Among the Daughters/Chapter 19
THE GIRL IN THE GILDED CAGE
By June and what with sticky heat Lucy's head felt addled with the past few months of art talk at Ilona's and Figente's. Occasional but interminable monologues by Vermillion whom Figente delighted in egging on baffled her. Even when Vermillion talked to her she could not tell whether he was thinking of her or maybe in the back of that mysterious head of Simone. Figente was always around, never leaving the room once. Ilona's talk while impressive seemed like Woolworth jewelry next to what you heard at Figente's. Maybe it was those dancers around her who anyone could see would never get anywhere. Not professional. Maybe art wasn't professional. It was easier and more fun fooling around with the chorus boys. Stage-door Johnnies were all young or old Carlys.
"Hey there, Claudel's boy!" the director at a brush-up rehearsal yelled, peering into the dark of the orchestra floor.
Lucy gave Gentleman-of-the-Chorus Tom a push from her. "Hurry up, he's mad."
She slid into her seat in the corner of the last row and put her ballet-slippered feet on the red seat ahead. Rehearsals were fun and chorus boys were cute. They could be played with when you felt like it and never minded being called Claudel's boy when one was missing from the lineup: it was a company joke. These days reminded her of when she petted in Denver except now she did the inviting and could buy her own strawberry sodas. All the boys were different yet alike, because every one of them wanted to be in show business, be admired physically, just like girls do. Some were going to dramatic school to learn to act, yet they knew how to act with other men, or girls. Some were learning taps from Johnny Boyle or at Ned Wayburn's.
Ilona had been furious when she'd gotten Kirby a job in the chorus, but my goodness, he needed it. Ilona says he is prostituting his art for money. She can talk, she has an income from her dead aunt. Kirby isn't good in jazz but he is the best in my "Rose" number. That boy was miserable with Ilona and almost starving.
She was being called.
"All right, Claudel, the Rose number."
"So sorry to disturb your—thoughts—dear, but I have an engagement," Tessie Soler said cattily.
"That's all right, I'm ready any time you are."
"Now, girls!" Beman exclaimed impatiently.
"Look who's here," showgirl Clarice said out loud to no one and Lucy, peering into the dark house, saw—sitting next to Beman—Lyle Bigelow. He was looking at her while Beman was talking to him.
"I'm thinking of having Lucy again for my next show, she has done so well in this one," Beman said, keeping his voice matter-of-fact so as not to indicate to Bigelow he knew the score and was pushing him into being the show's angel.
Bigelow, half listening, knew what Beman had in mind and it wasn't a bad idea. She was an ambitious girl out for more than bracelets. She was even more beautiful than when he had gone away to get over her. No go. Sixteen now at least and a shade rounder and with an assurance that would pass for a few years older. Back the show as a starter. Even marriage, if that was the only way. The family would yell bloody murder, but what the hell? Her mother was a pushover.
Showgirl Dorinda came down to ask Beman a trumped-up question about the color of a bird on a spring hiding the juncture of her celebrated legs.
"Hello, Lyle." Her voice and mascaraed eyes invited.
"How are you," he said distantly. These girls never knew when you were finished with them. He noted ironically the diamond wrist watch he had given her as payoff two years ago. You could lay them all with routine gifts. Except Lucy, damn her! One night at the Midnight Frolics he had suggested giving her a chinchilla wrap but she had refused. "To tell you the truth," she had said, "I don't care for chinchilla, it looks too mussed up." Since his fourteenth year he hadn't waited for any girl. Christ! What a piece! He'd never felt like this about anyone.
"No, no, no, Dorinda!" screamed Damon St. John, the scene and costume designer. "You can't have a fish instead of the bird—it would throw off the whole design." Indignities like this never would be inflicted on a creator for Diaghilev or Reinhardt. If only one could work as Gordon Craig said was best in the theatre, with marionettes instead of human beings.
"I missed you, did you miss me?" Lyle said, giving Lucy's hand a squeeze in the taxi to her apartment.
"Oh sure," she jested to keep him from getting sentimental.
"Wish I could believe that."
She withdrew her hand and gave his cheek a playful slap. "Oh you get out, I'll bet you had one big time in Europe."
"Big time! I've done nothing but play mah-jongg," he protested, the frieze of girls with whom he had tried to forget her fading from memory.
"I saw a photograph in Mode of a mah-jongg party in Biarritz."
"I was there. Everyone dressed in Chinese costumes. It was given by a fabulous woman, a Mrs. Cornwallis. I want you to meet her when she comes to New York, you'll like her."
