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Authors: Stephen Birmingham

Those Harper Women (30 page)

BOOK: Those Harper Women
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Leona stands very still. “A deal, Granny?”

“Well, if you want to put it that way, yes. A deal.”

“A deal. Everybody wants to make a stinking deal!” She runs her fingers upward through her hair. “Oh, God!” she cries. “Oh, God!”

“Now Leona. It isn't much I ask.”

“You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours! Oh!” She turns, pulling the yellow cardigan from her shoulders and swinging it in her hand. She starts across the hall. “No!” she cries. “No deal, Granny! I don't want the money—keep it! I don't want the gallery! I don't want anything!”

Edith rises from her chair and follows her. “Now steady down, Leona! Steady down. After all, I think that I'm entitled—”

“Entitled! Oh, no! No—go away!” She starts up the stairs, Edith behind her. “Everybody,” she sobs, trailing the yellow sweater behind her on the stairs, “everybody go away!”

“Now see here—”

“Shut up! Go away!”

“Don't you speak to me that way, Leona!”

They are in the upstairs hall now, and Leona is almost running—a little knock-kneed run in her slim yellow skirt—toward her bedroom door.

“I have a few rights with you, Leona. If I'm going to give you fifty thousand dollars I'm entitled to see to it that you don't spend it on another gigolo. I have a few—”

Leona slams the door.

Edith approaches the door. “Don't you slam doors on me, young lady! Open that door!” She hears the key turn in the lock. “Open it!” She raps her knuckles sharply on the panel of the door. “I have a few things to say to you, young lady. I'd like to know exactly who you think you are! You're not to tell
me
to shut up, young lady! I've heard a little bit about your activities lately. Stories travel pretty quickly here, and Alan Osborn's told me a little bit about you—sitting up half the night, night after night, with your men friends—one man after another! Just
who
do you think you are? What kind of reputation are you trying to get? You seem to forget—” She raps hard on the door again. “Open this door!”

Edith pauses, listening. The only answer is the rapid click of high heels across the floor of the room beyond.

“This is my house, Leona,” Edith says. “This is my hospitality you've been enjoying—a fact which you seem to have forgotten. Now do as I say! Unlock this door.”

Faintly, from beyond the door, she hears again: “Go away.”

Leaning against the door, Edith says, “If anybody tells anybody to go away around here, it will be
I
who tells
you
. Do you hear me? I can very easily tell you to pack up your traps and get out of my house, young lady! Do you hear? If you aren't willing to behave like a guest in my house, you can pack up your traps and get out!”

The answer now, from the room beyond, is only silence.

Edith stands outside the locked door for several minutes, waiting. Then, pressing her cheek against the panel, she says, more gently, “Leona—I didn't mean any of that. Please open the door.”

But there is still no answer.

Twelve

Money. It towered over all their lives. It governs the present just as it controlled the past. Everything that has ever happened to any of them, Edith sometimes thinks, has been shaped by the heavy weight of Meredith Harper's fortune, and everywhere they have ever gone they have simply been guided along the money's tortuous path.

“We won't let the money get hold of us, will we?” Charles had asked her once. “There's such a godawful lot of it. Sometimes money seems to have a life of its own.”

She had assured him that the money would not get hold of them. But of course it had. There was more of it then than there is now, but its grip is every bit as strong.

Charles had come to St. Thomas that winter on the old Quebec Line steamer from New York. The island fascinated him. He loved the brown, hard angularity of the hills, the jagged profile of West Mountain, dry and bereft of trees, and the soft green contrast of the valleys and the yellow shore. He loved the violence of the surf off William Head. Hardness, toughness, sharpness—those were the qualities that appealed to him about St. Thomas. He used to say that it astonished him to see how humanity had been able to carve any sort of an existence out of it. There was a love of adventure in Charles, the future soldier taking root within him, and of all the places he had ever seen St. Thomas seemed to him to contain the most possibilities for adventure. He wore old clothes. They walked and they rode. (And yes, she remembers tenderly, they slept together, on certain furtive nights … the door opening, then quickly closing, the quiet footsteps approaching across the dark room.) He had asked her again to marry him, and this time she had said yes. She no longer worried whether her feeling for him was love or desire. It didn't seem to matter any more; she wanted him too much.

