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Authors: Mary McCarthy

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BOOK: A Charmed Life
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Warren hungered for serious conversation, which was one of the reasons he had recently turned from nature to portraiture; he liked to draw the sitter out. On other occasions, he was constantly being disappointed, though New Leeds was full of people who had had interesting lives. “I’d like to get your point of view,” he would say, finally, at a cocktail party, to the person he had been waiting patiently to query, but the person, like as not, was tipsy by the time Warren got to him or else only wanted to gossip. Watching Miles today, Warren had the premonition that he was going to be disappointed again. Last year, when the Murphys had come down, Miles had been very interesting; he had advised Warren to read Nietzsche, and Warren had been looking forward to a renewal of the discussion. He had several points he wanted to make; he had underlined passages in the Modern Library
Zarathustra
that seemed to contradict some things Miles had said about Nietzsche’s thought. But Miles, when he had arrived this noon, had promptly turned the subject aside. “The translations are all terrible,” he said briskly. “You can’t understand Nietzsche if you don’t read him in German.” Warren, for a second, had been mad as a hornet; a few years ago, the same thing had happened with Plato. A point had come up, and Miles had said, “Read the
Republic
,” and when Warren had done it and called up Miles in New York, all primed on the cave myth, Miles had told him that you couldn’t understand Plato except in the original. Reminded of his earlier admonition, he had said, “I don’t remember it. I must have been drunk.”

Still, Warren had not yet given up hope of the afternoon. It all depended on chance. Miles, as Jane said, was a moody soul. It was the mixture of blood in him; he was half Irish and half German. Miles himself said it was the devil of a combination; when he was in black spirits, he talked about himself as a mongrel and blamed his parents for marrying. That was his Irish mood. On his German side, he was more poetic and visionary. He had a theory that the Germans and the Irish were all the same mystic people—Celts, and he used Jane’s tawny hair to prove it. He got his own red hair, he told them, from his mother’s family. He had an affinity with Jane; he liked to get her to talk about her German ancestors. That was why she always brought up the Moselle from her father’s cellar for him. Warren was interested in Jane’s ancestors too; the family’s scientific interests had opened his eyes to a whole new side of life and changed the direction of his painting. But he always felt a little disturbed when Miles got going on Friedrich Barbarossa—it made him think of the Nazis. In another mood, however, Miles would give the Germans what-for and say their trouble was they had never been Christianized properly, except the people in the Rhineland, where Jane’s family came from.

Like all the outstanding people Warren had ever known, Miles was inconsistent. Today he might suddenly stand up and shake himself and tell his wife they were going home. Or he might come to the studio, where
Zarathustra
was laid out, and talk for the rest of the day. And the wife and baby would have to wait till he was ready to go, even if it was the middle of the night. One night, last winter in New York, the Coes had heard, the baby had nearly been smothered under the overcoats on a bed at a wild party. Miles had a theory about children; he thought you should treat them rough until they reached the age of reason, which he set at eight or nine, the year the child was able to learn its catechism and prepare for its first communion. This theory, Warren admitted, made him see red. And Miles meant it furthermore; he was not just talking through his hat. For a hard-boiled unbeliever, Miles had a strange admiration for the rules and observances of the church; Mother Church, he said, was a great little psychologist—look at the confessional. And he thought Spare the Rod was sound psychology too,
up
to the age of reason.

The baby, at present, was lying on a blanket, sucking a chicken wing. Helen Murphy had carried him down the beach on her back, in a sort of fishnet bag that Miles had designed for her. Miles did not believe in sitters, and they had never been able to keep a servant—not for lack of money, for Helen had plenty, but because of Miles’s tempers and drinking habits. Warren sat looking at the baby; he loved children and he and Jane were childless. The two women were talking in low voices; Miles had sunk into abstraction. Warren undid the white handkerchief he wore around his head, like a housemaid’s dust cap, to protect his brain from the sun. He leaned over to the baby and, smiling, began to wiggle his ears. He knew Miles was watching him, sardonically, from narrowed, slightly bloodshot eyes, but in such matters as these Warren was a fearless traditionalist. The baby, to his joy, smiled back. At this moment, Jane chose to mention the Sinnotts. Warren’s heart sank; he slumped into the sand. He felt, as he said later, about as big as a minute. Jane’s curiosity, brimming out of her big round eyes, gave the show away. He was cross as the dickens. He and Jane had compacted not to mention Martha unless Miles or Helen did it first, but when it came to gossip Jane was weak and disloyal, like a bad little girl. She was now looking rather shamefaced, her eyes cast down and a tentative grin twitching her wide red mouth; later she would say that Miles would surely have thought it funny if she had
not
mentioned Martha.

