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“You are a mystery, my dear,” her mother said, and Grady, gazing across the table through a centerpiece of roses and fern, smiled indulgently: yes, I am a mystery, and it pleased her to think so. But Apple, eight years older, married, far from mysterious, said: “Grady is only foolish; I wish I were going with you. Imagine, Mama, this time next week you’ll be having breakfast in Paris! George keeps promising that we’ll go . . . I don’t know, though.” She paused and looked at her sister. “Grady, why on earth do you want to stay in New York in the dead of summer?” Grady wished they would leave her alone; still this harping, and here now was the very morning the boat sailed: what was there to say beyond what she’d said? After that there was only the truth, and the truth she did not entirely intend to tell. “I’ve never spent a summer here,” she said, escaping their eyes and looking out the window: the dazzle of traffic heightened the June morning quiet of Central Park, and the sun, full of first summer, that dries the green crust of spring, plunged through the trees fronting the Plaza, where they were breakfasting. “I’m perverse; have it your own way.” She realized with a smile it was perhaps a mistake to have said that: her family did come rather near thinking her perverse; and once when she was fourteen she’d had a terrible and quite acute insight: her mother, she saw, loved her without really liking her; she had thought at first that this was because her mother considered her plainer, more obstinate, less playful than Apple, but later, when it was apparent, and painfully so to Apple, that Grady was finer looking by far, then she gave up reasoning about her mother’s viewpoint: the answer of course, and at last she saw this too, was simply that in an inactive sort of way, she’d never, not even as a very small girl, much liked her mother. Yet there was little flamboyancy in either attitude; indeed, the house of their hostility was modestly furnished with affection, which Mrs. McNeil now expressed by closing her daughter’s hand in her own and saying: “We will worry about you, darling. We can’t help that. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m not sure it’s safe. Seventeen isn’t very old, and you’ve never been really alone before.”
Mr. McNeil, who whenever he spoke sounded as though he was bidding in a poker game, but who seldom spoke in any event, partly because his wife did not like to be interrupted and partly because he was a very tired man, dunked out a cigar in his coffee cup, causing both Apple and Mrs. McNeil to wince, and said: “When I was eighteen, why hell, I’d been out in California three years.”
“But after all, Lamont . . . you’re a man.”
“What’s the difference?” he grunted. “There has been no difference between men and women for some while. You say so yourself.”
As though the conversation had taken an unpleasant turn, Mrs. McNeil cleared her throat. “It remains, Lamont, that I am very uneasy in leaving—”
Rising inside Grady was an ungovernable laughter, a joyous agitation which made the white summer stretching before her seem like an unrolling canvas on which she might draw those first rude pure strokes that are free. Then, too, and with a straight face, she was laughing because there was so little they suspected, nothing. The light quivering against the table silver seemed to at once encourage her excitement and to flash a warning signal: careful, dear. But elsewhere something said Grady, be proud, you are tall so fly your pennant high above and in the wind. What could have spoken, the rose? Roses speak, they are the hearts of wisdom, she’d read so somewhere. She looked out the window again; the laughter was flowing up, it was flooding on her lips: what a sparkling sun-slapped day for Grady McNeil and roses that speak!
“Why is that so funny, Grady?” Apple did not have a pleasant voice; it suggested the subvocal prattlings of an ill-natured baby. “Mother asks a simple question, and you laugh as though she were an idiot.”
“Grady doesn’t think me an idiot, surely not,” said Mrs. McNeil, but a tone of weak conviction indicated doubt, and her eyes, webbed by the spidery hat-veil she now lowered over her face, were dimly confused with the sting she always felt when confronted by what she considered Grady’s contempt. It was all very well that between them there should be only the thinnest contact: there was no real sympathy, she knew that; still, that Grady by her remoteness could suggest herself superior was unendurable: in such moments Mrs.
