Butterfly Man/Chapter IV
WINE was being served.
"This is Lachrymae Christi," Mr. Lowell said. "An Italian ship's master brings it to me from San Pedro." Kari poured and Ken sipped. At this moment, half past ten, he was one of seven men in correct evening attire, who lounged in the solarium next to the game room. Judge Wardell faced Mr. Lowell. The judge was older than his host. His face was shrivelled and he spoke with a thin, crackling voice. He seemed to have something in common with Mr. Lowell, some characteristic expression, as if both thought the same thoughts.
Gaston Powers, the artist, was tall, blond, with a concave face, hollowed by its high cheek bones. He painted murals, and was responsible for the pleasing modernistic effect of the music room. Pierre Fortand, the Hollywood dressmaker, had come with Powers. Pierre created styles more advanced than those of the Rue de la Paix. His circle of fashion devotees rivaled those of Chanel, Worth or Poiret. Privileged to drape rich fabrics on the slender, original forms of the stars, he performed this duty with ceremony and a faraway expression.
Pierre ventured occasionally into the realm of interior decorating. He indulged a rare and exotic flair for personality in rooms, as a result of which Hollywood was blooming with such salons and bedchambers as no one but Pierre could imagine.
Strange to say, Pierre was an unkempt young man with ragged fingernails and a sloppy collar. He complained that he never had time to dress properly. His only diversion, he said, was an evening at La Lowell's.
Mr. Crofton, Mr. Lowell's secretary, was admitted to the circle as an equal. Of a good Kansas family, rich in wheat, Mr. Crofton had sprouted into Mr. Lowell's life one day in Paris, a day when Mr. Lowell quite mysteriously lost a highly paid secretary. Mr. Crofton's predecessor had married, causing Mr. Lowell to give him his congé, quite as peremptorily as he had just dismissed Mr. Pawne. Mr. Crofton had met Mr. Lowell in a gambling house, where he had tossed his last sou beneath a croupier's rake. He proposed to work out a loan from Mr. Lowell, acting as his secretary without pay until he could earn ninety thousand francs in credits.
That was ten years before, in 1912; and Mr. Crofton, who had studied at Chicago, Columbia and the Sorbonne and who could speak eleven languages, was still Mr. Lowell's secretary.
Mr. Crofton was a little larger than Mr. Pawne, his erstwhile assistant. He averred that his parents were in the Social Register, although no one took the trouble to investigate the truth of this assertion. He knew everyone, everywhere and frequently talked about the time he had danced with Queen Victoria of Spain during a passage of the Mediterranean. He was invaluable to Mr. Lowell, who, being a Texan, was frequently at a disadvantage in certain of the higher social circles.
Gregory Gregg, the poet, completed the number of those present. He was very tall, dark, with curly black hair which rambled about a brachycephalic head exactly as a poet's hair should ramble. He had just recited his newest poem, "Nostalgia," as Kari began to serve the Lachrymae Christi.
Gregory Gregg was, despite his coloring, soft-voiced and mousey. Had he had a less dominant mother, he might have become, thought Mr. Lowell, a notion salesman in a department store.
However, his mother had desired a poet in the family and she had had her wish. He was now inditing an ode to Bacchus who, poor sprite, had been driven from the rich hillside vineyards of California to dismal tenement rooms, where his devotees concocted potent libations to a god in disgrace.
Ken sat amid these guests on a high, square chrome and leather chair. He was flushed with the liquor and rather uncomfortable.
"Play something for us, La," Pierre Fortand suggested. "Something in the midsummer mood, 'L'Après-midi d'un Faune,' s'il vous plait." The others chimed in with requests for this composition, and that.
"I'll play," said Mr. Lowell, "if you'll all promise to drift away. Because the Judge is here tonight is no reason for formality. He has, in a manner of speaking, taken the veil. Haven't you, Minerva?"
The Judge coughed dryly. "In the code of the Greeks, I am learned—" he snapped. The others, except Ken, laughed.
"That's all I wanted to know," chirped Gregory Gregg. "I shall write a sonnet to swooning Justice … or should I say Justicia?"
