“Those girls,” people said, “think they can do anything and get away with it.”
That was because of the sense of security they felt in their father. He was a living fortress. Most people hew the battlements of lite from compromise, erecting their impregnable keeps from judicious submissions, fabricating their philosophical drawbridges from emotional retractions and scalding marauders in the boiling oil of sour grapes. Judge Beggs entrenched himself in his integrity when he was still a young man; his lowers and chapels were builded of intellectual conceptions. So far as any of his intimates knew he left no sloping path near his castle open either to the friendly goatherd or the menacing baron. That inapproachability was the flaw in his brilliance which kept him from having become, perhaps, a figure in national politics. The fact that the state looked indulgently upon his superiority absolved his children from the early social efforts necessary in life to construct strongholds for themselves. One lord of the living cycle of generations to lift their experiences above calamity and disease is enough for a survival of his progeny.
One strong man may bear for many, selecting for his breed such expedient subscriptions to natural philosophy as to lend his family the semblance of a purpose. By the time the Beggs children had learned to meet the changing exigencies of their times, the devil was already upon their necks. Crippled, they clung long to the feudal donjons of their fathers, hoarding their spiritual inheritances—which might have been more had they prepared a fitting repository.
One of Millie Beggs’ school friends said that she had never seen a more troublesome brood in her life than those children when they were little. If they cried for something, it was supplied by Millie within her powers or the doctor was called to subjugate the inexorabilities of a world which made, surely, but poor provision for such exceptional babies. Inadequately equipped by his own father, Austin Beggs worked night and day in his cerebral laboratory to better provide for those who were his. Millie, perforce and unreluctantly, took her children out of bed at three o’clock in the morning and shook their rattles and quietly sang to them to keep the origins of the Napoleonic Code from being howled out of her husband’s head. He used to say, without humor, “I will build me some ramparts surrounded by wild beasts and barbed wire on the top of a crag and escape this hoodlum.”
Austin loved Millie’s children with that detached tenderness and introspection peculiar to important men when confronting some relic of their youth, some memory of the days before they elected to be the instruments of their experience and not its result. You will feel what is meant in hearing the kindness of Beethoven’s “Springtime” Sonata. Austin might have borne a closer relation to his family had he not lost his only boy in infancy. The Judge turned savagely to worry fleeing from his disappointment. The financial worry being the only one which men and women can equally share, this was the trouble he took to Millie. Flinging the bill for the boy’s funeral inio her lap, he cried heartbreakingly, “How in God’s name do you expect me to pay for that?”
Millie, who had never had a very strong sense of reality, was unable to reconcile that cruelty of the man with what she knew was a just and noble character. She was never again able to form a judgment of people, shifting her actualities to conform to their inconsistencies till by a fixation of loyalty she achieved in her life a saintlike harmony.
“If my children are bad,” she answered her friend, “I have never seen it.”
The sum of her excursions into the irreconcilabilities of the human temperament taught her also a trick of transference that tided her over the birth of the last child. When Austin, roused to a fury by the stagnations of civilization, scattered his disillusions and waning hope for mankind together with his money difficulties about her patient head, she switched her instinctive resentment to the fever in Joan or Dixie’s twisted ankle, moving through the sorrows of life with the beatific mournfulness of a Greek chorus. Confronted with the realism of poverty, she steeped her personality in a stoic and unalterable optimism and made herself impervious to the special sorrows pursuing her to the end.
Incubated in the mystic pungence of Negro mammies, the family hatched into girls. From the personification ot an extra penny, a streetcar ride to whitewashed picnic grounds, a pocketful of peppermints, the Judge became, with their matured perceptions, a retributory organ, an inexorable fate, the force of law, order, and established discipline. Youth and age: a hydraulic funicular, and age, having less of the waters of conviction in its carriage, insistent on equalizing the ballast of youth. The girls, then, grew into the attributes of femininity, seeking respite in their mother from the exposition of their young-lady years as they would have haunted a shady protective grove to escape a blinding glare.
The swing creaks on Austin’s porch, a luminous beetle swings ferociously over the clematis, insects swarm to the golden holocaust of the hall light. Shadows brush the Southern night like heavy, impregnated mops soaking its oblivion back to the black heat whence it evolved. Melancholic moonvines trail dark, absorbent pads over the siring trellises.
“Tell me about myself when I was little,” the youngest girl insists. She presses against her mother in an effort to realize some proper relationship.
“You were a good baby.”
The girl had been filled with no interpretation of herself, having been born so late in the life of her parents that humanity had already disassociated itself from their intimate consciousness and childhood become more ot a concept than the child. She wants to be told what she is like, being too young to know that she is like nothing at all and will fill out her skeleton with what she gives off, as a general might reconstruct a battle following the advances and recessions of his forces with bright-colored pins. She does not know that what effort she makes will become herself. It was much laler that the child, Alabama, came to realize that the bones ol her father could indicate only her limitations.
“And did I cry at night and raise hell so you and Daddy wished I was dead?”
“What an idea! All my children were sweet children.”
“And Grandma’s, too?”
“I suppose so.”
“Then why did she run Uncle Cal away when he came home from the Civil War?”
“Your grandmother was a queer old lady.”
“Yes. When Cal came home, Grandma sent word to Florence Feather that if she was waiting for her to die to marry Cal, she wanted the Feathers to know that the Beggs were a long-lived race.”
“Was she so rich?”
“No. lt wasn’t money. Florence said nobody but the devil could live with Cal’s mother.”
“So Cal didn’t marry, after all?”
“No—grandmothers always have their way.”
The mother laughs—the laugh of a profiteer recounting incidents of business prowess, apologetic of its grasping security, the laugh ot the family triumphant, worsting another triumphant family in the eternal business of superimposition.
“If I’d been Uncle Cal I wouldn’t have stood it,” the child proclaims rebelliously. “I’d have done what I wanted to do with Miss Feather.”
The deep balance of the father’s voice subjugates the darkness to the final diminuendo of the Beggs’ bedtime.
“Why do you want to rehash all that?” he says judiciously.
Closing the shutters, he boxes the special qualities of his house: an affinity with light, curtain frills penetrated by sunshine till the pleats wave like shaggy garden borders about the flowered chintz. Dusk leaves no shadows or distortions in his rooms but transfers them to vaguer, grayer worlds, intact. Winter and spring, the house is like some lovely shining place painted on a mirror. When the chairs fall to pieces and the carpels grow full of holes, it does not matter in the brightness of that presentation. The house is a vacuum for the culture of Austin Beggs’ integrity. Like a shining sword it sleeps at night in the sheath of his tired nobility.
The tin roof pops with the heat; the air inside is like a breath from a long unopened trunk. There is no light in the transom above the door at the head of the upstairs hall.
“Where is Dixie?” the father asks.
“She’s out with some friends.”
Sensing the mother’s evasiveness, the little girl draws watchfully close, with an important sense of participation in family affairs.
“Things happen lo us,” she thinks. “What an interesting thing to be a family.”
“Millie,” her father says, “if Dixie is out traipsing the town with Randolph Mclntosh again, she can leave my house for good.”
Her lather’s head shakes with anger, outraged decency loosens the eyeglasses from his nose. The mother walks quietly over ihe warm matting of her room, and the little girl lies in the dark, swelling virtuously submissive to the way of the clan. Her father goes down in his cambric nightshirt to wail.
From the orchard across the way the smell of ripe pears floats over the child’s bed. A band rehearses waltzes in the distance. White things gleam in the dark—white flowers and paving stones. The moon on the windowpanes careens to the garden and ripples the succulent exhalations of the earth like a silver paddle. The world is younger than it is, and she to herself appears so old and wise, grasping her problems and wrestling with them as affairs peculiar to herself and not as racial heritages. There is a brightness and bloom over things; she inspects life proudly, as if she walked in a garden forced by herself to grow in the least hospitable of soils. She is already contemptuous of ordered planting, believing in the possibility of a wizard cultivator to bring forth sweet-smelling blossoms from the hardest of rocks, and night-blooming vines from barren wastes, to plant the breath of twilight and to shop with marigolds. She wants life to be easy and full of pleasant reminiscences.
Thinking, she thinks romantically on her sister’s beau. Randolph’s hair is like nacre cornucopias pouring forth those globes of light that make his face. She thinks that she is like that inside, thinking in this nocturnal confusion of her emotions with her response to beauty. She thinks of Dixie with excited identity as being some adult pan of herself divorced from her by transfiguring years, like a very sunburned arm which might not appear familiar if you had been unconscious of its alterations. To herself, she appropriates her sister’s love affair. Her alertness makes her drowsy. She has achieved a suspension of herself with the strain of her attenuated dreams. She falls asleep. The moon cradles her tanned face benevolently. She grows older sleeping. Someday she will awake to observe the plants of Alpine gardens in be largely fungus things, needing little sustenance, and the white discs that perfume midnight hardly flowers at all but embryonic growths; and, older, walk in bitterness the geometrical paths of philosophical Le Notres rather than those nebulous byways of the pears and marigolds of her childhood.
