"Act two, scene one." Noel rolled his eyes.
Two men strode into the room, one of them already speaking loudly. As we all watched, our conversations stopped. Both were dressed in black-tie formal long cutaway jackets with white silk scarves, traces of light snow melting on their collars. Feathered fedoras held to their chests. They paused, as if uncertain of their welcome, and Noel breathed in, catching my eye. "Dramatis personae. The villains enter. The catastrophe. Are you ready for this, Edna?"
"Did you invite him?"
"Of course not." He paused. "Well, Buzzy Collins, yes. He's invited everywhere. It's almost an unwritten law in Manhattan society. But not Cyrus."
Buzzy Collins approached Noel, a nervous grin on his face. "Noel, we've just come from the Christmas concert at St. John the Divine, so far uptown I thought we were in Connecticut." He glanced back at the entrance where Cyrus Meerdom was slowly unwrapping the white scarf he'd worn over his tuxedo.
A smallish, round man with a cherubic face and a bulbous beet-red nose under a beetle-domed forehead, Buzzy demanded that everyone know him—everyone who possessed money and social position. He seemed to be connected to everyone in the Social Register—his mother was a distant Vanderbilt cousin, once a famous hostess—so he was invited everywhere, though no one understood how he fit into the social fabric of Manhattan, let alone the insular theatrical world of Schubert Alley.
"I hope you don't mind me bringing Cyrus. He tagged along and..."
Noel snapped, "Of course I mind, Buzzy. I choose who walks around my home."
Stunned, Buzzy shuffled away and lifted a glass of wine from someone standing near him, apologized, then downed it. "Good stuff." He spoke to himself. "Though I've had better."
Last spring Cyrus had passed on financing Noel's Words and Music, not unusual for a producer, especially in precarious times, but Cyrus made the mistake of commenting to Walter Winchell that Noel's snappy dialogue and rarefied characters smacked of empty posturing typical of an English dandy. Noel's words, he'd noted, were like sweetened plum pudding with the pits in the mix. Noel never forgave the barb, given Winchell's gleeful trumpeting of the remark in his column, and Noel purposely cut Cyrus at functions, at one point describing the small, officious man as a pus-filled canker sore. No love lost—and the rich stuff of Broadway gossip. And yet here was Cyrus standing in Noel's entrance with a smug look that said paradoxically—I wonder why this effete Britisher Noel Coward has dared crash my lovely party?
At that moment Belinda, tucked into Dougie's side, let out a harsh laugh. Slack-jawed, she never took her eyes off Cyrus. Every head turned to look. Hiccoughing now, she muttered something into Dougie's side, tittered a bit, then dipped her head into her chest.
Cyrus was frozen in that entryway, a look of surprise in his face. Doubtless he'd not expected to see Belinda at the party. With his index finger he drummed his lips, a silent tap tap tap, his stare unblinking. Then, tugging at the scarf in his hand, he looked over his shoulder, as if to escape, but finally, probably remembering how rich he was, he strutted into the center of the room. His eyes locked on Belinda. Eyes darting wildly here and there, Dougie cleared his throat, but faltered. Withering under the severity of Cyrus' look, Belinda turned away, bending her body and shielding herself behind Dougie.
Conscious of the room watching him, Cyrus ran his tongue into the corner of his mouth. "Harlot," he hissed.
Yet I noticed something in his eyes that belied his cruel attack: puppy-dog longing, hurt. Almost immediately, he seemed to regret what he'd said, breathing in and closing his eyes.
The explosive word stunned the room. Helpless, Dougie glanced from Cyrus to Belinda, who was still hiccoughing, and he seemed confused. "Cyrus, I think... " He took a step forward, wobbled on his heels, and gripped the edge of a chair.
Tommy Stuyvesant walked toward Cyrus. Nodding back at Belinda, a look that took in a nail-biting Dougie, he spoke into the awful silence. "Cyrus, perhaps you shouldn't be here."
Cyrus spoke over his words. "Hail, hail the gang's all here. What the hell do you care?"
A grumpy sound from Noel as he moved closer. "Gentlemen—"
He got no further. Tommy held up his hand. "Cyrus, you know how the game is played. Old men like you and me." A dismissive glance back at Belinda. "Pretty little things are like butterflies on flowers. They flit..."
Cyrus thundered. "This got nothing to do with you, Tommy. You stole her from my show. The day 'my' revue closed, you swooped in and signed her. Unfair. I had plans. I took her from that Hell's Kitchen slag heap. You stole her from my..."
"Bed?" Tommy interrupted. "Really? I hope that's not what you were planning. Don't be absurd. A decoration at a table in a nightclub."
Emboldened, Dougie lunged forward. "This has nothing to do with both of you. Belinda and I are in love." A squeaky voice, breaking.
The simple romantic declaration sounded preposterous—a throwaway line from an old melodrama. Rudolph Valentino in flowing desert robes, wide-eyed into the camera. But it was said with such innocence that someone—a suave Leslie Howard, I realized, watching the antics with a glint in his eye—laughed outright.
"She loves your money," Cyrus said.
This excerpt ends on page 13 of the paperback edition.