It was late afternoon, with a fiery sun setting behind gentle, rolling hills, when I finally got my friend, General Herbert Wilcox, to open up with a story that I never expected. He’s a reserved man, not generally a braggart or a whiner. Life just dishes him whatever, and he gobbles it up.
With a such a man – one who hasn’t a need to prove himself – you often find a conspicuous lack of adventure. This was, to my knowledge back then, a good description of the man. He was steady in most things. His even keel was a boon to his men, since he never got upset, and kept his cool in battle. But there was something missing. Something you normally find in the usual military man. “Where was his gusto?”, I’d think to myself. You’d thought the Army meant as much to him as his scrambled eggs in the morning.
Well, believe you me, I was in for a surprise that day. We’d just finished lunch, and the serving maid was clearing up the picnic table. My, nothing is quite so fine as a late noon, a pluck of pheasant, and a pretty woman to tidy up afterwards. Men never care for order much. War is more our taste: about as much disorder as a man can handle.
Now, it’s a happy coincidence there was a pretty lady with us that day. It made the story much more real than it otherwise would have been.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, I apologize. Let me go into the story the way he did. If my story-telling is anything like his, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
It was three weeks before his wedding to Ms. Julia Delacroix. Rumor has it she was the finest woman in all of Louisiana. I wouldn’t know, however. My bias has always been Texan.
The two had been seeing each other about two years. She was from a straight-backed Catholic family, and he from a an ex-Jesuit father, and Baptist mother. There was religion in both families, but not to much in Herbert. Something nearer to the ground commanded him in those days.
Though, when a woman is not yet wed she wields a terrible force. It’s enough to pull a man to his knees – like magnetizing the earth until his burning fire drops him to the ground in utter submission. There’s something quite unfair here. Without this, I wonder what female-kind would do.
For me, the compromise was always too great. Perhaps my relish is too well spread on other things. But Herbert – maybe now I understand the wherefore of his calm attitude.
Ms. Delacroix, being of the religious mind that she was, enforced a celibate diet on my poor friend. Yet this did not go unpunished after the ceremony. There was much doubt in Ms. Delacroix’s mind as to what she’d gotten herself into. However, they settled down to a fine state of affairs, and raised four happy children in a grand estate. She having come from old money, there was never hunger or despair in the house. This buffeted for a while the compromises she was forced to make.
Yet our story has nothing to do with the “happy years,” but rather that one night three weeks before the wedding. It was cloudless, and a full-moon high in the sky. The wind whispered on the ivy outside the Delacroix home. She lived on the second story, across the hall from an empty guest room.
Herbert thought long and hard before committing to his plans that night. The faint chill in the air only exaggerated his nerves as he stood on the Delacroix’s property line. For him, it was an enemy line, the enemy being a vague madness that propelled him beyond all reason. Herbert reigned in with all his might, but the chargers were spurred on. He stepped onto the gravel garden path.
It was fall then, and the nights were cool. Summer was unfriendly to Julia’s hair, so it would be an autumn wedding. Only three weeks to go. Herbert kept reminding himself, debating inside, using all of his male persuasion to turn him back, but female persuasion is damnably effective.
One foot followed the other, each eager to see what lay at the trip’s end. The tender grass bent easily under his nervous step. One foot, two feet – and the mansion rose before him like a palace in a forgotten wood. All of him thrilled at the silent windows, the peaceful sleepy cottage standing nearby. All was dark, and nothing stirred.
In his mind crickets echoed with the beating of his heart, and like an mad rush he fought to lose his will just as hard as he did to regain it. I mustn’t – you must! And all the while he feet ignored him, and continued on their steady way.
Just before the guest room was a mighty oak tree, branches outspread in the moonlight. It was an easy climb up to the second story window. Too easy.
Before he could catch his breath again he was inside. In a small country town there isn’t much fear of burglars. If a man is determined, they figure, what will a lock do? At least the second story and up was unlocked. The first story was snug and secure.
Mr. and Mrs. Delacroix bedded on the third floor, above the library on the other side of the house. No danger of disturbing them, he thought. Now his thoughts had only one aim.
He slipped into the hallway, and caught he foot on a throw rug. He was able to catch himself, though. Lucky thing. If Julia’s parents had found an eager boy stalking their halls, hell would have opened up to swallow everybody. But the house was dead with silence. Somewhere, it seemed, the house itself breathed, alive with the history of ten generations. Would he be willed to defame those honorable souls, in this very house of their ancestors? Fortunately for Herbert, such thoughts were long behind, milling about in the guest room, chatting amongst themselves. He proceeded step after step, padding down the plush carpeting as he faded like a ghost into Julia’s dark bedroom.
When his eyes adjusted to the darker blackness, he became aware of a silent form. To him, it was an angel, lying with arms spread, slightly turned to one side, toward him. Her breathing was not heard, but seen with the rising and falling of the white sheet. Her delicate arms, carved of the finest pure ivory human beings can create, gentled cradled the stillness, forming from it dreams of sweetness and future bliss.
To Herbert, the bed-cover caressing her body was part of a different reality. He looked at her, and saw only a gossamer silk veil, transparent and longing for the ethereal realm whence it came. Beneath that veil… his heart pounded too fiercely for him to conceive the image. It was a boundary his body could not pass through it, only his will, his steady, methodic will, cause push him through to the land of lost Eden.
He began to raise his hand. She was still peacefully resting, so unaware of the lover’s hand that caressed her with its intentions. One imagined a smile on the soft lips, a gentle nod coming forth from the land of dreams. She beckoned without moving, and called him though no words could be heard, nor anything felt in that moment of intense, passionate pause. In that space of only seconds, an eternity of yearning poured out like a rain, drenching the young man and his beloved with its pulsing, blood-warmed heat.
The moon was pale white that night, soft through a fine mist that had gathered round the house. It was smooth and round, as if pinned firmly under a white sheet. There was no one to hear the mono’s cry. It was suspended in space, as if perhaps one day it would fall, plucked from heaven’s gourd by young and eager hands. Would it then fall to the earth, smothered in the heat of a burning sky, gleaming brilliantly in the night’s bosom until at last, the fatal collision, the joining of two heavenly orbs not yet meant to join? No moon, no lovely earth, no house, no divine players on a scene of majestic glory. Only spent love and the collapse of what three weeks might have meant.
Herbert had danced on the final line. At this point, passion replaces the mind, and there is nothing left but to behold and feel. His heart trembled. He body became like a body within a body, the inner one shuddering, the outer one cold as a naked stone on a lonely night. This was the last moment of decision.
It was ten, maybe twenty minutes by Herbert’s reckoning before he turned and left the house. The tree was much harder to climb down than it had been to climb up. The grass was reluctant now to bear his uneven tread. Even the property’s boundary stood like a trench, although visible divided it between the outside world and Julia’s home.
Looking back, Herbert said to me that this was the greatest battle he ever fought. But it was more than worth it, he told me. It would have been tantamount to raping Julia’s principles, and that would have a planted a bitter seed in deep furrows. One never knows when such things will sprout up.