Collier’s Weekly, May 15, 1920
Jill Mariner, engaged to Sir Derek Underhill, is warned by Freddie Rooke of the necessity of making a good impression on Lady Underhill, Derek’s mother, a determined and antagonistic person. Lady Underhill returns to London, prejudiced against Jill, whom she has never seen, and against Jill’s only living relative, an uncle whom Lady Underhill accused of having attempted to pay a card debt with a worthless check. At a family dinner Jill is introduced to her prospective mother-in-law.
THE front door closed softly behind the theatre party. Dinner was over, and Parker had just been assisting the expedition out of the place. Sensitive to atmosphere, he had found his share in the dinner a little trying. It had been a strained meal, and what he liked was a clatter of conversation and everybody having a good time.
“Ellen!” called Parker as he proceeded down the passage to the empty dining room. “Ellen!”
Mrs. Parker appeared out of the kitchen, wiping her hands. Her work for the evening, like her husband’s, was over. Presently, what is technically called a “useful girl” would come in to wash the dishes, leaving the evening free for social intercourse. Mrs. Parker had done well by her patrons that night, and now she wanted a quiet chat with Parker over a glass of Freddie Rooke’s port.
“Have they gone, Horace?” she asked, following him into the dining room.
Parker selected a cigar from Freddie’s humidor, crackled it against his ear, smelled it, clipped off the end, and lit it. He took the decanter and filled his wife’s glass, then mixed himself a whisky and soda.
“Happy days!” said Parker. “Yes, they’ve gone!”
“I didn’t see her ladyship.”
“You didn’t miss much! A nasty, dangerous specimen, she is! She’s got a motter, ‘Always merry and bright,’ I don’t think. I wish you’d had my job of waiting on ’em, Ellen, and me been the one to stay in the kitchen, safe out of it all. That’s all I say! It’s no treat to me to ’and dishes when the atmosphere’s what you might call electric. I didn’t envy them that vol-au-vent of yours, Ellen, good as it smelled. Better a dinner of ’erbs where love is than a stalled ox and ’atred therewith,” said Parker, helping himself to a walnut.
“Did they have words?”
Parker shook his head impatiently. “That sort don’t have words, Ellen. They just sit and goggle.”
“How did her ladyship seem to hit it off with Miss Mariner, Horace?”
Parker uttered a dry laugh. “Ever see a couple of strange dogs watching each other sort of wary? That was them! Not that Miss Mariner wasn’t all that was pleasant and nice-spoken. She’s all right, Miss Mariner is. She’s a little queen! It wasn’t her fault the dinner you’d took so much trouble over was more like an evening in the morgue than a Christian dinner party. She tried to help things along best she could. But what with Sir Derek chewing his lip ’alf the time, and his mother acting about as matey as a penn’orth of ice cream, she didn’t have a chance. As for the guv’nor—well, I wish you could have seen him, that’s all. You know, Ellen, sometimes I’m not altogether easy in my mind about the guv’nor’s mental balance. He knows how to buy cigars, and you tell me his port is good—I never touch it myself—but sometimes he seems to me to go right off his onion. Just sat there, he did, all through dinner, looking as if he expected the good food to rise up and bite him in the face, and jumping nervous when I spoke to him. It’s not my fault,” said Parker, aggrieved. “I can’t give gentlemen warning before I ask ’em if they’ll have sherry or hock. I can’t ring a bell or toot a horn to show ’em I’m coming. It’s my place to bend over and whisper in their ear, and they’ve no right to leap about in their seats and make me spill good wine. (You’ll see the spot close by where you’re sitting, Ellen. Jogged my wrist, he did!) I’d like to know why people in the spear of life which these people are in can’t behave themselves rational, same as we do. When we were walking out, and I took you to have tea with my mother, it was one of the pleasantest meals I ever ate. Talk about ’armony! It was a love feast!”
“Your ma and I took to each other right from the start, Horace,” said Mrs. Parker softly. “That’s the difference.”
“Well, any woman with any sense would take to Miss Mariner. If I told you how near I came to spilling the sauce boat accidentally over that old fossil’s head, you’d be surprised, Ellen. She just sat there brooding like an old eagle. If you ask my opinion, Miss Mariner’s a long sight too good for her precious son!”
“Oh, but, Horace! Sir Derek’s a baronet!”
“What of it? Kind ’earts are more than coronets and simple faith than Norman blood, aren’t they?”
“You’re talking socialism, Horace.”
“No, I’m not. I’m talking sense. I don’t know who Miss Mariner’s parents may have been—I never inquired—but anyone can see she’s a lady born and bred. But do you suppose the path of true love is going to run smooth, for all that? Not it! She’s got a ’ard time ahead of her, that poor girl!”
“Horace!” Mrs. Parker’s gentle heart was wrung. “Do you think her ladyship means to come between them and wreck their romance?”
“I think she means to have a jolly good try.”
“But Sir Derek has his own money, hasn’t he? I mean, it’s not like when Sir Courtenay Travers fell in love with the milkmaid and was dependent on his mother, the countess, for everything. Sir Derek can afford to do what he pleases, can’t he?”
PARKER shook his head tolerantly. The excellence of the cigar and the soothing qualities of the whisky and soda had worked upon him, and he was feeling less ruffled.
“You don’t understand these things,” he said. “Women like her ladyship can talk a man into anything and out of anything. I wouldn’t care, only, you see, the poor girl is mad over the feller. What she finds attractive in him, I can’t say, but that’s her own affair.”
“He’s very handsome, Horace, with those flashing eyes and that stern mouth,” argued Mrs. Parker.
