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Prairie Nocturneby Ivan Doig
Chapter One: Amended Star
"The evening, the evening,
The evening brings all home."
The last ringleted girl had finished off the ballad on a hopeful note — she would have given her ears for a praising word from Miss Duff — and night and quiet came again to the house on Highland Street. Regular as the curtain of nightfall was Susan Duff's routine in closing away her teaching day. Shoulders back, her tall frame straightening expectantly even though there was no one in the house to meet for the evening but herself, she shuffled sheet music into its rightful order, tallied the hours of lessons in the secondhand mercantile ledger she kept handy atop the piano, and cast an eye over the schedule of impending pupils, then the balky old doors of the music parlor were slid shut. Next a freshening of her face with a rinse of cold water; one adjusting glance into the mirror, never two; hairpins taken out, and her chestnut hair shaken down. Onward to her stovetop supper, which she raced through as though still making up for her father's interminable graces over expiring food. Now, with a pat to the kitchen and a cursory locking of doors and windows, she was ready to ascend.
As fixed as a star, the telltale glow of her gable window appeared over Helena at the last of dusk and burned on past respectable bedtime. You might think a woman of her early climb in life, singled out by her father's God for a soaring voice to lift His hymns and then casting away choirsong for the anthems of a harsh young century, would find it a hard comedown to be faced with a nightly audience of only herself. You'd be as wrong as you could be, Susan would have you know in a finger snap.
This night, however, no sooner was she upstairs than she whipped to a halt in front of the alcove of window, her gaze drawn down the hillside to the state capitol dome, resting as it did on the center of the government of Montana like a giant's copper helmet. The dome still was alight with the festoon of bulbs that had greeted 1924 three months ago, which seemed to her uncalled for.
"Blaze," Susan addressed the civic constellation in the coarse-ground Fife burr she was born to, "see if I care."
She gave a throaty chuckle at herself and wended her way toward her desk. Pausing to choose a lozenge from the cut-glass jar there, she tasted it thoughtfully with the tip of her tongue, then swirled it in her mouth as if it would clear away beginner lessons and quavery approximations of high C; poor Flossie, last pupil of the day and absolute farthest from a worthwhile voice. No recital there, she reflected, except what I'll hear from her mother.
Still caught in thought, Susan automatically cast a glance around to judge the state of her housekeeping up here and reached her usual conclusion that she needed the availability of these spacious hours beyond dark more than the place demanded housecleaning. The attic-like room extended the full length of the house — loft quarters for a married pair of servants, this must have originally been — and she treated the expanse like a rambler cottage perched above the formal quarters of downstairs. The rolltop desk, a divan, a Victrola, what had been her father's Morris chair and footstool, onyx-topped side tables, a blue-and-black knitted comforter on the sill seat of the strategically aimed gable window, swayback sets of bookshelves, a spinet piano, a typewriter sitting composedly on a rolling secretarial table, a highly unreliable new thing called a radio set standing on a sturdy side cabinet, the whopping Duff family Bible on a commemorative reading stand of its own, all populated what was in actual fact her bedroom.
This mob of comforts drew her up out of public day as if lifting her into a lifeboat, and Susan tallied the necessity of this each time, too. Liberal with the night, resourceful as she probably ever was going to be in what that Bible would have deemed her fortieth year under heaven, she held to the belief that she was most her reconstituted self inthese upstairs hours, at this elevation where the minute hand did not count. The time of footlights and the song-led marches for the right of women to vote were tucked into the past as firmly as could be, and as to the tongues of the town down there beyond the base of the stairs, she could do nothing about those. But up here, what she could do was to get busy at life's amended version of Susan Duff. There were encouraging letters to be written to favorite former pupils. (Tonight's, which took lip-biting concentration, to the breathy young soprano whose recent lieder recital in Milwaukee had not found favor there; many a time Susan wished she could deal solely with the voices, shapes of sound standing free in the air, without the human wrappings.) This political city's newspapers to be devoured, Anaconda Copper's one for spite and the independent one for sustenance. Books in plenitude; currently she was trying to make her way through E. M. Forster and the murky doings in the Marabar Caves. Music, of course: her half-finished operetta Prairie Tide always awaited, always unnavigable; and the radio set sometimes brought in serenades from unimaginable distances and sometimes madly cackled out static; but the Victrola sang the songs of others perfectly on command, restorative in itself to a teacher of voice. Then too she still was secretary of the state chapter of the Over There Memorial Committee, which took her to a drafty meeting hall once a month and obliged her to see to official correspondence, clerical enough to cross the eyes, in between. Tonight, as always, she shifted workspots every so often, her tall solo figure suddenly on the move as if she were a living chess piece. Time did not lag here in her industrious garret; it was not permitted to.
