Fiction

THE EMOTIONAL INSTABILITY OF HENRY PERKINS

It was all very upsetting. Here was this old flame moving in on him with a sister, a niece and a sheaf of his love letters.. Trouble was, the letters were forged — as if that mattered

WILLIAM BRANDON April 15 1949
Fiction

THE EMOTIONAL INSTABILITY OF HENRY PERKINS

It was all very upsetting. Here was this old flame moving in on him with a sister, a niece and a sheaf of his love letters.. Trouble was, the letters were forged — as if that mattered

WILLIAM BRANDON April 15 1949

THE EMOTIONAL INSTABILITY OF HENRY PERKINS

Fiction

It was all very upsetting. Here was this old flame moving in on him with a sister, a niece and a sheaf of his love letters.. Trouble was, the letters were forged — as if that mattered

WILLIAM BRANDON

THE farmhouse was gleaming white, with a wide red chimney. A red barn clung to its flank. The emerald hills fell away from the

terrace in a view both sweeping and tastefully composed.

Peace settled on Henry’s shoulders for the first time since he’d left on the Montreal trip. It was great to be back.

Here the world was always sane and calm. Here, in this graceful old house, hidden far away from the greedy tensions of the city, he kept serenity. Here the sun-ripened summer awaited him, arms outflung, eager to bestow her warm caresses.

Henry stopped his car in the drive and shut off

the engine for the incantatory rite of the first moment of country stillness. He was startled to hear, instead, the clangor of a bellowing radio from the house. The leaves on the trees and the flowers bordering the drive seemed to shiver in the blast. Henry got out of his car and went into the house. He came upon a completely strange little girl in pigtails sitting cross-legged before the radio. Her eyes were closed and her face uplifted. She might have been at prayer.

She was wearing ragged overalls. She was barefooted. Henry placed her age at between seven and eleven. The blast and blare of the radio raged about her in a savage sonic gale. Henry switched the thing off. Silence fell like a thunderclap.

The little girl opened her eyes with a start. Her eyes were green.

“Did you do that?”

“I did.”

The little girl said “Oh!” in an affronted tone.

“You had it too loud,” Henry said.

“I prefer the volume at the proper level,” the little girl said. She looked him up and down and appeared to find him incredibly loathsome. She said, “I suppose you must be Henry.”

A woman came in. She was comely and wellshaped and burned brown by the sun. Her eyes were as green as the little girl’s. Her dark hair was pinned in a sedate coil low on her neck. She was, to Henry Perkins, a complete stranger.

She said, “Oh, hello,” with a sunny, pleasant smile.

“Hello,” Henry said, still at a loss to explain the presence of these people who had taken over his home in his absence.

“You must be Henry,” the young woman said. “I’m Margaret.”

She gave Henry her hand. Confused, Henry accepted it.

Margaret said, “Did you have a frightful trip up? Isn’t it ghastly weather? You do look so tired. Where in the world is Jane?”

Henry said, “Jane?”

“She must be in the garden, she’s always in the garden. Do go and find her.”

Henry made his way out of the room. His knees were weak. The situation was beginning to come clear, after a dreamlike fashion. There could only be one Jane, so it would be, without doubt, Jane.

HE whole thing had been a long time ago. There had been Fox Carlton, and then a party. There had been this thin girl with deep blue eyes that narrowed and turned green when he said something he had now forgotten. He had fallen in love with her. Everyone else at the party was glistening and beautiful but not real. He had fallen in love with her because she was not beautiful but real. You could see her whole life at a glance and it was pleasant; it was good.

She was sweet and refreshing in an unstaged, ungilded way, and exactly the girl he wanted to spend his life with. She had a candid, unassuming grace of spirit that was inexpressibly appealing.

Their love had been honest and spontaneous, a happy miracle surely granted only to the favored few. The events of those six days, however, remained now no more than shadows on a veil of memory, exquisite shadows, but fragments of a dream. He could only remember that it had all been wonderful.