Parker sniffed. “Have it your own way,” he said. “It’s no treat to me to see his eyes flash, and if he’d put that stern mouth of his to better use than advising the guv’nor to lock up the cigars and trouser the key, I’d be better pleased. If there’s one thing I can’t stand,” said Parker, “it’s not to be trusted!”
He lifted his cigar and looked at it censoriously. “I thought so! Burning all down one side. They will do that if you light ’em careless. Oh, well,” he continued, rising and going to the humidor, “there’s plenty more where that came from. Out of evil cometh good,” said Parker philosophically. “If the guv’nor hadn’t been in such a overwrought state to-night, he’d have remembered not to leave the key in the keyhole. Help yourself to another glass of port, Ellen, and let’s enjoy ourselves!”
WHEN one considers how full of his own troubles, how weighed down with the problems of his own existence the average playgoer generally is when he enters a theatre, it is remarkable that dramatists ever find it possible to divert and entertain whole audiences for a space of several hours. As regards at least three of those who had assembled to witness its opening performance, the author of “Tried by Fire,” at the Leicester Theatre, undoubtedly had his work cut out for him.
It has perhaps been sufficiently indicated by the remarks of Parker, the valet, that the little dinner at Freddie Rooke’s had not been an unqualified success. Searching the records for an adequately gloomy parallel to the taxicab journey to the theatre which followed it, one can only think of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. And yet even that was probably not conducted in dead silence. There must have been moments when Murat got off a good thing or Ney said something worth hearing about the weather.
The only member of the party who was even remotely happy was, curiously enough, Freddie Rooke. Originally Freddie had obtained three tickets for “Tried by Fire.” The unexpected arrival of Lady Underhill had obliged him to buy a fourth, separated by several rows from the other three. This, as he had told Derek at breakfast, was the seat he proposed to occupy himself.
It consoles the philosopher in this hard world to reflect that, even if man is born to sorrow as the sparks fly upward, it is still possible for small things to make him happy. The thought of being several rows away from Lady Underhill had restored Freddie’s equanimity like a tonic. It thrilled him like the strains of some grand, sweet anthem all the way to the theatre. If Freddie Rooke had been asked at that moment to define happiness in a few words, he would have replied that it consisted in being several rows away from Lady Underhill.
The Leicester Theatre had been rented for the season by the newest theatrical knight, Sir Chester Portwood, who had a large following; and, whatever might be the fate of the play in the final issue, it would do at least one night’s business. The stalls were ablaze with jewelry and crackling with starched shirt fronts, and expensive scents pervaded the air, putting up a stiff battle with the plebeian peppermint that emanated from the pit. The boxes were filled, and up in the gallery grim-faced patrons of the drama, who had paid their shillings at the door and intended to get a shilling’s worth of entertainment in return, sat and waited stolidly for the curtain to rise.
First nights at the theatre always excited Jill. The depression induced by absorbing nourishment and endeavoring to make conversation in the presence of Lady Underhill left her. The worst, she told herself, had happened. She had met Derek’s mother, and Derek’s mother plainly disliked her. Well, that, as Parker would have said, was that. Now she just wanted to enjoy herself. She loved the theatre. The stir, the buzz of conversation, the warmth and life of it, all touched a chord in her which made depression impossible.
The lights shot up beyond the curtain. The house lights dimmed. Conversation ceased. The curtain rose. Jill wriggled herself comfortably into her seat and slipped her hand into Derek’s. She felt a glow of happiness as it closed over hers. All, she told herself, was right with the world.
All, that is to say, except the drama which was unfolding on the stage. It was one of those plays which start wrong and never recover. By the end of the first ten minutes there had spread through the theatre that uneasy feeling which comes over the audience at an opening performance when it realizes that it is going to be bored. A sort of lethargy had gripped the stalls. The dress circle was coughing. Up in the gallery there was grim silence.
Sir Chester Portwood was an actor-manager who had made his reputation in light comedy of the teacup school. His numerous admirers attended a first night at his theatre in a mood of comfortable anticipation, assured of something pleasant and frothy with a good deal of bright dialogue and not too much plot. To-night he seemed to have fallen a victim to that spirit of ambition which intermittently attacks actor-managers of his class, expressing itself in an attempt to prove that, having established themselves securely as light comedians, they can, like the lady reciter, turn right around and be serious. The one thing which the London public felt that it was safe from in a Portwood play was heaviness, and “Tried by Fire” was grievously heavy. It was a poetic drama, and the audience, although loath to do anybody an injustice, was beginning to suspect that it was written in blank verse.
THE acting did nothing to dispel the growing uneasiness. Sir Chester himself, apparently oppressed by the responsibility of offering an unfamiliar brand of goods to his public, had dropped his customary debonair method of delivering lines and was mouthing his speeches. It was good gargling, but bad elocution. And, for some reason best known to himself, he had intrusted the rôle of the heroine to a doll-like damsel with a lisp, of whom the audience disapproved sternly from her initial entrance.
It was about halfway through the first act that Jill, whose attention had begun to wander, heard a soft groan at her side. The seats which Freddie Rooke had bought were at the extreme end of the seventh row. There was only one other seat in the row, and, as Derek had placed his mother on his left and was sitting between her and Jill, the latter had this seat on her right. It had been empty at the rise of the curtain, but in the past few minutes a man had slipped silently into it. The darkness prevented Jill from seeing his face, but it was plain that he was suffering, and her sympathy went out to him. His opinion of the play so obviously coincided with her own.
PRESENTLY the first act ended, and the lights went up. There was a spatter of insincere applause from the stalls, echoed in the dress circle. It grew fainter in the upper circle, and did not reach the gallery at all.
“Well,” said Jill to Derek, “what do you think of it?”
