The Doll in the Pink Silk Dress
The Doll in the Pink Silk Dress
By LEONARD MERRICK
AUTHOR OF LYNCH'S DAUGHTER
ILLUSTRATED BY CLARENCE F. UNDERWOOD
"You Will Help Me Now, or You Will Never Help Me
HOW can I write the fourth act with this ridiculous thing posed among my papers? What thing? It is a doll in a pink silk dress, an elaborate doll that walks and talks and warbles snatches from the operas. A terrible lot it cost! Why does an old dramatist keep a doll on his study table? I do not keep it there. It came in a box from the Boulevard an hour ago, and I took it from its wrappings to admire its accomplishments again, and ever since it has been reminding me that women are strange beings.
Yes, women are strange, and this toy sets me thinking of one woman in particular—that woman who supplicated for my help, and then when she had all my interest—confound the doll! Here is the incident, just as it happened.
It happened in '98 or '99, when all Paris flocked to see my plays and Paul de Varenne was a name to conjure with. Fashions change. Today I am a little out of the running, perhaps; younger men have shot forward. In those days I was supreme—I was Master of the Stage.
Listen! It was a spring morning, and I was lolling at my study window, scenting the lilac in the air. Lacaussade, my secretary, came in and said: "Mademoiselle Jeanne Boitelle asks if she can see you, monsieur."
"Who is Mademoiselle Jeanne Boitelle?" I inquired.
"She is an actress begging for an engagement, monsieur."
"I regret that I am exceedingly busy. Tell her to write."
"The lady has already written a thousand times," he mentioned, going. "‘Jeanne Boitelle' has been one of the most constant contributors to our waste-paper basket."
"Then tell her I regret that I can do nothing for her. Mon Dieu! Is it imagined that I have no other occupation than to interview nonentities? By the way, how is it you have bothered me about her—why this unusual embassy? I suppose she is pretty?"
I wavered. Let us say, my sympathy was stirred. But perhaps the lilac was responsible—lilac and a pretty girl seem to me a natural combination, like coffee and a cigarette. "Send her in!" I said.
I sat at the table and picked up a pen.
"Monsieur de Varenne——" She paused nervously on the threshold.
She Was Not "Pretty"; She Was Either Plain or Beautiful
Lacaussade was a fool—she was not "pretty"; she was either plain or beautiful. To my mind she had beauty, and if she hadn't been an actress come to pester me for a part I should have foreseen a very pleasant quarter of an hour. "I can spare you only a moment, mademoiselle," I said, ruffling blank paper.
"It is most kind of you to spare me that."
I liked her voice, too. "Be seated," I said more graciously.
"Monsieur, I have come to implore you to do something for me. I am breaking my heart in the profession for want of a helping hand. Will you be generous and give me a chance?"
"My dear Mademoiselle—er—Boitelle," I said, "I sympathize with your difficulties and I thoroughly understand them, but I have no engagement to offer you—I am not a manager."
She smiled bitterly: "You are de Varenne—a word from you would 'make' me!"
I was wondering what her age was. About eight-and-twenty, I thought, but alternately she looked much younger and much older.
"You exaggerate my influence—like every other artist that I consent to see. Hundreds have sat in that chair and cried that I could 'make' them. It is all bosh. Be reasonable! I cannot 'make' anybody."
"You could cast me for a part in Paris. You are not a manager, but any manager will engage a woman that you recommend. Oh, I know that hundreds appeal to you—I know that I am only one of a crowd; but. monsieur, think what it means to me! Without help I shall go on knocking at the stage doors of Paris and never get inside; I shall go on writing to the Paris managers and never get an answer. Without help I shall go on eating my heart out in the provinces till I am old and tired and done for!"
Her earnestness touched me. I had heard the same tale so often that I was sick of hearing it, but this woman's earnestness touched me. If I had had a small part vacant I would have tried her in it.
Again I said, "As a dramatist I fully understand the difficulties of an actress' career; but you, as an actress, do not understand a dramatist's. There is no piece of mine going into rehearsal now; I have, therefore, no opening for you myself, and it is impossible for me to write to a manager or a brother author advising him to intrust a part, even the humblest, to a lady of whose capabilities I know nothing."
