Butterfly Man/Chapter XVIII

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Levenson - Butterfly Man - Chapter left.pngXVIIILevenson - Butterfly Man - Chapter right.png

 

"SWEETER THAN SWEET" floated into Boston on a sea of liquor. The opening night's performance was a ribald echo of the show which had entertained New York audiences for nine months. Yet the Boston first-nighters were pleased and the newspaper critics, skillfully lured into the box-office where six quarts of imported Scotch stood on a desk, wrote notices in which the words, "brilliant," "clever," "modern," "unique" were scattered.

Ken rented a house on the Fenway. Frankie lived with him. Joe occupied the maid's room; he was valet, chauffeur and cook.

Ken played the opening performance with a skillful simulation of the sober, earnest performer. Only Nor ah noticed his condition. He had arrived in Boston drunk and drunk he still was. He passed Norah's dressing-room on the way to the street; he looked in. She was crying, her eyes rimmed with red. He entered, laughed at her for being homesick, kissed her and hurried out.

Three days passed before his mind cleared. Four nights of "open house" on the Fenway, nights ending after dawn, days passed in sodden sleep.

On Wednesday, during the performance, a liveried chauffeur called at the theatre. He handed Ken a note.

"I have made an appointment for you with Madame Richards tomorrow at five," Ken read. "If you can't keep it, notify my man." At the bottom was the over-elaborate "E" which Ken recognized as the signature of Ernie Emerson. "I'll be there," Ken said. "What's the idea? And who's Madame Richards?"

"Mr. Emerson is entertaining on Saturday evening, sir," the chauffeur replied. "I imagine he wants Madame Richards to help you choose a costume for the occasion."

The Madame Richards whom Ken visited the next afternoon had once been secretary to Gaston Darsec, a premier of the Haute Couture in Paris. Her atelier, just off Boylston Street, reflected the good taste acquired when she stood at Darsec's elbow, sketching designs that were later to find their way into style exhibitions in Paris, London and New York. In those days her name had been Juliette Chandeau and she was striking in appearance, a dark wisp of black hair over a keen olive-skinned face. Now, Juliette Chandeau, re-named Mme. Richards, was a fat, dominant woman of fifty, who wore a man's shirt, cravat, striped waistcoat, spats, and a severely cut gray skirt, the latter her only concession to her own sex. Unquestionably, Madame's styles pour les dames were an accurate reflection of the evolution of costume as decreed by the gods of the Rue de la Paix. Boston, that is to say, the Boston which clung to Back Bay and the Charles River backdrop—considered Madame a trifle extreme. Her modernistic drawing room was well patronized, however, by actresses, debutantes and the exotics, who desired that extraordinary recherché quality in dress which only Madame knew how to create.

A turbaned colored boy in the costume of a Moroccan sheik swung open the door of Madame Richards' establishment. Ken entered; his eye was attracted to the black spiral which, coiled against ivory, supplied a ceiling and floor, a dominant design to Madame's salon. The spiral ended in a circle at the center of the room where Madame herself stood. She advanced toward Ken.

"Monsieur Gracey, I believe."

Ken, fortified by several brandies, was amused. "Charmed to meet you," he said, bowing low. "I want to see something ducky—a sailor suit—or maybe I'll go as Little Bo-Peep."

Contempt was written in the black eyes of Madame. Ken's spirit of mischievous raillery died.

"I am not a costumer," she said. "You are privileged to have me attend you. I do so only because of your patron."

Considerably subdued, Ken followed Madame into a room of dazzling canary brocaded satin walls, where a yellow and black Macaw sat on a bar high in a corner, staring resentfully at the intruder.

"I shall show you some newer models that may suit your figure and complexion," Madame said.

"What's the idea?" Ken asked.

"Didn't he tell you?"

"Who is he?"

"Oh, so you are a visitor here, eh?"

"In show business."

"Dancer?"

"Yes."

"I am not permitted to mention the name of your friend. If you were a Bostonian you would understand that we do not invite trouble by mentioning names." She produced a cigar case from a pocket of her waistcoat and proceeded to light it before she continued: "He is giving a party Saturday night at the mansion. I presume there will be a style display."

"So I'm to go in 'drag'?"

"Naturally."

"Heavenly—divine," Ken laughed. "I'll love it. Where is the mansion?"

"That, too, I am not privileged to say. I do not know."


Ken was guided in his choice of the cloth of gold gown by Madame. For more than an hour, he watched a fashion parade displayed on the figures of Madame's girls. With impersonal seriousness the models showed Ken the latest styles. It was Madame herself who made the final decision. Her secretary, whom she called Mimi Minetta, was a business-like little woman, distinguished mainly by the perceptible blond moustache she wore on her upper lip. She measured Ken from head to foot.

