“Second act, ladies and gentlemen!” cried Packer, at precisely ten o'clock the next morning.
About a dozen actors were chatting in small groups upon the stage; three or four paced singly, muttering and mildly gesticulating, with the fretful preoccupation of people trying to remember; two or three, seated, bent over their typewritten “sides,” studying intently; and a few, invisible from the auditorium, were scattered about the rearward rooms and passageways. Talbot Potter, himself, was nowhere to be seen, and, what was even more important to one tumultuously beating heart “in front,” neither was Wanda Malone. Mr. Stewart Canby in a silvery new suit, wearing a white border to his waistcoat collar and other decorations proper to a new playwright, sat in the centre of the front row of the orchestra. Yesterday he had taken a seat about nine rows back.
He bore no surface signs of the wear and tear of a witches' night; riding his runaway play and fighting the enchantment that was upon him. Elastic twenty-seven does not mark a bedless session with violet arcs below its eyes;—what violet a witch had used upon Stewart Canby this morning appeared as a dewey boutonniere in the lapel of his new coat; he was that far gone.
Miss Ellsling and a youth of the company took their places near the front of the stage and began the rehearsal of the second act with a dialogue that led up to the entrance of the star with the “ingenue,” both of whom still remained out of the playwright's range of vision.
As the moment for their appearance drew near, Canby became, to his own rage, almost uncontrollably agitated. Miss Ellsling's scene, which he should have followed carefully, meant nothing to him but a ticking off of the seconds before he should behold with his physical eyes the living presence of the fairy ghost that had put a spell upon him. He was tremulous all over.
Miss Ellsling and her companion came to a full stop and stood waiting. Thereupon Packer went to the rear of the stage, leaned through an open doorway, and spoke deferentially:
“Mr. Potter? All ready, sir. All ready, Miss—ah—Malone?”
Then he stepped back with the air of an unimportant person making way for his betters to pass before him, while Canby's eyes fixed themselves glassily upon the shabby old doorway through which an actual, breathing Wanda Malone was to come.
But he was destined not to see her appear in that expectant frame. Twenty years before—though he had forgotten it—in a dazzling room where there was a Christmas tree, he had uttered a shriek of ecstatic timidity just as a jingling Santa Claus began to emerge from behind the tree, and he had run out of the room and out of the house. He did exactly the same thing now, though this time the shriek was not vocal.
Suffocating, he fled up the aisle and out into the lobby. There he addressed himself distractedly but plainly:
Breathing heavily, he went out to the wide front steps of the theatre and stood, sunlit Broadway swimming before him.
A shabby, shaggy, pale young man, with hot eyes, checked his ardent gait and paused, extending a cordial, thin hand, the fingers browned at the sides by cigarettes smoked to the bitter end. “Rieger,” he said. “Arnold Rieger. Remember me at the old Ink Club meetings before we broke up?”
“Yes,” said Canby dimly. “Yes. The old Ink Club. I came out for a breath of air. Just a breath.”
“We used to settle the universe in that little back restaurant room,” said Rieger. “Not one of use had ever got a thing into print—and me, I haven't yet, for that matter. Editors still hate my stuff. I've kept my oath, though; I've never compromised—never for a moment.”
“Yes,” Canby responded feebly, wondering what the man was talking about. Wanda Malone was surely on the stage, now. If he turned, walked about thirty feet, and opened a door, he would see her—hear her speaking!
“I've had news of your success,” said Rieger. “I saw in the paper that Talbot Potter was to put on a play you'd written. I congratulate you. That man's a great artist, but he never seems to get a good play; he's always much, much greater than his part. I'm sure you've given him a real play at last. I remember your principles: Realism; no compromise! The truth; no shirking it, no tampering with it! You've struck out for that—you've never compro—”
“No. Oh, no,” said Canby, waking up a little. “Of course you've got to make a little change or two in plays. You see, you've got to make an actor like a play or he won't play it, and if he won't play it you haven't got any play—you've only got some typewriting.”
