It would win back her former worshippers, she felt sure of that. The theatre would fill again with men whose palates required the highly seasoned, the far-fetched. The critics would rejoice in their victory, and welcome Helen Merival to her rightful place with added fervor. The bill-boards would glow again with magnificent posters of Helen Merival, as Alessandra, stooping with wild eyes and streaming hair over her slain paramour on the marble stairway, a dagger in her hand. People would crowd again behind the scenes at the close of the play. The magazines would add their chorus of praise.
And over against this stood the slim, poetic figure of Enid, so white of soul, so simple, so elemental of appeal. A whole world lay between the two parts. All that each stood for was diametrically opposed to the other. One was modern as the telephone, true, sound, and revealing. The other false from beginning to end, belonging to a world that never existed, a brilliant, flashing pageant, a struggle of beasts in robes of gold and velvet—assassins dancing in jewelled garters. Every scene, every motion was worn with use on the stage, and yet her own romance, her happiness, seemed to depend upon her capitulation as well as his.
"If they accept Alessandra he will come back to me proudly—at least with a sense of victory over his ignoble enemies. If I return it he will know I am right, but will still be left so deeply in my debt that he will never come to see me again." And with this thought she determined upon a course of action which led at least to a meeting and to a reconciliation between the author and the manager, and with the thought of seeing him again her heart grew light.
When she came to the theatre at night Westervelt was waiting at the door.
"Well?" he asked, anxiously. "What do you think of it?"
"I have sent for the author," she answered, coldly. "He will meet me to-morrow at eleven. Come to the hotel and I will introduce him to you."
"Splendid! splendid!" exclaimed the manager. "You found it suited to you! A great part, eh?"
"I like it better than The Baroness," she replied, and left him broad-faced with joy.
"She is coming sensible again," he chuckled. "Now that that crank is out of the way we shall see her as she was—triumphant."
Again the audience responded to every line she spoke, and as she played something reassuring came up to her from the faces below. The house was perceptibly less empty, but the comfort arose from something more intangible than an increase of filled chairs. "I believe the tide has turned," she thought, exultantly, but dared not say so to Hugh.
That night she sent a note to Douglass, and the words of her message filled him with mingled feelings of exultation and bitterness:
"You have won! Westervelt and Hugh are crazy to meet the author of Alessandra. They see a great success for you, for me, for all of us. Westervelt is ready to pour out his money to stage the thing gorgeously. Come to-morrow to meet them. Come proudly. You will find them both ready to take your hand—eager to acknowledge that they have misjudged you. We have both made a fight for good work and failed. No one can blame us if we yield to necessity."
The thought of once more meeting her, of facing her managers with confident gaze on equal terms, made Douglass tremble with excitement. He dressed with care, attempting as best he could to put away all the dust and odors of his miserable tenement, and went forth looking much like the old-time, self-confident youth who faced down the clerk. His mind ran over every word in Helen's note a dozen times, extracting each time new and hidden meanings.
"If it is the great success they think it, my fortune is made." His spirits began to overleap all bounds. "It will enable me to meet her as an equal—not in worth," he acknowledged—"she is so much finer and nobler than any man that ever lived—but I will at least be something more than a tramp kennelled in a musty hole." His mind took another flight. "I can go home with pride also. Oh, success is a sovereign thing. Think of Hugh and Westervelt waiting to welcome me—and Helen!"
When he thought of her his confident air failed him, his face flushed, his hands felt numb. She shone now like a far-off violet star. She had recovered her aloofness, her allurement in his mind, and it was difficult for him to realize that he had once known her intimately and that he had treated her inconsiderately. "I must have been mad," he exclaimed. It seemed months since he had looked into her face.
The clerk he dreaded to meet was off duty, and as the elevator boy knew him he did not approach the desk, but went at once to Helen's apartments.
She did not meet him at the door as he had foolishly expected. Delia, the maid, greeted him with a smile, and led him back to the reception-room and left him alone.
He heard Helen's voice, the rustle of her dress, and then she stood before him. As he looked into her face and read love and pity in her eyes he lost all fear, all doubt, and caught her hand in both of his, unable to speak a word in his defence—unable even to tell her of his gratitude and love.
She recovered herself first, and, drawing back, looked at him searchingly. "You poor fellow, you've been working like mad. You are ill!"
"No, I am not ill—only tired. I have had only one thought, one aim since I saw you last, that was to write something to restore you to your old place——"
"I do not want to be restored. Now listen, Lord Douglass. If I do Alessandra, it is because we both need the money and the prestige; but I do not despair, and you must not. Please let me manage this whole affair; will you?"
"I am your slave."
"Don't say such things. I don't want you to be humble. I want you to be as brave, as proud as before."
She said this in such a tone that he rose to it. His face reset in lines of resolution. "I will not be humble with any other human being but you. I worship you."
She stood for a moment looking at him fixedly, a smile of pride and tender dream on her lips, then said, "You must not say such things to me—not now." The bell rang. "Here comes your new-found admirers," she exclaimed, gleefully. "Now, you sit here, a little in the shadow, and I will bring them in."
Douglass heard Hugh ask, eagerly, "Is he here?"
