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Authors: Louis Auchincloss

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Watchfires (26 page)

BOOK: Watchfires
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"You weren't always so down on Radical Republicans, Rosalie. Not in the days when we used to call them abolitionists."

Rosalie glanced up sharply. "That was before they were trying to tear up the Constitution!"

"But I thought you were against the Constitution. You used to say it tolerated slavery."

"I should know better than to get in a legal argument with you, Dexter. But very well. I amend my statement. It was before they were trying to pull down the government! Men like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens think the President should be their flunkey."

Fred rejoined the discussion at this. "How is it, Ma, that you are now so against negro sympathizers?"

"Because they're
negro sympathizers!" Rosalie's voice rose to near shrillness. "They want to drag poor illiterate blacks from every pig farm in the South to make them state senators! And why? To help the black man? Not on your life. They want to punish the old planters! It's all hate of white men for white men, the way it was before the war. Stevens doesn't care if he starts a race war in the South. If the whites are all killed, he has his revenge. And if the blacks are all killed, he's solved

"I don't see how you can say that Stevens doesn't care for the black man," Dexter interposed. "He has made public his wish to be buried in a negro graveyard."

"And that's the only place he'll ever meet one!" Rosalie retorted.

"Happy New Year, everybody!"

Dexter's eyes softened as he smiled to welcome the moderating influence of his younger son in the doorway. Selby liked to affect the amiable appearance of the artist he had not yet quite become. He wore a purple velvet jacket and a white shirt with lace ruffles. He looked like nobody else in the family, except that his round, clear, rather fleshy face seemed a faint caricature of his grandfather Handy's, and the constant smile in his wide, staring blue-green eyes might almost have been a mockery of his mother's worried gleam. His hair was blond and straight and would have been more appropriate to his brother Fred's serious brow, as the latter's chestnut curls would have better suited the would-be painter.

"How nice that none of you has to work today!" Selby continued, taking a seat and helping himself to a muffin. "I wish
had a job so I could have a holiday. What are all your New Year's resolutions? I suppose, Dad, you have vowed to eat a rebel general
for dinner every night until January 1, 1869. And Mamma has resolved to have women in pants by the same date. And Fred—what about Fred? But of course! He has sworn to make his first million in time for the announcement of his engagement to a certain grand-niece of a certain railroad magnate!"

Fred glowered at his younger brother, while both parents beamed. "As long as we're predicting the impossible, how about this one?" He raised his coffee cup in a mock toast. "I drink to the first job of Selby Fairchild!"

"You're always sneering at me, Fred. Why don't you get me a job?"

"Are you serious?"

"Perfectly serious."

"What about
Lucrezia Borgia Presiding at the College of Cardinals in the Absence of Alexander VI?

"That immortal masterpiece was torn to pieces last night on the stroke of midnight!"

"Oh, darling, no!" Rosalie cried.

"Selby! Why?" Dexter demanded.

"I had a New Year's Eve party in my studio, Dad. For three painters whose work I thoroughly admire. One was your young Newport friend, La Farge. We had a good deal of champagne, enough, anyway, to ensure the Veritas in the vino. Then I made each of them solemnly pledge to tell me the truth about the painting I was about to show them. I warned them that it would be cruel to allow a young man who had already invested two years in art to pursue it further if he had no real talent. I swore that I was in no danger of suicide or even depression. I pointed out that I had other aptitudes and other opportunities. That if I were to get started in a trade it was high time I did so. All three vowed to be honest. I then pulled the sheet from Lucrezia."

Dexter listened intently. Since he had sent Selby to Paris, just after the war, to study art in the atelier of CarolusDuran, he had suffered from doubts as to the boy's capability. Rosalie and Fred knew nothing about painting, and they took opposite sides as to the desirability of having an artist in the family. Rosalie had reached the point, in her violent reaction to the world of her forebears, where she seemed to prefer any alternative to law and business, while Fred did not regard "daubing" as a fit occupation for a man. Dexter, on the other hand, cared deeply for art and for his own growing collection, but he suspected that Selby's talent was merely a "pretty" one, that it would be dedicated, if at all, to derivative and conventional art. And yet he could hardly bear the prospect of Selby's disillusionment. His younger son had too keen a mind and too fine a taste for the merciful anaesthesia of fatuity. Whatever Selby became, Selby would know.

