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Authors: Stephen Birmingham

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BOOK: Those Harper Women
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“Yes … yes,” he says, writing furiously.

Encouraged, she goes on. “There were opportunities then, for men like Papa—to make money. But there's a saying here that wherever you find sugar you will also find flies. It's true. The flies swarmed—big flies, little flies—after Papa's money.”

“And these—these business techniques you speak of. You say he taught them to your brother Harold?”

“No, no. The things I've been talking about—if you put such things in your story, you must remember what the West Indies were like at the turn of the century. It was every man for himself. No, he taught Harold things like—oh, investments. Harper Industries is very spread out nowadays. We're in more than sugar now. All we have left here is the one distillery, where we make our rum. Of course it's not very good rum. It never was. Cheap rum. Have you tried our rum? I have some in the house, if you'd like a sip. You won't like it.”

“No thanks,” he says. “But to get back to your brother Harold—”

“Harold's business methods are more—
sophisticated
.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well—” She has just noticed the odd way Mr. Winslow has of steering everything back to Harold; Harold seems to be the topic of the day and yet, alas, Harold is the topic Edith knows the least about. She hesitates, trying to think of ways to explain that to Mr. Winslow. What if she said “Harold and I are estranged,” for instance, or “Harold and I do not get on”? But neither of these statements would be true; how could two people who hardly knew each other be said to not get on? How could two strangers be estranged? Finally she says, “I can't discuss Harold's business, Mr. Winslow. He's in New York, and I am here.”

“Everybody in Wall Street is calling your brother a genius.”

“I guess Harold knows his onions where money's concerned.”

“You know how Harper stock has been climbing on the Exchange—”

“No. I never read stock reports, Mr. Winslow.”

“You don't know that your stock has doubled in the last six months?”

“Gracious! Is that good or bad?”

He smiles at her. “Most people would think it was pretty good.”

“The business has always bored me to tears. As long as my checks come in once a month I don't ask questions.”

Writing in his notebook now, he is shaking his head slowly back and forth. “Now just a minute!” she says a little sharply. “If you're writing down that Edith Harper Blakewell is a financial nincompoop, please don't. I'm not. It's just that I've been lucky enough to have two brothers to take care of my money for me. Harold is president of the company and trustee of Papa's estate, and he manages things for us. It takes the weight off my shoulders. That's all.”

“Then you know nothing about this Luxitron affair?”

“Lux—? What's that?”

“The electronics company your brother is trying to gain control of.”

“Oh, well,” Edith says with a wave of her hand. “Papa was forever gobbling up companies. And now Harold's doing it? Well, well.”

“Some things have changed, though, since your father's day.”

“To me it seems more of a case of
plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
. Can I freshen your drink, Mr. Winslow?”

“No thanks.”

“And I'll wager if Harold wants this whatchamacallit company, he'll get it—provided he follows Papa's rules.” There is another long pause.

“I gather, then, that you neither approve nor—disapprove. Of any of his activities,” he says at last.

“Why should I? I keep out of all that.”

“I know you're a long way from New York, but—Mrs. Blakewell, has it ever occurred to you that your brother might bear watching?”

She looks at him with surprise. “Watching? What for?”

“I mean, for your own personal financial sake. You say he controls all your money. What if—”

“He controls
some
things, Mr. Winslow, not all. Are you trying to imply—”

“Wouldn't you be affected if his bubble burst?”

“Are you trying to suggest Harold's in some kind of
trouble?

“Playing his kind of game is like walking a tightrope.”

“What
is
he—a balloon vendor or a tightrope-walker? You're confusing me, Mr. Winslow, with all these questions about Harold. I thought this story was to be about
all
the Harpers.”

“I guess I'm trying to put my finger on the Harpers' Midas touch.”

“Well,” she says, “you saw old King Midas himself hanging in there in the library.
He
had the touch. Harold's just a caretaker!”

Smiling, he says, “May I quote you on that?”

“Certainly not.”

“Still, I'm getting the impression you're not terribly close to your brother.”

“There was that difference in our ages. But she here—” She breaks off to study his face again. Despite the good chin, nose, and cowlick, is there (she suddenly asks herself) something a little shifty about Mr. Winslow? With a chill, she realizes that, through artful dodging, he has not yet given her so much as a glimmer of what his “story” is to be about. He seems to want speculation about Harold, and not only about Harold's present activities but his future chances. And why should a man come all the way from New York to St. Thomas to talk to a woman about her brother who lives in New York? Quickly, she races back in her mind through all the things she has told him. Has she made another of her famous mistakes—simply because Leona said that this Mr. Winslow was a friend of hers? Edith decides there is only one tactic to employ. “Have you known my granddaughter long?” she asks him.

