Excerpt from 'Hotel de Dream'
Hotel de Dream
A New York Novel
By Edmund White
EccoCopyright © 2007 Edmund White
All right reserved.
Cora never thought for a moment that her young husband could die. Other people-especially that expensive specialist who'd come down for the day from London and stuck his long nose into every corner of Brede Place and ended up charging her fifty pounds!-he'd whispered that Stevie's lungs were so bad and his body so thin and his fever so persistent that he must be close to the end. But then, contradicting himself, he'd said if another hemorrhage could be held off for three weeks he might improve.
It was true that she had had a shock the other day when she'd bathed Stephen from head to foot and looked at his body standing in the tub like a classroom skeleton. She'd had to hold him up with one hand while she washed him with the other. His skin was stretched taut against the kettledrum of his pelvis.
And hot-he was always hot and dry. He himself said he was "a dry twig on the edge of the bonfire."
"Get down, Tolstoi, don't bother him," Cora shouted at the tatterdemalion mutt. It slipped off its master's couch and trotted over to her, sporting its feathery tail high like a white standard trooped through the dirty ranks. She unconsciously snuggled her fingers under his silky ears and he blinked at the unexpected pleasure.
The newspapers kept running little items at the bottom of the page headlined, "Stephen Crane, the American Author, Very Ill." The next day they announced that the American author was improving. She'd been the little bird to drop that particular seed about improvement down their gullets.
Poor Stephen-she looked at his head as he gasped on the pillow. She knew that even in sleep his dream was full of deep, beautiful thoughts and not just book-learning! No, what a profound wisdom of the human heart he'd tapped into. And his thoughts were clothed in such beautiful raiments.
This little room above the massive front oak door was his study, where now he was wheezing, listless and half-asleep, on the daybed. The whole room smelled of dogs and mud. At one end, under the couch and Stephen's table, there lay a threadbare Persian carpet, pale and silky but discolored on one side with a large tea-stain the shape of Borneo. At the other end of the room it had amused Stephen to throw rushes on the floor as if he were a merry old soul living in crude, medieval splendor. There were reeds and rushes and grass everywhere downstairs, which confused two of the three dogs, Tolstoi and Spongie, into thinking they were outdoors: they weren't always mindful of their best housebroken comportment.
The maid, a superstitious old thing, had placed a small jar of tar under Stephen's bed. Did she think it would absorb the evil spirits, or hold off the ghosts that were supposed to haunt Brede Place?
Yes, Stephen had all the symptoms, what the doctors called the "diathesis," or look of consumption: nearly transparent skin, through which blue veins could be seen ticking, and a haggard face and a cavernous, wheezing chest. His hair was as lank and breakable as old lamp fringe. His voice was hoarse from so much coughing and sometimes he sounded as if he were an owl hooting in the innermost chamber of a deep cave. He complained of a buzzing in the ears and even temporary deafness, which terrified a "socialist" like him, the friendliest man on earth (it was Cora's companion, the blameless but dim Mrs. Ruedy, who had worked up this very special, facetious, meaning of socialist). Cora wondered idly if Mrs. Ruedy was back in America yet-another rat deserting the sinking ship.
Cora glimpsed something bright yellow and pushed back Stephen's shirt-oh! the doctor had painted the right side of his torso with iodine. At least they weren't blistering him. She remembered how one of the "girls" in her house, the Hotel de Dream, in Jacksonville, had had those hot jars applied to her back and bust in order to raise painful blisters, all to no avail. She'd already been a goner.
"Hey, Imogene," Stephen murmured, his pink-lidded eyes fluttering open. He smiled, a faint echo of his usual playfulness. He liked to call her "Imogene Carter," the nom de plume she'd made up for herself when she was a war correspondent in Greece and which she still used for the gossip columns and fashion notes she sent to American newspapers.
"What is it, Stevie?" she asked, crouching beside him.
"Tell me," he said, "is the truth bitter as eaten fire?"
Oh, she thought. He's quoting himself. One of his poems. A kind of compliment, probably, since in the very next stanza, she recalled, there was something about his love living in his heart. Or maybe it was just idle chatter and all he wanted was something to say, something that would hold her there.
"I see," he said in so soft a whisper that she had to bend her ear closer to his lips, "I see you're airing your hair." He was making fun of her habit of loosening her long golden hair two or three hours every day and letting it flow over her shoulders. Arnold Bennett had been horrified, she'd been told, by her undressed hair when he dropped in unexpected for lunch one day. He'd told Mrs. Conrad (who'd unkindly passed the gossip along) that Cora's Greek sandals and her diaphanous chiton-like wrapper and loose hair made her look "horrible, like an actress at breakfast." But Mr. Bennett didn't have much hair nor would it ever have been his chief glory. There was nothing glorious about him except his prose, and that only intermittently.
No, Cora firmly believed that a woman must let her hair down every day for a spell if it were to remain vigorous and shiny (she'd heard that Sarah Bernhardt did the same; at sixty she looked thirty).
Excerpted from Hotel de Dream by Edmund White Copyright © 2007 by Edmund White. Excerpted by permission.
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