Death of an Old Sinner
A Mrs. Norris Mystery
By Dorothy Salisbury Davis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1985 Dorothy Salisbury Davis
All rights reserved.
ON GRAY DAYS GENERAL Jarvis was restless. He loathed the country, he loathed the house, a rambling, rattling affair in the wind which seemed now when he was approaching old age, to be making the same ghostly insinuations with which it had mocked him in his childhood. In those days it had boasted its Hudson River lore, a hideaway for river pirates, a refuge for runaway slaves, its acquaintance with men like Major Andre and Benedict Arnold, Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane, the first Dutch burghers ... Lies all, of course, to be perpetrated only in a child's mind. The house was Victorian. But now, he thought, looking down to the drifts of snow which sloped to the drop above the river's edge, it told an obvious truth: for all its groans and sighs, it would survive him by at least a generation.
"Oh, do be quiet," he said, returning to his desk. That, too, was a nasty habit of age—old people forever talking to inanimate things: abusing a rocker, begging the fire not to go out on them. He looked at the title on the folder before him: The Memoirs of Major General Ransom Jarvis, U.S. Army, Retired.
Start it off with a few boyhood reminiscences, he had been advised. Well, he could remember fox hunting in Rockland County, and ice-boat racing on the Hudson above Hook Mountain. He remembered the coaches that met trains at the Piermont terminal a few miles south. He had held the horses while they loaded. And your ancestors, something about them. There was a president in the family, wasn't there? Not much of a president, the General thought now, looking up at the portrait of a face with an expression quite as sour as his own mood. And your military career, of course. Five continents, three wars. The General puffed his cheeks and exploded a blast of air that would have shivered Ulysses. Some men at seventy-two might be content with their memoirs, their sherry, their dogs. His bored him to despair. The only things worth telling raised the question of libel, violation of other peoples' privacy, or some such nonsense, and might also vicariously injure the career of his promising son. Don't you mean the promising career of your son, General? he asked himself on behalf of some editorial inquisitor.
"No, by God! I mean my promising son. The things that lad has promised me ..." The General rooted in the top drawer for his bank book, knowing exactly how little was tallied there and how long it needed to last him. He had already spent the advance payment on his memoirs, and thus far had made no more than a few skirmishes into its writing, neat little phrases in an elegant, old-fashioned law clerk's hand. That, indeed, was where he had learned to write, at the desk of his father's clerk. It was too bad, the General thought, snapping closed the bank book, that he hadn't been apprenticed to a forger in his youth. He might now be able to write a check someone in Nyack would honor; no one would honor one with his signature certainly.
He heard a door bang downstairs, and presently from the courtyard the off-key voice of Mrs. Norris as she raised it as high as the wind. She had been keeping the Nyack house for him since Jimmie was an infant and himself a widower, and she couldn't carry a better tune now than she could ... how long? ... oh my God, over forty years ago. It was unworthy of him, the General knew, but he could not avoid the thought of how her bank book must compare with his.
He decided to shave before going to her.
Mrs. Norris could have predicted, almost to the hour, the General's descent from his study. It was a great waste on the part of the United States Army to retire a man like him so early, but that, if there was any one thing she had learned of America in her forty-two years of residence, was typical of the whole country. Waste, waste, waste. A dire reckoning lay before it. She gave a great sigh at that thought; on the whole she would as soon it didn't come in her time. But she was convinced that the Lord kept a strict account book, all the same.
She had come over from Scotland at twenty, Mrs. Norris had, already a childless widow, and the truth was that over the years, adding a bit now and then to her husband's stature from what she took off that of other men, she probably loved him better now than ever she did in their brief marriage. He had been off to his last sailing within a week of their wedding. And she, having come out soon thereafter to her sister in Brooklyn, had almost as soon been eager for her independence. Starting as nurse for General Jarvis' son James, she had approved the house from the moment she put her foot inside the door, although to this day she did not altogether approve the General.
The old Mrs. Jarvis, the General's mother, had been alive then, and first laying eyes on Mrs. Norris, she had said of her within her hearing: "My dear, she looks just like the young Queen Victoria!" The resemblance had increased with the years and with the few odd pounds Mrs. Norris had put on here and there to where now she was a bit dumpy. When she went out, dressed in black with her head done up in a hat that would have nested a raven, it would have seemed a little more natural had she got into a carriage than an automobile.
The General was holding the door open for her when Mrs. Norris came in from the clothesline with the last of the sheets. Her nose was as red as pimento.
"Couldn't we strike a match, Mrs. Norris?" he said, with a nod at the open hearth, and a wink at his double meaning.
