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Saratoga Trunk

Edna Ferber





















  Saratoga Trunk: 1941

  About the Author

  Also by Edna Ferber


  About the Publisher


  They were interviewing Clint Maroon. They were always interviewing old Colonel Maroon. Though he shunned publicity, never had held public office and wasn’t really a Colonel at all, he possessed that magnetic flamboyant quality which makes readable news. It wasn’t his wealth. America had fifty men as rich as he. Certainly it wasn’t social position. He and the spectacularly beautiful Clio Maroon never had figured in formal New York society. It could not have been his great age merely which had brought the reporters into his hotel suite at Saratoga on this, his eighty-ninth birthday, for the newspapers had seized upon him with yelps of joy when first he had dawned dramatically upon their horizon at thirty. They had swarmed on him throughout the three-score years that had elapsed since then; when he turned forty; at his dashing half-century mark; at sixty, when there was scarcely a glint of gray in the reddish-brown hair that was exactly the color of a ripe pecan shell; at seventy, eighty, eighty-five. If Clint Maroon bought an old master or a new yacht, sold short or emerged from a chat with the President of the United States, streamlined one of his railroads or donated a million to charity or science, won the Grand National or took up ice-skating (ever so slightly bow-legged, proof of his Texas past) there the reporters were, clamoring for him.

  “I’m from the Times, Mr. Maroon . . . Herald Tribune, Colonel . . . News . . . American . . . Sun . . . Post. . . World-Telegram . . . My paper would like to know if it’s true that you . . .”

  They liked him. He never said, “Hiyah, boys!” with that false jocularity they so quickly detected. He never whipped a brown oily cylinder out of his vest pocket with a patronizing, “Have a good cigar.” His manner was courteous without being hearty. Quietly he answered their questions when he was able, always taking his time about it. Just as deliberately he had said, on occasion, “Sorry, young man, but I can’t answer that question at this time.” Curiously soft-voiced and rather drawling for so big and full-blooded a man, he sometimes gave the effect of being actually shy. Easterners for the most part, the New York newspapermen did not realize that in the Far West of the bad old days the man who was slowest in his speech was likely to be quickest on the draw. They had, in fact, forgotten that Texas was Clint Maroon’s early background. He never had reminded them.

  Certain wise ones among the fraternity said it was Mrs. Maroon who really ran the show. “She’s always there,” these wily craftsmen observed, “if you’ll notice, standing beside him with her hand on his arm, like royalty, looking so damned beautiful and queenly you think, Boy! She must have wowed them when she was young. She doesn’t talk much, but watch those eyes of hers. Big and black and soft, and what they miss you could put in your own eye. But when she does speak up, very soft and sort of Southern, she says something. Nice, too, both of them, but I don’t know, cagey, in a way. I’ve seen her pinch him when he was headed for a boner, with that lovely kind of heartbreaking smile on her face all the time he took to cover up and start fresh. Some day I’d like to dig way back on those two. I’ll bet there’s gold in them thar hills.”

  Mr. and Mrs. Clinton Maroon, Fifth Avenue and Seventy-third Street. Clint and Clio back in the old Texas, New Orleans and Saratoga days. But curiously enough, for all their interviewing, none of the newspapermen or women really knew about that. These two had been rich, respectable and powerful for sixty years. Newspaper reporters die young, or quit their jobs.

  Possessed of a dramatic quality, together with vitality and bounce, a zest for life and an exquisite sense of timing, the Maroons had brightened many a dull Monday morning news page. They were almost incredibly handsome, this pair, with a splendor of face and figure that had crumbled little under the onslaught of the years. Hospitable, friendly, interested in life—particularly in your life, your plans, your conversation—hundreds liked and respected them, but amazingly few really knew them. Seeming frank and accessible, the truth was that they went their way in a kind of splendid isolation. They consistently shied away from the photographers. It was the one point on which they met the news fraternity reluctantly.

  “Oh, come on now, Colonel! Please, Mrs. Maroon! Just one shot. You haven’t murdered anybody.”

  “That’s what you think,” Clint Maroon retorted.

