The question of Joe Pearson, for example. Had O’Donnell’s own closeness to the scene misled him there? It had been necessary for the hospital to hire a second pathologist; he was convinced of that. But had he himself tended to criticize the old man unduly, to magnify organizational weaknesses—and every hospital department had a few—out of true proportion? For a time O’Donnell had even considered asking Pearson to retire; was that in itself a symptom of unbalanced judgment, a hasty condemnation of an older man by one his junior in years? Of course, that was before Eustace Swayne had made it clear that his quarter-million-dollar donation was contingent on Joe Pearson’s remaining at the helm of Pathology; Swayne, incidentally, had still not confirmed the gift. But O’Donnell felt his judgment was superior to considerations like that, however important they might seem. In all probability Joe Pearson had a lot to give Three Counties still; his accumulated experience should surely count for something. It was true, he decided; your thinking did improve when you were away—even if you had to find a cocktail bar to do some reasoning quietly.
A waiter had stopped at the table. “A refill, sir?”
O’Donnell shook his head. “No, thanks.”
The man produced a check. O’Donnell added a tip and signed it.
It was seven-thirty when he left the hotel. There was still plenty of time to spare, and he walked cross-town on Fifty-fifth as far as Fifth Avenue. Then, hailing a cab, he continued uptown to the address Denise had given him. The driver stopped near Eighty-sixth, outside a gray stone apartment building. O’Donnell paid off the cab and went in.
He was greeted respectfully by a uniformed hall porter. The man asked his name, then consulted a list. He said, “Mrs. Quantz left a message to say would you please go up, sir?” He motioned to the elevator, an identically uniformed operator beside it. “It’s the penthouse floor, sir—the twentieth. I’ll tell Mrs. Quantz you’re on the way.”
At the twentieth floor the elevator doors opened silently onto a spacious carpeted hallway. Occupying most of one wall was a large Gobelin tapestry depicting a hunting scene. Opposite were double carved oak doors which now opened, and a manservant appeared. He said, “Good evening, sir. Mrs. Quantz asked me to show you into the lounge. She’ll be with you in a moment.”
He followed the man down a second hallway and into a living room almost as large as his own entire apartment at Burlington. It was decorated in shades of beige, brown, and coral, a sweep of sectional settees offset by walnut end tables, their rich darkness in simple, striking contrast to the deep broadloom of pale beige. The living room opened onto a flagstoned terrace, and he could see the last rays of evening sunshine beyond.
“May I get you something to drink, sir?” the manservant said.
“No, thanks,” he answered. “I’ll wait for Mrs. Quantz.”
“You won’t have to,” a voice said, and it was Denise. She came toward him, her hands held out. “Kent dear, I’m so glad to see you.”
For a moment he looked at her. Then he said slowly, “I am too,” and added truthfully, “Until this moment I hadn’t realized how much.”
Denise smiled and leaned forward to kiss his cheek lightly. O’Donnell had a sudden impulse to take her into his arms, but restrained it.
She was even more beautiful than he remembered, with a smiling radiance that left him breathless. She had on a short, full-skirted evening gown of jet-black lace over a strapless sheath of black silk, the lace about her shoulders accenting the filmy vision of white flesh beneath. At her waist was a single red rose.
She released one of his hands and with the other led him to the terrace. The manservant had preceded them, carrying a silver tray with glasses and a cocktail shaker. Now he withdrew discreetly.
“The martinis are already mixed.” Denise looked at O’Donnell inquiringly. “Or if you like I can get you something else.”
“Martini is fine.”
Denise poured two drinks and handed him one. She was smiling, her eyes warm. Her lips said softly, “Welcome to New York from a committee of one.”
He sipped the martini; it was cool and dry. He said lightly, “Please thank the committee.”
For a brief moment her eyes caught his. Then, taking his arm, she moved across the terrace toward the low, pillared balustrade which marked its end.
O’Donnell asked, “How is your father, Denise?”
“He’s well, thank you. Entrenched like a true die-hard, of course, but in good health. Sometimes I think he’ll outlive us all.” She added, “I’m very fond of him.”
They had stopped and stood looking down. It was dusk now, the warm, mellow dusk of late summer, and the lights of New York were flickering on. From the streets below the throb of evening traffic was steady and insistent, punctuated by the peaklike whine of diesel buses and the full points of impatient horns. Across the way, its outline blurring into shadow, was Central Park, only scattered street lamps marking the roadways through. Beyond, the west-side streets dimmed darkly into the Hudson River; and on the river the pinpoint lamps of shipping were a link between the blackness and the distant glimmering New Jersey shore. Uptown, O’Donnell could see the George Washington Bridge, its highstrung floodlights a chain of white, bright beads, and, below, the headlights of cars, multi-laned, streaming across the bridge, away from the city. O’Donnell thought: People going home.