Alabama never could place what woke her mornings as she lay staring about, conscious of the absence of expression smothering her face like a wet bath mat. She mobilized herself. Live eyes of a soft wild animal in a trap peered out in skeptic invitation from the taut net of her features; lemon-yellow hair melted down her back. She dressed herself for school with liberal gestures, bending forward to watch the movements of her body. The schoolbell on the still exudings of the South fell flat as the sound of a buoy on the vast mufflings of the sea. She tiptoed into Dixie’s room and plastered her face with her sister’s rouge.
When people said, “Alabama, you’ve got rouge on your face,” she simply said, “I’ve been scrubbing my face with the nailbrush.”
Dixie was a very satisfactory person to her young sister, her room was full of possessions; silk things lay about. A statuette of the Three Monkeys on the mantel held matches for smoking. The Dark Flower, The House of Pomegranates, The Light that Failed, Cyrano De Bergerac, and an illustrated edition of The Rubaiyat stretched between two plaster “Thinkers.” Alabama knew the Decameron was hid in the top bureau drawer— she had read the rough passages. Over the books, a Gibson girl with a hatpin poked at a man through a magnifying glass; a pair ot teddy bears luxuriated over a small white rocker. Dixie possessed a pink picture hat and an amethyst bar pin and a pair ol electric curling irons. Dixie was twenty-five. Alabama would be fourteen at two o’clock in the morning on the fourteenth of July. The other Beggs sister, Joan, was twenty-three. Joan was away; she was so orderly that she made little difference in the house, anyway
Alabama slid down the banisters expectantly. Sometimes she dreamed that she fell down the well of the staircase and was saved at the bottom by landing astride the broad railing—sliding, she rehearsed the emotions of her dream.
Already Dixie sat at table, withdrawn from the world in furtive defiance. Her chin was red and red welts stood out on her forehead from crying. Her face rose and fell in first one place and then another beneath the skin, like water boiling in a pot.
“I didn’t ask to be born,” she said.
“Remember, Austin, she is a grown woman.”
“The man is a worthless cuss and an unmitigated loafer. He is not even divorced.”
“I make my own living and I’ll do as I please.”
“Millie, that man is not to enter my house again.”
Alabama sat very still, anticipating some spectacular protest against her father’s interruption of the course of romance. Nothing transpired but the child’s stillness.
The sun on the silvery fern fronds, and the silver water pitcher, and Judge Beggs’ steps on the blue and white pavings as he left for his office measured out so much of time, so much of space—nothing more. She heard the trolley stop under the catalpa trees at the corner and the Judge was gone. The light flicked the ferns with a less organized rhythm without his presence; his home hung pendant on Ins will.
Alabama watched the trumpet vine trailing the back fence like chip coral necklaces wreathing a stick. The morning shade under the china-berry tree held the same quality as the light—brittle and arrogant.
“Mamma, I don’t want to go to school any more,” she said, reflectively.
“I seem to know everything.”
Her mother stared at her in faintly hostile surprise; the child, thinking better of her intended expositions, reverted to her sister to save her face.
“What do you think Daddy will do to Dixie?”
“Oh, pshaw! Don’t worry your pretty head about things like that till you have to, if that’s what’s bothering you.”
“If I was Dixie, I wouldn’t let him stop me. I like „Dolph.“”
“It is not easy to get everything we want in this world. Run on, now—you will be late to school.”
Flushed with the heat of palpitant cheeks, the school room swung from the big square windows and anchored itself to a dismal lithograph of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Slow days of June added themselves in a lump of sunlight on the far blackboard. White particles from the worn erasers sprayed the air. Hair and winter serge and the crust in the inkwells stifled the soft early summer burrowing white tunnels under the trees in the street and poulticing the windows with sweet sickly heat. Humming Negroid intonations circulated plaintively through the lull.
“H’ye ho’ tomatoes, nice ripe tomatoes. Greens, colla’d greens.”
The boys wore long black winter stockings, green in the sun.
Alabama wrote “Randolph McIntosh” under “A debate in the Athenian Assembly”. Drawing a ring around “All the men were at once put to death and the women and children sold into slavery”, she painted the lips of Alcibiades and drew him a fashionable bob, closing her Myer’s Ancient History on the transformation. Her mind rambled on irrelevantly. How did Dixie make herself so fluffy, so ready always for anything? Alabama thought that she herself would never have every single thing about her just right at once—would never be able to attain a state of abstract preparedness. Dixie appeared to her sister to be the perfect instrument for life.
Dixie was the society editor of the town paper. There was telephoning from the time she came home from the office in the evening till supper. Dixie’s voice droned on, cooing and affected, listening to its own vibrations.
“I can’t tell you now—” Then a long slow gurgle like the water running out of a bathtub.
“Oh, I’ll tell you when I see you. No, I can’t tell you now.”
Judge Beggs lay on his stern iron bed sorting the sheafs of the yellowing afternoons. Calf-skin volumes of the Annals of British Law and Annotated Cases lay over his body like leaves. The telephone jarred his concentration.
The Judge knew when it was Randolph. After half an hour, he’d stormed into the hall, his voice quaking with restraint.
“Well, if you can’t talk, why do you carry on this conversation?”
Judge Beggs brusquely grabbed the receiver. His voice proceeded with the cruel concision of a taxidermist’s hands at work.
“I will thank you never to attempt to see or to telephone to my daughter again.”
Dixie shut herself in her room and wouldn’t come out or eat for two days. Alabama revelled in her part of the commotion.
“I want Alabama to dance at the Beauty Ball with me,” Randolph had said over the wire.
Her children’s tears infallibly evoked their mother.
“Why do you bother your father? You could make your arrangements outside,” she said placatingly. The wide and lawless generosity of their mother was nourished from many years of living faced with the irrefutable logic of the Judge’s fine mind. An existence where feminine tolerance plays no role being insupportable to her motherly temperament, Millie Beggs, by the time she was forty-five, had become an emotional anarchist. It was her way of proving to herself her individual necessity of survival. Her inconsistencies seemed to assert her dominance over the scheme had she so desired. Austin couldn’t have died or got sick with three children and no money and an election next fall and his insurance and his living according to law; but Millie, by being a less closely knit thread in the pattern, felt that she could have.
Alabama mailed the letter that Dixie wrote on her mother’s suggestion and they met Randolph at the “Tip-Top” Cafe.
Alabama, swimming through her teens in a whirlpool of vigorous decision, innately distrusted the “meaning” communicated between her sister and Randolph.
Randolph was a reporter for Dixie’s paper. His mother kept his little girl in a paintless house down-state near the cane-brakes. The curves of his face and the shape of his eyes had never been mastered by Randolph’s expression, as if his corporeal existence was the most amazing experience he had ever achieved. He conducted night dancing classes for which Dixie got most of his pupils—his neckties, too, for that matter, and whatever about him that needed to be rightly chosen.
“Honey, you must put your knife on your plate when you’re not using it,” Dixie said, pouring his personality into the mould of her society.
You’d never have known he had heard her, though he seemed to be always listening for something—perhaps some elfin serenade he expected, or some fantastic supernatural hint about his social position in the solar system.
“And I want a stuffed tomato and potatoes au gratin and corn on the cob and muffins and chocolate ice cream,” Alabama interrupted impatiently.
“My God!—So we’re going to do the Ballet of the Hours, Alabama, and I will wear harlequin tights and you will have a tarlatan skirt and a three-cornered hat. Can you make up a dance in three weeks?”
“Sure. I know some steps from last year’s carnival. It will go like this, see?” Alabama walked her fingers one over the other inextricably. Keeping one finger firmly pressed on the table to mark the place she unwound her hands and began again. “— And the next part is this way—And it ends with a br—rr—rr—oop!” she explained.
Dubiously Randolph and Dixie watched the child.
“It’s very nice,” commented Dixie hesitantly, swayed by her sister’s enthusiasm.
“You can make the costumes,” Alabama finished glowing with the glamour of proprietorship. Marauder of vagrant enthusiasm, she piled the loot on whatever was at hand, her sisters and their sweethearts, performances and panoplies. Everything assumed the qualities of improvisation with the constant change in the girl.
