“The Lily Pond” by Thomas Beer

“When you’re seventy, Mr. Kane, all the people you meet won’t be themselves but someone you knew.”

Woman plays piano while old man watches.

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A Saturday Evening Post regular and writer of more than 100 short stories in the early twentieth century, Thomas Beer was best known for his biography of Stephen Crane as well as his novel The Mauve Decade. Beer’s fiction contained evocative metaphors and complex characters that preceded work along the same vein from writers like William Faulkner. In “The Lily Pond,” a sunken boat gives way to a chance meeting for a widowed man and a reclusive girl.

Published on April 16, 1921

 

“I can climb that,” said Justin.

He stared up at the face of the bluff where long patches of sandy clay showed among the massed wild bay that glittered metallic against the eastern sun. His father shook his head, studying the angle and rubbing his twisted ankle. “Pretty steep, Justy.”

“I can try though. I shan’t break my neck. You sit still.”

Kane grinned. “I’m not likely to go far. Well, try it, son. Here, better take my shoes.”

“Rubbish,” Justin laughed, “I don’t need ’em. I’ll yell down from the top if I can see a town or something.”

He trotted up the sloping hot sand and into a belt of rattling dry beach grass that flicked his bare insteps. There were hummocks of loose soil covered with mealyberry trailer before the ground rose sharply and his climb began. The bay and wild-rose brush caught his soaked trousers and presently he tore the sleeve of his jersey on a scrub-oak bough. Small pebbles rolled down about his toes and a green-and-gold garter snake slid away in a delicate rippling. The sun heated his back, and dust from this baked soil made him cough. But the bluff wasn’t really steep, now that he moved on its face. He glanced over a shoulder and saw Kane sitting, a composed gray figure on the white sand. The shallow water showed belts of ruddy drifting weed. The mast of the catboat wabbled still in view, a quarter mile from shore. It had sunk rapidly. Justin sighed hungrily and climbed on. Soon sweat filled his eyes. He was wonderfully thirsty. When he struggled over the lip of the bluff he sat for a moment panting and blind in this upper sunshine. Then he stood up and gazed down an endless olive landscape, a cup of dimpled moors splotched broadly with dark brush and flaked by lavender shadows from the clouds that fled above on the scented wind. Remotely, on the farther rim of this lovely peace, he saw a spire glitter. Here and there were the cream fronds of early flowering clethra and before him the meadow was stippled by scarlet lilies. Only one house showed, in a hollow that partly hid its silver shingle and the faded red paint of a little barn. Justin cupped his hands and yelled down to his father, “There’s a house,” but his voice croaked. Kane waved an arm, though, as if he heard, and Justin ran from the edge of the bluff.

At Princeton he ran cross country. Now he fled expertly, dodging the larger clumps of brushwood and sparing his feet. But bands of meshed vine and low growths made him stumble. When he noticed a sandy crooked path, it was interrupted with more vine. The scrub oak rose shoulder high and hid the house so entirely that he grunted his surprise, coming suddenly to a cleared pasture where two cows didn’t look up and an ambling dun horse raised its head to snort. Beyond, there was a trim garden where a man in blue overalls was weeding a tomato bed. This person looked at Justin’s waving arms intently, his own hands on his hips, and came a cautious yard to meet him, scratching his black beard.

“Look here,” Justin coughed, “our boat sank — off — back there

Qu’est-ce qu’il ya?” said the man.

Justin reeled and hunted for French, licking his lips. “Mon pere et moi, nous sommes naufragesnotre cat-boat — Oh, hell! Notre bateau est — c’est — it — ”

Tiens,” the man said. He scratched his beard again. Justin wagged an arm toward the bluff, despairing of his vocabulary. What on earth was a French farmer doing in this New England desert anyhow? But the man had gathered words: “You say your boat has sanked?”

“Yes. And dad’s busted his ankle or something, and for Lord’s sake give me a drink!”

A red-haired woman in white came up the garden path as he brought this out. She spoke from a little distance, excitedly, shading her eyes with a palm: “You’re in trouble? I could see you running down.”