"Yes, he is waiting for you." A moment later she re-entered, followed closely by Westervelt. "Herr Westervelt, let me introduce Mr. George Douglass, author of Alessandra, Lillian's Duty, and Enid's Choice."
For an instant Westervelt's face was a confused, lumpy mass of amazement and resentment; then he capitulated, quick to know on which side his bread was buttered, and, flinging out a fat hand, he roared:
"Very good joke. Ha! ha! You have fooled me completely. Mr. Douglass, I congratulate you. You have now given Helen Merival the best part she has ever had. You found we were right, eh?"
Douglass remained a little stiff. "Yes, for the present we'll say you are right; but the time is coming—"
Hugh came forward with less of enthusiasm, but his wall of reserve was melting. "I'm mighty glad to know that you wrote Alessandra, Douglass. It is worthy of Sardou, and it will win back every dollar we've lost in the other plays."
"That's what I wrote it for," said Douglass, sombrely.
Westervelt had no further scruples—no reservations. "Well, now, as to terms and date of production. Let's get to business."
Helen interposed. "No more of that for to-day. Mr. Douglass is tired and needs recreation. Leave business till to-morrow. Come, let us go to mother; she is anxious to see you—and you are to breakfast with us in the good old spirit."
It was sweet to sit with them again on the old footing—to be released from his load of guilty responsibility. To face the shining table, the dear old mother—and Helen! Something indefinably domestic and tender came from her hesitating speech and shone in her liquid, beaming eyes.
The room swam in vivid sunshine, and seemed thus to typify the toiler's escape from poverty and defeat.
"Don't expect me to talk," he said, slowly, strangely. "I'm too dazed, too happy to think clearly. I can't believe it. I have lived two months in a horrible nightmare; but now that the business men, the practical ones, say you are to be saved by me, I must believe it. I would be perfectly happy if only I had won the success on my own lines without compromise."
"Put that aside," she commanded, softly. "The fuller success will come. We have that to work towards."
Helen insisted that her playwright should go back to the West for a month's rest.
"I do not need rest, I need you," he answered, recklessly. "It fills me with content merely to see you."
"Nevertheless, you must go. We don't need you here. And, besides, you interfere with my plans."
"Is that true?" His eyes searched deep as he questioned.
"I am speaking as the actress to the playwright." She pointed tragically to the door. "Go! Your poor old, lonely mother awaits you."
"There are six in the family; she's my stepmother, and we don't get on smoothly."
"Your father is waiting to congratulate you."
"On the contrary. He thinks actresses and playwrights akin to 'popery.'"
She laughed. "Well, then, go on my account—on your account. You are tired, and so am I—"
"That is why I should remain, to relieve you, to help you. Or, do you mean you're tired of me?"
"I won't say that; but I must not see you. I must not see any one. If I do this big part right, I must rest. I intend to sleep a good part of the time. I have sent for Henry Olquest, and I intend to put the whole of the stage end of this play in his hands. Our ideals are not concerned in this Alessandra, you remember."
His face clouded. "That is true. I wish it were otherwise. But can you get Olquest?"
"Yes; his new play has failed. 'Too good,' Westervelt said."
"Oh, what blasphemy! To think Harry Olquest's plays are rejected, and on such grounds! You are right—as always. I will go."
"I am a little frazled, I admit, and a breath of mountain-air will do me good. I will visit my brother Walt in Darien. It's hard to go. My heart begins to ache already with prospective hunger. You have been my world, my one ambition for three months—my incessant care and thought."
"All the more reason why you should forget me and things dramatic for a while. There is nothing so destructive to peace and tranquillity as the stage."
"Don't I know that? When I was a youth in a Western village I became in some way the possessor of two small photographs of Elsie Melville. She was my ideal till I saw her, fifteen years later."
Helen laughed. "Poor Elsie, she took on flesh dreadfully in her later years."
"Nevertheless, those photographs started me on the road to the stage. I used to fancy myself as Macbeth, but I soon got switched into the belief that I could write plays. Now that I have demonstrated that"—his tone was a little bitter again—"I think I would better return to architecture."
She silenced him. "All that we will discuss when you come back reinvigorated from the mountains." She turned to her desk. "I have something here for you. Here is a small check from Westervelt on account. Don't hesitate to take it. He was glad to give it."
"It is the price of my intellectual honesty."
"By no means!" She laughed, but her heart sickened with a sense of the truth of his phrase. "It's only a very small part payment. You can at least know that the bribe they offer is large."
"Yes"—he looked at her meaningly—"the prize was too great for my poor resolution. All they can give will remain part payment. I wonder if you will be compassionate enough to complete the purchase—"
"That, too, is in the future," she answered, still struggling to be gayly reassuring, though she knew, perfectly well, that she was face to face with a most momentous decision and that an insistent, determined lover was about to be restored to confidence and pride. "And now, good-bye." And she gave him her hand in positive dismissal.
He took the hand and pressed it hard, then turned and went away without speaking.
