During all these desperate years in Brooklyn, when George lived and worked alone, he had only one real friend, and this was his editor, Foxhall Edwards. They spent many hours together, wonderful hours of endless talk, so free and full that it combed the universe and bound the two of them together in bonds of closest friendship. It was a friendship founded on many common tastes and interests, on mutual liking and admiration of each for what the other was, and on an attitude of respect which allowed unhampered expression of opinion even on those rare subjects which aroused differences of views and of belief. It was, therefore, the kind of friendship that can exist only between two men. It had in it no element of that possessiveness which always threatens a woman’s relations with a man, no element of that physical and emotional involvement which, while it serves nature’s end of bringing a man and woman together, also tends to thwart their own dearest wish to remain so by throwing over their companionship a constricting cloak of duty and obligation, of right’ and vested interest.
The older man was not merely friend but father to the younger. Webber, the hot-blooded Southerner, with his large capacity for sentiment and affection, had lost his own father many years before and now had found a substitute in Edwards. And Edwards, the reserved New Englander, with his deep sense of family and inheritance, had always wanted a son but had had five daughters, and as time went on he made of George a kind of foster son. Thus each, without quite knowing that he did it, performed an act of spiritual adoption.
So it was to Foxhall Edwards that George now turned whenever his loneliness became unbearable. When his inner turmoil, confusion, and self-doubts overwhelmed him, as they often did, and his life went dead and stale and empty till it sometimes seemed that all the barren desolation of the Brooklyn streets had soaked into his very blood and marrow — then he would seek out Edwards. And he never went to him in vain. Edwards, busy though he always was, would drop whatever he was doing and would take George out to lunch or dinner, and in his quiet, casual, oblique, and understanding way would talk to him and draw him out until he found out what it was that troubled him. And always in the end, because of Edward’s faith in him, George would be healed and find himself miraculously restored to self-belief.
What manner of man was this great editor and father-confessor and true friend — he of the quiet, shy, sensitive, and courageous heart who often seemed to those who did not know him well an eccentric, cold, indifferent fellow — he who, grandly christened Foxhall, preferred to be the simple, unassuming Fox?
The Fox asleep was a breathing portrait of guileless innocence. He slept on his right side, legs doubled up a little, hands folded together underneath the ear, his hat beside him on the pillow. Seen so, the sleeping figure of the Fox was touching — for all his five and forty years, it was so plainly boylike. By no stretch of fancy the old hat beside him on the pillow might have been a childish toy brought to bed with him the night before — and this, in fact, it was!
It was as if, in sleep, no other part of Fox was left except the boy. Sleep seemed to have resumed into itself this kernel of his life, to have excluded all transitions, to have brought the man back to his acorn, keeping thus inviolate that which the man, indeed, had never lost, but which had passed through change and time and all the accretions of experience — and now had been restored, unwoven back into the single oneness of itself.
And yet it was a guileful Fox, withal. Oh, guileful Fox, how innocent in guilefulness and in innocence how full of guile! How straight in cunning, and how cunning-straight, in all directions how strange-devious, in all strange-deviousness how direct! Too straight for crookedness, and for envy too serene, too fair for blind intolerance, too just and seeing and too strong for hate, too honest for base dealing, too high for low suspiciousness, too innocent for all the scheming tricks of swarming villainy — yet never had been taken in a horse trade yet!
So, then, life’s boy is he, life’s trustful child; life’s guileful-guileless Fox is he, but not life’s angel, not life’s fool. Will get at all things like a fox — not full-tilt at the fences, not head-on, but through coverts peering, running at fringes of the wood, or by the wall; will swing round on the pack and get behind the hounds, cross them up and be away and gone when they are looking for him where he’s not — he will not mean to fox them, but he will.
Gets round the edges of all things the way a fox does. Never takes the main route or the worn handle. Sees the worn handle, what it is, says: “Oh,” but knows it’s not right handle though most used: gets right handle right away and uses it. No one knows how it is done, neither knows the Fox, but does it instantly. It seems so easy when Fox does it, easy as a shoe, because he has had it from his birth. It is a genius.
Our Fox is never hard or fancy, always plain. He makes all plays look easy, never brilliant; it seems that anyone can do it when Fox does it. He covers more ground than any other player in the game, yet does not seem to do so. His style is never mannered, seems no style at all; the thrilled populace never holds its breath in hard suspense when he takes aim, because no one ever saw the Fox take aim, and yet he never misses. Others spend their lives in learning to take aim: they wear just the proper uniform for taking aim, they advance in good order, they signal to the breathless world for silence —“We are taking aim!” they say, and then with faultless style and form, with flawless execution, they bring up their pieces, take aim — and miss! The great Fox never seems to take aim, and never misses. Why? He was just born that way — fortunate, a child of genius, innocent and simple — and a Fox!
