It was the biggest bed that both of them together could imagine. It was broader than it was long, and included all the exaggerated qualities of their combined disrespect for tradition in beds. There were shining black knobs and white enamel swoops like cradle rockers, and specially made covers trailing in disarray off one side on to the floor. David rolled over on his side; Alabama slid downhill into the warm spot over the mass of the Sunday paper.
“Can’t you make a little more room?”
“Jesus Chr—O Jesus,” groaned David.
“What’s the matter?”
“It says in the paper we’re famous,” he blinked owlishly.
Alabama straightened up.
“How nice—let’s see—”
David impatiently rustled the Brooklyn real estate and Wall Street quotations.
“Nice!” he said—he was almost crying, “nice! But it says we’re in a sanatorium for wickedness. What’ll our parents think when they see that, I’d like to know?”
Alabama ran her fingers through her permanent wave.
“Well,” she began tentatively. “They’ve thought we ought to be there for months.”
“— But we haven’t been.”
“We aren’t now.” Turning in alarm she flung her arms about David. “Are we?”
“I don’t know—are we?”
“Look in the paper and see.”
“Aren’t we silly?” they said.
“Awfully silly. Isn’t it fun—well, I’m glad we’re famous anyway.”
With three running steps along the bed Alabama bounced to the floor. Outside the window grey roads pulled the Connecticut horizons from before and behind to a momentous crossing. A stone minuteman kept the peace of the indolent fields. A driveway crawled from under the feathery chestnuts. Iron-weed wilted in the heat; a film of purple asters matted over their stalks. Tar melted in the sun along the loping roads. The house had been there for ever chuckling to itself in the goldenrod stubble.
New England summer is an Episcopal service. The land basks virtuously in a green and homespun stretch; summer hurls its thesis and bursts against our dignity explosively as the back of a Japanese kimono.
Dancing happily about, she put on her clothes, feeling very graceful and thinking of ways to spend money.
“What else does it say?”
“It says we’re wonderful.”
“So you see—” she began.
“No, I don’t see, but I suppose everything will be all right.”
“Neither do I—David, it must be your frescoes.”
“Naturally, it couldn’t be us, megalomaniac.”
Playing about the room in the Lalique ten o’clock sun, they were like two uncombed sealyhams.
“Oh.” wailed Alabama from the depths of the closet. “David, just look at that suitcase, and it’s the one you gave me for Easter.”
Exhibiting the grey pigskin she exposed the broad watery yellow ring disfiguring the satin lining. Alabama stared at her husband lugubriously.
“A lady in our position can’t go to town with a thing like that,” she said.
“You’ve got to see the doctor—what happened to it?”
“I lent it to Joan the day she came to bawl me out to carry the baby’s diapers in.”
David laughed conservatively.
“Was she very unpleasant?”
“She said we ought to save our money.”
“Why didn’t you tell her we’d spent it?”
“I did.” She seemed to feel that that was wrong so I told her we were going to get some more almost immediately.”
“What’d she say to that?” asked David confidently.
“She was suspicious; she said we were against the rules.”
“Families always think the idea is for nothing to happen to people.”
“We won’t call her up again—I’ll see you at five, David, in the Plaza lobby—I’m gonna miss my train.”
“All right. Good-bye, darling.”
David held her seriously in his arms. “If anybody tries to steal you on the train tell them you belong to me.”
“If you’ll promise me you won’t get run over—”
“Don’t we adore each other?”
Vincent Youmans wrote the music for those twilights just after the war. They were wonderful. They hung above the city like an indigo wash, forming themselves from asphalt dust and sooty shadows under the cornices and limp gusts of air exhaled from closing windows. They lay above the streets like a white fog off a swamp. Through the gloom, the whole world went to tea. Girls in short amorphous capes and long flowing skirts and hats like straw bathtubs waited for taxis in front of the Plaza Grill; girls in long satin coats and coloured shoes and hats like straw manhole covers tapped the tune of a cataract on the dance floors of the Lorraine and the St Regis. Under the sombre ironic parrots of the Biltmore a halo of golden bobs disintegrated into black lace and shoulder bouquets between the pale hours of tea and dinner that sealed the princely windows; the clank of lank contemporaneous silhouettes drowned the clatter of teacups at the Ritz.
People waiting for other people twisted the tips of the palms into brown moustache-ends and ripped short slits about their lower leaves. It was just a lot of youngness: Lillian Lorraine would be drunk as the cosmos on top of the New Amsterdam by midnight, and football teams breaking training would scare the waiters with drunkenness in the fall. The world was full of parents taking care of people. Debutantes said to each other “Isn’t that the Knights?” and “I met him at a prom. My dear, please introduce me.”
“What’s the use? They’re c-r-a-z-y about each other,” smelted into the fashionable monotone of New York.
“Of course it’s the Knights,” said a lot of girls. “Have you seen his pictures?”
“I’d rather look at him any day,” answered other girls.
Serious people took them seriously; David made speeches about visual rhythm and the effect of nebular physics on the relation of the primary colours. Outside the windows, fervently impassive to its own significance, the city huddled in a gold-crowned conference. The top of New York twinkled like a golden canopy behind a throne. David and Alabama faced each other incompetently—you couldn’t argue about having a baby.
“So what did the doctor say?” he insisted.
“I told you—he said “Hello!””
“Don’t be an ass—what else did he say?—We’ve got to know what he said.”
“So then we’ll have the baby,” announced Alabama, proprietarily.
David fumbled about his pockets. “I’m sorry—I must have left them at home.” He was thinking that then they’d be three.
“I said „Baby.“”
“We should ask somebody.”
“Who’ll we ask?”
Almost everybody had theories: that the Longacre Pharmacies carried the best gin in town; that anchovies sobered you up; that you could tell wood alcohol by the smell. Everybody knew where to find the blank verse in Cabell and how to get seats for the Yale game, that Mr Fish inhabited the aquarium, and that there were others besides the sergeant ensconced in the Central Park Police Station—but nobody knew how to have a baby.
“I think you’d better ask your mother,” said David.
“Oh, David—don’t! She’d think I wouldn’t know how.”
“Well,” he said tentatively, “I could ask my dealer—he knows where the subways go.”
The city fluctuated in muffled roars like the dim applause rising to an actor on the stage of a vast theatre. Two Little Girls in Blue and Sally from the New Amsterdam pumped in their eardrums and unwieldy quickened rhythms invited them to be Negroes and saxophone players, to come back to Maryland and Louisiana, addressed them as mammies and millionaires. The shopgirls were looking like Marilyn Miller. College boys said Marilyn Miller where they had said Rosie Quinn. Moving picture actresses were famous. Paul Whiteman played the significance of amusement on his violin. They were having the bread line at the Ritz that year. Everybody was there. People met people they knew in hotel lobbies smelling of orchids and plush and detective stories, and asked each other where they’d been since last time. Charlie Chaplin wore a yellow polo coat. People were tired of the proletariat—everybody was famous. All the other people who weren’t well known had been killed in the war; there wasn’t much interest in private lives.
“There they are, the Knights, dancing together,” they said, “isn’t it nice? There they go.”
“Listen, Alabama, you’re not keeping time,” David was saying.
“David, for God’s sake will you try to keep off my feet?”
“I never could waltz anyway.”
There were a hundred thousand things to be blue about exposed in all the choruses.
“I’ll have to do lots of work,” said David. “Won’t it seem queer to be the centre of the world for somebody else?’
“Very. I’m glad my parents are coming before I begin to get sick.”
“How do you know you’ll get sick?”
“That’s no reason.”
“Let’s go some place else.”
Paul Whiteman played “Two Little Girls in Blue” at the Palais Royal; it was a big expensive number. Girls with piquant profiles were mistaken for Gloria Swanson. New York was more full of reflections than of itself—the only concrete things in town were the abstractions. Everybody wanted to pay the cabaret checks.
“We’re having some people,” everybody said to everybody else, “and we want you to join us,” and they said, “We’ll telephone.”
All over New York people telephoned. They telephoned from one hotel to another to people on other parties that they couldn’t get there—that they were engaged. It was always tea-time or late at night.
David and Alabama invited their friends to throw oranges into the drum at the Plantation and themselves into the fountain at Union Square. Up they went, humming the New Testament and Our Country’s Constitution, riding the tide like triumphant islanders on a surf board. Nobody knew the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner”.
In the city, old women with faces as soft and ill-lit as the side-streets of Central Europe offered their pansies; hats floated off the Fifth Avenue bus; the clouds sent out a prospectus over Central Park. The streets of New York smelled acrid and sweet like drippings from the mechanics of a metallic night-blooming garden. The intermittent odours, the people and the excitement, suctioned spasmodically up the side-streets from the thoroughfares, rose in gusts on the beat of their personal tempo.
Possessing a rapacious, engulfing ego their particular genius swallowed their world in its swift undertow and washed its cadavers out to sea. New York is a good place to be on the upgrade.
The clerk in the Manhattan thought they weren’t married but he gave them the room anyway.
“What’s the matter?” David said from the twin-bed under the cathedral print. “Can’t you make it?”
“Sure. What time is the train?”
“Now. I’ve got just two dollars to meet your family,” said David searching his clothes.
“I wanted to buy them some flowers.”
“Alabama,” said David sententiously, “that’s impractical. You’ve become nothing but an aesthetic theory—a chemistry formula for the decorative.”
“There’s nothing we can do with two dollars anyway,” she protested in a logical tone.
“I s’pose not—”
Attenuated odours from the hotel florist tapped the shell of the velvet vacuum like silver hammers.
“Of course, if we have to pay the taxi—”
“Daddy’ll have some money.”
Puffs of white smoke aspired against the station skylight. Lights like unripe citrus fruits hung in the grey day from the steel rafters. Swarms and swarms of people passed each other coming up the stairway. The train clicked up with the noise of many keys turning in many rusty locks.
“If I’d only known it would be like that at Atlantic City,” they said—or, “Could you believe it, we’re half hour late?”—or, “The town hasn’t changed much without us,” they said, rustling their packages and realizing their hats were all wrong for wear in the city.
“There’s Mamma!” cried Alabama.
“Well, how do ye do—”
“Isn’t it a great city, Judge?”
“I haven’t been here since eighteen-eighty-two. There’s been considerable change since then,” said the Judge.
“Did you have a nice trip?”
“Where is your sister, Alabama?”
“She couldn’t come down.”
“She couldn’t come down,” corroborated David lamely.
“You see,” went on Alabama at her mother’s look of surprise, “the last time Joan came she borrowed my best suitcase to carry away wet diapers and since then we’ve—well, we haven’t seen her so much.”
“Why shouldn’t she?” the Judge demanded sternly.
“It was my best suitcase,” explained Alabama patiently.
“But the poor little baby,” sighed Miss Millie. “I suppose we can telephone them.”
“You will feel differently about things like that after you have children of your own,” said the Judge.
Alabama wondered suspiciously if her figure showed.
“But I can see how she felt about the suitcase,” continued Millie magnanimously. “Even as a baby, Alabama was particular like that about her own things—never wanted to share them, even then.”
The taxi steamed up the vaporous chute of the station runway.
Alabama didn’t know how to go about asking the Judge to pay the taxi—she hadn’t been absolutely sure of how to go about anything since her marriage had precluded the Judge’s resented direction. She didn’t know what to say when girls postured in front of David hoping to have him sketch them on his shirt front, or what to do when David raved and ranted and swore that it ruined his talent to have his buttons torn off in the laundry.
“If you children will get these suitcases into the train, I’ll pay the taxi,” said the Judge.
The green hills of Connecticut preached a sedative sermon after the rocking of the gritty train. The gaunt, disciplined smells of New England lawn, the scent of invisible truck gardens bound the air in tight bouquets. Apologetic trees swept the porch, insects creaked in the baking meadows widowed of their crops. There didn’t seem room in the cultivated landscape for the unexpected. If you wanted to hang anybody, reflected Alabama, you’d have to do it in your own back yard. Butterflies opened and shut along the roads like the flash of white in a camera lens. “You couldn’t be a butterfly,” they said. They were silly butterflies, flying about that way and arguing with people about their potentialities.
“We meant to get the grass cut,” began Alabama—“but—”
“It’s much better this way,” finished David. “It’s more picturesque.”
“Well, I like the weeds,” the Judge said amiably.
“They make it smell so sweet in the country,” Miss Millie added. “But aren’t you lonely out here at night?”
“Oh, David’s friends from college come out occasionally and sometimes we go into town.”
Alabama didn’t add how often they went into to New York to waste the extra afternoons sloshing orange juice through bachelor sanctuaries, droning the words to summer behind insoluble locks. They went there ahead, awaiting the passage of that progressive celebration that a few years later followed the boom about New York like the Salvation Army follows Christmas, to absolve themselves in the waters of each other’s unrest.
“Mister,” Tanka greeted them from the steps, “and Missy.”
Tanka was the Japanese butler. They couldn’t have afforded him without borrowing from David’s dealer. He cost money; that was because he constructed botanical gardens out of cucumbers and. floral displays with the butter and made up the money for his flute lessons from the grocery bills. They had tried to do without him till Alabama cut her hand on a can of baked beans and David sprained his painting wrist on the lawn mower.
The Oriental swept the floor in an inclusive rotation of his body, indicating himself as the axis of the earth. Bursting suddenly into a roar of disquieting laughter, he turned to Alabama.
“Missy, kin see you Jessy minute—Jessy minute, this way, please.”
“He’s going to ask for change,” thought Alabama uneasily following him to the side porch.
“Look!” said Tanka. With a gesture of negation, he indicated the hammock swung between the columns of the house where two young men lay uproariously asleep with a bottle of gin by their sides.
“Well,” she said hesitantly, “you’d better tell Mister—but not in front of the family, Tanka.”
“Velly careful,” nodded the Jap, making a shushing sound and barring his lips with his fingers.
“Listen, Mamma, I think you’d better come upstairs and rest before dinner,” suggested Alabama. “You must be tired after your trip.”
From the sense that she had nothing whatever to do with herself which radiated from the girl as she descended from her parents’ room David knew that something was wrong.
“What’s the matter?”
“Matter! There are drunks in the hammock. If Daddy sees that there’ll be hell to pay!”
“Send them away.”
“They can’t move.”
“My God! Tanka’ll just have to see that they stay outside until after dinner.”
“Do you think the Judge would understand?”
“I’m afraid so—”
Alabama stared about disconsolately.
“Well—I suppose there comes a moment when people must choose between their contemporaries and their families.”
“Are they in very bad shape?”
“Pretty hopeless. If we send for the ambulance, it would just make a scene,” she said tentatively.
The moire sheen of the afternoon polished the sterility of the rooms’ colonial picturesqueness and scratched itself on the yellow flowers that trailed the mantel like featherstitching. It was a priestly light curving in the dips and hollows of a melancholic waltz.
“I don’t see what we can do about it,” they agreed.
Alabama and David stood there anxiously in the quiet till the clang of a spoon on a tin waiter summoned them to dinner.
“I’m glad to see,” said Austin over the beets like roses, “that you have succeeded in taming Alabama a little. She seems to have become a very good housekeeper since her marriage.” The Judge was impressed with the beets.
David thought of his buttons upstairs. They were all off.
“Yes,” he said vaguely.
“David has been working very well out here,” Alabama broke in nervously.
She was about to paint a picture of their domestic perfections when a loud groan from the hammock warned her. Staggering through the dining-room door with a visionary air, the young man eyed the gathering. On the whole he was all there; just a little awry—his shirt tail was out.
“Good evening,” he said formally.
“I think your friend had better have some dinner,” suggested the baffled Austin.
The friend exploded in foolish laughter.
Miss Millie confusedly inspected Tanka’s flowery architecture. Of course, she wanted Alabama to have friends. She had always brought up her children with that in mind, but circumstances were, at times, dubious.
A second dishevelled phantom groped through the door; the silence was broken only by squeaky grunts of suppressed hysteria.
“He does that way because he’s been operated on,” said David hastily. The Judge bristled.
“They took out his larynx,” David added in alarm. His eyes wildly sought the protoplasmic face. Luckily, the fellows seemed to be listening to what he was saying.
“One’s mute,” Alabama explained with inspiration.
“Well, I’m glad of that,” answered the Judge enigmatically. His tone was not without hostility. He seemed chiefly relieved that any further conversation was precluded.
“I can’t speak a word,” burst from the ghost unexpectedly. “I’m mute.”
“Well,” thought Alabama, “this is the end. Now what can we say?”
