The Wingback Chair (short story)
Guest Post by David Bellin
You might be surprised to learn that in a marriage between two people who love each other deeply one of them, the wife in this case, is quite capable of concealing a private resentment from the other.
Or perhaps you wouldn’t be surprised.
That implies a bit of experience on your part so I’ll proceed, confident you’ll see why a tall, graceful and much pursued young lady, Melissa Beale by name, would give herself joyfully to a shorter, somewhat rotund man twelve years her senior, Malcolm Witherspoon, who resembled a pigeon.
Well, you say, there must have been a bit of hawk in him also, to attract a desirable woman.
You are experienced.
And hawk there was in Malcolm, made known in those moments when the gentle fluttering vanished, his head jutted forward, his eyes narrowed and it was clear this man would have his way in those matters he truly cared about.
She saw it first when he told her father that Andrew Jackson was wrong in eliminating the Second Bank, that the loss of unified currency would encourage speculators and erode the nation’s economy. He followed with specific examples of nearby merchants whose profits for the coming year, 1834, would be threatened by the inability to set future rates.
Melissa was little impressed by such faraway concepts as future rates but acutely impressed by the five seconds of silence after Malcolm’s words. Never in her memory had her father been speechless that long in any debate, and the opponent was not even one of his moneyed friends, someone whose opinion had a measure of wealth to support it, but a young priest, newly ordained in their Episcopal parish and invited as a routine courtesy to tea.
It was a delicious interval. She was sitting quietly in the drawing room with her mother, the men just outside at the threshold of the veranda, silhouettes visible through gauzy drapes, and a glance flashed between the two women that said, “Oh?”
In the older woman it bespoke gleeful satisfaction but there’s little purpose in pursuing that here. More to our point, in the younger woman it bespoke a stirring within, followed by a faint reddening of fair cheeks without, and the emergence of the most implausible idea. I mean, really, Melissa, she murmured into her fan, he comes up to your eyebrows, what will that look like at the wedding?
It looked just fine, of course. By then, Malcolm was measured by his stature in the pulpit and that was commanding, indeed. Did I mention our setting was Savannah, that sheltered seaport where endless bales of cotton departed and endless bales of money arrived? Blessed by such bounty, the parish church, St. Thomas, had grown into one of those monumental Anglican structures of endless stained glass, vaulted ceiling, polished mahogany pews, two-tiered choir gallery and a chancel that seemed both a mile away and treetop high, a place where even a tall priest might be dwarfed…but not Malcolm.
Facing his congregation, he occupied the space as Gabriel himself might, delivering sermons of uncommon clarity in a voice that filled even the distant narthex. More, unlike his predecessors who dithered when faced with congregational squabbles over committee appointments or choir selections, Malcolm handled such matters instantly, with sensible solutions reinforced, if necessary, by a formidable glint of the eye.
And so at the wedding, the attending priest might well have been saying “I now pronounce you cathedral and wife” for all that the actual difference in height mattered. In truth, of course, Melissa did wed the edifice that was St. Thomas by marrying its master.
She was content with that, especially since a church must include a vicarage to house the priest and his family. The parish being as prosperous as it was, the St. Thomas vicarage was none of your cottage-like afterthoughts to the main building but a brick manse of a dozen rooms, all sun-filled and spacious, all opening on a veranda or balcony, and all gleaming with mirrors and china cabinets and veneered table-tops and love seats and paintings and pottery and trellised doorways on a scale to make Queen Anne herself feel at home.
It certainly made Melissa feel that way. She wandered about in the sweet embrace of the familiar, planning to switch the placement of a desk and a bookcase and possibly put brighter drapery sashes in a few rooms, the sort her mother always knew where to find – nothing radical, just tiny touches here and there, and perhaps she could arrange a more prominent location for one particular chair, a delicate little wingback, so much like the one in her family front parlor, a childhood favorite, the same rose fabric, the same subtle inward slant to the sides to preserve body warmth (my chair wants to hug me!), the same stubby cabriole legs, the same silly padded feet…
“It’s way past time to sweep all this out and put in very simple pine and cherrywood furnishings, isn’t it?” asked Malcom.
New husbands, even the most caring, will misread moods with breathtaking blindness.
From all the replies swirling through Melissa’s mind, she selected the one that seemed shrewdest.
“Of course, dear, and we would do it if the church weren’t so grand, but we can’t have visitors stepping from a palace into, well, a farmhouse.”
