Collier’s Weekly, June 26, 1920
The Story—Jill Mariner, deserted by her fiancé, Sir Derek Underhill, and unable to find her truant Uncle Chris, confronts New York. She meets Nelly Bryant, an actress whom Freddie Rooke, an old acquaintance of Jill’s, had befriended in London, and is advised by Nelly to secure a position with Goble & Cohn, who are putting on a musical show written by Otis Pilkington. Jill attends her first rehearsal, directed by Mr. Saltzburg, who has been persuaded to “run over” a few little things of his own.
XI — Continued
MR. SALTZBURG played ’em all. This man by now seemed entirely lost to shame. The precious minutes that belonged to his employers, and should have been earmarked for “The Rose of America,” flitted by. The ladies and gentlemen of the ensemble, who should have been absorbing and learning to deliver the melodies of Roland Trevis and the lyrics of Otis Pilkington, lolled back in their seats. The yellow-keyed piano rocked beneath an unprecedented onslaught. The proceedings had begun to resemble not so much a rehearsal as a happy home evening, and grateful glances were cast at the complacent cherub. She had, it was felt, shown tact and discretion.
Pleasant conversation began again.
“. . . And I walked a couple of blocks, and there was exactly the same model in Schwartz & Gulderstein’s window at twenty-six fifty . . .”
“. . . He got on at Forty-second Street, and he was kinda fresh from the start. I could see he was carrying a package. At Sixty-sixth he came sasshaying right down the car, and said: ‘Hello, patootie!’ Well, I drew myself up . . .”
“. . . ‘Even if you are my sister’s husband,’ I said to him. Oh, I suppose I got a temper. It takes a lot to arouse it, y’know, but I c’n get pretty mad . . .”
“. . . You don’t know the half of it, dearie; you don’t know the half of it! A one-piece bathing suit! Well, you could call it that, but the cop on the beach said it was more like a baby’s sock. And when . . .”
“. . . So I said: ‘Listen, Izzy, that’ll be about all from you! My father was a gentleman, though I don’t suppose you know what that means, and I’m not accustomed . . .”
A voice from the neighborhood of the door had cut into the babble like a knife into butter; a rough, rasping voice, loud and compelling, which caused the conversation of the members of the ensemble to cease on the instant. Only Mr. Saltzburg, now in a perfect frenzy of musicianly fervor, continued to assault the decrepit piano, unwitting of an unsympathetic audience.
“What I play you now is the laughing trio from my second act. It is a building number. It is sung by tenor, principal comedian, and soubrette. On the second refrain four girls will come out and two boys. The girls will dance with the two men, the boys with the soubrette. So! On the encore four more girls and two more boys. Third encore, solo dance for specialty dancer, all on stage beating time by clapping their hands. On repeat, all sing refrain once more, and off. Last encore, the three principals and specialty dancer dance the dance with entire chorus. It is a great building number, you understand. It is enough to make the success of any musical play, but can I get a hearing? No! If I ask managers to listen to my music, they are busy! If I beg them to give me a libretto to set, they laugh—ha! ha!” Mr. Saltzburg gave a spirited and lifelike representation of a manager laughing ha-ha when begged to disgorge a libretto. “Now I play it once more!”
“Like hell you do!” said the voice. “Say, what is this, anyway? A concert?”
MR. SALTZBURG swung around on the music stool, a startled and apprehensive man, and nearly fell off it. The divine afflatus left him like air oozing from a punctured toy balloon, and, like such a balloon, he seemed to grow suddenly limp and flat. He stared with fallen jaw at the new arrival.
Two men had entered the room. One was the long Mr. Pilkington. The other, who looked shorter and stouter than he really was beside his giraffelike companion, was a thick-set, fleshy man in the early thirties with a blond, clean-shaven, double-chinned face. He had smooth, yellow hair, an unwholesome complexion, and light green eyes, set close together. From the edge of the semicircle about the piano he glared menacingly over the heads of the chorus at the unfortunate Mr. Saltzburg.
“Why aren’t these girls working?”
Mr. Saltzburg, who had risen nervously from his stool, backed away apprehensively from his gaze, and, stumbling over the stool, sat down abruptly on the piano, producing a curious noise like Futurist music. “I—we— Why, Mr. Goble . . .”
Mr. Goble turned his green gaze on the concert audience, and spread discomfort as if it were something liquid which he was spraying through a hose. The girls who were nearest looked down flutteringly at their shoes; those farthest away concealed themselves behind their neighbors. Even the duchess, who prided herself on being the possessor of a stare of unrivaled haughtiness, before which the fresh quailed and those who made breaks subsided in confusion, was unable to meet his eye; and the willowy friend of Izzy, for all her victories over that monarch of the hat checks, bowed before it like a slim tree before a blizzard.
Only Jill returned the manager’s gaze. She was seated on the outer rim of the semicircle, and she stared frankly at Mr. Goble. She had never seen anything like him before, and he fascinated her. This behavior on her part singled her out from the throng, and Mr. Goble concentrated his attention on her.
For some seconds he stood looking at her; then, raising a stubby finger, he let his eye travel over the company, and seemed to be engrossed in some sort of mathematical calculation.
“Thirteen,” he said at length. “I make it thirteen.” He rounded on Mr. Pilkington. “I told you we were going to have a chorus of twelve.”
Mr. Pilkington blushed and stumbled over his feet. “Ah, yes . . . yes,” he murmured vaguely. “Yes!”
“Well, there are thirteen here. Count ’em for yourself.” He whipped round on Jill: “What’s your name? Who engaged you?”
