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A DRESS REHEARSAL


By Harold MacGrath


IT was Carrington's habit invariably—when no business or social engagements pressed him to go elsewhere—to drop into a certain quaint little French restaurant just off Broadway for his dinners. It was out of the way; the throb and rattle of the great commercial artery became like the far-off murmur of the sea, restful rather than annoying. He always made it a point to dine alone, undisturbed. The proprietor nor his silent-footed waiters had the slightest idea who Carrington was. To them he was simply a profitable customer who signified that he dined there in order to be alone. His table was upstairs. Below there was the usual dinner crowd till theatre-time; and the music had the faculty of luring his thoughts astray, being as he was more fond of melody than of work. As a matter of fact, it was in this little restaurant that he winnowed the day's ideas, revamped scenes, trimmed the rough edges of his climaxes, revised this epigram or rejected this or that line; all on the margins of newspapers and on the backs of envelopes. In his den at his bachelor apartments he worked; but here he dreamed, usually behind the soothing, opalescent veil of Madame Nicotine.

What a marvelous thing a good after-dinner cigar is! In the smoke of it the poor man sees his ships come in, the poet sees his muse beckoning with hands full of largess, the millionaire reverts to his early struggles, and the lover sees his divinity in a thousand graceful poses.

Tonight, however, Carrington's cigar was without magic. He was out of sorts. Things had gone wrong at the rehearsal that morning. The star had demanded the removal of certain lines which gave the leading man an opportunity to shine in the climax of the third act. He had labored a whole month over this climax, and he revolted at the thought of changing it to suit the whim of a capricious woman.

Everybody had agreed that this climax was the best the dramatist had yet constructed. A critic who had been invited to a reading had declared that it lacked little of being great. And at this late hour the star wanted it changed so as to bring her alone in the limelight! It was preposterous. As Carrington was a successful dramatist, exceedingly popular, the business-manager and the stage-manager both agreed to leave the matter wholly in the dramatist's hands. So he resolutely declined to make a single alteration in the scene. There was a storm. The star declared that if the change was not made at once she would leave the company. In making this declaration she knew her strength. There was not another actress of her ability to be found; the season was too late. There was not another woman available, nor would any other manager lend one. As the opening performance was but two weeks hence, you will realize why Carrington's mood this night was anything but amiable.

He scowled at his cigar. There was always something, some sacrifice to make, and seldom for art's sake. It is all very well to witness a play from the other side of the footlights; everything appears to work out so smoothly, easily and without effort. To this phenomenon is due the amateur dramatist—because it looks simple. A play is not written; it is built, like a house. In most cases the dramatist is simply the architect. The novelist has comparatively an easy road to travel. The dramatist is beset on all sides, now the business-manager—that is to say, the box-office—now the stage-manager, now the star, now the leading man or woman. Jealousy's green eyes peer from all sides. The dramatist's ideal, when finally presented to the public, resembles those mutilated marbles that decorate the museums of Rome and Florence. Only there is this difference: the public can easily imagine what the sculptor was about, but never the dramatist.

Carrington was a young man, tolerably good-looking, noticeably well built. When they have good features, a cleft chin and a manly nose I like to see your clean-shaven men. He had fine eyes, in the corners of which always lurked mirth and mischief; for he possessed above all things an inexhaustible fund of dry humor. His lines seldom evoked rough laughter; rather silent chuckles. He had fought his way to the front by sheer persistence. He had loitered around the great managers' offices till they finally read a play to get rid of him. After that he had but little trouble.

The great manager is a natural-born coward. He continues to produce weaklings by well-known names because he fears to risk a dollar on an obscurity. But all the time he is waiting for his rival to make a discovery, to take the initial risk. Once a manager produces a play by a new author, his rivals rush in and try to outbid him. This is where the author comes in; that is, if he has a keen eye in examining a dramatic contract.

Carrington's scowl abated none. In business women were nuisances; they were always taking impossible stands. He would find some way out; he was determined not to submit to the imperious fancies of an actress, however famous she might be.

"Sir, will you aid a lady in distress?" The voice was tremulous but as rich in tone as the diapason of an organ.

Carrington looked up from his cigar to behold a beautiful young woman standing at the side of his table. Her round, smooth cheeks were flushed and on the lower lids of her splendid dark eyes tears of shame trembled and threatened to fall. Behind her stood a waiter, of impassive countenance, who was adding up the figures on a check, his movement full of suggestion.