Miss Millie was saying that salt air spoiled the table silver. The Judge faced his daughter implacable and reproving. The necessity for saying anything was dispelled by a weird and self-explanatory carmagnole about the table. It was not exactly a dance; it was an interpretive protest against the vertebrate state punctuated by glorious ecstatic paeans of rhythmic back-slappings and loud invitations to the Knights to join the party. The Judge and Miss Millie were generously included in the invitation.
“It’s like a frieze, a Greek frieze,” commented Miss Millie distractedly.
“It’s not very edifying,” supplemented the Judge.
Exhausted, the two men wobbled unsteadily to the floor.
“If David could lend us twenty dollars,” gasped the mass, “we were just going on to the roadhouse. Of course, if he can’t we’ll stay a little longer, maybe.”
“Oh,” said David, spellbound.
“Mamma,” said Alabama, “can’t you let us have twenty dollars till we can get to the bank tomorrow?”
“Certainly, my dear—upstairs in my bureau drawer. It’s a pity your friends have to leave; they seem to be having such a good time,” she continued vaguely.
The house settled. The cool chirp of the crickets like the crunching of fresh lettuce purged the living-room of dissonance. Frogs wheezed in the meadow where the goldenrod would bloom. The family group yielded itself to the straining of the night lullaby through the boughs of the oak.
“Escaped,” sighed Alabama as they snuggled together in the exotic bed.
“Yes,” said David, “it’s all right.”
There were people in automobiles all along the Boston Post Road thinking everything was going to be all right while they got drunk and ran into fireplugs and trucks and old stone walls. Policemen were too busy thinking everything was going to be all right to arrest them.
It was three o’clock in the morning when the Knights were awakened by a stentorian whispering on the lawn.
An hour passed after David dressed and went down. The noise rose in increasingly uproarious muffles.
“Well, then, I’ll take a drink with you if you’ll try to make a little less noise,” Alabama heard David say as she meticulously put on her clothes. Something was sure to happen; it was better to be looking your best when the authorities arrived. They must be in the kitchen. She stuck her head truculently through the swinging door.
“Now, Alabama,” David greeted her, “I would advise you to keep your nose out of this.” In a husky melodramatic aside he continued confidentially, “This is the most expedient way I could think of—”
Alabama stared infuriated over the carnage of the kitchen.
“Oh, shut up!” she yelled.
“Now listen, Alabama,” began David.
“It was you who said all the time that we should be so respectable and now look at you!” she accused.
“He’s all right. David’s perfectly all right,” the prostrate men muttered feebly.
“And what if my father comes down now? What’ll he have to say about this being all right?” Alabama indicated the wreckage. “What are all those old cans?” she demanded contemptuously.
“Tomato juice. It sobers you up. I’ve just been giving some to the guests,” explained David. “First I give them tomato juice and then I give them gin.”
Alabama snatched at the bottle in David’s hand. “Give me that bottle.” As he fended her off, she slid against the door. To save the noise of a crash in the hall, she precipitated her body heavily into the jamb. The swinging door caught her full in the face. Her nose bled jubilantly as a newly discovered oil well down the front of her dress.
“I’ll see if there’s a beefsteak in the icebox,” proffered David. “Stick it under the sink, Alabama. How long can you hold your breath?”
By the time the kitchen was in some kind of order, the Connecticut dawn drenched the countryside like a firehose. The two men staggered off to sleep at the inn. Alabama and David surveyed her black eyes disconsolately.
“They’ll think I did it,” he said.
“Of couse—it won’t make any difference what I say.”
“When they see us together you’d think they’d believe.”
“People always believe the best story.”
The Judge and Miss Millie were down early to breakfast. They waited amidst the soggy mountains of damp bloated cigarette butts while Tanka burnt the bacon in his expectation of trouble. There was hardly a place to sit without sticking to dried rings of gin and orange juice.
Alabama’s head felt as if somebody had been making popcorn in her cranium. She tried to conceal her bruised eyes with heavy coatings of face powder. Her face felt peeled under the mask.
“Good morning,” she said brightly.
The Judge blinked ferociously.
“Alabama,” he said, “about that telephone call to Joan—your mother and I felt that we’d better make it today. She will be needing help with the baby.”
Alabama had known this would be their attitude but she couldn’t prevent a cataclysmic chute of her insides. She had known that no individual can force other people for ever to sustain their own versions of that individual’s character—that sooner or later they will stumble across the person’s own conception of themselves.
“Well!” she said defiantly to herself, “families have no right to hold you accountable for what they inculcate before you attain the age of protestation!”
“And since,” the Judge continued, “you and your sister do not seem to be on the best of terms, we thought we would join her alone tomorrow morning.”
Alabama sat silently inspecting the debris of the night.
“I suppose Joan will stuff them with moralities and tales about how hard it is to get along,” she said to herself bitterly, “and neatly polish us off in contrast to herself. We’re sure to come out of this picture black demons, any way you look at it.”
“Understand,” the Judge was saying, “that I am not passing a moral judgement on your personal conduct. You are a grown woman and that is your own affair.”
“I understand,” she said. “You just disapprove, so you’re not going to stand it. If I don’t accept your way of thinking, you’ll leave me to myself. Well, I suppose I have no right to ask you to stay.”
“People who do not subscribe,” answered the Judge, “have no rights.”
The train that carried the Judge and Miss Millie to the city was lumbered with milk cans and the pleasant paraphernalia of summer in transit. Their attitude was one of reluctant disavowal as they said good-bye. They were going south in a few days. They couldn’t come back to the country again. David would be away seeing to his frescoes, and they thought Alabama would be better off at home during his absence. They were glad of David’s success and popularity.
“Don’t be so desolate,” said David, “We’ll see them again.”
“But it will never be the same,” wailed Alabama. “Our role will always be discounting the character they think we are from now on.”
“Hasn’t it always been?”
“Yes—but David, it’s very difficult to be two simple people at once, one who wants to have a law to itself and the other who wants to keep all the nice old things and be loved and safe and protected.”
“So,” he said, “I believe many people have found out before. I suppose all we can really share with people is a taste for the same kinds of weather.”
Vincent Youmans wrote a new tune. The old tunes floated through the hospital windows from the hurdy-gurdies while the baby was being born and the new tunes went the luxurious rounds of lobbies and grills, palm-gardens and roofs.
Miss Millie sent Alabama a box of baby things and a list of what must be done for bathing infants to pin on the bathroom door. When her mother got the telegram about Bonnie’s birth, she wired Alabama, “My blue-eyed baby has grown up. We are so proud.” It came through Western Union “glue-eyed”. Her mother’s letters asked her simply to behave; they implied that Alabama and David were wanton to a certain extent. As Alabama read them over she could hear the slow springs creaking in on the rusty croaking of the frogs in the cypress swamps at home.
The New York rivers dangled lights along the banks like lanterns on a wire; the Long Island marshes stretched the twilight to a blue Campagna. Glimmering buildings hazed the sky in a luminous patchwork quilt. Bits of philosophy, odds and ends of acumen, the ragged ends of vision suicided in the sentimental dusk. The marshes lay black and flat and red and full of crime about their borders. Yes, Vincent Youmans wrote the music. Through the labyrinthine sentimentalities of jazz, they shook their heads from side to side and nodded across town at each other, streamlined bodies riding the prow of the country like metal figures on a fast-moving radiator cap.
Alabama and David were proud of themselves and the baby, consciously affecting a vague boudant casualness about the fifty thousand dollars they spent on two years’ worth of polish for life’s baroque facade. In reality, there is no materialist like the artist, asking back from life the double and the wastage and the cost on what he puts out in emotional usury.
People were banking in gods those years.
“Good morning,” the bank clerks said in the marble foyers, “did you want to draw on your Pallas Athene?” and “Shall I credit the Diana to your wife’s account?”
It costs more to ride on the tops of taxis than on the inside; Joseph Urban skies are expensive when they’re real. Sunshine comes high to darn the thoroughfares with silver needles—a thread of glamour, a Rolls-Royce thread, a thread of O. Henry. Tired moons ask higher waves. Lustily splashing their dreams in the dark pool of gratification, their fifty thousand dollars bought a cardboard baby-nurse for Bonnie, a second-hand Marmon, a Picasso etching, a white satin dress to house a beaded parrot, a yellow chiffon dress to snare a field of ragged-robins, a dress as green as fresh wet paint, two white knickerbocker suits exactly alike, a broker’s suit, an English suit like the burnt fields of August, and two first-class tickets for Europe.
In the packing case a collection of plush teddy bears. David’s army overcoat, their wedding silver and four bulging scrapbooks full of all the things people envied them for were ready to be left behind.
“Good-bye,” they had said on steel station stairways. “Some day you must try our home brew,” or “The same band will play at Baden-Baden for the summer, perhaps we’ll see you there,” they said, or “Don’t forget what I told you and you’ll find the key in the same old place.”
“Oh,” groaned David from the depths of the bed’s sagacious enamel billows, “I’m glad we’re leaving.”
Alabama inspected herself in the hand-mirror.
“One more party,” she answered, “and I’d have to see Viollet-le-Duc about my face.”
David inspected her minutely.
“What’s the matter with your face?”
“Nothing, only I’ve been picking at it so much I can’t go to the tea.”
“Well,” said David blankly, “we’ve got to go to the tea—it’s because of your face that they’re having it.”
“If there’d been anything else to do, I wouldn’t have done the damage.”
“Anyway, you’re coming, Alabama. How would it look for people to say, „And how is your charming wife, Mr Knight?“ „My wife, oh, she’s at home picking at her face.“ How do you think I’d feel about that?”
“I could say it was the gin or the climate or something.”
Alabama stared woefully at her reflection. The Knights hadn’t changed much externally—the girl still looked all day long as if she’d just got up; the man’s face was still as full of unexpected lilts and jolts as riding the amusements on the Million-Dollar Pier.
“I want to go,” said David, “look at this weather! I can’t possibly paint.”
The rain spun and twisted the light of their third wedding anniversary to thin prismatic streams; alto rain, soprano rain rain for Englishmen and farmers, rubber rain, metal rain, crystal rain. The distant philippics of spring thunder hurtled the fields in thick convolutions like heavy smoke.
“There’ll be people,” she demurred.
“There’ll always be people,” agreed David. “Don’t you want to say good-bye to your beaux?” he teased.
“David! I’m much too much on their side to be very romantic to men. They’ve always just floated through my life in taxis full of cold smoke and metaphysics.”
“We won’t discuss it,” said David peremptorily.
“Discuss what?” Alabama asked idly.
“The somewhat violent compromises of certain American women with convention.”
“Horrors! Please let’s not. Do you mean to say that you’re jealous of me?” she asked incredulously.
“Of course. Aren’t you?”
“Terribly. But I thought we weren’t supposed to be.”
“Then we’re even.”
They looked at each other compassionately. It was funny, compassion under their untidy heads.
The muddy afternoon sky disgorged a white moon for tea-time. It lay wedged in a split in the clouds like the wheel of a gun-carriage in a rutted, deserted field of battle, slender, and tender and new after the storm. The brownstone apartment was swarming with people; the odour of cinnamon toast embalmed the entry.
“The master,” the valet pronounced as they rang, “left word, sir, to the guests that he was escaping, that they were to make themselves at home.”
“He did!” commented David. “People are always running all over the place to escape each other, having been sure to make a date for cocktails in the first bar outside the limits of convenience.”
“Why did he leave so suddenly?” asked Alabama disappointed. The valet considered gravely, Alabama and David were old clients.
“The master,” he decided to trust them, “has taken one hundred and thirty hand-woven handkerchiefs, the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, two dozen tubes of Frances Fox ointment and sailed. Don’t you find, sir, the luggage a bit extraordinary?”
“He might have said good-bye,” pursued Alabama petulantly. “Since he knew we were going and he wouldn’t see us for ages.”
“Oh, but he did leave word, Madam. „Good-bye,“ he said.”
Everybody said that they wished they could get away themselves. They all said they would be perfectly happy if they didn’t have to live the way they lived. Philosophers and expelled college boys, movie-directors and prophets predicting the end said people were restless because the war was over.
The tea party told them that nobody stayed on the Riviera in summer—that the baby would take cholera if they carried her into the heat. Their friends expected they’d be bitten to death by French mosquitoes and find nothing to eat but goat. They told them they’d find no sewage on the Mediterranean in summer and remembered the impossibility of ice in the highballs; there was some suggestion of packing a trunk with canned goods.
The moon slid mercurially along the bright mathematical lines of the ultra-modern furniture. Alabama sat in a twilit corner, reassuring herself of the things that made up her life. She had forgotten to give the Castoria to a neighbour. And Tanka could just as well have had the half-bottle of gin. If the nurse was letting Bonnie sleep at this hour at the hotel, she wouldn’t sleep on the boat—first-class passengers, midnight sailing, C deck, 35 and 37; she could have telephoned her mother to say good-bye but it would only have frightened her from so far away. It was too bad about her mother.
Her eyes strayed over the rose-beige living-room full of people. Alabama said to herself they were happy—she had inherited that from her mother. “We are very happy,” she said to herself, as her mother would have said, “but we don’t seem to care very much whether we are or not. I suppose we expected something more dramatic.”
The spring moonlight chipped the pavement like an ice pick; its shy luminosity iced the corners of the buildings with glittering crescents.
It would be fun on the boat; there’d be a ball and the orchestra would play that thing that goes “um—ah—um”—you know—the one Vincent Youmans wrote with the chorus explaining why we were blue.
The air was sticky and stuffy in the ship’s bar. Alabama and David sat in their evening clothes, sleek as two borzois on the high stools. The steward read the ship’s news.
“There’s Lady Sylvia Priestly-Parsnips. Shall I ask her to have a drink?”
Alabama stared dubiously about. There was nobody else in the bar. “All right—but they say she sleeps with her husband.”
“But not in the bar. How do you do, Madam?”
Lady Sylvia flapped across the room like an opaque protoplasm propelling itself over a sand-bank.
“I have been chasing you two over the entire boat,” she said, “we have word that the ship is about to sink, so they are giving the ball tonight. I want you for my dinner party.”
“You do not owe us a party. Lady Parsnips, and we are not the sort of people who pay steerage rates and ride in the honeymoon suite. So what is it?”
“I am quite altruistic,” she expostulated. “I’ve got to have somebody for the party, though I hear you two are quite mad about each other. Here’s my husband.”
Her husband thought of himself as an intellectual; his real talent was piano playing.
“I’ve been wanting to meet you. Sylvia here—that’s my wife—tells me you are an old-fashioned couple.”
“A Typhoid Mary of time-worn ideals,” supplied Alabama, “but I consider it only fair to tell you we are not paying any wine cheques.”
“Oh, we didn’t expect you to. None of my friends pay for us any more—I can’t trust them at all since the war.”
“It seems there’s going to be a storm,” said David.
Lady Sylvia belched. “The trouble with emergencies is,” she said, “that I always put on my finest underwear and then nothing happens.”
“I find the easiest way to provoke the unexpected is by deciding to sleep in pore-cream,” Alabama crossed her legs to above the table-top in a triangular check mark.
“My place in the sun of incalculability could be had with five Octagon soap wrappers,” said David emphatically.
“There are my friends,” interrupted Lady Sylvia. “These Englishmen were sent to New York to save them from decadence and the American gentleman is seeking refinements in England.”
“So we pool our resources and think we’ll be able to live out the trip.” They were a handsome quartet intent on portraying the romantic ends they anticipated.
“And Mrs Gayle’s joining us, aren’t you, dear?”
Mrs Gayle blinked her round eyes with conviction.
“I’d just love to, but parties nauseate my husband, Lady Sylvia. He really can’t stand them.”
“That’s all right, my dear, so do they me,” said Lady Sylvia.
“No more than the rest of us.”
“But more actively,” her ladyship insisted. “I’ve given parties in one room after another of my house till finally I had to leave because of the broken fixtures, there being no place left to read.”
“Why didn’t you have them mended?”
“I needed the money for more parties. Of course, I didn’t want to read—that was my husband. I spoil him so.”
“Boxing with the guests broke Sylvia’s lights,” added milord, “and she was very unpleasant about it, bringing me to America and back this way.”
“You loved the rusticity once you became accustomed to it,” said his wife decisively.
The dinner was one of those ship’s meals with everything tasting of salty mops.
“We must all have an air of living up to something,” Lady Sylvia directed, “to please the waiters.”
