Among the Daughters/Chapter 33
At ten thirty the Sunday morning of the recital Lucy, Mae, and Vida, stuffed between sheeted bundles of costumes, set off for the theatre in a rented limousine, followed by Cleo and Janet, the seamstress, in an equally loaded taxi.
"As long as the recital's costing so much we might as well go in style," Lucy had said, though she had not felt like joking.
Talk in the limousine was nervously sporadic.
"Is it going to rain?"
"Did we pack the extra tights?"
"Oh, I rushed so, I forgot to put on my pants!"
"Broadway certainly is deserted on Sunday mornings, isn't it?"
"I hope it doesn't rain."
The old night doorman still on duty was a distant relative of the theatre's owner. A crabbed grunt was his welcome to the intruders. Sighing and grumbling he crept across the shadowy stage to pull switches for dressing rooms and one glaring overhead work light.
"There," he said, panting, "I guess that'll do you."
He unlocked the dressing rooms, warning them not to touch the makeup the players of the show running at the theatre had moved to one end of their tables the night before, and shuffled back to his chair at the stage door.
"Some welcome!" Vida exclaimed sourly.
"It's a funny feeling to be treated like an outsider, but he's all right," explained Lucy, "he's just afraid he may not get a tip. Give him five dollars."
Vida pressed the bill into the doorman's palm and felt his sand-papery fingers clutch it. "I hope we won't be too much trouble, Mr.—"
"Everyone calls me Pop."
"Pop, there'll be others coming and if you would show them to their dressing rooms, and the maid where she can iron, Miss Claudel will appreciate it."
"Just ask what you need. I saw her in the Samuels show when she was startin' out. Know 'em all. Seen 'em come an' go—lot of them gone now. They keep cornin', but I see 'em all go."
"I'm sure you have," said Vida depressed, and made her escape.
Lucy stamped about the stage to discover any unevenness or loose traps beneath the groundcloth. "Imagine," she said, "if, as I was working up to an ovation, I went down a trap before I could hear it!"
"Hey, Pop," she yelled, "that light makes me look awful, how about a little red in the borders to make us feel good?"
"Ain't suppose to—"
"We won't tell on you."
He switched on one circuit of red. "You goin' into a new Samuels show?"
"No. I'm going to do concert dancing after this."
He looked at her dumbfounded. "Mean to tell me there's a call for that kind of stuff?"
"Lucy, I have to speak to you," Vida called. "I only wanted to rescue you," she explained in the dressing room.
"I'm glad you did because he was set for hours. Most doormen are like that. One told me once he coached Jack Barrymore. You have to humor those old boys. The crew too. They think they're the only ones who know what is good."
"You make them sound awful."
"Oh no, just human. You have to be careful to remember they're important too. I'm going through my solos now before everyone gets here."
By the time the crew arrived for the one o'clock rehearsal everything seemed insolubly disorganized to Vida. The dancers, unaccustomed to the proportion of the stage, different from the studio rehearsal space, seemed unable to readjust themselves. Lucy's clear high voice could be heard over and over pleading, "Now, girls, try it again. Rosie, you're too far over, you'll bump into the harps."
Leon Martock, the professional accompanist, threw back the canvas piano cover and played several chords, and was pained at what he heard. "It's out of tune! Don't forget, I need a piano light."
"The tuner's promised, and you can have a light when the electrician finishes with the foots," Vida said crossly.
"I'll go for lunch then."
"He's going to eat, and all everyone else does is run to the toilet," one of Lucy's girls giggled.
"I'm hungry too, I think I'll go with him," Lois said. She had returned a few days earlier, as unexpectedly as she had disappeared but minus the lieutenant.
"You'll stay right here, Cleo will get what anyone wants," Vida said angrily.
"Now, girls, don't be nervous, you're all going to be just fine," Lucy soothed.
"No smoking on stage," Pop ordered the feller who was a Negro, Hindu, Chinese, or something.
Ranna regarded Pop coldly and returned to his dressing room which fortunately had a couch on which he could rest. Ridiculous, he thought, for everyone to become so wrought up. Reclining on the couch he heard Ilona, in the next room, retching as he fell asleep.
"Let Ilona set her lights first because the poor thing is awfully nervous," Lucy told Vida.
"How about you first?"
"Oh, I'm used to this."
The stagehands had shifted slowly from low to second gear. Placing and removing harps and other props on the stage between scenes would require two extra men, the property man declared flatly.
"And," added the electrician, "if you expect to use these bunch standards in the legs, I must have two more men to change colors."
"You mean you can't walk two steps from the switchboard or across the stage and slip a color in and out between the scenes?" Vida expostulated. "This isn't a big Broadway production, it's a kind of tryout. You'll make more out of it than she will, or anyone in her cast. In fact she won't make anything. After all, she's a worker like you. And if it weren't for her you wouldn't be making double-time pay today."
