Collier’s Weekly, October 29, 1921
IT was not till the following Friday that Sally was able to start for Detroit. She arrived on the Saturday morning, and drove to the Hotel Statler. Having ascertained that Gerald was stopping in the hotel and having phoned up to his room to tell him to join her, she went into the dining room and ordered breakfast.
She felt low-spirited as she waited for the food to arrive. The nursing of Mr. Faucitt had left her tired, and she had not slept well on the train. But the real cause of her depression was the fact that there had been a lack of enthusiasm in Gerald’s greeting over the telephone just now. He had spoken listlessly, as though the fact of her returning after all these weeks was a matter of no account, and she felt hurt and perplexed.
She was pouring out her second cup of coffee when a stout young man, of whom she had caught a glimpse as he moved about that section of the hotel lobby which was visible through the open door of the dining room, came in and stood peering about as though in search of some one. The momentary sight she had had of this young man had interested Sally. She had thought how extraordinarily like he was to her brother Fillmore. Now she perceived that it was Fillmore himself.
Sally was puzzled. What could Fillmore be doing so far west? She called to him. And, after he had stood in the doorway looking in every direction except the right one for another minute, he saw her and came over to her table.
“Why, Sally!” His manner, she thought, was nervous—one might almost have said embarrassed. She attributed this to a guilty conscience. Presently he would have to break to her the news that he had become engaged to be married without her sisterly sanction, and no doubt he was wondering how to begin. “What are you doing here? I thought you were in Europe.”
“I got back a week ago, but I’ve been nursing poor old Mr. Faucitt ever since then. He’s been ill, poor old dear. I’ve come here to see Mr. Foster’s play. ‘The Primrose Way,’ you know. Is it a success?”
“It hasn’t opened yet.”
“Don’t be silly, Fill. Do pull yourself together. It opened last Monday.”
“No, it didn’t. Haven’t you heard? They’ve closed all the theatres because of this infernal Spanish influenza. Nothing has been playing this week. You must have seen it in the papers.”
“I haven’t had time to read the papers. Oh, Fill, what an awful shame!”
“Yes, it’s pretty tough. Makes the company all on edge. I’ve had the darndest time, I can tell you.”
“Why, what have you got to do with it?”
Fillmore coughed. “I—er—oh, I didn’t tell you that. I’m sort of—er—mixed up in the show. Cracknell—you remember he was at college with me—suggested that I should come down and look at it. I shouldn’t wonder if he wants me to put money into it, and so on.”
“I thought he had all the money in the world.”
“Yes, he has a lot, but these fellows like to let a pal in on a good thing.”
“Is it a good thing?”
“The play’s fine.”
“That’s what Mr. Faucitt said. But Mabel Hobson! . . .”
Fillmore’s ample face registered emotion.
“She’s an awful woman, Sally! She can’t act, and she throws her weight about all the time. The other day there was a fuss about a paper knife—”
“How do you mean, a fuss about a paper knife?”
“One of the props, you know. It got mislaid. I’m certain it wasn’t my fault—”
“How could it have been your fault?” asked Sally wonderingly. Love seemed to have had the worst effects on Fillmore’s mentality.
“Well—er—you know how it is. Angry woman—blames the first person she sees. . . . This paper knife . . .”
Fillmore’s voice trailed off into pained silence.
“Mr. Faucitt said Elsa Doland was good.”
“Oh, she’s all right,” said Fillmore indifferently. “But”—his face brightened and animation crept into his voice—“but the girl you want to watch is Miss Winch. Gladys Winch. She plays the maid! She’s only on in the first act, and hasn’t much to say except ‘Did you ring, madam?’ and things like that. But it’s the way she says ’em! Sally, that girl’s a genius! The greatest character actress in a dozen years! You mark my words, in a darned little while you’ll see her name up on Broadway in electric lights. Personality? Ask me! Charm? She wrote the words and music! Looks? . . .”
“All right! All right! I know all about it, Fill. And will you kindly inform me how you dared to get engaged without consulting me?”
Fillmore blushed richly. “Oh, do you know?”
“Yes. Mr. Faucitt told me.”
“Well, I’m only human,” argued Fillmore.
