Seductio Ad Absurdum
CRARY MOORE is the pen name of a young Bostonian who writes us, “I grew up on a farm, surrounded by horses, beagles, and French verbs — no people though. Remedied that by coming out in New York. Three years at Vassar, time off for good behavior. Worked for a seaweed company in New York, ambled around Europe, and retreated, in good order, to Boston. I like it here.”
by CRARY MOORE
BELINDA ARCHIBALD (Mrs. Craig T. Archibald, Jr.) is invited to all the nicest parties. Craig is doing quite well in the Law, and by next year they will probably feel they can afford a baby. They already have a small but adequate apartment in the East 60s, the use of Mrs. Archibald Sr.’s station wagon on weekends, and two regular seats at the opera. Belinda buys one really good suit every year, keeps an eye on her figure, does quite a bit of Red Cross work, and is, in general, a credit to her family.
At the time of the Mince-Pie Weekend, she was nothing of the sort. Her grandmother, old Mrs. James, always said she’d marry Craig in the end, but no one believed her, much as they’d have liked to. Belinda wasn’t exceptionally pretty, and, being only just too clever to be comfortable, she was given to sulks. And she had champagne tastes — not quite on a beer income, but none of the Jameses have made any money for a couple of generations now; Ashley Beale is her only really rich relative. Luckily he is a bachelor and fond of his niece. Belinda does have the James nose and their look of breeding; but her lower lip sticks out, and she swaggered in those days, instead of just walking. She said she only liked Craig because he was a comfortable habit, like tea at five. Of course, she was very nice to him, because he was an eligible beau, and besides, all the Jameses are nice anyway.
It’s easy to see why she took to Max Hochwald, bored as she was; his fancy for her is harder to explain. Thank goodness, the whole affair came to nothing; it was really only a weekend anyway. Max first saw Belinda at a cocktail party, given by some rich and raffish bachelors, who kept a Jap boy and liked to mix people. She was talking about art to somebody’s mother (who’d got confused and thought she was at a tea or something). They were in a corner, and Belinda had the only low voice in the room. Max heard her say, in a bored but kindly manner, that she wished she’d come along in time to be painted by Laszlo, and how well he must have done by you, Mrs. Whatever. So he went right over, told Belinda she had a phone call, and took her away from the Laszlo lady. He told her that was the first “gracious” thing anybody’d said to anybody all afternoon, and asked her to go on to supper.
Belinda’d heard of him, of course. You can’t live in New York very long without picking up something about Max. His ancestry is more or less Hanoverian; his brains are excellent, at least about finance and bridge; his tastes are luxurious, and his lady-friends are legion. He just does like women. Quite a surprising number of them like him — surprising because he looks and acts like a runaway locomotive, and business always comes first. Socially, he’s pushy, not that it’s done him any good.
Belinda thought one’s kindness was an intriguing reason for being asked out, though hardly chic. And she thought Max’s looks, while grotesque compared with Craig’s, were quite bestially interesting. And the horror of his reputation was an added inducement. So she said yes. The party lasted so late that they never did go to supper; they managed a long talk, though, mostly about children’s books. Belinda spoke winsomely of Pooh, rather a fancy subject for Max. His boyish charm got a bit frayed near the end; but, as he left her at her door, he cleverly remedied that.
“Belinda,” he said, “we haven’t talked about anything real all evening.” He had a deep, harsh voice and a gray streak in his hair. It sounded awfully well. “ Come to my house for the weekend.”
Belinda thought that was pretty funny. However, being one of the nice Jameses, she just said he was silly, her mother wouldn’t hear of it.
Which she naturally wouldn’t. When Belinda mentioned her new friend and his invitation, Mrs. James (who is jumpy anyway) raised the roof. She was even foolish enough to say that Max didn’t like Belinda for herself, he just wanted a wellbred wife because he was a social climber. So, of course, when Max’s mother wrote Belinda to ask her to a house party, she said yes at once. And bought a new suit. Whereupon Mrs. James changed her tactics and told Belinda she was sure to get seduced. Belinda retorted that it was about time, she was twenty-three; but after a week of Mrs. James’s harangues, she almost believed that Fate was about to happen.
