Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 25


Just before leaving Cincinnati for Huntington, I cabled to Mac that it was feasible and desirable to run the eastern circle through Cincinnati, details to be provided on our arrival. I also said that I was now married.

The flood turned out not to be a serious one by Cincinnati standards, and we left aboard a regular Pennsylvania train for Fort Wayne. Mrs. Hawkins saw us off, and, at the last minute, Sidonie hugged her and conferred in whispers.

At Fort Wayne, we transferred to one of our own passenger trains for Huntington, and, while the distance was only twenty four miles, it seemed as if that journey took almost as long as the much longer one. As we tried to explain to Sidonie that we didn't consider passenger service very important, she smiled as if she had already guessed as much.

John Henry had been concerned about being recognized in Huntington, but Mrs. Hawkins had gotten him a dark blue suit in Cincinnati in place of his usual engineer's outfit. As Sidonie said,

"He's going to be noticed whatever he wears, and, in that suit, he's even more overwhelming than usual. But he looks as if he might be about to give a speech or sermon, not get into a fight."

I wasn't particularly concerned myself, and, when we alighted on the platform and went to the taxi rank, people must have supposed that John Henry was with Sidonie. She was even farther removed from the world of street brawling.

When the taxi dropped us at the Garner home, Vignis came rushing out. I knew that she had been waiting and watching, fascinated to see who I had married. The effect of Sidonie, like that of Vignis herself, wasn't easily described. It seemed to me that Vignis was pleased, and, if she kissed me less energetically than usual, that was only because she didn't wish to arouse any speculation.

Of course, Vignis had also liked Cindy Lee. Indeed, she might well have thought that I would be better off with someone less beautiful than Sidonie, and perhaps someone from a less exotic background. When she had a chance, Vignis whispered to me,

"She's spectacular."

She said it in highly approving tones, but I was yet more convinced that Vignis doubted that I needed someone spectacular. Then, too, it was obvious that it would take her longer to come to know Sidonie than Cindy Lee. The latter was also smart, but she was open, consistent, and reasonable, virtues that couldn't all be claimed for Sidonie.

When meeting new people, it seemed that Sidonie's youth came particularly into play. She first had to discover whether she was going to be treated as an adult or as a precocious child, and then whether it made a difference that she was black. Even though Vignis must have satisfied her on those counts, Sidonie still seemed rather tense.

Even before Mac's arrival, we talked a good deal about the railway and the possibilities in Cincinnati. Fairly quickly, Sidonie said to Vignis,

"There are floods in Cincinnati all the time, but James and John Henry discovered how to run trains on a viaduct over the water. Goods destined for the city can be tossed off the train into the water and collected by rowboats."

Everyone laughed, and, from that point on, Sidonie seemed younger and more relaxed. Finally, there were some jokes between her and Vignis, most of them at the expense of John Henry and myself. After a while, we went upstairs to unpack and get ready for dinner. Sidonie got partly out of her dress before she sent me down to wait for her. I talked with John Henry for a while, until Vignis and Sidonie came down together. They both had on silk dresses, red for Vignis and gold for Sidonie. I suspected that they had co-ordinated their outfits with a view to making the maximum impression on us, but wasn't quite sure which of us men was meant to be most impressed by which lady.

When Mac came in, he immediately asked John Henry and myself questions about the C&O in Cincinnati, not even troubling to greet us. Once he had gotten the bare bones of the scheme, Vignis broke in,

"You can get the rest later, dear. I want to introduce you to James' new wife."

Mac probably hadn't cared very much about my marriage, and may even have forgotten that I had married at all. Moreover, Sidonie had been sitting off to the side, out of his immediate view. However, Vignis wasn't to be denied, and he allowed her to lead him in Sidonie's direction.

