Authors: Louis Auchincloss
Tags: #General Fiction
Houghton Mifflin Company
Copyright Â© 1990 by Louis Auchincloss
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The lady of situations / Louis Auchincloss.
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
Emily Winthrop Auchincloss
Adele's and my first grandchild
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"
my contemporaries, those of seventy summers or more, would find me absurdly oversimplifying the situation in dating the origin of my niece Natica's troubles to the day her family decamped from the large florid red-brick Georgian mansion in Smithport, Long Island, which my brother-in-law Harry had so rashly built in a palmy year before 1929, to the modest superintendent's cottage huddled at its gate. Harry did not, it was true, have to open and close the iron portals for the new owners, the DeVoes, when their big green Cadillac and the smaller sports cars of their offspring whizzed in and out, but he had to pay a rent that, alas, in four more years he found himself unable to afford and was obliged to move my sister, his two sons and Natica to a simple white clapboard house in the village where, to the eye of all but their oldest friends, they began the rapid and ineluctable process of merging with the "natives" and losing their identity with the summer and commuting colonies.
To young people today, however, in these troubled 1960s, the artificial class distinctions of that earlier time will be only too readily accepted as the origin of every kind of spiritual woe. I like to think that I can steer a balanced course between their generation and my own, having led the unprejudiced life of a spinster school teacher, and I can perfectly concede that if Natica suffered from the virus of snobbishness and social aspiration, her two brothers were seemingly immune to both, so that background cannot be the sole factor unless it affects the sexes differently. At any rate, forall her shortcomings Natica is the one whom I have always most dearly loved.
My most vivid picture of my niece, though I have known her at all ages up to her present one of nearly fifty, is at fourteen. I was then living in Manhattan and teaching English at Miss Clinton's Classes to upper school girls, one of whom, a singularly gifted student, Mary DeVoe, was the eldest daughter of the family who had bought my brother-in-law's house in Smithport. Shortly before her graduation Mary very kindly asked her parents to invite me down for a weekend there. When I told my hostess at Saturday lunch that I would be visiting the gatehouse that afternoon and explained why, she immediately called down the table to Mary:
"Darling, did you know that Miss Felton was Mrs. Chauncey's sister? What a small world it is! And of course that makes her an aunt of that pretty little Natica. Edith," she continued, now addressing Mary's younger sister, "why don't you go down with Miss Felton after lunch and ask Natica to your party tonight? Or better still, telephone her. No, come to think of it, I'll call Mrs. Chauncey myself. Oh, what a happy idea!"
When my eyes took in Edith's long, pouting countenance, I knew that it wasn't a happy idea at all. Edith, though fourteen and just Natica's age, had obviously no wish to add her to her little party. But Mrs. DeVoe, a large woman, a sort of a Roman matron, though somehow a touch messy, perhaps because of her uncontrolled if magnificent auburn hair, was not one to allow a child to stand in the way of a plan.
"What tosh!" she exclaimed to Edith's protest that Natica would make an extra girl at her evenly balanced table. "You talk like a dowager of sixty. This is a
party, for goodness' sake. Why should Natica Chauncey sit home all evening because of your silly ideas?"
I knew quite enough about girls to envision the kind of cruelty of which the frustrated Edith would be capable once her mother's broad back was turned, but there was nothing I could do. A natural force had been unleashed that would have to spend itself.
What happened that night it still pains me to recall. Poor Natica spent the whole afternoon getting ready for the party. She borrowed the long gold-mesh clinging dress of the diminutive mother of a friend of hers in the village (without the mother's permission) and put on powder and lipstick in the car when her father, who drove her up the hill to the party, wasn't looking. Actually, Harry never looked at anything but a fish or a fish hook. It had been arranged that the DeVoes and Mary and I should have our dinner in the library, but we were to remain in the parlor with Edith and her young guests until they went into the dining room. I was therefore a reluctant witness to my niece's rather stagey entrance.
She was certainly pretty enough. She had lovely pale skin, an adorable little turned-up nose and smooth brown lustrous hair. She was too thin, it is true, at that time, but she moved with astonishing grace and maturity. Her great feature, however, was her eyes. They were large and brown and seemed to envelop you in a worried and at times quizzical look. It was quizzical, anyway, that evening. She took in the room to find out if by any remote stroke of luck she had succeeded in pleasing. It did not take her long to see she had not. Even Mrs. DeVoe's too hearty greeting: "Well, if you're not a perfect stunner!" lacked conviction and seemed almost a reproach to the girl's simperingly articulated: "It's such a privilege to be here, Mrs. DeVoe" and the extension of her hand with fingers tapering downward.
Had there been some boys present of even seventeen years of age she might have been a hit. But the callow youths at that gathering took their lead from the girls, who, all in short dresses, not only scorned Natica's attempt to seem older and more sophisticated than she obviously was, but unerringly spotted the cheap quality of the gown she had borrowed. She received the coldest of stares, the briefest of nods, and when the group disappeared into the dining room I had a horrid fantasy that I should soon be hearing, as in the second act of
the cries from the offstage torture chamber.
There were in fact no such demonstrations, but the DeVoes' butler, who had been placed in charge of the youthful feast, came in to interrupt our card table repast in the library to inform me gravely that "Miss Chauncey" was ill and had gone upstairs. I hurried to the indicated guest chamber and heard from behind the locked bathroom door the sounds of the unfortunate child's vomiting. I called in to assure her that I was there and then waited for some twenty minutes after the sounds had ceased for her to emerge. She buried herself at once in my outstretched arms.
