Saturday Evening Post (19 December 1931)
Here and there in a sunless corner skulked a little snow under a veil of coal specks, but the men taking down storm windows were laboring in shirt sleeves and the turf was becoming firm underfoot.
In the streets, dresses dyed after fruit, leaf and flower emerged from beneath the shed somber skins of animals; now only a few old men wore mousy caps pulled down over their ears. That was the day Forrest Winslow forgot the long fret of the past winter as one forgets inevitable afflictions, sickness, and war, and turned with blind confidence toward the summer, thinking he already recognized in it all the summers of the past — the golfing, sailing, swimming summers.
For eight years Forrest had gone East to school and then to college; now he worked for his father in a large Minnesota city. He was handsome, popular and rather spoiled in a conservative way, and so the past year had been a comedown. The discrimination that had picked Scroll and Key at New Haven was applied to sorting furs; the hand that had signed the Junior Prom expense checks had since rocked in a sling for two months with mild dermatitis venenata. After work, Forrest found no surcease in the girls with whom he had grown up. On the contrary, the news of a stranger within the tribe stimulated him and during the transit of a popular visitor he displayed a convulsive activity. So far, nothing had happened; but here was summer.
On the day spring broke through and summer broke through — it is much the same thing in Minnesota — Forrest stopped his coupé in front of a music store and took his pleasant vanity inside. As he said to the clerk, “I want some records,”a little bomb of excitement exploded in his larynx, causing an unfamiliar and almost painful vacuum in his upper diaphragm. The unexpected detonation was caused by the sight of a corn-colored girl who was being waited on across the counter.
She was a stalk of ripe corn, but bound not as cereals are but as a rare first edition, with all the binder’s art. She was lovely and expensive, and about nineteen, and he had never seen her before. She looked at him for just an unnecessary moment too long, with so much self-confidence that he felt his own rush out and away to join hers — ” . . .from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Then her head swayed forward and she resumed her inspection of a catalogue.
Forrest looked at the list a friend had sent him from New York. Unfortunately, the first title was: “When Voo-do-o-do Meets Boop-boop-a-doop, There’ll Soon be a Hot-Cha-Cha.” Forrest read it with horror. He could scarcely believe a title could be so repulsive.
Meanwhile the girl was asking: “Isn’t there a record of Prokofiev’s ‘Fils Prodigue’?”
“I’ll see, madam.” The saleswoman turned to Forrest.
“‘When Voo — ’” Forrest began, and then repeated, “‘When Voo — ’”
There was no use; he couldn’t say it in front of that nymph of the harvest across the table.
“Never mind that one,” he said quickly. “Give me ‘Huggable — ’”
Again he broke off.
“‘Huggable, Kissable You’?” suggested the clerk helpfully, and her assurance that it was very nice suggested a humiliating community of taste.
“I want Stravinsky’s ‘Fire Bird,’” said the other customer, “and this album of Chopin waltzes.”
Forrest ran his eye hastily down the rest of his list: “Digga Diggity,” “Ever So Goosy,” “Bunkey Doodle I Do.”
“Anybody would take me for a moron,” he thought. He crumpled up the list and fought for air — his own kind of air, the air of casual superiority.
“I’d like,” he said coldly, “Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata.’”
There was a record of it at home, but it didn’t matter. It gave him the right to glance at the girl again and again. Life became interesting; she was the loveliest concoction; it would be easy to trace her. With the “Moonlight Sonata”wrapped face to face with “Huggable, Kissable You,” Forrest quitted the shop.
There was a new book store down the street, and here also he entered, as if books and records could fill the vacuum that spring was making in his heart. As he looked among the lifeless words of many titles together, he was wondering how soon he could find her, and what then.
“I’d like a hard-boiled detective story,” he said.
A weary young man shook his head with patient reproof; simultaneously, a spring draft from the door blew in with it the familiar glow of cereal hair.
“We don’t carry detective stories or stuff like that,” said the young man in an unnecessarily loud voice. “I imagine you’ll find it at a department store.”
“I thought you carried books,” said Forrest feebly.
“Books, yes, but not that kind.” The young man turned to wait on his other customer.
As Forrest stalked out, passing within the radius of the girl’s perfume, he heard her ask:
“Have you got anything of Louis Arragon’s, either in French or in translation?”
“She’s just showing off,” he thought angrily. “They skip right from Peter Rabbit to Marcel Proust these days.”
Outside, parked just behind his own adequate coupé, he found an enormous silver-colored roadster of English make and custom design. Disturbed, even upset, he drove homeward through the moist, golden afternoon.
The Winslows lived in an old, wide-verandaed house on Crest Avenue — Forrest’s father and mother, his great-grandmother and his sister Eleanor. They were solid people as that phrase goes since the war. Old Mrs. Forrest was entirely solid; with convictions based on a way of life that had worked for eighty-four years. She was a character in the city; she remembered the Sioux war and she had been in Stillwater the day the James brothers shot up the main street.