“Aha!” answered Malcolm. “Why not?”
A sermon followed, delivered to a congregation of one by a preacher with head thrust forward and voice firm, radiating conviction that a church must present a majestic front to properly frame the word of God and celebrate His glory, while a priest, who is only God’s instrument, must present himself simply and humbly. Consider the example of their own Episcopal church, he exhorted, with its blend of Latinate opulence and Lutheran modesty.
He smiled in artless triumph at the power of this illustration and Melissa smiled back, but not at her husband’s learned example, which she heard but dimly. She smiled instead at the involuntary way the preacher held the congregation’s hand as he orated, bestowing feathery caresses first to palm, then to shoulder, then to chin, then to cheek, then back to hand, where the circuit would begin anew.
She regarded the remarkable scene: Malcolm’s forceful side, so publicly applauded, and Malcolm’s tender side, a new bride’s secret treasure, both on display at once and both directed at her and her alone.
The hollow place inside her began to fill. Furniture, she told herself, just furniture. She might honestly enjoy selecting new pine and cherrywood items. Just furniture, except – she tried to resist the thought – except for the little chair with the padded feet.
“Which item should we keep for comparison between old and new?” she asked casually.
“Why none of them, my love. It would look as if we were inviting judgment of the former priests.”
“Of course, dear.”
“Merely exploring my home, a natural thing to do,” she explained to an imaginary questioner as she wandered the cavernous attic. Not needed for living space with all the rooms below, the area had become a repository for assorted mysterious shapes beneath faded muslin sheets. Cautiously lifting the musty cloths, she uncovered dented steamer trunks, a pair of doorless armoires, a cracked lectern, a six-foot long mural of the Savannah river, a jib from some small sailing craft, a spinning wheel missing its pedal, several rusty lampstands, a Revolutionary War musket rack and – cheerful discovery – boxes of wooden toys, ready for play. Just a little dusting…
That could wait, of course. More important right now was a location she spotted beneath one of the attic’s narrow dormered windows, a place where light filtered down, enough light for sewing or crocheting or the moments of meditation and personal prayer a priest’s wife should be granted.
Malcolm left her in complete charge of the refurnishing, so it was easy enough to spirit the little chair upstairs during the moving days, especially since the workers were slaves borrowed from Melissa’s family, long-time house servants who no doubt saw the resemblance to her prized wingback at home. When she said nothing about it, neither did they and the chair went to the attic in conspiratorial silence.
Melissa, a social animal from the cradle, now began to find occasional solitude a companion. As a pastor’s wife, of course, she was the organizer of teas, women’s meetings, charity projects, dinners – not to mention her continuing role as the belle of the showy parties her own family favored – and she handled it all with cheery and genuine excitement, an excitement spiced by the universal esteem for her husband. She placed herself at Malcolm’s side as much as she could during these affairs, basking with innocent pleasure in the attention they drew.
At the same time, there were those tiptoe climbs to the attic now and again when Malcolm was occupied at church, a retreat for Melissa into the dulcet light of the dormered window and the gentle arms of her little wingback, crochet pattern and a book of psalms in hand, for an hour or so of reflection – connecting is the way she saw it, linking herself to Malcom to St. Thomas to God to the future – finding a unity that left her peacefully fulfilled.
The birth of Malcolm Junior halted the retreats. The dusty toys came down from the attic, a comforting reminder to Melissa of what lay overhead but no trips were made during the child’s early years, the lure of the attic far outweighed by the delight of nurturing, and sometimes simply watching, this exceptional little boy of hers. His physique, long and supple, was clearly his mother’s and his mental grasp, astonishingly quick and precocious, just as clearly from his father. One day at naptime, when the house was quiet and she had put her son in his crib, she found herself actually waltzing across the room in joy at this rosy-cheeked validation of her union with Malcolm.
This child turned out to be the only one they would have, a condition that brought some wistful longing to the couple at times, but those moments vanished quickly. The doctor had found an irregular heartbeat in Melissa while she was carrying little Malcolm, giving some concern about future deliveries and, to be candid, little Malcolm was so bright, so handsome and so loving that he filled the days; it was hard to imagine sharing time with any siblings.