"Joe Husted was the first to give his opinion," Selby continued. "He said that if I were willing to accept a place in the second or third rank of artists, I might live to make
money as
a portraitist and to give pleasure with historical scenes. Ted Bush was kinder. He thought there might be a future for me as a muralist in public buildings. But La Farge went straight to the point. In art, he said, there is no middle class. There is a small upper, and a large proletariat. 'You would never be happy among the latter, Selby,' he told me. 'My advice is give it up!' It was almost the new year. On the stroke of midnight I cut Lucrezia to ribbons with a carving knife. The other two were horrified, but La Farge, in true La Farge fashion, embraced me."

"I never liked him," Rosalie declared indignantly.

"But you can paint it again," Dexter insisted. "Better than ever."

Selby smiled at his father, as if he knew just what he was thinking. It was of the essence of Selby's kindness never to oblige anyone to express a thought that would cause pain to him who uttered it or to him who heard. "But it's just what I'm not going to do," he insisted. "I'm going to give up painting. Why do you all look so blue? Even you, Fred. Come now! I can always go back to it. But doesn't it make sense that I should try something else for a while? Doesn't it, Dad?"

"If you want to, my boy." Dexter was only afraid that there might be tears in his eyes.

"Well, there we are! Pour me some coffee, Ma. And now, Fred, what about that job you were talking about? Have you got one for me? Do you think I could sell stocks and bonds?"

"As a matter of fact, I think I
have a job for you. Just the kind of thing, too, that you could do to perfection. Mr. Bristow was talking only yesterday about sending someone as a passenger—or at least to look like a passenger—over all the Erie lines. His job would be to keep a sharp eye open for defective material, sloppy service, inaccurate timetables, anything to build up our position that the directors are looting the railroad. It's not a question of fact. We have that. It's a question of proof. We want to be able to go to the public, or the legislature if necessary, and explain why it is essential that Central control the line. An elegant gentleman like yourself would make the perfect spy!"

"And I can see the world at the same time!" Selby exclaimed with enthusiasm. "I've always loved travel."

"Well, you'll see New York State, anyway."

"Something Manhattanites rarely do. I'm your man, Fred! If you think you can sell me to Mr. Bristow."

"But, Fred, you just finished telling us how badly the Erie is run!" Rosalie protested indignantly. "And now you propose to risk your brother's life on rotten rails and creaking cars!"

"I'm not asking him to take any risk the general public isn't taking, Ma."

"Why should the poor boy take

"Now, Mummie, don't embarrass me!" Selby leaned down the table to give her hand a pat. "After all, I was too young to fight in the war." He turned to wink at his father. "This may be my chance to be a soldier at last. A soldier for Central!"

Selby could always handle his mother, and Rosalie, having finished her two morning sips of coffee, nodded, satisfied, and rose to go to her association's headquarters across the square.

"Give Father my love," she admonished Dexter as she left the room. "And tell Jo I'll go over the list with her tomorrow. She'll know what I mean. But don't tell her in front of Father."

It was not considered necessary to keep Mr. Handy instructed of his daughters' work in behalf of votes for negroes—and women.

Fred followed his mother, muttering something about its not being too cold for a ride in Central Park and promising Selby that he would speak to Mr. Bristow that afternoon. Dexter welcomed the immediate drop in tension in the room as his wife and oldest son departed.

"I think I can get you a better job than Fred's," he suggested.

"Oh, but I like the idea of his!"

"Why should you do anything? Why shouldn't you take your time for a little rest and what the French call

Selby laughed cheerfully. "Don't you think I've had enough of that? Two years of
I can't kid
Pa. You know as well as I do that all that time in Paris wasn't devoted to hard work. And even here in my studio I've spent half my day reading novels. No, it's high time there was a little discipline in my life. And, all joking aside, I was half serious about what I said about the war. I
a kind of thing about being the only member of the family who did nothing in it."

