Among the Daughters/Chapter 22
OLYMPIA AND SHIVA
One sweltering August midafternoon a month later a perspiring Vida returned from her daily exploration of the city to discover Lucy naked, a black ribbon around her throat, lying on a chaise longue having her hair brushed by Cleo. A black cat, cousin of the theatre's mouser and gift of the stage-door man, lay at her feet.
"I think those long white muslin dresses women in Manet's paintings wear are more womanly than our short skirts, don't you?" Lucy had said a week ago as Vida was taking up a deep hem in her own skirt. That was Lucy, one never could keep up with her. Not a word though about the "Olympia" which had been in her mind and she was today emulating.
"Well, well, Olympia Claudel!"
"I'd like to be like her. I'll bet that Olympia knew everything."
"You're much more beautiful."
"You said it," put in Cleo, uninterested in unknowns. "There's a million dollahs worth of unborn jewels waitin' for you in this town."
"That's what you say. I guess I'm not my type. O-w-w, that damned cat scratched me. Get her out of here. Tell you what, Cleo, take her to Peggy Watson on your way to the theatre. She loves cats. We're going to Figente's."
Vida was unprepared for Figente and his magnificent house as Lucy's scattered descriptions had led her to expect a crazy sculptor who wore wigs and royal costumes in a topsy-turvy house jammed auction room fashion with odd objects like a gold dish molded from the breast of a famous statue of Venus. Thus she was taken aback when the door was opened by a stiff cadaverous man in what appeared, to her untutored eye, formal dress, whom Lucy addressed as Denis. Subdued by her first encounter with a butler she followed up the padded stairs of the golden Chinese tea papered hall through double doors where, in an enormous dark room lighted in separate areas by square moon-colored lampshades, a short round man with sparse plastered grey-blond hair and wearing a cream silk jacket greeted them.
"Figente, this is my best friend, Vida Bertrand from Congress—she's a writer."
Turtle eyes in a doughy jowled face glittered and a pudgy flaccid hand made welcome unwelcome.
"How do you do, my dear, you shall be my Boswell," a high insulting voice scraped, obviously making fun of her.
"No she won't, you'd shock her," Lucy said, and added, "Don't pay any attention to him, Vida, he's a big kidder."
Vida sat stiffly in a high-backed carved chair reflecting dourly that Figente was suffering her presence because of Lucy and that it was too evident that he and not she was the best friend.
"Cigarette?" Figente offered from a silver box.
"Oh, she doesn't smoke," Lucy said protectively.
"Thank you, I believe I will," Vida contradicted to indicate she was not a bumpkin and to reprimand them both, Lucy for describing her as a writer, and Figente for dismissing the possibility.
Except for random observations Lucy made when chatting and which Vida always had admired and accepted as evidence of enviable perception, it now struck her that Lucy never was interested in relaying descriptions of persons or places. It suddenly seemed to her that what she had thought to be glimpses of Lucy's life were rather Lucy talking to Lucy, her reflections out loud concerning people, events, and places kept secret. Now she recognized that certain of Lucy's reflections had reference to conversations with Figente, or Peggy Watson, or someone named Lyle Bigelow, or people in the show. You had to listen to Lucy's reactions to figure out what had happened to cause them.
Vida stared at the tobacco wall far opposite on which were hung, subtly spotlighted and framed in narrow black, paintings she recognized as the angular black outlines or amoebic forms of Picasso and a zig-zagged maze of greys and ochres which might also be Picasso or was it Braque? Spellbound by proximity to today's great, hitherto met only in book or magazine reproductions, her awe became embarrassment as she observed a water spurt burbling into a square pool where writhed in lines drawn on turquoise tiles mythological animals in erotic union. Overhead giant dark leaves crawled along a sunset skylight. To establish herself more firmly she shifted her feet on the oriental rug and felt it slip on the polished marble. Disconcerted and seeking an ashtray, she reached to a long table at her side. The golden dish upheld by a male hand was the Venus breast and she dared not use it. Beyond it in a pool of light cast down by a Chinese vase-lamp a helmeted bronze horseman galloped. Greek? A jewel-encrusted box and then a shallow ebony bowl heaped with magnified known or unknown fruits, or were the latter vegetables or buds? Gauguin would have known. Gravely observing these strange fruits was a black figure with an impassive face on a stunted body which thrust forth an appendage. Were men like that when? She looked quickly away over her shoulder. A white elongated curved teardrop was a bird about to soar. Brancusi seen in a book at Brentano's. Suddenly she saw what the artist meant and intended her to see and became calm.
