Collier’s Weekly, July 31, 1920
SCARCELY had Mr. Miller disappeared on his peace-making errand, when there was a noise like a fowl going through a quickset hedge, and Mr. Saltzburg, brandishing his baton as if he were conducting an unseen orchestra, plunged through the scenery at the left upper entrance and charged excitedly down the stage. Having taken his musicians twice through the overture, he had for ten minutes been sitting in silence, waiting for the curtain to go up. At last, his emotional nature cracking under the strain of this suspense, he had left his conductor’s chair and plunged down under the stage by way of the musicians’ bolt hole to ascertain what was causing the delay.
“What is it? What is it? What is it? What is it?” inquired Mr. Saltzburg. “I wait and wait and wait and wait and wait . . . We cannot play the overture again. What is it? What has happened?”
Mr. Goble, that overwrought soul, had betaken himself to the wings, where he was striding up and down with his hands behind his back, chewing his cigar. The stage director braced himself once more to the task of explanation.
“The girls have struck!”
Mr. Saltzburg blinked through his glasses. “The girls?” he repeated blankly.
“‘Oh, damn it!” cried the stage director, his patience at last giving way. “You know what a girl is, don’t you?”
“They have what?”
“Struck! Walked out on us! Refused to go on!”
Mr. Saltzburg reeled under the blow. “But it is impossible. Who is to sing the opening chorus?”
In the presence of one to whom he could relieve his mind without fear of consequences, the stage director became savagely jocular.
“That’s all arranged,” he said. “We’re going to dress the carpenters in skirts. The audience won’t notice anything wrong.”
“Should I speak to Mr. Goble?” queried Mr. Saltzburg doubtfully.
“Yes, if you don’t value your life,” returned the stage director.
Mr. Saltzburg pondered. “I will go and speak to the children,” he said. “I will talk to them. They know me! I will make them be reasonable.”
HE bustled off in the direction taken by Mr. Miller, his coat tails flying behind him. The stage director, with a tired sigh, turned to face Wally, who had come in through the iron pass door from the auditorium.
“Hullo!” said Wally cheerfully. “Going strong? How’s everybody at home? Fine! So am I! By the way, am I wrong or did I hear something about a theatrical entertainment of some sort here tonight?” He looked about him at the empty stage. In the wings, on the prompt side, could be discerned the flannel-clad forms of the gentlemanly members of the male ensemble, all dressed up for Mrs. Stuyvesant van Dyke’s tennis party. One or two of the principals were standing perplexedly in the lower entrance. The O. P. side had been given over by general consent to Mr. Goble for his perambulations. Every now and then he would flash into view through an opening in the scenery. “I understood that to-night was the night for the great revival of comic opera. Where are the comics, and why aren’t they opping?”
The stage director repealed his formula once more: “The girls have struck!”
“So have the clocks,” said Wally. “It’s past nine.”
“The chorus refuse to go on.”
“No, really! Just artistic loathing of the rotten piece, or is there some other reason?”
“They’re sore because one of them has been given her notice, and they say they won’t give a show unless she’s taken back. They’ve struck. That Mariner girl started it.”
“She did!” Wally’s interest became keener. “She would!” he said approvingly. “She’s a heroine!”
“Little devil! I never liked that girl!”
“Now there,” said Wally, “is just the point on which we differ. I have always liked her, and I’ve known her all my life. So, shipmate, if you have any derogatory remarks to make about Miss Mariner, keep them where they belong—there!” He prodded the other sharply in the stomach. He was smiling pleasantly, but the stage director, catching his eye, decided that his advice was good and should be followed. It is just as bad for the home if the head of the family gets his neck broken as if he succumbs to apoplexy.
“You surely aren’t on their side?” he said.
“Me!” said Wally. “Of course I am. I’m always on the side of the downtrodden and oppressed. If you know of a dirtier trick than firing a girl just before the opening, so that they won’t have to pay her two weeks’ salary, mention it. Till you do, I’ll go on believing that it is the limit. Of course I’m on the girls’ side. I’ll make them a speech if they want me to, or head the procession with a banner if they are going to parade down the boardwalk. I’m for ’em, Father Abraham, a hundred thousand strong. And then a few! If you want my considered opinion, our old friend Goble has asked for it and got it. And I’m glad—glad—glad, if you don’t mind my quoting Pollyanna for a moment. I hope it chokes him!”
