Babylon Revisited
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
(read by Ray Porter)


  Lincoln spoke first: “We’ve been talking it over ever since we got your letter last month. We’re happy to have Honoria here. She’s a dear little thing, and we’re glad to be able to help her, but of course that isn’t the question — ”

Marion interrupted suddenly. “How long are you going to stay sober, Charlie?” she asked.

“Permanently, I hope.”

“How can anybody count on that?”

“You know I never did drink heavily until I gave up business and came over here with nothing to do. Then Helen and I began to run around with — ”

“Please leave Helen out of it. I can’t bear to hear you talk about her like that.”

He stared at her grimly; he had never been certain how fond of each other the sisters were in life.

“My drinking only lasted about a year and a half — from the time we came over until I— collapsed.”

“It was time enough.”

“It was time enough,” he agreed.

“My duty is entirely to Helen,” she said. “I try to think what she would have wanted me to do. Frankly, from the night you did that terrible thing you haven’t really existed for me. I can’t help that. She was my sister.”

“Yes.”

“When she was dying she asked me to look out for Honoria. If you hadn’t been in a sanitarium then, it might have helped matters.”

He had no answer.

“I’ll never in my life be able to forget the morning when Helen knocked at my door, soaked to the skin and shivering, and said you’d locked her out.”

Charlie gripped the sides of the chair. This was more difficult than he expected; he wanted to launch out into a long expostulation and explanation, but he only said: “The night I locked her out — ” and she interrupted, “I don’t feel up to going over that again.”

After a moment’s silence Lincoln said: “We’re getting off the subject. You want Marion to set aside her legal guardianship and give you Honoria. I think the main point for her is whether she has confidence in you or not.”

“I don’t blame Marion,” Charlie said slowly, “but I think she can have entire confidence in me. I had a good record up to three years ago. Of course, it’s within human possibilities I might go wrong any time. But if we wait much longer I’ll lose Honoria’s childhood and my chance for a home.” He shook his head, “I’ll simply lose her, don’t you see?”

“Yes, I see,” said Lincoln.

“Why didn’t you think of all this before?” Marion asked.

“I suppose I did, from time to time, but Helen and I were getting along badly. When I consented to the guardianship, I was flat on my back in a sanitarium and the market had cleaned me out. I knew I’d acted badly, and I thought if it would bring any peace to Helen, I’d agree to anything. But now it’s different. I’m functioning, I’m behaving damn well, so far as — ”

“Please don’t swear at me,” Marion said.

He looked at her, startled. With each remark the force of her dislike became more and more apparent. She had built up all her fear of life into one wall and faced it toward him. This trivial reproof was possibly the result of some trouble with the cook several hours before. Charlie became increasingly alarmed at leaving Honoria in this atmosphere of hostility against himself; sooner or later it would come out, in a word here, a shake of the head there, and some of that distrust would be irrevocably implanted in Honoria. But he pulled his temper down out of his face and shut it up inside him; he had won a point, for Lincoln realized the absurdity of Marion’s remark and asked her lightly since when she had objected to the word “damn.”

“Another thing,” Charlie said: “I’m able to give her certain advantages now. I’m going to take a French governess to Prague with me. I’ve got a lease on a new apartment — ”

He stopped, realizing that he was blundering. They couldn’t be expected to accept with equanimity the fact that his income was again twice as large as their own.

“I suppose you can give her more luxuries than we can,” said Marion. “When you were throwing away money we were living along watching every ten francs. . . . I suppose you’ll start doing it again.”

“Oh, no,” he said. “I’ve learned. I worked hard for ten years, you know — until I got lucky in the market, like so many people. Terribly lucky. It didn’t seem any use working any more, so I quit. It won’t happen again.”

There was a long silence. All of them felt their nerves straining, and for the first time in a year Charlie wanted a drink. He was sure now that Lincoln Peters wanted him to have his child.

Marion shuddered suddenly; part of her saw that Charlie’s feet were planted on the earth now, and her own maternal feeling recognized the naturalness of his desire; but she had lived for a long time with a prejudice — a prejudice founded on a curious disbelief in her sister’s happiness, and which, in the shock of one terrible night, had turned to hatred for him. It had all happened at a point in her life where the discouragement of ill health and adverse circumstances made it necessary for her to believe in tangible villainy and a tangible villain.

“I can’t help what I think!” she cried out suddenly. “How much you were responsible for Helen’s death, I don’t know. It’s something you’ll have to square with your own conscience.”

