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Authors: Mary McCarthy

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BOOK: A Charmed Life
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“You’ll send for the things?” prompted John. The vicomte absently nodded. “I have a man with a truck who works for me sometimes.” He seemed lost in reflection; the Sinnotts waited. “I’ll give you a lift,” proposed John. The vicomte did not appear to hear him. “My truck,” he said, bowing to Martha, “has just had the honor of transporting you to Digby.”
“Me?”
cried Martha. “Your likeness,” said the vicomte. “Oh, the
portrait!”
She turned a dismayed, startled face to her husband and felt her neck redden. “Oh,
no!”
she cried.

But John showed no surprise. “I
told
you,” he said, interrupting her exclamations and giving her a baleful look. “You knew?” the vicomte said, coughing. “Martha knew,” said John, curtly. Martha shook her head violently. She had
not
known, she said to herself. She had really believed what she had been telling John for the past three days: that Miles would not even remember the portrait when he woke up the next morning. A pain gripped her heart: for the first time in their knowledge of each other, John disbelieved her. “You were right,” she admitted with a timid, placatory smile. “You
see?”
he said, poking her with his elbow, meaning that it was her fault, for having sat to Warren.

The vicomte watched them. “A strange whim, don’t you think,” he said, seating himself on a garden bench, “on Murphy’s part, to want to possess a likeness of his ex-wife? Something abnormal, I find—a little in the manner of Bluebeard.” Martha lowered her eyes. She agreed with the vicomte, but she had made a rule with John not to discuss Miles openly, here in New Leeds. She was burning to know more; after the first moment of perturbation, her natural inquisitiveness reasserted itself. But John, she saw, was truly upset. He sank onto the grass, wrapped his long arms, in their white shirtsleeves, glumly about his knees, and stared straight ahead of him. She settled down by his side and patted his knee lightly. It embarrassed her to have the vicomte see how hard John took things. At the same time, she was sorry for this gentle, moody being, her husband, who dropped more and more into himself, the more he disapproved of her, nowadays. And yet she could not see—as she would have said, but for the vicomte’s presence—what she had done that was wrong, except in its unforeseen consequences. Nobody could have predicted that Miles would buy the portrait. She could scarcely believe it, even now, on the vicomte’s word. The only thing that persuaded her, inwardly, that it was true was the fact that it had befallen her, almost like a punishment, for yielding to Warren’s entreaties.

The vicomte was continuing his speculations, addressing himself to John. “After all,” he mused, “it’s a distorted vision, poor Coe’s. A mutilation.
Quelle horreur!
Your wife’s eye rolling about the canvas like a marble. I wonder you permitted it.” John raised his eyebrows but said nothing.

“So you delivered it,” hurriedly put in Martha. She did not want the vicomte to find out that John had objected to the sittings; if it got back to Warren, his feelings would be hurt. “Yesterday,” agreed M. de Harnonville. “As a favor to Jane Coe, who came to ask me at the store. She had it tied onto the top of her station wagon, but it started to fall off in the village.” John suddenly laughed. “Badly damaged?” he said hopefully. Martha frowned and seized his hand. “A little,” said the vicomte. “I fixed it for her. I know something of picture-restoring. In a way, the accident was fortunate. It enabled her to reduce the price.” John turned his head to the vicomte, with an expression of dawning interest. “What
was
the price?” queried Martha. “Eighteen hundred dollars,” said the vicomte.
“What?”
cried the Sinnotts, in unison, sitting straight up and staring at each other. “Eighteen hundred dollars,” repeated M. de Harnonville, cautiously smiling. “A bit steep, eh?”

The Sinnotts began to laugh, immoderately; John Sinnott rolled over on the lawn and bounced about, like a young boy. “Why, that’s crazy,” said Martha with feeling. “Mr. de Harnonville, you don’t mean to say that Miles
paid
that?” “My dear,” sighed M. de Harnonville, “you should know. Murphy is not a man who pays easily. I have been at law with him myself. …” “What time of day was it? Was he sober?” Martha demanded. “Sober?” said the vicomte. “I can’t say. He was not in a good humor when I came. I wanted my man to put it up for him. But he called out to his wife to tell the baron to just leave it and go. Ever since our lawsuit, he speaks of me as the baron.”

