Bright Flows the River, page 1
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Bright Flows the River
“In the dark night of the soul,
Bright flows the river of God.”
The wet black road twisted and flowed before him, a rippling black river, glittering in the bouncing headlights of his car. He could hear the roaring shout of the awesome summer storm; lightning sprang back from the gushing windshield, glared in blue-white mirrors on the pavement. Water scrambled on the roof of the car, thunder made the whole vehicle shudder. He could feel the explosions in his very teeth, against the top of his head. Occasionally, as his car rushed in lunatic flight towards destruction, the lights flared on twisting trees, on marching steel rods of rain. The windshield wipers squealed shrilly: “Stop it, stop it, stop it!” Wind bawled against the shut windows.
But he was running, running away from his tranquil maniac life, his sweet life, his serene and terrible life, his secure and fulfilled and unbearable life, his life which was now a huge and untenable sickness in him, an agony too murderous to be borne even for another hour. His head rang with the groans and screams of his own pain which seemed to blast up from his very viscera, all clamoring for death, for surcease, for escape into nothingness, for an end—and sleep, and silent eternity without thought or memory.
He cried out, “Beth! Beth!” With each cry the pain twisted in him, wrenching him apart, snatching at his throat, echoing back into the vault of his skull, into shivering caverns filled with hot torment and exquisite anguish, into abysses that were in himself yet into which he was falling. His suffering climbed pointed mountains of flame, only to hurtle again down to crevices of burning darkness which vomited him up once more. His arms swung from side to side in his half-blindness on that running and spurting black river which appeared to want to engulf him; his hands clung to the wheel and would not release it for all his blasphemous prayers. Death, death—but his hands gripped the wheel and would not let go in spite of his cursing. The will to live fought with the will to die, and it was losing.
He had one sudden cold and lucid thought: You are mad, you know.
He answered it aloud, through his clenched teeth and from his gasping throat. “Yes, of course. I always was. I was a coward, and mad cowards deserve to die. I should have done this before,” and he laughed over and over and the awful sound beat against the thrumming walls of his car.
Thunder answered him, too—or was it his heart?—thunder that was not divided from his pain. Lightning dazzled him. It lit up the whole black and streaming and chaotic night of storm, and he did not know, for several moments, if he was within his car or joined to the yelling elements outside. A savage joy seized him, and he shouted again, “Yes, yes, yes!”
The car, like a sentient thing pleading for its life with all its resistance against ruin, was sliding here and there, rocking on its wheels, and again the lightning created a chaos of light, and he saw before him a copse of trees which was leaping at him with an insane speed. He saw the trunks, pouring with water, the embracing wild branches, and, in one second, the seething leaves blazing with white torn fire.
He closed his eyes and whispered, “Now, now!”
He did not feel the impact. He merely saw a redness and felt a bursting in himself, a rising, a floating, a soaring. He did not hear the trees crushing his car. He heard, at blessed last, only silence. A great white star, expanding and throbbing, and brighter than any sun, swarmed toward him with enormous velocity and he smiled and held his eyes upon it, waiting.
“He had—has—all the reason in the world to live,” said Guy Jerald’s wife. “Of course, I’ve heard of the male climacteric—Guy is fifty-five, you know. I understand, at that age, that men begin to ‘reevaluate’ their lives—or something.”
Or “something,” thought her visitor. I wonder if she knows what she is talking about. A stupid woman, really. She quotes all the jargon and all the clichés but without comprehension. That is true of almost everyone, though; she is certainly handsome for a woman of—fifty-six? I shouldn’t be too critical; perhaps cynicism has become my way of life. Occupational hazard. He murmured, “True. There does come a time in a man’s life when he thinks over the past and what, if anything, he has accomplished, and dreads the future, and ruts, and monotony and old age. He wonders where his life has gone, and what remains for him, and if day after day will only follow in dreary procession, until he dies. Then, he becomes desperate—”
“I know,” said Jerald’s wife very brightly. “‘The search for identity,’ I believe it is called.”
Oh, God, thought her visitor. He ached to ask her what the hell she meant by that, but he was certain it would only embarrass her as she fumbled among her other platitudes. Intrinsically, though he was a psychiatrist, he was a kind man, this in spite of all the fools he was constantly encountering, all the dangerous, pathetic, bewildered, stumbling, egotistic, maundering, self-pitying, wretched, hysterical fools. I am losing the virtue of compassion, he said to himself, but—my God! There are so few whom life has ruthlessly and genuinely persecuted, so few who have known authentic tragedy and despair and pain and awful disillusion. These are the ones who show a complacent and easy face to the world, who are rarely serious and apparently always interested, and laugh often. The others—my God!
