The Women | Chapter 27 of 41

Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 10560 Views | Add a Review

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CHAPTER 6: THE SERPENT OF HYPOCRISY
That night they ate a subdued meal, latterly shot-gunned duck in its own oleaginous juices, with half a dozen insipid side dishes, the only recognizable one of which seemed to be some sort of potato concoction buried in strips of what looked to be roadside weed, prepared by the lumbering swollen wife of one of the workmen and served in uncovered tureens by the graceless little sixteen-year-old. There were just three place settings at the table, which would make this the smallest group she’d presided over since coming to Taliesin. Not that it mattered to her one way or the other, simply that a larger party made for gayer conversation, and gay conversation helped fight down the crushing tedium of the place. Frank’s sons had long since returned to their wives, as the major part of the construction was completed now, and the visiting architect and his wife had gone back to Germany—or was it Austria? Paul Mueller was overseeing things in the Chicago offices and Russell Williamson and the other draftsmen had gone off to a concert in Madison. The third setting was for Frank’s mother, but Frank’s mother was in a funk over the newspaper reports and wouldn’t come out of her room.
“As I was saying earlier, we can’t afford to stir up the press any more than we already have, thanks to Mrs. Breen—and damn that woman. I’m sorry to have to say it, but there it is. She’s the one at fault, clearly, and these Mann charges will certainly be dismissed as the absurdity they are. What rankles me—no, what infuriates me—is this sordid effort to impeach your character, and it’s got to stop.” He looked up from his duck, the worry lines lashing at his eyes, and let out a sigh. “Which is why I’ve asked my mother to stay on. At least until this has blown over.”
“It’s false, Frank, and you know it.”
“False or not, I won’t have the press making sport of you—and me. Me, all over again. If I’m to get work, and you know perfectly well how tight things are for me right now, then there simply cannot be any more talk or even the breath of a scandal. God knows the letters will be embarrassment enough.”
She was calm, utterly composed, and she sipped her wine and watched him over the rim of the glass until he was done. “I want to speak with them,” she said, setting the glass down and taking up knife and fork. The duck lay there before her. She gave it a single glance—folds of luteous fat and dull dun flesh, steam rising, gravy—and laid down the fork, carefully realigning it with the plate, before going on. “I’ll explain it all. I tell you: I will not hide.”
“You will.” His tone was curt and despotic and she didn’t like it at all. He might have been speaking to one of his draftsmen over a poorly executed section or a farmhand who’d dared to express an opinion on the application of fertilizer. “You’ll stay here at Taliesin, away from the reporters, until I say different. Do you understand me?”
Understand him? He was speaking English, wasn’t he? But did he understand her? She didn’t like to be dictated to. Emil had tried it and she was just a girl then. He lived to regret it. And René too. She lifted the glass to her lips, let the taste of the cold clear liquid—the taste of France, of civilization—soothe her throat and her nerves and her temper too. She didn’t bother to answer.
 
The next morning they saddled up two of the horses and rode out over the hills together and everything seemed new-made and fine, the air and exercise dispelling the bad odor of the day before. He was a splendid horseman and that made her proud of him all over again. They cantered across the fields, the breeze in their faces, absolutely removed from the world, and they might have been Heathcliff and Catherine pounding over the turf in all the wild excess of their fraught and doomed love. It was bracing. Exhilarating. And when Frank’s mother crawled out of her burrow to take luncheon with them she barely minded. The afternoon was pleasant too. She spent most of it reading before the fire while Frank and one of the men went into Madison to run errands, and she was so engaged with her book, so caught up in the momentum of the unfolding story (two men and a woman, the midnight assignation, blood and honor and the fierce crack of the vaquero’s lariat as the lovers fled into the fastness of the Argentine night)115 she hardly glanced up when he returned. It took a moment, a minor irritation, his shadow falling across the page as he stood there silently in front of the chair, before she acknowledged him. He was still in his hat and coat. His face was grim. “They’ve printed the letters,” he said, dropping the newspaper in her lap. Then he turned on his heel and stalked out of the room without another word.
