I. Great Lady on a White Horse
Morning clatters with the first L train down Allen Street. Daylight rattles through the windows, shaking the old brick houses, splatters the girders of the L structure with bright confetti.
The cats are leaving the garbage cans, the chinches are going back into the walls, leaving sweaty limbs, leaving the grimetender necks of little children asleep. Men and women stir under blankets and bedquilts on mattresses in the corners of rooms, clots of kids begin to untangle to scream and kick.
At the corner of Riverton the old man with the hempen beard who sleeps where nobody knows is putting out his picklestand. Tubs of gherkins, pimentos, melonrind, piccalilli give out twining vines and cold tendrils of dank pepperyfragrance that grow like a marshgarden out of the musky bedsmells and the rancid clangor of the cobbled awakening street.
The old man with the hempen beard who sleeps where nobody knows sits in the midst of it like Jonah under his gourd.
JIMMY HERF walked up four creaky flights and knocked at a white door fingermarked above the knob where the name Sunderland appeared in old English characters on a card neatly held in place by brass thumbtacks. He waited a long while beside a milkbottle, two creambottles, and a copy of the Sunday Times. There was a rustle behind the door and the creak of a step, then no more sound. He pushed a white button in the doorjamb.
"An he said, Margie I've got a crush on you so bad, an she said. Come in outa the rain, you're all wet. . . ." Voices coming down the stairs, a man's feet in button shoes, a girl's feet in sandals, pink silk legs; the girl in a fluffy dress and a Spring Maid hat; the young man had white edging on his vest and a green, blue, and purple striped necktie.
"But you're not that kind of a girl."
"How do you know what kind of a girl I am?"
The voices trailed out down the stairs.
Jimmy Herf gave the bell another jab.
"Who is it?" came a lisping female voice through a crack in the door.
"I want to see Miss Prynne please."
Glimpse of a blue kimono held up to the chin of a fluffy face. "Oh I don't know if she's up yet."
"She said she would be."
"Look will you please wait a second to let me make my get-away," she tittered behind the door. "And then come in. Excuse us but Mrs. Sunderland thought you were the rent collector. They sometimes come on Sunday just to fool you." A smile coyly bridged the crack in the door.
"Shall I bring in the milk?"
"Oh do and sit down in the hall and I'll call Ruth." The hall was very dark; smelled of sleep and toothpaste and massagecream; across one corner a cot still bore the imprint of a body on its rumpled sheets. Straw hats, silk eveningwraps, and a couple of men's dress overcoats hung in a jostling tangle from the staghorns of the hatrack. Jimmy picked a corsetcover off a rockingchair and sat down. Women's voices, a subdued rustling of people dressing, Sunday newspaper noises seeped out through the partitions of the different rooms.
The bathroom door opened; a stream of sunlight reflected out of a pierglass cut the murky hall in half, out of it came a head of hair like copper wire, bluedark eyes in a brittlewhite eggshaped face. Then the hair was brown down the hall above a slim back in a tangerine-colored slip, nonchalant pink heels standing up out of the bathslippers at every step.
"Ou-ou, Jimmee. . ." Ruth was yodling at him from behind her door. "But you mustn't look at me or at my room." A head in curlpapers stuck out like a turtle's.
"You can come in if you promise not to look. . . . I'm a sight and my room's a pigeon. . . . I've just got to do my hair. Then I'll be ready." The little gray room was stuffed with clothes and photographs of stage people. Jimmy stood with his back to the door, some sort of silky stuff that dangled from the hook tickling his ears.
"Well how's the cub reporter?"
"I'm on Hell's Kitchen. . . . It's swell. Got a job yet Ruth?"
"Um-um. . . . A couple of things may materialize during the week. But they wont. Oh Jimmy I'm getting desperate." She shook her hair loose of the crimpers and combed out the new mousybrown waves. She had a pale startled face with a big mouth and blue underlids. "This morning I knew I ought to be up and ready, but I just couldn't. It's so discouraging to get up when you haven't got a job. . . . Sometimes I think I'll go to bed and just stay there till the end of the world."
