THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL I'VE EVER KNOWN
That was Beverly. Her life touched mine and I was marked forever. She was as lovely as a star — and just as far away
THREE ROWS AHEAD OF ME AND SEVERAL seats to the right sits a girl. I don’t know who she is, but I can’t take my eyes off her. She must feel the weight of them hanging to those short taffy-blond curls the breeze is dabbling with. Twice already she’s turned around and almost met my stare. But I can’t stop looking. She reminds me of someone, irresistibly. The same clear skin, the same turned-up nose, the same perfect lines of the face. The same proud eyes. She reminds me of Beverly Harding.
Beverly Harding was beautiful, the most beautiful girl I have ever known. When I came to Varney University four years ago she was already a campus legend, even though she was away at Smith all year and few undergraduates had ever seen her. The few who had were mostly men taking advanced courses in Latin and Greek. Her father was head of the classics department and his students sometimes met her at his house. Other lucky people had glimpsed her crossing a corner of the quad, but it was the intellectuals who read Sappho and Catullus in the original who had most to say. They said she was a nymph, a goddess, Atalanta of Arcadia, or Diana the huntress come down to earth.
I thought they must be exaggerating, but in the next couple of years 1 decided they were right. I never saw Diana but she could have been no lovelier. Beverly I saw at the college dances two or three times a year, swirling in the middle of the floor in a cloud of beauty that made her escort, whoever he was, look for the moment like Prince Charming. Whoever he was. I say that because she never seemed to favor any one man more than another. She never attended two proms in a row with the same date. This behavior may have been fickle, but somehow I was glad of it. I didn’t want to see a woman like Beverly tied down. It would have been like caging a skylark. And perhaps, too, I had my own dreams of someday building the cage.
Wanting to get through college as rapidly as I could I was taking the accelerated program, and so it happened that I was attending summer school the year Beverly graduated from Smith at twenty-one and came home to work in the Varney library, and offered her services to The King’s Men, the college dramatic club, which was always short on female talent.
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acting and wanted to play the lead in A. A. Milne’s The Romantic Age, the first show we did that summer, the real reason I tried so hard for the part was that Beverly Harding was going to play Melisande. Thanks to much work and the fact that Professor Gurney, the director, was a fraternity brother, I got my desire. I officially met Beverly for the first time when we reported for rehearsal on the old stage in Lockhart Hall. We were introduced, and she gave me a disarmingly frank grin and spoke in a voice that was low without being throaty. “Might as well know the man I’ve got to make love to,” she said.
I muttered some polite but stupid platitude and the reading of lines began before I could try for a better impression. Beverly wore white shorts that day; she had nice legs.
She was an intelligent actress of the type all too rare among amateurs, who doesn’t show much at first reading but grows into the part as rehearsals go along until the performance finds her in sure control of it. There was just one spot that always gave her difficulty — that magical love scene in the second act. In this the script called for me to kiss her, first her hands and then. her lips,asking her permission each time. In almost every rehearsal Beverly had to be prompted two or three times as we approached this scene, though in the rest of the play she was letter perfect. And the first time Gurney told us to work out the business of the kisses I felt her quiver and stiffen as I took her hands.
The kiss itself was a semi-reverent one that called for little pressure, but as Beverly’s lips met mine there seemed no strength at all behind them. They were in the right position, but it wasn’t what I had allowed myself to dream of, even for a stage kiss. The unexpected reaction, plus the presence of interested onlookers, made me bungle the job, so that when I took my lips away there was a loud smack. The rest of the cast snickered and I could feel myself turning scarlet. Beverly flushed a little too, but didn’t lose her composure. Instead she just cocked an eyebrow at me and said we’d improve. Casually, with a sort of wry face.
After rehearsal that day Ted Herries and I wandered over to the Union for a hamburger and Ted began kidding me about it all. “Statement for the Press, Sam. What’s it feel like to be Beverly Harding’s first kiss?”
I ignored the question. It didn’t make sense that a girl that beautiful could get through college unkissed. But the idea of it tied up with her reaction when I took her hands in mine.