The dramatist understood the situation at once. The young lady had ordered dinner, and having eaten it, found that she couldn't pay for it. It was, to say the least, a trite situation. But what can a man do when a beautiful woman approaches him and pleads for assistance? I defy any gentleman to extricate himself without positive rudeness. So Carrington rose.

"What may the trouble be?" he asked coldly, for all that he instantly recognized her to be a person of breeding and refinement.

"I—I have lost my purse, and I have no money to pay the waiter." She made this confession bravely and frankly.

Carrington looked about. They were alone. She interpreted his glance rather shrewdly.

"There were no women to appeal to. The waiter refused to accept my word, and I really can't blame him. I had no money to send a messenger to my home."

One of the trembling tears escaped and rolled down the blooming cheek. Carrington surrendered. He saw that this was an exceptional case. The girl was truly in distress. He knew his New York thoroughly; a man or woman without funds was treated with the finished cruelty with which the jovial Roman emperors amused themselves with the Christians. Lack of money in one person creates incredulity in another. A penniless person is invariably a liar and a thief. Only one sort of person is pitied in New York: the person who has more money than she or he can possibly spend.

The girl fumbled in her hand-bag and produced a card which she gave to Carrington—"Elizabeth Challoner." He looked from the card to the girl, and then back to the card. The name, somehow, was not wholly unfamiliar, but at that moment he could not place it.

"Waiter, let me see the check," he said. It amounted to $2.10. Carrington smiled. "Scarcely large enough to cause all this trouble," he said reassuringly; "I will attend to it."

The waiter bowed and retired. So long as the check was paid he did not care who paid it.

"Oh, it is so horribly embarrassing! What must you think of me!" She twisted her gloves with a nervous strength which threatened to rend them.

"May I give you a bit of friendly advice?"

She nodded, hiding the fall of the second tear.

"Well, never dine alone in public; at any rate, in the evening. It is not wise for a woman to do so. She subjects herself to any number of embarrassments."

She did not reply, and for a moment he believed that she was about to break down completely. He aimlessly brushed the cigar ashes from the tablecloth. He hated a scene in public. In the theatre it was different; it was a part of the petty round of business to have the leading lady burst into tears when things didn't suit her. What fools women were in general! But the girl surprised him by holding up determinedly, and sinking her white teeth into her lips to smother the sob which rose in her throat.

"Be seated," he said, drawing out the opposite chair. A wave of alarm spread over her face. She clasped her hands.

"Sir, if you are a gentleman——"

Carrington interrupted her by giving her his card, which was addressed. She glanced at it through a blur of tears, then sat down. Carrington shrugged slightly; his vanity was touched. There was, then, a young woman in New York who had not heard of Richard Carrington, celebrated as a dramatist?

"In asking you to be seated," he explained, "it was in order that you might wait in comfort while I despatched a messenger to your home. Doubtless you have a brother, a father, or some male relative, who will come to your assistance." Which proved that Carrington was prudent.

But instead of brightening as he expected she would, she straightened in her chair, while her eyes widened with horror, as if she saw something frightful in perspective.

What the deuce was the matter now, he wondered as he witnessed this inexplicable change.

"No, no! You must not send a messenger!" she protested.

"But——"

"No, no!" tears welling into her beautiful eyes again. They were beautiful, he was forced to admit.

"But," he persisted, "you wished the waiter to do so. I do not understand." His tone became formal again.

"I have reasons. Oh, heavens! I am the most miserable woman in all the world!" She suddenly bowed her head upon her hands and her shoulders rose and fell with silent sobs.

Carrington stared at her, dumfounded. Now what? He glanced cautiously around as if in search of some avenue of escape. The waiter, ever watchful, assumed that he was wanted, and made as though to approach the table; but Carrington warned him off. All distrust in the girl vanished. Decidedly she was in great trouble of some sort, and it wasn't because she could not pay a restaurant check. Women—and especially New York women—do not shed tears when a stranger offers to settle for their dinner checks.

"If you will kindly explain to me what the trouble is," visibly embarrassed, "perhaps I can help you. Have you run away from home?" he asked.

A negative nod.

"Are you married?"

Another negative nod.

Carrington scratched his chin."Have you—done anything—wrong?"

A decided negative shake of the head. At any other time the gesticulation of the ostrich plume, so close to his face, would have amused him; but there was something eminently pathetic in the diapasm which drifted toward him from the feather.

"Come, come; you may trust me thoroughly. If you are afraid to return home alone——"

He was interrupted by an affirmative nod this time. Possibly, he conjectured, the girl had started out to elope and had fortunately stopped at the brink.

"Will it help you at all if I go home with you?"

His ear caught a muffled "Yes."

Carrington beckoned to the waiter.

