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Authors: Louis Auchincloss

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Watchfires (7 page)

BOOK: Watchfires
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Annie's birth had cost her mother her life, so she had never known but one parent, and that a too indulgent one. In looks, in character, in general demeanor she might have been a foundling, a strange little dark imp introduced by a not wholly kindly humorist as a contrast to her larger, more placid sisters. She was small and tense and bright; she moved in quick jerks that somehow meshed into gracefulness, and she constantly indulged in a high, sharp laugh. Whether because she had never known a mother's love or because her doting father and governesses had spoiled her, she never shared in the family's outward conventionalism. She was a rule to herself, and got her way by coaxing or wheedling or pouting or simply through a wicked display of caustic wit. When Annie was allowed to skip a Sunday service, it was less that she had made a point of freedom of religious thinking than that her father disliked her restlessness in the family pew.

She was exceedingly pretty, with large, mocking dark eyes and raven hair, and also exceedingly flirtatious, and it was generally assumed that she would marry early and well. But this did not happen. Annie never seemed to fall in love. She turned from man to man; she broke a few hearts, but her own remained intact. She read dozens of novels, attended every play and opera, and acted as a lively hostess for her father, who ruthlessly relegated poor Joanna to temporary shade whenever Annie was available. She did not appear to be bored with any particular part of her life, but she was certainly bored with the whole. Rosalie told Dexter once that Annie's problem was that she believed in nothing.

When Rosalie and Dexter were first married, Annie took a great interest in helping them to arrange their house, spending almost more time with them than at her father's. Lily's husband, Rutgers Van Rensselaer, was too much older to be a satisfactory brother-in-law for Annie, but what she promptly dubbed Dexter's "high seriousness" seemed to give her just the foil she needed. Annie loved to play the iconoclast with him; she made a great thing of trying to shock him with her agnosticism. On the subject of art, however, they thought too much alike for dissension, and it was their accord rather than their dissension that brought about the first remonstrance from Rosalie.

They had been contemplating a little Kensett seascape of the rocky coastline near Newport that Dexter had just purchased and hung in the dining room.

"It's absolutely fantastic how he combines the mist with the clarity!" Annie exclaimed, clapping her hands. "It's just that particular moment, early in the morning, when the last bit of mist is about to blow away, and you know it's going to be the most beautiful day in the whole history of the world! And those sailboats ... you can hardly see them. And suddenly, yes, there they are, tiny specks of white, almost indistinguishable against the sky. It's a
trouvaille,
Dexter. You'll be a Maecenas!"

"Rosalie's not so sure."

"Oh, Rosalie's like Papa. She wants things to be just so. 'What does this man Kensett think he's painting? A clear day or a misty one? Why doesn't he make up his mind?'"

Annie adopted so comically Rosalie's "Do you call that art?" look that Dexter found himself bursting into disloyal laughter. It was this that Rosalie heard from the hall and that prompted her later to suggest to him that Annie should spend less time in their house.

"But why, darling?"

"Do I really have to tell you why, Dexter?"

That was all that was said on the subject, but it struck instant terror to his heart. Had he, without even being aware of it, wandered
that
close to the primrose path that had conducted his father straight to hell?

At first he had tried desperately to close his mind to the suggestion. Rosalie, like most young wives, was absurdly jealous and suspicious. All the Handy sisters resented Annie. But his arguments simply fell to pieces before the continued image in his mind of Rosalie's pointing finger. How could he not look where it pointed? How could he any longer delude himself that his attraction to Annie was that of a normally affectionate man for a kitten, a puppy dog, a bunny rabbit, a darling little girl not quite nubile? No, no, it was a burning lust.

The only reason he had been able to cover this over with such ridiculous veils and rags, like a nude male statue in an artist's studio hastily draped before the advent of a ladies' class, was that he had never been visited by a burning lust before. And suddenly, shockingly, a thrilling vision of what the life of the flesh might have been had he married Annie burst upon him!

