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The Pale Betrayer
By Dorothy Salisbury Davis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1965 Dorothy Salisbury Davis
All rights reserved.
THERE CAME THAT MOMENT of stillness which sometimes falls upon a crowded room. Several conversations were suspended at once and the only sound was the metallic clicking of the mantle clock. Even the street traffic beneath the open windows briefly ceased. Dr. Peter Bradley, host to a small party of students and faculty, had paused to search his memory for the name of a Greek physicist he had met at a conference in Athens from which he had returned that day. Robert Steinberg, an associate professor of physics under Bradley at Central University, had just told a joke to which no one got the point. His audience looked at one another questioningly.
Eric Mather, his back to the mantle, felt his heartbeat quicken to strike pace with the clock's loud tick. A moment out of time, it seemed, was being given him in which to weigh the last possibility of turning back. He could excuse himself to Janet Bradley who was showing him the dummied pages of her latest book, cross the room to her husband and say to him: "Peter, old man, I got you into something you didn't know about ..." But suppose it turned out that nothing had happened in Athens, that contact had not been made at all? He had been given a moment in which only to relish the last sweet dregs of a cup he had once thought would be bitter tea. Watching Peter tap his head, the sycophants hanging breathlessly for the wisdom he was expected to shake loose, Mather had no regrets. After all, his own greatest moments had always come from turning chagrin into triumph.
Janet turned the last page of Child of the City, a photographic study of the East Twenties, where she and Peter lived, to the Bowery's edge. Mather noticed her fingers tremble. It gave him an unexpected, an almost shocking thrill, to discover that Janet cared so deeply that he liked the book and, by extension, that he liked her. He remembered then Jerry's intimation—the misfortune of Mather's inadequacy to such opportunity—and the memory crippled the brief, exquisite emotion. It would not spring again, wish as he might to conjure it. He pitied Janet almost as much as he did himself. He reached out his hand to her in the need to have and give sympathy. But Janet, interpreting the gesture by her own heart's dictate, clutched the book in both hands and looked toward her husband. Her lips met, about to say his name.
At that instant Bradley snapped his fingers. "Skaphidas," he cried. "That's the name, Nikos Skaphidas."
Steinberg, to those around him, said: "Oh, God. No wonder you didn't get the point. I forgot to say the man in the story ..."
His wife, Louise, cut in: "Bob, you always do that!"
Spontaneously the murmur of conversation resumed all through the room. Mather watched Janet, trying to catch her eyes, to seek the best of himself reflected there, his lost salvation.
"Janet ..." He caught her hand and kissed it. Anyone in the room, observing, would say it characteristic of him: Eric was a great kisser of hands.
But Janet said: "Thank you, Eric."
"It's a beautiful book, you know. One would expect it to be, coming from you."
She inclined her head in acknowledgment of his praise. To escape the intimacy with which she could not cope, she said: "There's more coffee. Shall I warm it?"
He shook his head and forced her to endure a few seconds of his scrutiny. She suffered it with great poise, only the faint telltale pulse moving at her throat. Still she would not meet his eyes, keeping Peter within her gaze.
"Do you love him, Janet?" he asked quietly.
"Yes!" She tilted her chin and the word had come too quickly. A cry in the wilderness. Mather felt it at his own heart's core. The clock behind him rasped, about to strike the hour of nine. How bitterly ironic to reach two climaxes at once in a life so barren of such moments. The others in the room had begun to move, the eagerness of the young scientists to see the film irrepressible now that the time had come. Mather heard Peter say: "Mind, there may not be anything we don't know ..." But even as he said the words his eyes were shining. He wanted to see it as much as they did.
Mather allowed himself one last thought of Janet: he wondered how he would feel about her after this night had passed. "I'd better go too," he said. "I've promised to look in on the Imagists."
"What are the Imagists?" Janet asked.
"Well, they're neither beats nor Beatles, certainly. They're latter-day worshippers of Eliot and Hume, and they're so square, they're cubed." He smiled down at her and brushed her cheek with the back of his hand. "Thank you, my dear, for everything."
As he moved across the room the clock struck nine. Louise Steinberg said to no one in particular, simply a despairing statement of fact: "Wouldn't you know they'd go to the laboratory, even tonight?"
Yes, Mather thought, one would.
"Damn you, Peter," Louise added, but without malice. Louise was getting plump. She liked comfort and was both proud and possessive of her husband who was finally making a comfortable living as well as a reputation in physics under Bradley.
"It won't take long," Bradley said. "I haven't seen Janet in a week.
"Eric, come look at some pictures with us. They're Russian."
