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- Harlequin and Columbine - 10/16 -
"Was what?" inquired old Tinker.
"D'you mean Packer?" said Tinker incredulously.
"He's a hypocrite!" Potter shouted fiercely. "And I shouldn't be surprised if his father was another! Widower! I never saw the man in my life, but I'd swear it on oath! He is a hypocrite! Packer's father is a damned old Baptist hypocrite!"
With this sonorous bit of character reading still ringing in his ears, Canby emerged from the cream-coloured apartment to find the stoop-shouldered figure of the also hypocritical son leaning wearily against the wall, waiting for a delaying elevator. The attitude was not wholly devoid of pathos, to Canby's view of it. Neither was the careworn, harried face, unharmoniously topped by a green hat so sparklingly jaunty, not only in colour but in its shape and the angle of its perch, that it was outright hilarious, and, above the face of Packer, made the playwright think pityingly of a St. Patrick's Day party holding a noisy celebration upon a hearse.
Its wearer nodded solemnly as the elevator bounced up, flashing, and settled to the level of the floor; but the quick drop through the long shaft seemed to do the stage-manager a disproportionate amount of good. Halfway down he emitted a heavy "Whew!" of relief and threw back his shoulders. He seemed to swell, to grow larger; lines verged into the texture of his face, disappearing; and with them went care and seeming years. Canby had casually taken him to be about forty, but so radical was the transformation of him that, as the distance from his harrowing overlord increased, the playwright beheld another kind of creature. In place of the placative, middle-aged varlet, troubled and hurrying to serve, there stepped out of the elevator, at the street level, a deep-chested, assertive, manly adventurer, about thirty, kindly eyed, picturesque, and careless. The green hat belonged to him perfectly.
He gave Canby a look of burlesque ruefulness over his shoulder, the comedy appeal of one schoolboy to another as they leave a scolding teacher on the far side of the door. "The governor does keep himself worked up!" he laughed, as they reached the street and paused. "If it isn't one thing, it's some thing!"
"Perhaps it's my play just now," said Canby. "I was afraid, earlier this evening, he meant to drop it. Making so many changes may have upset his nerves."
"Lord bless your soul! No!" exclaimed the new Packer. "His nerves are all right! He's always the same! He can't help it!"
"I thought possibly he might have been more upset than usual," Canby said. "There was a critic or something that--"
"No, no, Mr. Canby!" Packer chuckled. "New plays and critics, they don't worry him any more than anything else. Of course he isn't going to be pleased with any critics. Most of them give him splendid notices, but they don't please him. How could they?"
"He's always the same, you think?" Canby said blankly.
"Always--always at top pitch, that is, and always unexpected. You'll see as you get to know him. You won't know him any better than you do now, Mr. Canby; you'll only know him more. I've been with him for four years--stage-manager--hired man--maid-of-all-work--order his meals for him in hotels--and I guess old Tinker and I know him as well as anybody does, but it's a mighty big job to handle him just right. It keeps us hopping, but that's bread and butter. Not much bread and butter anywhere these days unless you do hop! We all have to hop for somebody!" He chuckled again, and then unexpectedly became so serious he was almost truculent. "And I tell you, Mr. Canby," he cried, "by George! I'd sooner hop for Talbot Potter than for any other man that ever walked the earth!"
He took a yellow walking-stick from under his arm, thrust the manuscript Potter had given him into the pocket of his light overcoat, and bade his companion good-night with a genial flourish of the stick. "Subway to Brooklyn for mine. Your play will go, all right; don't worry about that, Mr. Canby. Good-night and good luck, Mr. Canby."
Canby went the other way, marvelling.
It was eleven; and for half an hour the theatres had been releasing their audiences to the streets;--the sidewalks were bobbing and fluttering; automobiles cometed by bleating peevishly. Suddenly, through the window of a limousine, brilliantly lighted within, Canby saw the face of Wanda Malone, laughing, and embowered in white furs. He stopped, startled; then he realized that Wanda Malone's hair was not red. The girl in the limousine had red hair, and was altogether unlike Wanda Malone in feature and expression.
He walked on angrily.
Immediately a slender girl, prettily dressed, passed him. She clung charmingly to the arm of a big boy; and to Canby's first glance she was Wanda Malone. Wrenching his eyes from her, he saw Wanda Malone across the street getting into a taxicab, and then he stumbled out of the way of a Wanda Malone who almost walked into him. Wherever there was a graceful gesture or turn of the head, there was Wanda Malone.
He wheeled, and walked back toward Broadway, and thought he caught a glimpse of Packer going into a crowded drug-store near the corner. The man he took to be Packer lifted his hat and spoke to a girl who was sitting at a table and drinking soda-water, but when she looked up and seemed to be Wanda Malone with a blue veil down to her nose, Canby turned on his heel, face-about, and headed violently for home.
When he reached quieter streets his gait slackened, and he walked slowly, lost in deep reverie. By and by he came to a halt, and stood still for several minutes without knowing it. Slowly he came out of the trance, wondering where he was. Then he realized that his staring eyes had halted him automatically; and as they finally conveyed their information to his conscious mind, he perceived that he was standing directly in front of a saloon, and glaring at the sign upon the window:
ALES WINES LIQUORS AND CIGARS
At that, somewhere in his inside, he cried out, in a kind of anguish: "Isn't there anything--anywhere--any more--except Wanda Malone!"
"Second act, ladies and gentlemen!" cried Packer, at precisely ten o'clock the next morning.
About a dozen actors were chatting in small groups upon the stage; three or four paced singly, muttering and mildly gesticulating, with the fretful preoccupation of people trying to remember; two or three, seated, bent over their typewritten "sides," studying intently; and a few, invisible from the auditorium, were scattered about the rearward rooms and passageways. Talbot Potter, himself, was nowhere to be seen, and, what was even more important to one tumultuously beating heart "in front," neither was Wanda Malone. Mr. Stewart Canby in a silvery new suit, wearing a white border to his waistcoat collar and other decorations proper to a new playwright, sat in the centre of the front row of the orchestra. Yesterday he had taken a seat about nine rows back.
He bore no surface signs of the wear and tear of a witches' night; riding his runaway play and fighting the enchantment that was upon him. Elastic twenty-seven does not mark a bedless session with violet arcs below its eyes;--what violet a witch had used upon Stewart Canby this morning appeared as a dewey boutonniere in the lapel of his new coat; he was that far gone.
Miss Ellsling and a youth of the company took their places near the front of the stage and began the rehearsal of the second act with a dialogue that led up to the entrance of the star with the "ingenue," both of whom still remained out of the playwright's range of vision.
As the moment for their appearance drew near, Canby became, to his own rage, almost uncontrollably agitated. Miss Ellsling's scene, which he should have followed carefully, meant nothing to him but a ticking off of the seconds before he should behold with his physical eyes the living presence of the fairy ghost that had put a spell upon him. He was tremulous all over.
Miss Ellsling and her companion came to a full stop and stood waiting. Thereupon Packer went to the rear of the stage, leaned through an open doorway, and spoke deferentially:
"Mr. Potter? All ready, sir. All ready, Miss--ah--Malone?"
Then he stepped back with the air of an unimportant person making way for his betters to pass before him, while Canby's eyes fixed themselves glassily upon the shabby old doorway through which an actual, breathing Wanda Malone was to come.
But he was destined not to see her appear in that expectant frame. Twenty years before--though he had forgotten it--in a dazzling room where there was a Christmas tree, he had uttered a shriek of ecstatic timidity just as a jingling Santa Claus began to emerge from behind the tree, and he had run out of the room and out of the house. He did exactly the same thing now, though
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