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By John P. Marquand
Back Bay BooksCopyright © 1939 John P. Marquand
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Chapter OneSid Sucks the Gasoline
At the top of Allen Southby's letter was engraved MARTIN HOUSE STUDY, and to the left in smaller type DR. SOUTHBY. This reminded everyone who had known him long enough that Allen had assumed this title as soon as he achieved his Ph.D. degree for studies in English and American literature. He first used it tentatively, among groups of undergraduates; later the women's clubs where he lectured had employed the prefix also; and finally, when the University Press published his volume The Transcendent Curve, his place in the scholastic world was irrevocably established.
That this work should have had a sale which pushed it in less than a year to well over a hundred thousand copies is a commentary on the priggishness of the book-buying public. The mass of information which Southby had gathered concerning early American literary figures was admittedly enormous, but not much of it was calculated to interest a layman. The style was difficult and turgid; even after considerable cutting the final draft ran over seven hundred and fifty pages in good solid type. Publishers have said that the bulk was what gave it its final success. When one saw it upon the parlor table in its heavy maroon binding, one could feel that here was a house of leisure and refinement, whose owner and whose family partook of The Finer Things of Life. There was, authorities explained, a "snob value" to the book, such as was once an attribute of Will Durant's Story of Philosophy and of Mr. Wells's Outline of History.
It possessed the same "plus quality," gave forth the mystic promise of doing good and of conveying-simply, it would seem, through its appearance-the belief that you too might hold your employer, the girl of your choice, and a dinner table spellbound, provided you took a few pleasant moments off each day to dip into the pages. You, too, might achieve that rare distinction of being the man who is just a little different, which comes from reading a thoroughly good book.
The reviewers took it up with an enthusiasm symptomatic of group hysteria, but I should like to wager that not one of them read all the way through it. SouthLy sometimes would quote their best remarks with a deprecating sort of humor designed to show that he knew very well that the critics had been too kind.
A glamorous panorama of the history of American thought, moving in a scintillating progress.... We defy the reader to put down Dr. Southby's book once he has picked it up.
There is a magic in the style which defies analysis; it dows in a trenchant stream; it is a Thames of style, moving with a deceptive tranquility past the spires of a modern Oxford.
It costs five dollars, but it's worth five hundred. This means that you and I can read it. [This came from one of the lower, less literary journals, which reached the great half-tapped reservoir of the partially enlightened.]
It would be interesting, I repeat, to know just how many actually did read it. I know I never finished it, and consequently have no real right to discuss it, except in so far as The Transcendent Curve influenced the Doctor as an individual. It was an achievement such as that which Dr. Lowes very nearly brought off in The Road to Xanadu: it was a book for scholars, read- by laymen. There could be no doubt about its scholarship, since it very nearly got its author the presidency of one of the larger Western universities-very nearly, but not quite.
"My life is at Harvard," Allen told us once. "I am a Harvard man."
The Transcendent Curve did, however, get him nearly everywhere else he wanted to go, because he knew how to use that book, and its immense success in no wise turned his head from what he wanted: he wanted to be a man of letters, a figure more austere and just a trifle more formal than Professor Phelps of Yale. Yes, it got him where he wanted to go. He became a figure almost by saying nothing, but by developing instead what might be termed "an accessive inaccessibility." He never said much in public, which was just as well, but he had a way of phrasing what little he did say. He had a timing to his speech, as effective as the timing of an athlete. No idea of his was lost through haste or carelessness, nothing became pedantic through deliberation. In time his words began to possess an indefinable, adhesive, jamlike quality which gave them an importance not wholly susceptible of analysis. Allen Southby had known what he wanted, had always known what he wanted; he had that patient deliberateness of purpose which can make indifferent material travel far. Perhaps in the end the material ceases to be indifferent, but that is a debatable matter.
