A New World
On Board the Mauretania, Pier 92, New York City, January 2, 1936.
Although a light snow was falling, the vast enclosed promenade deck was, if anything, a little too warm. Coats had been discarded everywhere, and, unburdened, people thronged gaily back and forth. Ralph Wambsganss was absently twisting his large body almost into a pretzel as he swung his arms slowly, wrapping them around himself. This action, which probably had something to do with some sport, was performed repeatedly, first in one direction and then the other.
It was Ralph's first trip abroad. He had, he said, never much wanted to go, even when his now deceased parents had urged him to accompany them. Brenda remarked, a little unkindly,
"No sane person would have wanted to go anywhere with your parents."
Ralph, smiling a little sadly, acknowledged,
"It would have been very embarrassing to have been with them in Europe."
Having stopped in the middle of one of his swings, he then added,
"Of course, I wouldn't be going now if it had been left to me."
This remark, perhaps not intended seriously, was directed at me. I replied,
"At present rates of expenditure, your fortune will hit zero just two days after your twenty-first birthday.
Brenda rubbed Ralph's arm protectively and objected,
"That makes him sound like a spendthrift, Thomas. He never spends anything on himself. I had to bully him into getting this suit the other day."
"Giving is just as serious a disease as spending. Probably worse."
I then looked at Ralph, feigning the attitude of a concerned physician.
"Tell me, my boy, when did you first notice this problem? What were the first symptoms?"
Ralph, pretending to take me seriously, replied,
"As it happens, I can tell you the exact circumstances of my first gift. It was in my first year at Columbia."
Ralph wasn't given to telling stories. Brenda eyed him uneasily as she made adjustments to her costume. I didn't really want my question answered, but a man who has once been rich deserves a hearing, even if he has only forty thousand left.
Before Ralph could get started, our little group was overwhelmed by a large party of people taking pictures of each other. At the center was a bride and groom, evidently embarking on their honeymoon. Ralph and I moved out of the group, but Brenda remained, casting overtly seductive glances at the bridegroom. In one pose, she managed to make it appear, from the camera angle, that she was draped on his shoulder from the back. Ralph, his story aborted, asked,
"Why is she doing that?"
"Can't you tell? She's trying to look like a past or future girl friend of the groom."
"Wow. When the pictures come out, the bride is really going to wonder who Brenda is."
"Yes, Ralph. I believe that that is the point."
The wedding party swept away as quickly as it had come. Brenda rejoined us and said,
"That was a wonderful bride! When the groom wasn't waving enough to suit her, she picked up his hand and waved it for him. Perhaps we should find a girl like that for Ralph."
Ralph turned somewhat pink and spoke to me.
"I have more pressing problems than that, don't I Thomas?"
"Indeed you do. You'll make friends in England, of course. You always do. But they need to be of the right sort. For a start, pretend that your income is even less than it is. Three hundred pounds a year isn't really poverty in England. But, even if you pretend to have only two hundred, that won't work alone. There's no man so poor that people aren't happy to take what little he's got."
Brenda cocked her head and made a wry face, as if to say that Ralph was a hopeless case. Ralph, responding in kind, let his jaw hang open and slouched in the manner of a severely retarded person. He then turned obsequiously to me, as if awaiting instructions. Ignoring this foolishness, I pointed out that he should particularly avoid two kinds of people, those attempting to climb socially and those in danger of losing their present position. The rest shouldn't want to borrow money.
Brenda, feigning motherly solicitude, asked,
"Do you feel that you're all right now Ralph? Shall I ask Thomas to give you some more good advice? How about seasick pills for your tummy? Shall I ..."
The announcement for visitors to leave the ship came before Brenda could recommend specifics for hangovers and diarrhea. She instead kissed Ralph quickly and waited for me to shake hands
After we left the ship, I was really rather thrilled to discover that Brenda was free for dinner. I had hoped to be with her, but had known better than to ask in advance. I felt sure that she would refuse any formal approach, perhaps not even pleading another engagement. On the other hand, happening to be together at dinner time, I was able to make it seem as if it would have been impolite not to ask her to accompany me.
