FREDDY LUDLOW was the son of a Rector in the Shires, and as he did not manifest any inclination for the Church, his father declared that the only thing for him was to be a barrister. The process by which the Rector arrived at the alternative is not very plain, but he did arrive at it, and Freddy accordingly went up to town, and ate his dinners, and prepared himself to shine in the profession of all others for which he was the most unfit.
He was a short young man, with a shock of stubborn hair, mild blue eyes, and an expression of amiable innocence. To look a fool, when you are decidedly the reverse, may be very advantageous in life, if you are independent of your neighbours' good opinion; but to look a fool if you have to rely on their assistance to reach the first rung of the ladder, is the next worst thing to being one.
Nobody entrusted Freddy with a brief, and after a while he found his vocation distinctly tedious. To perspire in Court, and make his head ache in the acquisition of legal knowledge which he would never apparently have an opportunity to display, seemed to him stupid. Even the view of the tulips and the murmur of the fountain bored him by degrees; so at last he allowed his wig to repose in its box, and the drab and grey volumes on the shelf to grow dusty, and he took to writing comedies, on which he wasted his postage-stamps, and which returned to him—when the managers did not lose them—after many days.
How long he might have continued the occupation if nothing had occurred to interrupt him it is impossible to say. As it happened, however, when he had amassed a collection of rejected manuscripts considerably bulkier than the dusty library, his father died—the end having been hastened by the collapse of one of those bubbles which seem especially blown for the destruction of widows and parsons. He died, and Freddy was left with nothing but his sorrow and a hundred pounds. He was not very practical, but it was obvious to him that he would have to earn a living now, and, as the shock left him capable of reflection, he began to ask himself what he should do.
As a result, he decided to go on the stage. He had a passion for the stage; if he could not write for it he would act on it. He had not the least idea that his appearance intensified the difficulty of obtaining an engagement a thousand-fold, and he betook himself to an agent, to whom he imparted his desire, and paid a booking-fee.
The agent was an affable man, but slow—so slow that presently the hundred pounds was only fifty, and in view of the fact, Freddy visited other agents, all of whom seemed strangely to resemble the first gentleman in their characters.
Then Freddy answered advertisements in the theatrical papers, but nobody ever answered him, and he was within measurable distance of despair and a clerkship, when, through the interest of an acquaintance in the Temple, who also dabbled in dramatic literature, he found himself "walking on" in evening dress at a West-End theatre, with nothing to say, at a guinea a-week.
The piece did not run very long, and in the next one there was not a "ball-scene," so no "guests" were required; but having scented the footlights, he felt that any other vocation was henceforth impossible, and he had profited, more-over, by the conversation in the dressing-room.
He now understood that he had wasted his time and his money by pinning his faith on the agent fraternity before he had played some parts, and gained a few "notices"; and on the same principle he realised that it was useless addressing graceful letters to managers who had never heard of him. The only thing he could do was to bombard them with introductions. He went to his friend in the Temple again, and lured him into an adjacent bar, and by and by—so beneficial is the judicious application of dry sherry—meek little Freddy Ludlow was "shivering his timbers" in a nautical melodrama to a Whitechapel audience with a discomfiting habit of making facetious remarks.
Still, it was a stock season, and it meant experience. He murdered a new part every week, and sometimes to applause. After the seafaring party he played a London "rough," "doubling" it with a good clergyman, who came on in the last act, and established the hero's innocence. Then they put on "Arrah-na-Pogue," and he was cast for the Sergeant, and when he muttered the famous line to the effect that his prisoner was "A man in trouble, and not a badger in a hole to be baited by curs like you!" he brought the house down, and subsequently shed tears of triumph in his make-up box.
To follow him through all his vicissitudes would be as unprofitable as he found his profession. It is enough to say that when he had been on the stage for three years—counting the intervals between his engagements, which were a good deal longer than the engagements themselves—he discovered, to his surprise, that his pen, which he had never relinquished, had become quite as valuable a livelihood as the theatre.
