Alice james departs, p.1
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       Alice James Departs, p.1

           Jennifer York
Alice James Departs

  Alice James Departs

  Copyright 2012

  “Everything is going well in the family, provided I get myself dead, is what she told me,” related Katharine. “She’d been waiting to die a long time.

  “She’d been waiting about 40 years,” interjected Henry. His eyes twinkled behind his square glasses. A revolutionary, he was the only one who would be audacious enough to wear yellow to a funeral. He had an entire wardrobe full of sun-colored jackets, pants, and neckties. He ordered them especially from a tailor in Palermo. He said he preferred to import his clothing, because he said the cloth smelled like the sea. Salt air and wind, libraries and inky fingers… these things were Henry in a nutshell.

  “The journals,” demanded William, all business. Katharine, with a proper sense of the solemnity of the occasion, brought the notebooks forward from the voluminous folds of her skirts…one imagined them to be hiding in there for the first part of the conversation, like frightened schoolchildren.

  “You mean to use those notebooks ,”commented Henry. There was no judgment attached to the statement. It was like saying, “You mean to cook a stew,” or “You mean to walk to Notting Hill Gate.”

  “I mean to write a book about the dying mind,” said William. “I imagine it to be…sort of like a wine sac that bursts, the wine flowing all about the contours of the ground in an ecstatic cascade.”

  He tried to conceal his excitement, but his hands quivered as he turned the precious pages.

  “She said it would be like this,” said Katharine.

  Her two male companions were full of instant attention.

  “Did she?” said Henry. He seemed on the verge of laughing again.

  “She had you all down pat. She said ‘Henry will take it all as a joke, mostly on himself, and William will be interested for his career. She said ‘Most instructive for William…a never married spinster dies. He will wonder if I will become prim and religious, or call for a gigolo, like in one of Henry’s novels. Then she asked where she could find a gigolo. A joke in terrible taste, I should say.”

  “Terrible,” Henry said. He seemed to have an urgent need to leave the room for a moment.

  “I don’t see why I should be portrayed in such a grasping, malicious way. Alice understands the business of writing and publishing well enough. If she had lived, I’m sure she would have wanted to see her words in print,” William said.

  “ You’re quite defensive.”

  William stood quickly, and walked to window in the hurried manner of an inexperienced stage actress, longing to express a profound emotion but only managing a hasty withdrawal.

  “I’m not such a bad fellow,” he protested to nobody, nothing in particular.

  “Nobody said you were.”

  “And how does your Alice?” Henry re-entered the room.

  “She does fine,” answered William. “She mourns the loss of her sister-in-law.”

  “My Alice,” clarified Katharine.

  “She belongs to you more than anyone,” agreed Henry.

  “I belong to nothing, nothing,” said Katharine, making an airy gesture with her hands.

  “Perhaps a career in nursing,” suggested William.

  “I should like to travel to Rome, perhaps, and study art and architecture,” said Katharine. She turned to Henry with a beseeching stare. “Could you manage an introduction for me?”

  “I don’t mean to be severe with you,” said Henry. “But…a woman of forty five…unattached? Who would take you on?”

  “Alice said that we might have gone together.”

  “In her flights of mania,” interjected William, quickly.

  “You mean…” said Katharine, arching her neck and drawing her heavy brows together.

  “Here,” said Henry, almost angrily, snatching at one of the notebooks. “God, heaven, the limits of the universe…No wonder you want to go to Rome. My sister, in her mind, seems to have flown about the great capitals of Europe, like a witch, without ever leaving her bed.”

  “Hysterical,” said William.

  “I won’t stand here and let you stick labels all over her, like a cadaver with flags sticking out of the dissected parts. Superior vena cava, glenoid fossa, that sort of thing,” Katharine bristled.

  “Are those the only parts you know? Do you bring them out for occasions just such as these, to bluff with a little understanding?” William’s words carried a great deal of acid in them.

  Poor Katharine! She never was meant for arguments. Tears started to the great blue eyes…her hands shook.

  “I wish to take these journals and leave,” she managed, stuttering a little.

  “Oh no, “ said Henry. “Don’t do that. He didn’t mean it. Apologize, now, brother.”

  William stood in the corner of the room, staring down his nose. If he meant to apologize…Well, perhaps the statues of Rodin and Michelangelo also mean to apologize, but we will never know it.

  “Do you know, since we are on the topic of medicine,” said Henry. “When little Alice was sixteen, Father decided she must visit that giant Mausoleum in Ithaca. A spa for young women prone to spells. Do you remember it, William?”

  “Yes,” said William. He seemed to be restraining himself. Katharine was still agitated, barely listening. Henry continued.

  “She had a great fascination with a physician there,” said Henry. “A Doctor Fields. He must’ve been fifty…balding…fatherly sort. Do you remember, he took her into his office, showed her all the specimens he kept in glass jars…moths, butterflies, finches, dog skeletons…she was riveted. I think she was in love with Mr. Fields for a long time.”

  “Don’t be foolish. Alice was never in love a day of her life,” said William.

  “Father called Alice a hard, hard thing,” agreed Henry. “I think she must’ve had to be so hard. A plain woman, forced to dress in flounces and bows. Mother would have it so. The only thing she must be allowed to do is the only thing she can’t do…marry brilliantly. What sort of steely sort of soul do you think she cultivated?” Henry reflected a moment more. “Yes, she must have loved that Doctor Fields a great deal. “

  “You certainly aren’t saying this man…that he had an indelicate interest in Alice…” Katharine recovered a little to speak, conscious of another possible slight to Alice.

  “You knew her as a woman, studious and quite resolved. I speak of the girl, shy and serious, plain, who is forced to watch as her companions are paired off and married in luxurious arbors of wild roses and honeysuckle. She could do almost anything else…except what Father expected her to do.”

