Carson Tinker was in the elevator at the Pantheon, and the operator was closing the door thereof, about to ascend, but delayed upon a sound of running footsteps and a call of “Up!” Stewart Canby plunged into the cage; his hat, clutched in his hand, disclosing emphatically that he had been at his hair again.
“What's he mean?” he demanded fiercely. “What have I done?”
“What's the matter?” inquired the calm Tinker.
“What's he called it off for?”
“Called what off?”
“The play! My play!”
“I don't know what you're talking about. I haven't seen him since rehearsal. His Japanese boy called me on the telephone a little while ago and told me he wanted to see me.”
“He did?” cried the distracted Canby. “The Japanese boy wanted to see—”
“No,” Tinker corrected. “He did.”
“And you haven't heard—”
“Twelfth,” urged the operator, having opened the door. “Twelfth, if you please, gentlemen.”
“I haven't heard anything to cause excitement,” said Tinker, stepping out. “I haven't heard anything at all.” He pressed the tiny disc beside the door of Potter's apartment. “What's upset you?”
With a pathetic gesture Canby handed him Potter's note. “What have I done? What does he think I've done to him?”
Tinker read the note and shook his head. “The Lord knows! You see he's all moods, and they change—they change any time. He knows his business, but you can't count on him. He's liable to do anything—anything at all.”
“But what reason—”
The Japanese boy, Sato, stood bobbing in the doorway.
“Mis' Potter kassee,” he said courteously. “Ve'y so'y Mis' Potter kassee nobody.”
“Can't see us?” said Tinker. “Yes, he can. You telephoned me that he wanted to see me, not over a quarter of an hour ago.”
Sato beamed upon him enthusiastically. “Yisso, yisso! See Mis' Tinker, yisso! You come in, Mis' Tinker. Ve'y so'y. Mis' Potter kassee nobody.”
“You mean he'll see Mister Tinker but won't see anybody else?” cried the playwright.
“Yisso,” said Sato, delighted. “Ve'y so'y. Mis' Potter kassee nobody.”
“I will see him. I—”
“Wait. It's all right,” Tinker reassured him soothingly. “It's all right, Sato. You go and tell Mr. Potter that I'm here and Mr. Canby came with me.”
“Yisso.” Sato stood back from the door obediently, and they passed into the hall. “You sidowm, please.”
“Tell him we're waiting in here,” said Tinker, leading the way into the cream-coloured salon.
“Yisso.” Sato disappeared.
The pretty room was exquisitely cheerful, a coal fire burning rosily in the neat little grate, but for its effect upon Canby it might have been a dentist's anteroom. He was unable to sit, and began to pace up and down, shampooing himself with both hands.
“I've racked my brains every step of the way here,” he groaned. “All I could think of was that possibly I've unconsciously paralleled some other play that I never saw. Maybe someone's told him about a plot like mine. Such things must happen—they do happen, of course—because all plots are old. But I can't believe my treatment of it could be so like—”
“I don't think it's that,” said Tinker. “It's never anything you expect—with him.”
“Well, what else can it be?” the playwright demanded. “I haven't done anything to offend him. What have I done that he should—”
“You'd better sit down,” the manager advised him. “Going plumb crazy never helped anything yet that I know of.”
“But, good heavens! How can I—”
“Sh!” whispered Tinker.
A tragic figure made its appearance upon the threshold of the inner doorway: Potter, his face set with epic woe, gloom burning in his eyes like the green fire in a tripod at a funeral of state. His plastic hair hung damp and irregular over his white brow—a wreath upon a tombstone in the rain—and his garment, from throat to ankle, was a dressing-gown of dead black, embroidered in purple; soiled, magnificent, awful. Beneath its midnight border were his bare ankles, final testimony to his desperate condition, for only in ultimate despair does a suffering man remove his trousers. The feet themselves were distractedly not of the tableau, being immersed in bedroom shoes of gay white fur shaped in a Romeo pattern; but this was the grimmest touch of all—the merry song of mad Ophelia.
“Mr. Potter!” the playwright began, “I—”
Potter turned without a word and disappeared into the room whence he came.
“Mr. Potter!” Canby started to follow. “Mr. Pot—”
“Sh!” whispered Tinker.
Potter appeared again upon the threshold In one hand he held a large goblet; in the other a bottle of Bourbon whiskey, just opened. With solemn tread he approached a delicate table, set the goblet upon it, and lifted the bottle high above.
