From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Winter 1990, Vol. XII, No. 1
In the Tennessee country of my forebears it was not uncommon for a man of good character suddenly to disappear. He might be a young man or a middle-aged man or even sometimes a very old man. Few questions were ever asked. Only rarely was it even speculated that perhaps he had an “ugly situation at home.” It was always assumed, moreover, that such a man had gone away of his own volition and that he had good and sufficient reason for resettling himself elsewhere. Such disappearances were especially common in our earliest history, before Tennessee achieved statehood even, but they continued all through the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth. We were brought up on stories of such disappearances. I very early came to think of them as a significant part of our history: the men who had disappeared without leaving behind any explanation of their going.
When in recent years I found myself strangely preoccupied with the possible present whereabouts of one of my mother’s aged cousins, one Aubrey Tucker Bradbury, I could not but be mindful of those old stories I had heard about other men who had vanished. By this time I was already a middle-aged man with grown-up children of my own, and my mother herself had been dead for some while. This middle-aged preoccupation of mine would soon develop into what amounted to an obsession. What seemed particularly impressive to me was that this Cousin Aubrey had managed to vanish three times from our midst before his disappearance was complete and permanent, so to speak. Anyhow, I came to find myself wishing above all things, almost, to know what had finally happened to my old cousin and where he might be living out his days. It did not occur to me either that he had had some great good fortune in life or that he had come to an ignominious or perhaps violent end. But somehow I could not rest until I knew what had become of the man. I realized that even as a child I had a good many times wondered what had happened to him. I suppose I had reason enough to wonder, since on every occasion of our meeting before his final departure he had taken particular pains to show a special dislike for the small boy—and later, the adolescent—who was brought forward to meet him, a dislike which seemed totally unwarranted since our meetings were so few and so brief. But all that aside, my sudden and otherwise unaccountable preoccupation with finding Cousin Aubrey Bradbury was like some old passion of my youth that had been suppressed and was now in late middle age manifesting itself in a more virulent form.
All the while that I was making the first, few, tentative inquiries and investigations concerning this missing cousin and even later when we had found him—as a result of mine and my younger son’s efforts—I continued to think of those other vanished men who had captured my imagination when I was a boy. I felt that they might offer an explanation of Aubrey’s disappearance. I knew how little similarity there could have been between those men and himself—as little as there could also have been between himself and any one of our great achievers, such as my maternal grandfather, for instance, who scaled the great heights of Tennessee politics to end his days in a no less exalted role than that of United States Senator and an entrenched power in the capitol at Washing ton. But nonetheless, the names and stories of those other men’s disappearances would keep returning to my inflamed and strangely excited mind. My constant reference to them in conversation during this time very nearly drove my wife Eliza as well as my son Braxton to distraction. They spoke of this habit I had fallen into as my “mania.” But they listened sympathetically, too—they and the rest of the family—as again and again I cataloged the names of vanished Tennesseans. Apparently I spoke of them always in tones of such a particular veneration that Braxton especially found it wonderfully amusing. He compared it to the listing of Homeric heroes! At any rate, by all means the most famous name in my said catalog was that of our old warrior-hero Governor Sam Houston. Everyone, especially Braxton and his mother, knew the story: On the morning following the night of Governor Sam Houston’s marriage to a Nashville belle, he abandoned his bride and abandoned as well his newly won gubernatorial chair. It is well known that Houston went then for a time to live among the Indians. And afterward, of course, he went on to found the independent Republic of Texas. But for us, the point is that he never returned to Tennessee. . . . Only somewhat less famous in the annals of the state was a man who had been one of our two Confederate senators and who after the War, without seeing his family or his constituents again, went off to live in Brazil. From there he sent back photographs of himself posed in opulent surroundings and attired in romantic Portuguese costume. But when some relative, later on, made a point of looking him up, he was found ·in pathetic rags living in dreadful squalor and quite alone in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. . . . Not all of our vanished men, however, were public men. They were, some of them, simple, landless men who seemed unable to put down roots anywhere. Sometimes they took their wives right along with them when they went away, as well as whatever children they had and perhaps an old grandmother or some other dependent relative or, in the earliest time, perhaps a little clutch of black slaves and even an indentured servant or two. But even these rootless men, when they departed, frequently left under the cover of night, as if the act of moving in itself were a disgrace. I am told that in the first quarter of the last century it was indeed quite common in Tennessee to see a crudely lettered sign nailed to a tree trunk in the front yard of an abandoned farmhouse, reading simply “Gone to Texas.” And that was only a manner of speaking of course. It was merely a statement that another disenchanted man had put forever behind him the long, green hinterland that is Tennessee, and that he never intended returning to her salubrious clime.
