The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court
As for myself, I was already a grown young man at the time I speak of—in the year 1943—and was now serving as an enlisted man in the United States Army. I had, moreover, been placed for several weeks on special assignment for temporary duty in the District of Colombia. And this was when, out of obscure needs quite beyond my own comprehension, I made a point of seeking out this great-aunt where she was currently living, in the stylish Stoneleigh Court Apartments on lower Connecticut Avenue. I did so ostensibly in order that I should make the old lady’s real acquaintance for the first time since I was a small child. Yet there were other and more profound reasons for my looking up my aunt, which were at the time by no means self-evident or in the least bit comprehensible to me.
The “present day” that I made reference to above, regarding my aunt, and the “now” and the “nowadays” that may creep into my narrative during these first pages must not ever be construed as having reference to the trite “present day” or the banal “nowadays” that such a one as I have lived on into. Rather, the time I shall have in mind will be the vibrant “now” of fifty years ago when the Second World War lay before us and I was that staff sergeant on temporary duty in the District of Columbia. I do believe in my heart that this is the period when the young people of my generation imagined ourselves most fully alive—whether we were some avowed conscientious objector, such as I had actually listed myself with the Memphis Draft Board, or whether we were one of the more warlike spirits amongst whom we were inevitably cast in the ranks of the army.
Whatever we were, all of us imagined ourselves most fully alive then. And yet somehow, at the same time, how often it was we felt bored to distraction with our lives! There in Washington we rode the streetcars and stood in line at the cafeterias, to which we were allotted tickets, and at the movie theaters, which seemingly were on every corner of the downtown. Yes, to all of us it was the most exciting and the very dullest of times. We had before us—the would-be conscientious objectors or the ordinary draftees—either imminent death in the global war of our day or, if spared, then we had the prospect of a stagnant life in a world we all dreaded and that we sensed we should certainly come to know when the war was over.
I had been drafted before our country was actually in the war. As a result of this I had picked up many a trick from the old-time regular army soldiers in our organization. I had been drafted so early as I had for fairly obvious reasons. It was because of my having tried originally to register as a conscientious objector! On my draft registration form I had made a somewhat naive-seeming statement, objecting to any sort of peacetime draft and “defying any contractual coercion to do murder at any future time.” My impression is—as I shall illustrate later on—that there were a number of like-minded young men right there in Memphis at the time, young men who were willing in a halfhearted way, like myself, to resist any sort of peacetime draft.
On the draftee special train transporting our group to the Reception Center at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, I sat next to a slight acquaintance of mine, a young man by the name of Alex Mercer, and Alex was certain he was being drafted early only because of some almost inadvertent remark he had put on his own registration form about the peacetime draft. When he and I were back home again after the war, he was still as certain as ever about why he was “called” so early. And so I am sure that what happened to me was not merely a figment of my imagination. In fact, it was to the young woman secretary at the Draft Board office that I—and possibly others like me—could trace my own special brand of discrimination. When I questioned her about why my registration form had been sent on to Washington, instead of being reviewed first by the local board, she replied with indifference that she supposed my phrase “the act of murder” referred to “some act of Congress,” and said she with a patriotic grin, “I left it for Congress to interpret, instead of the local board.” I had no recourse, after that. I could only wonder even then that the fates of how many draftees would at last lie in the hands of that young woman clerk. In any case, the result for me was my being forthwith catapulted into the first peacetime U.S. Army draft.
Yet once any of our sort was drafted and sworn in by some anonymous adjutant-general army officer, then we were from that moment forward not noticeably different in our general behavior and performance of duty from the other soldiers we found ourselves in the midst of. From then on, indeed, our only and foremost concern, so it seems in retrospect, would be to prevent our companions in arms from learning how it was that we had originally enlisted ourselves with our Draft Board at home.
In my own case, extraordinary feelings of guilt would sometimes sweep over me when I was deceiving all those around me about my real nature and my halfhearted conviction—and these feelings were followed by a period of profound depression. And oftentimes there would be only the unaccountable depression without any consciousness of guilt.
At any rate, it was with the typical connivance of any old peacetime dog-faced soldier that I managed to obtain an extended temporary duty away from Camp Forrest, where I was then stationed. And I had done so in order to be near a fantastically good-looking girl named Lila Montgomery, a young lady who had just recently left Tullahoma, Tennessee, and had accepted an office job in Washington, D.C.
It is important to say that that temporary assignment of mine in the District was not something that just happened by chance. It was something that I finagled rather deviously in order to be near that fantastically good-looking girl. To my commanding officer back at the Post I had explicitly stated that before our outfit shipped out for overseas, which was bound to occur a few months hence (for our country was by now in the war), there was an aging relative in Washington that I wished to see before departing these shores. It had been precisely the right approach to make to the young C.O., and I congratulated myself, as I often had occasion to do in those days, on my very thorough understanding of commanding-officer mentality.
In retrospect, I am not sure it was my Aunt Augusta St. John-Jones I was pretending to have in mind when I spoke my piece to the officer. The fact was, in our family there were always various great-aunts, and their like, who lingered and lurked about Washington—even in so late an epoch as that of the Second World War. Generally speaking, these were the widowed spouses of politicos, of one kind and another, who tarried on the scene for years and years after they had any official position in the place. They were mostly the remnants of past political administrations, ladies who had caught the Washington bug and would not willingly give it up. To other Washington residents, even in that day, these kinswomen of ours were bound to have seemed an anachronism. Like most others of their sort they existed as the widows, the sisters, the daughters of what were now forgotten men—that is, those men amongst us who from time to time had represented our family (as well, incidentally, as the state of Tennessee) in the seat of government of what they termed the “Federal Union.”
But all that aside, the girl I have spoken of, the fantastically good-looking girl named Lila Montgomery, was then residing in Washington in a women’s hotel on upper Connecticut Avenue. She was one of those thousands of girls who hurried off to Washington during the war to work in the bureaus for the duration; in Lila’s case it was only now—only just very recently—that she had taken up her job there. (When I am tempted sometimes to slip into the present tense, as I sometimes shall do, I think it is largely because all stories about young people—especially young people who have participated in war—seem to cry out to be told in the present tense. For them there seems to be no past, so to speak, no future, only the present.)
Lila Montgomery was actually someone I had met scarcely three months prior to our fateful Washington reunion, had met at a U.S.O. dance while she, a genteel country girl from what is known in Tennessee as the Highland Rim, was then staying with relatives in Tullahoma, and when I was still in basic training in nearby Camp Forrest. I say I “met” her just as though she and I were properly introduced at that dance in the Camp Forrest canteen, which was hardly the case, and which mattered considerably in that day and age but which would hardly matter at all in years ahead after the war. The truth is I had watched this girl on the crowded dance floor that night without having any idea who she was. I had no idea whether she was one of the regular hostesses or merely someone brought there by one of the headquarters company enlisted men. The important point for me is that I would almost have been content to stand there on the sidelines of the dance floor all night, merely watching that girl. And a sad sight I must have made, in my polished high shoes, my spotlessly clean uniform, my overseas cap tucked neatly in my belt, perfectly got up for a U.S.O. dance, but drawing a long face that bespoke a draftee contemplating an imminent overseas shipment. But even in my forlorn state of mind there was something about watching Lila that was a satisfaction in itself. That is to say, even later after I got to know her and wished to be constantly in her company I believe it was, first and last, the very expressive mobility in the girl’s gestures, every slight movement of her whole person, the quick, responsive and ever-changing expressions of her face—like lights and shadows that came from within her—that utterly delighted me, and delighted me to the exclusion of everything else involved in our acquaintance. She seemed such a natural part of the scene that she somehow became the scene itself. And perhaps it was the scene itself I was enamored of—or thought I ought to be enamored of, as a normal young male animal. It may be that so long as I was acquainted with Lila Montgomery this perception on my part would alienate and in some degree estrange her from me and prevent her from ever allowing me to become acquainted with what was probably her essential nature. But I could not be sure of this. And in the end it would be left for my old Aunt Gussie to perceive and act upon.
After we began going about together, Lila often complained that I never made sufficient effort to develop any conversation with her and that I often failed to listen to her when she spoke to me. She said I had a way of seeming always to be listening to other voices across the room or across the street. But merely looking at Lila Montgomery would be for me the greatest pleasure to be derived from being in her company. The animated features of her face, the long, quite golden hair pushed behind the pretty little ears just showing under the brim of the G.I. hat she sometimes affected, as well as the single strand of pearls about her neck, the pale blue sweater she had herself knitted, the wide pleats of her dark skirt constituted altogether my greatest pleasure. I didn’t allow my observations or my thoughts to carry me any further than that. The total, ultimate beauty of this girl I did not let myself think about. I suspect that during wartime soldiers will demand either total satisfaction of their aspiration with regard to persons of the opposite gender or almost total sublimation.