Formal education started with his sixth year. Tutors took over the mornings and then most afternoons as well, and Melissa re-discovered the attic, slipping up the stairs two or three times a week for an hour by the window, wishing she had been more forceful in persuading Malcolm to delay the onset of schooling, hoping he would indulge her, yet knowing he was right to insist and loving him as always for his decisiveness. The regret subsided under the soothing words of psalms read half aloud and then the busy work of fingers and needle at the crochet pattern. Silly and selfish, she told herself. There was still plenty of time left in the week for play and walks and carriage rides and splashing about at the riverside.
The truly painful test came when the boy was fourteen, already taller than Melissa, and ready – even eager – to leave for the preparatory school that Malcolm had decreed and that she had accepted with outward serenity. What choice was there? She closed her mind to futile imagining that Savannah had a proper school for him; it simply didn’t and so they would take him to Augusta, one hundred and ten miles away, and leave him there.
She took what comfort she could from knowing that the priest who headmastered the school was an old seminary friend of Malcolm’s, the students were carefully chosen, the classrooms and living quarters were roomy and comfortable, the busy Savannah river flowed between the two cities like a lifeline and there would be frequent visits back and forth.
I’m sure you’re wondering if Malcolm remained stony and dogmatic through all this. On the way back from depositing the boy, they stood together on the steamer’s rear deck when it left the Augusta pier. Although Malcolm shunned public exhibitions as clearly unsuitable for a man wearing a clerical collar, on this day he astonished Melissa by suddenly slipping his arm around her waist and pulling her close until they were downriver and the city was well out of view.
The choice for college, four years later, was obvious for a lad so promising: William and Mary, the jewel of Southern universities, obvious, yes, but in Virginia, six hundred miles away, with visits measured in months, not weeks.
They held hands tightly, Malcolm and Melissa, returning in a railroad car too crowded for any other display, Malcolm telling her repeatedly that William and Mary’s divinity school was the ideal place for their son, naming the renowned faculty members who would be teaching him, proclaiming over and over how gifted a boy must be in order to qualify until Melissa brushed his cheek with a finger and they rode on in quiet.
After the first parting, four years earlier, Melissa had filled her calendar with women’s meetings and luncheons and charity visits, carefully leaving gaps for time in the wingback chair. Now, she placed a Book of Common Prayer in the attic along with the psalm book and passed more moments meditating, connecting, than crocheting. She took Malcolm Junior’s letters also – he was that rare youth who wrote home faithfully – and she held them to the light, reading, re-reading and handling the sheets of paper. She would manage this new separation, she told herself.
With daily resolution, she did, but by Malcolm Junior’s final year, she was like a spring uncoiling, busily planning the homecoming party two months in advance. More, forcing herself to be realistic about her son’s age, she started to assess the marriageable young women of Savannah, trying to imagine one worthy of him.
These daydreams would shatter, along with millions of others, for the year was 1861 and the month was April. I know you will immediately picture the twelfth day of that month, the violently idiotic day when secessionists fired at Fort Sumter.
The message from Malcolm Junior was hasty and brief. The college would arrange a brevet lieutenant’s commission in a Virginia cavalry unit so he could start training immediately, rather than lose time coming home and seeking a Georgia appointment. He would keep them informed.
He did, sketchily. Assigned to General Longstreet’s corps, present at Bull Run, Second Bull Run, promoted to Captain, then on to Suffolk and Gettysburg, promoted to Major, on to Chattanooga and there the letters stopped. They had never contained battle details, deliberately, of course, but the very names smelled of smoke and blood, and the promotions told of risks taken, personal safety ignored, everything they expected, everything they dreaded.
The Chattanooga letter was dated November, 1863. Malcolm paced the vicarage rooms, writing inquiries with no mail system to carry them, planning trips to Chattanooga made impossible with the railroads crippled and Sherman’s implacable army on the march. They shared fearful nights of prayer, Melissa sometimes taking the lead, the instigator for the first time in their marriage, giving reassurance to Malcolm and a sense of purpose to herself.
They were sitting on the veranda one August evening in 1864 when a constable brought them a visitor, a skeletal young man in a heavily patched sergeant’s uniform. He had been asking in town for the Reverend Witherspoon.
Sweet tea served, faces invisible in the growing dusk, Malcolm and Melissa heard the sergeant’s story of his escape from the Union army prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland, where Major Witherspoon had been shipped after being wounded and captured at Chattanooga, and where he had died last month.
In answer to Malcolm’s question, he said Yes, he had been present, there was no doubt, I’m so sorry, Reverend.
