Among the Daughters/Chapter 29
CALIGULA GIVES A CHRISTMAS PARTY
Figente had refused to accede to his sister's telephoned plea that he spend Christmas Eve at Syosset instead of alone.
"I don't feel up to it," he had said plaintively, his sister's picture of his solitude appealing to his everpresent self-pity, "but I shall expect you and the children for lunch when you come in for the Hansel and Gretel matinee."
Family Christmases depressed him, accentuating as they did the frightening passage of time.
Alice Perry's picture of her brother's lonely Christmas was inaccurate as he was giving a large Christmas Eve party. The few friends he first had thought of having for midnight supper and to listen to Hal's troubador song arrangements for harp, flute, and saxophone had multiplied.
"I may as well make it a big party, I haven't given one for a long time," he had observed to Hal who, reclining, was spitting in the pool to see the goldfish rise for the bubbles.
"Grand. Will you have a Santa Claus?"
"Certainly nothing so ordinary. I've been considering, and have decided it should have a primitive Biblical aspect. I'll remove the French and Italian furniture."
"You!" hooted Hal. "I'd like to see you move a chair!"
"Don't be impertinent and see that you help for a change instead of lying around like an odalisque. The sofas will remain, and there'll be two from the studio. And there'll be the Moroccan rugs and cushions. The rest of the floor will be strewn with straw to suggest a Manger. No decorative objects except the African sculptures and the two Picassos of that period, though I may have the Matisse 'Odalisque' from the dining room because of the pink. I don't suppose the fruiterer can dig up a watermelon for the ebony platter so Damon will have to get a stage one. But I'm certain I can find a profusion of other fruits—dates, fresh figs, St. John's bread, tangerines, grapes, pomegranates—did you know the pomegranate was that notorious apple? I'll use the copies of the terra cotta bowls—they'd break the real ones—for pistachio nuts, Turkish paste, cigarettes. I'd prefer torches for lighting but I'm afraid some silly woman would be sure to set the place ablaze. Come to think of it, I'll also have the Roman heads, the Venus torso, the column, and the Pompeian fresco placques. They will be quite in keeping as I shall be Caligula."
"Really, Hal, you are so illiterate! I cannot understand why you do not acquaint yourself with my library."
"You make me practice all the time."
"Not enough. Caligula was a Roman emperor. Some think he was mad. I disagree. I had thought of a Renaissance fete, k la the Borgia apartments of the Vatican, I've never been Alexander 6th. But when it came to tableaux, the idea of writhing whores was revolting."
The day before the party Lucy and Vida came in response to a call from Figente.
The men who had delivered the treelike palms were leaving and Damon St. John was shifting a saffron-draped couch into a soft amber spotlight. It was Vida's first glimpse of Figente's drawing room in party dress. "Why, it's a set for a music drama by Satie and Cocteau!" she exclaimed.
"Isn't it wonderful what Damon has done?" said Hal.
"He has carried out my idea most collaboratively," Figente declared, frowning at Hal. "Damon and I work well together."
"All you need now," observed Lucy, "is Salomey and a head on a platter."
"Salom-ay, my dear."
"All right, Salom-ay. I hate to think what this place will look like about three tomorrow morning. It's good we women wear short skirts or we'd be straw scarecrows. I hope it doesn't get on the couches."
"Don't be mundane," Figente said testily.
"You cute little fatty, don't you know I'm a demi-mundane?"
Figente groaned. "To think such a bad pun would issue from the lips of Venus."
"Venus! I thought I was going to be the Virgin?"
"You are, in a tableau with Cynski as Joseph because of his beard."
"Isn't that sacrilegious?" asked Vida uncomfortably.
"Not at all, it's merely a tableau, they'll be inactive. Your important number," he turned to Lucy, "is the dance you and Ranna do as Sheba and Solomon."
"We can do our duet, it will be a good rehearsal for the recital."
"Boswell, you will be Mary Magdalene."
"I can't," said Vida, trying not to look shocked. "You must leave me out of it. I'll help get things ready."
"If you'd rather. Repentance is dull anyway. In that case, you had better get here early."
"Yes, I'd rather," said Vida, wishing she could enter into play without embarrassment like Lucy.
"How do I look?" cried Hal, bounding in and posing arms outstretched and clad only in a leopard loincloth.
"Who are you?" asked Lucy with such an unbelieving expression that Vida laughed convulsively.
"I'm David and I'm to play the harp before the Ark but I think I ought to dance too," he declared, leaping and turning in what he fancied was ballet.
Lucy screamed. "I never knew you were knock-kneed!"
"I am not, am I, Ray?" He tossed his head petulantly. "It's just that my legs are thin." He straightened himself to prove it.
"That's right, you're not, your knees are just knobby. And you'd better wear something under that skin," said Lucy, still laughing uncontrollably.
"Fix yourself, Hal," Figente ordered primly, "and don't be silly. Remember you've been hounding me for weeks to have Simone hear you play, so don't cut up tonight."
"I won't, cross my heart. I've been longing for this chance."
Figente stood before them with the pomposity of an impresario before opening night. "I believe we are all set. We'll begin on the stroke of midnight with the Mary and Joseph tableau. Lucy, you will hold the della Robbia bambino from the white bedroom. I am hoping this scene will be beautiful enough to quiet everyone for the divertisements to follow. I set the invitations for eleven so everyone won't be plastered by twelve."
He handed a large flat Christmas package to Lucy and a small oblong one to Vida. "You'd better take these now, I may forget later."
"Christmas presents!" exclaimed Lucy. "I never can stand suspense, let's open them now."
Her package was a rare folio of 18th century ballet prints.
"They are beautiful and I love them," she said delightedly, kissing Figente soundly on the lips to his confusion.
Vida opened her package slowly. It was kind of Figente to make her a gift too because she was Lucy's friend. Within the small box lay a bracelet of golden coins alternating with large square amethysts. She looked at him in speechless wonderment.
"They are some old Greek coins I had Tiffany mount. I thought the Athene head rather like you, Boswell," he said offhandedly.
She put it on and felt like crying so she said something flip instead. "My first jewelry from a man."
"Really?" he said distantly, his eyebrows raised.
When Vida arrived at half past ten in Lucy's white beaded dress, her hair newly cropped and brilliantined in close waves, and Figente's bracelet halfway to her elbow, she wondered if her makeup and coiffure were overdone, because of his quizzical look.
His thick eyelids were gilded, his lips rouged, and his cheeks made up in the manner classed "juvenile" in the theatre. A toupee of oiled curls lay under a laurel wreath, and he wore a purple toga with a stenciled gold border. On his left forefinger was a massive ruby ring.
"You look magnificent," she said, hoping for a return compliment.
"I think Brooks did the toga well. I had this Cardinal's ring which seemed appropriate with the purple."
"It does indeed."
"You'd better see whether the maid has laid out Lucy's costumes correctly—in the Fragonard room, which the women will use. I hope no one burns a hole in that Aubusson bedcover, it belonged to Pompadour."
"Do I look all right?"
"Certainly, you'll do quite well."
His indifference was not reassuring.
Along the upper hall she passed a narrow white cell with a cot and prie-dieu on which was a copy of the Divine Comedy. On its kneeling board sat Hal, a tray of food on his knees.
