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Fun at the Mayflower
The Navy Building, December 8, 3:30 PM.
Before making her quasi-legitimate early escape, Cynthia had first to stop in the ladies' room to change into the dress she had brought to wear for the evening. She would have improved her appearance in other ways, but she wanted to get out of the building quickly in order to avoid any possibility of a meeting with Miss Boscombe.
Out on the street, Cynthia walked even more briskly than usual, her large bag swinging as her high heels drummed the pavement. By the time she reached Pennsylvania Avenue, she felt far enough out of Miss Boscombe's reach to slow down. She now had a chance to work on her makeup, which she suspected of being badly smudged. She hated even to think about her hair.
The thing that had remained longest and strongest with Cynthia was her mother's injunction never to adjust her makeup or costume in public. The very words still came back to her.
"Even if something's gone wrong, it looks worse to fix it publicly than to leave it until you can get to a ladies' room."
Later on, Cynthia had mixed mostly with women who thought nothing of hauling out the mirror and lipstick wherever they happened to be. It always looked wrong to Cynthia, and the words "vulgar" and "common" were still part of her interior vocabulary on such occasions. In fact, such thoughts were all that now prevented her from doing that same thing herself.
For some moments, Cynthia continued to stand where she was, feeling uncomfortable about her appearance. She also wondered what to do with her unexpected late afternoon holiday. She had an appointment later, but now found herself with a couple of hours to kill. Suddenly deciding to go clothes shopping, she snapped open her purse. After all, she couldn't go into a store as she was. It would be better to get at least partially fixed here at the crowded corner where most of the women were more vulgar than she could ever be. Then, just as suddenly, she closed her purse again. It was remarkable to her, on reflection, that she had broken every other rule her mother could have imagined, but couldn't seem to break that one. Perhaps it was because so many of the other rules had only been assumed, it not being thought necessary to state them baldly.
Just then, a trolley came up with a roar and stopped with a screech of steel wheels and an odd clattering sound. While everyone was distracted, she got her mirror out quickly and discovered, to her relief, that she was in improbably good order.
Getting off the trolley near Eye Street with her coat collar turned up against the cold wind, Cynthia joined the early Christmas shoppers. She was impressed, not only by the number of panhandlers, but by the number of pinched depressed-looking ordinary people. This was the first Christmas of the depression. The year before, the market crash had barely occurred. While many financiers had been wiped out, the spirit of Christmas had hardly been affected. It was now that the sorts of people she knew were losing their jobs. Panic-stricken, they were just realizing that they might have to beg food for their families.
Anyone could tell, among the people she passed, which were in that situation. They didn't hurry because they couldn't buy anything and had nowhere to go. They perhaps had been trying to find work for the Christmas season. However, that was a real possibility only for the women. The men, not able to sell blouses in a department store, simply circulated in the hope that something would turn up. She herself was fascinated by these people, and tended to stare at them. But she stepped quickly away from any who looked as if they might ask for money.
Cynthia twice stepped into expensive shops. It heartened her to see the salesgirls step forward eagerly with commissions on their minds. Unbeknownst to them, she couldn't have begun to afford anything in sight. At the first store she only looked, but at the second she had the clerk bring her dresses to try on. Standing waiting in a fitting room in her slip, she had a chance to perfect her make-up and lipstick. She then straightened the seams of her stockings, adjusted her various straps, and peeked out between the curtains across the shop.
The store was expensive enough to contain only two customers beside herself. One was an elderly lady of obvious wealth, and the other was a man looking for a gift for his wife. The woman might not buy anything, but the man probably would. Cynthia wondered whether her clerk would be distracted by greater potential sales. Poking her head further out, she was pleased to see her clerk, head bent thoughtfully, choosing clothes. Then, looking back over her shoulder at the mirror, she twirled and decided, yet again, that no one would ever take her for a secretary.
