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 his hair. “It's all ruined if he sticks to these horrible lines he's put in—people told me I ought to have it in my contract that nothing could be changed. I was trying to make the audience see the tragedy of egoism in my play—and how people get to hating an egoist. I made 'Roderick Hanscom' a disagreeable character on purpose, and—oh, listen to that!”
Miss Ellsling and Talbot Potter stood alone, near the front of the stage. “Why do you waste such goodness on me, Roderick?” Miss Ellsling was inquiring. “It is noble and I feel that I am unworthy of you.”
“No, Mildred, believe me,” Potter read from his manuscript, “I would rather decline the nomination and abandon my career, and go to live in some quiet spot far from all this, than that you should know one single moment's unhappiness, for you mean far more to me than worldly success.” He kissed her hand with reverence, and lifted his head slowly, facing the audience with rapt gaze; his wonderful smile—that ineffable smile of abnegation and benignity—just beginning to dawn.
Coming from behind him, and therefore unable to see his face, Miss Wanda Malone advanced in her character of ingenue, speaking with an effect of gayety: “Now what are you two good people conspiring about?”
Potter stamped the floor; there was wrenched from him an incoherent shriek containing fragments of profane words and ending distinguishably with: “It's that Missmiss again!”
Packer impelled himself upon Miss Malone, pushing her back. “No, no, no!” he cried. “Count ten! Count ten before you come down with that speech. You mustn't interrupt Mr. Potter, Miss—Miss—”
“It was my cue,” she said composedly, showing her little pamphlet of typewritten manuscript. “Wasn't I meant to speak on the cue?”
Talbot Potter recovered himself sufficiently to utter a cry of despair: “And these are the kind of people an artist must work with!” He lifted his arms to heaven, calling upon the high gods for pity; then, with a sudden turn of fury, ran to the back of the stage and came mincing forward evidently intending saturnine mimicry, repeating the ingenue's speech in a mocking falsetto: “Now what are you two good people conspiring about?” After that he whirled upon her, demanding with ferocity: “You've got something you can think with in your head, haven't you, Missmiss? Then what do you think of that?”
Miss Malone smiled, and it was a smile that would have gone a long way at a college dance. Here, it made the pitying company shudder for her. “I think it's a silly, makeshift sort of a speech,” she said cheerfully, in which opinion the unhappy playwright out in the audience hotly agreed. “It's a bit of threadbare archness, and if I were to play Miss Lyston's part, I'd be glad to have it changed!”
Potter looked dazed. “Is it your idea,” he said in a ghostly voice, “that I was asking for your impression of the dramatic and literary value of that line?”
She seemed surprised. “Weren't you?”
It was too much for Potter. He had brilliant and unusual powers of expression, but this was beyond them. He went to the chair beside the little table, flung himself upon it, his legs outstretched, his arms dangling inert, and stared haggardly upward at nothing.
Packer staggered into the breach. “You interrupted the smile, Miss—Mi—”
“Miss Malone,” she prompted.
“You interrupted the smile, Miss Malone. Mr. Potter gives them the smile there. You must count ten for it, after your cue. Ten—slow. Count slow. Mark it on your sides, Miss—ah—Miss. 'Count ten for smile. Write it down please, Miss—Miss—”
Potter spoke wearily. “Be kind enough to let me know, Packer, when you and Missmiss can bring yourselves to permit this rehearsal to continue.”
“All ready, sir,” said Packer briskly. “All ready now, Mr. Potter.” And upon the star's limply rising, Miss Ellsling, most tactful of leading women, went back to his cue with a change of emphasis in her reading that helped to restore him somewhat to his poise. “It is noble,” she repeated, “and I feel that I am unworthy of you!”
Counting ten slowly proved to be the proper deference to the smile, and Miss Malone was allowed to come down the stage and complete, undisturbed, her ingenue request to know what the two good people were conspiring about. Thereafter the rehearsal went on in a strange, unreal peace like that of a prairie noon in the cyclone season.
