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Authors: Louis Auchincloss

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Watchfires (3 page)

BOOK: Watchfires
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"Let us get back to the point."

"By all means. I want a separation. If you won't get it for me, I'll go to someone else."

"Do you wish to advertise your shame to all New York?" Dexter cried sharply. "Do you wish to proclaim the fact that you couldn't satisfy your bride? For that's what everyone will say. Make no mistake about it, Charley!"

He saw that his point had hit home. As Charley turned away with a muffled "Damn you, Dexter!" he followed up his advantage. "A husband always comes out badly in these cases. Especially when he's been married only a few years. Annie has no reputation for philandering. People will say she must have had some cause..."

"Oh, everyone knows you've always had a thing about Annie!" Charley interrupted brusquely. "You should hear Rosalie on
that
subject."

"I have cherished and respected her as my sister-in-law and as the wife of my partner and cousin. I don't know what you imply beyond that. And I certainly conceive it to be my bounden duty to stand behind any member of the family who is resisting, and not advocating, a rift in the marriage bond. I think you will find both the Fairchilds and the Handys united against you in this."

"Despite that letter?"

"It is a letter
to
Annie, may I remind you? It is not a letter from her. If you can produce such an epistle penned by her hand ... well, then, I'll listen to you."

"She's much too cunning for that."

"Charley, you malign her! I'll wager anything you like there was nothing more between them than a silly flirt which this bounder is trying to take advantage of."

Dexter observed Charley closely as he made this last remark. Could it be disappointment that he made out in that pouting countenance? Was it possible that Charley, nostalgic for the freedom of bachelor days, had been ready to pounce on any excuse for a rupture? And that he now resented the preceptor figure of his older cousin who was, as always, intervening between him and his pleasures? The idea only confirmed Dexter in his resolution.

"I'll tell you what, Charley. Leave this thing to me. I'll send this letter over to Annie at her father's this morning with a note explaining how I happened to get hold of it. I shall also propose that I go there this afternoon to discuss the steps to be taken to put Mr. Bleeker in his place."

"Which is where?"

"Anywhere that he will not see Annie or bother you again. Don't worry. There are ways and means of handling cads like Bleeker."

"Suppose she refuses to give him up?"

"Give him up? Don't be ridiculous, Charley. She hasn't got him."

Charley at this muttered something about being treated like a child, and then strode abruptly out of the room. Still, he left the letter behind. Dexter looked at it balefully for a moment but did not touch it. Then he sat down to write his note to Annie.

3

W
HEN
D
EXTER
had been sixteen, an event had occurred that was to darken his life. His father, the Reverend Alexander Fairchild, rector of Saint Andrew's Church in Gramercy Park and, after the rector of Trinity, the most esteemed and influential Episcopal priest in the city, a preacher famed for his silver tongue and acclaimed for his charity and largeness of heart, had abandoned his wife and parish, his young son and daughter, his many relations and multitudinous friends, and decamped for the south of Italy on board the S.S.
Persia
in the company of Mrs. John Pettit, the neither strikingly young nor strikingly pretty wife of his oldest friend. New York and Brooklyn had shuddered with the shock at first, then cried to the heavens and, ultimately, chuckled. But something died in the heart of young Dexter that never quite came to life again.

His father, whom he was never more to see, he had simply worshipped. He had dreamed of following his example and of taking holy orders after graduating from Columbia. But now he turned away resolutely from all thoughts of an ecclesiastical career. He considered himself disqualified, contaminated. He knew that his reasons were emotional and not logical. He was bound to bear the stain quietly in his heart and to make his life a long reparation. He chose the law for his profession, as he was determined to preserve, and to help others preserve, what his father had broken. If he could not act within the church, he would act outside it.