* * * * *
There was a hint of spring in the air the afternoon of his leaving. The wind came from the southwest, brisk and powerful. In the pale, misty blue of the sky a fleet of small, white clouds swam, like ships with wide and bellying sails, low down in the eastern horizon, and the sight of them somehow made it harder for Douglass to leave the city of his adoption. He was powerfully minded to turn back, to remain on the ferry-boat and land again on the towering island so heavily freighted with human sorrows, so brilliant with human joys, and only a realization that his presence might trouble and distract Helen kept him to his journey's westward course.
As he looked back at the monstrous hive of men the wonder of Helen's personality came to him. That she alone, and unaided (save by her own inborn genius and her beauty), should have succeeded in becoming distinguished, even regnant, among so many eager and striving souls, overwhelmed him with love and admiration.
He wondered how he could have assumed even for an instant the tone of a lover, the gesture of a master. "I, a poor, restless, penniless vagabond on the face of the earth—I presumed to complain of her!" he exclaimed, and shuddered with guilty disgust at thought of that night behind the scenes.
In this mood he rode out into the West, which was bleak with winter winds and piled high with snow. He paused but a day with his father, whom he found busy prolonging the lives of the old people with whom the town was filled. It was always a shock to the son, this contrast between the outward peace and well-seeming of his native town and the inner mortality and swift decay. Even in a day's visit he felt the grim destroyer's presence, palpable as the shadow of a cloud.
He hastened on to Darien, that curious mixture of Spanish-Mexican indolence and bustling American enterprise, a town wherein his brother Walt had established himself some years before.
Walter Douglass was shocked by the change in his brother. "I can't understand how fourteen months in New York can reduce a lusty youth to the color of a cabbage and the consistency of a gelatine pudding. I reckon you'd better key yourself down to my pace for a while. Look at me!"
The playwright smiled. "I haven't indulged myself too much. You can't hit a very high pace on twelve dollars a week."
"Oh, I don't know. There are cheap brands of whiskey; and you can breathe the bad air of a theatre every night if you climb high enough. I know you've been too strenuous at some point. Now, what's the meaning of it all?"
"I've been working very hard."
"Shouldn't do it. Look at me. I never work and never worry. I play. I weigh two hundred pounds, eat well, sleep like a doorknob, make about three thousand dollars a year, and educate my children. I don't want to seem conceited, but my way of life appeals to me as philosophic; yours is too wasteful. Come, now, you're keeping back something. You might as well 'fess up. What were you doing?"
The playwright remained on his guard. "Well, as I wrote you, I had a couple of plays accepted and helped to produce them. There's nothing more wearing than producing a play. The anxiety is killing."
"I believe you. I think the writing of one act would finish me. Yes, I can see that would be exciting business; but what's all this about your engagement to some big actress?"
This brought the blood to the younger man's cheek, but he was studiedly careless in reply. "All newspaper talk. Of course, in rehearsing the play, I saw a great deal of Miss Merival, but—that's all. She is one of the most successful and brilliant women on the stage, while I—well, I am only a 'writing architect,' earning my board by doing a little dramatic criticism now and then. You need not put any other two things together to know how foolish such reports are."
Walt seemed satisfied. "Well, my advice is: slow down to Darien time. Eat and sleep, and ride a bronco to make you eat more and sleep harder, and in two weeks you'll be like your old-time self."
This advice, so obviously sound, was hard to follow, for each day brought a letter from Helen, studiously brief and very sparing of any terms of affection—frank, good letters, kindly but no more—and young Douglass was dissatisfied, and said so. He spent a large part of each morning pouring out upon paper the thoughts and feelings surging within him. He told her of the town, of the delicious, crisp climate—like October in the East—of the great snow-peaks to the West, of his rides far out on the plain, of his plans for the coming year.
"I dug an old play out of my trunk to-day" (he wrote, towards the end of the first week). "It's the first one I ever attempted. It is very boyish. I had no problems in my mind then, but it is worth while. I am going to rewrite it and send it on to you, for I can't be idle. I believe you'll like it. It is a love drama pure and simple."
To this she replied: "I am interested in what you say of your first play, but don't work—rest and enjoy your vacation."
A few days later he wrote, in exultation: "I got a grip on the play yesterday and re-wrote two whole acts. I think I've put some of the glory of this land and sky into it—I mean the exultation of health and youth. I am putting you into it, too—I mean the adoration I feel for you, my queen!
"Do you know, all the old wonder of you is coming back to me. When I think of you as the great actress my nerves are shaken. Is it possible that the mysterious Helen Merival is my Helen? I am mad to rush back to you to prove it. Isn't it presumptuous of me to say, 'My Helen'? But at this distance you cannot reprove me. I came across some pictures of you in a magazine to-day, and was thrilled and awed by them. I have not said anything of Helen MacDavitt to my people, but of the good and great actress Helen Merival I speak copiously. They all feel very grateful to you for helping me. Father thinks you at least forty. He could not understand how a woman under thirty could rise to such eminence as you have attained. Walt also takes it for granted you are middle-aged. He knows how long the various 'Maggies' and 'Ethels' and 'Annies' have been in public life. He saw something in a paper about us the other day, but took it as a joke. If this fourth play of mine comes off, and you find it worth producing, I shall be happy. It might counteract the baleful influence of Alessandra. I began to wonder how I ever did such a melodrama. Is it as bad as it seems to me now?...