Every afternoon Alabama and Randolph rehearsed in the old auditorium till the place grew dim with dusk and the trees outside seemed bright and wet and Veronese as if it had been raining. It was from there that the first Alabama regiment had left for the Civil War. The narrow balcony sagged on spindle iron pillars and there were holes in the floor. The sloping stairs led down through the city markets : Plymouth Rocks in cages, fish, and icy sawdust from the butcher’s shop, garlands of Negro shoes and a doorway full of army overcoats. Flushed with excitement, the child lived for the moment in a world of fictitious professional reserves.
“Alabama has inherited her mother’s wonderful colouring,” commented the authorities, watching the gyrating figure.
“I scrubbed my cheeks with a nail brush,” she yelled back from the stage. That was Alabama’s answer about her complexion; it was not always accurate or adequate, but that was what she said about her skin.
“The child has talent,” they said, “it should be cultivated.”
“I made it up myself,” she answered, not in complete honesty.
When the curtains fell at last on the tableau at the end of the ballet she heard the applause from the stage as a mighty roar of traffic. Two bands played for the ball; the Governor led the grand march. After the dance she stood in the dark passage that led to the dressing-room.
“I forgot once,” she whispered expectantly. The still fever of the show went on outside.
“You were perfect,” Randolph laughed.
The girl hung there on his words like a vestment waiting to be put on. Indulgently, Randolph caught the long arms and swept her lips with his as a sailor might search the horizons of the sea for other masts. She wore this outward sign that she was growing up like a decoration for valour—it stayed on her face for days, and recurred whenever she was excited.
“You’re almost grown, aren’t you?” he asked.
Alabama did not concede herself the right to examine those arbitrary points of view, meeting places of the facets of herself envisaged as a woman, conjured up behind his shoulders by the kiss. To project herself therein would have been to violate her confessional of herself. She was afraid; she thought her heart was a person walking. It was. It was everybody walking at once. The show was over.
“Alabama, why don’t you go out on the floor?”
“I’ve never danced. I’m scared.”
“I’ll give you a dollar if you’ll dance with a young man who’s waiting.”
“All right, but s’pose I fall down or trip him up?”
Randolph introduced her. They got along quite nicely, except when the man went sideways.
“You are so cute,” her partner said. “I thought you must be from some other place.”
She told him he could come to see her some time, and a dozen others, and promised to go to the Country Club with a red-head man who slid over the dance floor as if he were skimming milk. Alabama had never imagined what it would be like to have a date before.
She was worry when the makeup came off of her face with washing next day. There was only Dixie’s rouge pot to help her masquerading through the engagements she had made.
Sloshing his coffee with the folded Journal, the Judge read the account of the Beauty Ball in the morning’s paper. “The gifted Miss Dixie Beggs, oldest daughter of Judge and Mrs Austin Beggs of this city,” the paper said, “contributed much to the success of the occasion, acting as impresario to her talented sister, Miss Alabama Beggs, assisted by Mr Randolph McIntosh. The dance was one of startling beauty and the execution was excellent.”
“If Dixie thinks that she can introduce the manners of a prostitute into my family, she is no daughter of mine. Identified in print with a moral scapegoat! My children have got to respect my name. It is all they will have in the world,” the Judge exploded.
It was the most Alabama had ever heard her father say about what he exacted of them. Isolated by his unique mind from the hope of any communication with his peers, the Judge lived apart, seeking only a vague and gentle amusement from his associates, asking only a fair respect for his reserve.
So Randolph came in the afternoon to say good-bye.
The swing creaked, the Dorothy Perkins browned in the dust and sun. Alabama sat on the steps watering the lawn with a hot rubber hose. The nozzle leaked lugubriously over her dress. She was sad about Randolph; she had hoped some occasion would present itself for kissing him again. Anyway, she told herself, she would try to remember that other time for years.
Her sister’s eyes followed the man’s hands as if she expected the path of his fingers to lead her to the ends of the earth.
“Maybe you’ll come back when you’ve got your divorce,” Alabama heard Dixie say in a truncated voice. The shape of Randolph’s eyes was heavy with finality against the roses. His distinct voice carried clear and detached to Alabama.
“Dixie,” he said, “you taught me how to use my knife and fork and how to dance and choose my suits, and I wouldn’t come back to your father’s house if I’d left my Jesus. Nothing is good enough for him.”
Sure enough, he never did. Alabama had learned from the past that something unpleasant was bound to happen whenever the Saviour made his appearance in the dialogue. The savour of her first kiss was gone with the hope of its repetition.
The bright polish on Dixie’s nails turned yellow and deposits of neglect shone through the red. She gave up her job on the paper and went to work at the bank. Alabama inherited the pink hat and somebody stepped on the bar pin. When Joan got home the room was so untidy that she moved her clothes in with Alabama. Dixie hoarded her money; the only things she bought in a year were the central figures from the “Primavera” and a German lithograph of “September Morn”.
Dixie covered her transom with a block of pasteboard to prevent her father’s knowing that she was sitting up after midnight. Girls came and went. When Laura spent the night the family was afraid of catching tuberculosis; Paula, gold and effulgent, had a father who had stood a murder trial; Marshall was beautiful and malicious with many enemies and a bad reputation; when Jessie came all the way from New York to visit she sent her stockings to the dry cleaner. There was something immoral about that to Austin Beggs.
“I don’t see why,” he said, “my daughter has to choose her companions from the scum of the earth.”
“Depending on which way you look at it,” protested Millie. “The scum might be a valuable deposit.”
Dixie’s friends read aloud to each other. Alabama sat in the little white rocker and listened, imitating their elegance and cataloguing the polite, bibelotic laughs which they collected from one another.
“She won’t understand,” they reiterated, staring at the girl with liquidated Anglo-Saxon eyes.
“Understand what?” said Alabama.
The winter choked itself in a ruching of girls. Dixie cried whenever a man talked her into giving him a date. In the spring, word came about Randolph’s death.
“I hate being alive,” she screamed in hysterics. “I hate it, I hate it, I hate it! 1 could have married him and this wouldn’t have happened.”
“Millie, will you call the doctor?”
“Nothing serious, just nervous strain, Judge Beggs. Nothing to worry about,” the doctor said.
“I cannot put up with this emotional nonsense any longer,” Austin said.
When Dixie was better she went to New York to work. She cried when she kissed them all good-bye and went off with a bunch of kiss-me-at-the-gate in her hand. She shared a room with Jessie on Madison Avenue, and looked up everybody from home who had drifted up there. Jessie got her a job with the same insurance company as herself.
“I want to go to New York, Mamma,” said Alabama as they read Dixie’s letters.
“What on earth for?”
“To be my own boss.”
Millie laughed. “Well, never mind,” she said. “Being boss isn’t a question of places. Why can’t you be boss at home?”
Within three months Dixie married up there—a man from Alabama, down State. They came home on a trip and she cried a lot as if she was sorry for all the rest of the family who had to go on living at home. She changed the furniture about in the old house and bought a buffet for the dining-room. She bought Alabama a Kodak and they took pictures together on the steps of the State Capitol, and under the pecan trees and holding hands on the front steps. She said she wanted Millie to make her a patchwork quilt and to have a rose garden planted around the old house, and for Alabama not to paint her face so much, that she was too young, that in New York the girls didn’t.
“But I am not in New York,” said Alabama. “When I go there, I will, anyway.”
Then Dixie and her husband went away again, out of the Southern doldrums. The day her sister left, Alabama sat on the back porch watching her mother slice the tomatoes for lunch.
“I slice the onions an hour beforehand,” Millie said, “and then I take them out so just the right flavour stays in the salad.”
“Yes’m. Can I have those ends?”
“Don’t you want a whole one?”
“No’m. I love the greenish part.”
Her mother attended her work like a chatelaine ministering to a needy peasant. There was some fine, aristocratic, personal relationship between herself and the tomatoes, dependent on Miss Millie to turn them into a salad. The lids of her mother’s blue eyes rose in weary circumflex as her sweet hands moved in charity through the necessities of her circumstance. Her daughter was gone. Still there was something of Dixie in Alabama—the tempestuousness. She searched the child’s face for family resemblances. And Joan would be coming home.
“Mamma, did you love Dixie very much?”
“Of course. I still do.”
“But she was troublesome.”
“No. She was always in love.”
“Did you love her better than me, for instance?”
“I love you all the same.”
“I will be troublesome, too, if I can’t do as I please.”
“Well, Alabama, all people are, about one thing or another. We must not let it influence us.”
Pomegranates in the leathery lacing of their foliage ripened outside the lattice to an exotic decor. The bronze balls of a mournful crape myrtle at the end of the lot split into lavender tarlatan gurgles. Japanese plums splashed heavy sacks of summer on the roof of the chicken yard.
Cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck!
“That old hen must be laying again.”
“Maybe she’s caught a June bug.”
“The figs aren’t ripe yet.”
