بخش 07

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8 I did my best, your Honr, to tackele the problem of boys. Oh, I used even to read in the Beardsley Star a so-called Column for Teens, to find out how to behave!

A word to fathers. Don’t frighten away daughter’s friend. Maybe it is a bit hard for you to realize that now the boys are finding her attractive. To you she is still a little girl. To the boys she’s charming and fun, lovely and gay. They like her. Today you clinch big deals in an exectuvie’s office, but yesterday you were just highschool Jim carrying Jane’s school books. Remember? Don’t you want your daughter, now that her turn has come, to be happy in the admiration and company of boys she likes? Don’t you want your daughter, now that her turn has come, to be happy in the admiration and company of boys she likes? Don’t you want them to have wholesome fun together?

Wholesome fun? Good Lord!

Why not treat the young fellows as guests in your house? Why not make conversation with them? Draw them out, make them laugh and feel at ease?

Welcome, fellow, to this brdello.

If she breaks the rules don’t explode out loud in front of her partner in crime. Let her take the brunt of your displeasure in private. And stop making the boys feel she’s the daughter of an old ogre.

First of all the old ogre drew up a list under “absolutely forbidden” and another under “reluctantly allowed.” Absolutely forbidden were dates, single or double or triplethe next step being of course mass orgy. She might visit a candy bar with her girl friends, and there giggle-chat with occasional young males, while I waited in the car at a discreet distance; and I promised her that if her group were invited by a socially acceptable group in Butler’s Academy for Bo[ys for their annual ball (heavily chaperoned, of course), I might consider the question whether a girl of fourteen can don her first “formal” (a kind of gown that makes thin-armed teen-agers look like flamingoes). Moreover, I promised her to throw a party a t our house to which she would be allowed to invite her prettier girl friends and the nicer boys she would have met by that time at the Butler dance. But I was quite positive that as long as my regime lasted she would never, never be permitted to go with a youngster in rut to a movie, or neck in a car, or go to boy-girl parties at the housesof schoolmates, or indulge out of my earshot in boy-girl telephone conversations, even if “only discussing his relations with a friend of mine.” Lo was enraged by all thiscalled me a lousy crook and worseand I would probably have lost my temper had I not soon discovered, to my sweetest relief, that what really angered her was my depriving her not of a specific satisfaction but of a general right. I was impinging, you see, on the conventional program, the stock pastimes, the “things that are done,” the routie of youth; for there is nothing more conservative than a child, especially a girl-child, be she the most auburn and russet, the most mythopoeic nymphet in October’s orchard-haze.

Do not misunderstand me. I cannot be absolutely certain that in the course of the winter she did not manage to have, in a casual way, improper contacts with unknown young fellows; of course, no matter how closely I controlled her leisure, there would constantly occur unaccounted-for time leaks with over-elaborate explanations to stop them up in retrospect; of course, my jealousy would constantly catch its jagged claw in the fine fabrics of nymphet falsity; but I did definitely feeland can now vouchsafe for the accuracy of my feelingthat there was no reason for serious alarm. I felt that way not because I never once discovered any palpable hard young throat to crush among the masculine mutes that flickered somewhere in the background; but because it was to me “overwhelmingly obvious” (a favorite expression with my aunt Sybil) that all varieties of high school boysfrom the perspiring nincompoop whom “holding hands” thrills, to the self-sufficient rapist with pustules and a souped-up carequally bored my sophisticated young mistress. “All this noise about boys gags me,” she had scrawled on the inside of a schoolbook, and underneath, in Mona’s hand (Mona is due any minute now), there was the sly quip: “What about Rigger?” (due too).

Faceless, then, are the chappies I happened to see in her company. There was for instance Red Sweater who one day, the day we had the first snowsaw her home; from the parlor window I observed them talking near our porch. She wre her first cloth coat with a fur collar; there was a small brown cap on my favorite hairdothe fringe in front and the swirl at the sides and the natural curls at the backand her damp-dark moccasins and white socks were more sloppy than ever. She pressed as usual her books to her chest while speaking or listening, and her feet gestured all the time: she would stand on her left instep with her right toe, remove it backward, cross her feet, rock slightly, sketch a few steps, and then start the series all over again. There was Windbreaker who talked to her in front of a restaurant one Sunday afternoon while his mother and sister attempted to walk me away for a chat; I dragged along and looked back at my only love. She had developed more than one conventional mannerism, such as the polite adolescent way of showing one is literally “doubled up” with laughter by incling one’s head, and so (as she sensed my call), still feigning helpless merriment, she walked backward a couple of steps, and then faced about, and walked toward me with a fading smile. On the other hand, I greatly likedperhaps because it reminded me of her first unforgettable confessionher trick of sighing “oh dear!” in humorous wistufl submission to fate, or emitting a long “no-o” in a deep almost growling undertone when thye blow of fate had actually fallen. Above allsince we are speaking of movement and youthI liked to see her spinning up and down Thayer Street on her beautiful young bicycle: rising on the pedals to work on them lustily, then sinking back in a languid posture while the speed wore itself off; and then she would stop at our mailbox and, still astride, would flip through a magazine she found there, and put it back, and press her tongue to one side of her upper lip and push off with her foot, and again sprint through pale shade and sun.

