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Authors: Stephen Birmingham

Those Harper Women

BOOK: Those Harper Women
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Those Harper Women

Stephen Birmingham

Once again,



“Oh, he made pots and
of money,” Edith is saying, leading the young man into the library where her father's picture hangs. “Some say he was worth a hundred million dollars—before Prohibition came along and ruined the rum market. Compared to what he had, what the Harpers have today is chicken feed, Mr. Winslow—
chicken feed!
” She moves around the room turning on one after another of the lamps with their tasseled pull chains. “This is such a
room. I planted that palm tree from a coconut, and now look what it's done to my sunshine!” She turns on a final lamp. “Well,” she says, “there he is! Can you see him in this gloom?”

Mr. Winslow steps in front of the portrait and looks up at it. “Wow,” he says softly and then, as if thinking aloud, “Tall. Almost Gothic. But eyes like an evangelist's. And why did I expect him to be wearing a pith helmet, not evening clothes? You must have had your hands full with him, Mrs. Blakewell.”

“Oh, but I expect he had his hands full with me, Mr. Winslow,” Edith Blakewell says.

“Does your brother Harold take after him?”

“Take after Papa? Dear heavens no. There's no resemblance. Papa was the athletic type. Harold can barely tie his own shoes. And Harold has my mother's coloring. Oh, but in a business sense I suppose they have a lot in common. Papa taught Harold everything he knows.”

Mr. Winslow nods and writes this down. He has become, Edith notices, a bit overheated. Perspiration has formed a long dark welt down the back of his blue jacket, and his shirt collar is limp. Poor man, he has not dressed for the tropics.

Turning to her, he says, “Were these his books?”

“No, they are mine. The bindings are not exceptional, but it would be true to say that I have read every book in this library. Living alone, you see, I have time on my hands.”

Mr. Winslow picks up his drink and takes a swallow of it and, because his pencil and pad have been slipped back into his pocket, Edith supposes that he does not consider this last remark worth quoting. Ah, well. Outside the windows, a breeze in the garden sends the heavy palm fronds scratching across the glass and, in the silence that follows, she tries to think of something interesting or entertaining to say. Above them hangs the John Singer Sargent portrait of Edith Harper Blakewell's father, Meredith Harper; it has even been supplied, on a small bronze plaque, with his dates:
Aug. 1860—Jun. 1923
. The picture looms over the two of them now just as he loomed over everybody when he was living. It is a large portrait, nearly seven feet high, in a heavily carved gilt frame (he must weigh as much dead as he did alive, Edith thinks), and it leans away from the wall. Some day, Edith imagines, the cord will break from the picture's weight, and the thing will come crashing down. It will probably be her poor fortune to be standing underneath it when it falls, and poetic justice will be done: she will be crushed to death beneath her father's portrait. Smiling up at the Sargent, Edith says, “Hello, Papa. How are you today? You see, Mr. Winslow, I talk to him. He's like a pet, but he's better than a parrot because he doesn't talk back. You can see that, as Leona would put it, I am as nutty as a fruitcake!”

He smiles at her now, and she sees that he has a good smile. He has a good face too—not handsome, but with a strong chin, nice eyes, and his dark hair has good cowlick configuration which, Edith's mother always told her, was an important thing to look for in a man. (“A
cowlick is a sign of muddle-headedness, dear, and of course a double cowlick means that he will live under two flags, like your father.”) The cowlick and the chin were the main points. The chin should not be cleft, for that was a sure sign of weakness—weakness for women, for drink, or for worse—and the deeper the cleft the greater the weakness. And of course the nose; if it was on the small side, it meant that a man was apt to be proportionately small elsewhere. Almost shyly, Edith Blakewell looks at Mr. Winslow's nose, and decides that it is satisfactory. Lord knows, he is not at all what Edith expected from Leona's description of him—“A very sharp young journalist, Granny.” Mr. Winslow seems to be, of all things, a gentleman.

Absorbed in her study of him, Edith is suddenly unnerved to see that he in return is looking at her with an intent, expectant stare. “Well,” she says quickly, “am I being any help to you? If it's background material on the island you'd like, nobody can give it to you better than me. I've lived here for over sixty years. I'm a walking fossil, you might say. What sort of story
it you want, anyway?”

“To be quite honest with you, Mrs. Blakewell, I'm still not sure.”

“If it's lurid details you'd like, there are plenty of those. But permit me to safeguard my
family skeletons, kind sir!” She laughs.

He has moved to one of the windows and looks out. “I see you have a swimming pool,” he says.

“Yes. And if you put it in your article, please be sure to mention that it is a
-water pool. It cost me a lot of money to have that salt-water system put in—it's piped all the way up from the sea—and I'm very proud of it. Water is short in St. Thomas, and I am on the water-conservation committee. We are very much against those people who waste eighty thousand gallons of fresh water to fill a swimming pool, the way some of my neighbors do—the new neighbors. Did you know that during the dry season now we sometimes have to
drinking water from Puerto Rico? It's true.”


“And if you want spice for your article, you may say that I always swim in that pool in the raw—half a mile, daily.” He looks at her over the rim of his glass, imagining, perhaps, Edith's plump, squarish body splashing about the pool like a large white seal. She winks at him. “No pictures of that, please,” she says.

He moves to a tableful of photographs. “And these?”

“Oh, family, family. Nieces, nephews, grandnieces and -nephews.”

“This one?”

“My husband.”

“Killed in the first war, wasn't he? And this?”

