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Authors: Louis Auchincloss

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Watchfires (6 page)

BOOK: Watchfires
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"I don't think I follow that. How can it be one thing to a woman and another to a man?"

"I am speaking of intention."

"And I have none?"

"He has too much. A man like that, Annie, who has lived half his life in Europe, is not going to be content with chats in cozy corners. Or with writing throbbing letters. Or even with a snatched kiss."

"A snatched kiss!" Annie exclaimed in mock horror.

"A man like Bleeker—forgive my bluntness—is going to expect the ultimate favors."

"The ultimate favors!" Annie clasped her hands again. "I like that!"

"And even if he doesn't receive them, he's going to say he did. To protect his reputation as a lover."

"Heavens! And will people believe him?"

"People will certainly believe him if they know that you have received letters such as the one Charley discovered."

"Such as the one Charley
opened.
Knowing that it was addressed to me."

"He thought it might be something that had to be handled immediately. Something important."

"And it wasn't?" After a pause, her tone was suddenly dry. "Oh, never mind, Dexter. Of course, I know you'll always take Charley's side."

"I'll always take your husband's side. Isn't that a way of taking yours?"

"Are you joking? Charley hates me."

"Hates you? Oh, Annie."

"Face it, Dexter. God knows I have."

"Of course, in any married love there's bound to be a certain amount of jealousy and hostility."

"Right up to the brim!"

"But deep down..."

"Deep? What's deep in Charley but his thirst?"

"All right, Annie, we'll let that go. I came here to discuss your relationship with Bleeker, not Charley."

"And I came here to tell
you
that I won't have my flirtations interfered with. Everyone flirts. Everyone, that is, but Rosalie. Rosalie, of course, is perfect."

"Do
I
flirt?"

"Like mad! You used to flirt with me. And I loved it!"

Dexter turned nervously to walk to the wall. He was suddenly in danger of losing the whole battle. Carefully, he readjusted the mask of his severity.

"That was different."

"Why was it different?"

"You were a young bride, in love with your husband. Besides, you were my sister. In law, anyway. I knew that Charley could be difficult, and I wanted you to feel the support of brotherly love and affection. We were never seriously flirting."

"That's hardly gallant of you."

"But we weren't! You know we weren't!"

"Speak for yourself." A silence followed. "Besides, the only reason you stopped flirting was that Rosalie got angry about it."

Dexter reached about in his mind as if to pick up the pieces of his shattered dignity. "Anyway, I didn't write you silly letters. I didn't make declarations."

"No, you're too good a lawyer for that. Poor Juley, I admit, is indiscreet. But then perhaps his feelings are too much for him."

Dexter stamped on the parquet floor. "Damn his feelings! Annie, this thing has got to stop. I want you to give me your word that you will never see Bleeker alone again!"

"Not see Juley alone?" Annie's pout would have been an appropriate response to the request that she give up a night at the opera. "I couldn't promise you any such thing. Is a girl to have
no
fun after she's married?"

"Do you have any conception of the danger you're in?" Dexter demanded, exasperated by her lightness. "Charley was in an absolute frenzy of jealousy when he came to the house this morning. It was all I could do to get him to listen to reason. If he blows up again, I won't be able to contain him. This thing will be all over town, and you'll be ruined."

"Ruined?"

"Your reputation, I mean. And how do you expect to live in a city like New York without a reputation?"

"I was beginning to wonder how I could live in it
with
one. Have you any conception what it's like for a young woman with any spirit to live with a man as moody and thirsty as your cousin? Not to speak of the remorseless supervision of all the Handys and Fairchilds? With an aunt behind every tree and a sister behind every bush? And a brother-in-law to play the arch-snoop? What does poor little Annie have to live for?"

"You have your child."

"There are women, I suppose, who can live for their children. Rosalie, I dare say, is one. I am not."

Dexter paused to consider the threat in her tone. "What are you trying to tell me, Annie?"

