Born on Long Island in 1917, and educated at Groton. Yale, and University of Virginia Law School, LOUIS AUCHINCLOSS now enjoys the disciplines of two professions,law and fiction. He is an associate of Sullivan & Cromwell, and his week-ends he devotes to his writing. His first novel, The Indifferent Children, was published in 1947 under a pseudonym. This story,which was begun in our December issue,is the first of a group of his short stories which theAtlantic looks forward to publishing.
HALSTED’S courtship occurred during the winter of the first year of the war in Europe. It was the period of the “phony war,” which, however much it may have bothered Halsted, was of little concern to Maud. For her the fall of France had as its immediate consequence the precipitous return of her father’s sister, Lila Lane, from Paris. Aunt Lila took up her residence, as was to be expected, with her brother, and family meals came to be held in respectful silence while she expounded in her own graphic fashion on her hasty departure from Paris, the forced abandonment of her Renault in a roadside ditch, and her successful arrival, half-starved but with all her diamonds, in an unfamiliar and unfriendly Madrid.
It was not an easy time for her unenthusiastic sister-in-law. Mrs. Spreddon was hardly able, in the untroubled safety of her New York home, to debunk these experiences, simply because they had happened to Lila. She was obliged to give lip service to the family idea that Lila for once in her life had come up against the fundamentals, things that in the Spreddon mind loomed as vast round bollards on the long dock of a routine existence. Maud’s mother could only bide her time, provoking as it might be, and stop for a bit to listen to Lila’s tales.
Maud, as might have been expected, did not think as her mother did. Feeling as she had always felt about the restricted atmosphere of her family life, she thought of this aunt in Paris, with perfect clothes and no children, as the desired antithesis of the boisterous and the vulgar. The vision of Lila’s garden and the marble fountain surrounded by the bit of lawn, so closely cut and brightly green, which Maud had seen as a child from the grilled balcony of the exquisite house on the Rue de Varenne had always lingered in her mind as the essence of everything that was cool and formal and wonderfully independent. It was no wonder that she hovered expectantly before the exotic gateway of her aunt’s existence. And Lila, in her turn, appreciating this silent devotion, particularly from a Spreddon, and having always regarded Maud’s troubles as the result of a life spent in the limelight of her sisterin-law’s exuberant wealth and bad taste, turned as much of her attention as she could spare from hats to Maud and her singular love life. There were long morning conferences in Lila’s littered room over a very little toast and a great deal of coffee.
She had, of course, insisted on meeting Halsted; they lunched, the three of them, one Saturday noon at a small French midtown restaurant, and, as poor Maud could clearly see, il had not gone well. Lila had spent the meal telling Halsted the wellknown story, already published in a women’s magazine, of her arduous escape from the Germans. Halsted, taciturn and obviously unimpressed, had said almost nothing. But it was later, when Maud was having tea and an early cocktail alone with her aunt, that the important conversation occurred.
“I hope you like him, Aunt Lila,”Maud said timidly. “Mother and Daddy do, but, of course, they would. He’s a wonderful lawyer. But you ve lived abroad and know about people.”
Lila Lane inserted a cigarette in her holder and surveyed her niece’s almost expressionless face. She prided herself on being the one member of the family who had a kindred sense of the deep antipathies that had gone into Maud’s make-up, and she saw her niece’s solution along the lines of her own life. “I certainly like him, my dear,” she said in a definite tone. “He’s obviously a very fine and a very intelligent man. In fact, I shouldn’t be surprised if I’m not a little afraid of him. He’s un peu farouche, if you see what I mean. But attractive. Undeniably.”
‘’Oh, he is, isn’t he?”
Lila hesitated a moment before trying a stroke of sophistication. To clear the air. “All in all, my dear,” she said with a smile, “an excellent first marriage.”
“Oh, Aunt Lila!” Maud’s eyes were filled with protest. “What do you mean?”
