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Authors: Ward Just

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BOOK: Echo House
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You've settled for second best, she replied.

You've ruined my life, darling.

The night Senator Behl's name would be put in nomination, Constance arranged a party in the Observatory. There was a terrible storm that night, rain falling in sheets, battering the windows. Someone said that the Observatory seemed like the drenched fo'c'sle of a ship, shuddering with each gust of wind. They were listening to the convention on the radio, the signal erratic even with the special antenna the Navy provided. Many good friends from Washington and elsewhere in the East were present; and Sir Charles Rath had sailed over from England. Constance presided; and there were seven other women, wives, enough for two lively tables of bridge in the billiards room. Everyone was in high good humor, because they all knew how long their old friend had sought his prize; they were happy for him and for themselves, too. The rising tide raised all the yachts. A private railway car was waiting on a siding at Union Station to take them north as soon as definite word was received, though that was only a formality, because Senator Behl had the support of the nominee, that support to be announced before the balloting. Everything was arranged and all that remained was the telephone call from the Man himself. Champagne was cooling in silver buckets in the billiards room, where the women were playing cards. The butler, old John, had stationed himself next to the telephone. In the deep shadows near the mariner's telescope, so inconspicuous as to be barely visible, stood young Axel Behl, summoned from school for the occasion. Constance insisted upon it, reminding her husband that it was the boy's birthday.

The room was loud with conversation, the men making plans for the coming campaign and the fine administration to follow. David Longfellow and Chairman Tyner of the House Banking Committee debated the economy. Senator Bilbauer and Judge Justin Aswell of the Appeals Court did not like the shape of things in the farm belt. Former Secretary George Steppe and Congressman Curly Peralta were filling jobs, a seat on the Interstate Commerce Commission or the chairmanship of the American Battle Monuments Commission, general counsel of this board or that agency, ambassadorships, the judiciary. George and Curly agreed that this President-to-be held his cards close to his vest, and that was a problem, because George Steppe wanted his son Georgie to be the U.S. Attorney in Boston, a post that vice president-to-be Adolph Behl could help secure—if he performed superbly in the campaign, and campaigning was not the senator's long suit. His own seat was so safe that he had never had to fight for it, and he was temperamentally unsuited to trench warfare in any case. Adolph Behl raised money and worked behind the scenes in the Senate and was at least as effective at one as at the other.

Slowly the rain began to end. Young Axel could see the misty lights of Washington far below. He put his eye to the telescope and listened to the exchange between the former secretary and the congressman, understanding little except that Mr. Steppe wanted something for Georgie and his father was supposed to help him get it when he was vice president. Axel turned to see his father deep in conversation with Chairman Tyner, the chairman talking and his father listening and nodding, every now and then glancing at the telephone. The radio was turned low, inaudible except for the scratch of static. From the billiards room Axel heard the women bidding, one club, one heart, one no trump, five spades, double, and then his mother's voice, Irish around the edges.

"Why don't they call, darling?"

His father grunted and did not reply.

"It's getting late. Don't you think it's late?"

"He'll call when it's time."

"I think it's late," Constance said, tapping her cards sharply on the table.

Constance resumed her monologue, a story her friends had heard many times, how as a little girl she had watched her father march off to war, Captain Barkin so handsome in his military kit, every daughter's dream. Jack Barkin was a man to be reckoned with. Of course the family name had been Anglicized to Barkin from de Barquin, Constance's grandfather having fled the Paris Commune in 1871, when aristocrats were shot on sight, arriving in Cork with the clothes on his back and little else except his good looks and his esprit de corps. God, he was a handsome man; all the de Barquins were tall and slender,
comme il faut,
irresistible to women, romantics by temperament. Her gallant father was off to the Transvaal to fight the Kaffirs. His charming letters home described each dangerous engagement, the troops massed on horseback—ah, he was a fine horseman—charging again and again, gloriously heedless of risk. Captain Barkin—Bar-canh, as Constance pronounced it—was put in for the Military Cross, but there was a tragic mix-up and before the mix-up was solved he was dead, killed by a lancer at Magersfontein, December 10, 1899. The family wept for days. The Queen herself sent condolences. Axel had the looks of the de Barquins, Constance concluded, most particularly the protruding upper lip, the de Barquin lip.

