Chapter 7
15 mins to read
3956 words

But she went to the beach with Dick next morning with a renewal of her apprehension that Dick was contriving at some desperate solution. Since the evening on Golding’s yacht she had sensed what was going on. So delicately balanced was she between an old foothold that had always guaranteed her security, and the imminence of a leap from which she must alight changed in the very chemistry of blood and muscle, that she did not dare bring the matter into the true forefront of consciousness. The figures of Dick and herself, mutating, undefined, appeared as spooks caught up into a fantastic dance. For months every word had seemed to have an overtone of some other meaning, soon to be resolved under circumstances that Dick would determine. Though this state of mind was perhaps more hopeful,—the long years of sheer being had had an enlivening effect on the parts of her nature that early illness had killed, that Dick had not reached—through no fault of his but simply because no one nature can extend entirely inside another—it was still disquieting. The most unhappy aspect of their relations was Dick’s growing indifference, at present personified by too much drink; Nicole did not know whether she was to be crushed or spared—Dick’s voice, throbbing with insincerity, confused the issue; she couldn’t guess how he was going to behave next upon the tortuously slow unrolling of the carpet, nor what would happen at the end, at the moment of the leap.

For what might occur thereafter she had no anxiety—she suspected that that would be the lifting of a burden, an unblinding of eyes. Nicole had been designed for change, for flight, with money as fins and wings. The new state of things would be no more than if a racing chassis, concealed for years under the body of a family limousine, should be stripped to its original self. Nicole could feel the fresh breeze already—the wrench it was she feared, and the dark manner of its coming.

The Divers went out on the beach with her white suit and his white trunks very white against the color of their bodies. Nicole saw Dick peer about for the children among the confused shapes and shadows of many umbrellas, and as his mind temporarily left her, ceasing to grip her, she looked at him with detachment, and decided that he was seeking his children, not protectively but for protection. Probably it was the beach he feared, like a deposed ruler secretly visiting an old court. She had come to hate his world with its delicate jokes and politenesses, forgetting that for many years it was the only world open to her. Let him look at it—his beach, perverted now to the tastes of the tasteless; he could search it for a day and find no stone of the Chinese Wall he had once erected around it, no footprint of an old friend.

For a moment Nicole was sorry it was so; remembering the glass he had raked out of the old trash heap, remembering the sailor trunks and sweaters they had bought in a Nice back street—garments that afterward ran through a vogue in silk among the Paris couturiers, remembering the simple little French girls climbing on the breakwaters crying “Dites donc! Dites donc!” like birds, and the ritual of the morning time, the quiet restful extraversion toward sea and sun—many inventions of his, buried deeper than the sand under the span of so few years. . . .

Now the swimming place was a “club,” though, like the international society it represented, it would be hard to say who was not admitted.

Nicole hardened again as Dick knelt on the straw mat and looked about for Rosemary. Her eyes followed his, searching among the new paraphernalia, the trapezes over the water, the swinging rings, the portable bathhouses, the floating towers, the searchlights from last night’s fêtes, the modernistic buffet, white with a hackneyed motif of endless handlebars.

The water was almost the last place he looked for Rosemary, because few people swam any more in that blue paradise, children and one exhibitionistic valet who punctuated the morning with spectacular dives from a fifty-foot rock—most of Gausse’s guests stripped the concealing pajamas from their flabbiness only for a short hangover dip at one o’clock.

“There she is,” Nicole remarked.

She watched Dick’s eyes following Rosemary’s track from raft to raft; but the sigh that rocked out of her bosom was something left over from five years ago.

“Let’s swim out and speak to Rosemary,” he suggested.

“You go.”

“We’ll both go.” She struggled a moment against his pronouncement, but eventually they swam out together, tracing Rosemary by the school of little fish who followed her, taking their dazzle from her, the shining spoon of a trout hook.

Nicole stayed in the water while Dick hoisted himself up beside Rosemary, and the two sat dripping and talking, exactly as if they had never loved or touched each other. Rosemary was beautiful—her youth was a shock to Nicole, who rejoiced, however, that the young girl was less slender by a hairline than herself. Nicole swam around in little rings, listening to Rosemary who was acting amusement, joy, and expectation—more confident than she had been five years ago.

“I miss Mother so, but she’s meeting me in Paris, Monday.”

“Five years ago you came here,” said Dick. “And what a funny little thing you were, in one of those hotel peignoirs!”

“How you remember things! You always did—and always the nice things.”

Nicole saw the old game of flattery beginning again and she dove under water, coming up again to hear:

“I’m going to pretend it’s five years ago and I’m a girl of eighteen again. You could always make me feel some you know, kind of, you know, kind of happy way—you and Nicole. I feel as if you’re still on the beach there, under one of those umbrellas—the nicest people I’d ever known, maybe ever will.”