Rieger set his foot upon the step and rested his left forearm upon his knee, and attitude comfortable for street debate. “Admitting the truth of that for the sake of argument, and only for the moment, because I don't for one instant accept such a jesuitism—”
“Yes,” said Canby dreamily. “Yes.” And, with not only apparent but genuine unconsciousness of this one-time friend's existence, he turned and walked back into the lobby, and presently was vaguely aware that somebody near the street doors of the theatre seemed to be in a temper. Somebody kept shouting “Swell-headed pup!” and “Go to the devil!” at somebody else repeatedly, but finally went away, after reaching a vociferous climax of even harsher epithets and instructions.
The departure of this raging unknown left the lobby quiet; Canby had gone near to the inner doors. Listening fearfully, he heard through these a murmurous baritone cadencing: Talbot Potter declaiming the inwardness of “Roderick Hanscom”; and then—oh, bells of Elfland faintly chiming!—the voice of Wanda Malone!
He pressed, trembling, against the doors, and went in.
Talbot Potter and Wanda Malone stood together, the two alone in the great hollow space of the stage. The actors of the company, silent and remote, watched them; old Tinker, halfway down an aisle, stood listening; and near the proscenium two workmen, tools in their hands, had paused in attitudes of arrested motion. Save for the voices of the two players, the whole vast cavern of the theatre was as still as the very self of silence. And the stirless air that filled it was charged with necromancy.
Rehearsal is like the painted canvas without a frame; it is more like a plaster cast, most like of all to the sculptor's hollow moulds. It needs the bronze to bring a statue to life, and it needs the audience to bring a play to life. Some glamour must come from one to the other; some wind of enchantment must blow between them—there must be a magic spell. But these two actors had produced the spell without the audience.
And yet they were only reading a wistful little love-scene that Stewart Canby had written the night before.
Two people were falling in love with each other, neither realizing it. And these two who played the lovers had found some hidden rhythm that brought them together in one picture as a chord is one sound. They played to each other and with each other instinctively; Talbot Potter had forgotten “the smile” and all the mechanism that went with it. The two held the little breathless silences of lovers; they broke these silences timidly, and then their movements and voices ran together like waters in a fountain. A radiance was about them as it is about all lovers; they were suffused with it.
To Stewart Canby, watching, they seemed to move within a sorcerer's circle of enchantment. Upon his disturbed mind there was dawning a conviction that these inspired mummers were beings apart from him, knowing things he never could know, feeling things he never could feel, belonging to another planet whither he could never voyage, where strange winds blew and all things lived and grew in a light beyond his understanding. For the light that shone in the faces of these two was “the light that never was, on sea or land.”
It had its blessing for him. From that moment, if he had known it, this play, which was being born of so many parents, was certain of “success,” of “popularity,” and of what quality of renown such things may bring. And he who was to be called its author stood there a Made Man, unless some accident befell.
Miss Ellsling spoke and came forward, another actor with her. The scene was over. There was a clearing of throats; everybody moved. The stage-carpenter and his assistant went away blinking, like men roused from deep sleep. The routine of rehearsal resumed its place; and old Tinker, who had not stirred a muscle, rubbed the back of his neck suddenly, and came up the aisle to Canby.
“Good business!” he cried. “Did you see that little run off the stage she made when Miss Ellsling came on? And you saw what he can do when he wants to!”
“He?” Canby echoed. “He?”
“Played for the scene instead of himself. Oh, he can do it! He's an old hand—got too many tricks in the bag to let her get the piece away from him—but he's found a girl that can play with him at last, and he'll use every value she's got. He knows good property when he sees it. She's got a pretty good box of tricks herself; stock's the way to learn 'em, but it's apt to take the bloom off. It hasn't taken off any of hers, the darlin'! What do you think, Mr. Canby?”