From the stag line that first night at the canteen dance I saw her personality and to some extent her very physiognomy change utterly with every new partner that broke in on her. Her face changed, her step was altered of course, the very angle of her arm on her partner’s shoulder was altered, as well as her posture and the very animation of her entire person. In her wonderful kind of innocence or sophistication—it was hard to say which it was—she seemed responsive with every fiber of her being to every man that came near her. Anyhow, with no pretense at having an introduction that night I at last stepped out and touched the elbow of her current partner. And Lila, instantly responding to the agitated expression I must have been wearing, tried desperately hard to hold on to that corporal’s sleeve. It was as though she suspected at once I might be bad medicine for her. It was as though she were endowed with a wonderful intuition that I would complicate her life in some way that she did not want it complicated. But nevertheless as a sergeant I more or less pulled my rank on the unhappy corporal and with Lila in my arms I glided away in my old-fashioned Tennessee two-step.
By the time I was cut in on by another soldier (this one outranking myself and who was clearly a real acquaintance of Lila’s) I had already learned her name as well as her street address and telephone number in the nearby city of Durham. By then the wonderfully pouty expression that had come on her face when first she saw me touching the corporal’s elbow had vanished altogether. And now I felt a certain alarm at how quickly she had adjusted to me and to my dance step. It made me begin wondering even then whatever in the world this well adjusted and infinitely adjustable girl could have in common with my ill adjusted self. She had come here tonight out of a sense of duty or just for the fun and adventure of attending a dance on a military base while I was a lowly draftee who was and would ever remain ill adjusted to any aspect of wartime adventure.
Yet when I yielded to another soldier who was breaking in on me, I saw her looking that pouty way again. But I saw too that it was only a pretense this time. I turned away from her, saying nonchalantly, “See you later, dear girl,” as though losing her as a dance partner was a very small matter to me. And as I ambled away to the cluster of stags standing nearby I heard her calling out to me in a hoarse whisper, “You’ve got your nerve, you know, Sergeant!” Then she gave me a big, forgiving smile that invited me to come back soon, I felt. The invitation was more in the tone of her voice than in her words or even the smile on her face. I stood at the edge of the dance floor watching her for an immeasurable time it seemed—watched the shifting overhead lights and the occasional shimmerings and shadows they threw on the planes of her expressive countenance, seeming to coincide sometimes (or so I imagined) with the inner lights and shadows of her wondrously articulate personality. I gazed at her with an objectivity previously unknown to such a raw and callous youth as I perceived myself to have grown into since the day I put on uniform. (It seemed to me that I had been older and more sophisticated before I went into uniform.) Lila appeared to me from my first sight of her indeed like one of some species I had never before set eyes upon. I watched her lovely neck as she bent forward and backward, all the while that she was making animated conversation with each successive partner, and watched too the slender body that seemed transfigured entirely somehow in response—and nothing more than that, perhaps—to the different and unpredictable dance steps that she was called upon to follow.
It was merely watching Lila Montgomery always that gave me the greatest kick—only a “kick” and possibly nothing more. It seemed to me that she possessed a natural genius for quick responses to other people. It never occurred to me what she might otherwise be like or be unlike. But of course it was her manner and grace that would make me characterize her—when at last I spoke to my Aunt Augusta St. John-Jones on the telephone—characterize her, that is, as “simply a fantastically good-looking girl” whom I wished to bring to see my aunt. And this was how I most often thought of Lila during the long, lonely hours while she was at her daytime job and my Aunt Augusta was not “receiving.” (Aunt Augusta St. John-Jones never received any visitors before five in the afternoon.) During those empty hours I found myself pacing the streets of the capital city, trudging mostly from circle to circle and from avenue to avenue with no definite purpose or destination in mind, with no purpose perhaps but to follow the routes suggested in the guide books. Studying and following the routes recommended in the guide books was simply my way of not thinking about my present life and my future and my non-future.
One day in my wanderings I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror on the wall of a drugstore on Dupont Circle. Undoubtedly the weary figure and the unthinking face I behold there is that of a common soldier who carries inside him a burden he doesn’t understand or in any way comprehend. And from that moment I perceived myself during daylight hours of my Washington stay as a lonely wayfarer without any direct notion of why he should bear his burden or even of what his burden is. (It was as though I were keeping my secret from myself.) Is it only being young and in uniform? To have all thoughts of future time blocked out just when one feels the strongest urge to take one’s own course? And I do understand somehow that all this has to do with my strong feelings about Lila Montgomery and why they seem to remain so persistently shallow. I am aware that to others I seem lively, adventuresome, even high-spirited. Other soldiers in my barracks at Camp Forrest know of and approve my going off in pursuit of a girl. But what they do not know of nor would approve of is my reserve with Lila, my failure to demonstrate any and all affection I might or might not feel for her. And others of my acquaintance—older and closer friends from my curtailed civilian boyhood and young manhood—would scarcely believe that during my Washington stay I have not frequented the art galleries and great museums nor even visited the Senate Chamber wherein my most illustrious grandfather long ago distinguished himself with his rhetoric and wit.
By day always awaiting the night—blessed nighttime—for Lila to emerge from her bureau I try to sleep till noon in the temporary barracks that are used to house soldiers on duty in the District. But the sergeant major in charge always rousts me out before noon. And so I get up and make myself scarce, as he wishes me to do, and begin my wanderings through Washington once again. It seems to me that at each circle where I stop and rest my feet, pausing there to admire the equestrian statue of whatever little roundabout park I happen to stop in, that particular parklet immediately empties of all other people when I arrive, and I am alone there with a grim General Sherman or an icy George Washington.
The season of the year is not yet winter but it is no longer autumn either. Again and again I see streaks of light in the great lifeless sky that I cannot account for. It all seems significant or even ominous in some way that is quite beyond my understanding. What is the matter with me? I ask myself. More than once I see or imagine I see a man on the edge of a high, flat rooftop who is clearly contemplating a leap into the street below. But he always turns away. I find myself on the verge of calling out to him, “Go ahead! Leap!” At every street crossing I find myself not looking at the traffic light which is meant to protect my life but peering instead at the watch on my wrist. . . .During every day of sightseeing I begin to imagine that my temporary duty in Washington will never end. It seems that I am suspended in time and it is not an altogether unpleasant sensation. My observations are but another means I have devised for not thinking about what my present mode of life signifies.
That day as Aunt Gussie and I talk over the house phone from the high-ceilinged lobby to her sixth-floor flat I detect a tremor in the old lady’s voice that suggests to me her very great age or perhaps the excitement of having one more young person from Tennessee turn up in her life—at her door. I feel that even the tremor in her voice is intended to mean something to me. As Lila and I ride up the old bird cage of an elevator, with the old hunchback of a man operating it, I imagine that I have already become the victim of some spell cast by the tremor of that melancholy voice on the phone and that I am somehow restrained from making mention of it to the girl beside me, she who watches intensely and questioningly as the elevator ascends. I smile inwardly at myself as we pass each floor, imagining as I do new dangers at every level.
After we leave the elevator and its humpbacked old man, and as we traverse the brown-carpeted corridor to Aunt Gussie’s little flat on the very top floor and at the very back side of the Stoneleigh Court, there, suddenly, the old creature stands before us in the doorway of her tiny cell-like apartment with her arms stretched out to receive us and wearing on her face what appears to be a circus clown’s smile painted all around her thin old lips, and on her hollow cheeks orange rouge so besmirched that I think at first she is blushing. Black eyes shine forth at me from the deep recesses of their sockets with a brightness that cannot be artificial. And now she throws her skeleta1 old arms around me, being ever so careful not to stain my fresh uniform with either her orange rouge or lipstick. Now she peers up into my eyes with a stare that is at once analytical and affectionate, and now she explains, “How I do love a uniform, especially when topped off with so handsome a visage.”
Now she is pulling me inside the tiny apartment and presently she is beckoning Lila to follow, without seeming to look directly at her. I don’t know when the old creature first looks directly at the “fantastically good-looking girl” I have brought with me. I think it is only after Lila has softly closed the door to the entryway behind her and is stepping into the cluttered and untidy living room. Even now, without taking Lila’s hand or making any gesture or effort to do so, Aunt Gussie merely stares severely in her direction. “So that is your fantastically good-looking girlfriend!” she says to my embarrassment of course, since she is obviously quoting from the note I sent her earlier in the week. But Lila only raises her hand to her mouth to conceal a smile.
As my aunt leads us farther into the crowded little apartment—crowded, I knew, from accounts of my sister and those of my older cousins who came to Washington long before my visit, crowded, that is, with furniture from larger apartments she formerly occupied in her more affluent days at the Stoneleigh Court—she at last gives Lila one appraising and condescending glance—or so I imagined it to be—that I shall observe a while afterward during that afternoon’s visit.