Of the first dress, Cynthia said, with a good deal of sincerity,
"It makes my hair look dyed, and it isn't."
The clerk, large and sharp-faced, laughed. Eccentricity was evidently tolerated in the store. Cynthia said that the second dress made her look dumpy, which she knew wasn't true. The clerk held up the third dress, which was much the same shade of blue as the one Cynthia had worn to the office. When it was on and done up, the clerk stood back and said,
"You look absolutely terrific."
Cynthia secretly agreed. The price was fortunately a little higher than she expected, and she tried to sound casual as she remarked,
"I don't have that much with me."
"We'll take a check if you don't have a charge with us."
When it became clear that Cynthia simply couldn't afford the dress, the clerk left the fitting room without a word.
Cynthia, again dressed as she had arrived, took another peek outside the room. No one looked in her direction, or seemed to have any attention to spare for the pauper who had infiltrated the store. Then, on impulse, she exchanged the office dress in her bag for the one she had just tried on.
Out on the sidewalk again, Cynthia walked quickly. As she was about to cross the street diagonally, a bus roared by, frightening her back a couple of steps. She then joined the less enterprising pedestrians huddled at the street corner. It was now getting dark, and the commuters outnumbered the shoppers. Amid a light rain and gusts of wind, Cynthia was caught up in the crowd as it hurried nervously along.
When she reached Connecticut Avenue, the jewelry shops were barring their windows, and the sleazier elements of the crowd had entirely disappeared. This area was the preserve of high government officials, wealthy businessmen, and the lobbyists who so often brought the two together. Cynthia noticed a man who obviously belonged there. Relaxed and visibly pleased with himself, he strolled easily along despite the deteriorating weather conditions. He gave her a look as he passed by toward the entrance to the Mayflower Hotel, a look which she might have returned in other circumstances.
Cynthia was also headed for the Mayflower, and envied the man his easy assurance as he sauntered up to the building. She herself had to sneak behind a corner of the next building, again doing her best with mirror, lipstick, and reflected light. Only then did she dare approach the heavy revolving door and the large unpleasant-looking doorman guarding it. Absurd as she knew it to be, her recurring nightmare consisted in being mistaken for a prostitute entering the hotel in order to solicit. Once, she had actually woken screaming in the grip of that delusion. She now gave a little jump when the doorman spoke to her, but almost immediately realized that he was only wishing her good evening.
The next part was the one Cynthia found even more difficult. She would almost have preferred to blatantly walk straight into the Mayflower's lounge, where deep and dark deals were said to be consummated. Instead, she was under instructions to proceed to a small area, cordoned off from the rest of the lobby, where ice cream was served. As she walked carefully and erectly over the thick carpets, she tried to imagine herself back in Charleston, aged sixteen or so, arriving at the Mills House to meet her father. The present reality jarred with the remembered scene. The Mayflower, for all its elegance, had a soiled look. This was a gathering place, not for unemployed aristocratic gentlemen, but for men of power. And, thought Cynthia ruefully, their women.
Now within fifty feet of the little marble tables on which was being served the richest of ice cream, not to mention every variety of delectable chocolate goody, Cynthia looked over the assemblage. At the first few tables there were bored children whose mothers and nursemaids were bribing them to be good. Beyond them were some politicans and businessmen whose tastes in food were probably so diminished by bootleg whiskey that only candy and ice cream could get through to them. At the back, apparently trying to hide behind a newspaper, was the chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair, Rear Admiral D. D. Ricketts USN.
The admiral, in civilian dress, was just finishing a large bowl of chocolate ice cream over which had been spread bitter-sweet jimmies and a considerable amount of thick chocolate syrup. Although it was almost time for dinner, Admiral Ricketts didn't look like a man who was worried about spoiling his appetite.
