum it had begun to look as if he might achieve his goal. It had even seemed appropriate to him that the happiness he felt in the evolution of his professional life should have been complemented by a corresponding development in his private one. It was again through Sidney Claverack that blessings seemed to flow, for he met Chessie Norton, an associate in the latter's law firm, at a cocktail party given in the chairman's Park Avenue apartment. It was true that this tall redhead had not at first struck him as a blessingârather the reverse, in fact.
"I guess I don't believe much in museums,” she had retorted in a snooty drawl when he had inquired if she was familiar with his and their host's institution. "I find myself pitying the poor pictures on the walls. Think of all the crap they must have to hear about themselves!"
“That is, I grant, a sobering thought. But how else are we to educate the public?”
"How do you imagine you're doing that?”
“By teaching it to appreciate beautiful things."
"Oh, bushwa. Can you really believe that? The only way to appreciate a beautiful painting is to learn how to paint. I don't say you have to paint well. Only enough to see what it's all about."
"Would you say that of all the arts? Sculpture? Music? Writing?”
He reflected that she seemed horribly sure of herself. “And what about the people already educated? Doesn't a museum offer them something?”
"Well, it offers them more, certainly. But aren't we reaching the point where reproductions will do the trick just as well?”
"I'll bet I could fool you on a lot of stuff in your own shop. Didn't Boldini's father paint half the Rembrandts at the Met?”
"If he did, he was a greater painter than Rembrandt."
The redhead seemed somewhat appeased by this. "Well, at least you're not an authenticity buff. As if it mattered who painted what!”
After this they chatted more easily. She showed no inclination to talk to anyone else at the party, even though some of her law associates were present, and Mark tried to interpret this as an interest in himself rather than a general indifference. Perhaps it was because of the intent way she had of attending to each question he put, a habit that, after all, she might simply have acquired in court. Still, there was something about her that belied her apparently assumed detachment, that suggested it was more armor than soul. The topic of museums led to that of curators and then to problems of administration and at last to the law and her own life. When he asked her to dine with him, she accepted as casually as if they had been fellow clerks leaving the office for lunch. As she seemed to care just as little where they went, he guided her to the nearest restaurant, a rather shabby Italian one on Third Avenue.
At their table she seemed to relax and drank a considerable amount of Chianti. At first she had reminded him of a Modigliani model, long and lank, with long red hair, small, rather staring eyes and a twisted slot of a mouth over an oval chin, which, when lifted, enhanced her sometime air of hypercriticism. But as she became animated and enthusiastic, if a trifle too brisk, energy seemed to ripple through her, sending ardor into her long pale cheeks and flashes into her cold green eyes. There were moments when she could be almost beautiful.
A discussion of the turbulence of the nineteen sixties led him to inquire whether her interest in law had exempted her from the radical activities of that time.
“Quite the contrary,” she replied, with a slight quickening of interest. “You might even say I was âall out.' I'm afraid it's a dreary and typical tale.”
“I'd like to hear it.”
"Would you really?” She studied him for a moment and then nodded, as if to indicate he had passed muster. "My poor parents! But then I suppose it was the same thing for many of their generation. There they were, in their nice little Queen Anne house in Darien, with two cars and a country club and just what everyone wanted in the way of family, a boy and a girl, almost the same age. Dadâyou guessed itâwas a vice-president of America Bank, and Mother had her garden club. Bruce was at Yale, and I at Vassar, and all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
“Until pot and sex and war.”
She gravely assented. "Until all of those things. Except with Bruce, pot led to cocaine. He pro tested, he marched, he smashed windowsâas I didâas we all didâuntil we became disillusioned with disillusionment. Bruce held a news conference in New Haven and announced that he was going to kill himself.”
"Which of course he didn't.”
“Which of course he did.” A spark in Chessie's eyes seemed to reprove him for daring to question the dark integrity of the Nortons. “He shot himself in our cellar in Darien. Dad could never understand or cope with it. He turned away, refused to talk about it. Mother was worse and yet better. In time I came to think her quite wonderful. âBruce has made his choice,' she told me. There is a kind of relief to it, in the end. He didn't have the will to live, so he had to die. It should be easier now for the rest of us. For me anyhow. For I've decided to live!' ”
Mark divined that the only way to respond to this was in the same tone. The girl would have spurned any expression of sympathy in which her ringing hammer detected the smallest pitch of falseness. But didn't such hammers have a way of creating the very falseness they were looking for?
“And that helped you? Her Spartan attitude?”
"Ultimately. It also helped me accept how soon Bruce was forgotten. I saw why some people make a cult of the dead. It's the only way to avoid total oblivion. And maybe the dead should be forgotten. When I saw how utterly all the protesting of the sixties was swept under the rug, when I saw that I was turning from a would-be martyr to a by-passed crank, I decided to follow Mother and live. I resolved to fight only for things that I personally cared about. A personal interest gives you direction and push and hate.” Chessie's stare was now illuminated as if by a small flame. “I wanted to be a lawyer, and I wanted to end discrimination against women in law firms and courtrooms. Well, I and my likes have just about done it!”
It excited him to feel that she too could be excited. "So now that battle is won, what remains? To become a partner and make a lot of money? Maybe a judge?”
Her repeated study of his countenance seemed to seek further assurance that he was not laughing at her. Again she nodded. “Something like that."
"What about marriage and a family? Or is that too Darien?”
"I haven't ruled them out.”
"I'm glad to hear that.”
She didn't smile. "I haven't ruled anything out, Mark Addams.”
