Butterfly Man/Chapter XIII
THE curtain fell on the last act. The company laughed, cheered, embraced, kissed each other. Norah flung her arms about Ken's neck. The chorus girls danced with the boys. The show was a hit. Howard, in evening clothes, was dragged out of Rosemary Rose's dressing-room. He looked pale but was smiling broadly.
"Thank God it's over!" he said. "And thanks to all of you. The chorus can go home and get some sleep. I want to talk to the principals."
Girls and boys drifted away. "I wanted you to have a little champagne with me tonight," he told those who remained on stage. "You deserve it. You were wonderful. What say?"
They readily agreed. Visitors were arriving. The elegance of the first-nighters made the artificially ornate costumes of the players seem shabby. Henry Colman appeared. He put his arm around Howard's shoulders and called him a sly dog who had put something over on an old-timer. A hit—and the theatre would receive only a thousand dollars a week. Mike Vee proudly gazed at his son. He laughed at Colman's annoyance. "My boy," he said, "is a genius. The world is his."
At midnight, the party began. Mike Vee sat beside his son; at Howard's left was Ken. Then Rosemary Rose. The guests were in a semi-circle about a banquet table on the second floor of what had once been the palatial town house of Rufus Gardner, one-time "tin king." Blonde Lorelei Swan, who had been a Ziegfeld show girl long ago, now reigned over the mansion. It was a speakeasy. A six piece orchestra energetically played the score of "Sweeter Than Sweet," repeating the tunes again and again. Ken drank champagne cocktails—many of them. Rosemary Rose confessed she liked his curling brown hair. She tried to hold his hand beneath the table. He was embarrassed and ignored her advances. Howard responded to a toast. He was more than a little tight. His tongue, usually held in leash, was free. He called Rosemary his sweet flower pot, his bouquet of womanhood. He pointed to Ken as his pride and his joy—his discovery. Norah sat next to Nellie. Ken kissed her. He kissed Nellie. He was deliriously, wildly happy. After the supper, champagne made feet tingle and bodies pulsate to the rhythm of the music. Ken danced until he was tired. He relaxed into a comfortable leather lounge in the bar. Jules Monroe, even more pallid than usual, sat beside him.
"Do you forgive me?" he asked Ken.
"Of course. Why, Jules, you are terrific. We're all terrific! The show's a success."
"When are you leaving?" whispered Jules. Without waiting for an answer, he continued: "Come with me. We'll have a quiet chat. It's so noisy here."
Ken rose, rocking on his heels. He uttered a low pitched, sharp laugh. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Lowell," he said. He shook his head pityingly. Then to Monroe's astonishment, he delivered a noisy "bird" straight into the director's face.
Howard leaned against the bar. Ken crossed the room and stood beside him. Jules Monroe followed, an odd smile on his thin lips.
"You'd better lay off the liquor, Gracey," he warned.
"It'll make you do things you can't get away with on Broadway."
"What do you mean?" Howard asked. The dimly lighted barroom, walls lined with glossy black leather, was crowded.
"He got tight the night Dick Carter went on his bat."
"I did what?" Ken demanded in astonished anger.
"I can't say what you did, Kenneth," Monroe smiled. "Anyone who pimped in Tia Juana for two years is likely to—"
"You're wrong, Jules," Howard interrupted. "I know the truth about Ken—"
"He was a pimp. Leon Shaw says so."
In a swift complex of motion, bodies shifting, epithets spat from angry lips, Howard moved like a battering ram through the knot of men who surrounded Jules and Ken. He struck the director with bare knuckles. Jules flushed scarlet, then became livid. He stumbled. Some one held Howard's arm. Jules was helped into the men's room. His nose was bleeding.
"You shouldn't have bothered. I was the injured party," Ken said to Howard.
"What hurts you, hurts me." He was trembling from excitement. He turned to Frankie Regan. "Take Monroe home." He handed the chorus boy a twenty-dollar bill. "Come, Ken, with me."
"It's all so amusing," Ken said. "Your defense of me and my morals."
"You really need no defense," Howard replied. "The public likes you. And so do I."
They lay in twin beds. It was daylight but the stimulating excitement of the night had not worn off.
"I really lost my temper. I was drunk," Howard gloomily added. "I forget this isn't Paris. American drink is so powerful that almost any quiet affair is likely to end in a riot. Did you mind the row?"
"I enjoyed it. You were splendid." Ken raised himself on an elbow and faced Howard, who was sitting up in the other bed.