"Figente's retreat is the only place I could find to eat my supper. I have to eat now because I simply can't drink on an empty stomach. It does things to me, and Ray gets mad."
After rearranging Lucy's costumes she waited in the Fragonard room before going down, until she heard voices. Figente stood with a dozen strangers who eyed her curiously as she hesitated. He did not invite her to join the group but came up to her.
"For God's sake, Boswell, where have you been? Vedder has had the effrontery to bring three crashers and wants to show them the paintings we moved from here to the studio. Take them there, they're in the library. I hope those fellows have the grace to leave when they've looked."
What an unpleasant creature he can be, but then I was only invited because of Lucy. The bracelet is one of those grandiose gestures he makes to impress, she thought.
The uninvited guests with the art dealer were, of all people, Clem, Semy, and Herold. They greeted her joyfully, apparently unaware of their dubious status.
"Hot dog, some get up, pipe the bracelet," yapped Herold.
"It looks almost like the real thing," patronized Semy.
He just can't help being grudging even when he is trying to be nice, she thought. "It is the real thing. Those are Greek coins between the amethysts. Figente gave it to me for Christmas."
Semy took her arm and caressed the bracelet. "I see now that it is," he said ingratiatingly. Vida was clever, he thought, to get herself in solid with this important Figente who had snubbed Clem. He mustn't offend her.
Clem was still smarting from Figente's snub, especially embarrassing because he had told Semy and Vedder of visits to this house. I was telling Vedder," he said, "that I saw this Modigliani and that Braque when I was here a few years ago. I guess Figente doesn't remember, I had a beard then, or maybe he's growing old."
"He said you want to see the other paintings. I'll take you to his studio—it's in the carriage house across the court."
Vedder pulled from the rack a canvas on which a monumental sand-colored woman reclined against a flat blue sky; then another in primary colors of a figure-eight Cyclops with a coxcomb against variformed lozenges, all divided by heavy black lines and unified by occasional cross bars and a block of floral design.
Clem examined the Picassos sourly. One thought the fellow finally had shot his bolt and now he came up with something new for New York to fall for. No American art could come out of this city because its inhabitants were foreigners without grass-root ties in this country. You couldn't expect immigrants w'ho didn't stay put in their own countries to understand anything but change. The Picassos gave him a queasy feeling about the reception of his coming exhibition.
"I think they're great," pronounced Semy. Actually he didn't see what was so wonderful about them, but Figente and Vedder were pretty safe guides as to what was what. Apparently Clem wasn't. Pretending not to notice Clem's look which inquired what he knew about it, he went to examine a small terra cotta of a semi-reclining woman on a modeling stand.
"Don't touch those things, Herold, they are priceless antiques," Vida said sharply to the offender snuffling out his cigarette on a Rhodes Byzantine plate.
"This Leda is beautiful, I'm nuts about Greek art," Semy said reverently.
"That's Lucy, Figente did it in Greco-Roman style," Vida said, and wished she hadn't as Semy couldn't stand being corrected. Lucy said men wanted women to be baby dolls, to dress and undress, and show off in public. They didn't want you to know anything except what they told you, so if she was smart a woman kept what she knew to herself. That's what she was going to do tonight. She wasn't going to say one more thing about anything, just have fun.
Vedder, curious as to whether Figente had acquired anything new from rival dealers, continued his examination of the long rack. "He got most of these when they were still cheap, but he won't let me sell them for him even though they would bring a fortune now. He has a drawerful of drawings and prints, Degas, Daumier, Guys, Delacroix, Forain, Gavami, to say nothing of the moderns. He has old ones too, but he paid plenty for Watteau, Fragonard, and Poussin."
"He's a Francophile, like everyone in New York," Clem said glumly.
"He's got an eye and knows a good thing when he sees it—and is able to pay for it," said Vedder.
"This is rather nice," Semy said cautiously, not wanting to get caught again.
"It's Simone Calvette, the singer—Paul Vermillion did it," Vida said.
Semy raised his eyebrows. "I don't believe I know his work."
Clem laughed. "Yes, you do, that's all of it. He was in Paris when I was. The belief at the D6me was that he only said he was a painter."
"That doesn't sound like Vermillion to me," Vida protested. "Anyhow, don't you agree it's a fine drawing?"
"Sure, but one drawing in years doesn't make you an artist to consider." Clem felt better, thinking of Vermillion's meager output, and, looking again at the Picassos, discovered a clue for his next exhibition. Picasso was right about one thing, one had to change one's style from time to time to attract attention. City streets or industrial architecture could be done in flat bright colors, off perspective. One could be modern and American. Sort of a collage effect, but with paint. Easy too. Or, one could transfer a good sharp factory photograph to a canvas and paint it in flat primary and secondary colors. No modeling. One could do an exhibition a year.
Vedder was examining a square canvas back and front for a signature. "Do you know whose this is?" he asked Vida.
"No, I haven't seen it before. But isn't it beautiful and alive!"
Two pale gold-freckled pears lay, swollen pink cheeks touching, upon their emerald cast shadow. Disarmingly simple in design the few calligraphic strokes were as words in praise of their satiny texture and fullness. There was, too, a classic elegance rarely seen in contemporary painting, though the artist evidently was of the present day.
"This is first rate, I must ask Figente who did it," Vedder said.
Clem glanced but not seeing a recognizable style or known signature was uninterested.
"It's nearly twelve, and I must get back—Lucy will be waiting for me," Vida said.
"Yeah, let's get back to the fun," agreed Herold enthusiastically.
Lucy and Ranna were drinking champagne with a tall blond young man.
"I thought Figente would have a band, let's find the victrola and dance," the blond young man said, ignoring Ranna.
"There's going to be a show in a few minutes, then supper, after that there'll be a band," Lucy said, hailing Vida.
"Vida, this is Rad Welford, he's a terrific dancer."
"Let's make our own music and dance," Rad said to Vida.
He was looking at her as no man ever had, as though she were Lucy, Vida thought thrilled. "Ask me again later," she said, trying out for the first time a look learned from Lucy.
After the Manger tableau, which had been somewhat delayed by joyous shrieks and drinks celebrating Merry Christmas, and while Hal was David playing the harp in a manner that won reluctant attention, Lucy hastened into the Queen of Sheba's revealing gauzes and joined Ranna on the saffron sofa behind a big screen.
Ranna was still sulky about Rad and she teased him playfully though she had discovered humor was lost on him. It's another thing I'll have to be careful about, she thought. It's funny how a man assumes a girl is always ready to be unfaithful, either when he wants to take you away from another man, or a new man wants to take you away from him.
"If you loved me you would not dance with other men," Ranna had complained when she had casually mentioned having gone dancing after the show.
"That's silly! The Charleston is more like a game than a dance."
"Then it is not a dance that becomes an artist."
"You may have something there," she had conceded.
Their time together was spent only at his studio as if there lay their only ground of understanding. Lovemaking, while fun, was a dance in which she was the audience; but more and more when it came to work he was increasingly lazy. She knew that he never worked when she was not there but went out to visit women in society he met through Alveg Dahl. "It is not at all like your going out with other men. These women are interested in my art. They could become patronesses for our recital."