A mother called her children from a house across the way. Pigeons cooed in the oak next door. The rhythmic flap of a pounding beefsteak began in a neighbour’s kitchen.
“Mamma, I don’t see why Dixie had to go all the way to New York to marry a man from so near home.”
“He’s a very nice man.”
“But I wouldn’t have married him if I was Dixie. I would have married a New Yorker.”
“Why?” said Millie curiously.
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“More conquering,” Millie mocked.
“Yes’m, that’s it.”
A distant trolley ground to a stop on the rusty rails.
“Isn’t that the streetcar stopping? I’ll bet if s your father.”
“And I tell you I will not wear it if you fix it that way,” Alabama screeched, pounding her fist on the sewing machine.
“But, dear, it’s the very thing.”
“If it has to be blue serge, it doesn’t have to be long as well.”
“When you’re going out with boys, you can’t go back to short dresses.”
“I’m not going out with boys in the day-time—ever,” she said. “I am going to play in the day and go out at night.”
Alabama tilted the mirror and inspected the long gored skirt. She began to cry with impotent rage.
“I won’t have it! I really won’t—how can I run or anything?”
“It’s lovely, isn’t it, Joan?”
“If she were my child, I’d slap her jaw,” said Joan succinctly.
“You would, would you! Well, I’d slap your own jaw.”
“When I was your age I was glad to get anything. My dresses were all made out of Dixie’s old ones. You’re a vixen to be so spoiled,” pursued her sister.
“Joan! Alabama just wants her dress fixed differently.”
“Mamma’s little angel! It’s exactly like she said she wanted it.”
“How could I tell it would look like that?”
“I know what I would do if you were mine,” Joan threatened.
Alabama stood in the special Saturday sun and straightened the sailor collar. She ran her fingers tentatively inside the breast pocket, staring pessimistically at her reflection.
“The feet look as if they were somebody else’s,” she said. “But maybe it’ll be all right.”
“I’ve never heard so much fuss made about a dress,” said Joan. “If I were Mamma I’d make you buy them ready-made.”
“There’s none in the stores that I like. Besides, you have lace on all your things.”
“I pay for it myself.”
Austin’s door slammed.
“Alabama, will you stop that dispute? I am trying to take a nap.”
“Children, your father!” said Millie in dismay.
“Yes, sir, it’s Joan,” shrieked Alabama.
“My Lord! She always has to blame somebody else. If it isn’t me, it’s Mamma or whoever’s near—never herself.”
Alabama thought resentfully of the injustice of a life which had created Joan before herself. Not only that, but had given her sister an unattainable hue of beauty, dark as a black opal. Nothing Alabama ever did could turn her eyes gold and brown or hollow out those dark mysterious sockets from her cheek bones. When you saw Joan directly under a light, she seemed like a ghost of her finest points awaiting inhabitation. Transparent blue halos shone around the edge of her teeth; her hair was smooth to the colourless reflection.
People said Joey was a sweet girl—compared to the others. Being over twenty, Joan had attained her right to the family spotlight. When she heard them planning vaguely for Joan, Alabama hung on her parents’ rare delvings into what she felt was the substance of herself. Hearing little bits of things about the family characteristics that she too must have in her, was like finding she had all five toes when up to the present she had been able to count only four. It was nice to have indications about yourself to go on.
“Millie,” Austin asked anxiously one night, “is Joey going to marry that Acton boy?”
“I don’t know, dear.”
“Well, I don’t think she ought to have gone galavanting about the country visiting his parents if she doesn’t mean business, and she is seeing too much of the Harlan man if she does.”
“I visited Acton’s people from my father’s house. Why did you let her go?”
“I didn’t know about Harlan. There are obligations—”
“Mamma, do you remember your father well?” interrupted Alabama.
“Certainly. He was thrown from a race cart when he was eighty-three years old, in Kentucky.” That her mother’s father had a graphic life of his own to dramatize was promising to Alabama. There was a show to join. Time would take care of that, and she would have a place, inevitably—somewhere to enact the story of her life.
“What about this Harlan?” pursued Austin
“O, pshaw!” Millie said non-committally.
“I don’t know. Joey seems very fond of him. He can’t make a living. Acton is well established. I will not have my daughter become a public charge.”
Harlan called every night and sang with Joan the songs she brought with her from Kentucky : “The Time, The Place and The Girl”, “The Girl from the Saskatchewan”, “The Chocolate Soldier”, songs with two-tone lithograph covers of men smoking pipes and princes on a balustrade and worlds of clouds about the moon. He had a serious voice like an organ. He stayed too much to supper. His legs were so long that the rest of him seemed merely a decorative appendage.
Alabama invented dances to show off for Harlan, tapping about the outside edges of the carpet.
“Doesn’t he ever go home?” Austin fretted to Millie on each succeeding visit. “I don’t know what Acton would think. Joan must not be irresponsible.”
Harlan knew how to ingratiate himself personally; it was his status that was unsatisfactory. Marrying him would have meant, for Joan, starting over where the Judge and Millie had started, and Austin didn’t have race-horses to pull her background for her like Millie’s father had had.
“Hello, Alabama, what a pretty bib you’ve got on.” Alabama blushed. She strove to sustain the pleasurable emotion. It was the first time she could remember blushing; another proof of something or other, or that all the old responses were her proper heritage—embarrassment and pride and responsibility for them.
“It’s an apron. I’ve got on a new dress and I was helping fix supper.” She exposed the new blue serge for Harlan’s admiration.
He drew the lanky child across his knee.
Alabama, unwilling to relinquish the discussion of herself, went on hurriedly, “But I have a beautiful dress to wear to the dance, more beautiful than Joan’s even.”
“You are too young to go to a dance. You look such a baby, I’d be ashamed to kiss you.” Alabama was disappointed at sensing Harlan’s paternal air.
Harlan pulled the pale hair away from her face. There were many geometrical formations and shining knolls and an element of odalisque retrocession about its stillness. Her bones were stern like her father’s, an integrity of muscle structure bound her still to extreme youth.
Austin came in for his paper.
“Alabama, you are too big to sprawl on young men’s laps.”
“But he’s not my beau, Daddy!”
“Good evening, Judge.”
The Judge spat contemplatively into the hearth, disciplining his disapproval.
“It makes no difference, you are too old.”
“Will I always be too old?”
Harlan rose to his feet spilling her to the floor. Joan stood in the door.
“Miss Joey Beggs,” he said, “the prettiest girl in town!”
Joan giggled the way people do when, entrenched in an enviable position, they are forced to deprecate their superiority to spare others—as if she had always known she was the prettiest.
Alabama watched them enviously as Harlan held Joey’s coat and took her off possessively. Speculatively she watched her sister change into a more fluctuating, more ingratiating person, as she confided herself to the man. She wished it were herself. There would be her father at the supper table. It was nearly the same; the necessity of being something that you really weren’t was the same. Her father didn’t know what she really was like, she thought.
Supper was fun; there was toast with a taste of charcoal and sometimes chicken, warm, like a breath of the air from beneath a quilt, and Millie and the Judge talking ceremoniously of their household and their children. Family life became a ritual passed through the sieve of Austin’s strong conviction.
“I want some more strawberry jam.”
“It’ll make you sick.”
“Millie, in my opinion, a respectable girl does not engage herself to one man and permit herself to be interested in another.”
“There’s no harm in it. Joan’s a good girl. She is not engaged to Acton.”
Her mother knew that Joan was engaged to Acton because one summer night when it poured with rain and the vines swished and dripped like ladies folding silken skirts about them, and the drains growled and choked like mournful doves and the gutters ran with foamy mud, Millie had sent Alabama with an umbrella and Alabama had found the two of them clinging together like moist stamps in a pocket-book. Acton said to Millie afterwards that they were going to be married. But Harlan sent roses on Sundays. Lord knows where he got the money to buy so many flowers. He couldn’t ask Joan to marry him, he was so poor.
When the town gardens began to bloom so prettily, Harlan and Joan took Alabama with them on their walks. Alabama, and the big japonicas with leaves like rusting tin, viburnum and verbena and Japanese magnolia petals lying about the lawns like scraps from party dresses, absorbed the quiet communion between them. The presence of the child held them to trivialities. By her person, they held at bay the issue.
“I want one of those bushes when I have a house,” Joan pointed out.
“Joey! I can’t afford it! I’ll grow a beard instead,” expostulated Harlan.
“I love little trees, arborvitae and juniper, and I’m going to have a long walk winding between like featherstitching and a terrace of Clotilde Soupert at the end.” Alabama decided that it didn’t much matter whether her sister was thinking of Acton or Harlan—certainly the garden was to be very nice, for either or neither or both, she amended confusedly.
