Manley’s eyes searched along the apartment-house roster: Keyes, Abrahms, Winsch-Barry, de Martino, Wilder-Halliday. There it was, just as in the early days when Jere had clung so desperately to her maiden name. Jere Wilder. She used to love to write it in an exotic flourish over and over again, covering phone books, walls, message pads, tablecloths. Horribly brought up, he’d say jestingly, meaning every word of it. In the white sands of a dozen watering places: Jere Wilder. Sometimes it seemed as if God knew who was going to be named what and then created personalities to fit. Maybe it was because Shakespeare was wrong and Stein was right—once a rose becomes a rose never again will it smell as sweet by any other name. Jere Wilder was Jere Wilder was Jere Wilder. This had caused Manley a good deal of futile speculation: one’s name is an active factor in conditioning. Could the constant, subconscious association of the given name Jere with the comparative Wilder provide abnormal stimulation ? It was hardly a scientific theory. And yet—characteristically, Manley’s mind was half-serious—to take an even more obvious case, wouldn’t there be a special incentive for a man called Strongfort to stand up to danger? Anyway Jere loved her name; it fitted her; she never wanted to let go of it, and, like all impractical people, she had devised a highly practical reason for posting it beside his on apartment doors and hotel registers. In touch with a number of little magazines interested in her translation of French Symbolist poets (would he ever forget that interminable translation of Une Saison en Enfer?) she had pointed out that they would continue to address her by her professional name, Jere Wilder. But since the divorce, with a perversity he could well understand, she had published two or three brief translations (Harper’s Bazaar and Twice-a-Year) under the name of Jere Halliday. An over-intense romanticism lent consistency to these seemingly conflicting gestures. Married, she had resisted the merging of her identity in his more famous one. “I can love you better if I’m me,” she had said one night. “I always want to be the girl you’re sneaking into your room past the desk clerk.” Now, unmarried, she had grown sentimental. Rarely affected by things as they were, accepting as real the things she made up in her head, she had become increasingly sentimental toward their marriage, imagining them to have been married in a way they never could have been.
Christ, he thought bitterly, turning toward the little self-operating elevator (a conveyance that always mildly alarmed him), it is all so beautifully simple in the beginning. And now look at us, twenty-one years later, tied up in knots like two fish lines snarled together. Flashing across the years came that crazy counterpoint of shrill toy horns, the indiscriminate kissing of strange mouths seeking partners, the brief unprecedented love of Aussie for Tommy, Tommy for Yank, Yank for poilu, enlisted man for officer that seemed to be man’s way of declaring peace.
He was being carried along with some drunken sergeants from the 301st Tank Battalion and their mademoiselles. One of these girls, an overjoyed lady of fifteen, silly on Calvados like the rest, had thrown herself into Manley’s arms, squealing, “My cute little lieutenant, I am going to take him home with me.” The sergeant who had been counting on this privilege announced that he had fought his way into Brancourt and was not going to let any swivel-chair hero swipe his piece.
Manley had no wish to interfere with the sergeant’s pleasures. On those occasions, twice as an undergraduate and rather more often here in France, when he had accepted women on the basis of availability, even of proximity, he had—what was the phrase? —hated himself in the morning. (Ah, those cliches, our emotional shorthand.) So, interested neither in this worldly child nor the disputatious sergeant intent on celebrating Armistice with her, he had slipped away through the crowd to the first hospitable doorway.
From behind the door, beckoning, came the sound of music, cheerfully sad and sweetly familiar, Poor Butterfly, in the blossoms waiting, Poor Butterfly … reminding him of the show he and Beatrice Vining had taken in at the Hippodrome his last night in New York. They had made a night of it and when he brought her home at two-thirty, Mr. and Mrs. Vining had been understanding about it in their almost ludicrous efforts to be good sports. After all, Manley was going overseas to defend civilization, that exalted abstraction inseparable in the Vinings’ mind from the British Empire. And although he was hardly their first choice (a dear boy, Manley, but from Kansas City and a family not even on the Priest of Pallas Ball invitation list), Beatrice seemed to have her heart set on him. And Beatrice had always been given everything she wanted, within reason.
Out of the crowd’s reach for a moment, Manley listened to the saxophone bewailing poor butterfly’s solitary fate. Banal songs, he always thought, were the saddest songs of all, having no grandeur to redeem them. Enjoying a sense of pathos he often cultivated, he gave himself completely to the tin-pan condolence. The mood offered him a sense of detachment. Shouting and singing and clowning and kissing anybody was the fool’s way of reversing emotions from war to peace. Manley liked parties, but more exclusive ones. Probably he would have stayed there only long enough to catch his breath until the song ended and then plunge into the crowd again to continue fighting his way toward the Cafe Continental, where Ross, Woollcott, Winterich and the rest of the S & S’ers were supposed to be throwing a memorable brawl. But just as he turned away from the door, it was thrown open violently and two staggering doughboys appeared. They were shouting, exactly as drunken doughboys should, Finay la guerre! Then, in a gesture completely baffling to Manley, they turned around, touched their thumbs to their noses and jeered, “Yah, ya still a bunch o’ kikes!” Laughing uproariously at their own wit, they threw their arms around each other in mutual admiration and went forth, into the howling sea of faces in the street.
Through the half-open door he had seen a girl so good to look at that he could feel himself smiling. What he noticed first was the contrast of golden skin against white satin. A black satin choker adorned a long slender neck. Another black satin band around her waist accentuated her slenderness. It was the waist of a girl of fifteen. Yet there was nothing fragile or pathetic about her. She was smiling at a tall, Lincolnesque, Jewish-looking soldier of whom Manley was instantly jealous. The smile emphasized the Asiatic cast of her eyes. Her dark hair was cut short (something he hadn’t until this minute approved), smartly combed back except for a little fringe of bangs across her forehead. At that moment he also became an enthusiastic supporter of bangs. He was aware of marvelous bones, the fine bridge of her nose, the sweep of the jaw, and the high cheekbones. Must be one of those French Indo-Chinese girls of wealthy parents who come to Paris to be educated, he decided.
He must have been staring rudely. For suddenly his reverie was interrupted by a most unexpected gesture. She was sticking out her tongue at him. Before he could recover, the music had resumed “Oh, Johnny, oh, Johnny, how you can fight …” and she was carried off lightly in the arms of the tall Jewish soldier.
Then he became aware of Jewishness all round him, dark, Semitic boys in khaki, and a sandy-haired, moon-faced blond-Jew sergeant wearing the proud Red-I of the Fighting First whom a hostess called Julie. The hostesses, too, with the exception of his and one or two others, all had the ancient out-of-style beauty of the Jewess. The saxophone player was a Jew, though the drummer and pianist were Negro SOS privates and apparently the fiddle player was a French civilian. They were surprisingly good.
His mind was on the girl. He took a young man’s interest in the long, slim legs, the tiny waist, the youthful promise of exquisite little breasts, the neck unusually long but graceful and oddly becoming. Above all, her smile sparkled. There was a naughtiness about that smile that rushed a young man on. It was not the practiced and slightly cynical smile of the American coquette, the Y or Red Cross girl in Paris with whom he had become so bored.
