A comedy in Responsibilities
by Virginia Tracy
GEOFFRY NORRIS was not by nature of a domestic habit, but an excessive laziness may sometimes do duty for domesticity, and at this particular moment it was certainly very warm, very comfortable and sunny, in the pretty morning room where he continued to linger over his newspaper and his late, late coffee. It was also nearly noon on Christmas Day, so, of course, there was to be a matinée presently, and in their actors Christmas matinées must always inspire a grudge. As a practical, middle-aged man, however, who has lately experienced considerable anxiety about money, Mr. Norris ought to have been glad to be now making money in abundance without any grudge whatever as to the conditions of his making it.
In this matter of financial ease, Mr. Norris might well have considered himself doubly responsible, because he had a young and pretty wife who now sat opposite him in a holiday mood which allowed her to rest from her habitual but ineffective commentary upon life: "We must economize," and to take pride in the fact that in his tie blazed, conspicuous, her Christmas gift, a large and handsome emerald surrounded by diamonds. She had endowed him with this costly splendor for a variety of reasons, all excellent: because he never wore any jewelry; because it was the sort of thing other ladies gave their husbands, when they could afford it; because, as she had told all her friends, it was "really good"; and because she had got it very cheap of a vaudeville artist who had been hard un and too sensitive to sell it to a regular outsider. Effie thus combined philanthropy, conventionality, and the sense of a good bargain, and had got sweet thanks as well, Mr. Norris being perfectly good-humored and self-sufficient and quite as willing to wear bediamonded emeralds as not to wear them.
But she was interrupted in her brief contentment by the raising of Norris's eyebrows over a paragraph in his paper; he studied it a moment, whistling "On Christmas Day in the Morning" rather quietly to himself, and then he passed it over to his wife with a smile expressive of that mingled complacency and irritation with which, when annoyed, the thoroughly wedded await a perfect sympathy.
Effie immediately evinced the latter by admirably imitating her lord's expression, with the annoyance, as it were, italicized. "Oh, how disgusting!" she cried. "Oh, dear!"
The article objected to ran as follows:
NO STEAM HEAT FOR HIM
Matinee Idol an Athlete
Actor Melville Says Work and Exercise
Enough to Warm Any Man's Blood
"There is no artificial heat allowed behind the scenes of David Engle's Columbia Theater these days while young Walker Melville, the latest matinée idol, slays his dozen villains there nightly in his virile presentation of 'The Queen's Captain.' Mr. Melville insists that his magnificent health depends upon the maintenance of natural atmospheric conditions," thus began the interviewer, proceeding at length to embody the disgust of the vigorous and full-blooded athlete at "the monstrosities of modern improvements." "As a player of heroic roles, Mr. Melville has the immense advantage of being a thoroughly manly man, and if his superb physique is the result of no steam heat, many of his fellow actors might adopt his practise to their advantage."
"Well!" cried Effie, staring across the table at the broad shoulders and the tall, light figure of her liege.
"Walker does make that new press agent earn his money," Norris said. "To-day's a teaser for this no-steam business. Oh! and just as Archibald feared, he probably won't be able to dine with us. He's to drop in during the matinée and let me know. Any choice of restaurants, Effie?"
Effie named a sufficiently imposing hostelry, and was then advised not to come down much before the end of the performance.
"I don't want you sitting round in that freezing dressing-room of mine, even with your furs on. By George," he said, "I tell you when I see the women standing, shivering, there in the wings, with their bare necks and shoulders, and when I see Melville take that little sick LeRoy child in his arms for their entrance, and the poor little rat has to cuddle up against Melville as if he doted on him and tries to keep his teeth from chattering—that unlicked bounder!" Norris said, presumably not of the LeRoy child.
"Well, now you just let them all fight for themselves, Geoffry!" cried his wife. "Don't you get mixed up in it. It's no business of yours. You've fought other people's battles all your life, and you've spoiled your whole career doing it. You don't feel the cold so very much, and why should you get into trouble on account of a lot of people who haven't got spirit enough to stand up for themselves?"
"Oh, I shall keep the peace!" her husband sighed. "But there's younger blood in the field, my dear. Just now there's nobody in charge of all Engle's theaters but Wellfort, and, of course, Melville has his ear. But wait till Engle gets back to town, and you may yet see two or three people 'standing up for themselves,' people who can afford to."
"Dear me!" said Mrs. Norris, "it's a pity about them! I guess if you can put up with it, they can!"