“O Lord! Why can’t I make money?” protested Harlan.
Yellow flags like anatomical, sketches and pools of lotus flowers, the brown and white batik of snowball bushes, the sudden emotional gush of burning brush and the dead cream of Joey’s eggshell face under her leghorn hat made up that spring. Alabama understood vaguely why Harlan rattled the keys in his pockets where there was no money and walked the streets like a dizzy man traversing a log. Other people had money; he had only enough for roses. If he did without the roses he would have nothing for ages and ages while he saved until Joan was gone or different or lost for ever.
When the weather was hot they hired a buggy and drove through the dust to daisy fields like nursery rhymes where dreamy cows saddled with shade nibbled the summer off the white slopes. Alabama stood up behind and brought back the flowers. What she said in this foreign world of restraint and emotion seemed to her especially significant, as a person will imagine himself wittier than usual in an unfamiliar tongue. Joan complained to Millie that Alabama talked too much for her age.
Creaking and swaying like a sail in a swelling gale, the love story breasted July. At last the letter from Acton came. Alabama saw it on the Judge’s mantelpiece.
“And being able to support your daughter in comfort and, I believe, in happiness, I ask your sanction to our marriage.”
Alabama asked to keep it. “To make a family document,” she said.
“No,” said the Judge. He and Millie never kept things.
Alabama’s expectations for her sister envisaged everything except that love might roll on using the bodies of its dead to fill up the craters in the path to its line of action. It took her a long time to learn to think of life unromantically as a long, continuous exposition of isolated events, to think of one emotional experience as preparation to another.
When Joey said “Yes” Alabama felt cheated out of a drama to which she had bought her ticket with her interest. “No show today; the leading lady has cold feet,” she thought.
She couldn’t tell whether Joan was crying or not. Alabama sat polishing white slippers in the upstairs hall. She could see her sister lying on the bed, as if she had laid herself down there and gone off and forgotten to come back, but she didn’t seem to be making a noise.
“Why don’t you want to marry Acton?” she heard the Judge say, kindly.
“Oh—I haven’t got any trunk, and it means leaving home, and my clothes are all worn out,” answered Joan evasively.
“I’ll get you a trunk, Joey, and he is well able to give you clothes and a good home and all you will be needing in life.”
The Judge was gentle with Joan. She was less like him than the others; her shyness had made her appear more composed, more disposed to bear with her lot than Alabama or Dixie.
The heat pressed down about the earth inflating the shadows, expanding the door and window ledges till the summer split in a terrific clap of thunder. You could see the trees by the lightning flashes gyrating maniacally and waving their arms about like furies. Alabama knew Joan was afraid of a storm. She crept into her sister’s bed and slipped her brown arm over Joan like a strong bolt over a sagging door. Alabama supposed that Joan had to do the right thing and have the right things; she could see how that might be necessary if a person was like Joan. Everything about Joan had a definite order. Alabama was like that herself sometimes on a Sunday afternoon when there was nobody in the house besides herself and the classic stillness.
She wanted to reassure her sister. She wanted to say “And, Joey, if you ever want to know about the japonicas and the daisy fields it will be all right that you have forgotten because I will be able to tell you about how it felt to be feeling that way that you cannot quite remember—that will be for the time when something happens years from now that reminds you of now.”
“Get out of my bed,” said Joan, abruptly.
Alabama wandered sadly about, in and out through the pale acetylene flashes.
“Mamma, Joey’s scared.”
“Well, do you want to lie here by me, dear?”
“I’m not scared; I just can’t sleep. But I’ll lie there, please, if I may.”
The judge often sat reading Fielding. He closed his book over his thumb to mark the end of the evening.
“What are they doing at the Catholic Church?” the Judge said. “Is Harlan a Catholic?”
“No, I believe not.”
“I’m glad she’s going to marry Acton,” he said, inscrutably.
Alabama’s father was a wise man. Alone his preference in women had created Millie and the girls. He knew everything, she said to herself. Well, maybe he did—if knowing is paring your perceptions to fit into the visible portion of life’s mosaic, he did. If knowledge is having an attitude towards the things we have never experienced and preserving an agnosticism towards those we have, he did.
“I’m not glad,” Alabama said decisively. “Harlan’s hair goes up like a Spanish king. I’d rather Joey married him.”
“People can’t live off the hair of Spanish kings,” her father answered.
Acton telegraphed that he would arrive at the end of the week and how happy he was.
Harlan and Joan rocked in the swing, jerking and creaking the chain and scraping their feet over the worn grey paint and snipping the trailers off the morning-glories.
“This porch is always the coolest, sweetest place,” said Harlan.
“That’s the honeysuckle and star jasmine you smell,” said Joan.
“No,” said Millie, “it’s the cut hay across the way, and my aromatic geraniums.”
“Oh, Miss Millie, I hate to leave.”
“You’ll be back.”
“No, not any more.”
“I’m very sorry, Harlan—” Millie kissed him on the cheek. “You’re just a baby,” she said, “to care. There’ll be others.”
“Mamma, that smell is the pear trees,” Joan said softly.
“It’s my perfume,” said Alabama impatiently, “and it cost six dollars an ounce.”
From Mobile, Harlan sent Joan a bucket of crabs for Acton’s supper. They crawled about the kitchen and scurried under the stove and Millie dropped their live green backs into a pot of boiling water one by one.
Everybody ate them except Joan.
“They’re too clumsy,” she said.
“They must have arrived in the animal kingdom just about where we have in mechanical development. They don’t work any better than tanks,” said the Judge.
“They eat dead men,” said Joan.
“Joey, is that necessary at table?”
“They do, though,” Millie corroborated distastefully.
“I believe I could make one,” said Alabama, “if I had the material.”
“Well, Mr Acton, did you have a nice trip?”
Joan’s trousseau filled the house—blue taffeta dresses and a black and white check, and a shell-pink satin, a waist of turquoise blue, and black suede shoes.
Brown and yellow silk and lace and black and white and a self-important suit and sachet-pads of rose filled the new trunk.
“I don’t want it that way,” she sobbed. “My bust is too big.”
“It’s very becoming and will be so useful in a city.”
“You must come to visit me,” Joan said to her friends. “I want you all to come to see me when you come to Kentucky. Some day we’ll move to New York.”
Joan held excitedly to some intangible protestation against her life’s purpose like a puppy worrying a shoe string. She was irritable and exacting of Acton, as if she had expected him to furnish her store of gladness with the wedding ring.
They put them on the train at midnight. Joan didn’t cry, but she seemed ashamed that she might. Walking back across the railroad tracks. Alabama felt the strength and finality in Austin more than ever. Joan was produced and nourished and disposed of; her father, in parting with his daughter, seemed to have grown the span of Joan’s life older; there was only Alabama’s future now standing between him and his complete possession of his past. She was the only unresolved element that remained of his youth.
Alabama thought of Joan. Being in love, she concluded, is simply a presentation of our pasts to another individual, mostly packages so unwieldy that we can no longer manage the loosened strings alone. Looking for love is like asking for a new point of departure, she thought, another chance in life. Precociously for her age, she made an addendum : that one person never seeks to share the future with another, so greedy are secret human expectations. Alabama thought” few fine and many sceptical thoughts, but they did not essentially affect her conduct. She was at seventeen a philosophical gourmand of possibilities, having sucked on the bones of frustration thrown off from her family’s repasts without repletion. But there was much of her father in her that spoke for itself and judged.
From him, she wondered why that brisk important sense of being a contributory factor in static moments could not last. Everything else seemed to. With him, she enjoyed the concision and completion of her sister’s transference from one family to another.
It was lonesome at home without Joan. She could almost have been reconstructed by the scraps she’d left behind.
“I always work when I’m sad,” her mother said.
“I don’t see how you learned to sew so well.”
“By sewing for you children.”
“Anyway, won’t you please let me have this dress without sleeves at all, and the roses up here on my shoulder?”
“All right, if you want. My hands are so rough nowadays, they stick in the silk and I don’t sew so well as I did.”
“It’s perfectly beautiful, though. It’s better on me than it ever was on Joan.”
Alabama pulled out the full, flowing silk to see how it would blow in a breeze, how it would have looked in a museum on the “Venus de Milo”.
“If I could just stay this way till I got to the dance,” she thought, “it would be pretty enough. But I will all come to pieces long before then.”
“Alabama, what are you thinking about?”
“That’s good subject matter.”
“And about how wonderful she is,” teased Austin. Privy to the small vanities of his family, these things so absent in himself amused him in his children. “She’s always looking in the glass at herself.”
“Daddy! I am not!” She knew, though, that she looked more frequently than her satisfaction in her appearance justified in the hope of finding something more than she expected.