"You can't expect us to make exceptions," the electrician said sulkily. "First thing every show tryout'll want a skeleton crew until after an opening."
Vida saw Lucy signaling and said frigidly, "Excuse me please."
"Listen," Lucy instructed, "don't argue because you won't get anywhere."
To Lucy, at this moment, the stage crew were the only ones with whom she felt at home. It was easy to cope with hard-boiled men. In a way she sympathized with them because of the nuisance Ilona was being in explaining what lights she wanted.
"I want a night light shaft here when I do this movement, and I want it to change to dawn and catch me when I am here," Ilona was insisting. "Then the night must change to rose—morning, and the renewal of life, you see—and then on a music cue I want a strong ray of sunlight over there where those four girls are standing."
"Lady, we ain't got the equipment. What you want is a Reinhardt production—and a couple days' reherarsal!"
"Hurry up, Ilona," Lucy said, "don't get too fancy—our two hours' rehearsal time is half over."
"I'm not going to ruin my number for the sake of an extra few minutes," Ilona, who was not sharing in the expenses, said loftily, and stalked off declaring she would not appear because everyone was against her.
Ranna, Vida mused, was the opposite of Ilona, he left his effects to the decision of the electrician after telling him the general tone he wanted. Nor after rehearsing his group would he trouble to go over his solo, and Lucy had to insist on his rehearsing their duet.
The piano tuner arrived and refused to wait until the rehearsal was over, as he had another piano to tune at Carnegie Hall.
Five thirty, two and a half hours' overtime for the crew already and Lucy hasn't even started her run-through, Vida moaned, and went to the box office.
"Fair, for this sorta thing," she was told, "but you shoulda dressed the house. Why don't you call up that club where actresses live or the Y.W.—they usually snap up free seats."
"Perhaps I will," Vida said miserably and returned backstage where it was more cheerful.
At six Lucy finished her light rehearsal.
"If everyone'd made out a light plot like yours we'da finished hours ago," Jack, the electrician, said and remained a half hour on his own time to set up an additional effect to improve Lucy's numbers.
"All right, girls, put on your costumes and we'll have a run-through without lights, but with the boys," Lucy ordered.
"Look, Miss Claudel," Jack said uneasily, "if you put on costumes it means the crew's got to be kept on because it's a dress rehearsal."
"Oh go on, they are all gone and you just turn your head," she coaxed.
He grinned but warned, "If a union representative shows up, I'm not responsible."
"Figente sent you this," Hal said, handing her a small white leather box.
In it was a throat band of small pearls, diamonds, garnets, and turquoise. These once graced Cleo de Merode read the card.
"Who was she?" Lucy asked Vida.
"A famous beauty and courtesan of around 1900—the toast of Paris in her day."
"Just what I need after a crazy day like this," Lucy said trembling as she fumbled the clasp.
That's her first sign of nerves, Vida thought admiringly, and went with Cleo who was not de Merode to get coffee, sandwiches, and fruit juice which, except for the coffee, no one touched. By seven thirty the pilot-lit stage was deserted and dressing rooms were heavy with forebodings despite flowers and telegrams. Ilona returned at eight and disappeared into her dressing room refusing to speak to her girls, who had been on tenterhooks.
"Someone here to see the manager," Pop said to Vida who could not restrain an hysterical laugh at this description of herself.
It was a representative from the union to check the musicians' cards. As only the pianist had a union card, Vida had to disturb Lucy in her making-up for a check to cover union stand-ins for Ilona's eight student musicians. The union regarded the egg beaters as percussion and the siren as a wind instrument. The five harpists, after a hot argument, were finally exempted as actors because they were in costume onstage.
At eight the act curtain and asbestos were lowered and the house was opened to the audience. Complaining toots of taxis echoed through the stagedoor alleyway and the metallic rat-tat-tat of rain up in the black void of the flies where looped rope hung like gallows.
I wouldn't go through this for the world, Vida, alone on the stage, thought shuddering.
At eight thirty Jack the electrician looked through a tormentor peephole. "Only fair, but they are still coming in," he said expressionless, and phoned the box office about going up.
"Hold it, the lobby is packed," was the report.
At ten minutes to nine the curtain rose on a filled house and Vida stifled a sob of relief, blew her nose, and stood next to the curtain man whom she was to cue. Across the stage Mae was peering anxiously from Lucy's dressing room.
The transformation which came over each exhausted performer the moment before passing from the grey-green shadows of the wings to the warm lighted stage amazed Vida.
Ranna in a ceremonial dance, titled appropriately "Invocation," was first. Almost impersonal in the relaxed contemplative movements, his manner indicated that Shiva himself deigned to appear.
