A Character ln a Russian Novel Comes to Malibu
From the midnight moment when his father slipped out of their miserable little apartment in Paris to carry out his life's mission, which was to sneak back into Russia and murder Stalin, Rurik knew that the course of his life was set. He was going to be a character in a Russian novel.
He was still a little boy and it is unlikely that he had read any Russian novels, but he was always hearing his mother talking about them.
His mother had an overriding ambition, to start a salon, a Moscow-type salon, where distinguished well-bred folk could gather for distinguished well-bred discussions of music and art and
russian civilization and Russian novels, She was too young ever to have been to a salon in Moscow, ever even to have been in Moscow, when the Revolution uprooted her and sent her on the long harrowing refugee journey, with no resources but a quick tongue and a Nansen passport, across Europe. And she never had enough money to afford the refreshments which have to be passed around in salons, she had to scrape what few francs she could find in a variety of undignified occupations which kept her away from home most of the time. But when she was home, she never stopped talking about what they would one day be hearing in her salon, and often this was about characters in Russian novels.
Little Rurik had formed a clear picture of what those characters were like: they were reckless, prodigal, brave, generous, ready to face any danger, commit any sin. They wanted more out of life than life was prepared to give them, and they were prepared to grab it.
Life in their dark cramped apartment had few gifts to offer little Rurik and his sister Anya. Their father before his departure was always off conspiring, their mother was always off to chat with her friends, to pull strings, to plot the endless daily maneuvers necessary to make ends meet. The children were left in the care of their grandmother, Babusia.
Babusia was kindly, impractical, a committed Baptist. She had a vision of herself walking down the corridors of every apartment house and every hotel in Paris, trying all the doors, and if one opened, to come bursting in unannounced like an angel of the Lord and proclaim to whoever was there, in hall or kitchen or bedroom or bathroom, "I bring you good news. I bring you salvation. Make with me your commitment to Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. Or you will go to Hell."
Parisian hotels and apartment buildings, guarded by unredeemed doormen and desk clerks and concierges, offered few opportunities for making such pronouncements, and she had to rely on the subway system to provide her with an ever-moving pulpit from one end of the city to the other and back offering salvation in her broken French to passengers who glared at her or pretended not to notice her or laughed in her face while the two children in an agony of embarrassment clenched their fists by their sides as they tried to hide behind the fattest straphangers they could find.
Then came the War, and sister and brother, through some strings pulled by one of Leila's friends, were sent off to a camp for refugee children in the Pyrenees, There they spent four years on a lonely mountainside, closely supervised, always underfed, but reasonably healthy, dreaming of being rescued by bandits. Rurik never talked about those empty years. Anya liked to tell of her mirth when her breasts began to grow and her brother threw a fit because this was an experience that even the most resourceful masculine character in a Russian novel could never hope to duplicate.
The war ended, but those connections and their strings remained in place, and one day the children learned that the generous organization which had paid for their stay in the camp was sending them off to good-quality private schools in America, where in the course of time their mother herself arrived and set out anew on a campaign to recreate a Moscow salon, this time in New York.
Anya who attended a fashionable girls school in Virginia and had learned how to ride a horse properly was determined to pull herself out of her Russian roots, and was set on the course that would eventually marry her to a college boy, a member of a respectable fraternity who would one day inherit a sporting goods store.
Rurik on the other hand, who was enrolled in a fashionable boys school in upper New York State, was determined to be and to remain as outspokenly brawlingly irrevocably Russian as he could, to whatever end Fate had in store for him. .
And Fate provided him with a good buddy who also had been plucked out of a distant land and dropped into the same school. He was the youngest son of a French peasant family of the middling sort. Some time before the war an earnest young Bostonian of the Brahmin sort, named Increase after the celebrated Puritan divine Increase Mather who was said to be one of his ancestors, had spent a summer absorbing the culture of France, and lived for a while with this family and came to love the simple beauties of the countryside and the simple manners of the people and the simple games he would play with tiny affectionate little Jean-Marie.
During the war, when he served with distinction as an officer in the U. S. First Army (he was credited with knocking out six Tiger tanks in the Battle of the Bulge), as soon as he could manage to get a few days leave, Increase took off in a jeep loaded with fresh oranges and clean clothes and hundreds of other things which the family had not seen in four years, and he brought them to the farm, where he was hailed as a savior, and little Jean-Marie, now a handsome barefoot wide-eyed raggedy infinitely appealing farmboy of twelve rushed up out of the potato patch to leap into the arms of his old playmate and shower him with kisses and cries of joy and gratitude and devotion.. And Increase felt at that moment that their two hearts were united as one. He had found the love of his life.
For a man brought up in the Puritan tradition, love implied responsibilities. He made formal arrangements with the family to take charge of the boy's education, and he felt the best education available was in that school, in the glorious upper reaches of the Hudson valley..