When it was nearing midnight and she had just begun to salt away another day between diary covers, she faintly heard the turn of a key in the front door and then the rhythm of him coming up the stairs to her for the first time in four years.
"Susan? You might have changed the lock."
He arrived on the wings of that commanding smile. The very model of a modern genteel major, a line of hers teased somewhere back in that diary. The blue of his blood and the red silver of bayonet steel, those paradoxical flying colors by which he came through the war. Behind Wes, it was said, men would have charged Hell; in fact, men had.
Susan sat back hard in her chair at the desk, surprised no end to be confronted with him again after all this time. Even so she could not help but marvel at the presence with which Wes did most anything, as though the shadow under him were the thrust of a stage. Her emotions were more mixed about how little the years told on him. Poised there at the top of her stairs, wearing a fortune on his back — or more aptly, on the swath of chest where General Pershing himself had pinned the highest medal — as ever he looked ready to do a white-glove inspection. Civilian life, now that he was tailored to it again, was acontinuation of duty by other means. Even his way of standing like that, the weight taken on his left leg to spare the right knee peppered by shrapnel at St. Mihiel, proclaimed the reliance that the world had wanted to place on him. Brave and wounded at the same time: the story of Wesley Williamson's life, as she was plentifully aware, on more than one kind of battlefield.
Voice training had unforeseen benefits. She thought she managed to sound in possession of herself — or at least within her own custody — as she spoke back to the immaculate invader:
"Evidently I saved you some shinnying, by not."
"Oh oh," Wes said, his smile dented but still there, "I guess I've been told."
He picked his way through the long room, interested as a museum-goer, to the perch nearest her, which happened to be the edge of her bed. "May I?"
You and your Williamson manners. In out of nowhere, walk uninvited into a woman's bedroom, then be solicitous about seating himself too near. Susan laughed to clear away her incredulity, and answered him in a tone that would have cut through bone:
"Sit yourself down, Wes, please do. I haven't had a good look at a family man in a while."
Wes ducked his head slightly in acknowledgment. One thing about Susan, she doesn't just go through the motions of being riled. At least she had not put the run on him, quite yet. He settled to the very outside of the bed, accommodating his leg, and wordlessly looked over at her before trying to make his case. The woman there just beyond reach had an enlarged sense of justice, which had been one of the first passions that drew them together. He saw that their years apart had deepened the lines of her, accented the lean longstroke features that would never amount to outright beauty, quite, but summed up as an august well-carved attractiveness; a face that had always had character enough for the capacity of a stage. The old disturbance Susan caused in him gathered at the base of his throat as he sat there reviewing her. That laugh of hers which started somewhere down in the Scotch gravel of her family footing, then her voice finding its way to the heaven-given lilt: Lord, how he missed that. The snip and snap of talk with her, all the times of concocting their political mustard plasters for the world. The linear extra helping of her, the long-boned grace that had added so to their lovemaking. Topping it all, her cinnamon eyes that could put you in your place and make you like it. Everything was there to be missed, as he contemplated Susan across the frozen distance between bed and desk.
"Lost, are you?" she inquired. "I thought this was still your New York time of year."
"You make me sound like a migratory bird."
"If you show the feather..."
"Didn't I hear you've been to France again yourself?"
"Committee doings. That was two years ago."
"Four take away two," he mused as if maintaining his own special calendar of their time apart. "Halfway back to when the earth cooled."
"Wes?" She put down her pen as if pinning something beneath it. "Do I get to know why you're here?"
"I'm working on that." Reluctantly giving up his inspection of her, he let his eyes slide over the motley keepsakes in attendance around her, the brass paperweight shaped like a treble clef, the tiny mock strongbox which held pen nibs, the soldier photograph with its tint going drab, the silver letter opener with the maiden of liberty, one breast bare and glinting, in bas relief on its handle. His gaze lit on the open pages in front of Susan. The voices of paper were one of his specialties. Thinking out loud, not a usual habit, he said: "A woman armed with a diary. Not the best company for me to be keeping, I suppose."
She looked at Wes across the small white field of pages. Just looked at him. When you have cost a man a governorship, what further scandal does he think you are apt to inflict on him?
The silence stretched. At last he brought out:
"You know I couldn't."
"I know you wouldn't," she said as if correcting his spelling. They had been through this and through this. A proven hero who could not or would not undergo a tug-of-war with his church. "Wes, the Pope has no need of the divorce law. But you do." Who had broken his vows six ways from Sunday in half the countries of Europe and in this very room and then would not break his misbegotten marriage. "She's not a well woman, Susan. That on top of the faith — I can't face leaving her when she's like this, it's against everything in me."