An electric current of agony surged through him; for a moment he was almost on his feet, an unuttered sound echoing in his throat. He hung on to himself for a moment, another moment.

“Hold on there,” said Lincoln uncomfortably. “I never thought you were responsible for that.”

“Helen died of heart trouble,” Charlie said dully.

“Yes, heart trouble.” Marion spoke as if the phrase had another meaning for her.

Then, in the flatness that followed her outburst, she saw him plainly and she knew he had somehow arrived at control over the situation. Glancing at her husband, she found no help from him, and as abruptly as if it were a matter of no importance, she threw up the sponge.

“Do what you like!” she cried, springing up from her chair. “She’s your child. I’m not the person to stand in your way. I think if it were my child I’d rather see her — ” She managed to check herself. “You two decide it. I can’t stand this. I’m sick. I’m going to bed.”

She hurried from the room; after a moment Lincoln said:

“This has been a hard day for her. You know how strongly she feels — ” His voice was almost apologetic: “When a woman gets an idea in her head.”

“Of course.”

“It’s going to be all right. I think she sees now that you — can provide for the child, and so we can’t very well stand in your way or Honoria’s way.”

“Thank you, Lincoln.”

“I’d better go along and see how she is.”

“I’m going.”

He was still trembling when he reached the street, but a walk down the Rue Bonaparte to the quais set him up, and as he crossed the Seine, fresh and new by the quai lamps, he felt exultant. But back in his room he couldn’t sleep. The image of Helen haunted him. Helen whom he had loved so until they had senselessly begun to abuse each other’s love, tear it into shreds. On that terrible February night that Marion remembered so vividly, a slow quarrel had gone on for hours. There was a scene at the Florida, and then he attempted to take her home, and then she kissed young Webb at a table; after that there was what she had hysterically said. When he arrived home alone he turned the key in the lock in wild anger. How could he know she would arrive an hour later alone, that there would be a snowstorm in which she wandered about in slippers, too confused to find a taxi? Then the aftermath, her escaping pneumonia by a miracle, and all the attendant horror. They were “reconciled,” but that was the beginning of the end, and Marion, who had seen with her own eyes and who imagined it to be one of many scenes from her sister’s martyrdom, never forgot.

Going over it again brought Helen nearer, and in the white, soft light that steals upon half sleep near morning he found himself talking to her again. She said that he was perfectly right about Honoria and that she wanted Honoria to be with him. She said she was glad he was being good and doing better. She said a lot of other things — very friendly things — but she was in a swing in a white dress, and swinging faster and faster all the time, so that at the end he could not hear clearly all that she said.

IV

He woke up feeling happy. The door of the world was open again. He made plans, vistas, futures for Honoria and himself, but suddenly he grew sad, remembering all the plans he and Helen had made. She had not planned to die. The present was the thing — work to do and someone to love. But not to love too much, for he knew the injury that a father can do to a daughter or a mother to a son by attaching them too closely: afterward, out in the world, the child would seek in the marriage partner the same blind tenderness and, failing probably to find it, turn against love and life.

It was another bright, crisp day. He called Lincoln Peters at the bank where he worked and asked if he could count on taking Honoria when he left for Prague. Lincoln agreed that there was no reason for delay. One thing — the legal guardianship. Marion wanted to retain that a while longer. She was upset by the whole matter, and it would oil things if she felt that the situation was still in her control for another year. Charlie agreed, wanting only the tangible, visible child.

Then the question of a governess. Charlie sat in a gloomy agency and talked to a cross Béarnaise and to a buxom Breton peasant, neither of whom he could have endured. There were others whom he would see tomorrow.

He lunched with Lincoln Peters at Griffons, trying to keep down his exultation.

“There’s nothing quite like your own child,” Lincoln said. “But you understand how Marion feels too.”

“She’s forgotten how hard I worked for seven years there,” Charlie said. “She just remembers one night.”

“There’s another thing.” Lincoln hesitated. “While you and Helen were tearing around Europe throwing money away, we were just getting along. I didn’t touch any of the prosperity because I never got ahead enough to carry anything but my insurance. I think Marion felt there was some kind of injustice in it — you not even working toward the end, and getting richer and richer.”

“It went just as quick as it came,” said Charlie.

“Yes, a lot of it stayed in the hands of chasseurs and saxophone players and maîtres d’hôtel — well, the big party’s over now. I just said that to explain Marion’s feeling about those crazy years. If you drop in about six o’clock tonight before Marion’s too tired, we’ll settle the details on the spot.”

