Dahlias stuck out of green tins at the station flower stalls like the paper fans that come with pop-corn packages; the oranges were piled like Minie balls along the newsstands; the windows of the buffet de la gare sported three American grapefruit like the balls of a gastronomic pawnshop. Saturated air hung between the train windows and Paris like a heavy blanket.
David and Alabama filled the second class wagon-lit with brassy cigarette smoke. He rang for an extra pillow.
“If you need anything I’ll always be there,” he said.
Alabama cried and swallowed a spoonful of yellow sedative.
“You’ll get awfully sick of telling people how I’m getting along—”
“I’m going to Switzerland as soon as we can close the apartment—I’ll send Bonnie to you when you’re ready to have her.”
A demi-Perrier sizzled in the car window. David choked on the dank must.
“It’s silly to travel second-class. Won’t you let me have them change you to first?” he said.
“I’d rather feel I could afford it from the beginning.”
The weight of their individual reactions separated them like a barrage. Unconscious relief buckled their parting with sad constraint—innumerable involuntary associations smothered their good-byes in platonic despair.
“I’ll send you some money. I’d better be getting off.”
“Good-bye—Oh, David!” she called as the train shoved away. “Be sure to have Mademoiselle get Bonnie’s underwear from Old England—”
“I’ll tell her—good-bye, dear!”
Alabama stuck her head inside the dim incandescence of the train lit like a spiritualist’s seance. Her face flattened to a stone carving in the mirror. Her suit wasn’t right for second class; Yvonne Davidson had made it out of the reflections of an Armistice parade—the lines of the horizon-blue helmet and the sweep of the cape were too generous for the constraint of the scratchy lace-covered benches. Alabama went over her plans sympathetically to herself as a mother might soothe an unhappy child. She couldn’t see the maitresse de ballet till the day after she got there. It was nice of Mademoiselle to give her a bunch of maguey; she was sorry she had forgotten it on the mantelpiece at home. She had some dirty clothes in the laundry, too—Mademoiselle could pack them with the linen when they moved. She supposed David would leave the linen at the American Express. It wouldn’t be hard packing, they had so little junk: a broken tea-set, relic of a pilgrimage to Valence from St-Raphael, a few photographs—she was sorry she hadn’t brought the one of David taken on the porch in Connecticut—some books, and David’s crated paintings.
The glow from the electric signs blared over Paris in the distance like the glare of a pottery kiln. Her hands sweated under the coarse red blanket. The carriage smelled like the inside of a small boy’s pocket. Her thoughts insistently composed gibberish in French to the click of the car wheels.
La belle main gauche l’ether compact,
S’etendre dans l’air qui fait le beau
Trouve la haut le rhythm intact
Battre des ailes d’un triste oiseau.
Alabama got up to look for a pencil.
“Le bruit constant de mille moineaux,” she added. She wondered if she’d lost the letter—no, it was in her Cutex-box.
She must have gone to sleep—it was hard to tell in a train. Tramping in the corridors awoke her. This must be the border. She rang the bell. Nobody came for ages. A man in the green uniform of a circus animal-trainer appeared at last.
“Water?” said Alabama ingratiatingly.
The man stared blankly about the wagon. There was no response in the smooth enigma of his fascinated countenance.
“Acqua, de l’eau, wataire,” Alabama persisted.
“Fraulein rings,” commented the man.
“Listen,” said Alabama. She raised her arms in the motions of the Australian crawl and finished with a tentative compromise between exaggerated swallows and a gargle. She faced the guard anticipatorily.
“No, no, No!” he cried out in alarm and vanished from the compartment.
Alabama got out her Italian phrase book and rang again.
“Do’—veh pos’—so com—prar’—eh ben—zee’—no,” the book said. The man laughed hilariously. She must have lost the place.
“Nothing,” Alabama told him reluctantly and went back to her composing. The man had driven the rhythm out of her head. She was probably in Switzerland by now. She couldn’t remember whether or not it was Byron who had crossed the Alps with the curtains of his carriage down. She tried to see out of the window—some milk cans glistened in the dark. What she should have done about Bonnie’s underwear was to have had it made by a seamstress. Mademoiselle would see to it. She got up and stretched, holding on to the sliding door.
The man informed her disparagingly that she couldn’t open the doors in the second-class and she couldn’t have breakfast served in a couchette.
The country from the windows of the diner next day was flat like the land from which the sea has receded with sparse feather-duster trees tickling the bright sky. Little clouds foamed over the placidity aimlessly as froth from a beer pail; castles tumbled over the round hills like crowns awry; nobody sang “O Sole Mio”.
There was honey for breakfast and bread like a stone mallet. She was afraid to change in Rome without David. The Rome station was full of palms; the fountains scrubbed the baths of Caracalla with sprays of sunshine opposite the terminus. In the open friendliness of the Italian air, her spirits rose.
“Ballonne, deux tours,” she said to herself. The new train was filthy. There were no carpets on the floor and it smelled of the Fascists, of guns. The signs pronounced a litany; Asti Spumante, Lagrima Christi, Spumoni, Tortoni. She didn’t know what it was she had lost—the letter was still in the Cutex. Alabama took possession of herself as a small boy walking in a garden might close his hand over a firefly.
“Cinque minuti mangiare,” said the attendant.
“All right,” she said, counting on her fingers, “una, due, tre—It’s all right,” she assured him.
The train swerved this way and that, trying to avoid the disorder of Naples. The cabbies had forgotten to move their cabs off the car rails, sleepy men forgot which way they were going in the middle of the streets, children spread their mouths and soft hurt eyes and forgot the emotion of crying. White dust blew about the city; delicatessens sold sharp smells, cubes and triangles and wicker globes of odour. Naples shrunk in the lamplight from its public squares, suppressed by a great pretence of discipline, quelled by its blackened stone facades.
“Venti lire!” expostulated the cabby.
“The letter,” said Alabama haughtily, “said I could live on thirty lire a week in Naples.”
“Vend, venti, venti,” carolled the Italian without turning around.
“It’s going to be difficult not being able to communicate,” thought Alabama.
She gave the man the address the maitresse had sent her. Flourishing his whip grandiloquently, the cabby urged the horse’s hoofs pendulously through the munificence of the night. As she gave the man his money his brown eyes swung on hers like cups set on a tree to catch a precious sap. She thought he would never quit looking.
“Signorina will like Naples,” he said surprisingly. “„The city’s voice is soft like solitude’s.“”
The cab clumped away through the red and green lights set about the brim of the bay like stones in the filigree of a Renaissance poison-cup. The syrupy drippings of the fly-specked south seeped up on the breeze that blew the vast aquamarine translucence into emotional extinction.
The light from the pension entry shone in globular drops in Alabama’s fingernails. Her movements gathered up inconsequential stirrings of the air as she passed inside leaving no traces on the stillness behind her.
“Well, I’ve got to live here,” said Alabama, “so that’s all there is to that.”
The landlady said the room had a balcony—it did, but there wasn’t any floor to the balcony; the iron rails joined the peeling pink wash of the outside walls. However, there was a lavabo with gigantic spouts sticking out over the bowl and splashing the square of oilcloth underneath. The breakwater curved its arm about the ball of blue night from her window; the smell of pitch rose from the harbour.
Alabama’s thirty lire bought a white iron bed that had obviously once been green, a maple wardrobe with a bevelled mirror opalling the Italian sun, and a rocker made of a strip of Brussels carpet. Cabbage three times a day, a glass of Amalfi wine, gnocchi on Sundays, and the chorus of “Donna” by the loafers beneath the balcony at night were included in the price. It was a huge room with no shape, being all bays and corners till it gave her a sense of inhabiting a whole apartment. There is a suggestion of gilt about everything in Naples, and though Alabama could not find a trace of it in her room, she felt somehow as if the ceilings were encrusted with goldleaf. Footfalls rose from the pavements below in sumptuous warm reminiscence. Nights fell out of the classics; the merest suggestion of people floated off into view, fantastic excrescences of happy existence; cacti speared the summer; the backs of fish glinted in the open boats below like mica splinters.
Madame Sirgeva conducted her classes on the stage of the opera house. She complained incessantly about the price of the lights; the piano sounded very ineffectual in the Victorian chasms. The darkness from the wings and the dimness between the three globes she kept burning overhead divided the stage into small intimate compartments. Madame paraded her ghost through the sway of tarlatan, the creak of toe shoes, the subdued panting of the girls.
“No noise, less noise,” she reiterated. She was as pale and dyed and shrivelled and warped by poverty as a skin that has been soaked under acid. The black dye in her hair, coarse as the stuffing of a pillow, was yellow along the part; she taught her girls in puffed-sleeved blouses and pleated skirts which she wore on the street afterwards beneath her coat.
Swirling round and round like an exercise in penmanship, Alabama threaded the line through the spots of light.
“But you are like Madame!” said Madame Sirgeva. “We were at the Imperial School together in Russia. It was I who taught her her entrechats, though she never did them properly. Mes enfants! There are four counts to a quatre-temps, please, p-l-e-a-s-e!”
Alabama clamorously dropped her person bit by bit into the ballet like pieces dropped through a mechanical piano.
The girls were unlike the Russians. Their necks were dirty and they came to the theatre with paper bags filled with thick sandwiches. They ate garlic; they were fatter than the Russians and their legs were shorter; they danced with bent knees and their Italian-silk tights crinkled over their dimples.
“God and the Devil!” shrieked Sirgeva. “It is Moira who is never in step, and the ballet goes on in three weeks.”
“Oh, Maestra!” remonstrated Moira. “Molto bella!”
“Oh,” gasped Madame, turning to Alabama. “You see? I provide them with steel shoes to hold up their lazy feet and the moment I turn my back they dance flatfoot—and I am paid only sixteen hundred lire for all that! Thank heavens, I have one from a Russian school!” The mistress went on like a churning piston-rod. She sat in the humid closed opera house with a seal cape about her shoulders, faded and dyed like her hair, coughing into her handkerchief.
“Mother Maria,” sighed the girls. “Sanctified Mary!” They drew together in frightened groups in the gloom. They were suspicious of Alabama because of her clothes. Over the backs of the canvas chairs in the dingy dressing-room she flung her things : two hundred dollars’ worth of black tulle “Adieu Sagesse,” moss roses floating through a nebula like seeds in a strawberry ice, costly nebula—one hundred, two hundred dollars; some yellow clownish fringe, a chartreuse hooded cloak, white shoes, blue shoes, buckles for Bobby Shafto, silver buckles, steel buckles, hats and red sandals, shoes with the signs of the Zodiac, a velvet cape soft as the roof of an old chateau, a cap of pheasant’s feathers—she hadn’t realized in Paris that she had had so many clothes. She would have to wear them out now that she was living on six hundred lire a month. She was glad of all those clothes that David had bought her. After the class, she dressed amidst the fine things with the purposeful air of a father inspecting a child’s toy.