Irritated, she tried to read on, but the words began to meld and elongate so that she could make no sense of them, and after a moment she set down the book and took up the paper.
The headline—it exploded across the page, sending sparks and rockets high into the farthest reaches of her scrambled brain—made her catch her breath: “MIRIAM” LETTERS TO WRIGHT RANGE FROM JOY TO DESPAIR. It was like nothing she’d ever experienced. To see her name there, reproduced in canonical ink, was a shock—of course it was—but it was something more too, something indefinable, and even as she glanced over the subtitle (The Shunned Woman: Her Cry, Her Pains) she could feel the glow of it. Suddenly, overnight, in a single stroke, she was famous. Known to thousands, hundreds of thousands. She was Frank Lloyd Wright’s love and all the world knew it, shunned no more. She thrilled with the knowledge, every cell and fiber alive with it, and if she was in exile, if the sky outside the window was as dull and dirty and depressing as an old tin pot in the kitchen sink, what did it matter? These were her words, her very words, broadcast to the world!
Of course, as she read on—and she did have a literary gift, a real way with the turn of a phrase, she had to credit herself there—she couldn’t help regretting certain small infelicities. Had she really called Frank “a pathetic, bitter, aging man”? Had she actually said “I am going—the ‘menace’ to your safety no longer exists. Live your life as pitifully as you desire”? Or this: “You do not wish to be POSSESSED (OWNED) by love, by tenderness, kindness, devotion, but you ARE possessed by a tyranny whose sway is disastrous to the happiness of those who love you.” The words hardly made sense. And she would have taken them back if she could. But she’d been overwrought at the time, spurned, cast out of the fold, people had to understand that—and the thought of it, of how beastly he’d been, how sharp-tongued and sarcastic and purely petty and mean, made her anger shine out all over again. She read through it all, column after column, weighing each word with a mixture of euphoria and heartache, and then she read it through a second time.
When she was finished she sat a long while staring into the fire, struggling to get hold of her emotions. The initial elation was gone now, replaced by doubt. This wasn’t right—it wasn’t right at all. The overall impression a casual reader of the Tribune would take away with him would be ungenerous, she could see that now. Instead of a true and noble cri de coeur from one great and giving soul to another—stars equally aligned and equally potent—these letters, these very private and personal letters, would be seen as the maunderings of a scorned woman, defeated in love, desperate and pitiful. Some people—the mean-spirited ones—might even laugh at them. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she’d signed herself “Thine,” and even worse, “Love me all you can.”
Finally, the windows gone black with the fall of night and the house settling into a quiet that dwindled down to nothing but the tick and crepitus of the fire, she pushed herself up and went looking for Frank. He wasn’t in the bedroom and she traced her way back through the loggia to the dining alcove and on to the living room, but she didn’t encounter him along the way. There was a smell of cabbage emanating from the kitchen—peasant fare, as poisonous as it was bland—and the cook and serving girl, busying themselves over chopping block and stove respectively, barely glanced up when she peered through the door. No one else seemed to be stirring. And that was odd—or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe this was the way it was out here in the country, everyone battened down to survive the interminable winter, all human hopes and joys and aspirations buried under a heap of quilts, to bed at dark and up with the cows. The thought made her seize with anxiety, and where was Frank? Didn’t he realize that she needed him, that the letters were all wrong, that she was the one who’d been exposed to public censure and maybe even ridicule—that it was she who bore the burden, not he?
