Mummers in Mufti/Chapter 6

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CHAPTER VI

THE first requisite of a high-class theater is, apparently, an unspeakable alley running to the stage-door. An alley seems to stand to a theater in the same relation that a power-site does to a mill or a harbor to a dock, the rule being, first find your alley, measure it carefully to see that it is narrow enough and dark enough and dirty enough, then, being sure of your facts, go ahead and build. This is probably a recognized principle among theatrical architects. There have, no doubt, been theaters with stage-doors on open streets and on clean parkways, but they have never succeeded and have soon been changed into "movie" houses, for which, of course, no stage-door is required.

In this respect the Leicester Lyceum Theater was highly orthodox, and as Arnold Bellsmith stood nervously at the head of its alley after his guest performance of "Eleanor," the alley had at least the virtue of coming up to his worst expectations.

Until, indeed, the theater crowd had melted entirely away, until only the policeman and half a dozen hangers-on remained, Bellsmith did not even dare to approach the alley at all. For several minutes he stood on the corner, fumbling in his pockets, lighting an unwanted cigarette, and giving, generally, a correct imitation of a man-about-town waiting for friends. When, however, a stage-hand came whistling cheerfully up the alley and then two or three girls in fur coats, Bellsmith gritted his teeth and turned, trembling slightly, on his fearsome errand. It was now or never.

Like a good Bellsmith he had made his preparations minutely. In his overcoat pocket, in fact clutched in his hot, dry hand, was a dollar bill—this for the Cerberus whom tradition had placed at the stage-door. Bellsmith wanted to have that bill ready at hand, where he could reach it quickly, if necessary, in order to forestall a snub or an oath. He had also in his overcoat pocket a card on the back of which was a note worded as nearly as possible in just the right balance of lightness and formality. In brief it asked Miss Marshall exactly what Dr. MacVickar had suggested that he ask—whether a supper and possibly a dance or two might not lighten the tedium of her stay in Leicester,—but this note in itself had been only the final masterpiece of a dozen discarded attempts all written furtively in the hollow of his hand in the semi-darkness of the auditorium while the two acts of "Eleanor" were progressing. That even this one had survived had been due to the fact that no more cards remained in Bellsmith's pocket-book. The others, the rough drafts, he found months later, to his huge amusement, in a little-used pocket of his dinner-jacket.

But now for the alley. At the other side of the narrow passageway from the theater was a third-class restaurant (this again being a prime requisite of theatrical architecture), and on both sides the towering, windowless, shabby brick walls were lined with galvanized iron ash cans, those on the theater side overflowing with abandoned show-bills, those on the restaurant side overflowing with garbage. If this was vice, thought Bellsmith, it certainly was not gilded.

Half-way down the alley there appeared a grating and a shaft of light from the restaurant side, and as he passed it Bellsmith was swept by an overpowering wave of warm, kitchen air saturated with the odors of boiling coffee. Within he saw an immense Italian chef with an opera mustache and a filthy apron but with the inevitable white cap of his trade on his head. In an instant of nervous whimsy it came to Bellsmith as a novel and remarkable idea, that even a third-class restaurant had to have a chef. Where did such chefs come from, he wondered, and what, eventually, became of them? Did they go up or down from that stage of their profession? What would happen if he should step into that kitchen and ask for pâté à la reine? Would the chef throw a meat cleaver at him or would he burst into tears?

But one dim light now remained ahead of him down the alley—the stage-door itself. This was a hooded little aperture resembling nothing so much as the door of a farm-house kitchen and presenting an aspect quite as wind-swept and lonely. It was still bathed to a certain extent in the hot coffee odor of the restaurant but added to it a dry, musty smell of its own.

No scientist has yet determined just what creates that not agreeable yet not particularly disagreeable smell peculiar to the back stage of a theater, but all playhouses have it, from the Town-hall in Dog Foot, Idaho, to La Scala in Milan. New theaters acquire it before they are really completed; old theaters never lose it. It is something built in with the bricks and mortar, and Arnold Bellsmith was to become very familiar with that smell before his present adventure was over.