“You’d better not let him hear you talking like that!”
“Au contraire, as we say in the Gay City, I’m going to make a point of letting him hear me talk like that! Adjust the impression that I fear any Goble in shining armor, because I don’t. I propose to speak my mind to him. I would beard him in his lair, if he had a beard. Well, I’ll clean-shave him in his lair. That will be just as good. But hist! whom have we here? Tell me, do you see the same thing I see?”
LIKE the vanguard of a defeated army, Mr. Saltzburg was coming dejectedly across the stage.
“Well?” said the stage director.
“They would not listen to me,” said Mr. Saltzburg brokenly. “The more I talked, the more they did not listen!” He winced at a painful memory. “Miss Trevor stole my baton, and then they all lined up and sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’!”
“Not the words?” cried Wally incredulously. “Don’t tell me they knew the words!”
“Mr. Miller is still up there, arguing with them. But it will be of no use. What shall we do?” asked Mr. Saltzburg helplessly. “We ought to have rung up half an hour ago. What shall we do-oo-oo?”
“We must go and talk to Goble,” said Wally. “Something has got to be settled quick. When I left, the audience was getting so impatient that I thought he was going to walk out on us. He’s one of those nasty, determined-looking men. So come along!”
Mr. Goble, intercepted, as he was about to turn for another walk upstage, eyed the deputation sourly and put the same question that the stage director had put to Mr. Saltzburg: “Well?”
Wally came briskly to the point. “You’ll have to give in,” he said, “or else go and make a speech to the audience, the burden of which will be that they can have their money back by applying at the box office. These Joans of Arc have got you by the short hairs!”
“I won’t give in!”
“Then give out!” said Wally. “Or pay out, if you prefer it. Trot along and tell the audience that the four dollars fifty in the house will be refunded.”
Mr. Goble gnawed his cigar. “I’ve been in the show business fifteen years . . .”
“I know. And this sort of thing has never happened to you before. One gets new experiences.”
Mr. Goble cocked his cigar at a fierce angle and glared at Wally. Something told him that Wally’s sympathies were not wholly with him. “They can’t do this sort of thing to me!” he growled.
“Well, they are doing it to some one, aren’t they?” said Wally. “And, if it’s not you, who is it?”
“I’ve a damned good mind to fire them all!”
“A corking idea! I can’t see a single thing wrong with it except that it would hang up the production for another five weeks and lose you your bookings and cost you a week’s rent of this theatre for nothing, and mean having all the dresses made over and lead to all your principals going off and getting other jobs. These trifling things apart, we may call the suggestion a bright one.”
“You talk too dam’ much!” said Mr. Goble, eying him with distaste.
“Well, go on; you say something. Something sensible.”
“It is a very serious situation . . .” began the stage director.
“Oh, shut up!” said Mr. Goble.
The stage director subsided into his collar.
“I cannot play the overture again,” protested Mr. Saltzburg. “I cannot!”
At this point Mr. Miller appeared. He was glad to see Mr. Goble. He had been looking for him, for he had news to impart. “The girls,” said Mr. Miller, “have struck! They won’t go on!”
Mr. Goble, with the despairing gesture of one who realizes the impotence of words, dashed off for his favorite walk upstage. Wally took out his watch.
“Six seconds and a bit,” he said approvingly as the manager returned. “A very good performance. I should like to time you over the course in a running suit.”
THE interval for reflection, brief as it had been, had apparently enabled Mr. Goble to come to a decision. “Go,” he said to the stage director, “and tell ’em that fool of a D’Arcy girl can play. We’ve got to get that curtain up.”
“Yes, Mr. Goble.”
The stage director galloped off.
“Get back to your place,” said the manager to Mr. Saltzburg, “and play the overture again.”
“Perhaps they didn’t hear it the first two times,” said Wally.
Mr. Goble watched Mr. Saltzburg out of sight. Then he turned to Wally:
“That damned Mariner girl was at the bottom of this! She started the whole thing! She told me so. Well, I’ll settle her! She goes to-morrow!”
“Wait a minute,” said Wally. “Wait one minute! Bright as it is, that idea is out!”
“What the devil has it got to do with you?”