There Rurik and Jean-Marie formed an inseparable couple, and engaged in all the traditional boys-school sports and high jinks, adding a foreign accent of their own. They were very popular, and the head master assured Increase that they both of them were turning into the best kind of good-hearted, healthy, clean-cut all-American boys. Increase felt it was both a pleasure and a duty to extend a hand to Jean-Marie's chum, keep him supplied with pocket money and good advice. He was delighted to have the two boys running all over his house during school vacations, vacations on the rowdy side but he made sure no serious damage was done.
Rurik was getting excellent grades in his studies and reasonably good grades in conduct, everything seemed to be going well, when one day everything fell apart.
One of those high jinks had gone a little too high, there was some blood and a good deal of property damage, there were some details the head master could not bring himself to spell out, he preferred to send a curt telegram to Rurik's mother in New York City telling her that her son's name had been erased from the roster of students, and that she could expect to pick him up at Grand Central Station the following morning.
It was not a propitious time for Rurik to be thrown adrift into the world. He could expect from his mother nothing but a corner of floor space where he could spread his sleeping bag, and it would not be a quiet corner because, in a desperate effort to regularize her situation, she had married an American citizen who had been born in Russia, and was still Russian to the core, he could have been a stubbornly traditional drunken peasant in any Russian novel, he was capable of kicking Rurik awake and growling at him, OK lazybones, so vy aren't you out looking for a job digging ditches so you can pay for your meals at least, huh?
And the immigration authorities were only waiting for the moment to pounce on him to remind him that his residence permit was valid only as long as he was a student at a recognized educational institution.
Fortunately, Jean-Marie had got the news post haste to Increase, and Increase was immediately on hand, boiling with indignation against the cowardly school authorities who had vented all their rage on a poor little immigrant boy, while Jean-Marie, who was just as immigrant as Rurik was but whose bills were being paid by a scion of a prominent banking family, was let off with a slap on the wrist. He yanked Jean-Marie out of that ignoble school and enrolled both boys in the highschool of the high-class community up the Hudson where he was then temporarily living.
The boys fitted beautifully into this high school. They were active in football and in the glee club, they got around, they were a big hit with the girls, who called them "the French wolves" and whistled back at them..
Increase was taken aback, as he had to admit to himself in his sessions of self-inspection, to see the tender little blond angel who had once flown into his arms turn into an unkempt hairy jitterbugging American teen-age. But he was true to the code he had been brought up in and he did his dogged best to see both his charges come unsullied through the trials of adolescence. He listened to every word of their boastful tales, he fixed their traffic tickets, he paid for their drinks and their condoms, he made sure they got up in time on school-days.
Rurik had by now got around to reading some Russian novels, and he enjoyed sitting up late with Increase, telling him of the characters he felt were his brothers.
The Brothers Karamazov? Only one of them. He had no use for the younger pair, Alyosha he dismissed a as a boy scout, and while he admired Ivan for his fearless words, they remained mere words. Words that could talk rings around God or a Grand Inquisitor, but when it came to putting the words into the real world of real people with real passions, when it came to giving the testimony that could save his older brother Dmitri from being framed for the murder of their vile old man, Ivan struck our ignominiously, and no one had the slightest interest in what became of him.
Dmitri Karamazov was something else. He never let mere words get in his way, Dmitri who always let his unfettered senses rampage as they wished in full view of the world, who lived out his impulses whole-heartedly, unexpectedly, unapologetically, with no concern for the consequences, Expect the unexpected, and give it more than it was bargaining for, that was Dmitri. That was Rurik.
And there was Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, the lover of Anna Karenina, who was so reckless, and so libidinous and so very rich. And practical to boot, he knew his way around the real world: though he owned the richest estate in all his province, when friends dropped in for a visit, me made sure their horses were fed just enough oats to take them back home and not a step further.
Traveling with Rurik in this Russian dream world was a pleasure for Increase, somewhere in his tidy young banker's mind there was always be lurking an anarchic wish to be a character in a Russian novel himself. But it had to be a discreet pleasure: he had not been brought up in Holy Russia but in prim Puritan New England, in a family parted by an impenetrable wall from the unbuttoned uninhibited Karamazovs and their breed. They were more like the family he had encountered in a Henry James novel he had been forced to read: "To consider an event, crudely and baldly in the light of the pleasure it might bring them, was an intellectual exercise with which Felix Young's American cousins were almost wholly unacquainted." He might take a loud delight in the towel battles in which his charges loved to indulge when they came dripping out of the shower, snapping and slapping and howling through hallway and kitchen, breaking glasses and spilling spoons as they went, he might take a silent delight contemplating their naked bodies of their beds where the lay passed out after along evening at the local tavern; but like all his delights, it had to be fitted into a world where duty came first. His duty was to see that these two boys grow up to be responsible young men, as he had grown up himself. His path was clear.