The dark pianist raised his young face from the keyboard and letting his fingers dance lightly on the melody, sang “Oh, Johnny, oh, Johnny, how you can love, oh Johnny, oh, Johnny, heavens above …”
Manley was walking toward her. His hand dropped gently on her partner’s shoulder. “Sorry, old man.” Prom style. The tall Jewish soldier melted away. “Merci bien, man chérie,” her words curled silkily around the head of the departing dancer.
When he touched her, an unfamiliar recklessness possessed him. They moved off, miraculously together …
The voice of the pianist filled their silence. Manley was mustering his college French. (He had scolded himself all year for spending too much time with Americans). Something in the yellow-green eyes of this fawn in white satin cued him to put aside the stock openers—What is your name? Do you like American jazz? Do you come here often?
Finally he decided on, “Who are you?”
He had expected the question to catch her off balance, but, behind an elfin smile, her words poured out in such a rapid flow that his college French was soon outdistanced.
“J’ai de mes ancestres gaulois I’oeil bleu blanc, la cervelle etroite, et la maladresse dans la lutte. Je trouve mon habillement aussi barbare que le leur. Mats je ne beurre pas ma chevelure.”
He caught something about the blue-white eye of Gallic ancestors and finding clothes as barbarous as theirs and something that sounded like “I do not butter my hair,” but he said “Je comprends pas. Si vous ne parleriez que plus lentement.”
He translated her deliberate, mock-serious answer. “It is not important that you understand. You are here to dance. And to enjoy holding me.”
He was always at his best in conquests that gave his mind a chance to turn a cartwheel or two. He forced his French to its farthest limits. “Perhaps you can tell me what is important.”
The quartet had left Johnny for a sing-song classification of smiles.
“Pleasure is important. Not just contentment but plaisir.” Her emphasis made it sound tantalizingly dangerous. “The enjoyment of beauty. The only truth.”
“Ah, mademoiselle,” he could almost feel his own charm spraying from his pores, “you are much too beautiful yourself to be worrying about definitions of truth.” “Ho hum,” she exaggerated her yawn.
“Oh, I bore you?”
She moved effortlessly in his arms. He wondered what the perfume was; there was a scent of something fresh and growing about her. He was lost in her.
“Being told I am beautiful? Why shouldn’t it? Every soldier who wants to use me for a night tells me that. I have eyes. I can see that I am beautiful. In the morning after my bath I love to admire myself in the mirror. I say to myself, ’How much more beautiful you are than those overweight nudes of Renoir.’”
He said, accepting her unconventionality for an invitation, “Perhaps I should be fortunate enough to look into your mirror some time.”
She said—he would always remember how out of character it seemed when he still knew her so slightly—“Ish ka bibble.”
He: “Oh, I see you’ve picked up some of our slang.”
She: (in English for the first time, with an exaggerated French accent) “Yes, zees slang is—how you say?—very funnee for uz.”
He: “Oh, you speak English?”
She: “Just what you call ze bedpillow Engleesh.” She gave him an outrageous wink. “You know uz French girls.”
That was the only trouble with these girls over here, even the loveliest and highest-born—they did not wait for you to pluck them, they placed their choicest blossoms in your hands.
“Where do you come from? What do you do?”
“I will tell you a secret—if you promise not to be frightened. I am a sorceress.”
Manley laughed. “An amateur sorceress, or a sorceress by trade?”
“I have a horror of all trades,” she quoted gravely, but with something behind the gravity that was laughing at him. “Masters and workers—base peasants all.”
“Haven’t I heard that somewhere before?”
“You are not a very well educated young man if you haven’t.”
“Before I could finish advanced French literature I dropped out of college to do some field work in mass insanity and advanced annihilation.”
“At least you recognize French literature. That was written by —my husband.”
He would not have believed, five minutes before, that such an admission from the lips of a woman he did not know could do this to him. Of course, over here, it wasn’t the obstacle it would have been in America. There might still be room for an ami.
The musicians, running out of smiles at last, had momentarily subsided. Two soldiers, on their way out, grinned at her familiarly.
“S’long, Jere. Happy Armistice.”
“ ’Night, Sid. Come back soon, Leo.”
“You’re not French at all!”
Manley thought she looked like a half-grown cat when she smiled. “Were you really fooled? Oh, I love to fool people.”
Manley’s impressions did a rapid somersault. A moment before she had been a strange French girl. Now she seemed like a young American.
“What sort of place is this anyway? Looks like a reunion of the Twelve Tribes.”
“You mean you don’t even know where you are? The clubhouse of the Jewish Welfare Board.”
He heard another hollow oh echoing from him. Then, reluctantly, he asked. “Are you—are you Jewish?”
She answered him gaily. “Of course. My name is Jere Wild-berg.”
Jere Wildberg. He was afraid the disappointment would show on his face. In these few seconds he had to improvise a new setting. Her father was probably a wealthy clothing manufacturer who could send her to the best schools, well, almost the best. His name was undoubtedly Jerome Wildberg. He really had wanted a boy to take over the business but had thought it would be cute to name her Jere.
“Whatsa matta, you didn’t take me for a shicksa, didja?” She was laughing at him. It was waltz time now and the musicians, who seemed to know all the new ones, started up with Will You Remember? Jewish, or not, Manley conceded, she was something to look at. And there was a quickness in her, an imaginativeness, a streak of non-conformity, a high-keyed vitality new to him. Wait till he told the boys at Mama’s that he spent Armistice night at the Jewish Welfare Board dance, in the arms of an indescribably beautiful Jewess. He was just about to draw her a little closer to him for the waltz when a short, swarthy corporal muttered, “Sorry, Lieutenant,” and took her away.
For an hour he was alternately ecstatic and glum as he cut in, yielded, cut in again. In the minutes when he was forced to the sidelines he was startled to find how desperate he became. He had to touch her again, feel her lithe, young body moving with his and marvel at the way her mind whipped unexpected words to her impudent tongue.
“Lieutenant, you mustn’t monopolize me.”
“You sound like a Bull Mooser.”
“You see, it’s part of our job to remain in circulation.”
“I refuse to have you sound like a lending-library book.”
“And anyway, you’re much too handsome.”
“Why, Miss Wildberg!”
“It’s true. You know, you look a little like Byron. You aren’t, by any chance?”
“Just call me George Gordon when we’re alone.”
“I always have to be on my guard against handsome men, men as good-looking as Francis X. Bushman but with something delicate and ethereal about them, something poetic.”
“Have you fallen in love with many like that?”
“I hate them all.”
“So do I—now. I fall out of love even quicker than I fall in. That’s why 1 know I should never be married.”
“But—didn’t you tell me you were married?”
“Oh, did I?”
A thin-faced private was in the way. “Cutting in, Lieutenant.”
Manley retired to the sidelines in frustration. It was like trying to hold a piece of quicksilver, glittering in the palm of his hand but slipping away each time he tried to enclose it.
Before he could cut back, another soldier had taken his place. The little Jewish bitch. She was just playing him the way she did all the others. Look at her smiling up at that Hebe. Well, she wasn’t the only girl in Paris, God knows.
Ah, he had her back again.