“And ah! — a cunning Fox!” the Aimers and the Missers say. “A damned subtle, devilish, and most cunning Fox!” they cry, and grind their teeth. “Be not deceived by his appearance —’tis a cunning Fox! Put not your faith in Foxes, put not your faith in this one, he will look so shy, and seem so guileless and so bewildered — but he will never miss!”
“But how”— the Aimers and the Missers plead with one another in exasperation —“how does he do it? What has the fellow got? He’s nothing much to look at — nothing much to talk to. He makes no appearance! He never goes out in the world — you never see him at receptions, parties, splendid entertainments — he makes no effort to meet people — no, or to talk to them! He hardly talks at all! . . . What has he got? Where does it come from? Is it chance or luck? There is some mystery ——”
“Well, now,” says one, “I’ll tell you what my theory is ——”
Their heads come close, they whisper craftily together until ——
“No!” another cries. “It is not that. I tell you what he does, it’s ——”
And again they whisper close, argue and deny, get more confused than ever, and finally are reduced to furious impotence:
“Bah!” cries one. “How does the fellow do it, anyway? How does he get away with it? He seems to have no sense, no knowledge, no experience. He doesn’t get round the way we do, lay snares and traps. He doesn’t seem to know what’s going on, or what the whole thing’s all about — and yet ——”
“He’s just a snob!” another snarls. “When you try to be a good fellow, he high-hats you! You try to kid him, he just looks at you! He never offers to shake hands with you, he never slaps you on the back the way real fellows do! You go out of your way to be nice to him — to show him you’re a real guy and that you think he is, too — and what does he do? He just looks at you with that funny little grin and turns away — and wears that damned hat in the office all day long — I think he sleeps with it! He never asks you to sit down — and gets up while you’re talking to him — leaves you cold — begins to wander up and down outside, staring at everyone he sees — his own associates — as if he were some half-wit idiot boy — and wanders back into his office twenty minutes later — stares at you as if he never saw your face before — and jams that damned hat farther down round his ears, and turns away — takes hold of his lapels — looks out the window with that crazy grin — then looks at you again, looks you up and down, stares at your face until you wonder if you’ve changed suddenly into a baboon — and turns back to the window without a word — then stares at you again — finally pretends to recognise you, and says: ‘Oh, it’s you!’ . . . I tell you he’s a snob, and that’s his way of letting you know you don’t belong! Oh, I know about him — I know what he is! He’s an old New Englander — older than God, by God! Too good for anyone but God, by God! — and even God’s a little doubtful! An aristocrat — a rich man’s son — a Groton–Harvard boy — too fine for the likes of us, by God! — too good for the ‘low bounders’ who make up this profession! He thinks we’re a bunch of business men and Babbitts — and that’s the reason that he looks at us the way he does — that’s the reason that he grins his grin, and turns away, and catches at his coat lapels, and doesn’t answer when you speak to him —”
“Oh, no,” another quickly interrupts. “You’re wrong there! The reason that he grins that grin and turns away is that he’s trying hard to hear — the reason that he doesn’t answer when you speak to him is that he’s deaf ——”
“Ah, deaf!” says still another in derision. “Deaf, hell! Deaf as a Fox, he is! That deafness is a stall — a trick — a gag! He hears you when he wants to hear you! If it’s anything he wants to hear, he’ll hear you though you’re forty yards away and talking in a whisper! He’s a Fox, I tell you!”
“Yes, a Fox, a Fox!” they chorus in agreement. “That much is certain — the man’s a Fox!”
So the Aimers and the Missers whisper, argue, and deduce. They lay siege to intimates and friends of Fox, ply them with flattery and strong drink, trying thus to pluck out the heart of Fox’s mystery. They find out nothing, because there’s nothing to find out, nothing anyone can tell them. They are reduced at length to exasperated bafflement and finish where they started. They advance to their positions, take aim — and miss!
And so, in all their ways, they lay cunning snares throughout the coverts of the city. They lay siege to life. They think out tactics, crafty stratagems. They devise deep plans to bag the game. They complete masterly flanking operations in the night-time (while the great Fox sleeps), get in behind the enemy when he isn’t looking, are sure that victory is within their grasp, take aim magnificently — and fire — and shoot one another painfully in the seats of their expensive pants!
Meanwhile, the Fox is sleeping soundly through the night, as sweetly as a child.
Night passes, dawn comes, eight o’clock arrives. How to describe him now as he awakes?