As a matter of fact, it conceivably might have. Max, though a striking type (if you like that sort of thing), was so extremely loud and coarse that he never had any really refined girl-friends; it might have seemed a feather for his cap to have seduced one. But, unless his large but sensitive ego was very hard pressed, Max wasn’t really apt to reason so crudely. Belinda had amused him; he had found her manner distinguished and her voice charming. He wanted a wife very much (so that Mrs. James, in her tiresome way, was at least partly right) and none of his present female acquaintances would do at all. Max had inherited a large fortune and was well on the way to making another, and far back in his mind there lurked a blonde, aquiline creature — sometimes she wielded a teapot, sometimes she arranged roses in a silver bowl, she looked well on a horse, and she knew when to clap at the opera. It could just possibly be Belinda. A house party would certainly be the quickest way to find out. He didn’t feel up to the long minuet of an exploratory courtship. If she wouldn’t do at all, he could still enjoy his weekend.
He signed up for a scratch polo game and collected some people: business friends and their wives; he hadn’t much time for any other kind. On the appointed Friday, he put on an Italian silk suit, very expensive (it made him look like an Easter Island image), and picked up Belinda in his handsome convertible, all push-buttons. His two Dobermans, Thor and Odin, sat drooling on the back seat. Belinda was charmed with them, and with the push-buttons, so it all started splendidly.
He drove very fast and well, weaving in and out, bullying all the other cars. Now and then Belinda squeaked, “Oh, the poor little man!” which delighted him. And she teased him by saying he drove like Mr. Toad. He liked that, because he could repeat the rhyme about the motorcar going poop-poop-poop. She said that proved he’d been well brought up and he told a humorous but clean story about his governess. (Indeed, he had had several.) They found themselves in accord about governesses: French ones smelled like moldy crackers, German ones like caraway seeds. Everything was proceeding on the highest plane of gentility.
They stopped at a good restaurant near the Parkway and had an enormous dinner. Max devoured four buns before it came, smoked after the soup, and drank a great deal of Margaux. As a result, he began to order the waiters about in French: loud, bad, and idiomatic. Belinda, too nice to show off her accent (it was better but not perfect), was by no means above feeling rather superior. Until then, though she had held up her end quite successfully, what with dogs, push-buttons, and Kenneth Grahame, she had felt a little apprehensive. He was, after all, so large, so violent, so blatantly sexy, and so horribly rich and consequential.
They got back in the car full of wine, comfort, and confidence; Max laid his hand palm-up on the seat; Belinda barely hesitated to take it. He began to sing “Auprès de ma blonde” in a bellowing, toneless voice, and drove even faster. They had to stop for a toll station; he gave the man a dime without releasing Belinda’s hand. She caught the man’s eye, and was suddenly enchanted by the vision she thought he must have had of her. A pretty, well-dressed girl, her large and virile companion, two superb dogs—and the whole encased in a magnificent car.
And heading at top speed for a big weekend.
Poor old Craig, she thought, was like good roast beef, but Max was mince-pie-ish; rich, strange, fruity, and bad for you.
“Wonderful Max,”she said idiotically, and saw his square white smile by the dashboard light. He pulled her over beside him and bent down to kiss her. At that point, she began on a florid dream that lasted through the drive, the arrival, a long goodnight, and eight hours’ sleep.
MAX woke up first, feeling oatish. He considered knocking on Belinda’s door and walking in if she didn’t answer, to wake her with a familiar slap on her round behind. This would have been more or less S.O.P. with his other girls . . . and Belinda, last night . . . perhaps they were all the same, under the skin. He had always suspected it. But while his right hand would have liked to yank her off her pedestal, his left wanted to shore her up on it. So he put on his most devastating polo shirt and his white breeches, pulled in his stomach in front of the mirror, and surrounded it with the six-inch belt he affected. Then he went downstairs, gave orders that Belinda’s breakfast should be sent up to her, and went off to his study to make millions of dollars on the telephone.
Belinda gathered from the maid that it was usual at Max’s house parties for the men to work in the morning, sitting by the study ticker, while their ladies disported themselves in the pool, until they all went in to lunch with Mrs. Hochwald. “Disport,” in fact, is hardly the word. Belinda, passing through several immense rooms, found herself on an elaborate terrace. It overlooked a round pool with lions’ heads spitting into it. Four padded chaise longues were drawn up by the water’s edge, three of them occupied by prone figures. As she hesitated on the steps, the prevailing silence was broken by a loud metallic clank. A brown satin arm, freighted with gold bracelets, fumbled blindly toward a near-by table.
“Damn!” A bottle overturned. More clanks, more fumbling. Obviously the figure could not move, its bosom being covered only by a pocket handkerchief. Belinda helpfully cried, “Oh, do let me!”, ran down to pick up the bottle of sun oil, and put it safely in the thin, glittering hand. All three forms were lank, dark brown, and exquisite. Sunglasses, lip protectors, and bandannas camouflaged the faces.