Certainly among my earliest memories is my experience aboard the special funeral train bearing the body of my late grandfather, who was in the United States Senate and who died in Washington in 1916. I was the only grandchild taken along on this journey since the others were of school age and would have been too long absent from classes. Aboard that funeral train the Senator’s widow occupied the drawing room in the first of the two Pullman cars. I remember such details not merely because I was present but because I would afterward hear accounts of that train ride repeated endlessly by other members of the family, for whom without exception it was the most important journey of their entire lives. I particularly remember that in the drawing room of the second Pullman car were the late Senator’s three daughters by an earlier marriage, one of them being my mother—young matrons they must be called in the language of that day, though despite each being married and the mother of one or more children they were scarcely more than girls really. And in lower berths nearest to their private compartment would sleep their young husbands, each taking his turn during the long journey to Tennessee at sitting with the dead Senator’s corpse up in the baggage car. Among these, also taking his turn at sitting with the corpse, was of course my father. A certain nephew of the Senator, the aforementioned Aubrey Tucker Bradbury, would from time to time offer to relieve one or another of three sons-in-law at his watch. But the sons-in-law regarded their vigil by the Senator’s coffin as their exclusive privilege. And the fact was that the very presence on the train of this odd-looking and eccentric kinsman of the Senator’s—this Aubrey Tucker Bradbury—was resented by all members of the immediate family. The three sons in-law agreed among themselves that even the wide black armband on the sleeve of Aubrey’s dark suit was a presumption and an affront. More than anyone else perhaps they bore in mind a certain irregularity in Aubrey’s very kinship to the family—that is, that he had been born out of wedlock, being the child of the Senator’s deceased elder brother and a “mountain woman” of obscure background. In the eyes of the family there was something infinitely lugubrious if not sinister in the young man’s very bearing. The eldest of the three sisters was moved to remark (while I, her little nephew, was sitting on her lap in the drawing room) that only by the black mourning band on his sleeve could their cousin Aubrey be distinguished from the long-faced undertakers who had abounded on the scene at the railway platform as they were setting out.
That special train would leave the Union Station in Washington at 2:40 in the afternoon on September 18. The year of course was 1916. Although the funeral procession from the Willard Hotel to the station had been led by a horse-drawn hearse bedecked with a mountain of floral wreaths, the rest of the official procession consisted of four elegant black limousines and eleven other black motor cars. In the uncovered driver’s seat of each of the high-set limousines rode not only a chauffeur uniformed in black but a black uniformed footman as well. I remember my father’s commenting that these funeral vehicles and their funeral attendants were supplied not by the federal government, as one might have supposed, but by the Washington undertaker who would be in charge of all procedure and all protocol until that moment when the Senator’s coffin would be lifted onto the baggage car.
It must be mentioned that alongside the highly polished limousines rode a number of government-provided plainclothesmen—outriders on horseback, as it were. And it cannot go without mention that these men were present because inside the limousines, among other notables, rode two very great personages indeed. Though the American manners of the day forbade that the bereaved family openly acknowledge the presence of any such personage at this solemn occasion, I think it all right, so long afterward and in this latter day, so to speak, for me to make known the rank of those great personages. They were none other than a former president of the United States and the present incumbent himself! Their presence is, however, scarcely a significant part of my story. The important point is that the mounted presidential guards with automatic pistols showing on their belts underneath their jackets seemed impressive to me, at the age of four, and actually frightening to my mother and her two sisters. It gave those young-lady daughters of the dead Senator the uneasy and altogether absurd feeling that the funeral procession might be at tacked as it moved along Pennsylvania Avenue.
