London Magazine, December 1911
IN Alcala, as in most of New York’s apartment houses, the schedule of prices is like a badly rolled cigarette—thick in the middle and thin at both ends. The rooms half-way up are expensive; some of them almost as expensive as if Fashion, instead of being gone for ever, were still lingering. The top rooms are cheap, the ground-floor rooms cheaper still.
Cheapest of all was the hall-bedroom. Its furniture was of the simplest. It consisted of a chair, another chair, a worn carpet, and a folding-bed. The folding-bed had an air of depression and baffled hopes. For years it had been trying to look like a bookcase in the daytime, and now it looked more like a folding-bed than ever. There was also a plain deal table, much stained with ink. At this, night after night, sometimes far into the morning, Rutherford Maxwell would sit and write stories. Now and then it happened that one would be a good story, and find a market.
Rutherford Maxwell was an Englishman, and the younger son of an Englishman; and his lot was the lot of the younger sons all the world over. He was by profession one of the numerous employees of the New Asiatic Bank, which has its branches all over the world. It is a sound, trustworthy institution, and steady-going relatives would assure Rutherford that he was lucky to have got a berth in it. Rutherford did not agree with them. However sound and trustworthy, it was not exactly romantic. Nor did it err on the side of over-lavishness to those who served it. Rutherford’s salary was small. So were his prospects—if he remained in the bank. At a very early date he had registered a vow that he would not. And the road that led out of it for him was the uphill road of literature.
He was thankful for small mercies. Fate had not been over-kind up to the present, but at least she had dispatched him to New York, the centre of things, where he would have the chance to try, instead of to some spot off the map. Whether he won or lost, at any rate he was in the ring, and could fight. So every night he sat in Alcala, and wrote. Sometimes he would only try to write, and that was torture.
There is never an hour of the day or night when Alcala is wholly asleep. The middle of the house is a sort of chorus-girl belt, while in the upper rooms there are reporters and other nightbirds. Long after he had gone to bed, Rutherford would hear footsteps passing his door and the sound of voices in the passage. He grew to welcome them. They seemed to connect him with the outer world. But for them he was alone after he had left the office, utterly alone, as it is possible to be only in the heart of a great city. Some nights he would hear scraps of conversations, at rare intervals a name. He used to build up in his mind identities for the owners of the names. One in particular, Peggy, gave him much food for thought. He pictured her as bright and vivacious. This was because she sang sometimes as she passed his door. She had been singing when he first heard her name. “Oh, cut it out, Peggy,” a girl’s voice had said. “Don’t you get enough of that tune at the theatre?” He felt that he would like to meet Peggy.
June came, and July, making an oven of New York, bringing close, scorching days, and nights when the pen seemed made of lead; and still Rutherford worked on, sipping ice-water, in his shirt-sleeves, and filling the sheets of paper slowly, but with a dogged persistence which the weather could not kill. Despite the heat, he was cheerful. Things were beginning to run his way a little now. A novelette, an airy trifle, conceived in days when the thermometer was lower and it was possible to think, and worked out almost mechanically, had been accepted by a magazine of a higher standing than those which hitherto had shown him hospitality. He began to dream of a holiday in the woods. The holiday spirit was abroad. Alcala was emptying itself. It would not be long before he too would be able to get away.
He was so deep in his thoughts that at first he did not hear the knocking at the door. But it was a sharp, insistent knocking, and forced itself upon his attention. He got up and turned the handle.
Outside in the passage was standing a girl, tall and sleepy-eyed. She wore a picture-hat and a costume the keynote of which was a certain aggressive attractiveness. There was no room for doubt as to which particular brand of scent was her favourite at the moment.
She gazed at Rutherfold dully. Like Banquo’s ghost, she had no speculation in her eyes. Rutherford looked at her inquiringly, somewhat conscious of his shirtsleeves.
“Did you knock?” he said, opening, as a man must do, with the inevitable foolish question.
The apparition spoke.
“Say,” she said, “got a cigarette?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t,” said Rutherford apologetically. “I’ve been smoking a pipe. I’m very sorry.”
“What?” said the apparition.
“I’m afraid I haven’t.”
“Oh!” A pause. “Say, got a cigarette?”
The intellectual pressure of the conversation was beginning to be a little too much for Rutherford. Combined with the heat of the night it made his head swim.
His visitor advanced into the room. Arriving at the table, she began fiddling with its contents. The pen seemed to fascinate her. She picked it up and inspected it closely.
“Say, what d’you call this?” she said.
“That’s a pen,” said Rutherford soothingly. “A fountain-pen.”
“Oh!” A pause. “Say, got a cigarette?”
