Agnes Lynne considered that, at sixty-seven, she was young to be widowed, but she was surprised to find how many of her contemporaries had preceded her to this condition. It was as if, while Percy had been alive, the widows had tried to camouflage their state of bereavement, rounding up a brother or nephew or cousin to accompany them to dinner at the Lynnes’, or at least, if they had to come alone, making as much noise as two, but that now that Agnes was one of them, they could relax and admit the pleasures as well as the necessities of a purely female society, positively flaunting their assumption that she, like themselves, was henceforth dependent on the matinee, the bridge table, the book class, the garden tour. They beckoned to her, with a hint of grimness behind their friendliness, a note of subdued triumph in their very sympathy, like shades of the dead welcoming a soul newly arrived from our warm planet at the dreary realms of Pluto.
Agnes rebelled against what they so evidently deemed her doom. Having been childless, she could not join in their desolate, endless chatter about absent and indifferent children, and more absent and more indifferent grandchildren. She had a fierce little faith that, having been denied the early joys of motherhood, she was at least entitled to escape its later pangs. While her friends had been confined to the nursery, she had been more actively engaged in what she had dared to call “real life,” and if this had provided a poorer show than the shining faces and curly hair of progeny, it ought, now that those faces had lost their glow and their hair its fresh abundance, to supply the compensation of an old age that refused to be relegated to the shelf of fruitless nostalgia and of rejected participation. Agnes was not yet prepared to admit that she was not still alive.
The “real life” in which she and Percy had been such close partners had been largely the life of his law firm, Lynne, Travers, Platt & O’Shea, on Court Street, one of the biggest in Brooklyn, rivaling all but the very biggest across the East River. The Lynnes had constantly entertained the partners and associates in their commodious, comfortable, old-fashioned apartment overlooking Prospect Park. Agnes had come to think of herself as a kind of office mother, giving quiet tips to the over-ambitious partners, helping the wives of the young associates to find apartments and doctors and baby-sitters, making herself available at tea-time on weekends to lonely bachelor clerks. She had even fostered a romance between one of the loneliest of the latter and the almost old-maid daughter of a senior partner which had resulted in a surprisingly happy marriage.
But best of all had been the firm itself. “Lynne, Travers” had been a happy association of dedicated men. At least, so Agnes had seen it, or tried to see it. The partners had been gentlemen in the truest old sense of that now scorned word, united in their trust as well as in their affection. There had been no squabbles over dividing profits, no wrangling over precedence in the firm name, no squeezing out of old and failing members. The indigent client had received the same quality of service as the rich one, and both time and money had been liberally contributed to Legal Aid.
Oh, of course, it had not been all that perfect. Far from it! Agnes was not so fatuous as to suppose so, and if she had been, Percy, in the terrible misanthropic moods that had followed his rare drinking bouts, would have enlightened her. In a single one of these he used to be able to destroy the work of years. He would become sullen, bitter, vindictive. He would refuse to stay home, despite her begging, and would go to the office to taunt the clerks for their supposed laziness and stupidity. At times he had seemed to show a streak of near sadism. After the fit had passed, he had been disarmingly apologetic, and Agnes had usually managed to visit the bruised young men and to heal their wounds with the old saw about bark and bite, but for all his charm and for all her sympathy, these outbreaks had produced some permanent alienations.
Percy’s last illness had been frightful, a culmination of all the most terrible of his depressions. The great, gaunt, fuliginous man had lain motionless on his hospital bed, his face turned sullenly away from visitors. But at the very end, just when she had thought that she could not bear it, just when it had seemed too hideously much that their whole life together should be smirched with this final gloom, he had turned and roughly seized her hand and pressed it until it hurt and then had hoarsely blessed her for forty-five years of patience and love. Oh, the difference that had made! She still ached in her heart at the thought of it, or rather at the thought of how long and hideously she would have ached without it. If their reach had exceeded their grasp, at least they had reached. And if he had found it difficult to love, at least he had tried.
And now she was left, stunned and groggy with the sense of all that was over. Not only was Percy over, and their life together over, but so was the firm itself, or at least the firm in any shape that she cared to recognize as such. It was not that she had been unprepared for change, even for annihilation. She had read “Ozymandias” and knew about those vast and trunkless legs of stone standing in the desert. But what she had not been prepared for was the speed with which the past could be wrapped up and put away. She had thought it might be decades, at least years. She had not dreamed that it might be a matter of months.