Swimming away, Nicole saw that the cloud of Dick’s heart-sickness had lifted a little as he began to play with Rosemary, bringing out his old expertness with people, a tarnished object of art; she guessed that with a drink or so he would have done his stunts on the swinging rings for her, fumbling through stunts he had once done with ease. She noticed that this summer, for the first time, he avoided high diving.

Later, as she dodged her way from raft to raft, Dick overtook her.

“Some of Rosemary’s friends have a speed boat, the one out there. Do you want to aquaplane? I think it would be amusing.”

Remembering that once he could stand on his hands on a chair at the end of a board, she indulged him as she might have indulged Lanier. Last summer on the Zugersee they had played at that pleasant water game, and Dick had lifted a two-hundred-pound man from the board onto his shoulders and stood up. But women marry all their husbands’ talents and naturally, afterwards, are not so impressed with them as they may keep up the pretense of being. Nicole had not even pretended to be impressed, though she had said “Yes” to him, and “Yes, I thought so too.”

She knew, though, that he was somewhat tired, that it was only the closeness of Rosemary’s exciting youth that prompted the impending effort—she had seen him draw the same inspiration from the new bodies of her children and she wondered coldly if he would make a spectacle of himself. The Divers were older than the others in the boat—the young people were polite, deferential, but Nicole felt an undercurrent of “Who are these Numbers anyhow?” and she missed Dick’s easy talent of taking control of situations and making them all right—he had concentrated on what he was going to try to do.

The motor throttled down two hundred yards from shore and one of the young men dove flat over the edge. He swam at the aimless twisting board, steadied it, climbed slowly to his knees on it—then got on his feet as the boat accelerated. Leaning back he swung his light vehicle ponderously from side to side in slow, breathless arcs that rode the trailing side-swell at the end of each swing. In the direct wake of the boat he let go his rope, balanced for a moment, then back-flipped into the water, disappearing like a statue of glory, and reappearing as an insignificant head while the boat made the circle back to him.

Nicole refused her turn; then Rosemary rode the board neatly and conservatively, with facetious cheers from her admirers. Three of them scrambled egotistically for the honor of pulling her into the boat, managing, among them, to bruise her knee and hip against the side.

“Now you, Doctor,” said the Mexican at the wheel.

Dick and the last young man dove over the side and swam to the board. Dick was going to try his lifting trick and Nicole began to watch with smiling scorn. This physical showing-off for Rosemary irritated her most of all.

When the men had ridden long enough to find their balance, Dick knelt, and putting the back of his neck in the other man’s crotch, found the rope through his legs, and slowly began to rise.

The people in the boat, watching closely, saw that he was having difficulties. He was on one knee; the trick was to straighten all the way up in the same motion with which he left his kneeling position. He rested for a moment, then his face contracted as he put his heart into the strain, and lifted.

The board was narrow, the man, though weighing less than a hundred and fifty, was awkward with his weight and grabbed clumsily at Dick’s head. When, with a last wrenching effort of his back, Dick stood upright, the board slid sidewise and the pair toppled into the sea.

In the boat Rosemary exclaimed: “Wonderful! They almost had it.”

But as they came back to the swimmers Nicole watched for a sight of Dick’s face. It was full of annoyance as she expected, because he had done the thing with ease only two years ago.

The second time he was more careful. He rose a little testing the balance of his burden, settled down again on his knee; then, grunting “Alley oop!” began to rise—but before he could really straighten out, his legs suddenly buckled and he shoved the board away with his feet to avoid being struck as they fell off.

This time when the Baby Gar came back it was apparent to all the passengers that he was angry.

“Do you mind if I try that once more?” he called, treading water. “We almost had it then.”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

To Nicole he looked white-around-the-gills, and she cautioned him:

“Don’t you think that’s enough for now?”

He didn’t answer. The first partner had had plenty and was hauled over the side, the Mexican driving the motor boat obligingly took his place.

He was heavier than the first man. As the boat gathered motion, Dick rested for a moment, belly-down on the board. Then he got beneath the man and took the rope, and his muscles flexed as he tried to rise.

He could not rise. Nicole saw him shift his position and strain upward again but at the instant when the weight of his partner was full upon his shoulders he became immovable. He tried again—lifting an inch, two inches—Nicole felt the sweat glands of her forehead open as she strained with him—then he was simply holding his ground, then he collapsed back down on his knees with a smack, and they went over, Dick’s head barely missing a kick of the board.

“Hurry back!” Nicole called to the driver; even as she spoke she saw him slide under water and she gave a little cry; but he came up again and turned on his back, and “Château” swam near to help. It seemed forever till the boat reached them but when they came alongside at last and Nicole saw Dick floating exhausted and expressionless, alone with the water and the sky, her panic changed suddenly to contempt.