Justin coughed and pulled himself to civilized speech. “Our catboat. It sunk — sank. I think the auxiliary was too heavy. It just sank in about five minutes and we had to swim in. But dad’s hurt his ankle. He’s down on the beach there. Is there some way of getting a wagon sent down? He can’t possibly walk.”

“Yes, I’ll send our man, here. Marcel.” She turned a rapid flood of words on the dullard, who nodded and lumbered off to catch the dun horse. “There’s a road down, about half a mile from here. It’ll take some time. You chose a bad place to sink,” she smiled.

Justin chuckled, fingering his ripped sleeve. He croaked: “We were anchored all night. Wasn’t any wind yesterday and we had the engine goin’ all afternoon. Just had it put in and it’s an old boat. I suppose the engine jarred the seams loose. Could I get a drink of water at the house?”

“Of course,” she said, and added: “You poor child!”

He couldn’t resent this. People seldom took him for twenty and he must look deplorable. Also, the slim lady wasn’t young. She might be all of thirty. He tramped after her white skirts across a grassy dooryard to the small porch, where an exclaiming fat Frenchwoman brought his water in a queerly ornate goblet, fragile and green. In the doorway an old man stood, leaning on a thin black stick. Justin sat down cross-legged to hide his aching feet and explained: “We live at Watch Hill, summers. We were goin’ to my aunt’s at Gloucester. I thought it’d be fun to go in the tub — the boat. Dad had this auxiliary dingus — engine — put in. I think it sunk us. We were cookin’ breakfast on the oil stove in the cabin and the water began coming up through the floor. Dad twisted his ankle gettin’ out. Of course it’s so shallow that we didn’t have any trouble getting in, but — ”

“But you haven’t had breakfast?” the lady smiled.

“Well, that’s the least of our troubles.” Justin grinned and jumped up. A buggy rattled through the dooryard, the dun horse attached. “I’d better go along. Dad — ”

“I think Marcel can find your father. And you must have some breakfast. Father, this is Mr. — ”

“Kane,” said Justin. He watched the lady pass down an interior hall, brightly papered. Her hair was the shade of his own, deeply red. The old man’s hair was white and curled still thickly above the breadth of a blank pale forehead. He spoke, motionless on the sill.

“You’re very lucky to get out of this so easily, my boy.”

“Yes, I think we are, sir,” Justin said.

He felt foolish, with all his excuses, at the sound of this slow, vibrant voice that echoed under the porch, smooth and deep. Justin shifted his bare feet, which tingled and itched as he looked down at their profuse scratches, then up at the pointed pale face set with black prodigious eyes.

“Funny! I changed the name of the boat. Had her painted in June. The fellow that painted her said it’d be bad luck. And it was.”

“What did you call her?”

“Egypt.” The name seemed amazingly silly. Justin defended it. “Dad’s been there — Egypt — a lot. He’s an engineer, y’know. Thought he’d like it.”

“Ah, whither hast thou led me, Egypt?” said the old man. He came stiffly into the porch on his polished slippers and looked after the buggy, a vague spot in a whirl of gold dust on the ribbon of road to the south. “You’d like to wash? There’s a bathroom at the head of the stairs.”

Justin climbed the narrow treads of the stair. This must be a converted, ancient farmhouse, made luxurious with gay papers and many prints or framed photographs. Beside the bathroom door there was a framed lady in frills and an extraordinary hat shaped like a flower pot. Across her skirt was splashed a signature: “Merry Christmas from Matilda Heron.” Justin tried to remember something about Matilda Heron while he sponged his salty hair and face. She was, he thought, a dead novelist or a singer — she had something to do with the arts anyhow. He hunted for iodine on the shelves and found a bottle of disinfectant to dabble on his feet. The styptic sting made him swear and he limped down to the porch again but was guided to the dining room and saw scrambled eggs smoking on the sheen of a round table. He wished his jersey had a collar as the old man examined him, sitting opposite, a cigarette poised in one hand.

“Father,” said the lady, “you’re embarrassing Mr. Kane.”