“Too awful for words,” said Derek sternly.
He leaned forward to join in the conversation which had started between Lady Underhill and some friends she had discovered in the seats in front; and Jill, turning, became aware that the man on her right was looking at her intently. He was a big man with rough, wiry hair and a humorous mouth. His age appeared to be somewhere in the middle twenties. Jill, in the brief moment in which their eyes met, decided that he was ugly, but with an ugliness that was rather attractive. He reminded her of one of those large, loose, shaggy dogs that break things in drawing rooms but make admirable companions for the open road. She had a feeling that he would look better in tweeds in a field than in evening dress in a theatre. He had nice eyes. She could not distinguish their color, but they were frank and friendly.
All this Jill noted with her customary quickness, and then she looked away. For an instant she had had an odd feeling that somewhere she had met this man or somebody very like him before, but the impression vanished. She also had the impression that he was still looking at her, but she gazed demurely in front of her and did not attempt to verify the suspicion.
Between them, as they sat side by side, there inserted itself suddenly the pinkly remorseful face of Freddie Rooke. Freddie, having skirmished warily in the aisle until it was clear that Lady Underhill’s attention was engaged elsewhere, had occupied a seat in the row behind. Freddie was feeling deeply ashamed of himself. He felt that he had perpetrated a bloomer of no slight magnitude.
“I’m awfully sorry about this,” he said penitently. “I mean, roping you in to listen to this frightful tosh! When I think I might have got seats just as well for any one of half a dozen topping musical comedies, I feel like kicking myself with some vim. But, honestly, how was I to know? I never dreamed we were going to be let in for anything of this sort. Portwood’s plays are usually so dashed bright and snappy and all that. Can’t think what he was doing, putting on a thing like this. Why, it’s blue round the edges!”
The man on Jill’s right laughed sharply. “Perhaps,” he said, “the chump who wrote the piece got away from the asylum long enough to put up the money to produce it.”
If there is one thing that startles the well-bred Londoner and throws him off his balance, it is to be addressed unexpectedly by a stranger. Freddie’s sense of decency was revolted. A voice from the tomb could hardly have shaken him more. All the traditions to which he had been brought up had gone to solidify his belief that this was one of the things which didn’t happen. Absolutely it wasn’t done. During an earthquake or a shipwreck, and possibly on the Day of Judgment, yes. But only then. At other times, unless they wanted a match or the time or something, chappies did not speak to fellows to whom they had not been introduced. He was far too amiable to snub the man, but to go on with this degrading scene was out of the question. There was nothing for it but flight.
“Oh, ah, yes,” he mumbled. “Well,” he added to Jill, “I suppose I may as well be toddling back. See you later, and so forth.”
And with a faint “Good-bye-ee!” Freddie removed himself, thoroughly unnerved.
Jill looked out of the corner of her eye at Derek. He was still occupied with the people in front. She turned to the man on her right. She was not the slave to etiquette that Freddie was. She was much too interested in life to refrain from speaking to strangers. “You shocked him!” she said, dimpling.
“Yes. It broke Freddie all up, didn’t it?”
It was Jill’s turn to be startled. She looked at him in astonishment.
“That was Freddie Rooke, wasn’t it? Surely I wasn’t mistaken?”
“But—do you know him? He didn’t seem to know you.”
“These are life’s tragedies. He has forgotten me. My boyhood friend!”
“Oh, you were at school with him?”
“No. Freddie went to Winchester, if I remember. I was at Haileybury. Our acquaintance was confined to the holidays. My people lived near his people in Worcestershire.”
“Worcestershire!” Jill leaned forward excitedly. “But I used to live near Freddie in Worcestershire myself, when I was small. I knew him there when he was a boy. We must have met!”
“We met all right.”
Jill wrinkled her forehead. That odd familiar look was in his eyes again. But memory failed to respond. She shook her head.
“I don’t remember you,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“Never mind. Perhaps the recollection would have been painful.”
“How do you mean, painful?”
“Well, looking back, I can see that I must have been a very unpleasant child. I have always thought it greatly to the credit of my parents that they let me grow up. It would have been so easy to have dropped something heavy on me out of a window. They must have been tempted a hundred times, but they refrained. Yes, I was a great pest around the home. My only redeeming point was the way I worshiped you!”
“Oh, yes. You probably didn’t notice it at the time, for I had a curious way of expressing my adoration. But you remain the brightest memory of a checkered youth.”
Jill searched his face with grave eyes, then shook her head again.
“Nothing stirs?” asked the man sympathetically.
“It’s too maddening! Why does one forget things?” she reflected. “You aren’t Bobby Morrison?”
“I am not. What is more, I never was!”
Jill dived into the past once more and emerged with another possibility.
“Or Charlie—Charlie, what was it?—Charlie Field?”
“You wound me! Have you forgotten that Charlie Field wore velvet Lord Fauntleroy suits and long golden curls? My past is not smirched with anything like that.”
“Would I remember your name, if you told me?”
“I don’t know. I’ve forgotten yours. Your surname, that is. Of course I remember that your Christian name was Jill. It has always seemed to me the prettiest monosyllable in the language.” He looked at her thoughtfully. “It’s odd, how little you’ve altered in looks. Freddie’s just the same, too, only larger. And he didn’t wear an eyeglass in those days, though I can see he was bound to later on. And yet I’ve changed so much that you can’t place me. It shows what a wearing life I must have led. I feel like Rip Van Winkle. Old and withered. But that may be just the result of watching this play.”
“It is pretty terrible, isn’t it!”
“Worse than that. Looking at it dispassionately, I find it the extreme, ragged, outermost edge of the limit. Freddie had the correct description of it. He’s a great critic.”
