Footlights by Weiman, Rita
Proofreading Team (http://www.pgdp.net) from page images generously made available by Internet Archive (https://archive.org)
Note: Images of the original pages are available through Internet Archive. See https://archive.org/details/footlights00weim
New York Dodd, Mead and Company 1923
Copyright, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922 by Rita Weiman
Printed in U. S. A.
_To_ MY MOTHER _on whose love and influence the curtain will never fall._
PAGE The Curtain Rises ix
Madame Peacock 67
The Back Drop 169
Two Masters 219
Up Stage 249
The Curtain Falls 341
THE CURTAIN RISES
Arched like the dome of heaven, illumined with a glow not brilliant but warm and intimate, carpeted with velvet that gives gently to the tread of many feet, the air vaguely scented with a perfume that has no name, row upon row of wide, soft-armed chairs facing a curtain that falls in long, mysterious folds—silent, expectant, tantalizing, inviting—a world all its own—THE THEATER.
Behind that curtain—the same world bounded by brick walls. Scenery with act numbers scrawled in charcoal across its back being shoved into place, hustling property men, frantic stage manager, nervous director giving last minute husky orders, anxiously repeated lines and cues, the final touches of make-up, restive feet striding dressing-room floors. There is the murmur of hushed voices, its excited undercurrent like a rising chant, the tremulo of uncertainty, the eager activity of that suspended moment of waiting for the curtain to lift.
Actors and audience—they must for a few brief hours change places if this world made for forgetfulness, this house of dreams is to realize its unwritten law:—“Abandon care, all ye who enter here:” The spirit of the theater lays magic fingers over tired eyes. The audience steps across the footlights and becomes the actor, throbs to his emotions, sheds his tears, tingles with his laughter. The actor must step across the footlights and become the audience, feel his pulse beat, sense his pleasure or disapproval, know his reaction.
And in proportion to the measure with which each becomes the other, the enthusiasm with which the audience acts, the keenness with which the actor observes, the play lives. The house of dreams is alight! But if either should fail—and if one fail, it is because the other does—then the play is phantom. A stalking ghost walks the boards. The house of dreams goes dark!
The Romance of yesterday is the Satire of to-morrow. Juliet to-day would be a lovesick flapper. We’d regard with tongue in cheek her moonings to the moon. There is such a fine line between the smile of sympathy and the smile of sophistication, that the author confesses she is still in doubt which the heroine of “Footlights” will call forth—if either.
Have you ever been in a small town, small time vaudeville house? Well, even if you have, and could live through it, you’ve probably never seen that mysterious region known as “backstage.” You’ve never heard warped boards creak under the lightest step. You’ve never stood in the wings waiting for your turn, trying to escape the draught that is everywhere, shivering but afraid to sneeze. You’ve never dodged misdirected tobacco juice. You’ve never endured the composite odors only a one time “opery-house,” sometime warehouse, another time stable, can produce. You’ve never done your three a day, rain, shine or blizzard, then rushed to catch a local with oil lamps swinging weirdly overhead and a jerky halt at every peach tree. But most of all, if you’re a woman, you’ve never known what it is to sit weeping in a pea-green walled dressing-room because you chose to do the darn thing yourself and won’t go back home and admit you’re beaten.
If any one of these experiences had been yours, you’d probably walk straight into the pea-green dressing-room referred to, pat Elizabeth Parsons on the shoulder and say, “I’m with you, old girl! It’s a black, black world. No sunshine anywhere! Never was, never will be!”
As it happened, those in her world at the moment were not of her world. They were a hardened lot, with hands ready to dig down and share a copper with a pal, with glib greeting in their own peculiar patois as they swung through the stage entrance, but inured to creaking boards, to combined odors, to oaths and tobacco juice and icy currents that gripped more sensitive shoulders like the hand of death. Life had handed them a deal that wasn’t exactly square, perhaps. Almost any of them would have been a knock-out on Broadway! But they had reached the point where emotion, as well as indignation, expressed itself in shrugs.
They could snore peacefully in a swaying day-coach, dreaming of the hour when the flower of success would spring up by the wayside. So Elizabeth Parsons wept alone. Her make-up boxes reeled in every direction as her head went down in their midst. Her hands, pressed against her lips, tried to still the sobs she knew were cowardly. Her body shook with that least beautiful of human emotions, self-pity, and she wished she were dead.
A gale of sleet and snow tore against her little alley window. It rattled the single pane furiously. It forced its way through cracks and dripped into pools of water on the stone floor. It blurred the already dull electric globes round her dressing-table with a dank mist and soaked a chill into her bones. But it had nothing whatever to do with her tears. They were the result of an accumulation of misery and loneliness, and finally the receipt of a wire from her booking agent advising her that her route had been changed. For the next three days she must play her own home town.
It was the crowning humiliation! She had endured the disappointment of all the rest of it; but to go back to the barnlike old theater in Main Street, wedged between movies and tinsel acrobats, was too much. To hear the wagging tongues and see the wagging heads of those who had warned her two years ago that New York was a pit of the devil; to let them see that even his satanic majesty had let her sink into oblivion, was more than she could bear.
From the stage at the foot of the iron stairs came a crashing chord and the voice of Jack Halloran, “The Funniest Man in the World,” singing a nasal travesty:—
“Oh, Rigoletto—give me a stiletto!”
Elizabeth raised her head, mopped away the tears, and rearranged her make-up. Her turn was next but one.
“BETTY PARSONS—FAMOUS IMITATOR OF FAMOUS STARS STRAIGHT FROM BROADWAY.”
So proclaimed the announcements that accompanied her pictures outside the theater. They always made Elizabeth smile. She had certainly come from Broadway—straight.
She brushed back her soft brown hair, pinned a towel round it, laid on a layer of grease-paint. A supply was needed to blot out traces of the last bad half hour. She beaded the lashes, penciled black shadows under them that made her gray eyes look green, and carmined her lips so that the slightly austere New England lines of them softened into luscious curves.
In the midst of transforming a primrose into an orchid, and with thoughts still fastened on the dreaded to-morrow, she did not hear the knock on her door. It was repeated. Turning, she saw a white square of paper shoved through the crack. She picked it up wonderingly. Communications from any one but her agent were almost unknown quantities.
Dear Lizzie Parsons (she read),
I’m outside of the door waiting to come in and say hello.
Your old friend, Lou Seabury.
In spite of her dread, in spite of her determination to die rather than face home folks, she dropped her powder puff, made one bound for the door, flung it wide.
“Oh, Rigoletti—give me a yard of spaghetti,” warbled Halloran from below.
With a little checked cry, Elizabeth reached out both hands. A plump, pink cheeked young man took them and somewhat diffidently stepped into the little square of room. But Elizabeth clung to him shamelessly and her voice caught when she tried to speak. He was the first link between two years of loneliness and the yesterdays of happy childhood.
“Lou,” came at last, “Lou Seabury!”
“I got a nerve, haven’t I,—walkin’ in on you like this?”
His pink face flushed a deeper pink as she pulled the chair from the dressing-table, thrust him into it, and stood looking down. “You’re just an angel from heaven, that’s what you are! How ever in the world did you find me?”
“I came over here yesterday to look at some threshin’ machines. Scott Brothers are sellin’ out and Dad got word they’re lettin’ their stuff go dirt cheap, so he sent me to take a squint. By Jiminy, I almost dropped dead when I went past the theater this afternoon and saw your picture. Maybe I didn’t go right up to the girl in the ticket box and tell her I was an old friend of yours!”
Elizabeth’s tongue went into her cheek. “And what did she say?”
“Asked why I didn’t come in to see you perform to-night and I said I would. But first I made up my mind I’d let you know I was here. Say—what is it you do?”
“Who do you imitate?”
“Oh, Ethel Barrymore and Elsie Janis and Eddie Foy and George Cohan and Nazimova—” She reeled off a list, most of them strange to him.
“I’ll bet you’re great. Gee—Lizzie—but you’re pretty.” His round face went scarlet as the words popped out and he shifted uneasily under the loose ill-fitting coat that hung from his broad shoulders.
She met his wide-eyed admiration with a smile. “It’s the paint, Lou.”
“No, sirree! You always were pretty. I used to watch you sittin’ beside me in the choir, and when you threw back your head and sort of closed your eyes to sing, I didn’t wonder Sam Goodwin was crazy about you.”
“Is he still organist at the First Presbyterian?”
“And are you still in the choir?”
“Yep.” His boyish brown eyes dropped. His plump hands twisted the brim of his wide slouch hat. “Guess that’s the most I’ll ever amount to.”
“But that beautiful voice of yours—it’s a sin!”
“My Dad don’t think so. Gimcracks, he calls it. I asked him once to give me enough to get it trained,” the eyes lifted with a twinkle, “and I never asked him again.”
She patted his arm sympathetically. “He wouldn’t understand—of course.”
“Gee, I wish I had your sand, Lizzie! To break away—and make good.”
She turned swiftly to the mirror, picked up the discarded puff, dabbed some powder on her nose, then carefully rouged her nostrils. And if a tear smudged into the shadow under her eye, he didn’t notice it.
He watched her fascinated, every move, every practiced touch to her make-up. She had unpinned the towel and her hair fluffed like a golden brown halo round her small, mobile face. And catching his rapt expression in the mirror, it flashed over her that to him she did represent success. The mere fact that she had broken the chains of New England tradition, that she had crossed the rubicon of the footlights, put her on a plane apart.
Somehow the look in his nice eyes, of wonder, of envy, of homage—the look she had so often worn when from a fifty cent seat in the gallery she had studied the methods of the stars she impersonated—gave her new courage. To-night she would not go through her ten minutes listlessly with just one idea uppermost—to get her theater trunk packed in a rush so that she might snatch a few hours’ sleep before making the train in the dull gray dawn. To-night she would be sure at least of an audience of one, of interest and enthusiasm and a thrill of excitement—and these she would merit. She would do her turn for Lou Seabury in a way he’d never forget.
She drew a stool from under the dressing-table, sat down and plied him with hurried questions about the folks at home. He gave her the latest news, little intimate bits that mean nothing but are so dear to one who knows no fireside but the battered washstand and cracked basin of a third-rate hotel room.
Grand’pa Terwilliger, seventy-nine, was keeping company with the widow Bonser but was scared to marry her for fear folks would talk. Grace Perkins had a new baby. Stanley Perkins had married a stenographer in Boston and bought a flivver. He, Lou, had bought a victrola for fifteen dollars second-hand and had some crackerjack opera records for it. She ought to hear them!
When finally she sent him round to the front of the house and hurried down the ugly iron steps, her low-heeled white slippers touched them with an eager lightness they had not known for months.
The curtain was rung down on a one-act sketch. A placard announced “Miss Betty Parsons—in her Famous Imitations.”
With a dazzling smile, Elizabeth sallied forth, cane in hand singing, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Through her repertoire she went, changing like a chameleon from the bland grin and strut of Eddie Foy to the crumpled pleading and out-flung hands of Nazimova in “The Doll’s House.” She plunged into Nora’s final scene with her husband:
... “When your terror was over—not for what threatened me, but for yourself ... then it seemed to me—as though nothing had happened. I was your lark again, your doll just as before—whom you would take twice as much care of in future, because she was so weak and fragile. Torwald—in that moment it burst upon me that I had been living here these eight years with a strange man.... Oh, I can’t bear to think of it! I could _tear_ myself to pieces!”
The greater part of the audience had never heard of the Russian actress, knew less of the Scandinavian author. But the sob in the voice of the frail little girl on the stage, the anguish in her face got them by the throat.
There was a spontaneous burst of applause that held for a moment while Betty bowed, glance straying into the misty auditorium, heart fluttering with a gratification it had not known since the Grand Central spilled her into the bewildering maze that is New York.
She swung quickly into ragtime after that, the drawling syncopation and rolling step of a black-face comedian, and as a conclusion gave them Elsie Janis in one of the songs from her latest Broadway success.
They brought her back several times. She threw them a final kiss, disappeared into the wings and whisked up the stairs. Lou was going to see the show to its finish, then call for her. He was sure they could persuade the proprietor of the hotel where she was staying to fix up a little supper of sandwiches and milk.
She slipped out of her white dress and into a dark one, folded the former in layers of tissue paper and laid it in the top trunk tray, stuffing stockings into the corners to keep it in place. She gathered together her make-up, packed it into a tin box. To-morrow another pea-green dressing-room, or perhaps, saffron-yellow. The week following, one of chalk-blue. And so on, ad infinitum. Of such her infinite variety!
A knock came at the door. She glanced at the gold watch which had been her grandmother’s. Ten-fifteen. Lou had probably tired of the show.
Pulling on her black velvet tarn, she called gaily—“Come in!”
A mellow voice answered interrogatively, “Miss Parsons?”
It was then she wheeled about. Standing framed in the doorway was a tall man with a cloud of black hair sweeping from a white forehead and a pair of intense dark eyes. Elizabeth knew him instantly.
No mistaking that face and long, lean figure.
She drew a bewildered hand across a bewildered brow. In the doorway of her dressing-room stood Oswald Kane, famous New York theatrical producer!
She made no attempt at speech, just stared at him.
He smiled. “You expected some one else, I see. May I come in?” And as she nodded, “You know me?”
She nodded again, indicated the chair and sank onto the low stool. She couldn’t have stood another instant.
“You’re wondering, of course, why I am here,” the low musical voice went on.
“I’m very much interested in your work, Miss Parsons. I have come to see it three times—last night and twice to-day. Until to-night, however, I was not quite sure of you. There was a listless quality. Had any one, perhaps, informed you that I was in front to-night?”
“If any one had, I’d probably have died of nervousness.”
He smiled again, ran a hand through his heavy hair, pushing it back from his forehead, and leaned forward. “You seem to be a very talented little girl. No technique, of course. You have the A B C’s of that to learn. But you have a flexible voice and expressive face, and you showed in that Nazimova bit emotional possibilities. Your reproduction of her tone and accent were really excellent.”
“Th—thank you,” came with difficulty.
“Of course, I have no proof that you can act. Even if you can, it will require infinite patience and training to make an actress of you. But I could do it, I believe.”
He shook back his shock of hair. His burrowing eyes narrowed. His fingers hesitatingly played with the thin watch chain that spanned his high waistcoat. “The majority of actresses on the American stage are mere mummers. Those I have made are artistes. But in order to accomplish this, they have given themselves into my hands—absolutely. I have taken girls out of the chorus and made stars of them in the drama—not because they were lovely to look at, or quick or clever, but because I have worked hard with them, with infinite patience developed their personalities, injected into them the inspiration that is Oswald Kane.”
“Yes,” said Elizabeth.
“Of course there must be ability or I would not waste my time. I must be sure the seed is there to be nursed into a beautiful flower. But first and foremost, the actress I train must obliterate self. She must become so much clay for me to model. She must accept my direction without question. She must obey as a soldier obeys his commanding officer.”
“Yes,” sighed Elizabeth.
“I see you now not as you are, but as what I can make of you. No two of my stars are alike. Each has distinct and startling personality. That is why the American public looks to me for sensations. Not one is the actress she was when I discovered her. They are, one and all, Oswald Kane creations.” He leaned back, still studying her.
Elizabeth felt a sea of eyes upon her in a gaze of hypnosis. She stared back like one in a trance.
He sat for a long moment silent. Then the low, quiet voice went on, richly vibrant as the tones of a cello.
“Yes, I think I might do something with you. That Nazimova bit showed promise. But it will require training and patience—infinite patience. You will have to work hard without complaint, hours over one line, weeks over one short scene. And no recognition, perhaps, for some years to come. You must not consider mundane things. Money must count for nothing. I cannot think of money in connection with my art. You must never grow tired or disgruntled. Above all, you must not question. And in the end, a great artiste, my child,—a great artiste.”
Elizabeth nodded mechanically. She felt like screaming.
He got up slowly as if still uncertain, moved into a corner of the little room, eyes still upon her. “Will you take off your hat and smooth down your hair. I must see your features at close range.”
With fingers that trembled and stiffened, she pulled off her tam, combed back her fluffy brown hair and breathlessly lifted her profile to the light. It was, as he had said, a face not beautiful, but malleable to mood as wax, with gray eyes set wide apart, a short nose, full sensitive red lips, deep-cleft chin and swift change of expression that was almost a change of feature. And there was in her slim figure with its soft suggestion of curve, the magnetism of youth, the flame of enduring energy.
He moved finally toward the door.
“You will take the 11:18 to-night to New York, cancel all bookings, and I shall expect you at my theater to-morrow at noon.”
Elizabeth found her voice at last. “If you knew how many, many times I’ve gone to your office, Mr. Kane, and begged on my knees for just one little word with you!”
He smiled once more, that charming, somewhat deprecatory smile of his. “That is not my way of engaging artistes. I must seek them, not they me. I never see those who come to my office, unless I have sent for them. No, my way is to haunt out-of-the-way places. Railroad stations, unknown stock theaters, cheap theatrical hotels, vaudeville houses like this. There, occasionally, I find my flower among the weeds. And when I do, I pluck it to transplant in my own garden. If I discover one a year, I ask no more.”
A sob broke in Elizabeth’s throat. “Oh, Mr. Kane—I—I’m so proud—and so—so grateful.”
He took her trembling hand, patted it with his own rather soft, artistic one. “You must prove a good pupil, that is all. Remember—no mention of this when you go to cancel your booking—no mention of my name to any one. For a time we must keep the agreement to ourselves. Until you have my permission, the fact that you have come under my management is to remain absolutely unknown to any but ourselves.”
She looked up at him wonderingly, “Anything you wish, of course.”
He dropped her hand, ran his fingers once more through the dark thatch that persistently fell over his eyes. “I must have absolute faith in you, little girl,—and you in Oswald Kane.”
“That is as it should be. To-morrow, then, at noon.”
He was gone.
In less than twenty minutes, after the manner of such happenings, a miracle had been wrought.
Elizabeth stood dazed an instant. Then she stumbled to the window, flung up the sash and leaned out to drink in the gale-slashed air with deep convulsive breaths.
“Oh God,” she cried, tears streaming down her cheeks, “help me to make good. Help me—help me!”
And so it happened that on a biting day in January, 1917, at the stroke of twelve, Elizabeth Parsons, aged twenty-three, entered the sanctum sanctorum of Oswald Kane, was handed a pen by his business manager and forthwith signed away five years of her life with an option on the next five, at the rate of fifty dollars per week for the first two years, one hundred for the third, and one hundred and fifty for each year following.
But just then Elizabeth would have signed away her whole life for nothing.
On a brilliant night in January, 1920, under the sponsorship of Oswald Kane, Mme. Lisa Parsinova made her bow to an expectant New York public.
For a long time, almost a year to be exact, Mr. Kane had been letting fall gentle hints of his discovery of a rare Russian genius, driven by the war to these shores. He was having her instructed in English, the story went, and once equal to the exigencies of emotional acting in a strange tongue, she would be presented by him to an American public which could not fail to be entranced by her great art. All this had been revealed in various interviews, bit by bit—a word here, a phrase there, a subtle suggestion elsewhere. At first he had not given out her name, had been gradually prevailed upon to do so, and by the time he announced the date of her première, “Mme. Lisa Parsinova” was on the lips of all that eager theater-going throng alert for a new sensation.
Stories of a cloudy past had already gone the rounds, vaguely suggested by Mr. Kane’s press representative, not through the medium of the press. There were tales of her startling beauty, her lovers, her temper. But so far no one had been permitted even a glimpse of her.
So that when she made her appearance the opening night, the gasp of thrilled admiration that met her was very genuine. The play was “The Temptress”—Oriental in atmosphere, written for her by Kane and a young collaborator whose name didn’t particularly matter. The plot was not by any means unconventional, that of a slave of early Egypt wreaking revenge through the ages upon the descendants of the master, who, because she refused to yield to him, threw her to the crocodiles.
The first act, a prologue, took place on a flagged terrace of a palace by the slow-flowing Nile. As the curtain rose, faint zephyrs of incense wafted outward, a misty aroma. The terrace glistened under a golden moon with still stars piercing a sky of emerald. The tinkle of some far-off languorous instrument sounded soft against the night. And waiting, his lustful gaze on the marble steps, sat the master.
Slowly, the slave descended. Sullen and silent, she slunk forward, like some halting panther in the night.
Her body gleamed, golden as the moon, sinuous and satiny under the transparent cestus. Her bare feet moved noiselessly, every step one of infinite grace. She came forward, eyes brooding, and stood half shrinking, half defiant before the long stone bench where sat her master. Suddenly she raised her head, tossed back her short black hair and faced him.
As by a signal, opera-glasses went up, a sigh of pleasure went through the house. The audience waited. She opened her lips and her voice, low and liquid, flowed out, thrilling through their veins. The thick contralto of it, the fascinating foreign accent, completely captivated them.
He reached out, drew her toward him. One felt the wave of terror seizing her. His big hands grasped her shoulders. She gave a smothered cry and he laughed.
She pleaded, then resisted, and finally, voice rising like a viol with strings drawn taut, defied him, calling upon the gods to save her for the man she loved.
And all the while he laughed, a chuckling laugh full of anticipation.
At last his arms closed round the golden body, his lips bent to hers. The sudden gleam of a tiny dagger, its clatter as he caught her upraised arm,—and he flung her from him, clapping his hands for the eunuchs who waited.
With one swift word he condemned her.
She crumpled at his feet. The black men lifted her. She cried out in horror, a curse upon him and his through all the ages.
A long moan as they bore her away, a pause, a splash against the silence, and the curtain descended.
For a breath the house sat motionless. Then came a surge of applause. But the curtain did not rise.
Buzz of conversation met the upgoing lights. Only a few, however, moved from their seats. Those who did came together in the lobby and discussed the new star with a wonder close to awe.
“They sure can turn them out over there,” avowed one seasoned first nighter. “Temperament, that’s the answer, Slav temperament. No little cut and dried two-by-four conventions to tie them down. They’ve got something the American woman don’t know the first thing about.”
“Well, they know how to let go, for one thing!”
The curtain rose on Act II, a modern drawing-room in the London home of an English peer, member of Parliament, on the occasion of his thirty-ninth birthday. He entered, big, handsome, with his little, clinging English wife.
There was revealed the fact that for generations the oldest male of his line died before the age of forty, a violent death. They married, there were children, and always reaching the prime of manhood, they were cut down. A curse upon his family it seemed to be and the little wife trembled.
Guests dropped in to tea. With them came the announcement that a prominent barrister was bringing a French authoress who had asked to meet their host. She had heard him in the House of Lords. They spoke of her beauty, her extraordinary personality.
Then Mme. Parsinova appeared. In the brilliantly lighted set, the audience had its first good look at her. Slim, with a slenderness that made her seem tall, a mass of pitch-black hair piled high on her small head, a pair of burning eyes, dark and shadowed, creamy skin, a short nose, deep-cleft chin, and scarlet lips full and mobile, she seemed a living flame. She moved forward with gliding step, her lizard-green velvet gown clinging about her limbs, her sable cloak drooping from her shoulders. And one felt at once, as her white hand, weighted with a cabochon emerald, rested in his, the spell she would weave about the insular and very British member of Parliament.
Not so insular at that, for it developed that in his veins ran a strain, a very thin strain, of the blood of Egypt.
There followed the love story, obvious if you like, but with the everlasting thrill and appeal of a great passion, magnificently portrayed. For as the drama moved to its climax, the spirit of the slave which through the ages had visited its will upon the family of its master, found itself captive. The French woman fell madly in love with her victim and in the end gave her life that the curse might be lifted and his saved.
In the climactic love scene at the end of Act III when passion tore from her lips, an onrushing tide, the beautiful voice ran a crescendo of emotion that was almost song. Its strange accent stirred and fascinated. Its abandon was that of a soul giving all, sweeping aside like an avalanche law, thought, ultimate penalty.
And still at the curtain, when the house rang with demands for her, Parsinova did not appear. Oswald Kane made his accustomed speech, coming before the purple velvet curtain to tell his audience in his usual reticent manner how deeply he appreciated their reception of the genius he had discovered. He thanked them—he thanked them—he thanked them. He raised a graceful hand, pushed back his weight of hair and slipped into the wings while the house resounded once more with clapping hands and stamping feet, and a full fifteen minutes elapsed before the play could go on.
All through the final act sounded the low note of tragedy, the realization that she who for centuries had ruthlessly taken toll must now once more be sacrificed that the one who had become dearer than life might endure.
When the audience finally rose after another futile attempt to bring her out, the women’s eyes were red, the men’s faces white. New York was undoubtedly taken by storm. It had been more than a typical Kane first night. It had been a Kane ovation.
In the first row a man got to his feet as if shaking off a spell. He was tall, very erect, almost rawboned, with hair turning gray about the temples, a demanding jaw, sharp straight nose and eyes that somehow seemed younger than the rest of his face, younger than the bushy black brows that mounted over them. They had caught Parsinova’s gaze, those eyes, as it swept once or twice over the audience. They had held it longer than was fair to her.
“Great, isn’t she, Rand?” His companion tapped his arm as he stood gazing at the fallen curtain.
“Paralyzing,” was the laconic reply. He wheeled about and made his way up the aisle, followed by the other man.
Outside, close to the shadowy stage entrance, Oswald Kane’s car, a royal blue limousine, and a curious throng of bystanders waited.
Inside, Oswald Kane himself begged the circle of those privileged by wealth, position, influence, who clustered round the door of the star’s dressing-room, to excuse her for to-night. Madame was completely exhausted.
When both crowds, tired of waiting, had dispersed two figures hurried down the little alley that led to the stage door and entered the limousine.
The door slammed.
The car rolled out and east toward Fifth Avenue.
The man switched off the light that illumined the woman’s white face. Her dark-shadowed eyes were burning with excitement. She leaned back, closing them, and heaved a great sigh. He leaned forward, hair falling over his eyes, echoed the sigh, and his hand shut tightly round her ungloved one. With a tense, almost nervous movement she drew it away, shrank imperceptibly into her corner.
“They are at your feet,” he whispered. “I have made you.”
She did not answer—merely opened her eyes and looked at him and through the darkness, something like tears glistened on the lashes.
They drove on in silence. He recaptured her hand, held it to his lips. She looked away.
The car drew up before a modest apartment building in a side street. He helped her out, entered with her, and the elevator swung them upward. He made a movement for the key she took from her bag but she unlocked the door and led the way into the foyer.
Slowly he reached up, lifted the fur toque from her black hair and the wrap from her shoulders, and his touch lingered caressingly as he turned her toward him.
“You are my creation!” he told her. “Parsinova cannot exist without me.”
Into the throat of the great Russian actress with the questionable past came a flutter of fear. Her lips quivered. She gave a convulsive choking sound. Her eyes raced the length of the hall as though she wanted to run away, then went pleading up to his. He smiled down into them, drew her firmly to him.
With a swift, hysterical laugh, a twist of her body, she was out of his arms and across the foyer.
“Come,” she called.
She opened a door at the other side. The gold flames of a log fire played upon the face of the little gray-haired woman in dusky silk who rose to greet her.
“Mother,” said Parsinova, “kiss your child and thank Mr. Kane. I think I’ve made a hit.”
Oswald Kane watched with a frown as she held out her arms adoringly to the little old woman.
For over a year the little mother had had a way of appearing in the background whenever he claimed the few sentimental hours which should have been but small acknowledgment of his new pupil’s debt to him.
Parsinova instantly became the rage.
She gave delicious interviews in which she misapplied American slang in a way that made the press chuckle. She spoke of the tragedy of Russia. She told of her struggles there. She gave her impressions of the American theater; American art; American fashions; the energy of the American man; the vitality of the American woman.
“They do not give as we foreign women,” she said. “They take. And so it is that they grow rich—in beauty—and are forever young.”
“But emotionally?” prompted the interviewer.
“I have said—they are forever young. Emotionally—they are children always.”
This statement was followed by indignant protest from American actresses and the sort of heated dramatic controversy that delighted the soul of Oswald Kane.
She received all reporters in her dressing-room at the theater. If any one save Kane knew where she lived, no one had ever crossed the sacred threshold.
“I live two lives quite a-part,” she said. “One in my home which is for me a-lone. And one in the theater which is for my dear public.”
Mr. Kane amplified this by stating that her hours at home were spent in study. Others intimated that her hours at home were given to some mysterious romance.
In spite of which she was not a hermit. Society, with a capital S, sought the privilege of entertaining her. Occasionally she accepted a dinner invitation—never on any day but Sunday, however—or permitted a tea to be given in her honor. She went nowhere during the week.
Her dressing-room was always fragrant with flowers. Kane had had it done over when she took possession. An alcove had been cut off for her make-up table, and the orchid silken drapes, black rug, suspended lights and carved chairs of the outer room gave it more the impression of a salon. Here she held court. Here she read the hysterical notes of matinée girls, the pleas of dilletanti youth that she dine or sup with them, the tributes of actors, the encomium of the world in general. Here, every week or so, she went into tantrums, threatening to kill her maid in a voice that caused the stage hands to tremble, until Kane himself had to be called to calm her. Here she smoked Russian cigarettes and looked over the urgent invitations that piled mountain high upon the bronze tray.
It was only at home in a cretonne hung bedroom, furnished with a rigid fourposter and dotted swiss curtains through which sunlight flowed, that she wept and sometimes felt lonely.
She played of course to packed houses. The S. R. O. sign was a common occurrence. More than once in that same place in the front row, the footlights illumined the face of the man whose intent gaze had fastened on hers the opening night. He seemed never to tire of her art.
Early in March Mrs. Collingwood Martin gave a reception for her. Mrs. Julian van Ness Collingwood Martin flattered herself, with justification, that in her wide old house facing Washington Square she maintained the nearest approach to a salon that could be found this side of Paris.
Her high drawing-room brought together leading spirits of the professional, business and diplomatic worlds, and her gracefully tinted head was never troubled with fear that the wrong ones might meet. All those on her selected list were the right ones, each interested in what the other represented. Many a little coup between the artiste and the financier is consummated under the guise of drinking a cup of tea or punch. And more than one professional has amassed a neat little fortune by making wide-eyed queries of the Wall Street man about his end of the game.
On the afternoon in question the rooms on the lower floor were crowded with laughter, perfume, silks, jewels, furs and the hum of animated voices.
Bowls of early spring bloom, azaleas, jonquils, mammoth daisies, stood on tables and at either side of the arched doorway. A faint blue haze of cigarette smoke hung overhead. Twilight had sifted through sunlight before Parsinova appeared. She always came late.
As she stood, a silhouette within the white arch between the shining bowls of jonquils, there was a general hush, then a forward movement. She was gowned entirely in black—black lace trailing from her feet, a black hat shadowing her face, and drooping from it to curl against her shoulder, a black paradise. Black pearls dangled from her ears and a strand of them about her neck emphasized its whiteness.
“Isn’t she wonderful? What personality—what atmosphere!”
“There’s no one like her.”
“She fairly oozes temperament.”
“By Jove—these foreigners! Naughty but—er—so promising, don’t you know!”
Mrs. Collingwood Martin bore her triumphantly to a thronelike chair and presented the guests in turn.
Parsinova’s manner was charming, a bit weary but gracious, and her efforts to carry on a conversation in colloquial English were excruciating.
“That lit-tle French gentleman by the punch bowl,—I fear he has on a biscuit,” she told the group of adorers.
They looked puzzled. Then one of them flung back his head with a laugh. “You mean he has a bun on.”
“I shall never be right,” she sighed in the chorus of laughter that followed.
From the music-room came a clear tenor singing the “Ave Maria.” Silence met the lifted voice and at the final sobbing note, gentle applause.
Mrs. Collingwood Martin swept toward her guest of honor.
“Darling,” she smiled with that touch of privileged intimacy she loved to assume, “here is some one most anxious to meet you. Let me present Signor Luigi Rogero of the Metropolitan.”
Parsinova looked up and out from under dropped lids. Then she wondered whether any one saw the start she gave. Facing her with lips bent to her outstretched hand stood Lou Seabury.
No mistaking him in spite of the close-fitting coat, carefully waxed little mustache and black-ribboned monocle! Due to a New York tailor’s art, his plump figure had grown slimmer. In place of the loose disjointed shamble of old home days, he bore himself with consummate _savoir faire_. But the pink cheeks and kind brown eyes were the same.
Parsinova waited breathlessly for some sign of recognition. None came. In perfect English he merely voiced his satisfaction at the meeting and joined the group about her chair. It was not until she rose to leave and he craved the honor of escorting her to her car that she met his gaze with curious question in her own. But his eyes were blank so far as any subtle meaning was concerned.
He followed down the steps, helped her into the perfectly appointed limousine. An impulse she made no attempt to curb prompted her to ask if she could drive him uptown. They had gone several blocks before either spoke. Then very low came the words:—
“Lizzie Parsons,—you’re a wonder!”
Instinctively she looked about to make sure his whisper had not been overheard. Then she gave a long, smothered laugh and clutched his hand just as she had that night in the three-a-day vaudeville theater.
“Lou,” she breathed, “I’m so glad, so glad!”
“Were you surprised to see me?”
“Surprised? I almost died.” She gave a little gasp. “Were you surprised to see me?”
“Not a bit.”
“You knew me then—at once?”
“I’ve known who you were ever since your opening. I was there. Matter of fact, I have you to thank for the brilliant idea that made me an Italian.”
“Yep.” He lapsed into the old lingo and she closed her eyes with a beatific smile. “You don’t think my brains would ever be equal to such an inspiration.”
“Mine weren’t either. It was Oswald Kane’s.”
“Nobody would ever guess that you’re anything but Russian from the word go.”
“That was only because I’d known you. And even then I mightn’t have been on if I hadn’t heard your imitations. Do you remember that night?”
“Do I remember it! That was the night that ‘made me what I am to-day.’”
“I did my best to please you,” she went on, “and Oswald Kane was in front and liked my act. He came back afterward and arranged to sign me.”
“So that was why you left me cold. I dated you for supper and went round after the show, to find my bird had flown. Believe me, I was the most disappointed rube in town.”
“I wouldn’t have remembered my own name after Kane saw me.”
“Is that why you canned it?”
She laughed then, her low, rich contralto. “That was all his plan. I was as amazed when he told me about it as if he’d asked me to change my skin. He’s never told me why he did it—he doesn’t trouble to tell you why. But I suppose he thought the public needed a thrill, something new, something different. And my impersonations gave him the idea. I think I might have made good if he had let me go on as just plain Parsons. But of course, not half the hit that Parsinova has made.”
“They sure are crazy about you. I wondered often how you were getting on.”
“You didn’t guess that somebody was making a new woman of me, did you?”
His gaze, as it traveled from her dark-rimmed eyes shadowed by the drooping hat, to the long white hands and slim black-swathed body, held the same look of awe it had worn the night he had seen her make up.
“Lordy, girl!” he gasped. “How you must have worked to accomplish it!”
“Work!” came in a breath. “I worked like a galley slave—never stopping, except for sleep. Even while I ate I studied—Russian and French, and gesture and movement. I even learned to eat herring. And all the time he was teaching me to act. In four years—almost—I’ve seen no one, talked to no one but him. I’ve had to obliterate self completely. He has in reality created Lisa Parsinova.”
“He had to have the material to do it. The stuff was there.”
“But he is a genius, Lou. He knows his public just as a magician knows his bag of tricks.”
The traffic at Thirty-fourth Street halted them. They spoke in whispers, and every now and then her eyes rested with a look of caution on the inexpressive back of her chauffeur.
“Do you think he can hear?” she asked.
“I have to be so careful.”
She turned to him, eyes alight with interest as they started on up the Avenue. “Tell me about yourself. You’re another man, too.”
“Dad died shortly after I saw you,” he explained. “Apoplexy. And I thought of you, the break you had made, the gamble you took. So I gathered together what he left me, sold out to my brother Jim, and came to New York to stake everything on that voice you took such stock in. I went to Fernald and he thought he could do something with it. I’ve been in training so to speak ever since. And this season he got me the job with the Metropolitan.”
“If only I could hear you!”
“Oh, I haven’t done much—not yet. A few matinées and one or two Saturday nights. Next year, though, they’ve promised me a go at leads.”
“I knew if ever you had the chance you’d prove yourself.”
“I owe a great part of that chance to Randolph,—you know, Hubert Randolph. He’s one of the directors of the Metropolitan. I met him at Fernald’s studio last winter and it was through him that Fernald pushed me. He’s interested in you, by the way,—thinks you’re the greatest actress of the century.”
“The century is very young,” she smiled.
“Well, Rand’s seen them all in the last fifteen or twenty years and knows what he’s talking about. We were at your opening together and he said then you were paralyzing.”
“Did I do that to you, too?”
“Paralyze me? Bet your life you did! When you walked out on that stage and raised your head, a ramrod went up my back. ‘That’s Lizzie Parsons,’ I said to myself, ‘or I’ll be shot.’ Then I thought I must be loony, that when I’d see you in a better light without the short wig, I’d laugh at my mistake. But in the second act I knew I was right, in spite of the black hair—”
“It’s dyed, Lou.” She made the confession haltingly. “At first I didn’t want to. My hair seemed sort of part of me—the color, I mean. But that’s just why he made me do it; it was a question of personality, he said. I begged him to let me wear a wig but he was afraid it would be detected. And he was right, I dare say. He’s always right.”
“Don’t you worry about the way it looks, either. You used to be just pretty. Now you’re a beauty!”
“Am I—really?” There was a childish earnestness in the query.
“Should have heard Randolph rave! Say, I’m dining with him to-night. Why not come along? He’s crazy to meet you and he won’t go to any of those society fandangles to do it.”
“Meet a stranger—with you around? Oh—I couldn’t! I’d burst into straight English as naturally as you burst into song. And that would ruin me.”
He patted her hand and his kind brown eyes beamed. “Nonsense! You’re too clever an actress for that.”
There was something pathetic in the way she clung to his handclasp. “It’s so good finding you this way. I haven’t any friends—no one to whom I can actually talk. With me it isn’t a case of acting behind the footlights. I’m acting all the time, except when I’m alone.”
“But it’s not acting any more—this Russian business, is it?”
“No—it’s myself, the greater part of self, I dare say. But Lizzie Parsons isn’t all dead yet and I don’t want her to die—” She blinked up at him. “Don’t make me cry, please,—or the shadows will all come off my eyes.”
His eyes took in the luxurious appointment of the car, mauve enameled vanity apparatus on one side, smoking outfit on the other, gilt vase with its spray of fresh orchids, soft tan cushions and robe of fur. He gave her a warming look of satisfaction.
“I should say the exchange was all for the better. You must be making a mint.”
“One hundred and fifty a week.”
“One hundred and fifty—?”
“That’s my contract.”
“But good Lord—”
“Oh, I made it with my eyes open. It extends over the first five years—with an option on the next five.”
“But all this—” He waved his arm, bewildered, through the air.
“All this he gives me—my clothes, my car and its upkeep, my jewels, though they’re mostly paste, everything except my home. I wouldn’t let him give me that.”
He made an attempt to conceal the swift suspicion that would have clouded any man’s eyes. Instantly she saw and answered it.
“Oh, don’t misunderstand! It’s purely a matter of business. I’ve got to be equipped to play my part off the stage and I don’t earn enough to do it on my own.”
“Then why doesn’t he give you enough?”
“I should probably grow too independent. This way he holds the reins. That’s only supposition, of course. I’ve never discussed it. One can’t discuss money with Oswald Kane.”
“It’s a damned outrage!”
“Oh, no it isn’t. He took a sporting chance. He staked time and effort and money on a venture that might have proved a hopeless failure. I had everything to gain. And now that I’ve made good under his guidance, it’s only fair that he should reap the harvest.”
“For six years to come, at any rate,—until my contract expires.” She leaned back, eyes closed, and an intensely weary look dropped the corners of her red, mobile mouth.
They drew near the park. She urged him to ride with her a bit and they drove into the blue velvet dusk, past the shimmer of lake curled among the bushes. The car glided on swiftly through cool dark silence.
“You haven’t told me yet how I inspired you to become an Italian,” she prompted.
“Oh, that—simple enough! Randolph remarked the night of your première that there was an aura of romance about artistes from the other side, particularly when they hailed from Southern Europe; sort of Oriental, you understand. The next day I went to Fernald. ‘Can’t you change me to something Italian?’ I said. ‘Seabury’s a rotten name for an opera singer.’ Well, he did it. Of course, I make no attempt at accent—I couldn’t handle that job in conversation. But the people I’ve met don’t look for it; they understand the fact that I was brought up in England. All I have to be careful of is my grammar.”
They laughed together. As her laugh bubbled girlishly into the quiet night, she halted it with a swift movement of hand to lips and once more sent that look of caution at her chauffeur’s back.
He reminded her of his dinner engagement with Randolph. “He’s made up his mind to know you informally. And that’s all he has to do to get what he wants. He’s a human dynamo, that man. Never knew anybody with his finger in so many pies and able to put over whatever he tackles. Sooner or later you’re bound to meet him in his own way. Might as well be to-night.”
“What good would it do? He’ll never know me—the real me.”
“He’ll know a fascinating woman, any way you look at it.”
But she dropped him at the bachelor apartment on Park Avenue in spite of his pleas.
“Come and see me, Lou, often,” she murmured, giving him her address as he stepped out of the car. “You don’t know what a joy it is to play at being myself.”
It was inevitable that Parsinova should meet Hubert Randolph, as Lou Seabury had prophesied. It was not inevitable that he should prove to be the man whose intent gaze had held hers from the first row. But when one considers that Randolph had determined from the moment he saw her to know her in an unprofessional capacity, his accomplishment of that end was in the natural order of things.
Hubert Randolph was not a self-made man. He had succeeded, made his name stand firm in the humming world of finance, in spite of the handicap of having been born to the purple. Early in his boyhood he had started out to forget that he was a Hamilton Randolph and he had been forgetting it satisfactorily ever since. At Harvard he had become the pal of men who tutored in their leisure hours, thereby improving his mind. Also, he had never taken the trouble to inform them to which particular Randolph family he belonged. It was unimportant. He had spent a winter in a shack in Arizona, partly for his health, but largely to familiarize himself with the workings of a matrix mine in which the Randolphs had an interest. He had chummed with the miners, chewed tobacco and acquired a red-bronze that had never quite worn off.
He had climbed Pike’s Peak, had shot big game in the Andes. And then he had come back to civilization and taken a clerkship in the brokerage offices of Parker, Gaines and McCaffery, to study banking methods from the bottom up.
At thirty-eight, or it may have been thirty-nine, he was an authority on banking, stood ace high in Washington, and was known as a patron of the arts. The Randolph family never understood why he had gone to all that bother. It was so old, so distinguished, that to have a member attempt to distinguish it further was almost an insult. However, Rand, as he was known among intimates, never troubled to consult the family as to his movements. He saw as little of them as possible.
“Don’t concern yourself about me,” he was in the habit of telling his sister when she tried to propel him in the direction of one of her parties. “I’m a hopeless sort of devil who likes to choose his own friends.”
Once she persuaded him to attend a tea and he appeared with a youth in a shiny coat and cuffs that separated from his shirt.
“He’s a coming violinist,” he whispered. “I thought you’d like him to play. But he’s hungry—give him something to eat first.”
She never attempted to persuade him after that.
Parsinova met Hubert Randolph in a funny little restaurant which years back had been a stable. It was conducted by a group of painters for the benefit of a Disabled Veteran’s Relief Fund all their own. He had arranged the party for the Sunday following her meeting with Seabury but it took her old friend another week to convince her that she could carry it through.
The occasion was not propitious. She had had a bad half hour that afternoon with Kane when he resented the omnipresence of her mother.
“She annoys me. She seems to be behind you like a shadow. You must send her away! Some one is bound to discover her.”
“That is impossible. She goes nowhere, sees no one. I shall keep her here.” Parsinova’s eyes glittered and for a moment it seemed likely that a backstage tantrum would be duplicated in fact.
So that when she fastened the short black satin dress up the front into a high collar under her ears and pulled the brim of her black satin hat in a shading dip, it was in a mood that omened no particularly cordial reception of Mr. Hubert Randolph.
Seabury called for her and Randolph met them in the cobbled courtyard that led to their unique dining place. In the dark she did not recognize him. But as they stood in the doorway where an old lantern swung, she stopped and peered at him.
“I have seen you be-fore!”
“Many times—in the firs’ row. And you look’ as if—you like me.”
“I do,” came promptly with a smile.
“No—no,” her eyes gave him a piquant uptilt, “my art, I mean to say. Me—you do not know.”
“I’m going to.”
He led the way indoors. She glanced about and her mood dissolved into a new interest. First the man, then the charm of this quaint place. The stalls had been left standing and in each a table was set. Over each from the beamed ceiling swung a lantern similar to the one outside. There were no brilliant lights, no noises of clinking glass and silver.
She slid along the upholstered seat that lined the stall to the place he indicated at the table’s head. The men seated themselves at either side.
“This is great, Rand,” remarked Seabury. “How is it you never brought me here?”
“I saved it for Madame. What does she think of it?”
“Fas-scinating. I feel quite like a thorough-bred horse.” Then she looked at him gratefully. “And one is not—on ex-hibition.”
“I don’t want to exhibit you,” rejoined her host. “You’ll find that out.”
She did find it out in the weeks that followed. They dined frequently at “The Mews,” sometimes with Seabury, more often alone.
At first she protested. She could not! But in the end Randolph won out. They arrived always at six when the place was practically empty and by seven-thirty she was at the theater.
As the weather turned warmer they drove occasionally to the country and back in time for the performance. She never permitted him to call for her but arranged to meet him at the theater. They never went to conspicuous hotels or restaurants. He seemed to enjoy being with her away from the stare of the world. One Sunday in April when they had planned to lunch at an inn that dots the shore of the Hudson, he appeared with two hampers and announced that they were going to picnic. They left the car at the top of a slope, scrambled down and unpacked the baskets with the anticipation of boy and girl off for a holiday. She pulled off her hat with its floating veil and sat cross-legged on the rug he had spread under a willow tree.
Sitting there watching him, this man so intensely real, so intensely himself, a sense of infinite sadness swept over her. She wanted just for to-day to drop all sham. Not that her pose was ever difficult. Like all affectation used incessantly, she was no longer conscious of it. It was herself. But in these rare days spent with Randolph in the brimming sunlight, soft with young green things, she wanted with a ridiculously hopeless yearning to let him glimpse Elizabeth Parsons, the girl who would have let her hair fly in the wind for sheer joy of springtime, the girl who lived only in hidden moments.