“Now to get back to this mysterious husband of yours.”
“Such a grim look, m’sieur. You aren’t an agent of the Sûreté by any chance?”
“Madame, I have been shadowing you for months. Your name is not Jere Wildberg. It is Baroness Hilda Von Fruhling-Spitzel Horsthausenschaft, Operator X2y37 of Imperial German Intelligence.”
—“Ach, ausgefundet!” Jere cried. She looked up into his face with her eyes wide open in Theda Bara intrigue.
They were dancing past the musicians. “Play Madelon again, Eddie.” She smiled at the pianist. Then she looked up at Man-ley disarmingly. “I like dancing with you. You’re romantic.”
“How do you know that?”
“The way you put your cheek against mine and close your eyes.”
“When I open my eyes, there are yours, your yellow-green cat eyes staring at me. What are you looking at, Jere, when you stare like that?”
“I’m trying to look inside you to see what you really are.”
“You told me you were a sorceress, but I didn’t take you seriously.”
“Never take me completely seriously. But always take me a little seriously.”
“I’ll remember that.”
They took a good look at each other. It was a look of both tenderness and appraisal.
“What is your name—Lord Byron?”
He thought quickly. “Mannie,” he answered. “Mannie Hallenstein.”
She stopped to execute a little curtsy, playfully but very prettily. “Welcome to our humble chambers, m’lord.” He thought her adorable—exquisite—her bright eyes—her quick ways.
An intruder attempting to cut in was rejected rashly. “Come back later, fella.”
“Mannie, that isn’t nice. It’s bad for morale.”
“Not for my morale. Now, what’s all this nonsense about a husband?”
Her laugh was a little cry of triumph. He didn’t see anything to laugh about. Had there ever been a husband, and did he write that stuff she had been spouting before?
Well, in a way.
In what way?
She had quoted from something she was working on. And couldn’t a girl be married to her work?
What kind of work?
Translating Rimbaud. She was going to do an English translation of Une Saison en Enfer. It was such a magnificent poem, no not magnificent, terrible. She’d say it over to herself at night and feel almost too frightened to be alone. It was that kind of a poem. It wasn’t just the words, the meaning, but the sound, the feeling. But the job of translation drove her to the limits of madness. It was so perfect in French, so passionate, so direct. And when she put it in English it always seemed such a letdown. “Dingy and blah,” she said.
“What made you want to do it?”
“Why do people try to climb Mt. Everest?”
The intruder was back and this time he would not be denied. Manley sulked as she was led away. Once, as he waited on the sidelines, she caught his eye over her partner’s shoulder and stuck out her tongue again.
When his turn came, he held her closer. The connection was made and the currents of youth poured through them. Shyly his lips pressed through her hair and began to explore the soft warm lobe of her ear. He could feel the involuntary fluttering in her, the quickening. Into the darkness of her ruffled hair he whispered a mysterious incantation, “Jere … Jere …”
“Mannie …” She spoke softly.
He waited for the whispered words of assurance.
“That tickles my ear.”
He drew his head away. “Jere, if I weren’t an officer and a gentleman, I’d …”
“I don’t know you well enough.”
“Oh—foof! Either they tell you you are beautiful, or that they don’t know you well enough.”
“But I’m ready to devote a major portion of my time—something I’ve got plenty of—to knowing you well enough.”
“Beware, beware my young friend, I warned you, I’m a sorceress.”
“And I am already bewitched.”
She stopped dancing, placed her palms against his cheeks and puckered her lips in a little mock gesture of commiseration. “Poor Mannie Hallenstein.”
He traced the provocative curve of her lips with his fingers. Suddenly she took a little cat-bite. It really stung and she laughed when he pulled his hand away.
The band had reached the final chord for the dancers. The party was officially over but the pianist started fooling around with the keys and he had a nice light touch and a lot of inventiveness. A crowd formed around him and they started singing home songs, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, and East Side, West Side, Beautiful Ohio, My Old Kentucky Home and Just Try to Picture Me Down Home in Tennessee, which soon gave way to the Tattooed Lady, with everybody joining in with gusto and a tingling sense of being wicked.
This led inevitably, almost religiously, to a recital of the charms of the busy Mademoiselle from Armentieres. The pianist began with the version acceptable even to the Y and slyly worked his way down to the words the boys really sang. Then he grinned around at Jere, “Come on, Miss J.—”
With one foot on the piano bench, Jere sang in a comic, unmusical voice:
“Oh, Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parlez-vous?
Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parlez-vous?
She met a Y man here in France, And showed him what he had in his pants, Hinky-dinky parlez-vous.”
The soldiers whistled and cheered. But a plump, scandalized matron moved in disapprovingly. “Miss Wilder, after all!”
“But Armistice only comes once in a lifetime, Mrs. Levinson.”
“You can have a good time without being indecent.”
Manley whispered. “How soon can we leave?”
“Meet me in the coat room in ten minutes.”
Hidden behind the rows of trench coats, Manley uncorked his bottle of brandy. He needed fool’s courage to keep up with this one. What had that goose called her—Wilder? Was it just a nickname? She was wild all right. The brandy felt hot and encouraging. All right, Jere Wildberg, he was up to anything the evening might offer.
Ten … fifteen minutes. What if she shouldn’t come? Why should he have believed her? She had been full of lies—wild stories rolling off her tongue like—quicksilver again. Would she be cruel enough to let him waste away out here in this cloakroom Siberia? She had the deviltry for it. He had almost talked himself into the wretched conviction that she had tricked him, just as she had tricked him with the business of being French, and being married, when in she came. He ran to her and grabbed her hands crazily, “Jere, you’ve come—you’ve come!”
“Of course I’ve come, little idiot. Didn’t I tell you I would?”
“Yes—yes—but you told me so many things …”
She placed her hands against his cheeks again. “My poor Mannie Hallenstein.” This time he held her there and came forward to her until he brushed her lips. But at the last moment she turned way and laughed.
“I can’t possibly kiss you until I reek of brandy like you do.”
“As you do. Like is a preposition.”
“Oh, grammar.” She tossed her head. “You know what I mean.”
The impulsive way she hurried to catch up with him could have been a forewarning.
“Rimbaud is my first love. But good cognac sneaks up and ravishes me. And I’ll tell you a secret—I don’t care.”
Hopelessly infatuated, even more hopelessly alarmed (hearing faintly the whispered warning from Kansas City and Cambridge was he letting himself in for more than he bargained), he took her arm. Together they went out into the swirling night of songs and horns and drunken heralding of the end of a war.
On the corner the deformed little man, who until the day before had been the Emperor, was going up in flames of papier-mache while revelers in a dozen different uniforms danced around the pyre crazily singing We’ll Hang the Kaiser Under the Linden Tree. Jere and Manley watched a private and a lieutenant-colonel dancing together wearing each other’s caps. A full colonel snatched up a laughing Red Cross girl and kissed her long and passionately while onlookers cheered. Emboldened, Manley reached for Jere. She slapped him.
“Je ne comprends pas” he said.
