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Authors: Stephen Birmingham

Those Harper Women (9 page)

BOOK: Those Harper Women
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“What is wrong with saying that I get bored with the Meurice? It can be a very boring place, and when it is I want to get out of it, and do. Traveling is a hobby of mine, and one should not let oneself get bored with one's hobbies. Palm Beach can be boring. Rome is the most boring city in the world. There are boring places and there are boring people and there are boring horses and boring cars and boring houses and boring hotels. I know you are angry with me for divorcing Jack, but he was a bore. I know you liked him, Mother—I liked him too. He had many endearing qualities and still has. I wish him well, I wish him luck. I wish him a beautiful woman in his bed at night, but I am forty-nine years old, nearly fifty, and one doesn't have forever. And Mother, even you must admit he was an awful doormat. You could walk all over him and he didn't mind. And he'd believe everything you told him. No woman wants a man who believes everything she says. You could tell him that a large flock of Himalayan goats had just flown, in perfect formation, over the Everglades Club, bombarding the lawn with their droppings as they went, and he'd say, ‘Gee whiz. No kidding?' I really think that if Leona sometimes displays a certain lack of brains it's Jack Ware's genes that did it. You know Leona never did well in schools.
always did well in schools. Not that I'm an intellectual, but I'm smart, I'm clever, I talk well, I think well, and I look well, considering my age—forty-nine, nearly fifty. I don't show my age. I have passed the climacteric, and no one ever knew I was going through it. I have never consulted a psychiatrist, nor an astrologist, nor a faith healer, nor a spiritualist to try to talk to Daddy. I think I have been very good about Daddy, considering—considering I can't remember him, never knew him except as a photograph, never missed him, since one can't miss a photograph. I think I am a realist. I think I know what life is about, and that is why I married Perry because Perry knows what life is about—what
life is about anyway, and what his life is about. I never slept with Perry while I was married to Jack, though many people are convinced I did. In fact, I never slept with anybody while I was married to Jack. Perry is very good to me, Mother, and he lets me sleep late in the mornings, which I just adore—not being bounced out of bed at dawn by some hairy-chested type and made to go sit in a damn duck blind, or to watch the field-dog trials, or to park my fanny on a shooting stick while a bunch of men shoot grouse. I don't cheat at cards. I don't beat my horses, I don't get drunk, my dogs love me, why don't you? What is wrong if I like good clothes? Would it help matters if I wore smocks, and went around looking like a bindle stiff, and let my figure go, and my hair get gray? Mother, why do you look at me that way—like a mother superior, like the president of the P.T.A., like a lady dogcatcher, like the chairwoman of the League of Decency, like Queen Victoria, like a goddamn lady Emperor Augustus? I'm forty-nine years old! Mother—Mother, what is

Since these conversations are imaginary, Edith is not required to answer any of Diana's questions.


The years after Edith's brothers were born (Harold in 1901 and Arthur some fourteen months later) were an uneasy period on the island. There were labor troubles—uprisings in the canefields, fires, shootings, and robberies in the distilleries. The planters exacted stern reprisals and, in turn, the natives had their own methods of revenge; a planter, Edith remembers, was kidnaped and found, three days later, his body dismembered by machetes, on the rocks below William Head. As a result, Meredith Harper's children were carefully watched and guarded within the gates of Sans Souci. Meanwhile, life for the island's rich continued in its pose: dignified, mannered, and elegant and splendid, a pose borrowed from the great capitals of Europe. At night, doors and window-shutters were closed and barred against what crept outside and, at a formal ball, the barking of a dog sent tail-coated gentlemen rushing into the garden with drawn pistols while, inside the great candlelit and mirrored rooms, the women cowered in a knot, whispering of
la ceinture de mystère
which circled them in the dark hill villages. These were the years when Dolly Harper worked hardest to establish herself with the Danish colonial society of St. Thomas. But island society had crystallized itself at least a century before her arrival and, though they accepted her invitations, few of the older planters' wives ever asked her back. (“Danish women have no manners,” she would say. “Or else they
to hurt me. Which is it?”)

