Authors: Ward Just
Constance motioned for Axel to join her. She put her arm around his shoulders, the company startled at how much they resembled each other, black hair center-parted, eyes that seemed chiseled from the same black stone. Constance raised her glass and smiled grimly.
"A toast to my son, Axel. To Axel, next in line. To Axel on his birthday."
Everyone drank and sang one disorganized chorus of
the men suddenly subdued.
Then Curly Peralta stepped forward. With a sharp look at Constance, he said, "To the nominees of our party, the next President and Vice President of the United States."
The men drained their glasses. Curly threw his into the fireplace and took another from the tray on the sideboard. The others followed suit, except for Constance, who neither drank nor broke her glass, yet stood in such a way that no one doubted who presided at Echo House.
Many years later Axel Behl told the story to his son, Alec, then a teenager. Old enough to appreciate the stakes. Old enough to grasp the ironies, as Axel said. The moment was morbidly apt. They had walked across the street from Echo House to Soldiers Cemetery and were standing before the stele that announced
B E H L
, a rose sculpted above the name, and below it an inscription in German, Goethe's
Art is long, life short; judgment difficult, opportunity transient.
Constance's selection, it went without saying; she had outlived the senator by five years, dying alone in the Observatory on the eve of Hitler's march into Poland.
Axel leaned heavily on his cane as he spoke. Alec was looking at him strangely, and he guessed that his right eye was drooping, the long scar on his face livid. His voice had risen, too, and he was sweating. He reached to massage his ruined knee and continued softly, "She was fierce, fiercer than he was. When she died I was out of touch. I'd been sent to Lisbon on war business. Curly Peralta handled the arrangements, and I didn't learn the circumstances until much later."
"I hardly remember her," Alec said. What he did remember were unforgiving eyes and a sarcastic tongue. She seemed to believe that life had let her down badly. Sylvia, his mother, called her a connoisseur of misfortune.
Axel reached with his cane to dislodge a bit of lichen on the stele. "So there I was in the famous Observatory, a shadow witness to how grown men behaved at a private moment of betrayal. I was invisible except when my mother, God bless her, proposed her toast. The king was dead, long live the king. And this much was true for me: in some unconscious way I chose my career that night, not the precise function but the form of it, where I would place myself in the scramble to the top of the tree. Meaning the government, because that's our family's milieu. That's what we do. That's what he did, that's what I do, and you will, too, when the time comes. We don't know how to do anything else."
And it had made them all so happy, Alec thought but did not say.
"Why, you were born the night Frank Roosevelt was nominated. Your mother likes to tell the story that when I called from the convention floor and the nurse said you'd arrived, I didn't ask whether you were a boy or a girl. I had to tell your mother about the five ballots and how California caved and what a great day it was for the nation. You know the story, a family joke."
Axel paused, out of breath. He took a tiny vial from his coat pocket, tapped a pill into his palm, and swallowed it dry. He sighed and bit his lip. Someone had wandered within earshot. In a moment the intruder was gone, and Axel spoke again.
"You're in it for the long haul. You give your loyalty to the
don't you see? Nothing else matters. You know what the Stalinists say. Let them starve! Let them starve! The last two left: alive will be communists for life. That's it exactly."
Alec said, "Your face is awful pale. Are you all right? Can I get you a glass of water?"
"My father disappointed us all, quitting as he did. And it was his own fault entirely. So inside the Observatory at Echo House that night I knew that I never wanted to be dependent on a promise that could be withdrawn over a telephone lineâsorry to put it like this, Axel old boy, but I've made other plans, no hard feelings I hope, and let's stay in touch. I never wanted to learn the mumbo-jumbo and say that everything was fine when it wasn't fine. I suppose in that way only I am my father's son. I intended to be in the tree with my own juju. And I guess that's how it worked out, good for them, good for me. You know the story about the expert mimic? The one with the repertoire of a hundred voices in a dozen languages and in due course he forgot his own voice. He forgot what he sounded like and couldn't remember even in his dreams at night."