The butler came with a laden tray and she tried not to stare at the first massive silver tea service she had seen. In Congress people had coffee from the stove pot in the afternoon, and tea from a brown pot only when they were ill. She thought of a painting Clem had made of his mother's kitchen table set for afternoon coffee. How would that look if shown in New York? How far away Congress seemed in this world.
A handsome slender blond young man came from another room as though he lived here and greeted Lucy as a friend.
"Vida, this is Hamilton Pierce. Hal, this is Vida Bertrand, my best friend."
How many attractive men Lucy knew, Vida marveled.
"Hal is a wonderful harpist," Lucy said.
"Who, if he practices," Figente added with a chiding but affectionate glance, "may be another Salzedo. I hope you will hear him—" this, an aside to Vida, "when he plays at an International Composers Guild concert, perhaps next spring. Those concerts always arouse considerable fracas at which the music is rarely heard."
"Then why should I play?" Hal asked petulantly.
"Because it pleases me to fertilize virgin soil." Turning to Vida, he said, "Remember that, Boswell."
Was he serious, asking her to remember such nonsense? "Don't worry, I have a photographic mind which remembers anything," she said, gratified by his irritated expression to see he was taken aback when she stressed anything. Two could play at the game of being contemptuous. But later, when he seemed to avoid her, she regretted the flippancy; obviously she wouldn't be invited again. Lucy had said he was touchy about other people's manners but you must never question his.
"When are they coming, Ray? Will Ranna bring his own accompanist, or am I to play for him?" Hal asked.
"What's all this?" questioned Lucy.
"I have a surprise for you, my dear. Susan Custerd is bringing her proteg6 Ranna, a Hindu dancer who has had a simply enormous success in Paris and London, to dance for me. I've asked Damon and Mary Doyle to come in too."
"That's Damon St. John, the famous stage designer, and Mary Doyle's husband is Kevin Doyle, who's a big book critic," Lucy said, bringing Vida up to date.
"It's a pity Kevin isn't coming. He and Boswell must meet," Figente said.
Lucy burst out laughing. "He'd scare her." This required explanation to Vida. "He has quite a reputation for going after the girls."
"Literature, however, is used as a bridge." Figente smiled.
I wish, Vida thought crossly, she wouldn't treat me as a child. I'm almost half a year older than she is.
The door opened and she saw the butler stand stiff and announce with what seemed to her ludicrous theatricality: "Mrs. Custerd and Mr. Ranna."
A corseted double dumpling in a plumed hat, rattling with pearls and golden chains, billowed in.
"We're late, Raymond, but it couldn't be helped," said Susan Custerd, breathing heavily, "Ranna meditates from four to five. You know Hindus are so much more spiritual than we of the gross West. You simply must do something for this boy, I tell you he is a genius!"
From behind her looming bulk there appeared as if conjured to her side a slender young god who, bringing his palms neatly together under his chin, bowed a somewhat largish head in unctuous greeting.
Coffee with cream, my favorite color, Lucy approved, and as his head raised and discreet sloe eyes met hers she tingled pleasantly. What beautiful long, but not too long, black hair.
A lady killer, disapproved Figente as Hal appraised the potentialities, but the dark fascinating man didn't notice him at all.
Susan Custerd, observing Ranna's exchange with the prettyish blonde girl, undoubtedly one of Figente's peculiar acquaintances, hustled the Hindu dancer off to get into his costume.
"No, no, Raymond, Ranna will have tea later. Artists must have an empty stomach. I'll have two lumps, please. How is Alice and her family?"
Figente reflected on the state of his sister, husband, and their three teen-age children, all in perpetual training for horse shows. "Healthy as horses as usual."
Mrs. Custerd disentangled the jeweled gold chain of her lorgnette from the pearls, let it dangle into the folds of lace on her bosom, and said to Lucy, "And what do you do, my dear?"
"Lucy is the world's greatest ballerina," Figente answered.