The Bureau of Construction and Repair had always presented a problem for the navy. Since it was directly responsible for providing the ships whose characteristics decided battles, there was at most one bureau, that of Navigation, which was more important. However, BuCon was largely staffed by officers who were naval architects, and who, as specialists, lacked the prestige of the line officers. It was true that some of the naval architects had been to Annapolis. This helped, but not a great deal. The rest of the navy didn't want a naval architect, of whatever rank, in charge of such an important bureau. They said that such a man, with no real experience of command at sea, wouldn't understand the needs of the fleet. Even the naval architects themselves grudgingly admitted that they needed a chief who had more influence than one of their number could ever have.
On the other hand, the naval architects constituted a proud elite of a different kind. They, in turn, were likely to hold in open contempt an untutored line officer appointed to command them. That had happened a couple of times, and ship design had suffered.
Admiral Ricketts was a line officer who had, largely on his own, become a naval architect. Having taught himself most of what he needed to know, he had been given leave to attend one of the best civilian schools of naval architecture. Then, having graduated well, he returned to the navy a uniquely qualified man.
Unfortunately for himself, and perhaps for the navy, Ricketts was the sort of able person whose habits and personality seemed almost designed to get him less respect than his talents would otherwise have compelled. For a start, he was a compulsive talker. Many good ideas were interspersed in his conversation, but they were diluted by a kind of juvenile foolishness almost unique in an officer of his seniority, at least apart from those on the retired list who had entered their second childhood. Moreover, he was remembered from Annapolis as an inveterate practical joker. He no longer gave people hotfoots or proferred exploding cigars, but those were the sorts of things that would be remembered until his whole class was dead.
Above all, Ricketts was thought to lack the natural dignity so important for an officer. Tall, with a receding chin and toothbrush moustache, he looked a little like a prominent cartoon character featured in most daily newspapers.
These attributes would have retired him as a lieutenant commander, despite his unquestioned ability, if it hadn't been for one other thing. Ricketts came from a long line of noble Virginians who had been generals and admirals for a century and a half. Thus, when he reached an appropriate age, he was promoted and put in charge of the bureau.
Even Ricketts' detractors admitted his success at BuCon. The naval architects respected him, much more than did the line officers, and he had personally led the design team responsible for some ships that were the envy of the world's navies.
Cynthia knew all this as she approached the admiral's table and slid into the chair next to him. She deftly brushed away his attempt to touch her intimately in a way that he thought couldn't be seen. She thought, not for the first time, that he was more like a little boy than any man she had ever known. At first, she had been charitable. She had said to herself, and a to very few of her closest friends, that he was child-like and rather charming. She still thought that occasionally, but she also had moods in which she thought Ricketts juvenile and tiresome. For example, he would go to elaborate lengths to meet her secretly, and then impulsively lift her skirt in a public place. Far from being titillated, as the admiral seemed to imagine, Cynthia found such sudden exposures maddening and humiliating.
In order to get the admiral's mind off sex, Cynthia started talking about navy business. Ricketts responded so volubly that she wondered how long it would take a Mata Hari to worm every last secret out of him. She thanked God that she had gotten to him before some femme fatale in the pay of the Japanese government.
What Ricketts said surprised Cynthia considerably. He was saying good things about Sheldon Stone.
"I think we may have misjudged that young man. He isn't just trying to save money. He really does have a plan. A reconstructed old ship can be better than a new one if it fits into a strategy. You give away speed, but speed doesn't always matter all that much."
It was remarkable how quickly Ricketts changed when he started discussing professional matters. The cartoon character's chin and moustache were still there, of course, but he kept his mouth more nearly closed and seemed to get a grip on himself. One was no longer surprised when he spoke persuasively. If the admiral had always been like that, Cynthia would have hesitated to ask him questions which might seem naive. As it was, she had no inhibitions on that score.
"I thought everyone wanted to build faster ships. Even the admirals who don't believe in aircraft carriers want to build fast battleships. I'm sure Admiral Snelling does."
