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Authors: Mary McCarthy

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BOOK: A Charmed Life
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Miles turned his head and deliberately winked at Martha. “You remember,” he said in a whisper, “what you used to say about our host here and a six-year-old child? ‘Why?’?” Martha nodded. She smiled, like her old self. Then, all at once, she turned pink and dropped her gaze to her lap. Miles felt himself flush too. He knew what she was remembering. It was impossible, it seemed, to find a subject of conversation that did not contain an oblique reference to their common past. He decided to take the bull by the horns. “Thank you,” he said, in a low voice, “for writing to me about Barrett. I ought to have answered.” “Oh,” she said, hurriedly. “It was nothing.” Her glance scurried off to her husband, who had paused in the midst of a conversation with Helen to watch Miles and Martha laughing and whispering. Helen was looking the other way. “I’m glad,” said Martha, loudly, “that you have a baby. It’s a boy, isn’t it?” “Yes,” said Helen from across the room, picking up the child and dandling it on her lap. There was a silence. “What are you writing?” said Martha, with a desperate look, again in a voice that was meant to carry.

Everybody turned to hear Miles’s reply. “A philosophical work,” he said, shortly. “It would bore you to hear about it.” John Sinnott raised an eyebrow. “Not at all,” said Martha, with a queer little smile; a strand of fair hair had escaped from its knot and fallen across her forehead. For a moment, she looked strangely like the portrait, dissociated, fissionized. She had come apart, poor girl, Miles said to himself, as he watched her raise her hand to brush the stray lock back. There was a bandage on her finger and, stealing a look at Sinnott, he observed that he too had a bandage, a fairly large one, on his right hand. What was wrong between them, he wondered. Was it her failure to have children or the failure of her work as an actress? He looked shrewdly at Sinnott. Had he forced her to leave the stage?

“Why, Miles,” said Jane, goggling, “didn’t you know? Martha is a philosopher too.” “Not a real one,” said Martha, as Miles turned to stare at her. “I never took my degree.” “We told you about that, Miles,” put in Warren. “Don’t you remember?” Miles shook his head. “Oh, yes,” said Jane. Miles frowned. Either he was losing his memory, what with the drink and age, or people had ceased to interest him, except perfunctorily. He could see from Helen’s face that he had just had a bad lapse; the Coes
must
have told him about this development in Martha, and yet he had clean forgotten. “You don’t say?” he muttered, and began to ask her whom she had studied under. But he scarcely heard her answers for thinking how strange it was that any detail about Martha could have eluded his notice, when he had once put detectives on her, not even to get evidence—for he had plenty—but just to learn what she was doing and whether his friends were seeing her. “What are you up to now?” he interrupted. “You doing your dissertation?” Martha smiled, “You just asked me that,” she pointed out. Miles pulled himself together. “The answer is no,” said Martha, with a pert little twinkle. “I decided not to do it two years ago.” Miles nodded. His curiosity stirred. “What
are
you up to?” he demanded. To his surprise, Martha colored. “I’m writing a play,” she confessed.

Miles gave a start. For a moment, he was violently angry. There it was again, that pattern of imitation. She had not changed in the least; she had come back here to compete with him again. He no longer considered himself a playwright, but that was how the public remembered him. She must have read his thoughts. “I’m
not
going to take up boxing,” she murmured, twitting him, with a little air of apology, which he thought was in poor taste. He rose on his dignity. “Don’t apologize,” he said. He had always been a magnanimous man and he took comfort in the thought. He had always told Martha, he recalled, that she had a wonderful ear for dialogue. He had no doubt, once he thought about it, that she could write a very clever little comedy. “That’s great,” he said, warmly. “You’ve found yourself at last. I always said you could do a play.” “I remember,” said Martha.

“And you’ll bring something to it that I never had,” he continued, his friendliness increasing, for he truly loved the arts and suffered here in this sterile region from the absence of young shoots of talent to spring up around him. He was nearly fifty-five, now, and Warren Coe, who was close to his own age, was the only bud of promise he had been able to detect in the area; the rest were all blasted. Everybody was “artistic,” and nobody was an artist. “Yes,” he nodded. “Practical experience of the theater. That’s the thing. I don’t mean exits and entrances—anybody can manage that side of it. I mean a feeling for the medium—the grand imposture of the whole thing. It’s a make-believe world that the layman doesn’t get the hang of. Nobody can write a real drama who hasn’t smelled the grease paint; it’s like somebody composing music who’s never played an instrument.” Martha gave a deprecating shrug. “I don’t know,” she said. “Actors and actresses have written some terrible plays. Bernhardt, remember?” “Ah,” said Miles, “but there was Shakespeare, and Molière and O’Neill.” “On the other hand, there was Shaw,” she answered. “And Congreve and Wilde.” “Wilde was a lifelong actor,” protested Miles.

