The Lethargic lay in the Southampton harbor, looking reluctant to pull out. Napier saw his baggage swung on board and went down to investigate his cabin. Unable to afford a first-class passage, he had insisted on traveling second-class against the advice of his friends who urged him to travel third. In November, they said, the second-class would be filled with bearded immigrants who avoided going third-class in order to escape something tiresome at Ellis Island. Napier never understood these things. The second-class, he argued, was obviously that much better than third, and certainly it did not sound so pauperish. The agent who sold him his passage told him he was putting him in a room for three, but that undoubtedly, in November, he would have the room to himself.
This did not prove to be true. As Napier entered the stateroom he was faced by two rabbis, who looked about eighty years old, their faces cracked like crêpe paper, and their eyes sunk into pits. In flowing black robes or figured silk they were opening paper bundles. Both of them spoke incessantly in high, cracked voices. In the washbowl they had placed a bouquet of red roses, and they were now engaged in arranging a row of pineapples under the berths.
Napier’s heart sank—what was he to do—spend seven days and nights in a cabin with these old ghosts? He felt that he could not cope with it, and he went to the purser to complain. The purser agreed that it was a most unfortunate juxtaposition, and suggested that something might be done about switching him into a cabin with someone less objectionable than the rabbis. He told him to come around again at midnight. By that times things would be squared away, and some improvement could undoubtedly be made.
Napier put in a restless day and returned to the purser at midnight. “Got you all fixed up,” the purser said, “you can move in D-400. There’s only one other occupant. A nice young fellow, an American who has won some prize or other. “
The young American, no matter how bad, could not be worse than the rabbis, reflected Napier as he entered D-400. On the floor of the stateroom sat a dark-haired young giant surrounded by magazines. He was stripped to the waist, and as Napier came in he smiled in a friendly fashion. His smile was a kind Napier had never seen except in tooth-paste advertisements.
“Am I disturbing you—moving in like this?” Napier asked.
“Not at all, old man, come right on in. They told me someone was coming.”
“I’m sorry—bursting in like this—but I’ve just been switched from a den of roses and pineapples and rabbis.”
This surprising statement did not appear to surprise the young man at all. His attention was directed only to the problem of Napier’s luggage. “Here, old man, let me give you a lift,” he said, hoisting a suitcase to a shelf. He picked it up like a feather and deposited it with a theatrical muscular flourish. The muscles of his back and shoulders were magnificent. He even seemed to pose for a second before he dropped the bag.
“I see your name is Knightsbridge, old man. I’m mighty glad to meet you.” He took Napier’s hand in a grip so firm it was agony. “Zukor’s my name,” he added. “Victor Zukor. Just call me Victor.”
In view of this statement Napier was surprised to see emblazoned on the young man’s luggage the somewhat sweeping cognomen: MR. AMERICA.
Victor Zukor’s eyes followed Napier’s as they focused on this title. “My real name’s Zukor, but on this trip I’m known as Mr. America. I won the title last summer at Asbury Park.”
“I see,” said Napier, understanding nothing.
Victor Zukor sank with a bound to the floor to pick up his magazines. Napier noted that they were in several languages, all of them profusely illustrated: the German Querschnitt, Sport und Sonne, and Schönheit; the British Health and Strength; the Scandinavian Gymm and Swing; the French Sport et Santé; and a sheet called La Suisse Sportive.
“Look here, old man, here I am in this Swedish paper,” said Victor Zukor, pointing to his picture posed as the Apoxymenus of Lysippus. “Why, man alive,” he added, “I’m coming out in everything.” He brought, one by one, to Napier’s attention the astonishing number of magazine reproductions of his photographs, nearly all of them nudes. “Just look at that serratus magnus,” he beamed. “That’s what made me Mr. America.”
Napier agreed that it was “too extraordinary,” but he was still in the dark as to how it made him Mr. America. Pressed for an explanation, Victor Zukor divulged some data. With interest decreasing in the contests in which a Bathing Beauty each year became Miss America (or ultimately Miss Universe), an enterprising publication which went by the name of Muscle had sponsored, two years ago, a similar contest for men, which had taken place at Niagara Falls. From all parts of the country, Victor Zukor explained, had come track-runners, weight-lifters, pole-vaulters, discus-throwers, adagio dancers, life-guards, and models to compete for the proffered title. There had been some unpleasantness over its award because Mr. Hot Springs and Mr. Ann Arbor had tied in the judges’ decision. It was finally settled by giving Mr. Ann Arbor the title of Mr. East of the Mississippi. The interest in the contest had been surprisingly widespread, and was more than doubled the second year when it was held at Asbury Park. In addition to the title of Mr. America, the winner was to be given a three months trip to Europe under the the auspices of Muscle. Victor Zukor, who competed as Mr. Poughkeepsie, was awarded the title without any hitches.
His trip to Europe had been a prolonged celebration of Victor Zukor’s physique. In Athens he had been fêted on the Acropolis. He was photographed in Sparta and on the shores of the Hellespont. In Rome he received a welcoming reception in the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian, and the straggling little bagni along the Tiber were given over for a week to carnival. But the greatest ovation of all had been held in store for him at Berlin. A frenzy was what he said that city went into. A parade from the Wannsee to the Brandenburger Tor had been organized, and Victor Zukor had led it, wearing a zebra-skin cache-sexe, a gift from the Berlin branch office of Muscle. The parade broke up with a picture being take at the foot of a statue of Bismarck.
His tour officially over, Victor Zukor had been offered a first-class passage back to the States or an unofficial week in Paris with a second-class passage back. He had chosen the latter and now he felt he had made a minor mistake. Paris had taken little note of his presence, and he had spent his days in the Louvre alone, studying poses of secondary deities. He already knew by heart all the poses of the first rank gods.