"He's an old fool. You see, the Japanese have to attack us. They have to come to our fleet and destroy it. We want to prepare, and then let them come. We don't need speed to sit and wait for them."
"But Stone wants to cancel the contract for the new carrier. Don't you believe in carriers?"
"Of course I do. The battleship is dead. But Stone also wants to take the guns out of some of the existing battleships and put flight decks on them. Much cheaper than new carriers. We'll get much more airpower for our money."
The procedure that followed was something of a farce. The admiral had rented separate rooms for himself and his "niece." Cynthia was sure that no one was fooled by this arrangement. She hoped only that he tipped the staff well enough to keep them quiet.
The separate room arrangement did give Cynthia a chance to put on her new dress before Admiral Ricketts, eager to top his ice cream off with dessert, banged on her door. Admitting him, she dimmed the lights and led him to the window. The storm had now broken, and quantities of water were being driven against the glass, sometimes threatening to break it. Cynthia opened the window a little to admit the sound and smell of the rain. After all, a wet windowsill wasn't her problem.
The admiral didn't seem to be interested in such sounds and smells. Cynthia, for the moment feeling rather elegant, posed against the window in the dress, and asked him how he liked it. She got only grunts for a reply. Then, feeling as if she were attempting to postpone the inevitable, she suggested that, since it was such a nice room, they could have wine sent up and drink it at the little table by the window while the storm lent drama to the occasion. However, even as she spoke, she knew that Admiral Ricketts wasn't open to that sort of suggestion. Submitting with some grace and dignity to his outspoken demands, she slowly embarked on what had become a routine process.
In the flurry of activity that followed, she relaxed and produced just that degree of enthusiasm which was both supportive and ladylike. It would have been better if the admiral hadn't uttered the word, "yummy," several times. But it was still infinitely better than it might have been with, say, Admiral Snelling.
Afterwards, Cynthia quite enjoyed the supper which was brought while the admiral hid in the bathroom. The waiter who brought servings for two people never seemed to think it odd that there was only one diner. Even to Cynthia, the waiter's demeanor seemed rather funny, and they never failed to laugh about it. It was at such times, with Admiral Ricketts at his most relaxed, that it seemed to her that, whatever shortcomings he might have as a lover, he could be a good companion.
While the role of mistress to the admiral was distasteful to Cynthia in some ways, it served a larger purpose. She had, a year ago, been called to see her family's lawyer. He had informed her that her family, while not wishing to communicate, had not forgotten her. Despite all Cynthia's errors of commission and omission, she was given to understand that Dottie's education would be paid for, and that she herself could count on a reasonably comfortable middle and old age. Cynthia had thanked the lawyer for his information, and had begun to think about a boarding school for Dottie. That left only her own immediate future unprovided for. It was at that point that she had met Admiral Ricketts.
Despite his unpreposessing appearance and his married status, Cynthia had had some romantic feelings. She had also had some more practical expectations. After all, no self- respecting admiral would allow his mistress to starve. Cynthia had therefore encouraged him, somewhat more than she might later have wished.
Partly on account of Cynthia, the admiral had decided to retire in a couple of years, at which point he would take up a lucrative position as the Washington representative of a large shipbuilder. That is, he would be a glorified lobbyist selling ships to his former subordinates at BuCon. While this might have seemed a come-down for a rather distinguished man, the financial advantages were great. The Ricketts family, while long on honor, was rather short on cash. Probably even more important than the money, the admiral would be able to make Cynthia his private secretary.
To match the admiral's dream of a love nest in the inner office of some great Washington building, Cynthia had a dream of getting away from Miss Boscombe and Admiral Snelling. Ricketts, in his early fifties, seemed good for many years yet, enough to take Cynthia through to her inheritance. It had also occurred to her that the admiral's sexual energy would be completely consumed during business hours. Then, when he was at home with his wife, she would have all her evenings free. She would have a much better salary, and could then live in a way that might attract someone younger and more attractive than the admiral.