“We’ll help you up, Doctor. . . . Get his foot . . . all right . . . now altogether. . . .”

Dick sat panting and looking at nothing.

“I knew you shouldn’t have tried it,” Nicole could not help saying.

“He’d tired himself the first two times,” said the Mexican.

“It was a foolish thing,” Nicole insisted. Rosemary tactfully said nothing.

After a minute Dick got his breath, panting, “I couldn’t have lifted a paper doll that time.”

An explosive little laugh relieved the tension caused by his failure. They were all attentive to Dick as he disembarked at the dock. But Nicole was annoyed—everything he did annoyed her now.

She sat with Rosemary under an umbrella while Dick went to the buffet for a drink—he returned presently with some sherry for them.

“The first drink I ever had was with you,” Rosemary said, and with a spurt of enthusiasm she added, “Oh, I’m so glad to see you and know you’re all right. I was worried—” Her sentence broke as she changed direction “that maybe you wouldn’t be.”

“Did you hear I’d gone into a process of deterioration?”

“Oh, no. I simply—just heard you’d changed. And I’m glad to see with my own eyes it isn’t true.”

“It is true,” Dick answered, sitting down with them. “The change came a long way back—but at first it didn’t show. The manner remains intact for some time after the morale cracks.”

“Do you practise on the Riviera?” Rosemary demanded hastily.

“It’d be a good ground to find likely specimens.” He nodded here and there at the people milling about in the golden sand. “Great candidates. Notice our old friend, Mrs. Abrams, playing duchess to Mary North’s queen? Don’t get jealous about it—think of Mrs. Abrams’ long climb up the back stairs of the Ritz on her hands and knees and all the carpet dust she had to inhale.”

Rosemary interrupted him. “But is that really Mary North?” She was regarding a woman sauntering in their direction followed by a small group who behaved as if they were accustomed to being looked at. When they were ten feet away, Mary’s glance flickered fractionally over the Divers, one of those unfortunate glances that indicate to the glanced-upon that they have been observed but are to be overlooked, the sort of glance that neither the Divers nor Rosemary Hoyt had ever permitted themselves to throw at any one in their lives. Dick was amused when Mary perceived Rosemary, changed her plans and came over. She spoke to Nicole with pleasant heartiness, nodded unsmilingly to Dick as if he were somewhat contagious—whereupon he bowed in ironic respect—as she greeted Rosemary.

“I heard you were here. For how long?”

“Until to-morrow,” Rosemary answered.

She, too, saw how Mary had walked through the Divers to talk to her, and a sense of obligation kept her unenthusiastic. No, she could not dine to-night.

Mary turned to Nicole, her manner indicating affection blended with pity.

“How are the children?” she asked.

They came up at the moment, and Nicole gave ear to a request that she overrule the governess on a swimming point.

“No,” Dick answered for her. “What Mademoiselle says must go.”

Agreeing that one must support delegated authority, Nicole refused their request, whereupon Mary—who in the manner of an Anita Loos’ heroine had dealings only with Faits Accomplis, who indeed could not have house-broken a French poodle puppy—regarded Dick as though he were guilty of a most flagrant bullying. Dick, chafed by the tiresome performance, inquired with mock solicitude:

“How are your children—and their aunts?”

Mary did not answer; she left them, first draping a sympathetic hand over Lanier’s reluctant head. After she had gone Dick said: “When I think of the time I spent working over her.”

“I like her,” said Nicole.

Dick’s bitterness had surprised Rosemary, who had thought of him as all-forgiving, all-comprehending. Suddenly she recalled what it was she had heard about him. In conversation with some State Department people on the boat,—Europeanized Americans who had reached a position where they could scarcely have been said to belong to any nation at all, at least not to any great power though perhaps to a Balkan-like state composed of similar citizens—the name of the ubiquitously renowned Baby Warren had occurred and it was remarked that Baby’s younger sister had thrown herself away on a dissipated doctor. “He’s not received anywhere any more,” the woman said.

The phrase disturbed Rosemary, though she could not place the Divers as living in any relation to society where such a fact, if fact it was, could have any meaning, yet the hint of a hostile and organized public opinion rang in her ears. “He’s not received anywhere any more.” She pictured Dick climbing the steps of a mansion, presenting cards and being told by a butler: “We’re not receiving you any more”; then proceeding down an avenue only to be told the same thing by the countless other butlers of countless Ambassadors, Ministers, Chargés d’Affaires. . . .

Nicole wondered how she could get away. She guessed that Dick, stung into alertness, would grow charming and would make Rosemary respond to him. Sure enough, in a moment his voice managed to qualify everything unpleasant he had said:

“Mary’s all right—she’s done very well. But it’s hard to go on liking people who don’t like you.”