“And Mrs. Murphy?” said John, with a sidelong look at Martha. Their eyes sparkled at each other, as if they were at a play. “She was very nice,” said the vicomte. “It was she who had arranged it with Jane Coe. She telephoned Jane to bring it, as a surprise for Murphy’s birthday.” The Sinnotts fell back on the ground. “Poor Miles!” sighed Martha. “He always hates his birthday presents. …” She did mental arithmetic. “Why, he must be fifty-five. …” “Who set the price?” interrupted John. “Jane, surely?” said Martha. “No,” said the vicomte. “It was Warren. Jane herself was a little troubled about it; she asked me several times did I think Miles would think it was too high.” Martha gave a fresh shriek of laughter. “How did he arrive at it, do you think?” she wondered, turning to her husband. John reflected. “By the yard,” he ventured. “Actually, it’s not a big price, by Fifty-seventh Street standards. A dealer would want two thousand, anyway, for a Pollock or De Kooning of that size.” “But Coe is an unknown,” virtuously objected the vicomte. “It appears to me that he took an advantage of his friend.”

“Why, it’s shocking,” agreed Martha. “The Coes are rolling in money. Not that you could tell it, from the way they live. It’s typical of rich people to do a thing like that to a poor man like Miles.” “Helen has money,” John pointed out. “Not like Jane,” said Martha. “Jane told me once that her family lived on the income of their income. And Warren has something of his own.” The vicomte’s blue eyes dilated. “Why, just think of it, John,” continued Martha, sensing some sudden disagreement in her husband. “It’s black ingratitude. After all, it’s the first picture Warren’s sold!” “You’re mistaken,” retorted John. “He’s been selling his paintings for years, to his father-in-law.” “A-h-h!” acknowledged the vicomte. “You have explained it. The father-in-law is a rich man.” He nodded approvingly at John.

“Still,” murmured Martha, “those aren’t
bona fide
sales. Warren must know that underneath.” Her brow wore a severe ruffle; she was angry with Warren for implicating her in something preposterous. The two men shook their heads. “No, my dear,” said the vicomte. “He cannot permit himself to know. People cannot live with such knowledge. They go and hang themselves in the workshop. The proof that he doesn’t know is just what your husband said—the price he felt obliged to charge Murphy.” “Obliged?” Martha gave a sharp laugh. “Obliged,” repeated John. “You can see that, if you want to. If Warren asked Miles less than he’s been asking Mr. Carl, the inference would be that he’d been taking charity all these years from his wife’s father.” “Oh, come!” said Martha. “I always thought Mr. Carl liked his work.” “Perhaps he does,” said John. “It is more convenient for him that way,” suggested the vicomte.

“You horrify me,” cried Martha. “Both of you. You sound so cynical.” And she looked in amazement at her husband. “What do you want?” wondered the vicomte. “That Coe should know that his work is valueless and his
beau-père
should know it too?” “I’m not talking about value. I’m talking about price,” objected Martha. “But it’s the same thing,” said the vicomte. “Value is the price we will pay for what we want. Until yesterday, your portrait had no value. Today it has its price—that is to say, it exists, where before it was only an idea. Now it has been recognized; it is born.” “Oh, stuff!” said Martha. “You just said yourself that the painting was horrible—didn’t he, John?” “To me, it
is
horrible,” agreed the vicomte, equably. “But I am not of an age to appreciate modern art.”

Martha flung up her hands. “I can’t argue with you,” she said. “You keep shifting. ‘Appreciate’—what does that mean?” “To set a price on, silly,” said John. Martha frowned; she felt entangled in the discussion, and yet somewhere, in this cat’s cradle of verbiage, there was something that seemed to her important to say. “Am I so wrong,” she demanded, turning earnestly to John, “to expect Warren to know a little bit of the truth about his work? Just a little bit? I don’t ask the impossible.” “And what is the truth, madame?” said the vicomte. “Can you tell us?” Martha nodded, ignoring the buttery satire in the vicomte’s voice. “Why yes,” she said. “At least a part of it. The truth is that Warren’s work is absurd, in the world’s eyes. And I expect him to take that into account, when he sets a price on it. You think so yourself or you wouldn’t have laughed at him.” “Perhaps Warren will have the laugh on all of us, in time,” said the vicomte, sagely.

