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The Stone Bull, страница 1


The Stone Bull

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The Stone Bull

  The Stone Bull

  Phyllis A. Whitney


  One of the questions most frequently asked of a writer is whether “real people” have been used in a story. In my case the answer is an immediate and unequivocal “no.” My interest as a novelist lies in creating my own characters and the incidents that happen in a story. However, real places often furnish me with the inspiration that leads to an imaginary background and totally imaginary characters.

  The marvelously beautiful and romantic Mohonk Mountain House in the Shawangunk Mountains on the edge of the Catskills provided an inspiration for the setting of The Stone Bull. None of the dire happenings in this story ever occurred at the real Mohonk, of course, which is a lovely and entirely safe place for any visitor.

  I would like to thank the management of Mohonk Mountain House for its hospitality and assistance during my visit. In particular I want to thank Ruth Smiley, Rosalie and Dan Wilson, Mary Whitefield, and Jay Davis. My thanks as well to Diane Greenberg, who told me about those “whispering voices” on the lake, and to Frank Lyons, who kindly drove me all over the Mohonk acres in his truck. None of these people bears any resemblance to the imaginary characters in my story.

  Phyllis A. Whitney


  Tonight I am alone for almost the first time since my marriage. I sit here in our bedroom at the Mountain House, with all the lamps burning, and I am afraid. I know that soon Brendon will come upstairs and his very presence will dispel my foolish uneasiness. He will tell me that no one can mean me harm here at Laurel Mountain. But how can Brendon fully understand the sense of guilt that haunts me and is quite apart from this beautiful place, from the people who live here, or from those who come as guests to the hotel? Always my thoughts must return to Ariel.

  Am I to blame for my sister’s death? Perhaps I shall never be free of the question, the sense of blame. I try to accept the fault, face it, live with it, but even now when my life has changed so excitingly, so hopefully because of Brendon, I am never free for long of Ariel’s shadow.

  Someday I must talk to Brendon about her. But not yet. It’s possible that I am still a little afraid of her—afraid of that far-reaching shadow, so that even to discuss her with him, to confess my feelings of guilt, would be to evoke her too clearly in his eyes—and I can’t bear to do that. Not that Brendon would be attracted to the legend of a dead woman. He is too vitally and triumphantly alive. Yet I am still afraid of Ariel.

  Of course he knows that she was my sister, and he knows how she died—though not about my blame for her death. I’ve known him such a little while, and there is still so much else to talk about, to tell each other about us. So even though Ariel is an inescapable part of me and always will be, I don’t want to tell him everything about her. Not yet. That this astounding thing has happened to me, that I’ve been married to Brendon McClain for two months and we are on our honeymoon at his own fabulous Laurel Mountain—that is enough of a miracle for me to absorb for the moment. I must push everything else away. I must make the accusing thought of Ariel wait.

  I met Brendon by such impossible chance that I can now believe in fate. A few steps in another direction by either of us, a few moments’ difference in time—and we would never have come together. It happened in, of all places, the Opera lobby at Lincoln Center. Ariel’s death was in all the papers, and the funeral would be the next day. Mother was, as always, managing bravely and capably, and I had run away for a little while, torn by the grief and self-blame I had to hide from her. I had still not confessed to her that last phone call of Ariel’s.

  The remarkable photograph that Martha Swope did of Ariel as Giselle was still hanging in the lobby, and it drew me across the city. Tonight she was to have danced Europa, which had been choreographed for her, and which she would never dance again. I had seen her do it with Maurice Kiov as Zeus, and it had been marvelous. I hadn’t been able to cry as yet, and my eyes felt burning dry as I stood staring at her picture. All that love and hate, all the admiration and contempt that had been part of our relationship still boiled beneath the surface in me—the one who was left—and I could not cry.

