The twilight border between sleep and waking was a Roman one this morning:
splashing fountains and arched, narrow streets, the golden lavish city
of blossoms and age-soft stone. Sometimes in this semi-consciousness he
sojourned again in Paris, or war German rubble, or Swiss skiing and a snow
hotel. Sometimes, also, in a fallow Georgia field at hunting dawn. Rome
it was this morning in the yearless region of dreams.
John Ferris awoke in a room in a New York hotel. He had the feeling
that something unpleasant was awaiting him—what it was, he did not know.
The feeling, submerged by matinal necessities, lingered even after he had
dressed and gone downstairs. It was a cloudless autumn day and the pale
sunlight sliced between the pastel skyscrapers. Ferris went into the next-door
drugstore and sat at the end booth next to the window glass that overlooked
the sidewalk. He ordered an American breakfast with scrambled eggs and
Ferris had come from Paris to his father's funeral which had taken place
the week before in his home town in Georgia. The shock of death had made
him aware of youth already passed. His hair was receding and the veins
in his now naked temples were pulsing and prominent and his body was spare
except for an incipient belly bulge. Ferris had loved his father and the
bond between them had once been extraordinarily close—but the years
had somehow unraveled this filial devotion; the death, expected for a long
time, had left him with an unforeseen dismay. He had stayed as long as
possible to be near his mother and brothers at home. His plane for Paris
was to leave the next morning.
Ferris pulled out his address book to verify a number. He turned the
pages with growing attentiveness. Names and addresses from New York, the
capitals of Europe, a few faint ones from his home state in the South.
Faded, printed names, sprawled drunken ones. Betty Wills: a random love,
married now. Charlie Williams: wounded in the Hurtgen Forest, unheard of
since. Grand old Williams—did he live or die? Don Walker: a B.T.O. in
television, getting rich. Henry Green: hit the skids after the war, in
a sanitarium now, they say. Cozie Hall: he had heard that she was dead.
Heedless, laughing Cozie—it was strange to think that she too, silly
girl, could die. As Ferris closed the address book, he suffered a sense
of hazard, transience, almost of fear.
It was then that his body jerked suddenly. He was staring out of the
window when there, on the sidewalk, passing by, was his ex-wife. Elizabeth
passed quite close to him, walking slowly. He could not understand the
wild quiver of his heart, nor the following sense of recklessness and grace
that lingered after she was gone.
Quickly Ferris paid his check and rushed out to the sidewalk. Elizabeth
stood on the corner waiting to cross Fifth Avenue. He hurried toward her
meaning to speak, but the lights changed as she crossed the street before
he reached her. Ferris followed. On the other side he could easily have
overtaken her, but he found himself lagging unaccountably. Her fair brown
hair was plainly rolled, and as he watched her Ferris recalled that once
his father had remarked that Elizabeth had a "beautiful carriage." She
turned at the next corner and Ferris followed, although by now his intention
to overtake her had disappeared. Ferris questioned the bodily disturbance
that the sight of Elizabeth aroused in him, the dampness of his hands,
the hard heartstrokes.
It was eight years since Ferris had last seen his ex-wife. He knew that
long ago she had married again. And there were children. During recent
years he had seldom thought of her. But at first, after the divorce, the
loss had almost destroyed him. Then after the anodyne of time, he had loved
again, and then again. Jeannine, she was now. Certainly his love for his
ex-wife was long since past. So why the unhinged body, the shaken mind?
He knew only that his clouded heart was oddly dissonant with the sunny,
candid autumn day. Ferris wheeled suddenly, and walking with long strides,
almost running, hurried back to the hotel.
Ferris poured himself a drink, although it was not yet eleven o'clock.
He sprawled out in an armchair like a man exhausted, nursing his glass
of bourbon and water. He had a full day ahead of him as he was leaving
by plane the next morning for Paris. He checked over his obligations: take
luggage to Air France, lunch with his boss, buy shoes and an overcoat.
And something—wasn't there something else? Ferris finished his drink
and opened the telephone directory.
His decision to call his ex-wife was impulsive. The number was under
Bailey, the husband's name, and he called before he had much time for self-debate.
He and Elizabeth had exchanged cards at Christmastime, and Ferris had sent
a carving set when he received the announcement of her wedding. There was
no reason not to call. But as he waited, listening to the ring at
the other end, misgiving fretted him.
Elizabeth answered; her familiar voice was a fresh shock to him. Twice
he had to repeat his name, but when he was identified, she sounded glad.
