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- Harlequin and Columbine - 1/16 -


Harlequin and Columbine

Booth Tarkington

I

For a lucky glimpse of the great Talbot Potter, the girls who caught it may thank that conjunction of Olympian events which brings within the boundaries of one November week the Horse Show and the roaring climax of the football months and the more dulcet, yet vast, beginning of the opera season. Some throbbing of attendant multitudes coming to the ears of Talbot Potter, he obeyed an inward call to walk to rehearsal by way of Fifth Avenue, and turning out of Forty-fourth Street to become part of the people-sea of the southward current, felt the eyes of the northward beating upon his face like the pulsing successions of an exhilarating surf. His Fifth Avenue knew its Talbot Potter.

Strangers used to leisurely appraisals upon their own thoroughfares are apt to believe that Fifth Avenue notices nothing; but they are mistaken; it is New York that is preoccupied, not Fifth Avenue. The Fifth Avenue eye, like a policeman's, familiar with a variety of types, catalogues you and replaces you upon the shelf with such automatic rapidity that you are not aware you have been taken down. Fifth Avenue is secretly populous with observers who take note of everything.

Of course, among these peregrinate great numbers almost in a stupor so far as what is closest around them is concerned; and there are those, too, who are so completely busied with either the consciousness of being noticed, or the hope of being noticed, or the hatred of it, that they take note of nothing else. Fifth Avenue expressions are a filling meal for the prowling lonely joker; but what will most satisfy his cannibal appetite is the passage of the self-conscious men and women. For here, on a good day, he cannot fail to relish some extreme cases of their whimsical disease: fledgling young men making believe to be haughty to cover their dreadful symptoms, the mask itself thus revealing what it seeks to conceal; timid young ladies, likewise treacherously exposed by their defenses; and very different ladies, but in similar case, being retouched ladies, tinted ladies; and ladies who know that they are pretty at first sight, ladies who chat with some obscured companion only to offer the public a treat of graceful gestures; and poor ladies making believe to be rich ladies; and rich ladies making believe to be important ladies; and many other sorts of conscious ladies. And men--ah, pitiful!--pitiful the wretch whose hardihood has involved him in cruel and unusual great gloss and unsheltered tailed coat. Any man in his overcoat is wrapped in his castle; he fears nothing. But to this hunted creature, naked in his robin's tail, the whole panorama of the Avenue is merely a blurred audience, focusing upon him a vast glare of derision; he walks swiftly, as upon fire, pretends to careless sidelong interest in shop-windows as he goes, makes play with his unfamiliar cane only to be horror-stricken at the flourishings so evoked of his wild gloves; and at last, fairly crawling with the eyes he feels all over him, he must draw forth his handkerchief and shelter behind it, poor man, in the dishonourable affectation of a sneeze!

Piquant contrast to these obsessions, the well-known expression of Talbot Potter lifted him above the crowd to such high serenity his face might have been that of a young Pope, with a dash of Sydney Carton. His glance fixed itself, in its benign detachment, upon the misty top of the Flatiron, far down the street, and the more frequent the plainly visible recognitions among the north-bound people, the less he seemed aware of them. And yet, whenever the sieving current of pedestrians brought momentarily face to face with him a girl or woman, apparently civilized and in the mode, who obviously had never seen him before and seemed not to care if it should be her fate never to repeat the experience, Talbot Potter had a certain desire. If society had established a rule that all men must instantly obey and act upon every fleeting impulse, Talbot Potter would have taken that girl or woman by the shoulders and said to her: "What's the matter with you!"

At Forty-second Street he crossed over, proceeded to the middle of the block, and halted dreamily on the edge of the pavement, his back to the crowd. His face was toward the Library, with its two annoyed pet lions, typifying learning, and he appeared to study the great building. One or two of the passersby had seen him standing on that self-same spot before;--in fact, he always stopped there whenever he walked down the Avenue.

