Read Watchfires Online

Authors: Louis Auchincloss

Tags: #General Fiction

Watchfires (4 page)

BOOK: Watchfires
11.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

"Yes, I've been teaching for six or seven years now."

"But that's wonderful!"

"Why wonderful?"

"Oh, because I was afraid you were concerned only with Wall Street and making money. Like so many of our men friends. With no concern for the less privileged."

"My boys are certainly among the less privileged. I've learned to take nothing for granted with them. I don't even assume they know about Adam and Eve. Or Noah's Ark."

"Is that what you teach them? The Bible?"

"Well, I figure they might as well get something out of the school. Even if they turn out to be atheists, there's always a value in knowing your Bible. Think of all the references..."

"So you hedge your bets with God!" she interrupted in a sudden change of mood. "If he doesn't exist, there may still be an advantage in knowing his myths? Oh, yes, let's not waste a thing!"

"What would
you
teach them?"

"Something about ethics. Whether it's ever justified to tell a lie. Or to steal. How you reconcile the commandment against killing with war.
If
you can. And slavery. What about slavery? Isn't that the great moral issue of our time?"

"I don't want to get into controversies with them. Who was allowed in the Ark and who wasn't is about as far as I care to go."

"You're like Pontius Pilate. You ask for a basin and wash your hands!"

Dexter burst into a cheerful laugh. "Don't you think, Miss Handy, that you're being just a bit rough on the poor Sunday school teacher? Blaming him for the Crucifixion because he teaches the Bible?"

She became angry with him then, and again on other visits, but it was always evident that she enjoyed being angry with him. Their discussions were vivid, even heated. They argued about the position of women, the return of fugitive slaves, the wisdom of capital punishment, and invariably disagreed. But he was careful not to strike again the sentimental note for which he was reasonably sure she was waiting. There would have to be a concession, however slight, on her part first. Soon enough it came.

"I want to come to your law office," she told him one afternoon. "I want to consult you as a client. It will be all perfectly formal. I shall expect, of course, to pay your fee."

Without demurring in the least to her stated expectation, he made an appointment for the following day. When she appeared in his office, punctually on the hour, he enjoyed a novel sense of superiority. From her quick, shy glances at his sets of law reporters and at the sober lithographs of English judges, he took in that she was suddenly ill at ease. She was no longer Miss Handy in her father's formal parlor. She was a girl in a man's office, a seeker of advice, an amateur before a professional. She related her little problem diffidently, almost apologetically; she was embarrassed, she said, to take up his time with so small a matter.

It was indeed not a great one. She had recently received in the mail a copy of the will of a deceased cousin who had left her a legacy of five hundred dollars. But the estate had turned out to be much smaller than the decedent could possibly have expected. Should she renounce the bequest?

"What does your father think?"

"Oh, Father can't abide the widow. He says she's a hopeless spendthrift. He thinks I'd be an idiot not to take the money. But I am here because I want your advice, not his."

"Have you a copy of the will?" He took the document that she handed him and glanced quickly through it. "I see the widow takes the residue. If you renounce the legacy, she'll get it. Is that what you want? There appears to be a daughter."

"Exactly. And she's my friend. But she's only the widow's stepdaughter. The widow would do nothing for her."

"Then take the legacy and give it to the daughter."

"But she wouldn't take it! She's too proud!"

"Then give it to me. I'll write the daughter and tell her I represent a client whom her father helped out, years ago, and who wants to make restitution to a blood relative. We can make it a slightly different sum from your legacy, an odd one like $521, so you'll never be suspected."

She clapped her hands in surprise. "What a perfectly brilliant idea! Thank you! We'll do it."

Leaving his office she asked him what she owed him. He proposed instead that they go riding together on the morrow.

"If after what I shall then ask you, you still want to pay me, I'll name you a sum."

Their eyes met in what became a rather solemn stare. Then she simply nodded and left.

On their ride the next day along the East River bridle path, as far north as Hell Gate, he asked her to be his wife. She did not accept him, but neither did she say no. It was finally agreed that he should visit her that summer in Newport, so she might get to know him better.