She told him about Andreas. “He ran away,” she said. “I suppose he was too weak to stand up to Papa” (for this was how she had begun to think of Andreas then).

“Was that the awful thing that happened to you before I came to Morristown?”

“No.”

“Then there was another man. Between Andreas and me.”

She nodded. He didn't ask her more. It was another of the things, at the time, that didn't seem to matter.

“Your father and your mother think I'm marrying you for your money,” he said once.

“Did they say that?”

“They don't have to say it.”

“I'll tell them it isn't true!”

He laughed at her. “It doesn't matter what they think. Let them dream on. You and I have our secret …”

Once, on one of their walks, they stopped to watch as the silhouette of a mountain suddenly eclipsed the setting sun, the sun leaving only a bright aurora around the mountain's cone. “You know,” he said thoughtfully, “your father
goes
with this place. He doesn't belong in a place like Morristown. He belongs here. This island suits him. I wonder if he realizes it?”

Edith said nothing. She had begun to wonder whether her father really approved of Charles. Though outwardly cordial, her father had begun referring to Charles as “your New York aristocrat.” “Your New York aristocrat seems to be enjoying himself,” he would say to her.

There was a party, late that month, to announce the engagement. Dolly Harper was never happier, and St. Thomas society turned out for it. Afterward, Charles sailed for New York, but he was to return to St. Thomas in April, for they had agreed to be married then. One day after Charles left, shopping with her mother in Charlotte Amalie, they encountered Louis Bertin. “Congratulations, Edith,” he said.

“Thank you,” both women replied. Edith was surprised to find how easy a thing it was to speak to him, and congratulated herself.

“Crust,” her mother said as they walked on. “Calling you Edith. That man is
no
gentleman.”

It was in April, when Charles returned, that Edith first learned that her father had offered Charles a job as manager of one of the sugar plantations. And she also learned that a sum of money was changing hands—a gift to Mrs. Thomas Blakewell.

“Compensation,” she said to Charles. “For the comedown of having her son marry me!”

He laughed at her for that remark too. “No,” he said, “it has nothing to do with that.”

“What is it then?”

“You have to understand my mother,” he said. “She's a woman who's always had to be taken care of. If it wasn't by my father, then it was by my Uncle Julius—or someone else. She's a woman who has to be cruised on yachts, and entertained in ballrooms, in big houses. When she can't provide those things herself, someone else provides them. Your father is just doing the sort of thing for her that people have always done. It's the world she lives in.” Then, smiling, he said, “And thank God it's not my world. It has nothing to do with you or me.”

“The thing you said about money getting hold of us,” she said. “Isn't that what's beginning to happen?”

“No,” he insisted, “of course not.”

“But what about the job?”

He frowned. “I don't know. I haven't decided about that yet.”

And then, late one night, just two weeks before they were to be married, he had come to her room again in the old house at Sans Souci. He had risen from her bed, wrapped himself in his robe, and crossed the room to the window where he stood looking out at the dark tropic night. From the bed she watched his dark shadow against the open window. “Living in New York,” he said in a soft voice, “would mean having a house in town. I'd put on a stiff collar every morning and go downtown to practice law with all my father's old partners. You would invite the partners' wives to tea—”

She lay there, her eyes on the still shape of him framed by the curtains that stirred in the warm breeze.

“Do you know what this place is like for me?” he said. “When I was eighteen, the summer I finished school, I took a trip to Maine with two other boys. We climbed Mount Katahdin. It was one of the best times I ever had. We weren't experienced hikers, but we had plenty of provisions, and we shot small game along the way, and we took it slowly. At night we slept out, with a fire going. One night bears came into the camp. Another time we were sure we were lost. But by the time I got to the top of Mount Katahdin I knew there was something else for me besides reading law in my father's office. I guess that's why I didn't want to go on to college, because whatever it was I knew I wouldn't find it there. Do you see? That's what this place is like for me. Like Mount Katahdin.”

“Remember that there are people who hate him here,” Edith whispered. “You'd be working for him.”