A man of five and forty years, not really seeming younger, yet always seeming something of the boy. Rather, the boy is there within that frame of face, behind the eyes, within the tenement of flesh and bone — not imprisoned, just held there in a frame — a frame a little worn by the years, webbed with small wrinkles round the eyes — invincibly the same as it has always been. The hair, once fair and blond, no longer fair and blond now, feathered at the temples with a touch of grey, elsewhere darkened by time and weather to a kind of steel-grey — blondness really almost dark now, yet, somehow, still suggesting fair and blond. The head well set and small, boy’s head still, the hair sticking thick and close to it, growing to a V in the centre of the forehead, then back straight and shapely, full of natural grace. Eyes pale blue, full of a strange misty light, a kind of far weather of the sea in them, eyes of a New England sailor long months outbound for China on a clipper ship, with something drowned, sea-sunken in them.
The general frame and structure of the face is somewhat lean and long and narrow — face of the ancestors, a bred face, face of people who have looked the same for generations. A stern, lonely face, with the enduring fortitude of granite, face of the New England seacoast, really his grandfather’s face, New England statesman’s face, whose bust sits there on the mantel, looking at the bed. Yet something else has happened on Fox’s face to transfigure it from the primeval nakedness of granite: in its essential framework, granite still, but a kind of radiance and warmth of life has enriched and mellowed it. A light is burning in the Fox, shining outwards through the face, through every gesture, grace, and movement of the body, ‘something swift, mercurial, mutable, and tender, something buried and withheld, but passionate — something out of his mother’s face, perhaps,’ or out of his father’s or his father’s mother’s — something that subdues the granite with warmth — something from poetry, intuition, genius, imagination, living, inner radiance, and beauty. This face, then, with the shapely head, the pale, far-misted vision of the eyes, held in round bony cages like a bird’s, the strong, straight nose, curved at the end, a little scornful and patrician, sensitive, sniffing, swift-nostriled as a hound’s — the whole face with its passionate and proud serenity might almost be the face of a great poet, or the visage of some strange and mighty bird.
But now the sleeping figure stirs, opens its eyes and listens, rouses, starts up like a flash.
“What?” says Fox.
The Fox awake now.
“FOXHALL MORTON EDWARDS.”
The great name chanted slowly through his brain — someone had surely spoken it — it filled his ears with sound — it rang down solemnly through the aisles of consciousness — it was no dream — the very walls were singing with its grave and proud sonorities as he awoke.
“What?” cried Fox again.
He looked about him. There was no one there. He shook his head as people do when they shake water from their ears. He inclined his good right ear and listened for the sound again. He tugged and rubbed his good right ear — yes, it was unmistakable — the good right ear was ringing with the sound.
Fox looked bewildered, puzzled, searched round the room again with sea-pale eyes, saw nothing, saw his hat beside him on the pillow, said, “Oh,” in a slightly puzzled tone, picked up the hat and jammed it on his head, half-covering the ears, swung out of bed and thrust his feet into his slippers, got up, pyjamaed and behatted, walked over to the door, opened it, looked out, and said:
“What? Is anybody there? — Oh!”
For there was nothing — just the hall, the quiet, narrow hall of morning, the closed door of his wife’s room, and the stairs.
He closed the door, turned back into his room, still looking puzzled, intently listening, his good right ear half-turned and searching for the sounds.
Where had they come from then? The name — he thought he heard it still, faintly now, mixed in with many other strange, confusing noises. But where? From, what direction did they come? Or had he heard them? A long, droning sound, like an electric fan — perhaps a motor in the street? A low, retreating thunder — an elevated train, perhaps? A fly buzzing? Or a mosquito with its whining bore? No, it could not be: it was morning, spring-time, and the month of May.
Light winds of morning fanned the curtains of his pleasant room. An old four-poster bed, a homely, gay old patch-quilt coverlet, an old chest of drawers, a little table by his bed, piled high with manuscripts, a glass of water and his eyeglasses, and a little ticking clock. Was that what he had heard? He held it to his ear and listened. On the mantel, facing him, the bust of his grandfather, Senator William Fox-hall Morton, far-seeing, sightless, stern, lean, shrewd with decision; a chair or two, and on the wall an engraving of Michelangelo’s great Lorenzo Medici. Fox looked at it and smiled.
“A man,” said he in a low voice. “The way a man should look!” The figure of the young Caesar was mighty-limbed, enthroned; helmeted for war; the fine hand half-supporting the chin of the grand head, broodingly aware of great events and destiny; thought knit to action, poetry to fact, caution to boldness, reflection to decision — the Thinker, Warrior, Statesman, Ruler all conjoined in one. “And what a man should be,” thought Fox.
A little puzzled still, Fox goes to his window and looks out, pyjamaed and behatted still, the fingers of one hand back upon his hips, a movement lithe and natural as a boy’s. The head goes back, swift nostrils sniff, dilate with scorn. Light winds of morning fan him, gauzy curtains are blown back.
And outside, morning, and below him, morning, sky-shining morning all above, below, around, across from him, cool-slanting morning, gold-cool morning, and the street. Black fronts of rusty brown across from him, the flat fronts of Turtle Bay.