It was while Cynthia was reviewing these thoughts that the admiral returned to their earlier conversation.
"You know, if I planned to stay in the navy a long time, I'd want to design and build new ships. But, as it is, I can just about get the conversion of the battleships and destroyers well under way before I quit."
"I didn't know that destroyers were also involved."
"Oh yes. That's where Stone's plan is really rather clever. We have a thirteen knot fleet that takes its own tankers with it. Eliminates the whole supply problem. But you don't need fast new destroyers to escort a slow fleet. We take the old four-stackers and replace their armament entirely with anti- aircraft guns. Planes may kill them, but they'll die hard."
"I wish they didn't have to die at all."
"Something always goes down in battle. What matters is what you have left. Now, at this point, there are two very good things, one for the United States Navy, and one for D. D. Ricketts."
Cynthia knew that she was expected to ask, but was genuinely curious. She took her companion's hand as he replied.
"Ok. For the navy. The most dangerous attack is by aerial torpedo. But we have scores of these old destroyers. So we pack them in tight against the heavy ships. Torpedoes might go under them, but we add fin keels of several feet along the length of the destroyers. Those probably catch the torpedoes and might even make the destroyers more seaworthy."
It struck the admiral as extremely funny that this meausure to make the destroyers better torpedo bait might make them more seaworthy, and he guffawed at length. He then resumed,
"The result'll be that a torpedo can't hardly get through without hitting one of the destroyers. Then, when one gets blown in two, another moves into its place. And, while this is going on, the destroyers shoot down attacking bombers with all the AA stuff we'll have crammed on board."
With Murphy's description of being torpedoed in a destroyer of exactly that type vividly in her mind, Cynthia let go the admiral's hand and asked,
"It isn't because of us that you want to do this is it?"
"Well, in a way. It's mostly because of you that I want to leave the navy. If I stayed, I'd have to fight Stone along with the rest of them. As soon as it becomes known that I agree with him, my naval career will be at an end."
"Is that what you said was good for D. D. Ricketts?"
Up to this point, Ricketts had mostly displayed what Cynthia privately called his naval expression. She hadn't liked what he was saying, but she realized that he and Stone were no more Machiavellian than the rest. They were only more intelligent and imaginative. Now, however, the naval expression collapsed into the juvenile expression as he grabbed her. She knew that he wouldn't be interested in more than one helping of sex at a sitting, but he still pawed unpleasantly at her as he almost shouted,
"Old destroyers are what'll make old D. D. rich."
Having let out this whoop, he seemed fascinated by the repetition of the phrase, "make old D. D. rich." It was only after he had repeated his chant several times that Cynthia got him to quiet down and explain.
"You see, new destroyer contracts would mostly go to the best builders, the Bath Iron Works, up in Maine. Now, those New England businessmen are regular bears to deal with. If you go up there to look at the ships, its either lunch at the company mess hall or you pay your own way somewhere decent. They're practically puritans, just like old Cotton Mather."
"I don't guess you're a puritan, are you, D. D.?"
"No maam. I find it much easier to do business at certain other shipyards. And, if every old four-stacker is to be rearmed, there'll be so many contracts that the Bath Iron Works won't get most of them. I can steer a good many in other directions. By the time you and I get settled into an office somewhere downtown, there'll be a whole lot of folks who think they owe us something."
It was after ten when the taxi Admiral Ricketts had engaged for Cynthia drew up at Mt. Vernon Place, in the slums north of the capitol. She had formerly had the taxi drop her a block away, but it was impossible to keep secrets in such a neighborhood. Finally, one of the older men in Cynthia's building had told her that no one minded a taxi coming to the house, and that it was dangerous for her to walk even one block. At the same time, she had realized that it was better for her to openly admit that she saw a married man. She might otherwise have been taken for a prostitute of the higher class.