He had taken to writing short stories, and as he «as even asked for these sometimes by a certain appreciative editor, and no manager ever asked him to go and join his company, be gradually hung about the stage-doors less and less, and sat at the table in his bed-room more and more.
One day he was offered the chance of doing the theatrical notices for a minor periodical. It was a very minor periodical, and the salary was proportionate; but the income would at least be regular, and Freddy took a decisive step. He abandoned his hope of becoming an Edmund Kean with an alacrity he had never conceived to be possible, and called himself proudly a dramatic critic—though the laundry bills for so many dress shirts were a consideration.
Later on he returned to his first love, and wrote another play; but this time he collaborated with a dramatist of some position, and for eighteen months basked in the belief that his fortune was made.
It was a drama, at once sensational and domestic. There never was so strong a drama, nor had any novice since the world began had such luck as he in finding a well-known man like King willing to work with him. His future was assured now! "A Woman's Crime" was submitted to one of the best houses in London, and the management was delighted with it, and talked of putting it on next. Somehow, though, when the time came they did not. On the whole, they did not know that it suited them. It was a pity that they had not said so in the first instance; but, albeit a little damped, the authors dispatched it somewhere else.
Here certain alterations were suggested, with the intimation that if they were made the piece would be produced in the spring. Freddy did not approve of the suggestions; he considered they were "artistically wrong"; but his partner, who had more worldly wisdom—and a large family to bring up—said that "so long as the damned thing was 'done,' that didn't matter a straw"! And they therefore went to work and chopped and changed as instructed.
The literary carpentering and joining took a good deal of time and thought; and, in spite of all their pains, it was not so well constructed a piece after they had finished as it had been before they began. The manager, however, signified approval of the manner in which his hints had been followed, and so they drew a breath of relief and smiled the smile of labour rewarded.
Their satisfaction, alas! had been premature. When the spring came it was not "A Woman's Crime" which was put into rehearsal. The manager said he should probably do that in the autumn, and, when the autumn came, he said he should most likely do it in the spring. They asked him desperately if he would advance a couple of hundred pounds on account of fees, and he "feared it was impossible." Then they threw up their arms and took the manuscript away from him, and Freddy told his collaborator he might keep it as a souvenir of their association.
But it was an awful blow to him, though he attempted to take it fighting. Until the prospect vanished he had not known how entirely he had been relying on it; and now his scanty means, his obscurity, and his thirty years combined to make a situation that crushed him. He felt suddenly tired and hopeless. He wanted to get on—to be famous. Instead, he was living in one room in Bloomsbury, and dining for a shilling. It had been endurable while he had something to look forward to—even he had not thought about it much then, accepting the life cheerfully. But after dwelling for eighteen months in a castle in Spain, it made his heart ache. He felt like an exile who has dreamed of Piccadilly and wakened to the Cape.
No further possibility of greatness occurred to lighten his gloom, and he plodded on drearily. It said something for his sweetness of disposition that he did not vent his disappointment in spiteful criticisms for the minor periodical at this period. He used to sit in the stalls and clap his hands, and his "copy" was as fair as usual. If he envied the blissful beings whose names were blazoned to all London on the hoardings and the omnibuses, he kept it to himself, and refrained from remarking that "the reception of the latest musical comedy was another instance of what rubbish may hit the public taste."
So things went on like this, until a misfortune happened. The minor periodical died of a weak circulation, and Mr. Frederick Ludlow was out of office.
The cessation of a salary, small as it had been, was a serious matter to him. He made a gallant struggle; he wrote sheafs of short stories, and sent them out broadcast; but as most of the papers that accepted them kept him waiting six months for his money, his industry did not avail him much.
He got into arrears with his landlady, and lay in bed half the day, because he felt his hunger less there. He often dined on a pipe because it was cheaper than a chop; and he pawned his watch and chain, and a ring that had belonged to his father, and his evening suit—which he did not require any more.