On the whole she seemed to me better adapted to her surroundings than I had hoped she would be when considering my spoiled slave-child and the bangles of demeanor she navely affected the winter before in california. Although I could never get used to the constant state of anxiety in which the guilty, the great, the tenderhearted live, I felt I was doing my best in the way of mimicry. As I lay on my narrow studio bed a fter asession of adoration and despair in Lolita’s cold bedroom, I used to review the concluded day by checking my own image as it prowled rather than passed before the mind’s red eye. I watched dark-and-handsome, not un-Celtic, probably high-church, possibly very high-church, Dr. Humbert see his daughter off to school I watched him greet with his slow smile and pleasantly arched thick black ad-eyebrows good Mrs. Holigan, who smelled of the plague (and would head, I knew, for master’s gin at the first opportunity). With Mr. West, retired executioner or writer of religious tractswho cared? I saw neighbor what’s his name, I think they are French or Swiss, meditate in his frank-windowed study over a typewriter, rather gaunt-profiled, an almost Hitlerian cowlick on his pale brow. Weekends, wearing a well-tailored overcoat and brown gloves, Professor H. might be seen with his daughter strolling to Walton Inn (famous for its violet-ribboned china bunnies and chocolate boxes among which you sit and wait for a “table for two” still filthy with your predecessor’s crumbs). Seen on weekdays, around one p.m. , saluting with dignity Argus-eyed East while maneuvering the car out of the garage and around the damned evergreens, and down onto the slippery road. Raising a cold eye from book to clock in the positively sultry Beardsley College library, among bulky young women caught and petrified in the overflow of human knowledge. Walking across the campus with the college clergyman, the Rev. Rigger (who also taught Bible in Beardsley School). “Somebody told me her mother was a celebrated actress killed in an airplane accident. Oh? My mistake, I presume. Is that so? I see. How sad.” (Sublimating her mother, eh?) Slowly pushing my little pram through the labyrinth of the supermarket, in the wake of Professor W., also a slow-moving and gentle widower with the eyes of a goat. Shoveling the snow in my shirt-sleeves, a voluminous black and white muffler around my neck. Following with no show of rapacious haste (even taking time to wipe my feet on the mat) my school-girl daughter into the house. Taking Dolly to the dentistpretty nurse beaming at herold magazinesne montrez pas vos zhambes. At dinner with Dolly in town, Mr. Edgar H. Humbert was seen eating his steak in the continental knife-and-fork manner. Enjoying, in duplicate, a concert: two marble-faced, becalmed Frenchmen sitting side by side, with Monsieur H. H.’s musical little girl on her father’s right, and the musical little boy of Professor W. (father spending a hygienic evening in Providence) on Monsieur G. G.’s left. Opening the garage, a square of light that engulfs the car and is extinguished. Brightly pajamaed, jerking down the window shade in Dolly’s bedroom. Saturday morning, unseen, solemnly weighing the winter-bleached lassie in the bathroom. Seen and heard Sunday morning, no chruchgoer after all, saying don’t be too late, to Dolly who is bound for the covered court. Letting in a queerly observant schoolmate of Dolly’s: “First time I’ve seen a man wearing a smoking jacket, sirexcept in movies, of course.” 9 Her girlfriends, whom I looked forward to meet, proved on the whole disappointing. There was Opal Something, and Linda Hall, and Avis Chapman, and Eva Rosen, and Mona Dahl (save one, all these names are approximations, of course). Opal was a bashful, formless, bespectacled, bepimpled creature who doted on Dolly who bullied her. With Linda Hall the school tennis champion, Dolly played singles at least twice a week: I suspect Linda was a true nymphet, but for some unknown reason she did not comewas perhaps not allowed to cometo our house; so I recall her only as a flash of natural sunshine on an indoor court. Of the rest, none had any claims to nymphetry except Eva Rosen. Avis ws a plump lateral child with hairy legs, while Mona, though handsome in a coarse sensual way and only a year older than my aging mistress, had obviously long ceased to be a nymphet, if she ever had been one. Eva Rosen, a displaced little person from France, was on the other hand a good example of a not strikingly beautiful child revealing to the perspicacious amateur some of the basic elements of nymphet charm, such as a perfect pubescent figure and lingering eyes and high cheekbones. Her glossy copper hair had Lolita’s silkiness, and the features of her delicate milky-white face with pink lips and silverfish eyelashes were less foxy than those of her likesthe great clan of intra-racial redheads; nor did she sport their green uniform but wore, as I remember her, a lot of black or cherry darka very smart black pullover, for instance, and high-heeled black shoes, and garnet-red fingernail polish. I spoke French to her (much to Lo’s disgust). The child’s tonalities were still admirably pure, but for school words and play words she resorted to current American and then a slight Brooklyn accent would crop up in her speech, which was amusing in a little Parisian who went to a select New England school with phoney British aspirations. Unfortunately, despite “that French kid’s uncle” being “a millionaire,” Lo dropped Eva for some reason before I had had time to enjoy in my modest way her fragrant presence in the Humbert open house. The reader knows what importance I attached to having a bevy of page girls, consolation prize nymphets, around my Lolita. For a while, I endeavored to interest my senses in Mona Dahl who was a good deal around, especially during the spring term when Lo and she got so enthusiastic about dramatics. I have often wondered what secrets outrageously treacherous Dolores Haze had imparted to Mona while blurting out to me by urgent and well-paid request various really incredible details concerning an affair that Mona had had with a marine at the seaside. It was characteristic of Lo that she chose for her closest chum that elegant, cold, lascivious, experienced young female whom I once heard (misheard, Lo swore) cheerfully say in the hallway to Lowho had remarked that her (Lo’s) sweater was of virgin wool: “The only thing about you that is, kiddo…” She had a curiously husky voice, artificially waved dull dark hair, earrings, amber-brown prominent eyes and luscious lips. Lo said teachers had remonstrated with her on her loading herself with so much costume jewelry. Her hands trembled. She was burdened with a 150 I.Q. And I also knew she had a tremendous chocolate-brown mole on he womanish back which I inspected the night Lo and she had worn low-cut pastel-colored, vaporous dresses for a dance at the Butler Academy.

I am anticipating a little, but I cannot help running my memory all over the keyboard of that shcool year. In the meeting my attempts to find out what kind of boys Lo knew, Miss Dahl was elegantly evasive. Lo who had gone to play tennis at Linda’s country club had telephoned she might be a full half hour late, and so, would I enteretain Mona who was coming to practice with her a scene from The Taming of the Shrew. Using all the modulations, all the allure of manner and voice she was capable of and staring at me with perhapscould I be mistaken? a faint gleam of crystalline irony, beautiful Mona replied: “Well, sir, the fact is Dolly is not much concerned with mere boys. Fact is, we are rivals. She and I have a crush on the Reverend Rigger.” (This was a jokeI have already mentioned that gloomy giant of a man, with the jaw of a horse: he was to bore me to near murder with his impressions of Switzerland at a tea party for parents that I am unable to place correctly in terms of time.) How had the ball been? Oh, it had been a riot. A what? A panic. Terrific, in a word. Had Lo danced a lot? Oh, not a frightful lot, just as much as she could stand. What did she, languorous Mona, think of Lo? Sir? Did she think Lo was doing well at school? Gosh, she certainly was quite a kid. But her general behavior was? Oh, she was a swell kid. But still? “Oh, she’s a doll,” concluded Mona, and sighed abruptly, and picked up a book that happened to lie at hand, and with a change of expression, falsely furrowing her brow, inquired: “Do tell me about Ball Zack, sir. Is he really that good?” She moved up so close to my chair that I made out through lotions and creams her uninteresting skin scent. A sudden odd thought stabbed me: was my Lo playing the pimp? If so, she had found the wrong substitute. Avoiding Mona’’ cool gaze, I talked literature for a minute. Then Dolly arrivedand slit her pale eyes at us. I left the two friends to their own devices. One of the latticed squares in a small cobwebby casement window at the turn of the staircase was glazed with ruby, and that raw wound among the unstained rectangles and its asymmetrical positiona night’s move from the topalways strangely disturbed me.

Sometimes… Come on, how often exactly, Bert? Can you recall four, five, more such occasions? Or would no human heart have survived two or three? Sometimes (I have nothing to say in reply to your question), while Lolita would be haphazardly preparing her homework, sucking a pencil, lolling sideways in an easy chair with both legs over its arm, I would shed all my pedagogic restraint, dismiss all our quarrels, forget all my masculine prideand literally crawl on my knees to your chair, my Lolita! You would give me one looka gray furry question mark of a look: “Oh no, not again” (incredulity, exasperation); for you never deigned to believe that I could, without any specific designs, ever crave to bury my face in your plaid skirt, my darling! The fragility of those bare arms of yourshow I longed to enfold them, all your four limpid lovely limbs, a folded colt, and take your head between my unworthy hands, and pull the temple-skin back on both sides, and kiss your chinesed eyes, and”Pulease, leave me alone, will you,” you would say, “for Christ’s sake leave me alone.” And I would get up from the floor while you looked on, your face deliberately twitching in imitation of my tic nerveux. But never mind, never mind, I am only a brute, never mind, let us go on with my miserable story.

