IN THE CLOUD CAPTAIN’S Coffee Shop, Captain Vernon Demerest ordered tea for Gwen, black coffee for himself. Coffee–as it was supposed to do–helped keep him alert; he would probably down a dozen more cups between here and Rome. Although Captain Harris would be doing most of the flying of Flight Two tonight, Demerest had no intention of relaxing mentally. In the air, he rarely did. He was aware, as were most veteran pilots, that aviators who died in their beds of old age were those who throughout their careers had been ready to cope instantly with the unexpected.
“We’re both unusually quiet,” Gwen said in her gentle English voice. “We scarcely said a word coming into the terminal.”
It was just a few minutes since they left the departure concourse, after announcement of the one hour flight delay. They had managed to snare a booth near the rear of the coffee shop, and now Gwen was looking into the mirror of her compact, patting her hair into place where it flowed superbly from beneath the smart Trans America stewardess cap. Her dark, expressive eyes switched briefly from the mirror to Vernon Demerest’s face.
“I wasn’t talking,” Demerest said, “because I’ve been thinking; that’s all.”
Gwen moistened her lips, though not applying lipstick–airlines had strict rules against stewardesses applying make-up in public. In any case, Gwen used very little; her complexion was the milk and roses kind which so many English girls seemed born with.
“Thinking about what? Your traumatic experience–the announcement we’re to be parents?” Gwen smiled mischievously, then recited, “Captain Vernon Waldo Demerest and Miss Gwendolyn Aline Meighen announce the approaching arrival of their first child, a… what?… We don’t know, do we? We won’t for another seven months. Oh well, it isn’t long to wait.”
He remained silent while their coffee and tea was set before them, then protested, “For God’s sake, Gwen, let’s be serious about this.”
“Why should we be? Especially if I’m not. After all, if anyone’s worrying, it ought to be me.”
He was about to object again when Gwen reached for his hand under the table. Her expression changed to sympathy. “I’m sorry. I suppose it really is a bit shattering–for both of us.”
It was the opening Demerest had been waiting for. He said carefully, “It needn’t be shattering. What’s more, we don’t have to be parents unless we choose to be.”
“Well,” Gwen said matter-of-factly, “I was wondering when you’d get around to it.” She snapped her compact close, and put it away. “You almost did in the car, didn’t you? Then thought better of it.”
“Thought better of what?”
“Oh really, Vernon! Why pretend? We both know perfectly well what it is you’re talking about. You want me to have an abortion. You’ve been thinking about it ever since I told you I was pregnant. Well, haven’t you?”
He nodded reluctantly. “Yes.” He still found Gwen’s directness disconcerting.
“What’s the matter? Did you think I’d never heard about abortions before?”
Demerest glanced over his shoulder, wondering if they could be overheard, but the clatter of the coffee shop, the buzz of conversation generally, were all-pervading.
“I wasn’t sure how you’d feel.”
“I’m not sure either.” It was Gwen’s turn to be serious. She was looking down at her hands, the long slender fingers he admired so much now clasped in front of her. “I’ve thought about it. I still don’t know.”
He felt encouraged. At least there was no slammed door, no blank refusal.
He tried to make himself the voice of reason. “It’s really the only sensible thing to do. Maybe in some ways it’s unpleasant to think of, but at least it’s over quickly, and if it’s done properly, therapeutically, there’s no danger involved, no fear of complications.”
“I know,” Gwen said. “It’s all terribly simple. Now you have it; now you don’t.” She looked at him directly. “Right?”
He sipped his coffee. Perhaps this was going to be easier than he had thought.
“Vernon,” Gwen said softly, “have you considered that what’s inside me is a human being; that it’s alive, a person–even now? We made love. It’s us, you and me; a part of us.” Her eyes, more troubled than he had yet seen them, searched his face for a response.
He said emphatically, his voice deliberately harsh, “That isn’t true. A fetus at this stage is not a human being; nor is it a person, not yet. It could be later, but it isn’t now. It doesn’t have life or breath or feeling. An abortion–particularly this soon–isn’t the same as taking a human life.”
Gwen reacted with the same quick temper she had shown in the car on their way to the airport. “You mean it might not be such a good thing later on? If we waited, then had an abortion, it might not be so ethical when the baby was perfectly formed, its fingers and toes all there. To kill it then might be a little worse than now. Is that it, Vernon?”
Demerest shook his head. “I didn’t say that.”
“But you implied it.”
“If I did, I didn’t mean to. In any case, you’re twisting words around.”
Gwen sighed. “I’m being womanly.”
“No one’s more entitled to be.” He smiled; his eyes moved over her. The thought of Naples, with Gwen… a few hours from now… still excited him.
“I do love you, Vernon. I really do.”