A croaking sound from the neighborhood of the ceiling indicated the clearing of Mr. Pilkington’s throat. “I—er—I engaged Miss Mariner, Mr. Goble.”
“Oh, you engaged her?”
HE stared again at Jill. The inspection was long and lingering, and affected Jill with a sense of being inadequately clothed. She returned the gaze as defiantly as she could, but her heart was beating fast. She had never yet been frightened of any man, but there was something reptilian about this fat, yellow-haired individual which disquieted her, much as cockroaches had done in her childhood. A momentary thought flashed through her mind that it would be horrible to be touched by him. He looked soft and glutinous.
“All right,” said Mr. Goble at last after what seemed to Jill many minutes. He nodded to Mr. Saltzburg. “Get on with it! And try working a little this time! I don’t hire you to give musical entertainments.”
“Yes, Mr. Goble, yes. I mean no, Mr. Goble!”
“You can have the Gotham stage this afternoon,” said Mr. Goble. “Call the rehearsal for two sharp.”
Outside the door he turned to Mr. Pilkington. “That was a fool trick of yours, hiring that girl. Thirteen! I’d as soon walk under a ladder on a Friday as open in New York with a chorus of thirteen. Well, it don’t matter. We can fire one of ’em after we’ve opened on the road.” He mused for a moment. “Darned pretty girl, that!” he went on meditatively. “Where did you get her?”
“She—ah—came into the office when you were out. She struck me as being essentially the type we required for our ensemble, so I—er—engaged her. She—” Mr. Pilkington gulped. “She is a charming, refined girl!”
“She’s darned pretty,” admitted Mr. Goble, and went on his way wrapped in thought, Mr. Pilkington following timorously. It was episodes like the one that had just concluded which made Otis Pilkington wish that he possessed a little more assertion. He regretted wistfully that he was not one of those men who can put their hat on the side of their heads and shoot out their chins and say to the world: “Well, what about it!” He was bearing the financial burden of this production. If it should be a failure, his would be the loss. Yet somehow this coarse, rough person in front of him never seemed to allow him a word in the executive policy of the piece. He treated him as a child. He domineered and he shouted and behaved as if he were in sole command. Mr. Pilkington sighed. He rather wished he had never gone into this undertaking.
Inside the room Mr. Saltzburg wiped his forehead, his spectacles, and his hands. He had the aspect of one who wakes from a dreadful dream.
“Childrun!” he whispered brokenly. “Childrun! If you please, once more. Act One, Opening Chorus. Come! La-la-la!”
“La-la-la!” chanted the subdued members of the ensemble.
BY the time the two halves of the company, ensemble and principals, melted into one complete whole the novelty of the new surroundings had worn off, and Jill was feeling that there had never been a time when she had not been one of a theatrical troupe, rehearsing. The pleasant social gatherings round Mr. Saltzburg’s piano gave way after a few days to something far less agreeable and infinitely more strenuous, the breaking-in of the dances under the supervision of the famous Johnson Miller. Johnson Miller was a little man with snow-white hair and the india-rubber physique of a juvenile acrobat. Nobody knew actually how old he was, but he certainly looked much too advanced in years to be capable of the feats of endurance which he performed daily. He had the untiring enthusiasm of a fox terrier, and had bullied and scolded more companies along the rocky road that leads to success than any half dozen dance directors in the country, in spite of his handicap in being almost completely deaf. He had an almost miraculous gift of picking up the melodies for which it was his business to design dances without apparently hearing them. He seemed to absorb them through the pores. He had a blunt and arbitrary manner, and invariably spoke his mind frankly and honestly—a habit which made him strangely popular in a profession where the language of equivoque is cultivated almost as sedulously as in the circles of international diplomacy. What Johnson Miller said to your face was official, not subject to revision as soon as your back was turned; and people appreciated this.
Izzy’s willowy friend summed him up one evening when the ladies of the ensemble were changing their practice clothes after a particularly strenuous rehearsal, defending him against the Southern girl, who complained that he made her tired.
“You bet he makes you tired,” she said. “So he does me. I’m losing my girlish curves, and I’m so stiff I can’t lace my shoes. But he knows his business and he’s on the level, which is more than you can say of most of these guys in the show business.”
“That’s right,” agreed the Southern girl’s blond friend. “He does know his business. He’s put over any amount of shows which would have flopped like dogs without him to stage the numbers.”
The duchess yawned. Rehearsing always bored her, and she had not been greatly impressed by what she had seen of “The Rose of America.”
“One will be greatly surprised if he can make a success of this show! I confess I find it perfectly ridiculous.”
“Ithn’t it the limit, honetht!” said the cherub, arranging her golden hair at the mirror. “It maketh me thick! Why on earth ith Ike putting it on?”
The girl who knew everything—there is always one in every company—hastened to explain.
“I heard all about that. Ike hasn’t any of his own money in the thing. He’s getting twenty-five per cent of the show for running it. The angel is the long fellow you see jumping around. Pilkington his name is.”
“Well, it’ll need to be Rockefeller later on,” said the blonde.
“Oh, they’ll get thomebody down to fixth it after we’ve been out on the road a couple of days,” said the cherub optimistically. “They alwayth do. I’ve seen worse shows than this turned into hits. All it wants ith a new book and lyrics and a different thcore.”
“And a new set of principals,” said the red-headed Babe. “Did you ever see such a bunch?”