Her own children were dead and she looked on these remoter descendants from a distance, oblivious of the forces that had formed them. She understood that the Civil War and the opening up of the West were forces, while the free-silver movement and the World War had reached her only as news. But she knew that her father, killed at Cold Harbor, and her husband, the merchant, were larger in scale than her son or her grandson. People who tried to explain contemporary phenomena to her seemed, to her, to be talking against the evidence of their own senses. Yet she was not atrophied; last summer she had traveled over half of Europe with only a maid.
Forrest’s father and mother were something else again. They had been in the susceptible middle thirties when the cocktail party and its concomitants arrived in 1921. They were divided people, leaning forward and backward. Issues that presented no difficulty to Mrs. Forrest caused them painful heat and agitation. Such an issue arose before they had been five minutes at table that night.
“Do you know the Rikkers are coming back?” said Mrs. Winslow. “They’ve taken the Warner house.” She was a woman with many uncertainties, which she concealed from herself by expressing her opinions very slowly and thoughtfully, to convince her own ears. “It’s a wonder Dan Warner would rent them his house. I suppose Cathy thinks everybody will fall all over themselves.”
“What Cathy?” asked old Mrs. Forrest.
“She was Cathy Chase. Her father was Reynold Chase. She and her husband are coming back here.”
“I scarcely knew her,” continued Mrs. Winslow, “but I know that when they were in Washington they were pointedly rude to everyone from Minnesota — went out of their way. Mary Cowan was spending a winter there, and she invited Cathy to lunch or tea at least half a dozen times. Cathy never appeared.”
“I could beat that record,” said Pierce Winslow. “Mary Cowan could invite me a hundred times and I wouldn’t go.”
“Anyhow,” pursued his wife slowly, “in view of all the scandal, it’s just asking for the cold shoulder to come out here.”
“They’re asking for it, all right,” said Winslow. He was a Southerner, well liked in the city, where he had lived for thirty years. “Walter Hannan came in my office this morning and wanted me to second Rikker for the Kennemore Club. I said: ‘Walter, I’d rather second Al Capone.’ What’s more, Rikker’ll get into the Kennemore Club over my dead body.”
“Walter had his nerve. What’s Chauncey Rikker to you? It’ll be hard to get anyone to second him.”
“Who are they?” Eleanor asked. “Somebody awful?”
She was eighteen and a débutante. Her current appearances at home were so rare and brief that she viewed such table topics with as much detachment as her great-grandmother.
“Cathy was a girl here; she was younger then I was, but I remember that she was always considered fast. Her husband, Chauncey Rikker, came from some little town upstate.”
“What did they do that was so awful?”
“Rikker went bankrupt and left town,” said her father. “There were a lot of ugly stories. Then he went to Washington and got mixed up in the alien-property scandal; and then he got in trouble in New York — he was in the bucket-shop business — but he skipped out to Europe. After a few years the chief Government witness died and he came back to America. They got him for a few months for contempt of court.” He expanded into eloquent irony: “And now, with true patriotism, he comes back to his beautiful Minnesota, a product of its lovely woods, its rolling wheat fields — ”
Forrest called him impatiently: “Where do you get that, father? When did two Kentuckians ever win Nobel prizes in the same year? And how about an upstate boy named Lind — ”
“Have the Rikkers any children?” Eleanor asked.
“I think Cathy has a daughter about your age, and a boy about sixteen.”
Forrest uttered a small, unnoticed exclamation. Was it possible? French books and Russian music — that girl this afternoon had lived abroad. And with the probability his resentment deepened — the daughter of a crook putting on all that dog! He sympathized passionately with his father’s refusal to second Rikker for the Kennemore Club.
“Are they rich?” old Mrs. Forrest suddenly demanded.
“They must be well off if they took Dan Warner’s house.”
“Then they’ll get in all right.”
“They won’t get into the Kennemore Club,” said Pierce Winslow. “I happen to come from a state with certain traditions.”
“I’ve seen the bottom rail get to be the top rail many times in this town,” said the old lady blandly.
“But this man’s a criminal, grandma,” explained Forrest. “Can’t you see the difference? It isn’t a social question. We used to argue at New Haven whether we’d shake hands with Al Capone if we met him — ”
“Who is Al Capone?” asked Mrs. Forrest.
“He’s another criminal, in Chicago.”
“Does he want to join the Kennemore Club too?”
They laughed, but Forrest had decided that if Rikker came up for the Kennemore Club, his father’s would not be the only black ball in the box.
Abruptly it became full summer. After the last April storm someone came along the street one night, blew up the trees like balloons, scattered bulbs and shrubs like confetti, opened a cage full of robins and, after a quick look around, signaled up the curtain upon a new backdrop of summer sky.
