The following is an excerpt from John Hawkes’s Innocence in Extremis, which first appeared in Conjunctions:7.
In the summer of 1892, when Uncle Jake had barely attained the age of twelve, his father determined that the time had come to return with his proud young family to France. His household was then exemplary of the Deauville spirit, including as it did three young sons and their infant brother, a female secretary, five maids, an indomitable and handsome wife who in her Irish pride countenanced his carnal relations with maids and secretary without word of objection. His sons, excluding the infant, were already taller than their mother and unmistakably of the male Deauville line, though the oldest was but fourteen and the youngest ten. They were large, his sons, big-boned and masculine, though they were only boys. The infant, to whom the father paid scant attention, proclaimed in the features of his tiny face that he too was a Deauville.
Of the women in the father’s employ, the secretary was his favorite, with her firm body lewd mind and auburn hair, which was the source of Uncle Jake’s later interest in women with red hair, while three of the maids were hardly older than his three older sons yet totally adaptive to his impulsive ways. Two of the maids were among those he had originally brought from France, and the qualities that accounted for their survival earned the secretary’s envy and his own highest personal esteem. They were special women, who could survive so long his affection and satisfy for such a length of time his needs. The youngest maid had the palest blonde hair he had ever seen, the oldest, who was one of the two French maids, had robust small breasts that made him think of the eyes of an owl. The maids, from first to last, were easily amused, pretty and created day by day the gossip of which they were themselves the subjects and on which they thrived. They hid their ankles, one and all, wore black uniforms, white aprons, and small white hats. They worked obediently and deferentially for the Irish matriarch who, at the age of forty swept through the rooms and halls of Deauville Farms with a grace and grandeur that constantly aroused his admiration and now and again his desire. The secretary was an excellent rider; as was his wife, though the Irish matriarch had for years refused to join his day-long outings on horseback. His boys were provided with shaggy honey-colored ponies. If he could have stood them all in a row—sons, maids, secretary, wife—they would have shone, each one of them, male and female, large and small, with the vigor he single-handedly inspired.
The ten members of his household, plus the infant, were all he wanted—except for his horses, his stables, and the occasional strange face and figure to lend spice to the sauce, as he thought of it. In the summer of 1892 he considered himself nothing if not the head of the household. He was forty-four years old, athletic, aristocratic, a heavy-set six-footer who sat his horse like a Burgundian baron and enjoyed the flesh of his maids and was admired by his male friends as the worthiest womanizer of them all. He was a sexual despot and, he knew, would never be more handsome. He was his father’s ninth and youngest son, his father’s favorite, the only son the Old Gentleman had intended consciously to sire. Now he was the man his father had wanted him to be. Now was the time to return to France, to transport his entire family across the seas for a protracted stay in the chateau near Chantilly. He wanted to present his family to the Old Gentleman. He wanted to witness the Old Gentleman’s pleasure and receive in person his approval. He wanted to arrive in the fall, despite the risk of a rough crossing, in time for the grape harvest and the fox hunting season.
He wrote a simple letter to his father in his florid script. He booked their passage. He ordered them to haul the luggage up from the cellars, down from the attic. He supervised the packing of the new wardrobes he had provided for each and every member of his household, including the maids. The boys and secretary must take their riding clothes and leather boots, the maids packed up the household linen, sat on the trunks so that he might strap down the lids.
His proud wife was disinclined to make the voyage, since she did not want her husband’s infidelities and her own conjugal martyrdom exposed to his parents. But she said nothing about her disinclinations and through their weeks of preparations carried herself with a haggard dignity that lent a semblance of maturity to the scurrying of the little maids. It was the first time in their married lives that her husband had intruded upon her matriarchy interfering in matters that were rightly hers, since though the maids were his for pleasure still the work they did was at her own strict and magisterial bidding. (The secretary who ostensibly helped him with the affairs of the stables, generally kept to her rooms in a separate wing that he had added to the house for her.) But once her husband had fixed his mind on his father, and could use the excuse of family pride to bundle them all off to France for a filial visit to Chantilly then she was helpless to do anything other than tie up her fine black hair in a dusting scarf, as if she herself were one of the maids, and submit to his plans.