MR. NORRIS continued to wander about the room, pulling books off the shelves and pushing them back again. Whenever he took his cigar out of his mouth, he whistled softly to himself "On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day." Presently his wife began to talk in a breathless, crying voice that burst from her like the long-repressed spirit of injury itself: "Of course I know I'm nothing but a woman, Geoffry, and men think there isn't any woman that can appreciate them, and you think I'm just a hindrance to all your manly impulses, and if it weren't for me you'd feel free to starve or anything you'd really like. That's what all the books say, I know, about the wives of eminent men, and yet I don't see but what they all did just about as they pleased anyhow, however eminent they were, and they spend more money on their cigars this minute than their wives do on their clothes, and I'm sure you're always perfectly furious when my clothes aren't as good as other ladies'! And I do know just how you feel, dear, about that horrid Walker Melville, and I love you to feel that way because it's right, and a sick child is so much worse than anything, and I should think you'd be frozen to death yourself anyway, but you know you can't help it; you know you must put up with it, Geoffry! Geoffry, just think what we've been through the last few years when you were out with the Trust, and your position to keep up and everything, and all we've planned to do lately and that I've set my heart on; you know I have, now, just as we're beginning to be comfortable— Oh, and it does make me so mad to see how people use you and spend your money and get you to take up their quarrels just because you've always done it, and they say, 'Oh, that's just like Norry,' and they make a lot of you at that nasty 'Babes' that takes up all your time, and that's all the thanks you get for it! Oh, of course I know you'll never pay the least attention to anything I say to you any more than you're doing now, as if it wasn't hard enough to be always nagging at you, as if I ever had a thought in this world of anything but your good, and after I've given up all the best years of my life to trying to do something with you and not succeeding, just as everybody said I wouldn't, I do think I deserve some consideration, Geoffry, even if I am your wife!"
Norris's tour of the bookshelves had now brought him directly behind his wife's chair; he thrust back another volume and, leaning over her, suddenly and gently took her in his arms. Releasing her after a moment of this embrace, and still holding her hand, he was surprised to find her fingers unresponsive and her eyes unmollified.
"If you quarrel with this management, with the Trust, now," she persisted, "just to show what a high spirit you've got, I should like to know what I get out of it?"
"But I'm not going to quarrel with it. I've no thought of a quarrel."
"We can't afford those luxuries," she said with a bitterness which he felt to be partly in sympathy with him, and, as it was high time for him to start for the matinée, he took her rueful little face in his two hands and kissed her good-by. "On Christmas Day," he jested to her wet eyes, "on Christmas Day in the morning— Afford! As far as quarreling is concerned, I'm an ideal economist."
She was crying and he was laughing, but she struck his laughter dead when she said: "You only make love to me because you want to keep me quiet."
"Those remarks are the trifles in which it would be well to economize," he told her, acidly, as he started off.
She called after him: "I think you owe me a decent living, just the same!" Her moist, unreconciled, doting glance followed him as he left her, and then, as another proof of his unbearable self-sufficiency, she heard, with the opening of the front door, his vague and cheerful whistle: "What shall little children bring, on Christmas Day, in the morning?"
IT WAS almost time for the first act to be called when Mrs. Dale Roscoe, the imposing "old woman" of the company, knocked at Norris's door. "Norry," she said as she came in, "have you got a drop of whisky?"
"Sam shall go for some."
"Yes, do let him. It's not for me; it's for that miserable child. His cold's worse and his poor fool of a mother's almost distracted with him. How's Effie?" she asked as Sam went out.
"She's munificent." He looked round vaguely for his tie and displayed the emerald.
"H'm!" said Mrs. Roscoe. "Very handsome." She was fond of Effie, but she considered her marriage with Geoffry Norris the action of a presuming chit. No one had known better than she the pressure and discomfort of those last few years when Norris had been "out" with the Trust and had seen new men of meager talents go past him to their wind-filled successes, but he stood to her always for the days of his glory; she refused to be impressed by Effie's emerald.
"Quite a tidy little fortune in it, I should say, for a person who prides herself on being the economist of the family! Did she like her furs?"
"She was charmed with them. Also she said she hoped they were paid for. She's an incurable optimist," he smiled. And he added in a tone of sincere congratulation: "And, really, you know, they are half paid for!"
"You shouldn't encourage her to be so trifling," Mrs. Roscoe declared.
