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Authors: Louis Auchincloss

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Watchfires (5 page)

BOOK: Watchfires
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"Because she's eighty years old."

"Is that the only reason?"

"Yes!"

But Rosalie's utter gravity rejected his joke. "Tell me the truth, Dexter. Would you rather be at the picnic with Mrs. Coster or here with me?"

"You insist on putting me in the wrong. Can't a man enjoy two things? Can't he enjoy going to a picnic with a distinguished old lady, a kind of chapter of history, really, and having dinner alone with you?"

"But you'd
prefer
the picnic. That's the point!"

"I would not!"

"Oh, yes, you would!"

"If you keep on this way, you'll end by persuading me I would! You're simply ruining the afternoon."

She jumped to her feet in a fury. "Oh, go to your old picnic! I mean it. Go! There's still time. Go and make love to your old hag!"

Dexter rose in protest, only to discover that he was trembling from head to foot with anger. There was something like exhilaration in his erupting defiance. "Very well! I will!"

He left her without another word, without even looking back, and sprang onto his horse, which was tethered on the road by the cottage. He galloped furiously all the way to the beach. When Mr. Handy spotted him walking towards his party across the rocks, he rose at once and went to meet him. Dexter related in stammering terms what had happened, and his host took him firmly by the elbow and guided him down the sand away from the chattering throng.

"Let us walk until you have recovered yourself, my boy. Then we can join the others. You will tell them that Rosalie has gone to bed with a sick headache, which is probably no more than the truth by now. And perhaps tomorrow you had better go back to New York. Women take time. There's no point rushing things. Rosalie will come around, never fear. I'll keep an eye on her."

"But you're so good to me, sir. Why?"

"Because, my dear fellow, I think you're the right man for my daughter. It's as simple as that!"

Dexter for a moment was mute with emotion. When he finally spoke it was only to blurt out, "She may not ask me back!"

"Does Rosalie own the Ocean House? May you not come to Newport when you please?"

***

Dexter took the hint. When he came up again, in only two weeks' time, he stayed, as before, at the Ocean House, He wrote to Rosalie to notify her of his arrival and got, as he had expected, no answer. She must have communicated his presence to her family, however, for he received a note from Joanna bidding him to dine at Oaklawn. When he arrived, he found no Rosalie. She was at her cousins', the Kings.

"Albert King is very attentive these days," Joanna whispered to him archly. "A little bird tells me that Rosalie's trying to make somebody jealous!"

Dexter made no comment. Albert King was a slight, pretty, elegant young man, a great favorite in Newport society. He was not at all the sort to be attracted to his larger, graver cousin, but was sufficiently good-natured to lend himself to any game she might wish to play. Certainly at the archery contest that drew all Newport to Mr. Handy's lawns the following afternoon, King attached himself closely to Rosalie, carrying her quiver and offering her advice on which arrow to use. Dexter carefully avoided the appearance of watching them.

As he was leaving, Rosalie presented herself, resolute, in his path, without shooting equipment and without Albert King.

"Don't you think you're being rather mean?" she demanded fiercely.

"Mean?"

"Not even once to pretend you don't see through my shabby little game?"

"I wouldn't insult your intelligence."

"But a girl doesn't mind having her intelligence insulted by a man who's supposed to care for her!"

He looked at her sternly. "I love you, Rosalie. I see no reason to play games about that. It's too serious a matter for me."

"But you don't really love me!" she cried in near hysteria, and he glanced quickly about to assure himself that they were out of earshot. "You only
want
to love me. You want to love Rosalie Handy because she's the wife you've decided will suit you. And you're wrong! I have a temper that will spoil everything! Be warned before it's too late!"

"You mean you
would
have me? Oh, Rosalie!"

"I mean that I love you, God help me! I love you, and I don't want to. And you want to love me and don't. How can anything so crazy ever work?"

"Darling, you must try to rid yourself of this fixation. I may not be eloquent. I may not be glib. But when I tell you that I love you more than life itself..."

"Oh, it's false, it's false!" she almost screamed. "If you could only
hear
yourself!"