Rutherford clutched a chair with one hand, and his forehead with the other. He was in sore straits.
At this moment Rescue arrived, not before it was needed. A brisk sound of footsteps in the passage, and there appeared in the doorway a second girl.
“What do you think you’re doing, Gladys?” demanded the new-comer. “You mustn’t come butting into folks’ rooms this way. Who’s your friend?”
“My name is Maxwell,” began Rutherford eagerly.
“What say, Peggy?” said the seeker after cigarettes, dropping a sheet of manuscript to the floor.
Rutherford looked at the girl in the doorway with interest. So this was Peggy. She was little, and trim of figure. That was how he had always imagined her. Her dress was simpler than the other’s. The face beneath the picture-hat was small and well-shaped, the nose delicately tip-tilted, the chin determined, the mouth a little wide and suggesting good-humour. A pair of grey eyes looked steadily into his before transferring themselves to the statuesque being at the table.
“Don’t monkey with the man’s inkwell, Gladys. Come along up to bed.”
“What? Say, got a cigarette?”
“There’s plenty upstairs. Come along.”
The other went with perfect docility. At the door she paused, and inspected Rutherford with a grave stare.
“Good-night, boy!” she said, with haughty condescension.
“Good-night!” said Rutherford.
“Pleased to have met you. Good-night.”
“Good-night!” said Rutherford.
“Come along, Gladys,” said Peggy firmly.
Rutherford sat down and dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief, feeling a little weak. He was not used to visitors.
He had lit his pipe, and was re-reading his night’s work preparatory to turning in, when there was another knock at the door. This time there was no waiting. He was in the state of mind when one hears the smallest noise.
“Come in!” he cried.
It was Peggy.
Rutherford jumped to his feet.
“Won’t you——” he began, pushing the chair forward.
She seated herself with composure on the table. She no longer wore the picture-hat, and Rutherford, looking at her, came to the conclusion that the change was an improvement.
“This’ll do for me,” she said. “Thought I’d just look in. I’m sorry about Gladys. She isn’t often like that. It’s the hot weather.”
“It is hot,” said Rutherford.
“You’ve noticed it? Bully for you! Back to the bench for Sherlock Holmes. Did Gladys try to shoot herself?”
“Good heavens, no! Why?”
“She did once. But I stole her gun, and I suppose she hasn’t thought to get another. She’s a good girl really, only she gets like that sometimes in the hot weather.” She looked round the room for a moment, then gazed unwinkingly at Rutherford. “What did you say your name was?” she asked.
“Gee! That’s going some, isn’t it? Wants amputation, a name like that. I call it mean to give a poor, defenceless kid a cuss-word like—what’s it? Rutherford? Got it—to go through the world with. Haven’t you got something shorter—Tom, or Charles, or something?”
“I’m afraid not.”
The round, grey eyes fixed him again.
“I shall call you George,” she decided at last.
“Thanks, I wish you would,” said Rutherford.
“George it is, then. You can call me Peggy. Peggy Norton’s my name.”
“Thanks, I will.”
“Say, you’re English, aren’t you?” she said.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“You’re so strong on the gratitude thing. It’s ‘Thanks, thanks’ all the time. Not that I mind it, George.”
“Thanks. Sorry. I should say, ‘Oh, you Peggy!’ ”
She looked at him curiously.
“How d’you like New York, George?”
“Been to Coney?”
“You should. Say, what do you do, George?”
“What do I do?”
“Cut it out, George! Don’t answer back as though we were a vaudeville team doing a cross-talk act. What do you do? When your boss crowds your envelope on to you Saturdays, what’s it for?”
“I’m in a bank.”
“Why don’t you quit, then?”
“Can’t afford to. There’s money in being in a bank. Not much, it’s true, but what there is of it is good.”
“What are you doing out of bed at this time of night? They don’t work you all day, do they?”
“No; they’d like to, but they don’t. I have been writing.”
“Writing what? Say, you don’t mind my putting you on the witness-stand, do you? If you do, say so, and I’ll cut out the District Attorney act and talk about the weather.”
“Not a bit, really, I assure you. Please ask as many questions as you like.”
“Guess there’s no doubt about your being English, George. We don’t have time over here to shoot it off like that. If you’d have just said ‘Sure!’ I’d have got a line on your meaning. You don’t mind me doing school-marm, George, do you? It’s all for your good.”
“Sure,” said Rutherford, with a grin.
She smiled approvingly.
“That’s better! You’re Little Willie, the Apt Pupil, all right. What were we talking about before we switched off on to the educational rail? I know—about your writing. What were you writing?”
“For a paper?”
“For a magazine.”
