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 Chapter 28

The Party

On the night of the main party, a snow began to fall about six. We were all assembled in the upstairs parlor, and fidgeted without much to do. Would our guests be afraid to negotiate the bridge and streets leading to our home? Someone pointed out that we would at least find out how much in demand we were. Helen, who had arrived in the afternoon, said that many social functions in Philadelphia occurred in the middle of blizzards and added,

"I've often gone through snow drifts in high heels."

A little later, Ralph and I were banished from the parlor. All four of our ladies were getting dressed there, with the help of the maids, Brenda's bedroom not being sufficiently large to accomodate them. This preparation was to be a long and leisurely process, and I was detailed to warn them of the approach of the first guests. Only then would they put on their dresses.

It was thus that, at the stroke of eight, I was standing out in front in my heavy black overcoat and hat. The snow, mercifully, had stopped. Then, as it turned colder, stars came out in every direction.

The men waiting to park the cars took what shelter they could, but I stood out alone, rather exhilarated. Indeed, I felt rather like the centurion of the guard at an isolated fort beside a great river.

I was also glad to be out in the cold, removed from that peculiar tension before a party which seems to affect women in greater degree than men. They certainly shouldn't have worried about their appearance. I knew that each of the four would be impossible to overlook, and that, in aggregate, they would present a front which no family in Cincinnati could begin to match. But, of course, there was always some detail which they felt to be not quite right.

In one way, it wouldn't have mattered a great deal if a blizzard had blocked the way. Our entertaining had originally been intended to sell houses, but, by this time, we didn't have any to sell. Of course, we still wanted to promote the college, and, anyway, there was a good deal of hospitality to be returned. However, without ever discussing it in so many words, a deeper purpose was to settle our new roles with respect to Maria. That might have happened in the middle of a blizzard with no guests. It wasn't an ordinary coming out party.

Debutante parties still did exist in Cincinnati. A party would be given for girls of eighteen, not really to introduce them to "society", or even to enter them in the marriage market, but simply because not to give such a party would relinquish a certain social claim. The party was therefore given, at which point the girl went off to college. It was there that she either did, or didn't, meet her husband.

As the wind howled around my ears and my men crouched in the doorway, there were no lights to be seen coming along the street. I therefore continued to reflect. Maria at sixteen, was very nearly adult. She had also become a force within the group. Her ideas certainly counted more than my own. Only Ralph could match her in intellectual power, but it was vis- a-vis Brenda that the important transition was occurring. Although Brenda was no slouch, Maria was obviously much smarter. On the other hand, Maria might not turn out to be as good a manager of money. Brenda's record compared favorably with that of Wilhelmina, while Maria had only just begun.

Yet again, intelligence and money, while of singular importance in our group, weren't the only things. As one writer has put it, the emotions can get together, hold a soviet, and revolt against everything intelligent and prudent. It seemed somehow, in some way that I didn't yet understand, that something would be settled that night.

When I first saw headlights, my heart lept. I sent a messenger to warn the people inside. In my imagined role as centurion, I was about to order an attack on the barbarian invader. A couple of spears through the windshield should sort out the inhabitants of the car quite nicely. Then, the less romantic reality having partially invaded my consciousness, it did occur to me that my function as host constituted no simple task. I had met some of our guests only briefly, and some not at all.

The car came swiftly up in a naive foolhardy fashion. The inhabitants couldn't have known whether they were to be welcomed or killed.

Fortunately enough, I recognized the first woman out of the car, a friend of the Smiths I had met several times. It would have been a pity to have run her through by mistake. Then, even before this lot of people had been properly welcomed, another car arrived. I hadn't met the second set of people, but they knew the first set well. We all entered the house in high spirits.

There had been a good deal of speculation about our home. Only the Smiths had been inside, and Margie had cleverly spoken in such a way as to fuel, rather than diminish the rumors. We took this lot, like many others to come, around the house, twice across the canal, and in the back way. The settlements along the canal were brightly lit, and the train was, by some miracle, running. As I assisted one of the ladies over the rough planks of a little hump- backed bridge, she breathed to me,

"This is like an immense doll's house."

As it turned out, many people had fantasies of living in some such place as ours. There was an invisible wall to the outside world which created both a sense of excitement and a feeling of security.

