By Reed F. Curry
The aerial photograph must have been taken with a wide-angle lens; there was considerable distortion at the edges. However, the important features were clear enough -- they’re clearer now -- the house, the tennis courts, the cliff, the white-capped sea. The caption read, “Windburn House -- an island retreat for serious writers where in quiet solitude they may stitch any jagged rents in the delicate fabric of whimsey or rage their genius has woven.” I booked two weeks for rage and a third for whimsey.
My editor had been less than kind with my latest novel. Oh, she was subtle enough, nothing but a gentle waltz through the chapters; all the while tearing my skin off with the broken point of a worn red pencil. Morbid, she said. Seven books, half a million hardcover sales, and now she calls me morbid. And Saul, my agent and trusty foil, stood unashamedly apologizing for me, as for a sniffling, petulant toddler with soiled diapers and one foot raised menacingly over the cat’s tail, by saying that I was tired. Alright, maybe I needed a break.
The hollow drumming of the waves striking the rocks forty feet below provided a rhythmic counterpoint to the gently modulated voice of my table companion.
“and so, Miss Anderson, I gave up my post of Dean of Boys in 1957 in order to devote my time after classes to the preparation of a comparative study of Socratic and Stoic thought. The chancellor felt it would be quite useful as a freshman introductory text.” The speaker’s grey eyes twinkled above his sunken cheeks where sallow skin like wrinkled parchment fluttered gently as he spoke.
“And was it useful, Professor?”, responded the third of our dinner party, one Janet Anderson; who, if she was as talented as she was comely, would doubtless earn the renown she sought as a poetess.
“I haven’t quite finished it yet; it’s my ‘King Charles’Head’. It’s not for want of trying you understand; but the subject is so important that I find myself each evening like Penelope unravelling the work of the day. The present chancellor is quite patient with me, wonderfully patient, really. It was he that suggested I take this month at Windburn House. And in the first semester too.’”
“But what will your students do without you?” Janet was silhouetted against the flickering glare from the sea, her long hair lifting in the infrequent zephyrs of mid-August. Poetesses in the City, at least in my experience, are generally Wagnerian in build and temperament; corpulent Valkyries who strap still struggling heroes to their saddlebows and carry them off -- to an abbatoir. Janet Anderson, by comparison seemed one of a rare order of gentility; probably a devotee of Cowper and Wordsworth.
Professor Beecham’s fossilized fingers were dancing, from plate to teacup to cutlery, to the strains of some inward arythmic waltz. Miss Anderson was watching him intently.
“Well, Professor, what will your students do in your absence?” I asked quietly, though I knew the answer.
Janet glowered at me across the table. I met her dark glance with a smile. She’d been humoring this senile lump of Victoriana for three days. It was time for an exposure.
“I have no students, Mr. Marsden.” The words came in a whisper; measured in a slow beat as even now Beecham searched for understanding, his own and ours. “The Academy decided in ‘67 to delete Socratic Philosophy from the list of compulsory courses. Harrison, Bigelow, and old Thurston fought the move; but the young blood won out.” One arthritic finger slowly traced the rim of a water glass. “I still had a good attendance in my seminars, and always a few tutorials, until about eight years ago. At that time a fellow named Rand was given a chair on the basis of his treaties ‘The Philosophy of Change’. Soon his classes ‘The Ethics of Pragmatism’ and “Without within/Without’ were full; and I was lecturing to only one or two potential divinity students. Last semester I hadn’t even those.” The withered hands stopped moving.
“But your writing keeps you busy.’,” Janet’s voice was sunlight driving shadows.
Beecham caught the glow in her tone and placed it in the still-warm ashes of his intellectual fire. “Ah, Miss Anderson, I’m glad you understand. My writing will be valuable to the students, someday; when they perceive that the dry husks of Hegel and Hume provide nothing more than fiber. And, I have hopes for Young Rand. He’s a good man; better than his philosophy would permit. Perhaps someday he’ll acknowledge the verities that surround us; he craves substance, you can sense it. He and I often discuss such things in the Hall, and I’m beginning to detect a weakening in his defenses. Why, just last month he came to me with a passage in Phaedrus that he couldn’t decipher (He hasn’t the Greek, you see). Bigelow says Rand’s just trying to catch me out. But dear old Bigelow has been a touch fretful since his last stroke.” Beecham ‘s voice rolled mellow with hope as he concluded, “yes, our young Rand is searching; that is what makes him an educator in the finest sense of the word.”