“Notice that girl?” old Tinker muttered, as Wanda Malone finished another ingenue question with a light laugh, as commanded by her manuscript. “She's frightened but she's steady.”
“What girl?” Canby was shampooing himself feverishly and had little interest in girls. “I made it a disagreeable character because—”
“I mean the one he's letting out on—Malone,” said Tinker. “Didn't you notice her voice? Her laugh reminds me of Fanny Caton's—and Dora Preston's—”
“Who?” Canby asked vaguely.
“Oh, nobody you'd remember; some old-time actresses that had their day—and died—long ago. This girl's voice made me think of them.”
“She may, she may,” said Canby hurriedly. “Mr. Tinker, the play is ruined. He's tangled the whole act up so that I can't tell what it's about myself. Instead of Roderick Hanscom's being a man that people dislike for his conceit and selfishness he's got him absolutely turned round. I oughtn't to allow it—but everything's so different from what I thought it would be! He doesn't seem to know I'm here. I came prepared to read the play to the company; I thought he'd want me to.”
“Oh, no,” said Tinker. “He never does that.”
“Wastes time, for one thing. The actors don't listen except when their own parts are being read.”
“Their own parts are all they have to look out for,” the old man informed him dryly. “I've known actors to play a long time in parts that didn't appear in the last act, and they never know how the play ended.”
“Never cared, either,” Tinker added.
“Sh! He's breaking out again!”
A shriek of agony came from the stage. “Pack-e-r-r-! Where did you find this Missmiss understudy? Can't you get me people of experience? I really cannot bear this kind of thing—I can not!” And Potter flung himself upon the chair, leaving the slight figure in black standing alone in the centre of the stage. He sprang up again, however, surprisingly, upon the very instant of despairing collapse. “What do you mean by this perpetual torture of me?” he wailed at her. “Don't you know what you did?”
“No, Mr. Potter.” She looked at him bravely, but she began to grow red.
“You don't?” he cried incredulously. “You don't know what you did? You moved! How are they going to get my face if you move? Don't you know enough to hold a picture and not ruin it by moving?”
“There was a movement written for that cue,” she said, a little tremulously. “The business in the script is, 'Showing that she is touched by Roderick's nobleness, lifts handkerchief impulsive gesture to eyes.'”
“Not,” he shouted, “not during the SMILE!”
“Oh!” she cried remorsefully. “Have I done that again?”
“'Again!' I don't know how many times you've done it!” He flung his arms wide, with hands outspread and fingers vibrating. “You do it every time you get the chance! You do it perpetually! You don't do anything else! It's all you live for!”
He hurled his manuscript violently at the table, Packer making a wonderful pick-up catch of it just as it touched the floor.
“That's all!” And the unhappy artist sank into the chair in a crumpled stupor.
“Ten o'clock to-morrow morning, ladies and gentlemen!” Packer called immediately, with brisk cheerfulness. “Please notice: to-morrow's rehearsal is in the morning. Ten o'clock to-morrow morning!”
“Tell the understudy to wait, Packer,” said the star abysmally, and Packer addressed himself to the departing backs of the company:
“Mr. Potter wants to speak to Miss—Miss—”
“Malone,” prompted the owner of the name, without resentment.
“Wait a moment, Miss Malone,” said Potter, looking up wearily. “Is Mr. Tinker anywhere about?”
“I'm here, Mr. Potter.” Tinker came forward to the orchestra railing.
“I've been thinking about this play, Mr. Tinker,” Potter said, shaking his head despondently. “I don't know about it. I'm very, very doubtful about it.” He peered over Tinker's head, squinting his eyes, and seemed for the first time to be aware of the playwright's presence. “Oh, are you there, Mr. Canby? When did you come in?”
“I've been here all the time,” said the dishevelled Canby, coming forward. “I supposed it was my business to be here, but-”
“Very glad to have you if you wish,” Potter interrupted gloomily. “Any time. Any time you like. I was just telling Mr. Tinker that I don't know about your play. I don't know if it'll do at all.”