He had been—or had called himself—a literary man for so long now that it was a process with him to realise that his pen was useless. He hoped against hope, until the humiliating truth forced itself into acknowledgment by sheer persistency. Well, his writing would not keep him, it was obvious—he owned it! His difficulties were not temporary; they had come to stay. He was a failure—a complete, ignominious failure; and—there was nothing for it—he would have to go back to the stage!
He was ashamed to beg the influence of the barrister who had helped him to get his foot in years ago. The barrister was quite a big man now, and he had not got on a bit! No, he could not do it. He called on all the agents instead, and quoted his experience. He wrote to his old managers; and he tramped the hot pavements of the Strand daily, trying to look cheerful when he met an actor of his acquaintance, but nervous of stopping to talk to him for long, because he could not afford to ask him to "come and have a drink."
The last engagement that he was able to mention was so very remote that he found it almost as hard to return to the boards as it had been in the first instance for him to get on to them. And he was older—his appearance had not improved with time. Inconsistently too, and as if nature had been anxious to add insult to the world's injury, he had put on flesh. He was now stout. With his tubby figure, and his bristling hair, and his mild little eyes peering out of a weary face, he was as unpromising an applicant for a "part" as any stage-manager was likely to receive. People looked at him and smiled. Everywhere he went he was told there was "no vacancy." His exit was always the signal for subdued laughter, and it was remarked "how funny it was that a man like that should be bothering the agents!" But it was not funny for Freddy—not at all.
At last he did secure an engagement. It was an awful, a terrible descent from what he had expected, but he took it because he had to take it or starve.
He "went out" with the touring company of a London success as prompter, and to play three or four small parts, for twenty-five shillings a week. During the first act he stood in the wings with the book in his hand; and in the second he appeared on the stage as the foreman of a jury. For half of the third he was in the wings again, and then he had a few lines as an Arab sheik, and so on.
They "opened" in Wigan; if anything could have intensified his depression Wigan would have done it; but nothing could. A touring company has more grades and sets than society in Bedford; and lowest of all who figure in the programme—ignored by the Lover and scorned by the Chambermaid—is the prompter who plays small parts. To be sure, the prompter in his turn may look down upon the Baggage-man; but Freddy was denied this compensation because it was not in his nature to look down on anyone.
He went back to his lodging after the first performance, miserable and exhausted. The constant and hurried changes of costume, coupled with his nervousness—for the stage was so new to him again that he was nervous even with half-a-dozen lines—had thoroughly worn him out. It was not until the following night that he really began to take stock of his surroundings, or that he knew, either, how wretched he was going to be.
His nervousness was observed, and provided material for excellent jests. He was nicknamed "Fluffums," which in theatrical slang signifies a gentleman who "fluffs," or stumbles in his part. He was really such a curious little man that it was refreshing to chaff him. He might have escaped otherwise, as being lowly and beneath one's notice; but the heavy mother had declared he was "consequential," and the adjective was found descriptive; and a "consequential prompter" was an anomaly that could not be tolerated for a moment.
Freddy grew used to the hasty "changes" as the weeks went by, and he schooled himself to stand in the wings holding the 'script without wincing: he grew used to everything except the raillery and disdain. When he reflected that a few months since he had lolled in the West-End stalls, a dramatic critic, and that then his companions of to-day would have bowed and scraped, and contemplated him with reverence, his soul revolted. But he could not hint at his former grandeurs—that would be ridiculous. He was now a prompter, and must be content to be regarded as one. What he had been once had nothing to do with it.
From his humble position in the wings he commanded a good view of the stage, and by and by, when everybody was sure of his part, and there was no need for a prompter's services whatever, a peculiarity was remarked in Fluffums. It was pointed out that he was never absent from his post during Miss Bellamy's big scene. No matter that she, like the rest, was letter-perfect now—no matter how swift a toilette it might necessitate—no sooner did the scene approach than down Fluffums bustled, and stood in the prompt entrance, looking at her with eyes that never wandered from her face.
And, of course, it only meant one thing, though that thing was so wild, and ludicrous, and unprecedented that it was some time before the company could credit it. The prompter had fallen in love with the leading lady!