The poignancy of their parting affected him still. She had been absurdly young. She had lieen very much in earnest. She had explained that she could not marry him at the moment because he was not himself and the world was not itself; the war had everyone playing a part. Later, after the war, well, maybe they would meet again. He could rememl>er that last moment with stabbing clarity. Somehow he had gotten the idea that she was renouncing him because of a solemn vow to someone else now

gone, probably someone who outranked him. He had told her in a trembling voice that if she ever needed him he would be waiting; he would come to her from the ends of the earth.

He wrote to her from overseas and poured out all the agony of separation and reiterated, he remembered clearly, an oath of eternal dedication.

“Call to me,” he had written, “anywhere, any time, so long as life breathes in me and I will wade the very fires of hell to reach your side.”

Unfortunately he had lost her address along with his other possessions when he had been involved in a ditching a few days later and he had never written to her again. The pain of sundered and unsuturod love had remained keen and tormenting for several weeks. The last of if vanished when the war ended and he took off his soldier suit and red mined his emotional stability.

Her polite and rather schoolgirlish note of reply to his letter reached him only after he had ret urned home. It. had brought a brief recurrence of dream with it and he had intended to answer it at once. But he had gone to work for his Uncle Ludovici by that time. There had been the debts left at his father’s death, he had been working twenty-six hours a day to pay them, and the habit of keeping hard at work had stayed with him since. 'Iliore had been no time for magic memories.

JANE rusty was hoe. in He the w.as garden shocked chopping by her weeds apjiearance. with a She looked absolutely unchanged. Sliest ill wore her brown hair the same way, liehind one ear and in front of the other. She st ill looked incredibly young. There was still exactly the same disarming and ingenuous expression in her manner. There was the same habit of biting the corner of her lip in concentration, as she was doing now in her intent attack on a clump of witch grass that had a root a rod long. Everything was at once achingly familiar. Everything fell into place with a thud that knocked him out of joint.

The moment dissolved, and past receded, and he saw only a strange young woman, in overall pants and a checked cotton shirt, hoeing in his garden.

She said, “Henry!” and dropped the hoe and ran to him and took his hand.

Time reeled once more at the touch of her hand and the sound of her voice. He had entirely forgotten her voice. He rememliered now how much he had been in love with her voice, the alluring half-grave, half-laughing colors of her voice. She said, “You look just the same.” “So do you,” Henry said.

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“I was wondering if I’d know you,” Jane said. “But I did.”

“I knew you too,” Henry said.

She smiled and said, “Well, gee.” “Yeah,” Henry said.

“Have you met Margaret and Ophelia?”

“Well, yes.”

“I’d supposed my letters had made you practically acquainted.”

“Letters?”

“Yes. of course. My letters.” “Letters to me?”

Jane looked disconcerted.

“Yes, certainly. You’ve been writing letters to me and I’ve been writing letters to you, all last winter and all this summer.” She studied him searchingly. “You haven’t had a loss of memory or anything, have you?”

“I don’t know',” Henry said. A horrible suspicion began to dawn. He said in a voice like a croak, “Uncle Ludovici.”

“Yes, you spoke of him in your letters.”

“He’s a tremendous personality,” Henry said. “He’s sort of unbalanced.” “You said in your letters that he was saintly.”

“That’s because he wrote the letters,” Henry said miserably.

“Oh,” Jane said. She fell to nibbling the corner of her lip. There was an interval of silence. “What bully fun he must have had.”

“He meant it for my own good,” Henry said. “He wants me to get married.”

“Oh," Jane said. Two butterflies joined them, playing a hectic game. Jane stopped speaking until they w'ent away. “Well, there’s no harm done. That is if you don’t mind our scratching up the furniture and weeding the garden.”

“Oh, not at all,” Henry said unhappily.

Margaret came out of the house and handed a large envelope to Henry.

“I’ll go start dinner,” Jane said. Her voice was matter-of-fact but her lips were trembling a little. Margaret went away and Jane went away. Henry felt helpless.

He sat down on the ground while the earth spun and opened the en-

velope Margaret had brought. It was from his Uncle Ludovici’s bookpublishing firm. It contained two files of correspondence. One file consisted of letters from Jane to Henry. The other file consisted of copies of letters (forged) from Henry to Jane. There was no covering letter. Uncle Ludovici, in his wisdom, would have realized that none was needed.