"Poor old Ruth."
She threw a powderpuff at him that covered his necktie and the lapels of his blue serge suit with powder. "Dont you poor old me you little rat."
"That's a nice thing to do after all the trouble I took to make myself look respectable. . . . Darn your hide Ruth. And the smell of the carbona not off me yet."
Ruth threw back her head with a shrieking laugh. "Oh you're so comical Jimmy. Try the whisk-broom."
Blushing he blew down his chin at his tie. "Who's the funnylooking girl opened the halldoor?"
"Shush you can hear everything through the partition. . . . That's Cassie," she whispered giggling. "Cassah-ndrah Wilkins . . . used to be with the Morgan Dancers. But we oughtnt to laugh at her, she's very nice. I'm very fond of her." She let out a whoop of laughter. "You nut Jimmy," She got to her feet and punched him in the muscle of the arm. "You always make me act like I was crazy."
"God did that. . . . No but look, I'm awfully hungry. I walked up."
"What time is it?"
"It's after one."
"Oh Jimmy I dont know what to do about time. . . . Like this hat? . . . Oh I forgot to tell you. I went to see Al Harrison yesterday. It was simply dreadful. . . . If I hadnt got to the phone in time and threatened to call the police. . . ."
"Look at that funny woman opposite. She's got a face exactly like a llama."
"It's on account of her I have to keep my shades drawn all the time . . ."
"Oh you're much too young to know. You'd be shocked Jimmy." Ruth was leaning close to the mirror running a stick of rouge between her lips.
"So many things shock me, I dont see that it matters much. . . . But come along let's get out of here. The sun's shining outside and people are coming out of church and going home to overeat and read at their Sunday papers among the rubberplants . . ."
"Oh Jimmy you're a shriek . . . Just one minute. Look out you're hooked onto my best shimmy."
A girl with short black hair in a yellow jumper was folding the sheets off the cot in the hall. For a second under the ambercolored powder and the rouge Jimmy did not recognize the face he had seen through the crack in the door.
"Hello Cassie, this is . . . Beg pardon, Miss Wilkins this is Mr. Herf. You tell him about the lady across the air-shaft, you know Sappo the Monk."
Cassandra Wilkins lisped and pouted, "Isn't she dweadful Mr. Herf. . . . She says the dweadfullest things."
"She merely does it to annoy."
"Oh Mr. Herf I'm so pleased to meet you at last, Ruth does nothing but talk about you. . . . Oh I'm afwaid I was indiscweet to say that. . . . I'm dweadfully indiscweet."
The door across the hall opened and Jimmy found himself looking in the white face of a crookednosed man whose red hair rode in two unequal mounds on either side of a straight part. He wore a green satin bathrobe and red morocco slippers.
"What heow Cassahndrah?" he said in a careful Oxford drawl. "What prophecies today?"
"Nothing except a wire from Mrs. Fitzsimmons Green. She wants me to go to see her at Scarsdale tomorrow to talk about the Gweenery Theater. . . . Excuse me this is Mr. Herf, Mr. Oglethorpe." The redhaired man raised one eyebrow and lowered the other and put a limp hand in Jimmy's.
"Herf, Herf. . . . Let me see, it's not a Georgiah Herf? In Atlahnta there's an old family of Herfs. . . ."
"No I dont think so."
"Too bad. Once upon a time Josiah Herf and I were boon companions. Today he is the president of the First National Bank and leading citizen of Scranton Pennsylvahnia and I . . . a mere mountebank, a thing of rags and patches." When he shrugged his shoulders the bathrobe fell away exposing a flat smooth hairless chest.
"You see Mr. Oglethorpe and I are going to do the Song of Songs. He weads it and I interpwet it in dancing. You must come up and see us wehearse sometime."
"Thy navel is like a round goblet which wanteth not liquor, thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies . . ."
"Oh dont begin now." She tittered and pressed her legs together.
"Jojo close that door," came a quiet deep girl's voice from inside the room.