Indeed she had not, for their relationship almost at once developed into the affair that had now lasted for more than two years. Chessie continued to resent men in general and Mark, in some respects, in particularâshe persisted in dubbing him a sentimentalist who was much too keen about many matters that she regarded as trivialâbut she was under no misapprehension as to the importance of a man in her life. When their affair started, he had imagined it was going to be largely a physical one, to which he had no objection, but he had soon discovered that the sexual act was the prelude to the unfolding of some unexpected aspects of her personality. When Chessie's major suspicions of his male chauvinism were overcome, she became a congenial and sympathetic friend. If she worked as hard as ever in the office, she devoted most of her free time to him, and she manifested a zeal for plays, operas, concerts and even museums that he had not suspected to exist behind the faÃ§ade she had first presented of a rather lan guid disenchantment. Chessie had been deeply hurt by her brother and by her own disappointments, and she was leery of being hurt again, but she still had a sharp appetite for life.
Was she in love? Was
He sometimes suspected that the only thing that held him back was his fear that she might make fun of him as being old-fashioned. He knew that it was perfectly possible, even normal, in their day and age, for a young and healthy woman to be indefinitely, perhaps permanently, satisfied with a relationship that did not offer the security of marriage (if such security still existed) or the fulfillment of children (if they still fulfilled). Chessie was certainly unlike what his mother had regarded as a womanly woman. She did not seem to believe in any future at allâexcept in that partnership in Sidney Claverack's firm.
And when she did at last advert to the subject of marriage, it was distasteful to him. This was only because of the way she put it. They had been staying in a ski lodge in Vermont, and after a wonderful day on the slopes, at dinner, almost as if she were turning reluctantly to a rather tedious duty after an irresponsible but delightful holiday, she said abruptly: "You know, if we're ever going to get married, we should be thinking about it now. After all, I'm thirty-one, and the women in my family have a history of early menopause.”
He replied, after a moment of reflection, with an evasion: “Is that what Juliet whispered to Romeo from the balcony?"
"All right, forget it!" She was instantly irate. “It's not going to be said of me that I threw myself at a man."
“I can guarantee that."
“The next move, if any, will have to come from you."
"I'll check with Ma and see if our men have a record of early impotence.”
"Seriously, Chessie, I'm not closing my mind on this issue.” It struck him now that he never called her "dearest” or "darling.”
“But maybe someone else is."
“Oh, come off it, Chessie. It isn't like you to be so easily hurt. Can't a man be as businesslike as a woman? Must I be sloppily romantic while you're bleakly down to earth?”
She shrugged impatiently. “It's all such crap. Let's get back to the way we were. That was much better.”
And she proceeded to do just that. It was one of the things that was so amazing about her. She was as cheerful for the rest of the evening as he had ever seen her. But there was no question of any lovemaking that night.
certainly not the best thing for his relationship with Chessie that museum events should have drawn him into greater intimacy with Anita Vogel at just this time. Sidney Claverack was doing over Miss Speddon's willâan annual procedureâand he summoned Mark to his law office to discuss the matter with a candor that even then struck the younger man as out of place in an attorney supposedly wholeheartedly devoted to his client's interests.
“She doesn't really trust me. Even though I'm her cousin, and my family has represented her forever. But then she doesn't really trust anybody. She's hell-bent to tie up her money till the trumpet of the last judgment. But she likes
Mark. She thinks you're fresh and clean and idealistic and all that crap. You'd better work on that, fella. Go and see her. Talk to her about the dead hand sitting too heavily on the living.”
"You mean talk to her about her will? How would I dare bring the subject up?”
"You won't have to. She will. She can't talk to anyone from the museum for fifteen minutes without bringing it up.”
"But wouldn't she think it impertinent if I made suggestions? And wouldn't it be?”
Sidney paused, as if to find how best to bring home to this young man the gravity of the matter. “Mark, listen to me. That woman's fortune is the break our museum has been waiting for ever since its foundation. It's the windfall that should put us at last right up there on top with the great museums of this country. But what good will her dough do us if it's all tied up in crazy old maid knots? You've got to get in there and fight. Fight for your company's chance to take its proper rank in the world. And, all right, fight for the old girl, too, if it makes you feel any better. I mean fight for her
best interestsâif she'll only see what they are and stop being such a nanny goat." He paused, perhaps sensing he had gone too far. "Let's put it this way, my friend. You convince Daisy Speddon to leave us her money and collection without crippling conditions, and I'll convince the board to name you director. Claim it of me! There's not a trustee, including old Peter Hewlett, who wouldn't bow to a coup like that. Hell, man, you wouldn't even need your B.A., let alone a master's!"
Mark didn't need anything beyond these magic words to go to work. The very next day he embarked on a campaign of cultivating his friendship with Anita Vogel. It was obvious that she offered him the most available key to her patroness's mind and heart. Nor did it take him long to convert this hitherto casual and rather bantering relationship into one considerably deeper. Indeed, the friendship soon threatened to get out of his control. Mark had not previously suspected how much this tense creature fancied him, and he was amused and intrigued by the interest that she obviously and unsuccessfully tried to conceal. It was not so much that he suspected himself of returning this interest as that the contrast between her virginal isolation from the world and his own perhaps undue involvement with it made him think of himself as a kind of savage Gaul and of her as a Roman Vestal. Her deep concern with beautiful things, and unconcern with every conceivable norm and standard of his own busy life, had their attraction for him at a time when Claverack's world had begun to seem too worldly, its rush too rushing. Might there not be a balm for him in the very commotion of Anita's concentrated whirlpool, particularly if he were the cause of its swirling? She gave him the impression that if she ever should turn her attention from Miss Speddon's pots and pans to a man, it would be a total transference. And that might be a sufficiently pleasant experience for the man, particularly if that man was a bit tired of being only a part of the life and career of Miss Chessie Norton.
The latter, who had met Anita at the museum and again at Miss Speddon's when she was assisting Mr. Claverack with the famous will, promptly flared the cause of her lover's preoccupation.