The plot was dastardly. It was inhuman, unholy, sacrilegious. Henry’s morality quailed before the comprehension of a treachery so infamous, even in Uncle Ludovici, who was capable of anything.

He remembered when, duped by Uncle Ludovici’s cunning portrayal of the kindly, fatherly role he played so well, he had told him something about Jane. He remembered that he had been so unsuspecting as to produce Jane’s letter, from which, without doubt, Uncle Ludovici had subsequently pilfered her address.

The correspondence led off, Henry saw, with a letter from himself to Jane. The date was of the preceding autumn, about the time Uncle Ludovici had first ordered Henry to take a wifi . Henry was not the sort to marry late, Uncle Ludovici had stated. He diagnosed Henry as suffering from acute hyper-romanticism. He said it showed in Henry’s work. The state of his subconscious was evident in his metaphors. There was a limit to the warmth desirable for display on book jackets, Uncle Ludovici had asserted, and he was weary of cooling off Henry’s blurbs. The specific was for Henry to find a nice girl and the sooner the better.

Henry had declined Uncle Ludovici’s generous offer of a week off for a wife hunt. He had pointed out with some emphasis that when, where, and if he found a nice girl was his own strictly private business. Henry had been jubilant over the affair as a clear-cut victory.

The first letter was simple and direct. It read :

“My darling:

1 can’t forget you. I need you. Please write.

Forever yours, Henry Perkins.”

The return address was the number of Uncle Ludovici’s apartment.

Jane’s reply, some weeks later, was

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friendly but reserved. Henry glanced through the rest of the letters and was relieved to see that Jane’s insistent restraint eventually won out over his more ardent beginnings. For all that his letters came to accept, her key of simple friendship, however, they remained adroitly suggestive of lingering hope, flickering passion and tightlipped devotion. Henry was fascinated by Uncle Ludovici’s subtle skill.

He became suddenly aware that be was exposing himself, even now, to Uncle Ludovici’s insidious propaganda. He put bis letters aside and turned to Jane’s.

Running through them, be picked up the thread of events that bad led to her appearance. Margaret, her sister, and ;r widow, worked in Vancouver as a speech teacher. Jane herself worked as a secretary for a Mr. Horn.

Disaster appeared between the lines. The speech teaching, a precarious living at the best of times, was in a decline. Margaret and her little girl Ophelia had come to live with Jane.

Evidently Henry’s letters at this time began generously urging lier unemployed sister to come East, where be was apparently offering to find ber a new career. Jane didn’t take the idea seriously at first. She wrote that all would be well; prosperity was just around the corner.

About this time she revealed that she might be married soon, to Mr. Horn, her boss. Henry fought down a desire to see what his letters had to say to that. He could guess. Her following letters proved bis guess accurate. She chided him, rather gently, for clinging to dreams that were long gone. She implied that if their correspondence was to continue t hey must firmly forget those things best forgotten. However, she did not mention Mr. Horn again.

A purely Platonic pitch re-established, Henry’s letters continued to plug the theme of a migration East, and definite dates were now being discussed. Jane was still reluctant, but desperation was showing through the threads of her unwillingness. A summer visit to Ontario might be very good for Margaret and Ophelia, she thought. It might even be possible for her to use her vacation to accompany them.

Henry put the letters away in the envelope. He was possessed by a curious mood, composed of equal parts of horror, savage indignation, and a strange music instilled by the artful rhythms of the letters. He realized that those letters were extremely dangerous, after seeing Jane in this unexpected way. Or seeing Jane like this was extremely dangerous. Something, at any rate, was extremely dangerous.

AT DINNER, Margaret wore a long swirling skirt and a blouse with a tenuous neckline. Jane had not changed from her overall pants and checked shirt. She wore no make-up except for some butter on her wrist where she had burned it against the stove. She made no attempt to be sociable, but she was not brooding over the misunderstanding about the letters, Henry was glad to see. She had a brisk and capable air that Henry did not remember at all from the six days that had once shaken his world.

Henry summoned up a feeble helping of simulated bonhomie and bade them all a belated welcome. It was swell of them to come, he said. Margaret replied with polite platitudes. His place here was divine, Margaret said, how could lie hear to stay away from it uni il so late in the summer? She mentioned that they had expected him two days before, when they had arrived,

although his last letter had said that he might be delayed.