The old man started. “Mr. Kane reminds me of Maurice — of an old friend of mine. I got to staring. When you’re seventy, Mr. Kane, all the people you meet won’t be themselves but someone you knew.”

“Father’s getting like that,” said Justin. His father was only forty-four and Justin didn’t encourage the habit; thought it grisly. He went on: “His ankle’s rather weak. He got it mussed up in a motor smash — in France — year before last. He was an inspector. What’s the town over there?”

The lady looked through the window across the olive downs. “Stallford,” she said. “Oh, we’ve a telephone. You’ll want to wire your mother.”

“No,” Justin told her, “mother’s dead. Is there a shop? I can’t go to Gloucester in these rags.”

“Too bad it’s Sunday,” she laughed. “Yes, Stallford’s quite large, these days. Summer people. You can get some clothes. Give Mr. Kane a cigarette, father.”

Justin was talking about Watch Hill and rubbing either ankle with the other sole when the Frenchman led his father in and he grinned. Kane’s unconquerable neatness always charmed Justin. The gray flannel suit had dried somehow. Kane’s curling black hair never needed brushing and he’d wiped the salt from his brown humorless face.

“No, the ankle’s all right. I was walking round when your man found me.”

He stood, considering the lady with his solemn hazel eyes. The old man made a level gesture with both white hands. His rich voice filled the square room.

“My daughter’s been a nurse. You’d best look at it, Sarah.”

“Not necessary,” said Kane, then spoke to the daughter huskily: “You were at Bordeaux? One of the hospitals. I remember. Might I have some water?”

Justin leaned back in his chair and smoked three cigarettes, viciously rubbing his feet, hidden from this courteous group. It was singular, after a spring of track work and the summer swimming, that his skin should behave so badly. Miss Hammond — the old man named himself soon — talked evenly about Bordeaux, the rainy weather there and the hospitals. The wind tossed the cigarette smoke high to the ceiling now and then. Mr. Hammond seemed to drowse in his wicker chair, rigid and remote, turning a large seal ring on a finger.

“What wonderful air this is,” Kane said. “Wild rose and — are there pond lilies somewhere?

“There’s a pond. On the road to town. Yes, it’s pleasant here.” Miss Hammond didn’t let the subject change though. She continued:

“But Bordeaux wouldn’t he bad under peace conditions, do you think?”

The Frenchwoman came to clear the table. Miss Hammond suggested their removal to the porch, and there a collie came to lure Justin away into the dooryard. It was a friendly beast, anxious to have sticks thrown; but Justin sat under a lilac bush presently and studied his feet with passion. They looked bigger than usual and the drying scratches had margins of white. The smell of pond lilies grew cloying. Justin wished his father would telephone for a car and get to a hotel where he could bathe and find iodine. He scrambled up as Kane strolled over the grass.

“Funny you’d remember Miss Hammond, sir.”

Woman on a bridge stares in shock as a hand reaches out of the water.
“I was fishing for one off the bridge with a stick. I nearly swallowed the whole concern!” (Illustrated by J.E. Allen)

“No. She was having dinner with some nurses in the Montre at Bordeaux. There wasn’t anything else worth looking at.” Kane smiled a little and nodded. “Come along, son. Lunch seems to be ready.”

“She’s not bad looking,” Justin murmured, and limped along to luncheon.

Halfway through the meal he stopped eating and began to stare at a great steel engraving over the sideboard. It seemed to be Cleopatra dying, the asp on her breast, but it wavered, through his nausea. The nerves of his feet must be affecting his stomach. He lurched when the others rose, and the old man spoke with a real rapidity:

“The lad’s ill. Sarah — ”

“My feet,” said Justin.

