Commentary Magazine


Mrs. Benson
A Story

“I don’t know why Mrs. Carlin entertained,” Mrs. Benson admitted. “She didn’t like it, and she couldn’t do it.”

“I had to sit an entire hour under one of those potted palms she had in her house,” Mrs. Benson’s daughter, Wanda, recalled. “There was a certain odor about it—whether from the soil, or the plant, or the paper about the container. I felt terribly uncomfortable.”

The two women, Wanda Walters, unmarried and thirty, from Philadelphia, and her mother, who lived in Europe, and had been married many times, and who was now Mrs. Benson, had nearly finished their tea, in an English tearoom within walking distance from the American Express, in Paris.

Mrs. Benson had known the English tearoom for many years, though she could never exactly remember its French name, and so could not ever recommend it to her friends, and she and her daughter, when they had their yearly reunions in Paris, always came to it. Their meeting in Paris this year had been rather a prolonged one, owing to Wanda’s having failed to get a return passage to the States, and it had been a summer that was hot, humid, and gray—and not eventful for either of them.

This year, too, they found themselves going less and less anywhere at all, and they were somewhat embarrassed—at least, Mrs. Benson said she was—to find that they spent the better part of the day in the English tearoom, talking, for the most part, about people they had both known in Philadelphia twenty-odd years ago, when Wanda had been “little,” and when Mrs. Benson—well, as she said, had at least had a different name!

It was the first time in many years, perhaps the first, that Mrs. Benson had really talked with her daughter at length about anything (they had always traveled before, as the older woman said), and certainly the first time in Wanda’s memory that they had talked at all about “back home,” as Mrs. Benson now called it with a chilly, condescending affection. And if their French or American friends happened by now, Mrs. Benson, if not Wanda, expressed by a glance or word a certain disappointment that their “talk” must be interrupted.

Mrs. Benson had made it a fixed practice not to confide in her daughter (she had once said to a close friend of hers: “I don’t know my daughter, and it’s a bit too late to begin!”), but the name Mrs . Carlin, which had come into their conversation so haphazardly, as if dropped from the awning of the café, together with the gloominess of their Paris, had set Mrs. Benson off. Mrs. Carlin came to open up a mine of confidences and single isolated incidents.

This was interesting to Wanda because Mrs. Benson had always been loath to “tell,” to reminisce. Mrs. Benson hated anecdotes, regarding them as evidence of senility in the old, and cretinism in the young, and though there were other people “back home,” of course, Mrs. Carlin could easily carry them through for the rest of Paris, and the potted palms, which had so dismayed Wanda, seemingly set Mrs. Benson “right” at last.

“I don’t suppose you remember when they were popular,” Mrs. Benson referred to the palms. “But they were once nearly everywhere. I’ve always disliked them, and, I think, perhaps, I even vaguely fear them.”

“I don’t think Mrs. Carlin liked them,” Wanda said abruptly, so abruptly that Mrs. Benson dropped a long ash from her cigarette into her tea, and then called the waiter.

“How on earth do you know Mrs. Carlin didn’t like them?” Mrs. Benson flushed slightly and then paused while the waiter brought her a fresh cup.

Wanda paused also. She felt that her mother did not want to know that she knew anything about Mrs. Carlin, and Wanda, in any case, was not very much interested in explaining what she did mean.

“I simply meant this,” Wanda felt she must explain, under the look her mother gave her. “The part of the house Mrs. Carlin used for entertainment could not have reflected anybody’s taste.”

Mrs Benson opened her eyes wide, and brought her mouth into a kind of cupid’s bow. Then, in a voice quieter than her expression, she said: “I’d have to say, Wanda, that you were right!”

“But how on earth did you know?” Mrs. Benson suddenly brought out, and she looked at her daughter as if a fresh light had been thrown on the latter’s character also.

“What I think I meant,” Wanda began again, tearing apart one of the tiny envelopes of sugar that lay beside her spoon, “Mrs. Carlin was, as we both know, more than a little wealthy. . .”

Mrs. Benson cleared her throat, but then decided, evidently, not to speak, and her silence was as emphatic as she could make it.

“That is,” Wanda went on slowly, “she could afford to entertain rather shabbily.”

“Rather shabbily?” Mrs. Benson considered this. “That is a terribly queer word for her.”

“But you yourself . . .”

“I don’t like potted palms,” Mrs. Benson pushed through to what was, as her face showed, the important matter here, “and I don’t like all those original early 19th-century landscapes with cattle,” she became now as firm as if in court, “but as to her house being shabby. . . .”

Depressing then,” Wanda said. “It was certainly depressing.”

Mrs. Benson laughed, guardedly indulgent. “You’re so hard on the poor dear,” she said in a tone of voice unlike her own.

“But I thought you thought as I did,” Wanda cried. “About her, at least!” Displeasure and boredom rang in her voice, but there was an even stronger expression there of confusion and doubt.