“But I do,” sang Mrs Gayle. “I really have to. There’s been so much suspicion of us about, that I’ve been afraid to have children for fear they’d be born with almond-shaped eyeballs or blue fingernails.”
“It’s one’s friends,” said Lady Sylvia’s husband. “They rope you into dull dinners, cut you on the Riviera, devour you in Biarritz, and spread devastating rumours about your upper bicuspids over the whole of Europe.”
“When I marry a woman she will have to avoid social criticism by dispensing with all natural functions,” said the American.
“You must be sure you dislike her to escape her condemnation,” David said.
“It’s approval you need to avoid,” said Alabama emphatically.
“Yes,” commented Lady Sylvia, “tolerance has reached such a point that there’s no such thing as privacy in relations any more.”
“By privacy,” said her husband, “Sylvia means something disreputable.”
“Oh, it’s all the same, my dear.”
“Yes, I suppose it actually is.”
“One is so sure to be outside the law these days.”
“There’s such a crowd behind the barn,” Lady Sylvia sighed, “one can’t find a place to show off one’s defence mechanism.”
“I suppose marriage is the only concept we can never fully work out of our system,” said David.
“But there are reports about that you two have made a success of your marriage.”
“We are going to present it to the Louvre,” Alabama corroborated. “It’s been accepted already by the French Government.”
“I thought for a long time that Lady Sylvia and I were the only ones who’d stuck together—of course, it’s more difficult when you’re not in the arts.”
“Most people feel nowadays that marriage and life do not go together,” said the American gentleman.
“But nothing does go with life,” echoed the Englishman.
“If you feel,” interrupted Lady Parsnips, “that we are now well enough established in the eyes of our public, we might have some more champagne.”
“Oh yes, it’s better to be well started on our dissolution before the storm begins.”
“I’ve never seen a storm at sea. I suppose it will be a fiasco after all they’ve led us to expect.”
“The theory is not to drown, I believe.”
“But, my dear, my husband says you’re safer on a boat than anywhere at all if you’re at sea when there’s a storm.”
“Oh, much better off.”
It began very suddenly. A billiard table crashed a pillar in the salon. The sound of splintering subdued the ship like a presage of death. A quiet, desperate organization pervaded the boat. Stewards sped through the corridors, hastily lashing the trunks to the wash basins. By midnight the ropes were broken and fixtures loosened from the walls. Water flooded the ventilators and sogged the passage and word went round that the ship had lost her radio.
The stewards and stewardesses stood in formation at the foot of the stairway. The strained faces and roving, self-conscious eyes of people whose routed confidence would lead you to believe that they are contemptuous of the forces which dissipate their superficial disciplinary strength to a more direct egotism, surprised Alabama. She’d never thought of training as being superimposed on temperaments, but as temperaments being fit to carry the burden of selfless routines.
“Everybody can share the worst things,” she thought as she dashed along the soggy corridors to her cabin, “but there’s almost nobody at the top. I s’pose that’s why my father was always so alone.” A heave threw her across from one berth to another. Her back felt as if it must be broken. “Oh God, can’t it stop rocking for a minute, before it goes down?”
Bonnie peered at her mother dubiously. “Don’t be „fraid,“” said the child.
Alabama was scared half to death.
“I’m not frightened, dear,” she said. “Bonnie, if you move from the berth you will be killed, so lie there and hold on to the sides while 1 look for Daddy.” Rocking and whipping with the ship, she clung to the rails. The faces of the personnel stared at her blankly as she passed, as if she had lost her mind.
“Why don’t they signal for the lifeboats?” Alabama shrieked hysterically in the calm face of the radio officer.
“Go back to your cabin,” he said. “No boat could be launched in a sea like this.”
She found David in the bar with Lord Priestly-Parsnips. The tables were massed one on top of the other; heavy chairs were bolted to the floor and bound with ropes. They were drinking champagne, sloshing it over the place like tilted slop pails.
“It’s the worst I’ve seen since I came back from Algiers. Then I literally walked on my cabin walls,” milord was saying placidly, “and then, too, the transport during the war was pretty bad. I thought we should certainly lose her for ages.”
Alabama crawled across the bar, lunging from one post to another. “David, you’ve got to come down to the cabin.”
“But, dearest,” he protested—he was fairly sober, more so than the Englishman, anyway— “what on earth can I do?”
“I thought we’d better all go down together—”
Launching herself along the room, she heard the Britisher’s voice trailing after her, “Isn’t it funny how danger makes people passionate? During the war—”
Frightened, she felt very second-rate. The cabin seemed to grow smaller and smaller as if the reiterant shocks were mashing in the sides. After a while she grew accustomed to the suffocation and the intestinal ripping. Bonnie slept quietly by her side.
There was nothing but water outside the porthole, no sky at all. The motion made her whole body itch. She thought all night that they would be dead by morning.
By morning Alabama was too sick and nervous to bear the stateroom any longer. David helped her along the rail to the bar. Lord Parsnips slept in a corner. A low conversation issued from the backs of two deep leather chairs. She ordered a baked potato and listened, wishing something would prevent the two men from talking. “I’m very antisocial,” she tabulated. David said all women were. “I guess so,” she thought resignedly.
One of the voices resounded with the conviction of learning. It had the tone with which doctors of mediocre intelligence expound the medical theories of more brilliant colleagues to their patients. The other spoke with the querulous ponderous-ness of a voice which is dominant only in the subconscious.
“It’s the first time I ever started thinking about things like that—about the people in Africa and all over the world. It made me think that men don’t know as much as they think they do.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, hundreds of years ago those fellows knew nearly as much about saving life as we do. Nature certainly looks after itself. You can’t kill anything that’s going to live.”
“Yes, you can’t exterminate anything that’s got a will to live. You can’t kill ’em!”
The voice grew alarmingly accusative. The other voice changed the subject defensively.
“Did you go to many shows in New York?”
“Three or four, and of all the trivial indecent things! You never get a thing to take away with you. There’s nothing to it,” the second voice welled in accusation.
“They’ve got to give the public what it wants.”
“I was talking to a newspaper man the other day and he said just that, and I told him just look at the Cincinnati Enquirer. They never carry a word of all this scandal and stuff, and it’s one of the biggest papers in the country.”
“It’s not the public—they have to take what they get.”
“Of course, I just go myself to see what’s doing.”
“I don’t go much myself—not more than three or four times a month.”
Alabama staggered to her feet. “I can’t stand it!” she said. The bar smelled of olive brine and dead ashes. “Tell the man I want the potato outdoors.”
Clinging to the rail, she reached the back sun parlour. A gigantic swish and suction burst over the deck. She heard the chairs go overboard. The waves closed like marble tombstones over her vision and opened again and no water showed. The boat floated precariously in the sky.
“Everything in America is like its storms,” drawled the Englishman, “or would you say we were in Europe?”
“Englishmen are never frightened,” she remarked.
“Don’t worry about Bonnie, Alabama,” said David. “She’s, after all, a child. She doesn’t feel things very much, yet.”
“Then it would be more horrible if anything should happen to her!”
“No. If I had to choose between the saving of you two theoretically, I’d take the proven material.”
“I wouldn’t. I’d save her first. She may be some wonderful person.”
“Maybe, but none of us are, and we know we’re not absolutely terrible.”
“Seriously, David, do you think we’ll get through?”
“The purser says it’s a Florida tidal wave with a ninety-mile wind—seventy’s a hurricane. The ship’s listing thirty-seven degrees. It won’t go over till we hit forty. They think the wind may drop. Anyway, we can’t do anything about it.”
“No. What do you think about?”
“Nothing. I’m ashamed to confess, I’ve been having too many fines. It’s made me sort of sick.”
“I don’t think, either. The elements are splendid—I don’t really care if we sink. I’ve grown very savage.”
“Yes, when we find we have to dispense with so much of ourselves to function, we do—to save the rest.”
“Anyway, there’s nobody in this boat or in any other gathering I have examined at first hand that it would matter a damn if they were lost.”
“You mean geniuses?”
“No. Links in that intangible thread of evolution which we call first science, then civilization—instruments of purpose.”
“As denominators to sense the past?”
“More to imagine the future.”
“Like your father?”
“In a way. He’s done his job.”
“So have the others.”
“But they don’t know it. Consciousness is the goal, I feel.”
“Then the direction of education should be to teach us to dramatize ourselves, to realize to the fullest extent the human equipment?”
“That’s what I think.”
“Well, its hooey!”
After three days the salon opened its doors again. Bonnie clamoured to see the ship’s movie.
“Do you think she ought to? I believe it’s full of sex-appeal,” Alabama said.
“Most certainly,” replied Lady Sylvia. “If I had a daughter, I’d send her to every performance so she should learn something useful for when she grew up. After all, it’s the parents who pay.”
“I don’t know what I think about things.”
“Nor I—but sex-appeal is in a class by itself, my dear.”
“Which would you rather have, Bonnie, sex-appeal, or a walk in the sun on the deck?”
Bonnie was two, priestess of obscure wisdoms and reverenced of her parents as if she were two hundred. The Knight household having exhausted the baby interest during the long months of weaning, her standing was that of a voting member.
“Bonnie walks afterwards,” the child responded promptly.
The air felt already very un-American. The sky was less energetic. The luxuriance of Europe had blown up with the storm.
Clamp—clamp—clamp—clamp, their feet fell on the resounding deck. She and Bonnie stopped against the rail.
“A ship must be very pretty passing in the night,” said Alabama.
“See the dipper?” pointed Bonnie.
“I see Time and Space wedded in painted static. I have seen it in a little glass case in a planetarium, the way it was years ago.”
“Did it change?”
“No, people just saw it differently. It was something different from what they were thinking all along.”
The air was salty, such beautiful air, from the ship’s rail.
“It’s the quantity makes it so beautiful,” thought Alabama. “Immensity is the most beautiful of all things.”
A shooting star, ectoplasmic arrow, sped through the nebular hypothesis like a wanton hummingbird. From Venus to Mars to Neptune it trailed the ghost of comprehension, illuminating far horizons over the pale battlefields of reality.
“It’s pretty,” said Bonnie.
“This will be in a case for your grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren.”
“Child’en’s child’en in a case,” commented Bonnie profoundly.
“No dear, the stars! Perhaps they will use the same case—externals seem to be all that survive.”
Clamp—clamp! Clamp—clamp! round the deck they went. The night air felt so good.
“You must go to bed, my baby.”
“There won’t be any stars when I wake up.”
“There will be others.”
David and Alabama climbed together to the prow of the boat. Phosphorescent, their faces gleamed in the moonlight. They sat on a coil of rope and looked back on the netted silhouette.
“Your picture of a boat was wrong; those funnels are ladies doing a very courteous minuet,” she commented.
“Maybe. The moon makes things different. I don’t like it.”
“It spoils the darkness.”
“Oh, but it’s so unhallowed!” Alabama rose to her feet. Contracting her neck, she pulled herself high on her toes.
“David, I’ll fly for you, if you’ll love me!”
“I can’t fly, but love me anyway.”
“Poor wingless child!”
“Is it so hard to love me?”
“Do you think you are easy, my illusive possession?”
“I did so want to be paid somehow, for my soul.”
“Collect from the moon—you’ll find the address under Brooklyn and Queens.”
“David! I love you even when you are attractive.”
“Which isn’t very often.”
“Yes, often and most impersonal.”
Alabama lay in his arms feeling him older than herself. She did not move. The boat’s engine chugged out a deep lullaby.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a passage like this.”
“Ages. Let’s have one every night.”
“I’ve composed a poem for you.”
Why am I this way. why am I that?
Why do myself and I constantly spat?
Which is the reasonable, logical me?
Which is the one who must will it to be?
David laughed. “Am I expected to answer that?”
“We’ve reached the age of caution when everything, even our most personal reactions, must pass the test of our intellects.”
“It’s very fatiguing.”
“Bernard Shaw says all people over forty are scoundrels.”
“And if we do not achieve that desirable state by then?”
“We’re spoiling our evening.”
“Let’s go in.”
“Let’s stay—maybe the magic will come back.”
“It will. Another time.”
On the way down they passed Lady Sylvia rapturously kissing a shadow behind a lifeboat.
“Was that her husband? It must have been true—that about their being in love.”
“A sailor—sometimes I’d like to go to a Marseille dance hall,” said Alabama vaguely.
“I don’t know—like eating rump steak, I suppose.”
“I would be furious.”
“You would be kissing Lady Sylvia behind the lifeboat.”
The orchestra blared out the flower duet from Madame Butterfly in the ship’s salon.
“There’s David for Mignonette
And somebody else lor the violette,”
“Are you artistic?” asked the Englishman.
“But you were singing.”
“Because I am happy to find that I am a very self-sufficient person.”
“Oh, but are you? How narcissistic!”
“Very. I am very pleased with the way I walk and talk and do almost everything. Shall I show you how nicely I can?”
“Then treat me to a drink.”
“Come along to the bar.”
Alabama swung off in imitation of some walk she had once admired. “But I warn you,” she said, “I am only really myself when I’m somebody else whom I have endowed with these wonderful qualities from my imagination.”
“But I shan’t mind that,” said the Englishman, feeling vaguely that he should be expectant. Anything incomprehensible has a sexual significance to many people under thirty-five.
“And I warn you that I am a monogamist at heart if not in theory,” said Alabama, sensing his difficulty.
“A theory that the only emotion which cannot be repeated is the thrill of variety.”
“Are you wise-cracking?”
“Of course. None of my theories work.”
“You’re as good as a book.”
“I am a book. Pure fiction.”
“Then who invented you?”
“The teller of the First National Bank, to pay for some mistakes he made in mathematics. You see, they would have fired him if he hadn’t got the money some way,” she invented.
“If it hadn’t been for him I should have had to go on being myself for ever. And then I shouldn’t have had all these powers to please you.”
“You would have pleased me anyway.”
“What makes you think so?”
“You are a solid person at heart,” he said seriously.
Afraid of having compromised himself, he added hastily, “I thought your husband promised to join us.”
“My husband is up enjoying the stars behind the third lifeboat on the left-hand side.”
“You’re kidding! You couldn’t know; how could you?”
“You are an outrageous faker.”
“Obviously. And I’m very fed up with myself. Let’s talk about you.”
“I meant to make money in America.”
“Everybody intends to.”
“I had letters.”
“You can put them in your book when you write it.”
“I am not a writer.”
“All people who have liked America write books. You will get neurosis when you have recovered from your trip, then you will have something that had so much better be left unsaid that you will try to get it published.”
“I should like to write about my travels. I liked New York.”
“Yes, New York is like a Bible illustration, isn’t it?”
“Do you read the Bible?”
“The book of Genesis. I love the part about God’s being so pleased with everything. I like to think that God is happy.”
“I don’t see how he could be.”
“I don’t either, but I suppose somebody has to feel every possible way about everything that happens. Nobody else claiming that particular attribute, we have accredited it to God—at least, Genesis has.”
The coast of Europe defied the Atlantic expanse; the tender slid into the friendliness of Cherbourg amidst the green and faraway bells and the clump of wooden shoes over the cobbles.
New York lay behind them. The forces that produced them lay behind them. That Alabama and David would never sense the beat of any other pulse half so exactly, since we can only recognize in other environments what we have grown familiar with in our own, played no part in their expectations.
“I could cry!” said David, “I want to get the band to play on the deck. It’s the most thrilling God-damned thing in the world — all the experiences of man lie there to choose from!”
“Selection,” said Alabama, “is the privilege for which we suffer in life.”
“It’s so magnificent! It’s glorious! We can have wine with our lunch!”
“Oh, Continent!” she apostrophized, “send me a dream!”
“You have one now,” said David.
“But where? It will only be the place where we were younger in the end.”
“That’s all any place is.”
“Soap-box orator! I could bowl a bomb through the Bois de Boulogne!”
Passing Lady Sylvia at the douane, she called to them from a heap of fine underwear, a blue hot-water-bag, a complicated electrical appliance, and twenty-four pairs of American shoes.
“You will come out with me tonight? I will show you the beautiful city of Paris to portray in your pictures.”
“No,” said David.
“Bonnie,” counselled Alabama, “if you walk into the trucks, they’ll almost certainly mash your feet, which would be neither „chic“ or „elegante“—France, I am told, is full of such fine distinctions.”
The train bore them down through the pink carnival of Normandy, past the delicate tracery of Paris and the high terraces of Lyon, the belfries of Dijon and the white romance of Avignon into the scent of lemon, the rustle of black foliage, clouds of moths whipping the heliotrope dusk—into Provence, where people do not need to see unless they are looking for the nightingale.
