My husband is in Atlantic City, where they are trying out “Dear Dora,” the musical version of “David Copperfield.” My husband wrote the score. He used to take me along for these out-of-town openings, but not any more.
He, of course, has to spend almost all his time in the theater and that leaves me alone in the hotel, and pretty soon people find out whose wife I am and introduce themselves, and the next thing you know they are inviting us for a week or a weekend at Dobbs Ferry or Oyster Bay. Then it is up to me to think of some legitimate-sounding reason why we can’t come.
In lots of cases they say, “Well, if you can’t make it the twenty- second, how about the twenty-ninth?” and so on till you simply have to accept. And Ben gets mad and stays mad for days.
He absolutely abhors visiting and thinks there ought to be a law against invitations that go beyond dinner and bridge. He doesn’t mind hotels where there is a decent light for reading in bed and one for shaving, and where you can order meals, with coffee, any time you want them. But I really believe he would rather spend a week in the death house at Sing Sing than in somebody else’s home.
Three or four years ago we went around quite a lot with a couple whom I will call the Buckleys. We liked them and they liked us. We had dinner together at least twice a week and after dinner we played bridge or went to a show or just sat and talked.
Ben never turned down their invitations and often actually called them up himself and suggested parties. Finally they moved to Albany on account of Mr. Buckley’s business. We missed them a great deal, and when Mrs. Buckley wrote for us to come up there for the holidays we were tickled pink.
Well, their guest-room was terribly cold; it took hours to fill the bathtub; there was no reading-lamp by the bed; three reporters called to interview Ben, two of them kittenish young girls; the breakfasts were just fruit and cereal and toast; coffee was not served at luncheon; the faucets in the wash-basin were the kind that won’t run unless you keep pressing them; four important keys on the piano were stuck and people were invited in every night to hear Ben play, and the Buckley family had been augmented by a tremendous police dog, who was “just a puppy and never growled or snapped at anyone he knew,” but couldn’t seem to remember that Ben was not an utter stranger.
On the fourth awful day Ben gave out the news—news to him and to me as well as to our host and hostess—that he had lost a filling which he would not trust any but his own New York dentist to replace. We came home and we have never seen the Buckleys since. If we do see them it will be an accident. They will hardly ask us there unless we ask them here, and we won’t ask them here for fear they would ask us there. And they were honestly the most congenial people we ever met.
It was after our visit to the Craigs at Stamford that Ben originated what he calls his “emergency exit.” We had such a horrible time at the Craigs’ and such a worse time getting away that Ben swore he would pay no more visits until he could think up a graceful method of curtailing them in the event they proved unbearable.
Here is the scheme he hit on: He would write himself a telegram and sign it with the name Ziegfeld or Gene Buck or Dillingham or George M. Cohan. The telegram would say that he must return to New York at once, and it would give a reason. Then, the day we started out, he would leave it with Irene, the girl at Harms’, his publishers, with instructions to have it sent to him twenty-four hours later.
When it arrived at whatever town we were in, he would either have the host or hostess take it over the telephone or ask the telegraph company to deliver it so he could show it around. We would put on long faces and say how sorry we were, but of course business was business, so good-by and so forth. There was never a breath of suspicion even when the telegram was ridiculous, like the one Ben had sent to himself at Spring Lake, where we were staying with the Marshalls just after “Betty’s Birthday” opened at the Globe. The Marshalls loved musical shows, but knew less than nothing about music and swallowed this one whole:
Shaw and Miss Miller both suffering from laryngitis Stop Entire score must be rewritten half tone lower Stop Come at once
CC. B. Dillingham.
If, miraculously, Ben had ever happened to be enjoying himself, he would, of course, have kept the contents of his message a secret or else displayed it and remarked staggeringly that he guessed he wasn’t going to let any so-and-so theatrical producer spoil his fun.
Ben is in Atlantic City now and I have read every book in the house and am writing this just because there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. And also because we have a friend, Joe Frazier, who is a magazine editor and the other day I told him I would like to try my hand at a short story, but I was terrible at plots, and he said plots weren’t essential; look at Ernest Hemingway; most of his stories have hardly any plot; it’s his style that counts. And he—I mean Mr. Frazier—suggested that I write about our visit to Mr. and Mrs. Thayer in Lansdowne, outside of Philadelphia, which Mr. Frazier said, might be termed the visit that ended visits and which is the principal reason why I am here alone.
