Chapter One from The Descent of Luck.
But early in May, a man stepped forward out of the small group and said, "I will," in a tone of unmistakable challenge. I had the brief sensation of being a college teaching assistant again, aware of one boy in the front row, signaling, by an unblinking attention or the agitated jitter of one leg, that he would be trouble all semester--somehow, there was always one keen to the scent of the small female authority. Never mind: The point is, all these years later, I was caught off guard. Usually the deathbed volunteer was a florid older gentleman out to charm the Garden Club ladies, or a drama student from a private high school. I must have hesitated, because the man raised his eyebrows and said, "Oh, you didn't mean it."
"Oh, no. I do. Please," I said, smiling at the whole group. I indicated the bed, keeping the whole group in my gaze. "It's quite sturdy."
He didn't smile, only tilted his head as if to say, "It's all right: You and I both know it's a fake." But it wasn't a fake. It was one of a handful of pieces saved by Levine's only child, Isabel, before--on her own deathbed--she bequeathed her father's famous ranch to the State of California and San Felipe County, and ordered her lawyers to burn the family papers. But no one ever asked: The old plaque in the Adobe courtyard tended to stifle questions: The Adobe has been lovingly restored using Victorian furnishings and authentic artifacts wherever possible. The generality of the sentence made me itch all over--a holdover from my brush with academia, I suppose--but I'd been strictly warned against altering it, as, and I quote the Gardens Director, "We may be forced, at any time, to make deep budget cuts. We must not raise the public's expectations, only to drop them again."
It hardly mattered: Patrons of very small house museums tend to read swiftly if the host is watching, sometimes in a hasty, embarrassed way. Still, this patron was neither hasty nor embarrassed. He looked at me just long enough to suggest complicity, and moved toward the bed.
Nearly forty was my guess--that is, around my age--but even as I thought it, I saw how girlish, how revealing a notion that was. Above all, I did not want to find him attractive or familiar. But he was. He flatly was. This I put down to nostalgia: Before coming to work at the Isabel Gardens, I'd lived for twenty years in a college town up north, briefly as a graduate student, then as a librarian and a professor's wife. So yes, he was a recognizable figure. I'd been uprooting obscure articles or pouring glasses of imported beer at Oceanography Department parties for such young men, well, half my life. The lovely unkempt, you could call it: jeans and a faded denim work-shirt; dark curly hair just long enough to please a lover and irk a mother; a dreamy, distracted expression. I'd had, from the beginning, a firm policy never to look too long; the danger of one of them looking back is greater than you'd think At any rate, I recognized the type: the slight flush of pale skin, a certain amazement in the eyes, and, in this case, unruly brown hair just beginning to speckle with gray.
One surprise: As he sat down on the bed and bent forward, I saw that he was wearing black cowboy boots--a decidedly nonacademic touch, and an oddity in Southern California, too. He struggled a little, pulling them off. It couldn't have been easy, with seven other patrons hovering just a foot or two away, shifting nervously, glancing anywhere else. But he accomplished it without blushing, and stretched himself out on the old, if not authentic, quilt with painstaking care, as Goldilocks might have, climbing into the first of the three beds.
He turned his head toward the window, as I'd known he would. I'd done it myself, obeyed the strange command.
And not so strange, I suppose. There was a view, after all. Through the open courtyard gate, a pale green sliver of the lake and a cluster of lily pads, and rising above them, the north turret of the Little Palace, the "Victorian jewel" of the Isabel Gardens.
I watched it work on him. His shoulders relaxed. His feet turned out just slightly. As he let go the inevitable sigh of surrender, I glanced away from him, back to the others, and took a breath.
"This, ladies and gentlemen, is the view Lawrence 'Lucky' Levine cherished most of all. Entrepreneur and Gold Rush millionaire, whose good fortune on the Comstock won him his eternal nickname, and yes, a notorious Don Juan in his day, this is the intimate view he awoke to every morning, no matter what lavish bacchanal he'd hosted the night before. It was here, on the morning of November 6, 1904, that he gazed out at it for the last time."
"Conceal and reveal," said the man on the bed. "An old gardening theory. It's how he seduced them. A keyhole view of paradise."
