Because He Trusted Me
She said, "You can't marry a man, love a man, have children by a man and then forget." You cannot, not even if you are the loveliest lady in all America, which, in that long ago, she was.
By Howard Fast
Do you know how it is when you look in your mirror, and the lines are a little deeper, and you stand there gripping the edge of the table and trying to find a young person? The more so if inside you are washed out clean, and you think of a hundred things you should have but haven't. Not things you can buy with money; but things you want to believe are still within your reach the way you want to believe that youth is still with you and that the lines in your face mean nothing.
If you are thirty-eight and your daughter is eighteen, and your daughter looks at you and says: "Mother, you're so beautiful. You know, it makes me glad, the way they take us for sisters."
But it doesn't make you glad. You know you're not beautiful, not inside and not outside.
It was such a long time ago that people have forgotten that Philadelphia was the gayest place in the country that year. Even in London there was not such a round of balls, parties, dances, masques, teas, dinners, luncheons. And certainly nowhere else in the Colonies. You knew the Colonies were dull and drab, New York was a half-burned shell, Boston a provincial retreat; you thanked God that at least you were in Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, you heard almost no talk of the miserable rebellion that is, among people who mattered. The rebellion was a thing of the past, and when you stood with others and offered your toast to God and King, you saw the rebellion for what it was worth.
It was in March. Early March, late March it's hard to remember now, after so long. But there was still snow piled against the houses. The wind raged and shook the houses; but sometimes there was a day like spring. It was seventeen seventy-nine.
It was five o'clock in the afternoon, and the day was trembling off into twilight. I was helping Marjory to dress, and afterward she would help me because we couldn't afford a maid. The gown Marjory would wear was a pieced-together sham. You see, we were, as folks said, a good family but poor. We had the house and the things in it; but for three years we had sold one thing after another. Silver candlesticks bring ten pounds, and you can go a week or a month on ten pounds, depending on how careful you are. Sterling tableware you kept for last, and it broke your heart when you had to sell it the price cut in half because an initial was engraved on it. But I told myself the initial didn't matter; the initial and everything pertaining to it was gone, perhaps dead. Sometimes I almost hoped so.
Doing Marjory's hair, I said: "I could have sold the ring. You wouldn't have had to go as Joan of Arc."
Meaning for the masque that evening in the General's honor, given by Lady Livington, whose husband's title had come across on the last ship. The General would be waiting for me and looking for me, and I tried to thrill to that to the fact that a man of fifty-five was in love with me. And Lady Livington, whom I had known for a good many years as plain Frances Livington of Philadelphia, would not have invited me except for that single fact. She knew I would be a fool to refuse when the General offered. She knew that with the offer would come a title better and much older than hers, and a home in England.
"I should have sold the ring," I told Marjory. I meant his ring, a plain gold band, which would have fetched only a pound perhaps, but enough to buy material. So she wouldn't have to go as Joan of Arc in a costume that would deceive no one gray homespun, a cotton apron, and wooden sabots and that they'd know was the best paupers could afford. For myself, there was an attempt at Queen Elizabeth. Marjory had persuaded me to spend the last few shillings we had on silver brocade for the bodice. She said I had to. It was her dream, the title, the home in England and the young subaltern who formed the rest of her dream, Charley Lascter, who was Lord Callan's son. So I was to go as Queen Elizabeth, with a ruff of starched linen cut from a bed sheet and edged with pointed lace from my wedding gown. Yes, I'd cut up my wedding gown.
Queen Elizabeth. And Marjory said, "I've always admired Joan of Arc, you know."
"I could have sold the ring," I told her. "It doesn't matter now. He's dead, and the General will propose tonight."
"Mother, you're sure?"
"Quite sure," I said lightly, telling myself that I hated him, telling myself that nothing could have been so wrong as what he had done, to go off and leave me while he fought in this miserable, ridiculous rebellion, three years now, three years part of that beggars' army that was the laughing-stock of the world. All their talk of freedom and independence, all the talk that had been dinned into my ears for years until he had finally gone off to join his beggars' army. By now he knew, just as I had always known, what their stupid rebellion meant. Now every city in the land was in English hands, and the main English army was here in Philadelphia, with headquarters in the same place where they had signed their declaration of independence. And the city had taken the English to their hearts; it was proof enough of what decent people thought of their army and their rebellion.
