FICTION

Swan DANCE

There’s laughter, tears, beauty, in this story of how Caro Fesant brought Ballet in Fourteen Simple Lessons to Duffy’s Siding

THOMAS H. RADDALL April 15 1941
FICTION

Swan DANCE

There’s laughter, tears, beauty, in this story of how Caro Fesant brought Ballet in Fourteen Simple Lessons to Duffy’s Siding

THOMAS H. RADDALL April 15 1941

Swan DANCE

THOMAS H. RADDALL

There’s laughter, tears, beauty, in this story of how Caro Fesant brought Ballet in Fourteen Simple Lessons to Duffy’s Siding

MISS FESANT was not beautiful, though she comforted herself sometimes with the notion that her figure was rather good; and she was thirty-five. Her eyes were really her best feature, for she was an incurable romantic and they were large and grey and soft. Her hair was a dead-blond mop which after an application of curling irons looked like a third-rate wig, and her teeth had been repaired by an irregular succession of country dentists. For this reason she cultivated a prim little smile and never laughed. Indeed, after seventeen years of dreary one-room schools and frugal boardinghouses she had ceased to have any desire to laugh. Her parents had been dead many years, and there were no relatives worth mention. She spent her vacations on summer courses at the Normal School, which filled her mind with all sorts of knowledge but did not improve her standing in the eyes of country-school trustees, who believed in reading, writing, arithmetic, and the importance of keeping the tax rate down—in the reverse order of importance.

But at Normal School one year she encountered the passion of her life. There was a course in folk dancing, and Miss Fesant became infused with the spirit of Terpsichore. It was not a passion at first. She thought with the provincial school board that it offered a means of livening the country-school routine. Later, by an ingrowing process, the spirit of the dance became something personal and momentous. She sent for books. Here at last was an emotional outlet that recognized no age in women. Look at Pavlowa ! With a growing intoxication she studied pictures of charming females moving birdlike well above the sordid earth, and attended by daringly unclad young men posed in adoring attitudes.

She examined her legs and found them long and astonishingly well made. She stood her mirror on the floor against the wall and inspected herself, so to speak, from the spectator’s point of view, with a breathless air of discovery. On the strength of this discovery, and to satisfy a craving not yet fully understood, she sent to Montreal for a ballet costume, and when it came she retired to her room and admired herself in the fluffy whiteness for two straight hours. She went on like this, like a female Narcissus with an eight-by-twelve-inch pool, for several weeks, and from posing she went to the real thing, with “Ballet, in Fourteen Simple Lessons” lying open on the bed. This brought trouble. Unimaginative landladies knocked on her door and asked, “Is anything wrong?” and later told the school trustees that Miss Fesant was subject to fits. And when her leapings dislodged a square yard of plaster from the ceiling of one sacrosanct parlor an outraged woman demanded and secured the dismissal of the schoolma’am on the grounds of secret drinking.

In other places her efforts to teach folk dancing in the village school brought other trouble. It was regarded as a waste of time, and therefore, taxes. In some sections dancing was held immoral, and at the term’s end she received a polite farewell and no invitation to return in the fall. Spring—season of joy, especially for young and more personable scnoolma’ams—spring was the season of dread for Miss Fesant, a time of waiting, of anxious smiles and secret tears, of an invitation that did not come, a silence that stabbed like a sword. But she persisted in her teachings. In the widely scattered sections of her pilgrimage children learned for a single season how to dance Christchurch Bells, Brighton Camp, Gathering Peascods, Rufty Tufty, Haste to the Wedding and Bonnets So Blue, cultivating “(a) Grace of manner and dignified behavior between sexes, and (b) the art of moving easily and naturally, always maintaining a fair presence and courtly bearing,” in the formula laid down by the Normal School.

At last, by a process of gravitation familiar to the sorrowful sisterhood of fading country schoolma’ams, she came to Duffy’s Siding, a poor section squatting in the backwoods beside a railway branch line where trains ran twice a week. It had no attraction for teachers who were young, comely, clever and everything else that Miss Fesant was not, so the trustees engaged her and, what is more, kept her. The salary was small, paid if-as-and-when the tax collector could raise the money. Out of her pittance Miss Fesant paid board and lodging, sent to mail-order firms for clothes, looked after personal expenses, and endeavored to put aside something to tide her over the summer vacation and provide for her old age.