  Much as they liked him, the general opinion among the newsmen lately had been that the old boy was cracking up. When they came to interview him on business or political or philanthropic or international affairs he now tried to tell them outrageous yarns palpably culled from Western thrillers and lurid detective stories. It was difficult to lead him back to the hard modern facts about which they had come to see him. Among themselves they confided, “Old Maroon’s getting a little balmy, if you ask me. At that, he’s good for his age. Crowding ninety. Gosh, ninety! You should live so long, not me.”

  And now on this, his eighty-ninth birthday, old Clint Maroon, in spite of wars, panics, and world chaos, still was triumphantly news. Cameras, candid and flashlight; reporters, male and female, special and news, all had traveled up to Saratoga on this broiling August day. They were there not only because the ancient’s natal day found him at the quaint little spa at the beginning of the racing season when the thermometer kissed the ninety-degree mark, but because he had just made a gesture so lavish, so dramatic that it promised to land him on the front page of every newspaper in the country along with other world phenomena.

  Reporters had swarmed by plane, motorcar and train. It was four o’clock on a brilliant summer afternoon. “What the hell’s the good of living to be eighty-nine and piling up eighty-nine millions and more if you can’t take yourself a nap or go to the races at four in the afternoon on a day like this!” demanded Matt Quinlan.

  “You’re above all that at eighty-nine, with eighty-nine millions,” said the astringent Trixie Nye of the Post.

  Short, squat little Balmer of the Sun, oldest of the lot and most canny, shook his head while he lighted his pipe, in itself no mean feat. “Not that old bird. Clint’s up to something, or Gaffer Balmer has missed his calling all these years.”

  They roamed the room or sat mopping their flushed faces or stared down at the street below which, for one brief month in the year, wakened from its Victorian serenity to receive the sporting blood, the moneyed, the horse-lovers, the gay, the social, the gambling fraternity of the whole country. The great ancient elms in front of the United States Hotel cast an ineffectual shade upon the burning asphalt and cement.

  In the high-ceilinged dim old sitting room of the Maroon suite at the United States Hotel there was something incongruous about those modern hard young faces, that slick mechanical equipment. The carved walnut tables with their liver-colored marble tops, the prancing rockers, the Victorian drapes and steel engravings, the faded ingrain carpets and lumpy upholstery were anachronistic as a background for this dynamic group. The women writers stared with amused eyes at the gas globes of the ponderous chandelier, the men took a sporting shot at the vast cuspidor. Quinlan’s lean, worldly face broke into a grin as he noticed the coil of stout rope dangling from a hook near the window. “It’s a rope fire escape, by God! I heard they still had ‘em but I never believed it.”

  Ellen Ford of the Tribune said, wistfully, “I wish they’d
let me see the bathroom. They say the tub and the loo and the washstand are all boxed in black walnut, like coffins.”

  Tubby Krause wagged a fat and chiding forefinger. “Papa told you to go when you were downstairs.”

  There was a discreet tap at the outer door, they turned swiftly to face it, but it was a waiter, it was a little flock of waiters in the best Saratoga manner, white-clad, black-skinned, gold-toothed, aware of the dignity of their calling and the tradition of the house. Trays and trays and trays. Scotch, rye, bourbon. Ice coffee, iced tea. Mint and gin pleasantly mingled. Lemon, cream, sandwiches. Tinkle of ice, clink of silver.

  “Hepp you ladies and geppmen or you prefer to hepp youseff?”

  “Hepp ourself,” said Larry Conover, and lost no time. “One you boys got a tip on a horse?”

  “Honey Chile, straight,” the procession answered as one man; bowed and withdrew with a rustle of starched white uniforms.

  “Is it always like this?” inquired one of the newer men. Before anyone could answer, the door to the adjoining room opened, the newspaper reporters turned their alert faces like a battery of searchlights on the pair who entered.

  “Good afternoon, ladies! Glad to see you, gentlemen! Keep your seats. Go on with your drinks.”

  “Hiyah, Mr. Maroon!”