I had finished her hair when she said, "Mother if he isn't dead?"
"It doesn't matter," I said shortly. "He's been away for three years, hasn't he?"
"You'd divorce him?" she whispered.
I was watching her in the mirror, the clean cut of her small young face, the dark eyes, the dark hair that was like heavy coils of silk, the fine mouth, the strong, round chin. She was like him nothing of my blondeness, nothing of my blue eyes, but all him. We never spoke of him. I knew what I had felt once, and how I had killed my feelings; but I didn't know what she felt. He had always been too busy with his long wagon trains that traded from colony to colony, with his plotting and his crazy dreams of freedom too busy to know that I existed. Well, that was done with.
"I'd divorce him," I said.
She stood up, and in the gray homespun, she became Joan of Arc.
YOU would understand why, in that moment, I would have died for her, for her to be happy. Because I wasn't young any more, because I wasn't anything except a mother, because in her the sun rose and set, because nothing mattered except that she should have everything I had missed. I knew that tonight the General would ask me, and I would say yes and become a lady in England, for all that the General was fat and foolish and meant nothing to me nothing.
"If Charley Lascter is not a fool, darling," I told her, "he'll go on his knees to you tonight, if you want him to."
"Not on his knees. But I love him so much. Is it wrong for me to love him?"
"Now you're foolish," I said. "Do my hair."
While she did my hair lovingly, she said: "You know, Mother, when I told him I was coming as Joan of Arc, he said I was enough of a saint. I said he was silly, and he said, no, he was a coward."
"Did he say that?"
"Yes. And whether I could think any good of him, because he had lived a worthless life."
I smiled knowingly.
"But he's Lord Callan's son, and I'm nobody."
"The most beautiful girl in Philadelphia."
"But nobody, Mother."
I said, "Suppose you were the General's daughter? "
She shook her head; but then she threw her arms around me.
"Mother, I'm so happy," she said.
"Help me on with the ruff." I smiled.
I became Queen Elizabeth and tried to think of how it would be in England, where I would have everything I wanted, where there would never again be need of hiding things in my cloak while I went to old Michael Sutterbe, the pawnbroker, to listen to his whining tale of how the price of gold and silver had fallen.
In that moment, when all my efforts were not to think of him, I thought of him, of how it had been that last time I saw him, almost three years ago, dressed in his new uniform of buff and blue, his eyes burning while he tried to explain to me what he was going to fight for. I remembered how he had asked for Marjory, wanting to say good-bye to her.
"She isn't here," I had said.
"Isn't here? But, no she must be! I may not see her again for God knows how long."
"You should have thought of that in the past six months, in the past six years."
"I'm sorry. I know I've neglected her."
"Then you do know," I had said coldly.
"But at least to say good-bye to her."
"I sent her to my sister's. I thought it would be better that way, better if she's not mixed up in this mad rebellion."
He had stared at me a long time before he had finally said, "So that's all it is to you, Jean, a mad rebellion?"
"And my daughter isn't mine any more, and for me to kiss her good-bye before I go away to this mad rebellion would be wrong. Well, I suppose you're right."
I had wanted to say something then, desperately, and if I had said it but I didn't. I had just sat and looked at him with my hands folded in my lap.
"You're like ice, all ice. There was a time when I thought I could warm those eyes of yours, when your yellow hair seemed like fire. But you're ice, and you've always been ice."
Then he had gone, and I had wanted to cry, my whole heart breaking to cry; but I hadn't not then and not since then.
I MADE dinner, Marjory helping me.
Maybe she knew there were some things I wanted to forget, because she laughed and chattered until I was laughing, too at the sight of Queen Elizabeth slicing boiled ham while Joan of Arc stirred a pot of reheated soup over the fire. Old Franz came in with an armful of wood and built up the fire. Franz was the only servant we had left, and he stayed on because he was so old that there was no other place for him to go.
"You a mighty pretty sight, missy," he told Marjory
"Am I? I'm Joan of Arc."
"There's a plate of ham for you," I said.
"Ah, now. An' it's good eatin', ham is. An' a sight better 'n them poor devils out there in the army got."