The duchess, with another tired sigh, arched her well-shaped eyebrows and studied the effect in the mirror. “One wonders where they pick these persons up,” she assented languidly. “They remind me of a headline I saw in the paper this morning—‘Tons of Hams Unfit for Human Consumption.’ Are any of you girls coming my way? I can give two or three of you a lift in my limousine.”
“Thorry, old dear, and thanks ever tho much,” said the cherub, “but I instructed Clarence, my man, to have the street car waiting on the corner, and he’ll be tho upset if I’m not there.”
NELLY had an engagement to go and help one of the other girls buy a spring suit, a solemn rite which it is impossible to conduct by oneself; and Jill and the cherub walked to the corner together. Jill had become very fond of the little thing since rehearsals began. She reminded her of a London sparrow. She was so small and perky and so absurdly able to take care of herself.
“Limousine!” snorted the cherub. The duchess’s concluding speech evidently still rankled. “She gives me a pain in the gizthard!”
“Hasn’t she got a limousine?” asked Jill.
“Of course she hasn’t. She’s engaged to be married to a demonstrator in the Speedwell Auto Company, and he thneaks off when he can get away and gives her joy rides. That’s all the limousine she’s got. It beats me why girls in the show business are alwayth tho crazy to make themselves out vamps with a dozen millionaires on a string. If Mae wouldn’t four-flush and act like the Belle of the Moulin Rouge, she’d be the nithest girl you ever met. She’s mad about the fellow she’s engaged to, and wouldn’t look at all the millionaires in New York if you brought ’em to her on a tray. She’s going to marry him as thoon as he’s thaved enough money to buy the furniture, and then she’ll thettle down in Harlem thomewhere and cook and mind the baby and regularly be one of the lower middle classes. All that’s wrong with Mae ith that she’s read Gingery Stories and thinkth that’s the way a girl has to act when she’th in the chorus.”
“That’s funny,” said Jill. “I should never have thought it. I swallowed the limousine whole.”
The cherub looked at her curiously. Jill puzzled her. Jill had, indeed, been the subject of much private speculation among her colleagues.
“This ith your first show, ithn’t it?” she asked.
“Thay, what are you doing in the chorus, anyway?”
“Getting scolded by Mr. Miller mostly, it seems to me.”
“ ‘Thcolded by Mr. Miller!’ Why didn’t you say ‘bawled out by Johnny’? That’th what any of the retht of us would have said.”
“Well, I’ve lived most of my life in England. You can’t expect me to talk the language yet.”
“I thought you were English. You’ve got an acthent like the fellow who plays the dude in thith show. Thay, why did you ever get into the show business?”
“Well—well, why did you? Why does anybody?”
“Why did I? Oh, I belong there. I’m a regular Broadway rat. I wouldn’t be happy anywhere elthe. I was born in the show business. I’ve got two thithters in the two-a-day and a brother in thtock out in California, and dad’s one of the betht comedians on the burlethque wheel. But anyone can thee you’re different. There’s no reathon why you should be bumming around in the chorus.”
“But there is. I’ve no money, and I can’t do anything to make it.”
“That’s tough.” The cherub pondered, her round eyes searching Jill’s face. “Why don’t you get married?”
Jill laughed. “Nobody’s asked me.”
“Somebody thoon will. At least, if he’s on the level, and I think he ith. You can generally tell by the look of a guy, and, if you ask me, friend Pilkington’s got the license in hith pocket and the ring all ordered and everything.”
“Pilkington!” cried Jill aghast.
She remembered certain occasions during rehearsals when, while the chorus idled in the body of the theatre and listened to the principals working at their scenes, the elongated Pilkington had suddenly appeared in the next seat and conversed sheepishly in a low voice. Could this be love? If so, it was a terrible nuisance. Jill had had her experience in London of enamored young men who, running true to national form, declined to know when they were beaten, and she had not enjoyed the process of cooling their ardor. She had a kind heart, and it distressed her to give pain. It also got on her nerves to be dogged by stricken males who tried to catch her eye in order that she might observe their broken condition. She recalled one house party in Wales where it rained all the time, and she had been cooped up with a victim who kept popping out from obscure corners and beginning all his pleas with the words: “I say, you know . . .!” She trusted that Otis Pilkington was not proposing to conduct a wooing on those lines. Yet he had certainly developed a sinister habit of popping out at the theatre. On several occasions he had startled her by appearing at her side as if he had come up out of a trap.
“Oh, no!” cried Jill.
“Oh, yeth!” insisted the cherub, waving imperiously to an approaching street car. “Well, I must be getting uptown. I’ve got a date. Thee you later.”
The street car bore her away. The last that Jill saw of her was a wide and amiable grin. Then, turning, she beheld the snakelike form of Otis Pilkington towering at her side.
MR. PILKINGTON seemed nervous but determined. His face was half hidden by the silk scarf that muffled his throat, for he was careful of his health and had a fancied tendency to bronchial trouble. Above the scarf a pair of mild eyes gazed down at Jill through their tortoise-shell-rimmed spectacles. It was hopeless for Jill to try to tell herself that the tender gleam behind the glass was not the love light in Otis Pilkington’s eyes. The truth was too obvious.
“Good evening, Miss Mariner,” said Mr. Pilkington, his voice sounding muffled and far away through the scarf. “Are you going uptown?”
“No, downtown,” said Jill quickly.
“So am I,” said Mr. Pilkington.
Jill felt annoyed, but helpless. It is difficult to bid a tactful farewell to a man who has stated his intention of going in the same direction as yourself. There was nothing for it but to accept the unspoken offer of Otis Pilkington’s escort. They began to walk down Broadway together.