  They looked like royalty—rowdy royalty, and handsome. Almost a century of life rested as rakishly on his head as the sombrero he so often wore. A columnist once said that Clint Maroon, even in top hat and tails, gave the effect of wearing spurs, chaps and sombrero.

  “Clio, these are the ladies and gentlemen of the press. Some of them you have met before. . . . Mrs. Maroon.” He pronounced her name with such effect that you felt you had almost heard a brass horn Ta-TA-ah-ah-ah!

  Both wore white; there was almost an other-world look about them. The reporters reproached themselves inwardly for being so hot, so sweaty and unkempt. As though sensing this, Mrs. Maroon now said in her lovely leisurely voice, “How young you all are! It refreshes me just to look at you. Don’t you feel that, Clint?”

  “Swap you ten years for ten millions, Mr. Maroon,” said the brash Quinlan.

  “Wish I could do it, Matt. Or there was a time when I’d have wished it. Not so sure, now. Take your coats off, take your coats off! Be comfortable.”

  Clio Maroon at seventy-nine stood straight and slim as a girl. Her unwithered lips were soft and full, her skin was gently wrinkled like old silk crepe, its lines almost unnoticeable at a distance. Even the least perceptive among those present must have felt something exotic and quickening about her. Ten years younger than he, she still was beautiful with a timeless beauty like that of ivory or marble or a painting that takes on added magnificence with age. Her white hair was still so strongly mixed with black that the effect was steel-gray. In certain lights it had a bluish tinge. Springing strongly away from brow and temples, it was amazingly thick and vigorous for a woman of her age. But all this you remarked at a second or third glance. It was the eyes you first saw, liquid, clear, softly bright; merry, too, as though she enjoyed outer life with the added fillip of an inner secret. She stood beside her towering handsome husband, but a little behind him, too, as women of Victorian days had walked in deference to the male. Certain seasoned newspapermen knew there was more than mere symbolism in her standing thus. They had watched the workings of her quiet generalship; they knew she sustained and directed him. Her delicate brown hand resting so trustingly on his arm was not above giving him a furtive little pinch in warning or reproof. They had even seen him wince on occasion, and once or twice he had been known to emit an ouch of surprised remonstrance at a particularly sharp and sudden tweak.

  “Oh, Clint, chérir’’ Mrs. Maroon would say, her tone one of fond sympathy. “Is it your arthritis again?”

  Though she appeared fragile there yet was about her a hair-wire resilience that bespoke more vitality than he possessed in spite of his bulk, his high color and die auburn still glowing in his hair that even now was only sprinkled with white. Though marked for the woodsman’s ax, the juices still coursed through the old tree.

  Now the photographers sprang into action. Almost automatically he and she raised protesting hands; then she smiled as though remembering something. Clint Maroon waved one great arm. “All right. Shoot! I’m through with skulking. My grandpappy fought in the Alamo. I reckon I can face a battery of cameras without flinching.” Suddenly he winced. Then he reached across his own girth and patted his wife’s hand that lay so innocently in the crook of his other arm. “No more pinching to shut me up, Clio. Time’s past for that, too. From now on I’m making a clean breast of it. This is going to be a different America. We won’t live to see it, but we said we were going to try to make up for what we’d done to it.”

  She smiled again, wistfully, and shook her head a little, and the reporters thought, she must have a time of it managing the old boy now that his mind is slipping a bit. The candid camera men stood on chairs and surveyed their victims from strange angles; the little boxes clicked. The two white-clad figures posed smiling and serene.

  Len Brisk of the Telegram dismissed the camera men with a gesture of clearing the decks for action. “All right, boys! You’ve got yours. Beat it.”

  You heard the well-bred authoritative voice of Keppel of the New York Times. “Mr. Maroon, there are certain questions my paper would like me to ask you. Is it true ...”

  The barrage was on. Is it true you are giving your Fifth Avenue house to the city, outright, to be used for a Service Clubhouse? Is it true you’ve turned your collection of paintings over to the Metropolitan Museum? Is it true your yacht is to be a government training ship? Is it true your Adirondacks estate is to be a free summer camp for boys? Is it true you’re giving away every penny of your fortune to the government after you’ve pensioned your old employes? And that you’re keeping just enough for you and Mrs. Maroon to live on in comfort? Is it true ... is it true ... is it true . . .

