A Social Occasion
The next event in our little world, at the end of February, was Maria's first dance. Except for her good academic performance, none of us had any idea how the child was getting along at school. It seemed that the others might well think her strange, and either tease her or shun her. Maria, of course, gave no hints. However, she never mentioned any other girls, except in the most casual way, and we had the impression that she wasn't making friends.
Both Jane and Brenda were worried. They agreed that, if a girl was isolated and ignored, a first dance could be a horrible experience. I argued that anyone who had dealt with the Third Reich in full flower should be able to manage a school dance. Brenda took strong exception.
"That's an entirely different sort of thing. We know that Maria can deal with danger, but it's humiliation that's in question here."
In the end, a call was put through to Mrs. Whyte. She said, confirming our impression, that Maria was very well regarded by the teachers, but hadn't seemed to make much headway with the other students. She suggested that one or more of us come as additional chaperons for the dance. Then, if things went badly, there could be a hasty retreat.
There was again the question of who should go. On one view, initially put forward by Jane, Brenda should go, if not always, at least most of the time. She was, after all, the mother. Brenda replied,
"I certainly don't mind going, but I'm pretty sure that Maria doesn't look on me as her mother. Her mother is dead."
Even Jane admitted as much. Maria, indeed, had no mother. But, in an odd way, we were her family. As Ralph put it,
"She's been through too much to trust anyone as much as an ordinary child would trust a parent. But she does trust each of us enough so that the sum total is fairly significant."
That was the reality, but the question was then what face to show the outside world. In the end, it was decided that Jane and Ralph should go.
When the night came, Maria was duly decked out in a dress bought especially for the occasion. It had bows and ribbons, and was obviously suitable. Maria did look quite sweet in it. Jane and Ralph, particularly in evening clothes, were an impressive couple. Although Jane was then well over forty, she looked a decade younger, while Ralph, balding prematurely, looked about the same age. That apart, their combined height made them look like Olympians among ordinary folk.
There were two other sets of parents, and a teacher and her husband, on the theory that the chaperons should have someone to talk with, and dance with, while the young people had their fun. They also had the function of getting the boys, from a nearby boys' prep school, to dance with the girls instead of slinking off to the men's room to play poker. With that in view, Ralph was a welcome addition to the party.
According to Ralph, Jane made a great hit with the other chaperons. The people in America who send their children to private schools are often the ones who admire the English aristocracy almost to the point of frenzy. Even though Jane didn't use her title in America, it evidently didn't fool these people.
There was also, it seemed, a good bit of curiosity about Maria's adopted surname. It had been some sixty years since Wilhelmina Sanderson had left Cincinnati, but she remained a legendary figure there. Not only that, staunch Cincinnatians still thought of Wilhelmina's hoard of gold as a Cincinnati fortune. When they found that Maria's adoptive mother was Wilhelmina's grandaughter, and Ralph her great grandson, they concluded that the Sanderson fortune was being brought home again. When Ralph talked a little of the college, his hopes for it, and his voluntary teaching, they naturally supposed that the Sanderson heirs, as befitted the later generations, were going in for philanthropy in a big way. As Ralph remarked to me,
"I realized later that they didn't know that the fortune had ever been lost. I thought anyone who knew about it at all would know that."
I found that this attitude was more the rule than the exception. Great fortunes are assumed to be indestructible. When people hear something negative about them, they assume merely that there has been some trouble which was eventually overcome. No one in later years really believed that Brenda had ever been reduced to a hundred thousand dollars and Wilhelmina's jewelry. It was thus Ralph, the least devious man in the world, who gave the Cincinnati establishment the impression that the Sandersons had come roaring back to Cincinnati in all their glory. And, of course, whatever their unspecified relation might be, it wasn't surprising that Ralph should bring someone like Jane with him.
One of the other couples were the parents, not only of a girl in Maria's class, but of a boy in the boys' school. Although their name was Smith, not a name with the best associations for Jane, she rather took to them. Among other things, she confided her concern that Maria might be left out of things. Mrs. Smith was also concerned about their daughter, who, it seemed, was rather plain. The young Smith, Biff by name, was therefore told to look out for both girls.