One of these three sisters who had this irrational response to the armed guards was of course my mother. This youngest daughter of the Senator was of an apprehensive and nervous temperament. Already, at earlier events of the funeral, she had kept glancing almost suspiciously in the direction of her eccentric cousin Aubrey Tucker Bradbury as if to see if he were experiencing an anxiety similar to her own. (I do think I observed this for myself at the time and was not merely told of it by Mother long afterward.) It was always at Aubrey she glanced during the funeral service and not at her handsome and youthful husband. The sight of Aubrey Bradbury was somehow reassuring to her during the early period of the funeral, as his presence had oftentimes been to her as a child and particularly just after the death of her own mother. Aubrey had actually been her confidant in those earlier times, as he had been also for her sisters during certain times of insecurity in their girlhood, and there had even been a period when this cousin had lived in the house with them and served briefly as their Papa’s private secretary. And at one time and another this same Aubrey had made declarations of undying love to each of the three sisters. (All three of the sisters would in later life give me hints of these outbursts of Aubrey’s.) Anyhow, my mother knew of Aubrey’s sensitive, serious nature and though she had since her marriage—and probably through the influence of her husband—come to think of Aubrey as a ridiculous, unmanly sort of creature, she wondered if he were not today imagining, like herself, that outrageous and terrifying things were going to happen to the funeral party. As a matter of fact, I think that probably without being conscious of it my mother sensed that this occasion marked the end of an era in the life they all had known.
The two other sisters, my two aunts, who were destined to help bring me up after my father’s early death , were persons of a far less apprehensive nature than was my mother , and so they were able to speak more openly of the absurd anxiety they felt that day. Even as they rode along the Avenue between the Willard Hotel and the Union Station and observed total strangers standing at the curb, with hats removed in the old-fashioned way in the presence of death, my Aunt Bertie and Aunt Felicia spoke to each other openly of their anxiety. But my mother, whose name was Gertrude, was of a more introspective and questioning temperament and was unable to speak out about her fear. Her hesitation was due, in part at least, to the peculiar nature of her anxieties. The fantasy she entertained was not merely that those men on horseback would suddenly turn on the procession and perhaps upset the coffin and the precious corpse inside. (That was the “crazy feeling” openly confessed to by my aunts and which, as a matter of fact, they would long afterward laughingly tell me about.) But Trudie, as my mother was always called by her older sisters, imagined those armed men as actually forcing open the coffin and revealing to her that her worst fantasy-fear was come true: that it was not Senator Nathan Tucker’s body locked in the casket but that of someone known to her but whom she could not quite recognize, someone whose identity somehow eluded her or , rather, whose identity she could not quite bring herself to acknowledge.
My mother knew in reason, of course, that her father’s body was present, but during the short funeral service in the hotel ballroom it had occurred to her several times that her father was not really dead at all and locked away in the elaborate, brass-trimmed coffin. She would learn in later years that during the very moments when the three sons-in-law, along with her cousin Aubrey Bradbury and two other young kinsmen, were bearing the coffin down a center aisle that was arranged between hotel ballroom chairs—she would learn, that is to say, that other mourners besides herself had had that same fantasy.
Perhaps it seemed to nearly everyone present that day that whatever else might be inside that coffin it could not be the body of Senator Nathan Tucker of Tennessee. The Senator had always seemed to nearly everybody the liveliest and most alive of men. To all present, moreover , the tragedy of the Senator’s death seemed almost beyond belief if only because of the unlikeliness of the circumstance. They could not accept that this noble, gifted, vigorous, healthy man of sixty who had been more of a gentleman-folk-hero than a mere politician, had been brought down by something as ignoble and trivial-sounding as a gallstone operation.