It was probably part of Sidonie's basically French upbringing that a woman remained seated while being introduced to a man, although there might have been exceptions in cases where age or status varied greatly. At any rate, at the very moment that Mac first saw Sidonie, she was springing to her feet, her loosely fitted gold dress swirling around her, and her large gold earrings swinging. From her tight black curls and flashing eyes to the swift sure movements of her delicate feet and ankles in high-heeled pumps, she was one lithe movement, youthful and yet composed, good-humored and yet elegant.

I hadn't been present when Mac had first seen Vignis, but his reaction could hardly have been more marked. He stopped talking about the C&O instantly, and, as we sat down to talk, he set to work to find out as much as possible about Sidonie. It didn't take him long to discover that she was a philosophy major. It was in the ensuing discussion that I discovered that Mac knew more philosophy than I had realized. While he and Sidonie had different views, he seemed to know at least as much as she.

After a certain amount of philosophy, Vignis addressed John Henry and myself,

"Let's leave them to it, and go out and see the garden. There's a half hour or so before dinner."

It was mostly a vegetable garden, and I discovered that John Henry had given Vignis advice in planting it. I had never seen them together, and was surprised to see how comfortable they were in a casual way. But for their fine clothes, I was sure that they would both be squatting and digging between the rows.

On the way back to the house, Vignis asked John Henry if he had known Sidonie long. He explained that they had been fellow boarders with Mrs. Hawkins, and that he had met her only a few days before I had. He then added,

"She's awfully young, and she'll do almost anything if it looks exciting."

I was surprised that he spoke so frankly. Evidently, he knew Vignis well enough to know how well she knew me. I replied,

"Despite John Henry's reservations, he practically arranged the marriage."

As John Henry spoke, with a little smile, I realized, for the first time, that he occasionally felt pity for me.

"I knew how much the general wanted her."

Vignis looked pleased, and said to me,

"We can give her a position on the railway, probably working with me concerning education. At the same time, she could be a roving inspector travelling with you, and you could both stay with us when you're in Huntington. Would you like that?"

I knew that Vignis was also offering to help me keep track of my young wife. The work would be interesting and challenging, and Sidonie wouldn't often be left to her own devices. I replied,

"I think we'd both like that very much."

"She may want to settle down and garden and have children later, but I think she might like the travelling for a while. You could go into the big cities and spend week-ends there."

John Henry asked only,

"Are you a good dancer?"

"Well, I know how. No one ever seemed much impressed, though."

Vignis said,

"We'll work on that. If we can bring you up to a good level before you dance with Sidonie, then she'll be pleased and impressed."

When we sat down to dinner, I asked Mac what he thought of Sidonie's philosophy.

"Pretty good. She's very clever and imaginative. Of course, she's a relativist through and through. Now, son, I guess you know that I'm an absolutist."

He spoke with obvious pride. Evidently, his absolutism was undimmed by Sidonie's arguments. In fact, the rest of us had only a vague idea of the difference between absolutism and relativism, and the matter was soon explained to us.

I think, by that time, that I had had enough philosophy to last me quite some time. In any case, I'm sure that I was more occupied in watching Sidonie and Vignis than in attending to the discussion. However, an odd thing has happened.

Sister Harkins just brought in my lunch and stopped to chat. Surprisingly, she is concerned about recent denunciations of Hitler on the radio. I didn't know that anyone in England objected to Hitler's being denounced, and I probed further. She replied,

"It's being made out that he's the most evil man in the history of the world. But that's only from our perspective. To the American Indians some of my own ancestors must have seemed, and actually been, as bad or worse."

Sister Harkins is a thoughtful and independent-minded young woman. She seemed to think herself a relativist, and wanted my views on the subject. I, for my part, remembered more of that long-ago conversation with Mac and Sidonie than I would have thought.

As far as I can remember, relativism holds that objects have qualities only for a given person or relative to a given standard. Everyone accepts that the adjective "tall" really means "taller than the average" (for some group which would be clear only in context). The relativist is one who believes that most or all adjectives operate in a similar way. "Red", for example, might mean only "close to the red color standard which a given person implicitly relies on." A different person might have a somewhat different notion of red, based on a different standard, and not all the same things would be red for both. Sister Harkins didn't seem entirely satisfied, and replied,

"I don't think it's just arbitrary or idiosyncratic to claim that Hitler is evil. He really is. It's just that there aren't any objective grounds for saying he's the most evil man who ever lived."

