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Authors: Louis Auchincloss

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BOOK: Watchfires
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The long hot summer in Newport was a dismal one. She suffered from a fixed premonition that she would never see Philip again. She busied herself with the usual social activities, but only to avoid the questions that would have followed her abstention. She took long walks alone down the rocky coastline and read Rousseau's
Nouvelle Héloise.
In a mood that strangely mixed the darkest realism with the filmiest fantasies, she decided that Philip would never love her and that she could still be happy as his wife.

When they returned to New York in September she found a letter from him that had just arrived. In it he announced his engagement to Miss Lucy Taylor, daughter of Sir Ernest Taylor, baronet and M.P. They were to be married in London before Christmas. He wrote:

I'm afraid I was hurt and bitter last spring, at your coolness and doubts, your insistence on keeping my manly ardor at bay. But now, dear Rosalie, I understand the full extent of your wisdom and intuition. It may even be that God had a hand in it. For my beloved Lucy not only has always wished to share in a teaching life; she owns a large Tudor house in Dorset that will make an ideal central building for what, within a scant year's time, should become The Taylor School for Boys. We are giving it that name in honor of Lucy's father, who is not only paying for the remodeling of the house and grounds, but who has consented to act as first chairman of our board of trustees and who has promised to interest his parliamentary friends in the project. I am sure you will rejoice in my good fortune, and I eagerly look forward to the day when you will come to visit our mother country, perhaps on a happy wedding trip of your own, and journey down to Dorset to see our institution and meet my Lucy to whom I have talked so much of you.

When Rosalie, ashen pale and trembling, showed this letter to her father, he grunted as if not in the least surprised. But when she accused him, with muffled sobs, of having ruined her life, he took his loftiest tone.

"I forgive you your violence, my dear; you are understandably agitated. I have no doubt that in a very short time you will recognize your injustice to me and be properly sorry for it. Philip Hake is a man who is never going to love anything but his school. I discerned that after our first conversation about the extent of your fortune. Yet he is not, fundamentally, a mercenary man. He is simply one with a mission—a bit of a fanatic, if you like. He believes that his rather shabby means are justified by his noble end. I did not foresee that he would enter into another engagement quite so expeditiously, but I certainly recognized that he was a man who would better himself if he could do so without positive dishonor. That is why I wanted you to leave him free. I make no secret of my delight that it is Miss Taylor and not you, who is to be sacrificed to his academy. English girls are brought up to expect that. Americans are not. For surely you will not tell me that you still want this man,
knowing
him for what he is?"

Rosalie fled from the presence of her terrible, unanswerable parent, and the name of Philip Hake was never mentioned again in her presence.

For two long years she was convinced that she would never marry. She would stay at home with her sister Joanna and lose herself in the ministrations that attended her father's days and nights. She would visit the poor; she would do sketches and water colors; she would teach in Sunday school; she would play the piano. She would keep killing time until time killed her.

But the ticking clock brought her a surprise: not death but ennui. And when the Sunday afternoon came around, in the third year of her abandonment, that brought Dexter Fairchild's abrupt declaration of his courting attentions, she was startled by the similarity of his approach to that of her erstwhile suitor. Curiously enough, it amused her. And what was even more curious was that she never once considered that this strange, intense young man might treat her as his predecessor had. No, if there were going to be coolness in
this,
it would come from a different quarter!

And then, very soon, on only his second visit, it began to be evident that she was not going to be as cool as she had thought. A part of her that she had believed dead, or at least numb, began to stir again. She was not at all sure that she wanted it to stir; she was even inclined to regard it as a betrayal of the nobler emotion she had initially felt for Philip. She had certainly never pledged herself to be true to her betrayer, but was it not somehow incumbent upon her to preserve the capacity for so bright a flame for a greater man? Greater than whom? Well, greater certainly than Dexter Fairchild!