"They eat well enough, it seems to me," I said, annoyed at the old man's chatter.
"The other army," he said gravely.
"I told you not to speak of them!"
Then I was sorry I had lost my temper. Marjory was watching me curiously. "Tonight," I said quickly, "your silly mother will try to charm a general." Then I almost ran from the kitchen.
She followed me into the drawing room, and I bent over, fumbling with my mask.
I straightened up, the mask on, smiling. I asked eagerly, "Would his excellency think that I looked like a queen?"
"I'm not a child any more, Mother. You've given me everything, and I don't want you to do this." She was playing with the ring, the plain gold band that had his initials and mine inside it, turning it round and round.
I took her in my arms.
"The ruff you'll spoil it!"
"Then I'll spoil it," I said comfortably, the way a mother should. I had myself in hand now. Whatever my thoughts, whatever my memories, she wouldn't know. I had lived too long in memories; I wanted her to live in the happiness of facts.
I looked at the room, at the dark, cold room that had had the life sucked out of it. One by one, I killed the memories of nights we had spent sitting on the stiff little sofa when I was first pregnant, memories of other nights after the second child had died. It was a boy, whom he had called after himself only two years old when he died. And after the boy died, we would sit in the dark and imagine that he was asleep upstairs. That was the time when for a whole year he never went away, when the room stored up memories, the two chairs with their striped satin, the big wing chairs in front of the fireplace, where we would sit watching the flames.
"You see " I told her easily and certainly, the way a mother should "the thing I want most is to marry the General. Would it spoil things for your mother to marry a stiff, fat general? Only he isn't stiff and not very fat, and I love him," I managed to say.
She nodded, and I held her in my arms.
THE General came in his uniform, as befitted his dignity; but Charley Lascter swaggered in puffed tights, long hose, a crimson doublet, and a blue-and-yellow cape. I knew him by the way he sought Marjory, and if there was any triumph for me, it was in the way he worshiped her.
The General was in gold and white, his hair curled and powdered. He took snuff from a little gold box, and all I could think of, somehow, was what the little snuffbox with the four diamonds set in the cover would bring if it were pawned with Sutterbe.
He bent low over my hand, saying: "My dear, my dear. I'm so charmed, delighted, absolutely delighted."
And hanging there, right beside him, was Frances Livington, coldly calculating the warmth of his greeting.
I knew the part I had set myself, and I gave the General my warmest smile.
"My dear Jean, I'm so glad to see you," Lady Livington said.
"And I to see you."
Once, he had said that I was ice, and he had been right, so terribly right.
"So help me," the General said, "I wouldn't dare to presume to say which is the mother and which is the daughter."
Lady Livington cast the die and fluttered all over me and said, "Jean dear, your costume is lovely!"
"As much a queen as Bess ever was," the General nodded.
"And Marjory is darling!"
I watched my daughter, wonderfully proud of the way she stood in the homespun and white apron, as if it were not plain enough to everyone there that we were paupers and that my husband had deserted me to fight in this miserable rebellion. Or had I deserted him? Would I see him every time I looked at my daughter the way she stood, the careless tilt of her head?
I smiled and nodded, and the General gave me his arm. They gathered around us, paying tribute another general, Lady Livington, Sir James Meckall, two majors, three colonels, a pork butcher who had made a fortune and a title selling ham to the British army. Sir Allen Ainslee, the Tory leader, and the banker, George Hardy, who was so fond of saying that Continental money was worth its weight in lead.
They were full of compliments; but no one of them mentioned my husband, not even George Hardy, who had once been his friend. And I smiled at them.
Black servants moved in and out with the drinks. They offered a toast to His Majesty, God save him, and I drank with them. They drank to me then.
"To the loveliest woman in America our America!" the General said.
After that, the minuet, the music, and the white, gold-laced front of the General bending toward me, and I, thinking, "Does he wear a corset?"
Marjory waved to me, smiling, happy the way I was happy once, the sort of happiness that sees itself in the single reflection of some boy's love.
The General was so proudly owning of me that before an hour had passed, they all knew. They knew that now certain things must be forgotten that I was poor, that my husband was a Rebel. They sought me out, and this one had a dance coming that Marjory and I must attend, that one a dinner, this one a ball. . . .