"Oh poo-er deah Elaine, she wants to sleep. . . . So glahd to have met you, Mr. Herf."
"Yes my deah. . . ."
Through the leaden drowse that cramped him the girl's voice set Jimmy tingling. He stood beside Cassie constrainedly without speaking in the dingydark hall. A smell of coffee and singeing toast seeped in from somewhere. Ruth came up behind them.
"All right Jimmy I'm ready. . . . I wonder if I've forgotten anything."
"I dont care whether you have or not, I'm starving." Jimmy took hold of her shoulders and pushed her gently towards the door. "It's two o'clock."
"Well goodby Cassie dear, I'll call you up at about six."
"All wight Wuthy . . . So pleased to have met you Mr. Herf." The door closed on Cassie's tittering lisp.
"Wow, Ruth that place gives me the infernal jimjams.'
"Now Jimmy dont get peevish because you need food."
"But tell me Ruth, what the hell is Mr. Oglethorpe? He beats anything I ever saw."
"Oh did the Ogle come out of his lair?" Ruth let out a whoop of laughter. They came out into grimy sunlight. "Did he tell you he was of the main brawnch, dontcher know, of the Oglethorpes of Georgiah?"
"Is that lovely girl with copper hair his wife?"
"Elaine Oglethorpe has reddish hair. She's not so darn lovely either. . . . She's just a kid and she's upstage as the deuce already. All because she made a kind of a hit in Peach Blossoms. You know one of these tiny exquisite bits everybody makes such a fuss over. She can act all right."
"It's a shame she's got that for a husband."
"Ogile's done everything in the world for her. If it hadnt been for him she'd still be in the chorus . . ."
"Beauty and the beast."
"You'd better look out if he sets his lamps on you Jimmy.'
"Strange fish, Jimmy, strange fish."
An Elevated train shattered the barred sunlight overhead. He could see Ruth's mouth forming words.
"Look," he shouted above the diminishing clatter. "Let's go have brunch at the Campus and then go for a walk on the Palisades."
"You nut Jimmy what's brunch?"
"You'll eat breakfast and I'll eat lunch."
"It'll be a scream." Whooping with laughter she put her arm in his. Her silvernet bag knocked against his elbow as they walked.
"And what about Cassie, the mysterious Cassandra?"
"You mustn't laugh at her, she's a peach. . . . If only she wouldn't keep that horrid little white poodle. She keeps it in her room and it never gets any exercise and it smells something terrible. She has that little room next to mine. . . . Then she's got a steady . . ." Ruth giggled. "He's worse than the poodle. They're engaged and he borrows all her money away from her. For Heaven's sake dont tell anybody."
"I dont know anybody to tell."
"Then there's Mrs. Sunderland . . ."
"Oh yes I got a glimpse of her going into the bathroom—an old lady in a wadded dressing gown with a pink boudoir cap on."
"Jimmy you shock me. . . . She keeps losing her false teeth," began Ruth; an L train drowned out the rest. The restaurant door closing behind them choked off the roar of wheels on rails.
An orchestra was playing When It's Appleblossom Time in Normandee. The place was full of smokewrithing slants of sunlight, paper festoons, signs announcing Lobsters Arrive Daily, Eat Clams Now, Try Our Delicious French Style Steamed Mussles (Recommended by the Department of Agriculture). They sat down under a redlettered placard Beefsteak Parties Upstairs and Ruth made a pass at him with a breadstick. "Jimmy do you think it'd be immoral to eat scallops for breakfast? But first I've got to have coffee coffee coffee . . ."
"I'm going to eat a small steak and onions."
"Not if you're intending to spend the afternoon with me. Mr. Herf."
"Oh all right. Ruth I lay my onions at your feet."
"That doesn't mean I'm going to let you kiss me."
"What . . . on the Palisades?" Ruth's giggle broke into a whoop of laughter. Jimmy blushed crimson. "I never axed you maam, he say-ed."