Fox looks at morning and the street with sea-pale eyes, as if he never yet had seen them, then in a low and husky voice, a little hoarse, agreeable, half-touched with whisper, he says with slow recognition, quiet wonder, and — somehow, somewby — resignation:
“Oh . . . I see.”
Turns now and goes into his bathroom opposite, surveys himself in the mirror with the same puzzled, grave, and sea-pale wonder, looks at his features, notes the round cages that enclose his eyes, sees Boy–Fox staring gravely out at him, bethinks him suddenly of Boy–Fox’s ear, which stuck out at right angles forty years ago, getting Boy–Fox gibes at Groton — so jams hat farther down about the ear, so stick-out ear that’s stick-out ear no longer won’t stick out!
So standing, he surveys himself for several moments, and finding out at length that this indeed is he, says, as before, with the same slightly puzzled, slow, and patiently resigned acceptance:
“Oh. I see.”
Turns on the shower faucet now — the water spurts and hisses in jets of smoking steam. Fox starts to step beneath the shower, suddenly observes pyjamas on his person, mutters slowly —“Oh-h!”— and takes them off. Unpyjamaed now, and as God made him, save for hat, starts to get in under shower with hat on — and remembers hat, remembers it in high confusion, is forced against his will to acknowledge the unwisdom of the procedure — so snaps his fingers angrily, and, in a low, disgusted tone of acquiescence, says:
“Oh, well, then! All right!”
So removes his hat, which is now jammed on so tightly that he has to take both hands and fairly wrench and tug his way out of it, hangs the battered hulk reluctantly within easy reaching distance on a hook upon the door, surveys it for a moment with an undecided air, as if still not willing to relinquish it — and then, still with a puzzled air, steps in beneath those hissing jets of water hot enough to boil an egg!
Puzzled no longer, my mad masters, ye may take it, Fox comes out on the double-quick, and loudly utters: “Damn!”— and fumes and dances, snaps his fingers, loudly utters “Damn!” again — but gets his water tempered to his hide this time, and so, without more peradventure, takes his shower.
Shower done, hair brushed at once straight back around his well-shaped head, on goes the hat at once. So brushes teeth, shaves with a safety razor, walks out naked but behatted into his room, starts to go downstairs, remembers clothing —“Oh!”— looks round, bepuzzled, sees clothing spread out neatly on a chair by womenfolks the night before — fresh socks, fresh underwear, a clean shirt, a suit, a pair of shoes. Fox never knows where they come from, wouldn’t know where to look, is always slightly astonished when he finds them. Says “Oh!” again, goes back and puts clothes on, and finds to his amazement that they fit.
They fit him beautifully. Everything fits the Fox. He never knows what he has on, but he could wear a tow-sack, or a shroud, a sail, a length of canvas — they would fit the moment that he put them on, and be as well the elegance of faultless style. His clothes just seem to grow on him: whatever he wears takes on at once the grace, the dignity, and the unconscious ease of his own person. Never exercises much, but never has to; loves to take a walk, is bored by games and plays none; has same figure that he had at twenty-one — five feet ten, one hundred and fifty pounds, no belly and no fat, the figure of a boy.
Dressed now, except for necktie, picks up necktie, suddenly observes it, a very gay one with blue polka dots, and drops it with dilating nostrils, muttering a single word that seems to utter volumes:
Then searches vaguely on a tie rack in his closet, finds a modest grey cravat, and puts it on. So, attired now, picks up a manuscript, his pince-nez glasses, opens the door, and walks out in the narrow hall.
His wife’s door closed and full of sleep, the air touched subtly with a faint perfume. The Fox sniffs sharply, with a swift upward movement of his head, and, looking with scorn, mixed with compassion, pity, tenderness, and resignation, inclines his head in one slow downward movement of decision, and says:
So, down the narrow, winding staircase now, his head thrown sharply back, one hand upon his lapel, the other holding manuscript, and reaches second floor. Another narrow hall. Front, back and to the side, three more closed doors of sleep and morning, and five daughters ——
Surveys the door of Martha, the oldest, twenty, a ——
And next the door of Eleanor, aged eighteen, and Amelia, just sixteen, but ——
And finally, with a gentle scorn, touched faintly with a smile, the door of the two youngest, Ruth, fourteen, little Ann, just seven, yet ——
So, sniffing sharply the woman-laden air, descends now to the first floor, enters living-room, and scornfully surveys the work of ——
The carpets are rolled up, the morning sunlight slants on the bare boards. The chairs, the sofas, and upholstery have been ripped open, the stuffing taken out. The place smells of fresh paint. The walls, brown yesterday, are robin’s-egg blue this morning. Buckets of paint are scattered round the floor. Even the books that lined the walls have been taken from the tall, indented shelves. The interior decorators are at their desperate work again, and all because of ——
Fox sniffs the fresh paint with sharp disgust, crosses the room, mounts winding steps, which also have been painted robin’s-egg blue, and goes out on the terrace. Gay chairs and swings and tables, gay-striped awnings, and in an ash-tray several cigarette-butts with tell-tale prints upon them ——
The garden backs of Turtle Bay are lyrical with tender green, with birdsong and the hidden plash of water — the living secret of elves’ magic embedded in the heart of the gigantic city — and beyond, like some sheer, terrific curtain of upward-curving smoke, the frontal cliff of the sky-waving towers.