THE General got me aside at last, and spluttered, "My dear, you're a queen, truly a queen!"
I wondered whether he would ask me now or wait until later, when we unmasked. Was I afraid of his asking me? How could I be afraid of anything when I was ice, all ice?
"My dear, when you were her age!"
I was thinking of when I was her age, when he came for me and took me for his bride, against the will of my family because he had nothing but the pack he carried on his back when he went west to trade with the Indians, with a gun in his hand and nothing but the unknown before him. And the stories he told to a seventeen-year-old girl, who worshiped the wonder and romance of his tall, buckskin-clad body stories of high mountains and wide rivers and forests without end, stories that were a living picture of a land he loved almost insanely.
"When you were her age " the General said. "You do remember?"
"Young Charley worships at her feet. Fine boy, splendid girl. My dear, I feel young, positively a young blade."
I said, "What did you mean when you said 'our America'?"
And all the time I was trying to make myself believe that only one thing mattered, that he ask my hand in marriage.
"When we drank to 'our America,'" I said.
"Eh? What a strange question."
"It is strange," I smiled.
"Of course, the King's land. This." He waved a hand at the room.
"Just this?" But then I laughed and took his arm. "Come," I said, "before I have you thinking of this silly war."
"War, war? No war at all. Rebels? Yes, not thirty miles from here. Place called Valley Forge. Not an army, mind you rabble. Come spring, they'll be washed out, and without firing a gun. But nothing to trouble your pretty head about."
"I suppose not," I said.
And somehow, we were dancing, and he had not asked, and I didn't know whether I was relieved or not. Dancing, and gay groups of men and women, and all the color and gaiety of a masque. The General's white, spangled front facing me in the minuet the safety of it, the security of it. His mincing gait that would be with me all my life.
It was midnight when the masks came off, when he had me alone behind the palms that backed off the long hall, when he tried to kiss me, and I let him.
Bungling, awkward. "My dear, my dear, you must know."
I was ice, as he had told me once so long ago. Everything else was so long ago, and everything else was gone. And I managed to smile and say, "Yes, I know."
"And you'll be my wife when all this all this mess don't want to talk about it, but you know. When all this "
"Yes," I said.
"Well, my dear, my dear. Never expected, you know. Quite overwhelmed, quite " He stopped to open his little snuffbox and sniff a pinch of snuff into each nostril, and all I could think of was Sutterbe's, how much it would bring. I tried to think of other things anything, the recipe of the soup we had eaten tonight, tripe in small pieces and carrots and potatoes and onions and the whole thing peppered as high as the taste could stand, and then a teaspoonful of flour and butter and
The way I was laughing, he said, "My dear, my dear."
"No, I'm all right," I said. "Only it was sudden, so sudden."
"Well, I'm a lucky man, my dear. Here we've come to conquer the Colonies, and the Colonies have conquered us. And rightly so. When a man bows to a beautiful woman "
I wasn't listening. I wanted Marjory. I felt like crying out: "I want my daughter! Don't you see? That's all I have."
They were offering congratulations, one after another.
"Did me the honor " the General was saying.
"I'm so happy, so happy."
"The honor " the General was saying. I begged him: "Take me home, please. I want to be alone for a little while."
"Of course, of course. Want to be alone myself. But Marjory?"
"She'll be all right. Let her have the evening."
IT WAS only a few squares to my house, and we walked. There was snow on the ground, a bright, lacy light from a yellow moon, starlight that rippled up the sides of the houses. And we had walked on a night when lovers should walk a cold, frozen night, when the deep purple of the sky dripped with stars. Philadelphia had gone to bed, and there was no sound except the music behind us and the far-off crying of the watch.
The General, with my arm in his, said, "Makes me feel like a boy, moon and all that."
Then we were home, and he saw the thing in front of my house, kicked it, and snapped, "Here, here, come out of that!" the way a general should.
"It's a man," I whispered.
And what man? Do you know how it is to have the world explode of a sudden, leave you standing with the pieces dropping about your head?
"Damned beggar!" And you must pretend you don't know, stand and pretend the world has not ripped itself to pieces.
He, the "damned beggar" slumped down on the doorstep, straightened up and looked at us. And what was in his eyes? There can be years and years, and mistakes and hopes and dumb longings, in a man's eyes.