Engrossed, Vida almost forgot to signal the curtain call, a slip which galvanized her into perfect cuing from then on. The response of the audience made her breathe easier. The dance of Ranna's maidens was greeted with indulgent applause by an audience settled into an evening of placid if not excited pleasure. The entrance at last of Lucy as a Hindu princess in the solo devised by Ranna drew a solid round of applause mingled with surprised chuckles and whispers.
They don't care what she does, it's her beauty and the peculiar childlike earnestness which enchants everyone, Vida thought, relieved that the first round of combat was over as Lucy bowed and exited to vociferous approval before Ranna's solo which was to end in the duet.
In the duet, which was the conclusion before the intermission, Ranna was unquestionably the one who made the dance and the demand for the encore. Lucy was too much of a ballet dancer to absorb Ranna's legato rhythms.
The intermission passed in hopeful tension, with the dancers' cheeks flushed and their eyes enlarged.
"I forgot to tell you," Lucy told Vida breathlessly, "Clem has asked us and the cast to come after the show."
The curtain rose on Ilona's number and Vida, watching the exactly performed group movement, wondered if there was something in the portentous solemnities that escaped her. I am on the side of all manifestations of modern art and experiment, she thought, but there is a difference between synthesis and synthetic. Ilona is an unnatural performer. A natural performer is unself-conscious. At home on the stage. Ilona is unsure of her meanings therefore resorts to physical distortion. She exaggerates a meaningless arbitrary pose, in aped art-moderne angles hoping to prove an indefinable subtlety and cow those terrified of being labeled Philistines which, as Vermillion said, is the worst possible insult nowadays.
After tittering and some outright laughter, at the end came a smattering of applause and from a contingent in the right balcony a volley of bravos. The reception, Vida thought uneasily, was what Ilona could say was that of any new art form. But to me, she concluded, it is pseudo, pre-Raphaelite vapors accented with modem angles and distempers.
"Take a look whether our crowns are on straight," Hal whispered, passing her with the quartet of harpists.
She peered at the frieze of insouciant young men ranging from a short darkly handsome stocky figure to blond slender Hal as they sat, coroneted heads perched above the points of the extra high collars Figente had insisted upon, adjusting their harps between narrow legs and, with knowing fingers against the strings, eying her for the cue. There was about them, as with the pianist, a professional assurance capable of coping with unexpected incidents, and she nodded, smiling; and as the curtain rose, braced herself as the five boys plucked from the strings the voluptuous Debussy music. On the grey velour drapes the electrician floated washes of mauve and rose and there entered first two, then three, girls in wisps of tarlatan or abbreviated pastel silks that drifted or clung negligently as they moved in the carefully rehearsed steps which now, to her amazement, appeared ingenuous in the games the girls played. Enormous black-painted eyes shone from beneath great fanciful headdresses whose sensuously waving plumes were kept in place by festoons of ribbons and giant pearls tied below each naughty chin.
Then, as the enchanting vagaries of their movements brought them together, Lucy came, walking with small steps on toe, her small head swaying jauntily under a turban of grey chiffon wound with pearls and narrow black velvet ribbons that escaped here and there and surmounted by a helterskelter of bobbing plumes. A carnation of forget-me-not blue tarlatan circled the juncture of her pink silk legs and a wisp of pale lemon chiffon above was tied loosely over one shoulder. As she danced alone or mingling with her maidens Vida wondered whether she had read of the precocious maidens of Bilitis, a bevy of girls whose play among themselves would drive any beholding man to distraction.
She had not, as Ilona had, Vida noted, reserved the effective moments only for herself. Spinning and gamboling they wove an infectious romp until at the end, in make-believe exhaustion, they held out their arms inviting the audience to catch them, and the curtain came down to a roar of delight which did not subside until a portion of the ballet was repeated.
"Thank heaven it's over," Vida groaned happily, astonished to see that she was the only one exhausted and that the exhilarated dancers seemed equal to beginning all over.
"It takes a little while before they begin to show how tired they are," Mae explained.
Figente pushed through the backstage crowd to Lucy's dressing room. "You were enchanting, my dear, and it was a very good turnout too—I saw a number of people I know," he puffed, kissing her hand.
"Thank you for the neckband. Did you see it in the ballet?"
"Yes. How clever of you to wear it with that costume."
"Weren't the boys wonderful?"
"I thought they did quite well. In fact I think it would have been preferable to have them play a group in place of that most regrettable spectacle by what's her name. I think you should give another performance soon with just the boys."
"Without Ranna?" she asked in surprise.
"Ranna is very good indeed. I kept thinking however what a pity he does not have a Hindu company."