Of far greater and more lasting significance, though , was the shock to the mourners that this ambitious and talented man would be destroyed at the very peak of his illustrious career in public life. (He had served three terms as governor and was at the beginning of his second term in the Senate.) No doubt the most difficult fact to be faced—or perhaps not to be faced—was that this distinguished son of an old country family, a family that had been distinguishing itself to an ever-greater degree during every generation for more than a hundred years, should now be stricken at the very peak of his family’s supreme elevation. Perhaps all the kin and connections assembled at the funeral were in fact saying to themselves: “We have invested so much confidence and hope in this man as chief of our tribe! In him who helped lead us back into the Union and resolved so many other conflicts within us! If he be dead now, to whom shall we turn to bolster our collective ego, and where shall we turn?” These Tennessee people were, in 1916, a people who still identified themselves most often in terms of family ties. To them the Senator’s achievement represented generations of hanging together in all things. Perhaps everyone present at the funeral service understood this. Perhaps the notables present as well as the fashionable Washington friends of the three daughters were more observing of the antediluvian family feelings than were members of the family themselves. There was something altogether archaic about this family, something that made it seem to step out of an earlier, simpler, nobler age.
Even while riding in the procession to the Union Station and even when the coffin was being hoisted clumsily into the baggage car of the waiting train, Gertrude Tucker Longford, my mother, continued now and again to entertain her ugly fantasy. Her Papa’s body could not lie inside that coffin! It was not her gentle, witty, silver-maned, silver-tongued, her almost beautiful Papa who was dead but some other senator, somebody else’s head of family and chief of tribe, or just some other, ordinary man of lower degree and less beloved than her Papa. Probably this seemed so to a lesser extent for her two sisters also. Because once the three of them were closeted in their drawing room, there in the second Pullman car of the funeral train, with me sitting on the lap of first one of them and then another, then each young woman positioned herself in the remotest-seeming corner of the green-upholstered seats, fondling or vaguely trying to entertain me from time to time but totally disregarding her sisters and staring disconsolately into space as if the end of the world had come and she were entirely alone with her grief.
As Trudie Longford, my mother, quietly closed the drawing room door that afternoon the last face she saw out in the aisle of the Pullman car was that of her cousin Aubrey Bradbury. I was standing close by Mother’s side, and Aubrey must have observed the both of us there. I don’t recall what my own impression was. But Trudie observed , as she would tell me many times afterward, that Aubrey wore a wounded expression on his heavy but weak-chinned face, and as she closed the door he lowered his eyelids submissively as if acknowledging Trudie’s right to shut the door in his face. My own impression was, and remained so ever afterward, that his seemingly lowering his eyes actually represented his glancing down at me with a mixture of ire and resentment. My mother, at any rate, would be confronted by her cousin a good many other times before that journey was over, but she retained her impression always that that was the last time they ever looked directly into each other’s eyes, that there was never again the exchange of communicative glances there once had been. After the Senator’s lying-in-state in Nashville and after the subsequent burial at the cemetery in Knoxville, Trudie would never in effect look upon his countenance again. When he did return rather mysteriously to attend my two aunts’ funerals, not too many years later, he was unrecognizable to most people, and Mother had no substantive exchanges with him. His reappearances on those occasions seemed afterward more like apparitions, in most respects. And nobody learned anything of the whereabouts of his present residence or of his present mode of life—not that anybody knew how he learned about the funerals he attended, either. For more than forty years his real whereabouts would remain unknown to any member of the Tucker clan or to anyone in the entire connection. It was, as my mother and her sisters said, as though that day in the Knoxville cemetery the earth of East Tennessee had simply opened up and swallowed Aubrey Bradbury whole. From that moment he was no more among them, no more among us. From that time he became another of those men of good character who disappeared without leaving any explanation of their going.
My points of reference regarding Cousin Aubrey’s severance from the world he knew best would not be complete without mention of some other examples that come to mind. My father had a cousin in West Tennessee who set fire to his house and went off with a woman from a neighboring farm. His house was long since heavily insured, perhaps by design, and so he supposed he was not behaving dishonorably or even inconsiderately with his family. He had no concern about the welfare of his wife and children. At a later time word would come that this man wished to return home. But his wife’s brothers went to him, wherever he had revealed himself to be, and forbade his coming back or even manifesting his present whereabouts to his wife and children. Most of us never knew where it was he had resettled or whether or not he and the woman from the neighboring farm had stayed together.
