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Authors: Mary McCarthy

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BOOK: A Charmed Life
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Martha was not tactful, despite all her theories of hospitality and neighborliness. She could never remember the things you were supposed to remember about the people up here—who had had a lung removed and who was impotent and who was drinking and who was on the wagon this season. And yet, as she knew, in New Leeds such facts assumed a great importance and even conferred distinction. Right off the bat, she blundered, for example, with the vicomte by offering him coffee and a brandy. “Dear lady,” protested M. de Harnonville, “I am an alcoholic.” How was she expected to know that, she demanded of John later. She hardly knew the vicomte. He had come here after the war, to stay with some moneyed summer people, just before she left Miles. He seemed to know her very well, but all she could remember of him, from that period, was that he was said to be writing his memoirs of the Resistance: his hosts liked to tell how he had been parachuted, disguised as a businessman, back into his native province, where he had worked for the Allies. Martha had thought this remarkable—because he was so fat—and she was greatly surprised to come back, after all these years, and find him still here, a placid institution, like the new high school. His name was on the town roll of honor, in the square, but everybody seemed to have forgotten about the memoirs. Jane Coe, in fact, now claimed to know that he had really spent the war years in New York, acting as a paid courier to rich refugees: a cousin of the Hubers had seen him, she declared. And she added her own cheerful surmise, that he had probably been working for the Germans too—he looked, she thought, a lot like Goering.

“You oughtn’t to say that, dear,” Warren had interjected mildly, but Jane pooh-poohed his fears. Nobody up here, she said, would mind what Paul had done, not even the FBI, who only cared about Communists now. Why, Hitler himself could come here and set up as a house-painter and nobody would mind; that, in a
way,
agreed Warren, was the nice part of New Leeds.

It was the vicomte’s rich air of fraudulence that took Martha’s fancy today; he appealed to her sense of theater. She did not even object to the shoeblacking coming off him; it was a part of his makeup. He sat in the chair like somebody playing the roll of an impostor nobleman, fat, florid, seedy, with a plaintive blue eye—a compendium of myths and history, with his darker pages open, almost ostentatiously. And yet the Coes attested that he was a real vicomte;
strangely enough,
observed Jane with a toss of her shawl. He had really traveled a great deal, the Coes said, and spoke a great many languages and their dialects. The liquor-store window, in the winter season, was papered with a collection of educational photographs, of the Upper Nile, the Ganges, a Chinese riverboat, a Russian cruiser of the tsar’s day, a fjord, a cork plantation, an American oilfield, in all of which M. de Harnonville was standing, looking exactly the same, and surrounded by a swarm of natives, just as he was here. Yet if he had spent six months, as he claimed, in all the places he had been caught by the camera, he would have to be a hundred and twenty, according to Warren’s count. Jane declared that the answer was simple: Paul, who was probably about sixty, had lived a double life, she said thoughtfully.

He was a bit of a bore, Jane contended; he talked too much about
mon oncle, le duc
and society people, whom nobody was interested in, nowadays. But Warren disagreed; he had learned a lot from Paul, he insisted. John, Martha could see, was of Jane’s opinion. He barely concealed a yawn as the vicomte began to relate the history of alcoholism in the Harnonville blood:
mon oncle, le duc,
it seemed, had been a famous toper. For Martha, however, the vicomte and his uncle were interesting just because she doubted their reality. To call her husband’s attention to this point, she gave a gay little laugh. “I don’t believe it,” she said flatly. The vicomte frowned. “I assure you,” he said. “It is all in the memoirs.” Martha saw that her jesting tone had offended him. “Still,” she persisted, “I never heard that
you
were a drinker.” The vicomte shrugged. “Oh yes, my dear girl,” he affirmed. “You would not have known me. I was a shocking sight. In the gutter. Six months. Positively.” He began to rummage in his pockets. Martha giggled. She feared, as she told John later, that he was about to produce a snapshot of himself in the gutter, but it was only a cigarette case. He lit a mentholated cigarette, waving aside John’s match. He had, Martha observed, a very bad cigarette cough. “When was this?” she said, skeptically. The vicomte meditated. “Oh … during the war … I cannot say now the exact date.” Martha was silent. She did not want to press him, rudely, but it was he who had introduced the topic. And she still did not believe him, as she tried to indicate to John, though she could not think why anyone should
pose
as an alcoholic. The vicomte met her look. “You’re seeking the stigmata?” he said. “Stigmata?” cried Martha, alarmed; she suddenly remembered hearing that the vicomte was
très catholique.
“The signs,” said the vicomte, with an air of impatience. “The signs of alcoholism.” Martha nodded. “They are there,” he assured her. “My doctor could tell you. The blood sugar is never the same.” “But you don’t drink any more?” “No,” said the vicomte. He pulled himself out of his chair and selected a small bronze from the mantel, turned it around, and set it back in silence.