The deep Greek of the Mediterranean licked its chops over the edges of our febrile civilization. Keeps crumbled on the grey hillsides and sowed the dust of their battlements beneath the olives and the cactus. Ancient moats slept bound in tangled honeysuckle; fragile poppies bled the causeways; vineyards caught on the jagged rocks like bits of worn carpet. The baritone of tired medieval bells, proclaimed disinterestedly a holiday from time. Lavender bloomed silently over the rocks. It was hard to see in the vibrancy of the sun.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” said David. “It’s so utterly blue, except when you examine it. Then it’s grey and mauve and if you look closely, it’s harsh and nearly black. Of course, on close inspection, it’s literally an amethyst with opal qualities. What is it, Alabama?”
“I can’t see for the view. Wait a minute.” Alabama pressed her nose against the mossy cracks of the castle wall. “It’s really Chanel, Five,” she said positively, “and it feels like the back of your neck.”
“Not Chanel!” David protested. “I think it’s more robe de style. Get over there, I want to take your picture.”
“Yes. I guess we’ll have to let her in.”
“Look at Daddy, privileged infant.”
The child wooed its mother with wide incredulous eyes.
“Alabama, can’t you tilt her a little bit? Her cheeks are wider than her forehead and if you could lean her a little bit forward, she wouldn’t look so much like the entrance to the Acropolis.”
“Boo, Bonnie,” Alabama essayed.
They both toppled over in a clump of heliotrope.
“My God! I’ve scratched its face. You haven’t got any Mercurochrome with you, have you?”
She inspected the sooty whirlpools that formed the baby’s knuckles.
“It doesn’t seem to be serious, but we ought to go home and disinfect, I suppose.”
“Baby home,” Bonnie pronounced ponderously, pushing the words between her teeth like a cook straining a puree.
“Home, home, home,” she chanted tolerantly, bobbing down the hill on David’s arm.
“There it is, my dear. The Grand Hotel of Petronius and the Golden Isles.’ See?”
“I think, David, that maybe we should have gone to the Palace and the Universe. They have more palms in their garden.”
“And pass up a name like ours? Your lack of a historical sense is the biggest flaw in your intelligence, Alabama.”
“I don’t see why I should have to have a chronological mind to appreciate these white-powdered roads. We remind me of a troupe of troubadours, your carrying the baby like that.”
“Exactly. Please don’t pull Daddy’s ear. Have you ever seen such heat?”
“And the flies! I don’t know how people stand it.”
“Maybe we’d better move farther up the coast.”
“These cobbles make you feel as if you had a peg leg. I’m going to get some sandals.”
They followed the pavings of the French Republic past the bamboo curtains of Hyeres, past strings of felt slippers and booths of women’s underwear, past gutters flush with the lush wastage of the south, past the antics of exotic dummies inspiring brown Provencal faces to dream of the freedom of the Foreign Legion, past scurvy-eaten beggars and bloated clots of bougainvillea, dust and palms, a row of horse-cabs, the toothpaste display of the village coiffeur exuding the smell of Chypre, and past the caserne which drew the town together like a family portrait will a vast disordered living-room.
David deposited Bonnie in the damp cool of the hotel lobby on a pile of last year’s Illustrated London News.
Alabama poked her head into the bilious plush of the lace parlour.
“Madame Tussaud’s is deserted. I s’pose she’s out gathering material for her British comparison table so when she gets back to Paris she can say „Yes, but the clouds in Hyeres were a touch more battleship grey when I was there with the David Knights.“”
“She’ll give Bonnie a sense of tradition. I like her.”
“So do I.”
“Where’s Nanny?” Bonnie rolled her eyes in alarm.
“Darling! She’ll be back. She’s out collecting you some nice opinions.”
Bonnie looked incredulous.
“Buttons,” she said, pointing to her dress. “I want some orange jluice.”
“Oh, all right—but you’ll find opinions will be much more useful when you grow up.”
David rang the bell.
“Can we have a glass of orange juice?”
“Ah, Monsieur, we are completely desolated. There aren’t any oranges in summer. It’s the heat; we had thought of closing the hotel since one can have no oranges because of the weather. Wait a minute, I’ll see.”
The proprietor looked like a Rembrandt physician. He rang the bell. A valet de chambre, who also looked like a Rembrandt physician, responded.
“Are there any oranges?” the proprietor asked.
“Not even one,” the man responded with gloomy emphasis.
“You see. Monsieur,” the proprietor announced in a tone of relief, “there is not even one orange.”
He rubbed his hands contentedly—the presence of oranges in his hotel would certainly have caused him much trouble.
“Orange jluice, orange jluice,” bawled the baby.
“Where in the hell is that woman?” shrieked David.
“Mademoiselle?” the proprietor asked. “But she is in the garden, under an olive that is over one hundred years old. What a splendid tree! I must show you.”
He followed them out of the door.
“Such a pretty little boy,” he said. “He will speak French. I have spoke very good English before.”
Bonnie’s femininity was the most insistent thing about her.
“I’m sure you have,” said David.
Nanny had constructed a boudoir out of the springy iron chairs. Sewing was scattered about, a book, several pairs of glasses, Bonnie’s toys. A spirit lamp burned on the table. The garden was completely inhabited. On the whole, it might have been an English nursery.
“I looked on the menu, Madam, and there was goat again, so I just stopped in at the butcher’s. I’m making Bonnie a little stew. This is the filthiest place, if you’ll pardon me, Madam. I don’t believe we shall be able to stand it.”
“We think it is too hot,” Alabama said apologetically. “Mr Knight’s going to look for a villa farther up the coast if we don’t find a house this afternoon.”
“I’m sure we could be better pleased. I have spent some time in Cannes with the Horterer-Collins, and we found it very comfortable. Of course, in summer, they go to Deauville.”
Alabama felt, somehow, that they, perhaps, should have gone to Deauville—some obligation on their parts to Nanny.
“I might try Cannes,” David said impressed.
The deserted dining-room buzzed with the turbulent glare of midday in the tropics. A decrepit English couple teetered over the rubbery cheese and soggy fruit. The old woman leaned across and distantly rubbed one finger over Bonnie’s flushed cheeks.
“So like my little granddaughter,” she said patronizingly.
Nanny bristled. “Madam, you will please not to stroke the baby.”
“I wasn’t stroking the baby. I was only touching her.”
“This heat has upset her stomach,” concluded Nanny, peremptorily.
“No dinner. I won’t have my dinner,” Bonnie broke the long silence of the English encounter.
“I don’t want mine either. It smells of starch. Let’s get the real-estate man now, David.”
Alabama and David stumbled through the seething sun to the main square. An enchantment of lethargy overwhelmed the enclosure. The cabbies slept under whatever shade they could find, the shops were closed, no shadows broke the tenacious, vindictive glare. They found a sprawling carriage and managed to wake the driver by jumping on the step.
“Two o’clock,” the man said irritably. “I am closed till two o’clock!”
“Well, go to this address anyway,” David insisted. “We’ll wait.”
The cabby shrugged his shoulders reluctantly.
“To wait is ten francs an hour,” he argued disgruntled.
“All right. We are American millionaires.”
“Let’s sit on the robe,” said Alabama, “the cab looks full of fleas.”
They folded the brown army-issue blanket under their soaking thighs.
“Tiens! there is the Monsieur!” The cabby pointed indolently at a handsome meridional with a patch over one eye who was engrossed in removing the handle from his shop door directly across the way.
“We want to see a villa, the „Blue Lotus“, which I understand is for rent,” David began politely.
“Impossible. For nothing in the world is it barely possible. I have not had my lunch.”
“Of course. Monsieur will allow me to pay for his free time—”
“That is different,” the agent beamed expansively. “Monsieur understands that since the war things are different and one must eat.”
The rickety cab rolled along past fields of artichoke blue as spots of the hour’s intensity, through long stretches of vegetation shimmering in the heat like submarine growths. A parasol pine rose here and there in the flat landscape, the road wound hot and blinding ahead to the sea. The water, chipped by the sun, spread like a floor of luminous shavings in a workshop of light.
“There she is!” the man cackled proudly.
The “Blue Lotus” parched in a treeless expanse of red clay. They opened the door and stepped into the coolness of the shuttered hall.
“This is the master’s bedroom.”
On the huge bed lay a pair of batik pyjamas and a chartreuse pleated nightgown.
“The casualness of life in this country amazes me,” Alabama said. “They obviously just spent the night and went off.”
“I wish we could live like that, without premeditation.”
“Let’s see the plumbing.”
“But, Madame, the plumbing is a perfection. You see?”
A massive carved door swung open on a Copenhagen toilet-bowl with blue chrysanthemums climbing over the edge in a wild Chinese delirium. The walls were tiled with many-coloured fishing scenes of Normandy. Alabama tentatively tested the brass rod designed to operate these pictorial fantasies.
“It doesn’t work.” she said.
The man raised his eyebrows Buddhistically.
“But! It must be because we have had no rain! Sometimes when it doesn’t rain, there is no water.”
“What do you do if it doesn’t rain again all summer?” David asked, fascinated.
“But then. Monsieur, it is sure to rain,” the agent smiled cheerfully.
“And in the meantime?”
“Monsieur is unnatural.”
“Well, we’ve got to have something more civilized than this.”
“We ought to go to Cannes,” Alabama said.
“I’ll take the first train when we get back.”
David telephoned her from St-Raphael.
“Just the place,” he said, “for sixty dollars a month—garden, water works, kitchen stove, wonderful composition from the cupola—metal roofing of an aviation field, I understand—I’ll be over for you tomorrow morning. We can move right in.”
The day enveloped them in an armour of sunshine. They hired a limousine stuffy with reminiscences of state occasions. Paper nasturtiums fading in the cubism of a cut glass triangle obscured the view along the coast.
“Drive, drive, why can’t I drive?” Bonnie screamed.
“Because the gold sticks have to go there, and, David, you can get your easel back here.”
“Um—um—um,” the baby droned, content with the motion. “Nice, nice, nice.”
The summer ate its way into their hearts and crooned along the shaggy road. Tabulating the past, Alabama could find no real upheavals in spite of the fact that its tempo created the illusion that she lived in madcap abandon. Feeling so wonderful, she wondered why they had ever left home.
Three o’clock in July, and Nanny gently thinking of England from hilltops and rented motor cars and under all unusual circumstances, white roads and pines—life quietly humming a lullaby. Anyway, it was fun being alive.
“Les Rossignols” was back from the sea. The smell of tobacco flowers permeated the faded blue satin of the Louis XV parlour; a wooden cuckoo protested the gloom of the oak dining-room; pine needles carpeted the blue and white tiles of the balcony; petunias fawned on the balustrade. The gravel drive wound round the trunk of a giant palm sprouting geraniums in its crevices and lost itself in the perspective of a red-rose arbour. The cream calcimined walls of the villa with its painted windows stretched and yawned in the golden shower of late sun.
“There’s a summer-house,” said David proprietorily, “built of bamboo. It looks as if Gauguin had put his hand to landscape gardening.”
“It’s heavenly. Do you suppose there really is a rossignol?”
“Undoubtedly—every night on toast for supper.”
“Comme ca. Monsieur, comme ca,” Bonnie sang exultantly.
“Look! She can speak French already.”
“It’s a marvellous, marvellous place, this France. Isn’t it, Nanny?”
“I’ve lived here for twenty years, Mr Knight, and I’ve never got to understand these people. Of course, I haven’t had much opportunity to learn French, being always with the better class of family.”
“Quite,” said David emphatically. Whatever Nanny said sounded like an elaborate recipe for making fudge.
“The ones in the kitchen,” said Alabama, “are a present from the house agent, I suppose.”
“They are—three magnificent sisters. Perhaps the Three Fates, who knows?”
Bonnie’s babbling rose to an exultant yell through the dense foliage.
“Swim! Now swim!” she cried.
“She’s thrown her doll in the goldfish pool,” observed Nanny excitedly. “Bad Bonnie! To treat little Goldilocks that way.”
“Her name’s „Comme Ca“,” Bonnie expostulated. “Did you see her swimming?”
The doll was just visible at the bottom of the sleek green water.
“Oh, we are going to be so happy away from all the things that almost got us but couldn’t quite because we were too smart for them!” David grabbed his wife about the waist and shoved her through the wide windows on to the the floors of their new home. Alabama inspected the painted ceiling. Pastel cupids frolicked amidst the morning-glories and roses in garlands swelled like goitres or some malignant disease.
“Do you think it will be as nice as it seems?” she said sceptically.
“We are now in Paradise—as nearly as we’ll ever get—there’s the pictorial evidence of the fact,” he said, following her eyes.
“You know, I can never think of a rossignol without thinking of the Decameron. Dixie used to hide it in her top drawer. It’s funny how associations envelop our lives.”
“Isn’t it? People can’t really jump from one thing to another, I don’t suppose—there’s always something carried over.”
“I hope it’s not our restlessness, this time.”
“We’ll have to have a car to get to the beach.”
“Sure. But tomorrow we’ll go in a taxi.”
Tomorrow was already bright and hot. The sound of a Provencal gardener carrying on his passive resistance to effort woke them. The rake trailed lazily over the gravel; the maid put their breakfast on the balcony.
“Order us a cab, will you, daughter of this flowery republic?”
David was jubilant. It was unnecessary to be anything so dynamic before breakfast, commented Alabama privately with matinal cynicism.
“And so, Alabama, we have never known in our times the touch of so strong and sure a genius as we have before us in the last canvases of one David Knight! He begins work after a swim every day, and he continues until another swim at four o’clock refreshes his self-satisfaction.”
“And I luxuriate in this voluptuous air and grow fat on bananas and Chablis while David Knight grows clever.”
“Sure. A woman’s place is with the wine,” David approved emphatically. “There is art to be undone in the world.”
“But you’re not going to work all the time, are you?”
“I hope so.”
“It’s a man’s world,” Alabama sighed, measuring herself on a sunbeam. “This air has the most lascivious feel—”
The machinery of the Knights’ existence, tended by the three women in the kitchen, moved without protest through the balmy world while the summer puffed itself slowly to pompous exposition. Flowers bloomed sticky and sweet under the salon; the stars at night caught in the net of the pine tops. The garden trees said, “Whip—poor—will,” the warm black shadows said “Whoo—oo.” From the windows of “Les Rossignols” the Roman arena at Frejus swam in the light from the moon bulging low over the land like a full wineskin.
David worked on his frescoes; Alabama was much alone.
“What’ll we do, David,” she asked, “with ourselves?”
David said she couldn’t always be a child and have things provided for her to do.
A broken-down carry-all transported them every day to the beach. The maid referred to the thing as “la voiture” and announced its arrival in the mornings with much ceremony during their brioche and honey. There was always a family argument about how soon it was safe to swim after a meal.
The sun played lazily behind the Byzantine silhouette of the town. Bath-houses and a dancing pavilion bleached in the white breeze. The beach stretched for miles along the blue. Nanny habitually established a British Protectorate over a generous portion of the sands.
“It’s bauxite makes the hills so red,” Nanny said. “And, Madam, Bonnie will need another bathing costume.”
“We can get it at the Galeries des Objectives Perdues,” Alabama suggested.
“Or the Occasion des Perspectives Oublies,” said David.
“Sure. Or off a passing porpoise, or out of that man’s beard.”
Alabama indicated a lean burned figure in duck trousers with shiny ribs like an ivory Christ and faunlike eyes beckoning in obscene fantasy.
“Good morning,” the figure said formidably. “I have often seen you here.”
His voice was deep and metallic and swelled with the confidence of a gentleman.
“I am the proprietor of my little place. We have eating and there is dancing in the evenings. I am glad to welcome you to St-Raphael. There are not many people in the summer, as you see, but we make ourselves very happy. My establishment would be honoured if you would accept an American cocktail after your bath.”
David was surprised. He hadn’t expected a welcoming committee. It was as if they had passed a club election.
“With pleasure,” he said hastily. “Do we just come inside?”
“Yes, inside. Then I am Monsieur Jean to my friends! But you must surely meet the people, so charming people,” he smiled contemplatively and vanished in splinters on the sparkle of the morning.
“There aren’t any people,” Alabama said, staring about.
“Maybe he keeps them in bottles inside. He certainly looks enough like a genie to be capable of it. We’ll soon know.”
Nanny’s voice, ferocious in its disapproval of gin and genies, called Bonnie from over the sands.
“I said no! I said no! I said no!” The child raced to the water’s edge.