Well, it was a beautiful night a year ago last September. Ben was conducting the performance—”Step Lively”—and I was standing at the railing of the Boardwalk in front of the theater, watching the moonlight on the ocean. A couple whom I had noticed in the hotel dining-room stopped alongside of me and pretty soon the woman spoke to me, something about how pretty it was. Then came the old question, wasn’t I Mrs. Ben Drake? I said I was, and the woman went on:
“My name is Mrs. Thayer—Hilda Thayer. And this is my husband. We are both simply crazy about Mr. Drake’s music and just dying to meet him personally. We wondered if you and he would have supper with us after the performance tonight.”
“Oh, I’m afraid that’s impossible,” I replied. “You see when they are having a tryout, he and the librettists and the lyric writers work all night every night until they get everything in shape for the New York opening. They never have time for more than a sandwich and they eat that right in the theater.”
“Well, how about luncheon tomorrow?”
“He’ll be rehearsing all day.”
“How about dinner tomorrow evening?”
“Honestly, Mrs. Thayer, it’s out of the question. Mr. Drake never makes engagements during a tryout week.”
“And I guess he doesn’t want to meet us anyway,” put in Mr. Thayer. “What use would a genius like Ben Drake have for a couple of common-no-account admirers like Mrs. Thayer and myself! If we were ‘somebody’ too, it would he different!”
“Not at all!” said I. “Mr. Drake is perfectly human. He loves to have his music praised and I am sure he would he delighted to meet you if he weren’t so terribly busy.”
“Can you lunch with us yourself?”
Well, whatever Ben and other husbands may think, there is no decent way of turning down an invitation like that. And besides I was lonesome and the Thayers looked like awfully nice people.
I lunched with them and I dined with them, not only the next day hut all the rest of the week. And on Friday I got Ben to lunch with them and he liked them, too; they were not half as gushing and silly as most of his “fans.”
At dinner on Saturday night, they cross-examined me about our immediate plans. I told them that as soon as the show was “over” in New York, I was going to try to make Ben stay home and do nothing for a whole month.
“I should think,” said Mrs. Thayer, “it would be very hard for him to rest there in the city, with the producers and publishers and phonograph people calling him up all the time.”
I admitted that he was bothered a lot.
“Listen, dearie,” said Mrs. Thayer. “Why don’t you come to Landsdowne and spend a week with us? I’ll promise you faithfully that you won’t be disturbed at all. I won’t let anyone know you are there and if any of our friends call on us I’ll pretend we’re not at home. I won’t allow Mr. Drake to even touch the piano. If he wants exercise, there are miles of room in our yard to walk around in, and nobody can see him from the street. All day and all night, he can do nothing or anything, just as he pleases. It will be ‘Liberty Hall’ for you both. He needn’t tell anybody where he is, but if some of his friends or business acquaintances find out and try to get in touch with him, I’ll frighten them away. How does that sound?”
“It sounds wonderful,” I said, “but----”
“It’s settled then,” said Mrs. Thayer, “and we’ll expect you on Sunday, October eleventh.”
“Oh, but the show may not be ‘set’ by that time,” I remonstrated.
“How about the eighteenth ?” said Mr. Thayer.
Well, it ended by my accepting for the week of the twenty- fifth and Ben took it quite cheerfully.
“If they stick to their promise to keep us under cover,” he said, “it may be a lot better than staying in New York. I know that Buck and the Shuberts and Ziegfeld want me while I’m 'hot’ and they wouldn’t give me a minute’s peace if they could find me. And of course if things aren’t as good as they look, Irene’s telegram will provide us with an easy out.”
On the way over to Philadelphia he hummed me an awfully pretty melody which had been running through his head since we left the apartment. “I think it’s sure fire,” he said. “I’m crazy to get to a piano and fool with it.”
“That isn’t resting, dear.”