She had always thought of a husband as someone to look up to, and he was actually smaller than she, though only the tiniest bit. Their eyes met at the same level. And then he seemed so finely made, as of choice materials skillfully put together. He stood, or sat, absolutely immobile, but when he moved, it was quickly and agilely, like a cat. She was intrigued by his white smooth skin, his clear blue-green eyes, that he would fix upon her, his sartorial elegance. She even liked his faint whiff of eau de cologne.

It was impossible to dismiss him as a dandy. He was a serious, hard-working lawyer. It was equally impossible to discount him as a worldling or even a snob; there was a suppressed intensity about him that made her uneasy but that commanded her grudging respect. She could not quite laugh at the violence of his need to say the right thing, do the right thing,
be
the right thing. If his values were wrong, his passions gave him a kind of dignity.

It also gave him a kind of strength. She faced the fact that she was drawn to him. Her sister Lily, in the expansiveness of her own conjugal satisfaction, had hinted of undreamed delights in the arms of Rutgers Van Rensselaer, and now Rosalie could not help substituting this elegant young man for the image evoked of her portly, bewhiskered brother-in-law.

After Dexter had made his proposal, and she had retired, as once before, with her family to Newport, her real troubles began. It was not that her relatives talked to her about Dexter. They saw no need to. It was entirely taken for granted that he represented the obvious solution to all of her problems and that it was only a matter of time—and very little time at that—before she should take her proper place in Manhattan society as Mrs. Fairchild. She could tell by the easy way in which her father referred to Dexter, or failed to refer to him, that he saw that young man not only as a desirable son-in-law, but as an inevitable one.

She thought a good deal of her mother's dying injunction, but she began to wonder if it had been reasonable or even quite honest. Where in her world was the man going to be found who could be totally loved and totally revered? Did he exist? Had her mother felt that way about her own father? Really and truly? Weren't there aspects of the personality of Charles Handy that were at least analogous to some in Dexter Fairchild? Or perhaps even less admirable?

Dexter's enthusiasm for Newport was almost unbearable to her. In New York he had been partially protected from her criticisms by the armor of his profession: it might have been a risky, even a dangerous business to shoot too many darts at a clever lawyer. And then there was always the thick, the rather cloying atmosphere of public duty constantly performed that emanated from the more prosperous sections of the Manhattan bar. But Dexter in flannels, in blazers; Dexter sauntering down the beach or singing a bit shrilly at a picnic; Dexter rising to offer her father an unctuous toast at dinner, seemed the very spirit of the summer community. He was just as gay, just as ornamental, just as frivolous as Newport—no more so, no less. And she had never liked Newport.

On the other hand, he showed himself to an unexpected but undeniable advantage in summer sports. Watching his trim figure move rapidly past the breakers in a spirited crawl out to sea, observing how deftly he handled the tiller of her brother-in-law's sailing yacht, seeing him score a near bull's eye in archery, she could not but admire his masculine agility and competence. Obviously, he had prepared himself for these activities with some of the same conscientiousness that had guided his preparation for law. He was certainly a man determined to fall behind in nothing, and when warm thoughts came to her of how he might perform acts much more personal, her cheeks would become flushed indeed. Yet all she could guess of these was from his kiss, firm, quick, discreet, rendered suddenly behind a door, or a garden bush, when Joanna was not looking, or pretended not to be looking.

After her explosion at their private supper party and his abrupt return to New York, she was abjectly miserable. She could still, however, be irritated when she found that her father had advised Dexter to come back to Newport. Mr. Handy took his usual high tone in response to her complaint.

"Do you think you own that young man? Do you think he cannot have an independent relation with another member of your family? With me, for example?"

"Yes, but he doesn't. You just want him for me. You think I'm incapable of catching another husband!"

"I think you're incapable of catching a better one."

"Must I have one at all?"

"Of course not. It's perfectly open to you to live with me and Joanna and Annie. You will always be welcome to do so. But remember that I shan't be around forever. The day may come when you'll bitterly regret having let Dexter Fairchild go. He'll be snapped up soon enough by some lucky girl. Be sure of that!"

