But it took no effort on their part to come to conclusions; conclusions leapt upon them like grasshoppers on ripening grain.
In the next few weeks, they received calls from Eric's clients from his years with Richardson & Greene, ran into people in stores and on the street, were subjected to "meaningful" looks from building materials representatives, all bearing some delightfully shocking if unsubstantiated tidbit that reflected badly on Eric and Sandy's professional reputations. None of their current clients cancelled their agreements, but neither did the firm seem to be getting anything more in. Perhaps a month's worth of drawing remained on the Weisman cabinetry, but after that, who could tell?
There was nothing to prove a Nick Hardt connection with the rumor campaign, and Eric felt it'd be like tracking a ghost, or a demon, to try to run him down.
He felt better in anticipation of a travelling exhibition of Old Masters from the National Gallery in London. Though a fine connoisseur of the moderns, he bore a lively enthusiasm for their predecessors, and as a member of the Civic Museum's Fine Arts Guild he was invited to attend the inaugural reception the night before the exhibit officially opened.
The November night was cool without being cold and he decided to walk over and prolong his sense of expectation. He thought of Sandy: Should he have asked her to accompany him to this? But no, it wouldn't be a good idea, going out with one's employee.
Still, there had been that evening with Bach at his place. They'd heard the Magnificat, most of the Brandenburgs, some organ fugues, and at last, neglecting the turntable, they'd discussed the music until the lateness of the hour had been laughable. Where, he wondered, had she developed that knack of expressing his very thought, not parrotlike, but even before the idea had coalesced into English in his own head? And wasn't it remarkable how her serious Christianity breathed new life into the religious works and made him better appreciate Bach's intention in the music? "Soli Deo gloria . . . " He was an agnostic, certainly, but, as he reflected now, that meant "I don't know, not "I won't know."
His meditations scattered like birds at a shot as he entered the Museum's reception hall and Sheila Ryerson descended on him with a look of satisfied accomplishment in her eye. "Eric!" she trumpeted. "I was wondering if you were coming! Let's get you some wine and some of these nice sandwiches, and then I have something to tell you!''
"What?" he said drily. "Somebody's hundred-year-old foundation has caved in and it's all my fault?"
"No, you silly boy! As for that, I got together with a group of my friends, who are also your clients, and we compared notes. We'd all heard the most disastrous stories about each others' houses, and as you may expect, not a word of any of them was true. We agreed that somebody is spreading pernicious gossip about you and resolved not to let them get away with it.''
"That's very good of you all.''
"You don't know who it could be?" Sheila inquired narrowly.
"No. Yes. Well, we have our suspicions, but they can't be proven. Don't worry, Sheila, it's nobody in your circle."
"Well, that's a relief! Oh! What was I going to tell you? Oh, yes! You know that family room we'd just had redecorated when you started working for us and we wouldn't let you touch?"
"Yes, what about it?"
"Well, Jacob and I enjoy your part of the house so much, we feel so comfortable in it, that frankly, we hate going into that room. It's hardly been used for six months. The kids play in there occasionally, but even they complain that it's gloomy. We've even moved the TV to the spare bedroom."
Eric knew that family room well and winced to remember it. It was the sole blaring sour note in the finely-tuned symphony of his redesign: monstrous and dark with its over-stained panelling, ponderous brick fireplace, shag carpet that could have been the progeny of an English sheepdog outraged by a Las Vegas stageset, and black fiberboard beams traversing the oppressively-low dropped ceiling. He wondered why it'd taken them so long to be repelled by it.
"Well," Sheila went on, "I've talked to Jacob, and especially after all this vile gossip, and knowing how painful that room is to you-- no, don't deny it, I know-- we decided you deserved a chance to bring it up to the level of the rest of the house."
His ingrained modesty compelled him to veil his excitement. "Sheila, I'd be happy to make whatever improvements you like in your family room."
"Oh, improvements, shimprovements! Rip the whole damn thing out! It's moribund anyway!"