Henry apologized and explained that he had been in Montreal on business. He understood now why Uncle Ludoviei had insisted on his trip to Montreal, even though it cut in on his vacation. Margaret said they had got along splendidly by themselves, even though they had no car. The people in the village store nine miles away had been awfully nice about delivering groceries and other essentials, putting it all on Henry’s bill.

Ophelia, scrubbed and angelic in a starched pinafore, watched Henry for some time until she finally wrestled down her unconcealed revulsion sufficiently to address him. She asked if he would mind if she did a little work on his gook wagon. Margaret explained that she meant his record player.

Henry asked if something was wrong with it and Ophelia said it sounded like molasses in a jug. She said the manufacturer took out everything but the mellow register, and she asked him if he didn’t want fidelity. Margaret said that of course Henry wanted fidelity, Sweet, and she told Henry that Ophelia was a music lover. She said Ophelia could not live without music.

“Well, we wouldn’t want that to happen,” Henry said.

Ophelia gave him a terrible grin around a slice of bread and butter and sugar and strawberry preserves and cheese spread and sausage. She said, “He’s a comic-type guy.”

AFTER dinner there was a rush for Henry’s car. Apparently two days of rural exile had left the company frantic for a quick look at a paved street. Jane stemmed the tide with the direct order that someone else would stay and wash the dishes because she herself was going to town. Margaret said, “But definitely, sweet,” and bowed to the inevitable and began clearing off the table. Jane changed into a white dress and sandals and tied a ribbon around her hair and she and Ophelia piled into Henry’s convertible and drove away. Henry went out and sat on the terrace in the dusk.

It was too late in the summer for the sacktime songs of birds. It was too late for the fireflies. There was nothing left but the mosquitoes. They hummed forlornly in the evening stillness.

Henry entertained himself for a few minutes with the mental picture of slaying Uncle Ludoviei as he was now slaying mosquitoes, left and right.

He went up to his room and unpacked his clothes. The file of correspondence sang a siren song to him and he figuratively lashed himself to the mast by stowing away the letters in the deepest recess of his closet. He went down to the kitchen and helped Margaret dry dishes.

Margaret, while they worked, told him about Jane’s employer, Mr. Horn. She said Mr. Horn was a good-egg-type guy but he had been married four times. She said his life was just one babe after another and she didn’t think that was for Jane. She said Jane had always been a literal-type kid and she could be hurt. Margaret said she had urged Jane to take this trip east partly in the hope that it would break up Mr. Horn’s courtship.

Henry got away and staggered up to bed. He thought about Jane being a literal-type kid who could be hurt. He thought about Mr. Horn, about Uncle Ludoviei, digging with his warped mind this pitfall to hurl Henry into romance, without consideration of how he might hurt Jane with his mortifying and humiliating forgeries.

He thought about the way Jane had dropped the hoe when she had seen

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him. His emotion stability, he felt, was slipping. The forged letters, the unex¡ pected meeting with Jane, Uncle Ludoviei’s monstrous double cross; these combined influences were thrust¡ ing upon him a heady sensation he had not felt since those six enchanted days long ago. He lay awake a long while composing what he would say to Jane on the morrow to explain the letters and Uncle Ludovici.

HE SLEPT late in the morning.

When he went downstairs Ophelia was at the record player. She had torn the insides out of the console cabinet. She said she had gotten a few things in the village and charged them to him.

She said, “I’ll rig up a variable reluctance magnetic pickup and a preamp and a decent amplifier and speaker and then, boy, we’ll have something.”

“Fine,” Henry said. He embraced his headache with both hands and went into the kitchen, where he found Margaret alone with a cup of coffee.

She said, “I’m going to the brook. I’ve simply been living at your brook.” “Fine,” Henry said. He drank a cup of coffee and shuddered and drank another. He said, “Where’s Jane?” “But she’s gone,” Margaret said. “She just finished packing and left ten minutes ago. Didn’t you know?” “Gone where?”

“Home, of course. She’s awfully upset about something. She won’t say what, but I rather imagine Mr. Horn has sent her an ultimatum. I’m so unhappy about it, but I couldn’t stop her.”