“I've known Leona for—oh, four years, I'd say.”

“Well,” Edith says, weighing her words carefully, “I'd consider it a very low trick—and you a very low human being indeed—if you've used Leona's friendship to gain access to
my
house, to talk about
my
brother, and about
his
personal financial affairs, which I know nothing about, just to get gossip which you can put—”

“Hey!” he cries. “Hey, please! Look, I—” He takes a final swallow of his drink and puts the glass down. Turning to her, he says, “Mrs. Blakewell, I'm sorry. That wasn't what I intended. Forgive me.”

“I can
be
peppery, you see, when I want to be!”

“I honestly thought that you, as a Harper, and as a major Harper stockholder—”

“A Harper! Why must I always be thought of as a Harper? I am Edith Blakewell.”

“—might have an opinion on this latest Harper activity. Cross my heart, that's all I was getting at, Mrs. Blakewell.” Then, in a different voice, he says, “And I'll tell you another little secret of my trade—it's tough to try to be objective about the family of someone I'm awfully fond of. You see?” He holds up two fingers in a V. “A dilemma. Here are its horns. On one side, a job to write a clinical analysis of the Harper fortune—using scalpel where necessary. On the other, a lovely girl. Between the horns hangs young Edward Winslow. Now I'd better say good-by.”

“Now wait,” Edith says, reaching out to touch his arm. “Don't run off. I got
too
peppery, didn't I? Now it's my turn to apologize.”

From the town below, the Customs House clock strikes the half hour. “Pay no attention to that clock that just struck,” Edith says. “It's always at least twenty minutes off. Come. Sit down.” He smiles at her.

“Please let me sweeten your drink,” she says.

Edith had planned, since he was a friend of Leona's (though not knowing he was a beau), to make a little party of his visit. She had been going to offer him tea, and she had asked Nellie, her housekeeper, to fix toast, and to open a jar of her English green gooseberry jam, and to make one of her special ladyfinger cakes. But, when he arrived, Edith had offered him a drink, and he had accepted one. Now, remembering all Nellie's preparations, Edith adds, “Or there is also tea.”

“Another drink, I guess. Very short.”

She takes his glass to the cellaret and pours a little whisky in it. Stirring it with Perrier water, she says, in a quiet voice, “Three husbands … three divorces. Now what? What's going to happen to her? Since she's been here I haven't had a clue.” She returns with his drink. “Mr. Winslow, I want you to know that I'm not unconcerned.”

“Well,” he says slowly, “Neither am I.” He lifts his glass. “And I also like her grandmother,” he says. “Which doesn't help me off my horns.”

Upstairs in her room at her grandmother's house, Leona Harper Ware Breed Paine Para-Diaz,
née
Ware, who has been enjoined by her ex-husband's relatives not to employ the title
La Condesa de Para-Diaz
(not that she'd ever consider using the silly title anyway), but to use, instead, the “American” form for a divorced woman, Mrs. Ware Para-Diaz (not that she'd bother with that nonsense, either), sits at her dressing table and picks up—for what must surely be the fiftieth time that afternoon—the letter she has been writing, and reads it through again.

Dearest Mother
—

It's been over three weeks now since I sent off my last letter to you … and I haven't heard from you, so I guess I must have sent it to the wrong hotel. I got your itinerary from Perry's secretary in N.Y., but I guess she must have had it wrong. Anyway, this time I am writing you c/o Morgan et Cie so let's hope I have better luck! Hey, how
are
you two, anyway!!? As you must have guessed from the postmark, I am at Granny's, who is just the same. Flew down last week, and my other letter was partly to tell you I was going. But it was also to ask you a tremendously big favor. Mother. You see, Mother, the thing is

And this is as far as the letter goes. Each time she has come to the words
the thing is
she has stopped, and of course the trouble is that it took her so many pages before, in the other letter, to say what the thing was, that somehow she does not have the spirit to go through all those pages of explanation again. Once more, she puts the letter down, thinking: Perhaps I should wait one more day. Perhaps I'll hear from her tomorrow. Tomorrow is Thursday. I'll wait and see what happens Thursday. Hotels hold mail, or forward it.

