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Authors: Louis Auchincloss

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Watchfires (12 page)

BOOK: Watchfires
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"How do you get them in here?"

"They come in coffins to the church funeral parlor."

One of the women turned around at this. She told Halsted with evident apprehension that she didn't want to leave the parish house that way, that it had scared her "worse than the bloodhounds."

"No, Amy, you're going on board as a lady, in deep mourning with black gloves and a veil. I shall escort you myself."

"But don't they suffocate in the coffins?" Rosalie asked in alarm.

"They have holes in them," one of the men answered cheerfully. "I was even cold!"

Halsted now led Joanna and Rosalie to the other rooms on the attic floor. There was a dispensary, a kitchen and four bedrooms. He explained that during the hours when the ordinary parish activities were conducted on the floors below, everyone had to talk in whispers. One of the bedrooms was occupied by a man who had contracted pneumonia hiding in a swamp. His case was grave and required nursing at all times. Rosalie offered to start her turn the very next day.

As Joanna was taking hers that same afternoon, Rosalie came home alone in the carriage.

"How was your drive?" Dexter asked her.

"Delightful," she responded firmly. "I really think Central Park is going to be as fine as anything in a European capital."

In her exultation she thought she might even forgive him what he was doing to Bleeker.

"On our way home Jo took me to Saint Jude's," she continued. "She's trying to persuade me to do some work with her at the parish house. I might run the sketching class."

"Saint Jude's? But that's Halsted's church!"

"Yes, but I won't have to see him. There's no necessary relation between his views on slavery and the work at the house."

He looked at her in surprise. "Did you see him this afternoon?"

She hesitated. "As a matter of fact, I did."

"And you talked with him? Despite the row you had with him at lunch?"

"Well, I guess I owed him an apology. After all, he was Father's guest."

Dexter whistled. "That fellow must have the silver tongue he's credited with. To get
you
to come around! I guess we could use some of his forensic talent at Fairchild & Fairchild!"

Rosalie turned to her work bag. She had a long way to go, she decided grimly, in the art of deception. But she would get there.

11

O
N
N
EW
Y
EAR'S
D
AY
of 1860 Dexter started his long walk north, with its pleasant if arduous prospect of some dozen house calls, at Broadway and Canal Street. He proposed to end it by six o'clock at his home in Union Square where Rosalie would be giving her reception. It was a bright, cold day, and his spirits were high. The frigid air seemed to clean the city, to intensify its colors, to make the whites more white, the blacks more richly black. The white-blue sky was so clear that the taller buildings as far north as Fourth Street seemed an easy walk, and the great cast-iron stores along Broadway, with their walls of curve-topped windows separated only by their frames, suggested to him the Venetian palaces along the Grand Canal that he had only seen in pictures.

The campaign against Bleeker was proceeding apace. Dexter had prepared his ground carefully, and now it was time to call in his loans. He proposed to speak to some seven or eight important persons in the course of his visits. Only a few words should now be necessary to close the iron wall that he had been building against the intruder.

Everything, personal as well as national, seemed suddenly to point to hope. Mr. Lincoln, of Illinois, whose speeches he had been carefully following, appeared to be offering a feasible compromise between slaveholders and abolitionists, if the two sides would only accept it. Dexter was convinced that if a resort to arms could be put off, the Northern states, with their bursting populations and growing industry, would find themselves ultimately in a position to dictate abolition without bloodshed. If they would but have patience! And they might yet; they might...

His first call was on old Mrs. Verplanck, who still lived in the red brick house on Canal Street where she had been born eighty years before. She wore a lace cap and powdered her hair in what some persons called an affectation of the past, but which devoted antiquarians, like himself, cherished for its reminder of a more elegant day. He never tired of hearing her tell of how she had been taken to the White House as a little girl and presented by her father to President Washington. Dexter relished his popularity with the old; he was proud that John Church Hamilton, son of the great Alexander, had said of him, "That young man knows more about us than we know about ourselves!"

As Mrs. Verplanck's first caller, he was free to discourse on the abominations of his enemy.