"Tomorrow, we will fit you, on Saturday at six, the try-on. As for the foundation, wig and other details—leave that to me."

The prospect of attending a "drag" colored Ken's mood to vivid scarlet. He was thrilled. He pivoted with unconcealed impatience for the hour of the party. Between the matinee and evening shows that Saturday, he visited Madame's atelier for the final fitting.

Serious Mile. Minetta admitted Ken to the little room of canary and black.

"I presume, Monsieur has brought none of the appurtenances for the costume," she said.

"Meaning what?" Ken asked.

"Pads—straps—and so on."

"Nothing."

"In that case, may I suggest you permit me to dress you? Madame tells me this is your début."

"This will be my entrance into Boston society."

"Then you have been in costume elsewhere?"

"Oh no. Never in costume."

"If you will permit, monsieur, undress, please. You naturally wear a supporter?"

"Certainly," Ken said. "I'm sure I shouldn't—"

She barely smiled. "I will return presently, with everything else," she said and disappeared into the recesses of the atelier. A few minutes later as Ken, nude except for his strap, was powdering his body, she re-entered bearing his evening gown and a cardboard box containing the "foundation."

"It's chic, hein?" she asked as she showed him the gown. "And now," she opened the box, "the brassière. It is manufactured to order for Madame. These pads will embellish the line of the gown. Here, as you will notice, is a rubber cup which compresses the flesh so as to create the desired effect."

"Clever," Ken commented. "What else?"

"I know you will adore these," she said, revealing nearly transparent underthings. "You will, of course, shave your legs tonight for the stockings, which, by the way, have not yet arrived. As for slippers, Madame has selected half a dozen pair in the correct shade intended to give the appearance of a small foot. You may choose the most comfortable."

She lifted the cover of a smaller box. "The wig is of a natural titian; do you admire it?"

"Will it fit?" Ken asked.

"It cannot fail to fit. Now as to the gloves—they are not to be worn this season. Paris says they should be carried in the left hand. The wrap is rented. You will return it. When the costume is complete you will look naturally beautiful."

"Naturally," echoed Ken.

"Unnaturally," commented Mimi Minetta, with a twinkle in her eye.


Shortly after midnight a graceful, beautiful young woman was escorted to a waiting limousine by Madame, who enthusiastically characterized her as, "Ravissante, vetue au dernier cri."

"If I could make mesdames of Back Bay as chic as you," she said, "I would be rich."

Ken sank back into the cushions of the car with which Ernie Emerson had provided him. It sped on, through a sleeping city into a road paralleling the Atlantic shore. As Ken opened his hand bag, the diamond Emerson had given him sparkled on his finger. From the bag he drew a card.

"Your name is Cara," he read. He smiled. "Cara," he said aloud. "I wonder what that means?"


At first glance, the mansion appeared to be an old dilapidated house seated on a slight rise west of the North Shore road. It was wide, with ample wings which rambled off on both sides. And it was ancient. The chestnut trees of solid girth which lined the driveway were now nearly bare of leaves. On the broad old porch, figures were moving in silhouette against the windows.

In the mansion, an old-time governor of Massachusetts had lived and died. Succeeding generations had added new wings until what had once been a self-contained Colonial homestead was now a hodge-podge of rooms varying in size from the huge ball-room, with its balcony boxes, to tiny cupboard-like bed chambers which in by-gone days had been improvised beneath the slanting shelter of the stairs.

The mansion had been abandoned as a residence in the '90's, when an aging, penurious maiden lady, last survivor of a pre-Revolutionary family, had passed away. She had used only three of the mansion's countless rooms. After her death, no one wanted the vast, ramshackle and decaying house. One day, an auctioneer disposed of many valuable antiques. Then thirty years passed by the tenantless house, its taxes paid out of the fund derived from the sale of the furniture. At last, Ernie Emerson purchased it and had transformed it into a playhouse. The vivid taste of the jeweler arrogantly superseded the mild monotones of the past. Color, color and more color, was Emerson's demand. Walls, which had been chastely bare, now blared with cerises and salmons; bedrooms blazed in oranges and lavenders, pale blues and shocking purples. Many of the rooms were over-furnished; lamps were shaded in all the hues of the spectrum; coats of mail hung vacantly in unexpected corners; huge Spanish chests were large enough to contain the gold plate of an emperor; pennants flung on walls, tapestries flapping nearby, paintings scattered between.

The ball-room, now kaleidoscopic with moving figures, still retained some of its ancient dignity. Emerson had redecorated it but he could not change its effective spaciousness nor the contour of the balcony boxes which faced a platform upon which a jazz band now brayed. In the foremost box, where once a haughty Colonial matron had received congratulations on the marriage of her daughter to a gentleman of Louis XVI's bed chamber, Emerson, attired in severe and correct evening dress, now sat.