Ralph objected that Biff would hardly ever get to choose his own partner. Mrs. Smith put forward a rather interesting view: that girls could have horrible humiliating times at dances, but that boys at that age were largely indifferent to them. Biff had come only under protest, and would go off with the other boys if not forced to dance. His interest could therefore be subordinated to those of the girls.
In the event, a couple of boys besides Biff did dance with Maria, but she would have had no partner for the last dance if Biff hadn't split it between Maria and his sister. Both were a long way from being the belle of the ball, but disaster had been averted.
According to Ralph, Maria acted much as always, but her remarkable powers of assimilation and adaptation didn't seem to work as well on other teen-agers as on adults. I had never seen Maria in a group of teen-agers, but I could imagine what he meant. Maria wasn't capable of the juvenile mindlessness and faddish frenzy that ripples through youth groups. Although Maria was more than a competent actress, the instant production of a certain sort of teen-aged squeal of delight was beyond her.
Jane and Brenda both thought it possible to get through the teen years acceptably without ever being at the center of the storm. I wasn't so sure, but I hoped so.
In the days after the dance, Maria seemed outwardly happy enough, but a bit more fluttery than she had been for some time. By this time, I knew that that behavior constituted Maria's reaction to danger, one that must have been disarming and effective in Germany. It was hard to imagine that she perceived this situation as equally threatening, but her behavior did take me back to the time when I first met her. She was far too astute not to know that Biff had been told to dance with her, and she evidently judged that a girl who got only two dances with volunteers was dangerously close to being a wallflower. It was then that Biff called and asked Maria to a Saturday afternoon movie at the Albee movie palace in downtown Cincinnati.
It was hard to know whether this, too, was the work of Mrs. Smith. Ralph thought probably not.
"I think Biff's at the stage where he's not at all sure that he wants to go on record as showing interest in a girl. But he probably did like Maria. This way, he can ask her out and blame it on his mother if anyone teases him about it."
As if to confirm Ralph's view, Mrs. Smith did call Jane to say that, contrary to what we might think, it had been Biff's idea to call Maria.
I was confident that Maria's first date would be a success. She might have trouble shrieking and screaming properly in a group, but, as the Americans so elegantly put it, she could "relate to almost anyone one-on-one." It was, however, hard not to give way to laughter when Biff approached our house.
The name "Biff" appeared to be one of those babyhood designations which fit only too well. The boy was large, both relative to his contemporaries and absolutely. He loved football, wrestling, and boxing. Whenever the occasion presented itself, he did, indeed, "biff" people with conspicuous success.
Biff mounted our front steps with a vaguely suspicious look reminiscent of a young lion who has just sniffed something not to his liking. However, Ralph was there to greet him, and immediately established the proper man-to-man atmosphere. Biff relaxed visibly, looking only slightly confused when Ralph introduced him to Brenda. Jane and I remained out of sight on the theory that the boy shouldn't have to deal with all four of us at once. We peeped, of course, but only long enough to see that Biff wasn't going to take flight.
After the brief obligatory conversation with the adults, Biff and Maria set off smartly on foot, enroute to the suspension bridge which would take them across the river to Cincinnati. As I said to Jane,
"I'm glad we have a good central location. At least, they're spared the embarrassment of having to be driven to the movies."
"They don't look embarrassed. It looks as if they're talking happily together."
"Trust Maria. Even if he's negligible mentally, she'll find something to talk about."
Ralph joined us and said pleasantly,
"I bet you think he's mentally negligible because he's an athlete."
What Ralph said might have been true, but I denied it and asked,
"What do you think of Biff?"
"So far, he's just a normal American boy. I don't know him enough to guess what might develop later."
