Mummers in Mufti/Chapter 24

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IF he had been a strange figure in his own dressing-room, little Charlie Barnes was a stranger one as he took off his coat and sat down stiffly in a big chair in Bellsmith's library. With his shabby brown suit, his worn, wizened face, and his little fringe of stiff, belligerent hair, there was something about him, in that background, that brought strongly to Bellsmith's mind the memory of his plain-clothes policeman.

As Bellsmith leaned over to light the fire under the old-fashioned marble mantel, the comedian's eyes roamed over the room. Modern opinion would have considered it rather dowdy and rococo, that room, but to the little Irishman it was regal in its magnificence.

Charlie Barnes had told very truly his own story, back there in the alley, and all that the failure of the "Eleanor" show would mean to him personally. A man of no education whatever and of talents that were only mediocre, he had, nevertheless, that grim, driving assurance of his own powers that lies somewhere in the broad boundary between a high form of aggressiveness and a low form of genius. Absorbing constantly, by a species of objective intelligence, a vast experience in the pure craftsmanship of his art, gripping whatever he gained with a fierce tenacity that was constantly overreaching itself, the little man had eventually forced himself up to the very top line of the second-class actor. Along this line he had bumped and fretted for eight or ten years until an accident had brought him to the notice of Harcourt & Gay and into the "Eleanor" company, where an unmistakable finish in his performance, a certain old-fashioned and forgotten excellence, a mellowness dating from the days of "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Prince of Pilsen," had made him unexpectedly the one marked member of the show. In his private life, as in his professional, his little angry eyes roamed restlessly for experience wherever they could absorb it.

Sitting now in Bellsmith's warm library, from the very wealth of the hangings, the great marble mantel, the books on the shelves, he was visibly expanding with an emotion reaching almost to inspiration.

Bellsmith himself, in fact, was feeling decidedly more secure when back in his own surroundings. With an air of genuine sociability he went to the dining-room and came back with a stout decanter at the sight of which the little Irishman's eyes began to sparkle.

"Well, well, well," he exclaimed, with the humorous twist of his mouth that he used on the stage. "Why feel poor, eh? when there's some of that left around? That's old-time stuff or else I'm a liar."

He was not a liar. He poured out a generous glass and sipped it with exquisite luxury, while Bellsmith brought cigars from a cabinet and sat down at the other side of the fire, which was now crackling merrily up through the kindlings.

Barnes watched the rising flames with that peculiarly wistful expression with which men watch a camp-fire. He shook his head ruefully.

"Mr. Bellsmith! Mr. Bellsmith! You had all this and yet you wanted to go into the show business. Whatever possessed you?"

Bellsmith laughed. "Would you give up the show business to have it?"

The Irishman pondered. "Well, now, there's a question."

For minutes the two men sat there in silence, both loath, in their sudden comfort, to bring up the sorrowful question of the "Eleanor" company and its fate. Barnes, indeed, in this new atmosphere, seemed possessed by a sense of propriety which prevented him from mentioning it, and Bellsmith had to do it at last.

"And so, Mr. Barnes," he began, "you really think that if we can hold it together, 'Eleanor' could be made a go?"

Instantly the little comedian flashed up with the fire of the zealot. "I don't think it. I know it. It's never had a chance."

His enthusiasm was appealing, but even in his brief four days of experience Bellsmith had become cynical.

"Why has n't it been a success up to now?"

For answer the little Irishman threw out his hands in a gesture that expressed the hopelessness of a million things.

"Why?" he repeated. "Say, look here, Mr. Bellsmith. How would you run this house if there were eight different bosses, all in the same room, all having different ideas and all giving orders at once?"

"Was that what happened to 'Eleanor'?"

"Just look at it. Don't it show it? Eight different men, to my personal knowledge, had a hand in putting out 'Eleanor,' and none of those eight had ideas alike. There were both Harcourt and Gay, each butting in every day with some new bee that had struck their bonnet and putting in this and pulling out that. There was Fritz Melcher, who wrote the book, or at least his name was on it. Then there was Tony Gaylord, who wrote the score, or thought he was going to write it. Then there was Fred Lattimer, who was paid a thousand a week to produce it up to and including the first night. And then, when it did n't seem to go well in Atlantic City where it opened, the publishing house which had the rights to the music sent over Bus Williams to put in some interpolated songs, songs that would sell by themselves whether the show went or not. All the time we were in New York they kept that thing up. What the devil could any one get from that merry circus?"

