FROM the window of the hotel bedroom where she sat darning, Mrs. Karr could see them scattered over the Moret countryside — her husband painting by the Seine, their two sons, who had carried his canvas and his easel, strolling back. (Magnificent boys, she thought, healthy and healthy-minded, as Americans should be.) Now they stopped by the river. They were taking off their clothes. June should be warm enough for swimming. Moreover, she studied the sky — clear blue with fragile clouds. Sunshine made the leaves transparent, and she decided it must be really hot outside, for there below her, across the broad, green garden, Frieda Thompson read and dried her hair.
Mrs. Karr glanced at her watch. ‘Frieda,’ she shouted, ‘is n’t it time your young man arrived from Paris?’
Frieda looked up, hand to ear.
‘Fred’s train is due from Paris now, and we are not more than ten or fifteen minutes from the station.’
Frieda shook her head and spread her hands, pantomiming that she could not hear.
Perhaps she could n’t. There was a breeze. You could see it lifting strands of the girl’s long, blond hair while the mass dropped, like a waterfall at twilight, around her, to the ground. Mrs. Karr admired it. She even thought it a shame there are so few ways to show’ magnificent hair these days. So that was it! Her hands plumped to her lap. Yes, that was why Frieda had ‘forgotten’ to wash it yesterday. She had planned to be ‘discovered’ in this pose.
Mrs. Karr turned back to her mending. She was mad.
Frieda was one of her husband’s artschool pupils — his favorite, perhaps, but his interest was purely in her work. Mrs. Karr had made sure of this before she agreed to let her come with them to Europe. The girl was safely older than her sons, a quiet, serious, skinny little thing. Mrs. Karr had not foreseen the probability of her picking up a man until she actually met Fred Hale at the United States Students’ and Artists’ Club. Fred was a solid enough, nice fellow, working at the Sorbonne for his doctorate, and he certainly made life more amusing for everyone; but, while Mrs. Karr admitted it could have been much worse, she began to worry over her responsibilities. What with their being so far from home . . . what with the new ways of the younger generation . . . She had tried to discuss it with Frieda, saying, ‘Since I am your chaperon . . .’
She finished the darn, shoved her hand into another sock, remembering how Frieda had looked when she straightened and, with head thrown back, answered, ‘Mrs. Karr, you need not be afraid. I won’t disgrace you.’ She had been like a child, with tight braids wound close to her head, like a boy child with her breast less figure, and Mrs. Karr remembered her own voice, ‘That is not what I meant, dear,’ and Frieda’s cold, hard, ‘Thank you.’
She studied the sock on her hand. Cotton. Her husband’s. She could use a thicker strand.
Well, what could she have said, she wondered. She had made no reply, and after a pause Frieda turned and walked away, wilting a little, though, as she went out, the points of her shoulder blades showing through the thin stuff of her blouse. But there was nothing to say. She had been unwilling to criticize her husband to a pupil who admired him, and she was right, although the thing on her mind was the parallel of this affair with her own marriage.
Who, she asked herself, was Frieda’s Fred Hale anyway? He was ambitious to be a teacher, the career her own George Karr had accepted as a defeat. And what was this little flirtation compared with her own romance?
She and George had met in Munich, as these two met in Paris. She was an art student, he already an artist, who sometimes came to the life class, but merely to draw from the model. She remembered the stir and turning the first time he entered the room and someone pointed him out as the man who was exhibiting at the Frankheim Galleries. She had not dreamed he noticed her until the day he crossed the studio with some sketches he had made, not of the model, but of herself, and said, ‘I got it in this one, the change in your face as you painted! Look. You flushed, and see how I caught the sense of that in the outline, in the fullness of your parted lips and in your half-closed eyes! I’m proud of it. This one is not as good, but I love it, because it shows the thing that made me decide we are going to be friends, your breaking down and crying as you cleaned your palet te.’
She had laughed.
That was a long time ago. Their honeymoon hike through Bavaria was long ago, too. Then came her hysterical discovery that she was with child, their return to America, the crowds of people there, who lionized the artist, fed him and entertained him more than he wished, but bought nothing, or very little, and at last offered him a teaching job. He had to take it, as he had to make a living, but he hated it. ‘Defining where I should be searching,’ he would rant, ‘talking and talking and repeating and repeating things that never can be said. It’s stultifying.’
Well, he had handed her a job she did not like, either. Within a year after George, Jr., came John. Imperceptibly their love changed. As to the free life of Bohemia, their fine dreams only brought her brooms, dish mops, and darning, like any laborer’s wife. Worse — because she had not been born to it. She did not want her mother to be ashamed. She did not want to give her friends the pleasure of pitying her. The free life of Bohemia! It amounted to George’s being received, although he went around with a bow tie and patched clothes, and not because he liked to, but because he could not pay for better things.