Biff might have been a normal American, but we soon discovered that his parents weren't. In a country where there's no aristocracy, someone else must set certain limits. The poor must not actually starve or freeze to death. Certain sorts of businessmen must be socially ostracized. A major city must not lack an art museum or a symphony orchestra. The public school system cannot be allowed to decline past a certain point.
There was in Cincinnati a loose network of people who saw to such things, and the Smiths were an integral part of it. Among other things, they had mentioned to Jane that the city didn't have an adequate playhouse or theatrical company. We invited them over to dinner to discuss the matter.
By this time, I was conscious of the necessity of perpetrating something of a hoax. Including her property in Germany, which was hard to evaluate, Brenda had some five or ten million dollars. But she could raise only about a million in America for investment purposes. She had multiplied Ralph's original forty thousand to something like three hundred thousand dollars, most of it in England. Jane had about a hundred thousand pounds and myself fifty thousand, again in England. The Smiths probably assumed us to have much more than that. After all, Wilhelmina had ended up with almost three hundred million. It was primarily my responsibility, with enthusiastic help only from Brenda, to make good this disparity.
My first idea was to have Jane invite Biff and his sister, so that they could have a separate little dinner party with Maria in another room while the adults were discussing art and drama. This, I thought, was the sort of slightly eccentric notion likely to occur to the rich. I also knew that Maria would be the consummate young hostess, a fact that would work its way through to the adult Smiths.
While we did live in the proper sort of house, it was in obvious disrepair. Moreover, the furnishings that had come with it were woefully inadequate. The thing there was to make a joke. We were "camping out", and we could advise the Smiths to avoid the couch that slowly but surely deposited people on to the floor. I could remark that I was thinking of stringing up hammocks to make the living room more comfortable.
Much more important was the food. Our cook was quite good. An elderly black man who had served in some of Cincinnati's better households, he knew what sort of food these people would like. In addition, there would be some expensive exotic specialties, both as regards food and drink. After dinner, there would be the best brandy I could unearth, even if it had to be sent express from New York. As a last thought, I arranged for an inexhausible supply of three flavors of ice cream for Biff.
The Smiths had already been acquainted with our peculiar family status. Brenda was everything they expected, and then something. She was really very beautiful that evening, perhaps more so than she had been ten years earlier. I, of course, was the unimpressive one. I was introduced as a poet and writer, but I was careful not to cheapen Brenda by letting it appear that there might be any intimate connection between us, as there presumably was between Ralph and Jane. Instead, I let it seem that I was Brenda's factotum and man of affairs, someone who sat at the dinner table only because of the egalitarian sentiments of his employer.
The dinner proceeded with great jollity. Mrs. Smith said it was charming of us to make a separate party for the young people. When the idea was credited to me, I acceded shyly, as a good factotum should. Somehow, the talk got on to the community Brenda planned to build. She cleverly called on Ralph to explain the theoretical underpinnings of it. The Smiths approved. They were Republicans, but liberal ones. While not in the least inclined to divide their wealth among the poor, they approved of experiments for clean-cut young war veterans. Neither Ralph nor Brenda claimed that the project would lose money, but the Smiths must have assumed as much. In that atmposphere, even I almost came to believe that the money which Brenda planned to put in was of no real importance.
The Smiths had come prepared to help found a playhouse devoted to serious plays ranging from Shakespeare to the best contemporary work. We all made approving noises. Brenda casually offered to donate the land for the playhouse. There was, she said, a hilltop near the college that might be suitable. Then, before the Smiths could react, she improvised in a brilliant manner.
"I've also had an idea of providing free studio space for artists. There are some old dairy buildings that could be converted for the purpose. It might be rather nice to have the playhouse and the artists right next one another."
Again, before the Smiths could say anything, I suggested,
"We might move into the neighborhood ourselves. We're just in temporary lodging here."
Jane looked at me strangely, but Ralph, without understanding what was going on, approved enthusiastically. Brenda, who did understand, gave me a wicked smile and added her approval.