A warm, soft breeze stirred around them, and he was conscious of Denise’s closeness. Her voice said softly, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Even though you know that under the lights there are things that are wrong and hateful, it’s still beautiful. I love it all, especially at this time of evening.”
He said, “Have you ever considered going back—to Burlington, I mean?”
“You can never go back,” Denise said quietly. “It’s one of the few things I’ve learned. Oh, I don’t mean just Burlington, but everything else—time, people, places. You can revisit, or renew acquaintance, but it’s never really the same; you’re detached; you’re passing through; you don’t belong because you’ve moved on.” She paused. “I belong here now. I don’t believe I could ever leave New York. Do I sound terribly unrealistic?”
“No,” he said. “You sound terribly wise.”
He felt her hand on his arm. “Let’s have one more cocktail,” she said, “then you may take me to dinner.”
Afterward they had gone to the Maisonette, a discreet and pleasantly appointed night club on Fifth Avenue. They had dined and danced, and now they had come back to their table. “How long have you in New York?” Denise asked.
“I go back in three more days,” he answered.
She inclined her head. “Why so soon?”
“I’m a workingman.” He smiled. “My patients expect me to be around and there’s a lot of hospital business too.”
Denise said, “I rather think I shall miss you.”
He thought for a moment, then turned to face her. Without preliminary he said, “You know that I’ve never been married.”
“Yes.” She nodded gravely.
“I’m forty-two,” he said. “In that time, living alone, one forms habits and patterns of life that might be hard to change or for someone else to accept.” He paused. “What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that I might be difficult to live with.”
Denise reached out and covered his hand with her own. “Kent, darling, may I be clear about something?” She had the slightest of smiles. “Is this by any chance a proposal of marriage?”
O’Donnell was grinning broadly; he felt absurdly, exuberantly, boyish. “Now that you mention it,” he said, “I rather think it is.”
There was a moment’s silence before Denise answered, and when she spoke he sensed that she was maneuvering for time. “I’m very flattered, but aren’t you being a little rash? After all, we scarcely know one another.”
“I love you, Denise,” he said simply.
He felt her regarding him searchingly. “I could love you too,” she said. Then she added, speaking slowly and choosing her words, “At this moment everything in me tells me to say yes and to grab you, dearest, with two eager hands. But there’s a whisper of caution. When you’ve made one mistake you feel the need to be careful about committing yourself again.”
“Yes,” he said, “I can understand that.”
“I’ve never fallen in,” she said, “with the popular idea that one can shed partners quickly and afterward get over it, rather like taking an indigestion tablet. That’s one of the reasons, I suppose, why I’ve never got a divorce.”
“The divorce wouldn’t be difficult?”
“Not really. I imagine I could go to Nevada to arrange it, or some such place. But there’s the other thing—you’re in Burlington; I’m in New York.”
He said carefully, “You really meant what you said, Denise—about not living in Burlington?”
She thought before answering. “Yes. I’m afraid I do. I couldn’t live there—ever. There’s no use pretending, Kent; I know myself too well.”
A waiter appeared with coffee and replenished then: cups. O’Donnell said, “I feel a sudden compulsion for the two of us to be alone.”
Denise said softly, “Why don’t we go?”
He called for the check and paid it, helping Denise on with her wrap. Outside a doorman summoned a cab and O’Donnell gave the address of the Fifth Avenue apartment. When they had settled back, Denise said, “This is a very selfish question, but have you ever considered moving your practice to New York?”
“Yes,” he answered, “I’m thinking about it now.”
He was still thinking when they entered the apartment block and rode up in the elevator. Ever since Denise’s question he had been asking himself: Why shouldn’t I go to New York? There are fine hospitals; this is a medical city. It would not be difficult to get on staff somewhere. Setting up practice would be comparatively easy; his own record, as well as the friends he had in New York, would bring him referrals. He reasoned: What really keeps me tied to Burlington? Does my life belong there—now and for always? Isn’t it time, perhaps, for a change, a new environment? I’m not married to Three Counties Hospital, nor am I indispensable. There are things I’d miss, it’s true; the sense of building and creation, and the people I’ve worked with. But I’ve accomplished a great deal; no one can ever deny that. And New York means Denise. Wouldn’t it be worth it—all?
At the twentieth floor Denise used her own key to let them in; there was no sign of the manservant O’Donnell had seen earlier.
As if by consent they moved to the terrace. Denise asked, “Kent, would you like a drink?”
“Perhaps later,” he said, and reached out toward her. She came to him easily and their lips met. It was a lingering kiss. His arms tightened around her and he felt her body respond to his own. Then gently she disengaged herself.