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Authors: Louis Auchincloss

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BOOK: Watchfires
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"Shouldn't I go with you?" he asked.

"I'd rather you stayed with the boys. Besides, if Father is going out for dinner, I'd be expected to go in Jo's place."

"Will you like that?"

"Like it? I suppose it depends where we go. I certainly shan't like it if it's one of his pro-Southern friends. It's amazing how Father manages to keep in with everybody. But whoever it is, I suppose I can be a good girl and hold my tongue."

But would she with her husband's friends? It was much less sure. Dexter took a sudden gulp of black coffee to fight off the nagging reminder of Rosalie's discontent, but it was no use. Rosalie was not happy. She had not married the sort of man she thought she ought to have married. It was not that she ever complained. Whatever she had done, she had done of her own free will, and she would stick to it. But it was not always agreeable to be a husband whom a wife was sticking to. No, no, he reminded himself impatiently; he was not being fair. He took another gulp of coffee and almost scalded his tongue. Rosalie still loved him. What was wrong with their marriage was that she didn't
want
to love him.

"I'm jealous!" he exclaimed suddenly. "I've always been jealous of your father. I'm telling myself that you're going to 417 because you want to go there. Because you prefer it there! I know that's not true, but it's what I'm telling myself. That's my trouble."

Rosalie became inscrutable, as she always did when he took this petulant tone. "You're being silly. I'm perfectly happy in my home. And you know it."

"It's just what I
don't
know!"

"Ah, Dexter. Please."

"You basically wanted someone who would take you away from your father. By being a bigger man. You wanted a pirate. A rebel! And look what you got. A prim and proper New York attorney who passes the plate in Trinity to fool God so he won't see what goes on in Wall Street all week!"

"That's not how you see yourself at all," she retorted curtly. "You're just trying to convince yourself you're
not
that sort of man."

"And I really am? Is that it?"

"It's too early in the morning for this kind of talk. I'm perfectly satisfied with my life as it is, and so are you."

"You mean I'm too satisfied?"

Rosalie simply reached for the newspaper and declined to answer. But Dexter continued to be fussed. Somehow, he had failed her. That was why she came to breakfast in her dressing gown. It might be the beginning of a long deterioration. It might end with raids on the sherry decanter in his study. She had a loving, passionate nature that had shriveled in contact with his colder one. She had dreamed of a life larger than their petty routine existence in New York society. Perhaps she had been foolish even to have dreamed that Dexter Fairchild was going to give her such a life—if indeed she ever had. But he was still responsible because he had
known
that he wouldn't, and known that he wouldn't even if he could have! And why had he not warned her? Because he had wanted to marry Rosalie Handy, the daughter of Charles DeWitt Handy!

"Oh, my God, they really have hanged John Brown!" she exclaimed from behind the
Tribune.

"Did you think for a minute they wouldn't?"

No, no, now he was not being fair to himself. He had
loved
Rosalie; he loved her still. The only thing that he couldn't bear was the idea that she was aimless, that she had found no real goal in life. He wanted to put his arms around her, cross as she was, and hug her and tell her that she didn't look awful in that dressing gown. "Rosalie!" he wanted to cry. "What have I done to you? What are you doing to yourself?" But he held his tongue.

The boys were heard, the elder chasing his junior noisily down the stairway. When Selby reached the dining room, which was sanctuary, he pulled himself up short and walked with elaborate casualness to his place. Fred did likewise, but glowered at his escaped victim across the table. Bridey, the waitress, irked by their lateness, set their glasses of orange juice heavily down before them.

"Fred said I was a traitor to my country for being sorry that John Brown was hanged!" Selby complained to his mother. He was a fat, bright twelve, with long dank blond hair and staring green eyes. Fred, fifteen, was darker and thinner. It was probable that he might one day be handsome.

"And he called me a Southern pig!" Fred snarled.

"Boys, must you be always fighting?" Rosalie protested. "Where did you hear it, anyway? I've only just seen it in the paper."

"We heard the newsboy in the street," Fred explained. He faced his father. "Wasn't it simple justice? He was a rebel, wasn't he?"