“I suppose you are tired after the rehearsal?” inquired Mr. Pilkington in his precise voice. He always spoke as if he were weighing each word and clipping it off a reel.
“A little. Mr. Miller is very enthusiastic.”
“Has he said anything about the piece?”
“Well, no. You see, he doesn’t confide in us a great deal, except to tell us his opinion of the way we do the steps. I don’t think we impress him very much, to judge from what he says. But the girls say he always tells every chorus he rehearses that it is the worst he ever had anything to do with.”
“And the chor—the—er—ladies of the ensemble? What do they think of the piece?”
“Well, I don’t suppose they are very good judges, are they?” said Jill diplomatically.
“You mean they do not like it?”
“Some of them don’t seem quite to understand it.”
MR. PILKINGTON was silent for a moment. “I am beginning to wonder myself whether it may not be a little over the heads of the public,” he said ruefully. “When it was first performed—”
“Oh, has it been done before?”
“By amateurs, yes, at the house of my aunt, Mrs. Waddesleigh Peagrim, at Newport, last summer. In aid of the Armenian orphans. It was extraordinarily well received on that occasion. We nearly made our expenses. It was such a success that, against my aunt’s advice, I decided to give it a Broadway production. Between ourselves, I am shouldering practically all the expenses. Mr. Goble has nothing to do with the financial arrangements of ‘The Rose of America.’ Those are entirely in my hands. Mr. Goble, in return for a share in the profits, is giving us the benefit of his experience as regards the management and booking of the piece. I have always had the greatest faith in it. Trevis and I wrote it when we were in college together, and all our friends thought it exceptionally brilliant. My aunt, as I say, was opposed to the venture. She holds the view that I am not a good man of business. In a sense, perhaps, she is right. Temperamentally, no doubt, I am more the artist. But I was determined to show the public something superior to the so-called Broadway successes, which are so terribly trashy. Unfortunately, I am beginning to wonder whether it is possible, with the crude type of actor at one’s disposal in this country, to give a really adequate performance of such a play as ‘The Rose of America.’ These people seem to miss the spirit of the piece, its subtle topsy-turvy humor, its delicate whimsicality. This afternoon”—Mr. Pilkington choked—“this afternoon I happened to overhear two of the principals, who were not aware that I was within earshot, discussing the play. One of them—these people express themselves curiously—one of them said that he thought it a quince, and the other described it as a piece of Gorgonzola cheese! That is not the spirit that wins success!”
Jill was feeling immensely relieved. After all, it seemed, this poor young man merely wanted sympathy, not romance. She had been mistaken, she felt, about that gleam in his eyes. It was not the love light: it was the light of panic. He was the author of the play. He had sunk a large sum of money in its production, he had heard people criticizing it harshly, and he was suffering from what her colleagues in the chorus would have called cold feet. It was such a human emotion, and he seemed so like an overgrown child pleading to be comforted that her heart warmed to him. Relief melted her defenses. And when, on their arrival at Thirty-fourth Street, Mr. Pilkington suggested that she partake of a cup of tea at his apartment, which was only a couple of blocks off Madison Avenue, she accepted the invitation without hesitating.
On his way to his apartment Mr. Pilkington continued in the minor key.
“It isn’t that I’m dependent on Aunt Olive, or anything like that,” he vouchsafed as he stirred the tea in his Japanese-print-hung studio. “But you know how it is. Aunt Olive is in a position to make it very unpleasant for me if I do anything foolish. At present I have reason to know that she intends to leave me practically all that she possesses. Millions!” said Mr. Pilkington, handing Jill a cup. “I assure you, millions! But there is a hard commercial strain in her. It would have the most prejudicial effect upon her if, especially after she had expressly warned me against it, I were to lose a great deal of money over this production. She is always complaining that I am not a business man like my late uncle. Mr. Waddesleigh Peagrim made a fortune in smoked hams.”
JILL was now completely disarmed. She would almost have patted this unfortunate young man’s head if she could have reached it.
“I shouldn’t worry about the piece,” she said. “I’ve read somewhere or heard somewhere that it’s the surest sign of a success when actors don’t like a play.”
Mr. Pilkington drew his chair an imperceptible inch nearer. “How sympathetic you are!”
Jill perceived with chagrin that she had been mistaken after all. It was the love light. The tortoise-shell-rimmed spectacles sprayed it all over her like a couple of searchlights. Otis Pilkington was looking exactly like a sheep, and she knew from past experience that that was the infallible sign. When young men looked like that, it was time to go. “I’m afraid I must be off,” she said. “Thank you so much for giving me tea. I shouldn’t be a bit afraid about the play. I’m sure it’s going to be splendid. Good-by.”
“You aren’t going already?”
“I must. I’m very late as it is. I promised—”
Whatever fiction Jill might have invented to the detriment of her soul was interrupted by a ring at the bell. The steps of Mr. Pilkington’s Japanese servant crossing the hall came faintly to the sitting room.
“Mr. Pilkington in?”
Otis Pilkington motioned pleadingly to Jill. “Don’t go!” he urged. “It’s only a man I know. He has probably come to remind me that I am dining with him to-night. He won’t stay a minute. Please don’t go.”
Jill sat down. She had no intention of going now. The cheery voice at the front door had been the cheery voice of her long-lost uncle, Major Christopher Selby.
UNCLE CHRIS walked breezily into the room, flicking a jaunty glove. He stopped short on seeing that Mr. Pilkington was not alone.