The game was actually quite simple. If a playhouse and art community were placed next to Brenda's property, she could sell houses to an entirely different, and more affluent, sort of people. It would greatly affect the value of a good slice of her outer two circles with a ripple effect elsewhere. Indeed, there might be a possibility for a whole other circle or two.
The Smiths, however, had never dreamed of putting their playhouse in the western part of the city, populated only by suburbanites whose idea of drama was a Christmas play performed by schoolchildren. Moreover, I was sure that they had talked with others of their ilk, who, of course, felt the same. Very possibly, they already had a site in mind, probably somewhere around Hyde Park. Even if they gave in to Brenda, the other potential donors would be horrified.
Mr. Smith, totally unprepared for this outcome, started talking about Brenda's generosity, but looked desperately at his wife. She virtually whispered to me,
"It's very kind of her, but that's an unfashionable part of town. I know it's silly, but I'm afraid people wouldn't go."
The value of being a factotum is that people will whisper to one things that cannot be said directly to the big people. The understanding is that one will eventually be able to enlighten one's masters. Brenda saw that I was about to do a bit of business with Mrs. Smith, and she loudly distracted the others by talking of all the wonderful actors and plays we could get. Smith could hardly fail to be enthusiastic, but, the longer he went without contradicting Brenda's choice of site, the harder it would be to do so later.
The best thing of all was that, even if Brenda was seen as being pushy about the site, her motives would still be unassailably pure. They would have nothing to do with money. Instead, she naturally wanted the playhouse for the new community in which she was taking such an interest.
Under this smokescreen, I whispered back to Mrs. Smith,
"Not every neighborhood has the only daughter of an earl living in it. Wouldn't that help?"
Jane, despite her loathing of the original Smith, had been going under the name of "Mrs. Jane Smith" ever since. I think it amused her. It may also have pleased the Mrs. Smith seated next to me to share a name, no matter how common, with someone like Jane. The American Mrs. Smith was now re- thinking her position. She replied, in an even lower whisper,
"She must have a title then."
I mentioned it offhandedly, together with the fact that Jane thought it bad taste to use a title in America. I then added,
"When we do move, there'll also be a descendent of Joseph Conrad in our little arts community. He may not have been a playright, but it's still not a bad connection."
I had a feeling that Ralph and Jane might not have told the Smiths of that aspect of Maria's history. It turned out that I was correct. Mrs. Smith choked out,
"You mean Maria?"
I smiled pleasantly and said,
"Her original surname was Korzeniewski."
Mrs. Smith was an attractive woman with a rather expressive face. I could almost hear the names going around in her head as she totted up the snob appeal. After a very short time, she spoke across the room to her husband in a decisive tone.
"I think that location will do very well, Jim. It's in an undeveloped part of town, but it won't be by the time our hosts get through with it."
Brenda very nearly applauded. Jane didn't, but her resignation may have indicated that she accepted being lionized for the sake of property values. I wondered if Mrs. Smith was taking on more than she could handle, and whether she could, in fact, persuade the other potential donors to sit still for a playhouse in the Western Hills. As if reading my thoughts, she proposed a dinner at her house, at which we would meet some other prominent Cincinnatians. I was morally certain that Jane would be introduced with her full title, her preferences notwithstanding.
Just then, there were shouts and cries of delight from the next room. Brenda slid silently to the doorway and came back to report that Maria, having pick-pocketed Biff and Claire, had just returned their possessions to them. This little feat was quickly explained to the Smiths. Brenda concluded,
"So, while we didn't want her to grow up to be a thief, we also, in the circumstances, didn't want her to be ashamed of this ability. The fact that she's displayed it in front of Biff and Claire shows how comfortable she feels with them."
Mrs. Smith, unsolicited, undertook to see that neither of her children spoke of it outside the family. Even I could imagine what would happen if the school gossip mongers got hold of raw material like that.
Brenda was always interested in raising cash, partly so that she wouldn't have to sell her stocks. She couldn't yet borrow money in the usual way without revealing her relative lack of funds, but, in this connection, she thought of our pre-war acquaintances, the Sattell family of Philadelphia.