They sat in the library of this great shadowy Georgian house, with its rosy brick walls, its white shutters and ivy and gardens covering four acres of ordered lawns, its fountains and grottoes and slate paths under stretching oaks and maples whose leaves were now brilliant crimson and scarlet on this autumn day in Cranston, Pennsylvania, within sight of the royal purple Poconos. As if Lucy Jerald had heard her visitor’s admiration of this house and its grounds, she said, in her fluting voice—well bred—“This house belonged to my grandfather, you know, and my father enlarged it. Guy bought it for me. I was born here, and so was my brother. It was one of the happiest days of my life, when we bought my home. It had been in the hands of a very grubby person—” She never fully ended most of her sentences. Her voice would rise on a mellifluous note, as of inquiry, and as though assuming that everyone understood her immediately. Dr. James Meyer found himself, to his annoyance, nodding his head as if he, indeed, understood all the nuances she thought she was implying.
Grubby person! he said in himself. And what was your grandfather, lady? An ironmonger, as we say in England, and a very sharp one. Didn’t he steal a very valuable invention from his brother and claim it as his own? Yes. Jerry once wrote me about it. A machine for coal mining. I understand Grandpa couldn’t do much more than write his name—and keep his greedy accounts. Dr. Meyer nodded his head again and said, “Jerry told me in a letter over twenty years ago.”
“Jerry? Oh. Is that what you call Guy?”
Dr. Meyer smiled. “Well, in England ‘guy’ refers to Guy Fawkes. You know, ‘gunpowder treason and plot—please to remember the fifth of November.’” He stopped when he saw her blank expression. He added, “Also, in England, ‘guy’ means a fool of sorts, a simpleton, a mean fellow, or someone to ridicule.”
“Oh. So that’s why you call Guy ‘Jerry.’ I see.” Her voice was vague. She’s one of those who can’t follow a conversation, thought Dr. Meyer. Why do gifted men like Jerry invariably marry such stupid women? Their appearance? She has been a beauty in her time. Still—Jerry. He had thought better of his old friend. “A man who marries a woman for her beauty is like
Again, as if sensing his thoughts, Lucy Jerald said with some uneasiness, “You and Guy were in the war together, weren’t you? He often spoke of it—and you. Didn’t he invite you to our wedding twenty-seven years ago? I think I remember.” But he saw that she was not really interested. Fools are concentrated on themselves; all the rest of the world is only a reflection in the mirror of their profound self-absorption and belief in their own importance. Nothing authentic exists for them; they have no values, no dedications beyond their own walls, no meditations. They aren’t alive, and I suppose I should feel pity for them. I don’t. Very reprehensible of me. The woman is so infernally boring, as are all the shallow conceited, all the wearisome pretenders, all, in short, the stupid. Jerry—what the hell! Or, were you, like most very young men, interested only in her genitals? Believe me, mate, one set of genitals is as cloying as another, and without imagination one female is a duplicate of millions like her. But how many women do possess imagination, delicacy, zest, and fire? Very few. These precious females often become concubines or interesting mistresses. Not often wives. If wives, they become bored and off they go, and can’t say I blame them.
Jerry hadn’t married for money. His wife, for all her finishing school, was the daughter of a bankrupt, whereas Jerry had been rapidly rising, and even extremely solvent, at that time, the time of his marriage. James Meyer said, “Yes, we were in the war together, especially at the Battle of the Bulge. I wasn’t a physician then, but Jerry’s enthusiasm for medicine inspired me. Did he tell you that?”.
Lucy was looking bored. Anything not completely related to herself inspired ennui and acute uninterest. “Guy? He wanted to be a doctor?” She smiled a tolerant and superior smile. “He never said anything about that! I suppose it was only a passing idea of his; Guy is very even-tempered, though, very much in control of himself, and he usually got what he wanted.”
Did he? Dr. Meyer thought.
“That’s why, knowing Guy, I can’t understand—”
But I am beginning to, thought James. Even-tempered, is he? Not the Jerry I remember! Controlled? If ever there was a wild lad, Jerry was it. What in God’s name happened to him? I should have been alerted by his dull and pedestrian letters which began years ago, and finally ended.
“Jerry saved my life,” said James.
“It was a long time ago. He had been given some medical training in the Army; he had a genius for medicine. That’s why I often wondered why he didn’t go on with it.”
“Medicine?” Her voice was again vague and superior. “What on earth? Of course, there wasn’t any money, and he had a mother to support—He’s done much better than ever he would have done as a mere doctor.”
