The Winter People, страница 1
The Winter People
Phyllis A. Whitney
I was asleep, and then I was awake, listening.
I could hear the snow hissing at the windows, hear the storm behind it and the rushing sound the wind made through the pine trees. But the sound that had wakened me was inside the house. A key had been slipped into a lock.
My hand reached automatically across the bed to find Glen, even as I remembered that after the quarrel late that afternoon he had hurled himself from the house, taken the Jaguar and gone roaring down the steep, winding drive to the road. Yet he had not been angry with me. The quarrel had been with her. I pushed myself up in bed, drawing the quilt around me against sharp cold and stared through blackness toward the closed door to the hall.
The sound came again. A key turning.
In the few weeks I had lived at High Towers there had never been a key in the lock of Glen’s room. Our room—though I was still too much a bride, too unaccustomed to the house to feel at home in it. There was no other sound from the hallway. No whisper of retreating steps, no exhaled breath. There was only an intense listening on either side of the door. My side and hers. And there was the deep, frightened thudding of my heart. I knew what she had done. But I did not know why.
Soundlessly I rolled out of bed into the chill of the big room and went in bare feet across the cold floor. At the door I grasped the china knob and turned it ever so slightly. Against pressure. Her fingers were on it too, opposing mine.
The small explosion of laughter startled me when it came—a sound of pleased triumph, probably because I had found her out so quickly. Without troubling further to be quiet, she went away down the hall to her own room and left me to turn the knob as I pleased. Helplessly.
She had locked me into the room I shared with Glen. And Glen was gone. He could not help me because he was somewhere out in the heavy snow that blew across northern New Jersey hills. Blew across the frozen lake, far below the cliff on which the house had stood in all its arrogant pretension for the last eighty years.
I found my quilted robe and thrust my arms into long sleeves, slowly fastened the small buttons, shivering in the cold. The room was not entirely dark, due to that whispering whiteness outdoors. I went to a window and pressed against the glass, trying to peer out into the storm. The branch of the walnut tree scraped against the sill, rattling in the wind, its entire length thickly crusted with snow.
Someone had left the yard light burning behind the house, and against its radiance the storm was visible. Thick flakes blew past my window, with the wind behind, hurling them horizontally, giving snow the appearance of a solid, blowing mass—a wall which shut me in, imprisoned me, just as the locked door imprisoned me and shut me away from a saner world.
Even if there were no storm at my window, there would be only the dark of a country night beyond the lamp that burned in the yard. Lake and woods and hills would be invisible, and at this hour there would be no lights in the stone house on the far side of the water.
What hour was it?
I drew the curtains tightly against the white whirling frenzy and turned back to the room. My fingers fumbled for the reading lamp beside the carved rosewood bed, and I turned the switch. My small clock on the bed table read two-thirty. Glen had been gone nearly ten hours. And in this storm he could not get back to the house easily, even by daylight. Aunt Naomi had gone with him—as I should have done, had he let me—so that I was alone in the house with the woman who had shut me in. If she chose, she could unlock the door as easily as she had locked it and walk into my room. That would not bear thinking about.
Clumsily I set about rebuilding the fire in the grate. After a few false starts, the kindling flared, and flames licked upward into a blaze as the wood caught. I pulled a low hassock onto the hearthrug and sat upon it close to the fire, with my knees pulled to my chin, my hands held out to spears of flame. As I bent forward, my hair fell loosely over my shoulders and shone pale as silver in the firelight. Glen liked to see it loose at night. He liked to slip his fingers through its strands and bury his face in its softness and scent.
I love him so much, I thought. I truly love him! But I don’t understand him—and sometimes he frightens me.
I began to plait my hair so that it hung in a fat braid down my back. I hated to have it all a tangle in the morning—and Glen was not here to care. In a way it was my hair that had brought me to High Towers. I had always been a little vain about it, I suppose. While other women tried to achieve its silvery blondness by artificial means, my coloring came to me from my Norwegian mother. Dad had always said that the rest of me was pure Blake—like my English grandmother, who had been small-boned and fragile. But my hair and eyes were Bernardina’s. Fortunately, Dad had felt hers was much too large a name for a baby, so while they had named me after her, they’d always called me Dina. Only one person had ever called me Bernardina. Dina Blake, I had been. And now I was Dina Chandler.
Logs in the grate crackled as flame ate at them, warming me a little. Beyond the spit and snap of the fire I listened for the sound of a car. But nothing moved on distant roads, nothing came up the driveway—and I knew it could not. Outside the snow was deepening, and gusts of wind jolted the house.
Nothing moved inside either. She was safely shut away in her room, undoubtedly pleased that she had given me a fright.