“I call that a very handsome admission. You’ve got quite modest, Fill.”
He had certainly changed for the better since their last meeting. It was as if some one had punctured him and let out all the pomposity. If this was due, as Mr. Faucitt had suggested, to the influence of Miss Winch, Sally felt that she could not but approve of the romance.
“I’ll introduce you some time,” said Fillmore.
“I want to meet her very much.”
“I’ll have to be going now. I’ve got to see Bunbury. I thought he might be in here.”
“The producer. I suppose he’s breakfasting in his room. I’d better go up.”
“You are busy, aren’t you! Little marvel! It’s lucky they’ve got you to look after them!”
Fillmore retired, and Sally settled down to wait for Gerald, no longer hurt by his manner over the telephone. Poor Gerald! No wonder he had seemed upset.
A few minutes later he came in.
“Oh, Jerry darling,” said Sally as he reached the table, “I’m so sorry. I’ve just been hearing about it.”
Gerald sat down. His appearance fulfilled the promise of his voice over the telephone. A sort of nervous dullness wrapped him about like a garment.
“It’s just my luck,” he said gloomily. “It’s the kind of thing that couldn’t happen to anyone but me. Damned fools! Where’s the sense in shutting the theatres, even if there is influenza about? Besides, it’s all infernal nonsense about this thing. People get colds in their heads and think they’re dying. It’s all a fake scare.”
He dug a spoon somberly into his grapefruit.
“We’ve been hanging about here day after day, getting bored to death all the time. The company’s going all to pieces. They’re sick of rehearsing and rehearsing when nobody knows if we’ll ever open. They were all keyed up a week ago, and they’ve been sagging ever since. It will ruin the play, of course. My first chance! Just chucked away.”
SALLY was listening with a growing feeling of desolation. She tried to be fair, to remember that he had had a terrible disappointment and was under a great strain. And yet—it was unfortunate that self-pity was a thing she particularly disliked in a man. Her vanity, too, was hurt. It was obvious that her arrival, so far from acting as a magic restorative, had effected nothing. She could not help remembering, though it made her feel disloyal, what Mr. Faucitt had said about Gerald. She had never noticed before that he was remarkably self-centered, but he was thrusting the fact upon her attention now.
“That Hobson woman is beginning to make trouble,” went on Gerald, prodding in a despairing sort of way at scrambled eggs. “She ought never to have had the part; never. She can’t handle it. Elsa Doland could play it a thousand times better. I wrote Elsa in a few lines the other day, and the Hobson went right up in the air. It took me an hour to talk her round and keep her from throwing up her part.”
“Why not let her throw up her part?”
“For Heaven’s sake, talk sense,” said Gerald querulously. “Do you suppose that man Cracknell would keep the play on if she wasn’t in it? He would close the show in a second, and where would I be then? You don’t seem to realize that this is a big chance for me. I’d look a fool throwing it away.”
“I SEE,” said Sally shortly. She had never felt so wretched in her life. Foreign travel, she decided, was a mistake. It might be pleasant and broadening to the mind, but it seemed to put you so out of touch with people when you got back. A man in trouble may either be the captain of his soul and superior to pity, or he may be a broken thing for a woman to pet and comfort. Gerald, it seemed to her, was advertising himself as an object for her commiseration and at the same time raising a barrier against it. He appeared to demand her sympathy while holding himself aloof from it. She had the uncomfortable sensation of feeling herself shut out and useless.
“By the way,” said Gerald, “there’s one thing. I have to keep jollying her along all the time, so for goodness’ sake don’t go letting it out that we’re engaged.”
Sally’s chin went up with a jerk. This was too much. “If you find it a handicap being engaged to me—”
“Don’t be silly.” Gerald took refuge in pathos. “Good God! It’s tough! Here am I, worried to death, and you—”
Before he could finish the sentence, Sally’s mood had undergone a swift change. She put her hand on his with a quick gesture of penitence. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’ve been a brute. But I do sympathize, really.”
“I’ve had an awful time,” mumbled Gerald.
“I know, I know. But you never told me you were glad to see me.”
“Of course I’m glad to see you.”