“Holy Mother,” whispered the girls shyly, fingering her lingerie. Alabama was cross when they did that; she didn’t want them smearing sausage over her chiffon step-ins.
She wrote to David twice a week—their apartment appeared to her far away, and dull. Rehearsals were coming—any life compared with that seemed dreary. Bonnie answered on little paper with French nursery rhymes on the heading.
I was the hostess while Daddy put on his cuff-buttons for a lady and gentleman. My life is working quite well. Mademoiselle and the chambermaid said they never saw a box of paints so pretty as the one you sent. 1 jumped of joy with the paintbox and made some pictures of des gens a la mer, nous qui jouons au croquet et une vase avec des fleurs dedans d’apres nature. When we are Sunday in Paris, I go to Catechism to learn of the horrible sufferings of Jesus Christ.
Your loving daughter, Bonnie Knight.
Alabama took the yellow sedative at night to forget Bonnie’s letters. She made friends with a dark Russian girl blowing through the ballet like a sirocco. Together they went to the Galleria. In the blank stone enclosure where footsteps spattered like steady rain, they sat over their beers. The girl refused to believe that Alabama was married; she lived in constant hopes of meeting the man who provided her friend with so much money, and of stealing him away. Crowds of men passing arm in arm eyed them callously and disdainfully—they wouldn’t pick up women who went to the Galleria at night alone, they seemed to say. Alabama showed her friend Bonnie’s picture.
“You are happy,” said the girl. “One is happier when one doesn’t marry.” Her eyes were a deep brown that glowed red and clear like violin rosin when she was exhilarated by a little alcohol. On especial occasions she wore a pair of black net teddies with lavender bows that she had brought when she worked in the chorus of the Ballet Russe before Diaghilev died.
Rehearsing in the big empty theatre, the troupe went over and over the Faust ballet. The orchestra leader conducted Alabama’s three-minute solo like lightning. Madame Sirgeva did not dare to speak to the Maestro. At last with tears in her eyes, she stopped the performance.
“You are killing my girls,” she wept. “It is inhuman!”
The man threw his stick across the piano; the hair stood up on his head like grass sprouting on a clay scalp.
“Sopristi!” he screamed. “The music is written so!”
He dashed distractedly out of the Opera House and they finished without music. The following afternoon the Maestro was more determined, the music went faster than ever. He had looked up a copy of the original score; he had never made an error. The arms of the violins rose above the stage bent and black as grasshopper legs; the Maestro snapped his backbone like a rubber slingshot, flinging the fast chords up over the footlights with an impossible rapidity.
Alabama was unused to a slanting stage. To habituate herself she worked alone at lunch time after the morning class, turning, turning. The slant threw her turns out of balance. She worked so hard that she felt like an old woman by a fireside in a far Nordic country as she sat on the floor dressing afterwards. The telescoping vacation blue and brighter blue of the Bay of Naples was blinding to stumble through on her way home. Alabama’s feet were bleeding as she fell into bed.
When at last her first performance was over she sat on the base of a statue of the “Venus de Milo”, outside the studded doors of the Opera greenrooms; Pallas Athene stared at her across the musty hall. Her eyes throbbed with the beat of her pulse, her hair clung like Plasticine about her head; “Bravo” and “Benissimo” for the ballet rang about her ears like persistent gnats. “Well, it’s done,” she said.
She didn’t dare look at the girls in the dressing-room; she tried to hold on to the magic for a long time. She knew her eyes would see the sagging breasts like dried August gourds, and wound themselves on the pneumatic buttocks like lurid fruits in the pictures of Georgia O’Keefe.
David had telegraphed a basket of calla lilies. “From your two sweethearts” the card should have read, but it had come through the Neapolitan florist “sweat-hearts”. She didn’t laugh. She hadn’t written to David in three weeks. She plastered her face with cold cream and sucked on the half-lemon she had brought in her valise. Her Russian friend embraced her. The ballet girls seemed to be waiting about for something more to happen; no men waited in the shadows of the opera door. The girls were mostly ugly, and some of them were old. Their faces were vacuous and so stretched with fatigue that they would have fallen apart save for the cordlike muscles developed by years of hard breathing. Their necks were pinched and twisted like dirty knots of mending thread when they were thin, and when they were fat the flesh hung over their bones like bulging pastry over the sides of paper containers. Their hair was black with no nuances to please the tired senses.
“Jesu!” they cried in admiration, “the lilies! How much can they have cost? They are fit for a cathedral!”
Madame Sirgeva kissed Alabama gratefully.
“You have done well! When we give the ballet programme for the year, you will have the stellar role—these girls are too ugly. I can do nothing with them. There was no interest in ballet before—now we shall see! Do not worry. I will write to Madame! Your flowers are beautiful, piccola ballerina,” she finished softly.
Alabama sat in her window listening to the night chorus of “Donna”.
“Well,” she sighed distractedly, “there should be something to do after a success.”
She put her wardrobe in order and thought of her friends in Paris. Sunday friends with satin-coated wives toasting impeccable accents in the sun of foreign plages; tumultuous friends drowning the Chopin in modern jazz in vintage wines; cultured friends hanging over David like a group of relations over a first-born. They would have taken her out somewhere. Calla lilies, in Paris, would not have been tied with a white tulle bow.
She sent David the clippings from the paper. They were agreed that the ballet was a success, and that the new addition to Madame Sirgeva’s corps was a competent dancer. She had promise and should be given a bigger role, the papers said. Italians like blondes; they said Alabama was as ethereal as a Fra Angelico angel because she was thinner than the others.
Madame Sirgeva was proud of those notices. It seemed more important to Alabama that she should have discovered a new make of toe shoe from Milan; the shoes were soft as air. Alabama ordered a hundred pairs—David sent her the money. He was living in Switzerland with Bonnie. She hoped he had bought Bonnie woollen bloomers—up to the age of ten girls need to have their stomachs protected. At Christmas he wrote that he had bought Bonnie a blue ski-suit, and sent her Kodak snaps of the snow and of the two of them falling down the hills together.
Asthmatic Christmas bells tolled over Naples; flat metallic sheets of sound like rustled sheaves of roofing. The steps about the public places were filled with jonquils and roses dyed orange, dripping red water. Alabama went to see the wax Nativities at Benediction. There were calla lilies everywhere and tapers and worn, bland faces smiling convulsively over the season. From the reflection of the candle flicker on the gilt, from the chants that rose and fell like the beating of the tides on amorphous shores before the birth of man, from the spattering tread of the women with heads bound in lace veils, Alabama absorbed a sense of elation as if she marched to the righteous tune of spiritual organization. The surplices of the priests in Naples were of white satin, lush with passion flowers and pomegranates. During the services Alabama thought of Bourbon princes and haemophilia, papal counts, and maraschino cherries. The gleam of gold damask on the altar was as warm and rich as what it represented. Her thoughts prowled about her introspection like leopards in a cage at the zoo. Her body was so full of static from the constant whip of her work that she could get no clear communication with herself. She said to herself that human beings have no right to fail. She did not feel what failure was. She thought of Bonnie’s tree. Mademoiselle could get it together as well as she.
Unexpectedly she laughed, tapping her spirit experimentally like a piano being tuned.
“There’s a lot in religion,” she said to her Russian friend, “but it has too much meaning.”
The Russian told Alabama about a priest she had known who became so aroused by the tales he had heard in the Confessional that he got drunk on the Holy Sacrament. He drank so much during the week that there wasn’t any communion to give to the penitents on Sunday, who had also been drinking during the week and needed a pick-me-up. His church became known as a lousy dump that borrowed its blood of Christ from the synagogue, the girl said, and lost many customers, among them herself.
“I,” the girl rambled on, “used to be very religious. Once in Russia when I found my carriage was being drawn by a white horse I got out and walked three miles through the snow to the theatre and I got pneumonia. Since, I have cared less for God—between the priests and white horses.”
The Opera gave Faust three times during the winter, and Alabama’s tea-rose tarlatan that had risen at first like a frozen fountain wore streaked and crushed. She loved the lessons the morning after a performance—the let-down and still floral calm like the quiet of an orchard in bloom that followed the excitement, and her face’s being pale, and the traces of makeup washed out of the corner of her eyes with perspiration.
“Stations of the Cross!” moaned the girls, “but my legs ache, and I am sleepy! My mother beat me last night because I was late; my father refuses me Bel Paese—I cannot work on goat cheese!”
“Ah,” the fat mothers deflated themselves, “bellissima, my daughter—she should be ballerina, but the Americans grab everything. But Mussolini will show them. Holy Sacrament!”
For the end of Lent the Opera demanded a whole programme of ballet; Alabama at last was to dance ballerina of Le Lac des Cygnes.
As the ballet went into rehearsal, David wrote asking if she would like Bonnie for two weeks. Alabama got permission to miss a morning class to meet her child at the station. A swishing army officer helped Bonnie and Mademoiselle out of the train into the Neapolitan jargon of sound and colour.
“Mummy,” the child cried excitedly. “Mummy!” She clung about Alabama’s knees adoringly; a soft wind swept her bangs back in little gusts. Her round face was as flushed and translucent as the polish on the day of her arrival. The bones had begun to come up in her nose; her hands were forming. She was going to have those wide-ended fingers of a Spanish primitive like David. She was very like her father.
“She has given an excellent example to the travellers,” said Mademoiselle straightening her hair.
Bonnie clung to her mother bristling with resentment of Mademoiselle’s proprietary air. She was seven, had just begun to sense her position in the world, and was full of the critical childish reserves that accompany the first formations of social judgement.
“Is your car outside?” she bubbled.
“I haven’t any car, dear. There’s a flea-bitten horse-cab that’s much nicer to take us to my pension.”
A determination not to manifest her disappointment showed in Bonnie’s face.
“Daddy has a car,” she said critically.
“Well, here we travel in chariots.” Alabama deposited her on the crinkled linen covers of the voiture.
“You and Daddy are very „chic“,” Bonnie went on speculatively. “You should have a car—”
“Mademoiselle, did you tell her that?”
“Certainly, Madame. I should like to be in Mademoiselle Bonnie’s place,” said Mademoiselle emphatically.
“I suppose I shall be very rich,” said Bonnie.