She jumped to her feet in a sudden flare of temper. "Just this! That if you push me too far you'll wake up one morning to discover that Juley and I have decamped! That we've run off to..." She paused, and then flung her arms up as a destination came to her. "To Venice!"

Dexter was beside himself. "You'd do that!" he almost shouted. "You'd go off with that cad? That greasy bounder? You care
that
much for that scribbling climber? That pompous show-off? That ... poetaster?"

"It would be you who had driven me to find out how much I cared!"

He saw that he would have to interrupt her game. She was having much too good a time provoking him.

"Let's sit down and discuss this," he said in a more reasonable tone, and they both sat, or rather perched, on the edge of the ottoman. "Let me draw you a picture of what your life would be like in Venice."

"Oh, I haven't settled on Venice."

"Venice, Florence, Paris, it doesn't matter. To begin with, you wouldn't be received by any respectable people."

"How dreadful!"

"You say that now, because you take dull, respectable people for granted. You can afford to despise them. But dull respectable people can assume a very different look when they slam their doors in your face."

"We'd see the real people. The artists and writers."

"You mean the would-be artists and writers. The hacks. The failures. The good ones are just as anxious to get into society as anyone else. But pass that for the moment. What would you live on?"

"Why, just what I mostly live on now, thank you very much. My own trust fund."

"Your father has the discretion to withhold the income. How much do you think he'd pay to support you in that kind of menage? And what about little Kate? Do you think for a moment that Charley would allow his daughter to be brought up abroad by you and your ... your..."

"My paramour!" Annie clasped her hands exultantly.

"I can't even utter the word. And how will Bleeker react when he finds out that his ticket to society, his greatest asset, has turned herself into his greatest liability? How long do you think he'll stick?"

"Longer than you think. You underestimate my charms."

"I have never underestimated your charms! But the combined charms of Cleopatra and Helen of Troy couldn't hold a man like Bleeker under those circumstances!"

"Ah, there you're wrong." Annie shook her head now with something like gravity. "Poor Juley. I think he really loves me. No, it would not be he who would be the first to crack." For several moments she contemplated her hands, folded in her lap. "You paint a dismal picture."

"I am only trying to spare you the cruelty of such an experience."

Suddenly, startlingly, she was weeping. Her head was bent forward, and her thin shoulders were shaking. Only the horrid vision of an embrace as Bleeker's way of comforting her kept him from putting his arms around her. And then she was suddenly on her feet again, striding rapidly back and forth across the gallery. Her voice was angry, cutting.

"My life is so ... abject! So unutterably abject. What in God's name am I to
do?
It's all very well for you to lecture me about morality, but what do you do to help me? You talk about respectable people slamming doors in my face, but isn't that just what you're doing? Why should it matter to me whether they slam them in New York or in Venice? All I know is that that's what doors seem to be for!"

Dexter rose and held his arms out to her pleadingly. "Annie, listen to me. You have a mind. A beautiful mind. You've studied art and music. You've traveled in Europe. Just now you compared me to a Gothic tympanum. How many women in New York would even know what a Gothic tympanum is? Doesn't the life of the intellect offer you
any
satisfaction? You used to be a great reader."

"So that's what good people do? They read! And what do you suppose they read about? What the bad people are doing!" When he looked blank at this, she continued indignantly, "Well, isn't that what all those books were about that you used to give me?
Jane Eyre
and
Wuthering Heights
and
The Scarlet Letter?
Passion and adultery and bigamy?"

"But those novels all point out the disastrous effects of those things!"

"But the disasters come
after.
Maybe the passion was worth it."

Dexter stared at her in dismay. "Surely you don't mean that you have really so misconstrued those writers as to suggest that...?"

"Let me change the target." Annie had no idea of being trapped in a literary debate. "Do books and art and music mean that much to
you
? Do Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Italian opera make up to you for the dullness of your life with Rosalie?"

Dexter turned away quickly. He did not even know quite whom he was protecting by hiding the pain that he knew must be showing in his face: Rosalie, himself or even Annie. All he was sure of was that it was somehow not to be borne that his life with Rosalie should be described in that way.