In time Allen even generated a sort of charm; and besides he was an eligible bachelor, the sort you think of as a bright young man, even when he has reached the age of forty. There was once a piece of gossip, for there are always those who hate success, that he practised before a mirror. At any rate he achieved his charm. He developed a way of holding a book and of marking the place with his long forefinger, carelessly but lovingly, at the same time resting his elbow upon the table and gesticulating gently with that book. It was a pose suitable for a portrait, which may have been Southby's intention originally. He also took pains with his dress. When he came to Harvard from Minnesota he broughc his trunk with him, but Allen was quick to see that the garments within it were not correct; right from the beginning he had an unfailing instinct for doing what was suitable. He ended by wearing Harris tweeds and flannel trousers and by smoking an English pipe with a special mixture-although he did not like tobacco.
He also took to drinking beer out of a pewter mug. By the time he was taken into the Berkley Club he had developed a way of banging the mug softly upon the table, informally, and without ostentation. He used to say that there was nothing like good pewter; in fact he had a fair collection of it in a Colonial pine dresser-but he never did like beer. Nevertheless he sometimes had beer nights for the undergraduates. It was something of an accolade for an adolescent to be asked to Southby's to drink beer. It was more of an honor for one of his contemporaries, and one which I regret to say I never attained, to be asked up to his rooms to give the "lads" a talk on this or that, just anything. By aloofness rather than by assiduity he cultivated excellent social contacts. He attended only small dinners where there might be general conversation, but he knew when to listen. When an interest developed in wine-tasting, after the repeal of prohibition, Allen Southby was in the pioneering group, although he always said that his old love was ale or beer. He had a pretty turn at rhyme and you could always get him to dash off the right poem for any occasion, although he published only one slender volume of verse. He had the gift of knowing when to stop. What was more, he still kept young in appearance and in enthusiasm. He was amusing when he joined the ladies after dinner, and he was the sort of bachelor who never made himself troublesome with liquor or in taxis.
There is no particular reason to set this down unless it illustrates a reaction of my own narrow and embittered mind toward a very able man, toward a contemporary who was turning, through his own efforts, into a personage. Certainly it was all to his credit, and it can only put me in an unfavorable light to mention it-but, frankly, there were those of us who, because of our own inadequacies and sloth, jested coarsely about Allen. However, such was my own inconsistency that I was flattered when I received his letter. In fact I came close to forgetting that I actively resented the attitude he took toward me and toward my own efforts in the field of fiction.
"Just for a handful of silver he left us," Allen said the last time I saw him, "just for a riband to stick in his coat."
He was referring gracefully to my occupation as a writer for money. A week before he had made a pronouncement on the subject in the pages of a literary magazine. It concerned the danger of the first large check, of the giving-away of something fine, of the striving after commercial position, of superficial brilliance and brittleness. In spite of it all, I was pleased to hear from Allen.
"Dear Jim," he wrote. "What have you been doing with yourself? If you happen to be in the vicinity of Cambridge any night next week, how about coming to Martin House and having a chat about books over a mug of beer? I still read Collier's and Liberty and the Saturday Evening Post. I must, you know."
My Cousin Clothilde was in the dining room just then, and I was finishing breakfast, a meal which lasted almost indefinitely at Wickford Point.
"I've had a letter from Allen Southby," I said.
"Have you?" she answered. "Who is Allen Southby?"
"A critic," I answered. "He wrote The Transcendent Curve."
"What is The Transcendent Curve?" she asked. "Is it a book on sex?"
"No," I told her, "not exactly."
She sighed and handed me a paper. "I wish you'd read this," she said. "I don't understand it. It's a letter from the bank."
"It says you've overdrawn your account again," I told her, "for the second time this month."
"Give me a match, please," she said. "Not that box, it only has burnt matches in it. The other box, just there." She reached for a package of cigarettes beside her plate and shook it. "We never have any cigarettes in the house," she said. "Someone always takes them." I gave her one of mine and she lighted it. "The bank is wrong," she said. "I sent them a hundred dollars last week. It's stupid of them to be so annoying, but it doesn't make much difference, they always let me overdraw."
I folded Allen Southby's letter and put it in my pocket.
"Well, I'm going down to see him tonight," I said.
Cousin Clothilde sighed again. "You're always going somewhere, aren't you?" she said. "If you aren't going somewhere, you're always reading something. Why can't you stay here, now you're here? I'll send somebody downtown to get some cigarettes."