“Why didn’t you say so, then, you poor fish? And why didn’t you ask me if I had enjoyed myself in Europe?”
“Did you enjoy yourself?”
“Yes, except that I missed you so much. There! Now we can consider my lecture on foreign travel finished, and you can go on telling me your troubles.”
Gerald accepted the invitation. He spoke at considerable length, though with little variety. The brief thunderstorm had cleared the air. Sally lost that sense of detachment and exclusion which had weighed upon her.
“Well,” said Gerald at length, looking at his watch, “I suppose I had better be off.”
“Yes, confound it. It’s the only way of getting through the day. Are you coming along?”
“I’ll come directly I’ve unpacked and tidied myself up.”
“See you at the theatre, then.”
Sally went out and rang for the elevator to take her to her room. . . .
THE rehearsal had started when she reached the theatre. As she entered the dark auditorium, voices came to her with that thin and reedy effect which is produced by people talking in an empty building. She sat down at the back of the house, and, as her eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, was able to see Gerald sitting in the front row beside a man with a bald head fringed with orange hair whom she took correctly to be Mr. Bunbury, the producer. Dotted about the house in ones and twos were members of the company whose presence was not required in the first act. On the stage, Elsa Doland, looking very attractive, was playing a scene with a man in a derby hat. She was speaking a line as Sally came in:
“Why, what do you mean, father?”
“Tiddly-omty-om,” was the derby-hatted one’s surprising reply. “Tiddly-omty-om; . . . long speech ending in ‘find me in the library.’ And exit,” said the man in the derby hat, starting to do so.
For the first time Sally became aware of the atmosphere of nerves. Mr. Bunbury, who seemed to be a man of temperament, picked up his walking stick, which was leaning against the next seat, and flung it with some violence across the house. “For God’s sake!” said Mr. Bunbury.
“Now what?” inquired the derby hat, interested, pausing halfway across the stage.
“Do speak the lines, Teddy,” exclaimed Gerald. “Don’t skip them in that sloppy way.”
“You don’t want me to go over the whole thing?” asked the derby hat, amazed.
“Not the whole d— thing?” queried the derby hat, fighting with incredulity.
“This is a rehearsal,” snapped Mr. Bunbury. “If we are not going to do it properly, what’s the use of doing it at all?”
This seemed to strike the erring Teddy, if not as reasonable, at any rate as one way of looking at it. He delivered the speech in an injured tone and shuffled off. The atmosphere of tenseness was unmistakable now. Sally could feel it. It would require only a trifle to produce an explosion.
Elsa Doland now moved to the door, pressed a bell, and, taking a magazine from the table, sat down in a chair near the footlights. A moment later, in answer to the ring, a young woman entered, to be greeted instantly by an impassioned bellow from Mr. Bunbury: “Miss Winch!”
THE new arrival stopped and looked out over the footlights, not in the pained manner of the man in the derby hat, but with the sort of genial indulgence of one who has come to a juvenile party to amuse the children. She was a square, wholesome, good-humored-looking girl with a serious face the gravity of which was contradicted by the faint smile that seemed to lurk about the corners of her mouth. She was certainly not pretty, and Sally, watching her with keen interest, was surprised that Fillmore had had the sense to disregard surface homeliness and recognize her charm. Deep down in Fillmore, Sally decided, there must lurk an unsuspected vein of intelligence.
“Hello!” said Miss Winch amiably.
Mr. Bunbury was profoundly moved. “Miss Winch, did I or did I not ask you to refrain from chewing gum during rehearsal?”
“That’s right. So you did,” admitted Miss Winch chummily.
“Then why are you doing it?”
Fillmore’s fiancée revolved the criticized refreshment about her tongue for a moment before replying.
“Bit o’ business,” she announced at length.
“What do you mean, a bit of business?”
“Character stuff,” explained Miss Winch in her pleasant, drawling voice. “Thought it out myself. Maids chew gum, you know.”
Mr. Bunbury ruffled his orange hair in an overwrought manner with the palm of his right hand.
“Have you ever seen a maid?” he asked despairingly.
“Yes, sir. And they chew gum.”