***

Dexter was perfectly happy in his room at the Ocean House where he was staying, over an extended Fourth of July weekend, in deference to Rosalie's suggestion that it might be better if he were not her house guest. The traditional unease of the lover during the period in which his proposal was under consideration sprang from uncertainty as to the answer. As Dexter entertained no such doubts, he saw no reason that the periods when he was absent from his beloved should not be as pleasant as when he was with her. This equanimity was not due to any failure of his ardor. It was due to the failure of Rosalie's nerves. She, at least, was finding the period of decision a trying one.

He discovered that he loved everything in this new environment: the bright blue sky, the shiny green lawns, the mild sea breezes, the squawk of the gulls, the gaily painted, freshly preserved, fantastic summer villas. He loved the rocky coves and the vast, deserted, brown marshlands over which he could trudge for miles in the early morning without encountering a soul. He loved the cordial hospitality of his prospective father-in-law, who took him on tours of his new estate, Oaklawn, which occupied twelve fine acres at the beginning of Bellevue Avenue.

Mr. Handy was immensely proud of this new domain and relished personally supervising its continuing embellishment. A long, winding drive of soft red dirt made its picturesque way through noble lawns shaded by elm and beech, under a brown Gothic arch (a "folly"), past greenhouses and crenelated smaller buildings to the climax of the main residence. This was an asymmetrical structure of glazed chocolate-brown wood, with tiny bracketed windows in its mansard roof, two small round towers and a long, wandering wing. From every angle it presented a different countenance, almost a different style, which made it impossible to determine how large it was.

"Upjohn, of course, is primarily a man of churches," Mr. Handy informed his mutely gazing prospective son-in-law. "One can see in the upper windows a touch of the Gothic. But only a touch, mind you. I told him I wasn't going in for derivative architecture. No, sir. I want a truly American house!"

Dexter thought, indeed, that the building was not unlike its truly American owner. Its massed strength had a way of dissolving unexpectedly into fine if rather fussy detail, as Mr. Handy's sturdy build and square chin seemed to be mitigated by his mellifluous, almost honeyed tone and in the charming politeness of his gestures. It was a relief to Rosalie's lover, anyway, that her father remained so impersonal in his discourse. Mr. Handy purported to mark out a broad area where men could talk as men, and from which women, with their petulance and perennial discontent, were firmly barred.

Dexter had little doubt as to the source of Rosalie's tension. She could not yet bring herself to accept the fact that she had fallen in love with a man who believed that the New York and Newport of the Handys and Fairchilds was a world in which a man could happily and high-mindedly live—and who was not ashamed to say so. The only difference between youth and age in their society, as Dexter made it out, was that youth was supposed to profess discontent with the existing state of society and only to
talk
of change and social betterment. Age, on the other hand, was supposed to have learned to appreciate the status quo, so why not skip the pose of youth? In any case, Dexter was convinced that the way to win Rosalie was not to pretend to be something he wasn't—that would be the way of a weak man—but to oblige her to take him as he was.

What did, however, finally begin to irritate him was Rosalie's resentment of his enjoying any pleasure offered by Newport that was not directly attributable to herself. She regarded with a jealous eye, for example, his long talkative strolls with her father, his mock gallantries to the giggling Joanna, his serious concentration on the inane gossip of visiting old aunts. But what she more particularly objected to was his relish of Newport social life. He allowed himself to be almost openly discountenanced when he discovered that Rosalie had excluded him from what promised to be a delightful Sunday picnic on the beach because she wanted him to dine alone with her at the little guest cottage at Oaklawn.

But how could a true lover refuse? He had to mutter something that at least sounded like gratification. In the cottage with the tall, narrow, spire-like dormer their dinner was ready at three o'clock. Dexter was surprised to note that the best silver and china had been brought out and that a bottle of champagne protruded its neck from the cooler. Rosalie picked up the cover of one of the hot dishes and sniffed.

"It's duck," she said with a note of defiance. Although he had said nothing, he was still under strong suspicion of pining for the picnic. "I remembered that you liked it. And I thought it would be more fun if we served ourselves."

He saw now that he might enjoy being mollified. She had done all this, after all, to give him pleasure. "It smells fine," he admitted.