Yet so it was. Old Mr. Bry, who had been Percy’s guide and mentor, had died at ninety; then Judge Satler, then Percy-all within thirteen months. In the same period Kings Long Island Trust Company, Percy’s favorite client, had been merged with a Manhattan bank and lost to the latter’s Wall Street counsel. And then the firm itself had joined up with a smaller firm and had acquired seven new partners, five of whom had never even met Percy. One miserable little year of death and mergers, and the whole character of a grand old law partnership was lost! Each time that Agnes, as executrix of her husband’s will, went down to Court Street, there would like as not be a receptionist at the desk who did not even know her. “Mrs. Linn? L-i-n-n? Is that right?” It was worst when these girls were polite, solicitous. Agnes would have rather faced some blunt old dragon, waving her away with a snarl of “Scat, Has-Been!”
Determined to avoid both the altered firm and the beckoning widows, she found a temporary solace in a new friend, Ada Koepel. Ada, a tall, trim woman, with faded beauty, very gray, always in black, was also a widow and also the widow of a lawyer—Mr. Koepel had been a surrogate and a leader in Jewish philanthropies—but, like Agnes, she eschewed the company of bereaved females. They had met, not through what they had lost but through what they still had—their poodles—in Prospect Park, and they had slipped into the habit of meeting at the same bench, by the Botanic Gardens, at eleven. Ada Koepel lived alone—her two married daughters had moved to the West coast—but she was devoid of the usual desperation. She seemed to accept the sun and the grass and the park as her natural companions. But Agnes soon discovered that the park Ada, so calm and seemingly gentle, had a lively counterpart in the Ada of the Brooklyn Library, and Ada of the Philharmonic. If she was quiet in Prospect Park, it was because she needed the rest.
“You’ll find that what gets you through is your intellect,” Ada summed up one day, when she had completed what must have been a silent “diagnosis” of her new friend. Or had it been a testing period? “You must read with me, my dear. And don’t tell me that it’s a ‘passive’ occupation. Reading is only the converse to writing. Where would Shakespeare be without us?”
“You don’t mean to compare a reader with a writer? A great writer? A writer like Shakespeare?”
“Why not? Appreciation completes the artistic process. Perfect appreciation is just as rare as perfect writing. I don’t, mind you, say that mine is perfect. I’m not such an ass. But one can try.”
Oh, yes, Ada, when she wanted, had the tone of a leader! She led Agnes now, to the library, to lectures, to museums, to concerts. To the latter such things had always been a fringe to life, an attractive fringe, to be sure, but nothing more. Now she tried to learn to respect the great reality they were to Ada. But where she decidedly did not follow her new friend was in the latter’s attitude towards the world of law in which both their husbands had been so importantly engaged. Ada cast an eye on this world which to Agnes was too cool, too balanced, too distinctly appraising. Ada’s greatest principle in life, it sometimes seemed to Agnes, was to be “taken in” by nothing—but the sonnets of Shakespeare and the fugues of Bach.
Ada was not, for example, suitably impressed by the great “public spirit” of the old firm of Lynne, Travers, even when Agnes had broadly hinted how much of that spirit had been directly infused from the late Percy Lynne. “Well, in the ‘great old days,’ as you call them,” Ada wanted to know, “didn’t your husband’s firm discriminate against Jews?”
“Oh, I doubt that,” Agnes answered, much embarrassed. “I just don’t think Jewish boys cared to go into that kind of firm. At least in those days.”
“What kind of firm?”
“Well … a non-Jewish firm.”
“You mean it just used to happen that way? That Jews wanted to be with Jews and Gentiles with Gentiles?”
Agnes, at this, was decidedly disappointed in her new friend. She had not believed that Ada would be so narrowly partisan. It was not, of course, that her tone was disagreeable. Ada’s voice was as soft as ever. But the laughter behind, if heard, would have been mocking. Agnes had sadly to conclude that Ada was never going to concede that Percy and his partners had lived on a higher moral plane than other lawyers. Certainly, she had to admit to herself, if Ada had heard any of the anti-Jewish stories that Percy had loved to tell, she would not. Ada would never have under stood that a certain kind of jovial, conversational anti-Semitism had been a harmless trait in Percy and his friends. They had roasted Jews the way they had roasted Catholics—it had been a social habit, a men’s convention, lacking in taste perhaps, but having nothing to do with any real animus, certainly having nothing to do with discriminations or persecutions. Had Percy not arranged the election of the first Jew to his fraternity at Yale?