"You mean I wasn't good in the duet?" she asked in consternation.
"You were charming, but of course your 'Filles Méchantes' is more your metier. It was a great success. I had expected," his tone became aggrieved, "that you, Boswell, Ranna and the boys would come down for the supper Denis has waiting, but Hal tells me you all are going to Brush's."
"But you never said a word about it!"
"I didn't think it necessary—it never occurred to me you wouldn't know."
She was upset to see him a woebegone old kewpie with great purple bags under his swollen lids. "You know I would have much rather come to you but I can't now because Clem has invited the whole company. I wish you'd come with us, and I'm sure Clem would like it too."
"I'm sure he would too," he refused with a glint of his normal acidity, and opened the dressing room door. "It's quite all right, I'm rather tired anyway. Here's Nino waiting—say a word to him, and we'll go along."
"I know you must be very tired but I hope, now that the concert is over, we may lunch or dine so that I may tell you more thoroughly what an artist I think you are," the Marqués said, his eyes burning, hers.
"I will," she promised, "soon." And kissed him on the cheek for calling her the magic word.
"By the way," Figente said as they turned to leave, "Beman looked in just in time to catch your ballet but he had an engagement and had to rush off."
"Did he like it?" she asked anxiously.
"Everyone was entranced," Figente replied vaguely.
They seemed two lonely men as they left and her impulse was to run and join them. Going to Clem's this night which was to mark a fresh start was the reverse of what she wished to do. It was generous of Clem to offer the cast a party, and they deserved one after all that work, but it was almost as if the fortuneteller, with her childhood sweetheart horoscope, was managing her.
"Put your new dressing gown over your shoulders, Pussy, so you don't catch cold," Mae said.
"No, I'll stick to my old good-luck robe," she said to spell away the witch.
She scanned the well-wishers for Vermillion. No sign of him. He probably had not liked the show—or had not even come.
"You were wonderful," Clem said. "Semy and I will go on ahead to see that the caterer's all set. I hope he's counted on more than I told him because I've asked some others here I remembered from Figente's party. I hope you asked Figente too—I couldn't get to him in the crush."
"He isn't feeling well."
"And don't forget your mother."
"I asked her, but she can't wait to get to bed. This has been more of a strain on her than on all of us put together."
"Thank you so much for a delightful evening," Mrs. Custerd gushed. Anyone could see she was being polite because of Ranna. "I do hope you won't mind if I carry Ranna off to supper, there is someone who wants so much to meet him."
Ranna drew her aside. "I think it best I go because the woman who invites me is a patron of the arts and perhaps she will help us. Perhaps we can meet later?"
"Not tonight," she said positively, "and go tell Clem you aren't coming."
Lucy and Vida, with Hal and two of the harpists, were the last to arrive.
"My goodness! He must have invited the whole house," Lucy said to Vida at sight of the throng.
"I was beginning to wonder if you were coming," Clem said, more animated than she ever had seen him.
"You've certainly gone to town!" she complimented, laughing because he was so pleased.
"I'm sorry your mother didn't come," he said earnestly.
You could feel, she thought affectionately, he meant it, unlike Lyle when he was making up to her through Mother. She decided to be as nice as possible without encouraging him too much. It was really a shame that they could not be just good friends. If only he still didn't want her. I'm going to see if I can't find him a nice girl, she resolved as she went to speak first to Master and Madame who had been nice enough to come to the party. So were all these people, though some probably came only for the drinks—but, still keyed up, she felt an affection for everyone, except Paul Vermillion who hadn't shown up at all.
Master and Madame attended opening nights, where one of their pupils performed, primarily as diagnosticians, to judge the subject's balletic condition so as to prepare a frank critical prescription for the next lesson. At such performances Master never had been seen in any other costume than a somber black suit of turn-of-the-century European cut, and as a counterpart Madame invariably was clad in a rusty black velvet evening gown which dated to the days when she was a première ballerina. Not an unpleasant woman, Madame surveyed the world at large, but particularly American ballet dancers, with a somewhat jaundiced glance inevitable in one who had been a prima ballerina assoluta in the good old Czarist days. The sole remaining signs of her former glory were the small turned-out steps and sway-back of her period. "American girls," she often complained about her husband's pupils, "are more interested in preserving long thin legs and figures than in perfecting themselves in classical ballet." Thus, as they were rarely inspired to make token appearances at parties celebrating their pupils' exhibitions, Lucy felt that maybe they hadn't found her too bad.
In this she was correct. Master and Madame liked Lucy, though they feared she lacked the single-minded dedication to make her a great ballerina. They remained only long enough to voice distaste of Ilona Klemper to Lucy, be polite about Ranna, and to approve of her ballet which however they believed could be improved if done entirely sur le point. Also, Master reminded her, lest the success go to her head, her cabriolé could be improved and, as always, her fouettés. "And the entrechats! Remember, always on the way down—never begin on the way up!" he admonished.