And then there was a banker in Nashville that I would hear about during my childhood who left his office in the middle of one afternoon, without so much as taking his derby hat or his gold-headed cane with his monogram on the crown. They say he went out through the revolving door, like one of the ordinary clerks, with a pencil stuck behind his ear and just as though he were only stepping across the street for a few moments. His whereabouts were not known to us for more than twenty-five years. And he did not abscond with any bank funds when he left, and his affairs were in perfect order. His greatest problem was said to be with demon rum. One sad part of the story was that when at last he was found he had altogether rid his life of that difficulty and was regarded as a model citizen in his new location. Sad, though, was not the word for what happened after he was discovered. When he was at last hunted down by a Nashville newspaper reporter (“Just for the story in it,” so it was said), the two oldest children of the new family he had started locked themselves in their rooms and put bullets through their heads. It turned out that the banker and his former secretary, whom he had run off with, had opened a small hardware store somewhere in the Northeast and were operating a moderately successful business there. . . . I can assure you there were other instances, all the details of which I once knew as well as I know these. As for my wife and my son Braxton, they have always shown more interest in these stories with unhappy endings than in those that end merely in tantalizing mystery, which are more to my liking. My son Brax used to predict perversely that to find my cousin Aubrey Bradbury might do him irreparable harm. From the outset I felt that it was likely that the old man’s rediscovery by a long lost cousin, scarcely more than half his own age, might just as easily turn out to be a great boon for the old fellow—and would somehow certainly turn out so for me. Yet in my nightly dreams about him throughout the entire period of my search it would sometimes turn out one way and sometimes another. I cannot even now say for sure what our eventual reunion meant either to Aubrey or to me.
If when I was growing up I asked one of my fragile and ever-ailing aunts or my fragile but long-enduring mother whatever became of Aubrey, she was apt to stare off into space, genuinely bewildered—so it seemed to me—and murmur something like: “We don’t know what ever happened to poor Aubrey. I am afraid none of us has kept track of him. Finally he just seemed to have vanished into thin air.” They did not want to think about what may have become of him. They only wanted to talk of the trying times they had had with him on the funeral train. If at some other time and in quite another mood I asked whether Aubrey had been like my manly father or like my equally manly uncles as a young man, I would likely be answered with a hoot of laughter. They thought my question utterly ridiculous. If all three of these ladies were present when I asked this question, there would come a chorus of “Oh, heavens, no! Not a bit! Not in the least! Not at all like any one of them! They were real men, your father and your uncles!” If at still another time I persisted, trying to arrive at some notion of the man, and suggested that perhaps after all he had been rather like those other men who had disappeared, I was apt to be given a very straight look. Then there came an emphatic answer: “No indeed! Aubrey Tucker Bradbury was most certainly not like one of them! For Aubrey there was no ugly situation at home that he had to run away from!”
The phrase “ugly situation at home” was one often used in connection with the hero Sam Houston and with our relative in West Tennessee who burned his own house, as well as with a good many others. Once during recent years I happened to use that very phrase in discussing Cousin Aubrey with my son Brax, and when I quoted my mother to him on this subject I was at first shocked by Brax’s burst of laughter. The fact was, Braxton was quite a young man at the time I speak of, and it only recently had been revealed to him that Aubrey Bradbury was actually an “outside cousin ” of the Tucker family. I think this had not consciously been concealed from him, but it was rather that Aubrey’s irregular kinship was seldom referred to by anyone. I don’t recall at what age I myself stumbled upon the information that Aubrey was the illegitimate son of one of my maternal great uncles and that Bradbury was actually his mother’s surname. Upon my use of the all-too-familiar phrase, Brax, laughing out at me and slapping his thigh in the coarse manner he sometimes exhibits, exclaimed to me: “And you , Daddy—you and your mother and your aunts—you didn’t call that ‘an ugly situation at home’? Poor Cousin Aubrey! I hope you will never find him again!”
