The Grecian Urn

“Ah, Nancy. Trevor. Welcome to my little soiree. Nancy, let me take your wrap. You look lovely tonight.”

“Thank you, Reggie.” Nancy Ward-Heath slipped off her coat and handed it to her host. Before her stretched a parlor full of people she increasingly did not long to meet.

“Good to see you, Reggie,” said Trevor, pumping hands, though all the way up to the flat he had complained of the necessity of the visit. “These gatherings of Reggie’s are the equivalent of snoozing on a park bench with your mouth open,” he had moaned. “But his old man’s still an influence in the Party, and newly elected as I am, I must make every effort to forge the right alliances.”

“Yes, Trevor,” she had agreed.

“Oh, and if Reggie insists on treating us to some heartfelt dissertation on his latest passion, be it birdwatching or eighteenth-century teacups or New Guinean stamps, by all means humor him.”

“Yes, Trevor.” She gave him the replica of a smile. And when might you stop being such a pin-striped twit? Quite an upset Trev had caused with his victory in the by-election. Congratulations from the P.M. herself. The only problem was, he hadn’t quite sorted out his new persona. Should he be bold and dynamic, seizing the mantle of rising political star? Or should he affect a statesmanlike sagacity that belied his thirty-two years? What about a stance as a no-nonsense negotiator, shrewd, practical, a man not to be trifled with? And what measure of deference to his elders? Oh, he’d discover the right mix soon enough. Trev was smart, at the start of a long and auspicious political career that afforded room to grow and mature. Whereas a glance into the gilded mirror above Reggie’s fireplace was all it took to confirm Nancy’s role: salon hairstyle, blue dress and pearls, teas, receptions and charity chairmanships. Now and forevermore she was to be The Wife.

“White wine for you, Nancy, I believe? I have a chilled Sauvignon Blanc I suspect you might fancy.”

“Yes, a half glass, thank you, Reggie.”

“And for you, Trevor?”

“Scotch, please.”

Nancy watched their host disappear into the crowd. White wine—how demure. She would have preferred something red and spicy or one of those liquor-laden American drinks with names like purple passion or chocolate sunset. And how she would have loved a flamboyant party with loud music and shocking people and literary lions mingling under pink strobe lights. Not that she had ever been to such an affair. Most of the parties she had attended as a children’s book editor involved animal balloons and pastel-frosted cakes.

Another couple was approaching, and from the quick way Trevor moved to greet them Nancy guessed they were Potentially Valuable.

“Nancy,” said Trevor. “I’d like you to meet Arthur Hallam. He’s on the trade commission, and this is his wife, Laura.”

“How do you do?” Nancy shook hands, then stood aside.

“So, Ward-Heath,” said Hallam. “Ready to take up your seat?”

“I certainly am. That new export bill the opposition has proposed is a travesty and—”

Nancy smiled at Laura: salon hairstyle, beige dress and pearls. She noted the colorless drink in Laura’s hand: white wine. Laura smiled back. They both smiled at their husbands while Trevor and Arthur discussed trade.

“But where are your drinks?” asked Hallam, indicating their empty hands. “Reggie does know you’ve arrived?”

“Yes, he’s gone to fetch libations.” Trevor gave his colleague a knowing wink. “Do you suppose this evening will bring another of his little soap operas?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me. The poor fellow never could pass up the opportunity to be boring.”

“Ahem,” said Nancy, indicating with a nod of her head that Reggie was returning. She watched him angle between his guests, glasses held high to escape a bumping, as if he were an intruder rather than the host. No one made way for him; quite likely, they all regarded him as Trevor and Hallam did, a dilettante to be endured for his old money and family connections. Reggie’s face was almost the caricature of an aristocrat, the aquiline nose pinched to a knife blade, the cheekbones so high they practically flared. His cheeks were perpetually flushed with color as if he had just dismounted from a fox hunt, and he wore his dark hair combed straight back with scarcely a wave. Yet at forty-odd Reggie was also tall and well built, not running to paunch like some of the other men in the room.

“Thank you, Reggie,” she said, accepting her glass. Trevor and the Hallams had been diverted by another couple, and she felt content to lose them. “How nice your flat looks. I remember when we were here at Christmas and you had all those wonderful decorations, pine boughs and wreaths and that splendid fir tree. You had a snowy village scene here on the mantel…Oh, is this a new vase?” She put out a hand and touched it gently. The object was about ten inches high, a classical double-handled vessel depicting a mythological scene in inky black and earthy red-browns. The piece did not appear expensive nor was it quite the usual souvenir ware, and she felt both curiosity and pleasure at its originality.

