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Authors: Ward Just

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BOOK: Echo House
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"It's ammunition," the banker said lamely.

"Let's caucus," Curly said, rubbing his hands together.

"There's unfinished business here," George Steppe said, gesturing at the telephone.

"Yes," Curly said, looking at Adolph. But the senator did not turn from the window. Watching his father from the shadows, Axel could not erase the sight of his mother holding her arm and hissing, all burdened Galway in her distress,
You baaaassstard.
Now she was calmly dealing cards, telling another story as she stared coldly at her husband. He was standing alone at the rain-streaked window that gave out onto the rooftops and monuments of the capital. Low scud had moved in, and the darkness was as dull and restless as the surface of an ocean. He seemed lost in the humiliation of the telephone call. None of the others felt it as he did. They were his friends but like good horsemen they mounted again when they were thrown—or, to be exact about it, when a fellow rider was thrown. The race was not forfeit because a man fell off his horse, even if the circumstances were unfortunate or suspicious; the contest continued over the many, many furlongs remaining. This seemed to be the point that Curly Peralta was making, his high-pitched voice causing even the women to smile as they threw down their trumps. Everyone knew that revenge was a dish best eaten cold, but Curly was insisting that on this occasion it was a dish best refused.

"Don't you agree, Charles?"

They all turned to the portly Englishman examining the books in the low bookcases; they were books on the architecture of Washington, D.C. Sir Charles Rath looked up and muttered something noncommittal.

"Come on, Charles!" George Steppe's voice was loud. "Tell us your view of revenge. Do you take it or leave it?"

"Yes, Charles. Give us the benefit of your advice." This was Constance, her voice drifting in from the billiards room.

Sir Charles looked unsuccessfully at his friend for a signal. When Adolph gave none, he decided that tact was a virtue. "My friend will do as he thinks best," the Englishman said mildly.

"So loyal, Charles," Constance said. "You're so loyal. It's such a lovely quality in men. It becomes you."

"The unfinished business," George said softly to Curly.

"It's positively inspiring," Constance said, her voice ragged around the edges.

Adolph wasn't listening. He lifted his shoulders and let them fall. "Revenge," he said, looking across the room at Sir Charles. "I'll have it the way that our mentor said to have it, 'Without haste, but without rest.'"

Sir Charles smiled bleakly, recognizing Goethe's thought.

"That's not your business," Stanley Greene said loudly. He had been listening attentively these many minutes, his smile growing as the compass swung. His view of human nature was as wide as a column of type. The old cynic was rarely disappointed, and now he cackled maliciously. "Revenge is my specialty," he said. "Leave the revenge to me and watch Sunday's paper." The editor drew on his cigar and blew a huge smoke ring that floated across the oval room until it touched an upright rose in a fluted vase and collapsed. He looked inquiringly at David Longfellow.

"Leave it alone," Judge Aswell said.

"You wouldn't be wanting to interfere with an editor's prerogative? You of all people, Justin. You who've been so forthright in support of freedom of expression. David has the scoop!" The editor smiled broadly, the smile fading when he saw David Longfellow shake his head; and with that, the whoremaster disappeared for good.

Old John had glided to Senator Behl's side, a whiskey on his silver tray. The senator shook his head and they stood looking out the window at the scud, breaking here and there to reveal the Capitol building and the Washington Monument, conspicuous in pink. John had been with him for many years. They were about the same height and age and might have been brothers, so closely did they resemble each other. They shared a bookish temperament and a love of horticulture. They were united in their dislike of the swampy weather in Washington, a climate so thick and swollen that anything grew. Constance's English garden was an incoheren: brawl that threatened everyone's peace of mind. Any blockhead could make a garden in Washington.