He explained he was only in town for that day. They had a theater engagement,
she said—but she wondered if he would come by for an early dinner. Ferris
said he would be delighted.
As he went from one engagement to another, he was still bothered at
odd moments by the feeling that something necessary was forgotten. Ferris
bathed and changed in the late afternoon, often thinking about Jeannine;
he would be with her the following night. "Jeannine," he would say, "I
happened to run into my ex-wife when I was in New York. Had dinner with
her. And her husband, of course. It was strange seeing her after all these
Elizabeth lived in the East Fifties, and as Ferris taxied uptown he
glimpsed at intersections the lingering sunset, but by the time he reached
his destination it was already autumn dark. The place was a building with
a marquee and a doorman, and the apartment was on the seventh floor.
"Come in, Mr. Ferris."
Braced for Elizabeth or even the unimagined husband, Ferris was astonished
by the freckled red-haired child; he had known of the children, but his
mind had failed somehow to acknowledge them. Surprise made him step back
"This is our apartment," the child said politely. "Aren't you Mr. Ferris?
I'm Billy. Come in."
In the living room beyond the hall, the husband provided another surprise;
he too had not been acknowledged emotionally. Bailey was a lumbering red-haired
man with a deliberate manner. He rose and extended a welcoming hand.
"I'm Bill Bailey. Glad to see you. Elizabeth will be in, in a minute.
She's finishing dressing."
The last words struck a gliding series of vibrations, memories of the
other years. Fair Elizabeth, rosy and naked before her bath. Half-dressed
before the mirror of her dressing table, brushing her fine, chestnut hair.
Sweet, casual intimacy, the soft-fleshed loveliness indisputably possessed.
Ferris shrank from the unbidden memories and compelled himself to meet
Bill Bailey's gaze.
"Billy, will you please bring that tray of drinks from the kitchen table?"
The child obeyed promptly, and when he was gone Ferris remarked conversationally,
"Fine boy you have there."
"We think so."
Flat silence until the child returned with a tray of glasses and a cocktail
shaker of Martinis. With the priming drinks they pumped up conversation:
Russia, they spoke of, and the New York rainmaking, and the apartment situation
in Manhattan and Paris.
"Mr. Ferris is flying all the way across the ocean tomorrow," Bailey
said to the little boy who was perched on the arm of his chair, quiet and
well behaved. "I bet you would like to be a stowaway in his suitcase."
Billy pushed back his limp bangs. "I want to fly in an airplane and
be a newspaperman like Mr. Ferris." He added with sudden assurance, "That's
what I would like to do when I am big."
Bailey said," I thought you wanted to be a doctor."
"I do!" said Billy. "I would like to be both. I want to be a atom-bomb
Elizabeth came in carrying in her arms a baby girl.
"Oh, John!" she said. She settled the baby in the father's lap. "It's
grand to see you. I'm awfully glad you could come."
The little girl sat demurely on Bailey's knees. She wore a pale pink
crêpe de Chine frock, smocked around the yoke with rose, and a matching
silk hair ribbon tying back her pale soft curls. Her skin was summer tanned
and her brown eyes flecked with gold and laughing. When she reached up
and fingered her father's horn-rimmed glasses, he took them off and let
her look through them a moment. "How's my old Candy?"
Elizabeth was very beautiful, more beautiful perhaps than he had ever
realized. Her straight clean hair was shining. Her face was softer, glowing
and serene. It was a madonna loveliness, dependent on the family ambiance.
"You've hardly changed at all," Elizabeth said, "but it has been a long
"Eight years." His hand touched his thinning hair self-consciously while
further amenities were exchanged.
Ferris felt himself suddenly a spectator—an interloper among these
Baileys. Why had he come? He suffered. His own life seemed so solitary,
a fragile column supporting nothing amidst the wreckage of the years. He
felt he could not bear much longer to stay in the family room.
He glanced at his watch. "You're going to the theater?"
"It's a shame," Elizabeth said, "but we've had this engagment for more
than a month. But surely, John, you'll be staying home one of these days
before long. You're not going to be an expatriate, are you?"
"Expatriate," Ferris repeated. "I don't much like the word."
"What's a better word?" she asked.
He thought for a moment. "Sojourner might do."
Ferris glanced again at his watch, and again Elizabeth apologized. "If
only we had known ahead of time—"
"I just had this day in town. I came home unexpectedly. You see, Papa
died last week."
"Papa Ferris is dead?"