Her aunt reached over and patted her hand. “Now there, dear, don’t get excited. You must let the old Paris aunt have her little .joke. You see, Maud, as you say, I’ve lived abroad. A long time. I’ve been used to people who are, well — to say the least — stimulating. Your young man, who isn’t, by the way, so frightfully young, is more of your father’s world. Of course ii was my father’s world, too. But it’s certainly a world that I myself could never be happy in. And I hope you’ll forgive me for saying so, my dear, but I have my doubts if you ever could, either. It’s a dull world, Maud.”
“But I’m dull, Aunt Lila!” Maud protested. “I’m a thousand times duller than Halsted!”
Her aunt looked suddenly stern. “Don’t let me ever hear you say that again!” she exclaimed. She got up and took Maud to the mirror over the mantel. “Take a good look at yourself! Your skin. Those eyes. They’re good, my dear. Very good.” She took ‘Maud’s long hair and arranged it in a sort of pompadour over her forehead. “You haven’t tried, Maud. That’s all. You could be beautiful.”
Maud stared at her reflection with momentary fascination, and then turned abruptly away. She shrugged her shoulders. “I’d still be dull.”
“Beautiful women are never dull,” Lila said, sitting down again at the tea table. “But now I’m sounding like a rather bad Oscar Wilde, ’bell me, my dear. In all seriousness. Are you in love with ibis wonderful lawyer?”
Maud’s face was filled with dismay as she stared down at the floor. Neither her mother nor Halsted had presumed to ask her such a question, but there was no escaping it. Now she had to hear it from the lips of Aunt Lila, xvho spoke, she fell, with an authority that could not be resented. Whatever love may have been to the Spreddons — and Maud, when she thought of it, had a sense of something thick and stilling like a blanket — to Aunt Lila it xvas a free and glorious emotion that knew not restraint and graced those whom it touched. She xvas not sure that Aunt Lila had been one so graced, but she had infinite faith in her aunt’s ability to observe. Venus had risen, so to speak, on a she’ll from the sea and was awaiting her answer.
“I really can’t say that I am,” she answered at last in a low voice. “The way you use the word, anyway.”
“The way I use the xvord, Maud! But there’s only one way to use it. Lit her you are or you aren’t.”
“Oh, Aunt Lila.” Maud’s eyes filled with tears.
“Listen to me, Maud.” Lila had moved over to the sofa and put her arm around her niece. “You know that I love you dearly. Do you think I’d have asked you such an impertinent question if I hadn’t been sure that the answer was no?”
Maud shook her head. “Everyone knows about me,” she said despairingly. “What should I do?”
“Do?” Lila queried. “You don’t have to do anything at all. You certainly don’t have to marry Halsted because you’re not in love with him. Maud, darling, if you only knew how I understood! You think you’re always going to be bottled up like a clam and that this is the way to make the best of it. But it’s not. You’re just beginning to stick your head out and peer around. It’s absurd to be snapped up by the first one of your father’s partners xvho comes along! Before you’ve even had a chance to take your bearings!”
But if Maud accepted her aunt as an expert in love, it did not mean that she accepted her as a judge of her own character. She had no interest in her own future, but a very deep interest in her duty to Halsted. Getting up, she went to her room. She sat there by herself for an hour. Then, for the first time in her life, she went to her mother for advice. Mrs. Spreddon was sitting at her dressing table, getting ready for dinner.
“Mother, I’m going to break my engagement to Halsted,” she said abruptly.
Mrs. Spreddon eyed her closely in the glass as she fastened a pearl bracelet on her wrist. “May I ask why?”
“I’m not in love xvith him.”
Mrs. Spreddon was silent for a moment. Then she nodded. “ Let me ask you one thing,” she said. “Have you been talking to your aunt ?”
“I have. But it’s not her fault. She said nothing I didn’t know already.”
There was a pause. Then poor Maud blurted forth her appeal. “Mother, what should I do?”
