Authors: Patricia Highsmith
“I’m glad, Stew. That’s a relief to know.” Simon was glad, for the sake of
and for Russell Johnson, who was a serious and dedicated young man. Young, yes, not quite thirty, and William in the play was not quite forty, which Russ would be able to do well. William was not supposed to be nearly fifty, as was Simon Hatton.
“When’re you coming back?—Any news?”
“I really can’t say, Stew. Maybe in two days, three. As long as things are going so well there—Would you tell Russ I’m delighted? Is he with you now?”
Stew laughed richly. “I’m sure he’s asleep, if he can get to sleep. But I’ll tell him.”
They exchanged good-byes, and Simon turned to Detweiler who was now drinking his tea. “Just found out my understudy made a big hit last night. Russell Johnson. Maybe you’ll hear of him—very soon.”
“But you’re going back to the part.”
“Oh—certainly. When I go back to New York. I—”
August came in again, slender and quiet, and bowed a little. “Excuse me, gentlemen, Mr. Wells is awake and would like to see you—and anyone else who is up,” he added with a glance at the windows as if he might see a figure or two walking in the garden.
“Haven’t seen anybody else,” Detweiler said, instantly alert. “Let’s go, Simon.”
Simon saw something unusual in both August’s and Detweiler’s attitude. He followed them up the stairs to Chris’s room whose door was ajar. Simon heard voices from inside. August knocked for them.
Chris lay propped up on pillows, but he turned, fairly rolled his heavy body towards the door as they entered. “Simon—and Freddy. Bless you, come in. Having a wake—very early one. Shocking hours for me, don’t you think, but I didn’t sleep a wink, I felt so happy. With all of you here. I don’t know why—”
“Now take it easy, Chris dear,” said Richard Cook who was in pajamas and a dark blue dressing gown under which his abdomen bulged. So was Carl Parker in pajamas, and stood at the foot of the bed. “Of course we’re all here. Maybe just not all up yet.”
“But we can start the presents. Like Christmas when we were all children, you know, and got up early to see what we had from Santa Claus—much to the annoyance of our parents, but I’m not annoyed one bit. August?” Chris’s tired, reddish eyes wobbled uncontrollably as he leaned to his left to see August, if he could. August was there, but plainly Chris didn’t see him for a few seconds. “August—no, first champagne for all of us, and then—you know. Call Marcus to help.”
“Yes, sir.” August hurried off.
Chris was not going to live the day out, Simon thought. He watched Richard Cook expertly unhitch the oxygen tank from the foot of the bed and bring it with its deathly-looking mask of limp rubber to Chris, who clamped the mask over his nose and mouth. Chris’s eyes above the flabby gray mask showed a childlike fear, did not focus on anything, and their expression seemed to Simon that of a scared human being, acquainted with life for a very long while and yet now terrified of leaving it.
Then there was a glass of champagne in Simon’s left hand, a small white tissue-wrapped package in the other. Someone had told him to sit in a chair, so Simon sat. Three or four others had come into the room, and all had champagne and were unwrapping, talking, laughing.
“Jonathan isn’t up yet. Typical,” said Chris.
Simon’s present was Chris’s silver cigarette case—for six cigarettes, Simon remembered from the first dinner he had ever had with Chris—which Simon had admired so much then. A slightly raised snake with tiny emerald eyes coiled its way across the lid of the case, smooth to the touch, yet dangerous looking. The corners of the case were rounded by Chris’s fingers over the years, by being slipped in and out of jacket pockets.
“Thank you, Chris,” Simon said, looking at the man on the bed, but Detweiler was bending over to kiss Chris’s cheek just then, below the ugly mask. Detweiler had a wristwatch in his left hand.
Richard was holding up a gold chain with a medallion on it.
August made discreet but anxious signs. They were to leave. Mr. Wells needed repose.
But Chris was not having it. He removed his mask to call for more champagne, and coffee and tea and toast. “And we’re not all here yet.” Chris coughed. “August, where’re my cheroots?”
August knelt and produced a box from a lower compartment of Chris’s bed table.
Simon slipped away, went to his room and dropped the cigarette box and its tissue and its card in Chris’s hand saying, “This wise little snake has seen a lot. Try and show him something new. My love always, Chris.” Simon went to the bathroom down the hall, splashed cold water on his face, dried himself on the corner of a towel probably not his own, and vowed not to have a drink today, not even a glass of wine. He still felt strange, and it was not jet lag or even like lack of sleep. Someone rapped gently on the door.