There was another letter beside me on the table, and now I reached for it with the idea of putting it unobtrusively into my pocket. It was in a heavy square Bermuda blue envelope, addressed to me in a handwriting which was boldly and carelessly feminine. It was a letter which I particularly wanted to read alone. For someone as vague as she was, Cousin Clothilde sometimes displayed an amazingly acute observation. She could nearly always see something which you did not wish her to see.
"Jim dear," she said, "whom's that other letter from? It looks so interesting. She writes the same way I do. I always did have such trouble with my writing until I just stopped trying."
I felt a momentary awkwardness for no good reason. It was as though she had surprised me in some furtive and discreditable action.
"It isn't from anyone in particular," I said, but I knew she would not believe me from the moment that I answered.
"Why, dear," she said, "it must be-from the way you put it in your pocket."
"Well," I said, "it's from a girl I know in New York. Her name's Patricia Leighton. I don't think you know her."
"Why, darling," said Cousin Clothilde, "I've never even heard you mention her."
"No," I answered, "I don't believe you have."
Her forehead wrinkled as she watched me.
"I don't think it's kind of you not to talk to me about things," she said. "I love to know whom you know and what you're doing. Sometimes you're so secretive, dear, just as though you were shy, or afraid of me."
"Well," I said, "perhaps I am."
"That's so silly, isn't it," she said, "when I always tell you everything?"
"I suppose it is, but then you don't really care much, except about what happens here."
"No," she said, "that isn't true. I always care about the children. I think about them all the time; and you're one of the children, dear."
I still do not know why it embarrassed me that she had seen Pat Leighton's letter. She would be writing me as she often did, asking me what I was doing and when I would be coming to New York. It would probably be nothing that I could not leave around, and everyone left letters everywhere at Wickford Point.
"Do you know her well, dear?" Cousin Clothilde asked.
"Pretty well," I answered.
"Well," said Cousin Clothilde, "she writes the same way I do."
And then she dropped the subject.
Tranquil, soul-satisfying apathy settled over the dining room. The sound of droning insects came through the window like the soft breach of sleep; an oriole sang a few throaty, liquid notes and stopped exhausted; the leafy shadows of elm branches scarcely moved upon the lawn. A house fly buzzed and beat its head against the window screen. The collision made a metallic sound which was followed by silence. The fly rubbed its wings with its hind legs, but did not try again. As Cousin Clothilde gazed at the smoke from her cigarette I noticed a lack of customary sound. The tall clock in the corner had stopped.
"I stopped it last night," Cousin Clothilde said. "You can hear it upstairs right through the ceiling. It sounds something like an insect. Besides I'd rather not know what time it is. Everything goes on just as well. Clocks only make you later. They're not happy things."
Inertia held me for a while. I tried to think of what to do, but there was nothing much to do down there. It became an effort to do anything, but I struggled against surrender out of habit.
"I might as well go and see Southby," I said. "I may as well go now. There are some things I want to do in Boston."
"Why don't you ask him down here?" Cousin Clothilde said. "It's easier. He can spend the week end."
"The house is always full over the weekend," I said. "There won't be any room for him."
"There must be somewhere. It's a big house," said Cousin Clothilde. "The girls can sleep together, and we can send someone downtown before then to get some gin."
"No," I said. "You wouldn't like him."
"Don't be ridiculous," said Cousin Clothilde. "I like nearly everyone except queer foreigners." She paused and flipped her cigarette ashes into her empty coffee cup. "And after all," she added, "I like a great many foreigners. I've always loved Mirabel Steiner. She'll be dropping in before long, just for a day or two."
"When she does," I said, "you'd better send me my food upstairs on a tray."
"You shouldn't be so intolerant," she said. "You know that Mirabel has always been devoted to you. She admires you. Just last winter she wanted to borrow one of your books. There weren't any in the apartment. Has Mr. Northby got something queer about him?"
"Southby," I said. "No, he hasn't."
"Then why don't we have him come Saturday night?"
"No," I said. "He wouldn't understand it here."
"Nonsense," she said. "Everybody always likes it here."
Excerpted from Wickford Point by John P. Marquand Copyright © 1939 by John P. Marquand. Excerpted by permission.
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