"Yes, but probably not right here," I said lightly.
There was a burst of laughter, but it opened and closed like a fist. Then the other patrons glanced at one another, and I saw them conclude that the whole exchange was scripted, a miniature theatrical for their amusement.
It seemed wise to pretend that it was.
So when he turned back my way and smiled up at me, I curtsied briefly, in keeping with my costume, and leaned slightly toward the bed, holding out my hand to help him up. Thank God the Gardens tram would be coming around soon.
But he only gave a stretch, from head to toe. "You're right about the view. I could stay here all day," he said.
They all laughed again--oh, they were comfortable enough, now that they knew they would not be called on by the teacher--and I smiled along with them. But there was my hand, absurdly caught in the air.
"You're not the first," I said. "Alas, Sir, your carriage awaits."
He propped himself up on one elbow, and I foolishly looked him in the eye. Foolish, because he was taking me in--there is no other phrase for it--with disarming and inappropriate clarity, for all the world as if I'd been lying beside him just the moment before, and just happened to get up first. I pulled back my hand, and in that instant, with a swiftness I couldn't have predicted, he reached for it.
No weight came into my fingers at all, just a warm pressure--a tropical hand, I want to say. He had every right to be warm: It was May, after all, and already hot by midmorning. But I felt the shape of his fingers stamped on my palm for a full minute after he stood up, took a little bow in his stocking feet, and, taking his boots with him, folded himself easily back into the group.
"Thank you, Madame," he said, from the back row.
"Not at all, Sir," I said. I could only I hope that I'd kept my dignity, and straightened my spine for good measure. As we waited for him to put his boots back on, I cleared my throat and said firmly to everyone that our friend here was right, that Mr. Lawrence Levine had probably seduced more than one young lady on this property, but that his methods were better seen elsewhere in the Historic Section of the Isabel Gardens.
This was not untrue. Beyond the courtyard gate there were indeed breathtaking views, calculated to make a girl round a corner, falter in her delicate shoes, and lean, perhaps more heavily than she'd intended, on her host's arm. The great San Felipe mountains, for instance, jut straight up only a mile or two from the Santa Isabel plateau, massive and slate-blue, spotted with dense chaparral. In Levine's day, there would have been views, too, of the great fruit groves of the San Felipe Valley, and from the Oak Knoll, possibly a glimpse of the Pacific itself.
"But this position," I said to the group, "gives a view more solitary, more meditative. As if to say: This is enough. This is plenty. With this, I seduce only myself."
He raised his eyebrows again--disdainfully, I was sure. Worse: He reached into his shirt pocket, drew out a stub of pencil and a tiny speckled notebook, and made a little note. I felt my face go hot. What if he wasn't a scholar, but some kind of historical novelist, "gathering material"--isn't that their gruesome phrase?
I began again, this time in a steady monotone. He wouldn't ruin my tour. I'd do it myself if I had to, at the price of eight less-than-stellar entries in the Adobe Guest Book. I'd make him drowsy, so he couldn't pipe up again, like some radical student, some fox in the hen house. "Ladies and Gentlemen," I said, in my best imitation of the tram driver's drone. "Before you leave the Historic Section of the Gardens, please make sure to visit the Little Palace, the more famously enchanting of our two house museums. It is a classic Queen Anne, with its scrollwork and gingerbread and marble piazza, its fine stained-glass window beside the front door, and the romantic north turret, which once housed an eccentric small library. Through the main windows you can peek into the Parlor, the Card Room, and the Music Room, everything restored in keeping with Mr. Levine's tastes and time. Please note in particular the portrait over the parlor mantel: This is Eliza Cantrell Levine, his mistress for several years, the mother of his only child, and, finally, his last wife: This is the young, fragile beauty for whom he built the Little Palace, as a wedding gift. Though she was his third wife, she was, as the tram driver has no doubt told you, his Great Love. She died here of tuberculosis, collapsed in her husband's arms, so they say, just after seeing the Little Palace for the first time."
He looked at me, eyebrows raised. "What do you mean, so they say?"
"Nothing," I replied. "Only that this is the story that has come down to us through time. Do you know another? Please feel free to share."
