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Authors: Christina Stead

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Uncle Percival had a large round garden he had spaded out of the uncut turf, with a swastika in the center; in this he put plants to instruct us. I knew skunk cabbage, golden rod, May apple, polk-weed, chicory, poison ivy, that's about all. Jacky got to know things with more poetic names like Traveler's Joy, Monkshood, Meadowsweet; but as these things did not live up to their names, I did not care about them—mostly little, dull flowers; and none compared at all with the flowers in town, orchids, gardenias, roses, hyacinths. What is the use of affecting a great interest in these country weeds? There are a few like flowering dogwood that have some looks, but how can that compare with a large, showy rose? Can those wayside asters compare with real asters, or that wretched yellow thing, Forsythia, with yellow orchids?

There are so many conventions, which I attribute to romancing. One must accept them only in order to see clearly ahead and not be confused with false rebellions. I hate all this. I don't want to be original, but I don't want to be a romantic; if I could only see clearer ahead, I'd make my way with my straight mind, for I can always look myself in the face and add one and one. The trouble is then, when I am adding one and one, that doubts and anxieties come to cloud my mind. I see the sum total but figures float in from outside and I think, “But should I count that in too?”

Jacky used to say, as we grew up, that part of my viewpoint came from my shortsightedness. I cannot see very far ahead of me. I cannot see distant combinations of people and trees, for example. The view of couples in the distance gives you certain ideas about them. But the fact is, that when we come to things like this— love—I might as well have been born blind, for it is not couples in the distance, nor people on the next bench, that bother me; it is the man with me, and what he does to me, and if even he sits too far off, I have no interest in him. My reply to Jacky, my lifelong friend, is (now at least, it was not then) that I am more sensual than she is, and the sense of touch is stronger developed in me than in her. I must touch reality and there is no reality till I touch. In those days, in our games, I was impatient with her imagined brocades and festooned torture chambers; and if they had been present I would have seized the one for myself and, if a queen, used the other. But I am not sure that Jacky would have done either; she imagined only affairs with prisoners and ministers of state. We quarreled at our games. We were both selfish, feminine, ambitious; but I wished to be showy and Jacky had vague ambitions to be an empress, a great actress or artist, even a great mistress, some woman who ruined cabinets, turned aside the will of the people, destroyed nations.

We were both pretty enough. Some of our games turned round our looks, our lovers, our weddings, Hollywood. Those were very happy days, when we were away from our parents and living in this unshaved park of Uncle Perce. We fought and cried often. Sometimes it was about the relative wealth and value of our positions in the world, I, married to a rich man, with seven maids; she, a queen or a Dubarry. We both claimed Templeton. His grandfather was a very rich insurance man: he had a gold and asbestos mine in Canada, other properties. No one knew what he would have at his majority.

Our family, the Morgans, owned real estate, several small houses cut up into apartments, and two hotels. It now had a chicken farm that Uncle Philip was running on the top of Lydnam Hill. There was much dispute about this chicken farm in the family: they said it ruined the property. The shrill white chickens came down to the Lodge at all hours and laid their eggs in stumps and thickets. Uncle Philip had not enough help. In spite of a low-running wolfish dog and a family of farmers helping him, thieves came in lorries for his poultry, at night. There were not enough houses for the fowls and they lodged in the stooped old apple and pear trees.

All the property we had, between us, Jacky and I, was this, in expectations—but she and I felt rich and intended to go to Europe. Everyone went to Europe then. It was 1928. Even Mrs. Dr. Goodsir hoped that when her child was old enough she'd get a position as traveling companion, or else get a good tip from a rich bachelor and make money in the stock market and go abroad. She often talked about
gay Paree
; it consoled her for washing the dishes and scrubbing the wooden floors, and was knit into her dreams of her child. She was full of hope for the child, thought it would bring Dr. Goodsir back to her. When the child was born in The Wreck, Dr. Goodsir came, a tall, good-looking, grave man, with black hair. He and Uncle Perce quarreled, and he went away. We never saw him again. The poor mother was never able to understand why the father did not stay with her baby. In a few years she was calling herself a doctor's widow, and got jobs in that character.