He was flushed a deep pink. In his left hand he held a narrow stemmed wide-mouthed glass which contained a small quantity of Napoleon brandy. His eyes sparkled. His lips were moist. The veins in his temples bulged purplish with excitement.

On the ball-room floor, jutting from the slightly elevated band platform, was a runway. As the music stopped, a drummer beat a tattoo which was followed by a long, echoing roll. A slim, dark haired young man appeared. His face was wreathed in smiles. He held his hands, palms forward, in a pantomimed plea for silence. The figures on the floor, seemingly richly clad women dancing with their escorts, continued to chatter. The drum rolled again. The young man cried: "Please. Silence—please!" The thin, high chatter died down, then stopped.

"Boys," said the young man, "—and girls—" He grinned. "I know you are having an elegant time. The music is swell, the eats are the last word and, say, did you ever see such a collection of good things to drink anywhere?"

Several voices cried, "It's great!" A feminine tone piped, "Speed up, tootsie!" The crowd laughed.

"Mr. Emerson, our host," the young man continued, "has generously offered several wonderful prizes this year to the winners of the beauty contest. You have examined them, I am sure, in the glass case at the foot of the main stairs. Mr. Emerson is delighted to note that so many of you have come here tonight. Now if everyone will take places at the tables along the walls, the show will begin."

Nearly five hundred names had been on the guest list, several coming from Chicago to the annual "drag" at the Emerson mansion. More than half of this number were in women's costumes, varying from modish gowns in the latest styles to scanty bathing suits. Faces tinted with rouge, lashes beaded, lids shaded, jewelry pendant on bosoms or circling arms and fingers, they moved with a semblance of feminine grace.

At the beginning of the evening, the guests had apparently been intimidated by the grandeur of the mansion. They had greeted each other with little cries of surprise. Beulah kissed Molly whom she had not seen for ages. Buddy embraced Louella and whispered sweet nothings in her ear. Ernie Emerson stood at the threshold of the ball-room, inclining his head and smiling as each new guest arrived.

As the minutes flew, as the wine and brandy unchained tongues, voices rose in shrill cries, feminine gestures became more and more exaggerated; the dancing, at first, awkward and hesitant, now was a maelstrom of clinging bodies. Ernie's guests dropped caution and became bold, speaking loudly in flat imitations of women's voices, holding hands or even embracing. Then the roll of the drums and the announcement that the beauty contest was about to begin.


Ernie Emerson was alone when Ken entered the governor's box. He turned as the curtains parted.

"At last!" he said, rising. "I have been so anxious to see you."

"And I to see you," Ken replied.

"You're just in time for the contest. I want you to compete. Will you?"

Beneath Ernie's courteous tone, Ken felt an undercurrent of firmness.

"I have taken the trouble to enter your name myself. It is listed as Cara." He could read the hesitancy in Ken's eyes. "No one will know you. You are really beautiful."

"If you please," Ken's lips shaped a bud, "I'll show those Marjories who the best dressed flame is. How about it, Ernie?"

"Well," Emerson said with quiet surprise, "you are different. This is a pleasure."


The dressing-room, formerly the Governor's study, was crowded with contestants. Dressing tables had been provided. The contestants sat before mirrors, arranging details of their costumes. They watched newcomers closely, appraising their rivals' chances for success.

As Ken, tall, a graceful figure in cloth of gold, entered, he heard a voice say:

"It's in the bag. There goes Ernie's latest pansy."

He stood before a full length mirror. He saw the face of a refined and charming woman, whose eyes were sensuously heavy. She was not young. Her great sophistication lent her years which had not yet been lived by the young man upon whom she was superimposed. Her gown covered a synthetically perfect form. Her arms, whitened to soft ivory, were slender, but her neck was a trifle too long and her hands betrayed her. She was not really alive at all.

Ken's eyes examined his reflection with amusement. She studied him curiously. He moistened his lips, which parted in a half smile. Her teeth were revealed in the similar smile which she seemed to bestow upon him.

"Have you got a swig o' something on your hip, dearie?" he heard his neighbor at the dressing table on the right ask. "No, I haven't," Ken replied. He looked curiously at the half-nude adolisque who sat there. "Ray Leech, or I'm a so and so! Are you lush or aren't you?"

"Be refined, Ken Gracey," Ray said. "I hear you're in."

"Meaning what?"

"You'll win the grand prize."

"Tish and tush, Ella," Ken said. "Who wants a diamond bracelet?"

"Pawnbrokers—at one third value, baby darling," the show boy replied. "I came all the way from New York to swing my precious hips on that runway. Is anyone else here from the show?"