"No, no," he said. "Just curious. The way you said it, almost ironically."
"No irony intended," I said. "It is her small black boots and gloves that he kept in a glass shrine in this very house until his death, and that you will find in the central case of the Adobe's main room. A poignant reminder of his grief. Shall we go outside now? The tram will be arriving shortly. And please, everyone, on your way out, will you make sure to sign our Guest Book?"
Out in the courtyard, I went ruthlessly on. "After Eliza's death, Lucky didn't halt work on the Little Palace and let it crumble into ghostly ruins. No: By late 1883 it was finished--though curiously, he insisted it would have no kitchen, no sleeping quarters, or lavatory within its walls. Within a year it would be given over purely to festive occasions: dinner parties and Thursday poker games, and most famously, his Winter Evenings, those grand fetes a la California said to rival anything at Saratoga Springs. Lobster bisque and oysters, orange champagne; excursions to the beach and mountains. This is when his reputation as a Don Juan really takes root. The Los Angeles Star itself once reported: Lucky Levine's usual harem of dark-haired damsels spilling out of a red tallyho in a frothy pool of silk and lace.
The man squinted, looked all around the courtyard. The others seemed content enough, though surely they would tire soon, if I kept them much longer. But what had gone wrong inside? I strove, above all, to keep irony out of my voice.
Irony, and grim sad fact. Because the truth is, Eliza died at their home in San Francisco, without ever having laid eyes on the Little Palace. She was barely twenty-three, and left behind an eight-yearold daughter, whom Levine had insisted on naming "Isabel" after a beautiful place Eliza would never see. But I was not to encourage Isabel Gardens patrons to "do the math" as my boss put it. Nor were they to speculate about the fate of Levine's Oakdale Inn, the pretty roadhouse he called his "Fairyland," just two miles away, burned by arsonists in 1903, just a year before his death. Lucky indeed. How did he put it once to Mark Twain? "Sure I've had some luck in my life. Most of it bad." And the front page article I'd found in the microfilm files at the San Felipe Gazette had a chiding, opprobrious tone: The "Fairyland" Fire seems to have taken the spark out of the Old Emperor at last.
"At last"--an odd phrase. Faintly triumphant. About the fire, the city fathers remained notably silent, and there were no arrests.
But the memos from the Isabel Gardens Executive Director were clear: "The Gardens and the City of San Felipe are cultural partners; staff will do well not to suggest anything negative about local figures, past or present."Thus, for the sake of our patrons and the comments they might put in the Adobe Guest Book, I was instructed to concentrate on "the Golden Age" at Rancho Santa Isabel, that heyday in which no detail of a guest's comfort went unattended.
"We've only got a few minutes before the tram arrives," I reminded my guests that morning. "You don't want to miss it." This was also true: It was a hot, dusty walk back to the entrance, even in May. Genuinely distressing.
I was glad to see that the scholar, the novelist--whatever he was--had put away his little notebook. I offered a last trivial tidbit to finish him off, describing in detail how, during parties, even the mildly chilly Winter Evenings, Levine's guests found the privies in a pair of adjoining buildings, both elaborately trimmed in gingerbread and elegantly appointed within. My source was a popular singer of the day, a Mrs. Clara Bingham of Los Angeles, who kept a meticulous social diary from the mid 1880s until 1904, with several entries detailing the extravagant parties at Rancho Santa Isabel. In her 1884 diary, she remarks on "the Boudoir's cleanly burning oil lamps, its mahogany commode, the pot-bellied stove cheerfully glowing. And everywhere you look, dainty Chinese bowls of fragrant dried lavender and orange blossoms."
Famous for his ruthless business deals, her host, and yet a warm sensualist. She is fascinated, curious. She seems to have interrogated Levine's manservant, Li Huang, about his master's tastes: No doubt it was awkward for a lady to ask a gentleman a direct question about domestic matters--for instance, why there is no kitchen or privy inside the house. But Li Huang's word turned out to be as good, and perhaps more eloquent, than Levine's: "In the Little Palace, gracious Madame, you will find nothing to interfere with the delicate scents wafting between ladies and gentlemen at their leisure."