As I got further into the discussion, I remembered Mac saying something else,

"The Greek philosopher Pythagoras said that man is the measure of all things, meaning that water in a bucket is cold for someone who feels it thus, while, at the same time, it's not cold for someone who, having just come in from the cold, feels it to be warm. However, I haven't been able to lead Sidonie into the trap Socrates laid for a student of Pythagoras."

The student, Theaetetus, had affirmed that a proposition which is true for one man might be false for another. He was then forced to admit that the same applied to Pythagoras' man-is-the-measure doctrine itself. It might be true for Pythagoras, but false for Socrates and, for that matter, Theaetetus. Pythagoras had wanted that doctrine to be true for everyone, but his own doctrine was turned against him. Sidonie avoided that embarrassment by saying,

"It's true that something is cold to me, but it isn't true for me that something is cold for me. Truth isn't a relative property. It really isn't a property at all."

At this point, Sister Harkins replied,

"I took a philosophy course once, and I remember that, sooner or later, things degenerated to the absurd."

She was called away just then, and, returning to my memoir, I recall that Vignis had much the same reaction. She was not, however, above using philosophy for her own purposes. On that occasion, she turned to John Henry and myself, remarking,

"I'll be in charge of the teaching institutes in the new towns, and I was thinking how we can use various kinds of philosophy."

She then explained to Sidonie,

"Many of our workers have come straight out of the fields. A few are like John Henry, but some are illiterate. The others are strung out in between. So we're going to hire interesting and flexible people, not always professional teachers, who can operate at many levels with constantly changing students."

Since the emphasis would always be on reading and writing at all levels, the students would carry with them their notebooks and texts wherever they went, and could have their work checked at each stop. Vignis said,

"I want to start with basic subjective things and tie everything to the railway. For example, we could give prizes for the best description of what it's like to see a locomotive at dawn, what coal smoke smells like, and so forth."

I put in, rather mischievously,

"For some, it would be just a literary exercise. To others, it could be insinuated that the nature of the object might depend on the different kinds of sensations different people have of it."

Mac, evidently eavesdropping on our conversation, boomed out,

"And others might realize that they can communicate about sensation only because they share certain unchanging concepts which make thought and language possible."

During the rest of dinner, and the coffee in the parlor that followed it, the conversation was only occasionally philosophical. Everyone was interested in Sidonie's history, and, as she talked of Haiti and Paris, I learned many things that I hadn't previously known about her.

I was, of course, proud to have brought home a wife who could excite such interest. Not only was she fascinating in herself, she could mix easily on at least equal terms with people much older than herself. It was partly that her experiences were so different from those of the rest of us that, despite her youth, one wouldn't have said that she was less experienced. And then, in a group that had more or less taken up philosophy as its collective hobby, it mattered that she knew more than any of us, with the possible exception of Mac.

Pleased as I was by these things, there were some disquieting elements. Mac liked Sidonie so much that, apart from Vignis, he might have taken her away from me. I could see that she liked him in return, and I knew too little about her to even guess how loyal she might be in the face of temptation. I was also reminded of the many stories of old fools who take young wives, and then spend the rest of their lives trying to keep them away from younger and more attractive men. I could easily imagine myself in that position.

As Mac and Sidonie joked and came near to flirting, I was also reminded that Sidonie and I hadn't consummated our marriage. It would be, at best, ironic if Mac and Sidonie slipped off together and he, so to speak, consummated it for me.

The obvious palliative was to make Sidonie as happy as possible. I would consummate the marriage as soon as practicable. I would secretly take dancing lessons, and I would otherwise glamorize myself to the extent that that was possible.