At the next rehearsal, though, the kiss went perfectly. No passion in it, of course, nor even any warmth, but nobody in the first row could have told it from the real thing. I didn’t try to make it real. But that wasn’t because I didn’t want to know Beverly better. Whenever we had a few minutes off stage at the same time I’d try to drift over to her without being too obvious about it, but it never did me much good. She always had all the actors and crew and hangers-on bunched around her, and I never could get her alone. She spent most of those waiting periods laughing and chatting with Bert Dahlgren, who’s a stupid little guy if I ever saw one, and every time I managed to make a bright remark it came in too late and in a voice that didn’t sound like mine.
I don’t shine in crowds. I really
felt, a bit hurt about the whole business, since you’d naturally expect an actress to pair off with her leading man, if anyone. Not that Beverly snubbed me or ignored me. I just couldn’t make myself noticeable and she wasn’t interested enough to notice things for herself. I got mad and swore the night of the show I’d kiss her really thoroughly, but I lost my nerve.
THE TWO performances came and went successfully and the next Sunday we all had a picnic out at Lake Rodman at the Hardings’ camp. There were only two girls there besides Beverly and about fifteen men, but I never saw anybody keep them all happy the way she did. The other two girls picked out partners and retired to the corners, but Beverly seemed to be everywhere at once, playing and talking with all the rest of us. We swam and tilted in canoes and toasted ourselves in the sun and pitched horseshoes and ate hotdogs and Beverly was keeping it all going. Every now and then I’d catch her eye and we’d grin at each other.
Late in the afternoon I manoeuvred my way into sharing the shelter of a big pine with her when we were playinghide-and-seek and blurted out a horribly blunt and un-led-up-to request for a movie date. She looked surprised but accepted. I felt as if my fingers had brushed one tip of a star and was reaching for a better hold on it when Bert Dahlgren came blundering in on us and I was “it.”
I rode back to campus that evening in Beverly’s car and felt like having my date with her announced with a fanfare of trumpets, but I didn’t think it would be appropriate with four other people in the back seat. Beverly was a good driver, I noticed. She kept her attention on the road and not the merry-making in the car.
I don’t think I was in love with her —I hardly knew her and I couldn’t help feeling that she was out of my class. There’s a definite caste system in colleges, and a ham actor doesn’t rate as a hero. I was glad of any attention that Beverly gave me. I admired her beauty and vitality and just liked to be where I could watch her, stare at the cameo lines of her profile and dazzle myself with the light glinting on her hair. I remember I decided one day it was the color of orange blossom honey. I loved her the way I loved the Greek statues or Gainsborough portraits in the art museum, but I would no more have thought of falling in love with her than with one of them. They were equally beyond the possibility of achievement.
So when I had my date with Beverly I took it as a sort of religious sacrament, a chance for closer communion with an ideal. Anyhow, I had a girl of my own at home—though I must confess I didn’t give Kay any thought while I sat in the theatre beside Beverly. I was too busy looking at her from the corner of my eye in the dim light, watching the shadows shift over the soft contours of her face as they shifted on the screen. Why they were shifting on the screen, I don’t know. I wasn’t much interested in the picture.
Communion with an ideal, I suppose, can never really be close enough to suit the idealist. As I walked Beverly home through the warm summer night I became increasingly aware of her nearness and her distance, so that as she turned in at the gate of her yard I caught her hand and pulled her around to face me. She looked so surprised that it surprised me. “What’s the matter, Sam?”
I tried to bring out casually the
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Continued from page 37 speech I’d been preparing all the way back from the theatre. “I wondered if you kissed the same way off stage that you do on,” I said, and as I said it I was ashamed of myself for saying it that way.
Beverly gave me a smile that was half sympathy and half amusement. “I don’t know. I’ve never tried the comparison.” 1 started to bend forward with hope, but the stiffening of her hand checked me. “Why do you men worry so much about kisses, anyway?”
The simple curiosity of her tone caught me unprepared. I mumbled something about nature.
“It seems foolish.”
I thought of a new approach and started off on it, though the right moment had gone. “If it’s foolish, what can you lose?”