McNeil’s hands twitched. Once, but this had been a great many years ago and when Grady was still a tomboy with chopped hair and scaly knees, she had not been able to control them, her hands, and on that occasion, which of course was during that period which is the most nervously trying of a woman’s life, she had, provoked by Grady’s inconsiderate aloofness, slapped her daughter fiercely. Whenever she’d known afterwards similar impulses she steadied her hands on some solid surface, for, at the time of her previous unrestraint, Grady, whose green estimating eyes were like scraps of sea, had stared her down, had stared through her and turned a searchlight on the spoiled mirror of her vanities: because she was a limited woman, it was her first experience with a will-power harder than her own. “Surely not,” she said, twinkling with artificial humor.
“I’m sorry,” said Grady. “Did you ask a question? I never seem to hear anymore.” She intended the last not so much as an apology as a serious confession.
“Really,” twittered Apple, “one would think you were in love.”
There was a knocking at her heart, a sense of danger, the silver shook momentously, and a lemon-wheel, half-squeezed in Grady’s finger, paused still: she glanced swiftly into her sister’s eyes to see if anything were there that was more shrewd than stupid. Satisfied, she finished squeezing the lemon into her tea and heard her mother say: “It is about the dress, dear. I think I may as well have it made in Paris: Dior or Fath, someone like that. It might even be less expensive in the long run. A soft leaf green would be heaven, especially with your coloring and hair—though I must say I wish you wouldn’t cut it so short: it seems unsuitable and not—not quite feminine. A pity debutantes can’t wear green. Now I think something in white watered silk—”
Grady interrupted her with a frown. “If this is the party dress, I don’t want it. I don’t want a party, and I don’t intend to go to any, not those kind at any rate. I will not be made a fool.”
Of all the things that fatigued her, this tried and annoyed Mrs. McNeil most: she trembled as if unnatural vibrations jarred the sane and stable precincts of the Plaza dining-room. Nor do I mean to be made a fool, she might have said, for, in contemplating the promotion of Grady’s debut year, she’d done already a great lot of work, maneuvering: there was even some idea of hiring a secretary. Furthermore, and in a self-righteous vein, she could have gone even so far as to say that the whole of her social life, every drab luncheon and tiresome tea (as in this light she would describe them), had been suffered only in order that her daughters receive a dazzling acceptance in the years of their dance. Lucy McNeil’s own debut had been a famous and sentimental affair: her grandmother, a rightfully celebrated New Orleans beauty who had married South Carolina’s Senator LaTrotta, presented Lucy and her two sisters en masse at a Camellia ball in Charleston in April of 1920; it was a presentation truly, for the three LaTrotta sisters were no more than schoolgirls whose social adventures had been heretofore conducted within the shackles of a church; so hungrily had Lucy whirled that night her feet for days had worn the bruises of this entrance into living, so hungrily had she kissed the Governor’s son that her cheeks had flamed a month in remorseful shame, for her sisters—spinsters then and spinsters still—claimed kissing made babies: no, her grandmother said, hearing her teary confession, kissing does not make babies—neither does it make ladies. Relieved, she continued through to a year of triumph; it was a triumph because she was pleasant to look at, not unbearable to listen to: vast advantages when you remember that this was the meager season when the junior assembly had only such deplorable persimmons to choose among as Hazel Veere Numland or the Lincoln girls. Then, too, during the winter holidays, her mother’s family, they were the Fairmonts from New York, had given in her honor, and in this very hotel, the Plaza, a distinguished dance; even though she sat now so near the scene, and was trying to recall, there was little about it she could remember, except that it was all gold and white, that she’d worn her mother’s pearls, and, oh yes, she’d met Lamont McNeil, an unremarkable event: she danced with him once and thought nothing of it. Her mother, however, was more impressed, for Lamont McNeil, while socially unknown, and though still in his late twenties, cast over Wall Street an ever enlarging shadow, and so was considered a catch, if not in the circle of angels, then by those of a but slightly lower stratum. He was asked to dinner. Lucy’s father invited him to South Carolina for the duck-shoot. Manly, old grand Mrs. LaTrotta commented, and, as this was her criterion, she gave him the golden