What I am not at all prepared for, strangely enough—I say strangely because it has all been described for me by my older sister and to some extent by my parents—is first of all the mauve silk scarf tied about her old head, gypsy fashion, and the array of rings on the knobby old fingers, all set with stones seemingly with every hue and color of the spectrum. There is also the tiny, cluttered living room itself seeming to come forward at me all at once with its jumble of furniture and catching me unawares. Along one wall of this minuscule parlor of my aunt’s there is hung a sort of arras, and there are inside window blinds with half-opened louvers casting stripes across the Turkish carpet. In the center of the crowded room and directly under the shaded chandelier is a table with a paisley cloth, and on that cloth is a set of unfamiliar playing cards laid out in vertical rows as if someone has been playing solitaire. With a second glance, though, it occurs to me that my aunt has been telling someone’s fortune there. Then all at once as I press forward she sweeps up the cards into a disorderly pile, though not bothering to put the deck out of sight. It is as if she doesn’t wish me to see what the fortune—her own or someone else’s?—reveals. Then she looks at me with the coyness of a child—a child that has perhaps written some nasty, naughty word in her sand pile and then defies me, the adult, to fathom whatever word she has written there and which is now wiped out forever.
Presently she indicates with her right hand—and with precise specificity—the high-backed tapestried armchair that I am to occupy. And almost simultaneously with her left hand and in her most offhand manner she makes a wide, vague gesture that tells Lila she should avail herself of one of the little straight chairs—any one she likes, for it is no matter about her—just any one of the ordinary little straight chairs that are scattered here and there about the cluttered room. Even at the time her indifference seemed rather studied, though I could not be certain about it. It left me wondering for a few seconds. But presently I forgot this first impression. We three sit there together for the better part of an hour and as we drink our tea from the elaborate orange and black tea service that she produces from her little hole of a kitchen, my Aunt Gussie and I are not silent for a single moment. In this way, I suppose, the visit can be called a great success.
Lila, meanwhile, speaks not a word but only now and then gives me a knowing grin whenever I glance in her direction. It is as though she were seeing in this occasion something that I don’t see. She is altogether left out, purposely excluded it would seem, as my aunt and I exchange family stories or at least make reference to stories and characters we are both of us familiar with. Our talk is not at all stiff or stilted as I previously thought it would surely be. I have even imagined the meeting might be disagreeable. But Aunt Gussie knows all the characters in our world so well! She can usually add something to any story or anecdote I make reference to. But she listens intently to all I say. Again and again, though, we interrupt each other. More than anyone else in the family she refers to my maternal grandfather, who after serving several terms as governor was at last sent as senator to Washington. What a friend the Senator was to her late husband! How wise and witty he was and how sympathetic to the likes of her—even took her advice, too, in certain matters. “You can’t know at your age,” she says, “how humiliating it was to be simply a ‘woman’ in those days, to be a woman and be almost never listened to by men—with regard to serious, public matters, I mean. One had to do something to make oneself interesting. It didn’t matter how silly it was, actually. But he listened, your grandfather the Senator did. He listened to everybody. That was really his genius! He would even take my astrology seriously at times and sometimes acted according to the indications I received—from up there.” For a moment she casts her eyes upward toward the ceiling of her top-floor apartment. “He was an honest friend to me. And his wife, your grandmother, she was the best of all friends, and I would often cure her terrible headaches with certain powers of concentration that I possess. She even took my astrology and my palmistry seriously—even my devotion to the Church of Rome. But he always listened to all I said and it was more remarkable in a man to listen.”
Lila is seated still in her straight chair—her sassy little hat at an angle on her head—a picture of patience. My own and Aunt Gussie’s talk runs on and on. At last, there is an almost imperceptible twitch of Lila’s left foot. I hope my aunt has not observed it, because I know it means that Lila’s patience begins to be exhausted. Suddenly, as though she too had got the signal, my aunt goes to the table and takes a black notebook from the drawer there. I manage to get a quick glimpse of the entries on its lined pages but I cannot make out its real character. I think it is not a common address book, but she holds it so close to herself that I cannot at first be certain. Presently she asks for my temporary address and the telephone number at which I can be reached as well as my date of birth and even my army serial number. She gives me a quick glance and, blinking her little black eyes, she says, “You know, don’t you, that your parents’ wedding date was five/one/ought seven?—which all adds up to thirteen.” I cannot resist now throwing back my head and laughing aloud. Meanwhile, under her breath almost and in the most casual way, as if it were an unimportant afterthought, she solicits Lila’s address and telephone number and the exact spelling of her name. Then the old lady returns the notebook to the table drawer.
As Lila and I rise and are about to take our leave, Aunt Gussie and I are still saying to each other how much each of us has reminded the other of someone else in our various Tennessee connections. Near the entry door she breaks off suddenly and says with a searching look up into my eyes, “You do look so like your late distinguished grandfather. And sometimes, you know, he comes here still.”
Now I feel I have not been paying close enough attention. I almost say aloud, “Who do you mean, Aunt Gussie?” Or even: “What do you mean, Aunt Gussie?” Then I think surely I must have misunderstood. And then I hear her saying, “Wouldn’t you like to see him sometime? He might come to us if just the two of us were present. It would mean so much to him, I think.” I turn to look at Lila to see if she has heard what I have been hearing. But Lila has already bolted. She has opened the hall door and preceded Aunt Gussie and me into the hallway. She seems oblivious to all that has passed between us in the last minute or so. Presently I can recall my father’s once saying, “Aunt Gussie has moments of madness, but only moments. Otherwise she is a thoroughly entertaining person.” And my mother’s saying, “Madness maybe, but usually I can find some method in her madness.”
And after all, during this afternoon’s visit, Aunt Gussie has surely had only one lapse into madness. I think there has been only one momentary lapse—that is, speaking of my late grandfather as she did and making reference to the signs of the zodiac. I make no answer, of course, for I can’t imagine what on earth I might say. Presently when I’m just about to pass through the entry doorway I see what I had not observed upon entering. In a sort of alcove there, which I can only suppose to have been originally a coat closet with its door removed to give the effect of an alcove, therein on the farthermost wall of the shallow closet and under a dim light from above is affixed an ivory-colored Saint Sebastian. On his ivory body are deep traces of blood, flowing from the arms and hands. At the very moment that I am struck by this gory sight and am inwardly debating whether or not the light from above the ivory figure had been shining there ever so dimly when we came in, just then Lila heaves an audible sigh which she follows with a sharp intake of breath. I cannot be sure whether she has glimpsed the dimly illuminated figure as I have done or perhaps has grasped the meaning of Aunt Gussie’s reference to my grandfather’s ghost. I instinctively raise my voice in order that Aunt Gussie not hear Lila’s breathy exclamations out in the hall. And now having said several deafening goodbyes in the doorway I go racing after Lila who, without making any pretense of saying goodbye, has preceded me down the seemingly endless corridor. Before I arrive at her side she is already standing at the iron gates of the elevator shaft, jabbing in fierce desperation at the call button there.
As for Lila and my Aunt Gussie, I wrongly imagine of course that this will be the end of their acquaintance and this might have been the last of it for my aunt and me, so I told myself afterward, except that something has already been set going inside of me that will not let it come to just that. Something inside me has been stirred that will not let me be satisfied with only that one visit to Aunt Gussie’s flat. By the time Lila and I have stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby downstairs we have kept silent except for mumbling our thanks to the decrepit operator of the bird cage which brought us down. As we pass out through the colonnades at the entrance Lila and I still have not exchanged a word. It is now that I again observe the familiar pouty expression on Lila’s face. Her full, perfectly shaped lips, ordinarily among the chief features of her beauty, are now pressed ever so tightly and disagreeably together. I can tell she has resolved not to speak until she has regained command of her emotions. I can sense already that this will not be her last meeting with Aunt Gussie and that she can somehow perceive that there is some advantage to be had from their acquaintance.
From Aunt Gussie’s stolen glances I now thought, too, that I detected some half hidden design on her part for Lila’s attention. And I remembered my mother’s once saying that with women Aunt Gussie always played a game of cat and mouse. It was now for the first time that I sensed it was not just Lila’s responsiveness to people that is to be admired. After that day I can in retrospect see that Lila has the wish and power to detect when someone can be of use to her and her ambitions. And it is as though Aunt Gussie has managed to convey something to Lila that did not reach me. By now I know the girl well enough to understand that it will help her to discern her own feelings (which she does not at this moment fully comprehend) if I will only say something utterly uncharged with emotion, something indifferent to what is going on inside her. “Isn’t she a queer old thing?” I venture tentatively. As we walk along the avenue Lila looks up at me with the same knowing smile that she gave me once a while earlier at my aunt’s apartment. It is a smile that assures me now that there is a side of Lila’s personality or character that I have scarcely taken into consideration before.
And Lila, the pouty expression suddenly all gone, looks up at me wearing that big familiar smile. “She certainly is a queer old soul,” she says, obviously trying to catch my tone, “and she certainly doesn’t fancy the likes of me.”
