For days they drifted in perfect calm, and he was proud that the enervating thought of Fran was gone from him.
All one morning they explored the ridge above Posilipo, found fragments of a Roman emperor’s villa and the carp-pond in which he used to drown his slaves as the best fish-food, and discovered the mausoleum which, history asserts, was the tomb of Vergil, or of some one else. They straggled home, up the long street which was a wilderness of children and carts, and sank down sighing in the cool drawing-room.
“Collatzione, Teresa,” he ordered, then: “Curious, Edith, but this house that you’ve rented, and that belongs to an Italian I never saw till the other day, is the first that I ever felt was really mine. I actually dare give an order!”
“But I’m sure your Fran never MEANT to be a domestic dictator . . . .”
The gardener had left the mail on the table, but Sam did not pick it up till after lunch, and then but carelessly. On top was a letter from Fran. He pretended, not very skillfully, that he had to go to his room, and he read Fran’s letter alone:
I haven’t much excuse, probably I’ve been a fool and not appreciated you but anyway, maybe with no right to, I am turning to you rather desperately. Kurt’s mother finally came up from Austria. She was pretty rude to me. She indicated, oh quite clearly that for the Catholic and Highly Noble Kurtrl to marry a female who was (or soon would be) heinously divorced, who was an American, and who was too old to bear him heirs, would be disastrous. And she didn’t spare me very much in putting it that way, either. Not a pretty scene — me sitting there smoking in Kurt’s flat and trying to look agreeable while she wailed at Kurt and ignored me. And Kurt stood by her. Oh, his nice little sentimental heart bled for me, and since then he’s such a good time being devastated and trying to take both sides at once. But he “thought ve had better put off the marriage for maybe a couple of years till ve von her over.” God! Is he a man or a son? There ain’t going to be no vinning over, and no marriage! I’m sick of his cowardice, when I risked so much, but why go into that.
If you still care to bend your Olympian head and forgive the probably wicked and unforgivable Magdalene or however it’s spelled, I should be glad to join you again, anyway I’ve stopped divorce proceedings. Of course I realize that in saying this so honestly, without efforts to protect myself as most women would, I risk another humiliation at your hands such as I had from Kurt. Of course I don’t know how far you have committed yourself in the rather strange relations with this Mrs. Cortwright in which you have apparently had so much pleasure and relief from my aggravating self, though how you could be willing to take snubs from the highly proper Italians by thus living with her openly instead of concealing things is beyond —
Oh forgive me, forgive me, dear Sambo darling, forgive me, your bad child Fran! I sound so beastly and snotty when in my heart I’m desolated and scared and lost and I turn to you as the Rock of Ages! I wrote so abominably and unjustly because I’m so wretched, so desperate, and I won’t even tear it up — I want you to know that if you do let your bad Fran come back, she probably hasn’t learned as much as she should in her mediocre little tragedy, she’ll probably be just as snobbish and demanding as ever, though God knows I don’t want to be, I am so tired of thread-bare grandeurs now and want so much to be simple and honest.
I think you will credit me with not trying to come back just because you are rich and strong, and Kurt poor and honest. It’s just — Oh, you know what it is! I venture to turn to you because I do know that once, anyway, you loved me a great deal. And if we could manage to stick together, it will be so much better for Brent and Emily — oh, I know, probably it’s shameless of me to speak of that so late, but it is true.
I find there is a boat leaving Hamburg September 19, Cherbourg the next day, the Deutschland and if you CARE to join me on it, or meet me in Paris, I should be — Oh Sam, if you still do love me, you mustn’t be proud, you mustn’t take this chance to punish me, but come, because otherwise — Oh, I don’t know what I WILL do! I’ve been so proud! Now I feel the world is jeering at me! I don’t dare leave my flat, don’t dare answer the phone and hear their pitying laughter, I have my maid answer it for me, and usually it is still Kurt, but I’ll never see him again, never, he talks of killing himself but he won’t — his Mamma wouldn’t let him!
As soon as you get this, won’t you please telephone me here, from Naples.
If you feel like coming, I hope this will not inconvenience your hostess, Mrs. Cortright, whom I remember so agreeably in Venice, kindly give her my regards. But I hope that my appeal may be somewhat more important to you than even your social duty to that doubtless most charming lady who is I am sure much less irritating than I.
Her whole handwriting changed then; he felt that the rest of the letter had been written hours later:
Oh, Sam, I do need you so, did I ever tell you that I adore you?
Your shamed and wretched little Fran.
He blundered down to the drawing-room, snorting, “Got to run into Naples. May be late for tea. Don’t wait.”
“What is it?”
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
He fled from her.
All the way down, on the tram, he asked himself whether he wanted to have Fran again, and whether he was really going to join her, and to both he answered with perfect blankness. But when he asked whether he wanted to leave Edith, he denied it, sharply, with fury, reflecting wretchedly how good she had been, how honest, how understanding, and perceiving there was rising in him a passion for her greater than the mystic vexation with which Fran had fascinated him.