"Yes, at Johns-Hopkins. He had been sick there nearly a year. The funeral
was down home in Georgia."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, John. Papa Ferris was always one of my favorite people."
The little boy moved from behind the chair so that he could look into
his mother's face. He asked, "Who is dead?"
Ferris was oblivious to apprehension; he was thinking of his father's
death. He saw again the outstretched body on the quilted silk within the
coffin. The corpse flesh was bizarrely rouged and the familiar hands lay
massive and joined above a spread of funeral roses. The memory closed and
Ferris awakened to Elizabeth's calm voice.
"Mr. Ferris' father, Billy. A really grand person. Somebody you didn't
"But why did you call him Papa Ferris?"
Bailey and Elizabeth exchanged a trapped look. It was Bailey who answered
the questioning child. "A long time ago," he said, "your mother and Mr.
Ferris were once married. Before you were born—a long time ago."
The little boy stared at Ferris, amazed and unbelieving. And Ferris'
eyes, as he returned the gaze, were somehow unbelieving too. Was it indeed
true that at one time he had called this stranger, Elizabeth, Little Butterduck
during nights of love, that they had lived together, shared perhaps a thousand
days and nights and—finally—endured in the misery of sudden solitude
the fiber by fiber (jealousy, alcohol and money quarrels) destruction of
the fabric of married love.
Bailey said to the children, "It's somebody's suppertime. Come on now."
"But Daddy! Mama and Mr. Ferris—I—"
Billy's everlasting eyes—perplexed and with a glimmer of hostility—reminded Ferris of the gaze of another child. It was the young son of
Jeannine—a boy of seven with a shadowed little face and nobby knees
whom Ferris avoided and usually forgot.
"Quick march!" Bailey gently turned Billy toward the door. "Say good
night now, son."
"Good night, Mr. Ferris." He added resentfully, "I thought I was staying
up for the cake."
"You can come in afterward for the cake," Elizabeth said. "Run along
now with Daddy for your supper."
Ferris and Elizabeth were alone. The weight of the situation descended
on those first moments of silence. Ferris asked permission to pour himself
another drink and Elizabeth set the cocktail shaker on the table at his
side. He looked at the grand piano and noticed the music on the rack.
"Do you still play as beautifully as you used to?"
"I still enjoy it."
"Please play, Elizabeth."
Elizabeth arose immediately. Her readiness to perform when asked had
always been one of her amiabilities; she never hung back, apologized. Now
as she approached the piano there was the added readiness of relief.
She began with a Bach prelude and fugue. The prelude was as gaily iridescent
as a prism in a morning room. The first voice of the fugue, an announcement
pure and solitary, was repeated intermingling with a second voice, and
again repeated within an elaborated frame, the multiple music, horizontal
and serene, flowed with unhurried majesty. The principal melody was woven
with two other voices, embellished with countless ingenuities—now dominant,
again submerged, it had the sublimity of a single thing that does not fear
surrender to the whole. Toward the end, the density of the material gathered
for the last enriched insistence on the dominant first motif and with a
chorded final statement the fugue ended. Ferris rested his head on the
chair back and closed his eyes. In the following silence a clear, high
voice came from the room down the hall.
"Daddy, how could Mama and Mr. Ferris—" A door was closed.
The piano began again—what was this music? Unplaced, familiar, the
limpid melody had lain a long while dormant in his heart. Now it spoke
to him of another time, another place—it was the music Elizabeth used
to play. The delicate air summoned a wilderness of memory. Ferris was lost
in the riot of past longings, conflicts, ambivalent desires. Strange that
the music, catalyst for this tumultuous anarchy, was so serene and clear.
The singing melody was broken off by the appearance of the maid.
"Miz Bailey, dinner is out on the table now."
Even after Ferris was seated at the table between his host and hostess,
the unfinished music still overcast his mood. He was a little drunk.
"L'improvisation de la vie humaine," he said. "There's nothing
that makes you so aware of the improvisation of human existence
as a song
unfinished. Or an old address book."
"Address book?" repeated Bailey. Then he stopped, noncommittal and polite.
"You're still the same old boy, Johnny," Elizabeth said with a trace
of the old tenderness.
It was a Southern dinner that evening, and the dishes were his old favorites.
They had fried chicken and corn pudding and rich, glazed candied sweet
potatoes. During the meal Elizabeth kept alive a conversation when the
silences were overlong. And it came about that Ferris was led to speak
"I first knew Jeannine last autumn—about this time of the year—in Italy. She's a singer and she had an engagement in Rome. I expect we
will be married soon."