Tossing back a strayed baseball to some kids in a vacant lot, Forrest’s fingers, on the stitched seams of the stained leather cover, sent a wave of ecstatic memories to his brain. One must hurry and get there — “there” was now the fairway of the golf course, but his feeling was the same. Only when he teed off at the eighteenth that afternoon did he realize that it wasn’t the same, that it would never be enough any more. The evening stretched large and empty before him, save for the set pieces of a dinner party and bed.
While he waited with his partner for a match to play off, Forrest glanced at the tenth tee, exactly opposite and two hundred yards away.
One of the two figures on the ladies’ tee was addressing her ball; as he watched, she swung up confidently and cracked a long drive down the fairway.
“Must be Mrs. Horrick,” said his friend. “No other woman can drive like that.”
At that moment the sun glittered on the girl’s hair and Forrest knew who it was; simultaneously, he remembered what he must do this afternoon. That night Chauncey Rikker’s name was to come up before the membership committee on which his father sat, and before going home, Forrest was going to pass the clubhouse and leave a certain black slip in a little box. He had carefully considered all that; he loved the city where his people had lived honorable lives for five generations. His grandfather had been a founder of this club in the 90’s when it went in for sailboat racing instead of golf, and when it took a fast horse three hours to trot out here from town. He agreed with his father that certain people were without the pale. Tightening his face, he drove his ball two hundred yards down the fairway, where it curved gently into the rough.
The eighteenth and tenth holes were parallel and faced in opposite directions. Between tees they were separated by a belt of trees forty feet wide. Though Forrest did not know it, Miss Rikker’s hostess, Helen Hannan, had dubbed into this same obscurity, and as he went in search of his ball he heard female voices twenty feet away.
“You’ll be a member after tonight,” he heard Helen Hannan say, “and then you can get some real competition from Stella Horrick.”
“Maybe I won’t be a member,” said a quick, clear voice. “Then you’ll have to come and play with me on the public links.”
“Alida, don’t be absurd.”
“Why? I played on the public links in Buffalo all last spring. For the moment there wasn’t anywhere else. It’s like playing on some courses in Scotland.”
“But I’d feel so silly. . . . Oh, gosh, let’s let the ball go.”
“There’s nobody behind us. As to feeling silly — if I cared about public opinion any more, I’d spend my time in my bedroom.” She laughed scornfully. “A tabloid published a picture of me going to see father in prison. And I’ve seen people change their tables away from us on steamers, and once I was cut by all the American girls in a French school. . . . Here’s your ball.”
“Thanks. . . . Oh, Alida, it seems terrible.”
“All the terrible part is over. I just said that so you wouldn’t be too sorry for us if people didn’t want us in this club. I wouldn’t care; I’ve got a life of my own and my own standard of what trouble is. It wouldn’t touch me at all.”
They passed out of the clearing and their voices disappeared into the open sky on the other side. Forrest abandoned the search for his lost ball and walked toward the caddie house.
“What a hell of a note,” he thought. “To take it out on a girl that had nothing to do with it” — which was what he was doing this minute as he went up toward the club. “No,” he said to himself abruptly, “I can’t do it. Whatever her father may have done, she happens to be a lady. Father can do what he feels he has to do, but I’m out.”
After lunch the next day, his father said rather diffidently: “I see you didn’t do anything about the Rikkers and the Kennemore Club.”
“It’s just as well,” said his father. “As a matter of fact, they got by. The club has got rather mixed anyhow in the last five years — a good many queer people in it. And, after all, in a club you don’t have to know anybody you don’t want to. The other people on the committee felt the same way.”
“I see,” said Forrest dryly. “Then you didn’t argue against the Rikkers?”
“Well, no. The thing is I do a lot of business with Walter Hannan, and it happened yesterday I was obliged to ask him rather a difficult favor.”
“So you traded with him.” To both father and son, the word “traded” sounded like traitor.
“Not exactly. The matter wasn’t mentioned.”
“I understand,” Forrest said. But he did not understand, and some old childhood faith in his father died at that moment.
To snub anyone effectively one must have him within range. The admission of Chauncey Rikker to the Kennemore Club and, later, to the Downtown Club was followed by angry talk and threats of resignation that simulated the sound of conflict, but there was no indication of a will underneath. On the other hand, unpleasantness in crowds is easy, and Chauncey Rikker was a facile object for personal dislike; moreover, a recurrent echo of the bucket-shop scandal sounded from New York, and the matter was reviewed in the local newspapers, in case anyone had missed it. Only the liberal Hannan family stood by the Rikkers, and their attitude aroused considerable resentment, and their attempt to launch them with a series of small parties proved a failure. Had the Rikkers attempted to “bring Alida out,” it would have been for the inspection of a motley crowd indeed, but they didn’t.