Vida felt she was catching on to Figente. He was baiting Mrs. Custerd just as he had in addressing her as Miss Boswell. It was his manner, making extravagant statements, in this case going Mrs. Custerd's Ranna one better. Lucy was on to him too, but it was impressive how he made such a statement as if it were an incontrovertible fact.
"Really? How interesting. You must come to Boston sometime, my dear. Raymond, I met Karsarvina at Sybil's—Lady Duckworth. Karsarvina's married to that Englishman what's-his-name. There is no one quite like her, do you think so too?" This last addressed to Lucy.
That puts me in my place, Lucy thought, and said sweetly, "I've never seen her but I'd like to. Hello, Damon!"
A prematurely grey, nervous young man carrying a length of Persian brocade who had rushed in squinted at her. "Lucy darling! I was in for the second act last night. What you did to that stuffy audience! You were marvelous. There's nothing so dreary as a society benefit but they took their hands from under their behinds for you."
"Susan," said Figente, "this is Damon St. John, the greatest theatre designer since Bakst. You've undoubtedly admired his settings for the opera and the better Broadway plays."
"Yes indeed, you are a great artist, Mr. St. John. I remember your magnificent settings for Salome. We were quite staggered in Boston."
"Thank you," murmured St. John vaguely, looking critically at two golden screens placed at either side of the drawn window drapes. "I meant to get here sooner, Figente, but Beman wanted to talk about a wonderful play he has just read. It would be perfect for you, Lucy, but it needs considerable rewriting."
"Ranna is just getting into his costume—what do you think of the screens?"
"Fine—but I think I'll change the lights and throw this Persian brocade I found in your studio over the screens."
"Has he brought an accompanist?" Hal asked Mrs. Custerd, who thereupon remembered the flat parcel upon which her large black purse rested.
"He brought these records from India, so do be careful of them, young man. Raymond, I had dinner last night at Emma Bigelow's. It was for the Grand Duchess and I must say Emma's chef is a great artist."
My goodness, thought Lucy, everyone's an artist but me. I guess I'm just a Broadway hoofer.
Mary Doyle, turbaned for the occasion with an India print and clanking with silver and turquoise New Mexican jewelry, sank breathlessly next to Lucy.
"Am I late? I had to give tea to an old friend of Kevin's from Dublin who came with a message from Yeats."
"Yeats! The poet?" Vida asked Figente, wide-eyed.
"Yes. Kevin Doyle is the eminent literary critic. By the way, he likes to encourage young women writers. Mary, this is Miss Boswell, one of our better young writers. I have just commissioned her to write my memoirs."
Mary Doyle racked her brains to recall the name which seemed familiar, but not succeeding, nodded perfunctorily. One couldn't trust Figente, who had a strange sense of humor about foisting unimportant people on one. Better to rely on one's own judgment of who was who to nab for dinner with Doyle as the lure.
Just as the small talk petered out and everyone, except Mrs. Custerd, became restive, Hal, at a signal from Damon, put on a record. Softly a rhythmic tenor drum beat against indolent plucking of strings and, on a sporadic liquid chant of a song, Ranna slid from behind the gold screen clad in a neatly pleated loincloth figured with miniature gods resembling himself. The stylized patterns of his bent-kneed movements flowed easily one into another, accented with contrapuntal and unexpected angles of his arms as his head jerked right and left on its axis. But it was the languorous rippling under the polished skin that fascinated his audience.
Ranna himself, fascinated by one member of the audience, lowered his gaze to keep from looking into the lapis lazuli eyes of the girl with the moonbeam hair who watched, lips slightly parted.
"There, Raymond, what did I tell you?" said Mrs. Custerd after the applause. "You really must do something about this boy."
Figente threw a lamp-table scarf over the dancer's glistening shoulders. "I have wished for some time to present an unexpurgated Arabian Nights. Don't you think that would be fun?" Ranna nodded shyly, his eyes on Lucy. "Damon will do the sets and costumes, and Lucy will be Scheherazade. Now where will we present it? Let's see, there's that old Thalia Theatre on the Bowery where the Chinese company plays. That might be amusing, but no, it's not large enough. I'd rather take the Manhattan Opera House. That would start a new vogue. Broadway would move downtown again where it belongs instead of in the Bronx where it has gone." This was a dig at the Century Theatre because it had been erected in unfashionable West of Central Park.
"Don't put it on, Figente, you know that isn't the Bronx," Lucy said.
