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Authors: Louis Auchincloss

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Watchfires (9 page)

BOOK: Watchfires
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"Let me see." Mr. Handy leaned forward now, seemingly staring at the floor, as he was apt to do when thinking hard. "He's on the staff of the
Observer,
is he not?"

"Have we any weapons there?"

"Silas Cranberry's store is their biggest advertiser. And we hold a lot of Silas' paper at the bank. I'll give you a note to Nicolas King. See him the first thing in the morning. Something may be done there."

Mr. Handy rose and went to his desk to write the note. He scratched away for several minutes, then folded the notepaper, placed it in an envelope and silently handed it to Dexter, who jumped up to receive it.

"I hope you won't be too hard on Joanna, sir," Dexter murmured.

The old man gave him a cold glance for an answer as he passed from the chamber. It boded ill for poor Joanna.

***

The Bank of Commerce squatted on lower Broadway, its fat round yellow dome seemingly resting on its street portico of six Corinthian columns. Nicolas King, bald, mild-mannered, with thin blue veins lining his bluish cheeks, sat at his roll-top desk touching his fingers together as he listened, inscrutably, to Dexter.

"Insofar as Mr. Cranberry is concerned," he said at last, in a tone as dry as the crackle of autumn leaves, "there is no particular trouble. It is simple enough for me to convey to him the views of your distinguished father-in-law with respect to Mr. Bleeker's character. I shall be seeing him, as it happens, this very afternoon. I do not know why Mr. Handy feels as he does, but he has written me that he has excellent grounds to think ill of Bleeker, and there is no reason that I should not instruct Mr. Cranberry of his feeling, and no reason why Mr. Cranberry should not take such action as he deems fit. But there is another aspect of this matter that concerns me more personally. Are you aware that Bleeker has been proposed for the Patroons' Club?"

"Good God, no!"

"As chairman of the Admissions Committee I can hardly be in doubt. His name comes up this week."

"Then I'm just in time!"

"Wait a second, my friend. Your father-in-law's opinion on a moral question may be controlling with me. I have worked with him intimately for thirty years. He and I accept each other's verdicts without question, because we know each other to the roots. But the Admissions Committee of the Patroons' is another matter. It is not enough for me to call the man a cad. I must cite chapter and verse."

"Would it not be enough to tell them that he has attempted the virtue of a married woman of spotless reputation?"

King's almost hairless eyebrows became pointedly arched. "Ah, my dear Dexter, if we were to limit ourselves at the Patroons' to gentlemen of your and my domestic virtue, we might have to give up some of our most convivial—not to say some of our most distinguished—members!"

"Would it alter your mind if I were to tell you that the lady was a member's wife?"

King frowned. "That is a good deal worse, I concede. Though even there I fear we are not without precedent. There is a certain solidarity among men in these matters. Still—I don't know. I should certainly have to have the member's name."

Dexter hesitated. "The member is my cousin, Charles Fairchild."

King's sigh was high and windy. "Oh, I'm afraid Charley's name is not going to have all the effect you hope. He is not in very good standing at the club. There was that business of his being so intoxicated at the new members' evening, and then, only last month, he was posted."

"I took care of that with my own check."

"Oh,
you,
my dear fellow, everyone respects you. Some of us hope to see you president of the club one day. But your cousin is another matter."

"Surely, sir, the Patroons will rally to defend the threatened honor of a fellow member, even if he's had a drink too many and let a bill slide!"

King seemed a bit shocked at this outburst. "Well, of course, if you put it
that
way."

"I
do
put it that way! Will it be necessary for me to produce the letter that Bleeker wrote to Mrs. Charles Fairchild?" Dexter looked down at the floor as he said this. He was taking a chance, for he could not possibly surrender a letter so compromising to Annie.

"No, no, your word will be quite enough," King said hastily, and Dexter breathed in relief. Now that King had been convinced that he was in deadly earnest—and had his father-in-law behind him—there should be no further trouble. A man like Bleeker, after all, was hardly worth a scuffle with the Fairchilds and Handys. "I'll take the matter up with Bleeker's sponsor. No need for it to come before the committee. I'll simply suggest that he withdraw the candidate's name."