“Well, you don’t want me to throw away a perfectly good tune! They aren’t so plentiful that I can afford to waste one. It won’t take me five minutes at a piano to get it fixed in my mind.”
The Thayers met us in an expensive-looking limousine.
“Ralph,” said Mrs. Thayer to her husband, “you sit in one of the little seats and Mr. and Mrs. Drake will sit back here with me.”
“I’d really prefer one of the little seats myself,” said Ben and he meant it, for he hates to get his clothes mussed and being squeezed in beside two such substantial objects as our hostess and myself was bound to rumple him.
“No, sir!” said Mrs. Thayer positively. “You came to us for a rest and we’re not going to start you off uncomfortable.”
“But I’d honestly rather----”
It was no use. Ben was wedged between us and throughout the drive maintained a morose silence, unable to think of anything but how terrible his coat would look when he got out.
The Thayers had a very pretty home and the room assigned to us was close to perfection. There were comfortable twin beds with a small stand and convenient reading-lamp between; a big dresser and chiffonier; an ample closet with plenty of hangers; a bathroom with hot water that was hot, towels that were not too new and faucets that stayed on when turned on, and an ash-tray within reach of wherever you happened to be. If only we could have spent all our time in that guest-room, it would have been ideal.
But presently we were summoned downstairs to luncheon. I had warned Mrs. Thayer in advance and Ben was served with coffee. He drinks it black.
“Don’t you take cream, Mr. Drake?”
“But that’s because you don’t get good cream in New York.”
“No. It’s because I don’t like cream in coffee.”
“You would like our cream. We have our own cows and the cream is so rich that it’s almost like butter. Won’t you try just a little?”
“But just a little, to see how rich it is.”
She poured about a tablespoonful of cream into his coffee-cup and for a second I was afraid he was going to pick up the cup and throw it in her face. But he kept hold of himself, forced a smile and declined a second chop.
“You haven’t tasted your coffee,” said Mrs. Thayer.
“Yes, I have,” lied Ben. The cream is wonderful. I’m sorry it doesn’t agree with me.”
“I don’t believe coffee agrees with anyone,” said Mrs. Thayer. “While you are here, not doing any work, why don’t you try to give it up ?”
“I’d be so irritable you wouldn’t have me in the house. Besides, it isn’t plain coffee that disagrees with me; it’s coffee with cream.”
“Pure, rich cream like ours couldn’t hurt you,” said Mrs. Thayer, and Ben, defeated, refused to answer.
He started to light a Jaguar cigaret, the brand he had been smoking for years.
“Here! Wait a minute!” said Mr. Thayer. “Try one of mine.”
“What are they ?” asked Ben.
“Trumps,” said our host, holding out his case. “They’re mild and won’t irritate the throat.”
“I’ll sample one later,” said Ben.
“You’ve simply got to try one now,” said Mrs. Thayer. “You may as well get used to them because you’ll have to smoke them all the time you’re here. We can’t have guests providing their own cigarets.” So Ben had to discard his Jaguar and smoke a Trump, and it was even worse than he had anticipated.
After luncheon we adjourned to the living-room and Ben went straight to the piano.
“Here! Here! None of that!” said Mrs. Thayer. “I haven’t forgotten my promise.”
“What promise?” asked Ben.
“Didn’t your wife tell you? I promised her faithfully that if you visited us, you wouldn’t be allowed to touch the piano.”
“But I want to,” said Ben. “There’s a melody in my head that I’d like to try.”
“Oh, yes, I know all about that,” said Mrs. Thayer. “You just think you’ve got to entertain us! Nothing doing! We invited you here for yourself, not to enjoy your talent. I’d be a fine one to ask you to my home for a rest and then make you perform.”
“You’re not making me,” said Ben. “Honestly I want to play for just five or ten minutes. I’ve got a tune that I might do something with and I’m anxious to run it over.”
“I don’t believe you, you naughty man!” said our hostess. “Your wife has told you how wild we are about your music and you’re determined to be nice to us. But I’m just as stubborn as you are. Not one note do you play as long as you’re our guest!”