“I’ll get her, Nurse.”
The David Knights precipitated themselves into the blue dye after the child.
“You ought to come out a sailor, somehow,” Alabama suggested.
“But I’m being Agamemnon,” protested David.
“I’m a little teeny fish,” Bonnie contributed. “A lovely fish, I am!”
“All right. You can play if you want to. Oh my! Isn’t it wonderful to feel that nothing could disturb us now and life can go on as it should?”
“Perfectly, radiantly, gorgeously wonderful! But I want to be Agamemnon.”
“Please be a fish with me,” Bonnie inveigled. “Fishes are nicer.”
“Very well. I’ll be Agamemnon fish. I can only swim with my legs, see?”
“But how can you be two things at once?”
“Because, my daughter, I am so outrageously clever that I believe I could be a whole world to myself if I didn’t like living in Daddy’s better.”
“The salt water’s pickled your brain, Alabama.”
“Ha! Then I shall have to be a pickled Agamemnon fish, and that’s much harder. It has to be done without the legs as well,” Alabama gloated.
“Much easier, I should think, after a cocktail. Let’s go in.”
The room was cool and dark after the glare of the beach. A pleasantly masculine smell of dried salt water lurked in the draperies. The rising waves of heat outside gave the bar a sense of motion as if the stillness of the interior were a temporary resting place for very active breezes.
“Combs, yes we have no combs today,” Alabama sang, inspecting herself in the mildewed mirror behind the bar. She felt so fresh and slick and salty! She decided the part was better on the other side of her head. In the dim obliteration of the ancient mirror she caught the outline of a broad back in the stiff white uniform of the French Aviation. Gesticulating Latin gallantries, indicating first her, then David, the glass blurred the pantomime. The head of the gold of a Christmas coin nodded urgently, broad bronze hands clutched the air in the vain hope that its tropical richness held appropriate English words to convey so Latin a meaning. The convex shoulders were slim and strong and rigid and slightly hunched in the man’s effort to communicate. He produced a small red comb from his pocket and nodded pleasantly to Alabama. As her eyes met those of the officer, Alabama experienced the emotion of a burglar unexpectedly presented with the combination of a difficult safe by the master of the house. She felt as if she had been caught red-handed in some outrageous act.
“Permettez?” said the man.
“Permettez,” he insisted, “that means, in English, „permettez“ you see?”
The officer lapsed into voluble incomprehensible French.
“No understand,” said Alabama.
“Oui understand,” he repeated superiorily. “Permettez?” He bowed and kissed her hand. A smile of tragic seriousness lit the golden face, an apologetic smile—his face had the charm of an adolescent forced to enact unexpectedly in public some situation long rehearsed in private. Their gestures were exaggerated as if they were performing a role for two other people in the distance, dim spectres of themselves.
“I am not a „germe“,” he said astonishingly.
“Oui can see—I mean, it’s obvious,” she said.
“Regardez!” The man ran the comb effectively through his hair to demonstrate its functions.
“I’d love using it,” Alabama looked dubiously at David.
“This, Madame,” boomed Monsieur Jean, “is the Lieutenant Jacques Chevre-Feuille of the French Aviation. He is quite harmless and these are his friends, the Lieutenant Paulette et Madame, Lieutenant Bellandeau, Lieutenant Montague, who is a Corse, as you will see—and those over there are Rene and Bobbie of St-Raphael, who are very nice boys.”
The grilled red lamps, the Algerian rugs precluding the daylight, the smell of brine and incense gave Jean’s Plage the sense of a secret place—an opium den or a pirate’s cave. Scimitars lined the walls; bright brass trays set on African drumheads glowed in the dark corners; small tables encrusted with mother-of-pearl accumulated the artificial twilight like coatings of dust.
Jacques moved his sparse body with the tempestuous spontaneity of a leader. Back of his flamboyant brilliance stretched his cohort; the fat and greasy Bellandeau who shared Jacques’ apartment and had matured in the brawls of Montenegro; the Corse, a gloomy romantic, intent on his own desperation, who flew his plane so low along the beach in the hope of killing himself that the bathers could have touched the wings; the tall, immaculate Paulette followed continually by the eyes of a wife out of Marie Laurencin. Rene and Bobbie protruded insistently from their white beach clothes and talked in undertones of Arthur Rimbaud. Bobbie pulled his eyebrows and his feet were flat and silent butler’s feet. He was older and had been in the war and his eyes were as grey and desolate as the churned spaces about Verdun—during that summer, Rene painted their rainwashed shine in all the lights of that varied sea. Rene was the artistic son of a Provencal avocat. His eyes were brown and consumed by the cold fire of a Tintoretto boy. The wife of an Alsatian chocolate manufacturer furtively brooded over the cheap phonograph and pandered loudly to her daughter Raphael, burned black to the bone of her unforgotten, southern, sentimental origin. The white tight curls of two half-Americans in the early twenties, torn between Latin curiosity and Anglo-Saxon caution, hovered through the gloom like a cherub detail from a dark corner of the Renaissance frieze.
David’s pictorial sense rose in wild stimulation on the barbaric juxtapositions of the Mediterranean morning.
“So now I will buy the drinks, but they will have to be a Porto because I have no money, you see.” Despite Jacques’ grandiloquent attempts at English he made known his desires with whatever dramatic possibilities he found at hand for expansive gesture.
“Do you think he actually is a god?” Alabama whispered to David. “He looks like you—except that he is full of the sun, whereas you are a moon person.”
The Lieutenant stood by her side experimentally handling things that she had touched, making tentative emotional connections between their persons like an electrician installing a complicated fuse. He gesticulated volubly to David and pretended a vast impassivity to Alabama’s presence, to hide the quickness of his interest.
“And so I will come to your home in my aeroplane,” he said generously, “and I will be here each afternoon to swim.”
“Then you must drink with us this afternoon,” said David amused, “because now we’ve got to get back to lunch and there isn’t time for another.”
The rickety taxi poured them through the splendid funnels of Provencal shade and scrambled them over the parched stretches between the vineyards. It was as if the sun had absorbed the colouring of the countryside to brew its sunset mixtures, boiling and bubbling the tones blindingly in the skies while the land lay white and devitalized awaiting the lavish mixture that would be spread to cool through the vines and stones in the late afternoon.
“Look, Madam, at the baby’s arms. We shall want a sunshade certainly.”
“Oh, Nanny, do let her tan! I love these beautiful brown people. They seem so free of secrets.”
“But not too much. Madam. They say it spoils the skin for afterwards, you know. We must always think of the future, Madam.”
“Well, I personally,” said David, “am going to grill myself to a high-mulatto. Alabama, do you think it would be effeminate if 1 shaved my legs? They’d burn quicker.”
“Can I have a boat?” Bonnie’s eyes roved the horizon.
“The Aquitania, if you like, when I’ve finished my next picture.”
“It’s too demode,” Alabama joined in, “I want a nice beautiful Italian liner with gallons of the Bay of Naples in the hold.”
“Reversion to type,” David said, “you’ve gone Southern again—but if I catch you making eyes at that young Dionysus, I’ll wring his neck, I warn you.”
“No danger. I can’t even speak intelligibly to him.”
A lone fly beat its brains against the light over the unsteady lunch table; it was a convertible billiard table. The holes in the felt top stuck up in bumps through the cloth. The Graves Monopole Sec was green and tepid and unappetizing coloured by blue wineglasses. There were pigeons cooked with olives for lunch. They smelled of a barnyard in the heat.
“Maybe it would be nicer to eat in the garden,” suggested David.
“We should be devoured by insects,” said Nanny.
“It does seem silly to be uncomfortable in this lovely country,” agreed Alabama. Things were so nice when we first came.”
“Well, they get worse and more expensive all the time. Did you ever find out how much a kilo is?”
“It’s two pounds, I believe.”
“Then,” stormed David, “we can’t have eaten fourteen kilos of butter in a week.”
“Maybe its haif-a-pound,” said Alabama apologetically. “I hope you’re not going to spoil things over a kilo—”
“You have to be very careful. Madam, in dealing with the French.”
“I don’t see why,” expostulated David, “when you complain of having nothing to do, you can’t run this house satisfactorily.”
“What do you expect me to do? Every time F try to talk to the cook she scuttles down the cellar stairs and adds a hundred francs to the bill.”
“Well—if there’s pigeon again tomorrow I’m not coming to lunch,” David threatened. “Something has got to be done.”
“Madam,” said Nanny, “have you seen the new bicycles the help have bought since we arrived here?”
“Miss Meadow,” David interrupted abruptly, “would you mind helping Mrs Knight with the accounts?”
Alabama wished David wouldn’t drag Nanny in. She wanted to think about how brown her legs were going to be and how the wine would have tasted if it had been cold.
“It’s the Socialists, Mr Knight. They’re ruining the country. We shall have another war if they aren’t careful. Mr Horterer-Collins used to say—”
Nanny’s clear voice went on and on. It was impossible to miss a word of the clear enunciation.
“That’s sentimental tommyrot,” David retorted irritably. “The Socialists are powerful because the country is in a mess already. Cause and effect.”
“I beg your pardon, sir, the Socialists caused the war, really, and now—” The crisp syllables expounded Nanny’s unlimited political opinions.
In the cool of the bedroom where they were supposed to be resting, Alabama protested.
“We can’t have that every day,” she said. “Do you think she’s gonna talk like that through every meal?”
“We can have them eat upstairs at night. I suppose she’s lonely. She’s been just sitting by herself on the beach every morning.”
“But it’s awful, David!”
“I know—but you needn’t complain. Suppose you had to be thinking of composition while it was going on. She’ll find somebody to unload herself on. Then it will be better. We mustn’t let externals ruin our summer.”
Alabama wandered in idleness from one room to another of the house; usually only the distant noise of a functioning menage interrupted the solitude. This last noise was the worst of all—a fright. The villa must be falling to pieces.
She rushed to the balcony; David’s head appeared in the window.
The beating, drumming whirr of an aeroplane sounded above the villa. The plane was so low that they could see the gold of Jacques’ hair shining through the brown net about his head. The plane swooped malevolently as a bird of prey and soared off in a tense curve, high into the blue. Banking swiftly back, the wings glittering in the sun, it dropped in a breathless spiral, almost touching the tile roof. As the plane straightened itself, they saw Jacques wave with one hand and drop a small package in the garden.
“That damn fool will kill himself! It gives me heart failure,” protested David.
“He must be terribly brave,” said Alabama dreamily.
“Vain, you mean,” he expostulated.
“Voila! Madame, Voila! Voila! Voila!”
The excited maid presented the brown dispatch box to Alabama. There was no thought in the French fastnesses of her mind that it might have been for the masculine element of the family that a machine would fly so dangerously low to leave a message.
Alabama opened the box. On a leaf of squared notebook paper was written diagonally in blue pencil “Toutes mes amities du haut de mon avion. Jacques Chevre-Feuille.”
“What do you suppose it means?” Alabama asked.
“Just greetings,” David said. “Why don’t you get a French dictionary?”
Alabama stopped that afternoon at the librairie on the way to the beach. From rows of yellow-paper volumes she chose a dictionary and Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel in French to teach herself the language.
Beginning at four by prearrangement, the breeze blew a blue path through sea-drenched shadows at Jean’s. A three-piece version of a jazz band protested the swoop of the rising tide with the melancholia of American popular music. A triumphant rendering of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” brought several couples to their feet. Bellendeau danced in mock coquetry with the lugubrious Corsican; Paulette and Madame hurtled wildly through the intricacies of what they believed to be an American fox-trot.
“Their feet look like a tightrope walker’s gymnastics,” commented David.
“It looks fun. I’m going to learn to do it.”
“You’ll have to give up cigarettes and coffee.”
“I suppose. Will you teach me to do that, Monsieur Jacques?”
“I am a bad dancer. I have only danced with men in Marseille. It it not for real men, dancing well.”
Alabama didn’t understand his French. It didn’t make any difference. The man’s valvating golden eyes drew her back and forth, back and forth obviously through the great Republic’s lack of bananas.
“You like France?”
“I love France.”
“You cannot love France,” he said pretentiously, “to love France you must love a Frenchman.”
Jacques’ English was more adequate about love than about anything else. He pronounced the word “lahve” and emphasized it roundly as if he were afraid of its escaping him.
“I have bought a dictionary,” he said. “I will learn English.”
“I’m learning French,” she said, “so I can love France more articulately.”
“You must see Arles. My mother was an Arlesienne,” he confided. “The Arlesienne women are very beautiful.”
The sad romanticism in his voice reduced the world to ineffable inconsequence. Together they skimmed the boom of the blue sea and gazed out over the tip of the blue horizon.
“I’m sure,” she murmured—what about, she had forgotten.
“And your mother?” he asked.
“My mother is old. She is very gentle. She spoiled me and gave me everything I wanted. Crying for things I couldn’t have grew to be quite characteristic of me.”
“Tell me about when you were a little girl,” he said tenderly.
The music stopped. He drew her body against him till she felt the blades of his bones carving her own. He was bronze and smelled of the sand and sun; she felt him naked underneath the starched linen. She didn’t think of David. She hoped he hadn’t seen; she didn’t care. She felt as if she would like to be kissing Jacques Chevre-Feuille on the top of the Arc de Triomphe. Kissing the white-linen stranger was like embracing a lost religious rite.
Nights after dinner David and Alabama drove into St-Raphael. They bought a little Renault. Only the facade of the town was illuminated like a shallow stage-set to cover a change of scene. The moon excavated fragile caverns under the massive plane trees back from the water. The village band played “Faust” and merry-go-round waltzes in a round pavilion by the sea. An itinerant street fair pitched its panoplies and the young Americans and the young officers swung into the southern heavens on the cable swings of chevaux de bois.
“A breeding place for whooping cough, that square, Madam,” Nanny admonished.
She and Bonnie waited in the car to avoid the germs or took slow walks in the swept place before the station. Bonnie became intractable and howled so lustily for the night life of the fair that finally they had to leave the nurse and child at home in the evenings.
Every night they met Jacques and his friends at the Cafe de la Flotte. The young men were uproarious and drank many beers and Portos and even champagne when David was paying, addressing the waiters boisterously as “Amiraux”. Rend drove his yellow Citroen up the steps of the Hotel Continental. The fliers were Royalists. Some were painters and some tried to write when they weren’t flying their aeroplanes and all were amateurs of garrison life. For flying at night they got extra pay. The red and green lights of Jacques and Paulette swept over the sea front in aerial fete very often. Jacques hated David to pay for his drinks and Paulette needed the money—he and Madame had a baby in Algiers with his parents.
The Riviera is a seductive place. The blare of the beaten blue and those white palaces shimmering under the heat accentuates things. That was before the days when High Potentates of the Train Bleu, First Muck-a-mucks of the Biarritz-Backs and Dictators-in-Chief to interior decorators employed its blue horizons for binding their artistic enterprises. A small horde of people wasted their time being happy and wasted their happiness being time beside the baked palms and vines brittlely clawing the clay banks.
Alabama read Henry James in the long afternoons. She read Robert Hugh Benson and Edith Wharton and Dickens while David worked. The Riviera afternoons are long and still and full of a consciousness of night long before evening falls. Boatloads of bright backs and the rhythmic chugging of motor launches tow the summer over the water.
“What can I do with myself,” she thought restlessly. She tried to make a dress; it was a failure.
Desultorily, she asserted herself on Nanny. “I think Bonnie is getting too much starch in her food,” she said authoritatively.
“I do not think so, Madam,” Nanny answered curtly. “No child of mine in twenty years has ever got too much starch.”
Nanny took the matter of the starch to David.
“Can’t you at least not interfere, Alabama?” he said. “Peace is absolutely essential to my work at present.”
When she was a child and the days slipped lazily past in the same indolent fashion, she had not thought of life as furnishing up the slow uneventful sequence, but of the Judge as meting it out that way, curtailing the excitement she considered was her due. She began to blame David for the monotony.
“Well, why don’t you give a party?” he suggested.
“Who’ll we ask?”
“I don’t know—the real-estate lady and the Alsatian.”
“They’re all right if you think of them as Matisse.”
The women were too bourgeoise to accept. The rest of the party met in the Knights’ garden and drank Cinzano. Madame Paulette plucked the lilt of “Pas Sur la Bouche” from the tinny teakwood piano. The French talked volubly and incomprehensively to David and Alabama about the works of Fernand Leger and Rene Crevel. They bent from the waist as they spoke and were strained and formal in acknowledgement of the oddity of their presence there—all but Jacques. He dramatized his unhappy attraction to David’s wife.