Edith devised her own lonely games—“Going to Siam,” with the terrace, and its row of four enormous urns full of hibiscus and geraniums as Siam, and driving about in her own little donkey cart with a blue-and-white-striped parasol on top I and Cyrus, the young native boy assigned to be her bodyguard, at the reins. She was fond of Cyrus; they were in league. Sometimes, he would take her outside the gate in the cart, and into the streets of Charlotte Amalie. And sometimes, pretending to doze, he would let her escape from his watch, and she would walk.

More often she would run—run across the dry brown grass at the road's edge, through a gap in the oleander hedge, and up into the hills covered with weeds and black rocks, where grasshoppers flew like bits of scattered gravel in her path, and tiny gray chameleons spurted across the stones; run until she reached the highest places where the rocks were sharp and loose, and where she would stop for breath. Though all this land was still, technically, a part of Sans Souci, and she had not really left home at all, it always seemed to her remoter than the moon. Below she could see the dust-red threads of roads winding through angular valleys between the motionless heads of palm trees and clumps of wilted vegetation and, beyond that, the still-blue sea. But there was always a burning wind in the hills, and the sky would be brilliant, and, looking up at it, the sun seemed particularly large and close and intensely personal, as though it were aimed just at Edith Harper and not shining over half the world as well. Once, coming over the brow of a steep ridge, she had been startled to see her mother and her father standing below her, hardly fifty feet away. What they were doing there on this forsaken hill, so far from the house, she couldn't imagine, and she quickly knelt behind a flat rock to hide; for a moment she was certain they were looking for her.

“I followed you!” she heard her mother's shrill voice say. “This is where you meet her, isn't it! Just tell me who she is.”

“You're ill, Dolly. Get back to the house.”

“Just tell me this—is she a white woman or a black!”

Edith saw her father raise his walking stick in a threatening gesture. Her mother screamed, turned, and stumbled back down the hill, her skirts blowing in the wind. Edith's father stood there very stiffly.

All at once Edith jumped up and went running down to him.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded.

Looking up at him she said, “Papa? Do you love Mama?”

“What are you talking about?”

She was crying now. “Papa!” she said, trying to cling to his sleeve as she had seen her mother do, “Papa, please—tell me that you love Mama! Papa—please? Please—” He jerked his arm roughly away and stepped back.

He turned on his heel and started away.

Remembering it now as she lies in her bed with her book, unread, spread open on her knees, Edith thinks that it is an altogether strange way for a girl of fourteen to behave, and she has no idea what came over her. And yet she remembers it so clearly: him walking, almost running, away from her, taking huge, stiff-legged strides across that brown hillside, his stick flashing, and herself pursuing him, sobbing and repeating that already-answered question: “Papa, please! Tell me that you love Mama!”

Her daughter Diana, Edith sometimes thinks, has inherited some of her grandfather's formidable traits. They have skipped a generation, as those things sometimes do, and have landed, in somewhat diluted form, on Diana. It is not that one's children disappoint one. It is just that they startle one. Suddenly, there they are, completed beings.

Diana keeps a large apartment in New York, which she shares with her present husband, and she has the Palm Beach place which she designed (she says) on the back of a paper cocktail napkin. The architect took that paper napkin and built Meadowcroft as it stands today. To open the house, she planned to throw a large party but, on the afternoon of the party, there was still no grass on the lawn. Diana got on the telephone and, by five o'clock, the lawn was so perfectly sodded that not a seam showed.

As her grandfather had, Diana has a high-handed, aristocratic manner. High-handed, that is, but not tightfisted. (And Leona is wrong, Edith thinks, when she calls her mother a snob.) There was the time, for instance, when Edith was visiting Diana in Palm Beach while the pool house at Meadowcroft was being built. Though it upset Diana to see the workmen sitting around the pool at lunchtime, eating their sandwiches from their lunchboxes (“Wouldn't you think they could go somewhere else to feed?” she kept repeating), she nonetheless gave each of those workmen an expensive wrist watch when the job was finished.