Rosemary, falling into line, swayed toward Dick and crooned:

“Oh, you’re so nice. I can’t imagine anybody not forgiving you anything, no matter what you did to them.” Then feeling that her exuberance had transgressed on Nicole’s rights, she looked at the sand exactly between them: “I wanted to ask you both what you thought of my latest pictures—if you saw them.”

Nicole said nothing, having seen one of them and thought little about it.

“It’ll take a few minutes to tell you,” Dick said. “Let’s suppose that Nicole says to you that Lanier is ill. What do you do in life? What does anyone do? They act —face, voice, words—the face shows sorrow, the voice shows shock, the words show sympathy.”

“Yes—I understand.”

“But in the theatre, No. In the theatre all the best comédiennes have built up their reputations by bur les quing the correct emotional responses—fear and love and sympathy.”

“I see.” Yet she did not quite see.

Losing the thread of it, Nicole’s impatience increased as Dick continued:

“The danger to an actress is in responding. Again, let’s suppose that somebody told you, ‘Your lover is dead.’ In life you’d probably go to pieces. But on the stage you’re trying to entertain—the audience can do the ‘responding’ for themselves. First the actress has lines to follow, then she has to get the audience’s attention back on herself, away from the murdered Chinese or whatever the thing is. So she must do something unexpected. If the audience thinks the character is hard she goes soft on them—if they think she’s soft she goes hard. You go all out of character—you understand?”

“I don’t quite,” admitted Rosemary. “How do you mean out of character?”

“You do the unexpected thing until you’ve manœuvred the audience back from the objective fact to yourself. Then you slide into character again.”

Nicole could stand no more. She stood up sharply, making no attempt to conceal her impatience. Rosemary, who had been for a few minutes half-conscious of this, turned in a conciliatory way to Topsy.

“Would you like to be an actress when you grow up? I think you’d make a fine actress.”

Nicole stared at her deliberately and in her grandfather’s voice said, slow and distinct:

“It’s absolutely out to put such ideas in the heads of other people’s children. Remember, we may have quite different plans for them.” She turned sharply to Dick. “I’m going to take the car home. I’ll send Michelle for you and the children.”

“You haven’t driven for months,” he protested.

“I haven’t forgotten how.”

Without a glance at Rosemary whose face was “responding” violently, Nicole left the umbrella.

In the bathhouse, she changed to pajamas, her expression still hard as a plaque. But as she turned into the road of arched pines and the atmosphere changed,—with a squirrel’s flight on a branch, a wind nudging at the leaves, a cock splitting distant air, with a creep of sunlight transpiring through the immobility, then the voices of the beach receded—Nicole relaxed and felt new and happy; her thoughts were clear as good bells—she had a sense of being cured and in a new way. Her ego began blooming like a great rich rose as she scrambled back along the labyrinths in which she had wandered for years. She hated the beach, resented the places where she had played planet to Dick’s sun.

“Why, I’m almost complete,” she thought. “I’m practically standing alone, without him.” And like a happy child, wanting the completion as soon as possible, and knowing vaguely that Dick had planned for her to have it, she lay on her bed as soon as she got home and wrote Tommy Barban in Nice a short provocative letter.

But that was for the daytime—toward evening with the inevitable diminution of nervous energy, her spirits flagged, and the arrows flew a little in the twilight. She was afraid of what was in Dick’s mind; again she felt that a plan underlay his current actions and she was afraid of his plans—they worked well and they had an all-inclusive logic about them which Nicole was not able to command. She had somehow given over the thinking to him, and in his absences her every action seemed automatically governed by what he would like, so that now she felt inadequate to match her intentions against his. Yet think she must; she knew at last the number on the dreadful door of fantasy, the threshold to the escape that was no escape; she knew that for her the greatest sin now and in the future was to delude herself. It had been a long lesson but she had learned it. Either you think—or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you.

They had a tranquil supper with Dick drinking much beer and being cheerful with the children in the dusky room. Afterward he played some Schubert songs and some new jazz from America that Nicole hummed in her harsh, sweet contralto over his shoulder.

“Thank y’ father-r Thank y’ mother-r Thanks for meetingup with one another——”

“I don’t like that one,” Dick said, starting to turn the page.

“Oh, play it!” she exclaimed. “Am I going through the rest of life flinching at the word ‘father’?”

“—Thank the horse that pulled the buggy that night!

Thank you both for being justabit tight——”

Later they sat with the children on the Moorish roof and watched the fireworks of two casinos, far apart, far down on the shore. It was lonely and sad to be so empty-hearted toward each other.

Next morning, back from shopping in Cannes, Nicole found a note saying that Dick had taken the small car and gone up into Provence for a few days by himself. Even as she read it the phone rang—it was Tommy Barban from Monte Carlo, saying that he had received her letter and was driving over. She felt her lips’ warmth in the receiver as she welcomed his coming.

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