Sometimes she compromised by letting Parsinova express Elizabeth’s thoughts, her ideals, separating the two women only by the breadth of an accent. Often she caught him looking at her curiously, as if trying to link some simply expressed idea of living with the reputation of the woman sitting opposite him. But more frequently they were content to enjoy the moment, tramping through the woods, discovering new sun-flecked trails, drinking in the sweetness of April and companionship.
He had suggested that he stop for her at her home but she put him off with excuses, obvious and sometimes lame.
Once he reproached her.
“Why don’t you let me come to see you?”
“You can—at any time you wish.”
“Not at the theater. When I worship you, I like it to be from the other side of the footlights.”
“Oh! Then what is it you wish to do on this side?”
“Adore you! And you haven’t even told me what street you live in.”
“Then it should be quite ea-sy. One adores that which one knows least a-bout.”
“In other words a man loves what he doesn’t understand and likes what he does?”
“That is ex-actly what I wish to say. Is it not strange?—when a man wish’ to make a woman love him, he say:—‘_Mon adorée_, you are such a my-stery to me.’ And when a woman wish’ to make a man love her, she tell him:—‘_Mon amour_, I understan’ you per-fec’ly.’”
He gave a ringing laugh, then leaned across the table.
“Your foreign men have a dozen ways of telling a woman they want her love. We Americans, when we care—the real thing—are awkward as boys and a little afraid.”
“A-fraid?” Parsinova’s eyes were wondering, while Elizabeth Parsons’ soul cried out that she, too, could know such fear. “But why?”
Her eyes laughed into his then. “The Latin in love is an art-iste,—the American an art-i-san. Is that what you wish to say?”
* * * * *
“Have you ever heard that Ade classic?—
‘I never run from the man behind the gun, Tho’ other chaps are cowards, As for me—not! But my courage fades away, And I don’t know what to say, When I meet the little girl Behind the tea-pot.’”
“Me-not. Tea-pot,” she repeated with a frown of concentration in which lurked a smile. “How ver-y droll your classics are.”
His rather severe mouth lifted with a whimsical twist. “After all, it resolves itself into this—a man fears, not what a woman is, but what she seems to be.”
Parsinova met the steady gaze with a quick startled look and bit her lip to keep it from quivering. But his next words answered the unspoken question that for a second shook her perfect poise.
“I wonder—” he said slowly, “I wonder if you’re as simple as you seem complex.”
She did not reply at once, did not lift her eyes. They wandered out through the wide window to the sheen of river and hazy Palisades in the distance. Randolph had driven her out to Longue Vue at the hour when the sun slides lazily into soft spring shadows.
“Why do you think me—as you say—com-plex?” She lifted her eyes and the sun slanted across them. Perhaps that was why he failed to give her a direct answer.
“Odd,” he observed, “I didn’t guess you had gray eyes. They look so dark from the stage. They’re wonderful eyes at close inspection, by the way.”
“Are they, too,—com-plex?”
“Full of secrets.”
“Ah, but there you are wrong—quite wrong, my friend. Most of their life they ’ave given to study. What secret’ could they possess?”
She hated herself while she said it, hated Kane and the stage and the success she had made. But most of all she hated Elizabeth Parsons for allowing Parsinova to dominate her. To this one man she wanted so devoutly to reveal herself as she was. Ridiculous, of course, the desire—for it was Parsinova who charmed him. That was all too evident.
The hours she loved best were those in which he told her of his travels, his life in the West. In that she could evince an interest that was sincere. She could picture him in rough flannel shirt and corduroy trousers, hobnobbing with the miners, one of them. He was the true democrat, eager to learn first-hand instead of living by proxy.
She would draw him out, welcoming the opportunity to be for the moment Elizabeth Parsons, if only as a listener.
When he left her at the theater that evening, he startled her by saying abruptly:
“I’m coming to dine with you next Sunday.”
It was just as he helped her out of the car and she stopped short, hand still in his. “You—are coming—?”
“That’s it, in your home. Oh, I’ve found out where you live. But I had a notion that I’d like you to tell me.”
“How—did you find out?”
“Had you followed, perhaps. At any rate, you can’t keep me away any longer.”
“You—you must not come.”
He regarded her closely, his thick brows coming together. “Is there any particular reason why you shut me out?”
She remembered suddenly that her hand was still in his. His tense grip was hurting her.
“Please!” She made a futile effort to draw it away.
“Many—reasons.” Her lips hesitated over the words.
“Any one reason, I should say.”
In spite of herself, she looked up at him. “No—one.”
“Right, then. Sunday next.”
He dropped her hand quickly, stepped back into the car.
The next three days she spent buying high-backed cathedral chairs and carved tables and tabourets for her living-room. Down came the cretonne hangings and up went heavy purple velvet ones that shut out the blessed light of day. She selected a black rug that made the room look hideously somber and for the divan, gold cushions weighted with tassels. When she finished, she had consumed several months’ salary. But the transformation was complete. Once more Elizabeth Parsons was wiped off this mortal sphere. Soon no shadow would be left of her, not even in the sacred nook she had saved to call “home.”
With an anxiety close to terror she waited for Hubert Randolph. She was wearing white, soft, creamy, floating. There ought, at least, be some spot of light in the mysteriously shadowed room.
He came at seven. She went to the door herself and let him into the little foyer. His eyes were alight with eagerness. They had the look of a small boy’s bound for a fishing trip on Sunday.
He caught her hand. “You know how glad I am to be here.”
“You know,” she rejoined to her own surprise, “how I am glad—for you to be here.”
He followed into the living-room. “Odd,” he observed almost to himself, “I’ve pictured it often—but not like this. I’d an idea of light things—woman things about you.”
She could have laughed with sardonic glee at the thought of how she had dragged down those light, woman things and spent a small fortune to create another atmosphere.
“But on the whole,” he proceeded speculatively, “these are you, aren’t they?”
“A woman is so man-y things—so man-y moods, I wish to say—that there is no one room can express her.”
Her apartment was in one of those modern houses where dinner is cooked by a chef downstairs and sent up via the dumbwaiter. To Parsinova this had proved a convenience, saving as it did the necessity of curious servants. To-night she had arranged for one of the waiters from the restaurant below to serve them. But in spite of him, noiselessly in the background, it was a cozy, intimate little party that somehow brought them closer than all their former dinners. The small table set in a corner of the living-room, its glistening silver and lacy feminine damask, the dishes she had herself ordered, created a sense of home dangerous to the peace of mind of an actress wedded to her art.
To crown the illusion, when the _café noir_ had been served and the waiter disappeared, Randolph pulled a pipe from his pocket and asked if he might light it. “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to smoke a pipe with you.”
“But I do not—smoke a pipe.”
“Don’t interpret me so literally. A pipe means fireside, something intimate and real. I’ve always thought it would be nice, one of these days, to see your face through pipe smoke. May I?”
She nodded, curled on a cushion by the fire. It was a rainy night. The logs whirred merrily. “Now—tell me more about your won-der-ful West.” She lighted a cigarette and listened, eyes partly closed, and a sweet tranquillity bathed her soul.
He pulled his chair closer. Unconsciously, perhaps, her head dropped against the arm. If a moment later she felt a hand lightly caress her hair, she gave no sign. Parsinova fans would undoubtedly have been amazed at the scene—the Russian actress curled like a kitten at the foot of a man’s chair while he painted with broad strokes pictures of prairie life.
It was what he did just as he was leaving that shattered her serenity like an explosion. They were standing in the foyer and she had given him her hand with her “Good-night,” when suddenly she was in his arms. They closed round her, swept her to him and his lips were on hers. For a long moment they stood so. Then, without a word, he put her at arm’s length, held her eyes with a look whose intensity she found impossible to read. An instant later she was alone.
But those few moments brought her up sharp. Hours afterward she felt the vice of his arms gripping her, the thrill of his kiss, and knew that she loved him. Subconsciously she had known it a long time. But she had never faced the issue. Content with a comradeship dear to both Elizabeth Parsons and Lisa Parsinova, she had drifted without any forward look, without taking count of what payment the future might exact. And now the hour had come. Elizabeth Parsons, who had never loved before, loved Hubert Randolph. Hubert Randolph loved Parsinova who, according to all report, had loved many times and with not too much reserve. Long hours she lay staring into the blank darkness of her room. Out of it she could draw nothing but misery.
Heretofore she had accepted Parsinova’s manufactured past without question. Now it was a lurid flame, flaring through the smoke of all reasoning, torturing her—more real because it was unreal. Had it been fact, there would be no problem. As things were, it was the ghost at the banquet, a ghost of that which had never been. And there was no solution! There never would be!
Elizabeth Parsons was New England. It was part of her plan of life to marry when she loved. That was as fundamental as the blood in her veins. The very intensity of emotion of which she was capable was reëxpressed in her intensity of adherence to the moral conduct generations of upright-living ancestors had laid down for her. From that there could be no swerving. It was part of her.
Throughout the dragging hours of that night she tried desperately to read into the embrace of the man who had taken her love, some interpretation other than the obvious. And suddenly it came to her that even granted he might possibly be willing to give her his name, it was impossible for her to accept it. He did not know Elizabeth Parsons—would not, if he did, evince the slightest interest in her. It was the Russian actress he adored, the woman she was not. If he wanted her and she dared to marry him, she would have to live day and night a lie she could not—and what was more, would not—carry through. In love she would have to be herself. Brilliant as was her Slav rendering of it on the stage, in life she was just an American girl who wanted to live it with all her soul. When he took Parsinova in his arms, he would be holding Lizzie Parsons. The sophisticated Russian lips against his would be giving him New England kisses. Well—not quite that! But one certainty she must face. To the man who had fallen in love with the Russian actress, the American girl would mean less than nothing. She hated her! In the confusion of her soul she did not know which hated the other more.
Had there been any doubt in her mind as to the hopelessness of her situation, Oswald Kane himself pounded the last nail in the coffin a few days later. A chatty little sheet given to imparting information about important people had got wind of Randolph’s devotion. It announced subtly that the walls the Russian actress had built up between herself and American men had evidently been shattered by one who heretofore had evinced but slight interest in the beauties of his own set. It hinted at their runs in his car out of New York and wondered amiably whether he intended converting his bungalow up Westchester way into a dovecote.
The day it appeared on the news-stands Oswald Kane paid her an early visit. For the first time she saw him with his smooth exterior ruffled. It was a matinée day and she was having an eleven o’clock breakfast when he arrived. A note from Randolph asking why she had refused to see him the day before lay on the table beside her plate. She looked tired and her eyes needed no artificial shadows.
Kane came into the room, then turned and stared at the new furnishings.
“Do you like it?” she asked. “I’ve had it done over.”
“I thought it safe—in case any one should find me out and drop in.”
“Some one has found you out.” He handed her the society sheet, open at the pointed paragraph that concerned her.
“I should like to know,” he began, his mellow voice going sharp, “who the man is.”
She hastily slipped Randolph’s note into the pocket of her dress. “I should like to be able to tell you.”
“You mean he does not exist.”
“I mean that if he did, it would be quite my own affair, wouldn’t it?”
“No. If you play a dangerous game and lose, Oswald Kane loses with you. If any man discovers the truth about you, it means your professional death as well as mine.”
“You need never worry—about that.”
Whether it was the hopeless note in her voice or the look in her eyes, his voice softened. He went close to her.
“There is just one,” he whispered, “who knows you as you are. Lisa Parsinova has the right to no man’s love but Oswald Kane’s. Forget those New England prejudices!”
She dropped quickly into a chair. “Lisa Parsinova has the right to no man’s love _at all_.”
Her eyes closed. Her voice went on monotonously.
“You see, I’ve thought it all out. I’ve swamped the girl I was and it’s as final as if I’d killed her. One of these days, perhaps—when my contract with you has been filled—Parsinova will sail back to Russia or be drowned or something, and out of her ashes will rise a spinster named Lizzie Parsons who doesn’t really matter, who’ll just pass out—alone. But until then you are quite safe. Only—please—never speak again of—of loving me.”
Kane bowed. “You are a great artiste, in spite of that. And at least you cannot deny me the joy of the creator.”
“I shall never forget what you’ve done for me. I shall never betray you in any way.”
She kept her word to the letter. Had she followed inclination she would have gone through her performances mechanically. A numbness had taken hold of her, of utter misery, utter futility. But her work did not fall off in brilliance. Particularly in the love scenes and in the final tragic sacrifice, did her beautiful voice shake with a suffering so intense that it was real.
Randolph she saw several times a week in his accustomed place in the first row. But his efforts to see her she ignored. A scene with him would be unbearable, leading as it must nowhere. So she left his notes unanswered, knowing he would eventually conclude that his passion the night of their last meeting had been unwelcome, that she was choosing the simplest means of telling him so. He wrote at first anxiously, then demandingly, and when she failed to answer—stopped. When the notes ceased to come she felt more miserably alone than ever in her life, reaching back into the past for their hours together as groping thoughts reach for memories of the dead.
She grew thin as a rail and her pallor was no longer creamy. It was dead white, with unbecoming lines traced from nose to mouth. Seabury remarked the change and suggested that she needed a change of air.
“You’ve been working too hard and you show it. When does your season close?”
“Sometime in June.”
“Why don’t you get Kane to let you off the end of this month?”
“I don’t want to be let off. I’d like to play all summer.”
“Good Lord, it would kill you!”
“It will kill me if I don’t work.”
“Look here!” He went over to her chair, looked at her closely. “What’s the matter?”
He had dropped in to tea at her apartment. She was seated behind the copper samovar, white face emphasized against the dark hangings, fingers moving restlessly among the tea things.
“Something’s wrong,” he persisted as she did not answer. “What is it?”
“Oh, a million things,—a million little things that don’t count.”
“Looks to me if it was one big thing that does.” He drew her out of the chair—toward the window. “Come on—’fess up to papa!”
“Well, for one thing—” she bit her lip, woman-wise trying in her own soul to veer away from the big issue by concentrating on a lesser. “My mother’s blackmailing me.”
She looked up, met his stare of dismay. “The little old lady you see around here sometimes.”
“I thought she was a maid. Look here—I don’t understand. You—why, Lizzie Parsons, you’ve been an orphan for years!”
“I know I have. But I had to have some one—mother preferred—to protect me.”
“I see—” A light dawned.
“So I engaged her. She looked the part and seemed a gentle, pathetic soul—and now she’s blackmailing me.”
He grinned in spite of the seriousness of it. “Is she likely ever to squeal?”
“Not as long as I give her all the money she wants. But it’s getting on my nerves. She makes my life miserable by threatening to take my story to the newspapers.”
“Next time she does it, send for me and I’ll bully her into keeping quiet.” He made a move toward the door. “Is she here? I’ll do it now.”
“No—no!” She stopped him. “Let well enough alone.”
He took her hand. “Poor kid, you are in a mess!”
“I’ve committed suicide, Lou,” she said abruptly.
He looked at her silently, then shook his head. “What else is bothering you?”
“What—what makes you ask that?”
“A blackmailing mama might make you look tired and worried but she wouldn’t put all that sorrow into your eyes. Why, you look like Isolde—by Jove, that’s it! Love stuff!”
“How absurd!” She looked away. “Whom could I be in love with?”
“Not with me, that’s a sure thing. Though, of course you know I’m in love with you.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I know I haven’t a chance. But I care enough to be darned upset by your condition. Now, come along, let papa fix things for you.”
“They can’t be fixed, Lou, ever. When you’ve chosen to be two people in one, you’ve got to stand up and take the consequences if God ordains that two’s company and three’s a crowd.” She gave him a smile, whimsical but without mirth. “Have you ever heard that saying: ‘_Je suis ce que je suis, mais je ne suis pas ce que je suis?_’”
Seabury’s brow wrinkled. “I sing French. I don’t speak it.”
“It’s a play on verbs: ‘I am what I am, but I am not what I follow,’” she translated. “Well, that’s me!”
He tried to persuade her to give him her confidence but she smiled and told him there was nothing further to confide.
A few weeks later just before her season closed, he asked what plans she had made for the summer. Kane was arranging to send her on tour with “The Temptress” before opening in New York in a play being written for her. She would have July and part of August to rest.
“I shall stay in town,” she told him, “and study.”
He protested vehemently.
“No use, Lou! I couldn’t bear being among people and this is the best place to hide away. Besides, there’s my mother to consider. I can’t risk having her run loose in New York without me.”
“But you must rest!”
“I must keep going, with as much work as I can manage.”
He bent over her, his kind brown eyes troubled.
“You’ll kill yourself.”
“On the contrary, I wish that I weren’t so intensely alive.” Then she smiled and patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry about Lisa Parsinova. She’s in fine shape.”
“But Lizzie Parsons?” he put in.
“She doesn’t count.”
“Seen Rand lately?” he asked casually as he got up to go.
“A number of times.” She had seen him only too frequently from the far side of the footlights. “Have you?”
“No. He’s busy. Getting ready to go to Arizona. But of course you know about that.”
“Y—yes. Has he told you when he leaves?”
“Tuesday of next week. May be gone a year. Don’t know why.”
She turned her back to the light so that her face was blurred and misty and he could not read its expression. “Do you—do you think he looks quite well?” she prompted, eager for some news, any news of him.
“Well, it struck me he looked a bit seedy last time I saw him—not just up to the mark, that is. Probably spring fever. How does he impress you?”
“I—I hadn’t noticed any change.”
When he had gone, she picked up the calendar on her desk and stared at the day and date. Friday! By this time next week, a stretch of continent would rush between her and Hubert Randolph. She shrugged her shoulders with a short laugh. What mattered miles when worlds stretched between them now!
She went into her bedroom, locked the door. Lizzie Parsons leaned close to her mirror, stared into it. The white face and black-rimmed eyes of Lisa Parsinova stared back. A frenzy seized her. She caught hold of the first object her hand touched—a hair brush—and flung it full force at the reflected face. The glass splintered. Then she stepped back in trembling terror. Good heavens! Was she actually becoming that Russian fiend?
On Monday night her gaze wandered instinctively toward Hubert’s accustomed place in the orchestra. He was not there. Of course she had expected that, but she would have liked just one more look at him. Women have a strange way of wanting that which tortures them.
After the final curtain Kane appeared in her dressing-room and suggested that they take a drive up Riverside and a bite of supper somewhere along the road. He wanted to talk to her about the new play, about her route for the coming season and a date for her New York opening. His attitude had become thoroughly friendly and businesslike. He was too much the artist to allow failure in a lesser game to interfere with success in a greater.
It was nearing one when they drove back through the soft summer night. The air touched her face like velvet but brought no drowsiness to her eyes, no balm to the realization of blankness ahead—not of weeks or months, but of years.
With the passing of those years it was inevitable that she become Parsinova—with nothing left of poor, defunct Lizzie Parsons but the recollection of a love that had touched her life like the moon on a summer sea.
The Drive was still dotted with strolling couples oblivious of passers-by. Cars sped past them, wheels expertly manipulated by one hand. Mingled young laughter rang out like bells.
Kane’s rich voice flowed on, dwelling now on this, now on that scene of the play. She listened absently, eyes straying in a way that was absurd toward the magic of a June night, the enviable good fortune of those who could become part of it.
“I shall give you even greater opportunities than you have had. I shall produce a piece of work that will be epoch-making,” he told her.
She told him how pleased she was.
When they arrived at her apartment she asked him not to trouble getting out of the car, and stood and watched it swing round the corner. Then slowly she turned and went indoors.
Parsinova unlocked her door, stepped into the little foyer and after an instant’s pause to take off hat and dustcoat, crossed the hall to her living-room. Once more cretonne hung in the doorway and slips of it covered the furniture. Summer had served as sufficient excuse to convert the place to its former simplicity. The sight of cathedral chairs and gold cushions had for the past few weeks depressed her to the point of mania. More than once she wanted to tear them to bits.
The dim light from the foyer sifted weirdly into the dark, playing here and there like ghost hands lifting the shadows. She felt her way toward the fireplace, dropped to the floor, her head touching the chair arm, and stared at the spot where in the flames she had visualized the scenes he painted. It was blank now, just a vague square full of darkness, but it gave her back his voice, the sense of his strength, the caress of his arms. It sent once more sifting upward the aroma of cloudy pipe smoke through which he had wanted to see her face. Her eyes closed. Almost she sensed him there in the magic of one of those long silences that needed no words. Almost she could feel his touch upon her hair, her longing made it so real.
Tears came hot under her lids, the first she had shed since that night. They streamed shamelessly down her cheeks and onto the sheer clinging dress. All pose—and she had grown used to posing even to herself—slid from her. Her poise slipped with it. The great Parsinova became just a lonely, huddled heap of a girl.
She lay so, whispering his name shamelessly into the darkness when suddenly it seemed that she was being lifted and drawn into the big chair. It was like embarking into some dreamland of her own making. She held her breath, choked with the fear that she might shatter it. The caress upon her hair, arms closing round her, lips seeking hers! It was not until she had the actual sense of a rough coat against her cheek that, galvanized with terror, she started up and backed toward the floor lamp that stood at one side of the fireplace.
The soft light went up. Hubert Randolph was sitting there! It was impossible of course! Slowly she went toward him, reached out a hand, touched his arm.
He laughed. “Oh, I’m real enough!”
She forgot her accent. At that moment she could not have assumed it even though the future, though life itself, depended on it. “But how—how—”
“I’ve been waiting for you since eleven-thirty,” he put in, apparently not noticing the difference. “I concluded I was entitled at least to a ‘good-by’ from the woman I love.”
She gazed at him silently a moment and then because her heart and throat were full, she voiced a triviality. “How did you get in?”
“Your little old woman! I bribed her. I’d had an idea I could go away without seeing you. Well, I couldn’t, that’s all.”
Her nerves were quivering like live things. She moved toward the couch, dropped on it. “I—” she said at last haltingly—“I am not the woman you love.”
He looked across at her.
She went on without meeting his eyes. After the unconscious revelation she had given him during those moments when she thought herself alone, she could no more have stopped the confession that came now than she could have stopped her breath.
“I am not any of the things you think me—not one of them. I am not Russian—not foreign at all. I was born in Vermont of American parents. Up to the time I met Kane, my struggle for existence was in cheap vaudeville houses, not in Moscow. I’ve never had any lovers—”
“Well,” came with a low chuckle, “no man could object to that.”
She looked up. Her eyes met his, amazed. “You don’t understand. I am not Lisa Parsinova—there is no such person. I am Lizzie Parsons and I’ve imposed on you just as I’m imposing on the American public.”
“The American public asks chiefly to be charmed and interested. If you’re doing that for them, they don’t care whether you’re Yankee or Hindustani.”
She continued to stare at him, in bewildered fashion striving to interpret his nonchalance. “You—you can’t possibly understand,” she breathed at last. “Aren’t you surprised?”
“Not in the least. You see, I’ve been Kane’s backer for years. I was with him in the vaudeville house the night he first saw you. As a matter of fact, I was the one who suggested to him that you’d be a winner on Broadway. Of course the foreign stuff was his. Any number of times I’ve watched him work with you from an adjoining room. You don’t know what pride I’ve felt in your success.”
“Then why, all these months, have you let me believe you were being fooled?”
“Well, I hadn’t exactly taken count of the fact that I was going to love you. And when the blow came I realized that if I’d been lucky enough to make you care anything for me, you couldn’t go on acting to me. You’d have to tell me—and I wanted you to, because you couldn’t help it. That night when I had you in my arms, I thought some sort of admission would come. When it didn’t and you ignored all my attempts to see you, I could only conclude I’d lost out.”
“You didn’t guess—”
“Not until to-night.”
She still groped uncertainly, not able to fasten on any one fact. “It was Kane, then, who told you where I lived.”
“No. Your little old woman here.”
“My little old woman?”
“She’s a canny soul. Must have found one of my notes that you brought home from the theater or something like that, because she looked me up one day and offered to sell me some interesting information about you. I paid her _not_ to sell it and threatened her with jail if she went to anybody else. Told her she was guilty of a criminal offense that could send her up for twenty years. I think I made it strong enough to shut her up for the rest of her days.”
“She’s been collecting from me just the same straight along.”
He flung back his head. “I said she was canny. Before I go West I’ll have another talk with her.”
“You—you’re going to-morrow?”
“No, I’m waiting over. You close Saturday night. We’ll leave Sunday.”
With the last words, he leaned forward. She took a quick step toward the wide chair, then stopped abruptly.
“But what am I to do with Parsinova?”
He pulled out his pipe, reflectively examined it.
“Think of the novelty—I’ll have two wives in one.”
Her lips tightened.
“No, you won’t! I’m going to take that woman out on a lake this summer and capsize the boat—drown her! And the body will never be found. Then I’m going to let my hair go back to its own color! Which one of us is it,” she added suddenly, “that you love?”
He laid his pipe on the chair arm.
“The little girl who called to me in the dark. Now come back here, Lizzie Parsons, where you belong!”
“I’ll always be jealous of that Russian devil!” she warned him.
The battle royal of all time is between character and circumstance. The way we meet the experience that waits for us round the corner is the eternal Comédie Humaine. Success is the hole in the ground—the banana peel—the stumbling block that may trip us up. It is as uncertain as to-morrow.
Of course that was not her name. No one knew just how she had been christened—if at all. To a worshipful public she was known as Jane Goring, which, as names go, answered all purposes and was quite as simple as she was ornate. But “Peacock” was the title of the play in which she had made the season’s hit and a wave of fads in honor of it had typhooned over New York in consequence.
There were perfumes with bottles far more valuable than their contents on which strutted the iridescent bird of beauty. There were soaps and powders and sachets sold in green satin boxes similarly decorated and similarly priced. Peacock feather fans swayed at dances and the opera despite the age-old hoodoo. Beaded bags were worked in the popular design. Dressmakers dictated the spreading train. Blues and greens in every conceivably odd shade were introduced as the new color. The peacock coiffure, originated by Goring, was imitated by dowager and débutante, by movie star and chorus queen, by the girl behind the counter even unto the cash girl—hair drawn flat over the top of the head and puffed out stiffly at the ears, the whole being completed by a comb that jutted at right angles. In Goring’s mahogany swirl, framing as it did a face rather broad at the cheek-bones and tapering heart-shaped to the chin, an impertinent nose and sleepy green-gray eyes that lifted at the corners, the effect was startling. But the variegated types it crowned north, south and east of Broadway would scarcely have inspired an artist to his best work.
At the moment we make our bow to Jane Goring—for Goring bowed to no one—she was on the top rung of the ladder of success. Her head had reached the clouds and was held accordingly. So that when she looked at you, she always looked _down_ at you. Which made those whom she addressed feel infinitely small even when they were tall, always excepting representatives of the press. They found her always gracious, always smiling with corners of eyes and lips lifted and a look of wonder at their great kindness to her. Each time she received them it was in some new and amazing costume in one of the shades she had made popular, with jangling jade or emeralds in her ears and green lights darting from the comb in her hair. She spoke at length of the arts and collected immense royalties from candy boxes, silk advertisements and cold creams bearing her name and endorsement.
Somewhere in the dim and distant past her flaming head and Jap-like eyes had graced the chorus. She had lived in a hall bedroom; had been caught frying chops over an alcohol stove; had been lectured by the landlady; had found the milk frozen to her window sill on winter mornings; had known the exquisite thrill of being raised to a few lines of persiflage with the musical comedy’s comedian. In those days a young newspaper man, Bob McNaughton, had found her out, proclaimed her a genius, and married her—not because of her genius, however, but because he adored her. They had spent their honeymoon one Sunday on the Palisades, and he had kissed her finger tips one by one and told her how he was going to make her.
“There’s Jefferson who has our dramatic column—I’ll get him to give you a boost every now and then. He stands in with a bunch of critics. He’ll drop a word about you and they’re bound to take notice. You’ll see, darling, what I’m going to do for you!”
And she had put her vivid head on his shoulder and gazed down at the shining river and murmured that she didn’t care whether he did anything for her or not. She loved him—she didn’t want anything in the world but him.
The hall bedroom had given place to the third-story back, the frying chops to a French table d’hôte that boasted a bottle of red ink with a sixty-cent dinner, and Jane Goring was happy in the possession of a broad shoulder to weep on when the latest step came hard or the director asked casually if her legs were made of leather.
In the years that followed, the ardent young husband had made good his promises. He had systematically press-agented Goring with a sincerity and enthusiasm born of love. Untiringly he had worked to bring her first to managerial, then to public notice. And his efforts, added to natural talent and a bizarre personality, had hoisted her to the top rung heretofore mentioned. “Peacock” marked the fourth season of her success.
But long before that Bob McNaughton had awakened one morning to find gray hairs threading his brown, and himself still a reporter—by no means a star one. He had been so busy making her career that he had forgotten to make his own.
It was about this time that his wife left him. Not actually left him, of course, for at that particular moment Goring would not have stooped to anything so disturbing as divorce. Waves of popular favor had begun to roll smoothly up the beach of her ambition. But her temperament demanded a home all her own. So they maintained separate apartments—had done so for several years—his a room and bath in a downtown bachelor hotel, hers a nine room and three-bath duplex in an uptown studio building.
In the beginning they had seen each other occasionally. But each time they met, Bob seemed to have grown grayer. Whether this fact was a reminder that her own hair, left to itself, might show the same tendency, or whether it was just the look in his eyes—the same look they had worn that Sunday on the Palisades—seeing him began to tell on her nerves.
More and more she denied herself to him until he became more of a stranger in her beautiful rooms than the flock of tame robins who pecked out of her hand at afternoon tea.
As a matter of fact, few of Goring’s vast throng of admirers even guessed there was a husband in the offing. Women persistently married her off to her handsome leading man, and more than one young millionaire about town ecstatically visualized her presiding at his dinner table.
So far as Jane Goring was concerned, Bob McNaughton belonged to another life. Thus it was rather a shock to come home from the theater one night when “Peacock” was at the height of its run and find her husband waiting for her. It was fully five months since she had seen him; over a year since she had been at home to him after the theater.
He was striding up and down her drawing-room, hands thrust deep into his pockets, head bent. But when one considers that her drawing-room consisted of three thrown into one, it was not surprising that at first she was not conscious of another’s presence. She came in, switched on the sidelights, dropped her furs and sank on the davenport, hand hovering toward the table back of her, when from the other end of the room, her name was spoken.
She sat up, startled, and saw Bob coming into the range of bluish light from a Chinese temple lamp at the side of the piano. Jane Goring looked her amazement. He drew nearer, stopped abruptly and faced her.
“My apologies,” he said with a slight, rather twisted smile, “for calling so late.”
She dropped back, the look of amazement still lighting her long sleepy eyes. “You did rather—startle me.”
For a moment neither spoke. Then he indicated the other corner of the deep-cushioned couch, “May I sit down?”
“Certainly.” It was accompanied by a slight shrug.
His hand dove into his vest pocket and brought out a silver cigarette case. He clicked it open, held it out to her. She may or may not have noticed that his movements were tense and jerky, that the case was held not quite steadily. She gave a faint gesture of dissent, reaching once more to the table at her back, and opened a gold lacquer box.
“I have a new special brand—imported for me from Egypt.”
He took one of his own, pocketing the case, and she waited for some explanation of his visit.
“You’re looking well,” he began after a moment without looking at her.
“Feeling very fit,” she returned, and waited once more.
He did not speak, just sat staring down at his rather tightly clenched hands.
She did notice then that he was looking old—years older than when she had last seen him. Bob was forty-two,—to-night he looked fifty. Jane was,—well, not even “Who’s Who” knew exactly how old Jane Goring was—any woman who will tell her right age will tell anything!—but she looked well under thirty.
The silence seemed to demand something of her.
“And you?” she queried politely.
He wheeled round in his corner. “That’s just what I’ve come to see you about,” he brought out. “Matter of fact, I waited until the last minute—didn’t want to bother you with it.”
“The last minute?”
“Yes. I’m pulling up stakes—beating it for Colorado to-morrow.”
At the back of Jane Goring’s brain, though even to herself she did not acknowledge it, flared a sudden flash of relief. Like a jagged streak of lightning across a summer sky it was there—and gone.
“With what paper?”
“None, for a time. It’s like this.” He paused, seemed to be searching for words, his hands clenched and unclenched nervously. “I’ve been seeing Frothingham, the specialist, you know. Oh, it’s nothing—contraction in the chest now and then and bit of a cough in bad weather. Beastly uncomfortable, though. He tells me if I go now I can get rid of it in six months or so.”
Goring gazed at the breadth of shoulder on which her head had snuggled so peacefully in the old days. Not that that phase of it occurred to her just then, but she stared at the big frame and could scarcely credit what he told her.
“But how in the world did you get such a thing?”
“It got me, my dear,—before I knew it. Fellow living alone’s apt to grow careless. Anyway, there it is, and it’s up to me to light out.”
Silence again for a moment, then—“I’m sorry, old boy,” she murmured.
“That’s good to know.” He slid nearer to her along the couch. Her face through the pungent smoke from the Egyptian cigarette was an indefinite white blur, vague as a dream, impossible to read. “I was hoping, in a way, that you would be. Makes it easier for me to put up the proposition I have in mind.”
“Yes?” she questioned as he paused again.
“But first I want to outline something of my plans once I knock this bug on the head.”
“The Graystone has made me an offer. I’ve been interested in the movie game for the past few years; been studying it from the inside. And recently Crosby Stone—he’s vice-president of the Graystone—asked me to go to the Coast and take charge of the editorial department at their Western studio. I told him that for the present I couldn’t consider it—health needed jogging up. He said the job would be there for me whenever I wanted it.”
“Seems to me an excellent idea,” she observed.
“Now what I wanted to ask you is this.” He fumbled for his case once more. Against the light from the table lamp, his features formed a sharp tense silhouette. He bent forward, struck a match. It flared upward, emphasized the lines that were almost ridges in his face. Suddenly he turned, and his next words came thick. “Janey, I want you to do this much. Will you—when you close—take a run out to Colorado and spend part of the summer with me?”
The tapering white hand that held the cigarette to her lips dropped as if stricken. She straightened and her drowsy green eyes looked down on him from the immense height of the top rung.
“My dear boy!” she ejaculated.
“Of course,” he put in quickly, “I wouldn’t expect you to stay in Denver. Must be any number of mountain resorts we could go to—I’ll ask Frothingham.”
“But, my dear boy, I couldn’t possibly. To begin with, I’m taking ‘Peacock’ on the road early in August, playing Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago—all the big cities. Cleeburg wants to keep me out in it until February when we begin work on a new production. That leaves me only a few weeks’ vacation—”
“Spend them with me. Janey—” He leaned over with a swift, impulsive movement, lifted her left hand, the little finger of which was completely covered by a big beetle-green scarab, and kissed the tips one by one. “Janey, there’s just you—no one else! These last years have been hell. I’ve missed you—I’ve wanted you! A few weeks—is that too much to ask?”
She drew her hand away—gently enough. But a little shudder of disgust ran down her spine. “But I can’t, don’t you see?” she began conversationally. “Those few weeks I must have to myself. I need the rest.”
“Can’t we take it together? Can’t we go up into the mountains—away from the muck of the world—and get to know each other all over again? Remember our honeymoon, dear, the afternoon by the river? What a happy pair of kids we were! Let’s have a taste of that, just a taste again.”
A slight flicker of amusement—oh, very slight—raised the corners of her upslanted eyes. “Afraid we’ve passed the honeymoon age, dear boy.”
“It’s your love I want, Janey,” came from him desperately. “Just to feel that you’ll come to me for a time when I need you.”
She got up, crushed the spark from her cigarette, tossed it with a gesture of distaste into the tray and moved toward the piano. In her trailing green gown with its fanlike train—Goring never wore short skirts—and her dangling scarab earrings, she looked very exotic, very tall and altogether unapproachable. She trailed the length of the room and stopped under the Chinese temple lamp. Its blue light shed an aura about her, giving her skin the moon-glow that Henner’s brush has made immortal.
Her husband gazed after her. Mercifully she stopped with her back toward him, and he failed to get the expression that pressed close her lips. His eyes had followed her with dog-like pleading. Without meeting them she knew—felt it. Neither could she escape the urge in his voice. In the old days, that deep tender note had thrilled her, made her yearn for him, given her the assurance that whatever happened, Bob would be there to make things right. To-night it merely annoyed her, rendered her position more difficult. Seeing Bob at all had become trying and the very thought of the thing he now suggested irritated her beyond measure. She had so completely done with him—finished! Taking advantage of this sudden illness was taking advantage of her. With all her being she resented it.
She stood for a moment turned from him, fingering the blue and gold tassel that hung from a bit of Chinese embroidery flung across the piano. Finally she turned back, face as void of light or shade as the old idol enshrined in a corner.
“Suppose we have a snack of supper and talk things over,” she suggested.
He was sitting bent almost double, elbows on knees, head in hands. A wave of contempt for his attitude of dejection swept over her. She was so palpitant with life, vibrating with the thrill—ever new, ever sweet—that the laurel wreath brings.
Without waiting for a reply she rang. A tired-eyed maid appeared. Goring gave her directions and when the girl had gone out, proceeded to chat casually about affairs of the theater—a new firm of managers recently bobbed up on the horizon with a new play by a new author; the outlook for next season; the trend toward satirical comedy.
Bob sat without moving, knuckles pressing white against his forehead, the veins on his hands standing out like blue welts.
Presently he looked up.
“I take it you are _not_ coming out to me.”
Goring in the depths of a chair some distance from him stirred uneasily. “My dear boy, I’ve told you. It’s not only impractical—it’s impossible.”
“Of course! I was an ass to think you might.”
“Can’t you see? I’m not my own mistress. I belong to my public. I’ve got to conserve my strength for them—and my work.”
“If I consulted my own desires—but I haven’t the moral right. I must sacrifice what you want—what I want—to what my public expects of me.”
He might have reminded her of the years he had given to creating that public for her. He might have dwelt at length on his Machiavellian boosting of a red-haired show girl through the columns of his own paper and gradually with insertions here and there in periodicals of the theater, until managers began to ask who this Jane Goring was. He might have made mention of the evenings he had spent round the Lambs and the Friars adding to his list of acquaintances, as men can only at men’s clubs, those who would eventually be of service to her.
He merely smiled with his lips, lighted another cigarette and tried to cover the fact that the flame flickered.
“You must understand how I’m placed,” she persisted.
His laconic reply, followed by flat silence, instead of alleviating, somehow increased her discomfort.
After a moment he spoke. “Ever read ‘Frankenstein,’ Janey?”
“Queer tale of a chap who tried to create a superman.”
“Well?” Her brows contracted, puzzled.
“Well—his superman rose up and destroyed him.”
“I fail to see—” The frown deepened.
“Oh, just a flight of fancy. Don’t mind me.” Again his hand struck a flickering match.
“Ought you to smoke so much?” she asked, to fill in the gap. “I shouldn’t think it would be good for—for—”
“My lungs? Oh, nothing wrong with them—actually. Dare say they’ll pull up O.K. once I pull out of this town. Y’know what Paul Bourget said about New York. Fellow asked him how he liked our climate, and he answered, ‘But my dear man,—you do not have climate. You have samples of weather!’”
She laughed and the weight of the air lifted somewhat. The maid brought in a steaming chafing dish, set it on a nest of tables and drew out the smaller two, placing them in front of the couch.
Goring moved over, once more took the corner opposite her husband. His eyes traveled the length of her.
“You grow more beautiful every time I see you, Janey. Success is a first rate old alchemist, isn’t it?”
She smiled down, her whole face softening.
The maid laid an embroidered doily of finest linen on each of the two small tables and brought silver platters of creamed mushrooms with a faint aroma of sherry. From a dusty bottle marked Amontillado she poured into slim-necked glasses the same wine, glistening and amber.
When she had finished serving them, she asked tentatively if madame wished her to wait up.
Goring wondered why the question brought from Bob a look of curiosity, why he turned and watched her, waiting; why he smiled—with his eyes this time—when she told the girl to go to bed.
She moved nearer—the tables were placed side by side—and sipped the sherry. A few moments passed during which she noticed uncomfortably that he had not touched the dainty, tempting dish before him.
“You’re not eating?”
“Not particularly hungry.” He lifted his glass, twirling it between thumb and forefinger, his gaze never leaving her. “I want to fill my eyes with you, Janey. May be a long time before I see you again.”
Her eyes warmed to the tense adulation in his. After all, he did look beastly ill, and the least she could do would be to give him the memory of a little kindness to carry away.
“And I want you to know, Bob, that I’ll be thinking of you, hoping and praying that before long you’ll be quite fit again.” She leaned over, touching his hand lightly with hers. Instantly his closed over it—feverishly, as a man clings to hope when his ship of life has been broken into wreckage.
“Will you, Janey?”
“That will help—some.” He put down the glass and caught her other hand, drawing her nearer. “I’d like to feel there’s still a corner for me. No other fellow taking my place, I mean.”
“How absurd! You know I haven’t time even to think of men.”
“They have plenty of time to think of you.” Again that quizzical smile. “I’ve got that much over them, haven’t I? You’re _my_ wife.”
She smiled back and tried to draw away but he held her with the grip of hot iron.
“That’s what I’ve got over them, Janey—all of them. You may belong to your public now but you’ve been mine. We’ve had our youth together, haven’t we?”
“We’ve had the best of life together.”
“Nobody can take that from me.” He spoke breathlessly.
Suddenly his arm went round her, crushed her to him and his lips were against hers. “My love!” he whispered.
Jane Goring’s body went rigid. She drew herself erect and the warmth died out of her eyes as swiftly as a flame extinguished. Sharply her slim white hands thrust out in defense. She pulled backward. Their gaze met—locked. In his was hurt question. In hers a flash of fury. He sat staring at her a moment and he did not look _up_. It was a look direct, straight, boring to the heart of her.
And then he got to his feet. “I beg your pardon,” he began. “I—I thought—” He paused, jaws coming together as though clamped. Without another look at her he walked the length of the room.
At the door he turned. “Damn me for my humility!” he said.
Exceeding the most exalted expectations, “Peacock” ran two full seasons. It might even have packed houses during the hot spell, save that the star decided to give herself a rest, well-earned, and, of course without her, the theater had to remain dark. At the end of four weeks spent at a fashionable Adirondack hotel where she was fêted like visiting royalty and her gowns created a sensation, she reopened and the continued success of the play warranted Cleeburg’s decision to give it another season on Broadway.
During all that time Goring had not a word from her husband. Even of his Denver address she was unaware. But the fact that he did not write failed to disturb her. It was a relief rather. The first few months of his absence she dreaded another plea from him. In case his health had grown no better, or—as was quite possible—had grown worse, further excuses would be difficult. As the weeks rolled into months and the months accumulated into a year and still not a line, the thought of him lapsed into merely perfunctory curiosity. He must be alive or she’d have been informed. Hence, if ever she needed to get in touch with him it would be easy enough to do so through his former paper or his clubs. Thus she blotted even the thought of him from her books.
Another season of acclaim on the road and she was back in New York ready for rehearsals. Her new play, made to order for her by a prominent dramatist, was read by him in her apartment the day of her arrival.
Cleeburg met her at the Grand Central, full of enthusiasm, chewing the butt of a cigar while his hands outlined the plot as an artist smudges in with charcoal the foundations of his picture.
Goring’s manager had started life as a newsboy somewhere east of Broadway and a few of the habits of childhood had become the habits of a lifetime. His manners were not Chesterfieldian. Frequently he forgot to take off his hat when a lady entered the room. His cigar was removed from the right-hand corner of his mouth only to be shifted to the left. But more than one actress out of a job could borrow a hundred or two from him with no surer guarantee than her I.O.U. And those of the chorus whose eyes had not grown hard from seeing too much of the Rialto when lights are brightest, affectionately called him “Papa.”
Rudolph Cleeburg or ’Dolph as he was familiarly named—was short and stocky; heavily built, in fact, but with a lightness of foot that enabled him to prance about the stage while directing, and an Oriental imagination that carried him into any rôle he wanted to assume without making him appear ridiculous. One of the ablest directors in the country, in spite of English that sometimes tobogganed, he always took his productions personally in hand once the first rough edges were smoothed down. With Goring, of course, he assumed charge from the beginning. She would have no one else.
The manager’s admiration for his star had at the start been of the proverbial cat-and-queen variety. But as their association stretched over the years, it was shorn of the awe in which he had first held her and once he had even reached the point of proposing. It was when she informed him that she and Bob had separated.
“Divorce?” he had asked quickly. And with her shake of the head, “Well, if ever you do, there’s little ’Dolph waiting to step into his shoes. Don’t forget that, Jane. It’s straight goods.”
The proposal had vastly amused her.
They drove up town through the fresh sweetness of a May morning. Cleeburg’s panama dropped to the floor of the car as he excitedly sketched the story in the air, one idea tumbling after the other as fast as words would come. His bald head shone as did his eyes. All his features were prominent—nose, eyes, teeth—but most prominent of all was his smile which seemed to light like an arc his round commonplace face. This he flashed delightedly as Goring listened with a calmness unbroken.
“It’s sure fire, Jane! Sure fire! We got a bigger go than ‘Peacock’ and that’s going some.”
Jane Goring said little until the apartment was reached. Then she shook hands with the author who was waiting for them, left the two men together while she changed from her traveling clothes, and an hour later glided in cool and revived in a peacock-blue house-gown whose sleeves floated outward like wings. Cleeburg’s watch was in his hand, but he pocketed it without a word as she entered, and settled back in his chair.
The author opened his script and began to read. His voice filled the silent room, chorused occasionally by the gay trill of birds from the park across the way or city sounds from the street below.
The manager’s smile broadened with satisfaction as he progressed. The cigar moved back and forth, propelled by emotion. But Goring listened without comment, eyes half closed, gazing down at the playwright’s head bowed over his manuscript.
Presently a new sound broke upon the stillness. It was from neither bird nor branch, neither the clang of bells nor the rush of traffic. It was light and regular, and it came from within—the steady tapping of a slippered foot. Toward the end of Act II it became noticeable and Cleeburg looked round interrogatively.
Tap—tap! Tap—tap! More swift, more impatient,—until the author’s voice proclaimed “Curtain.”