Bellsmith asked listlessly, "Why did they do it?"

"Why?" snorted Barnes. "Because that's the way they 're producing musical shows nowadays, and then they wonder why they don't have any more 'Pinafores' or 'Mikados.' When I first went into the business if a man put out a show, by George, he put it out! It was his! And it looked it. But nowadays what do they do! What did they do, as a matter of fact, when they put out 'Eleanor'? I 'll tell you what they did. Wait a minute."

With an air indescribably comic Barnes interrupted himself and relit his cigar, closing one eye like a chicken, from the top down instead of from the bottom up, to keep the smoke out of it. He blew out the match and leaned forward on the edge of his chair, full of business and very confidential.

"listen!" he began, "Al Harcourt is no more of a showman than you are."

He had made an unexpected point, and Bellsmith laughed. The little comedian joined him mechanically.

"Well, anyway," he continued, "Al Harcourt is really a financial man, and a good one too if he'd stick to that end of it. Walter Gay is the producer of the firm but, like a dozen others, he's scared to death of anything new. If 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' was tied up so that no one else could produce it, Walter Gay would buy it to-morrow—and set it to music. I know he would. Do you know how Harcourt & Gay made their money?"

"No. Not exactly," replied Bellsmith, which meant that he did n't know at all.

"Well, I 'll tell you how they did it," said Barnes. "Listen! They made it by playing safe every time, by letting the other fellow take all the chances. They brought out nothing that had n't been tried out by some one else. That meant foreign shows, mostly. They made their big money ten to fifteen years ago with 'The Princess Trix' and 'The Amber Whistle,' both Austrian shows, and then for five years they did n't produce one single new show—all stuff from Vienna. To them the show business was like you buying land—to keep other people from getting it first. They never wanted a thing until they found out that somebody else wanted it. You could have offered 'Chu Chin Chow' to Harcourt & Gay in those days and they would n't have looked at it, if any one over here had written it. But send it over to London or Paris and play it a month and then they'd give a million dollars for it without ever seeing it."

"Just the same, that sounds like good business," suggested the chastened Bellsmith.

"Well, in a way, it was good business," admitted Barnes, "if that is your idea of the theater. But even as it was, the war put the kibosh on that and put it good. It left them flat with thousands of dollars advanced in Vienna for shows that they have n't got yet and never will get. So then what did they do? Well of course they tried to do the next best thing over here. Listen! They would find two boys like Melcher and Gaylord who had written the most successful shows of the year and say, 'Now here. You give us another just like that last one.' And that's what you 've got in 'Eleanor'—just a cooked-over version of 'Betty.' And what was 'Betty'? Just a cooked-over version of 'Love Girl.' They never seem to get the idea that you can't ride one horse forever."

The little man was eager enough, but it all seemed very far from the point, and Bellsmith was only listening in a vague, dull weariness.

"Did you ever tell them that?" he suggested.

"Tell them, hell!" retorted the comedian hotly. "Who was I but a big fat 'ham' from the old-time circuit who ought to think himself lucky to be in the show at all without telling Walter Gay's little tin gods how to run it."

Bellsmith rose and filled the comedian's glass from the stout decanter. He turned, kicked the logs in the fire, and then filled his own glass more guardedly.

"Well, here's to you," he said.

"How!" responded the comedian.

Bellsmith took a closer seat by the fireplace and picking up the tongs began to poke idly at the gray coals which were already forming at the edge of the hearth. Again for a moment the two men sat in silence watching the flames roar with new life up the stamped iron throat of the old-fashioned chimney. The Lyceum Theater did begin to seem more or less of a far-away dream now. That is, to Bellsmith.

"Well," he suggested perfunctorily, "what would you have done with the show if you had had your say about it?"