“Professor Beecham,” Janet Anderson’s tone carried the reverence of swinging censers and candlelit arches,” it’s a lovely day and I feel the need for sunlight on my face and mind. Would you allow me to read some of your work in progress?”
The old fool beamed with delight. “I’d be honored, Miss Anderson; but only if you’ll be an honest critic.” Laughing, she, with mock solemnity, promised to ‘spare him not’.
“Then I’ll fetch my notes. Perhaps Mr. Marsden will entertain you while I’m gone?”
We watched in silence as he slowly limped around the tennis courts toward Windburn House, a rehabilitated Victorian mansion set on a slight rise some two hundred yards away. His thin walking stick bowed slightly with the weight of his slender frame. An occasional bulge in the loose shroud of blue and white seersucker that scissored haltingly over the smooth lawn, was the only evidence of his scrawny shanks.
This was my chance. “Miss Anderson, (may I call you Janet?) we’ve eaten together for three days now; yet this is the first opportunity I’ve had to speak to you.” I smiled conspiratorially. “I confess that the old professor is interesting, and entertaining as an anachronism; but perhaps my experience as a novelist would be more useful to you professionally.”, adding with Have some Madiera, m’ dear charm, “Permit me to place my knowledge and skills at your disposal.”
Her tone chilled my brandy as she replied, “Mr. Marsden -- may I call you Mr. Marsden? -- I’m not unfamiliar with your scribbling; in fact I once read a chapter of The Chance Estate. We all make mistakes, that was mine. If such vulgar fare as that was the product of your knowledge and skills, I would dispose of them gladly -- but I believe the Toxic Waste Disposal laws prohibit it.” She paused. “As for my preference for a gentlemen such as Professor Beecham; set it down to good taste.”
Bloody hell, I thought, I’ve just been mugged by Pollyanna. I found myself blushing. I think it was a blush, a sensation I last experienced in adolescence; perhaps it was just the brandy. With a lazy drawl and a pleasant smile, I replied, “Tell me, Miss Anderson, did you lose your literary discernment in the same penny-ante game that claimed your reticence? My novels, this is not braggadocio, have been acclaimed by the nation’s finest literary critics. I’ve had three books on the Time’s bestsellers list--one at the top for fourteen weeks. So it would seem your opinion is, if not singular, at least a minority view.”
She smiled like a Borgia at a buffet lunch. “Success, Mr. Marsden, doesn’t prove merit. A boisterous but sterile ram”, her lips twitched with a hardly suppressed smile, “released in a paddock of ewes, may be a great success with the ladies--but where is the benefit to the flock? Your writing, likewise, may provide a momentary titillation with its espousal of profligacy, and thus amuse some weak or ignoble souls, but it can’t entertain, in the proper sense.”
The light, twisted metal of my chair squeaked a protest as I leaned back heavily, the grin of an impending victory on my lips. “How little you know the world. Is rural Connecticut a planet of its own? What people want, Miss Anderson, is that titillation you profess to despise. And how do I stimulate them? It’s simple, I show them the world as it is -- from the filth of the gutter, to the filth of the penthouse. Reality is what they want.’”
Again that shadowy smile. “How little you know the world, Mr. Marsden. If I place before a child a choice between a tepid, viscous, vile-smelling tonic, and a fatal poison flavored with mint -- cool, transparent green, ice cubes drifting in the glass; which will the child drink? It seems to me that the skill in writing lies in preparing an agreeable tonic; in meeting needs, rather than pandering to base desires.”
“Really, Janet,” I raised my glass in salute, the amber fluid sparkling in the afternoon sun, “I commend your metaphor. In fact, I’ll enlarge upon it. Who prepares that delightful toxin? My writings are flavorful, pellucid; I even add the ice.
Now, for the choice you describe the poison itself must have merit. Without it Snow White would never sleep -- and what handsome prince would kiss the sweaty, sooty-faced drudge of a pack of dwarves? Call me the Devil’s advocate, call me Beelzebub, if you wish; but without the darkness you’ll never appreciate the light. Even suppose the lust my jottings detail are but the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave; what of it? Without these dark dancing figures as a signpost none would think to turn their heads toward the light.”
A veil of blond hair was blown for a moment across her eyes, but it didn’t conceal her anger. “You’re a saint, Mr. Marsden, to accept such a burden.”
“Truly, truly. But someone must do it.”
“Must they? Would you do it if smut wasn’t so lucrative?”