"Not a soul. Frankie wasn't invited."

"Ernie is particular. Some of these belles are doctors and lawyers; and one, the fat lady who needs a couple of brassieres on her double chins, is the president of a bank."

"Just girls, ducky girls," Ken chimed.

"You are divine," Ray said. "What a pity you were born on a Friday."

"What's Friday?"

"Bitch's day, dearie, in the calendar of sin. Anyone as beautiful as you are can come to no good end."

"Who wants to come to a good end?" Ken mocked and went toward the runway.


To the unpractised eye, the figures that moved from portieres at the rear of the ball room through an aisle on the platform into the white blaze of spotlights were feminine. They walked with swaying bodies, arms poised, parading their costumes, preening themselves proudly as they exhibited their charms. The appearance of the first model was the signal for little cries of surprise and admiration. As the contest proceeded the hubbub grew. Favorites were hailed with "ah's" and "oh's"; their names bandied about the room, their chances appraised.

Two private policemen, who stood guard at the foot of the runway, restrained enthusiastic revellers. Passions rose. The sight of so many delectable creatures clad in aphrodisiac silks was a powerful stimulant. Restraint fled. Like dancers at a masked ball, Ernie Emerson's guests were being titillated by the fascination of an atmosphere in which they might safely indulge their craving for forbidden fruit. Here was no cerebral sex game. Here was fleeting reality. Here life was almost too good to be true. The wanton sport, played privately, secretly, was here sport no longer. Good food stroked the palate; wine warmed the heart and beauty maddened the senses. Desires which had been covertly exposed, obliquely displayed, paraded here unashamed. Eyes moved eagerly now. Falsetto voices piped higher and higher; hands were arched in an unfelt caress as the manners of the hated female were mimicked, then exaggerated.

As the fashion display continued, the tense excitement grew.

"That fat Englishman over there," said Ray Leech, as Ken and he awaited their turns, "is a baronet, married, two children, an ancestral castle and a yen for small boys. Isn't he disgustingly fat?"

The object of Leech's remarks powdered his chest, moved the line of his décolleté up, then down; he fingered the marcel of his auburn wig.

"He can't go back to England," Leech added.

"Poor thing—" Ken said.

"He waited too long. It burst one day in a frightful orgy. Some one complained. He ran away and hid himself over here. He works as an interior decorator."

Some one called, "Cara."

"My turn," Ken said.

"Good luck," cried Ray Leech.

The diamond bracelet was on his wrist. It was four-thirty Monday morning. The "drag" had continued all day Sunday. He had been madly drunk. Vaguely he recalled a dance. He had stripped off his golden dress, his veil of silk. He had danced as he always wanted to dance—completely free of clothes, a living poem in flesh.

Then in a room with Ernie Emerson. He did not recall what he had done. Raging torrents of passion, even blows. Then sleep. When he awoke, the diamond bracelet was on his wrist, the diamond ring on his finger. A suit of men's clothes, shoes and undergarments lay at the foot of the deep, soft bed in which he had been sleeping.

His nerves jerked jokingly. He dressed. As he walked across the floor, he seemed to have awakened a negro servant who had been sleeping outside his door. Half an hour later, the negro was driving him back to Boston. The sun was already rising in mist over the ocean as the car came to a stop.

"What's the matter?" Ken asked.

The negro jumped down from his seat, opened the door of the car and said to Ken, "Git out."

"What for?"

"You can git a taxicab to town ovah yondah about a mile." He pointed to a factory building across a field.

"But I wanta go home."

The negro took a five dollar bill from his pocket. "This'll git you home. And gimme dem jewels."

"Who said so?" Ken's mind awakened to the significance of the man's actions.

"Or else—" threatened the negro. He held an automatic in his right hand.

"But Emerson gave these to me and you work for him, don't you?"

"Sure I do. Boy, things aren't what they used to be—even in the jewelry racket. Come on, come across. I could pot you and nobody would know—" He smiled broadly, "only you are too dawgone nice."

"Thanks for the compliment." The revolver suddenly slid against his ribs. "O.K.," Ken grinned. "You can have 'em."

"I don' git 'em, boss," said the negro as he took the bracelet and ring, "and neither do you. They're for Ernie. To be used next year. Now get out."

Ken obeyed. "Don' forget to tell the police," said the man. "They'd love to hear how you got 'em! And start walking—and don't look back."

Ken did not look back until the limousine was out of sight. He arrived home at eight in the morning. That night he danced so well that Nor ah remarked that he must have spent a restful week-end.

"You've guessed it right, Norrie," he laughed. "I went down to the sea."

"I'm glad," she said. "You needed the salt sea air."

"Which," Ken commented, "was about all I did get."