To Canby, who hardly noticed that this dead old man had come to life, the speech was jargon. The playwright was preoccupied with the fact that Talbot Potter was still on the stage, would continue there until the rather distant end of the act, and that the “ingenue,” after completing the little run at her exit, had begun to study the manuscript of her part, and in that absorption had disappeared through a door into the rear passageway. Canby knew that she was not to be “on” again until the next act, and he followed a desperate impulse.
“See a person,” he mumbled, and went out through the lobby, turned south to the cross-street, proceeded thereby to the stage-door of the theatre, and resolutely crossed the path of the distrustful man who lounged there.
“Here!” called the distrustful man.
“I'm with the show,” said Canby, an expression foreign to his lips and a clear case of inspiration. The distrustful man waved him on.
Wanda Malone was leaning against the wall at the other end of the passageway, studying her manuscript. She did not look up until he paused beside her.
“Miss Malone,” he began. “I have come—I have come—I have-ah—”
These were his first words to her. She did nothing more than look at him inquiringly, but with such radiance that he floundered to a stop. There were only two things within his power to do: he had either to cough or to speak much too sweetly.
“There's a draught here,” she said, Christian anxiety roused by the paroxysm which rescued him from the damning alternative. “You oughtn't to stand here perhaps, Mr. Canby.”
“'Canby?'” he repeated inquiringly, the name seeming new to him. “Canby?”
“You're Mr. Canby, aren't you?”
“I meant where—who—” he stammered. “How did you know?”
“The stage-manager pointed you out to me yesterday at rehearsal. I was so excited! You're the first author I ever saw, you see. I've been in stock where we don't see authors.”
“Do you—like it?” he said. “I mean stock. Do you like stock? How much do you like stock? I ah—” Again he fell back upon the faithful old device of nervous people since the world began.
“I'm sure you oughtn't to stand in this passageway,” she urged.
“No, no!” he said hurriedly. “I love it! I love it! I haven't any cold. It's the air. That's what does it.” He nodded brightly, with the expression of a man who knows the answer to everything. “It's bad for me.”
“No,” he said, and went back to the beginning. “I have come—I wanted to come—I wished to say that I wi—” He put forth a manful effort which made him master of the speech he had planned. “I want to thank you for the way you play your part. What I wrote seemed dry stuff, but when you act it, why, then, it seems to be—beautiful!”
“Oh! Do you think so?” she cried, her eyes bedewing ineffably. “Do you think so?”
“Oh—I—oh!—” He got no further, and, although a stranger to the context of this conversation might have supposed him to be speaking of a celebrated commonwealth, Mother of Presidents, his meaning was sufficiently clear to Wanda Malone.
“You're lovely to me,” she said, wiping her eyes. “Lovely! I'll never forget it! I'll never forget anything that's happened to me all this beautiful, beautiful week!”
The little kerchief she had lifted to her eyes was wet with tears not of the stage. “It seems so foolish!” she said bravely. “It's because I'm so happy! Everything has come all at once, this week. I'd never been in New York before in my life. Doesn't that seem funny for a girl that's been on the stage ever since she left school? And now I am here, all at once I get this beautiful part you've written, and you tell me you like it—and Mr. Potter says he likes it. Oh! Mr. Potter's just beautiful to me! Don't you think Mr. Potter's wonderful, Mr. Canby?”
The truth about Mr. Canby's opinion of Mr. Potter at this moment was not to the playwright's credit. However, he went only so far as to say: “I didn't like him much yesterday afternoon.”
“Oh, no, no!” she said quickly. “That was every bit my fault. I was frightened and it made me stupid. And he's just beautiful to me to-day! But I'd never mind anything from a man that works with you as he does. It's the most wonderful thing! To a woman who loves her profession for its own sake—”
“You do, Miss Malone?”
“Love it?” she cried. “Is there anything like it in the world?”
“I might have known you felt that, from your acting,” he said, managing somehow to be coherent, though it was difficult.