“What! One of the fiction stories about the Gibson hero and the girl whose life he saved, like you read?”
“That’s the idea.”
She looked at him with a new interest.
“Gee, George, who’d have thought it! Fancy you being one of the high-brows! You ought to hang out a sign. You look just ordinary.”
“I mean as far as the grey matter goes. I didn’t mean you were a bad looker. You’re not. You’ve got nice eyes, George.”
“I like the shape of your nose, too.”
“I say, thanks!”
“And your hair’s just lovely!”
“I say, really! Thanks awfully!”
She eyed him in silence for a moment. Then she burst out:
“You say you don’t like the bank?”
“I certainly don’t.”
“And you’d like to strike some paying line of business?”
“Then why don’t you make your fortune by hiring yourself out to a museum as the biggest human clam in captivity? That’s what you are. You sit there just saying ‘Thanks,’ and ‘Bai Jawve, thanks awf’lly,’ while a girl’s telling you nice things about your eyes and hair, and you don’t do a thing!”
Rutherford threw back his head and roared with laughter.
“I’m sorry!” he said. “Slowness is our national failing, you know.”
“I believe you.”
“Tell me about yourself. You know all about me, by now. What do you do besides brightening up the dull evenings of poor devils of bank-clerks?”
“Give you three guesses.”
“Gee! You’re the human sleuth all right, all right! It’s a home-run every time when you get your deductive theories unlimbered. Yes, George; the stage it is. I’m an actorine—one of the pony ballet in ‘The Island of Girls’ at the Melody. Seen our show?”
“Not yet. I’ll go to-morrow.”
“Great! I’ll let them know, so that they can have the awning out and the red carpet down. It’s a cute little piece.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Well, if I see you in front to-morrow, I’ll give you half a smile, so that you sha’n’t feel you haven’t got your money’s worth. Good-night, George!”
She jumped down from the table. Her eye was caught by the photographs on the mantelpiece. She began to examine them.
“Who are these Willies?” she said, picking up a group.
“That is the football team of my old school. The lout with the sheepish smirk, holding the ball, is myself as I was before the cares of the world soured me.”
Her eye wandered along the mantelpiece, and she swooped down on a cabinet photograph of a girl.
“And who’s this, George?” she cried.
He took the photograph from her, and replaced it, with a curious blend of shyness and defiance, in the very centre of the mantelpiece. For a moment he stood looking intently at it, his elbows resting on the imitation marble.
“Who is it?” asked Peggy. “Wake up, George. Who’s this?”
“Sorry,” he said. “I was thinking about something.”
“I bet you were. You looked like it. Well, who is she?”
“Eh! Oh, that’s a girl.”
Peggy laughed satirically.
“Thanks awf’lly, as you would say. I’ve got eyes, George.”
“I noticed that,” said Rutherford, smiling. “Charming ones, too.”
“Gee! What would she say if she heard you talking like that!”
She came a step nearer, looking up at him. Their eyes met.
“She would say,” said Rutherford slowly: “ ‘I know you love me, and I know I can trust you, and I haven’t the slightest objection to your telling Miss Norton the truth about her eyes. Miss Norton is a dear, good little sort, one of the best, in fact, and I hope you’ll be great pals!’ ”
There was a silence.
“She’d say that, would she?” said Peggy, at last.
Peggy looked at the photograph, and back again at Rutherford.
“You’re pretty fond of her, George, I guess, aren’t you?”
“I am,” said Rutherford quietly.
“George, she’s a pretty good long way away, isn’t she?”
She looked up at him with a curious light in her grey eyes. Rutherford met her glance steadily.
“Not to me,” he said. “She’s here now, and all the time.”
He stepped away and picked up the sheaf of papers which he had dropped at Peggy’s entrance. Peggy laughed.
“Good-night, Georgie boy,” she said. “I mustn’t keep you up any more, or you’ll be late in the morning. And what would the bank do then? Smash or something, I guess. Good-night, Georgie! See you again one of these old evenings.”
The door closed behind her. He heard her footsteps hesitate, stop, and then move quickly on once more.
He saw much of her after this first visit. Gradually it became an understood thing between them that she should look in on her return from the theatre. He grew to expect her, and to feel restless when she was late. Once she brought the cigarette-loving Gladys with her, but the experiment was not a success. Gladys was languid and rather overpoweringly refined, and conversation became forced. After that, Peggy came alone.
Generally she found him working. His industry amazed her.
“Gee, George,” she said one night, sitting in her favourite place on the table, from which he had moved a little pile of manuscript to make room for her. “Don’t you ever let up for a second? Seems to me you write all the time.”
