The Peripatetic Reviewer
ONCE upon a time there was a young married couple who found for themselves a smiling, cobblestone cottage by the sea. Well, it wasn’t exactly on the seashore; it stood on a grass plot at the head of a marsh, and the house itself was enclosed by what Mr. Kipling would have called fever trees, meaning a dense growth of blackberry bushes, sumac, and bull brier. But from the upstairs windows, when the tide was in, one could see the inlet a good many acres away. The couple, who were young and inexperienced, found the driveway quite by accident on a sunny spring day. It was a long, winding drive of good crunchy gravel, and at the end of it was this house built of cobblestones, with leaded Dutch windows and flower boxes. And there was the owner, the landlady, fitting the screens. The couple were so eager, and she was so w illing, that in no time at all a lease had been arranged at a price which seemed happy to all.
On another sunny day, three weeks later, the young couple took possession. They were newly wed, with little knowledge of houses long unused. Since there were a number of bedrooms, they planned for a series of visitors, and the first to arrive was the mother-in-law. She brought with her her own music, for she had a pleasing soprano voice. After supper on her first evening she seated herself at the upright and struck a chord; whereupon a small mouse emerged from the instrument and expired by her foot. This put a damper on the singing. When the tuner arrived he disclosed the fact that a large family of mice had been dwelling in the instrument, subsisting evidently on felt.
Later that week the mother-in-law, who was a light sleeper, complained that she was being disturbed after midnight by a sniffling, whistling animal which kept poking about under her window. She was quite correct. This was a mother skunk who always whistled until she found the garbage tin. When the couple drove back from the movies, they would sometimes surprise the mother skunk as she led her brood up the driveway for supper.
The next guest to arrive was the father of the bride, ruddy, with a handsome head of hair en brosse. He liked to have dinner at 8:30 (after golf and a leisurely hot bath), with plenty of baby lobsters and while wine. This was disturbing to the accommodator, who was fetched from the village and who liked to have supper at six, and as few dishes as possible. She was as fair as the dawn, as beautiful as a blonde virgin can be at sixteen. She had probably never been kissed and she had certainly never been pinched so precisely and so firmly as she was by the visitor on his first evening. Her composure or lack of it as she jumped and poured the platter of lobsters into the father-inlaw’s lap was a sight to behold.
The cook was buxom and as loyal as she was tasty. She was timorous for so large a woman, and because of her dread of what might be lurking in the fever trees after dark, she asked to have the bedroom next to the couple. Her cot was collapsible and every second or third night, with the cook in it, it would fold up with the most surprising crash. It was propped on chairs and repaired with wire, but it was never really safe.
The stove used coal, and while the lobsters could he broiled to perfection over the open lid, no amount of priming could bring the oven to a roasting heat. The stove expert when consulted attributed this to several decades of rust; indeed, he remarked, it was lucky the damned thing hadn’t exploded already.
If the stove was unpredictable, the supply of water was even more so. The artesian well was serviced by a small motor in a covered cement pit on the way down to the marsh. The way led through the blackberry vines and bull brier and could he very wet after a thunderstorm or in the early morning. The landlady had explained that the canvas belt sometimes slipped off the little drum of the motor and had to be replaced, but she did not stress “sometimes,” as would have been fairer to the young husband. He was not very deft with his hands, and what should have been the work of a moment degenerated into a blasphemous scrimmage. When the faucets refused to pour, he would make his way irritably down the path to the trouble spot, remove the cover, and glower at the whirring motor, beside which lay the greasy canvas belt like a deflated snake. It was easy enough to turn the motor off and easy enough to fit the belt on, provided one were in overalls and didn’t mind the grease. He had been presented with two new shirts that summer, a blue and a soft lavender with French cuffs and a pleated front, and it seemed that whenever he had donned either of them with its appropriate tie, the cry would arise from the kitchen, “No more water! The pump isn’t working!” and off he would go to the greasy rescue. He made this repair by torch in the dark of night, and in northeasters, in pajamas, and most disastrously in his fancy shirts, but never without anger.
June was a month of sunlight that year, but in July when the rains came, so did the leaks and the mosquitoes. The screens leaked and the roof leaked. Mosquitoes invaded the bedrooms, and the slow drips from the ceiling as they fell into receptacles were depressing.
That long wet entombment became so exasperating that the young wife rebelled. She said they would be so much happier back in town, but her husband pointed out that the rent had been paid and that things were so awful that they could only get better. So they hung on until the Tuesday after Labor Day.
They had been in town exactly a week when they were summoned to the law courts to account for the damage they had done to 1) the piano, 2) the iron bedstead, 3) the coal stove, 4) the electric motor controlling the pump. And this is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth as they tried to tell it to the judge.
Is big business like this?