There was no question of her keeping up her art work any more. True, it had been a relief at first to play at sacrificing her own life, whereas really she had convinced herself that she could never paint. Later she began to doubt her inability. It came with a weakening of George’s certainty, with the realization that doubt is part of every creative artist’s life. It had been unfair to hold her to that phase. Oh yes, it had been fun, while hanging fresh-washed clothes, to say, ‘It takes two lives to make one artist,’ but when she went into the house with the wind still blowing through her eyes and looked at some of her first paintings, when George’s friends admired them, and when she watched her husband work and work, and stop, dissatisfied, then work some more, though he was tired, work himself into despair, she lost faith along with him. Gradually she lost interest in whatever faith remained. The promise of a brilliant future is normally a child’s gift to its parents, and now that she had borne children Mrs. Karr quite simply and quite naturally wanted her husband to be all man.
Moreover, the small success Karr enjoyed depended on flattering rich women. That meant she had to entertain them, knowing they despised her. Yes, not only his pupils and his artist friends, but also these simpering, overdressed dolls despised her. The man was the peacock in her family, the spoiled, exquisite creature, and she knew what everybody thought of her. Not good enough.
Not good enough, indeed! The memory of her own neglected talent tortured her, and after a long, slow, inner letting down she began to nag at her husband. ‘The free life of Bohemia,’ she would sniff, ‘to think how people envy it!’
‘Which shows envy is foolish,’he replied. ‘People get exactly what they are. You, for instance, Matilda dear, would hang lace curtains in your windows if I took you to the North Pole.’
That was only half true, she decided, weaving her careful darn, and the truth in it was justified because socks wear out in Moret quicker than in America. Half truths are more dangerous than lies. All he had taught her, all they had believed together, led to grave mistakes. They both had been mistaken, yes, mistaken about life.
She bit off a thread.
It was done. It was done now, she thought, and she would protect her boys. What if people criticized her for the way she dressed them? People criticized her for everything she did, and her sons had the right to look as well as their cousins — the right and a greater necessity, for her brother was a banker. She made the boys speak gently and respectfully to their dad, but she taught them not to follow in his path. She would not have their strength and courage give way to resignation and even (to face it squarely) to a desire for defeat. Yes, she had to admit, all the tremendous force that had made George Karr’s sureness turned, and drove him irrevocably toward defeat. Give him an opportunity, and still he’d fail.
Take now, for instance. She was willing to grant that teaching might be stultifying, but he had been given a sabbatical year. Six months of it had passed, and he was still brushing in the stencil of abortive theories (his own admission) here, exactly as he had done at home. He claimed everything was against him. But everything was for him, she sighed, wishing she had kept up her own work.
‘ Just look out of the window,’ she said aloud.
Sunshine washed the green of trees down to the green of the river until the whole view was seen as through an emerald. Halfway between her and the place where her husband painted, their two sons swam. She watched the flash of their white bodies arc with the brightness of leaping fish as they dived into the water, to mill about, climb up, and dive again, and she knew her husband would not notice. No, he would paint the same old joyless landscape, he was so set on failure now.
It was from this sort of beating down, Mrs. Karr told herself, that, in her generosity, she had tried to save the girl. She had sniffed the seriousness of the love affair with Fred. It was patent in every action, the effort Frieda made in the young man’s presence, always like a cat settling herself to spring, precisely like a cat, even to the wriggle of her shoulder blades. Thus she had delayed the washing of her hair in order to show it off. Then, let her go. Oh, let her go. (She carefully matched a pearl-gray thread to Junior’s fine silk sock.) Only, Frieda seemed so happy it was pitiful.
She considered marching out now, saying, ‘Think twice, child. You, who are so ambitious, do you believe you could be satisfied married to a man whose work consisted in training others to do real work?’ Only the chit might answer impudently, and be within her right. The inference was against Mr. Karr, and Frieda worshiped him.
Yes, she did, and as fast as she found her feline ways she tried them out on him. Possibly that was unjust, Mrs. Karr decided, weaving another stitch; it might only be that George Karr had seen, as she, Matilda Karr, had seen, something fascinating in this first flowering of a girl’s emotions. ‘Opening tenderly, tremblingly,’ he had said, and laughed, ‘exactly like a sea anemone, preparing to shut on a foot and drown a man.’
Well, he had best be careful not to get his foot caught too, she thought. It was like the defeatist in him to have noticed Frieda as a woman only when she blossomed for another.