“I really do think it’s the worst thing I have ever seen.”
“I don’t know what plays you have seen, but I feel you’re right.”
“Perhaps the second act’s better,” said Jill optimistically.
“It’s worse. I know that sounds like boasting, but it’s true. I feel like getting up and making a public apology.”
“But . . . Oh!”
Jill turned scarlet. A monstrous suspicion had swept over her.
“The only trouble is,” went on her companion, “that the audience would undoubtedly lynch me. And, though it seems improbable just at the present moment, it may be that life holds some happiness for me that’s worth waiting for. Anyway, I’d rather not be torn limb from limb. A messy finish! I can just see them rending me asunder in a spasm of perfectly justifiable fury. ‘She loves me!’ Off comes a leg. ‘She loves me not!’ Off comes an arm. No, I think on the whole I’ll lie low. Besides, why should I care? Let ’em suffer! It’s their own fault. They would come!”
Jill had been trying to interrupt the harangue. She was greatly concerned.
“Did you write the play?”
The man nodded.
“You are quite right to speak in that horrified tone. But, between ourselves and on the understanding that you don’t get up and denounce me, I did!”
“Oh, I’m so sorry!”
“Not half so sorry as I am, believe me!”
“I mean, I wouldn’t have said . . .”
“Never mind. You didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know.” The lights began to go down. He rose. “Well, they’re off again. Perhaps you will excuse me? If you want something to occupy your mind during the next act, try to remember my name.”
He slid from his seat and disappeared. Jill clutched at Derek. “Oh, Derek, it’s too awful. I’ve just been talking to the man who wrote this play, and I told him it was the worst thing I had ever seen!”
“Did you?” Derek snorted. “Well, it’s about time somebody told him!” A thought seemed to strike him. “Why, who is he? I didn’t know you knew him.”
“I don’t. I don’t even know his name.”
“His name, according to the program, is John Grant. Never heard of him before. Jill, I wish you would not talk to people you don’t know,” said Derek, with a note of annoyance in his voice. “You can never tell who they are.”
“But . . .”
“Especially with my mother here. You must be more careful.”
THE curtain rose. Jill saw the stage mistily. From childhood up, she had never been able to cure herself of an unfortunate sensitiveness when sharply spoken to by those she loved. A rebuking world she could face with a stout heart, but there had always been just one or two people whose lightest word of censure could crush her. Her father had always had that effect on her, and now Derek had taken his place.
But if there had only been time to explain. Derek could not object to her chatting with a friend of her childhood, even if she had completely forgotten him and did not remember his name even now. John Grant? Memory failed to produce any juvenile John Grant for her inspection.
Puzzling over this problem, Jill missed much of the beginning of the second act. Hers was a detachment which the rest of the audience would gladly have shared. For the poetic drama, after a bad start, was now plunging into worse depths of dullness. The coughing had become almost continuous. The stalls, supported by the presence of large droves of Sir Chester’s personal friends, were struggling gallantly to maintain a semblance of interest, but the pit and gallery had plainly given up hope. The critic of a small weekly paper grimly jotted down the phrase “apathetically received,” on his program. He had come to the theatre that night in an aggrieved mood, for managers usually put him in the dress circle. He got out his pencil again. Another phrase had occurred to him, admirable for the opening of his article. “At the Leicester Theatre,” he wrote, “where Sir Chester Portwood presented ‘Tried by Fire,’ dullness reigned supreme. . . .”
But you never know. Call no evening dull till it is over. However uninteresting its early stages may have been, that night was to be as animated and exciting as any audience could desire, a night to be looked back to and talked about. For just as the critic of “London Gossip” wrote those damning words on his program a curious, yet familiar, odor stole over the house.
The stalls got it first, and sniffed. It rose to the dress circle, and the dress circle sniffed. Floating up, it smote the silent gallery. And, suddenly, coming to life with a single-minded abruptness, the gallery ceased to be silent.
Sir Chester Portwood, plowing his way through a long speech, stopped and looked apprehensively over his shoulders. The girl with the lisp, who had been listening in a perfunctory manner to the long speech, screamed loudly. The voice of an unseen stage hand called thunderously to an invisible “Bill” to cummere quick. And from the scenery on the prompt side there curled lazily across the stage a black wisp of smoke.
“Fire! Fire! Fire!”
“Just,” said a voice at Jill’s elbow, “what the play needed!”
The mysterious author was back in his seat again.
IN these days when the authorities who watch over the welfare of the community have taken the trouble to reiterate encouragingly in printed notices that a full house can be emptied in three minutes and that all an audience has to do in an emergency is to walk, not run, to the nearest exit, fire in the theatre has lost a good deal of its old-time terror. Yet it would be paltering with the truth to say that the audience which had assembled to witness the opening performance of the new play at the Leicester was entirely at its ease. The asbestos curtain was already on its way down, which should have been reassuring: but then asbestos curtains never look the part. To the lay eye they seem just the sort of thing that will blaze quickest. Moreover, it had not yet occurred to the man at the switchboard to turn up the house lights, and the darkness was disconcerting.
Portions of the house were taking the thing better than other portions. Up in the gallery a vast activity was going on. The clatter of feet almost drowned the shouting. A moment before it would have seemed incredible that anything could have made the occupants of the gallery animated, but the instinct of self-preservation had put new life into them.