On the morning before the archery contest, which she knew Dexter would attend, Rosalie had a rather desperate discussion with her sister Lily in the rose garden. Rutgers Van Rensselaer always lived on his boat during his annual visit to Newport, but his wife preferred the comfort of Oaklawn.

"All of you think I ought to marry Dexter," Rosalie began sullenly.

"Ought? Don't be silly, Rosey."

"Well, of course you don't
say
it to me. You don't have to. I suppose I'm always saying it to myself."

"But you like him?"

"Oh, yes."

"Perhaps you love him and don't know it."

"I don't know." She faced Lily almost with defiance. "I like it when he kisses me."

"Well, there you are!"

"But, Lily, I don't know if I respect him!"

"Respect him? Why, he's the most respectable man in the world!"

"Maybe that's just it. I guess what I really mean is, do I revere him?"

"What an odd term. Do I revere Rutgers? I hope not!"

"You're so practical, Lily. I wish I were as practical as you."

"No, you don't! You're
proud
of being romantic. Just don't let it lead you to Joanna's condition!"

But Rosalie was determined not to submit to a lecture on old maids. "Tell me, Lily. Frankly. Do you think Mother felt that way about Father?"

"What way?"

"Well ... that he was physically..."

"Attractive? Of course."

"Yes, but more than that. Overwhelming!"

Lily looked startled. "Overwhelming what?"

"Let's say, her better judgment."

"You mean, so that she ... she..." Lily gaped.

"Married him."

Lily's relief was lost in perplexity. "I don't follow you."

"I mean married him without really respecting him."

"Certainly not! I think we've said enough on this subject. You're working yourself into a state of nervous prostration. I suggest you go in now and rest until our guests come."

Rosalie, in her room, was alone as never before. Now that she had permitted herself to question the integrity of her mother and the ultimate nobility of her father, she had no allies. None of her sisters was going to follow her into
those
uncharted waters; she could drift as she chose out to open sea.

Later that day, when she had fled the house and the archery contest, sitting on a rock and looking out to the actual ocean, she made her decision at last to make an anchor out of the very cause of her aimlessness. She would accept this man whom she certainly did not revere and perhaps did not even quite love—at least as her mother had used that term. Yet she clung to her new suspicion that she was probably only doing as her mother had done, as her sister Lily had done, as any woman would do who did not insist on becoming a Joanna. There had to be a price for everything.

9

R
OSALIE
had made it her rule, in sixteen years of marriage, to avoid, wherever possible, direct confrontations with her husband. Silence settled a hundred differences of opinion in minor matters. But now she decided that her silence in the case of Jules Bleeker was showing signs of malignancy. It was only fair to Dexter himself to give voice to her opinion, and she waited one morning at the breakfast table until the boys had departed for school.

"Are you sure, Dexter, that you're justified in what you're doing to Jules Bleeker? It strikes me as a kind of persecution."

"Persecution! You know what he's done!"

"Yes, but didn't Annie lead him on?"

"You've never been fair to Annie!"

"Someone in the family has to balance your extravagant admiration. Tell me this, then. Do the men you're talking to go along with you of their own accord? Or do you have to bludgeon them into it?"

"I wouldn't call it bludgeoning. I
have
run into some resistance, I admit. It rather surprised me, actually, considering how clear-cut the moral issues are."

"And that doesn't give you pause? It doesn't make you reflect that you just
might
be wrong?"

Dexter stared at her with something like bewilderment in his clear gaze. "How can I be wrong, darling? This man has been urging your sister to commit adultery. Can he be fit for our society?"

"But does that mean you have to ruin him?"

"I gave him his chance. He refused to give her up. Either we are Christians, who are prepared to protect the sacraments, or we're not."

"Perhaps we're not. Perhaps that's what you're not willing to face. That you're swimming against the current."

"So I should just give up? Is that what you mean? Give up and let Bleeker continue his vile game until he wins it?"

BOOK: Watchfires
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