The preparations lasted for six weeks. It was a period of the keenest anticipation for Uncle Jake, a time when his sense of well-being equaled in its way the bountiful sensations that had come so suddenly and unexpectedly upon his father Until then Uncle Jake’s boyhood had been tranquil, secure, in a way sensual even though the maids refrained from making the slightest gesture to disturb the innocence of himself and the two brothers with whom he spent most of his time, no matter how erotically well-tuned they had become, those pretty maids, thanks to the father. Nonetheless by then Uncle Jake was living on deep-dish blueberry pies spread thickly with the richest cream still warm from the cow, and liked nothing better than lying in his narrow bed up under the eaves and listening to the falling rain while eating an entire box of chocolates slowly piece by piece. The cook, a kind woman not much older than the two French maids, took special pains to satisfy his boyish appetite for sweetness; the old gardener instilled in him a love for flowers, with his brothers Granny and Doc he spent endless mornings leaving drops of tender blood on the tips of thorns while gathering great buckets of berries for his pies. He and Granny and Doc were shy well-mannered boys who helped the gardener; watched the cook put up preserves in her immense, slate-colored kitchen under the keen eye of their mother and who strolled hand-in-hand about the shady or sunny acres of Deauville Farms.
Dutifully the three boys exercised their ponies, their riding master praised them to the father as diligent and responsive young horsemen. But surrounded as they were by stables, stallions, brood mares, shiny foals, clever stable boys culled from the lower classes, and owning as each of them did his own pony nonetheless they did not share their father’s equestrian obsessions and quietly kept to themselves, preferring their mother to their father, the cook and maids to the stable boys, and the gardner to the riding master with his little sharp spike of a moustache and long whip. Yet the world of their father’s stables offered them the source of their only prank, since among the blooded animals was one, an ungainly blue-black beast which the father for sentimental reasons did not have shot though it was old and broken, and it was this creature and not the ponies that engaged the interests of Uncle Jake and Doc and Granny, and turned them into pranksters. Once a month they stole the blue-black horse. Without saddle, without bridle, with nothing to guide the old horse but a short length of rope tied to its halter; in this way they climbed on its back, all three of them, and raced in gleeful circles around a distant and tree-screened field, Granny in front, tugging on the rope, Doc in the middle and clinging to Granny’s waist, and Uncle Jake sitting backwards and beating upon the old horse’s bony rump with a heavy and resounding stick. In no other way were they fractious; only mounted on an ancient blue-black horse could they enjoy their father’s world and rebel against it. The riding master knew of their mistreatment of the horse but kept their secret.
Thus Uncle Jake was a mild boy except when beating upon the horse, an attractive twelve-year-old encouraged to spoon the thick warm cream onto his pie with a ladle, and his mother’s favorite. Then into his already privileged existence there came the prospect of a trip to France. Uncle Jake and Granny and Doc became as excited as the five maids over the promise of ship and Eiffel Tower and all the unknown delights of a foreign land. Naturally the two French maids were happiest of all, and among the three older brothers it was Uncle Jake who most enjoyed their red-eyed pleasure and the spontaneous way they hugged each other, and himself as well if he were near at hand, whenever they thought of their good fortune. France was the only place for them, despite their attachment to Monsieur Deauville, as they called him, and now, for the first time since their arrival in America, they were going back. So Uncle Jake followed them about or watched his father strapping down the lids of the trunks or carried the infant Billy Boy in his arms and attended on his mother’s proud bustling.
For six weeks the entire household was in disarray with closets and cellars and attics emptied and trunks and valises and hat boxes piled in all the hallways and in all the rooms, and Uncle Jake, who had never thought to question the stability of his mother’s matriarchy which was as pure and permanent as the solemn thinking of the polished old music box she kept in her room, now found himself delighted by the havoc wreaked on their tranquility by his father And suddenly his father, rarely seen about the house, was everywhere, and no longer did he smile down at Uncle Jake in his distracted fashion as he did whenever he happened to notice his second son which was not often, but now tousled his hair, caught him playfully by an arm, and spoke to him, however briefly about the ship and the Eiffel Tower and the chateau near Chantilly Now when Uncle Jake drew close to watch his father kneeling beside one of the trunks that would take three men to carry as his father said, and saw his father reach up and tweak the thin ankle of one of the young maids seated atop the trunk, now Uncle Jake enjoyed his father’s gesture as much as the maid and happily joined in their laughter.