“I don’t think you understand the kind of firm Percy’s was,” Agnes told her friend with dignified regret. “He and his partners would never have held race or religion against their fellow men.”
“Against their fellow clubmen,” Ada corrected her. “I’m sorry, Agnes, but there are some things you have to be Jewish to understand. I am perfectly willing to concede that your husband and his partners were honest and industrious men, and in some ways high-minded. They trusted each other, but they kept ‘each other’ to a very small group. I know something about that, dear. Judge Koepel used to tell me.”
Agnes was so indignant that she did not care if she was offensive. “Judge Koepel, I’m sure, knew everything.”
“Ah, now you’re cross, and there’s no point talking when one is cross.” Ada rose and called her poodle which she had let off the leash. She and Agnes had picked that bench because the policeman on the beat winked at this. “Let us change the subject. But just before we do so, let me assure you that I’m not being superior. Judge Koepel was no more public spirited than anyone in Mr. Lynne’s firm. Perhaps he was a tiny bit clearer on some of the issues, that’s all.”
Agnes might have succumbed to the widows after this altercation had not a third diversion unexpectedly offered itself. Upon her return from the park on the day of her difference with Ada, she found a letter from Decius Blount, now senior partner of Percy’s firm, asking if he could call upon her the following afternoon. But much more important even than this pleasant prospect was the gracious paragraph that ended his letter:
I know that I must not lose touch with you. Now that I occupy the chief administrative position of the firm, I shall have a constant need of your advice and encouragement. You are the repository of all the old spirit and spark that made us great. Alas, we look about in vain for that today. If you would coach me-if you would simply talk to me, say, one day a week, or even a month, about yourself and Percy and all the wonderful things you planned together, I know that I should approach my task with a lighter heart and a bigger hope.
Agnes, standing by the window and looking out over darkening Prospect Park, put the letter to her heart and wept.
Decius Blount, who was a rather boyish fifty, with soft brown eyes and soft brown hair, the latter only very lightly touched with gray, would have been almost good looking had he not been a bit too short, a bit too plump, and a good deal too mannered. Agnes could never forget Percy’s crude expression that he sat in a drawing room chair as if he had “a bug up his ass.” Poor Decius tried desperately to make up for his self-consciousness by arraying his round, plump body in beautiful tweeds and by soldering up his natural furtiveness in a late Victorian pomposity. But when he played with his watch chain, when he complimented Agnes on her tea, when he admired any of the rather indifferent trinkets that sparsely furnished the living room (Agnes and Percy had cared little for bibelots), he suggested a Cruikshank drawing of one of Dickens’ parlor hypocrites.
Yet, as Agnes well knew, mannerisms could be very misleading, and they were never more so than in the case of Decius Blount. He was one of those brilliant, effeminate men who study, from childhood, how to adapt themselves to the world of their more masculine fellows and end by dominating it. In the Middle Ages he would have been a political prelate; in the Ottoman court a eunuch and vizier; in our own, he was a lawyer. So thorough had been his understanding of every partner and client of Percy’s firm that on the latter’s death his succession had been as unquestioned as it had been surprising. Percy had always told Agnes that Decius was a “frustrated pansy,” but Agnes, as a woman, suspected that he was simply an inhibited male.
If Percy had regarded Decius, as a lawyer, with his rare admiration and, as a human being, with his much commoner contempt, Decius had returned good for good and good for bad. He had consistently worshiped Percy in every capacity, and if the latter’s widow occasionally and uneasily suspected that, like most worshipers, Decius subconsciously preferred to have the founder of the cult dead and freed from the faults of clay, she nonetheless appreciated a zeal that did not seem to have notably survived in her husband’s other erstwhile admirers. To hear Decius praise Percy was greater pleasure than any matinee that the widows could offer.
“What Percy understood,” he told her that afternoon, pacing from the fireplace to the window and back, “was that a law firm is something much more than its clients’ problems. In a way, you might say, the latter exist for the firm, as cases exist to make up law. The practice of any profession is an art, and the joint practice dedicated men can be the greatest art of all. Ah, but they must be dedicated, that’s the point! They must be dedicated to something higher than the client, something higher than mere monetary reward!”
