When Canby (with his hair smoothed) descended to the basement dining room of his Madison Avenue boarding-house that evening, his table comrades gave him an effective entrance; they rose, waving napkins and cheering, and there were cries of “Author! Author!” “Speech!” and “Cher maitre!”
The recipient of these honours bore them with an uneasiness attributed to modesty, and making inadequate response, sat down to his soup with no importunate appetite.
“Seriously, though,” said a bearded man opposite, who always broke into everything with “seriously though,” or else, “all joking aside,” and had thereby gained a reputation for conservatism and soundness—“seriously, though, it must have been a great experience to take charge of the rehearsal of such a company as Talbot Potter's.”
“Tell us how it felt, Canby, old boy,” said another. “How does it feel to sit up there like a king makin' everybody step around to suit you?”
Other neighbors took it up.
“Any pretty girls in the company, Can?”
“How does it feel to be a great dramatist, old man?”
“When you goin' to hire a valet-chauffeur?”
“Better ask him when he's goin' to take us to rehearsal, to see him in his glory.”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” said the hostess deprecatingly, “Miss Cornish is trying to speak to Mr. Canby.”
Miss Cornish, a middle-aged lady in black lace, sat at her right, at the head of the largest table, being the most paying of these paying guests, by which virtue she held also the ingleside premiership of the parlour overhead. She was reputed to walk much among gentles, and to have a high taste in letters and the drama; for she was chief of an essay club, had a hushing manner, and often quoted with precision from reviews, or from such publishers' advertisements as contained no slang; and she was a member of one of the leagues for patronizing the theatre in moderation.
“Mr. Canby,” said the hostess pleasantly, “Miss Cornish wishes to—”
This obtained the attention of the assembly, while Canby, at the other end of the room, sat back in his chair with the unenthusiastic air of a man being served with papers.
“Yes, Miss Cornish.”
Miss Cornish cleared her throat, not practically, but with culture, as preliminary to an address. “I was saying, Mr. Canby,” she began, “that I had a suggestion to make which may not only interest you, but certain others of us who do not enjoy equal opportunities in some matters—as—as others of us who do. Indeed, I believe it will interest all of us without regard to—to—to this. What I was about to suggest was that since today you have had a very interesting experience, not only interesting because you have entered into a professional as well as personal friendship with one of our foremost artists—an artist whose work is cultivated always—but also interesting because there are some of us here whose more practical occupations and walk in life must necessarily withhold them from—from this. What I meant to suggest was that, as this prevents them from—from this—would it not be a favourable opportunity for them to—to glean some commentary upon the actual methods of a field of art? Personally, it happens that whenever opportunities and invitations have been—have been urged, other duties intervened, but though, on that account never having been actually present, I am familiar, of course, through conversation with great artists and memoirs and—and other sources of literature—with the procedure and etiquette of rehearsal. But others among us, no doubt through lack of leisure, are perhaps less so than—than this. What I wished to suggest was that, not now, but after dinner, we all assemble quietly, in the large parlour upstairs, of which Mrs. Reibold has kindly consented to allow us the use for the evening, for this purpose, and that you, Mr. Canby, would then give us an informal talk—” (She was momentarily interrupted by a deferential murmur of “Hear! Hear!” from everybody.) “What I meant to suggest,” she resumed, smiling graciously as from a platform, “was a sort of descriptive lecture, of course wholly informal—not so much upon your little play itself, Mr. Canby, for I believe we are all familiar with its subject-matter, but what would perhaps be more improving in artistic ways would be that you give us your impressions of this little experience of yours to-day while it is fresh in your mind. I would suggest that you tell us, simply, and in your own way, exactly what was the form of procedure at rehearsal, so that those of us not so fortunate as to be already en rapport with such matters may form a helpful and artistic idea of—of this. I would suggest that you go into some details of this, perhaps adding whatever anecdotes or incidents of—of—of the day—you think would give additional value to this. I would suggest that you tell us, for instance, how you were received upon your arrival, who took you to the most favourable position for observing the performance, and what was said. We should be glad to hear also, I am sure, and artistic thoughts or—or knowledge—Mr. Potter may have let fall in the green-room; or even a few witticisms might not be out of place, if you should recall these. We should all like to know, I am sure, what Mr. Potter's method of conceiving his part was. Also, does he leave entire freedom to his company in the creation of their own roles, or does he aid them? Many questions, no doubt, occur to all of us. For instance: Did Mr. Potter offer you any suggestions for changes and alterations that might aid to develop the literary and artistic value of the pl—”
The placid voice, flowing on in gentle great content of itself (while all the boarders gallantly refrained from eating), was checked by an interruption which united into one shattering impact the effects of lese-majeste and of violence.
“Couldn't! No! No parlour! Horrib—”
The words mingled in the throat of the playwright, producing an explosion somewhere between choke and bellow, as he got upon his feet, overturning his chair and coincidentally dislodging several articles of china and glassware. He stood among the ruins for one moment, publicly wiping his brow with a napkin, then plunged, murmuring, out of the room and up the stairway; and, before any of the company had recovered speech, the front door was heard to slam tumultuously, its reverberations being simultaneous with the sound of footsteps running down the stoop.
Turning northward upon the pavement, the fugitive hurriedly passed the two lighted windows of the dining-room; they rattled with a concussion—the outburst of suddenly released voices beginning what was to be a protracted wake over the remains of his reputation as a gentleman. He fled, flinging on his overcoat as he went. In his pockets were portions of the manuscript of his play, already distorted since rehearsal to suit the new nobleness of “Roderick Hanscom,” and among these inky sheets was a note from Talbot Potter, received just before dinner:
Dear Mr. Canby,
Come up to my apartments at the Pantheon after dinner and let me see what changes you have been able to make in the second and third acts. I should like to look at them before deciding to put on another play I have been considering.