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Authors: Stephen Birmingham

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BOOK: Those Harper Women
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And so, this evening at dessert time, just as Edith is setting aside the finger bowl, she is considerably annoyed to have her routine interrupted by Nellie, who suddenly runs in from the kitchen to cry out the news that Edith is wanted on the telephone, Long Distance from New York. “Who is it?” Edith asks, but of course Nellie has no idea. (Nellie sometimes speaks of “the island of the United States.”) Edith hesitates, familiar with the way Long Distance calls at this hour of night have of bringing unpleasant tidings. Then, somewhat reluctantly, she goes out into the hall to the telephone.

Through the forest-fire cracklings of the long-distance wire, the operator is demanding to know if Edith Blakewell is Edith Blakewell. “Yes, yes,” she says, and then she hears a sharp voice on the other end of the line say “Edith? It's Harold.”

“Hello, Harold.”

“I hear Leona's with you. You'll never give up on her, will you?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Why don't you junk her? She's a lost cause.”

“I'm certainly not going to junk her, as you so charmingly put it. She is
not
a lost cause.”

“Listen,” he says, “Diana called last week from Paris, said she'd had some sort of letter from Leona, full of drivel, and asked me what I thought she should do about it. I told her to tell Leona to go to hell. Diana said frankly after this last divorce she doesn't give a rat's ass what Leona does.”

“Somehow,” Edith says carefully, “that doesn't sound like my daughter Diana talking. It sounds more like Harold Harper.”

Now there is a very characteristic Harold pause at the other end of the line, a pause Edith has learned over the years to answer with a matching pause of her own. It was a pause he used, even as a little boy, to make you think that, while he said nothing, his mind was running up a considerable score against you, and that while he sat frowning lips pursed, you were really not his twelve-years-older sister, but his much-younger, much more foolish one. And yet, she remembers, if you went on talking to him while he sat like this, he would let you continue until you had said too much, or committed yourself too deeply. To plague him, now, Edith jiggles the bar of the telephone up and down, and says, “Operator? I've been disconnected. Operator?”

“I'm still
here
. Listen, the reason I called was to tell you not to talk to any reporters who come snooping around asking questions about me. You can pass those instructions on to your friend Leona too.”

She could lie to him about Mr. Winslow's visit. But Harold would probably find out about it anyway, sooner or later. So she says, “I see.” And then, “Harold, what's going on? What are you up to?”

“Is that any of your damned business?”

“No,” she says. “I merely asked.”

“But from that very transparent question I gather that you've
already
talked to someone. Christ! What a stupid woman you are, Edith.”

She says nothing.

“Spill it,” he says. “Who did you talk to? What did you say?”

“A man came,” she says wearily. “We talked about the old days. About Papa.”

“What did you tell him about the old man?”

“I showed him the Sargent. I told him the tennis story.”

“Christ! How do you think that will look in print? Did he ask you anything about me?”

“Yes, and I told him I didn't know anything about anything.”

“Well,
that
was the truth, wasn't it! What else?”

“Harold—what's wrong? Please tell me what it is.”

“Shut up, nothing's wrong. But you know—or at least I thought you knew—that it was the old man's policy never to talk to the press. Now listen here, Edith. If this guy comes around to you again—or if anybody else comes around—you are not to see anybody. Do you understand that? Just stick to your charity work, and I'll take care of things here, and everything will be all right.” There is another pause, and she hears him laughing softly. “After all, sister mine, I should think that
you
, of all people, would be aware of the—ah—unfortunate effects of personal publicity. Am I right, sister mine?”

Edith hangs up the receiver. She stands there by the telephone, momentarily without a sense of direction. She cannot remember where she was before the telephone call, or where she is headed next. All she knows is that, quite obviously, she has made another mistake. Then she remembers dinner, and returns to the dining room.

An interruption such as this deflects Nellie from her routine also. Like everyone else, servants function best when they can follow patterns. Nellie has served Edith's dessert, a
mousse au chocolat
, but in Edith's absence from the table it has become unjellified. But Edith has no appetite for the dessert now anyway. She rings for Nellie. “You may clear,” she says. In the distance, the telephone rings again. “Don't answer that, Nellie,” she says. “Let it ring.”