A good deal had happened there. Old Mrs. Sattell was now dead. Giorgio was also dead, killed while serving with the American army in North Africa. Our group wasn't given to sentimentality, or even sentiment to any great extent, but there was real sadness when we got Helen's letter.
Ellen, one gathered, was still with her Sicilian girl- friend. Helen seemed not to know, or want to know, much about either of them. Ellen presumably had half the money, but the old lady would surely have had enough sense to put it in trust. That left Helen's half. Some of it might not be in trust, but it might have been spent on Howie.
Brenda muttered to me that it would have been so much better if it had been Howie, and not Giorgio, who had been killed. However, Howie had been refused by the army as physically unfit. He had married a girl Helen seemed not to like, and was now a young professor at a women's college in Mississippi. I said,
"If Helen doesn't like her daughter-in-law, she may keep the flow of money within reason."
"Howie will get into trouble at that girls' college. That will lead to disgrace and divorce, and then Helen will succor him with money."
I laughed. Her scenario was a little far-fetched, but I could imagine Howie developing in the way that she envisaged. In any case, there was nothing to lose in trying.
I was the next one to write to Helen. Remembering her acuity, I said that we had an excellent investment opportunity, but that, even if her money was all tied up, we'd be delighted to have her visit us anyway. Helen was evidently amused. At any rate, she came.
Helen was a little older than Jane and a good bit younger than myself. When I set out to meet her at the station, I naturally wondered how she would look. In the event, I recognized her immediately. She hadn't gained weight. On the other hand, her voice had changed, at least in the way she used it. One was tempted to call it a change in personality, but even that wasn't quite correct. We were very soon on terms of our old familiarity, and I said,
"You look the same, but you've changed, I'm not sure how."
Helen poked me, rather hard, in the ribs.
"My place in the world has changed, Thomas. When you knew me before, I was in an extremely insecure position. I was given material support only as long as I behaved myself and did nothing to irritate mother or interfere with her plans for Ellen. Now, I'm my own woman."
I'm not sure exactly what possessed me. Helen and I were passing through the vast marble rotunda of the Union Terminal, myself with her suitcase in my hand. I dropped it abruptly, grabbed Helen, and embraced her. She gurgled and and wriggled away. Once she had gotten free, she gave me an extremely strange look and said,
"You know, Thomas, I was a little surprised that you never even wrote to me ten years ago. But now this! I hope it's not that I didn't have money then, but do now."
I explained that my alcoholic retreat had begun just about the time that they left England. We were now out in front of the station, waiting for a taxi. As it screeched up, I apologized for my recent display, adding,
"I hadn't intended it. It just seemed to occur."
Helen smiled pleasantly and replied,
"I wonder how many people have said that, probably with great sincerity. Anyhow, if you can restrain yourself, I'm sure we can be friends again. I'm sorry I said anything about money."
I agreed to control my impulses and spent most of the taxi ride telling Helen about Maria.
On her first full day in the city I took Helen to the art museum. It was she who discovered that there had been a Cincinnati school of painters and a "golden age of art." I was myself impressed by a light airy landscape and a number of other pieces. In viewing Frank Duveneck's several adoring studies of his wife, I was standing behind Helen. I wanted to embrace her. I instead contented myself with a light touch on her shoulder, a gesture she didn't repudiate.
The next day was Brenda's day. I don't know exactly how she got around to business, but, of course, Helen was expecting it. She had probably decided, even before coming, how much she was going to hand over. It turned out to be an investment of two hundred thousand. I was a little surprised that Helen had such sums free of trust funds, but Brenda wasn't. As she said to me,
"You can leave unencumbered money to someone like Helen."
Shortly afterward, I had a talk with Brenda, and told her of my new infatuation with Helen. I also told her of Helen's remark, later retracted, that it was no accident that I had waited to show my feelings until she had some money. Brenda replied casually,
"That's probably true."
I was shocked.
"Surely I'm not as mercenary as that!"