They preferred the disciplined and windswept prairie back in the Midwest, "the State," as Adolph always called it, his constituency. He and John gardened together in the spring, cultivating perfectly aligned rows of white and yellow roses, row upon row. They experimented with hybrid roses, one particularly successful, and they called that the Behlbaver rose. John's surname was Baver. Constance maintained that the rose was remembered by more Americans than any legislation her husband sponsored. Who cared about interstate commerce, the Behl Act? Only the railroads cared about it, and they didn't like it; Midwestern farmers liked it and forgot it. So they worked on their roses, loving the black soil and the harsh climate, a hard wind always blowing from the west ruffling the prairie grass. The senator thought the grass resembled the surface of the ocean, and the arrowheads he and John found no different from the bones of great fishes washed up on Atlantic beaches. Of course Constance hated it, so she always stayed behind at Echo House, or traveled with friends to the spa at the Greenbriar. The senator and John Baver always came back to Washington with stories of the swarms of butterflies that arrived in the spring.

They stood companionably at the window flanked left and right by the senator's favorite pictures, Childe Hassam's drypoint sketch of a middle-aged Henry Adams and a dense Edward Hopper etching of a farmer's field at dusk. The mariner's telescope was between them, its polished brass and antique fittings giving the scene a preindustrial look. Suddenly they turned their heads, leaning forward like commuters awaiting a bus. They sighed in unison and the senator slumped as if his bones had gone soft. In the distance were bright starbursts, flashes of red, white, and blue glittering above the clouds, disappearing into them when spent. They were fireworks along the Potomac, party loyalists celebrating the triumphant convention and its heroic nominees.

John continued to hold the silver tray with its glass of whiskey, and when at last the senator took it, John glanced at Henry Adams as if he expected that Adams, too, wished to be served.

Adolph said, "Thank you, Johnny." He turned now and looked across the room at the wall and the ugly scar his glass had made. He tapped his chest and slowly reached into his inside jacket pocket and withdrew a sheaf of papers folded lengthwise, his acceptance speech. He wordlessly handed it to John Baver.

"I'm so very sorry," John said. He slipped the speech under the tray, holding it with his fingers, and glided away to the pantry, pretending not to see Constance raise her empty glass, demanding a refill.

The party had been watching them at the window, waiting for John to leave so that the business at hand could be completed. Curly cleared his throat. "Senator," he said. "Listen to me a minute."

But Adolph did not turn from the window, where starbursts were still visible among the clouds.

"Listen to Curly," George said. "There's something we have to do here. It has to be done and you have to do it."

Curly said, "Make the phone call, Adolph. Make it while it still counts for something. Congratulate the son of a bitch, wish him luck, promise your support, make a joke, give him the usual mumbo-jumbo. Tell him you wish things had turned out differently and you look forward to meeting with him at the earliest opportunity, discuss matters of mutual interest and so forth and so on. You know the drill."

Judge Aswell nodded gravely. "Do it, Adolph."

"One club," Constance said, tapping her cards on the table.

Curly placed the call himself. He waited, then spoke a few words and extended the earpiece to Adolph. And in that gesture and the worldly smile that went with it was the essence of their politics: compromise and magnanimity. Magnanimity in defeat, magnanimity in victory, each requiring largeness of spirit and practical knowledge of the way the world worked. As Curly had said, the usual mumbo-jumbo. The gesture announced: We are not bitter-enders. We do not whine or bang the spoon against the porridge bowl. We do not take revenge in the heat of battle or its aftermath. We struggle, and if we lose, we give way. We congratulate the winner and we pledge our loyalty because there will be other struggles on other days and our opponent today may be our ally tomorrow. Above all, we do not burn bridges. This is the government after all. Party loyalty counts for something and we stand with our brothers, always. It's bred in the bone.

Curly smiled broadly as he extended the earpiece to the senator, who was still looking out the window at the fireworks, fading now. There was some small noise from the telephone, a sound like the crackling of fire. The women paused in their bridge game, listening hard. Constance's fingers were suspended above the table like a seer's, her trump ready to fall, her expression unruly. Stanley Greene leaned carelessly against the mantel, his dark eyes hooded, watching Adolph Behl with the most open prurience; he seemed to be committing everything to memory. Curly extended his arm, exasperated, shaking the earpiece.

George said, "Come on, Senator. Get it over with."