"I am not applying for a humble part," she answered quietly.
"My line is lead."
I stared at her pale face, speechless; the audacity of the reply took my breath away.
"You are mad," I said, rising.
"I sound so to you, monsieur?"
"Stark, staring mad! You bewail that you are at the foot of the ladder, and at the same instant you stipulate that I shall lift you at a bound to the top. Either you are a lunatic or you are an amateur."
She, too, rose—resigned to her dismissal, it seemed. Then suddenly, with a gesture that was a veritable abandonment of despair, she laughed:
"That's it—I am an amateur!" she rejoined passionately. "I will tell you the kind of 'amateur' I am, Monsieur de Varenne! I was learning my business in a fit-up when I was six years old—yes, I was playing parts 'on the road' when happier children were playing games in nurseries. I was thrust on for lead when I was a gawk of fifteen, and had to master half-a-dozen rôles in a week, and was beaten if I failed to make my points. I have supered to stars, not to earn the few francs I got by it—for by that time the fit-ups paid me better—but that I might observe and improve my method. I have waited in the rain for hours, at the doors of the milliners and modistes, that I might note how great ladies stepped from their carriages and spoke to their footmen; and when I snatched a lesson from their aristocratic tones I was in Heaven, though my feet ached and the rain soaked my wretched clothes. I have played good women and bad women, beggars and queens, ingénues and hags. I was born and bred on the stage, have suffered and starved on it—it is my life and my destiny." She sobbed. "An 'amateur'!"
I could not let her go like that. She interested me strongly; somehow, I believed in her. I strode to and fro, considering.
"Sit down again," I said. "I will do this for you: I will go to the country to see your performance. When is your next show?"
"I have nothing in view."
"Peste! Weil, the next time you are playing, write to me!"
"You will have forgotten all about me," she urged feverishly, "or your interest will have faded, or Fate will prevent your coming."
"Why do you say so?"
"Something tells me. You will help me now, or you will never help me. My chance is today! Monsieur, I entreat you——"
"Today I can promise nothing at all, because I have not seen you act."
"I could recite to you."
"I could rehearse on trial."
"And if you made a mess of it? A nice fool I should look, after fighting to get you in!"
A servant interrupted us to tell me that my old friend, de Lavardens, was downstairs. And now I did a foolish thing. When I intimated to Mademoiselle Jeanne Boitelle that our interview must conclude she begged so hard to be allowed to speak to me again after my visitor went that I consented to her waiting. Why? I had already said all that I had to say, and infinitely more than I had contemplated. Perhaps she impressed me more powerfully than I realized, perhaps it was sheer sympathy; for she had an invincible instinct that if I sent her away at this juncture she would never hear from me any more. I had her shown into the next room and received General de Lavardens in the study.
Since his retirement from the army de Lavardens had lived in his château at St. Wandrille, in the neighborhood of Caudebec-en-Caux, and we had met infrequently of late. But we had been at college together, I had entered on my military service in the same regiment as he, we had once been comrades. I was glad to see him.
"How are you, my dear fellow? I didn't know you were in Paris."
"I have been here twenty-four hours," he said. "I have looked you up at the first opportunity. Now, am I a nuisance? Be frank! I told the servant that if you were at work you weren't to be disturbed. Don't humbug about it; if I am in the way, say so!"
"You are not in the way a bit," I declared. "Put your hat and cane down. What's the news? How is George?" George was Captain de Lavardens, his son, a young officer for whom people predicted a brilliant future.
"George is all right," he said hesitatingly. "He is dining with me tonight; I want you to come, too, if you can. Are you free?"
"Tonight? Yes, certainly; I shall be delighted."
"That was one of the reasons I came round, to ask you to join us." He glanced toward the table again. "Are you sure you are not in a hurry to get back to that?"
"Have a cigar, and don't be a fool. What have you got to say for yourself? Why are you on the spree here?"
"I came up to see George," he said, puffing moodily. "As a matter of fact, my dear chap, I am devilish worried."
"Not about George?" I asked, surprised.