The eyes of my elderly patrons were glazed over, but strangely, the younger man's were not. He was looking at me steadily. I didn't like it.
"Imagine it," I droned on. "One side of the lake all white and fragrant, light glinting off the crystal teardrops of the chandeliers in the card parlors, the black marble mantels with their huge gilt mirrors, even the marble piazza, its white porch railings smothered in Cecil Brunner roses--Eliza's favorite."
"Beautiful," he said suddenly. "And on the other side of the lake?"
The group came awake. All eyes turned to him.
"The other side of the lake?" I said, feeling dazed, as if I were the troublesome student. "This side, you mean? Oh, yes, this side would have been a different story. A sudden flare of a cooking fire, a drift of roasting meat, coriander, cardamom, shouts in three languages the guests don't know, languages that sound all wrong to them--like shrieking, weeping, or singing out of key."
"Thank you," he breathed out.
"Oh no, thank you," I said evenly. "You spurred me on."
I extended my arm, indicating the courtyard gate, and as if on signal the tram, with its false Victorian striped surrey cover, nosed into view.
A tiring day. And it was not yet noon.
There was so much you could tell a patron so genuinely interested. But he was hostile. I felt it absolutely, knifing toward me under water.
But listen, for instance: At these parties, Levine had the unsettling habit of appearing suddenly among his guests, his dark hazel eyes glittering with some private joke or knowledge. "He isn't really like us," writes Clara Bingham in 1883. "Is that part of his uncanny appeal? I confess his eyes make me uncomfortable, they gleam so, and gaze at one so fully, so appraisingly. And Levine--well, no one else will say it, but the name surely gives him away. He is obviously a Hebrew--everyone believes so, though he himself has not said, and no one, of course, has dared inquire."
But then she goes on. She begins, fairly conventionally, by saying that when he comes upon a group of ladies, his shoulders relax and a certain warmth comes into his face. "Still, it's not that simple," she writes. "His gaze will eventually alight on one lady, and on her he will gaze with such wonder and admiration, even, I think, a hint of sadness, that she feels--well--discovered. For indeed, who has looked at any of us so long and so well, since we were the littlest of babes? It is, even for a woman of experience, hard to resist, and oddly painful. But for a young girl, my God. It is useless to warn them. They rush to the flame."
At some point in those parties, Levine inevitably excused himself with a slight bow, and announced that he needed to have a little chat with one of his associates. Once, Clara Bingham admits, she followed him discreetly around the piazza, expecting to find him deep in conversation with his business manager. But he had stepped off the porch, and stood apart from the Little Palace, appraising it, twirling his watch-chain in a rapid little circle.
"Is he melancholy, or simply restless?" she writes. "I cannot tell. Maybe he is simply working out a plan to buy out another rancher on the precious San Felipe River, or wring silver out of these noble mountains. We have all heard of his tragic loss in love. But when you look at him, it is impossible to gauge whether he has known any human emotion, be it love, or grief."
So the twirling of a watch-chain is interpreted--perhaps by a woman on whom his gaze did not alight that evening, or any other. I could swear I heard her decision, her putting away of him, in that last entry.
From that point on, history swallows him, flattens him to caricature.
That morning in May, I stood at the courtyard gate until everyone was on board the tram. I always did, partly to give my patrons the feeling of an old-fashioned send-off, but also to see if anyone looked back at the lake one last time. It pulled on you like a dream if you let it: glassy, still, olive green, with those three strange dwellings, each on its own promontory, and the statue of the Wading Woman down at the far turn, standing in the water. Yet another difficulty for the Isabel Gardens Administration, for the Wading Woman is no Diana, no classical Venus in draped folds of robe, wielding an arrow or holding in her arms a fat cherub. She was--she remains, I am sure--uncannily real, even contemporary looking, in her chemise and pleated petticoat, hair loosely bound at the neck, tendrils escaping. And she was carved to look wet, right down to the nipples under her chemise, exquisitely erect.