"Ah, sharper than a serpent's tooth to have a thankless bride! She'll have the things on when she comes this afternoon. Be sure you drop in and take a look at her—she's so very pretty in them. Oh, thank you, Sam."
The first act was called then so that Mrs. Roscoe, who opened it, had to go and Norris himself took in the whisky to the sick boy. Poor Mrs. LeRoy was altogether too flurried by this attention to administer the drink to her son, and Norris, seeing a broken tumbler standing near the basin, rinsed it. poured a little of the liquor into it, added some water, and said to the mother: "I suppose it's all right for him to have this?"
"He's 'most in a chill," the mother sniffed.
Norris bent over the child and put the glass to the little cold lips. "Try how this goes," he said.
Georgie gulped it down, and Norris, taking one of his hands, began rubbing it. "Dr. Archibald's coming to see me this afternoon," he said, "and we'll ask him what you'd better have if you get as cold as this again." He looked round the room and then at Mrs. LeRoy. "I believe my room is warmer than this. There are more lights for one thing. What do you think of bringing him in there for the matinée? Sam 'll carry your things."
THERE was a lounge in Norris's room, and Norris threw his ulster on it and motioned to Georgie to lie down inside the ulster. "Never mind your make-up. Your mother can fix that again at the last minute." He tucked the rough cloth round the child, who lay there snuggling in his warm nest, nothing to be seen of him except his querulous, elderly, small face. "You don't seem to crowd the room very much," said Norris.
He went back to the mirror and stood there, forgetting to give a last touch to his make-up. The scrawny, icy little hand, the tremble of the chilled lips against the goblet, and, above all, the look of trust and gratitude, of worship in the morbid eyes of the poor, peevish child, these things touched him like a personal degradation, and he raged at his own helplessness. He was profoundly humiliated. For here was the truth—that he was angry but subdued-—yes, by George, and cold, too!—before the whim of this young Melville. And the sight of himself in the glass, in all the martial swagger of his uniform, the very challenge in the flare of his gauntlets and the set of his spurred boots, in the sword by his side, was as if put upon him in a mockery; all that was manly, that was spirited and gallant in his fine appearance, seemed to brand him as a cheat. Was this submission and dependence what his fine appearance had brought him to? Was it his personal defection, or was it true that the artist "has parted with something of the sterner dignity of man"? He cast a lusterless glance upon the paint and powder and looking-glass, and his hand moved strongly in its glove. Sam advised him of his approaching cue, and he turned and smiled at Georgie before he went downstairs.
Melville's dressing-room was scrupulously closed. He was not a star who could afford to risk his dignity by allowing the members of his company to stray in and sit about on his trunks; if you went to speak with him on business his man opened the door a crack and said that Mr. Melville was "dressing," as if there were something veiled and occult in that rite. In the gay and gallus Babes' Club a legend had started up that he wore a toupée and was sensitive about being seen without it. This libel was the greater outrage upon Melville's pride because he suspected that Norris was responsible for it. Norris was responsible for so many of the Babes' ways, while it was only lately that Melville's indisputable prominence had forced him an entrance to that outer circle where his foothold was still unaccustomed and insecure; there was nothing he would not have done to be welcome in its sanctum. Thus at times he found disappointments even in being a star, for though in the theater the person who had come to be Melville's bugbear was only Geoffry Norris, a high-salaried leading man, yet at the club he was "Norry," and the gates went wide before him. That Christmas afternoon, however, they were in the theater.
It was just as Norris reached the wings that Melville came forth, and the two men met. "How are you, Norry?" said the star very affably. "Merry Christmas!"
He looked good-tempered and big, irresistibly handsome and wholesome, and it was Christmas Day; Norris stopped before him with a sudden, warmth of resolution. "Melville," he said, "can't they turn on some heat? No, now listen to me. The boy's sick—Georgie, I mean—looks like the beginning of the grip. You don't want to freeze him out?"
Melville regarded his leading man with a kind of slow congealment of his pleasantness; the blank glaze of authority formed itself upon his face. "Very sorry. I can't allow steam behind the scenes," he said at length.
NORRIS turned and walked to the stage. The next moment an outbreak of welcoming applause announced his entrance. But there had been bystanders, and to them Melville said: "If the child's so sick he can't do his work in the same way as other people, I better get somebody who can. I don't want a child to work when he's sick any more than anybody else does."