The Siding looked for its living to a small lumber mill operating about seven months in the year, and eked out an existence with vegetable patches cultivated in the thin soil of the clearings. A village of morose people living furtively in small unpainted houses as if in beleaguered towers. Once a week the thin clang of the church bell proclaimed a truce in this invisible war. They ventured forth and sat, stiff-backed, in hard narrow pews; and a quavering old man told them the meek should inherit the earth, and blessed were the poor—and if the poor did not shingle the parsonage roof next fall, the meek would be obliged to move into the parsonage woodshed.

Miss Fesant’s school concerts came as manna to the poor, if not the meek. They did not approve dancing anymore than the others, but it was something new to the Siding—and it was free. They crowded the little schoolhouse to the doors to watch their offspring clodhopping

about the floor. Under this stimulus the concerts became frequent. More, Miss Fesant began to make personal appearances. Not in the cherished ballet costume of course —such a display of her unsuspected limbs would have been misunderstood at Duffy’s Siding. But in the Isadora Duncan manner she hovered in the background in flowing diaperies and interpreted the Spirit of Spring and other themes while her pupils performed. It was received as something vaguely uplifting if slightly unbecoming in a female of Miss Fesant’s position. But it left Miss Fesant unsatisfied.

rTvHE SPIRIT of Terpsichore, which had refused to be cribbed within the walls of a boardinghouse bedroom, was cabined and confined now in this schoolhouse full of doubting parents. Terpsichore had led Miss Fesant far from her old shrinking self. It was not that she wanted to display her lissom ligure and her really charming legs. She craved the thrill and warmth of footlights, of music, of an audience sensitive to the finer things of life. All these things lay in Cannellton, thirty miles of dirt road away, with a population of two or three thousand and a talkingpicture show. Impossible, of course. But was it? She pondered it through many a sleepless night, and at last, after several burning resolves and craven weakenings, she went to Cannellton in Willie Blore’s car, along with His Majesty’s mails, and sought out the proprietor of the show. Cannellton was known to motion-picture salesmen as a punk show town, a Saturday-night town in the sticks. For this reason Mr. J. Shelley Ditmars operated as his chief line of business a fruit-and-candy store, with ice-cream parlor attached.

Mr. Ditmars received Miss Fesant with a rather anxious smile, a worried hospitality, suspecting that the local Council of Women had sent a delegate to object to “Furnace Love,” the coming feature at his Opera House. Under the inquisitive noses of Cannellton candy shoppers he swept her out of the store and into his office. When she blurted out her mission he was astonished.

“A hoofin’ act! I dunno, Miss—Miss—”

“Caroline Fesant.”

“Miss Pheasant, I don’t know what to say. The talkies’ve put that kind o’ thing out o’ business. A few show jxíople drift up this way doin’ one-night stands but —I’ll be frank with you Miss Partridge—they’re poor stuff. Burlesque show here five or six months ago—outfit from Toronto, or so they said. Terrible. Show flopped right here. Manager lit out. Had to ship ’em out o’ town myself to get ’em off my hands.”

“But I’m not a burlesque show,” Miss Fesant said with dignity. “I am”-—her lips fluttered over the splendid word —“a danseuse, Mr. Ditmars.”

Mr. Ditmars thought she looked more like a backwoods schoolma’am, but he did not like to say so. He was a round little man of fifty, with pippin cheeks and sandy hair that

was getting a bit sparse on top. In his youth he had married a doll-faced creature who turned out to have little more than the face and a temper, not even, as Mr. Ditmars sometimes sighed to himself, a “ligger.” He had been a thankful widower for fifteen years, with no more illusions about women. He had none about Miss Fesant. He broke it to her gently.

“I—ah—I can’t afford it, Miss. That’s a fact.”

Miss Fesant made her eyes very large. “But it won’t cost you a cent, Mr. Ditmars. I’m not a professional”— how glibly that word came!—“I dance, Mr. Ditmars, for the simple love of it.”

“You mean—it’s free?” Mr. Ditmars had nevor heard of such a thing.