Then Jane Goring spoke—and the tapping was explained. “But, my dear Mr. Thorne, you don’t expect me to play the lead in _that_?”
Cleeburg wheeled about in his chair. “What’s the matter with it?”
“Why, there’s nothing for me—not a thing!”
“Nothing for you?”
“Nothing! Not a single opportunity in those first two acts.”
Cleeburg sprang up. His cigar rotaried excitedly. “No opportunities? My God, Jane, what do you want? As the play stands, you’re the whole show!”
“As the play stands, you might as well hand it to Harrison Burke”—Burke was her leading man—“and let me retire,” came coolly.
The playwright’s eyes began to smoulder. “I don’t get you, Miss Goring. This character has been absolutely built round you.”
She turned on him, still cool, still aloof.
“Then why is your man allowed to dominate every scene?”
“He isn’t,” the author protested. “The sympathy is yours, even when I’ve been compelled to give him the long speeches.”
“I don’t see it—not at all. You don’t even give me an opportunity to wear decent clothes.”
“That comes in your last act,” Cleeburg burst out.
“Well, I don’t want to wait until the last act.”
“I can’t very well put a factory girl in satins,” the playwright observed.
“Why make her a factory girl?”
He threw up his hands and subsided.
Cleeburg took to pacing the floor. “Look here, Jane,” he said finally, “let’s get a line on this. You’ve given ’em a fashion plate for three solid years. Show ’em you can do something else. Otherwise they’ll get sick and tired of you. This part’s great—just what you need. You act through the first two acts and in the last you splurge. What more do you want?”
“I want it understood that I’m the star of the production!”
“Well, it is. Nobody else has a chance. Good Lord, Burke’s speeches are just feeders! You’ve got—everything.”
“I don’t see it.”
The dramatist, who was sufficiently famous to be independent of stars, rose. “Under the circumstances, there’s no need to read further.”
“Hold on! Hold on!” Cleeburg clutched his arm. “Don’t take it like that, old man. Let’s go into the thing and see what can be done to please all parties.”
They did go into it for three long hours, at the end of which Jane Goring insisted that she must have luncheon. She was as unruffled as when she had entered—and as firm. Cleeburg was mopping his brow. Through his glasses the playwright’s eyes were blazing. It was then two forty-five. By that hour they had compromised to the extent of cutting some of the hero’s long speeches and giving her a chance to change her costume in the last act.
At luncheon Cleeburg consumed little more than whiskey and soda, and wondered why he got no cooler. Likewise he swore at the twittering of the birds and the distant clang of street cars.
When Jane Goring had finished the last morsel of her chicken salad and leisurely emptied her cup of Chinese tea, they adjourned once more to the drawing-room and the discussion was resumed.
A lantern of golden fire was hanging in the Western sky by the time the play had been revamped to the star’s satisfaction. More than once its author took hat in hand and made for the door. But Cleeburg’s persuasive clutch and the whisper that an additional advance would be paid for his trouble detained him. And finally an agreement was reached.
Her objection to the drama as it stood, however, necessitated a postponement of rehearsals and it was late July before the company assembled on the stage of a playhouse just off Broadway. It annoyed Goring to forego her usual few weeks of rest but since she wished to have a New York opening in October, there was nothing else to be done.
The day the company was called was dank and humid, a breathless day thick with summer dust, ominous with thunderclouds.
At ten Goring emerged from a cold bath, was dressed by her maid’s moist fingers, and at eleven crossed the soggy pavement from her car to the stage entrance. The drive downtown had been stifling. It dizzied her. To enter the dark passageway and look out into the space of auditorium, linen-covered, was a relief.
What is there about an empty theater that fascinates? The bare boards of the stage, the heaps of scenery piled against bare brick walls, the bare table and chairs ranged to form a semicircle within which the actors move back and forth, the single electric light, bare of shade, jutting up in the center like a giant eye in the cool darkness—surely there is no illusion about them, no suggestion of the world of make-believe into which they evolve. Yet the very odor of the place redolent of grease-paint—those who love it sniff it as a thoroughbred sniffs tanbark.
Manager, actors, author—they are about to conjure from those bare boards all the elements of life. Conflict, laughter, tears, love, hate, happiness—death! Theirs to build, theirs to take the written page and make of it a tingling human thing. Theirs to people empty chairs. Theirs to clothe with flesh and blood a skeleton. A wave of the wand and into emptiness springs a home with soft rugs and rich-colored hangings, deep divans, the ring of voices, the flooding of moonlight or warm glow of the sun. And best of all, out in that empty auditorium when the lights go up will throng a crowd whose hearts will be theirs to thrill, to wring, to charm. Theirs the blessed privilege, the joy of creation. That’s why they love it in spite of the ache of disappointment, the discouragement of failure. That’s why they cling to it.
Those assembled on the stage that throttling day of July had risen tired from their beds, dragged wearily in from the street, noticed that the management had electric fans going and laughed at the idea of getting any relief from them. Yet the instant Goring appeared, followed a few minutes later by Cleeburg, a light sprang into their eyes, the spontaneous light of anticipation, and they promptly forgot the weather. The play had been read to them the day before and their parts assigned, so that they were ready to plunge into work.
Goring shook hands with her leading man and nodded to the rest, all of whom were known to her—she had practically the same support from year to year—except a slight girl whose face was so thin that her eyes looked abnormally big and hungry. It made their expression almost frightened.
The company ran quickly through the first act, parts in hand, while Cleeburg sat under an electric fan and listened. Then, after a few words with the author who was hunched in a seat somewhere in the ghostlike auditorium, he ripped off pongee coat, his collar and necktie, and real work began.
Goring did little but read at the first rehearsals. She liked to conserve her energy for the long sessions Cleeburg put her through during the last weeks.
When they left the theater at five everybody looked wilted but the star. The hour for lunch had been consumed largely with liquid refreshment and most of them again made for soda fountains.
Goring dined with her manager on the Astor Roof. The storm, threatening all day, had not yet broken and a black hood of clouds bore down on the city like the shadow of death. Cleeburg, full of plans, ordered a near-champagne cup and substantial dinner and appeared not to notice the depression above and around them. But Goring it affected unpleasantly. She felt irritable, annoyed by the fact that he could eat a heavy dinner on such a night, prone to find fault with the service, rubbed the wrong way by the strum of the summer orchestra.
“Did you notice how much older Burke looks?”
“Looks good to me,” Cleeburg lifted a cup of steaming bullion while she played with a jellied one before her.
“He’s losing his figure, I think.”
“We ain’t any of us chickens, Jane.”
She pushed the cup away.
“Not that you ain’t a pippin,” he added hastily. “You’ve got the lines—you’ll always have ’em.”
“Don’t talk as if I were a hundred.” Her voice was so sharp that it cut.
“Good Lord, no! Not one on Broadway to-day can touch you.”
She softened a bit. “Who’s the new girl?”
“The one who plays my sister.”
“Oh, that one! Forget her name. Lewis has it.”
“Where did you get her?”
“She’s been hanging round the office, Lewis says, and couple of weeks ago she held me up on my way out. Poor little thing looked as if she needed a job so I gave her that sister bit. Hair’s something the color of yours—that decided me.”
“She has a funny hysterical catch in her voice. Did you notice it?”
“Probably she’s hungry. Looks it—poor kid! Must have Lewis slip her an advance on her salary.”
With gusto he cut into the _filet mignon_ and helped himself to some new peas. The sight of the red blood oozing from the meat made Goring feel ill. She turned her attention to the _halibut parisienne_ the waiter placed before her. But even the slices of tomato and crisp garnishing of lettuce could not tempt her appetite.
“I can’t see why you gave her the part—she’s so homely.”
“That needn’t hurt you any.”
“But she has a scene with me, even though it is only a bit.”
“Maybe when she gets a square meal in her she won’t look so much like a ghost.”
He lit a cigar, rolling it between his lips with the joy of an epicure.
Goring cooled her hot throat with an ice, frowning at his complacent finality. It increased her own irritation, made her want to grip him by the shoulders and shake him.
The girl _was_ homely. Why did he argue about it?
A zigzag of lightning cut through the sky. With a crash it tore open and the deluge descended like the wrath of God sent to cleanse a heathen city. Crash after crash, fire upon fire, barrages of rain hurled against the buildings, shaking their very walls.
Goring shivered. In spite of the stewing heat a chill went through her.
“Let’s get out of this,” she said.
“Better wait till it’s over.”
“I want to go home now.”
Cleeburg signed the check.
Like the lightning his car zigzagged through the storm. Water sprang from the streets against the windshield. The noise about them was deafening. Goring clung to the window strap at her side. For some unknown reason her nerves were keyed to the nth degree. She felt choked, as if shrieking alone would clear her throat. The first day of work and this beastly weather, she told herself, were responsible.
Throughout the long night the storm raged. And tossing between soft linen sheets she did not close her eyes.
They opened in Washington the end of August. Cleeburg tried to get Atlantic City but the theater had been booked weeks before his bid for it. Hence, in spite of the star’s popularity, they did not play to capacity. The season in the Capital was at low ebb. Most of the homes were closed and the usual Goring audiences were out of the city. Which after all was an advantage, for the play was still very rough.
All things considered, both Goring and her manager were rather pleased than otherwise. The four weeks of rehearsal had been torrid, record-breaking heat rising from the pavements, the city consumed by fever. The effect upon the company had been in ratio thereto. They were limp by the date of opening, unequal to their best in spite of the utmost effort.
And Goring’s rôle was difficult. She did not like it as well as “Peacock.” There was more drama, more opportunity for emotional acting, but less for the display of gowns and the bizarre beauty that had made both men and women flock to the other play. However, as Cleeburg had said, she couldn’t afford to stamp herself a one-part actress. And there was no denying the interest of the story.
As never before, Cleeburg had put her through her paces. At the theater after the company had dispersed, at her apartment in the evenings, he had gone over her part again and again coaching her scene by scene, speech by speech, until the rest, knowing nothing of those extra sessions, judged her a miracle at quick study.
“Unbend, Jane!” he would say, prancing up and down her long drawing-room. “Come off your perch! You love him, Jane! You love him! D’you know what that means? You’d die for him. He ain’t your kind and you’d go through hell to get to him. Ever felt that way? Well, think about it—concentrate on it—and you’ll get it over.”
Vaguely, like a curtain lifted on another life, memory drifted before her eyes the vision of an afternoon on the Palisades when a vivid-haired girl clung to a brown-haired boy, whispering over and over that she loved him—didn’t want anything ever in the whole wide world but him.
For purposes of the drama she concentrated on it.
Quite like the actress she was, she flung herself into the passion of those first months as if she had lived them yesterday. Fortunately for her the Goring of to-day, the actress, was a shell into which emotion could be poured as one pours burning fluid into an empty vessel.
Little ’Dolph, with cigar twirling, eyes popping, perspiration dripping from his forehead, and a silk handkerchief tied round his short neck, kept her keyed to the highest pitch—no let-down, no time to think of self or the weather or rest; no time for anything but the part in hand. Though he would not have known whence the quotation sprang, with him “The play’s the thing” was a litany.
Critics in the Capital and in Baltimore were almost unanimous in the opinion that it was a vital thing, sure of ultimate success when placed on view for the thumbs-up, thumbs-down decision of that capricious goddess—Broadway.
As a rule Goring and her leading man were the only two mentioned in the reviews, but this time almost every member of the company came in for a quota of praise. The old mother, the character man, the juvenile comedian, even the homely little sister with her wide hungry eyes and the queer catch in her voice, each had a word or two.
Gloria Cromwell was the girl’s name. It was quite as ornate as she was plain. Goring laughed the first time she heard it.
“Sounds as though she found it in a dime novel,” she told Cleeburg. “Why don’t you make her change it?”
“Says it’s her own. Anyhow, it don’t matter.”
“No—I dare say it doesn’t. She’s entitled to something to make her conspicuous.”
Often she noticed the girl at rehearsal sitting in the theater after her bit was done, leaning forward, chin in her cupped hands, mop of reddish hair falling over eyes that devoured every move the star made. Once they met at the stage entrance on their way out.
“Why don’t you go home earlier?” Goring asked. “I’m sure Mr. Cleeburg will excuse you when you’re through.”
“I’d rather stay,” the girl answered in her peculiar breathless tone. “I can learn so much from you, Miss Goring. Besides,” she paused, hesitated, “I—live in a furnished room. It isn’t much to go home to.”
“Have you been in New York long?” Goring put the question as they moved toward the street side by side.
“A year and a half—that is, this time. I used to come whenever I could scrape together the fare while I was doing stock in the West. But there never seemed to be an opening for me. Then I decided I’d best just come and wait around or I’d never get a chance. And I waited, all right.”
Another pause while the wide wistful eyes filled with the same look of fright they had worn that first day at the theater—only this time it was the fright of memory.
“Mr. Cleeburg has been wonderful to me. I’ll never be able to thank him enough.”
They had reached the curb. Goring smiled. “I shall tell him that,” she said, and with a nod stepped into her car and drove off.
In Washington she noticed that Miss Cromwell was looking better, though the eyes were as hungry as ever and the figure as slight. Undoubtedly Cleeburg was right. What she had needed was a few square meals. Her strength seemed to increase as work increased and in their scene together Goring remarked a give and take that made her own work mount to greater intensity. It was a short scene in which the younger sister who had hovered like a silent brooding shadow in the background pleaded with the older not to break away from her own class, not to try to go into a world she did not understand—and was met by the defiance of one molded to make a place for herself in any world. The scene went so well, in fact, that the author, at Cleeburg’s request, lengthened it. At the end when Goring held out her arms and folded the weeping girl in them, a gratifying sniffle and the flutter of white went through the house. Which is the most either star or manager can ask.
The company rehearsed the greater part of the night preceding the New York première, though Goring left the theater early to allow herself plenty of time for rest and the customary massage. She liked to relax thoroughly before the strenuous demands on the nerves which an opening always made. In her sea-blue silk draped bed she would lie for hours while the magic hands of the Swedish woman who attended her each day sent tingling through her veins an injection of new life. And finally a delicious drowsiness would creep over her like a thin veil drawn between her and the turmoil of the outside world. She would find herself presently floating on the waters of Lethe, arms outstretched, a smile upon her lips, a gentle undulation as of waves rising and falling beneath her. Small wonder that when she drifted back to reality some hours later she felt rejuvenated, with a calm and control equal to any emergency.
She reached the theater a little after seven. On the way in she met Miss Cromwell. The girl’s eyes were burning. Their hungry look had gone completely and in its place had come a glow like a great light from within.
“Oh, Miss Goring,” she breathed in passing, “I’m so thrilled. I’ve lived and lived for this—New York! And now it’s come! It’s actually come!”
Goring nodded, voiced a perfunctory “Good luck,” and wondered in her soul what it would be like to feel once more that closing of the throat, that turmoil of beating heart, that utter abandon of joy in opportunity realized. It thrust her back to the day when she had signed her first contract with Cleeburg. She and Bob had sat facing each other a long space without a word, his two hands gripping hers until they ached. And then—
“I’m so glad, little girl—so damn glad!” had come from him huskily.
Then his hands had loosed and swept round her and he had held her close and she had cried into the lapel of his blue serge coat, tears of sheer happiness.
Cleeburg came to her dressing-room shortly before the rise of the curtain to tell her the house was packed. They were standing three rows deep—he was sure of a knock-out. He brought her a pile of telegrams from members of the profession and friends in the social world. She read them leisurely. It was her first opening on which there was not a long one from her husband. Not that she really missed it, but the lack gave her a curious feeling of wonder as to what had become of him.
Her maid gave her hair a final pat and she stepped back to survey. It was an odd Jane Goring who gazed critically out of the mirror. No jangling jade, no spreading tail, no sensuous color of plumage. Just a blue serge dress of last year’s cut, a little shabby, open at the throat. It had been selected by the author, not without some protest from the star. She had wanted at least to go to a good tailor, but he had dragged her into a department store and made her buy one from stock at twenty-nine forty-nine. She had to admit that the effect, while not beautiful, was absolutely in character. Her shoes she had insisted upon getting at a Fifth Avenue boot shop. Feet are more conspicuous on the stage than anywhere else in life and she must be well shod to do herself justice. Her hair, too, was groomed. The Goring coiffure was abandoned until the last act but the faint wave necessary to it could not have passed unnoticed in the coils clustered about the factory girl’s ears.
She went out, followed by her maid, and waited in the wings for her cue. Then came the inevitable tightening of the heart cords, the tense straining of muscles to achieve the best, the twinge of fear, all the tearing thrill of embarkation on a new venture. It lasted only an instant, however, an instant that ended in her entrance, followed by a crashing burst of applause. She bowed again and again, and the sweetness of it flowed like wine in her blood. The play halted, action suspended in mid-air, while the actress took the tribute she had known would greet her.
After which the audience settled back to be entertained. From the beginning interest was evident, the heroine’s fight to make her own life apart from the prejudice which is as rampant in the lower as in the upper classes holding them. The struggle of evolution is the most human, most vital problem in the world.
All through the first act the conflict endured, the girl’s discontent striking like flint on steel until the final scene when the little sister, matted hair falling over her eyes, dropped on her knees, crying: “All I know is—you’re goin’. You’re leavin’ me! An’ you can’t—you mustn’t! You’re gonna get hurt with them people you don’t know. They’re gonna step on you an’ make fun of you an’ beat you down until you ain’t got no fight left. You don’t belong there—you don’t belong! Stay here with me! I’m your sister, your own blood—an’ I love you, I love you! Nobody couldn’t love you no more’n I do!”
Gloria Cromwell’s slight figure shook with the words, her eyes burned into Goring’s. That queer hysterical note lifted her voice into a throb that was heartrending, and as the star drew her close she seemed to crumple like a broken flower.
The applause that met the curtain’s descent was interspersed with the same gratifying sniffle they had encountered all along the route. A number of times it swung upward, members of the company taking it according to a schedule posted backstage.
First Curtain Tableau. Second 〃 Miss Goring and company Third 〃 Miss Goring and principals Fourth 〃 Miss Goring and principals Fifth 〃 Miss Goring and Mr. Burke Sixth 〃 Miss Goring
The manner and order of taking the curtains had been carefully rehearsed the night before, but as it rose the fifth time with the star and leading man alone on the stage, an incident unanticipated occurred. Someone in the gallery shouted “Cromwell!” And the applause seemed to swell in answer.
Goring at first paid no heed. The curtain fell—rose again and again. The call was repeated insistently. Goring went graciously to the wings and drew the girl onto the stage. She came, trembling so that she could scarcely walk, eyes wide and terrified but shining somehow behind it all. She made an awkward bow, clinging like a child to Goring’s hand.
When several curtains had been taken alone and preparations were finally under way for Act II, Jane Goring picked her way past property men and scene shifters toward the dressing-room with a five-pointed star painted on the door—to an actress the gate of heaven. Miss Cromwell was waiting there.
“Oh, Miss Goring,” she breathed, “that was so—so sweet of you!”
Jane Goring looked down at her. “I take it you have friends in the gallery?” she said.
“No, I have no friends in New York.”
Goring continued to gaze down and her look was not altogether pleasant. But the girl did not see it. With an impulsive gesture, half apologetic, half worshipful, she lifted the star’s hand to her lips.
“God bless you!” she murmured with that queer catch in her voice.
At 5.00 a. m. ’Dolph Cleeburg was seated in the living-room-library den of his apartment completely surrounded by early editions and the butts of cigars. One of the latter circled joyously in his mouth as he and the author read over the various expressions of approval.
“Here’s a fellow says Jane’s hair was too Fifth Avenue in the first act. By godfrey, ain’t that just like ’em? Can’t find fault with anything else, so have to pick on her hair.”
“I told her to let it go,” the playwright remarked.
“Well, that’s Jane. She’s got to look right or she can’t act. And, by gad, I’ve seen lots of Third Avenue girls got up like Fifth. Ain’t any law against it, is there?” He let the sheet rustle to the floor and picked up another. His collar and tie were open, his coat was off, his eyes held a blaze of excitement. A whiskey and soda stood on the tabouret beside him, untouched.
“Listen to this, Ted!” He plunged into a eulogy that made his eyes snap and the cigar roll with a velocity impossible to estimate. “By godfrey,” came at the finish, “ain’t one of ’em don’t give some notice to that Cromwell kid”—and went on reading—“‘Managers—keep your eye on Miss Gloria Cromwell.’” Then he gave a long chuckle. “And to think I engaged her because she looked starved!”
“She has something that gets you.” The author paused meditatively. “Wonder if it’s her voice?”
“Nope,” came crisply from Cleeburg. “It’s her heart. Probably suffered like hell and that’s what puts her over.”
In Jane Goring’s boudoir some five hours later, the actress sat propped up, also like an isle in a sea of newspapers. She had read them in the small hours as had her manager. Only differently. One of the society satellites who circle round a popular star even as the moon circles round the earth and just as inconstantly, now silvering her sky, now leaving it black, had at the play’s finish carried her off to a supper party and dance. In the midst of gayeties a flunky had been dispatched for the morning papers and, in a flurry of excitement like the froth of champagne, the notices had been consumed, gushed over, forgotten.
Not so by Goring, of course. Alone in the white light of a new day, she reread them slowly, digesting each word. One watching her would have found in her eyes no glow of satisfaction, no thrill that once more she had scored. Rather was there the ghost of a frown on her brow. A frown somewhat difficult to interpret.
At eleven Cleeburg had her on the phone. He had been ringing the apartment at regular intervals since eight but her maid had refused to disturb her. His voice ran the gamut of explosive enthusiasm.
“Great, Jane, great! We’ve got ’em again! We’ve got ’em! Didn’t I tell you this one had it all over ‘Peacock’?”
He wanted to come up and lunch with her but she told him she was tired, would see him later at the theater.
The greater part of the day she spent resting, going over her notices and dictating letters to her secretary. Toward five she dressed and sent for her car. It was a crisp, clear blue October day. A run in the park or up Riverside—there were a number of things she had to think about—would fill in time until dinner.
A restlessness unusual and unexplained made her pace the floor while she waited. So unusual was it, in fact, that it caused a vague wonder. By all previous portents she should have been exalted, lifted to the zenith of content through the knowledge that the star of her success still sailed high in the heavens. She was not. She felt nervous, distressed, with a weight on her chest that even the buoyant breezes from the river could not dissipate.
Rolling up Riverside Drive with the ease of floating in ether, she had the sense of a great hand clutching her. The sensation was the same as that which she had experienced the first day of rehearsal—only intensified. It made breathing difficult, annoyed her to the point of exasperation.
She ate no dinner, just swallowed a mouthful of tea and drove downtown. Little ’Dolph came to her dressing-room a few minutes later. He was jubilant. They were sold out weeks ahead. The play had hit the jaded metropolis in the eye—to quote him, with variations. It was good for another three seasons’ run. He rambled on at random, eyes popping, infectious smile lighting his round face like the smile of the sun at high noon. Presently he stopped, shifted his cigar and stared at her.
“What’s the matter with you, Jane?”
She looked down questioningly.
“Ain’t said a word,” he continued. “What’s got you?”
“Nothing. I’m tired, I dare say.”
“Sure! Morning-after stuff! Don’t let down, though. We don’t want ’em saying second night’s off—the way it always is.”
“You don’t have to tell me that.” Indignation was in her voice.
“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” he apologized quickly. “And, Jane—”
“Might let your hair go a bit in that first act—what?”
Her eyes were like two rapier thrusts. He made for the door. “They’ll accept my hair just as it is,” was her verdict.
Their little chat did not tend to lift in any degree the mood that held her. She gave up trying to shake it off.
Fortunately it had no perceptible effect on her work. She was too clever for that. Many years on the stage had trained her to the difficult task of obliterating personal worries the instant the glow of the footlights would have revealed them to public gaze. In fact, she had almost succeeded in stamping them from consciousness when Gloria Cromwell made her entrance. At that moment there came a sudden burst of applause. Miss Cromwell tried to go on with her lines. They could not be heard. It was unprecedented, staggering. A girl, unknown, unheralded, was holding up the play! Of course, action had been suspended an instant when Goring came on, but this,—_this_ was unheard of.
Faintness seized the star, blinded her,—then fury. She knew now the nature of the weight that had stifled her all day. In a way, she had known it from the beginning. It was this girl! The lengthening of the part on tour, last night’s acclaim, her notices this morning, all had formed a cumulative irritant that now expressed itself in a surge of throttling hatred.
She jumped in on the girl’s lines, killing almost every speech. She changed her own so that cues would be missed. No move, no turn that would make the little sister’s performance fall flat was allowed to pass. Even the final speech, ending with the beautiful tableau that last night had brought down the house, was cut short. Like a red tongue of flame her rage swept over its object consuming every opportunity the part gave.
Still she did not kill the applause that greeted the curtain.
Storming to her dressing-room came Cleeburg.
“What’s the matter? You cut the act a minute and a half!”
“I was ill,” she told him. And barred the door, stripping off her dress while the maid prepared a dose of aromatics and bathed her head with eau de cologne.
Since Gloria Cromwell appeared only in the first act, dying for exigencies of plot off-stage—the remainder of the performance went as usual.
But that night, as once before, Goring tossed between sheets of finest linen and did not close her eyes.
In the morning she sent for Cleeburg.
He came, solicitous for her health, relieved by the fact that her aberration of the night before had not in any way affected the play’s reception.
She met him, cool and smiling and looking very beautiful in a purple mandarin suit, the skirt of which was weighted with wicked Chinese embroidery. Her tapering white hands were ringless and low-heeled Chinese slippers made her look less tall. Greeting him, her hand clung to his.
She led the way into the drawing-room.
“’Dolph,” she began, and for the first time a rather plaintive note crept into her voice. “’Dolph, I’m unhappy.”
In the act of lighting the omnipresent cigar, he looked up, astonished. “Why—what’s wrong?”
“I’m unhappy—and for a reason you may not quite understand. But you can help make things right. You can make them _all_ right, if you will.”
“Sure, Jane, you know me! Anything I can do—”
“It has to do with the play.”
“Fire ahead!” He resumed the operation of lighting.
“’Dolph, that Cromwell girl, I simply can’t work with her.”
Again the process of lighting was arrested. “Can’t work with her? Good God!”
She went to him, struck a match and, bending over, held it to the weed. He laughed comfortably, settled back—patted her hand.
“Sort of took the wind out of my sails, that did. Guess I didn’t get you straight, eh?”
She sat down in a chair close to his, her back to the light.
“Please _do_ get me right. I’ve nothing against her work, if _you_ like it. It’s her personality that irritates me. There’s something—something snaky about her. She makes me nervous, makes me go off in my lines. You know, I told you in the beginning I didn’t like her.”
“You said she was too homely.”
“Well, she is.”
“Not any more. Why, she’s got a face like—like Fiske. One of those faces you don’t get at first, but with so much behind it that you come to like it better than the kind that’s just easy to look at.”
“I’ve never been able to like her, ’Dolph. I’ve tried to because you seemed to, and you know how absolutely I depend on your judgment. But I can’t, that’s all.” She looked away and the suggestion of a sob sounded in the words.
Cleeburg’s cigar revolved silently for a few moments, then he leaned forward. “What are we going to do about it?”
She turned to him, rested her white tapering hand pleadingly on his arm. “Get rid of her, ’Dolph.”
“Get rid of her? Chuck her—just like that?” He snapped his fingers.
“You can find some way that won’t hurt her feelings.”
“Any way would be treating her rough.”
“She’ll have no difficulty getting another engagement.”
Cleeburg had been watching her over his cigar, round eyes studying her as they were in the habit of doing at rehearsal. Now he snapped the weed into the other corner of his mouth and smiled benignly. “That’s exactly why I ain’t letting her go.”
Jane Goring’s eyes met his with a delicate film of tears veiling them. “Don’t you want to please me?”
“I want to please the public,” said Cleeburg curtly, “and they like her. Say—what’s got into you, Jane, anyhow?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know!” A few tears, well chosen, rolled over onto her white cheeks. She brushed them away. “I’m just miserable, that’s all. Last night made me so nervous that I gave a perfectly rotten performance. Just playing opposite her gives me goose-flesh. Something about her chokes me and she seems to feel it—to revel in it. She’s a snake, ’Dolph, and I simply can’t stand her.”
“Seems to me a pretty nice kid.”
The hand resting on his arm traveled its length. “’Dolph,—isn’t it important that I should be happy in my work?”
“And if _she_ makes me unhappy?”
He gave her hand an understanding squeeze and a slow twinkle appeared in his round eyes. “Ah, come on, Jane! Talk straight to yourself! She’s made too big a hit to suit you. That’s what’s eating you.”
For an instant Jane Goring said nothing. A hard line tightened her mouth, but quickly she dissipated it, replacing it with a deprecatory smile.
“How absurd, ’Dolph!”
“’Course it’s absurd. Don’t try to hog it, Jane! Give the kid a chance!” He dropped back, regarding his cigar contemplatively.
“But I tell you that’s not the reason. I simply can’t do anything if she’s in the company. She makes me bristle!”
“Because she gets a big hand,” he put in. “Because she holds up the show!” He leaned forward once more. “And you honestly think I’d let a find like that get away from me?”
Jane Goring got to her feet. She had attempted a new rôle. She had pleaded. Now she would play in character. She would demand.
“Either she goes—or I do,” came succinctly.
“Nonsense, Jane!” He, too, was on his feet.
“I mean it. You can take your choice.”
“Why, listen to me, old girl! You’ve got the public in the palm of your hand! You can afford to give the kid a square deal.”
“I’ve told you—”
Cleeburg’s round eyes narrowed. “What’re you trying to do—bully me?”
“No. I want you to be fair.”
“I am fair—to all concerned—”
“Except to me who should be your first consideration.”
“Look here, Jane, you’ve had things pretty much your own way for a good many years. To me there wasn’t anybody—not one of ’em—in your class, either as actress or woman. Darned if I wasn’t even afraid of you! You’ve laid down the law more than once and I let you get away with it. But I can’t let you grab a find out of my hand, just like that!” Again the fingers snapped. “And I won’t!”
The peacock’s shriek is the one unbeautiful thing about him. It is blatant, raucous. It is crude as the rasp of iron on stone.
Jane Goring’s voice rose belligerently to the housetops. “And I tell you, I won’t have her putting over that sob stuff on me! I won’t have it! I won’t have it!!” Stripped of iridescence, shorn of plumage, she stood facing him, nails grinding into palms, head thrust forward and upward, body rocking with the same fury that had seized her the night before.
Cleeburg came to her, his round eyes softened and troubled, and put a hand on her shoulder. “Come, come, Jane! Don’t let’s do anything hasty. You and I’ve pulled along pretty comfortably for a long time. This thing is a tempest in a teapot. Let’s both think it over and have a nice calm talk later in the week.”
When he had left, she settled down to weigh things and balance accounts.
First and foremost, one discomforting thought was uppermost—she was losing her drag with her manager. It had been a revelation, amazing, most difficult to face, most delicate to handle. A few years ago ’Dolph Cleeburg would have been, as he had frankly stated, afraid to cross her. Hers would have been the last word, the decisive one. Such incidents as the cutting of scenes, the dismissing of actors to whom she objected, were occurrences not uncommon. Gloria Cromwell would simply have received her two weeks’ notice accompanied by a pleasing smile from Cleeburg and, since he liked her, a contract and promise to put her in his next production. To-day Jane Goring had met open defiance, backed with a twinge of ridicule even harder to endure. Not subtly but poignantly she felt it. That smile that had lurked in his eye when he called the green-eyed monster by its right name—there was no mistaking it.
Just one course remained. Her brain sprang instantly to that—to tighten her hold on him in some other way so that her will would still be the lever directing their business association. At any cost it must be accomplished. Times innumerable he had begged her to procure a divorce from the husband with whom she did not live, and marry him. That answer was the obvious one to her present situation. It gave to Jane Goring the one safe solution.
She did not hesitate, did not stop to weigh Bob’s wishes in the matter. Circumstances had pushed her to take the step. Without delay she must act and efficiently. Immediately and as quietly as possible the whole affair must be put through, consummated. It must not be the usual theatrical divorce, with blaring of trumpets and long columns in the newspapers. If it could be managed, she wanted no publicity at all. Just as her present marriage was unknown generally, so would she conduct her second venture.
Having arrived at a solution she called up her lawyer, made an appointment and drove downtown.
Two hours later she left his office, a shadow across her eyes, her face drawn and a bit haggard. The thing was not so easy as she had anticipated—impossible, in fact, in New York as matters now stood. They had thrashed it out—viewed it from every conceivable angle—to reach a conclusion that placed the final decision entirely in Bob McNaughton’s hands. Unless Goring were willing to leave the state long enough to establish a residence, Bob was the one who must sue. He must be located, which would involve no great difficulty, and then, granted his consent could be gained, it would take the red tape of the law an indefinite time to unwind.
What worried her was the fear that Bob might take this occasion to be nasty. The long silence since he had gone West made it difficult to gauge his attitude toward her. More than likely he would refuse and cause her no end of trouble.
When she received word from her attorney that, through his former paper, Bob had been located with the Graystone Photoplay Company in Los Angeles, she decided to write instead of trusting to the cold terms of a legal request.
Very carefully she worded the letter, making it most friendly but with the impersonal friendliness of those whose lives have never intimately touched. Since she had not heard from him in over two years, she wrote, she was quite sure he had by this time come to regard her as a sort of mythical being. Their separation had become so complete that a request she was about to make would, she knew, be nothing short of welcome to him. She wanted him to have his freedom. Herself—she no longer wanted to feel bound. She would always think of him as the best friend she ever had, but so many years had elapsed since their relationship had been that of husband and wife that it was rather a farce to keep up the pose any longer. She was sure he would agree in this. Knowing the New York laws he must realize that the move would have to come from him. California, she understood, was more lenient, and since he was now a resident, it would be practically easy. She assumed that by this time his health had been entirely restored and wished him every good wish in the world.
Before sending off the letter she gave it to her attorney. Stamped with his approval but with no slight misgivings on her part, it was registered and posted; then tossed carelessly into a bag with thousands of others—tear-stained, anxious, pleading, desperate, breathless, threatening, thumb-marked, hopeless—all jumbled as human emotions are jumbled together in this puzzling world. With these it was flung into a mass of other bags similarly laden and started on its way across the country.
Meanwhile instead of resuming their discussion, ’Dolph Cleeburg had diplomatically avoided seeing his star. For several days he stayed away from the theater and Goring was forced at every performance to endure the girl’s entrance—the applause that apparently had become a habit.
The climax came when one of the Sunday papers featured the young actress’s picture on the same page as the star’s. That was the proverbial straw.
Jane Goring scorned any further attempt to bring Cleeburg round to her way of thinking. If he was afraid to see her, was determined to keep Cromwell in the cast—very well, she would read him a lesson. She would prove to him who was the motive power that kept his play going. She would show him in whose hands lay his success or failure. Incidentally she would resort to the very feminine ruse of playing on his sympathy.
At seven-thirty Monday evening she sent word to the theater that she was ill and could not appear.
As she had anticipated, the stage manager phoned wildly, begging for a word with her. The situation was terrible! Terrible! She must come! They were sold out!
Goring smiled. It was just what she had looked for. No understudy for her had been engaged so far. It was a matter with which they never concerned themselves, for no one could have replaced Goring with the public. The theater would have to remain dark—Cleeburg would have his lesson. Madame was very ill, her maid replied, too ill even to answer the telephone. The stage manager urged. He pleaded. In vain! A few minutes later Cleeburg himself was on the wire. Couldn’t she drag herself downtown? She must! To him she spoke, her voice so weak that it could scarcely be heard. She had tried—impossible. Her heart— And then the maid once more took the wire. Cleeburg was frantic. It meant a refund—the loss of thousands. He almost wept into the phone. At the psychological moment the maid told him madame had fainted.
Jane Goring slept that night with a smile on her lips.
She woke up in the morning to read that at half an hour’s notice Gloria Cromwell had gone on in her place—and hit Broadway straight between the eyes.
Some months later word came from the West that Bob McNaughton had secured a divorce. There had been no personal reply to her letter. Calmly and quietly he had complied with her request, his lawyer merely notifying hers that Mrs. McNaughton’s wishes would be carried out to the letter. No possible way had she of gauging how he had taken it, no possible manner of knowing how, after all the years, such a request had affected him.
Her relief was like a gale of wind sweeping over the city after a stifling day. For months she had been trembling on the brink of terrifying uncertainty. The day following Gloria Cromwell’s amazing success had found her really ill, so ill that had she remained away from the theater that night there would have been justification. She was stunned, utterly bewildered, sickened to the soul by the trick she told herself Fate had played her.
Over and over she read the papers, as one gazes fascinated over the edge of a dizzying precipice. It was incredible! And worse still, it might easily have been avoided. She might have accepted the girl, made her a protégée, gracefully posed as having discovered a young genius and pushed her to the fore. She saw all that now. And—further irony—it would probably have redounded to her credit, a neat bit of self-advertisement. As things stood she had made herself a laughing-stock. She could not bear the thought of it.
On the verge of hysteria, she dragged herself out of bed and dressed for the street. When her maid dared to protest, she turned on the girl ready to strangle her.
Walking rapidly westward she veered north when she reached the Drive. It was a dull day, no clarity of air to fill the lungs, no shimmer of sunlight through the heavy clouds. Skeleton trees reached gaunt arms to the sky. Thick mud covered the ground which a month before had shown green and living. There was no cheer anywhere. Across the river the Palisades rose misty and unreal, as if they had never been more than mirages. Miles she made, on and on, seeking some way to still the terror voice in her breast.
That night she drove down to the theater with a sense of dread. But whatever the flurry of gossip backstage, it ceased with her arrival. Members of the company inquired concerning her health—that was all. While she was dressing a knock came. The maid opened and the Cromwell girl stood in the doorway. She took a rather timid step forward.
“I’m so glad you’re back, Miss Goring.” She spoke with a note of sincerity unmistakable, and in her wide eyes was a look of pleading as of unspoken apology for what she had done. “I just had to come and tell you.”
“Thank you,” Goring replied and for her life could not say more. Her hatred was a living, searing thing.
The coup she had made in absenting herself accomplished its end. Gloria Cromwell was withdrawn from the cast—to be featured by Cleeburg in a new production!
Anxiously Goring waited for some reference to the turn events had taken. None came, not even when the girl left the company. Little ’Dolph seemed to be full of the joy of living these days—cigar more active than ever, smile more genial, himself more generous to the down-and-outers and brimful of plans. In the weeks that followed he never spoke of their misunderstanding. Evidently his admiration had not in any way decreased. She had chosen, she concluded, the psychological moment to gain her freedom.
When news came that it was consummated the weight of uncertainty lifted. She felt buoyant, with a clear course to steer ahead. Not that she was at all eager to marry her manager. But since it was the one sure way to secure her future, it must be gone through.
She will always have reason to remember the bright spring day when she dropped into his office to break the news. For some time he had known Bob was suing.
“Glad to hear it,” he remarked when she told him everything was settled. Then he swung round in his chair and gazed out of the window at a pair of fleecy, fluttering clouds in the very blue heavens.
“Well, I took your advice, Jane,” he added casually.
“Remember telling me once to make that Cromwell girl change her name? I went ahead and did it.”
“Sure! Changed it for her. She’s Mrs. ’Dolph now.” And he grinned happily.
She understood then why he had been grinning in just that way for a number of weeks. Had she not been so absorbed in self, she would have noticed that his smile was gayer—different from any he had ever worn. It made his face quite boyish.
The decline of Goring after that was gradual. As a matter of fact, it could have been dated actually from the night of her non-appearance. Upon the heels of that night followed a change, scarcely noticeable at first, in the sea of eyes and lips and hands to which she looked for signs of approval. Slowly—oh very slowly—there crept into the audience’s response to her a quality mechanical, automatic almost, as if largely force of habit, a quality that presaged the beginning of the end. Whether in herself or the public she could not tell. It was nothing tangible, nothing definite. But something had happened. The fine thread by which an actress chains herself to popular favor had snapped. In vain she told herself it was just nervous imagination. It made her choke with fear.
One thing Jane Goring had failed to take into consideration: Than the highest rung of the ladder there is nothing higher; and unless one dies having reached the top, there must be a descent. Youth pushes its way upward relentlessly, and those who have been must make way for those who will be. A ladder with top rung overcrowded would of necessity break.
Had she possessed the art of Bernhardt or the intellect of Fiske—that magnetic quality of soul that charms with the mellowing years—she could have laughed at time. But her ability consisted chiefly in a technique, the accumulated result of stage tricks that only up to a certain point can present itself as youth.
With an eagerness that approached hysteria she reached out for the adulation that for years she had accepted without question as her due. The thirst for it was the thirst of fever. Even the tame robins she had always regarded as more or less of a joke, she began to seek them as they in the past had sought her. The desire to be seen about pursued by youth; to lunch and tea at fashionable restaurants in their company; to hold the center of the public eye at any cost, became a mania. It was as grim an effort as that of a doomed man to cling to the last moments of life.
And when a year or so later came the inevitable day when Cleeburg said to her—trying to speak gently—
“Come, Jane, let’s talk horse sense. No use your trying to play a chicken! God knows you ain’t one!”—
Jane Goring went home, flung open her bedroom windows letting in an uncompromising flood of sunlight, sat down at her dressing-table and looked herself squarely in the face. The whiteness—smooth, glowing—which had made her skin like gardenia petals in the old days had gone long since. She had grown accustomed to simulating it with modern triumphs of the beauty parlor. But sitting there with God’s spotlight turned full on her, it was not the realization of muscles sagging as if pulled down by the hand of Time that made her shudder. It was not the gooselike shriveling of her throat when she turned her head that made her eyes shut with pain. It was the knowledge of ebbing self-confidence, the face to face admission that her day was done. From now on it would be—“Let’s go to see Jane Goring. She used to be—” or “Don’t let’s go to see Jane Goring. She used to be—”
But always “She used to be—” Always that.
There was no quibbling, no splitting of hairs. She knew! And with the acknowledgment she rose to her feet, a great overwhelming defiance seizing her. She would not let age get her. She would not go downhill. She would not become a has-been! Rather would she quit the stage now and let them say she had retired in her prime. Money she had—an income larger than she needed. She would cut herself off from the theater entirely; for looking in at the window of a house of cheer whose door is barred—that would be unbearable. She would have to travel, to seek diversion elsewhere. Then suddenly like the lifting of a rosy veil on barren waste, she saw her career a thing of the past and herself wandering down the declining years of life—alone. The desert youth takes no count of—aloneness—stretched bleak and endless, a reach of sand with no oasis to slake the thirst, no shade to cool the soul.
And there swamped her with a sickening sense of need the longing for that bulwark of days gone, the one thing that endures, the one thing that counts not success nor failure, that survives when the ladder itself lies crumbled in ruins. Giving it no conscious name, she knew only that had Bob been there he would have shouldered the burden of this cold hour of facing truth. He would somehow have contrived to make it easier for her to hold her head high and continue to look down, even though that look must be directed toward the sunset.
Bob, whose adoration had helped her always over the difficult places, Bob would to-day and through all the days to come have stood by to help her bridge this most difficult place of all.
Bob!! Well, why not?
Many hours she paced the floor, brows drawn together, hands clenched as if grappling with a flesh and blood thing.
The peacock’s strut is slow and calculating. He lowers his head only to gaze upon his own reflection in the pool. To shed the trait that has made him world famous is to lay his gorgeous plumage in the dust.
* * * * *
The train steamed into the Santa Fé Station at Los Angeles. A woman descended, the sort to whom one gives a second glance in spite of tired lines round the eyes and little crinkles at their corners. Gowned in the latest cut of blue serge, with a tan traveling cloak swung across her arm, she cried New York the instant one laid eyes on her.
She put her maid and bags into a cab, and sent them to the Ambassador Hotel. Stepping into another, she told the driver to take her to the Graystone Studio.
It was an afternoon of late June. The languorous breath of California summer had kissed the foliage into mammoth bloom. They drove through lazy, sunny streets, somnolent under warm skies, into that vortex of activity modern commerce has planted in the midst of beauty, the frame of artifice sprung up mushroom-like in the very heart of Nature.
Jane Goring descended at a row of small buildings that barricaded huge ones roofed with glass. She made her way past men and women with faces ghastly white and lips preternaturally red, mounted the steps and asked for Mr. McNaughton. The attendant wanted her name but she insisted upon being announced merely as a friend from the East. She had given Bob no warning of her visit and her eyes followed the man with a look half curious, half eager as he opened a door and disappeared along a corridor lined with offices.
He came back presently and shut the door. Mr. McNaughton had gone home. She asked his address quite as a matter of course—in a way that brooked no refusal, and once more was driven out of bedlam to the quiet of drowsy green streets, past the beautiful Hollywood homes of picture stars who yesterday were unknown.
Toward the sunset she went, melting amethystine into violet night. Shadows stretched across the road, cool and mellow, and a soft sense of fragrant tranquillity.
She lay back, closing her eyes. When she opened them she had turned a corner and was pulling up before the lawn of a rambling Queen Anne cottage set snugly in a mass of shrubbery. She gave a little start, pleasure surmounting surprise. It looked very much as though Bob McNaughton had found time to make his own career.
A gate with a lantern over it opened on a bricked path that led to the house. She paused there and looked in. Under a tree sat a man she scarcely knew. His hair was quite gray—iron gray—but the face under it was full and ruddy, the eyes keen, the mouth relaxed and smiling. The hand that held a newspaper which he no longer read was firm and capable. A hand accustomed to direct, the hand of a man sure of himself! Bob, who was almost fifty, looked less than forty!
As she stood staring at him, the house door opened and a slim figure was silhouetted against the light from within. The figure stepped to the lawn, light shining through masses of soft brown hair like a halo, eyes glowing, red lips parted in eager welcome, and with a cry full of sweetness held out something to Bob McNaughton. He gave a laugh, sprang to his feet, bent down to the eager lips, then caught the something swiftly in his arms—with infinite tenderness hugged it close against his heart. And it gave a gurgle of delight.
Jane Goring turned and went back to the waiting taxi.
There is no such thing—either in life or the theater. For what is real to one is unreal to another. The tenement of the stage is real to those who live in drawing-rooms—the drawing-room, real to those who know only the squalor of tenements. That which seizes our imaginations with grim claws, shakes our emotions with sordid passions we have never experienced—we call reality. That which is uncertain, sad, elusive, delicate—we call unreality. Both are life!
