From the Life/Conrad Norman
FROM THE LIFE
HIS real name is not Conrad Norman. It is Con Gorman, and he was born in Centerbrook, New Jersey. So, I think, was Flora Furness. At any rate, they both grew up there from childhood as neighbors—although they were by no means neighborly.
There are two kinds of human beings in Centerbrook. Each is sustained by a feeling of superiority to the other; and this feeling of superiority has doubtless been provided by an all-wise Nature to enable each to endure with indifference the other's self-conceit. The native Centerbrooker regards the commuter as a Parisian regards a member of the American colony in Paris—or as a member of that colony regards an American tourist there—or as any one who is comparatively permanent, and in possession, regards the passing and the transitory. And the commuter—living in Centerbrook because "New York is no place to bring up a young family"—regards the native Centerbrooker as the summer visitor in the Catskills regards the buckwheater and the local village life, or as any one who is progressively transient regards the permanent and rooted. Humanity, as the philosopher says, is "like that." It is one of humanity's compensations for being so human.
Con Gorman was in the rooted camp because his father kept the bakery on Front Street, near the railway station. Flora Furness was of the commuters' circle because her father took the 8.25 to the city every morning. But, as a matter of fact, neither the Germans nor the Furnesses were spiritually at home in the tents of their respective factions. They were only more antipathetic to each other than they were to their economic kind. Nothing in the newspapers could have sounded less likely to Centerbrook than the possibility that a daughter of the Furnesses would ever look twice at a son of the Germans. The head-line, "Screen Star Weds Peeress," would not have puckered many mouths in Centerbrook. But "Con Gorman Weds Flora Furness"! That would certainly have started whistles enough to bring out the Ivy Hook and Ladder Company.
For my part, the first time I saw Con even speak to her I thought that I had turned his head.
It was at a concert and dance given at the Centerbrook Country Club in aid of the Belgian Relief Fund. I had just seen him act in a little sketch that was part of the concert, and he played his role so engagingly that it was evident he had dramatic talent. There is no mistaking it in a boy of nineteen. It is too rare to be overlooked. When the concert, was finished and the room was being cleared for the dance I hunted him out in the crowd on the club-house veranda and proposed that he should let me give him a letter to a playwright who, I knew, was in need of a juvenile. We were still shaking hands when I said it, and his gratitude was so violent that he all but wrung blood from my finger-ends.
"Really?" he said, half choked. "Will you? Gee!" And the rest strangled in his throat.
I tried to explain that I was not doing him a favor so much as I was doing the playwright one; that the movies had taken so many presentable juveniles off the stage that there was little left but Romeos in false teeth and toupees. "If you do as well at rehearsals as you did here," I assured him, "Bidey 'll probably adopt you—to keep them from buying you away."
"Really?" he cried. "Was I all right? Gee!" He strained at my hand again. "Gee! Wait a minute!" And he turned to buck his way back through the crowd as if I had passed him the football in a scrimmage and he was going through the line for a touchdown.
He was a handsome boy, with an entire lack of self-consciousness. It was this lack that had struck me in his performance. It had shown not only in his voice, and his face, and his hands, but also in his legs, where the constraint of the young actor stiffens and struts even after he has eased it up everywhere else. When his friends in the audience applauded his entrance he grinned genially, and his grin was just as contagious then as it is now. As soon as he began to speak his lines his voice took all the innumerable sliding gradations of a conversational tone, and it seemed impossible that he could do such a thing without training, yet his accent was quite obviously untrained. His r's were ferocious.
They did not matter. I had understood that the rôle of the boy in my friend's play was not a straight part.
In a few minutes Con came rushing back to me to explain that he was not really an actor; that he had done only amateur stunts; that he sang and danced, chiefly; that he had never thought of getting a part in a real play—only in musical comedy—and he had never been able to "break in" there. I promised to write a letter of introduction and mail it to him early in the morning. He bolted away again. He was in a pathetic state of pale excitement.
"Too bad!" said the man with whom I had been talking. "Nice boy, too!"
"What's too bad about him?"
"No good for anything," he said. He was the proprietor of the coal-yards on Leedy Street. "Parents' fault."
"What's he been doing now?"
"That's the trouble. He's not doing anything. He's never done an honest day's work in his life, and I don't believe he ever will. Huh! I see we have the stuffed-heart aristocracy with us."
He was referring to the Furnesses as "the stuffed-heart aristocracy."
The entertainment was a charity affair, and therefore open to any one who had a dollar; but, for that very reason, we had not expected the Furnesses to come. We forgot that the Belgians might be regarded as under the special protection of the British flag. There was a copper-bronzed and curly-headed young Englishman with Flora. He looked like a naval officer. I heard later that he was Lieut. Cuthbert Williamson, of the Atlantic Squadron.
And my coal magnate referred to the Furnesses as "the stuffed-heart aristocracy" because they were known to be as poor as they were considered "snooty." They had no motor-car. They kept no servants. They were such notoriously "slow pay" that they could not get credit even at the news-stand on the railway platform when they were in a hurry to catch a train. They never entertained. The butcher reported that they bought chiefly beef hearts (hence the stuffed-heart aristocracy). The grocer added, "And bushels o' turnips." And, as if to make themselves wholly ridiculous, they always dressed for dinner. The town was full of stories of how Mrs. Furness cooked in an evening gown, and Albert Edward, her husband, after dinner, lighted a post-prandial clay pipe of army cut, and smoked solemnly in his "soup-and-fish." Some one, on a midwinter evening, had seen Flora, with her bare arms goose-fleshed in a frozen drawing-room, trying to keep herself warm by playing Beethoven sonatas, while her brother, Howard Hartley Furness, twisted old newspapers into solid wads and fed them into the fireplace to encourage the cannel-coal.