She doesn’t mean to be insulting, thought Dr. Meyer. It takes intelligence to be insulting. With all the advances in psychiatry we still haven’t been able extensively to probe the primitive mind. We call it “animalistic,” or “infantile” and “limited.” It should be a profound study, so we can, perhaps someday, practice the science of eugenics, and control the births of such people—if you can call them people. The old Jews, and the present Continentals, were quite right in arranging the marriages of their children. In America, and England, now, all is haphazard, based on the spasms in the groin, God help us, and never on distinguished family and sound success, and intelligence, and compatibility and suitability. It is quite true, though the Socialists deny it, that the level of intellect in America and England is definitely declining in the general populace, due to indiscriminate and heedless breeding. No wonder we have children who disappoint us. We should be better at choosing their mothers. I must talk of this at the medical meeting in New York, though probably I will be howled down by the professional brotherly-lovers who believe environment, not genes, is all.
James could see, through the windows which were flooded with golden autumn light, the carnival colors of the trees and the gardens, the scarlet and red and crimson, the last burning calla lilies and tawny chrysanthemums, the brilliant green of the grass, the hollow blue shadows under the trees—so lonely—and a distant elm fluttering its yellow rags in a bright and nimble wind. The royal purple of the mountains far beyond had turned a dull plum, and a round red sun stood, rayless, over them. Pale gilt fingers still lay on the mahogany-paneled walls of the library, seeking through the heavy green draperies of an involved pattern. Rows of books lined the shelves, and many of them appeared well worn—Jerry’s books. A light green oriental rug, figured in mute rose and gold, lay on the pegwood floor. The furniture was comfortable and masculine, deep red and brown leather, and a fire hissed and crackled reflectively on the black marble hearth, exploding amber sparks occasionally up the chimney. From somewhere—records probably—came a meditation from Brahms, which seemed part of the warm and fragrant stillness, part of the scent of China tea and pastries, part of the blue and white English china on the silver tray on the tea table near Lucy Jerald, part of the antique glimmer of polished teapot, pitcher, sugar bowl, and jug of hot water, and the patina of old wood tables. James had no doubt that this was Jerry’s particular room. Lucy appeared an intruder here. Had she received and fed him here in memory of her husband—the husband now in the genteel madhouse—or had she, in her vague way, known that the room was a masculine refuge?
Why hadn’t Jerry taken a fine mistress, who might have saved his sanity and given him a reason for living, and some joy and laughter, and some hope? Dimly, James recalled something. Wasn’t there a girl in Germany? Had she been already married? He, James, must think about this. There might be a clue there. Suddenly he was overwhelmed with an unfamiliar grief. Had he, too, failed Jerry sometime? But we were both very young then, he thought, and the future seemed endless and eternal to us, with no horizon except brightness, no threat of age and ending, no cul-de-sacs, no dusty alleyways, no dryness, no dead bones, no fear. Someone should teach the young that youth quickly ends and middle age and old age come swiftly, and if a man is to endure life with some tranquillity he must prepare for all this. And, in middle age, he should violently change his course, for he is then rich with maturity and understanding and still capable of dreams, and wonderment. And the hell with “duty” and “responsibility” and “what is owed”! A man owes it to himself to live. And to love again, with the richness of comprehension and vitality which only a man in his middle years can know, and with renewed passion of the soul. At the last, thought James Meyer, the cynic, there does need to be a woman, preferably one to whom one is not married.
He looked at Lucy Jerald again. Yes, a handsome woman, slender in her gray silk dress with the mannish collar so favored by dieting women, who are usually breastless, as was Lucy. But her rump, her bum, as he had earlier perceived, was very substantial, and was blatant even under the pleated silk. “Superior” or not, a woman’s rump betrayed her breeding, and a mare’s fat bottom was not indicative of refined or patrician breeding.
Lucy gave the impression of being dainty, though she was a tall woman. This was due to the immaculate, and expensive, ministrations of expert hairdressers and masseuses, manicurists and exotic practitioners of “facials.” Alas, these could do nothing for short thick hands, wide coarse feet, and heavy legs. From the waist up, however, she projected the illusion of fragility, for her face was narrow, with a good if low brow, fair thin skin with a frail brushing of rouge, a small colorful mouth, small ears and chin, and a flippant nose. The smoothness of her complexion, the lack of lines and wrinkles, made James suspect very clever plastic surgeons. Her eyes were large and pale blue and wide with absolutely no expression and inclined to be somewhat watery. This was all topped by artfully tinted ash-gold hair and brows. James’s first thought of her had been “colorless,” for her long curled hair, eyes, and complexion were without vita
James would have liked to call her “a farce, a fraud,” but he knew this was untrue. She was simply her inane self, witless and obtuse, as unaware of hectic life as a carrot. If she lacked any passion at all, she also lacked malice. Many would call her “a perfect lady,” and she probably cultivated that aspect of herself with all the feeble sedulousness of which she was capable. To James, she was not a “lady” at all, in the true meaning of the word. Ladies had fire and wit and a quick intelligence, temper and humor and a slight touch of vulgarity when the situation seemed ludicrous. They could tell lewd stories with grace and aplomb and style. Lucy would not recognize lewdness if she heard it, and she certainly lacked élan and verve.