And what was better even than all of this, what was almost enough, in fact, to make a life out of a widowhood, was the astonishing revelation of his absolute determination to see her regularly. His note had not been flattery, after all; it had not even been politeness. Decius Blount had simply made up his mind that he must draw inspiration from the distinguished dead through her medium. He wanted his “day” in her week; he insisted upon coming to her, directly from the office, at six o’clock every Wednesday. He would hold the firm under her regency, as she would hold her regency under the shade of Percy. The past would not be dead. It would direct the living!
The only thing that she worried about was that Decius might ruin it all by too much solemnity. But even this fear proved unfounded.
“You know, Agnes,” he told her, as early as their third Wednesday, “there is no reason that you should always be the one to entertain me. Suppose next Wednesday you come to my apartment? And not just for tea, but for dinner?”
Decius’ apartment was unexpectedly charming, with a fine
view of the harbor. It was on the top floor of an old brownstone mansion on Brooklyn Heights, and its walls were covered with his collection of baroque eighteenth-century stage designs. A grinning, white-coated Japanese houseboy served them steak and burgundy, ice cream and champagne. Agnes became a little bit tipsy and listened with the greatest sympathy as Decius held forth on his lonely boyhood and his poor sad tubercular mother. Only with coffee did she suffer the dampening thought that this long dead parent must have been her own age. But when she mentioned this, Decius was unexpectedly explicit in his denial.
“Oh, Mummie was ages older than you, Agnes. You’re only sixty-eight, and Mummie would have been ninety-three. She was forty-two, you see, when I was born. I really belong in your generation. You could be my older sister.”
“Well, yes-I suppose.”
“And what’s more I feel we’re the same generation. Don’t you? Don’t you think we talk as contemporaries?”
Agnes was going to pass this off with a shrug, but Decius was much too serious. His eyes were fixed on her, and for once he sat still, making none of his usual nervous gesticulations. Even in the gentle haze which the wine had created, she could sense his force.
“It’s not only a question of age, Decius,” she answered, with a rueful note. “A bachelor always has his life more or less ahead of him, while a widow has hers behind. So even if you were sixty-eight, and I—What are you? Fifty-one?—I’d still be the elder.”
“Not all widows feel that way!”
“Indeed they don’t. There are widows and widows. I’m the old-fashioned kind. The best of me was buried with Percy.”
Decius rose at this, very solemnly, and, leaning down, kissed her hand. It was all very embarrassing, but it was still not quite as embarrassing as she had thought it was going to be.
“God bless you, Agnes. What is left of you is better than what any of the rest of’ us have. So long as we’ve got you, we’ll get by.”
Agnes could think of nothing to say, so she made a vague murmuring noise, and Decius resumed his seat. After a tense, stiff little pause he continued, but in a more relaxed tone than she would have thought, under the circumstances, possible:
“It’s not just as a member of the firm that I need you, Agnes. It’s much more personal than that. I need you to be my friend.” Decius’ face was actually serene, in the style of some very shy people when they manage at last to talk intimately. “I’ve had few friends in my life. Almost none, really. As a boy I was weak physically. I didn’t get my strength till college. I was afraid of girls, and the other boys made fun of me. After Mother died I turned entirely into myself and my work. In the firm I admired some of the older partners, particularly Percy, but I was never intimate with any of them. Maybe they didn’t want to be. Maybe I didn’t know how. Anyway, I was always alone. But now that you’re alone, too, I thought we might be friends. Real friends. You wouldn’t be always expecting those other things of me, the way younger women do. Lord, you wouldn’t believe what some of them will do to get a man! And I wouldn’t be expecting anything of you but the chance to take you out to dinner and the theatre. Why couldn’t we have a wonderful, happy friendship? Oh, Agnes, please say yes! I need you so!”
“But, my poor boy,” Agnes cried, taking both his out stretched hands in hers, “do you think it’s such a favor for a lonely old widow to agree to be taken out to dinner by an attractive, successful man? By a leader of the bar? Why, Decius, you’ve got it all mixed up. I’d be honored and flattered to be your friend!”