"I daren't ask how Enid is doing. It makes me turn cold to think of the money you are losing. Wouldn't it pay to let the theatre go 'dark' till the new thing is ready?...
"I am amazed at my temerity with you, serene lady. If I had not been filled with the colossal conceit of the young author, I never would have dared to approach—What I did during those mad weeks (you know the ones I mean) gives me such shame and suffering as I have never known, and my whole life is now ordered to make you forget that side of my character. I ask myself now, 'What would Helen have me do?' I don't say this humble mood will last. If Alessandra should make a 'barrel of money,' I am capable of soaring to such heights of audacity that you will be startled."
To this she replied: "I am not working at rehearsal more than is necessary. Mr. Olquest is a jewel. He has taken the whole burden of the stage direction off my hands. I lie in bed till noon each morning and go for a drive each pleasant afternoon. Our spring weather is gone. Winter has returned upon us again.... I miss you very much. For all the worry you gave us, we found entertainment in you. Don't trouble about the money we are losing. Westervelt is putting up all the cash for the new production and is angelic of manner—or means to be. I prefer him when in the dumps. He attends every rehearsal and is greatly excited over my part. He now thinks you great, and calls you 'the American Sardou.' ... I have put all our dismal hours behind me. 'All this, too, shall pass away.' ... I care not to what audacity you wing your way, if only you come back to us your good, sane, undaunted self once more."
In this letter, as in all her intercourse with him, there was restraint, as though love were being counselled by prudence. And this was, indeed, the case. A foreboding of all that an acknowledgment of a man's domination might mean to her troubled Helen. The question, "How would marriage affect my plans," beset her, though she tried to thrust it away, to retire it to the indefinite future.
Her love grew steadily, feeding upon his letters, which became each day more buoyant and manly, bringing to her again the sense of unbounded ambition and sane power with which his presence had filled her at their first meeting.
"You are not of the city," she wrote. "You belong to the country. Think how near New York came to destroying you. You ought not to come back. Why don't you settle out there and take up public life?"
His answer was definite: "You need not fear. The city will never again dominate me. I have found myself—through you. With you to inspire me I cannot fail. Public life! Do you mean politics? I am now fit for only one thing—to write. I have found my work. And do you think I could live anywhere without hope of seeing you? My whole life is directed towards you—to be worthy of you, to be justified in asking you to join your life to mine. These are my ambitions, my audacious desires. I love you, and you must know that I cannot be content with your friendship—your affection—which I know I have. I want your love in return. Not now—not while I am a man of words merely. As I now feel Alessandra is a little thing compared with the sacrifice you have made for me. I have stripped away all my foolish egotism, and when I return to see you on the opening night I shall rejoice in your success without a tinge of bitterness. It isn't as if the melodrama were degrading in its appeal. It does not represent my literary ideals, of course, but it is not contemptible, it is merely conventional. My mind has cleared since I came here. I see myself in proper relation to you and to the public. I see now that with the large theatre, with the long 'run' ideals, a play must be very general in its appeal, and with such conditions it is folly for us to quarrel. We must have our own little theatre wherein we can play the subtler phases of American life—the phases we both rejoice in. If Alessandra should pay my debt to you—- you see how my mind comes back to that thought—we will use it to build our own temple of art. As I think of you there, toiling without me, I am wild with desire to return to be doing something. I am ready now to turn my hand to any humble thing—to direct rehearsals, to design costumes, anything, only to be near you. One word from you and I will come."
To this she replied: "No; on the contrary, you must stay a week longer. We have postponed the production on account of some extra scenic effect which Hugh wishes to perfect. They profess wonder now at your knowledge of scenic effect as well as your eye for costume and stage-setting. Your last letter disturbed me greatly, while it pleased me. I liked its tone of boyish enthusiasm, but your directness of speech scared me. I'm almost afraid to meet you. You men are so literal, so insistent in your demands. A woman doesn't know what she wants—sometimes; she doesn't like to be brought to bay so roundly. You have put so much at stake on Alessandra that I am a-tremble with fear of consequences. If it succeeds you will be insufferably conceited and assured; if it fails we will never see you again. Truly the life of a star is not all glitter."
This letter threw him into a panic. He hastened to disclaim any wish to disturb her. "If you will forgive me this time I will not offend again. I did not mean to press for an answer. I distinctly said that at present I have no right to do so. I daren't do so, in fact. I send you, under another cover, the youthful play which I call The Morning. Isn't that fanciful enough? It means, of course, that I am now just reaching the point in my life where the man of thirty-odd looks back upon the boy of eighteen with a wistful tenderness, feeling that the mystery of the world has in some sense departed with the morning. Of a certainty this idea is not new, but I took a joy in writing this little idyl, and I would like to see you do 'the wonderful lady I see in my dreams.' Can you find an actor who can do my lad of 'the poetic fancy'?"
