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Authors: Patrick Dennis

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Love & Mrs. Sargent

 
Love & Mrs. Sargent
By Patrick Dennis
Written as Virginia Rowans

 

Original Copyright Page

 

Copyright © 1961 Lancelot Leopard, Ltd.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 60-14916

 

 

To my parents

 

 

 

Printed in the United States of America, American Book—Stratford Press, Inc., New York

 

 

No characters, except certain renowned persons who are
identified by their true names, are fashioned after actual
persons, living or dead, and any resemblance between the characters in this book and actual persons is wholly coinci
dental.

 

Monday

I.

 

Mrs. Sargent looked at her diamond wristwatch. The time was twelve twenty-eight. “Taylor,” she said, “get over onto Davis Street and then park some place. I don’t want to be
too
prompt.”

“Yes, Miz Sargent,” the driver said.

The big black Lincoln turned, turned again and eased to a halt in front of a great stucco house of the school Mrs. Sargent called Evanston Baroque.

“This all right, Miz Sargent?” Taylor asked.


This is fine, thank you, Taylor,” Mrs. Sargent said. “I’ll have a cigarette and fix my face. That should get us to the hotel at twelve-forty.”

“That’s just about right, Miz Sargent.”

“Oh, and Taylor, I’m going to put up the glass between us.
And when we get there, you do all the chauffeur-ish things. You
know—bound out, open the door, click the heels, touch the cap. Give the ladies their money’s worth.”

“Yes, Miz Sargent,” Taylor said, chuckling.

“Have you got money for your lunch, Taylor?”

“Yessum, Miz Sargent.”

“All right. Good-by, Taylor.” The glass slid up between the front and back seats of the car.

Mrs. Sargent took a cigarette from her bag, lighted it and inhaled deeply, knowing that it would be her last until she had had lunch, made her speech, done the question-and-answer period and been detained at the door by at least six women who would: 1) have a long-forgotten mutual acquaintance to discuss; 2) say that they read the Sheila Sargent column every day and just couldn’t live without it; or 3) have a deep, personal problem to be taken up then and there. Mrs. Sargent always
made it a point
not
to smoke at this sort of affair. Of course hundreds of other women would be smoking like chimneys but they
wouldn’t mind—or even notice—if Sheila didn’t, and there was no point in offending someone who might disapprove.

Sheila leaned back, cautious of her hat and hair, and closed her eyes, enjoying the warm October sunlight. She wondered if she’d be offered a drink before lunch, Evanston being a dry community, and then decided that she would. Today she was speaking to a group of Catholic women and Sheila knew from experience that Catholics and Episcopalians were a lot broader minded about a drop of the creature than some of the Low Church groups. Sheila knew exactly what would happen. She would arrive at the Orrington Hotel just ten minutes late, Make an Entrance, be greeted by a woman wearing a mink stole and a ribbon that said “Hostess” or “Committee” who would whisk
her off to a small, over-decorated parlor probably called the Petit
Salon or the Du Barry Suite, where she’d Meet The Officers. There she would shake gloves with a dozen gushing women in mink stoles and ribbon badges and there she would be offered
an orchid corsage and a glass of medium dry sherry thoughtfully
provided by Madam Chairman or the Ways and Means Com
mittee. Sheila would have one sherry and refuse a second. Every
one else would slap back at least two, but Sheila realized that if
she
were to accept two sherries she ran the risk of being described
as a Very Heavy Drinker. Pleasantries would be shrieked for just twenty minutes. At one o’clock Madam Chairman would shout, “Girls! Girls, the others are waiting.” She would say to Sheila, “Uh, Mrs. Sargent, would you like to wash your hands or—uh—anything?” Sheila would refuse, having been blessed with the bladder of a camel. But the rest of The Officers would
dash for the loo. At exactly quarter past one—just fifteen minutes
late—Sheila would be rushed through the crowds to a large ban
quet room, there to be served a melon basket filled with tepid fruit and a pastry shell filled with creamed something that had been cooling since noon. Sheila hoped it wasn’t an Ember Day with a rubbery seafood newburgh, and then she wondered exactly what and when an Ember Day was.