"Oh, I don't know if it's a matter of being mercenary. It's just that you can't divorce a person from his or her money. The presence or lack of it affects the way in which one does almost anything."
"So Helen is now a different and more attractive person?"
"I would say so. She's now secure, independent, and decisive. Before, she had to let her sister walk all over her, and couldn't say boo. That might have elicited pity, but not respect."
Brenda's view of the world has always been a stark one. Beside her I have sometimes felt like a fuzzy-minded romantic. In this case, as in others, I conceded the point. Not only that, I put it to Helen. The latter's reaction was, I thought, one of irritation. She said,
"Back when I was in that situation, I'd have come running if you'd whistled. I'm not sure what you have in mind now, but I won't be so easy to manage."
That said, the cloud passed, and we spent a particularly delightful evening, much of it at a rather silly movie.
Ralph was the one who had originally rescued Helen from distress on a London bus, and he picked up where he had left off, focussing his general benign urbanity on our newest arrival. Indeed, she spent half a day at the college, having lunch with Ralph and Lefty Hotchkiss. The latter, she reported, was unlike any college president she had ever imagined. However, she appeared to have liked him. At any rate, Helen told me that he was probably worth the graft that would surely flow to him. I told her that it had actually been agreed exactly what his cut would be.
A more ambiguous relation sprang up between Helen and Maria. I have mentioned earlier that Maria was somewhat closer to Jane than to Brenda, but, even there, a great gap existed between the personalities of the two ladies. Maria never complained about anything, never criticized anyone, and was unfailingly nice to people. But none of us supposed her to be a saint. She simply thought that nothing was ever gained by being unpleasant.
This attitude apparently extended even to the Nazis who had destroyed her country and killed her parents. Maria took no interest in the Nuremburg trials, and, although she was happy to help Brenda manage her German properties, she seemed to have no desire for revenge of any sort.
Jane, on the other hand, could be utterly obnoxious. She could complain about hairs in her food, even wondering whether they were pubic, and she could antagonize people who had set out to help her. When she acted in these ways, she made Maria extremely nervous. The latter sometimes showed great ingenuity in minimizing the damage, and, even more, in side-tracking Jane when she was about to express herself too freely. Altogether, Maria must have had some reservations about accepting Jane as a guide.
Helen, by contrast, was a bit like Maria in this respect. Helen had been given a bad time by her mother and sister, but hadn't the least inclination to revenge herself on Ellen, or to quarrel over heirlooms or money. She simply felt that she was justified in staying clear and leaving Ellen largely to her own devices. If those led Ellen into the clutches of her Sicilian, that wasn't Helen's affair. It was what Maria would have done in the same circumstances. Moreover, Helen, unlike Jane, seldom said anything that she, or those near and dear to her, would later regret.
Still, similarity of temperament isn't everything. I could see that Maria made Helen uncomfortable. When I asked her why, Helen, somewhat embarrassed, replied,
"She's a little too smooth for her age. I realize she wouldn't be alive if she weren't. Still, as you say, it makes me uncomfortable."
In practice, Helen and Maria talked, to some extent, at cross purposes. That is, Maria spoke of adult things to Helen while Helen spoke of adolescent things to Maria. It would have been amusing if a good deal hadn't ridden on it. In the end, both parties seemed about equally willing to compromise. Maria told Helen about Biff Smith, not terribly personally or emotionally, but indicating freely enough that she liked him. In return, Helen discussed with Maria some of the more abstruse aspects of Brenda's enterprise.
From these latter discussions it became evident that Helen hadn't invested out of any sense of friendship or obligation. Her regard for Brenda's sagacity was so high that she expected to profit richly from any joint venture. Later on, there were many people who lusted for a chance to invest blindly with Brenda, but Helen's attitude came as something of a surprise to me. It didn't surprise Maria, who explained to me in all seriousness,
"I think this is like investing in something controlled by Wilhelmina Sanderson fifty years ago."