She replied to this: "Your play made me cry, for I, too, am leaving the dewy morning behind. I like this play; it is very tender and beautiful, and do you know I believe it would touch more hearts than your gorgeous melodrama. Mr. Howells somewhere beautifully says that when he is most intimate in the disclosures of his own feelings he finds himself most widely responded to—or something like that. I really am eager to do this play. It has increased my wonder of your powers. I really begin to feel that I know only part of you. First Lillian's Duty taught me some of your stern Scotch morality. Then Enid's Choice revealed to me your conception of the integrity of a good woman's soul—that nothing can debase it. Alessandra disclosed your learning and your imaginative power. Now here I feel the poet, the imaginative boy. I will not say this has increased my faith in you—it has added to my knowledge of you. But I must confess to you it has made it very difficult for me to go on with Alessandra. All the other plays are in line of a national drama. Alessandra is a bitter and ironical concession. The Morning makes its splendor almost tawdry. It hurt me to go to rehearsal to-day. Westervelt's presence was a gloating presence, and I hated him. Hugh's report of the exultant 'I told you so's' of the dramatic critics sickened me—" Her letter ended abruptly, almost at this point.
His reply contained these words: "It is not singular that you feel irritated by Alessandra while I am growing resigned, for you are in daily contact with the sordid business. Tell me I may come back. I want to be at the opening. I know you will secure a great personal triumph. I want to see you shining again amid a shower of roses. I want to help take your horses from your carriage, and wheel you in glory through the streets as they used to do in olden times as tribute to their great favorites. I haven't seen a New York paper since I came West. I hope you have put Enid away. What is the use wearing yourself out playing a disastrous role while forced to rehearse a new one? My longing to see you is so great that the sight of your picture on my desk is a sweet torture. Write me that you want me, dearest."
She replied, very simply: "You may come. Our opening night is now fixed for Monday next. You will have just time to get here. All is well."
To this he wired reply: "I start to-night. Arrive on Monday at Grand Central. Eleven-thirty."
* * * * *
Helen was waiting for him at the gate of the station in a beautiful spring hat, her face abloom, her eyes dancing, and the sight of her robbed him of all caution. Dropping his valise, he rushed towards her, intent to take her in his arms.
She stopped him with one outstretched hand. "How well you look!" Her voice, so rich, so vibrant, moved him like song.
"And you—you are the embodiment of spring." Then, in a low voice, close to her ear, he added: "I love you! I love you! How beautiful you are!"
"Hush!" She lifted a finger in a gesture of warning. "You must not say such things to me—here." With the addition of that final word her face grew arch. Then in a louder tone: "I was right, was I not, to send you away?"
"I am a new being," he answered, "morally and physically. But tell me, what is the meaning of these notices? Have you put The Morning on in place of Alessandra?"
Hugh interposed. "That's what she's done," and offered his hand with unexpected cordiality.
"You take my breath away," said Douglass. "I can't follow your reckless campaigns."
"We'll explain. We're not as reckless as we seem."
They began to move towards the street, Hugh leading the way with the playwright's bag.
Helen laughed at her lover's perplexity and dismay. "You look befoozled."
"I am. I can't understand. After all that work and expense—after all my toilsome grind—my sacrifice of principles."
She was close to his shoulder as she said, looking up at him with beaming, tender eyes:
"That's just it. I couldn't accept your offering. After The Morning came in, my soul revolted. I ordered the Alessandra manuscript brought in. Do you know what I did with it?"
"Rewrote it, I hope."
Her face expressed daring, humor, triumph, but the hand lifted to the chin expressed a little apprehension as she replied: "Rewrote it? No, I didn't think of that. I burned it."
He stopped, unconscious of the streaming crowds. "Burned it! I can't believe you. My greatest work—"
"It is gone." The smile died out of her eyes, her face became very grave and very sweet. "I couldn't bear to have you bow your head to please a public not worthy of you. The play was un-American, and should not have been written by you."
He was dazed by the enormous consequences of this action, and his mind flashed from point to point before he answered, in a single word: "Westervelt."
Thereat they both laughed, and she explained. "It was dreadful. He raged, he shook the whole block as he trotted to and fro tearing his hair. I think he wished to tear my hair. He really resembled the elder Salvini as Othello—you know the scene I mean. I gave him a check to compensate him. He tore it up and blew it into the air with a curse. Oh, it was beautiful comedy. I told him our interview would make a hit as a 'turn' on the vaudeville stage. Nothing could calm him. I was firm, and Alessandra was in ashes."
They moved on out upon the walk and into the hideous clamor of Forty-second Street, his mind still busy with the significance of her news. Henry Olquest in an auto sat waiting for them. After a quick hand-shake Douglass lifted Helen to her place, followed her with a leap, and they were off on a ride which represented to him more than an association with success—it seemed a triumphal progress. Something in Helen's eyes exalted him, filled his throat with an emotion nigh to tears. His eyes were indeed smarting as she turned to say: "You are just in time for dress rehearsal. Do you want to see it?"
"No, I leave it all to you. I want to be the author if I can. I want to get the thrill."
"I think you will like our production. Mr. Olquest has done marvels with it. You'll enjoy it; I know you will. It will restore your lost youth to you."
"I hope it will restore some of your lost dollars. I saw by the papers that you were still struggling with Enid. I shudder to think what that means. The other poor little play will never be able to lift that huge debt."