I suspect that the "some one" who saw this was a younger Gorman, spying through a crack in the closed shutters of the Furness front window. They lived under a common roof—the Germans and the Furnesses—in the old Voss house, on the corner of High and Leedy streets, the Furnesses having a front door on High Street and the Gormans using what had once been a side door and veranda on Leedy. Their lawns were separated by a class barrier in the shape of an old lilac hedge, planted by the last of the Vosses, Miss Elizabeth Voss, when she had been compelled to rent hah* her residence in order to be able to live in the other half. She had divided the house with a series of soundproof walls, filled with sawdust. She had cut the back yard in two with a spite-fence high enough to discourage any social aspiration. And although she was now dead, and buried exclusively, her work remained unchanged.
On the High Street side of the house there were still shuttered windows and a sun-blistered, weather-crackled, high-eyebrowed, old colonnade porch that was prouder than paint. Behind their street hedge the Furnesses could drink afternoon tea under the Voss elms, safe from the intruding curiosity of any but neighborly mosquitoes—and Mrs. Furness rather managed to make them part of the function by calling them "midges." (Have I said that the Furnesses came from Bury, near Houghton, in Sussex?) Their front door still had its prim Voss air of being unapproachable to any one who had not been formally introduced—an air of never having extended its bell-pull to the fingers of the great ungloved. Occasionally, as you passed the gate in the hedge, you overheard the antique Furness piano articulating faintly in a high, precise, soprano tinkle. There was not another sound. Whereas, on the Leedy Street side of the house—where there was no hedge the whole brood of Germans lived with unshuttered windows opening on a public veranda, and sang and pounded the piano, and danced to the phonograph, and quarreled and smacked one another and played roughhouse games as noisily as a kennel of young Airedales.
High Street still had some claim to residential respectability, although one house had been rented for a public library, two were boarding-houses, and another had put on a false front and become a milliner's shop. But Leedy Street was beyond the pale. There was not only a livery-stable on it; there was a plumber's shop, a coal-yard, and a brick terrace where day-laborers lived. It was not to be expected that a family on High Street would associate with one on Leedy, even though their dormer-windows gabled out of the one roof.
And the Furnesses did not really associate with any one in Centerbrook. They lived in the same general world as the other commuters, belonged distantly to the same country club, played silent golf on the same club links, and prayed regularly to the same Deity. But, under Providence, all their aims in life were as palpably alien to the Centerbrook commuters as the Gorman aimlessness was repellent to the coal-yard proprietor.
To him the Furnesses were "the stuffed-heart aristocracy" and Con was "no good for anything." He had all a Benjamin Franklin's practical contempt for them both. Out of that contempt he proceeded to tell me why he had discharged Con after a week's trial in his coal-office. I was confused by a vague recollection of a report that Con had said he was fired for refusing to give a customer short weight. Centerbrook is full of such gossip about its shopkeepers. It is the way the impotent commuter takes his revenge on the high cost of living. I avoided looking at the coal-man.
Flora Furness caught my wandering eye, across the veranda, and she gave me not exactly a smile, but at least a facial movement of friendly recognition. Her mother had discovered that I had once visited a member of the artist colony in Amberley, which is beside the river Arun, opposite Bury; and, though I had never been in Bury itself, I had stood on the downs above Amberley and seen the spire of Bury church among the trees across the river and the weald. It gave me a standing with the Furnesses that no one else in Centerbrook could approach.
The next thing I saw was Con Gorman speaking to Flora Furness. And, as I say, I thought that I had turned his young head.
She was standing near the veranda door, between her mother and Lieutenant Williamson. The music had struck up, inside; the dancers were streaming past her in answer to its call, and Con had stopped, incredibly, to ask her for a dance. At least I judged that was what had happened. I could not see his face, but I could see hers and her mother's and Williamson's.
Mrs. Furness wore her hair like the Dowager Queen Alexander, whom she respectfully resembled; she was holding herself regally erect, high-shouldered, with her hands clasped on her stomacher, so to speak; and her expression had calmly obliterated Con Gorman from the surrounding cosmos by an act of will. Williamson's face I did not under- stand till I met him later; he had, in fact, the absent-minded eyes of young Europe, gravely condemned to death and watching contemporary America dance to rag-time. Having regarded Con a moment blankly, he shifted the same regard to a passing couple.
As for Flora Furness, she seemed, at first, naturally, surprised at Con. She smiled a formal, polite refusal. He persisted. She glanced at her mother and then darted a look at him that confessed—I did not know what. It was an alarmed, reluctant, warning look. It was a look as of conspiracy betrayed. And it was so evidently private that I turned away at once as if I had been spying.
I found that the coal-dealer was refuting an editorial allegation that coal-dealers had caused the rise in the price of coal. When I looked at Flora Furness again she was talking to Williamson, with her eyes fixed on me. Con had disappeared. For a moment I thought guiltily that she was studying me to see what I had noticed. Then I understood that she wished to speak to me.
I made a strategic retreat from the labor war in the Pennsylvania coal-fields and moved toward her with the current that was being sucked in to the music. It seemed impossible that Con could have told her what I had said about his acting. Why should he? And yet why, otherwise, should she summon me in this way? And—most of all—why the look that she had shot at him? What was going on between them?
When I had been recognized and greeted by her mother and her she said that she wanted me to meet Lieutenant Williamson. That was pleasant but unilluminating. The lieutenant was equally so. I was not piqued, but I had once talked to a silent Englishman about the Boer War for two garrulous hours before I learned that he had served as an officer through the whole campaign; and I promised myself that Williamson might be as amiably illuminating as he pleased, he should not betray me into trying to enlighten him about the British navy. I turned my intelligence on her.
We talked of the concert condescendingly. "I've just discovered an actor," I said, "a born actor."
That was an inspiration. There had been but one dramatic number in the concert, and her eyes at once betrayed her. She had a clear young pallor that did not speak well for stuffed heart and turnips as a health food, and that pallor slowly reddened. "Isn't it warm?" she said. It was not particularly warm. "Could we find a cool drink?" We could.
