Mummers in Mufti/Chapter 23

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FOR a long moment silence continued in the tiny dressing-room while the little comedian slowly and painfully packed his costumes, while Israels sat stolidly chewing at his imaginary toothpick, and while Bellsmith, slouched in a chair, stared moodily at the blue-penciled figures in his hand.

"Well," he repeated mechanically, "what do you suggest?"

Israels did not reply at once. He was puzzled, honestly puzzled. The ups and downs of fortune had been his own lot for many years. They did not depress him as they did Bellsmith, but this was a new sort of problem for him. Like most men of his kind, he had always regarded men of Bellsmith's class as operating on a special principle, one having no relation to the usual economic laws. The average New Yorker when he speaks of "a rich man from out of town" instinctively pictures him as inordinately rich, richer than any New Yorker could ever be. Israels had always classed men like Bellsmith as having an inexhaustible gold-mine; one which could be drawn on without either limit or sense. Parisians think in the same way about people from Argentina. In the present crisis Israels was faced with unmistakable facts, but even now he could only accept them mentally because it suited his own plans rather than otherwise.

Israels chewed his imaginary toothpick for a few seconds more. Already, without any actual lack of allegiance but merely because he had known from the start that the thing was hopeless, he himself was, in his own mind, instinctively getting out from under.

"Well, Mr. Bellsmith," he said at last, "I can't see but what you 're at the end of your rope."

Bellsmith looked around the room in a helpless desperation, and as he did so he became aware that the little comedian, who was still apparently absorbed in his packing, was really listening intently.

"But it's so maddening," remonstrated Bellsmith, "and really so foolish. I have money, or property rather, enough to carry this show to the end of the season without earning another cent."

"Yes, but what good does it do you?" asked Israels, curtly. "Money you might get in a month is no use to us now."

"But there must be some kind of credit I can get."

"You can't get credit for railroad fares."

They were only hashing over and over the facts that they had already covered a dozen times, and both of them knew it, yet both dreaded coming to the actual point to which they knew that they must come at last. Israels straightened himself in his chair, not without a certain real pity.

"Mr. Bellsmith," he said, "I don't like to admit myself beaten any more than you do but, as a business man, I know—and you know, too—that there is only one thing to do—throw up the sponge. Check up your loss to experience and let it go at that. After all, you have had your fling. You can afford it."

"What do you mean?" asked Bellsmith, in a deathly stillness.

"I mean disband the company to-night."

As he said the words that every one in the corridor had been dreading, the little comedian threw a sharp look at him over his shoulder. He said nothing, but Bellsmith had not missed the look.

"But is it fair?" asked Bellsmith, weakly.

For answer Israels merely shrugged, but suddenly the little comedian turned from his dressing-table, both hands, at the ends of his pink shirt-sleeves, held out before him.

"No! I can tell you. It ain't fair!" he burst out.

Israels looked up impatiently but then seemed to realize that nothing could matter now and resumed his gloomy cud-chewing.

"No, sir! It ain't fair!" repeated the comedian. "Look at here, Mr. Bellsmith. Do you realize what you 're doing? Do you realize that you 've got fifty-eight men and women out there who were earning an honest living until you came butting in and took the bread and butter out of their mouths?"

"Oh, shut up, Charlie," interrupted Israels. "It ain't Mr. Bellsmith's fault."

"Then whose fault is it?" demanded Barnes, and Bellsmith, for his part, made no attempt to reply. He sat there under the storm of abuse which followed with his head bowed and his eyes still fixed on the meaningless figures in his hand, for he knew that it was all merited. The furious little man in front of him had only said what he had realized with increasing bitterness each successive day, that the price of his own cavalier fling into active life had been, in this case, the sole livelihood of fifty-eight harmless persons.

He looked up almost fearfully at the stunted little figure which had now moved two steps away from the dressing-table and stood over him in an attitude that was almost a physical threat, an attitude that would have been ridiculous in any less tragic circumstances, for Charlie Barnes was not more than five feet tall. Yet, like many other comedians, he had, when shorn of his make-up, a prematurely old, wizened face, like that of a jockey or a light-weight fighter, which made his expression almost formidable.

"Do you realize what you 're doing!" repeated Barnes. "What is it to you? A skylark! An adventure! What is the price of a show to you? Yes, you can afford it, but we can't. Do you realize that there are men and women out there who have n't even got the money to take them back to New York? Did you happen to know that one of those girls is supporting two children out of forty-five dollars a week and paying her hotel bills on the road? How much do you think she's got laid aside to meet this? And what good will it do most of us to get back to New York, anyway! The season is spoiled. Everything in New York is filled up. It means filling in—bum parts in pictures, part-time vaudeville, doing halls, anything we can get until next summer. Some of us have got to chip in now to help out the others."

"They will be taken care of," said Bellsmith, more from a sort of patrician habit than with any real idea of how he might do it.

"Taken care of!" scoffed Barnes. "What is this? A charity institution? What do you think we are? Beggars? What we want is our jobs, the same jobs we had all secure before you came horning in. To hell with you and your 'taken care of.'"

But Bellsmith had had time to collect a certain measure of thought. He looked up without anger.