“I’ll take a rest,” he said, “when there’s a bit more demand for my stuff than there is at present. When I’m in the twenty-cents-a-word class I’ll write once a month, and spend the rest of my time travelling.”
Peggy shook her head.
“No travelling for mine,” she said. “Seems to me it’s just cussedness that makes people go away from Broadway when they’ve got plunks enough to stay there and enjoy themselves.”
“Do you like Broadway, Peggy?”
“Do I like Broadway? Does a kid like candy? Why, don’t you?”
“It’s all right for the time. It’s not my ideal.”
“Oh, and what particular sort of little old Paradise do you hanker after?”
He puffed at his pipe, and looked dreamily at her through the smoke.
“Way over in England, Peggy, there’s a county called Worcestershire. And somewhere near the edge of that there’s a grey house with gables, and there’s a lawn and a meadow and a shrubbery, and an orchard and a rose-garden, and a big cedar on the terrace before you get to the rose-garden. And if you climb to the top of that cedar, you can see the river through the apple-trees in the orchard. And in the distance there are the hills. And——”
“Of all the rube joints!” exclaimed Peggy, in deep disgust. “Why, a day of that would be about twenty-three hours and a bit too long for me. Broadway for mine! Put me where I can touch Forty-Second Street without overbalancing, and then you can leave me. I never thought you were such a hayseed, George.”
“Don’t worry, Peggy. It’ll be a long time, I expect, before I go there. I’ve got to make my fortune first.”
“Getting anywhere near the John D. class yet?”
“I’ve still some way to go. But things are moving, I think. Do you know, Peggy, you remind me of a little Billiken, sitting on that table?”
“Thank you, George. I always knew my mouth was rather wide, but I did think I had Billiken to the bad. Do you do that sort of Candid Friend stunt with her?” She pointed to the photograph on the mantelpiece. It was the first time since the night when they had met that she had made any allusion to it. By silent agreement the subject had been ruled out between them. “By the way, you never told me her name?”
“Halliday,” said Rutherford shortly.
“Don’t bite at me, George! I’m not hurting you. Tell me about her. I’m interested. Does she live in the grey house with the pigs and chickens and all them roses, and the rest of the rube outfit?”
“Be chummy, George. What’s the matter with you?”
“I’m sorry, Peggy,” he said. “I’m a fool! It’s only that it all seems so damned hopeless! Here am I, earning about half a dollar a year, and—— Still, it’s no use kicking, is it? Besides, I may make a home-run with my writing one of these days. That’s what I meant when I said you were a Billiken, Peggy. Do you know, you’ve brought me luck. Ever since I met you, I’ve been doing twice as well. You’re my mascot.”
“Bully for me! We’ve all got our uses in the world, haven’t we? I wonder if it would help any if I was to kiss you, George?”
“Don’t you do it. One mustn’t work a mascot too hard.”
She jumped down, and came across the room to where he sat, looking down at him with the round, grey eyes that always reminded him of a kitten’s.
She turned away to the mantelpiece, and stood gazing at the photograph, her back towards him.
“Say, what colour eyes has she got?”
“Darker than yours.”
“Nicer than mine?”
“Don’t you think we might talk about something else?”
She swung round, her fists clenched, her face blazing.
“I hate you!” she cried. “I do! I wish I’d never seen you! I wish——”
She leaned on the mantelpiece, burying her face in her arms, and burst into a passion of sobs. Rutherford leaped up, shocked and helpless. He sprang to her, and placed a hand gently on her shoulder.
“Peggy, old girl——”
She broke from him.
“Don’t you touch me! Don’t you do it! Gee, I wish I’d never seen you!”
She ran to the door, darted through, and banged it behind her.
Rutherford remained where he stood, motionless. Then, almost mechanically, he felt in his pocket for matches, and relit his pipe.
Half an hour passed. Then the door opened slowly. Peggy came in. She was pale, and her eyes were red. She smiled—a pathetic little smile.
He took a step towards her.
She held out her hand.
“I’m sorry, George. I feel mean.”
“Dear old girl, what rot!”
“I do. You don’t know how mean I feel. You’ve been real nice to me, George. Thought I’d look in and say I was sorry. Good-night, George!”
On the following night he waited, but she did not come. The nights went by, and still she did not come. And one morning, reading his paper, he saw that “The Island of Girls” had gone west to Chicago.
Things were not running well for Rutherford. He had had his vacation, a golden fortnight of fresh air and sunshine in the Catskills, and was back in Alcala, trying, with poor success, to pick up the threads of his work. But though the Indian Summer had begun, and there was energy in the air, night after night he sat idle in his room; night after night went wearily to bed, oppressed with a dull sense of failure. He could not work. He was restless. His thoughts would not concentrate themselves. Something was wrong; and he knew what it was, though he fought against admitting it to himself. It was the absence of Peggy that had brought about the change. Not till now had he realised to the full how greatly her visits had stimulated him. He had called her laughingly his mascot; but the thing was no joke. It was true. Her absence was robbing him of the power to write.