He only lived to be noticed by her. He was jealous of everybody she spoke to—on the stage and off. He even envied the property-man—for there was sometimes occasion for Miss Bellamy to address a few words to the property-man—to himself alone, the futile prompter, she never had need to speak, nor did he dare to devise an excuse for claiming her attention.
She was pretty, Maud Bellamy, and rather a clever actress, albeit she was still in the provinces, and admitted to being twenty-six. Her vicissitudes, too, would have filled an interesting chapter; but she had risen to dazzling heights compared with Freddy, and when somebody told her that she had "made a conquest, and that his name was Frederick Ludlow," she did not even know who was meant. After the joke was explained, she smiled faintly and begged the other, "please not to be so absurd"—because she was a personage. But all the same, she looked at Freddy the next time she passed him—because she was a woman.
And henceforward Freddy was conscious that Miss Bellamy knew he was watching her during her big scene; and Miss Bellamy would instinctively glance across at the prompt entrance as she tottered through the o. p. archway in the snow-storm to assure herself of his presence. Once he was not there—he could not help it—and when he met her in the wings later, waiting to go on in the last act, she stopped and asked him the reason.
"Mr. Ludlow, do you know you nearly made me forget my lines?" she said. "I missed you, and it made me nervous."
Not so nervous as he! His heart thumped, and he stammered at her with a flush on his face—
"I—I beg your pardon. I was very sorry. Mr. Perry couldn't play to-night, you know, and his understudy had to go on, and I had to take the understudy's part. I was 'changing' at the time of your scene."
She nodded smiling—
"It doesn't matter; I wondered what had become of you, that was all. It Is a very good house, isn't it?" And she passed on.
It did not occupy thirty seconds, but it was an event that sent him home happy, and it was the forerunner of other fragmentary conversations which made him happier still. She knew he was attracted by her, and she saw he was a gentleman; and, though his position in the company prevented her taking his devotion seriously, it interested her and was not unpleasant. It seemed to her rather pathetic that a man of education should be fulfilling such ignoble duties; and she was sorry for him. Not very sorry, and not very interested, because her ambitions did not leave much room in her mind for sympathies of any sort, but just a little, yes, or she would not have provoked comment by condescending to talk to him.
That was at the beginning, and the development was somewhat slow, because Freddy felt so handicapped; but by degrees he taught himself to throw off the feeling of restraint, and by degrees Miss Bellamy found she was giving him encouragement.
Still, she meant nothing by it; only now she was treating him as an equal, and flashing just such a glance at him sometimes as she would have shot at the leading man, or any other admirer who stood on a level with her. It was not considerate, and she knew it was not—it was not dignified, and she knew that too—and so she lectured herself in her dressing-room one night, in the process of changing her gown, and then adopted a manner so very distant towards him that after twenty-four hours of suffering he went up to her, and begged for an explanation.
"Have I offended you in any wav, Miss Bellamy?"
She tried to look as if she did not understand.
"Offended me? No—what makes you ask?"
"I was afraid that perhaps I had. You—you are not being so kind to me; you are different."
"I did not know."
"no? I have felt it. … You are angry?"
"Why should I be? Of course not. Of course not. But——"
"Do you think it is very good for you that we should talk together quite as much as we have, Mr. Ludlow? Isn't it better that you should not see so much of me?"
He stood gazing helplessly at the stage; his unconcealed misery was very flattering to her.
"I feared it meant that," he said, "Somebody has——"
"Somebody has done nothing—I have been thinking myself; and I have come to the conclusion that 1 have not been sensible. If I did not like you I should not say it—I should not mind. But I do like you, and—there's my cue!"
They were behind a canvas door, and she darted forward and opened it, and made her entrance with a peal of laughter which jarred upon him this evening, although he knew it was in the "part."
When the curtain had fallen, and all the players were preparing to go home, Freddy waited at the foot of the ladies' staircase for Miss Bellamy to come down. He asked her if he might walk as far as her lodgings with her, so that they could discuss the matter quietly; and, as she had already displayed all the wisdom possible to her in such a connection, she said he might; and he did, and the result was a foregone conclusion.
