I and My True Love, Page 2Helen Macinnes
“Let me look,” Kate said, and found it. “Now I’ll see the luggage piled into the back, and we can get started.”
Sylvia nodded and slipped into the front seat. She gripped the steering wheel to try and control the sudden trembling of her hands.
Kate joined her, giving her a worried glance, and then sat silently beside her.
“I thought we’d go down to Pennsylvania Avenue and then swing round the White House and get to Georgetown that way,” Sylvia said. That second glimpse of Jan... It’s all over, she had told him and believed it. It is all over, she told herself now.
“I could drive if you like.”
Sylvia shook her head. Traffic problems would keep her from thinking about herself. “I’ll manage. And you do the talking, Kate.”
The girl said lightly, “That won’t be hard.” But she watched Sylvia carefully as the car was started and turned around. And then, as if reassured, she began to describe her long journey from the Pacific, halting every now and again to look at a building and ask a question. By the time they reached M Street, with its cheerful bustle and busy shops, she had begun to talk about the job that had brought her to Washington.
“I envy you,” Sylvia said suddenly, grateful too that the drive to Georgetown had passed so easily after all.
“What? Me?” Kate looked at her cousin in astonishment. Ever since she had met Sylvia, she had been feeling gauche and awkward.
“You’re so full of confidence,” Sylvia said. “Don’t lose that, Kate.”
Kate’s astonishment grew. “I—I didn’t know I had any,” she admitted, and began worrying in case confidence prevented her from ever looking like Sylvia. Not that she’d ever be beautiful as Sylvia was—but she could be thirty, and elegant, and poised, and wear smart little black hats and suits and a fur stole thrown round her shoulders with such proper carelessness. “What’s that perfume you’re wearing, Sylvia?” she asked with startling suddenness. “You smell so good.”
Sylvia laughed, unexpectedly. But Kate could forgive her, for there was warmth and life in her face and voice at last. That’s the way she should always look, Kate thought.
“You can borrow some of that good smell, tonight,” Sylvia was saying as they now climbed a narrow street, trees spaced along its brick sidewalks, variously coloured houses mounting on either side, “We’re having a small dinner party to welcome you to Washington.” Then she swung the car into a street, still narrower, still shorter than those they had travelled through in the last few minutes. “Here we are,” Sylvia said. “Joppa Lane.” She brought the car to rest before a three-storeyed house of brick painted blackish-grey with white shutters and a white door. Kate looked at it, then at the row of houses stretching along the little street, elbowing each other for space.
Sylvia was beginning to smile again. “You don’t think much of it, do you?”
“Well,” Kate said slowly, searching for politeness, “it is all very—interesting. Old, isn’t it?”
“Eighteenth century mostly. That’s Payton’s reason for liking Georgetown.” It was the first time she had mentioned her husband. “Stewart Hallis says Joppa Lane is the most expensive firetrap in America, but he’s just bought that narrow little house over there with the yellow door. You’ll meet him at dinner tonight.”
“Painters must thrive in this part of town,” Kate said, looking at the variety of colour schemes along the street. But she was wondering, as she followed her cousin over the worn brick steps, through the Georgian doorway, into a soft carpeted narrow hall, why Sylvia slipped into a way of talking which sounded amusing only because it was spoken in an amused voice. It didn’t fit Sylvia, somehow. And Sylvia’s smile at the moment was just as unreal, too. I prefer the way she was at the station, Kate decided, even the way she seemed upset, troubled, although I couldn’t understand any of it.
Waiting in the hall, listening to Sylvia’s quiet voice giving directions about the luggage, watching the white-haired servant with his precise bow, looking through a glass-panelled doorway which led to a small walled garden at the back of the house, Kate suddenly had her first attack of homesickness. She thought of a rambling house built on a hillside, its wide windows giving light and air and a view of a valley in blossom. And behind the miles of orchards, there were the foothills of the Sierras stretching limitless and free. The vivid memory silenced her as Sylvia led her up the steep narrow staircase.
