Authors: Louis Auchincloss
Tags: #General Fiction
Houghton Mifflin Company
Copyright Â© 1982 by Louis Auchincloss
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Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
l. United StatesâHistoryâCivil War, 1861â1865 â
Fiction. I. Title.
PS3501.U25W36 813'.54 81-2698
ISBN 0-395-31546-8 AACR2
Printed in the United States of America
S 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For my good friend
fellow pupil at Miss Bovee's School for Boys,
fellow actor in the Yale Dramat
and fellow trustee of
the Museum of the City of New York.
the germ of this tale from an incident in the life of George Templeton Strong recorded in an unpublished section of his famous diary. I later developed it into an article which appeared in my volume of essays,
Reflections of a Jacobite.
My first attempt to fictionalize it was the short story "In the Beauty of the Lilies" that became a part of
The Winthrop Covenant.
This novel is my final development of the theme.
OR ALMOST A YEAR
Dexter Fairchild had been suffering from a growing discrepancy between the turbulence of his private state of mind and the continued placidity of his outward demeanor. If he remained faithful to the demands of his law practice, if he prepared his wills and trust indentures and performed his fiduciary duties as rigorously as ever, if he assisted his two young sons in their school work and helped them to learn their catechism, if he escorted Rosalie punctiliously to the social functions that their position in New York required of them, he nonetheless continued to experience a violent perturbation of spirits and, on occasion, to feel such palpitations of the heart that he would have to stand still and (if nobody happened to be noticing) close his eyes, for all the world like a man with cardiac pains praying that his seizure would pass.
He had, the winter before, passed the climacteric of his fortieth birthday, but everyone assured him that he did not look his age, and Rosalie had even suggested that he grow a beard, or at least a mustache, to disguise his smooth skin with the appearance of maturity appropriate to his standing at the bar. But Dexter preferred to be clean-shaven; he liked the well-modeled, if slightly too square, chin and the neat red lips that faced him in the mirror over his bureau in the morning. He flattered himself that they set off well his large, grave eyes, his straight nose, high forehead and curly chestnut hair. He liked to fancy himself a converted romantic, a poet who had seen that every man who was not an absolute genius had ultimately to adapt himself to the world of practical affairs.
The only bad thing about being forty would have been not to be where one should have been at such an age, and was he not the senior partner of Fairchild & Fairchild, a trustee of Columbia, of Trinity Church and the Patroons' Club?
No, it was absurd, it was mortifying, it was even shaming, but the stubborn fact remained that the commencement of his inner turmoil had coincided with his reading of Mrs. Stowe's vulgarly popular novel. He had scorned
Uncle Tom's Cabin
when it had first been published, eight years before, telling his enthusiastic wife that he refused to subject his emotions to the assault of an hysterical female romancer who, according to all unbiased reports, had painted the condition of slaves as a hell not even recognizable to an unprejudiced visitor to the Southern states. As Dexter had written at the time to the Evening
"One does not have to approve of slavery to disapprove of Mrs. Stowe's technique. Even if one grants that every incident in her story happened, or could have happened, this can hardly justify her stringing them together in a sequence that grossly distorts her image of the average Southern household."
But Rosalie's sister Annie, sometime in the winter of '58, had prevailed upon him to read it. "I read everything
prescribe," she had argued. "So the least you can do is to look into the book you feel so free to denounce publicly." He had done so, and he had been stricken.
He had not, even to Annie, admitted this as yet. He had continued stubbornly to maintain his position that the novel's picture of Southern life was a fabrication. But what he could no longer get away from was his growing suspicion that Mrs. Stowe's distortion might have a valid purpose. If such things as she depicted actually happened, or even if they
have happened, was it not perfectly proper for an author to put them together in such a way as to show that this sort of hell was feasible under our laws?
And so had begun this curious dichotomy in his life, this inner fever, this seething unrest of his thoughts and feelings, under what he hoped was still the continued serenity of the attorney, the fiduciary, the family man. His mind throbbed with melodrama, with images of arrogant planters lashing the bare backs of male slaves and ogling the females. It was all of a vulgarity! And when he shook his head to clear it and to concentrate on the iniquities of his previous
, the hysterical abolitionists of hypocritical Boston, it was, oddly enough, to find no diminution in his old animosity, so that his choice seemed to be, no matter which side he took, between poles of equal violence. It was beginning to be a question whether some of his interior commotion might not start to seep into his conversation, even his consultations, and mar the image that he had so long cultivated of the pre-eminently reasonable man.
He now began actually to perform exercises to try to control his demon. Standing before the full-length, mahogany-framed mirror at which he shaved each morning, he would address the Southern lawmakers from an imagined desk on the Senate floor:
"We are not contesting that the black man is your property. But we maintain that your ownership is analogous to that of the holder of real estate, which, by its very nature, cannot be transported to free soil. The slave who manages to make his way to New York should be entitled to his freedom there. His manacles must fall when he crosses our border. If you want him, you ought to keep hold of him. Is that so difficult? You argue that his lot is a happy one, that the workers in our New England mill towns are not half so fortunate. We cannot help wondering why slaves try to escape and workers do not. But we can promise you this. If a mill hand goes south to become a slave, not one northern hand will reach to pluck him back. There! Can we not live then in peace together?"