“My God, no! You must get things like that out of your head. You will have to work to get what you want—that’s why I wanted you to dance. I was sorry to hear you had given it up.”
“I did not like dancing, except the presents. At the end Madame gave me a little silver evening bag. Inside there was a glass and a comb and real powder—that part I liked. Would you like to see it?”
From a small valise she produced an incomplete pack of cards, several frayed paper dolls, an empty match-box, a small bottle, two souvenir fans, and a notebook.
“I used to make you keep your things in better order,” commented Alabama, staring at the untidy mess.
Bonnie laughed. “I do more as I please now,” she said. “Here is the bag.”
Handling the little silver envelope, an unexpected lump rose to Alabama’s throat. A faint scent of eau de Cologne brought back the glitter on the crystal beads of Madame; the music hammering the afternoon to a beaten-silver platter, David and Bonnie waiting at dinner, swirled in her head like snowflakes settling in a glass paperweight.
“It’s very pretty,” she said.
“Why do you cry? I will let you carry it sometime.”
“It’s the smell makes my eyes water. What have you got in your suitcase that smells so?”
“But, Madame,” expostulated Mademoiselle, “it is the very same mixture they make for the Prince of Wales. One takes one part lemon, one part eau de Cologne, one part Coty’s jasmine, and—”
Alabama laughed. “—And you shake it up, and pour off two parts ether and half a dead cat!”
Bonnie’s eyes widened disdainfully.
“You can take it in trains for when your hands are soiled,” she protested, “or for if you have the „vertige“.”
“I see—or in case the engine runs out of oil. Here’s where we get out.”
The cab shook itself to an indeterminate stop before the pink boarding house. Bonnie’s eyes wandered incredulously over the flaking wash and the hollow entry. The doorway smelled of damp and urine; stone steps cradled the centuries in their worn centres.
“Madame has not make a mistake?” protested Mademoiselle querulously.
“No,” Alabama said cheerfully. “You and Bonnie have a room to yourselves. Don’t you love Naples?”
“I hate Italy,” pronounced Bonnie. “I like it better in France.”
“How do you know? You’ve just got here.”
“The Italians are very dirty, isn’t it?” Mademoiselle reluctantly parted with an unclassifiable facial expression.
“Ah,” said the landlady, smothering Bonnie in a vast convex embrace. “Mother of God, it is a beautiful child!” Her breasts hung over the stunned little girl like sandbags.
“Dieu!” Mademoiselle sighed. “These Italians are a religious people!”
The Easter table was decorated with lugubrious crosses made of dried palmetto leaves. There was gnocchi and vino da Capri for dinner, and a purple card with cupids pasted in the centre of gold radiations resembling medals of state. In the afternoon they walked along the pulverized white roads and up the steep alleys gashed with bright rags hung out to dry in the glare. Bonnie waited in her mother’s room while Alabama prepared for rehearsal. The child amused herself by sketching in the rocker.
“I cannot make a good likeness,” she announced, “so I have changed to caricature. It is Daddy when he was a young man.”
“Your father’s only thirty-two,” said Alabama.
“Well, that’s quite old, wouldn’t you say?”
“Not so old as seven, my dear.”
“Oh, of course—if you count backwards,” agreed Bonnie.
“And if you begin in the middle, we are a very young family all round.”
“I should like to begin when I am twenty, and have six children.”
“How many husbands?”
“Oh, no husbands. They shall, perhaps, be away at the time,” said Bonnie vaguely. “I have seen them so in the movies.”
“What was that remarkable film?”
“It was about dancing, so Daddy took me. There was a lady in the Russian Ballet. She had no children but a man and they both cried a lot.”
“It must have been interesting.”
“Yes. It was Gabrielle Gibbs. Do you like her, Mummy?”
“I’ve never seen her except in life, so I couldn’t say.”
“She is my favourite actress. She is a very pretty lady.”
“I must see the picture.”
“We could go if we were in Paris. I could carry my silver sac de soiree.”
Every day during rehearsals, Bonnie sat in the cold theatre with Mademoiselle lost under the dim trimmings like rose and gold cigar-bands, terrified by the seriousness and the emptiness and Madame Sirgeva. Alabama went over and over the adagio.
“Blue devils,” gasped the maitresse. “Nobody has done that with two turns! Ma chere Alabama—you will see with the orchestra that it cannot be!”
On their way home they passed a man ponderously swallowing frogs. The frogs’ legs were tied to a string, and he pulled them up again out of his stomach, as many as four at a time. Bonnie gloated with disgusted delight. It made her quite sick to see; she was fascinated.
The pasty food at the boarding house gave Bonnie a rash.
“It is ringworm from the filth,” said Mademoiselle. “If we stay, Madame, it may turn to erysipelas,” she threatened. “Besides, Madame, our bath is dirty!”
“It is quite like broth, mutton broth,” corroborated Bonnie distastefully, “only without the peas!”
“I had wanted to give Bonnie a party,” said Alabama.
“Could Madame suggest where I might get a thermometer?” Mademoiselle interjected hastily.
Nadjya, the Russian, unearthed a little boy for Bonnie’s party. Madame Sirgeva incalculably furnished a nephew. Though all of Naples was covered with buckets of anemones and night-blooming stock, pale violets like enamelled breastpins, straw-flowers and bachelor’s-buttons, and the covetous enveloping bloom of azaleas, the landlady insisted upon decorating the children’s table with poisonous pink-and-yellow paper flowers. She produced two children for the party, one with a sore under its nose, and one who had had to have its head recently shaved. The children arrived in corduroy pants worn over the seat like a convict’s head. The table was loaded with rock cakes and honey and warm pink lemonade.
The Russian boy brought a monkey which hopped about the table tasting from all the jams and throwing the spoons about recklessly. Alabama watched them under the scraggly palms from the low sill of her room; the French governess tore ineffectually about on the outskirts of their activities.
“Tiens, Bonnie! Et toi, ah, mon pauvre chou-chou!” she shrieked without pause.
It was a witch’s incantation. What magic philter was the woman brewing to be drunk by the passing years? Alabama’s senses floated off on dreams. A sharp scream from Bonnie startled her back to reality.
“Ah, quelle sale bete!”
“Well, come here, dear, we’ll put iodine on it,” Alabama called from the casement.
“So Serge takes the monkey,” Bonnie stammered, “and he th—r—o—ws him at me, and he is horrible, and I hate the children of Naples!”
Alabama held the child on her knee. Her body felt very little and helpless to her mother.
“Monkeys have to have something to eat,” Alabama teased.
“You are lucky he has not bitten your nose,” Serge commented unsolicitously. The two Italians were only concerned about the animal, rubbing him affectionately and soothing him with dreamy Italian prayer like a love song.
“Che—che—che,” chittered the parakeet.
“Come,” said Alabama, “I will tell you a story.”
The young eyes hung suspended on her words like drops of rain under a fence rail; their little faces followed hers like pale pads of clouds beneath the moon.
“I would never have come,” declaimed Serge, “if I had known there wasn’t going to be Chianti!”
“Nor I, Hail Mary!” echoed the Italians.
“Don’t you want to hear about the Greek temples, all bright reds and blues?” Alabama insisted.
“Well—they are white now because the ages have worn away their original, dazzling—”
“Mummy, may I have the compote?”
“Do you want to hear about the temples or not?” said Alabama crossly. The table came to a dead expectant silence.
“That’s all I know about them,” she concluded, feebly.
“Then may I please now have the compote?” Bonnie dripped the purple stain down the knife-pleats of her best dress.
“Doesn’t Madame feel that we have had enough for one afternoon?” said Mademoiselle in dismay.
“I feel sick, a little,” confessed Bonnie. She was ghastly pale.
The doctor said he thought it was the climate. Alabama forgot to get the emetic he prescribed at the drug store and Bonnie lay in bed for a week, living on lime-water and mutton broth while her mother rehearsed the waltz. Alabama was distracted; Madame Sirgeva had been right—she couldn’t do two turns with the orchestra unless it slowed up. The Maestro was adamant.
“Mother of women,” the girls breathed from the dark corners. “She will break her back so!”
Somehow she got Bonnie well enough to board the train. She bought them a spirit lamp for the voyage.
“But what will we do with it, Madame?” asked Mademoiselle suspiciously.
“The British always have a spirit lamp,” explained Alabama, “so when the baby gets croup they can take care of it. We never have anything, so we get to know the inside of many hospitals. The babies all come out the same, only later in life some prefer spirit lamps and some prefer hospitals.”
“Bonnie has not got croup, Madame,” Mademoiselle reproved huffily. “Her illness is the result solely of our visit.” She wanted the train to start to extricate herself and Bonnie from Neapolitan confusions. Alabama wanted also to be extricated.
“We should have taken the train-de-luxe,” said Bonnie. “I am in rather a hurry to get to Paris.”
“This is the train-de-luxe, snob!”
Bonnie gazed at her mother in impassive scepticism.
“There are many things in the world you don’t know, Mummy.”
“It’s just barely possible.”
“Ah,” fluttered Mademoiselle approvingly, “Au ’voir, Madame, au ’voir! And good luck!”
“Good-bye, Mummy. Do not dance too hard!” called Bonnie perfunctorily as the train moved off.
The poplar trees before the station jingled their tops like pockets full of silver money; the train whistled mournfully as it rounded a bend.
“For five lire,” said Alabama to the dog-eared cab driver, “you must take me to the Opera House.”
She sat alone that night without Bonnie. She hadn’t realized how much fuller life was with Bonnie there. She was sorry she hadn’t sat more with her child when she was sick in bed. Maybe she could have missed rehearsals. She had wanted her child to see her dance the ballet. In one more week of rehearsal she would have her debut as a ballerina!
Alabama threw the broken fan and the pack of picture postcards that Bonnie had left behind in the wastebasket. They seemed hardly worth sending after her to Paris. She sat down to mend her Milanese tights. The Italian toe shoes were good but Italian tights were too heavy—they cut your thighs on the arabesque croise.
“D’you have a good time?”
David met Bonnie under the pink explosive apple trees where Lake Geneva spread a net below the undulating acrobacies of the mountains. Opposite the Vevey Station a bridge of pencil strokes clipped pleasantly over the river; the mountains braced themselves out of the water on the Dorothy Perkins stems and throngs of purple clematis. Nature had padded every crack and crevice with floral stuffing; narcissus banded the mountains in a milky way, the houses tethered themselves to the earth with browsing cows and pots of geraniums. Ladies in lace with parasols, ladies in linen with white shoes, ladies in tangerine smiles patronized the elements in the station square. Lake Geneva, pounded for so many summers by the cruel brightness, lay shaking its fist at the high heavens swearing up at God from the security of the Swiss Republic.