The room commenced to whirl grandly, like a merry-go-round. He reached for his father’s arm. In this fluctuation he heard Miss Hammond’s clear voice pronouncing “Poison ivy! Oh, you poor thing!” and the collie whined dolorously as Justin was guided, chewing his lips, up the stairs. There followed a feverish afternoon. He reclined in an unbelievable garment of silk, which was the first nightshirt of his life, on a four-post bed. Miss Hammond smeared his ankles with some ointment and a chirping Yankee doctor bustled in who called Miss Hammond “Sary” and Justin “bud,” for which Justin wanted to kick him. His father wandered pathetically about and wouldn’t smile, though Justin tried to indicate the humor of this childish accident. Jokes came to a silent death on his father’s solemnity. The excellent man hadn’t been gay even when his wife laughed. He met sallies with a puzzled civility, never offended, apparently anxious to smile. Justin was glad they had fallen, here, among grave folk; Miss Hammond and her old father were plainly serious. People who wanted amusement wouldn’t pick out this windy, lonesome headland. He mentioned this when Kane brought up his dinner tray and lit three candles, which showed the gilt-edged engravings in the pleasant room.

“Yes, it’s a lonely place. Very nice people, aren’t they? I’ve phoned a telegram to have Murphy bring the car up, and some clothes. You won’t be able to walk for a day or two, son. How do your feet feel?”

“Fierce,” Justin said cordially, and regretted it at once, as Kane winced. “But they’re lots better, of course.”

“I ought to have made you take my shoes this morning.” Kane sighed and went downstairs.

At times, the majestic inescapable voice rolled up from below. Mr. Hammond spoke so distinctly that Justin caught whole phrases. He seemed to be talking Egypt. “Pyramids, I was rather disappointed,” and “We had a dragoman named — ” Dinner lasted a long time. The Frenchman came to take Justin’s tray and to bring a silver box filled with cigarettes. These were marked P.H. and had lengthy gilt tips, which Justin abominated as a vanity. But the blended tobacco was soothing. He lay and blinked at the candles, heard someone play the piano below, and jumped as Mr. Hammond came in.

“Three candles going,” said the amazing voice. “That’ll never do.” He lit a fourth on the dresser and sat by the bed in a pompous velvet chair, on which his thin person doubled stiffly yet with an exact grace. He smiled and spoke: “Your father’s most interesting, my boy. I hope your poor feet are — ”

“They’re doing very well, sir. Hadn’t been near any ivy for so long I’d forgotten I poisoned.”

“When I was a boy,” said Mr. Hammond, “I was with Booth. I forget who she was — a very pretty girl. She played Ophelia to his Hamlet. We were somewhere in Pennsylvania, as I recall it, and the trunks were lost. We were opening in Hamlet. Well, we scratched up some sort of clothes — there was a costumer — but there weren’t any flowers for Ophelia. Booth sent one of the men out in a buggy and this idiot brought back an armful of wild flowers. The poor girl! She didn’t know poison ivy when she saw it. She twisted a lot of the stuff round her head in the mad scene — the poor girl!”

His melodious pity boomed and filled the room. Justin sat up and examined an actor at short range. This was most fantastic, incredible. Justin found himself wearing the nightshirt of a man who had played with Edwin Booth, and now listening to a string of stately yarns about the tragedian.

“Oh, was Matilda Heron an actress, sir?”

“The best Camille of all time, my dear boy. Clara Morris?” He shrugged Clara Morris into nothingness. “Bernhardt? Not bad. She did the last act well. Oh, any competent actress can do Camille passably. Duse — I never saw her. Nellie Terry didn’t like the part — ” His voice declined into a murmur. He stared at the floor, then checked a yawn with the pale fragility of his fingers. “I’d like to see Maurice’s little girl play. Well, this is my bedtime. Good night to you.”

He made a stiff and graceful exit. Justin grinned, shivered mentally; this old man was a bit of history. Kane remembered Edwin Booth hazily. It must be an anguish to look back so far. Justin flexed his arms and wished Miss Hammond would play something recent. But a passage of Lohengrin was the most modern of her offerings, and ragtime had no place in this still, lost house. Moonlight covered the moor and brought a sparkle from some pool not far away, before Kane came up, reflective and silent after his prompt question about the feet. In another of the appalling nightshirts he looked like an overgrown choir boy, and strolled about smoking a last cigarette. Justin chuckled.