seal. Seven months later Lamont McNeil, pitching his poker voice to its tenderest tremor, spoke his piece, and Lucy, having received only two other proposals, one absurd and the second a jest, said oh Lamont I’m the happiest girl in the world. She was nineteen when she had her first child: Apple, so named, amusingly enough, because during her pregnancy Lucy McNeil had eaten them by the barrel, but her grandmother, appearing at the christening, thought it a shocking bit of frivolity—jazz and the twenties, she said, had gone to Lucy’s head. But this choice of name was the last gay exclamation point to a protracted childhood, for a year later she lost her second baby; stillborn, it was a son, and she called him Grady in memory of her brother killed in the war. She brooded a long while, Lamont hired a yacht and they cruised the Mediterranean; at every bright pastel port, from St. Tropez to Taormina, she gave on board sad weeping ice-cream parties for gangs of embarrassed native boys the steward shanghaied from ashore. But on their return to America, this tearful mist abruptly lifted: she discovered the Red Cross, Harlem, the two-demand bid, she took a professional interest in Trinity Church, the Cosmopolitan, the Republican Party, there was nothing she would not sponsor, contribute to, connive for: some said she was admirable, others said brave, a few despised her. They made a spirited clique, however, these few, and over the years their combined strength had sabotaged a dozen of her ambitions. Lucy had waited; she had waited for Apple: the mother of a topflight debutante has at her hands a social version of atomic revenge; but then she was cheated out of it, for there was the new war, and the poor taste of a debut in wartime would have been excessive: they had instead given an ambulance to England. And now Grady was trying to cheat her, too. Her hands twitted on the table, flew to the lapel of her suit, plucked at a brooch of cinnamon diamonds: it was too much, Grady had tried always to cheat her, just simply by not having been born a boy. She’d named her Grady anyway, and poor Mrs. LaTrotta, then in the last exasperated year of her life, had roused herself sufficiently to declare Lucy morbid. But Grady had never been Grady, not the child she wanted. And it was not that in this matter Grady wanted to be ideal: Apple, with her pretty playful ways and aided by Lucy’s sense of style, would have been an assured success, but Grady, who, for one thing, seemed not popular with young people, was a gambling chance. If she refused to cooperate, failure was certain. “There will be a debut, Grady McNeil,” she said, stretching her gloves. “You will wear white silk and carry a bouquet of green orchids: it will catch a little the color of your eyes and your red hair. And we will have that orchestra the Bells had for Harriet. I warn you now, Grady, if you behave rottenly about this I shall never speak to you again. Lamont, will you ask for the check, please?”
Grady was silent some moments; she knew the others were not as calm as they seemed: they were waiting again for her to act up, which proved with what inaccuracy they observed her, how unaware they were of her recent nature. A month ago, two months ago, if she had felt her dignity so intruded upon, she would have rushed out and roared her car onto the port road with the pedal flat on the floor; she would have found Peter Bell and cut the mischief in some highway tavern; she would have made them worry. But what she felt now was a genuine disinvolvement. And to some extent a sympathy with Lucy’s ambitions. It was so far off, a summer away; there was no reason to believe it would ever happen, a white silk dress, and the orchestra the Bells had had for Harriet. While Mr. McNeil paid the check, and as they crossed the dining-room, she held Lucy’s arm and with a coltish awkwardness gave her cheek a delicate spontaneous peck. It was a gesture that had the sudden effect of unifying them all; they were a family: Lucy glowed, her husband, her daughters, she was a proud woman, and Grady, for all her stubborn oddness was, let anyone say whatever they would, a wonderful child, a real person. “Darling,” Lucy said, “I’m going to miss you.”
Apple, who was walking ahead, turned around. “Did you drive your car in this morning, Grady?”
Grady was slow in answering; lately everything Apple said seemed suspicious; why care, really? What if Apple did know? Still, she did not want her to. “I took the train from Greenwich.”
“Then you left the car at home?”
“Why, does it make any difference?”
“No; well, yes. And you needn’t bark at me. I only thought you could drive me out on the Island. I promised George I’d stop by the apartment and pick up his encyclopedia—such a heavy thing. I’d hate to carry it on the train. If we got there early enough you could go swimming.”