He moved so slowly all his motions were slow and tired. So that I screamed inside myself: "What have they done to him? What?"
Yet I had to be dumb because the General was saying, "Get along, get along!"
His clothes, his overcoat, his hat were rags. His feet poked through his shoes, and there were spots of bright blood on the snow. He had a great, shaggy, bearded head yet a beard cannot hide something that was once all your world and deep in the depths of it two bloodshot eyes that studied us, observed me pleadingly, observed the General from head to foot.
(He had never pleaded before.)
"I'll call the watch," the General said.
"No, wait. The poor man's frozen and starving. Let him come inside." For all that I was almost fainting, sick, trembling, I had to speak calmly. And I did speak calmly. He had said once that I was ice.
"My dear, it wouldn't be safe."
"Franz is inside. Just to warm by the fire." I had to plead to take him into his own house, to his own fire.
"Not on any other night," I told the General, managing to speak lightly. "But tonight, if I'm so happy, can I turn anyone away?"
The General smiled fondly, and I put my arm around the creature and helped him to his feet. I had given my key to the General, and now he opened the door.
"Let me," he said; but I shook my head, smiling. Of all things I have ever done, that smile was the most difficult.
I CALLED to Franz as lightheartedly as a woman should on her betrothal night. The General stood back from the poor wreck and sniffed from his gold snuffbox. Franz came in his nightgown, the long flannel brushing about his slippered feet. He held a candle high as he came into the dark room, and when he saw the gilt and gold of the General, he nodded and bowed and waved until I thought the candle would go out. Then he saw the beggar and wrinkled his nose.
He was able to stand alone now, wavering a little. Franz thrust the candle into his face. "What's this, eh?"
Didn't Franz know, when I had known immediately? But Franz didn't love him, and I had loved him once.
"Take him into the kitchen and make the fire for him," I said, praying to God that Franz would not give him away. "Find him something to eat."
Franz nodded, bowed to the General again, and retreated behind the flickering candle. The man followed him, stumbling on obediently. And then the room was dark again with only the glow from the fireplace to light the gilt glory of the General.
He put a log on the fire and stood by it, warming himself. I wanted him to go; all my heart was crying: "Get rid of him. He's the enemy death for that beggar!" Yet I brought brandy and smiled as he gulped it.
"Cold night," he said.
(Why wouldn't he go?)
I stood next to him, and he put his arms around me and kissed me. His full, wet lips, and I was cold as ice. It was in the drawing room, the room where the memories had been.
"You're cold, my dear." And he kissed me again. "My dear, my dear," he said, "how soon "
(Would he never go?) "I don't know soon when the war is over."
"War," he snorted. "But there is no war, my dear. Rabble, like that beggar. But no war."
He sat in one of the wing chairs, and I sat in the other. I clasped my hands tightly to keep them from trembling. He stared at me the way I could picture him staring at a horse he had just acquired.
"A fire does something," he pronounced sagely. "Can't wait to have us sitting like this every night. A fire, and a woman you're proud of, and a brandy."
"Yes," I whispered, feeling small and wilted and terrified. He would never go, and there was no hope. I was his, just as fine horses and fine dogs were his.
Was there nothing I could say that would make him go? Could he see how afraid I was? Did he know? When he, so long ago, had called me ice, was I ice then always? Wasn't something left anything?
"What are you thinking of, my dear?" the General asked.
"Of nothing. Only of tonight."
At last he rose to leave. Before he left he kissed me and said, "That beggar?"
My heart stopped, choked up in my throat. "I suppose he's gone by now," I said lightly.
The General kissed me again. It didn't matter. I had set out for something, and I had won. Everything was tight and secure now that the General was mine.
A FTER he had gone, I felt so weak that I could barely walk back to the fire. The one log still burned, but the rest were embers. I stood there as if I defied the drawing room to do anything to me. I stood there to show all the dark, fatal objects out of the past how strong I was. And then I could stand there no longer, and I had to go into the kitchen.
He was still there and hadn't I known that? Asleep in front of the kitchen fire, the deep, complete sleep of exhaustion. How much had he labored before he could sleep? How many miles had it taken to wear away the soles of his shoes? I bent over him, staring at the bearded face.