His mother, a brisk, kindly woman of the world, took full advantage of the sympathy meted out by her rich friends and neighbors to secure favors for her little family without ever losing sight of the truth that if she allowed herself to become too much an object of pity she would become also an object of contempt. She was scrupulously careful to dress well and to live decently by judicious expenditure of her small means and by making herself useful to the leaders of Manhattan society. It was soon known that Millie Fairchild could be depended on to read to an old grandfather, chaperone a visiting niece, preside at a mission meeting, enliven a dull party or fill a box at the Academy of Music for the dullest opera. If her heart was broken, nobody was ever going to hear the jangling of the pieces. Dexter learned from her the quagmire danger of self-pity and the vital importance of concealing ill temper. He learned that it was more essential to be punctual and cheerful than to be witty or profound, and that society would not permit an impecunious young man even the appearance of dejection.

His sister Jane conned her lesson with a difference. She made what both her mother and brother considered the basic error of becoming a cynic. She decided that society cared for nothing but money and looks and that it should be her concern to be beautiful and marry a fortune. Dexter and Mrs. Fairchild never lost their faith in the fundamental good will of the small world they cultivated. Indeed, they'regarded it as "vulgar" to lose faith. When Jane, who was two years older than Dexter, argued that the hollowness of the social world was manifest in the timidity of the more eligible bachelors towards her, that there could be neither valor nor truth in a community whose strong young men were put off by the mere sniff of a bygone scandal, Mrs. Fairchild would counter roundly that it was not the scandal that put them off so much as Jane's unladylike openness of speech and boldness of manner. And when Jane purported to solve her problems by marrying David Ullman, a rich, middle-aged Jewish banker who collected exotic art and anti-Semitic friends, her mother considered her daughter a failure, but, in her usual fashion, made the best of it. The Ullmans were not seen at the Peter Rhinelanders' or at the Peter Jays', but they were included in Lily Van Rensselaer's New Year's Day. As Mrs. Fairchild put it sourly, they were firmly attached—to the fringe.

Dexter, taking a different course, found his content, and ultimately a kind of happiness, in the study and practice of law. He subscribed fervently to the platonic theory of his Columbia dean: that judges "found" law by a kind of mystic deduction; that the principles of our jurisprudence resembled their divine counterparts as the earthly shapes of natural things resembled their ideal forms in eternity. Thus it had to be possible for each succeeding generation of lawyers to come closer to the absolute truth of an ideal system of law and equity. Feeling this almost made up to him for the memory of the priestly robe that he had missed, and he came in time to believe that if he should end his career on the bench, it might be almost as good for himself and his fellow mortals as if he had become their bishop.

After taking his degree he joined the firm of his uncle, a brother of the former rector, and made himself an expert in wills and trusts. When the elder Fairchild died, only five years later, Dexter was already prepared to succeed to his practice, and he repaid some of his debt to his uncle by training the latter's son, Charley, and by taking him in as a partner to the small but now prosperous Wall Street firm of Fairchild & Fairchild. At the age of only twenty-five, Dexter felt that he had every right to consider himself firmly launched on the road to success.

His profession might occupy half, or even three-quarters of his life, but no more. Dexter was determined that his marriage should replace in the eyes of New York society the image of his father's shattered one. His choice of just the right bride would be made equally by heart and head. He had no desire to repeat the vulgar error of his sister, who had married for money alone; beauty, character, social position, health and fortune were all factors to be considered. Happily there were plenty of young women in his world to meet all these qualifications. As Dexter's mother used to say, why have second-class friends when it's just as easy to have first?

He was far too wise, however, to discuss his criteria for selecting a mate with others, even with his mother. He knew how quickly a young man could get the reputation of being calculating. Society expected its youth to be romantic, even if it deplored their acting romantically. The thing to do was to keep one's own counsel and
look
Byronic. Dexter rather fancied that he had a touch of the corsair in his brow and chin and fixed stare. If that made him an ass, well, what did it matter so long as he shut up about it? New York, no doubt, was full of asinine young men who considered themselves Byronic.

