Cliffs of Fall
THE Fergusons' door opened on a burst of light and voices, and on Evie's squeal of surprisequite as if, Minna thought, we had turned up uninvited. Evie kissed her.
"Our shoes are a bit wet," said Theodore. He stood aside to let Minna enter. "Is that all right?"
Evie had slanting eyes, and a flushed, pretty face. She was wearing a shiny brown dress, and her hair bubbled down her back in fair, glossy curls. She had an impulsive way of embracing people, of holding them by the hand or the elbow, as though she must atone for any reticence on their part with an extra measure of her own exuberanceor as though they would attempt to escape if not taken into custody.
"Minna, what a beautiful dress. How thin you are. Theodore, you never look a day older, not a single day. I expect," she said to Minna, "that he is really very graywith fair people it doesn't show. He'll get old quite suddenly and look like Somerset Maugham." She gave Minnaa sympathetic, curious look from her tilted eyes. (Minna could imagine her saying later: "I never will understand why that keeps going, not if I live to be a hundred.") "Here's Phil."
Evie's husband came out of the living room, a silver jug in one hand and an ice bucket in the other.
"You look like an allegorical figure," Minna told him.
Phil smiled. He went through life with that sedate, modest smile. He was a corporation lawyer, and he and Evie had been very happy together for fifteen years. Long ago, however, at his own expense and to everyone's surprise he had published a small book of love poems that carried no assurance of being addressed to her. "What would you like to drink?" Phil asked. "Minna, come into the kitchen and help me with the ice. Otherwise I'll never get a chance to talk to you."
Evie was leading Theodore away. Minna looked apprehensively at his straight back as it receded toward a group of people in the living room. He will enjoy himself, she thought, and then reproach me for letting him come.
In the kitchen, Phil's eleven-year-old son was emptying ash trays into a garbage pail.
"Hello, Ronnie," Minna said. She turned on the cold tap for Phil.
"Oh hullo," Ronnie said, intent on his work. "Alison's got the virus." Alison was his sister.
"But not badly," said Phil. "Thank you, Minna, I think that's about enough."
"I got her a card," Ronnie said.
"How nice," said Minna, breaking up a tray of ice.
"It says 'Get Well Quick.'"
"That sounds a trifle peremptory."
"I expect the sentiment counts for something," Phil observed from the sink.
"Taste is more important than sentiment," Minna decided, without reflection.
"Yes, I suppose I agree with that."
She smiled. "The combination, on the other hand, is irresistible."
"You're beginning to talk like Theodore. Ronnie, you could be handing round the peanuts."
"There aren't any peanuts."
"Shrimp, thenwhatever there is. For God's sake." Phil took the ice bucket from Minna and put it on a tray with the jug. They moved toward the door. "Now," he asked her again, "what would you like?"
She would have liked to stay in the kitchen with Phil and Ronnie, although the light was too bright and there was nowhere to sit down. The kitchen chairs were covered with half-empty cartons of crackers and, in one case, with a large chalky bowl in which the dip had been mixed. Ends of celery and carrot had been left on the table, together with an open container of sour cream and two broken glasses. It was, Minna decided, like the periphery of a battlefield strewn with discarded equipment and ex pended ammunition. When I go into the other room, shethought, I will have to talk, and listen, and be aware of Theodore across the room.
"What can I have?" she asked Phil, as they went down the corridor.
"Anything you like. There's punch, if you want that." He paused to introduce Minna to a young man and a girl with a hat full of roses.
"Minna?" said the girl. "What a pretty name."
"Her real name is Hermione," said Ronnie, coming up with a plate of shrimp.
"Preposterous name," Minna agreed. "I don't know why parents do such things."
"We called our baby Araminta," said the girl bravely.
"'Araminta sweet and faire ...'" Phil quoted tactfully.
Minna frowned. "That's 'Amarantha,'" she said, and wished she hadn't. She and Phil edged past, and found themselves at a long table, beside a bony man in black and an opulent, earnest woman in purple. "Punch would be lovely," Minna said to Phil.
"A Browning revival," said the man in black. "Mark my wordsI forecast a Browning revival."
The purple lady sighed. "Ah. If only you're right."
"Then you do like Browning?"
"Of course. Pippa Passes. And I've always adored The Rose and the Ring."
The bony man looked disappointed. "That's Thackeray. You mean The Ring and the Book."
"I mean the one with the marvelous illustrations."
"Rather weak, I'm afraid," Phil said, handing Minna afull glass. "All the ice seems to have melted." He helped someone else to punch and turned back to her. "Well, Minnawe hardly ever seem to see you. Are you very busy? Are you happy? How are you?"