“Payton is particularly proud of the balustrade,” Sylvia was saying. “And one of his triumphs is this wallpaper. Early nineteenth century. Mr. Jefferson had it sent over from France.” She turned quickly to look down at Kate, and a glimmer of a smile came back to her lips. “You’ll delight Payton if you ask him how he ever got it on these walls.”
“I’ll remember,” Kate said.
“You must be tired. Why don’t you rest before you unpack? Walter will give you a hand with that. He’s awfully good about things like unpacking.”
“Oh, no,” Kate said in alarm. “I’m not as tired as all that. She hesitated. “Did Payton choose Walter too?”
“Walter was here before I came.”
Kate calculated quickly. “It’s ten years since you married Payton, isn’t it?”
“Almost ten.” There was a pause. “Here’s your room.”
It was square shaped, dimly lit by two small windows. “Surely Martha Washington slept here?” Kate pointed to the ball-fringed lined canopy over the rosewood four-poster bed. “It’s all charming,” she added quickly, but she wondered where she was going to put her suitcases. “Payton does collect beautiful things.” She looked around at them.
Sylvia nodded. “What would you like—tea or a drink?”
“I’d like some coffee if that wouldn’t seem too rustic.”
Sylvia said, “You’re going to be very good for me. Or very bad.” She became serious again. “I think I’ll rest, too. I had a grim luncheon to attend before I came to meet you: creamed chicken and canned peas and speeches.” She hesitated at the door. “I’m afraid—at the station—I really wasn’t feeling very well. Sorry if I worried you.”
“I was only worried about all the trouble I’m giving you, I mean waiting for that train, and—”
“Trouble?” The blue eyes looked at Kate unhappily, then the lips smiled. “No trouble at all. We’re delighted to have you.”
“I am going to look for a small place of my own. If you could put up with me for a few days...”
“Much longer than that, I hope.” She gave a last glance at the dressing-table with its bowl of roses and violets. “Do make yourself comfortable, darling.” And she was gone.
Kate looked round the perfect room. She memorised it quickly. She should pay it that compliment at least, for she could hear the perfect Walter coming up the perfect staircase with her perfectly ordinary suitcases: in five minutes, this period piece would be a crammed jammed little place with the delicately virgin mantelpiece helping out as extra storage space. She began to laugh and then checked herself guiltily as Walter knocked on the door.
“Come in,” she called nervously giving the best imitation of Sylvia she could manage.
Payton Maxwell Pleydell called his wife at four o’clock; or rather he had Miss Black put in the call while he went on examining the latest report.
“Mrs. Pleydell’s on the wire, now,” Miss Black said in her precise way. She was a thin, hawknosed, sharp-eyed woman with grey hair severely shingled. She handed over the telephone to Pleydell, smoothed away a wrinkle from her conservative skirt, and tactfully studied the sheaf of papers on her lap. Sitting so still, she became a part of the room’s furnishings, as business-like and serviceable and unobtrusive as the simple desk, the plain walls with faded maps, the shelves of heavy uniform books, the square uncurtained window with its halfdrawn shade.
“Sylvia,” Pleydell said, “an emergency meeting’s been called for this afternoon.”
There was a slight pause. But Sylvia understood about such meetings.
Emergency meant importance.
“How late shall I hold dinner?” she asked at last.
“Better not hold it. You never can tell when I’ll get away. I’ll have something to eat at the club.”
“We were giving the dinner for Kate.”
He said with annoyance, “I know. But this can’t be helped. I’ll be home in time to mix the highballs.”
“Is anything wrong, Sylvia?” She didn’t usually question him like this.
“I tried to reach you earlier this afternoon,” he said reproachfully.
“I was meeting Kate at the station.”
“Dutiful of you. And how is Kate? Presentable?”
“Charming, I think.”
“Well, that’s a relief. Tell her I’m sorry about the party, but this is unavoidable. Who’s coming tonight anyway?”
Amy Clark was a friend of Sylvia’s. Martin Clark was a Foreign Service career man who had never left Washington and lived on his salary.