“Oh, I beg your pardon! I understood—” He peered at Jill uncertainly. Mr. Pilkington affected a dim, artistic lighting system in his studio, and people who entered from the great outdoors generally had to take time to accustom their eyes to it. “If you’re engaged—”
“Er—allow me—Miss Mariner—Major Selby.”
“Hullo, Uncle Chris!” said Jill.
“God bless my soul!” ejaculated that startled gentleman-adventurer, and collapsed on to a settee as if his legs had been mown from under him.
“I’ve been looking for you all over New York,” said Jill.
Mr. Pilkington found himself unequal to the intellectual pressure of the conversation. “Uncle Chris?” he said with a note of feeble inquiry in his voice.
“Major Selby is my uncle.”
“Are you sure?” said Mr. Pilkington. “I mean—”
Not being able to ascertain, after a moment’s self-examination, what he did mean, he relapsed into silence.
“Whatever are you doing here?” asked Uncle Chris.
“I’ve been having tea with Mr. Pilkington.”
“But—but why Mr. Pilkington?”
“Well, he invited me.”
“But how do you know him?”
“We met at the theatre.”
Otis Pilkington recovered his power of speech. “Miss Mariner is rehearsing with a little play in which I am interested,” he explained.
Uncle Chris half rose from the settee. He blinked twice in rapid succession. Jill had never seen him so shaken from his customary poise. “Don’t tell me you have gone on the stage, Jill!”
“I have. I’m in the chorus . . .”
“Ensemble,” corrected Mr. Pilkington softly.
“I’m in the ensemble of a piece called ‘The Rose of America.’ We’ve been rehearsing for ever so long.”
Uncle Chris digested this information in silence for a moment. He pulled at his short mustache.
“Why, of course!” he said at length. Jill, who knew him so well, could tell by the restored ring of cheeriness in his tone that he was himself again. He had dealt with this situation in his mind and was prepared to cope with it. The surmise was confirmed the next instant when he rose and stationed himself in front of the fire. Mr. Pilkington detested steam heat and had scoured the city till he had found a studio apartment with an open fireplace. Uncle Chris spread his legs and expanded his chest. “Of course,” he said. “I remember now that you told me in your letter that you were thinking of going on the stage. My niece,” explained Uncle Chris to the attentive Mr. Pilkington, “came over from England on a later boat. I was not expecting her for some months. Hence my surprise at meeting her here. Of course. You told me that you intended to go on the stage, and I strongly recommended you to begin at the bottom of the ladder and learn the groundwork thoroughly before you attempted higher flights.”
“Oh, that was it?” said Mr. Pilkington. He had been wondering.
“There is no finer training,” resumed Uncle Chris, completely at his ease once more, “than the chorus. How many of the best-known actresses in America began in that way! Dozens. Dozens. If I were giving advice to any young girl with theatrical aspirations, I should say: ‘Begin in the chorus!’ On the other hand,” he proceeded, turning to Mr. Pilkington, “I think it would be just as well if you would not mention the fact of my niece being in that position to Mrs. Waddesleigh Peagrim. She might not understand.”
“Exactly,” assented Mr. Pilkington.
“The term ‘chorus’ . . .”
“I dislike it intensely myself.”
“It suggests . . .”
Uncle Chris inflated his chest again, well satisfied. “Capital!” he said. “Well, I only dropped in to remind you, my boy, that you and your aunt are dining with me to-night. I was afraid a busy man like you might forget.”
“I was looking forward to it,” said Mr. Pilkington, charmed at the description of himself.
“You remember the address? Nine East Forty-first Street. I have moved, you remember.”
“So that was why I couldn’t find you at the other place. The man at the door said he had never heard of you.”
“Stupid idiot!” said Uncle Chris testily. “These New York hall porters are recruited entirely from homes for the feeble-minded. I suppose he was a new man. Well, Pilkington, my boy, I shall expect you at seven o’clock. Good-by till then. Come, Jill.”
“Good-by, Mr. Pilkington,” said Jill.
“Good-by for the present, Miss Mariner,” said Mr. Pilkington, bending down to take her hand. The tortoise-shell spectacles shot a last soft beam at her.
AS the front door closed behind them Uncle Chris heaved a sigh of relief. “Whew! I think I handled that little contretemps with diplomacy! A certain amount of diplomacy, I think!”
“If you mean,” said Jill severely, “that you told some disgraceful fibs . . .”
“Fibs, my dear—or, shall we say, artistic moldings of the unshapely clay of truth—are the . . . How shall I put it? . . . Well, anyway, they come in dashed handy. It would never have done for Mrs. Peagrim to have found out that you were in the chorus. If she discovered that my niece was in the chorus, she would infallibly suspect me of being an adventurer. And while,” said Uncle Chris meditatively, “of course I am, it is nice to have one’s little secrets. The good lady has had a rooted distaste for girls in that perfectly honorable but maligned profession ever since our long young friend back there was sued for breach of promise by a member of a touring company in his sophomore year at college. We all have our prejudices. That is hers. However, I think we may rely on our friend to say nothing about the matter. But why did you do it? My dear child, whatever induced you to take such a step?”
Jill laughed. “That’s practically what Mr. Miller said to me when we were rehearsing one of the dances this afternoon, only he put it differently.” She linked her arm in his. “What else could I do? I was alone in New York with the remains of that twenty dollars you sent me, and no more in sight.”
“But why didn’t you stay down at Brookport with your uncle Elmer?”
“Have you ever seen my uncle Elmer?”
“No. Curiously enough, I never have.”
“If you had, you wouldn’t ask. Brookport! Ugh! I left when they tried to get me to understudy the hired man, who had resigned.”