Melissa held on for three weeks.
It’s that lifelong condition of hers, said the doctor, writing cardiac arrest in Latin on the death certificate, there being no medical term for brokenhearted mother.
The bishop came to conduct the funeral and the Sunday services while Malcolm sat rigid in a pew. He sat the same way in the vicarage parlor for a few days, intoning barely audible gratitude to those from the congregation and the city who came to call.
By the following Sunday, he was again in the pulpit, preaching with the same power and lucidity as before, although a suggestion of harshness crept into his voice from time to time. In church meetings and visits, the more observant congregants caught an occasional clenching of hands or silent tapping of feet.
A housekeeper was found, the mother of one of the servant girls, a stocky and white-haired woman named Mrs. Finch who, in common with every efficient housekeeper, examined the house carefully on the first day, all of the house.
Descending from the attic, she asked Malcolm if he wanted to keep everything stored there.
“I don’t know what’s there. My wife took care of such things.”
“Well, much of it is useful,” said Mrs. Finch with delicacy. “It might be sold or given to charity. We could have tradesmen in to look it over, except for the pretty little chair the missus used for prayer and her crocheting. That’s too nice to part with, I should think.”
Malcolm stood over the chair, visualizing, comprehending. There were no detectable tears but people handle these things differently, as you know. Assume with me there were inward tears of discovery, of guilt, of yearning and of joy, yes, joy, at this unexpected gift.
The wingback went into his study, next to his oversized reading chair, the place where he spent his most private hours. He kept the items Melissa had left on the little chair – crochet patterns, books, letters – exactly as he found them. He shifted his own chair so the wingback could easily be seen when he looked up from a page. That’s as far as he went, so you needn’t fret about the chair becoming a shrine and the scene descending into melodrama. Malcolm, after all, was a priest and he knew that objects are not to be worshipped.
Nevertheless, he marveled at the way this bit of wood and fabric had metamorphosed into a hidden symbol of resistance and then into a sanctuary for prayer, patience and renewal. He contemplated the little wingback, trying to remember just where it had been among the ornate furnishings, able to recall only the personal sermon he had delivered to Melissa about simplicity, more nervous than he revealed – preaching to your bride was not taught in seminary – but certain that a clergyman must take the lead in marriage just as he did with his congregation.
He left the vicarage for the church, avoiding the chancel door, walking to the public entrance instead. He knelt in the back row and prayed for over an hour.
It was not long before parishioners noticed that visits were different. When Malcolm came to call, or when they went to the vicarage, he lingered over the coffee and little plum cakes without checking the clock, chatting on with them about the weather and their children and their gardens and how lovely the parks and riverside looked again, now that Sherman was gone.
The suggestion of harshness in Malcolm’s voice disappeared, the clenching hands and restless feet also. The Sunday messages were subtly different. One deacon asked another if there weren’t more references to Psalms these days.
At church meetings about the scheduling of events or the allotment of funds or the perpetual disagreements over choir selections, more opinions were heard, even encouraged. Eventually, Malcolm would propose a logical solution, just as before, but absent the glint in the eye.
Said an older member to his wife, “He’s the same Reverend Witherspoon. I mean there’s no doubt who’s in charge, except it’s, well, easier.”
“He listens more,” she said.
The congregation, which had always admired Reverend Witherspoon, the priest, now began to appreciate Malcolm Witherspoon, the man. It was common to hear people praise God for the way He can pull a good work out of a terrible tragedy.
Sophisticate that you are, you’ll shrug that off, I know.
Don’t ask me why, but I wish you wouldn’t.
The Wingback Chair
Copyright 2012 by David Bellin
David Bellin is a retired TV and advertising executive. He and his wife live in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. The Wingback Chair is from a collection of short stories in progress. He’s pleased its first appearance is in these pages. “Irene Watson has worked a little miracle with Reader Views: creating a commercial enterprise that offers genuine encouragement and opportunity to writers. More power to her.”
Bellin is the author of two novels: Sherman’s Chaplain (“A gem of a book – compact, hard but utterly beautiful” – Reader Views; “very enjoyable, enlightening, thought-provoking” – Civil War News), and The Children’s War, a novel of Northern Ireland (“Contemporary fiction with something substantive to say” – Library Journal; “arresting first novel… illuminates compassionate souls on both sides of a terrible struggle – Publishers Weekly).