Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
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 Chapter 16

Return to America

Philadelphia, Mid-August, 1936

Marie-Claude Serrault was at first not sure that she could do it. There had been many gentlewomen before herself who, on finding themselves ruined and impoverished, had become the "secretaries" of their friends and former equals. She had herself known a couple of such women, included at dinner parties where real secretaries wouldn't have been, but tending to keep out of the way lest they inadvertantly get too much attention from the principal guest. Considerate as Charlotte would be, Marie-Claude still felt that she must find some way of making herself useful while avoiding being the belle of any balls she might be invited to attend.

On the other hand, problematic as her niche might be, it was infinitely to be preferred to remaining in Paris for her husband's trial. Her spirits also improved when she, Charlotte, and their children went to stay with Charlotte's aunt in Bryn Mawr, just outside Philadelphia.

Marie-Claude had never met anyone vaguely like Chalice Wadsworth. When still quite young, Chalice had been nicknamed 'Malice' because of her penchant for making damaging remarks about people to their faces. She had mellowed a bit in her seventies, but her whole face still lit up when she said something really awful. Treating herself as roughly as anyone, she expected others to be as successful at laughing at themselves. It came hard with some, but Malice could often get at least a chortle out of some unlikely people.

Charlotte said to Marie-Claude,

"I've always liked Malice, and I used to try to explain her to people. She's really one of the first genuine full-blown female intellectuals in America."

There was, indeed, the Wadsworth Theorem in abstract algebra. There had also been some poetry, not quite of the first rank, but good enough to be included in the occasional anthology. It was no wonder that Malice had chafed at the roles open to her, and that she had taken certain short-cuts.

She was really, said Charlotte, quite feminine in all her instincts. The fact that she was six feet tall with a face and figure somewhat reminiscent of an albatross was hardly her fault.

They were in Bryn Mawr hardly a day when Malice, in conversation with Charlotte and Marie-Claude, described an incident that occurred when she herself had spent a year in Paris in the early nineties.

"I happened to fix my affections on a Belgian mathematician of good family. He was, Charlotte, a man whom even your mother would have accepted. I naturally took him to the Bois de Boulogne and, finding a quiet spot, proposed marriage. I also suggested consummating it in advance."

To Malice's chagrin, the gentleman had declined. He had said that, most unfortunately, he wasn't interested in women at all. Under pressure, he further admitted a partiality for young boys. Marie-Claude wasn't sure whether she was supposed to laugh, but Malice continued coolly,

"I saw this as no insuperable difficulty. It's well known that many European men pass through a homosexual phase before marrying. While this particular person was over thirty, it seemed that he might not have had suitable opportunities. I remedied that deficit by yanking down his trousers."

Both Charlotte and Marie-Claude were laughing by this time, and Malice smiled herself. She continued,

"He then attempted to run. However, confirming the allegedly Confucian maxim that woman with skirts up can run faster than man with pants down, I ran him to ground. But there, alas, my efforts failed to produce any satisfactory result."

Charlotte replied,

"He must have been in quite a state by that time."

"Oh yes. I realized that I had miscalculated somewhat, and I took him to quite a nice restaurant which was nearby. In the end he was consoled only when I gave him some of my mathematical results to publish as his own."

At one point, Malice said to Marie Claude,

"I can see that you and your daughter are entirely different types. Do you get on well?"

Taken a little aback, Marie-Claude replied,

"I'm afraid we're not terribly close. She hasn't said one word to me about her father's disgrace. I plucked her out of a cafe and took her across the ocean with no warning, and she didn't complain or even ask any questions."

"She must have some other way of finding out what she wants to know."

"She hasn't said anything to Charlotte either. We're both concerned about it."

"I imagine she talks with Hans about it. So information travels from you to Charlotte to Hans to Annette. That's certainly not unusual."

"I do wish she'd talk with me."

"It often doesn't work that way. Charlotte's mother, my sister-in-law Irene, was just wrong for Charlotte. But, instead of leaving her alone, Irene kept pushing. That made it worse."

"I hope I'm not just wrong for Annette."

"You're much nicer than Irene. She hardly had an honest thought or feeling to the day she died. Even then, she probably thought she could bribe the doctors into saving her by doing something special and improper."

"I'm not so very honest, you know. Annette must realize it by now."

"But you're exciting. She'll appreciate you when she's grown up. She'll be able to learn from you then."

Marie-Claude gestured and smiled as she replied,

"But not now. I suppose I can be patient."

"I can help a little. I do mathematical things with Hans whenever he or I visit. Annette's been joining in, and I think she's quite good at it."

"Really? I have no mathematical ability at all."

Malice didn't seem surprised by that revelation, and only smiled. They had been walking in her large garden and they came to a small summer house with rustic benches inside. Malice had to duck her head to enter. She then swivelled gracefully and spread her skirt on one of the benches. Marie- Claude followed her in, and she was just sitting down when Malice asked,

"What is it that's happened to Charlotte?"