“Lovely,” replied Bonnie succinctly.
“How was Mummy?” pursued David.
Dressed in a catalogue of summer, even Bonnie noticed that his clothes were a little amazing, suggesting a studied sartorial selection. He was dressed in pearly grey and he looked as if he had stepped down inside his angora sweater and flannel pants with such precision that he had hardly deranged their independent decorative purpose. If he hadn’t been so handsome he could never have achieved so speculative and tentative an effect. Bonnie was proud of her father.
“Mummy was dancing,” said Bonnie.
Deep shadows sprawled about the streets of Vevey like lazy summer drunkards; clouds full of moisture floated like lily pads in the luminous puddle of the sky. They mounted the hotel bus.
“The rooms, Prince,” said the sad, suave hotel man, “will be eight dollars a day because of the fete.”
The valet carried their luggage to a white-and-gold encrusted suite.
“Oh, what a beautiful sitting-room!” ejaculated Bonnie. “There is even a telephone. Such „elegance“!” She spun about switching on the lurid floor lamps. “And I have a room to myself, and a bath of my own,” she hummed. “It was nice of you, Daddy, to give Mademoiselle „vacances“!”
“How would the royal visitor like her bath?” said David. “Well—cleaner, please, than in Naples.” “Was your bath dirty in Naples?”
“Mummy said „no“ —” said Bonnie hesitantly, “but Mademoiselle said „yes“. Everybody gives me much contrary advice,” she confided.
“Alabama should have seen to your bath,” said David. He heard the thin treble voice singing to itself in the tub, “Savez-vous planter les choux—” There was no sound of splashing.
“Are you washing your knees?”
“I haven’t got to them yet—”a la maniere de chez-nous, a la maniere de chez-nous“—” “Bonnie, you must hurry up.”
“Can I stay up till ten o’clock tonight?—”on les plante avec le nez“—”
Bonnie tore giggling through the rooms. The sun winked in the gold braid, the curtains blew softly in the ghostly breeze, the lamps glowed like abandoned campfires under their pink shades in the daylight. The flowers in the room were pretty. There must be a clock. Round and round the child’s brain raced contentedly. The tops of the trees outside were shiny blue.
“Didn’t Mummy soy anything?” said David. “Oh yes,” said Bonnie, “she gave me a party.” “That was nice; tell me about it.”
“Well,” said Bonnie, “there was a monkey, and I was sick, and Mademoiselle cried about the preserves on my dress.”
“I see—well, what did Mummy say?”
“Mummy said if it weren’t for the orchestra she could do two turns.”
“It must have been very interesting,” said David.
“Oh yes,” Bonnie compromised, “it was very interesting. Daddy—”
“I love you. Daddy.”
David laughed in little sharp jerks like a person making tatting.
“Well, you’d better.”
“I think so too. Do you think I could sleep in your bed tonight?”
“Of course not!”
“It would be very comfortable.”
“Your own is just the same.”
The child’s tone changed to sudden practicality. “It’s safer near you. No wonder Mummy liked sleeping in your bed.”
“When I am married all my family will sleep together in a large bed. Then I shall be quite easy about them, and they will not be afraid of the dark,” went on the child. “You liked being near your parents until you had Mummy, didn’t you?”
“We had our parents—then we had you. The present generation is always the one without the comfort of people to lean on.”
“Because solace, Bonnie, is an affair of retrospect and expectation. If you don’t hurry up, our friends will be here before you are dressed.”
“Are there children coming?”
“Yes, I am taking the family of one of my friends for you to meet. We are going to Montreux to see the dancing. But,” said David, “the sky is clouding over. It looks like rain.”
“Daddy, I hope not!”
“So do I. Something always spoils a party, monkeys or rain. There are our friends now.”
Behind their governess three blond children traversed the hotel court through the thin sun pinking suggestively the trunks of the firs.
“Bonjour,” said Bonnie, extending her hand limply in a juvenile interpretation of a grande dame. Inconsistently she pounced on the little girl. “Oh, but you are dressed as Alice in Wonderland!” she shrieked.
The child was several years older than Bonnie.
“Gruss gott,” she answered demurely, “you too have on a pretty dress.”
“Et bonjour, Mademoiselle!” The two little boys were younger. They clambered over Bonnie with the stiff military formality of the Swiss schoolboy.
The children were very decorative under the vista of cropped plane trees. The green hills stretched away like a canvas sea to faint recesses of legend. Pleasantly loitering mountain vegetation dangled over the hotel front in swaying clots of blue and mauve. The childish voices droned through the mountain clarity conversing intimately in the sense of seclusion conveyed by the overhanging Alps.
“What is this „it“ I saw in the papers?” said the eight-year-old voice.
“Don’t be silly, it’s only sex-appeal,” answered the voice of ten.
“Only beautiful ladies can have it in the movies,” said Bonnie.
“But sometimes, don’t men have it too?” said the little boy disappointed.
“Father says everybody does,” called the older girl.
“Well, Mother said only a few. What did your parents say, Bonnie?”
They didn’t say anything, since I had not read it in the papers.““When you are older,” said Genevra, “you will—if it is still there.”
“I saw my father in a shower bath,” offered the smallest boy expectantly.
“That’s nothing,” sniffed Bonnie. “Why is it nothing?” the voice insisted. “Why is it something?” said Bonnie.
“I have swimmed with him naked.”
“Children—children!” reproved David.
Black shadows fell on the water, echoes of nothing poured down the hills and steamed over the lake. It began to rain; a Swiss downpour soaked the earth. The flat bulbous vines about the hotel windows bled torrents over the ledges; the heads of the dahlias bent with the storm.
“How can they have the fete in the rain?” the children cried in dismay.
“Perhaps the ballet will wear their „caoutchouc“ as we have done,” said Bonnie.
“I’d rather they had trained seals anyway,” said the little boy optimistically.
The rain was a slow sparkling leak from a lachrymose sun. The wooden platforms about the estrade were damp and soaked with dye from the wet serpentine and sticky masses of confetti. Fresh wet light through the red and orange mushrooms of shiny umbrellas glowed like a lamp store display; a fashionable audience glistened in bright cellophane slickers.
“What if it rains down his horn?” said Bonnie, as the orchestra appeared beneath the rain-washed set of chinchilla-like mountains.
“But it might be pretty,” protested the boy. “Sometimes in my bath when I sink beneath the water I make the most beautiful noises by blowing.”
“It is ravishing,” pronounced Genevra, “when my brother blows.”
The damp air flattened the music like a sponge; girls brushed the rain from their hats; the rolling back of the tarred canvas exposed the slick and dangerous boards.
“It is Prometheus they’re going to give,” said David, reading the programme. “I will tell you the story afterwards.”
From a whirr of revolving leaps Lorenz collected his brown magnificence, clenching his fists in the air and chinning the mystery of the mountain sky. His bare rain-polished body tortured itself to inextricable postures, straightened, and dropped to the floor with the suspended float of falling paper.
“Look, Bonnie,” David called, “there’s an old friend of yours!”
Arienne, subduing a technical maze of insolent turns and arrogant twists, represented a pink cupid. Damp and unconvincing, she tenaciously gripped the superhuman exigencies of her role. The workman underneath the artist ground out her difficult interpretation.
David felt an overwhelming unexpected surge of pity for the girl going through all that while the spectators thought of how wet they were getting and how uncomfortable they were. The dancers, too, were thinking of the rain, and shivered a little through the bursting crescendo of the finale.
“I liked best the ones in black who fought themselves,” said Bonnie.
“Yes,” said the boy, “when they were bumping each other it was far best.”
“We’d better stay in Montreux for dinner—it’s too wet to drive back,” suggested David.
About the hotel lobby sat many groups with an air of professional waiting; the smell of coffee and French pastry permeated the half-gloom; raincoats trickled in the vestibule.
“Bonjour!” yelled Bonnie suddenly, “you have danced very well, better than in Paris even!”
Sleek and well-dressed Arienne traversed the room. She turned like a mannequin, exhibiting herself. A slight embarrassment covered the grey honest meadow between her eyes.
“I am sorry I am so degouttante,” she said pretentiously shaking her coat, “in this old thing from Patou! But you have grown so big!” she fondled Bonnie affectedly. “And how is your mother?”
“She too is dancing,” said Bonnie.
Arienne freed herself as quickly as she could. She had given her drama of success—Patou was the chosen couturiere of the stars of the ballet; only the finest sack-cloth was sewed by Patou. Arienne had said Patou. “Patou,” she said emphatically.
“I must go to my room, our etoile is waiting for me there. Au ’voir, cher David! Au ’voir, ma petite Bonnie!”
The children were very dainty about the table, and somehow not an anachronism in this night place that had had music before the war. The wine barred the table with topaz shafts, the beer protested the cold restraint of silver mugs, the children giggled ebulliently beneath parental discipline like boiling water shaking the lid of a sauce-pan.
“I want the hors d’oeuvre,” said Bonnie.
“Why, daughter! It’s too indigestible for night.”
“But I want it too!” wailed the boy.
“The old will order for the young,” announced David, “and I will tell you about „Prometheus“ so you will not notice that you are not getting what you want. Prometheus was tied to an immense rock and—”
“May I have the apricot jam?” interrupted Genevra.
“Do you want to hear about Prometheus, or not?” said Bonnie’s father impatiently.
“Yes, sir. Oh yes, of course.”
“Then,” resumed David, “he writhed there for years and years and—”
“That is in my „Mythologie,“” said Bonnie proudly.
“And then what?” said the little boy, “after he was writhing.”
Then what? Well—“David glowed with the exhilaration of being attractive, laying out the facets of his personality for the children like stacks of expensive shirts for admiring valets. “Do you remember exactly what did happen?” he said lamely to Bonnie.
“No. I’ve forgot since a long time.”
“If that is all, may I please have the compote?” Genevra politely insisted.
Riding home through the flickering night, the country passed in visions of twinkling villages and cottage gardens obstructing their passage with high sunflower stalks. The children, wrapped in the bright armour of Bonnie’s father’s car, dozed against the felt cushions. Safe in the glittering car they rode : the car-at-your-disposal, the mystery-car, the Rajah’s-car, the death-car, the first-prize, puffing the power of money out on the summer air like a seigneur distributing largesse. Where the night sky reflected the lake they rode like a rising bubble through the bowl of the mercurial, welded globe. They drove through the black impenetrable shadows clouding the road like fumes from an alchemist’s laboratory and sped across the gleam of the open mountain top
“I would not like to be an artist,” said the little boy sleepily, “unless I could be a trained seal, I wouldn’t,” he qualified.