He grunted. "About George."
"Really? I'm very sorry."
"Yes. I wanted to talk to you about it—you may be able to give me a tip. George"—his gruff voice quivered—"is infatuated with an actress."
"What do you say to that?"
"Are you certain it is true?"
"True? He makes no secret of it. That isn't all. The idiot wants to marry her!"
"George wants to marry an actress?"
"My dear old friend!" I stammered.
"Isn't it amazing? One thinks one knows the character of one's own son, eh? And then, suddenly, a boy—damn it, a man!—George will soon be thirty—a man one is proud of, who is distinguishing himself in his profession—he loses his head about some creature in the theater and proposes to mar his whole career."
"As for that, it might not mar it," I said.
"We are not in England; in France gentlemen do not choose their wives from the stage. I can speak freely to you; you move among these people because your writing has taken you among them, but you are not of their breed."
"Have you reasoned with him?"
"What did he say?"
"Prepare to be amused. He said that, 'unfortunately, the lady did not love him'!"
"What? Then there is no danger?"
"Do you mean to say that it takes you in? You may be sure her 'reluctance' is policy; she thinks it wise to disguise her eagerness to hook him. He told me plainly that he would not rest till he had won her. It is a nice position! The honor of the family is safe only till this adventuress consents, consents to accept his hand! What can I do? It cannot be said that he is a child or that he is insane; I cannot employ force!"
"Who is she?"
"A nobody. He tells me she is quite obscure; I don't suppose you have ever heard of her. But I thought you might make inquiries for me, that you might ascertain whether she is the sort of woman we could settle with."
"I will do all I can, you may depend. Where is she—in Paris?"
"Yes, just now."
"What's her name?"
My mouth fell open. "What?"
"Do you know her?"
"She is there!"
"In the next room! She just called on business."
"Morbleu! That's queer!"
"It's lucky. It was the first time I had ever met her."
"What's she like?"
"Have you never seen her? You shall do so in a minute. She came to beg me to advance her professionally; she wants my help. This ought to save you some money, my friend. We'll have her in! I shall tell her who you are."
"How shall I talk to her?"
"Leave it to me!"
I crossed the landing and opened the salon door. The room was littered with the illustrated journals, but she was not diverting herself with any of them; she was sitting before a copy of the Mona Lisa, striving to reproduce on her own face the enigma of the smile. I had discovered an actress who never missed an opportunity.
"Please come here."
She followed me back, and my friend stood scowling at her.
"This gentleman is General de Lavardens," I said.
She bowed very slightly, very perfectly. That bow acknowledged de Lavardens' presence and rebuked the manner of my introduction with all the dignity of the patricians whom she had studied in the rain.
"Mademoiselle, when my servant announced that the General was downstairs you heard the name. You did not tell me that you knew his son."
"Mais non, monsieur," she murmured.
"And when you implored me to assist you, you did not tell me that you aspired to a marriage that would compel you to leave the stage. I never waste my influence. Good-morning!"
"I do not aspire to the marriage," she faltered, pale as death.
"Rubbish! I know all about it. Of course it is your aim to marry him sooner or later, and of course he will make it a condition that you cease to act. Well, I have no time to help a woman who is playing the fool! That's all about it. I needn't detain you."
"I have refused to marry him," she gasped. "On my honor! You can ask him. It is a fact."
"But you see him still," put in de Lavardens wrathfully. "He is with you every day! That is a fact, too, isn't it? If your refusal is sincere why are you not consistent? Why do you want him at your side?"
"Because, monsieur," she answered, "I am weak enough to miss him when he goes."
"Ah, you admit it—you profess to be in love with him?"
"No, monsieur," she dissented thoughtfully, "I am not in love with him, and my refusal has been quite sincere—incredible as it may seem that a woman like myself rejects a man like him. I could never make a marriage that would mean death to my ambition; I could not sacrifice my art—the stage is too dear to me for that. So it is evident that I am not in love with him, for, when a woman loves, the man is dearer to her than all else."
De Lavardens grunted. I knew his grunts—there was some apology in this one.