It was Anne Russo who said it. Her purpose, Mather thought, was to forestall his interrupting her moment with Peter. Possibly she was single-minded enough to think the pictures might actually mean something to him. Anne, studying for her doctorate with Bradley, adored him. Most of the women in his classes did. Not that he had many—Anne was the only one in graduate work—and he did his best to discourage those he had. To make it in science a woman had to be able to take discouragement. The little beasts loved Peter for giving it to them. Anne did not look like a female scientist: more the social register sort. Quite tall, she had a good body, Mather supposed, but he doubted that any of this crew was aware of it.
"I haven't seen a Russian picture in years. They're much too hammy," he said, playing the scientists' clown. He sometimes thought it why they tolerated him, for they were snobs to the last man of them.
He put his hand on Bradley's shoulder. Peter was getting gray at the temples—at thirty-five—the burden of premature success. "How much of Athens did you see?"
"The Acropolis and the Plaka, like any week-end tourist."
"And the Byron monument?"
"We had a hell of a time finding it ..."
We, Mather thought. He had supposed that Bradley walking in Athens even as at home would insist upon his solitude. He did not like to think Bradley might again break that pattern in the next few minutes.
But Bradley was true to habit. He picked up a magazine from the side-table waiting for the others to leave before him. Janet said he did much of his reading in such odd moments, able to absorb a page at a glance. And he had the remarkable faculty of doing it without giving offence, a sort of social sixth sense. As Mather reached the door and glanced back, Peter waved and called out, "We'll talk, Eric!"
Mather waited for a car to pass before crossing the street. There was the sound of water to the wheels' whine over the pavement. But it was heat only. It had been too hot a day for May. He tried to think about the heat, the children playing—if you could call it play, their deadly stalking of one another among parked cars and the shattering bray of their make-believe guns. Darkness had come, the murky darkness of ill-lighted streets over which the city brightness hung, a neon-tinted nebula of smoke and fume sealing in the night below. Mather took up his self-arranged vigil beneath a street lamp and looked up at the Bradley second-floor windows. As he gave the sign to his co-conspirators who were watching—from where he did not know; he could not even be sure they were watching—the kissing of his fingertips toward the house he had left, he saw Janet in the window facing him. How extraordinary that she should be there! It brought full circle the wheel within the wheel. She abruptly turned her back so that he supposed she had seen him and taken the gesture to her own heart. Good! So much the better if something should go wrong. It was the first time he had permitted himself even fleetingly that fear. Anne Russo was with her now, shaking back her dark long hair as she spoke to Janet. Had she seen him too? He could not be sure.
In the street directly below the windows, the three male students—Mather could not keep their names straight—were hallooing up to Anne. Steinberg joined them and the party started to move up the street. A few seconds later Anne loped after them. Louise Steinberg came out and paused on the stoop. Mather had almost forgotten her. She stood a moment breathing deeply of the fume-infested air: Louise was the sort who'd embrace an oyster; she loved the world. Sometimes she audited his classes. He remembered her best there for her description of Shelley as a proletarian poet!
A light went on in Bradley's study, a small room just off the livingroom. Peter came to his desk near the window and opened his attaché case. He took a small box from it along with some papers which he put into the less important-looking lettercase. A few seconds later, switching off the light, he left the room. Janet was drawing the livingroom shades, talking over her shoulder to her husband.
Mather's job was done. All that remained was for him to walk away, which to the other watchers meant that Peter Bradley would now come. Mather moved quickly, for he wanted no part in what was to follow, however simple the snatching of the lettercase. Almost instantly he resented that Peter should be their dupe now that his own involvement was finished.
Mather angled his way through the half-commercial, half-residential streets that lay between the Bradleys' and Greenwich Village. He chose his route at random fancy, striding out, swinging his body like a country boy legging joyously over the fields. That image shot briefly through his mind, his favorite memory of himself: at the age of twelve running free, scattering ducks and chickens in his grandmother's yard, starting a partridge and her young as he dashed through a field, and then reaching the vast and silent woods unobserved, utterly free.
He was again free, exhilaratingly so, having successfully loaned his talents to a conspiracy which, he had convinced himself, would go far to destroy conspiracy. That he had been recruited less for his talents than for his availability, and that he had acted out of vulnerability more than conviction were circumstances he no longer believed himself. He had snatched honor from dishonor as perhaps did more men than he knew. Despite his continual playing on it, his knowledge of human nature was suspect to him underneath. But his problem now would be to keep his exultation secret. He knew his own weakness for the dramatic. One of the things he was going to have to avoid after the incident was over was the temptation to tell Peter Bradley the truth, that unbeknownst to himself, Bradley had been used by Soviet counterespionage.