I then set out to control my fear. First, any young woman in Sidonie's position would want to favorably impress her husband's boss. She would be as vivacious, knowledgeable, and amusing as possible. Sidonie had done no more than that, and, of course, she had succeeded. It didn't follow that she also wanted to seduce, or be seduced, by him.

Along those lines, there was another piece of reassurance. There was no reason to think that Mac had been unfaithful to Vignis, or that he ever intended to be. I knew her well enough to know that she had no fears on that score. Moreover, on the present occasion, she looked as relaxed and happy as I had ever seen her. That certainly meant a good deal.

Unfortunately, I was then struck by a second fear, that Vignis and John Henry were also interested in each other. This was dangerous. Vignis might not be so interested in keeping Mac away from Sidonie if she herself were interested in someone else. It could end up that there would be two couples, neither including myself.

At this point, I needed damage control very badly, and I set to work. Most conspicuously, I knew Vignis much better than I did Sidonie, and Vignis had always been what anyone would have called a good girl. She probably wouldn't have dreamed of abandoning her husband to another woman while taking up with another man. She was no more likely to do that than to suddenly stand up and strip off her clothes. But, still, I did know that she was capable of spontaneous and impulsive action.

I will always be convinced that, at that moment, Vignis read my thoughts. She immediately cooled John Henry, detached Mac from Sidonie, and focussed much of her own attention and charm on my humble person. I wasn't sure whether she was trying to induce a little healthy jealousy in Sidonie or Mac, or both. However, finding Vignis as beautiful as ever, I had no difficulty in responding to her notice with enthusiasm.

During this phase of the party, a certain amount of champagne had been flowing in honor of Sidonie and myself. John Henry had none, but the rest of us had a couple of glasses each. Since none of us were used to drinking much, it produced a certain tipsiness. I, for one, was quite ready when Vignis proposed,

"It's a lovely evening. Let's go out for a walk."

It was now late May, and the day had been almost hot. The evening was still warm enough so that no one wanted a coat. As if to round out the various pairings that had taken place, Vignis and Sidonie went ahead, speaking quietly with each other, while the rest of us followed behind. We were soon on a shady lane that wound between large houses and through patches of woods. The moon was full and bright, illuminating certain stretches of the lane and leaving others in deep shadow. It was, in fact, a little spooky, and those were the days when there were tramps, sometimes violent ones, scattered all over the countryside. I wasn't sorry that our party included Mac and John Henry.

Vignis and Sidonie were some distance out in front when they spoke rapidly together, and then giggled. On reaching the same place, we discovered a parked car. The angle allowed the moonlight to illuminate the front seat, and, even as we watched, a bare rear end popped up into sight, and then disappeared. I peeked as we passed, but could see only tangled legs. The couple were, indeed, so taken up with their activity that they seemed not to be aware of us.

After another turn, we came to an open area and a stream some thirty feet across, part gleaming silver and part black in the shadow of the far bank. After going along it for a little distance, the lane turned at right angles and crossed on a wooden bridge. John Henry pointed out that it had no guard rails of any sort, and Mac replied that the stream was probably not over a man's head. It occurred to me that, if the occasional horse-drawn farm cart pitched into it, the driver and horse might not be any worse for a little cleansing, but I didn't deliver myself of this thought. Mac liked to think of himself as a man of the people, and I had learned not to make slighting remarks of a certain sort. I said instead,

"I bet the farm boys dive from the bridge and swim in the stream."

It turned out that Mac, as a boy, had done exactly that. It was one of very few times that he had ever spoken of his childhood, and I was intrigued by the image of a slim powerful youth arching into the water from a rustic bridge in the middle of a Texas wasteland.

Vignis and Sidonie gaily mounted the steep slope of the bridge, and then stopped at the middle, looking down into the stream. When we almost reached the bridge, I realized that the women, their feet at about my eye level, were standing at the very edge of the bridge and looking, not at us, but at the sky. The light breeze was directly behind them, and their skirts were billowing forward as they spoke quietly. Then, suddenly, Vignis and Sidonie began to sing. I had never heard either, but it was obvious that, between them, they had had a good many music lessons. Somewhat surprisingly, Vignis was the soprano while Sidonie's voice, richer and more powerful than one would have imagined from such a slim girl, lay in the alto range. They sang with a seriousness befitting a Bach cantata the song, "Old MacDonald Had a Farm."