And she turned away and ran furiously into the woods, causing everyone to stare indeed.

Three hours later Dexter received word, in his room at the Ocean House, that Mr. Handy was waiting for him in the saloon. He found him very grave. Did Dexter know where Rosalie was? He didn't? Mr. Handy looked even graver. She had not been seen since she ran off the place. It would be necessary to notify the police, to search the beaches. In her state of excitement they could take no risks. Her friend Ellen Gray had drowned herself in Lily Pond the summer before, and Rosalie had brooded over the tragedy ...oh, yes, a thorough search would have to be made at once.

The next two hours were unlike any others in Dexter's life. When he later attempted to classify them, he found the courage to admit that a kind of horrible ecstasy had been mixed with the terror. Tramping with others across the rocks and the marshes in the cool twilight, against the blood-red of that setting August sun, he had felt a kind of exaltation at the idea that a girl might have taken her life because of an emotion aroused by him. Suppose he were to die now, with her. Would they not have reached an intensity of feeling, a summit of love, that could never be reached in the long after-years of a marriage of mere contentedness? The death of Rosalie would be a grisly thing, and to have been the cause of it an even more grisly thing, but was not life at this moment afire with gold and red as never before? Had he ever felt such a pounding of the heart? He was not Dexter Fairchild; he was something larger, something dark and violent and formidable. He walked on, so gripped by swirling thoughts and feelings that he hardly looked for clues upon the ground.

But when he saw her at last coming towards him on her father's arm, he felt as if his heart would burst with relief and happiness. He hardly minded that, pale and exhausted, she failed to respond in the least when he threw his arms about her.

"What a great to-do about nothing," she muttered in the flattest of tones. "Can't a girl sit by herself on a rock and look at the sea without everyone thinking she's going to jump in it?"

"Why did you want to look at the sea?" he heard himself ask.

She still held on to her father's arm, but now she looked at him. Her gaze was impenetrable. "I wanted to think. About whether or not I'd marry you. I think I decided I would." She raised her hand sharply to check any demonstration. "Please, Dexter, not a word. Not now. I've been through enough for one day."

4

N
UMBER
417 F
IFTH
A
VENUE,
to which Dexter directed his steps on the afternoon following his cousin Charley's agitated and agitating visit, had been built by his father-in-law only four years before, when the latter was seventy. Mr. Handy used to retort blandly to those of his contemporaries who questioned the wisdom of creating so fine a residence for a proprietor so advanced in years, that his heirs would be able to sell it for many times his cost. It was a square brownstone mansion with a four-window frontage on the Avenue, and it boasted every modern convenience, including a picture gallery. It was to this chamber, running the length of the house, that Dexter was now admitted. But to his surprise it was his sister-in-law, Joanna, and not Annie who received him there.

"I thought you were in Boston!" he exclaimed.

"I got back this morning. It's lucky that I was here when Annie got your note. She was very much upset."

"Did she show it to you?"

"Oh, yes. With the enclosure. She made no secret of it."

"Well, don't you think she should be upset? She has been extremely indiscreet, Jo, to put it mildly."

Joanna was the least attractive of the four Handy sisters. She had mild, gentle features and sad eyes that seemed to anticipate reproach, as did her constant gesture of holding her head slightly backwards. Her hair, brown and very straight, was parted in the middle, and she affected dresses of black or dark brown as if in unobtrusive mourning for the constantly dying old cousins whose passing her party-loving parent was reluctant to acknowledge.

"She's such a child, Dexter!" she protested, clasping her hands.

"A child? At thirty-two!"

"Oh, it's not a matter of age. And you and I both know that Charley has not been an easy person to live with. What's a girl to do if her husband's always at the Patroons' Club drinking wine and playing cards? Annie needs more love and sympathy than other people. Juley Bleeker was simply filling a void in her life."

"Juley! You call that bounder Juley?"

Joanna's expression congealed into stubbornness. Her timid eyes gazed at him now as through the grille of a barred gate that they both knew he could not batter down.

"He has been a guest in this house. Papa has received him."

"You don't mean he's called when Annie's been here!"

