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Chapter 16
Her work proved invaluable distraction for the greater part of that long and lonely Sunday. When not at her typewriter she was tormented by alternate fits of burning chagrin and of equally ardent gratitude toward Matthias. Had this last been in town and chanced to meet her, she must either have quitted him definitely or have betrayed her passion unmistakably even to the purblind eyes of a dreaming dramatist. As it was, the girl had time to calm down, to recognize at once his disinterestedness and her own folly. If her infatuation did but deepen in contemplation of his generosity, she none the less regained poise before bedtime and with it her determination to succeed in spite of her stupidity, if only to justify his kindness.

But the morning that took her back to rehearsals found her in a mood of dire misgivings. She would have forfeited much—anything other than their further association—to have been spared the impending encounter with Matthias. And although the author was not present when she reached the theatre, her embarrassment hampered her to a degree that rendered her attempts to act more than ever farcical.

Wilbrow, seated in a chair on the "apron" of the stage, his back to the lifeless footlights, did not interrupt her once; but despair was patent in his attitude, and despair informed his eyes, and not long after her scene was finished the producer for the first time betrayed indications of temper.

"Blaine!" he said abruptly in a chilling voice to one of the minor actors—"don't you know there's a window over there—up left centre?"

The player thus addressed, who had been idling purposelessly near the centre of the stage, looked up with a face of blank surprise.

"Sure," he said—"sure I know it."

"That's something, at least!" Wilbrow commented acidly. "I'm glad you remember it. If I'm not mistaken, I've reminded you of that window twice every day since Monday."

"Yes," agreed the other with a look of painful concentration; "I guess that's right, too."

"And yet you can't remember what I've told you just as often—that I want you to be up there, looking out of the window, when Sylvia enters!"

The actor turned out expostulatory palms. "But, Mr. Wilbrow, what for? I don't see—"

"Because," the producer interrupted incisively, "the stage directions indicate it; because the significance of this scene requires you to be there, looking out, unaware of Sylvia's entrance; because you look better there; because it dresses the stage; because you're in the way anywhere else; because I—God help me!—because I—want—you—to—be—there!"

A smothered giggle broke from a group of players technically off-stage. Wilbrow glared icily toward that quarter.

"Yes, I know," Blaine agreed intelligently. "But how do I get there?"

The front legs of Wilbrow's chair rapped the boards smartly as he jumped up. In silence, he grasped Blaine's arm and with a slightly exaggerated melodramatic stride propelled him to the indicated spot, released him, and stood back.

"Walk!" he announced with an inimitable gesture of tolerant contempt; and went back to his chair. Not a line of his face had changed. He sat down, nodded to the leading woman.

"All right, Mary," he said; and to another actor: "Now, the cue for Sylvia, please!"

Joan shivered a little.

Matthias did not come in until after the girl had finished her part in the afternoon rehearsal. She caught sight of him in the darkened auditorium just as she went off; and hurried from the house in tremulous dread.

But a meeting was inevitable; and that evening, just before the dinner hour, found her reluctantly knuckling the door of the back-parlour. The voice of Matthias bade her enter, and she drew upon all her scant store of courage as she turned the knob. To her immense relief he was not alone. Rideout and Moran, the scene painter, were in consultation with Matthias over two small model stages set with painted pasteboard scenery.

Matthias greeted her with a preoccupied smile and nod.

"Oh, good evening, Miss Thursday. More 'script, eh? Thank you."

Silently Joan gave him the manuscript and left the room. But the door had no sooner closed than it was re-opened and again closed. She turned to face this dreaded crisis.

His smile was friendly and pleasant if a trace uncertain. He made as if to offer his hand, and thought better of it.

"Oh, Miss Thursday.... I sent you a note...."

She nodded, timid eyes avoiding his.

"Am I forgiven?"

"I—I—if you'll forgive me—" she faltered.

"Then that's all right!" he cried heartily. "I'm glad," he added with unquestionable sincerity—"and sorry I was such a brute. I ought to have understood what a strain you'd been under. Shall we say no more about it?"

She nodded again: "Please...."

"Good!" He offered his hand frankly, subjected hers to a firm, cool pressure, and moved back to his study door. "Good night."

She whispered her response, and ran upstairs to her room, almost beside herself with delight.

It was all right!

Best of all, the advances had come from him; he it was who had sued for pardon where the fault was hers—clear proof that he thought enough of her to wish to retain her friendship!

With a glad and comforted heart she settled down to attack anew the vexatious problem of her r?le in "The Jade God."

But for all her worry and good will, the next morning's rehearsal of her scenes passed off in the same terrible silence as had marked Monday's. And in the same afternoon the storm broke.