“It must be hard on you, working in the liquor store,” said Martha, at a loss for another topic and getting no help from her husband, who sat looking intently at the vicomte now, as if the old fellow were a foreign particle that had intruded on his field of vision for the first time. “’Ard?” said the vicomte, blinking. Martha repeated her remark in a louder voice. M. de Harnonville turned wonderingly to John. “My wife means the temptation.” “Ah,” said the vicomte. “But that is part of our method.” “‘Our’?” queried Martha, uneasily mindful again of the vicomte’s religion; John was a perfect Roundhead who held popery in aversion. “A. A.,” said the vicomte. “You know what it is?” “Alcoholics Anonymous,” chorused the Sinnotts. The vicomte nodded. “A wonderful society,” he said. “Truly missionary. In the spirit of Vincent de Paul. I give them what little time I have here. They call me and I come. It is very moving. Last week, in the woods, a little girl, abandoned by her husband—oh,
la pauvre.”

He bowed his head. “Isn’t there a clash of interests?” said John, with a cold little laugh. He disapproved of Martha’s taste for pious frauds and he refused, despite all her merry glances, to find the vicomte amusing. “Interests?” repeated the vicomte, picking up a little china figure, replacing it, and shading his eyes frowningly against the afternoon sun. “He means the interests of your work in the liquor store as against the interests of your work in A. A.,” interpreted Martha. “But where is the problem?” said the vicomte, resuming his chair. “As an alcoholic, I know wines and whiskeys very well.” Martha opened her mouth to explain further, but at John’s impatient signal she closed it again. “Besides,” mused M. de Harnonville, in a franker tone, “it is like the pleasures of the eye and the hand for a man who is past the age for the other…. A little perversion, I suppose.” He tilted his big bobbed head. Martha jumped up. “Let me take that,” she said and hurried out with the empty custard cup to the kitchen.

Left alone with John, the vicomte leaned back in his chair and looked shrewdly at the tall young man opposite him, in white shirtsleeves and black sleeveless sweater, perched rather nervously on the black sofa. “I understand you very well,” he said, unexpectedly. “You are a young American, of good family; very high-principled, like your wife. You are thinking of
la question morale.
But you must remember that ‘moral’ in French has a somewhat different meaning.” He got up and went to the window, where he stood looking out onto the lawn, with his arms behind his back. “You should prune that rose tree,” he observed. Under his authoritative stare, John felt their property blanch; the sandy patches on the lawn grew bigger and whiter; the box withered; briars raised their stalks. “If you fix it, it will be very nice,” he heard the vicomte sum up. “But it will cost you $20,000—a fortune.” The old man shrugged and turned away from the window. “We like it shabby,” protested Martha, in the doorway, seeing her husband’s woeful face. The vicomte threw out his hands and gave a short laugh.
“Chacun à son gout,”
he conceded.

There was a disturbing finality about him—a mixture of positiveness and indifference, as if being French and a swindle had given him the last word. And it was indeed the
last
word he seemed to articulate, in his hoarse, choking voice. He dismissed his own words, like useless servants, the minute they were spoken and paid no attention whatever to the sounds that issued from the Sinnotts. Each of his abrupt summations was succeeded by a “profound” silence. In the workshop, where they had gone to inspect the things, his connoisseur’s eye had wandered straight to the beam from which the suicide had hanged himself. “You’re not superstitious?” he ruminated. He seemed more interested, really, in the mechanics or workmanship of the tragedy than in the business he had come to transact. He measured the drop, thoughtfully, with his fat lower lip protruding, and hoisted himself onto the bench, which, he explained to the Sinnotts, nodding, the dead man must have used. In fact, Martha, watching him uncomfortably and clutching her husband’s arm, began to feel that the antique business was only a pretext for getting into the workshop. But all at once he made a grimace of boredom and clambered down, brushing dust from his trousers. He looked over the furniture, briskly, and offered what to the Sinnotts seemed a very fair price—the idea that the stuff had been promised him appeared to have been given its
congé.