"But, Mr. Barnes," he protested, "you must all have known that the show had been losing money right along even before I ever took it over. It was only a matter of time before it must have closed up, anyway."

"But not like this," snorted Barnes. "Not at ten minutes' notice."

Bellsmith looked toward Israels. "What would Harcourt & Gay have done?"

Israels stirred uneasily. Except for the momentary discomfort of it, this breaking up of the "Eleanor" show meant little to him personally. If anything, it was a relief to cut clear from a losing venture, but curiously the man was still faintly loyal to Bellsmith, even if he did consider him a fool. He chewed a moment in a manner so realistic that one could almost see the imaginary toothpick twirling around in his lips. He nodded toward Barnes.

"I suppose it was like he said. We were nursing the thing along in hopes that when we got to Chicago and some of the really big cities we could draw business enough to keep it alive for the season."

Bellsmith pondered a moment.

"Then," he asked suddenly, "if I could scrape up enough money somehow to get the show to Chicago we might pull through?"

Israels did not reply, for the answer to that question was the single unhappy fact which he had held back from Bellsmith in a series of unhappy revelations.

"To tell the truth, Mr. Bellsmith," he admitted at last, "it would n't even do you any good if you could get to Chicago. You see, theaters in Chicago are scarcer than they are in New York. It was n't 'Eleanor' as a show that had that booking but Harcourt & Gay as a firm. They need that Chicago date too badly for something else to let you have it now."

"But, look here, I bought the booking."

"So you did—except Chicago. You know when we wrote the agreement I made an exception of that and you agreed to it."

Bellsmith nodded. He remembered now that, on that morning when he was consenting to anything, he had made that exception which had seemed so far in the future as to be trivial.

He looked over at Barnes, who had not moved from his threatening attitude, but the explanation had done nothing to mollify the comedian. Barnes was siding with Israels. It was not a question of one less date for the "Eleanor" show but a question of the "show business" against a very lubberly outsider.

"But the other booking?" asked Bellsmith. "The theaters in Troy and Rochester and Buffalo? What will happen if we don't keep our dates?"

Israels laughed without mirth. "Don't you worry about them. They 'll be only too glad of those dates for other shows that are making more money than we are and ask for a smaller percentage. A dozen shows will be rushing for them as soon as the dates are open. Not Troy perhaps, that's too soon, but the others."

"In other words," said Bellsmith, as slowly and metallically as if he were reciting a ritual, "in other words, I have two happy alternatives. One is closing to-night and sending these people back to New York without a job. The other is playing to certain loss all the way from here to Chicago and then not even getting the booking in Chicago."

Israels shrugged. "You know, Mr. Bellsmith—," but Bellsmith knew what he intended to say and forestalled him.

"Oh, I'm not blaming you," he interrupted. "You did n't cheat me. I bought this thing blind and now I intend to pay for it."

"Pay for it!" snorted Barnes, suddenly coming back into the argument. "It's we who pay for your fun. You have n't got much to lose by it."

But Bellsmith looked up at him fixedly and with such an odd expression on his face that Barnes stopped, almost frightened. Bellsmith slowly rose to his feet.

"There is just one man in Leicester," he said deliberately, "that I want to talk to before I make any decision."

Israels looked up with a faint, but very faint, hope, for "talk to" in his lexicon meant only one thing—borrow money.

"Well, then," he asked, "is it necessary to hold all these people here any longer?

Bellsmith shook his head. "No, you had better let them go. Tell them that I will give them word as to what I am going to do to-morrow morning. If we still intend to go on to Troy we shall still have time to make it on Monday. What time had we better meet here? Nine o'clock?"

Israels pulled a humorously long face.

"Mr. Bellsmith," he said, "nothing shows better than that that you don't know anything about the show business. To-morrow's Sunday, you know. Unless you still want to get that morning train you'd better say eleven."

"All right, then; eleven," agreed Bellsmith.

Israels paused a moment to see whether any more definite news was forthcoming and then went out, while the little comedian turned to his packing. In bitter humiliation Bellsmith sat listening to the sound of Israels passing along the corridor, heard the low murmur of a few brief words as he stopped at each dressing-room, occasionally a curt question or two in reply, and then a scraping of chairs as each member of the cast rose and went out.

Before the manager had reached the stage, where the main body of the company was waiting, Barnes snapped down the top of his trunk and followed, without a word or a look.

With ears strained by his sensitiveness Bellsmith heard the low hum and bustle as Israels and Barnes together reached the stage. There came sounds of murmured questions and shuffling and moving about, but no apparent rebellion, no mutinous protests. It would almost have been a relief to Bellsmith if there had been, but the rank and file of the "Eleanor" company still accepted the word of their "owner" as final, still accepted with relief even the faintest postponement of disaster, still welcomed at least one more night of hope as mummers have always done since the days of the first theater and probably always will until the days of the last.

Bellsmith did not move until the last steps had departed, until the stage-door, with its creaking clock-weight on a rope, had swung to for the last time and the night watchman had begun to put out the lights in the adjoining dressing-rooms. Then he rose painfully and went out into the corridor. Under the single light that remained he met Israels coming briskly back. The manager put his hand in his pocket and drew out a sealed envelope.