What I then felt I must explain to this son of mine was that in my mother’s day—if not quite in my own—an illegitimate child like Aubrey was not put out for adoption and was not left to be brought up in disgrace by his unwed mother. Rather, he was drawn into the extended family, which was a reality in those quaint and distant days in Tennessee, and he was given the family’s special protection both at home and abroad in the world. I said this was so, at any rate—or that I had been told so by my forebears—in the really best, the “most long-settled and best regulated families” in our little up-country corner of the world. As soon as I had insisted upon this to Brax , however, I found myself recalling how my mother and aunts had come at last to regard Aubrey with the condescension and even contempt that their husbands had taught them to feel for him, and that the husbands , in their particular, masculine pride of that period , had always felt. My father and my uncles were all three of them sons of Confederate veterans and were themselves so thoroughly versed in Civil War history that aboard the funeral train they delighted in pointing out the sites of great battles and even small skirmishes. More than once I heard them laughing at Aubrey’s ignorance of military history. At Culpepper, my father (whose name, incidentally , was Braxton Bragg Longford) went through the Pullman cars announcing to all that nearby was the spot where “the Gallant Pelham fell,” and it had to be explained to Aubrey who that hero had been. Aboard the train there were many whispered conversations about the ec centric cousin ‘s behavior. One night he was discovered in the area between the two Pullman cars, with his face in the crook of his arm, weeping aloud—ostensibly out of grief for his dead benefactor, the Senator. My two uncles discovered him there and led him into the men’s smoking room where they ad ministered large doses of whiskey out of their own flasks. And it was at some time on that long journey that I heard Uncle Hobart repeating what allegedly was my grandfather’s own account of how he had gone to the simple mountain cabin where Aubrey was being reared until he was about school age and had “rescued” him from the rough people there, had placed him in Mr. Webb’s school at Bell Buckle, where he was rather harshly disciplined and received a severely supervised classical education. But I think these incidents and stories did not impress me so strongly as did Cousin Aubrey’s own contumelious glances at myself. Very early, though, I began to understand the resentment in spired in him by the mere sight of a boy who enjoyed every protection such a life as mine provided and the affection and even adoration of those three particular women who presided over my every activity. And by the time I was an adolescent I believe I could already conceive that an experience so totally different from mine could have a hardening and corrupting effect upon a being as sensitive to the affection and consideration of others as I believed myself to be.
I must tell you now that when Aubrey Tucker Bradbury resurfaced in my life at last—nearly forty years after his first disappearance—he would resurface little by little, so to speak, inch by inch. That is, I began first of all merely to hear rumors of the existence of a man with a name much like his own, though not exactly like. The surname and the middle name had been reversed. And on the second occasion of my hearing of him it was indicated that the two names had been hyphenated—a most unusual practice for someone hailing from Tennessee. The old Cousin Aubrey in all representations of him had been so modest-sounding and unpretentious that I tended to dismiss the possibility of the two being one and the same. But once I had heard of the existence of this other man it registered indelibly on my mind. After the first report of him I was ever-conscious of the remote possibility that this obviously different sort of man might still somehow be Aubrey.
Though it was always some place other than Tennessee that I heard his name spoken, it was inevitably added that his origins were there. It was this that made me first suspect that my mother and my two aunts might have been wrong in their assumption that Aubrey had merely disappeared into the East Tennessee countryside and had there resumed the role of a Tennessee bump kin. It so happened that the first mention of his name reached my ears not in this country even but while I was traveling in Europe. Since I was not over there on a pleasure trip and was not paying my own expenses, I was put up at a rather better hotel than I normally would have been booked into. (My expenses were being paid by the very generous university where I taught art history in those days and partly by the Italian government for whom I was helping to direct restoration of art works after the disastrous flood in Florence.) There in the dining room of the great hotel by the Arno I heard some one at the next table pronounce the name Aubrey Bradbury-Tucker. The people at that table were alternately speaking English, German, and Italian. I listened carefully but was unable to grasp precisely the subject of conversation. But I heard once again the articulation of that name. The party left the dining room without my ever making out their identity, though I assumed, correctly I think, that they too were involved somehow in the restoration at the Uffizi.