Henry started out and came back and said, “When does her train leave?” “I think at noon.”

Henry went outside and came back in again and returned to the kitchen. He said, “Where’s my car?”

“But she took it,” Margaret said. “She said she’d leave it at the station.” Ophelia looked up from her work as Henry loped past her once more. She said, “You might slap a hot-car rap on her.”

Henry went on out and walked down the road, kicking rocks. The sunlit midmorning view did nothing for him. He was unaware of a silent bobolink that watched him from a fence post. He walked rapidly. He would go to Mr. Hennebec’s place, he thought, and borrow the Hennebec car and drive to the station. With luck he would get there before noon.

He rounded a curve and came upon the crossroad where his mailbox perched on its tilted post. The mailbox had a special symbolism for him. It stood solitary, independent, self-reliant at its wind-swept corner, reflecting, Henry liked to think, his own rural personality. It stood absolutely if a little waveringly on its own, asking nothing but to be a peaceful part of this countryside it loved. He seldom came upon the mailbox without experiencing a mystic feeling of oneness with this sturdy land. This time, however, any traces of the mystic feeling fled away when he saw bis car parked beside the mailbox, and Jane poking her bead beneath the raised hood of the engine.

HENRY said, “Ha!” Jane turned quickly, startled, and banged her

head.

Henry came up to the car. He said, “Listen.” But the words he had been planning to say scurried out of his mind like so many ants running from a burst of light. Jane was wearing a plaid jacket that was the same jacket she had once worn during the six days, and he remembered it very well. Other memories instantly leapfrogged over the

opening gambit of the jacket. Time crumbled and came apart in a disastrous fashion.

“That’s the same coat,” Henry said foolishly.

“They wear forever.”

There was a tendril of brown hair beside her ear. Henry gazed at it, staggered by the somehow enormous thought that it was the same hair too. With a gesture of vexation Jane dabbed at the lock of hair with a finger and sealed it down. She left a streak of grease below it.

She said, “Do you know how to fix a car?”

“No,” Henry said.

“It won’t run,” Jane said. “I think it’s the distributor.”

“Listen,” Henry said.

“I have to catch a train,” Jane said. “Will you get me a taxi, please?”

The memories put Henry on a pair of skids and moved him toward her. He reached out with his handkerchief and wiped the grease off her face.

She stood quite still.

“Listen,” Henry said. “About those letters.”

“I’ll send for Margaret and Ophelia as soon as I can,” Jane said. “There doesn’t happen to be money enough for all of us to go right away.”

“I don’t want you to go right away,” Henry said.

“I’m sorry,” Jane said. “I have an appointment in Vancouver.”

Henry was amazed to see tears in her eyes. He put his arms around Jane and kissed the top of her ear. The memories burst forth in graphic detail and swamped him. They were extremely arresting graphic details. It seemed impossible they could ever have been forgotten. It struck him, as in sudden revelation, that perhaps this was the core of love, remembering. It followed that people got married so they wouldn’t forget again.

“Please let me go,” Jane said.

She linked her hands around his head and kissed his lips. Then she moved quickly away from him. She looked frightened. She straightened the jacket. She said, “We’ve got to guard against this silly sentiment. I’m going to miss my train.”

“Listen,” Henry said. “You can’t go.”

Jane bit the corner of her lip. She said, “I suppose I can’t until you get your car fixed. But it must be absolutely clear that I’m only staying under duress.”

“Listen,” Henry said.

“Please get it fixed right away,” Jane said. “I’ll go back and start lunch.”

She walked away. Henry walked with her. He said, “Listen.”

Jane did not look at him. She said, “Please keep in mind the fact that I’m only being detained by an act of God.”

HENRY stayed for lunch while awaiting the tow truck from the garage. By the time Jane had walked back to the house she had gotten herself blithely and determinedly in hand. Her unconcerned presence and the sound of her unconcerned voice, as she worked in the kitchèn, knifed him to the heart. Clearly Uncle Ludovici’s unfeeling forgeries had so wounded her that she would never again permit herself to recall even a vestige of the love that once had been, her love that had started back to life for a brief moment there by the mailbox, and that she had as quickly killed before his eyes. As soon as his car was fixed she would be on the train to the west coast, busily forgetting him. His memories were powerless against her iron resolution.