But perhaps the greatest trouble with Diana, for Edith, is that Diana has always been so difficult to pin down. Again, this is like Papa. “Mother's on AC and you're on DC, Granny,” Leona once said, which was putting it pretty well. Edith remembers the time, after Diana and Jack Ware were first separated, when Diana delivered little Leona to St. Thomas, and Edith had made a last-ditch attempt to talk to Diana and to stave off, if possible, the divorce. Edith had thought that, perhaps, if she could tell Diana a little bit about her own marriage (she was even going to tell Diana about the Frenchman who had caused her such problems years ago) Diana might see that, in a sense, her case was similar. She had gone up to Diana's room where Diana sat in bed, writing letters. Diana's hair was in a net and curlers, her face shined with cold cream, and her chin was in a strap. Seeing her daughter this way, supported by a scaffolding of cosmetics, made her seem to Edith even thinner, paler, and more woundable. She began to talk to her. After a moment, she noticed that Diana had picked up her pen again and was scribbling something on the corner of a sheet of paper. “What are you writing, dear?” she asked her.

“Just a note, Mother, to remind myself to be sure and write the butler in Palm Beach. There are fourteen breakfast trays that
be sent back to Milano for relacquering.” Then “What were you saying, Mother? About this Frenchman?” And then, “
Your're giving me your Emperor Augustus look again!
what have I done?”

But Leona, Edith thinks, is different from all the Harpers. She is a mutation, a creature none of them could possibly have contributed to, who seems to have sprung to life from a kind of fire. She is certainly the most beautiful child in the family. She is out of Degas, though she hates to have Edith say so. They are so rare, beauties like these. They appear out of nowhere, like soft explosions of stars, and they walk through the world untouched, cheering everyone. Edith closes her eyes. Across her vision the Degas girls dance, and each of them smiles at her with Leona's face.

When she was seventeen Leona run away from Miss Masters' School where Diana had sent her. She took a train to Grand Central, crossed the street to the airlines building, carrying her coat and her blue airplane suitcase with the white leather binding, went up the escalator and said to the clerk at the counter, “I'd like a one-way ticket to St. Thomas, please.”

“When would you like to go?” the clerk said.

“On the earliest plane.”

“There's a flight at four o'clock.”

“That will be perfect,” she said. “The only thing is, I haven't any money. I shall have to fly collect.”

“Well, that's very interesting,” he said. “I'm afraid you won't be able to fly at all.”

“Oh, but I have to,” Leona said. “I'm running away.”

“That's very interesting too,” he said, and he started to reach for the telephone.

“Please,” she said, “don't call the police or anything like that. I'm not running away from
. I'm running away from a terrible girls' school where the girls all wear white raincoats over their bloomers on the way to gym. My mother is in Florida, but I don't want to go there. I want to go to St. Thomas where my grandmother lives.”

“Everything you say is very interesting,” the young man said.

“My grandmother is very rich, and she's very well known in St. Thomas. She'll pay for the ticket, I know, as soon as I get there. So, if you'll just put
on the ticket, it will be paid for at the other end.”

“Now look here—” he began.

“Or,” she said, “once I'm on my way, you could telephone my grandmother in St. Thomas—collect, of course—and verify everything. And while you have her on the phone you could ask her to meet me at the airport.”

“Or,” he said, “you could telephone your grandmother yourself—collect—and tell her what your plan is, and ask her to wire you the money. How about that, sweetheart?”

“Oh, but that wouldn't work at all, would it?” she said. “If my grandmother knew what I was doing, she'd stop me, and I wouldn't be able to go at all.”

“Well, I suppose you've got a point there,” he said.

“And I don't think you should call me sweetheart,” she said.

“And I don't think
should be trying to wangle free plane rides by making eyes at me,” he said.

“I wasn't making eyes. And I'm not trying to get a free ticket. I told you—it will be paid for as soon as I arrive in Charlotte Amalie.”

He leaned across the counter and studied her. “Look,” he said, “are you kidding me or something? Are you for real?”

BOOK: Those Harper Women
2.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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