"I'm not so sure about that," she gayly answered. "The rehearsals have almost resigned"—she pointed at Hugh's back—"him to the change."
"I confess I was surprised by his cordial greeting."
"Oh, he's quite shifted his point of view. He thinks The Morning may 'catch 'em' on other grounds."
"And you—you are radiant. I expected to find you worn out. You dazzle me."
"You mustn't look at me then. Look at the avenue. Isn't it fine this morning?"
He took her hint. "It is glorious. I feel that I am again at the centre of things. After all, this is our one great city, the only place where life is diverse enough to give the dramatist his material. I begin to understand the attitude of actors when they land from the ferry-boat, draw a long breath, and say, 'Thank God, I'm in New York again.'"
"It's the only city in America where an artist can be judged by his peers. I suppose that is one reason why we love it."
"Yes, it's worth conquering, and I'll make my mark upon it yet," and his tone was a note of self-mastery as well as of resolution. "It is a city set on a hill. To take it brings great glory and lasting honor."
She smiled up at him again, a proud light in her eyes. "Now you are your good, rugged self, the man who 'hypnotized' me into taking Lillian's Duty. You'll need all your courage; the critics are to be out in force."
"I do not fear them," he answered, as they whirled into the plaza and up to the side entrance of the hotel.
"I've engaged a room for you here, Douglass," said Hugh, and the new note of almost comradeship struck the playwright with wonder. He was a little sceptical of it.
"Very well," he answered. "I am reckless. I will stay one day."
"Mother will be waiting to see you," said Helen, as they entered the hall. "She is your stanch supporter."
"She is a dear mother. I wish she were my own."
Each word he uttered now carried a hidden meaning, and some inner relenting, some sweet, secret concession which he dimly felt but dared not presume upon, gave her a girlish charm which she had never before worn in his eyes.
They took lunch together, seated at the same table in the same way, and yet not in the same spirit. He was less self-centred, less insistent. His winter of proved inefficiency, his sense of indebtedness to her, his all-controlling love for her gave him a new appeal. He was at once tender and humorous as he referred again to Alessandra.
"Well, now that my chief work of art is destroyed, I must begin again at the bottom. I have definitely given up all idea of following my profession. I am going to do specials for one of the weeklies. Anderson has interceded for me. I am to enter the ranks of the enemy. I am not sure but I ought to do a criticism of my own play to-morrow night."
She was thinking of other things. "Tell me of your people. Did you talk of me to them? What did they say of me?"
"They all think of you as a kind, middle-aged lady, who has been very good to a poor country boy."
She laughed. "How funny! Why should they think me so old?"
"They can't conceive how a mere girl can be so rich and powerful. How could they realize the reckless outpouring of gold which flows from those who seek pleasure to those who give it."
She grew instantly graver. "They would despise me if they knew. I don't like being a mere toy of the public—a pleasure-giver and nothing else. Of course there are different ways of pleasing. That is why I couldn't do Alessandra. Tell me of your brother. I liked what you wrote of him. He is our direct opposite, isn't he? Does he talk as well as you reported, or were you polishing him a little?"
"No, Walt has a remarkable taste in words. He has always been the literary member of our family, but is too lazy to write. He is content to grow fat in his little round of daily duties."
"I wonder if we haven't lost something by becoming enslaved to the great city! Our pleasures are more intense, but they do wear us out. Think of you and me to-morrow night—our anxiety fairly cancelling our pleasure—and then think of your brother going leisurely home to his wife, his babies, and his books. I don't know—sometimes when I think of growing old in a flat or a hotel I am appalled. I hate to keep mother here. Sometimes I think of giving it all up for a year or two and going back to the country, just to see how it would affect me. I don't want to get artificial and slangy with no interests but the stage, like so many good actresses I know. It's such a horribly egotistic business—"
"There are others," he said.
"Writers are bad enough, but actors and opera-singers are infinitely worse. Mother has helped me." She put her soft palm on her mother's wrinkled hand. "Nothing can spoil mother; nothing can take away the home atmosphere—not even the hotel. Well, now I must go to our final rehearsal. I will not see you again till the close of the second act. You must be in your place to-night," she said, with tender warning. "I want to see your face whenever I look for it."
"I am done with running away," he answered, as he slowly released her hand. "I shall pray for your success—not my own."
"Fortunately my success is yours."
"In the deepest sense that is true," he answered.
As Douglass entered the theatre that night Westervelt met him with beaming smile. "I am glad to see you looking so well, Mr. Douglass." He nodded and winked. "You are all right now, my boy. You have them coming. I was all wrong."
"What do you mean?"
"Didn't she tell you?"
"You mean about the advance sale?—no."
Westervelt grew cautious. "Oh—well, then, I will be quiet. She wants to tell you. She will do so."
"Advance sale must be good," thought the playwright, as he walked on into the auditorium. The ushers smiled, and the old gatekeeper greeted him shortly.
"Ye've won out, Mr. Douglass."