He laughed. “I can handle him,” he said. “I can handle his daughter, can't I?” He turned toward her across the dark room.

“Oh, Charles,” she said, holding up her arms, “am I a very bad woman to be letting you make love to me like this—before we're—”

“Yes,” he whispered, settling himself beside her and nuzzling her throat. “A very bad woman … very bad for me.”

Later he said drowsily, “Look at the moon. Diana—off on her hunt.”

The next morning Edith's mother said to her, “I think it would
look
better if Charles moved to the Grand Hotel until the wedding. For appearances' sake, you know. I realize the Grand Hotel is not at all grand, but it's the only hotel we have. And your father keeps some rooms there, you know, for business purposes.”

The suite of rooms her father rented at the Grand Hotel was customarily at the disposal of Monique Bertin. It struck Edith as odd, and even in a perverse way amusing, to think of her future husband occupying quarters that had been temporarily vacated by her father's mistress. But naturally she did not mention this to Charles.

They were married, that April of 1908, in the Anglican Church of All Saints in Charlotte Amalie. As they left the church, native girls threw flowers in the street in front of them, a touch her father had provided. Edith remembers that. And then there was the drive up Government Hill with Papa, who wanted to show them the thing that was to be his surprise.

They stopped in front of the house and got out of the carriage. “I had it built for you and Charles,” he said, and handed her the key. “Your wedding present from me.”

As they walked through the empty rooms of the house, her father stopped her once with his hand. Smiling at her he said softly, “Are the ceilings high enough, princess?” Then he said, “Furniture is part of the present too, but I wanted you to choose your own.” And a peculiar remark that may have meant nothing at all: “Perhaps you'd prefer furniture in the French style?”

After he left them alone in the house, Charles was silent, and so was she. They walked slowly through the rooms again.

“This house echoes,” he said.

“A new house always echoes. When we've lived in it a while, the echo will go.”

They went out into the wide, empty veranda and looked at the yard, which was nothing but heaps of tossed earth and rocks and wheelbarrow trails and scraps from the builders. Charles went down the steps and picked up a handful of dry dirt in his hand, and crumbled it. “We could build a garden,” he said. “We may not have been able to build our own house, but we could build a garden.”

It was several months after they had moved into the house that it dawned on Edith Harper Blakewell that what her father had said about having the house built for her and Charles was a lie. It had to be a lie, because work on the house had been started the preceding spring, before she and Charles had even met. Perhaps—since she had never known on which of their Paris summers Monique had come into her father's life—the house had been built for Monique; perhaps for some other purpose or person. It may also have occurred to Charles, at some point, that the house could not have been built for them. It must have occurred to him. But in the seven years they lived there together he did not mention it to her, nor did Edith ever mention it to him. They had accepted the house on the termas Meredith Harper set. It was too late to ask questions.

Morning comes tentatively to tropical places. It pricks out the hilltops with a certain hesitancy, and seems uncertain about invading the deeply shadowed valleys. Leona, up early, and without having said a word to anyone, is descending the streets of Government Hill in a taxi through this cautious mixture of light and shadow. “I'll walk from here,” she tells the driver finally. She pays him, and gets out of the taxi.

Very well. Walk where? She is at the foot of the hill, in the center of the town. Across the street is Fort Christian and, ahead of her, Kings Wharf and the Harbor. Already, though it is barely six o'clock and a Sunday morning, the streets are alive and busy; there is a shrill air of hurry and importance everywhere. Bicycles scoot by with bells jangling, and native women, in their long skirts, move nodding and talking up and down the street with their baskets balanced miraculously on their kerchiefed heads—baskets of wash, baskets of bread, baskets of coal. The baskets nod and sway as necks turn and faces smile at her. In front of the town pump a queue of women—carrying heavy jugs and pails, pitchers roped together at the handles—is forming, lining up for the day's water. (If I could paint, I would paint this, Leona thinks.) And, as does everyone who rediscovers what the glitter of very early morning is like, Leona wonders why she doesn't do this oftener: get up early and watch the beginning of day. She walks slowly toward Kings Wharf.

BOOK: Those Harper Women
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