“Aren’t you afraid when you do stunts?” Alabama asked.
“I am afraid whenever I go in my aeroplane. That is why I like it,” he answered defiantly.
If the sisters of the kitchen were wanting on week-days they rose like July fireworks to special occasions. Venomous lobsters writhed in traps of celery, salads fresh as an Easter card sprouted in mayonnaise fields. The table was insistently wreathed in smilax; there was even ice, Alabama confirmed, on the cement floor of the basement.
Madame Paulette and Alabama were the only women. Paulette held himself aloof and watchful of his wife. He seemed to feel that dining with Americans was as risque a thing to do as attending the Quatre-Arts ball.
“Ah, oui,” smiled Madame, “mais oui, certainement oui, et puis o—u—i.” It was like the chorus of a Mistinguett song.
“But in Monte-Negro—you know Monte-Negro, of course?” said the Corse—“all the men wear corsets.”
Somebody poked Bellandeau about the ribs.
Jacques kept his eyes fastened disconsolately on Alabama.
“In the French Navy,” he declaimed, “the Commandant is glad, proud to sink with his ship.—I am an officer of the French Marine!”
The party soared on the babble of French phrases senseless to Alabama; her mind drifted inconsequently.
“Do let me offer you a taste of the Doge’s dress,” she said, dipping into the currant jelly, “or a nice spoonful of Rembrandt?”
They sat in the breeze on the balcony and talked of America and Indo-Chine and France and listened to the screech and moan of night-birds out of the darkness. The unjubilant moon was tarnished with much summer use in the salt air and the shadows black and communicative. A cat clambered over the balcony. It was very hot.
Rene and Bobbie went for ammonia to keep off the mosquitoes; Bellandeau went to sleep; Paulette went home with his wife, careful of his French proprieties. The ice melted on the pantry floor; they cooked eggs in the blackened iron pans of the kitchen. Alabama and David and Jacques drove in the copper dawn to Agay against the face of the cool golden morning into the patterns of the creamy sun on the pines and the white odours of closing flowers of the night.
“Those are the caves of Neathandral man,” David said, pointing to the purple hollows in the hills.
“No,” said Jacques, “it was at Grenoble that they found the remains.”
Jacques drove the Renault. He drove it like an aeroplane, with much speed and grinding and protesting tensions scattering echoes of the dawn like swarms of migrating birds.
“If this car were my own I’d drive into the ocean,” he said. They sped down the dim obliteration of Provence to the beach, following the languorously stretching road where it crinkled the hills like rumpled bed-clothes.
It was going to cost five hundred francs at least to get the car repaired, thought David, as he deposited Jacques and Alabama at the pavilion to swim.
David went home to work till the light changed—he insisted he couldn’t paint anything but exteriors in the noon light of the Midi. He walked to the beach to join Alabama for a quick plunge before lunch. He found her and Jacques sitting in the sand like a couple of—well a couple of something, he said to himself distastefully. They were as wet and smooth as two cats who had been licking themselves. David was hot from the walk. The sun in the perspiration of his neck stung like a nettled collar.
“Will you go in with me again?” He felt he had to say something.
“Oh, David—it’s awfully chilly this morning. There’s going to be a wind.” Alabama employed an expletive tone as if she were brooking a child’s unwelcome interruption.
David swam self-consciously alone, looking back at the two figures glittering in the sun side-by-side.
“They are the two most presumptuous people I have ever seen,” he said to himself angrily.
The water was already cold from the wind. The slanting rays of the sun cut the Mediterranean to many silver slithers and served it up on the deserted beach. As David left them to dress he saw Jacques lean over and whisper to Alabama through the first gusts of a mistral. He could not hear what they were saying.
“You’ll come?” Jacques whispered.
“Yes—I don’t know. Yes,” she said.
When David came out of the cabin the blowing sand stung his eyes. Tears were pouring over Alabama’s cheeks, strained till the deep tan glowed yellow on her cheek bones. She tried to blame it on the wind.
“You’re sick, Alabama, insane. If you see that man any more. I’ll leave you here and go back to America alone.”
“You can’t do that.”
“You’ll see if I can’t!” he said threateningly.
She lay in the sand in the smarting wind, miserable.
“I’m going—he can take you home in his aeroplane,” David strode off. She heard the Renault leave. The water shone like a metal reflector under the cold white clouds.
Jacques came; he brought a Porto.
“I have been to get you a taxi,” he said. “If you like, I will not come here again.”
“If I do not come to your apartment day after tomorrow when he goes to Nice, you must not come again.”
“Yes—” He waited to serve her. “What will you say to your husband?”
“I’ll have to tell him.”
“It would be unwise,” said Jacques in alarm. “We must hang on to our benefits—”
The afternoon was harsh and blue. The wind swept cold clots of dust about the house. You could hardly hear yourself speaking out of doors.
“We don’t need to go to the beach after lunch, Nanny. It’s too cold to swim.”
“But, Madam, Bonnie gets so restless with this wind. I think we should go. Madam, if you don’t mind. We needn’t bathe—it makes a change, you know. Mr Knight was willing to take us.”
There was nobody at all on the plage. The crystalline air parched her lips. Alabama lay sunning herself, but the wind blew the sun away before it warmed her body. It was unfriendly.
Rene and Bobbie strolled out of the bar.
“Hello,” said David shortly.
They sat down as if they shared some secret that might concern the Knight family.
“Have you noticed the flag?” said Rene.
Alabama turned in the direction of the aviation field.
The flag blew rigidly out at half-mast over the metallic cubistic roofs, brilliant in the thin light.
“Somebody is killed,” Rene went on. “A soldier say it is Jacques—flying in this mistral.”
Alabama’s world grew very silent as if it had stopped, as if an awful collision of astral bodies were imminent.
She rose vaguely. “I’ve got to go,” she said quietly. She felt cold and sick at her stomach. David followed her to the car.
He slammed the Renault angrily into gear. It wouldn’t go any faster.
“Can we go in?” he said to the sentry.
“There has been an accident—Could you tell me who it is?”
“It is against the rules.”
In the glare of a white sandy stretch before the walls, an avenue of oleanders bent behind the man in the mistral.
“We are interested to know if it was the Lieutenant Chevre-Feuille.”
The man scrutinized Alabama’s miserable face.
“That, Monsieur—I will see,” he said at last.
They waited interminably in the malevolent gusts of the wind.
The sentry returned. Courageous and proprietary, Jacques swung along behind him to the car, part of the sun and part of the French aviation and part of the blue and the white collar of the beach, part of Provence and the brown people living by the rigid discipline of necessity, part of the pressure of life itself.
“Bonjour,” he said. He took her hand firmly as if he were dressing a wound.
Alabama was crying to herself.
“We had to know,” said David tensely as he started the car—“but my wife’s tears are for me.”
Suddenly David lost his temper.
“God-damn it!” he shouted. “Will you fight this out?”
Jacques spoke steadily into Alabama’s face.
“I cannot fight,” he said gently. “I am much stronger than he.”
His hands gripping the side of the Renault were like iron mitts.
Alabama tried to see him. The tears in her eyes smeared his image. His golden face and the white linen standing off from him exhaling the gold glow of his body ran together in a golden blur.
“You couldn’t cither,” she cried out savagely. “You couldn’t either beat him!”
Weeping, she flung herself on David’s shoulder.
The Renault shot furiously off into the wind. David drew the car short with a crash before Jean’s picket fence. Alabama reached for the emergency brake.
“Idiot!” David pushed her angrily away. “Keep your hands off those brakes!”
“I’m sorry I didn’t let him beat you to a pulp,” she yelled infuriated.
“I could have killed him if I had wanted,” said David contemptuously.
“Was it anything serious, Madam?”
“Just somebody killed, that’s all. I don’t see how they stand their lives!”
David went straight to the room at “Les Rossignols” that he had arranged as a studio. The soft Latin voices of two children gathering figs from the tree at the end of the garden drifted up on the air in a low hum lulled louder and softer by the rise and fall of the twilit wind.
After a long time, Alabama heard him shout out the window : “Will you get the hell out of that tree! Damn this whole race of Wops!”
They hardly spoke to each other at dinner.
“These winds are useful, though,” Nanny was saying. “They blow the mosquitoes inland and the atmosphere is so much clearer when they fall, don’t you find, Madam? But my, how they used to upset Mr Horterer-Collins! He was like a raging lion from the moment the mistral commenced. You don’t feel it very much, do you, Madam?”
Hardened to a quiet determination to settle the row, David insisted on driving downtown after dinner.
Rene and Bobbie were alone at the cafe drinking verveine. The chairs were piled on the tables out of the mistral. David ordered champagne.
“Champagne is not good when there is the wind,” Rene advised—but he drank it.
“Have you seen Chevre-Feuille?”
“Yes, he tells me he goes to Indo-Chine.”
Alabama was afraid from his tone that David was going to fight if he found Jacques.
“When is he leaving?”
“A week—ten days. When he can get transferred.”
The lush promenade under the trees so rich and full of life and summer seemed swept of all its content. Jacques had passed over that much of their lives like a vacuum cleaner. There was nothing hut a cheap cafe and the leaves in the gutter, a dog prowling about, and a Negro named “Sans-Bas” with a sabre-cut over one cheek who tried to sell them a paper. That was all there was left of July and August.
David didn’t say what he wanted with Jacques.
“Perhaps he is inside,” Rene suggested.
David crossed the street.
“Listen, Rene,” Alabama said quickly, “you must see Jacques and tell him 1 cannot come—just that. You will do this for me?”
Compassion lit his dreamy, passionate face, Rene took her hand and kissed it.
“I am very sorry for you. Jacques is a good boy.”
“You are a good boy, too, Rene.”
Jacques was not on the beach next morning.
“Well, Madame,” Monsieur Jean greeted them. “You have had a nice summer?”
“It’s been lovely,” Nanny answered, “but I think Madam and Monsieur will soon have had enough of it here.”
“Well, the season will soon be over,” Monsieur Jean commented philosophically.
There were pigeons for lunch and the rubbery cheese. The maid fluttered about with the account book; Nanny talked too much.
“It has been very pleasant, I must say, here this summer,” she commented.
“I hate it. If you can have our things packed by tomorrow we’re going to Paris,” said David fiercely.
“But there’s a law in France that you must give the servants ten days’ notice. Mr Knight. It’s an absolute law,” expostulated Nanny.
“I’ll give them money. For two francs, you could buy the President, the lousy Kikes!”
Nanny laughed, flustered by David’s violence. “They are certainly very pecuniary.”
“I’ll pack tonight. I’m going walking,” Alabama said.
“You won’t go into town without me, Alabama?”
Their resistance met and clung with the taut suspense of two people seeking mutual support in a fast dance turn.
“No, I promise you, David. I’ll take Nanny with me.”
She roamed through the pine forests and over the high roads back of the villa. The other villas were boarded up for the summer. The plane trees covered the driveways with leaves. The jade porcelain gods in front of the heathen cemetery seemed very indoor gods and out of place on the bauxite terrace. The roads were smooth and new up there to make walking easier for the British in winter. They followed a sandy path between the vineyards. It was just a wagon track. The sun bled to death in a red and purple haemorrhage—dark arterial blood dyeing the grape leaves. The clouds were black and twisted horizontally and the land spread biblical in the prophetic light.
“No Frenchman ever kisses his wife on the mouth,” said Nanny confidentially. “He has too much respect for her.”
They walked so far that Alabama carried Bonnie astride her back to rest the short legs.
“Git up, horsey. Mummy, why won’t you run?” the baby whined.
“Sh—sh—sh. I’m an old tired horse with hoof-and-mouth disease, darling.”
A peasant in the hot fields gestured lasciviously and beckoned to the women. Nanny was frightened.
“Can you imagine that. Madam, and we with a little child? I shall certainly speak to Mr Knight. The world is not safe since the war.”
At sundown the tom-toms beat in the Senegalese camp—rites they performed for the dead in their monster-guarded burial ground.
A lone shepherd, brown and handsome, herded a thick drove of sheep along the stubbly tracks leading to the villa. They swept around Alabama and the nurse and child, whirling up the dust with their pattering feet.
“J’ai peur,” she called to the man.
“Oui,” he said gently, “vous avez peur! Gi—o.” He clucked the sheep on down the road.
They couldn’t get away from St-Raphael until the end of the week. Alabama stayed at the villa and walked with Bonnie and Nanny.
Madame Paulette telephoned. Would Alabama come to see her in the afternoon? David said she could go to say good-bye.
Madame Paulette gave her a picture from Jacques and a long letter.
“I am very sorry for you,” Madame said. “We had not thought that it was so serious an affair—we had thought it was just an affair.”
Alabama could not read the letter. It was in French. She tore it in a hundred little pieces and scattered it over the black water of the harbour beneath the masts of many fishing boats from Shanghai and Madrid, Colombia and Portugal. Though it broke her heart, she tore the picture too. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever owned in her life, that photograph. What was the use of keeping it? Jacques Chevre-Feuille had gone to China. There wasn’t a way to hold on to the summer, no French phrase to preserve its rising broken harmonies, no hopes to be salvaged from a cheap French photograph. Whatever it was that she wanted from Jacques, Jacques took it with him to squander on the Chinese. You took what you wanted from life, if you could get it, and you did without the rest.
The sand on the beach was as white as in June, the Mediterranean as blue as ever from the windows of the train that extracted the Knights from the land of lemon trees and sun. They were on their way to Paris. They hadn’t much faith in travel nor a great belief in a change of scene as a panacea for spiritual ills; they were simply glad to be going. And Bonnie was glad. Children are always glad of something new, not realizing that there is everything in anything if the thing is complete in itself. Summer and love and beauty are much the same in Cannes or Connecticut. David was older than Alabama; he hadn’t really felt glad since his first success.
Nobody knew whose party it was. It had been going on for weeks. When you felt you couldn’t survive another night, you went home and slept and when you got back, a new set of people had consecrated themselves to keeping it alive. It must have started with the first boatloads of unrest that emptied themselves into France in nineteen twenty-seven. Alabama and David joined in May, after a terrible winter in a Paris flat that smelled of a church chancery because it was impossible to ventilate. That apartment, where they had fastened themselves up from the winter rain, was a perfect breeding place for the germs of bitterness they brought with them from the Riviera. From out their windows the grey roofs before shaved the grey roofs behind like lightly grazing fencing foils. The grey sky came down between the chimneys in inverted ethereal Gothic dividing the horizon into spires and points which hung over their unrest like the tubes of a vast incubator. The etching of the balconies of the Champs-Elysees and the rain on the pavements about the Arc de Triomphe was all they could see from their red and gilt salon. David had a studio on the Left Bank in that quarter of the city beyond the Pont de l’Aima, where rococo apartment buildings and long avenues of trees give on colourless openings with no perspective.
There he lost himself in the retrospect of autumn disembodied from its months, from heat and cold and holidays, and produced his lullabies of recapitulation that drew vast crowds of the advance guard to the Salon des Independents. The frescoes were finished : this was a new, more personal, David on exhibit. You heard his name in bank lobbies and in the Ritz Bar, which was proof that people were saying it in other places. The steely concision of his work was making itself felt even in the lines of interior decoration. Des Arts Decoratifs carried a dining-room after one of his interiors painted because of a grey anemone; the Ballet Russe accepted a decor—fantasmagoria of the light on the plage at St-Raphael to represent the beginning of the world in a ballet called Evolution.
The rising vogue of the David Knights brought Dickie Axton flying symbolically across their horizons, scribbling over the walls of their prosperity a message from Babylon which they did not bother to read, being at that time engrossed in the odour of twilit lilacs along the Boulevard St-Germain and the veiling of the Place de la Concorde in the expensive mysticism of the Blue Hour.
The telephone rang and rang and rustled their dreams to pale Valhallas, Ermenonville, and the celestial twilight passages of padded hotels. As they slept in their lyric bed dreaming the will of the world to be probate, the bell rained on their consciousness like the roll of distant hoops; David grabbed the receiver.
“Hello. Yes, this is both the Knights.”
Dickie’s voice slid down the telephone wire from highhanded confidence to a low wheedle.