It was a smooth crossing, especially for so late in September. Furthermore, the head of the family had booked their accommodations with discretion, so that his wife’s stateroom and his own had a connecting door and adjoined the stateroom assigned to the three boys, while the secretary was placed at the other end of the upper deck in a stateroom adjacent to that of the two French maids. The other maids were consigned to a single cabin below decks. These arrangements were pleasing to everyone concerned, since the connecting door between husband and wife was locked each night by the Irish matriarch, allowing her husband freedom to host at will the secretary or one of the French maids, which in turn so conveniently allayed the needs of the head of the family that for the entire trip he flatly and happily denied himself the three younger maids. For their part the younger maids were so exhilarated merely at finding themselves aboard a ship that they missed not a jot the sexual attentions of the master and found the snug cabin below decks grander than the staterooms up above. Even the seating plan for their meals contributed, like weather and staterooms, to the delights of the long crossing. The parents and three boys were grouped together at the Captain’s table, so that the handsome matriarch was spared the indignity of having to eat elbow to elbow with the secretary; the secretary and the two French maids ate together in the second seating, and all the agreeable circumstances of the voyage and the very fact of sailing on a French ship toward their native France raised in the maids such a childish bloom of affection and well-being that they quite overcame the secretary’s envy. The younger maids were served in the third seating with the rest of the servants which was exactly where they were most at home.
Clear skies, flat seas, rightness prevailing throughout their entire shipboard situation, and games shared by father, sons, maids and secretary on the white deck under the benevolent supervision of the matriarch in her deck chair—here was a family accord hitherto unknown to Uncle Jake, despite chocolates and blueberry pies and the love of his imposing mother at Deauville Farms. Now Uncle Jake strode the deck with Billy Boy in his arms and heard his family admiringly discussed by the passengers and heard himself identified as one of its members. His father laughed throughout the voyage, his mother smiled. Never had he known such contentment as when at the rail he cradled Billy Boy and raised the tiny bonneted head for a kiss or, shading his eyes, scanned the horizon for the coast of France.
They arrived at Le Havre on the last day of September and only a day or so ahead of the first storm of the season. The entire entourage assembed for the landfall. The air was crisp, French ships and French docks and derricks lay all about them in a bright sunlight that had shone on kings. The French maids cried, the proud and lascivious secretary joined them without intending to, and the head of the household stood speechless at the sight of the France of his birth. There in the midst of her family the matriarch gathered herself to her full height at the rail and in a profusion of baby blankets and a shawl of Irish wool gave suck to Billy Boy as if to gird herself in motherhood against that nation of decadence which she saw clearly enough in the harbor and city sprawling near and far in the autumn dawn. She faced as best she could the distant array of tri-colored flags, the plains of gold. Beside her stood her favorite son who now and then reached over and drew the shawl and blanket more protectively about his mother and Billy Boy a baby blissfully nursing with all of France at his back. And next to Uncle Jake stood Granny holding by the hand the ten-year-old Doc. They were dressed in caps and jackets and long trousers, and only Granny at fourteen, was conscious of the secretary and giggling maids surrounding his father. But he too stared ashore with the eyes of innocence.