Even so, with all this criticism, she knew it was high praise.
To her surprise Lucy saw, as Master and Madame left, Tessie standing with Semy.
"You were divine, dear—and that ballet costume was sweet," Tessie burbled, and turned toward the young man who was something important at Biggens Pictures. "It reminded me," she said to Semy, "of a shepherdess dress I wore in my first London show. I was only sixteen and so nervous. I wore a sweet white taffeta with little roses and forget-me-nots—it looped up with ribbons to show a beautiful satin underskirt just the color of my hair. And right in the crevice of the bodice was a little forget-me-not nosegay. I remember Gerald du Maurier saying I looked good enough to eat, and I blushed because I was so shy."
A guying laugh broke in and Lucy saw it was Rosie, one of the girls who had been in a show with Tessie.
"Tessie always has to top every compliment with one to herself," Rosie said to Vida.
Vida smiled mechanically. Spying a free chair she went to sit for the first time all day except for the taxi. She felt her heavy body sink onto the seat and was grateful for the isolation of a wall of standing people.
"You little devil! Why are you hiding?" a known voice said in her ear and, quaking, she saw Rad Welford. Mistaking her flush for that bashfulness that was one of the things that had excited him, he pressed her hand. "Darling, I've missed you—Let's go somewhere and talk."
He was like, Vida thought, the baggy pants comic of the Houston Street Burlesque Theatre, attended by the literati and painters, who, hitching up his pants, said to the chorus girl, "Darlink, let's us go somewheres where we take our shoes off—and talk."
"No, and Rad, I don't miss you," she said, feeling a flood of relief at her hard new courage. The dreaded meeting was easy. She looked almost dispassionately at the smooth, small-featured face, poreless boyish skin, smooth taffy hair, and moist full lips, and wondered what had possessed her to permit him to do that to her body.
He searched her face for some clew as to how she thought he had failed, saw it was useless to persist and, baffled, left abruptly for someone across town more accommodating at a price.
"One dances for the few who understand," Ilona said, grateful that at last someone showed interest in art.
"I'm going to compose a wonderful dance for you," Cynski said. "My universal langidge will be the music. I use nothing so old-fashion like drums and fiddles—yes."
Lucy shifted her weight from one side to the other, her eyes feeling as though toothpicks kept them open, and her lips ached from smiling and responding to strangers until it seemed to her she was a needle caught in the groove of a cracked phonograph record.
In time the room began to clear.
In a few minutes I can say I'm tired and leave too, she thought, and saw Vermillion coming toward her.
"Where have you been, the party is almost over?" she demanded, feeling weak inside.
"I had a drink—or two—with Figente," Vermillion said, as though it had been for only a moment.
"You mean," she said understandingly, "you went down to keep him and Nino company."
"I wasn't much of a substitute for you," he said.
He too had felt sorry for poor old Figente, she thought. "Let's all sit down, I'm worn out," she said, not knowing how to begin to ask what he thought of the ballet.
"You must be, but you also must be feeling very good about tonight," he said.
And all of a sudden she felt wonderful.
"I have a profound conviction," Semy was saying, spacing his words to reach Vermillion to whom he had taken an instantaneous dislike at Figente's, "that motion pictures are the open sesame of the human spirit. They make all the arts obsolete unless used in relation to the motion picture camera."
"You're right," said Alfred Vent the composer, hoping to implant in Semy's mind the thought to mention him to Biggens for that movie sound recording which was in the air. "Have you heard Blanc? He's been experimenting integrating his music along film lines."
"No, but perhaps Mr. Vermillion has. It would be interesting to learn what he thinks of Blanc's experiments."
Vermillion glanced in Semy's direction. "I try not to remember, and it's easy. He can integrate, as the now sacred word has it, attune himself without tune, rhyme, or reason, without the use of my ears."
"I can see you have the old-fashioned sentimental viewpoint about music," grumbled Vent.
Semy raised his arms to simulate a violinist and sang the second movement theme of the "Pathétique" da-da-da in a pleasant tenor. "Tchaikovsky makes me sick with his sentimental onanistic orgasms," he ended up.
"Are you," asked Vermillion, "an expert in such practices that you recognize the symptoms?" And went to help himself to some Calvados.
"That's right, Paul, you tell him," Lucy trilled delightedly as Semy reddened.
"Now, Vermillion, there's no call to get personal," Clem protested.
