From the Beginning


Zara Wilder

 

 

 

Margaret stayed in Paris for a year, until the cherry trees bloomed again and she could not endure the fragrant remembrance of her hasty deportation thereto. She returned to Manhattan, to the elegant townhouse she had shared with Jacob, stripped now of all traces that he had ever dwelt therehad ever loved her. She discovered that springtime in New York was no less a trial than the season in France would have beenyet the townhouse gave her something intimate to haunt. A private shoal for her shipwrecked history. Each day she foundered slowly through her solitary hours. Each night she wept in every room by turns, for shame, for remorse, in the dark. Hers, a hopeless vigil. Her housekeeper, Edna Grail, kept her, for all intents and purposes, alive: fed, clothed, well-groomed, and constantly reminded of lifes little daily duties. 

Margarets first duty was everlastingly to her father. She dared not hate him, although more than once she wished she possessed the courage to tryfor Jacobs sake. But always she recalled Jacobs habitual deference toward her father. Jacobs loyalty to the family name, perhaps most especially when he deplored the familys priorities. And his humility, his discretion, so becoming in so promising a young scientist as he had been. Most of all, his patience with Margarets parents, even when they disparaged him, which they did often, each in their own way. One day extolling Jacobs Nobel Laureate potential, the next day reviling his rustic English background. Vaunting his taste in art one minute, chastising his love of jazz the next. Celebrating his classical literacy, then japing his game leg. And Margarets duty had been to tactfully applaud her parents wit in their presence, then to tenderly comfort her husband afterward.

 

But. Then.

 

Then Jacobs public protest against the Atomic Energy Commissions radiation experiments. Then his dismissal from the Chittenden Research Institute. Then the aborted effort to establish a private practice amid the controversy. Then the HUAC hearings. Then the contempt of Congress conviction. Then the revocation of his medical license. Then the affixing to his good name of that most appalling label: Communist. Then the insulting fine and his incarceration. Then Anson Travers Chases annulment of his only childs marriage to the thoroughly disgraced ex-Doctor Jacob Wells. Then Margaret had no husband. Only gradually did she begin to realize how, step by terrible step, she had broken all her vows to him. She came to believe that she deserved no husband.

 

All that remained was obedience to her fathers will. Submission was easy. Simple. Expected. Go to Paris. Settle in. Stay. Wait out the storm.

 

Home again, she let her father parade her before those elect businessmen he deemed more suitable for his daughter than her previous mistake. She had chosen the first partner; he would choose the next. But none of her fathers choices chose her. Edna later told her the trouble was with her eyes. If a persons eyes served as the windows of their soul, Margarets hollowed eyes revealed a soul caught in the act of abandoning its earthly habitation. Never mind the proffered fortunes magnitude: what man in his right mind yearned to wed the walking dead?

 

Thus Margarets grief protected her. The wreck of her memories sheltered her through that lonely summer and fall. She often wondered what Jacobs eyes must look like now.

 

Shed drifted halfway through November before she finally encountered Jacobs dearest friend. They met at a Hotel Astor reception following the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Weatherford Pediatric Clinic on East 73rd Street. Her mother entertained fellow charity patrons at the other end of the sumptuously decorated hall. Pensive, Margaret stood before a window, staring out at Broadway Avenue below. Doctor Peter Alcott quietly joined her there.

 

He greeted her kindly. Margaret reflected that all of Jacobs closest friends shared this remarkable trait: they were kind. Peter Alcott was also gentle and intelligent. And brave. After Jacob publicly denounced the Chittenden Institute for misrepresenting his researchand even after the ensuing scandal began to tear their world apartPeter continued to call upon Jacob and Margaret at their homeand to receive them at his own. And Jacob certainly could never have attempted to open a private practice without Peters support. Margaret felt relievednay, blessedto speak with him again.

 

Lean and good-humored, a newlywed comfortable with himself and his situation in life, Peter spoke to her without timidity or condescension. His calm chivalry gave Margaret the encouragement she needed to ask him about Jacob. Had Peter seen him? Did he know where he was living, and how? Was Jacob surviving it all?

 

She could not bear to ask if Peter knew whether or not Jacob despised her. She knew Jacob was incapable of hating her. She knew it. Nonetheless her self-loathing begat doubts within her mind. She was powerless against their accusatory bitterness. Her doubts spoke with the voice of her father.

 

Peter answered her carefully.

 

Margaret learned that Peter had seen Jacob in prison, had in fact visited every week during Jacobs five-month sentence. He had also presented himself at the Wells residence to collect from Edna those few personal items and mementos Anson Travers Chase permitted his former son-in-law to keep. Upon Jacobs release, Peter had transported him back to Manhattan. He welcomed Jacob into his home, offering sanctuary to his guest for as long as Jacob wished to stay. But Jacobs presence frightened Peters fiance. Ever the gentleman, Jacob took his leave within a month of his arrival, refusing to be a cause of dissension between Peter and Melissa.