11

One Monday forenoon, in December I think, Pratt asked me to come over for a talk. Dolly’s last report had been poor, I knew. But instead of contenting myself with some such plausible explaination of this summons, I imagined all sort of horrors, and had to fortify myself with a pint of my “pin” before I could face the interview. Slowly, all Adam’s apple and heart, I went up the steps of the scaffold.

A huge women, gray-haired, frowsy, with a broad flat nose and small eyes behind black-rimmed glasses”Sit down,” she said, pointing to an informal and humiliating hassock, while she perched with ponderous spryness on the arm of an oak chair. For a moment or two, she peered at me with smiling curiosity.She had done it at our first meeting, I recalled, but I could afford then to scowl back. Her eye left me. She lapsed into thoughtprobably assumed. Making up her mind she rubbed, fold on fold, her dark gray flannel skirt at the knee, dispelling a trace of chalk or something. Then she said, still rubbing, not looking up: “Let me ask a blunt question, Mr. Haze. You are an old-fashioned Continental father, aren’t you?”

“Why, no,” I said, “conservative, perhaps, but not what you would call old-fashioned.”

She sighed, frowned, then clapped her big plump hands together in a let’s-get-down-to-business manner, and again fixed her beady eyes upon me.

“Dolly Haze,” she said, “is a lovely child, but the onset of s@xual maturing seems to give her trouble.”

I bowed slightly. What else could I do?

“She is still shuttling,” said Miss Pratt, showing how with her liver-spotted hands, “between the anal and genital zones of development. Basically she is a lovely”

“I beg your pardon,” I said, “what zones?”

“That’s the old-fashioned European in you!” cried Pratt delivering a slight tap on my wrist watch and suddenly disclosing her dentures. “All I mean is that biologic drivesdo you smoke? are not fused in Dolly, do not fall so to speak into ainto a rounded pattern.” Her hands held for a moment an invisible melon.

“She is attractive, birght though careless” (breathing heavily, without leaving her perch, the woman took time out to look at the lovely child’s report sheet on the desk at her right). “Her marks are getting worse and worse. Now I wonder, Mr. Haze” Again the false meditation.

“Well,” she went on with zest, “as for me, I do smoke, and, as dear Dr. Pierce used to say: I’m not proud of it but I jeest love it.” She lit up and the smoke she exhaled from her nostrils was like a pair of tusks.

“Let me give you a few details, it won’t take a moment. Now here let me see [rummaging among her papers]. She is defiant toward Miss Redcock and impossibly rude to Miss Cormorant. Now here is one of our special research reports: Enjoys singing with group in class though mind seems to wander. Crosses her knees and wags left leg to rhythm. Type of by-words: a two-hundred-forty-two word area of the commonest pubescent slang fenced in by a number of obviously European polysyllabics. Sighs a good deal in class. Let me see. Yes. Now comes the last week in November. Sighs a good deal in class. Chews gum vehemently. Does not bite her nails though if she did, this would conform better to her general patternscientifically speaking, of course. Menstruation, according to the subject, well established. Belongs at present to no church organization. By the way, Mr. Haze, her mother was? Oh, I see. And you are? Nobody’s business is, I suppose, God’s business. Something else we wanted to know. She was no regular home duties, I understand. Making a princess of your Dolly, Mr. Haze, he? Well, what else have we got here? Handles books gracefully. Voice pleasant. Giggles rather often. A little dreamy. Has private jokes of her own, transposing for instance the first letters of some of her teachers names. Hair light and dark brown, lustrouswell [laughing] you are aware of that, I suppose. Nose unobstructed, feet high-arched, eyes-let me see, I had here somewhere a still more recent report. Aha, here we are. Miss Gold says Dolly’s tennis form is excellent to superb, even better than Linda Hall’s, but concentration and point-accumulation are just “poor to fair.” Miss Cormorant cannot decide whether Dolly has exceptional emotional control or none at all. Miss Horn reports sheI mean, Dollycannot verbalize her emotions, while according to Miss Cole Dolly’s metabolic efficiency is superfine. Miss Molar thinks Dolly is myopic and should see a good ophthalmologist, but Miss Redcock insists that the girl simulates eye-strain to get away with scholastic incompetence. And to conclude, Mr. Haze, our researchers are wondering about something really crucial. Now I want to ask you something. I want to know if your poor wife, or yourself, or anyone else in the familyI understand she has several aunts and a maternal grandfather in California? oh, had! I’m sorrywell, we all wonder if anybody in the family has instructed Dolly in the process of mammalian reproduction. The general impression is that fifteen-year-old Dolly remains morbidly uninterested in s@xual matters, or to be exact, represses her curiosity in order to save her ignorance and self-dignity. All right-fourteen. You see, Mr. Haze, Beardsley School does not believe in bees and blossoms, and storks and love birds, but it does believe very strongly in preparing its students for mutually satisfactory mating and successful child rearing. We feel Dolly could make excellent progress if only she would put her mind to her work. Miss Cormorant’s report is significant in that respect. Dolly is inclined to be, mildly speaking impudent. But all feel that primo, you should have your family doctor tell her the facts of life and, secudno, that you allow her to enjoy the company of her schoolmates’ brothers at the Junior Club or in Dr. Rigger’s organization, or in the lovely homes of our parents.” “She may meet boys at her own lovely home,” I said.

“I hope she will,” said Pratt buoyantly. “When we questioned her about her troubles, Dolly refused to discuss the home situation, but we have spoken to some of her friends and reallywell, for example, we insist you un-veto her nonparticiaption in the dramatic group. You just must allow her to tak part in The Hunted Enchanters. She was such a perfect little nymph in the try-out, and sometime in spring the author will stay for a few days at Beardsley College and may attend a rehearsal or two in our new auditorium. I mean it is all part of the fun of being young and alive and beautiful. You must understand” “I always thought of myself,” I said, “as a very understanding father.”

“Oh, no doubt, no doubt, but Miss Cormorant thinks, and I am inclined to agree with her, that Dolly is obsessed by s@xual thoughts for which she finds no outlet, and will tease and martyrize other girls, or even our younger instructors because they do have innocent dates with boys.”

“Shrugged my shoulders. A shabby migr.

“Let us put our two heads together, Mr. Haze. What on earth is wrong with that child?”

“She seems quite normal and happy to me,” I said (disaster coming at last? Was I found out? Had they got some hypnotist?).

“What worries me,” said Miss Pratt looking at her watch and starting to go over the whole subject again, “is that both teachers and schoolmates find Dolly antagonistic, dissatisfied, cageyand everybody wonders why you are so firly opposed to all the natural recreations of a normal child.”

“Do you mean s@x play?” I asked jauntily, in despair, a cornered old rat.

