Readings — From the October 2015 issue

The Cornucopia

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By Elizabeth Harrower, from the story collection A Few Days in the Country, out this month from Text Publishing. Harrower lives in Sydney, Australia. She is the author of five novels.

Julia Holt was never impressed. Not being impressed was one of the chief things about her. Any new friend who ran to her with news, like a pup prancing up with a moldy bone between its teeth, learned this. The new friend, as it were, fell back a step or two in an effort to bring the whole of Julia into focus again, while Julia looked knowing and laughed, almost accusing the friend of lying.

Protestations — “But, Julia, I am flying round the world with Toby” — were beside the point. Julia hadn’t doubted it for an instant. She doubted nothing. Yes, Harry had been elected captain of his school. Yes, Grace had won first prize in the lottery. All right, the stars of the Old Vic touring company had accepted invitations to Edna’s party, and yes, Nancy and Stewart were dining with the governor-general. Okay. All right. Very well.

“You knew already, Julia! Someone told you!”

But no one had. And yet there was no mistaking Julia’s extreme lack of interest in world tours and viceregal dinners. Her lovely eyes roamed the most distant prospect available to them, moved, dully persecuted, across the skyline from east to west. No concert pianist obliged to support herself by rearing chickens, rounding them up for the night, could have seemed more disengaged than she. It was dispiriting to Julia’s new friend.

No, but if Julia did believe and still looked so amused and pitying, it could only mean that she had secrets beside which her new friend’s offerings were paltry indeed. Her friend felt discontented, dashed. What was the use? What was life all about, anyway?

Then, wonderfully, just at this awful moment, Julia noticed and declared the most spontaneous and tremendous admiration for, say, her new friend’s nylon stockings, her hand-stitched gloves, her gold earrings, or the color of her hair.

This free gift of herself was so unexpected that it threw Julia’s friend off balance. With a shrill little laugh she protested and wriggled and twisted her admired hands and legs, like a tiny pampered lapdog yapping fiendishly and chasing her own tail.

Julia and Ralph Holt . . . regarding their wealth, they would only say in a modest fashion, “Well, we’ll always have three meals a day.” Modesty in regard to their marriage, however, which was a legend in Sydney society, would have seemed hypocritical. The Holts were generous with their private life, displaying, discussing, analyzing it with humanity and wit. Even Ralph, a man with many large transactions on his mind and not a conversationalist at all, took time off to contribute a description. Together he and Julia sang a kind of hymn to their happiness.

Ralph’s great appeal for his fellow man was that, though he was rich, he treated everyone the same. He wasn’t a bit arrogant. He never bullied. Away from the head office he was good-natured, easily led, easily diverted, even soft. He evinced the universal balloon-like simplicity that humans display when temporarily bereft of their vocations. Unplugged from his niche in the gymnasium of circumstance, he was like a horse in an airplane.

Ralph had no time for games or hobbies. He read the financial papers. He understood world affairs insofar as they affected the stock markets, and prayed for governments to rise and fall to the advantage of his company’s holdings. He was mildly indifferent to his personal appearance, feeling no pressure to spend inordinately on clothes. The arts embarrassed him the way churches did.

Poor Ralph! The cleverest thing he ever did was to marry Julia. He confessed that she knew as much about the workings of the company as he did. He discussed everything with her. God alone knew what he would have made of himself without her!

Julia was realistic about these things: she was superior to Ralph. He knew it. She knew it. How could she act the little woman? If she had been a man, if she had even been a woman (of course she was), she would have run rings round Ralph, and every other. . . . Ah, well!

It was a tiny flaw in Julia that she resented, seemed — impossibly! — almost jealous of, any sign of initiative or individual desire on the part of her girlfriends. But it was only that she didn’t want to lose them. After all, she had acquired these companions, one by one, over the years, by a process of most intense and flattering cultivation. They’d found themselves unutterably charmed that Julia Holt was moved by the secrets of their small lives. And now they were lucky to live vicariously through her. Only Julia had need of them — Julia, whose life was so rich in events that she needed all their help to cope with it.

“Sweetie, would you slip out of the office at lunchtime and get those satin shoes from that French dyeing place?”

Can you get my pearls out to me before a quarter past six, lamb? They’re fixing the clasp at Huntley’s. I must have them tonight.”

“Darling, would you go and look after old Auntie Win for me this weekend? You can go straight from work on Friday. I can’t very well leave Ralph and the boys, and she’d hate a nurse, and she’s pretty sick — or she thinks she is! Someone has to be there. You haven’t got anything else fixed, have you? Because if you have, I can easily get Kate, or Brenda, or Valerie, to go along for me.”