"But you were a child!"

"Oh, I'm not saying it was my fault. Or that taking a job with a shifty old sharper like Bristow is any kind of a substitute. It's just that I have a bit of a sideline feeling that needs balancing. Maybe it's time I started to be something besides the son of Dexter Fairchild, the great Sanitary Commissioner who bossed Lincoln and Grant around and who had the eye to pick up the first painting of Jimmy Whistler's in New York..."

"Selby! Cut it out!"

"Or of Rosalie Fairchild, the Florence Nightingale of the Chesapeake. Or the brother of Fred, the hero of the Wilderness!"

"But how many people do we know who can paint well enough to get even the compliments you despise? How many have heard of a painter called Whistler?"

"And how many care?"

do. And anyway, it was you who called my attention to
The Rialto in Moonlight.
It was you who kept me from buying that Cabanel and gave me the idea of keeping the collection wholly American. And what was the use of all the slaughter and horror of the war if it wasn't to make a world where young men like yourself could create beautiful things? Or even simply appreciate beautiful things?"

"Dad! Is that

"I know it sounds like drivel, coming from a hard-bitten old Wall Street lawy er. Dexter paused and stared down at the table until the lump in his throat dissolved. It suddenly seemed to him that any failure in Fred's career on the stock market, or in Rosalie's causes, or even in the orderly return to the union of the rebel states, would be as nothing compared to the prospect of pain and bitterness in the round face of this mildly overweight young man. For Selby was so much nicer than the world he lived in. "I've fussed all my life about doing my duty. And now it sometimes seems to me that my life has contained nothing better than the pictures in this room."

"Well, they're very fine. You've always had an eye."

"Somebody else once told me that. In this very room, too. A man I hated. Now I wonder if he was quite as bad as I thought. Anyway, I wonder if the pleasure I get from these paintings may not be just as big a thing as anything I did for soldiers in the war. As important a thing. Is that what I mean? That passive things rank with active things? Or maybe that there are no passive things. That receiving and giving are the same."

"You don't really believe that, Dad!"

"Maybe I just believe it for you, my boy. Maybe that's it. Don't go to work for Bristow!"

Selby laughed at the sudden anguish in his father's tone, but he also came over to put an arm around the paternal shoulders. It was his way of telling him that he had made up his mind. He had given up painting for good.


up Fifth Avenue to Number 417, late in the afternoon of the same day, after making four New Year's Day calls, Dexter felt his ego, so deflated in the morning family conclave, almost restored to its usual buoyancy. He had learned not to blush at the flutterings of his own conceit, so long as he kept them in his private domain. It was undeniably agreeable to receive the flattering attentions of the social world, to note the half-step a hostess would make from the receiving line on seeing him and hear her "Ah, dear Dexter, we
honored!" And then, as had just happened at the Rutgers Van Rensselaers', to overhear a man murmur to his wife, "Look, there's Mr. Fairchild!
gave that big dinner for General Grant at the Patroons' last fall."

At the end of the long gallery, standing in the midst of a respectful group of gentlemen, Mr. Handy greeted him with a beckoning wave.

"There you are at last, my dear Dexter! We were just speaking of you. Come and give us your opinion about the impeachment."

Mr. Handy, at eighty-two, was a trifle stouter, a trifle whiter, a good bit more forgetful, but he still exuded the same ebullient, almost aggressive hospitality. Dexter noted among the group around his father-in-law, David Ullman, Charley Fairchild, Nicolas King and the marble features and large stern nose of William Maxwell Evarts. He was a bit dashed by the great lawyer's presence. His "genius" was rebuked by Evarts', he liked to imagine, as Antony's had been by Octavius'.

"What should be our first toast of the year?" Mr. Handy pursued, without waiting for his unneeded answer. He raised a cut-crystal champagne glass. "To President Wade?"

But this was going a bit far, even for a group so staunchly Republican. Old Mr. King coughed; Charley Fairchild smirked; Mr. Evarts looked coldly away.

BOOK: Watchfires
8.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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