When, occasionally during the summer, Forrest encountered Alida Rikker, they crossed eyes in the curious way of children who don’t know each other. For a while he was haunted by her curly yellow head, by the golden-brown defiance of her eyes; then he became interested in another girl. He wasn’t in love with Jane Drake, though he thought he might marry her. She was “the girl across the street”; he knew her qualities, good and bad, so that they didn’t matter. She had an essential reality underneath, like a relative. It would please their families. Once, after several highballs and some casual necking, he almost answered seriously when she provoked him with “But you don’t really care about me”; but he sat tight and next morning was relieved that he had. Perhaps in the dull days after Christmas — Meanwhile, at the Christmas dances among the Christmas girls he might find the ecstasy and misery, the infatuation that he wanted. By autumn he felt that his predestined girl was already packing her trunk in some Eastern or Southern city.
It was in his more restless mood that one November Sunday he went to a small tea. Even as he spoke to his hostess he felt Alida Rikker across the firelit room; her glowing beauty and her unexplored novelty pressed up against him, and there was a relief in being presented to her at last. He bowed and passed on, but there had been some sort of communication. Her look said that she knew the stand that his family had taken, that she didn’t mind, and was even sorry to see him in such a silly position, for she knew that he admired her. His look said: “Naturally, I’m sensitive to your beauty, but you see how it is; we’ve had to draw the line at the fact that your father is a dirty dog, and I can’t withdraw from my present position.”
Suddenly in a silence, she was talking, and his ears swayed away from his own conversation.
“ . . . Helen had this odd pain for over a year and, of course, they suspected cancer. She went to have an X ray; she undressed behind a screen, and the doctor looked at her through the machine, and then he said, ‘But I told you to take off all your clothes,’ and Helen said, ‘I have.’ The doctor looked again, and said, ‘Listen, my dear, I brought you into the world, so there’s no use being modest with me. Take off everything.’ So Helen said, ‘I’ve got every stitch off; I swear.’ But the doctor said, ‘You have not. The X ray shows me a safety pin in your brassiere.’ Well, they finally found out that she’d been suspected of swallowing a safety pin when she was two years old.”
The story, floating in her clear, crisp voice upon the intimate air, disarmed Forrest. It had nothing to do with what had taken place in Washington or New York ten years before. Suddenly he wanted to go and sit near her, because she was the tongue of flame that made the firelight vivid. Leaving, he walked for an hour through feathery snow, wondering again why he couldn’t know her, why it was his business to represent a standard.
“Well, maybe I’ll have a lot of fun some day doing what I ought to do,” he thought ironically — “when I’m fifty.”
The first Christmas dance was the charity ball at the armory. It was a large, public affair; the rich sat in boxes. Everyone came who felt he belonged, and many out of curiosity, so the atmosphere was tense with a strange haughtiness and aloofness.
The Rikkers had a box. Forrest, coming in with Jane Drake, glanced at the man of evil reputation and at the beaten woman frozen with jewels who sat beside him. They were the city’s villains, gaped at by the people of reserved and timid lives. Oblivious of the staring eyes, Alida and Helen Hannan held court for several young men from out of town. Without question, Alida was incomparably the most beautiful girl in the room.
Several people told Forrest the news — the Rikkers were giving a big dance after New Year’s. There were written invitations, but these were being supplemented by oral ones. Rumor had it that one had merely to be presented to any Rikker in order to be bidden to the dance.
As Forrest passed through the hall, two friends stopped him and with a certain hilarity introduced him to a youth of seventeen, Mr. Teddy Rikker.
“We’re giving a dance,” said the young man immediately. “January third. Be very happy if you could come.”
Forrest was afraid he had an engagement.
“Well, come if you change your mind.”
“Horrible kid, but shrewd,” said one of his friends later. “We were feeding him people, and when we brought up a couple of saps, he looked at them and didn’t say a word. Some refuse and a few accept and most of them stall, but he goes right on; he’s got his father’s crust.”
Into the highways and byways. Why didn’t the girl stop it? He was sorry for her when he found Jane in a group of young women reveling in the story.
“I hear they asked Bodman, the undertaker, by mistake, and then took it back.”
“Mrs. Carleton pretended she was deaf.”
“There’s going to be a carload of champagne from Canada.”
“Of course, I won’t go, but I’d love to, just to see what happens. There’ll be a hundred men to every girl — and that’ll be meat for her.”
The accumulated malice repelled him, and he was angry at Jane for being part of it. Turning away, his eyes fell on Alida’s proud form swaying along a wall, watched the devotion of her partners with an unpleasant resentment. He did not know that he had been a little in love with her for many months. Just as two children can fall in love during a physical struggle over a ball, so their awareness of each other had grown to surprising proportions.
“She’s pretty,” said Jane. “She’s not exactly overdressed, but considering everything, she dresses too elaborately.”
“I suppose she ought to wear sackcloth and ashes or half mourning.”
“I was honored with a written invitation, but, of course, I’m not going.”
Jane looked at him in surprise. “You’re not going.”