But this vision did not stay. There was a kind of arid consolation in his rapid recognition that he had
not,
after all, missed the bliss of such a marriage. For such marriages simply did not exist. The intensity of his attraction to Annie had its basis in her moral unavailability. She was forbidden fruit. His importunate physical need of her and his fear of hurting Rosalie were part and parcel of the same thing. Perhaps Rosalie's warning had come just in time. Putting his hands together in silent prayer, Dexter at last forgave his dead father.

Annie came to the house now only with Mr. Handy or Joanna. She made no reference to this change in her habits and seemed oddly subdued with Dexter. Had she felt some of the same attraction? He hardly dared hope so. He must have seemed too old to her. But he had been too scared not to be almost stiffly formal with her now.

"You've changed," she told him briefly. "I suppose that's what marriage does to people. Will I become as dull as you and Rosalie when I marry?"

He was afraid to answer her seriously.

Not long after this his cousin Charley, at one of their lunches downtown, asked him abruptly:

"Why do you never ask me to your house with the lovely Annie? Are you keeping her to yourself?"

Dexter, startled, stared at his younger partner as if he had just received a message from a higher sphere. Wasn't it plain enough? How could he have missed it before? Manifestly, it was his duty to foster a match between a sister-in-law so perilously at loose ends and this charming blond, blue-eyed, curly-haired cousin. A second Handy-Fairchild alliance—what could be more appropriate: physically, dynastically, morally? And if the vision of the mating of two such beautiful beings should cause the matchmaker a few hellish pangs, should he not grit his teeth and try to regard them as a solid down payment to redeem the mortgage on his soul?

That same week he arranged that Charley should dine at Mr. Handy's and be seated at Annie's right. The two young people had known each other for years, but never well, and now Charley, making the most of his opportunity, showed himself at his wittiest. Annie responded in like manner, and their end of the table fairly exploded with merriment.

Home with Rosalie, Dexter found her considerably less keen about the plan that he unfolded to her.

"Don't you think Annie needs someone stronger than Charley?"

"That's so like a woman! Just because Charley was a cutup in his college days, he must be a rake forever. Can't you trust me that he's a reformed character? Charley, when you first knew him, was simply full of youth and high spirits!"

"He certainly used to be full of spirits," Rosalie observed acerbly. "But I don't mean to deny that he's done well under your tutelage. All the Fairchilds agree you've been the making of him. But if Charley has developed strength enough for one, does that mean you should shoulder him with the weight of two?"

"What makes you think Annie can't carry her own weight?"

"Annie needs a strong man," she repeated stubbornly. "A very strong man. One who might beat her occasionally. Or at least threaten to."

"Rosalie! You, who call yourself a modern woman!"

"Ah, but Annie's not."

"I consider Annie quite as modern as you."

Rosalie sniffed. "She doesn't think in those terms."

But events were soon beyond Rosalie's, or even Dexter's control. Charley and Annie were seeing each other regularly, and people were beginning to say that an engagement would shortly be announced. What match could be more suitable? The only surprising thing was that two such eligible and attractive members of society should have remained single as long as they each had. Dexter, to whom Charley confided the rapid course of his courtship, blessed them in his prayers at night and tried to convince himself that he loved Charley next in line after only Rosalie, his sons, his mother and Rosalie's father. Having guided Charley to the right bride would be, he promised himself, one of the triumphs of his life.

On Christmas Eve, at Mr. Handy's, the first party in his new house on now fashionable Fifth Avenue, Annie took Dexter to a corner away from the noisy crowd of relatives.

"Darling Dexter, you're the tower of sense in the family. I want you to tell me if I should marry Charley."

He looked with astonishment at those unfathomable eyes. Was she still laughing at him? "Annie," he said in anguish, "doesn't your own heart give you the answer?"

"No. Maybe I don't really have one. Is that my fault? Do I have to be an old maid because Jehovah, stingy old Jew that he is, cheated me in the heart department? How much of a heart does Charley have?"

"Well, whatever he has, it's all yours."

"Will it be enough for two?"

"If it grows. And why shouldn't it grow? You must feel something for Charley, or why would you think of marrying him at all?"