The others had turned again to watch them. Unconsciously, they had both raised their voices, as if they were alone together and the rest of the room were blocked out. “What was that, Miles?” wondered Warren. “Say that again.” “Yes, let us in on it,” pleaded Jane. But Martha had risen, with a little grimace. “We must go,” she said. “Oh gee,” sighed Warren. “Just when it’s getting interesting.” But Martha shook her head. John Sinnott had fetched her cloak and was on his way to her with it like a galleon. Dolly Lamb stood up. Miles frowned as he watched young Sinnott put the cloak on Martha’s shoulders. He himself, he thought sourly, ought to have been the first to leave. Yet he had been having a fine time, sparring with Martha, before the others broke it up. It was like a bit of the old days. But it was frustrating to talk to her like that, with Jane Coe’s big ears flapping and Warren’s nose twitching for crumbs from the banquet, Helen looking tense and worried on his behalf, and John Sinnott’s warrior’s eye on them and his biceps flexed to defend Martha. Miles rose and stretched. “Maybe I’ll come to see you one of these days,” he said to Martha, with a slight yawn. Martha seemed taken aback. Was it possible that she was afraid of him still? “Umm,” she said, noncommittally.

Everybody was on the move, all at once. They were picking their way out to the cars, guided by Warren’s flashlight. Miles stood in the parking space, waiting for Sinnott to move his old open Ford out of the way of his Cadillac. Helen and the baby were in the car, and Miles was watching the girl painter drive off first in her jeep, when, in the glare of Sinnott’s headlights, he became aware that Warren Coe was beside him, batting his eyes and wiggling his eyebrows and smiling an urgent question in the direction of Martha. For a minute, Miles could not divine what had got into him. Then he remembered the portrait. What Warren was saying in pantomime was that Miles should ask her, now, if it was all right for him to have it. Miles inwardly shrugged. Sober, he was not sure whether he wanted the painting, but he did not mind asking, just for the hell of it. He strolled up to the Sinnotts’ car and indicated to Martha that he wanted to speak to her. Martha rolled down her window. “I like that portrait of you,” he said in a casual tone. Martha’s eyebrows rose; she turned to her husband, who merely raced the engine. “Seriously?” she said in a lowered voice, looking back to where Warren was standing. “Seriously,” agreed Miles. “It’s far the best thing he’s done. In fact,” he continued, leaning his elbow on the little car’s window sash, “I’ve had the notion of buying it.” Martha stared. “You’re crazy,” she said. “Where would you put it?” She bit her lip. “Excuse me,” she corrected herself. “It’s none of my business.” “Warren tells me,” said Miles, “that he’d have to have your permission to sell it.”

Martha looked at her husband. “Why not?” he said lightly. “You don’t want it.” “This isn’t a joke?” demanded Martha. “No, of course not. Why should it be?” returned Miles, rather irritably. “You really think Warren has something, then?” Miles nodded. “Why, then,” said Martha, gaily, “I think it’s marvelous. John, wouldn’t it be wonderful if Warren could be discovered after all these years?” John smiled briefly. “Yes,” he said. Miles had the feeling that Sinnott was inwardly laughing at him, and that Martha too would burst into merriment, the minute he turned away. She was peering at him critically as if to make out whether he was drunk. “Sleep on it,” she suggested, after a moment. Her voice was gentle and solicitous, but he felt the old rage rising in him at the notion that she was trying to manage him again, the first chance she got. In the eyes of this superior pair, he was nothing but a maudlin jackass. “Good night,” he said abruptly and moved away from the car.