Back at his hotel, Charlie found a pneumatique that had been redirected from the Ritz bar where Charlie had left his address for the purpose of finding a certain man.

DEAR CHARLIE: You were so strange when we saw you the other day that I wondered if I did something to offend you. If so, I’m not conscious of it. In fact, I have thought about you too much for the last year, and it’s always been in the back of my mind that I might see you if I came over here. Wedid have such good times that crazy spring, like the night you and I stole the butcher’s tricycle, and the time we tried to call on the president and you had the old derby rim and the wire cane. Everybody seems so old lately, but I don’t feel old a bit. Couldn’t we get together some time today for old time’s sake? I’ve got a vile hang-over for the moment, but will be feeling better this afternoon and will look for you about five in the sweat-shop at the Ritz.

Always devotedly,

LORRAINE.

His first feeling was one of awe that he had actually, in his mature years, stolen a tricycle and pedalled Lorraine all over the Étoile between the small hours and dawn. In retrospect it was a nightmare. Locking out Helen didn’t fit in with any other act of his life, but the tricycle incident did — it was one of many. How many weeks or months of dissipation to arrive at that condition of utter irresponsibility?

He tried to picture how Lorraine had appeared to him then — very attractive; Helen was unhappy about it, though she said nothing. Yesterday, in the restaurant, Lorraine had seemed trite, blurred, worn away. He emphatically did not want to see her, and he was glad Alix had not given away his hotel address. It was a relief to think, instead, of Honoria, to think of Sundays spent with her and of saying good morning to her and of knowing she was there in his house at night, drawing her breath in the darkness.

At five he took a taxi and bought presents for all the Peters — a piquant cloth doll, a box of Roman soldiers, flowers for Marion, big linen handkerchiefs for Lincoln.

He saw, when he arrived in the apartment, that Marion had accepted the inevitable. She greeted him now as though he were a recalcitrant member of the family, rather than a menacing outsider. Honoria had been told she was going; Charlie was glad to see that her tact made her conceal her excessive happiness. Only on his lap did she whisper her delight and the question “When?” before she slipped away with the other children.

He and Marion were alone for a minute in the room, and on an impulse he spoke out boldly:

“Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds; they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material. I wish you and I could be on better terms.”

“Some things are hard to forget,” she answered. “It’s a question of confidence.” There was no answer to this and presently she asked, “When do you propose to take her?”

“As soon as I can get a governess. I hoped the day after tomorrow.”

“That’s impossible. I’ve got to get her things in shape. Not before Saturday.”

He yielded. Coming back into the room, Lincoln offered him a drink.

“I’ll take my daily whisky,” he said.

It was warm here, it was a home, people together by a fire. The children felt very safe and important; the mother and father were serious, watchful. They had things to do for the children more important than his visit here. A spoonful of medicine was, after all, more important than the strained relations between Marion and himself. They were not dull people, but they were very much in the grip of life and circumstances. He wondered if he couldn’t do something to get Lincoln out of his rut at the bank.

A long peal at the door-bell; the bonne à tout faire passed through and went down the corridor. The door opened upon another long ring, and then voices, and the three in the salon looked up expectantly; Lincoln moved to bring the corridor within his range of vision, and Marion rose. Then the maid came back along the corridor, closely followed by the voices, which developed under the light into Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles.

They were gay, they were hilarious, they were roaring with laughter. For a moment Charlie was astounded; unable to understand how they ferreted out the Peters’ address.

“Ah-h-h!” Duncan wagged his finger roguishly at Charlie. “Ah-h-h!”

They both slid down another cascade of laughter. Anxious and at a loss, Charlie shook hands with them quickly and presented them to Lincoln and Marion. Marion nodded, scarcely speaking. She had drawn back a step toward the fire; her little girl stood beside her, and Marion put an arm about her shoulder.

With growing annoyance at the intrusion, Charlie waited for them to explain themselves. After some concentration Duncan said:

“We came to invite you out to dinner. Lorraine and I insist that all this shishi, cagy business ‘bout your address got to stop.”

Charlie came closer to them, as if to force them backward down the corridor.

“Sorry, but I can’t. Tell me where you’ll be and I’ll phone you in half an hour.”

This made no impression. Lorraine sat down suddenly on the side of a chair, and focussing her eyes on Richard, cried, “Oh, what a nice little boy! Come here, little boy.” Richard glanced at his mother, but did not move. With a perceptible shrug of her shoulders, Lorraine turned back to Charlie:

“Come and dine. Sure your cousins won’ mine. See you so sel’om. Or solemn.”