“Ah, my Grecian urn.” Reggie’s face glowed. “I might have known you’d be the first to notice, Nancy dear. I purchased it last month on holiday in Athens, and it is my heart’s pride, for a truly memorable experience lies behind it. I intend to tell everyone the story as soon as they’ve had a chance to socialize.”

Nancy smiled at the sneak preview, wondering if there were any tactful way to dissuade Reggie from being himself. “Trevor will especially enjoy hearing it, I’m sure.”

“But dear me, is that a speck of dust?” Reggie frowned into the vase. “I must get a cloth.”

“I’ll come with you. Perhaps you’d show me around the rest of your flat? Trevor thinks we ought to get a place in Mayfair.”

“Does he? Well, if we’re going to explore my vast estate, we must take sustenance.” He piloted her to a buffet and arranged a plate with hors d’oeuvres. “Now that’s very interesting about a flat in Mayfair because do you know there’s a place right up the street that my old friend Sir Edward is about to let, very similar in size and proportion to mine. Then we’d be neighbors, and I’d see you and Trevor often.”

He offered his arm, and she slipped her hand through it, feeling the warm texture of his tweed jacket.

“My, you keep everything so neat, so clean,” she said as he led her through the rooms, the two of them munching on grapes and water crackers with Brie.

“Well, I do have a woman in twice a week.”

“And the furnishings are so handsome.” She ran a hand over a cherry wood cabinet in the bedroom where they had paused.

“Mostly family heirlooms, I confess.”

“Why have you never married?” she asked and immediately sucked in her breath, because of course Trevor and the others already had an explanation for that. “Reggie, I’m sorry, that was terribly impertinent of me. It’s just that you have this lovely home, and with your family connections—I’m sorry. I’m still getting the hang of this.”

“That’s all right. I’ve never gotten the hang of it. Never could quite pull it off.” He set down the plate, laughter from his party intruding through the bedroom door. He motioned toward the hallway. “They don’t even know I’m gone.”

“Oh, Reggie—”

“Don’t worry. It’s fine.” He waved the air to erase her concern. “I don’t know why I keep testing the waters, except that I haven’t found any other congenial pool in which to swim. As for the marrying bit, there have been women, but on deeper acquaintance they found they couldn’t take me seriously. Women like to mold a man, and I am decidedly un-moldable.”

“But I don’t want to mold Trevor. Quite the opposite—I feel I’m the one being pushed and prodded into shape. I worked hard to help Trev get elected, I co-wrote half his speeches, and now I’m being consigned to hosting tea parties.”

“Ah, but as I recall, you have a profession of your own. Editing children’s books, isn’t that it?”

“Not any more. I took a leave of absence to help with the campaign, and now I’m pregnant.”

She sat down on the bed with her untouched glass of wine, and he sat beside her and squeezed her hand.

“But, dear Nancy, that’s wonderful! Congratulations!”

“Is it? Then why haven’t I told Trevor?” She flinched at the unspoken answer: because he’ll turn it into a PR moment—why go out of your way to kiss babies when you can be photographed kissing your own? “I’m sorry, Reggie. I know this is my fault, I signed up for it, be careful what you wish for and all that. But so much is happening so fast, I can’t figure out where I belong.”

He gave a sympathetic shrug. “Quite natural, my dear, and there are indeed constraints you must bend to as an M.P.’s wife. We all have our obligations, me to my family, you to your husband’s political career. The alternative ranges from being a perennial mild embarrassment to a total outcast, a black sheep, and I suspect you, like me, lack an outlaw’s soul.”

“I’m finding it hard enough to develop a thick skin against what gets printed in the papers now.”

“Yet you will. And don’t despair—even in our august circle, charming personal quirks can be tolerated. Speaking of which, it’s time for me to go out there and bore them stiff about my Grecian urn.”

He grinned and her jaw dropped.

“You know?”

“I find the sound of laughter behind one’s back often carries more clearly to the ears than the frontal variety. But it’s the one way I can shake them up a bit, rattle their self-contained world.”

He offered his hand, and Nancy took it and rose.

“Do let me help, Reggie. Let me introduce you.”

He raised his eyebrows in amusement. “Very well. Let’s go.”

They returned to the mantel where they stood for several minutes without anyone noticing.

“Excuse me, everyone! Excuse me!” Nancy made her voice bright. “Reggie has just been telling me about this splendid vase he bought on holiday in Athens, and it was such a unique experience, I felt sure all of you would want to hear the story as well. Please, Reggie, indulge me.”

“Yes, yes,” came several voices, including Trevor’s, and Nancy went to stand by his side.