“Well, I certainly welcome this civilized terminology,” said Pratt with a grin. “But this is not quite the point. Under the auspices of Beardsley School, dramatics, dances and other natural activities are not technically s@x play, though girls do meet boys, if that is what you object to.”

“All right,” I said, my hassock exhaling a weary sign. “You win. She can take part in that play. Provided male parts are taken by female parts.”

“I am always fascinated,” said Pratt, “by the admirable way foreignersor at least naturalized Americansuse our rich language. I’m sure Miss Gold, who conducts the play group, will be overjoyed. I notice she is one of the few teachers that seem to likeI mean who seem to find Dolly manageable. This takes care of general topics, I guess; now comes a special matter. We are in trouble again.” Pratt paused truculently, then rubbed her index finger under her nostrils with such vigor that her nose performed a kind of war dance.

“I’m a frank person,” she said, “but conventions are conventions, and I find it difficult… Let me put it this way… The Walkers, who live in what we call around here the Duke’s Manor, you know the great gray house on the hillthey send their two girls to our school, and we have the niece of President Moore with us, a really gracious child, not to speak of a number of other prominent children. Well, under the circumstances, it is rather a jolt when Dolly, who looks like a little lady, uses words which you as a foreigner probably simply do not know or do not understand. Perhaps it might be betterWould you like me to have Dolly come up here right away to discuss things? No? You seeoh well, let’s have it out. Dolly has written a most obscene four-letter word which our Dr. Cutler tells me is low-Mexican for urinal with her lipstick on some health pamphlets which Miss Redcock, who is getting married in June, distributed among the girls, and we thought she should stay after hoursanother half hour at least. But if you like” “No,” I said, “I don’t want to interfere with rules. I shall talk to her later. I shall thrash it out.”

“Do,” said the woman rising from her chair arm. “And perhaps we can get together again soon, and if things do not improve we might have Dr. Cutler analyze her.”

Should I marry Pratt and strangle her?

“…And perhaps your family doctor might like to examine her physicallyjust a routine check-up. She is in Mushroomthe last classroom along that passage.”

Beardsley School, it may be explained, copied a famous girls school in England by having “traditional” nicknames for its various classrooms: Mushroom, Room-In 8, B-Room, Room-BA and so on. Mushroom was smelly, with a sepia print of Reynolds’ “Age of Innocence” above the chalkboard, and several rows of clumsy-looking pupil desks. At one of these, my Lolita was reading the chapter on “Dialogue” in Baker’s Dramatic Technique, and all was very quiet, and there was another girl with a very naked, porcelain-white neck and wonderful platinum hair, who sat in front reading too, absolutely lost to the world and interminably winding a soft curl around one finger, and I sat beside Dolly just behind that neck and that hair, and unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the permission to participate in the school play, had Dolly put her inky, chalky, red-knuckled hand under the desk. Oh, stupid and reckless of me, no doubt, but after the torture I had been subjected to, I simply had to take advantage of a combination that I knew would never occur again.

12

Around Christmas she caught a bad chill and was examined by a friend of Miss Lester, a Dr. Ilse Tristramson (hi, Ilse, you were a dear, uninquisitive soul, and you touched my dove very gently). She diagnosed bronchitis, patted Lo on the back (all its bloom erect because of the fever) and put her to bed for a week or longer. At first she “ran a temperature” in American parlance, and I could not resist the exquisite caloricity of unexpected delightsVenus febriculosathough it was a very languid Lolita that moaned and coughed and shivered in my embrace. And as soon as she was well again, I threw a Party with Boys.

Perhaps I had drunk a little too much in preparation for the ordeal. Perhaps I made a fool of myself. The girls had decorated and plugged in a small fir treeGerman custom, except that colored bulbs had superseded wax candles. Records were chosen and fed into my landlord’s phonograph. Chic Dolly wore a nice gray dress with fitted bodice and flared skirt. Humming, I retired to my study upstairsand then every ten or twenty minutes I would come down like an idiot just for a few seconds; to pick up ostensibly my pipe from the mantelpiece or hunt for the newspaper; and with every new visit these simple actions became harder to perform, and I was reminded of the dreadfully distant days when I used to brace myself to casually enter a room in the Ramsdale house where Little Carmen was on.

The party was not a success. Of the three girls invited, one did not come at all, and one of the boys brought his cousin Roy, so there was a superfluity of two boys, and the cousins knew all the steps, and the other fellows could hardly dance at all, and most of the evening was spent in messing up the kitchen, and then endlessly jabbering about what card game to play, and sometime later, two girls and four boys sat on the floor of the living room, with all windows open, and played a word game which Opal could not be made to understand, while Mona and Roy, a lean handsome lad, drank ginger ale in the kitchen, sitting on the table and dangling their legs, and hotly discussing Predestination and the Law of Averages. After they had all gone my Lo said ugh, closed her eyes, and dropped into a chair with all four limbs starfished to express the utmost disgust and exhaustion and swore it was the most revolting bunch of boys she had ever seen. I bought her a new tennis racket for that remark.

January was humid and warm, and February fooled the forsythia: none of the townspeople had ever seen such weather. Other presents came tumbling in. For her birthday I bought her a bicycle, the doe-like and altogether charming machine already mentionedand added to this a History of Modern American Painting: her bicycle manner, I mean her approach to it, the hip movement in mounting, the grace and so on, afforded me supreme pleasure; but my attempt to refine her pictorial taste was a failure; she wanted to know if the guy noon-napping on Doris Lee’s hay was the father of the pseudo-voluptuous hoyden in the foreground, and could not understand why I said Grant Wood or Peter Hurd was good, and Reginald Marsh or Frederick Waugh awful.

