The first three chapters of Under the Red White and Blue
Levi Steinem’s hasty departure…
As Levi Steinem hurriedly made his way down the street the suitcase he had hastily packed banged continually against his leg—though he hardly noticed the fact, the unhinging events of the previous evening, a subsequently sleepless night, and the liquor he had immediately, and perhaps unadvisedly, though necessarily, consumed upon his arrival home just after dawn, combining to produce an odd sensation of bodily numbness and simultaneous heady giddiness.
He had tried calling a cab, his own car having been set afire the night before along with the several others parked along the street across from the court house, the remains of which were still smoldering at first light when he’d finally summoned the courage to depart the relative safety of his office and make his way as quickly as he could afoot across town to his small but comfortable house, but finding the switchboard circuits busy, Levi Steinem had made the decision at once to abandon the idea of calling a cab, and taking up his suitcase and hat had left his house of the last two years for good.
The National Guard, which had arrived and begun occupying the streets of the city just after midnight, were patrolling in force, each block bringing Levi Steinem into passing contact with several or more of the soldiers, policing in loose groups, their rifles unslung before them, and with each National Guardsman he passed Levi Steinem felt, and mechanically obeyed, the inexplicable urge to doff his hat; so it was that as he made his way briskly toward the train station he was almost continually removing and replacing his hat, aware of the vague feeling of absurd gentility the act inspired, juxtaposed as it was in his mind with the incomprehensible barbarism of the previous night.
Though the two tumblers of rye he’d consumed upon arriving home had steadied his nerves somewhat, as he made his way along, walking quickly, his suitcase swinging and striking against his leg, repeatedly removing and replacing his hat, Levi Steinem was still plagued by the indelibly seared images of the horror of the night before, witnessed through the window of his office overlooking the court house in the square at the center of town, questioning, as he had throughout the dark predawn hours of early morning, trapped, fires blazing below in the street, screaming, shouting, shots ringing out, whether or not he should have done something, whether or not there was anything he could have done that would have made any difference; others, braver than him, he readily admitted, having tried to do something, but to no avail.
He wondered how many had died.
Shuddering, he doffed his hat yet again to a group of soldiery, who like all the others eyed him with a look of what he took to be suspicion, though they, like the others, permitted him to pass unmolested.
He reached the train station at precisely twenty-two minutes after seven, just in time to catch the seven-thirty departing Omaha north for Sioux City, for which he purchased a ticket despite the fact his determined destination was east, back home to New York, for Levi Steinem would’ve taken a train bound all way for the west coast if it had been the only one available. He would catch a proper train headed east when he reached Sioux City, he thought, making his way down the surprisingly empty platform; he had imagined that the station would be inundated with half the city trying to escape in one mass exodus after the hellish insanity of the previous night.
In America, he thought, as he unsteadily mounted the steps of his train car, his legs trembling after the uncustomary exertion of the several miles he’d sojourned since dawn; in America, the thought was an internal exclamation half incredulity and half horror: In America.
He wanted to sleep, the adrenal rush of his successful escape quickly having dissipated once safely aboard the train, leaving him utterly exhausted, but the irrepressible visions of what he had seen bombarded his consciousness in a continual, unwelcome visitation of indiscriminate violence, flames, and blackened flesh, accompanied by augmenting sensatory recollections of smoke, gunfire, and the terrible, hateful, vociferous collective voice of the demonically possessed, combining to prevent him from closing his eyes in peaceful repose as he so desperately desired, trembling uncontrollably as he did with each subsequent tormenting recollection; but he ordered several more ryes, drinking each as quickly as he could manage, and eventually he succeeded in losing consciousness and he slept.
Michael speaks with Mildred…
“Well, Michael, will the timber industry be going on strike as well? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite so ridiculous! But of course Henry doesn’t think it funny in the least, and he’s absolutely right, as usual. He’s been saying it as long as I’ve known him, before then even; he’s been on the record since Haymarket at least. We need to lock up the boarders and throw away the key! But come, won’t you take something to drink?”