He had thought her jealous when all she felt was surprise that he believed such patronage natural. It seemed unprofessional, amateur. Still, if as he said they did it like that in Europe, maybe it was all right; in a way it was like having an angel for a Broadway show.
"Careful of my makeup," she said, evading a kiss. "Here's our cue."
The screens were folded by two slaves recruited from Harlem's Lafayette Theatre and the first person she saw, sitting straight up with monstrous fig breasts draped in plum crepe like some weird Empress next to Figente on his throne, was Horta Cornwallis. I hope that awful woman isn't always going to turn up in my life, she thought uneasily, and turned into the safety of Ranna's embrace.
The well-rehearsed duet wove and flowed, even the full gauze skirt collaborating to incite the audience.
The faces reminded her of those at the Bison Ball. Anything sexy sure goes big. How did Clem get here, and looking as though she had hurt him? A stage was better than being on the same level with the audience because then you were separate and could keep your mind on the dance. Was she more of an artist now than in the show? She hoped so fervently and tried to pretend she really was a Princess, no a Queen, so that while doing sort of a grind she did it in a refined way. This got an unexpected laugh, though no one was supposed to laugh. Anyway, there was a big hand at the end.
"What did you do, that they laughed?" Ranna said crossly.
"I just did what you told me, pretended I was a Queen," she said indignantly and went to dress.
"What a charming couple they make," Horta Cornwallis said tentatively to discover Figente's attitude toward the girl.
"Lucy enhances anyone she's with," Figente said, speculating on the possibility of bisexual talent in Ranna, as the idea of sharing a lover with Lucy appealed to him.
"I am sure of it," Horta agreed quickly.
"Aside from her beauty," he went on, "what is enchanting is that she has retained her individuality and Western manner of speech—which you probably recognize, Horta So many provincials think they must ape New Yorkers."
The Marqués de Mendez y Avila nodded. "One is captivated to see self-possession and lack of vanity in one so young and beautiful. Also that she has not that air of weary sophistication now fashionable in women."
"Yes," Figente said, with a meditative look at his friend.
The girl, Horta thought, was a clever one to be able to bamboozle two men so different but both pretty smart. Figente's remark that he had recognized her to be a Westerner too needed a reply. It was always best to appear frank if caught. "I myself am from the South Dakota Black Hills. Like Lucy, I don't go about pretending either. Except that I've been around longer, and am not quite so pretty." She smiled disarmingly. "I'd like to do something for that girl. I'm interested in her."
The right thing to have said, she thought, as Figente chuckled. The Citadel she had achieved and from whose ramparts she could unfearfully survey the social territory of respectability had seemed impregnable until this Denver upstart had had the nerve to say at the Chennonceaux "Don't call her Madam!" It was true enough that she was from a bleak farm in the Black Hills where, as a girl, she had been at the mercy of a vicious father and a stinking farmhand. It wasn't much better after she bolted. There had been waitress days in railroad towns as she worked her way West, accommodating all comers nights, until at last she had saved enough to start her own house in Denver with the best girls available. Jake, who had bought her out, was dead, and she had been in the clear and on top of the world. She sure would like to do something for Claudel—like pinning that pretty fly-by-night to a board before she had a chance to squeal.
Cynski stood, arms outstretched, asking "quite" from the restive guests who, having been served art, were impatient to begin their own entertainment.
"Where's the band, I want to dance," screamed a drunken redheaded girl whose short skirt exposed rolled stockings and thighs.
"I have surprise for our magnimmous host," Cynski announced with a peasant vigor that alarmed Figente who was feeling drowsy after the strain of preparations for the party, in which his interest was waning.
From now on it would be the same old thing, Figente thought. Mouth drooping, his eyes sagging in puffy sockets, he sat, uncomfortable on the hard Roman chair, looking at his guests with distaste. Everyone would get drunker. Women with their avid painted faces would be more raucous than the men, jerking in a St. Vitus dance to Dixie Land Jazz, their speech limited to "You slay me." What a spectacle a fastidious man like Kevin Doyle, a fine writer, was making of himself. High as a kite when he had come, he was now "integrating" in a corner with Nick Allwood's collaborating redheaded niece who was "coming out" next week at the Athenée party which would cost her father at least fifty thousand. Vedder never would be asked again for bringing crashers, and yokels at that. In Syosset by this time he could have pleaded a headache, except then how could he keep track of Hal? The naughty boy had played beautifully but was probably pouting because Simone hadn't heard him. Just as well. Where were Simone and Vermillion? Oh yes, her last show was at one. The tableaux had not been bad. Not spectacular, but wasted nevertheless. Was it New York or this lunatic age that made it impossible to give a party with prewar style? Gone was elegance. Angles, planes, and thick forms were all very well in painting, but women had no justification for inflicting their physical defects, and revolting curved excrescences, upon unprotected public gaze. Lucy was right about the straw, the women looked like blowsy scarecrows and the room a shambles. What nonsense had that buffoon Cynski up his sleeve?
"Denis, when Cynski is finished, have Blake and the other fellow get rid of the straw before the band starts."
"Please, please, to be quite everybody," Cynski was still begging, though his wild gesticulations finally were having a silencing effect. Holding aloft a tobacco-stained finger he began portentously. "Today we are in world of future where all must speak Universal Langidge."
"He and Ilona ought to get together," Lucy murmured to Vida.
"This langidge I have created. It is based on fundamentals of human intercourse. For this occasion I have written play in which I, as human race, have discovered significance of ultraviolet ray through Freudian dream. My new langidge you will easy understand if you take care not to think. Thought is poison of intellect, the stoppage, what you say, the constipation against art. I begin."
He paused and his audience tittered uneasily. Figente glared.
"I wonder whether Cynski is the great artist and philosopher Ilona said she met recently?" Vida whispered to Lucy.
The painter took from his pocket a white disc attached to the end of a heavy watch chain that festooned his soiled crimson velvet vest and held it up, explaining, "Symbol of fourth dimension."
"That white thing's a Coolidge election clicker!" Vida said.
With spasmodic pressure of his beringed thumb there issued from this toy an accompaniment of cricket clicks to monotone sounds from contortive thick lips and large rotting teeth.
"I - me - Ahee - Ahee - oo - wahn - too - tree - va - oo - me - me I - ba da da ee - fffff - nyah - I - me - ya ya ya - I - me me me -" he went on interminably.
Everyone glanced at everyone else uncomfortably and at Figente who sat, head sunken. No one dared laugh because these days one could not risk denying modern art, especially in this house.
"Plenty of me's," Vida said to Lucy.
"I'm going to laugh."
"Think of something else."
She did. Figente draped in his toga looked like the Buddha with the smile she had bought him for Christmas. It had been snowing gently when she got into the taxi after the show. It was the first snow since the walk in the Park with Vermillion and couples were walking, arms full of brightly wrapped packages and, though she hated being alone, she wanted to get out and walk among the others because she felt lonesome which was silly because Ranna was waiting for her. She saw Simone and Vermillion come in but remain at the door as Cynski was still spouting. Simone was radiant and striking in a plain black crepe dress with a low square neck and no trimming except two shoulder straps that tied in stiff bows. Leave it to the French! They had missed her dance but then Vermillion didn't care about dancing. Only about Simone.