She said she should always be his friend, and it was because she was his friend that she wished him to see less of her. And he said that to have her friendship was the greatest earthly honour and happiness that he dared aspire to, and so might he not talk to her just as much in future, and even more? There was really nothing to be urged against it, put like that—it was simplicity itself; and she let him hold her hand for a minute and a half at the gate, while telling him he was only to think of her as a sister.
Maud Bellamy had satisfied her conscience, and from that date she flirted with Fluffums wickedly. It was not an honest, open flirtation; it was a sly, sneaking, insidious thing much more deadly, which did its damage under an alias. She called it their "interest in each other," and their "interest in each other" used to take him to her apartments to tea on an average three times a week. He brought her flowers, and she would wear them at the theatre in the first act; and he told her something of his life, and she listened with deep, attentive eyes; and he cried to her how wretched his present position made him, and she comforted him with the "platonic" pressure of slim, white fingers—affecting not to understand that it principally made him wretched because it placed her out of his reach.
And meanwhile he thought her an Angel, though socially she was only a vain, agreeable, and rather selfish woman, who was amusing herself with him. Almost every woman not positively tedious has the desire to be unconventional at some period or other, and—conventionality being, after all, a relative standard—for a country' actress to be unconventional is difficult. Miss Bellamy had overcome the difficulty when she determined to flirt with the prompter.
How long the novelty would have pleased her under ordinary circumstances, who shall say? Not many weeks, probably, at best; but, as it was, the end of Freddy's illusion was precipitated by a new arrival on the scene.
The leading man was transferred to another company, and his successor was quite an Adonis, who once had actually played in London. The glamour of the metropolis clung to him still, and the cut of his numerous suits of clothes was positively fascinating. And he paid marked attentions to Miss Bellamy, and the lady did not repulse him. Freddy beheld it all, sick at soul.
Walter Knight, the new leading man, and Miss Maud Bellamy used to stand and talk together, with low voices, in the wings and the passages; and one evening when Freddy came upon them, quite by accident, Miss Bellamy frowned at him and turned aside impatiently. As he passed on, she evidently said something about him, for her companion burst into laughter, and the low comedian, who had observed the incident, winked at the "villain" with appreciation.
Then the chaff took another form, and it was, "Fluffums, beware of jealousy; it is a green-eyed monster!" or, "Fluffums, why so merry?" or "Look at Fluffums' nose—does it hurt you now it's out of joint? Ha, ha, ha! the time will come; no matter, Fluffums! Pistols and coffee for four!" Which was all very witty, but as Freddy was not a boy, scarcely in the best of taste.
It took him some time to realise that her pretences had meant nothing; that her earnestness and sympathy had all been humbug, even though he was invited to tea no longer, and often met her walking with Knight in the streets. It is doubtful, indeed, if he would have realised it when he did, but that she very nearly told him so. Of course, it was his "fault"—it was—one of those situations where the man is wrong whatever he does. Of course, he had "brought these hard words on himself," and she had been mercifully anxious "to spare him the pain of the interview." He had gone to her lodgings, and appealed to her.
"My dear Mr. Ludlow," said the leading lady, with uplifted eyebrows, "I don't know what you complain of! I can't permit any friend to dictate to me which members of the company I may speak to."
Then he had done more. The "secret," that had never been a secret, was openly avowed, and he told her that he loved her, that he worshipped her, that her coldness was breaking his heart. He declared that he was not her "friend"—had never been her "friend"—and that she knew it as well as he.
Miss Bellamy stared at him in a long silence.
"So," she said slowly, "this is my return for consenting to believe you! I warned you that I was being unwise, and I let you persuade me against my own judgment. Well, I should have known better: it serves me right!"
"Maud!" gasped Freddy.
"Please don't call me 'Maud,' and please don't let us have any discussion! I made a mistake, and there is nothing more to be said. I was your very good friend, and I hoped I might remain so; but you give yourself the airs of a husband. And something else: when you come spying round the theatre after me to see what man 1 am talking to, you do a thing I don't allow."
