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- Harlequin and Columbine - 3/16 -
"Then perhaps you will inform us why you do break into a speech of mine with a horrible noise like that?"
"I only coughed, Mr. Potter," said Miss Lyston, shaking.
"Coughed!" he repeated slowly, and then with a sudden tragic fury shouted at the top of his splendid voice, "COUGHED!" He swung away from her, and strode up and down the stage, struggling with emotion, while the stricken company fastened their eyes to their strips of manuscript, as if in study, and looked neither at him nor Miss Lyston.
"You only coughed!" He paused before her in his stride. "Is it your purpose to cough during my speeches when this play is produced before an audience?" He waited for no reply, but taking his head woefully in his hands, began to pace up and down again, turning at last toward the dark auditorium to address his invisible manager:
"Really, really, Mr. Tinker," he cried, despairingly, "we shall have to change some of these people. I can't act with--Mr. Tinker! Where's Mr. Tinker? Mr. Tinker! My soul! He's gone! He always is gone when I want him! I wonder how many men would bear what I--" But here he interrupted himself unexpectedly. "Go on with the rehearsal! Packer, where were we?"
"Here, sir, right here," brightly responded Packer, ready finger upon the proper spot in the manuscript. "You had just begun, 'Nothing in this world but that one thing can defeat my certain election and nothing but that one thing shall de--"
"That will do," thundered his master. "Are you going to play the part? Get out of the way and let's get on with the act, in heaven's name! Down stage a step, Miss Ellsling. No; I said down. A step, not a mile! There! Now, if you consent to be ready, ladies and gentlemen. Very well. 'Nothing in this world but that one thing can defeat my certain election and noth--'" Again he interrupted himself unexpectedly. In the middle of the word there came a catch in his voice; he broke off, and whirling once more upon the miserable Miss Lyston, he transfixed her with a forefinger and a yell.
"It wasn't a cough! What was that horrible noise you made?"
Miss Lyston, being unable to reply in words, gave him for answer an object-lesson which demonstrated plainly the nature of the horrible noise. She broke into loud, consecutive sobs, while Potter, very little the real cause of them, altered in expression from indignation to the neighborhood of lunacy.
"She's doing this in purpose!" he cried. "What's the matter with her? She's sick! Miss Lyston, you're sick! Packer, get her away--take her away. She's sick! Send her home--send her home in a cab! Packer!"
"Yes, Mr. Potter, I'll arrange it. Don't be disturbed."
The stage-manager was already at the sobbing lady's side, and she leaned upon him gratefully, continuing to produce the symptoms of her illness.
"Put her in a cab at once," said the star, somewhat recovered from his consternation. "You can pay the cabman," he added. "Make her as comfortable as you can; she's really ill. Miss Lyston, you shouldn't have tried to rehearse when you're so ill. Do everything possible for Miss Lyston's comfort, Packer."
He followed the pair as they entered the passageway to the stage door; then, Miss Lyston's demonstrations becoming less audible, he halted abruptly, and his brow grew dark with suspicion. When Packer returned, he beckoned him aside. "Didn't she seem all right as soon as she got out of my sight?"
"No, sir; she seemed pretty badly upset."
"Oh, something entirely outside of rehearsal, sir," Packer answered in haste. "Entirely outside. She wanted to know if I'd heard any gossip about her husband lately. That's it, Mr. Potter."
"You don't think she was shamming just to get off?"
"Oh, not at all. I--"
"Ha! She may have fooled you, Packer, or perhaps--perhaps"--he paused, frowning--"perhaps you were trying to fool me, too. I don't know your private life; you may have reasons to help her de--"
"Mr. Potter!" cried the distressed man. "What could be my object? I don't know Miss Lyston off. I was only telling you the simple truth."
"How do I know?" Potter gave him a piercing look. "People are always trying to take advantage of me."
"But Mr. Potter, I--"
"Don't get it into your head that I am too easy, Packer! You think you've got a luxurious thing of it here, with me, but--" He concluded with an ominous shake of the head in lieu of words, then returned to the centre of the stage. "Are we to be all day getting on with this rehearsal?"
Packer flew to the table and seized the manuscript he had left there. "All ready, sir! 'Nothing in this world but one thing can defeat'--and so on, so on. All ready, sir!"
The star made no reply but to gaze upon him stonily, a stare which produced another dreadful silence. Packer tried to smile, a lamentable sight.
"Something wrong, Mr. Potter?" he finally ventured, desperately.
The answer came in a voice cracking with emotional strain: "I wonder how many men bear what I bear? I wonder how many men would pay a stage-manager the salary I pay, and then do all his work for him!"
"Mr. Potter, if you'll tell me what's the matter," Packer quavered; "if you'll only tell me--"
"The understudy, idiot! Where is the understudy to read Miss Lyston's part? You haven't got one! I knew it! I told you last week to engage an understudy for the women's parts, and you haven't done it. I knew it, I knew it! God help me, I knew it!"
"But I did, sir. I've got her here."
Packer ran to the back of the stage, shouting loudly: "Miss-oh, Miss--I forget-your-name! Understudy! Miss--"
It was an odd, slender voice that spoke, just behind Talbot Potter, and he turned to stare at a little figure in black--she had come so quietly out of the shadows of the scenery into Miss Lyston's place that no one had noticed. She was indefinite of outline still, in the sparse light of that cavernous place; and, with a veil lifted just to the level of her brows, under a shadowing black hat, not much was to be clearly discerned of her except that she was small and pale and had bright eyes. But even the two words she spoke proved the peculiar quality of her voice: it was like the tremolo of a zither string; and at the sound of it the actors on each side of her instinctively moved a step back for a better view of her, while in his lurking place old Tinker let his dry lips open a little, which was as near as he ever came, nowadays, to a look of interest. He had noted that this voice, sweet as rain, and vibrant, but not loud, was the ordinary speaking voice of the understudy, and that her "I'm here," had sounded, soft and clear, across the deep orchestra to the last row in the house.
"Of course!" Packer cried. "There she is, Mr. Potter! There's Miss--Miss--"
"Is her name 'Missmiss'?" the star demanded bitterly.
"No sir. I've forgotten it, just this moment, Mr. Potter, but I've got it. I've got it right here." He began frantically to turn out the contents of his pockets. "It's in my memorandum book, if I could only find--"
"The devil, the devil!" shouted Potter. "A fine understudy you've got for us! She sees me standing here like--like a statue--delaying the whole rehearsal, while we wait for you to find her name, and she won't open her lips!" He swept the air with a furious gesture, and a subtle faint relief became manifest throughout the company at this token that the newcomer was indeed to fill Miss Lyston's place for one rehearsal at least. "Why don't you tell us your name?" he roared.
"I understood," said the zither-sweet voice, "that I was never to speak to you unless you directly asked me a question. My--"
"My soul! Have you got a name?"
Potter had never heard it until that moment, but his expression showed that he considered it another outrage.
The rehearsal proceeded, and under that cover old Tinker came noiselessly down the aisle and resumed his seat beside Canby, who was uttering short, broken sighs, and appeared to have been trying with fair success to give himself a shampoo.
"It's ruined, Mr. Tinker!" he moaned, and his accompanying gesture was misleading, seeming to indicate that he alluded to
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