“Seems the old gentleman was an actor, dad.”

“Your mother and I saw him play — Richelieu, I think — in San Francisco on our honeymoon, in 1899. Justy, your mother’s been dead twelve years?” This seemed to be a question. Justin nodded soberly. Kane threw the cigarette out of the window and drew the shade over the upper pane. He blew the candles out methodically but paused over the last to smile without the hint of any humor. “Hammer me if I start snoring, son.”

He didn’t snore but slept stolidly, stretched on an edge of the bed, and was gone when Justin woke, sneezing, in bright morning. The pond lilies must be open. Their scent crushed down all the other intermingling odors of the brush and, sitting up, Justin could see, a quarter mile off, the shimmering of this pond, oval in a hemming rim of scrub oak. A white gown stood by the end of a bridge that crossed it, and soon a gray male figure joined this whiteness. Kane and Miss Hammond wandered up the road together.

“Great Caesar’s immortal spirit!” Justin muttered.

The gilt clock on the dresser struck seven. What on earth was his father doing abroad at such a preposterous hour? It had the look of an appointment. He considered Kane when the man brought his breakfast up, and surveyed Miss Hammond when she came to change the bandages on his miserable feet. He could approve of Miss Hammond, he thought, quite heartily. She was certainly enough, if handsome not precisely young.

“Your father doesn’t act anymore? I go to the theater a lot. I’d have seen him.”

“He — retired in 1903,” she said. “It’s quite odd. Your father saw him on his last tour, in San Francisco. That too tight?”

“No; fine. I suppose you go to the theater a lot, winters?”

She raised her head and looked at Justin with her bronze eyes, smiling sadly.

“There isn’t any theater in Stallford,” she said.

“My — my word! You don’t live here the year round?”

“Yes. I haven’t been away since I got back from France,” she stated, and left Justin gaping.

Old man with cane stands outside his front door.
“You’re very lucky to get out of this so easily, my boy!” (Illustrated by J.E. Allen)

The fact bit his brain whenever he looked at the olive moor thereafter. It was ten miles to Stallford, a town — in winter, when only the natives filled it — of a thousand people. On Thursday, when he limped down in loose slippers to the motor, he shook hands zealously with Miss Hammond. “A great pleasure to have had you with us, my dear boy,” said the old man, smiling against the sun. “I’m afraid I’ve bored you with my old tales. Sarah’s very patient with me. I prose along. Goodbye.”

Justin stared back and waved, as the driver let the car go gently out of the grassy yard. Old Hammond lifted his black stick and there was a delicate commotion in the cloud of cigarette smoke about him. The daughter did not stir on the steps.

“Lord,” Justin said, “I should think she’d go crazy! And if I had to listen to him talkin’ all the time, I’d kill him.”

“Awful,” Kane assented; “like a church organ.”

The car passed with a mild rumble between the rails of the bridge over the lily pond, where dragon flies swirled like odd blooms freed from the glittering surface and the perfume choked Justin to a cough.

“Too sweet,” Kane agreed. “Your mother hated them.”

The gray shingles of the lonesome house effaced themselves on the olive slope of the headland. Justin looked at the dull shady streets of Stallford eagerly. Here, after five days spent among aged, settled characters, he saw youth perambulating the tennis courts of a small hotel, and more youth in bath suits motoring down to the beach. In Gloucester his cousins chuckled over his feet instead of sighing, and he forgot about Miss Hammond for six days, then asked Kane how old he thought she might be.

“She’s thirty-one, son,” said his father slowly.

“Did she tell you, dad?”

“Yes. And she’s lived there ever since 1903. She was only in France six months. It’s — disgusting,” said Kane, and walked heavily down the veranda, his head sagging. He came back to Justin’s hammock with a frown. “I want to send her some novels. Go tell Murphy to bring the car. You’ll have to help me pick ’em out, Justy.”

Justin picked out half a dozen novels, was afterward consulted about chocolates and thus was prepared for a question by his aunt. “Your father seems awfully preoccupied, Justy. What on earth’s the matter with him?”