"Dear me, isn't it lucky that you told me!" the old lady exclaimed. "Mrs. John Hone was going to bring Mr. Bleeker here next week. Apparently he has shown a great desire to meet me. He seems to think I can give him some background for an article he wants to do on 'old New York.' But now of course I shall tell Mrs. Hone that it's quite out of the question."

"I promise you, ma'am, you'll never regret it."

"Oh, my trust in you is complete, dear boy!"

Dexter felt that his heart was full to bursting as he continued his northward trek. Did it not do him a bit of good, subject as he was to the muffled criticism of his home, to feel appreciated, once in a while, if only by a dear little old lady? And why, after all, should not a dear little old lady be able to evaluate his character as well as anyone else? Better even? Had Rosalie known George Washington and Chief Justice Jay?

It was three o'clock when he entered the great marble house with the tall fluted white columns and Corinthian capitals that formed one unit of the noble arcade at Astor Place. It was here that Silas Cranberry, amid his fantastic collection of modern Roman statues, entertained as many of the social world as one so newly rich could induce to visit him. Caesars, Huns, martyrs and gladiators stood on pedestals above the multitude of his chattering visitors. Dexter, glancing around the principal chamber, suspected that the crowd was largely drawn from the staff of his host's great emporium.

He spotted Cranberry, bald, heavy-jawed, with tiny glittering eyes, standing, thumbs in his vest pockets, amid a respectful circle of younger men who fell back as Dexter came up, recognizing that their function was only to provide an audience until the advent of a real guest.

The roughness of Cranberry's greeting was only slightly mitigated by his perfunctory smile: "So you'll come to my house, Fairchild, when you want a favor from the lowly storekeeper? Is that the size of it?"

"So it might appear. But it also happens that I was planning to give myself the pleasure of calling on you and Mrs. Cranberry before I needed the favor."

"Without your Mrs.?"

"My wife happens to be receiving today."

"How would I know? She didn't ask me."

"She will next year. I have her word for it."

Dexter's gentle tone at last placated his brusque host. "Well, I guess I shouldn't be too rough on a man who comes to bid me a happy New Year. But this business of Bleeker sticks in my craw. What's it to me if the man's a bounder? Is that a reason to tell his newspaper I'll pull out my advertisements?"

"We hoped that you might regard our cause as yours. And that you might agree that such a wrong inflicted on a gentleman like my cousin affects all the leaders of the city."

Cranberry pursed his lips to emit a low whistle. "I ain't in your crowd, Fairchild."

"Isn't that your choice, sir?"

"
My
choice! Are you telling me I could get into the Patroons' Club?"

"I'm not telling you that. That would be a question for the Admissions Committee. But I am certainly telling you that I should be glad to write you a letter of endorsement."

Cranberry snickered at this, frankly uncivil. "Oh, I know that dodge! 'Dear Board of Admissions: I promised Mr. Silas Cranberry that I would write a letter for him. This is the letter.'"

Dexter tried not to look too exultant. "I cannot conceive, sir, what there may have been in our past relations to justify your impugning my honor. If I were to write for you, it would be to endorse your candidacy heartily. After what you've just said, of course, there can be no further question of that."

He turned to stride away, but just slowly enough to allow his host to catch him by the sleeve.

"Don't take offense, Fairchild. I was too hasty."

"I'm afraid you were."

"Maybe one day I'll ask you for that letter. In the meantime, thank you. God knows, Jules Bleeker doesn't mean a tinker's damn to me. He's probably a horse's ass, anyhow. When do you want his head?"

By five o'clock Dexter had penetrated the world of the chocolate brownstone and was ascending the high stoop that led to the porticoed entrance and fine mahogany double doors of the Rutgers Van Rensselaers. These opened before him without need of a bell, and he gave a friendly New Year's greeting to the old butler who welcomed him. Lily Van Rensselaer, larger and more stately than her sister Rosalie, stepped out of the receiving line to take him to a corner for a private word.

"Annie's here," she said in a low voice. "That man Bleeker called, though I left strict orders he was not to be admitted. He refused to take a 'no' from a servant, and Rutgers had to go to the door to speak to him. There were raised voices. It was very awkward."