Today her informal talk would be entitled
One Woman Asks Another.
She had been delivering it with great success to groups of church women for just six years. It lasted twenty-seven
minutes, was filled with wholesome wit, pathos, good common
sense and employed the words “God,” “Church,” “Soul,” “Prayer” and “Minister,” “Priest” or “Rabbi,” depending on the persuasion of the audience. For the Junior League or the American Association of University Women, Sheila’s informal talk was called
All About Love.
It was a good deal racier and ran thirty minutes. Sheila Sargent was in great demand as a speaker. If she weren’t already so very rich and successful, the author of a daily column syndicated in more than nine hundred newspapers and—in a more intellectual vein—the author of three best-selling books dealing with Modern Woman, the Problems of, Sheila might have made a very profitable career of just talking. Like her column, Sheila was so attractive and smartly
turned out, so wise and so witty in a ladylike way. But what really
got the audiences was that she was so utterly, utterly sincere. Lecture agents were forever trying to sign her up, but Sheila’s answer was always a firm polite No, thank you. She limited her talks in and around Chicago to ten a year. During her annual fortnight in New York, she would consent to five appearances within two hours’ driving time of the Plaza. And for the month she once spent in Beverly Hills as technical adviser to
The Dick Sargent Story
(a wildly successful film about her late husband, starring Rock Bottome), she had ventured as far as Santa Barbara. But Sheila refused three speaking offers for every one she accepted, preferring not to stray too far from her house and children in Lake Forest.

She stubbed her cigarette out in the ashtray, knowing that it had taken her just eight minutes to smoke it down to the filter. She reached into her bag again and drew out the index card headed
Catholic Questions.
It had been inexpertly typed by her secretary, Mrs. Flood, and Sheila carried it just to refer to. Not that she needed it. She knew all too well the bugaboos of
Rome, Sheila also knew, from long experience, that just twenty-
seven minutes after she got to her feet—allowing time out for laughter and applause—when she said, “Well, I didn’t come here to talk
at
you. I came here today to talk
with
you. And so, if there are any questions. . . .”

Well, Sheila knew that sooner or later someone would bring up divorce. And Sheila knew that she would say: “Every day my mail is filled with letters from women—and men, too—asking my advice on divorce. It’s always a serious problem and I’d like to help. But my name is Sheila, not Portia. I tell them first to talk to their pastor, then a marriage counsellor and—all
things failing—then a lawyer. I am just a woman, like the rest of you, and not the Legal Aid Society.” (Laughter.)

Mixed Marriages? “Many mixed marriages work out wonderfully when—and
only
when—the two partners respect each other’s beliefs. If they don’t, trouble lies ahead. However, The Church has legal forms of its own to be signed by both parties
before
marriage. And I say that if a woman can win a husband and a convert to The Church”—and Sheila’s Catholic audiences did not interpret The Church to mean Unitarian—”then she is doubly blessed.” (Applause.)

Birth Control? “My husband died just after our second baby was born. If he hadn’t, I’d
still
be having babies.” (Pause for applause and nose-blowing.) “But I am so prejudiced that this is a question I cannot answer fairly. I advise every woman to take it up with her husband, her doctor” (pause for sharp gasps), “her conscience
and her God!”
(Thunderous applause.)

Sheila dropped the
Catholic Questions
back into her bag and took out her compact. She looked at her face critically in the bright sunlight. She always put her make-up on in the harshest light she could find. It was better to know the worst. She used few cosmetics and applied them so well that even in a glare like this she did not look painted. “I look about thirty-five, I guess,” she said to her face in the mirror. “Or about the way a woman
of thirty-five is
supposed
to look. They just never happen to look
this old.” Actually Sheila was older than thirty-five and looked
younger. She had been born on November 11, 1918, and said so frankly and often to anyone who might—or might not—care. It was a part of her utter sincerity.

Only half an hour ago her secretary, Mrs. Flood, had cast her eyes to the ceiling in mute appreciation of Sheila’s new honey-colored suit, her hat, her sables.


Will I do, Floodie?” Sheila had asked, “for an old hag in her forties?”

“Oh! Mrs. Sar-gent! It’s indecent! You look like a girl! More like your own daughter than Allison does herself!”

“Just a simple yes or no, Floodie. But thanks anyway.”

Mrs. Sargent pressed the switch that allowed the glass between her and the chauffeur to slide downward a bit. “All right, Taylor,” she said, “Along Orrington Avenue at a stately pace. Let’s show Evanston that Lake Forest can put on the dog, too.”

The Lincoln started forward with a slight jerk. Sheila preferred driving herself. She did it faster and better than Taylor. But on occasions such as this when she was On Display, so to speak, she knew that a chauffeur was expected of her and she never let her audience down.

A block from the Orrington Hotel she arranged the ten-skin sable scarf around her and rearranged her face from its usual good humored grin into a face of utter, utter sincerity. The
Lincoln stopped with another slight jerk—it wouldn’t have jerked if she’d been at the wheel—and Taylor jumped out, almost fight
ing with the doorman to see who would have the honor of helping Mrs. Sargent down.