For a little time (not too long) he stood there; and thus absorbed he was, as they say, a Picture. Moreover, being such a popular one, he attracted much interest. People paused to observe him; and all unaware of their attention, he suddenly smiled charmingly, as at some gentle pleasantry in his own mind--something he had remembered from a book, no doubt. It was a wonderful smile, and vanished slowly, leaving a rapt look; evidently he was lost in musing upon architecture and sculpture and beautiful books. A girl whisking by in an automobile had time to guess, reverently, that the phrase in his mind was: "A Stately Home for Beautiful Books!" Dinner-tables would hear, that evening, how Talbot Potter stood there, oblivious of everything else, studying the Library!

This slight sketch of artistic reverie completed, he went on, proceeding a little more rapidly down the Avenue; presently turned over to the stage door of Wallack's, made his way through the ensuing passages, and appeared upon the vasty stage of the old theatre, where his company of actors awaited his coming to begin the rehearsal of a new play.

II

"First act, please, ladies and gentlemen!"

Thus spake, without emotion, Packer, the stage-manager; but out in the dusky auditorium, Stewart Canby, the new playwright, began to tremble. It was his first rehearsal.

He and one other sat in the shadowy hollow of the orchestra, two obscure little shapes on the floor of the enormous cavern. The other was Talbot Potter's manager, Carson Tinker, a neat, grim, small old man with a definite appearance of having long ago learned that after a little while life will beat anybody's game, no matter how good. He observed the nervousness of the playwright, but without interest. He had seen too many.

Young Canby's play was a study of egoism, being the portrait of a man wholly given over to selfish ambitions finally attained, but "at the cost of every good thing in his life," including the loss of his "honour," his lady-love, and the trust and affection of his friends. Young Canby had worked patiently at his manuscript, rewriting, condensing, pouring over it the sincere sweat of his brow and the light of his boarding-house lamp during most of the evenings of two years, until at last he was able to tell his confidants, rather huskily, that there was "not one single superfluous word in it," not one that could possibly be cut, nor one that could be changed without "altering the significance of the whole work."

The moment was at hand when he was to see the vision of so many toilsome hours begin to grow alive. What had been no more than little black marks on white paper was now to become a living voice vibrating the actual air. No wonder, then, that tremors seized him; Pygmalion shook as Galatea began to breathe, and to young Canby it was no less a miracle that his black marks and white paper should thus come to life.

"Miss Ellsling!" called the stage-manager. "Miss Ellsling, you're on. You're on artificial stone bench in garden, down right. Mr. Nippert, you're on. You're over yonder, right cen---"

"Not at all!" interrupted Talbot Potter, who had taken his seat at a small table near the trough where the footlights lay asleep, like the row of night-watchmen they were. "Not at all!" he repeated sharply, thumping the table with his knuckles. "That's all out. It's cut. Nippert doesn't come on in this scene at all. You've got the original script there, Packer. Good heavens! Packer, can't you ever get anything right? Didn't I distinctly tell you-- Here! Come here! Not garden set, at all. Play it interior, same as act second. Look, Packer, look! Miss Ellsling down left, in chair by escritoire. In heaven's name, can you read, Packer?"

"Yessir, yessir. I see, sir, I see!" said Packer with piteous eagerness, taking the manuscript the star handed him. "Now, then, Miss Ellsling, if you please--"

"I will have my tea indoors," Miss Ellsling began promptly, striking an imaginary bell. "I will have my tea indoors, to-day, I think, Pritchard. It is cooler indoors, to-day, I think, on the whole, and so it will be pleasanter to have my tea indoors to-day. Strike bell again. Do you hear, Pritchard?"

Out in the dimness beyond the stage the thin figure of the new playwright rose dazedly from an orchestra chair.

"What--what's this?" he stammered, the choked sounds he made not reaching the stage.

"What's the matter?" The question came from Carson Tinker, but his tone was incurious, manifesting no interest whatever. Tinker's voice, like his pale, spectacled glance, was not tired; it was dead.


Harlequin and Columbine - 1/16

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