The Furnesses were stanch in their English aversion to ice- water, and her mother showed some incredulous surprise, but before she could move to arrest her daughter we were through the door.
The girl took my arm. "I saw you talking to him," she said, quickly, under her voice. "What is it? What has happened?"
I was as much taken aback as if a marble Venus had suddenly turned its sculptured head to me and spoken breathlessly. It was Con Gorman of whom she was speaking. I could believe that Con might have stood outside the railing and gazed up reverently at the placid face of the goddess, but I could not believe that the Olympian eyes had ever been lowered to look at him. She held her head high while she asked me about him. She was of that statuesque type of gray-eyed English beauty of which Du Maurier loved to make architectural drawings.
I repeated what I had said to Con. It did not seem adequate to her. "But he was so excited," she murmured. We were making our way across the semi-baronial hall of the Country Club, in the general direction of the fruit punch. And suddenly she deflected me toward the side veranda. "It's so hot," she said, hurriedly. "I feel almost faint."
I understood that she had seen Con—as I had—coming to intercept us. She escorted me rapidly outdoors, and down the deserted porch to the back steps and out across the lawn toward the tennis-courts. "I want to speak to him," she said, "alone"; and she stopped me with a hand on my arm and went on into the darkness without me.
She must have known that Con was right behind us, although she had not turned her head, and he, in his dancing-pumps, had not made a footfall audible to me. He shot past me instantly and overtook her. I heard him say: "Is it true? Are you going to—"
Was it "marry him"?
It sounded like "marry him"! And his tone was agonized.
I turned back to the porch and sat down on the steps, under an electric light, and consulted a cigarette.
I did not share the prejudices of Centerbrook, but the more I thought over the situation the more impossible it appeared. Con was simply the ne'er-do-well son of a drunken Irish baker whose business was held together by his wife and his daughters. Con had once helped them by driving the wagon and delivering the bread, but of recent years he had not done even that. He had worked for a week in the coal-office. He had been a clerk for at least two weeks in the grocery. He had tended the soda-fountain in the druggist's for perhaps a month. And there had been a period when it was understood that he was employed in New York. But, though he had no conspicuous vices, he had a cheerful irresponsibility that unfitted him for commercial life. He treated the grocery, the coal-office, and the drug-store as if their businesses were suffering from a lack of gaiety that could be supplied by bright impertinences and practical jokes. The till at the family bake-shop being open to him always, he was never without pocket-money. He dressed smartly. He was the spark of life in any party that included him. He was a high favorite among many of the young people of Centerbrook. But their wise elders waited, not too patiently, to see him come to his inevitable bad end.
Among those whose frowns were expectantly prophetic I could not imagine the Furnesses. They must have been merely unaware of his existence. And how he had managed to come to speaking terms with Flora Furness was not to be learned from a cigarette. Yet there they both were—dimly to be seen on a bench under the trees beside the tennis-courts—in the animated intimacy of secret conversation. She was seated immovably, with her back to me, and he was turned sideways toward her, talking rapidly and running his hand up through his hair. I tried not to notice them, but I could not help seeing his arm go up and then out, every now and then, in a passionate gesticulation.
It was undoubtedly some sort of clandestine love-affair. And yet, of course, it could not be. I could believe it was while I was looking at them, but when I looked away it was incredible. It was like seeing a ghost and turning from it to blink at its familiar surroundings and say to yourself, "There must be something the matter with my eyes."
I ended by keeping my attention fixed on my cigarette, as you might feel that if you did not notice your ghost it would disappear. After all, no one in Centerbrook would have credited the report of such an intimacy. If I refused to see it, it was as good as non-existent. I refused to see it.
I refused even when the girl returned alone, almost running, in an agitation which I could not avoid hearing in her shaken breathing. I rose without looking at her, and followed her up the porch, and hastened to open the screen-door for her, discreetly silent. She controlled herself with difficulty, facing the crowded hall. I did not try to help her. I was afraid of intruding. We crossed the room without a word.
As we approached the other door she said, after a struggle, in a tone of shamed desperation: "Please take him away. Don't let him come to—to speak to me again. I'll tell them I feel ill. Don't stay to talk to them. Take him home."
Her distress was painful. I hastened to assure her: "Yes, yes. I'll fix it. Don't worry. It '11 be all right"—remorseful because I had not offered some approach to the subject in order to make it easier for her to speak of it.
We were at the door. As I reached for it she faltered out, with extraordinary poignancy: "Be— Be—kind to him."
I was afraid that she was going to break down, and I fumbled blindly with the door-knob, frightened and embarrassed, whispering to her, "Don't—don't—" unable to look at her.
She did not answer. I drew the door open. She passed me and went out. On the veranda she gave me her hand in a hasty parting, her eyes averted. "Thank you," she said, in a clear, controlled voice. "I feel much better. Good night." And as I turned back I heard her tell her mother: "I've been feeling quite faint. I think we'd better go."
I went, rather dazed, to look for Con. And I found him on the bench where she had left him, facing the night. I spoke to him, without reply, and sat down beside him, and struck a match to light another cigarette. I did not light it. Glancing at him furtively in the small flare of the match, I saw that he was crying—his face drenched with tears—crying silently, his mouth open, his jaws trembling, his eyes staring, unconscious of himself or of me. It was not the audible grief of revolt or self-pity. It was the mute suffering of complete bereavement and despair. And it so shocked me that I immediately blew out the match.
I could not think of anything to say. I could not imagine what was the matter. It was not like a boy's grief. It was widowed—tragic. I sat helplessly waiting.