The next time I heard the man’s name spoken was on a shuttle flight between New York City and Washington. A garrulous old lady sitting beside me on that short flight insisted on knowing where I was “from.” When I told her I was from Charlottesville, she said knowingly that my accent didn’t sound like “old Charlottesville” and that I must teach at the university there. (She of course “knew people” there and had often been a visitor.) I confirmed that all she said was so and confessed that I was originally from Tennessee. “Ah, Tennessee!” she exclaimed. “Nashville I’ll bet it is!” Then she proceeded to tell me about a wonderfully attractive man from Nashville—”so he claimed.” She had made his acquaintance aboard a South American cruise ship and he had flirted with her “most scandalously.” His name was Mr. Bradbury-Tucker—”Hyphenated no less!” she said. And then she laughed her merry laugh again. Suddenly I could see just how attractive she herself had once been, and I could understand how delightful it would have been then to have found oneself on the South American cruise with her. She said that Mr. Bradbury-Tucker had had the most beautiful Vandyke beard she had ever seen on any man. And she said that when she told him so, he replied, with a twinkle in his bewitching brown eyes, that he only wore the beard in order to conceal “a very weak chin.” Then she went on to say that Mr. Bradbury-Tucker had deceived her wickedly and that she had clearly meant nothing to him. Only on the last day of the cruise did she discover that Mr. Bradbury-Tucker was traveling in the company of another woman, a rich woman older than herself who during the voyage had kept mostly to their stateroom. I tried to reassure her—facetiously I suppose—that all Tennesseans were not such rascals, and I told her that my mother’s maiden name had been Tucker and she had had a cousin named Bradbury. At this, that lady blushed to the roots of her snow-white hair. She made no further effort at conversation and managed not to hear further questions that it now struck me to ask. I felt she was berating herself for having once again talked too much to a stranger. When she got off the plane she hurried away with the crowd without my learning so much as her name. But it was then that the fantasy first occurred to me that the country bumpkin, the outside cousin, had not disappeared into the countryside of East Tennessee but had been interred with his erstwhile protector, the late Senator Tucker, and that a new Aubrey had been released to make his own way, to take on a new persona and perhaps in that persona take revenge upon the world.
At a party in Charlottesville some two years after that ride on the shuttle, I obtained a really conclusive piece of evidence that Mr. Bradbury-Tucker and our Cousin Aubrey Bradbury were indeed one and the same. It was at a men’s “smoker”—so-called in old-fashioned academic circles—given one afternoon in honor of a visiting lecturer, a man who was being considered for an appointment at the university. Though I was on the selections committee, I felt reasonably certain that he would not accept such an appointment as we would be able to offer. He was too celebrated, too “international” an expert in his field, to be willing to settle down in Charlottesville, Virginia. But he was our guest lecturer of the day and we wished to please him. We happened on the subject of the old days of railways and what a delight traveling had been then. It turned out that our lecturer was a veritable collector of stories about trains. And of course, wishing to please him, we all brought forward our stories on the subject. Perhaps I, more than the others, insisted on being heard and was soon running through my own repertoire. Yet I think everyone present would have acknowledged that our guest more or less urged me on.
When at length I proceeded to tell our lecturer about Grandfather’s funeral train, I was careful to speak only of the comic aspects of the journey. In fact, I told him only about how my two uncles ended by getting very drunk and so altogether out of control that they had finally, first one and a while later the other, to be turned over to the constabulary in the first two county seats where the train stopped after passing over the Tennessee state border.
Indeed, I had hardly sketched in my account of those two incidents when our guest lecturer burst out at me, exclaiming “What a strange coincidence this is!” He bent forward and placed his well-manicured hand on my arm. But he was not even looking at me as he spoke. “This is a true story that I have heard before!” he said, bending toward me as he spoke. “How very strange! How I do love such stories and most of all how I love to have them turn up in such dissimilar circumstances. I first heard of that train journey from a man by the name of Colonel A. N. Bradbury-Tucker and who himself was present on that funeral train and who was, moreover, a relative of this dead senator who you referred to up in the baggage car.” (Obviously our guest lecturer had not bothered to catch my own name and my connection with the Senator, though I had already spent a day and a half in his company, squiring him about the university, introducing him to senior professors, deans, and one vice-president. Clearly he did not recall that I had identified the dead senator as my grandfather.) Presently he continued: “He was a very odd sort of person, this Colonel Bradbury-Tucker, who told me his version of this same