  Ariel! How fortunate it was that they had chosen the right name for her. She was only twenty-eight when she died—though that is getting on for a ballet dancer. I am two years younger, but we were look-alikes, with the same fine, straight black hair and huge brown eyes, the same delicate, chiseled features, though faintly blurred in me; the long, ballerina’s neck, the look of fragility that we both wore so deceptively. I can think of nothing less fragile than a prima ballerina. We had the same long legs and slender feet, too, but it was all misplaced in me. I was earthbound Jenny and there was nothing airy about me. I was the one with two left feet. The startling resemblance between us was wholly outward. We couldn’t have been more opposite in our skills and inner selves.

  As children we started dancing lessons together out in Long Island where we lived, but I could never manage more than the wobbliest of arabesques, while from the first Ariel outdanced everyone in the class. It was Ariel who could float like thistledown, or soar like a gull. Even then her grands jetés were a miracle of grace and lightness, suspended in air, and she could execute those repeated fouettés that would someday give her the thirty-two for Swan Lake. Where I lost my balance and grew dizzy after two turns, Ariel could whirl the length of our practice room, with her head whipping around, never faltering uncertainly like the rest of us. Of course it was Ariel who went up en pointe as soon as she was permitted, Ariel who danced with a divine fire that would light the stages of the world and make her famous everywhere.

  Strangely, in my mind, I used to feel that I was really like her. I could soar so beautifully in my imagination, while my feet thudded on the floor. Even my barre work was terrible, and I shrank from the pain that is forever part of a dancer’s lot. True, the teacher praised me for a straight back and improving port de bras, but my long legs seemed to be made for climbing trees, my knees for hooking over branches, my feet for running in the woods. I was very good at that. Woods were always my element—not the make-believe of any stage. Or so I tried to comfort myself, and inside me I was grace itself.

  Of course if you care about ballet, or perhaps even if you don’t, you’ll have heard of Ariel Vaughn, and if you are lucky you’ll have seen her dance. The critics have raved about her mad Giselle, yet she could be that tender, lost girl in Tudor’s Pillar of Fire as well—all passion and frustration and despair. And surely she was as lovely as any Odette-Odile there ever was in the classic perfection of Swan Lake.

  So on that day after her death I had returned to stand before her picture, trying to make an impossible peace with both Ariel and myself, when a man turned from the box office window and noticed me standing near Ariel’s likeness. I paid no attention until I realized that he was staring at me. I could feel his eyes and the old resentment rose with unreasonable anger as I stared back into that bright blue, curious gaze for the first time. I didn’t need resentment anymore as protection, because Ariel was gone, yet my defenses went up automatically.

  He must have been surprised to have a strange woman regard him so indignantly, but he came toward me down the lobby anyway, and stopped before Ariel’s picture. Of course I knew why. We could have been twins, except for the way we wore our hair. In the photograph Ariel’s was parted in the center and drawn smoothly back in the ballerina’s twist, the smooth wings shining with highlights like black satin. I wore my hair long and free, except when I knew it was going to be in my way. When she was not dancing, which was seldom, Ariel had sometimes imitated me and let her own heavy hair hang down her back—and then there was hardly any way to tell us apart. That is, if we stood still, did not speak, did not move.

p; There was a certain arrogance in this man’s look that I’ve since come to know, and that no longer aggravates me because he isn’t arrogant toward me. But that afternoon it infuriated me. He looked so ominously dark there in the crystal lights of the lobby, with his thick brown hair and heavy eyebrows, contrasting with that electric blue of his eyes, and he was one of those assured men I couldn’t stand. So I spoke to him rudely out of tense emotion.

  “Yes, I know. We look alike. But Ariel Vaughn is dead and I’m left. I’m her sister.” I almost added, “I’m nobody,” but I managed to suppress that. My outburst was ridiculous, more childish than I liked to be, dredged up out of all those years of moving in Ariel’s shadow. I saw his arrogance fade to pity—which was even worse. He might have spoken had I given him a chance, but I didn’t.

  “I suppose you’d hoped to see her dance tonight!” I cried, my voice splintering. “I suppose—”

  This time he broke in. “No. I don’t care for ballet. I never go. I was merely picking up tickets for my aunt.”

