Ernie Maxwell raised party name-dropping to a fine art. Which of his masterpieces were forgeries?
A short-short story complete on these pages
As they drove home from the Bailey’s cocktail party, he was thoughtful. Ernie Maxwell tended to he an honest man. He tried to keep up on things, and he knew what he knew, and what he didn't know. Consequently he often felt inferior at social gatherings, since he was constantly encountering authoritative persons like Bellnap who seemed to know such a great deal more about almost everything than he did. And once in a while he came away with a guilty feeling, as he had now.
“Doris, have you ever heard of Schoenbrunn?” he asked, after a long silence.
“No. Who’s he?”
“Well, that fellow Bellnap was talking about the German situation, and dropped him into the conversation. So what did 1 do? Did I say, ‘Who’s Schoenbrunn?’ and risk sounding uninformed? 1 did not. 1 merely nodded and let the name slide quietly by. Isn't that contemptible?”
Doris was comfortable about it. “Oh, I don't know. I guess we've all done that at one time or another.”
“Well, maybe. Still, it isn't right. And there’s another side to it, too. An awful thought suddenly occurred to me as he went on talking, and it made me very uneasy.”
“How do 1 know there really is a Schoenbrunn? Bellnap could have thrown him in just to see if I'd pretend to know who he was. He could be laughing up his sleeve at me right now, and telling his friends about this boob he met at the Baileys’ who pretended to know about a nonexistent West German leader.”
“Oh, 1 wouldn’t worry about that. Mr. Bellnap was pretty impressed with himself, 1 thought. People like that are too busy telling you what they do know to care much about what you don't know'. I mean, I just don't think it would ever occur to a Bellnap to pull a trick like that.” "Maybe you're right. In fact, I expect you are. Actually, only some boob like me would ever think of it,” admitted Ernie.
The implications of his owm remark clicked into place one after another like a winning combination on a slot machine. Ernie grew taller behind the steering wheel, and his brown eyes, ordinarily as guileless as a spaniel’s, gleamed.
"Say, how about that?” he murmured. “Can’t you just see the way it would work on some of those Bellnaps?” His fingers drummed briefly on the w'heel. "When did you say the Saunders are having their dinner party?”
Doris became mildly alarmed.
“Now. just a minute, Ernie.”
“It would be fun to try, just once.”
“No. Don't you dare.”
"Well, I don't suppose Bellnap will still be around by then anyway.”
During the next few busy days he scarcely gave the matter another thought, or at least he pretended to himself that he didn't. Not until they were actually on their way to the Saunders’ did he ask, “Who’s going to be there tonight? Anyone special?”
The words were scarcely out of his mouth before he knew' he should never have attempted an innocent tone. He had never yet fooled Doris with it. Besides, being Doris, she had naturally not forgotten their conversation about Bellnap.
"I don’t know of anyone special who's going to be there, and no matter who's there 1 don't wamt to catch you trying anything funny,” she said, all in one breath.
“Why, dear, I don’t know w'hat you’re talking about, and besides I wouldn't really have the nerve to try it anyway,” he declared, also all in one breath.
In spite of this assurance he could tell that Doris was relieved to see nothing but familiar faces in the large living room when they arrived. Ernie joined a group standing near the small bar Bert Saunders had wheeled in.
Ten minutes later a stranger arrived who had Bellnap written all over him. The sight of the man made Ernie's pulses throb.
As he circled his prey shortly after Mr. Quinn had been introduced all around the room, Ernie was careful not to look directly at Doris, because he was conscious of her eyes on him and knew he would get a warning shake of the head if he did.
Mr. Quinn measured up beautifully. He was soon holding forth in an easy authoritative manner to a small circle of listeners into which Ernie w'as quick to insinuate himself. Actually, Ernie meant only to observe the type and dream a little about some of the possibilities of the situation, but then the conversation turned to a current exhibition of early Italian paintings. As it happened. he and Doris had attended it the week before.
Mr. Quinn spoke of the exhibition in glowing terms, and gave particular mention to the Duccio and the Bellini. The names slipped across his tongue like bright labels being licked so they could be stamped neatly on the conversation. Ernie felt his pulses throb again, riotously, and his tongue got away from him.
"Well, of course, they were unquestionably the most important paintings in the show,” he heard himself saying in a voice that sounded astonishingly calm and authoritative, “but my favorite was the Piero della Francesca—that and the exquisite Pignolini.”
Mr. Quinn eyed him uncertainly, and Ernie nearly panicked. He was suddenly afraid he had taken too many Martinis. He w'as sure he was about to make an utter fool of himself.
"The—er—Pignolini?” said Mr. Quinn.
Ernie was committed now', and the courage of desperation was his to a degree he would not have dreamed possible.
"You remember! The little Pignolini they had in the corner.” he urged with an easy show of confidence. "At least it was in the corner when we were there, though I suppose by now it may well have been given a more conspicuous place, after all the fuss the critics made over it. Yon know—the little round one . . .”
By now the others in the group were looking at Mr. Quinn expectantly. It could have been the
light, or the Martinis, but it did seem to Ernie that tor the merest split second Mr. Quinn's small blue eyes became shifty.
"Oh. Oh, yes, of course,” he said.
"I love Pignolini. anyway. Especially his Blue Period,'" added Ernie, all but carried away. Mr. Quinn nodded knowingly, and then went on rather quickly to speak of the exhibition in general terms.
A few minutes later when the group broke up Doris seized the opportunity to back her husband into a corner.
“And who is Pignolini?” she demanded in a low, accusing voice. Well aware that she had been sitting nearby, he was not taken wholly by surprise. He chuckled delightedly.