“Truthfully, no. But I’ve paid my dues: I ate belt soup for years -- now I’m enjoying a reprieve from hunger. Perhaps, in a year or two, I’ll give up potboilers and write seriously; but not now, not yet.” I settled comfortably in my chair and savored the brandy, the fitful breezes, and the end of summer.
“Pragmatism wins again, Mr. Marsden?”
“What’s that?” I’d been drifting into reverie, the recent combat obscured by a haze of daydreams and sunshine.
“I said that you’re a pragmatist’ The girl must have been using cordite for mouthwash; every word came like a gunshot.
“I use common sense; if that’s what you mean.
“Then,” she said as she rose to meet the professor, who was hobbling toward us, a thin attache case in hand, “I can only hope, for your sake, that you, like Mr. Rand, ‘are better than your philosophy would permit’.” She took the arm of the enfeebled academic. They wandered together over to the cliff edge, some twenty yards away and sat in the coarse brown glass, their faces to the sea -- Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, not in silhouette but in fact.
I poured another glass of burnt wine and faced the task of modifying my rigid classification of female poetesses to include the species “Valkydes bella bellicosa Anderson”. Her argument had been a pretty one, her aim sure, but her arrows too light to pierce my chain-mail of practical skepticism; each link hammered tight to its fellows by critical acclaim and princely royalties, the stalwart warders and smiths of publishing success.
Fifteen years ago I’d espoused her cause, myself. It didn’t hurt; I couldn’t sell anything anyway. It was both easy and comforting to transmute that shoebox full of rejection slips into a badge of integrity. And then I sold my first piece.
It was a short story, no more bawdy than half a hundred that had been returned with coffee stains, cigarette burns, and polite formula refusals. No more bawdy; but with a difference. Hitherto, all I’d written had been as honestly amoral as my own Village lifestyle; however, in this manuscript, for reasons still unaccountable to me, I’d daubed the motives and actions of my characters over a wash of immorality. A fine distinction, to be sure; all it added was a gallon of care and pint of guilt to what was otherwise the natural amusement of man. Yet the editor bought it and requested more.
I never looked back. Why should I. Hadn’t Stevenson rebelled against rebels? His fellow bohemians, quite justly, ostracized him for his audacity in writing an intelligible work; the New York avant-garde banished me for a similar crime. The implicit morality of Treasure Island, the explicit immorality of the The Chance Estate, it’s all one really. The hypocrites of the East Village would feel the sting of either. False epicures, splendid Sophists, they trumpeted their liberality, their license, their disdain of censure; but lacked the integrity to truly deny Good and Evil. They ate of the forbidden fruit five times a day and sang of their Adamic innocence. Oh, they knew good and evil--and guilt. But to the pure, all things are pure. And I was a pure, neutral grey.
A vagrant swirl of wind swept my hair across my ever increasing forehead, the grasses on the cliff-edge, and, I observed, a paper from Janet’s hand. She started to leap to her feet in a hopeless attempt to retrieve it as the breeze bore it along the verge; but as she was in the act of rising, she disappeared. A brief scream carried to my ears -- and then silence.
I sent my brandy snifter sailing with one hand as I rose and whirled the light metal cafe table to one side with the other. Before Beecham creaked to his feet, I was standing on the edge, looking down. Janet’s body was sprawled face down on the rocks and sand, her legs resting in four inches of water. Her white cotton skirt was alternately billowed about her waist by breaking waves and plastered to her thighs. She was unconscious--or dead.
I glanced at the professor as he peered myopically at Janet’s still form. An unusual firmness rounded his wrinkled cheek.
“Stay here, Professor, but move back from the edge a few feet. I’ll run to the house and call Air and Sea Rescue.” I said as I turned to go.
“Don’t be a fool, young man.!”
I stopped short and turned. Beecham’s gaze was wandering aimlessly over the house, the tennis courts, the broken gound at his feet. I remember thinking that it was awfully poor timing for a senile tantrum. “What did you say?”
“1 said don’t be a fool. The tide is coming in; another fifteen minutes and she’ll have drowned.’
“Alright, I’ll get some rope and a few stout backs. . .
“There’s no time to go to the house. We’ll signal them.” He began to hobble toward the serving cart. I hesitated for an instant and then followed.
“I won’t climb down that cliff without a rope!”
Beecham’s mist-grey eyes looked up at me. Gone was the pattering old fool; here was fire and ice, the elemental man. His voice was calm as he said, “Don’t tell me what you won’t do, young man. I’ll tell you what you must do; that is enough.” He paused for a reply that wouldn’t come. I had neither anger nor fear; I was an ear only, he would speak and I would listen, as the ages rolled by and a woman drowned.