“I am in no condition to talk to anybody,” he said hoarsely. “I am about to take my first drink of spirits in five years.”
And he tilted the bottle. The liquor clucked and guggled, plashed into the goblet, and splashed upon the table; but when he set the bottle down the glass was full to its capacious brim, and looked, upon the little “Louis Sixteenth” table, like a sot at the Trianon. Potter stepped back and pointed to it majestically.
“That,” he said, “is the size of the drink I am about to take!”
“Mr. Potter,” said Canby hotly, “will you tell me what's the matter with my play? Haven't I made every change you suggested? Haven't—”
Potter tossed his arms above his head and flung himself full length upon the chaise lounge.
“STOP it!” he shouted. “I won't be pestered. I won't! Nothing's the matter with your play!”
Potter swung himself round to a sitting position and hammered with his open palm upon his knee for emphasis: “Nothing's the matter with it, I tell you! I simply won't play it!”
“I simply won't play it! I don't like it!”
The playwright dropped into a chair, open-mouthed. “Will you tell me why you ever accepted it?”
“I don't like any play! I hate 'em all! I'm through with 'em all! I'm through with the whole business! 'Show-business!' Faugh!”
Old Tinker regarded him thoughtfully, then inquired: “Gone back on it?”
“I tell you I'm going to buy a farm!” He sprang up, went to the mantel and struck it a startling blow with his fist, which appeared to calm him somewhat—for a moment. “I've been thinking of it for a long time. I ought never to have been in this business at all, and I'm going to live in the country. Oh, I'm in my right mind!” He paused to glare indignantly in response to old Tinker's steady gaze. “Of course you think 'something's happened' to upset me. Well, nothing has. Nothing of the slightest consequence has occurred since I saw you at rehearsal. Can't a man be allowed to think? I just came home here and got to thinking of the kind of life I lead—and I decided that I'm tired of it. And I'm not going to lead it any longer. That's all.”
“Ah,” said Tinker quietly. “Nerves.”
Talbot Potter appealed to the universe with a passionate gesture. “Nerves!” he cried bitterly. “Yes, that's what they say when an actor dares to think. 'Go on! Play your part! Be a marionette forever!' That's what you tell us! 'Slave for your living, you sordid little puppet! Squirm and sweat and strut, but don't you ever dare to think!' You tell us that because you know if we ever did stop to think for one instant about ourselves you wouldn't have any actors! Actors! Faugh! What do we get, I ask you?”
He strode close to Tinker and shook a frantic forefinger within a foot of the quiet old fellow's face.
“What do I get?” he demanded, passionately. “Do you think it means anything to me that some fat old woman sees me making love to a sawdust actress at a matinee and then goes home and hates her fat old husband across the dinner-table?”
He returned to the fireplace, seeming appeased, at least infinitesimally, by this thought. “There wouldn't even be that, except for the mystery. It's only because I'm mysterious to them—the way a man always thinks the girl he doesn't know is prettier than the one he's with. What's that got to do with acting? What is acting, anyhow?” His voice rose passionately again. “I'll tell you one thing it is: It's the most sordid profession in this devilish world!”
He strode to the centre of the room. “It's at the bottom—in the muck! That's where it is. And it ought to be! What am I, out there on that silly platform they call a stage? A fool, that's all, making faces, and pretending to be somebody with another name, for two dollars! A monkey-on-a-stick for the children! Of course the world despises us! Why shouldn't it? It calls us mummers and mountebanks, and that's what we are! Buffoons! We aren't men and women at all—we're strolling players! We're gypsies! One of us marries a broker's daughter and her relatives say she's married 'a damned actor!' That's what they say—'a damned actor!' Great heavens, Tinker, can't a man get tired of being called a 'damned actor' without your making all this uproar over it—squalling 'nerves' in my face till I wish I was dead and done with it!”
He went back to the fireplace again, but omitted another dolorous stroke upon the mantel. “And look at the women in the profession,” he continued, as he turned to face his visitors. “My soul! Look at them! Nothing but sawdust—sawdust—sawdust! Do you expect to go on acting with sawdust? Making sawdust love with sawdust? Sawdust, I tell you! Sawdust—sawdust—saw—”
“Oh, no,” said Tinker easily. “Not all. Not by any means. No.”
“Show me one that isn't sawdust!” the tragedian cried fiercely. “Show me just one!”
“We-ll,” said Tinker with extraordinary deliberation, “to start near home: Wanda Malone.”