This time she really did laugh at me. “Don’t try so hard, Sam. It would probably be just the same off stage as on. Thanks for a nice evening.” She disengaged herself and ran into the house.
I suppose I was outmanoeuvred that evening. Plenty of men I know would advise cave-man tactics in a tituttion like that, and I sûppose I could have swept her literally off her feet in a passionate embrace. But it would have been out of character for me. I was feeling more reverence than passion.
With my first assault repulsed I
suppose also that I could have started a methodical siege. I could have asked for more dates and tried to wear her down. She’d made my failure as easy as possible and we even broke out in secret-sharing grins the next time we met, but I never asked Beverly for a date again. Something told me it would he hopeless—and that even if there were hope of success, success would be sacrilege. She might have been the right woman for me, but there was no way to tell without knowing her, and no way to know her without cracking the shell of beauty. And to injure beauty is blasphemy.
So the rest of that summer Beverly and 1 met only by chance. In the fall I needed some extra cash and got a job in the library, so I saw her more often. When I had an odd moment I’d look into the big reading room where she presided at the desk. At any given time at least one man out of three there would be looking up from his book and resting his eyes on her. She knew the effect she had, too. She dressed carefully, and I saw how she inspected herself quickly in the mirror before stepping into the room. Not that she primped. She never needed that.
Beverly went to all the football games that fall and to all the dances after them. At the Henryson week end I saw her with my fraternity brother Mark Taylor, who was the Varsity left guard. I didn’t think much
about it, but the next week end I saw her with Mark again, and I was very interested. I didn’t know Mark too well at that time, but I began to take notice of him. He was a veteran late in starting university, who’d transferred to Varney at the start of his junior year. We’d pledged him largely on his football reputation, since the house was a bit short of athletic prestige, but he turned out to be a pretty good find compared with some of the Neanderthals we’d had. He was a tall dark fellow with an almost melancholy face that looked as if it had come from an Egyptian bas-relief. Dark, sensitive eyes, long nose, straight black hair. Smaller than most football players, and more intelligent. I hadn’t seen much of him except when we happened to be sitting at the same table in the dining room, where he was quiet even in his laughter.
The day after I saw him for the second time with Beverly curiosity made me manoeuvre myself to the seat next to him at supper.
“Who was that lady I saw you with last night?” I asked.
Mark started one of his slow smiles, but before he could answer Rip Littlejohn piped up that that was no lady, that was Beverly Harding. I glared at Rip.
“Enough,” I said, kicking him under, the table. “Where did you meet her Mark?”
“At the library. I was looking for an economics book and she used to use the same one at Smith.”
“Ah,’’ said Rip. “An intellectual companionship.”
This time Mark merely shrugged. “If you want to call it that.”
I wasn’t sure what to call it, but perhaps Rip was right.
ALL FALL Mark continued to lead xV. the interference, and he intercepted a pass for the winning touchdown in the Tech game. And all fall Beverly went to the dances with him, and sometimes I saw them strolling along the campus walks scuffing the red leaves, Mark in his lumberjack shirt and Beverly with the dark fur collar of her storm coat setting off the brightness of her hair. From time to time their hands would touch and shyly part again. At winter houseparties she was Mark’s date and wore blue and silver to the ball. They picked her for queen and Mark looked painfully proud.
I saw them afterward back at the fraternity house. It was like the aftermath of most dances—everyone changed from evening clothes to slacks and a waiting line for a place to sit down. Kay had come up that week end and she and I were lucky enough to have a love seat by the fire all to ourselves. Beverly and Mark were on another one across from us, where I could see them dimly by the firelight.
T felt a little sorry to see Beverly there. She could take care of herself all right, and I thought Mark would take care of her even if she couldn’t, but she didn’t seem to fit in a fraternity house after a dance. I even neglected Kay a little to watch. I felt very cheap but 1 couldn’t resist it. Mark’s arm lay on the back of the seat, hovering over Beverly’s shoulders but not quite daring to touch them. They stayed that way over a minute, she staring off somewhere into the darkness. Then she leaned forward and kissed him, and Mark’s arm folded her in. Their kiss reminded me of the kisses Beverly used to give me on the stage.
