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Authors: Stephen Birmingham

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BOOK: Those Harper Women
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“There is a certain value in anonymity, Edith,” she hears her mother say. “But whether we like it or not we will always be Harpers.”

Seeing him at last across the cocktail party, Leona murmurs “Excuse me” to the people she has been talking to, and makes her way toward him through the considerable crowd on the terrace. She waves to him over heads, but he does not see her and stands, drink in hand, alone, on the steps, looking oddly lost and bewildered. Dear old Eddie, why does he always look—wherever he is—as though he didn't belong there, as though he had found himself an unwilling tourist in a foreign-speaking city where he did not even know how to ask the way to the nearest hotel? “Hey!” she calls to him. “Here I am!” But he does not see her until she is practically in front of him, waving her fingers in his face. “Hey, remember me?” she says. He grins and seizes her elbow. “Who the hell
are
these people, anyway?” he asks her.

“The cream of the Winter Colony.” Then she whispers, “But dolts. Dolts and bores. Quick—let's escape. Let's hide from this party.” She takes his hand and they run down the steps.

“Where'll we hide?”

“Behind the arras—anywhere where we can talk.”

“Find an arras. I'm with you.”

As they run along the edge of the terrace someone calls, “Leona?” And Leona whispers to Eddie Winslow, “Don't answer! Hide!” And she runs with him down a gravel walk between banks of sea-grapes and out onto a strip of dark beach. The light from Scorpion Rock sweeps across their faces and Leona says, “Now quick—give me a cigarette and tell me what you thought of her!” He hands her a cigarette and holds a match to it. Then he lights one of his own.

“I think she's terrific,” he says, waving out the match.

“Wasn't I right, Eddie?
There's
your story!”

He kneels and pats the sand. “Dry,” he says. “Can we sit down?”

Leona kicks off her shoes and kneels beside him on the beach which is still warm from the sun.

“Your grandmother told me she swims half a mile every day in her pool—in the nude.”

Leona laughs. “Well, that's
color
for you! What else?”

“But the main thing was, she honestly doesn't seem to know a damn thing about your great-uncle.”

“I told you that. But don't you
see
, Eddie?
Granny's
your story—not him. Everybody knows Uncle Harold's a stinker! Where's the news in that? But Granny—how many like her are there left? She's a vanishing breed, Eddie—the end of an era. She's a—a kind of symbol of what the old West Indies used to be. All the other planters made their money and got out—like Uncle Harold. Of all the old sugar families there's not a one left—only Granny. Did she tell you any of her stories?”

“A few.”

“She can remember when the foremen in the cane fields used to stand over the natives and whip them with the flat sides of machetes to make them work faster. And if anybody said ‘Oh, how awful!' do you know what their excuse was here? ‘Those blacks are Jamaicans and Dominicans, not Saint Thomians'—which made it all right. And the great old Danish families. The men all had native mistresses, and their great-grandchildren are walking around St. Thomas today—Negroes, and Granny can tell you just who they are. And about the parties and sit-down dinners for three hundred, with a redcoated footman behind each chair. Talk about Paris or Vienna—things were every bit as gay and as elegant here, and Granny remembers all that. And the women in their jewels, and their dresses from Worth and Molyneux, and the men in their cutaways and ribbons and sashes and medals—but Granny says that when you danced with a gentleman even at the most formal ball you could always feel his shoulder-holster under his coat!”

“That's all very good, Leona, but—”

“And the way she continues to live now, Eddie. That's why I wanted you to see her house. It's really the last of the big old places. Do you know that my room is still called the nursery? And that Thursdays are still the days when Granny
receives?
Every Thursday afternoon her chauffeur goes around and delivers calling cards to a handful of other old ladies, and the other old ladies drop their cards at Granny's—one of her maids brings the cards in to her on a silver tray. And her teas—they're
beautiful
, Eddie, the way she
presides
over teas, sitting there in her drawing room like a queen on a throne! Who else has silver that gets polished every single day of the week? And her dining-room table. Her girls rub it with the palms of their hands—it's polished with the oils from their skin. ‘It's the only way to polish good wood,' Granny says. Oh, I know you probably think it's shocking that all those people do nothing but wait on one old woman. But it has such
dignity
, such perfection, such
integrity
about it. Sure it's old-fashioned, and maybe it's stuffy and silly, but I sometimes think there are things from the old order—the old kind of graciousness—that
should
be preserved. I sometimes think Granny's whole way of life should be government-subsidized!” She pauses. “Don't you?”