"Of course he was a rebel." Dexter turned to his younger son. "He took up arms against the government, Selby. Some of his men were killed. That makes it murder as well as treason."

"But that doesn't mean that Selby can't be sorry!" Rosalie exclaimed, flaring. "I too am sorry. I think every decent-minded man and woman must be sorry. Brown was expressing his outrage at intolerable injustice. He may have gone too far, but some of our early Christian martyrs went pretty far, too!"

"I have a friend at school who has an uncle in the Underground Railroad," Selby offered, sensing his immunity in the division between his parents. "Don't you think that's brave?" There was a silence around the table. "Well, I think it's brave!"

"Your friend's uncle had better watch out," Fred sneered. "He'll find himself being brave in jail one of these days. Runaway slaves are private property, and the law says they've got to be returned to their owners. Isn't that so, Dad?"

"That is so, Fred."

"Oh, Dexter, is that the sort of law you're teaching the boys?"

"It isn't a sort of law, my dear. It's
the
law. Don't blame me, I didn't make it. Blame the United States Supreme Court if you want."

"I
do
want. That court was packed by pro-slavery presidents."

"It's still the Supreme Court. And its law is still the law of the land."

"What about God's law?" Rosalie exclaimed fervently. "Surely it's not God's law. that one man can own another? And sell him and beat him!"

"There are a great many Christians living south of the Mason-Dixon line who would dispute that."

"And I would dispute that they're Christians! I would say that their society is rotten to the very core!"

"But didn't we consent to slavery, Dad?" Fred demanded.

"Never!" his mother cried fiercely.

Dexter raised a hand in mild protest. "I'm afraid Fred is right, dear. We have to face facts. Slavery was the price we paid for our union. We wrote it, by implication anyway, into the Constitution. You can argue that we paid too heavy a price for union, but we paid it, and with our eyes open. How can we go back on our word now?"

"Oh, Dexter, there you go again with your sacred union! Why not let the slave states go? Certainly I don't wish to be associated with them. Why can't we simply say, 'Sorry, we thought we could stand the stench of your "peculiar institution," and we've tried, but we find it's too much for our nostrils! So can't we agree to disagree? Let us part company in peace.' And
then
we'd see how long they could stand alone as the only nation in western civilization that permits such barbarities!"

Dexter had become very grave during this speech. "I'm sorry, my dear. I cannot allow disunion to be advocated in my house. The federal principle is more important to me than any question of slavery. Whatever our destiny, North or South, it must be an American one. And that is a principle, boys, for which I should willingly lay down my life!"

He knew that he risked seeming pompous and stagy, but it had to be worth it. Both boys remained silent, fixing their eyes, whether in awe or embarrassment, on the surface of the table. Rosalie said nothing and gave no indication of dissent, as was her custom when he took this tone with the family, but it was perfectly clear that her concession could go no further than that.

The short rest of breakfast passed in the same silence. Rosalie and Dexter read the newspaper, and the boys departed for school. Their father was about to rise to leave for his daily walk to Wall Street when Bridey hurried in with the unexpected news that Mr. Charles Fairchild was waiting to see him in his study.

2

"C
HARLEY
?" Rosalie asked in surprise. "Tell him to come in here."

"Please, mum, he said he wanted to see Mr. Fairchild alone."

"I hope there's no trouble with Annie or little Kate!"

"I'll let you know at once if there is," Dexter assured her.

He found Charley pacing up and down in his study, obviously in great agitation. Charley was Dexter's first cousin, as well as Rosalie's brother-in-law; he was also a junior partner in the family law firm. Having lost his father early, he had grown up to look upon Dexter, although only six years his senior, as a kind of guardian. Charley was handsome and blond, with soft blue eyes and curly hair, and, when he was not drinking, he seemed younger than his thirty-four years. But his marriage with the beautiful Annie Handy, promoted by Dexter, had not worked out as the guardian had hoped. Annie was spoiled and easily bored, and Charley seemed to be becoming dependent on parties and drinking.

"Will you read that!" he exclaimed shrilly, throwing a piece of note paper at Dexter. "Will you just kindly read
that!
"

"What is it?"