"Isn't it? I always thought the Bronx began at Columbus Circle. Damon, see what you can find out about the Manhattan. What we'll do is tear out the orchestra seats and put in rugs and cushions."
"That's silly," objected Lucy impatiently, "the audience won't be able to see."
"Lucy's right, Figente, that wouldn't be practical," Damon said seriously.
"Perhaps it would be better to clear the orchestra floor where the populace can stand. We will have divans in the boxes for a special group whom we will first invite to buy stock. Susan, you shall assemble our patrons and start by making out a big fat check yourself."
Mrs. Custerd, frightened at what her daughter and son-in-law would say in view of their already expressed outrage at what she had thus far spent on Ranna, was relieved to hear the ballet dancer object.
"Figente, if you're really serious you'll have to have popular orchestra seats and not just drapes over the balcony. Joe Samuels says the orchestra floor pays for the show and the balcony is the profit—if it's a hit. Boxes don't count, they're usually papered anyway, and what I want to know is what are you actually going to do to help?"
Figente, hurt, said, "My dear, I am the impresario, the Diaghilev!"
Damon St. John was dazzled by the prospect of designing a production, unhindered by the compromises of commercial theatre, with the freedom of a Bakst. "Figente is essentially right. I'm certain we could prove an artistic venture can pay for itself."
"One has to wish for it sufficiently and it will come to pass," Ranna intoned dreamily in a liquid oddly gurgling British accent, addressing himself to Lucy.
"Last summer there was a Mrs. Cornwallis with an absolute genius for making things work," Mrs. Custerd remembered. "She was visiting the Baroness Irma von Hauptstengel. It was Irma's first season in France since the war and she told me this American, Mrs. Cornwallis, whom she had met in Berlin, had encouraged her to come. Well, as you know, Raymond, there's never much to do in Biarritz and this Mrs. Cornwallis had Irma give a masked bal nègre. We all threw ourselves into the spirit of the thing and masked as Negroes except one couple who wore white funny faces. They turned out to be a Negro prizefighter and Clara belle Lee, the Bal Tabarin Negress star. The ball was a sensation and broke the ice for Irma, as all those anti-German diehards came. Even the de Lissieux's who, you remember, lost three sons in the war."
"Hiding behind masks, I presume."
Vida looked at Figente admiringly. For all his artificiality he did have principle when it came to important things. How could French people who lost three sons in the war against humanity go to a party given by a Hun?
"I don't think it's Christian to hold a grudge too long, Raymond. The party reminded me of those you give. You must meet Mrs. Cornwallis when she comes over to stay with the Bigelows in Palm Beach this season. She has a remarkable faculty for getting people to amuse themselves at parties."
Figente did not seem flattered at the prospect of meeting a second self.
"Do you know who was at that party? Lyle," Lucy suddenly remembered. Lyle had said he wanted her to meet this Mrs. Cornwallis.
"You will ask Lyle to be one of our patrons, Lucy child," Figente said.
"Nothing doing, I'm nobody's baby now." Lucy laughed.
Mrs. Custerd frowned. Emma Bigelow had been upset about the gossip linking Lyle and a Broadway dancer. "He came with Clarissa van Horn whom we all think he should and will marry," she told Lucy meaningly, though it didn't seem to make any impression. These Broadway girls were indefatigable in their pursuit of men, and such brazen flirting with Ranna. The dear boy, with his spiritual nature, must be protected from this one.
"To me," Ranna explained softly to Lucy, "art is the symbol of love."
"I could tell," she said, a little flustered by the inclusion of the word love, "that your dance was symbolic. I'm only a ballet dancer but I'm really very interested in art."
"Perhaps some day—soon—you will permit me to discuss with you the relative symbols of East and West?"
"I'd love to," she said, thinking that at last she might learn about art.
"Ranna, we must go," Mrs. Custerd said loudly and, ignoring Lucy in her leavetakings, swept out, followed by a reluctant Ranna.
Lucy yawned and stretched. "My goodness, it's after half-past seven, I have to rush. That first act has so many props there's no space for a workout after it's set. Well, I'll skip tonight. I just hate the idea of getting into makeup. This show has run too long, I'd like to start something new. Of course you always feel better at curtain time when you hear the Overture. Come on, Vida."