"So! Been eavesdropping, eh?'' he said, munching. "Well, I'm glad. 1 wouldn't have wanted you to miss it. You see what 1 mean? I told you it would work.”
"Listen, don't you dare ever do a thing like that again!” she murmured hotly, glancing around to make sure everybody else was busy talking.
"Now', dear, don't get yourself in a state. I just wanted to try it once, that's all.” said Ernie, and became analytical. "Actually. I went too far. That Blue Period stuff. Took a chance there. Next time I wouldn’t—”
“Ernest Maxwell, there's not going to be any next time. Do you hear?”
“1 was only going to say—”
"Do you hear?”
The overstuffed guest of honor was pure female Bellnap
It was a matter of some grim satisfaction to Doris, after such an incident, that their next engagement was to meet a woman friend of the Mehls’ who wrote poetry and everybody said was very brilliant.
"If I were you 1 wouldn't try messing around with Miss Fletcher, from what 1 hear of her." she warned confidently. Ernie assured her he had no intention of messing around with Miss Fletcher in any fashion. But then when they reached the Mehls’ and took one look at the guest of honor he was as acutely conscious of the w;ay Doris's heart sank as though it had been in his own bosom. An overstuffed, bun-haired maiden of fifty, dew-lapped and tweedy. Miss Fletcher was a female Bellnap if ever he saw one.
Doris kept a sharp eye on him. and for some time he had very little to say. In a rarefied atmosphere the conversation raced along at a brittle pace, with Miss Fletcher at the centre of it, crisp and omniscient, the others awed and deferential.
Then, as the talk turned to Sartre, Ernie popped in his little contribution.
"Well, it does seem to me that Sartre's most promising recent disciple is the young Dutchman, Jan Kurde.”
"Ah, yes, Kurde,” murmured Miss Fletcher, and raced on to discuss what she called the tarnished aspects of Existentialism, while Ernie sat back breathing softly and Doris gently massaged her throat to get her heart back down out of it.
The instant the Mehls' front door had closed behind them Ernie cowered away from her, grinning sheepishly.
"Doan beat me, massa!”
“Beat you? 1 ought to divorce you! Are you going to put me through this sort of thing every time we go to a party now?” cried Doris. "It's not funny, it's not one bit funny!"
"But when I saw that fat frump and listened to her for five minutes, 1 couldn't resist."
"Well, you'd better start resisting, or I'm not going to any more parties with you. To think that after ten years of happy marriage you should turn into a practical joker!” she added bitterly. “One reason I married you was because you weren't that type.”
"I know7. 1 never have been. This is a new departure for me.” he admitted. "1 just happened to come across a good thing.”
"Good? Now you listen to me . . . !”
Before they reached home she had extracted his solemn promise that he w'ould control himself the next afternoon at the Beasleys’ annual Open House. He gave it dutifully, but most reluctantly.
“1 can't imagine happier hunting grounds,” he sighed. "I'll be walking around with tears in my eyes. But I promise.”
Nor was he a man who gave his promise lightly. When an advertising executive named Higby appeared on the horizon, making him feel like a privateer that had just raised a rich merchantman, he carefully sheered off and. by degrees, found himself in the library.
Spencer Beasley had chosen that time to show Higby the library and, when Ernie arrived, Higby was sounding off on the subject of hi-fi and which Bach recordings he considered best. Spence pulled Ernie into the conversation and then eased himself out of it to pursue his hostly duties. Alone with Higby. Ernie patted away the tiny beads of sweat that pimpled his forehead and did his best to ignore the suave voice that murmured in his ear. "This fellow will be a set-up for your Swedish pianist. Svensbord . . .”
They were halfway home, after the party, before he finally confessed.
"Doris. I broke my promise to you.”
"Ernie! You didn’t!”
"I couldn't help myself. That fellow Higby—”
"I knew it would be Higby.” groaned Doris.
"Yes. you get so you can pick them out at a glance, don’t you?" he nodded. "Well. 1 tried to avoid him, honest 1 did, but he was thrown in my way. And then he simply sat up and begged for it. Prime Bellnap, he was, from head to toe. ‘Svensbord stands like a monument in the field of interpreting Purcell for the piano, of course,’
I found myself saying, 'but I do feel there is a place for some of the younger pianists, too.’ ”
"And what did Higby say?”
"Oh. he agreed,” Ernie assured her. “he agreed. You know7, this trick is a cinch as long as you follow7 the rules. For instance. Rule Number One: always give the impression you’re talking about somebody the average peasant never heard of but
whom any cultured person naturally numbers among his household names. Someone it's smart to know about, in other words.”
"So now you’re developing a whole theory on the subject." said Doris, folding her arms severely. "I suppose you have a full stable of phantom celebrities worked up by now?"
"It's growing." he admitted, "it's growing. For instance, there's Mornch. the great Esthonian mathematician, and Fairfield of antibiotics fame —wasn't it splendid to read in the papers that Fairfield had received the Spellgar Award, Professor Bellnap?—and Camberwell on architecture, and—”
"Ernie, this has got to stop," declared Doris sombrely. "There’s no telling where it may lead.”
"I know." He sighed, and dimmed his lights for an oncoming car. "After a while it all begins to take on the pleasantly distorted quality of those little essays of Paul Flambertin, in which—”
"Flambertin.” He glanced at her with mild surprise. "With all the French you took in college, surely you must know his essays? If not. you ought to read them — and in the original, too. How I envy you when I think of all that must be lost in translation for the rest of us! Well, anyway. Flambertin . . .”
Of course, when she hit him the car w7ent into the ditch and they were lucky to come out of it alive. Ernie was very decent about everything, though. He never blamed Doris one bit. Thinking back on it afterward, he realized he could scarcely have picked a worse time to mention a lesser French essayist, however bona fide. ★
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