The next surprise came when they got inside and saw those beautiful mouldings slobbered over with white paint, not to mention the Rohrshach-like walls. There were some intakes of breath, but, before they could get any connected thoughts together, they encountered our ladies in a row, with Ralph towering behind them.

It must have been an odd sensation for most of these people to visit a household consisting of five, or perhaps even six, unmarried people. Some of them must have wondered exactly what relations obtained between us. Whatever they may have thought, it was impossible not to notice that a good many of our guests approached our home, and ourselves, with a certain awe.

Although most people remained in the house most of the time, Ralph conducted many tours along our canal. While our guests were, on the whole, quite impressed with what we had done, I had no sense that these people had any idea of doing anything along the same lines themselves, or that they wanted to move in next door to us. We were regarded as exciting and daring, but, to the extent that they admired us, it was in a distant way that had no implications for their own activity.

The party had been going an hour, and was in full fettle, when I overheard a man say to a woman,

"You know how things are. One day, you receive an award for having sold more real estate than anyone else in your office. The next, you get tied to a tree, and are assaulted by the entire membership of the Iron Horsemen Motorcycle Club. Both experiences are overrated."

The woman looked uncomfortable, but replied quietly in some way that I couldn't hear. A minute later, she gave a quick smile and slipped away.

The man thus left in the middle of the room with a drink in his hand wasn't noticeably ill-formed. Probably under forty, he was tall and well built with a blonde moustache. I didn't recognize him, but knew that he had spoken to a lady in such a way as to violate the local conventions. He hadn't said that the assaults of the Iron Horsemen were sexual, but, in the polite society of Cincinnati in 1947, one didn't come that close to talking about buggery.

One could nevertheless tell, from the muted reaction of his erstwhile companion, that this gentleman belonged to the right people. I approached Margie Smith in order to discover more about him. She knew immediately who I meant. She said in a whisper,

"That's Little Jim Conover. He's not, I suppose one might say, quite right."

I whispered back,

"You mean foolish or retarded? Is that why he's called "Little Jim.""

"No. His father was Big Jim, and, even though he's been dead for years, this one is still Little Jim. I don't think he's very bright, but he's not really abnormal in that respect. One thing is that his mother died when he was born. That's awfully hard on anyone."

Margie and I had, by this time, drifted off to a secluded nook. She continued,

"He has a good deal of money and controls it himself, at least in consultation with a lawyer. He sometimes makes strange investments despite anything the lawyer can do."

By this time I knew Margie well enough to quote verbatim what I had overheard from Little Jim. She chuckled and replied,

"Yes. That's about the kind of thing you expect from him. Most women try to avoid him."

"Is he dangerous?"

"I'm pretty sure not. We knew his father quite well, and I would've known if he'd ever been violent or in an institution. It's just that he says things like that. He's apparently not at all aware that he makes people uneasy."

"There have been a good many poets who fitted that description."

"I bet most of them knew they were getting away with something. I've known lots of talented people who loved to shock, Brenda among them. But Little Jim isn't talented. I can't imagine his writing poetry, or writing anything."

Margie then wanted to talk about Maria.

"Doesn't she look stunning?"

I had noticed in a vague way that Maria looked nice, but added,

"That gray dress seems rather plain."

"It's simple, but it shows her elegant figure to advantage. There's also the jewelry. Didn't you notice that either? She's wearing Wilhelmina Sanderson's jewels."

"I haven't heard about the jewelry for years."

"No one else here has anything to compare with that diamond pendant, for one thing."

Margie took me in search of Maria to show me what I had missed. When we found her, she was in conversation with Little Jim Conover. Both Margie and I stopped dead. I asked,

"Should we rescue her?"

"I don't think so. She looks as if she's doing fine."

"Isn't he likely to say something off color?"

"She's not especially prudish, is she?"

I remembered our outing at the London zoo and replied,

"If he does say something inapproriate, Maria will talk very rapidly about something else."

"A good strategy. Now take a good look at Maria. I'll put my back toward her so that you can pretend to be looking at me."

Maria was in profile so that I couldn't see most of the jewelry, but, following Margie's instructions to look at her with new eyes, I saw a young woman of twenty five or so. There were modest but definite curves, and the dress shimmered quite fetchingly as she moved. With fairly short black hair which revealed diamond earrings dangling above her comely bare shoulders, I certainly wouldn't have taken this woman lightly. Despite her youth, as revealed by her perfect white skin and the energy of her lightly clad body, there was nothing of the teen-ager about her. Margie said,

"You see? I can hardly imagine her with Biff. It's nice of her to continue to put up with him."