It was one o’clock when he finished his story and he said he must go straight to bed. Napier was avid for further facts concerning his European tour. What for instance did he think of life as lived along the Kurfürstendamm? Victor Zukor inferred that this was a river, and said he had never been near it. And he really had to go straight to bed because it was already past his limit.
Napier was unable to destroy Victor Zukor’s determination. With an agile gesture Mr. America swung himself into the upper berth. In less than five minutes his regular breathing revealed that he was fast asleep.
Napier had scarcely gone to sleep when he was abruptly awakened. It was morning, and Victor Zukor was naked, touching the floor with his fingers for the hundred and fiftieth time. “Hurry up, old man, or you’ll miss breakfast. It’s after eight o’clock.”
Napier said we would ring for some toast and coffee in bed.
“Go on,” said Victor Zukor. “Don’t you want to radiate power?
“Want to what?” asked Napier who was still only half awake.
“I said, don’t you want to reap glowing rewards and learn to radiate power?”
Napier, reviewing his vocabulary, found he had nothing to reply.
Victor Zukor was lifting one arm against the pressure of the other. “You’ve got to give Nature a chance,” he said, “or you’ll be a human cipher. If you don’t do any building up, what will She think of you?
“What will who think of me?”
“The girl of your dreams.”
Napier, amused, again had no answer. “How can you do all that before coffee?” he asked through a yam.
“Before coffee? Say, pal, I never touch it.” He went on with his strenuous flexing. “Do you see what I’m doing? I’m using the system of Aggressive Self-Resistance. It’s better than an apparatus. All you’ve got to do is simply learn to resist yourself.”
The ship was swaying slightly, but Victory Zukor was firmly on his feet. He was now doing the “stiff-legged pick-up” which he said helped the ham-string muscles. “Feel my gluteus minimus,” he ordered. “The best way to develop that muscle is to get someone else and do a mutual. Pull up that chair and we’ll do some resistant legwork.”
But Napier said he would do nothing of the sort before he had breakfast.
“You’re sure a shilly-shallier,” said Victor. “But I’ll develop your grit and gumption by degrees,” he added good-naturedly. They dressed and went into the dining room and ate some hot cereal and eggs. Across the table sat the rabbis, mournfully munching pineapples. Most of the other passengers were grizzlies.
After breakfast Napier went up to the first-class quarters to deliver his note of introduction to the Princesse de Villefranche. He consulted a list of the first-class passengers to see what cabin the Princesse was occupying. In glancing through the list he looked for other well-known names. Celebrities were always trooping to America in November. But they did not seem to be numerous on this crossing of the Lethargic.
The first name Napier recognized was that of Madame Armada Menace. “She’s lost no time getting out of England,” he said to himself in passing. Farther down he saw the familiar name of Mr. Wilburton Renegade, an American publisher with a branch in London, who since the success of Queen Victoria had published practically nothing but intimate biographies. The Princesse de Villefranche, he read, was in B-312. At the end of the list a name struck Napier as being extremely curious. Alphabetically, the last of the first-class passengers was Mrs. Niobe Why.
He called a boy and asked him to deliver his note from Anthony to the Princesse. He then returned to his stateroom, hoping to receive a prompt reply.
The boy, before knocking at the Princesse’s door, gave his uniform a tug and a pat. This was only his second trip across, and his first look at royalty was imminent.
“Come in,” two women’s voices answered his knock.
Opening the door, the boy was startled by the sight which met his eyes. The Princesse was on her hands and knees, looking highly disorganized. She was wearing a voluminous bathrobe of flowered Turkish toweling. Her maid, Mirabelle, a wild-eyed wench, was also on her hands and knees.
“We’re looking for Albertine Disparue,” said the Princess in a desperate voice. As she spoke she tossed her head to shake her graying hair from her yes.
“Not the book, the cat,” said Mirabelle, who thought this made things clearer.
The Princess was taking her cat to America against the advice of her friends. As a kitten its chief characteristic had been a desire to stay out of sight. The Princesse’s rambling apartment in Paris had provided her cat with superb opportunities for indulgence of its whim. Often for days she would never see it at all. And this deprivation seemed in some way to delight her. She had named the cat Albertine Disparue after the volume which had just appeared. Only recently she had taken to calling it Albertine for short.
“I’ve brought a note for you, Madame,” said the boy, but looking under the bed.
“Where shall I put it?” he asked, indicating the note.
“Wait until we find it first. Well put it on my pillow.”
The boy put the note on the pillow and went away confused. The Princesse said, “Fancy that boy coming in!” and once more looked under the bed.
Mirabelle had gone into the adjoining room, pursuing a clew of her own. “I’ve found Albertine,” she called to the Princesse. “I had locked her in a wardrobe trunk.”
The Princesse got up and scrutinized them both and broke out in a roguish laugh. “I’ll soon have to call the two of you Plum and Sweet Cheat Gone,” she said.
The cat, a long haired, dark grey Persian, started in to pull Mirabelle’s hair. The Princesse watched this activity intently and said “I must look for my deck chair.”
She settled down in her deck chair and tucked the robe about her knees. The day was bright and the sea was smooth, and the Princesse took in a long deep breath as she focused on a friendly gull.
The seeming precariousness of the Princesse’s mind was due to the conception of time. She lived exclusively and intensively in the very immediate present. The past, even the past of five minutes ago was for her something finished and forgotten. And the future was something far away with which she established no connection. She attended to the nearest matter at hand, no matter how trivial it was. If she found herself faced with two matters at hand, she selected the more insignificant. Insignificance, she found, was almost always more charming and delightful.
From: Going Somewhere Turtle Point Press – ISBN 978 1 933527 27 7