Nobody answered him. The women were standing about holding kimonos or knit shawls over their shoulders until their cues should come. The stage-hands, fearless and furious, lowered at Melville and walked about, flapping their arms or coughing noisily in the entrances. One young fellow with the physique of a pugilist kept a woolen scarf tied ostentatiously around his face and head. Georgie came downstairs in his white satin suit with his lean, clank curls dangling sparsely round his face; on his way toward Melville he gave forth a prodigious sneeze. The actors refrained from looking with an at each other with an obviousness more emphatic than a shout.
Melville must have felt a twinge of discomfort. "You're not getting ready to be sick, are you, my child?" he asked pleasantly. And Georgie, long trained in propitiation, trembled out: "Oh. I'm not sick, Mr. Melville, I just—got a cold—kind of."
"Well, now, my boy, this is just the place to get rid of it. If you were in a hot, stuffy room, breathing foul air, first thing you knew you'd be laid up. I used to be an invalid myself till I found that out, and now look at me. If you feel cold take deep breaths."
"Oh, I don't feel so awful cold," the child replied. "Mr. Norris gave me some whisky, and in his room he—" He stopped, warned by the cloud on Melville's face, that he had damaged his cause.
"I'd no idea you were a protégé of Mr. Norris," said the star, and then swinging the child to his shoulder he assumed an expression of the tenderest protection and they made their entrance.
As soon as he was safely on the stage the leading lady, harking back to the encounter between Melville and Norris, whispered: "Did you ever expect to see Norry take a look like that?"
"Oh, well," replied the character man. "I don't see but he's kept pretty quiet the last few years, since he's been married."
"I guess Norry's like the rest of us," the comedian volunteered. "He's getting older."
Whether this were so or not, he was certainly growing patient. For though, as the afternoon wore on, his indignation about the child turned into something like anxiety, still he behaved with the calmest decorum, remembering the things which he could not afford and how he owed it to Effie to economize in impulse. And as the matinée, amid plaudits and music, took its brilliant course, he and Melville bowing grandly to each other before the curtain, up-stairs, now and again: "You don't think I'm going to be sick?" Georgie would ask him. Once the boy volunteered a list of symptoms. "I'm all hot one minute and then I'm cold. And my head feels so queer—you know, all thicky, and it don't get better, Mr. Norris; it just gets worse. There's a pain in the back of it and a pain in the front, and my back does ache so and I'm dizzy and I can't breathe a bit. Oh, Mr. Norris, do you think I'm going to be too sick to play?"
This being too sick to play presently became the burden of his plaints. "I want to look all right when Mr. Welfort comes this afternoon, so he won't think I'm sick." It being suggested to him that if Welfort understood the case he would willingly let Georgie lie off a day or so, his part being hardly more than a picturesque effect, which could easily be cut out for a time. "Don't you believe it," shrilled the child. "They'd cut it out for good then. Mr. Melville don't like me, 'cause it's his fault I caught cold and 'cause you're so good to me. If I was to lay off he'd think that was a good chance to fire me, and Mr. Welfort don't care about me, one way or another; he'd let him."
He reiterated this statement, as a kind of rebellious warning, on the arrival of Dr. Archibald, who ran in to tell Norris that it would be impossible for them to dine together, and whose attention Norris drew to the child. "I got to play, Doctor, I got to! Mama hasn't got any kind of job either. Oh, I got to play!" he insisted. At the grave kindness of the doctor's face, his tears of pain and apprehension overflowed. He tried to cry quietly, so as not to spoil his make-up.
The doctor, who was an old hand behind the scenes and knew all the rigors of that primrose path, yet could not but override Georgie's determination. It was a well-developed case of grip, and the child must be in bed for a week at least. His mother must take him home directly.
"Oh, can't I play to-night!" gasped the boy.
The doctor inexorably wrote out a certificate of illness, to he presented to the stage-manager. "I'll tell Melville as I go down." Nothing in his experience, even of eccentric stars, could lead him to believe that Melville would discharge the child—"though the whole condition here's outrageous," he declared.
THERE was, of course, nothing that Norris could do for Georgie, who was too sick to play, and that ended it. Why was it, then, that at this particular juncture, as he walked up and down the corridor outside his door, Norris began to lose his sensation as of the child being murdered with himself as accessory before the fact? Was it because his growing suspicion of Melville's next move gave, however unaccountably, a little spring and mounting quickness to his blood? At any rate, it was no longer the child's sick face that haunted him; it was his wife, it was Effie who kept him company in that lounging promenade, it was his vision of her that roused in him something like remorse, a kind of longing pity and reluctance, as if any joy of hers were somehow doomed, as if, here and now, her poor little battle were being fought and lost. And yet he was only waiting, quietly enough, to see what that cad meant to do with the child.