Fox sniffs sharply the clean green fragrance of the morning, sea-pale eyes are filled with wonder, strangeness, recognition. Something passionate and far transforms his face — and something rubs against his leg, moans softly. Fox looks down into the melancholy, pleading eyes of the French poodle. He observes the ridiculous barbering of the creature — the fuzzy muff of kinky wool around the shoulders, neck, and head, the skinned nakedness of ribs and loins, wool-fuzzy tail again, tall, skinny legs — a half-dressed female creature with no wool at all just where the wool is needed most — no dog at all, but just a frenchified parody of dog — an absurd travesty of all the silly fashions, mannerisms, conquettishness, and irresponsibility of a ——
Fox turns in disgust, leaves terrace, descends steps to the living-room again, traverses barren boards, threads way round the disembowelled furnishings, and descends the stairs to the basement floor.
In entrance hall below, a lavish crimson carpet where yesterday there was a blue one, cream-white paint all over walls today, which yesterday were green, the wall all chiselled into, a great sheet of mirror ready to be installed where yesterday no mirror was.
Fox traverses narrow hallway, past the kitchen, through the cloakroom — this, too, redolent of fresh paint — and into little cubbyhole that had no use before.
“Good God, what’s this?”
Transfigured now to Fox’s “cosy den” (Fox wants no “cosy den”— will have none!), walls are painted, bookshelves built, a reading lamp and easy chairs in place, the Fox’s favourite books (Fox groans!) transplanted from their shelves upstairs and brought down here where Fox can never find them.
Fox bumps his head against the low doorway in going out, traverses narrow hall again, at last gets into dining-room. Seats himself at head of the long table (six women make a long table!), looks at the glass of orange juice upon his plate, does nothing to it, makes no motion towards it, just sits there waiting in a state of patient and resigned dejection, as who should say: “It’s no one but the Old Grey Mule.”
Portia enters — a plump mulatto, nearing fifty, tinged so imperceptibly with yellow that she is almost white. She enters, stops, stares at Fox sitting motionless there, and titters coyly. Fox turns slowly, catches his coat lapels, and looks at her in blank astonishment. She drops her eyelids shyly, tittering, and spreads plump fingers over her fat mouth. Fox surveys her steadily, as if trying to peer through her fingers at her face, then with a kind of no-hope expression in his eyes, he says slowly, in a sepulchral tone:
And Portia, anxiously:
“What fo’ you doesn’t drink yo’ orange juice, Mistah Edwands? Doesn’t you like it?”
“Fruit salad,” repeats Fox tonelessly.
“What fo’ you always eat dat ole fruit salad, Mistah Edwahds? What fo’ you wants dat ole canned stuff when we fixes you de nice fresh orange juice?”
“Fruit salad,” echoes Fox dolefully, utter resignation in his tone.
Portia departs protesting, but presently fruit salad is produced and put before him. Fox eats it, then looks round and up at Portia, and, still with no-hope resignation in his voice, says low and hoarsely:
“Is that —all?”
“Why, no suh, Mistah, Edwahds,” Portia replies. “You can have anything you likes if you jest lets us know. We nevah knows jest what you’s goin’ to awdah. All las’ month you awdahed fish fo’ brek-fus’— is dat what you wants?”
“Breast of guinea-hen,” says Fox tonelessly.
“Why, Mistah Edwahds!” Portia squeals. “Breas’ of guinea-hen fo’ brek-fus’?”
“Yes,” says Fox, patient and enduring.
“But, Mistah Edwahds!” Portia protests. “You know you doesn’t want breas’ of guinea-hen fo’ brek-fus’!”
“Yes,” says Fox in his hopeless tone, “I do.” And he regards her steadily with sea-misted eyes, with proud and scornful features, eloquent with patient and enduring bitterness as if to say: “Man is born of woman and is made to mourn.”
“But Mistah Edwahds,” Portia pleads with him, “fokes don’t eat breas’ of guinea-hen fo’ brek-fus’! Dey eats ham an’ aiggs, an’ toast an’ bacon — things like dat.”
Fox continues to regard her fixedly.
“Breast of guinea-hen,” he says wearily, implacably as before.