After plodding through her first scene, Joan was about to go off when Wilbrow called her.

"Miss Thursday," he said quietly, "one of three things has got to happen—now: either you'll follow my instructions, or you'll quit, or I will. I've told you what I want so many times that I'm tired repeating myself. Now we're going to go over that scene again and again, if it takes all afternoon to get what I'm after. But, before we start, I will ask you to bear one thing in mind: this isn't an ingénue part; there's no excuse for acting it like a petulant school-girl. Even pretty stenographers are business-like in real life—sometimes—and we're trying to secure some semblance of real life in this production. In other words, I want you to forget Billie Burke and try to act like a human being who's a little sore on her job and her employer, but not sore enough to chuck it just yet. Now, if you please—begin right at the beginning."

For an instant Joan stood hesitant, on the verge of refusing. There seemed to be no satisfying this man: he either didn't or wouldn't understand; she tried desperately to please him—and her sole reward was to be held up to the derision of the entire company! It was intolerable! And of a sudden she hated Wilbrow with every atom of her being. But ... if she were to talk back or refuse to go on, Matthias would be forfeited from her life.

She choked down her chagrin, resisted the temptation to wither Wilbrow with a glare, and sulkily resumed her place in the chair beside another chair that was politely presumed to be her typewriter desk.

At once the fat boy whom she detested crossed the indefinite line dividing the scene from "off-stage," and leering insolently, spoke the opening line of the play. Seething with indignation, the girl looked up and in cutting accents shot her reply at him. She was pleased to surprise a look of dumb amazement in his eyes. At all events, she had succeeded in letting him know just how she felt toward him! And this success inspired her to further efforts. She rattled through the remainder of the scene with the manner of a youthful termagant.

When she had finished, Wilbrow said nothing beyond: "Again, please."

The demand served only to deepen her resentment, and the second repetition differed not materially from the first.

Ceasing to speak, she flounced away, but Wilbrow's voice brought her back.

"Very good, Miss Thursday," he said mildly—"very good indeed. But why—in the name of Mike!—if you could do it—why wouldn't you until now?"

"Because," Joan stammered—"because—!"

But she didn't dare say what she wished to, and checked her tongue in a fit of sulks more eloquent than any words she could have found.

Wilbrow waited an instant, then laughed quite cheerfully.

"The usual reason, eh? I might have guessed you had a sure-'nough one concealed about you.... That's all for today. Tomorrow morning at nine."

Privately pondering this experience, Joan surprised its secret, and drew from it a conclusion that was to have an important influence upon her professional future: in order to act convincingly, she must herself feel the emotions accredited to her part. As applied to her individual temperament, at that stage of its development, this rule had all the inflexibility of an axiom. Others might—as others do—act in obedience to the admonitions of their intelligence: Joan could at that stage act only according to the promptings of her emotional self.

So she encouraged herself to hate Wilbrow with all her heart, to despise him without ceasing night or day; no charitable thought of the manager was suffered to gain access to her humour at any hour. And so admirably did she succeed in impregnating her mind with virulent dislike of the man, that she afforded him no end of amusement. She made a point of coming to the rehearsals early enough to infuriate herself with contemplation of him in the flesh; and of walking up and down, before and between her scenes, thinking evil of him. The twinkle with which his eyes followed her, in place of their erstwhile calm indifference or resignation, worked only to intensify her rancour. Curiously enough, a clear comprehension of the illogical absurdity of it all made her temper even more bitter.

One day just before the final rehearsals, Wilbrow, meeting her at the stage-door, planted his slender body squarely in her way.

"Good morning!" he said cheerfully, with a semi-malicious smile. "My congratulations, Miss Thursday! You're doing nobly."

"Thanks," Joan said curtly, pausing perforce.

"You ought to be very grateful to me. Are you?"

"No."

"I wonder what you'd do under the direction of a man you happened to like?"

"I don't know." Joan gave him a sullen look. "Will you please let me pass."

"Delighted." He moved aside with mocking courtesy. "I ask only one thing of you: don't fall in love with me before our first night. I haven't got time to sour another sweet young thing's amiable disposition.... Keep on hating me as hard as you like—and we'll make at least a half-portion actress of you yet...."

Toward the end of the second week, Joan began to notice that Rideout was growing less assiduous in attendance. At first inclined to lay this to his satisfaction with the progress—to her the production seemed to be taking on form and colour in a way to wonder at—she later overheard a chance remark of one of her associates, to the effect that Rideout was himself rehearsing with another company.

"Well," someone commented, "if it was my coin back of this show, I'd stick by it if I had to play the office-boy."

"I guess," was the reply, "Rideout ain't got any too much outside what he's sunk in this production. Shouldn't wonder if he needs what he's to get with Minnie Aspen."