“One minute,” said Simon with false cheer, and opened the door to a sleepy-looking Jonathan, barefoot and in pajamas.
“You’re looking spruce,” said Jonathan.
“Am I? Have a wash and go in and see Chris. The party’s already launched.”
“At eight o’clock in the
” Jonathan moaned, shuffling in. “How much more of this can I stand? Can we stand?”
“Lots more.” Simon closed the door on him.
That wasn’t true. Was he going to go on pretending or not? Go on acting with false cheer or not? Detweiler had been acting last night, when he had tried to stand on his head. He hadn’t been acting this morning, when he had said, “Yes,” he was going to stay to the end.
Simon wondered if he could face the end? That was what the trouble was about. The truth was, that Simon felt he might become nothing, with Chris gone. Chris had picked him up from nowhere, when he had been (Simon knew) a rotten actor with barely a dream in his head. Chris had even given him his dream. Chris had made him able to achieve it. Chris had introduced him to the people who had helped him. So what was he, really? Now pushing fifty, and a twenty-nine-year-old had taken over his part with great success in New York. Who needed Simon Hatton any longer?
I’d better die before Chris.
The words came as soon as the thought.
Simon was suddenly frightened, yet resolved. Did any of the other fellows feel the same? Well, certainly not Richard with a wife and a couple of children. Not even Detweiler, probably, who was a realist. Jonathan? Somehow he looked the softest of the lot with his puzzled eyes. But why make a pact with Jonathan? Simon didn’t need a pact with anyone.
He drifted towards the window, but looked away from the pine forest beyond the lawn to the writing table in the corner, cinquecento, scarred and much polished, and he stared at a brass letter-opener curved like a little scimitar with a single red stone in its haft. Kill himself with that? Absurd. Yet the letter-opener fascinated him, because it was beautiful. Then Simon realized that he had bought the letter-opener in Gibraltar, decades ago, and given it to Chris. Simon had been about twenty-two then, lithe and agile, running through the narrow cobbled streets of Gibraltar, up earlier than Chris as usual, bringing back the letter-opener in a brown paper bag from an unpretentious little shop, sneaking back into the hotel room where Chris still lay asleep. Chris’s June birthday had been near.
Simon made an effort, picked up the letter-opener, ran his thumb along the edge as if it were a knife, then laid it down exactly where it had been.
Before noon, Simon had taken a walk around Chris’s property, looking for a place, a gorge deep enough to throw himself down, fatally. But wouldn’t it be a mess, his corpse on the estate, discovered perhaps by police dogs? Better to jump into the Limmat in Zurich. Better yet to take sleeping pills in an hotel, leaving money for disposal or shipping corpse back to America, or whatever they did.
Lunch was in Chris’s big room, which really was big enough to hold them all. August had pulled back the curtains of its two big windows, sunlight poured in (Chris said he had cut down forty pines to obtain this low-slanting winter sunshine), and August had laid out meats and salads on a long wooden commode.
“This is bliss,” announced Chris, beatifically smiling on all his twelve, and in danger of tipping the champagne glass which he held in his right hand. In his left was a long cigarette in a black and gold holder.
Simon’s eyes were drawn to Chris, and then he had to look away. He held a glass of red wine, otherwise it would have been remarked that he had nothing to drink, but Simon had hardly sipped it. He went to Jonathan and asked softly, “Do you want to die too?”
Jonathan put a forkful of smoked salmon into his mouth. “No,” he said, apparently amused.
Detweiler looked more awake, like a different person from earlier this morning. Carl Parker was standing beside him.
“Where’s your plate, Simon?” said Detweiler. “Have you tried the potato salad? Divine.”
“How’s the bump on your head?” asked Carl, looking at Simon’s head where the hair stood out. “You had a shock last night. Are you really feeling okay?”
“Yes, thanks. Do I look funny?—Did Freddy tell you my understudy in New York had a big success last night? The theater phoned me this morning.”
“No. Well, that’s a relief to you, I’m sure,” said Carl with his mid-Atlantic accent. “Did you tell Chris?”
“N-not as yet.” Jonathan and Richard were on either side of Chris’s bed just then, Richard cutting something on Chris’s plate, which lay on a big tray spanning his body. Chris would not be interested, Simon thought. It was rather a negative piece of information, nothing particularly to Simon’s good.