And then the path, as if on schedule, took a wrong turn again. One day Rurik made a point of boisterously drinking beer in French class (he spoke much better French than the teacher, after all.). The school authorities had had their eyes on this alien wolf for some time, and they used the beer as pretext to close in for the kill. They expelled him from the classroom and then from the school and told him he had better pack his bag and get out of town.
So there he was, riding the rails again headed for Grand Central Station, and nothing waiting for him there but trouble. For Increase was off helping some new nation in South-East Asia to reorganize its banking system on modern principles. and might not be back for some time, and the immigration authorities had their knives sharpened.
A stately gray-haired lady was on the window-seat next to him in the train, and they began politely chatting as they slowly pulled out of the station. They chatted about the Hudson Valley scenery, and about Paris, where they had once lived in the same arrondissement and perhaps unknowingly passed each other regularly in the street, and about names (her name came from Dutch patroons who had fought for America's freedom in the Revolution, as his came from generations of warriors who had fought to redeem to Holy Russia from the Tartars and the Turks), and about this and that, and as the train was entering the borough of Manhattan she said to him, "It has been a pleasure talking to an intelligent young man like you. I happen to have served in the educational world for many years, and I have had the opportunity to meet all sorts and conditions of young men. And most of them would rather appear to be something they are not, and they all have something they would rather keep concealed. But there is one thing that cannot be concealed, one admirable thing, and that is class. It is a quality I can recognize on the spot, and I can say with confidence, you have class. It comes out in every word and gesture without your ever making a conscious effort to show it. Now it so happens that I have for many years now been running a small but I dare to say distinguished school in New England, a school that aims to supplement mere learning with character, a school designed for young men like you. I assume you are currently receiving a good education at the school you are currently attending. But if every you find it something less than what you really want, please think of me. Here is my card."
He thanked her, and he tucked the card nonchalantly in the breast pocket of his jacket as the train pulled into Grand Central Station. They both assured each other that it had been a very pleasant conversation as they shook hands and parted to go their separate ways.
So a new chapter began in that Russian novel. The lady of the train proved to be as good as her word, she offered Rurik a handsome scholarship, Increase came back in time to confirm that it was indeed a school of repute whose graduates found the gates of all the Ivy League colleges wide open, and to take care of all the paper work He yanked Jean-Marie unceremoniously out of that deplorable exurbian high school, and saw the two boys off on their latest journey from Grand Central Station.
Once more they fitted in perfectly, they did well in classroom and soccerfield, they smiled handsomely in the Year Book, and a week before graduation there was a scandalous episode in the locker-room, scandalous in an unprecedented way, and there was another expulsion, another train ride to New York, but this time next to an old man who snored all the way.
This time even Increase could not find a way out in the few days which the immigration people allowed Rurik before he had to board a ship and leave the country.
In one of those days he found his way down to a decrepit joint on the Lower East Side, a place he had discovered on a previous jaunt to New York, a place which described itself as a home for any man or woman or fairy child who wanted out.
And there he found Rowena. Rowena, wild-eyed and wild-haired, Rowena, flying as far and as fast as she could from Boston. She was the daughter of a Harvard professor, and she had an older sister who had wanted out in a spectacular way, but Rowena was convinced she could do better. The sister had run off with a mad Mongolian who was singlehandedly launching an art form new in those days, of hammering automobiles to pieces on an empty stage and then soldering the pieces together into new extravagant shapes. Rowena, as soon as she felt ready to follow in her footsteps, had run off with a wild-eyed wild-haired virtuoso Polish violinist, but though his public performances were dramatic enough for anyone's taste, his intimacies were curiously cramped. He was determined, as he told her, to become a sexual as wall as musical virtuoso, and for this purpose had acquired a handbook tracing out every phase and aspect of his role. She would lie in bed and hear him pacing in the next room, pacing with the book in his hand, muttering to himself the successive stages of the recommended style. He would pace and pace, mutter and mutter, than suddenly throw down the book and come leaping into her room and leaping on top of her, and it was all over in a few seconds and he was off in the other room sobbing.
This was not at all what a free woman wanted who had gone off for what a novel popular that year called a walk on the wild side, who had announced to her friends that before she was twenty she wanted to be recognized as the bitch of the world.
She had had enough of book talk and sobbing, and now coming through the door she saw a lean sharp-chinned young man headed for any unexpected way with any like-minded companion.
She had enough money to two tickets on the Liberté which was sailing for Le Havre it two days, and to inaugurate an indeterminate number of days in Paris, doing all the indeterminate unmentionable things people were expected to do in Paris.
If her money were to run out, he assured her that something would turn up, it always had. If worst came to worst he had learned all about the tricks of banking from his Beacon Hill foster-father, or he could buckle down to that career which the art instructor at his latest school had, after seeing some of his experimental sculpture, foretold: "You will be entering museums Rurik, before you enter middle age."
Rowena was back in New York in three or four weeks, with some wonderful stories with which she is entertaining people in Boston to this day.
