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- Harlequin and Columbine - 2/16 -


"Tea!" gasped Canby. "People are sick of tea! I didn't write any tea!"

"There isn't any," said Tinker. "The way he's got it, there's an interruption before the tea comes, and it isn't brought in."

"But she's ordered it! If it doesn't come the audience will wonder--"

"No," said Tinker. "They won't think of that. They won't hear her order it."

"Then for heaven's sake, why has he put it in? I wrote this play to begin right in the story--"

"That's the trouble. They never hear the beginning. They're slamming seats, taking off wraps, looking round to see who's there. That's why we used to begin plays with servants dusting and 'Well-I-never-half-past-nine-and-the-young-master-not-yet- risen!"

"I wrote it to begin with a garden scene," Canby protested, unheeding. "Why--"

"He's changed this act a good deal."

"But I wrote--"

"He never uses garden sets. Not intimate enough; and they're a nuisance to light. I wouldn't worry about it."

"But it changes the whole signifi--"

"Well, talk to him about it," said Tinker, adding lifelessly, "I wouldn't argue with him much, though. I never knew anybody do anything with him that way yet."

Miss Ellsling, on the stage, seemed to be supplementing this remark. "Roderick Hanscom is a determined man," she said, in character. "He is hard as steel to a treacherous enemy, but he is tender and gentle to women and children. Only yesterday I saw him pick up a fallen crippled child from beneath the relentless horses' feet on a crossing, at the risk of his very life, and then as he placed it in the mother's arms, he smiled that wonderful smile of his, that wonderful smile of his that seems to brighten the whole world! Wait till you meet him. But that is his step now and you shall judge for yourselves! Let us rise, if you please, to give him befitting greeting."

"What--what!" gasped Canby.

"Sh!" Tinker whispered.

"But all I wrote for her to say, when Roderick Hanscom's name is mentioned, was 'I don't think I like him.' My God!"

"Sh!"

"The Honourable Robert Hanscom!" shouted Packer, in a ringing voice as a stage-servant, or herald.

"It gives him an entrance, you see," murmured Tinker. "Your script just let him walk on."

"And all that horrible stuff about his 'wonderful smile!'" Canby babbled. "Think of his putting that in himself."

"Well, you hadn't done it for him. It is a wonderful smile, isn't it?"

"My God!"

"Sh!"

Talbot Potter had stepped to the centre of the stage and was smiling the wonderful smile. "Mildred, and you, my other friends, good friends," he began, "for I know that you are all true friends here, and I can trust you with a secret very near my heart--"

"Most of them are supposed never to have seen him before," said Canby, hoarsely. "And she's just told them they could judge for themselves when--"

"They won't notice that."

"You mean the audience won't--"

"No, they won't," said Tinker.

"But good heavens! it's 'Donald Gray,' the other character, that trusts him with the secret, and he betrays it later. This upsets the whole--"

"Well, talk to him. I can't help it."

"It is a political secret," Potter continued, reading from a manuscript in his hand, "and almost a matter of life and death. But I trust you with it openly and fearlessly because--"

At this point his voice was lost in a destroying uproar. Perceiving that the rehearsal was well under way, and that the star had made his entrance, two of the stage-hands attached to the theatre ascended to the flies and set up a great bellowing on high. "Lower that strip!" "You don't want that strip lowered, I tell you!" "Oh, my Lord! Can't you lower that strip!" Another workman at the rear of the stage began to saw a plank, and somebody else, concealed behind a bit of scenery, hammered terrifically upon metal. Altogether it was a successful outbreak.

Potter threw his manuscript upon the table, a gesture that caused the shoulders of Packer to move in a visible shudder, and the company, all eyes fixed upon the face of the star, suddenly wore the look of people watching a mysterious sealed packet from which a muffled ticking is heard. The bellowing and the sawing and the hammering increased in fury.

In the orchestra a rusty gleam of something like mummified pleasure passed unseen behind the spectacles of old Carson Tinker. "Stage-hands are the devil," he explained to the stupefied Canby. "Rehearsals bore them and they love to hear what an actor says when his nerves go to pieces. If Potter blows up they'll quiet down to enjoy it and then do it again pretty soon. If he doesn't blow up he'll take it out on somebody else later."

Potter stood silent in the centre of the stage, expressionless, which seemed to terrify the stage-manager. "Just one second, Mr. Potter!" he screamed, his brow pearly with the anguish of apprehension. "Just one second, sir!"

He went hotfoot among the disturbers, protesting, commanding, imploring, and plausibly answering severe questions. "Well, when do you expect us to git this work done?" "We got our work to do, ain't we?" until finally the tumult ceased, the saw slowing down last of all, tapering off reluctantly into a silence of plaintive disappointment; whereupon Packer resumed his place, under a light at the side of the stage, turning the pages of his manuscript with fluttering fingers and keeping his eyes fixed guiltily upon it. The company of actors also carefully removed their gaze from the star and looked guilty.

Potter allowed the fatal hush to continue, while the culpability of Packer and the company seemed mysteriously to increase until they all reeked with it. The stage-hands had withdrawn in a grieved manner somewhere into the huge rearward spaces of the old building. They belonged to the theatre, not to Potter, and, besides, they had a union. But the actors were dependent upon Potter for the coming winter's work and wages; they were his employees.

At last he spoke: "We will go on with the rehearsal," he said quietly.

"Ah!" murmured old Tinker. "He'll take it out on somebody else." And with every precaution not to jar down a seat in passing, he edged his way to the aisle and went softly thereby to the extreme rear of the house. He was an employee, too.

III

It was a luckless lady who helped to fulfil the prediction. Technically she was the "ingenue"; publicly she was "Miss Carol Lyston"; legally she was a Mrs. Surbilt, being wife to the established leading man of that ilk, Vorly Surbilt. Miss Lyston had come to the rehearsal in a condition of exhausted nerves, owing to her husband's having just accepted, over her protest, a "road" engagement with a lady-star of such susceptible gallantry she had never yet been known to resist falling in love with her leading-man before she quarrelled with him. Miss Lyston's protest having lasted the whole of the preceeding night, and not at all concluding with Mr. Surbilt's departure, about breakfast-time, avowedly to seek total anaesthesia by means of a long list of liquors, which he named, she had spent the hours before rehearsal interviewing female acquaintances who had been members of the susceptible lady's company--a proceeding which indicates that she deliberately courted hysteria.

Shortly after the outraged rehearsal had been resumed, she unfortunately uttered a loud, dry sob, startlingly irrelevant to the matter in hand. It came during the revelation of "Roderick Hanscom's" secret, and Potter stopped instantly.

"Who did that?"

"Miss Lyston, sir," Packer responded loyally, such matters being part of his duty.

The star turned to face the agitated criminal. "Miss Lyston," he said, delaying each syllable to pack it more solidly with ice, "will you be good enough to inform this company if there is anything in your lines to warrant your breaking into a speech of mine with a horrible noise like that?"

"Nothing."


Harlequin and Columbine - 2/16

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