She thought perhaps Frank had gone outside—whenever he was wrought up, no matter the weather, he’d pull on his boots and go tramping round the place, as if he were impervious to heat, cold, rain and snow alike. Frank the farmer, Frank the Welshman, the manure spreader and hog appraiser, a peasant for all his genius. She’d actually stuck her head outside in the intemperate air and bleated his name down the length of the courtyard before she thought of the studio. Which was where she found him, seated at one of the drafting tables beneath the oil portrait of his mother—the sole picture in the room—and the motto he’d affixed to the wall: WHAT A MAN DOES, THAT HE HAS. And what does a man do? she was thinking. Lock up his amante in a dungeon? Silence her? Let the newspapers make a mockery of her spirit, her love, her life? “This won’t stand, Frank,” she said.
He looked up from what he was doing—his eternal drawing, and he was like a child, exactly like a child, an infant, that was what he was—and gave her a sour look.116 “I know it, Miriam. Believe me, we’re doing everything we can to put a stop to it.”
“A stop to it? It’s too late already, isn’t it? Do you know what those letters make me seem like?” He was watching her out of his shrewd little eyes, glaring at her, blaming her. “Like a ruined woman, Frank. Like a fool. A fool for loving you.”
And what was his response? The little man, the cold fish who wouldn’t even rise from the stool to take her in his arms and swear his love to her, who couldn’t take a cue? “I can’t help that, Miriam. What’s done is done.”
 
She woke next morning to a dull changeless light and a preternatural silence, as if the whole world had lost its hearing. The bed was empty beside her. Beyond the windows, a slant of gray wet snow, and of course there were no curtains to shut it out—Frank didn’t believe in curtains—so that the outdoors plunged right into the room. She might as well have been camped in Alaska or some such place, the fire dead in the hearth, her breath suspended before her face and a rime on the water glass she’d set out on the bedside table. It was too cold even to get up and use the bathroom. Too depressing. The thought of the letters came to her suddenly, the shame, the stupidity, and then she thought of her pravaz, but she never moved, and if the housemaid came in to see to her she never knew it. Sleep was like a stone pressing down on her chest. She closed her eyes. When she woke again it was still snowing, still cold, but someone had lit the fire and her bodily needs spoke to her in a way she could no longer ignore. She found her slippers and her robe and made her way to the bathroom.
And this was primitive too, despite the bronze Buddha and the Han vases and the Oriental carpets, because the water from the tap was like liquid ice and if she wanted to bathe—and she did—she’d have to send someone out to fetch wood and fire up the boiler in the cellar. She made her toilette as best she could, feeling out of sorts, thinking she might have some tea and toast to settle her stomach, but as she brushed her hair before the mirror—a hundred strokes, morning and night, just as her mother had taught her—she felt the weakness in her bowels and had to sit down a moment. Almost accidentally—idly, certainly—her hand came into contact with the cosmetics case in which she kept her pravaz and it took only a moment to decide that what she needed was an injection to set her right. It was the cold, she told herself, the dreary unrelenting winter that gave everyone chilblains and ague, the same as in Paris, but at least there she could find refuge in a gallery or a concert hall or one of the cafés or salons artistiques. Paris, she was thinking, Paris, and felt the warmth spread through her.
It was then that she heard the voices. Frank’s voice and another man’s—or no, two others—twined and murmurous. They seemed to be drifting across the loggia from the direction of the living room, and that struck her as odd—Frank hadn’t mentioned anything to her about guests arriving, though with one thing and another it may have slipped his mind. Suddenly her heart leapt up—here was the possibility of a reprieve, a release from the nullity of country life if only for an hour or two. But who could it be? Frank always surrounded himself with stimulating people, artists, musicians, architects and writers, many of them quite well-connected, and if his gatherings never quite approached the brilliance of the Parisian salons, they were often charming and diverting. And diversion was what she needed right now, above all else.