"The position is not fair to my son," he demurred. "You show good sense in what you say—you are an artist, you are quite right to devote yourself to your career; but you reject and encourage him at the same time. If he married you it would be disastrous—to you and to him; you would ruin his life and spoil your own. Enfin, give him a chance to forget you! Send him away. What do you want to keep seeing him for?"
She sighed. "It is wrong of me, I own!"
"It is highly unnatural," said I.
"No, monsieur, it is far from being unnatural, and I will tell you why—he is the only man I have ever known in all my vagabond life who realized that a struggling actress might have the soul of a gentlewoman! Before I met him I had never heard a man speak to me with courtesy, excepting on the stage—I had never known a man take my hand respectfully when he was not performing behind the footlights. I met him first in the country; I was playing the Queen in Ruy Blas, and the manager brought him to me in the wings. In everything he said and did he was different from others. We were friends for months before he told me that he loved me. His friendship has been the gift of God to brighten my miserable lot. Never to see him any more would be awful to me!"
I perceived that if she was not in love with him she was so dangerously near to it that a trifle might turn the scale. De Lavardens had the same thought; his glance at me was apprehensive.
"However, you acknowledge that you are behaving badly!" I exclaimed. "It is all right for you—friendship is enough for you, and you pursue your career; but for him it is different—he seeks your love and he neglects his duties. For him to spend his life sighing for you would be monstrous, and for him to marry you would be fatal. If you like him so much be just to him—set him free! Tell him that he is not to visit you any more."
"He does not visit me; he has never been inside my lodging."
"Well, that he is not to write there—that there are to be no more dinners, drives, bouquets!"
"And I do not let him squander money on me; I am not that kind of woman."
"We do not accuse you, mademoiselle. On the contrary, we appeal to your good heart. Be considerate, be brave! Say 'good-by' to him!"
"You are asking me to suffer cruelly," she moaned.
"It is for his benefit. Also, the more you suffer the better you will act; every actress should suffer."
"Monsieur, I have served my apprenticeship to pain."
"There are other things than friendship; you have your prospects to think about."
"What prospects?" she flashed back.
"Well, I cannot speak definitely today, as you know. But you would not find me unappreciative."
De Lavardens grunted again—emotionally, this time. I checked him with a frown.
"What use would it be for me to refuse to see him?" she objected chokily. "When I am playing anywhere he can always see me. I cannot kill his love by denying myself his companionship. Besides, he would not accept the dismissal. One night, when I left the theater, I should find him waiting there again."
This was unpalatably true.
"If a clever woman desires to dismiss a man she can dismiss him thoroughly, especially a clever actress," I said. "You could talk to him in such a fashion that he would have no wish to meet you again. Such things have been done."
"What? You want me to teach him to despise me?"
"Much better if he did!"
"To turn his esteem to scorn?"
"It would be a generous action."
"To falsify and degrade myself?"
"For your hero's good!"
"I will not do it," she flamed. "You demand too much ! What have you done for me that I should sacrifice myself to please you? I entreat your help—and you give me empty phrases; I cry that I despair this morning—and you answer that by and by, some time in the vague future, you will remember that I exist. I shall not do this for you—I keep my friend!"
"Your rhetoric has no weight with me," I said. "I do not pretend that I have a claim on you. In such circumstances a noble woman would take the course I suggest, not for my sake, not for the sake of General de Lavardens, but for the sake of the man himself. You will keep your friend? Bien! But you will do so because you are indifferent to his welfare and too selfish to release him."
She covered her face. There were tears on it. The General and I exchanged glances again.
I went on: "You charge me with giving you only empty phrases. That is undeserved. I said all that was possible, and I meant what I said. I could not pledge myself to put you into anything without knowing what you are capable of doing, but if you retain my good will I repeat that I will attend your next performance."
"And then?" she queried.
"Then—if I think well of it—you shall have a good part."
"Oh, peste! I cannot say that. A good part, in Paris!"
"It is a promise?"
"Emphatically—if I think well of your performance."
"Of my next—the very next part I play?"
"Of the very next part you play."
She paused, reflecting. The pause lasted so long that it began to seem to my suspense as if none of us would ever speak again. I took a cigarette and offered the box, in silence, to de Lavardens. He shook his head without turning it to me, his gaze riveted on the woman.