Cynski came suddenly to an end and bowed, beaming to the applause which though principally derisive was genuine in one corner.
Mary Doyle could not place the roundheaded young man with center-parted dark hair and short neck who lighted her cigarette. He had spoken to her while Kevin was off drinking himself into a stupor with that exhibitionistic Allwood girl who seemed anxious to show everyone she had nothing on under her skirt, and him after telling her before they came that she wasn't fastidious.
"There truly is something in those sounds if you listen carefully," Mrs. Doyle said to Semanter Klug.
Semy nodded agreement, wondering whether the wife of Kevin Doyle, precisionist, skeptic, Irishly, in the Anatole France manner, was serious. Still a lot was going on in the arts that was incomprehensible. Dada, and so on. For that matter Anatole France, he had read, was out of date—the young writers of Paris had demonstrated against him. He selected from the pigeonholes of his readings the proper reply. "One has to look at things in a new way. Even literate mental processes are corrupted by what has been done. At a sculpture exhibition in Paris recently one of the most admired things was a pissoir."
"Are they still showing that in Paris? There was one in the New York Armory Show in 1913. It really was quite beautiful."
It was apparent Cynski had no intention of releasing the guests.
"I am gratified by your appreciation, I will be pleased to repeat Universal Langidge later. But now," he proclaimed, "I have another world première. I present to you a Cubist Ballet by a company of new artists."
The audience perked up. Ballet girls exhibited their legs to the crotch, and the boys gloved testicles and behinds.
There was considerable commotion back of the gold paper screens but nothing happened except recurrent beseechings of patience from Cynski.
To Lucy the word Cubist presaged something so up-to-date and thus remarkable that she hoped her idea of a Laurencin Ballet would not be greeted as old hat when presented.
"Did you give your mother the summer ermine?" Vida asked as they waited.
"Sure. She looks too cute for words in it. I hope she'll have fun in it. Wait until you see the negligee she gave me. Georgette crepe and marabou, like something in a trousseau. I'll have to wear it to please her. I said I'd rather come home tonight for a while but she wouldn't have it. She enjoys parties I go to more than I do. I try to make them seem exciting. She'll love—here comes someone."
A small blackbird of a woman in a rusty high-collared dress sneaked onto the piano stool and with spidery fingers clawed the opening bars of the Poldini Doll Dance, to which Lucy had danced at the Bison Ball, and five little girls ranging from six to eight in skimpy frayed ballet skirts ran out and became entangled in exchanges concerned with a rose. They were followed by two buxom young women in Russian peasant dress, balancing on their braided heads crowns of flags of the nations, who concluded the ballet with an earnest Kopak. This spectacle stunned the audience, though Lucy, with professional patriotism for any performer, applauded loudly, sorry for the poor things.
"Cynski is really amazing," Mary Boyle, applauding, said to Semy. "How clever of him to combine in one ballet the rose is a rose of Gertrude Stein in the children, automatic response, and then the naive primitivism of a Rousseau fete in the two older girls."
But Semy, still annoyed at having been caught at a 1924 pissoir when it should have been a 1913 one, befuddled by this representation, only nodded, afraid to be exposed in another aesthetic error.
Before Cynski could spring an encore Figente signaled to the waiting band and freed his relieved guests.
"California, Here I Come" tootled Natchez Honeycutt, second only to Chigger Cane who was tied up at the Chennonceaux.
"Our dance, baby." Tall blond Rad Welford claimed Vida.
"That reminds me, Vida," said Lucy in Ranna's arms as the four stepped in place waiting for the room to swing out, "I had an offer to go to Hollywood. I said I'm a dancer not an actress but the Biggens' talent scout said it doesn't matter whether you can do anything."
"Tell me later," Vida said as she was swooped through an opening in the crush.
Herold and a girl collided with them. "Hey Vida, this guy Figente keeps quite a joint."
"He's the keeper of immoral rights," she flipped.
Rad squeezed her. "You're cute."
Her conscience twinged. It wasn't easy being a jazz baby. Exchanges of dancers polka-dotted the smoky air. "Amusing!"—"Interesting!"—"Really! Really!"—"Re-ahly!" "Rahly!" That was the universal language. The dancers, the columns, the Pompeian placques, and Figente in his toga were macabre.
"This place reminds me of the last days of Pompeii."
Everyone said it. Even the chorus girls who wanted to sound high-toned. Lucy never. She kept to the "my goodnesses" and "wells" to propel her laconic sentences. I'm a fine one to criticize, she thought, because I say "really" too. Am I a chameleon? No, I won't do it again, she resolved.
"Let's get out of here," Rad Welford whispered.
"No, I can't." She drew away, suddenly frightened, but reproaching herself for being old-fashioned which was no way to be in modern today.
"I'm hungry, let's get our plates and sit with Figente," Lucy said to Ranna who, though he couldn't Charleston, didn't want her to dance it with anyone else. She would have liked to join Vermillion and Simone who were having a good time with Kevin Doyle but they didn't seem to care about having anyone else.
Plates in hand they were stopped by Horta Cornwallis. "I'm delighted to see you again, my dear. It seems we never meet except through Figente. Won't you and Ranna sit here with Nino and me?"
To Lucy's disappointment Ranna accepted for them.
"We meet again in quite different surroundings from the Archduke Michael's in Nice," Ranna said to the Marqués.
The Marqués looked at Lucy. "I prefer here where there is youth and hope to Michael's drawing room where one smells a dead world in the tarnished metal of his old Royal tapestries."
Horta Cornwallis, puzzled by nobility's rejection of royalty, withheld comment and pursued her quarry. "I was enchanted by your dance," she said ingratiatingly to Lucy and Ranna. "I am giving a ball at the Athenée on St. Valentine's Day for the benefit of the war orphans of France. Beman has promised to help. The Ambassador will be there. I would like you both to be my star attraction. Do come and see me next week and we'll talk about it."
I won't, thought Lucy, I won't become involved with her, even for charity. But before she could formulate a plausible excuse, Ranna accepted. I'll tell him to get me out of it when we're alone, she vowed distressed.
"Merry Christmas, Lucy," said Semy sidling up. "Isn't it a marvelous party? I wish I didn't have to make an early train to Washington in the morning," he went on, with obvious expectation of an introduction to Horta and the Marqués.
"You sit here, Semy," Lucy obliged, introducing him, and said "Excuse me, I have to speak to Figente."
Figente threw aside the scratching laurel wreath and tied his slipping toga about him bathrobe fashion. He observed the hootched-up conviviality with disgust. This was the last party of its kind he would give for such a horde of barbarians, and that new scourge, crashers. The women were the worst; grotesques, wriggling and ghastly under greasy makeup. Where was Hal? Where Damon? And poor Boswell, a naif, with Welford's no-good son. And Lucy, after all instruction, wasting her time on the Hindu. Why didn't everyone leave except Vermillion, Simone, Kevin, and the two innocents Lucy and Boswell?
What a Night Before Christmas!
Come Dancer, Come Prancer,
For God's sake, Come Donder und Blitzen!
"My goodness, cheer up, you look as if you're at a funeral," said Lucy.