“Only this, that, if you fire Miss Mariner, I take that neat script which I’ve prepared and I tear it into a thousand fragments. Or nine hundred. Anyway, I tear it. Miss Mariner opens in New York, or I pack up my work and leave.”
Mr. Goble’s green eyes glowed. “Oh, you’re stuck on her, are you?” he sneered. “I see!”
“Listen, dear heart,” said Wally, gripping the manager’s arm, “I can see that you are on the verge of introducing personalities into this very pleasant little chat. Resist the impulse! Why not let your spine stay where it is instead of having it kicked up through your hat? Keep to the main issue. Does Miss Mariner open in New York or does she not?”
There was a tense silence. Mr. Goble permitted himself a swift review of his position. He would have liked to do many things to Wally, beginning with ordering him out of the theatre, but prudence restrained him. He wanted Wally’s work. He needed Wally in his business; and, in the theatre, business takes precedence of personal feelings.
“All right!” he growled reluctantly.
“That’s a promise,” said Wally. “I’ll see that you keep it.” He looked over his shoulder. The stage was filled with gayly colored dresses. The mutineers had returned to duty. “Well, I’ll be getting along. I’m rather sorry we agreed to keep clear of personalities, because I should have liked to say that, if ever they have a skunk show at Madison Square Garden, you ought to enter and win the blue ribbon. Still, of course, under our agreement my lips are sealed, and I can’t even hint at it. Good-by. See you later, I suppose?”
Mr. Goble, giving a creditable imitation of a living statue, was plucked from his thoughts by a hand upon his arm. It was Mr. Miller, whose unfortunate ailment had prevented him from keeping abreast of the conversation.
“What did he say?” inquired Mr. Miller, interested. “I didn’t hear what he said.”
Mr. Goble made no effort to inform him.
OTIS PILKINGTON had left Atlantic City two hours after the conference which had followed the dress rehearsal, firmly resolved never to go near “The Rose of America” again. He had been wounded in his finest feelings. There had been a moment, when Mr. Goble had given him the choice between having the piece rewritten and canceling the production altogether, when he had inclined to the heroic course. But for one thing Mr. Pilkington would have defied the manager, refused to allow his script to be touched, and removed the play from his hands. That one thing was the fact that, up to the day of the dress rehearsal, the expenses of the production had amounted to the appalling sum of $32,859.68, all of which had to come out of Mr. Pilkington’s pocket. The figures, presented to him in a neatly typewritten column stretching over two long sheets of paper, had stunned him. He had had no notion that musical plays cost so much. The costumes alone had come to $10,663.50, and somehow that odd fifty cents annoyed Otis Pilkington as much as anything on the list. A dark suspicion that Mr. Goble, who had seen to all the executive end of the business, had a secret arrangement with the costumer whereby he received a private rebate, deepened his gloom. Why, for $10,663.50 you could dress the whole female population of New York and have a bit left over for Connecticut. So thought Mr. Pilkington, as he read the bad news in the train. He only ceased to brood upon the high cost of costuming when in the next line but one there smote his eye an item of $498 for “Clothing.” Clothing! Weren’t costumes clothing? Why should he have to pay twice over for the same thing? Mr. Pilkington was just raging over this when something lower down in the column caught his eye. It was the words: Clothing . . . $187.45.
At this Otis Pilkington uttered a stifled cry, so sharp and so anguished that an old lady in the next seat, who was drinking a glass of milk, dropped it and had to refund the railway company thirty-five cents for breakages. For the remainder of the journey she sat with one eye warily on Mr. Pilkington, waiting for his next move.
THIS misadventure quieted Otis Pilkington down, if it did not soothe him. He returned blushingly to a perusal of his bill of costs, nearly every line of which contained some item that infuriated and dismayed him. “Shoes,” $213.50, he could understand, but what on earth was “Academy. Rehl. $105.50”? What was “Cuts . . . $15”? And what in the name of everything infernal was this item for “Frames,” in which mysterious luxury he had apparently indulged to the extent of $94.50? “Props” occurred on the list no fewer than seventeen times. Whatever his future, at whatever poorhouse he might spend his declining years, he was supplied with enough props to last his lifetime.