Thinking to placate her, I say, “I guess she never liked women very much, not even my mother. Especially not when she is competing in the world of Washington—unless of course the woman is somehow famous or powerful to some degree—most especially in politics. Did you happen to observe on the little shelf above our heads the signed ‘studio portraits’ of Grace Coolidge and Alice Roosevelt Longworth?” As Lila and I walk together up the avenue to the apartment she shares with other girls like herself, I undertake to tell her whatever I can about Aunt Gussie. And as I hear myself repeating certain familiar anecdotes, I suddenly realize how little I really know about my aunt. The stories that have been passed on to me about her are concerned mostly with her striking good looks and eccentricities. I have of course this afternoon acknowledged the eccentricities and discerned traces and suggestions of her faded beauty. But the two elements do not somehow make a whole picture—not by any stretch of the imagination. As Lila and I make our way up Connecticut Avenue, my talk is all about Aunt Gussie and my thoughts are all about Aunt Gussie, but the two somehow don’t coincide exactly—my talk and my thoughts. I am repeating accounts of the peculiar and outrageous things she has said or done at one time or another, repeating them in the very pejorative terms that my parents and older sister, as well as other relatives, have used when passing the stories on to me. But in my concurrent thoughts I am revising everything. Now I am seeing it all anew in my mind’s eye, anew and in a more sympathetic light. As a girl she had had a great many admirers, as such a beauty as she had been will inevitably have. It was said that at twilight she had been fond of being accompanied by a beau on certain long walks, often following various circuitous routes to the town cemetery. On some occasions in the approaching darkness and at a moment when the beau had turned his eyes away from her she would go quickly and hide behind one or another of the larger gravestones, managing to conceal herself altogether from his view. She remained in hiding there while her young man went bellowing after her in the near darkness among the stone angels and the little marble lambs and an occasional granite cross. At last, utterly mystified and seized by panic the young man would run out of the pitch-dark burial ground and on throughout the streets of the old river town to pound at last upon the door of the girl’s father’s house, meaning to ask for help in his frantic search. The beautiful Gussie, meanwhile, dodging from gravestone to gravestone and taking a little-known exit from the cemetery and racing through the back alleys of the town had preceded her young man there by so narrow a margin that she was scarcely able to rest and catch her breath and appear in the doorway before her panting admirer’s eyes, a vision of ghostly loveliness.
The next time I went to see my Aunt Gussie in her Stoneleigh Court apartment, I went there alone. It was on the Thursday following that Sunday’s visit. She awaited me in her apartment doorway this time, not wearing the mauve scarf about her head, but instead a black broad-rimmed hat with a very low, flat crown perched rather nattily, I thought, on her head of white hair, almost as if she were a toreador. I assumed from her appearance that she was either about to go out or that she had only just come in. Neither was the case. She had been expecting me, and it was merely her old-fashioned Washington way of receiving people in a hat. And I was arriving at just that appointed hour of our visit.
“It is a pity you couldn’t have come earlier,” she called to me when I was as far as fifty feet down the corridor from her. “For he has just been here!” she continued as I grew nearer. And then when I was in reasonable speaking distance I raised my eyebrows as if to ask who on earth she meant. “The Senator!” she exclaimed. “Your own grandfather!” And now she seized my extended hand between her own two hands, which seemed almost transparent in their fragility. “He couldn’t wait another minute,” she contended with excitement in her black eyes, seeming to scan my face for any response. I’m afraid I seemed to deadpan it, although at first I simply could not take it in. Leading me into the open doorway and stopping to close the door tightly she further exclaimed, “He could not wait another minute though I made every effort to detain him—for you to see him and for him to see you.”
I was still speechless and began wondering if I could ever speak again. My first thought was: “What an old fraud she is!” But I had scarcely placed one foot across the door sill before I found myself believing in her, accepting her view of reality, or wanting so to believe in her that I dismissed all honest thinking. The first thing I observed upon passing through the doorway this time was the dimly lit Saint Sebastian in the alcove. And I was aware, or thought I was aware, that on the first visit she had purposely arranged my seeing it only upon leaving, and now she manipulated my seeing it at once upon entering, and my seeing also above the lintel of the inner doorway to the apartment the design of the constellations of the zodiac represented in bright colors. Then after allowing me barely a glimpse of the Saint Sebastian and the signs of the zodiac she took me by the hand and led me across the room to “my chair.” She said quite openly and casually, “I have to tell you that your signature, as well as your handwriting generally, disturbs me, and all your numbers disturb me, too.”
“My numbers, Aunt?” I asked in genuine wonderment.
“Yes, all numbers pertaining to you. I have taken the liberty since you were here last of doing a tentative horoscope of you.”
I could not help exclaiming with a smile, “Oh, you are into everything, aren’t you, Aunt Gussie?”
“Such things I am ‘into,’” she asserted with only a shade of sarcasm. “One sees the same thing everywhere. I principally see that at this time in life you are not a suitable partner for anyone.” So saying, she drew back into her chair and spoke no more of this nonsense. But presently I perceived that she had drawn back only to regroup her forces—her ideas, that is. Closing her eyes momentarily, and keeping them closed even after she began to speak, she presently spoke very firmly. “I could see when you were here the other night that you are not attracted to the cards.” She now made a wide gesture toward the nearby table.
I cut my eyes to where the deck of cards was now ever so neatly stacked. “I’m afraid,” I said with another foolish smile, “that I was not able to see what kind of cards they were after you squinched them up so quickly. And I still don’t know.”
“They are tarot cards, my child,” she asserted with a certain condescension. With her black eyes now wide open, as if she would penetrate through my own eyes to my innermost ignorance and stupidity, she said, “They are cards which possess great authority and which have done so since very ancient times.” She had now gone to stand by the table, and she fanned out the cards on the paisley cloth.
“Oh, fortune-tellers’ cards,” said I, “like those gypsies use.”
“Tarot cards,” she corrected me.
“Why, they are all face cards,” I said genially. “Is that quite fair?”
“You are not a serious person, I fear,” said my aunt, with a wan, unhappy look on her face.
“Tell my fortune,” I urged, hoping to divert her.
“You are too skeptical. It would be no use. Besides, I ‘told your fortune’ for my own satisfaction after you left the other day. I already know about you. I have read you in the twelve houses of Heaven.” She was laying out the cards now on the paisley cloth. “I use only the Minor Arcana,” she said, seemingly to herself since she knew I lacked understanding. The pictures on the cards seemed wonderfully significant and suggestive and decorative to me. On the face of each there was a great deal of nudity, like so many drawings of Adam and Eve. It occurred to me that such examples of nudity would not have been allowed in the household that I grew up in. Aunt Gussie gathered in the deck again, asked me to place my two hands on top of the deck, one on top of the other, and after first riffling the cards she shuffled them three times. Then she proceeded to lay out the cards on the table once again. “We use only the cups, the wands, and the swords,” she explained. “You are the Verent, and I am the Reader. You are the Knight of Swords. And today I am using the Celtic Method.”
At least it was something like that that she began with. What I actually remember most clearly in all this nonsense was what she would allegedly reveal about me. “Ah, yes, I am the Reader,” she repeated, “and you are the Verent, and it all comes out just as it came out when I was doing my Meditation, when I was alone in the room and you and your gorgeous Lila had just departed.” Suddenly she sat very straight at the table and with closed eyes she began to speak in a somewhat more convincing voice. I didn’t then and don’t now know whether she purported to be reading the cards or following mystical insights of her own. At any rate, with her eyes now open, she was mostly staring straight into mine as she spoke. “You are a domineering and willful person at this time of your life. But you will be better later on when you have found your true calling. You would be a poor partner for anyone now, but it will not be so later on. Now you are angry and uncertain about your future. It is because you do not use your imagination. You are moody and have moments of fear about your future. You must come to terms with these negative moods. You must learn to use your imagination.”
I could not resist interrupting at this point to express further skepticism. “I am afraid the government and the army are using their collective imagination for and about me.”
Presently she opened her eyes very wide. “So there’s the rub!” she fairly gasped. I made no acknowledgment of her gasp but hurried on to say in a casual tone, “Do you know that I have one early memory of you at our Cousin Annie’s house in West Tennessee? I was there with my mother and Cousin Annie and yourself. Suddenly an empty rocking chair made a slight movement, and you said to Mother that her mother—long since dead of course—had just got up from that chair and set it rocking.”
“I suspect your mother said,” Aunt Gussie interrupted, “that the chair’s movement was caused by Cousin Annie’s old brick house’s settling on its foundations.”
“I believe that’s how she explained it,” said I defensively.
“Well, my dear boy, your mother, too, was a skeptic. And I must tell you that if you don’t learn to use your imagination you very well may lose what you most desire in life!”
“Do you mean lose that girl Lila, by any chance?”
“I mean that and ever so much more.”