The piece was ended while Georgie was still being got into his street clothes, and when Norris came upstairs, after the final curtain, a note had just been delivered to Mrs. LeRoy. It was directed in Melville's hand, and the poor woman was afraid to open it. She handed it to Georgie, whom she looked upon habitually as her mental superior, and she remained kneeling on the ground with her head fussily bent over the child's little straps and buckles; her hands seemed shaky. But her meager arms were quick and kind enough when the boy, having picked out his dismissal from the unfamiliar script, dashed himself with a hysterical cry upon her breast.
Taking up the note: "May I see?" asked Norris sweetly. He read quite through the civil little cruel "businesslike" phrases. They painted, vividly as the brush of any artist, the complacence, the self-satisfaction, the gloating in his safe revenge of the look with which Melville had written them, counting on the child's tears. Norris saw, clear enough, that it was the look of a monster. He turned and, going softly and rapidly out of the room, ran down the stairs.
The stage rang with the noise of the set being struck, and Norris passed amid the whirling scenery and the calls of the stage-hands. Standing just outside the star's door, Melville's dresser tried to intercept him. He put the dresser out of the way without roughness or explanation, and afterward the bewildered boy continued to hang about the threshold, awaiting any signal from within. Norris entered and closed the door. In the lock there was a key, which he turned and slipped into the one gauntlet he still wore. His step went very light over the income he had thrown under his feet by such an entrance; he was much at his ease, and as he stood regarding the astounded Melville, while a breath which was almost a laugh parted his lips, there dawned upon him something which still further amused him, and stirred his wrath.
The room was dazzlingly bright, and the multitude of lights and some less obvious agency, some probable boiler or lighting plant in the basement, flooded it with an intense rich heat. It flashed upon Norris that very likely this was what had put the whole advertising scheme into the fellow's head. They had happened to build the star-room over some furnace, perhaps, that they couldn't turn off—for the steam had to be kept up all the time to send it into the front of the house for the audience—and no wonder the man couldn't stand any more heat. Norris even wondered how they got the room cooled off sufficiently to impress interviewers, and then he recalled the sick child and turned his clear glance enthusiastically upon that composed mask of Melville's, where at least the complacency could be broken. It was broken already.
Melville was standing against the wall at the farthermost end of the room; he still wore his captain's armor, but no helmet, and Norris was shocked, though not deterred, by the panic that clamored and shuddered in his face. The involuntary host snatched toward him the nearest chair, and as Norris advanced upon him with a "What the devil," he gave forth a kind of squealing oath, and in a convulsion of terror and temper lifted it threateningly in the air. Norris caught it out of his hands and threw it behind him. He leaned forward and struck Melville a sharp blow in the face, and Melville, inspired by the sting, stifled a yell, shut his eyes, caught his opponent's fist in both his hands and began, with even a certain vigor, to give forth ill-directed kicks. Then all his little stock of boldness shattered by the rush of pain as Norris's other hand sent him spinning after the chair, he collapsed, raging and weeping there on the ground, armor and all, with a sound as of a smashed tinshop, and with his poor, convulsed, distorted face buried in his big arms. There was a brief pause in the energies of the stage-hands outside, as if they were listening to hear if anything had happened. The dresser knocked tentatively on the door and even went so far as to say: "Mr. Melville?" but Melville did not answer. His deeper fear of ridicule retained its hold over even his body's fear.
"Stand up," Norris said to him with a new sternness, and "Get up!" he repeated in vain. He took hold of Melville's hauberk and heaved to his feet the poor fallen knight, who immediately huddled into the protection of the wall, covering his face. Norris's eyes lost their brightness, from his face there dropped away his fighting look, the look of a boy on a holiday. The horrid huddle against the wall shamed him to sickness for itself. "Good God!" he said in a soft-voiced horror, and walked away.
Out of the whirl of his sensations an idea suddenly projected, the idea of making something for Georgie out of Melville's terrors. He was balked of his fight; let him, as a model economist, at least get something in exchange.
