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Silent Sam and Other Stories of Our Day/In the Matter of Art


 

IN THE MATTER OF ART

 

 

IN THE MATTER OF ART


THE automobile had dragged itself up the rise of the country road with a painful slowness—with a violently irregular beat of its disordered pulse and every now and then an explosive hoarse cough of protest. The chauffeur shook his head, and listened, and shook his head again, like a doctor who sees that the end is near. The man beside him kept flicking the ash from a cigar impatiently, with his eyes now on the turn of the road ahead, now on the row of little cedars that were held in single file along the way-side, like a chain gang, by three rusty strands of barb wire, for a fence. Behind them a cow, in an orchard pasture, chewed with true bucolic stolidity as she watched the car. Around her, the old apple trees, petrified by decay, stood motionless, as if they had just been interrupted in some skeletoned dance of death, their bleached limbs contorted, their bare twigs, as sharp as talons, still quivering a little in the sunlight.

The chauffeur pulled a lever that mercifully ended the agony. The car settled back against a water-bar, panting. The man sighed and rose from his seat.

The chauffeur had told him what was wrong—something the matter with the "contact"—but Ruttley did not believe it. He believed that the chauffeur was one of those deft mechanical idiots who are never happy except when they are tinkering with machinery, who invent reasons for tinkering and then tinker so badly that they have to tinker again to cure the ill effects of the previous tinkering, and so on forever. It was an annoying defect in the man's character, but Ruttley accepted it—as he accepted all human delinquencies—without trying to correct it. He was not a reformer. He was a playwright.

He did not so much as look to see which part of the machine was to be operated on, but turned his back and moved slowly away up the road, in his dust-ulster, smoking. The apple orchard was not like any he had ever seen on the stage, and he regarded it a moment. The blue haze of the hills beyond was a commonplace of back-drops, and he turned from it to the other side of the road, where poison-ivy and blackberry brambles struggled with a thicket of plum shoots for possession of a hollow in the hillside. When he passed the thicket he saw a house, a well-top, and a woman drawing water there.

That was the order in which he saw them, and the order in which he considered them. The house might have had some interest, for a "By Gosh" drama, if it had not been spoiled by a new roof of cedar shingles, new tin gutters, and new leader pipes. The well-top was characteristic—particularly the faded green verditer of the lattice on it. The young woman had her back to him; and he saw, at once, that it was a back that was all a back should be.

There was not a show-girl on the Rialto that had a better. It was ideally flat, as flat as a kite. It rose, from a round waist to rounded shoulders, on a line of vertebræ that would be indented like a prolonged dimple. It responded with its muscles to every tug of her arms on the rope of the well. When she bent, it was as supple as a snake's.

Ruttley was a connoisseur in backs—for dramatic purposes. And he said now to himself, as he watched her at the well: "That 's as good a back as Celia Cibber's"—of whom it reminded him.

He said it with a reminiscent scowl, for it was he who had discovered Celia Cibber, and it was he who had lost her. Her sudden withdrawal from the lead in his "By Hook or Crook" had crippled that play at the beginning of what had promised to be a long run in New York. She had gone abroad—to England—nobody knew why—in spite of his furious indignation and the more tender regrets of a public that had just begun to rise to her adoringly. She had given him her address—in care of a London tourist agency—and he had torn it up and flung it on the deck at her feet as he turned to leave her on the steamship; and he had not heard a word from her, or of her, since.

While he was still scowling—at the thought of Miss Cibber—the woman bent to empty the well-bucket into her tin pail, and showed him a cheek, the point of a camel's-hair eyebrow, and a pink ear. He snatched his cigar from his lips and hastily fanned aside a fume of smoke that obscured his vision. She walked across the grass, unconscious of him—bent sidewise, lithely, with the weight of the pail—as graceful as a Naiad with a vase on her hip. The screen door of the kitchen slapped shut behind her. Inside, she began to sing, in a deep contralto voice:


"Now you are married you must obey;
You must he careful of all you say:
You must he kind, you must he good—"


He had flung his cigar aside, as if it were his last doubt, and strode after her. With the click of his heels on the stone slabs of the walk, the song stopped. When he came to the screen, he saw her standing beside the stove, holding a tin dipper over the mouth of the tea-kettle, her face turned to him.

He was sure that she could not distinguish his features; the strong sunlight was at his back. And he did not believe that she recognized his voice when he demanded abruptly: "What are you doing here?" But with the amazing self-possession that had been her first stage asset, she emptied the dipper into the kettle and clapped the lid on it before she replied: "I 'm making luncheon."

He pushed open the door to confront her dramatically, his vizored cap in his hand. She did not accept the confrontation. She put her dipper on a table. Then she wiped her fingers on the kitchen apron that she wore. Finally, with an amused arching of her eyebrows and a slowly growing smile, she said: "How do you do?" and held out her hand to him.