"Do you know, you could live here quite comfortably, and I'd like it? This apartment is really big enough for both of us."
"What would poor Jules say about me then?"
"That's all so childish," Howard replied. "Jules is a great baby … or rather, an adolescent. I suppose he was about to acquire you—add you to his collection. He's quite primitive, a cave man of peculiar habits. He could be charming. Except for his private life which is a trifle unspeakable. In London he could be perfectly happy, accepted in the highest society. In Paris he could marry a Bourbon noblewoman, queen of the dykes, and live forever after, a decadent in a decaying chateau. In New York he's tragic—forty-six and no place to go. As a result he is never happy unless he is pursuing febrile youth. Poor thing. He can never light anywhere."
"Let's not talk about him," Ken said.
"No … let's not. And let's get some sleep. Tomorrow we shall relax. Sleep until three, then a drive, and dinner at L'Aiglon. What do you say to that?"
They rose at four. The day, heavy with the foretaste of snow, brought excellent business to the box office, Howard learned. He drank a cocktail, ate a bowl of onion soup as he watched Ken devour a great plate of ham and eggs. "An ignoble breakfast," Howard commented. "Fit only for Americans. I never eat ham and eggs any more."
"Aren't you an American?"
"I'm a New Yorker," Howard replied. "And you're still a Texan. Still natural. You have taste in clothes and in ties. Some day when you learn how to do all the New York things to-do, you'll be perfect. Cocktails for tea. Riding in the park. Spats when it rains. And a New York accent. Not to mention more sophistication."
"You do know so much," Ken marvelled.
"Said prettily, my son," Howard smiled. "I pretend. I've been places. Done some things. But I'm essentially a fake. You can depend upon that."
"I like you. And you're not a fake," Ken said.
Howard grinned. "I've been in London quite a lot of late. I've learned the English trick of looking bloody honest. London society, you know, sent Oscar Wilde to jail.'"
"Why did they send him to jail?"
"It's an old, old story."
"I never heard it. What did he do?"
"He tried to be himself. He was, you see, a poet, a worldly-wise philosopher and next to Socrates and Leonardo da Vinci, the world's greatest paederast."
"What's that last?"
"He belonged to the third sex. He was born not to be a man … and was punished for it."
Into Ken's life, glamor, long absent, was returning. The bracing air of a New York winter stung him, quickened him as fresh snow flaked against his face. Doors and windows were hung with holiday holly, the theatre audiences gay, women clad in the pelts of a thousand little furry animals, men so polished in their blacks and whites that they seemed less men than cleverly fabricated animate laughing dolls.
In the theatre, life settled slowly. Rosemary Rose hired Vernon Gale, blond, Virginian and virginal, as her chauffeur. Polly Tucker flew into hysterics when Walter Winchell reported that her caricaturist sweetheart had been seen in the Frivolity Club with another woman. Annie Begley filled her offstage waits by playing practical jokes on unsuspecting chorus men and stage hands. To clamoring chorus girls she presented Willis P. Flint, playboy and spender, who lived up to his spendthrift reputation by throwing parties every night, entertaining half a dozen girls at a time, wining and dining them and sending them home happy, each ten dollars richer.
Ken slipped easily into a smooth groove. He decided to accept Howard's invitation to live at the Barrington, provided he was permitted to pay a share of the rent. He moved into a small comfortable bedroom on the first floor of the duplex apartment, a modernistic room with triangular chairs, a low dreamless bed covered with sky-blue satin, a highly polished chrome steel mirror; on the walls bewildering post-impressionist paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Benton. Ken stipulated that he was not to be considered a guest. But it was difficult not to be a guest of the ever-thoughtful Howard, who had always lived in a faultless world, a patient, silent servant at his elbow; a well oiled, wealthy world where the coffee was always hot. Ken, who now recalled with disgust the ostentatious grandeur of Star-ridge, was unaware of Howard's instructions to Rutgers that he be served with all the deference due a guest. He no longer experienced the minor annoyance of shaving himself. He was shaved by Rutgers. His clothes were mysteriously and forever in press. He ate what he chose to eat, as he preferred to have it cooked. The Mercedes roadster was, Rutgers informed him, standing in the garage unused now that Mr. Vee had purchased a Duesenberg. Thus Ken drove to the Commodore in a striking red motor car, regaling himself with the admiring glances of passersby as he sped through the city.