He awoke or half awoke and looked into my eyes; his smile held the forgotten trust of his sleep. It seemed to me that his eyes were not looking at a woman of thirty-eight who had captured a general, but at a girl he had loved a long, long time ago. There was nothing to forgive and nothing to ask, because his trust in that girl was complete and splendid. I bent over and kissed him; I couldn't have done anything else then. After the kiss, he still smiled. His hand went into a pocket somewhere deep in his rags and came forth with something he gave me. He dropped back to sleep again like a child, without question and without doubt.
Then Franz came down with two blankets and watched me curiously as he covered him. Did Franz know? There were so many things I suspected Franz of knowing. Rebels and contacts with the Rebel army, the dark, undercover business of the war.
"Franz," I said, "the farmers who come into the city with their food at night, when do they go back?"
"Daylight, missy." Still watching me.
"Do you know any of them, one you could trust, a man with courage?"
"I know," he nodded.
I went back into the drawing room and put another log on the fire. I was not afraid of the memories now.
I looked at the papers the sleeping man had given me, and then I looked into the fire. If you put ice in front of a fire, it runs out and becomes nothing. And all my ice was nothing. I tried to hear the General saying, "Our America."
I was still sitting there when Marjory came in, fresh and whirling, to kiss me.
"He asked me " she was laughing "he asked me!"
"Do you love him?" I said quietly.
She stopped, serious for a moment, puzzled as she stared at me. Then she came over and curled at my feet.
"Do you love him?"
"Why should you ask me like that? I don't know. But he asked me, like a prince coming to Cinderella." She stared at my face and whispered, "What is it?"
"I want you to love him, to love him enough. Come with me," I said.
I LED her into the kitchen. I put my arm around her as she stared at the sleeping man, watched how pale her cheeks became, how tight her lips. She was like him, all him and none of me. "When did he come?" she whispered. "Tonight. I was with the General, and we found him in front of the door."
"And the General?"
"He doesn't know. Thinks he's a beggar."
"And you knew at once?"
"Yes, I knew. You can't marry a man, love a man, have children by a man and then forget."
We went back to the drawing room, back to the wing chairs. The firelight flickered over her face and showed me what the other face was without a beard.
"He's a spy," I said.
"How do you know?"
"Because he gave me the papers. Information, plans. How many in the British Army, when they plan to leave Philadelphia, the way they'll go. It seems that if there is any hope for them at all, it depends on these papers."
"Why did he trust you?" she demanded almost harshly.
"I don't know. He trusted me. He awoke, and there were no questions or words. Maybe he knows me better than I know myself."
She waited a long time before she asked me, "What are you going to do now?"
"Go back with him tomorrow. He has to go back. Even if he didn't have to, I know him well enough to realize that he would. Nothing could keep him here. And some of the papers were stolen. When they realize that, there'll be a search. The General will remember the beggar "
She interrupted bitterly, "Do you know what it's like out there in Valley Forget the cold, the hunger, the misery?"
"I don't know. I try to imagine, but I don't know."
"What would you do there?"
"Help him if I could. Cook for him, care for him, anything a woman can do, anything he'd let me do. There are other women. They say Washington's wife is out there."
Then, after a while, I said: "I didn't want it to be this way, darling. When the General asked me to marry him tonight, I thought of only one thing, of you. You see, I want you to be happy. That's why I asked you if you love Charles."
"Is it that way? If you love a person once, do you love him always?"
"I think so," I whispered.
"You wouldn't give him up for me?" she said evenly. "When Charles asked me, I realized that he knew, they all knew, that I was nobody unless you married the General. I tried to tell myself that I didn't care "
"I gave him up once," I said miserably.
Then she was in my arms, sobbing, and she was not ice, not his kind or my kind, only a little girl again....
You can be a queen or a farmer's wife, a farmer's wife driving into the country in a little cart piled high with sacks. In the snow in the cold dawn.
And you can sing.
He lay hidden under the sacks, and I wasn't afraid, and I was singing for him to hear and for the world to hear. And I wasn't afraid of what lay behind us or ahead of us.
Because he had trusted me, and I knew what that trust meant, and because my daughter was beside me.
And whatever lay out there in the deep, gray dawn, it was finer and better than what the General had called, "Our America."