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THE IMP'S MATINÉE

 

 

 

THE IMP'S MATINÉE


THE Imp strolled out of the big summer hotel with that careless and disengaged air that meant particular and pressing business. It was very early—lunch was barely over—and he was the only person on the broad piazza. As he rounded the corner he ran against Bell-boy No. 5, a great friend of his.

"Hello, Imp!" shouted No. 5, "where you goin'?"

"To the theatre to buy my ticket for the play!" announced the Imp proudly.

"Oh!" said No. 5, "guess I'd ruther go to the circus over at Milltown. That's to-day, too. Why don't you go there? Ev'rybody in town's goin', except these hotel folks. Why don't you go?"

The Imp frowned. This was a tender point. "I said that I would just as soon not go to the circus, Jim," said he. "I could have went if I had liked—that is, I very nearly could. And I said that if they would very much rather I went to the theatre instead, and if—" here the Imp forgot his elaborate courtesy and spluttered, "if they'd stop making such a time over me because I am only seven and a quarter, and Milltown is four miles off, and Uncle Stanley isn't here, and Mr. Jarvis says the elephant hates polo-caps, and I had a little tiny headache last week and I'm all right now——"

"Oh, well," said No. 5 soothingly, "I guess it's no great shakes of a circus. I guess the play'll be a lot better. I——"

"Third floor, here at once!" somebody called. "Five! I say, Five!"

"That's me," said No. 5, in a surprised tone. "I guess I'd better toddle off sometime to-day. So long, Imp!"

A drop of bitterness had fallen into the Imp's cup of pleasure. He had almost begun to believe he preferred the theatre to the circus, and now—whatever Jim might say, he was going to Milltown! He tramped through the little dusty town, looking at its one street of shops with undisguised contempt. This town was really very small. He extracted a quarter from his dirty little pocket-book, treasured because the parting gift of James O'Connor, and walked lightly into the small, dingy theatre. In the ticket-office stood a tall, white-faced man, very shabbily dressed, with dark, glowing eyes that stared at the Imp uncomfortably; he felt like an intruder. But secure in the consciousness of virtue, he laid down the quarter with a slap on the little counter.

"I would like a ticket to this theatre this afternoon," he said, politely but firmly.

"Oh!" said the man, "that's more than many would!" and he laughed unpleasantly. "You aren't patronizing the circus to-day, then?" The Imp blushed.

"No, I'm not," he said faintly, "I'm patterizing this theatre instead. I—I thought I'd better." The man turned away rather crossly and lit a cigar.

"Go on in, then," he said, "and take your pick of seats. The crowd's not so big but that you'll get a good one."

The Imp walked through a dirty green baize door into a small theatre, quite empty. Across the stage scuttled a man with a dustpan in one hand and a wig in the other. From behind the curtain came voices pitched high, as of people quarrelling. The hot sun streamed through the holes in the window shades and showed the dust and dirt and stains that covered everything. It was a distinctly dreary scene, and the Imp felt very lonely and mournful. Nevertheless he was on pleasure bent, and so he walked up to the front seat on the aisle and settled himself expectantly.

For some time nothing occurred. Then the curtain was pushed aside and a woman peeped out. As she saw the Imp's interested face beaming from the front seat in the aisle her mouth slowly opened. "Lord!" she said, and disappeared.

The Imp had never been to the theatre in his life, but he had heard it discussed. Doubtless this was the first act. He had never heard of any act that came after the fourth—Uncle Stanley said he always skipped the fourth act—so there would be but three more, in all probability. Three more heads—interesting, but brief in their stay—and then it would be over? Impossible! Twenty-five cents for that? He grew red with indignation.

A long wait, at least ten minutes, then the curtain was pulled from the other side and a man's head peered cautiously out. The Imp caught his
 
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The audience waited with dogged patience for twenty minutes.

 
eye and glared stonily at him. The man's mouth opened and he said with some temper, "Oh, darn that circus, anyhow!" Then he disappeared. Act two. The theatre certainly left a great deal to be desired. And darn was a very bad word.

Then absolutely nothing happened, though the audience waited with dogged patience for twenty minutes. Finally he got up and strolled down to the office. The man with the dark eyes that looked somehow very unhappy for all he scowled so fiercely, was blowing rings of smoke through the little opening where you bought the tickets. The Imp confronted him in injured innocence, and sniffed, after the fashion of people who are too old to cry, but who will give way to tears if they are in the privacy of their mother's bedroom. "Is the theatre over?" he asked.