"Mebbe. He's a good trouper. What does he drag down, anyway?"

"Four hundred a week."

"Nix with those Lambs' Club figures. I mean regular money."

"Oh, two hundred and fifty, sure."

"Now you've said something...."

During the third week it was announced that "The Jade God" would open in Altoona on the following Monday. And at the same time Joan discovered that she was expected to provide her own costume, a simple affair but unhappily beyond the resources of either her wardrobe or her pocket-book. In despair she took the advice of Mrs. Arnold (the sweet-faced lady of fifty, whom Joan counted her only friend on the company) and approached Rideout's personal representative, Druggett, with a demand for an advance. With considerable reluctance Druggett surrendered fifteen dollars, and promised her as much more on Monday, toward expenses on the road. And again on the advice and introduction of Mrs. Arnold, the girl succeeded in satisfying her needs at an instalment-plan clothing-house: paying eight dollars down on a bill of about forty and agreeing to remit the balance at the rate of four dollars each week.

The final dress-rehearsal was called for Saturday morning. They were to leave New York Sunday night. But on Friday afternoon a sense of uneasiness and uncertainty invaded the temper of the organization. Wilbrow neglected the players to engage in protracted conferences with Matthias, Rideout, Moran, and Druggett, out of earshot, at the back of the auditorium. One or two weather-wise "troupers" hazarded gloomy surmises as to the nature of the "snag": that most favoured involved a "shake-up with the Shuberts" over some change in their route. With a singular unanimity the prophets of disaster either avoided or overlooked the actual cause of the trouble.

At ten o'clock the next morning—a little late—Joan, with her costume in the dilapidated wicker suit-case, hurried into the theatre to find the company scattered about the stage in poses variously suggestive of restless dejection. Neither the star nor the leading woman was present, and there was no scenery in sight, other than that belonging to the production which occupied the same stage nightly. Rideout was nowhere to be seen, but the author, the producer, and Druggett were engaged in earnest but inaudible argument "out front." From their manner Joan inferred that Druggett was advocating some course actively opposed by Wilbrow and passively by Matthias. The group broke up before she found opportunity to question her associates. Druggett, in manifest dudgeon, turned sharply and marched out of the house, while Wilbrow strode purposefully back to the stage by way of the passage behind the boxes, Matthias following with an air of profound disgust and despondency.

From the centre of the stage the producer addressed the little gathering.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" he said sharply; and waited until he had all their attention. "There'll be no rehearsal today, and—and unless something quite unexpected happens, we won't open Monday. The truth is, there isn't money enough behind this show to finance it beyond Altoona. Moran can't collect on his scenery, and won't deliver. Mr. Matthias has offered to fix Moran up if we agree to go out, but I can't see it that way. Mr. Rideout's proposition is that we go on the road and run our chances of making expenses—but I don't have to tell you people what a swell show we'd have of breaking even on a tank route at this season of the year—hot weather still with us, and all that. We might—but that's about all you can say. And I don't think any of us want to count ties from Altoona....

"Mr. Druggett thinks that Mr. Rideout will be able to make a deal with the Shuberts, but I doubt it. Just now they're all tied up with their own productions and have no time to waste on a gambling risk like this. Of course, if I'm wrong, you'll all be notified. But I wouldn't, if I were you, pass up another engagement on the off-chance of this thing panning out after all.

"I'm sorry about this—we're all sorry, naturally. We all lose. Mr. Matthias here loses as much as any of us—the rights in a valuable property for several months, at the inside. I'm out fifteen hundred dollars I was to get for putting the show on. And Rideout's out the two thousand real coin he's invested in expectation of backing which failed to materialize. Personally I refused to shoulder the responsibility of letting you go out in ignorance of the real state of affairs. That's all."

He hesitated an instant, as if not satisfied that he had dealt fully with the situation, and glanced a little ruefully from face to face of the company. But for the moment none made any comment. And with an uncertain nod to the author, Wilbrow turned and disappeared through the stage-door.

Matthias waited a trifle longer, as though anticipating trouble with the disappointed players; but there was no feeling manifest in their attitude toward him other than sympathy for a fellow-sufferer. And presently he consulted his watch and followed the stage-director.

Those left in the theatre discussed the contretemps in subdued and regretful accents, betraying surprisingly little rancour toward anyone connected with it. Even Rideout escaped with slight censure. He was, in the final analysis, one of them—an incurable optimist who had erred only in banking too heavily on hope and promises.

By twos and threes they gathered up their belongings and straggled off upon their various ways, a sorry, philosophic crew. Within ten minutes their dissociation was final and absolute.


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