“Mr. Ditmars,” she begged, “let me go on your stage— just once, for five minutes—between the pictures. Then you’ll see. And if the audience likes me, perhaps I’ll come again. But I don’t want any money.”

Mr. Ditmars searched for another weapon. “Pianna !” he ejaculated. “Pianna’s out o’ tune—full o’ moths, y’ know —all that. Besides, it’d cost a dollar to hire a piannaplayer.”

“I’ll gladly pay for the tuning, and for the pianist,” said the danseuse loftily.

The last of his defenses was gone. He could not say a blunt No, not under the gaze of those enormous grey eyes. He was bewildered. He looked at the cheap jacket and the long out-of-date skirt and thought she was a little mad. He saw the queer passion in her eyes and was sure of it. But he could not say No. After all, she might put on a good act, and the Cannellton Courier would commend him for his enterprise, as if he had paid for it. Mr. Ditmars spoke his thought aloud.

“What have I got to lose?” asked Mr. Ditmars of the gods.

“What indeed,” said Miss Fesant.

“I’ll do it, Miss—er—Pigeon. I’ll give you a spot—let me see, dark house Monday, Wednesday and Friday, see?— give you a spot Tuesday night between Mickey Mouse and the feature. Be here eight o’clock sharp, see? If you don’t mind my sayin’ so, it seems a bit queer, but I’ll try anything once. What’ll I announce?”

Miss Fesant stilled the song in her heart for a moment. “Just put on the screen, ‘Caroline Fesant, Danseuse.’ No — wait a moment. Make it ‘Caro — Caro Fesant, Danseuse.’ ”

“Carrow Pheasant Dancers,” repeated Mr. Ditmars, busy with a pencil.

nPHE OPERA HOUSE was a long shingled box near the

end of Main Street. The flat roof had a wo<Klen parapet with embrasures to suggest castellated walls, and a ventilating cupola, white with pigeon droppings, rose from the midst of it like a donjon keep that had shrunk in the sun. The side and rear walls were unpainted and afflicted with

mange where patches of old shingles had curled away and dropped to the ground. But the front was a staring evesmiting blue, with a large electric sign. A flight of wooden steps, wide at the bottom and narrowing swiftly, led the eye and the customers toward the big red doorway and the little ticket booth where, thrice a week, J. Shelley Ditmars sat with his ticket roll and neat little columns of change.

She inspected the interior in mingled fear and triumph. It vas a dismal place. With the advent of talking pictures the old stage had been cut back hopefully to make room for more seats, leaving a twelve-foot space before the big while screen. From that space orators harangued Cannellton audiences at election time, perched like large and noisy sparrows on a window ledge. There were footlights, a miracle. The sockets were etnpty. She would have to speak to Mr. Ditmars about that. She stood for a full minute gazing over the dim rows of empty seats, populating them with the citizenry of Cannellton, hearing thunders of applause from the red plush thirty-five-cent rows and approving whistles from the gallery, where the projection box reared its white asbestos walls.

Sie turned, a little dizzy with exaltation, and found herself in the murky backstage. At one time there had beer two dressing rooms, male and female. These liad been robbed of all privacy to make space for the battery of loudspeakers and other equipment which lurked behind the screen. In a naked place marked “Ladies Dressing” a

rickety chair stood mournfully before the cracked grey ghost of a mirror. Three or four dingy powder puffs littered the dressing table, relics of the last stand, with a saucer full of cigarette butts, dry and dusty and faintly stained with lip-rouge. Light sockets dangled, bulbless, from dark spaces overhead. The soiled plaster walls bore many inscriptions, with dates going back an incredible time. The most recent, done with lipstick, contained nine exotic feminine names in a crimson loop, and below, “Stuck in the sticks. Oh you Toronto.” A single unclean window looked down upon a hollow filled with the rusty bones of dead automobiles, and a swamp beyond. In its mutilation, its draughts and darkness, its dust that lay thick like a sediment from that darkness, the backstage of Ditmars’ Opera House bore witness to the death of vaudeville and the light of other days.