“I mean a parlormaid in a smart house,” moaned Mr. Bunbury. “Do you imagine for a moment that in a house such as this is supposed to be the parlormaid would be allowed to come into the drawing room champing that disgusting, beastly stuff?”
Miss Winch considered the point. “Maybe you’re right.” She brightened. “Listen! Great idea! Mr. Foster can write in a line for Elsa, calling me down, and another giving me a good comeback, and then another for Elsa saying something else, and then something really funny for me, and so on. We could work it up into a big comic scene. Five or six minutes, all laughs.”
This ingenious suggestion had the effect of depriving the producer momentarily of speech, and while he was struggling for utterance there dashed out from the wings a gorgeous being in blue velvet and a hat of such unimpeachable smartness that Sally ached at the sight of it with a spasm of pure envy. . . .
“Say!” Miss Mabel Hobson had practically every personal advantage which nature can bestow with the exception of a musical voice. Her figure was perfect, her face beautiful, and her hair a mass of spun gold; but her voice in moments of emotion was the voice of a peacock. “Say, listen to me for just one moment!”
Mr. Bunbury recovered from his trance. “Miss Hobson! Please! You are interrupting the rehearsal.”
“You bet your sorrowful existence I’m interrupting the rehearsal,” agreed Miss Hobson with emphasis. “And if you want to make a little easy money you go and bet somebody ten seeds that I’m going to interrupt it again every time there’s any talk of writing up any darned part in the show except mine. Write up other people’s parts? Not while I have my strength.”
A young man with butter-colored hair attempted to calm the storm.
“Oh, can it, Reggie!” said Miss Hobson curtly.
Mr. Cracknell obediently canned it. He was not one of your brutal cave men. He subsided into the recesses of a high collar and began to chew the knob of his stick.
“I’m the star,” resumed Miss Hobson vehemently, “and if you think anybody else’s part’s going to be written up—well, pardon me while I choke with laughter!”
Mr. Bunbury sprang to his feet and waved his hands. “For Heaven’s sake! Are we rehearsing or is this a debating society? Miss Hobson, nothing is going to be written into anybody’s part. Now are you satisfied?”
“Oh, never mind,” observed Miss Winch equably. “It was only a random thought. Working for the good of the show all the time. That’s me.”
“Now, sweetie!” pleaded Mr. Cracknell, emerging from the collar like a tortoise.
Miss Hobson reluctantly allowed herself to be reassured. “Oh, well, that’s all right, then. But any raw work and out I walk so quick it’ll make you giddy,” she said.
She retired, followed by Mr. Cracknell, and the wings swallowed her up.
“Shall I say my big speech now?” inquired Miss Winch over the footlights.
“Yes, yes! Get on with the rehearsal. We’ve wasted half the morning.”
“Did you ring, madam?” said Miss Winch to Elsa, who had been reading her magazine placidly through the late scene.
The rehearsal proceeded, and Sally watched it with a sinking heart. It was all wrong. Novice as she was in things theatrical, she could see that. There was no doubt that Miss Hobson was superbly beautiful, but her very physical attributes only served, in the pivotal rôle of a serious play, to emphasize and point her hopeless incapacity. The theatrical public of America will endure much from youth and beauty, but there is a limit.
A shrill, passionate cry from the front row, and Mr. Bunbury was on his feet again. Sally could not help wondering whether things were going particularly wrong to-day or whether this was one of Mr. Bunbury’s ordinary mornings.
The action of the drama had just brought that emotional lady on left center and had taken her across to the desk which stood on the other side of the stage. The desk was an important feature of the play, for it symbolized the absorption in business which, exhibited by her husband, was rapidly breaking Miss Hobson’s heart. He loved his desk better than his young wife—that was what it amounted to, and no wife can stand that sort of thing.
“Oh, gee!” said Miss Hobson, ceasing to be the distressed wife and becoming the offended star. “What’s it this time?”
“I suggested at the last rehearsal, and at the rehearsal before that and the rehearsal before that, that on that line you should pick up the paper knife and toy negligently with it. You did it yesterday, and to-day you’ve forgotten it again.”
“My God!” cried Miss Hobson, wounded to the quick. “If this don’t beat everything! How the heck can I toy negligently with a paper knife when there’s no paper knife for me to toy negligently with?”
