“Your overcoat, Mr. Potter!” called that faithful servitor as Potter was going out through the theatre with old Tinker and Canby. “You've forgotten your overcoat, sir.”
“I don't want it.”
“Yes sir; but it's a little raw to-day.” He leaped down into the orchestra from the high stage, striking his knee upon a chair with violence, but, pausing not an instant for that, came running up the aisle carrying the overcoat. “You might want it after you get out into the air, Mr. Potter. I'm sure Mr. Tinker or Mr. Canby won't mind taking charge of it for you until you feel like putting it on.”
“Lord! Don't make such a fuss, Packer. Put it on me—put it on me!”
He extended his arms behind him, and was enveloped solicitously and reverently in the garment.
“Confound him!” said Potter good-humouredly, as they came out into the lobby. “It is chilly; he's usually right, the idiot!”
Turning from Broadway, at the corner, they went over to Fifth Avenue, where Potter's unconsciousness of the people who recognized and stared at him was, as usual, one of the finest things he did, either upon the stage or “off.” Superb performance as it was, it went for nothing with Stewart Canby, who did not even see it, for he walked entranced, not in a town, but through orchards in bloom.
If Wanda Malone had remained with him, clear and insistent after yesterday's impersonal vision of her at rehearsal, what was she now, when every tremulous lilt of the zither-string voice, and every little gesture of the impulsive hands, and every eager change of the glowing face, were fresh and living, in all their beautiful reality, but a matter of minutes past? He no longer resisted the bewitchment; he wanted all of it. His companions and himself were as trees walking, and when they had taken their seats at a table in the men's restaurant of a hotel where he had never been, he was not roused from his rapturous apathy even by the conduct of probably the most remarkable maitre d'hotel in the world.
“You don't git 'em!” said this personage briefly, when Potter had ordered chops and “oeufs a la creole” and lettuce salad, from a card. “You got to eat partridge and asparagus tips salad!”
And he went away, leaving the terrible Potter resigned and unrebellious.
The partridge was undeniable when it came; a stuffed man would have eaten it. But Talbot Potter and his two guests did little more than nibble it; they neither ate nor talked, and yet they looked anything but unhappy. Detached from their surroundings, as they sat over their coffee, they might have been taken to be three poetic gentlemen listening to a serenade.
After a long and apparently satisfactory silence, Talbot Potter looked at his watch, but not, as it proved, to see if it was time to return to the theatre, his ensuing action being to send a messenger to procure a fresh orchid to take the place of the one that had begun to droop a little from his buttonhold. He attached the new one with an attentive gravity shared by his companions.
“Good thing, a boutonniere,” he explained. “Lighten it up a little. Rehearsal's dry work, usually. Thinking about it last night. Why not lighten it up a little? Why shouldn't an actor dress as well for a company of strangers at a reception? Ought to make it as cheerful as we can.”
“Yes,” said Tinker, nodding. “Something in that. I believe they work better. I must say I never saw much better work than those people were doing this morning. It was a fine rehearsal.”
“It's a fine company,” Potter said warmly. “They're the best people I ever had. They're all good, every one of them, and they're putting their hearts into this play. It's the kind of work that makes me proud to be an actor. I am proud to be an actor! Is there anything better?” He touched the young playwright on the arm, a gesture that hinted affection. “Stewart Canby,” he said, “I want to tell you I think we're going to make a big thing out of this play. It's going to be the best I've ever done. It's going to be beautiful!”
From the doorway into the lobby of the hotel there came a pretty sound of girlish voices whispering and laughing excitedly, and, glancing that way, the three men beheld a group of peering nymphs who fled, delighted.
“Ladies stop to rubber at Mr. Potter,” explained the remarkable headwaiter over the star's shoulder. “Mr. Potter, it's time you got marrit, anyhow. You git marrit, you don't git stared at so much!” He paused not for a reply, but hastened away to countermand the order of another customer.
“Married,” said Potter musingly. “Well, there is such a thing as remaining a bachelor too long—even for an actor.”
“Widower, either,” assented Mr. Tinker as from a gentle reverie. “A man's never too old to get married.”
His employer looked at him somewhat disapprovingly, but said nothing; and presently the three rose, without vocal suggestion from any of them, and strolled thoughtfully back to the theatre, pausing a moment by the way, while Tinker bought a white carnation for his buttonhole. There was a good deal, he remarked absent-mindedly, in what Mr. Potter had said about lightening up a rehearsal.
Probably there never was a more lightened-up rehearsal than that afternoon's. Potter's amiability continued;—nay, it increased: he was cordial; he was angelic; he was exalted and unprecedented. A stranger would have thought Packer the person in control; and the actors, losing their nervousness, were allowed to display not only their energy but their intelligence. The stage became a cheery workshop, where ambition flourished and kindness was the rule. For thus did the starry happiness that glowed within the beatific bosom of the little “ingenue” make Arcady around her.
At four o'clock Talbot Potter stepped to the front of the stage and lifted his hand benevolently. “That will do for to-day,” he said, facing the company. “Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you. I have never had a better rehearsal, and I think it is only your due to say you have pleased me very much, indeed. I cannot tell you how much. I feel strongly assured of our success in this play. Again I thank you. Ladies and gentlemen”—he waved his hand in dismissal—“till to-morrow morning.”
“By Joles!” old Carson Tinker muttered. “I never knew anything like it!”
“Oh—ah—Packer,” called the star, as the actors moved toward the doors. “Packer, ask Miss—Malone to wait a moment. I want—I'd like to go over a little business in the next act before tomorrow.”
“Yes, Mr. Potter?” It was she who answered, turning eagerly to him.
“In a moment, Miss Malone.” He spoke to the stage-manager in a low tone, and the latter came down into the auditorium, where Canby and Tinker had remained in their seats.
“He says for you not to wait, gentlemen. There's nothing more to do this afternoon, and he may be detained quite a time.”
The violet boutonniere and the white carnation went somewhat reluctantly up the aisle together, and, after a last glance back at the stage from the doorway, found themselves in the colder air of the lobby, a little wilted.
Bidding Tinker farewell, on the steps of the theatre, Canby walked briskly out to the Park, and there, abating his energy, paced the loneliest paths he could find until long after dark. They were not lonely for him; a radiant presence went with him through the twilight. She was all about him: in the blue brightness of the afterglow, in the haze of the meadow stretches, and in the elusive woodland scents that vanished as he caught them;—she was in the rosy vapour wreaths on the high horizon, in the laughter of children playing somewhere in the darkness, in the twinkling of the lights that began to show—for now she was wherever a lover finds his lady, and that is everywhere. He went over and over their talk of the morning, rehearsing wonderful things he would say to her upon the morrow, and taking the liberty of suggesting replies from her even more wonderful. It was a rhapsody; he was as happy as Tom o'Bedlam.
By and by, he went to a restaurant in the Park and ordered food to be brought him. Then, after looking at it with an expression of fixed animation for half an hour, he paid for it and went home. He let himself into the boarding-house quietly, having hazy impressions that he was not popular there, also that it might be embarrassing to encounter Miss Cornish in the hall; and, after reconnoitering the stairway, went cautiously up to his room.
Three minutes later he came bounding down again, stricken white, and not caring if he encountered the devil. On his table he had found a package—the complete manuscript of “Roderick Hanscom” and this scrawl:
I can't produce your play—everything off.