"Anyway," snorted Barnes, "I would n't have done what they did with it. Mr. Bellsmith, you may not believe me, but there has never been a complete manuscript of 'Eleanor' since the day it was started. I'm telling you the truth."

Bellsmith had no reason to doubt it, but he felt constrained to ask, "What do you mean?"

"I mean just what I say. That's not a show. It's nothing but fifty thousand dollars' worth of scenery and costumes and twenty-five cents' worth of music and specialties."

Bellsmith smiled in the firelight. "Unfortunately that is only too true, but what are we going to do about it?"

Barnes did not reply. He sat staring into the flames, his little seamed face distorting oddly. When he began again it was in a voice suddenly and completely subdued, a tone curiously childlike and appealing.

"Mr. Bellsmith, you know something about music?"

"A little."

"Don't you know a lot?"

"Why? Why do you ask?"

"Because I think that you do. Somebody told me."

Bellsmith looked back at the fire. Another vision had entered that conversation, and his attitude was answer enough for the little man opposite.

"Mr. Bellsmith," he pleaded gently, "would n't it give you a little pride to pull that show off the road for three or four weeks—just let it lie idle—until—well, damn it! until Miss Marshall gets better?"

Bellsmith did not move his eyes from the flames but the tongs moving idly in his hands became suddenly still.

"You don't mean give up altogether?"

"Oh, no!" cried Barnes. "Hold it together. Hold the company but just lie quiet until we can all get into better shape. We could rebuild the whole show in three or four weeks. Make it a thousand times better. Give up your booking, yes, but hold the organization just a little while longer. It would n't take much. Send us back to New York. Keep us right here in Leicester. You 've got the value of thirty thousand dollars in costumes and sets. You can't want to throw that right into the fire. You 've got a good organization. We can get some one to write in a first-class part for Miss Marshall. The one she's got is no good. Then it will be all ready for her when she comes back. Just give us three or four weeks and some place to work, and I 'll guarantee to give you a show that you will be proud of."

Bellsmith did not reply, but Barnes knew that he was weakening.

"Mr. Bellsmith," he argued, "I don't know what all this fuss is about and it's none of my business but you can't tell me that a man like you could n't go out somewhere and lay his hands on four or five thousand dollars just to tide things over. Could n't you, now? Perhaps not to-night, but in a week maybe. Could n't you, now, Mr. Bellsmith?"

"I might," answered Bellsmith slowly.

The little comedian almost started out of his chair.

"Look here," he said. "I 've got sixteen hundred dollars of my own salted away in New York. I could be back here with it by Monday night. If you 'll agree to stick I 'll pour in every damn cent of it."

Bellsmith smiled painfully. "I hardly think that will be necessary."

"But you don't get me," exclaimed Barnes. "I want to do it. That's how much I think of the show."

"But the people," suggested Bellsmith. "Would they be willing?"

"I think they would," replied Barnes, "that is, most of them, if you give 'em enough to live on and guarantee salaries sooner or later. Maida Maine we could n't hold, but we don't want her, anyway. Tommy Knight would do it. Bellony might or might not. I think the rest would be more than willing."

Bellsmith's only answer was silence while Barnes sat erect in his chair, his eyes on the other man like the eyes of a terrier watching a rat hole.

Suddenly both of them became aware of the dim sound of a telephone bell in the cloak-closet at the far end of the hall, aware that it had been ringing for some time without their hearing it. Bellsmith went out to answer.

In three or four minutes he returned, his face wearing a very curious expression.

"It was Israels," he answered. "He's been talking to New York. Harcourt & Gay want to buy the show back again!"

Barnes looked at him unbelieving.

"Buy back the show?" he repeated.

Bellsmith nodded.

"To carry it on?" asked Barnes.

"He did n't say."

"How much did they offer? About five hundred dollars, I suppose."

"He did n't say that."

"Well, what are you going to do?"

"What do you want to do?" returned Bellsmith.

Barnes reflected; then slowly a smile broke over his face.

"Mr. Bellsmith, I 'll stick if you will."

"All right," replied Bellsmith, "I'm sticking."