There follow three or four years, of which few reliable records remain, only a few fragments picked up and retained by Increase when the wanderer turned up on his doorstep at irregular intervals, to thank him for having squared him away with the immigration people, and to drink away long evenings away peopling the dark with bizarre Russian-sized tales. Tales of a day in a Swiss jail, of a drug-dealing lieutenant-commander in the U.S. Navy, tales of life among the roughnecks in Texas oil fields, of being chased by the bulls out of freight yards, of a Hollywood starlet who offered him ten thousand dollars to pose with her for dirty pictures, but she was shot by her lover.
And to cap them all by the most outrageously implausible tale of all, but one this was backed by and irrefutable document, a marriage certificate signed and sealed by a magistrate in the State of New York.
The birth of the marriage went back to a chance meeting in a bus depot with one of his old schoolmates, who told him that there was this heiress named Arabel living all alone and sad, on a hilltop in Mexico. "And Rurik," he said, "she's waiting for someone like you."
He changed whatever travel plans he had on the spot, and took a bus in the direction of Mexico. He was down to his last few dollars when he found her, just where his friend had said, on a lonely hilltop, a sad girl in a sadly furnished house, wistfully dreaming of the life of art and adventure for which she had been born but from which she always been barred off by her deplorable midwestern family. and he came bursting in on her, enthusiastic, irrepressible, unpredictable, with his tales of a tumultuous past and his visions of spectacular futures, his every step a leap, his every word an invitation into the unknown. And it was not long before she was locking the door of her hillside cell behind her, and they were setting forth arm in arm to blaze a giddy trail through two continents, leaping to the spur of every moment, from Ritz hotel to desert hideaway, from Swiss ski slope to Greek island, from El Morocco to a nudist camp in the Mediterranean. And one day, having run with the bulls at Pamplona, they decided to get married.
He knew just the place to get married in: the Russian church in the 15th arrondissment in Paris, the very church where his mother had been married to the man who had the mission to rid Russia of the bandit Djugashvili.
They had chosen the day, and they chose to start it off with a wedding breakfast at the Ritz in the Place Vendome
They were in a taxi headed there, it stopped for a red light, and "Darling," she said in her grave sweet-tempered voice as she leaned over to take his right hand in hers, "you know, my analyst has told me that when a rich person marries a poor person, conflicts and misunderstandings can be set up unconsciously that would always be haunting and disturbing the relationship, and I wouldn't want that to happen for worlds. So there is something I want you to do. I am going to slip something into your hand, but you will have to promise me that you won't look at it till tomorrow morning, the morning after our wedding night."
He knew that she was a girl of her word, and he promised with all his heart. She pressed a folded piece of paper into his hand, his fingers clenched around it, and then, as they were beginning to turn into a new boulevard and he was transferring the paper to his right-hand jacket pocket he cried, "Oh look, there is a glorious view of the Invalides just over there, to the right." And as she turned to look and as the paper slipped into the pocket, he deftly unfolded it for the half second it took to learn what it was. It was a check for a million dollars.
The taxi rolled into the Place Vendome, and a doorman in uniform was there to open the door from him, but two burly men in another kind of uniform stepped forward and pushed him aside. They identified themselves as military police, and one of them roughly demanded to see Rurik's identity papers. He gave them one quick look, and said, "You are under arrest"
"What the hell for?" demanded Rurik, who could think of no misdemeanor he had committed recently which would call for this use of armed force.
"Desertion," said the man. "These papers prove that you were born in Paris, look, it says so here, and you have never performed your mandatory duty of military service in France." They left him no time for further comment, but dragged him off roughly to a black patrol car parked a few yards away, they pushed him inside, jumped in themselves, and they were off with a screech of the tires.
Left alone and bewildered on the sidewalk in the Balenciaga gown made for this occasion, Arabel did not collapse into panic. Shy and quiet and retiring, sheltered all her life from the necessity of making decisions, swaddled in wealth and idleness and all the grisly conventionalities of midwestern family and college and marriage and divorce, she still was the grand-daughter of the feisty young lawyer who had once drawn up the papers of incorporation for a new enterprise which could not afford to pay him in cash but had given him a trunkful of shares of its stock. They were worth nothing then, and were worth little more for the next twenty years, -- for a while at the depth of Great Depression two shares of the stock would buy a ticket on the local trolley cars -- but grandfather knew it was a great Company he had brought into being, and through all the Depression years had sternly forbidden every member of his family to touch that trunk in the basement. And how right he was: now a single share could buy two champagne breakfasts at the Ritz. Arabel must have felt the old lawyer's blood running strongly and steadily through her veins when she threw the flowers she was carrying down on the sidewalk and ran up to the head of the taxi line, jumped in and commanded, "Follow that car."
Police and taxi screeched to a halt twenty minutes later at the military prison of Fort St. Valérien in the southern suburbs, an ominous dark place famous for all the French patriots who had been shot there by the Germans during the Occupation.