“I don’t want you to kiss me just because everybody is kissing everybody. When you kiss someone I want it to be me”
They went along with the crowd, they sang La Marseillaise and Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning and endless verses of Mademoiselle, they were in and out of packed cafes, they danced, drank champagne on the house, were picked up by a general in an open General Staff car on his way to Maxim’s. He insisted on assuming they were married and kept patting Jere’s hand and promising he would see to it that her husband was promoted, decorated and sent back to the States. When the general became too interested, they excused themselves to dance and slipped away through the crowd on the floor.
Outside on the Rue Royale they were caught up in a squad of riotous doughboys executing the goose step and shouting in unison “Ein, zwei, drei, vier—Ach du Himmel! When they spied Jere they yelled, “Ein Fraulein!” and broke ranks to embrace her. One was wearing a Kaiser’s mustache of charcoal and several sported Prussian helmets. To Manley’s annoyance, Jere kissed each of the boys smilingly on the lips.
Dawn brought them to Les Halles, where they found themselves gorging on pig’s feet, washed down with champagne, in the company of a happily drunken French butcher and a giant Senegalese sergeant. Then the four of them, arm-in-arm, walked around the market place together, singing the foulest songs the butcher and the sergeant could think of, which, with a great show of conscientiousness and affection, they were teaching Manley and Jere.
It had been one of those nights when their luck was high. It would have been impossible to find a cab and they were miles from Jere’s quarters in the Cite Bergere but suddenly they were embarrassed by too much transportation. The butcher wanted the honor of taking them home in his truck. The Senegalese, for some mysterious reason they preferred not to question, had a motorcycle with a sidecar at his disposal. He would consider himself insulted if they did not avail themselves of its use. The butcher and the Senegalese fell into argument as to who should have the privilege of driving them home. It turned out to be a magnificent match. They were both well over six feet tall and two hundred pounds.
“The first morning of peace in Europe in four-and-a-half years,” Manley muttered to Jere as they watched their two friends smash each other’s faces.
At last the butcher was overcome. As he lay panting on the sidewalk, his left eye and his nose a bloody mess, Jere addressed him sweetly. “Thank you just the same for your kind offer. Now go straight home and wash your face.”
The burly Frenchman, from his sitting position, touched his hand to his sweaty forehead in a casual salute. “Vive la Victoire,” he said, and then, with an admiring nod toward his conqueror, “I leave you in good hands.”
Except for the fact that their Senegalese seemed to lack either a brake or any interest in slowing down, the ride through the city was uneventful. The Senegalese deposited them at the gate, insisted on kissing them on both cheeks, wished them good luck and a full life, and then, like all good characters in fairy tales and drunken escapades, zoomed off down the street, never to be seen by them again but always to be remembered as a fine figure of a man with a superlative memory for earthy lyrics.
Jere tried the gate. “I was afraid it would be locked,” she said.
“Shall I come up for a few minutes?”
He felt sure of himself. The easy way she had handled those blunt verses and how she had laughed at the stories at Les Halles and the little remarks she dropped.
She looked at him playfully. “It’s half past five, my lipstick’s all smeared, my hair’s a mess, I’m two-thirds blotto, I feel older than Elsie Janis’ mother—and you still want to come up?”
“I’m a very determined young man.”
“Oh, dear, and I’m a very undetermined young woman. That’s dangerous.”
She turned her lips to him at last, but almost in a taunting way. It made him want to kiss her brutally, to stop this incessant playing. For a moment their kiss was the only reality.
But as suddenly as she had offered her lips she withdrew them again.
“People who close their eyes when they dance always close their eyes when they kiss.”
Ready for her to go limp in his arms, he was furious.
“I didn’t realize I was dealing with such an expert.”
“And your ’Shall I come up for a few minutes?’ Oh, handsome Lieutenant Hallenstein, how many Red Cross girls and telephone operators and visiting entertainers have you thrilled with that silken phrase?”
He would have liked to throttle her.
Her hand dropped lightly on his arm. “Mannie, you’re forgetting half my warning already. Never take me too seriously.” Her hand slipped down into his, and squeezed it consolingly. “Thanks for a swell time.”
Managing to mutter something polite, he staggered off in the general direction of the quays. But he had taken only a few steps when he heard a piercing whistle. It was Jere, with two fingers in her mouth like a tomboy. “Don’t slouch when you walk,” she called. “You’ll get round-shouldered.”
As he groped his way down to the pont de la Tournelle, he whistled his own flat, who-cares arrangement of Butterfly.
All the next day, through a party at the apartment that was less an Armistice celebration than a counter-attack against ennui and let-down, drinking Big Berthas, a violent concoction he had named with Hank Osborne, his French nurse Mignon and officers and girls who came passing through, Manley’s mind kept wandering off to the Cite Bergere. The problems of the Armistice stirred him less than the riddle of Jere Wildberg. Was she fast? Was she a New World flapper in bright colors ? Or was she something strangely un-American, a true eccentric? A self-acknowledged “keen judge of character,” this time he had to give himself a failing grade. All he could be sure of was that he was intrigued —no, that word was too mild, and he reached for a more accurate one—incited.
Talk curled around him in argumentative smoke-rings. A PRO major from Tours, hopefully Wilsonian, believed in the Armistice as the first step toward a lasting peace and a new world order. But Mignon—Minnie they called her—wasn’t sure it wouldn’t be better for France and the Allies to crush Germany once and for all while they had the chance. Hank didn’t think it mattered too much one way or the other. The Revolution was bound to spread from Russia to Germany and France. “When you keep on using people for cannon fodder, they finally explode in your face.” He wasn’t a Bolshie, but Christ when you looked at all the raw stuff pulled in the name of Democracy … Man-ley drank his Big Berthas and thought of Jere.
“This time the people are gonna be heard from,” Hank insisted.
“Aw, in a month you’ll be flying against the Bolshies in Siberia and hating ’em worse ’n the Heinies,” the PRO prophesied.
“The hell I will,” Hank said. “This boy’s applying for his discharge as soon as he c’n sober up enough to find his C.O. and make ’im sign the recommendation.”
Then they were back on topic A. Provided the war was really over (which no one quite believed yet) how soon would they get back into civvies. And B: what would the States be like? And C: whatinhell were they going to do?
“I know what this boy’s gonna do,” Hank announced. “I’m goin’ out with Minnie to her folk’s farm and grow a long beard and sleep till noon and tank up on Burgundy every afternoon and jump into bed with Minnie every evening after supper and sleep until noon again and then get up and eat half a dozen eggs and comb my beard and …”
“But Henri,” Mignon interrupted (they were the only Franco-American arrangement Manley knew that seemed to have a future), “you have an active mind. You cannot do that all your life.”
“Who’s talking about all my life? I was just thinking of the next forty or fifty years.”
Manley was thinking about his plans too. Of course the sensible move was returning to Beatrice. If he could get through law school, Mr. Vining would be obliged to take him into the firm. Why, in twenty years, he and Beatrice—the slide blurred and refused to stay in focus. Damn it, if he was a writer, now was the time to prove it. He had a third of a novel written, and a little money saved up. He should stay in France, where a dollar hadn’t lost its prestige, and finish Friends and Foes.
He couldn’t imagine himself explaining the plan of his novel to Beatrice Vining. Jere was the girl to tell. She had that nice kind of madness. Nothing surprised her. She had a horror of ruts and grubbing.