After this their Wednesday evenings became more festive. Decius would take her to dine in Manhattan in restaurants like the Pavillon or Voisin’s, and order fine dishes and great wines. Agnes had never been much interested in these, but Decius was a decided gourmet, and she was already learning to humor him. Their conversation, a bit to her surprise, even a bit to her disappointment, rarely struck again the intense personal note that he had sounded on the night of their dinner at his apartment. They talked now continually about the office, even more than she had done with Percy: which clerks should be promoted, which partners should be retired, which clients were more trouble than they were worth. Decius had soon brought her up to date with the events that had occurred since Percy’s death. He made them come alive because he saw them as a drama. He seemed to see the firm, she gradually made out, as a kind of oriental court of which he was sultan, a wise young sultan of emancipated ideas, but surrounded by stealthy courtiers who, if not constantly watched, would converge upon him and knife him and fling his corpse in the Bosphorus, giving over the empire to rapine and lawlessness. Agnes even began to see that it might be the function of Percy Lynne’s widow to keep this obsession from getting out of control.
“Has it ever occurred to you that they may be afraid of you?” she asked him once.
His eyes narrowed. “They?”
“Everyone you fear. Anyone you fear. You can be quite formidable, my dear. I’m very glad that you’re on my side.”
The pale distant look in his brown eyes immediately softened. “Oh, you’ll never have to worry about that,” he said quickly.
Not all their evenings were so exclusive. From time to time Decius entertained other partners and their wives, and Agnes had the opportunity, in the case of those who had come into the firm after Percy’s death, to catch up with the missing characters of the drama. Soon all the partners, taking their cue from Decius that Agnes’ mourning did not exclude social life, invited her to their own parties. She found that on these occasions she and Decius were treated as a couple, and she began, in this rather curious sense, to occupy again the social position in the firm that she had lost with Percy’s death. But she was not at all sure that she liked it.
In particular, she was embarrassed by Decius’ public attitude towards her. She did not so much mind the excessive flattery of his demeanor to her: the little toasts at dinner parties after rapping his fork on his glass, the appeals down the table to her wisdom and judgment, the hushing of other people when she was talking, but she did mind his possessiveness. He always insisted on bringing her to a party and on taking her home, on putting on her coat and taking it off, on maneuvering her about as if she were an adored but petulantly exacting sovereign and he a wily and admiring premier, Victoria and Disraeli. But when she finally spoke to him about this, at one of their restaurants, she was startled to find that he was not in the least embarrassed. On the contrary, he seemed suddenly to spring into action, like a sailor long trained for combat, at the bell for battle stations.
“There’s only one solution to this,” he exclaimed in a high tense tone, imperially signaling to the waiter for two more cocktails. ”We must marry. That’s all there is to it. We must marry, and why not?”
“For God’s sake, why?” she cried aghast.
“Listen to me, Agnes. I’ve thought it all out. Listen to me and be quiet.” They were side by side on a bench seat, their backs to the wall, and he stared across the room into the huge mirror opposite as he talked. “I’m not intruding on your duties to Percy. I should not be so presumptuous. They are sacred to me. The marriage would be in name only, of course. Oh, I should venerate you like a vestal virgin! But such a union would at least enable me to give you my name and home and your proper position as senior partner’s wife again. Oh, Agnes, let me take care of you! I think I might almost be able to make you happy again. Don’t say anything tonight. Don’t say anything for weeks. But think it over. Think it over carefully. I’ve deserved that much.”
“But you dear crazy boy, how would you look, married to an old woman!”
“You’re not an old woman.”
“People would say so.”
“Who cares what people say?”
“Oh, Decius, you’re sweet!” Agnes closed her eyes and gasped at the sudden stroke of her headache. Then, just as suddenly, the pain passed, and her eyes were full of tears.
”What would Percy say?”
“Do you know something? I think Percy would approve. I think somewhere he’s watching us right now! I think he wants you to be looked after.”
Again Agnes closed her eyes as she seemed to hear the whole dining room reverberate with her late husband’s high screechy laugh. “I wonder,” she murmured faintly.
“Look how I’ve upset you. I’m a brute! I promise not to mention the subject again tonight. And neither do you. You’re to consider it, that’s all. Just to contemplate it, that’s all.”
“Not another word! Ah, good, here come our cocktails.”
When Agnes, the next morning, was considering whose advice she might seek, she was not surprised to discover that the only name that survived all objections was Ada Koepel’s. All of the people she knew best in the world were connected in one way or another with Lynne, Travers, and it was out of the question to consult any of them. Besides, Ada was freer than most of preconceived notions. She found her at ten o’clock at their old meeting place.
“Well?” Ada asked, with a cryptic smile, when Agnes had finished her story.