“The paper knife is on the desk.”
“It’s not on the desk.”
“No paper knife?”
“No paper knife. And it’s no good picking on me. I’m the star, not the assistant stage manager. If you’re going to pick on anybody, pick on him.”
The advice appeared to strike Mr. Bunbury as good. He threw back his head and bayed like a bloodhound.
There was a momentary pause, and then from the wings on the prompt side there shambled out a stout and shrinking figure, in whose hand was a script of the play and on whose face, lit up by the footlights, there shone a look of apprehension. It was Fillmore, the Man of Destiny. . . .
ALAS, poor Fillmore! He stood in the middle of the stage with the lightning of Mr. Bunbury’s wrath playing about his defenseless head, and Sally, recovering from her first astonishment, sent a wave of sisterly commiseration floating across the theatre to him. She did not often pity Fillmore. Such of the minor ills of life as had afflicted him during the past three years had, she considered, been wholesome and educative and a matter not for concern but for congratulation. But this was different. This was tragedy. Somehow or other blasting disaster must have smitten the Fillmore bank roll, and he was back where he had started. His presence here this morning could mean nothing else.
She recalled his words at the breakfast table about financing the play. How like Fillmore to try to save his face for the moment with an outrageous bluff, though well aware that he would have to reveal the truth sooner or later. She realized now how he must have felt when he had seen her at the hotel. Yes, she was sorry for Fillmore.
And as she listened to the fervid eloquence of Mr. Bunbury, she perceived that she had every reason to be. Mr. Bunbury was showing oratorical gifts of no mean order. The paper knife seemed to inspire him. Gradually Sally began to get the feeling that this harmless necessary stage property was the source from which sprang most, if not all, of the trouble in the world. Mr. Bunbury had asked for a paper knife. There was no paper knife. Why was there no paper knife? Where was the paper knife, anyway?
“I assure you, Mr. Bunbury,” bleated the unhappy Fillmore obsequiously, “I placed it with the rest of the properties after the last rehearsal.”
“You couldn’t have done so.”
“I assure you I did.”
“And it walked away, I suppose,’’ said Miss Hobson with cold scorn, pausing in the operation of brightening up her lower lip with a lip stick.
A calm, clear voice spoke. “It was taken away,” said the calm, clear voice. Miss Winch had added herself to the symposium. She stood beside Fillmore, chewing placidly. It took more than raised voices and gesticulating hands to disturb Miss Winch. “Miss Hobson took it,” she went on in her cozy, drawling voice. “I saw her.”
SENSATION in court. The prisoner, who seemed to feel his position deeply, cast a popeyed glance full of gratitude at his advocate. Mr. Bunbury, in his capacity of prosecuting attorney, ran his fingers through his hair in some embarrassment, for he was regretting now that he had made such a fuss. Miss Hobson, thus assailed by an underling, spun around and dropped the lip stick, which was neatly retrieved by the assiduous Mr. Cracknell. Mr. Cracknell had his limitations, but he was rather good at picking up lip sticks.
“What’s that? I took it? I never did anything of the sort.”
“Miss Hobson took it after the rehearsal yesterday,” drawled Gladys Winch, addressing the world in general, “and threw it negligently at the theatre cat.”
Miss Hobson seemed taken aback. Her composure was not restored by Mr. Bunbury’s next remark. The producer, like his company, had been feeling the strain of the last few days, and though, as a rule, he avoided anything in the nature of a clash with the temperamental star, this matter of the missing paper knife had bitten so deeply into his soul that he felt compelled to speak his mind.
“In future, Miss Hobson, I should be glad if, when you wish to throw anything at the cat, you would not select a missile from the property box. Good Heavens!” he cried, stung by the way fate was maltreating him, “I have never experienced anything like this before. I have been producing plays all my life, and this is the first time this has happened. I have produced Nazimova. Nazimova never threw paper knives at cats.”
“Well, I hate cats,” said Miss Hobson as though that settled it.