8

R
OSALIE
F
AIRCHILD
had at first been amused at her husband's lively concern over her sister's "flirt." Then her amusement had turned to irritation. And finally, as she took in the full dimensions of his campaign to destroy Jules Bleeker, she became disgusted.

It was the first time in their married life that her husband had seemed mean to her. They had both been interested in the recent discovery of Mayan pyramids in Yucatan and in the speculative piecing together of an ancient civilization dominated by priests who sacrificed human beings on these high altars. Now she seemed to see Dexter, in a tall cap and green robe, standing over a dazed, bullied, sullenly watching crowd, preparing to plunge his obsidian knife in poor Bleeker's exposed, hairy chest. Ugh!

It disturbed her to find that there was something close to actual dislike in her reaction. She had often disagreed with Dexter; she had frowned on him and even downright disapproved. But she had never before felt this particular chill. To her there had always been an essential attraction, almost a charm, no matter how sharp her exasperation, in the integrity of his naive good citizenship, of his passionate determination to be a good husband, a good father, a good lawyer, a good neighbor. Just as his smooth, tightly coordinated body, always so neatly dressed, or undressed, had once dominated her senses, so had his orderly mind and habit of cubbyholes, his secular God and cabined idealism, impressed her as a personality stronger than her own. He might have been misguided; he might even have been the tiniest bit crazy, but there was a power, or a fanaticism, behind his attitudes that had saved them from smallness. But now! What was happening now but the possible confirmation of the long-repressed suspicions of her ante-nuptial days?

As a girl Rosalie had always believed—unless hoped were a better term—that the day would ultimately come when she would realize a special destiny. She did not know at all what that destiny would be—a family, a child, an art, an occupation, perhaps even a tragedy, a martyrdom—but it would be distinctly "other" than the enveloping silks and tassels, smooth, but tough, not to be torn, of the rigorous love and fluffy duties of the Howland and Handy tribe. The ailing mother, Joanna Howland Handy, whom she had lost so young, the endless Howland aunts and great-aunts and cousins, once or twice removed, had seemed united in what she came to think of as the family formula: a cheerful, chattering insistence that they were not like other people, however much they might have seemed so—no, they were "nicer." The Handys and Howlands went to Newport, yet they weren't "social"; they descended from early governors but they weren't "stuck up"; their dresses rustled freshly, all buttons buttoned; their talk was sanitized and their giggles only slightly suggestive; their "at homes" were lively, almost festive, full of laughs, too many laughs, almost screams really, and it was all supposed to be consistent with a philosophy of informality and simplicity, nay, of downright coziness. Rosalie had fitted herself into this atmosphere with some difficulty and a history of mild resistance, much as she had forced her strong figure into whalebone and her large feet into tight slippers with heels that turned her natural lope into a mincing walk. But she always felt that in time, enough time, she would somehow be able to establish her own independent relation to it all.

Yes, that would surely be permitted her, would it not? They were not tyrants, nor did they wish to be, not even her father, who might have been thought by those who did not know him to have offered such an image. But that was only because, dear kindly soul, he really
was
all the things that his women folk simply tried to be. He was natural; he was the thing itself—whatever the thing was.

On her eighteenth birthday Rosalie had been allowed to read a letter that her late mother had written for her guidance:

Always remember, dear child, that it is not absolutely essential for a woman to marry. She may be as useful in the house of a father or married sister as in her own home. Do not marry unless you are fully convinced that you will be able to love your husband with all your heart and revere him with all your mind. This is all that matters; wealth and ancient lineage in a man are nothing if he cannot be loved and revered.

Rosalie felt a chill as she read this, as though a long white arm had reached out from the tomb to check her anticipated liberation. For there was something about the heavy absolutes of true love and reverence that seemed to block her path. They stood, like granite posts, on either side of the road to individuality, supporting a grilled gate that was not going to open to any key that
she
could provide. Was life really so closed in? Just as she thought the moment might have come to elude the eternal "niceness" of the Handys, the major virtues loomed up to act as the stern guardians that the minor ones had failed to be.