The conversation between Maria and Little Jim was quite animated. Both gestured a good deal, and Maria, with a little smile, seemed to be drawing a picture in the air. She then led him to a window overlooking the canal. Little Jim followed her with enthusiasm, and I heard her say, back over her shoulder,

"The man who did most of the work on our canal could do one like it for you."

Margie and I then joined the conversation. As Little Jim talked, it became possible to place him. He had travelled a good deal, particularly to England, and was used to sophisticated people. I could imagine pre-war Englishmen taking him up. He was what they expected Americans to be, and, condescending slightly, they would have taken him around to their clubs.

Little Jim, in turn, had learned something about them. He knew that they liked to say shocking things, and he could match them there. He might also have learned that there were certain limits: that there were, for example, only certain very restricted sorts of jokes about the royal family. He had caught the spirit, but, alas, not quite the substance.

In the present instance, Little Jim had realized that our group was a cut above the ordinary, and that Maria wasn't just another good looking young woman. He had also decided that we were on to something. It might well have been that, having placed us in a privileged category, he was prepared to admire anything we did. He overdid the admiration a bit, but it was probably quite genuine.

It turned out that Maria had taken quite a liking to Jane's Chinese assistant, and wanted to secure a commission for him. As she wrote down the man's name and phone number for Little Jim, I was reminded that she was still only sixteen. All that charm expended for just this!

I was reminded of fashionable parties in London and Paris before the war, the sort that radiated around quasi- sexual encounters, but with something desperately serious underneath all the show and glamour. The women, at least the exciting ones, had connections of one sort or another with more than one man. There was, for example, the husband and those friends of his whom he encouraged to flirt with his wife. Then, there might have been another man of the same set, but one not encouraged by the husband, who had an unspecified understanding with his wife. In the early stages of the party, these women might flit between lovers and ex- lovers of a fairly conventional sort, none of whom were likely to upset established matrimonial or other relations.

In some cases, however, there would appear, much later in the evening, an entirely different sort of man, possibly a complete outsider. His very presence, perhaps uninvited, would be in the nature of a thrown gauntlet, one that his host might be afraid to notice. But anyone of any understanding, seeing him with the woman, would know that he was the one who counted.

This intuition had, of course, no direct application. None of our ladies were married. Moreover, while I had formerly worried that a dashing stranger would, at any moment, turn up to captivate Brenda, I had lost, for better or worse, that kind of fear. Moreover, I felt strongly that it was Maria's turn.

Apart from her stint with Little Jim, Maria had spoken with all kinds of people, and had been with Biff and a half dozen other young people. Despite their formal clothes, the latter looked like the teen-agers that they were. When she was with them, even Maria seemed younger and less sophisticated. I happened to be watching, shortly before midnight, when she smoothly disengaged herself from her young friends. Biff never took his eyes off her, but she disappeared too quickly for him to follow her.

I was in a position from which I could follow Maria without too much difficulty. She headed toward the front door, and actually went outside without a coat. I then saw her speak to one of the men who were standing by to fetch the cars of departing guests. I couldn't guess what she said, but she quickly came back inside. Then, instead of rejoining her friends, she stood half hidden in a little alcove with a window looking out.

There are certain feminine actions as old as the ages. One of them consists in watching and waiting for a man. It doesn't matter whether the woman is looking out of a window in a castle or through an opening in a thatched hut, or whether she's wearing an evening dress or a well-draped leopard skin. Maria, like the others, stood erect, passive, and with infinite patience.

Moving to another window, on the floor above Maria, I also observed the night scene. The visitor was half way across the open ground before I saw him. Although slim and moving with grace and agility in his black coat and hat, it was obvious, even in that light, that he was a man, not a boy.

Maria, still without a coat, stepped out in front to meet him. It at first looked as if they were going to embrace, but I thought that Maria, never one to assume that she wasn't being watched, made some sign to him. For my part, somewhat ashamed, I left my vantage point. I would meet the man soon enough if he came inside.

