Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

XV

Meals with the patients were a chore he approached with apathy. The gathering, which of course did not include residents at the Eglantine or the Beeches, was conventional enough at first sight, but over it brooded always a heavy melancholy. Such doctors as were present kept up a conversation but most of the patients, as if exhausted by their morning’s endeavor, or depressed by the company, spoke little, and ate looking into their plates.

Luncheon over, Dick returned to his villa. Nicole was in the salon wearing a strange expression.

“Read that,” she said.

He opened the letter. It was from a woman recently discharged, though with skepticism on the part of the faculty. It accused him in no uncertain terms of having seduced her daughter, who had been at her mother’s side during the crucial stage of the illness. It presumed that Mrs. Diver would be glad to have this information and learn what her husband was “really like.”

Dick read the letter again. Couched in clear and concise English he yet recognized it as the letter of a maniac. Upon a single occasion he had let the girl, a flirtatious little brunette, ride into Zurich with him, upon her request, and in the evening had brought her back to the clinic. In an idle, almost indulgent way, he kissed her. Later, she tried to carry the affair further, but he was not interested and subsequently, probably consequently, the girl had come to dislike him, and taken her mother away.

“This letter is deranged,” he said. “I had no relations of any kind with that girl. I didn’t even like her.”

“Yes, I’ve tried thinking that,” said Nicole.

“Surely you don’t believe it?”

“I’ve been sitting here.”

He sank his voice to a reproachful note and sat beside her.

“This is absurd. This is a letter from a mental patient.”

“I was a mental patient.”

He stood up and spoke more authoritatively.

“Suppose we don’t have any nonsense, Nicole. Go and round up the children and we’ll start.”

In the car, with Dick driving, they followed the little promontories of the lake, catching the burn of light and water in the windshield, tunnelling through cascades of evergreen. It was Dick’s car, a Renault so dwarfish that they all stuck out of it except the children, between whom Mademoiselle towered mastlike in the rear seat. They knew every kilometer of the road — where they would smell the pine needles and the black stove smoke. A high sun with a face traced on it beat fierce on the straw hats of the children.

Nicole was silent; Dick was uneasy at her straight hard gaze. Often he felt lonely with her, and frequently she tired him with the short floods of personal revelations that she reserved exclusively for him, “I’m like this — I’m more like that,” but this afternoon he would have been glad had she rattled on in staccato for a while and given him glimpses of her thoughts. The situation was always most threatening when she backed up into herself and closed the doors behind her.

At Zug Mademoiselle got out and left them. The Divers approached the Agiri Fair through a menagerie of mammoth steamrollers that made way for them. Dick parked the car, and as Nicole looked at him without moving, he said: “Come on, darl.” Her lips drew apart into a sudden awful smile, and his belly quailed, but as if he hadn’t seen it he repeated: “Come on. So the children can get out.”

“Oh, I’ll come all right,” she answered, tearing the words from some story spinning itself out inside her, too fast for him to grasp. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll come —”

“Then come.”

She turned from him as he walked beside her but the smile still flickered across her face, derisive and remote. Only when Lanier spoke to her several times did she manage to fix her attention upon an object, a Punch-and-Judy show, and to orient herself by anchoring to it.

Dick tried to think what to do. The dualism in his views of her — that of the husband, that of the psychiatrist — was increasingly paralyzing his faculties. In these six years she had several times carried him over the line with her, disarming him by exciting emotional pity or by a flow of wit, fantastic and disassociated, so that only after the episode did he realize with the consciousness of his own relaxation from tension, that she had succeeded in getting a point against his better judgment.

A discussion with Topsy about the guignol — as to whether the Punch was the same Punch they had seen last year in Cannes — having been settled, the family walked along again between the booths under the open sky. The women’s bonnets, perching over velvet vests, the bright, spreading skirts of many cantons, seemed demure against the blue and orange paint of the wagons and displays. There was the sound of a whining, tinkling hootchy-kootchy show.

Nicole began to run very suddenly, so suddenly that for a moment Dick did not miss her. Far ahead he saw her yellow dress twisting through the crowd, an ochre stitch along the edge of reality and unreality, and started after her. Secretly she ran and secretly he followed. As the hot afternoon went shrill and terrible with her flight he had forgotten the children; then he wheeled and ran back to them, drawing them this way and that by their arms, his eyes jumping from booth to booth.