story. He was a very urbane and distinguished-seeming person. He was more like someone you might meet in Europe. One could not have guessed that his clothes even were American. He had a handsome beard, very beautifully trimmed. Altogether he was wonderfully well-groomed in the old-fashioned way. He and I met in the house of a very wealthy lady in Bristol, Rhode Island. I never knew exactly what that relationship was—his and the Rhode Island lady’s—but I gathered from little things he let drop that he saw himself as a great ladies’ man. Anyway, he loved to talk about women—ever so confidingly. Perhaps he had a lot of money. He wished one, at any rate, to think so. Or perhaps he was the sort of man who lives off women. But the thing that interested me most about that funeral train he had been aboard was the presence there of the dead Senator’s three young married daughters. I remember his holding up his forefinger and thumb like this and saying, ‘They were absolutely delicious.’ He was like some very cultivated gourmet describing a variety of his favorite dishes! He made great distinctions and differentiations with regard to the young ladies’ three kinds of beauty. He referred to them as innocent young matrons all properly married and perfectly protected of course but knowing nothing of the world. ‘Genuine provincials!’ he said. ‘And absolutely delicious!’ ”
Suddenly I felt deeply offended and wished to hear no more from our lecturer and no more of Colonel Bradbury-Tucker’s view of my mother and my aunts. It was undoubtedly my Cousin Aubrey that the lecturer had known, but the picture that this latter-day Colonel Bradbury had painted was so far from what I had received from my mother and my aunts that I felt a kind of electric shock pass through me. When presently our talk was interrupted, I moved away from our guest lecturer and soon took my leave from the smoker. I was afraid that some faculty colleague there present might mention to him that my mother’s maiden name had been Tucker and that like the Colonel, I too originally hailed from Tennessee. . . . I hardly need add that the lecturer did not receive the nomination of the selection committee, and that though I continued to read his distinguished scholarly works I never saw him in person again.
From that day forward I was sure of course that the man I had kept hearing about was my mother’s cousin. For a certain period after that I was less sure than formerly that I still wished to come face to face with Cousin Aubrey. Yet curiosity about his incredible transformation caused my interest in his whereabouts and his ultimate fate to persist. If the long-ago journey on the Senator’s funeral train changed all our lives in some degree and if the significance of those changes was what I longed to understand, then a meeting with Colonel Bradbury-Tucker—surely the most altered of us all—might facilitate my understanding. Only to look upon the man’s countenance might solve mysteries about myself.
Very soon Aubrey’s resurfacing in my life was destined to come one inch closer. In Charlottesville, Virginia, there are many people, especially among the university faculty, who subscribe to the Washington Post as their morning newspaper. But since my wife is a native of a small town in Southside Virginia we have always read the Richmond Times-Dispatch for our morning paper and purchased the New York Times at the newsstand on the corner. And that is how I happened to miss—or very nearly miss—seeing the newspaper picture of Colonel Bradbury-Tucker. I first beheld his visage not in a paper that was delivered to my doorstep, and not in one for sale at a newsstand, but in a fragment of newsprint wrapped around a vegetable that my wife Eliza brought from the curb mark et. It was from an issue of the Washington Post that was at least three weeks old. Even as the paper crossed my vision on its way to the trash can I received an impression of the erect figure and the slightly out-of focus face that was in the background of the photograph reproduced thereon. I quickly fished it out and spread it on the enamel-topped kitchen table. It purported to be a picture of one of those Washington hostesses whose entertainments one generally avoids unless one is seeking office or has some other self-interested purpose requiring one’s presence there. The caption under the picture gave the famously rich hostess’s name, of course, describing her as one of Washington’s most celebrated socialites. She was apparently so rich and so celebrated that it seemed worthwhile to mention even her slightly out-of-focus escort in the background, one Colonel A. N. Bradbury-Tucker. At last I had a blurred but indubitable image of the man Aubrey Tucker Bradbury had become. Though his beard was white, it seemed to me an absolute facsimile of the streaked gray beard my grandfather had worn in pictures taken not long before his death. And even though the image of his face was blurred, the dark eyes looked out piercingly toward the camera, just as the Senator’s had always done in his campaign pictures, those which Mother kept locked away in her leather-bound scrapbook and produced periodically for my admiration and edification. And I had the eerie feeling that indeed it had been the old Cousin Aubrey whose death had come that September day in 1916 and that it was his body that had been substituted for the dead Senator’s in the elaborately brass-trimmed coffin that was handed so clumsily onto the special funeral train.