I knew that Brenda was far out of my league in looks, money, and general glamour, not to mention youth. I don't think it had ever occurred to me to try to marry her, even at times when I was considering marriage in general. My excitement was much more immediate than that. It was simply a chance to spend an evening with a beautiful woman, something I had never really done before.
Brenda wanted to go somewhere unpretentious. I thought at the time that she didn't want to be seen with me, and thus allow me to use what was hardly more than a chance association as a step upward in the social world. In retrospect, I think that I got it slightly wrong. She didn't think that I had any such motives, but she still didn't want her friends to see her with me. In those days I dressed as a banker, but with touches of Al Capone. Brenda must have been both amused and embarrassed by my exaggerated hat brims and lapels. Indeed, Ralph and I together must have been even funnier than the people we made fun of on the ship.
I ended up by taking Brenda to a little Italian restaurant near Cooper Square. I was fairly certain that Mafia members frequented the place, although they weren't at all the young punk type. These men were middle-aged to elderly, and were extremely quiet. They were totally disinclined to have anything to do with strangers. Brenda was delighted when I told her, as I had known she would be. There was also, I pointed out, a slight risk. Next to barber shops, restaurants of this sort were a favorite place for the assassination of gang leaders. It was conceivable that someone might step in the door with a machine-gun and start spraying bullets.
In those days such things were always in the papers, though, in actuality, they seldom occurred. Brenda, by this time, could hardly have been restrained. I, as a side effect, got credit for a much greater degree of adventurousness than I in fact possessed.
The little dining room was rather dark, with battered old tables and chairs. The decorations and prints on the walls were dingy beyond recognition, and the floor was a bare wooden one. Since the whole place smelled more like a school- room than a restaurant, the floor must recently have been oiled. As a touch of romance, there were twisted little candles guttering away on some of the tables.
Around the edges of the room were booths, suitable for conspiratorial meetings, with surprisingly bright red cushions on the benches. Luck was with us. Although the restaurant was otherwise empty, there were two men at a table in the back corner who could hardly have looked more appropriate. Probably in their forties, they each had deep furrows frozen permanently into their faces, as if they had been worried continuously for decades. The one on the left was slightly overweight; his fat looked, not soft, but malevolent. The other man was gaunt with hollow eyes and the look of a predator. The men spoke in whispers, seemingly planning a major criminal operation.
In all probability, they were a couple of shopkeepers discussing their marital problems. However, they were fortunately too far away to be overheard from the little booth in which we seated ourselves. Brenda said,
"I can easily imagine them in the hills of Sicily, about to attack and terrorize some isolated walled town."
I gave way to shameless invention.
"The one on the right isn't Sicilian. Not many people know it, but the Mafia has always included some Jews. They're either accountants or trigger men. That's Itchy Fingers Itkoff."
I really wasn't trying to be funny. I wanted, in the worst way possible, to impress Brenda as being a man of the world. She almost took it straight, but gave me just the slightest sideways look of scepticism. I felt myself blush, and gave a weak little laugh. I think Brenda must have known that I had been trying to impress her. As she laughed herself, quite unrestrainedly, she nevertheless touched my arm and gave me a look which, to my surprise, was one of compassion.
After that, things settled down quite nicely. Brenda, when relaxed, was much gentler than I had realized. When one looked at her objectively, one noticed that her soft shoulder length hair wasn't done up terribly carefully, and was restrained only by the sort of hair band that a twelve year old might have worn. When she caught me looking closely at her, she remarked gaily,
"I bet you've just noticed my ski-jump nose."
When I didn't understand, she put her finger on the bridge of her nose.
"See, it goes down in a straight dignified way to get the skier started, and then it juts out to launch him."
The waiter, who was also the owner, came over. A rather peculiar little man with a heavy accent, he greeted us only casually, acting as if women like Brenda came in every evening. I was glad not to have one of those ridiculous productions of which waiters are capable. Brenda carefully chose the least expensive of my suggestions. As soon as the waiter left, she leaned back and said,
"It's a relief to be out with someone who isn't trying to take advantage of me. It's not just sex and money. There are a thousand other ways."