For ten days the family remained in Paris where the crisp clear weather returned on the heels of the first storm of the season. The father accompanied his sons and the young maids to the middle platform of the Eiffel Tower, at that time in its majestic infancy and the newest wonder of the world. It rose like an unclothed iron marvel to an astounding height and then and there, with its panorama of spires and chimney pots spread out below, implanted in Uncle Jake his future fear of heights, though on that windy platform Granny held him around the waist and Doc clutched his arm. All three boys much preferred the pond in the famous gardens to the Eiffel Tower, when the two French maids proudly took their charges to see the last of the toy sailboats of the year. Similarly the young American maids were far happier returning the glances of every Frenchman they passed on the boulevards than they had been on the middle platform of the famous tower. The red-headed secretary and the head of the household were equally stimulated by the sight of sweating girls flouncing in a raucous line with their skirts held high—a sight the secretary and French-American Deauville shared every night of their stay. For her part, the Irish matriarch insisted that she be left alone in her hotel room with Billy Boy and the vases of fresh roses that appeared mysteriously each morning.
At last and in another flurry of activity the family gathered before the small but elegant hotel and took their places in carriages provided by the Old Gentleman—there were three carriages for the family and two for luggage—and sped off toward Chantilly.
The approach to his grandfather’s chateau was through a wood so carefully tended that it resembed a park and through a village of small and colorful shops and houses as old as the Deauville chateau itself. Beyond the village, across the rolling expanse of green fields that looked as carefully tended as the nearly artificial forest lay the chateau. On the morning that was the last of the journey Uncle Jake was seated beside his mother in the first of the five carriages. Never had he been so alert to his own perceptions and was highly amused when from the carriage window he saw that men with long brooms of bound tree branches were sweeping the floor of the forest. He was grateful for the luxurious interior of the carriage, upholstered as it was in black leather as smooth as satin, and for the contented and expectant expression on the face of his father who, with arms folded and flanked by Doc and Granny sat facing himself and his mother who was of course still cradling in her arms his swathed and sleeping infant brother.
When the five carriages started across the frosted fields, and Uncle Jake saw on the far edge of the fields the Deauville chateau like a jewel box in a sea of green, he pressed his face to the carriage window and in the instant acquired that pride in his family name that would last a lifetime.
Horns sounded. The dappled gray horses, lathered in harness and plumed in frosted breath, slowed to a trot. The string of five carriages passed through the gardens and sculptured hedges that fronted the chateau and, in a grand clatter, entered through the high wrought iron gates into the courtyard of the Old Gentleman’s chateau. The five carriages came to a halt. The twenty horses snorted. The music of arrival rang out from the shod hooves and ancient cobblestones. The sunlight of early autumn shone down upon the crescent of carriages and all those ranged as in military ranks to greet them. The journey had ended and the American Deauvilles alighted into the festive grandeur of the French Deauvilles.
For a moment no one moved in the silence. Shyness suffused the pleasure of the Americans, though the Irish matriarch stood boldly forward with the sleeping Billy Boy whom she had nursed in the carriage, once again dozing in her arms. Wide smiles strained the faces of the French Deauvilles who stood stock still except for the maids and scullery maids who were already tensed for curtsying and the male servants who were unconsciously twisting their caps in their hands. The hats of the French ladies, filmier and wider of brim than any such hats Uncle Jake had ever seen, floated and fluttered among the French Deauvilles like regal swans.
Then the Old Gentleman stepped forward, his ninth son stepped forward, the two embraced, in French fashion kissed each other twice on both cheeks.
Then relief, confusion, a breaking of ranks. Horses and carriages were driven out of the courtyard, exclamations in French and English filled the air; Uncle Jake and Granny and Doc stayed close to their mother in the milling crowd. Somehow the Old Gentleman was able to reform his household into a single receiving line that stretched halfway around the ivory-colored walls of the courtyard. He, his wife and a woman quite mysterious to Uncle Jake were last in that line and the youngest scullery maid was first. Uncle Jake’s father; all at once as gracious and European as the old patrician himself, organized his little group into a similar order and led them down the full length of the receiving line, nodding to the French servants, who curtsied or hung their heads according to gender, and presented his wife and sons to his father; his mother, his brothers, and to the mysterious woman. The young American maids were not adept at curtsying and charmed everyone with their efforts; the two briefly repatriated French maids, wiping their wet cheeks and rubbing their red eyes, were allowed to kiss the hand of the Old Gentleman, his wife, his eight sons, and the mysterious woman. The youngest American maid, she whose hair under its white cap was so fine and blonde as to suggest the palest light tinted with the brightest silver, floundered prettily at the feet of the Old Gentleman in a way that amused them all and prompted the old patrician a hint of surprise and appreciation that went unnoticed except by Uncle Jake and his father and his father’s secretary and the little maid herself. As for the secretary his father presented her as swiftly as he could and thoroughly concealed his secret pleasure at observing, as only he and Uncle Jake observed—and of course Uncle Jake saw only signs and not their import—that the Old Gentleman was even more smitten by the red-headed woman, in whom brazenness was a kind of grace, than he had been by the youngest maid.