“Well? What do you mean, Ada, well? What should I do?”
“Of course, you must realize that any widow who advised you to turn him down would be instantly accused of rank envy. As a chance, it’s a near miracle.”
“Ah, but Ada, what do you and I have to do with vulgar attitudes? The question is: what is my duty?”
“Duty? Does the situation present one?”
“Of course it does! Would Percy want me to preserve his firm by marrying and guiding Decius? Or would he feel that I had simply made myself ridiculous?”
“Percy is dead,” Ada said drily. “I think we had better consider what you want.”
“But it’s not what I want, or even what Percy wants, really. It’s what’s right!”
“I see.” Ada’s face was inscrutable. “Well, then, what Mr. Blount proposes seems to me entirely fitting. You have told me how he feels about his law firm. It’s precisely the way you feel. Indeed, from what you tell me, I don’t see why you and the gentleman are not in total agreement about everything. I suggest that this marriage was made in heaven!”
“Except that it wouldn’t be really a marriage,” Agnes corrected her, a bit shocked by the levity of Ada’s tone. “I hoped I had made that clear.”
“You implied that it wouldn’t be consummated,” Ada said, with a crudeness that Agnes found in poor taste. “But it seems to me it’s still a marriage. What else would you call it?”
“Oh, Agnes, you and your partnerships! I’m afraid they’re beyond me.”
“But you must see, Ada, that Percy was my husband, for ever and ever, the way…” She knew that Judge Koepel’s name had been Abraham, but she did not know by what diminutive Ada might have addressed him. “The way Judge Koepel was yours,” she ended lamely.
“Then what are we discussing?”
“The form of a marriage. The form of a marriage to carry on the substance of all that Percy believed in.”
Ada now really stared at her. “You’re beyond everything, Agnes. You and all the good women like you. But have it your way, by all means. Marry Mr. Blount for Percy’s sake and live happily ever after!”
“But do you really mean that?”
“I really mean it. I may find your motives bizarre, but I thoroughly applaud your actions. What would you like for a wedding present? Oh, I beg your pardon. It’s not really a wedding, is it? What would you like for a partnership present?”
Agnes was not much satisfied with this, but she decided ultimately—after some days’ consideration—that Ada, for all her sarcasm, did basically approve of the union. Ada obviously thought very little of her-that had been evident from the beginning. How much, after all, did she really think of Ada? The point of their friendship had been in the new lights that each could provide the other. And what more valuable light could Ada provide than the revelation that, silly as Agnes Lynne might be, she would be no sillier as Agnes Blount? For a week she saw no one at all, not even Decius. She walked with her poodle in parts of Prospect Park where she would not be apt to encounter Ada and went over her albums at night. She reviewed the photographs of every trip that she had made with Percy and read all the clippings from newspapers and bar journals about his accomplishments and awards. Yet she could never bring herself to see the shade of her husband as taking any attitude but a ribald one about her contemplated step. She even at times had an uncomfortable glimpse of him sitting beside Ada on that park bench. Wasn’t it possible that he and Ada would have hit it off? Wasn’t it even possible that he might be speaking to her through Ada?
Never! She was standing before the marble statue of Mowgli in the Elephant House when the cold common sense of this negative answer rattled through her. That was what Ada had meant when she had said that Percy was dead! That the decision to remarry was hers, not his! The fact that Percy mocked her and had always done so, that Ada mocked her and would continue to do so, had little to do with the separate and distinct question of the duty of Percy’s widow. What she had to consider was how her marriage would strike the world. For even if she decided, with both Ada and Percy against her, that it was her duty to Percy’s firm to marry Decius and guide him as senior partner, she had still to contend with the fact that if the world laughed at her, the world might foil her plan. For how could she help anyone, let alone a law firm, if she were a figure of fun? Ah, but she would not be—that was what she finally took from Ada—if the world were ignorant of her motive! The world would forgive love, at any age, in any old fool; it would never forgive self-sacrifice. If she were to marry Decius and marry him, according to her plan, successfully, she would have to keep her mouth shut about why she was doing it.
When she had finally thought it all through, she left the zoo and went directly home. She telephoned Decius and asked him to take her out to dinner. ‘When he inquired which of their restaurants she would prefer, she named the most expensive and knew that in doing so, she had informed him that her answer would be affirmative.
