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Riding down to Port Warwick from Richmond, the train begins to pick up speed on the outskirts of the city, past the tobacco factories with their ever-present haze of acrid, sweetish dust and past the rows of uniformly brown clapboard houses which stretch down the hilly streets for miles, it seems, the hundreds of rooftops all reflecting the pale light of dawn; past the suburban roads still sluggish and sleepy with early morning traffic, and rattling swiftly now over the bridge which separates the last two hills where in the valley below you can see the James River winding beneath its acid-green crust of scum out beside the chemical plants and more rows of clapboard houses and into the woods beyond.
Suddenly the train is burrowing through the pinewoods, and the conductor, who looks middle-aged and respectable like someone's favorite uncle, lurches through the car asking for tickets. If you are particularly alert at that unconscionable hour you notice his voice, which is somewhat guttural and negroid—oddly fatuous-sounding after the accents of Columbus or Detroit or wherever you came from—and when you ask him how far it is to Port Warwick and he says, "Aboot eighty miles," you know for sure that you're in the Tidewater. Then you settle back in your seat, your face feeling unwashed and swollen from the intermittent sleep you got sitting up the night before and your gums sore from too many cigarettes, and you try to doze off, but the nap of the blue felt seat prickles your neck and so you sit up once more and cross your legs, gazing drowsily at the novelty salesman from Allentown P-a, next to you, who told you last night about his hobby, model trains, and the joke about the two college girls at the Hotel Astor, and whose sleek face, sprouting a faint gray crop of stubble, one day old, is now peacefully relaxed, immobile in sleep, his breath issuing from slightly parted lips in delicate sighs. Or, turning away, you look out at the pinewoods sweeping past at sixty miles an hour, the trees standing close together green and somnolent, and the brown-needled carpet of the forest floor dappled brightly in the early morning light, until the white fog of smoke from the engine ahead swirls and dips against the window like a tattered scarf and obscures the view.
Now the sun is up and you can see the mist lifting off the fields and in the middle of the fields the solitary cabins with their slim threads of smoke unwinding out of plastered chimneys and the faint glint of fire through an open door and, at a crossing, the sudden, swift tableau of a Negro and his hay-wagon and a lop-eared mule: the Negro with his mouth agape, exposing pink gums, staring at the speeding train until the smoke obscures him, too, from view, and the one dark-brown hand held cataleptic in the air.
Stirring, the novelty salesman looks drowsily out of the window and grunts, "Where are we?" and you murmur, "Not far from Port Warwick, I hope," and as he turns on his side to sleep some more you finger your copy of the Times-Dispatch which the newsboy sold you an hour ago, and which you haven't read and won't read because maybe you have things on your mind; and instead you look out once more at the late summer landscape and the low, sorrowful beauty of tideland streams winding through marshes full of small, darting, frightened noises and glistening and dead silent at noon, except for a whistle, far off, and a distant rumble on the rails. And most likely, as the train streaks past the little log-road stations with names like Apex and Jewel, a couple of Negroes are working way out in the woods sawing timber, and they hear the whistle of your train and one of them stands erect from his end of the saw, wiping away the beads of sweat gathered on his brow like tiny blisters, and says, "Man, dat choo-choo's goin' to Richmond," and the other says, "Naw, she goin' to Po't Wa'ick," and the other says happily, "Hoo-ee, dat's a poontang town, sho enough," and they laugh together as the saw resumes its hot metallic rip and the sun burns down in the swarming, resonant silence.
Port Warwick is a shipbuilding city and the workers' houses begin where the marshlands end—the clean cheap clusters of plywood cottages springing out of the woods like toadstools—and now the men are going to work, their automobiles crawling eastward along the highway past more groups of houses encroaching suddenly upon the desolation of the marshland, backed up against the forest wall where in their tiny back yards the women are hanging up clothes to dry, turning pale faces slowly toward the train going by. The train slows down and the novelty salesman awakes with perplexed and fitful yawns and borrows your newspaper, and when you turn again the wilderness is gone, the suburban houses are rolling by, and the gray anonymous streets and the supermarket signs; then the freight yards and finally the slow shuddering halt at the station dock, which is the end of the line because beyond the dock is the bay, five miles wide and a deep salty green.
You get up and say good-by to the novelty salesman, who is going on across the bay by ferry, and you pull your bag from the rack and climb down off the train onto the station dock where the smell of the water is clean and refreshing after the flatulent warmth of the car and where, thirty yards away, your girl or your friends are waiting with expectant grins—"Oh there he is!"—and as you walk toward them you've already forgotten the novelty salesman forever, and the ride down. It's going to be a hot day.