“I would,” said Bonnie. “They will be having supper when we are already asleep.”
“But,” protested Genevra reasonably, “we have had our supper.”
“Yes,” Bonnie agreed, “but supper is always nice to be having.”
“It’s not when you’re full,” said Genevra.
“Well, when you’re full you wouldn’t care whether it was nice or not,” said Bonnie.
“Why do you always argue so?” Genevra settled in cold withdrawal against the window.
“Because you interrupted when I was thinking what would be nice.”
“We’ll go straight to your hotel,” suggested David. “You children seem to be tired.”
“Father says conflict develops the character,” said the older boy.
“I think it spoils the evening,” said David.
“Mummy said it ruins the disposition,” contributed Genevra.
Moving about the hotel rooms alone with David, Bonnie approached her father.
“I suppose I should have been much nicer?”
“Yes. Sometimes you will realize that people are more important than digestion, even.”
“They should have made me feel nice then, don’t you think? They were the company.”
“Children are always company,” said David. “People are like almanacs, Bonnie—you never can find the information you’re looking for, but the casual reading is well worth the trouble.”
“These rooms are very nice,” reflected Bonnie. “What is that thing in the bathroom where the water squirts out like a hose?”
“I have told you a thousand times not to touch those things! It’s a sort of fire extinguisher.”
“Do they always think there’s going to be a fire in the bathroom?”
“Of course,” said Bonnie, “it would be too bad for the people, but it would be fun to see the excitement.”
“Are you ready for bed? I want you to write to your mother.”
Bonnie sat in the still parlour with its deep majestic windows facing the sepia square, composing.
“Dearest Mummy: As you will see, we are back in Switzerland—” The room was very big and quiet.
“—It is very interesting to see the Swiss! The hotelman called Daddy a Prince!”
The curtains waved just softly in the breeze, then lay still.
“—Figurez-vous, Mamman, that would make me a Princess. Imagine them thinking anything so silly—”
There were enough lamps for a room to have, even a big “chic” room such as this.
“—Mademoiselle Arienne had a Patou dress. She was glad about your success—”
They had even thought of putting flowers to make the room so much prettier at her father’s hotel.
“—If I were a Princess, I should always have my own way. I would bring you to Switzerland—”
The cushions were hard but very pretty with their gold tassels hanging down the chair legs.
“—I was glad when you were home—”
The shadows seemed to move. Only babies were frightened of shadows or of moving things at night.
“—I have not many experiences to relate. I am making myself as spoiled as I can—”
There couldn’t be anything hiding in the shadows. They just appeared to move that way. Was that the door opening?
“O—o—oh,” shrieked Bonnie in terror.
“Sh—sh—sh,” David reassured the child, holding out the promise of warmth and comfort to his daughter.
“Did I frighten you?”
“No—It was the shadows. I am sometimes silly when I am all by myself.”
“I understand,” he soothed. “Grown people are too, very often.”
The lights of the hotel fell somnolently over the park opposite; an air of waiting hung over the streets like a flag lying about its staff without a breeze.
“Daddy, I want to sleep with my lights on.”
“What an idea! There’s nothing to be afraid of—you’ve got me and Mummy.”
“Mummy is in Naples,” said Bonnie, “and if I fall asleep you will surely be going out!”
“All right then, but it’s absurd!”
Some hours later when David tiptoed in, he found Bonnie’s room dark. Her eyes were much too tightly closed to be unconscious; she had arranged a small crack in the door to the living-room to compromise.
“What’s keeping you awake?” he said.
“I was thinking,” murmured Bonnie. “It is better here than with Mummy’s success in Italy.”
“But I have success,” said David, “only I got it before you were born so it just appears the natural order to you!”
Insects reverberated in the trees beside the silent room.
“Was it so awful in Naples?” he pursued.
“Well,” hesitated Bonnie, “I don’t know how it was for Mummy, of course—”
“Didn’t she say anything at all about me?”
“She said—let me see—I don’t know what Mummy said. Daddy, only she said her piece of advice that she had to give me was not to be a back-seat driver about life.”
“Did you understand?”
“Oh no,” sighed Bonnie gratefully and complacently.
The summer quavered down from Lausanne to Geneva, trimming the lake like the delicate border of a porcelain plate; the fields yellowed in the heat; the mountains across from their windows yielded up no more details even on the brightest of days.
Bonnie played in sibylline detachment watching the Juras wedge their inky shadows between the rushes at the water’s edge. White birds flying in inverted circumflex accented the colourless suggestion of a bounded infinite.
“Has the little one slept well?” asked the people recovering from long illnesses who painted the view in the garden.
“Yes,” answered Bonnie politely, “but you must not disturb me—I am the watcher who tells when the enemy is coming.”
“Then can I be King of the Castle?” called David from the window, “and cut off your head if you make a mistake?”
“You,” said Bonnie, “are a prisoner, and I have pulled out your tongue so you cannot complain—but I am good to you anyway,” she relented, “so you needn’t feel unhappy, Daddy—unless you want to! Of course, it would be better to be unhappy, perhaps!”
“All right,” said David, “I’m one of the unhappiest of people! The laundry has faded my pink shirt, and I’ve just been invited to a wedding.”
“I don’t allow you to go out visiting,” said Bonnie severely.
“Well, then, I’m only half as unhappy as I was.”
“I won’t let you play any more if you act that way. You’re supposed to be sad and homesick for your wife.”
“Look! I dissolve in tears!” David draped himself like a puppet over the wet bathing suits drying on the window ledge.
The bellboy bringing up the telegram seemed rather surprised to find Monsieur le Prince Americain in such an unusual position. David tore open the envelope.
“Father stricken,” he read. “Recovery doubtful. Come at once. Try to save Alabama from shock. Devotedly. Millie Beggs.”
David stared trance-like at the white butterflies fluttering under a tree with crooked branches elbowing the ground impassively. He watched his emotions sliding past the present like a letter dropped down a glass chute; the telegram cut into their lives as decisively as the falling blade of a guillotine. Grabbing a pencil he started to write out a telegram to Alabama, decided to telephone, and remembered that the Opera was closed in the afternoon. He sent the wire to the pension.
“What’s the matter. Daddy, aren’t you playing any more?”
“No, dear; you’d better come in, Bonnie. I’ve had some bad news.”
“Your grandpa’s dying, so we’ll have to go to America. I’ll send for Mademoiselle to stay with you. Mummy will probably come straight to Paris to meet me—unless I sail from Italy.”
“I wouldn’t,” advised Bonnie. “I’d surely go from France.”
They waited distractedly for word from Naples.
The answer from Alabama fell like a shooting star, a cold mass of lead from the heavens. From voluble hysterical Italian, David finally deciphered the message.
“Madame is ill in the hospital since two days. You must come here to save her. There is none to look after her though she refuse us your address, still hoping to be well alone. It is serious. We have no one to count on but you and Jesus.”
“Bonnie,” groaned David, “where in the hell have I put Mademoiselle’s address?”
“I don’t know, Daddy.”
“Then you’ll have to pack for yourself—and be quick.”
“Oh, Daddy,” wept Bonnie, “I just came from Naples. I don’t want to go!”
“Your mother needs us,” was all David said. They caught the midnight express.
It was a little like the Inquisition at the Italian hospital—they had to wait outside with Alabama’s landlady and Madame Sirgeva till it opened its doors at two o’clock.
“So much promise,” moaned Madame, “she would perhaps have been a big dancer in time—”
“And Holy Angels, so young!” murmured the Italian.
“Only of course there wasn’t any time,” added Sirgeva sorrowfully. “She was too old.”
“And always alone, so help me God, Signor,” sighed the Italian reverentially.
The streets ran about the tiny grass plots like geometrical calculations—some learned doctor’s half-effaced explanatory diagrams on a slate. A charwoman opened the doors.
David did not mind the smell of the ether. Two doctors talked together in an anteroom about golf-scores. It was the uniforms that made it like the Inquisition, and the smell of green soap.
David felt very sorry for Bonnie.
David didn’t believe the English interne had made a hole-in-one.
The doctors told him about the infection from the glue in the box of the toe shoe—it had seeped into a blister. They used the word “incision” many times over as if they were saying a “Hail Mary”.
“A question of time,” they repeated, one after the other.
“If she had only disinfected,” said Sirgeva. “I will keep Bonnie while you go in.”
In the desperate finality of the room, David stared at the ceiling.
“There’s nothing the matter with my foot,” screamed Alabama. “It’s my stomach. It’s killing me!”
Why did the doctor inhabit another world from hers? Why couldn’t he hear what she was saying, and not stand talking about ice-packs?
“We will see,” the doctor said, staring out of the window impassively.
“I’ve got to have some water! Please give me some water!”
The nurse went on methodically straightening the dressings on the wheel-table.
“Non c’e acqua,” she whispered.
She didn’t need to be so confidential about it.
The walls of the hospital opened and shut. Alabama’s room smelled like hell. Her foot lay off the bed in a yellow fluid that turned white after a while. She had a terrible backache. It was as if she had been beaten with heavy beams.
“I’ve got to have some orange juice,” she thought she said. No, it was Bonnie who had said that. David will bring me some chocolate ice cream and I will throw it up; it smells like a soda fountain, thrown-up, she thought. There were glass tubes in her ankle like stems, like the headdress of a Chinese Empress—it was a permanent wave they were giving her foot, she thought.
The walls of the room slid quietly past, dropping one over the other like the leaves of a heavy album. They were all shades of grey and rose and mauve. There was no sound when they fell.
Two doctors came and talked together. What did Salonica have to do with her back?
“I’ve got to have a pillow,” she said feebly. “Something broke my neck!”
The doctors stood impersonally at the end of the bed. The
Windows opened like blinding white caverns, entrances to white funnels that fitted over the bed like tents. It was too easy to breathe inside that tented radiance—she couldn’t feel her body, the air was so light.
“This afternoon, then, at three,” said one of the men, and left. The other went on talking to himself.
“I can’t operate,” she thought he said, “because I’ve got to stand here and count the white butterflies today.”
“And so the girl was raped by a calla lily,” he said, “—or, no, I believe it was the spray of a shower bath that did the trick!” he said triumphantly.
He laughed fiendishly. How could he laugh so much of Pulcinella? And he as thin as a matchstick and tall as the Eiffel Tower! The nurse laughed with another nurse.