He was lonely. For the first time since he had come to New York he was really lonely. Solitude had not hurt him till now. In his black moments it had been enough for him to look up at the photograph on the mantelpiece, and instantly he was alone no longer. But now the photograph had lost its magic. It could not hold him. Always his mind would wander back to the little, black-haired ghost that sat on the table, smiling at him, and questioning him with its grey eyes.
And the days went by, unvarying in their monotony. And always the ghost sat on the table, smiling at him.
With the Fall came the reopening of the theatres. One by one the electric signs blazed out along Broadway, spreading the message that the dull days were over, and New York was itself again. At the Melody, where ages ago “The Island of Girls” had run its light-hearted course, a new musical piece was in rehearsal. Alcala was full once more. The nightly snatches of conversation outside his door had recommenced. He listened for her voice, but he never heard it.
He sat up, waiting, into the small hours, but she did not come. Once he had been trying to write, and had fallen, as usual, to brooding—there was a soft knock at the door. In an instant he had bounded from his chair, and turned the handle. It was one of the reporters from upstairs, who had run out of matches. Rutherford gave him a handful. The reporter went out, wondering what the man had laughed at.
There is balm in Broadway, especially by night. Depression vanishes before the cheerfulness of the great white way when the lights are lit and the human tide is in full flood. Rutherford had developed of late a habit of patrolling the neighbourhood of Forty-Second Street at theatre-time. He found it did him good. There is a gaiety, a bonhomie, in the atmosphere of the New York streets. Rutherford loved to stand on the sidewalk and watch the passers-by, weaving stories round them.
One night his wanderings had brought him to Herald Square. The theatres were just emptying themselves. This was the time he liked best. He drew to one side to watch, and as he moved he saw Peggy.
She was standing at the corner, buttoning a glove. He was by her side in an instant.
“Peggy!” he cried.
She was looking pale and tired, but the colour came back to her cheeks as she held out her hand. There was no trace of embarrassment in her manner; only a frank pleasure at seeing him again.
“Where have you been?” he said. “I couldn’t think what had become of you.”
She looked at him curiously.
“Did you miss me, George?”
“Miss you? Of course I did. My work’s been going all to pieces since you went away.”
“I only came back last night. I’m in the new piece at the Madison. Gee, I’m tired, George! We’ve been rehearsing all day.”
He took her by the arm.
“Come along and have some supper. You look worn out. By Jove, Peggy, it’s good seeing you again! Can you walk as far as Rector’s, or shall I carry you?”
“Guess I can walk that far. But Rector’s? Has your rich uncle died and left you a fortune, George?”
“Don’t you worry, Peggy. This is an occasion. I thought I was never going to see you again. I’ll buy you the whole hotel if you like.”
“Just supper’ll do, I guess. You’re getting quite the rounder, George.”
“You bet I am. There are all sorts of sides to my character you’ve never so much as dreamed of.”
They seemed to know Peggy at Rector’s. Paul, the head waiter, beamed upon her paternally. One or two men turned and looked after her as she passed. The waiters smiled slight but friendly smiles. Rutherford, intent on her, noticed none of these things.
Despite her protests, he ordered an elaborate and expensive supper. He was particular about the wine. The waiter, who had been doubtful about him, was won over, and went off to execute the order, reflecting that it was never safe to judge a man by his clothes, and that Rutherford was probably one of these eccentric young millionaires who didn’t care how they dressed.
“Well?” said Peggy, when he had finished.
“Well?” said Rutherford.
“You’re looking brown, George.”
“I’ve been away in the Catskills.”
“Still as strong on the rube proposition as ever?”
“Yes. But Broadway has its points, too.”
“Oh, you’re beginning to see that? Gee, I’m glad to be back. I’ve had enough of the Wild West. If anybody ever tries to steer you west of Eleventh Avenue, George, don’t you go. There’s nothing doing. How have you been making out at your writing stunt?”
“Pretty well. But I wanted you. I was lost without my mascot. I’ve got a story in this month’s Wilson’s. A long story, and paid accordingly. That’s why I’m able to go about giving suppers to great actresses.”
“I read it on the train,” said Peggy. “It’s dandy. Do you know what you ought to do, George? You ought to turn it into a play. There’s a heap of money in plays.”
“I know. But who wants a play by an unknown man?”