“I do, and I don’t,” Mrs. Benson put endearment and confidence now into her voice. Then, unaccountably, she looked at her rings. She had many. They were, without doubt, too genuine, if anything, and as they shone in the late afternoon light, they made her mother look, Wanda felt, both very rich and very old.

“I think you’re right, though,” Wanda heard Mrs. Benson’s voice continuing, “right about Mrs. Carlin’s not caring whether she impressed people or not.”

“I don’t know if I quite meant that,” Wanda told her mother, but under her breath now. “I mean only she didn’t care whether they enjoyed themselves or not at her house!”

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They were both silent for a moment, as if surprised at the difficulties which had suddenly sprung up from nowhere, difficulties that were so obscure in themselves, and yet which offered some kind of threat of importance.

“The potted palms were a fright, of course,” Mrs. Benson seemed either conciliatory or marking time. “And even for potted palms, they were dreadful.” She touched her daughter’s arm lightly. “They looked dead.”

Going on, Mrs. Benson added: “I always thought of old-fashioned small-town Greek candy-kitchens when I saw those palm trees at Mrs. Carlin’s. And her strange little painted-glass player piano, too!”

“I never saw that,” Wanda admitted. She looked away from her mother’s expression.

“Oh, you’ve forgotten it, is all,” Mrs. Benson said. “It played for all the guests, that player piano . . . at least once.” She laughed. “Mrs. Carlin seldom invited anybody twice.”

Mrs. Benson had a peculiar, oblique, faraway look in her eyes, a look Wanda did not remember quite ever having seen on her mother’s face before—indeed, on anybody’s face.

Then, suddenly clearing her throat, Mrs. Benson coughed ceremoniously, struggling perhaps with a decision.

The one thing, Wanda remembered again, the thing that her mother disliked so much in others, was stories, anecdotes—indeed any narration which was prolonged beyond the length of a paragraph. But usually when Mrs. Benson cleared her throat and coughed, she was going to tell something which was important and necessary, if not long, or anecdotal.

But then, quickly, as if she had been given a reprieve of some kind, Mrs. Benson cried: “Oh, it’s all so nothing!” and poured herself some tea.

“But what else was there?” Wanda cried, annoyance and curiosity both in her voice. Mrs. Benson shook her head.

“You did have something special, I believe,” Wanda was positive.

“Oh, not actually,” Mrs. Benson said. Then, with her faraway look again, she managed to say, “I was remembering an afternoon—oh, a long, long time ago at Mrs. Carlin’s. . . . But in a different part of the house, you see.”

Wanda waited, suddenly touched with something stronger than curiosity. But she knew that if she so much as moved now, Mrs. Benson might remember her own horror of anecdotes, and would close up tight.

“I dread to think how long ago that actually was,” Mrs. Benson continued carefully, and her eyes then strayed out to the street, where a bus was slowing down to stop for a woman and a small child.

Mrs. Benson waited for the woman and child to board the bus, then commencing again: “I can’t believe that it was so long ago as 1935, I mean, or along in there. . . . But, Mrs. Carlin had already begun to entertain her guests in one part of the house . . . and to live herself in another! She had begun dividing up her life in that way!”

She smiled at Wanda, almost in the manner of one who had finished her story there.

Wanda nodded only enough to let her mother know she was listening.

“I don’t care much for this tea, today,” Mrs. Benson said suddenly in an unexpectedly loud voice, and she looked up and about the room.

_____________

 

When Wanda said nothing, but showed that she was waiting, Mrs. Benson drank some more of the tea she did not like, and said: “Mrs. Carlin had never, I think, been particularly interested in me, as distinct from the others, until your father left me. . . . Evidently, she had never been too happy in her marriage, either . . . I gathered that from something she once let drop. . . .”

“However,” Mrs. Benson said, raising the empty tea cup, and looking up under at the bottom of it hurriedly, “however, she wanted me to see things. I knew that. She wanted me to see the things—the part of the house, you understand, that the others never saw.”

Wanda nodded, a kind of fleeting awareness in her face.

“That was when she called me, well aside, I suppose one would have to say, and said something to me like, ‘I want to really have you in some time, Rose.’”

It came as a sort of shock to Wanda to hear her mother’s Christian name. She had not only not heard it for many years—she had actually forgotten it, so separate had their two lives, and their very names, become.

But Mrs. Benson had gone right on now through her daughter’s surprise, or shock: “At first I hadn’t quite understood what Mrs. Carlin meant, you see. . . . She had taken hold of my arm, gently, and let me out of the room where she had always entertained the others. We got into a small gold elevator, and were gone in a minute. . . . When we got out, well—let me assure you, there wasn’t a potted palm in the place!

“It was another house, another atmosphere, another place and time!”

A look of something like pain crossed Wanda’s face, but her mother missed this in her final decision to “tell.”