"What does she look like?" It was easier to tell from a person's looks if you wanted to meet her. That French singer Simone must know a lot about men.
Lyle laughed. "Like a crow with a crown on its head. I've invited her to Palm Beach next winter for a lark. She'll make the stuffed shirts come to life."
"That's not a nice way to speak about your mother and her friends," Lucy said. Meeting some old woman didn't seem inviting.
"It's nice to see you again," Mae greeted Lyle with soft diffidence.
Neither Lucy nor Mae had bothered to make the furnished apartment homelike, preferring its impersonality.
Lyle noted the apartment's transient appearance and had an idea. "You two girls could do me a favor," he said carefully, looking at Mae.
She blushed. "Of course, Mr. Bigelow."
He owned a new apartment building on Park Avenue which was slow in renting. They would do him a favor by selecting the furniture for and living in one of the front apartments, to make the building seem more occupied.
Some trick! He certainly knew how to get around Mother. Anyone could see she had quite a crush. A boyish bob and a henna rinse to liven up her hair would take away that dead fuzzy look; a course of facials at Primrose House and she would be prettier than most women her age. She was only a few years older than Lyle. Maybe he would fall for Mother. Or she could find someone else nice who would. Some men liked older women, like that Vermillion. Mother ought to have a settled life of her own.
"We'll think about it," Lucy said firmly and saw Mae's face droop.
"I never thought," Lucy said, after Lyle left, "I'd mind not paying my own rent but I do. We can afford a two- or even three-room apartment on Park Avenue. At least for the run of the show. I don't love Lyle and wouldn't want to marry him. I just don't want you to be disappointed."
"Well, dear, you must do as you like," Mae said, obviously disappointed.
"Well, if you want to and think we should try it—after all, we can always move out. Anyway, I think Lyle likes you better than me," Lucy said, laughing at Mother perking up, though she herself didn't feel gay at all.
They each had their own bedroom for the first time.
Lucy walked about in the expensive imitation French living room with its pale blue and yellow satin upholstery.
"It doesn't look very comfortable but then when I'm home I'm always in bed or getting dressed. Lyle should see you in your new orchid dressing gown."
"Oh, Lucy, don't tease your old mother like that," Mae simpered.
At the theatre Lucy was now kowtowed to even more than Tessie Soler, the star, which meant the girls talked not to but about her, and even the boys, though still friendly, no longer came home with her as they used to, stopping to buy sandwiches and potato salad. Instead Beman, Soler, Lyle, and herself made a foursome. Their table always drew envious glances because they seemed so gay, and Lucy mused that if she wasn't the Toast at least she was the Talk of the Town, and how Tessie would like to be in her place. It was fun, especially after a few glasses of champagne which drowned the nagging dread of the time when she would have to let him make love. She could not fathom why it should worry her so because she liked him, especially because of the affectionate way he treated Mother; and because of this, tried extra hard to be nice to him too. Mother was very happy.
Figente was the only one she could talk to about it. He was very pleased, and lectured her for her doubts.
"Don't be melodramatic about non-essentials," he said. "Lovemaking, any way you look at it, is ridiculous. A non sequitur. It doesn't matter who is on top of you if as a result you are on top of the world—to be able to feed your palate wherever it is located, no matter where others feed their palates on you. Lyle is surely so ordinary in his demands that it is ridiculous, my child, to magnify trivial approaches. You don't seem to realize your luck."
"He doesn't appeal to me. I should think he could tell."
"Vermillion said the other night that Voltaire remarked that a man, any man, was unable to understand why any woman would want to make love with any other man than himself."
"Oh, your pet Vermillion! What does he know about it?"
"As much as the next man doubtless. In any event, you will never know what love is until you find out what it is not."
"Have you found out?"
"No—but I have obeyed the virtuous maxim that if in vice you don't succeed the first time—try try again. Or do I mean practice makes perfect? I recommend in that connection—" he smilingly paused, "you read Goncourt's Women of the 18th Century. I'll lend it to you."
"There've been so many parties I thought that tonight we'd have a quiet supper together," Lyle said after the show, when she and Mother had been living in his apartment for three weeks.
It had come at last and couldn't be put off unless she wanted to break with him completely and disappoint Mother. He had been sweet and patient and while he didn't appeal to her that way maybe he would. Anyway Figente said it was the only way to learn about love and become an artist.
Crossing the stage she glanced up into the flies and for a second wished a dangling sandbag would fall and hurt her just enough to postpone the evening. But what would happen to Mother if she were killed?