It should have discouraged Caro Fesant,

Danseuse. Instead, it sent her briskly forth to buy two or three light bulbs and to hunt up a pianist. She must have a rehearsal now, there would be no other chance. Foreseeing the need, she had brought

with her a woollen jumper and a pair of cotton slacks, together with her dancing shoes. Into these she changed, in the dusty Ladies Dressing, while the pianist wakened tinny echoes with an instrument long resigned unto death.

There is little to say of that rehearsal. It was Miss Fesant's first attempt at the ballet in anything larger than a bedroom, and the pianist’s first excursion into the higher forms of dance music. Miss Fesant went back to Duffy’s Siding in a state of delighted exhaustion. The pianist, a tall hollow-faced young man in horn-rimmed glasses, went straight to the Government liquor store and then retired from the world and its j>erplexities for twenty-four straight hours.

On Tuesday Miss Fesant conducted her school in a misty dream, and at closing time she Hew to the Widow

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Anderson’s, to her room, to the bed where she had communed so often with her soul. At supper time she was still there. She did not want food, she said. The Widow Anderson was concerned. She tried the door. It was not locked. She went in.

“Caroline,” said Mrs. Anderson, “whatever is the matter? Are you sick?”

Miss Fesant sat up on the bed. Her big grey eyes shone feverishly. They lit her pale face like lamps.

“Mrs. Anderson, I—I’m dancing— tonight—on a real stage.”

“Well,” said the widow sensibly, “that’s nothing to starve yourself about.”

“Oh—but it’s the Opera House stage— you know, in Cannellton.”

There was a silence. Their eyes talked, Miss Fesant’s defiant, the widow’s dismayed.

“You’re goin’ to dance,” said the widow faintly, “in—in the rig you showed me that night—them little doll-skirts and the long white stockin’s?”

“Yes.”

Again the silence. Mrs. Anderson sat beside her. “Caroline, have you figgered it all out, my dear? I’m not one o’ these Siding people, thank the good Lord, but I marrit a Siding man and here I am, for better or for worse. I know ’em, my dear. They’ve stood for your dancin’ notions because they can’t be choosy ’bout teachers on the money they pay. But, L tell you, my dear, they won’t stand for this. It’s only thirty miles, after all; and half the Siding women’s got relations in Cannellton.”

“Yes. Yes, I know.”

“Showin’ yourself before men folk, I mean, in a get-up like that. I used to hear ’em talk about the vodyvill women that come to Shelley Ditmars’ theayter.”

“I know. But this is different. This is art.”

Miss Fesant saw herself leaping from those shabby shadows at the Opera House, flashing like a tall white moth in the footlights, defying her background and the law of gravity and the birth date on her teaching license in one epochal performance.

“Art,” said the Widow Anderson hopelessly.

SHE HIRED Willie Blore to drive her to Cannellton. Knowing that only a very great urgency could have induced her to hire him for a special evening trip—“ten cents a mile, fi’ dollars for the round trip, seein’ it’s you”—and seeing the queer exalted look on her face, he tried to draw the reason; but she told him nothing. Only Miss Fesant’s slim tense body bumped and swayed beside Willie over the dreary miles to Cannellton. hier spirit was already on the stage. And her body with instinctive cunning left Willie’s car at the wrong end of Main Street, telling him to wait outside the Victoria Hotel, and slipped through a back lane to the stage door of the Opera House. There was J. Shelley Ditmars, a worried man. He had done the honors faithfully, haunted by that queer appeal in her eyes, with posters —at two dollars a dozen from the Cannellton Courier Printer—all over Main Street and in the windows of outlying stores, declaring Caro Fesant Danseuse a special attraction, for Tuesday night only.

“Phew!” breathed Mr.. Ditmars. “Thought you’d got scared and changed your mind.”

“I’m scared,” admitted the strange Miss Fesant gaily, “but all I’m going to change is my clothes.” She was amazed at her own insouciance.

A single bulb glowed in the lonely Ladies Dressing, hanging from the eternal darkness of the rafters by a thread, like an incandescent spider.

Thoughtful Mr. Ditmars had tacked an old picture poster over the window to

shield Miss Fesant’s toilette from the junk heap and the frogs in the swamp. Upon the poster a young woman, frugallyclad, kicked a contemptuous toe toward Miss Fesant and the canvas backdrop of the talking screen. There was something significant about that. Beyond the screen was a recurrent buzz of voices, a thudding of seats flung down in little sporadic bursts like fitful musketry. Mr. Ditmars could have interpreted that sound very accurately for her. It meant that CannelltoE was entering in small scattered groups, it meant the usual meagre house of Tuesday night, it cried aloud that Caro Fesant, Danseuse, meant nothing at all to Cannellton.