"You needn't shout, Dexter. As a matter of fact he was here this morning."

"And Annie received him under her father's roof? At a time when her husband was not present!"

"What's so wrong with that? I was present."

Dexter stared at her almost with incredulity. "After Annie had told you about my note? After you
knew
about her and Bleeker?"

His tone finally seemed to alert her at least to the possibility of something serious. "Oh, it was all just silliness."

"Silliness! What in the name of God is New York coming to?" He turned away in disgust from her expression of placid stupidity. "I give up. Tell Annie I'm here, will you?"

When Joanna, only too glad to be gone, had left the gallery, he sauntered nervously up and down the floor, casting restless glances at the pictures. For several minutes he did not distinguish among them, but then at last something struck him, and he drew up suddenly to regard more closely a large bright canvas over the legend, "The Abbess Detected."

It was one of those meticulously executed, brightly colored, anecdotal French paintings in which Mr. Handy delighted, showing a pretty abbess in a chamber more like a boudoir than a cell, sitting down to a delicious-looking repast of steak and red wine set out on a marble-topped
guéridon,
while two young nuns, unobserved, stifled their giggles behind a half-open door. On a calendar, over the abbess's head, in large print, was the word "Vendredi."

Moving down the wall, struck now with an idea, Dexter paused next before a large canvas showing Catherine de Medici, haughty and terrible in widow's weeds, emerging from the Louvre to make a scornful survey of the corpses of Saint Bartholomew's Day, followed by a reluctant troupe of younger ladies-in-waiting, whose averted looks and hands clapped to their lips offered a marked contrast to the phlegm of the ruthless queen-mother. But what Dexter particularly noted was the artist's sensuous treatment of the stripped corpses.

Moving to the end of the gallery, he paused finally before a canvas depicting a satyr teased by wood nymphs. One was pulling his hair; two others had hold of his arms; a fourth was propelling him from behind, apparently in a joint effort to plunge him into a sylvan pool. All the figures were nude. It was perfectly evident that the satyr, whose human torso was finely muscular, was only pretending to resist and that the game would end, the moment he chose, on a less innocent note.

He turned away abruptly from the picture, indignant that it should have so aroused his senses. Was there not a common denominator of fleshly appetite and lust in all of Mr. Handy's pictures? Might this not explain the blindness of Joanna, the giddiness of Annie? Might it not even be typical of New York society as a whole? What was their world but a bushel of lewdnesses tied together by a string of moral aphorisms? Did anyone but Dexter Fairchild really care about good and evil?

"Oh, Dexter, that
look!
" He heard Annie's cry, and there she was, absurdly beautiful, in a black and white dress, standing in the doorway. And now she was rustling towards him, too thin, too pale, too smiling, too laughing. Her hands gripped his shoulders as she held herself back to contemplate him. "Why, my dear, you're as grave as a Gothic tympanum of Judgment Day! Please! Can't you smile?"

"I don't consider this a smiling matter, Annie."

She dropped her hands at once to her sides and pouted, playing the little girl reproved. "Shall we discuss it, then, in sackcloth and ashes?"

"Try to be serious, my dear."

"This early in the afternoon? Can't I at least offer you a glass of wine?"

"This early in the afternoon? Thank you, no."

"Well, can I sit at least?" She dropped upon the ottoman in the center of the gallery and spread out her skirts on either side. Then she looked up at him with an air of wilful patience. "All right, then. Proceed."

"I'm sorry if I appear so lugubrious. But I'd rather make too much than too little of Mr. Bleeker's letter."

"This?" She produced it from somewhere, from a pocket, from under her belt, and tossed it, half-crumpled, on the divan beside her. "Really, Dexter. Do you think half the ladies in our benighted society don't receive such epistles daily? How else are the poor creatures to divert themselves?"

"You mean without love affairs?"

"Love affairs? Isn't that a pretty strong term for a common or garden flirt?"

Relief surged up suddenly through him, but he tried not to relax the severity of his countenance. "It may be just a flirt to you. I never really had any notion that it was more than that. But you must recognize that it will be a love affair to Bleeker."

BOOK: Watchfires
3.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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