"All right," she groaned, "I agree."
"Ah, good girl!"
"All you require is that Captain de Lavardens shall no longer seek me for his wife? Is that it?"
"Very well. I know what would repel him—it shall be done tonight. But you gentlemen will have to make the opportunity for me. You will have to bring him to my place—both of you. You can find some reason for proposing it? Tonight, at nine o'clock. He knows the address." She moved weakly to the door.
De Lavardens took three strides and grasped her hands. "Mademoiselle," he stuttered, "I have no words to speak my gratitude. I am a father and I love my son, but—Mon Dieu!—if—if things had been different, upon my soul, I should have been proud to call you my daughter-in-law!"
Oh, how she could bow, that woman! The eloquence of her ill-fed form!
"Au revoir, gentlemen," she said.
Phew! We dropped into chairs. "Paul," he grunted at me, "we have been a pair of brutes! "
"I know it. But you feel much relieved?"
"I feel another man! What is she going to say to him? I wish it were over. I should find it devilish difficult to propose going to see her, you know! It will have to be your suggestion. And supposing he won't take us?"
"He will take us right enough," I declared, "and rejoice at the chance! Hourra, hourra, hourra!" I sprang up and clapped him on the back. "My friend, if that woman had thrown herself away on George it might have been a national calamity!"
"What?" he roared, purpling.
"Oh, no slight to George! I think—I think—I am afraid to say what I think—I am afraid to think it!" I paced the room, struggling to control myself. "Only once in a blue moon, Jules, there is a woman born of the People with a gift that is a blessing and a curse, and her genius makes an epoch, and her name makes theatrical history. And if a lover of the stage like me discovers such a woman, you damned old soldier, and blazes her genius in his work, he feels like Cheops, Chephrenus and Asychis rearing the pyramids for immortality! "
My excitement startled him. "You believe she is a genius? Really?"
"I dare not believe," I panted; "I refuse to let myself believe, for I have never seen blue moons. But—but—I wonder!"
We dined at Voisin's. It had been arranged that he should make some allusion to the courtship, and I said to George: "I hope you don't mind your father having mentioned the subject to me? We are old friends, you know." The topic was led up to very easily. It was apparent that George thought the world of her. I admired the way he spoke; it was quiet and earnest. As I feigned partial sympathy with his matrimonial hopes, I own that I felt a Judas.
"I, too, am an artist," I remarked; "to me social distinctions naturally seem somewhat less important than they do to your father."
"Indeed, monsieur," he said gravely, "Mademoiselle Boitelle is worthy of homage. If she were willing to accept me every man who knew her character would think me fortunate. Her education has not qualified her to discuss with professors, and she has no knowledge of society smalltalk, but she is intelligent and refined and good."
It was child's play. A sudden notion over the liqueurs: "Take us to see her! Come along, Jules!" Astonishment (amateurish), persuasion (masterly); George's diffidence to intrude, but his obvious delight at the thought of the favorable impression she would create. He had never called there yet—it would be very unconventional at such an hour?" Bah, among artists! "My card will be a passport, I assure you!" Poor fellow, the trap made short work of him. At half-past eight we were all rattling to the left bank in a cab.
The cab stopped before a dilapidated house in an unsavory street. I knew that the aspect of her home went to George's heart. "Mademoiselle Boitelle has won no prize in her profession," he observed, "and she is an honest girl." Well said! In the dim passage a neglected child directed us to the fourth floor. On the fourth floor a slattern, who replied at last to our persistent tapping, told us shortly that mademoiselle was out. I realized that we had committed the error of being before our time, and the woman, evidently unprepared for our visit, did not suggest our going in. It seemed bad stage management.
"Will it be long before mademoiselle is back? "I inquired, annoyed.
"We will wait," I said, and we were admitted sulkily to a room of which conspicuous features were a malodorous lamp and a brandy bottle. I had taken the old hag for a landlady rather the worse for liquor, but, more amiably, she remarked now: "It's a pity Jeanne didn't know you were coming."