An American who returns to this country after long residence abroad has a keener perception of the pressures and changes in American society than those of us immersed in its daily current. Stephen Lowry, the hero of Howard Swiggett’s novel, The Durable Fire (Houghton Mifflin, $4.00), had been abroad for more than a decade, first as an infantry officer and then as an economic counselor for the State Department. During the war he had married an Estonian refugee, Rosalie Lainvee, whom he had first encountered on an intelligence mission to the Norwegian Resistance, and it was partly for Rosalie’s sake that he stayed on in Europe at the war’s end to help search for her mother and sister, who had been missing since the fall of Tallinn in 1940. But now the time had come to give the children an American home, and Stephen, who has helpful Yale connections, signs on at a high figure as the head of the foreign operations of Continental Industries Corporation in Rockefeller City. He and Rosalie have plenty of private reservations about big business. They like to IKe with continental independence, and it is his hope that after ten years of hard labor he will be able to call his shots as he pleases.
Stephen has managed to save $8000 from his years in foreign service, hardly enough for the down payment on the house he hopes to find on Long Island. His real assets are his knowledge of Europe gained in several embassies, his languages, his good looks, and the attractive candor with which he has learned to deal with foreigners. He appreciates at once the integrity of his bosses—Edward Rutledge, the chairman of the board, and Tom Johnson, the president of C.I.C. — but he has small taste for the office politics which seem such an obsession of the vice presidents, and he is frankly dismayed by the steering he is given by Jim Peale, his old roommate at Yale and the fairhaired boy in the office. Jim worries him not only because he keeps making passes at Rosalie, but because he is so obviously on edge. The more Stephen discovers about Jim the more he finds himself questioning the ethics of the setup.
As I have suggested, Mr. Swiggett’s novel has a romantic icing with a rather heavy underlayer of old morality. Stephen’s whirlwind courtship of Rosalie “the herring-gutter,” and his promise made to a dying officer to write about “The Principal Errors of Judgment of Rulers and People Since the Reformation” are Romance with a capital R. Rosalie herself is attractive, emotional, with a Baltic delight in enjoying herself with her clothes off. On the side of morality are Rutledge and Johnson, the stalwarts; Peale, the betrayer; and Cramer, the avaricious accountant — prototypes all. The individuals who keep me guessing are three: Stephen, Daran the Venezuelan, and Rosalie’s brother, the Parisian, Armas.
A new king for France
You can tell from the feel that John Steinbeck was vastly amused at the prospect of writing a satirical novel, The Short Reign of Pippin IV (Viking, $3.00), about the restoration of the French monarchy today. He chooses for his hero a gentle French amateur astronomer, M. Héristal. The steps by which M. Pippin Arnulf Héristal, lean, handsome, and fifty-four, is maneuvered toward the glories of Versailles are made more entertaining because of the remonstrances of his wife and the escapades of his daughter, Clotilde, who at fifteen had written a best seller entitled Adieu, Ma Vie, and at sixteen and a half had joined the Communists.
Mr. Steinbeck exuberantly caricatures bourgeois finances, the proliferation of French political parties, aristocratic art dealers, and adolescent female novelists. But once le pauvre M. Héristal has been crowned, a more solemn note begins to intrude. The new king has some surprising plans in store for the couture, the movies, and the tourist trade, but it also appears that he (or his alter ego Mr. Steinbeck) would have the French pay their taxes and correct the housing shortage. But this sudden infusion of transatlantic common sense tends to waterlog the cockleshell fantasy.
Mr. Steinbeck’s liberal-humanistic principles are admirable, but when they begin to show through, the fun grows appreciably less. The author is at his best in concocting wild musical-comedy ramifications, such as the international furor of chemical analysis provoked by the Soviet government’s purchase of several tank cars of perfume. And no matter how semiserious his reflections on the United States may be, this comment on the Martini is worth quoting: “It’s not their strength,” a young American tells the groggy king, “it’s their inherent meanness.”
Family feud in New Mexico
Conrad Richter writes with undimmed luster his novels of historic America. The Southwest is his favorite region (he moved his family to New Mexico in 1928); it was there that he placed his most poignant story, The Sea of Grass, and to this region, somewhat to the south, he has returned in his new book, The Lady (Knopf, $3.00).
The lady he has in mind is Doña Ellen, the daughter of a Mexican ranching family a century ago. Ellen was born to the purple, to the ranch of many acres, and to the money. Her mother was Mexican, but her father was English; it was he who taught her to shoot with deadly accuracy, and from him she inherited her sure hand with horses. Her two blood streams were often at war, but it was the Anglo in her which accounted for her fair hair and skin and which attracted her husband, the young lawyer Albert Sessions. Albert, a Missourian, had moved to the New Mexican territory to shake off the lung fever he had suffered as a boy. He stayed on to become a judge and a respected man of property. He was Ellen’s authority until the other side of her was aroused.
What aroused her were the depredations and taunts of her brother-in-law, Snell Beasley, thickset, active, and as insinuating as his name implies. The little town of More was not big enough to hold them both. There had to be a showdown between them, and when it came it triggered this story.
A measure of this book’s quality is that it invites comparison with Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady. In each case the story comes to us through the eyes of a young beholder, a young man who worships the heroine and who recounts her trial and desolation with the sympathy of impressionable years. In The Lady Doña Ellen is confronted with implacable, at times overwhelming, vindictiveness, and the sweep of hatred in the story is not pretty. What lift the book out of this black current are the refreshing days at the ranch, the exhilarating rides with Critter, and the touching relationship between Ellen and her horse and Ellen and young Jud, whose extenuating recital again and again rescues the novel from mere revenge.