“Yes, they got tired of supporting me in the state to which I was accustomed—I don’t blame them!—so they began to find ways of making me useful about the home. I didn’t mind reading to Aunt Julia, and I could just stand taking Tibby for walks. But when it came to shoveling snow I softly and silently vanished away.”
“But I can’t understand all this. I suggested to your uncle—diplomatically—that you had large private means.”
“I know you did. And he spent all his time showing me over houses and telling me I could have them for a hundred thousand dollars cash down.” Jill bubbled. “You should have seen his face when I told him that twenty dollars was all I had in the world!”
“You didn’t tell him that!”
UNCLE CHRIS shook his head like an indulgent father disappointed in a favorite child. “You’re a dear girl, Jill, but really you do seem totally lacking in—how shall I put it?—finesse. Your mother was just the same. A sweet woman, but with no diplomacy, no notion of handling a situation. I remember her as a child giving me away hopelessly on one occasion after we had been at the jam cupboard. She did not mean any harm, but she was constitutionally incapable of a tactful negative at the right time.” Uncle Chris brooded for a moment on the past. “Oh, well, it’s a very fine trait, no doubt, though inconvenient. I don’t blame you for leaving Brookport if you weren’t happy there. But I wish you had consulted me before going on the stage.”
“Shall I strike this man?” asked Jill of the world at large. “How could I consult you? My darling, precious uncle, don’t you realize that you had vanished into thin air, leaving me penniless? I had to do something. And, now that we are on the subject, perhaps you will explain your movements. Why did you write to me from that place on Fifty-seventh Street if you weren’t there?”
Uncle Chris cleared his throat. “In a sense—when I wrote—I was there.”
“I suppose that means something, but it’s beyond me. I’m not nearly as intelligent as you think, Uncle Chris, so you’ll have to explain.”
“Well, it was this way, my dear. I was in a peculiar position, you must remember. I had made a number of wealthy friends on the boat, and it is possible that—unwittingly—I gave them the impression that I was as comfortably off as themselves. At any rate, that is the impression they gathered, and it hardly seemed expedient to correct it. For it is a deplorable trait in the character of the majority of rich people that they only—er—expand—they only show the best and most companionable side of themselves to those whom they imagine to be as wealthy as they are. Well, of course, while one was on the boat, the fact that I was sailing under what a purist might have termed false colors did not matter. The problem was how to keep up the—er—innocent deception after we had reached New York. A woman like Mrs. Waddesleigh Peagrim—a ghastly creature, my dear, all front teeth and exuberance, but richer than the Sub-Treasury—looks askance at a man, however agreeable, if he endeavors to cement a friendship begun on board ship from a cheap boarding house on Amsterdam Avenue. It was imperative that I should find something in the nature of what I might call a suitable base of operations. Fortune played into my hands. One of the first men I met in New York was an old soldier servant of mine, to whom I had been able to do some kindnesses in the old days. In fact—it shows how bread cast upon the waters returns to us after many days—it was with the assistance of a small loan from me that he was enabled to emigrate to America. Well, I met this man, and, after a short conversation, he revealed the fact that he was the hall porter at that apartment house which you visited, the one on Fifty-seventh Street. At this time of the year, I knew, many wealthy people go south, to Florida and the Carolinas, and it occurred to me that there might be a vacant apartment in his building. There was. I took it.”
“But how on earth could you afford to pay for an apartment in a place like that?”
UNCLE CHRIS coughed. “I didn’t say I paid for it. I said I took it. That is, as one might say, the point of my story. My old friend, grateful for favors received and wishing to do me a good turn, consented to become my accomplice in another—er—innocent deception. I gave my friends the address and telephone number of the apartment house, living the while myself in surroundings of a somewhat humbler and less expensive character. I called every morning for letters. If anybody rang me up on the telephone, the admirable man answered in the capacity of my servant, took a message, and relayed it on to me at my boarding house. If anybody called, he merely said that I was out. There wasn’t a flaw in the whole scheme, my dear, and its chief merit was its beautiful simplicity.”
“Then what made you give it up? Conscience?”
“Conscience never made me give up anything,” said Uncle Chris firmly. “No, there were a hundred chances to one against anything going wrong, and it was the hundredth that happened. Everything was going swimmingly when my man suddenly conceived the idea that destiny had intended him for a chauffeur-gardener, and he threw up his position!”
“Leaving you homeless!”
“As you say, homeless—temporarily. But, fortunately, I have been amazingly lucky all through: it really does seem as if you cannot keep a good man down—fortunately my friend had a friend who was janitor at a place on East Forty-first Street, and by a miracle of luck the only apartment in the building was empty. It is an office building, but, like some of these places, it has one small bachelor’s apartment on the top floor.”
“And you are the small bachelor?”
“Precisely. My friend explained matters to his friend—a few financial details were satisfactorily arranged—and here I am, perfectly happy with the coziest little place in the world, rent free. I am even better off than I was before, as a matter of fact, for my new ally’s wife is an excellent cook, and I have been enabled to give one or two very pleasant dinners at my new home. It lends verisimilitude to the thing if you can entertain a little. If you are never in when people call, they begin to wonder. I am giving dinner to your friend Pilkington and Mrs. Peagrim there to-night. Homy, delightful, and infinitely cheaper than a restaurant.”
“And what will you do when the real owner of the place walks in in the middle of dinner?”
“Out of the question. The janitor informs me that he left for England some weeks ago, intending to make a stay of several months.”
“Well, you certainly think of everything.”