“I know who would want ‘Willie in the Wilderness,’ if you made it into a play, and that’s Winfield Knight. Ever seen him?”
“I saw him in ‘The Outsider.’ He’s clever.”
“He’s It, if he gets a part to suit him. If he doesn’t, he don’t amount to a row of beans. It’s just a gamble. This thing he’s in now is no good. The part doesn’t begin to fit him. In a month he’ll be squealing for another play, so’s you can hear him in Connecticut.”
“He shall not squeal in vain,” said Rutherford. “If he wants my work, who am I that I should stand in the way of his simple pleasures? I’ll start on the thing to-morrow.”
“I can help you some too, I guess. I used to know Winfield Knight. I can put you wise on lots of things about him that’ll help you work up Willie’s character so’s it’ll fit him like a glove.”
Rutherford raised his glass.
“Peggy,” he said, “you’re more than a mascot. You ought to be drawing a big commission on everything I write. It beats me how any of these other fellows ever write anything without you there to help them. I wonder what’s the most expensive cigar they keep here? I must have it, whatever it is. Noblesse oblige. We popular playwrights mustn’t be seen in public smoking any cheap stuff.”
It was Rutherford’s artistic temperament which, when they left the restaurant, made him hail a taxi-cab. Taxi-cabs are not for young men drawing infinitesimal salaries in banks, even if those salaries are supplemented at rare intervals by a short story in a magazine. Peggy was for returning to Alcala by car, but Rutherford refused to countenance such an anti-climax.
Peggy nestled into the corner of the cab, with a tired sigh, and there was silence as they moved smoothly up Broadway.
He peered at her in the dim light. She looked very small and wistful and fragile. Suddenly an intense desire surged over him to pick her up and crush her to him. He fought against it. He tried to fix his thoughts on the girl at home, to tell himself that he was a man of honour. His fingers, gripping the edge of the seat, tightened till every muscle of his arm was rigid.
The cab, crossing a rough piece of road, jolted Peggy from her corner. Her hand fell on his.
“Peggy!” he cried hoarsely.
Her grey eyes were wet. He could see them glisten. And then his arms were round her, and he was covering her upturned face with kisses.
The cab drew up at the entrance to Alcala. They alighted in silence, and without a word made their way through into the hall. From force of habit, Rutherford glanced at the letter-rack on the wall at the foot of the stairs. There was one letter in his pigeon-hole.
Mechanically he drew it out; and, as his eyes fell on the handwriting, something seemed to snap inside him.
He looked at Peggy, standing on the bottom stair, and back again at the envelope in his hand. His mood was changing with a violence that left him physically weak. He felt dazed, as if he had wakened out of a trance.
With a strong effort he mastered himself. Peggy had mounted a few steps, and was looking back at him over her shoulder. He could read the meaning now in the grey eyes.
“Good-night, Peggy,” he said in a low voice. She turned, facing him, and for a moment neither moved.
“Good-night!” said Rutherford again.
Her lips parted, as if she were about to speak, but she said nothing.
Then she turned again, and began to walk slowly upstairs.
He stood watching her till she had reached the top of the long flight. She did not look back.
Peggy’s nightly visits began afresh after this, and the ghost on the table troubled Rutherford no more. His restlessness left him. He began to write with a new vigour and success. In after years he wrote many plays, most of them good, clear-cut pieces of work, but none that came from him with the utter absence of labour which made the writing of “Willie in the Wilderness” a joy. He wrote easily, without effort. And always Peggy was there, helping, stimulating, encouraging.
Sometimes, when he came in after dinner to settle down to work, he would find a piece of paper on his table, covered with her schoolgirl scrawl. It would run somewhat as follows :
“He is proud of his arms. They are skinny, but he thinks them the limit. Better put in a shirt-sleeve scene for Willie somewhere.
“He thinks he has a beautiful profile. Couldn’t you make one of the girls say something about Willie having the goods in that line?
“He is crazy about golf.
“He is proud of his French accent. Couldn’t you make Willie speak a little piece in French?”
“He” being Winfield Knight.
And so, little by little, the character of Willie grew, till it ceased to be the Willie of the magazine story, and became Winfield Knight himself, with improvements. The task began to fascinate Rutherford. It was like planning a pleasant surprise for a child. “He’ll like that,” he would say to himself, as he wrote in some speech enabling Willie to display one of the accomplishments, real or imagined, of the absent actor. Peggy read it, and approved. It was she who suggested the big speech in the second act where Willie described the progress of his love affair in terms of the golf-links. From her, too, came information as to little traits in the man’s character which the stranger would not have suspected.