“Thank you, Taylor,” Sheila said. “About three-fifteen, I think.”

“Yes, Miz Sargent, ma’am,” Taylor said. “Cert’n’y, madam, Yassum.” Sometimes Taylor could put on just too
much
dog. Sheila winked at him and advanced toward the entrance of the hotel. Rushing at her was a florid woman wearing a mink stole and a fluttering ribbon with “Committee” lettered on it in gold.

“Mrs. Sargent! I’m Mrs. McCarthy. On the committee, you know.”

“I
know
you are,” Sheila said charmingly. “I just
sensed
it.”

 

II.

 

“That’s right,” Mrs. Flood said. “The small carnation arrangement is to be sent to Mrs. Gardiner on Green Bay Road. The rest of the things I’ll take along with me as Mrs. Sargent wants the flowers done this afternoon.”

“And it’s all to go on Mrs. Sargent’s account?” the florist asked.
The question had been put nicely, noncommittally, but it gave Mrs. Flood a terrible start. This was the first time she had sent
flowers to a friend of her own and charged them to her employer.
Ghastly pictures of apprehension, a night in the Lake Forest
police station, trial by jury and a stiff sentence at Dwight flashed
through Mrs. Flood’s empty head. Of course it was too silly. Every month Mrs. Flood went over all the household bills, checked the addition rather shakily on a small adding machine, consulted Mrs. Sargent about only the amounts that seemed unusually high, typed the checks, gave them to Mrs. Sargent to sign and then posted them. Mrs. Sargent was rich and Mrs.
Sargent was generous; forever sending flowers to her friends. A
five-dollar bowl of tangerine carnations delivered to Eloise Gardi
ner’s gunmetal living room would never be noticed by a busy woman who spent upwards of two hundred every month just on
flowers for her own house. And again, Mrs. Sargent was so
very
rich, whereas Mrs. Flood. . . .

“That is correct,” Mrs. Flood said bravely. She paused dramatically. “Oh, and a card is to be enclosed. Have you an on-velope?”

While the florist scurried to his desk for an envelope, Mrs. Flood plunged into Mrs. Sargent’s last-year’s alligator bag for one of her own cards. It was the ninth-from-the-last of one hundred she had ordered in London during her only visit there in 1927. It was rather old-fashioned, engraved on parchment and not quite clean, but it still had an air. It read:

 

MRS. THOMAS CARMODY FLOOD

 

Just this morning, after Mrs. Sargent had finished the dictation and dashed off to Evanston, Mrs. Flood had seated herself at Mrs. Sargent’s Adam desk, dipped Mrs. Sargent’s Lebanese pen into Mrs. Sargent’s French violet ink and—feeling for the moment that they all belonged to her—running a line through the engraving, wrote “Thank you for a lovely luncheon.
A
bientôt!
Imogene Flood.”

Mrs. Flood knew that it would be at least a year before the Gardiners would be
bientôt-
ing
her again. The Gardiners were but a part of the ever-diminishing circle of Mrs. Flood’s old acquaintances who said, annually or biennially, “Oh, hell, let’s throw the dizzy old bitch a bone and invite her.” Hence, Mrs.
Flood was occasionally asked out to very small dinners, very large
Sunday luncheons and enormous cocktail parties—all of which she attended with exhausting vivacity and departed with effusive farewells, leaving her hostess enervated but ennobled, feeling that she had Done Her Duty.

These social festivities also gave everyone concerned ample
opportunity for self-aggrandizement. “While lunching with my dear old friend Eloise Gardiner . . .” Mrs. Flood would commence for some months to come, implying that the encounter was recent enough for a flake of crab ravigotte still to be caught in her removable bridge. And for even longer, Mrs. Gardiner, the reluctant hostess, could spread abroad her own kindness, her goodness and loyalty by saying to those legions of friends who reveled in the misfortunes of others, “Oh we still have Imogene Flood around every so often—such a plucky little thing, but. . .”

“Thank you,” Mrs. Flood said, licking the flap of the envelope and sealing it firmly—safe from any prying eyes. “Now if you’ll
just ask the boy to carry the flowers for the house out to My Little English Car.”