Miles sat up, chewing on a spear of beach grass. “How are they getting along?” he inquired, with evident interest. Warren felt terrifically relieved to find that he had been wrong, as usual. There was a slight pause; the Coes eyed each other. “You haven’t seen her?” said Jane, looking at Miles curiously. Miles shook his head. “I’ve
never
seen her,” mused Helen. “Of course, I feel I know her from what Miles has said.” She said this in a simple, deferential tone that made a great impression on Warren. This tall placid brunette girl simply worshipped Miles, which was what Miles had always needed. Everything about him, apparently, was sacred to her, including his ex-wives; she sounded almost as if Martha were a holy relic of Miles’s past, like his first baby shoes. Warren was amazed; he felt he was getting to know Helen finally. “That’s funny,” he said, sliding over to her, brightly, with his winning smile. “That you haven’t seen her, I mean. You’d think you would have run into each other at the Stop and Shop or the Arena Theater or meeting the train or something. It’s almost like a reverse coincidence. Mathematically—wouldn’t you say, Miles?—the chances would be all the other way. I mean if Helen and Martha missed each other umpteen times … ?” His high thin voice halted as he saw that Miles was not interested in a statistical discussion.

“She’s changed,” said Jane, thoughtfully. “How, Jane?” said Helen, with her warm, interested smile. Despite the fact that she and Miles had been married two years now, she still had a slight, hovering air of ingratiation, as if she were Miles’s secretary; she had a long, straight figure and buxom legs, which she wound around each other unobtrusively; she carried her cropped head a little to one side, and kept her lips slightly parted. “Well,” said Jane. “More hectic for one thing. Wouldn’t you say so, Warren? They laugh a lot at parties. They’re both quite witty, you know, and that rather scares people in New Leeds.” Miles nodded, with an air of acumen; he had a funny way of listening, not to the things you said, but to something behind them; you could feel him click like an adding machine when a congenial thought was deposited. “She isn’t
nearly
as popular as she used to be,” continued Jane, candidly, avoiding Warren’s eye. “People say they’re too critical.” “Ah,” said Miles. There was a silence. “They
seem
very much in love,” volunteered Jane, slowly.
“Seem!”
reproachfully cried Warren. “You oughtn’t to say that, Jane. Of course, they’re in love. If they aren’t, who is?” Jane giggled. “Warren is awfully loyal,” she said to Miles. “Why, that makes me hot under the collar,” protested Warren, sitting up and moving his bare thin neck, as if a real collar were confining it. “I’m not loyal. I’m just going by what I see. How would you feel, Jane, if somebody said, ‘The Coes
seem
very much in love’? Why, I’d fight the person that said that. Don’t you agree with me, Miles? Why, that was an
awful
remark, darling.” “They seem to be in love—that’s all I said,” returned Jane, with composure. “Well, they are,” said Warren, fiercely subsiding. He retied the handkerchief carefully round his head. The Murphys laughed.

“After all, Warren,” suggested Jane. “There was that story. Last week.” Warren’s bright face sobered; the spots of color paled; he nodded glumly. The Murphys were all ears. “Should I tell it, Warren?” asked Jane. “Might as well,” he answered, folding his arms, with a gloomy, stoical mien and bowing his kerchiefed head. “Excuse me, dear,” he added. “Well,” said Jane, “the story is they’ve been fighting. They came to the doctor all cut up and smelling of alcohol. They
claimed
they fell through a window.” “All cut up, Jane?” gently inquired Helen. “Well,” said Jane. “I haven’t actually
seen
them.” “
I
have,” said Warren. “I met them this morning. I forgot to tell you, Jane. It was just their hands.” “But isn’t that
peculiar?”
said Helen. “Peculiar is right,” said Warren emphatically; he hated to have his close friends involve themselves in a scandal, even if it was just from thoughtlessness—it spoiled his image of them. “Mind you,” he added, pointing his finger suddenly at Miles, “I don’t think this proves they’ve been fighting. But I can’t see how they both broke a window unless they were spifflicated.” “That’s the strange part,” continued Jane. “That’s why everybody’s discussing it. They hardly drink at all. Much less than they used to. At least, when they’re out in public. Probably they’ve become secret drinkers.” She waggled her jaw. “They say that’s very common with romantic couples like that. They move to the country and pull the shades and start drinking and the next thing you know there’s a suicide pact.” “Have you ever heard of that, Miles?” demanded Warren, his eager falsetto breaking in on Jane’s deep, comfortable tones. “Martha says it’s quite frequent.”