“How kind of you to ask,” said Reggie, sending a warm glance after her. “Well, as Nancy said, I spent my holiday last month in Athens, and there I was on the last day, ambling about with my tour, when I realized I had forgotten to purchase a present for Aunt Cora. So I deserted the others and made for the shopping district, the Plaka, hoping to locate something unusual.”

Tenderly, he lifted the urn.

“I turned down a sunlit side street, and there I came upon an open door. It was an artisan’s studio, and inside sat a handsome youth with fine olive skin and dark curly hair. He was bent over this vase, painting, and the walls around him held shelves crowded with vessels and pots of every size and description. With a nod of his head, he invited me in, then he dipped his brush into a jar of black and continued working while I scanned his wares.

“Some of the vessels were unfinished, and their blush color and smooth forms reminded me of newborn babes with their eyes still closed. Others were already illustrated in warm and ancient earth tones. One magnificent vase had an applique of gold, for it told the story of Zeus’s visit to Danae in a golden shower. But my eye kept returning to the artist, sitting on a stool beside a small table cluttered with brushes and paints, and to this urn in his hands.”

“His eye kept returning to the artist, period,” whispered Arthur Hallam, and Nancy pointedly gave Reggie her full attention.

Reggie caressed his vase.

“The young man beckoned me to take the seat before him, and as I did, it struck me his face was familiar. I tried to place the dark-fringed eyes, the straight nose, the sloping brow. Then he happened to turn, and in profile I discovered the likeness. All that week I had gazed upon him, in the museum sculptures we had studied on tour, as if his face were a composite of noble features passed from his forebears in the Golden Age. Such a youth might have sat at the feet of Socrates. Then with mounting excitement I focused on the urn, watching these very scenes come alive beneath his brush.”

Lovingly, Reggie turned the vase, pointing to each detail.

“With delicate strokes he painted this wall. Then the maiden, on one side, whispering through the chink. On the other, this ardent young man, his ear pressed to the hole to receive her message. And here the tragic outcome, the retreating lion, the bloodstained cloak, the dying lovers beneath the mulberry, their story memorialized in its deep red fruit. Who could fail to recognize Ovid’s tale of the forbidden love of Thisbe and Pyramus?”

Nancy knew Reggie’s glance would meet hers, and it did.

“Art,” breathed Reggie. “How can I tell you how entranced I was to be present at its creation? For although it is easy to scoff at the output of a journeyman painter, something more was unfolding. See the sensuous drape of the maiden’s gown, the intricate lines of the mulberry leaves? Not once did the artist’s brush slip, his hand err, as the images flowed into being. And with each stroke, I wanted to cry, ‘Stop! That’s it! It’s perfect!’ only to find the next stroke was even more necessary and essential than the last. Then he reached the critical point…and voilà!” Reggie held the vase aloft. “A true artist knows when to stop.”

“Then be a true artist and spare us,” said Trevor behind his hand.

“Well,” said Reggie, “those of us who have no such talent can only stand and admire and recall Keats’s immortal words on beauty and truth. Yet here was the most wonderful thought of all: Might we not, this young man and I, have played this very scene millennia past if I had been a Greek patrician entering his shop to commission a new urn? My joy was boundless, for until that moment I had failed to find the soul of Greece. The Parthenon closed off and crumbling. The once-glorious monuments eaten away by air pollution. The best marbles not even in Athens at all, but preserved here in our own British Museum. Yet for one instant in that humble shop I felt myself transported to that Golden Age, and I exalted in the Greece that was.”

He replaced the vase on the mantel, and there were murmurs—“Delightful story, Reg.” “So glad you enjoyed your holiday.”—and applause. Nancy made her way toward him.

“I loved your story,” she said, as they surveyed the party together. “Outlaw.”

“In a small way,” he agreed. “We do what we can. By the way, I completely forgot to buy a present for Aunt Cora. Dear me, she was miffed.”

“Well, don’t forget that I want you to show me your friend Sir Edward’s flat. I was thinking…If Trevor and I were to move into Mayfair, could I come here sometimes to get away? Like a safe house or a bomb shelter? We could have tea and chat.”

“I’d be delighted, though you won’t want to make a habit of befriending amiable losers. In fact, you should go circulate now.”

He shooed her off with a knowing nod, and at the evening’s end, she and Trevor bid their goodbyes to Reggie and went downstairs to their cab.

“Well, I must say that was absolutely brilliant of you,” said Trevor, “improvising that intro for Reggie, smoothing the way for him to step onto his own little stage.”

“Was it?”

“Oh yes. Made him feel the whole room cared. I’m sure Laura Hallam was positively simmering not to have thought of it.” He chuckled at the coup. “Thank you for humoring him.”

“Yes, Trevor,” she said and smiled.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1989)

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