My Little English Car, Mrs. Flood felt, implied that she had left a much bigger English car—a Rolls, a Daimler, a Princess, a Jaguar?—dozing in a warm garage at home. And My Little English Car was indeed little. It was an Anglia, smallest of the English Ford line. While Mrs. Flood wouldn’t have been caught dead behind, or even beneath, the wheel of an American Ford or Chevrolet, she felt that an English Ford was chic and much cheaper both to buy and to run. Like her London visiting cards,
the car
did
have an air of plenty-more-where-that-came-from. It
was also the only new, expensive thing—save her portable television set—that Mrs. Flood had recently acquired with her own money; not that the easy payments were anywhere near completed.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Flood said, once the boxes of flowers had been settled on the seat beside her. Carefully lifting the rear of
Mrs. Sargent’s made-over mink coat, Mrs. Flood herself mounted
the Anglia, started it and headed east through the village of Lake Forest.

It was a late October afternoon, warm and sunny. Much too warm and sunny for a mink coat In fact, before she came into
Mrs. Sargent’s old coat, Mrs. Flood would have criticized sharply
any woman wearing full length mink on such a clement day on the streets of a fashionable suburb.
“Most
inappropriate,” she would have said. “I mean mink in the daytime out here in Lake Forest. . . . Of course you can’t tell by the names nowadays, but I wonder if she isn’t. . . . Well, I mean I just think it looks very
jay
.”

Although she had prayed last night for a cold snap, the Deity had failed her and today Mrs. Flood had little choice but the mink. Mrs. Sargent’s cast-off broadtail coat, which a little furrier in Wilmette had cut down into a jacket, hat and muff, was beginning to crackle volubly with every movement and Mrs. Flood’s own old sealskin had no future except as the lining of that Good Cloth Coat Mrs. Flood wouldn’t be able to afford for another month or two. So today it was the mink or nothing and Mrs. Flood felt that she had to look her very best.

Today, while Mrs. Sargent was making a speech in Evanston, Mrs. Flood had entertained. And she had entertained to her
great surprise someone poorer than herself—a Mrs. Stacy Porter,
the Emily Mortimer as was. Mrs. Flood had run into Mrs. Porter in front of the Lake Forest branch of Marshall Field’s a week ago and she had been amazed to find her old friend—once the absolute gasp of Astor Street, while Mrs. Flood had never done better than North Dearborn Parkway—wearing dowdy white with white oxfords,
and so long after Labor Day!
“I’ve got to run, Imogene,” Mrs. Porter had said. “Here’s my number out here. Call me.”

Putting on her very best telephone voice, in which the A’s
broadened into yawns, Mrs. Flood had courageously called Mrs.
Porter and, after jousting with a vicious maid, finally got through. Mrs. Flood and Mrs. Porter had discussed their girlhood on the South Side, their matronhood on the North Side—the good old days.

“I
had no idea you’d bought out here, Emily,” Mrs. Flood had said, pleased that so fabulous a friend of the past was once again close at hand. Even if the Anglia did get forty miles to the gallon, gas was expensive.

“Buy
here? I’d like to buy my way out. The six most hellish weeks I’ve ever spent.”

“Hahahahaha! Same old Emily. Well, it is hard settling in
and servants so. . . .” Thinking of servants made Mrs. Flood
think of food and thinking of food made Mrs. Flood recall the succulent meals once served by Mrs. Stacy Porter in her Italian
dining room off the Chinese cocktail room off the English library
off the French drawing room in Astor Street during the twenties.
“We really must lunch sometime, Emily. It’s been. . . . Well, it’s
been years. Where did you say you were. . . .
”An eloquent pause.

“Oh God, not
here!”

“The club?”

“How’s Monday, Imogene? I’m free Mondays.”


Why, Monday would be lovely, Emily,” Mrs. Flood had said, thanking an R.C. God rather than her customary C. of E. Maker, that her employer would be lecturing to a club of Catholic women in Evanston that day.

“I’ll meet you at the Inn. Twelve-thirty. And I mean twelve twenty-nine sharp. I’ve got to get back to the old pismire by three. ‘By.”

Mrs. Flood had giggled shrilly, deliciously shocked by the
same old profane, raffish, devil-may-care Emily, Today she had
dressed with special care, twice lacquering her long gray nails,
daubing blue onto her pleated gray eyelids, purple into her sparse gray hair. She had put her big, fake topaz ring on her right hand and her small, real engagement ring—recently redeemed from the First State Pawners—on the left. (Mrs. Flood
dimly recalled that Emily, hefting two armloads of bracelets, had once described it as “cute.”)

Emily had arrived fifteen minutes late. Once the darling of
the Michigan Avenue dressmakers, the fabled beauty who “never
shopped below the Bridge” wore a dirty raincoat and again the dowdy white dress and shoes.