And suddenly I was overcome with a sickening depression. The sense of his unhappiness beside me, the sound of the dance-music from behind us, the sight of the desolate tennis-courts vaguely in front of us, the taste of the cold cigarette in my mouth— Life has such aspects. They are intolerable. The mind cannot endure them. It escapes at once into some future, some plan, some hope. I began, desperately: "I think I'd better go into town with you to-morrow and introduce you to these people. They want to start rehearsals right away, and I'd like you to get a copy of your part and run over it with you. A good deal will depend on the first impression they get of you." And so forth. I talked about salary, contract, the probable success of the play, his opportunity to make a hit—anything rosy that came into my mind, ignoring the whole situation. He did not speak, although I paused several times to wait for him. When at last I turned to him directly and demanded, "Well, what do you say?" he answered, "It's too late." And his voice was not tearful, but quite toneless, out of a tight throat.
I ignored that, too. I went ahead babbling about his acting, the fact that he plainly had imagination, that it was the great gift in acting, that I was sure he would make an immediate success, that I had seen So-and-so—of whom he reminded me—walk on to the stage in New York, in what was almost his first part, and get himself accepted by the critics as "the best actor in America under twenty-five years of age." And if So-and-so could do it—
"It doesn't matter," he said, hoarsely, more to himself than to me. "It's too late now." And he began to sob.
I could not ignore the sobs. I took him by the shoulder. "Look here," I said. "Pull yourself together. This is all nonsense. If you get all torn to pieces this way, you'll be good for nothing to-morrow. I don't know what you imagine's happened to you, but it probably isn't half so bad as you think. If you make a ten-strike in a part, it 'll change everything. Don't be a fool."
He broke down completely, collapsing in a huddle when I shook him, sobbing with a frightful laboring effort to get his breath, and gasping out that she was going, that she was to be married, that it was too late. I threw away my cigarette. I put my arms around his shoulders and pulled him over to me. He fell across me, his face in his hands, and lay there crying like a child. I gave him my handkerchief when I felt his tears soaking through my thin summer trousers. I didn't know what in the world to do with him.
"If I knew what was the matter," I said, "I might be able to help you." It struck me that he was crying as if he had lost something more than a sweetheart. "If it's Flora Furness—I don't think she's turned against you. She told me to take you home and to— Well, she asked me to be kind to you."
He sat up at once, frantically wiping his eyes. "Where is she? Where is she?"
"No." I held him by the arm. "You can't go and make a scene with her. You stay where you are till you've pulled yourself together. Besides, she's gone home with her people."
With that he began to curse her family like a truck-driver, even while he mopped away his boy's tears, abusing her mother in language that was beyond belief—delirious indecencies—the sort of language that you hear from a patient in a surgical ward coming out from under ether. I put my hand over his mouth, afraid that some one might hear him. "Shut up," I threatened, "or I'll throttle you."
He struggled with me a moment, trying to bite my hand, and then he collapsed again into hysterics. I scolded him in an attempt to get some backbone into him that way. "You young cad—calling decent people names like that! What 've you to do with a girl like her, anyway? Or any girl? You don't earn your salt—never did—never even tried to! If she's going to marry, she'll marry a better man than you—no matter who he is. I don't see how she ever came to look at you. Or how you ever had the—the effrontery to speak to her—to suppose that—that she—"
He had come back to himself with a sort of shudder. "I know," he said, abjectly. "I'm sorry. I—can't help it." He choked again with tears. "You—you," he gulped, "you don't understand."
"No," I said. "I'll be hanged if I do. How long has this been going on?"
"Always," he wept. "Always. Ever since I can remember."
"What? Why, you're crazy! Here in Centerbrook!"
"Yes. Nobody knew. Not even her family—or mine."
And then the whole story began to come out pell-mell, every which way, wrong end first, the middle nowhere, and all confused with mixed emotions, tears and young despair and disorderly outbursts of vituperation against himself, Centerbrook, his ill luck, her family, and everything and everybody but the girl herself. For a long time I could not believe him. Then, when I believed I could not understand, for much of it he did not understand himself and could not make credible. But what a situation! With a little of the pathos of actuality taken out and its place occupied by romantic motive and symphonic "bunk," what a situation for a fictionist! Well!
They had met years before, as children, in circumstances that were just absurd. He had been chopping kindling in the woodshed with his pockets full of bake-shop cookies. The Furnesses had, that day, moved into their half of the house; it had been for some time vacant, and a missing board had not yet been replaced in the fence that made the rear wall of the woodshed. Con, straightening up from the kindling in order to cram a cooky into his mouth, saw her watching him through this hole in the fence with an expression of hungry envy. He grinned and held out a cooky to her. She studied him between shyness and temptation. ("They never had enough to eat in the house," he explained, "but they were so proud you'd never guess it."). He went over to the opening and said: "Go on. Take one. They're good. My father makes them. We own the bakery. Go on. I got lots."
She took it and said, "Thank you," polite, but embarrassed.
He introduced himself. "What's your name?"
Instead of replying she said, unexpectedly, "Mother 'll not let me play with you."
"Why won't she?"
"She doesn't let me play with any one."
"All right," he said. "Then I won't ask her to. Have another."
He gave her a handful. She was more at her ease, having confessed that she could not play with him. She nibbled the cakes greedily, looking at him over them. "My name's Flora," she confided.
That was their beginning. "She wasn't so pretty," he said, "but she wasn't like any girl I'd ever met before. She was so quiet. She'd just stand and watch you, and listen and look—look friendly, and never say a word. I was dead nuts about her in no time. I used to take all sorts of things in my pocket for her, and she'd slip out and get them when she heard me chopping wood. I used to make all the noise I could on purpose, and bang on the side of the woodshed when she didn't come.
"I don't know how she let me know—I guess she told me straight out—that she couldn't speak to me if she saw me on the street. I didn't care, but I pretended I was sore. I had some Scotch shortcake for her, but I said I wouldn't give it to her unless she let me kiss her. She said she wouldn't do it for the shortcake, but she'd do it because she couldn't speak to me on the street. It was the—the first time I kissed her." And then he began to sob again.