"I am, my dear, I am," he replied lugubriously.
"Your friend Mrs. Cornwallis asked Ranna and me to dance at some charity ball she's giving but I'm not going to, I don't like her."
"Why not? I believe you'd enjoy knowing her better. She can be most useful. You should never consider your personal likes or dislikes in the furtherance of your career."
She kissed him on the cheek and chirruped a line from a five-yearold song: "Daddy, you've been a mother to me."
"I hope," he said severely, "you are not as flighty as you act."
Clarissa van Horn in vivid red blew in bringing into the room a touch of snow.
"Merry Christmas, Raymond. We finally managed to get away from the family. Lyle drove like a lunatic. We skidded most of the way leaving a trail of dead things. We'd have been here sooner if some idiot hadn't decided to walk on the turnpike." She laughed, shaking her hair free of flakes.
"This is Lucy Claudel, Clarissa—Clarissa van Horn, Lucy."
"How do you do." She did not wait for a response from Lyle's big-eyed dancer in the pearl chiffon dress, but clasped her throat. "My pearl string broke, they are still rattling around in Lyle's car. Did you find more?" she asked as Lyle came up.
"How are you, Figente? Hello, Lucy. I've a few in my pocket."
Clarissa looked at him sharply, hearing only the almost imperceptible falter as he spoke Lucy's name. What made him seem rather silly was the cool manner in which the girl returned his greeting and turned away.
Lucy glanced about to choose someone to join. Simone and Kevin were laughing at something Vermillion was saying. It was the only group seeming to have a good time and she had started toward them when Tessie Soler stopped her. "By the way, wasn't that Ben Grein of Biggens Pictures backstage tonight?"
"Yes. He wanted to know if I was interested in acting in Hollywood. I said I was a dancer, not an actress."
"Of course," Tessie agreed. "They have no idea of the theatre out there."
"I'm surprised he didn't ask you."
"He did ask to meet me but I had other callers," lied Tessie. "Did he say where he is stopping?"
"He said if I changed my mind to call him at the Plaza."
"Who is at the Plaza? Here's your drink," Beman said, bringing two glasses.
"I'll have the other one," Lucy said, taking the glass from Beman. "Tessie wanted to know where Ben Grein of Biggens Pictures is staying."
"That's right, he is at the Plaza, I had lunch with him today."
"You didn't tell me, darling."
From Tessie's artificially honeyed tone and impatient tapping of her foot Beman knew she was peeved about something and that he'd hear about it later.
"That was quite a show you and Ranna put on, Lucy. I had no idea you went in for that sort of thing," Beman said.
"What?" asked Lyle, coming up.
Lucy saw he was drunker than she had first thought.
"You missed it," Tessie said vivaciously, "Lucy did a danse du ventre."
"I did not. We did a Hindu dance and it had a deep meaning," Lucy said indignantly.
"It was damned good. I didn't know you were so versatile," Beman said.
Lucy eyed Beman. It wasn't like Beman to be enthusiastic, he must be drunk, or was it Christmas spirit? "You don't know the half of it, dearie," she said, saying it like Bert Savoy, because this was no time to discuss Hindu dance art.
Lyle took the glass from her hand, drained it, put it down, and drew her to him to dance. "Tell me about it, baby," he murmured thickly, and she knew he was going to start all over again.
"Let's ask Natchez to play a Charleston," she said, knowing that would discourage talk.
"I like this better," he said, swaying her back and forth, without progressing from the one spot, to "Three O'Clock in the Morning."
"I haven't seen you around lately," he said, tightening his hold.
"I don't go out much because I'm busy working."
"Yes," she said, and saw Ranna glowering. She waved, but he did not respond.
"I think your fiancee very pretty. What does she see in you?" she kidded, to keep Lyle off the subject of herself.
"I have no idea," he said shortly, and they danced in silence until he got her off into a corner. "Why did you do it, you knew you could have anything you wanted?"
"I didn't want anything. Let's go and get you a drink."
"What do you think of modern art?"
"I'm not as drank as that, so stop it! I hear Beman has a play just right for you."
"Why doesn't he tell me about it himself?"
"He thinks you aren't as serious about your career as you used to be."
"Well, I like that!"
"Why don't you stop running around with that darky dancer and settle down? I'd like to see you in that play next winter. It's what you want, isn't it?"
So that was why Beman had been so enthusiastic. She knew it was a play she could do and an opportunity which might never come again. The plot, revolving about her as the lead, required only that she dance in dream sequences. But she knew too that Lyle was offering the play to her along with himself.
"Ranna is a great artist and besides who I go out with is none of your business."
"It is—because I love you. You know I do."
"We don't have the same idea of love."
"Marry' me. We'll spend the spring and summer in Europe, then you'll do the play. I promise."
"What about Clarissa?"
"She's a civilized girl and will understand. There's no reason to bring her into this."
"You know what? I don't like you. I thought you were nice in the beginning and that if I tried maybe I'd fall in love with you. You don't give anyone a chance—you think you can buy everything."
Stung, he loosened his grasp. "Oh, I don't know! You jumped at the apartment."
"You know I hated it when you talked Mother into moving there. I'm not like those girls in that apartment you took me to."
"They aren't chiselers."
"Get away from me, and don't ever bother me again." She shoved him away, and forced through the dancers to find Ranna.
"I've been waiting for a dance, Lucy," said Carter Prell, catching her arm.
"Later. Did you see Ranna?"
"He's with Olive, they are having an esoteric conversation on love and art," said Olive's husband with a grimace. "Maybe you and I should have a drink."
"Not now," she said, wondering if the whole night would pass without a word with Paul Vermillion.
The nice Marqués towered above her. "I wish I could dance with you as the others do but I am very bad at it," he said. "To tell you the truth, I'd rather sit over there with you."
"Nothing could please me more."
"Are you enjoying the party?"
"Yes, now that I am with you."
He looked at her as other men did but with an additional undemanding friendliness that she liked. It was a relief to be with him after Lyle, and she told herself again that his coarse-skinned ugliness and old-fashioned politeness added a distinction lacking in more handsome men. He was a man to learn from. Better than Vermillion who always seemed to push you away just when you thought everything was going along fine. Simone was always between. Over there was Vida being taken in by Rad Welford. Vida knew about men in books but would have to be told about Rad.
"Nino." Simone came up—as though conjured by thought of her, Lucy thought. "Figente's protégé is to play for me some troubador songs and Spanish ones of Catalonia which you must hear."
"Catalonian songs are not truly Spanish!" he objected.
"Then you will know whether they are for me to sing."
"In that case we will come and listen," he said, including Lucy.
"No!" said Lucy. "I heard them before."
The agreeable young man who said he was the confidant of Senator-elect Lauter had to go and quiet the Senator's slobbering drunken son, and Horta Cornwallis grasped Lucy's arm as she passed on her way to Vermillion. "I hope you and I will be friends as we have so many in common."
"We have?" Lucy faltered, withdrawing her arm.
One would have to go slow with the cagey little bitch. "Opal Allwood tells me she knew you in Denver."
"I didn't know her well. She's the sister of a boy I knew. In fact Mother and I didn't know many people in Denver, we lived in a roominghouse in the old section." As she said this, Lucy remembered seeing made-up girls coming and going into an old brick mansion from where, later at night, had come pianola music from its shade-drawn interior.