She had weary eyes—eyes with the weight of centuries of knowledge upon them—eyes that could no longer open wide with astonishment at anything life might hold. The lashes were so long, so dark and straight that they were like a veil of night shadowing the grayness beneath. Her gaze came through, inviting you to penetrate, urging you by its very weariness to try to read the story those eyes might tell.
A slow smile lifted the corners of her mouth, then let them droop before the smile was really born. Her walk as she trailed from the first line of show girls in her wide-spread bird of paradise costume was as measured as the muse of tragedy.
And yet she was only twenty-six.
That was Naomi Stokes, who counted numberless acquaintances but few friends; who knew many men better than they cared to be known but few as well as she might have cared to know them.
Broadway was a playground to Naomi but she had long since learned that in the game played there, none are winners. Time is the _croupier_ who rakes in the spoils and at Time Naomi had ceased to smile even wearily. He stood with his long arm suspended, ready, it seemed to her, to pounce upon each hour she might hold dear, jealous of all she had crowded into one short life. Man she knew too well to fear but the croupier with whom she had gambled so long, she dared not look in the face. And as one sings in the dark to silence fear, so she had developed a philosophy of life which she held close in those moments when she might be tempted to take measure of things. She could not afford to pause long nor to think much.
Of that glittering section which stretches like some bejeweled recumbent queen of the night from Forty-second to Fiftieth Streets, Naomi was such an integral part that if a night passed without her appearance at one or another of the tightly wedged restaurants, their habitués wondered. When she moved between rows of tables with her long-lashed smile sweeping with lazy insolence the whole room, those who did not know asked who she was. Her name—in the theater merely that of another show girl—had for so long swung from lip to lip in the after-theater life of the White Way that soon it would of necessity be relegated to that past which hangs so cruelly over the present.
Naomi knew this. And more than once, alone in her tiny two-room apartment and in spite of her philosophy, she wondered what would come after. A shrug avails little in the midday glare of reality.
It was on a night following such a day—when the dregs of life had tasted particularly bitter—that Naomi and four others went to supper with Marshall Kent.
Kent having more money than he could spend enjoyed spending it on Broadway. Having nothing better to do, he had never looked for anything better. He and Naomi were good pals in their way. He liked to stare through her lashes at the puzzle beneath. Most women were so revealing.
But to-night she resented his set gaze, the ironic twitch of his thin lip. After her nasty, self-disclosing day she wanted a friend. Some one to whom she could be something more than heavy eyes and auburn-tinted hair, some one with whom she could share thoughts—and fears. But Marshy Kent had never given her friendship. No man had.
All through supper she was silent, with a hard, shell-like silence her companions could not break. Finally she pushed her plate to one side and her glance sifted the smoke-thickened air.
Beyond the table, in a space so small that they might have been squirrels chasing their tails, the crowd jostled and elbowed and glared at one another in an effort to keep time to a stamping, hilarious jazz. In the doorway beyond, another crowd jostled and elbowed and glared at one another and fought for the privilege of slipping crisp greenbacks to supercilious head-waiters. Through the befogged atmosphere the lights with their shades of brilliant yellow and black glimmered faintly. At the tables and on the dance floor jaded New Yorkers and curious out-of-towners pretended to enjoy themselves.
Naomi swept it with a noxious sense of disgust. Suddenly it seemed a ton weight, as if the ceiling like some infernal machine were descending upon her. She lifted her shoulders and her head went back. Oh, for a breath of real fresh air!
“What’s the matter, my dear?” put in Kent. “Off your feed?”
“No.” She brought her eyes toward him, then they drifted back to the crowd at the door. “I was just thinking what a joke they are on themselves, fighting like that to get into a stuffy old hole where they’re going to be held up and fleeced.”
“Aren’t you worth the price of admission? You’re one of the exhibits, you know.”
He looked down at the easy movement of the white shoulders under the narrow beaded straps that were the sole support of her black gown.
“Any one with the eyes and arms of Naomi will always count,” he consoled.
She pulled from his gaze.
“Oh, what’s the use! You know I don’t matter to them any more than to you. You play around with me here because you haven’t any better way to pass your time. And they, poor idiots—”
“By Jove, you _are_ off your feed!”
She turned her back on his low, impudent chuckle.
His tolerant eye traveled over the shoulder turned from him to the hot, wild mass clamoring at the doorway. Suddenly he became alert and a second later was on his feet, without apology pushing his way round the dance floor. Naomi saw him make for a man with a big frame and graying mustache who lingered impotently at the rear of the crowd. Kent reached out, grabbed his hand and with absolute disregard of intervening humanity, wrung it as if he never wanted to let it go. She wondered vaguely what it would be like to have some one as glad to see her. He passed a word to the head-waiter. The red velvet rope dropped as if by magic and, escorted by Kent, the party was led to a table a few paces from where she sat.
The man glanced about with the curiosity, half amused, half critical of the sight-seeing stranger. Back of him came a girl of twenty-one or so with eager gray eyes a thousand years younger than Naomi’s, white teeth showing through parted lips and hair the dense, dusky black of an Indian’s. At her side walked a young man. As he passed Naomi, their glances met. They locked with that odd, unintentional arresting which means that two out of a vast throng have momentarily become individuals. Naomi’s slow gaze followed as he went on and it seemed to her that in the allotting of places, he deliberately chose the one facing her.
Kent hovered over his friend with beaming enthusiasm. The ironic twitch of his thin lips was gone. The somewhat sagging shoulders of the man who keeps flesh down by massage rather than exercise had straightened. He scribbled his address. He took theirs. He admonished the waiter to treat them well, received that gentleman’s reassuring nod, and apologized finally for having to return to his own table.
Naomi watched the younger man’s face as Marshall Kent sat down beside her. No—she had not been mistaken. She who knew so well how to read men’s eyes saw in his dark ones a look of intense, concentrated interest. The girl next to him saw it, too—and following it, thought she had never seen a face more fascinating than the one so smoothly white with its heavy-fringed lids and wave of glinting hair across the forehead. It was artificial, of course, but then you got used to that in New York. Her clear gray eyes went swiftly back to the dark ones that were fastened on Naomi’s.
Kent pulled in his chair and settled back.
“Well, little Marshy’s all het up!” one of the girls prompted. “Who’s your friend?”
He was still beaming.
“Fellow I haven’t seen since college—Alec McConnell. I was chucked. He went through to the finish. Mining engineer—big man in Idaho to-day.”
“And the other two?” queried Naomi casually.
“The one staring at you, my dear, is the son of Bill Dixon of Dixonville, Oregon, big ranch owner, king of the apple country.”
“And the girl?”
“Little friend of his being chaperoned by McConnell and his wife. First visit to the big town. Is that all?”
Once more Naomi’s lazy gaze met the one which had not moved from her and a faint flush surged under her thick pallor. As the lids fell, they covered something of the look of the gamester. It was a calculating look that weighed possibilities, one she was quick to hide.
Kent detected it rather by instinct than otherwise.
“Oh, have a heart, Naomi!” he teased. “He’s so young and tender.”
Naomi turned slowly in his direction. She said nothing for the moment but waited until the others got up to dance.
“Well?” He was intrigued by her silence. “Well, Eve, do we tempt young Adam to eat the apple or do we let him go home in peace and grow them?”
“I think we marry him,” she said quietly.
Kent gave a start that brought him upright. Then he grinned, that drawling grin tinged with cynicism. The idea of any one marrying Naomi was amusing. She read his thought as plainly as if it had been put into words and her head went up suddenly. Though the lashes did not lift, a flash came through them. It was challenge.
“You think I couldn’t?”
“My dear Naomi—if you’ll pardon my brutality, I should say—not a chance in the world!”
“In the first place I have a hunch that little girl, Nan Crawford, has a pretty firm hold on young Bill. It’s plain to see they’re crazy about each other. Darn sweet kid, too. I suspect she’s here trousseauing. In the second, Bill is probably more sophisticated than you or I imagine. This isn’t his first visit to New York.”
“I’m going to marry him just the same.”
“And go out and live on an Oregon ranch, old dear?”
He laughed aloud this time.
“You’d look sweet in a sunbonnet and gingham dress.”
“Just what do you mean by that?” she asked, not quite sure what emphasis to put on “sweet.”
“Just this! You belong here as surely as grease-paint belongs in the theater.”
“No woman belongs here,” she flung at him. “There isn’t a woman made who hasn’t the right to a home.”
“Then why does she start here?”
“Because she’s young and a fool—in nine cases out of ten. Because she thinks this is living.”
Her face went hard as nails; with contempt, with futility, with derisive defiance of herself. And then furtively she pulled a bit of lace from her bag and dabbed at her eyes.
Kent’s mouth opened. It was the first time he had seen Naomi cry, had witnessed a woman’s tears without suspicion. Usually they meant that she wanted something.
“Don’t mind me!” She met his astonishment with a swift effort to pull herself together. “I’ve had a rotten day.”
“How, my dear?”
“Oh, just the realization that to-night it’s this, and in two years it’ll be ham and eggs and a lunch counter—if I’m lucky.”
“Oh, yes! I’ll just drop out and you’ll forget me—like the rest. What’s become of Emy Steward—and Cora Greene—and Ray Granville? You don’t even know and you used to give parties for them like this one.”
He was silent, knowing she spoke the truth. Like comets across a glittering sky those beautiful girls had gleamed and gone. Gone when their beauty had gone, vanished into the night that engulfed them, too proud or too forgotten to accept the humiliation of charity.
“We don’t last long, boy,” she added grimly. “And I’m one of those who can’t keep on fooling herself. I’ve had a beast of a day.”
“Hence the ranch idea in Oregon.”
“Yes.” A queer twist lifted her lips—then dropped them. “Inspiration, I call it. The Limited that will carry me away from the poorhouse!”
“You’ll never put it over.”
“Sporting enough to lay odds on it, Marshy old dear?”
In all justice to Marshall Kent, it must be admitted that under normal conditions he would not have taken her up. But the restaurant happened to be one of the many which prided itself that prohibition meant nothing in its life and the silver flask reposing on Marshy’s hip had been refilled on frequent visits to a side chamber just off the main room. He looked out of the corner of an eye at Naomi stepping in where angels might fear to tread and the flushed, grudging admiration of gamester for gamester darted in the glance.
“You’re on!” he said.
“And you’ll keep off!” she urged, a bit breathless.
“Yes—I’ll give you ground. What stakes?”
“If I lose—”
“We’ll make it a hundred perfectos, best brand.”
“Nice and impersonal!” observed Marshy, head to one side, now well into the game. “And if you win?”
“The handsomest wedding present in town!”
“I call that odds in your favor.”
With a faint smile she leaned nearer, hand outstretched to clinch it.
“Hold on! What’s the time limit?”
“When he starts west I start with him.”
“It’s a go. Only don’t expect any help from me.”
“I won’t—except an introduction when he stops here on the way out.”
“What makes you think he’ll stop?”
“I know he will. He’ll find some excuse to.”
And he did, of course. Waveringly, as he drew nearer the magnet of her eyes, he paused and tapped Marshy’s shoulder. The latter sprang up.
“Mr. Kent, we’re such a bunch of rubes—I thought you might recommend the best show in town for to-morrow night.”
Naomi waited as Marshy considered.
“Why don’t you send your friend to ours?” she suggested in a low voice apparently to him alone.
“What one is that?” asked the friend, flashing eagerly into the breach.
Kent introduced him then to the upraised eyes round the table. But he saw only Naomi’s veiled ones. She gave him the name of the musical comedy and the theater—nothing more. And as he bowed and rejoined the older man and the girl with the dusky hair standing in the doorway, Marshall Kent dropped into his chair again.
“Quick work, Naomi,” he murmured, “and Machiavellian method! One more move from you and the apple wouldn’t have looked nearly so inviting.”
My dear Miss Stokes,
This will be the fourth time I’ve seen the show and the third time I’ve asked you to go to supper. If you tell me you can’t again, I’ll think you don’t want to—and quit. No, on the whole, I won’t quit. I’ve never done that in my life. I’ll just hang round and bother you till you come, so better come to-night. I’ll be waiting for you.
Sincerely, William Dixon.
Naomi lifted the head-dress of paradise that swayed round her face and handed it absently to the dresser, still concentrating on the note which had been delivered at the theater by special messenger.
“Sincerely, William Dixon.” Numberless notes she had received during her show girl career, but never one signed just like that. “Sincerely.” Probably it was a card index of the man.
She laid it down speculatively, the look of Eve through her lashes. Three nights she had put him off. Yes, the apple might safely be held a bit closer to-night—but not too close.
He was waiting just within the stage door, his face eager with anticipation, his hands in the pockets of his overcoat. As she came up the stairs that led from the chorus dressing-rooms under the stage, he stepped forward and both hands came out of the pockets.
She clasped the right one, smiling up at him, and his frank eyes shone. He piloted her to a car at the curb. As the door slammed with the sudden intimacy of shutting out the rest of the world, he leaned forward, the glow of his eyes reflected in his voice.
“Gee, this is great! I was afraid you’d turn me down again.” He did not wait for an answer but crowded into the next few moments all the hours of thought which her refusal of his invitations had lengthened into days. “You must have thought me an awful rube, staring at you the way I did. I’ve been afraid it made you sore at me. Did it?”
“No woman thinks a man’s a rube for staring at her.”
“I couldn’t help it. I just couldn’t take my eyes off you.”
In the shadows of the car she smiled softly.
“Funny, how I walked into that place, cussing the smoke and noise and then saw you. Lord, suppose I hadn’t gone!”
She smiled again.
He went on.
“You’ve seen me every night in the first row at the theater, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I’ve seen you.”
“And I think it’s a punk show,” his teeth flashed in a quick grin. “So now you know why I came.”
She looked at him from under weighty lids. As if he had to tell her!
“One lone show girl can’t be worth a speculator’s ticket four times,” she prompted.
“She’s worth lots more than that. Thank you for coming to-night.”
His voice turned serious. He tucked the robe into her corner of the seat for no other reason than the magnet of bending over her, of breathing the faint fragrance that wafted from her like an aura. It was the ghost of grease-paint and flowers, of powder and perfume—that strange, exotic pot-pourri of the theater that clings to its women like essence of old Egypt.
She gazed down at the bent head, at the hands that brushed hers with a boyish lingering as they drew the robe closer. How young he seemed! She felt for the moment much as a man of the world feels when within the scope of his worldliness there appears a radiant young girl. There was the same thrill of interest, the same desire to be the one privileged to open up avenues of possibilities. A man on Broadway who had something to learn! It was like finding a canary in a cage of monkeys!
The strange exuberance was with her as they made their way among crowded tables to the one he had reserved. Amber satin clung to her supple body and long jet earrings almost touched her shoulders. She was conscious that in the attention she drew, she was giving him the sense of pride every man feels when the clatter of forks stops momentarily in tribute to the woman with him. But more than that, she had a sudden personal satisfaction in his pride and a curve softer than any her lips had known for years lifted their corners.
His tanned skin and eyes that glowed seemed lifted straight to the sun rising above the mountains. She took a deep breath, as if from him she could get the stimulus of all outdoors. He looked at the slope of her white shoulders, at the droop of her shadowed eyes, as if in her were epitomized the lure of the city.
She leaned across the table just as he did. Their hands almost met. Naomi had long, languid fingers that invited the touch.
“You’re so—different,” he began. “So awfully different. I guess that’s no news to you, though.”
“So are you—different.”
“Yes—from any man I’ve ever known. You’re like fresh air. The others are—stuffy—like a room that’s been shut tight.”
He gave an embarrassed, pleased laugh.
“Tell me about yourself,” she suggested, lifting the lever best calculated to open up the dam of formality where the male of the species is concerned.
“Oh, nothing much to tell about me.”
And he proceeded to tell it while they went through two courses. She got a vivid picture of Bill Dixon, a colt straining always against harness of any kind; a lad loathing routine to such an extent that he had quit college rather than submit to it; a young man, impulsive as the wind, more tied to the picturesqueness of ranch life than to the business of it; an only son worshipped by the man who had paved the way, who was both father and mother to him.
He bent nearer to the white hands. “Now tell me about you.”
“That would take too long. And if you find out all there is to know to-night, you won’t want to see me again.”
“Won’t I, though! Besides—I could never find out all there is to know about you.”
They danced. He was not a good dancer but as his arm went round her and his dark head bent to her glinting one, she felt herself completely encompassed. His bigness, his nearness, gave her a swift sense of helplessness that frankly frightened her. The reins of the future must be held in her cool hands, not in his.
“I’m going to guess your age,” she announced when they were once more at opposite sides of the table, “if you’ll promise not to guess mine.”
“I don’t give a darn how old you are.”
“Oh, I’m not as old as all that. But you—you’re twenty-five.”
“Next month. Bet, at that, I’m older than you.”
“You are,” she lied, without a quiver.
“But you’re the sort of woman who’ll always be young—even when you’re wrinkled and gray. It’s your coloring,” he went on, promptly contradicting himself. “That wonderful white skin—I’ve never seen skin so white—and the sheen of your hair and those eyes that make a fellow sort of—sort of want to jump in.”
The eyes smiled at him with infinite promise.
“I think we’re going to like each other,” she said.
“I know one of us does already,” he grinned.
“You’re a dear,” she vouchsafed.
They saw each other every day after that. He managed to bring it about, either for luncheon or early dinner or after the theater. At least he thought he was the one who brought it about. And as Naomi opened his impetuous notes, or the boxes that held great clusters of flowers ordered with awkward disregard of everything but quantity, the Eve-smile lifted the corners of her mouth and her eyes looked a trifle less tired.
Occasionally they drove out to the country for the day. But the countryside near New York rather amused him.
“It all seems sort of puny,” he would say as she sat with face carefully veiled from a too-revealing sun. “I’m used to snow peaks that touch the sky and trees so high that when you’re on the mountain trails above them, you look down and can’t see where they begin.” He turned from the inadequate hills to the more absorbing scenery of a woman’s face misted by a fluttering veil. “No, sir! When I come east, I don’t want this. I want New York—the excitement, the thrill of it. I want—you.”
It was said softly. His voice held the word like a caress and, looking up, she read in his eyes what she had read in many men’s—except that added to it was the new element of awe.
That new element became infinitely dear to her. She let him keep it. Except when their hands brushed accidentally—or so it seemed to him—they did not touch save for the clasp that helped her into a cab or expressed “good-night.” The warmth of his arms closed round her only in the dance. She met the light of his eyes with her own only across restaurant tables. No debutante could have held herself more aloof—perhaps not quite so much so. But Naomi did not play the ingénue. It was her world knowledge—world old—that fascinated him, that made her—as he had said—different.
She amused him with cryptic remarks about the men and women who came and went, with stories of familiar characters on Broadway, with a touch of cynicism, a touch of pessimism, that lack of faith in human nature which comes with disillusionment in self. But this, young Bill Dixon did not know nor count. He merely tossed up his shaggy head with the deep, long laugh that makes the whole body tingle and begged for more.
She managed to fill his days with joy of her when she was with him, with longing for her when she cleverly denied him her companionship. She was the hundred women to one man which her training had taught her to be, knowing that to him she would thus become the one women. She caught hold of his imagination and twisted and played with it as a cat with a ball of twine, tossing it this way and that but always with paw poised to pounce.
And simultaneously there flared into her own soul an eagerness of which Naomi Stokes had long since counted herself incapable. It was as if that brown-eyed, ardent gaze held her with the same absorbing quality of his arms when they danced. She began to look for it—jealously as if it might escape her.
Meanwhile in a hotel room that was just four walls, another pair of gray eyes, not veiled, not mysterious, watched for him more and more anxiously, saw him less and less frequently. The girl from the West whose first visit to New York was to have opened up a fairyland of adventure for her and the boy she loved—the visit they had planned together—found its streets empty caverns at the foot of towering cliffs, saw in hotels and theaters and restaurants to which McConnell and his wife took her night after night in the hope of diverting her, only the possibility, eager yet dreaded, of singling from the crowd the faces of Bill Dixon and the woman who had taken him from her.
She tried to hide her misery from the anxious eyes of her chaperones. But because she was young—a thousand years younger than Naomi—she could not hide it from the one she loved. And her quivering chin, her reproachful reminders of engagements he had overlooked, sent his mind and feet hurrying back to the woman whose red lips and drooping lids thrilled him like the dizzying lights of Broadway, like a draught of wine he had never before tasted.
“Why does a girl think, because you’ve been together all your lives,” he blurted out one night as he and Naomi drove through the jerk and jam of traffic hold-up, “that she has a right to know your comings and goings as if you belonged to her? Good heavens, a fellow can change his mind, can’t he?”
Naomi turned and smiled out of the window at the laughing sparkle of lights. The look, part sphinx, touched her mouth. In the dark he did not see its tinge of satire.
He maintained for a second the silence that is usually accompanied by a bitten cigar or cigarette half-smoked, the silence of irritation. Then he swung about impatiently.
“You’re not like that, Naomi! You’d never ask silly questions.”
She leaned over, touched the hand that clenched and unclenched against his knee.
“Don’t be angry, Billie-boy,” she whispered. “I like to hear you laugh.”
His other hand closed quickly over the white fingers.
“What is it you’ve done to me? I always thought caring about a woman meant wanting to be with her because she liked the things I do, because we understood each other. That’s the way I felt about—” he broke off. “But you—I want to be with you because you’re so different—because I don’t always understand you. I can’t get enough of it—of looking at you, of listening to you. Naomi, do you care—a little bit?”
She lifted her eyes, lifted her lips, forgetting the game she was playing, forgetting the stakes. Then before he saw the move, she drew back. Not yet! She answered him instead with a shadowy smile and the long silent pressure of the hand held fast between his.
It was an afternoon of late March, grim and forbidding, as if winter had thrown a last shadow across oncoming spring. The steam heat, turned off in the chorus dressing-rooms during a week of balmy weather, suddenly sputtered on and sang through the whole matinée performance.
Naomi came out of the stage entrance, fur coat hugged about her, and shivering a bit, made for the curb to hail a taxi. As she glanced up and down the street at the ant-like army of cars, one of them slid toward her and a man stepped down.
“Why, hello, Marshy,”—she reached out a hand—“haven’t seen you in weeks.”
He took it.
“Good! Buy me some tea, won’t you? I’m frozen.”
“We’ll have tea at your place. I want to talk to you.”
She turned and stared at him as he slammed the door.
His voice didn’t sound like Marshy Kent’s at all.
“I’ve called on you half a dozen times,” he supplemented. “You’re never home.”
“I know you are. That’s why I sidetracked you.”
He did not speak again until they had mounted the flight of stairs to her apartment in a reconstructed house near the theater. But as she collected the seldom used tea things, he walked impatiently up and down the room.
“Naomi, we’ve always been pretty good friends, haven’t we?” he began.
“Pals then,” he corrected, not knowing why.
“Well, yes, I suppose so.”
“That’s why I’m going to put something up to you. I want you to listen quietly and then I want you to stand by me. Naomi—I’ve done a lot of things in my young life that I’m not exactly proud of. But the worst that could have been said of me was that I’ve been a waster. I’ve wasted one or two fortunes that the old Kents slaved to pile up—on cards—on the wheel—on the ponies—on women—I’ve never been anything but a waster. But that goes in more senses than one. I’ve never been a cad. Not until a month ago.”
He waited for some response but Naomi merely struck a match and touched it to the wick of the samovar. If a quick question did flash to her lips, she held it back and kept her eyes lowered.
“You know when that was. I was _non compos mentis_ and I egged you into making a bet—”
“In other words, dear Marshy,” she filled in his pause, “you want me to let you off on the plea of—well, the undue influence of liquor. Of course I will.”
He pushed aside her easy acquiescence with a sweep that almost knocked the cup from her hand. “But that’s not all. The bet’s not the thing that’s bothering me. It’s you. You and that boy, Dixon. Naomi, you’ve got to quit. You’ve got to, do you hear me?”
“Don’t play the innocent! You know what I’m driving at. I’ve made myself your partner in the job of smashing that boy’s life. And I’m telling you—”
“Wait a minute!”
Very slowly she set down her cup. Very slowly she rose and went close to him. At the hard, driving note in his voice, at the sharp arraignment of his eyes, resentment brought her head up and her eyes defiant.
“Marshy, men fall easily into the habit of talking to—to some women pretty much as they please. But in the years I’ve known you, you’ve never said a word to me that—that hurt. Don’t do it now—please.”
“Then let him alone. I’ve been through hell this past week thinking of what I let those two young things in for. McConnell tells me the girl’s on the verge of collapse,—can’t eat, can’t sleep, just sits and waits for the boy to come and he stays away. Why, they grew up together, those kids. They were as good as engaged. And now he’s chucked her—for you.”
He reached out, caught her by both shoulders with hands that shook.
“I must have been crazy to take you up that night and promise not to interfere. If you don’t cry quits, here’s where I do! Young Dixon is a damn fine boy—McConnell says one of the finest—and I’m not going to stand to one side and see you smash his life and break that little girl’s heart. Understand?”
The eyes that traveled up to his were more weary than he had ever seen them.
“What about my life, Marshy? Doesn’t that count—at all? Doesn’t it matter that I’d like a chance? That perhaps if I marry Bill Dixon, he’ll never know—and I can forget? Doesn’t it matter that you’d be helping me away from being a has-been—and all that goes with it? Do you ever think of the hours I spend here in the dark—alone, trying not to see what’s going to happen to me when I count even less than I do now? But no, of course not! Only—if it were the other way round, Marshy, and I was a man and he a girl, you wouldn’t see any harm in it—would you? If it were you, Marshy, and a young girl—”
“Why is it different—why? It’s a man standing up for a man where he wouldn’t for a woman—that’s the only difference. It isn’t that you’re any better than I am. It’s only that you think all men are.”
“Look here, Naomi, I know it’s hard on you, my putting it the way I have to. But conditions are conditions. We’ve both faced them too long to try and buck them. You keep away from that boy and you won’t regret it. I’ll guarantee that—any way you like. What’s it worth—?”
“Marshy—you’re not trying to buy me off!”
“Don’t put it so baldly—”
He stopped. For her head had gone back and a laugh startlingly high and sharp cut the sudden stillness.
“So you’re afraid of me, that’s it! It’s gone that far. He’s declared himself for me—and against her. It’s come to a crux, then—and McConnell’s asked you to help. Why, I didn’t dream it! I couldn’t have hoped for so much in such a short time. I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Even with that high laugh of mockery, her shadowy eyes filled with the vision of the boy fighting—fighting them all doggedly, with hot, flaming defiance—for her—and it was sweeter than the thought of triumph.
Kent’s voice broke in, uncompromising as judgment itself.
“I know a way to stop it—without you. I hesitated to use it before. It didn’t seem cricket. But I’m going to him now with the plain, unvarnished truth—the story Broadway tells when it hears the name, Naomi Stokes,—the story I can add a few chapters to.”
“I’ll show him what a blithering fool he is. I’ll prove it the way I can. We’ll see then!”
The vision vanished from Naomi’s eyes. She caught his arm, clutched it with the clinging fingers of a child who in sleep plunges from dreams into nightmare.
“Marshy—you wouldn’t do that! You couldn’t! Why, you called yourself my pal. Could pals stab one another like that? Could I think of harming you that way? Not for anybody! And that boy’s nothing to you. Nothing! Won’t you give me this chance? Just this one. If you knew what it means to me! Marshy, don’t turn away. Listen—please—please!”
But he kept his face turned determinedly from the pleading one streaked with tears, from the eyes he had so often smiled into when their mystery piqued and captivated him in idle moments. And in the rigid line of his jaw there was no yielding. He merely tried to tug away from her clinging fingers and a short phrase answered her.
“Do you cry quits—or no?”
She steadied her lips. Her arms fell listlessly. But even as she met the question, it came less in the form he put it than in the thought of what Bill Dixon had come to mean to her. Not ease for herself, not insurance against bleak years ahead, not the road that led away from terror; but a boy’s hearty laugh and ardent eyes, the warm clasp of his hand, the strength of his arms, what it would mean to lose them. A light that lifted the weight of centuries shone through her lashes. A smile that trembled caught her lips.
“It isn’t quits, Marshy. No! Either way you win, so we might as well play to the finish.”
When he had gone, she sank on the couch and tears unlike the bitter ones of early dawn and hard noon streamed silently down her cheeks. They were tears of wonder and passionate regret, of gratitude that she, Naomi Stokes, could know this engulfing tenderness. The thing she had never dreamed might come was hers. She loved him. Nothing could take that away. After stumbling through the years, she had found in one brief month the dearest thing in the world. And now Marshy was going to snatch it from her. Was that his man’s right? No! She would fight him—the whole world—to keep that which had suddenly become her reason for being.
Yet she realized that she was not armed to fight, not Marshy, nor the world, nor truth. She, who had never lacked resources, to whom the game of life had been a game of wits, stood helpless now.
She could only wait.
Naomi made no pretense of trying to sleep. She did not even resort to the bromide she was in the habit of taking when rest refused to come. She merely lay, with blinds drawn to shut out the early morning, trying to see light where she knew there was none. At ten she sprang up, hand to the throat that was full, lids covering the eyes that pained. Ever since Marshy Kent’s visit, those eyes had been straining toward the future, the result, inevitable almost, of his revelation to Bill Dixon. In the endless, wakeful hours of the night she had rehearsed, as women do, everything that had probably transpired.
Yet even in her misery she did not overlook the careful mask of make-up, as mechanical a part of her daily toilet as the brushing of her hair, or polishing of her glistening nails. She had grown to avoid facing her mirror without it.
She flung on a negligée of orchid chiffon that clung round her with the afterglow of sunset. But like the orchid, she sought the damp darkness of her living-room and sat with head resting against her locked hands for a long time before she made a move to raise the blinds and let in a shaft of sunlight.
She had just lifted one of them when the sharp summons of the bell came from downstairs. She pushed the electric button and waited without curiosity for the apartment bell to ring. Then she opened the door and peered into the shadowy hall.
A girl stood there. The girl with her hair like a black cloud and eyes young and gray and tense.
They traveled hungrily over the other woman as if to get in that moment the viewpoint of another pair of eyes that no longer sought hers.
“May I come in, Miss Stokes? You don’t know me but my name is Nan Crawford,” she explained as Naomi said nothing.
Naomi nodded. “I know.”
The girl looked up quickly.
“Has he—has he talked to you—about me?”
“I’ve seen you with him,” was the non-committal answer.
“It—it’s about Bill I want to see you,” she brought out the words with the same halting pause which had marked her hesitation in the doorway.
Naomi motioned her to a chair. The girl’s pale face went a tinge whiter. Her lips quivered. She looked down.
“I’ve been wanting to come to see you and hadn’t the courage. Yesterday I followed you here in a cab from the theater. But you were with Mr. Kent. I didn’t come up.” She fidgeted with the slightly frayed silk of her chair.
“Miss Stokes, I—I’ve known Bill Dixon all my life. I’ve loved him all my life—and I thought he loved me. He used to tell me so. We—we’ve always loved the same things and done the same things—together—in the same way. We’ve ridden hours on horseback up into the mountains and gone shooting in the woods—and tramped to places other people didn’t know about. When I went away to school and he to college, we used to write each other about our woods and the longing to get back to them—together. We never planned anything—separately. We sort of always—belonged to each other.”
She halted once more. It was because she couldn’t go on. The eyes lifted to meet Naomi’s were filmed. It was only too clear that she was putting herself through the ordeal of tearing open new wounds for some purpose. Naomi looked away. To play on her own sympathy, of course! She wouldn’t listen. It would do no good anyway.
“I’m trying to tell you, Miss Stokes, how I love Bill Dixon—how much I want his happiness. And now he loves you. Oh, I don’t blame him! You’re very beautiful—more beautiful than I could ever dream of being. You’re like some gorgeous flower in a conservatory. I’ve never seen any one like you. At first I thought I could—perhaps—win him back—but I couldn’t. Not from you. I—I wouldn’t know how. I’ve thought about it a lot. And I—at first I thought I couldn’t live through it. But I’ve got to now. Bill can’t help loving you. I don’t blame him for that.” She got up suddenly and brushed a hand across her eyes. In the poise of her body, head thrown back, lip caught between her teeth, was life’s first big endurance test and her brave attempt to meet it.
“But you’ve got to love him, Miss Stokes! You’ve got to make him happy. I’d give my life for him. That’s the way you’ve got to love him, too. If you don’t—if you fail him—ever—I’ll kill you!”
Waves of astonishment swept over Naomi. Those eyes that burned behind the film of tears! Surely this was not their message! To demand happiness for the man of whom she was being robbed—surely that was not what the girl had come for.
“My dear child—” Naomi began, instinctively speaking as if to one years younger.
“I mean it! You think I wouldn’t but I’m not afraid. I have nothing to lose any more.”
She stumbled toward the door, one hand reached out gropingly. There she turned and once more her eyes traveled over the other woman. Naomi felt that from their clear gray gaze she could not shield herself. A girl so near her own age—the girl she might have been! And in that moment she knew that Nan Crawford’s words had not been bravado, not foolish threat. She was battling in her own way for the thing she loved.
She opened the door as if, now that her message was given, she could not make her escape quickly enough.
“Make him happy,” came strangled. “You must! That’s what I came to tell you.”
Through the window Naomi had lifted that morning, the shaft of sunlight receded slowly until it slipped away. Naomi had been sitting in the same position ever since her door had shut on a girl stumbling into the dark hallway. She sat there without moving and with a queer little twist of wonder at the problems we bring upon ourselves. All her life she had drifted with the least resistant current and without thinking much. Now, of a sudden, thought had come smashing upon her with the devastating violence of a hurricane.
As daylight grayed she rose a bit stiffly and lighted the few lamps that sent a glow through the room.
She went into her bedroom and started to dress. Bill was coming at five to take her to dinner. All afternoon she had waited for his usual phone call, for the big box of variegated flowers so different from those other men sent her. Neither came. But a peculiar lethargy held her, made her conscious only of the numbness of futility.
She dressed without haste in a plain dark cloth suit, feeling with a curious finality that Bill was not coming. He had never kept her waiting like this. Yet as the thought swept over her, a loud, long ring came from downstairs. She went to the door, stood with eyes fastened on the dusk. A figure loomed out of it, head bent, feet taking the steps two at a time.
He did not look up until they were in the room. Then his head went back and the look of desperation he wore made her go to him swiftly and push him into a chair. He sank down without resistance and covered his face with hands he made no attempt to steady. She lifted hers from his shoulders.
“What is it, Bill? What’s happened?”
“I—I’m late,” were his first shaky words. “Sorry.”
“But what’s happened? Tell me!”
“Naomi—I—” he broke off. “I don’t know how to put it. I feel that just telling you is an insult—”
Ah, she knew now! She knew what was coming.
“That man, Kent!” he stumbled on. “They had me all afternoon, he and Alec McConnell. I had to listen to things he said about you. If I’d been a _man_, I wouldn’t have given him the chance to say them.”
Eyes clinging to hers, he waited for some question, some denial. He was giving her the chance to strike Marshy’s prosecution off the record without one word of cross-examination. He was urging her with his eyes to give Marshy the lie without even hearing what the man had told him.
All her anguish of the night before had been, like so much feminine anguish, unnecessary. It was in her hands now. She had only to concoct a story of jealousy or an ancient grudge of Kent’s and this boy who had come to mean everything to her would accept it with the gladness of one who doesn’t want to question. Yet she turned her face from him and said nothing.
“I listened until I couldn’t stand it. They made me! Then I knocked him down. Swine like that ought to be killed!”
“He’s not swine,” she found herself saying in a voice that didn’t sound like her own. “He was probably telling you the truth for what he thought was your own good.”
“Oh yes, it was probably all true. You don’t know what I am, boy. You don’t know what I’ve been.”
He was on his feet, grasping her arm, straining down to read her veiled eyes.
“Naomi, do you know what you’re saying? He accused you of—” he halted.
She took him up without waiting.
“Of things he can prove to you, boy dear. I’ve known Marshy Kent years and years and he wouldn’t tell you anything about me he didn’t know he could back up.”
In her submission to the inevitable, in her complete lack of defense, she was so helpless, so almost child-like that the boy’s fury against Kent flamed back to his eyes, burning out the horror of her dumb confession. His hands were knotted into the hard fists that had sent his informer spinning to the floor. His chin was fighting forward. His eyes fastened on the exotic beauty that was Naomi’s intensified by the fact that she was woman, helpless under the lash of another man. That was all he saw—a beautiful woman who needed his protection! And to every other vision his youth determined to blind itself.
“I don’t care what he’s told me! I don’t care what you’ve been. I only know I love you. You’re the most glorious, fascinating woman in the world—and I want you, do you hear! I want you more than anything—more than anyone! I love you! Naomi—will you marry me—now—to-night?”
Her eyes closed. All she had planned—all she had longed for! Marshy’s move had only succeeded in thrusting it more swiftly into her grasp. And yet she did not stop to think of that. All that registered were those three words: “I love you.” Their sweetness ran like some warm fluid through her veins.
“We’ll get away from here!” he plunged on. “I’ll take you west—home. No Kents there to tell ugly stories. We’ll forget them ourselves. Nobody need ever know. We’ll be happy—and I’ll have you all to myself. Those lips and eyes—they’ll be all mine. Naomi—dearest—let me kiss them now!”
Her arms had gone up instinctively but they dropped again without touching him. She held away, not looking at him.
“No, Bill,—it can’t be.”
“You think that what he said makes any difference? I tell you, it doesn’t. I don’t care! I’d marry you—”
“It’s not that. It’s just—I couldn’t make you happy, boy.”
“Yes, you could. You’re the only woman—”
“No—I couldn’t. Why, you don’t love me. You love the thing I represent—the thing that represents me—Broadway. Take me away from it and what would I be? A faded woman, Bill, a woman who would only make you hate her because she’s so different from what you thought. And I’d rather never have you than to see you in a short time—oh, it wouldn’t take long!—disgusted with me.”
“You don’t love me—that’s it!” he flamed.
“If I didn’t love you I’d marry you. Sounds queer, that, doesn’t it?”
“Then we both care! What else matters?”
“Only that I want to give you happiness—and I can’t.”
“You’re the only woman who can.”
“No I’m not, dear. You think so now. But it’s the grease-paint stuff you love! Out on the ranch—with my hair its own color you’d wonder why you did it.”
He paid no attention to her last whispered words.
“I’m willing to risk it! I’ll risk anything for you.”
“You’d find me out, Bill—you’d be bound to. Why, I never go out in the sun without wearing a veil to keep the secret of my complexion to myself. And there, where you belong, I’d be in the sun all day.” She tried to smile. “How would I look going round a ranch like the queen of a harem? No, you’d have to see me as I am. And in a week you’d hate me.”
He went close, hearing only the sob in her voice.
“Dearest—you think I’m young—that I don’t know my own mind. You think I don’t know my woman when I meet her!”
She smiled now, with a little shake of the head.
“You don’t. You only think you do. You love the way people look at me in a restaurant. You love the way I wear my clothes. You love my coloring. It’s put on, boy. And so is the sheen of my hair you rave about and the blackness of my lashes. It’s all fake—like me.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because—because you mean more to me than anything in the world. Because I’d rather have your happiness than my own.”
Even as the words came, they amazed her. All afternoon they had been struggling deep down in her consciousness. A girl with stark young eyes had opened wide those veiled ones.
“Then that’s the only thing that counts,” he retaliated, eyes alight, and his arms went out. “If you love me, I don’t care about anything else.”
She pulled back. Once his lips touched hers, she knew she could not go through with what she had to do. Recklessly—while the mood held her—as if she were another person playing a trick on Naomi Stokes, she moved round the room, turning off the soft lamplight. A second later the central chandelier flashed its glare and Naomi was at his side again.
“Wait, Bill—I want to show you something.”
She disappeared into the bedroom. When she came back, there was a white rag clenched in her hand.
“I’m not really beautiful the way you see me.” And even as she spoke the words her eyes were frightened. “I’m a faker—but for once I’m going to be honest with you—with myself. I’m going to let you see the woman you don’t know, the woman you’d see—out there.”
Without pausing to give herself breath she dragged the cloth, weighted with some thick lotion, across her face. It came away covered with color. She threw it aside. The face it left lifted to his was like tragedy, unmasked.
“Look—I can scrape it off—the beauty you love so! This is the way I’ll be in broad daylight, Bill. These lines—they’re the years I’ve stolen from you. They’re the real me—the me you don’t know. Do you want me now?”
He looked down on the face that in ten seconds had aged ten years. Dazedly he took in the circles under the eyes, the pinched lines from nostrils to mouth, the pallor of the lips. The luminous cream of her skin had given way to a whiteness that looked dead. All the exotic color of her—the color that fascinated him—was gone. It was almost as if some magic had wafted away the Naomi he knew, as if this were another woman.
He stood there gazing down on her, confused, silent before the revelation he could not quite compass. Only the eyes of his Naomi remained, infinitely sad, infinitely lovely, even with the heavy black gone from their straight lashes.
“You don’t want me now. You don’t want the woman I really am. Don’t stop to think! Don’t hesitate! Just answer me,” she whispered.
But he did stop to think. Without quite meeting the eyes raised to his, holding his own away from the face that seemed suddenly a strange one, he lifted her two trembling hands, put them against his lips.
“I’ve asked you to marry me, Naomi,” he said huskily. “I’m asking you again.”
“Thank you for that, boy dear. You—you’re just everything I thought you were. But I’m not going to take you up. Not now! If you want me six months from now, come back for me. I’ll know then—that you need me. Only, dear—you won’t come.”
He looked straight at her then, letting himself see only the eyes which had not changed. And she knew before he spoke that he was bowing, without argument, to her verdict.
“I’ll come back for you,” he told her. “I won’t wait six months. You’ll see!”
She simply shook her head and no smile of hope touched her pale lips.
A few minutes later she stood looking for a long time at the door that had closed after him. Then she put on hat and coat and went down the steps and over to the theater.
Harvard Club, New York, July 30th.
This letter is going to be harder to write than an income tax report. When a man has never before been on his knees to a woman, they’re apt to be creaky and resist bending. But I’m on my knees to you, my dear,—in tribute, in abject apology, in the tenderest feeling I’ve ever known in my life.
Last March Bill Dixon went home and I sat back with the sensation of a good Samaritan. I was blithering ass enough to think I was the one who had sent him away. To-day, four months later, I’ve learned the truth. It came with the announcement of his marriage to Nan Crawford. He told me what happened. He told me what you had done, Naomi.
I’ve never had much belief in women. I’ve always thought them rather a poor lot. That’s the penalty of having begun early to know the wrong side of them—assuming there was no other. But you’ve given an old stager a faith he’s never known. For that I can’t repay you. But whatever I have, whatever I can give you of devotion and friendship is yours, dear girl. Knowing what you were equal to doing for that boy has suddenly made life worth living for me.
I haven’t seen you in months. Will you make up for lost time? Shall we go to supper to-morrow night?
Yours—I mean it— Marshy.
Naomi’s eyes wandered from the letter to another that lay open on the desk beside it. It was in a boy’s rugged hand, incoherent, embarrassed. It told of his approaching marriage and tried to thank her for making him see that the old love was the true one. She had read it so many times that she could have told what it told her—with eyes shut.
She reread Kent’s letter then. After a moment she picked up her pen and wrote:
Thank you, dear Marshy. I can use your friendship. I need it. But I’ve quit going out to suppers—for good.
THE BACK DROP
Comedy met Tragedy at the crossroads of Life.
“Know,” spake Tragedy, “from Wisdom have I learned that thou and I emanate from the same source—born of the folly of man and nourished by his deeds. The tie between us is so strong that we must follow, each upon the other’s heels, as long as the road of life has its turnings.”
“Then come,” laughed Comedy, “a bargain let us conclude. Let each forever carry some suggestion of the other!”
So, with a tear in the eye of Comedy and a smile under Tragedy’s frown, they linked arms and proceeded down the road together.
THE BACK DROP
RUDOLPH CLEEBURG Presents GLORIA CROMWELL in “LADY FAIR” A Comedy-Drama by _Bronson Reed_
A car pulled up sharp at the curb and a woman leaned out to read the tall lettering. It loomed startling and white against a black ground. Along a street where theaters crowded each other like chorus girls in a manager’s office, that inky splash with its tracing of white paled to oblivion all the others.
The man beside her watched her eagerly, studied the delicate profile with a kind of hunger. When she turned, his eyes went alight at the smile in hers.
“It’s stunning, ’Dolph. But then you always do things right.”
“Y’mean that? Do I always manage to suit you, kiddo?”
“You know you do.” There was a low, tender note in the voice that would always be wistful. It was an odd voice—one that, breaking with the swift snap of a violin string, brought tears from its audience as one chokes at a broken chord.
“H’m, that’s all I want.” He grinned sheepishly. “No fool like an old fool, eh?”
He stepped out as the chauffeur swung open the door, and reached up to help her. Gloria Cromwell—in private life Mrs. Rudolph Cleeburg—was not tall and her intense slenderness made her look frail, yet standing next to her husband she measured a full inch above him. Any passerby taking in the round face, eyes and figure of the well-known manager, his bald pate and prominent features, would have smiled at the information that he was the most artistic producer in America. But then, no passerby would have noticed the hands, key to character, that tapered so incongruously. Even the man himself failed to take count of them. He knew only that he felt beauty like a tangible thing, that he expressed it through the two mediums he loved—the stage and his wife.
He took her arm and they went down the cool dark alley to the stage door. It was a Sunday in September, hazy and languid, the first shadows of twilight creeping into the arms of night.
In almost every building on the block rehearsals were under way. Behind blank front entrances with high iron gates locked fast, throbbed the pulsing life of the theater. No effort too great, no work too intense, to give to the world its most human tonic, amusement.
The dress rehearsal of “Lady Fair” had been called for 8:00 p. m. They were early, having made good time from their place at Great Neck. Gloria crossed the stage set for Act I while Cleeburg paused to suggest to the electrician some experiments with the lights.
“Try a couple of reds, Bill, in the foots for Act II. And cut out four or five of the ambers on top. They make her look too yellow, sick around the eyes. Get me? Too much shadow. We want to bring out all the flash in her hair. Light her up. It’s her big scene. And here—have a smoke!”