“Are you really a countess?”

Leona laughs. He has brought her another drink from the bar and, in his blunt, abrupt way, this man is beginning to amuse her. Though heavily built and stubby-fingered, he is not bad-looking. It is a face that seems to have many little muscles working in it, and he has an odd way of wrinkling his nose when he asks a question. “Nearly everybody who marries a Spaniard is a countess these days,” she says. “Just plain
señoras
are hard to find. Yes, my ex-husband is a count—or so he says.”

“I guess Europe is full of phony counts.”

“You're terribly right.” She sips her ice-cold cocktail. It is not a bad antidote, a cocktail, to despair and confusion; not the best antidote, perhaps, but not the worst either.

“So you and I have a lot in common, Countess.”

She smiles at him. “How is that? What makes you think so?”

“We've both, as the saying goes, shaken our spouses.”

“Oh,” she says. “Well, yes.”

“Have you been divorced from the Count long?”

“Four months.” She can play this game as well as he. “And you?”

“Two years,” he says. “It was one of those things. She was a mercenary bitch. She really socked me for alimony, too. Do you know how much it costs to keep her in the style to which I got her accustomed? A thousand dollars a week. She said ‘I'll never get married again just so you'll be paying me this for the rest of your life.'”

“Well! Were there children?”

“No kids. Too busy for kids. I was making money in the oil business, and I was afraid kids would tie me down. Sometimes I wish I had had kids, though. You have kids?”

She shakes her head.

“Never wanted any?”

“I'm not sure,” she says. “I think I did.”

“What do you mean you
think
you did?”

She runs a finger around the rim of her glass, hesitating. They seem to have gotten on awfully intimate terms in a very short space of time. “Well, it was Gordon, my second husband, who wanted children more than anybody,” she says. “And it was when I was married to him that I came closest to considering it seriously. But—I guess I was scared. I'd been divorced already you see, once—and perhaps I was afraid it would happen again. And it did. And that's an honest answer, Mr. Purdy.”

“Say, you've been divorced and
divorced
, haven't you?”

She holds up three fingers.

“No kidding? Not bad for a little girl.”

“It's funny. As a child, I was never accident-prone.” She smiles at him briefly over her glass. “It's not much of a solution. Marriage.”

He aims his finger at her, an imaginary gun. “You're right,” he says. “You never wanted kids with the first guy?”

“Oh, Jimmy was—we were both so young. That's a familiar excuse, I know, but it's true. Jimmy was just a nice, screwy kid from Princeton, and we ran off together. He came up to me at a dance, and cut in on the boy I was with, and said, ‘I've been watching you. I'm going to run away with you tonight and marry you.' ‘Oh,
are
you?' I said. ‘What confidence!' And we had a drink at the bar, and twelve hours later we were man and wife.”

“Just like that.”

“Just like that … and for weeks we ran all over the United States in his little car. We had this crazy idea that we were being followed, that the police were after us, or our families, or the FBI, and that there was a nation-wide search for us, and that if they ever caught us, we might be arrested because we were under age. We went from motel to motel, using false names—it was mad. But the awful thing was that we found out later than nobody was looking for us at all. Nobody cared where we were except a few newspaper reporters.”

He nods.

“Still, there was an almost-baby of Jimmy's and mine once—not much of a one, but a little almost-baby, in a hospital—who never—”

“Miscarriage?”

She nods, blinks, and takes another swallow of her drink. “Nobody knows this, not even Jimmy. It was after the divorce. Why am I telling all this to you?”

“Maybe,” he says smiling, “because I'm such an honest, decent fellow.”

“Maybe.”

“Did you ever take alimony from any of your husbands?”

“No. I never wanted anything from them.”

“Well, in my book, for that you deserve the Nobel Prize.”

“Thanks.”

“Did you ever love any of them?”

“Hey, no fair!” she says. “Did you love your wife?”

“Sorry,” he says. “It was a no-fair question.”

They are silent for a moment as the noise of the cocktail party rises around them.

“Pearls on sunburned skin,” he says. “I love the way pearls look on a woman's sunburned skin.”