And now, recollecting Rosalie's abolitionist friends, he would tremble with a different ire and proceed:
"In solving our common problems we must learn to understand that we are each goaded by extremists. You have your firebrands, your secessionists, who seek to make slavery lawful throughout the union. We have our die-hard abolitionists who clamor to abolish slavery at whatever cost to our peace and world position. Somehow those of us, North and South, with a bit of sanity, a bit of good will to man, must try to save our union with a judicious compromise. It was worked out in 1820, and again in 1850. There is no reason it cannot be worked out again today."
On a cold December morning, after one of these now daily exercises, he sought, coming downstairs, to recover his equilibrium in contemplating the recently redecorated drawing and dining rooms. The former was as neat and still as he wished his heart was, with serene curtains of blue damask, a jewelry cabinet, papier-mache tilt-top tables, delicate chairs of ebonized rosewood with ormolu, marble statuettes and a chandelier of crystal globes. The dining room was even more calming, darker and soberer, paneled in black walnut and hung with his collection of seascapes by Kensett, Heade and Lane. In its doorway he breathed for a moment in relief.
But Rosalie was already down, and he noted with regret the pink dressing gown that now seemed a fixture of the morning meal. He wished, if only for the boys' sake, that she would dress when she got up, but he knew that any suggestion to this effect would be taken as an accusation of general sloppiness and would involve an argument which he could only lose. He could hardly tell her, could he, that her large, strong features and firm, substantial figure needed the support of well-cut, perfectly fitting raiment and seemed to wander aimlessly in the trailing silks of the boudoir?
"I may have to go to Fifth Avenue tomorrow night," she observed, without looking up from her teacup. "Unless Jo gets back."
"Fifth Avenue" meant the house of Rosalie's father, Number 417, at Thirty-seventh Street. There Mr. Handy, a vigorous widower of seventy-five, lived in rather opulent brownstone comfort, attended by his maiden daughter Joanna and eight maids.
"I didn't know Jo ever left."
"She never does, poor dear. That's why we thought she ought to get away for a bit. She's been staying with a friend in Boston."
Dexter grunted. "Some abolitionist, I suppose."
"Well, what of it? Can't Jo, at forty-five, be allowed to choose her own friends?"
"I didn't question her right, only her discretion. Why can't Annie go to your father?"
"Annie's there now. But she can't stay. She's got some party or theater." Annie was the "baby" of the family, as well as the "beauty." She was only thirty-two and married to Dexter's cousin Charley Fairchild.
"And Lily's too grand, I suppose, to go."
"Well, isn't that what
Lily, halfway in age between Jo and Rosalie, had the gratification of being Mrs. Rutgers Van Rensselaer. Dexter, who knew Manhattan and Brooklyn society like a book, had tried to teach its subtleties to Rosalie, who, despite her birth, cared nothing for such matters and appeared to pay little attention. But she had the irritating habit of tossing his lessons back at him whenever he demonstrated any independence from or impatience with, his own deities. She had never forgotten, for example, that in a moment of connubial candor he had ranked the Fairchilds, who had been farmers in Yorkshire only three generations before, well below the Handys and Van Rensselaers, who went back to seventeenth-century Manhattan. In the game of genealogy a listless Rosalie had nonetheless learned to count her trumps.
"Lily has her social responsibilities, as you like to call them," she continued. "She's taken up with her New Year's Day reception. After all, it will mark a new decade as well as a new year."
"And pray God we all survive it!" Dexter exclaimed fervently. "But why does your father really need anyone? He enjoys magnificent health, and he has a house full of maids."
"Somebody has to keep track of his social engagements. â Without Jo he might go to Mrs. John Astor's on a night when the Hone Club was meeting at his house. You know how dependent he is on her."
"Well, why can't he stay home a couple of nights? Really, the pace the old gentleman keeps up! It's a wonder his heart can stand it. And the way you all bow and scrape to him! He might be King Lear with four Cordelias."
"Cordelia didn't bow and scrape," Rosalie pointed out. "That was precisely what caused all the trouble. And it seems to me not so terribly long ago that you were saying that my family was the only one left in New York with a proper respect for the older generation."
Dexter sighed. Of course, it was perfectly true. Indeed he had been drawn to the Handys, or at least to Mr. Handy, before he had even been attracted to Rosalie. The picture of this tall, broad-shouldered, silk-hatted gentleman with the magnificent aquiline nose and hawk eyes marching down Fifth Avenue to church followed by his four daughters, raising his hat to some, bowing to others, simply smiling to the barely recognized, yet always courteous, always affable, the president of the great Bank of Commerce, the chairman of innumerable boards, the friend of Seward and Sumner but also of Bryant and Greeley, the god of the Century Club, the former colonel of the state militia who had ridden by Lafayette's carriage on the old hero's triumphant return tourâyes, that had been the picture in Dexter's mind of what success should be. That was the image of what he had wanted for himself!
But, agreeable as Mr. Handy had proved himself through the now fifteen years of their close relationship, Dexter had discovered that, being married to Rosalie, he had become identified with her in her father's mind and was expected to be available as a kind of stagehand to the old man's glory. How did Mr. Handy do it? Rosalie was keenly critical of the smallest tendency to pomposity in Dexter, yet apparently indifferent to that quality when it peeped out behind the benign affability of her popular parent. She saw itâoh, yes, she saw it very clearly, as did her sistersâbut their father was always immune from filial criticism. Somehow he had been smart enough to establish his infallibility ineradicably in the infant minds of his offspring. It might simply have been by canonizing his dead wife so that he could enjoy the undisputed glory of having been her choice.