She seemed for the moment disposed to accept his gesture and busied herself serving the dishes. She even insisted on uncorking the champagne and laughed heartily when it fizzed over her blouse.

"You're not going to tell me that you cooked all this?" he asked with a wink.

"I supervised it, anyway. I stayed in the kitchen all the while it was being done. And I
could
have cooked it myself. I don't want to be one of those women who are the slaves of their servants."

"But you'll always have servants."

"Why do you say that?" The suspicion was back in her tone already.

"I thought girls who married successful lawyers didn't have to worry about such things."

"But I don't know that I'm going to marry a successful lawyer. I don't even know that I'm going to marry a lawyer."

He laughed at her earnestness. "Well, even if you don't marry anyone, I guess you'll still be all right."

"What makes you guess that?"

"Look, Rosalie," he retorted, with mild exasperation. "A man doesn't live like your father unless he has some kind of fortune. And who's he going to leave it to but his children?"

"Are you interested in my father's fortune?"

"Oh, for Pete's sake!"

"Are you, Dexter? I'd like to know."

"No! Not in the way you're thinking, anyway."

"In what way, then?"

Dexter felt, miserably, that he was making a mess of it. But why did she have to be so damned prickly? "I try to take an interest in the life of my city. What people do, how they live, what they talk about. I'm interested in their families, their houses, their politics, their parties. Even their fortunes. So there! I may write a book about New York some day."

"You mean about New York society?"

"Well, I'm not going to write a book about beggars and bums, if that's what you mean."

"You don't care about poor people, do you?" She stared at him intently. "I'm not criticizing you. Really. I'm interested, that's all."

"Of course you're criticizing me! You're trying to make me out a snob and a fortune hunter."

"I am not!" Tears suddenly filled her eyes. "You shouldn't say things like that, Dexter! I'm only trying to understand you. I want to know what sort of a man I'm thinking of marrying! I want to know the things you care about."

"I care about you."

"But what does that
mean?
"

"Oh, Rosalie, dearest, must you take everything so hard?" But she gave him no answer, and he sat in stupid silence, watching her lowered head, her shoulders shaking now in sobs. He knew that he ought to go over and put his arms around her to console her. Then the tears might subside, and everything would be all right. And yet he couldn't. He couldn't give in to her unfairness. If he did, wouldn't it be admitting that he was a different sort of man from what he was? And wouldn't that be a kind of suicide?

"All right, I'm being absurd," she confessed at last, wiping her eyes. "Let's not ruin our dinner. I'll pour you some more champagne."

"It's very good champagne," he said placatingly.

"Is it? I can't tell. But I suppose everything Father buys is good. They're only having white wine at the picnic, but he said
we
could have champagne. He even sent a little bottle to Mrs. Hill, our housekeeper. She's having her dinner at the big house, so we're not really alone."

"I had never imagined that the proprieties were being violated."

"They never are at Oaklawn!" Rosalie, in the volatile way of her sex, appeared suddenly to have recaptured her good spirits. "Oh, this
is
more fun than the picnic, isn't it, Dexter?" she almost pleaded. "You wouldn't really rather be talking to an old cow like Mrs. Coster, would you?"

"Of course not."

"What do you see in her anyway? She has false teeth and dyes her hair!"

"She's old, Rosalie."

"Old and false. Horribly false! I hope when I grow old, I won't fight it that way. I hope I'll leave my wrinkles and gray hairs as God made them!"

"Mrs. Coster is a personage. She knew Aaron Burr. She is supposed to have tried to make peace between him and Hamilton."

"Oh, stuff. I'll bet she egged them on."

"You have no right to say a thing like that!"

"Why not? What's she to you?"

"She's simply a lady that I admire. That I admire greatly."

Rosalie lifted her hands in disgust. "If you admire her so much, why don't you marry her?"

BOOK: Watchfires
11.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Pet-Sitting Peril by Willo Davis Roberts
Dream Called Time by Viehl, S. L.
The Reluctant Earl by C.J. Chase
High Treason by John Gilstrap
Enchanter by Joanne Wadsworth
Carter's Cuffs by Lacey Alexander
From Kiss to Queen by Janet Chapman