“Whatever success I may have achieved,” replied Uncle Chris with the dignity of a captain of industry confiding in an interviewer, “I attribute to always thinking of everything.”
JILL gurgled with laughter. There was that about her uncle which always acted on her moral sense like an opiate, lulling it to sleep and preventing it from rising up and becoming critical. If he had stolen a watch and chain, he would somehow have succeeded in convincing her that he had acted for the best under the dictates of a benevolent altruism.
“What success have you achieved?” she asked, interested. “When you left me you were on your way to find a fortune. Did you find it?”
“I have not actually placed my hands upon it yet,” admitted Uncle Chris. “But it is hovering in the air all round me. I can hear the beating of the wings of the dollar bills as they flutter to and fro, almost within reach. Sooner or later I shall grab them. I never forget, my dear, that I have a task before me—to restore to you the money of which I deprived you. Some day—be sure—I shall do it. Some day you will receive a letter from me containing a large sum—five thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand, whatever it may be—with the simple words ‘First Installment.’ ” He repeated the phrase, as if it pleased him: “First Installment!”
Jill hugged his arm. She was in the mood in which she used to listen to him ages ago telling her fairy stories.
“Go on!” she cried. “Go on! It’s wonderful! Once upon a time Uncle Chris was walking along Fifth Avenue when he happened to meet a poor old woman gathering sticks for firewood. She looked so old and tired that he was sorry for her, so he gave her ten cents, which he had borrowed from the janitor, and suddenly she turned into a beautiful girl and said: ‘I am a fairy! In return for your kindness I grant you three wishes!’ And Uncle Chris thought for a moment, and said: ‘I want twenty thousand dollars to send to Jill!’ And the fairy said: ‘It shall be attended to. Anything else, please?’ ”
“It is all very well to joke,” protested Uncle Chris, pained by this flippancy, “but let me tell you that I shall not require magic assistance to become a rich man. Do you realize that at houses like Mrs. Waddesleigh Peagrim’s I am meeting men all the time who have only to say one little word to make me a millionaire? They are fat, gray men with fishy eyes and large waistcoats, and they sit smoking cigars and brooding on what they are going to do to the market next day. If I were a mind reader, I could have made a dozen fortunes by now. I sat opposite that old pirate Bruce Bishop for over an hour the very day before he and his gang sent Consolidated Peanuts down twenty points! If I had known what was in the wind, I doubt if I could have restrained myself from choking his intentions out of the fellow. Well, what I am trying to point out is that one of these days one of these old oysters will have a fleeting moment of human pity and disgorge some tip on which I can act. It is that reflection that keeps me so constantly at Mrs. Peagrim’s house.” Uncle Chris shivered slightly. “A fearsome woman, my dear! Weighs a hundred and eighty pounds and as skittish as a young lamb in springtime! She makes me dance with her!” Uncle Chris’s lips quivered in a spasm of pain, and he was silent for a moment. “Thank Heaven, I was once a footballer!” he said reverently.
“But what do you live on?” asked Jill. “I know you are going to be a millionaire next Tuesday week, but how are you getting along in the meantime?”
UNCLE CHRIS coughed. “Well, as regards actual living expenses, I have managed by a shrewd business stroke to acquire a small but sufficient income. I live in a boarding house, true, but I contrive to keep the wolf away from its door, which, by the bye, badly needs a lick of paint. Have you ever heard of Nervino?”
“I don’t think so. It sounds like a patent medicine.”
“It is a patent medicine.” Uncle Chris stopped and looked anxiously at her. “Jill, you’re looking pale, my dear.”
“Am I? We had rather a tiring rehearsal.”
“Are you sure,” said Uncle Chris seriously, “that it is only that? Are you sure that your vitality has not become generally lowered by the fierce rush of metropolitan life? Are you aware of the things that can happen to you if you allow the red corpuscles of your blood to become devitalized? I had a friend . . .”
“Stop! You’re scaring me to death!”
Uncle Chris gave his mustache a satisfied twirl. “Just what I meant to do, my dear. And when I had scared you sufficiently you wouldn’t wait for the story of my consumptive friend! Pity! It’s one of my best! I should have mentioned that I had been having much the same trouble myself lately, but the other day I happened to try Nervino, the great specific . . . I was giving you an illustration of myself in action, my dear. I went to these Nervino people—happened to see one of their posters and got the idea in a flash—I went to them and said: ‘Here am I, a presentable man of persuasive manners and a large acquaintance among the leaders of New York society. What would it be worth to you to have me hint from time to time at dinner parties and so forth that Nervino is the rich man’s panacea?’ I put the thing lucidly to them. I said: ‘No doubt you have a thousand agents in the city, but have you one who does not look like an agent and won’t talk like an agent? Have you one who is inside the houses of the wealthy, at their very dinner tables, instead of being on the front step, trying to hold the door open with his foot? That is the point you have to consider.’ They saw the idea at once. We arranged terms—not as generous as I could wish, perhaps, but quite ample. I receive a tolerably satisfactory salary each week, and in return I spread the good word about Nervino in the gilded palaces of the rich. Those are the people to go for, Jill. You catch one of them after dinner, just as he is wondering if he was really wise in taking two helpings of the lobster Newburg, and he is clay in your hands. I draw my chair up to his and become sympathetic and say that I had precisely the same trouble myself until recently, and mention a dear old friend of mine who died of indigestion, and gradually lead the conversation round to Nervino. I don’t force it on them. I don’t even ask them to try it. I merely point to myself, rosy with health, and say that I owe everything to it, and the thing is done. They thank me profusely and scribble the name down on their shirt cuffs. And there you are! I don’t suppose,” said Uncle Chris philosophically, “that the stuff can do them any actual harm.”