"By the way, Mr. Bellsmith, here's Miss Marshall's salary up to to-night. I thought possibly you could get it to her. In case we bust up—"

The two men looked quietly at each other for a moment.

Bellsmith took the envelope. "All right. I 'll see that she gets it. Good night."

Israels turned and walked rapidly down the corridor, while Bellsmith remained standing by the dressing-room door, the little brown envelope in his hand. He could feel the bills folded thickly inside it. Seventy-five dollars, he knew it was now, a pathetic little roll but probably the last money that Tilly Marshall could earn for a long, long time. And now he was cutting off the only way in which he himself could give her any more.

As he heard the outer door slam behind Israels he followed down the corridor, but some lingering attraction, probably the attraction of repulsion, induced him to walk a few steps out on the echoing stage, now in pitch blackness. He became again acutely aware of its queer musty smell. Like a mist now it seemed to rise up out of the floor.

The watchman, who had been waiting for him to leave, turned out the last light in Barnes' dressing-room and came stumping down the corridor. He was a cheery little man, good natured enough, but plainly eager to get back to the superior warmth and cosiness of the boiler-room.

Bellsmith muttered a word and passed out into the winter night. Far up at the head of the alley his own limousine was waiting, the globe light inside it showing the spotless gray broadcloth of the upholstery. The patient Keefe sat nodding on the box.

Bellsmith's own life, he realized, went on just the same. The trust company paid for all that, his big house, his servants, his cars, his carefully ordered meals, even down to his special cigars, but he could see now how that luxurious limousine must have appeared to the eyes of the members of the company wending their anxious way up the littered alley, how it must have flaunted itself in their faces. He wondered whether a single one of them really believed that he could not lay his hands on a cent of ready money outside of his almost extinguished bank-account.

Half-way up the alley he heard rapid steps behind him and heard his name spoken.

"Mr. Bellsmith!"

He turned, and the little comedian, Charlie Barnes, came up beside him, looking more pitiful than ever with his overcoat open and his brown derby hat drawn over his eyes.

"Mr. Bellsmith," began the comedian, with a complete and suddenly abject change of manner. "Mr. Bellsmith, I hope you did n't take wrong what I said just now in the dressing-room. I lost my temper. I'm always that way but I did n't mean it."

As he spoke he sniffed violently between almost every word as if he had a terrible cold in his head and suddenly, with an immense wrench at his own heart, Bellsmith realized that the little man was actually crying.

Bellsmith reached out his hand and put it on the other man's shoulder. He hardly had to raise it above his waist to do so.

"My dear fellow," he said, "don't you suppose that I know that everything you said was deserved?"

"Oh, no, Mr. Bellsmith," protested Barnes. "You really did n't know what you were doing. I can see now that we won't get anywhere by throwing stones."

He fell into silence for a moment except for his incessant sniffling.

To the end of his life Bellsmith knew that he should remember that strange, pathetic scene in that deserted and filthy midnight alley. Two weeks before in what wildest dream could he have believed that he, Arnold Bellsmith, opener and shutter of windows, fusser and fumer over his nerves, would be standing there in the darkness while in front of him a little eccentric comedian talked between sobs, while in the street at the end of the alley the footsteps of a solitary pedestrian echoed in the cold night air, while a smell of stale coffee still lingered from the restaurant and, probably, a gaunt, prowling cat went sneaking and poking around the long line of garbage-cans.

"You really meant well, Mr. Bellsmith," the comedian stammered on. "My head went back on me because this show meant so much. It was my first real chance after twenty-seven years in the sticks, in wagon shows, in hick comedies, in burlesque and black-face. I'm sorry. I apologize."

There was nothing really that Bellsmith could answer. An uncomfortable silence fell between them; then slowly, with more control of himself, the comedian went on.

"Mr. Bellsmith, there is no real reason why this show should fail if you could only raise money to keep it going just three or four weeks longer. I know that the company has been losing money ever since we went out, but there ain't any real reason why we should. You 've got a good company here. It's a good season. The public ain't asking much. The show's got stuff in it if it was only played up right. I could tell you a thing or two if you'd only listen."

It all seemed so useless now, but Bellsmith, like Barnes himself, was in a mood to pluck at the wildest ray of possible hope.

"What's been the matter?" he asked listlessly. "Why has n't the show been making money?"

"Oh, it's a long story," replied the comedian. He shivered slightly. "Say, ain't there some place where we can go and talk quietly? I 've got something I want to say."

"Why, yes," replied Bellsmith. "My house. Come along."

Together they continued up the alley. Keefe woke with a jerk and started the motor. Bellsmith laid his hand on the limousine door.

"Keefe," he said, "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting so late," but Keefe was entirely good natured.

"Oh, that's all right, Mr. Bellsmith. The last bout was only over about half an hour ago. I won a hundred and twenty-five dollars. Seventy-five on a knock-out and fifty on a draw."

Despite themselves both Bellsmith and Barnes laughed outright. They did not mention the subject again, but unconsciously both of them began to feel better. Seventy-five on a knock-out and fifty on a draw.