He followed Gloria. She had tossed her hat on a table and stood taking in the new props he had provided while the company made the customary short tour that precedes a New York première.
With the shadows of the unlighted stage about her and the dusky quiet of the empty house stretching at her feet, she seemed to the man who went toward her deplorably young and tender, with a something yearning from her that he had tried to reach and never even been able to define. Not for the first time he asked himself: Was it the almost childish form under the soft summer dress—or the delicate line of her long throat—or the intense red curve of lip—or her pallor topped by the tawny hair whose lights and shades he was so intent on featuring? No, none of these! It was the look of her eyes. Wide and hungry, with fright in their depths, they had arrested him six years before as he hurried through his outer office; arrested him and found her a job. The fright had gone long since. And the hunger which had been nothing more than actual physical hunger. But the look that was so much like the quality of her voice still lurked there, eluding him.
He came up behind her as she stood examining the heavy black velvet drapes with crests of blue, purple and gold embroidered in the corners.
“Like ’em?” he asked once more anxiously.
She veered about. “They must have cost a fortune, ’Dolph. Wouldn’t those blue ones we had on the road have been good enough?”
“Not for you. Only the best for my girl! And look at you against ’em. Those newspaper guys are right—there sure is something about you that’s got the rest of the bunch lashed to the mast!”
“It’s what you’ve made me, ’Dolph.” The words came breathless, with that strange fascinating catch. “You’ve put me over just the way you did the rest. Goring and Wilbur and Chesterton. Without you I’d have been just an actress. Now they call me an artist. And you’ve done that—you’ve done every bit of it.”
With a furtive glance to make sure the electrician was still occupied he went closer, laid an arm across her slim shoulders and gazed eagerly through the shadows into her face.
“Say that again. Of course it ain’t true. They were all piking compared to you. But say it anyhow. It’s music to me—the greatest symphony and greatest opera rolled into one.”
“It is true.”
“Then if I never do anything else for you, that goes on the right side of the ledger—what? Sometimes, little girl, I feel like I was a dog, grabbing you the way I did right after I featured you and you thought you couldn’t turn me down.”
“Nonsense!” She caught his hand and her clasp was so tight it seemed to grip.
“I’m a pretty old piece of scenery and not easy to look at, at that.” He glanced through the drapes at the back drop. It represented a stretch of blue sky pierced with holes through which presently stars would glimmer. “Like that old thing,” he added. “Just a piece of shabby canvas, good enough for background.” And as she started to protest he laughed, a laugh that wasn’t much more than a sound. “Why, even Doug Fairbanks won’t be able to kid himself he’s young when he’s past half a century.”
He turned as several members of the company strolled in and greeted each with a hearty handshake. With a smile for every one and an ear ready to listen, the Cleeburg of to-day had the same enthusiasm as the pudgy newsboy who years before had run fat little legs off to procure for a patron his favorite daily.
“Hello there, glad to see you! Well, they tell me we’ve got a knock-out. Let’s have a look.”
He made for the rear of the house with his stage director who had accompanied the play on tour.
The curtain up, he leaned against the seat in front, a long black cigar jerking from corner to corner of his mouth like a propeller. Not a gesture, not an intonation escaped him. His concentration ignored any world but this. Had the building burned down, that stage before him would still have been the pivotal point of interest.
When Gloria appeared between the black drapes, eyes luminous under the untamed hair, and the thrill of her voice came over the footlights, he sighed and a smile of anticipation spread across his face. It was the look of one whose senses are about to be lulled by rare music.
The play had all the quality of delicately written French drama, its big scene at the end of the second act being calculated to bring even a New York audience straight out of its seat. Gloria and John Brooks were as finely teamed as a pair of high-stepping thoroughbreds. He had been her leading man two seasons. Little ’Dolph, with an eye to the future, had him tied up on a five-year contract.
You would never have taken John Brooks for an actor. There was about his clothes no suggestion of the extreme that Broadway is tempted to affect. They were cut by a conservative tailor and he wore them with the ease of not caring particularly what he had on. Critics called him distinguished. When he walked into a stage drawing-room one knew instinctively that more exclusive drawing-rooms had opened to him. He never talked shop outside and never brought his social activities into the theater. But it was generally known that his friends numbered scientists and men of big business.
On the stage he suggested a clean-cut Britisher, tall and well groomed, easy of manner, clipped of speech, yet with a more intense vitality and that gleam of humor under the straight black brows that is peculiarly, blessedly, of, by, and for America.
The manager sat back, eyes half closed, lapping up the charm of it as a kitten laps cream. When the curtain fell he licked his lips and purred as he turned to the director, Lewis.
“You’re right, Lewy! Never saw a pair to touch ’em. Gad, that give and take, that playing into each other’s hands—nothing like it in this old berg, I tell you!” He sprang up, bounded down the aisle like a rubber ball. “Immense!” he shouted. “That act runs on greased wheels. It’s sure fire! They’ll eat it alive.”
He climbed into a box; with amazing ease jumped on to the stage. Bulky as was his figure, almost pouter pigeon in certain postures, there was nothing funny about Cleeburg in action. It was the fire of his genius, the spark that lighted his homely face with inspiration, that commanded respect. Even with a handkerchief tied round his neck as it always was in hot weather and the open sleeves of his silk shirt flopping like awkward wings, no one thought of smiling. One merely listened.
He gave a few instructions to the property men and slipped back to his wife’s dressing-room, poking his head in at the door.
She was changing to a tea-gown, a lovely shimmery gold thing that brought out the reds in her hair like touches of flame.
“Well, how does it go?” she asked. “Any suggestions?”
“Not half a one. Couldn’t be improved. And John—he was made for you!”
She dropped her eyes to examine a tiny rip in the train.
“Better mend this, Suzanne, before I go on. It might catch on something.”
“Glad we’ve got him sewed up tight. First thing you know, one of the boys’d be offering to star him and then biffo, we’d lose him!”
“He is—wonderful.” She did not raise her eyes as the maid’s needle flashed in and out of the soft fabric, then looked up suddenly. “Lewis thinks we have a big hit.”
“Lewis knows his business. You never had a chance that touched it—comedy and the big heart stuff combined. Try a little more red, honey. You look pale. Tired out, eh?”
“No—just a bit nervous, that’s all.” She turned hastily to the mirror, picked up a rabbit’s foot and dabbed some color across her cheek bones. As she bent forward, her teeth caught her lower lip and held it. And Cleeburg, noting the reflection of her eyes, fancied fright in them. Nerves, of course! Emotional tuning up of the vibrant artist!
He went out front as the curtain rose on the second act. It revealed a boudoir. Not the sort bestowed upon woman by the average scenic decorator with its brilliant splashes of color and general air of a department store exhibit, but a room that suggested four walls enclosing feminine taste.
Steadily Gloria and Brooks mounted to the big moment when the man’s passion, like a torrent crashing through ice, carried the woman with it. They stood facing each other and the voice of John Brooks came quiet, yet with the threat of doom.
“We’ve played the game, you and I,—to the finish. And we’ve lost. No, not lost, because this is the end we wanted. We’ve been a pair of gamblers, banking on defeat, waiting to have the game get us. Now we’re going to lay down our cards, admit we’re beaten, and take what is greater than victory. You know what that is. I don’t have to tell you I love you—”
The woman gave a terrified “No—no!” with arms thrust out to ward off the thing she had desired. The man followed with a quick laugh as he caught them and her to him.
Cleeburg jumped up and speeding down the aisle made a trumpet of his hands.
“Hey, John—play that for all it’s worth. Give it to ’em strong. You fall down a peg or two at the end. Got to keep up the tension. Get me? Don’t be afraid of too much pep. Can’t be done in this town. Let go! Give ’em the love stuff till they faint.”
Again and again he put them through it. Up to the crucial point it went superbly. Then something seemed to snap. It was less in Brooks’ rendering of the speech than the way he caught up Gloria and swept her to him. Instead of an onrush like a force irresistible, his embrace was almost measured. One felt that with very little effort she could have escaped.
Sitting in the front row now, a puzzled seam between his eyes, Cleeburg noted that Gloria, too, appeared to hold off. Gloria, who flung herself into a part as if it were life! What had happened? He shook his head, began to pace the length of the seats.
“You’ll let down the whole act, children. You’ll lose your curtain. Why, they’ve been wanting this to happen from the beginning. If you don’t give it to ’em and give it to ’em big, they’ll can you. Sure thing! Let’s have another go.”
John Brooks’ thin lips came together. There was something tense about the way he went into the scene this time—muscles tight, hands clenched, voice husky. And when finally he swept her into his arms it was as if he would never let her go. Their lips met as the curtain fell. Even in the empty house one could feel the thrill of it.
Cleeburg gave a chortle of relief. Just for a moment he had been afraid they were going to muff it.
But he apologized for his persistence later over a bite of supper.
“It’s the crux, old man. That’s why I kept you at it. You see, the woman is yours by every law of God. Once you know it, you don’t give a damn for the laws of man.”
“I get you.”
“Put over the feeling that it had to be. If you don’t the whole show goes fluey. You and the little girl do such bully team work, we don’t want one hitch to spoil it. Hope I haven’t played you out.”
“Oh, that’s all right.” The other man smoothed his hair with a gesture of both long hands and looked across the table. “Afraid my thick head has tired Gloria, though.”
She was leaning back, limp, face white as the moon that looked in between the pillars of the roof garden.
“Not a bit.” Her lids lifted quickly and Cleeburg was startled at the fever under them. She leaned elbows on the table. “I was as stupid as John. We just couldn’t seem to get it.”
“Well, don’t worry. It’ll go like hot cakes to-morrow night. You won’t worry, kiddo, will you?” He patted her arm anxiously. “I don’t like to see you look like this.”
“Why, there isn’t a thing wrong with me—truly.” She turned to watch the dancers as they swayed past, two moving as one to the lure of darky music. In the center of the flagged floor a fountain sent up showering spray colored emerald, ruby and gold by lights from within. The place was filled with a soft languor. It seemed set very close beneath the Indian Summer sky.
When she turned back she found Brooks gazing at her.
“Come to think of it,” observed Cleeburg, glance traveling from one to the other, “you don’t look any too chipper yourself, old man. Didn’t notice it when you got in this morning but you’re both played out.”
“Gloria had a little smash-up after the performance last night. Been working at top speed. Nothing wrong with me. We’re both tired, that’s all. There wasn’t a breath of air in the train, either.” Brooks lifted his glass of cider and a dry smile played round his lips. “I drink to thee only with mine eyes,” he said to Gloria.
Cleeburg grinned. “Say, why not come out to the house with us now? Give you something stronger. Stop off, shoot a few things into a bag and a night in the country’ll do you good.”
Brooks put down his glass. “Thanks, no. Think I’d better stick to my own bunk.”
“How about next week then? Run you out after the show Saturday night. You can try a couple of holes of golf with Gloria Sunday.”
“Sorry, old man, I’m booked.”
“Well, any time you like. Ain’t a place, ours, where you have to wait for a bid.”
“I know that.”
“What’s the matter with you anyhow? Last summer, you used to run out every few weeks. This year, have to beg you to come!”
“Not a bit of it,” laughed Brooks. “Wait till we get this opening off our chests and you won’t be able to get rid of me.”
“Can’t come it too strong to suit us, eh kiddo?”
Gloria’s eyes had drifted out to the swaying throng once more. “Of course not,” she said quickly, and pushed back her chair. “If you don’t mind, ’Dolph, I believe I am tired.”
Cleeburg noticed as they went down to the car that her step lagged. When they had dropped Brooks at his flat and were speeding up Fifth Avenue, sleepy under the quiet hour when life in New York closes one eye, she turned swiftly. “’Dolph—you remember what you called yourself in the theater to-night—before the others came?”
He thought a moment. Then his face went alight, all but the eyes. “Your old back drop, y’mean?”
She nodded. “Don’t ever do that again—don’t!”
Her vehemence made him shift his position so that he faced her.
The break in her voice had been poignant. Her hand clasping his arm was feverish. He felt the heat of it through his thin coat. Even in the dark he could see her eyes, brilliant, with something of the fright he had read in them earlier in the evening. Only it was intensified.
“Honey, what is it?”
“I want you to know I love you,” she rushed on breathlessly. “It wasn’t just gratitude that made me marry you. I’ll always love you. You’re splendid and fine and generous. They don’t come any better. Never doubt it, ’Dolph! Never—will you?” She shook his arm, repeating the question over and over.
“And I have made you happy?” she broke in on his amazement. “I have given you something for all you’ve given me?”
He answered quickly enough then.
“Everything, honey. Why, these past five years’ve been more than most fellows get in a lifetime. I ask myself often what an old tout like me ever did to deserve ’em. In the theater and out—hasn’t been a day that wasn’t heaven. That’s what you’ve given me.”
She sat an instant silent. Then before he could divine her intention she had carried his hand to her lips. But it was not their moisture he noticed as he drew it hastily away and slipped an arm round her.
Over Long Island, as Cleeburg drove in the following day, hung a mist that made the low hills look like a mirage melting into the sky. It was as if the smoke of the city reached its long arm far over green stretches and cool woodland, cloaking Nature with the garment of industry.
Little ’Dolph sat forward, hat tossed to the floor, cigar ashes strewn over it like snow. He had smoked incessantly from the moment the car shot past the hedge surrounding the Cleeburg place. He had smoked with brow furrowed and teeth chewing on the butt of his weed, concentrating so intensely that for the first time in years it failed to circle from corner to corner of the friendly mouth. He was worried—and about Gloria. What had got her last night? What had brought the fever to her eyes and that desperate grip to her fingers? What had made her cry, with long sobs like a child’s when his arm went round her? Wasn’t like her. Not a bit. He’d never seen her like that, didn’t know how to handle it.
Overwork must be the answer. She’d been at it for six years seeing results. And before that God knew how many without seeing them! He recalled the poor little starved thing she was when first those eyes with the strange glow back of them had begged for a chance. Since that chance had been hers she hadn’t stopped, not for a minute. And how she had mounted! For a second his look of distress vanished in a broad grin of pride. Gloria had the divine fire, whatever that might be. The light of it had always been in her soul but his was the satisfaction of having kindled it to flame. He had found in her the instrument to express all the seething love of beauty his unbeautiful body harbored. He could not have put it into words but the consciousness was there, a vital thing.
He looked out anxiously at the hazy September landscape. Yes, must be overwork! If it had been anything else, she’d have told him. Dashed like hysteria, that breakdown last night! Give her a long vacation next summer, that’s what he’d do. He’d close her in the spring and take her abroad when he went to clinch those English contracts.
Having reached the only decision possible in view of present demands on her, he settled back, applied a light to a final cigar and puffed peacefully until they pulled up at his office in the same building as the theater.
Toward four-thirty she telephoned that she was feeling much better and laughed at the relief in his voice. If he worried about her that way, she’d give a perfectly rotten performance to-night!
But in spite of her chaffing, Cleeburg, going to her dressing-room at seven, caught her unawares with head drooping into her hands and a look of utter dejection about the slim shoulders. She lifted both quickly as he entered and smiled up at him. He peered at the heavy blue smudges under her eyes.
“Won’t need much make-up, will I?” she laughed, in quick response to the look. “You see, I’m trying to put the grease-paint men out of business.”
“What is it?” He pulled a chair close to the dressing-table. It was higher than hers and so brought their faces on a level. “Something’s eating you. What? Tell me—tell your old ’Dolph.”
She leaned over, brushed his cheek with her lips, then turned quickly to the mirror and dabbed the color on her face with the same nervous haste he had noticed the night before.
“Nothing’s wrong, dear. Wait till we settle down for a steady run and you’ll see.”
“It’s sure fire! Only keep an eye on that second act. Don’t be afraid to let go.”
From the wings he watched the audience stream in—beautifully gowned women, perfectly groomed men, keen-eyed critics, his own colleagues with soft collars and clothes not too well pressed, here a familiar round-the-towner, there a merchant who took his first night subscription seats as religiously as his pew in church. Truly a motley such as only the Metropolis can produce. Little ’Dolph’s eyes shone and his broad mouth broadened. Those women with their feathery fans and glittering jewels; those men with their sleek heads and smart clothes; the press; the world theatrical; they constituted his court, this theater his kingdom.
Only a few times since the throne had been his had he failed to give them what they expected of him. That was why to-night he saw in every pair of eyes an eager anticipation that was to him like strong stimulant. He slipped round to the front of the house as the curtain rose.
All through the first act he divided attention between the stage and the audience, watching the latter laugh and chuckle and wink and furtively wipe its eye, and nodding as each effect came at the right moment. When the lights went up he dodged backstage, not to Gloria, but to Brooks.
“Great, old boy! You’ve got ’em. Just keep up that tempo. Feeling fit?”
“Look out for the end of this act, won’t you,” he added half apologetically.
“Thought you were coming to that,” laughed Brooks.
“No offense, you understand.”
But he went back to his seat wishing the big scene finished. He couldn’t help a twitch of uncertainty. If they handled it as they had at first last night it would fall flat as a pancake.
Eagerly he followed every line. It was scintillant as sunlit ice and very thin ice at that. The throng round him skated over it with the actors and when Gloria’s scene with Brooks arrived they were, as he had prophesied, keyed to an emotional pitch that only the limit of acting could satisfy.
Then he held tight to the arms of his chair and literally his breath stopped.
Brooks came to the climax. His vibrant voice fell across the quiet of the house.
“We’ve played the game, you and I,—to the finish. And we’ve lost. No, not lost, because this is the end we wanted. We’ve been a pair of gamblers, banking on defeat, waiting to have the game get us. Now we’re going to lay down our cards, admit we’re beaten, and take what is greater than victory. You know what that is. I don’t have to tell you I love you—”
Cleeburg felt the quick intake of breath, the surge forward, that pulsing reach of an audience. If only they’d play it now for all it was worth!
Gloria pulled back and terror was in her voice.
For a second Brooks seemed to hesitate. What in Sam Hill was the matter with him? Why the deuce didn’t he let go?
Then suddenly his laugh went high. He strode to her. His arms swept out.
She stood poised as if in resistance, the light from above playing over her, her eyes started up to his. One could feel the catch in her throat, the swaying at the edge of a precipice. And then the eyelids fell, the man’s embrace closed round her like an enveloping flame. Her lips went to his.
With a deep sigh little ’Dolph subsided. The audience did likewise. It had them! An excited buzz, the crash of applause told him that. He dodged out of his seat and to the lobby. Nothing further was to be desired. “Lady Fair” had gone over with a bang.
* * * * *
It was over a month later that the manager finally prevailed upon their leading man to week-end with them. He buttonholed Brooks after the performance one Saturday night and refused to take “no” for an answer.
“Say, John, getting upstage? Cut your swell friends this week. You’re coming out with us, ain’t he kiddo?”
They were standing within the stage door. Cleeburg linked a persuasive arm in the other man’s.
Gloria smiled without looking directly at Brooks. She drew her squirrel wrap close about her and stepped out of the light.
“John’s always welcome, of course. But if he has other plans we mustn’t interfere.”
“You don’t say!” laughed Cleeburg. “Well, he’s going to chuck any other plans and give us the pleasure of his society.”
Brooks held a light to his cigarette. The flare of it illumined his set mouth, the line of his jaw.
“Another time, old man. There’s a game on at the club to-morrow afternoon.”
“Good! That being the case, we’ll save you money.” He started down the narrow alley to the street.
Brooks looked across at Gloria. She was looking down, struggling with the clasp of her glove.
“Come on,” urged Cleeburg.
An instant more Brooks hesitated. Then his head went back.
“All right, I’m with you.” And he laughed as if with relief.
They stopped off for his bag. They were still using the open car in spite of the winds of late October. Gloria liked the slash of air against her face, liked to get the first salty whiff of the Sound. She leaned back with lids drooping and hands clasped loosely and was silent all the way. The men talked of next year’s prospects.
“‘Lady Fair’ is good for next year and a season in London. Think I’ll let you and Gloria take it over. She’s never had a lick at the other side,” chuckled Cleeburg. “Bound to knock ’em silly.”
Gloria spoke for the first time.
“I wouldn’t think about London—just yet.”
Cleeburg started at the queer note in her voice. They turned into the drive where willows drooped their branches to the ground. Beyond shone the lights of the rambling old house, modernized by the family who had owned and loved it for generations, but untouched as to line or grace. High ceilings, French windows, arched doorways, tall fireplaces—these constituted the charm of the estate little ’Dolph had presented to the woman who had given him happiness.
Supper for two was spread before the flaming logs at one end of the entrance hall. In the center of the table stood a bowl of autumn leaves, the wild red of Gloria’s hair. Cleeburg pulled up another chair as the chauffeur brought in their guest’s bag and helped him out of his overcoat.
The latter stood gazing round the place with a look of real affection.
“It’s good to be back,” he said with a deep breath.
“Well, the house has been here. Your fault that you haven’t!” Cleeburg cocked his ear to the comforting pop of a champagne cork.
“Gloria has enough of my company eight consecutive times a week,” smiled Brooks.
“We missed you anyhow. Didn’t we, kiddo?”
“Of course. Seeing you in the theater isn’t a bit like having you here under our own roof.” She took off her hat, pushing back the weight of hair as she sat down beside him. “They’re distinct and separate lives.”
“I wonder if that’s true,” Brooks put in quickly. “Do you really think the life of the stage can be cut off completely from a man’s everyday existence?”
“Why not?” There was almost an urge in her question, a plea in her eyes.
“I’m inclined to believe,” he answered slowly, “that once the theater is in a man’s blood, it colors everything he thinks and feels and does. He’s got to put so much of himself into it that it becomes an essential part of him.”
“But why is that more true of the stage than of any other profession?”
“Because success on the stage depends less on executive ability than on sincerity. It’s swaying that crowd out there that counts.” He made a sweeping gesture of his long, thin hand. “And they know counterfeit when it’s handed them.”
“You said it,” agreed Cleeburg. “Make a business of acting and you make a failure.”
“Lord,” laughed Brooks, “here I am telling Gloria something she knows instinctively. Never saw a woman so charged with the power to make people feel.” He stopped abruptly.
Gloria had been gazing into her glass as if into a crystal. She set it down and the next words came as though she did not want to say them.
“If that’s so—I guess you’re right. I do live every thought and emotion of every part I play. I suppose that’s why they call us temperamental.” Her full sensitive lips curved in a half-smile. “You don’t need temperament to sell stocks and bonds or argue a case in court.”
“I beg your pardon,” corrected Brooks. “A lawyer often has to be a darned fine actor. I know, because I started out to be one.”
“What’s that?” grinned his host.
“Fact! I haven’t made it generally known. It’s too funny even to make a good press story. But I was admitted to the bar before the stage got me.”
“Well, I’ll be—!” Little ’Dolph’s fork halted in its hurried trip upward.
Gloria pushed her plate aside and leaned farther over the table, eager interest warming her eyes. Brooks brought his round to meet them. Sitting there with the flames flickering over tawny hair and smoky gray dress, she seemed somehow part of them.
“Tell us how it happened, John.”
“Oh, there’s no story strung to it. I’d done stuff each year in college theatricals and the last year we took our show on tour. I got the bug and when an honest-to-God manager offered me a real job I fell for it.”
“Have you ever wanted to go back to law?”
“If I did,” his thin lips twisted, “they’d think it too much of a joke to take me seriously.”
He said it with rather a grim smile and looking at Gloria. She twisted round in her chair, away from him. For a moment silence fell, broken only by little ’Dolph’s apparent enjoyment of his supper.
A gale banged against the windows trying to break its way in. Gloria got up, went over and drew aside the curtain. Brooks followed.
“I’d love to be out in it!” Her voice throbbed. Night shadows, beckoning, fell across her face.
“It would never let you come back.”
“What a wonderful fight, though, trying to conquer it!”
“Do you think you could?”
“Yes. I think determination can conquer anything—even oneself.”
“If one could be sure of that.” He looked down at the full lips that trembled a little, at the eyes with flames back of them, and walked back to Cleeburg. “Think I’ll turn in, old man.”
Half an hour later Cleeburg stopped at the door of his wife’s room on the way to his own. She was letting down her hair. It fell like a loosened mane over neck and shoulders. He took a deep breath, more of wonder than any other emotion. She turned, saw him and got suddenly to her feet.
“Have you seen what a night it is, ’Dolph?”
She opened the French windows. A gale of dead leaves flung itself into the room. She lifted her face, pulled her purple silk kimono closer and stepped on the balcony. He tried to halt her with a warning against catching cold. She laughed and beckoned to him.
Black clouds raced across the moon. Trees dashed against the house with all the impotence of human effort against the walls of Destiny. There was no rain. The wind leaped up and drove Nature before it, a mocking god bent on destruction.
“By godfrey, if you could only get that on the stage!” whistled Cleeburg.
Gloria said nothing. Her face was still lifted, lips apart. Her arms darted out so that the long kimono sleeves spread like wings. Her whole body was poised as if for flight.
Cleeburg stepped back and looked at her.
She was part of the storm-torn night. Something about the abandon of the scene frightened him.
“Come in, honey, won’t you? Catch your death if you stay out like this.”
Her arms dropped. She turned and followed him indoors. But opening his own window a while later he saw her slim silhouette outlined against hers, upright with the dusky light of a lamp behind her.
The next day at their noon breakfast he asked what time she had gone to bed.
“I don’t know. The night was so fascinating, I stayed up with it until day came.” She looked as if she had not slept.
Cleeburg lit a prodigiously long cigar, twirled it between his lips and settled back benignly in an armchair by the fire.
“Well, children, I’m here for the afternoon. Drive over to the club or do whatever you like. Little ’Dolph’s going to get busy doing nothing.”
He reached over without altering his position of solid comfort and picked at random one of the Sunday papers piled on the table beside him. His broad face was suffused with a look of utter peace and relaxation. Even the ever-active cigar suspended activities.
Gloria’s lips touched his forehead.
“We’ll go for a walk—back at four-thirty for tea.”
His eyes went after her the length of the foyer to a side door opening on the gravel walk—Gloria in dull green sport coat and tam, a fur piece swung carelessly from one shoulder; and the tall well-knit man in knickerbockers whose elastic step so easily fell in with hers. Had they followed farther they would have seen two people tramping in silence along a country road strewn with leaves that faded from green to mottled dead brown under a sullen sky. They would have marveled at the set look of the man’s mouth, the quivering of the woman’s. Those sympathetic prominent eyes of his, always seeking the most beautiful way to simulate human emotion, would have clouded with question had they read the pain in both pairs that stared straight along the road without meeting.
Half a mile or so the two walked and then abruptly the man turned.
“I tried to avoid it, Gloria.”
“But he took the matter out of my hands. You saw that.”
“I could see he was hurt because I hadn’t been out this year. And little ’Dolph isn’t the sort of man you can hurt.”
“We both know that, don’t we?”
She looked up at him without answer. Tears stood in her eyes.
He turned his from them and his lips went tighter.
“He’s the finest that walks in shoe leather,” he added.
“I told him that the night we came in from the road. But I was telling it more to myself than to him. John, I felt just knowing that you—that you cared, was disloyal to him.”
“I wouldn’t have let you know it, Gloria. I was determined never to suggest it by so much as a word. Then when you went smash at the theater the day before we came in, I—somehow I didn’t have to tell you, did I?”
“No.” It was a whisper.
“I want you to believe I couldn’t be anything but square with little ’Dolph. You do, don’t you?”
“Why, even on the stage, I feel I haven’t the right to take you in my arms. And I must have shown it in some way or other. He noticed the difference at the dress rehearsal.”
She walked on silently at his side.
“But I’m glad you know. Don’t blame me for that. It’s the biggest, finest thing in my life, a thing I can’t help. I wouldn’t be human—”
“We must never mention it again, John,” she broke in and her voice came throbbing as it had the night before. “We can’t help it, just as you say. But we must keep it locked up tight, so that it will harm no one—not even ourselves. We owe that to him.”
“Yes. I’d made up my mind to that.”
“You mustn’t see me away from the theater. You mustn’t come out here any more.”
“I dare say it’s better that way.”
Her eyes traveled along the leaf-strewn road, then up to the sulky sky. And because they were not seeing quite clearly she stumbled and almost fell across a fallen trunk.
The man’s arm went round her, holding the slim body a moment. Then with a conscious tightening of muscles he drew it away and plunged on without a glance at her.
Presently he turned and in the look he gave her was a sort of desperate pleading.
“Is there any harm in telling you just once, Gloria, what you mean to me? I’ve been telling it to myself so long.”
“I—I don’t think you’d better. I—I don’t believe I could listen.”
He looked down. Her eyes, struck with terror, went up to his.
“It’s all right. I won’t.”
They came to a trail through the woods.
“Shall we take this back?” She turned into it.
He reached up and broke a last branch of red leaves that trickled like blood from a dying tree, and handed it to her.
“Have you noticed how intensely bright this live stuff looks when everything around it is dead or dying?”
Little ’Dolph a mile or so distant, dozed by the fire with cigar still sidling from the corner of his mouth. His dreams were hazy and disjointed. But Gloria as he had seen her on the balcony the night before drifted through them. The howling night swept by, tearing at silken robe and wild hair. She seemed to sway with it. The clouds descended. He had a vague sense of effort to reach out, to hold her, that breathless catch at the heart of nightmare. Then suddenly he lost sight of her. A distant crash and he saw the clouds sweep her up and—while he stood rooted—carry her away.
He sat up with a gasp. The cigar fell from his lips. His heart thumped madly.
“What a shame! The banging of the screen door wakened him!” It was Gloria’s voice and she was coming toward him.
He gave a great sigh of relief.
“By godfrey, I’m glad to be awake! Come here, kiddo. Want to make sure I’ve still got you!”
She whisked the branch of scarlet leaves across his face.
“Just had a dream that took you right out of my young life and I couldn’t catch up!”
She pulled off tam and coat, swung to the arm of his chair.
“Can’t lose me, Dolphy dear!”
“By-the-way,” remarked Brooks, as Gloria served tea, “please don’t mind if I beat it back to town to-night. I’ve got to see my lawyer at ten a. m., and you won’t be going in until to-morrow noon, will you?”
“Yes, I do mind, by George!” came from ’Dolph. “We get you out here once in a blue moon and you can’t even stand it for one day. What do you want with a lawyer anyhow? Hold on to your pocket and attend to your own legal affairs.”
“But if John has to go in, dear, we mustn’t keep him.”
Brooks was looking down at the cap twirling between his hands.
“See, old man! Your wife understands.”
“All right!” Cleeburg got up, peeved, and went to the bell. “What time do you want the car? I’ll drive you to the station. But hanged if I don’t think you pay us a mighty poor compliment!”
He still showed annoyance when Brooks went up to pack his bag.
“What’s got him, anyhow?” he put to Gloria. “Damned if I ask him again!”
All the way to the station he chewed on his cigar, responding laconically when his guest tried to make conversation. The little manager had a peculiar racial pride that John Brooks unwittingly had speared.
“Good enough to hand out his weekly stipend; good enough to give him his living!” kept spinning round the active brain. “But not good enough any more to sit with at the table! Prefers his Fifth Avenue cronies for that.”
As the car stopped, Brooks swung down, reached out a hand.
“Thanks, old man. Had a great time!”
“The hell you had!” said Cleeburg.
He drove back still turning over his guest’s desertion and madder every minute. When the car pulled up he sprang out, intent upon talking the whole thing over with Gloria. He crossed the veranda, opened the front door.
She was sitting in the chair he had occupied before the fire. Her body was bent forward, head lowered. He went nearer. She was stripping the branch she had brought in of its blood-red leaves. One by one she broke them off and dropped them into the fire. And her eyes never left them as they curled up and shriveled to a crisp.
We who sit in the orchestra of life are inclined to smile, to lend willing ear to whispers of scandal from behind the footlights. Perhaps the standards are a bit less rigid on the surface. But so are emotions. They cannot be hidden as the rest of the world has learned to hide them but must be brought forth on the stage nightly that we at play may know the joy of laughter and tears for which our own lives do not exact payment.
Those twin giants, Opportunity and Propinquity, stand guard at the stage door, ushering in with a flourish each newcomer. Human frailty is their stock in trade, the theater their most satisfactory market. For a year they had stalked the steps of Gloria Cromwell and John Brooks. For a year they had appeared at unexpected moments, working in absolute harmony, waiting with tongue in cheek for the unguarded second when the set line of the man’s mouth would relax; when his lips would tell her what his arms had not yet made known; when the woman’s voice with its strange thrilling note would meet his and confess.
And they had been cheated. The unguarded second had come on the dingy stage of a small town theater during the tour of “Lady Fair”—with Gloria crumpling at his feet and his arms going round her in a sudden desperate clasp. Alone in her dressing-room, her opening eyes had met the look in his like a shaft of light struck through blindness. His whispered “Gloria,” the straining of her close as if to hold her always; the swift loosening of that hold; the step backward; the breaking of their locked gaze.
If love could be classified—and of course it cannot—I wonder how we would label love that goes quietly on its way without hysteria, without big scenes, with no effort to grasp that to which it has no right; knowing that it must endure, even while it can never find fulfillment.
’Dolph Cleeburg, with round eyes constantly in search of new angles on old conflicts, did not dream that daily in his own home, in his own theater, those eyes were looking upon drama more vibrant than any he could see in a mimic world—the quiet tragedy of passion which in daily contact with its object, yet soldierwise faces its own death knell.
He took note of nothing but the crowds that jammed the theater. He planned gaily for next season’s tour, to be topped by triumphal entry into London.
“You and John will be a knock-out over there,” he told Gloria, eyes popping. “Even if I am sore at him, I’ve got to admit he knows his job.”
Gloria looked out at the hills, shorn of all but bare-limbed trees and covered with a fine frost, the gray beard of coming winter. It was their final week-end in the country, later than they usually remained. But she had wanted it so.
“Have you spoken to John about going?” she asked.
“Not since he was here. Haven’t spoken to him at all.”
“Big baby!” she laughed.
“Well, he hurt my feelings. I can’t forget the way he gave us the go-by.”
“Then—then why send him abroad?” It came with a sharp intensity. “We can look the ground over when we cross this summer and engage an Englishman.”
“Not on your life! You and John pull too well together. The pair of you will give ’em a taste of real American pep.”
She hesitated, eyes riveted to the vista of cold hills. Suddenly she wheeled round, one hand grasping the drape that bordered the French window. The next words came like a catapult.
“’Dolph, don’t book me for London! I’m not going! I don’t want to play there.”
“You don’t—” Cleeburg’s jaw dropped in sheer amazement.
“No,” she raced on. “I’ve been thinking about it—a lot. I don’t want to go.”
“I’ve never been over. I don’t know any one—”
“That won’t take long. Why, they’ll be giving you a rush the day after you land. And there’s John for company if you get homesick.”
“Yes, I know. But”—she turned once more to the stripped hills, then back with something like terror in her eyes—“but it’s you I need, ’Dolph. I don’t want to be so far away from you.”
He got out of the chair that hugged his merry fire, went to her, laid a hand that trembled over hers.
“Y’mean that, kiddo? After six years of me, do I honest-to-God matter as much as that?”
Her hand curled up and over his, holding it tight.
“Oh, ’Dolph, if you knew how much I need you! More now than ever before! Don’t send me away—don’t!”
Cleeburg’s eyes went up to hers. Hers went down before them.
“By godfrey!” he said finally, brushing a hand across his eyes. “Think I’m crying. Ain’t ashamed of it, either.”
She did not answer.
“You, too!” He peered under her lowered lids. “Fine pair of slushes, eh? Well, I want to tell you right now, honey—ain’t a knock-out I ever had that made a hit with me like this does.”
She brought a smile to her silent lips.
“All I’m looking for is the best thing for you,” he went on. “You’re the main guy in this combination. I’m just the old back drop like I told you. If you ain’t going to be happy in London, you don’t go—that’s all. But think it over! I’d like to see my little girl make the Britishers sit up. We’ll give them the once-over this summer. Then you can decide.”
* * * * *
The memory of that afternoon with Gloria against the sunless winter twilight begging not to be sent away from him, was to little ’Dolph like some treasure one keeps in a vault—to be taken out, gazed upon and locked away again. Sometimes in the rear office that was his sanctum, when things had gone wrong or a lull came in the day’s activities, he would sink back in his chair, a smile slowly radiating his plain features, and before him would come a woman with arms outstretched toward him as if for protection against all the world. The wonder of it made him glow, sent the worries of business scurrying into the background.
He was seated so one Saturday afternoon between the matinée and evening performances, after having rounded up the tour for next season. The immortal cigar circled contentedly and he lolled back, contemplating a sweep of intense blue sky—but seeing rather the Long Island hills against a somber one—when his secretary brought word that John Brooks was outside and wanted to see him.
“Lo, stranger,” he said a bit sheepishly as the latter came in. “Time you showed up.”
“I’ve been trying to see you for the past month,” Brooks informed him, throwing hat and coat on a chair and pulling another close to Cleeburg’s desk, “but you passed me up every time we met. Never mind, old man,” he added with a short smile as the other started to lay down his cigar, “I know why. You were sore at me—and with reason. We’ll let it go at that. I’m sorry.”
“So’m I,” grinned little ’Dolph and sat back again. “When I like a fellow, I like him. Enemies can’t hurt my feelings. Now what’s on your mind?”
Brooks got up as suddenly as he had sat down, took a turn the length of the room, and came back.
“’Dolph”—he began somewhat awkwardly and stopped. “’Dolph,—when this season closes I’m going to ask you to get some one else for the road. I can’t go out next year.”
For the space of a breath the manager said nothing. He sat blinking uncertainly as if not sure of his ears. Then he jerked forward.
“I know it seems a rotten trick to pull. But I want you to take my word, ’Dolph, that I wouldn’t do it if I hadn’t justifiable reasons.”
“Am I to understand that you’re handing me your notice?”
“Yes, old man.”
“You’re notifying me that you quit?”
“When we close. If you can let me off before then—”
Cleeburg’s laugh cut the sentence like an ax. It held—sharp, contemptuous. Then his teeth shut on his cigar until the end broke off in his mouth.
“Who’s offering to star you?” came tersely.
A flash from the other’s eye answered the arraignment. But his reply was low and quiet.
“Since when did you take me for an easy mark?”
“’Dolph,” Brooks began, “you and I have been on the level with each other always. I’ve played fair and I’m going to keep on playing fair. I’m quitting for reasons I can’t make clear to you now. You’ll have to take my word for it.”
“The hell I will!” Cleeburg shot out. “This has been coming a long time. I saw it when you were in the country. Swelled head—that’s the answer! Didn’t think they could do it to you. But those society snobs have got you thinking you’re Edwin Booth.”
The other man’s thin lips opened. His eyes narrowed with a look almost of menace. Then in silence he picked up a flexible paper cutter and bent it slowly in two. There was a snap. He chucked the pieces on the desk.
“That’s a damned injustice, Cleeburg. Wish you hadn’t said it. But it won’t change matters any. I’m quitting.”
“Look here, sorry if I was hasty. You hit me hard—that’s all! Sit down. Let’s talk it over—cards on the table. What’s the big idea?”
“I told you.”
“No, you didn’t. Somebody’s after you. Somebody’s going long on the golden promise stuff. I ain’t a fool. That’s plain as the nose on your face. Now who is it? Kane? Coghlan? Surprised they didn’t try to get you long ago.”
“They did. I turned them down.”
Beads of perspiration had gathered on Cleeburg’s head. He pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket and mopped mechanically.
“Anything wrong downstairs?”
The manager looked up sharply. “If there’s trouble, just spill it and I’ll settle things to your satisfaction.”
“Nothing wrong, old man.”
“Then look here, let’s get down to cases. If it’s business, we’ll talk business. You’ve got to stay. Gloria can’t get along without you.”
Brooks’ eyes shifted to the window.
“I don’t want any trouble for her,” little ’Dolph pursued. “I’ve got you billed together next season. Her public looks for you both. I’ll meet any offer you got. Yes—and top it.”
Brooks turned back slowly, shook his head.
Cleeburg sprang up.
“Well, get me straight—will you? You’re tied up tight. And I won’t let you off. Now I’ll just about show you where you stand.” His thumb went down on the press-button in his desk as if it were going through the top. “Bring me Mr. Brooks’ contract,” he told his secretary.
Brooks walked over to the window. His hands were shaking. His face was dead white. He stood staring out with jaws set and the look of a man going into battle.
But Cleeburg saw nothing of that. His own hands opened and shut spasmodically. He tramped steadily back and forth the space of his desk, muttering to himself like the rumble of storm. Under the puzzled question that brought brows together was a frown of fury.
When the contract was handed him, he rustled quickly through the pages, scanning the closely typed sheets, studying it clause for clause.
“No, sir! I’ve got you!” he ended triumphantly.
“’Dolph, I’ve never asked favors—not from you nor any other man. But I ask you now to let me off without any kick. You know me well enough to realize I wouldn’t, without some good reason.”
“Then I’ve got to know what that reason is.”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Not the ghost of an excuse, yet you want me to let you quit without a murmur! What d’you think I am?”
“I think you’re man enough not to try to hold me, contract or no contract.”
“That won’t work! Here it is, black on white.” He banged down the contract. “No loophole for three years! It’s ironclad.”
“Then I’ll have to break it,” the man at the window said quietly.
Cleeburg went close to him. For some unaccountable reason this man calmly breaking all rules of the game, made him feel apologetic. An outraged sense of justice added to his fury.
“Oh, you will—will you? Well, we’ll just look after that. Whatever you’ve got up your sleeve, Brooks, it’s a skunk trick. And I won’t stand for it, d’you hear? I’ll stop you from tying up with anybody else. S’help me, I will!”
“I’m not tying up with anybody else. I’m quitting—for good.”
“That’s why I want you to release me.”
Cleeburg gave the same hard contemptuous laugh as before.
“What’re you trying to put over?”
“You mean to tell me you’re chucking a profession when you’re right on top?”
“I’m going back to the law—if the world hasn’t too keen a sense of humor to accept a one-time actor as a lawyer.”
The manager gave him one long uncomprehending look, then flung back his head and roared. It was laughter not pleasant to listen to. Brooks stood it silently for a stretch while his hands twitched. Then his eyes flared as if fire were behind them. Still he did not turn from the window.
“Let’s end this, will you? We’re not getting anywhere. And I’ve given you my ultimatum.”
“Well, I’ll give you mine.” Cleeburg had lost all count of words. The bruise of bucking against a stone wall had made him see red. “You stick to Gloria or I’ll make it so hot for you that they’ll hoot you out of this town! That’s the only way to handle—swine!” He broke off, turned on his heel, went back to the desk. Suddenly he leaned across it. “What the hell do you want, anyhow?”
Brooks came round like a pivot. The other man’s breath held at the look on his face. “I want your wife! Now for God’s sake throw me out, will you!”
It was quite still in the room. Even the words were spoken in something less than a whisper. When they had come there was no outward intimation that a man had pulled down a mountain crashing about his head.
Cleeburg’s hands clenched where they lay on the desk. He stared across it without changing position. The blood mounted to his wet forehead, then receded, leaving it gray white. His face was that of a man ready to kill. Then he shook his head a little vaguely, felt for the chair behind him, pulled it up to the desk. But he did not sink into it. He caught hold of the arm and stood so, steadying himself.
“Nothing on God’s earth would have made me tell you, ’Dolph,” Brooks went on hoarsely. “I thought I could make you let me off without a word. But you can see for yourself—” He paused—then abruptly: “Do you know what it means to take her in my arms, loving her? Do you know what it means to want another man’s wife and feel her lips on yours every night?”
Cleeburg moistened his own. They opened and closed. His nails dug into the varnish of the chair. His eyes, so long unseeing, visualized in a flash the scene they had gazed upon so often—Gloria in the arms of the man facing him, himself urging them to more intense expression, more abandon of love. Like a raging animal the fighting male leaped up in him—then subsided, knowing it had to fight only itself. He met the straight look. In turn it met his. And he knew that set mouth had spoken truth, clean, uncompromising; could not have spoken at all if it had been otherwise. He groped uncertainly,—spoke at last half in fear, the first thought that had seized him.
John Brooks looked into the tortured face and lied without hesitation.
“You mean—she hasn’t even guessed?”
“No. And I don’t want her to.”
“That’s why you kept away from us?”
“That’s why you went back to town last time you were with us.”
“And I thought you were a damned snob!” A hand that trembled came across the desk top. “Sorry I said what I did. Pardon!”
The other made an attempt to treat it lightly. Two shaking hands clasped.
“No trouble about getting off now, eh?”
“I—I’d like to eat dirt for the way I talked to you,” said Cleeburg.
“Forget it! Your assumption was the only logical one. Another man would be after me with a gun for what I’ve told you.”
“Look here,” little ’Dolph stumbled on, “I—I’ll star you myself.”
“No,” Brooks smiled a bit grimly. “I’m quitting—for good.”
’Dolph Cleeburg’s eyes, comprehending now, took in the drawn face and tired look of the man who had fought a losing battle—and won. And some strange click of memory brought simultaneously the same look of desperation in another face. Where had he seen it? When? Why did it haunt him? He sat down, picked up the halves of the paper cutter and tried to piece them together. Suddenly they rattled to the desk. Gloria! Gloria’s white face that night after he had put them through their paces, the night she had clung to him, the night of her strange outburst of hysteria. Gloria’s face when he suggested sending them abroad! Gloria’s face a dozen times since!
His gaze moved slowly toward the door, straining as a man stares through the dark. His thumb pressed the button on his desk, not as before, but mechanically. He waited without moving. Yet his secretary stood in the doorway fully half a minute before he spoke.
“Find out if Miss Cromwell is in her dressing-room. Say I’d like to see her here.”
Brooks took a quick step toward him.
“What do you want her for.”
“To tell her you’re quitting.”
“That’s not necessary. See here, ’Dolph, let’s drop it. You and I understand each other.”
“No harm telling her, is there?”
The other man stepped back and sat down with a gesture that told the futility of argument. He, too, sat with eyes on the door.
Neither spoke. Little ’Dolph’s face seemed to sag. The skin fell heavily round the jaws. The eyes had a vague, helpless look. He took out his handkerchief, folded it carefully and put it back in his pocket. He got up, changed the position of a chair, came back to the desk.