Then the taxi took her back to the Ritz. where she could call up the Company lawyers, who knew how to pull the necessary strings, and within a few hours the young couple were crossing the Channel on the Dieppe-Newhaven Ferry, on their way back to New York..A few days later they were quietly married by a justice of the peace in a quiet little town up the Hudson.
For a while afterwards they lived the life of conventional newlyweds of independent means without a worry in the world, traipsing around two continents, living out their every whim and fancy and dream.
They lived high, and they lived colorfully. They loved to tell of episodes like the one at a luxury hotel in Paris (Rurik's little troubles with the French military authorities had long since been quietly settled by the company lawyers) where an old friend dropped in on them and at some point in the conversation remarked how much more sure of herself Arabel looked now compared to the sad inhibited girl he had once known, and Rurik took this as an insolent affront to the woman he loved and knocked the fellow down and when he got up knocked him down again and picked him up and threw him out of the room and threw and kicked him down the corridor and down the great carpeted stairway into the lobby, where the hotel staff intervened and threw the intruder out on the street where he belonged, later intimating to the young couple that they would perhaps be better off in another, less formal, hotel, and they were handed a bill for sixty thousand francs for cleaning the blood out of the carpeting.
In due time they settled down in a house on Malibu Beach..
This was a tale made to order for the indefatigable tongues of those California gossips who can never make enough fun of giddy heiresses swept off their feet by sleek fortune-hunting gigolos. They were looking forward to a pell mell melodrama of moonlight orgies, driving under the influence, tabloid revelations, a tell-all to end all tell-alls.
They could not have been more wrong.
Yes, Rurik enjoyed his elegantly tailored suits, and his closet crammed with elegant English shoes, and his wine cellar, and his Jaguar.
But for for two years he whizzed in his Jag every school day of the week through Los Angeles traffic to the campus of UCLA, and whizzed though a pre-med course in two years, and he went on for four more years in medical school, to emerge with honors as a full-fledged MD, a psychiatrist, and open an office at a fashionable address in Santa Monica, with a magnificent ocean view, ready to rid a fashionable clientele of all its complexes and bipolarities..
And that was only half of his working day. Every eight or ten hours of dissecting corpses and studying ponderous medical texts was capped by four or five night hours devoted to finding ways to make good use of those million wedding-breakfast dollars. He had read in the papers of the fortunes being made every day in the stock market by young people of no special competence, and the stock market sounded to him like the kind of place of which he would like to learn the ways. He learned quickly, he went marauding into the world of puts and calls, and mergers and acquisitions, and leverage and derivatives, with all the combination of recklessness and shrewdness which his forebears had shown when they went marauding in the lands of the Turks and the Chechens. In next to no time his million had become two million.
No more than Rurik did Arabel want to slip into the dismal diurnal round of the idle rich. She had long dreamed of a career in the theater, not the traditional theater with its proscenium and curtain and memorized lines and gestures, but a twentieth century beyond-theater bound by no rules but the urgings of its own pulse-beat and hormonal tidal waves. She devoted herself to playing patron and impresario and inspiration to all the rebellious talents in southern California looking for new ways to bring new worlds to birth.
Her house might be overrun with them, but she kept an orderly house. The young couple surf-boarded, they played tennis, they got sufficient sleep, they entertained selected visitors.
Among these latter was Increase, now comfortably in the upper-middle ranks of the family banking enterprise, who would drop in on his occasional visits to the west coast. He spoke with a certain wistful pride of Jean-Marie, who had gone back to his family well endowed with American degrees and American spirit of enterprise to settle down to a prosperous career in the upper-middle reaches of French provincial society.
Increase was also pleased with Rurik's evident material success, to which he was discreetly proud of having continued. He could be proud that both of his young charges had grown up into prosperous responsible decently married young men. But he had to own to a secret grief that Jean-Marie was so thoroughly responsible, so settled in the approved patterns, while with Rurik there was still the taste of that other world, the reckless disorderly world whose door he had seen open the day he held the little boy in his arms in that clean clear potato field, but whose threshold he could never cross.
There was always something unusual, anarchic, in the stories Rurik had to tell him. It was true that now they were less unusual and anarchic than in the old wanderjahring days. Stories like the one of the Hollywood producer's wife whom he had successfully neutralized on Prozac, who dropped in one day to tell him she was her old self again, and told him while leaving to be sure to look out of his window at two p.m. the next day and see something he would remember, and at the appointed time he looked out and there she was, naked, hurtling down toward the sidewalk seventeen stories down.
It was dramatic enough, but really, Increase had to admit to himself, he did not need to travel three thousand miles from Boston to hear bizarre episodes in the lives of the idle rich.