Otis Pilkington stared blankly at the scenery that flitted past the train windows. (Scenery! There had been two charges for scenery! “Friedmann, Samuel . . . Scenery . . . $3,711,” and “Unitt and Wickes . . . Scenery . . . $2,120.”) He was suffering the torments of the ruined gamester at the roulette table: $32,859.68! And he was out of pocket ten thousand in addition from the check he had handed over two days ago to Uncle Chris as his share of the investment of starting Jill in the motion pictures. It was terrible! It deprived one of the power of thought.
The power of thought, however, returned to Mr. Pilkington almost immediately; for, remembering suddenly that Roland Trevis had assured him that no musical production, except one of those elaborate girl shows with a chorus of ninety, could possibly cost more than $15,000 at an outside figure, he began to think about Roland Trevis, and continued to think about him until the train pulled into the Pennsylvania Station.
For a week or more the stricken financier confined himself mostly to his rooms, where he sat smoking cigarettes, gazing at Japanese prints, and trying not to think about “props” and “rehl.” Then, gradually, the almost maternal yearning to see his brain child once more, which can never be wholly crushed out of a young dramatist, returned to him—faintly at first, then getting stronger by degrees till it could no longer be resisted. True, he knew that, when he beheld it, the offspring of his brain would have been mangled almost out of recognition, but that did not deter him. The mother loves her crippled child, and the author of a musical fantasy loves his musical fantasy, even if rough hands have changed it into a musical comedy and all that remains of his work is the opening chorus and a scene which the assassins have overlooked at the beginning of Act Two. Otis Pilkington, having instructed his Japanese valet to pack a few simple necessaries in a suit case, took cab to the Grand Central Terminal and caught an afternoon train for Rochester, where his recollection of the route planned for the tour told him “The Rose of America” would now be playing.
LOOKING into his club on the way, to cash a check, the first person he encountered was Freddie Rooke.
“Good gracious!” said Otis Pilkington. “What are you doing here?”
Freddie looked up dully from his reading. The abrupt stoppage of his professional career—his life work, one might almost say—had left Freddie at a very loose end; and so hollow did the world seem to him at the moment, so uniformly futile all its so-called allurements, that, to pass the time, he had just been trying to read a magazine.
“Hullo!” he said. “Well, might as well be here as anywhere, what?” he replied to the other’s question.
“But why aren’t you playing?”
“They sacked me!” Freddie lit a cigarette in the sort of way in which the strong, silent, middle-aged man on the stage lights his at the end of Act Two when he has relinquished the heroine to his youthful rival. “They’ve changed my part to a bally Scotchman! Well, I mean to say, I couldn’t play a bally Scotchman!”
Mr. Pilkington groaned in spirit. Of all the characters in his musical fantasy on which he prided himself, that of Lord Finchley was his pet. And he had been burked, murdered, blotted out, in order to make room for a bally Scotchman!
“The character’s called The McWhustle of McWhustle now!” said Freddie somberly.
The McWhustle of McWhustle! Mr. Pilkington almost abandoned his trip to Rochester on receiving this devastating piece of information.
“He comes on in Act One in kilts!”
“In kilts! At Mrs. Stuyvesant van Dyke’s lawn party! On Long Island!”
“It isn’t Mrs. Stuyvesant van Dyke any longer, either,” said Freddie. “She’s been changed to the wife of a pickle manufacturer.”
“A pickle manufacturer!”
“Yes. They said it ought to be a comedy part.”
If agony had not caused Mr. Pilkington to clutch for support at the back of a chair, he would undoubtedly have wrung his hands.
“But it was a comedy part!” he wailed. “It was full of the subtlest, most delicate satire on Society. They were delighted with it at Newport! Oh, this is too much! I shall make a strong protest! I shall insist on these parts being kept as I wrote them! I shall . . . I must be going at once, or I shall miss my train.” He paused at the door. “How was business in Baltimore?”
“Rotten!” said Freddie, and returned to his magazine.
Otis Pilkington tottered into his cab. He was shattered by what he had heard. They had massacred his beautiful play, and, doing so, had not even made a success of it by their own sordid commercial lights. Business at Baltimore had been rotten! That meant more expense, further columns of figures with “frames” and “rehl” in front of them! He staggered into the station.
“Hey!” cried the taxi driver.
Otis Pilkington turned.
“Sixty-five cents, mister, if you please! Forgetting I’m not your private shovoor, wasn’t you?”