As the play progressed Rutherford was amazed at the completeness of the character he had built. It lived. Willie in the magazine story might have been anyone. He fitted into the story, but you could not see him. He had no real individuality. But Willie in the play! He felt that he would recognise him in the street. There was all the difference between the two that there is between a nameless figure in some cheap picture and a portrait by Sargent. There were times when the story of the play seemed thin to him, and the other characters wooden, but in his blackest moods he was sure of Willie. All the contradictions in the character rang true: the humour, the pathos, the surface vanity covering a real diffidence, the strength and weakness fighting one another.
“You’re alive, my son,” said Rutherford admiringly, as he read the sheets. “But you don’t belong to me.”
At last there came the day when the play was finished, when the last line was written, and the last possible alteration made; and, later, the day when Rutherford, bearing the brown-paper-covered package under his arm, called at the Players’ Club to keep an appointment with Winfield Knight.
Almost from the first Rutherford had a feeling that he had met the man before, that he knew him. As their acquaintance progressed—the actor was in an expansive mood, and talked much before coming to business—the feeling grew. Then he understood. This was Willie, and no other. The likeness was extraordinary. Little turns of thought, little expressions—they were all in the play.
The actor paused in a description of how he had almost beaten a champion at golf, and looked at the parcel.
“Is that the play?” he said.
“Yes,” said Rutherford. “Shall I read it?”
“Guess I’ll just look through it myself. Where’s Act I? Here we are! Have a cigar while you’re waiting?”
Rutherford settled himself in his chair, and watched the other’s face. For the first few pages, which contained some tame dialogue between minor characters, it was blank.
“ ‘Enter Willie,’ ” he said. “Am I Willie?”
“I hope so,” said Rutherford, with a smile. “It’s the star part.”
He went on reading. Rutherford watched him with furtive keenness. There was a line coming at the bottom of the page which he was then reading which ought to hit him, an epigram on golf, a whimsical thought put almost exactly as he had put it himself five minutes back when telling his golf-story.
The shot did not miss fire. The chuckle from the actor and the sigh of relief from Rutherford were almost simultaneous.
Winfield Knight turned to him.
“That’s a dandy line about golf,” said he.
Rutherford puffed complacently at his cigar.
“There’s lots more of them in the piece,” he said.
“Bully for you,” said the actor. And went on reading.
Three-quarters of an hour passed before he spoke again. Then he looked up.
“It’s me,” he said; “it’s me all the time. I wish I’d seen this before I put on the punk I’m doing now. This is me from the drive off the tee. It’s great! Say, what’ll you have?”
Rutherford leaned back in his chair, his mind in a whirl. He had arrived at last. His struggles were over. He would not admit of the possibility of the play being a failure. He was a made man. He could go where he pleased, and do as he pleased.
It gave him something of a shock to find how persistently his thoughts refused to remain in England. Try as he might to keep them there, they kept flitting back to Alcala.
“Willie in the Wilderness” was not a failure. It was a triumph. Principally, it is true, a personal triumph for Winfield Knight. Everyone was agreed that he had never had a part that suited him so well. Critics forgave the blunders of the piece for the sake of its principal character. The play was a curiously amateurish thing. It was only later that Rutherford learned craft and caution. When he wrote “Willie” he was a colt, rambling unchecked through the field of play-writing, ignorant of its pitfalls. But, with all its faults, “Willie in the Wilderness” was a success. It might, as one critic pointed out, be more of a monologue act for Winfield Knight than a play, but that did not affect Rutherford.
It was late on the opening night when he returned to Alcala. He had tried to get away earlier. He wanted to see Peggy. But Winfield Knight, flushed with success, was in his most expansive mood. He seized upon Rutherford and would not let him go. There was supper, a gay, uproarious supper, at which everybody seemed to be congratulating everybody else. Men he had never met before shook him warmly by the hand. Somebody made a speech, despite the efforts of the rest of the company to prevent him. Rutherford sat there, dazed, out of touch with the mood of the party. He wanted Peggy. He was tired of all this excitement and noise. He had had enough of it. All he asked was to be allowed to slip away quietly and go home. He wanted to think, to try and realise what all this meant to him.
At length the party broke up in one last explosion of hand-shaking and congratulations; and, eluding Winfield Knight, who proposed to take him off to his club, he started to walk up Broadway.
It was late when he reached Alcala. There was a light in his room. Peggy had waited up to hear the news.
She jumped off the table as he came in.
“Well?” she cried.
Rutherford sat down and stretched out his legs.
“It’s a success,” he said. “A tremendous success.”
Peggy clapped her hands.
“Bully for you, George! I knew it would be. Tell me all about it. Was Winfield good?”