He must have been about eight years old at the time, and she ten. Her father had come to New York for an English publishing-house. He was an Oxford man and a younger son; he had not yet developed his destructive weakness for brandy and soda, and, although his income must have been beggarly, the family kept up appearances. She did not go to school; she was taught at home by her mother. And she was not allowed to associate with the neighborhood children because their accents were bad. There was, in fact, no accent in Centerbrook that her mother considered it safe for her to hear too often. Her brother, Howard Hartley, was sent to a boys' boarding-school up the Hudson, after the English fashion. Mrs. Furness was secretly giving piano lessons in a girls' school in Plainfield. And Flora was left alone in the empty house every afternoon.
Con could not recall how the meetings in the woodshed were discovered, but he remembered clearly enough that he found the missing board replaced one day, and no one answered his industrious uproar among the kindlings. He was not outwitted. He had loosened that board himself in order to get into the Voss back yard before the Furnesses occupied it, and he had another way of entering; he had clambered out a dormer-window on to the roof and forced an entrance through a corresponding window on the Voss side of the house. And more than that. Miss Voss's soundproof walls did not extend to the top story. There was a door from the Gorman attic into the Voss attic. It was bolted on both sides, but, having entered the Voss attic through the window, Con had withdrawn all the bolts. He had gone down through the house and unlocked the cellar door. And with a picked following of young burglars he had made the vacant house the resort of a gang of imaginary desperadoes of which he was captain.
The day that he found the woodshed repaired he went at once to the attic, took off his shoes and stockings, and crawled across the roof again into the Furness top story. He unlocked the attic door to open a quick retreat for himself—according to the best traditions of the criminal professions—and started tiptoeing down-stairs in search of the imprisoned princess. There was not a sound anywhere. He reached the ground floor before he heard so much as a cough. There, through the hinge-crack of an open door, he saw her sitting in the parlor, reading a book. He made sure that there was no one else in the room before he put his head in and whispered, "Have a gingersnap?" She dropped her book and cried, "Con!" And she made so much noise about it that he knew she was alone in the house.
That began the second stage of their affair. They met in the attic thereafter, and talked and read and played together while her mother was away. It was easy enough for the girl; there was no one to spy on her so long as she remained indoors. But Con had to practise all sorts of stratagems and deceptions in order to escape from his small brothers and his boy friends, and at first he did not spend much time with her; he would just run up to see her for a few minutes after school was out and take her some cakes. When the novelty wore off, it was rather a deprivation for him to be shut up on a holiday afternoon with her, over a book or a game. If he had been another sort of boy he might have tired of it. But he was naturally gentle and affectionate and "sorry for the kid" (as he expressed it to me) and sufficiently out of tune with his surroundings to enjoy his escape into a hidden friendship with a girl like Flora Furness, and he was not proud enough to resent the fact that she could not know him publicly. He Jiad in him a Celtic strain of poetry and imagination that kept him as secretive about her as if she were one of those invisible playmates that solitary children invent. She never asked him to come. She never reproached him if he were late or hurried. But she was always waiting for him, and she glowed with a touching pleasure, repressed, but flatteringly sincere, when he arrived; and she played his make-believe games with him, fascinated by an inventiveness that was beyond her. She was probably rather stupid as a child in everything but the depth of her feeling.
Apparently he did not realize how far matters had gone with him until she was sent away to a girls' school where she could not receive letters or write to him without it being known. He mooned around in a state of desperate loneliness for a long time before he returned to his proper associates. It was during this absence of hers that he took the Gorman attic room as his bedroom and study, with some boyish idea of being nearer the memory of her. He put the high head of his bed against the connecting door to conceal it, but sometimes, when he had locked himself in, he moved the bed aside and went into the other room and pretended that she was there with him.
Then she returned for the holidays and the thing began to be serious. She had been unhappy at the school. The other girls were all daughters of the well-to-do; she had put on the pride of poverty in her association with them, and they had retaliated as Centerbrook would have retaliated if it had had the opportunity. She had made no friends. She could not appeal for sympathy to her mother, whose ideal of character was not exactly sympathetic. And it was impossible to appeal to her father; her mother had always been between them in the family administration. So she poured it all out to Con. He took it greedily and consoled her with the whispers of adolescent love. They began meeting at night, after the others of the household were in bed. She came to his room.
Well, as I say, the middle of their story was missing from his account of it. The end of it came first; and it only ran back as far as the time when he left school to go to work. She tried to persuade him to continue his studies, but he was too impatient; he was eager to earn money, to make himself rich, so that they might be married the sooner. That was why he gave up driving the bakery wagon; there were no riches in sight along that route; and while he traveled it he had to deliver bread to her back door and be treated as a hired man by her mother. And that was why he left every other occupation that he tried in Centerbrook. He lasted longest at the soda-fountain, because the Furnesses had not the American weaknesses for cold drinks and proprietary medicines. The apparent cheerfulness of his irresponsibility was a humorous Irish mask for his distaste for commercial drudgery and the growing unhappiness of his divided life. He flung out impatiently against a situation which only the most deadly application of industry could have cured.
When he tried working in New York he was away from her all day; she had now refused to meet him at night after the others were asleep, and he could not endure the deprivation of not seeing her. She must have discovered, by this time, that then love-affair was becoming a guilty madness. While he was with her he had all sorts of plans, the most impossible hopes, the wildest dreams, but—away from her—he could not fulfil them. She was like a drug that left him enervated instead of a stimulant to spur him on.
For a year at least a silent struggle had gone on between them; and then, apparently, she gave it up. He began drifting aimlessly, and she did not reproach him. He took it for granted that she was satisfied to wait for the realization of his vague ambition to be a singer—he was the barytone soloist in the Choral Club—to "break into" musical comedy, to take to the concert stage. She had become patiently melancholy, but he attributed that to the war. Her mother's was a military family, and five of her relatives had been killed at the front. The letters from home were full of tragedy and discouragement. She tried to talk to him about it, but he knew very little about the war and cared less. His father was an irreconcilable hater of the Sassenach, rejoicing in the British disasters; and Con felt himself superior to both sides in his neutral indifference.