My first thought was that this was another of Maria's affectations. I asked, rather pointedly, what she knew of investments in a distant country years before she was born. Maria smiled pleasantly and compared, in detail, some of Brenda's enterprises with those of Wilhelmina in the last century. Suitably abashed, I then asked her how well Helen understood these matters. Maria's reply was a model of tact. Helen, she seemed to imply, was more sensitive to people than to investment oportunities, and would tend to judge such an opportunity, not so much on its own merits, but on the character of the promoter.
One consequence of Helen's visit was that each of us was under a gentle implied pressure to explain to her what we were trying to do. Brenda's explanation was much what Helen had expected. As we have seen, Maria and Helen arrived at an accomodation, if not an understanding. Jane explained airily that, having given up on children, she couldn't think what to do with her life. From someone else such an admission might seem pitiable, or even tragic. But Jane let it go with such confidence, and even panache, that one wondered if it might not be better to have no grand purposes. In fact, when Helen and I discussed the matter later, I said,
"I'm not sure I have any more idea than Jane what to do with the remainder of my life."
"Nor have I. I don't think most people do. Brenda is unusual."
"So is Ralph."
Helen nodded in agreement and replied,
"Yes. He seems to have so many ideas, and I sense a great force in him, even more than in Brenda."
"I should understand Ralph better than I do. I've known him since he was a boy. Many of his ideas concern education and society. I understand them individually, but there's something in him that I'm missing."
"He has a vision. I don't know exactly what it is, but anyone who gets in his way is going to find out about it."
"When he was younger he was so pleasant and affable that almost anyone could push him around. He's still pleasant and affable, but I don't suppose he's so easily maneuvered."
"Of course not. From what I've seen, the rest of you wait for his opinion before you take any major step."
"Do we? I hadn't realized."
"It's probably happened so gradually that you haven't noticed. He may not realize himself how much influence he has."
I didn't say so to Helen, but I realized that any gain in influence on Ralph's part must be at the expense of my own. The time when I had shepherded him lest he give his money to strangers was long gone. I might have been an object of some amusement, but even Brenda had often followed my bidding. Helen looked at me sympathetically. I suspected strongly that she was reading my thoughts. She confirmed it by saying,
"Your group of five is quite fascinating to watch. Each of you has an essential function, you especially."
"You mean as steward and secretary?"
"You're much more than that, Thomas."
We were, at that moment, walking across the suspension bridge. Helen grasped me by the hand and said,
"You should start writing poetry again."
As planned, Helen departed two days later. She said good-bye to the others at the house, and I alone accompanied her to the station. We spoke little, and didn't speak at all of our next meeting. However, when the train was ready for boarding, Helen presented herself to be kissed. I availed myself of the opportunity with no small enthusiasm. She responded fully, and then slipped away.
That very evening, I composed my first poem since before the war. It wasn't a very good poem, and it wasn't about Helen. On the other hand, it was the first honest piece of writing I'd done in years. The process of composing it, if not the poem itself, gave me a rather surprising amount of satisfaction. The next day, I wrote a somewhat better poem and sent it to Helen. It was a small thing, a description of the reaction of Cincinnatians when the Ohio River began to flow upstream. However, it proved that I wasn't dead as a poet.
The reaction of the others took me quite by surprise. Brenda told me that I was now fully recovered from my bout with alcoholism. I only then realized that she had regarded me as still sick. Ralph admitted that he had many times thought of urging me to resume my poetry, but had decided that I would do so unprompted when I was ready. Evidently he, too, had looked on me with concern.
I had been helping Maria with her poetry all along, but I now had something to show her in return. She responded to my Ohio River poem with one about the reactions of Kentuckians to a reversal of the Licking, the little tributary near our home. Still in a humorous vein, she wrote a poem about Biff. It was rather telling, so much so that I advised her strongly to keep it secret. This was advice that our young lady, the princess of tact, hardly needed. I responded with another poem about Biff, also to be kept secret, but which attempted to set certain of his qualities in a quasi-heroic light.