Ophelia, deep in the wreckage of the record player, told him she hoped he didn’t mind about the Scarlatti sonatas.

Henry enquired what she meant and she said his records were all stinkers and the guy in the village happened to have an album of Scarlatti harpsichord .sonatas, seventeen sides, and she had brought it home. She said they were really gone. She told Henry they would murder him. The garage truck arrived as Jane called them to lunch, and Henry departed with it on an empty stomach and a heavy heart.

They stopped at the mailbox and the garageman looked at the car and said it needed a new distributor rotor. They hooked the car to the truck and towed it to the village, where the garageman got a new distributor rotor and wiggled it on, replaced the distributor head, and said the car was ready.

“Is it fixed?” Henry asked.

“Ayeh.”

Henry tried the engine. It ran.

“What happened to the old distributor rotor?”

“Gone.”

“Did it bounce off or break off or burn off or what?” Henry asked.

“Took off.”

“Took off?”

“Ayeh.”

“Somebody took it off?” said Henry.

“Ayeh.”

“After which the car would not run?”

“Ayeh.”

“And before which the car would run?”

“Should think.”

“Thank you,” Henry said.

“Five dollars,” the garageman said.

HENRY paid him and drove to the Jordan Hotel. He called Uncle Ludovici’s office. Uncle Ludovici’s secretary told him Uncle Ludovici was not in. Henry felt this to be a direct lie but there was nothing he could do about it. He dictated a memo to Uncle Ludovici’s secretary. The memo was hot off the elbow of his unstable emotions. It ran to some length.

He went into the house and waited. After two hours a call came in for him. The call was from Uncle Ludovici’s secretary. Henry took her information, thanked her, got in his car and drove home. The sultry weather congealed and by the time he turned into his lane a spattering rain was falling.

He went through the lobby and out to the garden. Jane secured her hoe and replaced the lock of hair back of her ear.

She said, “Oh. Is it ready already?” She was wearing a sun suit. It was a sensational sun suit. Henry did not remember it from the six days. The suspicion crossed his mind that it was

Margaret’s. Fier hair was brushed and shining. Her lips were bright from a touch of rouge. The light, rain fell between them.

“I talked to Uncle Ludovici,” Henry said. “He’s got a job for Ophelia helping to edit a children’s line we’re going to get out called Music for Minors.”

“Oh,” Jane said. “That’s wonderful.”

“He also sent a telegram to your employer, Mr. Horn. I don’t know what he said in it but he signed your name.”

Jane looked shocked. She said, “Why, that’s illegal.”

“Probably what he said in the telegram was illegal too.”

“But I’ll lose my job.”

“That was Uncle Ludovici’s idea.” The rain was increasing. Henry said, “Do you remember the night it rained?”

Jane blushed. In the sun suit the blush was charming. The earth trembled. This seemed entirely natural and it was only after an interval that Henry realized it resulted from thunder.

Jane said, “I’ll have to hurry back and explain to him.”

“The car won’t run,” Henry said. He took the distributor rotor out of his pocket. He said, “In case you’ve still got the old one, I also took off the whole distributor. I’ve also got the keys in my pocket.”

Jane gave the distributor rotor a guilty look. She said presently, “It was the mailbox. It looked so much like you, all alone.”

FI (air y reached out and got the hoe and threw it away.

She said, “We mustn’t be hasty.” “We can read those letters together,” Henry said.

“That would be a very sensible test.”

OPFIELIA stuck her hands in her pockets and paced through the house in melancholy. She found her mother on the terrace with a book.

She said, “The electricity’s gone blooey. Lightning must have goofed it up. I can’t play the record player.” “That’s too bad, sweet,” Margaret said.

“Henry and Jane are outside sitting in the rain in the garden.”

“I know,” Margaret said.

“I guess he found out that she took off his distributor rotor.”

“She did what, sweet?”

“She asked me how to do it before she left this morning.”

M a r ga re t s m i led.

“Poor guy,” Ophelia said. ★