“I can’t,” said Charlie sharply. “You two have dinner and I’ll phone you.”

Her voice became suddenly unpleasant. “All right, we’ll go. But I remember once when you hammered on my door at four A.M. I was enough of a good sport to give you a drink. Come on, Dunc.”

Still in slow motion, with blurred, angry faces, with uncertain feet, they retired along the corridor.

“Good night,” Charlie said.

“Good night!” responded Lorraine emphatically.

When he went back into the salon Marion had not moved, only now her son was standing in the circle of her other arm. Lincoln was still swinging Honoria back and forth like a pendulum from side to side.

“What an outrage!” Charlie broke out. “What an absolute outrage!” Neither of them answered. Charlie dropped into an armchair, picked up his drink, set it down again and said:

“People I haven’t seen for two years having the colossal nerve — ”

He broke off. Marion had made the sound “Oh!” in one swift, furious breath, turned her body from him with a jerk and left the room.

Lincoln set down Honoria carefully.

“You children go in and start your soup,” he said, and when they obeyed, he said to Charlie:

“Marion’s not well and she can’t stand shocks. That kind of people make her really physically sick.”

“I didn’t tell them to come here. They wormed your name out of somebody. They deliberately — ”

“Well, it’s too bad. It doesn’t help matters. Excuse me a minute.”

Left alone, Charlie sat tense in his chair. In the next room he could hear the children eating, talking in monosyllables, already oblivious to the scene between their elders. He heard a murmur of conversation from a farther room and then the ticking bell of a telephone receiver picked up, and in a panic he moved to the other side of the room and out of earshot.

In a minute Lincoln came back. “Look here, Charlie. I think we’d better call off dinner for tonight. Marion’s in bad shape.”

“Is she angry with me?”

“Sort of,” he said, almost roughly. “She’s not strong and — ”

“You mean she’s changed her mind about Honoria?”

“She’s pretty bitter right now. I don’t know. You phone me at the bank tomorrow.”

“I wish you’d explain to her I never dreamed these people would come here. I’m just as sore as you are.”

“I couldn’t explain anything to her now.”

Charlie got up. He took his coat and hat and started down the corridor. Then he opened the door of the dining room and said in a strange voice, “Good night, children.”

Honoria rose and ran around the table to hug him.

“Good night, sweetheart,” he said vaguely, and then trying to make his voice more tender, trying to conciliate something, “Good night, dear children.”

V

Charlie went directly to the Ritz bar with the furious idea of finding Lorraine and Duncan, but they were not there, and he realized that in any case there was nothing he could do. He had not touched his drink at the Peters’, and now he ordered a whisky-and-soda. Paul came over to say hello.

“It’s a great change,” he said sadly. “We do about half the business we did. So many fellows I hear about back in the States lost everything, maybe not in the first crash, but then in the second. Your friend George Hardt lost every cent, I hear. Are you back in the States?”

“No, I’m in business in Prague.”

“I heard that you lost a lot in the crash.”

“I did,” and he added grimly, “but I lost everything I wanted in the boom.”

“Selling short.”

“Something like that.”

Again the memory of those days swept over him like a nightmare — the people they had met travelling; then people who couldn’t add a row of figures or speak a coherent sentence. The little man Helen had consented to dance with at the ship’s party, who had insulted her ten feet from the table; the women and girls carried screaming with drink or drugs out of public places —

— The men who locked their wives out in the snow, because the snow of twenty-nine wasn’t real snow. If you didn’t want it to be snow, you just paid some money.

He went to the phone and called the Peters’ apartment; Lincoln answered.

“I called up because this thing is on my mind. Has Marion said anything definite?”

“Marion’s sick,” Lincoln answered shortly. “I know this thing isn’t altogether your fault, but I can’t have her go to pieces about it. I’m afraid we’ll have to let it slide for six months; I can’t take the chance of working her up to this state again.”

“I see.”

“I’m sorry, Charlie.”

He went back to his table. His whisky glass was empty, but he shook his head when Alix looked at it questioningly. There wasn’t much he could do now except send Honoria some things; he would send her a lot of things tomorrow. He thought rather angrily that this was just money — he had given so many people money. . . .

“No, no more,” he said to another waiter. “What do I owe you?”

He would come back some day; they couldn’t make him pay forever. But he wanted his child, and nothing was much good now, beside that fact. He wasn’t young any more, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself. He was absolutely sure Helen wouldn’t have wanted him to be so alone.