"You should," replied Judge Wardell. "Indeed—" he sipped the wine—"I sometimes find the gown I wear in court a little too drab for my taste. I should prefer scarlet—to match my disposition."
Then he winked broadly—"This is all," he added, "entre nous."
"Bored?" Gregory Gregg asked Ken. Mr. Lowell was entering the music room.
"Why should I be bored?" Ken replied.
"Your eyes lack lustre; you have said nothing since dinner."
"I don't know what to say."
"Come, chat with me. I want to hear you talk. Perhaps the garden will put you in the right mood."
Mr. Lowell was playing softly; sobbing tones barely heard in the hushed night. A stone seat faced a mocking Pan in the formal garden, which one reached by means of narrow steps down the side of Star-ridge. Ken sat beside Gregory Gregg.
"I'd like to be your friend," said Gregg.
Ken was unaffected by the music or by the sweet fragrance of the summer flowers.
"Understand me," the poet said. "I mean a true friend. You see, I m still enough of an ingénue to know how you feel tonight. This is your débût, isn't it?"
"I mean, this is the first time you've met La's friends face to face."
"Do you find yourself in harmony with them?"
"Do you mean, do I like them?"
"No—I mean—it's so hard, Kenneth, to say what I mean."
"I don't get you."
"That's because you are not sufficiently sensitive yet. You're too young. You haven't awakened. When you have chosen a career and understand yourself fully, you'll appreciate these lovely days and nights, this freedom from worry. La tells me you're to be a dancer. You are finely built and graceful. When you learn to dance with your mind as well as with your feet, you will find a happy rhythm in your life. Now if you will permit me to analyze you a bit further, you are trying and trying vainly to understand what we are, and why."
Ken chuckled. "You talk just like Mr. Lowell." He tossed his head in the direction of the music room.
"I do. He and I are old … friends. Nothing deeper than friendship, of course. We both love beauty. He is playing that organ now because he wants to create beauty. He is no longer young as you are. It's sweet to be young enough not to know and to be saddened by the fear of too much knowing. Listen … isn't it beautiful?"
The music sobbed, sighed, ended.
"Kenneth, learn to accept yourself such as you are. Face it. If you don't—I—I'm afraid for you—"
"You can't understand. I know." He stopped short. The night was very still. A faint, cool breeze sprang up. Gregory Gregg brushed back his long, black hair.
"For your own sake, Kenneth, stay with us. If you don't—you'll be very unhappy—tragedy may even come into your life."
Kenneth nervously turned away.
"Do you believe me?" Gregg asked.
Kenneth could not reply.
"If you do—" Gregg continued, "stay with La." Gregg caught one of Ken's hands in his own. "We'll shake on it, shall we?"
Ken smiled. "Yes," he said.
It was just twelve when Ken guided the Rolls down the steep grade toward Glendale. As he reached the boulevard, he took a deep breath of the fresh night air. Thank God, he was out of the house.
Exactly what had happened, he wasn't sure. He had sat talking with Gregg for a time. They had invaded the house for a drink. Ken had told Gregg he would go below and get Kari to mix some highballs.
On the stairs sat Mr. Crofton and Gaston Powers. They were drunk and giggled at the sight of Ken leading Gregg to the kitchen.
No one was there. Kari, they decided, had gone to bed. Ken opened innumerable cupboards and ransacked the ice box in a search for a drink. He was about to apologize for his inability to find anything, when Gregg asked him not to bother.
"I don't need another drink," he said. "I'm glad there isn't any more. I've talked truth. We mustn't talk truth. It's dangerous."
He smiled. "I like you, Kenneth," he said. "When I first saw you, I thought you were just another Lowell type. But you're not.
"La, you know, isn't especially good for everyone. He's like a diet of caviar, grouse and plum pudding. You must gain perspective, be amused and amusing if you'd survive. And I'd like to see you survive."
Kenneth rather liked the poet. He wasn't annoying. He seemed sincere.
"La Lowell is high priestess of a curious cult, Kenneth … a great man—in his way. He weaves enchantments, casts spells, delivers incantations. One must be very young or very strong to resist him. And never weak. He is a curious mixture—devil and god. No ordinary mortal can combat him."
