Free Souls, Chapter 9

Free Souls

by KAH

(Produced ca. 1983, revised 2013, all rights reserved)

Chapter 9

“You look very nice,” he finally said.

Such a statement was prosaic enough to be borne, so Sandy accepted it with equally prosaic grace. She tried to immerse herself in the study of Rembrandt’s portrait of his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels, though every cell in her body seemed to be a separate antenna picking up the frequency of Eric’s continued presence behind her.  There had been poetry in what he had said before, but she dared not credit that from him. Hers was too fragile a hope to be founded on such ephemera: she had miscalculated on men’s feelings towards her before; she dared not risk error now.

The safest explanation was that something was going on.  Turning back to him she asked, “Has something happened since Friday afternoon that I shouldn’t know about?”

“Absolutely not! I mean, yes, you should know about it.” And he told her about the new commissions for the Ryersons’ family room and the FirstCon Packaging building. “I won’t know all the details till Tuesday night, and probably not then. But I’d say for sure they’re ours.”

“Oh, Eric, that’s wonderful! And you say Mrs. Ryerson and Mrs. Felder and everyone got together and agreed to close down the rumor mill?”

“Seems that way. And if what Sheila told me later is any indication, that same mill might grind out still more little jobs for us!”

“I love it! Nick Hardt hoist with his own petard!” Her tone became confidential. “Eric, I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about this, but it’s my career at stake as well as yours, and I figured I should take the chance while I had it. Um, the president of the local AIA chapter, Mr. Byfield, goes to my church, and this morning after the service I spoke with him.”

She paused, Eric made no comment, so she went on. “I explained that I knew he couldn’t send out any edicts or decrees, but I asked whether he couldn’t circulate the report, the truth, I mean, among the local firms that, well, that we’re good upstanding little children ‘in whom no iniquity is found’ and so on, and ask that our colleagues treat us the way they’d like to be treated. He agreed to do it, and it may work. He’s got enough influence.”

Eric considered this. “He’ll just drop a word here and there? No soapbox lectures against unfounded gossip?”

“Goodness, no! He’ll do it discreetly, don’t worry. He’s not AIA president for nothing, and besides, he’s a Christian gentleman.”

“Hmmm,” was Eric’s initial reply to this last.  “Well,” he said presently, “I’m glad you acted on your impulse. If things work out, we may be saved on both fronts.”

“I hope so.”

“Well, enough of this. Have you seen the exhibit?”

“Not all of it.”

“Did you see that Raeburn in the other room? Come on, I’ll show it to you.”

She followed docilely and indeed, the portrait was very beautiful. He accompanied her through the rest of the exhibit, he elucidating the fine artistic points of the paintings, she illuminating him on the religious or mythical backgrounds of many of their subjects.

After awhile, they came to the Spanish gallery, where Eric was drawn away by a remarkable Velasquez. Sandy, in her turn, stood fascinated before a large canvas by El Greco.

Its subject was a young Spanish saint, a soldier by his dress, with that peculiar attenuation of the bone structure so characteristic of the artist’s work. The young man stood on a high, weather-shrouded hill, the relics of his martyrdom in his hand, and on his face an expression as of the hope of eternal joy mingled with an awareness of the futilities of the world. It took her breath away: as a work of art, certainly; but also because if he had been born a 16th century Spaniard while yet remaining himself, she would have sworn the young soldier-saint was Eric Baumann. It was all there: the face, the hands, even the attitude of the body. The only thing missing in Eric was the look of spiritual assurance, something she knew the Lord alone could supply. In that moment if it had been proposed that Eric had been transported to the late 1500s and sat for the artist, or that El Greco had time-travelled to the 20th century that he might paint him, she would have accepted it without doubt or question.

A hand was laid gently on her shoulder. She turned and in a kind of delicious shock recognized the seeming original of the painting. “I’m not the only one who looks like an Old Master . . . ,” she murmured with soft recklessness.

If Eric heard he gave no sign. “Do you like this El Greco?”

“Yes, I do. Very much.”

“If I had the money I’d buy if for you.”

“My God, he’s serious,” she thought. She rummaged through the ragbag of her social experience to find something appropriate to say, but against his confusing onslaught could muster no defense but levity.

“Well, yeah,” she laughed, “but if you had the money you’d probably live in a château in France and never would’ve known me anyway!”

“Yes,” he continued with what she decided to label maddening obstinacy, “but if I lived there I’d probably have tours. You might come over, I’d meet you, and then I would certainly give it to you.”

“This is not working,” she thought. Congratulating herself on her control of the situation, she asked steadily, “What did you think of the Velasquez?”