“Simon, you must come and visit us, since you’re working in New York,” said Carl, fishing in his wallet for a card. “Us being me and Jennifer. My girlfriend,” he added with a smile, as if he expected Simon not to believe him. “This is our L.A. place, but I’ll write our present number on the back.—New Canaan. We’ve rented a house for a year.”
Simon thanked him, and pocketed the card. The noise of conversation made it difficult to talk. “Do you think—How does Chris look to you today? You’ve been here longer than I have.”
Carl looked at Simon as if he didn’t understand. Or maybe Carl understood Simon to mean that he, Simon, was in a hurry to leave. Thinking of this, Simon said:
“I understand Richard’s taking off today.”
“Or maybe tonight. You’re pressed, Simon?”
” said Simon, realizing painfully that Carl had misunderstood. “No, it’s just that I don’t know how Chris usually looks, if this is an ordinary day—”
“You can’t tell with Chris.” Carl smiled serenely, indulgently, as if he had all the time in the world, and worse, as if it didn’t matter if Chris died today, tomorrow or next week. Carl’s eyes were bright with confidence, even happiness, because his life would keep on its same runners with Jennifer and his work, whatever it was just now.
Nor did Detweiler understand, looking at Simon levelly, almost challengingly, as if Simon had said something disrespectful in regard to Chris. It was more comforting to hear Richard’s deep laugh from the direction of Chris’s bed, but Simon knew the laugh was half-phony too.
No one loves Chris as I do, Simon thought. He felt bitter and miserable. He put on a pleasant face, said, “See you,” and moved away towards Chris.
The white splotches on Chris’s face looked whiter, and did Simon see a faint blueness at the lips or was he imagining? Chris’s breathing was audible. His blue eyes, still alert and striving, swam in water or tears held within bounds by the pink lids. Simon clasped two fingers of the unnaturally plump hand that Chris extended, the left hand which held still another cigarette.
“Chris, I love the cigarette case,” said Simon. “You know I always loved it. Just the right present for me. Thank you.”
“Simon, what’s the matter? You’re not yourself.” Chris’s voice creaked like old furniture, old bones.
” Simon replied, smiling.
A few seconds later, Simon was out of the room. Chris had called for music now, and was there enough champagne?
Simon ran down the garden steps. Wasn’t there a gorge, a small waterfall somewhere down here to the right? He looked through trees and underbrush, then he found it—like a promise come true, but how small it was! Barely seven feet to jump down there and hit the rocks, then hardly enough water to drown a baby or a cat! Still if he smashed his skull, that would do. Simon rubbed his palms together, breathed deeply, and felt himself smiling. He was happy, in a quiet and important way. This scene had momentum, a tempo that didn’t wish to be slowed or hastened. He looked at the stony, half-grassy ground under his desert boots: nothing to trip him or cause a bad takeoff. He prepared to run.
Then a crackle made him stop. It had come from his right, up the slope.
We’re all looking for you!” It was Carl Parker loping towards him.
“Could you leave me alone? Would you?”
“What do you mean?—
!” Carl called loudly up the slope. “Simon’s here!”
“Coming,” Detweiler’s voice said, not far distant.
Carl clapped an arm around Simon’s shoulder suddenly. “Come back,” he said in a serious tone, swinging Simon towards the house.
Simon’s strength exploded, he threw off Carl, and saw Detweiler approaching. Simon ran towards the little gorge, aware that Carl was just behind him. Carl grabbed his arm, Carl’s hand slipped down and took a grip on Simon’s left hand, swinging Simon around.
Simon silenced him with a hard punch in the face. Now he had Freddy to deal with, and Freddy was trying to hold his arms. Simon kicked with his knee—ineffectively—got his right arm free and swung at Freddy’s chin. Simon dashed again for the gorge.
He was aware of a sharp and long-drawn-out pain, on his head, against his ribs.
His next sensation came through his ears. He imagined that he heard a chorus, though the tune was not discernible. Simon knew he had just passed through a crisis. What kind of crisis? Death. He was dead. Vaguely he recalled that he had wished to die. Where? No matter. So there was a consciousness after death then, not pleasant or unpleasant, and very hazy now, but clarity would come, if he tried for it. Human voices. And what were they speaking? Maybe a strange language that he would have to learn. He imagined that his eyes saw something, and that the color was gray with some pink in it.