And the boys . . . She could see them in midstream, talking to a fisherman. He shoved off, she supposed because they had ruined all chance for any catch. . . . Her sons in this affair were like little children watching candy made. Not quite old enough for their own loves, they served the girl and followed the man, goodness knows why. They said because he spoke French perfectly and told them things about the country, but Mrs. Karr was afraid it was just because they liked the smell of a romance.
She heard a whistled song, made out someone walking from the station with a suitcase in his hand, and recognized Fred, not so much by his person as from the way Frieda behaved at the sound — rearranged her towel, fluffed her hair, and turned back to her reading with too much intensity. Yes, he would ‘accidentally’ find her exactly as she had planned. Now. The gate was opening. He called her name before she rose, and she had not tottered two steps when he stood beside her, kissing her hand. Frieda spoke. Fred glanced toward the window. Both laughed and walked together to fetch him a chair.
Mrs. Karr felt as though she had been slapped in the face. She moved back from the window and it was less convenient to see, less convenient to sew, but she would not have them suspect her of spying. Her hand trembled, as little by little she worked her way to the light again. She glanced out rarely now, only from time to time, but continually wondered what they talked about. Once she saw him toying with her hair, and was reminded of the day she and George arranged their first studio. After everything was cleaned and put in place, she had taken the towel off her head, and he fumbled with the pins until her hair came down and his hands were tangled in it, he pretended inextricably, and they had planned, planned—things that never happened, things that were dependent on his becoming a famous artist. Ah!
Now the two sons flung into the garden. Junior whipped out his bath towel and started to rub Frieda’s hair. Her shrill shriek pierced the room, and Mrs. Karr, leaning from the window, saw Fred chase the boy and take the towel from him. Glad enough to be caught, young George; glad enough, both George and John, to sit on the grass at the feet of those two!
‘Junior!’ the boys’ mother shouted. ‘John!’ Why should she let their presence interfere with the courtship? ’Junior!’ Again no one answered. Impossible to make her voice carry, not only across the distance, but through the laughter and the buzzing of the men, while Frieda sat as still and silent as a narcissus flower, and as deceitfully self-loving, her head bowed, her hands now and then tossing her glorious hair.
It must be lunch time, for Mr. Karr was coming home along the river path, slouching like a laborer under his load of paint box, canvas, easel. If only he would hold himself erect! If only — oh, if only he had become the famous artist he had promised her, she would not be here now, shut in her room, darning, darning socks, and hating, hating, hating! No, she would still be lovely and sweet-tempered, with a richer attractiveness than that minx below.
There. He was in the garden showing her his picture. Look, they stood in a group while she talked, head to one side, making little motions, pointing to a spot and straightening, going back to it again, obviously giving criticism and advice or easy praise, and Mr. Karr as obviously was enjoying it. Yes, the defeatist in him would be sure to care for the brat now, would be sure to notice that her hands were long and delicate and white, whereas her own . . . It was his fault. If he had earned a decent living, her own would still be fine. Her figure would not be so heavy. But could he like that skinny girl? He had liked her work before they started. He had thought her intelligent, still did, in spite of her silly tricks. Now she
walked close to the picture, now backed away, threw her arms out, as though to make some sweeping statement. And George Karr gestured toward her. His face broke into words and chuckles. The men turned from the painting to where Frieda stood, the sun throwing a halo on her hair, and she all gold and white before them, like a laughing saint.
Karr left them and came into the house. Mrs. Karr heard him singing softly up the stairs and supposed he would go to his room, as usual, and put the picture down without so much as showing it to her — this although she had studied art before Frieda was born.
She was mistaken. She heard her husband moving near, heard the scratch of his hanging the canvas on the wall at her back. Then he came up behind her and kissed her, kissed her as he had not done in years, and, taking her chair and herself in his arms, turned them to face the painting.
She stared. It was different, a different kind of work. Streamers of glowing sunshine swung down to the river, while the water seemed to arch and meet them, sensuous as a cat, and through the sea of gold and green the boys’ bright bodies sprang and splashed, but they were too thin to be her boys. Mrs. Karr leaned forward. The face of the nearer one was only a tiny splotch.
The artist said, ‘I’m proud of this. I got it here. . . .’
Only a tiny splotch, but that splotch was Frieda.
Still Karr talked: ‘I got what I wanted, the joy and the youth of the season, its innocent sensuality; I got . . .’ The old note of confidence.
Mrs. Karr did not know what she did.
Her husband told Frieda afterward, ‘She simply went on with her darning. But she pulled the thread till it broke.’