“He was the whole piece. There was nothing in it but him.” He rose and placed his hands on her shoulders. “Peggy old girl, I don’t know what to say. You know as well as I do that it’s all owing to you that the piece has been a success. If I hadn’t had your help——”
“Oh, beat it, George!” she said. “Don’t you come jollying me. I look like a high-brow playwright, don’t I! No; I’m real glad you’ve made a hit, George, but don’t start handing out any story about it’s not being your own. I didn’t do a thing.”
“You did. You did everything.”
“I didn’t. But, say, don’t let’s start quarrelling. Tell me more about it. How many calls did you take?”
He told her all that had happened. When he had finished, there was a silence.
“I guess you’ll be quitting soon, George?” said Peggy, at last. “Now that you’ve made a home-run. You’ll be going back to that rube joint, with the cows and hens—isn’t that it?”
Rutherford did not reply. He was staring thoughtfully at the floor. He did not seem to have heard.
“I guess that girl’ll be glad to see you,” she went on. “Shall you cable to-morrow, George? And then you’ll get married and go and live in the rube house, and become a regular hayseed and——” She broke off suddenly, with a catch in her voice. “Gee,” she whispered, half to herself, “I’ll be sorry when you go, George.”
He sprang up.
He seized her by the arm. He heard the quick intake of her breath.
“Peggy, listen!” He gripped her till she winced with pain. “I’m not going back. I’m never going back. I’m a cad, I’m a hound. I know I am. But I’m not going back. I’m going to stay here with you. I want you, Peggy. Do you hear? I want you!”
She tried to draw herself away, but he held her.
“I love you, Peggy! Peggy, will you be my wife?”
There was utter astonishment in her grey eyes. Her face was very white.
“Will you, Peggy?”
“You’re hurting me.”
He dropped her arm.
“Will you, Peggy?”
“No!” she cried.
He drew back.
“No!” she cried sharply, as if it hurt her to speak. “I wouldn’t play you such a mean trick. I’m too fond of you, George. There’s never been anybody just like you. You’ve been mighty good to me. I’ve never met a man who treated me like you. You’re the only real white man that’s ever happened to me, and I guess I’m not going to play you a low-down trick like spoiling your life. George, I thought you knew. Honest, I thought you knew. How did you think I lived in a swell place like this, if you didn’t know? How did you suppose everyone knew me at Rector’s? How did you think I’d managed to find out so much about Winfield Knight? Can’t you guess?”
She drew a long breath.
He interrupted her hoarsely.
“Is there anyone now, Peggy?”
“Yes,” she said, “there is.”
“You don’t love him, Peggy, do you?”
“Love him?” She laughed bitterly. “No; I don’t love him.”
“Then come to me, dear,” he said.
She shook her head in silence. Rutherford sat down, his chin resting in his hands. She came across to him, and smoothed his hair.
“It wouldn’t do, George,” she said. “Honest, it wouldn’t do. Listen! When we first met, I—I rather liked you, George, and I was mad at you for being so fond of the other girl and taking no notice of me—not in the way I wanted, and I tried—— Gee, I feel mean. It was all my fault. I didn’t think it would matter. There didn’t seem no chance then of your being able to go back and have the sort of good time you wanted; and I thought you’d just stay here and we’d be pals and—but now you can go back, it’s all different. I couldn’t keep you. It would be too mean. You see, you don’t really want to stop. You think you do, but you don’t!”
“I love you,” he muttered.
“You’ll forget me. It’s all just a Broadway dream, George. Think of it like that. Broadway’s got you now, but you don’t really belong. You’re not like me. It’s not in your blood, so’s you can’t get it out. It’s the chickens and roses you want really. Just a Broadway dream. That’s what it is. George, when I was a kid, I remember crying and crying for a lump of candy in the window of a store till one of my brothers up and bought it for me just to stop the racket. Gee! For about a minute I was the busiest thing that ever happened, eating away. And then it didn’t seem to interest me no more. Broadway’s like that for you, George. You go back to the girl and the cows and all of it. It’ll hurt some, I guess, but I reckon you’ll be glad you did.”
She stooped swiftly, and kissed him on the forehead.
“I’ll miss you, dear,” she said softly, and was gone.
Rutherford sat on, motionless. Outside, the blackness changed to grey, and the grey to white. He got up. He felt very stiff and cold.
“A Broadway dream!” he muttered.
He went to the mantelpiece and took up the photograph. He carried it to the window where he could see it better.
A shaft of sunlight pierced the curtains and fell upon it.
P. G. Wodehouse.
The earlier American magazine version of this story is now [April 2020] available on this site. It has a few significant differences from this familiar British text as collected in The Man Upstairs and other stories; annotations are in the end notes to the American version.