Sunlight dripped in her face through the little holes in the brim of her straw hat. She was walking with brisk steps too short on account of her narrow skirt; through the thin china silk the sunlight tingled like a hand stroking her back. In the heavy heat streets, stores, people in Sunday clothes, strawhats, sunshades, surfacecars, taxis, broke and crinkled brightly about her grazing her with sharp cutting glints as if she were walking through piles of metalshavings. She was groping continually through a tangle of gritty sawedged brittle noise.
At Lincoln Square a girl rode slowly through the traffic on a white horse; chestnut hair hung down in even faky waves over the horse's chalky rump and over the giltedged saddlecloth where in green letters pointed with crimson, read Danderine. She had on a green Dolly Varden hat with a crimson plume; one hand in a white gauntlet nonchalantly jiggled at the reins, in the other wabbled a goldknobbed riding crop.
Ellen watched her pass; then she followed a smudge of green through a cross-street to the Park. A smell of trampled sunsinged grass came from boys playing baseball. All the shady benches were full of people. When she crossed the curving automobile road her sharp French heels sank into the asphalt. Two sailors were sprawling on a bench in the sun; one of them popped his lips as she passed, she could feel their seagreedy eyes cling stickily to her neck, her thighs, her ankles. She tried to keep her hips from swaying so much as she walked. The leaves were shriveled on the saplings along the path. South and east sunnyfaced buildings hemmed in the Park, to the west they were violet with shadow. Everything was itching sweaty dusty constrained by policemen and Sunday clothes. Why hadn't she taken the L? She was looking in the black eyes of a young man in a straw hat who was drawing up a red Stutz roadster to the curb. His eyes twinkled in hers, he jerked back his head smiling an upsidedown smile, pursing his lips so that they seemed to brush her cheek. He pulled the lever of the brake and opened the door with the other hand. She snapped her eyes away and walked on with her chin up. Two pigeons with metalgreen necks and feet of coral waddled out of her way. An old man was coaxing a squirrel to fish for peanuts in a paper bag.
All in green on a white stallion rode the Lady of the Lost Battalion. . . . Green, green, danderine . . . Godiva in the haughty mantle of her hair. . . .
General Sherman in gold interrupted her. She stopped a second to look at the Plaza that gleamed white as motherofpearl. . . . Yes this is Elaine Oglethorpe's apartment. . . . She climbed up onto a Washington Square bus. Sunday afternoon Fifth Avenue filed by rosily dustily jerkily. On the shady side there was an occasional man in a top hat and frock coat. Sunshades, summer dresses, straw hats were bright in the sun that glinted in squares on the upper windows of houses, lay in bright slivers on the hard paint of limousines and taxicabs. It smelled of gasoline and asphalt, of spearmint and talcumpowder and perfume from the couples that jiggled closer and closer together on the seats of the bus. In an occasional storewindow, paintings, maroon draperies, varnished antique chairs behind plate glass. The St. Regis. Sherry's. The man beside her wore spats and lemon gloves, a floorwalker probably. As they passed St. Patrick's she caught a whiff of incense through the tall doors open into gloom. Delmonico's. In front of her the young man's arm was stealing round the narrow gray flannel back of the girl beside him.
"Jez ole Joe had rotten luck, he had to marry her. He's only nineteen."
"I suppose you would think it was hard luck."
"Myrtle I didn't mean us."
"I bet you did. An anyways have you ever seen the girl?"
"I bet it aint his."
"Billy how dreadfully you do talk."
Fortysecond Street. Union League Club. "It was a most amusing gathering . . . most amusing. . . . Everybody was there. For once the speeches were delightful, made me think of old times," croaked a cultivated voice behind her ear. The Waldorf. "Aint them flags swell Billy. . . . That funny one is cause the Siamese ambassador is staying there. I read about it in the paper this morning."
When thou and I my love shall come to part, Then shall I press an ineffable last kiss Upon your lips and go . . . heart, start, who art . . . Bliss, this, miss . . . When thou . . . When you and I my love . . .