“He’s preoccupied,” said Justin obscurely.

His aunt oozed sympathy over anything loverly. He didn’t care to loose her on his father, and went off to play tennis. If his father had fallen in love with Miss Hammond it was only fair to let him enjoy that condition without scrutiny. Justin had often wondered if women had any meaning to Kane. It was thrilling to find that they had. He wasn’t surprised when Kane suggested a return to Watch Hill; less so that, below Boston, his father ordered the motor to head for Stallford, where rooms seemed to be ready at the hotel and many females observed their first meal in the dining room. Then Kane vanished and Justin spent an afternoon of speculation on a pier by the shallow bay. However, before sunset he met a classmate coming in from a sail and, shortly after, the classmate’s three sisters. By ten o’clock he found that all three liked red hair and two of them liked gray eyes.

It was midnight when he heard Kane enter the adjoining room. The man moved to and fro, undressing. Justin grinned in his darkness. But after a moment he had to chuckle; his father was whistling, though badly enough, a waltz of the incredible days before Justin’s birth.

In the morning the good man looked penitent. He sat on the edge of Justin’s bed and patted one of the still tender ankles, shuffled his feet and fooled with the frogs of his pajama jacket.

“Hope you found someone to talk to last night, son.”

“Of course I did. I know a lot of people here. How was she?”

“I shouldn’t have stayed so late,” Kane muttered, “but he goes to bed at nine and — you don’t mind staying here a while? “

“Not a bit, sir. And she’s awfully nice.”

Kane said swiftly: “Makes me think of your mother, Justy,” and went off to shave. He came back with his eyes anxious above the mask of white lather and went on: “Of course I — I’ve never cared about anyone the way I did for your mother, Justy. Couldn’t.” Then he appeared with half the lather erased, to mumble: “Mighty lonesome when you’re off at college, son.” There Justin laughed, and the shaven tract of his father’s face colored. He chuckled timidly.

“Thought I’d better let you know, son.”

“I’m mighty glad,” Justin assured him, and often mused on his father’s happiness for the rest of the week.

It was impossible that Miss Hammond would refuse this fine man, and she deserved a reward for her isolation on the headland. None of the summer colonists knew the Hammonds, but several ladies told Justin that Miss Hammond drove to town occasionally.

“She’s very handsome,” one said. “The old man’s neurotic, you know. He has one of those phobias. He can’t stand meeting people. They live there all the year. It’s really quite pathetic.”

“Must have been jolly for him when she went to France,” Justin pondered.

“Oh,” said the lady, “they said it was dreadful! I heard about it. He was so anxious to have her go. Then, their doctor says, he almost went insane. He used to walk up and down the road by the house and talk to his wife — she’s dead — and it frightened his servants. The French are so superstitious, aren’t they? They say his wife was very pretty.”

Justin thought these eccentricities rather childish. But Mr. Hammond was old and so excusable. Kane didn’t propose that Justin come calling, and Justin was busy. Stallford was undermanned. Girls even suggested that he get his father to fill out clambakes and motorboat parties. They flattered him on Kane’s youthful charms and there was a loud alarmed chorus when the engineer came, rumpled and wet, from the motor one evening.

“I fell in that beastly lily pond,” he grunted to Justin over the edge of the bathtub. “Sarah wanted some lilies — the old gentleman likes ’em — and I was fishing for one off the bridge with a stick. By George, I nearly swallowed the whole concern! The stems, you know? They got tangled all round my legs. You came pretty near being an orphan. That somebody knocking?”

Justin went to the bedroom door and brought back a telegram. Kane read this and gave a long sigh, almost comic in its woe. “I’ll have to go to New York. Man from Denver. Take a week, pretty near. You’ll go out and see h — ’em, though?”

“Of course I shall,” Justin promised, and remembered that he must do so one morning three days later, when their mothers had dragged most of his associates to church.

The chauffeur was amiably occupied with a native beauty on a bench before the hotel. Justin drove himself over the moors, wondering if his father had kissed Miss Hammond yet, and blushed when he found her on the pond bridge, fishing for lilies with a long stick.