When he makes no immediate answer, she laughs and says, “Well, end of sales pitch!”

“You know, it's funny,” he says in a quiet voice. “But it sounded to me like a pitch for the kind of life you'd like to live.”

Leona considers this. “Well,” she says thoughtfully, “maybe you're right, Eddie. Maybe it's some of that—dignity—that I need. Just a bit of it. It should be a part of me, I suppose, since I'm her granddaughter and grew up in her house. But it hasn't been. And maybe that's why I came back here—to take another look.”

“Would you like to run a household like hers?”

She smiles at him, though his face is invisible in the darkness. “Of course not. But the things about her that have integrity. That's what I'd like to have.”

“Poor little rich girl. After sowing her wild oats with three husbands on two continents, she's ready to settle down as a lady of grace and leisure—”

“Stop it! You know what I want. It's got nothing to do with that.”

“Your art-gallery idea, you mean?”

“Yes. And it's not just an idea, either. I'm going to have it, and I'm in the process of lining up my backers right now.”

“Can I see you as the hard-boiled proprietress of an art gallery?” he says. “I don't know, but I'm trying.”

“And you can help me too,” she says. “When you do this story on Granny you can mention my gallery. See how hard-boiled I can be? I know the value of having a friend who's with the press.”

“Look here,” he says, “will you get it through your beautiful head that I'm not doing a story about your grandmother? Who the hell cares?”

“Who the hell cares about some Wall Street tycoon, either!”

“Now wait a minute,” he says roughly. “A lot of people might care, including maybe the Securities and Exchange Commission! There's suddenly something awfully fishy-looking about this character named Harold Harper.”

“You're out of your mind,” she says. “Uncle Harold's so honest and upright it's boring!”

“How well do you know this guy? What are these deals of his—these companies he's angling to take over? Is he maybe pumping up the price of his own stock, and bilking millions of dollars out of innocent investors? Where the hell's his money coming from?”

“He's a rich man! He's always been rich.”

“Sure, but
that
rich? This is big stuff he's after now, and I'd like to find out if he's just a simple-minded Social Register smoothie or a fast-talking garden-variety swindler. If you ask me, there's something rotten in the Harper empire, girl, and his name is—”

“I thought you were a friend!” she says. “How can you talk to me that way about a member of my family!” And she is grateful for the darkness of the beach because he cannot see her face. She is afraid she is going to cry, and she doesn't want him to see her cry.

“Well, that's the story
I'm
after, girl! That's why I was sent down here to case this joint—not to have tea with some old lady whose crappy silver gets polished every day, and who lives like Louis the Fourteenth! If I were that old lady I'd take all that silver and bury it in the garden!”

Leona jumps to her feet. “I don't care what you write!”

But he reaches up quickly and takes her hand. “But
I
care,” he says.

“Please let go.”

“I care, because I think I'm falling in love with you.”

“What?”

“You heard what I said.”

“Oh, no—”

He kneels silently in front of her, gripping her hand in his, and his eyes glitter briefly in the sweep of light. He's joking, she thinks instantly; or he's drunk. How can he have said a think like that after those other brutal things? How can he use the word
love
in the same breath with words like
swindler
, and
crappy?
“Eddie?” she says. She thinks:
Are you really Eddie?
The dim shape in front of her becomes the shape of a stranger who, in the dark, has been substituted for Eddie Winslow—her dear, comfortable old friend; reliable Eddie, the available extra man for parties, the man whom she could always call when she was in New York alone, and be sure of a gentle, undemanding date for dinner or the movies. He once told her he liked her because she was a good listener. He used to say that he should have been a poet, but had been born in the wrong century, and so he had to be satisfied with a job he hated. He'd never go anywhere, he said, and he blamed his family. He came from somewhere, nowhere, in Massachusetts—
Nowhere, Mass
. he called it—and his parents were poorer than Job's chickens. They'd given Eddie nothing but a coach ticket to New York, where he'd put himself through journalism school slinging hash at a Columbia fraternity house. Once, walking home from a movie, he had put his arm around her shoulders. And yet now, all at once, Eddie—or some new incarnation of him—is here, on his knees, holding her hand, pressing her knuckles so hard against his mouth that she can feel his teeth, talking about love, and for a terrible moment she is afraid she may laugh out loud. His eyes are murderously bright. “Oh, please stand up,” she whispers.