Eighth Street. She got down from the bus and went into the basement of the Brevoort. George sat waiting with his back to the door snapping and unsnapping the lock of his briefcase. "Well Elaine it's about time you turned up. . . . There aren't many people I'd sit waiting three quarters of an hour for."
"George you mustn't scold me; I've been having the time of my life. I haven't had such a good time in years. I've had the whole day all to myself and I walked all the way down from 105th Street to Fiftyninth through the Park. It was full of the most comical people."
"You must be tired." His lean face where the bright eyes were caught in a web of fine wrinkles kept pressing forward into hers like the prow of a steamship.
"I suppose you've been at the office all day George."
"Yes I've been digging out some cases. I cant rely on anyone else to do even routine work thoroughly, so I have to do it myself."
"Do you know I had it all decided you'd say that."
"About waiting three quarters of an hour."
"Oh you know altogether too much Elaine. . . . Have some pastries with your tea?"
"Oh but I dont know anything about anything, that's tha trouble. . . . I think I'll take lemon please."
Glasses clinked about them; through blue cigarettesmoke faces hats beards wagged, repeated greenish in the mirrors,
"But my de-e-ar it's always the same old complex. It may be true of men but it says nothing in regard to women," droned a woman's voice from the next table. . . . "Your feminism rises into an insuperable barrier," trailed a man's husky meticulous tones. "What if I am an egoist? God knows I've suffered for it." "Fire that purifies, Charley. . . ." George was speaking, trying to catch her eye. "How's the famous Jojo?"
"Oh let's not talk about him."
"The less said about him the better eh?"
"Now George I wont have you sneer at Jojo, for better or worse he is my husband, till divorce do us part. . . . No I wont have you laugh. You're too crude and simple to understand him anyway. Jo jo's a very complicated rather tragic person."
"For God's sake don't let's talk about husbands and wives. The important thing, little Elaine, is that you and I are sitting here together without anyone to bother us. . . . Look when are we going to see each other again, really see each other, really. . . ."
"We're not going to be too real about this, are we George?"
She laughed softly into her cup.
"Oh but I have so many things to say to you. I want to ask you so many things."
She looked at him laughing, balancing a small cherry tartlet that had one bite out of it between a pink squaretipped finger and thumb. "Is that the way you act when you've got some miserable sinner on the witnessbox? I thought it was more like: Where were you on the night of February thirtyfirst?"
"But I'm dead serious, that's what you cant understand, or wont."
A young man stood at the table, swaying a little, looking down at them. "Hello Stan, where the dickens did you come from?" Baldwin looked up at him without smiling. "Look Mr. Baldwin I know it's awful rude, but may I sit down at your table a second. There's somebody looking for me who i just cant meet. O God that mirror! Still they'd never look for me if they saw you."
"Miss Oglethorpe this is Stanwood Emery, the son of the senior partner in our firm."
"Oh it's so wonderful to meet you Miss Oglethorpe. I saw you last night, but you didn't see me."
"Did you go to the show?"
"I almost jumped over the foots I thought you were so wonderful."
He had a ruddy brown skin, anxious eyes rather near the bridge of a sharp fragillycut nose, a big mouth never still, wavy brown hair that stood straight up. Ellen looked from one to the other inwardly giggling. They were all three stiffening in their chairs.
"I saw the danderine lady this afternoon," she said. "She impressed me enormously. Just my idea of a great lady on a white horse."
"With rings on her finger and bells on her toes, And she shall make mischief wherever she goes." Stan rattled it off quickly under his breath.
"Music, isnt it?" put in Ellen laughing. "I always say mischief."
"Well how's college?" asked Baldwin in a dry uncordial voice.
"I guess it's still there," said Stan blushing. "I wish they'd burn it down before I got back." He got to his feet. "You must excuse me Mr. Baldwin. . . . My intrusion was infernally rude." As he turned leaning towards Ellen she smelled his grainy whiskey breath. "Please forgive it, Miss Oglethorpe."