“ We got you a chair,” said a muffled voice. “ You must be Max’s girl.”
“Too sweet of you,” said Belinda with nervous brightness. “Yes. I mean, I’m Belinda James, that is. How do you all do?”
One figure took off its glasses and stared. “ Well. How do you do?” They all took off their glasses.
“What a sweet bathing suit, dear,” said one. “Louisettce’s? She rooks you.” And, not waiting for her answer, they all launched into a loud, hilarious conversation about bathing suits, what they cost, what Sophie said to Oleg, and so on. Belinda, still standing nervously by her chair, heard mentions of Palm Beach, ”21,” Van Cleef’s, and other elegant resorts. She was about to break in with a humorous reference to Vogue when one lady tittered, “Ask Max about pastel mink!” and they burst into gay shrieks of laughter.
“It’s nothing, honey,” said one figure, “nothing like what you think.”
“ I don’t think anything,” said Belinda, outraged. Yanking on her cap, she stalked to the pool. Laughter followed her, and she swam crossly up and down, thinking how common they all were and how rude Max was not to come swimming too. In between her sulking thoughts she had rather commonplace dreamy ones.
Dressing for lunch, she resolved not to speak unless spoken to. She put on her best green linen — for Max — and her best Colony Club manner — for his horrid friends. Thus fortified, she walked rather stiffly into a vast Georgian living room. Between the coffered ceiling and the thick gray carpet ( which flowed like lava all over that pompous house) herds of carved and tapestried furniture stood like sleeping monsters. It was all very dark, luxurious, and repellent. She sat down beside old Mrs. Hochwald.
Max’s mother turned out to be a squat, brownish old thing, given to hairy warts and silent belches. She paid no attention to her son’s giddy guests, while they sipped, munched canapés, and gibbered at each other. Instead, she turned her saurian gaze on Belinda and told her about Max’s childhood. Belinda was glad enough that he had been so virtuous and clever, but revolted to find that the strange object on her hostess’s bosom was a diamond-studded tooth from the late Mr. Hochwald’s first elk. She was conscious of Max’s fixed gaze from across the room, and of darting glances from his female guests. The men each stared once, then went on talking. The atmosphere was oppressive, loaded, so to speak, for bear, and Belinda was relieved when they moved in to lunch.
Well back on her dignity, she sat, on Max’s right, through an infinity of heavy courses. The conversation was mostly about high finance. She had nothing to contribute to it, and so could easily stick to her vow of silence.
Max, attempting courtliness, got scant answers to his explanatory asides. “Oh quite,” Belinda said, and “Splendid.” He would mute his loud voice to a grating mumble when he addressed her, then guffaw at some reference to bulls, bears, or what have you. Max had found her rather mannered vivacity a bit of a strain, and the aloof creature by his side, murmuring her sympathetic replies, seemed to him much more like the teapot-and-roses lady. Her blonde head stood out elegantly against the mahogany gloom, she held her fork in the English fashion, and, being shrewd about such things, he could tell from their raised voices that his friends’ wives were a trifle piqued, jealous perhaps. All this pleased him.
His foot nudged hers under the table, and her eyelashes fluttered before she withdrew it. He thought he saw a blush.
Max was distinctly flown, what with gin, lunch, Moselle, the state of the market, and, most of all, the piquant contrast between the comfortable familiar babble of his guests and the delicate little goings-on under the table. Down the expanse of massed orchids, crystal, and beige lace, his mother telegraphed him an approving glance.
Mrs. Hochwald and the guests refused flatly to watch Max play polo, and retired to look at TV. Belinda had just time to see the set swung out from behind a false front of book backs before Max whisked her into his car and they started for Broadfield. It was a fine release to be out in the sun with her beau, who sang and swooped happily; but the first person she saw, as they parked by the polo field, was her uncle Ashley Beale. He lived, of course, in Broadfield, but wasn’t interested in polo; she had hardly expected to see him.
Max was late, so she told him to go get his pony, and to come and see her, if be could, after the second chukker. She would he with Uncle Ash.
“Is Ashley Beale your uncle?”
“Well, so what?” she said pertly. “Once you know him, he’s an old pet.” Max looked startled. However, he thundered obediently off to where a groom was walking his ponies, while Belinda greeted her uncle and sat down beside him in the pavilion. He was a large, red old party in a shockingly battered Panama and a wrinkled white suit. Belinda always swore he wouldn’t go to anything except in a four-in-hand, coaching being his passion. His neighbors called him the Squire of Broadfield, which his niece found very funny.