When it came his turn to bow to the mysterious woman, Uncle Jake found himself singled out from his brothers. He felt his father’s hand on his shoulder, he saw Granny escaping from the mysterious woman as fast as he could and knew that she had hardly deigned to recognize poor Granny just as in the next moment she would dismiss the suddenly foolish Doc. And he now was next in line. She was small, quite as small as the smallest of the American maids, and yet she was more quietly imperious than any woman in the courtyard, including both his mother and grandmother, whose size alone should have made them superior to the mysterious woman but did not. Despite her small size, or perhaps because of it, her shape was in itself a flaunting of her spirit a fulfilling of the female form unattained even by his mother and grandmother.
His father pronounced his name, stepped back, for an instant left him face to face with the mysterious woman. He was embarrassed to find himself taller than she; he was embarrassed to be standing still in the line; he was embarrassed to be so obviously and unaccountably the object of her attention. And to him this woman was in herself embarrassing; in her steady eyes, in the glossy pearls that lay on the green bosom, and most of all in the small and narrow face which belonged in a locket. Her face was as hard and glossy as the pearls she wore; it was youthful yet streaked with age. Before that little face he blanched, just as the mysterious woman extended her hand, which she had not done for Granny and what could have been worse than that proferred hand in its tight black calfskin glove? Was he to shake the mysterious woman’s hand or kiss it? He did not know. He quivered, wiped his own hand on his trousers. But then the mysterious woman resolved his dilemma and mortified him both at once. Before he could move she raised her hand still higher and reached up with her tiny fingers, brushed back his hair and stroked the curve of his ear. Large ears were characteristic of the Deauville males, and even then Uncle Jake’s ears were large. He was as self-conscious of his ears as of his height. And the mysterious woman had stroked his ear with the tips of her fingers. He had no idea who she was or why she was there in the courtyard. He did not understand why his father had not said her name yet knew her well. He did not understand what she had meant to do or why or by what right. But she had touched him—and most visibly.
Then it ended. His father laughed, and there was his grandmother, whom he had waited all these weeks to meet, and just beyond her the Old Gentleman. Again the courtyard was filled with the sounds of French, the sounds of English, and in the embrace of his own mother, Uncle Jake recovered at once his innocence and enthusiasm for France. He gave himself up completely to his grandmother’s embrace.
At twelve Uncle Jake was unable to formulate what were in fact his feelings for the past and what was to become in later years his obsession with genealogy. Nonetheless, for that moment in his grandmother’s arms he knew the vague sensations of reaching back to the beginnings of his father’s life. His grandmother’s sheer bulk and beauty about which there could be no question, seemed to justify still further the trust he had so recently begun to place in his father He had found himself liking his father before leaving Deauville Farms, and now he liked his grandmother still more. To be hugged by this large woman dressed in gray was to confirm his own place in the family line, to convince him that he too was wanted as a Deauville heir. She was strong, warm, and more than his mother, smelled like a person who spent her life giving birth to boys. But little did he know that she had borne her first son at the age of sixteen and detested all males young or old and thought him nothing but disagreeable even as she took him, as he thought, to her heart.
Then up rose his grandfather like a stone figure torn from a tomb. Since August Uncle Jake had wanted to meet his grandmother; but since August he had merely worried about meeting his grandfather. How could the oldest living male Deauville be anything but frightening to a boy like himself? And if the grandfather resembled not the father whom Uncle Jake was coming to trust but the father who, since Uncle Jake’s earliest days, had made his second son uneasy at best, defensively indifferent at worst, what then? Might not the grandfather destroy in the instant all the good of the grandmother?