Ben favored me with a stricken look, mumbled something about unpacking his suitcase—it was already unpacked—and went up to our room, where he stayed nearly an hour, jotting down his new tune, smoking Jaguar after Jaguar and wishing that black coffee flowed from bathtub faucets.
About a quarter of four Mr. Thayer insisted on taking him around the place and showing him the shrubbery, something that held in Ben’s mind a place of equal importance to the grade of wire used in hairpins.
“I’ll have to go to business tomorrow,” said Mr. Thayer, “and you will be left to amuse yourself. I thought you might enjoy this planting more if you knew a little about it. Of course it’s much prettier in the spring of the year.”
“I can imagine so.”
“You must come over next spring and see it.”
“I’m usually busy in the spring,” said Ben.
“Before we go in,” said Mr. Thayer, “I’d like to ask you one question: Do tunes come into your mind and then you write them down, or do you just sit at the piano and improvise until you strike something good ?”
“Sometimes one way and sometimes the other,” said Ben.
“That’s very interesting,” said Mr. Thayer. “I’ve often wondered how it was done. And another question: Do you write the tunes first and then give them to the men who write the words, or do the men write the words first and then give them to you to make up the music to them ?”
“Sometimes one way and sometimes the other,” said Ben.
“That’s very interesting,” said Mr. Thayer. “It’s something I’m glad to know. And now we’d better join the ladies or my wife will say I’m monopolizing you.”
They joined us, much to my relief. I had just reached a point where I would either have had to tell “Hilda” exactly how much Ben earned per annum or that it was none of her business.
“Well!” said Mrs. Thayer to Ben. “I was afraid Ralph had kidnapped you.”
“He was showing me the shrubbery,” said Ben.
“What did you think of it ?”
“It’s great shrubbery,” said Ben, striving to put some warmth into his voice.
“You must come and see it in the spring.”
“I’m usually busy in the spring.”
“Ralph and I are mighty proud of our shrubbery.” . ....
“You have a right to be.”
Ben was taking a book out of the bookcase.
“What book is that ?” asked Mrs. Thayer.
“‘The Great Gatsby,”’ said Ben. “I’ve always wanted to read it but never got around to it.”
“Heavens!” said Mrs. Thayer as she took it away from him. “That’s old! You’ll find the newest ones there on the table. We keep pretty well up to date. Ralph and I are both great readers. Just try any one of those books in that pile. They’re all good.” Ben glanced them over and selected “Chevrons.” He sat down and opened it.
“Man! Man!” exclaimed Mrs. Thayer. “You’ve picked the most uncomfortable chair in the house!”
“He likes straight chairs,” I said.
“That’s on the square,” said Ben.
“But you mustn’t sit there,” said Mrs. Thayer. “It makes me uncomfortable just to look at you. Take this chair here. It’s the softest, nicest chair you’ve ever sat in.”
“I like hard straight chairs,” said Ben, but he sank into the soft, nice one and again opened his book.
“Oh, you never can see there!” said Mrs. Thayer. “You’ll ruin your eyes! Get up just a minute and let Ralph move your chair by that lamp.”
“I can see perfectly well.”
“I know better! Ralph, move his chair so he can see.”
“I don’t believe I want to read just now anyway,” said Ben, and went to the phonograph. “Bess,” he said, putting on a record, “here’s that ‘ Oh! Miss Hannah! ’ by the Revelers.”
Mrs. Thayer fairly leaped to his side, and herded Miss Hannah back into her stall.
“We’ve got lots later ones than that,” she said. “Let me play yon the new Gershwins.”
It was at this juncture that I began to suspect our hostess of a lack of finesse. After all, Gershwin is a rival of my husband’s and, in some folks’ opinion, a worthy one. However, Ben had a word of praise for each record as it ended and did not even hint that any of the tunes were based on melodies of his own.
“Mr. Drake,” said our host at length, “would you like a gin cocktail or a Bacardi ?”
“I don’t like Bacardi at all,” said Ben.
“I’ll bet you will like the kind I’ve got,” said Mr. Thayer. “It was brought to me by a friend of mine who just got back from Cuba. It’s the real stuff!”
“I don’t like Bacardi,” said Ben.
“Wait till you taste this,” said Mr. Thayer.