She told him with the first cocktail. She came straight out with it and hoped that she had succeeded in sounding gay. Decius turned pink. He insisted on kissing her hand and ordering champagne. She was almost afraid that he would leap to his feet and appeal to a room full of strangers to drink their health.
“May we go to Venice on our honeymoon?” he asked excitedly. “I have always thought Venice the most romantic place in the world. Oh, Agnes, what a life we are going to have!”
He drank steadily through the evening, while Agnes took token sips to accompany him. Cocktails were followed by champagne and that by many brandies. She had never seen him in such a mood. His nervousness and excitement boiled over the brim of his normal discipline and seemed to inundate her with monologue. One subject triggered off another, but all were about Decius Blount and his long unhappy past and his long, now happy future. Nobody had understood him before Agnes, not even his sacred mother, who now, it appeared, had been rather an old bitch. He had never had a girl friend; he had never, he managed to imply, had any relations whatever with women. There had been two or three men, including Percy, whom he had liked and admired, but none of them had really cared for him. But now, with Agnes…well, people would see what he had in him! His talk seemed to intoxicate him more than the wine or brandy, but this intoxication did not in the least affect his articulation or the lucidity of his thoughts. On the contrary, he seemed to have been totally released from his old formal and a bit formidable self. He seemed younger, brighter, more ebullient. He was the least bit like-and the thought struck her with something like dismay-a poet, a Shelley, a brighteyed idealist. He, Decius Blount! At fifty-one!
“Oh, my dearest, I feel I know everything tonight!” he exclaimed. “And that I can tell you everything, too. You’re not like other women because you don’t expect things of me, if you see what I mean. And for that very reason you’re the one woman in the world to whom I might be everything. Because we’ve promised each other no love, it’s precisely what may be in store for us. Because to me you’ve been a priestess at the altar, you may be the one woman I’m destined to possess!” At this point Agnes’ obvious disquietude briefly penetrated even his mist. “But never mind that now, dearest. I see that the priestess is alarmed. Which is, of course, the very thing to most excite the mortal acolyte. No need to think of that till Venice!”
He was good to his resolution, however drunk, and did not revert to the subject, nor, needless to say, did Agnes. When she finally induced him to take her home, he was still in the same golden mood, and when she allowed him to kiss her goodnight in the taxi, gently but definitely refusing to let him come up with her, she was sure that he would go to a bar, perhaps to several. But he was better off alone, and certainly so was she. She knew what a night lay ahead of her.
After only an hour of anguished sobbing, however, she was able to dry the tears of mortification and take her seat at Percy’s desk. There, looking over the moonlit park, she wrote what she hoped was a beautiful letter to Decius, breaking off their engagement and wishing him a happy and fruitful life with the younger woman “whom I feel confident that you will now find and whom I know that you richly deserve.” After making a fair copy she went down herself to the lobby to mail it. At four in the morning she was able at last to sleep.
The next day in the park, as she told Ada the story, she felt that her conduct had been correct. It seemed to her that it had been both dignified and kind. Of course, it did not come to her as a surprise that Ada should take a less elevated view of the matter, but it certainly came as a shock, and finally as an outrage, that Ada should actually rail at her. She would not have believed that the woman could have been such a fishwife!
“When we first met,” Ada exclaimed, in a tone that verged on the strident, “you complained about other widows because they were so removed from what you called ‘life.’ I thought that possibly we meant the same thing by the term, or at least something not too different. Indeed, I hoped it might prove the basis for a mutual sympathy. But now I see that I was very much misguided. For when life, poor wretched substance that it may be, dares at last to reveal itself to you—to Agnes Lynne—in any other form than a romantic illustration for a children’s book, you beg off. Oh, Agnes, I have no patience with you! None! You and your kind are simply impossible. What in the name of Venus is your old body good for but to give some satisfaction to that poor frustrated man? Why are you always chattering about that law firm? He’s the one who needs you. You ought to be proud!”
Agnes stared at the stranger beside her for a long moment and then slowly shook her head.
“I guess there are differences of opinion that are not arguable,” she said sadly. “Even if you should be right, it’s much too late for me to learn. I think I must make do with myself as I am. For as long as may be necessary. Which I hope will not be long.” She rose.
“Oh, Agnes, do sit down. I can’t bear that high, injured look. Let’s discuss this like two rational human beings!”
“How can we, when only one is present? Good day, Ada.” And as she moved away, she saw, ahead of her, unavoidable now, the widows loom.