"Oh, I'm well," she said, and could not prevent herself from looking toward Theodore. He was standing not far from her, leaning his shoulder against the wall and talking to a plump man with a beard.
The bearded man looked cross. "My dear sir," he said in a loud voice, "this is not just any Rembrandt. This is one of the greatest Rembrandts of all time."
"Take Sordello," the bony man was insisting. The woman in purple gazed at him with rapt inattention.
The girl with the roses in her hat was still standing in the doorway by her husband's side. I should go and talk to them, Minna thought; they don't seem to know anyone. All the same, they looked quite contented. She glanced round at Phil, but Evie had just come up to him with a question; she laid her hand on his armbeseechingly and not in her public, clamorous wayand he put his head down to hers. Minna set her glass on the table. Theodore, smiling broadly, had turned away from the man with the beard. She exchanged a glance with him, and wondered what his mood would be when they were alone.
"Have you looked in the refrigerator?" Phil was saying. His head remained lowered to Evie's a moment longer. Minna looked away, as if she had seen them embrace.
The girl by the door was laughing now, the roses shakingon her hat, and the man beside her was leaning against the doorframe and smiling at her.
Minna took up her glass again and turned it in her hand, and went on watching themwith admiration, as one might watch an intricate dance executed with perfect grace; and with something like homesickness, as if she were looking at colored slides of a country in which she had once been happy.
"I behaved rather well, didn't I?" he asked. "All things considered."
She came and knelt beside his chair and kissed him. "Admirably," she said. He put his arm about her but she disengaged herself and settled on the floor, leaning against his legs. "It wasn't so bad, now, was it?"
"You sound just like my dentist." He stretched back in his chair, his palms resting on his knees and the fingers of his right hand just touching her hair.
The one lighted lamp, at his elbow, allowed them to see little more than each other and a pale semicircle of the rug on which she sat. She lowered her head and watched the bright shine of his shoe, which was half hidden by a fold of her dress. Outside their crescent of light, beyond the obscured but familiar room, the cold wind blew from time to time against the windows and the traffic sounded faintly from below. During the day there had been a brief fall of snow and, frozen at the window ledges, this now sealed them in. She tilted her head back against his knees. "It's so nice here," she said, and smiled.
He passed his hand round her throat, his extended fingers reaching from ear to ear. Her hair spread over his sleeve. "Minna dear," he said. "Minna darling."
She suddenly sat upright and raised her hand to her head. "I've lost an earring. It must be at the Fergusons'."
"No, it's here," he said. "In the other room. On the table beside the bed."
"Are you sure?"
"Positive. I remember noticing it. I meant to mention it before we went out."
"I must have looked odd at the party." She settled back again. "What was I saying?"
"How nice it was."
"Oh yes. How nice."
"Just because we haven't quarreled today."
"More than that. You've been quite ..."
"Sweet to me."
"Not something I make a habit of, is it, these days?" His fingers were tracing the line of her jaw. "I really thought you wouldn't come today. After last week."
"We had to go to the party," she said.
"That hardly seemed sufficient reason. I thought, She won't comewhy should she? There's a limit, I thought All morning, I sat here thinking there was a limit."
"And drinking," she added, but pressed her hand, over his, against her neck.
"Well, naturally." He yawned. "God, that awful party."
"It wasn't so bad," she said again.
"The Fergusons are dull."
"I like Phil."
"Well ... But she's a good person."
"Good? I'm beginning to wonder if it's a virtue to be good. It seems to be the cause of so much self-congratulation among our friends. The sort of people who were there tonightwho choose a convenient moment to behave well and then tell themselves how sensitive they are, how humane."
"But isn't that all one can hope for? And what is virtue, if not that?"
"Ohsomething less conscious, I suppose; something more indiscriminate. Less egotistical, more anonymous. Like that brotherhood in Italy whose members still hide their faces under masks when they assist the poor."
"I thought that was to protect them from the Plague."
"Don't be irritating. What I mean is, our good seem to be so concerned with themselves, so clubby, not mixing with the natives. Do you think those people tonight would ever make allowances, for instance, for those who want to live differently, or more fully, or risk themselves more?"
So he, too, is only concerned with himself, she reflected.
"Why, even religioneven the law, than which, after all, nothing could be more unjusttakes account of extenuating circumstances. But these people exclude anyone who doesn't meet their particular definition of sensibility. I'm not sure that I don't find it as distasteful as any other form of intolerance."