“If you'd play it,” Canby began, “the way I wrote it—”
“In the first place,” Potter said with sudden vehemence, “it lacks Punch! Where's your Punch in this play, Mr. Canby? Where is there any Punch whatever in the whole four acts? Surely, after this rehearsal, you don't mean to claim that the first act has one single ounce of Punch in it!”
“But you've twisted this act all round,” the unhappy young man protested. “The way you have it I can't tell what it's got to it. I meant Roderick Hanscom to be a disagr—”
“Mr. Canby,” said the star, rising impressively, “if we played that act the way you wrote it, we'd last just about four minutes of the opening night. You gave me absolutely nothing to do! Other people talked at me and I had to stand there and be talked at for twenty minutes straight, like a blithering ninny!”
“Well, as you have it, the other actors have to stand there like ninnies,” poor Canby retorted miserably, “while you talk at them almost the whole time.”
“My soul!” Potter struck the table with the palm of his hand. “Do you think anybody's going to pay two dollars to watch me listen to my company for three hours? No, my dear man, your play's got to give me something to do! You'll have to rewrite the second and third acts. I've done what I could for the first, but, good God! Mr. Canby, I can't write your whole play for you! You'll have to get some Punch into it or we'll never be able to go on with it.”
“I don't know what you mean,” said the playwright helplessly. “I never did know what people mean by Punch.”
“Punch? It's what grips 'em,” Potter returned with vehemence. “Punch is what keeps 'em sitting on the edge of their seats. Big love scenes! They've got Punch. Or a big scene with a man. Give me a big scene with a man.” He illustrated his meaning with startling intensity, crouching and seizing an imaginary antagonist by the throat, shaking him and snarling between his clenched teeth, while his own throat swelled and reddened: “Now, damn you! You dog! So on, so on, so on! Zowie!” Suddenly his figure straightened. “Then change. See?” He became serene, almost august. “'No! I will not soil these hands with you. So on, so on, so on. I give you your worthless life. Go!'” He completed his generosity by giving Canby and Tinker the smile, after which he concluded much more cheerfully: “Something like that, Mr. Canby, and we'll have some real Punch in your play.”
“But there isn't any chance for that kind of a scene in it,” the playwright objected. “It's the study of an egoist, a disagree—”
“There!” exclaimed Potter. “That's it! Do you think people are going to pay two dollars to see Talbot Potter behave like a cad? They won't do it; they pay two dollars to see me as I am—not pretending to be the kind of man your 'Roderick Hanscom' was. No, Mr. Canby, I accepted your play because it has got quite a fair situation in the third act, and because I thought I saw a chance in it to keep some of the strength of 'Roderick Hanscom' and yet make him lovable.”
“But, great heavens! if you make him lovable the character's ruined. Besides, the audience won't want to see him lose the girl at the end and 'Donald Grey' get her!”
“No, they won't; that's it exactly,” said Potter thoughtfully. “You'll have to fix that, Mr. Canby. 'Roderick Hanscom' will have to win her by a great sacrifice in the last act. A great, strong, lovable man, Mr. Canby; that's the kind of character I want to play: a big, sweet, lovable fellow, with the heart of a child, that makes a great sacrifice for a woman. I don't want to play 'egoists'; I don't want to play character parts. No.” He shook his head musingly, and concluded, the while a light of ineffable sweetness shone from his remarkable eyes: “Mr. Canby, no! My audience comes to see Talbot Potter. You go over these other acts and write the part so that I can play myself.”
The playwright gazed upon him, inarticulate, and Potter, shaking himself slightly, like one aroused from a pleasant little reverie, turned to the waiting figure of the girl.
“What is it, Miss Malone?” he asked mildly. “Did you want to speak to me?”
“You told Mr. Packer to ask me to wait,” she said.
“Did I? Oh, yes, so I did. If you please, take off your hat and veil, Miss Malone?”
She gave him a startled look; then, without a word, slowly obeyed.
“Ah, yes,” he said a moment later. “We'll find something else for Miss Lyston when she recovers. You will keep the part.”