“Where you goin’, Hally?”
“Just remembered. Gotta call Pershing. He’s waiting for me to tell him what to do next.”
“Tell him I said to get the lead out and let’s get the hell home,” said a bleary-eyed captain in the Field Artillery.
As Manley flung open the great iron gate, he felt a shortness of breath, a pounding in his heart, a quickening of pulse—familiar symptoms of the psychosomatic affliction called, in the poverty of our vocabulary, love.
Behind the desk a powerfully bosomed concierge wearing a prominent black crucifix was primly knitting an absurdly small pair of socks. “Mademoiselle Wildberg? Ah, Mademoiselle Wildairre. Oui, m’sieur.” It was room 37. She would send a message.
“Don’t bother. I’ll run up,” Manley said.
The woman began to protest, then shrugged and returned to her little world of yarn that she could control.
He knocked on the door.
“Come in, Mannie.”
The odd yellow-green cat-eyes, peering out from under bangs, regarded him impertinently. “How did I know it was you?”
“Your knock, m’sieur. No one else bold enough to come up and knock without being invited would knock so shyly.”
He looked around at incredible disorder. Old clothes on a pile on the floor. Ends of things hanging out of bureau drawers. Books and magazines scattered on tables, in the windowseat and on the floor. Crumpled papers that had missed the waste-basket. Cigarette butts crushed into damp coffee saucers.
She followed his eyes and grinned. “I suppose you’re terribly neat.”
“I guess so. I’ve always had to keep after my roommates.”
“Good. Be neat for both of us.”
He noticed the steamer trunk in the corner, used as an auxiliary bureau. Stenciled on top was the name W-i-l-d-e-r.
“So your name is Wilder?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“What made you say Wildberg?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Everybody there has a name like that. And sometimes I get tired of being me.”
Manley felt as if a sack of stones had just been removed from his shoulder.
“But why in the world do you work for the Jewish Welfare Board?”
“Well, first, Anne Morgan bounced me for being AWOL. Then I found out the JWB let their hostesses wear evening clothes at dances. And I hate uniforms. On women I mean. I wouldn’t mind so much if I were plump and homely. But I’m not.”
She was wearing an ankle-length green chiffon tea gown that followed her tall, wiry figure.
“That’s the main reason I work for the JWB. And then it makes me laugh to think how much it annoys Pate.”
“Papa. Calling him Pate annoys him too. In fact everything annoys him that isn’t done exactly the way he orders. Sometimes I think I might marry a Jew—it would serve him right for being so narrow-minded.”
“You know, my name really isn’t Hallenstein either. It’s Halliday. Manley Halliday.”
She curtsied prettily again. “Welcome back to the Anglo-Saxon fold, Halliday.”
Just the same, and all fooling aside, he was damned relieved.
“For twenty-four hours you were the most beautiful Jewess I’ve ever seen.”
“Are you rich?” she asked. The uniform was expensively tailored and he had the airs that go with money.
He was beginning to get used to her sudden questions.
“You mean permanently? Or tonight?”
“Oh, tonight will do.”
“Tonight I’ve got a month’s pay in my pocket—my allowance from Uncle Sam in return for putting in an occasional appearance at the S & S office, where my official job is not to interfere with the journalistic activities of the most ornery assortment of enlisted men to be found this side of a Russian Soviet. But to come to the point, Miss Wilder, my entire wealth is at your disposal.”
“In that case you can take me to Prunier’s. Did I warn you, I have frightfully expensive tastes ? I’m a fiend for caviar and oysters and buckets of champagne.”
Even in the crush of diners waiting for tables at Prunier’s, they found it easy to talk to each other. And all through dinner and on to the Cafe de Paris and further on to a little place in the Montmartre that specialized in second-rate champagne and second-hand American jazz they talked the way only young people can when their words glow with the special intensity of romance. Manley liked the way she listened, her head down, her eyes very wide, attentive—somehow she was able to make listening a positive act. (Or was this, he wondered, simply phase one of falling in love?) He told her things he hadn’t even revealed to Hank Osborne—his sense of loss, of having missed something vital to his career in not seeing action at the front. His fear, “to be absolutely honest about it,” that Hank might crack through with the first great war book (“Hank certainly has it in him”) and that his own account of rear-echelon stagnation would seem narrow and tame.
It was probably a silly damnfool notion that he could write a novel. The stuff he had written so far was so much flatter than the way he saw it in his mind. But sometimes he had come right back to the room from evening chow and pounded till daylight and he could feel it coming, pouring out of him in a stream that seemed strangely independent of him. Then he could see it in print, with his name in big letters, hear everybody saying Have you read Friends and Foes, why, Halliday has it all over Hergesheimer. Oh, he was a fool, a callow simpleton to have such dreams. There were things he wanted to say but they stayed locked in his head. He would never be a second Wells or Conrad or Compton Mackenzie, he was morosely convinced, jus one more unpublished would-be author.
More than just listening, Jere was going through it with him. He found himself telling her of his visit to a German prison camp some months before, of his revulsion for the profane and ignorant American major who treated all Germans as if they were pigs and of the chance meeting with a prisoner who happened to be a mild but inquisitive philologist.
“It made me wonder,” Manley was summing it up for Jere over cognac and coffee, “which was friend and which was foe? Which was the man we’ve been fighting to defend and which was the tyrant we’ve been trying to crush? I left the States with a lot of juvenile black-and-white notions about noble and atrocious causes. I would’ve made a peach of an editorial writer for the Literary Digest. Now I just want to write about people, good and bad, some on one side, some on another, caught up in something that carries them all along together, combat men going about their bloody business reluctantly and with no grand heroics, and SOS officers having the time of their lives working the old Army game. I want to get down to the rock-bottom truth of all this, Jere.”
A French band straining bravely to render American songs in rag-time had made it impossible for any but the enthralled to concentrate. But now it slipped into something more comfortable. Poor Butterfly fluttering from weeping violins.
They looked at each other; they already had quite a repertoire of looks with different meanings.
“Our song,” Manley said. This was suddenly much more important than any discussion of literary dreams.
“Dance with me.”
Tall and thin—supple he would have said—she reminded him a little of Irene Castle as they whirled slowly together in a kind of floating somnambulism. He became aware of admiring glances from seated onlookers and other dancers. It gave him a racy sense of appreciation of what a startlingly handsome couple they were. Somehow the tragic death of Vernon Castle lent poignancy to the moment. Just a year or so before, Vernon Castle had lived with the world literally at his feet, with his sweetheart for a partner, his partner for a bride, personifying the triumph of romance over reality. No wonder their place had been called Castle in the Sky. But suddenly the castle had become a plane and the plane a junk-pile of twisted metal and torn flesh on a Texas field. Fame, romance, success—these things were so precious that no one could be entrusted with their possession for more than a moment. Here, hold this, it’s yours, for an instant! Then it was snatched back and something fell away from under you and you were plummeting to earth—Crash.
In the blossoms waiting …
Somehow it was good to feel so sad, to be so young, to have such hope and such vanity, to move with such delicious ease. As they circled slowly in perfect time together she asked, “Why are you so sad, m’sieur?” It was a little coy, but he didn’t mind.