No one was watching more closely or listening more acutely than young Axel Behl, still inconspicuous in the shadows. His father was almost close enough to touch, and then he turned from the window with an expression as confused as his son had ever seen; and he never saw it again. The senator looked around, blinking; the light caught his hair and turned it white. His hair seemed to rise in coils. He made as if to say something, and when no words came, he shook his head and strode from the room with no backward glances except to look with loathing at the crescent-shaped scar on the wall. Curly was left with the earpiece hanging in dead air.

Constance slapped her card on the table and called loudly for old John, but everyone was listening to Curly's soothing voice, My goodness, Adolph was here just a moment ago, he must have stepped out, but don't you worry, he's on board one hundred percent as we all are, though naturally he wishes things had been handled differently. You know how these things are, when you expect one thing and get another, naturally there's irritation. But the hard feelings will pass...

Curly turned his back and spoke privately, and then his high-pitched laugh ended the conversation.

"Let's open the Champagne, John," Curly said.

"Yes," Constance said brightly. "Let's do."

When John arrived with a tray of glasses and three unopened bottles of Champagne, the company was silent, each man pondering Adolph's refusal to put things right. Was it an act of conscience? Vainglory' Simple anger? Perhaps he did not trust himself to speak, seeing betrayal on all sides. Perhaps all of the above, and perhaps none. Perhaps it was his dislike of the swampy weather in Washington, where any blockhead could make a rose grow. But his behavior was as out of character for him as it would have been for his great hero, Henry Adams. Not to mention Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's greatest soul. This was not the first time in his long life in politics that a man had broken his promise and gone back on his word, so great are the temptations of public office. In politics the rewards of victory are tremendous. Nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of victory, because in politics runners-up don't count. The journalist's "gallant effort" reads nicely, but no one in the business cares about it.

Judge Aswell sighed. "Well, that's it. Adolph has decided to burn his bridges and ours too while he's at it. Our nominee's a vindictive bastard, likes his loyalties undivided, likes to scorch the earth when they're not. I can't imagine what got into Adolph. Has he lost his mind?" The judge turned to Curly Peralta for confirmation, but Curly was giving none. He only shook his head sadly while watching old John wrestle with the Champagne's wire and foil. His loyalty was to his old friend, no matter how badly the friend had mishandled the brief. Of course that did not mean that you went to war. The enemy of your friend had many friends who were also your friends, and the stakes were not small.

"He let his emotions rule," George Steppe said coldly. "And now he has to live with the consequences. The problem's his to solve. Trouble is, we all have money in the pot. What did you say to the Man, Curly?"

"The usual," Curly said.

George nodded decisively. "That's the way we do business in this house," he said to a murmur of agreement. "When a decision's made by our leader, we unite behind him. We make the call of congratulations and we promise our support because tomorrow is more important than yesterday. If we don't like the decision, we can quit. We can join the other side. We can sulk. But don't expect to be forgiven."

George Steppe's ringmaster's moustache flared, and Axel knew that he was in the presence of an impresario; the show went on, no matter what. He knew also that for his father tomorrow was not more important than yesterday. Probably for him it was the reverse; the sum of all the yesterdays equals tomorrow unless you believed in miracles. He surely didn't expect to be forgiven. Axel understood then that his father could be humiliated and that the insult was not political; it was personal. They had rejected
him,
and so he would leave the field and return to his Behlbavers and his butterflies and his committee chairmanship in the Senate. Of course he would redeem his bleak promise of revenge "without haste but without rest." Axel knew also that his father had tried to cross the Rubicon, and it was the wrong Rubicon. In any case, he was alone in his distress.

Old John opened the Champagne at last, turning the corks with his fingers so that they made no sound. The bottles were sweating and fuming at the mouth, the aroma of Champagne mixed now with eau de Cologne and bath soap. The women had assembled silently in the doorway, their faces as impassive as any jury's. They glittered with ornaments—necklaces, earrings, silver combs in their hair. The men waited patiently until the women were served, old John delivering the glasses one by one, finally to lone Peralta and Constance. Then they helped themselves, and still no one spoke.

BOOK: Echo House
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