Still, there was something of the old unpredictable Rurik left. As the time he took Increase, accompanied by the two pet dogs he had crippled in experiments in medical school, out to the swimming pool he had built for himself and showed him the pet he kept there, a small black shark, a bundle of energy in the placid water. "You know, I could pick up this spear here and drive it right into his brain, and he would still jump out of the water and bite my arm off...It is," he added, 'the creature I feel closest to in the entire world. What he has to do is what he wants to do, and he will do it with his total energy and total satisfaction till the day he dies," and he waved the spear defiantly at the quiet water.
It was just after they had said goodbye to the shark that Rurik suddenly blurted out a new thought that was troubling him: he was entering what the world regards as middle age, and he was no more ready than his shark to accept it. "You are always joking with me, Increase, about what character in a Russian novel I want to be like, and the answer is, all of them. And there is one thing you have to know about them. Increase, is that they have no middle age. They can grow into evil old men like old man Karamazov who never misses a chance to make the people around him suffer, or they can become saintly old men and go around blessing sinners. But otherwise they are always young. They are always going forward, forward, at the same pace, come hell or high water. And when hell does come, the author just forgets about them. Look at Dmitri Karamazov, He goes bang, bang, bang for hundreds of pages, then it all blows up, and what does Mr. Dostoyevsky care? He throws in a paragraph or two intimating that Dmitri will escape from his forced labor in Siberia and run off to America and live among the Mohicans and take to cultivating the soil like an honest drunken Russian peasant, and that's the end of it. Who wants to write or read another two hundred pages about Dmitri pushing a plough through South Dakota? Who cares how Alex Vronsky makes out fighting a guerrilla war in Montenegro? They have had their day, and the day is over. There is no room for middle age in Russian novels."
And then the phone that was always at his side played a martial air, and he picked it up and barked into it, "Get off your ass and make sure you have those proxies for me by five o'clock this afternoon. Or else." And he slammed down his receiver and began talking about a new ski lodge he was building.
That night, or the next night, was New Year's Eve, and Rurik and Arabel brought it in noisily, stylishly, with bucketfuls of champagne, with the Old Snatch Band playing the hottest music this side of some place whose name Increase was not hip enough to recognize.
One of Arabel's theater groups had proposed to enact a Circumcision of the Christ Child for the occasion, "I vetoed the idea," Rurik whispered to Increase in a moment of lull; "not , you understand, that I am entering the middle-age world of you cautious bankers." And he began elaborate on a project , whose triumphant launching he was about to trumpet to the world.
The noise had begun again, and Increase had to strain to take in more than a few patches of words amid all the brambles of song and champagne corks.
Rurik was about to enter middle age by creating an empire.
His speculations had swelled in size and importance. He had rattled markets, he had terrorized brokers, he had bought the largest ranch in the world, in Bolivia.
And now, He had already formed a garland of little companies, of vaguely defined nature. He was going to unite them now in one grand Company, on the order of the Company whose shares had filled the trunk in Arabel's grandfather's basement.
"This is the big thing, Increase," he was shouting into the din of Old Snatch's trumpets and drums, "not the petty little mergers and acquisitions you build up your little bank with. This is going worldwide, it will be going to all six continents, it will be going to outer space. They are looking for a fancy name for it, something full of x's and z's, but I think of it as just Rurik Universal. A name to remember, a name that can stick..
"At this very moment papers are being signed in Zurich, in Stockholm, in Jakarta
"It's supposed to be a secret, but bits and pieces are getting out, the stock market is hearing about it, the stock market is reacting. You can still get in cheap, Increase. Double your money in a day, sextuple it in a month.
"What do you say, Increase? Say the word. I can call my broker right now. How much are you in for?
"Live up to your name, Increase. Never mind your creepy-crawly profit margin rising twelve percent a year. Go for broke, Increase. Go for Rurik. You told me once that you were dying to take a chance once in your life, but your daddy would never let you. Here's our chance to get back at the old man. Give me the word and I'll put in a call to my broker right now. Any amount you want, one million, ten million, you name it. Just say the word, you can send the cash when you feel like it."
He picked up the phone.
"It's almost three in the morning," said Increase. "Don't you think we can let your poor broker sleep another couple of hours?"
"I don't care if it's four in the morning," said Rurik impatiently. "I like to wake my brokers up. That's what brokers are for. Treat them rough, that's the only language they understand. I've kept this one up two nights in a row, and the day in between, on the phone to Japan every minute to make sure I got one half an extra percentage point on a deal that didn't really interest me. But I like to see those bastards sweat. They think they own the world, but when I tell them to jerk off they jerk off. Give me the word, and I'll show you how to talk to these creeps."
At that moment, Old Snatch in person came up to complain about some delay in delivery of joints. And before the necessary assurances and instructions could be given, Increase had slipped off to bed.
Back home in Boston next day, he proceeded in his orderly way to fill out what he had picked up from Rurik's scattered phrases with concrete information to provide a more orderly picture of what was really going on.