She looked at Horta Cornwallis and saw she was scared. Horta was not only the voice on the telephone at the Crofter but the Madam at the Kelway mansion! The poor old thing thinks I'll tell but I never will. I can't say I know you were a Madam but I won't tell.
"I am glad to see you two getting to know each other better," Figente, coming up, approved.
"Figente," Vedder waylaid him, "who did the painting of the pears? I didn't recognize the painter."
"Good, isn't it?"
"Who is he?"
"He's around here somewhere. I'll introduce you."
The two men started across the room, leaving Lucy trapped with Horta. I just know I'll never get to speak to Vermillion alone tonight, she fumed.
Not seeing Vermillion, Figente used his search as a pretext to get Vida away from Welford's son. "Aren't you expected home for Christmas, Rad?"
"I'm taking an early train," the young man said resentfully.
"Remember me to the family," beamed Figente, as if saying goodbye, and saying to Vida, as if Rad had left, "Boswell, do see if you can find Vermillion."
Rad's intention of going to Philadelphia had come as a surprise and Vida was glad she had resisted his plea to leave with him. He had turned out to be nicer than her first impression of him. He wasn't a playboy but a Princeton man with playwriting ambitions whose family had known people like Henry James and Edith Wharton. He knew Scott Fitzgerald and, next to Vermillion, was the most interesting man she had met in New York."
"I'll phone you next week," he said, looking into her eyes.
What a wonderful Merry Christmas!
Half the revelers had gone, some assisted by friends or Denis the butler. Shrieks and scufflings were heard and in various corners drunken sprawlers babbled confidentially. The musicians had departed, but one couple danced obliviously.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel!
sang the redheaded Allwood girl, dress ripped at the side, who was coming out at the Athenée next week and whom tonight Beman had promised a part in his new play.
"I want to tell you how much I enjoyed your piece on Yeats," Semy said, at last achieving Kevin Doyle.
"Who are you?"
"Nobody," Semy said in his No. 1 awe-disarming manner, "but I read whatever you write."
"Go away, nobody," said Doyle.
"I want to tell you how much I admire your work. It reminds me of Rodin," Semy said to Figente.
Rodin, whose gargantuan exaggerations he thought vulgar, was anathema to Figente and he impaled Semy on the needle of his glance. "Do you really! Thank you so much!" he falsettoed, and gave Vedder's crasher the cold shoulder.
"Where have you been keeping yourself?" Lucy asked Clem as she watched Vermillion join Figente and Vedder nearby.
"I've been talking with Cynski about old Paris days. He's an interesting fellow," he replied, sick-eyed at her disinterest in him. She pretended not to notice his hurt tone. First Lyle, and now Clem. And an argument with Ranna still to come. Some Mem' Christmas! Clem and she, unable to find something to say to each other, turned and listened.
"I saw the pears. I'd like to see some more of your things," Vedder was saying to Vermillion.
"I haven't much."
"Enough for a show?"
Clem's hurt deepened. Here was Vedder offering Vermillion a show on the basis of one still life, and without his having to pay for it.
"I'm not ready."
As he had guessed, thought Clem. A one-painting painter.
"Why not let me have a few on hand?"
"Thanks, I'll see what I have."
"Brush is showing the end of January, come and see it."
"Come and sit next to me," Lucy ordered Vermillion before he got away again, and to Semy, about to sit beside her when Vermillion went first to fetch their drinks, "Not here, this place is reserved."
"Merry Christmas!" said Vermillion returning, joining her on the sofa.
"Merry Christmas!" she said. It felt like Christmas for the first time tonight, she thought.
"How is the recital coming?"
"Fine, I guess. It's hard to tell."
"Have you asked Hal to play?"
"Not yet. I sort of hate to ask Figente, and I couldn't ask Hal first."
"I'll ask Figente, if you like."
"You would? That would be wonderful."
"Who is that woman talking to Simone?"
"Mrs. Cornwallis. She reminds me of a game I had when I was little. You roll sago balls into the gums of a grinning face—teeth. The last one is the hardest to get in."
The image delighted Vermillion. So that was the Mrs. Cornwallis of whom Simone had spoken and urged him to meet as someone influential. His first glance had recorded her indelibly in his memory. A Mine. Tussaud horror figure from which suspended a maggotful bag of breasts, like some obscene Egyptian witch-goddess, her colors the death hues of Egyptian tombs. Toadstool pallor, and robed andin dried blood. A short sharp falcon beak, divided from its receding chin by a livid scratch. Fly's eyes seeing in all directions. Scavenger oyster eyes, bulging with the excrements they fed on. A knobby skeleton, with flesh decomposed to accommodate the leech forms of an evil being. Paint the skeleton and build on it, layer by layer, to the flat crested death's head grinning.
"She looks like Horus," he said.
"Horus, an Egyptian falcon god."
"Well, I wouldn't know about that, but her name Horta is just right."
"Often individuals are named rightly. Nothing could be more appropriate than Amadeus—loved of God—for Mozart."
"And in our show," Lucy contributed, "a girl is married to a drunk whose name is Pickle."
Eyes turned suspiciously to observe their mirth.
While Vermillion had assented to her plea that, as she did not wish to be alone Christmas Eve, they go together to Figente's party, Simone had been unable, when he called for her at the Chennonceaux, to persuade him to go first to her hotel for a drink. She resolved to take his refusal with good grace and on no account to appear possessive. It would be sufficient that they were together again at Figente's and who could doubt what happiness would result later?
At the moment Simone was not feeling particularly joyous. After the restraint she had exercised all night, it was infuriating to see him in high spirits settled comfortably close to the Claudel. The girl was vicious, without feeling, calculating, a nymph of merely outer beauty who was without understanding of the arts. She could destroy Paul who would never protect himself. The Claudel, he would discover, never would accept his fitful secretive moods. She bent forward from her narrow flanks, sparkling cognac eyes on Lucy. "Ah, chérie!"
He did not look at her. "Paul," she said in a tone of unmistakable intimacy, "come and meet Nino and Horta, then we must go."
She knew her tone had centered interest in them. He looked at her expressionlessly, a warning she knew, but unable to restrain herself, she shrugged with the rueful exaggeration of a performer, her husky voice rising shrilly. "He exhausts me. I must drop before he sees how tired I am, whether posing, or in those long walks he considers a promenade. I tell you!"
The Marqués was surprised that a woman of Simone's experience had not learned that nothing was so offensive as public parading of intimacy, she was behaving like the putas of his youth. But Lucy of the disturbing eyes would worry any woman, or man.
Lucy observed Simone gravely. That's the way I want to be in love once in my life, she thought.
Simone, aware of the spectacle she was making, could not desist. It was a studied provocation, the two sitting intimately, and that laugh uniting them was a cruel flaunting of his rejection of her. She had not heard him laugh thus lightheartedly since the first months he had loved her. She would drag the girl into the sphere to which Paul had excommunicated her.
"Some day, ma petite," she said with a brittle laugh, "we must show Paul how irresistible you are lying in my robe du Maroc."