So, she thought, that's the mood he's in. He'll want to go into New York now, and she calculated the day of the month, and by it, the state of his finances. "Not for me," she said, "but if you're staying in my kitchen, light it."
"Not with that sort of invitation," he said, offended. He watched her folding sheets that had been unfolded to hang on the line. "Why in the name of God do you hang out clothes you've had finished?"
"They were laundry done, sir. I cannot abide the smell of public soap."
"Oh," said the General. "Have you ever smelt the public without soap?"
"I have," Mrs. Norris said.
And there didn't seem to be much future to that tack in the conversation. "During the war there were things you could buy on the other side with soap that you couldn't buy with money."
"What things?" Mrs. Norris snapped with the air of one tightening her hold on her convictions.
This was the day he was not going to get round her flank, the General realized, so he might as well make a direct assault. "You wouldn't have a few dollars about the house you could spare till the first, would you?"
"I would not. Mr. James said I could not give you any money while he was gone, sir."
The General clattered his heels on the brick floor. "I would remind you, Mrs. Norris, that Mr. James wasn't as big as a wink when you were hired."
She was humble enough, he thought, when she had her money well buried. "Mr. James is now trying to hasten me into my dotage."
"If you hadn't put a lien on your pension, sir ..."
"I should not have had an automobile! Or do you agree with Mr. James about that also, Mrs. Norris, that at my age I don't need an automobile?"
"I don't think you need a Jaguar, sir, if you want the truth."
"I don't want the truth!" the General roared. "What's so damned necessary about the truth all the time?"
Mrs. Norris drew her dumpy shape to its best height. "Oh, I'll say again what I've said many's the time in this house, if it wasn't for little Master Jamie, I'd give my notice."
"And many's the time if it wasn't for little Master Jamie, I'd have taken it. Little Master Jamie is forty-two years old!"
The General marched out of the kitchen and clacked his heels on the polished floor all the way back to his study. It was a terrible thing for a man to escape the discipline of military life into the tyranny of his family. Old generals, by God, should not be left to fade away. Like horses, they should be shot on becoming obsolete.
He shoveled the papers strewing his desk into the folder and gazed up at the portrait of his ancestor, the family's man of distinction—more or less. He had been a one term president of the United States. Unmarried, he had founded neither line nor fortune, unless, as Mrs. Norris would have said, it was done without his ken.
An unlikely situation that, by the looks of him. But bloody unfair it was to hang on the best wall in the house for a hundred or so years, and to have made no more contribution to the family than a clutter of papers in the attic and the reputation for having been one of the best forgotten presidents of your country.
Still, the General thought, knocking his pipe out in the fireplace, it was ungenerous to judge a man's looks by the fashion of his age in cravats; it would be very difficult for any face to rise above a thing like that looking less like an oyster than did granduncle. Nonetheless, you had to appraise him as his own times did—and his best recommendation for high office was his absence from the country in months of crisis. But then, so came generals also into politics oft-times, to the latterday destruction of their hard-won fame.
The General rested his backside on his desk and sucked on the empty pipe, gazing still at the portrait. "Not a memoir, not a biography," he said aloud. "Look at you—sitting there like a handpainted burp, an apt subject for neither gossip nor historian, your back to the wall, not a decade between you and oblivion. You know, Mr. President, you would have done much better by us to have kicked up your heels a bit, and I dare say, by yourself as well. A bit of scandal has saved many a nincompoop."
The General stuffed the bowl of his pipe and lit it. He went back to the desk chair then and from that vantage further studied the portrait. Get rid of that wrinkled sock around his neck and the old boy wouldn't look so fatuous. And it was the heavy eyelids that kept you from getting a good deep look into the man. No one was going to surprise his thoughts out of him. Really, the artist was a hack and the old boy likely knew it. He had sat for him as he had, no doubt, for Congressional bores and diplomatic con men—because he had been told it was one of the things he needed to do to be president. He had put on a look he thought bespoke the cares of his office, and he came out like an old monk cowling the naughty thoughts in his eyes while he piously trolled the beads through his fingers.
"Tell me, Mr. President," the General said aloud again, "was there nothing in your life that could, shall we say, prosper us now? I have an open mind and an empty purse. Tell me the truth, is it worth my while to go up to the attic? To sort out that trunkful of papers? Eh, Mr. President?"
THE SKY WAS GRAY over Albany also at that hour, more snow starting to fall, great flakes of it clinging to the dirty hotel windows for an instant, slithering down then, down, down, down into vanishing rivulets. Jimmie Jarvis watched them, listening the while to the unending objections and justifications of himself in the blunt terms of political caucus.
