Authors: Louis Auchincloss
Tags: #General Fiction
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Copyright Â© 2003 by Louis Auchincloss
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The scarlet letters / Louis Auchincloss.
1. Long Island (N.Y.)âFiction. 2. Law firmsâFiction.
3. AdulteryâFiction. I. Title.
Book design by Anne Chalmers
Typefaces: Janson Text, LH Didot, Arabesque Ornaments
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
FOR MY GRANDDAUGHTER
N THE MIDSUMMER OF
1953 the coastal village of Glenville on the opulent north shore of Long Island was shaken by scandal. At least its principal citizens were so affected: summer and weekend residents, commuters to the big city and proprietors of the larger local businesses. It was not to be expected that the smaller folk would be much affected by adultery in the family of Ambrose Vollard, distinguished counsel though he was to many great corporations and the managing partner of the Wall Street law firm of Vollard, Kaye & Duer, known popularly as Vollard Kaye or simply Vollard K. But when the adulterer was none other than Rodman Jessup, not only the son-in-law and junior partner of Vollard but his special favorite and all-but-designated successor, a young man universally admired for his impeccable morals and high ideals, and when his partner in crime, Mrs. Lila Fisk, was a middle-aged Manhattan society woman of fading charms and loose behavior, the effect on the good burghers of Glenville was comparable to that of the Hebrews when Delilah cut off Samson's curly locks. A champion had inexplicably fallen; they could only raise their hands and deplore the degeneracy of the times. Small wonder that their planet was menaced with a third world war!
No one had seen a flaw in the Jessups' marriage. Lavinia, or Vinnie, the most adored by Vollard of his three daughters, had introduced her future husband to her father when he was a law student at Columbia, almost as though she were bringing him the son he never had and was supposed to have passionately wanted. Pretty, bright, charming and amiable, now the mother of two daughters herself, Vinnie and her handsome husband were the undisputed leaders of Glenville's younger summer set.
Would Rod now come to his senses? Would he drop to his knees before this wronged bride and beg her forgiveness? Was not his legal career as well as his marriage at stake? But Rod showed no signs of repentance. He left his home in Glenville and his apartment in town and holed up in his club. He was seen at nightspots with the elegantly clad Mrs. Fisk. They posed for their picture together at a charity ball. Indeed, he seemed intent on flaunting the affair. Next it was heard that he had submitted his resignation to Vollard Kaye and that it had been accepted. Finally it became known that Vinnie was suing him for divorce in New York on the grounds of adultery, and that representing her in her father's firm was none other than Harry Hammersly, the young bachelor partner who had been known as Rod's best friend.
The ladies who gathered at noon on the terrace of the Glenville Beach Club to watch their children and grandchildren basking or playing on the sand below, or gazing out to sea at the white triangles of sailboats taking their positions for the afternoon race, were now even ordering an unusual second cocktail in their eagerness to prolong the fierce gossip over the scandal in the Vollard family. But a hush would fall on any group when their table was passed by a small plump lady in white with a shiny black hat and roving beady black eyes. It was Mrs. Ambrose Vollard herself, wife of the senior partner of the celebrated law firm and mother-in-law of the defecting adulterer, who radiated a mild and essentially unconcerned geniality on a community that admired her character and feared her tongue. She had sprang, as all Glenville knew and had always known, from the distant hub of Boston where she had been of the highest possible Brahmin caste, and always seemed tolerantly but perhaps the least bit condescendingly amused by the doings and sayings of people who claimed to be quite as much American as herself. She now greeted the table that she ultimately joined as cheerfully as if she didn't know exactly what they had been talking about, and was heard to reply to a brash and uninstructed new member of the club who actually had the effrontery to offer her sympathy on the recent scandal and asked if she had ever anticipated such a disaster. "Ah, my dear, any understanding of what has happened in my family would require a close knowledge of all the different personalities involved. You cannot expect a wife and mother, much less a mother-in-law, to be your guide in any such complexities." She turned now to survey the cove and the gathering boats. "They say young Tommy Taylor is favored to win the race today. What do you all think?"
But it was evident that they would rather think of the complexities to which she had glancingly referred.
T WAS COMMONLY SAID,
in the early 1900s, in the large and not undistinguished Manhattan social circle of the Vollard clan, of Ambrose, then a lad of twelve or thirteen, that he seemed the all-American boy: comely, tousle-haired, blue-eyed, grinning, the prototype of a youth out of Mark Twain or even Horatio Alger. But only a few years later he had grown into something quite different: a large, rather hulking type, almost menacingly muscular, whose good looks were darkened by an air of surly moodiness not quite redeemed by his brooding, now blue-gray eyes.
If there were, or at least had been, two Ambroses, it might have been because there seemed to be two Vollard families in which the boy had been reared. There was what might be called the older branch: Papa, Mama, son Russell, nicknamed "Stuffy" by his school pals, and daughter Elsie, known with unblushing sentimentality in the home as "Rosebud." And then there were the two younger children, the twins, Ambrose and fat little Bertha.