Soon it seemed as if he had always lived at the Barrington. He penetrated deeply into Howard's private life. Howard was a devout music-worshipper. He invited Ken to accompany him to Sunday afternoon concerts of the Philharmonic orchestra, to opera performances which did not conflict with Ken's appearances in "Sweeter Than Sweet."
Frequently Howard's conversation was alive with references to books and authors. Ken listened, asked questions and learned. Books, interesting, well written books, lay on his night table. Ken began to read. Not infrequently Howard entertained after the show. Sometimes members of the company would drop in for a chat about the unfailingly interesting theatre. But Howard's acquaintances were not limited to show people. Popular composers called to pay their respects. The shy, handsome George Cashman executed the difficult passages of his new Concerto in F on Howard's piano. Val Yeager illustrated his new 5/4 Spanish theme with variations, which he planned to introduce in a forthcoming operetta. Little Harry Hayes, the polysyllabic lyric writer, whose contagious and sometimes salacious verses were epidemic in the smarter salons of New York and London, bounced in to recite lines he had just written for a new edition of a Cochran revue.
The success of '"Sweeter Than Sweet" caused enterprising press agents to invite the cast to after-theatre parties at resorts in Greenwich Village, on Broadway, and in Harlem. On such occasions, Howard would be the star guest, who, because of his fame was required to play tunes of his own composition.
On Broadway near Fifty-third Street, Derek Bland operated the Club Gayety. Derek was an Icelandic adventurer who had arrived on Broadway ten years before, after a youth spent in Labrador whalers, Brazilian coffee freighters, in American newspaper city rooms and in one or two unimportant jails. He loved women. After a few seasons as press agent for a circuit of vaudeville theatres, his passion for delicately fashioned, extremely young girls, landed him a job as entrepreneur of a Broadway night resort. He undressed his ingenues to the point where decency drifted into shadow and then paraded them before after-theatre amusement seekers.
One night he entertained the "Sweeter Than Sweet" company. Derek presented his non-paying guests of the company to his paying patrons with barbed wisecracks. He dubbed Ken the "sky-rocketing male Pavlowa" and Howard, who presided at the head of a long table, the "American Noel Coward."
Little "Ga-ga" Myra Malloy sat at Ken's elbow drinking gin and ginger ale, giggling with shimmering, ticklish intoxication. While Howard played his songs, she placed a hand in Ken's. She gazed into his eyes. Finally, she begged him to dance with her. More because of a sense of responsibility toward Howard than for any other reason, Ken refused. Myra, tiny, dark, with a narrow mouth, trim figure and apple breasts, turned away.
"I'd rather not," Ken whispered. "You're too tight to go stepping."
Suddenly she faced him and in a low voice said: "You'd rather dance with your sweetheart, wouldn't you?"
"If I had one—"
She giggled. "Too bad he's so busy at the piano."
At three o'clock the club closed. Ken was drunk. He had been drinking rye highballs. His head was swelled with alcoholic fantasies, his lips were dry. Derek Bland came to his table. "I'll send a cab for you," he suggested.
"Where's Howard?" Ken asked in a tired, distant voice.
"I'll go home alone," Ken said.
The city, as a cab drove him cross-town, was a purplish blur. Street lamps, fading electric signs, the blaze of a neon light, then the hotel. He unlocked the door and saw the apartment through the mesh of his intoxication. He was very drunk. Sitting on the bed, he repeated: "Drunk—drunk—never was drunk before—now that I can drink again I'm gonna get drunk some more." Suddenly he rose from the bed. His head cleared. His eyes saw the sharp outlines of chairs, a dresser, doors, a bed. He had never realized that to the little people of the chorus the simple fact of his residence in Howard's apartment at the Barrington was reason enough for gossip. Never had he dreamed that he was living not in rooms leased by Howard, but with Howard. Of course, the gossip was untrue. And yet—and yet. The innocent gibe of Ga-ga made him wonder. He wondered why he had changed color at the chorus girl's remark, why he had begun to drink, why he had gone home alone. He was afraid to face, not Howard, but a thought. It was a curious thought, deep, sly, a persistent thought, defying suppression. He tried to sublimate it, to forget it. He shook his head with genuine helplessness. Drunk as he was, he guessed the truth. He—he thought … that way. He did. No question about it. He—he preferred Howard to—to a silly girl like Ga-ga—perhaps to any girl. He shook his head. *Tm crazy," he told himself quietly. "I'm crazy."