With bis plan half-matured, he turned round again and was just in time to see that Melville had pulled himself together and was poising to fall on him from the rear. Melville's eyes bulged with the alarm of detection, but he was too late to stop himself; he came hurtling through space with his right arm waving stiffly before him. Norris turned a little to one side and Melville landed with a shattering jar against the make-up shelf; apprehension and the pain in his arm shocked him to an insane resoluteness, and he managed to whirl around again and drive out with a blind left fist that landed like a wad on Norris's shoulder, and hardly knew how to get itself away again.
N THE instant Norris broke into a relieved laugh. "That's it!" He picked up the chair and dropped the other man into it. "Hold up and get your wind. You're all right. We're quits," he said indulgently. "I want to make a bargain with you."
"I did hit you," Melville sobbed.
"Oh, Lord, yes," Norris gaily assented. Suddenly his eyes narrowed with their first hint of irony. "Is that a version you're planning to give out at the 'Babes'?" And he glanced at Melville's face. True to his profession's unwritten law, he had considered that night's performance and left no telltale bruise there, but through Melville's make-up a hand still blazed in scarlet.
The mention of the club, the impregnable ease and security with which the club's chiefest member admitted having been struck, these were oil upon the flame of Melville's torment.
"—— —— you," he began to curse. "Is that what you're going to do? In there? To tell! Are you? What did you come in here for anyhow? What do you want?"
"I don't want to make a reputation off you, if that's what you mean," the other smiled. "I came in here for a row, but we're quits now, as I said; we can call it off. If you'll take back George LeRoy."
"Take him back after he's well again. Let him lie off a week or ten days; take him back and keep him all season, see there's no excuse made for throwing him out later on. Georgie stays, there's no row! Georgie goes and—there is."
The declared issue made a silence in the room. Norris was still standing, and Melville's mottled, puffy, tear-stained face looked up at him stupidly, and with a furtive and yet a rapidly swelling hate. To normal blood the heat from that furnace in the basement, which must be ungovernable, was distinctly oppressive, so was the look of the man in the chair. Norris averted his gaze and waited, his glance skimming all the room's heroic properties. There was, for instance, a portable shower bath and rubber tub, displayed by the supposedly accidental misplacement of the chints screen which stood open, moderately near them; the latter's figured stuff made an odd feminine note in the flagrant masculinity of the remaining decorations—a pipe-rack made of tusks, with souvenir pipes to show reporters; boxing-gloves, crossed foils, some enlarged kodaks of Melville in slouch hat and leggings surrounded by dead birds, or open boats with Melville at the helm and a great deal of throat showing; over the mirror was a pair of antlers holding the rifle Melville liked to point out as having done for their original owner; on the make-up place itself lay a sample set of Melville's new photographs in costume—in the topmost one he carried a flag in one hand and a broken sword in the other. Norris was experiencing considerable amusement, but the alloy of pity and shame penetrated it all. "Well," he said at length, "is it a bargain?"
There were writing materials on the shelf at Melville's elbow, and, motioning toward these, Norris added: "Write a line to Georgie and tell him it's all right."
Melville looked at the shelf too, and amid its papers and trinkets he saw something which he had forgotten, or, rather, he saw its little black handle, for the slender, shining barrel happened to be wholly hidden. It had been got out to show an interviewer as the companion of his long walks at night; he had never used it, but at the recollection of it he got nervously to his feet and swayed forward, bringing himself within so inconsiderable a distance of Norris's face as to suggest that he might mean suddenly to bite. "If I don't want to lower myself by fighting with you, all I've got to do is to lift my voice."
"Lift it," said Norris.
The other gasped, with a little spitting swallow of rage. "Maybe you forget my man's just outside. All those stage-hands belong to me. I can have you thrown out of here, kicked out of the theater, by calling!"
"All right. I'm no lightweight exactly, but you're heavier, you're a bit taller, you're fifteen years younger. I won't enlarge upon your—your accouterments. Call for help."
"You took good care I couldn't get it! You locked the door."
Norris took the key out of his glove and threw it on the shelf. He took off the glove and stuck it in his belt with its mate, above his empty scabbard. But if he had yielded to the hope of provoking Melville to any further demonstration, his hope was vain, and he was obliged to break another silence by saying: "Haven't we had enough of this?"
Melville's lowered eyes sent him up a strange smothered glance. He put his hand down biddably to the shelf as if to pick up a pen, and closed in on the revolver. Then he said to Norris, very low, in a thick, choking voice: "In a fight—you've got everything—your way. You know how—you're in practise—and everything. I'm not used to rough-and-tumble—rat fights—I'm no bar-room loafer. You got me at a disadvantage—a disadvantage. You think you've got me at your mercy—now—don't you?" He lifted the revolver. "How do you like that?" he said.