“’Dolph, what are you going to do?” Brooks brought out at last.
“Just tell her,” he repeated.
The door opened and Gloria came in, dressed for the street.
“I’ve been waiting for you to take me to dinner,” she told Cleeburg. “What’s kept you, dear?”
He got up, pushed his chair in her direction.
“News,” came uncertainly after a second’s pause. “Rotten news. John’s leaving us.”
The bomb was flung. He stood peering into her face, waiting for its answer rather than that of her lips.
There would be surprise—there must be that! And after the first start of amazement, a protest. And indignation! The outburst of the actress about to lose the support on which she depends. His hands clenched. That she might not see, he clasped them behind him. God, let her know the anxiety natural under the circumstances! Let her rise up determined to hold this man to his business contract! Let her threaten with all the impersonal fury he himself had shown! Let her prove that to her John Brooks was merely part of her professional life! That as such she would not let him go!
He waited while his silent lips moved in prayer.
Gloria’s first swift glance was to Brooks. His linked with hers. Her fingers locked and unlocked. Twice she opened her lips without speech, then turned back to Cleeburg.
“Has anything happened? There—there’s been no trouble between you, has there?” was all she said.
“Of course not,” Brooks put in quickly. “I’ve told ’Dolph I’m quitting for good. That’s all there is to it.”
Little ’Dolph did not take his eyes from her. Now it would come—surely. She had been too amazed, too taken back before. He waited for the throbbing voice to answer.
“You—you’re leaving the stage?” it asked too quietly.
“Yes,” Cleeburg plunged in. “He’s quitting us—cold. Get that? He’s leaving us in the lurch. What do you make of it?”
With a look of sudden fear, Brooks sprang up. “See here, ’Dolph—”
“John must have some good reason—”
“Do you know what it is?”
She glanced quickly from one to the other. Something in both faces brought her, too, to her feet. “Why should I?”
“You didn’t seem surprised when I told you.”
“I am surprised, of course.”
“Then why in God’s name don’t you make him give you some explanation?”
“Hasn’t he given you one?” she asked very low.
“Yes! Do you want to hear it?”
“’Dolph!” the other man fairly leaped at him.
“Wait a minute!” Cleeburg stretched out a hand. His throat was so parched, he could scarcely bring out the words. “Wait a minute! I’ve got to go through with this. I’ve got to know.” He turned to Gloria. “You asked if anything happened. The biggest thing has happened since you came into the room. I sent for you to tell you John was going. That means you lose the best support you ever had or will have. It knocked me out completely. And you take it without a murmur. You’ve got him under contract, yet you don’t make the ghost of an effort to hold him.”
Gloria’s voice shook as she answered.
“Why should I try to hold him against his will?”
“Why wouldn’t you put up the fight of your life to hold him—unless you’re afraid to?”
“Let’s drop this!” came swift and sharp from Brooks.
“I can’t—I’ve got to know,” Cleeburg broke in pitifully. Then to Gloria like a man pleading for life: “You didn’t want me to book you and John for London. You preferred not to go. That’s a fact, ain’t it?”
“Was it—was it because you didn’t want to be over there with him—alone?”
She stared as he put the question—stared into the eyes that were like a bleeding animal’s.
“I didn’t want to go without you. You know that.”
He saw her mouth quiver at the corners and her teeth hold the lower lip. And all her nervousness that night of the dress rehearsal swept before him in torturing detail. He shook his head helplessly. He grasped the arm of a chair as he had once before and steadied himself. Haltingly the words he had known he must speak came at last.
“Why wouldn’t you go without me? Was that—was it because you knew what I know now—that he loves you?”
She gave a start. He saw her eyes fly to the other man’s. There was nothing of indignation in that look, nothing of anger. Terror—yes—and question! But back of both a glow—the instinctive look of the one woman to the one man that will live as long as the world. Because unconscious, it was all the revelation the man who watched her needed. A sort of groping wonder at his blindness seized him. Then little ’Dolph sank into the chair and, like a candle snuffed, hope went out of his eyes.
What she said as she turned back to him was merely a veil drawn across thought to hide its nakedness.
She went over, laid a hand on his shoulder and looked into the poor haggard face that had not learned, as have women, to conceal its suffering. Her own was as white.
“’Dolph, dear—whatever John has told you, I want you to believe that he’s never, by so much as a word, been disloyal to you.”
He patted her hand and tried to smile.
“I know that, kiddo. It’s all right. Honest it is.”
“Don’t blame him. We’ve been together so much. The theater is so different from any other kind of life. It’s so—so intimate.”
“’Dolph has been one hundred per cent there.” Brooks squared his shoulders as he spoke and went toward the door. “Another man would have put a bullet through my head.”
“You—you’ll go on being his friend, ’Dolph?”
“Don’t worry, kiddo.”
“You and I will have each other.” Her voice broke.
His empty eyes came round to her.
“You’re going to stay on with me?”
“Of course I am.”
“Of course I do.” She looked to Brooks and held out her hand. “Good-by, John.”
He came over and took it and held it for a moment—tight.
“Good-by, Gloria. I’ll be leaving town next week, if ’Dolph’s willing to have an understudy take my place from to-night on. I’m not likely to see you again.”
Their eyes met and managed to smile. Then Gloria looked away. Something in her throat was fluttering like a wild thing.
When she looked back the door had closed.
“You’re all right, honey,” Cleeburg murmured huskily.
Three hours later he let himself into the quiet office, switched on the light and went to the desk. A broken paper knife lay near the inkstand. He picked up the pieces, held them together with half a smile, then let them drop from his hand into the waste basket.
The chair he had pushed forward for Gloria stood as she had left it. He drew it over, sat down, and with broad mouth firm but hands that shook a little, pulled a sheet of foolscap toward him and took up a pen.
The pen moved across the sheet, sometimes hesitating, sometimes swift as a comet. But the determined line of little ’Dolph’s mouth never relaxed.
_My dearest little girl_:
I’ve been thinking a lot since dinner, and when a fellow has sort of lost the habit of thinking about anything but his next show it comes hard. But don’t you jump at the conclusion that what I’m going to say is hasty or that it ain’t final. For years there was a funny old feeling inside of me that I had something to tell the world and no way to tell it. I wanted to put over something on the stage that would sound like music or look like a beautiful painting. Scenery wouldn’t do it. The women I had trained couldn’t do it. I didn’t even know, myself, just what it was. I used to tell myself often I was a poor nut. Then you came along with that voice of yours and those eyes and the fire that hasn’t any name, and did it all for me. If there hadn’t ever been anything more for me than seeing those hopes come true, it would have been enough. But I’ve had you for almost six years. You made me happier than you know, kiddo. And what has a poor old dub like me ever done to expect more than the happiness life has already handed me through you? Why, that’s a fortune that makes the Rockefeller millions look like thirty cents. If I try to hog more, if I keep you from the thing you’ve got a right to, the thing you gave me for six years, shooting’s too good for me.
You don’t think I could let you stay on with me, knowing that you and John belong together, do you? And you do belong together. You know I always said you made a fine team. Why, kiddo, it would finish me. I want you to be happy, that’s all. And I saw to-day where that happiness is for you.
I fixed it so that John couldn’t get off to-night. And I’m going to fix it now so that you’ll play together the rest of your lives. I’m sailing Monday to fix up those English contracts. When I come back in the fall you’re going to be free. No, not free, I’m wrong. I want to take you and John by the hands and say—Bless you, my children!
You remember, I called myself once your old back drop. Well, being that is about the best thing that’s ever happened to me. And I’ll keep on being that if you’ll let me, until you quit the game. Let me go on putting you over just like always and I’ll be O. K. Don’t you worry.
God bless you, kiddo.
He folded the sheets without reading them, put them into an envelope, sealed it carefully, went downstairs and looked up the head usher.
“Take this to Miss Cromwell and give it into her hands yourself,” he said. “And here, kid.” And he slipped the boy a dollar.
Love is a fantasy, a dream that only sacrifice can make come true. The tragedy of it is not in dying, but in living without it.
Across Bryant Park, chilled and damp under a gray sky emptied of stars, a man hurried. His overcoat collar was turned up. His soft hat was pulled down. His eyes between the two were dark-circled and deep-sunk. His feet covered the wet paths with the stumbling haste of one pursued.
To the east the faint gold streaks of an autumn dawn cut the clouds. They reached up above the irregular skyline that is New York, heralding the day some minutes after it was born.
The man sped across Fortieth Street and mounted the steps of one of the few brownstone houses, relic of an old aristocracy, that refused to be crowded out by the bourgeoisie of business. He fumbled in his coat pocket, brought out a key, dropped it in his anxiety, finally got the inner door open and made his way, still stumbling, up the stairs.
At an apartment on the second floor—for the house maintained its aloof air of aristocracy only on the outside—he paused and squared his shoulders. His whole body seemed to steel itself and then, very softly, he inserted the key and entered.
A gentle rustle came from the room beyond and a trained nurse with finger against her lips met him on the threshold.
“She—she’s all right?” he whispered, lips twitching.
“I tried to get back earlier. We rehearsed until a few minutes ago.” He threw hat and overcoat on a chair and sank into another. His head went down into his hands. “God, those hours, when every minute I thought—Miss Anderson,” he broke off, looking up to catch her expression, “she hasn’t taken a turn for the worse! She’ll pull through, won’t she?”
She smiled, a little sadly, at the desperate, so familiar query.
“She’s holding her own,” she answered with the formula equally familiar.
“Can’t you tell me she’ll get well? Can’t you give me the assurance?”
“No one can do that, Mr. Moore. We can only wait and hope.”
She took a hesitant step toward him, hand outstretched to comfort. Then evidently realizing how futile such effort would be, she turned and went back to her place at the foot of the bed that was a misty blur in the darkened room beyond.
He followed, precipitately yet with scarcely the sound of a footfall. The room was full of shadows. A thread of sunlight, forcing its way between blind and window, crept across the floor and gradually toward the bed. But Frank Moore did not need its delicate finger-touch to illumine the face that lay so still upon the pillow. He knew every precious line of it, every contour, all the shades of modeling that made it exquisite even though disease had in a few short weeks pressed into a gaunt mask the curves of beauty. He stood looking down at its stillness until a sudden broken cry came from him and he went quickly into the other room.
With no shame for his man’s tears, he flung himself full length on the couch and gave way to the misery he must hide when the wistful gaze of the eyes he loved was on him. Long days of rehearsal, long nights of anxiety, had weakened his resistance. He lay shaking with all the pitiable helplessness of the strong man gone under.
On side streets and flashing under the reflectors on the big twenty-four sheets along Sixth Avenue was his name in prominent black letters.
Kane Theatre 45th Street beginning _November 5th_
OSWALD KANE Presents the New Drama “THE LAUREL WREATH” by _Gaston Grisac_ Featuring FRANKLYN MOORE
How often they had dreamed of the day when he and she could look up and see that name as it stood out now, heralded, the featured one of the season’s big production! How often had she pictured herself stopping to read it each time it loomed before them, scanning it over and over on her theater program, leaning beyond the rail of the stage box to spur him to the success that must be his!
And to-night—the night that was to have been the greatest in their life, she would be lying there, while he— He sprang up, with quick stride covered the floor, back and forth, back and forth, like a prisoner in a cell.
The day nurse arriving at seven, found him dazed and blank-eyed from sheer weakness. As one feeds a child, she made him swallow some steaming coffee, then led him without difficulty back to the couch.
“You must rest, Mr. Moore, or you won’t be equal to the performance to-night.”
“But if I promise to call you when Mrs. Moore wakes up, won’t you try to sleep a bit?”
“I can’t, I tell you!”
She plumped up the pillows and he fell back among them, exhausted. He did not sleep but a sort of numbness gripped him as if the blood had been drained from his veins. And while his body lay still, his mind moved with wonder. Ambition—hope—of what use? To-day for him, this day that was to make all the days to come, there was just one reality. That face in there with its lines of suffering, that frail body, that soul that must live on for him. Nothing else was worth a thought—nothing! All night long as he had rehearsed, perfecting under the subtle guidance of Oswald Kane, the minutest detail of characterization, the most delicate shading of the difficult rôle he had mastered, he had been standing in reality at her bedside. Like a well-ordered mechanism he had gone through the part. But the indeterminate something that was Franklyn Moore had been in that shadowy room—with her. Kane had noticed the lack. An anxious frown had drawn his expressive brows momentarily together. But he had said nothing until the dress rehearsal was over and the company had gone home to sleep in preparation for the night’s performance. Then he had linked his arm through Moore’s and drawn him into the darkness of the wings.
“Frank, I know this is an ordeal for you. If there were any way of postponing the opening, I would do it. You know that. But it can’t be managed. We’re all set. They could only conclude that something was wrong with the play.”
“Of course—I know. That’s all right.”
“And, my boy, we can’t afford to let it fail because of this—this misfortune that has come to you. It’s on your shoulders. We must come through, Frank. We can’t stand a failure.” His anxiety was all too evident.
“I was rotten—I know. But don’t worry—”
“I won’t. I depend upon you, my boy, that’s all. And so does to-night’s success. Let me run you home.”
“Thanks—no. I’d rather walk it. Want to be alone—you understand—pardon!”
And he had stumbled out of the stage door into the new gray day.
Now as he paced up and down, he wondered whether it would be humanly possible to keep faith with the man who was giving him the opportunity to blazon his name to the world. Could he go through with it? Could he be depended upon?
The nurse appeared in the doorway and beckoned to him. From the pillow a pair of eyes, so large and dark that there seemed no other feature in the small face, fastened on the door as he entered. He dropped on his knees, laid his head beside hers. One hand strayed up and stroked his thick brown hair.
“How did it go, darling?”
He answered with another question of greater moment.
“Are you feeling better?”
“Much. They gave me something to make me sleep. I must have slept a long time. Is it morning?”
“Really? What time did you get in?”
“About half-past five.”
“How did the rehearsal go?” she repeated.
“Fine. Kane thinks it will be a knock-out.”
“I’m sure it will.”
He turned his face from hers for an instant of silence.
The nurse moved about the room, lifting the blinds to the sunlight, preparing it for the day. Then she came over to the bed.
“As soon as I have Mrs. Moore fixed up, I’ll let you come back,” she said.
“You’ll let him tell me all about it, won’t you?” pleaded the voice from the pillow. “I couldn’t bear it if you didn’t.”
“Yes—he can stay in here until—”
“Until he’s ready to go to the theater. Please—please!”
“If you don’t wear yourself out.”
“I won’t—I promise.”
The big dark eyes followed him out of the room.
He stripped off his clothes, took a cold shower and in clean linens tried to persuade himself that he felt relaxed. He telephoned the doctor for a report on last night’s visit and was told Mrs. Moore was about the same. If she had gained some sleep that was decidedly in her favor. The doctor would be over at five and as Mr. Moore had requested, would make arrangements to stay until his return from the theater.
The small face on the pillow was lifted eagerly as he reappeared. Two long braids of pale gold fell over the shoulders and onto the white spread. He had always adored that pale gold hair. It intensified the dark of her eyes, making them almost black. It made her mediæval, an Elaine of poetry. He called her “Elaine” which after all was not so very far from her own name, “Helen.”
“No, I want you here.” She pointed to the foot of the bed. “Where I won’t miss a word or an expression. Now tell me—about everything.”
In a low voice, without stress or excitement, he related the incidents that always occur at a dress rehearsal. Props that had to be replaced at the last minute. The leading woman’s gowns gone wrong. The house cat sauntering across the stage during the big scene and its portent, good luck! Kane’s decision to light him with white instead of amber in the final act. All the little shadings, the quaint superstitions, the unimportant incidents that make the stage the fascinating realm it is, even to the initiated.
She listened with lips parted and an occasional faint nod of the head. It was her world, too, though the world in which she had failed.
“I hope you weren’t too good, dear.”
“I was rotten.”
Her smile said she knew he couldn’t be that, but the lips told him:—
“That’s good. A bad dress rehearsal is sure to mean a great opening.” A sudden longing, uncontrolled, held her eyes. “How I’d love to see it!”
He bent down, lifted one of the white hands on the coverlet, pressing it against his lips.
“I don’t know how I can go through without you,” came in spite of him.
Her eyes clouded.
“You must, dear! You mustn’t even think of me.”
“It’s too much to ask,” the broken voice plunged on. “To go out and face that crowd with you—here! I can’t do it—I can’t!”
“You must do it, my love.” The spirit so much stronger than the body shone from her eyes. “I’ll be thinking of you and praying for you. I’ll be with you all through the performance. I’ll follow each line—every tiny bit of business. But you must put me out of your mind. Only your part must count—only your success.”
He was silent, pressing the little hand between his warm palms as if to send the vitality from his veins into hers. But the only vitalized part of her was the feverishly bright look of eyes that drew his.
“You know how I always loved the stage—how I always wanted to be a great actress.”
“I know, my Elaine.”
The big burning eyes traveled into the past. Haltingly, with breath uneven and the words only faintly spoken, she drifted on the tide of memory back toward that horizon of hope so many see but never reach.
“Frank—do you remember in the old stock days when we first met—how jealous I was of you?”
“Nonsense! You were just ambitious.”
“No—jealous! Don’t you remember the time I wouldn’t speak to you for a week—because you walked off with the big scene?”
“Mine was the better part.”
Two tears she pretended not to be conscious of gathered in the dark eyes.
“No, dear—it wasn’t in me. You tried to give it back to me—that scene—at every performance.” Her voice trailed away a little wearily and it was a full minute before the slow words came to her lips again. “But I couldn’t take it away from you, no matter how hard I tried.”
She had carried him with her back to the days of struggle and hope, when success was a star at the top of the world and effort the ladder from which so many rungs fell away as climbing feet sought a firmer hold. The days when disappointments were shared with after-theater sandwiches and the monument of ambition took the form of a dingy stock theater on the Main Street of a small town.
“And I felt like such a dog,” he reminisced. “That was when I began loving you—when I was trying to heal the hurt of your disappointment. That night when you walked out of the stage door in the pouring rain and your umbrella turned inside out and I tried to make you take my raincoat but you poked up that little head of yours and looked neither to right nor left like a real Mrs. Siddons. And then an old cab came jogging along and I scooped you up bodily and carried you into it, broken umbrella and all. Do you recall how I held you in my arms all the way to your boarding-house and kept telling you you had to marry me?”
“Take me in your arms now, dear. Let’s live those days over again.”
He looked, anxiously yet with an eager plea in his eyes, toward the nurse. She hesitated.
“Frank,” came the voice from the pillow, “won’t you put your arms around me?”
The nurse nodded, coming quickly to the bed. She slipped her own arm under the wasted body, lifted it. Then the man’s went in its place and silently he cradled the precious burden against him, bending down so that her position might not be changed. She gave a little sigh as his lips touched the silk of her hair.
“I feel better now,” she said.
They were quiet a few moments while the man’s eyes fastened blindly on a cornice of the ceiling.
Her slim fingers curled round his.
“We both love the theater so, don’t we?”
“Yes—” But he was not thinking of her words.
“Only I never had it, dear,—the spark. It is a spark—”
“You have the greatest spark in the world, darling,—the love that you give and inspire—that will live on when the theater has forgotten me.”
“It must never forget you.” She stopped, then softly went on, “I—I wanted so much for myself—at first. I could learn lines and be letter perfect in a few days—and look pretty.”
“You were always beautiful. You always will be.”
She gave a little tired movement of dissent.
“It doesn’t matter much—because—because—anyway—”
“I love you so,” he said in a shaking voice.
“I used to tell myself the other thing—the spark—would come. It took New York to teach me that if you have the other thing—looking pretty and being letter perfect in a few days aren’t important. But Frank—”
“I didn’t marry you because I was a failure. I married you because I loved you.”
“You don’t have to tell me that.”
“But I want to. Do you want me to tell you just when I knew I loved you?”
She had told it to him dozens of times but he waited with the eager attention of one who had never before heard it.
“Well, it was the time we both opened in ‘The Jungle-Beast.’ I had just come to New York. You’d been here six months. But I was too proud to let you know because I couldn’t get a job and was half starved. And then we met one day—in Cleeburg’s office—and you made him give me a part.”
“He’d have given it to you without me.”
“He would not. It was you who managed me. The best manager in the world,” she murmured.
He had an insane impulse to clutch her tighter, hold her so that no power on earth or in heaven could drag her from him. But the muscles of his arms merely tightened without movement. She lay within them, a weight too pitifully light.
“When we opened,” came at last, whispered so that the words were a breath, “I tried so hard—I put every bit of me into the part.”
“And you were great in it, too.”
“No, the papers told the truth. I just—wasn’t. They didn’t even mention my name—I was just an also-ran. But Frank—I was so happy—so proud. My own failure didn’t count. That was when I knew I loved you, dear,—belonged to you—for always.”
“For always,” he repeated like an amen.
“No matter what happens?”
“No matter—” he could not go on.
She lay there with eyes closed and a smile on her lips. A faint pink like the touch of sunset spread its delicate color on her cheeks. But only for the moment that had carried her into the past. When the eyes opened and looked up to his, they were troubled.
“What is it, my Elaine?”
“Frank—since then I’ve poured all my ambition into you. All these seven years—each step of yours up the ladder has been mine. And we have been happy—every minute of them, haven’t we?”
He put his inarticulate lips against her forehead.
“Nothing can take that away. It’s ours—forever. It’s more than life gives most people. And I’m not a real failure, because my longing has been satisfied—in you.” The clouded eyes struggled to his. “Come closer, dear. That’s why you mustn’t fail to-night. Tell me you won’t.”
“But the thought of leaving you—it—it’s too much. I can’t stand it!”
“You must, Frank! Everything depends on it.”
“Do you think anything that matters there—will count?”
“But if I want you there instead of here—if it means everything to me?”
Her fingers twined feverishly through his. Her eyes were frightened. Her voice gathered sudden strength.
“I want to spur you to triumph, darling, not defeat. I want you to ring the bell, so that—always—I can know I was a help not a hindrance.”
“Elaine—you mustn’t talk any more. You’re tired.”
“No—I’m not. Let me tell you the thing I want to say. You can’t serve two masters, dear, the theater and me. You love us both—but to-night the theater must come first. It is your master—mine, too. You must let it take you away from me when you want to stay. You must let it absorb you—mind and body. You must forget that I’m ill—forget me while I’m remembering you. No matter what happens! Frank—promise me—”
“I can only—try.”
Her two hands clung to his.
“That’s not enough! Frank—I’d die now if I thought I was going to cause you to fail. You must appear—you must make good. You must do the best work of your career. After all, that will be serving me too, darling. You’ll be giving me the thing I want—your name the greatest on the American stage. No matter what happens, Frank—no matter what—”
The nurse moved quickly to the bedside.
“I can’t let Mr. Moore stay if you excite yourself. Take this—and please lie quiet for awhile.”
“You won’t make him go?”
“Not if you do as I say.”
She took the powder and, closing her hands round his to reassure herself, settled back on the pillow. He remained in his cramped position, half kneeling, half lying beside her, filling his eyes with her, listening for every faint even breath that told him sleep had once more laid relaxing fingers upon her. Like a miser counting gold, he counted the minutes that gave them to each other, the minutes before the master she said he must obey claimed him. He heard those minutes being ticked away by the clock in the adjoining room with a terror that laid cold hands on his heart. The day must not go! It must not escape them so quickly!
Once more he put his head down beside the pale gold one. For a long time neither moved. Then the faint grip of her fingers loosened, dropped away. But his arms stayed about her, numbed and tense.
She awoke and lay smiling into his eyes, but neither made attempt to speak. Sometimes he whispered her name. Sometimes she murmured his. All the words that could have been spoken—all that he wanted to pour out—all that he felt—choked him. But the futility of trying to express it and the fear of weakening her held him silent. Theirs was a communion deeper than speech.
It was late afternoon when she lifted her head, a sudden light illumining her spent eyes.
“Frank—have they got your name on that billboard we can see from the front window?”
“Almost as big as Kane’s?”
“Yes, little lady of mine.”
“Frank—I want to see it.”
He started up with protest on his lips, but—
“Impossible!” formed on the nurse’s before he could speak.
“I’m afraid it wouldn’t do, dear.”
“If you’d wrap me in a blanket and carry me in. Just for a second—just to see it—once.”
“Mrs. Moore,” the nurse put it, “it doesn’t seem much and I’d like to say ‘yes.’ But it would weaken you too much.”
“No—no! It wouldn’t—it couldn’t! Why—it’s the thing I’ve been waiting for! It would give me new life. I want to see his name all lighted up. Please—please! Don’t deny me just this little thing.”
Frank Moore’s gaze went desperately to the nurse’s. She stood locking and unlocking her hands, nervous uncertainty battling with professional caution.
“We’ll wait until Dr. Griffith gets here. If he permits it—”
With gaze fastened on her, Frank Moore knew that she was certain the doctor would not permit it. Yet when he came at five and the dark eyes went quickly to his with their anxious plea, he stood looking down at them for a moment, prolonged by silence—then bowed his head in quiet assent.
The man who had been watching did not stop to question or consider why. He saw only the light that like white fire came again to the eyes he loved. Gathering her close, with head bent to hers, he carried her to the window that faced the park.
Dusk with its faint blue haze of beauty had settled and through it glimmered the first sparkle of the evening star. A building off toward Broadway, mysteriously illuminated from below, glowed moonwhite and dreamlike. The city itself, at this weird hour between day and night, seemed scarcely real. But it was not on the unreality of material things that the dark eyes centered. Over the park they wandered and above the long black trellis of the elevated.
There it was, shining beyond its reflectors, the big twenty-four sheet:—
Kane Theatre 45th Street beginning _November 5th_
OSWALD KANE Presents the New Drama “THE LAUREL WREATH” by _Gaston Grisac_ Featuring FRANKLYN MOORE
She gave a little joyful sigh.
“Frank dear—it’s real—it’s real!”
Her arms held closer round his neck.
“I’ve asked Kane to keep your place vacant in the stage box,” came from him finally. “I couldn’t bear to have anyone else in it.”
“I’ll be with you—rooting for you—don’t forget! I’ll be with you—always.”
He put his face against hers. He could not speak. Through the dusk he saw only those great dark eyes with their strange glowing light. He stood with her so, while she read and re-read the name that spelled to her love, ambition, life. Suddenly—
“I can’t leave you—I can’t!” he broke down.
“’Sh! You must go on and on, darling. Remember,—don’t try to serve two masters. You will remember—won’t you? For me?”
Their eyes held.
“Yes,” came from him.
“Yes, my Elaine—”
A Kane opening is not an ordinary first night. It happens, at the outside, twice a season at the two most artistic theaters in New York. It is an event as important socially as theatrically. Weeks before, the hum of it is in the air. The public palpitates with anticipation. When Oswald Kane imports a play from Paris, it is the most chic, effervescent and gay the winking eye of Paris has gazed upon. When he produces a period play, he trusts neither to his own imagination nor the costumer’s but enlists the advice of experts and dresses his product with the care of a modiste turning out a woman of fashion. Every member of his casts, down to the most minute part, is selected with an eye to ensemble effect. Sometimes the effect is overdone, a surface glazed too smooth to be startling. But it is never underdone, and the New York first night audience is often hypnotized under the hand of the magician into believing a mediocre piece of work an outstanding masterpiece.
Through the audience that flowed into the Kane Theater on the night of November 5th, like an undulating stream of scented sparkling color, drifted that murmur of eagerness which was breath of life to the famous producer. In it he found all the satisfaction of a woman in her beauty or a painter in the eyes lifted to his canvas. Glitter, the incandescence of anticipation, they were the arclights along the path of his greatness. He stood in the wings, a gentle, artistic hand straying through the wavy black hair that fell across his forehead, giving his attention to the final details of to-night’s opening. As the actors assembled he gave each an encouraging word, the last moment stimulus of a faith not always felt.
The mirror in a dressing-room just a few yards beyond Kane’s point of vantage reflected a face mask-like in its immobility. The man before it sat staring at the reflection as if it belonged to another. A shirt open at the neck showed muscles hard and tense. Even make-up could not widen the tight red line of the mouth. The eyes were dulled as if viewed through a curtain. Frank Moore went through his final preparations like a machine correctly set in motion. When the last touch had been given, he walked to the door and listened to the surge of the incoming throng like the song of the sea on a smooth beach.
Suddenly rebellion shook him. What right had they? Pleasure! That was all they cared about. To make of him a puppet, a thing for their amusement! God, what a joke! Those lights, the chatter, the laughter—himself about to stalk on the stage!
A few minutes later, as he made his entrance to an anticipatory round of applause, he had an insane desire to step down to the footlights and shout his thoughts to the upturned faces that came vague and white out of the dark. Those gay seekers who were using him for an hour’s diversion, why should they not know what that hour meant of anguish to him? Why should the curtain that lifted to them lift only on illusion? Why should their pleasure be permitted to surmount his pain?
But those in front saw only a man going through his part with leaden apathy. Frank Moore, the spontaneous, the man who with the lift of an eyebrow or the flick of a little finger against a cigarette ash could carry an audience into his mood, what had happened to him? A stir, that faint but agonizing presage of dissatisfaction, sent its warning up and over the footlights. Moore felt it with the rest but it quickened neither fear nor blood in his veins. Only grim resentment and dull indifference. He could not shake them off. He didn’t care.
Backstage the sensitive fingers of Oswald Kane on the pulse of his public trembled for the sum, always enormous, that would sink with the swaying ship of the production. As the act drew to its close his restless feet paced the boards, his black brows drew together. Yet when the curtain fell and Moore came off, the manager showed no anxiety. He approached the actor, gently taking his arm. Moore looked up a trifle dazedly as if not quite sure where he was.
“Wish I could do something for you, old man!” was all the other man said.
“Rotten, wasn’t I?” Moore answered with a tight smile.
Kane said nothing.
“Do my best this act,” Moore supplemented.
“Shall I telephone and find out how things are? You might like to know.”
“No—don’t—don’t! I couldn’t—stand it!” His strained eyes closed. He went quickly into his dressing-room and banged the door.
Kane stood for a second, hesitant, then hurried out to the elevator that mounted to his studio at the top of the building.
In the lobby critics exchanged a few cryptic remarks, conservatively trying to withhold snap judgment. But frankly puzzled, they asked each other what was the matter with Kane. He was permitting an actor like Franklyn Moore to walk through his part like an automaton.
The auditorium darkened. The curtain lifted on Act II. Moore made his entrance. He played a statesman, ruthlessly trampling under iron hoof friends, family, wife, to reach the pinnacle of his ambition. But up to that moment he had not been iron. He had been wooden. Not ruthless force but numbed suffering marked his gestures, the intonation of his deep voice. More than once his hand strayed with desperate weariness to his thick brown hair. He managed to catch the gesture in time. But even halted midway, it marked itself as strangely out of character.
As he came off at his first exit Kane was in his path, pacing up and down. Once more he took the actor’s arm, but this time his voice shook.
“Do you want to go home, old man? Shall I step out now and explain? We can ring down the curtain.”
“You mean I’ve flivved the whole thing, anyway. You mean there’s no use going on.”
“No!” Kane pulled down the hands that tremblingly covered the staring, empty eyes. “No—don’t say that. But it was too much to ask of you. I had no right.”
“You—you weren’t the only one who asked it of me. I’m going through with it, I tell you! I—I’ll get them yet.”
A shout of laughter came from the auditorium. Kane could not control a sigh. It was relief after the murmuring quiet that had marked the play’s reception from the first. Moore looked up with a quick, comprehending glance. He _had_ flivved the production. Failure was upon his shoulders—his alone! He squared them determinedly. He waited attentively for his cue.
When he walked on the stage again, he looked out upon the vague faces in that crowded cavern at his feet and then his gaze traveled to an empty chair in the stage box. It rested there an instant and gradually something was woven into the mauve velvet. Filmy and gauze-like as a cloud across the sun, it took at first no form. Only white and gentle and indefinite. But even before it floated into the folds of a woman’s gown, he knew that above it two dark eyes were sending the flame of inspiration into his, a silky blond head was bent forward with the light of love gleaming from it. The lips were slightly parted as if to call to him. Against the rail of the box rested transparent hands, ready to lift in applause. She was so eager, so intent, so full of faith and urge and hope that he did not realize his imagination had put her there. Those other men and women must see her, too. They must know now that the one he needed to help him onward had come because of that need.
His head went up. A light lifted the curtain of his eyes. A live look loosened the tension of his mouth. He turned toward the leading woman and again his glance swept the audience. Something electric passed over them. Franklyn Moore had come to life. He was acting now. No, not acting! For as his deep voice responded to the unvoiced call which had come to him, it swept that waiting throng across the footlights. Not illusion but reality made them move forward with the drama. To them he was no longer an actor playing a part. He was a man living in anguish because in tearing the laurel wreath from another’s brow, he had torn down his own happiness. The wife he loved had turned to the man from whom he had snatched it.
“Of what use is the applause of the multitude,” he pleaded, “if I must lose you?”
And as he spoke the words only a few in that vast audience saw his eyes fasten on an empty chair in the stage box.
The dark eyes that met his shone. The shadowy hands came together in applause. The white throat pulsed. She was so alive in all her vagueness. She was sending out to him what he had always known she would give him when the moment came, the spark she had said she lacked, the power of love to leap the chasm of uncertainty, to know the heights of achievement.
His lips formed “Elaine!” He waited for the applause to die down. Then with the man’s eyes still on that box, the actor crossed the stage to the woman he had lost.
“I ask you only not to leave me! Not now! Give me the chance to share with you the success that has robbed me of—everything. One chance! Just one!”
And as she told him it was too late to ask anything of her and the door shut behind her, he lifted his two arms and his voice broke with the tragedy of the immortal tenor’s in “Il Pagliacci” as he cried out:—
“I am at the top—and I am alone.”
Even before the curtain fell the bravos rang out. The force of them was deafening. That drawing aside of the curtain of his soul, that sudden springing to life of the fire of genius had an effect more dynamic than would have been an easy success from the very beginning.
It was like a clarion blast across a silent world. It galvanized the sullen crowd to action. It carried them out of their seats. Through the din and the repeated rise and fall of the curtain Moore did not move. They clamored for a speech. He shook his head. But like insistent children they shouted his name, and as the curtain remained lifted, he stepped downstage.
“There’s nothing I can say—the credit for this is not mine— It belongs to one—” his voice halted. It broke. He stepped back.
Construing his few words as a tribute to his illustrious manager, they called for Kane—called and waited. He did not come.
From the wings members of the cast scurried in search of him. It was not like Oswald Kane on a first night to be far from the footlights at the curtain of the big act. He was always close at hand, after eight or ten calls, for a gracious speech of thanks.
But to-night he could not be found. They sent a callboy to his studio. He was not there. He had evidently left the theater. Discouraged by Moore’s early failure, he had apparently given up all possible hope of the ultimate overwhelming triumph that was his.
The curtain descended finally after announcement had been made that the manager could not be located.
Keyed to his topmost effort, Moore changed for the last act. He had come through! He had scored—nothing could alter that. And _she_ had made him do it. It was her success! His Elaine’s! He had not failed her. Two masters! She had said he must serve only one. Had he? And if so was it not she, his beloved, whom he had served?
He was on the stage, with that swift glance toward her place, that prayer to a filmy figure of his imagination. And yet not quite. More than his imagination—his spirit! They two were one, would be one for all time. He knew that now.
With the same fire of inspiration he went through the final scenes. For her he played his part—to her he spoke his lines. “You’ve come back to me!” he cried as the door opened and the wife of the play entered. “You’ve come back. I haven’t lost you, dear.” And a vast throng of seasoned New Yorkers responded, unashamed of their emotion.
The play was done. As the last clatter of hot hands died away Frank Moore covered with quick, precipitate steps the short space to his dressing-room. His eyes were still lifted and alight. He caught hold of the door knob and as he did so, another hand covered his.
Oswald Kane was standing beside him.
“I put it over!” came swiftly from the actor and with a breath of triumphant relief.
“But I wasn’t the one who did it. She did!”
“I know that, too!”
“I was there with her.”
“You—?” Frank Moore repeated.
“When I saw you were winning out, I felt she ought to know. I went over to tell her.”
“You saw her? You talked to her?”
“Yes. She knew all about it. Frank—if you could have seen her joy! It was like a light from heaven.”
Moore pushed past him.
“I’ll go to her—I’ll see it now!”
The actor paused under the shaky, detaining hand.
Frank Moore looked up dumbly.
“You will see a smile on her lips,” Kane went on. “It will be there—always.”
The man who heard him stood silent. One would have said no change had occurred. Then very low, he brought out:—
“Are you telling me—?”
“Yes, my boy.”
Quietly the hand dropped away from the door. He stood looking up into the sympathetic face of the great manager. Then with slow, shuffling steps, he went back to the dismantled boards that faced the dark auditorium. With shoulders sagging and head bent he stood for a moment. And then a stagehand, moving the last piece of scenery, saw him lift his arms and stretch them out to an empty chair in the stage box.
Like beauty, color is in the eye of the beholder. To one who looks through shadows, white is—well, gray. To the uninitiated, a chorus is like a game of roulette—rouge et noir. Yet even to play that game, some of the chips must be white.
“And I said to him: ‘My deah boy, don’t talk to me as if I were your wife! And don’t imagine you’re the only twin six in town.’ And we settled it right then and there.” The full pouting lips broadened into a reminiscent smile. The pink and white cheeks dimpled. Miss Mariette Mallard, accent on the last syllable, laid her trump card on the table for the benefit of her listener whose black eyes sparkled with gratifying interest. “And then he went out and bought me a big—”
Just what the “big” was remained a question, for Miss Mariette halted as a girl slid into the chair next to hers and stretched out a hand to dust a film of powder from the face of her mirror. They formed a queer assortment, those mirrors, all shapes and sizes, propped against both sides of the rack that ran down the center of the long make-up table.
Above them, on a wire stretching from one dusty white washed wall to the other, was suspended a row of electric lights in a tin reflector. Before them, dumped hodge-podge, were boxes of rouge and mascaro, rabbits’ feet, puffs and eyebrow brushes. Into them gazed as many types as there are flowers of the field, with just two traits in common,—all were slender as birch trees, all young as Eve before the serpent appeared. Except that to most the apple was no longer forbidden fruit.
At the moment there were some sixteen in various stages of preparing for the costume, largely imagination, which the prettiest chorus on Broadway wore in Scene I of “Good Night Cap.” It was one of those musical mélanges commonly known as girlie shows, and advertised in red splashes of poster as “A Bevy of Beauties All under Twenty.” Its prescription is filled each season with merely a change of lights and trappings to distinguish it from its predecessor.
The bloods of New York patronize the Summer Garden with a loyalty that brings them back at least once a week. The one theater in town it is in which the chorus fraternizes with the audience, tripping down a runway into the aisles to trill their syncopated love ditties into the ears of selected members, or swinging overhead on ropes of roses, bare knees perilously near bald heads. Buyers, politicians, traveling salesmen, miners and perfectly proper tired business men with their smiling better halves all enter the place with a twinkle of anticipation and come out humming a medley of haunting tunes.
On the night in question, one of early March, Miss Mariette Mallard’s voluminous moleskin wrap was draped over the back of her chair and she pulled it round her with a pretty baby shiver as she scanned the girl who had just come in. Then she winked at the black-eyed one.
“Well,” she observed, forgetting to go on with her story, “how is mamma’s sparkler to-night?”
The girl bit her lip, then turned with a grin that was not in her eyes and flashed under Miss Mariette’s little nose the hand that had dusted the mirror. On its third finger blinked a diamond, the size and brilliance of which was breath taking.
Miss Mallard promptly turned her attention to the black-eyed one. “Gracie deah, suppose you had a block of ice like that—wouldn’t you try to make your clothes live up to it?”
The black-eyed one giggled: “And I wouldn’t be so upstage about it until I did.”
The object of their amusement set her teeth and turned back to the mirror, addressing the reflection: “I pay cash for my clothes. That’s more than some people can say.”
The black-eyed one giggled again. “They look it,” she murmured sweetly.
Miss Mariette indulged in a smile still more saccharine. “They look as if you paid nothing for them, my deah. Take my advice and pay cash to get rid of them.” She gave a dismissing flourish of her small hand and patted her pale blonde ringlets.
The chorus girl of to-day buys her hats on Fifth Avenue and borrows her manner from the same thoroughfare. She never forgets that a lead awaits her if she’s clever enough to look and act the part. Not that Miss Mallard had any ambitions in that direction. She was content to be cute and cuddly and first on the left in the front row. But she did try to live up to the moleskin cloak and the car that called for her every night. Only at unguarded moments did Second Avenue scratch through Fifth. “You don’t know how to manage him, my deah,” she concluded, baby blue eyes fastened on the radiant stone.
The girl’s lips opened, then shut tight. She had told them where the ring came from—and they didn’t believe her. Besides, if she tried to answer them she’d cry, and she’d die rather than let them see her do that! It was the same struggle she went through every night and two matinées a week—sometimes with bravado, more often in choking silence. Somehow they made her ashamed, those two, that for her the apple still hung high on the tree. If they wanted to think some man had given her the diamond, so much the better! It would make her seem popular—less a little fool!
She downed the tears by vigorous motion.... She sprang up—a kick of her heel sent her chair spinning—and ripping open her one-piece serge dress, she tossed it on the hook in the wall where hung a plain brown ulster and imitation seal turban—alley cat caught in the rain, Miss Mariette had christened it. Then she gritted her teeth, pulled the chair back into place and slashed on make-up.
Sallie MacMahon, listed in chorus annals as Zara May, was one of those who merited the splashing announcement of the red posters. Perhaps it was her long mermaid hair with its glisten of sunset on the sea; perhaps the fact that the lashes shading her deep blue eyes were the same gold; perhaps the transparent quality of her skin with the swift play of young blood under the surface; but whatever it was, Sallie’s beauty held a luminous quality Sallie herself did not possess. Sallie was just a girl, with a facility for doing what she was told. The daughter of a Scotch father with somber eyes and an Irish mother with laughing ones, both of whom had sailed the misty river into unknown lands after a stormy sojourn together in this one, she had been left at fifteen to take care of herself, with a love of the beautiful on one hand warring against a sense of economy on the other.
Sallie loved soft furs and clinging silks such as swept into the chorus dressing-room nightly. But she had no desire to follow the tortuous path by which such luxuries are achieved. However, the fact that the Mallard girl and Grace assumed she had done so, did not at all disturb her. It was their ridicule she feared, their jibes at her clothes. Speeding across the stone floor under the Summer Garden stage she tried to bring a smile to her lips. They merely trembled.
There came the march of a military air and the girls filed up the wobbly wooden steps and through a trap door. Sallie fluffed up her abbreviated skirt, brought the smile to her lips, fixed it as if it had been glued there. Her young, elastic body rippled through the number under the changing lights. She loved the jazz, loved the stir of rhythm, and had it not been for the ache in her heart whenever she set foot in the theater, she would have loved the work. She was nineteen. Music was in her blood.
She danced through the varying scenes with swift changes of costume, hurried dabs of powder, and little time to nurse her woes. A number toward the end of Act II was her favorite. It was the one in which the girls trooped down the runway and trilled to some not always embarrassed male occupant of an aisle seat:—
“Oh-oh-oh-oh-h-h-h-h— Won’t you—smile at me?”
Often as she swayed through it, it never failed to give her a thrill. Likewise she never failed to get what she demanded.
To-night, as she syncopated down the aisle, a light like blue fire darted from her deep eyes. Kindled by the smouldering defiance of earlier evening it was utterly unconscious of seeking an object. But the gentleman in the particular seat that was her territory could scarcely have been expected to know that. To him it constituted challenge.
“Oh-oh-oh-oh-h-h-h-h— Won’t you—smile at me?”
The man’s lips parted. “You just bet I will!” came in a flash of white teeth.
Sallie’s mind was not photographic. It registered no definite impression of the individuals occupying her particular aisle seat. They came and went, vague as shadows. But this man’s response and his quick flashing smile with its personal note, made her suddenly realize that she had been singing to the same pleasant grin every night that week.
She was still wondering about him as Miss Mariette, at the close of the performance, stepped into a short-waisted chiffon dress and, pulling it over slender hips, slipped her arms through the spangled shoulder straps. She and Grace were booked for a party, and the latter emerged like a full-blown rose, black eyes dancing above a gown of American beauty satin. Then both sat down and took some of the make-up off their faces.
Sallie was in the act of pinning on the alley cat.
“Do show him to us, my deah!” persiflaged Miss Mallard. “Don’t be so-er-close, even if he is.”
Sallie jabbed the pin into her head, winced in pain and, with chin trembling and eyes hot with starting tears, hurried into the corridor followed by the familiar titter. Blindly she made her way up the stairs to the stage entrance.
Outside, a blaze of changing lights proclaimed that Broadway was rubbing the sleep from her eyes and preparing to dance. A gold haze lined the sky, veiling the night even to the silver-white buildings that reared their heads high into the heavens. Lined up at the curb was a row of taxis. The modern stage door Johnny no longer stands, bouquet in hand. He remains discreetly in his cab or car and only when the lady of his choice emerges does he do likewise.
As Sallie started to cross the street someone called “Good-evening.” But that being a familiar method of address, she passed on without a glance.
“I say,” pleaded the voice, “won’t you smile at me again?”
Sallie turned then. Descending from a big yellow car which, had she known more of auto aristocracy, would have stamped itself as of prohibitive peerage, was the man of the aisle seat.
He came nearer.
Sallie turned flutteringly on her heel.
“Wait, please,” he begged and his teeth gleamed as they had in the theater. They were nice teeth in a boyish mouth, and upon Sallie they had a disarming effect. In spite of an instinctive impulse to run, she hesitated. The talon scratches inflicted in the chorus dressing-room were still bleeding and the smile of the man who had ceased to be a shadow was balm.
He reached her, lifted his hat.
Sallie shifted uncertainly from one foot to the other.
“Come for a ride, won’t you?” he asked.
“Oh, I couldn’t,” she answered promptly.
“I—I just couldn’t, that’s all.”
He gave her a curious, somewhat puzzled look. “Round the park—once?”
“I—I—no, thank you, I couldn’t.”
“Then let me drive you home.”
“I—I don’t live very far. I always walk it.”
“Well, ride it to-night. Please!” Again that disarming gleam.
