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Authors: Louis Auchincloss

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Watchfires (8 page)

BOOK: Watchfires
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"Am I? Mr. Lincoln, of Illinois, has said that the nation is bound to become either all slave or all free."

"Must I agree with a backwoodsman?"

"Don't be a snob, Dexter. There are plenty of Southerners who are insisting on the extension of slavery as the price of their remaining in the union. The
Scott
case gave them the territories, and that has only whetted their appetites."

"Very well, dear, I'll try to answer your question. No, I would
not
save the union at the price of making New York a slave state. I'll go even further. I wouldn't save it at the price of a single free state!"

Rosalie and both boys looked up at him with mild surprise.

"Sometimes I find your positions very hard to understand," Rosalie said with a sigh. "You sound almost with us this morning."

Dexter retired again behind his newspaper to read a summary of Southern editorials on the execution of John Brown. Their violence was shocking even in the violent atmosphere that had been created. Brown was epitomized as the incarnation of the Yankee spirit; his rebellion as a symptom of the murderous and cowardly Yankee mind; his punishment as the sign of what the North could expect if it continued its course of madness and folly. Dexter felt a sudden surge of hate so strong as to make him actually giddy. The yearning to join a crusade to free the slaves was now inflamed by a vision of Northern soldiers lashing overseers with their own whips, burning pillared mansions over the heads of white-bearded planters, marching to bugles across a liberated land. He had to make himself swallow with an effort, to cough, to sit up straight, in order to dispel the absurd and exhausting fantasy. The union, the union! Remember the union!

"Why, Dexter, are you all right?"

"Quite all right, my dear. I must have swallowed something the wrong way. Boys, isn't it time you went to school?"

When they were gone, he told Rosalie that Charley was stopping in on his way to the office and that he was expecting Jules Bleeker at nine.

"Would you like me to stay and see Charles with you?" she asked.

"Do you mind very much if I say no? I hate to have the mother of my sons mixed up in a thing like this."

Rosalie laughed as she rose to leave the table. "See Charley alone, by all means. I don't even want to join you after that piece of sentiment!"

Ten minutes later he was sitting with Charley at the same table. The latter was very glum and drank his coffee thirstily.

"Bleeker should be here any minute," Dexter warned him, glancing at the clock. "I plan to give him one chance. If he will agree not to see Annie again—privately, of course—we shall take no further action against him."

"And if he refuses?"

"Then we shall simply proceed to destroy him."

Charley flung down his napkin with an angry snort. "In a duel? Thanks for that 'we.' Perhaps you don't know that Bleeker's a first-class shot. He fires his first bullet between the wife's legs and his second between the husband's eyes. Don't you give a damn about me, Dexter?"

Dexter asked himself with a sigh if he would ever come to the end of human vulgarity. "Of course, there'll be no duel," he retorted. "For what do you take me? Gentlemen don't duel in New York, and if they did they wouldn't duel with the likes of Bleeker. No, I mean destroy him financially and socially. I'll close every pocketbook and every front door in New York to him!"

"How?"

"You'll see, my boy," Dexter answered grimly, and then they heard the doorbell. He hurriedly conducted his cousin to the side door through the kitchen, to avoid a confrontation, and told Bridey to usher Mr. Bleeker into his study. When he arrived there he found the large, black-garbed figure of his detested visitor examining the Kensett seascape that Annie had admired six years before.

Bleeker turned to present his big features and florid countenance to his host with a smile as cheerful as if they were about to "go on" to some club dinner or convivial bachelors' occasion.

"Ah, there you are, Fairchild. I've been admiring your Kensett. Such a subtlety of coloring. It's hard to tell where the sea stops and the horizon begins. I can see why people speak of your tastes as advanced. While the rest of us are buying Italian peasant scenes and Turkish marketplaces, you're putting up your money for something as good as this. Congratulations!"

Dexter responded in the iciest tone he could muster. "Never mind the compliments, Bleeker. May we get right down to business?"

Bleeker nodded briskly, adapting himself at once and without the least apparent surprise to the quick change of atmosphere. "I'm at your service. I assume that you prefer to remain standing?"

"Much."

"Very well. Excuse me." Bleeker strode across the room to crush out his cigar in a bowl. "Let us eliminate the last traces of conviviality."