“I hope you’re coming to my dinner.” The voice descended by its teeth like an acrobat from the top of a circus tent. The limits of Dickie’s activities stopped only at the borders of moral, social and romantic independence, so you can well imagine that her scope was not a small one. Dickie had at her beck and call a catalogue of humanity, an emotional casting agency. Her existence was not surprising in this age of Mussolinis and sermons from the mount by every passing Alpinist. For the sum of three hundred dollars she scraped the centuries’ historic deposits from under the nails of Italian noblemen and passed it off as caviar to Kansas debutantes; for a few hundreds more she opened the doors of Bloomsbury and Parnassus, the gates of Chantilly or the pages of Debrett’s to America’s postwar prosperity. Her intangible commerce served up the slithered frontiers of Europe in a celeri-rave—Spaniards, Cubans, South Americans, even an occasional black floating through the social mayonnaise like bits of truffle. The Knights had risen to so exalted a point in the hierarchy of the “known” that they had become material for Dickie.
“You needn’t be so high-hat,” Alabama protested to David’s lack of enthusiasm. “All the people will be white—or were once.”
“We’ll come, then,” said David into the receiver.
Alabama twisted her body experimentally. The patrician sun of late afternoon spread itself aloofly over the bed where she and David untidily collected themselves.
“It’s very flattering,” she said, propelling herself to the bathroom, “to be sought after, but more provident, I suppose, to seek.”
David lay listening to the violent flow of the water and the quake of the glasses in their stands.
“Another jag!” he yelled. “I find I can get along very well without my basic principles, but I cannot sacrifice my weaknesses—one being an insatiability about jags.”
“What did you say about the Prince of Wales being sick?” called Alabama.
“I don’t see why you can’t listen when I’m talking to you,” David answered crossly.
“I hate people who begin to talk the minute you pick up a toothbrush,” she snapped.
“I said the sheets of this bed are actually scorching my feet.”
“But there isn’t any potash in the liquor over here,” said Alabama incredulously. “It must be a neurosis—have you a new symptom?” she demanded jealously.
“I haven’t slept in so long I would be having hallucinations if I could distinguish them from reality.”
“Poor David—what will we do?”
“I don’t know. Seriously, Alabama” — David lit a cigarette contemplatively — “my work’s getting stale. I need new emotional stimulus.”
Alabama looked at him coldly.
“I see.” She realized that she had sacrificed for ever her right to be hurt on the glory of a Provencal summer. “You might follow the progress of Mr Berry Wall through the columns of the Paris Herald,” she suggested.
“Or choke myself on a chiaroscuro.”
“If you are serious, David, I believe it has always been understood between us that we would not interfere with each other.”
“Sometimes,” commented David irrelevantly, “your face looks like a soul lost in the mist on a Scotch moor.”
“Of course, no allowance has been made in our calculations for jealousy,” she pursued.
“Listen, Alabama,” interrupted David, “I feel terrible; do you think we can make the grade?”
“I want to show off my new dress,” she said decisively.
“And I’ve got an old suit I’d like to wear out. You know we shouldn’t go. We should think of our obligations to humanity.” Obligations were to Alabama a plan and a trap laid by civilization to ensnare and cripple her happiness and hobble the feet of time.
“Are you moralizing?”
“No. I want to see what her parties are like. The last of Dickie’s soirees netted no profits to charity though hundreds were turned away at the gates. The Duchess of Dacne cost Dickie three months in America by well-placed hints.”
“They’re like all the others. You just sit down and wait for the inevitable, which is the only thing that never happens.”
The post-war extravagance which had sent David and Alabama and some sixty thousand other Americans wandering over the face of Europe in a game of hare without hounds achieved its apex. The sword of Damocles, forged from the high hope of getting something for nothing and the demoralizing expectation of getting nothing for something, was almost hung by the third of May.
There were Americans at night, and day Americans, and we all had Americans in the bank to buy things with. The marble lobbies were full of them.
Lespiaut couldn’t make enough flowers for the trade. They made nasturtiums of leather and rubber and wax gardenias and ragged robins out of threads and wires. They manufactured hardly perennials to grow in the meagre soil of shoulder straps and bouquets with long stems for piercing the loamy shadows under the belt. Modistes pieced hats together from the toy-boat sails in the Tuileries; audacious dressmakers sold the summer in bunches. The ladies went to the foundries and had themselves some hair cast and had themselves half-soled with the deep chrome fantasies of Helena Rubenstein and Dorothy Gray. They read off the descriptive adjectives on the menu-cards to the waiters and said, “Wouldn’t you like” and “Wouldn’t you really” to each other till they drove the men out to lose themselves in the comparative quiet of the Paris streets which hummed like the tuning of an invisible orchestra. Americans from other years bought themselves dressy house with collars and cuffs in Neuilly and Passy, stuffed themselves in the cracks of the rue de Bac like the Dutch boy saving the dikes. Irresponsible Americans suspended themselves on costly eccentricities like Saturday’s servants on a broken Ferris wheel and made so many readjustments that a constant addenda went on about them like the clang of a Potin cash register. Esoteric pelletiers robbed a secret clientele in the rue des Petits-Champs; people spent fortunes in taxis in search of the remote.
“I’m sorry I can’t stay, I just dropped in to say „hello“,” they said to each other and refused the table d’hote. They ordered Veronese pastry on lawns like lace curtains at Versailles and chicken and hazelnuts at Fontainebleau where the woods wore powdered wigs. Discs of umbrellas poured over suburban terraces with the smooth round ebullience of a Chopin waltz. They sat in the distance under the lugubrious dripping elms, elms like maps of Europe, elms frayed at the end like bits of chartreuse wool, elms heavy and bunchy as sour grapes. They ordered the weather with a continental appetite, and listened to the centaur complain about the price of hoofs. There were bourgeois blossoms on the bill-of-fare and tall architectural blossoms on the horse-chestnut and crystallized rose-buds to go with the Porto. The Americans gave indications of themselves but always only the beginning like some eternal exposition, a clef before a bar of music to be played on the minors of the imagination. They thought all French school boys were orphans because of the black dresses they wore, and those of them who didn’t know the meaning of the word “insensible” thought the French thought that they were crazy. All of them drank. Americans with red ribbons in their buttonholes read papers called the Eclaireur and drank on the sidewalks, Americans with tips on the races drank down a flight of stairs, Americans with a million dollars and a standing engagement with the hotel masseuses drank in suites at the Meurice and the Crillon. Other Americans drank in Montmartre, “pour le soif” and “contre la chaleur” and “pour la digestion” and “pour se guerir”. They were glad the French thought they were crazy.
Over fifty thousand francs’ worth of flowers had wilted to success on the altars of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires during the year.
“Maybe something will happen,” said David.
Alabama wished nothing ever would again but it was her turn to agree—they had evolved a tacit arrangement about waiting on each other’s emotions, almost mathematical like the trick combination of a safe, which worked by the mutual assumption that it would.
“I mean,” he pursued, “if somebody would come along to remind us about how we felt about things when we felt the way they remind us of, maybe it would refresh us.”
“I see what you mean. Life has begun to appear as tortuous as the sentimental writhings of a rhythmic dance.”
“Exactly. I want to make some protestations since I’m largely too busy to work very well.”
“Mama said “Yes” and Papa said “Yes” ’ to the gramophone owners of France. “Ariel” passed from the title of a book to three wires on the house-top. What did it matter? It had already gone from a god to a myth to Shakespeare—nobody seemed to mind. People still recognized the word : “Ariel!” it was. David and Alabama hardly noticed the change.
In a Marne taxicab they clipped all the corners of Paris precipitous enough to claim their attention and descended at the door of the Hotel George-V. An atmosphere of convivial menace hung over the bar. Delirious imitations of Picabia, the black lines and blobs of a commercial attempt at insanity squeezed the shiplike enclosure till it communicated the sense of being corseted in a small space. The bartender inspected the party patronizingly. Miss Axton was an old customer, always bringing somebody new; Miss Dickie Axton, he knew. She’d been drinking in his bar the night she shot her lover in the Gare de l’Est. Alabama and David were the only ones he’d never seen before.
“And has Mademoiselle Axton completely recovered from so stupid a contretemps?”
Miss Axton affirmed in a magnetic, incisive voice that she had, and that she wanted a gin highball damn quick. Miss Axton’s hair grew on her head like the absent-minded pencil strokes a person makes while telephoning. Her long legs struck forcefully forward as if she pressed her toes watchfully on the accelerator of the universe. People said she had slept with a Negro. The bartender didn’t believe it. He didn’t see where Miss Axton would have found the time between white gentlemen -pugilists, too, sometimes.
Miss Douglas, now, was a different proposition. She was English. You couldn’t tell whom she had slept with. She had even stayed out of the papers. Of course she had money, which makes sleeping considerably more discreet.
“We will drink the same as usual, Mademoiselle?” He smiled ingratiatingly.
Miss Douglas opened her translucent eyes; she was so much the essence of black chic that she was nothing but a dark aroma. Pale and transparent, she anchored herself to the earth solely by the tenets of her dreamy self-control.
“No, my friend, this time it’s Scotch and soda. I’m getting too much of a stomach for sherry flips.”
“There’s a scheme,” said Miss Axton, “you put six encyclopaedias on your stomach and recite the multiplication table. After a few weeks your stomach is so flat that it comes out at the back, and you begin life again hind part before.”
“Of course,” contributed Miss Douglas, punching herself where a shade of flesh rose above her girdle like fresh rolls from a pan, “the only sure thing is”—leaning across she sputtered something in Miss Axton’s ear. The two women roared.
“Excuse me,” finished Dickie hilariously, “and in England they take it in a highball.”
“I never exercise,” pronounced Mr Hastings with unenthusiastic embarrassment. “Ever since I got my ulcers I’ve eaten nothing but spinach so I manage to avoid looking well that way.”
“A glum sectarian dish,” concluded Dickie sepulchrally.
“I have it with eggs and then with croutons and sometimes with—”
“Now, dear,” interrupted Dickie, “you mustn’t excite yourself.” Blandly explaining, she elaborated. “I have to mother Mr Hastings; he’s just come out of an asylum, and when he gets nervous he can’t dress or shave himself without playing his phonograph. The neighbours have him locked up whenever it happens, so I have to keep him quiet.”
“It must be very inconvenient,” muttered David.
“Frightfully so—travelling all the way to Switzerland with all those discs, and ordering spinach in thirty-seven different languages.”
“I’m sure Mr Knight could tell us some way of staying young,” suggested Miss Douglas, “he looks about five years old.”
“He’s an authority,” said Dickie, “a positive authority.”
“What about?” inquired Hastings sceptically.
“Authorities are all about women this year,” said Dickie.
“Do you care for Russians, Mr Knight?”
“Oh, very much. We love them,” said Alabama. She had a sense that she hadn’t said anything for hours and that something was expected of her.
“We don’t,” said David. “We don’t know anything about music.”
“Jimmie,” Dickie seized the conversation rapaciously, “was going to be a celebrated composer, but he had to take a drink every sixteen measures of counterpoint to keep the impetus of the thing from falling and his bladder gave out.”
“I couldn’t sacrifice myself for success the way some people do,” protested Hastings querulously implying that David had sold himself, somehow, to something.
“Naturally. Everybody knows you anyway—as the man without any bladder.”
Alabama felt excluded by her lack of accomplishment. Comparing herself with Miss Axton’s elegance, she hated the reticent solidity, the savage sparse competence of her body—her arms reminded her of a Siberian branch railroad. Compared with Miss Douglas’ elimination, her Patou dress felt too big along the seams. Miss Douglas made her feel that there was a cold cream deposit at the neckline. Slipping her fingers into the tray of salted nuts, she addressed the barman dismally, “I should think people in your profession would drink themselves to death.”
“Non, Madame. I did use to like a good sidecar but that was before I became so well-known.”
The party poured out into the Paris night like dice shaken from a cylinder. The pink flare from the street lights tinted the canopy scalloping of the trees to liquid bronze : those lights are one of the reasons why the hearts of Americans bump spasmodically at the mention of France; they are identical with the circus flares of our youth.
The taxi careened down the boulevard along the Seine. Careening and swerving, they passed the brittle mass of Notre-Dame, the bridges cradling the river, the pungence of the baking parks, the Norman towers of the Department of State, the pungence of the baking parks, the bridges cradling the river, the brittle mass of Notre-Dame, sliding back and forth like a repeated newsreel.
The Ile St-Louis is boxed by many musty courtyards. The entry-ways are paved with the black-and-white diamonds of the Sinister Kings and grilles dissect the windows. East Indians and Georgians serve the deep apartments opening on the river.
It was late when they arrived at Dickie’s.
“So, as a painter,” Dickie said as she opened the door, “I wanted your husband to meet Gabrielle Gibbs. You must, sometime; if you’re knowing people.”
“Gabrielle Gibbs,” echoed Alabama, “of course, I’ve heard of her.”
“Gabrielle’s a half-wit,” continued Dickie calmly, “but she’s very attractive if you don’t feel like talking.”
“She has the most beautiful body,” contributed Hastings, “like white marble.”
The apartment was deserted; a plate of scrambled eggs hardened on the centre table; a coral evening cape decorated a chair.
“Qu’est-ce tu fais ici?” said Miss Gibbs feebly from the bathroom floor as Alabama and Dickie penetrated the sanctuary.
“I can’t speak French,” Alabama answered.
The girl’s long blonde hair streamed in chiselled segments about her face, a platinum wisp floated in the bowl of the toilet. The face was as innocent as if she had just been delivered from the taxidermist’s.
“Quelle dommage,” she said laconically. Twenty diamond bracelets clinked against the toilet seat.
“Oh dear,” said Dickie philosophically, “Gabrielle can’t speak English when she’s drunk. Liquor makes her highbrow.”
Alabama appraised the girl; she seemed to have bought herself in sets.
“Christ,” the inebriate remarked to herself morosely, “etait ne en quatre cent Anno Domini. C’etait vraiment tres dommage.” She gathered herself together with the careless precision of a scene-shifter, staring sceptically into Alabama’s face from eyes as impenetrable as the background of an allegorical painting.
“I’ve got to get sober,” the face quickened to momentary startled animation.
“You certainly do,” Dickie ordered. “There’s a man outside such as you have never met before especially lured here by the prospect of meeting you.”
“Anything can be arranged in the toilet,” Alabama thought to herself. “It’s the woman’s equivalent for the downtown club since the war.” She’d say that at table, she thought.
“If you’ll leave me I’ll just take a bath,” Miss Gibbs proposed majestically.
Dickie swept Alabama out into the room like a maid gathering dust off the parlour floor.
“We think,” Hastings was saying in a tone of finality, “that there’s no use working over human relations.”
He turned accusingly to Alabama. “Just who is this hypothetical we?”
Alabama had no explanation to offer. She was wondering if this was the time to use the remark about the toilet when Miss Gibbs appeared in the doorway.
“Angels,” cried the girl, peering about the room.
She was as dainty and rounded as a porcelain figure; she sat up and begged; she played dead-dog, burlesquing her own ostentation attentively as if each gesture were a configuration in some comic dance she composed as she went along and meant to perfect late. It was obvious that she was a dancer—clothes never become part of their sleek bodies. A person could have stripped Miss Gibbs by pulling a central string.
“Miss Gibbs!” said David quickly. “Do you remember the man who wrote you all those mash notes back in nineteen-twenty?”
The fluttering eyes ruminated over the scene uncritically. “So,” she said, “it is you whom I am to meet. But I’ve heard you were in love with your wife.”
David laughed. “Slander. Do you disapprove?”
Miss Gibbs withdrew behind the fumes of Elizabeth Arden and the ripples of a pruned international giggle. “It seems rather cannibalistic in these days.” The tone changed to one of exaggerated seriousness; her personality was alive like a restless pile of pink chiffon in a breeze.
“I dance at eleven, and we must dine if you ever had that intention. Paris!” she sighed— “I’ve been in a taxi since last week at half past four.”
From the long trestle table a hundred silver knives and forks signalled the existence of as many million dollars in curt cubistic semaphore. The grotesquerie of fashionable tousled heads and the women’s scarlet mouths opening and gobbling the candle-light like ventriloquists’ dummies brought the quality of a banquet of a mad, medieval monarch to the dinner. American voices whipped themselves to a frenzy with occasional lashings of a foreign tongue.
David hung over Gabrielle. “You know,” Alabama heard the girl say, “I think the soup needs a little more eau de Cologne.”
She was going to have to overhear Miss Gibbs’ line all during dinner, which fact considerably hampered her own.
“Well,” she began bravely— “the toilet for women—”
“It’s an outrage—a conspiracy to cheat us,” said the voice of Miss Gibbs, “I wish they’d use more aphrodisiac.”
