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Authors: Mary McCarthy

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BOOK: A Charmed Life
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And pragmatically, Miles now admitted, the idea seemed to be working out. Warren was feeling no pain. He had come a long way since last year, he had explained to Miles during luncheon. The fear that he might have to wait till after his death for recognition no longer troubled him, he declared. It was not really a postponement, if you thought of time as curved. “Just a question of time, eh?” said Miles, chewing on a chicken breast, and Warren had nodded, joyously, blinking his soft eyes like a bashful lover and wiggling his bare toes in the sand. Miles, to tell the truth, had felt a little disturbed by this new packaging of pie in the sky. And yet, like all religions, it had done something positive for the true believer; here in the studio, Miles could see that. Warren’s work, certainly, had taken a leap into freedom, or a plunge into necessity, if this portrait was typical. It had entered a domain in which you could not tell whether it was good or bad.

Which, he supposed, was in a way what Warren was aiming at.

“It’s supposed to represent an equation,” proffered Warren. “The one the atom bomb is based on. It’s Martha in a state of fission. In my next series, I’m going on to fusion—the hydrogen-bomb formula.” Miles nodded—he had begun to get the drift of the painting—but Helen had a little frown, like shirred chiffon, between her dark brows. “Would you like to see the figures?” said Warren, hopefully. “I got them from a mathematician who was staying in the Hubers’ cottage this summer.” “Oh, Warren, that’s
said Jane, in a flat, comfortable tone, looking sidewise at Helen, who was sitting up, with an air of determination, on the old sofa and tightening her knotted scarf about her throat. “Isn’t your idea rather literary?” she said to Warren in an anxious voice. “Almost like illustration?” She had an air of helpfulness. “All painting is literary,” Miles corrected. “It makes a statement about the world. What we used to call the artist’s vision. The rest is wallpaper.” Helen pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, tilting her head from one side to the other, as she strove to see the canvas from Miles’s deeper perspective. Miles nursed his chin and watched her. He repented his rudeness. Evidently, she did not like the painting, but this was a wholly natural reaction. Nobody, to Miles’s knowledge, had ever liked Warren’s painting, with the exception of Jane’s father, who, so to speak, was its onlie begetter and owned examples of every period. And people trained in the arts, like Helen, were positively upset by it. “Shall I take it away?” volunteered Warren, with a solicitous, inquiring look at Helen, as if a guest had shown uneasiness of a pet dog or cat. Miles was touched. “Leave it,” he said, shortly, raising a hand. “I want to think about it.” He flung himself onto one of the benches.

A strange temptation was assailing him. He wanted to buy the portrait. There was a stifled impresario in him; he liked to think of himself as a Renaissance tyrant-patron commanding his goldsmiths and his limners. He had a number of portfolios of drawings, chiefly of erotic subjects and strange beasts and mythical monsters; before the old house burned down he had owned a half-dozen paintings done by artist cronies from the Village bars he used to haunt. Yet all his wives, even the gentle Helen, disparaged his taste in art. He liked “magic” realism, Dali, the Gothic scenes of Max Ernst, the color of Reginald Marsh—paintings that gave him something to chew on—but his wives were always trying to educate his eye with Braque and Juan Gris and Mondrian. Ever since he had closed up his consulting-room, he had not had a free hand. Draftsmanship, a fine line, appealed to him, and despite what his wives said he felt himself to be a connoisseur of drawing. Moreover, he was a gambler—the year he had had a hit on Broadway, he had owned a piece of a race horse—and the fact that Warren Coe was a hundred-to-one shot played powerfully on his fancy. He was a little drunk and he relished it.

Staring at the painting, he gave himself up to reverie. With a certain somber irony—for he knew himself full well—he heard himself showing a visitor through his Coe collection. “Interesting little fella; lives up here all year round, in New Leeds; never had a real show or a criticism; doesn’t know himself what he’s up to; got a science bug; dominated by his wife’s family, scientists, Germans, from the Rhineland. Extraordinary draftsman, though; used to be a drawing teacher. Not a primitive; an isolate. Got a spot of Blake in him. I was the first to discover him…. That’s my second wife, the picture that got me started—my last Duchess, you might say, if you still remember your Browning. ‘There’s my last Duchess hanging on the wall, looking as if she were alive.’” A short chuckle broke from Miles. The humor of the purchase nudged him in the ribs, sardonically. Martha, he remembered, used to say that he would like her if she were stuffed and mounted, like a dead bird.