"Can it be that this play is to mark the returning tide of Helen's popularity?" he asked himself, and a tremor of excitement ran over him, the first thrill of the evening. Up to this moment he had a curious sense of aloofness, indifference, as if the play were not his own but that of a stranger. He began now to realize that this was his third attempt to win the favor of the public, and according to an old boyish superstition should be successful.
Helen had invited a great American writer—a gracious and inspiring personality—to occupy her box to meet her playwright, and once within his seat Douglass awaited the coming of the great man with impatience and concern. He was conscious of a great change in himself and his attitude towards Helen since he last sat waiting for the curtain to rise.
"Nothing—not even the dropping of an act—could rouse in me the slightest resentment towards her." He flushed with torturing shame at the recollection of his rage, his selfish, demoniacal, egotistic fury over the omission of his pet lines.
"I was insane," he muttered, pressing a hand to his eyes as if to shut out the memory of Helen's face as she looked that night. "And she forgave me! She must have known I was demented." And her sweetness, her largeness of sympathy again overwhelmed him. "Dare I ask her to marry me?" He no longer troubled himself about her wealth nor with the difference between them as to achievement, but he comprehended at last that her superiority lay in her ability to forgive, in her power to inspire love and confidence, in her tact, her consideration for others, her wondrous unselfishness.
"What does the public know of her real greatness? Capable of imagining the most diverse types of feminine character, living each night on the stage in an atmosphere of heartless and destructive intrigue, she yet retains a divine integrity, an inalienable graciousness. Dare I, a moody, selfish brute, touch the hem of her garment?"
In this mood he watched the audience gather—a smiling, cheerful-voiced, neighborly throng. There were many young girls among them, and their graceful, bared heads gave to the orchestra chairs a brilliant and charmingly intimate effect. The roue, the puffed and beefy man of sensual type, was absent. The middle-aged, bespangled, gluttonous woman was absent. The faces were all refined and gracious—an audience selected by a common interest from among the millions who dwell within an hour's travel of the theatre.
Douglass fancied he could detect in these auditors the same feeling of security, of satisfaction, of comfort with which they were accustomed to sit down of an evening with a new book by a favorite author.
"If I could but win a place like that," he exclaimed to himself, "I would be satisfied. It can be done when the right man comes."
A dinner engagement delayed the eminent author, but he came in as the curtain was rising, and, shaking hands cordially, presented Mr. Rufus Brown, a visiting London critic.
"Mr. Brown is deeply interested in your attempt to do an American play," said the great novelist. "I hope—I am sure he will witness your triumph to-night." Thereupon they took seats with flattering promptness in order not to miss a word of the play.
Helen, coming on a moment after, was given a greeting almost frenziedly cordial, and when she bowed her eyes sought the box in which her lover sat, and the audience, seeing the distinguished novelist and feeling some connection between them, renewed their applause. Douglass, at the back of the box, rose and stood with intent to express to Helen the admiration, the love, and the respect which he felt for her. She was, indeed, "the beautiful, golden-haired lady" of whom he had written as a boy, and a singular timidity, a wave of worship went over him.
He became the imaginative lad of the play, who stood in awe and worship of mature womanhood. The familiar Helen was gone, the glittering woman was gone, and in her place stood the ideal of the boy—the author himself had returned to "the land of morning glow"—to the time when the curl of a woman's lip was greater than any war. The boy on the stage chanted:
"Where I shall find her I know not. But I trust in the future! To me She will come. I am not forgot. Out in the great world she's waiting, Perhaps by the shore of the sea, By the fabulous sea, where the white sand gleams, I shall meet her and know her and claim her. The beautiful, stately lady I see in my dreams."
"I dare not claim her," said the man, humbled by her beauty. "I am not worthy of her."
The applause continued to rise instant and cordial in support of players and play. Auditors, actors, and author seemed in singularly harmonious relation. As the curtain fell cries of approval mingled with the hand-clapping.
The novelist reached a kindly hand. "You've found your public, my dear fellow. These people are here after an intelligent study of your other plays. This is a gallant beginning. Don't you think so, Brown?"
"Very interesting attempt to dramatize those boyish fancies," the English critic replied. "But I don't quite see how you can advance on these idyllic lines. It's pretty, but is it drama?"
"He will show us," replied the novelist. "I have great faith in Mr. Douglass. He is helping to found an American drama. You must see his other plays."
Westervelt came to the box wheezing with excitement. "My boy, you are made. The critics are disarmed. They begin to sing of you."
Douglass remained calm. "There is plenty of time for them to turn bitter," he answered. "I am most sceptical when they are gracious."
The second act left the idyllic ground, and by force of stern contrast held the audience enthralled. The boy was being disillusioned. The Morning had grown gray. Doubt of his ideal beset the poet. The world's forces began to benumb and appall him. His ideal woman passed to the possession of another. He lost faith in himself. The cloud deepened, the sky, overshadowed as by tempest, let fall lightning and a crash of thunder. So the act closed.
The applause was unreservedly cordial—no one failed to join in the fine roar—and in the midst of it Douglass, true to his promise, hurried back to the scenes to find Helen.
She met him, radiant with excitement. "My brave boy! You have won your victory. They are calling for you." He protested. She insisted. "No, no. It is you. I've been out. Hear them; they want the author. Come!"