As she entered the building and crossed the hall, a woman a little older than herself waved to her through the open door of her apartment. Marie sat there so often and watched so much that she could have compiled at least a partial dossier on the residents. It amused Cynthia that Marie was raising the boy at her side to be a "crook lawyer" under the impression that there were limited financial horizons for the honest attorney. Cynthia suspected that, if Marie had known that the man she had just left was an admiral, she would have been offered a drink in celebration.
Upstairs, through another open door, Cynthia caught the glance of a pleasant young woman from the north whom everyone called, according to the southern custom, Mary Elizabeth. In her early twenties, Mary Elizabeth seemed to have a husband somewhere. However, she lived mostly alone, even after a child had been born a year previously. Cynthia was invited in for tea, but made an excuse. Actually, she felt rather guilty because the young woman so often took Dottie out, along with her baby. Allah be praised, she seemed actually to enjoy Dottie's company.
Cynthia was also a little uncomfortable because Mary Elizabeth, unlike almost everyone else in the neighborhood, came from Cynthia's own sort of people. As such, she might not be as familiar with the need for moral compromise as, say, Marie. On the other hand, Mary Elizabeth didn't seem judgmental. She now came to the door and called out, apparently in afterthought,
"Oh Cynthia, Katie left about an hour ago, and said she'd do the washing tomorrow."
Katie was the maid who cleaned and looked after Dottie for almost nothing. Cynthia thanked Mary Elizabeth for the message, and stopped in the hall to talk a minute. The young woman said,
"I was up at the market today with the children when two men started to fight with razors. It was horrible, but sort of fascinating. Of course, I got us right away, so I didn't see how it ended."
Cynthia suspected that, had it not been for the children, Mary Elizabeth would have tried to get a closer view. She now asked,
"Did Dottie see it?"
"I don't think so. She seemed to be looking the other way, and a crowd formed so quickly. You would have had to climb on top of one of the market tables to see."
Mary Elizabeth was so serious that it was impossible not to laugh.
"I bet you would've done exactly that if you'd been alone."
"Oh no. I'm learning. I really am. When I see any sort of trouble, I clear out."
It was obvious that Mary Elizabeth had, from her own point of view, learned a great deal since eloping from Wellesley College. Probably she did know many things that would have shocked her mother. But Cynthia guessed that there were other matters that Mary Elizabeth hadn't even begun to take in. Cynthia herself was often accused, by people like Marie, of being naive about the slums and the people who lived in them. Indeed, it was only with Mary Elizabeth that she could pretend to be an old hand.
It seemed to Cynthia that she and Mary Elizabeth should have been closer than they were. After all, they had both left comfortable homes against the strong disapproval of their families, and had both taken a few predictable lumps as a result of it. But there remained a great gap which made it difficult for them to talk for any length of time, and then only about superficial things. Indeed, most of what they did know about one another had been gleaned from third parties.
Cynthia had the impression that Mary Elizabeth was somewhat more comfortable with her than she was with Mary Elizabeth. At the present moment, for example, she herself had one foot behind the other, ready to move away to her own apartment. Mary Elizabeth, by contrast, was leaning happily against the corridor wall. Cynthia made a conscious effort to eliminate her tension, but couldn't really. She finally realized what was wrong.
It wasn't just, or even mostly, a matter of her feeling guilt, or feeling cheap and sleazy. She felt their disparity more keenly than did Mary Elizabeth because she knew, and the other did not, that their fates pointed them in almost directly opposed directions. She knew, and Mary Elizabeth didn't, that it would be only a matter of months before the latter took her baby and went back to her family in Boston. Cynthia, on the other hand, had been extremely lucky to get the call from her family's lawyer. There had never been any question of going back.
As she bade the other good night and started up the third floor stairs, Cynthia knew that her main chance for the next couple of decades depended on something beyond her control: the relative permanency of certain of the appetites of a distinguished but rather irregular rear admiral. One who might, at any moment, give up the struggle and go to earth with his wife.
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