As marriage was to make him whole, it seemed logical to start his quest by filling the gap left in his life by his father, and what New York gentleman would make a better father-in-law than Charles Handy? Certainly few men were as much admired. Large, affable, venerable, he constituted a sort of unofficial host for distinguished visitors to the town. He encouraged the arts; he encouraged religion; he encouraged new business; he seemed to be always waving benevolent arms over the urban commotion below him. Without any elected position or published work, without even very great wealth, he yet wielded an astonishing influence. Dexter's mother used to say that Charles Handy was living proof that any man could be accepted at his own valuation.

Handy, a widower in his late fifties, had four daughters, one of whom, Rosalie, was of the appropriate age, even perhaps slightly over it. She was twenty-four. To Dexter, however, after careful observation, she seemed just right. If she was a trifle on the large side, there yet radiated from her creamy skin and china-blue eyes an air of health and vigor that promised to make her a good mother and a responsive sexual partner. If she was reputed to have a touch more than her share of temper and will power, would not love and children soften this? Many men had been fooled by this argument, no doubt, but many had not. A man had to take some chances.

He knew, moreover, that he would have more than a fair chance of acceptance. It was common gossip that Rosalie had lost her heart to a handsome and penniless adventurer who had ditched her at the last moment to make a richer marriage in England. She was supposed to have recovered from this misfortune, but it was still evident that she was restless at home, where her older sister Joanna presided over her father's rather stately household, and it might be presumed that even a Miss Handy, at her age, was beginning to worry about becoming an old maid. Look at Joanna, after all! But what gave Dexter his strongest encouragement was Rosalie's partiality for himself. She used to josh him about being conventional and stuffy, as girls of conventional and stuffy backgrounds always did, but he was nonetheless sure that she was attracted to him, and this, in his category of points, was the greatest of all in her favor.

For Dexter, despite all his calculations, was perfectly aware that he yearned for love. Everything in his heart was ready to beat with excitement the moment the choice should be made, and in the spring of 1843, just six months after his twenty-fifth birthday, he made it, and opened his campaign. He made his first move at one of Miss Joanna Handy's Sunday afternoon "at homes" at her father's Italianate brown box of a house on the corner of Great Jones Street and Broadway. After greeting his hostess and her distinguished sire he proceeded, with unconcealed directness of purpose, to take his place in the little group gathered around Rosalie in the conservatory. But instead of joining in the conversation he simply watched her intently. After some ten minutes of this she got up and asked him to follow her. In a corner, under a palm in a massive jardinière, she turned.

"Why do you stare at me like that, Mr. Fairchild?"

"Because I admire what I see before me, Miss Handy."

"Are you making love to me?"

"If you will allow it."

"Then you must do so in such a way that others will not notice. I do not like to be embarrassed in public."

"I promise that my conduct shall be exemplary. On one condition."

"Condition? You presume to set conditions?"

"One prayer, then."

"Let me hear it."

"That you agree to see me alone sometimes."

"Alone! Mr. Fairchild! You forget yourself."

"Oh, I mean only like this. Where we can talk without others hearing."

"But I should grant so simple a privilege to any gentleman on my father's visiting list!"

"Then that is all I ask."

Dexter, walking home that evening, felt elated. He knew that he had made a good start, although he perfectly understood that Rosalie did not consider him any sort of hero. Like so many of her contemporaries, nurtured in sentimentality, she was looking for Lancelot in every young lawyer or banker who made his appearance in her father's parlor. It was only to be expected that she should resist the fate that would fashion her future out of the materials of her past. She would find soon enough that there were no Lancelots. Not for Rosalie Handys anyway!

He even debated the wisdom of skipping his visit the following Sunday, to make her miss him, perhaps even to make her jealous. But on a careful review of his situation, he decided that he needed no such tricks. And, as soon as he next entered Mr. Handy's parlor, he saw he had done the right thing. Rosalie came across the room to greet him and led him to the potted palm in the conservatory where two chairs, placed conveniently for conversation, invited a tête-à-tête.

"Jo tells me that you teach a Sunday school for poor boys!" she began enthusiastically. "I had no idea you did that kind of thing."

BOOK: Watchfires
5.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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