“That’s different. I would if I were you. You see, you don’t care what her father did.”
“Of course, I care.”
“No, you don’t. And all this small meanness just debases the whole thing. Why don’t they let her alone? She’s young and pretty and she’s done nothing wrong.”
Later in the week he saw Alida at the Hannans’ dance and noticed that many men danced with her. He saw her lips moving, heard her laughter, caught a word or so of what she said; irresistibly he found himself guiding partners around in her wake. He envied visitors to the city who didn’t know who she was.
The night of the Rikkers’ dance he went to a small dinner; before they sat down at table he realized that the others were all going on to the Rikkers’. They talked of it as a sort of comic adventure; insisted that he come too.
“Even if you weren’t invited, it’s all right,” they assured him. “We were told we could bring anyone. It’s just a free-for-all; it doesn’t put you under any obligations. Norma Nash is going and she didn’t invite Alida Rikker to her party. Besides, she’s really very nice. My brother’s quite crazy about her. Mother is worried sick, because he says he wants to marry her.”
Clasping his hand about a new highball, Forrest knew that if he drank it he would probably go. All his reasons for not going seemed old and tired, and, fatally, he had begun to seem absurd to himself. In vain he tried to remember the purpose he was serving, and found none. His father had weakened on the matter of the Kennemore Club. And now suddenly he found reasons for going — men could go where their women could not.
“All right,” he said.
The Rikkers’ dance was in the ballroom of the Minnekada Hotel. The Rikkers’ gold, ill-gotten, tainted, had taken the form of a forest of palms, vines and flowers. The two orchestras moaned in pergolas lit with fireflies, and many-colored spotlights swept the floor, touching a buffet where dark bottles gleamed. The receiving line was still in action when Forrest’s party came in, and Forrest grinned ironically at the prospect of taking Chauncey Rikker by the hand. But at the sight of Alida, her look that at last fell frankly on him, he forgot everything else.
“Your brother was kind enough to invite me,” he said.
“Oh, yes,” she was polite, but vague; not at all overwhelmed by his presence. As he waited to speak to her parents, he started, seeing his sister in a group of dancers. Then, one after another, he identified people he knew: it might have been any one of the Christmas dances; all the younger crowd were there. He discovered abruptly that he and Alida were alone; the receiving line had broken up. Alida glanced at him questioningly and with a certain amusement.
So he danced out on the floor with her, his head high, but slightly spinning. Of all things in the world, he had least expected to lead off the Chauncey Rikkers’ ball.
Next morning his first realization was that he had kissed her; his second was a feeling of profound shame for his conduct of the evening. Lord help him, he had been the life of the party; he had helped to run the cotillion. From the moment when he danced out on the floor, coolly meeting the surprised and interested glances of his friends, a mood of desperation had come over him. He rushed Alida Rikker, until a friend asked him what Jane was going to say. “What business is it of Jane’s?” he demanded impatiently. “We’re not engaged.” But he was impelled to approach his sister and ask her if he looked all right.
“Apparently,” Eleanor answered, “but when in doubt, don’t take any more.”
So he hadn’t. Exteriorly he remained correct, but his libido was in a state of wild extroversion. He sat with Alida Rikker and told her he had loved her for months.
“Every night I thought of you just before you went to sleep,” his voice trembled with insincerity, “I was afraid to meet you or speak to you. Sometimes I’d see you in the distance moving along like a golden chariot, and the world would be good to live in.”
After twenty minutes of this eloquence, Alida began to feel exceedingly attractive. She was tired and rather happy, and eventually she said:
“All right, you can kiss me if you want to, but it won’t mean anything. I’m just not in that mood.”
But Forrest had moods enough for both; he kissed her as if they stood together at the altar. A little later he had thanked Mrs. Rikker with deep emotion for the best time he had ever had in his life.
It was noon, and as he groped his way upright in bed, Eleanor came in in her dressing gown.
“How are you?” she asked.
“How about what you told me coming back in the car? Do you actually want to marry Alida Rikker?”
“Not this morning.”
“That’s all right then. Now, look: the family are furious.”
“Why?” he asked with some redundancy.
“Both you and I being there. Father heard that you led the cotillion. My explanation was that my dinner party went, and so I had to go; but then you went too!”
Forrest dressed and went down to Sunday dinner. Over the table hovered an atmosphere of patient, puzzled, unworldly disappointment. Finally Forrest launched into it:
“Well, we went to Al Capone’s party and had a fine time.”
“So I’ve heard,” said Pierce Winslow dryly. Mrs. Winslow said nothing.
“Everybody was there — the Kayes, the Schwanes, the Martins and the Blacks. From now on, the Rikkers are pillars of society. Every house is open to them.”
“Not this house,” said his mother. “They won’t come into this house.” And after a moment: “Aren’t you going to eat anything, Forrest?”