From the town below she hears the striking of the Customs House clock and, downstairs, she can hear the rise and fall of voices. Eddie Winslow is still talking to Granny but, through the shuttered summer doors of the old house, she can make out no words. She has been tempted to open her bedroom door, just a crack, and eavesdrop on them, but she has resisted this. (Even though, she knows, Granny eavesdrops on her from time to time—standing very quietly at the top of the stairs while she was down in the hall below, talking to Eddie on the telephone.) She has considered going downstairs to join the two of them, but has decided against that too. She would rather let Eddie see Granny pure, to see, hopefully, the things about Granny which Leona sees. She has decided that she must not interrupt them. “Just don't let her cow you,” she had warned him. “And don't be put off by her appearance, or the clothes she wears. She's an anachronism, but she knows it. She's an
honest
anachronism.”

She picks up the unfinished letter, folds it at the center, puts it into the top drawer of the dressing table, and closes the drawer. Then, her chin cupped in her hand, she confronts her image in the oval mirror, and the reflection that comes back is mottled, leprous. Moisture and mildew have invaded the silver backing of the glass, and it is no longer possible to get a clear view of herself between the grayish patches. But, making allowances for the mirror, she decides that for twenty-seven (twenty-seven years, five months, and thirteen days, my dear) there are not too many signs of wear and tear. Not too many little lines. Isn't it funny that nothing shows on the outside, but nothing ever does show. She used to think that having sex showed in a woman's face, but it never did show. Nothing showed. She looks away from the mirrow now and reaches for a cigarette, and, striking the match, holding the match to the cigarette, Leona's hand trembles. She steadies the shaking hand with the other, but still it is a moment before she can get the cigarette going. Granny has noticed the hands, and Leona has tried to explain them away. “You know I'm a coffee addict, Granny,” she said. “And I go right on drinking it even though it gives me the shakes.” She is not sure whether Granny believed her. Holding her hands straight out in front of her now she orders them to stop, but they do not obey, and how queer it is to have all at once two parts of your body that you cannot control, which seem to be running on little motors of their own. She cries “
Oh!
” as the lighted cigarette falls from her hand and rolls across the top of the dressing table, “
Oh!
” as she scrambles for it with her fingers. And, when she finally has the cigarette again, she sees that it has left a little bubble in the mahogany top. She rubs furiously at the bubble with her fingertip, which only dents the bubble, and then she quickly covers the burn with the ashtray, hoping Granny will not notice it—Granny has already scolded her about smoking too much—and stabs out the cigarette in the ashtray. Oh! Desperate! But no, she tells herself, no, she cannot be desperate; admit that you are desperate and you might as well give up entirely. To the despairer belongs defeat: that is a stern little rule of life. And how can she be desperate when she has so many plans? Oh, yes. Ambitious plans. Wonderful plans. Plans that are
already
beginning to work out. Thinking of the plans, her thoughts fly up in a wordless prayer. She jumps up quickly from the stool, smoothing the front of her skirt with her hands. “Leona Ware strode defiantly across the room.”

She kicks off her shoes and lies down on her bed, on the white quilted coverlet, on her back, her arms straight at her sides. Outside, a warm breeze billows the white window curtains, and the green ipomoea vines on the wall outside the windows cast gray, marbly shadows on the white ceiling. Why does lying like this, on her back, on top of the coverlet, in the exact center of her big old bed, always make her feel young, and virginal, and small? “The search for beginnings is important,” Dr. Hardman had said to her, and this, of course, is why she came back here—because this was where it all began, here, in this room, under these high ceilings; here, in this huge old-fashioned bed with a carved pineapple topping its tall headboard, surrounded by heavy furniture, chairs, and dressing table, the windows hung with long white (turning a bit yellow now) organdy curtains, Belgian, embroidered with fleurs-de-lis, their holes artfully mended with a spiderweb stitch; this room, behind the thick stone walls of this house, walls covered with vines that occasionally poked their way into the house, across the window sills. “You're a hard man, Hardman,” Leona had quipped to him. He had returned her a look of stone. She had just been telling him about her odd habit of thinking about everything she said and did as though she were reading about herself: “Leona Ware paused thoughtfully in the doorway.” “Leona Ware riposted artfully …” “With a cheerful smile, Leona Ware interjected …” And so on. She had thought it might amuse him, might make him like her a little better than he seemed to. But he had suddenly interrupted, saying, “Why do you suppose you've had all these marriages, Mrs. Paine?” “But I've only had
two!
” she had cried, which was the correct number at the time. And then, “I think it's because I'm a very moral woman, Doctor Hardman. I don't sleep with men. I make them marry me first. It's the New England blood in me. Did you know I'm one eighth Boston?” The only thing he ever said to her that made any sense at all was the business about beginnings. And so she came back here to try to retrace her steps. It was like a game. You went back to
Go
. Then, trying to keep your wits about you, you tried to play it better the second time.

BOOK: Those Harper Women
12.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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