Uncle Jake peered up in total vulnerability at his grandfather; the bewhiskered old patrician stood straight as a tree and, bejeweled and formally attired as he was, could not have been more intimidating to his grandson. And whereas Uncle Jake had just happily discovered in his grandmother his father’s beginnings, now, for the instant, he saw in his grandfather his father’s more recent years. The Old Gentleman’s size, bearing, and facial features, behind the whiskers, were those of Uncle Jake’s own father cloaked in advanced old age. In his grandfather’s face he saw the familiar features—the sensuous lips, the imperious nose, the lordly forehead—and that same expression of some inner secret life which Uncle Jake had seen so often and to his extreme discomfort on the face of his father. But the worst of it was that in the old patrician’s visage Uncle Jake caught hints not only of his father but of someone even more perplexing. The old patrician reminded Uncle Jake not only of his father but, most dreadfully of the mysterious woman. From the aged eyes and the translucent facial skin there shone forth the selfsame quality of youth that also distinguished the face of the mysterious woman. It was a quality of youth that scared and made compelling the faces of the old patrician and the mysterious woman. It stirred the ripples of Uncle lake’s perceptions into a terrible turbulence: he now intuited that his grandfather and the mysterious woman were far more advanced in whatever it was that he most feared in his father; and Uncle Jake was as shocked at what he now knew unconsciously as the Old Gentleman was happily and consciously intrigued by what he had seen in his grandsons, and especially in Uncle Jake—namely, an innocence that it had never occurred to him could exist in a male.
Uncle Jake was never a mentally proficient boy or man, as no Deauville ever was, but he possessed a naive sensibility and so, confronted now by his grandfather, he was overwhelmed by discomfort. But now it was the Old Gentleman himself who put Uncle Jake once more at his ease. The Old Gentleman inclined his head and smiled down at Uncle Jake as if at some greatly pleasing rarity of nature—a dove the color of cobalt blue, a monarch butterfly with four pairs of wing—and bowed to his young grandson with unrestrained cordiality His smile was agreeable, his breath smelled of feasts and forests, his bow was so simply and sincerely executed that Uncle Jake was able to return it in like manner without blushing, though he had not until this moment bowed to anyone, man or woman, in his life. Furthermore, the Old Gentleman not only bowed to Uncle Jake but then, after the boy had bowed in his turn, seized Uncle Jake’s soft hand and shook it and placed his other hand on the young boy’s manly shoulder and squeezed it, as Uncle Jake’s own father had recently begun to do.
In the hubbub and after giving Uncle Jake his benediction, so to speak, while greeting Granny and poor Doc with unfair perfunctoriness, the Old Gentleman, who was known for distaste for children in general and infants in particular; suddenly took it into his head to bestow upon the youngest American Deauville an honor that would mark the infant’s future as brilliantly and permanently as would a golden rose tattooed on his little chest. The Old Gentleman meant, that is, to hold his youngest grandson in his arms, a gesture which the Old Gentleman had never been known to make in all his days as a patrician, having refused to hold on his lap or so much as touch even the infant males whom he himself had fathered or to allow at his table any person, including his own nine sons, who had not yet attained majority.
Now, himself surprised at his sudden generosity and so all the more pleased by it, the old patrician turned again to his handsome daughter-in-law and magnanimously and unmistakably reached for the child she was proudly holding against her breast. Only those standing closest to the Old Gentleman and the Irish matriarch saw what was happening and began to smile. At the same time and for no reason whatsoever a hush fell over the courtyard, and it was in this gratuitous silence that an incident devastating to Uncle Jake was fated to occur. The silence alone made him timorous. But he was standing close to his mother, like a shy acolyte, and could not help but appreciate, though anxiously his mother’s pride as the old and smiling patrician faced her suddenly with his arms wide and his forehead mottled in happiness.