Sallie looked up with eyes clouded and a tremor on her lips. “It’s nice of you to want to take me, but—”
“But I’ve been coming here every night this week trying to make a hit with you, and until to-night you never even knew I was alive. Don’t you think you ought to be a little kind to a fellow who’s as devoted as that?”
“I—I’d like to, awfully—but—”
“Then what’s to prevent?”
She looked down, tracing a pattern with the toe of her boot.
“Please—I—thanks just the same,” she brought out finally.
She took a step toward the curb, away from him.
And just then came one of those feathery gusts that send whirling the wheel of fate. Miss Mariette Mallard and Grace issued from the stage door, their exchange of glances telling too plainly that they were still enjoying the laugh at her expense. At the curb waited a limousine quite overshadowed by the gorgeousness of the big yellow touring car. They drew near, still giggling.
Swift as a bird, Sallie veered back to him. Instantly he was at her side.
“You can take me home”—it was breathless—“I’ll let you do that.”
Eagerly he helped her in, took his place at the wheel. Sallie turned with the air of royalty. With the sweetest of smiles, her head inclined in the direction of the two girls. As the car sped round the corner she saw them halt abruptly and, like Lot’s wife, stand rooted where they stopped.
To a woman, the discovery that events do not work out as she had planned comes in the nature of a disappointment. To a man, the same discovery adds zest to the determination to make them do so. The man in the yellow touring car was amazed to find that Sallie actually did permit him to drive her home and no farther. He had anticipated that run round the park at least once—probably twice—possibly three times. He had even anticipated a cozy supper at which, across a table not too wide, he could drink deep of a pair of well-like blue eyes shaded with gold. But Sallie gave him her address, ten blocks from the theater, and though he urged with all the masculine dominance of which he was capable, she got out of the car in front of a brownstone house sagging as if with the weight of its own years.
The man looked up the steep steps to where a flicker of gaslight sifted on the broken mosaics of the vestibule.
“Is this where you live?” he queried, still holding the hand by which he had helped her.
Sallie nodded, adding as she tried to withdraw the hand, “Thanks ever so much.”
“Here—just a minute!” He drew her back. “You haven’t told me your name yet!”
“On-the-level name, I mean.”
“Oh”—she flashed him a smile—“that one’s good enough.”
“Peaches and cream would fit better!” came in quick response.
She jerked her hand away. “Good-night, Mr.—Mr.—”
“Patterson. Jimmie Fowler Patterson. You’ll notice I’m not so stingy as somebody else!”
She caught hold of the rusty iron railing.
He sprang into the car. “Well, I can wait! See you to-morrow, Miss Zara May.”
Two emotions played havoc with her dreams that night—exultation over the girls and fear. As through her narrow rear window she watched the patch of dull blue mellow into dull gray, she assured herself that to-morrow she would do nothing more than walk past the yellow car with a pleasant “Good-evening.”
But of course she didn’t. Not to-morrow—nor any other night that found it waiting at the stage entrance. And that became every night.
In the chorus dressing-room an aura of new interest surrounded her. That car commanded respect. Miss Mariette even restrained her inclination to persiflage until one evening some ten days later when Sallie came in after the final act and caught her hunched on the floor, back up, meowing with all her might while the alley cat reposed over one ear.
All the old wounds tore open. The blood gushed to Sallie’s head. She grabbed the hat and slapped Miss Mariette’s face, leaving the latter too startled to retaliate in kind. And when Mr. Patterson begged her as he did each evening to drive out to supper, she stepped into the car, throat too full for speech.
He gave a broad grin. “Shall we make it up the Drive and back to Montmartre?”
“I’d just rather ride if you don’t mind.”
They spun up Broadway, through Seventy-second Street and into the enveloping shadows of Riverside. The moon was up, a new crescent streaking its modest trail across the water. On the opposite shore the chain of lights was a necklace of clustering jewels laid on the plush of night.
Sallie nestled into the deep leather-cushioned seat, somewhat to the far side. A sharp wind lifted the curls from under the despised turban and sent them flying across the man’s face. He stole a moment to turn and gaze.
“You’re a winner!” he murmured.
Sallie scarcely heard him. She was lost in the intoxication of tearing motor and racing March wind. Never had she experienced anything like it. And gradually the turmoil of it soothed her own. She closed her eyes.
When they opened it was to meet a swift turn of road, the houses mounted to a higher level and before them, far into the star-eyed night, a stretch of wooded walk through which the Hudson shimmered.
“What’s this?” she asked, hand grasping his coat sleeve as if to stop the onward rush.
“Lafayette Boulevard. You’ve been up here—haven’t you?”
He slowed down, eyes mocking her.
“Honestly! I’ve never even heard of it.”
“Good Lord!” he whistled and stared at her.
“How long have you been in the show business?”
“About a year.”
“Well, what have you been doing all that time?”
“Working, most of it.”
“But after working hours?”
“Oh, home right after the show. I’m pretty tired then.”
He gave another low whistle, still regarding her curiously, that puzzled, half-skeptical expression creeping into his eyes.
“I visit the girls I used to work with.”
“You mean where did I work?”
He nodded, still with that curious measuring of her.
“In Brooklyn—in a department store. I was at the perfumery. And one day Miss Barton, Bessie Barton—ever hear of her?”
“Rather! Peach of a voice—in ‘Kiss Me Again.’”
“Yes. She was playing over there last year and she came in to buy some French extract—it’s awfully expensive—”
“I waited on her. And after she’d bought a big bottle—it was eight-eighty an ounce—she asked me if I’d ever wanted to go on the stage. She said I was—” Sallie paused.
“Go on,” he put in quickly. “She said you were a beauty who didn’t belong behind a counter.”
“How did you know?” came wonderingly.
“I don’t need blinders to make me see straight,” he remarked succinctly.
She gave an embarrassed, stammering laugh. “Well—you—you’re right. That’s what she did say—and she’d have her manager give me a job if I wanted it. So I went with them—twenty-five a week. It was a lot more than I was getting at the store. And when she closed, they took me on at the Summer Garden.”
“And you still go round with the Brooklyn crowd?”
Some note in his voice put her on the defensive.
“They’re my old friends—why shouldn’t I?”
He stared at her again. “Queer!” he remarked to himself.
They dashed up a hill.
“I guess we’d better be going back,” she sighed regretfully.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you like this?”
“It—it’s wonderful!” Luxuriously she nestled down, eyes half closing again.
“Then have a heart! I’ve been jitneying you from the theater for two solid weeks! Be a little sympathetic, won’t you?”
She laughed, a ringing laugh free as the March wind. “You must think I’m an awful grafter.”
“I think you’re a sweetness.”
The laugh died down. “I guess we’d better be going back.”
They swung round. “All right. But we’ll stop at Arrowhead first.”
Once more that swift quizzical look, then his head went back with a long chuckle. “By George, you are cute!”
“What’s so funny about my asking?”
“It’s called Arrowhead Inn, sweetness—and we’re going there for supper.”
“Now I guess you think you’re not hungry?”
“No—I am hungry.”
Her prompt and unexpected reply pleased him hugely.
“Right! There you are!”
They were flying up a drive, round a grass plot and under a porte-cochère. Sallie saw a house girdled with glass that glowed, warm and alluring.
She went into the hall while her host parked the car. A mirror on the wall reflected a face very different from the one she saw habitually in the jagged glass of the dressing-table or the mottled one above her washstand. Its eyes were glistening, red lips were laughing, and at one corner a dimple danced. The blood surged under the smooth skin and went singing through every vein.
To a rotund observer standing nearby, the girl in the mirror looked like a golden-haired sprite. To Sallie she looked nothing more than happy. She proceeded to powder her nose critically and straighten the alley cat on the shining curls. She was still engaged in the process when Mr. James Patterson came in and bore her off under the rotund one’s fat nose. Mr. Patterson had already achieved a proprietory air that prohibited trespassing under penalty of the law.
He refused the first table offered, selecting one close against the window with an intimate little lamp shedding its blush over the cloth. Sallie had never felt so important, not even the night of her stage debut, for then she had been conscious solely of the fact that she was dancing with no skirt on before a lot of people.
The head-waiter helped her out of the ulster. Mr. Patterson then seated himself and for the first time Sallie saw him under revealing electricity.
His hair, parted at the side and brushed straight from his forehead, gave evidence of having been in boyhood the color affectionately known as “carrots.” But frequent use of water and military brushes had charitably darkened it. Remnants of freckles lingered where no amount of hatless motoring could promote more than one coat of tan. Above them gray eyes, not so young as they might have been, searched a world with which they were well acquainted. Smiling, they were a boy’s. In repose, as old as any frequenter’s of stage doors.
Sallie’s gaze settled, not on his features but on his clothes. Patch pockets slanted across the coat. The waistcoat was high and of the same dark blue material threaded with a hairline of white. From the sleeves she thought rather too short, he shook down blue silk shirt cuffs matched by a soft collar. His blue Persian tie was held in an immaculate four-in-hand by a small pearl scarfpin. The correctness, the perfection of detail, were to Sallie positively thrilling. As he picked up the menu she noticed that his hands were wide and muscular with no shine on the nails. She was glad he wasn’t a dude.
He proceeded to order with the casual ease of one who knows the chef’s best dishes. Sallie pulled off her gloves, crossed her arms on the table, leaned forward to listen with a kind of awe. He turned back and as he did so his glance fell on her hand. It riveted there, then slowly traveled upward accompanied by the same long low whistle he had emitted as they drove uptown.
“Whew, what a stone!”
“Yes,” replied Sallie. “It used to be my mother’s.”
He stared. After which came a knowing twinkle to his eyes and a laugh, equally knowing, to his lips. He said nothing.
“Honestly it was,” Sallie protested.
His stare probed her—then came a faint flash of resentment. “I wasn’t born yesterday—not quite,” he announced.
Tears started to Sallie’s eyes. “Please—_please_ believe me!”
“Your mother owned a stone like that and you had to work in a department store?”
“It does sound funny. But it’s true! We never had any money after my father died. Nor before, either. He just saved and saved, and then when he was gone mother just spent and spent. She went crazy spending. She said he never gave us enough to eat when he was alive and she was going to make the best of it now that he was dead. So she went to the savings bank and took out every cent and had a wonderful time—for a while. Hats and dresses and movies every night. She was awfully pretty—”
“I believe it,” came vehemently.
“And she never did have a decent thing to wear while my father was living. Then one day she came home with this ring. ‘Baby,’ she said—she always called me her baby—‘there’s not much left and before it’s all gone, I want to be sure you’re fixed. If I put it in the bank I’ll take it out again, so this way we’ll always have something we can hock if we need to.’”
He chuckled. “And did you ever need to?”
Unwittingly, perhaps, his gaze shifted from the diamond to her dress and hat. She needed no intuition to interpret that look. Experience had taught her exactly what it meant. And where defiance had met the girls in the dressing-room, a wave of shame now swept over her.
Gazing at him in his immaculate perfection, her fingers twitched to toss the alley cat out of the window. Yet she could not apologize for it. She couldn’t explain that, being her father’s daughter, she was banking such of her earnings as could be spared against the day when the sapphire sparkle would fade from her eyes.
As the ’busboy shook out the glistening white napkin, placing it across her knees, she felt an absurd inclination to slide under the table.
Mr. Patterson’s attention, however, had turned to the silver dish of frogs’ legs submitted for approval. He regarded them critically, nodded to the waiter, and Sallie’s discomfort vanished in the thrill of a new experience, though she wished he had ordered a nice thick steak.
When they were once more gliding down the Drive he leaned over, quickly freeing one hand, and gave hers a squeeze.
“You’re an adorable infant!” he whispered. “Don’t know just what to make of you, but you’ve got me going!”
Sallie looked up a little uncertainly. “My right name’s Sallie MacMahon,” she stammered.
“I don’t care what it is,” came tenderly. “My name for you is the same as your mother’s—‘Baby!’”
“Gracie deah—will you gaze!”
Miss Mallard’s wide, wondering orbs, accompanied by Grace’s, turned toward the door. Sallie MacMahon had just entered, resplendent in spring outfit. Above slim ankles billowed a skirt of silk the color of her eyes. The ankles ended in slippers mounted with buckles of cut steel. Her arms gleamed white through transparent clinging sleeves. A necklace of pearls clasped her throat and over the golden head brimmed a wide hat weighted with roses.
She disrobed nonchalantly, hanging her garments against the sheet that ran round the wall for their protection. She pretended not to see the nudges of the girls but her heart sang a paean of triumph.
Now they would stop laughing at her!
Now they would treat her with respect!
Yea—weep for her, ye wise ones! Sallie’s day had come. She had fallen from grace. Worse, actually reveled in her downfall! That very morning, without a struggle, she had gone to the bank and wantonly depleted her little horde. There had followed a wild debauch of spending such as her own mother had indulged in years before. Silks, laces, chiffons, feathers! Shades of Scotland, the Irish had won out!
And having recklessly started at high speed, she could not stop. She had no desire to. Ridicule she might have endured indefinitely, but nightly to sit opposite to Mr. James Fowler Patterson in his perfectly tailored clothes, conscious of the variety and extent of them, _that_ had been the straw that broke the backbone of resistance.
Once and once only had Mr. Jimmie essayed the rôle of godfather. Reaching home one evening after a long drive in the moonlight, he had followed her up the ladder-like steps to the dim vestibule. Standing there, he had clasped quickly round her wrist a narrow glittering bracelet.
“To match the ring,” he had whispered.
Sallie’s gaze had fastened on the jewels that laughed up through semi-darkness.
“Oh—I—couldn’t!” she breathed at last. And don’t imagine it was easy.
“Please! Just because I want you to.”
“But I—I couldn’t, Jimmie.”
“But if I ask you? I’m crazy about you, Baby. Never was so keen on a girl in my life.”
Sallie gulped hard and, without looking at it, unclasped the clinging circlet.
“Please,” he protested as she handed it back. “Please—dear!”
She shook her head decisively.
“But I want to see you in pretty things. I want you to have them.”
“Thanks, Jimmie,—for wanting to give it to me. But you mustn’t—ever do that again. It wouldn’t be right for me to take it.”
And Jimmie had been forced to content himself with flowers and kid gloves and perfume—French stuff at eight-eighty an ounce.
That phrase of his, however—“I want to see you in pretty things”—clung to her consciousness. She wanted him to see her in them. She wanted to see herself in them. She wanted those girls to see her in them.
After which the savings bank simply flew to meet her.
“Well,” observed Miss Mallard, still devouring the new costume, “I’m glad you’re learning how to handle him.”
Sallie slipped into her chair.
“May we inspect the dog collar, my deah?” Miss Mallard pursued.
With large indifference Sallie handed over the necklace and watched the blue eyes widen. Not hers to inform the lady that it had been purchased at a near-pearl establishment, guaranteeing that “Our pearls rival the real.”
Miss Mariette fingered it lovingly, even to the tiny barrel of brilliants that formed the clasp. “Atta boy!” she breathed and let fall upon its possessor a look approaching homage.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” Sallie found herself saying, drunk with the dazzle of scoring at last against her enemies, “I’m going to get a car of my own soon.” And promptly wondered _how_ she was going to get it.
But feminine imagination, given full rein, took the bit between its teeth and galloped beyond Sallie’s control. She spoke of champagne supper parties and a house on Long Island and sables, with the largesse of an “Arabian Nights.” She tasted the sweets of seeing baby blue eyes and impudent black ones dilate with envy as the other girls gathered round. She swept on, heedless of sharp turns ahead, and not until the callboy shouted the half hour did she halt.
At the curb that night she found a gray roadster barking its haste to be off like a pert pomeranian. Mr. J. F. Patterson stepped out, then stopped short with a gasp as he took in the glory of her. She gave him her hand—and waited. To her amazement he said not a word, merely helped her into the car. It snorted and raced up Broadway. Still not a word! She snuggled into the low seat, turned to look up at him. He was frowning.
“What’s the matter, Jimmie?”
“Nothing, I tell you.” His tone was brusque. The frown settled deeper, bringing brows together.
Sallie’s eyes filled. She had pictured something so different—Jimmie bounding with delight when he saw her! Jimmie covering her with admiration!
But his mood did not change. Throughout the ride he brooded, silent, absorbed—though she tried desperately to make conversation.
“Is this a new car, Jimmie?”
“Why didn’t you ever come in it before?”
“In the repair shop.”
“I like it, Jimmie.”
“Yes. It’s so—so cozy.”
“Montgomery’s laid up, Jimmie. And the new lead’s made a big hit.”
Silence—a long one.
“Jimmie—I—I don’t want any supper.”
“I—I think I want to go home.”
“Just as you say.”
His eyes scanned the beauty of her, steel buckles, silken dress, rose-laden hat. They ended on the glossy pearls and his lips which had opened for speech snapped shut.
He drove her home, without a word lifted his cap.
“Jimmie—please—please don’t act that way.”
He gave a short laugh.
She clapped a hand over her mouth, stared at him, eyes swimming, then fled up the steps.
The following night Mr. Patterson was late for the first time. He swung round the corner just as Sallie appeared. She was wearing a violet suit, fluffy lace collar and cuffs, and a hat of violets. They made her eyes the same color. During a night of tearful and bewildered groping she had arrived at a conclusion. Jimmie hadn’t liked the way she looked! He wasn’t pleased with her dress or hat or something. Maybe he didn’t think they were becoming and hadn’t wanted to hurt her feelings. A lighter color, perhaps, something gayer! After which she rolled over with relief, stole a few hours’ sleep, and later embarked on another shopping tour.
But the violet, apparently, made no more satisfactory impression than the blue. He handed her almost roughly into the car. They shot like a cannon ball into the darkness.
There were no stars. The moon had reached the full, dwindled and slipped round to smile upon the other side of the world.
Sallie gulped, groped for a fitting subject and finally burst out:
“Jimmie, tell me about yourself. You never have told me much.”
“Nothing to tell.”
“How does it feel to have so much money?” she proceeded for want of something better to say.
The effect was electric. He turned on her. The car jerked to the other side of the road. “You ought to know!”
“I? Stop kidding!”
“Look as if you’d come into a Rockefeller income!”
“Well, I haven’t.”
“You know it.”
“I don’t know anything about women.”
“Well, you ought to know all about me.”
“Yes—I ought to.” He gave the same ugly laugh of the night before but in his eyes was real pain. “But who knows what to expect of a chorus queen.”
“Oh, what’s the use?” came in husky desperation. “Let’s be merry!”
Sallie stared, choked and bewildered, into the darkness. She didn’t know how to answer, how to act. This new Jimmie, this—this nasty one! He was a stranger. Small teeth settled into her lower lip. She felt like slipping to the floor of the car and crying her eyes out.
For three nights they followed the same program—Sallie bewitching in a new costume chosen tearfully to conciliate the mysterious male—he taciturn, unresponsive, answering her labored conversation with husky monosyllables or hard cynicism that hurt without enlightening. Twice during those three days it drizzled and, instead of suggesting supper in the neighborhood as was their habit in bad weather, he drove the short ten blocks to the weary brownstone house and left her there.
“As if he was anxious to get rid of me,” sobbed Sallie into her pillow.
To dust and ashes in her mouth turned the sweets of her triumph over the girls. Though she continued to weave stories for their benefit, to elaborate on gifts in the past and the car in the future, to flash her diamond and twirl her pearls, the tang had gone out of it.
By Friday she felt she couldn’t stand it another minute. What had she done? Under the glimmering stars she gazed up first in mute pleading, then—
“Jimmie,” she choked, “take me home. I—I—guess I’d better—”
The roadster snarled at the tug that sent it round the corner.
“Maybe!” His tone had brought defiance into hers.
“H’m! Thought so!”
“And he’s all to the good—what?”
“Well—can’t blame you! What chance has a mean little bracelet against a string of oyster tears like that?” The volcano which had been rumbling all week sent up a sudden blinding glare. “Gad, what an ass I’ve been!” it spat out.
“Don’t talk like that—don’t!”
“I mean it,—a saphead! Swallowed that diamond yarn whole—hook, line and sinker.”
“It wasn’t a yarn.”
“You’ll tell me next your mother bought the pearls, too.”
The volcano roared a warning. “God!” A pause while his breath caught.
“It’s true, I tell you! I bought them myself—they’re imitation.”
He flung back his head. His laugh frightened her.
“Oh—won’t you believe me?”
“And I put you above them—way on top.” The volcano erupted with thunderous crash. “But you’re like the rest of them! Price—a string of pearls—a diamond! Rotten—that’s what—! Sit down! Sit down, I say!! I’ll get you home quick enough!”
White and terrified, she subsided. Words rushed to her lips, clung there.
He crashed on.
“But you did put it over! Had me going so that I’d have staked my life on you. Got me with the baby stare stuff. ‘Baby’—huh! It’s a lesson—I won’t be such a damn fool next time!”
“Jimmie,” the voice struggled to keep steady—“I swear to you—!”
“I wouldn’t believe you on a stack of Bibles! Down on your luck—thought you had an easy mark! Then something better—pearls!—came along—”
“I—I’ll never forgive—you!”
“That’s right! Injured innocence—”
“I—I could die this minute!”
“It’s tough, though, when the first time a man really—cares—more than he ever thought—” The words halted painfully.
“Oh, _won’t_ you listen? Jimmie—you—you had _so_ much—”
“But the other fellow’s got more! Like all the rest—”
They stopped with a jump that made the roadster snort in protest.
“You—you don’t understand.” The sobs clamored to her lips. “To-morrow—please—please listen—”
She sprang out of the car and up the steps, clinging to the iron rail.
But to-morrow when she hurried out of the stage entrance, eyes darting to the curb, Mr. James Fowler Patterson was not there.
“My deah—what has become of the orange motah?” Miss Mariette turned her round stare on Sallie.
“What—d-do you mean?”
“Well, the yellow peril doesn’t seem to be on duty any more.”
“Oh! He—he’s out of town.”
“M’m! Been ‘out’ some time, I take it.”
“F-four weeks.” Sallie found it impossible to talk these days without a quiver. And the wells that had been her eyes were wept dry.
“When does he return, my deah?”
“Oh s-soon now, I g-guess.”
“H’m!” Merciless blue eyes took in the small white face, listless shoulders and drooping mouth, while their owner hummed low and languorously, “When I Come Back to You.” After which she proceeded: “And the cobbles, my deah?”
“Pearls! The dog collar?”
“Oh! I—I p-put it away.”
“I—it—I thought I’d better not wear it round all the time.”
After a moment of slow scrutiny Miss Mariette cast her eyes heavenward. “You were a wise child not to let him get back the diamond, too,” she drawled.
“I d-don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh—d-don’t you? My deah, do I look as easy as that? It’s plain he’s gone his merry way tra-la.”
Like a whip Sallie snapped round at her. “He hasn’t!”
“Don’t you dare—”
“Then where’s the car, tra-la?”
“I told you—”
“The car he was giving you, I mean.”
Grace, who had entered in time for the last words, tittered with all the old enjoyment.
“Poor little car skidded on the way, Gracie deah,” announced Miss Mallard.
Sallie’s throat closed in a hard knot. Her head almost dropped on the table. But not quite. Pride kept it up. Pride and the determination never to let them know how right they were.
Yet Miss Mallard, having resumed her tactics of warfare allowed to slip no opportunity for attack. She teased and tormented and tra-la’d with purring delight, sharp little talons inflicting new wounds.
Sallie began to slink into the dressing-room as if to hide from insinuating smiles. And coming out of the stage door, she fairly ran round the corner to escape the torturing vision of that line at the curb.
The pearls she had recklessly let go. After what _he_ had said, she couldn’t bear to touch them. They curled in her hand like some wriggling reptile. Her first impulse had been to toss the necklace into an ashcan, but eventually she found herself back at the near-pearl shop. A suave salesman after much fingering and testing reminded her that they did not refund on merchandise but added that he might be able to resell at a loss if she cared to leave it. Sallie even hated the money—something more than half the amount she had paid—which his smooth hands finally counted into hers.
One thing, though, she did determine in the long nights. There must be a car! Never must they be certain that Jimmie had gone for good! The savings account had long since gone the way of all flesh. And cars, like Pegasus, soar winged in the clouds. June had come gliding into the arms of May while Sallie suffered and waited, lived on bread and milk, and hopelessly priced the cheaper makes.
Other lips, mustached, clean-shaven, young, and not so young, answered Sallie’s plea of “Won’t you smile at me?” Sallie did not hear them. Other eyes sought hers from motors at the curb. Sallie did not know they were there.
She was in her room balancing accounts at 11:30 p. m. When she did sleep, figures whirled through her dreams; figures and Jimmie’s face.
Then in the murky dawn of one June day came an inspiration. Yesterday she had seen a second-hand runabout painted a beautiful blue for only two hundred and fifty dollars, with a week’s trial before buying. Her diamond! She could get enough for that! A few months in which to tear up to the stage entrance and spring out; to display the shining blue body to startled eyes; to make them believe he had come back! Jimmie—who never would! She gazed out through the streaky window pane and for a time the car was forgotten.
When the chorus had assembled for the Wednesday matinée, a ring dropped tinkling to the dressing-room floor. Sallie picked it up, proclaimed that the stone had come loose and wore it no more.
Later, behind a window barred like a prison, Sallie MacMahon’s lips clung together and she looked away as her most precious possession passed into other hands—probably for all time.
At last the night arrived when the girls sighted at the curb a little car blue as the heavens. One of them stepped lightly from the stage entrance, fetched a key from her bag, bent down, then sprang in and took the wheel as though running a motor were a daily pastime.
Miss Mallard stopped in the center of the pavement.
“I’ll tell the world!” she breathed, forgetting Fifth Avenue. “She wasn’t lying, Grace,—she wasn’t!”
Sallie MacMahon smiled upon them, put her foot on the self-starter, heard the cheerful chug chug of the engine responding and, with terror chasing down her spine, spun round the corner.
As she disappeared, Grace’s reply wafted on the breeze:
“But he’s a piker, anyhow. It’s as big as a minute!”
Up Broadway, eyes starting with fear, heart pounding, went Sallie. And every instant’s progress petrified her. Buildings descended. Motor trucks loomed up. Trolleys tore, gigantic, within an inch of the blue mite that held her. It was completely, totally swamped. Alone in it for the first time, she clung wildly to the wheel while all Broadway danced.
Never had she traveled a distance to equal those ten blocks. Never before had the thought of the sagging brownstone house been a welcome one. A century later she reached her own street, turned in. Then something snapped. The blue runabout stood stock still. Sallie tried to recall the varied instructions of the garage man who had taught her to drive it. Without his guiding hand they were Greek.
She fled in the direction of a passing policeman, caught his arm. “Please, would you mind? Something’s happened. It—it’s stuck.”
He grinned as he took in the blue mite. “Better go and phone your garage, Miss. I’ll take care of it till you get back.”
Sallie dropped his arm.
“Why, I—I haven’t any—”
“What do you do with it at night? Take it to bed with you?”
“N-nothing. It—it’s new. I—I never thought—”
“Then find some place to put it—quick. They’ll send you a man—”
Sallie stood stock still as the car, then turned on her heel and dashed in the direction of the brownstone house. On the top step she dropped.
Not a cent in the world! Diamond gone!! Car that was no good!! And no place to put it!!!
Early in her career as a motorist she had discovered that cars have a way of gathering expense like dust by the wayside. There had been extra tires and repairs even while you were learning to run it. It fairly ate up gas. You needed twice as much as she had reckoned.
Helplessly she gazed at the point far down the block where the policeman stood guard. From time to time his glance roved impatiently—and when at last he swung on his way, leaving the blue mite unprotected, Sallie knew there was nothing left but to sit there and watch it all through the night.
Then it was that the wells which had run dry filled once more, overflowed. Huddled in a corner of the stoop, she fastened her wilted gaze on a spot of blue parked close to Broadway and wondered what she was going to do with it when morning arrived.
She came to drowsily as a clock struck one and something heavy descended on her shoulder. It pulled her upright, shook the sleep from her eyes and a cry from her lips. The policeman!
“What are you doing out here?”
She strained forward.
“What are you doing, I say?”
“Jimmie—is it—is it—you?”
“I—oh, I can’t believe it! You—_you!!_” Then panic seized her. “Jimmie—don’t—don’t go again! Wait—let me tell you! I’ve been praying you’d give me the chance to tell you. I—it was true,—I _did_ buy all those things myself. I did—I did! I was afraid you’d be ashamed of me.”
He stood glaring silently down at her and when his voice did come, it was thick and tense.
“Didn’t you know it was just those old clothes of yours that convinced me the story you gave me was straight?”
“But the girls always made fun of them—and I wanted to look right for you. And you thought—oh, Jimmie, what you thought has nearly killed me!”
“What could a man who knew his Broadway think when you appeared all of a sudden in a million dollars worth of finery?”
“But it wasn’t true! I took all my money out of the bank to look nice just for you. Jimmie—if you go again—the way you did—I—I’ll die!”
He gave no direct answer. Instead he gripped her shoulders until they ached.
“What are you doing out here this time of night? Answer me that!”
The car! Her eyes raced down the block. There it stood, untouched.
“I—I hocked my diamond, Jimmie, and bought a car. I made the girls think you were going to give me one and I didn’t want them to know that you—you—” She turned away. “So I hocked the ring—and—and got—that!”
He followed her eyes to where a spot of blue reposed near the corner.
“And now it won’t go and I haven’t any money to put it anywhere. They’ve been keeping it where I bought it and I never thought about garaging. So—so when it broke down I just had to sit here and watch it all night.”
The rushing words halted. She looked up at the face bent over hers. If Mr. James Fowler Patterson had a sense of humor—and he had—the comedy of the present situation failed to bring it to light. He stood and gazed down into the small tired face lifted with such desperate appeal.
“Jimmie, won’t you believe me this time—please?”
He bent closer. “If I tell you I could take a gun this minute and blow out what little brains I’ve got, will _you_ believe _me_? Will you?” He did not give her time to answer. “I deserve it—shooting’s too good. Why, even if you dressed up like a Christmas window, only a saphead who’s wasted all his life chasing up and down Broadway could have made such a mistake. What’s love, anyhow? And sweetheart—I do love you. These weeks without you have proved how much.”
She closed her eyes as the words came.
“Why,” he plunged on, “my dad had given me up as a bad job—said he was through! And six weeks ago I went to him and told him I’d found the girl who could make a man of me—asked him to take me on at the Patterson Iron Works, I didn’t care in what capacity. He thought I was joking—but I put on overalls and rolled up my sleeves. Because I wanted to be good enough for you. That was just about the time you showed up in all that gorgeousness. And I let the idea get hold of me— Don’t cry, honey,—I can’t stand it!”
There was an instant of potent silence, then:
“How did you happen to come past here to-night—Jimmie?” came smothered.
“I’ve been coming past here every night.”
“Then why—why did you stay away from the theater?”
“I didn’t—for long. Wanted to—but couldn’t! I’ve watched you come out from around the corner—” He broke off. “Sweetness—you’ve been looking awfully sick.”
“I’ve been awfully lonesome.”
He lifted her chin.
“Will you forgive me?”
“Will you wait here till I get into my old rig, then take me for a ride in my new car?”
It consists not in shouts, the leveled gun, the drawn sword, the flashlight in the dark. The quiet moment of decision that means happiness or wreck; the hesitant hand moving toward a doorknob that may open upon joy or the misery of revelation; two people waiting in stillness for the pendulum of uncertainty to swing—that is melodrama as it is played every day within the four walls that enclose your next-door neighbor.
CHAPTER I—ACT I
John Shakespeare’s son remarked once in a play he lightly invited us to take “As You Like It” that all the world’s a stage. He told us that men and women have their exits and their entrances, that one man in his time plays many parts. But John Shakespeare’s son did not refer to the acts that make up this drama of living. The first act of introduction, the second of conflict, the third of revelation, the fourth of readjustment. Not that all lives can be so simply subdivided. To some dramas there are ten or twelve scenes, swift-changing, tense, terrifying. But whether few or many, live in acts we do—each with its conflict, its climax, each beginning a new problem, a new turn, a new development, until the final curtain is rung down that leaves the house of life in darkness.
Partly because of this and partly because Nancy Bradshaw’s story is essentially of the theater, it seems but natural so to divide the telling of it.
The first scenes had been that old familiar struggle of the young girl trying to convince managers that even though she has had her theatrical training somewhere west of Broadway she really can act. She had encountered and combated the habitual have-to-show-me look until one day in Jerry Coghlan’s office while the latter regarded her over horn-rimmed specs, she gave him a disarming smile and said quietly:
“Yes, Mr. Coghlan, I know you’re from Missouri, but how can I show you unless you give me a chance?”
Coghlan, being Irish, had tossed back his head with a roar of approval and given her what she asked. He had never regretted it.
Nancy possessed two qualities that register with an audience more quickly than genius—charm and personality. I might better say, personality alone, because that includes charm, doesn’t it? By the time she had reached the place of leading woman and the age of twenty-six, she had a following many older and more experienced actresses envied. She was never idle. When Coghlan, who had her under contract, was unable to find a play or part for her, he loaned her to other managers who featured their good fortune in advance notices and electrics.
Nancy had what Broadway calls class. She was supple and slender with an airy slimness that seemed more spiritual than of the body. She could curl up in a couch corner with child-like grace or stand tense and supplicating or sway with emotion. But whatever she did, one felt the spirit ruling the flesh. She had heavy gold hair that fell in deep sweeping waves over ears and forehead. The brows that mounted above gold-brown eyes were straight and black as were the lashes shading them. Her mouth, a bit too large for beauty, had a fascinating upcurve when she smiled but in repose was strangely firm and chiseled. One found oneself puzzling as to whether it belonged in a face whose charm lay in the fact that its actual features eluded one. I’ve called her eyes gold-brown. They weren’t always. At times across the footlights they looked green, at others hazel, and often in some scene of fury they went burning black.
Audiences loved her in all her moods—the matinée girls because she might have been one of them; older women because she might have been their daughter; young men because she was so much a girl they wondered how much a woman she might be; and old men because, for a fleeting moment, she gave them back their youth.
It looked pretty much as if Nancy’s drama of living were to flow smoothly to its final scene with no more conflict than a pastoral comedy. And then she met Richard Cunningham.
She had seen him once when lunching at the Ritz with Ted Thorne, author of the play in which she was rehearsing. Thorne had returned the nod of a man several tables away and Nancy asked who he was.
The young playwright’s eyes snapped as he answered: “You, too—eh? Never saw a woman yet who didn’t want to know Dick Cunningham.”
“Oh, I don’t want to know him,” Nancy defended herself. “I just want to know about him.”
“Amounts to the same thing, my dear. Well, when the papers speak of Cunningham, they call him a clubman—whatever that may mean—and turfman. He keeps a string of blooded horses at his place on Long Island that are the envy of exhibitors all over the country. He has a shooting box in the Adirondacks. He’s second Vice-president of a railroad or two, is a regular first-nighter, has more money than any one woman could spend, and no one woman has so far succeeded in annexing it. Men like him and women feel toward him much as they do toward original sin—they love and fear him at the same time.”
“Thank you,” Nancy imitated his crisp tone. “After that, I really don’t think I care to know the gentleman.”
“You will—sooner or later,” drawled Thorne.
Nancy turned indifferently from the object of discussion, but in that one short glance she could have told you exactly what he looked like. Ted Thorne in a way was right. Cunningham was one of those men whom women sense the instant they enter a room, not so much for height, big shoulders and powerful dark head, as for a certain dynamic force that stimulates fear and curiosity at once. In Cæsar’s day he might have been a Marc Antony, but I doubt whether Cleopatra could ever have persuaded him to abandon his armies for her dear sake. More likely the devastating Egyptian would have descended from her throne, laid her dainty olive hand in his and followed where he led.
For a man with manifold interests, Cunningham had few hobbies—two, to be exact—his horses and the theater. Actors, managers, dramatists, press-agents, all the busy bees in that hive of Broadway, knew him—some by sight only, others well enough to call him by his given name. No first night was complete without him. His familiar shoulders swung down the aisle at eight-thirty sharp, hand stretched here and there in greeting.
It was said his love of the theater far exceeded his interest in women. In the same way, though in lesser degree, they were necessary to his happiness—for amusement. They entertained him. But as the play is done in a few hours and one seeks new diversion, so they had a way of revealing themselves to him that after a short period became a bore. He grew to know them too well—and the glamor was gone. To-morrow another play! To-morrow—!
And then he met Nancy Bradshaw.
It happened the opening night of Thorne’s comedy just at the time Coghlan surprised Nancy by elevating her to stardom.
What a difference one little preposition makes! Stepping out of a taxi into dripping rain at the stage entrance, Nancy heard a shriek and saw her colored maid drop a hatbox on the wet pavement to point wildly at the electric sign outside the Coghlan Theater.
“THE GAMESTER” with Nancy Bradshaw
NANCY BRADSHAW in “The Gamester”
It blinked and smiled at her, that dazzling announcement. She shut her eyes in ecstasy that hurt. When she opened them, shameless tears were streaming down her cheeks and a prayer was in her heart.
Coghlan was waiting at the door of her dressing-room. She rushed at him, arms flung recklessly about his neck, and wept into the stiff white collar that held up his double chin.
“You deserve it!” he told her, his own eyes a bit moist. “You deserve it. Never asked for it. Never nagged me for anything. Just worked like hell—and waited. How old are you, kid?”
Nancy looked up. “T—twenty-three for publication.”
“But on the level?”
“Well, by the time you’re thirty-three, you’ll be the greatest actress in the country. Take it from me—Jerry Coghlan knows what he’s talking about!”
With his prophecy singing in her ears, Nancy made her bow to New York as a star. The audience was with her from the first, sharing her joy, her triumph, eyes shining with hers, tears flowing when hers did. She took it all modestly enough, even dragging on the leading man to take the curtains with her. When finally they brought her out alone, she stood a bit left-center and one could plainly see her whole body shake, her lips tremble like some unaccustomed schoolgirl’s.
It was at this moment that a man with towering shoulders and the stride of authority left his seat and made for the lobby. There he cornered Coghlan and without preamble made his point.
“Jerry,” he said as they shook hands, “present me to Miss Bradshaw, will you?”
“Sure!” said Jerry proudly.
And thus brought about the climax to the first act of Nancy’s life drama.
Cunningham wanted to give a supper party that night. But she told him friends were entertaining her and Thorne at one of those crowded and supposedly exclusive restaurants known as “Clubs.” He calmly followed them and with two other men managed to procure a table near theirs. Cunningham could procure anything anywhere.
Nancy saw him instantly and wished he hadn’t come. Not that he gave any sign of deliberate interest in her. In fact, one would have said he did not know she was there. His eyes—non-committal, steel-colored eyes they were, the sort that read without permitting themselves to be read—scanned the menu. Supper ordered, he turned their full attention to his companions. But his presence made Nancy self-conscious. Probably, she concluded, because of what Ted Thorne had told her!
As they recognized her, men sauntered from various parts of the room, white mustache to beardless youth, clamoring congratulations. And beside that sweet intoxication of dreams realized, the champagne set frankly before her was as plain water to the fountain of eternal youth. She drank in every word, hearing the same ones repeated many times.
When Thorne managed to break through the circle with her and spin into a one-step, those they passed nudged each other. About the graceful figure in cloudy silver with light hair tumbling over dark eyes and lips curving in laughter, filmed the aura of the theater, fairyland of illusion, the one magic world that makes children of us all.
As they went back to the table, she caught Cunningham watching her with an unlit cigarette between his lips and around them rather a puzzled look, as if he might be asking himself some question he could not answer.
“So you’ve met,” whispered Ted, as Nancy returned his bow over the plumes of her black feather fan.
“Yes, to-night. J. C. brought him back.” And added casually: “He’s asked me to make up my own party for supper some night. Will you come?”
“I will that!” rejoined Thorne. “But before it happens, I’ll ask you to marry me.”
“Don’t be a goose, Ted,” she laughed—and wondered why a frown replaced for a flash the twinkle in the sharp eyes behind Thorne’s glasses. They smiled again as he raised his champagne.
“Here’s to you, Nancy girl—and the future. May it be a knock-out for you always!”
Cunningham, however, did not wait for the date she had set. The following night he sent word to the theater, inviting her to ride next day. He had his horses in town for the Show and wanted her to try his pet stallion. His messenger would wait for an answer.
There was a tone of assumption in the brief note that Nancy resented. She couldn’t tell exactly where nor what it was but she had a feeling that, though couched in terms of invitation, it had been written with the assurance that she would not refuse. At first she was tempted to, but anxiety to see his horses—at least that explanation she gave herself—made her compromise by writing that he might telephone her in the morning.
By the time he called her, she had on her habit and half an hour later glided uptown in his car. Through the park, fairly purring as it sped over the smooth roads, it veered West and out at a street in the Sixties and pulled up before what appeared to be a two-story house. Potted dwarf firs stood at either side of the big arched door on a level with the street. Across the front above it were three windows, each with its green window box from which ivy trailed over the dull red brick. A saucy little building it was in the midst of drab flat houses, like a French cocotte dropped by mistake into a New England village.
Nancy gazed, puzzled and curious, when the heavy iron-hinged door was drawn back and she stepped into the unmistakable pungent odor of the stable.
Cunningham came to meet her. His hands, tingling with vitality, sent a glow through hers as he held them an instant. Then he led the way toward the rear. The floor was covered with a sort of porous rubber that gave to the step and Nancy felt an absurd inclination to bound into the air as she walked. Along the walls were cases filled with blue, red and yellow ribbons, each rosette with its streamers as dear to the sportsman as if it had been pinned upon him instead of an equine representative. Prints of blue ribboners with famous jockeys up hung between the cases. Several of the originals stamped at that moment in the stalls downstairs. Cunningham helped her down the run.
“I want you to meet my best friends,” he said, stopping before the nearest stall. “Permit me—Lord Chesterfield!”
With approved good manners his Lordship settled his velvet nose in her outstretched hand.
“Chawmed, M’lord,” she smiled. Her wondering eyes went the length of the place.
It was daintily white as a woman’s boudoir, each stall bordered in brilliant blue and bearing its occupant’s monogram in the same color. A border of blue ran round the white walls. Even the water buckets and feed boxes were white with horse’s heads painted on them.
There was a rush forward and eager heads poked out as Cunningham went down the line. Satin bodies swaggered, priming themselves for approval.
“No wonder they’re your friends!” Nancy observed. “You treat them so well.”
“Do you think friendship has to be won that way?” he put quickly.
“No. It’s usually given first and earned afterward.”
“That’s not _friendship_ you’re speaking of.” The look he bent on her was disconcerting. Nancy turned to follow a groom who was leading two horses, saddled, toward the run.
A few moments later they swung through the wide doorway into the autumn sunshine. Nancy had never ridden any but academy horses and the sense of the fine, spirited animal under her with his rearing head and shining coat made her blood dance. Flying down the bridle path was like soaring heavenward on Pegasus. Poetry was in the air, in her eyes, in the crack of the gravel under their horses’ feet. The man beside her sat his mount, a bay of sixteen hands, as if part of it. His muscular hands barely touched the reins.
“How did you know that I rode?” she asked.
“I recalled seeing your picture in riding habit in one of the magazines.”
“But that doesn’t prove anything. It’s the privilege of an actress to be photographed in habit, even if she wouldn’t go near enough to a real horse to feed him a lump of sugar.”
He laughed, looked down at her slim straight body in its tan coat, at the graceful limbs swung across her mount, at her glossy gold hair and the light of the sun in her eyes. “Well, I should have known you did anyway. There’s nothing vital you couldn’t do.”
He put it not as a question but directly, as if giving her the information. She found no answer. This man left her strangely speechless. For no reason at all her cheeks went red with a deeper flush than the exercise had brought to them.
She said little during the two hours of their ride. He told her of the fascination the theater had for him. Then her eyes shone through their black lashes and she told him it was her life. She loved it not as an artist loves his work but with the passion one gives a human thing.
“That’s why you’ve made good,” he answered promptly. “Because you’ve given yourself completely.” He paused, then with the usual startling abruptness: “Do you know, I had an actual sense of pride last night, watching that crowd swarm round you. Odd, that—isn’t it—in a man who had just met you?”
“Yes.” She did not meet the gaze she knew was turned on her.
When they dismounted and he was handing her into the car, he bent down and into his non-committal eyes came a warmth that enveloped her like a flame.
“And to think that I flipped a coin last night whether to go to the Show or go to see you!”
She rode with him every day after that. He arranged it as a matter of course. He had a direct way of taking things into his own hands just as he had a direct way of looking and speaking. Often it made her gasp but at the same time possessed the attraction male dominance always holds for the primitive in woman. Particularly to the woman who has fought her own battles is there something hypnotic in having decision taken out of her hands.
At the end of two weeks she called his horses by name; had fed them more sugar than was good for them; had dined and danced with him; and knew, though to herself she denied it, that tongues quick to wag, were busy with their names. Nancy Bradshaw, popular star, and Dick Cunningham who, in the eyes of the world, could like Joshua command sun and moon and stars to stand still!
When his friends—men who made the nation’s pulse throb—stopped at their table in a restaurant or, as was frequently the case, joined them at his invitation and gave to Nancy the homage a charming actress always receives from men a bit jaded, Cunningham’s probing glance warmed and a smile softened his sharply determined mouth.
He sent her flowers and books as a matter of course. Wherever they went he surrounded her with an atmosphere of unconscious luxury that was like a narcotic.
And finally at the house of the fir trees, instead of that diamond-lighted district bounded by the Forties, he gave the supper-party they had planned the night of their meeting. Ted Thorne was there and Lilla Grant, ingénue of the company, a sinuous little thing with pert nose, full Oriental lips and eyes that might have come from Egypt. She had begged Nancy to let her meet Cunningham.
“She’ll get there, that kid,” Jerry Coghlan had once remarked. “Don’t know yet whether her name used to be O’Shaughnessy or Rabinowitz. But take it from me, she’ll make her mark—maybe because it used to be both.”
Lights shone in the upper windows as the four stepped from the car, not the brilliant light of electricity but one gentle and golden. They went up the flight of steps leading to the unique apartment above the stable.
“Make yourselves at home. I’ll send a maid.” Cunningham opened the door to a room done in gray and rose, with enameled dressing-table and pier-glass, and rose brocade chairs, divan and hangings.