It was impossible to try to conceal anything, and Marie- Claude told the whole story. Malice listened in silence, but without evident disapproval. At the end, she remarked,

"Wadsworth women have always been rather inclined to action."

"But it was all a terrible mistake!"

"It sounds as if the man who was killed was no loss. We'll get the emotions sorted out before Klaus gets back. It'll be easier for him that way."

As the days went on, Marie-Claude tried, with some subtlety, to find out what her job with Charlotte would consist in. The latter said to her at one point,

"I probably strike people as a competent person, but I'm really not. I don't know how to be a wife, and I've never been able to handle any sort of intimacy."

"I don't know that I've done much better as a wife. I'll have to start divorce proceedings soon."

"But that was all your husband's fault, wasn't it?"

"Probably not entirely. Whenever his mother was nasty to me, I was nasty to him. And, then, he was always caught between us. I might have managed better if we had lived alone with Annette. But there would still have been problems."

"Was it all right when you were first married?"

"Yes. He was good-looking, and we had quite a glamorous life. It was shallow and couldn't last, but I liked it."

"Well, of course, Klaus and I have never had any dramatics, and we're quite civilized, but there just isn't much there."

"You might talk with Malice. She took a quick look at my attempts at motherhood and assessed them accurately."

"Malice is brilliant, but she knows even less than I do about men. She'd be the first to admit it."

"In some areas. But she understands them well in others. She apparently got herself involved in the war as an ambulance driver."

"Yes. As nearly as we can make out, she almost got herself killed. She's worked with men and competed with them, and been friends with them. But so have I. It's in the other areas that you're ahead of us."

Charlotte laughed as she spoke, but Marie-Claude concluded that there would be an ongoing niche in Charlotte's life for one such as she.

Charlotte had written Klaus that she had engaged Marie- Claude as her secretary. It had obviously been a snap decision, and there was an underlying rebellius tone to the letter in which she didn't ask for Klaus' permission, or even for his opinion. He wasn't quite sure what that might betoken, but now, as he arrived in America for the second time in a month, he was happy to have a large welcoming committee. He wouldn't have to confront Charlotte alone for some hours.

It was agreed that Klaus would rest from his travels while Charlotte and Marie-Claude took the young people on an outing. Finding himself at coffee with Malice, she playfully plunked a cube of brown sugar into his coffee, splashing him slightly, and said,

"I imagine you've been wondering what's going on in Charlotte's head."

"Yes. I suppose you must know the whole story by now?"

"That came out quite quickly. She doesn't lack what her father used to call initiative."

Henry Wadsworth, who accomplished surprisingly little in his life, had always said that his trouble consisted in a lack of initiative. He had spoken as if initiative were something tangible, perhaps to be found in the Sears Roebuck catalogue, and Klaus smiled at the reference as he agreed. Malice continued,

"Besides, it could have been worse. She didn't go to Germany and follow Hitler around the way that English woman does. And, unlike some prominent American women, she hasn't made a public fool of herself over him."

"No, but she was well on her way to performing a massive act of sabotage. I can't really imagine what her underlying motivation could have been."

"One thing Charlotte didn't realize is that no one man can make the world a significantly better place. But one like Hitler can make it significantly worse. The ancient social problems associated with poverty can only slowly be ameliorated by a change in public attitudes. But a demogogue who leads his people to war can destroy millions of people."

"I think it takes maturity to put up with obviously mediocre democratic leaders on the grounds that they aren't making the situation worse."

"If progressive forces are already at work, as they are in this country, we only need leaders who'll get out of the way."

"We're lucky in that the Roosevelt administration is actually helping progress along."

"Yes, I agree. But moderation is forced on Roosevelt by institutions such as Congress and the Supreme Court. Without that, he might turn out to be as dangerous as Hitler."

"How can we possibly get Charlotte to give up the idea of the leader who can solve all problems by edict?"

"She's already begun to. Instead of swearing under her breath as she reads a newspaper, she's begun to ask me for explanations. I can sometimes explain that it may be necessary to build an unnecessary federal building to get the vote of a congressman for something important. Hitler may not have to put up buildings to please legislators, but it's really a small price to pay."

"Besides, I bet Hitler sometimes has to do foolish things to placate certain segments of his party."

"Probably so. It would help if Charlotte realized that the superman occasionally has to step into the muck."

"She's so realistic about so many things. It's surprising that she's gone off the rails in this way."

"With Irene as a mother, she couldn't afford to be sentimental or romantic as a girl. She had to be tough-minded and cynical. Now, a kind of basically teen-aged foolishness is coming out."

"I hope it passes quickly."

"One other thing is delaying the return to reality. She has the irrational fear that the most hopeless people in society will breed like rabbits and overwhelm the rest of us. She sees Hitler as one who'll have them sterilized."