Vermillion sipped the Calvados. The bittersweet distillation evoked the pink-tipped apple breasts of Marie and her soursweet odor when she had brought Simone and him morning coffee during a week in a Normandy inn. Simone and he had lazed in a snow of fragrant blossoms under the upstretched ardent branches of an old knotted apple tree and he had made the mistake of drawing plump Marie as she bent over the willow-edged creek. At first he had thought it funny that Simone was jealous—it was their second year—but then when she left for Paris in a huff, he refused to go with her. Marie's giggle was the fat burble of a spring. She tiptoed softly in stocking feet because hinges and fruitwood floorboards creak. But not, as she had pointed out, feather beds. He took another long sip. Beside him apple blossoms were forming into two upturned breasts and he was being watched by two enormous solemn blue eyes.
I'm drunk, he thought, and bent over and carefully kissed a fragrant eyebrow.
"You're tight!" Lucy said happily.
A chorus of grinning false faces stared and wished they were elsewhere.
Vida drew in her breath sharply. He doesn't mean a thing, it's a natural reaction to that abandoned pose of hers.
Lucy examined his hand resting on her navel. "You have a pretty hand, with your fingers together it looks like an elm leaf."
He spread his fingers. "Pretty? And shouldn't it he fig?"
His hand breathed up and down with Lucy's belly, the celebrated "tactile touch," he thought.
"Mr. Klug is correct," Vent was saying, "Tchaikovsky belongs to the romantic 19th century. Oh, I don't deny he is a great composer—but today we have freed ourselves of romanticism to create the pure, to express our time unsentimentally. The modern artist is hard-boiled to all that romantic slop."
"Is it the era you are expressing or your own sentimental expression of an era?" asked Vermillion. "What's so shameful about being sentimental—it's part of man's nature, or it wouldn't be everpresent. What's hard-boiledness but another form of sentimentality. Look how the hard-boiled writers in Paris slop over when they write of themselves or their girls—those girls who become more gallant as they move from one guy to another. Perhaps they are gallant at that, making the rounds. I see I've wandered from music—but not from the point which is that in expressing any era it is man who is of significance—and without those gadgets of obscurity masking as profundity."
"You're prejudiced against dissonance because your ear is not attuned to it," said Vent truculently.
"Be good enough to lend me my own ear. Do you say Mozart didn't achieve pure music because he was unaware of your contemporary gadgets, fire sirens and egg beaters? I've no prejudice against dissonance—but to the boys who use noisemakers as blinds for incapacity to compose. Those noises, dating themselves as they're made, compare in painting to an air brush or nailing and pasting things on a board. Sure an experiment in any form is legitimate, but an experiment isn't inevitably art. And don't tell me art is not necessarily agreeable. It is not necessarily disagreeable. Art is an affirmation. Sure, much of the meaning of life is obscure. But while I'm alive I'm not going to play dead. It's an artist's job to make art, not mine as the spectator to look for meanings in obscurities."
"Maybe you're just lazy, like me. Why don't you lie down too?" invited Lucy, who thought Vermillion was straying too far afield. His voice vibrated into her through his fingertips.
A barrage of vexed looks failed to reach their impervious target. Ilona Klemper's eyebrows rose to a pained inverted V. As usual, she thought, Lucy was not content unless the center of masculine attention.
"Must you be frivolous, Lucy?" she chided peevishly. "What I want to ask Mr. Vermillion is if an artist shouldn't create her own symbols of universal emotions? Isn't that what modern art really is? Shouldn't we modern artists get back to the primitive, like Klee and Kandinsky, but in terms of the abstract of course?"
Vermillion took his hand from Lucy's belly and held it up to stop Ilona. Like a traffic cop, Lucy thought.
"Artists don't create symbols—they recognize them and then give them personal form. Otherwise the symbol would have meaning only to the artist who contrived it."
He drank the last of the Calvados.
The group semicircled the couch which was its diameter, livening only a corner of the large studio being cleared by silent waiters of evidences of a party. The group had listened as if to a monologue, each seeking out words personal to himself or herself. It was as if Vermillion was talking to himself, and to Vida the timbre and rhythm of his low even voice intoned a love poem to be heard without interruption from beginning to end. Only, she thought, it never came to an end, he went on replenishing himself, and herself, a divining-plumb bob dropping true to her innermost heart.
"Good God, what a bore! He wrecked Figente's party too," Tessie moaned to Biggens' man Klug.
"I guess Clem asked him because he knew him in Paris," Semy disclaimed responsibility, though he admired the painter's easy flow of ideas and wondered how he could find out what books they were in. It was wonderful how easy it had proved to work a switch not to have to go back to Congress. Butter people up and you could slide anywhere you wanted to go—even into Tessie Soler's bed. Here he was on his way to the top, giving a party with guests who were friends of that snotty Figente.