The stalls had not yet entirely lost their self-control. Alarm was in the air, but for the moment they hung on the razor edge between panic and dignity. Panic urged them to do something sudden and energetic: dignity counseled them to wait. They, like the occupants of the gallery, greatly desired to be outside, but it was bad form to rush and jostle. The men were assisting the women into their cloaks, assuring them the while that it was “all right” and that they must not be frightened. But another curl of smoke had crept out just before the asbestos curtain completed its descent, and their words lacked the ring of conviction. The movement toward the exits had not yet become a stampede, but already those with seats nearest the stage had begun to feel that the more fortunate individuals near the doors were infernally slow in removing themselves.
Suddenly, as if by mutual inspiration, the composure of the stalls began to slip. Looking from above, one could have seen a sort of shudder run through the crowd. It was the effect of every member of that crowd starting to move a little more quickly.
A hand grasped Jill’s arm. It was a comforting hand, the hand of a man who had not lost his head. A pleasant voice backed up its message of reassurance.
“It’s no good getting into that mob. You might get hurt. There’s no danger. The play isn’t going on.”
Jill was shaken: but she had the fighting spirit and hated to show that she was shaken. Panic was knocking at the door of her soul, but dignity refused to be dislodged.
“All the same,” she said, smiling a difficult smile, “it would be nice to get out, wouldn’t it?”
“I was just going to suggest something of that very sort,” said the man beside her. “We can stroll out quite comfortably by our own private route. Come along.”
Jill looked over her shoulder. Derek and Lady Underhill were merged into the mass of refugees. She could not see them. For an instant a little spasm of pique stung her at the thought that Derek had deserted her. She groped her way after her companion, and presently they came by way of a lower box to the iron pass door leading to the stage.
As it opened, smoke blew through, and the smell of burning was formidable. Jill recoiled involuntarily.
“It’s all right,” said her companion. “It smells worse than it really is. And, anyway, this is the quickest way out.”
They passed through on to the stage, and found themselves in a world of noise and confusion compared with which the auditorium which they had left had been a peaceful place. Smoke was everywhere. A stage hand, carrying a bucket, lurched past them, bellowing. From somewhere out of sight on the other side of the stage there came a sound of chopping. Jill’s companion moved quickly to the switchboard, groped, found a handle, and turned it. In the narrow space between the corner of the proscenium and the edge of the asbestos curtain lights flashed up: and simultaneously there came a sudden diminution of the noise from the body of the house. The stalls, snatched from the intimidating spell of the darkness and able to see each other’s faces, discovered that they had been behaving indecorously and checked their struggling, a little ashamed of themselves. The relief would be only momentary, but, while it lasted, it postponed panic.
“Go straight across the stage,” Jill heard her companion say, “out along the passage and turn to the right, and you’ll be at the stage door. I think, as there seems no one else around to do it, I’d better go out and say a few soothing words to the customers. Otherwise, they’ll be biting holes in each other.”
He squeezed through the narrow opening in front of the curtain.
“Ladies and gentlemen!”
Jill remained where she was, leaning with one hand against the switchboard. She made no attempt to follow the directions he had given her. She was aware of a sense of comradeship, of being with this man in this adventure. If he stayed, she must stay. To go now through the safety of the stage door would be abominable desertion. She listened, and found that she could hear plainly in spite of the noise. The smoke was worse than ever, and hurt her eyes, so that the figures of the theatre firemen, hurrying to and fro, seemed like Brocken specters. She slipped a corner of her cloak across her mouth, and was able to breathe more easily.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I assure you that there is absolutely no danger. I am a stranger to you, so there is no reason why you should take my word, but fortunately I can give you solid proof. If there were any danger, I wouldn’t be here. All that has happened is that the warmth of your reception of the play has set a piece of scenery alight. . . .”
A crimson-faced stage hand, carrying an ax in blackened hands, roared in Jill’s ear:
Jill looked at him, puzzled.
“ ’Op it!” shouted the stage hand. He cast his ax down with a clatter. “Can’t you see the place is afire?”
“But—but I’m waiting for—” Jill pointed to where her ally was still addressing an audience that seemed reluctant to stop and listen to him.
The stage hand squinted out round the edge of the curtain.
“If he’s a friend of yours, miss, kindly get ’im to cheese it and get a move on. We’re clearing out. There’s nothing we can do. It’s got too much of an ’old. In about another two ticks the roof’s going to drop on us.”
Jill’s friend came squeezing back through the opening.
“Hullo! Still here?” He blinked approvingly at her through the smoke. “You’re a little soldier! Well, Augustus, what’s on your mind?”
The simple question seemed to take the stage hand aback.
“Wot’s on my mind? I’ll tell you wot’s on my blinking mind—”
“Don’t tell me. Let me guess. I’ve got it! The place is on fire!”
The stage hand expectorated disgustedly. Flippancy at such a moment offended his sensibilities.
“We’re ’opping it,” he said.
“Great minds think alike! We are hopping it, too.”
“You’d better! And damn quick!”
“And, as you suggest, damn quick! You think of everything!”
Jill followed him across the stage. Her heart was beating violently. There was not only smoke now, but heat. Across the stage little scarlet flames were shooting, and something large and hard, unseen through the smoke, fell with a crash. The air was heavy with the smell of burning paint.
“Where’s Sir Chester Portwood?” inquired her companion of the stage hand, who hurried beside them.
“ ’Opped it!” replied the other briefly, and coughed raspingly as he swallowed smoke.
“Strange,” said the man in Jill’s ear, as he pulled her along. “This way. Stick to me. Strange how the drama anticipates life! At the end of act two there was a scene where Sir Chester had to creep somberly out into the night, and now he’s gone and done it! Ah!”
THEY had stumbled through a doorway and were out in a narrow passage, where the air, though tainted, was comparatively fresh. Jill drew a deep breath. Her companion turned to the stage hand and felt in his pocket.