It was mid-July, 1919, and the speaker was Mrs. Mildred Preston, a dignified, well-known society woman of sixty-three, whose husband, Andrew, was the co-founder and CEO of United Fruit, while her sister was married to the sitting U.S. Senator Lodge from Massachusetts referenced above. With these words she greeted Mr. Michael Willets, a respected, self-made timber tycoon, the first to arrive at her soiree that evening at her penthouse overlooking Fifth Avenue.
“I’ll have a brandy, thank you,” replied Michael, laughing disarmingly at his hostess’s bombardment as he was ushered into the sitting room by the liveried butler Mrs. Mildred Preston kept. Mr. Michael Willet’s voice was deep, and he spoke with carefully measured control; his laugh, too, was calculate—or had once been; by now it had developed into a reflexive response whenever spoken to by society members such as Mrs. Mildred Preston, members of the old-money class, who, while he had begun regularly rubbing elbows with since moving to the city five years previous from San José, made him feel infinitely self-conscious of his nouveau riche status. Furthering his sense of insecurity was the fact their set invariably talked politics, of which he had none, knew little, and further had been raised in a home in which it was considered ill-mannered to talk about such things.
“Bolsheviks on every boat, stirring up the minorities. That’s what Henry says,” Mrs. Mildred Preston continued, as Michael took the plush cloth chair beside the leather divan, on the end of which his hostess was seated. “It’s an issue of national security. They killed President McKinley, for goodness’ sake, a good, God-fearing man! And did you read they bombed the Attorney General’s house? Or, they tried to at least—the poor maid, they say she lost both her arms. And the strikes! You should have seen Andrew during the Seattle General. He was in such a state. Can you imagine how much product would’ve been lost if Mayor Hanson hadn’t stepped in? I say the worst classes of Europe are invading our shores: Communists, Socialists, Atheists, Anarchists, Bolsheviks, Jews, and Papists of every color. Where do you suppose these bombers have all come from? I’m half terrified to open my mail in the morning! The Great War is over, yet the nation still bleeds. God help us!” she declared, tilting her gaze heavenward.
Michael, sensing its inappropriateness in that particular instance, repressed his reflexive laugh, instead somberly nodding as the butler delivered his drink.
“Is Andrew here?” he asked, hoping to divert the conversation and so more quickly get to presenting the proposition he had arrived early at the party in the hopes of privately conferring.
His hostess shook her head.
“He’s in the Capital putting in his two cents on the matter, which aren’t inconsiderable,” she added, as though to preemptively contravene him in the event he was inclined to believe otherwise; but not being sure what exactly ‘the matter’ was, and probably having no real convictions one way or the other anyway, Michael let out his light, easy laugh and inclined his head to show he was in complete agreement.
“Of course,” he clarified, in case there had been any misunderstanding, which he felt under normal circumstances would’ve been a disaster, and certainly prior to begging the favor which he was at present urgently aware of needing would have amounted to utter catastrophe, offending his esteemed and connected hostess.
“Of course you were probably wanting to talk to him,” she said. “Some business matter no doubt. You can cable his office in Washington, or you could perhaps try ringing the club. He almost always eats at the Gridiron.”
“No, no it’s nothing important, only the pleasure of his erudite company,” Michael said, carefully pronouncing one of the three words he had picked out from the dictionary that morning and carefully studied and practiced in preparation for the evening.
“Well,” Mrs. Mildred Preston said, smiling widely. “If that’s the case you’ll be pleased to meet Andrew’s cousin, James. He only just got back a month ago from the Continent.”
“What was he doing there?” inquired Michael.
“After the war he decided to tour the coast of Spain before coming home.”
“That sounds lovely,” Michael complimented, though he had never been to the coast of Spain, not even seen a painting or photograph, in fact; but he imagined the coast everywhere looked pretty much alike, picturing crystalline blue water rolling up on pristine white beaches like in Monterey. He was relieved, however, at the opportunity having naturally presented itself to introduce the topic of his only son, having been forlornly resigned upon his arrival to awkwardly foisting the matter upon his hostess with no tact or social grace at all. “My Andrew is just back as well,” he said, trying to maintain a casual, conversational calm, though within him his heart had accelerated wildly at the sudden thrusting of his opportunity upon him.