“Stewart Hallis,” Sylvia went on.
He liked Hallis, a successful lawyer in the international field, and a very eligible bachelor. “That’s tactful,” he conceded.
“Lieutenant Turner—the one who knew Kate’s brother in Korea.”
“That’s a stroke of genius.” Perhaps Turner would stop admiring Sylvia from a distance and concentrate on someone nearer his own age.
Sylvia was saying dutifully, listlessly, “And Miriam Hugenberg.”
“Well,” he said encouragingly, “that doesn’t sound too difficult an evening.” There was no one whose feelings would be hurt if he arrived late. “Practically a family gathering. I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
He put down the ’phone, glanced impatiently at the clock on his desk, and said, “Now, are these the latest figures available? What about that subsidiary February report?”
“You thought it wasn’t reliable,” Miss Black said.
“Let me see its analysis again.”
He studied it carefully. Nothing really definite there... “What we want are facts and figures, not opinions,” he said irritably, yet pleased that his judgment had been right in the first place.
Miss Black’s sharp eyes expressed her agreement and approval. She began, quickly, methodically, to gather together the exact papers he required. “I’ll stay here until the meeting’s over,” she said.
He nodded, still frowning slightly. He passed a well-kept hand over his thinning grey hair. His face looked white and tired but his worry, once the frown left his brow, was well hidden. When he rose, he stooped a little as if to apologise for his height. His clothes were as quiet and restrained as his manners. His movements like his words were economical. But at the door he paused to give Miss Black a smile of thanks, a small smile that lightened his severe gaunt face for a brief moment. Then the door was shut quickly, firmly, decisively.
He works too hard, Miss Black thought. But who doesn’t? She looked at the opened files which lay in disorder and for which she felt wholly responsible. She made a pretence of a sigh, but it wouldn’t have deceived anyone.
* * *
The ’phone call from Payton had come just as she had reached her room. Sylvia put down the receiver, trying to calm her resentments. That silly listing of the names of the guests—as if to prove he were interested in the little dinner party for Kate, as if he hadn’t been told yesterday about the guests who were coming. Perhaps he hadn’t been listening, though. He listened to very little nowadays, except to his friends who were all men, who were all interested in the problems that interested him. Or that silly way of calling her dutiful because she had gone to meet Kate. Why hadn’t he asked about the luncheon and the speeches? That had been pure duty, commanded by him. It was good for Payton to have a wife who could appear on a platform for the right occasions, earn him some credit, and save him so much boredom.
Then she broke off her small revolt as quickly as it had begun. She had tried a real revolt once—six years ago. It might have succeeded if only—oh, why even think of it now?
She dropped her hat and furs on a chair, and sat down on the edge of the chaise longue. At first, she sat tensely, seeing nothing, her mind a blank, her emotions deadlocked. Then she lay back, staring up at the ceiling as if to find the answers to her problems there. “Jan,” she said softly, “oh Jan, why did you come back?” She began to cry, quietly and steadily.
* * *
The room had darkened. It must be getting late. She sat up, and switched on the lamp which stood at her elbow. Its small shaded glow fell on the silver and velvet frames clustered together on the small table beside her. Formal photographs, favourite snapshots enlarged, the little gallery of people who hedged her life and kept it in its own neat garden.
There was her father, Thomas Jerold, sitting on the wide porch of Whitecraigs, looking proudly out over his Virginia meadows as if his daughters hadn’t ever caused him worry and heartbreak. And there was her mother, Millicent, who fluttered around doing good work for every cause except that of her own family. And here were Annabel and Jennifer, her two older sisters, as they had been ten years ago when she married Payton: beautiful, yes, and disarmingly innocent. (But even in 1941 there had been scandals and high gossip—Annabel was acquiring the second of her four husbands and Jennifer was thinking of divorcing her first.)
And over here was a collection of snapshots of the California Jerolds. George, her father’s brother, who had left Virginia for a ranch in the foothills of the Sierras; Margaret, his light-hearted, competent wife with her Philadelphia sense of duty; the three children—Geoffrey who was now in Korea, young Hank still at college, and Kate who had come to conquer Washington.