“I,” murmured Miss Winch, “love little pussy; her fur is so warm, and if I don’t hurt her she’ll do me no—”
“Oh, my heavens!” shouted Gerald Foster, bounding from his seat and for the first time taking a share in the debate. “Are we going to spend the whole day arguing about cats and paper knives? For goodness’ sake, clear the stage and stop wasting time.”
Miss Hobson chose to regard this intervention as an affront. “Don’t shout at me, Mr. Foster!”
“I wasn’t shouting at you.”
“If you have anything to say to me, lower your voice.”
“He can’t,” observed Miss Winch. “He’s a tenor.”
“Nazimova never—” began Mr. Bunbury.
Miss Hobson was not to be diverted from her theme by reminiscences of Nazimova. She had not finished dealing with Gerald. “In the shows I’ve been in,” she said mordantly, “the author wasn’t allowed to go about the place getting fresh with the leading lady. In the shows I’ve been in the author sat at the back and spoke when he was spoken to. In the shows I’ve been in—”
SALLY was tingling all over. This reminded her of the dog fight on the Roville sands. Almost unconsciously she had risen from her place and drifted down the aisle so as to be nearer the white-hot center of things. She was now standing in the lighted space by the orchestra pit, and her presence attracted the roving attention of Miss Hobson, who, having exhausted herself on authors and their legitimate sphere of activity, was looking about for some other object of attack.
“Who the devil,” inquired Miss Hobson, “is that?”
Sally found herself an object of universal scrutiny, and wished that she had remained in the obscurity of the back rows. “I am Mr. Nicholas’s sister,” was the best method of identification that she could find.
“Who’s Mr. Nicholas?”
Fillmore timidly admitted that he was Mr. Nicholas. He did it in the manner of one in the dock pleading guilty to a major charge, and at least half of those present seemed surprised. To them till now Fillmore had been a nameless thing, answering to the shout of “Hi!”
Miss Hobson received the information with a laugh of such exceeding bitterness that strong men blenched and Mr. Cracknell started so convulsively that he nearly jerked his collar off its stud.
“Now, sweetie!” urged Mr. Cracknell.
Miss Hobson said that Mr. Cracknell gave her a pain in the gizzard. She recommended his fading away, and he did so—into his collar. He seemed to feel that once well inside his collar he was “home” and safe from attack.
“I’m through!” announced Miss Hobson. It appeared that Sally’s presence had in some mysterious fashion fulfilled the function of the last straw. “This is the goshawfullest show I was ever in! I can stand for a whole lot, but when it comes to the assistant stage manager being allowed to fill the theatre with his sisters and his cousins and his aunts, it’s time to quit.”
“But, sweetie!” pleaded Mr. Cracknell, coming to the surface.
“Oh, go and choke yourself!” said Miss Hobson crisply. And, swinging round like a blue panther, she strode off. A door banged, and the sound of it seemed to restore Mr. Cracknell’s power of movement. He too shot upstage and disappeared.
“Hello, Sally,” said Elsa Doland, looking up from her magazine. The battle, raging all round her, had failed to disturb her detachment. “When did you get back?”
Sally trotted up the steps which had been propped against the stage to form a bridge over the orchestra pit.
“Do you know Gladys Winch?” asked Elsa.
Sally shook hands with the placid lodestar of her brother’s affections. Miss Winch on closer inspection proved to have deep gray eyes and freckles. Sally’s liking for her increased.
“Thank you for saving Fillmore from the wolves,” she said. “They would have torn him in pieces but for you.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Miss Winch.
“It was noble.”
“I think,” said Sally, “I’ll go and have a talk with Fillmore. He looks as though he wanted consoling.”
She made her way to that picturesque ruin.
Though not so labeled in Collier’s, this Part 4 is the first part of Chapter VI of the novel.
Proofreader Ian Michaud notes:
“Lower your voice.” “He can’t. He’s a tenor.”: Wodehouse recycled this gag in the dialogue of the London musical The Cabaret Girl, with music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Wodehouse and book by PGW and George Grossmith. The show opened September 19, 1922, about a month before the London publication of this novel, but eleven months after the joke appeared in print for the first time in this issue of Collier’s.
Printer’s error corrected above:
Magazine had “Miss Hobson seemed taken back”; amended to “taken aback” as in all other versions.