Mrs. Spreddon stood up, very slowly, and turned around. She faced her daughter with dignity, but her voice was trembling. “I’m sorry, Maud,” she said. “I’d give anything in the world to be able to help you. You know how your father and I love Halsted. We think he’d he the perfect husband. But this is your life, my dear. Not mine. If we’d had more of a relationship, you and I, we might have been able to work this thing out. God knows I’ve tried. Bui parents can lake only so much, Maud, and (hen they’re through. You’ve always wanted to work things out your own way. I’m afraid that now it’s too late for me to butt in.”
For a long moment they looked at each other, almost in surprise and a little in fear at the sudden reclarification of the gulf between them.
IT WAS dark and cool inside the little restaurant where she was to meet Halsted for lunch. When her eyes were adjusted to it, she saw him sitting at the bar talking to the bartender. She went up and sat on the stool beside him, and he smiled and ordered her a drink. Then she told him, straight away. She did it very clearly and rather coldly; she was sure as she looked into his large hurt eyes that she had been convincing.
“But Maud,” he protested in a tone almost of exasperation, “we’ve been through all this before! You know I don’t expect anything of you. We can leave that to the future.”
“I don’t trust the future,” she said. “I want to know more about it first.”
“Maud, have you gone crazy?”
“It may well be.”
There was a pause.
“How can you talk that way, Maud?” he asked suddenly. “How can you be such a smug little — ? Good God! Maud, have you really never given a damn about me? Even one little damn?”
She looked at him steadily. From way back in her past she felt the stirrings of that almost irresistible tide of surrender, the tide that she had dammed so desperately and so decisively on that long ago Christmas Eve. But once again she was the mistress of her fate. “Not in that way, Halsted,” she said.
He turned to his unfinished cocktail. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said, almost to himself. “I’ll be damned.”
“You believe me, Halsted, don’t you?”
He turned back to her. “I guess I’ll have to, Maud,” he said. “Maybe I had you doped out all wrong.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Lawyers can be persistent,” he continued, “but even they know when the game’s really up. You’d better go home, Maud. I’ll get you a taxi.”
He got up and left her, and she knew, as she si ared at her reflection in the mirror across the bar, that she was at last doing penance for what she had done that Christmas Eve.
Halsted disappeared from her life as suddenly as he had come into it. Shortly after the fateful meeting, he came into Mr. Spreddon’s office, sat down, and putting one leg as usual over the arm of the chair, asked, “Got another litigator around here, Bill? You’ll be needing one.”
“Oh, Halsted. You too?”
“Me too. I’ve decided to take that War Department job, after all. Maybe after I’ve been around there a few months they’ll give me a commission. Just to get rid of me.”
“Can’t you get a commission now?”
Mr. Spreddon looked broodingly at the photograph of his daughter which stood on his desk between him and Halsted. His heart was heavy. “You must do what you think best, of course,” he said sadly. “We’ll make out. I’m not trying to hide the fact that it’ll be difficult. You know how we stand. This is your firm, Halsted.”
Halsted’s face clouded with embarrassment. “Cut it out, will you, Bill!” he protested. “You’re the whole business around here, and that’s the way it should be.”
Mr. Spreddon shook his head. “Just a name, my boy. But I won’t embarrass you. There’s only one thing I’d like to know. Your going to Washington isn’t because of Maud, is it ?”
Halsted stood up and sauntered around the big office. “Like everyone else,” he said in a rather rough tone, while his back was turned to Mr. Spreddon, “I have my own feelings about this war. And they happen to have nothing under the sun to do with your daughter.”
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Spreddon said meekly. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it. But you know how I feel about that. It was the hope of my life.”
Halsted shrugged his shoulders and left the room.
Mrs. Spreddon said nothing to Maud when the engagement was broken. She gave her a kiss and offered to send her on a trip. She was seething, however, against her sister-in-law, who, she felt, had betrayed her hospitality. She determined to break openly with her and debated for two days how most cuttingly to accomplish it. Then she went, without consulting her husband, to her sisterin-law’s room.