She cracked the door to hear better. Frank’s voice predominated—he seemed to be delivering some sort of speech, but then he was always giving extempore speeches on an inexhaustible range of subjects, “pontificating,” as one of his ex-draftsmen liked to say, and not very charitably she was sure—his fine mellow tenor sharpening now, even as the voices of the two men broke in to challenge him, and what was going on? Was he showing some of his prints for sale, was that it? Could Clarence Darrow have come all the way out from the city? A client? And then suddenly, through some trick of the air currents, one of the stranger’s voices rang clear—“So what you’re saying is that there is no romantic attachment whatever between you and Madame Noel? She’s merely a spiritual affinity like Mrs. Borthwick?” —and she understood. Reporters. The reporters were here.
Frank said something that she couldn’t quite catch—he must have been pacing up and down the room—and then his voice came clear too. “Yes, that’s right, I’ve hired on Madame Noel in the capacity of housekeeper, as Mrs. Breen has been dismissed, as you know—”
Housekeeper? She a housekeeper? What was he thinking?
“But surely,” the voice returned—a thin voice, reedy and wheedling—“you can’t deny that these letters give quite the opposite impression.”
She didn’t hear what Frank had to say next because she was in motion suddenly, hurriedly dressing—the silk gown, the white one, a pearl choker and her rings—thinking that this was her chance to make them see the truth of the matter, to know what she was in her deepest self, in her heart, and to let the world know too. She felt almost as if she were dreaming as she drifted through the loggia with its windows giving onto the gray frozen drifts, her feet bare as a maid’s and the gown flowing across her abdomen and her limbs with the simple elegance the Greeks had brought to perfection. Cytherea. She was violet-crowned Cytherea, the foam-risen, a goddess gliding across the carpet and into the living room where the two strangers, one bald and one not, their eyes flying to her, practically ruptured themselves jumping up out of their chairs to make obeisance to her, and “Yes,” she was telling them, enchanted by the sound of her own voice. “Yes, it’s all true: I love him!”
 
The denouement wasn’t quite everything she’d expected. Frank was angry with her, at least at first, but he stood by her and the two of them, the fire leaping and the storm raging beyond the windows to produce an air of romance even the most gifted scenarist would have been hard-pressed to duplicate, made their defense of a love that defies the conventions, that dares strive for the sublime no matter the niggling concerns of the hidebound and unenlightened. First she made her thoughts known, then he, back and forth in counterpoint until they were both singing the same sweet song and the newspapermen scratched at their pads till their fingers went numb. Of course, the photograph they ran beneath the headline “I LOVE HIM!” SAYS MRS. MAUDE MIRIAM NOEL OF FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT, beautiful and doe-eyed though it was, revealing one bared and lovely shoulder and a faraway look of the most fetching appeal, left something to be desired. Namely, despite the fact that the caption read This is her first published photograph, it wasn’t her likeness. Amazingly. Though she was certainly the equal of this model, whoever she was, and the accompanying article was flattering in the extreme.
But how could they have made such a gaffe? Anyone who knew her would see in an instant that this wasn’t she—and yet, and yet, the picture was blown up to a full page and it might have been an idealized representation of her, a year or two younger, perhaps a bit firmer beneath the chin, and it was fine. Very fine. People would envy her and that was what she wanted more than anything at this point because she was no castoff and she was not in the least lovelorn—no, she had her man, one of the truly great figures of the age, and no one else did.
Two days later, on the tenth of November, the Chicago Tribune ran a story in which Nellie Breen denied attempting blackmail, but which seemed to catch her up in her own machinations.117 Her back against the wall, the woman had apparently given the reporters a fair copy of her letter dated October 22 in which she warned Frank that he and Miriam were liable to arrest under the Mann Act on evidence in her possession (clearly the letters she’d stolen out of Frank’s desk drawer), evidence so damning that it was unlikely they would even be released on bail. But she didn’t stop there—she made demands. What did she want in return for suppressing this evidence? She wanted them to separate. Separate. And never see each other again. Oh, and she was very specific on this, the meddling arthritic broken-down old bitch: “That is, you cannot keep her at Taliesin or Cedar Street, nor have her to visit you or live with her.”