He got on the phone himself, and learned from various sources that something was indeed going on, something that was big and cloudy but that might at any moment turn brightly, plainly big. Universal Rurik was not yet one of the Dow Jones Industrials, technically it was not even incorporated yet, but there were underground rumblings everywhere. It involved deals in many markets, maneuvers, negotiations, every one wanted to know the latest rumor about it.
"Yes," said Increase, "very impressive in conception, but doesn't it need at some point a hell of lot of cash?
Don't worry, said the sources, he can get all the cash ne needs any time. He had all Arabel's share of the Company stock to underpin everything. The solidest value in the world.
The markets were ebullient. Everything was going up. Big deals were going through at a vertiginous pace, and Rurik Imperial could keep up with the biggest of them..
And then came one of those Black Tuesdays for which markets are famous. The Dow Jones wiped out two years of gains in two tsunami-like sessions. The Company stock fell to lows not seen for twenty years, and when loans suddenly began to be called in there were only nickels and dimes left to pay them with.
Rurik tried frantically to raise the cash, he had plenty of contingency plans, he could sell the ranch in Bolivia. But all these plans took time to carry out, a few hours, a few days, and no one just now was willing to give him a second. When he called up his brokers to suggest how they could work out a deal, they slammed down their receivers.
He called Increase, and Increase of course would have liked to help out. But there was no way of getting his family's Bank, that rock behind which the widows and orphans of Massachusetts had found shelter for two hundred sometimes stormy years, to hand over substantial sums to a fly-by-night California outfit with an impertinent name like Universal Rurik.
Pleading some kind of illness, Increase took a week off, flew out to LA to see if he could help pick up the pieces. He found Arabel's gave face with a tear on each cheek, Rurik's in a kind of wolfish pout.
Was everything lost? he asked.
Just about, they said. The Company lawyers were working overtime to see if some bits and pieces could be saved.
Of course there would be a divorce.
And that was the end of Rurik's, and Increase's, Russian novel.
Once again the smirking malicious envious gossips could have a field day, spinning out every thread of Rurik's humiliation. Sin and selfishness have run their course, the day of reckoning has come, and many were the prophecies of what form the retribution would take. The kindest of them had Rurik diving into his pool to be chewed up by his shark.
And once again, the gossips got it all wrong.
The Company lawyers managed to scrape up enough for Arabel to go on with her career as godmother of the arts, and she has made a success of it, as you can see in the hundreds of entries under her name in Google Search.
And Rurik somehow managed to go on as well, with his Russian-novel self-assurance intact, he went on in his luxurious office in his daily round of relieving well-healed patients of their addictions and bipolarities, he drove home in his Jag in the evening to his luxurious home in the hills.. Whenever over the years Increase consulted his sources, all they could find to say of Rurik was that he continued to be the favorite medico for some of the best families of the most affluent suburbs of Los Angeles..
Those years saw Increase increase steadily in affluence and authority in the family Bank. The day came when the family had one of its periodic councils, and the order of the day was the future of Increase, who was clearly marked out for great things. The family's considered opinion was that if an unscrupulous bootlegger and money-juggling adulterer like Joe Kennedy could buy the White House for one of his sons, more respectable law-abiding families should surely be able to perform similar political feats. The Forbeses had already found a seat in the Senate for John Kerry, who had married one of their numerous daughters. Why not acquire the post of, say, Governor of Massachusetts, for Increase?
But of course Increase would have to regularize his private life. Unpleasant odors must circle around any middle-aged bachelor politician. Increase would have to be married.
A careful search produced a proper bride, a crisp, cultivated, efficient young lady, Miss Anne Bradstreet, of a New England family hardly less distinguished than his own.
And Increase made a proper proposal and was properly wed..
They made a model couple, and soon came to be regarded as an ideal couple. They were active in community services, they were pillars of the Boston Symphony.
One day Anne asked Increase about the disreputable young people he was rumored to have consorted with in his early years. Lively perhaps, he said, but certainly not disreputable. Look, one of them is now the most fashionable physician in Los Angeles county.
"I know the type," she said, "they generally come to a bad end."
"Well." he said, "I haven't seen him for years, but I get Christmas cards from him with pictures of a very elegant house in the hills."
"If it means that much to you, let's visit it," she said.
And so it came about that, when they found themselves in Los Angeles for a bankers' convention, Increase, having obtained the private number, called up Rurik in his house in the hills.
His sharp decisive voice had not changed. He was delighted to hear from an old friend. "You must come to dinner" he said."And tell me all about banks and Boston, what is your wife's favorite dish, I have a wonderful cook who can whip it up for her."
On the appointed night they took a taxi which drove them up a long winding road in the hills to a walled and gated property, and there was Rurik to greet them, his hair thinner, and wearing horn-rimmed glasses, but still lean, rather dapper, still eager to talk.