Why did that make two families? The answer, as in so many American social problems, must be sought in Mama. When Fanny Vollard had found herself the mother of two fine infants, the required son and the desired daughter, she supposed that she had fulfilled her generative duties and could present a completed family to the proper ranks of her excellently proper relatives. But whether it was a too importunate husbandâor one who lacked the discretion of Onanâshe made the unwelcome discovery that she was again pregnant, and most uncomfortably so with twins, and was obliged to undergo a delivery that was not only excruciatingly painful but that almost cost her her life. Thereafter the partition that divided the two families was like the closed door of Fanny's bed chamberâshut, that is, to Papa, consigned to a back room of their Manhattan brownstone overlooking the bare yards, while his wife continued to occupy her comfortable and commodious apartment in the front of the house whose three large windows faced the street.
Taking up the Vollards in reverse order of their importance, Elias, Papa, was the first. He was a large, expensively clad gentleman with a big potbelly and features that might have been well enough in younger, leaner days, but which now bore the blankness of one who sought relief from real things in perfunctory tasks and compulsive habits. He looked the part of a sober and prosperous man of affairs, and indeed he sat on some important boards where his fixity of apparent attention concealed his daydreaming, but his ineptitude as an investor had reduced his wife's inherited capital far more than she knew, and he maintained only with difficulty their brownstone in town and the larger shingle cottage in Newport that she had taken over on her father's death and clung to with a tenacity that he dared not disturb. Elias's life consisted in forms; they were the only things of which he could be sure, and he clung to them as his salvation from an eternity of nothingness.
His son Russell, or "Stuffy," justified his nickname. He had a high brow, a large nose, a square chin and slickly combed, diminishing brown hair; his air of arrogant self-sufficiency was a wide shield to cover everything else. And "Rosebud" was a heavy, gushing, vaguely pretty blonde, subject to wild outbursts of fatuous enthusiasm, who once told her kid brother Ambrose that she would rather see him dead than a disbeliever in the divinity of Christ. What he replied disposed permanently of what little there was of her sibling affection.
This trio obviously needed a more robustly equipped individual to guide and manage them in the highways and byways of a New York and Newport life, and they had one in Mama. When one knew that Fanny Vollard had been born a de Peysterâshe never mentioned it because she never had toâone knew not the most important thing about her but what she considered the most important. The de Peysters were old Knickerbocker stock, related to Van Rensselaers and Stuyvesants, and Fanny belonged to a minor branch of that tree which still looked askance at the new railroad and steel barons of the postbellum era, and disdained, unwisely, to seek marital alliances with Vanderbilts and Goulds. Remaining pure, she had married a "gentleman," and kept her eyes firmly fixed on the past, pronouncing "girl" "goyle" and "pearl" "poyle" in the aristocratic manner of the late eighteenth century, embarrassing her descendants who mistook it for a vulgar Brooklynese.
But Fanny had character. Diminutive, disciplined, with some hint of faded beauty, with lips virgin to rouge and cheeks to powder and hair unwaved by machinery, she possessed a dignity and quiet force that was almost regal. Few suspected that her air and demeanor constituted a fort to protect a garrison of inner fears, fear of contagious diseases, unprincipled men, stock market upsets and, above all, a day of judgment waiting at the end of the road and the very real possibility of hellfire. What bore her up was her pride and her abilityâor was it an instinctâto draft other humans into a regiment to afford her both moral and material support.
If it was an instinct it was that of a parasite plant or animal. Fanny would reach out, presumably unconsciously, to grasp in a tight ineluctable embrace the neighboring organism most endowed to supply her own deficiencies. In Elias she sensed the male who would always sympathize with her valetudinarianism, surround her with the comforts she imagined she required, and admire the fortitude with which she bore her anxieties and depressions. In her son Stuffy she flared the insecurity behind his pomposity and in her daughter Rosebud the anxiety beneath her little spring showers of good will, and knew that a mother's love and approval, or at least the easily adopted appearance of such, would be rewarded by a devotion gratifyingly servile.
Fanny's instinct may even have been what guided her steps as far as Philadelphia where she consulted the famous Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, whose popular prescribed "rest cure" for wealthy society ladies totally justified to the eyes of Elias and the two elder children the long hours that Fanny spent in her chaise longue and the hushed atmosphere of a household where family and servants silently and uncomplainingly performed what otherwise might have been considered her duties.
But all that left out the twins. Indeed it did. The parasite at once recognizes the organism that will not welcome its octuple embrace. Fanny felt in the very agony of her delivery that Ambrose and Bertha would not be her subjects, at least not willingly. The remedy for this was simple enough: it was to make it appear to the world that the twins, rowdy and ungovernable juniors, had by their own stubborn and ungrateful natures rejected the love that their irreproachable mother so freely offered them. Few guests at the family board could have detected any reprehensible difference between the ways Fanny treated her elder and younger offspring. But perhaps a keen one might have.
"Ambrose, my dear, don't wolf your food down that way, and do, child, try to sit up a little straighten The way Russell does. Of course, I realize that Russell is older and has had the advantage of boarding school discipline, but you can still take him as an example. There, dear, that's better. And Bertha, darling, how many times must I tell you that ladies don't put their elbows on the table? You don't see Rosebud doing that, do you? Oh, but I must stop calling Elsie by that name, now she's almost a debutante, mustn't I? And Bertha, dear, remember that we want you too to be a debutante one day, and debutantes certainly never put their elbows on the table."