“B-b-b-but, Mistah Edwahds,” Portia stammers, thoroughly demoralised by this time, “we ain’t got no breas’ of guinea-hen.”
“We had some night before last,” says Fox.
“Yes, suh, yes, suh!” Portia almost tearfully agrees. “But dat’s all gone! We et up all dere was! . . . Besides, you been eatin’ breas’ of guinea-hen ev’ry night fo’ dinnah de las’ two weeks, an’ Miz Edwands — she say you had enough — she say de chillun gettin’ tired of it — she tol’ us to get somep’n else! . . . If you tol’ us dat you wanted guinea-hen fo’ brek-fus’, we’d a-had it. But you nevah tol’ us, Mista Edwahds.” Portia is on the verge of open tears by now. “You nevah tells us what you wants — an’ dat’s why we nevah knows. One time you wanted cream chicken fo’ yo’ brek-fus’ ev’ry mawnin’ fo’ a month . . . Den you changed roun’ to codfish balls, an’ had dat fo’ a long, long time . . . An’ now it’s guinea-hen,” she almost sobs —“an’ we ain’t got none, Mistah Edwahds. You nevah tol’ us what you wanted. We got ham an’ aiggs — we got bacon — we got —”,
“Oh, well,” says Fox wearily, “bring what you have, then — anything you like.”
He turns away full of patient scorn, enduring and unhoping bitterness — and “aiggs” are brought him. Fox eats them with relish; toast, too, three brown slices, buttered; and drinks two cups of strong hot coffee.
Just at half-past eight something entered the dining-room as swift and soundless as a ray of light. It was a child of fourteen years, a creature of surpassing loveliness, the fourth daughter of the Fox, named Ruth. It was the Fox in miniature: a little creature, graceful as a bird, framed finely as some small and perfect animal. The small, lean head was shaped and set exactly as the head of Fox, the dark blonde hair grew cleanly to it, the child’s face was of an ivory transparency, the features and the sensitivity of expression were identical with those of Fox, transformed to femininity, and the lines of the whole face were cut and moulded with the exquisite delicacy of a cameo.
The shyness of this little girl was agonising; it was akin to terror. She entered the room breathlessly, noiselessly, stricken, with her head lowered, her arms held to her side, her eyes fixed on the floor. The ordeal of passing by her father, and of speaking to him, was obviously a desperate one; she glided past as if she almost hoped to escape notice. Without raising her eyes, she said: “Good morning, daddy,” in a timid little voice, and was about to duck into her chair, when Fox looked up startled, got up quickly, put his arms round her, and kissed her. In answer to his kiss, she pecked her cheek towards him like a bird, still keeping her eyes desperately on the floor.
The face of Fox was illuminated by a radiant tenderness as, in a low, deaf, slightly hoarse tone, he said:
“Good morning, darling.”
Still without looking at him, stricken, desperate, she tried to get away from him, yet, even in the act, her affection for the Fox was eloquent. Her heart was beating like a trip-hammer, her eyes went back and forth like a frightened fledgling’s, she wanted to vanish through the walls, dart out of doors, turn into a shadow — anything, anything, if only she could utterly escape notice, having no one look at her, pay any attention to her, above all, speak to her. So she fluttered there in his embrace like a dove caught in a snare, tried to get away from him, was in a state of agony so acute and sensitive that it was painful to watch her or to do anything that would in any way increase the embarrassment and desperate shyness of this stricken little girl.
Fox’s embrace tightened round her as she tried to escape, and he grew full of solicitude and anxiety as he looked at her.
“Darling!” he whispered, in a low and troubled tone. He shook her gently. “What, darling?” he demanded. “Now what?” he finally demanded, with a touch of the old scorn.
“But nothing, daddy!” she protested, her timid little voice rising in a note of desperate protest. “Nothing, daddy!” She squirmed a little to get free. Reluctantly Fox let her go. The child ducked right down into her chair, still with her eyes averted, and concluded with a little gasping laugh of protest: “You’re so funny, daddy!”
Fox resumed his seat and still continued to regard her sternly, gravely, with alarmed solicitude, and a little scorn. She shot a frightened look at him and ducked her head down towards her plate.
“Is anything wrong?” said Fox, in a low voice.
“But naturally — not!”— a protesting and exasperated little gasp of laughter. “Why should anything be wrong? Honestly, you’re so strange, daddy!”
“Well, then,” said Fox, with patient resignation.
“But nothing! I keep telling you, there’s nothing! That’s what I’ve told you from the feerst!”