Presently she left the table where the cards were spread out and excused herself from the room for a moment. And now she returned with a tray of tea things, and she served us tea from the same orange and black tea set she had used before. “Next time you must manage to come earlier,” she said with a slight suggestion of rebuke in her voice. “And of course I realize now that you must bring your young lady Lila,” she said. I did not know then what I learned later, that she had had a meeting with Lila since our last visit on Sunday. “I want to get to know her better,” she said. “You are fond of her, aren’t you?”
“I think she is a ‘fantastically good-looking girl,’ ” I said, laughing at myself, intentionally putting a certain crudeness in my voice. But I was really more interested in concealing how I was responding to her probing.
“And I can see well enough how fond she is of you,” she said, still giving me a very straight look. “It’s a perfect scandal how girls can’t or won’t conceal their feelings.”
“Yes, I suppose she likes me well enough,” said I, dissembling, unwilling to reveal whatever opinions I might have had on that score.
“Good. That’s what I want to hear you say, my boy.” But I reflected that she had other things on her mind, too. I felt that she had some evil intention toward Lila. I was altogether mystified. And it seemed to me at this point that after all I did know ever so much about this great-aunt of mine. Suddenly I could hear my mother’s older brother (he, long since dead and in his grave) saying, “She can’t keep her hands out of other people’s business—particularly men’s business. She’s always stirring her witch’s pot in search of trouble.” And presently now I heard Aunt Gussie actually saying, “I wonder how much you know about Lila’s people?”
I dared not tell her how little I cared just then about what the girl’s people might be like or tell her that marriage was not particularly what I had in mind at this point in my life. I even laughed to myself inwardly that anyone should presume to make any reference to any future of mine. And presently I was struck with consternation by what I then heard this Great-Aunt Gussie of mine saying: “My husband never cared a hoot for what my people were like, either, until he married me! . . . Ah, not that he really came to care even afterwards, either.”
It was as if my aunt had purposely made this opening for herself—to talk to me or to anyone present—about her own marriage to that Tennessee congressman who died on the floor of the House. “My husband knew only that my people had all got into politics somehow and that was what he longed to get into himself above all else in the world.” This she asserted, leaning forward toward me and resting her elbow on her knee. “He cared only about that. And that’s all he could care about at the time. It was more important to him than anything else in the world. And after we were married there was precious little in my family he could approve of then.” For a moment Aunt Gussie seemed to be waiting to see if I showed any interest in what she was saying. Finally I obliged by asking what it was about herself and her family that her husband so disapproved of. She clearly wanted me to ask this very question. “Mainly,” she began, drawing a long breath, “mainly I guess it was that my people were people that no longer had any money to speak of.” Now she had got round to telling me the things that she had set out to tell and that she had prepared the way for telling. And yet she rambled on as though this were not really what was on her mind. “My people—your father’s people—were cotton people in the old days. That is, before the Civil War they were. And they owned land in the clay hills all over West Tennessee.” This was like all the old rumors I had heard at home. There was nothing new about it, but it seemed more significant somehow coming from her. Now she got up and drifted about the room between the table and two small cabinets and the variety of chairs, still wearing her black hat set squarely on top of her head. It was as if she had really gone into some kind of trance and as if my grandfather’s spirit or that of the dead congressman, her husband that was, and perhaps spirits of other relatives whose names I wouldn’t even recall might easily appear right there beside her. “It was said,” she continued, still roaming about the room, “that our people had a talent—or once had had a talent—for making cotton grow even on the poorest land. But there came a time after our disastrous Civil War when no matter how much talent you had for it and no matter how high the cotton plants grew it wasn’t worth anybody’s while to grow the stuff—at least not out there in the clay hills of West Tennessee and not anyway if you had other talents you could make use of! And we did have other talents we could use—the men in the family, at any rate, did have.”
Now she was seated again and in her agitation was leaning forward toward me and waving one bejeweled but knotty old forefinger at me like an inverted pendulum. It was as if she were literally trying to hypnotize me, which in fact she may have been attempting and now perhaps without herself being totally aware of what she was up to. “Our men had another talent,” she presently went on, “—a talent for language, a talent for logic—or so they elected to call it. It was a wonderful gift in its way. The gift of gab, their wives more often than not called it. And so our men when they had worn out the land went down to Memphis and they went over to Nashville as though the land didn’t exist any longer and as though land were something mere women could manage, and in those cities our men took to the pulpit or took to the bar and bench. And they became the great preachers and lawyers thereabout. That was what they did after the war. And of course finally there they took up politics, which suited them best of all. And as for the women they could stay at home and be damned, or we could go along with them to Nashville or at last to Washington City and play the fine hostess if we liked. That’s what women were good for. Which is to say, the politician’s female sidekick.”
Meanwhile, in her bursts of nervous energy, Aunt Gussie was first getting up out of her chair and then sitting down again. “That role of female sidekick I knew from an early time. It was one we all knew and had known since time immemorial. I knew it from a time when, as you have no doubt heard, I used to play a game of hide-and-seek with my beaux in the village graveyard.” Here she laughed to herself rather breathlessly. “Oh, I taught them some lessons! But that’s not when it began for me. It began even as far back as when I learned to show off as a little bitty girl. My papa would call me in to perform for his friends, and I would go on dancing and singing with such enthusiasm that he would at last have to stop me, saying, ‘Let up, Gussie! Let up, for God’s sake!’ For I was too much for Papa and all the men in the family even then! But Papa’s friends would tell me to go ahead, as if it were some joke on Papa for me to behave so. ‘Keep it up, Augusta!’ they shouted out. In effect they said, ‘Show off! Show off! Show off!’ as though through me they could discover what Papa was really like.”
Even before my aunt had pointed out so obviously what the connection was between her showing off as a little bitty girl and as a girl in the cemetery, as well as the role she was destined to play as a mature woman—even before any of that I had begun to see the connection for myself or thought I had begun to see. I had begun to understand or to think I understood this old woman and what she was all about, with her magic and her spiritualism and even her own brand of Romanism. Her reputation for being a good little girl, and then for being a proper young lady, and afterward a virtuous matron and widow-lady had been impeccable and beyond suspicion. Her spiritualism and all that was something outside and quite apart from her ordinary life. Ordinary standards did not apply in that area. It was simply like having a good singing voice or being an accomplished musician on some instrument or other. It made one a welcome addition to any gathering. I understood for a certainty that she, Aunt Gussie, saw to it that her reputation as a female was above reproach. Among her great detractors in the family—including my parents—she was known of course as a busybody, a social climber, even a sometime liar, but her virtue as a girl and later as a woman was never questioned. As the years went by, her means—her funds—were gradually diminished and then she took herself back to Tennessee more and more often.
I had been told once by one of my older cousins that when she was in a nearby finishing school she used sometimes to go into Washington and spend a weekend with Aunt Gussie. Aunt Gussie would get her a date with some senator’s son or the like. But when hard times came Aunt Gussie had to retrench and move into her tiny, smaller apartment on the back side of the Stoneleigh Court. After that she wasn’t able to keep nieces and nephews over a weekend. She couldn’t afford even to occupy the smaller quarters on the back side, herself, except during the high season in the late fall and early winter. During the rest of the year they allowed her to sublet the small apartment to some politician who liked to have a good address. The Stoneleigh was, however, still a good address—the kind Aunt Gussie thought she had to have in Washington during the season. The rest of the year she would go back home to Tennessee and put up on poor and obscure kinfolks. And that was when, as a boy, I had had my first glimpses of her. She would be staying in the house of first one relative and then another. She would be sitting about the house in all her Washington finery, probably huddled over a wood-burning stove, or lounging on a front porch swing, not helping with the housework, not even making her own bed—according to the colored people about the place—but most often with her pince-nez perched on her nose while she perused the pages of the Washington Star, which she had delivered to her wherever she was currently domiciled. And if you asked her where she might be found during the rest of the summer or early fall or late spring, her reply was inevitably the same: “No definite place of abode. Just visiting around.”
In retrospect I cannot be sure how much the substance and the impressions that came through to me during those afternoons in my Aunt Augusta St. John-Jones’s flat emerged actually through words spoken or through ideographs artfully presented or some manner of altogether comprehensible pantomime—comprehensible to me, that is. After a while it would seem to me at the end of a session as though I was distinctly waking from a dream in which everything about Aunt Gussie’s life was revealed to me. I had witnessed her ambitious husband experiencing his fatal heart attack on the floor of the House. I had seen her alone in Washington for a time with no one to turn to. It seemed I had seen my senator grandfather take pity on her here in this very room, speaking words of consolation to the young widow, accompanied of course by his wife, my sainted grandmother (for she was always referred to thus), who would herself die soon afterward. And I saw my bereaved grandfather in the room being advised by Aunt Gussie about political matters according to her readings of the cards and later being advised about marital matters according to the signs of the zodiac, with the Senator laughing heartily at all her advice, yet clearly destined—as I somehow understood—to follow her advice even as to how he voted in the Senate chamber, as well as in making a choice of his second and even, later on, his third wife (neither of whom was represented to me very vividly there in my aunt’s little parlor). And both the second and the third were women of great wealth and of the highest social standing in Washington, D.C., which Aunt Gussie duly pointed out. It was not till I had set out for my barracks after a session that I would fully realize to what degree I was falling under her spell. I began to suspect sometimes that she suspected precisely what kind of moments of depression I suffered from and indeed that she knew the nature of my great secret regarding my army registration. When I was leaving her place one afternoon she held my hand between the two of hers and looked at me in silence for a long time. While her black eyes bore into my own I imagined I could hear her saying to me quite distinctly, “I will be able to find a way to help you, no matter what you think.” And when at night I slipped between the sheets of my metal cot it was always somehow a pleasurable sensation to understand that whenever I was under my aunt’s spell I was relieved as by no other means of those periodic periods of depression and dread that possessed me during that visit of mine to wartime Washington.