If that wasn’t blackmail, then what was? Miriam—and she was furious with Frank for having kept the letter from her, no matter how loving or charitable his intentions—could scarcely believe the audacity of the woman, who was, after all, no better than a common thief. In fact, when she first saw the article she was so enraged she flung the paper across the room, where it struck the wall in full flight and fell to the carpet like a crippled bird.
It was still there when she went to her writing desk, so absolutely rigid with hate and distaste and mortification that she’d taken a bit of sherry to calm herself—and if it had any effect at all she couldn’t feel it, not in her present state. She was back in Chicago now, at least there was that—they’d taken the train in on the morning after the photograph of the wilting doppelganger had been printed (“No need to hide me away now, Frank,” she’d remarked acidly, holding tight to his arm as they strode up the platform in a flurry of newspapermen and gaping passersby)—but the scene out the window was as close and gray and bleak as it had been in Wisconsin. Well, she welcomed it—it would only feed her mood. Which was dark, dark, dark. And thirsting for blood. How dare she, how dare that lace-curtain bitch set out rules for her—or for anyone, for that matter? Who appointed her moral guardian of the world?
In the lower drawer, locked away from Frank, was a sheaf of the stationery she’d ordered over his objections, the Hicks coat of arms glowing from the page beneath their conjoined initials. She produced a pristine sheet and smoothed it out on the blotting pad, taking another long sip of sherry as she brooded over it. Then she took up her pen, a new Waterman, a gift from Frank, so smooth and delicate and pretty a writing utensil it might have been a supernumerary finger, and without thinking let her ideas flow across the page as if she’d been writing letters to the newspaper all her life. The reporter—the bald one, and for the life of her she couldn’t seem to recall his name—had taken her aside that day at Taliesin and encouraged her to give her side of the story. Her philosophy, her desires, something of herself the public could grasp hold of. Who was she behind the enigma, that sort of thing. It would be so much more gratifying than anything he or his colleagues could write because it was she who was at the center of things here, she who knew the real truth not only of Chicago and its ostensible mores but of the Continent too.
By the time she came back to herself she’d covered some five pages, hardly a letter blotted, her graceful hand undulating across the page with all the authority and elegance that had won her first prize in penmanship at the Thornleigh Academy for Women when she was a girl. She spoke of marriage as a worn-out dead letter, at least when it’s loveless, a mere shadow of what a true and loving pact should be, but then she assured them—her audience, all the shining people of Chicago, and the little people too, the butchers and carters and whoever—that she and Frank weren’t denouncing marriage per se, but simply obeying a higher law. For there was only one real loyalty and that was reflected in conduct consecrated to a living, lofty concept of life and love. That was what people should aim for, that and nothing less.
And then, with all the eloquence she could summon, she went about demolishing Nellie Breen, a hired domestic, a thief, an exemplar of false middle-class morality that stoops to dishonesty, to thievery, in order to uphold its own spuriousness, the very serpent of hypocrisy that was slowly dying out around the world as people listened to their hearts and not the dictates of men dead and gone. Finally, her pen moving so swiftly it was as if a spirit had risen from the grave to take her hand and guide it—Emil, with all his literary talents intact, or perhaps it was her father—she cried out to the world, “Do not pity me. I am no victim of unrequited love. Well might any woman proudly stand in my place and count the cost as nothing.”
When she finished, she went to the window to stare out into what remained of the day. She felt unburdened at last, free of it all, and though she was bursting to show the letter to Frank (but he was at the office) or to Leora, to anyone, she sealed the envelope, affixed a stamp and went to the closet for her coat. She watched herself in the mirror as she did up the buttons, adjusted her hat and pulled on her gloves, staring into her own eyes, but not too deeply. There was a glow about her, certainly, and as she went out into the cold and made her way up the street to the postbox on the corner, she could feel people’s eyes on her and she turned to them gracefully, men and women alike, and smiled.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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