“Father’s fond of them,” she said in her serious brisk voice. “Such a thick sort of perfume, though, isn’t it?”

“Lots too thick; bad as ether almost. Had a note from dad. He’ll be back Thursday morning.”

She didn’t answer but went on prodding a polished lily pad with the stick. As the color came up her face Justin saw that she could look like his mother. He slid out of the car and perched on the solid rail of the bridge close to her moving arm in its thin white sleeve. The dragon flies dipped and hissed in long circles among the bowl-shaped glistening flowers and the high sun beat a path for Justin’s eyes into the dull water so that he could guess at serpentine stems trailing down to some black depth.

“Justin,” said Miss Hammond, “I can’t marry your father. I must write and tell him so. Or — would you tell him? I — I’m so sorry.”

“Better marry him,” Justin advised.

“I can’t.”

She threw the stick into the pond and began to cry, motionless, the tears rippling on her upturned pallor. The muscles of Justin’s throat contracted. It was worse since she made no sound.

“Father’s the finest kind of man,” he mumbled, chewing his lips.

“I know. But I can’t go away. You see? He’s so old. Over seventy. It’d kill him.”

“Look here,” Justin said soon. “We’ve got an awfully big house. It’s at Irvington — up the Hudson. Lots of ground all round. He wouldn’t have to see anyone. He could have my grandfather’s rooms. He could be just as — as lonesome as he liked.”

She did not seem to hear. She said, “My mother was much younger. He was playing Antony with Fanny Davenport when they met. She wasn’t kind to him. She flirted with other men. I can remember. He was always kind to her. She wasn’t a good actress, but he had her for a leading lady in his company. Her name was Eugenie Watson. She ran away with someone. He never spoke unkindly of her — never. He was playing in San Francisco when the news came that she’d died. She killed herself. Then he couldn’t act as well. And then he stopped. I look very like her. Sometimes he calls me Eugenie. He can’t live any place but here. He tried to live in Stallford when he made me go to France. It didn’t work. He — he needs me. He’s happy. I can’t do it. When I was away he used to walk up and down the road here and talk to her — just as though she could hear him. Won’t you write your father?”

Justin twisted on the rail and shook his head.

“No, I won’t. Mr. Hammond can come and live in Irvington. He needn’t miss seein’ you at all. Dad likes him a lot. It’ll work out. You’ll see.” He brightened with speech. “And dad takes all summer off anyhow. He’s got three partners. You can come here.”

Presently she put her face in her hands and leaned on the rail. She did not look up when Justin turned the car and drove away, soaked in a queer anger. The old man seemed a monstrous selfish shadow flung across the world suddenly. Justin raged, not hopelessly, but with a sick vexation. He could imagine Kane stroking the red luster of her hair and arranging all this gravely. It was utterly stupid that his father should be held off so. Justin smoked a pipe and got the lily smell out of his throat by lunch time, but anxiety stayed strongly in him. Kane was probably a timid lover. He might take fright in these perplexities, let himself be sacrificed. Justin thought of Hammond with a large impatience until thinking made his head ache and the crowd of cheerful young persons on the tennis courts afflicted him. He found that company wasn’t good for a brain congested with worries.

On Wednesday the chatter of the girls watching a game of clock golf was peculiarly burdensome and Justin fancied he could learn to loathe women. He was scowling over a stroke when the chatter waned and someone whispered his name, deeply. Justin stared up at old Hammond, close to him, the spectral hands still on the gold crook of his cane, the face rigidly frowning under the sweep of a wide hat. At this vision the youngsters round about were glaring, amazed and lost to manners. Justin handed his putter to a friend and followed the stiff legs away from the herd.

“That game,” Hammond said, “looks as imbecile as croquet, my dear boy. Is there some quiet place? I — ”

His mouth flickered in a curious spasm and his long face twitched. Justin guided him across the sunny turf to a summerhouse, happily empty,

“My dear lad,” the old man murmured, “this is very awkward. I had Marcel drive me in. I hate the telephone. We fossils are prejudiced, you know! Well my poor Sarah seems to have lost her senses.” He laughed, richly and smoothly, on an organ note. “I hope you haven’t written your good father that — ”

“No, I didn’t, sir,” said Justin. “He’ll be here tomorrow morning and — ”

“I’m glad you didn’t disturb him.”