It was an overcast weekend with intermittent rain when I returned with Lila on another visit to the Stoneleigh Court, and on this occasion Aunt Gussie seemed to pay Lila as little attention as on the first visit. The cards were not in evidence this time as they had always been before. And the arras along one wall of the little parlor was drawn back to reveal a grouping of family pictures. Most of the conversation over teacups today was about relatives and forebears represented there. Aunt Gussie was more voluble than on previous occasions and before long she sent us on our way. During the last minutes before we left I made a point of watching to see if there were furtive looks exchanged between the two women. I expected there to be some reference made to the occasions there had been when I was not present. But no such reference was made. During the next few weeks of my stay in Washington this would happen again and again. Lila would give me sketchy accounts of their meetings and made a point, I thought, of never mentioning anything more precise than the name of the restaurant where they had lunched. And Aunt Gussie made no reference at all to the outing. She never even suggested by word or look that the meetings were taking place. I can say truthfully that their secret rendezvous (so Lila, in her lighthearted way, referred to them) did not disturb me enough for me to make an issue of—not at first, anyway. If the girl and the old lady chose to have luncheons together, which I assumed was the character of their outings, it was of no concern to me. For, as I have indicated, Lila Montgomery was from the outset someone for whom I acknowledged that my feelings did not run very deep. She was a beautiful object which had come into my view on the dance floor at Camp Forrest’s canteen and the innocent view of which continued to offer me great pleasure. Like Aunt Gussie’s pretensions to magic, Lila was a charming distraction from my own morose spirits. From Lila’s very popularity on the dance floor I knew instinctively and in all good reason what sort of girl she in all probability was. She was a “nice girl,” and her vivacity and her charm and beauty and her very niceness itself drew attention from the horde of “nice soldiers” who lined up to take their turns at dancing with her at Camp Forrest and elsewhere. In her “niceness” perhaps she seemed a goddess—more powerful than I dreamed. She was a girl who as yet felt no urgent reason to make a choice amongst her multitude of admirers. And perhaps Lila’s greatest single insight into human psychology was that any soldier who was consistently attentive to her, as I came to be, probably knew just how “nice” she was and probably valued her “niceness” and therefore was to be encouraged beyond the others. Beyond that I did not attempt to plumb the depths of Lila’s psyche. I did not know and perhaps did not care what her deepest, innermost feelings were. Perhaps I had sufficient absorption in exploring my own. At the moment I did not care what it was in her nature that allowed her to permit herself to be drawn into Aunt Gussie’s web of tea parties and luncheons. (Of course I did not reflect then how willingly I allowed myself to be drawn into the old lady’s power.) I did not do so until, one fateful late afternoon at Lila’s usual quitting time, I gave up my usual, aimless wanderings through the circles and along the avenues (with a copy of Carp’s Washington under my arm) and stopped by the bureau where Lila worked and was told that she had been granted permission to leave her desk early that afternoon in order to have tea with her old aunt from Tennessee who, as I was informed, had come for her in a taxi. Somehow it dawned on me only in that moment that I wished to ask Lila Montgomery to marry me. It seemed that I had always intended to make her my wife, but the wish or idea had never surfaced from my subconscious till I looked at the empty swivel chair where I knew she usually sat. And I did not, at the time, myself know whether this represented a sudden surge of jealousy and a resentment of Lila’s responding so readily to my aunt’s intentional and possibly malicious distraction from her interest in me or whether it was merely the result of the long, lonely, miserable afternoon I had just spent in meanderings about the senseless circles and on the mindless and seemingly endless avenues which radiated so arbitrarily from those circles and led eventually to nowhere. But it did occur to me in a flash that love and marriage to this vibrant and sympathetic girl from whose company and very appearance I derived such satisfaction would do more to dispel the unbearable moments of gloom and depression which beset me during the idle hours of the day than could all of Aunt Gussie’s magic. In my mind I set the two against one another in direct opposition. I did so in the precise moment when I must have appeared (to the onlookers in that government office) merely to stand, irresolutely in the doorway to the little cubicle where I was told Lila was ordinarily employed. But I turned away and out the door from the temporary one-story building wherein Lila’s bureau was housed, there in the greensward of the Capitol Mall. And I then rushed off in search of a taxi, which I certainly was not accustomed to riding and most certainly not accustomed to hailing in traffic.
And of course it was no easy accomplishment to grab a cab in wartime Washington traffic and particularly in that rush hour I now found myself in. But with my book under my arm I did manage to commandeer one that was caught in a stoplight traffic jam, claiming to the sympathetic driver that it was urgent government business that this particular sergeant was on. He asked me if I wished to be taken by a short route, by which of course he meant a circuitous route that would avoid some of the rush hour traffic. Cutting out of the through traffic and finally on through certain narrow streets in Foggy Bottom he did manage to deliver me at the arched entrance of the Stoneleigh Court in a very short time. It was to no avail, however. Lila and Aunt Gussie of course had not gone there in their taxi. As I would later learn, they were keeping a teatime or a cocktail hour engagement with high-placed acquaintances of my Aunt Augusta St. John-Jones who inevitably of course would reside somewhere much farther up on Connecticut Avenue.
It was not until the following night and after my own separate and subsequent teatime engagement with my aunt (on the next day) that I would see Lila again. During my afternoon meeting with Aunt Gussie (that next day) at an hour appointed by herself, her show of magic and her exercise of hypnotism seemed somehow frenetic. The paraphernalia of her spiritualism and her apparent religiosity were everywhere to be seen. (I say “apparent” because during the entire span of time I was in and out of her apartment I saw nothing but a few outward trappings of Christianity.) When I arrived this afternoon the arras which hung across the wall where the family pictures were sometimes displayed was drawn as it had been on the first visit. Little charts and various scribblings on note pads lay about the table. Her costume was more exotic than ever before, with a magenta kerchief tied about her head and a bejeweled neckband about her throat and matching bracelets on her wrists. A colorful apron with many pockets was tied around her waist. Actually she resembled a female Mason, if there be such a thing. I believe there was a faint aroma of incense in the fetid air. When I first entered there was certainly some kind of soft radio or phonograph music coming from the room beyond the arras-draped wall.
She seated me at once in my by now customary chair and said, “There are many souls wishing to crowd in to see you today.” I now took such pleasure in her showmanship and derived from it such utter relief from all my neurotic and depressed states of mind that I made no protest and did not make any inquiry or reference concerning meetings between her and Lila that had been taking place regularly.
“It is not altogether a blessing to be born under Capricorn,” she began, apropos of nothing except that I was indeed born under that solar house. Next, taking my hand, she asked very earnestly, “Do you mind if I have a quick look at your palm?”
“Most certainly not,” I said in a mock serious tone. “The fact is, I have only been waiting for you to ask.”
Before looking at my palm she gazed up into my eyes with an expression of profound pity for someone so frivolous. Then she of course bent her magenta head over my outstretched hand. “What I look for is the answer to how you will ever find your true calling. For I do believe you will have a true calling.” Bending farther and ever closer to my open palm, she muttered, “Ah, you have a long lifeline. I am glad for that. Certainly you will need time.” Suddenly I realized that the hand of mine which I had extended and which she was now examining was visibly trembling. I had no idea of the cause. It was almost as though in the tight grip on my wrist she had touched some nerve there. “You will need a long life to discover your greatest talents. Your palm possesses very deep flexion folds.” Now she lightly rubbed her free hand over my upturned palm. “Your palm for all its flexion folds is very hard and dry. The line of the head is superb, and that of the heart also. The line of the fortune is not so well defined. The mountains of Venus and Mars I do like the looks of. I see wisdom, good fortune, and prudence in abundance. My only fear is for the near future. Venus and Mars may be in collision. There is confusion and uncertainty there. By every sign I see you will finally become some kind of artist. This will come later—much later—after you have known experience. After much experience, love and success and understanding will come—after much traveling and still more experience in the world.”