At precisely eleven o'clock on a weekday morning in August of 1945, a black, shiny hearse, whose motor was so soundless that the effect was that of no motor at all, slid to a stop on the station dock at Port Warwick, followed by an automobile commonly known as a "limousine" in the mortuary trade—a Packard, and also highly polished. The driver of the limousine, Mr. Llewellyn Casper, was a slim, bespectacled man who wore gloves the color of house mice, and whose face conveyed a sense of alert and sympathetic awareness. It was a homely, lightly freckled face with the pale-blue, abstracted eyes common to most people who have flaming red hair such as his, and as he climbed from the seat and onto the dock and gently opened the rear door, he gave an impression of quiet, vigilant decorum—a man to whom one certainly, on a day like this, could entrust the cheerless details attendant upon the death of someone in the family.
He bent into the rear seat, saying, "We've got fifteen minutes before the train comes, Mr. Loftis. Do you want to wait in the station?"
From the back seat there emerged Milton Loftis, followed by a woman named Dolly Bonner, and by an old Negro woman dressed in black silk and white lace collar and cuffs. Her name was Ella Swan.
"I think we'll wait on the dock," Loftis said.
"All right, sir. I'll be with you in a minute. Oh, Barclay!" He departed on sudden, noiseless feet toward his assistant, a pale young man in a baggy black suit who, bent over the hood of the hearse, was peering into the smoking engine.
The other three walked silently to the shadows beneath the station shed where another group of people had already gathered for the train. From somewhere beneath the dock, steam was escaping: it made a shrill incessant whistle. Above the shed the sky was clear and cloudless and a deep violent blue, the sort of sky that promises heat and vague languid activity all day long. The air, already humid, partook of the salty quality peculiar to Southern waterfronts: a brackish smell of creosote and tar and fish, touched faintly with the odor of something frying on a stove. Across from the dock, and separated from it by twenty yards or so of greasy water, a freighter lay tethered to its pier. Into the hold a gang of stevedores had begun to load a cargo of bauxite. From the pier came the rattle and hum of an electric crane, a scorched, galvanic smell of burned metal. A workman's voice from the hold, faint and sepulchral like the echo from a cave, cried, "Bring her over!" and a thick fog of dust started to drift from the ship, floating downward in an undulating cloud which settled gently on the dock beneath the shed and began to tinge everything with a fine sediment, faintly gritty to the touch. Most of the waiting people retreated into the station, pounding their clothes with their hands, but Loftis and the two women waited patiently beside the tracks while the haze settled upon them soundlessly, seeping into their clothes and encrusting the face of the old Negro in a dusty mask.
"... and she wouldn't come. She wouldn't come at all," Loftis was saying. "I begged, I pleaded with her. 'Helen,' I said, 'simple decency demands that you come. This day at least,' I said. 'Don't you understand,' I said, 'it's our daughter, our daughter, not just mine. How can you expect me to endure ...' I said, 'just how can you expect me ...'"
His voice rose loudly on a note of taut and frantic grief and the two women, as if impelled by the same thought, patted him on the arms and broke out together in a flutter of tender whisperings. "Now don't you take on——" Ella began, while Dolly said, "Milton dear, you must be brave.
"Milton dear," she added softly, "do you think I should really be here? I want so to be with you, dearest. But Helen and all, and ..." She was a woman of about forty, with a black dress and wistful eyes.
"I don't know," he said in a small voice.
"What? What's wrong, dear?"
He didn't say anything. He hadn't heard her and, furthermore, his mind was too occupied with his own bewildering sorrow. Yesterday he had been happy, but this sorrow—descending upon him as it had the night before—seemed to have confounded him beyond all hope, since, for the first time in his life, he was unable to cut his trouble adrift, to shed it like some startling and unwelcome chrysalis, and finally to explain it away as "one of those things." His face had become slack with grief, and as he gazed at the water his eyes wore a mildly astonished expression, as if he were watching the scene for the first time. He was in his middle fifties and had been good-looking in his youth (one could see that), and although some of the old handsome traces remained, his face had fallen into a limp and negligent disrepair: a young man's features distended into an unhealthy flabbiness, the skin over well-formed bones now full of big pores and deeply flushed. In his hair there was a patch of gray which had been there since childhood and which, far from being disfiguring, had added a flourish to his looks, a sort of focal point toward which strangers might direct admiring glances. About this patch he had been quite vain, and because of it had rarely worn a hat.
Ella Swan said, "Train gonna come soon. Peyton comin' on de 'leven-fo'teen. Po' precious lamb." She began to sob quietly into an enormous lace handkerchief. She had a wrinkled, wizened face, like that of an aged monkey, and while she wept her eyes peeped damply up over the folds of the lace and looked all around.
"Shh-hh," Dolly whispered. She laid her hand on Ella's arm. "Shh-hh now, Ella. Don't."