“Leona when she was a little girl. Even then, you see, she was a beautiful child.…”

It was Leona's idea, of course, that this young man come to see her. Edith was opposed to it; but Leona had begged her. “He's doing a story about the family, Granny,” she had said. “You know we are rather historic. You can tell him all your wonderful stories about the old days on the island—” And so, because Leona when she asked a favor was hard to deny, Edith had consented to have Mr. Winslow come. Later, she had overheard Leona talking to him on the phone. “She's sweet, you'll love her,” Leona said. “You may find her a bit—well,
. But remember that she's seventy-eight years old.” (Leona, in her efforts to have the man regard her grandmother charitably, had added four good years to Edith Blakewell's age.)

“Do you find me peppery, Mr. Winslow?” she asks him now.

“Hmm?” he says, frowning slightly.

“And despite what Leona told you, I am only seventy-four, not seventy-eight. I'm sure you'll want that straight, for your article. You see, I eavesdropped on every word Leona said to you about me.”

“Seventy-four,” he repeats, jotting it down, “and your brother Harold is—”

“He's twelve years younger. He's sixty-two, and Arthur is the baby. Isn't that funny? I still think of Arthur as the baby. A sixty-year-old baby!”

“I gather Arthur Harper's pretty small potatoes.”

“Small potatoes? What do you mean?”

“I mean Harold Harper's the kingpin in the company. Isn't Arthur just his mouthpiece?”

“Oh, I think Arthur has a lot to say, Mr. Winslow! Don't put it in your story that Arthur's small potatoes. That wouldn't be kind to poor Arthur.”

With a faint smile he says, “No, I guess it wouldn't.”

“You are going to write a
story about the Harpers, aren't you?” Edith Blakewell says. “And of course you want it to be accurate.” When he doesn't answer for a moment, she says, “Don't you?”

Gazing into his glass he says, “I'll tell you a little secret about my trade, Mrs. Blakewell. Whenever you try to be accurate about people, they never think you're being nice. And vice versa.”

“You mean it's your job to ask
the questions, not the other way around. Come, let me show you this little room.” She leads him out of the library into the small sitting room, where some of her favorite paintings hang in their lighted recessed frames. “My favorite room,” she says. “‘Won't you come into my parlor?' said the spider to the fly.” She points to the pictures. “That is a Bellows, and this is an Inness, and those two are Turners. The one over the fireplace is a Vuillard—”

He is squinting at one of the paintings. “That's by my friend Sibbie Sanderson, a local artist here,” she says. “Do you like it?”

“Tell me a little more about your father,” he says.

“About Papa? Well, he was a very athletic man, as I told you, and—”

“I meant something about how he conducted his business.”

“Well, let's see. Oh, there's his famous tennis story.”

“Did it have something to do with the sugar business, Mrs. Blakewell?”

“Yes. You see, there was this man named Mr. Frère, whose sugar plantation Papa dearly wanted to get his hands on. He used to say, ‘The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, but I won the Frère estate on an
en tout cas
tennis court.'”

“Just a sec,” he says, setting down his drink and picking up his pad again. “I want to get this down.”

“Mr. Frère thought Papa's offer was too low,” she says, “so Papa challenged him to a set of tennis. Papa won, of course—he always won. And when the set was over, Papa said, ‘Frère, you're supposed to jump over the net and shake the victor's hand.' And Mr. Frère said, ‘Mr. Harper, I'm afraid I'm too old to jump a net.' And then Papa, of course, jumped the net himself, and shook Mr. Frère's hand, and said, ‘You see, Frère, you're too
. You're finished, you're through. Everybody else knows it. Why don't you admit it?' I believe the deal was closed that afternoon—at Papa's price.”

Mr. Winslow is scribbling, scribbling.

“It shocks you, I suppose. But that's the way things were done in those days. Oh, there are so many stories, Mr. Winslow, about Papa. He was an excellent horseman too. He taught me to ride, and he taught me to jump. He taught me to jump—the hard way.” Edith Blakewell laughs abruptly. “When I was a girl I was terrified of jumping, but each time as we would approach the fence he would pull his horse next to mine, so close our legs and our stirrups touched, and he would reach out and grab my horse's bridle, and—” But suddenly she stops. She has not thought of all these things in years, and is not sure she wants to think of them now.

“And he pulled your horse over the jump? Quite a trick.”

“But these aren't the sort of stories you want for your magazine,” Edith says.

“No, but they're kind of interesting. Go on.”

“Well,” Edith says, “my father was a—a very complex man. And—well, I guess he was a bit of a despot. But they were
despots then. There were no taxes in those days, and very little government. We were a Danish colony, but Denmark didn't pay much attention to what went on. ‘Each man is his own policeman here,' Papa used to say. It was perfectly within the law to shoot a native, if you caught him starting a fire.”

“Did your father shoot any natives?”

She hesitates. (“I let his black blood put out the fire,” she remembers, but no, no, she must not tell Mr. Winslow about that.) “I don't know. But things like that were done; they happened. You've never seen cane burn, Mr. Winslow. You can't imagine—whole hillsides going up like tinder, and the noise of a sugar fire—deafening. And the terrible smell in the air. You know what burnt sugar smells like. Imagine that choking smell in the air for days. The natives started fires, you see, because burnt cane can still be harvested, but it has to be harvested quickly—in three days it begins to ferment and the whole crop is lost. The natives wouldn't work the burnt cane unless they were paid double the wage. It was a very rough-and-tumble period, Mr. Winslow, and most of us are glad it's passed.”

BOOK: Those Harper Women
9.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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