“It isn’t Pulcinella,” Alabama thought she said to the nurse. “It’s Apollon-Musagete.”
“You wouldn’t know. How could I possibly expect you to understand that?” she screamed contemptuously.
Meaningfully the nurses laughed together and left her room. The walls began again. She decided to lie there and frustrate the walls if they thought they could press her between their pages like a bud from a wedding bouquet. For weeks Alabama lay there. The smell of the stuff in the bowl took the skin off her throat, and she spat red mucous.
Those agonizing weeks David cried as he walked along the streets, and he cried at night, and life seemed senseless and over. Then he grew desperate, and murder and violence played in his heart till he wore himself out.
Twice a day he came to the hospital and listened to the doctors telling about blood poison.
Finally they let him see her. He buried his head in the bedclothes and ran his arms underneath her broken body and cried like a baby. Her legs were up in sliding pulleys like a dentist’s paraphernalia. The weights ached and strained her neck and back like a medieval rack.
Sobbing and sobbing, David held her close. He felt of a different world to Alabama; his tempo was different from the sterile, attenuated rhythms of the hospital. He felt lush and callous, somehow, like a hot labourer. She felt she hardly knew him.
He kept his eyes glued persistently to her face. He hardly dared look at the bottom of the bed.
“Dear, it’s nothing,” he said with affected blandness. “You will be well in no time.” Somehow she was not reassured. He seemed to be avoiding some issue. Her mother’s letters did not mention her foot and Bonnie was not brought to the hospital.
“I must be very thin,” she thought. The bedpan cut her spine, and her hands looked like bird claws. They clung to the air like claws to a perch, hooking the firmament as her right to a foot rest. Her hands were long and frail and blue over the knuckles like an unfeathered bird.
Sometimes her foot hurt her so terribly that she closed her eyes and floated off on the waves of the afternoon. Invariably she went to the same delirious place. There was a lake there so clear that she could not tell the bottom from the top; a pointed island lay heavy on the waters like an abandoned thunderbolt. Phallic poplars and bursts of pink geranium and a forest of white-trunked trees whose foliage flowed out of the sky covered the land. Nebulous weeds swung on the current: purple stems with fat animal leaves, long tentacular stems with no leaves at all, swishing balls of iodine and the curious chemical growths of stagnant waters. Crows cawed from one deep mist to another. The word “sick” effaced itself against the poisonous air and jittered lamely about between the tips of the island and halted on the white road that ran straight through the middle. “Sick” turned and twisted about the narrow ribbon of the highway like a roasting pig on a spit, and woke Alabama gouging at her eyeballs with the prongs of its letters.
Sometimes she shut her eyes and her mother brought her a cool lemonade, but this happened only when she was not in pain.
David came when anything new occurred like a parent supervising a child who is learning to walk.
“And so—you must know some time, Alabama,” he said at last. The bottom fell out of her stomach. She could feel the things dropping through.
“I’ve known for ages,” she said in sickly calm.
“Poor darling—you’ve still got your foot. It’s not that,” he said compassionately. “But you will never be able to dance again. Are you going to mind terribly?”
“Will I have crutches?” she asked.
“No—nothing at all. The tendons are cut and they had to scrape through an artery, but you will be able to walk with a slight limp. Try not to mind.”
“Oh, my body,” she said. “And all that work for nothing!”
“Poor, my dear one—but it has brought us together again. We have each other, dear.”
“Yes—what’s left,” she sobbed.
She lay there, thinking that she had always meant to take what she wanted from life. Well—she hadn’t wanted this. This was a stone that would need a good deal of salt and pepper.
Her mother hadn’t wanted her boy to die, either, she supposed, and there must have been times when her father hadn’t wanted any of them dragging about his thighs and drawing his soul off in lager.
Her father! She hoped they would get home while he was still alive. Without her father the world would be without its last resource.
“But,” she remembered with a sudden sobering shock, “it will be me who is the last resource when my father is dead.”
The David Knights stepped out of the old brick station. The Southern town slept soundless on the wide palette of the cotton-fields. Alabama’s ears were muffled by the intense stillness as if she had entered a vacuum. Negroes, lethargic and immobile, draped themselves on the depot steps like effigies to some exhausted god of creation. The wide square, masked in velvet shadows, drowned in the lull of the South, spread like soft blotting paper under man and his heritage.
“So we will find us a beautiful house and live here?” asked Bonnie.
“Que c’est drole!” ejaculated Mademoiselle. “So many Negroes! Do they have missionaries to teach them?”
“Teach them what?” asked Alabama.
“Their religion is very satisfactory, they sing a lot.”
“It is well. They are very sympathetic.”
“Will they bother me?” asked Bonnie.
“Of course not. You’re safer here than you’ve ever been in your life. This is where your mother was little.”
“I went to a Negro baptism in that river at five o’clock on a Fourth of July morning. They were dressed in white robes and the red sun slanted down over the muddy water’s edge, and I felt very rapturous and wanted to join their church.”
“I would like to see that.”
Joan was waiting in the little brown Ford.
Alabama felt like a little girl again to see her sister after so many years. The old town where her father had worked away so much of his life spread before her protectively. It was good to be a stranger in a land when you felt aggressive and acquisitive, but when you began to weave your horizons into some kind of shelter it was good to know that hands you loved had helped in their spinning—made you feel as if the threads would hold together better.
“I’m awfully glad you got here,” Joan said sadly.
“Is grandpa very sick?” said Bonnie.
“Yes, dear. I’ve always thought Bonnie was such a sweet child.”
“How are your children, Joan?” Joan wasn’t much changed. She was conventional, more like their mother.
“Just fine. I couldn’t bring them. All this is very depressing for children.”
“Yes. We’d better leave Bonnie at the hotel. She can come out in the morning.”
“Let her just come to say „Hello“. Mamma adores her so.” She turned to David. “She’s always liked Alabama better than the rest of us.”
“Junk! Because I’m the youngest.”
The car sped up the familiar streets. The soft inconsequential night, the smell of the gently perspiring land, the crickets in the grass, the heavy trees conspiring together over the hot pavements, lulled the blank fear in Alabama’s heart to a sense of impotence.
“Can’t we do anything?” she said.
“We’ve done everything. There’s no cure for old age.”
“How is Mamma?”
“As brave as she always is—but I am glad you could come.”
The car stopped before the quiet house. How many nights had she coasted up to that walk just that way to keep from waking her father with the grind of the brakes after dances? The sweet smell of sleeping gardens lay in the air. A breeze from the gulf tolled the pecan trees mournfully back and forth. Nothing had changed. The friendly windows shone in the just benediction of her father’s spirit, the door spread open to the just decency of his will. Thirty years he had lived in his house, and watched the scattered jonquils bloom and seen the morning-glories wrinkle in the morning sun and snipped the blight from his roses and admired Miss Millie’s ferns.
“Ain’t they pretty?” he’d say. Measured, marked only by the absence of an accent, his balanced diction swayed to the aristocracy of his spirit.
He had caught a crimson moth once in the moon vines and pinned it over his mantel on a calendar. “It’s a very good place for it,” he had said, stretching the fragile wings over a railroad map of the South. The Judge had a sense of humour.
Infallible man! How his children had gloated when something went wrong—the unsuccessful operation on a chicken’s craw with the Judge’s pocket-knife and a needle from Millie’s sewing basket, an overturned glass of iced tea on the Sunday dinner table, a spot of turkey-dressing on the clean Thanksgiving cloth—these things had rendered the cerebral machinery of the honest man more tangible.
The quick fear of unclassified emotion seized Alabama, an overwhelming sense of loss. She and David climbed the steps. How high those cement slabs that held the ferns had seemed when she was a child jumping from one to the other—and there was the place where she had sat while somebody told her about Santa Claus, and hated the informer and hated her own parents that the myth should be untrue and yet exist, crying out, “I will believe—”; and there the dry Bermuda grass between the hot bricks had tickled her bare thighs, and there was the limb of the tree her father had forbade her to swing on. It seemed incredible that the thin branch could ever have supported her body. “You must not abuse things,” her father had corrected.
“It won’t hurt the tree.”
“In my judgement it will. If you want to have things, you have got to take care of them.”
He who had had so few things! An engraving of his father and a miniature of Millie, three buckeyes from a Tennessee vacation, a pair of gold cuff buttons, an insurance policy, and some summer socks was what Alabama remembered of his top bureau drawer.
“Hello, darling,” her mother kissed her tremulously, “and my darling! Let me kiss you on the top of your head.” Bonnie clung to her grandmother.
“Can we see Grandpa, Grandma?”
“It will make you sad, dear.”
The old lady’s face was white and reticent. She moved slowly back and forth in the old swing, rocking with gentle condolence their spiritual losses.
“Oh -o-o-o—, Millie,” the Judge’s voice called feebly.
The tired doctor came to the porch.
“Cousin Millie, I thought if the children want to see their father, he is conscious now.” He turned kindly to Alabama. “I’m glad you got here,” he said.
Trembling, she followed his lean protective back into the room. Her father! Her father! How weak and pale he was. She could have cried out at her inability to frustrate this useless, inevitable waste.
She sat quietly on the bed. Her beautiful father!
“Hello, baby.” His gaze wandered over her face. “Are you going to stay here awhile?”
“Yes, it’s a good place.”
“I’ve always thought so.”
The tired eyes travelled to the door. Bonnie waited, frightened, in the hall.
“I want to see the baby.” A sweet tolerant smile lit the Judge’s face. Bonnie approached the bed timidly.
“Hello, there, baby. You’re a little bird,” the man smiled. “And you’re as pretty as two little birds.”
“When will you be well again, Grandpa?”
“Pretty soon. I’m very tired. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He waved her aside.
Alone with her father, Alabama’s heart sank. He was so thin and little now that he was sick, to have got through so much of life. He had had a hard time providing for them all. The noble completeness of the life withering on the bed before her moved her to promise herself many promises.
“Oh, my father, there are so many things I want to ask you.”
“Baby,” the old man patted her hand. His wrists were no bigger than a bird’s. How had he fed them all?
“I never thought you’d known till now.”
She smoothed the grey hair, even Confederate grey.
“I’ve got to go to sleep, baby.”
“Sleep,” she said, “sleep.”
She sat there a long time. She hated the way the nurse moved about the room as if her father were a child. Her father knew, everything. Her heart was sobbing, and sobbing.
The old man opened his eyes proudly, as was his wont.
“Did you say you wanted to ask me something?”
“I thought you could tell me if our bodies are given to us as counter-irritants to the soul. I thought you’d know why when our bodies ought to bring surcease from our tortured minds, they fail and collapse; and why, when we are tormented in our bodies, does our soul desert us as a refuge?”