Mr. Pilkington gave him a dollar. Money—money—money! Life was just one long round of paying out and paying out.
THE day which Mr. Pilkington had selected for his visit to the provinces was a Tuesday. “The Rose of America” had opened at Rochester on the previous night, after a week at Atlantic City in its original form and a week at Baltimore in what might be called its second incarnation. Business had been bad in Atlantic City and no better in Baltimore, and a meager first-night house at Rochester had given the piece a cold reception, which had put the finishing touches to the depression of the company in spite of the fact that the Rochester critics, like those of Baltimore, had written kindly of the play. One of the maxims of the theatre is that “out-of-town notices don’t count”; and the company had refused to be cheered by them.
It is to be doubted, however, if even crowded houses would have aroused much response from the principals and chorus of “The Rose of America.” For two weeks without a break they had been working under forced draft, and they were weary in body and spirit. The new principals had had to learn parts in exactly half the time usually given for that purpose, and the chorus, after spending five weeks assimilating one set of steps and groupings, had been compelled to forget them and rehearse an entirely new set. From the morning after the first performance at Atlantic City they had not left the theatre except for sketchy half-hour meals.
Jill, standing listlessly in the wings while the scene shifters arranged the second-act set, was aware of Wally approaching from the direction of the pass door.
“Miss Mariner, I believe?” said Wally. “I suppose you know that you look perfectly wonderful in that dress? All Rochester’s talking about it, and there is some idea of running excursion trains from Troy and Utica. A great stir it has made!”
Jill smiled. Wally was like a tonic to her during these days of overwork. He seemed to be entirely unaffected by the general depression, a fact which he attributed himself to the happy accident of being in a position to sit back and watch the others toil. But in reality Jill knew that he was working as hard as anyone. He was working all the time, changing scenes, adding lines, tinkering with lyrics, smoothing over principals whose nerves had become strained by the incessant rehearsing, keeping within bounds Mr. Goble’s passion for being the big noise about the theatre. His cheerfulness was due to the spirit that was in him, and Jill appreciated it. She had come to feel very close to Wally since the driving rush of making over “The Rose of America” had begun.
“They seemed quite calm to-night,” she said. “I believe half of them were asleep.”
“They’re always like that in Rochester. They cloak their deeper feelings. They wear the mask. But you can tell from the glassy look in their eyes that they are really seething inwardly. But what I came round about was to give you this letter . . .”
JILL took the letter, and glanced at the writing. It was from Uncle Chris. She placed it on the ax over the fire buckets for perusal later.
“The man at the box office gave it to me,” said Wally, “when I looked in there to find out how much money there was in the house to-night. The sum was so small that he had to whisper it.”
“I’m afraid the piece isn’t a success.”
“Nonsense! Of course it is! We’re doing fine. That brings me to Section 2 of my discourse. I met poor old Pilkington in the lobby, and he said exactly what you have just said, only at greater length.”
“Is Mr. Pilkington here?”
“He appears to have run down on the afternoon train to have a look at the show. He is catching the next train back to New York. Whenever I meet him, he always seems to be dashing off to catch the next train back to New York. Poor chap! Have you ever done a murder? If you haven’t, don’t! I know exactly what it feels like, and it feels rotten! After two minutes’ conversation with Pilkington, I could sympathize with Macbeth when he chatted with Banquo. He said I had killed his play. He nearly wept, and he drew such a moving picture of a poor helpless musical fantasy being lured into a dark alley by thugs and there slaughtered that he almost had me in tears too. I felt like a beetle-browed brute with a dripping knife and hands imbrued with innocent gore.”
“Poor Mr. Pilkington!”
“Once more you say exactly what he said, only more crisply. I comforted him as well as I could, told him all was for the best and so on, and he flung the box-office receipts in my face and said that the piece was as bad a failure commercially as it was artistically. I couldn’t say anything to that, seeing what a house we’ve got to-night, except to bid him look out to the horizon where the sun will shortly shine. In other words, I told him that business was about to buck up and that later on he would be going about the place with a sprained wrist from clipping coupons. But he refused to be cheered, cursed me some more for ruining his piece, and ended by begging me to buy his share of it cheap.”
“You aren’t going to?”