I suggested that, at least at the beginning, her mother might have helped more to prepare her for these problems than she seemed to have done.
"My mother has always been hopeless. Let me tell you what she said when I was fourteen and just starting to go out with boys. She said, "Dear, if you get in trouble, don't worry, I've got a good man I can take you to." I didn't even know what she meant at first. What a thing to say to a young girl!"
It was just possible to imagine Thelma Sanderson saying that. She was a sweet abstracted woman of many fantasies. She had also had a rather unusual history.
Howard Sanderson, Brenda's playboy father, had met Thelma along about 1903 or so. Thelma was a showgirl, straight from Wyoming, who had been in the big city only months. Howard added her to his string, and, when his wife died in childbirth, he elected Thelma as the replacement. But, of course, he was wearing himself out, both physically and morally, with general debauchery. Howard gave Thelma a couple of children, Brenda and her older brother, and then called it a day. It was Thelma who found him in the stairwell with the noose around his neck.
It was tempting to think that Thelma, in the early days of the century, must have looked as Brenda did then, in 1936. There was a strong physical resemblence, but, since the personalities were nearly opposite, they could never have really looked so very much alike. For one thing, Brenda was a bit of an intellectual while it was said that Thelma must have used charm to get through the third grade. As Brenda put it,
"Thelma isn't someone you can really blame for most of her inadequacies. When she said that to me, there was certainly no malice. She was just trying to be helpful."
There was a brief silence between Brenda and myself. It was hard for me to know exactly what to say about a woman who categorized abortionists with orthodontists and dermitologists as part of the normal teen-aged round. I did just make a mental note in passing that such a woman might conceivably make use of someone like Mr. X in special circumstances.
In whatever direction Thelma's intuitions might take her, she did everything with a kind of bubbling innocence that was unusual in New York. It was certainly genuine, and, unlike so many other former showgirls, there was never anything cheap or tawdry about Thelma.
Brenda was now watching intently as Itchy Fingers Itkoff consumed spaghetti, largely by an application of the vacuum principle. That her mind, despite the fascination of this spectacle, was still on her mother was evidenced by her next utterance.
"Did you know she's going to marry Royston Marcum?"
I hadn't known. Since Marcum was one of the richest men in the city, this was no mean achievement. I pointed out that Thelma was still very attractive.
"Oh, I know. She's turned down dozens of marriage proposals. Even a few after the money was gone. And here I .."
I stopped Brenda before she went into her usual refrain and offered to propose to her daily until she had more accumulated offers of marriage than her mother.
"That's sweet of you Thomas. Do I go on and on about having no one to marry? Anyhow, what's interesting is that mother is marrying the richest of the lot without even being mercenary."
"Surely she realizes that Marcum could buy and sell the others?"
"Yes, but she might forget it at times. I can imagine her setting out to buy a fifteen dollar dress to save money, then remembering that he's rich, and buying a hundred dollar one."
One had to admit that Thelma was capable of such things. However, it seemed to me that she was really no more paradoxical than Brenda. It was just that their unpredictable eccentricities lay in such different directions that neither recognized the same trait in the other. Moreover, while Brenda's constant changes in her attitude toward individual men seriously compromised her life, Thelma's flightiness usually concerned trivia. Apart from helping her attract rather desirable men, it made little practical difference. I was a little surprised when Brenda suddenly asked me,
"Thomas, you've dealt with Thelma about money. Is she stupid?"
"I can say that she most definitely wants to seem inept at anything related to money."
Brenda momentarily looked down at the table.
"That is an act, of course. When you think about it, she's been sensible about money. Much more so than the others. When the trust funds disappeared, she sold the big house without any ado and had you invest the money safely. She may have fluttered all over your office while you did it, but she didn't interfere, did she?"
"No, not at all."
"And then, I would have expected her to marry the first man she could find in a panic."
"But she didn't, did she?"
"No, she waited patiently for a very rich and reasonably presentable man younger than herself. Even then, she made him actually court her."
I felt that it wouldn't be amiss to point out,
"There's also the fact that no one would ever guess that she started out as a chorus girl."
"No. She's often silly, but not in that way. She has good taste in clothes and decoration. She even has good taste in art."