  Perhaps that was really the moment when I fell in love with him. I heard that deep vibrant voice denouncing the ballet world that worshiped at Ariel’s shrine, and I fell—plunged!—into an emotion that was stronger than anything I’d ever felt before. Oh, of course it was only attraction then—a strong attraction, both physical and emotional, of the sort that can easily flash between a man and a woman. Love takes a little longer. That didn’t develop for me until later that evening when we were, miraculously, having dinner together, and I realized for the first time that Ariel was gone and I was free to love. Perhaps it was that sudden razing of the walls I’d built about me that did it. Walls that I dared to look over for the first time since our high school days together.

  The pattern started for us as sisters as early as that, and as we grew up it solidified. Not that Ariel ever meant what happened, but the boys who interested me took one look at her and were lost. Since she was older she usually met them first, and then they never so much as noticed I was alive. She always had that indefinable magic quality that men could never resist. It was all pointless, of course, as I could easily have told them if they’d asked. Ariel was given body and soul to her dancing, and while she loved adoration and thrived on it, indulging in light love affairs along the way, she was, as she often told me, not ready to be serious about love.

  “Marriage can wait,” she used to say. “A dancer’s life is much too short, and I must have all of it while I can.”

  I could have told those boys, those men, that one pair of hands applauding would never be enough. Not with hundreds of palms clapping together in a darkened theater, not with those bouquets being handed up on the stage and all the world at her slender, high-arched feet. But it was no use. After they met Ariel, I was only a friend they liked to talk to—about her.

  So that was why, at twenty-six, I was ready for Brendon McClain’s strength and arrogance and supreme confidence that he could have what he wanted. For the first time it was safe to fall deeply in love. That he was a man who had no interest in the ballet world made him doubly irresistible. Love at first sight? Of course it happens. I know. It has happened to me.

  The mystery was that he should have been attracted to me as well. Perhaps not so swiftly or impetuously as I to him—yet he was attracted. Sometimes I tried to get him to tell me why, and his answer was one that always puzzled me.

  “Because you’re not an onion,” he’d say. “Too many women today are like onions, with layers and layers to peel, only to find a hard little core all the layers were hiding.”

  “Layers of what?” I demanded.

  His blue eyes tantalized me with the intensity of his look. “Layers of anything. You’re not a child—you’re a woman. Yet you’re the unminted ore. You’re genuine. No one has managed to shape and spoil you, or cover up what you are.”

  That wasn’t true, of course. Until that moment in a theater lobby, my life with my sister had shaped and spoiled me, but now I was being born anew—as a self I was hardly acquainted with. Perhaps that was what he saw and why he was drawn to the very things that were unformed in me. The old appeal of Galatea. Just as I was drawn to his accomplished maturity, his advantage over me of ten years. In any case, I stopped questioning very soon. Instinctively, I knew that the wrong words might destroy emotion, that too much analysis wasn’t good for something so fragile and delicate. I accepted and was content. Most gloriously content.

  Of course when I learned about Laurel Mountain, which was his home, I was practically ecstatic, and Brendon was pleased with the things I had to bring to Laurel.

  Years before I had determined that I must escape from the apartment I shared with my mother and sister. Our father had died when I was twelve. So I’d gone in for the study of wildlife, flowers and plants and trees, and for the last two years I had been teaching an ecology course at a small college in northwestern New Jersey. I had lived close to the hills and within sight of the Delaware Water Gap. The beautiful countryside was still open and available and I could take my students on trips of exploration, working hard at the same time at my paintings of wild flowers. I’m no artist, but I can reproduce nature quite precisely and it’s something I love to do.

  Of course I told no one that Ariel was my sister. I knew all too well what would happen if I did, even at that distance from New York. If the relationship were known, there would be wondering whispers behind my back, a pointing out, and sometimes open staring: “She’s Ariel Vaughn’s sister”—as though some of the magic had rubbed off on me. To be talked about and stared at for my own accomplishments would be one thing, but it was ridiculous to single me out because of a mere relationship. I tried to be as different from her as I could, and I was lucky. No one noticed the resemblance. I kept my secret and I was almost content.

