Chapter XVIII

“Why’d she do it? Gawd damn, Ginger Ann, why’d she do it?”

“Finch-Marie? Well, it’s not worth denying that he’d cut a fine form — you know, for the stage. And you’ve said it yourself that he’s got a strong voice…”

They nibble at minuscule anchovy rusks in the Kaffeehaus hush.

“A strong voice for waking the house when he’s making his juice — Christ Almighty, G.A., the man’s not a Show boy!” Mewsy squirms in her wingback and takes in the empty cafe.

“I dunno, Mews’, but don’t go supposing that this has to do with your troubles with Finch. It’s bus’ness and Finch is a businessgal.”

“Baloney. Ol’ Finchy’s no different than you, me, or the Queen when it comes to affairs of the heart — or to bedtime intrigues, come to that.”

“Just don’t go campaigning for problems you haven’t yet got, yeah, Toast? You’ve a good thing going on with the Queen, and if —“

“— Well, yes, that’s just it — I’ve just spent the hour debriefing Toilette on what she’s to expect from Sir Tybalt l’amateur. The dame is not pleased.”

“— and if you can just keep yourself clean, Mews’, and stay on the horse and — oh, hullo, Titz’.”

Gawd damned LeBustier, always appearing in a puff of pink smoke, thinks Mewsy without looking up. There’s that dollar store hair fragrance now.

“If there’s nothing you ladies might like to have further,” says Titzi in her oiliest voice, “We do have a res’ on this bower from the five o’clock Show crowd.”

“Trust,” Mewsy mutters inaudibly, “I wouldn’t be caught here as soon as the first bluehair townie‘s passed under that arch.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“Don’t beg, Titz, it’s common.”

Outside on the veranda Mewsy feigns having forgotten her clutch and parts from G.A. with an air kiss. I just can’t bear any more earnest advice right this mo’. She ducks round the porch for a five o’clock blunt — you deserve it, she thinks, the day you’ve had.

Dagnabbit, she curses, fishing deep down her cleave, musta left the damn thing in my nightstand. I daren’t go back for it, in case I’ve a Guest and he sees me unpainted. She compulsively smooths down her brow.

The K-Haus boys are at it again; she can hear the louche squelching from clear round the building. Suppose that that Reg must be put out a bit about losing the chance to my husband. Suppose that a lot of them are.

Reg makes her think of Salvation. I could pay him a call down the stairs, since it’s practically five and I have been invited.

But somehow… no.

She picks at her nail job and squints toward the wavering dunes. Joe wouldn’t be home yet, and anyway… trekking’s unthinkable… sand, that dry wind, the heat…

Mewsy peeks round the corner to take in the show til a better idea comes by. There’s a third lad — it looks like Sam Bitter, the barman’s big dishboy — standing out in the courtyard with his face to the sun while the other two squat at lap-height in front and in back. Their coppery flesh sizzles, she can hear it, under the desert’s eye.

With complexions like that they can stand to, those brown boys, I’d melt like a butter pat ‘n be no use to no-one. She draws up her chiffon, sinking into the shadows.

Those spit-slick flesh pokers do something to her, bobbing so blithely in the quad. She tears at her veils, all stifled of a sudden, and hurtles back into the K-Haus. Sniffing furiously lest the claw of a townie should catch at her – inquisitive, proprietary, hungry – she barrels past Titzi who manages barely a squeak. Through the drapes, not a word to the Five and a Half, seeming frozen in time, smoking, vague and downcast. Banging the saloon-style doors to the theatre proper, startling but not interrupting the ballerine flock on the stage belting out one of Babs & Mort’s tired old jingles. Down the side aisle into backstage, taking no time for her pals the Black Jackets with their feet up on blocks. Out the back hall, roaring past Genius Joe’s little lodge without looking to see if he’s in. Then through the dock doors and across an exposed strip of white-hot gravel and up to the falling-off door of the studio barn.

And there, she stops, her hand outstretched, and so chicly attenuated (it doesn’t escape her notice even at such a time).

You needn’t. You’re mistress, not him, not your loins, not this mad hierarchical mob. Draw back, go back, take the upper tack. You could. You can.

She shakes it off and draws up to plow in, but a voice sounds from just the other side of the door, and stops her.

“Mr Stahl, no, forgive me, Mr Onan-Stahl, the dearest, most elegant of my fresh-made acquaintances, I should never presume to extend this cracked hand, palm open, to beg of you such a concession, were it not that this selfsame palm is so spotted and blemished by advancèd age that I can only hope you will take pity on a wizened, nigh-friendless bachelor and grant my feebly murmured request.”

It’s a voice of incredible age, to be sure, but with an hauteur that distinguishes it from the dime-diamond townie crones inside. Could it be —

“Please, Signor da Fay, you may ask me anything.” Tybalt. Mewsy’s pulse throbs with that pesky, predictable lurch. “I come to be moulded, to be done with what it is you can do.” It’s Otto da Fay, then, himself, surely so ancient he must have been pickled or else brought back to life.

“Sir,” – it’s da Fay again now – “Although you speak with such guileless franchise that it seems only right that your words should be sense, someone of my – oh, my numberless – years can scent out the wisdom you’ve cleverly hid ‘neath their plainspoken front. I bow to the deference you’ve graciously shown, and presume upon it with only this single request. Simple, it is, or simple enough — tho’ like your own speech its simplicity belies a profundity hitherto unplumbed in our brief amicizia — and so I endeavour to express it simply: might I presume, in the long hours before us in which we shall, together, pore over Musick’s sacred sighs, presume to call you by your Christian name?”

“I would be honoured.”

Mewsy groans, draws back her hand, and stumbles back toward the still-open dock door.