They had come to the corner of Forty-first Street. Uncle Chris felt in his pocket and produced a key.
“If you want to go in and take a look at my little nest, you can let yourself in. It’s on the twenty-second floor. Don’t fail to go out on the roof and look at the view. It’s worth seeing. It will give you some idea of the size of the city. A wonderful, amazing city, my dear, full of people who need Nervino. I shall go on and drop in at the club for half an hour. They have given me a fortnight’s card at the Avenue. Capital place. Here’s the key.”
JILL turned down Forty-first Street and came to a mammoth structure of steel and stone which dwarfed the modest brown houses beside it into nothingness. It was curious to think of a private apartment nestling on the summit of this mountain. She went in, and the elevator shot her giddily upward to the twenty-second floor. She found herself facing a short flight of stone steps, ending in a door. She mounted the steps, tried the key, and, turning it, entered a hallway. Proceeding down the passage, she reached a sitting room.
It was a small room, but furnished with a solid comfort which soothed her. For the first time since she had arrived in New York she had the sense of being miles away from the noise and bustle of the city. There was a complete and restful silence. She was alone in a nest of books and deep chairs, on which a large grandfather’s clock looked down with that wide-faced benevolence peculiar to its kind. So peaceful was this eyrie, perched high above the clamor and rattle of civilization, that every nerve in her body seemed to relax in a delicious content.
The mantelpiece was Jill’s first objective. She always made for other people’s mantelpieces, for there, more than anywhere else, is the character of a proprietor revealed. This mantelpiece was sprinkled with photographs, large, small, framed, and unframed. In the center of it, standing all alone and looking curiously out of place among its large neighbors, was a little snapshot.
It was dark by the mantelpiece. Jill took the photograph to the window, where the fading light could fall on it. Why, she could not have said, but the thing interested her. There was mystery about it. It seemed in itself so insignificant to have the place of honor.
The snapshot had evidently been taken by an amateur, but it was one of those lucky successes which happen at rare intervals to amateur photographers to encourage them to proceed with their hobby. It showed a small girl in a white dress cut short above slim, black legs, standing on the porch of an old house, one hand swinging a sunbonnet, the other patting an Irish terrier which had planted its front paws against her waist and was looking up into her face with that grave melancholy characteristic of Irish terriers. The sunlight was evidently strong, for the child’s face was puckered in a twisted though engaging grin. Jill’s first thought was: “What a jolly kid!” And then, with a leaping of the heart that seemed to send something big and choking into her throat, she saw that it was a photograph of herself.
With a swooping bound memory raced back over the years. She could feel the hot sun on her face, hear the anxious voice of Freddie Rooke—then fourteen and for the first time the owner of a camera—imploring her to stand just like that because he wouldn’t be half a minute only some rotten thing had stuck, or something. Then the sharp click, the doubtful assurance of Freddie that he thought it was all right if he hadn’t forgotten to shift the film (in which case she might expect to appear in combination with a cow which he had snapped on his way to the house), and the relieved disappearance of Pat, the terrier, who didn’t understand photography. How many years ago had that been? She could not remember. But Freddie had grown to long-legged manhood, she to an age of discretion and full-length frocks, Pat had died, the old house was inhabited by strangers—and here was the silent record of that sunlit afternoon, three thousand miles away from the English garden in which it had come into existence.
THE shadows deepened. The top of the great building swayed gently, causing the pendulum of the grandfather’s clock to knock against the sides of its wooden case. Jill started. The noise, coming after the dead silence, frightened her till she realized what it was. She had a nervous feeling of not being alone. It was as if the shadows held goblins that peered out at the intruder. She darted to the mantelpiece and replaced the photograph. She felt like some heroine of a fairy story meddling with the contents of the giant’s castle. Soon there would come the sound of a great footstep, thud-thud. . . . Thud.
Jill’s heart gave another leap. She was perfectly sure she had heard a sound. It had been just like the banging of a door. She braced herself, listening, every muscle tense. And then, cleaving the stillness, came a voice from down the passage:
Just see them Pullman porters,
Dolled up with scented waters
Bought with their dimes and quarters!
See, here they come! Here they come!
For an instant Jill could not have said whether she was relieved or more frightened than ever. True, that numbing sense of the uncanny had ceased to grip her, for reason told her that specters do not sing ragtime songs. On the other hand, owners of apartments do, and she would almost as readily have faced a specter as the owner of this apartment. Dizzily she wondered how in the world she was to explain her presence. Suppose he turned out to be some awful, choleric person who would listen to no explanations.
Oh, see those starched-up collars!
Hark how their captain hollers
“Keep time! Keep time!”
It’s worth a thousand dollars
To see those tip collectors . . .
Very near now. Almost at the door:
Those upper-berth inspectors,
Those Pullman porters on parade!
A dim, shapeless figure in the black of the doorway. The scrabbling of fingers on the wall.
“Where are you, dammit?” said the voice, apparently addressing the electric-light switch.
Jill shrank back, desperate fingers pressing deep into the back of an armchair. Light flashed from the wall at her side. And there, in the doorway, stood Wally Mason in his shirt sleeves.
The 1913 song “Pullman Porters on Parade” by Ren. G. May and Maurice Abrahams (not Irving Berlin, as sometimes erroneously credited) can be heard in an early recording at archive.org. Download a PDF of the sheet music. A somewhat bizarre recording by Al Jolson is on YouTube. Each version has slight variations in the lyrics.