I couldn’t figure it out. A girl like Beverly had no need for necking to keep up a man’s interest, and she looked almost wildly happy, but that kiss had had less passion than art. Almost as if she’d forced herself to it. I
Mark was just starting to follow it up when Rip Littlejohn shuffled over. He was slightly drunk and showed it in his bow. “1 wish,” he said, “to offer my undying loyalty to our queen! Long may she reign, and may she —er-—”
He stood stupidly scratching his head, and Mark frowned, but Beverly looked relieved at the interruption. She smiled at Rip and passed off some friendly remark that sent him away beaming. Mark clasped her hand anxiously and they relaxed again. For a long time they sat staring at the red
coals, but I saw no more kisses.
Yet the next morning there was a Pi Phi pin on Beverly’s sweater and Mark was floating gracefully six inches off the floor. 1 don’t think anybody blamed him, certainly not I. My only feeling in the matter was a blend of envy, disappointment, and mild surprise. Envy because Kay was just a pretty girl and Beverly was something from fairyland. Disappointment that anything so free as a fairy should be caught. And surprise that Mark had done the catching. In that I wasn’t quite alone. I don’t think any of us
had taken Mark seriously as a lover. He seemed too mild, in spite of his football prowess. Now he walked off with the prize and we wondered what there was in him we’d overlooked.
THROUGH winter and early spring I would watch Beverly at the end of the day. When the bell rang to close the library she’d grab her coat and skim the floor to where Mark waited for her. Her face would glow like a pearl and 1 wondered how she could look so worried sometimes as she sat at her work. Almost any girl in
love is beautiful. Bevarly’s beauty when she was with Mark turned up like stage lights but away from him it sometimes seemed drained of all vitality. I think Mark may have suspected it, or noticed something of that sort when they were alone, because one night he dropped into my room and asked me if I thought Beverly was happy. “You work with her,” he said. “You must have noticed.”
“She looks worried sometimes,” I told him. “I don’t know what about.” “I don’t either. I wish I did.” For a long time he sat stroking the plush of my battered old armchair with his strangely delicate fingers. “I love her, Sam. I think she loves me. She says so and I believe it. But there are times when I feel I don’t even know her. I just don’t understand.”
I promised to keep an eye on her, and he went. It was a shame, I thought. Mark and Beverly made a fine pair and there shouldn’t be any drawbridges between them.
Yet I think there must have been.
I still don’t know much about it, but one night in April I saw Beverly alone, and I have been puzzled ever since. It was the first warm evening in spring. I had finished my work about ten and, feeling lonely for Kay or somebody,
1 decided to go for a stroll down by the lake to twist the dagger. The air was like a kiss, and there was a half moon that made it all the worse. I suppose I wasn’t really too sad, though. You can’t be if you enjoy it. But as I walked through the pines by the lake feeling sorry for myself I saw a girl sitting at the edge of the water, all alone, with her legs stretched out and her arms braced back against a rock, and it was Beverly. She was just sitting there, staring at the setting half moon.
I was surprised at first not to see Mark with her, until I remembered I had seen him at the house studying for an hour exam the next day. Beverly hadn’t seen me yet, and I stood under the pines behind her wondering if I should speak. I felt as if I were intruding, but it would be hard to move without her hearing me. While 1 was still trying to make up my mind she suddenly rolled over with a sob and lay face down on the rock crying convulsively. I started to go then, but she heard me moving and looked up. “Oh, it’s you, Sam.” She managed a shamefaced smile through her tears, but her voice quivered.
“Me,” I said. “Sorry to butt in.
I was just trying to figure out a way to move on gracefully.”
“Never mind.” She sat up breathing hard and struggling to control herself. “This is silly, isn’t it?”
“That depends on what it’s all about.”
“Gome over here.” I approached obediently. “It is silly. See that moon up there?”
“Fve been noticing it.”
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Isn’t it more beautiful than when it’s full?” she asked urgently.