“Here, Rollo!” A coin changed hands. “Go and get a drink. You need it after all this.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t mention it. You’ve saved our lives. Suppose you hadn’t come up and told us, and we had never noticed there was a fire! Charred bones, believed to be those of a man and a woman, were found in the ruined edifice!” He turned to Jill. “Here’s the stage door. Shall we creep somberly out into the night?”
The guardian of the stage door was standing in the entrance of his little hutch, plainly perplexed. He was a slow thinker and a man whose life was ruled by routine: and the events of the evening had left him uncertain how to act.
“Wot’s all this about a fire?” he demanded.
Jill’s friend stopped.
“A fire?” He looked at Jill. “Did you hear anything about a fire?”
“They all come bustin’ past ’ere yelling there’s a fire,” persisted the door man.
“By George! Now I come to think of it, you’re perfectly right! There is a fire! If you wait here a little longer, you’ll get it in the small of the back. Take the advice of an old friend, who means you well, and vanish. In the inspired words of the lad we’ve just parted from, ’op it!”
The stage-door man turned this over in his mind for a space.
“But I’m supposed to stay ’ere till eleven-thirty and lock up!” he said. “That’s what I’m supposed to do. Stay ’ere till eleven-thirty and lock up! And it ain’t but ten-forty-five now.”
“I see the difficulty,” said Jill’s companion thoughtfully. “It’s what you might call an impasse. French! Well, Casabianca, I’m afraid I don’t see how to help you. It’s a matter for your own conscience. I don’t want to lure you from the burning deck; on the other hand, if you stick here, you’ll most certainly be fried on both sides. . . . But, tell me. You spoke of locking up something at eleven-thirty. What are you supposed to lock up?”
“Why, the theatre.”
“Then that’s all right. By eleven-thirty there won’t be a theatre. If I were you, I should leave quietly and unostentatiously now. To-morrow, if you wish it and if they’ve cooled off sufficiently, you can come and sit on the ruins. Good night!”
OUTSIDE, the air was cold and crisp. Jill drew her warm cloak closer. Round the corner there was noise and shouting. Fire engines had arrived. Jill’s companion lit a cigarette.
“Do you wish to stop and see the conflagration?” he asked.
Jill shivered. She was more shaken than she had realized.
“I’ve seen all the conflagration I want.”
“Same here. Well, it’s been an exciting evening. Started slow, I admit, but warmed up later! What I seem to need at the moment is a restorative stroll along the Embankment. Do you know, Sir Chester Portwood didn’t like the title of my play. He said ‘Tried by Fire’ was too melodramatic. Well, he can’t say now it wasn’t appropriate.”
They made their way toward the river, avoiding the street which was blocked by the crowds and the fire engines. As they crossed the Strand, the man looked back. A red glow was in the sky.
“A great blaze!” he said. “What you might call—in fact what the papers will call—a holocaust. Quite a treat for the populace.”
“Do you think they will be able to put it out?”
“Not a chance. It’s got too much of a hold. It’s a pity you hadn’t that garden hose of yours with you, isn’t it?”
Jill stopped, wide-eyed.
“Don’t you remember the garden hose? I do! I can feel that clammy feeling of the water trickling down my back now!”
Memory, always a laggard by the wayside that redeems itself by an eleventh-hour rush, raced back to Jill. The Embankment turned to a sunlit garden, and the January night to a July day. She stared at him. He was looking at her with a whimsical smile. It was a smile which, pleasant to-day, had seemed mocking and hostile on that afternoon years ago. She had always felt then that he was laughing at her, and at the age of twelve she had resented laughter at her expense.
“You surely can’t be Wally Mason!”
“I was wondering when you would remember.”
“But the program called you something else—John something.”
“That was a cunning disguise. Wally Mason is the only genuine and official name. And, by Jove! I’ve just remembered yours. It was Mariner. By the way”—he paused for an almost imperceptible instant—“is it still?”
JILL was hardly aware that he had asked her a question. She was suffering that momentary sense of unreality which comes to us when the years roll away and we are thrown abruptly back into the days of our childhood. The logical side of her mind was quite aware that there was nothing remarkable in the fact that Wally Mason, who had been to her all these years a boy in an Eton suit, should now present himself as a grown man. But for all that the transformation had something of the effect of a conjuring trick. It was not only the alteration in his appearance that startled her: it was the amazing change in his personality. Wally Mason had been the bête noire of her childhood. She had never failed to look back at the episode of the garden hose with the feeling that she had acted well; that she had done the right thing. And now she had taken an instant liking for him. Easily as she made friends, she had seldom before felt so immediately drawn to a strange man. Gone was the ancient hostility, and in its place a soothing sense of comradeship. The direct effect of this was to make Jill feel suddenly old. It was as if some link that joined her to her childhood had been snapped.
She glanced down the Embankment. Close by, to the left, Waterloo Bridge loomed up, dark and massive against the steel-gray sky. A tramcar, full of home-bound travelers, clattered past over rails that shone with the peculiarly frostbitten gleam that seems to herald snow. Across the river everything was dark and mysterious, except for an occasional lamp-post and the dim illumination of the wharves. It was a depressing prospect, and the thought crossed her mind that to the derelicts whose nightly resting place was a seat on the Embankment the view must seem even bleaker than it did to herself. She gave a little shiver. Somehow this sudden severance from the old days had brought with it a forlornness. She seemed to be standing alone in a changed world.
“Cold?” said Wally Mason.