Hammond took his hat off and lit a cigarette. He seemed lightly amused and beamed at Justin gayly.

“Sarah’s too sensitive on my account. She fancies things. I’ve been watching her very closely. Last night she broke down while she was playing the piano for me. I had to bully her — absurd — until she told me. Of course this is preposterous. I’ve always looked forward to her marriage. Oh, not as cheerfully as I should — one gets selfish. I’m sure you’ll find me a very kind stepgrandfather-in-law.”

“Sure I shall,” Justin said. “I was telling S-Sarah, sir, that you’d be awfully comfortable in our place at Irvington. There’s a set of rooms where my grandfather — ”

“It sounds most inviting.”

Hammond stretched his legs and crossed his small feet jauntily, blew a smoke ring and waved it aside. His mouth twitched a little.

“My nerves went to pieces badly, in my last season. I was really ill for some years and I got used to living out here. ‘Lose and neglect the creeping hours of time.’ What a wretched part Orlando is, to be sure! Do you ever wrestle? I had a silly mishap when I was playing Orlando in London in ’86.” He told, with many gestures and at great length, how he had dislocated a shoulder in the wrestling scene of As You Like It, then came back to their business. “But I’m anxious your good father should understand that this is merely — ah — overanxiety on Eugenie’s — on my daughter’s part. What time does he get here tomorrow?”

“About eleven, sir.”

The old man ground out his cigarette with the tip of the black cane.

“I’m sure he’ll make my girl an excellent husband. And you’ll make her a good stepson or I’ll come back and haunt you, my lad. I’ve had a deal of experience haunting. I played along nicely. Good day to you.”

As the buggy went off he spoke to the driver in French, and that fluid speed of music remained with Justin as he trotted down to the beach. The old fellow was artifice itself. He had played this scene like a bit from a play, airily and gracefully, tactfully. And it was really a noble act, Justin thought. He was much pleased, and exploded sociably in his relief, took a carful of youth on a drive under the failing August moon and came home to his bedroom at midnight. The clack of the rusty telephone bell startled him, half undressed, and the gracious roll of Hammond’s voice was diminished in the buzz of the wire.

“Come out early in the morning, my dear boy. I mean, before you go to meet your father. Sarah will want to talk to you.”

“About when, sir?”

“Would eight be too early?”

“I’ll be there.”

“Please don’t fail Sarah. Good night.”

Justin left a call for seven and, when it rang, remembered the reason. It was most important to be prompt in his father’s behalf. No doubt Miss Hammond was going to give in and wanted to explain this. He dressed, whistling, got the car from the hotel shed and set off, hungrily hoping that there would be coffee for him at the house, which did not show through a faint sunsmitten mist that rolled on the moors, frosting the brush and hiding the gulls that yelled above. The farther pads of the lily pond were obscured in the gray flow as the car passed the bridge, and some lads in faded country clothes stared at Justin mutely. The collie capered down the dooryard to welcome him as he stopped inside the gates. The Frenchman was talking to an elderly farmer by the porch and Justin went into the hall unannounced, then whistled. Miss Hammond came out of a room behind him and put her arms about his neck, silently, though she was weeping. Justin patted her hair cordially.

“All right,” he said. “That’s all right.”

“Oh, where’s your father, Justin? Some boys found him. They’d come out to get lilies. They sell them in town. And he was so happy last night. I played the Mikado for him. I went to bed early.” She leaned on Justin’s shoulder, sobbing slowly. “My mother drowned herself too. Oh, Justin, where’s your father? Why doesn’t he come?”

The first page of the short story "The Lily Pond" by Thomas Beer
Read “The Lily Pond” by Thomas Beer, published April 16, 1921. Become a subscriber to gain access to all of the issues of The Saturday Evening Post dating back to 1821.

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