“Sorry I’m late, Imogene. Just as I was about to dress I had to put the old bastard on the bedpan again. I’m a sight I know.”

“Is Stacy ill, Emily?” Mrs. Flood had asked, her brows rising beneath her bangs.

“Come to the party, Imogene. Stacy’s been dead for six years.”

“Dead,
darling? Your
husband?”
Mrs. Flood’s eyebrows formed
a huge circumflex above her pert little nose. “B-but how?”

“Bottle,” Mrs. Porter said calmly. “Stacy always drank like a fish. That reminds me, why don’t
we
order something?”

“Oh, certainly, darling. But who is it that’s ill?”

“Just an old bitch up in Lake Bluff. Stroke. Partial. Unfortunately it hasn’t affected her speech centers, and she’s got
bowels like a goose. Didn’t you know, dearie? I’m an impractical
practical nurse.”

Over a bottle of domestic rose—the Inn primly served only beer and light wines—Mrs. Porter poured out the story of her last quarter century: the spoiled husband who hadn’t been able to surmount the depression and died after sixteen years in a public institution; the son killed in Korea; the daughter—recalled by Mrs. Flood as a golden princess with a genuine French mademoiselle—married to an insurance adjuster in Detroit; the foreclosures and evictions and auctions and pawnings; and now her career as—well—really a
menial.
Mrs. Porter told her story forthrightly and wittily with wry asides. Indeed the
tragedy seemed to hit Mrs. Flood far harder than it did its hero
ine. With little gasps and moans, with eyebrows shooting upward
and lips thrust outward, with hands fluttering to her sternum, her throat, her cheeks, Mrs. Flood was a study in audience participation. “But Emily, how awful. . . ! Oh,
not
your sable coat . . . ? You mean the vi-o-lent ward at
Dun
-ning . . . ? How ghastly . . .! Those beautiful pearls,
too
. . . ? Oh,
Em
-i-ly!”

“So, that brings me up to date,” Mrs. Porter said, spreading her large, worn hands—innocent of rings—on the table, “I’ve got a little car of my own, a tiny dump down in Rogers Park near enough to the lake to go swimming. And you know what? I
like
it. Well, I’ve talked enough. Now it’s your turn, Imogene.”

Mrs. Flood’s hands had strayed to her gold-plated cigarette case,
her gold-plated lighter, her gold-plated holder. She had told a carefully cut and edited story of her life so many times that she herself no longer knew just what was true, what was false, what was wishful thinking and what was merely indistinct because it
was viewed from such a long distance. This was the first time she had told the tale to an old, rich acquaintance who was now worse
off than she was. She would have liked, now, to have been a little franker with Emily, but the force of habit was too strong. She began her string of euphemisms:

“Well,”
Mrs. Flood began, “after poor Tom passed away. . . .”
The late Tom Flood had actually passed
out—
out of a window at
Number One North LaSalle Street in 1932, leaving behind a
widow, twenty-odd thousands of dollars’ worth of debts and a
mysterious bastardy suit brought by an unknown young woman
who was not one of Mrs. Flood’s social circle. “Of course that enor
mous apartment on Dearborn was much more than I wanted. . . .” Actually, the apartment had been four boxy rooms in the unfashionable tier of a moderately stylish building. What Mrs.
Flood had
really
wanted was just twice as much space on Lake Shore Drive or, at the very least, North State Parkway. “I mean rooms and rooms and rooms of lovely antique furniture; the silver, the china. . . .” The “lovely antique” furniture had been bought, fresh from Grand Rapids, at Sholle’s in 1921. The silver and china
had
been rather good. But it had all been junk to the bailiff who impounded it. “It was so boring sitting around a hotel room all day. . . .” Even though blessed with the most
convenient
memory, Mrs. Flood was still able to recall squalid places with romantic names—La Vista, Le Marquis, Leicester Court—where her view of the airshaft was blocked by a pint of milk, a sliver of butter set out to cool on the window ledge; where she stayed in her room for days, fearing to pass the manager’s desk and call attention to her unpaid presence. If terror was ever dull, then Mrs. Flood had been truly bored. “So I thought it might be fun to take some little job somewhere. Of course I’d had
no
experience. . . .” How often harassed personnel managers, each scared for his own job, had told her just that. Mrs. Flood had, in a ladylike way, hit the labor market at a time when fourteen million people, each more competent than she, were battling for jobs. And the few openings she had found had certainly been little ones—selling cosmetics door to door, Weiboldt’s and bedspreads in the holiday rush, peddling Christmas cards, soliciting subscriptions by telephone, a cheap dress shop on Wilson Avenue.

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