13

By the time spring had touched up Thayer Street with yellow and green and pink, Lolita was irrevocably stage-struck. Pratt, whom I chanced to notice one Sunday lunching with some people at Walton Inn, caught my eye from afar and went through the motion of sympathetically and discreetly clapping her hands while Lo was not looking. I detest the theatre as being a primitive and putrid form, historically speaking; a form that smacks of stone-age rites and communal nonsense despite those individual injections of genius, such as, say, Elizabethan poetry which a closeted reader automatically pumps out of the stuff. Being much occupied at the time with my own literary labors, I did not bother to read the complete text of The Enchanted Hunters, the playlet in which Dolores Haze was assigned the part of a farmer’s daughter who imagines herself to be a woodland witch, or Diana, or something, and who, having got hold of a book on hypnotism, plunges a number of lost hunters into various entertaining trances before falling in her turn under the spell of a vagabond poet (Mona Dahl). That much I gleaned from bits of crumpled and poorly typed script that Lo sowed all over the house. The coincidence of the title with the name of an unforgettable inn was pleasant in a sad little way: I wearily thought I had better not bring it to my own enchantress’s notice, lest a brazen accusation of mawkishness hurt me even more than her failure to notice it for herself had done. I assumed the playlet was just another, practically anonymous, version of some banal legend. Nothing prevented one, of course, from supposing that in quest of an attractive name the founder of the hotel had been immediately and solely influenced by the chance fantasy of the second-rate muralist he had hired, and that subsequently the hotel’s name had suggested the play’s title. But in my credulous, simple, benevolent mind I happened to twist it the other way round, and without giving the whole matter much though really, supposed that mural, name and title had all been derived from a common source, from some local tradition, which I, an alien unversed in New England lore, would not be supposed to know. In consequence I was under the impression (all this quite casually, you understand, quite outside my orbit of importance) that the accursed playlet belonged to the type of whimsy for juvenile consumption, arranged and rearranged many times, such as Hansel and Gretel by Richard Roe, or The Sleeping Beauty by Dorothy Doe, or The Emperor’s New Clothes by Maurice Vermont and Marion Rumpelmeyerall this to be found in any Plays for School Actors or Let’s Have a Play! In other words, I did not knowand would not have cared, if I did that actually The Enchanted Hunters was a quite recent and technically original composition which had been produced for the first time only three or four months ago by a highbrow group in New York. To meinasmuch as I could judge from my charmer’s partit seemed to be a pretty dismal kind of fancy work, with echoes from Lenormand and Maeterlinck and various quiet British dreamers. The red-capped, uniformly attired hunters, of which one was a banker, another a plumber, a third a policeman, a fourth an undertaker, a fifth an underwriter, a sixth an escaped convict (you see the possibilities!), went through a complete change of mind in Dolly’s Dell, and remembered their real lives only as dreams or nightmares from which little Diana had aroused them; but a seventh Hunter (in a green cap, the fool) was a Young Poet, and he insisted, much to Diana’s annoyance, that she and the entertainment provided (dancing nymphs, and elves, and monsters) were his, the Poet’s, invention. I understand that finally, in utter disgust at his cocksureness, barefooted Dolores was to lead check-trousered Mona to the paternal farm behind the Perilous Forest to prove to the braggart she was not a poet’s fancy, but a rustic, down-to-brown-earth lassand a last-minute kiss was to enforce the play’s profound message, namely, that mirage and reality merge in love. I considered it wiser not to criticize the thing in front of Lo: she was so healthily engrossed in “problems of expression,” and so charmingly did she put her narrow Florentine hands together, batting her eyelashes and pleading with me not to come to rehearsals as some ridiculous parents did because she wanted to dazzle me with a perfect First Nightand because I was, anyway, always butting in and saying the wrong thing, and cramping her style in the presence of other people.

There was one very special rehearsal… my heart, my heart… there was one day in May marked by a lot of gay flurryit all rolled past, beyond my ken, immune to my memory, and when I saw Lo next, in the late afternoon, balancing on her bike, pressing the palm of her hand to the damp bark of a young birch tree on the edge of our lawn, I was so struck by the radiant tenderness of her smile that for an instant I believed all our troubles gone. “Can you remember,” she said, “what was the name of that hotel, you know [nose pucketed], come on, you knowwith those white columns and the marble swan in the lobby? Oh, you know [noisy exhalation of breath]the hotel where you raped me. Okay, skip it. I mean, was it [almost in a whisper] The Enchanted Hunters? Oh, it was? [musingly] Was it?”and with a yelp of amorous vernal laughter she slapped the glossy bole and tore uphill, to the end of the street, and then rode back, feet at rest on stopped pedals, posture relaxed, one hand dreaming in her print-flowered lap.

14

Because it supposedly tied up with her interest in dance and dramatics, I had permitted Lo to take piano lessons with a Miss Emperor (as we French scholars may conveniently call her) to whose blue-shuttered little white house a mile or so beyond Beardsley Lo would spin off twice a week. One Friday night toward the end of May (and a week or so after the very special rehearsal Lo had not had me attend) the telephone in my study, where I was in the act of mopping up Gustave’sI mean Gaston’sking’s side, rang and Miss Emperor asked if Lo was coming next Tuesday because she had missed last Tuesday’s and today’s lessons. I said she would by all meansand went on with the game. As the reader may well imagine, my faculties were now impaired, and a move or two later, with Gaston to play, I noticed through the film of my general distress that he could collect my queen; he noticed it too, but thinking it might be a trap on the part of his tricky opponent, he demurred for quite a minute, and puffed and wheezed, and shook his jowls, and even shot furtive glances at me, and made hesitating half-thrusts with his pudgily bunched fingersdying to take that juicy queen and not daringand all of a sudden he swooped down upon it (who knows if it did not teach him certain later audacities?), and I spent a dreary hour in achieving a draw. He finished his brandy and presently lumbered away, quite satisfied with this result (mon pauvre ami, je ne vous ai jamais revu et quoiqu’il y ait bien peu de chance que vous voyiez mon livre, permiettez-moi de vous dire que je vous serre la main bien cordialement, et que toutes mes fillettes vous saluent). I found Dolores Haze at the kitchen table, consuming a wedge of pie, with her eyes fixed on her script. They rose to meet mine with a kind of celestial vapidity. She remained singularly unruffled when confronted with my discovery, and said d’un petit air faussement contrit that she knew she was a very wicked kid, but simply had not been able to resist the enchantment, and had used up those music hoursO Reader, My Reader! in a nearby public park rehearsing the magic forest scene with Mona. I said “fine”and stalked to the telephone. Mona’s mother answered: “Oh yes, she’s in” and retreated with a mother’s neutral laugh of polite pleasure to shout off stage “Roy calling!” and the very next moment Mona rustled up, and forthwith, in a low monotonous not untender voice started berating Roy for something he had said or done and I interrupted her, and presently Mona was saying in her humbles, s@xiest contralto, “yes, sir,” “surely, sir” “I am alone to blame, sir, in this unfortunate business,” (what elocution! what poise!) “honest, I feel very bad about it”and so on and so forth as those little harlots say.

So downstairs I went clearing my throat and holding my heart. Lo was now in the living room, in her favorite overstuffed chair. As she sprawled there, biting at a hangnail an mocking me with her heartless vaporous eyes, and all the time rocking a stool upon which she had placed the heel of an outstretched shoeless foot, I perceived all at once with a sickening qualm how much she had changed since I first met her two years ago. Or had this happened during those last two weeks? Tendresse? Surely that was an exploded myth. She sat right in the focus of my incandescent anger. The fog of all lust had been swept away leaving nothing but this dreadful lucidity. Oh, she had changed! Her complexion was now that of any vulgar untidy highschool girl who applies shared cosmetics with grubby fingers to an unwashed face and does not mind what soiled texture, what pustulate epidermis comes in contact with her skin. Its smooth tender bloom had been so lovely in former days, so bright with tears, when I used to roll, in play, her tousled head on my knee. A coarse flush had now replaced that innocent fluorescence. What was locally known as a “rabbit cold” had painted with flaming pink the edges of her contemptuous nostrils. As in terror I lowered my gaze, it mechanically slid along the underside of her tensely stretched bare thighhow polished and muscular her legs had grown! She kept her wide-set eyes, clouded-glass gray and slightly bloodshot, fixed upon me, and I saw the stealthy thought showing through them that perhaps after all Mona was right, and she, orphan Lo, could expose me without getting penalized herself. How wrong I was. How mad I was! Everything about her was of the same exasperating impenetrable orderthe strength of her shapely legs, the dirty sole of her white sock, the thick sweater she wore despite the closeness of the room, her wenchy smell, and especially the dead end of her face with its strange flush and freshly made-up lips. Some of the red had left stains on her front teeth, and I was struck by a ghastly recollectionthe evoked image not of Monique, but of another young prostitute in a bell-house, ages ago, who had been snapped up by somebody else before I had time to decide whether her mere youth warranted my risking some appalling disease, and who had just such flushed prominent pommettes and a dead maman, and big front teeth, and a bit of dingy red ribbon in her country-brown hair.