The old man lay silent.
“Why do we spend years using up our bodies to nurture our minds with experience and find our minds turning then to our exhausted bodies for solace? Why, Daddy?”
“Ask me something easy,” the old man answered very weak and far away.
“The Judge must sleep,” said the nurse.
Alabama stood in the hall. There was the light her father turned out when he went up to bed; there was the peg with his hat hanging there.
When man is no longer custodian of his vanities and convictions, he’s nothing at all, she thought. Nothing! There’s nothing lying on that bed—but it is my father and I loved him. Without his desire, I should never have lived, she thought. Perhaps we are all just agents in a very experimental stage of organic free will. It cannot be that myself is the purpose of my father’s life—but it can be that what I can appreciate of his fine spirit is the purpose of my own.
She went to her mother.
“Judge Beggs said yesterday,” said Millie to the shadows, “that he would like to go for a ride in the little car to see the people on their front porches. He tried all summer to learn to drive, but he was too old. „Millie,“ he said, „tell that hoary-headed angel to dress me. 1 want to go out.“ He called the nurse his hoary-headed angel. He always had a dry sense of humour. He loved his little car.”
Like the good mother she was, she went on and on—as if she could teach Austin to live again by rehearsing all those things. Like a mother speaking of a very young child, she told Alabama about the sick Judge, her father.
“He said he wanted to order some new shirts from Philadelphia. He said he would like some breakfast bacon.”
“He gave Mamma a cheque for the undertaker for a thousand dollars,” added Joan.
“Yes,” Miss Millie laughed as if at a child’s capricious prank. “Then he said „But I want it back if I don’t die.“”
“Oh, my poor mother,” thought Alabama, “and all the time he’s going to die. Mamma knows, but she can’t say to herself „He’s going to die.“ Neither can I.”
Millie had nursed him so long, sick and well. When he was a young man in the law office and the other clerks no older than himself addressed him already as “Mr Beggs”, when he was middle-aged and consumed with poverty and care, when he was old and had more time to be kindly.
“My poor mother,” said Alabama. “You have given your life for my father.”
“My father said we could be married,” answered her mother, “when he found that your father’s uncle was thirty-two years in the United States Senate and his father’s brother was a Confederate General. He came to my father’s law office to ask him for my hand. My father was eighteen years in the Senate and the Confederate Congress.”
She saw her mother as she was, part of a masculine tradition. Millie did not seem to notice about her own life, that there would be nothing left when her husband died. He was the father of her children, who were girls, and who had left her for the families of other men.
“My father was a proud man,” Millie said, proudly. “When I was a little girl I loved him dearly. There were twenty of us and only two girls.”
“Where are your brothers?” said David curiously.
“Dead and gone long ago.”
“They were half-brothers,” said Joan.
“It was my own brother who came here in the spring. He went away and said he’d write, but he never did.”
“Mamma’s brother was a darling,” Joan said. “He owned a drug store in Chicago.”
“Your father was very kind to him and took him driving in the car.”
“Why didn’t you write to him, Mamma?”
“I did not think to get his address. When I came to live with your father’s family I had so much to do I couldn’t keep track of my own.”
Bonnie was asleep on the hard porch bench. When Alabama had slept that way as a little girl, her father had carried her upstairs to bed in his arms. David lifted the sleeping child.
“We ought to go,” he said.
“Daddy,” Bonnie whispered, snuggling under his coat lapels. “My Daddy.”
“You will come again tomorrow?”
“Early in the morning,” Alabama answered. Her mother’s white hair was done in a crown around her head like a Florentine saint. She held her mother in her arms. Oh, she remembered how it felt to be close to her mother!
Every day Alabama went to the old house, so clean inside and bright. She brought her father little special things to eat, and flowers. He loved yellow flowers.
“We used to gather yellow violets in the woods when we were young,” her mother said.
The doctors came and shook their heads, and so many friends came that nobody ever had more friends to bring them cakes and flowers, and old servants came to ask about the Judge, and the milkman left an extra pint of milk out of his own pocket to show that he was sorry, and the Judge’s fellow-judges came with sad and noble faces like the heads on postage stamps and cameos. The Judge lay in his bed, fretting about money.
“We can’t afford this sickness,” he said over and over. “I’ve got to get up. It’s costing money.”
His children talked it over. They would share the expenses. The Judge would not have allowed them to accept his salary from the State if he had known he was not going to get well. All of them were able to help.
Alabama and David rented a house to be near her parents. It was bigger than her father’s house, in a garden with roses and a privet hedge, and iris planted to devour the spring, and many bushes and shrubs under the windows. “Alabama tried to persuade her mother to take a ride. It was months since she had left the house.
“I can’t go,” Millie said. “Your father might want me while I’m away.” She waited constantly for some last illuminating words from the Judge, feeling that he must have something to tell her before he left her alone at the last.
“We’ll just stay half an hour,” Millie finally agreed.
Alabama drove her mother past the Capitol, where her father had spent so many years of his life. The clerks sent them roses from the rose bed under his office window. Alabama wondered if his books were covered with dust. Perhaps he would have prepared some last communication there, in one of his drawers.
“How did you happen to marry Daddy?”
“He wanted to marry me. I had many beaux.”
The old lady looked at her daughter as if she expected a protest. She was more beautiful than her children. There was much integrity in her face. Surely she had had many beaux.
“There was one who wanted to give me a monkey. He told my mother monkeys all had tuberculosis. My grandmother looked at him and said, „But you look very healthy to me.“ She was French, and a very beautiful woman. A young man sent me a baby pig from his plantation, and another sent me a coyote from New Mexico, and one of them drank, and another married Cousin Lil.”
“Where are they all?”
“Dead and gone years ago. I wouldn’t know them if I saw them. Ain’t the trees pretty?”
They passed the house where her mother and father had met—“at a New Year’s ball,” her mother told her. “He was the handsomest man there, and I was visiting your Cousin Mary.”
Cousin Mary was old and her red eyes cried continually under her spectacles. There wasn’t much left of her, yet she had given a ball on New Year’s.
Alabama had never pictured her father dancing.
When she saw him in the casket at the end, his face was so young and fine and humorous, the first thing Alabama thought of was that New Year’s ball so many years ago.
“Death is the only real elegance,” she said to herself. She had been afraid to look, afraid of what discoveries she might make in the spent and lifeless face. There was nothing to be afraid of, only plastic beauty and immobility.
There was nothing among the papers in his bare skeleton office, and nothing in the box with his insurance premiums except a tiny mouldy purse containing three nickels wrapped in an ancient newspaper.
“It must be the first money he ever earned.”
“His mother gave it to him for laying out the front yard,” they said.
There was nothing among his clothes or hid behind his books. “He must have forgot,” Alabama said, “to leave the message.”
The State sent a wreath to the funeral and the Court sent a wreath. Alabama was very proud of her father.
Poor Miss Millie! She had a mourning veil pinned over her black straw hat from last year. She had brought that hat to go to the mountains with the Judge.
Joan cried about the black. “I can’t afford it,” she said.
So they didn’t wear black.
They didn’t have music. The Judge had never liked songs save the tuneless “Old Grimes” that he sang to his children. They read “Lead Kindly Light” at the funeral.
The Judge lay sleeping on the hillside under the hickory-nut trees and the oak. From his grave the dome of the Capitol blotted out the setting sun. The flowers wilted, and the children planted jasmine vines and hyacinths. It was peaceful in the old cemetery. Wild flowers grew there, and rose bushes so old that the flowers had lost their colour with the years. Crape myrtle and Lebanon cedars shed their barbs over the slabs; rusty Confederate crosses sank into the clematis vines and the burned grass. Tangles of narcissus and white flowers strayed the washed banks and ivy climbed in the crumbling walls. The Judge’s grave said :
AUSTIN BEGGS APRIL, EIGHTEEN FIFTY-SEVEN NOVEMBER, NINETEEN THIRTY-ONE.
But what had her father said? Alabama, alone on the hillside, fixed her eyes on the horizon in an effort to hear again that abstract measured voice. She couldn’t remember that he had ever said anything. The last thing he said was :
“This thing is costing money,” and when his mind was wandering, “Well, son, I could never make money either.” And he had said Bonnie was as pretty as two little birds, but what had he said to her when she was a little girl? She couldn’t remember. There was nothing in the mackerel sky but cold spring rain.
Once he had said, “If you want to choose, you must be a goddess.” That was when she had wanted her own way about things. It wasn’t easy to be a goddess away from Olympus.
Alabama ran from the first drops of the bitter drizzle.
“We are certainly accountable,” she said, “for all the things manifest in others that we secretly share. My father has bequeathed me many doubts.”
Panting, she threw the car into gear and slid off down the already slippery red clay road. She was lonely at night for her father.
“Everybody gives you belief for the asking,” she said to David, “and so few people give you anything more to believe in than your own belief—just not letting you down, that’s all. It’s so hard to find a person who accepts responsibilities beyond what you ask.”
“So easy to be loved—so hard to love,” David answered.
Dixie came after a month had passed.
“I’ve plenty of room now for whoever wants to stay with me,” said Millie sadly.
The girls were much with their mother, trying to distract her.
“Alabama, please take the red geranium for your house,” insisted her mother. “It doesn’t matter here any more.”
Joan took the old writing desk and crated it and shipped it away.
“But you must be careful not to let them fix the corner where the Yankee shell fell through my father’s roof—that would spoil it.”
Dixie asked for the silver punch bowl, and expressed it to her home in New York.
“Be careful not to dent it,” said Millie. “It is made by hand from silver dollars that the slaves saved to give to your grandfather after they were freed—you children may choose what you like.”
Alabama wanted the portraits, Dixie took the old bed where she and her mother and Dixie’s son had been born.
Miss Millie sought her consolation in the past.
“My father’s house was square with crossing halls,” she’d say. “There were lilacs about the double parlour windows, and an apple orchard far down by the river. When my father died, I carried you children down to the orchard to keep you away from the sadness. My mother was always very gentle, but she was never the same, after.”
“I’d like that old daguerreotype, Mamma,” said Alabama. “Who is it?”
“My mother and my little sister. She died in a Federal prison during the war. My father was considered a traitor. Kentucky did not secede. They wanted to hang him for not upholding the Union.”
Millie at last agreed to move to a smaller house. Austin would never have stood for the little house. The girls persuaded her. They ranged their memories on the old mantel like a collection of bric-a-brac, and closed the shutters of Austin’s house on the light and all of himself left there. It was better so for Millie—that memories should be sharp when one has nothing else to live for.