The men were not three feet apart; the cold mouth of the little weapon was almost nestling through Norris's open coat, against the silken shirt over his breast. His make-up could not hide the white temper that now hardened his face, and his gray eyes blazed black and cold with a rage that could almost pierce the steel of Melville's armor—that armor which he wore in the new photograph of himself, where he was defending a flag alone, with a broken sword. Norris did not speak.
"You think," Melville told him, "that I won't use this—that I won't dare. But I will—self-defense. You began it. And you locked the door. You threw out my dresser. He'll testify. But anyway—I don't care! I will, I don't care!" His voice, at once watery and shrill, swung higher and higher, the revolver began to shake in his uplifted hand. "It makes a difference, don't it? Eh? Will I keep Georgie? No, I won't! Think I'll keep you? No, I won't! You—coward, you! You—bully! Well, it's my turn now. You've got to eat dirt now! You apologize, do you hear? Do you hear? I—" Suddenly, unexplainedly, he took alarm again; fear and triumph struggled hysterically in his shout: "I'll give you one chance to get out of here—walk out of here before you're kicked out! All that's coming to you now is to get out of here. Get out of here! Don't you stand there trying to face me down! I've had enough of you! You get out of here, you get out of here—or I'll fire! I don't care what happens, I'll fire in your face, by God, I will! By God, I will!"
AND then Norris put up a hand quicker and stronger than Melville's trembling fingers. Melville saw his move too late and pulled the trigger so that the pistol went off just as it was knocked out of his grasp. The next instant it had been kicked into a far corner, and as he heard men running toward his room, Melville at last cried out to them. In the same instant with the knocking and calling of the stage-hands, Norris sprang on him, and the two went crashing backward. Melville, who was underneath, threw up his arms as he fell. He knocked over the screen near the bath-tub, and Norris was arrested upon his knees on Melville's chest by the sight of something directly facing him across Melville's head, something that had been concealed by the screen and that stood there now in full view, quietly burning and glowing and filling the whole room with its rich heat. It was a good-sized oil-stove.
And when Norris saw it there and remembered all the trouble that had been taken to hide it, and all the advertising that Melville had got out of his warm blood, when he saw over the whole room the kodaks and the weapons and the trophies that certified to Melville's fortitude, when, kneeling there, he looked down upon that poor, soft, ghastly face, and felt his knees against that ineffectual hauberk, he saw in a new light what manner of creature this was that he had been holding accountable, like a man, and he burst into a full, ringing, whole-hearted laugh.
The stage-hands were battering on the door and he was afraid they would have it down. "It's all right, boys," he called, and they paused at the unexpected reassurance of his voice. "Come, get up!" he said, good-humoredly to the star, who got to his knees and, shattered as he was, immediately tugged the screen before the stove again. Norris unlocked the door and threw it open. "Mr. Melville fell," he said, "stumbled over a chair, and his gun went off. No damage—all right, boys." He nodded to the little crowd that nodded back and dispersed. He closed the door again. When, at length, Melville looked at him, he was sitting down with his face resting in his hands and laughing.
That cheerful stove! It would be news to the women shivering upstairs; news to the stage-hands, those persons of bold, jeering eyes and caustic vocabularies; news to the audience that had just been following the poses of the hero, to all his audiences, and particularly to the girls who bought his photographs and filled up his house at matinées; it would be the most hilarious of news to the daily papers that had been glad to puff him up for the entertainment of the public, and would be equally glad to flay him for it. When Norry thought what news it would be for the Babes' Club and imagined its next reception of Melville, his grin broke out again, proud and wicked, like a boy's. It was then that a swallowing, mild voice suggested to him: "Now look here, Norry, we don't want to quarrel." He realized then the full price of his news.
"You don't, anyhow," he said, glancing toward the stove. In the glance he took in Melville, who seemed to have experienced something like cold water and come forth sobered.
"Well now, see here, Norry, what are you going to do?"
"Do? Oh, nothing." He rose, giving himself a little stretching shake, and started, still grinning, toward the door.
"Why—but—Norry! I'll see Georgie's paid his salary while he's sick a couple of weeks. I'll write you that note now."