"Oh, I feel a great deal for Charley! I find Charley a very attractive man. How nice of you to wince, dear Dexter. Thank you! It's lucky for you that
you've
not eligible. Isn't marriage the only life for us girls? How else can we get out from under the paternal roof?"

Dexter's throat became thick. "Be serious, Annie."

"I
am
serious! I'm always serious. Haven't you learned that yet?"

"If you find Charley so attractive..." He paused.

"Yes. Go on."

"And if, as you suggest, you want to be married to get out from under the paternal roof..."

"I do."

"And if you think you can do your duty to Charley as a good wife..."

Annie laughed in delight. "I was waiting for you to come to my duty! I was about to look at my watch. You're almost a minute late! But, yes, I think I can be a good wife. As good as any of my sisters, anyhow."

Dexter decided to ignore the implied criticism of Lily and Rosalie. "Well, then, I see no reason you shouldn't marry Charley. I see no necessity for you to put your heart under a microscope. I'm sure, despite what you say, that you have as good a one as anyone else."

"That has sometimes occurred to me. I am simply more truthful, do you mean? Or perhaps simply more aware?"

"Well ... there you are."

"So you advise me to take the great step? Think now, Dexter. Be sure of what you say! I have confidence in you. Only in you. I shall do just as you advise!"

The room around him seemed to darken as he looked into those smiling eyes. What did she mean? Could she be laughing at him
now
? He heard Mr. Handy announcing that he would read Mr. Moore's poem to the children in the parlor. "Yes, I advise the step," Dexter heard himself say.

He joined Rosalie's group in the new conservatory. In spite of the season they were discussing the slavery question with some acrimony. Rosalie in the past year had been devoting more and more energy to it. He wondered gloomily if she would find her "cause" in abolition and reflected, envious of Charley, that Annie had no need of such exaltations. She had enough of her own.

6

A
T BREAKFAST
in Union Square, the morning after Dexter's talk with Annie about Jules Bleeker, Rosalie was wearing the same pink robe, and Fred and Selby were engaged in their usual dispute.

"Grandpa Handy says that Mr. Buchanan is one of our great presidents. That he's saved the union."

"But at what a cost, Fred," his mother remonstrated.

"You think Grandpa is wrong?"

"I think Grandpa is getting to be an old gentleman. He has the ideas of his time. No doubt they were good ideas for then. I am sure he would think differently if he had seen the things I have seen."

"That you've seen, Ma?"

"Well, you know I used to visit my aunt Bella in Charleston. She could never convince herself that her husband's views were the right ones. She remained a Northerner at heart till the day she died. And she showed me some terrible things."

"But that was before we were born, Ma!"

Dexter remained hidden behind his newspaper, but alert to their talk. It struck him that it was not like Rosalie to support her arguments with evidence so stale. Was it possible that the "things" she had seen had been seen more recently? And how could that be unless she was engaged in some activity of which she had not told him? Abolitionism? It occurred to him suddenly that this might explain why she seemed to have spent so little money of late, insisting that her old dresses would last another year and that she did not need new curtains for the parlor. Was everything going to Boston? He gripped the paper nervously. Well, why not, why not? How could he expect anything else if
he
could not make her happy?

Selby seemed to have read his mind. "Mummy, would you help a slave to escape to Canada? If one came to the house at night and knocked at the door and begged you to take him in? Would you hide him?"

"Yes, Selby, I would."

"You see, Fred!" Selby cried in triumph. "I told you she would!"

"You'd be breaking the law, Ma."

"I'd be breaking a bad law, dear. And I'd do it willingly and cheerfully!"

"Would you be ready to go to jail?"

"If I had to." She glanced defiantly at Dexter as he now lowered his newspaper. "I'm glad to have the boys know that, Dexter. I'm sorry if it pains you."

"Your noble instincts could hardly pain me, my dear. I admire your courage and the strength of your convictions. But you must try to forgive a husband who cares, like your own father, about saving our poor old union."

"At any price? Would you save it at the cost of making New York a slave state?"

"My dear, you're being fantastical!"

BOOK: Watchfires
7.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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