“Because while we’re enjoying this it’s slipping out of out hands. Jere, if we could only stop the big clock and be us tonight the rest of our lives.”
“But we can’t. We’ll grow old and ugly and say humph to young people.”
He held her very close. She liked the pressure of his hand urging her closer. She was the goddess of fleeting time and if he merged her body with his, prone together like the midnight hands, the works might be stopped, the hour of youth forever suspended.
All this leaped up from a dark fold in Manley’s brain as he studied the panel in the entrance of the Sutton Place apartment
house and pushed the button beside the little black letters forming Wilder-Halliday.
What is more painful than the memory of lost pleasures?
As the self-operating elevator moved up the shaft on its creeping journey toward the roof, Manley’s mind, in another building and another time, moved slowly down into the past, level after level, until he was back at the Cite Bergere.
They were closing the gates for midnight curfew. If he went up with Jere now he would have to stay until dawn, thanks to this medieval architectural appendix Paris was too sentimental to remove. The Rimbaud translation, which Manley now seemed so anxious to hear, provided a semi-respectable motive for going back to 37 with her.
Jere poured them each a cognac. Lighting two tall candles, she turned out the overhead light. It seemed to Manley that the yellow glow of the candles was exactly the color tone of her skin.
“Rimbaud and bright lights just never seem right together. He lived in his own world of half-light. When you read Rimbaud —or go into Rimbaud, I should say—you feel sure he must have written by the light of hell-fire.”
Manley realized for the first time what an extremist she was. She drank her brandy avidly, searched haphazardly among the helter-skelter of her desk for the work in progress. It was an atmosphere of dark intensity she created as she began to read, first from the Rimbaud original and then her own:
“Now let us hear the confession of a companion in hell.
O heavenly bridegroom, do not refuse the confession of the saddest of your servants. I am lost. I am besotted. I am impure …”
She paused. “The next words are ’Quelle vie!’ That’s what drives you crazy. You’d have to say ’What a life!’ or even ’What an existence!’ But the thing about Rimbaud is, he’s so direct, blunt. If I could only find two short words that produce the impact of Quelle vie! It’s a better language, that’s the trouble. Much better for poetry. So the best I can ever do is a dullish paraphrase.”
“How about ’Some Life!’”
“Mmm. That’s closer to the feeling. But isn’t it awfully American?” She tossed the scribbled page away impatiently. “Oh, the hell with it. If people want to read Rimbaud, let ’em learn French.”
She had drunk her first cognac quickly and now she poured herself another. Manley was still inhaling his luxuriously. He was wondering, should he grab her suddenly, should he lead her gently toward the bed … She rose and went to the window. “I think I’ll miss the air-raids. When they came over it gave you such a—such a whole feeling. All your little worries and fears seemed so futile …
“Purification by TNT,” Manley said. His voice was low. He had come up behind her at the window.
Lips, open a little in hunger, fed upon each other. His hands were two thieves, one holding her fast while the other made a desperate search, a hurried, clumsy thief pulling at buttons, tearing at openings.
“Mannie, I—I hate that feeling.”
Fighting him off was passion too.
“Jere, I—I can’t help it—you make me …”
“Fingers under my clothes …”
“Jere, please, please, you must …”
The words struck him like sharp little stones; “There isn’t anything in this world I must do, except die, and I’ll never forgive God for making me do that.”
She drew away. He felt limp, gross, boorish; he loathed himself. All lathered up in a sweat of passion, he thought in disgust.
But she was the one to apologize. “Mannie, I know—it’s a compliment. My nose would grow long as Pinocchio’s if I told you I didn’t want you to want me this way. But—when it happens, there won’t be any tugging at buttons. If it happens, we’ll both know it’s going to happen and we’ll come to each other and the clothes will fall away.”
Idiotically—or did it only seem so in retrospect—he had taken her hand and kissed her fingertips. “Bien entendu, Mademoiselle Wildberg.”
The balance was restored.
“I hope you don’t think I’m one of those RCV’s who’s listened to one too many lectures on a Christian mind in a Christian body.”
“Now don’t forget, we’re a couple of JWB kids. When a Hallenstein can’t mess around with a Wildberg, what are we Jews coming to?”
At one o’clock in the morning, with nerves still taut, that made them howl with laughter.
“After all,” Manley ventured, “it’s not your fault if your father slipped an old-fashioned chastity belt on you before you came overseas and locked the key in his safe.”
“That’s my father—holding all the keys, always—thousands of them—he wears them all on his belly like a fat sommelier.”
Conversation and brandy flowed through the night together in a swift, warm stream. Everything one had to tell the other seemed of enormous importance to both. Manley learned that Jere’s father was the George Nibely Wilder of Wilder, Spence & Worthington, the Wall Street law firm. Knowing she was a Wilder didn’t make her any more attractive. But it did make her attractive in a different way. There were no obstacles to his falling in love, maybe even marrying a Wilder.
He learned that Jere had been packed off to Switzerland when she was fifteen, as a sort of banishment from the Wilder realm. “I was the only one who talked back to Pate. My sisters were broken early like good little colts. Everything he ever asked me to do, I’d do the opposite. He thought he could run our lives by deciding how much money to allow us. He thought money and what he called ’all the advantages’ could take the place of—place of …” She laughed defiantly. “I showed him. I ran away from that school in Geneva with a French boy called Jean-Jacques. Named after Rousseau. I loved the name. I guess that was the only thing about him I was in love with. As soon as I got on the train with him I couldn’t stand him. It had just been one of those school things. When you’re with a lot of girls, and you’re competing, and you see a boy somebody else likes very much, you can make yourself believe all kinds of things. He had horribly oily hair and was only sixteen years old and had read the complete works of Casanova and he was all mishy inside.”
Mr. Wilder, using a convenient Government inspection tour, had arrived promptly. He had meant to be patiently firm and severe because, after all, he was a reasonable man and he realized what a handicap it had been for a high-spirited girl to be raised without a mother. But Jere’s emotionalism and hateful temper had finally unnerved him. When he placed her in a highly recommended school in Nice, it was with the understanding that they would no longer bother with the conventions of a proper father-daughter relationship. “I will continue to support you and pray that you do no more than you have already done to besmirch the Wilder reputation,” he had said stiffly.
“Well,” Jere went on, “at Madame Legendre’s in Nice, the headmistress was sleeping with the Latin teacher. I found out— oh, in a very sly way—and she hated me like rat poison after that. A bunch of us slipped out through a second-floor window one night and went riding with some French junior officers. We all got caught, because a teacher’s pet snitched, but I was the only one Madame expelled. Then I said right out loud in front of teachers and everybody what I knew about her and Monsieur Guillon. It was a terrible thing to do. Because Madame Legendre ran a very respectable school and M. Guillon was married. Sometimes I think I like to hate people. Hurt people, I mean. Always dominating or being dominated. That’s why I like Rimbaud. He was such a good hater. I mean, he hated the whole thing—religion, domesticity, business and laws, respectability—’these Occidental swamps.’”