Under the table he retrieved her hand. “I know. It’s why this is hard for us both.”
“The thing is,” Gwen said slowly, as if thinking aloud, “I’ve never conceived a child before, and until it happens a woman always wonders if she can. When you find out, as I have, that the answer’s yes, in a way it’s a gift, a feeling… that only a woman knows… that’s great and wonderful. Then suddenly in our kind of situation, you’re faced with ending it all, of squandering what was given.” Her eyes were misty. “Do you understand, Vernon? Really understand?”
He answered gently, “Yes, I think so.”
“The difference between you and me is that you’ve had a child.”
He shook his head. “I’ve no children. Sarah and I…”
“Not in your marriage. But there was a child; you told me so. A little girl; the one from the 3-PPP Program”–Gwen gave the ghost of a smile–“who was adopted. Now, whatever happens there’s always someone, somewhere, that’s you again.”
He remained silent.
Gwen asked, “Do you ever think about her? Don’t you ever wonder where she is, what she’s like?”
There was no reason to lie. “Yes,” he said. “Sometimes I do.”
“You’ve no means of finding out?”
He shook his head. He had once inquired, but was told that when an adoption was sealed, they threw away the files. There was no way to know–ever.
Gwen drank from her teacup. Over its rim she surveyed the crowded coffee shop. He sensed that her composure had returned; the trace of tears was gone.
She said with a smile, “Oh dear, what a lot of trouble I’m causing you.”
He answered, and meant it: “It isn’t my worrying that matters. It’s what’s best for you.”
“Well, I suppose in the end I’ll do what’s sensible. I’ll have an abortion. I just have to think it through, talk it out, first.”
“When you’re ready, I’ll help. But we shouldn’t lose much time.”
“I suppose not.”
“Look, Gwen,” he assured her, “the whole thing is fast, and I promise you it’ll be medically safe.” He told her about Sweden; that he would pay whatever the clinic cost; that the airline would cooperate in getting her there.
She acknowledged, “I’ll make up my mind, for sure, before we get back from this trip.”
He picked up their check, and they rose to leave. It was nearing time for Gwen to be on hand to greet passengers boarding Flight Two.
As they left the coffee shop, she said, “I guess I’m pretty lucky you’re the way you are. Some men would have walked away and left me.”
“I won’t leave you.”
But he would leave her; he knew that now. When Naples and the abortion were over, he would finish with Gwen, break off their affair–as considerately as he could, but completely and definitely just the same. It would not be too difficult. There might be an uncomfortable moment or two when Gwen learned of his intention, but she was not the kind to make a fuss; she had demonstrated that already. In any event, he could handle the situation, which would not be a new one. Vernon Demerest had disentangled himself successfully from amorous affairs before.
It was true that this time there was a difference. No one before had ever had quite the same effect on him as Gwen. No other woman had stirred him quite so deeply. No one else–at least, whom he remembered–had caused him to enjoy her company, just being with her, quite so much. Parting, for himself, would not be easy, and he knew he would be tempted, later on, to change his mind.
But he would not. Through all his life so far, once he had decided on a course of action, Vernon Demerest had seen it through. Seff-discipline was a habit he enforced.
Besides, commonsense told him that if he did not break with Gwen soon, the time might come when he could not, when–self-discipline or not–he could never bring himself to give her up. If that happened, it would entail a need for permanence and, along with that, the kind of catastrophic upheaval–marital, financial, emotional–which he was determined to avoid. Ten or fifteen years ago, maybe; not now.
He touched Gwen’s arm. “You go on. I’ll follow in a minute.”
Ahead of them, as the crowds in the central concourse parted briefly, he had observed Mel Bakersfeld. Vernon Demerest had no particular objection to being seen with Gwen; just the same, there was no sense in advertising their relationship around the family.
His brother-in-law, he noticed, was talking earnestly with Lieutenant Ned Ordway, the efficient, amiable Negro who commanded the airport police detachment. Perhaps Mel would be too absorbed to notice his sister’s husband, which was perfectly all right with Demerest, who had no particular wish for a meeting, though at the same time he had no intention of avoiding one.
Gwen disappeared into the crowd; his last glimpse of her was of shapely, nylon-sheathed legs, and ankles equally as attractive and proportionate. O Sole Mio… hurry up!
Damn! Mel Bakersfeld had seen him.
“I WAS LOOKING for you,” Lieutenant Ordway had told Mel a few minutes earlier. “I’ve just heard we’re having visitors–several hundred.”
Tonight the airport police chief was in uniform; a tall, striking figure who looked like an African emperor, though for one so big, he spoke with surprising softness.
“We already have visitors.” Mel glanced around the crowded, bustling concourse. He had been passing through on the way to his office on the executive mezzanine. “Not hundreds; thousands.”