The man stared. "Have you been in there all this time?" he said. "Why, there isn't going to be any play, sonny. There's nobody to play to, you see."

"There's me," said the Imp.

The man coughed. "Yes, there's you," he agreed, "but I'm afraid you won't quite do. The company couldn't be expected to perform, you see, for just one k—one person. I'll give you your money back and you can go—Oh, go to the circus!"

This was the last straw. The Imp cast himself on the dirty floor, to the great detriment of his blouse, and wept openly.

"But I can't!" he wailed. "I can't go to the circus! I promised I'd be sat-satisfied to c-come here to the th-theatre! And now there isn't any theatre! And I can't break my p-p-promise! Oh, dear! Oh, dear!"

The man came out of the office and patted the Imp kindly on the shoulder.

"Come, take a brace now!" he said. "Get up and never mind. It's hard luck, I know, but you see they can't play for one boy—they simply can't. They'd like to play well enough—that's what they're here for, you see, but it wouldn't be worth while to go to all that fuss for one seat. I—I'm sorry for you, by Jove I am! The only man who sticks by the legitimate!" And he laughed. The Imp didn't understand, but he knew the man meant well, and he didn't mind being laughed at in that spirit. He sat up and brushed his polo-cap. "I wish I was twins," he said thoughtfully, "and then I'd count for more! I wish I was a whole family!"

The man laughed again. "I wish you were," he said. The Imp turned the polo-cap around in his hands.

"Would you act the theatre for ten people?" he said. The man shook his head.

"I'm afraid not: it wouldn't pay."

"Would you act it for twenty people?"

The man hesitated. "That's pretty small," he said, "I don't know." The Imp gasped at his own daring, but persisted.

"Would you do it for thirty?" The man looked at the determined little figure in a blouse and corduroy knee-breeches.

"Why, ye-es, I guess they would," he said slowly, "that would pay the fares: I guess they would. Why?"

"Then you wait! you just wait!" begged the Imp, with the fire of resolution in his eye. "You just make 'em wait a minute. I'll be back—you just wait!" He nodded encouragingly to the astonished man and fled up the narrow, deserted street. His heart was beating high: his tears were forgotten. He should see the theatre. Now that he knew that the two heads were not all that he had paid twenty-five cents to behold, his hopes rose again.

He panted through the drive-way and stopped to get his breath at the hotel steps. The Hungarian Gypsy band was playing on the broad piazza, and everybody was sitting there, laughing and chatting. There were at least a hundred people, and they all sat perfectly still and stared, when a dirty little boy dashed up the steps and cried wildly at them,

"Will you please to come to the theatre? Oh, won't you come to the theatre? Won't thirty of you come to the theatre with me?"

The Tall Young Man in white tennis flannels advanced and grinned in his kindly way at the Imp.

"What's all this? What's up?" he inquired. The Imp remembered his manners and took off his red polo-cap.

"How do you do?" he asked politely. The tall young man replied that he was quite well, rather better than usual in fact.

"Did I understand you to invite me to the theatre?" he added. Oh, ceremony takes up so
 
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"They can't play for one boy—they simply can't," said the man.

 
much valuable time! The Imp glanced behind him—had the theatre people gone? Were they tired of waiting? Then he burst into his tale.

"I paid twenty-five cents to go to the theatre, and everybody's gone to the circus, and they won't act the theatre for just me, and I paid for my ticket!"

He stopped for breath and the Hungarian band, at a nod from the leader, stopped playing at the same moment. The Imp's face was tragic: one would have thought he was describing a scene of anguish.

"So I asked the man would he act the theatre for ten people, and he wouldn't. And I asked him would he for twenty people, and he wouldn't. And I asked him would he for thirty people, and he would. And I hurried up so much, and I hope they haven't gone, and won't you come? It's only twenty-five cents!"

Here the Imp sat down and fanned himself with his cap and sobbed for pure excitement. Everybody looked exceedingly interested, and Miss Eleanor, in the beautiful bright red dress, was distinctly sympathetic.

"Poor little fellow!" she said softly. "Poor, tired little Imp!"

The Tall Young Man in tennis flannels faced the company. "My friends," he said earnestly, "we cannot neglect this appeal. Come to the theatre!"

And before the Imp could find time to be surprised, the people on the piazza burst into laughter and followed the Tall Young Man down the steps.

"They're all coming! All but old Mrs. Sampson and Mr. Reed! Everyone!" he gasped, as they hurried along.