"You've got me wrong, Gregg," Ken said. "I'm not a weak one."
"I hope not—" Gregg's eyes sparkled. "At least be strong enough to be practical. Let him pay you well, as he has paid many others … Pierre, for instance."
"Did he put Pierre in business?"
"Brought him from Paris."
For a moment, Kenneth felt a curious resentment against Mr. Lowell, as if Pierre Fortand had no right to be in Star-ridge now that he was there. He had been sitting on the kitchen table. He rose.
"Where are you going?" Gregg asked.
"To find Kari. I need a drink." He did not consider why he went downstairs, instead of up. This he did, however, passing his own bedroom and going straight to Mr. Lowell's.
He did not knock. He opened the door of the dressing room.
"Who's that?" cried a voice. Pierre Fortand slammed an inner door. Ken stood his ground. The inner door opened. Ken thought he saw Mr. Lowell lying on the bed. Fortand came into the dressing room.
"He's a little drunk. Passed out, I think. I'm taking care of him."
"Can I help?"
"No. And get out of here and stay out—do you hear?"
Hollywood was quiet. At Vine Street and the Boulevard, an all-night drug store was open. Ken pulled up at the curb and entered.
At the fountain, he ordered a bromo-seltzer. He was decidedly tight now. That was why his ideas were so muddled, why he couldn't reasonably explain his flight from Star-ridge to Hollywood.
"It's fate, that's what it is," he heard a woman's low-pitched voice and felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned. Anita Rogers stood beside him.
"Hello," he greeted her. "Have a soda on me?"
"What brought you out so late?"
"A mad desire to find you, sweetie."
"How'd you know I'd be here?"
"I didn't. I wanted to meet someone I knew; and this seemed the most likely place. It's so all-fired lonesome living by myself." She sniffed. "You've been nipping, haven't you?"
"Star-ridge. Awfully dull."
"You'd better not hit it up so much. It'll ruin your dancing."
He looked at her more closely. She was prettier than most girls, not fleshy, rather slim, with brown hair, understanding eyes and a quiet smile.
"Say," she said suddenly, "can you take me for a breath of air? Have you got a car?"
"Sure. Where shall we go?"
"Let's go down to the beach, shall we?"
She marvelled at the Rolls-Royce. I used to dream I d ride in one of those things one of these days. Gee, it's swell to be rich."
"Listen, you got plenty."
"I don't own a cent. Everything I have, even my clothes, belongs to someone else; I haven't even earned the money in my pocket. A Jap house boy puts twenty dollars in my pants every morning."
"Brother," she begged, "where is that Jap? He can put twenty dollars in my pants any time. Why, I'm living on twenty bucks a month so's I can buy me a new dance routine."
"You been on the stage?"
"If you call it that. I was in small-time vaudeville for a while. I slipped one day on a banana peel and nine whiskey sours; and I haven't had a job since."
"Where do you live?"
"In a two-by-four down around Vermont."
"Going back on the stage?"
"Yes, when you stop cross-examining me and my back kicks come back and I can afford some new costumes and when I find a new partner as good as you are."
"I'll work with you."
"You mean that, babe? Hm—no you won't. I know your kind."
"My kind—?" Ken stole a sidelong glance at her.
"You're in the dough, kid. Keep outa vaudeville. It's only heartbreaks, hot cakes and cold hotel rooms."
"But maybe we could form a big-time team," Ken said. "You have experience. I've got long legs."
"No, no—not you."
"I don't want to spoil you, child."
All the way to Santa Monica Ken argued with her. "When you're sober, you'll realize a combination of you and me'd be impossible. You're a fresh youngster—I'm an old bat."
"In experience, I'm old as old Cleopatra. And you know how long ago she took an asp to lunch."
"What?" asked Ken, naively.
She patted his cheek and laughed.
Ken recognized the pagodas of the Japanese Gardens on the palisade above the coast road. The ocean lay flat as a silken coverlet. Because Anita Rogers was a woman, he felt he could talk to her.
"I'm not having as good a time as you think," he confided. "Did you ever hear of La Lowell?"