How happy was I? How content in my new marriage? Of course every bride must feel doubts in the beginning, but had my love for Glen taken on a slightly desperate tinge? There was an unexpected wintry quality in him, like those freezing deeps of snow outside, which contradicted that gay and confident exuberance that hid it most of the time. An exuberance which could sweep everything before it, including me. I liked being swept away. I did not want to spend too much time thinking, because in that direction lay the past. It was the touch of winter in him which sometimes numbed me. Strangely, I thought about it most often when he was not there. When he was present he filled the room, the house, and all my mind and heart. I could only think then of how wildly and devotedly I loved him, and how I could not bear it if ever he turned away from me. Not that he had. Oh, not in the slightest! But when she had come there was a change. It was this that frightened me. I could not be certain what it meant. Sometimes it was necessary to reassure myself, to remember. To remember not the long ago, but the last few rapturous weeks and how it had all happened.
I buried my face in arms crossed upon my knees, closed my eyes against the firelight, and tried to recall in all its vivid detail the day when Glen had walked into the New York museum where I worked, walked resoundingly into my life.
At that moment I had been happily independent of emotional involvement. My work seemed more interesting than the men I knew. My father had been a well-known historian and university professor in California—Dr. John Blake. His books were in every library, on every reference shelf. Thanks to him, I had grown up with an interest in the historic past, though it was a different interest from his. He had cared mainly about the men and women of history, about understanding their motives and mistakes and triumphs, so they might be analyzed to serve the present. I felt that I understood something about such historical figures too, but from a different viewpoint, since I was more fascinated by the arts of the past, the paintings and sculpture, particularly—the things they had created—those men and women of other times.
I had grown up in the sunshine of Southern California, but New York had always been my Mecca. More so than ever after Father died. I had packed up the minute I was through college and come East with my mother’s consent to try for the museum job I wanted. I hated to leave the golden sunshine and had no liking for the winter of the East, but I knew it was what I must do. My father wa
Sometimes I wished I had not been born so late in my parents’ life. Having so few relatives would have made me lonely, had it not been for the friends I made at the museum and the way in which I became absorbed in everything about the life there. Yet all the while underneath; without telling myself what I was doing, I marked time. I had to see him again some day. That was fated. It had to be. In the meantime, I watched the crowds and the turn of a head or a man’s long stride that I knew so well. The sound of a voice with brusque kindness in it would make my heart beat faster, remembering his, and so would the flash of a teasing smile that reminded me of what I must forget after so much time had passed. Of course I never saw him. I read his books, I knew he lived in New York, but I lacked the courage to write to him again, or turn up on his doorstep. Old rejection—however reasonable at the time—was painful to remember. And my job kept me busy.
Not that it was an important job. I was part secretary to an assistant curator, part odd-job girl, and I liked the latter best. My favorite world was the storerooms, where treasures the public seldom saw were relegated to high rows of shelves. I helped to catalogue, to dust, to do minor repairs and keep track of where everything was kept. I had my own small walk-up apartment not far away. I dated two or three men whose company I enjoyed, but I did not go out often, because I wasn’t ready to tie myself to the fortunes of any one man. I had my own fortunes to interest me first.
On the day when Glen Chandler walked in, I was engaged in a minor, rather amusing task. A bronze ballet dancer—nearly half life-size—created in Italy, and a bit on the rococo side—had been brought to the storeroom for refurbishing. The real tutu she wore—for some whimsical reason—had become gray and bedraggled. It was my duty to outfit her with new layers of tulle and I had placed her upon a long display table and climbed up beside her to finish my work. When I knelt, needle in hand, leaning past the point of her outstretched toe, my head came even with hers and I chatted to her companionably while I worked.
I knew Glen Chandler was coming. The department was somewhat atwitter because he was Colton Chandler’s son. Of course the father’s name was distinguished and highly respected in art circles. Though he was in his late fifties, Colton Chandler still painted portraits that had never grown dated. His portrait of Nehru and one of Sarah Churchill were among the treasures of the museum and held a place of honor in a main gallery upstairs.
All I knew about the son was that he owned and ran a small art gallery downtown which I had not seen. Artists and sculptors, students and scholars were always visiting us and I was used to distinguished callers. I had known a few in my father’s home as well. That morning I had brought out the eighteenth-century Meissen figures Glen Chandler had wanted to see, and I intended to go on with my own odd jobs while he examined them. He was already a half hour late and I felt slightly impatient because my lunch hour would have to be postponed.
When I heard the outer door open, heard voices coming nearer, I hurried with my sewing in order to get the last stitch in my ballet dancer’s tutu before I climbed down from the table.
Mrs. Albright brought him in, and was unsurprised to find me in my high place. “Miss Blake, will you come off your perch and show Mr. Chandler the figures you’ve set out for him? Excuse me, please—there’s my phone!” She dashed off and left him standing just inside the door.
I gave him a quick glance which registered only that a tall man stood near the door watching me.
“I’ll be with you in a second,” I said, and wove my needle swiftly in and out of the stiff tulle. Since he had made me wait, he could wait a little too. I had a bit of my mother’s Norwegian obstinacy in me.
He said nothing and I finished my sewing before I looked at him again. Really looked for the first time.
He had not moved, but stood watching me with his dark, altogether intent gaze. Though he was still, I had an odd impression of motion arrested, of vitality held in check. His hair was a thick, dark chestnut, and rather curly, with a reddish gleam in the light. His eyes were very large—almost black—and his rather elegant, thoroughly masculine face was thin and long, with a straight, sensitive mouth. Somehow he reminded me of an old portrait I had once seen of Keats. I suppose I stared back openly because his own look was almost rude.