Presently I withdrew my hand and let it fall, a clenched fist, at my side. I found myself for one insane moment believing every bit of her nonsense, all that I had submitted to for entertainment and a distraction. And then almost at once I regained my composure and my disbelief.
The apparitions that Aunt Gussie produced that afternoon in her narrative or by her stagecraft or by her mesmerism—I know not which it was—momentarily made me forgetful of the drabness of my camp life during the previous year and a half and oblivious to my overseas experience which I knew lay ahead of me. I gave myself up wholeheartedly to the phantasmagoria that my aunt served up for my beguilement. My grandfather appeared to me first in the guise of a young man lecturing in the Chautauqua series of the 1880s. Then he appeared as the somewhat older young man touring the back country as an actor in a stock company. Then clearly under the influence of Aunt Gussie he appeared as the occupant of the Tennessee gubernatorial chair. Someone or something had made him change his course and become more seriously ambitious in his career. And at last I saw him in full feather on the floor of the Senate chamber, and delighting that body with his fine flow of rhetoric. Next there appeared my own sainted grandmother, managing to be both elegant and saintly in her suede gloves and her feather-covered hat. There were other members of the family, too, who had been only names to me in anecdotes told by my mother and father. I do not know what my principal feeling was. But I had a strong feeling of the richness of life and the pleasure that was to be had in looking back into things that were unchanging and seemingly unchangeable in the world I came out of. Upon leaving Aunt Gussie’s apartment that afternoon I knew I had experienced what I had now come to expect: delightful flashes that made me wish for the moment to pursue the same rich human endeavors that my forebears had pursued before me and not to die in some Asian or European battlefield and never to know the satisfaction of taking to wife some truly glorious girl that fate had sent my way.
Now more than ever I knew that I must go right to Lila’s women’s hotel and make my proposal of marriage to her. She met me downstairs in the lobby when I arrived. She appeared to be in especially high spirits. She was in a smartly tailored suit which I knew that I had not seen before and was something that she had only recently purchased. Somehow it was like no other garment I had ever seen her in. Before we sat down in the lobby even, I made her my proposal. She looked at me in utter astonishment for a moment. And she led me to a nook in the corner of the lobby where we could talk without being overheard. But already I had assumed that there was something different about her other than the businesslike blue suit she was wearing—different from the Lila Montgomery I had known in Tullahoma or Camp Forrest. It seems to me now that things moved very fast from that moment. Before we scarcely were seated in our little corner I told her that I wished to marry her before I shipped out for overseas with my unit and that I wished her to at once meet my parents in Tennessee. Closing her eyes, she rested her head on the back of her chair. She commenced shaking her head in a most unhappy fashion. “If only you had asked me a week ago,” she said. “It would have been possible. It would not be possible now.”
I drew nearer to say, “I can wait. I can wait. I can wait.” I supposed it was my imminent embarkation for the European theater of war that made her think it impossible at that moment. But it wasn’t that. It was not because of something that was about to happen in my life. It was about something that was about to happen in her life. She bent forward resting her little elbows (she had never before seemed so diminutive to me) on the knees beneath her pleated navy blue skirt. She looked directly into my eyes. “It has to do with your aunt,” she said. I felt my face flush. I thought of course of all the queer things I had heard my parents say about Aunt Gussie’s interference in the affairs of young people. Momentarily I supposed Aunt Gussie had introduced her to a more eligible suitor than I. It occurred to me that Lila had been taken to tea and to lunch with the scion of some family like the Posts or the Guggenheims. (That’s how out of date my notions of who the rich people in Washington were—notions handed down no doubt from my grandfather.) But it was not that at all. And it was only now when Lila began telling me what the luncheons and tea parties with Aunt Gussie had been like that I began to have some conception of what Lila herself was like and what there was in the world that would be more attractive in her eyes than would be her intimate friendship with me. I recalled that she had actually left the Tullahoma and Camp Forrest scene rather abruptly. I had gone to fetch her one night at the house of some relatives with whom she was living in Tullahoma and was told that she was setting out the next day for Washington to take a government job which a cousin of hers had found for her. I already knew that she had come originally from a smaller Tennessee town than Tullahoma and she was actually only renting a room from her relatives there in order to be able to take advantage of one of many civilian job openings in Tullahoma and out at Camp Forrest. It had been one night not long before that that I had undertaken to talk to Lila about how boring I found the army routine and about how grim was the prospect of going overseas and how awful it was not to be able to make plans for your life. “Yes,” she said after only a few seconds’ hesitation and smiling rather dreamily to herself, “but I am afraid the war is my oyster. It may be my only chance for something other than this life—something else, though I don’t yet know what.”
I was too obtuse to see (though surely I ought to have seen at once) or was too much preoccupied with the wonderful good looks of this girl and her charming way with everyone she met. Seeing that we did not agree on this subject I simply hurried to other subjects on which we might find areas of agreement. I know that I ought to have seen significance in her high spirits when I first looked her up in Washington. She was excited by everything she saw in that city and was exhilarated even by the dull clerical work she was saddled with. She certainly said to me more than once that she tried to be always aware of who the higher-ups were—those who came into her office asking for information that only she and the girls working with her could provide. “Who knows,” she had asked herself, “when my efficiency might be observed and I might be shifted to a more important bureau or might even be shipped overseas to the headquarters over there?”
When Aunt Gussie had seemed not to like her at first, Lila was really not particularly depressed by it. Then when the old lady did after all take her up Lila was perfectly willing to be taken up. On their first outing together Aunt Gussie had remarked that she had observed that Lila was not interested in the sort of family matters that she and I had talked about. She had observed that Lila was not even entertained by the magic tricks she had performed there in the little apartment. Lila told me that Aunt Gussie had said to her, “I can see that you have other matters on your mind—more serious matters. And I have to tell you I too had more serious matters on my mind. Perhaps you will say to yourself that it didn’t get me very far. Only as far as Stoneleigh Court—but for a young lady in my day that was farther than you might suppose. But somehow, my dear, one has to bring other people’s attention to focus on what talent one has. And since time began there have been many ways for a woman to do that. I suppose it doesn’t matter which way you choose to do it so long as you keep your self-respect. If you lose that, you may find that you have lost everything. I was, myself, never a really beautiful girl and never a particularly intellectual one. A flirt—no, never that. I was sometimes called the one or the other, but it wasn’t so.” It was as if Lila had memorized all that Aunt Gussie had said to her, knowing at the time even that she would have reason to repeat it all to me.
“I married early,” my aunt had continued to Lila,“ and my husband and I had very soon to face the certainty that he would not live long. I would have done anything, I suppose, to give him an early success or to make his life interesting for him while it lasted. It happened that in Nashville, after we first were married, there was a man named Mr. Ben Allen who entertained the set we traveled in with séances he held in his house on Eighth Avenue. He could hypnotize people very easily and was master of all things occult. He managed to make the dinner parties given at his house more fun than those we attended anywhere else. As we sat about the dining room table he could make everyone—one after the other—imagine that a cat was rubbing about their ankles. Almost by chance I learned that I, using an intense form of concentration, could make the imaginary cat cease to rub about their ankles. Mr. Allen was delighted by this discovery. That is, he was delighted when I revealed that it was I who was providing the interference. He told me that I had real psychic powers. And he offered to instruct me in the use of hypnotism. It got so in Nashville and later in Washington that I entertained at parties we went to by demonstrating my hypnotic powers, sometimes hypnotizing one of the other guests. It made me very popular in whatever set we moved. And sometimes I would cure the headaches of friends with those newly discovered powers of mine. Even before we left Nashville some friends became dependent upon me for help. But it was not always a happy thing. For a time I cured the headaches of your young man’s grandmother, the wife of the then governor of Tennessee. She and I and our husbands were then living in the old Maxwell House Hotel, since there was no governor’s mansion at that time. I somehow developed such a power over her mind that I could cure her headaches without her being aware of the source. One day I sat on the mezzanine on the opposite side of the hotel lobby from where she was seated. She was sitting with her head resting in her gloved hands, and so I knew she was suffering. Within a few minutes she looked up cheerfully and gazed across at me. It was a very happy moment, but later the governor learned of it, and he made strong objections to my having such power over his wife. I am not sure that his objections weren’t largely due to powers existing in the person of a woman. Later, one awful time in Washington, I would undertake to cure the headache of my own husband. He told me at the time that I had succeeded, but afterward I was never quite sure it was a simple headache he was suffering from. I was present in the balcony of the House that very morning when he collapsed. He was making his maiden speech, and I was there to hear him. He lived barely long enough for me to make my way down the stairs and push through the crowd of congressmen to his side. He died there in my arms even before a doctor could be summoned. No one ever knew such loneliness as I did in the years afterward. But I was determined to stay here. And I held my ground!”