“My congratulations to you,” Mrs. Mildred Preston said. “He is a fine man you’ve raised, who has served his country, and the civilized world, with honor. Mary is smiling down proudly, I know.”
Michael’s wife, Mary, having stood lovingly and unwaveringly by him as he’d relentlessly fought his way to the top, from the poor, prospective Massachusetts venture capitalist she’d married to the one who’d risked his entire inheritance, a five hundred dollar life insurance policy paid out following his father’s death, to purchase a three hundred acre tract of uninhabited forest, primarily composed of California Redwoods, in the mountains above San José, which over thirty years he had navigated through multiple recessions and panics until they’d crested the final wave and landed on the shore of secure prosperity, their initial harvests, subsequent reinvestments, and diversifications yielding the kind of wealth which would provide permanent financial security in their old age, and to their posterity onward, only to have his loyal and loving life-companion taken brutally from him in the span of three deliriously fevered nights the year before, when the Spanish flu had descended, and which was still a spot of easily inflamed ache within his heart.
“Thank you,” he said, concealing his rekindled suffering behind a mask of gratitude and agreement, not wanting to cause his hostess discomfort at the thought she’d upset him with what he was sure was meant as a loftily ennobled remembrance, especially as the two, Mildred and Mary, had been friends, or at least close social acquaintances, frequently going to luncheons or playing bridge together the past five years since they, Michael and Mary, had begun keeping up a permanent residence in the city. “Though, I must confess,” he continued, leaning in confidentially; though unnecessarily, he recognized too late, them being alone but for the butler; but it seeming awkward to pull back having drawn in to such an intimate distance, he continued hurriedly: “To you, privately, he worries me.”
“As do all children their parents at one point or another,” Mrs. Mildred Preston said, sagaciously.
“Of that there can be no question,” Michael averred, hastily. “But some worries weigh heavier than others, do they not?”
“Without doubt,” she conceded. “Tell me then, what is your particular worry at present?”
“If only!” he exclaimed in a hushed tone, his eyes darting back toward the hallway, through which he’d passed from the foyer, making sure no signs of other guests arriving were apparent. “It has been my worrisome companion every waking moment these long years, a shadow haunting my steps, reminding the absence of my son, reminding the danger I knew he was doubtlessly mired in. Like you, the daily delivery of the mail has been an experience of pure terror, frightened when there were no letters but equally petrified at the sight of letters, that one would be a letter not from Andrew, but about Andrew; the Army writing he’d been killed in action. Or the gas! Have you seen some of them walking about the streets? The poor souls. Now he has come back to me, whole and hale, only to announce his intention to go and fight to put back the Russian Czar!”
“Good heavens!” exclaimed Mrs. Mildred Preston, crossing herself vigorously. “But the Czar is dead, God keep he and his poor family!”
“He insists it does not matter,” Michael answered. “That they will raise up another.”
“I see,” Mrs. Mildred Preston said, adjusting her position upon the divan. “But in any case then he means to fight the Bolsheviks?”
“It is not an unconscionable thing to do,” Mrs. Mildred Preston said, deliberately; she then added with reverence: “Some would declare it the Christian duty of men who feel so called, to fight the godless.”
“Well,” Michael began, wringing his hands, his general nervousness regarding the affair, the gravity it had assumed in his mind looming large, now intensified by the unwelcome tack the conversation was steering, the matter being cast in an entirely different light than what he had expected; he did his best to keep steady at the wheel, trying quickly to reorganize his attack. “It is exactly his motivation which I question,” Michael said. “He writes of military life as though it suits him greatly. I will not share some of what he said to me in his letters, both on account of not wanting to disappoint your estimations of him, for he is a good Christian man, as you say, and also not to embarrass myself by giving them utterance, but suffice it to say from his correspondences, and from speaking with him since he arrived home, he is determined to evade his responsibilities to his family in favor of a, what he calls, ‘soldier’s life!’ He is twenty-three years old. I think it’s high time he began to fulfill his obligations on the home front. Look at me, Mildred. I am an old man,” he said, spreading his hands plaintively. “With no other heirs. The managing of a conglomerate is no small thing, as you well know. And the industry of this nation is—is what keeps the fires of Christian Democracy ablaze!” he finished emphatically, inspirationally seizing upon the phrase he’d heard uttered several times by their shared Pastor, Douglas Wilson, feeling brilliantly at having been able to successfully steer the course of their conversation back onto the plane he had anticipated and for which he had studiously prepared.