"Can you be stupid and have all that?"
Brenda nodded emphatically and replied quickly,
"I think so. I often felt dumb in college, particularly when I got into advanced courses that I wasn't prepared for. And I'm sure there were people who thought I was dumb. At other times I could enter groups of very talented people and not make a fool of myself. It wasn't that I really understood what was going on, but I did know what sorts of comments would sound stupid. I think mother entered a world that was unfamiliar to her in much the same way."
"Surely you aren't implying that you're unintelligent, are you?"
"No, I know that I'm reasonably intelligent. But I can infiltrate groups of people who are smarter than I am. I suspect mother did the same thing at a lower level. She didn't have to deal with intellectuals, just people who were clever about practical things."
It was odd to hear Brenda place herself so comfortably on the scale of intelligence, something that would have caused me great anxiety even if I had known where to put myself. Brenda resumed,
"Of course, Thelma had old Wilhelmina to lead her. Wilhelmina understood a great many things very well. Thelma never really did, but she didn't make gaffes. You can go a long way if you know only one thing - when to keep your mouth shut."
I couldn't resist another comment as a party of three hard- looking Italians came in.
"I suppose that's especially true in the Mafia. But, in all justice, Thelma does more than sit quietly and prettily in the corner."
"I suppose I'm just being jealous again. When you get to my age, your mother's supposed to be some dowdy old body that the boys don't notice."
It was again that odd way Brenda had of underestimating herself. She and her mother had never competed for the same man, not even Brenda's father. Moreover, I was sure that Brenda could have almost any man she wanted. Judging by the glances she was receiving, she could, among other things, have been made queen of the Mafia on the spot. Why, then, did it matter how attractive Thelma was?
A few days later, I got a note from Thelma. She affected to believe that she would be lost without my financial and other advice, and suggested a meeting. Whether she intended to talk me out of going or merely wanted to store up advice for the next year or so I didn't know. When I told Brenda, she volunteered,
"Whatever reason she gives for wanting to see you, the real reason will be something else. You might want to wear your most elegant undies."
Brenda smiled teasingly, but I was sure that wasn't it.
Thelma's apartment was beautiful in a well-lit airy sort of way. She herself floated and moved in a flurry of sun-lit brilliance, hardly touching the floor. I got an embrace, but, with my hand on her silken back, I felt, not a melting yielding body, but one with a firm agenda.
We were soon seated, almost facing each other, with maid-brought teacups in our hands and a variety of tempting goodies on the little glass-topped table between us. Thelma actually looked thirtyish as she laughed about a "ridiculous little problem" she was having.
It turned out that one of the "beaux" in between Sanderson Junior and Royston Marcum hadn't quite fitted the pattern. The pattern had consisted of the uniformly handsome and respectable single gentlemen with whom Thelma had been pictured at various charity balls. They had been labelled and captioned as "escorts", and sometimes as "friends." But, of course, they hadn't been lovers. The society pages didn't allow anyone to mention, or even think about, plain old sex. Gowns and underpinnings didn't get lifted and tuxedo trousers didn't get dropped. But, apparently, there had been other interludes.
Even now, Thelma, with her schoolgirl look, didn't admit any such thing. It was just that the man hadn't been very nice, nothing to do with her really. The sort of thing that might happen to anyone. The long and short of it was that he was back. He wanted money not to take some sort of story to her present fiance, Royston Marcum. Thelma made a number of submissive gestures, and I said,
"Mr. Marcum probably wouldn't care. He might even have the man thrown down the front steps."
Thelma laughed, with an upward movement of the palms of both hands, as if to say,
"Oh, you flatterer!"
But she didn't say that. She said instead,
"One doesn't want to bother the police with such things, but one also doesn't want to pay blackmail."
With another delightful smile, she passed me the plate of bonbons.
An objective observer, perhaps even Brenda, might have thought that Thelma's conclusion was to let the blackmailer take his story to Marcum. I knew that that was the last thing she had in mind. Evidently my Mafia lapels, the ones that had always so delighted Wilhelmina, had also had an impact on Thelma. And then I realized something else. Wilhelmina had told her that I had found and talked with the man who had killed Wilhelmina's young husband. She didn't see why the same man couldn't solve the present problem. I answered,
"I doubt that the direct solution would be so terribly expensive."