“It was a bit incredible to me then, and it’s more so now,” Mrs. Benson anticipated her daughter’s possible incredulity, or indifference.

Pausing briefly, it was Mrs. Benson’s turn now to study her daughter’s face critically, but evidently, at the last, she found nothing on the younger woman’s face to stop her.

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Still, Mrs. Benson waited, looking at nothing in particular, while the waiter removed the empty cups, wiped the marble swiftly with a small cloth, bowed vaguely, and muttering part of a phrase, left.

Mrs. Benson commented perfunctorily on the indulgence of French waiters and French cafés, pointing out how wonderful it was to be able to stay forever when one wanted to.

Outside the light was beginning to fail, and a slight breeze came across to them from the darkening boulevard.

Wanda moved suddenly and unceremoniously in her chair, and Mrs. Benson fixed her with a new and indeterminate expression.

Raising her voice, almost as if to reach the street, Mrs. Benson said: “A week after Mrs. Carlin had showed me the ‘real’ part of the house, she invited me again, in an invitation she had written in her own hand, and which I must have somewhere, still. . . . I had never had a written invitation before from her, nobody had. . . always telephoned ones. . . . It was a dark January afternoon, I recall, and I was feeling, well, at that time, pretty low. . . . In the new part of the house—and I couldn’t get over this time its immensity—tea was never mentioned, thank God, and we had some wonderful ancient Portuguese brandy. . . . But as we sat there talking, I kept hearing something soft but arresting. . . .”

Mrs. Benson stopped now in the guise of one who hears only what she is describing.

“Looking back away from Mrs. Carlin,” Mrs. Benson said, “in the furthest part of the room, I was quite taken aback to see some actual musicians. Mrs. Carlin had an entire small string orchestra playing there for her. . . . You know, I thought I was mistaken. I thought it was perhaps a large oil, a mural, or something. . . . But Mrs. Carlin touched my hand just then, and said, ‘They’re for you, Rose.’”

Mrs. Benson pressed her daughter’s hand lightly at that, as if to convey by some touch part of the reality of that afternoon.

“I think she wanted to help me,” Mrs. Benson said in a flat plain voice now, and with a helpless admission of anticlimax. “Your father—as I said, had just gone, and I think she knew how everything stood.”

Mrs. Benson avoided her daughter’s glance by looking at her hands, which she held before her again now, so that there was the sudden quick scintillation again, and then went on: “When Mrs. Carlin took me to the door that day, I knew she wanted to say something else, something still more helpful, if you will, and I was afraid she was going to say what in fact she did.”

Wanda’s open-eyed expression made her mother suddenly smile.

“It was nothing sensational, my dear, or alarming! Mrs. Carlin was never that!

“Well, for heaven’s sake, then,” Wanda cried.

“I said it was nothing sensational.” In Mrs. Benson’s dread of the anecdote—the inevitable concomitant of old age—she had so often told people nothing at all, and safety still, of course, lay in being silent. But as Wanda watched Mrs. Benson struggle there, postponing the telling of what she would have liked so much to tell, she realized in part what the struggle meant: Mrs. Benson had invariably all her life told her daughter nothing.

But Mrs. Benson had gone on again: “Mrs. Carlin was still beautiful then, and as I see now, young. . . . And I rather imagine that when she was very young, and when there had been, after all, a Mr. Carlin. . . .”

A look from Wanda sped Mrs. Benson on: “I don’t know why I treasure what Mrs. Carlin said to me,” she hurried faster now. “But it is one of the few things that any other human being ever said to me that I do hold on to.”

Mrs. Benson looked at the addition which the waiter had left, and her lips moved slightly over what was written there.

“Mrs. Carlin said to me,” she went on, still looking at the waiter’s bill, although her eyes were closed, “‘You’re the only one who could possibly be asked in here with me, my dear. . . . I couldn’t have the others, and I knew I couldn’t have them. . . . They’re not for us . . . And if you should ever feel you would like to stay on,’ Mrs. Carlin said, ‘why don’t you, my dear?’”

“She actually thought so well of you!” Wanda said, and then hearing the metallic hardness of her own voice, lowered her eyes in confusion.

“Of course, that was a long time ago,” Mrs. Benson said vaguely, more of a cold edge now in her voice. “She wouldn’t want anyone there now,” she added.

“She is such a recluse then?” Wanda asked. Mrs. Benson did not answer. She had taken some francs out of her purse and was staring at them.

“Some of this money,” she pointed out, “have you noticed? It comes to pieces in one’s hands. I hardly know what to do with some of the smaller notes.”

“These little reunions in Paris are such a pleasure, Mother,” Wanda said in a rather loud, bright voice.

“Are they, my dear?” Mrs. Benson answered in her old firm manner. Then, in a sudden hard voice: “I’m so glad if they are.”

The two women rose from the table at the same time, Mrs. Benson having deposited some of the notes on the marble-topped table, and they moved toward the front of the café and into the street.

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