Now she had just returned from a visit to friends in New York, and she had returned most affectionate, but most depressed. Her brother, Howard Hartley, was going to England to enlist. She had even hinted that there was talk of the whole family accompanying him. But she had said nothing about Lieutenant Williamson, and it was only accidentally that Con overheard some one at the Country Club speaking of the Englishman as her fiancé. That had happened on the club-house veranda, just a few minutes before I spoke to him. It was the cause of his excessive emotion at my offer of assistance. It was the reason why he had tried to get a dance with her, and waylaid her when he saw me with her, and followed us to demand of her, "Are you going to marry him?"
She had refused to say that she was not. She had admitted that she was probably going to England with Howard and her parents. "We're needed. We're all needed," she kept saying. "And what's the use of my staying here? I'm only ruining your life."
"And she's not!" Con cried. "She's not! She can't leave me now—after what there's been between us. I'll go crazy. I'll kill myself. It's all I've had to live for in this— If she's needed over there— Needed! I know. I know. It's her mother. She's— She's got her all doped up with this English stuff. She always did it. She's kept her away from everybody and everything. If it hadn't been for me she'd 've gone crazy, shut up that way, with no one even to talk to! She doesn't understand. She believes what her mother tells her. She's always doing things because her mother— She should 've— When I wanted her to— When I had a job in New York in that big clothing-store I wanted her to beat it and get married, and she wouldn't. She said it would be 'too terrible—for mother.' That old snoot! I'd like to know— I don't see what hold they've got over her. I can't make her— Half the time I can't even tell what she's thinking about any more. She just sat here to-night and shivered till I could hear her teeth chatter and said, 'No. No. I'm ruining your life!' And she's not! She's not! Oh— Oh—if I lose her— She can't! I can't let her! She's got to wait ! I'm only nineteen. I'll find some way. I'll do anything! I don't care, as long as she doesn't go and— O my God, I'll go crazy!"
And I was afraid that he might. I never saw anything like it. He would talk himself into comparative exhaustion, and then the thought that he was going to lose her would strike him like a physical pang, and he would bury his face in his hands and cry out as if he were contorted with actual pain. And then he would begin to rave again. He had an amazing capacity for suffering. He wore me out with it. I would certainly have given him an opiate if I had had one with me. For a long time I could think of nothing else to do.
I was convinced that she had made up her mind to break with him. It was the only course open to her. He could not marry her; he could not marry any one; and there was no prospect that he would ever be in a position to marry a girl of her traditions. She could not introduce him to her family and its conventions, even as a friend; it would have been torture for both him and her. She was returning to her own people. There was nothing for him to do but to return to his. That was obvious.
But it was equally obvious that if he realized what she was doing he would fight it in a scandalous frenzy. He would expose her to everybody as he had already exposed her to me. He was beyond the reach of persuasion, caution, reason of any kind. He talked incoherently of going to her family and confronting her mother and "bawling them out." It was just frantic nonsense, but he seemed capable of doing it. And since, by her appeal, she had made me responsible for him, I could not simply walk away and leave him to run amuck.
I began to persuade him that his situation had been entirely changed by the fact that I had a part for him in a play. I assured him that he was an actor, with a career before him. If he could convince her of that—or if he could persuade her to wait a month while he proved it—even if she went to England she might be willing to wait for him. "Show her," I argued. "That's what you have to do—show her. Make good. Get her to give you time. She'll do it, I'm sure. Even if she goes to England she'll wait, if she sees any hope. She's that sort of girl. Show her that you have the backbone and she'll stand by you. Sure."
And I intended to find some way of reaching her and saying: "You can't go off like this. He'll do something mad. I can't hold him. Nobody can—except you. If you have to go to England, wait till you get there before you break with him. Give him some hope—and take it away from him gradually if you must. But, meanwhile, help me, some way. You'll have to. He's in a frightful state."
I persuaded him easily enough. He was ready to clutch at anything. But I persuaded him too well. I persuaded him so well that he insisted only I could persuade her.
"She won't believe me," he confessed, pitifully. "I've had too many plans that never came to anything. But if you told her that I can act—that you've got this part for me—that we'll go and land it to-morrow morning—she'll believe you. Yes, she will. 'Phone her. 'Phone her. Come on and telephone her."
"I'll do it," I said, "if you'll promise to go home, and stay there, and keep quiet, and get ready to come to town with me to-morrow morning."
"All right. All right." He grabbed my arm. "Come on. You can 'phone her from the drug-store. Hurry up. We'll be too late. They lock up—"
At least he was no longer in hysterics; there was that much gained. And he had given up his idea of bursting in on her family and demanding her out of hand. But in some unconscious need of physical action to relieve his impatience he tried to start me running to the drug-store instead of taking my car. "Keep quiet, you idiot!" I said. "This has to be done carefully. Get in the back seat there and keep quiet. I have to think of what to say to her."
I might as well have tried to think in a Bellevue ambulance, with a patient on the way to the psychopathic ward. He had gone from a frenzy of despair to an insane height of voluble hope. Certainly he would make a great actor if temperament could do it.
I left him in the car when I got out at the druggist's to telephone. And I had a moment to collect my thoughts while her brother—who answered the 'phone—went to call her. I began guardedly to explain to her that I needed help, mentioning no names; that I had succeeded in persuading him to go home, but he insisted that I must see her; that I had something to propose—
She cut me short with, "Tell him I'll come."
I did not understand. "Where?" I asked. "When?"
She repeated, "Tell him I'll come." And she hung up.
"Come on. Come on," he cried. "Hurry up. My room. It's my room."