Damon St. John looked at his watch. "I've got to run. I promised Jane Cowl I'd see the show. You know, Ethel's going to do Juliet too. Both of them in one season! Tell me seriously, Figente, do you really want me to look into the Manhattan thing?"
Though Damon and the girls left, Mary Doyle lingered.
Figente's thick lashless lids rolled down in what he hoped was a signal to her that the show was over. Through little solicitudes imposed upon him in weak moments of illness or loneliness she insidiously had become part of his intimate circle. Yet no matter how pleasantly disposed toward her he was in her absence or when she first arrived, by the time she left he could not abide her presence. The pasty relief map of her face, pitted with pores, laced with rivulets and forest-marked by a stiff mustache above that Cheshire grin, infuriated him, especially as her presence reminded him of their identical age. He had met her, before the war, as mistress of Couzio, a Corsican working up an American market for the new French painting and from whom he had bought for a few dollars a Cezanne water color. Mary, then Bornaum, from Vassar out of Harrisburg, was in full bloom as an avant-garde disciple of free love. At that time she resembled a lush corsetless Watteau, rumpled as a love bed. The Couzio interlude, followed by others, left her appearance and income dissipated when, stroke of luck, she had snared Kevin Doyle into marriage. From then on, Figente recalled sourly, she had seized on the accident of their same birth date as proof of a spiritual affinity. If not for Kevin Doyle, whom he respected, Figente long since would have denied her admittance, especially as she used his home as a means of procuring gullible notables for her dinner table. Again he marveled that Mary could have seduced the fastidious Kevin, and decided that the critic was more intellectually than physically discriminating. Or was it Mary's income and that in a sort of maternal role she left him free for the lonely beds of pretty young writers? Kevin had made a mistake in not coming this afternoon and meeting the young friend of Lucy's with the handsome broad classical face. It would be amusing to have in his circle, Figente thought, the modest little rustic who had had the grace to be embarrassed by Lucy's introduction. Would Mary never go? Mary, the hanger-on, waiting to tarnish the luster of the Arabian Nights idea, reminding him with her presence of other unfulfilled projects. Though the first impulse, planning, was fun. The actuality was tiresome.
"What can I do to help in this wonderful venture, Raymond?" she said, rising reluctantly. Figente was not going to ask her to stay, and she would have to eat dinner alone as Kevin had taken his Dublin friend to McSorley's saloon.
Now that he was certain she was leaving, Figente forced a smile. "We'll find something for you to do."
Her shabby gown made from an old Paisley shawl reminded him of her many generosities to others and himself and he felt a twinge of discomfort. "That reminds me, Mary, I want you to have that lovely piece of Persian brocade over the screen."
"There's Egypt in your dreamy eyes," Lucy sang in uncertain modulations, tapping time with the round French toe of her stilt-heeled slipper on the taxi's rubber floor. Her voice broke and she stopped, laughing. "I have a good time sense but I can't carry a tune. It's a good thing I didn't have to start in the chorus." She stretched out a flesh-silk leg and frowned. "Darn it, a run. Lucky I always carry an extra pair in my purse." She slipped off a lace-edged blue-satin garter, rolled down the stocking into a neat ring, replaced it, and held out two perfect legs to make certain the stockings matched. "It's a good idea to roll your stockings off and on because silk snags so easily," she said.
It seemed to Vida nothing marked the difference between Lucy and herself so much as stockings. She was glad she had had sense enough to change, before going to Figente's, from walking lisles into the silk of which Aunt Mabel had given her three pairs for graduation. Even those were service weight, and darker than Lucy's. She wished she could hitch up rolled stockings like Lucy and not be embarrassed and thus dispense with a garter belt. These preoccupations would have surprised Lucy who believed Vida too sensible to be interested in such silly things.
"I really enjoyed this afternoon, didn't you? Ranna is a wonderful dancer. Imagine being able to move your head from side to side like that. And the smooth way every movement moved into the next. That's what Master is always telling us. But what I liked best was that every movement seemed to mean something. Not just routine—I'd like to study with him."