Suddenly the men circling the table leaned back. Some lighted fresh cigars, some relighted stale ones. One of the two women present offered the other a king-sized cigarette. They all looked at Jimmie then, and their faces, friends' as well as foes', wore that slightly cynical expression which said in effect: all right, you're it. Why? Why you and not me?
Jimmie Jarvis—James Ransom Jarvis—rose, and fastened the middle button of his coat. That was a mistake, buttoning his coat. He could feel his heartbeat outside as well as within him. But he was not in the habit of correcting his mistakes in public. He put his hands in his trouser pockets and rocked back on his heels.
"My friends—and if you are not completely friendly, I direct myself even more to you—I am aware of the responsibility you will be offering me as well as the honor and the privilege—if you sustain until convention day the sentiment just expressed ..."
Jimmie smiled then, seeing one after another of the delegates relax. He had put in enough "ifs" to assure them of his humility. He was forty-two, a bachelor, and seemed boyishly earnest in everything he did. And he had done many things in an already long public career. Ironically, his potential enemies here opposed him for the same reason his friends proposed him: he had once been New York District Attorney. There were men present who felt that a prosecutor was a dangerous man in any office, especially that of governor to which Jimmie now aspired. He looked from face to face of the men whose consent was still grudging. "You must remember, gentlemen, that as well as my hitch in the office of district attorney, I have also served in the United States House of Representatives. That I submit, would take the spurs off any cock."
This brought a crack in the great stone faces. At the moment there was no laughter in them.
"I have no speech to make, my friends, but I will answer frankly all questions."
Al Rogers rolled the cigar from the center of his mouth to the side of it. "Jimmie, wasn't your great-grand-uncle ambassador to somewhere before he was president of the country?"
Al had the subtlety of a tabloid newspaper: he was calling attention to the fact that there had been a president in Jimmie's family.
Jimmie nodded. "To the Court of St. James, I believe."
"We'd better hold it in confidence then," said an old timer with a trace of a brogue. "Unless you don't need to carry New York City."
"It'll be distinction enough," said Al, "that he's the great-grand-nephew of a president."
Jimmie winced at the endless commercial.
"Great-grand-nephew," another delegate weighed the words ponderously. "Wouldn't it be all right at this distance to call him your great-grandfather?"
"It might be risky, sir," said Jimmie, "his having been a bachelor."
And no one found that amusing. Jimmie sighed. It was fortunate that the people had more wit than their delegates, and maybe more wisdom.
But the subject of bachelorhood had been turned up again, as though it had not already been well explored: he had been cautioned to marry a widow before summer; no, better a young girl of modest means and no renown; but the best advice was finally calculated to be that of the two female delegates who were unanimous in their recommendation that he go before the people uncommitted in that regard; not a woman in the state then but would vote herself into the governor's mansion pulling the lever in his behalf.
With the bulldog air of having held onto one thought until he could spring it, Mike Zabriski waited till the lady's last remark and then said: "I don't suppose you've ever done anything in your life, young fella, that couldn't stand the scrutiny of the public eye?"
"I think, sir, the public eye would have long since found it," Jimmie said. "Look how it finds my father, every tumble he takes."
"An old man's tumbles, as you call them, are news—a young man's are maybe gossip. But in a man your age, they're dangerous."
In a man my age they are inevitable, Jimmie thought, but he put on a long face and said: "Yes, sir."
"Now answer my question," said Bulldog Mike.
Jimmie drew a deep breath. "I have been as honest as any man, Mike, and more discreet than most." To tell a lie as though it were the truth, he thought. But it was not a lie the way he had said it. Once only he had been less than cautious, and at a time in the world's history when caution was labeled the worth of fool's gold. And even in that instant, the cloak fate put about him and the lady resembled honor: she belonged to that noble race of people, who, if they were not proud of their sins, at least did not stoop to call them folly.
"That's good enough for me," said Mike, referring to Jimmie's avowal of honor and discretion.
With old Mike satisfied, no other delegate present dared complain. The meeting adjourned in good spirits. His enemies would not bare their fangs until he showed some weakness, and that was not to be at this, the king-making caucus. The Buffalo and New York timetables were already passing from hand to hand. Jimmie was bade by several gentlemen to give his father, the General, their warmest regards. He was asked if the old man would take to the stump on his behalf when the time came, and it was said that many an aging heart would flutter if the old boy strode out again. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Death of an Old Sinner by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Copyright © 1985 Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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