“Hm. Indeed. I daresay I do know it better than most,” Mrs. Mildred Preston admitted, and after a few moment’s thought continued, speaking in a way he felt suggested she had some measure of the thing at hand: “The President,” she began. “Theodore, that is, had the same difficulty after Cuba. Absent the thrill of battle life seemed to him emptier, everything meaning just a little bit less than it could or should. He spoke to me about it at dinner one evening, and if I were you I’d tell your Andrew the same thing I told the President: that feeling is vanity, the vanity war breeds in men, believing that by conquering they are themselves unconquerable, but that there is only One Unconquerable, and all else is blasphemy, those who espouse it’s doctrine blasphemers, and damned in the eyes of Him. But His glory will be theirs who accept the talents He has bestowed upon them are needed for greater good elsewhere, and serves his fellow man thusly, despite his prideful desires.”
Completely unsure how to answer such a grandiloquently stated theological proposition, Michael shifted in his chair and nodded vigorously, feeling he understood at least part of the last bit of what his hostess had said.
“I’ve spoken with him about his duty to the country as a future business leader,” he said. “But he insists he cares nothing about it, that he only came home because of the distress he knew his absence had caused me in wake of mother’s—Mary’s—death, but that he would be leaving within the month for Russia! When he would be back he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say.”
“A difficult situation,” Mrs. Mildred Preston said, after another moment’s pause, adjusting the pillow supporting her lower back. “What is it you need from me, Michael? Name it and I shall endeavor to do my best to lend assistance; or is it only the sympathetic ear of a wife and mother, one who knows the troubles of those who remain behind while their loved ones go off and fight on behalf of Christian civilization, which you need?”
“It is of course, a generous thing to offer,” Michael said, carefully. “But the thing I ask is more of the former, a social favor.”
“Go on,” she encouraged.
“I believe you are on good terms with Ms. Lynette du Pont?”
“To my knowledge. She is a good girl, and my third cousin twice removed.”
“Will she be here this evening?”
“I extended her an invitation and know of no reason why she would not be in attendance.”
“Excellent. My son will be here as well. I would be greatly in your debt if you could see to their introduction personally.”
“May I enquire as to what end?”
Deciding to put the matter plainly, as it were, on the table, he told her thusly:
“Andrew told me once, while he was in college, that if he were ever to marry, the woman should be Ms. du Pont.”
“You hope to ensnare him with love?” questioned Mrs. Mildred Preston, a note of amusement in her tone.
Angered by her apparent bemusement, Michael successfully bit back his impassioned reflexive response: “I just want my son to live,” and instead answered carefully:
“I hope he will recognize his neglected obligations, perhaps abetted in part by your cousin’s charm.”
Mrs. Mildred Preston let out a short burst of her sweetly tinkling laugh.
“She is certainly an attractive young woman of charm and sophistication. A good fit on the surface, certainly, your money, her name, though I am surprised he doesn’t simply approach her himself. It is apparently the custom of young people nowadays to be quite forward.”
Here Michael was torn, but decided to divulge the truth of the matter.
“I suggested it, but he says he will not marry.” The immediate look of horrified shock on Mrs. Mildred Preston’s face greatly worried Michael and he quickly added: “But it is a ploy, a protection, I sense. He fears her rejection, and knows that by being near her again he will become sick with feelings of love so strong he won’t be able to bear it, and so scorns the idea all together!”
“Oh dear,” Mrs. Mildred Preston said, her face, as he had spoken, having gradually assumed the appearance of hardened concerned. “So blinded by vanity and pride. That mustn’t be. The world needs more White Protestant men,” she murmured as though to herself, then firmly and looking him squarely in the eyes: “I will of course make their reintroduction this evening. They know one another well then, I take it?”
“I was given to understood from Andrew they came to be on familiar terms the short while he was at school.”