Her eyes trailed in embarrassment over the vacant lot next door that lay like a primrose dump through the windows. The vermilion hibiscus curved five brazen shields against the sun; the altheas drooped in faded purple canopies against the barn, the South phrased itself in engraved invitation—to a party without an address.
“Millie, you oughtn’t to let her get so sunburned if she’s going to wear that kind of clothes.”
“She’s only a child yet, Austin.”
Joan’s old pink was finished for the dance. Miss Millie hooked up the back. It was too hot to stay inside. One side of her hair was flattened by the sweat on her neck before she had finished the other. Millie brought her a cold lemonade. The powder dried in rings around her nose. They went down to the porch. Alabama seated herself in the swing. It had become almost a musical instrument to her; by jiggling the chains she could make it play a lively tune or somnolently protest the passage of a boring date. She’d been ready so long that she wouldn’t be any more by the time they got here. Why didn’t they come for her, or telephone? Why didn’t something happen? Ten o’clock sounded on a neighbour’s clock.
“If they don’t come on, it’ll be too late to go,” she said carelessly, pretending she didn’t care whether she missed the dance or not.
Spasmodic unobtrusive cries broke the stillness of the summer night. From far off down the street the cry of a paper boy floated nearer on the heat.
“Wuxtry! Wuxtry! Yad—y—add—vo—tize.”
The cries swelled from one direction to another, rose and fell like answering chants in a cathedral.
“What’s happened, boy?”
“I don’t know, Ma’am.”
“Here, boy! Gimme a paper!”
“Isn’t it awful, Daddy! What does it mean?”
“It may mean a war for us.”
“But they were warned not to sail on the Lusitania,” Millie said.
Austin threw back his head impatiently.
“They can’t do that,’ he said, “they can’t warn neutral nations.”
The automobile loaded with boys drew up at the kerb. A long, shrill whistle sounded from the dark; none of the boys got out of the car.
“You will not leave this house until they come inside for you,” the Judge said severely.
He seemed very fine and serious under the hall light—as serious as the war they might have. Alabama was ashamed for her friends as she compared them with her father. One of the boys got out and opened the door; she and her father could call it a compromise.
“War! There’s going to be a war!” she thought.
Excitement stretched her heart and lifted her feet so high that she floated over the steps to the waiting automobile.
“There’s gonna be a war,” she said.
“Then the dance ought to be good tonight,” her escort answered.
All night long Alabama thought about the war. Things would disintegrate to new excitements. With adolescent Nietzscheanism, she already planned to escape on the world’s reversals from the sense of suffocation that seemed to her to be eclipsing her family, her sister, and mother. She, told herself, would move brightly along high places and stop to trespass and admire, and if the fine was a heavy one—well, there was no good in saving up beforehand to pay it. Full of these presumptuous resolves, she promised herself that if, in the future, her soul should come starving and crying for bread it should eat the stone she might have to offer without complaint or remorse. Relentlessly she convinced herself that the only thing of any significance was to take what she wanted when she could. She did her best.
“She’s the wildest one of the Beggs, but she’s a thoroughbred,” people said.
Alabama knew everything they said about her—there were so many boys who wanted to “protect” her that she couldn’t escape knowing. She leaned back in the swing visualizing herself in her present position.
“Thoroughbred!” she thought, “meaning that I never let them down on the dramatic possibilities of a scene—1 give a damned good show.”
“He’s just like a very majestic dog,” she thought of the tall officer beside her, “a hound, a noble hound! I wonder if his ears would meet over his nose.” The man vanished in metaphor.
His face was long, culminating in a point of lugubrious sentimentality at the self-conscious end of his nose. He pulled himself intermittently to pieces, showered himself in fragments above her head. He was obviously at an emotional tension.
“Little lady, do you think you could live on five thousand a year?” he asked benevolently. “To start with,” he added, on second thought.
“I could, but I don’t want to.”
“Then why did you kiss me?”
“I had never kissed a man with a moustache before.”
“That’s hardly a reason—”
“No. But it’s as good a reason as many people have to offer for going into convents.”
“There’s no use in my staying any longer, then,” he said sadly.
“I s’pose not. It’s half past eleven.”
“Alabama, you’re positively indecent. You know what an awful reputation you’ve got and I offer to marry you anyway and—”
“And you’re angry because I won’t make you an honest man.”
The man hid dubiously beneath the impersonality of his uniform.
“You’ll be sorry,” he said unpleasantly.
“I hope so,” Alabama answered. “I like paying for things I do—it makes me feel square with the world.”
“You’re a wild Comanche. Why do you try to pretend you’re so bad and hard?”
“Maybe so—anyway the day that I’m sorry I’ll write it in the corner of the wedding invitations.”
“I’ll send you a picture, so you won’t forget me.”
“All right—if you want to.”
Alabama slipped on the night latch and turned off the light. She waited in the absolute darkness until her eyes could distinguish the mass of the staircase. “Maybe I ought to have married him, I’ll soon be eighteen,” she tabulated, “and he could have taken good care of me. You’ve got to have some sort of background.” She reached the head of the stairs.
“Alabama,” her mother’s voice called softly, almost indistinguishable from the currents of the darkness, “your father wants to see you in the morning. You’ll have to get up to breakfast.”
Judge Austin Beggs sat over the silver things about the table, finely controlled, coordinated, poised in his cerebral life like a wonderful athlete in the motionless moments between the launchings of his resources.
Addressing Alabama, he overpowered his child.
“I tell you that I will not have my daughter’s name bandied about the street corners.”
“Austin! She’d hardly out of school,” Millie protested.
“All the more reason. What do you know of these officers?”
“Joe Ingham told me his daughter was brought home scandalously intoxicated and she admitted that you had given her the liquor.”
“She didn’t have to drink it—it was a freshman leadout and I filled my nursing bottle with gin.”
“And you forced it on the Ingham girl?”
“I did not! When she saw people laughing, she tried to edge in on the joke, having none of her own to amuse them with,” Alabama retorted arrogantly.
“You will have to find a way of conducting yourself more circumspectly.”
“Yes, sir. Oh, Daddy! I’m so tired of just sitting on the porch and having dates and watching things rot.”
“It seems to me you have plenty to do without corrupting others.”
“Nothing to do but drink and make love,” she commented privately.
She had a strong sense of her own insignificance; of her life’s slipping by while June bugs covered the moist fruit in the fig trees with the motionless activity of clustering flies upon an open sore. The bareness of the dry Bermuda grass about the pecan trees crawled imperceptibly with tawny caterpillars. The matlike vines dried in the autumn heat and hung like empty locust shells from the burned thickets about the pillars of the house. The sun sagged yellow over the grass plots and bruised itself on the clotted cotton-fields. The fertile countryside that grew things in other seasons spread flat from the roads and lay prone in ribbed fans of broken discouragement. Birds sang dissonantly. Not a mule in the fields nor a human being on the sandy roads could have borne the heat between the concave clay banks and the mediant cypress swamps that divided the camp from the town—privates died of sunstroke.
The evening sun buttoned the pink folds of the sky and followed a busload of officers into town, young lieutenants, old lieutenants, free from camp for the evening to seek what explanation of the world war this little Alabama town had to offer. Alabama knew them all with varying degrees of sentimentality.
“Is your wife in town. Captain Farreleigh?” asked a voice in the joggling vehicle. “You seem very high tonight.”
“She’s here—but I’m on my way to see my girl. That’s why I’m happy,” the captain said shortly, whistling to himself.
“Oh.” The especially young lieutenant didn’t know what to say to the captain. It would be about like offering congratulations for a stillborn child he supposed to say to the man, “Isn’t that splendid” or ’How nice!’ He might say, “Well, Captain, that’ll be very scandalous indeed!”—if he wanted to be court-martialled.
“Well, good luck, I’m going to see mine tomorrow,” he said finally, and further to show that he bore no moral prejudice, he added “good luck”.
“Are you still panhandling in Beggs Street?” asked Farreleigh abruptly.
“Yes,” the lieutenant laughed uncertainly.
The car deposited them in the breathless square, the centre of the town. In the vast space enclosed by the low buildings the vehicle seemed as miniscular as a coach in the palace yard of an old print. The arrival of the bus made no impression on the city’s primal sleep. The old rattle-trap disgorged its cargo of clicking masculinity and vibrant official restraint into the lap of this invertebrate world.
Captain Farreleigh crossed to the taxi stand.
“Number five Beggs Street,” he said with loud insistence, making sure his words reached the lieutenant, “as fast as you can make it.”
As the car swung off, Farreleigh listened contentedly to the officer’s forced laugh stabbing the night behind him.
“Ho, there, Felix!”
“My name is not Felix.”
“It suits you, though. What is your name?”