The house was elegantly furnished, if a little gloomy, there were works of art in recognizably modern styles, the candle-lit dinner was properly served, the dish cooked up for Anne was first-rate, the conversation was polite, if a little desultory, being concerned mostly with catching up on all the years of absence. .Rurik had little to say about his career, as he pointed out the only time he made page one of the papers was when one morning on his way to his office he passed by the scene of an accident, jumped out and saved the lives of two stoned teen-agers. He preferred to talk about the vineyard in Napa Valley in which he had acquired an interest, and there was a whole array of bottles on the table which the guests were invited to sample.
After coffee there were digestifs and after cheerfully swallowing his second century-old armagnac at one gulp Rurik put his elbows on the table and spoke with the air of someone who knows how to take charge:
"Anne," he said. (Up to now he had addressed her in the more formal Massachusetts manner) "I' m sure your husband has told you how I once tried, unsuccessfully, to lure him into a hazardous investment which might well have made a billion dollars for each of us."
"Yes, he has," she said. "If I had been there I could have told you in advance that you were wasting your time. My husband is constitutionally incapable of making a hazardous investment of any kind, even in something as attractive as a Napa Valley vineyard."
"I agree with you," said Rurik, giving her a sharp look, "as far as money is concerned. But there is a lot in life besides money. Are you sure he doesn't sometime have a taste for hazardous things? How well do you know your husband anyway?. I have known him for many more years than you have, you know, and I have seen enough of him to know that he is not as predictable as he looks."
"And presumably you could tell me many interesting stories?"
"I could indeed. Would you like to hear some?"
There was a cold spell in the dining room.
Increase cleared his throat and said in businesslike tones: "That might take a lot of time. And we both have to be up early tomorrow morning, so I am afraid we have to leave shortly. Thank you for a magnificent dinner, and let's try to arrange another one later."
"Oh no, you can't walk out of me like that," said Rurik angrily. "You can't run away all your life, Increase. Have you told Anne or anyone else about the hours you used to spend when I was lying naked on a couch and you were staring at me? Isn't it time to take an honest look at your life? and see in whole and clear? There is a time for costume balls and there is a time for standing up naked. This is just the right time for you to be naked, Increase. Don't you agree, Anne?
Anne gave her husband her I'm-afraid-our-host-has-had-too- much-of-his-vintage-wine look. They both stood up, and Increase said, "Please call a taxi for us, Rurik."
"No taxi can get you out of this, Increase," said Rurik in a haughty schoolmasterly voice, "This is the moment of truth, not a moment for me to call a taxi."
"Very well then,' said Increase, "I will call for one myself." And he made a stride for the phone on the wall by the head of the table.
But Rurik was ahead of him. He yanked the phone out of the wall.. "You will stay here till I have got to the bottom of you," he said.
"Come along, dear," said Increase firmly to his wife, ne took her by the hand they strode down the gloomy corridor to the front door, without a further word.
Rurik followed them with the telephone still in his hand, and glared.
But it was only s glare, and Increase had faced worse dangers in the Ardennes. He calmly opened the door, guided his bride firmly down the little stone path to the gate,,and soon they were out in the street.
Rurik , motionless now with the phone still in his hand, shouted after them: "You're not going to find a taxi up here at this time of night, And don't try ringing people's doors. They're all in bed by now, and if you disturb them they'll call the police if they don't just shoot you. Every one is on the watch for dangerous drug dealers these days."
They walked hand in hand down the silent street. All the windows in the dark fortress-like houses were, as Rurik had predicted, dark. There was no sound but their feet on twigs or leaves in the roadbed, no light but from occasional street lamps and a sliver of moon.
But there was nothing to be afraid of, as Increase noted, their road ended in another street which would have to go either up or down. If they kept going down, they would eventually find themselves on a beach or at least on a main road, and main roads in this part of the world even at late hours have traffic and taxi stands. As for the drug dealers, they were after bigger game than a middle-aged couple strolling hand in hand through the soft quiet California night.
They had reached the end of the street, and were heading downward to the right when they heard a noise behind them. It was Rurik who had stumbled out into the street and was uttering a cry (a howl? a curse?) out of anger or frustration or alcoholic confusion in their direction.
At that moment a truck pulled up beside them. The driver had lost his way, and he was glad to pick up two decent-looking people who could help him find it.
"I'm afraid," said Increase patting Anne's firm right hand as they settled down on the seat beside the driver, "I'm afraid, dear, I let you down tonight. I had no idea what I was getting you into."
"The important thing," she reassured him, "was getting me out of it. And you did it very well"
"I always knew that Rurik was odd," said Increase. "But not this odd! There was always an eager, appealing side to him. When he was a youngster he thought he was Don Juan. Now I guess he thinks he is Dracula."
"Dracula!" said Anne with quiet scorn, "he couldn't get a job playing Dracula with a road company in South Dakota. Don't you see, dear, you see people like him everywhere out here. He may be convinced that he is the center of the world, but he is just a standard middle-aged California oddball.
"In Boston," she added with finality, "he wouldn't last ten minutes."
©Robert Wernick 2006