Well, we had Bacardi cocktails. I drank mine and it wasn’t so good. Ben took a sip of his and pretended it was all right. But he had told the truth when he said he didn’t like Bacardi. I won’t go into details regarding the dinner except to relate that three separate items were highly flavored with cheese, and Ben despises cheese.
“Don’t you care for cheese, Mr. Drake ?” asked Mr. Thayer, noticing that Ben was not exactly bolting his food.
“No,” replied the guest of honor.
“He’s spoofing you, Ralph,” said Mrs. Thayer. “Everybody likes cheese.”
There was coffee, and Ben managed to guzzle a cup before it was desecrated with pure cream.
We sat down to bridge.
“Do you like to play families or divide up ?”
“Oh, we like to play together,” said I.
“I’ll bet you don’t,” said Mrs. Thayer. “Suppose Ralph and you play Mr. Drake and me. I think it’s a mistake for husbands and wives to be partners. They’re likely to criticize one another and say things that leave a scar.”
Well, Mr. Thayer and I played against Ben and Mrs. Thayer and I lost sixty cents at a tenth of a cent a point. Long before the evening was over I could readily see why Mrs. Thayer thought it was a mistake to play with her husband and if it had been possible I’d have left him a complete set of scars.
Just as we were getting to sleep, Mrs. Thayer knocked on our door.
“I’m afraid you haven’t covers enough,” she called. “There are extra blankets on the shelf in your closet.”
“Thanks,” I said. “We’re as warm as toast.”
“I’m afraid you aren’t,” said Mrs. Thayer.
“Lock the door,” said Ben, “before she comes in and feels our feet.”
All through breakfast next morning we waited in vain for the telephone call that would yield Irene’s message. The phone rang once and Mrs. Thayer answered, but we couldn’t hear what she said. At noon Ben signalled me to meet him upstairs and there he stated grimly that I might do as I choose, but he was leaving Liberty Hall ere another sun had set.
“You haven’t any excuse,” I reminded him.
“I’m a genius,” he said, “and geniuses are notoriously eccentric.”
“Geniuses’ wives sometimes get eccentric, too,” said I, and began to pack up.
Mr. Thayer had gone to Philadelphia and we were alone with our hostess at luncheon.
“Mrs. Thayer,” said Ben, “do you ever have premonitions or hunches ?”
She looked frightened. “Why, no. Do you?”
“I had one not half an hour ago. Something told me that I positively must be in New York tonight. I don’t know whether it’s business or illness or what, but I’ve just got to be there!”
“That’s the strangest thing I ever heard of,” said Mrs. Thayer. “It scares me to death!”
“It’s nothing you need be scared of,” said Ben. “It only concerns me.”
“Yes, but listen,” said Mrs. Thayer. “A telegram came for you at breakfast time this morning. I wasn’t going to tell you about it because I had promised that you wouldn’t be disturbed. And it didn’t seem so terribly important. But this hunch of yours puts the matter in a different light. I’m sorry now that I didn’t give you the message when I got it, but I memorized it and can repeat it word for word: ‘Mr. Ben Drake, care of Mr. Ralph Thayer, Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. In Nile song, second bar of refrain, bass drum part reads A flat which makes discord. Should it be A natural? Would appreciate your coming to theater tonight to straighten this out as harmony must he restored in orchestra if troupe is to be success. Regards, Gene Buck.’”
“It sounds silly, doesn’t it ?” said Ben. “And yet I have known productions to fail and lose hundreds of thousands of dollars just because an author or composer left town too soon. I can well understand that you considered the message trivial. At the same time I can thank my stars that this instinct, or divination, or whatever you want to call it, told me to go home.”
Just as the trainmen were shouting “Board!” Mrs. Thayer said:
“I have one more confession to make. I answered Mr. Buck’s telegram. I wired him. ‘Mr. Ben Drake resting at my home. Must not be bothered. Suggest that you keep bass drums still for a week.’ And I signed my name. Please forgive me if I have done something terrible. Remember, it was for you.”
Small wonder that Ben was credited at the Lambs’ Club with that month’s most interesting bender.
Published in Round-Up collection.