"What's moribund?" inquired Jacob Ryerson, strolling up beside his wife.
"Our family room," she informed him.
"Oh, yes, that. Absolutely. Say, Eric, sorry about all those rumors flying about you. Though I can't say if I'd be all that sorry if one of them is true, if I were you."
"Which one?" he asked equably, though with some apprehension.
"Why, didn't I hear you'd gotten your secretary pregnant?"
"That's ridiculous. I don't have a secretary!"
"Well, then, What's-'er-name, your assistant, Miss B-- "
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Ryerson!" Eric could not forbear himself. "Alexandra Beichten is a fine Christian woman who would die before she'd do anything of the sort and I think it's disgusting you'd even insinuate such a thing!"
A bomb thrown in their midst could not have transfixed them in a more appalling glare. The Ryersons were Jewish and Eric was paralyzed, aghast at what his assertion had implied.
A voice was speaking, a woman's, saying sensible, commonplace things: "Well, Eric," it said, "When would you like to come over and discuss the family room with us?"
"Oh, yes-- Sheila, next week, I'm-- Jacob, I'm terribly sorry, that must've been extremely offensive to you."
"No," replied the older man heartily, "the offense was mine. I had no business talking about that girl like that. I mean, she may be a prude, but-- " His wife shot him a warning look and he faltered. "Well, Eric, let's call it even, both debts cancelled. Agreed?"
"And Sheila's right. You must come to dinner and tell us what to do with that room. It's unusable as it is," he went on, obviously still embarrassed. "And oh, yes, I have something for you as well, as soon as I can run down Delkirk. Oh, there he is!"
Jacob waylaid and led back to them a short man with reddish whiskers and a cheerful aspect. "You know my partner, Sam Delkirk? Sam, this is Eric Baumann, the architect."
Greetings duly exchanged, Jacob said, "Sam, you do the honors, all right?
"Certainly. Eric, as you know, Jacob and I have run our firm, FirstCon Packaging, out of rented offices for many years now. Well, due to a merger with a smaller firm and some judicious financial dealings, we find that it's high time we moved into a building of our own."
"You have a building in mind?"
"No," said Jacob with great satisfaction. "And that's where you come in. We have the land. The building we want you to design and build."
Eric was overwhelmed. Their first large-scale project! He knew he could do it: he'd managed other such jobs at Richardson and Greene. But now, after the apprehension of the past weeks-- !
"It'll be only two or three storeys," Mr. Delkirk was saying, "but we think you could keep yourself busy with it. I've seen your work, Baumann, and it's as good as any I've seen in New York or Boston. Maybe better."
"It's settled, then!" said Sheila with cheerful finality. "Eric, you and Sam come over for dinner Tuesday night and we'll discuss the great new inroads we're going to make in local architecture!"
They all laughed, a toast was proposed, and the bargain was sealed.
* * * * * * *
Walking home that night, Eric considered how amazingly things had turned around for them. Perhaps he should call Sandy with the news? No, it could wait till Monday.
He felt strangely elated knowing the danger he had run for her, risking the loss of a prime client by going to her defense. He loved Architecture better than anything else on earth or in heaven, and to hazard it, for her sake, should have been a thing foreign to him. Yet he had done it. Absurd, how much it pleased him.
But of course, he finally decided, it was a debt paid. He'd made up for not having challenged Nick Hardt when he'd called her that foul name a few weeks ago. Nick Hardt . . . . but in his mood the thought of the man was like the tail of a lizard that whips into a crack of a sunlit wall and is gone. A benevolent if slightly idiotic spirit was dancing about his brain repeating gleefully, "Virtue is its own reward! Virtue is its own reward!"
But still . . . was that really why he had risked alienating the Ryersons in her defense? Somehow, the mask of beneficent paternalism kept slipping away, half-revealing the face of something unknown but decidedly intriguing. The matter bore thought, Eric concluded, a great deal of it.
by Catrin Lewis, 1983, revised 2013, all rights reserved