She was unveiled in the summer of 1904, just a few months before Levine's death, and caused such a stir that his daughter, Isabel, twenty years old then, newly married and off on a European tour, caught wind of the "new scandal out at Santa Isabel," no doubt through school friends, and sent a cable from Bayreuth to the Los Angeles Times: "The statue referred to as the Wading Woman of Santa Isabel is my father's last tribute to his Great Love, my mother, Eliza Cantrell Levine. Mr. Levine, to all who take the time to know him, is a man who loves nature in all its forms. He loves Santa Isabel, and he still loves my dear departed mother, and it is the very purity of his passion that frightens the weak, the cowardly, those who are themselves afraid to live."
Levine also sent a comment to the paper, somewhat saltier. "She's not meant to be one of those Classical Types, like those folderol statues over at Mr. Mallory's fancy place," he wrote, very likely in a scrawled letter. "She's real, by cracky, real and alive and she's been swimming, taking an early morning dip in her skivvies. She's just coming out of the water, you see," and the newspaper adds a line beneath: We have edited Mr. Levine's comments here for the sake of propriety.
Soon enough, I knew, the tram driver would be speeding past her, and past the three follies, each on its own promontory. The driver would recite Isabel's famous defense, adding, for good measure, that the three little huts, or dwellings, were simply decorative, never intended for use. But if the statue was meant to be the ever-idealized Eliza, why did Levine place her so far from the Little Palace, and why was she so earthy? She could best be seen from my temporary apartment inside the Adobe itself--a cocina in his day, used strictly for the chopping of onions and herbs, the kneading of bread. Surely not a place he spent much time. She spooked me on occasion. I'd be standing at the kitchen sink and sense movement, a flicker of changing light, and glance up from the dishes. But she'd be exactly where she'd always been, this woman with her head neatly bent, her hands lifting her wet skirts as she steps forward. She was forever on her way out of the water, up to her knees in December, when I first arrived, and by that May, caught tantalizingly at calf-depth. On sunny, windless days, she appeared most mysterious, gazing soberly down at her own still reflection. Sometime in the late 1960s, I'd been told, the water table dropped several inches and Mr. Morales, the head gardener, discovered her feet, a perfect size five. This discovery had been the final proof, in the Gardens Administration's eyes, that she was modeled after Eliza. When I'd first arrived at the Gardens, I'd asked Morales about her. He and I were standing together at the edge of the water gazing out at her, I with my notebook, and he with his big pruning shears. "Sure, the feet are small, like hers," he said. "But all his women had small feet. His Spanish sweethearts, too. He had, you know, special feelings about a woman's feet." I braced myself for a sly smile, a wink, but he just went back to clipping the hedges. I walked after him. "I never knew he had Hispanic mistresses as well," I said carefully, and he smiled then, but shyly. "Sure he did," he said. "My wife's abuela used to say, 'he loved them dark, with small ankles'." Then he tipped his straw hat. "I better get back to work, before the boss comes by."
I did know. "Conceal and reveal" indeed.
The tram began to move. I saw my difficult patron, in the last seat, lean forward, and I drew back from the gate, lest he think I was looking at him. Probably he was just about to raise his hand, and argue with the driver as he'd done with me.
I hoped he would. Because you couldn't help but think, if you looked at those odd little boarded-up huts for any length of time, that they must have been more than simply decorative. The first so romantic, a miniature Swiss Chalet with gingerbread and red scalloped trim, for the young woman who liked her creature comforts. Then the Japanese Tea House, for the one who could brook no reminder of home. And lastly, furthest away, the tiny Hunter's Lodge with its steep conical roof and rough gray shingles, but inside, I'd read, once furnished in a welter of gorgeous contradiction, embroidered satin sheets and a Mexican blanket, a pretty fireplace, a table laid for two.
So isolated, so out of reach, there at the far turn near the Wading Woman, Lucky Levine's last folly. He might have lifted it straight from a book of folktales and ballads, from a description of a hunting lodge hidden deep in the woods, to which a young woman is escorted, trembling with first desire, by a man perhaps older than herself, and certainly more experienced.
For hunting, indeed. Consider the pleasures of wool and satin, the rough and the smooth, for the girl who secretly preferred a surprising combination and wasn't afraid to walk that far in her difficult shoes.
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|Date:||Apr 1, 2011|