I cannot now imagine why I so casually agreed to participate in something which, quite literally, could have led to my electrocution. Part of the reason, I suppose, must have been my confidence in the young Mr. X. It was very hard to imagine his doing something stupid enough to give him, or me, away. Thelma clapped her little hands daintily and led me to the sideboard, where she opened a locked drawer. Explaining,
"I typed this all by myself",
she held up a little piece of paper which had on it a man's name, address, and telephone number. She was wearing her white gloves, and, saying that I probably shouldn't touch it with my bare hands, she opened my jacket and placed the paper carefully in my inside pocket. She then took out of the back of the drawer an envelope which appeared to be stuffed with money. Putting that, too, into my pocket, she remarked,
"It's so easy for women because they can wear gloves at any time without it's seeming odd. I do hope five thousand is enough to allow you a decent commission."
Always happy for an excuse to see Brenda, I told her of Thelma's initiative. Any normal women in Brenda's position would have insisted that I restrain her mother before she incriminated herself. Brenda, on the other hand, insisted on meeting Mr. X.
I had forgotten just how vibrant that young gentleman was. He moved silently and smoothly. There was the cool power of the tennis pro, but it was coupled with the hot violence of the boxer he had been. As he rose to meet Brenda at our favorite little Italian restaurant, it was obvious to me that she was fascinated. If only his eyes had been yellow instead of black, I would have cast him poetically as a highly intelligent panther with a particular interest in the biological sciences.
I was trying to think of some way of keeping Brenda from throwing herself at Mr. X, but he managed that all by himself. He was interested in her, but only because she was a Sanderson. Moreover, as he asked her questions, rather pointed ones, about money, he made no pretense whatever to being interested in anything else. Brenda, for her part, made it clear that it wasn't she who was commissioning him. He asked her, smiling for the first time,
"So you're just along for the ride?"
"I think I'll get off before the ride begins."
I had already handed him the typed name and envelope, which he had put away in his jacket pocket without a word.
We then settled into general conversation of a polite nature. Mr. X was, like myself, a Harvard man. Or so he said. He was entirely unlike anyone I had ever met in Cambridge. It turned out, however, that he did have the sort of familiarity with the institution that an outsider would hardly have acquired. Finally, I recognized his type. He had been one of the scholarship boys who focussed on preparing for medical school to the exclusion of everything else. Surprisingly open for one in his vocation, he confirmed my suspicion, adding,
"But there weren't any scholarships to medical school, so I've had various jobs ever since."
He appeared to be about thirty, so that left room for quite a variety of experiences. When I asked him if he had enjoyed Harvard, he replied with some enthusiasm. He then added,
"I had a Club scholarship, and had a certain amount of contact with the alumni. It always amazed me how much they cared about the college and what they'd do to promote its interests."
As he asked Brenda about her college experiences, and her residual attitude toward Vassar, I realized that this phenomenon of alumni sentimentality, so foreign to Mr. X, had made a deep impression on him. Now, in retrospect, I can see the origins of certain ideas that he may have capitalized on much later.
Brenda spoke of Vassar with an amused contempt which seemed to puzzle our friend. He finally asked,
"If you had money and no close family, wouldn't you leave it to your college?"
We were, by that time, surrounded by Italians, ones who at least looked as if they might be gangsters. But Mr. X, looking entirely unlike them, explored the subject of philanthropy in a way that made me thoroughly uneasy. It wasn't exactly that he looked dangerous, at least in the sense of being likely to rape Brenda and kill me, or anything of the sort. Rather, it was that he obviously lacked the ordinary human emotions with which we convince one another that we are safe. When he later mentioned having had recent contact with one of the Harvard graduates who had helped him earlier, I wondered what the basis for their association could be. I now wonder if it had anything to do with persons whose wills entailed large gifts to the university.
But, of course, one can only speculate as to the development of Mr. X's ideas. What I do know is that Thelma's ex-boyfriend gave her no more trouble.