The treacherous mood was broken. “Oh, yes, come and see it!”

He pointed out its salient features with proper enthusiasm, but after her appreciative responses had died away silence closed around them. They did the rest of the exhibition with hardly a word, marking each other’s reactions only by the curving of a mouth, the widening of an eye, the gesture of a hand.

He did not touch her again, but she was ever conscious of the impression of his long hand upon her shoulder. Increasingly distracted from the masterworks, she resolved to come again, alone, for now her rebellious energies demanded leave to flow out to the man at her side, and it was fear and pride, as much as prudence, that with difficulty kept them dammed in.

Eric for his part threw himself headlong into the paintings, trying to disregard the odd sensation that had so inexplicably come upon him. Ah, yes, here was one of Moses and the burning bush. But it offered him no security. He recalled his mother’s Bible stories in that drab little walk-up in Bismarck: “‘I will turn aside and consider this great marvel . . . ’” What great marvel? Just an ordinary bush, the kind you see every day, the kind you take for granted (and almost against his will he glanced down at the young woman standing next to him) . . . take for granted, until you notice it’s on fire, but not burned, and that it has the voice of God or at least of an angel sounding forth from it.

When they were through Eric asked quietly, “How were you planning to get home?”

“I thought I’d get the bus, as usual.”

“On a Sunday evening? Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll be standing there in the cold for an hour. Come on, get your things. I’ll drive you home.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied in a tone that was an almost perfect counterfeit of her normal workday voice. Eric started at the slight difference, then forced himself to put it out of his mind.

* * * * * * *

They rode mutely through the still November dusk, till he suddenly said, “You know, if we have these new jobs we’ll have to hire some new people in the office.”

Oh,” thought Sandy, feeling the point of the knife to her ribs, “so this is it. I’m losing my place and privileges as his sole assistant and he’s being nice to me to make up for it.” She lectured herself roughly: “Listen, girl, you knew this day was going to come from the word Go. It’s part of the profession and all you have is a professional relationship, understand?”

He was still speaking. “We have time yet before the office building project will start. I’ll interview a few people and submit them to your judgement. If you find anything wrong with them, they’re not hired, ok?”

“Eric, look, you’re the boss,” she replied ungraciously. “You know better than I do what you want in an employee!”

“Sandy, you know I respect your opinion! What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry. I’m tired, I guess. Long day.”

“Long weekend,” he agreed. “But you’re right, I do know what I want in employees, and one of those things is that they be agreeable to you. I also know what I want in an associate.”

The blade began to explore her vitals. “Oh,” she tried to say evenly, “you have an old college friend or something who’s coming back to join the firm?”

“No,” and he looked at her curiously. “I thought you’d just assume. You don’t think you can handle a promotion?”

“What– me?

“Well, yes!” He grinned. “With a raise and all the rest of it, providing the office building goes through. The room next to ours is empty; I’ll see if I can rent it. We can put the catalogs and the help back there.”

“What a marvellously dehumanizing way of speaking of them! ‘The catalogs and the help’!”

“Well, you know me!” he answered cheerfully. “A regular Simon Legree. We’ll put the huddled masses of whatever type back there; I think it’s best you and I stayed up front for the time being. At any rate, we won’t know for sure until I speak to the Ryersons and Delkirk Tuesday night.”

“I think it’ll work out . . . ,” she said, as much to herself as to him.

“I was hoping to do this for awhile,” he went on, “but we didn’t have enough work.  I think this FirstCon project once it gets into the building phase should give you some good opportunities to get out of the office and get some good experience in construction management.”

“I guess so,” Sandy replied, a little flatly.

“You don’t seem all that enthusiastic,” he said with some surprise.  “I thought you’d like being more independent.  And if your portfolio was any indication, you’ve got a lot of ideas under that hat that I’m sure you’re dying to bring to light.  There will be new projects, I’m sure, that you’ll be able to handle on your own.  I can’t see you playing second fiddle forever.”

“Oh, Eric, I am excited, I really am.  It’s just that, well, I’m– “

“Tired,” he concluded for her.  “That’s all right.  And it’s a big step.  I remember how I felt when I was first made associate.  It can be overwhelming.  You’ll feel clearer about it in the morning.”

But Sandy wasn’t sure she would ever feel more clear about the matter than she did right now.  It was one thing to gain a promotion with all the powers, privileges, and emoluments pertaining thereunto.  It was another thing to be convinced that the duties of that new position were inevitably going to separate you from the one whose presence you valued more than anything else in the world, and to feel that he somehow had planned it that way.

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