“Madame,” he cried to a young woman behind a white lottery wheel, “Est-ce que je peux laisser ces petits avec vous deux minutes? C’est très urgent — je vous donnerai dix francs.”

“Mais oui.”

He headed the children into the booth. “Alors — restez avec cette gentille dame.”

“Oui, Dick.”

He darted off again but he had lost her; he circled the merry-go- round keeping up with it till he realized he was running beside it, staring always at the same horse. He elbowed through the crowd in the buvette; then remembering a predilection of Nicole’s he snatched up an edge of a fortuneteller’s tent and peered within. A droning voice greeted him: “La septième fille d’une septième fille née sur les rives du Nil — entrez, Monsieur —”

Dropping the flap he ran along toward where the plaisance terminated at the lake and a small ferris wheel revolved slowly against the sky. There he found her.

She was alone in what was momentarily the top boat of the wheel, and as it descended he saw that she was laughing hilariously; he slunk back in the crowd, a crowd which, at the wheel’s next revolution, spotted the intensity of Nicole’s hysteria.

“Regardez-moi ça!”

“Regarde donc cette Anglaise!”

Down she dropped again — this time the wheel and its music were slowing and a dozen people were around her car, all of them impelled by the quality of her laughter to smile in sympathetic idiocy. But when Nicole saw Dick her laughter died — she made a gesture of slipping by and away from him but he caught her arm and held it as they walked away.

“Why did you lose control of yourself like that?”

“You know very well why.”

“No, I don’t.”

“That’s just preposterous — let me loose — that’s an insult to my intelligence. Don’t you think I saw that girl look at you — that little dark girl. Oh, this is farcical — a child, not more than fifteen. Don’t you think I saw?”

“Stop here a minute and quiet down.”

They sat at a table, her eyes in a profundity of suspicion, her hand moving across her line of sight as if it were obstructed. “I want a drink — I want a brandy.”

“You can’t have brandy — you can have a bock if you want it.”

“Why can’t I have a brandy?”

“We won’t go into that. Listen to me — this business about a girl is a delusion, do you understand that word?”

“It’s always a delusion when I see what you don’t want me to see.”

He had a sense of guilt as in one of those nightmares where we are accused of a crime which we recognize as something undeniably experienced, but which upon waking we realize we have not committed. His eyes wavered from hers.

“I left the children with a gypsy woman in a booth. We ought to get them.”

“Who do you think you are?” she demanded. “Svengali?”

Fifteen minutes ago they had been a family. Now as she was crushed into a corner by his unwilling shoulder, he saw them all, child and man, as a perilous accident.

“We’re going home.”

“Home!” she roared in a voice so abandoned that its louder tones wavered and cracked. “And sit and think that we’re all rotting and the children’s ashes are rotting in every box I open? That filth!”

Almost with relief he saw that her words sterilized her, and Nicole, sensitized down to the corium of the skin, saw the withdrawal in his face. Her own face softened and she begged, “Help me, help me, Dick!”

A wave of agony went over him. It was awful that such a fine tower should not be erected, only suspended, suspended from him. Up to a point that was right: men were for that, beam and idea, girder and logarithm; but somehow Dick and Nicole had become one and equal, not opposite and complementary; she was Dick too, the drought in the marrow of his bones. He could not watch her disintegrations without participating in them. His intuition rilled out of him as tenderness and compassion — he could only take the characteristically modern course, to interpose — he would get a nurse from Zurich, to take her over to-night.

“You CAN help me.”

Her sweet bullying pulled him forward off his feet. “You’ve helped me before — you can help me now.”

“I can only help you the same old way.”

“Some one can help me.”

“Maybe so. You can help yourself most. Let’s find the children.”

There were numerous lottery booths with white wheels — Dick was startled when he inquired at the first and encountered blank disavowals. Evil-eyed, Nicole stood apart, denying the children, resenting them as part of a downright world she sought to make amorphous. Presently Dick found them, surrounded by women who were examining them with delight like fine goods, and by peasant children staring.