He was beginning to see how her mind worked. It traveled no rational straight line. It was an active but reckless and whimsical mind that rushed to sudden violent conclusions, a mind often struck by brilliance but a brilliance that zigzagged as haphazardly and uselessly as lightning.
While the little cubicle of an elevator crawls up the wall to the penthouse apartment of Jere Wilder Halliday as tediously as a potato bug, the memories slide by with the speed and invisibility of light.
That first post-war winter in Paris, for those who knew their Army game, foreshadowed the waves of American tourists and expatriates soon to come. More than ever, Manley felt that his uniform was a masquerade, especially since, through a bit of discreet cultivation, he wore the Croix de Guerre.
They mingled with the American crowd busy straightening out the world in the plush corners of the Crillon. The spectacle provided Manley, with a new ending for his book. His last chapter viewed the goings-on at the Crillon as “the crowning absurdity of a generation with a singular talent for embracing absurdities —for rising with earth-shaking enthusiasm to the most absurd of occasions.”
Jere, characteristically, expressed her feelings somewhat more directly. At the Crillon bar one evening she and Manley were boasting about their athletic prowess. Manley insisted that he had once sparred with Freddy Welsh and that the champion had told Manley he had the makings of a first-rate lightweight if he ever thought of turning pro. (This fistic myth was to cause Man-ley considerable difficulty, much climbing through imaginary ropes with six-drink courage.) Jere had boasted of her ability to do cartwheels and backward flips (“I dive fantastically well,” she had added). “Look, I’ll show you!” she had said suddenly. She executed a perfect cartwheel in front of the bar.
It rated a box in next morning’s Paris Trib and a few scandalized lines in the Dyle Myle. Jere was quoted as saying, “Was it any sillier than some of the things going on in the ballroom?”
Everyone knew Jere Wilder after that. She became a sort of femme du moment like Regina Flory.
In March of 1919, to a young man in love, inefficiency, absent-mindedness, lack of regard for money and the ease with which she slipped off the corset of responsibility all seemed to be delightful traits.
People would turn to smile in appreciation when they entered rooms. Manley and Jere saw in their eyes the flattering reflection. They were a kind of double Narcissus.
Spring came to Paris like a big traveling circus. There was music in the streets and the girls were pretty again. Pinched faces filled out, children played round the fountains, Paris wore bright skirts bordered with chestnut blossoms and blue violets. Merry-go-rounds whirled and lovers took to sidewalk tables, parks, little boats, carriages, benches on the Seine, the Eiffel, lacy iron balconies, bridle paths …
The first Memorial Day Manley wangled one of the S & S Fords and they drove out to the ceremonies at Suresnes. Jere looked charmingly—deceptively—provincial in her white organdy dress and oval-brimmed straw hat with its little black band running under her chin. They couldn’t help laughing as they drove out along the cobblestone streets of the suburbs. Not until they saw the incredible number of little white crosses on the hillside of Suresnes did they remember the mood of the day.
They were able to get quite close to the President. With his top-hat and frockcoat accentuating his height and his angularity, he looked less a popular leader than an undertaker presiding at the burial of a world. They had never seen anyone so severely in earnest. A personification of irony, this dry Scotch Presbyterian scholar who permitted himself to dream, this stern Princetonian aristocrat who, alone of the peacemakers, had captured the imagination of the common people of Europe.
They heard him say:
“These men came … to defeat forever … arrogant, selfish, dominance … and to see to it that there should never be a war like this again.
“It is our duty to see to it… that the mothers of America… of France and England and Italy and Belgium … shall never be called upon for this sacrifice again.
“These men … have given their lives that the world might be united … in order to secure the freedom of mankind … The people … are in the saddle … this age rejects the standards of national selfishness …
“We must have a League of Nations … not merely a peace settlement … There shall never be a war like this again …”
Righteousness, heavy as dew, settled on the brows of the listeners.
Prayers. Taps. Artillery salute. The minute of silence.
In their graves, should dead soldiers lie in a heap as they fell? Or at parade rest?
Stiff with virtue, fat with hope, the assembly moved off. Mr. Wilson, the good man gone wrong and/or the wrong man gone good, retired with appropriate solemnity.
“I’m glad you made me come,” Jere said. “He makes you feel so positive—and hopeful.”
She was easily carried away. Two days later she would be agreeing with all the pronouncements of Wilson’s mistakes.
“It sounds good,” Manley admitted, “but when you think about the Italian demands, and all this talk about secret deals— Oh, hell, it’s too beautiful a day to think. Let’s just drive somewhere.”
The Ford seemed to lead them back along the Seine through Paris to the Bois de Vincennes. They stopped for vins blancs at a funny little place on the corner across from the fortress and then, beyond the suburbs at last, they went rolling on through the soft green countryside, following the Marne in the general direction of Reims.
Manley had never seen her so relaxed. She kept saying how much she loved the sunshine. She stretched and purred in it. All winter she had seemed high-strung and brittle.
They turned up toward Chateau Thierry. Farmers were plowing around shell holes. A country church lay in ruins. A native caretaker was a scarecrow figure of desolation in an orderly garden of white crosses.
For the first time since their meeting half a year before, she talked about the war. He had grown used to the idea of her being so self-centered that the problems of translating Rimbaud would seem more important to her than human suffering and the puzzle of converting Armistice to peace.
“Maybe the little white crosses are better off,” she said suddenly when they had been left a kilometer behind. “I did a little aid work at a base hospital at Neuilly—I don’t think I ever told you. There were quite a few French gueules casses there. There was one with no arms and no legs and just a mess of burned flesh where his face used to be. He had no mouth at all, just a little charred hole. And yet—this was the scary part—he could talk. He kept pleading with the doctors to kill him. His name was Robert Denise. Before the war he had been a bicycle racer.
One day I had to read him a letter from his fiancee. From the sounds he started making in his throat I could tell he was crying, but there wasn’t enough face left to be able to see …”
A shadow of silence slipped past them. She took a deep breath, opening her mouth as if the air were something good to eat. “Too nice a day,” she said, “too nice a day.” She looked over and smiled at him. Her straw hat had fallen back on her shoulders. He had never liked her so much before.
They had passed through a number of partially destroyed villages which were slowly coming back to life. Now they were approaching Vaux. Rising on the left was a gentle slope covered with apple trees in blossom. Just beyond was another small American cemetery where perhaps a company had been wiped out in one of the bitter battles of the last-gasp German counterattack the year before.
“Mmmm, smell the apple blossoms,” Jere said. They had seen enough white crosses for one day.
Vaux was the first village of their journey to be totally destroyed. The broken neck of the church steeple drew a harsh line against the sky. Every one of the modest stone houses had collapsed into a pile of rubble. A great city in ruins is a tragic sight. A little village reduced to a junk-lot of broken stones makes one want to cry, the way the crushed body of a little girl side-swiped on a roadside is a more sorrowful sight than thousands of men lying dead on a battlefield. Human emotion has never excelled at higher mathematics.
They had to pick their way carefully along the battered road of the ghost-village. Nothing seemed to live here, not even dogs or rats. Then, in front of the house next to the last, they saw two old people sitting motionlessly on their broken stone steps, staring without watching anything. The roof that shells had ripped away had been replaced by stray boards and tattered tar paper. The torn windows had been boarded up. The only inhabitants of Vaux did not seem to see the Ford as it approached.