And he was going to desert Edith, going to be weak enough to betray her?
“Oh, probably,” he sighed, when for an hour, at the American Express Company, he had been waiting for the telephone call to Berlin.
He seemed to wait forever.
He was as conscious of the scene in the express office as though he had sat there for years. A picture of a big New York Central locomotive. Racks of pamphlets about spicy places — Burma and Bangkok and Sao Paulo — he would never see them now, because Fran would find them crude and unfashionable. A tourist lady writing letters and between sentences boasting to her mother of the WON-DERFUL corals she had found on the Piazza dei Martiri —
Then startlingly, “Your Berlin call!”
He heard Fran’s voice, quicksilver voice, eagerness of the wildly playing child in its lifting mutations:
“Oh, Sam, it really is you? You really are coming, dearest? You do forgive poor Fran?”
“Sure. Be on the boat. ON THE BOAT. Yes, the nineteenth, yes, sure, we’ll talk over everything, good-bye, honey, you better get the tickets as you’re there in Germany. GET THE STEAMER TICKETS, good-bye, honey, I’ll wire you a confirmation.”
He walked back most of the way, looking old and slow and sweaty, laboring over the coming scene with Edith. She would be very polite but surprised, contemptuous of him for returning to the servitude of Fran’s witchery.
He slunk in a few minutes after six.
She was reading by the great window in the drawing-room. She glanced up, then, wondering, “What is it? What’s happened?”
He stood by the window, making much of clipping and lighting a cigar, and he did not look at her as he grumbled, “Fran’s lover, this Count Obersdorf, has turned her down. His mother thought she was kind of declasse — divorce and all that. Poor kid, that must’ve been hard on her. She’s given up the idea of divorce, and she’s sailing for home. She’ll be kind of — Oh, people’hl talk a lot, I guess. I’m afraid I’ll have to go with her. Fact, I’ll have to catch the midnight for Rome, tonight. . . . I wish there were some way of telling you all that you’ve —”
She had sprung up. He was astonished by the fury in her quiet eyes.
“I won’t let you go back to that woman! And I won’t see you killed — yes, killed! — by her sweet, gay, well-mannered, utter damned selfishness! Her only thought about anybody is what they give her! The world offers you sun and wind, and Fran offers you death, fear and death! Oh, I’d seen how you’ve aged five years in five minutes, after one of her complaining letters! And you won’t be helping her — you’ll just make her feel all the more that she can do any selfish, cruel thing she wants to and come out of it unscathed! Think of Peking and Cairo! No! Think of the farm you could have in Michigan, among the pines! Think of how natural and contented you’d be — yes, WE’D be — back there —”
“I know, Edith; I know every bit of it. I just can’t help it. She’s my child. I’ve got to take care of her.”
“Yes. Well.” The passion did not fade from her eyes, but snapped out, as though one should turn off a light, and she said dully, “Sorry. I was impertinent. At least let me help you pack.”
Throughout the packing, dinner, and the rather dreadful waiting afterward, when he could not find two civil words to put together, she was a little abrupt of speech, very courteous. She asked questions about Zenith. She politely hoped that she might see him “and Mrs. Dodsworth” some distant day. Only once was she near to intimacy, when, after a torturing pause, she blurted, “There really isn’t much to say, is there! But I do want you to know that because you’ve seemed to like me, you’ve given me a new assurance.”
When he tried to counter with florid compliments, she bustled out to the kitchen.
The sound of the coming taxicab released him from the eternity of sitting dead in a tomb. While the servants straggled out with his luggage, he held her hand, patting it.
“It is all ready, Signore,” said the maid. She received the highly expected tip, and with a “Com’ beck soon!” which sounded sincere, she vanished.
In the twilight outside the tree-shadowed door, he awkwardly shook hands with Edith, but while he was trying to say something agreeable, she cried:
“It’s too late now. But I thought that some day — I thought it would be easy for me to talk, and I would tell you all sorts of things about how I feel and think. That it’s been pleasant to be with you. That you’re bigger than you know, not smaller, like celebrities. That you’ve made me willing to stop being afraid of the world, and to attack it again. I’ve felt —” She seized his rough sleeve. “That curious feeling, always a surprise every time I was with you, of ‘Why, it’s you!’ That feeling that you were different from any other living person — not necessarily one bit finer but — oh, different! I shouldn’t say any of this, but before it’s quite too late — too late! — I want to try to be reckless. But I can’t say any of the things I thought. Bless you, my dear! And God keep you through the wickedness of this Happy Ending!”
He kissed her, a terrible clinging kiss, and lumbered over to the roadway and his taxicab. He looked back. She seemed to start toward him, then closed the door quickly. Through a window he heard her voice, weary and spiritless: “Only one for breakfast, Teresa.”
He was alone with a yawning taxi-driver, as a breeze came up from the bay in the Southern darkness.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57