"Order a cab at once," he said.

The waiter hurried away, with visions of handsome tips.

Presently the girl raised her head and sat up. Her eyes, dark as shadows in still waters, glistened.

"Be perfectly frank with me; and if I can be of any service to you, do not hesitate to command me." He eyed her thoughtfully. Everything attached to her person suggested elegance. Her skin was as fine as vellum; her hair had a dash of golden bronze in it; her hands were white and shapely, and the horn on the tips of the fingers shone rosily. Now, what in the world was there to trouble a young woman who possessed these favors, who wore jewels on her fingers and sable on her shoulders? "Talk to me just as you would to a brother," he added.

"You will take this ring," she said irrelevantly. She slipped a fine sapphire from one of her fingers and pushed it across the table.

"And for what reason?" he cried.

"Security for my dinner. I cannot accept charity," with a hint of hauteur which did not in the least displease him.

"But, my dear young woman, I cannot accept this ring. You have my address. You may send the sum whenever you please. I see no reason why, as soon as you arrive home, you cannot refund the small sum of two dollars and ten cents. It appears to me all very simple."

"There will be no one at home, not even the servants," wearily.

Carrington's brows came together. Was the girl fooling him, after all? But for what reason?

"You have me confused," he admitted. "I can do nothing blindly. Tell me what the trouble is."

"How can I tell you, an absolute stranger? It is all so frightful, and I am so young!"

Frightful? Young? He picked up his half-finished cigar, but immediately let it fall. He stole a look at his watch; it was seven.

"Oh, I know what you must think of me," despairingly. "Nobody believes in another's real misfortune in this horrid city. There are so many fraudulent methods used to obtain people's sympathies that everyone has lost trust. I had no money when I entered here; but outside it was so dark. Whenever I stopped, wondering where I should go, men turned and stared at me. Once a policeman stared into my face suspiciously. And I dared not return home, I dared not! No, no; I promise not to embarrass you with any more tears." She brushed her eyes with a rapid movement.

Carrington's success as a dramatist was due largely to his interest in all things that passed under his notice; nothing was too trivial to observe. The tragic threads of human life, which escaped the eyes of the passing many or were ignored by them, always aroused his interest and attention; and more than once he had picked up one of these threads and followed it to the end. Out of these seeming insignificant things he often built one of those breathless, nerve-gripping climaxes which had made him famous. In the present case he believed that he had stumbled upon something worthy of his investigation. This beautiful girl, richly dressed, who dared not go home, who had rings but no money—there was some mystery surrounding her, and he determined to find out what it was. And then, besides, for all that he was worldly, he was young and still believed in his Keats.

"If, as you say, there is no one at your home, why do you fear to go there?" he asked, with some remnant of caution.

"It is the horror of the place," shuddering; "the horror!" And indeed, at that moment, her face expressed horror.

"Is it someone dead?" lowering his voice.

"Dead?" with a flash of cold anger in her eyes. "Yes—to me, to truth, to honor; dead to everything that should make life worth the living. Oh, it is impossible to say more in this place, to tell you here what has happened this day to rob me of all my tender illusions. This morning I awoke happy, my heart was light; now, nothing but shame and misery, shame and misery!" She hid her eyes for a space behind the back of her hand.

"I will take you home," he said simply.

"You trust me?"

"Why not? I am a man, and can easily take care of myself."

"Thank you!"

What a voice! It possessed a marvelous quality, low and penetrating, like the voices of great singers and actresses.

Here the waiter returned to announce that the cab awaited them below. Carrington paid the two checks, dropped a liberal tip, rose and got into his coat. The girl also rose, picked up his card, glanced carelessly at it, and put it into her handbag—a little gold-link affair worth many dinners. It was the voice and these evidences of wealth, more than anything else, that determined Carrington. Frauds were always perpetrated for money, and this exquisite creature had a comfortable fortune on her fingers.

Silently they left the restaurant, entered the cab, and went rolling out into Broadway. Carrington, repressing his curiosity, leaned back against the cushion. The girl looked dully ahead.

What manner of tragedy was about to unfold itself to his gaze?


II

The house was situated Central Park West. It was of modern architecture; a residence such as only rich men can afford to build. It was in utter gloom; not a single light could be seen at any window. It looked as if indeed tragedy sat enthroned within. Carrington's spine wrinkled a bit as he got out of the cab and offered his hand to the girl. Mute and mysterious as a sphinx, the girl walked to the steps, not even looking around to see if he was coming after her. Perhaps she knew the power of curiosity. Without hesitance she mounted; he followed, a step behind. At the door, however, she paused. He could hear her breath coming in quick gasps.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Nothing, nothing; only I am afraid."