“Mannie,” Jere said. “Those two old people.”
They parked and got out, but the old couple gave no sign of having seen them. Jere said “Bon jour” and “Are you the only ones who have come back?” and “When did you return?” The old man answered in toneless monosyllables. Manley offered them a pack of cigarettes. The old man accepted with a grunt, merci. Jere and Manley looked at each other, frowning. They had a common impulse to break through this wall of suspicion, to say, “Look, we’re sorry for you. It isn’t our fault. We’d like to help you.”
“Are you able to manage here all alone?” Manley asked. His heavy American accent hung awkwardly in the silence. For an answer, the old man merely shrugged. “But why do you stay here? How is it possible to live?” The hostile silence, infecting them, made Jere sound almost petulant.
The old man shrugged again. The old woman’s voice was cracked and she had too much hair on her lip. She was not at all the beautiful silver-haired vision of an old woman young people like to imagine.
“Perhaps if one of our sons is living he will come here.” She glared at Jere.
Jere’s lips straightened as if she might cry. Then she quickly slipped off her necklace of amethysts set in tiny heart-shaped frames of gold.
“Here, I want you to have this.”
When she closed it into the woman’s hand, her own hand recoiled at the boniness. The old woman neither protested nor thanked her.
It was all very unsatisfactory.
There was another awkward silence, and then Jere and Manley got back into their car. They thought they could feel the eyes of the old couple boring into them. These stupid American sightseers touring the battlefields.
They had little to say to each other as they drove on to Epernay. The Marne flowed peacefully, as if it had never seen a war. A red-purple sun was sliding off into the hills behind them when they turned back toward Paris. The world was powder blue when they reached the edge of Belleau Wood. The bare, amputated trees made grotesque silhouettes against the early twilight. “Look, pussy-willows,” Jere said. “I’d love some for my room.”
Manley held her hand as they walked to the edge of the ravaged wood. Young pussy-willows had pushed up through the torn trees. One had forced its way up through the loosened root of a fallen beech.
Suddenly, Jere didn’t have the heart to pick it. “All these nice trees with their arms and their trunks cut off, this lovely country ripped apart, and then—” She stared at the pussy-willow. Tears came, then she was weeping, and finally she was sobbing in his arms. But in a minute it was over and her voice, still shaky, tried to be smart again. “Don’t I deserve the sterling silver spittoon though, bawling over a godamn pussy-willow?”
Manley kissed a shiny spot on her cheek where a tear had passed. She was not wise and self-sufficient and untamably wild after all. The sobbing of her body in his arms had told him all the things she had to cry for that she had been forcing back into herself.
She gave him a funny little grin. “When you take me back to Paris will you make me see a doctor—I’m beginning to babble like a shell-shock case.”
“When I take you back to Paris,” he heard himself say, “I’m going to marry you.”
“Why, Hallenstein,” she said, “do you know what you just said? Maybe you’re the shell-shock case.”
Jere cuddled under his arm as they drove back to Paris through the cool Spring night. At Meaux they stopped at an unassuming little restaurant where they had a surprisingly good Potage Crecy and two bottles of St. Emilion. Whenever their eyes met they would smile and everything that was said about the food, the room, the horse-faced waiter seemed uproariously funny.
Then for six hectic weeks the Army of the United States and the Republic of France seemed to be conspiring against the sanctification of their love. They went to sleep and awakened scheming about certificates: birth certificates, death certificates, certificates of residence, marriage certificates, certificates on lost certificates, climaxed by their wheedling a reluctant certificate of permission from Jere’s father by a bit of indelicate blackmail fictionizing the urgency of her “condition.”
Jere, always subject to romantic hallucinations, had wanted to be married in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. “Josephine and Marie Antoinette and Mary Stuart and Joan will be our handmaids.” But an Episcopalian and a Scotch-Irish Protestant, little better than heathens from Our Mother’s point of view, were not entitled to marriage in the eyes of the true Church. Then Manley had a bright idea. Where should Mannie Hallenstein and Jere Wildberg be hitched? In a Jewish synagogue. They found one near the Etoile. They were just crazy enough to try it. “To make this legal, you’ll have to stitch a hem on your dick,” Hank Osborne had razzed with a best man’s prerogative.
But the Rabbi had rebuffed them with ancient pride. “Children, even if you were serious—which I fear you are not—this is not your father’s house. Only if you were to take instruction …” Then, to satisfy the whim, Jere remembered the chaplain she had known at the JWB. Capt. Lorwin consented to marry them at the recreation center that had brought them together. Everybody had a good time at the wedding and the party at Hank’s place afterward. “To a couple of wonderful kids who deserve each other,” Hank had said over the champagne. “May they be as young and as beautiful and as nuts about each other on their golden anniversary as they are tonight.”
They drove out toward Barbizon with a case of Pommery 1911 and another case full of dreams, both sparkling, both born in years of bright promise. Forgotten was the bristling cable from Jere’s father, still resenting her marriage to “your rash young man from Kansas City,” and carrying out his threat to cut her off. Why worry? They had enough money for two months, for Manley was still in the Army, on a sixty-day leave before reporting to Gievres for his discharge. They had borrowed a Dodge staff car from a friend of Hank’s who was an officer in the Paris motor pool. And they had been able to get one of the Hotel Cornebiche bungalows in the woods of Arbonne.
Their first dinner had been exquisitely prolonged, though urgent messages kept passing back and forth between their eyes and their fingertips. When they were back in the bungalow, Jere turned out all the lights and lit her candles. He could never forget his first sight of the honey-yellow thighs, the narrow waist, the small, perfect breasts, the slow, serious way she approached him, the surprising shyness of her eyes. But best of all he would remember the sharp pleasure and surprise of finding he had been the first. After all her limericks and bawdy verses and obscene jokes and sly references—the first. He had told himself that it would not matter. After all, he was a man of reason and this was 1919, not 1909. But those had been merely words, merely thoughts. When the moment came, he was buoyed up in an atavistic triumph.
“You silly darling. Why didn’t you tell me? I never would have tried.”
“I felt like such an old-fashioned ninny. I—I wanted you to think I was wickeder than Theda Bara.”
But she was not virginal in mind or heart and she joined him willingly. Those nights at the Cornebiche. In the light of Jere’s candles they looked on in wonder at the things young lovers do. It was all new to Jere, but she was eighteen and she had thought about it. In the candlelight, until dawn tapped lightly at the windows, at the Cornebiche, Jere clung to him with a woman’s knowledge. She gave herself—as she had given herself to Rimbaud and hatred of her father and adolescent rebellion and a good time—with nothing held in reserve. Jere’s moods were changeable, but they never overlapped. Each mood was pushed to its limits, sometimes almost a little beyond. In those weeks at the Cornebiche there was nothing she would not do for love.
Nine years later, retracing their steps in a last desperate search for what they had lost along the way, they had returned to the Cornebiche. But the flicker of candle-light had only irritated them; the champagne had been a fraud and the plumbing in the cottage had been abominable.