“Well, speak,” said Lo. “Was the corroboration satisfactory?”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “Perfect. yes. And I do not doubt you two made it up. As a matter of fact, I do not doubt you have told her everything about us.”

“Oh, yah?”

I controlled my breath and said: “Dolores, this must stop right away. I am ready to yank you out of Beardsley and lock you up you know where, but this must stop. I am ready to take you away the time it takes to pack a suitcase. This must stop or else anything may happen.”

“Anything may happen, huh?”

I snatched away the stool she was rocking with her heel and her foot fell with a thud on the floor.

“Hey,” she cried, “take it easy.”

“First of all you go upstairs,” I cried in my turn,and simultaneously grabbed at her and pulled her up. From that moment, I stopped restraining my voice, and we continued yelling at each other, and she said, unprintable things. She said she loathed me. She made monstrous faces at me, inflating her cheeks and producing a diabolical plopping sound. She said I had attempted to violate her several times when I was her mother’s roomer. She said she was sure I had murdered her mother. She said she would sleep with the very first fellow who asked her and I could do nothing about it. I said she was to go upstairs and show me all her hiding places. It was a strident and hateful scene. I held her by her knobby wrist and she kept turning and twisting it this way and that, surreptitiously trying to find a weak point so as to wrench herself free at a favorable moment, but I held her quite hard and in fact hurt her rather badly for which I hope my heart may rot, and once or twice she jerked her arm so violently that I feared her wrist might snap, and all the while she stared at me with those unforgettable eyes where could anger and hot tears struggled, and our voices were drowning the telephone, and when I grew aware of its ringing she instantly escaped.

With people in movies I seem to share the services of the machina telephonica and its sudden god. This time it was an irate neighbor. The east window happened to be agape in the living room, with the blind mercifully down, however; and behind it the damp black night of a sour New England spring had been breathlessly listening to us. I had always thought that type of haddocky spinster with the obscene mind was the result of considerable literary inbreeding in modern fiction; but now I am convinced that prude and prurient Miss Eastor to explode her incognito, Miss Fenton Lebonehad been probably protruding three-quarter-way from her bedroom window as she strove to catch the gist of our quarrel.

“… This racket… lacks all sense of… “ quacked the receiver, “we do not live in a tenement here. I must emphatically… “

I apologized for my daughter’s friends being so loud. Young people, you knowand cradled the next quack and a half.

Downstairs the screen door banged. Lo? Escaped?

Through the casement on the stairs I saw a small impetuous ghost slip through the shrubs; a silvery dot in the darkhub of the bicycle wheelmoved, shivered, and she was gone.

It so happened that the car was spending the night in a repair shop downtown. I had no other alternative than to pursue on foot the winged fugitive. Even now, after more than three years have heaved and elapsed, I cannot visualize that spring-night street, that already so leafy street, without a gasp of panic. Before their lighted porch Miss Lester was promenading Miss Favian’s dropsical dackel. Mr. Hyde almost knocked it over. Walk three steps and runt three. A tepid rain started to drum on the chestnut leaves. At the next corner, pressing Lolita against an iron railing, a blurred youth held and kissedno, not her, mistake. My talons still tingling, I flew on.

Half a mile or so east of number fourteen, Thayer Street tangles with a private lane and a cross street; the latter leads to the town proper; in front of the first drugstore, I sawwith what melody of relief! Lolita’s fair bicycle waiting for her. I pushed instead of pulling, pulled, pushed, pulled, and entered. Look out! some ten paces away Lolita, though the glass of a telephone booth (membranous god still with us), cupping the tube, confidentially hunched over it, slit her eyes at me, turned away with her treasure, hurriedly hung up, and walked out with a flourish.

“Tried to reach you at home,” she said brightly. “A great decision has been made. But first buy me a drink, dad.”

She watched the listless pale fountain girl put in the ice, pour in the coke, add the cherry syrupand my heart was bursting with love-ache. That childish wrist. My lovely child. You have a lovely child, Mr. Humbert. We always admire her as she passes by. Mr. Pim watched Pippa suck in the concoction.

J’ai toujours admir l’aeuvre du sublime dublinois. And in the meantime the rain had become a voluptuous shower.

“Look,” she said as she rode the bike beside me, one foot scraping the darkly glistening sidewalk, “look, I’ve decided something. I want to leave school I hate that school I hate the play, I really do! Never go back. Find another. Leave at once. Go for a long trip again. But this time we’ll go wherever I want, won’t we?”

I nodded. My Lolita.

“I choose? C’est entendu?” she asked wobbling a little beside me. Used French only when she was a very good little girl.

“Okay. Entendu. Now hop-hop-hop, Lenore, or you’ll get soaked.” (A storm of sobs was filling my chest.)

She bared her teeth and after her adorable school-girl fashioned, leaned forward, and away she sped, my bird.

Miss Lester’s finely groomed hand held a porch-door open for a waddling old dog qui prenait son temps.

Lo was waiting for me near the ghostly birch tree.

“I am drenched,” she declared at the top of her voice. “Are you glad? To hell with the play! See what I mean?”

An invisible hag’s claw slammed down an upper-floor window.

In our hallway, ablaze with welcoming lights, my Lolita peeled off her sweater, shook her gemmed hair, stretched towards me two bare arms, raised one knee:

“Carry me upstairs, please. I feel sort of romantic tonight.”

It may interest physiologists to learn, at this point, that I have the abilitya most singular case, I presumeof shedding torrents of tears throughout the other tempest.

15

The brakes were relined, the waterpipes unclogged, the valves ground, and a number of other repairs and improvements were paid for by not very mechanically-minded but prudent papa Humbert, so that the late Mrs. Humbert’s car was in respectable shape when ready to undertake a new journey.

We had promised Beardsley School, good old Beardsley School, that we would be back as soon as my Hollywood engagement came to an end (inventive Humbert was to be, I hinted, chief consultant in the production of a film dealing with “existentialism,” still a hot thing at the time). Actually I was toying with the idea of gently trickling across the Mexican borderI was braver now than last yearand there deciding what to do with my little concubine who was now sixty inches tall and weighed ninety pounds. We had dug out our tour books and maps. She had traced our route with immense zest. Was it thanks to those theatricals that she had now outgrown her juvenile jaded airs and was so adorably keen to explore rich reality? I experienced the queer lightness of dreams that pale but warm Sunday morning when we abandoned Professor Chem’s puzzled house and sped along Main Street toward the four-lane highway. My Love’s striped, black-and-white cotton frock, jauntry blue with the large beautifully cut aquamarine on a silver chainlet, which gemmed her throat: a spring rain gift from me. We passed the New Hotel, and she laughed. “A penny for your thoughts,” I said and she stretched out her palm at once, but at that moment I had to apply the breaks rather abruptly at a red light. As we pulled up, another car came to a gliding stop alongside, and a very striking looking, athletically lean young woman (where had I seen her?) with a high complexion and shoulder-length brilliant bronze hair, greeted Lo with a ringing “Hi!”and then, addressing me, effusively, edusively (placed!), stressing certain words, said: “What a shame to was to tear Dolly away from the playyou should have heard the author raving about her after that rehearsal” “Green light, you dope,” said Lo under her breath, and simultaneously, waving in bright adieu a bangled arm, Joan of Arc (in a performance we saw at the local theatre) violently outdistanced us to swerve into Campus Avenue.