She stooped; there was a grating sound, a click and the door opened. Carrington was a man of courage, but he afterward confessed that it took all his nerve to force his foot across the threshold.

"Do not be frightened," she said calmly; "there is nothing here to frighten anyone but ghosts."

"Ghosts?"

"Yes."

"Have you brought me here to tell me a ghost story?" with an effort at lightness. What misery the girl's tones conveyed to his ears!

"The ghosts of things that ought to and should have been; are these not the most melancholy?" She pressed a button and flooded the hallway with light.

His keen eyes roved about, to meet nothing but signs of luxury. She led him into the library and turned on the lights. Not a servant anywhere in sight; the great house seemed absolutely empty. Not even the usual cat or dog came romping inquisitively into the room. The shelves of books stirred his sense of envy; what a den for a literary man to wander in! There were beautiful marbles, splendid paintings, originals, too, for Carrington knew his art; taste and refinement visible everywhere.

He stood silently watching the girl as she took off her hat and carelessly tossed it on the reading-table. The Russian sables were treated with like indifference. The natural abundance of her hair amazed him; and what a figure, so elegant, so slender, yet so round! The girl, without noticing him, walked the length of the room and back several times. Once or twice she made a gesture. It was not addressed to him, but to some conflict going on in her mind.

Carrington sat down on the edge of a chair and fell to twirling his hat.

"I am wondering where I shall begin," she said.

Carrington turned down his coat collar; the action seemed to relieve him of the sense of awkwardness. "Luxury!" she began, with a sweep of her hand that was full of majesty and despair. "Why have I chosen you out of all the thousands; why should I believe that my story should interest you? Well, little as I have seen of the world, I have learned that woman does not go to woman in cases such as mine is." And then pathetically: "I know no woman to whom I might go. Women are like daws; their sympathy comes but to peck. Do you know what it is to be alone in a city? The desert is not loneliness; it is only solitude. True loneliness is to be found only in great communities. To be without a single friend or confidant when thousands of beings move about you; to pour your sorrows into cold, unfeeling ears; to seek sympathy in blind eyes—that is loneliness. That is the loneliness that causes the heart to break."

Carrington's eyes never left hers; he was fascinated.

"Luxury!" she repeated bitterly, "Surrounding me with all a woman might desire—paintings that charm the eye, books that charm the mind, music that charms the ear. Money!"

"Philosophy in a girl!" thought Carrington. His hat became motionless.

"It is all a lie, a lie!" The girl struck her hands together, impotent in her wrath, as Dido might have struck hers when she heard that Ænas was dead.

It was done so naturally that Carrington, always the dramatist, made a mental note of the gesture.

"I was educated in Paris and Berlin; my musical education was completed in Vienna. Like all young girls with music-loving souls, I was something of a poet. I saw the beautiful in everything; sometimes the beauty existed only in my imagination. I dreamed; I was happy. I was told that I possessed a voice such as is given to but few. I sang before the Emperor of Austria at a private musical. He complimented me. The future was bright indeed. Think of it; at twenty I retained all my illusions! I am now twenty-three, and not a single illusion is left. I saw but little of my father and mother, which is not unusual with children of wealthy parents. The first shock that came was the knowledge that my mother had ceased to live with my father. I was recalled. There were no explanations. My father met me at the boat. He greeted my effusive caresses—caresses that I had saved for years!—with careless indifference. This was the second shock. What did it all mean? What had happened? Where was my mother? My father did not reply. When I reached home I found that all the servants I had known in my childhood days were gone. From the new ones I knew that I should learn nothing of the mystery which, like a pall, had suddenly settled down upon me."

She paused, her arms hanging listless at her sides, her gaze riveted upon a pattern in the rug at her feet. Carrington sat like a man of stone; her voice had cast a spell upon him.

"I do not know why I tell you these things; you are an absolute stranger. I know not whether I weary you or not. I do not care. Madness lay in silence. I had to tell someone. This morning I found out all. My mother left my father because he was—a thief!"

"A thief!" fell unconsciously from Carrington's lips.

"A thief, bold, unscrupulous; not the petty burglar—no. A man who has stolen funds trusted to him for years; a man who has plundered the orphan and the widow, the most despicable of all men. My mother died of shame, and I knew nothing. My father left last night for South America, taking with him all the available funds, leaving me a curt note of explanation. I have neither money, friends nor home. The papers as yet know nothing; but tomorrow, tomorrow! The banks have seized everything."