The words seemed so true, inevitable, that Ferris did not at first acknowledge
to himself the lie. He and Jeannine had never in that year spoken of marriage.
And indeed, she was still married—to a White Russian money-changer in
Paris from whom she had been separated for five years. But it was too late
to correct the lie. Already Elizabeth was saying: "This really makes me
glad to know. Congratulations, Johnny."
He tried to make amends with truth. "The Roman autumn is so beautiful.
Balmy and blossoming." He added. "Jeannine has a little boy of seven. A
curious trilingual little fellow. We go to the Tuileries sometimes."
A lie again. He had taken the boy once to the gardens. The sallow foreign
child in shorts that bared his spindly legs had sailed his boat in the
concrete pond and ridden the pony. The child had wanted to go in to the
puppet show. But there was not time, for Ferris had an engagement at the
Scribe Hotel. He had promised they would go to the guignol another afternoon.
Only once had he taken Valentin to the Tuileries.
There was a stir. The maid brought in a white-frosted cake with pink
candles. The children entered in their night clothes. Ferris still did
"Happy birthday, John," Elizabeth said. "Blow out the candles."
Ferris recognized his birthday date. The candles blew out lingeringly
and there was the smell of burning wax. Ferris was thirty-eight years old.
The veins in his temples darkened and pulsed visibly.
"It's time you started for the theater."
Ferris thanked Elizabeth for the birthday dinner and said the appropriate
good-byes. The whole family saw him to the door.
A high, thin moon shone above the jagged, dark skyscrapers. The streets
were windy, cold. Ferris hurried to Third Avenue and hailed a cab. He gazed
at the nocturnal city with the deliberate attentiveness of departure and
perhaps farewell. He was alone. He longed for flighttime and the coming
The next day, he looked down on the city from the air, burnished in
sunlight, toylike, precise. Then America was left behind and there was
only the Atlantic and the distant European shore. The ocean was milky pale
and placid beneath the clouds. Ferris dozed most of the day. Toward dark
he was thinking of Elizabeth and the visit of the previous evening. He
thought of Elizabeth among her family with longing, gentle envy and inexplicable
regret. He sought the melody, the unfinished air, that had so moved him.
The cadence, some unrelated tones, were all that remained; the melody itself
evaded him. He had found instead the first voice of the fugue that Elizabeth
had played—it came to him, inverted mockingly and in a minor key. Suspended
above the ocean the anxieties of transience and solitude no longer troubled
him and he thought of his father's death with equanimity. During the dinner
hour the plane reached the shore of France.
At midnight Ferris was in a taxi crossing Paris. It was a clouded night
and mist wreathed the lights of the Place de la Concorde. The midnight
bistros gleamed on the wet pavements. As always after a transocean flight
the change of continents was too sudden. New York at morning, this midnight
Paris. Ferris glimpsed the disorder of his life: the succession of cities,
the transitory loves; and time, the sinister glissando of the years, time
"Vite! Vite!" he called in terror. "Dépêchez-vous."
Valentin opened the door to him. The little boy wore pajamas and an
outgrown red robe. His gray eyes were shadowed and, as Ferris passed into
the flat, they flickered momentarily.
Jeannine was singing in a night club. She would not be home before another
hour. Valentin returned to a drawing, squatting with his crayons over the
paper on the floor. Ferris looked down at the drawing—it was a banjo
player with notes and wavy lines inside a comic-strip balloon.
"We will go again to the Tuileries."
The child looked up and Ferris drew him closer to his knees. The melody,
the unfinished music that Elizabeth had played, came to him suddenly. Unsought,
the load of memory jettisoned—this time bringing only recognition and
"Monsieur Jean," the child said, "did you see him?"
Confused, Ferris thought only of another child—the freckled, family-loved
boy. "See who, Valentin?"
"Your dead papa in Georgia." The child added, "Was he okay?"
Ferris spoke with rapid urgency: "We will go often to the Tuileries.
Ride the pony and we will go into the guignol. We will see the puppet show
and never be in a hurry any more."
"Monsieur Jean," Valentin said. "The guignol is now closed."
Again, the terror the acknowledgement of wasted years and death. Valentin,
responsive and confident, still nestled in his arms. His cheek touched
the soft cheek and felt the brush of the delicate eyelashes. With inner
desperation he pressed the child close—as though an emotion as protean
as his love could dominate the pulse of time.