Lila Montgomery told me all this as we sat together in the corner of the residential hotel where she lived. But that was not the whole of it. That was hardly the beginning. She did not tell me then what the nature of her other meetings with Aunt Gussie had been. She was presently overcome with emotion and said she must go to her room now. She would tell the rest tomorrow.
Back in my barracks that night I slept only fitfully. Those moments when I did sleep my head was filled with uneasy dreams and when I lay awake my mind was filled with speculations about the more eligible bachelors Aunt Gussie would have introduced her to. Over the telephone the next morning she told me that on the day before she had actually quit her job in the bureau. She asked me if I would come to her place and go for a walk with her that morning. I went and found her got up in another brand-new tailored suit and in a narrow-brimmed hat of matching material. She looked an absolute knock-out and wonderfully happy. When I came in, she stepped forward and kissed me. It was the first time she and I had ever kissed. She took my arm, leaning on me, and we passed out through the entry and into the dull light of the October morning. I was prepared for her to tell me of the charm and the intellectual brilliance and the aristocratic background of some man that she was now engaged to marry. It seemed that her happy and affectionate manner could suggest only that. “Let’s walk all morning,” she began, “and do nothing but look in the shop windows at women’s clothes—all the way to Georgetown and even beyond.”
Our walk entailed going a short way up Embassy Row and around General Sheridan’s equestrian statue, past the buffaloes and over the park bridge to Georgetown. I suppose we found some shop windows to peer into, though I don’t remember anything I saw there. After we entered Georgetown we passed several high-ranking military officers, and more than once it was necessary for me to salute them. (Lila could not resist commenting on the smartness of the salutes we exchanged and she giggled to herself, saying she could hardly resist joining in the process and giving a salute herself.) This was the total business of the first part of our walk except for what Lila had to tell me about her lunches and tea parties with Aunt Gussie. It was always some senator or right-hand man of some senator that Lila found herself in the company of when she went out with my aunt. It seemed that on every occasion the elegant gentleman ended by offering her a job or at least suggesting that he had a job to offer. But Aunt Gussie, without ever being observed by the gentleman, would shake her head significantly at Lila, indicating that what was offered or hinted at was not good enough. But once in spite of my aunt’s head-shaking, Lila burst out with: “Oh, I’d be happy to be the girl in the outer, outer office. And you would be surprised at how little pay I need.”
But Aunt Gussie had quickly come forward with: “Don’t let her deceive you, Senator. You can’t imagine how little interest she has in such a job.”
While we were in Georgetown, ambling up Wisconsin, suddenly the sun came out from behind the clouds and shone brightly for a very few minutes. But how wretched it seemed to me, how deceptive. It was not the real Washington at all. Yet instantly Lila was saying, “Isn’t Washington beautiful! Whether cloudy or bright! Even the ratty little shops here on Wisconsin!” Then the sun did go under a cloud again. To Lila it seemed the real and wonderful Washington still. “Isn’t it glorious even when it’s overcast!” she persisted.
“But you were to tell me something,” I reminded her, with a persistence of my own. “I suppose it’s about why you have quit your job?”
“It is about that and about something more,” she said with enthusiasm. “You see, I want so to be somebody who matters. Your aunt has introduced me to any number of people—people of considerable influence and importance, and quite a few of them have suggested that I might do for a job in their office. And finally there has come one that I cannot resist, one that is sure to open up bigger and bigger things for me, into worlds that I want to be in. I am afraid that you have never understood what an ambitious creature I am. It’s my future I am wrapped up in, and I am afraid I can’t give myself to anybody else while that is the case.”
I looked down at her in utter astonishment, which must have been written on my face. Lila reached out her hand and rested it on the sleeve of my army jacket. “I am sorry, dear, if I have misled you about what I am really like,” she said softly. I suppose it could not have occurred to her that I was most astonished at myself for having perceived so little of what Lila Montgomery really was like at all. But I quickly got hold of myself and said a number of silly, consoling things—consoling to her, though not to me. And I even thought that I saw a mist of tears in her eyes when I looked at her. I think neither of us was sure at the moment just how deep or how shallow his or her feelings were. I cannot be sure even now. We walked on up Wisconsin, as far as the cathedral. Lila asked me if I would like to go inside the great edifice and see the work that was still in progress there. I said that I could see it another time. I could not concentrate on the small talk that she and I were reduced to making and could certainly not have given my attention to the details of the cathedral under construction.
Finally we turned down Massachusetts Avenue and would eventually find our way to Lila’s hotel. Before we reached there we found little left to say to each other. What a waste the furlough in Washington seemed. It accomplished nothing really but to reveal the difference in our two natures and how unsuited we were to each other. Only in retrospect would I realize what we each had been thinking about during the hour that we walked together. In retrospect I would feel sure we had been thinking of my aged aunt, Mrs. Augusta St. John-Jones.
Only moments before we parted in the entrance to her hotel she quite suddenly spoke to me, speaking as though in our silence we had been having exchanges on this subject as we walked: “Your aunt, you must understand, never once spoke of or made reference to any of her magic business when she and I were alone. It was for you alone that she reserved all that.”
“Me alone she condescended to dazzle,” I said, “because I was a mere man—only an overgrown child as all men are to her.”
“No, not at all,” she corrected me. “Or at least your language is much too strong. It would be fairer to put it another way. She can see you are a person of imagination. And she sees I am an ambitious, literal-minded little chit, not worthy of her fireworks.” And with that Lila Montgomery blew me a kiss and disappeared through the revolving door at the entrance to her woman’s hotel.
Perhaps such thoughts occupied me for the whole of my last two days in Washington. During those days I moved about not in my usual drifting fashion but seemingly with a purpose. On those two days I viewed the real monuments of the national capital, those one is supposed to see. I saw the interior of Washington Monument, I saw the Spirit of St. Louis in Smithsonian, went through the principal art museums, saw the work in progress at the unfinished cathedral, viewed the Lincoln Memorial from a great distance and then from within, saw a portion of the White House, and paid a hurried visit to the Capitol. When at the end of the second day I went by appointment to my aunt’s apartment I of course reported what I had seen but made no mention of Lila. Nor did my aunt mention Lila’s name. We spent an hour together, talking family. Just as I was leaving, she asked me if I had seen the Hall of Heroes that used to be in the basement of the Capitol. When I said that I had overlooked that, she insisted that we meet there next morning at ten o’clock before I took my train back to Tullahoma. We agreed to meet on the steps at the east entrance to the Capitol.
And there she was just on time, at the foot of the vast flight of steps, climbing out of a taxi. She was dressed very becomingly in a light polo coat and a jaunty hat. I had never seen her in such high spirits. She waved her little gloved hand to me as she turned away from the taxi and then ran up the broad steps like a young girl. It occurred to me immediately that it was being here at the Capitol that excited her so. We passed inside and went directly down to the rooms that housed the statues of heroes selected from the histories of all the states. Reaching down into the collar of her dress she produced her lorgnette and stooping a little now and then she would read the name and dates of each hero. Finally she insisted that I go a few steps ahead of her because she wished to read the inscription beneath each bust or statue. I wandered on, rather absent-mindedly, studying the stone faces and the stone garments of these heroes. Then, feeling I might seem rude and not properly appreciative, I turned back to join her. But she was not in sight. I began searching behind each piece of sculpture. I hurried up and down the long hallway, but she was not to be seen. Presently I was running up and down, calling out to her, “Aunt Gussie! Aunt Gussie!” There was no answer. I searched out a guard and asked him if he had seen an old lady such as my aunt. He neither nodded nor shook his head, only looked at me with pity. I went back to the wide portal which we had entered at the foot of the stairs. Then I ran up the stairs and on through the halls and passages to the east entrance. She was nowhere to be found. She had disappeared. She had purposely gone off without me. Then at last it came over me that that was what she had planned. This was how she wanted us to part. There was nothing I could do to change it. There was not time now for me to call her at her apartment and make my noon train. And so, not returning to the Hall of Heroes, I shouldered my duffel bag and made my way over to the Union Station. I kept telling myself as I hurried along that I would call her or write to her when I got back to Camp Forrest, but already I knew wouldn’t do that and imagined that Aunt Augusta St. John-Jones and I had said our last goodbyes. And once aboard the train to Tullahoma I found myself looking forward to seeing my soldier friends back in camp. It was they I yearned to be reunited with, rather than my own family. I longed to feel myself one among them. I wanted—I was determined—to forget the Washington furlough. As I sat with my duffel bag by the day-coach window I kept asking myself why this “temporary assignment” had been such a failure and such a fiasco. Was it my awareness of the war and a prescience of the role I was to play in it? Was it a vestige of a childish yearning for a magic that would constitute a cure-all for whatever troubled me? Was it merely the atmosphere of wartime Washington? Was it perhaps a simple case of disappointment in love? In any case, whatever the grimness of army life, I was going to that hiatus of real life, to a life where personal problems did not absolutely have to be solved, to where problems were solved by commands or unanswerable authority. I imagined that military authority and the war itself would last forever.