"Of course they're coming, when we invited them," said the Tall Young Man. "Hello! what's this?" Up the road came five, six big carryalls from the hotel across the river, full of summer people. They had horns and whistles and they made a very jolly noise. "Hallo, the Mayflower!" called the Tall Young Man.

"Hallo, the Plymouth!" called back somebody from the wagons. "What's this? Sunday-school picnic?"

"Not much!" said the Tall Young Man. "This is a theatre-party, this is! It's no use going to call on the Plymouth—we're not at home! Come on to the matinée!" Then everybody laughed and somebody said, "Oh, come on!" and they scrambled out and joined the procession.

It was very gay and exciting! the pretty young women with fluffy parasols, the nice young men with flannels and knickerbockers, the fathers that vowed they'd not come a step farther, and the mothers that said, "Oh, yes, to please little Perry Stafford! He's such a dear!" If the Imp had heard, he would have been greatly surprised. But he was at the head of the procession, striding manfully along, trying to match his short brown corduroy legs to the long white flannel ones. Everything was going beautifully—better than he had dared to hope. He grew very excited, and as they passed the little church and saw a group of people in white dresses eating strawberries on the lawn, he pulled the Tall Young Man's sleeve. "Ask them, too!" he whispered.

"By all means!" agreed the Tall Young Man, and he strode across the lawn and talked vigorously for a moment. There was some objection. The Tall Young Man waved his hand toward the gay, laughing crowd in the rear.

"Aren't we respectable enough for you?" he demanded. "Good gracious! What do you want? Why, I'm going myself! Second-rate show, indeed!"

The Imp dashed up. "It isn't second-rate, truly!" he cried eagerly. "It's third-rate! Mr. Lee said so, when I asked to go! So there!"

Then they laughed and said, "Oh, well, if it's third-rate—" and lo and behold, they came along!

The Imp conducted them to the door of the theatre and went in ahead with the Tall Young Man. Coming down the aisle were a man and woman, and at sight of the Imp and his escort they stopped and stared. The Imp recognized them as his friends of the first and second acts.

"Oh, go back! go back!" he said eagerly. "There are lots of us at the theatre, now! There's lots more than thirty!" They turned and fled behind the curtain.

After a crowded session at the "box office" as the Tall Young Man called it, the procession poured in, laughing and talking. They filled the wooden settees and the four dingy boxes at the side of the stage, and then, with a burst of applause from the audience, in came the Hungarian band! They settled themselves below the stage and as the Tall Young Man, who was busily showing people to their seats, called out in a high cracked voice, "Ladies please remove their hats in the parquet!" they struck up the overture to William Tell, and the Imp felt that heaven could be only a little better than the theatre.

The people all seemed so jolly, and everybody laughed so loudly, and the Tall Young Man was so funny, as he fanned the ladies in the boxes with newspapers, and leaned over their chairs, and made opera-glasses of his hands and stared down at the Imp!

"Who is that beautiful child in brown corduroy?" he asked loudly. "Who can that angel be? He is too valuable to be left alone!" And they all laughed—but the Imp didn't care. He was too happy. He made glasses of his hands, too, and so did the rest, and stared at the box where the Tall Young Man stood.

And then a bell struck, once, twice, and the music stopped and the curtain rose. The Imp held his breath. A beautiful lady sat all alone on a bench in a garden.

"Alas!" she said in a loud voice, "what an unhappy lot is mine!" The Imp would have liked to hear more, but the people began to clap their hands very hard and the Tall Young Man especially seemed quite beside himself with enthusiasm. The lady appeared somewhat embarrassed, but kept on with her speech, and soon the applause stopped.

Then the play went on. The Imp did not understand the plot at all, he could not make out half they said, but he was deeply interested, nevertheless. He felt that he was in a way the proprietor of the thing, and he only wished his mother and Aunt Gertrude were not away up the river in a row-boat, and could see what he had brought to pass.

At one point in the play he caught his breath, for there stalked on the stage, in a big black hat and top boots, his friend who took the money for the tickets! Everybody laughed and applauded as soon as he came in, and the leader of the Hungarian band laughed, too, and played a queer, sad, jerky music that made the Imp feel half afraid. The band watched his violin and followed whatever he played, laughing all the time.

As soon as the man began to speak, the Imp trembled, his voice was so low and menacing.

"That's the Heavy Villain, Imp dear," said Miss Eleanor, who sat by him.