"I suppose that the least able people may breed quickly, but they don't seem to be moving in next door."

"That's part of it. They also don't vote, so the politicians ignore them. Besides which, they're much too disorganized to put together anything resembling an armed rebellion."

"Yes. That would take imagination and organization, not to mention some powerful orators."

"The worst thing from the point of view of the poor is that, when they produce people of ability, they immediately leave the community and join the middle class. So there's really no need at all to fear the poor."

"Charlotte's the only American I've ever known to talk about sterilization."

"She seems to have forgotten that the Constitution doesn't allow such things."

"I don't think she asks herself if something is constitutional before she advocates it."

"No. She's really a dear girl, but she didn't have the kind of education that made her think in disciplined ways. Too much literature and too little history."

"Well, at least she's safe here."

"When you go back to Cincinnati, put her to work on something important. She'll forget all about ideology and start solving practical problems. That's what she's good at, and Marie- Claude will help her."

"Well, Malice, I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out that you've gotten Charlotte to see reason."

"I wouldn't go that far, but I think you can be guardedly optimistic."

It was obvious to Marie-Claude that Klaus bore no one any ill will. Moreover, it seemed that he was pleased to have five people there to welcome him. When they were briefly alone on the verandah after lunch, she said to him,

"I hope you aren't overwhelmed by our sudden addition to your household."

"I'm delighted. It's the first time I've ever really felt that I had a place in the world."

Marie-Claude later repeated what he had said to Malice, adding,

"I hope he wasn't just being polite."

"I don't think so. He'll be a perfect patriarch eventually. But he's so modest that he'll have to grow into it gradually."

The dinner that evening was festive, with an extra cook being brought in to help the regular one. Charlotte was, of course, on her best behavior. But it was really Malice, Marie-Claude felt, who had a way of making everyone relax in her huge ramshackle old house.

When they had all eaten to the bursting point, Malice clapped her hands and called for something she called brandy, a beverage which was, in fact, closely related to the moonshine whiskey produced by southern mountaineers.

It was when they all said good-night and went to their rooms that Marie-Claude realized the extent to which she wasn't an Anglo-Saxon. She might look like them, and even speak much as they did, but, for one thing, they had, in her view, an exaggerated respect for the privacy of others. Charlotte would gossip, of course, but, when not actually gossiping, she would try to give the impression that she didn't. Even Annette, having spent so much time with Anglo- Saxons at an impressionable age, displayed much less overt curiosity about others than most French girls. As Marie- Claude had that day complained to Charlotte and Malice,

"She's being corrupted. She won't gossip and she won't take malicious pleasure in the misfortunes of others."

Malice replied,

"No one with my name could fairly be charged with influencing a child in that direction."

They had all laughed, but it was true that even Malice disapproved of out-and-out spying on other peole. Marie- Claude, on the other hand, paused only to remove her dress and shoes before kneeling beside the closed door that connected her room with that of Charlotte and Klaus.

It at first seemed as if Charlotte and Klaus talked with each other exactly as they would have in front of other people. The keyhole provided only a partial view of the other room, but Charlotte, half undressed, wandered in front of it as she complained about the weather they would likely encounter when they returned to Cincinnati. And this was her first night with her husband in weeks! Marie-Claude actually wondered if there was any hope for her. What could possibly be said or intimated to her, to make her more romantic?

As Marie-Claude shifted her position to make herself more comfortable, she heard the bed creak, presumably as Klaus lowered his weight on to it. There was then some soft conversation and muffled laughter. Were they talking about her? Surely Charlotte would know that she'd be listening. Then, surprisingly, came a series of giggles from Charlotte. That wasn't so bad. At least, she couldn't still be talking about the weather. And then, to Marie-Claude's experienced ear, came the unmistakeable signs of a bed undergoing the stress of sex. Since Malice hadn't had anything repaired in years, the bed sounded as if it might be in imminent danger of collapse, an outcome that could hardly serve to further the marital relation.

Just when Marie-Claude judged that the bed couldn't possibly withstand further abuse, there came a feral cry the like of which Marie-Claude had seldom heard. She actually retreated from the door with her hand over her ear. The whole house must have heard. What would Annette think? Had these Anglo-Saxons no shame?

There was, in fact, a second cry, followed by gurglings and other noises. Marie-Claude, now sitting on the bed, decided that it must be the first time for Charlotte.

Marie-Claude had not herself had such an experience for some time, and had most recently manufactured screams, not for the benefit of her husband, but in order to infuriate her mother-in-law.

Thinking again of Annette, she wondered what she could say. She could hardly come up to the child and remark casually,

"You might have heard some screeching last night. No need to be concerned. You'll be doing it yourself one of these days."

Marie-Claude then wondered if Annette and Hans would get together and try to figure out what had caused those screams. She had no idea whether they were intimate enough to discuss such things.

Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
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