Alec said, "Dad, your faceâ"
"You never knew this, so I'll tell you now. Constance was determined that I take my father's place in the Senate, and when the time came put forward my own candidacy for President of the United States. She bought a little farm in Maryland so that I'd have a State to run from. That was her great dream, the ambition that would cancel her husband's lust for second best, the disaster that brought such shame on Echo House. And until that night in the Observatory, her dream was my dream, too."
"Honestly, you don't look well."
"But I've sold the farm, so you don't have a State. You'll have to make your own plans."
Alec was silent.
"You know about the Rubicon, Alec. It's only a little stream, even when Caesar crossed it. Only a few yards wide and a few feet deep, so narrow :n places you could jump across. The Rubicon makes the Potomac look like the Amazon." Then Axel threw back his head and laughed loudly, tapping the stele with his cane. "Do you know what she gave me that night for a birthday present?"
Alec shook his head. He had no idea. His father was sputtering with laughter, his face ghostly white except for the livid scar. He reached to touch the stele, tracing the engraved rose with his fingernail.
"A pretty little nineteenth-century print," Axel said. "Not rare. Not valuable. You've seen it many times. It's in the Observatory next to Sylvia's merry satyr. A pastel, Constance's dream come true: the doge's palace at Venice in the early morning sunshine." And then Axel's smile vanished and he added, "The next day my father gave me his most prized volume, a signed first edition of
Some day it'll be yours."
and his son dined alone on Thanksgiving Day, 1947. Sylvia Behl had vacated in August, living in Europe, people suspected, though no one knew for sure except possibly Axel, and no one dared ask him. Sylvia was gone. Sylvia was a closed subject. She had written no one, not even young Alec; at least that was the rumor, and people who knew Sylvia believed it. She was a woman who burned her bridges.
The community understood. Sylvia was beautiful and high-spirited and, after 1944, Axel was neither. He admitted to Billie Peralta that his life might not be worth the effort it took to live it. However, the understanding did not include sympathy, for Sylvia was a handful, sharp-tongued, temperamental, opinionated, and slow to fit into the milieu. In fact, it was generally agreed that she had never really tried, an awkward situation all around, because everyone was so fond of her gallant husband. And the boy was a standout, the sort of well-mannered intelligent boy who was a pleasure to have to dinner. The community tended to take the long view and concluded that Sylvia's desertion was probably for the best. A Washington homily fit the situation: "That which must be done eventually is best done immediately."
So this was the first Thanksgiving without Sylvia, and a desultory affair it was, despite the best efforts of the kitchen staff; but since they were French the meal had a saucy quality that owed more to PÃ©rigord than to the federal city. After preparing dinner, the servants had been given the evening off, leaving only Axel and Alec at home, picking through the spicy dinde with its tangled collar of green beans and au gratin potatoes and pureed mushrooms and foie gras; but no stuffing or cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie or the creamed onions that were Sylvia's specialty. Father and son sat in silence, listening to the clock tick.
Axel had turned down half a dozen well-meant invitations from friends to come up to New York or down to Middleburg or The Plains. In early October he had had another operation on his back and was still in pain. That operation had not been a success any more than the others had been. The surgeons at Walter Reed remarked that he was very fortunate to have such a high tolerance for pain; he thought they would kill him in their heroic efforts to keep him alive. So this was the last operation, permitting him the dubious consolation that he would not have to be cut again; in that one sense the operation reminded him of his marriage. And the boy bravely insisted that he would rather be alone at Echo House with his father than with friends, whose kindly concern he found embarrassing, particularly since no one would mention his mother's name. He was not in the mood for another family's feastly hilarity with its specific rituals like charades or Monopoly. And the table conversation would be politics, everyone expected to contribute, whether they had anything to say or not; and God help you if you got a fact wrong, the number of congressional districts in Iowa or the identity of the governor of Kentucky or the number of Reds in the French National Assembly. So at six in the evening Alec found himself toying with his food, moving the potatoes around the beans and the mushrooms around the dinde, thinking about the long train ride back to school in Massachusetts two days hence. His father had offered to fly up to Boston so that they could have Thanksgiving at Locke-Ober with the Aswells, but the boy had said no thanks to that, too, not wanting to trouble his father. The last operation had left him looking haggard and frail, in no condition for a three-hour journey in an airplane. And it was bitter cold in Boston.