Clem was enjoying his party too except for the way Lucy and Vermillion acted. Even though the guests had come for Lucy maybe it was the beginning of having a nice group of friends that were hers too, and she would come often. That Vermillion though—sure was a ladies' man. Look at Vida drinking in everything he says. It was not too easy to follow Vermillion's meaning—he even stumped Semy with his gift of gab. Sometimes he seemed to be for you, sometimes against. Anyway it was good that he lit into the composer of that phony music. Accepting stuff like that was like the awe everyone had for Picasso, Matisse and company.
"Seems to me you think you're the only one who knows what art is," Vent muttered belligerently.
"Let us put it rather that I know what is not art for me. I paint pictures but they don't often convince me that I am an artist. One dies many deaths from painting to painting. It takes a long time to become a painter. Renoir thought he'd finally learned something at eighty."
"Just the same, you speak as if you are opposed to new manifestations which grow out of the needs of our time—like, for example, surrealism," Vent said.
"A little synthetic Mantegna doesn't go far enough—in fact, it's exhausted itself already—not surprising in view of its practitioners. What I am trying to say is that when all the succès de scandale has died down and you sit in front of a canvas, not all the credos of new manifestations in the world can help you paint your painting. I know most of the arguments and believe in some of them. I know too that many of the contemporary art credos are a cover-up for nocan-do—and that those credos are seized on by the incapable as justification for their emptiness. But even if valid I won't subscribe to anything I don't understand. As Wagner said, 'I am astonished but I do not comprehend.' Sure, the controversial aspect—the succès de scandale—is fun, but it doesn't follow because an audience breaks up the joint at some art nouveau spectacle that the artist whose work is involved is inevitably a genius. There are guys in Paris now who make careers of being hooted, sure of a certain fringe avant-garde audience which supports anything that is offered because it is seemingly new."
Ilona Klemper gazed reflectively into space. The man Lucy was monopolizing was hard to understand, but he had one good idea. Controversy, succès de scandale, was a sure way to make people talk about one's art.
"Who is he anyway?" she whispered to Vent.
"Nobody. I never saw him before—he's drunk and shooting off." Lucy lay back and stared unhappily at the ceiling beams. That was certainly a queer thing to say, that he didn't know if he were an artist. What did he mean, it took a long time? Hadn't she taken a long time, all these years of studying and dancing, and almost three months on one number? What more could she do if she rehearsed until she was as old as Simone?
"Hear that, Ilona," she called, "we're no artists."
Vermillion's thoughts flowed in a kind of counterpoint. It seemed to him his voice had taunted him for being pompous. The room wavered and each of the semicircle of faces had two black bull's eyes. The far side of the room out beyond armpits and the white tablecloth and its bottles and glasses on the table beyond tilted off perspective under the hanging wrought iron chandelier.
"I don't know how it is in composing music or in writing," he continued, as though he hadn't stopped, "but it's as though each painting is part of a long soliloquy. It seems to me that the term art is an ideal one works toward and never quite achieves for it is always beyond. A painter—and probably a writer and composer—doesn't set out to make a personal style, contrive one arbitrarily. The style grows out of his work. Except in those who copy—and that ain't art, is it?"
He was, Vida realized with a shock, speaking to her, and she looked at him dumbfounded as he smiled. A hot current shot through her at this recognition of her presence. The recital was over and only one more trouble to solve and she would settle down to work.
"It certainly ain't," she agreed happily.
Lucy sat up abruptly. Vida, who always had been a second self, had a self all her own approved by Vermillion.
"Some party!" grumbled one of the girls.
"He certainly wrecked it," another agreed.
"Let's put on a record and dance, that'll stop him."
"I'm seriously thinking of playing Camille," Tessie said to Semy, the idea having just occurred to her.
"I'd like to see that!" he said enthusiastically.
"Would you really? I'm so glad. I never thought of it myself until Jack Barrymore said I must do it and then, oddly enough, the last time I was in Paris, a little while after Jack spoke of it—that was about two years ago—Sacha Guitry said the same thing, though I think Yvonne Printemps would object to my doing it with him. I do think though that much of its pictorial qualities would be lost on the stage—things like Camille's walks in the country with Armand."
"Yes, the stage is too limited for today's audiences," Semy said. He knew what she was after. It was a good idea—Camille for pictures, but for Biggens' Dorothy Destine—and in public domain too.
"I couldn't agree more and now I really must go. It's been a perfectly wonderful party. I hope you will come and lunch with Beman and me soon," Tessie said, knowing when to stop after having got in a first word.
"I'd love to."
"You're just one of those," Vent said rudely to Vermillion, "who won't face the fact that the world has changed and that new forms have displaced the old."
"Yes," put in Ilona earnestly, clenching both hands, "and it is up to the new artists to dominate, to take a whip to the audience."