In the night's warm violet the taxi paused at the spangled 23rd Street crossing of Fifth with Broadway. With a springless jazzy shake the taxi darted toward the aurora glow of the misnamed Great White Way, jerking Vida back from her morbid concentration on the ticking meter. She could not enjoy taxi rides because Lucy never permitted her the luxury of paying and at the same time each ominous click reminded her of the evaporation of her prize money in the delicious joy of spending. A haircut at Lucy's hairdresser when she could just as well have cut her own; a silk teddy so she could walk around the apartment in nice underwear as Lucy did and not have to wear Congress knickers; a bottle of toilet water; a jar of face cream she didn't even like the feel of; the bottle of Placeit to keep her thick hair set; bus and el fares; re-heeled shoes; and then the staggering price of that bag of sandwiches and salads from Reuben's the night she had everything ready when Lucy brought two boys from the show for supper. Now she had seventeen dollars and a return ticket to Congress without a Pullman berth, and was in no mood to indulge Lucy's minor concern of studying Hindu dancing.
"What for?" she asked challengingly.
"I want to find out what makes him an artist. In New York everyone talks about art and I don't mean painting. That Mrs. Custerd even talked about a cook being an artist. Everyone seems to be an artist except me. Ilona says ballet isn't art because it doesn't express inner emotions, it's just technique. Master thinks good technique is art. Maybe art is personality. Do you think I have personality?"
"I'll say you have," Vida said dryly, wondering whether any man could resist Lucy.
"You don't think I'm serious! It seems to me to be an artist you have to have technique and personality and experience. Still, Clem's an artist and he has traveled but I don't think of him as experienced."
"What do you mean by experience?"
"That's just it, I don't know. It can't be just lovemaking or practically the whole chorus would be geniuses."
It took from Herald Square past the summer-closed Metropoltan Opera House to sober down from their hysterical laughter.
"That's what always happens when I try to say something serious," Lucy complained.
"I'm only a beginner trying to learn to write but from what I've read and seen at the Museum, I think you have to start with an original idea or a new or personal way of presenting an old idea and then use whatever you've got to work it out. I think experience is what you have learned from seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and including dreaming—but that's not enough without imagination. Sometimes when Pa has been on one of his nasty drunks I shake all over and hardly can keep from striking him and I think how easy it could be to let oneself go and murder—then I understand what has happened in some of those horrible cases in the newspaper. Sometimes this frightens me, but then I think that if I am going to write it may help me to understand people in many other ways."
"My goodness, I never thought of you as having such a bad temper. Here we are in the nick of time. Beman is fussy about everyone being in on first call. I want to talk some more." Lucy shed her clothes, stepped in and out of a shower, and sat making up. "That made me feel good, why don't you take one?"
"I will while you're on."
"The more I hear about art the harder it is to understand."
"I don't see why you bother. You're doing what you want to do and you're a success at it."
Cleo chipped in. "You sure is, you're the best little artist in this business."
Lucy winked at Vida in the mirror. "You're just saying that because you want my lavender cloche."
"I think you are too," said Vida, agreeing with Cleo.
Lucy looked at Vida solemnly. "Don't you be like that, because you're the only person I can talk to, except Figente. Everyone else thinks I'm just a dizzy blonde. But let me tell you something—I'm going to try and be an artist, and if I can't make it maybe I'll find out why not."
"You, and me too!" said Vida mournfully.
"Well, let's cheer up, maybe it will turn out to be not very important anyway. Don't look so glum."
"It's important for me to find a job if I'm going to stay in New York."
"That reminds me. I meant to tell you earlier. You know Tommy,, who I just got a job in the show? Well, he was working for his tuition being Ilona's secretary. He's quitting Ilona and I thought that might be a job for you. Ilona needs someone who won't leave when a dancing job turns up. I know because I asked her and it's settled."
"Miss Lucy," broke in Cleo, "a Mr. Forrest wants to know are you going to supper with him after the show?"
"Tell him yes—that my friend Miss Bertrand, who is visiting me, and I would love to come."
Cleo shuffled out and back, her eyes gleaming. "He say he'll be delighted an' so'll his friend."
"Curtain, Miss Claudel," yelled the call boy.
"That means I've fifteen minutes. Dick Forrest is a cute boy from Yale. You can wear my white beaded. It will look better on you. White makes me look pale. I'll wear that old grey chiffon. I want you to enjoy your first night out as a real New Yorker. To tell you the truth, I got busy about a job for you because I don't think you're very practical, and I didn't want you to go back to Congress and leave me all alone."