Examples and warnings, she thought bitterly.
She picked up her husband’s photograph. This was how he had looked when she had married him. For love? Yes. For love. For a quiet kind of love, with respect and admiration lending it strength. Payton had been thirty-seven, then: tall, good-looking in his quiet way, distinguished: a civilised man of taste, thoughtful, tolerant, cool, detached, the opposite of the young men who had crowded Whitecraigs and become engaged to her sisters. (For each of their marriages there had been several engagements and countless rumours.) Yes, she had admired Payton. She had been grateful to him, too—he hated scandal and gossip, yet he had never criticised her sisters. And she had been flattered—the ignorant girl of twenty who was noticed by the intelligent man of thirty-seven, the man who had never been interested in women. He still wasn’t.
That’s been our trouble, she thought, for I’m a woman. Yet he chose to marry me. And, that time of his illness—he loved and needed me then. Or was it the possession of me that he needed? But why? To make his life seem complete? To reassure himself that he is a normal man? But our life—our life isn’t complete or normal. A wife isn’t a collector’s item, a porcelain figure, Sèvres circa 1790, in pride of place on a Latrobe mantelpiece.
“No!” she told herself sharply, “no! Stop thinking this way, don’t even let yourself start imagining such things.” She set down the photograph on the table beside her, turning it from her.
Once, she reminded herself, you persuaded yourself that he didn’t love you, that you owed nothing in return. Once, six years ago, you let yourself fall into love, into a love that wasn’t cool or detached or even chosen. There was no reason in it, just a madness which later she could blame on the war. And no one had known about it—except Amy Clark. Payton had never even guessed. But when he fell ill, desperately ill, just at the time Jan went back to Europe, that had been the end of the madness. For there was Payton, needing her, expecting her, asking for her. What else could she do but stay? And Jan went alone, and she was left with only the miserable sense of deception, the guilt of betrayal. As if to cleanse herself, she had become the completely dutiful wife, forcing herself into the pattern of living that Payton had wanted. He had won, every way. She gave up all hope of int
ense happiness. That was only a dream, a dream she had shared briefly with Jan, a dream that Payton’s illness had ended, pulling her roughly back into reality.
There was a gentle knock at the door and Kate entered. She was already dressed for dinner.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Kate said, half retreating. “Am I too early?” She looked in amazement at Sylvia’s black suit and then at Sylvia’s face.
“What’s the time? Oh heavens, I’ll be late! Come in, sit down. Keep me company while I dress.” She’s been lonely, Sylvia thought guiltily.
“I just wondered when dinner was. I went looking for Walter to find out, but I got lost downstairs.” And Walter scares me stiff, Kate thought.
“People are coming at half-past seven.” Sylvia began undressing rapidly. “Did you have time to rest?”
Kate smiled. The idea of resting seemed comic. “I’ve unpacked. I’ve ruined the beautiful room.”
“It’s got to be lived in,” Sylvia said as she moved into the bathroom. “Switch on some lights. Make yourself comfortable. I shan’t be long.” She had a quick shower and washed the stains from her cheeks where the tears had dried. What is over is over, she told herself: no more tears, no more self-pity, no more admissions. No more weakness. That’s all over.
She entered her little dressing-room and pulled on her clothes. Then she came back to the bedroom to brush her hair before the mirror. Kate was sitting on the edge of the bed, watching her.
“You dress very quickly,” Kate said.
“You learn that trick in Washington. Just look at my engagement pad beside the telephone if you don’t believe me.”
“Do you really enjoy it, Sylvia?”
“I’ve got accustomed to it, I suppose. Wouldn’t you enjoy it?”
“I don’t know. It’s all very different from being a student in Berkeley.” Kate laughed. “It’s kind of odd to step into someone else’s house in another part of the country. It’s a different design of living. Of course, this is all extra sort of special.” She looked around the bedroom. “When I find a room of my own, it will be much more like a college room in Berkeley.”