“No, thanks. I mean, yes, I am eating.” He looked cautiously at his plate. “The girl is very nice. There isn’t a girl in town with better manners or more stuff. If things were like they were before the war, I’d say — ”
He couldn’t think exactly what it was he would have said; all he knew was that he was now on an entirely different road from his parents’.
“This city was scarcely more than a village before the war,” said old Mrs. Forrest.
“Forrest means the World War, granny,” said Eleanor.
“Some things don’t change,” said Pierce Winslow. Both he and Forrest thought of the Kennemore Club matter and, feeling guilty, the older man lost his temper:
“When people start going to parties given by a convicted criminal, there’s something serious the matter with them.”
“We won’t discuss it any more at table,” said Mrs. Winslow hastily.
About four, Forrest called a number on the telephone in his room. He had known for some time that he was going to call a number.
“Is Miss Rikker at home? . . . Oh, hello. This is Forrest Winslow.”
“How are you?”
“Terrible. It was a good party.”
“Too good. What are you doing?”
“Entertaining two awful hangovers.”
“Will you entertain me too?”
“I certainly will. Come on over.”
The two young men could only groan and play sentimental music on the phonograph, but presently they departed; the fire leaped up, day went out behind the windows, and Forrest had rum in his tea.
“So we met at last,” he said.
“The delay was all yours.”
“Damn prejudice,” he said. “This is a conservative city, and your father being in this trouble — ”
“I can’t discuss my father with you.”
“Excuse me. I only wanted to say that I’ve felt like a fool lately for not knowing you. For cheating myself out of the pleasure of knowing you for a silly prejudice,” he blundered on. “So I decided to follow my own instincts.”
She stood up suddenly. “Good-by, Mr. Winslow.”
“Because it’s absurd for you to come here as if you were doing me a favor. And after accepting our hospitality, to remind me of my father’s troubles is simply bad manners.”
He was on his feet, terribly upset. “That isn’t what I meant. I said I had felt that way, and I despised myself for it. Please don’t be sore.”
“Then don’t be condescending.” She sat back in her chair. Her mother came in, stayed only a moment, and threw Forrest a glance of resentment and suspicion as she left. But her passage through had brought them together, and they talked frankly for a long time.
“I ought to be upstairs dressing.”
“I ought to have gone an hour ago, and I can’t.”
“Neither can I.”
With the admission they had traveled far. At the door he kissed her unreluctant lips and walked home, throwing futile buckets of reason on the wild fire.
Less than two weeks later it happened. In a car parked in a blizzard he poured out his worship, and she lay on his chest, sighing, “Oh, me too — me too.”
Already Forrest’s family knew where he went in the evenings; there was a frightened coolness, and one morning his mother said:
“Son, you don’t want to throw yourself away on some girl that isn’t up to you. I thought you were interested in Jane Drake.”
“Don’t bring that up. I’m not going to talk about it.”
But it was only a postponement. Meanwhile the days of this February were white and magical, the nights were starry and crystalline. The town lay under a cold glory; the smell of her furs was incense, her bright cheeks were flames upon a northern altar. An ecstatic pantheism for his land and its weather welled up in him. She had brought him finally back to it; he would live here always.
“I want you so much that nothing can stand in the way of that,” he said to Alida. “But I owe my parents a debt that I can’t explain to you. They did more than spend money on me; they tried to give me something more intangible — something that their parents had given them and that they thought was worth handing on. Evidently it didn’t take with me, but I’ve got to make this as easy as possible for them.” He saw by her face that he had hurt her. “Darling — ”
“Oh, it frightens me when you talk like that,” she said. “Are you going to reproach me later? It would be awful. You’ll have to get it out of your head that you’re doing anything wrong. My standards are as high as yours, and I can’t start out with my father’s sins on my shoulders.” She thought for a moment. “You’ll never be able to reconcile it all like a children’s story. You’ve got to choose. Probably you’ll have to hurt either your family or hurt me.”
A fortnight later the storm broke at the Winslow house. Pierce Winslow came home in a quiet rage and had a session behind closed doors with his wife. Afterward she knocked at Forrest’s door.
“Your father had a very embarrassing experience today. Chauncey Rikker came up to him in the Downtown Club and began talking about you as if you were on terms of some understanding with his daughter. Your father walked away, but we’ve got to know. Are you serious about Miss Rikker?”
“I want to marry her,” he said.
She talked for a long time, recapitulating, as if it were a matter of centuries, the eighty years that his family had been identified with the city; when she passed from this to the story of his father’s health, Forrest interrupted:
“That’s all so irrelevant, mother. If there was anything against Alida personally, what you say would have some weight, but there isn’t.”
“She’s overdressed; she runs around with everybody — ”
“She isn’t a bit different from Eleanor. She’s absolutely a lady in every sense. I feel like a fool even discussing her like this. You’re just afraid it’ll connect you in some way with the Rikkers.”