After our experience with Mrs. Goodsir's childbirth, we added a new game, the one called Confinement. The teacher at the school, a woman who seemed old and worn but was probably about thirty, screamed at the youngsters and beat them on the knuckles with her stick. We would look across at each other and think of the way she would be tried and punished later on that afternoon, in our Court. We cursed her, hoped she died in agony, wished a can cer in her, or heart disease; now we wished she would have a baby and never be able to get rid of it, “scream all the time.” This was a very satisfactory game: we would lie on our backs at the side of the orchard, in the long grass, smelling the blossomy air, scratch our legs against the insects, watch the blue sky and think of this interesting and even quite probable torture for the teacher. She was married; it could happen to her. We wished it on our wicked Aunt Stella; we wished it on numerous women. Serious at the thought, though, we added, “I'll have my children with anaesthetics.” Jacky thought we should begin to practice then, to endure pain. I said, “Why, by the time we're that old, they will have invented something.” Jacky tried to endure pain, though, for years after that. She tried to make a game out of it, but I would not enter into it. Why should we endure pain? She could not tell me. At another time, we became religious and kept beads and crosses we fabricated out of matchbook wood under our pillows. We prayed to Jesus. All this was in the hope of wearing white dresses for First Communion. I visited several Sunday Schools in turn in the hope of getting to several Sunday School picnics. But generally this required more regular attendance than I could give. We had to keep this secret from Uncle Perce, a rabid unbeliever; and our games and secret life, which we lived entirely in common at this time, became more secret; our games were wicked.

7

U
ncle Percival had four or five men friends, who were attracted by his peculiarities and talent. P. Hogg sometimes quarreled with the scientific institutions, societies, or men for whom he worked, and he then became a salesman, traveling the country and placing optical lenses, microscopes, field glasses, observatory lenses, and even arranging for observatories and planetaria. The same man who was hated by his poor neighbors, who gave the Mussolini salute for a joke, fought against the farmers in the district; the man who thought it weakened the poor to pay them unemployment insurance and hated trades unions, also fought for trades unions when the time came; the man who gave the fascist salute walked in a May Day procession. He was an ardent patriot and knew the ways to hang up the flag on July Fourth, and at the same time he opposed war and was imprisoned during World War I as a conscientious objector. He oppressed his womenfolk by making them scrub floors and fetch water from a well, and yet he was for the education, full citizenship, full emancipation of women; he thought a pregnant woman was the better for toting water and yet he agitated for Twilight Sleep and approved of the Soviet Union because they took proper care of children, and inducted them early into community life. This disagreeable man had devoted friends. One was my father, Solander, one Uncle Philip Morgan, one Dr. Goodsir himself—he had been, that is, until Mr. Hogg forced Goodsir to a wedding.

This was 1928. My Uncle Philip Morgan, who had first married at nineteen and was now twenty-four, had just married his second wife, a divorcée with a twelve-year-old son. This new wife of his was a healthy, active, tall blonde woman, a revolutionary with many lovers; she loved frankly, truly, often; her affairs were passions with her. Jacky and I wondered about this old woman who had men wild for her; and we were hiding in the long grass chewing stalks, when we heard Uncle Philip in the orchard making a confession about her to Solander and Uncle Perce:

Philip said about his old wife, “Amabel is going to have a child. I was a wastrel. I never wanted a child. But Amabel showed me the truth. I must not live for myself, but for others. It isn't a question of living for our child, but just for the rest of the world … I was in New York on Tuesday, Sol, and walking up Fifth Avenue, where I used to walk to see those big, golden huskies our girls' finishing schools turn out, the gorgeous girls with the imperial contraltos— but the only face in my mind was Amabel's, her brilliant, ugly face full of soul and intellect. She's ugly, you might say, but beautiful. The others looked like stale blotters with nothing legible on them, not even their own names; they were like orchids that have been through too much night-clubbing and cheek-to-cheek dancing. Love affairs didn't wither Amabel: each one gave her a bloom and richer color. You know the joke about George Sand, ‘My heart's a tomb!' ‘A cemetery, Madame.' In Paris last year I had a studio duplex, you know, overlooking the Cimetière Montparnasse. It was that Mrs. Landler paid for it. At that time I was living with her, you know: she paid my way at Paris—she was very good to me. I wanted to study art, and she was going to pay for me. The studio was easy for us to get because some people, especially Americans, are superstitious about looking at a graveyard all day. I was not. It's a charming spot, full of trees and delicate winds, not many tall stones there, not those ugly things like cromlechs you see elsewhere; and this particular apartment was closer to the Jewish section where there were no tall stones to disfigure the landscape. It was delicious. It was a kind of eternal gentle life as you see in old pictures, like Corot's pictures.