Candle wax was dripping on the tablecloth, and the boy moved to reposition the candles, which had begun to list. The dining room was warm and the silence oppressive. He thought he might slip out for a movie, since his father would surely retire early. There were war films playing on a double bill downtown, leathernecks assaulting a Pacific island. That would surely take care of the rest of the evening, leaving only Friday and Saturday before departure on the crowded midnight train to Boston. He glanced into the oval mirror over the sideboard and saw his father's face, gaunt in the flickering candlelight. His father looked colorless and insignificant in the vastness of the room. His head was thrown back and his eyes were closed, but he wasn't dozing, because his lips were moving and he was massaging his lower back. Framed in the mirror, Axel Behl's white face had the dour aspect of a seventeenth-century Dutch portrait; and the artist was no friend.
"Can I get you something?" the boy asked. "More turkey? Mushrooms?"
His father waited a moment before replying, in a dusty voice, "Pour me a glass of whiskey, please."
The boy went to the sideboard and poured whiskey from a decanter into a glass, looking again into the mirror, his own face up close and his father's in the background, flickering yellow light all around. He handed the whiskey to his father, who took a sip and set the glass carefully on the table.
"Pretty awful, isn't it?"
"It's not so bad," the boy said. "It's a French Thanksgiving."
"I asked Billie Peralta to tell them what to do and how to do it, but Billie doesn't speak French very well and Jacques wouldn't've listened anyhow. He only listened to your mother. Reluctantly." Axel sighed, leaning forward to massage his back. Little beads of sweat jumped to the surface of his forehead. "I suppose we should have taken Billie up on her offer, gone out to Middleburg for turkey And charades after."
"This is fine," the boy said.
"I hate charades," his father said.
"So do I."
"She would have been thrilled to have us, though. She likes to take people in. And she never liked Sylvia."
"I know," the boy said. He ate a mouthful of turkey.
"She said Sylvia's bite was worse than her bark."
Alec nodded, not knowing where his father was headed with this conversation but dreading it.
"Washington's hard," Axel said. "We all know each other so damned well and everyone has a past with everyone else. You either fit in right away or you don't, and if you don't you never will."
"She said she missed London," Alec said. "But I don't know what the great difference is. They both have a river and a legislature and the men wear hats."
"The difference is." Axel paused. "Heat."
"I like Washington," Alec said loyally.
"Maybe your taste in cities will change."
"Well, you're young. You can keep your powder dry."
"She used to say that Washington was dry. She said it was a dry bath. What did she mean by that?"
"She thought that Washington was old. London was young. Sylvia always took a contrary view. She liked to turn things inside out. We Behls are attracted to women who turn things inside out. Trouble is, it's not a quality that wears well, long term. It's tiresome." Axel took another sip of whiskey, holding the glass to the candlelight and looking through it.
They were silent again. The boy was not certain what his father meant about turning things inside out. At that moment he was certain he would never live anywhere but Washington. He could not imagine living anywhere else, certainly not bombedout London, with its frightening memories. Echo House was home for him, as it had been home for his grandfather and his father.
"Son." The boy looked up. His father was staring into the middle distance, as if what he had to say could only be thrown into neutral territory. "I have a number for her, if you want to call. She's in London. At least she was in London last week."
"Did you speak to her?"
"No. But I have a number."
The boy was watching his father in the oval mirror, the older man in a soft tweed suit, blue shirt, and regimental tie. It was an old bespoke suit and it fit him badly, loose around the shoulders and waist; but of course it had been made for a larger man. It was the suit he always wore at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now, as usual when he was speaking of personal matters, his hand moved to the deep scar that ran from his hairline to his jaw. He took another swallow of whiskey and the boy knew that the pain must be very bad, because his father seldom drank. He had not touched his wine.