“I don’t know,” f said. “I hadn’t thought about it.” I wondered if she were all right and hoped she wouldn’t get hysterical.
“1 think it is. Much more beautiful. Most people don’t agree, but a half moon is always lovelier than the full. And tonight it’s perfect. Em not making sense, am I, Sam? But it’s true. A full moon is all finished and done with. It’s got nothing but decay in front of it. But one like this is young and growing.”
“It will get full too, if you give it time.”
“I know, but I don’t want to give it time. I guess that’s what makes me so miserable tonight. Everything’s
so perfect—that lake, and the trees, and the smell of the air, and the moon, and the light on the water. I guess I just wish it could stay that way. And it’s all changing. Changing to die.” “Everything does. ‘Passing through nature to eternity’ and so forth.”
“I don’t mind the dying. It’s the changing. Things ought to end when they’re at their best, the moon at the crescent and the year at the spring. Just freeze that way forever. Why do they have to grow fat and old and then shrivel up and waste away? You’re a philosopher, Sam. Tell me.”
“Time is the successive awareness of experiences that may in reality be a simultaneous, contiguous, and integral whole.”
“Really? What does that mean?” “Nothing.”
Beverly dangled her hand in the water and spoke in a low voice as if to herself. “It is cleaner for beauty to end sharply. It has to end somehow, and a knife is better than dry rot.”
She got up and brushed off her skirt. “I’d better go home.”
“Shall I take you?”
“No, I’m okay now.” She started off and stopped after a few steps. “Sam.”
“Don’t tell Mark about this, will you? He’d worry.”
“I won’t,” I said.
»She nodded and I watched her out oí sight. Then I studied the moon carefully myself for a few minutes, trying to see the tragedy inherent in the crescent. I thought perhaps I knew what Beverly meant. Something of what Shelley had in mind in Adonais when he wrote: “Life, like a dome of
many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of eternity.” Beverly could have had a vision of an eternal moon with the eternal change of life eternally defacing it. But maybe that wasn’t it.
She seemed to avoid me at work the next day, rather as I had expected. When someone, has caught you emotionally naked it takes you a long time to get properly dressed again. The pre-graduation rush was beginning anyway, with general exams and class day exercises and so forth, so that a few days later I dropped my job and just concentrated on getting my diploma. From then on T saw Beverly only rarely.
I caught a glimpse of her with Mark at the Graduation Ball and wanted to get in a few appropriate words of farewell, but didn’t have the chance. Mark looked happier than I had seen him for some time and I wondered if they were going to announce their engagement, but nothing materialized. The next day I became a B.A. and lelt Varney behind me.
THEN, in the middle of the summer, it happened. Vacationing in the Laurentians, I picked up the local paper one evening and saw the headline:
WOMAN KILLED IN BOND HILL CRASH. It was Beverly Harding. She and another girl had been on a camping trip and had plunged off the road into a deep ravine. The other girl, who was seriously injured, couldn't give a coherent account of it. Beverly had been driving. It was late morning and the road had been empty. Apparently she had just fallen into a reverie and steered through the guard rail on a well-paved straight stretch. She had died in a twisted mass of metal wedged between two boulders.
The news shocked me. I felt a sense
of great loss, a sense of haunting emptiness, of a glory passed from the earth.
Beverly Harding was beautiful, the most beautiful girl I have ever known. Though I knew her only slightly, my life has been marked by her. And yet all that beauty and loveliness were lost without a trace, except in the memories of those who knew her. No one lived after Beverly to be her heir, to inherit that taffy-blond hair and those warm grey eyes. I think that is what pained me most. Beverly should have had tall sons and beautiful daughters, but
she was cut off in the bud. Nature is too prodigal in the way she wastes her finest efforts.
So I thought. Now I see a girl three rows ahead of me and four to the left who seems Beverly Harding incarnate. The same blond hair, the same turnedup nose, the same perfect lines of the face, the same proud eyes. Oh girl, whoever you are, I am glad to see you, for you prove that beauty does not die. But oh, girl, whoever you are, cherish your beauty, for it can fade and vanish. Don’t let the earth be deprived of its light. ig