"Oh, never mind. I shan't need any note. You won't trouble Georgie. Only to think, though, that I took you seriously; to think in another moment I'd have nearly killed you."
"Well, that's between man and man—quits, as you said. I don't bear any grudge for that—old fellow. But you mean, then, you won't say anything, Norry, about—"
"The stove? What, while the boy's at stake! Throw away a valuable piece of property by which I can effect a little high-class blackmail! No such extravagance! But look here, you know! How about the steam heat?"
"Well, of course, I— I'll have the heat turned on."
"All right. You give the order, then." He went out of Melville's room still smiling to himself.
"WELL, everybody says you had some kind of a fight," Effie persisted.
"Why, yes, a kind of a fight."
"Well, did you really—the stage-hands say so—was it a regular fight, Geoffry?"
"Oh, as irregular as you please."
"Oh, nobody can ever get anything out of you."
She was stopped in the corridor an instant by Mrs. Dale Boscoe, who looked at Norris with jubilant eyes; on the stairs the character-man greeted them with a significant crow of: "Hallo, Norry!" The stage-hands, who had signed the treaty of peace by laying aside their overcoats, followed Norris with the grins of a jocose idolatry, accepting him as a representative of their sex. Everywhere was to be heard the softly hissing song of steam as it mounted in the pipes.
Effie was keenly alive to the tribute in the air. She walked very close to her husband, trying to look unconscious, but with a little air of possession; she wore a big bunch of violets that she had bought herself, but that she hoped people would think he had given her, and her blond, feminine prettiness bloomed more richly above their color. In everything was so much composure, pleasantness, and peace that the tune which had obsessed Norris in the morning began to chime through his thoughts again—"What shall little children bring on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day?" and his wife bore with it and him even though he whistled a bit of it almost into her ear as he held the stage door open for her—"What shall little children bring—"
At their restaurant they got a perfect table, with a waiter whose long-standing friendliness welcomed them home and yet seemed like a delicious whiff of public incense. She made Geoffry tell her what she wanted to eat, and, through the veiling strains of the orchestra, under their little rosy lamp, she seemed to hear him ordering viands soothier than the creamy curd—enchanted, significant food for merry-making, in argosy transferred from Fez. Presently she said: "How old is Georgie?"
"Georgie? About nine."
"Well, then, I don't think it's necessary to get him champagne every day, as you did Mrs. Clancy. I should think it an extravagance. Jellies and fruits and things, of course, and the doctor, perhaps; you could hardly do less, considering."
"Considering what?" he asked her.
"Well, I suppose, a child is just naturally a responsibility."
FROM under his lashes, long as a woman's, he regarded her with a fond, teasing, coaxing mirth; then he perceived her to be looking fixedly at that large hand of his, stony white from having gone gloveless through the outside cold, which bore across one knuckle a deep scratch. At the sight of this he could not forbear chuckling aloud: "What shall little children bring—"
"Geoffry," said his wife, "if you really hit Mr. Melville—"
"Well, if I did?"
"Did he promise you to turn on the steam heat?"
"Did he promise that he wouldn't discharge Georgie?"
"He volunteered that."
"Did he promise that he wouldn't discharge you?"
His surprised eyes met hers. "By George, I never thought of that!"
She breathed hard, but she said nothing, and he added: "However, don't worry. He's not likely to turn on me."
"There are a hundred, hundred ways," she said, "that he could clear himself. He could make it seem as if it didn't come from him. And however you've frightened him, he'd know you'd never do—anything—for yourself."
"He'd hardly figure that out."
"You never can tell; he might."
"Well, then he might, my dear."
She looked round the luxurious room, tasting lingeringly, to its last drop, the preciousness of prosperity and praise and ease, of wine and furs and flowers. "Well," she said, "if he does, we've got that emerald pin to turn round with anyhow. What a mercy I bought it! It was a real economy!"
The contentment in their two pairs of eyes met and mingled in the kindness of lovers. The afternoon's adventurer felt in all its deepest sweetness the joy of having a cheerful wife at your back. She wasn't afraid after all, if only you gave her something to be afraid of. What was this that she was saying: "Of course, I always thought you let him walk all over you too much. Just as a business proposition, Geoffry, you couldn't afford to let him do that."
The waiter came with their cocktails, and as they lifted their little gold-filled glasses with a smile of utter peace and joy in one another, the far-off orchestra took up, in the seasonable medley it was playing, the refrain of Norris's tune-haunted mind :
"This shall little children bring
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day—"