“Captain Franklin McPherson Farreleigh.”
“The war’s on my mind, I couldn’t remember.”
“I’ve written a poem about you.”
Alabama took the paper he gave her and held it to the light falling through the slats of the shutters like a staff of music.
“It’s about West Point,” she said disappointed.
“That’s the same thing,” said Farreleigh. “I feel the same way about you.”
“Then the United States Military Academy appreciates the fact that you like its grey eyes. Did you leave the last verse in the taxi or were you keeping the car in case I should shoot?”
“It’s waiting because I thought we could ride. We ought not to go to the club,” he said seriously.
“Felix!” reproved Alabama, “you know I don’t mind people’s jabbering about us. Nobody will notice that we are together—it takes so many soldiers to make a good war.”
She felt sorry for Felix; she was touched that he did not want to compromise her. In a wave of friendship and tenderness. “You mustn’t mind,” she said.
“This time it’s my wife—she’s here,” Farreleigh said crisply, “and she might be there.”
He offered no apology.
“Well, come on, let’s ride,” she said, at last. “We can dance another Saturday.”
He was a tavern sort of man buckled into his uniform, strapped with the swagger of beef-eating England, buffeted by his incorruptible, insensitive, roistering gallantry. He sang “The Ladies” over and over again as they rode along the horizons of youth and a moonlit war. A southern moon is a sodden moon, and sultry. When it swamps the fields and the rustling sandy roads and the sticky honeysuckle hedges in its sweet stagnation, your fight to hold on to reality is like a protestation against a first waft of ether. He closed his arms about the dry slender body. She smelled of Cherokee roses and harbours at twilight.
“I’m going to get myself transferred,” said Felix impatiently.
“To avoid falling out of aeroplanes and cluttering up roadsides like your other beaux.”
“Who fell out of an aeroplane?”
“Your friend with the dachshund face and the moustache, on his way to Atlanta. The mechanic was killed and they’ve got the lieutenant up for court-martial.”
“Fear,” said Alabama as she felt her muscles tighten with a sense of disaster, “is nerves—maybe all emotions are. Anyway, we must hold on to ourselves and not care.”
“Oh—how did it happen?” she inquired casually.
Felix shook his head.
“Well, Alabama, I hope it was an accident.”
“There isn’t any use worrying about the dog-one,” Alabama extricated herself. Those people, Felix, who spread their sensibilities for the passage of events live like emotional prostitutes; they pay with a lack of responsibility on the part of others—no Walter Raleighing of the inevitable for me,“she justified.
“You didn’t have the right to lead him on, you know.”
“Well, it’s over now.”
“Over in a hospital ward,” commented Felix, “for the poor mechanic.”
Her high cheekbones carved the moonlight like a scythe in a ripe wheat field. It was hard for a man in the army to censure Alabama.
“And the blond lieutenant who rode with me to town?” Farreleigh went on.
“I’m afraid I can’t explain him away,” she said.
Captain Farreleigh went through the convulsive movements of a drowning man. He grabbed his nose and sank to the floor of the car.
“Heartless,” he said. “Well, I suppose I shall survive.”
“Honour, Duty, Country, and West Point,” Alabama answered dreamily. She laughed. They both laughed. It was very sad.
“Number five Beggs Street,” Captain Farreleigh directed the taxi-man, immediately. “The house is on fire.”
The war brought men to the town like swarms of benevolent locusts eating away the blight of unmarried women that had overrun the South since its economic decline. There was the little major who stormed about like a Japanese warrior flashing his gold teeth, and an Irish captain with eyes like the Blarney stone and hair like burning peat, and aviation officers, white around their eyes from where their goggles had been with swollen noses from the wind and sun; and men who were better dressed in their uniforms than ever before in their lives communicating their consequent sense of a special occasion; men who smelled of Fitch’s hair tonic from the camp barber and men from Princeton and Yale who smelled of Russian Leather and seemed very used to being alive, and trade-mark snobs naming things and men who waltzed in spurs and resented the cut-in system. Girls swung from one to another of the many men in the intimate flush of a modern Virginia reel.
Through the summer Alabama collected soldiers’ insignia. By autumn she had a glove-box full. No other girl had more and even then she’d lost some. So many dances and rides and so many golden bars and silver bars and bombs and castles and flags and even a serpent to represent them all in her cushioned box. Every night she wore a new one.
Alabama quarrelled with Judge Beggs about her collection of bric-a-brac and Millie laughed and told her daughter to keep all those pins; that they were pretty.
It turned as cold as it ever gets in that country. That is to say, the holiness of creation misted the lonesome green things outside; the moon glowed and sputtered nebulous as pearls in the making; the night picked itself a white rose. In spite of the haze and the clouds in the air, Alabama waited for her date outside, pendulously tilting the old swing from the past to the future, from dreams to surmises and back again.
A blond lieutenant with one missing insignia mounted the Beggs’ steps. He had not bought himself a substitute because he liked imagining the one he had lost in the battle of Alabama to be irreplaceable. There seemed to be some heavenly support beneath his shoulder blades that lifted his feet from the ground in ecstatic suspension, as if he secretly enjoyed the ability to fly but was walking as a compromise to convention. Green gold under the moon, his hair lay in Cellinian frescos and fashionable porticoes over his dented brow. Two hollows over his eyes like the ends of mysterious bolts of fantasy held those expanses of electric blue to the inspiration of his face. The pressure of masculine beauty equilibrated for twenty-two years had made his movements conscious and economized as the steps of a savage transporting a heavy load of rocks on his head. He was thinking to himself that he would never be able to say to a taxi-driver “Number five Beggs Street” again without making the ride with the ghost of Captain Farreleigh.
“You’re ready already! Why outdoors?” he called. It was chilly in the mist to be swinging outside.
“Daddy has the blight and I have retired from the field of action.”
“What particular iniquity have you committed?”
“Oh, he seems to feel for one thing, that the army has a right to its epaulettes.”
“Isn’t it nice that parental authority’s going to pieces with everything else?”
“Perfect—I love conventional situations.”
They stood on the frosted porch in the sea of mist quite far away from each other, yet Alabama could have sworn she was touching him, so magnetic were their two pairs of eyes.
“Songs about summer love. I hate this cold weather.”
“Blond men on their way to the country club.”
The clubhouse sprouted inquisitively under the oaks like a squat clump of bulbs piercing the leaves in spring. The car drew up the gravel drive, poking its nose in a round bed of cannas. The ground around the place was as worn and used as the plot before a children’s playhouse. The sagging wire about the tennis court, the peeling drab-green paint of the summer house on the first tee, the trickling hydrant, the veranda thick in dust all flavoured of the pleasant atmosphere of a natural growth. It is too bad that a bottle of corn liquor exploded in one of the lockers just after the war and burned the place to the ground. So much of the theoretical youth—not just transitory early years, but of the projections and escapes of inadequate people in dramatic times—had wedged itself beneath the low-hung rafters, that the fire destroying this shrine of wartime nostalgias may have been a case of combustion from emotional saturation. No officer could have visited it three times without falling in love, engaging himself to marry and to populate the countryside with little country clubs exactly like it.
Alabama and the lieutenant lingered beside the door.
“I’m going to lay a tablet to the scene of our first meeting,” he said.
Taking out his knife he carved in the door-post :
“David,” the legend read, “David, David, Knight, Knight, Knight, and Miss Alabama Nobody.”
“Egotist,” she protested.
“I love this place,” he said. “Let’s sit outside awhile.”
“Why? The dance only lasts until twelve.”
“Can’t you trust me for three minutes or so?”
“I do trust you. That’s why I want to go inside.” She was a little angry about the names. David had told her about how famous he was going to be many times before.
Dancing with David, he smelled like new goods. Being close to him with her face in the space between his ear and his stiff army collar was like being initiated into the subterranean reserves of a fine fabric store exuding the delicacy of cambrics and linen and luxury bound in bales. She was jealous of his pale aloofness. When she saw him leave the dance floor with other girls, the resentment she felt was not against any blending of his personality with theirs, but against his leading others than herself into those cooler detached regions which he inhabited alone.
He took her home and they sat together before the grate fire in a still suspension of externals. The flames glittered in his teeth and lit his face with transcendental qualities. His features danced before her eyes with the steady elusiveness of a celluloid target on a shooting-gallery spray. She searched her relations with her father for advice about being clever; there, she found nothing relative to human charm. Being in love, none of her personal aphorisms were of the slightest help.
Alabama had grown tall and thin in the last few years; her head was blonder for its extra distance from the earth. Her legs stretched long and thin as prehistoric drawings before her; her hands felt poignant and heavy as if David’s eyes lay a weight over her wrists. She knew her face glowed in the firelight like a confectioner’s brewing, an advertisement of a pretty girl drinking a strawberry sundae in June. She wondered if David knew how conceited she was.