"Read it! It came by hand for Annie last night. The writer obviously didn't know she'd gone to her father's. I opened it, thinking it might be something important. It was. But not the kind of something important that a husband can handle. Except by kicking his wife's ass the hell out of his home!"

Dexter put the letter down at once and stared coldly at Charley's flushed countenance. "I can imagine nothing that would justify such disgusting language about your wife."

"Well, read the letter, damn it! Judge for yourself."

Dexter continued to eye his cousin fixedly for a moment and then, slowly, took up the letter. He read the following in a flowing, thick script, not devoid of a certain showy distinction:

Darling, what can you mean? You're not going back on your word? If I can't believe in you, what can I believe in? Tell me you're true! Your faithful, tortured Juley.

Dexter's left hand crept slowly up to his heart. Then, seeing Charley's red eyes fixed on him, he drummed on his chest with his fingers as if he were simply preoccupied. But there was an ugly pain there, and he swallowed hard.

"Juley?"

"Jules Bleeker. You know, the journalist? The one who writes society pieces for the
Observer?
"

When Dexter at last found his voice it was to exclaim, "But that man's the most obvious kind of bounder! We met him at the Van Rensselaers'. He's not even a poor excuse for a gentleman. I told Lily she was going too far."

"Oh, he gets around. Society has no standards anymore. People just want to be amused. And Bleeker, I suppose, can be amusing when he wants to be. I couldn't take the man seriously at first. When Lily's fat old mother-in-law tucked her lorgnette into her big bosom, he actually leaned over and murmured, 'Happy lorgnette!' He and Annie were always giggling together in corners. I never dreamed there was anything serious between them. He looked too much like a ladies' man to
he
a ladies' man, if you know what I mean. Big and dark and slinky-eyed."

Dexter shuddered. He brought back the image of Bleeker with an effort. Oh, yes, he remembered the man! Bleeker had even rather made up to him. He was intelligent, certainly, and curious, and polite, too polite. He was somehow soft as well as crude, with the affectations of a dandy and the build of a bull.

"And you deduce from this...?" Here Dexter dropped the note on his desk as if it were something alive and venomous. "You deduce from this florid epistle that Annie has actually...?"

"Fallen?" Charley finished with a sneer. "No, I don't go that far, though it's not her morals that would have stopped her. I just don't think they've gotten to that point yet. She's a terrible little prick teaser. She may have given him an assignation and then reneged. But the second time she may be more accommodating."

"And what are you proposing to do about it? What have you come to me for?"

"I want you to act as my lawyer. I want an instant and final separation!"

"Charley, don't be an ass! One doesn't break up a marriage over a thing like this. Marriage is a sacrament. Do I have to remind you that you have a little daughter?"

"Remind Annie, I suggest."

"I will! And, of course, there can be no idea of my acting as your lawyer against Rosalie's sister. Entirely aside from my own affection for Annie."

"You were always soft on her," Charley retorted peevishly. "But you don't know her, Dexter. You think of her as a sweet, innocent thing."

"She was when she married you!"

"And do you know something about that?" Charley started charging up and down the carpet even more furiously. "We make a great mistake, bringing up girls as we do. We shield them from the world, but we don't shield them from their own filthy fantasies. It would be better to tell them what sex is about than to leave it to their imaginations. It makes things too hard for the poor bridegroom. He suddenly discovers he's got to be everything an ignorant girl has concocted out of dirty talk behind locked doors. Give me a professional from Mercer Street any night in the week! At least she knows what a man
is.
But these innocent debutantes! They smile and simper behind their fans. They blush crimson at the least impropriety. And then—bango—after a big society wedding, which hasn't tired them in the least little bit, they turn into fiends. 'All right, big boy! Show me life!'"

Dexter, during this harangue, was almost beside himself. He remembered Charley's wedding, only six years before, at Trinity, and Annie, dark, pale and beautiful, on the arm of her splendid old father. Now he couldn't avoid the horrid vision of her stripping off her veil and dress and pursuing, half-naked, her half-tipsy bridegroom about the nuptial chamber. At that moment he actually hated Charley. With a shudder he drew a hand over his eyes. Hated Charley?

BOOK: Watchfires
2.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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