Lilla dropped her frou-frou of cloak from bare shoulders and, taking the center of the floor, gazed round with glistening eyes.
“What a duck you were to ask me!” she cried. “I’ve been just crazy to see this place.”
Nancy turned. “You’ve heard of it?”
“Heard of it! My dear, there have been _some_ parties given here!”
Swift indignation swept the color into Nancy’s cheeks. The insinuating tone more than the words angered her. “Don’t talk like that!” Her eyes flashed black as they sometimes did in a big scene.
Lilla looked up wickedly. “Crazy about him, aren’t you?”
The color went, leaving her white. “Of course not.”
“Well, don’t let him know it—that’s all I have to say.”
She powdered her nose, head perked to one side, guided a brush over hair dense-dark as velvet, added a touch of mascaro to her lashes, and turning to the maid who had just come in asked whether her dress was hooked all the way up the back.
“I do envy you, Nancy,” she frowned, taking in the other girl’s graceful figure in swathing black satin, relieved only by a splash of green fan. “One of these days—soon—I’m going to have a maid and not break my neck gathering myself together after the show.”
As they went out Lilla linked her arm in Cunningham’s.
“Do you live in this heavenly place?” she asked.
“No. But I like to have people here—the people I like, I should say. That’s why I fixed up the second floor—for parties like this one. There’s a fully equipped kitchen at the back. And here’s my banquet hall.”
The short corridor ended in the room of the three windows. They might have been entering an Italian Villa. Paneled oak stretched straight to the ceiling. At either end yawned a marble fireplace with logs sputtering the faint scent of fir. A refectory table, with couch the color of purple grapes backed against it fronted one. Drawn close to the other stood two old Medici chairs. On both mantels and smaller tables were candlesticks with thick yellow candles. The silver set for supper on the long table gleamed under the glow of branching candelabra.
Cunningham watched Nancy’s face as she paused in the doorway. Her eyes had dreams in them.
“Makes a great stage setting for you,” he whispered. “I’ll want you here all the time now.”
A manservant passed cigarettes. They sat and chatted while they waited for the other guests, Mr. and Mrs. Courtleigh Bishop and several friends who were coming in from the Opera. Nancy was in a chair by the fire; Lilla nested in the couch depths, her somber gaze lidded as if heavy with secrets, following her host; and Thorne springing up every now and then to wander about the room, examining its treasures.
Lilla watched and listened to the others, much as she watched and absorbed every word of the director at rehearsals. She had advanced by wits rather than wit and was clever enough to know the value of silence. Only when Cunningham brought her the spray of orchids he had supplied for each of the women did she look up from under thick lids.
“You do everything just right,” she murmured, pinning them into the orange chiffon at her waist, “and I guess never anything wrong.”
In her somnolent eyes was an obvious dare to which several weeks ago Cunningham would probably have responded. Now he smiled down amusedly at the round soft form sunk in the couch cushions and went back to Nancy. The somnolent eyes went after him.
They persuaded Thorne who, unlike a number of writing men, hated to talk about himself, to tell the plot of his new play.
“I’ve tackled a big problem,” he said. “Woman’s rights in love!”
“You’ve tackled the universe,” came from Cunningham. “Fifty years ago it could have been summed up in one beautiful word, ‘Submission’. To-day—” He flung up his hands.
Nancy smiled. “And you’re just the type a submissive woman would bore to death.”
“Don’t you believe it,” chimed in Lilla. “He’s apt to fall for some baby doll who’ll tell him what a great big wonderful man he is and do exactly what he wants—when he’s around.”
“You don’t subscribe to the fifty-fifty theory then, old man?” suggested Thorne when the laugh died down.
“No, I believe in ninety-nine-one. At least women can make it that if they know how to handle us. Just as Miss Grant says, we’re nothing but a bunch of boobs.”
“That’s what you like to make us think,” Nancy corrected. “And the unfortunate part of it is, we want to deceive ourselves just as much as you want to deceive us.”
Cunningham blew a ring of feathery cigarette smoke and studied her through it. “I didn’t know you were such a cynic.”
“Did you think dealing with theatrical managers had taught me nothing?” she laughed.
At twelve Mrs. Bishop bubbled in commandeering a group of light-voiced women and husky-voiced men.
She apologized for being late and wailed at the length of Russian Opera.
“Courty can sleep through it all,” she sighed. “But the noise keeps me awake.”
She caught Nancy by both hands, drawing her out of the chair.
“I’ve been so anxious to know you, my dear. I begged Dicky to bring you to see me but he said you were the mountain—Mohammet would have to come to you.”
All through the elaborate supper they gushed over her, with just that touch of patronage position assured permits itself toward those of the stage.
But though conversation was light and general and Cunningham the perfect host, he might have been alone with the young star, so completely did his eyes disregard the others. They seemed to send their gaze round her like a cloak. She felt it unmistakably and a glow radiated from her eyes and voice, from her whole body.
When the dregs of Crème de Menthe and Benedictine had settled in little green and gold pools at the bottom of cordial glasses, and candle flames gleamed faint blue in the dripping tallow; when laughing voices mellowed into distance and cars had slid off into darkness, two figures stood at the curb in front of the little house. The door swung slowly shut behind them. The woman looked up, the man down, and there flashed between them that secret look of understanding that can pass only when words no longer have value.
The last car drove up. He helped her in. The door slammed. Without a word he took her to him. Just as his gaze had encompassed her, so his arms enclosed her now. Her lips trembled against his. For a moment, endless because of all time, there was silence—that intense beating silence that chokes.
Then his voice came with a ring of triumph.
“You know I want you.” And he waited for no answer. “You knew I wanted you that night we met.”
“You’re the first woman I’ve ever wanted—for my wife.”
The word danced into the soft gloom of night merging into day, out across the wraith-like Park, up to the sky where pale stars spelled it before her. She murmured it, and he bent closer.
“Mine! Nancy—you don’t know how much it’s meant, seeing them gather round you and knowing that you were going to belong to me.”
Their lips were one again. At the moment she took no count of the assurance that had brooked no denial. She only throbbed to the strength of him and smiled into the eyes so close to hers.
The car sped past shadowy trees, past lamps paled against the rising dawn, through a world unreal not because light had not yet come but because these two were in a world apart. They spoke low, as lovers will though no one is there to hear; in short phrases, saying little yet so much, she seeking to hold close this wonder thing, he with the claim of the possessor.
“Why do you love me, Dick?” came finally the eternal question.
He told her the tale men have told women for centuries and will continue to tell them as long as the world shall last. “I love you because you’re different from other women. There’s no one like you.”
“Why analyze it? You’re _You_, complete, apart—wonderful.”
“But what attracted you—first? What made you—want me?”
“Well, seeing you there in the center of that stage with a first night audience wearing out its hands, you looked so beautiful and frightened—give you my word I wanted to go up then and there and take you in my arms.”
“It was the glamor of the stage then?”
“No. You’re not the first actress I’ve known, dear. But you’re the only one in town that scandal has never touched.”
She drew back a bit.
“That’s not fair, Dick. We’re a much-talked-of profession but half the stories you hear aren’t true.”
In the semi-gloom of the car she did not see the smile play about his knowing lips.
“What does it matter?” was his reply. “You’re in the theater, yet not of it—sought after, made much of, yet unspoilt. And I’ve won you—for myself.”
“Yes, you’ve won me.”
He drew her close. “How much do you love me?”
“Before all the world.” She closed her eyes as if to shut out all other vision.
“I’m going to take you to Hawaii,” he whispered. “That’s the land of lovers—green lapping waters and purple hills and palm trees with music in them.”
“You’ve been there?”
“Yes. Then to China and Japan—and if you like, India. We’ll make a year of it.”
She opened her eyes slowly and into them came a ray of amusement.
“You mustn’t take me too far away, for too long, or the fickle public will forget me.”
“They’re going to.”
“Yes. I’m a jealous brute. You’ve got to belong to me exclusively.”
“Dick”—she pulled away then, groping dazedly for one silent second—“Dick—you don’t mean—you can’t mean you want me to give up the stage?”
She stared at him, unbelieving. But his face was nothing more than a blur against the darkness. As the car rolled out of the Park, it rolled out of Eden.
“But—but it’s my career—my life!”
“I’ll make a new career—a new life for you.”
“But it’s the biggest—the best part of me.”
“The new life will be all of you.”
“No, Dick! I couldn’t—I couldn’t!”
He caught the hands that were raised to push him from her, caught them in both of his. “I want you for myself. I’m not satisfied with part of your time.”
“But dear—can’t you see—”
“Can’t _you_ see that if you remain on the stage, your evenings and part of your days will go to the public. I’ll still be going round alone—just as I am now. If you’re my wife you’ve got to take your place with me.”
“But I can—except for a few hours. Dick, you say I’m different. Let me stay different!”
“You’ll always be that. Let’s look at it sensibly. Dick Cunningham’s wife earning her living—why, it’s a joke!”
“Every one would know it’s not a question of money.”
“Then why do it? Give some one else a chance—some one who needs it.”
“But it’s my life,” she repeated desperately. “And now, when success has just come—”
“You said—‘before all the world’ awhile ago.”
“Yes—and I meant it. I do love you, before everything. You know that. You’ve swept me off my feet. I can’t reason.” And then her hands came together and she cried out: “Oh, why did this have to happen—why?”
“It had to happen,” he repeated huskily.
“Why couldn’t you have cared for some one in your own set?”
“I want you.”
“Dick,” she said after a moment’s harsh stillness, “don’t make me choose. It—it’s too—it hurts too much. I couldn’t! I simply can’t do it. If you make me give up the stage, you make me tear out my heart. You wouldn’t ask that?”
“It’s a question of which means more. I’m merely asking what any normal man has the right to ask of the woman he marries—first place.”
“But you’ll have that.”
“No. You won’t be free to give it to me.”
“It’s queer”—her voice came shakily. “I’ve dreamed of love as every girl does. But I never dreamed it would mean this—this sacrifice.”
“It won’t mean sacrifice to you. I’ll fill your life, Nancy. I’ll make you forget there ever was any other bond. Sweetheart—don’t you believe I will?”
She swayed toward him—then just as quickly pulled back.
“Haven’t I the right to ask it?” he urged.
“Oh, I don’t know! I don’t know!”
“Consider my side.”
“I only know it’s everything you’re demanding—everything!”
“I’m giving everything in exchange.”
She closed her eyes with a very different expression from that of a few moments before. Then it had been to let him fill her vision. Now it was to shut him out.
Vaguely it came to her that he couldn’t realize the enormity of the thing he was asking. Vaguely she repeated aloud:
“No—I couldn’t! If I mean to you what you say, you won’t ask it.”
He lifted her face so that the eyes opened to meet his. Even through the shadows he could read their anguish.
“It’s because you mean what you do, that I can’t let you go on.”
Her hands closed tight on each other and she turned to fasten her gaze on the awakening streets.
“No, Dick—there’s no use. I couldn’t.”
“Does what I offer balance so little that you can thrust it away without even stopping to consider?”
“If I stop to consider—”
“You’ll do what I ask,” he put in quickly. “Ah, I thought so! Nancy, can’t you see? The woman in you is greater than the actress. You won’t always be young and worshipped by your public but love—”
“Will love last always?” And as his arms went out to answer: “No—no! Don’t try to influence me—don’t, please! I must think it over alone. It’s my whole life—just everything.”
His arms dropped. They did not again reach out to her. He said good-night with the usual handclasp and left her at the door of the apartment house, haunting white, her dark eyes strained toward the first flicker of sun as it came haltingly out of the east.
A month later she sent for him. In all that time he gave her no word, not even the message of a flower. He waited cleverly in silence—a silence that made the battle she fought all the more difficult. And in the end she sent for him, so completely had he absorbed her will. Not once during those weeks of struggle did her mind hark back to the fragment of conversation at the supper party. Because she could care with the intensity of the big woman and because she was in love, she did not realize that in sending for him she bowed before the god she had scorned—Submission.
And so the curtain fell on Act I of Nancy Bradshaw’s life drama.
CHAPTER II—ACT II
Out Long Island way on the North Shore where Newport goes to stretch her tired limbs after a busy season, there’s a house set like a long white couch on a green carpet that spreads straight to the Sound.
The place is called Restawhile—and having some twenty rooms, not to speak of servant quarters, is known modestly as a cottage.
Here Dick Cunningham brought his bride following their honeymoon trip through the Orient. Here they spent the greater part of each year. For with its kennels and stables, Nancy loved it next to the house of the fir trees which would always be her castle of romance. Besides, it was not too near Broadway, not near enough for whisperings of the Rialto to tug at the heart or fill the eyes. Or if the dull ache of longing too deep for tears did come, it was a place to hide them from a curious public.
The announcement of Nancy’s marriage and retirement from the stage had come as a shock to the social world and a bomb to the theatrical. Broadway buzzed, Fifth Avenue bristled, and poor Jerry Coghlan almost went crazy. But as the calcium of the society column replaced her beloved footlights, the star of the theater became a star of the social realm and another nine days’ wonder became memory.
The column told of her dinners and dances, of her trips to Florida, her visits to Newport. It listed her with her husband among inveterate first-nighters and usually added: “The one-time Nancy Bradshaw whose romantic marriage robbed the stage of one of its most promising young actresses.”
Eventually it announced with clarion blast the arrival of Dick Junior and later Nancy the Second, quite as if a chubby Dick and Nancy Cunningham were more important than the same weight John and Mary Smith.
A fairy tale come true even the most caustic observer would have remarked, had he known the history of the beautiful woman seated on the stone-paved veranda of Restawhile one April afternoon five years after the curtain descended on Act I.
She wore a short white skirt, green sweater and white sport shoes. Strands of hair had been tossed across her eyes by a romp on the lawn with young Dicky. He sat at her feet now, pink legs outstretched, and mobilized between them a regiment of wooden soldiers.
Ted Thorne and her former manager had driven out to read Thorne’s latest drama, written with Lilla Grant in mind. She was the season’s new darling and her hybrid little face with its eyes from the Orient and nose from Erin’s Isle decorated many a magazine cover and wood-cut. It might also have been seen at the Ritz lunching daily with varied and various conquests. She had acquired an air and no longer spoke of her profession as “the show business.” Her gowns were the talk of fashion editors, her hats the despair of imitators. She was colorful as a Bakst drawing and as decorative.
The woman in white skirt and sweater that matched the lawn sat listening at one side of the tea table, while Coghlan at her right measured three fingers of Scotch against two of soda and the playwright’s voice sounded vibrant against the sweet spring stillness. It was a tense elemental story suggested to him by Nancy, with Hawaii—land of love—as a setting. Finally he closed the script and looked across at her.
“What do you think of it?”
“The best thing you’ve done, Ted,” she announced instantly.
“Of course, it’s only in the rough. But I wanted your opinion. Am I like that fellow who knows all about the Himalayas because he never got there?”
“Just like him—an authority,” she retorted.
“But straight—how does it strike you?”
“I love it! You’ve never written anything with greater emotional possibilities.”
“How do you like Lilla for the lead?”
“Just the type. And good from a box-office standpoint, too—she’s made such a hit this season.”
“Some kid!” put in Jerry, tinkling the ice pleasantly against his glass. “Always said she’d make her mark. And take it from me, Jerry Coghlan knows what he’s talking about.”
Nancy smiled. “You couldn’t find any one better to play an Hawaiian.”
“Oh yes, we could!” came from Thorne.
She laughed and in her laughter the men detected nothing but mirth.
“Don’t you ever have a hankering for the old game, Nancy?” Coghlan demanded. “Don’t the theater ever get in your blood?”
She bent and lifted young Dick suddenly to her knees.
“Here’s my theater,” was her answer.
The playwright’s gaze traveled over the two gold heads to the father’s eyes that smiled from the baby face into his mother’s. Fat arms wound round her neck and she sank her lips in the fluffy curls.
“You’ve got a part that suits you to perfection,” he said in a low voice.
“Say, there ain’t any part Nancy couldn’t play! Always said she had class. And take it from me—”
“It’s good to know you haven’t forgotten us,” Thorne interrupted, still in that low tone. “Whenever things get balled up I say to myself: ‘Here goes for a run out to Restawhile. Nancy’ll help me straighten them out.’”
“It’s good to know you feel that way. You see”—she held Dicky closer—“I can give you the viewpoint of the audience now.”
That night she told her husband of the play. They had dined at the Courtleigh Bishop place, some five miles distant, and during the drive home Nancy had been unusually quiet. She walked up the wide staircase, head bent, her long velvet cloak pulled close around her as if for protection against the country chill of April. But as he followed into her boudoir with its amber lights and drapes of cornflower blue she dropped into a chair, let the wrap slip from her shoulders and leaned forward, speaking rapidly.
“Tell me something of your doings to-day, Dick. You haven’t yet.”
He recounted the day’s activities—certain complications that had arisen in his Western interests. Cunningham, in spite of wealth or perhaps because of it, was not a waster. She listened eagerly to every word.
“And, by-the-way,” he added, much as an afterthought; “I lunched with a former friend of yours, Lilla Grant. Met her as I was going into the Ritz. She was alone—so was I. So we joined forces.”
She leaned back with a deep sigh.
“I’m glad you told me that.”
His reply held a note of surprise.
“Because Mary Bishop made it a point to inform me to-night that she’d seen you there. ‘Dicky still has a penchant for the theatrical profession,’ she said, ‘I saw him lunching to-day with a stage beauty.’ Of course, it amused me but I just had a feeling that I’d like to hear about it from you.”
“It was of no importance. I might not have thought of mentioning it.”
“No. Still—I suppose I’m silly and feminine—but if you hadn’t, I think it would have hurt.”
“Do I demand to know every time Thorne comes out here?”
“You don’t have to, Dick.” Her eyes were still intent on him.
“I’ve lunched with Lilla Grant other days and haven’t thought of mentioning it.”
“I know that, too.”
His eyebrows shot up. “How?”
He laughed. “How they do love each other!”
She laughed with him. “It’s all right now. You’ve told me. I just didn’t want to think you’d deceive me.”
“But, my dear girl, an omission like that is not deliberate deceit.”
“Omission,” came softly, “is often twin sister to commission.”
His lips went tight. “Does that mean you’d ever let anything as cheap as suspicion of me enter your mind?”
She got up, brushing her mouth across the hard line of his. “If I love you as much as I do, it’s reasonable to suppose other women might.”
And that was when she gave him the story of Thorne’s play—more to change the subject than anything else—with eyes shining and slim jeweled hands sending sparks into the room’s golden shadows. He listened, watching her, the light on her face, the blaze of enthusiasm under the thick lashes.
“It’s a splendid part for Lilla,” she ended. “She’ll be fascinating in it, don’t you think?”
“Great!” And after a moment, “Nancy—does seeing so much of Thorne and old Jerry ever tempt you to go back on the stage?”
She went close to him as if his bigness were a shelter.
“It’s a temptation I’d never acknowledge, dear heart—not even to myself.”
“But you haven’t answered me.”
“I did that when I made my choice—when I married you. I couldn’t be disloyal to that. Besides”—and all the woman of her went into the words—“you and the two little yous fill my life. I’ve no time for any other devotion.”
He looked down at the head, reddened under the amber lights, at the graceful line of throat and shoulder, at the proud lips that were his. And his arms swept up and round her.
* * * * *
Drama moves swiftly. No pause for explanation once the wheels are set going, no rambling into far corners for side lights as in the novel, but a tornado-like gathering of incident that hurls itself without notice into crashing storm. Life crowded into a few short hours, just as a few short hours so often crowd life into one crashing crisis. Without warning, or at least without warning heeded, one answers the doorbell or opens a telegram or takes up a telephone receiver. And behold, the face blanches, the heart stops beating, to beat again with hammer stroke too horrible to bear!
It happened that Thorne’s roadster drew up under the porte-cochère one May day and, removing dusty goggles, he announced that he had come to talk about a scene that stumped him.
“I’ve traveled to Mecca to consult the Oracle.”
Nancy shook hands enthusiastically. Dick had been away for several days; her favorite mount, Lord Chesterfield, had been taken to town by the head groom for treatment under a famous “vet”; and endless dinners had bored her to a state of loneliness known only to those whose lives have hummed with activity. Her husband would not be back until to-morrow and to put in a few hours with Ted in the atmosphere of the theater was a welcome diversion.
When they had discussed pros and cons and the kick in the big scene; when the playwright in hushed voice had told Dicky the usual pirate tale, and the three had lunched together under the trees, Nancy jumped up.
“Ted, will you run me into town this afternoon? I want to have a look at Lord Chesterfield. He went lame last week, you know.”
“Bully! It’s a whale of a day. Why not stay in? We can dine and I’ll run you out early.”
But she refused. The kiddies were put to bed at six-thirty and she wanted to be back before then.
“I’ll take the train back. Don’t bother about that.”
She came downstairs presently buttoned into a gray topcoat. From under a tight little turban the sunset hair waved, held by a gray veil.
They tore out of the grounds, along roads of glass at a pace that left both breathless. Nancy felt the sluggishness of the past few days lashed out of her blood. It flew happily to her cheeks, tingled to her finger tips, sent the laughter into her lips as the man beside her gave the latest bits of Broadway gossip, the latest funny story from a region teeming with them. She stored them up for Dick, picturing his enjoyment when on his return next day she should give them with all her embellishment of mimicry.
The first pungent scent of summer, clover and sweet grass and occasional great mounds of hay, rose from the meadows as they sped past. The vault above was intensely turquoise and without a cloud. It would be a heavenly night with a young silver moon etched against the sky and all things filmed by its light. She wished Dick were going to be home. They could have taken a tearing ride like this with all the countryside to themselves.
The breezes became sultry. City smoke crept in. The car jerked over cobbles, dodging barelegged youngsters and wedging at last into the clatter of Queensboro Bridge. Nancy’s nose crinkled. She had come to hate the city with its odors and noises and strained faces and heavy air, all the elements which had passed unnoticed when she was part of it and a struggler.
From the cluttered Eastside they went through the district whose boarded doors and windows like the blank eyes of the blind proclaimed it fashionable; then the dust-covered green of the Park and out at the street in the Sixties where down the block three windows blinked coquettishly.
Nancy descended, held out a hand. “Good luck, Ted. And let’s hear it when you’ve got it ready.”
His alert gaze was bright with satisfaction. “You’ve set me on the right track. You always do.”
She waved as he drove off, then rang the bell beside the big door. It swung back slowly, heavily, and the head-groom stood in the opening. She caught the look of surprise that swept over his face, passing as quickly after the manner of well-trained servants who are supposed to have no emotions.
“How is Lord Chesterfield?” she inquired, stepping out of the sunlight.
“He’s not been so fine to-day, madam. I think there’s pain in the left forefoot.”
“I want to have a look at him.”
He closed the door, led the way to the run. But Nancy started toward the stairs.
He turned. “Is there anything I can do for you, madam?”
“No, that’s all right, Jarvis. I’ll just leave my coat and come down.”
“I can take it.” He stepped forward hastily, with rather a note of apology. “The painters are up there, madam. The rain of two days ago made a leak in the roof and I had to have them in. The place is in something of a mess.”
But Nancy was already halfway up the stairs. “It doesn’t matter.”
She disappeared, dropped her coat on the divan in the gray room, and looked ceilingward. No sign of repairs there. Probably the leak was at the front of the house.
Turning into the hall she noticed that Jarvis had followed her.
“Pardon me, madam—will you be coming down to see Lord Chesterfield now?”
“Just a minute.”
She threw open the double oak doors at the end. And her breath stopped as she did on the threshold.
A stream of sunshine flecked with motes came through the far window and centered on the couch. Lounging there in a position of uttermost comfort was Dick and at his feet, hatless and cross-legged like some willing slave of the harem, Lilla Grant. A look of flame was in his non-committal eyes and in her heavy ones, languor. The ripe red lips were raised. From her fingers a cigarette dangled as he leaned close and struck a match. All too evident, though, that it was not to light the cigarette those lips were lifted.
Nancy’s hand went to her throat. That was all. Went to her throat and clung there.
The two started at the sound of another’s presence. The match halted. Cunningham looked up. He straightened, sat for an instant without moving, then got to his feet.
The provocation faded from Lilla’s lips. A moment before she had had the unmistakable air of being perfectly at home. Now as she followed the man’s sharp glance she stiffened. Uneasily she too rose and, as neither of the others spoke, gave a nervous little laugh.
“Why, Nancy, this is a coincidence! We’ve been expecting Ted Thorne for tea and only half an hour ago tried you on the phone to get you, too.”
Nancy made no attempt to refute the glib lie. She simply stood gazing at her husband as if her eyes were touching him. Then she turned away.
“I think—I won’t wait,” she managed to say and went out, closing the door.
At the other side she stopped, hands pressed tight to her lips, and waited for courage to go forward.
Partway down the stairs she saw Jarvis looking up. Fright grayed his face.
“I’ll see Lord Chesterfield now,” she told him and followed to the run.
With gaze straining through the train window an hour later at meadow and woodland she did not see, she was carried back to Restawhile, to the babies waiting for her.
The moon rose, as she had pictured it, paling the trees outside her room and the lawn beneath.
At last her door opened. Cunningham entered, closing it softly, switched on the lights and saw her sitting hunched in a chair, with eyes bewildered as if they could not realize the thing they had revealed. He spoke her name—once, twice. She did not even glance at him.
“Nancy, answer me!”
She turned slowly.
“I ask you not to jump at conclusions. Nancy—”
“Why didn’t you wait?”
Her gaze locked with his incredulously. “You think I could have waited?”
“I understand,” he put in hastily. “That’s why I made no attempt to detain you. The situation was awkward.”
She laughed. It might have been a cry from the soul.
“Awkward, nothing more!” he hurried on. “I admit, it looked damning. I, myself, would have judged as you did. But I give you my word—”
She swept it aside.
“Jarvis tried to keep me from going up. That alone proves—”
“Jarvis is a servant, with the view point of his class.”
She uttered the thought that had been spinning round in her brain. “He would scarcely have tried to protect you if that had been her first visit.”
“Why not? He concluded because a woman happened to be there with me—alone—Bah,” he broke off, “that end of it’s not worth considering! What you think is all that concerns me. And what you think is only too evident.”
“What I think—what I think!” Her hands clasped and unclasped incessantly. Her voice came strangled.
He had been pacing up and down. Now he pulled a chair close to hers.
“But you’re wrong, dear. It’s circumstantial evidence and worth as much. I came back to-day unexpectedly, looked in at the uptown office before going home and found a message from Lilla, asking me to see her this afternoon without fail. I called her hotel and arranged to meet her at the stable. Jarvis had notified me that Lord Chesterfield was seedy and it occurred to me that by having her come there, I’d save time.”
“You—” the words came haltingly as if difficult to speak—“you didn’t seem in haste when I saw you.”
“Come now—be sporting, dear.” He tried to make a laugh cut the tension. “You know my interest in the theater.”
“Well, Lilla’s consulted me any number of times about one thing or another. And she has a Bohemian way of establishing palship that you don’t understand.”
“No. I wouldn’t want you to. But the fact remains that Lilla on the floor with a cigarette in her mouth means no more than another woman at the tea table.”
She made no reply.
“Of course she lied when she said we were expecting Thorne,” he pursued. “You knew that, didn’t you?”
“Yes. He was out here to-day and motored me in. But I’d have known anyway.”
“Can’t understand why it’s so much easier for women to lie than tell the truth.”
“Perhaps men teach them it’s easier.”
There was a breath without words.
“For instance,” she went on monotonously and her eyes dropped to the hands clenched against her knees, “you’re going to tell me I’ve no right to misjudge either you or Lilla.”
“Why, my dearest,” Cunningham lifted her lowered face, looked long into it. “There’s nothing mysterious in the whole affair. Kane offered to star her in a new production if she’d get him the backing and she wants me to put up the money. That’s the long and short of it. I had every intention of consulting you.”
She drew away, looking at him straight and direct. Her lips opened but closed without speech. She had been on the point of asking how it happened that he had arrived in town a day ahead of time without letting her know, why he had failed to telephone. But she could not bring herself to question him. And he gave little time.
Lifting both her hands he unlocked them, drew them to his breast and met her eyes unwavering.
“Lilla and I are nothing more than good pals, like—like you and Thorne. I want you to believe that.”
“It’s impossible, Dick—after what I saw to-day.”
“Why? Have you ever before had cause to doubt me?”
“No.” She hesitated a bit before admitting it.
“Then why seize on the first occasion?”
“Seize on it? Seize on it?” She gave another low breathless laugh. “That—that’s funny! Seize on my own misery—seize on the shattering of all I hold dear!”
“You’re nervous and hysterical now and things look monstrous. But I know you too well to think this mood can last.” His hands crept toward her shoulders. All through the interview there had been no conflict on his part, no man-woman antagonism, just an assumption of honest effort to convince her. And now he adroitly resorted to the means by which he had won her, a man’s most convincing way of setting himself right, the lover’s. He drew her, resisting, out of the chair—enfolded her in his arms—bent his lips, whispered: “No other woman could mean anything while I have you. Don’t you know that?”
A moment passed, longer than any she had ever lived through. Then, so low that he could scarcely hear: “I’m going to believe you, Dick—because I want to believe you,” she said.
Neither of them referred to it again. As if by mutual agreement the matter was sealed. Whatever scar the experience had left so far as Nancy was concerned, her lips were closed as the lips of the dead.
When eventually she heard through Thorne that along the Rialto it was whispered Lilla actually was considering an offer from Kane, she felt immensely relieved. Dick had told her the truth then about that end of it. Why was the rest not true as well?
And as if to assure her, his devotion duplicated that of their honeymoon. Her happiness seemed the thought paramount, her peace of mind his topmost concern. It continued so until business called him West, the tangle that for some time had been knotting his California interests. The letters he sent, when they were not of her and the children, spoke of his boredom after affairs of the day were done with, of the humidity and discomfort of the rainy season and emphasized his eagerness to return. They came from various coast cities—San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles.
“It’s possible you may not hear from me the next few weeks,” a final communication told her. “I find it necessary to go to New Mexico to look into a railroad proposition. For a time I may be located miles from any post office. But know that I’m safe and thinking of you, my dearest, and expect me back sometime in September.”
Nancy packed when it arrived and left to visit the Bishops at Newport. Stopping overnight in town, she ran into Coghlan on his way to the Knickerbocker Grill, daily trysting place of managers.
“Say, what d’you think of Lilla?” He chortled in the midst of pouring out plans for the coming season. “Gone to Hawaii to get atmosphere before she signs up for that lead. Atmosphere! Can you beat it? Paying her own expenses, too. Told her she was crazy, but nothing to it—had to go. Developing too much temperament for her own good, that kid!”
Nancy had not yet brought herself to the point of hearing Lilla’s name without wincing. But she managed a smile and asked: “When does she return?”
“Next month sometime. Told her rehearsals begin the fifteenth whether she’s on the job or not. So you can bank on it, she’ll be here.” His appraising yet impersonal glance ran the length of Nancy’s graceful figure, from the wide hat shading her eyes to the narrow brown pumps and slim ankles. “All to the good, Nancy,” he sighed regretfully, “all to the good! Just home and mother stuff too! And, by golly, five years ago I guyed myself into thinking I’d turn you out the greatest actress in America!”
She wondered vaguely as she sped toward the worldly paradise whose gates had swung wide to her whether old Jerry was right. Would she have become a great actress or just the darling of a few fickle years? That girl with her wild dark eyes and swirl of golden hair, would the public she had loved have wept and laughed with her to-day? She wondered and smiled reminiscently, a smile with a tear, like some bittersweet memory of the dead.
At the station she was met by her host, otherwise known as Mary Bishop’s husband, and in a supremely groomed car was driven through supremely groomed streets, ultra as the leaders who dwelt there. Courty Bishop sat back beside her, caressed his waxed mustache and regaled her with choice bits of news, just as Coghlan had regaled her the day before. After all, she told herself, there wasn’t much difference in the two worlds. Appraisingly, but with a look not quite so impersonal as that of her former manager, the sophisticated eyes turned to scan her beauty while his facile tongue rambled on.
“I say—you top ’em all, Nancy! What a risk that boy, Dick, takes—leaving you alone so long!”
“Not so much of a risk,” she laughed, mentally placing her husband next to the little man.
“But what the deuce takes him such a distance this time of year?”
“Oh, railroad stuff.”
“Bore—the tropics in midsummer!”
“Well,—that’s what I’d call the Hawaiian Islands. One of my men, McIntyre, met him on the way out. Wrote that if Cunningham didn’t kick at going, guessed he couldn’t. But why in hades—”
The woman beside him heard no more. Hawaii!! Like some giant machinery against her ears, his words became a whirr. She smiled mechanically, as so many women have done, while the world stood still.
Fate had lifted the prompter’s hand and slowly the curtain descended on Act II of Nancy Bradshaw’s life drama.
CHAPTER III—ACT III
The hum of arrival in that great hive, the Grand Central, kept up an incessant drone. Scurrying figures swarmed like bees from the gates to disappear into the night. Red caps raced back and forth, elbowing one another in the rush for spoils. City husbands reached out eagerly from roped-off lines to country wives and sunburned youngsters. Embraces and laughter and inarticulate efforts to tell everything in one moment kept the air abuzz. Life, centralized in one small area of space, was at its busiest.
Into this hubbub from the Lake Shore Limited swung a man in tweed suit, the porter at his side laden with the trappings of a long trip. His big shoulders pushed through the throng into the lighted terminal and he looked around. Rapidly his glance traveled from face to face, then back along the congested line and once again its length. A look of annoyance that brought brows together followed the swift scrutiny and he made for the telephone booths. Impatiently he gave the operator a number, concentrating his gaze on her while she made the Long Island connection. When some three minutes later he emerged from the booth, the look of annoyance had changed to anger.
With characteristic stride of authority he moved across the crowded stone floor, bounded up the steps and waited, peering at his watch in the outer gloom as taxis unloaded their burdens and took on others. When his turn came he sprang in, gave the address of a small select hotel off Fifth Avenue and all the way there sat staring fixedly out at the lighted shops, his lips a thin, angry line.
The line had not disappeared as he stepped from the elevator to the door of a suite and imperatively rang the bell. It was opened by a girl in nursemaid’s cap who gave a start when she saw who it was. He pushed past with the same look he had cast about the station. Then he turned abruptly, sending at her a volley of rapid-fire questions.
Madam was not there, she answered. Yes, the children were, but Mrs. Cunningham had gone to dinner and the theater. No, she did not believe any telegram had been received from him. Madam, she was sure, had not expected him to-night. They had been in town since the beginning of the week. No, Mrs. Cunningham had not gone out with any one. To The Coghlan Theatre, she believed.
Her curious gaze followed him as he went down the hall to the elevator. Then softly she shut the door.
At ten minutes to nine he strolled into The Coghlan Theater, the last of a fashionably late audience.
The place was packed and he leaned leisurely against the rear balustrade to wait for the curtain before trying to locate his wife.
Across the footlights palm trees swayed, recalling the land of secrets he had left behind. Something about the sensuous atmosphere so realistically reproduced made him turn away. Then his eyes took in the woman who held the center of the stage. Her voice—low, beautifully modulated—rolled toward him. Her eyes, burning black, turned in his direction. He gripped the rail, bent over it.
Nancy!! In spite of the dark wig and olive tinted skin, there was no mistake! Nancy—on the stage of The Coghlan! The sudden sharp crackle of a program broke the stillness.
NANCY BRADSHAW in “Broken Wings”
There it was—Nancy Bradshaw—staring at him from the sheet he had not troubled to read.
Nancy! Mrs. Richard Cunningham!
He made the lobby like a bull gone mad. Generations of training, years of the will to control, were as if they had never been. He was the outraged male, bent on destroying the thing which had defied him.
Outside he found Coghlan who, from the box-office, had glimpsed him sauntering in and evidently anticipated precisely what had happened.
Jerry’s good-natured face with its row of chins was hard as an iron mask as he blocked Cunningham’s onrush.
“Hello, there,” he said genially, reaching out a hand.
Cunningham’s fists clenched white.
“I’ve got to see my wife.”
“Well, can’t see her from anywhere but in there until after the performance. Nobody goes backstage—strict orders.” Then smiling broadly, “Made a hell of a hit! You ought to be damn proud of her.”
“I’m going to see her _now_!”
Jerry grinned serenely. “Don’t blame you. Should have been here Monday for the opening—sensation, old man! Always said that in five years she’d be the greatest actress in the country. And take it from me—”
From within, a swelling volume of applause told the fall of the curtain.
Cunningham made a lunge to pass the figure that blocked him.
“Careful, careful, old boy!” came firmly from the manager. “Hold tight there! They’ll be coming out—take it easy.”
The other man’s face was set.
“I’ve told you—”
“And I tell _you_! This is my theater! Anybody who causes any disturbance gets out!”
A prominent clubman sighted Cunningham at this juncture and hurried across the lobby. From that moment Nancy’s husband was forced to assume an easy pride calculated to disarm gossip, forced to become the center of a throng bent upon congratulating him on his wife’s success.
During the ten minutes of intermission he bore it with a smile chiseled on his handsome face, then left the theater as the lights went low. Back to the hotel he tramped, turned and retraced his steps like some madman muttering to himself. Then up and down the dark alley of the stage entrance, watching for signs that the final curtain had fallen, unable to consider the sane and sensible alternative of waiting for his wife in the privacy of her own rooms.
When at last they stood face to face under the brilliant lights of her dressing-room it was evident Coghlan had warned her.
She was alone. In the little room where they had met five years ago they met once more. And to-night as that night a flame like a living thing darted between them. Then it had been white and warming. Now it filled the place, a devastating fury. But in the face of it she stood calm.
It would have taken an observer less self-absorbed to note that her hand trembled as it grasped a chair-back, that her breath came quickly. In silence they measured each other. In silence she waited, her eyes never leaving him.
At last he spoke and his voice was as hard as that of a judge pronouncing extreme penalty.
“Well—have you anything to say for yourself?”
She shook her head and not defiance but sadness was in the look she sent him. “Nothing I _want_ to say.”
“You realize, of course, that I’m going to put a stop to this business here and now.”
Again that look—half regret, half sorrow.
“You can no longer put a stop to anything I do.”
In his unreasoning wrath the actual import of her words missed him.
“I don’t care what contracts you’ve made—to-night finishes them.”
“Suppose we try to talk this over quietly”—she gave a slight gesture of weariness as she sat down before her dressing-table—“if it must be discussed.”
“Must be discussed? Good God! I come back after three months, ring my home, find that my wife has moved into town without a word to me—”
“You forget—you had overlooked giving me your address.”
“And come up against the fact,” he rushed on, “that she’s taken advantage of my absence to put over— What’s your explanation of this damned outrage?” he broke off hotly.
Her eyes, tense and brilliant, held his. He gave a short laugh.
“I assume you and Coghlan have concocted one.”
“Coghlan has no idea of my reason for doing it. He merely knows that in July I sent word to him that I would take this part if Lilla Grant refused it. He didn’t wait to find out, though she cabled him a week later saying Kane was going to star her.”
“And you thought I’d let you get away with it! After five years of living with me you thought I’d stand for anything like this!”
“It doesn’t matter whether you stand for it or not.”
He had been pacing up and down, hands thrust into his pockets, ready to plunge through the walls. Now suddenly he veered about, stood rooted.
“I mean it.” Softly she answered his amazement. “I’m back on the stage because I realize how little my leaving it meant to you.”
He went close to her then, threat in every line of his big frame.
“You’re my wife—the mother of my children.”
“I bore your name, I bore your children. I gave up the stage to do both. And in giving it up, I sacrificed your love.”
Her back was turned but out of the shadows of her triple mirror gazed a face white with pity of him, with suffering for the thing which, through him, both had lost.
“Sacrificed my love?” he began as a man feels his way along paths he is not sure of. “What in heaven’s name gave you that idea?”
“Please,” she stopped him with a swift gesture, “please—don’t speak of it! I can’t bear it!”
“Look here, Nancy,” came somewhat more calmly, “this is nonsense—silly woman stuff. I’m not saying you didn’t think you had some rational excuse for doing this thing. But it’s out of the question. It simply can’t continue. I made that clear when I married you. Boredom or restlessness or the sort of unreasoning mood that gets hold of women probably drove you to it.”
“You drove me to it,” she answered quietly.
“What’s got over you?” he came back sharply. “You talk like a mad woman.”
“No—I’m quite sane. I see quite clearly—too clearly. I’ve had plenty of time to go over it—to face the truth. I thought when I married you that you loved the woman in me. Now I know it was the actress. You loved me for the thing I gave up because I loved you—the glamour of the stage. Popularity—the fact that I was conspicuous made me desirable. You demanded that I sacrifice all that. And when I did, I became the same to you as hundreds of women you’d known, women you were tired of. You cut me off completely from my old life, except as a spectator—then sought in that old life the thrill and interest I could no longer give you.”
She paused. Her hand went to her throat as it had that day in the house of the fir trees.
“All these five years when I’ve longed for a glimpse of it—just a glimpse—to become part of it again if only for a little while, I’ve felt guilty, almost as if I’d been untrue to you. I’ve thrust the thought aside as something unworthy. I’ve let you fill my life. Well,” she paused, “now I’ve gone back to it. I’ve gone back to the thing that made you love me. And I’ve gone—to stay.”
Defiance at last leaped at him. It tore from her, as they stood measuring each other, like a panther from some rustling jungle. It gripped his throat.
“Woman excuses!” he brought out at last. “Without rhyme or reason to back them! Well, they won’t answer. I’m still waiting for a straight, rational explanation. Suppose you let me have it—now.”
“All right, I will. I didn’t want to, but since you demand it you shall have it. I’ve given you my reason, my motive. I’ve told you what sent me back to the stage. But the thing that brought me to my senses, that made me realize the truth, can be summed up in just three words: Hawaii—Lilla Grant.”
She spoke as if merely voicing them were tearing open a wound unhealed, spoke them so low that they came like a breath.
And hearing, he straightened, stood silent, too stunned to think of an answer.
The noise of slamming doors and scurrying feet beat instead against the stillness, all the echoing movements that strike bare walls when the play is done.
“It was rather funny—wasn’t it?—that I should have believed you that first time,” she went on. “But I told myself what I had seen was impossible; that if I had given up the thing that was life to me, surely you wouldn’t go back to it for the fascination of grease-paint and footlights. Surely you couldn’t seek in another woman the thing you had denied me! That’s why I accepted your half truths—eagerly. Because I wanted to—and one does so many foolish things when one wants to. That’s why it was so much harder when I did find out.”
“Nancy—” he began.
“Please don’t try to explain this away!” came breathlessly. “It can’t be set right. It’s done! And I’d like to go on being friends, because, you see, I _did_ love you.”
“Then—” he seized on the note in her voice.
They were just two words, low as a conscience whisper. But they closed the gates of what had been with the grim certainty of fate. His steel-colored eyes—habitually so sure of themselves—wavered. His fists gripped against an enemy unknown. And only the woman whose gaze locked with his knew that the enemy was himself.
He looked down at the blonde head round which the lights of the theater glimmered once more; those lights he had torn away to make her entirely his.
“You mean that?” he brought out at last.
“It can’t be otherwise—now.”
He turned swiftly on his heel and went the length of the room, then back to where she stood. He pulled up sharp and his lips snapped together.
“All right. But you leave one item out of the reckoning. As long as you bear my name, you respect it! If you persist in this—I’ll divorce you.”
“The name is yours. I am Nancy Bradshaw again.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Only what I said. You can have it back any time you want. I won’t make a move to stop you. You can have everything you’ve ever given me—everything. The one thing I had a right to keep—you’ve taken away. So what else matters?”
She walked slowly over to where her clothes hung behind a cretonne curtain, took down a black hat and pulled it over her shining hair. She stood there, shoulders drooping, head bent.
Outside the soft shuffle of the old watchman’s feet told he was going the rounds. Good-nights had been tossed from one to another of the departing company. That heavy quiet of night in a darkened theater rolled backstage. The world of make-believe had vanished. Only the shell remained.
Cunningham leaned a bit heavily against the door. For the first time life had thwarted, left him impotent, and a new sensation, when unpleasant, is difficult to handle.
The woman he had loved and desired, the woman who had stirred him, who had been his, came toward him as to a stranger.
“I’m afraid I must go,” she said.
He roused himself to a final stand.
“You realize,” came hoarsely, “that I’ll fight this—fight it to a finish? You realize as well that the children will come to me?”
Pain for what had been and what might have been; memories, all that had made these moments a requiem, vanished from her voice. She went close to him. Like his own her body went taut, her hands tense, her head high. Primitive even as himself, she met him, ready for combat.
Suddenly something in her answering gaze, in the black of her eyes that could flame up like two live things, made clear the writing on the wall.
“I don’t think you’ll try to do that. I shan’t attempt to keep them from you, of course. But they’re mine, you know,—and _I_ haven’t forfeited the right to them.”
Without another word, she stood waiting for him to step aside. He hesitated, made as if to speak, then turned abruptly and the slam of a door resounded like thunder.
One by one she turned off the lights. Out across the familiar boards she went to the center of the stage, set for to-morrow. Face lifted to the darkness, she stood where had come to her the struggle eternal—success, conflict, love, renunciation. And to her lips came the question woman will always ask, the question always unanswered: “Why?”
And so the curtain descended on Act III of Nancy Bradshaw’s life drama.
THE CURTAIN FALLS
The lights of the auditorium flame high. The audience rises. It has stepped down from the footlights. It moves in undulating tide toward the wide-flung doors.
Beyond those doors is night, the world of care. The brief hours of living in a house of dreams is over. Forgetfulness gives place to memory. The spirit of the theater lifts its magic touch from tired eyes.
Backstage all is dark and wondering. Have we played our parts as an audience and sensed its heartbeats? Have we smiled its smiles? Teased its vanity? Gained its approval? We of this little play—have we succeeded in our striving to make a critical throng throb to it? Back of the swaying curtain, before which one of asbestos has dropped heavily, all is wild hope, eager prayer, despairing question.
The house of dreams is empty, the soft-armed chairs shrouded as if each held a pale ghost. Is it to be alight or dark? Do we live or die?
To-morrow holds the answer.
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A small number of clear typographic errors have been corrected.
Consistent period spelling has been retained, as has inconsistent hyphenation.