Lucy's lips parted and she stared at Simone. Horta's fly eyes glittered and Tessie thought w'hat a story to tell on Claudel. Semy and Clem were baffled by the exchange and Vida thought of making a denial but refrained, as that might make it sound worse. Beman, thinking so that's why she turned down Bigelow, cleared his throat and said to Vedder, "By the way, have you been to the new Henri Quatre? They do tripe à la mode de Caen very well."
Vermillion was angry at being caught between two pities. More so for Simone than Lucy. With Lucy one had the sense that she was growing into maturity through intuitive self-teaching and this might lead to detours of experimentation. The way one learned to paint, each canvas a new beginning. Of course there always was present the unseen angel or devil of cumulative knowledge to add its two cents to the result. Thus, even if true, in Lucy it probably was curiosity. Simone was different. In Paris there had been those types who could not resist informing him of the rumors of her sexual deviations. These might or not be true. If true, knowing her as he did, it was another white powder to make life bearable. There was in her a malignant hurt no one or anything could salve, it festered in her uncontrollable destructive urges as the one now possessing her. Yet tonight, as they talked gaily with Kevin Doyle, she had seemed again the Simone he first knew and he had anticipated their returning later to his or her place. An urge deadened often before by her obsessive possessiveness.
As Lucy was no match for Simone's talent for unanswerable implications, he said, to bridge the awkward silence, "I doubt whether any painter would choose that as Lucy's characteristic pose."
"But I can imagine nothing more charming than Miss Claudel as Odalisque," contributed the Marqués gallantly.
Anyway, thought Lucy, none of the men believe it.
Simone sat with arms folded in warming self-embrace until the moment she could rescue herself from the situation she had wished to avert. With artificial roguishness she threw up her hands and rose, saying, "I give up. He is too difficult to please, absolutely refusing to exhibit his work. What is one to do with such a gosse!"
The revenge of a general laugh at Vermillion's expense carried her up to the bedroom. The confident smirk of the Lucyesque beauty in Fragonard's sanguine drawing mocked her and she took more of the palliative than she first intended. After all, one was entitled to a Christmas gift. She replenished her lipstick and, as she studied her face coldly in the mirror, frowned at the reflection of Maxine standing in the doorway.
"Darling," Maxine said, "I know it's late but I had to come to give you this."
A large unmounted emerald froze Simone's palm. "Ugh, it's cold!" she shuddered, dropped it, and made no effort to retrieve it.
"Darling!" squealed Maxine, thrilled by such regal prodigality, and scrambled to pick it up.
"Why don't you exhibit, Vermillion?" asked Clem.
"Because," said Vermillion with alcoholic affability.
Clem threw back his head in a hearty laugh. Vermillion, for all his talk, would never do anything. Look at him now trying to impress Lucy. Her eyes were hepatica-blue tonight. It would be wonderful to paint her in his new American style. With her short ringlets haloing her head, she would stand nude, perhaps holding an ear of corn; like a Cranach, but without the swollen body of course; it would be original and cause comment. It was for her he had borrowed the "Hepaticas" from Ma for the exhibition, to remind her of their picnic when she had wanted him.
"I'm going to talk him into an exhibition," Vedder interjected.
"I haven't enough," Vermillion said uncomfortably.
"Nonsense," said Figente, "you can show some of the early with the latest."
"Nothing doing. Showing incomplete works is an idea of dealers who want to cash in on whatever demand a painter achieved in his maturity. Those dead boys would be miserable if they saw exhibited, as representative of their work, the discards of their scrapbaskets."
"Picasso shows his various styles," Vedder protested.
"That's another matter—but I don't flutter every time he sneezes. He's today's greatest draughtsman, and undoubtedly knows what he is trying to do. I happen to believe that if he was sure of one of his variations of style he'd hang on to it and work from there as has every painter of consequence. When he is sure, he will. He's young yet, as painters go."
"I disagree," dissented Vedder. "Despite their merit, his different styles have been very good publicity for him, it has kept up the public's interest."
"You make it sound like the dressmakers' yearly changes of fashion. And there aren't as many variations in his style as is believed, they are all variations on the same theme, which is all right. But, as Degas said, 'art isn't a sport!'"
"Come now, the next thing you'll be telling us is that you paint for yourself alone," Vedder spluttered.
"That should appeal to you as an avant-garde champion. To paraphrase Klee—'Who can appreciate me better than myself?'"
Vermillion retorted flippantly, hoping to end the discussion.
"Klee!" Clem scoffed belligerently. "The ultimate in European decadence. New York may be impressed with Paris, but not the real America where I come from. A row of smokestacks is as beautiful as the Parthenon. More, because they're functional."
Vermillion peered at him hazily. "You mean you're the latest art pope through which a new aesthetic, which is to say pioneer, U.S.A. speaks? Only popes are infallible, artists never—as you should know—or they'd stop after the first painting. A painter doesn't work as an artist for a political slogan or patron, any more than for a prince. Nor is he a geographer."
The Marqués laughed. "I am certain, Senor Artist, you would give absolution to some painters, with patrons, who practiced their art in Spain—let us say, Velasquez, Goya, and El Greco.
"The point is good—especially with reference to El Greco, a foreigner in Spain, than which, as you know, nothing could be worse in Spain. El Greco wasn't merely a Cretan or a naturalized Spaniard. A painter's native land is something he sees in his vision as an image and then paints. With Chardin it was a copper pot, quill pen, dead hare, or his kitchen with his wife and children. Was Mozart only an Austrian?"
"I say America has its own art," Clem said angrily, hoping Vedder wasn't being taken in by Vermillion's fast talk.
As he paused to take another drink there were hopeful shiftings among those who hoped the drunk painter's boring art talk was over, but Vermillion, turning his head to see Brush, blithely resumed. "Who was your American-Indian forefather—was he English, Spanish, Dutch, Scandinavian, French, Irish, Italian, Hungarian, Negro?"
"I come from pioneer stock and not from New York which is not really America—so perhaps I see our country differently than do you," Clem retorted.
"That's probable," Vermillion agreed affably, oblivious to the paralyzed listeners, "for as far as I know I belong to the remainder of the human race of mongrels. I assume you have discovered some new way of laying on paint, as your insistence on American painting as absolutely and uniquely American only can have validity if you can prove that you have discovered a new method of drawing or painting. I take it you are not talking about subject-matter. I believe it of greater value to see what is true to yourself and then to know how to make what you do true to those who look at it. It's like being a matador. You place the banderillas with courage and art, but without bravura. In the bull ring you always can spot faking—it's that extra flourish. Weight your image—with geography, politics, credos, flourishes—and it topples. A painter has to walk the tightrope of his canvas a million times more carefully than any tightrope performer. It's like making love, you have to be lover and beloved simultaneously."
"Ole, Matador!" applauded the Marqués, laughing. "I award to you the ears."
Vermillion grinned and drained his glass. "He means I've killed the bull by handing out too much. Actually what it adds up to is that, as a painter, I'm caught on the horns of my own dilemma—and Leonardo's sentence taunts—'Beware, O painter, when theory outstrips performance.'"
"You're fresh," Lucy said, looking at him, he thought, with that indulgent composure with which models surveyed their painters from the world's canvases.