FOUR

T
HE VICOMTE HAD COME
to call on the Sinnotts just after Sunday lunch. He was sitting in an easy chair, by the fireplace, holding a small earthenware dish of Martha’s pot-de-crême, vanilla, in his square, seamed hand. By his side rested his walking stick, and he was still puffing a little from his walk up the hill. Nobody knew his age. He had a large red face and dark-blond, straight, pomaded hair of a hue that could scarcely be dyed; he wore it combed back, without a part, and longish, like a woman’s short bob. His suit was a faded tan silk, cut rather loose, which looked as if it had been made for him in Japan many years back. The vicomte had a much-traveled mien, like a stout suitcase with frayed hotel stickers; today, he suggested the Orient-fans, a kimono, verandahs, matting. John had not recognized him, as he made his way up the driveway, with a basket of field-mushrooms, a house-gift, in one hand, and the stick, which he paused to rest on, in the other. He had the air of a meditative pilgrim toiling up to a monastery with an offering. “Why, it’s M. de Harnonville!” cried Martha, peering out the window, astonished and somewhat pleased that the vicomte had dressed to pay them a visit. For ordinary use, behind the counter in the liquor store, he wore a dark-blue T-shirt, a green eyeshade, blue jeans, and sandals. On his feet, at present, were a pair of high shoes, recently blackened, evidently, for the shoeblack was coming off on the chair’s white slipcover while John frowningly watched.

Martha had put a little table down, for the custard cup and spoon, but M. de Harnonville ignored it, holding the cup in his hand and letting the spoon dribble custard onto his napkined lap in the most aristocratic fashion. He had come, it slowly transpired, to buy an early Seth Thomas clock that the Sinnotts had inherited with the house. He was also interested in a sundial, a birdbath, and a painted rocker, which he believed to be stored in the workshop. The previous owner, he said, coughing, had promised him these things, but since the poor bloody old chap had killed himself without making a will, M. de Harnonville stood ready to pay.

John and Martha glanced quickly at each other. The thought flashed between them that the vicomte was in cahoots with the former handyman, who had already carried off a truckload of stuff in deference to the late owner’s supposed wishes and had nearly got away with the clock and a pretty silk-and-velvet patchwork quilt, worth over a hundred dollars, which he had stowed in an old bureau drawer. But the instant the suspicion entered her mind, Martha quashed it, shaking her head slightly as a warning to her husband to do likewise. She hated suspecting people, and the vicomte was popular in New Leeds, where he was known as “Paul” to everybody, from the bank president to the village idiots. Though he lived in a single, bare room back of his antique shop and ate his meals sitting at the counter of the local grille, reading a Boston tabloid, he was held to be an authority on everything going—world politics, wines, cooking, gardening, how to arrange your furniture. She and John, it seemed, had already got off on the wrong foot by sending to Boston for a shipment of reasonably priced, decent wine, after one look at the vicomte’s stock. You could not do that, the Coes hurried over to tell Martha when they heard about it via the express man: everybody here went to Paul, who got a percentage—how else would he live in the winter, when the antique business folded up?

“You’ll have to get used to the folkways,” Warren told John, with one of his peaceful smiles. But John chafed against the village and the village chafed against him. “Be nice,” Martha kept feeling impelled to tell him on the brink of every occasion. “Be nice,” she had pleaded, just now, as she recognized the vicomte approaching. Callers took up too much time, he contended, and wasted Martha’s energy. He could not forget that they had come here for a purpose and he watched Martha’s outlay of energy with a sort of fanatic jealousy, as though there were only so much of it, a diminishing stock. He was still angry with her, she knew, because she had sat for the portrait. It was getting “involved” in New Leeds, he said—which she had promised him she would not do. And he was cross with Warren for having asked her. Just as he had predicted, she had come home worn out after each sitting, for Warren had taken advantage of the occasion to make her talk philosophy with him for three hours at a stretch. And he still kept popping around with what he called “unfinished questions.”

“That’s life in the country,” Martha explained, patiently. In the country, she said, you had to be
disponible.
Otherwise, people would say you were a snob. So much the better, argued John: then they would leave you in peace. But Martha would not consent to this. It was bad for your character, she tried to show him, to hoard yourself like a miser: openness and hospitality were the basis of ancient virtue, like Abraham entertaining the angels, unawares. Abraham was not writing a play, John retorted. For John, the village was an enemy silently waiting to infiltrate as soon as his back was turned. Last week, he had gone up to Boston, to do some research in the library, and came home to find that Martha had let the plumber and his helpers drive their truck over his freshly seeded lawn. It was not her fault, actually: she had heard the truck too late, and opened her study window and screamed at them like a harpy, pointing to John’s barriers and a big “Keep off the Grass” sign. She was proud, for John’s sake, that she had done that much, though the plumber went off in a huff and would not come back to fix the pump he had botched up. He was very sensitive, it seemed, about being a plumber, because he had gone to college, and Martha, the Coes told John, should have thought of that before she yelled, “Can’t you
read?”

BOOK: A Charmed Life
7.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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