A brisk dance was improvised to accompany the refrain, but, toward the end, Vignis' heel missed the edge of the bridge. She didn't lose her balance all at once, but wobbled precariously. Then, with Sidonie trying to hold her, she somersaulted as she fell, her shoes flying off. There was a great splash, and I, tearing off my coat, rushed into the stream.

Vignis was up and laughing, the water at her waist, by the time that I got anywhere near her. I reached out my hand to help her out, but she instead pulled me further in. I had already realized that she was rather drunk when she called up to Sidonie,

"Jump in and join us, but take your dress and shoes off first."

Sidonie was still standing in the same place, looking down at us, her head and untamed hair striking against the lighter sky. She said nothing, but disappeared from my view for a a minute. When she reappeared, she was in her white slip, hardly hesitating before leaping.

Sidonie landed almost between us, and screamed when she felt the cold water. She probably would have rushed to the bank if Vignis hadn't grabbed her. As it was, we linked arms and cavorted in the water for some little time.

I was also cold, but, when Sidonie clung to me, I was fascinated to discover how child-like her long slim body was. Then, as she shivered, it seemed almost as if I had a young wild animal in my arms. Vignis, water streaming from her hair and her breasts outlined by wet silk, was much more robust as she pulled us around in the shallowing water and led us in a further rendition of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," this time with more accentuated animal cries, less harmonic purity, and demonic eeyi-eeyi-ohs.

Eventually, even Vignis consented to go to shore. As Mac and John Henry helped us up the bank, the latter offered to run back to the house and have the chaffeur come for us. His offer was readily accepted, and, as he left, Vignis instructed Mac and myself,

"Stand next to each other and face the other way. We'll take off our clothes and wring them out."

I could hear suggestive sounds behind me, and noticed a peculiar look on Mac's face, as if he also wanted to peek. Neither of us did so, and, in due course, we were allowed to turn around. Vignis was completely dressed, except for her shoes, but the color seemed to have gone out of her red silk dress, leaving her looking rather like a mermaid. Sidonie said,

"Why don't you two go ahead and meet the car? I've still got a dry dress and shoes on the bridge. I'll put them on and James and I'll walk back."

Vignis commandeered Mac's jacket for herself, grabbed his arm, and set off. As they left, Sidonie threw her arms around my neck and kissed me in a way in which I had never been kissed before.

A few minutes later, she released herself from my arms, removed her wet slip, and dropped it on the ground. She looked quite amazing in the moonlight, and I thought she must be visible for miles. In fact, when I looked back up the lane, I caught Vignis looking over her shoulder. She waved happily as she moved briskly on.

There was soft meadow grass nearby, and I was lead firmly to it after my clothes were piled in a sopping mass on the ground. I was no longer very intoxicated, but was still not sure exactly what happened. Whatever did happen, it felt extremely good, much as it had with Cindy Lee. At length, Sidonie whispered to me,

"You've had your fun. Now it's my turn."

I was exhausted, but followed instructions nonetheless. Sidonie's body was remarkably light and flexible, but also strong. At times, when we were in certain positions, I felt myself being bounced all over the place in a remarkable fashion. It was nothing like anything Marcia had ever done, and, of course, I had had a very limited experience with Cindy Lee. At length, Sidonie said,

"I'm tired, happy, and satisfied. You can dress me and carry me home."

I probably could have carried her some distance, but was happy to discover that she was joking.

When we eventually arrived back at the house, Sidonie having regained a good deal of her former elegance with her dry dress and shoes, there was a modest celebration with the presentation of a cake. We all ate too much and staggered off to bed at midnight with bloated stomachs.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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