The danseuse surveyed herself in the murky glass. As always, the scanty costume gave her a marvellous feeling of sublimation, as if she could leap off the earth and remain in suspension indefinitely. She pirouetted once or twice, flitted up and down the Ladies Dressing on tiptoe, placed a foot against the grubby wall and threw her torso backward in the fashion approved by the book. The screen came to life shockingly, with a blare of strident music followed by voices bellowing in barrels. It was a weird sensation, for she could see nothing, but she guessed it was the trailer for Thursday’s show. When it ended she heard a discreet cough from the shadows of the wings and turned to face her pianist, more goggle-eyed than ever and smelling strongly of whisky.

“All set, Miss Fesant?”

“Yes. It isn’t time yet, is it?”

“In a few minutes.” The screen was blaring again. From the wings she had a distorted view of the screen, enormous figures capering and squawking; she was filled with contempt for them. She waited, with a thumping heart, but confident. Suddenly the thing came to an end with a final blast of music from the screen, a final chuckle from the darkness. The footlights sprang up, an upheaval of blinding light with the force of an explosion, and somewhere beyond, the tinkle of a piano. From the gloomy wings Caro Fesant leaped forth, with outflung undulating arms.

Shelley Ditmars had borrowed and placed at each end of the narrow stage a fern in a tall basket-work stand, to soften the barrenness. Miss Fesant sprang into a white blindness, cannoned heavily into the right-wing fern, and sent it crashing into the little pit where her pianist valiantly hammered the ‘‘Dance of the Swan.” His music ceased abruptly, and in the stark silence, in the blaze of Shelley Ditmars’ footlights, Caro Fesant performed a series of staggering bounds, carried forward by her own impetus, struggling desperately for balance. She managed it just short—precariously short —of the fern at the other end. The audience came out of its blank astonishment. Laughter ran over the Tuesday night house like the thin splash of a little sea on a pebble beach. There were whistles from the twenty-centers in the gallery. The pianist recovered himself at about the same time. He began again. Caro Fesant leaped at unseen daffodils, plucked them, tossed them in air. All her long training, the patient back-bendings, the torturing toe-exercises, the book-swayings and book-

posturings came into play. Those who hold that dancers are born, not made, should have seen Miss Fesant then. When a sense of rhythm, an iron selfdiscipline and a single passion are wrapped up in a naturally-flexible body, even a woman past thirty can achieve miracles. For a minute the Tuesday night audience beheld dancing as good as anything they had seen, and began to wonder if it was a comedy act, after all. Then Miss Fesant reassured them.

Bedroom floors had not prepared her for Shelley Ditmars’ stage. From a momentary pose near the right wings the boards stretched away like a floodlit street, A long twirling run on her handsome legs began brilliantly. Then came a step too long, a dip that went over too far, and she was sprawling.

Mr. Ditmars made for the gallery stairs and burst into the projection booth like a thrown ball.

“Them footlights! Turn ’em off quick!”

Caro Fesant picked herself up in utter darkness. In the little pool of light over the piano, with the clarity of a flash photograph, she could see the hollow young man staring with glassy eyes into the dark which now enfolded her. Then the spotlight came on, a bleak beam from the projection booth. It was not a proper spotlight. It gave Miss Fesant a blue, unearthly appearance, and the sudden plunge from white blindness to darkness and then to this groping blue finger, which now missed her and now caught up with her, these things completed her discomfiture. The audience gave tongue, a thin exuberant howl. Doggedly the pianist hammered out music. Blindly Miss Fesant danced. The spotlight played tag with her, up and down the narrow stage. In the alternate light and eclipse she tripped and stumbled, and made superb recoveries; she kicked the remaining fern into the audience; she pirouetted, and nearly pitched over the dark footlights.

“Will the curtain work?” hissed Shelley Ditmars.

“No.”

“Then turn on the feature, quick !”