When Ralph had to travel interstate and Julia curtailed her social life, the faithful disciples came into their own. Out to the North Shore they went as soon as summoned, and along the dark avenue to the beautiful house. Like equals, they relaxed with Julia in front of the television screen and, under disenchanted expressions, half-swooned with the relief of being safe and warm within solid walls, in a lamplit room where every artifact was what it seemed to be. The wood was flawless and polished by hand; the roses were homegrown and hanging, heavy, from silver bowls.

While they watched the screen and smoked, and drank their whiskey, Julia chatted about local scandals, her small staff, and the price of grapes. If it happened that she was constrained, en route to some homely subject, to refer to her new sables, or the two new paintings chosen by that eminent art-critic man whom, unfortunately, there was less time now to see, or to some titled personages who were Grade I bosom friends, it was not that Julia had any desire to stir up envy. On the contrary, it distressed her that Kate (or Alice, or Brenda, or Valerie) should make a fuss.

“What’s who like?” she would repeat after them with a repressive frown and a small pained movement of her hand. “Oh, him. . . . Oh, all right.”

Naturally, the girls had no news of any consequence. But if Kate, for instance, being present, could shed light on some suspected weakness in Brenda, being absent, Julia was warmly responsive. She adored human nature. She saw through people so easily, she should have been a psychologist.

When the predinner drink or two was disposed of, Julia and her companion strolled through to the kitchen to see what Elsie, the cook, had concocted for them. In front of the screen again, with the coffee table holding the huge tray (“Let’s rough it tonight!”), they ate and drank and lounged against cushions.

“More? Oh, go on! You know you’d like to.” Smiling and frowning in an odd, critical way, Julia heaped another spoonful of curry onto her friend’s plate. Julia was conscious that this same Kate (or Alice, or Brenda, or Valerie) would have been dining at home tonight on boiled eggs, or frozen fish fingers, or a single lamb chop with a tomato, and finishing with Nescafé and a sweet biscuit.

The knowledge caused Julia a confused sort of suffering. She didn’t mind Kate eating her dinner. . . . It was only that she was afraid that she was sinning against her own kind, that she was harboring anarchists and revolutionaries.

But, in justice, as she quickly reminded herself, the girls never tried to take advantage of her position. It was one of the really lovely things about them that they never expected help from her, though they did long to entertain her in return, in their bed-sitting rooms, buying her special brand of Scotch and coping with casseroles swimming in cream and herbs as well as their funny little ovens allowed. But Julia was never free. When Ralph was away, it was bliss to snatch a quiet evening at home. “Yes, I will truly come to your place next time, but look, lamb, you’re flat-out at the office all day. Elsie here can knock us up a bite, and we can put our feet up and watch quizzes on TV like a couple of old maids.”

How could they mind? She was charming. She was their claim to fame, their connection with life. Charm and Julia were synonymous to all who knew her. As this was Australia, where millionaires tended to be less exclusive and eccentric than in most other countries, left to himself Ralph would not have known how to be exceptional. Julia just was.

Inevitably, there were small failures in Julia’s life, but, as Ralph said, the tenderhearted ones of this world have always laid themselves open to failure, without ever letting it change them. If Julia had taken the Anne-Marie affair to heart, for instance, she wouldn’t have been Julia.

Ralph and Julia were on the committee of an organization dedicated to the relief of the needy. Through this charity they were brought into touch with Anne-Marie Grant, a neglected child of sixteen, the daughter of an alcoholic father, recently killed, and a mother, classified in the family’s case history as “weak and feckless,” who had run off with a bus conductor to Melbourne after her husband’s fatal accident.

Having decided to employ some young person to help the help in the house, Ralph and Julia interviewed and hired Anne-Marie for the job. As Julia put it to the girls, they fell in love with her on sight. She was beautiful. People who had only heard of girls with faces like flowers, seeing Anne-Marie, understood for the first time what the words meant and stopped to stare.

Moreover, she appeared to be sweet-natured, and innocent, and quick to learn. Elsie adored her, and so did the cleaners, and Ralph and the boys.

If Anne-Marie had a fault, it was that she was a fraction cold and uncommunicative. Oh, she was intelligent, and even sensitive in a way, but there was a lack of heart somewhere in her that repelled Julia. Time and time again she failed to respond to Julia’s sincere efforts to draw her out. And it wasn’t — God knew — that Julia was prying. She only hoped the little soul would unburden herself of that dreadful past, shed as many tears as need be, and then take up her life like any normal girl.

“Don’t worry, pet,” Ralph said. “She’ll come to you like all the others. She’ll be your little disciple for life, wait and see.”

But, as the weeks continued to pass, the number of small wounding incidents began to mount. Anne-Marie took to avoiding Julia’s eyes. She would not give smile for conspiratorial smile. Alternatively, she had a habit of looking at Julia out of those blue-gray eyes that were, in truth, like stars, and flowers, and precious stones. She looked at Julia with these wonderful eyes and seemed to think at her, or about her, in some disconcerting way.