To no one who remembers Celia Cibber in "By Hook or Crook" will any description of her smile seem adequate. It was one of those elusive smiles that do not wrinkle, that do not so much as pucker, the face—that do not even draw a line from the nostril to the mouth, but turn aside, under the rounding cheeks, and twinkle in two dimples there. It opened her eyes gaily. It showed the white of parted teeth that were waiting for the low laugh and darling chuckle that were to follow.

When the chuckle came he dropped her hand. But in that brief interval he had seen and decided that she was as handsome as ever, as inscrutable as ever, and more at her ease with him than ever. The friendliness of her smile was only the sparkle of sunlight on very deep water; he knew it; he knew that no amount of peering would give him a sight of what lay below that dazzle; and it was with the intention of clouding it over, that he repeated, with his persistent frown: "What are you doing here?

"Living," she said. "Don't you like it?"

It was a blue-and-white kitchen, with blue-and-white curtains on the windows, blue-and white china on the shelves, blue-and-white linoleum on the floor.

"Stagy," he said. He repeated "Stagy" at her blue-and-white checked apron.

"Sniff now," she said, and I 'll think I 'm at a rehearsal again."

He preserved his expression of Dantesque severity and disgust. It was an expression which she had once thought awfully like Sir Henry Irving's at his most impressive. It did not awe her now; it seemed to amuse her; and she laughed, clasping her hands in her bosom as if the humor of it tickled her there.

"You went to England."

She nodded. And came back again on the next boat—by way of Montreal." She added, as a woman's postcript: "I was married there—in Montreal."

"Married?" He bent upon her a penetrating, quick scrutiny. "Married!"

She continued to hug herself with that unchanging girlish joyousness.

"Don't tell me you 've been such a fool."

She smiled and smiled, twinkling at him.

"Who is it?"

"Oh, a dear!" she gurgled. "Nobody that you know. A love!"

He thrust his hands, cap and all, into the pockets of his ulster. "So that was it! I might have guessed it. And he supports you—does he?—in this abode of luxury."

Her look deepened into a sort of happy pity of him. "He works for me, and I work for him."

"Did you know where he was going to bring you when you—married him?"

"I picked it out. We had it ready before I sailed. I went to England just to throw you all off the track."

"And you gave up your—your career—for this?"

She considered him a moment with her untroubled gray eyes. "Oh, you would n't understand," she said; and with an adorable gesture of smiling young wisdom, she dropped her hands and turned from him, to the stove.

He began to pace up and down the room. "And you had the promise of being— Nothing but a little training to make you— Why, damn it all, common sense—ordinary common sense," he cried to her indifferent back. "I thought you had that anyway."

She said, over her shoulder, as she broke an egg and drained off the white into a bowl: "I can't cook with you stamping around—if I did act with it."

"Cook!" he fumed. "Cook! There are millions of women to cook. You 're an actress."

"Oh, I 'm learning," she said. "I can do a foamy omelet. I 'm doing one now, if you 'll be quiet a moment."

He folded his arms in the final calm of exasperation. "Who is he? Where is he?"

"He 's a newspaperman." She broke another egg. "He commutes—to Findley—and walks here over the hill." She applied herself to a Dover beater. "He gets home at four in the afternoon, and leaves at six in the morning."

"Good heavens! A commuter! A suburbanite! In New Jersey! What else? Poor, I suppose."

She was consulting her cook-book. "Twenty-five dollars a week. 'One tablespoonful of butter. One—'"

"Are you living on twenty-five dollars a week?"

"Yes. Now please don't bother me," she said. "Go and sit down in the other room—where it 's cooler." And she knitted her brows over the recipe, determinedly oblivious of him, in an almost exaggerated pose of housewifely absorption in her work.

He went to the door of the dining-room—a sunny, small room, done in what the decorators call "old gold," with yellow sill-curtains of Chinese silk on the windows, and a sere grass matting on the floor. "Twenty-five dollars a week!"

She said, from the cupboard: "And enough money in the bank to last us three years."

"Ach!" He left her—with her irritating complacency—and stalked through to the living-room, glancing in at a white bedroom as he passed. There was nothing anywhere to indicate the actress. Even the pictures on the walls were not of the stage. They were the usual reproductions of popular magazine prints—many of them what are technically known, to the producers of them, as "kissing pictures." He sniffed and turned his back on them, standing before the window, his hands in his pockets, his feet wide apart, in a thoughtful attitude.

He stood there until he saw his chauffeur and his auto appear from behind the plum thicket. Then he went to the door and called authoritatively: "Go on up the road and get yourself something to eat"—and came back to the dining-room with the face of determination.

"You 're acting," he said. "It 's all a pretense."