"He. A rich old man, who's made millions in oil and silver."
"So that's the one you're living with?"
"You wouldn't do that now, would you, cutie?"
The car rolled across the pavement to the beach.
"What'd you mean by that crack?" he asked as he applied the brakes and switched off the lights.
"Nothing you'd understand."
"Say, what do I look like? Do I look dumb?"
"Simple-minded." She laughed. "No—you're a kid, from the country … a sap."
He suggested a walk along the beach. Just beyond a path down the palisade were rocks. She picked her way to a natural opening in the black cliff. The surf splashed and rolled between the beach stones on which they walked. In the darkness, they found a comfortable natural seat, a low, flat rock.
"I've been most everywhere, kid," she said. "I thought I had you figured but I'm wrong."
She lighted a cigarette.
"What's this Lowell guy like?"
"He's wonderfully generous. But I can't figure him the way you can't figure me."
"So he's the one that's made you so shy. Tell me—you're not 'queer,' are you?"
Ken's "No" was gruff and decisive.
"Then put your arm around me, I'm chilly."
"Haven't you got a drink with you?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"Then I'll have to get warm some other way."
Her head fell on his shoulder. Her hair was fragrant with a musky scent, as the wind drove it in a caress against his cheek. His hand dropped over her shoulder, so that his fingers barely felt the curve of her breast.
"I'm glad I found you," she said. "I know what's ailing you. You need a woman around once in a while. A goofy old gent like this papa of yours means no good to you."
"How do you know?"
"Mama's wise, little man. She's lived. And she hasn't been in Buddy Nolan's school for four hard weeks without guessing right once in a while."
Ken's eyes followed the long line of foam.
"It'd be a shame if you let popsy-wopsy change you over."
"Why do you keep hammering at that sort of thing?"
"Jimmy Smith. He told me you were being fatted for slaughter, that is, if you haven't taken the veil already."
The phrase recalled Judge Wardell's remark. Ken had not understood what the Judge had meant when he boasted that he had "taken the veil."
"Exactly what does that mean?" he asked Anita.
"Letting your hair down, camping, and all the rest."
"I don't get you."
"I'm glad. Why, I even think you're a fall guy. Ain't it the truth?"
"Honey, I'm willing to save you. Not for these glad rags you wear, nor for the Rolls over there … but because nice little Nita liked you the minute she saw you."
She straightened up. "I'm the kind of gal who isn't too proud to tell the truth. I was afraid of you because the gang had you bracketed as trade. I didn't want to get a cold turn-down. That's bad for the ego and I've got to have an inflated ego or I'm flat as a glass of stale beer."
Her hand roamed over his smooth cheek to his hair.
"Wanta dance with me? On the stage?"
"I'd love to," Ken said.
"It's okay with me, if you'll—" Her voice trailed away, but the implications concealed in its tone were plain. She placed a hand at the back of his head and drew his lips to hers.
She kissed him. At that moment, the wind shifted … a damp, cold breeze cut across the water to the land. Ken shivered.
"What's the matter? Cold?"
"I'm tired, I guess."
The color in her cheeks faded. Her eyes were dull brown. "Okay with me, pal. Let's go home."
The Rolls-Royce raced back to Hollywood. They barely spoke again.
At her door, he pressed her hand lightly.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"Don't you know?" Her laugh pealed high. She turned and ran into the courtyard.
For a moment he wanted to follow. He opened the door of the car, then closed it.
"Good-night," he called. She did not answer.
On the way home, he felt ill at ease. He placed the car in the garage very quietly. He descended steps to the bedroom entrance. He opened his door.
A dim light burned. Silhouetted against it was the grotesque figure of Mr. Lowell. He was dressed in what appeared to be a dressing gown, but which was really a Japanese robe, the elaborately brocaded, fantastic, mediaeval costume of a Samurai. Heavy silks, rigid with the weight of overlaid panels of metallic cloth, lent a bizarre quality to the costume. Mr. Lowell, tall, his gray beard making him seem a figure out of Felician Rops, swayed.
He pointed a finger at Ken. His mouth, half open, tried to speak human words. But he was so drunk that he could only bleat—a goat in the form of a man.