They moved westward. Cleopatra’s Needle shot up beside them, a pointing finger. Down on the silent river below, coffinlike rowboats lay moored to the wall. Through a break in the trees the clock over the Houses of Parliament shone for an instant as if suspended in the sky, then vanished as the trees closed in. A distant barge in the direction of Battersea wailed and was still. It had a mournful and foreboding sound. Jill shivered again. It annoyed her that she could not shake off this quite uncalled-for melancholy, but it withstood every effort. Why she should have felt that a chapter, a pleasant chapter, in the book of her life had been closed, she could not have said, but the feeling lingered.
“Correct me if I am wrong,” said Wally Mason, breaking a silence that had lasted several minutes, “but you seem to me to be freezing in your tracks. Ever since I came to London I’ve had a habit of heading for the Embankment in times of mental stress, but perhaps the middle of winter is not quite the moment for communing with the night. The Savoy is handy, if we stop walking away from it. I think we might celebrate this reunion with a little supper, don’t you?”
Jill’s depression disappeared magically. Her mercurial temperament asserted itself. “Lights!” she said. “Music!”
“And food! To an ethereal person like you that remark may seem gross, but I had no dinner.”
“You poor dear! Why not?”
“Why, of course.”
The interlude of the fire had caused her to forget his private and personal connection with the night’s events. Her mind went back to something he had said in the theatre. “Wally.” She stopped, a little embarrassed. “I suppose I ought to call you Mr. Mason, but I’ve always thought of you . . .”
“Wally, if you please, Jill. It’s not as though we were strangers. I haven’t any book of etiquette with me, but I fancy that about eleven gallons of cold water down the neck constitutes an introduction. What were you going to say?”
“It was what you said to Freddie about putting up money. Did you really?”
“Put up the money for that ghastly play? I did. Every cent. It was the only way to get it put on.”
“But why . . .? I forget what I was going to say!”
“Why did I want it put on? Well, it does seem odd, but I give you my honest word that until to-night I thought the darned thing a masterpiece. I’ve been writing musical comedies for the last few years, and after you’ve done that for a while your soul rises up within you and says: ‘Come, come, my lad! You can do better than this!’ That’s what mine said, and I believed it. Subsequent events have proved that Sidney the Soul was pulling my leg!”
“But—then you’ve lost a great deal of money?”
“The hoarded wealth, if you don’t mind my being melodramatic for a moment, of a lifetime. And no honest old servitor who dandled me on his knee as a baby to come along and offer me his savings! They don’t make servitors like that in America, worse luck. There is a Swedish lady who looks after my simple needs back there; but instinct tells me that, if I were to approach her on the subject of loosening up for the benefit of the young master, she would call a cop. Still, I’ve gained experience, which they say is just as good as cash, so come along.”
IN the supper room of the Savoy Hotel there was, as anticipated, food and light and music. It was still early, and the theatres had not yet emptied themselves, so that the big room was as yet but half full. Wally Mason had found a table in the corner, and proceeded to order with the concentration of a hungry man.
“Forgive my dwelling so tensely on the bill of fare,” he said when the waiter had gone. “You don’t know what it means to one in my condition to have to choose between poulet en casserole and kidneys à la maître d’hôtel. A man’s crossroads!”
Jill smiled happily across the table at him.
She could hardly believe that this old friend with whom she had gone through the perils of the night, and with whom she was now about to feast, was the sinister figure that had cast a shadow on her childhood. He looked positively incapable of pulling a little girl’s hair.
“You always were greedy,” she commented. “Just before I turned the hose on you, I remember you had made yourself thoroughly disliked by pocketing a piece of my birthday cake.”
“Do you remember that?” His eyes lit up and he smiled back at her. He had an ingratiating smile. His mouth was rather wide, and it seemed to stretch right across his face. He reminded Jill more than ever of a big, friendly dog. “I can feel it now, all squashy in my pocket, inextricably mingled with a catapult, a couple of marbles, a box of matches, and some string. I was quite the human general store in those days. Which reminds me that we have been some time settling down to an exchange of our childish reminiscences, haven’t we?”
“I’ve been trying to realize that you are Wally Mason. You have altered so.”
“For the better?”
“Very much for the better! You were a horrid little brute. You used to terrify me. I never knew when you were going to bound out at me from behind a tree or something. I remember your chasing me for miles, shrieking at the top of your voice!”
“Sheer embarrassment! I told you just now how I used to worship you. If I shrieked a little, it was merely because I was shy. I did it to hide my devotion.”
“You certainly succeeded. I never even suspected it,”
Wally sighed. “How like life. I never told my love, but let concealment like a worm in the bud . . .”
“Talking of worms, you once put one down my back!”
“No, no,” said Wally in a shocked voice. “Not that! I was boisterous perhaps, but surely always the gentleman.”
“You did! In the shrubbery. There had been a thunderstorm and . . .”
“I remember the incident now. A mere misunderstanding. I had done with the worm, and thought you might be glad to have it.”
“You were always doing things like that. Once you held me over the pond and threatened to drop me into the water—in the winter! Just before Christmas. It was a particularly mean thing to do, because I couldn’t even kick your shins for fear you would let me fall. Luckily Uncle Chris came up and made you stop.”
“You considered that a fortunate occurrence, did you?” said Wally. “Well, perhaps from your point of view it may have been. I saw the thing from a different angle. Your uncle had a stick with him, and the episode remains photographically lined on the tablets of my mind when a yesterday has faded from its page. My friends sometimes wonder what I mean when I say that my old wound troubles me in frosty weather. By the way, how is your uncle?”
“Oh, he’s very well. Just as lazy as ever. He’s away at present, down at Brighton.”
“He didn’t strike me as lazy,” said Wally thoughtfully. “Dynamic would express it better. But perhaps I happened to encounter him in a moment of energy.”
“He doesn’t look a day older than he did then.”