“I’m not afraid of that,” said his mother, annoyed. “Nothing would ever do that. But I’m afraid that it’ll separate you from everything worth while, everybody that loves you. It isn’t fair for you to upset our lives, let us in for disgraceful gossip — ”
“I’m to give up the girl I love because you’re afraid of a little gossip.”
The controversy was resumed next day, with Pierce Winslow debating. His argument was that he was born in old Kentucky, that he had always felt uneasy at having begotten a son upon a pioneer Minnesota family, and that this was what he might have expected. Forrest felt that his parents’ attitude was trivial and disingenuous. Only when he was out of the house, acting against their wishes, did he feel any compunction. But always he felt that something precious was being frayed away — his youthful companionship with his father and his love and trust for his mother. Hour by hour he saw the past being irreparably spoiled, and save when he was with Alida, he was deeply unhappy.
One spring day when the situation had become unendurable, with half the family meals taken in silence, Forrest’s great-grandmother stopped him on the stair landing and put her hand on his arm.
“Has this girl really a good character?” she asked, her fine, clear, old eyes resting on his.
“Of course she has, gramma.”
“Then marry her.”
“Why do you say that?” Forrest asked curiously.
“It would stop all this nonsense and we could have some peace. And I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a great-great-grandmother before I die.”
Her frank selfishness appealed to him more than the righteousness of the others. That night he and Alida decided to be married the first of June, and telephoned the announcement to the papers.
Now the storm broke in earnest. Crest Avenue rang with gossip — how Mrs. Rikker had called on Mrs. Winslow, who was not at home. How Forrest had gone to live in the University Club. How Chauncey Rikker and Pierce Winslow had had words in the Downtown Club.
It was true that Forrest had gone to the University Club. On a May night, with summer sounds already gathered on the window screens, he packed his trunk and his suitcases in the room where he had lived as a boy. His throat contracted and he smeared his face with his dusty hand as he took a row of golf cups off the mantelpiece, and he choked to himself: “If they won’t take Alida, then they’re not my family any more.”
As he finished packing, his mother came in.
“You’re not really leaving.” Her voice was stricken.
“I’m moving to the University Club.”
“That’s so unnecessary. No one bothers you here. You do what you want.”
“I can’t bring Alida here.”
“Father — ”
“Hell with father!” he said wildly.
She sat down on the bed beside him. “Stay here, Forrest. I promise not to argue with you any more. But stay here.”
“I can’t have you go!” she wailed. “It seems as if we’re driving you out, and we’re not!”
“You mean it looks as though you were driving me out.”
“I don’t mean that.”
“Yes, you do. And I want to say that I don’t think you and father really care a hang about Chauncey Rikker’s moral character.”
“That’s not true, Forrest. I hate people that behave badly and break the laws. My own father would never have let Chauncey Rikker — ”
“I’m not talking about your father. But neither you nor my father care a bit what Chauncey Rikker did. I bet you don’t even know what it was.”
“Of course I know. He stole some money and went abroad, and when he came back they put him in prison.”
“They put him in prison for contempt of court.”
“Now you’re defending him, Forrest.”
“I’m not! I hate his guts; undoubtedly he’s a crook. But I tell you it was a shock to me to find that father didn’t have any principles. He and his friends sit around the Downtown Club and pan Chauncey Rikker, but when it comes to keeping him out of a club, they develop weak spines.”
“That was a small thing.”
“No, it wasn’t. None of the men of father’s age have any principles. I don’t know why. I’m willing to make an allowance for an honest conviction, but I’m not going to be booed by somebody that hasn’t got any principles and simply pretends to have.”
His mother sat helplessly, knowing that what he said was true. She and her husband and all their friends had no principles. They were good or bad according to their natures; often they struck attitudes remembered from the past, but they were never sure as her father or her grandfather had been sure. Confusedly she supposed it was something about religion. But how could you get principles just by wishing for them?
The maid announced the arrival of a taxi.
“Send up Olsen for my baggage,” said Forrest; then to his mother, “I’m not taking the coupé; I left the keys. I’m just taking my clothes. I suppose father will let me keep my job down town.”
“Forrest, don’t talk that way. Do you think your father would take your living away from you, no matter what you did?”
“Such things have happened.”
“You’re hard and difficult,” she wept. “Please stay here a little longer, and perhaps things will be better and father will get a little more reconciled. Oh, stay, stay! I’ll talk to father again. I’ll do my best to fix things.”
“Will you let me bring Alida here?”
“Not now. Don’t ask me that. I couldn’t bear — ”
“All right,” he said grimly.
Olsen came in for the bags. Crying and holding on to his coat sleeve, his mother went with him to the front door.
“Won’t you say good-by to father?”
“Why? I’ll see him tomorrow in the office.”
“Forrest, I was thinking, why don’t you go to a hotel instead of the University Club?”
“Why, I thought I’d be more comfortable — ” Suddenly he realized that his presence would be less conspicuous at a hotel. Shutting up his bitterness inside him, he kissed his mother roughly and went to the cab.