I was glad that Centerbrook went to bed at ten. He hung over me, from the back seat, urging me on, like the heroine of a movie race between a touring-car and sudden death. And when he had hurried me, stumbling through the dark halls and up the creaking staircases of the sleeping Gorman family, and pushed me into his attic room and locked the door behind us and switched on the light, he stood, with his eyes on the faded chintz curtains of a clothes-closet, panting with all the impatient emotions of a screen star with the chest heaves. It seemed to me that life had become amazingly melodramatic.
He began to pace up and down the room under the sloping ceiling, talking in low, eager, distracted tones, throwing out abrupt and meaningless gestures at me. He was vitalized with emotion to a degree that made him feverishly demonstrative, but inexpressive. He bewildered me. He filled the little dormer-windowed room with a noiseless clamor of incoherent whispers and incommunicable dumb show and jumpy shadows. I sat down on the side of the bed and felt dizzy.
Suddenly he stopped. He stood waiting in a breathy silence. The chintz curtains parted before her, over an open door. And with her entrance our movie melodrama became, at once, the tragedy of beauty and dignity and poignant repression.
She was draped in some sort of flowing dressing-gown that made her appear matronly and classical. Her hair had been hastily gathered up in a coiled disorder high on her head. She came in from the darkness to our light noiselessly, and found him with a slow, set look that pitied him and suffered for him and stood firm. It was a look of irrevocable judgment and unmerciful compassion; and it made her most movingly beautiful to see.
Con cried out at once and rushed to her and took her in his arms. I went to blink out a window.
I began to realize the seriousness of the situation in which I had undertaken to help. She had more character than I had supposed. She was more mature. She was not sparing herself, and I had to persuade her to spare him. I did not believe that I could do it. But when she spoke to me and I turned she was sitting in an old arm-chair, bending over Con, who was kneeling on the floor at her feet, his face buried in her knees childishly; and she was consoling him, like a widowed mother, with silent caresses, herself in tears. If she had that maternal love for him—
I began to tell her about the part that I had for him, talking for his benefit and making conspiring signs to her. It is an amazing thing to look back on; I did not predict half the success that he has met with, and yet neither of us believed a word I said. He alone was convinced by me. He looked up at her while she listened, and she pretended to be interested and impressed. "All he needs," I said, "is a little time—a month, say—to show you." ("Just a month," he pleaded. "Just a month.") "Don't do anything final—even if you have to go to England. Wait. Give him a chance." ("I'll make good. I will. I promise.") "He has real possibilities—real imagination—a real gift for the stage." And so on.
She kept saying, in reply to him, "Yes, yes. I'm sure you will," trying to smile, and patting at him blindly. "Yes, yes. I know."
In the midst of it she turned to me—in response to something in my manner of which I was unaware—and said, jealously: "You mustn't blame him. He's been so good to me. He's—he's such a dear. It has all been more my fault than his. I wasn't brave enough. I'm not now. We were just—just children—innocent. We didn't understand. And we were—so happy."
"Oh, Flora!" he sobbed. They clung together like the babes in the woods. I felt like the cruel uncle.
I went back to the window. The lights of my car were burning in the street below. When there was a pause in their pitiful endearments I said, "We want to be in town early to-morrow morning." I couldn't stand any more of it. "You come along with me, Con, and we'll run in to-night, in the machine, sleep in my room there, and get hold of Bidey before any one else is given the part. I can 'phone up to the house and say I've been called in to New York unexpectedly. It often happens." I made a sign to her. It was as if we both knew that she was dying and we were planning to get him away in ignorance of it. She took it with just that face.
"Yes, yes," she said. "Go on, Con dear. Does he need to take his things? Let me pack them."
"And I'll run along, and telephone, and be back in ten minutes." I was glad of the chance to escape. "I'll toot for you."
She held out her hand. "Good-by," she said, simply. "Thank you." But the look and the clasp of the hand that went with it were secretly in the manner of a death-bed farewell.
Not merely haste and darkness made me stumble going down the stairs.
I took as long as I could at the telephone, and had the car filled at the garage, and dawdled returning. Even so I had to wait ten minutes before the light in his room went out and I knew that they had parted.
I could imagine what the parting had been when I saw him stagger down the steps with his suit- case. And I was sorry enough for him. But I had to pretend to be optimistic or betray her confidence. "Now, boy," I said, "get in, back there, and make up your mind to leave this trouble behind you till you've landed the part and landed it big." He dropped the bag and sank into the seat, exhausted. "There's room to lie down on the floor, if you want to sleep. You can put back that foot-rail." He muttered something feebly and shook his head. I threw in the gas. And Conrad Norman started toward his unbelievable success.
He did not arrive in my care.
I got him the part in the play with no effort whatever. He seemed ideal for it. He began to rehearse. And after watching him for a few mornings I left him to his fate. It was evident that he lacked training. Beside the cultivated "readings" of the professionals in the cast he sounded amateur, pale-voiced. His tones had no theatrical make-up on them. They did not carry his points. At the best it would take him three or four years to acquire the experience and authority needed to put him over with an audience. And even then would Flora Furness marry him?
How could she? All the years that we had been laughing at the Furnesses in Centerbrook Mrs. Furness had been instinctively molding her son and her daughter to a career that was now beginning. Like a queen in exile, she had kept her children reminded of their royalty, stanch to their class. She had preserved in them the accents, the manners, the conventions, the ideals of the governing English. Flora could no more escape from them—to marry Gorman—than if she were a crown princess whose whole family depended upon her to succeed to a throne. Her very beauty made escape impossible. I could foresee that much.
I did not foresee Con's complete failure at rehearsals.