The orange embroidered border of her long full-sleeved Prussian-blue robe was one of those geometric patterns he had seen somewhere in a book of lessons in elementary design—a high school textbook.
"Don't Nietzsche me—I saw a maniac named Hitler foaming at the mouth in Nuremberg with pseudo-Nietzschean palaver and Wagnerian overtones that would have driven Friedrich nuts a second time," he said crossly. He had intended to shut up but the pathetic dancer had started another train of thought. "Perhaps it's an aftermath of the war but there's a messianic panacea mania abroad these days. It takes many forms—religious, political, aesthetic—but the over-all overtone is sexual. The messiah is either undersexed or oversexed and comes forward with some verbal mumbo-jumbo about the primitive hungers of the blood. In France—at Rambouillet—there's a guy, a Slav, who has set himself up with a Tibetan rigmarole of occult gibberish and physical exercise—as a deus ex machina for artists and writers who for one reason or another are in a state of mental ill-health and want a yes answer to their doubts. This guy's a kind of high-class Coué—"
"I think that's an unfair description of Pergov," broke in Vent, "and his work in Rambouillet. He tries to teach those who come to him to learn what their true selves are, to strip away that which is false in themselves, and then to go on from there to say yes in their inner development."
"I've seen some of the results of Rambouillet—this taking of a mental whip to a human being's spirit and subduing it so that it emerges broken—because first it has to be submerged in the so-called teacher's all-knowing will. I believe there's too much acceptance today—in the arts as well as human relationships of the notion of domination. In painting some artist who can only paint in a certain manner—which may be valid—has to construct some aesthetic gibberish which denies all other contemporary painting, and he attracts a number of individuals who have just about exhausted the palaver of a previous messiah. But the worst aspect of all this is the domination of the human being such as the Hitler-Pergov manifestation. It's something like what happens in the bull ring—man considered only as an animal. I am a bullfight aficionado—I suppose I'm contradicting what I've been saying in admitting that the spectacle of man versus bull excites me, but I do not blind myself as to its essential one-sidedness.
"I've seen Juan Belmonte dominate a bull—it is overpowering in its effect on one's emotions, yes—but remember, before he can dominate that bull—the best possible bull, a Miura bull—he has to have the help of a picador who even when he is honorable in his pic-ing—I've never seen one—is supposed to 'correct,' as the saying goes, the posture of the bull's head by placing his murderous pic in the neck muscle—to lower that proud head. Then, there's the old horse, who has been dominated by less attractive figures than matadors all its life to the point that it can hardly stand on its legs, on whom the bull tires himself out by extracting the horse's insides. Then, there are the banderilleros—it is beautiful to watch the courageous ones place the banderillas—but the object is to further lower the bull's head—and then the dizzying effect of all the capework, beautiful but dizzying to the bull! Then the matador dominates the bull—his head properly lowered—who didn't want to fight in the first place. Now, in my book, a human being isn't a bull—though I will admit that the world does provide pic, banderillero and matador for all of us. I know I don't want to dominate anyone—any more than I wish to be dominated. The only thing I want to dominate is a canvas—but I don't want lowered heads to look at it."
Lucy turned her head and looked at him because while she liked hearing him talk and the way everyone respected what he said even when they were mad at him, the last thing he said gave her a new idea about him as a man. Maybe she ought to be the one to go after him since he did not believe in dominating.
With him one could be oneself, Vida thought. And he would help if one became entangled in puzzling out an approach to writing. With Vermillion it would not be as it had been with Rad but a two-way union.
"But Ilona simply meant that she has a right to express herself and not be at the mercy of an unwilling audience," Vent said.
"You mean," Vermillion began genially.
"Stop it," Lucy dominated, to see how it would work. "That's enough tonight. Somebody has to take Vida and me home and that means you."
He stood obediently, and thought it must be his imagination that made her seem to imply that he had talked a lot when all he had done was to make brief occasional and polite answers to intrusive questions.
"You're tired so we'll drop you first," Vida said to Lucy as they started off in the taxi.
"The air will do me good," Lucy insisted, so as to have a few moments alone with Vermillion to ask him about her ballet.
He sat, happily drunk, between the maneuvers.
They dropped Vida first.
But with her hand in his until they arrived at her house it was hard to ask him.
Only when about to get out of the taxi was she able to manage. "I'm not going to bother you now, but one of these days I want you to tell me exactly what you thought of my ballet."
"No one has to tell you about the effect after the response tonight," he hedged. What had stood out to him was how she had shone through as a woman in the well-devised pastiche impression of the boudoir painter, "but I hope I will see you again before I sail a week from Thursday."
He kissed her cheek gently, not wanting to leave her now but remembering the mother up there.
Tears welled in her eyes, but he didn't notice.