  The three contemplated these words.

  “You were young once, too, Katharine” said Henry. “But you were rich and young. We never had so much money. Oh, we were not poor. We had enough. Not so much that you’d notice, though. We had minds.”

  “Where are the entries after the cancer diagnosis?” asked William. He licked his index finger to help separate the pages.

  “ I was in one of your novels,” said Katharine to Henry. She seemed to be hoping William would vaporize.

  “Everyone is in the novels,” said Henry.

  “You think I used your sister, don’t you?”

  “Maybe a little. You arranged her in a corner and talked to her. Down, down, down, you went, into her mind. I think as she slept, quietly, her breathing slower and deeper, you allowed yourself the luxury of closing your eyes and retreating into her world, like manipulating a dark stairwell. At the bottom, you always found her again. You knew her mind as a tangible thing.”

  “Nobody’s mind is a tangible thing,” argued William. “Not the way you mean it. The brain, yes, but what is that? It’s somet
hing you discover after, like a suicide note…difficult to decipher, mostly like all the rest…doesn’t tell you much about the person, does it, except that there was a life, and now it’s gone.”

  “I think it’s possible. I think I’ve entered people’s thinking like poor Katharine did, touching all the walls, turning objects over, leaving everything slightly out of place. Just, unlike you, I am startled to find them there.”

  “In our world, Alice was a younger sister, always stumbling after, crying out, trying to climb fences and trees, not running fast enough, called back to the house. After a while, she developed a mysterious illness that made her an object of fascination to men like Dr. Fields. She had to stay in the house…she breathed a sigh of relief, perhaps. Nobody would accuse a sick woman of intellectual failure, or of remaining single. Sick women can’t handle being in love…it exhausts them. For a while, love takes everything…sucks everything towards itself, in a great wind.”

  “What you did, Katharine, is to set all the accoutrements of an altar at Alice’s feet. She was high, she flew… When she couldn’t write her thoughts down fast enough, you did that for her. She was grateful…nothing would be lost. But each night, as she slept, down, down, down, you went, into that high white brow, stuffing things into your apron pocket.”

  Katharine blushed, looked a little down and to the side.

  “When you start caring more for other people’s thinking than your own, the world ceases to matter. The dishes pile up. Dust gathers. But still you can’t help yourself…you find yourself on the dark stair again, without a candle, the slick, damp walls beneath your fingertips.” Henry thought for a moment.

  “At least Alice escaped all that. Dr. Fields endangered her, with his specimens, but she found a hidden door…and ran out.”

  “With all due respect…”

  “Oh, here we go,” said Henry. “Nobody ever means to bash you so hard as when they start off by telling you that they respect you.”

  “I don’t think you knew your sister at all. She wasn’t this…this egoist. She wasn’t lovesick. She was thoughtful and kind.”

  “She wasn’t kind,” said William. “When her friends got married, she got angry and insulted them. They were deserters.”

  “She was very kind,” continued Katharine. “She did so much teaching, to those who were interested. She was tireless in her devotion.”

  “Oh, William, she means young single women like herself,” clarified Henry. “Oh, dear, she was kind to those people, yes. Not that it did them much good, I imagine. A little history, the classics, not much biology or math.”

  Katharine started gathering up the journals again.

  “No, don’t go,” said Henry. “I know this is difficult. You loved my sister, I know you did.”

  “Loved,” said William. “A profound inter-dependence. You must forgive my wife…she doesn’t understand these things. She’s very independent.”

  Katharine’s face went pale.

  “Your wife…that Alice… said terrible things to me. She said…that my relationship with your sister was inappropriate. I said I wouldn’t dignify her accusations. They shocked me. I don’t know women who talk that way, in such a common manner.”

  “Oh, we all know what she thinks,” said Henry. “Why go into it? For my part, I could understand. You might have kissed my sister on the mouth a time or two. Who could blame you? You want a little affection, I suppose.”

  “What was between us…,” stammered Katharine. “She put Alice…my Alice…into a fit. Weeping for days, spasmodic breathing…you remember it all.”

  “Which was odd,” decided Henry. “A violent episode at the thought of being separated from you.”

  “My wife has her suspicions, I guess,” said William. “I told her she was wrong. She had to be wrong.”

  “Have you read Christina Rossetti’s The Goblin Market, William?” Henry countered.

  “I’d read that before I’d read one of your novels.”

  “Oh, you bastard.” But Henry was laughing again.

  Katharine covered her face in her hands.

  “I think I’ll take these and leave,” said William, scooping up the precious journals. “Katharine…”

  There she sat, her face still covered. Henry tugged at the bony arm, trying to pull her hands away, but she resisted. William sighed.

  “I knew it was a mistake to bring it up,” he said. “However, we all know it’s right there, in the center of the room.”

  “Leave,” said Henry, gently. William complied.

  “I think I can arrange an introduction for you,” said Henry. “The thing before, what we were talking about. Studying art.”

  At last Katharine’s hands fell away. She looked up.

  “She was a holy, holy thing to me,” whispered Katharine.

  “I’m sorry we put you through all this. See how it us, what Alice grew up with. I don’t think you could take it. She was born just for us. But she was happy enough to die. There wasn’t a place for her to stand with us, not really. You arranged a corner by the window. She did the best she could. But she was a James. She wanted so much more. You do the best you can, in Rome I mean, Katharine. But really…dig below…if you know what I mean. Don’t be content to stay on the surface of things. In your own thinking, I mean.”

  Katharine stared at him, bewildered.

  “It’s alright. Are you hungry? Would you like some supper?”

  “Yes, perhaps I could eat something now. But just us two, you know. Not with William.”

  “Yes, just us two,” said Henry. “Delightful.”

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