As time passed, she strove to reconcile herself to the precepts of the dead. Would it be so difficult, after all, to love a man and to revere him? Might it not even be that for which she had pined? Wasn't what was wrong with the Manhattan of the Handys and Howlands precisely that there was no real love, no real respect—because there was no one worthy of
that
much love, that much respect? Except, of course; her father.

And then she had met Philip Hake. Although a native New Yorker he had lived in England half his life, while his father had been consul in Liverpool, and had gone to Oxford and, more importantly, to Rugby, where he had fallen under the spell of the great Dr. Arnold. Philip was a big sturdy man with a red beard and fiery eyes who wanted to start a boys' school in New England on the model of Rugby and who was calling on financiers in Boston and New York to raise his capital. He had come in due course to Mr. Handy, who had been struck with his force of character and vigorous Christian idealism, and who had invited him on several occasions to the house. On only his fourth visit he had asked Rosalie, to whom he had devoted his very direct attentions and compliments in the first three, if she would have any insuperable objection (in principle, that was) to being the wife of a schoolmaster. On learning that she would not be so averse, he called the next day on her father to present himself as a suitor for her hand.

Her father, like all the rest of the family, had divined that poor Rosalie, who had no experience in hiding her emotions, was already in love with the handsome newcomer, but he was by no means anxious to accelerate the affair. Summoning Rosalie to his study, he was very blunt about his reservations.

"Your young man may be impetuous, but he is by no means reckless. He seemed a bit dashed when I told him what there was in the Howland trust that you inherited from your mother. And he seemed even more concerned when I informed him that you could never touch the principal. He then wanted to know if I was prepared to invest in his school, and I told him frankly that I wasn't, that I have three other daughters and many charitable commitments. I don't blame a young man for wanting to get ahead, but he must understand the facts."

Rosalie's mind reeled at the sudden, hateful juxtaposition of love and money. She took a deep breath as she told herself that she must be understanding, that Philip
had
to take such things into consideration.

"Couldn't you help him, Father? I mean with your friends? Wouldn't they be willing to back a school if you recommended it?"

"I think they might. Particularly if they knew he was engaged to my daughter. I told him as much. But I told him something else, too. I told him that I wanted you to have the summer to think it over. That under no circumstances would I sanction an engagement before the fall."

"But he's going to England!" Rosalie cried in anguish. "He's going to spend the summer in England to interest his friends in teaching in his school. I thought we might be married in June and go together!"

"Much too precipitate. If you are married in the fall, I shall arrange for you to go to Europe on your honeymoon. And I shall also undertake to endeavor to raise some of his needed capital." Her father's thin lips came together in a long tight line. "I think that is handsome enough, eh? If you marry now, you'll have to do it on your own."

"Oh, Father!"

"My dear, you must remember that I stand in the position of mother as well as father. I think you can oblige me in this. A summer is soon past. All right? Don't turn away from me. Give me a smile. A little smile? You'll do as I say?"

"You give me no alternative."

"There's a sensible girl." Mr. Handy always accepted a surrender, wisely ignoring the manner in which it was rendered. "And now let me give you a piece of advice. It is customary, when a young lady requests a period of time in which to consider a gentleman's offer of marriage, for him to consider himself unilaterally bound. If I were you, I should be more magnanimous. Tell him that he is to be free in the interlude. He will appreciate your largeness of spirit."

Rosalie did as she was advised, and Philip took it all well, too well. He made no rash suggestion that they elope. It was his opinion that they should do just as her father said, and that, considering all the circumstances, Mr. Handy was behaving handsomely. Rosalie had a horrid feeling that he was looking forward so much to going back to England and discussing the plans for his beloved school with other inflamed disciples of the late Thomas Arnold that he did not much care whether she went with him or not. It was all agony for her, but an agony that she dared not show.

BOOK: Watchfires
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