"Heavy?" said the Imp, curiously; "heavy? How much does he weigh? More than my Uncle Stanley?" Miss Eleanor laughed. "Oh, tons more!" she said.

After the man had talked a little, the people sat quite still. His big eyes burned and glowed, his hands trembled, and when he stepped out to the front and made a long, threatening speech and shook his fist and strode away muttering, they burst into applause that seemed even to the little Imp to be very enthusiastic and real. They clapped so long that he came back, and stood very straight, and bowed and smiled, and one of the ladies in the boxes threw on the stage at his feet a bunch of mountain-laurel. He bent and picked it up and walked off very proudly, and after that, whenever he came on they kept very still, and applauded loudly when he went off.

The Imp didn't know that it was a poor play, poorly staged, and except for the Heavy Villain, poorly acted. He didn't know that the city people laughed at the tragic parts and sighed at the comic scenes and enjoyed the joke of being in a little dingy country theatre more than anything on the stage. He thought that people always ate candy and pop-corn balls at theatres, and did not doubt that it was the custom to converse from the floor with the boxes between the acts.

And when it was over, and the wicked Villain had died so naturally that the Imp was terribly frightened and hid his face in Miss Eleanor's red lap, they applauded more than ever, and called the delighted actors before the curtain and threw what flowers and candy they had left at them, and the band "played them out," as the Tall Young Man in flannel said. And a fat, fussy gentleman who had absolutely refused to come to this theatre, and had only allowed himself to be led there by Miss Eleanor, rushed down the aisle and up the side steps behind the curtain. The Imp heard someone say, "He's gone to get that Villain. Big piece of luck for him!"

So he fled rapidly after the fat, fussy gentleman, for the Villain was his friend, and he wished to see him get a big piece of luck.

They pushed through a little crowd of men and women, laughing and eating and walking about half-dressed, to a big, bare room where the Heavy Villain sat with his head on his arms, all alone. The fussy gentleman trotted over to him and tapped his shoulder.

"Look here," he said, "isn't this Henry Blair?" The Villain looked up. His eyes were blacker than ever.

"Yes, it is," he said shortly. "Who are you?"

The fussy gentleman smiled. "I'm Sibley, of New York," he said. The Villain started up.

"Sibley?" he stammered, "L. P. Sibley, the manager?"

"The very same," said the fussy gentleman, "and the man who made your father famous. What are you doing here, Blair?" The Villain blushed.

"I was sick," he said, "and I got discouraged, and I got in here and we drifted along——"

"Well, you want to stop drifting and get to work," said the fussy gentleman. "You quit this travelling insane-asylum as soon as you can, and come down to me. You've got your father's talent, young man, and you want to do something with it. D'you see?"

The Villain seemed very much moved and very grateful. He seized the fussy gentleman's hand and pressed it and said he'd never forget his kindness, and other things the Imp didn't understand at all. Why so grateful at being told to get to work? Still he was glad if the Villain was, for he liked the Villain.

"Oh don't thank me—thank our friend the Imp," said the fussy gentleman quickly. "If it hadn't been for him we'd none of us have come near the place. It's his show." Then the Villain seized the Imp and blessed him, and as the gentleman's back was turned just then, actually kissed him!

"What's the matter?" said the Imp as he wiped his cheek, "do you feel bad?" and remembering the Villain's advice to him when he was grovelling on the floor, he patted his head kindly. "Come, take a brace!" he said in a fatherly way.

So they laughed and went away, the fussy gentleman and the Imp, and Miss Eleanor was waiting for them, and they walked home together, the Imp very tired, but Oh, very, very happy!

The people had told his mother about it and she was half reproachful and half amused, as she often was.

"Perry Scott Stafford, how did you ever dare to do it?" she said.

Before he could answer, the Tall Young Man in white flannels spoke for him.

"Why, Mrs. Stafford, he is a public benefactor!" said this jolly young man. "It is entirely owing to the untiring zeal of the Imp, ladies and gentlemen," turning to the people generally, "that we have been enabled to enjoy this finely staged, beautifully interpreted melodrama. He shall have a vote of thanks. Three cheers for the Imp!"

And the Imp, terribly embarrassed at such public mention, endeavored to hide behind his polo-cap, and finally ran up the stairs followed by the cheers and his mother.

On the landing stood Bell-boy No. 5.

"Play good?" he inquired, as they passed. The Imp turned a beaming face to his friend in uniform. "Oh, Jim! he said, "the circus isn't in it with the theatre!"