She was setting the table with dishes for two, and she did not interrupt her work while she replied: "Don't you think I do it well?"

"Because you 're deceiving yourself. You 're playing being married and keeping house—acting it—and you think it 's real."

"Well, at least," she said, "I get more pleasure out of it than I ever did in your plays." She looked up at him, archly sly, to see how he took it.

He took it with a grim nod. "You 've been reading Ellen Terry's memoirs. That 's where you got the idea. Aha!" he cried. "I thought so. Wanted to act the Mary Anderson, did n't you?"

She had shown by a blush that he had probed her, but she carried it off: "Ellen Terry went back to the stage. Mary Anderson—"

"Oh, you 'll go back. You 'll go back. And the public 'll not remember who you are."

"It would n't take me more than one night to remind them," she said proudly as she passed into the kitchen.

He drew up a chair to the table and sat down with his elbows on the cloth. "Would n't it! Would n't it!" he exulted. "How long do you think you 'll keep young here? You 'll look like that old apple orchard before you 're thirty. Work yourself angular—"

"I 've gained five pounds," she called out.

"Spoil your hands—"

"I 'll wear rubber gloves."

"Grow dowdy, stolid, beefy. Your husband will tire of you—"

"Will he?" she said, reappearing with the omelet on a platter and the teapot in the other hand. "I 'll attend to that. It 'll be variety that will tire him, if he does."

"And you 'll tire of him."

"If I do, I 'll never let him know it. Now"—she put the omelet before him—"help that before it goes flat. Won't you take off your ulster?"

He was hungry enough to be diverted by the sight of food, and gentle enough to be mollified by an offering of hospitality, but he still insisted, even as he took off the coat: "You 're acting. There 's not a thing of your real self in the whole house. You 're pretending that you were never on the stage. Not even a picture."

"You have n't seen the garret. Cream and sugar?" she asked, pouring his tea. "Real cream. We have a cow. I milk her."

He had to say: "Please. Two lumps." He helped her to a portion of the omelet, and she smiled hospitably upon him as she took her plate from him and passed him his cup. "Jack says I brew tea like an Englishwoman."

"Now look here," he said, as he attacked his omelet, with the air of a man who was accustomed to transacting business at luncheon, "you can't put me off. I 've caught you, and you might as well give up first as last. Who is he? Eh? Where did you meet him? Why did you marry him? Why did you run away and hide?"

"Because," she replied, addressing herself daintily to her food, "I knew you would all talk just as you have been talking now, and I did n't want to be bothered with you."

"Guilty conscience," he said curtly. "You knew you were doing wrong. Did you tell your parents?"

"I have n't any. Mother died—and father married again—before I went on the stage. He 's too respectable to own a daughter who 's an actress. Jack was the only person in the world I cared a cent about. I knew him before I came East. He 's been writing to me for years."

"Love letters?"

"Oh, the loveliest!" she cried. "It was his letters that did it. He could never have talked like that."

"He 's a hypocrite," Ruttley said. "No man ever wrote good love letters that was n't. He 'll fool you yet."

She laughed, in a happy scorn of his cynicism. "Save that for a play."

"I will. And I 'll give you the line. Go on. Why have I never seen this paragon?"

He listened, playing a keen eye from her to his plate and back again.

"I would n't have him hanging about the stage door. I told him so. Besides, I was n't in love with him then. I just used to meet him, now and then, somewhere, to cheer him up. I saw you once on the street, but I got him around the corner before you noticed us."

"'The girl who deceives her father will deceive her husband.' That 's the moral of runaway matches. Go on."

"And then he took ill, and I did n't see him for nearly a month, and I missed him so much—"

"That you thought you were in love with him. I understand. That 's the usual thing. He was probably pretending that he was sick, just to see whether you had 'got the habit' or not. He played you like a fish—tautened the line—and when he was sure that he had you well hooked—eh?—he said: 'Now you must leave the stage. I 'll feel safer when I have you in my own little creel.' You were a gull."

"No." She pushed back her plate and put her elbows on the table, her hands clasped under her chin. "No. He did n't say a word about leaving the stage. I did that myself."

"You did. Well, well. No wonder you 're proud of it." He took out his cigar-case; she watched him, reminiscently, the light of his match reflected in her set eyes. "Perhaps," he said, "you will explain why?"

She blinked quickly. "Yes," she replied, "I 'll explain why.… I was out at a studio—a painter's—and he had a pet monkey that imitated everything it had seen him do. It sat at his easel and daubed his canvas—and put its head on one side and then on the other—and when we all clapped our hands and cried: 'What a perfect little actor!' it chattered and made mouths—" She imitated its grotesque baring of the teeth. "And I said to myself: 'There I am. That 's me, A perfect little actor. They dress me up, and put me on the stage, and I imitate what I 've seen real people do—'"

"But," he cried, "that 's true of all art, if you want to look at it that way. The painter—mimics life in colors. The sculptor—"

She spread her hands. "So much the worse for art. I know a motto for it, then: 'Monkey see; monkey do.' Hang that up in your library."