For a week everything went fairly well. Apparently he tried to work and forget her. He tried to keep her out of his thoughts and learn his lines. And I judge that what he succeeded in doing was this: by a very common trick of the mind he inhibited not his memory of her, but his memory for his rôle. When every one else in the cast was letter perfect he was still stumbling and uncertain. He began to lose his self-confidence. He could not "read" a single line correctly, because he was trying to recall it, not trying to mean it. No one understood what was the matter with him. They thought that he was simply stupid. When they found him crying in the wings they accepted it as his despairing recognition of his own failure. (He was crying, I learned afterward, because she had sailed from Boston that morning.) The stage director "let him out," as they say. I did not hear of it for some days, and he did not come to me for any further help. He went to Los Angeles with a film company.
Three months later we got the news in Centerbrook that Lieutenant Williamson had succeeded to some sort of title by the death of his two elder brothers in France, and that Flora had married him in the church at Bury. And, as far as I was concerned, the story was complete.
When I saw Conrad Norman in "King Charles the First" I realized what fools we had all been and of what a young genius the spoken drama had been deprived. I realized, also, that the disastrous ending of his affair with Flora Furness had been the making of him artistically. He had qualities of repose and pathos that were marvelous in one so young. His salary was advertised as a thousand dollars a week. At that price he was irrevocably lost to the playwrights. I felt sorry for them. I even felt sorry for Flora Furness. As for the Centerbrookers, the joke was on them both ways. The daughter of the stuffed-heart aristocracy and poor Con Gorman, the ne'er-do-well, had both arrived at their distinguished goals by following the impractical bypaths which Centerbrook—in the person of the coal-yard proprietor—had so despised. Life has a way of playing such little jokes upon the wisdom of the too practical.
It has also a way of playing similar jokes upon the wisdom of the too unromantic.
I supposed, as I say, that their story was complete. They were separated by all the waters of the Atlantic, to say nothing of the even greater distances of social differences between them. When we heard that Howard Hartley, being invalided home from France, had married an English heiress the news made no point with me. It did not occur to me that the Furness family no longer depended on Flora to maintain their position in the world. I was equally blind when her husband's name was given among those who died aboard the Queen Mary in the Jutland battle. I still thought of Lady Flora Williamson as irrevocably committed to the aristocratic life and the war work of the Woman's Auxiliary Corps, of which she was an active patroness.
Even when I received a letter from her, asking how Con was doing, I took it merely as more of her "unmerciful compassion," sent her an account of him, and inclosed her letter in an envelope to Conrad Norman in care of the Domino Film Company. She wrote, it seemed to me, in a tone of war weariness; but that was natural. She said something about England being changed, life there a tragedy, the war a "dreadful oppression." I did not wish to blame her, but I felt that if she was unhappy she had no right to imply that I was responsible—by writing to me for sympathy.
What I did not understand was this: England had been to her a home of dreams, a place of refuge in her mind from all the realities of poverty and Centerbrook. Her father and mother talked of it as Adam and Eve might have recalled better days in Eden. All her English novels painted it in imaginative colors, in "the light that never was"; and she went to it as an escape from life, from the hopelessness of her affection for Con Gorman and the sight of his misery. And she found that England was "changed," that life there was full of the most terrible realities of death and war, that she had not escaped, that even the unhappiness of Centerbrook looked like comparative peace and quiet.
This, as I say, is what I did not understand. I did not understand it till she told me of it herself, not very lucidly, sitting over our coffee-cups after dinner in a suite at the Biltmore, a week after Con and she had been married, under such head-lines as these:
SCREEN STAR WEDS PEERESS
Conrad Norman Secretly Married to Sir Cuthbert Williamson's Widow
Conrad Norman, popular star of the Domino Film Company, and Lady Flora Williamson, widow of Sir Cuthbert Williamson, late of the British navy and who was killed in the Jutland battle, were married by the Rev. Simon G. Montague, in St. Agatha's Episcopal Church, upper Broadway, last Tuesday afternoon, it was learned yesterday. Lady Williamson is the only—
I had not been invited to the wedding. I should probably never have been invited to the dinner either, if I had not happened to encounter Lady Flora under the porte-cochère of the Biltmore after their secret was in all the papers. "We intended to start at once for California," she apologized, "or I should have called you up. You must have dinner with us. Con will be so glad to see you."
I suspected that Con would be about as glad to see me as to see the coal-proprietor from Leedy Street, and my suspicion was accurate. He was entirely polite, at his ease, and unselfconscious, but he scarcely looked at me. He kept his eyes almost constantly on his wife. He talked to me, as it were, through her. And he gave me the strangest impression of a complete withdrawal of interest, not only from me, but from all the outer world from which I came.
At first I thought he averted his eyes from Centerbrook, as represented in my person, and from his past, of which I reminded him. But he had the same air toward the waiters who served him and the food that he ate. And when she spoke of both Center- brook and of their days there he had no change of face. He listened to her and watched her, deeply contented—too contented to speak or to smile. He was obviously a happy man, in a happy dream, making a fortune in a world of make-believe as a young actor and seeing in her the only reality that interested him.
As for her, she seemed more beautiful, more distinguished, and yet more human than ever. Our dinner was served in the sitting-room of their suite, a room of French grays and gray-greens that had an air of luxurious delicacy, in which she reigned like a princess of Versailles. The waiters looked to her for their directions and she gave them without consulting her husband; she knew exactly what he liked and how he liked it served. A maid came to her with a telephone call, and she said, "Tell them he is at dinner." A man-servant brought her railroad tickets, and she explained to me, "We are leaving for Los Angeles to-morrow." They had seats for the opera that evening, and it was she who watched the clock and ordered the taxi.
I congratulated them on their happiness as I left. She said, "I'm happier than I ever deserved to be." And she put her arm through Con's and patted his hand, looking up at him fondly, as if to assure him that he, at least, had deserved his happiness.
In any case, he continues to enjoy it and his popularity and his income and his whole colossal success. Charlie Chaplin is now his only rival in the public eye, and even Chaplin has to take the second place which comedy must always accept from tragedy in the republic of art.