My thoughts, as I repaired to a little buffet table, were necessarily chaotic. Maria had never brought this man to the house. Who was he? Where had she met him? Where did they go together? What had she done with him?

Calming a little, I began to see the reality. Margie was right. Maria didn't really belong with Biff or the others, nice as she might be with them. In fact, Maria was very unlikely to find anyone her own age anything like her equal. Even in Washington, the other young people brought in for training hadn't been of the same caliber. So, sooner or later, it had to be an older man. And the relation, despite the disparity in age, needn't necessarily be exploitive.

I didn't say anything to Brenda when we met at a food table, but she, evidently feeling a mother's intuitive uneasiness, asked me where Maria was. I replied, honestly enough, that I didn't know. I could have let Brenda go off on her own, but, not certain what she might find and how she might take it, I accompanied her.

Even our house wasn't big enough for a live band and dance floor, but there was dancing in one of the rooms to records. All evening, there had been some couples on the floor. We eventually looked there and found Maria, dancing with her friend. They weren't entwined, or anything like that, but they nevertheless danced in an intimate way. I was sure that Brenda noticed, and there was an audible intake of breath.

The man had his back to us, but Maria, catching sight of us, stopped dancing and led him to us. It was Mr. X, now head of the local office of the FBI.

Before either Brenda or I could say anything, Maria spoke cheerfully,

"I realized just today that we'd forgotten to invite John. I didn't think he'd be insulted if I called him on the day of the party, and here he is!"

In theory, each of us had had the right to invite anyone. But, of course, that particular invitation would have been vetoed. I didn't know, and still don't know, how much Maria knew about Mr. X. But I suspected, and still suspect, that his presence wasn't the result of any sudden happy inspiration. Brenda's eyes bulged, but she managed to produce a welcome of a sort. When we moved away and they were again dancing, Brenda was cursing Thelma under her breath. I replied,

"She shouldn't have brought him over to lunch that day and introduced him. But I didn't think it would go any further. Have you had any communication with him since?"

It was a natural question, but I realized suddenly that Brenda didn't want to answer. I concluded that there had been some sort of communication, but, of course, nothing involving Maria. That part, obviously, had come as a total and very unpleasant surprise. She finally said,

"This is utterly intolerable. The sequence of murders attributed to him has never stopped. There was one just a month or so ago."

It seemed, for a moment, as if she might be about to blow the whistle and inform the authorities. But, of course, her mother had commissioned one of the murders. And she and I had been co-conspirators. I accordingly remarked with a certain coolness,

"Of course, there was a gap during the war when he was killing Germans."

"Yes, but he was back at his civilian vocation within a few months of V - E Day."

"You've never told Maria about him?"

"No, but Maria corresponds with Thelma and talks with her on the phone. I bet Thelma's told her."

"So this is Maria's way of getting a rise out of you. She can pretend not to know about him and play with fire, probably in a fairly safe way."

"She's not going to like the rise she's going to get out of me when this damned party's over."

I suddenly had one of my insights. This wasn't going to be an ordinary mother-daughter spat, or even the sort of fight that could be made up in a few weeks. Brenda was getting set to totally mis-handle Maria in a way that neither would ever forget.

I, in a panic, went to a nearby table and drank the contents of a glass that was standing there.

* * * * *

I must break off here to explain the way in which this manuscript has been written.

The first part was written right after the war in a rush. Then, in the last year or so, I have added to it, sometimes describing events that have occurred only a month or so previously. Among other things, I remember describing my experience with the buzz-bomb near the end of the war, which I concluded by saying that I hadn't taken another drink from that day to the present. That statement was true when I wrote it, some time before Maria's coming out party. However, it became inoperative on that evening.

I'm not sure exactly what was in the drink, but it was alcoholic. I had another. Brenda was certainly concerned, enough so as to at least temporarily forget about Mr. X. I was going strong with more drinks, and, feeling hot, I rushed out of the house for a swim.

I had just ripped off my tuxedo when Brenda, apparently afraid that I was drunk enough to drown, tried to restrain me. In the struggle, we both fell into the canal, myself in my underwear and Brenda fully dressed. I still insisted on swimming with my deliberate breast-stroke, and Brenda had little choice but to dog-paddle along beside me until Ralph arrived to drag me out. People had gathered, and the spectacle was sufficient to put an end to any social pretensions we might have had in Cincinnati.

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