She touches the pearls.

“You have wonderful eyes.”

Her smile is noncommittal. Back in her boarding-school days, this man would have been known as a fast worker.

“Say,” he says, “what do you say we duck out of this party and get some dinner? Okay?”

She hesitates. There is, she supposes, no reason why not.

“Let's go to the Club Contant, have a couple more drinks, then dinner.”

“Well, all right,” she says.

As they cross the terrace together, his hand moves as though to circle her waist but, with a slight movement of her body, she avoids him.

“Where are you staying?” he asks her.

“At my grandmother's. She lives here.”

“With your
grandmother?
Doesn't that cramp your style a little?”

“Not really.”

Going down the walk to his car, he says, “You know, when I first met you there on the beach with Ed Winslow—I couldn't figure it. You and Winslow. He doesn't seem your type.”

“Eddie is—a very dear friend.”

“When you shook hands, I didn't think you liked me. But now I think maybe you do like me. I think maybe we can be buddies, don't you?”

“Well,” she says, “why not?”

Holding the car door open for her, he says, “Hi, buddy.”

Leona slides into the front seat. Smiling at him, she says, “Hi.”

Beside her in the dark car he says, “One more question. Were your folks divorced too, by any chance?”

“Why, yes. What made you ask that?”

“Just psychic. Mine were too. Did it make a difference with you?”

“Of course it did.”

“At least after the divorce the fighting stopped,” he says.

Leona nods. “I was very little when Mother and Daddy got theirs,” she says. “That was when they began sending me here, to Granny's—to get a little sunshine, they told me, but I knew better. I was only five or six. I loved those trips on the plane, though, and coming to see Granny. But one day when I was here, my great-grandmother came to call—Granny's mother. She was a terribly funny-looking old woman, all painted up like a doll. She must have been eighty and she had a terrible stammer. She used to scare me to death, the way she talked. I overheard her talking to Granny once, saying ‘Edith, you know that Diana'—Diana's my mother—‘is just
mooching
on you, parking Leona here all the time. She's turning Leona into a regular little
moocher
. You should not allow it, Edith.' Granny didn't say anything, so I assumed that she agreed, and that that was what I was—a little moocher. I used to go around thinking that I was a little moocher. It was a long time before I knew what a moocher was, but I used to think of it as a funny little hairy animal, with a snout—”

She laughs, but this story seems to make him remote from her. He looks straight ahead for a moment, and then shrugs. “Well, I guess we all have experiences like that when we're kids, buddy,” he says. He starts the car.

After Charles Blakewell left to go to the war, Edith's father called one of those little family meetings he called in any crisis. They had assembled—Edith, Harold, Arthur, and her mother and father—in his big study in the old house at Sans Souci. Edith was twenty-nine then, Harold was seventeen, and Arthur was sixteen. But they gathered as they always did—like solemn-faced children to listen to what Meredith Harper had to say. “Now that Edith's husband has departed,” he began. Edith remembers looking around the room at the others. Harold was smoking a French cigarette, and he gave her a sly look out of the corner of his eye, then raised his pale eyes heavenward. Sad-looking Arthur gazed at the toes of his shoes. Edith's mother twisted the rings on her fingers.

“Now that Edith's husband has departed, and she is alone with her small child, I shall expect you boys to be of whatever assistance you can to your sister,” he said. “Though she is older, she is a woman.”

The boys nodded.

“We have heard that there have been some unpleasant stories circulating about your sister,” he said. “I shall not mention them again. During the time Mr. Blakewell is—absent—I suspect the gossips will find increased opportunities to exercise their malicious tongues. I expect all of you to do absolutely nothing about this—neither to repeat the stories to anyone else nor to deny them if you hear them. In other words, ignore them. People like ourselves, who enjoy a position of respect and power in a community, are the natural targets of rumor. We are objects of envy, and envy breeds malice. We cannot allow ourselves to suffer from this fact. We cannot even allow ourselves to care about it. We must conduct ourselves in such a way that no one can accuse us of caring. This way, rumors about us will collapse of their own weight. We are above rumor. It doesn't exist for us. Do you understand?”

BOOK: Those Harper Women
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