She found herself holding out her hand; a dry skinny hand squeezed it hard. He strode out with swinging steps bumping into a waiter as he went.
"I cant make out that infernal young puppy," burst out Baldwin. "Poor old Emery's heartbroken about it. He's darn clever and has a lot of personality and all that sort of thing, but all he does is drink and raise Cain. . . . I guess all he needs is to go to work and get a sense of values. Too much money's what's the matter with most of those collegeboys. . . . Oh but Elaine thank God we're alone again. I have worked continuously all my life ever since I was fourteen. The time has come when I want to lay aside all that for a while. I want to live and travel and think and be happy. I cant stand the pace of downtown the way I used to. I want to learn to play, to ease off the tension. . . . That's where you come in."
"But I don't want to be the nigger on anybody's safety-valve." She laughed and let the lashes fall over her eyes.
"Let's go out to the country somewhere this evening. I've been stifling in the office all day. I hate Sunday anyway."
"But my rehearsal."
"You could be sick. I'll phone for a car."
"Golly there's Jojo. . . . Hello Jojo"; she waved her gloves above her head.
John Oglethorpe, his face powdered, his mouth arranged in a careful smile above his standup collar, advanced between the crowded tables, holding out his hand tightly squeezed into buff gloves with black stripes. "Heow deo you deo, my deah, this is indeed a surprise and a pleajah."
"You know each other, don't you? This is Mr. Baldwin."
"Forgive me if I intrude . . . er . . .. upon a tête à tête."
"Nothing of the sort, sit down and we'll all have a high-ball. . . . I was just dying to see you really Jojo. . . . By the way if you havent anything else to do this evening you might slip in down front for a few minutes. I want to know what you think about my reading of the part. . . ."
"Certainly my deah, nothing could give me more pleajah."
His whole body tense George Baldwin leaned back with his hand clasped behind the back of his chair. "Waiter . . ." He broke his words off sharp like metal breaking. "Three Scotch highballs at once please."
Oglethorpe rested his chin on the silver ball of his cane. "Confidence, Mr. Baldwin," he began, "confidence between husband and wife is a very beautiful thing. Space and time have no effect on it. Were one of us to go to China for a thousand years it would not change our affection one tittle."
"You see George, what's the matter with Jojo is that he read too much Shakespeare in his youth. . . . But I've got to go or Merton will be bawling me out again. . . . Talk about industrial slavery. Jojo tell him about Equity."
Baldwin got to his feet. There was a slight flush on his cheekbones. "Wont you let me take you up to the theater," he said through clenched teeth.
"I never let anyone take me anywhere . . . And Jojo you must stay sober to see me act."
Fifth Avenue was pink and white under pink and white clouds in a fluttering wind that was fresh after the cloying talk and choke of tobaccosmoke and cocktails. She waved the taxistarter off merrily and smiled at him. Then she found a pair of anxious eyes looking into hers seriously out of a higharched brown face.
"I waited round to see you come out. Cant I take you somewhere? I've got my Ford round the corner. . . . Please."
"But I'm just going up to the theater. I've got a rehearsal."
"All right do let me take you there."
She began putting a glove on thoughtfully. "All right, but it's an awful imposition on you."
"That's fine. It's right round here. . . . It was awfully rude of me to butt in that way, wasn't it? But that's another story. . . . Anyway I've met you. The Ford's name is Dingo, but that's another story too. . . ."
"Still it's nice to meet somebody humanly young. There's nobody humanly young round New York."
His face was scarlet when he leaned to crank the car. "Oh I'm too damn young."
The motor sputtered, started with a roar. He jumped round and cut off the gas with a long hand. "We'll probably get arrested; my muffler's loose and liable to drop off."
At Thirtyfourth Street they passed a girl riding slowly through the traffic on a white horse; chestnut hair hung down in even faky waves over the horse's chalky rump and over the giltedged saddlecloth where in green letters pointed with crimson read Danderine.
"Rings on her fingers," chanted Stan pressing his buzzer, "And bells on her toes, And she shall cure dandruff wherever it grows."