"I'll be back in a minute," he told her, and went to replenish his glass.
Vida was at the table, bottle in hand. The girl was of a remarkably coordinated line on which to improvise. Her features and head were as planed as an Attica head, but no one could describe those vibrant lips as chiseled.
"Merry Christmas!" she said, pouring the drink. "I'm glad you told them off. What a macabre crowd. To paraphrase:
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyant,
"With 'Tiresias, Old Man With Wrinkled Breast'—"
"'Jug, Jug, Jug'"—quoted Vermillion, raising his glass.
Vida laughed happily, his conclusion delighting her more than if she had quoted it herself.
Her clean-cut irregularities stimulated him not only to improvise on their forms in drawing but to desires restrained only by an unwillingness to become entangled in an inevitable discussion of life or art after lovemaking. One Simone was enough. He saw the throbbing of her full throat, her upturned handsome head and strong inviting mouth. He leaned over and kissed her.
It's me he likes best, she exulted quivering.
"Hey you, come back here," Lucy called to Vermillion as he returned from the far comer. She patted the cushion beside her.
Far gone, he made his way to her. His stronger eye was strained and widened because the weaker one was half closed and he saw everything magnified. His fingertips twitched for lack of a medium to transmit the images jostling in his vision. The group of figures, lighted by two lamps and united by one great shadow, comprised a perfect composition of one large form revealing remarkable discoveries of weights and balances and nuances of facial expression. A round blind spot was Tessie's quivering mouth.
Vedder was still brooding over the financially disquieting thought that advanced painting might become old hat. "You seem to condemn avant-garde art."
"Not at all," Vermillion said, surprised to find the subject still open. "I only object to those who show you nothing and want you to find something in their nothingness. Nowadays we're scared not to be avant-garde—so anything goes, especially obscurity. Don't you dare question me because I am avant-garde. It's a camouflage. There's a difference between an oracle and in being oracular, a stuttering Ouija board. When you say a rose is a rose, you are saying nothing three times, and admit you don't know what to say about a rose. Renoir knew what to say about a rose when he painted it at eighty. And what he said was his—and when we look at it, yours and mine."
And when we look at it—yours and mine. This is the best moment of my life, thought Vida, even though he had left her to rejoin Lucy who never could understand or appreciate him.
"I talk too much," he said to Lucy, finishing his drink.
"You do not! I don't understand a thing you say but I think it's wonderful. You go right ahead."
"For God's sake, Lucy, don't encourage him," Beman said, rising. "You see? No subject is so boring, or will clear the room faster, than artists' problems," Vermillion said to Lucy.
Beman, irritated, said, "You fellows always think you are special. No one else expects to be supported without working."
"I don't think my painting is necessary to anyone but myself, and so no one owes me a living," Vermillion said mildly. "Since I'm selfishly indulging myself, I don't care what anyone thinks—as much as I do, that is, about my painting. If I'm not pleased, no one can convince me. And the most difficult task for any artist is to convince himself, so occasionally he has to talk out loud to himself. Besides, I would like to know what I think."
Figente chortled, and Semy stored away the last comment for future use.
"You're just like me," Lucy told Vermillion. "I love to find out about myself, too."
"I don't limit art to painting, writing, and composing," Beman insisted, wishing someone would speak up for his own creative role in the theatre. "A fine chef is a great artist—in fact I believe Arnold of the Henri Quatre is a genius."
"Beman's right about Vermillion being too definitive as to what art is," Damon St. John said, "though I'm not sure about the chef as an artist. I'll have to think about that. I know Vermillion doesn't consider scene designing—lighting as a kind of painting—as important as easel painting, but I do think it adds luster to the drama."
"You mean lighting puts the play in the shade?" Vermillion was cross at being drawn into the endless argument. "I'm not an admirer of the Gross-Schauspiel Haus theatre and its interminable levels and mobs of extras running up and down red-carpeted stairs going nowhere not fast enough. Raise your curtain on the most splendiferous a la Appia-Gordon Craig-Reinhardt-Jessner set devised and see how long an audience will sit without the play. A singer like Simone, without any setting, can create an illusion of a world all by herself in a minute."
"I really think you are being deliberately contrary," Damon began heatedly.
"Damon, douse your luster," Figente ordered.
"For God's sake, Beman, let's go," Tessie said pettishly, worn out by the talk that had drifted so far from her own contribution to art and had left her to sit unnoticed in the wings.
"Yes," said a stumpy woman Figente remembered he had invited for some reason he could not remember, "I'm afraid we really must go."
"Please do," he said.
Clem rose and stretched. He was depressed by Vermillion's mouthings. A fine thing it would be to have slaved for an exhibition and then not have anyone like it. It was bad enough not to know which way to turn these days. Before seeing all that Paris stuff one could paint what one really liked, maybe as good as George Luks some day. But now one had to be scared of not being modern. The idea that had come in Figente's studio wasn't bad though. Break up a representational painting with angles and shadows in flat off-colors. Modern and understandable at the same time and, as Vedder said was important, one could do a show a year.
"Come on, Semy, time to go."
Semy did not want to leave without an invitation to call from Mrs. Cornwallis who, he had discovered, knew even more important people than Mrs. Doyle. The latter's invitation he already had wangled, though he'd have to think up some way to get round Kevin. Beman sure was right in telling off that guy Vermillion, you didn't have to be a painter, composer, or writer to be an artist.
"There is a print of the Empress Theodosia of Byzantium that is so like you—I'd like to bring you a copy sometime," he said to Mrs. Cornwallis.
Resemblance to an Empress was flattering. "Do. I'm usually in late most afternoons. I'm at the Athenée," she said cordially to the young man who knew that tart, Lucy Claudel, from way back.
"My dear," she said to Lucy in leaving, "I'll telephone you for lunch next week so we can talk about your dance for the ball."
"I hope," added the Marqués to Lucy, "you will have some time for me also."
Vermillion stood abruptly and looked about. "Where's Simone?" he asked Figente.
"I have no idea. Damon, where's Simone?"
"I don't know—I'll find her."
"And Hal—see where he is."
"I have to find Simone—time she and I left," Vermillion said to Lucy.
"Oh!" she said in a small disappointed voice.
"You and Vida come with us and we'll stop for breakfast at Childs'," Clem said.
What a crazy night, Lucy thought. I come to a party with a man I think I'm in love with and I don't care when he walks out and leaves without me because I want someone else to take me home who hasn't asked me, so I'm going home with Vida and Clem and Semy as though we were still in Congress and next week I'm going back to Denver and Horta Cornwallis.
"Don't anyone leave yet," beseeched Damon returning all aflutter, "there is a last Christmas tableau, and everyone must guess what it is."
"Where's Simone?" demanded Vermillion, disturbed.
"She'll be here in a minute," Damon said mysteriously.
"Really, Damon, we can't have any more Christmas nonsense," Figente objected, provoked as two of the hired Negro footmen drunkenly staggered in with a bulky rug and laid it at his feet.
With a tug the carpet unwound and from it rolled Simone and Maxine.
"The Gift of the Magi," shrieked Hal.
"Time to go, Simone," Vermillion said gently.
"Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas," screamed Hal.
"Merry Merry Merry Christmas."