Frau Kaethe Gregorovius overtook her husband on the path of their villa.
“How was Nicole?” she asked mildly; but she spoke out of breath, giving away the fact that she had held the question in her mind during her run.
Franz looked at her in surprise.
“Nicole’s not sick. What makes you ask, dearest one?”
“You see her so much — I thought she must be sick.”
“We will talk of this in the house.”
Kaethe agreed meekly. His study was over in the administration building and the children were with their tutor in the living-room; they went up to the bedroom.
“Excuse me, Franz,” said Kaethe before he could speak. “Excuse me, dear, I had no right to say that. I know my obligations and I am proud of them. But there is a bad feeling between Nicole and me.”
“Birds in their little nests agree,” Franz thundered. Finding the tone inappropriate to the sentiment he repeated his command in the spaced and considered rhythm with which his old master, Doctor Dohmler, could cast significance on the tritest platitude. “Birds — in — their — nests — AGREE!”
“I realize that. You haven’t seen me fail in courtesy toward Nicole.”
“I see you failing in common sense. Nicole is half a patient — she will possibly remain something of a patient all her life. In the absence of Dick I am responsible.” He hesitated; sometimes as a quiet joke he tried to keep news from Kaethe. “There was a cable from Rome this morning. Dick has had grippe and is starting home to-morrow.”
Relieved, Kaethe pursued her course in a less personal tone:
“I think Nicole is less sick than any one thinks — she only cherishes her illness as an instrument of power. She ought to be in the cinema, like your Norma Talmadge — that’s where all American women would be happy.”
“Are you jealous of Norma Talmadge, on a film?”
“I don’t like Americans. They’re selfish, SELF-ish!”
“You like Dick?”
“I like him,” she admitted. “He’s different, he thinks of others.”
— And so does Norma Talmadge, Franz said to himself. Norma Talmadge must be a fine, noble woman beyond her loveliness. They must compel her to play foolish rôles; Norma Talmadge must be a woman whom it would be a great privilege to know.
Kaethe had forgotten about Norma Talmadge, a vivid shadow that she had fretted bitterly upon one night as they were driving home from the movies in Zurich.
“— Dick married Nicole for her money,” she said. “That was his weakness — you hinted as much yourself one night.”
“You’re being malicious.”
“I shouldn’t have said that,” she retracted. “We must all live together like birds, as you say. But it’s difficult when Nicole acts as — when Nicole pulls herself back a little, as if she were holding her breath — as if I SMELT bad!”
Kaethe had touched a material truth. She did most of her work herself, and, frugal, she bought few clothes. An American shopgirl, laundering two changes of underwear every night, would have noticed a hint of yesterday’s reawakened sweat about Kaethe’s person, less a smell than an ammoniacal reminder of the eternity of toil and decay. To Franz this was as natural as the thick dark scent of Kaethe’s hair, and he would have missed it equally; but to Nicole, born hating the smell of a nurse’s fingers dressing her, it was an offense only to be endured.
“And the children,” Kaethe continued. “She doesn’t like them to play with our children —” but Franz had heard enough:
“Hold your tongue — that kind of talk can hurt me professionally, since we owe this clinic to Nicole’s money. Let us have lunch.”
Kaethe realized that her outburst had been ill-advised, but Franz’s last remark reminded her that other Americans had money, and a week later she put her dislike of Nicole into new words.
The occasion was the dinner they tendered the Divers upon Dick’s return. Hardly had their footfalls ceased on the path when she shut the door and said to Franz:
“Did you see around his eyes? He’s been on a debauch!”
“Go gently,” Franz requested. “Dick told me about that as soon as he came home. He was boxing on the trans-Atlantic ship. The American passengers box a lot on these trans-Atlantic ships.”
“I believe that?” she scoffed. “It hurts him to move one of his arms and he has an unhealed scar on his temple — you can see where the hair’s been cut away.”
Franz had not noticed these details.
“But what?” Kaethe demanded. “Do you think that sort of thing does the Clinic any good? The liquor I smelt on him tonight, and several other times since he’s been back.”
She slowed her voice to fit the gravity of what she was about to say: “Dick is no longer a serious man.”
Franz rocked his shoulders up the stairs, shaking off her persistence. In their bedroom he turned on her.
“He is most certainly a serious man and a brilliant man. Of all the men who have recently taken their degrees in neuropathology in Zurich, Dick has been regarded as the most brilliant — more brilliant than I could ever be.”
“It’s the truth — the shame would be not to admit it. I turn to Dick when cases are highly involved. His publications are still standard in their line — go into any medical library and ask. Most students think he’s an Englishman — they don’t believe that such thoroughness could come out of America.” He groaned domestically, taking his pajamas from under the pillow, “I can’t understand why you talk this way, Kaethe — I thought you liked him.”
“For shame!” Kaethe said. “You’re the solid one, you do the work. It’s a case of hare and tortoise — and in my opinion the hare’s race is almost done.”
“Very well, then. It’s true.”
With his open hand he pushed down air briskly.
The upshot was that they had exchanged viewpoints like debaters. Kaethe admitted to herself that she had been too hard on Dick, whom she admired and of whom she stood in awe, who had been so appreciative and understanding of herself. As for Franz, once Kaethe’s idea had had time to sink in, he never after believed that Dick was a serious person. And as time went on he convinced himself that he had never thought so.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54