Chairman Tyner looked questioningly at Adolph, and Adolph said, "They weren't Kaffirs; they were Boers. He wasn't a captain; he was a conscript. And there was no mix-up, either, because there was no Military Cross. The rest of it, I'm not in a position to say."

"Aren't women extraordinary," the chairman said.

"Women live in a dream world," the senator replied bitterly.

When the call came at last everyone turned toward Adolph Behl. Curly Peralta began to clap and then all the men applauded, stopping abruptly when old John picked up the receiver and handed it to the senator. Adolph took it and stood at attention, listening, but it was evident at once that something was wrong, because after a few moments he began to cough uncontrollably and dropped the receiver. From the billiards room Constance asked what was wrong, darling. Someone stepped to the sideboard and poured Adolph a large whiskey, handing it to him carefully as if it were medicine. Old John retrieved the receiver and replaced it in its cradle.

Adolph stood motionless, the whiskey glass in his hand, the expression on his face unreadable. He looked like a classroom lecturer who had unaccountably lost his place and had forgotten what came next. He shifted the whiskey glass from his left hand to his right and in a sudden violent motion hurled it at the wall. Bits of crystal flew everywhere, but still he did not move. When his wife approached him he roughly pushed her away as if she were a tactless servant.
You bastard,
Constance snarled, loud enough for everyone to hear. Adolph's attention went quickly elsewhere, to his friends who were dumb with shock and dismay, except for Sir Charles Rath, who was too worldly to be shocked by anything and was rarely dismayed.

Humiliation gave way to rage, fury seeking to conceal insult as, many years later, the scar on the wall was concealed by a little Picasso sketch, a merry satyr in a loincloth scratching his cloven hoof. The senator was trembling, talking loudly to no one in particular, vowing revenge. His friends joined in because they too had been insulted. They all thought they were climbing to the top of the tree together, and when they discovered they weren't, they were furious. Adolph was still a United States senator and that counted for something, but his ambition was to be vice president. The nomination had been promised to him, and now the promise had been rudely withdrawn.

Curly Peralta managed, "What did he say exactly?"

Adolph mentioned a name, the young Midwestern governor, so well-liked in his own state and neighboring states, including Adolph's own state. He was the Man's choice, selected no doubt for his amiability and ignorance of national affairs; he would be a lap dog. Then Adolph murmured, "Alabama."

He meant that the Alabama delegation might revolt. He had good, close friends in that delegation, men he had known for years. He had attended their weddings, had stood godfather to their children, had hunted on their plantations as they had come to Echo House for billiards and conversation. Because it stood first on the roll of states, any Alabama revolt could turn the convention. The radio static had cleared, and George Steppe turned up the volume so that they could all listen to the balloting.

Adolph stared at the radio as if it were human and capable of any surprise. But Alabama was solid; no one broke ranks, not a single delegate. The head of the delegation bawled the unanimous vote to cheers in the great hall. Adolph had been an usher at his wedding and had managed a private bill through the Senate on his behalf; and now Adolph thought he heard laughter in the chairman's voice. And so it continued through the alphabet until the applause began to build—and then George brusquely switched off the radio.

For a moment no one knew what to do or say. They looked to Adolph for a lead, but he gave none. There was general movement in the direction of the sideboard; everyone beginning to talk at once while they prepared their drinks, agreeing that betrayal could not go unpunished. Curly Peralta decided that the nominee had sent a dreadful signal: his word could not be trusted, and in national politics a man's word was his destiny. A bad beginning, Curly said, and the nominee—the Man—must needs be taught a lesson. The means were near to hand, allies to be enlisted without delay, friendly newspapermen, finance people, Senate colleagues—for was this not an affront to the dignity of the Senate?—state chairmen, religious leaders, members of the bar. Each man had his own list of markers to be called when the time came. God, what a mess.