Bellsmith clutched tightly his dollar bill and knocked furtively at the hooded doorway. There was no response and he knocked again, knocked and waited. A hearty, brisk-stepping man came past him from lower down in the alley, looked at Bellsmith curiously, then asked, in a friendly way:

"Ain't there no one there? Then go ahead in."

The man passed on and Bellsmith pulled tentatively at the door. Working on a sash weight and pulley, it responded suavely to his touch and slammed immediately after he had passed through, leaving Bellsmith to stand gulping at the foot of three steps and wonder what to do next. Still no one accosted him or demanded a countersign, and Bellsmith ascended the three steps to the single light which burned at the head of the dressing-room corridor.

Down this corridor he could hear low muffled sounds of voices and moving around. Immediately in front of him loomed the huge black space of the stage, with the flimsy "set" of the last act still standing, while from empty, echoing spaces beyond it came a regular, clanking sound as of a man throwing scantling upon a pile.

A door down the corridor opened, and a little man in a snuff-colored suit with a brown derby hat on the side of his head came sauntering down the passage looking around belligerently. It was Charlie Barnes, the old trouper, always the last man in the company to begin dressing and the first to be through. At sight of Bellsmith he stopped suddenly, eyed him cockily, and his lips almost framed a sentence. At the least encouragement, probably, Charlie Barnes would have stopped and picked up his tale of woe exactly where he had left it before the performance. All he wanted was an auditor, any auditor, but Bellsmith, recognizing the comedian even without his make-up, knew that he could play no part in his present adventure and stared straight before him. After eying him a moment Barnes returned to his dressing-room, came back with an overcoat over his arm, and went out into the alley.

A moment later the mulatto maid came through the corridor. About this maid in her black dress and white cuffs there was something nearer to the scope of Bellsmith's experience, and he stopped her.

"I beg your pardon," he began. "Could you take a note to Miss Tilly Marshall?"

The maid stared at him coldly for a moment, then held out her hand for the card and the dollar bill which she took without thanks and as a perfect matter of course. She passed down the corridor to the third or fourth door and almost immediately came back with a manner entirely changed.

"Miss Marshall," she announced in a round, smooth voice, which she had copied from prima donnas, "says thank you very much and she will be out immediately."

The maid passed on her original errand up the circular iron staircase, while Bellsmith, shifting uneasily, resumed his vigil. He wandered a few steps out on the darkened stage, peered in through the gaps in the flies, then, returning to his original post, stood nervously waiting.

Charlie Barnes, however, had been, as usual, a correct harbinger, and other signs of life now began to spring up around Bellsmith. From the last door of the corridor the tenor-hero came smoking a big cigar, with him a gaudily dressed but not unpleasant young man whom Bellsmith again recognized as Tommy Knight, the juvenile lead and dancer. At sight of Bellsmith, the young man, like Barnes, paused automatically for a fraction of a second, then, seeing his mistake, nodded good-naturedly and passed on.

A moment later there was a giggle and scamper on the iron staircase and a group of chorus girls came circling down it. For some reason (again unknown to science) there is always in every musical comedy company, one chorus girl who is half a head taller than all the rest. She is never a very good dancer and never particularly pretty, but she is always there, always working just a little harder than any of the others, always giving somewhat the effect of an older child in a primary class, and always, by the sheer false note of her height, catching the eye of the audience and holding it willy-nilly.

In the group which now came giggling and circling down the staircase this girl was, true to type, in the van. As if speaking for all the others, she too threw at Bellsmith an open, humorous stare, not offensively bold yet certainly not unfriendly. Probably she expected no response and, getting none, passed out of the swinging and banging door at the head of her bevy, a rather pathetic group of young women, most of them little more than children, none of them very well dressed except two trim, tailored Jewish girls with good imitations of expensive furs, big, expressionless eyes, sleek hair, and sharply penciled eyebrows.