  I even had men friends and tried tentatively to fall in love, though that part hadn’t worked out. There continued to be an emptiness, a lacking in my life that no vocation could entirely fill.

  Then I’d had that last frantic phone call from my sister. “Come to me, Jenny! Come right away. I’m desperate and if you don’t come I’ll kill myself!” There had been a lot more—a jumbled outpouring that I couldn’t understand, or remember later. But it was all the old cry of “Wolf!” How many times I’d heard it over the years. A bad review, a missed step, one of the injuries that all dancers fear and are prone to—anything at all could upset her delicate balance. For years I had arranged with some difficulty to fly to her side whenever she called, sometimes at considerable cost to my own life. I had even lost a job or two on her account. So now I was calm and soothing and asked her what was the matter. A foot she had injured was acting up, she wailed. She was certain her dancing days were ended and what was she to do when it all stopped? She’d managed to kick her partner in the Black Swan pas de deux tonight at the charity benefit. She was losing her looks. No one loved her anymore. And on and on.

  I told her quietly that I couldn’t drop my classes at the moment, and I was sure Mother would look after her. “But I want you!” she cried. “I’ll come,” I told her. “I’ll come for sure this weekend. Now be a good girl and put Mother on the phone.” But Mother was away, and I gathered that was part of her pique. Mother had gone to visit our Aunt Lydia in Connecticut and wouldn’t be home till tomorrow. Right when Ariel needed her most. “Take a sleeping pill,” I’d said. “You’ll be all right, darling.”

  So she had taken a whole bottle of sleeping pills and she hadn’t been all right. When Mother found her in the morning it was too late. They’d rushed her to the hospital and the reporters were already swarming. I never told my mother about that phone call. I never told anyone. I gave up my job and moved back to New York to stay with Mother for a while.

  For all those years Ariel had been Mother’s sole concern, her career, really. She had played for Ariel’s practicing, made her costumes in the beginning, sat in at her classes, gone with her later when she traveled. I think she hardly noticed that winter
when my father died of pneumonia. I was the one who missed him. Mother had her work in Ariel. But now all that had come to a sudden, shocking end. She wasn’t one to falter or show weakness while something remained to be done for Ariel, and she had coped as no one else could have with the details of that elaborate funeral. I had hated it all. The screaming headlines, the reporters who kept asking for more, the pressure put upon us by the curious. The police questions, the inquest. I had pitied my mother and wondered what would happen when it was over and she had nothing left to do.

  On the day after my sister’s death I met Brendon, and my life took a new and exciting turn. Nevertheless, I stayed on with Mother through the summer, and Brendon stayed in New York. Mother met him and was politely indifferent, except for the concern that I might leave her. The inquest had brought out something surprising. Not that many sleeping pills had been consumed, after all. It was even possible that my sister hadn’t meant to kill herself. Foolishly, she had also taken an amount of alcohol—and the combination had been fatal. Perhaps this knowledge should have relieved my feelings of guilt, but it didn’t at all.

  More than these revelations, however, seemed to be worrying Mother. Now and then I sensed that she wanted to tell me something, that it was possible she knew more about whatever had been tormenting Ariel than she had let anyone know. But even when I felt she was on the verge of talking to me, she always drew back, keeping whatever secrets Ariel might have burdened her with, in spite of my urging her to talk.

  Finally, at Brendon’s suggestion, I sent for Mother’s sister, my Aunt Lydia. She was a masterful woman in her own right, and a recent widow. She came willingly to take hold, and in the end I had been able to marry Brendon with a clear conscience. The only person Mother really needed was Ariel, and Aunt Lydia could easily take my place.

  There had been mild surprise over my marriage, but I don’t think very much that was happening was real to my mother anymore. The real world, for her, had been Ariel Vaughn on a stage dancing. And that was over for good.

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