Mather laughed dryly at his own expense: the temptation should be easily overcome. Bradley simply would not believe him; he would call it a splendid tale, worthy of Mather's imagination, fiction patterned to coincidence. Free? He was locked within his own contrivance.
His pace slowed with the diminished sense of triumph. The fact that Bradley would not believe him if he could tell the story rankled fiercely. Bradley did not know him that well. Nobody did. It sometimes troubled him that he suspected no one wanted to. Yet, he was welcomed in all company, even that of scientists. He could choose at that moment among a half-dozen groups of young intellectuals meeting by chance or habit at some Village shop or bar and find a welcome. He could retrace his steps to the house he had just left. Would Janet welcome him? She would want to. Or had a moment alone again with Peter cast the tempter from her mind?
When he reached the Red Lantern, the Imagists were in full flower: the word struck him as particularly apt. These were a group of young men distinguished by their carefulness of speech, their elegance of clothes and manner. Mather was amused by the affectation: to pursue elegance for its own sake on today's campus, among the consciously sloppy and unwashed, took its own kind of courage. The dark-paneled, hazily lighted tavern was crowded, tourist trade at most of the tables and the regulars squaring their backs to it at the bar. He ambled toward his young friends. The only girl among them, wearing a scalloped paisley shawl and with her hair loosely nested on the top of her head—or was it a wig?—stuck out her tongue as a wolf-whistler paid her tribute on his way to the washroom. Sweeney among the nightingales.
The young people edged together to make as much room as Mather wanted, which was a whole bench to himself. Most of them called him Eric, off-campus. He often sat among them, sideways, a knee drawn up to his chin, his eyes closed as he listened to their talk. He bought his welcome possibly with his ability to quote from memory whole passages of poetry to either bolster or defeat the point in the making. Tonight it was "Sweeney" again. He would not stay long. He had always found Sweeney a bore as well as a boor.
Suddenly he opened his eyes and began reciting, the conversation falling off beneath his onslaught. He was as startled himself by his choice of lines as were his listeners. They had come from deep within his own subconscious and were as remote from Sweeney as London from the Dardanelles. In fact, until he found himself reciting them he had not been aware of knowing them at all:
"Snatch from the ashes of your sires
The embers of their former fires;
And he who in the strife expires
Will add to theirs a name of fear
That tyranny all quake to hear ..."
Having started, he found the impulse to carry on too strong to resist. He poured out stanza after stanza, plummeting the strange and hidden recesses of his own memory for them. And as he tumbled out the words, his delivery far more eloquent than the poem, he loosened his tie and then removed it, unbuttoned his shirt and spread the collar.
The young people watched him, fascinated, their eyes a mixture of amused puzzlement. Eliot? Surely not. Some of them could scarcely suppress laughter, and others let it go thinking it would prove them knowledgeable of the jingo he was counterpoising to Eliot's sardonicism.
He stopped abruptly. His listeners waited silently. He said: "Who?"
More silence. Then the girl giggled. "I know," she said with a grating drawl. "It's Byron."
"How could you tell?" he mocked.
Grinning vacuously, she gestured with her limp hand at her own neck, indicating his open collar, that bit of manly flair for which the romantic poet had been remembered when his lines were long forgotten.
"The testimony of fair woman," Mather again mocked. "The poet is soonest recognized who bares his throat to her fangs."
He gathered his long legs under him and slid out of the booth. "Forgive the interruption, gentlemen. Live, Sweeney! Agamemnon died tonight."
He moved quickly out of the tavern, pushing his way through the incoming crowd, ignoring the bartender's friendly salute. He was possessed of a wild restlessness, the need to do something flamboyant, to lose himself by calling attention to himself. Agamemnon died tonight! Well, hadn't he with honor's death? He began then a round of the taverns and coffee shops, conjuring a welcome from one group, then another with his fierce exuberance.CHAPTER 2
JANET WAS IN THE darkroom, which had probably served a previous tenant as a maid's room, when the phone rang. She was a few seconds getting used to the light as she stepped into the kitchen. The thought ran through her mind that Peter had become involved: something had turned up in the film which he and his group had not observed before. To Janet photography meant a study of persons, objects. Sometimes she experimented with non-objective effects—she had an exhibit of such studies showing now—but to Peter, a high-energy physicist, in his work film was the record of possible mathematical significants achieved in nuclear experiment.
It was Bob Steinberg on the phone. "Janet? Where the hell is Peter? We've been waiting here for over an hour and I've got an eight o'clock class in the morning."
"He left just after you did," Janet said. "I expected him home soon." The University was a brisk twenty minutes' walk.
Excerpted from The Pale Betrayer by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Copyright © 1965 Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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