“Naturally, at that time I did not care for Corot; he was old hat to me; and Mrs. Landler was very modern, always rue Campagne Première and so on. I loved it.

“When Amabel gets very old, perhaps she'll have that many tombs—my dear boys, I don't care if she does. A great woman's a great woman; you can't make her into a super-aerated, dehusked, vitamin-enriched, thick-waisted, white-haired mom of some subway ad. She's a great woman. What do I care if she loved before or loved again? She loves me now. Those titivated debs, with banana legs and long bobs, just go through life sighing for their empty life. You know the couplet, ‘Our hearts in glad surprise to higher levels rise'? That's my life with Amabel. What do I care what people think about our ages? I must learn from life, and she is life; she will never be old, for the great are never either old or young. ‘Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety,' said Shakespeare about Cleopatra. How do I know Cleo did not look like Amabel? To hear her speak! When she speaks in a hall, to men, to women, their sex does not matter, they rise from their seats, their souls go out of their mouths and chests to her; instead of people I see there in the hall laurel wreaths and bouquets of flowers, something tossed by God to her; they are not men and women, they are the flowers of God. Yet people wound her noble heart, they gossip about her looks, her age, and her affairs! If I am born in this world only to protect her noble heart from pain, you see! I am a happy man.

“I am not madly in love at all. I know this woman and I just compare her with others. What is the use of trying to convince you? It isn't sex, you know. Sex—any couple can mate—what of it? Dogs can mate. It is something to live for. There's nothing wrong with my desires physically. But my heart thirsts so. Yet people laugh—”

“It's another frame of reference,” said Solander.

“Can you imagine a woman that at her age is grandly ardent, simple and yielding?” continued Uncle Philip. “She is proud and fiery, and yet she has a sweet, modest, reluctant yielding, a shamefacedness. She says she was not always like that; her husband, that schoolteacher she was married to, made her like that. That is what she says because she's generous. She had to fight as a young girl. Such natures are not welcomed and people make game of them, or tread on them. They learn to be tough. It takes years to give them back their rich, generous simplicity. You see, she says he did that for her; and she doesn't hate him, she loves him; but he does not understand her now. He thinks she's foolish, childish. He says to her it's a sign of age because she goes with a man younger than herself. As if age counted in these things! There are tragedies, of course, between people of different generations when they love. However, people don't care to talk about the happy affairs in such cases. They only talk about the tragedies. Because it shocks them, I don't know why.”

“They don't talk much about love at all, that's the simple truth,” said my father.

“I have never loved,” said P. Hogg.

“And so it doesn't exist,” Solander laughed.

“I don't say that; no, evidently it exists,” said P. Hogg.

“I can testify that it exists,” said my father.

The whole truth about my father was out by this, for Uncle Philip had put himself out to let us know: he considered it beautiful, even though he liked my mother. My father loved a young dark serious girl, with large eyes, called Persia. My grandmothers were thrown off balance by this happening—such a well-conducted man as my father! But Grandmother Morgan was too busy with her properties, her love affairs, and the dangerous beauty of her youngest daughter Phyllis, to bother about her daughter Mathilde; and Grandmother Fox was a timid lady who could scarcely admit that even childbirth existed, let alone divorce, sexual vagrancy. She never dared ask her son about his behavior. All she could do was to look at me and sigh, pull big eyes when she was with her son and sigh. How dared she ask questions about sexual matters? The mere thought, in private, made her blush.

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