“May I,” asked the Old Gentleman and looked upon his daughter-in-law as if she had long been his favorite instead of a woman whose very strangeness had helped to whet his appetites and whose child would surely serve as a plump little bridge between himself and the handsome mother.
The Irish matriarch inclined her head, quite preserving her dignity smiled unsuspectingly at the old patrician, curtsied gracefully and almost inperceptibly and stepped still closer to the oddly stimulating personage of her father-in-law. She appreciated this kind regard and grandfatherly concern for her child; she saw to it that together she and the old patrician affected a slow and careful transfer of the infant. They overcame the slight awkwardness of entangled arms and close bodies; together they managed the transfer without a slip. She saw her child settled stiffly against the old patrician’s chest, and with unaccustomed and thoroughly concealed eagerness she fussed to rearrange the blankets swaddling her child in the old patrician’s arms. Her fingers disappeared between the folds of the blankets and the harsh fabric of the formal frock coat; her shoe touched his. To her his breath smelled of flowers and four-poster beds.
With an uncharacteristic coyness only he could detect she stepped back to admire their accomplishment and the totally unfamiliar sight of her infant in the arms of a Deauville male. For a moment she found herself wondering why her husband had not been able to emulate his father; for a moment she thought she knew what it might have been like if the Old Gentleman and not the French-American horse-breeder had fathered her fourth and final child on her sturdy and receptive flesh. Her eyes met his; he read her thoughts. She admired the youth in the aged face and hands; she admired his rings confined almost entirely to the right hand; she admired the stick-pin which he wore in his cravat, a purple oval on which an artist of no little skill had painted a faun-colored head of a dog. She who had only days before determined that France was a nation of decadence now failed to see the Old Gentleman’s resplendent decadence. Now if she had had her choice she would have exchanged without the slightest hesitation her forty-four-year-old husband for his seventy-six-year-old father, and in the moment of the exchange it would have been as if the old patrician’s ninth son had never existed and as if she had always been the wife of the loving and faithful father. Again the Old Gentleman read her thoughts. There he stood like a father. The deed was done.
Then Billy Boy awoke. Whether he awakened and began immediately to scream, or in his sleep began to scream and hence drove himself to furious wakefulness was not clear. But awake he was and screaming. The sounds that came from the tiny face just visible beneath a fold of the topmost blue blanket wrapped about the infant now in the Old Gentleman’s charge were no sweet and appealing sounds of a well-behaved baby in distress. Quite the contrary. Billy Boy was large for his eight months; he was possessed of Deauville lungs; his tiny face was now so fat as to appear eyeless, so round and wet and red with the blood of his anger as to appear on the verge of bursting. His screams had had no warning prelude, they were unremitting; they were as sustained and loud as a winter wind and filled the courtyard. The Old Gentleman heard the terrible screams in horror. He looked down at what he held in horror.
Heads turned. There was laughter. And on went Billy Boy screaming precisely as if he knew why his mother had given him up and as if at eight months he could suddenly see himself at the age of thirty-two slumped over dead in the Stutz Bearcat. The pain of his screaming was like nothing the Old Gentleman or the Irish matriarch or Uncle Jake had ever heard.
But what made the incident devastating to Uncle Jake was not merely that Billy Boy had awakened inopportunely and was behaving badly and was making of himself a humiliating spectacle, an overpowering spectacle, small as he was, and hence making a mockery of his three brothers if not all members of the Deauville family from America. The incident was devastating for Uncle Jake because of his mother.
Billy Boy was still at it, like some hateful screaming teakettle in human form. There were more titters, more sounds of laughter. Uncle Jake knew that he himself was smiling inanely and changing color. And he was paralyzed in anguish and disbelief. He felt that he and not his infant brother was the offender He watched in a state of abject silliness as the Old Gentleman’s face grew abruptly hard, as the Old Gentleman’s figure became as rigid as Billy Boy’s little wretched form, and as the Old Gentleman shot to Uncle Jake a look of such disdain and accusation that Uncle Jake found himself wishing, even at the age of twelve, to bury his reddened face in his mother’s skirts and weep though he could not.