“Who was it exactly? Vermont or Rumpelmeyer?”

“NoEdusa Goldthe gal who coaches us.”

“I was not referring to her. Who exactly concocted that play?”

“Oh! Yes, of course. Some old woman, Clare Something, I guess. There was quite a crowd of them there.”

“So she complimented you?”

“Complimented my eyeshe kissed me on my pure brow”and my darling emitted that new yelp of merriment whichperhaps in connection with her theatrical mannerismsshe had lately begun to affect.

“You are a funny creature, Lolita,” I saidor some such words. “Naturally, I am overjoyed you gave up that absurd stage business. But what is curious is that you dropped the whole thing only a week before its natural climax. Oh, Lolita, you should be careful of those surrenders of yours. I remember you gave up Ramsdale for camp, and camp for a joyride, and I could list other abrupt changes in your disposition. You must be careful. There are things that should never be given up. You must persevere. You should try to be a little nicer to me, Lolita. You should also watch your diet. The tour of your thigh, you know, should not exceed seventeen and a half inches. More might be fatal (I was kidding, of course). We are now setting out on a long happy journey. I remember” 16

I remember as a child in Europe gloating over a map of North America that had “Appalachian Mountains” boldly running from Alabama up to New Brunswick, so that the whole region they spannedTennessee, the Virginias, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, appeared to my imagination as a gigantic Switzerland or even Tibet, all mountain, glorious diamond peak upon peak, giant conifers, le montagnard migr in his bear skin glory, and Felis tigris goldsmithi, and Red Indians under the catalpas. That it all boiled down to a measly suburban lawn and a smoking garbage incinerator, was appalling. Farewell, Appalachia! Leaving it, we crossed Ohio, the three states beginning with “I,” and Nebraskaah, that first whiff of the West! We traveled very leisurely, having more than a week to reach Wace, Continental Divide, where she passionately desired to see he Ceremonial Dances marking the seasonal opening of Magic Cave, and at least three weeks to reach Elphinstone, gem of a western State where she yearned to climb Red Rock from which a mature screen star had recently jumped to her death after a drunken row with her gigolo.

Again we were welcomed to wary motels by means of inscriptions that read:

“We wish you feel at home while here. All equipment was carefully checked upon your arrival. Your license number is on record here. Use hot water sparingly. We reserve the right to eject without notice any objectionable person. Do not throw waste material of any kind in the toilet bowl. Thank you. Call again. The Management. P.S. We consider our guests the Finest People of the World.” In these frightening places we paid ten for twins, flies queued outside at the screenless door and successfully scrambled in, the ashes of our predecessors still lingered in the ashtrays, a woman’s hair lay on the pillow, one heard one’s neighbor hanging his coat in his closet, the hangers were ingeniously fixed to their bars by coils of wire so as to thwart theft, and, in crowning insult, the pictures above the twin beds were identical twins. I also noticed that commercial fashion was changing. There was a tendency for cabins to fuse and gradually form the caravansary, and, lo (she was not interested but the reader may be), a second story was added, and a lobby grew in, and cars were removed to a communal garage, and the motel reverted to the good old hotel.

I now warn the reader not to mock me and my mental daze. It is easy for him and me to decipher now a past destiny; but a destiny in the making is, believe me, not one of those honest mystery stories where all you have to do is keep an eye on the clues. In my youth I once read a French detective tale where the clues were actually in italics; but that is not McFate’s wayeven if one does learn to recognize certain obscure indications.

For instance: I would not swear that there was not at least one occasion, prior to, or at the very beginning of, the Midwest lap of our journey, when she managed to convey some information to, or otherwise get into contact with, a person or persons unknown. We had stopped at a gas station, under the sign of Pegasus, and she had slipped out of her seat and escaped to the rear of the premises while the raised hood, under which I had bent to watch the mechanic’s manipulations, hid her for a moment from my sight. Being inclined to be lenient, I only shook my benign head though strictly speaking such visits were taboo, since I felt instinctively that toiletsas also telephoneshappened to be, for reasons unfathomable, the points where my destiny was liable to catch. We all have such fateful objectsit may be a recurrent landscape in one case, a number in anothercarefully chosen by the gods to attract events of special significance for us: here shall John always stumble; there shall Jane’s heart always break.

Wellmy car had been attended to, and I had moved it away from the pumps to let a pickup truck be servicedwhen the growing volume of her absence began to weigh upon me in the windy grayness. Not for the first time, and not for the last, had I stared in such dull discomfort of mind at those stationary trivialities that look almost surprised, like staring rustics, to find themselves in the stranded traveler’s field of vision: that green garbage can, those very black, very whitewalled tires for sale, those bright cans of motor oil, that red icebox with assorted drinks, the four, five, seven discarded bottles within the incompleted crossword puzzle of their wooden cells, that bug patiently walking up the inside of the window of the office. Radio music was coming from its open door, and because the rhythm was not synchronized with the heave and flutter and other gestures of wind-animated vegetation, one had the impression of an old scenic film living its own life while piano or fiddle followed a line of music quite outside the shivering flower, the swaying branch. The sound of Charlotte’s last sob incongruously vibrated through me as, with her dress fluttering athwart the rhythm, Lolita veered from a totally unexpected direction. She had found the toilet occupied and had crossed over to the sign of the Conche in the next block. They said there they were proud of their home-clean restrooms. These prepaid postcards, they said, had been provided for your comments. No postcards. No soap. Nothing. No comments.

