Chapter 11
9 mins to read
2293 words

Doctor Richard Diver and Mrs. Elsie Speers sat in the Café des Alliées in August, under cool and dusty trees. The sparkle of the mica was dulled by the baked ground, and a few gusts of mistral from down the coast seeped through the Esterel and rocked the fishing boats in the harbor, pointing the masts here and there at a featureless sky.

“I had a letter this morning,” said Mrs. Speers. “What a terrible time you all must have had with those Negroes! But Rosemary said you were perfectly wonderful to her.”

“Rosemary ought to have a service stripe. It was pretty harrowing—the only person it didn’t disturb was Abe North—he flew off to Havre—he probably doesn’t know about it yet.”

“I’m sorry Mrs. Diver was upset,” she said carefully.

Rosemary had written:

Nicole seemed Out of her Mind. I didn’t want to come South with them because I felt Dick had enough on his hands.

“She’s all right now.” He spoke almost impatiently. “So you’re leaving to-morrow. When will you sail?”

“Right away.”

“My God, it’s awful to have you go.”

“We’re glad we came here. We’ve had a good time, thanks to you. You’re the first man Rosemary ever cared for.”

Another gust of wind strained around the porphyry hills of la Napoule. There was a hint in the air that the earth was hurrying on toward other weather; the lush midsummer moment outside of time was already over.

“Rosemary’s had crushes but sooner or later she always turned the man over to me—” Mrs. Speers laughed, “—for dissection.”

“So I was spared.”

“There was nothing I could have done. She was in love with you before I ever saw you. I told her to go ahead.”

He saw that no provision had been made for him, or for Nicole, in Mrs. Speers’ plans—and he saw that her amorality sprang from the conditions of her own withdrawal. It was her right, the pension on which her own emotions had retired. Women are necessarily capable of almost anything in their struggle for survival and can scarcely be convicted of such manmade crimes as “cruelty.” So long as the shuffle of love and pain went on within proper walls Mrs. Speers could view it with as much detachment and humor as a eunuch. She had not even allowed for the possibility of Rosemary’s being damaged—or was she certain that she couldn’t be?

“If what you say is true I don’t think it did her any harm.” He was keeping up to the end the pretense that he could still think objectively about Rosemary. “She’s over it already. Still—so many of the important times in life begin by seeming incidental.”

“This wasn’t incidental,” Mrs. Speers insisted. “You were the first man—you’re an ideal to her. In every letter she says that.”

“She’s so polite.”

“You and Rosemary are the politest people I’ve ever known, but she means this.”

“My politeness is a trick of the heart.”

This was partly true. From his father Dick had learned the somewhat conscious good manners of the young Southerner coming north after the Civil War. Often he used them and just as often he despised them because they were not a protest against how unpleasant selfishness was but against how unpleasant it looked.

“I’m in love with Rosemary,” he told her suddenly. “It’s a kind of self-indulgence saying that to you.”

It seemed very strange and official to him, as if the very tables and chairs in the Café des Alliées would remember it forever. Already he felt her absence from these skies: on the beach he could only remember the sun-torn flesh of her shoulder; at Tarmes he crushed out her footprints as he crossed the garden; and now the orchestra launching into the Nice Carnival Song, an echo of last year’s vanished gaieties, started the little dance that went on all about her. In a hundred hours she had come to possess all the world’s dark magic; the blinding belladonna, the caffein converting physical into nervous energy, the mandragora that imposes harmony.

With an effort he once more accepted the fiction that he shared Mrs. Speers’ detachment.

“You and Rosemary aren’t really alike,” he said. “The wisdom she got from you is all molded up into her persona, into the mask she faces the world with. She doesn’t think; her real depths are Irish and romantic and illogical.”

Mrs. Speers knew too that Rosemary, for all her delicate surface, was a young mustang, perceptibly by Captain Doctor Hoyt, U.S.A. Cross-sectioned, Rosemary would have displayed an enormous heart, liver and soul, all crammed close together under the lovely shell.

Saying good-by, Dick was aware of Elsie Speers’ full charm, aware that she meant rather more to him than merely a last unwillingly relinquished fragment of Rosemary. He could possibly have made up Rosemary—he could never have made up her mother. If the cloak, spurs and brilliants in which Rosemary had walked off were things with which he had endowed her, it was nice in contrast to watch her mother’s grace knowing it was surely something he had not evoked. She had an air of seeming to wait, as if for a man to get through with something more important than herself, a battle or an operation, during which he must not be hurried or interfered with. When the man had finished she would be waiting, without fret or impatience, somewhere on a highstool, turning the pages of a newspaper.

“Good-by—and I want you both to remember always how fond of you Nicole and I have grown.”

Back at the Villa Diana, he went to his work-room, and opened the shutters, closed against the mid-day glare. On his two long tables, in ordered confusion, lay the materials of his book. Volume I, concerned with Classification, had achieved some success in a small subsidized edition. He was negotiating for its reissue. Volume II was to be a great amplification of his first little book, A Psychology for Psychiatrists . Like so many men he had found that he had only one or two ideas—that his little collection of pamphlets now in its fiftieth German edition contained the germ of all he would ever think or know.