“Hello, puss,” he said. “Look what a dutiful uncle I am, enduring this blasted broiling day just for you. Barbarous game, polo.”
Suspicion crept over his niece. “ Why are you?”
“Your mother said you were spending the weekend with that young wampus from New Zion. She made me promise to watch his damned silly polo game, so I could see if you were all right.”
“ Are you all right ?”
“Of course I’m all right. Why shouldn’t I be?”
Her uncle wiped his neck with a red silk handkerchief. “Damned heat. You look pretty cool, I must say.”
“I’ve nothing against him, Belinda. Don’t even know him. Your mamma don’t like the cut of his jib; told me to ask you both over to tea or something. I sent Bates home with the car.”
“Thank you so much, Uncle Ash,” said Belinda, rigid with annoyance, “but Max has plans.”She stared crossly out at the field, where the umpire was just collecting the players. The ball was thrown in, and the game began.
Max was playing Back, on a large handsome pony, almost muffled in bandages, a saddlecloth, a complicated bit, a head guard, and other impedimenta. She couldn’t decide whether his egregious poaching was deliberate or due to being slightly overmounted, and finally concluded it was both. Though his stickwork proved to be strong and accurate, he was an oafish horseman and the pony didn’t like it. Polo is a great game for sweating, cursing, and general thrashing around, but as the game progressed, Max quite outdid his teammates. She could hear her uncle’s disapproving grunts.
When the bell rang and Max trotted out on a lovely bay pony, a little undersized for him, Mr. Beale could not contain himself. ” That’s young Jones’s Comet,” he grumbled. “Had to sell him. Too good for that big lummox.”
“Now please, Uncle Ash,” said Belinda, coy and waspish, “stop sniping at my beau. You’re a big man too. And he mayn’t ride very well, but they haven’t got anything past him yet.”
“Quite so, quite so. I suppose the feller’s all right; mounts half his team . . . too much money, I say.” He paused. “You don’t fancy this feller, Belinda?”
“I don’t know.” She was furious. “I certainly don’t fancy his friends. Gracious, Uncle Ash, it’s just a weekend anyway!” Then she realized she’d gone onto the defensive and given ground. So she sat in mutinous silence, and gradually, as in the pool, her long daydream went into another vivid installment. What if she didn’t, fancy Max in public, he was quite another thing in private.
The last bell rang, and Max’s pony bore him wearily off the field. His side had won by two goals, largely on account of his own furious defensive work; he was sweaty, tired, and very well pleased with himself. It had been a wonderful day and a great game. In the intervals between chukkers, he had caught glimpses of his utterly satisfactory girl, sitting by the great Ashley Beale (her uncle . . . and he held the Broadfield Club in the palm of his hand!), and lie had shown them both a thing or two. He slid off sideways, doused his hot face in a pail of water, and clumped into the pavilion with a towel round his neck. People patted him on the back, and one of his teammates turned to thank him for the loan of a pony, but he hardly heard their thanks and congratulations. Belinda’s expression was bowitchingly dreamy, and her uncle, to Max’s joy, actually rose and waddled up to say, “How do, I’m Ashley Beale. Nice game, young feller. Bring my niece over, give yer a drink.”
Belinda looked annoyed at that, but Max thought, Time to be alone later. “Thank you, sir,” he said politely, “it’s very good of you. We’d like to come.” Old Beale looked pleased with that well-turned speech, so Max offered him a ride.
“Can’t provide a four-in-hand,” he said with a complacent laugh, “but here we are.
“Most acceptable substitute,” and Ashley Beale heaved himself across the leather seat. “Shut up,”he whispered repressively to Belinda, who muttered that Cadillacs were greaseball cars, “very civil young man.”
Max heard that last as he rounded the corner of his colossal car, and he thought he would burst with pleasure and triumph. From Ashley Beale, a famous curmudgeon, it was an accolade. His cup was running over with success, and he congratulated himself for not having smacked Belinda’s behind that morning.