But Dexter would not deign to notice the least attempt to place things on a humorous basis. "You are aware that your correspondence with Mrs. Charles Fairchild has been discovered?"

"Do you imply that it was concealed?"

"I certainly do. Your letter was delivered clandestinely."

"It was delivered through a servant. Let me ask you something, Fairchild. Whom do you represent in this matter?"

"The family, of course. The outraged family."

"I see. But do you represent Annie?"

"Do you refer to Mrs. Charles Fairchild? I do indeed.
And
her husband."

"You mean you are speaking to me this morning with Mrs. Fairchild's authority?"

"That's a bit of a shock to you, isn't it, Bleeker? Yes, I am speaking to you with her authority. I received it at her father's, just before she returned to her own house last night."

"Where she is residing, I gather, as the virtual prisoner of her husband. He had better remember there is such a thing as habeas corpus in this country!"

"Can it be invoked by the would-be seducers of married women?"

Bleeker took a threatening step towards his host. "It should be invokable by any man who champions the cause of a poor woman shackled to a swine like your cousin!"

Dexter held his ground without flinching. "I suppose we had better avoid epithets. Are you prepared to give me some assurance that you will have no further communication with Mrs. Fairchild?"

"Does
she
ask that?"

"She has placed her case in my hands."

"Then what assurance can you give me that she will be allowed to live a life free from the constant apprehension of violent abuse and drunken threats?"

"Do you presume to treat with me, sir?"

"And why not? Have I not enjoyed Mrs. Fairchild's confidence? Do I not have letters from her? Do you think that you are living in Turkey, where women are put in sacks and thrown in the river if they are disobedient? Let me disillusion you. The days are past when a married woman can be incarcerated while the family lawyer lays down ridiculous terms to her friends!"

"There is no more to be said, Mr. Bleeker. Kindly leave my house."

When Bleeker, seizing his hat from the rack in the hall, had stamped his irate way out of the front door, Dexter looked about for some way to vent his feelings. His eye fell upon the crystal bowl in which his visitor had had the impudence to deposit the ashes of his cigar. Hurrying to the table, he seized it and dashed it to pieces in the fireplace.

"That must have given you great satisfaction!" came a voice from the hall stairway.

It was Rosalie.

7

D
EXTER SAT ALONE
with his father-in-law after dinner in the latter's library at 417 Fifth Avenue. The book shelves, behind glassed doors and beneath flat tops on which rested bronzes of stricken or striking animals—elk torn by wolves, bear fighting bear, lions crouched to spring—gleamed with the gold-tinted, backs of old folios and volumes of prints. The walls above were hung with dark Madonnas and dusky biblical scenes, relics of Mr. Handy's "grand tour" in 1817. The tables, under lace covers, were cluttered with baubles and memorabilia: lapis lazuli, intaglios and daguerreotypes of dim, dead Handys and Howlands. Dexter's eyes always sought the charming miniature by Jarvis of Rosalie's mother as a girl. Her large, haunted eyes and pale, heart-shaped face suggested the premonition of early demise.

Charles Handy busied himself at the sideboard where a flock of decanters, with silver labels hung about their long necks, offered themselves to his choice. His roving, glinting, staring gray-blue eyes were the features that redeemed—or perhaps simply decorated, if ameliorated were too strong a term—the sternness of his aquiline nose, square chin and thin, retentive lips.

"Joanna thinks it's hard on the ladies for the gentlemen to desert them when it's only a family dinner. But frankly, my boy, I feel the need to get away from her at times. She's been quite impossible ever since this last trip to Boston. Raving like the worst type of Yankee abolitionist! It seems she actually met Wendell Phillips. Some privilege! And when I ask her to kindly change the subject, she simply sits and stares at me with woebegone eyes."

Dexter always liked it when the old man abused his daughters. It made him feel intimate and preferred. But that night he was disturbed by the implications.

"Of course, she must hear some pretty dreadful stories from her friends up there."

"Those stories lose nothing in the telling; you can be sure of that. I'm willing to wager that ninety percent of the negroes in the South are better off than they would be in the jungles they were taken from."

"Did that justify us in bringing them over?"