They all had bigger houses than Austin’s and much bigger than the one he left to Millie, yet they came there to Millie feeding on what she remembered of their father and on her spirit, like converts imbibing a cult.
The Judge had said, “When you’re old and sick, you will wish you had saved your money.”
They had, some day, to accept the tightening up of the world—to begin some place to draw in their horizons.
Alabama lay awake thinking at night: the inevitable happened to people, and they found themselves prepared. The child forgives its parents when it perceives the accident of birth.
“We will have to begin all over again,” she said to David, “with a new chain of associations, with new expectations to be paid from the sum of our experience like coupons clipped from a bond.”
“Yes, but we are middle-aged, aren’t we?”
“My God! I hadn’t thought of it! Do you suppose my pictures are?”
“They’re just as good.”
“I’ve got to get to work, Alabama. Why have we practically wasted the best years of our lives?”
“So that there will be no time left on our hands at the end.”
“You are an incurable sophist.”
“Everybody is—only some people are in their private lives, and some people are in their philosophy.”
“Well, the object of the game is to fit things together so that when Bonnie is as old as we and investigates our lives, she will find a beautiful harmonious mosaic of two gods of the hearthstone. Looking on this vision, she will feel herself less cheated that at some period of her life she had been forced to sacrifice her lust for plunder to protect what she imagines to be the treasure that we have handed on to her. It will lead her to believe that her restlessness will pass.”
Bonnie’s voiced drifted up from the drive on the evangelistic afternoon.
“And so good-bye, Mrs Johnson. My mother and father will be very pleased and glad that you have been so kind and delightful about the nice time.”
She mounted the stairs contentedly. Alabama heard her purring in the hall.
“You must have had a wonderful time—”
“I hated her stupid old party!”
“Then what was the oration about?”
“You said,” Bonnie stared at her parent contemptuously, “that I was not polite the last time when I didn’t like the lady. So I hope you are glad now with how 1 was this time.”
People can’t learn about their relations! As soon as they’re understood they’re over. “Consciousness,” Alabama murmured to herself, “is an ultimate betrayal, I suppose.” She had asked Bonnie simply to spare the lady’s feelings.
The child played often at her grandmother’s house. They played at keeping house. Bonnie was the head of the family; her grandma made an agreeable little girl to have.
“Children were not brought up so strictly when mine were young,” she said. She felt very sorry for Bonnie, that the child should have to learn so much of life before it began for her. Alabama and David insisted on that.
“When your mother was young, she charged so much candy at the corner store that I had an awful time hiding it from her father.”
“Then I will be as Mummy was,” said Bonnie.
“As much as you can get by with,” chuckled her grandmother. “Things have changed. When I was a child it was the maid and the coachman who argued about whether or not I could carry a demijohn into the church with me on Sundays. Discipline used to be a matter of form and not a personal responsibility.”
Bonnie stared intently at her grandmother.
“Grandma, tell me some more about when you were little.”
“Well, I was very happy in Kentucky.”
“But go on.”
“I can’t remember. I was much the same as you.”
“I shall be different. Mummy says I shall be an actress if I want, and go to school in Europe.”
“I went to school in Philadelphia. That was considered a long way then.”
“And I shall be a great lady and wear fine clothes.”
“My mother’s silks were imported from New Orleans.”
“You don’t remember anything else?”
“I remember my father. He brought me toys from Louisville, and thought that girls should marry young.”
“I didn’t want to. I was having too good a time.”
“Didn’t you have a good time when you were married?”
“Oh, yes, dear, but different.”
“I suppose it can’t be always the same.”
The old lady laughed. She was very proud of her grandchildren. They were smart, good children. It was very pretty to see her with Bonnie, both of them pretending great wisdom about things, both of them eternally pretending.
“We shall be gone soon,” the little girl sighed.
“Yes,” sighed her grandmother.
“Day after tomorrow we shall be gone,” said David.
Out of the Knights’ dining-room windows the trees put out down like new-feathered chicks. The bright, benevolent sky floated across the panes and lifted the curtains in billowing sails.
“You people never stay anywhere,” said the girl with the shanghaied hair, “but I don’t blame you.”
“We once believed,” said Alabama, “that there were things one place which did not exist in another.”
“Sister went to Paris last summer. She said there were—well, toilets all along the streets—I’d like to see it!”
The cacophony of the table volleyed together and frustrated itself like a scherzo of Prokofiev. Alabama whipped its broken staccato into the only form she knew : schstay, schstay, brise, schstay, the phrase danced along the convolutions of her brain. She supposed she’d spend the rest of her life composing like that : fitting one thing into another and everything into the rules.
“What are you thinking about, Alabama?”
“Forms, shapes of things,” she answered. The talk pelted her consciousness like the sound of hoofs on a pavement.
“—They say that he kicked her in the bust.”
“The neighbours had to close their doors to keep out the bullets.”
“And four in the same bed. Imagine it!”
“And Jay kept jumping through the transoms, so now they can’t rent the house at all.”
“But I don’t blame his wife, even if he did promise to sleep on the balcony.”
“She said the best abortionist was in Birmingham, but anyway they went to New York.”
“So Mrs James was in Texas when it happened, and somehow James got it taken off the records.”
“And the chief of police took her off in a patrol wagon.”
“They met at her husband’s grave. There was some suggestion that he had his wife buried next door on purpose, and that’s the way it began.”
“But my dear, there are limits to human conduct!”
“But not to human impulses.”
“And nobody wants any homemade wine? I strained it through an old pair of underwear, but it seems to still have a little sediment.” In St-Raphael, she was thinking, the wine was sweet and warm. It clung like syrup to the roof of my mouth and glued the world together against the pressure of the heat and the dissolution of the sea.
“How is your exhibition?” they said. “We’ve seen the reproductions.”
“We love those last pictures,” they said. “Nobody has ever handled the ballet with any vitality since—”
“I thought,” said David, “that rhythm, being a purely physical exercise of the eyeball, that the waltz picture would actually give you, by leading the eye in pictorial choreography, the same sensation as following the measure with your feet.”
“Oh, Mr Knight,” said the women, “what a wonderful idea!”
“The men had been saying „Attaboy,“ and Twenty three skidoo,” since the depression.
Along the paths of their faces the light slept in their eyes like the sails of children’s boats reflected in a pond. The rings where stones kicked from the walk sank, widened and disappeared, and the eyes were deep and quiet.
“Oh,” wailed the guests; “the world is terrible and tragic, and we can’t escape what we want.”
“Neither can we—that’s why there’s a chip off the globe teetering on our shoulders.”
“May I ask what it is?” they said.
“Oh, the secret life of man and woman—dreaming how much better we would be than we are if we were somebody else or even ourselves, and feeling that our estate has been unexploited to its fullest. I have reached the point where I can only express the inarticulate, taste food without taste, smell whiffs of the past, read statistical books, and sleep in uncomfortable positions.”
“When I revert to the allegorical school,” David went on, “my Christ will sneer at the silly people, who do not give a rap about his sad predicament, and you will see in his face that he would like a bite of their sandwiches if somebody would just loosen up his nails for a minute—”
“We shall all come to New York to see it,” they said.
“And the Roman soldiers in the foreground will also be wanting a bite of sandwich, but they will be too jacked up by the dignity of their position to ask for it.”
“When will it be shown?”
“Oh, years and years from now—when I have finished painting everything else in the world.”
On the cocktail tray, mountains of things represented something else; canapes like goldfish, and caviar in balls, butter bearing faces and frosted glasses sweating with the burden of reflecting such a lot of things to stimulate the appetite to satiety before eating.
“You two are lucky,” they said.
“You mean that we’ve parted with segments of ourselves more easily than other people—granted that we were ever intact,” said Alabama.
“You have an easy time,” they said.
“We trained ourselves to deduce logic from experience,” Alabama said. “By the time a person has achieved years adequate for choosing a direction, the die is cast and the moment has long since passed which determined the future. We grew up founding our dreams on the infinite promise of American advertising. I still believe that one can learn to play the piano by mail and that mud will give you a perfect complexion.”
“Compared to the rest, you are happy.”
“I sit quietly eyeing the world, saying to myself, “Oh, the lucky people who can still use the word „irresistible“.”
“We couldn’t go on indefinitely being swept off our feet,” supplemented David.
“Balance,” they said, “we must all have balance. Did you find much balance in Europe?”
“You’d do better to have another drink—that’s what you came for, isn’t it?”
Mrs McGinty had short white hair and the face of a satyr, and Jane had hair like a rock whirlpool, and Fannie’s hair was like a thick coating of dust over mahogany furniture, Veronica’s hair was dyed with a dark aisle down the centre part, Mary’s hair was country hair, like Maude’s, and Mildred’s hair was like the draperies of the “Winged Victory”, flying.
“And they said he had a platinum stomach, my dear, so that his food just dropped into a little sack when he ate. But he lived for years like that.”
“That hole in the top of his head was to blow him up by, though he pretended that he got it in the war.”
“So she cut her hair after first one painter then another, till finally she came to the cubists and camouflaged her scalp.”
“And I told Mary she wouldn’t like the hashish, but she said that she must get something out of her hard-earned disillusion, so there she is, in a permanent trance.”
“But it wasn’t the Rajah, I tell you! It was the wife of the man who owns the Galeries Lafayette,” Alabama insisted to the girl who wanted to talk about living abroad.
They rose to leave the pleasant place.
“We’ve talked you to death.”
“You must be dead with packing.”
“It’s death to a party to stay till digestion sets in.”
“I’m dead, my dear. It’s been wonderful!”
“So good-bye, and please come back to see us on your wanderings.”
“We’ll always be back to see the family.”
Always, Alabama thought, we will have to seek some perspective on ourselves, some link between ourselves and all the values more permanent than us of which we have felt the existence by placing ourselves in our father’s setting.
“We will come back.”
The cars drove away from the cement drive.
“I’m going to air the room a little,” said Alabama. “I wish people wouldn’t set wet glasses down on rented furniture.”
“Alabama,” said David, “if you would stop dumping ash trays before the company has got well out of the house we would be happier.”
“It’s very expressive of myself. I just lump everything in a great heap which I have labelled „the past“, and, having thus emptied this deep reservoir that was once myself, 1 am ready to continue.”
They sat in the pleasant gloom of late afternoon, staring at each other through the remains of the party; the silver glasses, the silver tray, the traces of many perfumes; they sat together watching the twilight flow through the calm living-room that they were leaving like the clear cold current of a trout stream.