Susan, from a family that had the stamina of sled dogs, held nopatience for the delicate constitution and strategic indispositions of Wes's wife. She could not resist asking now:
"How is the tender Merrinell?"
For a start, his wife was under the impression Wes was in Minneapolis at this moment, buying grain consignments. He shifted a bit on the bed and reeled off that she was holding her own, at the Lake George place now for Easter break with the gold-dust twins, although they weren't especially twins anymore, only grudgingly even sisters....Susan half-listened, fascinated as of old with the change of atmosphere he brought into a room with him. In the period before him, one of her beaus at musical evenings, a tippler, smelled of cloves. She could swear Wes always carried the scent of silk.
He broke off what he was saying and again regarded Susan as though taking the opportunity to stock up on her. "We both know you don't care a hoot in hell about any of that. Let's try you. How is the Lord's gift to the musically inclined?"
"Oho, this from the man who always told me he couldn't tell Paganini from page nine? This isn't like you, Wes. At least your word was always good. When we stopped throwing ourselves at each other — "
" — when you dropped me like a bushel of hot peppers — "
" — when we were this close to being the flavor on every gossip's tongue and I said I'd have no more of it if I couldn't have you, we agreed that was that."
Actually, he recalled, she had handed him his walking papers with words more stinging than those: "If I'm going to be alone in life, Wes, it might as well be with myself."
"You're not doing either of us any good by barging in here in the middle of the night, are you," Susan was at now. "If I know anything about it, you were always quite concerned with 'appearances.'"
Wes waved that off. "No one much is up at this hour. I had Monty leave me off at the capitol grounds and came up around the back blocks. Here, come see the new Doozy." With the aimed quickness which had always reminded her of a catapult going off, he launched up on his good leg and was over to the gable.
In spite of herself, curiosity drew her over to the window by him. In the diffused glow of the strings of bulbs on the capitol dome, the butter-yellow Duesenberg could be seen parked down the hill from dozing Highland Street. Despite the night chill this time of year, Wes's bravely outfitted Negro chauffeur, Monty, was caressing the hood of the limousine with a polishing rag. The lanky form leaned into the already burnished surface as if magnetized to the machine. "Monty would sleep in it if I'd let him," Wes was saying.
Susan stood there transfixed. The Williamsons. Their wealth and their fortunes, which were two different things. She closed her eyes for an instant, overcome by the fresh weight of memory. Wes's coming here made her feel piqued, put upon, singled out a time too many, on down the list. There had been another man since him, not married but not worth marrying either. She didn't suppose Wes had shown any more belated wisdom and retrieved chastity thanshe had. They had gone their old separate anchorless ways. Yet here they were, side by side at a window again as if reviewing life's march bearing down on them. And when she opened her eyelids it was all still there: the penny-colored dome that should have been Wes's by civic right, her reflected outline on the pane of night beside his, the chauffeur stroking the flanks of the costly plaything.
Wes turned from the window, a smile of a more mischievous sort lingering on him as he sized up her reaction. Wondering why she hadn't changed that door lock, she scrupulously created more distance now between herself and him.
He surveyed the room's furnishings again. "I'm glad I wasn't the one to heft all this up those stairs. Know what I think?"
"Not without a Ouija board."
"You're treed, up here. No, let me finish. You've treed yourself. Chased the Susan Duff that was, right up into this upholstered perch." He walked back the length of the room to seat himself on the edge of the bed again, letting drop a phrase at a time as he came. "I see make-work. I see pastimes. I believe I see the unfinished musical masterpiece. I see the man-eating diary. What I don't see is you taking the world on as you always did." When she made no answer, he shifted to the affectionate mock burr he had never been able to master: "'Tis a waste of a bonny woman."
"It's late, is what it is," she left it at, making a show of checking the clock. "Wes, please. Have your say and take yourself home."
"I have the pupil of a lifetime for you."
Susan laughed uncertainly at the size of that statement. "I don't lack for pupils, they're coming out my ears." Which was not as true as it once would have been.
"This one, I want you to put all your time to, for however long it takes." He lifted a hand, as if taking an oath, to head off the protest she was sure to make. "I'll pay double for everything — your hours, whatever you need to arrange in the way of accompaniment, all the sheet music you can stand, name it. All right then," he said after a moment of gauging how she was taking this, "triple."