“Merci, Monsieur, ah Monsieur est trop généreux. C’était un plaisir, M’sieur, Madame. Au revoir, mes petits.”

They started back with a hot sorrow streaming down upon them; the car was weighted with their mutual apprehension and anguish, and the children’s mouths were grave with disappointment. Grief presented itself in its terrible, dark unfamiliar color. Somewhere around Zug, Nicole, with a convulsive effort, reiterated a remark she had made before about a misty yellow house set back from the road that looked like a painting not yet dry, but it was just an attempt to catch at a rope that was playing out too swiftly.

Dick tried to rest — the struggle would come presently at home and he might have to sit a long time, restating the universe for her. A “schizophrêne” is well named as a split personality — Nicole was alternately a person to whom nothing need be explained and one to whom nothing COULD be explained. It was necessary to treat her with active and affirmative insistence, keeping the road to reality always open, making the road to escape harder going. But the brilliance, the versatility of madness is akin to the resourcefulness of water seeping through, over and around a dike. It requires the united front of many people to work against it. He felt it necessary that this time Nicole cure herself; he wanted to wait until she remembered the other times, and revolted from them. In a tired way, he planned that they would again resume the régime relaxed a year before.

He had turned up a hill that made a short cut to the clinic, and now as he stepped on the accelerator for a short straightaway run parallel to the hillside the car swerved violently left, swerved right, tipped on two wheels and, as Dick, with Nicole’s voice screaming in his ear, crushed down the mad hand clutching the steering wheel, righted itself, swerved once more and shot off the road; it tore through low underbrush, tipped again and settled slowly at an angle of ninety degrees against a tree.

The children were screaming and Nicole was screaming and cursing and trying to tear at Dick’s face. Thinking first of the list of the car and unable to estimate it Dick bent away Nicole’s arm, climbed over the top side and lifted out the children; then he saw the car was in a stable position. Before doing anything else he stood there shaking and panting.

“You —!” he cried.

She was laughing hilariously, unashamed, unafraid, unconcerned. No one coming on the scene would have imagined that she had caused it; she laughed as after some mild escape of childhood.

“You were scared, weren’t you?” she accused him. “You wanted to live!”

She spoke with such force that in his shocked state Dick wondered if he had been frightened for himself — but the strained faces of the children, looking from parent to parent, made him want to grind her grinning mask into jelly.

Directly above them, half a kilometer by the winding road but only a hundred yards climbing, was an inn; one of its wings showed through the wooded hill.

“Take Topsy’s hand,” he said to Lanier, “like that, tight, and climb up that hill — see the little path? When you get to the inn tell them ‘La voiture Divare est cassée.’ Some one must come right down.”

Lanier, not sure what had happened, but suspecting the dark and unprecedented, asked:

“What will you do, Dick?”

“We’ll stay here with the car.”

Neither of them looked at their mother as they started off. “Be careful crossing the road up there! Look both ways!” Dick shouted after them.

He and Nicole looked at each other directly, their eyes like blazing windows across a court of the same house. Then she took out a compact, looked in its mirror, and smoothed back the temple hair. Dick watched the children climbing for a moment until they disappeared among the pines half way up; then he walked around the car to see the damage and plan how to get it back on the road. In the dirt he could trace the rocking course they had pursued for over a hundred feet; he was filled with a violent disgust that was not like anger.

In a few minutes the proprietor of the inn came running down.

“My God!” he exclaimed. “How did it happen, were you going fast? What luck! Except for that tree you’d have rolled down hill!”

Taking advantage of Emile’s reality, the wide black apron, the sweat upon the rolls of his face, Dick signalled to Nicole in a matter-of-fact way to let him help her from the car; whereupon she jumped over the lower side, lost her balance on the slope, fell to her knees and got up again. As she watched the men trying to move the car her expression became defiant. Welcoming even that mood Dick said:

“Go and wait with the children, Nicole.”

Only after she had gone did he remember that she had wanted cognac, and that there was cognac available up there — he told Emile never mind about the car; they would wait for the chauffeur and the big car to pull it up onto the road. Together they hurried up to the inn.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:06