“No, I am not—but simply and solely for the reason that, after that fiasco in London, I raised my right hand—thus—and swore on oath that never, as long as I lived, would I again put up a cent for a production, were it the most obvious cinch on earth. I’m gun shy. But if he does happen to get hold of anyone with a sporting disposition and a few thousands to invest, that person will make a fortune. This piece is going to be a gold mine.”
JILL looked at him in surprise. With anybody else but Wally she would have attributed this confidence to author’s vanity. But with Wally, she felt, the fact that the piece, as played now, was almost entirely his own work did not count. He viewed it dispassionately, and she could not understand why, in the face of half-empty houses, he should have such faith in it.
“But what makes you think so? We’ve been doing awfully badly so far.”
“And we shall do awfully badly in Syracuse the last half of this week. And why? For one thing, because the show isn’t a show at all at present. That’s what you can’t get these fatheads like Goble to understand. All they go by is the box office. Why should people flock to pay for seats for what are practically dress rehearsals of an unknown play? Half the principals have had to get up in their parts in two weeks, and they haven’t had time to get anything out of them. They are groping for their lines all the time. The girls can’t let themselves go in the numbers, because they are wondering if they are going to remember the steps. The show hasn’t had time to click together yet. It’s just ragged. Take a look at it in another two weeks! I know! I don’t say musical comedy is a very lofty form of art, but still there’s a certain amount of science about it. If you go in for it long enough, you learn the tricks, and take it from me that, if you have a good cast and some catchy numbers, it’s almost impossible not to have a success. We’ve got an excellent cast now, and the numbers are fine. The thing can’t help being a hit.
“There’s another thing to think of. It so happens that we shall go into New York with practically nothing against us. Usually you have half a dozen musical successes to compete with, but just at the moment there’s nothing. But the chief reason for not being discouraged by bad houses so far is that we’ve been playing bad towns. Every town on the road has its special character. Some are good show towns, others are bad. Nobody knows why. Detroit will take anything. So will Washington. Whereas Cincinnati wants something very special. Where have we been? Atlantic City, Baltimore, and here. Atlantic City is a great place to play in the summer and for a couple of weeks round about Easter. Also at Christmas. But for the rest of the year, no. Too many new shows are tried out there. It makes the inhabitants wary. Baltimore is good for a piece with a New York reputation, but they don’t want new pieces. Rochester and Syracuse are always bad. ‘Follow the Girl’ died a hideous death in Rochester, and it went on and played two years in New York and one in London. I tell you—as I tried to tell Pilkington, only he wouldn’t listen—that this show is all right. There’s a fortune in it for somebody. But I suppose Pilkington is now sitting in the smoking car of an eastbound train, trying to get the porter to accept his share in the piece instead of a tip!”
IF Otis Pilkington was not actually doing that, he was doing something like it. Sunk in gloom, he bumped up and down on an uncomfortable seat, wondering why he had ever taken the trouble to make the trip to Rochester. He had found exactly what he had expected to find, a mangled caricature of his brain child playing to a house half empty and wholly indifferent. The only redeeming feature, he thought vindictively, as he remembered what Roland Trevis had said about the cost of musical productions, was the fact that the new numbers were undoubtedly better than those which his collaborator had originally supplied.
And “The Rose of America,” after a disheartening Wednesday matinée and a not much better reception on the Wednesday night, packed its baggage and removed to Syracuse, where it failed just as badly. Then for another two weeks it wandered on from one small town to another, up and down New York State and through the doldrums of Connecticut, tacking to and fro like a storm-battered ship, till finally the astute and discerning citizens of Hartford welcomed it with such a reception that hardened principals stared at each other in a wild surmise, wondering if these things could really be; and a weary chorus forgot its weariness and gave encore after encore with a snap and vim which even Mr. Johnson Miller was obliged to own approximated to something like it. Nothing to touch the work of his choruses of the old days, of course, but nevertheless fair, quite fair.
The spirits of the company revived. Optimism reigned. Principals smiled happily and said they had believed in the thing all along. The ladies and gentlemen of the ensemble chattered contentedly of a year’s run in New York. And the citizens of Hartford fought for seats, and, if they could not get seats, stood up at the back.
Of these things Otis Pilkington was not aware. He had sold his interest in the piece two weeks ago for $10,000 to a lawyer acting on behalf of some client unknown, and was glad to feel that he had saved something out of the wreck.