She continued with her story. Sometimes she was superb in her rage, at others abject in her misery. She seemed to pass through the whole gamut of passions.

And all this while it ran through Carrington's head—"What a scheme for a play! What a scheme for a play! What a voice!" He pitied the girl from the bottom of his heart; but what could he do for her other than offer cold sympathy? He was ill at ease in the face of this peculiar tragedy.

AH at once the girl stopped and faced him. There was a smile on her lips, a smile that might be likened to a flash of sunshine on a wintry day. Directly this smile melted into a laugh, mellow, mischievous, reverberating.

Carrington sat up stiffly in his chair.

"I beg your pardon!" he said.

The girl sat down before a small writing-table. She searched among some papers and finally found what she sought.

"Mr. Carrington, all this has been in very bad taste; I frankly confess it. There are two things you can do: leave the house in anger or remain to forgive me this imposition."

"I fail to understand," he said, his anger coming to the surface.

"I have deceived you."

"You have lured me here by a trick? You have played upon my sympathies to gratify——?"

"Wait a moment," she said proudly, her rich blood mantling her cheeks. "A trick, it is true; but there are extenuating circumstances. What I have told you has happened, only it was not yesterday nor the day before. Please remain seated till I have done. I am poor; I was educated in the cities I named; I have to earn my living."

She rose and came over to his chair. She gave him a letter.

"Read this; you will understand."

Carrington experienced a mild chill; he saw his own handwriting. He extracted the letter from the envelope and read with some shame:


Miss Challoner—I have neither the time nor the inclination to bother with amateur actresses.

Richard Carrington.


"It was scarcely polite, was it?" she asked, with a tinge of irony. "It was scarcely diplomatic, either, you will admit. I simply asked you for work. Surely, an honest effort to obtain employment ought not to be met with insolence."

He stared dumbly at the evidence in his hand.

"For weeks I have tried to get a hearing. Manager after manager I sought; all refused to see me; I have suffered affronts silently. Your manager I saw, but he referred me to you. I could never find you. But I was determined. So I wrote; that was your answer. I confess that for a time I was very angry, for courtesy is a simple thing and within reach of everyone."

To receive a lesson in manners from a young woman is not a very pleasant experience; but Carrington was a thorough gentleman, and he submitted meekly.

"I know that you are a busy man, that you are besieged with applications. You ought, at least, to have formal slips printed, such as editors use. I have confidence in my ability to act, the confidence which talent gives to all persons. After receiving your letter I was more than ever determined to see you. So I resorted to this subterfuge. It was all very distasteful to me; but there is a vein of wilfulness in me. This is not my home. It is the home of a friend who was kind enough to turn it over to me this night, relying upon my wit to bring about this meeting."

"It was very neatly done," was Carrington's comment. He was not angry now at all. In fact, the girl interested him hugely. "I am rather curious to learn how you went about it."

"You are not angry?"

"I was."

This seemed to satisfy her.

"Well, first I learned where you were in the habit of dining. All day long a messenger has been following you. A telephone brought me to the restaurant. The rest you know. It was simple."

"Very simple," laconically.

"You listened and believed. I have been watching you. You believed everything I have told you. You have even been calculating how this scene might go into a play. Have I convinced you that I have the ability to act?"

Carrington folded the letter and balanced it on his palm.

"You fooled me completely; that ought to be sufficient recommendation."

"Thank you." But her eyes were eager with anxiety.

"Miss Challoner, I apologize for this letter. I do more than that. I promise not to leave this house till you agree to call at the theatre at ten tomorrow morning." He was smiling, and Carrington had a pleasant smile. He had an idea besides. "Good fortune put it into my head to follow you here. I see it all now, quite plainly. I am in a peculiar difficulty, and I honestly believe that you can help me out of it. How long would it take you to learn a leading part? In fact, the principal part?"

"A week."

"Have you had any experience?"

"A short season out West in a stock company."

"Good!"

"And I love the work."

"Do not build any great hopes," he warned; "for your chance all depends upon the whim of another woman. But you have my word and good offices that something shall be put in your way. You will come at ten?" putting on his gloves.

"Promptly."

"I believe that we both have been wise tonight; though it is true that a man dislikes being a fool and having it made manifest."

"And how about the woman scorned?" with an enchanting smile.

"It is kismet," he acknowledged.

 

"What a find!" thought Carrington jubilantly, on his way downtown.

"There is, after all, nothing like persistence," mused the girl. "It was much easier than I thought it would be."

Which proved that she had not nearly so much vanity as is usually accorded to woman.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1932, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.