"Where does this come from all of a sudden? I have never wanted your — "
"There's no charity to this. You'll earn your keep with this pupil, Susan, don't ever worry about that. It's a voice I'd say is — different. Unformed, maybe you'll say rough as a cob, but hard to resist somehow. It stays on in the ear, is that any kind of musical term? You'd snap this voice up, if you heard it out of the clear blue, I'm sure you would."
His cadences of persuasion tested the walls of the room, as if this familiar floor were a speaking platform over the night-held capital city. Wes himself had a voice the size of an encyclopedia set. Susan knew by heart every gruff note and passionate coax he was capable of, and how effectively the mixture worked. "The copper companies that have looted this state for thirty years think they are immune to fair taxation," she had heard him send crowds into a rising roar as he uncoiled his campaign tag line, "I promise them an epidemic of it!" No other politician in the state had stung back as fiercely at the Ku Klux Klan as it crept west and its flaming crosses began to flare on the bald hills above Catholic towns and railheads bringing immigrants to Montana land: "This cuckoo Klan, they seem to be scared the Pope will descend on them in their beds, else why do they go around wearing their nighties over their heads?" The cause in her own bones, women's right to vote, he had furthered at every chance in the state legislature. "Comets attend the death of kings," his famous words to the 1910 suffrage convention as Halley's fireball swept across the Britain of the newly deceased Edward VII, "perhaps to see whether they truly fit their filigreed caskets. Across the water, there is a government, with complicit silence from its throne on down, that has fought its suffragists with detention, forced feedings, and truncheons. But this country, this state, with its every voice must greet the women who are pointing out true democracy to us." There never had been a hairbreadth of difference between him and her on politics, only every other field of life, and she had been all for his gubernatorial bid and the passions he gave such voice to. In his other great campaign, in the bloody mud of France, the words of Wes were known to have made the difference between life and death. Her head swimming, four years out of practice at dealing with the mesmerizing side of him, she carefully chose her way around his entreaty now:
"If it's one of your daughters, I wouldn't feel right about — "
"Not even close. Fatherly pride isn't anywhere in this. Promise me you'll give a listen."
"I seem to feel the presence of the Williamson disposition to bargain."
He reflected for a moment, as if she had shown him something about himself. Then said only: "I don't consider I've ever lost anything by it. About giving a listen — how can that hurt?"
She had to grant, "For a singing teacher, hearing is believing. All I ever ask is to be amazed."
So I remember, his expression let her know. "Opera, vaudeville," he went right on, "I don't know what we're talking, with this. I honestly don't. But you, New York and Europe and all, you've heard the best and you'll know where this voice can be made to fit. Oh, and when you start the lessons, it'll need to be done at the ranch, not here. It's a shame, but we can't — well, you'll see..." He furrowed as he came to the next thought. "I'll work the idea into Whit's skull, but we'd better be ready to make arrangements around him."
Susan scowled, reminding him one more time this was not a woman who could be steered like an ingenue at a tea dance. Wes watched her shake her head no and then some.
"Your old place, then," he knew to regroup. Not for nothing was this prideful woman the daughter of Ninian Duff, he always had to keep in mind. Ninian the Calvinian. The fathoms of bloodlines, always treacherously deep. "You could set up shop there at the homestead, why not? It'd be convenient all around. I'll see that it's outfittedfor you, furniture, groceries, bedding, cat and canary if you want."
Scotch Heaven? A Williamson spreading the red carpet there for a Duff? What next, the calendar corrected to come out better? Wary as she was determined to be, all that the Duff place on the North Fork of English Creek held for her flickered up more than a little.
Wes had been counting on the fact that geography has a habit of kissing people in a way they never get over, and he could tell he had said just enough on that score. Now he paused in that spotlit manner, as if to make sure each of his words would register. "I don't ask this lightly, Susan. It isn't some notion that walked up to me in the street. I've thought this over, and then thought that over, and it still comes out the same — I need you to pitch in on this." A tiny stretch of silence he used for emphasis, then: "I'm asking you to do everything you know how for this pupil. The works."
"Wes?" Honest bewilderment broke through in her voice. "Wes, who in this world means that much to you?"
He appeared stunned at hearing it put that way. Sitting there glazed, pale as collector porcelain.
When Wes at last rose from the bed edge, was it her imagination or did he lurch more than a misbehaving knee would account for? She watched him stiffly navigate the length of the room, biting her tongue against calling out to him. Let him march down her stairs and out of her carefully compartmented existence (Treed!), let him leave that key in the door, let that be the natural end of it.
But he paused at the gable window and stood there facing out into the night. Over his shoulder he told her: "Monty."
Copyright © 2003 by Ivan Doig
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