“Go to the tennis courts” he resumed “and get one of the nets.”
The pawl was rusted in place on the winding spool. I broke a fingernail in pulling it free. In the corner of my eye I observed the professor pushing the light, high-wheeled serving trolley toward the cliff edge. The net cable came free of the spool. I cut the tapes securing the sides of the heavy net, and raced with it to the other post. I carried and dragged the refractory net over the half-bald lawn. The professor had shed his suitcoat, laid it on the metal-topped cart, and was engaged in pouring a quart of brandy over the pathetic mound of crumpled cotton.
“Strike a match, Marsden.”
The besotted seersucker ignited instantly. I glanced at Beecham across the flames. I remember thinking that he looked so thin, frail, and ludicrous in his dishabille. Tasteful blue pinstripe garters restrained his too-long shirt sleeves from overflowing his bony wrists and confining his hands. His bow-tie, school colors, no doubt, was half untied and skewed on the diagonal.
“Marsden, bring that net over here, please.” The professor must be tiring; he was being politic.
I laid the net in a heap on the edge of the precipice and then sat down, laughing bitterly. “There’s nothing to fasten the other end to, Professor.”
The old man chose to ignore the sting in my tone.
“In a moment the net will be secured.” He didn’t look up as he spoke; he was intent on his task of knotting a large loop in the cable. "We’ll wedge something in this crevice,” he shook his head at the ground nearby, “and tie to that.”
The crevice was a straight fissure in the bedrock , sixteen inches wide and eighteen inches deep. It ran from the cliff-face at a forty-five degree angle. Beecham’s plan made sense; but there was nothing visible to serve as a chockstone. “What are you going to tie to, Professor?”
Beecham looked up for a moment. His eyes twinkled with boyish mischief. “There are always a few old things around that can serve as obstructions. You just lack imagination, young man.” His tone grew serious once again. “Roll the net over the cliff and start climbing down; the first eight feet is pretty jagged, you won’t need assistance. When I give the word you can transfer your weight to the net. Hurry, there’s no time to waste’
I followed orders. The Professor was right, the first few feet were easy. I hung for a moment, the sweat of fear dripping into my eyes, waiting for permission to grab that beautiful, alluring web of nylon which draped the rockface within easy reach.
Beecham’s voice drifted down to me; he sounded tired, old. “The net is secure; but there’s a few feet of slack. Good luck." I wished he hadn’t said “Good luck.”
My right hand caught the stout, nylon mesh. I began to pull gently. Suddenly I felt overbalanced. In my fear I grabbed the net with both hands and fell two, perhaps three, feet before stopping with a gladsome but stomach-wrenching jerk.
A moment later I was kneeling beside Janet. The waves were already flicking foam into her open mouth. As gently as possible I took her under the arms and dragged her over the rocks and sand, keeping her low, her back straight; and set her down on soft sand above the high tide mark. One leg, judging by the angle, was broken, but there were no open wounds, no bleeding.
She moaned slightly as I felt for a pulse. That was as informative as the pulse would have been--I know nothing about such things. I rose to my feet and began to pace the narrow strip of sand.
Beecham was slow, but he should’ve been able to hobble back to the house by now. Help should be on the way. Would he remember to call the Coast Guard, to fly her to a hospital on the mainland? Of course he would -- Why had no one come from the house, yet? And then I remembered--the guests had planned a clambake on a beach on the other side of the island. Windburn House was deserted, perhaps locked. And Janet needed a doctor now.
Reluctantly, I approached the net again. Beecham wouldn’t be spry enough to clamber through a window in order to reach a telephone.
The climb up was a killer. The nylon mesh bit into my fingers. I should have taken my shoes off, they slipped on the rocks and threw the weight on my arms. At last I reached the top and rolled exhausted onto the lawn. I lay still for a moment, looking toward the house. Beecham was nowhere in sight. His cane still leaned against the quietly smoldering tea cart.
I knew then. I looked anyway; but I knew. Beecham's body was wedged into the crevice, the cable wound three or four times around his broken chest. His mouth was open and filled with blood. He’d bitten his tongue lest he cry out from the pain and distract or confuse me. Damn, he’d been right, I lacked such imagination...
I ran. The tears blinded me and I stumbled once but I ran. And when I found the french doors locked I smiled and picked up a concrete urn from the staircase and threw it with a curse through the web of glass.