“I hope, Lila,” she said in a voice that trembled slightly, “that it gives you some satisfaction to reflect that in all probability you’ve ruined whatever slight chances Maud may have had for a normal and happy life.”
Lila flushed deeply. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand, Mary,” she answered in a hurt but lofty tone. “All I can say is that anything I may have said to Maud was with her best interests at heart. We differ too fundamentally to make explanations worth while. Under the circumstances I think it would be best if I moved to the Pierre.”
“Under the circumstances, I must agree with you.”
And so it ended. Halsted wrote Maud from time to time, amusing, impersonal letters, but he never called at the Spreddons’ when he came to New York. Then we entered the war, and he got his commission and was one of the first to be sent overseas. Lila tried to cheer Maud up by giving a cocktail party for her at her hotel, but Maud would not even go. Despite what her aunt had said about beautiful women, she still knew that she was dull.
MAUD joined the Red Cross shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. She worked for two years in New York, after which she was sent to Southampton, England. She worked hard and well, serving coffee to literally thousands of young men. When she looked back over her time in uniform she pictured a sea of faces, young and healthy faces; it seemed to her as if there would never be an end to the pressure of youth and vigor and courage upon the barred doors of her heart. But she never yielded, never opened — and anyway, she sometimes wondered, did it matter? They kept passing her tumultuously, and if she had opened the door, just the tiniest crack, and peered out for a glimpse of the surging throng, would anyone have stopped to look or listen, to reach out a hand to her and cry: “Maud, come on! Can’t you see us? We’re on our way !”
If Maud, however, was uncompromising in her attitude towards the future, she was learning, nonetheless, a new latitude in the examination of her past. She was perfectly willing, even eager, to entertain the possibility that she had, after all, been in love with Halsted from the beginning and still was, but she was afraid to fall into the oversimplifications of wishful thinking. She still had no referent by which to judge love, and though she realized from time to time that she might be losing herself in the forests of introspection, she was capable, in spite of her doubts, of a fierce singlemindedness. There could be no question of other men. If Halsted had been dead she would still have fell an obligation to resolve the incomprehensible problem of her ow n determination.
Halsted, however, was far from dead, He was in London, and she actually had his address, though she dared not go to see him. She had not even let him know that she was in England. Their correspondence, in fact, had entirely ceased. Now she could see dimly that life might be offering her that rarest of all things, a second and final chance, and she hardly dared face the fact that, in her usual fashion, she was going to let it pass.
Her brother Sammy’s destroyer had put in to Southampton at this time, and she was seeing a good deal of him. They had had little enough to say to each other before the war, but now that they were both three thousand miles from their family, they met in the evening in pubs and exchanged confidences with some of the excitement that is shared by new and congenial friends. They drank gin when they could get it arid ale when they couldn’t, and discussed their parents and themselves with detachment and impartiality. Sammy and his wife were not getting on, and this lent to his conversation the flavor of a superior disillusionment.
“The trouble with you, Maud,” he told her one night, “is that you take everything too seriously. You’re always analyzing your own emotions. Hell. The thing to do is to grab fun where you can get it. You ought to write Halsted and tell him you’re crazy about him.”
She looked skeptically at his blond, undoubting face. “But do you really think I am?” she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I think you want to he,” he said. “Which is just as good.”
“But is that honest, Sammy?”
He laughed. “Do you want to be an old maid, Maud?" he demanded. “A sour, bitter old maid?”
She shook her head. “Not particularly,” she answered.
“But I am what I am, aren’t. I, Sammy?”
“Sure. And you will be what you will be.”
He was essentially indifferent, of course, but it was only the indifference of one adult for another. It filled her nonetheless with a bleak loneliness.
“I’m an idiot, Sammy,” she said abruptly. “And I’m an idiot to think anyone cares whether or not I’m an idiot. I’ll go to London. I’ll be like the rest of you.”