At the familiar "Jeanne" I saw George start.
"Mademoiselle is a friend of yours?" I asked, dismayed.
"A friend? She is my daughter." She sat down.
By design the girl was out! The thought flashed on me: I understood that she had plotted for her lover to learn what a mother-in-law he would have. The revelation must appall him! I stole a look—his face was blanched. The General drew a deep breath and nodded to himself. The nod said plainly: "He is saved. Thank God!"
"Will you take a little drop while you are waiting, gentlemen?"
"Nothing for us, thank you."
She drank alone, and seemed to forget that we were present. None of us spoke. I began to wonder if we need remain. Then, drinking, she grew garrulous. It was of Jeanne she talked. She gave us her maternal views and incidentally betrayed infamies of her own career. I am a man of the world, but I shuddered at that woman. The suitor who could have risked making her child his wife would have been demented or sublime. And while she maundered on, gulping from her glass and chuckling at her jests, the ghastliness of it was that in the gutter face before us I could trace a likeness to Jeanne. I think George must have traced it, too. The menace of heredity was horrible. We were listening to Jeanne wrecked, Jeanne thirty years older—Jeanne as she might become.
Ciel! To choose a bride with this blood in her—a bride from the dregs!
"Let us go, George," I murmured. "Courage! You will forget her. We'll be off!" He was livid—I saw that he could bear no more.
But the creature overheard, and in those bleary eyes intelligence awoke. "What? Hold on!" she stammered. "Is one of you the dude that wants to marry her? Oh! … I've been letting on finely, haven't I? It was a 'plant,' was it? You've come here ferreting and spying?" She turned toward me in a fury. "You!"
"Is One of You the Dude That Wants to Marry Her?"
Certainly I had made a comment from time to time, but I could not see why she should single me out for her attack. She lurched toward me savagely, her face was thrust into mine. And then, so low that only I could hear, and like another woman, she breathed a question:
"Can I act?"
Jeanne herself! Every nerve in me jumped. The next instant she was back in her part, railing at George.
I took a card from my case and scribbled six words.
"When your daughter comes in give her that!" I said. I had scribbled: "I write you a star rôle!"
She gathered the message at a glance, and I swear that the moroseness of her gaze was not lightened by so much as a gleam; she was representing a character—the actress sustained the character even while she read words that were to raise her from privation to renown.
"Not that I care if I have queered her chance," she snarled. "A good job, too—the selfish cat! I've got nothing to thank her for. Serve her right if you do give her the go-by, my jackanapes—I don't blame you!"
"Madame Boitelle," George answered sternly, and his answer vibrated through the room, "I have never admired, pitied or loved Jeanne so much as now that I know she has been—motherless."
All three of us stood stone-still. The first to move was she. I saw what was going to happen. She burst out crying. "It's I—Jeanne! I love you! I thought I loved the theater best, but I was wrong." Instinctively she let my card fall to the ground. "Forgive me—I did it for your sake, too. It was cruel—I am ashamed. Oh, my own, if my love will not disgrace you, take me for your wife! In all the world there is no woman who will love you better—in all my heart there is no room for anything but you!"
They were in each other's arms. De Lavardens, whom the proclamation of identity had electrified, dragged me outside. The big fool was blubbering with sentiment.
"This is frightful," he grunted.
"Atrocious," said I.
"But she is a woman in a million."
"She is a great actress," I said reverently.
"I could never approve the marriage," he faltered. "What do you think?"
"Out of the question! I have no sympathy with either of them."
"You humbug! Why, there is a tear running down your nose!"
"There are two running down yours," I snapped. "A General should know better."
And why has the doll in the pink silk dress recalled this to me? Well, you see, tomorrow will be New Year's Day, and the doll is a gift for my god-child, and the name of my godchild's mother is Jeanne de Lavardens. Oh, I have nothing to say against her as a mother—the children idolize her. I admit that she has conquered the General, and that George is the proudest husband in France. But when I think of the parts I could have written for her. of the luster the stage has lost—when I reflect that, just to be divinely happy, the woman deliberately declined a worldwide fame—— Zounds! I can never forgive her for it,—never—the darling!