Dust sifted down, enveloping the dock like a fog; down the tracks two lone redcaps, hauling baggage from the station, trundled along, disappeared like phantoms, and Loftis, watching them, thought: I won't think too much about this. I'll try to occupy my mind with the water instead. On the ship a solitary figure, brick-red, trailing a cable, hopped along a catwalk and yelled into the hold, "Easy!" Perhaps, he thought, if I only think of this second, this moment, the train won't come at all. Think of the water, think of now. Just the same, he knew he was too old, too weary for paradoxes, that he couldn't evade immediacy, and that the train would come after all, bringing with it final proof of fate and circumstance—words which all his life he had never quite understood, being an Episcopalian, nominally, at least, and not inclined by conscience to worry long over abstractions. It would come, bearing with it, too, evidence of all his errors and of all his love—because he loved his daughter more than anything—and the thought which suddenly struck him—that of meeting her this morning, silent, invisible within a coffin—filled him with horror. The train, he thought, is now on the outskirts of town and passing with a terrible rumbling noise over the last creek past the nigger shacks on the banks.
"Ah, my God," he said weakly.
Ella Swan turned her face toward him. She dabbed softly at her eyes, saying, "Don't you worry none, Mistah Loftis. Me an Miz Bonner take keer of things." Then she began to weep again. "Lawd God bless us Jesus," she moaned.
"Shh-hh, Ella," said Dolly.
Heartsick, frightened, he turned away, watched the water, listening. I do not propose to convince, his father had said (in the feeble light of a March afternoon thirty years ago, before the house was finally condemned, but not long before; when even the lightest footstep on the stairs sent a plaintive wooden squeal through the joists and beams, reminder not only of the swiftly aging house but of the passing of a finer, more tranquil age), I do not propose to convince you merely through paternal advice which no doubt you in your willful notion of filial duty would abjure anyway, I only trust you will heed the warning of one who has seen much water pass as it were beneath the bridge one to whom I must admit the temptations of the flesh have been potent and manifold, and that you will perhaps in some measure renounce a way of life which even in its most charitable concept can lead only to grief and possibly complete ruination. I am an old man now....
So his father had somehow realized that his youth would rise up eventually to betray him, even though he couldn't have foreseen the final calamity—the son, middle-aged now and a bit flabby, standing here awaiting the symbol of his doom—any more than he could have foreseen that another and crueler war would level the earth or that long after his death, in some unbelievable way, the Democrats would take over—perhaps endlessly. His father. No more than a shadow. A wave of self-pity swept over him. He felt tricked and defeated and it seemed to him that the bigness of his sorrow was too much to bear.
Not just that, Papa. Other things. Life tends toward a moment. Not just the flesh. Not a poet or a thief, I could never exercise free will.
Besides ... He watched the ship, the dust, three gulls swerving downward, seesawing on flashing wings. Besides ... There was his youth. You forget your youth, that which, reckless, rises up to betray you. It's your youth, forgotten these years, that you ultimately regret—out of a life begun fifty-some years ago in a cluttered museum of a house in Richmond where his first memory was that of a sunny room murmurous with the sad, hushed sounds of Sunday afternoon and a parade outside with distant band music both bright and disconsolate, his mother's voice whispering, "It's music, Milton dear ... music ... music ... music ... listen, dear." The sunlight sifted downward through gently rustling blinds and somewhere infinitely far above, it had seemed, there was his mother's vacant, hovering face, unseen and finally unknown because she died before he could picture in his consciousness those features his father later said were refined and lovely. There were also walks in the park with his father and the damp, ferny smell of the woods and his best friend, a boy named Charley Quinn, who had a pale face and cheeks with famished hollows and a birthmark on his forehead like a brown-petaled flower, and who was killed at the Somme. My son ...
Your first duty remember, son, is always to yourself (he was a lawyer, descended from a long line of lawyers, and until his death in 1920 he sported stiff wing collars and an Edwardian mustache) I do not intend to presume upon your own good judgment, a faculty which I believe you possess in abundance inherited not from me but from your sainted mother, so as you go out into the world I can only admonish you with the words of the Scotchman, videlicet, keep your chin up and your kilts down and let the wind blow.
But his father lacked the foresight to avoid spoiling his son and to realize that sending him to the University at the age of seventeen would produce the results it did: at nineteen he was a campus character known as "Blow," a sot even by fraternity standards who drank not only because whisky made him drunk but because, away from his father, he found the sudden freedom oppressive. He was talkative, he had a natural curiosity. They said he'd make a fine lawyer. And when he was graduated from the law school he was pleasantly surprised upon reviewing his record to find that he had performed so well, considering the time spent drunk and in the town whorehouse, which catered mainly to college boys: it was a mansion, he remembered, chandeliered, with University seals on the lampshades, and run by a fancy high-yellow named Carmen Metz.
Excerpted from William Styron: The Collected Novels by William Styron. Copyright © 2010 William Styron. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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