Potter burst into terrible laughter. “All sawdust! That's why I discharged her this afternoon.”
“You what?” Canby shouted incredulously.
“I dismissed her from my company,” said Potter with a startling change to icy calmness. “I dismissed her from my company this afternoon.”
Old Tinker leaned forward. “You didn't!”
Potter's iciness increased. “Shall I repeat it? I was obliged to dismiss Miss Wanda Malone from my company, this afternoon, after rehearsal.”
“Why?” Canby gasped.
“Because,” said Potter, with the same calmness, “she has an utterly commonplace mind.”
Canby rose in agitation, quite unable, for that moment, to speak; but Tinker, still leaning forward, gazing intently at the face of the actor, made a low, long-drawn sound of wonder and affirmation, the slow exclamation of a man comprehending what amazes him. “So that's it!”
“Besides being intensely ordinary,” said Potter, with superiority, “I discovered that she is deceitful. That had nothing whatever to do with my decision to leave the stage.” He whirled upon Tinker suddenly, and shouted: “No matter what you think!”
“No,” said Tinker. “No matter.”
Potter laughed. “Talbot Potter leaves the stage because a little 'ingenue' understudy tries to break the rules of his company! Likely, isn't it?”
“Looks so,” said old Tinker.
“Does it?” retorted Potter with rising fury. “Then I'll tell you, since you seem not to know it, that I'm not going to leave the stage! Can't a man give vent to his feelings once in his life without being caught up and held to it by every old school-teacher that's stumbled into the 'show-business' by mistake! We're going right on with this play, I tell you; we rehearse it to-morrow morning just the same as if this hadn't happened. Only there will be a new 'ingenue' in Miss Malone's place. People can't break iron rules in my company. Maybe they could in Mounet-Sully's, but they can't in mine!”
“What rule did she break?” Canby's voice was unsteady. “What rule?”
“Yes,” Tinker urged. “Tell us what it was.”
“After rehearsal,” the star began with dignity, “I was—I—” He paused. “I was disappointed in her.”
“Ye-es?” drawled Tinker encouragingly.
Potter sent him a vicious glance, but continued: “I had hopes of her intelligence—as an actress. She seemed to have, also, a fairly attractive personality. I felt some little—ah, interest in her, personally. There is something about her that—” Again he paused. “I talked to her—about her part—at length; and finally I—ah—said I should be glad to walk home with her, as it was after dark. She said no, she wouldn't let me take so much trouble, because she lived almost at the other end of Brooklyn. It seemed to me that—ah, she is very young—you both probably noticed that—so I said I would—that is, I offered to drive her home in a taxicab. She thanked me, but said she couldn't. She kept saying that she was sorry, but she couldn't. It seemed very peculiar, and, in fact, I insisted. I asked her if she objected to me as an escort, and she said, 'Oh, no!' and got more and more embarrassed. I wanted to know what was the matter and why she couldn't seem to like—that is, I talked very kindly to her, very kindly indeed. Nobody could have been kinder!” He cleared his throat loudly and firmly, with an angry look at Tinker. “I say nobody could have been kinder to an obscure member of the company that I was to Miss Malone. But I was decided. That's all. That's all there was to it. I was merely kind. That's all.” He waved his hand as in dismissal of the subject.
“All?” repeated Canby. “All? You haven't—”
“Oh, yes.” Potter seemed surprised at his own omission. “Oh, yes. Right in the midst of—of what I was saying—she blurted out that she couldn't let me take her home, because 'Lancelot' was waiting for her at a corner drug-store.”
“Lancelot!” There was a catch of dismay in Canby's outcry.
“That's what I said, 'Lancelot'!” cried Potter, more desolately than he intended. “It seems they've been meeting after rehearsal, in their damn corner drug-store. Lancelot!” His voice rose in fury. “If I'd known I had a man named Lancelot in my company I'd have discharged him long ago! If I'd known it was his name I'd have shot him. 'Lancelot!' He came sneaking in there just after she'd blundered it all out to me. Got uneasy because she didn't come, and came to see what was the matter. Naturally, I discharged them both, on the spot! I've never had a rule of my company broken yet—and I never will! He didn't say a word. He didn't dare.”
“Who?” shouted Canby and old Tinker together.
“Lancelot!” said Potter savagely.
“Packer! His first name's Lancelot, the hypocrite! L. Smith Packer! She's Mrs. Packer! They were married two days before rehearsals began. She's Mrs. L. Smith Packer!”