Unexpectedly, it stopped by the corner lamp-post at a hail from the sidewalk, and the May twilight yielded up Alida, miserable and pale.
“What is it?” he demanded.
“I had to come,” she said. “Stop the car. I’ve been thinking of you leaving your house on account of me, and how you loved your family — the way I’d like to love mine — and I thought how terrible it was to spoil all that. Listen, Forrest! Wait! I want you to go back. Yes, I do. We can wait. We haven’t any right to cause all this pain. We’re young. I’ll go away for a while, and then we’ll see.”
He pulled her toward him by her shoulders.
“You’ve got more principles than the whole bunch of them,” he said. “Oh, my girl, you love me and, gosh, it’s good that you do!”
It was to be a house wedding, Forrest and Alida having vetoed the Rikkers’ idea that it was to be a sort of public revenge. Only a few intimate friends were invited.
During the week before the wedding, Forrest deduced from a series of irresolute and ambiguous telephone calls that his mother wanted to attend the ceremony, if possible. Sometimes he hoped passionately she would; at others it seemed unimportant.
The wedding was to be at seven. At five o’clock Pierce Winslow was walking up and down the two interconnecting sitting rooms of his house.
“This evening,” he murmured, “my only son is being married to the daughter of a swindler.”
He spoke aloud so that he could listen to the words, but they had been evoked so often in the past few months that their strength was gone and they died thinly upon the air.
He went to the foot of the stairs and called: “Charlotte!” No answer. He called again, and then went into the dining room, where the maid was setting the table.
“Is Mrs. Winslow out?”
“I haven’t seen her come in, Mr. Winslow.”
Back in the sitting room he resumed his walking; unconsciously he was walking like his father, the judge, dead thirty years ago; he was parading his dead father up and down the room.
“You can’t bring that woman into this house to meet your mother. Bad blood is bad blood.”
The house seemed unusually quiet. He went upstairs and looked into his wife’s room, but she was not there; old Mrs. Forrest was slightly indisposed; Eleanor, he knew, was at the wedding.
He felt genuinely sorry for himself as he went downstairs again. He knew his role — the usual evening routine carried out in complete obliviousness of the wedding — but he needed support, people begging him to relent, or else deferring to his wounded sensibilities. This isolation was different; it was almost the first isolation he had ever felt, and like all men who are fundamentally of the group, of the herd, he was incapable of taking a strong stand with the inevitable loneliness that it implied. He could only gravitate toward those who did.
“What have I done to deserve this?” he demanded of the standing ash tray. “What have I failed to do for my son that lay within my power?”
The maid came in. “Mrs. Winslow told Hilda she wouldn’t be here for dinner, and Hilda didn’t tell me.”
The shameful business was complete. His wife had weakened, leaving him absolutely alone. For a moment he expected to be furiously angry with her, but he wasn’t; he had used up his anger exhibiting it to others. Nor did it make him feel more obstinate, more determined; it merely made him feel silly.
“That’s it. I’ll be the goat. Forrest will always hold it against me, and Chauncey Rikker will be laughing up his sleeve.”
He walked up and down furiously.
“So I’m left holding the bag. They’ll say I’m an old grouch and drop me out of the picture entirely. They’ve licked me. I suppose I might as well be graceful about it.” He looked down in horror at the hat he held in his hand. “I can’t —I can’t bring myself to do it, but I must. After all, he’s my only son. I couldn’t bear that he should hate me. He’s determined to marry her, so I might as well put a good face on the matter.”
In sudden alarm he looked at his watch, but there was still time. After all, it was a large gesture he was making, sacrificing his principles in this manner. People would never know what it cost him.
An hour later, old Mrs. Forrest woke up from her doze and rang for her maid.
“Where’s Mrs. Winslow?”
“She’s not in for dinner. Everybody’s out.”
The old lady remembered.
“Oh, yes, they’ve gone over to get married. Give me my glasses and the telephone book. . . . Now, I wonder how you spell Capone.”
“Rikker, Mrs. Forrest.”
In a few minutes she had the number. “This is Mrs. Hugh Forrest,” she said firmly. “I want to speak to young Mrs. Forrest Winslow. . . . No, not to Miss Rikker; to Mrs. Forrest Winslow.” As there was as yet no such person, this was impossible. “Then I will call after the ceremony,” said the old lady.
When she called again, in an hour, the bride came to the phone.
“This is Forrest’s great-grandmother. I called up to wish you every happiness and to ask you to come and see me when you get back from your trip if I’m still alive.”
“You’re very sweet to call, Mrs. Forrest.”
“Take good care of Forrest, and don’t let him get to be a ninny like his father and mother. God bless you.”
“All right. Good-by, Miss Capo — Good-by, my dear.”
Having done her whole duty, Mrs. Forrest hung up the receiver.