Dazed and wordless, weak from stage-fright, he permitted himself to be led forth into the terrifying glare of the footlight world. There his guide left him, abandoned him, pitifully exposed to a thousand eyes, helpless and awkward. He turned to flee, to follow her, but the roguish smile on her face, as she kissed her fingers towards him, somehow roused his pride and gave him courage to face the tumult. As he squared himself an awesome silence settled over the house—a silence that inspired as well as appalled by its expectancy.
"Friends, I thank you," the pale and resolute author weakly began. "I didn't know I had so many friends in the world. Two minutes ago I was so scared my teeth chattered. Now I am entirely at my ease—you notice that." The little ripple of laughter which followed this remark really gave him time to think—gave him courage. "I feel that I am at last face to face with an audience that knows my work—that is ready to support a serious attempt at playwriting. I claim that a play may do something more than amuse—it may interest. There is a wide difference, you will see. To be an amusement merely is to degrade our stage to the level of a Punch-and-Judy show. I am sorry for tired men and weary women, but as a dramatist I can't afford to take their troubles into account. I am writing for those who are mentally alert and willing to support plays that have at least the dignity of intention which lies in our best novels. This does not mean gloomy plays or problem plays, but it does mean conscientious study of American life. If you like me as well after the close of the play"—he made dramatic pause—"well I shall not be able to sleep to-night. I sincerely thank you. You have given me a fair hearing—that is all I can ask—and I am very grateful."
This little speech seemed to please his auditors, but his real reward came when Helen met him at the wings and caught his arm to her side in an ecstatic little hug. "You did beautifully! You make me afraid of you when you stand tall and grand like that. You were scared though. I could see that."
"You deserted me," he answered, in mock accusation. "You led me into the crackling musketry and ran away."
"I wanted to see of what metal you were made," she answered, and fled to her dressing-room to prepare for the final act.
"Now for the real test," said the novelist, with a kindly smile. "I think we could all write plays if it were not for the difficulty of ending them."
"I begin to tremble for my climax," Douglass answered. "It is so important to leave a sweet and sonorous sound in the ear at the last. It must die on the sense like the sound of a bell."
"It's a remarkable achievement, do you know," began the English critic, "to carry a parable along with a realistic study of life. I can't really see how you're coming out."
"I don't know myself," replied Douglass.
The play closed quietly, with a subjective climax so deep, so true to human nature that it laid hold upon every heart. The applause was slow in rising, but grew in power till it filled the theatre like some great anthem. No one rose, no one was putting on wraps. The spell lasted till the curtain rose three times on the final picture.
Douglass could not speak as the critic shook his hand. It was so much more affecting than he had dared to hope. To sit there while his ideals, his hopes, his best thoughts, his finest conceptions were thus gloriously embodied was the greatest pleasure of his life. All his doubt and bitterness was lost in a flood of gratitude to Helen and to the kindly audience.
As soon as he could decently escape he hurried again to Helen. The stage this time was crowded with people. The star was hid, as of old, in a mob of her admirers, but they were of finer quality than ever before. The grateful acknowledgment of these good people was an inspiration. Every one smiled, and yet in the eyes of many of the women tears sparkled.
Helen, catching sight of her lover, lifted her hand and called to him, and though he shrank from entering the throng he obeyed. Those who recognized him fell back with a sort of awe of his good-fortune. Helen reached her hand, saying, huskily, "I am tired—take me away."
He took her arm and turned to the people still crowding to speak to her. "Friends, Miss Merival is very weary. I beg you to excuse her. It has been a very hard week for her."
And with an air of mastery, as significant as it was unconscious he led her to her room.
Safely inside the door she turned, and with a finger to her lips, a roguish light in her eyes, she said: "I want to tell you something. I can't wait any longer. Enid's Choice ran to the capacity of the house last week."
For a moment he did not realize the full significance of this. "What! Enid's Choice? Why, how can that be? I thought—"
"We had twelve hundred and eighty dollars at the Saturday matinee and eleven hundred at night. Of course part of this was due to the knowledge that it was the last day of the piece, but there is no doubt of its success."
A choking came to his throat, his eyes grew dim. "I can't believe it. Such success is impossible to me."
"It is true, and that is the reason I was able to burn Alessandra."
"And that is the reason Hugh and Westervelt were so cordial, and I thought it was all on account of the advance sale of The Morning!"
"And this is only the beginning. I intend to play all your plays in a repertoire, and you're to write me others as I need them. And finally—and this I hate to acknowledge—you are no longer in my debt."
"That I know is not true," he said. "Everything I am to-night I owe to you."
"The resplendent author has made the wondrous woman very proud and yet very humble to-night," she ended, softly, with eyelashes drooping.
"She has reared a giant that seeks to devour her." He caught her to his side. "Do you know what all this means to you and to me? It means that we are to be something more than playwright and star. It means that I will not be satisfied till your life and mine are one."
She put him away in such wise that her gesture of dismissal allured. "You must go, dearest. Our friends are waiting, and I must dress. Some time I will tell you how much—you have become to me—but not now!"
He turned away exultant, for her eyes had already confessed the secret which her lips still shrank from uttering.