“I’m afraid I don’t recall his appearance very distinctly. On the only occasion on which we ever really forgathered—hobnobbed, so to speak—he was behind me most of the time. Ah!” The waiter had returned with a loaded tray.
“The food! Forgive me if I seem a little distrait for a moment or two. There is man’s work before me!”
“And later on, I suppose you would like a chop or something to take away in your pockets?”
“I will think it over. Possibly a little soup. My needs are very simple these days.”
JILL watched him with a growing sense of satisfaction. There was something boyishly engaging about this man. She felt at home with him. He affected her in much the same way as did Freddie Rooke. He was a definite addition to the things that went to make her happy.
She liked him particularly for being such a good loser. She had always been a good loser herself, and the quality was one which she admired. It was nice of him to dismiss from his conversation, and apparently from his thoughts, that night’s fiasco and all that it must have cost him. She wondered how much he had lost. Certainly something very substantial. Yet it seemed to trouble him not at all. Jill considered his behavior gallant, and her heart warmed to him. This was how a man ought to take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Wally sighed contentedly, and leaned back in his chair. “An unpleasant exhibition!” he said apologetically. “But unavoidable. And, anyway, I take it that you prefer to have me well fed and happy about the place than swooning on the floor with starvation. A wonderful thing, food! I am now ready to converse intelligently on any subject you care to suggest. I have eaten rose leaves and am no more a golden ass, so to speak! What shall we talk about?”
“Tell me about yourself.”
“There is no nobler topic! But what aspect of myself do you wish me to touch on? My thoughts, my tastes, my amusements, my career, or what? I can talk about myself for hours. My friends in New York often complain about it bitterly.”
“New York?” said Jill. “Oh, then you live in America?”
“Yes. I only came over here to see that darned false alarm of a play of mine put on.”
“Why didn’t you put it on in New York?”
“Too many of the lads of the village know me over there. This was a new departure, you see. What the critics in those parts expect from me is something entitled ‘Wow! Wow! or The Girl from Yonkers.’ It would have unsettled their minds to find me breaking out in poetic drama. They are men of coarse fiber and ribald mind and they would have been very funny about it. I thought it wiser to come over here among strangers, little thinking that I should sit in the next seat to somebody I had known all my life.”
“But when did you go to America? And why?”
“I think it must have been four—five—well, quite a number of years after the hose episode. Probably you didn’t observe that I wasn’t still around, but we crept silently out of the neighborhood round about that time and went to live in London.” His tone lost its lightness momentarily. “My father died, you know, and that sort of broke things up. He didn’t leave any too much money either. Apparently we had been living on rather too expensive a scale during the time I knew you. At any rate, I was more or less up against it until your father got me a job in an office in New York.”
“Yes. It was wonderfully good of him to bother about me. I didn’t suppose he would have known me by sight, and, even if he had remembered me, I shouldn’t have imagined that the memory would have been a pleasant one. But he couldn’t have taken more trouble if I had been a blood relation.”
“That was just like father,” said Jill softly.
“He was a prince.”
“But you aren’t in the office now?”
“No. I found I had a knack of writing verses and things, and I wrote a few vaudeville songs. Then I came across a man named Bevan at a music publisher’s. He was just starting to write music, and we got together and turned out some vaudeville sketches, and then a manager sent for us to fix up a show that was dying on the road and we had the good luck to turn it into a success, and after that it was pretty good going. Managers are just like sheep. They know nothing whatever about the show business themselves, and they come flocking after anybody who looks as if he could turn out the right stuff. They never think anyone any good except the fellow who had the last hit. So, while your luck lasts, you have to keep them off with a stick. Then you have a couple of failures, and they skip off after somebody else, till you have another success, and then they all come skipping back again, bleating plaintively. George Bevan got married the other day—you probably read about it—he married Lord Marshmoreton’s daughter. Lucky devil!”
“Are you married?”
“You were faithful to my memory?” said Jill with a smile.
“It can’t last,” said Jill, shaking her head. “One of these days you’ll meet some lovely American girl and then you’ll put a worm down her back or pull her hair or whatever it is you do when you want to show your devotion, and— What are you looking at? Is something interesting going on behind me?”
He had been looking past her out into the room.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Only there’s a statuesque old lady about two tables back of you who has been staring at you, with intervals for refreshment, for the last five minutes. You seem to fascinate her.”
“An old lady?”
“Yes. With a glare! She looks like Dunsany’s Bird of the Difficult Eye. Count ten and turn carelessly round. There, at that table. Almost behind you.”
“Good Heavens!” exclaimed Jill. She turned quickly round again.
“What’s the matter? Do you know her? Somebody you don’t want to meet?”
“It’s Lady Underhill! And Derek’s with her!”
Wally had been lifting his glass. He put it down rather suddenly. “Derek?” he said.
“Derek Underhill. The man I’m engaged to marry.” There was a moment’s silence.
“Oh!” said Wally thoughtfully. “The man you’re engaged to marry? Yes, I see!”
He raised his glass again, and drank its contents quickly.
What Derek and his mother thought of this party, after due opportunity to reflect upon it—and why, more and more impatiently, the finger of Fate pointed toward America for Jill and various others, will he told in forthcoming chapters in Collier’s every week.
Printer’s errors corrected above:
Magazine had “He lifted his cigar and looked at it ceremoniously”; corrected to “censoriously” as in all other versions. Magazine had “dullness resigned supreme”; corrected to “reigned” as in British magazine and both British and American book.
Magazine had “curtain lights flashed up! and simultaneously”; exclamation mark corrected to colon as in both book versions.
Magazine had “you seem to me to me to be freezing in your tracks”; extraneous “to me” omitted.