All of the children of the Fox say “feerst” for “first”, “beerst” for “burst”, “theerst” for “thirst”. Why, no one knows. It seems to be a tribal accent, not only among all of Fox’s children, but among all of their young cousins on the Fox’s side. It is almost as if they were creatures of some isolated family, immured for generations on some lonely island, cut off from the world, and speaking some lost accent that their ancestors spoke three hundred years ago. Moreover, their tone is characterised by a kind of drawl— not the languorous drawl of the deep South, but a protesting drawl, a wearied-out, exasperated drawl, as if they have almost given up hope of making Fox — or someone— understand what ought to be obvious without any explanation whatsoever. Thus:
“But nothing, daddy! I’ve told you that from the f-e-e-r-s-t!”
“Well, then, what is it, darling?” Fox demanded. “Why do you look like that?”— with an emphatic downward movement of the head.
“But look like what?” the child protested. “Oh, daddy, honestly”— she gasped, with a little strained laugh, and looked away —“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Portia brought smoking oatmeal and put it down before her, and the girl, saying timidly: “Good morning, Portia,” ducked her head and began to eat hastily.
Fox continued to look at the child sternly, gravely, with a troubled expression in his eyes. Looking up suddenly, she put down her spoon, and cried:
“But, daddy — wha-a-t?”
“Are those scoundrels going to be here again today?” said Fox.
“Oh, daddy, what scoundrels? . . . Honestly!” She twisted in her chair, gasped a little, tried to laugh, picked up her spoon, started to go on eating, then put her spoon down again.
“Those scoundrels,” said the Fox, “that — you women”— he inclined his head with scornful emphasis —“have brought in to destroy my home.”
“But who are you talking about?” she protested, looking round like a hunted animal for a means of escape. “I don’t know who you mean.”
“I mean,” said Fox, “those interior decorating fellows”— here his voice was filled with the dismissal of an unutterable contempt —“that you and your mother have imported to wreck the house.”
“But I had nothing to do with it!” the girl protested. “Oh, daddy, you’re so———” she broke off, squirmed, and turned away with a little laugh.
“So —what?” said Fox, low, hoarse, and scornful.
“Oh, I don’t know — so — so stra-a-nge! You say such funny thi-i-ngs!”
“Have you women,” Fox went on, “decided when you’re going to let me have a little peace in my own house?”
“Let you have a little pe-a-ce? . . . What have I done? If you don’t want the decorators, why don’t you speak to mo-o-ther?”
“Because”— Fox inclined his head with a slow, ironic emphasis upon the word —“because— I— don’t — count! I’m only the — Old — Grey — Mule — among six women — and, of course, anything is good enough for me!”
“But what have we done? We haven’t done anything to you! Why do you act so p-e-e-r-secuted? . . . Oh, daddy, honestly!” She squirmed desperately, tried to laugh, turned away, and ducked her head down towards her plate again.
Sitting back in his chair, one hand clasped upon the arm, his whole being withdrawn, remote, in an attitude eloquent of deep, unhoping patience, Fox continued to regard the child gravely for a moment. Then he thrust his hand into his pocket, pulled his watch out and looked at it, glanced at the child again, and shook his head in a movement packed with stern reproach and silent accusation.
She looked up, quick and startled, laid her spoon down, and gasped:
“Now what? What are you shaking your he-a-ad for? What is it now?”
“Is your mother up?”
“But naturally, I don’t kno-o-w!”
“Are your sisters up?”
“But, da-a-dy, how can I tell?”
“Did you get to bed early?”
“Ye-e-e-s,” in a drawl of protest.
“What time did your sisters get to bed?”
“But, of course, I have no way of kno-o-wing! Why don’t you ask the-e-m?”
Fox looked at the watch again, then at the child, and shook his head once more.
“Women!” he said quietly, and put the watch back into his pocket.
The child by now has finished with her oatmeal — all she wants of it. Now she slides out of her chair and, with face averted, tries to glide past Fox, out of the room. Fox gets up quickly, puts his arms round her, says in a low, quick, worried tone:
“Oh, darling, where are you going?”
“But to sch-o-o-ol, of course!”
“Darling, stay and eat your breakfast!”
“But I’ve e-e-a-ten!”
“Oh, you haven’t!” whispers Fox impatiently.
“But I’ve eaten all I wa-a-a-nt!”
“You haven’t eaten anything!” he whispers scornfully.
“But I don’t want any more,” she protests, looks desperately about, and struggles to free herself. “Oh, let me go-o-o, daddy! I’ll be late!”
“Then be late!” whispers the great watch-watcher and head-shaker scornfully. “Stay and eat your breakfast!”— punctuating these decisive words with slow nods of emphasis.
“But I ca-a-n’t! I’ve got to read a pa-a-per.”
“A t-e-e-r-m paper — for Miss Allen’s class — it comes at nine o’clock.”
“Oh,” says Fox slowly, “I see.” In a low, almost inaudible tone, “On —Whitman?”
“Oh . . . Did you read the book I gave you — the one with his war diary and notes?”
