Butterfly Man/Chapter XVI
MOUNT ROYAL, high over the city. Sunday on St. Catherine street as a limousine whirled Ken from the flying field to the hotel. Women in summery dresses, men in shirt sleeves, the French signs over the shops.
The hotel stood, a massive square block of checkered windows. Ken entered cautiously, looking around as if to make sure that no one was watching his entrance. He went straight to the desk.
"I made a telegraphic reservation," he told the clerk. "Will you please find out if Howard Vee is in the hotel?" A pause. He signed the register, dispatched a bell-boy with his bag to his room.
"Mr. Vee has left orders not to be disturbed," the clerk informed him.
"I came here from New York specially to see him," Ken said. The clerk smiled and bowed.
"I cannot call him. His room is number six-hundred and four."
Ken hurried to the elevator. In a moment he was standing before the door of Howard's room. A smile broke upon his lips, which had hitherto been drawn in a tight line. He rapped.
"Who's there?" he heard Howard ask.
"Open, Howie," he cried. The door moved slowly open. He could read Howard's astonished pleasure in his gaping mouth and startled eyes.
"Well, I'll be damned," he heard Howard say. "How did you get here?"
"Flew. Harry Berg told me you were registered here."
"I might have gone on to Quebec. Why didn't you wire me?"
Ken felt the necessity of breaking the restraint which, as they spoke, dulled their voices as cotton deadens a footfall. "I had to see you, Howard. I wanted you to know—"
"I'm here to compose songs for the new revue."
"Then I shan't disturb you. I'll go, if you prefer."
Howard's eyes darkened. A frown creased his forehead. "I want you to stay, Ken."
Over a bottle of champagne, they talked. Distantly, tram cars climbed the mountain. The afternoon sun declined in the dull orange of northern summer skies.
"I'm celebrating the lyric quality of love," Howard was saying. "My new theme song will speak more eloquently than I ever hope to." He rose and went to the piano. "Listen, Ken," he said. "This is dedicated to you."
"Love is a pretense
Love is a mask
Worn at a Cinderella ball.
Love has no tomorrow
Why, love, do I ask
You to be
All to me
You to give me all?
Love is a pretense
Love is a clown
Torn by a mad desire to cry
Love has no future
Why, love, do I frown
When your 'no'
Tells me so—
That our love must die?"
"Here's the chorus," Howard said.
You and I share the days
So I can bear the days
When I'm alone.
I will find new joys in you;
You'll let no other poison you,
Make you his own.
This bitterness I feel
Is better far than not to know
That love is real,
That's why today I've got to know
Just how you feel.
I can't pretend
You are no longer part of me
Here in the heart of me
The ache won't end—
So I pretend."
Ken applauded. He poured another glass of the bubbling wine. "You are frank," he remarked.
"Why not?" Howard said. He returned to his chair. "There is no barrier between us, Ken. You erected one. You were a coward."
"I was a coward, but I'm not one any longer," Ken insisted. "You know, I've always let you lead me. You were the worldly one. You've been to Paris and Oxford and what-not. I've just knocked around the States. I don't know what is the cause of it—perhaps it's being here in Montreal, drinking real champagne—feeling as if I were crawling out of a hole into the daylight—but I'm going to talk at last. When we first met, Howard, you said we'd always be together. I doubted it. I couldn't figure out my problem. Now I've got to put out the flag. Stand up and cheer. You know what I mean?"
"I think I do."
"1 came here to tell you that. I came, as your song says, to let you know just how I feel."
Howard was serious. "Is it because of me, then?"
"Yes. Howard, I'm as nearly sober as is necessary. Believe me, it's because I've got to tell you. I couldn't live without your knowing it! Keeping silent made me want to get drunk, to stay drunk and then to let go of everything. I suppose I'll do that anyway, some day—soon."
"No, you won't."
"I'll be yellow again. It's me—yellow."
"But Ken, this mood is not becoming to you. You should be gay, a dancing boy. You shouldn't think."
"That's just it. Until you came along, I didn't think. I couldn't have talked this way. I was a dumb fool who let others nearly ruin me. I woke up one day, not because I knew what I was doing, but because I needed money. I worked hard. That seemed to be enough. Then—a few days ago, I heard people talking about me. They were saying that you and I were—more than just friends.
"I didn't deny it. I just got drunk. I ran away from them and you. I was, as you said just now, a coward.
"But I know now, today, here, that the pretense is over. You, just by being you, prove that I'm rotten, Howard. Really rotten inside. I'm—"
Howard interrupted impatiently.
"Shall I tell you how I feel?" he asked.
"It's very simple, Kennie. You're what I need today, fulfillment—consummation—contentment. You're someone to think about, to guide. You are young, graceful, absorbingly interesting. You have humor, understanding, generosity."
"Oh, shut up."
"Very well then. I'll shut up."
The waiter brought a second bottle. He explained that the wine was chilled exactly to the proper temperature.
"Old wine from the comet year—look—1904."
"The year I was born," Ken said.
Dusk was drawing a curtain about the world.
"This wine," said Howard, "is light, carefree—what you must be when you, my dear, are with me."
He rose. "Ken," he said, abruptly, "I shall not go to Europe this year without you."
"But the show—I can't leave the show."
"No, I shan't."
"Dear boy," Howard said, "I shouldn't be able to write a word unless you were nearby to inspire me."
"I won't go with you. I must stay in the show."
"Nonsense—there won't be any show."
"I've decided to close it up tight."
"To free you. So we could go to Europe, see Paris, London, shows, people. Sheer perversity of me to end the run. But then, what am I, if not perverse?"
"I don't know what you mean," Ken said, "and I don't care. But I don't want to be the cause of the show's closing."
"Then I'll send it on the road. The show will carry on without you."
"Howard!" Ken cried. "Let's not fool ourselves. Let's live for the present. I don't want to go to Europe. I want to stay in the show, to dance, to drop the mask I've been wearing, to be my own common, vulgar self.
"Go to Europe alone. Send the show on the road. If you can't wait, send for me. I'll come. Until then, let's have a few weeks together here."
"Perhaps you're right," Howard said.
They were silent. The room suddenly was dark.
"Ken," Howard spoke not at all in a voice of his own, "I won't think about the future. These weeks together are all I want. And yet—" Howard's voice died on the word. He caught Ken's hand and held it.
"If this could be just a period that would test us—tell us what we really mean to each other?"
Darkness. The hand drew Ken down to the arm of a chair.
"I'll go to Europe alone." Howard's acquiescence came in a low, almost colorless tone.
"Let's be happy, now. Really happy. Come—"
Ken slipped down into the deep chair.
"For the present," he said, "I'm satisfied. I can drop all the sham—you'll let me—let me be—myself—won't you?"