"Oh, Aunt Ruth, I'm a disgrace! To Mummie and Daddy, to you, to everyone. I can't go downstairs. I wish I were dead!"
"My poor darling, you mustn't take it so hard. We all have to go through these things. You were the prettiest girl in the party and by far the brightest. Oh, I know they don't know that now, but they will. Mark your old aunt's words. They will!"
She refused to return to the party, nor did I seek to persuade her. When she seemed to have pulled herself together, I called my brother-in-law to drive up the hill to fetch her. We waited in the guest room until we heard the sound of his wheels on the driveway below and then descended to the hall where we found Mrs. DeVoe waiting for us. Natica was splendid. At the landing she drew herself up and extended an arm to her hostess in farewell. She might have been eighteen or more.
"Good night, dear Mrs. DeVoe. It's been a lovely evening, and I do so appreciate your asking me."
I was almost sorry that her hostess, kind and big-hearted though she was, mitigated the dignity of the scene by throwing her arms around the girl's neck and exclaiming: "Oh, my poor child, you don't have to say that."
On Sunday morning I walked down to the gatehouse to have a talk with my sister. Natica was still in bed; she had been excused from going to church, for which event her mother was rather pointedly dressed and ready.
"I think the less said about last night the better, Ruth."
"I haven't come to talk about last night."
My elder sister and I were both plain women, but I used to flatter myself that I had converted my plainness to the austere dignity that befits a school teacher by keeping my body lean, my hair neat and my dress simple. Kitty on the other hand seemed to exult in her roundness and bustling manner. Her hair, like Mrs. DeVoe's, was untidy, but if the latter had probably forgotten to go to her hairdresser, Kitty's abstinence was intentional, the result of a theory that permanents spoiled her "natural sheen." Smug, I regret to say, was the word that evokes my sister. She would tell you that a "really nice" person could get away with almost anything. It never crossed her mind, for example, that other "nice people" would even notice what she was up to in economizing when she tore off the picture pages of last year's Christmas cards, scribbled her own Yuletide greeting on their back and mailed them out for the current season, some no doubt to the original senders.
"I'm afraid, Kitty, that I'm still of the opinion that Natica should go to a private school."
"But you know we can't afford it! Why must we go into all that again? A private school wouldn't have prevented what happened last night."
"I'm sure I could get her a partial scholarship at Miss Clinton's," I persisted. "And I'd make up the balance. I still have a bond or two I could sell."
"And how would you propose to get her in and out of the city?"
"She could stay in my place. There's a day bed in the study."
"It's very kind of you, I'm sure, but Harry and I are not yet ready for charity. Besides, difficult as it may be for a teacher at the exalted Miss Clinton's Classes to realize, Smithport High is one of the finest schools in the state."
"I don't dispute that. My reasons are not educational. They're psychological. Children shouldn't be wrenched too violently from a background they may have come to regard as their natural heritage."
"And who is wrenching Natica from her background? I thought we were talking about schools."
"A school today just about is that."
"And anyway, her brothers seem perfectly happy in public school."
"They're boys. The world was made for them."
But here I had made a mistake. Kitty could now cross me off as a nutty female rights buff. Wasn't I to her a sour old maid who hadn't been able to catch a man? And mightn't I even want to make the same of Natica? She rose and straightened her dress. "Well, I'm off to church. I assume you're too advanced for anything like that. I'm afraid there are a number of matters over which you and I must agree to disagree. But there is one thing you seem to forget."
"And that is?"
"That Natica, after all, is a Chauncey. I hate to sound as snobbish as you've been sounding, but let's face it. Her grandmother wouldn't have received half the parents of the girls at Miss Clinton's Classes today. We may have had our trials, but we have faced them with our heads high. I think my children have been inspired by the example of their father's courage and endurance."
With this she strode off, leaving me, as she no doubt conceived, with the image of her husband as a man who had sacrificed his inherited fortune in some gallant losing cause rather than to his idiotically held stock market theories. But I was only too sadly sure that the bright eyes of my all-observing niece had long seen through her father with his foolish faith in his own quaint concept of economics and his more valid one of the techniques of fly-fishing. It was needless to say that she had also seen through her mother's brave theories to the actualities that lay so close behind.
, as she approached the end of her high school years, was more for the gatehouse of Amberley, which her family had had to give up in favor of the plainer little cottage in the Village of Smithport, than for the stately residence the gatehouse had guarded. She remembered, of course, her family's proud occupation of the latter and the still earlier time when even this mansion had been merely the summer alternative to the wide brownstone in Manhattan. But the little red gatehouse, square and flat-roofed, the first stage of her family's social descent, and actually attached to one of the stone pillars which supported the grilled portals of the entrance to the long blue driveway, had yet a squat, uncompromising and memorable dignity of its own. If it belonged to a lower order than the big house up the hill, whose handsome faÃ§ade could be glimpsed through the stripped trees in winter, it was still an integral part of the special world whose visitors it announced and whose trespassers it barred. And it obviously fitted in better with the Victorian fiction in which Natica reveled than did the village with its Elks Club and Masonic Lodge and the corner drugstore where her classmates were prone to gather.