But he was currently uneasy about the whole thing. He resented the wasted years at New Haven, but mostly he felt a discrepancy between the growing luxury in which the Divers lived, and the need for display which apparently went along with it. Remembering his Rumanian friend’s story, about the man who had worked for years on the brain of an armadillo, he suspected that patient Germans were sitting close to the libraries of Berlin and Vienna callously anticipating him. He had about decided to brief the work in its present condition and publish it in an undocumented volume of a hundred thousand words as an introduction to more scholarly volumes to follow.

He confirmed this decision walking around the rays of late afternoon in his work-room. With the new plan he could be through by spring. It seemed to him that when a man with his energy was pursued for a year by increasing doubts, it indicated some fault in the plan.

He laid the bars of gilded metal that he used as paperweights along the sheaves of notes. He swept up, for no servant was allowed in here, treated his washroom sketchily with Bon Ami, repaired a screen and sent off an order to a publishing house in Zurich. Then he drank an ounce of gin with twice as much water.

He saw Nicole in the garden. Presently he must encounter her and the prospect gave him a leaden feeling. Before her he must keep up a perfect front, now and to-morrow, next week and next year. All night in Paris he had held her in his arms while she slept light under the Luminal; in the early morning he broke in upon her confusion before it could form, with words of tenderness and protection, and she slept again with his face against the warm scent of her hair. Before she woke he had arranged everything at the phone in the next room. Rosemary was to move to another hotel. She was to be “Daddy’s Girl” and even to give up saying good-by to them. The proprietor of the hotel, Mr. McBeth, was to be the three Chinese monkeys. Packing amid the piled boxes and tissue paper of many purchases, Dick and Nicole left for the Riviera at noon.

Then there was a reaction. As they settled down in the wagon-lit Dick saw that Nicole was waiting for it, and it came quickly and desperately, before the train was out of the ceinture—his only instinct was to step off while the train was still going slow, rush back and see where Rosemary was, what she was doing. He opened a book and bent his pince-nez upon it, aware that Nicole was watching him from her pillow across the compartment. Unable to read, he pretended to be tired and shut his eyes but she was still watching him, and though still she was half asleep from the hangover of the drug, she was relieved and almost happy that he was hers again.

It was worse with his eyes shut for it gave a rhythm of finding and losing, finding and losing; but so as not to appear restless he lay like that until noon. At luncheon things were better—it was always a fine meal; a thousand lunches in inns and restaurants, wagon-lits, buffets, and aeroplanes were a mighty collation to have taken together. The familiar hurry of the train waiters, the little bottles of wine and mineral water, the excellent food of the Paris-Lyons-Méditerranée gave them the illusion that everything was the same as before, but it was almost the first trip he had even taken with Nicole that was a going away rather than a going toward. He drank a whole bottle of wine save for Nicole’s single glass; they talked about the house and the children. But once back in the compartment a silence fell over them like the silence in the restaurant across from the Luxembourg. Receding from a grief, it seems necessary to retrace the same steps that brought us there. An unfamiliar impatience settled on Dick; suddenly Nicole said:

“It seemed too bad to leave Rosemary like that—do you suppose she’ll be all right?”

“Of course. She could take care of herself anywhere—” Lest this belittle Nicole’s ability to do likewise, he added, “After all, she’s an actress, and even though her mother’s in the background she has to look out for herself.”

“She’s very attractive.”

“She’s an infant.”

“She’s attractive though.”

They talked aimlessly back and forth, each speaking for the other.

“She’s not as intelligent as I thought,” Dick offered.

“She’s quite smart.”

“Not very, though—there’s a persistent aroma of the nursery.”

“She’s very—very pretty,” Nicole said in a detached, emphatic way, “and I thought she was very good in the picture.”

“She was well directed. Thinking it over, it wasn’t very individual.”

“I thought it was. I can see how she’d be very attractive to men.”

His heart twisted. To what men? How many men?

—Do you mind if I pull down the curtain?

—Please do, it’s too light in here.

Where now? And with whom?

“In a few years she’ll look ten years older than you.”

“On the contrary. I sketched her one night on a theatre program, I think she’ll last.”

They were both restless in the night. In a day or two Dick would try to banish the ghost of Rosemary before it became walled up with them, but for the moment he had no force to do it. Sometimes it is harder to deprive oneself of a pain than of a pleasure and the memory so possessed him that for the moment there was nothing to do but to pretend. This was more difficult because he was currently annoyed with Nicole, who, after all these years, should recognize symptoms of strain in herself and guard against them. Twice within a fortnight she had broken up: there had been the night of the dinner at Tarmes when he had found her in her bedroom dissolved in crazy laughter telling Mrs. McKisco she could not go in the bathroom because the key was thrown down the well. Mrs. McKisco was astonished and resentful, baffled and yet in a way comprehending. Dick had not been particularly alarmed then, for afterward Nicole was repentant. She called at Gausse’s Hotel but the McKiscos were gone.

The collapse in Paris was another matter, adding significance to the first one. It prophesied possibly a new cycle, a new pousse of the malady. Having gone through unprofessional agonies during her long relapse following Topsy’s birth, he had, perforce, hardened himself about her, making a cleavage between Nicole sick and Nicole well. This made it difficult now to distinguish between his self-protective professional detachment and some new coldness in his heart. As an indifference cherished, or left to atrophy, becomes an emptiness, to this extent he had learned to become empty of Nicole, serving her against his will with negations and emotional neglect. One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual. There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still. The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or of the sight of an eye. We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it.

Read next chapter  >>
Chapter 12
3 mins to read
820 words
Return to Tender is the Night