The city, sick with heat, had vomited its populace to the streets. The red gold-leafed carpet of the Hotel Parc-Athenée lobby was foot-printed and the old uniformed page swept a cigarette stub into his long-handled brass pan from the marble floor in front of the black and gold elevator cage. What a thing to notice at this time. Expensive hotel lobbies are bright, not dim and cockroachy like the Derby on 47th or the Crofter in Denver. She phoned Mother that Lyle, Beman, Soler, and she were driving out to Great Neck for a breath of air and they'd be there overnight.
The elevator man said good evening obsequiously to Lyle, sliding his big black eyes all over her.
I'm the girl in the gilded cage.
The suite was a stage setting of an Ina Claire comedy. Red roses, round table with a cloth as white and stiff as Lyle's shirt, and a crystal chandelier that made her pale blue beaded dress sparkle like ice.
"Yes sir, yes of course, Mr. Bigelow, yes, yes, yes, how will you have it sir, will this do, madame?"
What a fuss about a poor little chicken. Too bad there wasn't gin, it made you feel better faster. But the champagne was good.
The bedroom was blue and white striped. Another cage, she thought nervously.
It has been easier to think of him as a lover in his evening dress than now, long legged and too smooth, in silk monogrammed shorts. She told herself she was being mean because, after all, everyone has to undress. He seemed to enjoy parading what was ordinary to every man, showing off that he was one. And then he seemed to receive too much pleasure from the feel of her bits of chiffon and lace. She was astonished to discover the bed had been scented with a perfume he had given her but which she did not use because she preferred Mitsuoko.
As he crushed her she tried to remember how nice he had been to Mother and herself and was relieved he did not seem to mind that she could not try to be as excited as he was. It was funny that the more excited he became the less she liked him. It was hard to find a reason—it was like a feeling she had had that Semy Klug's constant washing of his hands made him seem even more unclean.
The crosstown trolley clanged below and she lay waiting until she could leave without hurting his feelings. At breakfast he was so sweet and content she tried hard to feel in love. But sensing he wanted to start all over she jumped up and said decisively, "I must go, I'll be late for Master's."
Afterwards she felt a little more friendly toward him because she was sorry she had been unable to pretend more. During the next days she thought it was rather pathetic how much he still wanted her when she only wanted to push him away. She hoped though to get used to him in time because Mother was happy she was spending so much time with Lyle.
A few weeks later he took her to call at the apartment of two girls kept by two boys with whom he played polo. She knew these men from Figente's parties and felt sorry for the girls who were trying so hard to be gay. Figente said those boys only married girls in their own set but would keep the girls afterwards. They had to marry for money, he said, because after their fathers died there wouldn't be much left as their fathers were playing around too. Lyle took her away the minute he saw she didn't like being there.
Then one day he said she had mentioned she never had been inside a Fifth Avenue house so he was going to show her his home. There was no one to let them in. The furniture was covered with white sheets and, noticing her surprise, Lyle said his mother was abroad.
He made love on the library sofa as she stared back at the family portraits staring at her. It was like being raped in public. She had the feeling it was something he had wanted to do since he was a young boy.
When she arrived home, Mae looked at her frightened. "What's wrong, darling, don't you feel well?"
"I feel just fine," Lucy said tonelessly. "I know you'll be disappointed but we're getting out of here. I hate this place. Let's go back to the Derby until we can find a place of our own. You see, you don't know Lyle as I do."
"Well," Mae said quietly, "I suppose I'd better begin packing."
Lucy watched her get out the suitcases with a guilty pang. Everyone, including Lyle, said they were more like sisters than mother and daughter, but if that was true, Mother was the younger sister, to be taken care of. How could you explain that Lyle for all his polished manners never thought of them as being anybody. It wasn't that he tried to make her feel he was upper-class. He couldn't have treated her better in that respect. It was just that beneath the nice manners he acted upper-class to anyone who worked for a living, even when he didn't mean to. I'll put it this way, Lucy told Lucy. Maybe I would have said yes when he asked me to marry him if he hadn't taken me to that apartment where his friends kept their girls, and then made love to me like that in his mother's empty house with all the paintings looking on. I guess it's my fault, moving into the apartment when I knew what had to happen, but I thought maybe I would learn to like him, more for Mother's sake. In a way too I can't blame him for thinking he could behave like that, since I let him give us this apartment. But the trouble with me is I can't be like the women in the de Goncourt book. They don't seem interested in being in love, only in what they can get. Maybe I'm the type who would rather give the man my apartment. Take care of somebody. Nobody ever could be close to Lyle.