"Lily, the worst is over. By next week nobody will have heard of Jules Bleeker."

And then he saw her. She was standing alone, in a black dress, at the far end of the room, looking directly at him. Without another word he crossed the floor to her.

"I come to report to Queen Guinevere," he announced with mock gravity. "My mission is accomplished."

Annie stared back at him with an air of equal sobriety. "You mean that the damsel in distress has been rescued?"

"Just so. A certain gentleman—if that is not too polite a term for him—is going to find New York a rather difficult place in which to earn a living."

Annie's brow was almost puckered in a frown, a rather arch one. Then she shrugged. "Was that what all the hubbub in the hall was about? Poor Juley! How brave you all are! And, now, having removed one pernicious influence from the damsel's life, are you prepared to supply her with another? For I don't suppose you intend to leave a defenseless damsel without a single pernicious influence?"

"I thought I should leave that task to Charley."

"My King Arthur? Some saint! But if I'm to be stuck with an Arthur, I must still have a Lancelot. Are you prepared to be my Lancelot, Dexter?"

"Lancelot's mission has just been accomplished."

"Lancelot's mission is just beginning!" Annie exclaimed sharply. Her tone was almost menacing. "Do you really think you can walk out on me now, Dexter Fairchild?"

He stared back at her, dazed. "What ... what are you suggesting?"

"Suggesting? I thought I was shouting it to the rooftops! As evidently a woman has to, in this new year of 1860! You have removed Juley from my life. Very well! I accept it! Isn't it up to you now to take his place?"

"Are you trying to tell me ... are you trying to tell me ... that you care for me? In
that
way?"

"Oh, Dexter, what a fool you are! The gentleman is supposed to take
some
lead in these matters."

But Dexter was still in his daze. "And what about ... Bleeker?"

"Do you think for a minute I'd have let you
touch
Juley if I'd really cared about him? You don't know me!"

He wanted to fall to his knees. "Annie, I adore you!" he murmured.

The next minute he heard her high, excited laugh, and she had left him. It was time to go home. Rosalie's reception would already be drawing to a close.

12

T
HE OFFICES
of Fairchild & Fairchild, at 57 Wall Street, occupied the second floor of a pleasant green three-story building that presented three white-shuttered windows to the street. Dexter's own chamber was hung with prints of English judges and contained, in neat stacks rising to the ceiling, the firm's small library. The heavy figure of Jules Bleeker moved slowly back and forth before the desk at which his unwilling host was motionlessly seated. The visitor spoke in a cold, speculative tone.

"My first impulse was to call you out, but I knew that would do no good. You burghers don't fight. Then I thought of coming to your office with a horsewhip. But that would have been playing into your hands. Your friends on the bench would have had me in jail for a year or more. And finally, thinking it over, I began to cool off. I began to be even interested in what had happened to me. What sort of a man are you, Fairchild? Or are you a man at all?"

"What I am need not concern you."

"Oh, but it does concern me. I find myself without a job and without a friend in a city of locked front doors. How the hell did you do it? And why? You're not her husband. You're not even a blood relation." Here Bleeker paused to stare at his adversary. "It couldn't be that you're in love with her yourself?" He shook his head slowly as Dexter failed to move a muscle. "No, that would be impossible for a snowman like you."

"You have lived too much abroad. You can't be expected to understand the motives of a simple American gentleman."

"Maybe you're not a snowman, after all. Be frank, Fairchild. If you did it out of jealousy, I'd forgive you. I might even shake your hand!"

Dexter rose, to terminate the interview. "We could talk all night and never understand each other. What's the use of it?" He paused briefly. "There is, however, one more thing. If you are in possession of any letters from Mrs. Charles Fairchild, I should be willing to pay a good price for them."

Bleeker stared. "You think I'd
sell
them?" Then he laughed bitterly. "Oh, of course. The bounder is beaten, so he's supposed to crumple. Or, like Shylock, to renounce his faith. Only you have the wrong script, Fairchild. In mine, the villain turns on his prosecutor with a splendid defiance. You can take your proposition and cram it up the aperture—if indeed a snowman has one—in the nether part of your frozen body!"

BOOK: Watchfires
13.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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