"I suppose they think that anyone can be kind."
"That's like saying 'Anyone can be clean' in a city where most houses don't have running water. And in the end the well-meaning people seem to do more harm than the others, who make no pretensions. Don't you think?"
"Not entirely," she said, with faint irony.
"Now you are only thinking of yourself. That's the sort of thing that makes it impossible to have any real discussion with a woman. No matter how abstract, how impersonal the subject, they will always manage to connect it in some way to their love affairs."
They were silent for a moment. She rested her hand on one of the thick, embossed Chinese roses of the rug. "Would you rather not have gone, then, tonight?"
"You only had to say so."
"You couldn't have gone alone."
"All right, you couldbut you'd have sulked for days." He turned her face slightly to him. "You're practically crying as it is."
"I always look that way."
"When you're with me, at any rate." He let his hand drop. "There were women with hats on at the party. And young couples who talked about their children. Oh, and an old lunatic who wanted to revive Swinburne."
"Browning," she said.
"Browningwas that it? So it was. Then there was Evie, of course, feeling sorry for you because of me. BecauseI'm so disagreeable." He laughed. "At least, it wasn't as bad as the last party they hadsomeone actually sang at that, if you remember."
"I do remember. Yes."
"And you played the piano."
He smiled pleasantly at the recollection. "You were terrible," he said.
"Darling, you always play so badlydidn't you know that?"
"I didn't know you thought so," she said, reflecting that the knowledge must now be with her permanently. She sighed. "Theodore, why do you have to do this?"
"Why?" He looked over her head for a moment, as if the question arose for the first time and required consideration. "For that matter, why anything? Why are you here? And why is your earring in the other room? Why, in fact, do you allow this to continue?"
"Eventually, I suppose, I won't." Her voice had taken on a conversational note. "A matter of will power, probablyof making oneself want something else."
"Perhaps you don't even know what else to want."
"I think I might rather like to come first with someone after themselves, of course. And it does seem a waste, this love, this thing everyone needs, this precious commodityit could be going to someone who would use it properly."
"Perhaps, then, that's all you want? Someone to give love toa sort of repository?"
"Perhaps. No, something more reciprocal. Only, starting over again in love is such a journeylike needing a holiday but not wanting to be bothered with packing bags and making reservations. So much troublebeing charming and artful, finding ways to pretend less affection than one feels, and in the end not succeeding, because one doesn't really profit from experience; one merely learns to predict the next mistake. No, I just can't be bothered at present." She shifted her weight and, turning, laid her arm across his knees. He bent forward and smoothed the hair back from her forehead. "So there you are," she told him. "It's all a question of inertia. I stay because leaving would require too much effort."
"Yes, I see," he said, his hand still on her head. "Of course."
"But as I say," she continued, "it's an effort one must make eventually. Simply in order to stay alive. Like going to that silly party." She plucked a thread off her sleeve. "Darling, I think I'll go home. There's no sense in this."
"That dress picks up everything," he said.
Their eyes met. She looked away, with a slight smile. "I suppose there would be a humorous side to all this, wouldn't there, if one were not involved?"
He still watched her and did not smile. "No, there would not." He leaned back again, his hands resting on the arms of the chair.
This physical detachment made her suddenly conscious that she was kneeling. She sat back on her heels. "I'm going home," she said again. She hesitated for a moment. When he said nothing, she pressed her hands on his knees and stood up stiffly.
"You must hurt all over," he remarked, getting to his feet.
"More or less."
He switched on another lamp. The light fell on heavy curtains, and on books, chairs, and a sofa.
Standing before a mirror, she drew her hair back with her hand and watched his reflection as he moved across the room. "My earring," she said.
He came back with it in his hand, and with her coat over his arm. She refocused her eyes to her own reflection in the glass, examining her appearance uncertainly as she fixed the little gold loop to her ear.
"I suppose you're right," he said, "about the way you look. You do have a rather mournful face. Not tragic, of coursejust mournful."
"That sounds more discreet, at least." She turned and faced him, and reached out a hand for her coat. "I must go," she said.
"And the dress doesn't helpI'm not sure that black suits you, anyway. Now you really are going to cry."
"You should be trying to build up my confidence," she said, unblinking, "instead of doing everything to demolish it."
He helped her into her coat. "Confidence is one of those things we try to instill into others and then hasten to dispel as soon as it puts in an appearance."
"Like love," she observed, turning to the door.
"Like love," he said. "Exactly."
CLIFFS OF FALL. Copyright © 1961, 1962, 1963 by Shirley Hazzard. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.