“Oh, but we all do!” she protested eagerly. “I believe all actors love it more than they love life itself. Don't think I mean those that never grew up out of their 'show-off' time in childhood. Those don't count, in what I mean, any more than the 'show-girls' and heaven knows what not that the newspapers call 'actresses'. Oh, Mr. Canby, I mean the people with the art and the fire born in them: those who must come to the stage and who ought to and who do. It isn't because we want to be 'looked at' that we go on the stage and starve to stay there! It's because we want to make pictures—to make pictures of characters in plays for people in audiences. It's like being a sculptor or painter; only we paint and model with ourselves—and we're different from sculptors and painters because they do their work in quiet studios, while we do ours under the tension of great crowds watching every stroke we make—and, oh, the exhilaration when they show us we make the right stroke!”
“Bravo!” he said. “Bravo!”
“Isn't it the greatest of all the arts? Isn't it?” she went on with the same glowing eagerness. “We feed our nerves to it, and our lives to it, and are glad! It makes us different from other people. But what of that? Don't we give ourselves? Don't we live and die just to make these pictures for the world? Oughtn't the world to be thankful for us? Oughtn't it? Oh, it is, Mr. Canby; it is thankful for us; and I, for one, never forget that a Prime Minister of England was proud to warm Davy Garrick's breeches at the grate for him!”
She clapped her hands together in a gesture of such spirit and fire that Canby could have thrown his hat in the air and cheered, she had lifted him so clear of his timidity.
“Bravo!” he cried again. “Bravo!”
At that she blushed. “What a little goose I am!” she cried. “Playing the orator! Mr. Canby, you mustn't mind—”
“It's because I'm so happy,” she explained—to his way of thinking, divinely. “I'm so happy I just pour out everything. I want to sing every minute. You see, it seemed such a long while that I was waiting for my chance. Some of us wait forever, Mr. Canby, and I was so afraid mine might never come. If it hadn't come now it might never have come. If I'd missed this one, I might never have had another. It frightens me to think of it—and I oughtn't to be thinking of it! I ought to be spending all my time on my knees thanking God that old Mr. Packer got it into his head that 'The Little Minister' was a play about the Baptists!”
“I don't see—”
“If he hadn't,” she said, “I wouldn't be here!”
“God bless old Mr. Packer!”
“I hope you mean it, Mr. Canby.” She blushed again, because there was no possible doubt that he meant it. “It seems a miracle to me that I am here, and that my chance is here with me, at last. It's twice as good a chance as it was yesterday, thanks to you. You've given me such beautiful new things to do and such beautiful new things to say. How I'll work at it! After rehearsal this afternoon I'll learn every word of it in the tunnel before I get to my station in Brooklyn. That's funny, too, isn't it; the first time I've ever been to New York I go and board over in Brooklyn! But it's a beautiful place to study, and by the time I get home I'll know the lines and have all the rest of the time for the real work: trying to make myself into a faraway picture of the adorable girl you had in your mind when you wrote it. You see—”
She checked herself again. “Oh! Oh!” she said, half-laughing, half-ashamed. “I've never talked so much in my life! You see it seems to me that the whole world has just burst into bloom!”
She radiated a happiness that was almost tangible; it was a glow so real it seemed to warm and light that dingy old passageway. Certainly it warmed and lighted the young man who stood there with her. For him, too, the whole world was transfigured, and life just an orchard to walk through in perpetual April morning.
The voice of Packer proclaimed: “Two o'clock, ladies and gentlemen! Rehearsal two o'clock this afternoon!”
The next moment he looked into the passageway. “This afternoon's rehearsal, two o'clock, Miss—ahh—Malone. Oh, Mr. Canby, Mr. Potter wants you to go to lunch with him and Mr. Tinker. He's waiting. This way, Mr. Canby.”
“In a moment,” said the young playwright. “Miss Malone, you spoke of your going home to work at making yourself into 'the adorable girl' I had in my mind when I wrote your part. It oughtn't”—he faltered, growing red—“it oughtn't to take much—much work!”
And, breathless, he followed the genially waiting Packer.