“Will he be in uniform this evening?”
“The young ladies find them very fashionable,” she said, nodding approvingly.
Michael again had to restrain himself, this time from an outburst of: “Not hanging off a one-armed, disfigured cripple they don’t!” and instead evenly replied:
“Hardy encouraging news.”
“Now don’t despair, Michael,” chided Mrs. Mildred Preston. “The young are passionate after all, and so the lure of physical attraction shouldn’t be so bemoaned. But on the count of his being in uniform I must add, as an aside, that I don’t wholly disapprove of your son’s decision, but as you say his reasons must be in accordance with His will, not his own. And beyond which, I have a mother’s heart and understand your trepidation at the prospect of his further military service, as well as your earnestness in trying to arrange a suitable marriage. I will do what I can for you, and for Mary’s memory.”
Her closing statement hit Michael as he’d already begun to relax, relived the first part of his purpose had been achieved, and her parting shot again struck that wound of permanent sorrow which he suspected would never heal.
The charming musical chime of a clock somewhere signaled the arrival of the six o’clock hour as a faint knocking on the door in the next room through the hall announced the arrival of more guests, rescuing Michael from having to respond. Smiling, Mrs. Mildred Preston offered him her hand and allowed him to help her up so she could begin greeting her new guests, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze before letting go to play her part as hostess.
The twenty minutes following the arrival of the six o’clock hour saw the spacious penthouse of Mrs. Mildred Preston grow pleasantly crowded with a variety of her favorite acquaintances and their escorts. Most of the men made their way to the lounge and set up shop, while the sitting room served as the general social milling ground for the married and marriageable women, along with a handful of eligible young men and a few of the more attentive husbands.
The French doors in the sitting room opening out onto the wide balcony overlooking the street had been propped open and the cool night breeze gently circulated the warm summer air within. Everywhere the melodious bubbling of polite conversation reached her ears, and surveying the sitting room Mrs. Mildred Preston was quite satisfied.
Experience taught a seasoned society woman to only ever invite enough guests to comfortably utilize three quarters of a hostess’s available space, as inevitably certain invitees, usually the young eligible women in their first or second season, tended to trail along with them a small retinue comprised half of close female confidants and half hopeful suitors.
So it was that the arrival of the solicited eighteen year old Ms. Rebecca Hearst had included the company of the charming Ms. Susanne Lee, also eighteen years of age, whose father was a banker at J.P. Morgan, along with three young Yale men, none of any significant name, but each groomed and dressed impeccably, and each greeting their hostess decorously, thereby earning Mrs. Mildred Preston’s immediate approval.
Appearing just after the Hearst party had been the esteemed New York state Senator Dean Wilcox and his wife, Diana, declaring apologetically at the outset they must depart early on account of the Senator having to put in a showing at the birthday celebration of the American Ambassador to Guatemala later that evening.
Among the first comers had been her husband’s second cousin twice removed, James Carrington, a particular favorite of her husband. She had not seen James since before he left for the war, but he had warmly greeted her as his “Dear Cousin Mildred,” and brought with him James Whitmore from The Journal, a quiet, polite man, whose acquaintance she had made several times before at various functions.
Pastor Wilson and his wife, Susanne, were able put in an appearance as well, much to Mrs. Mildred Preston’s delight, though they too said they would be begging off early on account of Susanne still recovering from her mysterious illness, which had plagued her the preceding week and which was why their even being there had come as such a pleasant surprise, having received a message the day before from Susanne saying she thought she might not make it the following evening.
Lynette du Pont had come punctually, bringing with her James Alexander, a quiet, twenty-five year old Wall Street man from Goldman Sachs, while among the last to arrive had been the anticipated Andrew Willets, who had appeared at quarter after the hour, bringing with him a young Russian aristocrat whom he had introduced as the Viscount Émile Kuragaín, a recent émigré to America following the revolution in his own country and a short stay in France where he had initially fled.
The novel and unexpected attraction of the exiled Russian aristocrat had quickly formed around it a natural cluster of interested interlocutors; and though it quickly became apparent he spoke only the roughest of pidgin English, the Viscount seemed at ease being bombarded by her other guest’s fascinated questions about his, and his former country’s, plight.