Elsie did her share of damage by passing on to Julia one afternoon the details of a series of conversations that she had had with Anne-Marie.

As hurt as she had ever been, indescribably bleak, Julia listened while painful revelations of deep feeling on the part of the child were repeated to her, by her own cook.

“Ah, she’s had a hard time,” said Elsie. “But I mustn’t talk about that.”

It emerged that Anne-Marie saw herself as a nurse or a social worker like the one who’d rescued her. She wanted not to be left helpless and without skill in middle age, the way her mother had been. She wanted to learn all about the world, and not to marry till she was twenty-seven.

“She’s seen too much of marriage to rush into it with maybe the wrong one,” the cook said somberly.

Julia later told Ralph drily, “I said, ‘Look, don’t encourage the girl’s delusions of grandeur! She’s had all of six years at school, so she isn’t eligible to train as a dogcatcher! Do you know how many certificates girls have to have before they’ll accept them as trainee nurses? That sort of future is out for Anne-Marie, and it’s no kindness to her to pretend otherwise.’ ”

“How soon people’s lives are over and ruined!” cried Elsie.

Julia continued, quite brusquely for Julia, “It’s obvious she was made to settle down and have babies, anyway.” (If Julia had accepted this role as her destiny, was it too much to expect Anne-Marie to do the same?)

But Elsie could be stubborn. She pounded the bit of dough she was mangling about, showing that she meant to continue inciting the girl.

So Julia had no choice but to talk to Anne-Marie herself.

It took forty minutes and several cigarettes to put the matter of her future into perspective for the child. They were in Julia’s lovely bedroom, a room colored mother-of-pearl, with views of trees and lawns and sky. Anne-Marie looked down at her hands throughout, except when ordered to lift her head.

There was something forbidding about the girl’s small Mediterranean face. As she noticed and debated this and, inconceivably, felt herself rebuked, Julia was tickled by a whim. It was just a whim, a silly little notion in a corner of her mind. Then, miraculously, everything was all at once reversed and Julia found that she was just a tiny little person in a corner of the notion. She was impelled to mention the facts of life.

Julia was devoutly frank. It seemed necessary to pass on all the curious customs and practices of a sexual nature that had ever been brought to her attention. Many men and women must have lived their lives without knowing all the facts she bestowed on Anne-Marie. But you can never know too much about anything. It was for the child’s own protection. And she did look so surprised.

“My God, look at the time! Off you run, you baby Cleopatra! You’ve made me late for my appointment.” Julia laughed, admiring her, and Anne-Marie rose to go.

When she swayed, Julia laughed again and looked closely into the girl’s face. She had the dulled look of one who had suffered a shock to the mind. She grasped the back of the chair for balance, her eyes closed, and Julia laughed yet again, indulgently. There was more than one way of skinning a cat, as the old saying went. And more than one way of deflowering a virgin too. The child was glassy-eyed.

It was typical of a number of disappointments that Julia endured over the years that Anne-Marie should wander off shortly after this, leaving no word of thanks or explanation. Everyone was upset, but there was nothing to be done. Ralph was preparing for a short series of television interviews — an ordeal he detested, being a man of action rather than words — and Julia had to help him rehearse. Also the boys’ school concert, the charity ball of the year, and one of her most lavish parties to date all fell within the same few days.

“Really, there’s never a moment!” Julia said. What with marquees and floodlights in the garden to think about, and workmen tramping up and down the paths, and grouse, salmon, truffles, and pheasants being flown in from Europe for the occasion, and the disciples running about on her behalf when they could escape from their tedious offices, it was impossible to give much thought to Anne-Marie’s fate.

Kate (or Alice, or Brenda, or Valerie) spotted Anne-Marie in Hyde Park one day, a few months after she had left the house. She was pregnant, and her hands were ringless. Apparently she was in some bizarre getup, with her hair straggling down her back, and looking miserable as sin.

Julia was terrifically interested when she heard. Looking as if she’d won a bet with herself, she started to laugh. “Pregnant! Silly little thing! Why didn’t she use something?”

Elsie cried and carried on when she heard the news, saying that the girl was capable of doing something desperate. “Suicide, even!” Elsie cried. “You didn’t know her!”

Suicide! Some people had morbid minds.

No small failure ever changed Julia. She continued to lead the loveliest life. On Sundays, when they were free for a few hours, she and Ralph took the boys out sailing, or to watch polo matches. Ralph opened more branch offices. There were exhibitions of modern painting and pottery to arrange on behalf of Julia’s pet charity, and talk of another royal visit to Australia. None of the disciples sighted Anne-Marie again. The world situation got worse, and then better, and then worse again. No one more remarkable than Julia ever appeared. No one took up the gauntlet she had thrown in the face of the universe.

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