“Helen didn’t care for it at first,” he went on in a more serious vein to his fancied guest. “She’s got more taste than I have. But people of taste are at a disadvantage when it comes to a long shot like Coe. It’s what I like to call the fallacy of the trained eye. Art historians pretend that it’s the philistines that scoff at the new men. Pardon me if I say that’s horse shit. The philistines aren’t interested in art unless it’s called to their attention as something they ought to get sore about. It’s the boys and girls with the trained eyes that come to smile at the Armory show and the Salon of the Refusés—the ones who
better than the painter. Who laughed at Whistler? Ruskin. Who laughed at Socrates? Aristophanes. Who laughed at Racine? Molière.”

A hard green light glittered in Miles’s eye. His narrow lips compressed like scar tissue. He had a sense of astuteness, cunning, and clarity. Every analogue in the history of culture told him that Warren Coe was hot. Coe was an idiot, but most of the masters were simpletons, like Monet, or had a screw loose somewhere. Yeats’s spiritualism was just as balmy as any of Warren’s notions; the plan of
was nuts and academic as hell; pointillism, as a theory, was drivel. Your typical genius, of today, was some modest little goof, like Warren, plugging away in solitude at a mad scheme or invention that no reasonable person would give a nickel for: Duchamp, the early Schonberg, Ives, that fellow who was a doctor in New Jersey. The more, in fact, Miles pondered the case, the more unaccountable it seemed to him that Warren had not been discovered already. And this, all at once, gave Miles pause; a morose suspicion overtook him. Somebody, he felt, was trying to deceive him; the wool was being pulled over his eyes. Some unidentified force was trying to maneuver him into buying a painting that nobody else would have as a gift. Or was it the other way round? Was a hidden force trying to dissuade him from answering the knock of opportunity? He heard his wife and the Coes talking and shot a mistrustful look in their direction. It seemed to him that they might be ignoring him for some purpose. All his ideas began to seesaw; he could not tell which side of the inward debate he was on. More and more, in recent months, he had found it difficult to think in his customary rapid, purposeful style. The more clear his ideas became, the less he could choose between them; it was as if he had floated into Warren’s relativity and hung, confused, over vast profundities.

“How much?” he said suddenly, in a thickened voice, jabbing a thumb at the portrait. The others turned and stared. Warren’s soft, driftwood-colored hair seemed to rise slowly on his scalp. They had not understood him, evidently. “Much?” Miles repeated, with an effort, pointing to the picture again. The liquor had half-paralyzed his tongue but he did not allow this to deter him, for he understood that art-collecting was conducted in terse signs and monosyllables. “You mean the price?” asked Jane. Miles nodded, heavily. They all sat there, goggling. “Why, gee, Miles, I don’t know,” said Warren mildly. “It’s ten years since I’ve put a picture up for sale. Mr. Carl—Jane’s father—is the only regular Coe buyer. And that’s in the family….” He went bubbling on, but Miles interrupted him. “Set a price,” he said. “You don’t mean you’re thinking of buying it?” cried Jane. “Why, Miles, where would you put it?” murmured Helen. “In the gymnasium,” retorted Miles. Last year, they had bought an old windmill and turned it into a gymnasium for Miles to work out in; up above, he had a study, where he wrote.

Roses bloomed in Warren’s fading cheeks; boyish tears stood in his eyes. “Golly,” he said. “Golly, Miles,” and he came over and shook Miles’s hand. “I don’t know what to say,” he added, staring bashfully up at the portrait. Jane intervened, with a sharp glance at Helen. “Why, Miles,” she cried, “you don’t want to buy a picture of
People would think you were crazy.” Miles’s tongue loosened. “They wouldn’t know it was Martha,” he said playfully, with a fraternal wink at Warren. Jane was aghast. “I shouldn’t think Helen …” she began, but her voice faded away, uncertainly, as Helen, beside her, merely smiled and picked up the baby. “Why, you’d get
tired of it,” Jane resumed. “I mean
would, if it were my ex-spouse. I wouldn’t want Warren around to haunt me if I were happily married to another man. Why don’t you take something else? Get Warren to do a portrait of Helen and the baby.”

Miles thought he saw what Jane was up to: she was trying to obstruct the sale. Like so many of the New Leeds women, she wanted to keep her man in a state of financial dependence. Painting Helen and the baby, as Jane very well knew, was out of the question. Helen was far too busy, as a wife and mother, to give time to the sittings. “Helen has her hands full,” he said sharply, with a meaningful look about the studio, “taking care of her house and family.” He set his drink down, unfinished, and pulled himself to his feet. “Name a price,” he said to Warren. Warren looked at his wife. “You’d better think it over, Miles,” he said, smiling a manful smile. “Are you ready to go, dearest?” asked Helen, getting up. They were all trying to obstruct him; they thought he was in his cups.