 

Where did he go? Margaret asked.

 

Peter replied, Im not sure.

 

They met briefly by accident in mid-September, at St. Reginas downtown clinic, where Peter volunteered his medical skills every other Saturday. Jacob had come in to receive medical care. Hed been beaten and robbed for falling asleep on the wrong park bench. Peter had never seen his friend so despondent, not even in prison, when he lived in fear of most of the inmates and all of the guards. Peter tended his hurts, and gave him money and a new cane. He arranged temporary accommodations at St. Reginas nearby mens shelter, which at the time needed a conscientious man who could skillfully dispense first aid treatments to its residents. Jacob stayed for a fortnight. The nuns said their oldest regular befriended Jacob, but died in his sleep on the first of October. Jacob saw the man decently buried, then departed, vanishing into the citys back alleys once again.

 

Silent tears streaked Margarets face. Peter gave her his handkerchief.

 

Margaret prayed she would never happen upon Jacob by accident as Peter had. She couldnt imaging facing him. The very idea filled her with dread and despair.

 

Even so, she asked Peterbecause she felt she must knowif Peter had heard from Jacob since.

 

Perhaps her tears made Peter hesitant. She thought he became evasive. But he admitted that Jacob had been arrested last November. For vagrancy. The police found Peters card in his pocket and phoned to determine whether Peter knew this man, whom they had detained during their pre-Thanksgiving-Day-parade sweep of Manhattans indigent population. The prisoner in question refused to give his name, but Peter recognized the officers description of the friend he had known since medical school.

 

Unfortunately, Peter was unable to leave his patients until late in the evening. By the time he reached the station house, Jacobs batch of unsavories had been transferred elsewhere, to make room for the next wave of arrests. Peter called two other precincts and worked his way up the chain of command, to no avail. Too many John Does had clogged the system. And besides, Margaret knew, New York societypolice force includedconsidered such men interchangeable and disposable. No one could be counted upon to keep track of one particular tramp.

 

And that was the last time you heard anything about Jacob, Margaret guessed.

 

Peter gave her a strange, regretful smile. Still gentle, still courteous, he said: I have not met him again on any city street or inside any building.

 

Margaret wiped her eyes and returned the handkerchief. Peter clasped her hand as he accepted the cloth. He asked her if she wanted him to find Jacob for her. Peter would spare no effort, if Margaret desired a reunion.

 

She shuddered and drew her hand away from his.

 

Its been a yearshe whisperedsince Jacob disappeared completely. He could be anywhere.

 

Peter slipped the handkerchief into his jacket pocket.

 

Anywhere is also somewhere, and can be found out.

 

He couldn't possibly want to see me again. Not after what Ive done to him.

 

Margaret, no. You know Jacob better than that.

 

She looked away from the pity she saw in Peters eyes.

 

Ive already said goodbye to him forever. I wrote a letter to him. From Paris. While he was still in prison.

 

You can always write another letter.

 

Margaret shook her head.

 

You dont understand. My father

 

Cannot live your life for you.

 

Margaret glanced across the room to where her mother stood. Vivienne Chase now watched her daughter from the opposite side of a wide mahogany table. The spread of politely plated delicacies between them posed no barrier to the mothers suspicious disapproval. She had not vetted Peter in advance, nor granted her maternal assent for Margaret to converse with him. Wearily, Margaret began to prepare herself for her mothers inevitable retaliation. She turned back to Peter.

 

Father can live any life he pleases. They both can. Its too late, Peter. Theres nothing to be done.

 

But what life do you want to live, Margaret? Just you. For yourself.

 

Margaret looked out the window. Gray and rainy beyond the glass pane. Pedestrians below trundled along, hidden beneath their umbrellas like turtles beneath their shells. Margaret wished she could hide too.

 

She said: I want a comfortable life. A predictable life. Outside the merciless scope of the public eye.

 

She turned again and considered Peters long, earnest features.

 

Marrying Jacob was the boldest thing Ive ever done. And nowtheres no boldness left in me. I have the wreck of my memories, and that is enough. Really, its more than I deserve.

 

Peter studied her face for a moment more. Then he smiled sadly and placed a brotherly kiss on her cheek.

 

If you ever change your mind, please tell me, he said.

 

Goodbye, Peter, she said.

 

He stepped back from her and turned to go.

 

Peter?

 

He paused, listening.

 

From the beginning, youve always been Jacobs one true friend.

 

He gazed into her eyes with sincere compassion.

 

Margaret, from the beginning, youve always been Jacobs one true love.

 

She shut her eyes and stood alone in darkness.

 

Thats what Im most afraid of, she breathed.

 

Margaret did not open her eyes again until she heard Peter walk away.

 

~

 

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