“And so you love blond men?”
“Yes.” Alabama had a way of talking under pressure as if the words she said were some unexpected encumbrance she found in her mouth and must rid herself of before she could communicate.
He verified himself in the mirror—pale hair like eighteenth-century moonlight and eyes like grottoes, the blue grotto, the green grotto, stalactites and malachites hanging about the dark pupil—as if he had taken an inventory of himself before leaving and was pleased to find himself complete.
The back of his head was firm and mossy and the curve of his cheek a sunny spreading meadow. His hands across her shoulders fit like the warm hollows in a pillow.
“Say „dear“,” he said.
“You love me. Why won’t you?”
“I never say anything to anybody. Don’t talk.”
“Why won’t you talk to me?”
“It spoils things. Tell me you love me.”
“Oh—I love you. Do you love me?”
So much she loved the man, so close and closer she felt herself that he became distorted in her vision, like pressing her nose upon a mirror and gazing into her own eyes. She felt the lines of his neck and his chipped profile like segments of the wind blowing about her consciousness. She felt the essence of herself pulled finer and smaller like those streams of spun glass that pull and stretch till there remains but a glimmering illusion. Neither falling nor breaking, the stream spins finer. She felt herself very small and ecstatic. Alabama was in love.
She crawled into the friendly cave of his ear. The area inside was grey and ghostly classic as she stared about the deep trenches of the cerebellum. There was not a growth nor a flowery substance to break those smooth convolutions, just the puffy rise of sleek grey matter. “I’ve got to see the front lines,” Alabama said to herself. The lumpy mounds rose wet above her head and she set out following the creases. Before long she was lost. Like a mystic maze the folds and ridges rose in desolation; there was nothing to indicate one way from another. She stumbled on and finally reached the medulla oblongata. Vast tortuous indentations led her round and round. Hysterically, she began to run. David, distracted by a tickling sensation at the head of his spine, lifted his lips from hers.
“I’ll see your father,” he said, “about when we can be married.”
Judge Beggs rocked himself back and forth from his toes to his heels, sifting values.
“Um—m—m—well, I suppose so, if you think you can take care of her.”
“I’m sure of it, sir. There’s a little money in the family—and my earning capacity. It will be enough.”
David thought doubtfully to himself that there wasn’t much money—perhaps a hundred and fifty thousand between his mother and his grandmother, and he wanted to live in New York and be an artist. Perhaps his family wouldn’t help. Well, anyway, they were engaged. He had to have Alabama, anyway, and money—well once he had dreamed of a troop of Confederate soldiers who wrapped their bleeding feet in Rebel banknotes to keep them off the snow. David, in his dream, had been there when they found that they did not feel sorry about using up the worthless money after they had lost the war.
Spring came and shattered its opalescent orioles in wreaths of daffodils. Kiss-me-at-the-gate clung to its angular branches and the old yards were covered with a child’s version of flowers : snowdrops and primula veris, pussywillow and calendula. David and Alabama kicked over the oak leaves from the stumpy roots in the woods and picked white violets. They went on Sundays to the vaudeville and sat in the back of the theatre so they could hold hands unobserved. They learned to sing “My Sweetie” and “Baby” and sat in a box at Hitchy-Koo and gazed at each other soberly through the chorus of “How Can You Tell?” The spring rains soaked the heavens till the clouds slid open and summer flooded the South with sweat and heat waves. Alabama dressed in pink and pale linen and she and David sat together under the paddles of ceiling fans whipping the summer to consequence. Outside the wide doors of the country club they pressed their bodies against the cosmos, the gibberish of jazz, the black heat from the greens in the hollow like people making an imprint for a cast of humanity. They swam in the moonlight that varnished the land like a honey-coating and David swore and cursed the collars of his uniforms and rode all night to the rifle range rather than give up his hours after supper with Alabama. They broke the beat of the universe to measures of their own conception and mesmerized themselves with its precious thumping.
The air turned opaque over the singed grass slopes, and the sand in the bunkers flew up dry as gunpowder under a niblick. Tangles of goldenrod shredded the sun; the splendid summer lay ground into powder over the hard clay roads. Moving day came and the first day of school spiced the mornings—and one summer ended with another fall.
When David left for the port of embarkation, he wrote Alabama letters about New York. Maybe, after all, she would go to New York and marry.
“City of glittering hypotheses,” wrote David ecstatically, “chaff from a fairy mill, suspended in penetrating blue! Humanity clings to the streets like flies upon a treacle stream. The tops of the buildings shine like crowns of gold-leaf kings in conference—and oh, my dear, you are my princess and I’d like to keep you shut for ever in an ivory tower for my private delectation.”
The third time he wrote that about the princess, Alabama asked him not to mention the tower again.
She thought of David Knight at night and went to the vaudeville with the dog-faced aviation officer till the war was over. It ended one night with the flash of a message across the vaudeville curtain. There had been a war, but now there were two more acts of the show.
David was sent back to Alabama for demobilization. He told Alabama about the girl in the Hotel Astor the night he had been so drunk.
“Oh God!” she said to herself. “Well, I can’t help it.” She thought of the dead mechanic, of Felix, of the faithful dog-lieutenant. She hadn’t been too good herself.
She said to David that it didn’t matter : that she believed that one person should only be faithful to another when they felt it. She said it was probably her fault for not making him care more.
As soon as David could make the arrangements, he sent for her. The Judge gave her the trip north for a wedding present; she quarrelled with her mother about her wedding clothes.
“I don’t want it that way. I want it to drop off the shoulders.”
“Alabama, it’s as near as I can get it. How can it stay up with nothing to hold it?”
“Aw, Mamma, you can fix it.”
Millie laughed, a pleased sad laugh, and indulgent.
“My children think I can accomplish the impossible,” she said, complacently.
Alabama left her mother a note in her bureau drawer the day she went away :
My dearest Mamma:
I have not been as you would have wanted me but! love you with all my heart and 1 will think of you every day. 1 hate leaving you alone with all your children gone. Don’t forget me.
The Judge put her on the train.
He seemed very handsome and abstract to Alabama. She was afraid to cry; her father was so proud. Joan had been afraid, too, to cry.
The train pulled Alabama out of the shadow-drenched land of her youth.
The Judge and Millie sat on the familiar porch alone. Millie picked nervously at a palmetto fan; the Judge spat occasionally through the vines.
“Don’t you think we’d better get a smaller house?”
“Millie, I’ve lived here eighteen years and I’m not going to change my habits of life at my age.”
“There are no screens in this house and the pipes freeze every winter. It’s so far from your office, Austin.”
“It suits me, and I’m going to stay.”
The old empty swing creaked faintly in the breeze that springs up from the gulf every night. Children’s voices floated past from the street corner where they played some vindictive trick on time under the arc light. The Judge and Millie silently rocked the paintless porch chairs. Uncrossing his feet from the banisters, Austin rose to close the shutters for the night. It was his house at last.
“Well,” he said, “this night next year you’ll probably be a widow.”
“Pshaw!” said Millie. “You’ve been saying that for thirty years.”
The sweet pastels of Millie’s face faded in distress. The lines between her nose and mouth drooped like the cords of a flag at half-mast.
“Your mother was just the same,” she said, reproachfully, “always saying she was going to die and she lived to be ninety-two.”
“Well, she did die, didn’t she, at last?” the Judge chuckled.
He turned out the lights in his pleasant house and they went upstairs, two old people alone. The moon waddled about the tin roof and bounced awkwardly over Millie’s window sill. The Judge lay reading Hegel for half an hour or so and fell asleep. His deeply balanced snoring through the long night reassured Millie that this was not the end of life although Alabama’s room was dark and Joan was gone and the board for Dixie’s transom was long thrown away with the trash and her only boy lay in the cemetery in a little grave beside the common grave of Ethelinda and Mason Cuthbert Beggs. Millie didn’t think anything much about personal things. She just lived from day to day; and Austin didn’t think anything at all about them because he lived from one century to another.
It was awful, though, for the family to lose Alabama, because she was the last to go and that meant their lives would be different with her away…
Alabama lay thinking in room number twenty-one-o-nine of the Biltmore Hotel that her life would be different with her parents so far away. David David Knight Knight Knight, for instance, couldn’t possibly make her put out her light till she got good and ready. No power on earth could make her do anything, she thought frightened, any more, except herself.
David was thinking that he didn’t mind the light, that Alabama was his bride, and that he had just bought her that detective story with the last actual cash they had in the world, though she didn’t know it. It was a good detective story about money and Monte Carlo and love. Alabama looked very lovely herself as she lay there reading, he thought.