MAX, who had been around, guessed soon enough that Belinda was in a pet and trying to hide it, so he cut short the triumphal visit to her uncle. It was a real sacrifice on his part. He had been given two large old-fashioneds and the bloodlines of at least eight of Mr. Beale’s hackneys; which honor he had returned by a really sound market tip. Mr. Beale, who seemed a shrewd old bird-probably Belinda’s only rich relative (the Jameses, of course, were long on culture and short on cash) — had responded well to that. Made a note of it, in fact. He did seem an extraordinarily practical uncle for Belinda to have—she was such a whimsical, feminine girl — not that you’d want your wife to be practical. His lady guests’ grasp of business matters (he had been used to think of them as smart cookies) had struck him, at lunch, as rather coarse.
Belinda wouldn’t hold hands on the trip home, but whether she was flirtatious or cross, he was becoming too exhilarated to care. It was his day, all right. He was even too happy to sing; instead of bellowing exuberantly, he whistled, in a fruity monotone, using very suave dynamics on what he conceived to be “I Get a Kick Out of You.” Then, reflecting that the implications might be vulgar, he switched to “Getting to Know You,” as a tasteful hint.
Belinda, understood but wouldn’t take it. She was mulling over in her mind words like “ wampus” and “lummox” and, worst of all, “shut up.” Whose beau was he, hers or her uncle’s? He hadn’t, she thought, had to be all that nice to Max — even if he did want to snoop. What she did was nobody’s business but her own, and if she did just happen to have a — well, a passing fancy, for someone like Max, who might not have got into the stuffy old Broadfield Club, but who counted down on Wall Street, where men were men and power was power (she sometimes thought in such phrases, but never said them, knowing her own style)—well, why shouldn’t she? He might he too rich for Uncle Ash’s blood, she thought uppishly, but not for hers. Her mind gave a little jump, translatable as M’mm. I must be a very passionate girl, she thought. So what? Can’t girls ever have fun too? And, her thoughts having worked themselves inevitably round from sulks to a ladylike concupiscence, she did take Max’s hand. His arm, in fact.
Max was a headlong sort of person, and speculation had taught him to ride his luck. In his inflamed mind, the whole glorious day had been building up to this. Everything was right. Belinda was exquisite, the wives were jealous, his mother approved, he’d won the game singlehanded, and Ashley Beale had welcomed him. Liked him. She had been so adorable last night, so cool and conscious today. . . . There had been the feet under the table, the dreamy look in the pavilion, the sulks at going to her uncle’s, the side glances when they were there, the seemly hesitation about taking his hand, and now, the graceful surrender. It all added up. Love, he thought, sure as shooting.
He squeezed her arm, stopping the car. “My wonderful darling,” he said in thrilling tones, and grabbed Belinda.
Shocked by this sudden onslaught and the weight of Max’s sweating bulk, she muttered, “Oh, Max, no.” It didn’t do her any good, she was smothered for fair. After a second’s lightning adjustment, she decided in her chilly little brain that this was really fun and she liked it. Craig, she thought, was never like this. So she wriggled and panted and bit in the most abandoned way.
Max was a trifle surprised by her enthusiasm. It was certainly flattering, though, and he soon came to the point. Bulling away, he said rhetorically, “My own love. Belinda, this is It.” This moving statement came without any effort; he’d been planning it vaguely for months, for use on the teapot lady once he’d found her. And here she was! “From this day forward,” he pronounced, “we’re together.”
“ What? ”
She was so pretty, all surprised. “No use pretending,” he cried jocosely; “it’s the middle aisle for us and you know it!”
Belinda’s wrath and loathing knew no bounds, no bounds at all. First she made the most unladylike scene ever staged in Broadfield County, using words like “cad” with no self-consciousness whatever— she even went so far as “dare to presume.” And then she made a revolting exhibition of herself, descending to tears, spiteful personal remarks, and simple insult.
Max was so furious and disgusted that he couldn’t speak. He couldn’t have anyway, because Belinda was making up in overflowing measure for her day of silence. Finally, he just turned the car around and delivered her to her uncle Ashley Beale. And that was the end of the Mince-Pie Weekend.
It was not the end of Belinda James, of course, but the beginning of Belinda Archibald. Her tastes are a good deal simpler than they used to be, and she is — not strait-laced or anything, Belinda’s fun but she and old Craig are considered to be pretty worth-while people. They got engaged very shortly after Labor Day, when the Archibalds come back to town, and married at Christmas. The bridesmaids wore yellow, not too becoming in winter; -but Belinda looked lovely. Believe it or not, Max sent them a Doberman puppy. It was hopelessly pushy of him, the family thought, but probably well-intended. Anyway, Belinda, wrote him an awfully well-phrased note, just in case.
He still hasn’t found his teapot lady. It seems unfair, in a way, but obviously he’d hate her if he got her.