“Martha
says?” exclaimed Miles. His large frame jerked upward and sideward, as if somebody had stuck him in the ribs. “You mean she talks about it?” “Not about
herself,”
qualified Jane. “About other people. There was a case in the papers the other day, people we used to know, and that’s how she explained it.” “Very interesting,” said Miles, nudging Helen’s behind with his perforated shoe. “How do you mean?” said Jane. Miles stroked his chin. “Martha is a very sick girl,” he said. The Coes glanced at each other, surreptitiously. “I’ll give you two examples,” said Miles, after a pause. “You remember the fire we had?” The Coes nodded. “Well, she talked about the fire incessantly
before
it happened. She was convinced the house was going to burn down because of some private guilt of her own. And then, by God, it did.” “You don’t mean you think she started it?” cried Jane. Miles shrugged. “I’ve been studying some poltergeist cases recently and I recognized the pattern. I don’t know how I missed it before. She was the first one up that night and normally she sleeps like a log. She’d rescued the boy before I knew what was what. The boy was asleep too. Nobody smelled smoke but Martha, and she got herself and the boy completely dressed before she called the fire department.” “Good Lord,” said Jane. “Yes,” said Miles. “Notice—she didn’t want to hurt anybody. That’s typical of these cases. It’s an attention-drawing mechanism, primarily.” “She felt overshadowed by Miles,” elucidated Helen. “But she was quite beside herself,” said Miles, “when the insurance people came down to investigate. Wanted to put the blame on some poor devil of a workman who’d done the wiring. Never gave a thought to the fact that he’d be prosecuted if the insurance people believed her. She said it was her fault, really, that she’d instructed him to commit a violation—all poppycock. It was her neurotic way of confessing the truth, of saying, in symbolic language, that the fire
was
her fault;
she
was the firebug. And you know, by God, I remembered something she told me once—that when she was a little girl she used to put her younger brother up to setting fires; he’d get the blame and she’d watch the blaze. The brother never knew it; she was clever, the way she instigated him; he thought all through his boyhood that he was the pyromaniac.”

“Whew!” said Warren, running his hand across his brow. He glanced at Jane wonderingly: did she credit this story? He would have liked to argue one or two points in it with Miles, but he hated to let Helen think he disbelieved her husband. His heart, as he told Jane, sank to his boots. The blue day was blackened for him; he knew he would not sleep for thinking of this tale. Either way he looked at it, it was horrible, horrible for Martha, if true, horrible for Miles, if false. And horrible for him and Jane to be listening to it, crouched around Miles on a lovely fall afternoon. “Understand,” said Miles. “I don’t hold it against her. All that’s in the past. I think now I mishandled her. I didn’t allow for the fact that she was a very frightened kid when I married her. Helen thinks so too.” His wife bobbed her head in quick, sympathetic agreement. “I thought,” said Miles, “I could teach her self-knowledge. But when she found out I was on to her, she flew the coop.” He laughed. Warren felt deeply shocked. “And she took her revenge. I don’t blame her. She has the modern girl’s vindictive mania for publicity. She could have left me any time in broad daylight, without any fanfare. But she had to do it in a nightgown, at three o’clock in the morning.” Warren caught his breath; this was not the way Miles had told the story before.

Warren and Jane too—he could tell from the look in her eyes—remembered perfectly well the morning Miles had come out to their house in a taxi, his red beard unshaven, fumes of liquor still on his breath, looking for Martha and crying. According to the story he told then he had locked Martha out of the house in her nightgown, in a fit of drunken humor, and gone up to bed fully expecting her to come back in the kitchen door, which was open—that sort of thing was always happening in New Leeds, he had insisted, and the wives did not take it seriously. Martha’s story, which Jane and Warren had always believed, was that Miles had waked her up, kicked her out of bed, and pushed her step by step down the stairs and out the front door and ordered her not to come back—John Sinnott had seen the bruises, and the little boy, Barrett, according to the cleaning woman, had been watching over the banister.

BOOK: A Charmed Life
2.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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