That day or the next, after a tedious drive through a land of food crops, we reached a pleasant little burg and put up at Chestnut Courtnice cabins, damp green grounds, apple trees, an old swingand a tremendous sunset which the tried child ignored. She had wanted to go through Kasbeam because it was only thirty miles north from her home town but on the following morning I found her quite listless, with no desire to see again the sidewalk where she had played hopscotch some five years before. For obvious reasons I had rather dreaded that side trip, even though we had agreed not to make ourselves conspicuous in any wayto remain in the car and not look up old friends. My relief at her abandoning the project was spoiled by the thought that had she felt I were totally against the nostalgic possibilities of Pisky, as I had been last year, she would not have given up so easily. On my mentioning this with a sigh, she sighed too and complained of being out of sorts. She wanted to remain in bed till teatime at least, with lots of magazines, and then if she felt better she suggested we just continue westward. I must say she was very sweet and languid, and craved for fresh fruits, and I decided to go and fetch her a toothsome picnic lunch in Kasbeam. Our cabin stood on the timbered crest of a hill, and from our window you could see the road winding down, and then running as straight as a hair parting between two rows of chestnut trees, towards the pretty town, which looked singularly distinct and toylike in the pure morning distance. One could make out an elf-like girl on an insect-like bicycle, and a dog, a bit too large proportionately, all as clear as those pilgrims and mules winding up wax-pale roads in old paintings with blue hills and red little people. I have the European urge to use my feet when a drive can be dispensed with, so I leisurely walked down, eventually meeting the cyclista plain plump girl with pigtails, followed by a huge St. Bernard dog with orbits like pansies. In Kasbeam a very old barber gave me a very mediocre haircut: he babbled of a baseball-playing son of his, and, at every explodent, spat into my neck, and every now and then wiped his glasses on my sheet-wrap, or interrupted his tremulous scissor work to produce faded newspaper clippings, and so inattentive was I that it came as a shock to realize as he pointed to an easeled photograph among the ancient gray lotions, that the mustached young ball player had been dead for the last thirty years.

I had a cup of hot flavorless coffee, bought a bunch of bananas for my monkey, and spent another ten minutes or so in a delicatessen store. At least an hour and a half must have elapsed when this homeward-bound little pilgrim appeared on the winding road leading to Chestnut Castle.

The girl I had seen on my way to town was now loaded with linen and engaged in helping a misshapen man whose big head and coarse features reminded me of the “Bertoldo” character in low Italian comedy. They were cleaning the cabins of which there was a dozen or so on Chestnut Crest, all pleasantly spaced amid the copious verdure. It was noon, and most of them, with a final bang of their screen doors, had already got rid of their occupants. A very elderly, almost mummy-like couple in a very new model were in the act of creeping out of one of the contiguous garages; from another a red hood protruded in somewhat cod-piece fashion; and nearer to our cabin, a strong and handsome young man with a shock of black hair and blue eyes was putting a portable refrigerator into a station wagon. For some reason he gave me a sheepish grin as I passed. On the grass expanse opposite, in the many-limbed hsade of luxuriant trees, the familiar St. Bernard dog was guarding his mistress’ bicycle, and nearby a young woman, far gone in the family way, had seated a rapt baby on a swing and was rocking it gently, while a jealous boy of two or three was making a nuisance of himself by trying to push or pull the swing board; he finally succeeded in getting himself knocked down by it, and bawled loudly as he lay supine on the grass while his mother continued to smile gently at neither of her present children. I recall so clearly these miniatiae probably because I was to check my impressions so thoroughly only a few minutes later; and besides, something in me had been on guard ever since that awful night in Beardsley. I now refused to be diverted by the feeling of well-being that my walk had engenderedby the young summer breeze that enveloped the nape of my neck, the giving crrunch of the damn gravel, the juice tidbit. I had sucked out at last from a hollowy tooth, and even the comfortable weight of my provisions which the general condition of my heart should not have allowed me to carry; but even that miserable pump of mine seemed to be working sweetly, and I felt adolori d’amoureuse langueur, to quote dear old Ronsard, as I reached the cottage where I had left my Dolores.

To my surprise I found her dressed. She was sitting on the edge of the bed in slacks and T-shirt, and was looking at me as if she could not quite place me. The frank soft shape of her small breasts was brought out rather than blurred by the limpness of her thin shirt, and this frankness irritated me. She had not washed; yet her mouth was freshly though smudgily painted, and her broad teeth glistened like wine-tinged ivory, or pinkish poker chips. And there she sat, hands clasped in her lap, and dreamily brimmed with a diabolical glow that had no relations to me whatever.

I plumped down my heavy paper bag and stood staring at the bare ankles of her sandaled feet, then at her silly face, then again at her sinful feet. “You’ve been out,” I said (the sandals were filthy with gravel).

“I just got up,” she replied, and added upon intercepting my downward glance: “Went out for a sec. Wanted to see if you were coming back.”

She became aware of the bananas and uncoiled herself tableward.

What special suspicion could I have? None indeedbut those muddy, moony eyes of hers, that singular warmth emanating from her! I said nothing. I looked at the road meandering so distinctly within the frame of the window… Anybody wishing to betray my trust would have found it a splendid lookout. With rising appetite, Lo applied herself to the fruit. All at once I remembered the ingratiating grin of the Johnny next door. I stepped out quickly. All cars had disappeared except his station wagon; his pregnant young wife was not getting into it with her baby and the other, more or less canceled, child.

“What’s the matter, where are you going?” cried Lo from the porch.

I said nothing. I pushed her softness back into the room and went in after her. I ripped her shirt off. I unzipped the rest of her, I tore off her sandals. Wildly, I pursued the shadow of her infidelity; but the scent I traveled upon was so slight as to be practically undistinguishable from a madman’s fancy.

17

Gros Gaston, in his prissy way, had liked to make presentspresents just a prissy wee bit out of the ordinary, or so he prissily thought. Noticing one night that my box of chessmen was broken, he sent me next morning, with a little lad of his, a copper case: it had an elaborate Oriental design over the lid and could be securely locked. Once glance sufficed to assure me that it was one of those cheap money boxes called for some reason “luizettas” that you buy in Algiers and elsewhere, and wonder what to do with afterwards. It turned out to be much too flat for holding my bulky chessmen, but I kept itusing it for a totally different purpose.

In order to break some pattern of fate in which I obscurely felt myself being enmeshed, I had decideddespite Lo’s visible annoyanceto spend another night at Chestnut Court; definitely waking up at four in the morning, I ascertained that Lo was still sound asleep (mouth open, in a kind of dull amazement at the curiously inane life we all had rigged up for her) and satisfied myself that the precious contents of the “luizetta” were safe. There, snugly wrapped in a white woolen scarf, lay a pocket automatic: caliber .32, capacity of magazine 8 cartridges, length a little under one ninth of Lolita’s length, stock checked walnut, finish full blued. I had inherited it from the late Harold Haze, with a 1938 catalog which cheerily said in part: “Particularly well adapted for use in the home and car as well as on the person.” There it lay, ready for instant service on the person or persons, loaded and fully cocked with the slide lock in safety position, thus precluding any accidental discharge. We must remember that a pistol is the Freudian symbol of the Ur-father’s central forelimb.

I was now glad I had it with meand even more glad that I had learned to use it two years before, in the pine forest around my and Charlotte’s glass lake. Farlow, with whom I had roamed those remote woods, was an admirable marksman, and with his .38 actually managed to hit a hummingbird, though I must say not much of it could be retrieved for proofonly a little iridescent fluff. A burley ex-policeman called Krestovski, who in the twenties had shot and killed two escaped convicts, joined us and bagged a tiny woodpeckercompletely out of season, incidentally. Between those two sportsmen I of course was a novice and kept missing everything, though I did would a squirrel on a later occasion when I went out alone. “You like here,” I whispered to my light-weight compact little chum, and then toasted it with a dram of gin.

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