illustrations by rhoda penmarq and konrad kraus
part one of four
Extracted from Arnold Schnabel's 37-volume memoir, "Railroad Train To Heaven"
She threw down the puff and rose from the chair. She wore a silky sort of shimmering gown like the color of moonlight. She came to me and put her hands on my arms and looked up at me.
“Kiss me,” she said.
I did, but briefly.
She drew back a bit, still holding onto my arms and looking up at me from under her lowered eyebrows, which were plucked pen-line thin.
“You’re not cross with me for over-napping, are you?”
“No,” I said. “I was napping myself.”
“Good. Shall we go out onto the veranda?”
“Okay,” I said.
She took my arm and we went across the room to the open French doors. A little breakfast table with a few matching chairs was out there, but she said, “No, darling, over here, side by side.” And she pulled my arm and led me to a small wicker sofa strewn with varicolored pillows, cushions, and scarves.
She gently sat down, drawing her legs up under her and, turning to look up at me, she patted the place next to her.
I sat down.
I looked out through the screening of the veranda, down at the grounds and buildings of the plantation, out at the jungle-covered hills and up at the enormous burnished-steel sky. A hushing warm breeze came down over the tops of the trees, and somewhere a parrot squawked thinly, like a human baby with the colic. The air smelled of coconuts and sugarcane, of pineapple and raw tobacco. And of Mrs. Biddle's perfume. My skin was moist under my suit.
She reached over and flicked open the top of a silver cigarette box on the long low glass-topped table in front of the sofa.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m trying to quit. Or at least I think I am.”
“Will wonders never cease?” she said. She took out a cigarette, closed the box and tapped the cigarette on its engraved lid.
There was no table-lighter on this coffee-table, so I reached into the pocket of my suit, and I found a lighter. I lit her cigarette.
“Please relax, darling,” she said. “Jimmy’s safely down in Manila.
And Tommy as you might or might not know, is the absolute soul of discretion. I’m so glad you came. I’ve been thinking about you nonstop. Simply nonstop.”
“God knows what you think about,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“When you think about me,” I said. “I’m myself twenty-four hours a day, and, believe me, it’s not that fascinating.”
“That’s just one of the things I love about you, Arnold, your almost complete lack of narcissism.”
“Perhaps if I were someone else I would be more narcissistic.”
“Where’s Tommy with that tea?” she asked, I suppose rhetorically. “I’ve given the servants the afternoon off by the way. It’s only you and me and Tommy in the house. My daughter is visiting with one of her little friends. So we shouldn’t have any interruptions.”
She put her hand on mine.
“So,” I said, “what did you want to talk about?”
“Are you decent?” called a voice from within her room.
“Oh, just come in, Tommy,” called Mrs. Biddle.
Tommy came out onto the veranda carrying a very large and ornate tray with a tea service on it.
He laid the tray on the table: a teapot, two cups and saucers, a sugar bowl and a honey bowl, a little silver pitcher of milk or cream.
Tiny little engraved spoons, shiny as drops of rain. There was a pile of small crustless sandwiches on a silver platter, and a couple of small china plates.
“Shall I pour the tea?” asked Tommy.
“No, Tommy, thank you so much; Mr. Schnabel and I are just going to have a little chat for an hour or so.”
“Of course. I’ll be in the drawing room. Listening to the radio. E.M. Forster is coming on with one of his little book-chats.”
“Splendid. Keep an eye on the door, darling, and if anyone comes by send them away. Say I have a headache.”
He smiled and withdrew.
“Now,” she said, picking up the teapot. “First things first. Tea.” She lifted the lid of the pot and smelled the brew. “Ah, strong and piping hot.” She replaced the lid. “I don’t think that Tommy’s spiked it. But we shall see.”
She paused, holding the pot.
“Darling, I just realized I don’t even know how you take your tea.”
“Don’t feel bad, I barely know how I take my tea myself.”
“One lump or two?” she asked. “Or honey?”
“What the heck, let’s go with honey. One teaspoonful.”
“That’s exactly how I take it,” she said.
She fixed our tea. I lifted my cup and tasted it: pretty good, actually.
“You like it?” she asked. “Tommy blends it himself. Assam and something else. And sometimes regrettably laudanum. But this --” she licked her lips appraisingly, “seems to be un-spiked. Or, if it is, it’s only just a teeny bit spiked.”
She put down her cup and saucer, took one puff from her cigarette and then stubbed it out in a large cut-glass ashtray.
“Here it comes again,” she said.
She was referring to the rain, which started just then with a smattering of fat drops exploding against the screening of the veranda, and which a moment later turned into an utter downpour, turning the outside world a dark streaming and clattering grey. The only illumination was from a handful of windows glowing like dying suns from the other buildings on the plantation, small blotches of dull swimming light in this submerged world.
“This damned rain,” she said. “Do you ever miss home? Philadelphia?”
“No,” I said, “not really.”
It was good to sit here drinking sweetened strong tea, out of the downpour, sitting with this beautiful lady. I took a bite of a sandwich. Chicken salad. And very good.
“This racket,” she said. “This rain. It sounds like all the heavens are crashing down.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “They’re not.”
“No, of course they’re not.” She put her hand, the one with a wedding ring on it, onto my knee. “You’re so strong, Arnold. So unflappable.”
“Not particularly,” I said. “These people who work on your plantation. They’re strong.”
“Yes, I suppose they are.” She lifted her hand, flexed and unflexed it. “And I suppose you think I’m horribly spoiled.”
“No,” I said.
“I do work you know. I’m up at seven every morning attending to affairs. Tommy oversees the fields and I deal with the house and the ordering and transport and everything else. While Jimmy drinks. Drinks and gambles. Drinks and whores and gambles.” She looked away, out at the downpour beyond the veranda’s screening. It was like being behind a waterfall. “Perhaps I’ve said too much,” she said.
“Oh, no,” I said.
I tried another sandwich. Pork I believe, also excellent.
“I’m horribly unhappy, Arnold. I no longer love Jimmy; and he has never loved me. He married me for my money, I know that now. But if I divorce him my mother will have a cow, an absolute cow. Catholic you know. And my father will be none too happy either, believe me, as Jimmy took all my money and sank it into this hellhole and it’s all in his name and if I divorce him I know he won’t give me a red cent. What should I do?”
I thought about this a moment, chewing my sandwich.
“Could you wait till Jimmy gets really drunk one day and then have him sign the property over to you?”
She held still for a moment, then took a sip of her tea.
She laid the cup and saucer down.
“That’s actually not a bad idea. I could arrange for our lawyer Dr. Rodriguez to be there, all ready with his contracts and stamps and pens. I’m sure he’d be happy to do it. Dr. Rodriguez is slightly in love with me you see.”
There was a small plate of cookies on the tray also, I hadn’t even noticed them before. I started to reach for one but her hand intercepted mine and pulled it to her breast.
“Feel this,” she said. “Can you feel my heart beating.”
I could, actually.
“Yes,” I said.
I started to pull my hand away, but, not only would she not let go of it, she pulled it under her décolletage and placed it on her right breast, all the while staring into my eyes.
“Um,” I said.
“Don’t you want me, Arnold?”