"Us? Where do you get that us'? My dear fellow, no Handy, and no Fairchild, I'll be bound, had anything to do with such filthy practices. I'm proud to say that no Handy ever owned a slave, even in the days when half your old New York families did. Oh, our record is pure! But that doesn't mean that I believe in telling our Southern friends and neighbors how to run their lives." Here Mr. Handy, turning to his son-in-law, drew the lid of one eye slowly down over the eyeball, like a chicken. This stately wink, against a countenance of absolute sobriety, gave a ludicrous effect, perhaps intentional, to his irony. "Particularly when they command the loyalty of most of our army and navy!"

"The officers, I suppose you mean."

"Well, whom else would you count on in a showdown? What are your abolitionists going to fight with, besides their own bad breath? Some way to save a union!"

"It's another union that I want to discuss with you tonight, sir. I'm afraid there's bad blood between Annie and Charles."

"Tell me about it."

Mr. Handy seated himself and leaned back in his leather armchair, holding his head stiffly erect as he watched his interlocutor. He hardly twitched a muscle as Dexter related the sorry tale. Then he took a long sip of his brandy and wiped his lips carefully with a silk handkerchief.

"Well, it doesn't surprise me. No, I can't say it does. When they were married, I looked forward to having another Fairchild in my family. I hoped that Charley might be—well, not quite what you have been, dear boy—but something not too different. Yet it was not to be. Charley is weak, and Annie is flighty. The thing has been a failure from the beginning. I suppose we could patch this up, but doesn't there come a time when you wonder if it's worth it? I am not speaking precipitately, I assure you. Hasn't the moment come for a dignified separation? Let Annie come home to me and bring little Kate. She can go out socially as her old father's dinner partner. Joanna hates parties anyway and will be only too happy to be excused. Yes, I think it might really work out very well! We'll put the blame, discreetly of course, on Charley's bibulousness. I doubt that anyone in New York will dare criticize us." Mr. Handy cleared his throat now, almost menacingly. "What do you think?"

Dexter was stupefied. Did Mr. Handy see his daughter's dangerous situation only in the light of his own social convenience? Was he, Dexter, the sole man left in the city who regarded the marriage vow as binding? But his shock was quickly smothered in his new concern for the implied risk to Annie. For, deprived of even the dubious protection of Charles, living in the house of a preoccupied widower and subject to the amoral gushings of a sentimental old maid sister, what was to save her from the impetuous and importunate Bleeker?

"I hate to think we have come to that, sir. I should like to believe that, with Bleeker out of the picture, Annie and Charles would be able to put together some semblance of a decent life."

"And how do you propose to eliminate Bleeker? He's not altogether a bad chap, by the way. He has an eye for a picture. He gave me a tip on where to buy a fine Landseer. It's called
Missing the Hunt.
You haven't seen it yet, Dexter. It's being framed. It shows a foxhound, with lugubrious eyes and a bandaged foot, sitting with its head in the lap of a dear little girl who is consoling him."

"I don't address myself to his taste in art," Dexter replied, trying to keep the disdainful pucker from his lips. "I am concerned only with his taste for married ladies in a social sphere above his own. I see, sir, that I shall have to dot my i's and cross my t's. Do you realize what this man will tell the world if Annie moves in here?"

"What?"

"That she went to her father's house to be able to receive her lover!"

Mr. Handy sat immobile in his chair. The hand that lowered the brandy glass moved almost imperceptibly. Something glacial seemed to be forming over his countenance. Yet when he spoke, his voice was soft.

"Are you implying, sir, that I encouraged his attentions to my daughter?"

"Surely, Mr. Handy, you know me better than that! If you have a greater admirer in all New York, I should like to know who it is. But Joanna, I fear, has been indiscreet. She has countenanced Bleeker's visits to Annie. Yes, sir, in this very house! And take my word for it, he is a man who will stop at nothing to enhance his reputation as the Casanova of Manhattan!"

"And what, may I ask, do you propose to do about him?"

"I propose to ostracize him. I propose that we strike the first blow. Once people see him for what he is, his spite will be harmless. I have already given him his chance to clear out. But the cad openly proclaimed himself your daughter's champion!"

BOOK: Watchfires
2.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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