Editor’s note: The Duchess of Angus is a novel written in the 1950s by Margaret Brown Kilik, who lived in San Antonio briefly during World War II. The story, which is set in the city, follows the day-to-day adventures of 20-year-old Jane Davis, whose life closely mirrors that of Kilik. In advance of the March 17 publication date, Trinity University Press has granted the Rivard Report permission to publish five excerpts, one of which will appear each day this week.
Although the Easter season came early that year, it did not bring with it the abrupt emotional uplift that I had always associated with that time. This was due in part to the soft warm climate. Here we did not need a promise of spring, of better things ahead—we never lost them—in a cold gray winter. Except for a half-hearted blizzard, which might last anywhere from an hour to two days and emptied the stores and streets and discontinued transportation, we lived in a fragrant tropical garden.
Then, too, we were in the midst of a war. We were living as nearly as possible at a constant peak of excitement. There was a song in our hearts in those days. True, it was a melancholy song. But an affected melancholy tempered by confidence. And we enjoyed everything about it.
Excerpts from the novel, a rarely seen picture of San Antonio in the post-WWII, pre-feminist era from a female point of view, will appear daily this week.
As I left the store the Saturday before Easter, I was very much aware of the time, the place, and the moment. In the half block from Joske’s of Texas to the Alamo, three cadets, a pair of sergeants, and one stunning second lieutenant made futile stabs at last-minute Saturday night dates. But the night was young, I felt hot and messy, and Wade Howell had a crazy notion about hunting for confetti eggs in the Mexican Quarter.
That morning, when she handed me the advertising copy for the Sportshop, I found a little note clipped to the top sheet. It was marked personal. Of course, it was from Wade Howell. Even Joske’s art department would go to pieces if its artists handled their pencils with such a tight elementary grip. And certainly it was for me. She didn’t speak to anyone else in sportswear. Reading the note, I couldn’t avoid feeling a little quiver of annoyance. Why should I be destined to jump and run any time this strange girl saw t to turn her smooth young head in my direction? I was tempted to refuse the invitation when it occurred to me that all I had to look forward to that night was a date with Tad Withers. Then, too, the notion that I was indebted to Wade Howell sucked at me like a leech. I pictured, not entirely unhappily, a blackmail that would go on forever.
I found Wade Howell posed before a display of antique silver. Dark hair, dark glasses, white dress—the cool lady of mystery on the hot streets of a southern city. She looked satisfied.
“Let’s freshen up,” she said.
I didn’t mention the fact that we were only three blocks from the Angus. Instead we pushed past ve blocks of soldiers to the Saint Anthony Hotel. In the ladies’ lounge, she pulled o her dress, kicked o her shoes, and ran a basin of water all at once.
On the mirrored door there were flimsy depictions of languorous mermaids floating among seaweed that looked curiously like cacti. In a futile attempt to be modern, the artist had disjointed the mermaids so that the effect was more pitiful than decorative. But for an instant, when Wade Howell stood before the mirror, the painting took on the sensuous quality that was intended. One of the shirtails [sic] fitted perfectly on her torso. Startled, I let out a little gasping sound before I had time to catch myself. She must have noticed, for she turned her head slightly to give her shoulders and breasts a more seductive quality.
“Come home with me tonight, and we’ll swim in the pool.” She said this in the hesitant throaty whisper she had adopted as her natural voice. I was accustomed to this affectation by now and usually found it restful in the midst of all the jittery chatter about me. But at that point it disturbed me as much as the invitation.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “some other time.” And I meant it. I simply wasn’t ready.
Wade Howell tossed her shoulder and went back to the business at hand. The next ve minutes were a work of art. A few deft movements and the short dark hair was shampooed and dried, the amber body was sponged and dressed, and we were off on a nonsensical escapade.
It was a relief to get away from the plush pink lounge with the lavender mermaids. It was the first time I experienced the curious wave of discontent that I was to come to know so well. The feeling always soared higher and dipped lower when I was in close quarters with this girl. At first I thought it was my own restlessness and boredom with playing second. Not until much later did I realize that I was experiencing the humiliating sensation of feeling unwanted. Wade Howell wanted desperately to be alone with her own precious body.