“Gabrielle,” yelled Dickie, “you’ve no idea how expensive such things are since the war.”
The table achieved a shuttlecock balance which gave the illusion of looking out on the world from a fast-flying train window. Immense trays of ornamental foods passed under their sceptical distraught eyes.
“The food,” said Hastings crabbily, “is like something Dickie found in a geologist’s excavation.”
Alabama decided to count on his being cross at the right point; he was always a little bit cross. She had almost thought of something to say when David’s voice floated up like driftwood on a tidal wave.
“A man told me,” he was saying to Gabrielle, “that you have the most beautiful blue veins all over your body.”
“I was thinking, Mr Hastings,” said Alabama tenaciously, “that I would like somebody to lock me up in a spiritual chastity belt.”
Having been brought up in England, Hastings was intent on his food.
“Blue ice cream!” he snorted contemptuously. “Probably frozen New England blood extracted from the world by the pressure of modern civilization on inherited concepts and acquired traditions.”
Alabama went back to her original premise that Hastings was hopelessly calculating.
“I wish,” said Dickie unpleasantly, “that people would not flagellate themselves with the food when they’re dining with me.”
“I have no historical sense! I am an unbeliever!” shouted Hastings. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“When Father was in Africa,” interrupted Miss Douglas, “they climbed inside the elephant and ate the entrails with their hands—at least, the Pygmies did; Father took pictures.”
“And,” said David’s voice excitedly, “he said that your breasts were like marble dessert—a sort of blancmange, I presume.”
“It would be quite an experience,” yawned Miss Axton idly, “to seek stimulation in the church and asceticism in sex.”
The party lost body with the end of dinner—the people, intent on themselves in the big living-room, moved about like officials under masks in an operating room. A visceral femininity suffused the umber glow.
Night lights through the windows glittered miniature and precise as carvings of stars in a sapphire bottle. Quiet sound from the street rose above the party’s quiescence. David passed from one group to another, weaving the room into a lacy pattern, draping its substance over Gabrielle’s shoulders.
Alabama couldn’t keep her eyes off them. Gabrielle was the centre of something; there was about her that suspension of direction which could only exist in a centre. She lifted her eyes and blinked at David like a complacent white Persian cat.
“I imagine you wear something startling and boyish underneath your clothes,” David’s voice droned on, “BVD’s or something.”
Resentment flared in Alabama. He’d stolen the idea from her. She’d worn silk BVD’s herself all last summer.
“Your husband’s too handsome,” said Miss Axton, “to be so well known. It’s an unfair advantage.”
Alabama felt sick at her stomach—controllably, but too sick to answer—champagne is a filthy drink.
David opened and closed his personality over Miss Gibbs like the tentacles of a carnivorous maritime plant. Dickie and Miss Douglas leaning against the mantel suggested the weird Arctic loneliness of totem poles. Hastings played the piano too loud. The noise isolated them all from each other.
The doorbell rang and rang.
“It must be the taxis come to take us to the ballet,” Dickie sighed with relief.
“Stravinsky is conducting,” supplied Hastings. “He’s a plagiarist,” he added lugubriously.
“Dickie,” said Miss Gibbs peremptorily, “could you just leave me the key? Mr Knight will see me to the Acacias—that is, if you don’t mind.” She beamed on Alabama.
“Mind? Why should I?” Alabama answered disagreeably. She wouldn’t have minded if Gabrielle had been unattractive.
“I don’t know. I’m in love with your husband. I thought I’d try to make him if you didn’t mind—of course, I’d try anyway—he’s such an angel.” She giggled. It was a sympathetic giggle covering any unexpected failure in its advance apology.
Hastings helped Alabama with her coat. She was angry about Gabrielle—Gabrielle made her feel clumsy. The party burrowed into their wraps.
The lamps swung and swayed soft as the ribbons of a Maypole along the river; the spring sniggered quietly to itself on the street corners.
“But what a „lahvely“ night!” Hastings proffered facetiously.
“Weather is for children.”
Somebody mentioned the moon.
“Moons?” said Alabama contemptuously. “They’re two for five at the Five and Ten, full or crescent.”
“But his is an especially nice one, Madam. It has an especially fashionable way of looking at things!”
In her deepest moods of discontent, Alabama, on looking back, found the overlying tempo of that period as broken and strident as trying to hum a bit of La Chatte. Afterwards, the only thing she could place emotionally was her sense of their all being minor characters and her dismay at David’s reiterante that many women were flowers—flowers and desserts, love and excitement, and passion and fame! Since St-Raphael she had had no uncontested pivot from which to swing her equivocal universe. She shifted her abstractions like a mechanical engineer might surveying the growing necessities of a construction.
The party was late at the Chatelet. Dickie hustled them up the converging marble stairs as if she directed a processional to Moloch.
The decor swarmed in Saturnian rings. Spare, immaculate legs and a consciousness of rib, the vibrant suspension of lean bodies precipitated on the jolt of reiterant rhythmic shock, the violins’ hysteria, evolved themselves to a tortured abstraction of sex. Alabama’s excitement rose with the appeal to the poignancy of a human body subject to its physical will to the point of evangelism. Her hands were wet and shaking with its tremolo. Her heart beat like the fluttering wings of an angry bird.
The theatre settled in a slow nocturne of plush culture. The last strain of the orchestra seemed to lift her off the earth in inverse exhilaration—like David’s laugh, it was, when he was happy.
Down the stairs many girls looked back at important men with silver-fox hair from the marble balustrade and influential men looked from side to side jingling things in their pockets—private lives and keys.
“There is the Princess,” said Dickie. “Shall we take her along? She used to be very famous.”
A woman with a shaved head and the big ears of a gargoyle paraded a Mexican hairless through the lobby.
“Madame used to be in the ballet until her husband exhausted her knees so she couldn’t dance,” went on Dickie introducing the lady.
“It is many years since my knees have grown quite ossified,” the woman said plaintively.
“How did you manage?” said Alabama breathlessly. “How did you get in the ballet? And get to be important?”
The woman regarded her with velvety bootblack’s eyes, begging the world not to forget her, that she herself might exist oblivious.
“But I was born in the ballet.” Alabama accepted the remark as if it were an explanation of life.
There were many dissensions about where to go. As a compliment to the Princess the party chose a Russian boite. The voice of a fallen aristocracy tethered its wails to the flexible notes of Tzigane guitars; the low clang of bottles against champagne buckets jangled the tone of the dungeon of pleasure like the lashing of spectral chains. Cold-storage necks and throats like vipers’ fangs pierced the ectoplasmic light; eddying hair whirled about the shallows of the night.
“Please, Madame,” Alabama persisted intently, “would you give me a letter to whoever trains the ballet? 1 would do anything in the world to learn to do that.”
The shaved head scanned Alabama enigmatically.
“Whatever for?” she said. “It is a hard life. One suffers. Your husband could surely arrange—”
“But why should anyone want to do that?” Hastings interrupted. “I’ll give you the address of a Black-Bottom teacher—of course, he’s coloured, but nobody cares any more.”
“I do,” said Miss Douglas. “The last time I went out with Negroes I had to borrow from the headwaiter to pay the cheque. Since then I’ve drawn the colour line at the Chinese.”
“Do you think. Madame, that I am too old?” Alabama persisted.
“Yes,” said the Princess briefly.
“They live on cocaine anyway,” said Miss Douglas.
“And pray to Russian devils,” added Hastings.
“But some of them do lead actual lives, I believe,” said Dickie.
“Sex is such a poor substitute,” sighed Miss Douglas.
“For sex, idiot.”
“I think,” said Dickie surprisingly, “that it would be the very thing for Alabama. I’ve always heard she was a little peculiar—I don’t mean actually batty—but a little difficult. An art would explain. I really think you ought, you know,” she said decisively. “It would be almost as exotic as being married to a painter.”
“What do you mean „exotic“?”
“Running around caring about things—of course, I hardly know you, but I do think dancing would be an asset if you’re going to care anyhow. If the party got dull you could do a few whirly-gigs,” Dickie illustrated her words by gouging a hole in the tablecloth with her fork, “like that!” she finished enthusiastically. “I can see you now!”
Alabama visualized herself suavely swaying to the end of a violin bow, spinning on its silver bobbin, the certain disillusions of the past into uncertain expectancies of the future. She pictured herself as an amorphous cloud in a dressing-room mirror which would be framed with cards and papers, telegrams and pictures. She followed herself along a stone corridor full of electric switches and signs about smoking, past a water cooler and a pile of Lily Cups and a man in a tilted chair to a grey door with a stencilled star.
Dickie was a born promoter. “I’m sure you can do it—you certainly have the body!”
Alabama went secretly over her body. It was rigid, like a lighthouse. “It might do,” she mumbled, the words rising through her elation like a swimmer coming up from a deep dive.
“Might?” echoed Dickie with conviction, “you could sell it to Cartier’s for a gold mesh sweat shirt!”
“Who can give me a letter to the necessary people?”
“I will, my dear—I have all the unobtainable entrees in Paris. But it’s only fair to warn you that the gold streets of heaven are hard on the feet. You’d better take along a pair of crepe soles when you’re planning the trip.”
“Yes,” Alabama agreed unhesitantly. “Brown, I suppose, because of the gutters—I’ve always heard star-dust shows up on the white.”
“Ifs a tomfool arrangement,” said Hastings abruptly. “Her husband says she can’t carry a tune!”
Something must have happened to make the man so grouchy—or maybe it was that nothing had. They were all grouchy, nearly as much so as herself. It must be nerves and having nothing to do but write home for money. There wasn’t even a decent Turkish bath in Paris.
“What have you been doing with—yourself?” she said.
“Using up my war medals for pistol-practice targets,” he answered acidly.
Hastings was as sleek and brown as pulled molasses candy. He was an intangible reprobate, discouraging people and living like a moral pirate. Many generations of beautiful mothers had endowed him with an inexhaustible petulance. He wasn’t half as good company as David.
“I see,” said Alabama. “The arena is closed today, since the matador had to stay home and write his memoirs. The three thousand people can go to the movies instead.”
Hastings was annoyed at the tartness in her tone.
“Don’t blame me,” he said, “about Gabrielle’s borrowing David.” Seeing the earnestness in her face he continued helpfully, “I don’t suppose you’d want me to make love to you?”
“Oh no, it’s quite all right—I like martyrdom.”
The small room smothered in smoke. A powerful drum beleaguered the drowsy dawn; bouncers from other cabarets drifted in for their morning supper.
Alabama sat quietly humming, “Horses, Horses, Horses,” in a voice like the whistle of boats putting out to sea in a fog.
“This is my party,” she insisted as the cheque appeared. “I’ve been giving it for years.”
“Why didn’t you invite your husband?” said Hastings maliciously.
“Damn it,” said Alabama hotly. “I did—so long ago that he forgot to come.”
“You need somebody to take care of you,” he said seriously. “You’re a man’s woman and need to be bossed. No, I mean it,” he insisted when Alabama began to laugh.
Nourishing his roots on the disingenuous expectations of ladies whose exploits permitted them a remembrance of the fairy tales, Alabama concluded that he was nevertheless not a prince.
“I was just going to begin doing it myself,” she chuckled. “I made a date with the Princess and Dickie to arrange for a future. In the meantime, it is exceedingly difficult to direct a life which has no direction.”
“You’ve a child, haven’t you?” he suggested.
“Yes,” she said, “there’s the baby—life goes on.”
“This party,” said Dickie, “has been going on for ever. They’re saving the signatures on the earliest cheques for the war museum.”
“What we need is new blood in the party.”
“What we all need,” said Alabama impatiently, “is a good—”
The dawn swung over the Place Vendome with the slow silver grace of a moored dirigible. Alabama and Hastings spilled into the Knights’ grey apartment on the morning like a shower of last night’s confetti shaken from the folds of a cloak.
“I thought David would be at home,” she said, searching the bedroom.
“I didn’t,” Hastings mocked. “For I, thy God, am a Jewish God, Baptist God, Catholic God—”
She had wanted to cry for a long time, she realized suddenly. In the weary stuffiness of the salon she collapsed. Sobbing and shaking, she did not lift her face when David finally stumbled into the dry, hot room. She lay sprawled like a damp wrung towel over the window sill, like the transparent shed carcass of a brilliant insect.
“I suppose you’re awfully angry,” he said.
Alabama didn’t speak.
“I’ve been out all night,” explained David cheerfully, “on a party.”
She wished she could help David to seem more legitimate. She wished she could do something to keep everything from being so undignified. Life seemed so uselessly extravagant.
“Oh, David,” she sobbed. “I’m much too proud to care—pride keeps me from feeling half the things I ought to feel.”
“Care about what? Haven’t you had a good time?” mumbled David placatively.
“Perhaps Alabama’s angry about my not getting sentimental about her,” said Hastings, hastily extricating himself. “Anyway I’ll just run along if you don’t mind. It must be quite late.”
The morning sun shone brightly through the windows.
For a long time she lay sobbing. David took her on his shoulder. Under his arms smelled warm and clean like the smoke of a quiet fire burning in a peasant’s mountain cottage.
“There’s no use explaining,” he said.
“Not the slightest.”
She tried to see him through the early dusk.
“Darling!” she said, “I wish I could live in your pocket.”
“Darling,” answered David sleepily, “there’d be a hole you’d forgotten to darn and you’d slip through and be brought home by the village barber. At least, that’s been my experience with carrying girls about in my pockets.”
Alabama thought she’d better put a pillow under David’s head to keep him from snoring. She thought he looked like a little boy who had just been washed and brushed by a nurse a few minutes before. Men, she thought, never seem to become the things they do, like women, but belong to their own philosophic interpretations of their actions.
“I don’t care,” she repeated convincingly to herself : as neat an incision into the tissue of life as the most dextrous surgeon could hope to produce over a poisoned appendix. Filing away her impressions like a person making a will, she bequeathed each passing sensation to that momentary accumulation of her self, the present, that filled and emptied with the overflow.
It’s too late in the morning for peccadilloes; the sun bathes itself with the night’s cadavers in the typhus-laden waters of the Seine; the market carts have long since rumbled back to Fontainebleau and St-Cloud; the early operations are done in the hospitals; the inhabitants of the Ile de la Cite have had their bowl of cafe-au-lait and the night chauffeurs “un verre”. The Paris cooks have brought down the refuse and brought up the coal, and many people with tuberculosis wait in the damp bowels of the earth for the Metro. Children play in the grass-plots about the Tour Eiffel and the white floating veils of English nannies and the blue veils of the French nounous flap out the news that all is well along the Champs-Elysees. Fashionable women powder their noses in their Porto glasses under the trees of the Pavilion Dauphine, just now opening its doors to the creak of Russian leather riding boots. The Knights’ femme de chambre has orders to wake her masters in time for lunch in the Bois de Boulogne.
When Alabama tried to get up she felt nervous, she felt monstrous, she felt bilious.
“I can’t stand this any longer,” she screamed at the dozing David. “I don’t want to sleep with the men or imitate the women, and I can’t stand it!”
“Look out, Alabama, I’ve got a headache,” David protested.
“I won’t look out! I won’t go to lunch! I’m going to sleep till time to go to the studio.”
Her eyes glowed with the precarious light of a fanatic determination. There were white triangles under her jaw bone and blue rings around her neck. Her skin smelled of dry dirty powder from the night before.
“Well, you can’t sleep sitting up,” he said.
“I can do exactly as I please,” she said; “anything! I can sleep when I’m awake if I want to!”
David’s delight in simplicity was something very complex that a simple person would never have understood. It kept him out of many arguments.
“All right,” he said, “I’ll help you.”
The macabre who lived through the war have a story they love to tell about the soldiers of the Foreign Legion giving a ball in the expanses around Verdun and dancing with the corpses. Alabama’s continued brewing of the poisoned filter for a semiconscious banquet table, her insistence on the magic and glamour of life when she was already feeling its pulse like the throbbing of an amputated leg, had something of the same sinister quality.
Women sometimes seem to share a quiet, unalterable dogma of persecution that endows even the most sophisticated of them with the inarticulate poignancy of the peasant. Compared to Alabama’s, David’s material wisdom was so profound that it gleamed strong and harmonious through the confusion of these times.
“Poor girl,” he said, “I understand. It must be awful just waiting around eternally.”
“Aw, shut up!” she answered ungratefully. She lay silent for a long time. “David,” she said sharply.
“I am going to be as famous a dancer as there are blue veins over the white marble of Miss Gibbs.”
“Yes, dear,” agreed David non-committally.