Abruptly the Old Gentleman rejected Billy Boy held him at arm’s length, in severest anger thrust him back into the arms of the stately but now obviously stricken mother whom, thanks to the squalling babe, the Old Gentleman no longer found the least attractive. As she accepted back her child the Irish matriarch looked the Old Gentleman full in the face, understood what was happening, and blanched. She did not much care that her child was causing a disturbance or that the assembly found the disturbance amusing. But she cared very much that the Old Gentleman had responded to the baby’s screaming with revulsion, and that he held herself to blame, and that he was now rejecting not the impossibly screaming child but its mother. She could hardly bear to have become so abruptly diminished in the old patrician’s eyes, precisely when she too had thought that Billy Boy might bring them together, could hardly bear the Old Gentleman’s abrupt and cruel denial when he had so obviously regarded her with interest and even affection only moments before.
Billy Boy was the darling of the American Deauvilles. Since his birth he had been chubby good-humored, docile, never given to colic or the bad habits most infants form in their earliest hours. He was adored by his brothers and all the maids, and though Uncle Jake was his mother’s favorite, still the Irish matriarch was proud and protective of her youngest, and enjoyed nothing more than nursing him, fondling him, and spending on him her new-found store of mother’s love. She was proud of herself and of her infant and of being a mother. For eight months she had clung to Billy Boy and swathed him in the fullness of her matriarchal being But now her mother’s love had suffered a setback.
Now she confounded Uncle Jake by reversing herself, by becoming nothing like the mother he so depended upon and loved, by rejecting the poor Billy Boy as strenuously as had the Old Gentleman. No sooner had she accepted again her child, with terrible brusqueness, then she turned to Uncle Jake and even as he drew back in alarm, thrust upon him the ignoble burden. The Irish matriarch did not deign to look Uncle Jake in the eye: she merely pushed the screaming baby into his arms, as if Uncle Jake were one of the maids and Billy Boy a viper, and turned away.
Uncle Jake loved Billy Boy as much as did his mother But now he stood aghast and mortally distressed; now he himself was the bearer of what he thought of as the horrid burden; now he had been given sole responsibility for an infant whom even its mother could not tolerate or quiet. Could anything have been more unjust? And what could he do? How might he survive the laughter and the shrill noise which had reached its highest pitch and greatest intensity and was now piercing his ears, his breast, his very consciousness? He was alone; he was paralyzed, Billy Boy was hot and heavy and maddeningly loud in his arms.
Far on the other side of the crowd a footman opened the massive door into the chateau. The crowd parted. And somehow Uncle Jake began to move. He stumbled along with Billy Boy, attempting to greet the laughing onlookers with equanimity and at the same time to hush his brother by bouncing him and putting his own face to the little fat eyeless face from which came the screams. Billy Boy had freed one of his chubby arms; the tiny hand was in a fist and waving.
Uncle Jake reached the doorway, the footman smiled, Uncle Jake managed to step inside his grandfather’s elegant chateau, where the light fell on an old suit of armor and on the hunting caps and whips eccentrically displayed around the marble-floored great hall. At once Billy Boy ceased his screaming and fell back into silence and deep sleep. The hot red color began to fade from the tiny face; contortion gave way to tranquility And then there came the added relief of the youngest of the American maids who at that moment and on her own initiative appeared beside Uncle Jake in the otherwise empty foyer and took from Uncle Jake the sleeping babe.
“Poor Jake,” whispered the pretty maid, standing close to him and looking up at him with her great silvery eyes, “you are a noble boy.”
With those words there came to Uncle Jake a sudden rush of love for the maid, who was much smaller than he and only a few years his senior, and a sudden and gratifying return of his love for Billy Boy. Instantly he felt only forgiveness for what Billy Boy had done and gratitude for the way the maid had come to his aid so swiftly, unobtrusively, sweetly. He loved them both.
Outside, the Old Gentleman was having a change of heart toward the Irish matriarch and was making amends. Again there was a cheerful hubbub in the courtyard, where the air was frosty and the light so clear and colorful that it might have been refracted through a heavenly prism.
To the pleasure of all concerned they had arrived.