“That’s better, Maud. Much better.”
WHEN she got her next leave she actually did go to London. She left her bag at the Red Cross on Grosvenor Square and walked down the street to Army Headquarters. It was some time before she found Halsted’s office, and then she was unable to send a message to him because he was in conference. She waited in the main hall for an hour and a half,
“He may not even come out for lunch,” the sergeant told her.
“I’ll wait,” she said, and he smiled.
When Halsted, now a lieutenant colonel, looking thinner and serious, walked through the hall he was with several other officers, and there was a preoccupation about their quick stride that; made her suddenly feel small and unwanted. She was shrinking back in her chair when he spotted her and stopped.
“Maud!” he exclaimed in astonishment. “Well, I’ll be damned!”
He went up to her, holding out both arms, and there was a funny little smile on his face.
“I just dropped in to see you,” she stammered.
“Been waiting long?”
“Like to go out on the town tonight?” he asked. “For auld lang syne?” He looked at his watch. “I guess I can make it.”
She nodded eagerly.
“You’re at the Red Cross?" he said. “I’ll pick you up at ten.”
And he was gone. During the rest of the afternoon, as she wandered through the great and empty rooms of the Victoria and Albert Museum, she speculated in vain on the significance of his smile. He did not pick her up that night until long after ten, for he was again in conference. They drove in his jeep to an officers’ club which had formerly been a private house, and a rather elaborate one, and sat at a table in a corner of the large Tudor front hall near the stairway, under which a bar had been installed, ilalsted did not seem at all nervous, as she was, but he looked tired and older. He talked about the general aspects of the war in a rather learned way and drank a good deal, but she was too excited to take in a word that he said. He was speculating on the possibilities of a revolution within Germany when she interrupted him.
“Halsted, aren’t you going to ask about me? And the family? I’m dying to tell. And to hear all about you. But not about the war. Please.”
He smiled, just a bit wearily. “How have you been, my dear?” he asked.
“Well, not so terribly well,” she began nervously. “But better now. Oh, much better, Halsted. I’m not the fool I was.”
It was perfectly evident that he had caught the full import of her words, for he frowned and looked away from her. “When you say you’re not the fool you were, Maud,” he said in a distant, even a superior tone, “does it by any chance mean that you’ve changed your mind about me?”
She fell the chill in his voice and hesitated. She held her breath for a moment. “Yes,” she said.
He turned and looked at her fixedly, but she could not read the expression in his eyes. “Then as far as you’re concerned,” he said, “it’s on again?”
“Oh, no, Ilalsted,” she said hastily. “Of course not! What do you take me for? It’s not ‘on’again.
1 have no claim on you. I’ve had my chance. Making a mess of things hardly entitles me to a not her.”
“Oh, ‘entitles.’” He shrugged his shoulders, almost in irritation as he repeated her word. “When women say they’re not ‘entitled’ to something, what they usually mean is that any man who’s not an utter heel would make sure that they gel it.”
The tears started to Maud’s eyes. It was the tone that he had sometimes used in court, or to people whom he thought little of, like Lila, or to the world. Never to her.
“Halsted,”she protested in a low voice. “That’s not fair.”
He looked down into his glass. “ Maybe not.”
“And it’s not like you to be unfair,” she continued. “It isn’t as if I were expecting you to fall all over me. I know it would be a miracle if you had any feeling left.”
He looked even more sullen at this. “But you still feel sorry for yourself,” he retorted.
Maud put her napkin on the table and reached for her cigarettes. “Good night, Colonel,” she said crisply. “There s nothing like auld lang syne, is there?”
She got up. “You needn’t worry about taking me back.” she said. “I can find my way.”
“Oh, sit down, he said roughly, but in a more human tone. We ve got a whole bottle of whiskev here. I don’t suppose you expect me to get through it. alone?”