"Oh, Dexter, now I've hurt you! I didn't really mean to. But you put me in a position where I have no alternative. I
have
to make you see these things! You can put up with dullness at home because your real life is in your law office.
That
is where you live and breathe and have your being. But we poor wives don't have that. Rosalie and Jo are always talking about what miserable lives the slaves have down South, but they can't see that they're slaves themselves." Now she took him by the elbow and turned him around to face her, so that he should see her mimic him as a lawyer. She coughed and frowned as she pretended to be studying a paper. " 'Let's see. What have we on the diary this morning, Miss Somers? Oh, yes, the Annie Fairchild matter. I'd better run up and see the little woman and put some sense in her head. This is not the kind of thing we care to see in court, is it?'"

He gripped her hands in his. "Do you think I see you as a case, Annie? Can you honestly look me in the eye and tell me that I see you as just a case?"

She broke away from him, shrugging impatiently, and walked to one of the two west windows. After a few minutes of looking down at the avenue, she turned to him with an air of embittered resolution.

"Very well, Dexter, I see it's no use. You're determined to win. I am not to be allowed to go on with my harmless flirtation. I am embarrassed to call it even that. So be it. Have it your way. But mind you, you will have to make it up to me!
You
will be responsible for seeing that I don't die of boredom."

"Oh, we'll see to that!" he exclaimed, exultant.

"We? I mean
you!
"

"All right, me. May I instruct Mr. Bleeker that I shall be representing you?"

For once he had surprised her. "You mean you're going to see him?"

"Certainly, I'm going to see him."

"And what will you say to him?"

"I think you can trust me with that."

"But, Dexter, you'll promise to be a gentleman!"

"Quite as much as he is, I promise."

"You look so fierce!" Suddenly she burst again into her high mocking laugh. "My knight! My white knight!"

He decided it was time he left. In another minute she might withdraw her commission.

5

D
EXTER
, in the years immediately following his marriage, used to tell himself that it had worked out a good deal more happily than he could possibly have anticipated from its start. In the first place, Rosalie had proved herself a better sport than most girls of her background. She seemed resolved to keep a guard on her critical tongue. If she would not go so far as to express enthusiasm for his enthusiasms, at least she would not openly deprecate them. Secondly, as Dexter had rightly suspected, the satisfactions of sex made up for a good many differences of opinion. And, finally, the arrival of children took up much of the attention that might otherwise have been directed to a husband's shortcomings. Rosalie was the kind of mother who adored babies to the point of cooling off a bit when time had made them less cunning, and Dexter had been free to work on briefs on nights when she fretted by the cradles of her sick children, Fred and Selby and little Charles, who, alas, had died in his first year.

But there was still no question that Rosalie continued to be irked that her life should so blandly follow the pattern laid down by her forebears. It was at times disheartening to a hard-working husband not to feel that his wife supported him all the way. There were even moments when Dexter contemplated with envy the image of the frontier wife, standing with shouldered musket at the stockade gate, happy to share the dangers of a husband off fighting the Indians. But, of course, he always recognized that he had no right to expect any such loyalty. If ever a man had walked into a marriage with eyes wide open, it was he.

A man, however, could not be always judicial. What did Rosalie
want
? he would sometimes testily ask himself. Did she want him to throw up his law practice and take her west in a covered wagon? Not at all. She was much too concerned about the health of her infants. Did she want him to eschew society and lead her into the paths of letters, art and music? Not at all. She was much too dutiful about her friends and relations and not in the least intellectual. What
did
she want then? Oh, she wanted, he supposed impatiently, to lead, more or less, the life she was leading, only for him to be less sure that it was the right one.

Early in their marriage, however, something occurred to convince him that, whatever Rosalie's evaluation of himself, she could still be intensely possessive. No part of Dexter Fairchild was going to be lightly relinquished to anyone else, particularly to her youngest sister Annie, who had been touring Europe with an aunt during the year of Dexter's courtship and who had returned just in time to be a bridesmaid.

BOOK: Watchfires
8.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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