The women listened from the billiards room, where they had resumed their card game. Young Axel remained in the shadows, hearing the gathering of the tricks and the shuffle, the falling of the cards and the thick silence before the bidding, the scratch of a match when one of the women lit a cigarette. In the Observatory the talk trailed away, growing softer—and then someone laughed and the others joined in. The women looked at each other and continued their aggressive play, their conversation barely a murmur. Axel wondered if this was what his father meant by the dream world of women. Unsuited by temperament to the hard realities of government and politics, they lived in a half-light of illusion; they turned the facts to mean what they wanted them to mean, and perhaps in that way achieved their heart's desire. It would be a kind of freedom, amending or ignoring the rules the men made, playing cards while the world came to an end.

One no trump, Constance said, her voice soft as a feather.

Doubled, lone Peralta replied.

Meanwhile in the Observatory the weather was changing. Winter gave rise to spring, the hard ground suddenly loose and receptive. The men commenced to talk about the ticket, its strengths and liabilities, who would be with them and who against them and how strongly. They were breaking the nation down by region and class. They were dismantling it the way a mechanic dismantles an engine, appraising each part by itself and then as a function of the other parts. The ticket had appeal to the middle of the nation and to farmers generally and white-collar voters. The Northeast was a problem. New York was a special problem, and the baby-faced Midwestern governor would be no help there. No help in the parishes and synagogues and no help in the union halls. They'd best hide the lap dog in the alfalfa. The election would be a mighty struggle to be sure, and how much better if the nominee had kept his word and chosen our good friend as his running mate. But we can't walk back the cat. What's done's done. If they were clever about it and campaigned with energy. If they put their money into the right pockets in the critical cities. If they stuck to the traditional principles of the party—well, then, we're winners.

Axel looked at George Steppe. The young man had not failed to notice that "they" had abruptly become "we."

"He doesn't know anything about Washington," Adolph said. "He's never lived here. He doesn't know the way we do things. He won't know who counts. He won't know how to preside over the Senate. He's too green. These outsiders always muck things up."

"He's not a quality man," George said. "But it's a strong ticket."

From the billiards room came a tinkle of laughter, Constance's successful finesse.

"Bad show," Sir Charles put in.

"This wouldn't happen in Britain," David Longfellow said.

"Certainly not by telephone," Sir Charles said, and that drew a smile from Adolph.

And then, boats catching the freshening breeze, they were off again, plotting the course of the campaign, identifying natural hazards, predicting strategy and tactics, and, conspicuously, who would be involved and who wouldn't be involved. One of them called it the great American holy war, and you volunteered cheerfully, rallying to the din of the megaphone. Neutrality was a sin, and how much better to direct things from headquarters rather than in the stink and blood of the trenches. Any candidate would covet their experience and practical knowledge. They were veterans all, with campaign ribbons to prove it—including, as of tonight, a Purple Heart, ha-ha. The Man will need all the help he can get, Senator Bilbauer said. He needs us. He'll come begging. The phone will ring any time now.

Listening to them, it was obvious even to young Axel that there would be no revenge, not that night or any night. And from the look on his face, Adolph Behl knew it, too. So he gave them his full attention as they gathered around the sideboard with their drinks, helping themselves to shrimp and crabcakes, all the while talking themselves back from the precipice. The compass began its swing: high emotion had given way to chaos, and chaos back to judgment. These were practical men. Tomorrow held more promise than yesterday, and government was forever. There was more than one route to the top of the tree, and no one wanted to be left behind.

David Longfellow did not sense that the wind had shifted.

"God damn him," David said. "We're going to twist him the way he's twisted us, pardon my French. He's not clean. I happen to know about the woman he sees in New York and where he sees her. I know her name and where she lives and he knows I know. The Man's a whoremaster—"

"David," Judge Aswell said quietly. "Shut up."

BOOK: Echo House
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