The screen sprang to life, leaving the danseuse in a merciful dusk near the end of the stage, and in that dusk she fled, with the opening blast of “Furnace Love” stilling the applause behind her.

SHELLEY DITMARS made his way backstage cautiously, as if it were a haunted house. Caro Fesant sat in the dismal Ladies Dressing, on the one rickety chair, in the light of the one pale bulb, weeping violently on the dresser top.

“It’s only me,” Shelley said quietly. “Go ahead and cry.”

If Miss Fesant heard, she ignored. She was a pitiful but at the same time a strikingly graceful figure, with her long whitesheathed legs curved to one side and her slim back turned upon Mr. Ditmars. He sat on a fragment of ancient scenery and regarded her with kindly eyes. She looked very lonely and forlorn. He waited and watched, with infinite patience. At last, when she had reached the degree of long silences, broken by occasional quick sniffs, with her face turned sideways, cheek on hands, he spoke.

“Here’s a clean hank’chiff. Blow your nose.”

She put out a hand for the thing, without lifting her rumpled head.

“It was all my fault,” Shelley said. “Them darn ferns.”

“It wasn’t that,” she said.

“No, it was the lights. I wanted to do the thing right, see? I told Bill Tumley to fix up the footlights with bulbs, make sure there was plenty o’ light. I should’a checked up on him. He put a hundredwatt bulk in every one o’ them sockets.” “I couldn’t see,” she confessed. “My eyes hurt so. But it was my own fault. You warned me.”

“Well, anyway,” he said encouragingly, “you got your school.”

“I can’t go back there.”

He nodded slowly. “The audience, Miss

Fesant—they liked the ack, see? They thought it was a comedy ack. Did you hear ’em clappin’?”

Miss Fesant sat up. She faced him fiercely. Tears had smudged her powder and rouge but she did not care. “I suppose you’re going to tell me to go to Hollywood or somewhere and get myself a job as a comic actress!”

He wagged his head slowly. There was a queer shy smile on his round face.

“I was goin’ to say,” he said, examining his freckled hands with enormous interest, “them people didn’t know any better. I was goin’ to say I liked it, because I remember a time when dancin’ was dancin’ and music was music, not this St. Vitus stuff they do nowadays. My father built this theayter. In those days we used to get pretty good shows, ’specially in the summer time, when people come around from the big circuits. Vaudeville was something, then. I used to set out there— we had hard wooden seats them days— watchin’ them people on the stage, and worshippin’ ’em. I know good dancin’ when I see it. Everything went wrong for you tonight, but I know good dancin' when I see it. It takes time, and practice, and your heart in it, to do the steps you was doin’. I’m an old-fashioned man, Miss Fesant, and sentimental. When I saw you tonight it brought back the old times. The old good time that’ll never come back again. The world was a kindly place then, and life was gentle and easy-goin’ and entertainment wasn’t just a high fever set to music. I was goin’ to say somethin’ else, Miss Fesant, on’y I didn’t hardly dare. You’re a young woman and I’m a little fat man o’ fifty. I was goin’ to ask you to marry me.”

“But I don’t know you!” Miss Fesant cried.

“You see me,” he said simply. “All I am is what you see. I got a good business and a white clapboard house on Ellum Street, and I come o’ decent people. My mother was a schoolmarm like you, and my father was a Presbyterian elder that could lead in prayer.”

Caro Fesant’s grey eyes were very wide. She drew her white silk knees together. There were new tears in her eyes. “It’s awfully kind of you, Mr. Ditmars. But I —I couldn’t.”

“And all I’d ask of you,” Mr. Ditmars pursued gently, “is this. Once a week, on a Monday night, say, wh'en there’s no show, we’d come in here, you and me. We’d lock the doors. I’d get some decent lights for them footlights. I’d get a gramophone with the proper kind o’ music. And then you’d dance—just for me. For old time’s sake.”

THE PIANIST, exploring uncertainly in the backstage darkness, turned the corner of Ladies Dressing just in time to see the danseuse fling herself on her knees before Shelley Ditmars and bury her head in his lap. Mr. Ditmars stroked her hair. “Oh, Mr. Ditmars!” cried Miss Fesant. “Oh, Mr. Ditmars!”