  He replied in the soft-spoken Texas drawl that had taken on the clipped overtones of authority. “All true. But unimportant. That stuff’s not what I want to tell you about. This time I can give you a real story. It isn’t only something to write about. It’s something for Americans to read and realize, and remember. They’ll hate me for it. But anyway, they’ll know.”

  “Yeah, that’ll be fine. Uh—look, Colonel, we want—”

  “All right, Colonel, but first—”

  “First hell! This is first I tell you. In another year, if I live, I’ll be ninety. The way the world is headed I don’t know’s I want to. Ninety, nearly, and I’m sick of being a railroad magnate and a collector of art and a Metropolitan Opera stockholder and director of a lot of fool corporations. It’s damned dull, and always has been. If I was thirty I’d learn to run an airplane. Might anyway. Next to breaking a bucking bronco that must be more fun than anything.”

  “May we say that, Mr. Maroon?”

  “God, yes. Say anything you like. I’ve got nothing to lose now. I’m coming clean. Listen. Millions, and I had to be respectable. Me, a terror from Texas. Here you are, smart as they make ‘em, you and your kind have been interviewing me for sixty years, ever since I found that fool railroad hanging around my neck—and you don’t know a thing about the real Clint Maroon. Not a damned thing. Or if you have got it filed away in the morgue somewhere you’re scared to print it while I’m alive. Well, go on. Use it! I’m a Texas gambler and a killer. I’ve killed as many men as Jesse James, or almost. I’ve robbed my country for sixty years. My father, he ran the town of San Antonio back in 1840 before the damn Yankees came along and stole his land for a railroad. That’s one reason why I didn’t hesitate to steal it back from them. My grandpappy, old Dacey Maroon, fought the Santa Anna Mexicans along with Jim Bowie and Bill Travis and Sam Houston. That’s the stock I come from. And what did I do for my country! Stole millions from millionaires who were stealing each other blind. Another year and I’ll be ninety—the meanest old coot that ever lived
to be nearly a hundred—”

  “Oh, come on now, Colonel. You know you’re a wonderful guy and everybody’s crazy about you and Mrs. Maroon. So stop kidding us and give us our story in time for the first edition.”

  “God A’mighty, I’m giving it to you, I tell you! They called us financiers. Financiers hell! We were a gang of racketeers that would make these apes today look like kids stealing turnips out of the garden patch. We stole a whole country—land, woods, rivers, metal. They’ve got our pictures in the museums. We ought to be in the rogues’ gallery. My day you could get away with wholesale robbery, bribery in high places and murder—and brag about it. I was brought up on the stories my father told about ‘em—Huntington and Stanford and Crocker. Two hundred thousand dollars is all they had amongst them in 1861. And they wanted to build a railroad across a continent. So they paid a visit to Washington, and they left that two hundred thousand there. Made no secret of it. They came away with a charter and land grants and the government’s promise to pay in bonds for work in progress. What did the Central Pacific crowd do! I heard my pa tell how in ‘63 Phil Stanford—he was brother of the Governor—drove up to the polls in a buggy when they were holding elections in San Francisco over a bond issue. Reached into a bag and began throwing gold pieces to the crowd at the polls, yelling to ‘em to vote the bond issue. They voted it, all right. Do that today and where’d you land? In jail! Lives and principles, they didn’t matter. Same thing in 1880 when I got started. Say, I was as bad as the worst of’em—”

  “Sure, Colonel, we know, we know. You were a bad hombre all right.”

  “You tell us all about that some time. Some other time. And about the day you rode your horse right up to the bar of the Perfessor Saloon in San Antone.”

  They were being good-natured about it, but they did wish Mrs. Maroon would stop the old coot’s nonsense. Pretty soon it would be too late, the races would be over and they’d have to hop back to New York without a chance to use that tip on Honey Chile.