Martha smiled. “That’s what every undiscovered artist hopes for—the last laugh. But Warren is all too serious when he puts that ridiculous price on his paintings. He really thinks price
is
value.” “Naturally,” said the vicomte. “Other people value us by the price we set on ourselves. Coe was right; he got away with it.” He gave a barking laugh and ran his hand over his pomaded hair. “No,” said Martha. “That won’t do, in the arts. You can’t ‘make’ value by high-pressure methods, like a business men’s price-fixing syndicate.” “They all
do,”
observed John. “Not all,” said Martha. “The typical ‘new’ artist, of legend, had no idea what his paintings were worth. He was always giving them to his landlady.” John cited exceptions; Martha countered; the vicomte looked bored. “Tell me,” he said, abruptly, flexing his brows at Martha, “you do not have faith in your own work?” Martha felt John’s eyes on her. “No,” she said. “I don’t.
He
does.” She jerked a thumb at her husband. “For my part, I alternate between hope and despair.” She gave a rueful sigh. The vicomte slowly rose and stretched. “Ah well,” he said, “you will never succeed, then. In this world, everything is relative.”

Martha stood in the kitchen, washing the vicomte’s custard cup and humming a hymn tune. The two men had gone; John had insisted on driving the vicomte back to the village. Outside, the sun was sinking. It was too late to go swimming, and John, when he came home, would probably be cross at her for letting the vicomte stay so long. On the kitchen table stood the vicomte’s basket, which she had forgotten to empty and return to him. “Oh hell,” she said, staring at the basket and knowing that this meant that they would have to see the vicomte again. Moreover, she had forgotten to thank him a second time for the mushrooms, which he had gathered with his own fat hands on the deserted golf course. “Oh hell,” she repeated, beginning to tote up the record of her errors for the day. She had let him stay too long; she had been rather rude in the discussion; she had criticized Warren in a way that was bound to get repeated; she had paid no attention when John tried to deflect her by taking Warren’s part. She could not learn, apparently, to strike a middle course between indulging a person like Warren and lambasting him to the first stranger who appeared.

And, in John’s eyes, of course, she had betrayed him by announcing that she had no faith in her work. It was true, though not in the sense that the vicomte had understood. “You didn’t have to
say
it,” she heard her husband’s voice proclaim. “I was upset,” she mentally defended herself. “How would you feel if he had just bought your portrait?” And she
had
been upset, she supposed—more than she had consciously realized. Everything Miles did unnerved her, every word she heard of him, though she did not always feel it straight off. “That horrible man,” she said aloud, remembering his drawling voice, and his elbows, in their hideous hairy tweed, resting on their car door, the other day at the Coes’. If he came to see them, as he had threatened to do, she would not, she clearly foresaw, have the force to prevent him. Neither would John; they were both too polite. She would never have the boldness to tell him that he had no right to come there.

She heard the car door slam, down the hill by the garage, and ransacked her mind for something to tell John that would divert him from the subject of the portrait—something amusing or very serious. But as she watched him, coming up the hill, with a determined, purposeful step, there were only words running through her head:
value, posterity, truth.

FIVE

I
T WAS MARTHA’S THEORY
that people, whatever they said, did in the end what they wanted. The only exception she knew of was her relation with Miles. With Miles she had done steadily what she hated, starting from the moment she married him, violently against her will. “You wanted to, all right,” he used to growl at her, but she knew that it was not true. She had no explanation for this strange fact about herself. She was timid but not supine; nobody, except Miles, had ever browbeat her successfully. It was her youth, her friends had told her; when she met him, she had been an untried girl, who had not found herself, as the phrase was. If that was the case (and even John seemed to think so), she should have outgrown her fear of Miles during the intervening years; she
felt
much stronger, certainly. Yet, to her horror, the other day at the Coes’, when she was face to face with Miles, the years between vanished and she had begun to tremble again, as she had not trembled since the night she had left him. This awful weakness in herself she dared not confess to John, chiefly for fear of troubling him with something that was inexplicable. She did not like Miles, but she did not dislike him either, apart from his effect on her. Now that she was free of him, she saw his good points and his drawbacks in her customary clear perspective. Here in the New Leeds region, he had a certain stature, compared to the other men; he had a canny mind and read a great deal, seriously. He might yet produce something worth while in the new field he had roamed into—the history of ideas; he was forceful and energetic, with a gift for amassing information that was like his prodigies at the table…. His trouble, Martha had decided, was that his talent was crushed by his ambition; he had wanted to be another Goethe and had ended up as a rolling stone. And he had no facility of expression. She herself, she now perceived, had qualities Miles envied: a sharp ear and a lively natural style. There was therefore no reason why she should tremble before him, when she knew him, moreover, to be selfish, brutal, and dishonest in his domestic life.

BOOK: A Charmed Life
4.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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