He puffed at his cigar, ostensibly to resuscitate it, but really to gain a moment in which to prepare a retort.

She did not wait for him. "I was tired of it," she went on, in a voice full of protest, emotion, scorn, and yearning. "Tired of being a monkey. I wanted a real life of my own—away from all you people that don't see anything except to imitate it, to write it, play the monkey with it. And when I found that I really could love Jack—that I had enough of the human being left in me for that—I saw my chance, while I was still young, if I could only get away somewhere, with him, where all the rest of you could n't come around and remind me that I was only a monkey, and spoil it all, and try to coax me back. That 's why I hid. I want to live." She threw her arms out at the sunny room. "Here. A real life. With a real man. And be happy. And I am. Never! You 'll never coax me back as long as I can have this. I 'm going to have a real life, with real work, real love—and babies—real babies—babies of my own." She stopped, tears in her eyes, her lips trembling; and with one of those sudden changes of mood that had made her acting so heart-tickling, she quavered: "And you 're probably sitting there thinking: 'What a beautiful bit for a play! If I could only get her to act it like that!'"

"You were thinking it yourself," he said to the ash of his cigar, "or it never would have occurred to you. However, you could marry and keep your private life to yourself. Your public life—"

"I don't want any public life. I 've had all the public life I want. I don't want two lives. I want it all one—and this one."

"Very well," he said. "If that 's the way you feel about it. Nevertheless, there 's no reason why a man or a woman can't be a great artist and live a real life as well."

"'Nevertheless'! Nevertheless, what sort of life do you lead?"

He put that question aside with his hand. "My life is what I 'm able to make it. If I were a bigger man, I might lead a bigger life. You—"

"I 'm not half as big as you are. This is big enough for me—this life."

"You 'll eat it up. You 're wolfing it down now, and smacking your lips over it. When you 've devoured it, you 'll go back to the other, too."

She settled back in her chair rather languorously—as if exhausted by the emotions that had thrilled her—and looked down at the spoon which she had begun to balance in her fingers. "You don't know. You don't know how lovely it is. Just the joy of working for him! I never wash his teacup after he 's gone, that I don't want to kiss it."

He smiled, a trifle wryly. Perhaps it was because he had not had any of that sort of sentiment in his own life; perhaps because she seemed to him more gushing than sincere. His profession had taught him to suspect the emotional sincerity of a young lady of her temperament and training. "Well, I 'm glad you 're happy," he said. "I hope it lasts. But if you ever want to come back to the stage—"

She shook her head.

"In case he fell ill, or anything—or you needed money. Remember, you owe it to me to come to me first."

"Thank you," she said, non-committally.

"I have a play now that I 've just finished. There 's a part in it that would make your fortune. You could retire, then, with enough to keep you both in luxury for the rest of your lives."

She had risen. "No, no," she cried. "Behind me, Satan." She caught up some dishes and fled with them. "Don't try to tempt me now," she called from the kitchen, "or I won't come back into the room."

"Very well," he resigned himself. "But I want you to promise me one thing."

"What is it?" she asked from the doorway.

"That you 'll not leave here without letting me know where you go. I want to keep an eye on you."

She came in for the other dishes. "I will on one condition—that you don't tell any one where I am—that you 've seen me, even."

"Very good. That 's agreed."

She went ahout her work. He continued smoking silently, watching her. "You 're a strange girl," he said, out of his thoughts.

"Yes?" she smiled. "How did you find me?"

"I 've been worked too hard," he sighed. "I needed a rest. I 've been knocking around the hills with a cursed mechanic that 's always stopping to take the car to pieces. However, people can't write—or telegraph me—"

"So you 've run away, too," she said, and left him to go about her kitchen work. "Have to have the place tidy before Jack comes back," she excused herself.

He sat musing, enjoying the quiet of the room, of the view across the valley showing between the curtains of the window, of the whole life that seemed to be peacefully breathing in the faint sounds from the fields. She called, sotto voce: "Don't let him come in. He might recognize me."

It was the chauffeur coming back with the car; she had seen him from the kitchen window, far up the road. Ruttley went to the door. "All right," he called through the screen.

"Good-by," he said to her, "and remember."

She dried her hands hastily. "Good-by. And don't forget. Not a word to any one."

They pledged themselves in the clasp of a handshake. He put on his cap and went out.

On his way down the path he heard her take up again the song which his arrival had interrupted:


"Now you 're married, you must obey;
You must he careful of all you say;
You must he kind, you must he good—
And help your husband split the wood."


"That 's acting," he said. "That 's acting."