“I’m sure,” she said with dignity, “that I don’t care how you get through it. There must be plenty of other officers with desk jobs in London who can help you out.”
He caught her by the arm and pulled her back into her chair. “Desk jobs, hell,” he muttered and poured her a drink. “Now drink that and shut up. I wish to hell I did have a desk job. Would you like to know where I was last week?”
“Were warned, she said, “not to encourage officers who drink too much and start revealing military informal ion.”
He finished his drink in a gulp and leaned Ins head on his hands. “Oh, Christ, Maud,” he said.
She said nothing.
“I don’t know why you had to come back,” he continued. “The same prim little girl. Just a bit older, that’s all. I’d gotten over you, you know. I mean it, God damn it. And I was enjoying my melancholy. I liked feeling a hero and thinking of the little girl back home who didn’t give a raj) about me, and wouldn’t she be sorry now? Oh, I could spit.” He reached again for the bottle and poured himself another drink. “Now I don’t know what I feel. I wish like hell, Maud, that I could say it’s all the way it was, but I’m damned if I know.”
She believed him, believed him absolutely, but. there was no humiliation or pain in It. For her the long uncertainty had ended. In her excitement his doubts seemed almost irrelevant.
“ You needn’t worry about it, Halsted,” she said. “It seems so fair.”
lie looked at her suspiciously. “Fair?” he repeated. “You must be an icebox, Maud. How else could you talk that way?”
“It’s just that I don’t know how to talk,” she said humbly. “You know that.”
He smiled at her. “Oh, you can talk, Maud.”
“You can make your life very difficult by being complicated,” she went on. “I ought to know something about that. You can think you ought to be feeling all sorts of things that you don’t. The people around you don’t help. I’ve been through that. I was a fool.”
He stared hard at her for a moment, but as if he were concentrating on something else. lie opened his mouth as if he were about to say something and then closed it.
“Maud,” he said finally, looking down again at the table, “would you marry me? If I were to ask you again?”
She nodded gravely. “I would.”
“After all I’ve said?”
“After all you’ve said.”
There was a pause, an interminable pause. Then he suddenly smiled and put his hand on hers. “Well, nobody would be able to say,” he said, “that we were rushing into this thing without having given it thought. And yet, somehow, I feel that’s just what we would be doing.”
She took out her handkerchief at last and wiped her eyes. “We’ve tried waiting,” she pointed out. “And that didn’t work.”
“Well, I’m game,” he said. “I’m always taking chances with my future in these days. I might as well take a fling with my past.” He put his hand suddenly around her shoulder. Poor little Maud,” he said, smiling. “Poor helpless little Maud. This is only the second time you’ve trapped your victim. But don’t worry. You won’t be able to get out of it this time.”
“The only thing I’m worrying about,” she observed, with an eye on the diminished bottle, “is getting you back to your quarters sober.
“I see you’re starting right,”he agreed more cheerfully. “Well, I asked for it. Or did I?”
How it would have worked out they were never to know, for Halsted was killed two days later when his reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cherbourg. They had met only once in the interval, at lunch, for Halsted had been in conference or flying day and night in preparation for the great invasion of France that took place only a week after his death. Into the blackness of Maud’s heart there is no need to penetrate. It was fortunate for her that her work increased in intensity during those days.
A few weeks later her club mobile unit crossed to France, where it operated just below the front. A friend of Halsted’s sent her a note that he had placed in an envelope marked “Maud Spreddon, Red Cross” just before he had taken off on his last flight. It was simply a line: “Maud, dearest, never forget. You’re all right, and you’re going to be all right. With me or without me.” She had folded the note and placed it in a locket which she wore around her neck and which she never afterwards reopened. She did not tell her parents or even Sammy that she had seen Halsted again before his death, or what had passed between them. Such a tale would have made her a worthy object of the pity that she had so despised herself for seeking. It was her sorrow, and Halsted would have admired her for facing it alone.