“I’m ready now,” I said, to break the odd locking of our eyes across the room. I stood up on the long platform of table above him, one hand resting on the arm of my ballet dancer friend.
Glen Chandler came toward me, almost flowing into easy motion with a grace that I was to understand later came from his skill as skier, skater, horseback rider.
“Stay where you are,” he said, his tone peremptory. “Don’t move another step. Just stand there.”
I felt suddenly self-conscious, on exhibit, a little indignant. Yet I did as he ordered while he studied me with his artist’s eye—looked me over from the front and the side, and then went behind the table to complete the round. It was an impersonal inspection and therefore not as outrageous as it might have been.
“That pale gray-green smock you’re wearing,” he said, “—it’s exactly the right shade for you. It carries out the green of your eyes, but your eyes are brighter and they dominate—which is as it should be. Your hair is right the way you wear it—loose with a deep dip down the back and falling simply around your face. But you’ve restrained it with those combs behind your ears. Take them out.”
I came to my senses and jumped down from the tabletop, thoroughly annoyed. “The Meissen figures are over here,” I said. “I’ve put them out for you, and—”
He came toward me and there was a certain exuberance in his smile that was disarming. “We can forget the Meissen for now. And don’t look at me like that. It’s foolish, you know—futile. I’m not sure what I mean to do with you yet, but it will be something. Something important. There’s no use resisting.”
I like a man who can govern and decide—as my father used to do in his gently firm way—but I’ve never liked to be pushed around. Swept away—yes, but not with arrogant highhandedness. Yet even as I bristled, I began to see that this was no arrogance. Here was a man who was excited about something—something almost apart from me. He was not playing a game or being rude.
When he reached out with strong, long-fingered hands to remove the two silver combs from behind my ears, his touch was almost tender, and I stood hypnotized. My pale hair fell across my shoulders and he stood back with a comb in each hand, staring at me with those dark, intent eyes—eyes so much darker than the chestnut of his hair. I was glad his eyes were dark. Blue eyes troubled me.
“I can see you in alabaster.” He was musing now, speaking more to himself than to me. “Pure white alabaster, like ice. I think I could do it. I think I could.”
I had no idea how to deal with him. I had no intention of turning myself into a model—it wasn’t the sort of work that appealed to me, and he was making me increasingly self-conscious—though he was not self-conscious himself at all.
“If you’ll just look at the Meissen, please,” I said. “I’ll have to stay here while you do, of course. But it’s past my lunchtime, and—”
“What’s your name?” he asked me. “I heard the Blake when Mrs. Albright introduced us. But what else? You must have Scandinavia in your blood.”
“My mother was Norwegian,” I said. “I was named Bernardina after her.”
I always put it like that, though only one man had called me Bernardina—only one man, ever. I suppose it was a sort of test I made when I met someone new. Then I always hurried on to say that people called me Dina.
He passed the test easily, calling me Dina at once, setting me at ease.
“Dina!” He picked up the “n” sound and made it hum. “I knew it! The northern heritage shows. Yes—I could
“I’m not going to be put into alabaster or anything else, because I’m not going to stand still long enough,” I said. “May I have my combs, please?”
He smiled at me again, and I felt the first twinge of a reaction I could not help. The slightly somber cast of his face brightened when he smiled, making him all the more compelling and vital. He replaced the combs in my hair without fumbling. I should have known then that he had grown up among women.
“Will you have lunch with me?” he asked. “Then I can apologize for startling you. I’ve been waiting for someone like you to happen to me. But of course you haven’t the slightest notion what I’m talking about, or what it is that has happened. Give me a chance to explain, at least.”
Without warning—or with only the warning of that slight twinge—I knew I wanted to go with him. It wasn’t my mind that was guiding me now, but that familiar sense of skyrockets about to go off, of Roman candles sputtering, of something magical about to happen. At twenty-four, I’d had this occur enough times so that I knew very well how easily burned-out rockets could fall to earth, how easily sparklers faded. Yet I always welcomed it when it happened, because then for a time I stopped searching the faces of strangers in the crowd.
I said I would get my coat and be with him in a moment, and I’m sure I sounded as stunned and tremulous as I felt.
At the door, he caught me by the hand for a moment, still looking at me with that searching challenge. “Ice-white,” he said. “Silver. The perfect contrast. At the opposite pole from black.”
I didn’t know what he meant—not then.
Over the luncheon table he told me about himself. Or at least I thought he was telling me, and I listened with my heart bumping irregularly, while I tasted nothing I ate.
Everyone knew that Glen Chandler had been a child prodigy when he was young. Even into his late teens his talent had grown—as a painter, as a sculptor. They had said the Chandler gift was his. But something had gone wrong. By the time he was twenty his talent appeared to have burned itself out. What had soared so naturally became pedestrian and difficult, he told me now. He did not give up working entirely, but for all his effort, he had only once again done what he felt he was born to do. Only once had the inspired touch returned.