Keeping an eye on both Andrew and Lynette, watching for an opening wherein she could naturally insert the two into one another’s presence, Mrs. Mildred Preston played the well-practiced role of perfect hostess, moving fluidly from conversational group to group, ensuring exchanges were flowing smoothly, adding a word here or there where she thought necessary, like a Centurion moving up and down the line, watching for any sign of flagging in the ranks in order to immediately go and restore things to their proper harmony, the civilized order of interesting, polite, and conventional conversational party etiquette.
It was around six-thirty when Mrs. Mildred Preston spied the signs that conversation between Ms. Lynette du Pont and the loquacious, and admittedly rather sententious, Mr. Charles Montgomery, was drawing to a natural close; while standing to the back of the sizeable group formed around the Viscount Kuragaín, staring vacantly into the space in the corner somewhere near the ceiling, Mr. Andrew Willets was quite unoccupied, and taking him familiarly by the arm by way of introduction, Mrs. Mildred Preston guided him leisurely away from the Viscount’s group.
“I hope you won’t think it too presumptive of me,” Mrs. Mildred Preston said to Andrew, who in reaction to his being pulled suddenly back into the corporeal world from his stultified dazing seemed indifferent to their course, allowing himself to be guided around the other guests with ease. “You probably don’t even recall having met me. It was only once, and before the war.”
“It was at a diner for the Bull Moose Party in 1914. I went as my mother’s escort. I remember you, Mrs. Preston.”
His way of speaking struck her as mechanical, his tone hard and sharp, altogether militaristic, she decided, befitting the pale blue uniform, replete with highly polished, round, gold buttons, which he wore handsomely with his broad, athletic physique and neat mustaches.
“I’m glad to have made such a memorable impression, or else you have a naturally sharp memory.”
To her compliment he said nothing but nodded to show he had heard what she said, all the while continuing to allow himself to be steered onward toward Ms. Lynette du Pont, whom Mrs. Mildred Preston could see was watching their meandering but steady approach over the shoulder of the departing Mr. Charles Montgomery.
“I’ve recently learned you were the collegiate acquaintance of a certain fascinatingly charming lady of society, who I happen to know quite well—” she began.
“—I am well aware of Ms. du Pont’s presence here this evening,” Andrew interceded, his voice unchanging. “Moreover I have every reason to suspect my father’s insistence upon coming here separately this evening was so he could arrive early and try to convince you to do just what you are doing now.”
“And what is it you are accusing me of?”
“Forcing my company upon Ms. du Pont.”
“Would it be so terrible?”
“For her, I believe so.”
“She doesn’t appear to be backing away,” Mrs. Mildred Preston said, indicating the waiting Lynette, who was now plainly watching them, holding herself with her usual imperious grace and bearing, though Mrs. Mildred Preston thought she detected a unfamiliar coolness in her gaze.
“Her back is against the wall,” Andrew replied. “Retreat in such a way is hardly possible.”
“Well,” Mrs. Mildred Preston said, brusquely, put off by his curt dismissiveness. “She is not seizing upon a utensil and attempting to tunnel her way through.”
They had arrived within earshot, their conversation up to that point having been exchanged at a volume too quiet to be distinguished above the general murmur of party conversation, and coming to a stop directly in front of the waiting Ms. Lynette du Pont, Mrs. Mildred Preston intuited no words of introduction needed be said, and she left Andrew standing alone before her, departing torn, for on the one hand it would doubtlessly be a magnificent wedding, one at which she would command a prominent position as their matchmaker; on the other hand there would be one less man out in the world killing Bolsheviks; but she consoled herself by thinking that in such an event there would also come a brood of lovely Protestant children from their union, on which she knew the future prosperity of America, and the world, so desperately depended.
It is in God’s hands now, Mrs. Mildred Preston thought, as she directed her attention back to her other guests; may His will be done!
From the Author: I hope you enjoyed reading. The rest of Under the Red White and Blue is available at Amazon.com in paperback or e book. You can find it by searching Under the Red White and Blue by J.S. Mullen