“Astonishing!” whispers Fox. “Isn’t it astonishing? You can see just how he did it, can’t you? He — he got right up on everything,” Fox whispers, “just as if he were the thing itself — as if it were happening to him!”
“Ye-e-e-s.” She looks desperately around, then with averted eyes blurts out: “You were right about the other thing, too.”
“What other thing?”
“About night — how there’s so much night and darkness in himhis — his feeling for night.”
“Oh,” Fox whispers slowly, his sea-pale eyes misted with reflection. “Did you tell about that, too?”
“Ye-e-s. It’s tr-u-e. After you told me, I read him again, and it’s tr-u-e.”
Shy, desperate, timid, stricken as she is, she nevertheless knows it’s true when it’s true.
“That’s fine!” Fox whispers, and shakes his head sharply with immense satisfaction. “I’ll bet it’s good!”
The girl’s ivory features flush crimson. Like Fox, she loves praise, yet cannot stand to have it spoken. She squirms, is terrified, is hoping against hope ——
“I don’t kno-o-w,” she gasps. “Miss Allen didn’t like the last paper I wrote — what I said about Mark Twain.”
“Then,” Fox whispers, low and scornfully, “let Miss Allen not like it. That was a fine paper,” he whispers. “What — what you said about the River was just right.”
“I kno-o-w! And that was the part she didn’t like. She didn’t seem to know what I was talking about — said it was immature and not sound, and gave me a ‘C’.”
“Oh,” says Fox absently, thinking all the time with an immense satisfaction of the spirit: “What a girl this is! She has a fine mind. She — she understands things!”
“You see, darling,” Fox whispers gently, coming back to Miss Allen, “it’s not their fault. These people do the best they can — but — but they just can’t seem to understand,” he whispers. “You see, Miss Allen is an — an academic kind of person — I guess, kind of an old maid, really,” he whispers, with an emphatic movement of the head —“and that kind of person, darling, just wouldn’t be able to understand what Whitman and Mark Twain and Keats are like . . . It’s — it’s a shame,” Fox mutters, and shakes his head, his eyes troubled with regret —“it’s a shame we’ve got to hear about these people first in-in schools — from — from people like Miss Allen. You see, darling,” Fox says gently, his face cocked sideways, his good ear pointing towards the girl, his language simple as a shoe, his face keen, shrewd, thoughtful, and absorbed, and radiant as a blade of light, as it always is when interest and reflection hold the wise serpent of his brain —“you see, darling, schools are all right, really— but the Thing they do is different from the Thing that Keats and Whitman and Mark Twain do . . . People like that really have no place in schools. A— a school,” Fox whispers, “is an academic kind of place, you see — and the people that you find in schools are academic people — and these other kind of people — the poets,” whispers Fox, “are not academic people — they’re-they’re really against what the academic people do — they are people who — who discover things for themselves,” Fox whispers, “who burst through and make another world — and the academic people cannot understand them — so that’s why what the academic people say about them is —is not much good,” Fox whispers. For a moment he is silent, then shakes his head and mutters in a low tone of profound regret: “It’s a pity! Too bad you’ve got to hear about it first in schools — but — but just do the best you can with it — get what you can from it — and — and when those people”— whisper mixed with understanding, pity, and contempt —“have gone as far as they can go, just forget about the rest they tell you.”
“I kno-o-w! But, really, daddy, when Miss Allen starts drawing charts and diagrams upon the blackboard, showing how they did it — it’s — it’s aw-w-full I can’t be-e-ar it — it just makes everything so — te-er-rible! . . . Oh, daddy, let me go!” She squirms to free herself again, her tender features tortured with self-consciousness. “Please, daddy! I’ve got to! I’ll be late!”
“How are you going?”
“But naturally, the way I always go.”
“But of course not, I take the str-e-e-t car.”
“Oh . . . What street car?”
“The Lexington A-a-a-venue.”
“Alone?” says Fox in a low, grave, troubled tone.
“But, of course, daddy!”
He looks at her sternly with a sorrow-troubled face, and shakes his head.
“But what’s wrong with taking the str-e-e-t car? Oh, daddy, you’re so-o—” she squirms, looks off indefinitely, her face touched by a smile of agonised embarrassment. “Please, daddy! Let me go-o-o! I tell you I’ll be late!”
She pushes a little to release herself, he kisses her, and lets her go reluctantly.
“Good-bye, darling”— low, hoarse, tender, troubled with grave solicitude. “You will take care, won’t you?”
“But, of course!” A little agonised laugh. “There’s nothing to take care.” Then, suddenly, in a timid little voice: “Good-bye, daddy”— and she is gone, swiftly, silently, like fading light.
Fox, hands upon his hips, with a look half-trouble and half-tenderness, follows her with sea-pale eyes until she has gone. Then he turns back to the table, sits down again, and picks up the paper.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02