"Spying?" he protested. "I? Oh, I have never——"
"If it hurts your feeling to be told the truth you have only yourself to thank for it. You leave me no alternative when you come here and reproach me. Now, good afternoon, Mr, Ludlow. I am sorry my friendship was so misplaced, I may say I think you might have shown a little more gratitude for it all—considering!"
The colour sank from his plain face as if she had lashed him across it. She met his gaze stonily, shrugged her shoulders, and sneered, as she did at the "villain" in the piece.
"Please shut the door quietly after you," said the leading lady; "my head aches."
He went—enlightenment had come, and the darkness fallen; and he was the foreman of the jury, and the Arab sheik, and the rest of it, the same as usual that night. But every nerve in his body was tense with pain, and if Miss Bellamy had known all he was feeling, perhaps when she came into the green-room and found him crouching there woe-begone in a property chair, she would have refrained from remarking audibly that she had "always understood a green-room was reserved for the principals."
He got up and walked out, with a look towards her like a kicked dog, and she surveyed her figure in the pier-glass, and powdered her nose again complacently.
How far they were from suspecting the development that twelve more hours would bring!
When Freddy rose the following morning it was Saturday, and Saturday being treasury, it was necessary for him, like everybody else, to present himself at the theatre at one o'clock. He felt so broken, he had suffered so much more keenly about her than she was worth, that before meeting her again he went into a bar to try if he could pull himself together with some brandy. The Era was lying on the counter in front of him, and mechanically, scarcely knowing what he was doing, he began to turn the leaves. As he did so, the title of "A Woman's Crime" leapt out of a page in capital letters, and struck him in the eyes.
It was being produced!—in London!—at the Royal West Central Theatre! Woman's Crime,' by Messrs. J. V. King and Frederick Ludlow." The production would introduce a surprising mechanical effect. There had never been so strong a company before even at the West Central—as the one which the enterprising management had secured for "A Woman's Crime." So much was expected of the piece that the largest sum of money ever paid before the first night had already been offered to the authors for the American rights. And of course his collaborator had written to his old address, more than a month ago, to tell him all about it, and the letter had never reached him!
He grasped the paper with both hands. Fires flashed in the sunshine, and he thought he was going to fall off the three-legged stool. He was no longer "Fluffums," the despised prompter. He was a London playwright, a personage to be conciliated; a few months more and he would be a rich man! A sob shook him—of joy and thanksgiving such as he had never known in his life—and he reeled out into the street as if he were drunk.
The company were all on the stage when he had composed himself sufficiently to put in an appearance, and he noticed that, as he entered, everybody looked towards him with a questioning air. Someone in the group was holding a copy of the Era, and presently Mr. Knight crossed over to him, and the others hushed their conversation to listen.
"Any relation to the author, Ludlow?" said his rival doubtfully. "I see King has been collaborating with a man of your name for the West Central."
"He has been collaborating with me," said Freddy, with great distinctness; "I'm afraid I shall have to leave you all very shortly, to superintend the final rehearsals."
Yes, and Miss Bellamy was among the group, and heard his answer. And their eyes met, and then she turned away with a look on her face that made him feel sorry for her in the midst of his triumph. It does not often fall to the lot of a provincial actress to have a London dramatist in love with her, and as she thought of what Freddy could have done to push her forward, and certainly would have done, it needed all her self-control not to burst into tears.
He was not chaffed or slighted any more while he remained with them. He was congratulated violently, and slapped on the back, and called "dear boy"; and he was pressed to have whiskies-and-soda, and asked if he would "use his influence" on various people's behalf. Never was there such a startling change known as that which occurred in everybody's bearing towards the prompter! There was only one person who did not come up to him and wring his hand, and "hope he would not forget old friends in his prosperity"; there was only one actress in the provinces who, for years afterwards, was remarked to show a strong distaste when a certain subject of theatrical interest was mentioned. Her name was Miss Maud Bellamy, and the subject was the Rise of "Fluffums."