After them came more chorus-girls, very much like the others, who stopped, with giggling, school-girl remarks, to read some notice posted on the call-board. Before them and after them came sauntering men of the chorus in twos and threes, some of them boys of eighteen and nineteen with thin, gesticulating hands and cheaply handsome, vacuous faces, others men of thirty to forty with hard, twisted mouths, gold teeth, and surly defiant manners. The younger men were invariably well dressed, except for some one feature which was invariably wrong—cloth-top shoes or a plush hat. The older men were invariably shabby. At a moment when the little space before the call-board was crowded there came a sudden hush. Glancing behind him Bellsmith saw a tremendous figure in a fur coat billowing down the corridor. It was Maida Maine, the leading woman. Her nose in the air, looking neither to left nor to right and followed at two paces by her own colored maid, she swept through the ranks which had parted to give her room. No one looked at her as she passed, but the moment the outside door had closed behind her some chorus man made a shrill, squawking noise of derision, and the whole group burst into laughter.

A moment later the place was empty again, and Bellsmith began glancing anxiously down the corridor. Then slowly the door of a dressing-room opened and Tilly Marshall was coming toward him. After the noise and cheapness of the chorus she was a singularly dramatic study in quietness and good breeding. She wore, as she had in the doctor's office, a blue tailored suit with an inconspicuous hat, and her face had no trace of make-up. Bellsmith cleared his throat and stepped nervously forward, but, without waiting for him, the girl, with perfect naturalness, held out her hand.

"How do you do, Mr. Bellsmith?"

As Bellsmith took her hand the girl regarded him with a curious unswerving look, her eyes opening very wide. If this trait of Tilly Marshall's had ever been studied it was wholly instinctive now, and it was an expression that one never forgot. Bellsmith, for his part, found himself feeling suddenly more awkward than ever under that searching, unwavering gaze, and he began groping for words; but Miss Marshall, dropping his hand, burst into a laugh.

"Then it was you," she said, "after all?"

Bellsmith returned her look, possibly appearing more puzzled than he actually was, but it was a perfectly legitimate manœuver and the girl explained:

"I mean in the doctor's office this afternoon—Dr. What's-his-name—I quite love him—I've got his name on a bottle." She smiled again. "You know when I got his note I wondered whether it would be you."

All this, it seemed to Bellsmith, had taken hours. He felt like a man who is making a speech and suddenly wonders whether he has said a word, but apparently, like a dream, it had only taken a fraction of a second, for Miss Marshall's smile was still on her lips and she went on:

"I thought afterward that you would think me a horrible hussy for smiling at you there in the doctor's office, but really I mistook you at first for the doctor himself."

"And I," laughed Bellsmith, with sufficient truth for all practical purposes, "took you for some one else. At least I was sure that I had seen you before. As I had—" he added a second later—"in 'Miss Mischief.'"

"Oh—that!" answered the girl, her voice suddenly losing all interest. She turned toward the door. "Shall we go along?"

Out in the alley the girl took his arm but dropped it as soon as they reached the street, whether to Bellsmith's relief or to his regret he was not at all certain.

In front of the theater they paused while Bellsmith looked around wildly.

"I 'll see whether I can get a taxi," he began, but the girl interrupted him.

"What nonsense!" she said. "Can't we walk?"

"That's what I should do myself," admitted Bellsmith, "but where would you like to go? There is some kind of dancing at both of the hotels, or perhaps—"

"I don't feel very much like dancing," replied Miss Marshall.

Already, as Bellsmith was noticing, she had a sudden way of taking things completely into her own hands and making him feel curiously young.

"Is n't there some place," she asked, "where we can just sit and talk?"

"Why, certainly," agreed Bellsmith. He, too, had been in terror of trying to dance with a professional. He debated. "There is the Stansfield and then there is the Massapauk."

"I'm stopping at the Massapauk," replied the girl. "Would n't it be simpler to go there?"

"By all means," said Bellsmith, and they turned to walk up toward Main Street.

The Stansfield was the newest and by far the best hotel in Leicester. Bellsmith had for some minutes been planning to do the honors there in a more sumptuous manner than he would be able to do at the more modest Massapauk, but still—all things considered— Well, probably it was just as well to go to the Massapauk.