John Sinnott could not hide his surprise. The clock, though ugly, had a certain collector’s value, but twenty dollars for the birdbath? He and Martha exchanged wondering looks. “You’re sure you’re not cheating yourself?” he felt driven to ask, as he peered for the third time at the figures M. de Harnonville had scrawled out on a page from his notebook. This concern, which filled Martha with wifely pride, appeared to nettle the vicomte. “My dear fellow,” he said with an air of patience, “these garden things are very desirable.” “But it’s hideous,” protested Martha, running her finger over the birdbath. “It isn’t even old.” The vicomte blew his nose. “Each to his own taste,” he said, stowing away his dirty handkerchief. “I find it quite pretty.” A pall of silence fell. They began to walk slowly across the lower lawn. Martha was vexed. Solely in the interests of accuracy, she wanted to dispute with him the value of those knick-knacks. Thanks to John’s work in the Historical Society, both the Sinnotts knew a good deal about furniture, and Martha was vain of the fact. She was also proud of their taste. And, despite all indications to the contrary, she had been hoping to find a fellow-spirit in the old
antiquaire:
somebody who had standards and was a purist in this uncorseted place. Yet every time she spoke she had the feeling that she was screaming, across a gulf of petty misunderstanding. The sound of her own voice, childishly positive, like a college girl’s, cut into the still afternoon and made her resolve not to speak again, until she could master the desire to argue.

But the vicomte himself reopened the subject. “The sundial and the birdbath,” he said, stopping and leaning on his stick, “I can understand they are not to your liking. But why sell the clock? Excuse me if I say you were foolish.” “We don’t like it,” said John, crisply, like a manifesto. “But it’s very good,” objected the vicomte, raising his voice and tapping his stick peremptorily on the ground. “Very old, relatively. Very rare.” “We don’t like Americana,” explained John. “Americana!” cried the vicomte, pointing at the house. “But that is Americana.” “No, it isn’t,” said Martha, abruptly. “But of course,” said the vicomte. “What else would it be?” “When we say Americana,” replied Martha, in tones of forbearance, “we mean something quaint, what you call
folklorique.”
The vicomte tapped his stick again; his big seamed face grew redder. “Excuse me,” he said. “I understand very well the distinction. But to me, if I may say so, your house is Americana. It was not a house for a wealthy merchant, but a simple cottage. And inside, on the old chimney piece, you have put an Empire clock, marble and bronze, very nice in its way, but in a different spirit altogether. In your place, I should have kept the clock you sold me and got rid of the Empire one.” “But the Empire one is handsome.” “Handsome?” The vicomte raised a shoulder. “But they are very common, you know.”

With another shrug, he took out his pocketbook and handed John the money. The Sinnotts glanced wonderingly at each other as John stuffed the bills into his pocket. This was a windfall for them; they were very low at the bank, and a mortgage payment was due. Yet their pleasure was discolored by the vicomte’s irascible manner, which seemed to insist that he had “done” them, against his inclination. “Count it, count it!” he exclaimed, as if speaking to a child, and John, shrugging himself, obediently leafed through the bills, while the old man watched him. Martha felt dissatisfaction in the air, as if they had all been weighed in each other’s scales and found wanting. She knew what she had expected of the vicomte, but how, concretely, he had found
them
a disappointment she could not make out.

Yet he made no move to go. He seemed rooted to the spot, tracing a pattern with his stick on the stubbly lawn. “You could sell off some of this,” he suddenly proposed, pointing down the locust grove to the old apple orchard. “You have more than you can manage. By the road there, you can cut off two house-lots.” John Sinnott’s brows drew darkly together; he stiffened and threw his chest out, like an equestrian statue of one of his military ancestors. “I can find you a buyer perhaps,” their visitor persisted.
“No,”
pleaded Martha. The vicomte slowly turned his head and regarded them in rheumy astonishment. “You are romantic,” he divined. “Certainly,” said Martha. In her lexicon this was a term of praise. But the vicomte made a
moue
of boredom and returned his blinking gaze to the ground. In the silence, they heard a quail call. The feeling that there was a defeated purpose in the vicomte’s visit oppressed Martha’s spirits; she hated the inconclusive. Her common sense told her that he had come simply to satisfy his curiosity, like so many others who had “looked in on” them since John’s accident the other day, only to be disappointed, apparently, to find everything in order, the bed made, the floor swept, the dish towels on the line. But she felt something more here, as if he had something to say to them that he had thought better of when he saw them together, for the first time, on their home ground. Disturbing ideas floated through her head: that he had come to proselytize them, for A. A., for the Roman church, or to warn them; like one of Abraham’s angels, away from New Leeds. Her eyebrows queried her husband, over the vicomte’s bent head. There was still time to go swimming, if their guest would only leave.

BOOK: A Charmed Life
2.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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