“I can only say these things because it's dark,” he says, rising and facing her. “And I'd like to revise what I just said. I don't
think
. I know I'm falling in love with you.”

“Then why can't you be nice?” she says in a voice that sounds childish and querulous.

“I love you, Leona.”

“Did I do this? she pleads. “I didn't mean to. I only wanted—” Wanted what? Wanted to help you, she thinks. But that sounds patronizing.

“I've loved you for a long time. When you told me you were marrying the Spaniard I wanted to die. I want to marry you, Leona.”

“Oh, but I can't love anybody yet—I want to start my gallery!” she says wildly. “Do you want to invest in it?”

“You know I don't have any money.”

“I was only joking! Oh, Eddie—I
do
like you. But why did you have to—to suddenly
upset
everything?”

He releases her hand, and she steps backward, catching her balance. She pushes shaking fingers through her hair. “Forgive me, Eddie!” she says a little hysterically. “But everything was so wonderfully simple! Now I'm all mixed up. I don't know what to think. I can't—”

“Never mind,” he says in an icy voice.

“I'm sorry!”

“Skip it!”

“Ssh!” she says. “Someone's coming!”

Between the sea-grape hedges, the arcing light from the lighthouse picks out the figure of a man coming toward them along the gravel path.

“Here's a guy who can finance your gallery,” Eddie says, close to her ear. “He could do it with one of his leftover oil wells. Maybe he's the sort of man you're after.”

“Oh, please!”

“Hello, Purdy!” Eddie calls.

“Winslow!” the man calls. He is on the short side, broad-shouldered and heavy-set, and he carries a drink in one hand. “Hey, why aren't you up at the party? We're having a hell of a time. There's a girl up there who—oh, excuse me,” he says, seeing Leona. “I thought you were alone.”

Eddie says, “Leona, I'd like you to meet Mister Arch Purdy. Arch, may I present Leona Para-Diaz? Pardon me,” he says without a trace of sarcasm. “I meant to say
La Condesa
de Para-Diaz.”

“Well, how do you do?”

Standing very stiffly, Leona says “Hello.” He shakes her hand.

“Well, Winslow,” the man says, “what kind of dirt are you digging up these days?” Leona shivers.

“Look,” Eddie says, “we poor working men have to get back to our jobs. You two party people stay around and get acquainted, okay? So long, Arch. I'll see you around, Leona.” He starts back across the beach.

“Eddie,” Leona calls weakly. But the only answer is the sound of his retreating footsteps in the gravel.

“Did I interrupt something?” the man next to her asks.

She shakes her head. Leona stands there, unable to think of a single thing to say, stupidly conscious only of the fact that her shoes are off and lying somewhere on the sand beside her. “Excuse me,” she says at last. “My shoes …” The man supports her with one hand as she struggles back into them.

“I noticed you back there at the party,” the man says. “I thought, there's a cool girl who knows exactly what she's doing. Tell me: Are you as cool as you look?”

Laughing lightly, Leona adjusts her sweater around her shoulders.

“Let's you and me go have a tall, cool drink.”

“As a matter of fact, I could use a drink,” she says.

Leona has sometimes teased her grandmother about the formality with which Edith chooses to dine alone. So be it, Edith thinks. It is too easy for a woman, living alone, to let down the side little by little and end up eating her suppers over the kitchen sink. Edith prefers to have her table set, at a regular hour (eight o'clock), with her pistol-handled knives, her three-pronged forks and her coin-silver spoons, with a Directoire place-plate, a hand-edged damask napkin in a silver ring, a glass of good wine in a Tiffany goblet, and lighted candles on the table and in the wall sconces. It is what Edith chooses, and Nellie has been well trained to observe her choice. Edith's finger bowl arrives at the proper moment on a plate, with the dessert spoon and fork on either side. She separates the spoon and the fork, sets them beside her plate with a little click, and removes the finger bowl with its doily, placing it, as she was taught by her old French governess to do, at “eleven o'clock,” never using it, merely checking to see that it contains a floating petal. She enjoys thinking that someone like Mrs. Grundy is watching her every move, and that if she should die while she is at dinner someone will say, “She died using perfect table manners.”

BOOK: Those Harper Women
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