“I don’t think Warren should let him do it,” Jane was saying to Helen, in her loud, schoolgirl whisper. “Martha wouldn’t like it at all. Why, Miles might be tempted to deface the picture.” Miles got the point: once, years ago, when he and Martha were first married, he had cut up one of her dresses with the kitchen scissors; he still had a piece of it, somewhere; it was among the things, ironically, that they had saved from the burned house. “All that’s in the past,” he said gruffly. “I don’t hate her any more.” Jane giggled. “I don’t know why you laugh, Jane,” said Helen. “Martha means nothing to Miles. He forgave her long ago.” Both the Coes were silent. Warren drew a deep breath. Under Miles’s eyes, he had turned into a wan little old man. “Jane’s right,” he said. “I have Martha’s friendship to consider.” “You mean Martha would
Miles said to Warren, incredulously. The thought completely sobered him and he felt strangely hurt. In his own heart, he had repented. If he had not driven her away, she would never have gone off with Sinnott, he often told himself, tenderly, now that he was married and the bitterness was gone.
cried Jane. “They both would. You should hear the things they say.” “Shut up, Jane,” squealed Warren. “You shouldn’t tell Miles that.” “I’m telling him for his own protection,” went on Jane serenely. “Why, if he took that portrait, John Sinnott might come down to Digby with a knife or a gun.” “Stop it, Jane,” begged Warren. “John Sinnott is a friend of yours. And you don’t
that about him. Why, John was a pacifist during the war.” “They can be the most violent,” said Jane. “After all his father was a brigadier general in the army. And his mother was from West Virginia. He’s very primitive underneath. He’s the type that harbors a grudge—anybody can see that.” “You’ve got it all twisted up,” said Warren. “His father was in the Medical Corps and he was only a colonel.” “Probably a surgeon,” replied Jane, astutely. “And everybody knows about surgeons.”

“This is ridiculous,” said Miles, lighting a cigarette. “I don’t give a frig about Sinnott’s heredity. Stay out of this, Jane. Sit down, Helen. I’ve asked Warren to put a price on the picture. Naturally, I’m not going to insist on it if he honestly thinks Martha would object. Not Sinnott. Martha.” He looked steadily at Warren and spoke in a calm, patient tone. He was much more interested, now, in eliciting the real state of Martha’s feelings than in the picture, which he looked on coldly as bait for Warren to rise to. The conversation, for him, had taken on the character of a judicial inquiry, but he hid this from the others behind a casual mien. “It’s true,” admitted Warren, with a peaked smile. “She might not like it. You never know how people will react. And, darn it, she has a stake in the painting. After all, she sat for it as a favor to me.” “We all have a primitive streak,” put in Jane, eagerly. “Why, you know how Indians are about having their pictures taken.” “Why, yes, Miles,” cried Warren, excited by Jane’s analogy. “In Mexico, they’ll break your camera if you try to take a picture of their dances. They believe you’re stealing their soul. And there’s a lot of that in all of us, let me tell you.”

Miles laughed. “And if I stole her soul?” he suggested. “If I know Martha, she’d be flattered. She’s probably still attracted to me, at bottom. Helen thinks so. Why else do you think she came back here?” The Coes eyed each other. This question, Miles perceived with interest, had been the subject of controversy between them. Warren forestalled Jane’s answer. “Maybe,” he said, defiantly, “because she doesn’t care any more. That’s why she
come back. After all, she loves the landscape here.” Miles pondered this thought. He was selfish and egotistical, but not, he believed, vain. He considered it possible, psychologically, that a woman could cease to respond to him. “But Jane says she talks against me,” he observed. “That argues a residue of feeling.” Helen nodded. “Miles never talks against her,” she explained. Warren clenched his hands. “Excuse me, Helen,” he said, “but that makes me blow my top. I’m sorry, everybody, but I can’t let that pass. What was Miles doing, just now, on the beach? Do you realize what you did, Miles? You accused her of arson. Why, she could be arrested and tried if that was brought to the authorities.” He whirled about, like a little prosecutor, and pointed his index finger at Miles, who would have been taken aback if he had not been familiar with the mechanism of transference. Poor Warren was merely discharging his pent-up aggression against Jane; he must have wanted to sell the painting badly. “Arson?” mildly drawled Miles. “I don’t think I said that, Warren. I was talking in analytic terms; perhaps I didn’t distinguish clearly enough between fantasy and reality.” Warren clapped his hand to his mouth. “Pardon
he said. “Excuse me for living, but that’s not what I heard. From what
heard, let me tell you, Martha could sue you for slander. And
Amn’t I right, Jane?” “Yes,” said Jane, thoughtfully, rubbing her jaw. “You ought to be careful, Miles. You know how people carry things back here. Why, she could have Warren and me for witnesses.”

BOOK: A Charmed Life
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